Lovely

by Martha

"And all alone on the hill I wondered what was true. I had seen something very amazing and very lovely, and I knew a story, and if I had really seen it, and not made it up out of the dark, but had really seen it in truth, then there were all kinds of wonderful and lovely and terrible things to think of, so I longed and trembled, and I burned and got cold." Arthur Machen, "The White People" (1899, 1922 ed)

"I know it's there, but when I look, there's nothing." Jim Ellison, "Flight"

The library was closed on Christmas Eve. Of course. What else could Blair have expected? But no one had ever gotten around to posting the holiday schedule, and he'd assumed the library would be open short hours on Christmas Eve just like it was the rest of the winter break. Christmas Day, sure, he'd known they would be closed then. But Christmas Eve, well, dammit, they should have posted the hours. He stomped over and tried the doors even though he already knew they were locked. He knew because he'd already watched the guy with glasses who'd arrived just ahead of him yank on them in frustration. "I don't think they're open," he told Blair unnecessarily as the doors remained obstinately closed.

"Yeah, what a pain. There was no point in even coming onto campus today."

Blair knew this guy. Sort of. At any rate, he'd seen him around the library a few times during the last month, usually up on the sixth floor or down in special collections. He wasn't in the anthro department, not here at Rainier at any rate, but there was something vaguely familiar about him. Blair had figured it would come to him eventually. They'd probably met at a conference somewhere.

He was just on the verge of introducing himself to the only other person on campus without sense enough to know that the library would be closed today, when the guy pushed his glasses farther up on his nose and asked, "Do you know what's up? Do you think they'll be open tomorrow?"

Oookay. Make that the only person on campus even more clueless than Blair. "It's Christmas Eve, man. You noticed all the twinkly lights around town? Candy canes? Tinsel? Santa Claus and his eight tiny reindeer?"

The guy just looked at him, his mouth hanging open a little. "Oh," he said at last, jaws clicking together. "Right."

Damn, Blair was sure he knew this person from somewhere, and he felt a stir of sympathy for him, whoever he was. A dozen little things indicated that he was probably very much alone. The buttons on his checkered shirt weren't lined up, and his jacket was too light for the weather. He'd had short hair in the not-too-distant past, but it was growing out shaggy and untended now. And of course, he hadn't even noticed it was Christmas Eve.

Decision made, Blair stuck out his hand. "Blair Sandburg."

The other man glanced down at the proffered hand, eyebrows rising. "Um, hello," he said vaguely.

Right. Blair dropped his hand and soldiered on. "So, since it doesn't look like either one of us is going to be spending time in the library this afternoon, lemme buy you a latte at Chattz. It's right off campus, and I'm pretty sure they'll be open."

All he got for his pains was another blank stare. Blair didn't give up, plastering an expectant smile on his face and waiting.

"Thanks," the guy said at last, when he finally figured out Blair wouldn't go away on his own. He crossed his arms protectively over his chest. "No, uh, thank you."

"OK." Blair shrugged. "Merry Christmas, man. Take it easy."

The guy nodded a little and turned back the way he had come. Blair went the other direction, deciding he was relieved the guy had turned him down. Making conversation would have been an uphill battle all the way, and besides, he'd rather be at the station with Jim. Jim was about as unsentimental about Christmas as it was possible for a guy with his upbringing to be, but Blair suspected he still got little twinges of -- not homesickness, exactly, nostalgia, maybe -- around the holidays. He probably wouldn't mind spending Christmas Eve at home decorating a tree and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. Since that wasn't going to happen, the least Blair could do was hang out at the station with him.

Blair was actually fitting the key into his ignition when suddenly, it hit him. He did know that guy at the library after all. Oh, man. How could he have forgotten?

Those raised eyebrows. That blank stare. Of course Blair knew him. He was that asshole linguist from the AOS conference five or six years ago. Jackson something. Samuel Jackson. No, that was the actor. Daniel Jackson. God, of course. Remembering their one and only meeting made Blair angry all over again. Come on, would it really have taken him so long to listen to Blair's tape and let him know if the language was actually Domari and whether the speaker was really talking about an ancient tradition of sentinels? Blair wouldn't have asked if it hadn't been important. Besides, it wasn't like you could find people fluent in an endangered Indic diaspora language spoken among formerly itinerant metalworkers in Old Jerusalem just dropping off the trees around here.

But when Blair had asked him about it, Dr. Jackson had only blinked at him, vague and utterly infuriating, and said he wasn't interested.

"Wasn't interested"? What kind of an answer was THAT supposed to have been? It wasn't like Blair had been demanding that he make it his life work. Just asking him to share some of his knowledge, colleague to colleague. A professional courtesy. Obviously Dr. Jackson didn't know the meaning of the word, so it probably wasn't surprising he had ended up five or six years down the road wandering around bewildered and alone on Christmas Eve. Given that his social skills didn't seem to have improved in the intervening years, Blair wondered if the man had any friends at all.

As he drove to the Westchester exit, he passed Dr. Jackson still on foot, trudging toward visitor parking. It just figured the guy didn't even know he could have parked at the faculty club right around the corner from the library when school wasn't in session. Actually, as a visiting professor he probably could have parked at the faculty club anyway. Didn't know enough to ask, and he probably annoyed everyone so much that nobody would bother to tell him.

A few snowflakes were beginning to drift down from the late afternoon sky. Jackson's head was down, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his windbreaker against the cold. The backpack over one shoulder seemed more appropriate for a grad student than a man with a handful of Ph.D.s and a tenured position. Blair glanced up in the rear view mirror just before the curve in the road took Dr. Jackson out of his sight for good, and to his disgust, his guilt got the better of him.

It was Christmas Eve after all. The dominant culture's ritual, commercial celebration of peace on earth, good will to men, dammit.

He swung a u-turn at the first opportunity and drove back, thinking he could probably intercept him in visitor parking. He felt first relieved and then a little disappointed in himself when he didn't spot him in the lot. Then he saw two men standing by a battered little Honda, both of them leaning in to talk to the driver. Had to be Dr. J. Apparently he had some friends after all. Well, good. Blair didn't have to feel guilty about just driving on.

Something was nagging at him though, and without really thinking about what he was doing, he cut diagonally across the almost-empty parking lot to get a closer look at Dr. Jackson's friends. They were leaning in close, and one of them had both his hands inside the car.

Oh, shit. In fact, the guy had his fists wrapped in Dr. Jackson's windbreaker and was trying to drag him out. Blair gunned the engine and headed straight for them, hoping his presence would be enough to scare them off. One of the men darted a glance over his shoulder but instead of giving up, both of them redoubled their efforts, succeeding in pulling Dr. Jackson partially out. He was fighting hard, though, and for an instant he yanked himself free. Blair was braking and jumping out when Dr. Jackson's open door was violently slammed, and Blair heard his shocked yelp of pain.

Dammit, dammit, dammit. Where were the campus police when you really needed them? "Get the hell away from him!" Blair yelled, wishing his cell phone wasn't buried at the bottom of his backpack. Dr. Jackson's attackers yanked his door open to reveal the him hunched forward with his right hand cradled to his chest. He began flailing in furious resistance all the same as they tried again to pull him out. Then, to Blair's horror, he thought he saw the nearer of the two men leveling a weapon.

Blair screamed, "I've already called the cops!" and leaped.

He tackled the man with the gun as hard as he could, his shoulder hitting the small of his back with what should have been bone-rattling force. Instead, Blair had a brief, impossible impression of his shoulder sinking far too deeply, like he'd just run into a feather-stuffed mannequin instead of a human being. Before he could recover, a hard backhand that wasn't remotely soft or downy sent him sprawling to the pavement. He heard something crackling overhead and smelled ozone in the air. A taser? he wondered blearily, dragging himself to his knees. Who were these guys?

He lunged at the nearer pair of legs, wrapped his arms around them, and this time they both went down in a muddle of tangled limbs. Blair heard himself swearing and huffing as he tried to avoid getting a foot in the face. "You won't get away with this! I told you, the cops will be here any second!"

Suddenly the other man kicked his way free, and Blair was left holding nothing. He rolled over, propping himself on his elbows, his skin still tingling from the proximity of the electrical charge. The first thing he saw was Dr. Jackson hanging out of the Honda, his cheek smashed flat against the pavement, his glasses broken and his legs still in the car. He looked entirely and thoroughly dead.

"Aw jeezus --" Blair muttered, looking around for the two thugs, but they must have been on the other side of the car, because he couldn't see them. Apparently the threat of the cops' imminent arrival had scared them off after all. Be nice if the cops really were on the way. Be even nicer if Jim were on his way. He crawled to Jackson's side, checking for cables before he touched him. He didn't think tasers carried a charge for more than thirty seconds or so, but it was for sure he couldn't do Dr. Jackson any good if he got knocked out cold, too.

Not finding any wires, Blair slid one hand under his cheek and put the other on his throat. He felt a strong pulse and closed his eyes. Merry Christmas, Dr. Jackson, he thought with relief.

He shifted around, supporting Jackson's head and shoulders as best he could. It was a struggle. The guy had shoulders as broad as Jim's and he weighed a ton. Whatever he'd been doing the past five years, it hadn't just been sitting in a library. He patted the side of Dr. Jackson's face that wasn't scraped up from contact with the pavement and said, "Hey. Wake up. Come on, can you open your eyes?"

Jackson flinched and moaned. "That's right," Blair encouraged. "Wake up and give me a hand so we can both get off the pavement."

His eyelids fluttered, and he tried to raise his head. "Aw, Jack," he moaned. "God, it hurts."

"Yeah, I bet. Come on, Dr. Jackson. Wake up."

His eyes flew open. "Who are you?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Blair Sandburg. We've already met. Look, you can't be comfortable like this. Let me help you out so I can call the cops before those guys get too far away."

"No," he protested, trying to twist around. "Don't. You can't."

"Easy. One thing at a time." Blair tried to help, but Dr. Jackson pushed and kicked himself free of the car in a frantic rush, landing hard on his side. He shouted in pain and immediately curled up tight, holding his right hand close to his chest, gasping and swearing.

"You idiot," Blair snapped, agonized for him. "I told you to take it easy. Let me see."

"I'm fine," Dr. Jackson grunted, hardly able to speak for the pain. "I'm fine, just help me up."

"Dammit, I'm not helping you up until you let me see that hand. Your choice, man. You want to just lie here in the parking lot all night, that's fine with me."

Jackson blinked up at him balefully. He was trembling with shock or pain or the cold, his teeth chattering audibly. A muscle jumped in his cheek. "Don't call the police," he ground out.

"Do I look like I'm calling anybody right now? Now come on, let me see your hand."

He slowly uncurled his hand from his chest, and Blair winced. "One of those fingers is definitely broken." He reached out but didn't touch Jackson's hand. "God, maybe even two or three of them."

"Bastards slammed it in the car door," Jackson said. A tear of rage or pain glittered in the corner of one eye. "You'd think with all the --" He broke off with a deep, shuddering breath. "Damn it."

"Yeah." It occurred to Blair that he hadn't heard another car's engine, meaning that Jackson's attackers were probably still close. They should just get the hell away from here, worry about calling Jim when they were both safe.

"Can you sit up?"

Jackson nodded, flinching involuntarily when Blair put his hands under his shoulders to help. Probably still shocky from being hit with the taser.

"Do you know who those guys were?"

It took Jackson another minute to catch his breath once he was propped against the car. He held the wrist of his right hand with his left and wouldn't look at Blair. "No," he said, his voice quiet and level. He was manifestly lying through his teeth. "I have no idea who those men were."

"Uh huh. So you have no idea if they're likely to try again."

Jackson looked up, startled. Obviously that hadn't occurred to him. "We should get out of here."

"Hey, good plan. Can you stand up?"

"I'm fine." He nodded as though trying to convince himself. "I can get up."

"Sure thing." Arguing with the man wasn't going to get them out of the parking lot any faster. Though it wasn't even four o'clock yet, the sky was dark gray and streetlights were beginning to blink on. Snowflakes whirled down around them, white against the asphalt for an instant before they melted. Blair shifted around next to him. "I'm just gonna give you a hand here, OK?"

Jackson nodded again and allowed Blair to pull his arm around his neck. "Ready?"

From the way Jackson wobbled once Blair managed to get to his feet, he was afraid they were both going to end up on the ground again. He pushed him hard up against his car and braced him there, looking around as he did for some sign of Jackson's attackers. To all appearances the parking lot was empty, and Blair gave thanks for small mercies.

In the meantime Jackson's face was as white as the falling snow. Probably going into shock. "Tell you what. How about I run you over to the Emergency Room and get your hand looked at. Sound good?"

"No," Jackson whispered. His eyes were closed and he was shivering convulsively. "I can drive myself."

"Oh yeah. Great plan, Dr. Jackson. First, though, I need for you to just take two steps this way, think you can manage that? And then you can drive yourself anywhere you want."

"My name isn't Jackson," he insisted suddenly, but he leaned into Blair's support when Blair wrapped an arm around his waist, and he obligingly shuffled forward when Blair walked him to his own Volvo.

"Just hold on a minute more --" Blair grunted, struggling to get the door open without dropping Jackson on the pavement. Or not-Jackson. It'd be pretty ironic if he'd gotten embroiled in all this because of a case of mistaken identity. Of course, like Naomi was always saying, everything happens for a reason. Whether this poor bastard was Daniel Jackson or not, he'd needed help this afternoon, and Blair had happened along at the right time.

He got him into the passenger seat of his Volvo without much trouble, Jackson or whoever he was being too dazed to protest being dumped in. Blair shut the door carefully and hustled around to the driver's side before his passenger could figure out he wasn't in his own car. He wasn't fast enough. As soon as he swung himself in, Dr. Jackson's long-lost twin clutched at Blair with his good hand. "My backpack," he said. "Everything's in there."

"All right, all right. I'll get it. Is it in your car?"

"I don't know." Myopic blue eyes peered at him anxiously. "God, I don't remember. I have to see." Forgetting his injury, he reached for the door handle before Blair could stop him, and then shouted aloud in agony.

"Aw, geez!" Blair flinched hard in sympathetic pain. "I'll get it for you already. I'll get it. Just sit still."

The man nodded without answering, his jaw clenched hard. "I'll be right back," Blair promised as he bolted out of the car to look for the backpack. The snow was falling harder, blowing sideways in a sudden, stiff wind. The backpack was on the floor in the back seat of the Honda. Blair snatched it up, staggering in surprise at its weight. Did the guy have his entire life stashed in there or what? He pulled the keys out of the ignition and stuffed them in an outside pocket, and after he locked and shut the door, he saw the bent, broken pair of glasses on the ground, and he rescued them as well. The wind blew dead leaves with the snow across the empty parking lot, and the entire campus seemed hideously wild and lonely. He hurried back to his own car. "Got it, Dr. Jackson," he said breathlessly, before remembering that this wasn't Daniel Jackson after all.

But after seeing his backpack safely stowed in the back seat, Blair's passenger just nodded in weary relief and leaned back against the seat, his eyes closing and his right hand curled against his chest.

~~~

Hammond's smile was warm and genuine. "Merry Christmas, Jack." He shook Jack's hand, clapping his other hand on Jack's shoulder. "I'm glad you could stop by," he added, as though the invitation hadn't been just a hair short of a direct order. "Come in, come in. Let me take your coat."

"Merry Christmas, sir. Thank you." Jack knew his own smile was sad and tight, but he just didn't have the energy to summon a happier expression.

The general's house smelled like the nine-foot fir tree in the living room, like bayberry candles, like cinnamon and nutmeg, oranges and cloves. Jack had been able to see the lights twinkling in every window all the way from the street. A storm was brewing to the west, but the sky overhead was clear, the crescent moon brilliant on the mantle of snow blanketing the grounds. "Beautiful night, isn't it?" Hammond agreed with Jack's unspoken thoughts, shutting the door after him. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"I'm not --"

"I know, Christmas Eve, you've probably got other places to be tonight, but I just cracked open a bottle of seventeen-year-old Ardbeg. A little raw for an archeologist's tastes, probably, but a pair of old soldiers like us, it just hits the spot."

Jack looked at him sharply, but the general's face was bland with good cheer. "Thank you," Jack said cautiously. "I believe I could use a drink after all. Is the family coming over tonight?"

"Already been here. I'll go over to Mary and Richard's in the morning." Hammond led Jack into his study, where "Silver Bells" was playing rather loudly on the stereo. "Kayla's getting a bicycle this year," he confided. "I can't wait to see the look on her face. In fact," he continued, pouring a glass of whiskey for Jack from the bottle sitting on his desk, "you should come over in the morning if you don't have other plans. You know Mary and Richard are always glad to see you."

"Thank you, sir." Jack sipped the whisky, and it was like smoke on his tongue and fire in his throat. "I think I'll probably just stay in this Christmas. Or if Teal'c gets a hankering to go to the movies we might go see what's playing at the Cineplex."

"I understand," Hammond said, almost laughing. He took a long drink from his own glass and then opened a desk drawer and took out a single piece of paper which he pushed across the table to Jack. Jack thought he was prepared for this, but he found he still had to sit down before reading what the general had given him.

"They've found him, Jack."

"Son of a bitch," Jack breathed. Nope, apparently he wasn't prepared for this at all. Just the sight of Daniel's cramped, damn-near unreadable handwriting was like a fist around his heart. He thought he would be furious. He'd been so angry since Daniel had pulled his little disappearing act that for months he'd hardly been able to say his name without spitting. He'd told himself that Dr. Daniel Jackson just better keep the fuck away from him because the next time Jack saw him he would cheerfully break his jaw for him. That same jaw that could flap on forever about everything under every sun in the galaxy, except for whatever the hell was bothering him so bad that he could just walk away from his whole life without saying a word to anyone.

The anger was gone now, lost under the ocean-deep swell of relief at suddenly knowing Daniel was alive and well enough to fill out an application to access special collections at some university library up in Washington state. God Almighty. Six months after disappearing so thoroughly it was like he'd slipped through the wormhole when nobody was looking, Daniel had finally blown his cover, using his real name and academic credentials to get a freaking library card, for chrissakes. It was so Daniel of him that Jack could have wept.

"This is dated three weeks ago," he said when he trusted himself to speak. "Are we sure he's still there?"

"No."

Damn. "Does NID know?"

Hammond nodded. "In all likelihood my source will have provided this information to them at the same time he passed it along to me."

"You have some interesting . . . friends, sir." Jack couldn't help it.

"Not friends," Hammond corrected a little sternly. "Necessary all the same."

Holding the proof there in his hands, Jack could hardly disagree. "Permission to fly up there and drag his butt the hell back home, general?"

"You know it's not quite that easy."

Well, yeah, maybe Jack did know that, but right now he didn't want to hear it. "With all due respect --"

"Do you really want to see him in Leavenworth, Jack?"

"He's a civilian. He has every right to quit anytime he --"

"He's also one hell of a security risk. It'd be a short trip from Leavenworth to Area 51. Shorter than the one back to SGC."

Jack flattened his hand over the copy of the library card application. It was blurry from being faxed, xeroxed, God knows what. He thought about people looking for Daniel, people who had the resources to find evidence like this. "Then what do you want me to do, sir? Just leave him to the wolves?"

Hammond didn't reproach him. If anything, his expression grew more gentle. "Get to him first. Find out what he's doing and why he left."

"We already know why he left. Shif --" he broke off. Anyone surveilling them already knew exactly what they were talking about, but there was no point in handing them everything on a platter. "That kid did something to him. Filled his head with all sorts of crazy guilt and God knows what, and then the Light scrambled his brains until he didn't know which end was up."

"I'm not saying you're wrong. But find him. Talk to him. If he wants to come home, then I'll move heaven and earth to make it happen, but if he really wants to turn his back on the whole program -- well, he's going to need help to do that, too. He can't hide himself forever."

"You'd do that for Daniel. Help him -- hide."

"Help him resign safely, ensure that he won't have to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, yes."

Jack looked at him. "You've been planning for this," he said in slow realization. "You knew Danny might decide to bolt."

"I hoped I was wrong," Hammond said. "But since the death of his wife I've suspected he might decide to leave the SGC, and that it wouldn't be easy for him." There was pity on Hammond's face, as well as compassion. "Jack, do you mean to tell me you didn't know?"

~~~

"Jim. Jim." Blair switched the phone to his other ear. "Just hang on for one minute and listen to me, would you? It's Christmas Eve. Campus was practically deserted."

"The number of crime scenes you've been at over the years, and you --"

"I know. I know, but one last time, Jim. We were all alone out there. Dr. Jackson was going into shock. I'm not going to apologize for not hanging around out in the snow."

"Campus security could have been there in five minutes. If you'd called them they might even have had a chance of catching the perps."

"Yeah, maybe, but Jim, Christmas Eve, man. It could have been five minutes; it could have been fifteen or twenty. Besides, I told you Dr. Jackson needed medical attention, and those guys might have come back at any minute. Basic triage, right? Get the victim to a safe location."

"Sandburg, that was three and a half hours ago. You're just now reporting a violent attack on campus?"

OK, Jim had a point, Blair could admit that, but honestly, he hadn't known what else to do. "I know, and I'm sorry. But Dr. Jackson really, really didn't want me to call this in. It was all I could do to get him to sit still long enough to get treated in the first place. If I'd so much as looked at a telephone he would have just gotten up and walked out, broken fingers and all. I had to wait until they took him into x-ray to sneak out and call you."

"I don't suppose you remember what happened the last time you came home with someone who really, really didn't want to file a police report?"

Oh, now that was more than a little unfair. "It's not even remotely the same thing, Jim. Dr. Jackson's a Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Linguistics with a specialization in, um, geoarcheology or something like that, or you know, maybe it was Egyptology after all -- at Chicago or Yale, or was that where he got one of his degrees? It's been a few years since I looked him up, but the point is, I really doubt he has an ex-boyfriend who couriers heroin across the Canadian border, you know? Besides, I'm not planning on bringing him home."

Jim sounded unimpressed by Jackson's credentials. "How sure are you that he's really this Dr. Jackson at all? You told me he wouldn't even let you sign him in under that name."

"I'm pretty sure it's him, actually. I was talking to him after he finally got a pain shot, and he can answer questions in Russian and Quechua if you catch him off guard. If he wants to call himself --" Blair looked at the flimsy carbon of the sign-in sheet he'd filled out for Dr. Jackson, "Walter Budge, and he doesn't want the police involved -- well, all right, maybe he's just eccentric, I don't know. Anyway, that's why I thought maybe you could call Suzanne Tamaki and let her know what happened. She would bawl me out for not reporting it sooner."

"Sandburg."

"Thanks, Jim, I knew I could count on you. Oh, hey, they're wheeling him out now. Gotta go." Blair hung up before Jim could point out to him that Daniel Jackson was an eccentric being hunted by a couple of dangerous thugs with tasers. Blair already knew that. It wasn't irrelevant, exactly, but it was just easier not to deal with right at the moment.

He followed the nurse's aide who was wheeling Jackson from x-ray back to the little curtained examination cubicle. "Hel-lo." Blair stuck his head around the curtain. "What's the damage?"

The aide was helping him shift from the wheelchair to an examination table covered with paper. Jackson looked up blearily. "Hey," he said, sounding a little surprised, but mostly doped up and very tired. "You're still here. What are you doing here?"

The aide looked stern. "Would you please return to the waiting room?"

"No," Jackson said, a little to Blair's surprise. "It's OK. He's the one who brought me in."

The aide left with an exasperated look at both of them, and Blair sauntered the rest of the way in. Jackson was sitting uncomfortably, his right hand awkwardly cradled on his lap. His eyes were bleary with exhaustion and the scratches on his face made him look like he'd been in a street fight. Come to think of it, he had been. He would have been more comfortable lying down, but Blair had to agree that despite the tiny disposable pillow at one end of the examination table, it wasn't a surface he would have wanted to stretch out on either. "They tell you anything about your hand yet?"

"No." Jackson closed his eyes for so long that he began to sway a bit until Blair touched his shoulder. He started awake. "No, I have to wait for a doctor to look at the x-rays."

"Oh, man. More waiting. Great."

Jackson actually smiled faintly in weary agreement. The Mitch Miller Gang was crooning "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" over the intercom, their mild-as-warm-milk voices interrupted occasionally by calls for surgeons to report to the operating room.

"Listen," Blair said cautiously. He'd tried to ask this before and Jackson had just stared at him, wild-eyed, but he seemed a little calmer and a lot more lucid now. "Do you have any friends in town? Someone I should call to let them know where you are?"

Jackson shook his head and looked at the floor, his momentary smile becoming fixed. "Not . . . exactly. No." He looked up. "I'm not from here," he volunteered suddenly, sounding pleased to have a rational explanation for being friendless.

"Oh. Just here for the library," Blair said. "I can't tell you how often I hear that."

Jackson looked at him.

"OK so, never, actually. Where are you staying? Did they you put up in visitor's housing? I hear Weschester House is beautiful. I've never been inside, myself, but supposedly they still have some of the original furnishings in the lobby. Just lucky it didn't come down in the earthquake. So many of the old buildings in that district were damaged last year."

His scintillating patter wasn't enough to keep Jackson's attention from beginning to drift. He looked around himself again and then back at Blair. "Why are you here?"

"Well, there were these two big guys in the parking lot --"

Jackson winced. "Please," he said quietly.

"Honestly. I just want to make sure you're all right."

"Why ... ?" The inflection on the word spoke volumes, rising and falling to draw the single syllable into a world of questions. His eyebrows were drawn together and he regarded Blair seriously, obviously unable to fathom any sort of reasonable reply.

"Look, for one thing, we've met before. At the American Oriental Society conference in Seattle about five years ago."

Jackson paled.

"Hey, hey, hey, look, yes, I know who you are, Dr. Jackson, but it's OK, I promise. I'm not gonna rat you out to whoever it is you're hiding from. I mean, it's pretty obvious you're in some kind of trouble, and I think I could probably help you, but if you don't want to tell me about it, that's cool too. I'm not pushing. I just want to make sure your hand gets taken care of and you've got some place to stay tonight. Christmas Eve, man. I couldn't just leave you in the parking lot."

Jackson looked at him for a moment longer and then lowered his eyes again, a mannerism Blair remembered from their first meeting. He couldn't decide if it was disarming or simply infuriating.

"We've met?" Dr. Jackson finally said.

"Yeah. I asked if you could listen to a tape of Domari. What I thought was Domari. It was originally recorded on wax cylinder by a British naval officer in Jerusalem around 1890, and -- well, anyway. You probably don't remember."

"No." Jackson blinked wearily. "I don't think I would have been very interested."

"You weren't."

"Oh." When Jackson looked up, there was the faintest hint of amusement in the back of his eyes, exhausted as he was. "I don't suppose you have that tape on you now, do you?"

Blair grinned at him. "I got it translated years ago. Turned out it was in Tsakonian, not Domari at all."

Jackson raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah, I know, it probably really wasn't recorded in Jerusalem either, and as it turned out, it didn't even have anything to do with my field of interest." Blair shrugged, still grinning. "Too bad. Ruins my whole fantasy. You know, the one where I heroically rescue the linguistics prof who was too busy to drop everything and do a translation for me, and now he's begging on bended knee for a chance to make it up -- " Blair broke off when Jackson started to look alarmed. "Kidding, Dr. Jackson. I'm kidding. Joke."

"Please stop calling me that."

"It's your name. Now wait, before you freak out again, just listen to me. Whatever's wrong, I've got friends who honestly might be able to help. Isn't it worth a shot? Just tell me what's going on, and if I don't think they can help you, then it doesn't go any further than me. Come on, what do you have to lose?"

"I've already lost everything," Jackson told him steadily. For once his gaze was unflinching. "Now I'm just trying to make sure it wasn't all for nothing."

~~~

Goddammit, Jack thought.

For the past six months, he had done a pretty good job of not second-guessing himself. He had made a decision based on the information he had at the time, and if he had to do it all over again, he would probably make the identical choice. That was it. Period, end of story. Thinking about what he could or should have done differently was worse than useless. It was just craziness, an invitation to take that long walk off a short, short pier.

He was taking that walk. Sitting bolt upright, half dreaming and half awake, Teal'c's solid presence at his side and the roar of the big C-130's turboprop engines vibrating through his skull, he wondered if things could have been different if he'd ratted Daniel out to Doc Fraiser after all.

OK, one thing sure as hell would be different. He wouldn't be on this transport because Daniel would have murdered him on the spot.

But besides that. In retrospect, the nightmares and the sleepwalking were a pretty clear warning that skies hadn't all been sunny and blue in Danny-Land, but dammit, coming down off their addiction to the Light had been tough on all of them. Carter kept telling him that the incremental downward adjustments were too small for them to feel, but Jack knew better. He thought Carter probably did too, and kept repeating those empty assurances because otherwise she might just bite her commanding officer's head off.

Jack had been able to feel it every time they lowered the dosage. It made his joints ache and caused pressure like the start of a killer sinus headache under his eyes. His skin prickled and felt as though it were stretched too tightly over his bones. For the first week and a half he'd given up shaving because he couldn't stand the scrape of the razor blade. Worse than any of the physical sensations had been the nasty little mental tricks, a creeping paranoia that kept him looking over his shoulder when he was alone in a room. He got the impression from time to time that the walls no longer met the ceiling overhead flush and square, but instead that the angles were twisting tighter, furling up like an umbrella. He would catch himself standing and staring upward until he gave himself a crick in his neck, trying to convince himself the palace wasn't about to snap shut around them. Fleeing to the beach outside was no escape, because the hiss of the waves over the pebbles and sand sounded like mocking voices, and the palace was always at his back, brooding and certain of his return.

So it was no wonder Daniel had the heebie jeebies, too. After all, that damned goa'uld pleasure dome had almost killed him.

By the end of the third week, Jack's symptoms were nearly gone. Daniel said he felt fine, too, but Jack had suspected that wasn't one hundred percent true. He knew Daniel wasn't sleeping very well, for one thing, and one night he had awakened to find Daniel's cot empty. After a nerve-wracking half hour search through the winding arabesque hallways of that hideous palace, he'd finally tracked Daniel down in a tower room with windows open to the ocean. He was huddled barefoot against the wall, eyes open, looking up at the slanting roof.

"Daniel? Kinda cold up here, don't you think?"

Nothing. The waves were crashing outside, a lonely, hopeless sort of sound in the dead of night. Jack shone his flashlight up. Goa'uld hieroglyphs in that dialect Daniel had trouble reading crawled up the walls, which seemed to narrow as they reached the ceiling. The angles and the squiggling glyphs gave Jack vertigo and he pointed the flashlight back at Daniel. His hands were clasped together under his chin, reminding Jack unpleasantly of the way he had huddled in a corner of that padded white room when Fraiser and Mackenzie had misdiagnosed him with schizophrenia.

"Daniel." He set the flashlight on the floor and knelt beside him, then reached out and took one of his hands. His long fingers were as cold as ice. "Don't you think you'd be more comfortable in bed?"

Daniel didn't look at him. Jack still wasn't sure whether or not he was even awake. "It's dark," he said softly.

"Uh, yeah," Jack agreed. "That would be nighttime you're noticing there. Another good reason to go back to bed." It was starting to freak him out, the way Daniel persisted in staring up at that screwy slanted roof, so he let Daniel's hand go and patted his face to try and draw his attention away.

Daniel blinked and finally turned his head. His skin was eerily white in the light of the flashlight, his eyes expressionless black pools. "I don't know what to do, Jack."

"Bed. Come on. Stand up." He put his hand under Daniel's arm, and Daniel allowed himself to be pulled to his feet and led back to bed.

When Jack asked him about it the next morning, Daniel obviously didn't remember anything about it. He hadn't seemed particularly concerned either. Taking a big gulp of coffee, he'd shaken his head and complained, "God, Jack, whatever you do, don't tell Janet. You know she'll just hustle me off to see Mackenzie."

Apparently Jack was completely wrapped around Danny's pinky finger, because he hadn't said a word about that little sleepwalking episode to anyone. Honestly, Daniel's request hadn't seemed unreasonable. They were all a little screwed up after three weeks in that place, and yeah, Janet probably would want Daniel to see Mackenzie if he reported a symptom like sleepwalking. Frankly, it was hard to see how talking about the effects of the Light with Mackenzie of all people could have done Daniel any good at all.

Jack still believed that. He believed it even though, armed with a clean bill of health from Janet herself, Daniel had gone straight home, packed up everything he owned in boxes he bought from the nearest U-Haul center, had a storefront lawyer draw him up a boilerplate power of attorney in order to saddle Jack with the responsibility of taking care of his possessions, and proceeded to disappear off the face of the earth.

Could Mackenzie really have seen that coming, when all of Daniel's friends -- when Jack himself -- hadn't had a clue?

Jack's eyes snapped open. He didn't want to sleep. He didn't want to think. He would be as calm and patient and inscrutable as Teal'c beside him. After all, he'd refused to allow himself to feel grief or regret during the past six months, so he'd be damned if he let either in now.

~~~

The sensible thing to do would have been to call the local FBI field office directly and let them handle it themselves. The only reason he hadn't -- well, Jim didn't really know why he hadn't. Probably just because he didn't want the feds tromping all over his home. Despite his protestations, Jim knew perfectly well that was where this latest waif of Sandburg's was going to end up, firmly ensconced at the loft, probably wearing Sandburg's clothes and tucked into Sandburg's bed to boot.

They might as well hang a sign out front.

"Hey man, welcome home." Blair looked like he'd been sleeping, slumped on the chair pulled near the fireplace, an open book splayed upside down on his stomach and his hair in his face. "Sorry I never made it to the station. Like I told you, things got a little weird." He yawned and stretched. The book fell to the floor as Blair pushed his hair back. "What time is it?"

Blair's bedroom door was closed. Jim could hear the sounds of a sleeper's slow, rather congested breathing, and he caught a strong whiff of eau de emergency room, an unmistakable tang of antiseptic and sterilized cotton and steel combined with the sickening funk of human bodies cracked open wide.

"Jim?"

"A little after one, I think," he answered automatically, his attention still focused on Sandburg's stray. He smelled like Sandburg's soap and Sandburg's organic Guatemalan coffee, too. Jim even thought he could smell the painkillers on the sleeper's breath. Drugged insensible, in all probability, and Jim wasn't sure if that made matters more or less complicated.

"Really? Wow, merry Christmas. I guess you already know Daniel's here."

"Let me guess. He just didn't have anywhere else to go."

"Actually he's renting a room downtown, but he was afraid those thugs who tracked him to campus might know where he was living, too. It wasn't safe for him to go back tonight. He asked me to drop him off at a hotel, but --"

Jim sighed. "But obviously that was out of the question."

Blair looked at him like he was an idiot. "Well, yeah. His right hand is messed up pretty bad, and he doesn't know anybody else in town."

"No, and I'm sure he's been making a special effort not to get to know anyone, either." Jim unfolded the print-out he'd brought with him from the station and dropped it in Blair's lap. "Sandburg, the feds are looking for him. Daniel Jackson is a fugitive."

"What?" He seemed so stunned Jim was a little ashamed of himself for springing it on him like this. "But that's completely crazy." Blair scanned the wanted poster, shaking his head. "'Wanted for questioning in regard to the unauthorized distribution of classified materials'? Aw, Jim. Come on. You don't really believe this, do you? I told you, the guy's a linguist, an archeologist. Probably reads a couple of dozen languages, most of which have been extinct for millennia. Any special information he has access to became unclassified three or four thousand years ago." He stopped talking while he read the print-out again. "See, I told you it's a mistake."

"That's not his picture?"

"Well, yeah, it is, but they've got the wrong guy. This says he was working as a civilian consultant to the Air Force when he disappeared. That's nuts. What would the Air Force want with someone like him? What would he want with the Air Force?"

"Maybe he's been translating some of those not-so-extinct languages for them, Chief. You told me he speaks Russian. How about Arabic? Pakastani? Chinese? Korean?"

"I don't know, some or all of them probably, but you're not listening to me here. Daniel's spent his life translating Babylonian laundry lists, not, uh, intercepted Iraqi flight plans or something."

Jim wiped his hand over his eyes. His irritation had bled away, leaving him simply tired and vaguely depressed. The plan had been to come home and have a drink or two of Christmas cheer, sleep late in the morning and gorge himself on the roast chicken and the reshteh polo Blair planned on making for an early dinner tomorrow. The rice was already soaking in the dutch oven on top of the stove.

Instead he was having a ridiculous argument over whether or not the colleague Blair had rescued in a parking lot was, in fact, actually wanted for espionage. "What I believe, Sandburg, is that you're letting yourself be blinded by your friendship with this guy. I know it's not pretty, but it seems clear that --"

"No, wait, see, he's not a friend. I don't even know Daniel, really. The first time we met I thought he was a complete asshole."

In the next room Blair's guest made a soft sound in his sleep, as if troubled by uneasy dreams. Not too surprising, Jim thought. He held up a hand to silence Blair. There were other scents in the bedroom, he suddenly realized, out of place and somehow disturbing. There was one smell he couldn't even begin to identify, but another that he could. Militec, Jim was pretty sure, which wasn't the gun oil he used on his own weapon.

He crossed the living room in a few long paces and opened the bedroom door quietly but very fast. Blair whispered, "Jim!" in protest behind him.

Their fugitive didn't wake up. He was sprawled on his back on the futon, the comforter kicked down past his knees, one long leg hanging off the bed. His right hand was immobilized in a mylar splint and propped up on pillows at his side.

Oh well, Jim thought. He had gotten one thing wrong about Blair's hospitality. Those were Jim's sweatpants he was wearing, not Blair's.

A backpack was on the floor at the foot of the futon. Jim quietly picked it up, keeping his eye on Jackson. His mouth was open, his breathing heavy and slow, eyelids flickering. Clearly he wasn't going anywhere for a while.

Blair was still having fits at the bedroom door, but he waited until Jim backed out of the room before demanding, "What do you think you're doing?"

"Your houseguest is carrying, Sandburg." He laid Jackson's backpack on the dining room table and opened it up.

"Jim! You can't just go rummaging through his stuff."

Change of socks, change of underwear. A pair of chinos rolled up tightly. A half-empty package of over-the-counter antihistamines. A thin shaving kit with hotel bottles of shampoo, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a disposable razor and about two hundred dollars in tens and twenties.

"Jim!"

"Are you sure about this room downtown? I think he's probably just living out of his car."

The biggest and heaviest thing in his backpack was the laptop, swaddled in two black t-shirts. A spare battery was stored in a case. A cord for recharging. A couple of pens and a notebook were stowed carefully in one of the inner pockets, and beneath them was a fat bundle of hundred dollar bills held together with a rubber band. Stuffed down at the very bottom of the deep backpack where it couldn't possibly be retrieved in the event its owner really needed it was the Beretta. It hadn't been fired since the last time it had been cleaned and oiled. Three or four months, maybe longer. Jim was impressed that he'd been able to smell the gun oil at all, but now probably wasn't the time to brag to Sandburg about it.

"Not a bad little M9," Jim said. "Looks military issue to me." He ejected the magazine and then racked the slide. The bullet that had been in the chamber pinged across the dining room table, and Blair caught it before it could hit the floor.

"It doesn't prove anything," Blair insisted, but he looked a little sick. Handing the bullet to Jim, he began stuffing the rest of Daniel's personal belongings back in the bag.

Jim ticked off the points on his fingers since Blair refused to do the math on his own. "One, your professor is living on the road and probably has been for some time. Two, some nasty customers are looking for him, and he knows it. Did he even try to convince you that it was just a random mugging?" Jim didn't wait for Blair to answer. "No, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that the people he's been running from have found him. Three, he wouldn't let you call the police, and I'm just guessing that's because of item number four, his picture on that FBI wanted poster. Blair, I'm sorry, but this really isn't up for debate."

Blair finished repacking the backpack with everything but the gun, zipped it up and then buckled the straps down tight. "What are we gonna do?"

"I'm going to take him downtown."

"It's just so crazy," Blair said again. He buried his head in his hands for a moment. "Dammit." He looked up at Jim with a tragic expression. "Do you have to go right now? I mean, can't he at least get a decent night's sleep before you hand him over? The poster just says he's 'wanted for questioning' anyway, not that he's actually done anything. You don't honestly think he's dangerous, do you?"

Not really, no. Jim was thinking of that gun, unused and stored completely out of reach, as much as he was of the fact that Dr. Jackson was drugged out of his mind on pain meds. It reminded him of Blair in ways he really didn't want to think about. Not a violent man, but push him to the wall and he'd come out swinging. After all, Jackson had apparently taken care of that Beretta, even if he didn't ever intend to use it.

"So --" Blair spread his hands. "We can do this in the morning, right?"

There were so many reasons why that was such a bad idea.

"Please, Jim. I owe him."

Oh for heaven's sake. "Sandburg, you've just told me you don't know or even like the man. What could you possibly owe him?"

"I promised Daniel he'd be safe here," he said miserably. "And instead we're going to wake him up on Christmas morning and turn him over to the FBI."

"For all you know, you'll be doing him a favor. Looks to me like he'd be safer in federal custody than he has been on the streets."

"So we'll wait till tomorrow morning? It just seems like the least I can do."

Jim was pretty certain that wasn't what he'd just said. "Yeah, all right, fine," he agreed irritably. "You sleep upstairs tonight. I'll take the couch."

"Aw, no, I can't let you do that."

"Humor me," Jim said tightly. "I feel more secure being between him and the door."

"One thing, man. You don't run a background check on everyone I meet, do you?"

Jim looked at him. "It's not like you've given me any reason to stop now."

~~~

By the time Jim got out of the shower, he was thinking that it hadn't been such a bad idea to wait until morning before taking Jackson in. Even if it did mean sleeping on the sofa, it was still better than spending the night talking to the feds.

As he was drying off, he caught that whiff of scent again, the smell he'd picked up along with the gun oil. He was smelling it in the steam of the bathroom, and he didn't have the first clue what it might be. Couldn't even begin to narrow it down. Cold and dark, like -- well, like nothing at all. Not overpowering, but inescapable all the same. What the hell was that?

He narrowed it down to the laundry hamper and the wad of clothes on top. Blair's jeans and flannel shirt. There must have been something in that parking lot where he had rescued Jackson. A chemical spill maybe. The strangest thing about the smell was the dense, cold weight of it. Usually chemical exposure hit him like a jittery, pinging excitation, but this was inert, dead. Not the frenetic activity of biological death, either, which was a violent swarm of noisily feasting microorganisms, but true death. Nothingness. Nonexistence. He could hardly be smelling that, could he?

He shut the hamper lid, threw on a bathrobe and stalked out. Blair was sitting at the dining room table. He'd gotten out his laptop, and was frowning at the screen. Whatever he'd dug up, it hadn't made him happy.

"Sandburg, did you notice anything in that parking lot? There's some sort of weird smell on your clothes. I smelled it on Jackson's stuff too."

It took Blair a long moment to drag his attention away from the computer. "No. Just those guys who jumped Daniel. Weird how?"

"I don't know. I can't pin it down."

"Well, I don't know." He clearly had something else on his mind. "Jim, you were right. You were totally right. You know what I found? Daniel Jackson supposedly died five years ago. There are a couple of mentions in archeology rags, and the Journal of Near Eastern Studies had a whole little write-up about his contributions to the field. Apparently he was one of the pioneers in using airborne multi-spectral imaging for enhancing site images in the Valley of the Kings, and his translation of the Book of the Earth from KV9 -- which he did when he was twenty-two for chrissakes -- is well on its way to supplanting Piankoff's."

"He's snoring awfully loud in there for a dead guy."

"No kidding." Blair punched a couple of buttons on his keyboard. "Anyway, his career hit a rough patch about five and a half years back. About the time I met him, I guess. I'm not sure what happened, but apparently an article of his in the Revue d'Egyptologie was pretty roundly panned. He was denied tenure, and it looks like he was dismissed from his last position not long before those obits were published."

"You think these premature notices of his death are related to him taking a job with the Air Force?"

"They must be," Blair asserted with a lot more certainty than Jim felt. "The Air Force probably faked his death so no one would notice such a prominent scholar suddenly dropping out of academia."

"You just said his career was on the skids."

"Jim, weren't you listening? The guy's a bona fide genius. People like that don't just fade away. The best I can figure, he got royally pissed off, felt like he wasn't being sufficiently appreciated or whatever, and sold out to the military."

"Sold out?"

"Well, think about it. Here's this incredibly gifted scholar, someone who's materially advanced the sum total of human knowledge before he even hit thirty, and suddenly he decides he'd rather spend his time helping the Air Force come up with more efficient ways to kill people." Blair wrapped his arms around his stomach, looking both miserable and furious. "It's such a goddamned waste. How does he live with himself?"

"Apparently not so well these last six months," Jim said, but Blair didn't seem to hear.

"You know what's even worse? I didn't even think of this at first, but there have been stories coming out of the field for years now about the U.S. military pursuing an intimidation campaign against certain archeological excavations. Mostly in the Middle East, but there was a famous case in Piedras Negras three years ago where two archeologists were killed and the entire contents of a recently-opened Mayan burial chamber confiscated by men in Air Force uniforms. The story is there were Egyptian-style hieroglyphics in the tomb. If that was true, it would have turned Mesoamerican history on its head."

"The Air Force is going around killing archeologists?"

"That was an extreme case -- usually they just show up in the middle of the night, confiscate artifacts and threaten the people on site if they dare complain about it. These raids aren't random, either. The military types always seem to know exactly what they're going for, and it's inevitably a recent find with potentially enormous religious or cultural significance. Somebody must be pointing them in the right direction, and obviously that someone has been Daniel Jackson all along."

"What in the world does the military hope to gain by roughing up archeologists?" Not that Jim put it past them necessarily, but if Sandburg was right, it could have disastrous political consequences if they were exposed. What made it worth the risk?

"Furthering the aims of the military industrial complex, what else?" Blair snorted, Naomi's son through and through. "That Piedras Negras site is right on the Usumacinta River, where the World Bank wants to fund a series of hydroelectric dams. Obviously the investors didn't want a major archeological find drawing attention to all the Mayan sites that'll be flooded and lost forever once those dams are operational. And in the Middle East? God, don't even get me started. Any find that might have political importance to Israeli or Islamic fundamentalists, anything that might upset Christian fundamentalists back at home."

"I'm not saying I doubt you." Jim was treading with care. "But why haven't I heard anything about this?"

"The AIA is pushing for an official investigation, but who cares about what happens to a handful of grad students out in the desert with, you know, nothing but shovels and sifting screens? That's what makes me so sick. Daniel Jackson started out trying to solve some of the biggest mysteries of human existence, who we are, how we got here, and then he abandons it all, and for what, man? More money, more power, God, who knows. That man sleeping in my bed in there has spent the last five years trying to hide the truth." Blair's expression was savage. "You know what? A part of me almost feels like he's getting what he deserves."

Personally, Jim thought this theory of what Jackson had been up to with the Air Force was a little farfetched, but the matter clearly wasn't up for reasoned debate tonight. Besides, it didn't matter. In the morning Daniel Jackson would be out of their hair for good.

"Sandburg, you're sort of hiding the truth too," Jim heard himself saying quietly. "I mean, you're not telling the world I'm a sentinel."

"That is not even remotely the same thing!" Blair's voice came out as an enraged, explosive whisper. "Christ, Jim!" He stabbed at keys on the laptop and then shut it down with a snap. When he pushed his hair out of his face, Jim saw his hands were shaking. "Protecting the confidentiality of an informant is not the same thing at all. I'm going to bed. Good night."

~~~

Daniel opened his eyes to darkness, and for a few awful seconds, he thought it had happened again. Oh, God, and after months of being so desperately careful. He always left the light on when he slept in a motel room. He always tied his hand to the bedpost. He was even more careful when he slept in his car, pinning the words to his chest even though the paper on which they were written felt as heavy as chain mail by morning, always securing one wrist to the steering wheel or his ankle to the gear shift.

All for nothing, now. His heart was thundering against his ribcage and his limbs felt weak as water. It didn't matter how frightened he was. Eventually he would have to get up from the cold stone floor and throw open the casements. He would have to look once more upon that rolling sea.

Then he realized he wasn't lying on stone at all. He was in bed. Just an ordinary bed, with sheets and blankets and pillows.

Daniel's eyes slid shut, more exhausted by relief than he'd been by that paralyzing moment of terror. When he got his breathing under control, he tried to figure out where he was and how he had gotten there. It was an effort reclaiming memories one by one through a thick opiate haze. That would be the Percocet, he realized eventually. The drug must have hit him like a ton of bricks, because Daniel had no memory at all of actually going to bed. He'd just lain down and drifted off to sleep like it was the simplest thing in the world. Like there was nothing to be afraid of in the dark.

Dear God.

He had to get away. He should have been on the road last night, waited to have his hand treated in Seattle or Tacoma, gotten as far away just as fast as he could possibly manage. He had to get away now. He could do it. His right hand wasn't hurting anymore. It just felt awkward and very heavy.

He gingerly tried to shift his arm off the pillows, and the sensation of weight dissipated like the air, to be replaced by a bone deep agony that made him groan out loud. Aw, shit, shit. He tensed in automatic reaction to the pain, which only made it worse, and curled up in a tight ball, panting shallowly, trying to deny that a couple of broken fingers could hurt so fucking much. He forced himself to roll into a sitting position, and the moment his bare feet hit the floorboards, the bedroom doors swung open. "Going somewhere?" asked a voice Daniel didn't know.

Sure I am, Daniel thought, hunched over his splinted hand, waiting for the worst of the pain to ebb. It had to let up. It had to, because it was simply too ridiculous, after everything he'd been through, to find himself crippled by something as idiotic as getting his hand slammed in a car door. He just needed to get the sling on again, and once his right hand was strapped against his chest, these little changes in position wouldn't be so agonizing. He'd be on the road before morning, regroup and figure out what to do next from a safe distance.

Of course, he couldn't get the sling on by himself. Actually, he couldn't even tie his own shoe laces. He was pretty sure he could steer one handed, but wasn't so certain he could work the stick. Dammit, he should have bought that crappy little Yugo in Ithaca after all. If it had made it over the Rockies, he'd have an automatic he could drive now.

"No," he told the dark shape in the bedroom door. The roommate, he supposed, since it wasn't Blair. "It doesn't really look like I'm going anywhere."

"Sandburg said you'd be due for another pain pill about four a.m. Sounds like you could use it."

"No. I don't want it. I'm fine. Actually --" Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to stand up. The floor bucked and swayed underfoot, and the next thing he knew, Blair's roommate was right in front of him, supporting him with a hand on the outside of both shoulders.

"Steady."

Daniel just nodded. The pain in his hand ballooned for a shocking, unendurable instant, and then gradually began to lessen. When he could breathe again he said, "Actually, what I need is, uh, to use your facilities."

"Sure." The roommate let him go. "I'm going to turn on the light for you, all right?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

He reached for the bedside lamp Daniel hadn't known was there and switched it on. Daniel blinked as his eyes adjusted, and was surprised by the man standing next to him. He wasn't another very young, frantically personable anthropologist at any rate. He had a bodybuilder's physique and a tidy, professional haircut, was square-jawed, blue-eyed and handsome in a thoroughly all-American sort of way.

Daniel wondered idly if "roommate" really described the relationship here.

He touched Daniel's left elbow, offering support if Daniel needed it. "It's right out here."

Actually, as long as he took it nice and slow and kept his right arm tucked close to his body, Daniel found he could walk to the bathroom under his own power. Real progress. The sight of his own face in the bathroom mirror startled him, and he propped his hip against the sink and leaned in closer, trying to assess the damage. Looked like he'd hit the pavement face first. Squinting to try to make out just how bad the scrapes and bruises really were reminded him that his glasses were missing. He hoped they weren't broken or still lying out in the parking lot. Maybe the roommate would know.

Still trying to gauge how quickly he could get out of here, he was pleased with himself for managing to take a leak without falling over, but he hit another humiliating barrier almost immediately. Though he'd been able to untie the drawstring that held up his sweatpants one handed, he couldn't knot it back up. Leaning against the wall, he tried to hold the knot with the little finger of his splinted hand. It hurt ferociously, and anyway, it didn't work. God dammit. He pushed open the bathroom door with his shoulder, holding the waistband of his sweats up with his left hand so they wouldn't fall off his hips. Blair's sweatpants. Well, probably the roommate's given the length of the leg. Said roommate was leaning against the kitchen island waiting for him. The only light came from the lamp in the bedroom, and Daniel couldn't tell if he actually smiled at his dilemma or not, but his voice was tolerant and amused. "Why the hell didn't Sandburg find you a pair of pants with an elastic waistband?"

"I don't know. Maybe he thought this would be funny, too?"

"Sorry." Blair's roommate stepped up close and tied the ends of the drawstring in a bow. As quick and efficient as he was, there was simply no way for it not to be completely humiliating. Daniel closed his eyes. His head was still spinning from the medication he'd taken hours ago, and his broken fingers ached with every beat of his pulse. There was no escaping the truth. He was not going to be driving himself out of town in the morning. Perhaps not any morning in the foreseeable future. Not when he had to rely on a total stranger just to keep his pants from falling down.

All the same, he couldn't stay here. They would find him again if he didn't keep moving; it was horribly inevitable. Just a matter of time. He couldn't, he wouldn't let that happen, but just at the moment, he couldn't imagine how to prevent it.

Maybe it was finally time to call Jack. The very thought made him feel like crying. He'd tried so damned hard to keep him out of this.

"You sure you don't want another pain pill?" the roommate asked.

Daniel shook his head carefully. "I'm still groggy from the last one. Do you know where my glasses are?"

"Glasses? No. Sorry. You can ask Sandburg in the morning. You don't need them now."

"Well, actually --"

"It's four a.m." The roommate steered him by the elbow back into the little bedroom under the loft and sat him down on the bed. "You're going back to sleep so I can go back to sleep."

Daniel considered how much success he was likely to have arguing. He had actually learned a thing or two about choosing his battles from Jack, though he doubted Jack would believe it. Blair's roommate was looking down at him with his arms crossed across his broad chest, and if he wasn't exactly scowling, he certainly wasn't smiling either. Maybe, Daniel decided, swinging his legs onto the bed and gingerly lying back, maybe he could figure out what to do in the morning.

"You had a pillow under your arm before," said the roommate, his expression gentler now that he'd won. "Does that help?" He'd already picked it up from the end of the futon and was holding it out.

"Nothing helps." That was true, but it was also true that lying flat on his back with his arm stretched out straight at his side made it feel like the blood was pooling in his busted fingers. "Well, maybe --" He carefully laid his splinted hand across his stomach, and without being prompted, the roommate tucked the pillow under his elbow to support his arm. "Yeah, like that. Uh -- thanks."

The other man shrugged. "Get some sleep."

He reached for the lamp and Daniel said quickly, "You mind leaving that on?"

"No problem."

He shut the french doors after himself and left Daniel alone in a stranger's bedroom, staring up at the bare wood ceiling. He didn't know if he would actually be able to fall asleep again before morning, but he might, so he had to take precautions. For some reason the pre-dawn hours were always the most dangerous.

Blair's roommate hadn't blinked at leaving the light on, but Daniel wasn't anxious to test his reaction to being asked to fasten a page of cuneiform to his chest, far less the cruder expedient of simply tying his hand to the bed slats. He rolled his head to one side and then the other, looking for something he could use to do it himself, wondering if he possibly could manage to do it himself. There was a braided leather belt coiled on the floor a short distance away. That would work. He could just loop the belt around and cinch it tight. He started to sit up, having almost forgotten about his injured hand for a moment, but the slight change in position brought it back immediately. He dropped his head, swearing as his hand throbbed hot and painful.

Hell, he didn't need to tie himself to the bed. The minute he began to move, his busted fingers would wake him up.

As it turned out, he was wrong.

~~~

There had been a time in her life when Sam had been proud of her ability to drink appallingly bad coffee. Boiled with the grounds over sterno out in the field or reduced to syrup after a night on a warmer at the back of the lab, she'd drink it with a tablespoon of white sugar gritty at the bottom of a tin cup (or paper or styrofoam) and raise an eyebrow of disdain at any man around her who blanched at such awful fare. Yet here she was, sitting on her sister-in-law's desperately chic denim-upholstered sofa with a cobalt blue coffee cup balanced on her knee, wondering how in the world she could manage to get rid of this rapidly cooling glop without offending Mark or Tisha.

The aggravating thing was that she could really use the caffeine. After last night's rough flight--the irony of it being far easier to step across the galaxy than to get from Denver to San Diego wasn't lost on her--not to mention being awakened barely five hours later by her nieces bounding onto the guest bed with shrieks of "Auntie Sam, Auntie Sam, it's Christmas!", the one thing she really wanted was a strong cup of coffee. Not the rather amorphous breakfast casserole Tisha had served while Ashley and Brittany opened their presents, and not the french toast or the fruit salad white with sweetened, shredded coconut. Especially not this alleged coffee. She thought the beans had been flavored with artificial hazelnut or something equally unpalatable, and Tisha had generously diluted the cup with a liquid nondairy creamer which was also sweet and flavored with something intended to evoke nuts. Maybe. Or vanilla, perhaps, or even butter rum. Sam really couldn't tell.

She took another sip, but it was hopeless. She couldn't drink enough of it to pierce the headachy fog that was beginning to envelope her. Though she didn't have the nerve to ask, it occurred to her Tisha might be even be serving decaf.

This is all your fault, Daniel, she thought in exasperation. Here she was spending Christmas with Mark and his family for the first time in years. Tisha must have been up hours before the rest of the family to have the elaborate breakfast ready for them. And what was Sam doing? Sulking because the woman hadn't served Kenyan AA beans freshly ground and brewed in a French press.

Mark had been shooting her worried glances since she got in last night, and he was watching her with concern now, although he quickly turned away when she met his eye. Afraid that she wasn't having a good time, or maybe that she and Tisha weren't getting along. But of course they were, Sam wanted to tell him. She adored his family, and it was wonderful to be here, and she loved Ashley and Brittany so much. She could just use a cup of drinkable coffee, that was all. And she needed to stop thinking about Daniel.

Her brother intervened in a simmering battle over Brittany's new Gameboy, but as soon as the peace was restored, he glanced over his shoulder at Sam once again. She couldn't stand it.

"Just going to freshen my cup," she announced abruptly, standing up. "Can I bring anyone anything?"

"I'm fine," Mark said, and Tisha interrupted, "Now, I don't want to hear you in there doing dishes, Sam."

Oops, Sam thought as she fled back to the kitchen. Apparently she should have offered to do the dishes before now, but it just hadn't occurred to her. The truth was she didn't get near enough practice on the domestic front these days. Cleaning up after a meal with the guys was seldom more involved than scrubbing the barbecue grill and gathering the beer bottles for the recycle bin, and if by chance they actually did need help washing dishes they were likely to say something like, "Hey, Sam, y'wanna get in here and give me a hand doing the dishes?"

She dumped her cup in the sink and poured herself another from the Mr. Coffeemaker on the counter. This flavored stuff was really awful, there was no getting around it, but after sitting on the warmer for half an hour, some of the taste had burned away. Hot and black and burned she could gulp it down, but she was really going to have to give Daniel hell over turning her into such a dreadful coffee snob. She imagined describing this morning to him and the way he would quirk one of his rare, happy smiles at her over the tribulations of flavored coffee and nondairy creamers.

The ache of missing him was an open wound.

She wiped her eyes quickly and looked out the kitchen window at the tiny back yard. A swing set, a border of rose bushes against the back fencing. A lime tree in bloom. When she'd gotten out of the car last night, she could hardly believe how sweet it had smelled in the warm evening air. Such a change from a Colorado winter. Hard to believe it was really Christmas morning, with the early morning sun already so hot and bright. San Diego seemed more alien than some of the worlds she visited through the 'gate.

She heard the doorbell ring, and then the murmur of voices, and wondered if she should present herself for introductions. Hadn't Tisha told her that her parents would be stopping in some time this morning? Sam had to think a moment. The last time she had seen Tisha's parents must have been on her and Mark's wedding day. She wasn't sure she would be able to pick them out in a crowd.

"Sam." Her brother came into the kitchen behind her, looking tense and unhappy.

"What is it? Is something wrong?"

"Some people from the service. They're asking for you. Dammit, Christmas morning, Sammie. Can't they leave you alone for a single day?"

She pushed past him without answering. Somehow she already knew, even before she found Jack and Teal'c standing in the foyer waiting for her. The colonel was resplendent in his dress blues, his hat in his hand, and both of them smiled a little to see her.

"Daniel," Sam blurted out before she could help herself, because she just knew.

Jack held up a finger, one eyebrow arched meaningfully. "Be vewy, vewy quiet," he murmured. "Hunting wabbits, major."

She put her hand to her throat. Oh, God. Oh, Daniel. After so long.

"Merry Christmas, Major Carter," Teal'c said solemnly.

"Can you be ready to go --" Jack pretended to check his watch, "--say, about fifteen minutes ago? They're holding a plane on the runway, and we've taken the seats of three very unhappy airmen who won't be home for Christmas because of us."

"Yes," Sam said without hesitation. "Oh yes, just half a second." She flew back to the guest bedroom and grabbed her toiletries case and her suit bag from the closet. Mark could ship everything else back to her later. She whirled around and found her brother blocking the door.

"You're really going?" he said. "They have the right to make you drop everything and just go, here on Christmas morning? Sam, why the hell do you put up with this?"

"You don't understand," she said. This was Daniel. This was family.

~~~

Blair had been having lousy dreams all night. Paranoid, chased-by-villains, cornered in his own home sort of dreams. David Lash, Lee Bracket, Warren Chapel dreams. Dreams where Jim wasn't coming. Dreams where they got to Jim first. He didn't get a break until just before he awoke, when his unhappy dreamscapes finally changed into the parking lot on campus where he'd found Daniel Jackson. Finally, he thought, half-way aware that he was dreaming. Finally some place where he could fight back.

Daniel was calling for help, and Blair barreled into the men surrounding Daniel expecting to knock them down like ninepins. For a moment he was in the midst of Daniel's attackers and could see their faces, and then he was on the outside again, halfway across the parking lot, and Daniel was still crying out for help. Except it wasn't Daniel anymore; Jim was the one they had on the ground. They were using tasers, and it had gone on for so long that Jim wasn't calling for him any more. His unconscious body jerked and twitched and Blair could do nothing but scream and plead with them to stop, knowing all the while it was futile. They wouldn't listen to him. How could they? They weren't even --

He opened his eyes to find Jim bending over him and shaking his shoulders. "C'mon, Sandburg, wake up."

The light was strange. There was too much of it, even gray and hazy as it was. Then he remembered he had spent the night upstairs in Jim's bed while poor Jim had slept on the couch.

"Blair, are you listening to me?"

"I'm listening, I'm listening." He pushed himself up on his elbows. "Did you sleep OK last night?"

"Jackson's gone."

"What?" Suddenly Blair was wide awake. He sat up and swung his feet around to the floor. "How the heck did he get past you? Jim, man, are you all right? Did you zone or something?"

"No, I didn't zone. I was just sleeping on the couch, and when I woke up Jackson had disappeared."

"Oh, man. Have you looked for him?"

"I just spent the last half hour combing the neighborhood on foot," Jim informed him, utterly unsmiling. "Not a trace."

"How is that even possible? How did he get out?"

Jim's face was stony. "You tell me. The deadbolts were still on both doors and all the keys are in the basket. There's no scent of him at all on the fire escape or in the back stairwell."

"No, wait, see, that's totally impossible. He must be messing with your senses somehow." Blair thundered down the steps in his bare feet, Jim on his heels.

"How would he know how to do that? Jesus, Sandburg, you didn't tell him about this sentinel business, did you?"

"Of course not." Daniel's backpack was still lying on the dining room table. Blair turned it over and opened it up. "I don't mean he's doing it deliberately. Look at this, Jim. He left his laptop and all his cash. How about his gun?"

"I've still got it."

Blair looked in his bedroom. "He doesn't even have his shoes. This is just nuts. Jim, there's got to be something -- last night. You said you were smelling something strange last night. I wonder if that could be why you can't trace him by his scent. Are you smelling it now?"

"I don't know." Jim looked tired and frustrated. "A little bit, maybe. It's not as strong as it was last night."

"Okay. Okay." Blair spun slowly on his heel, looking around himself, trying to figure it out. Daniel's disappearance had made the utterly familiar environs of the loft seem strange, and he couldn't seem to get that dream he'd been having out of his head. He hadn't seen the face of either of the men who had jumped Daniel, but he knew good and well they could not have looked like the faces he'd seen in his dream.

"Look," he told Jim. "What you're saying is that Daniel got out of this room without unlocking the doors or using the fire escape. Since that's clearly impossible, what you're saying must be wrong, somehow. We just need to figure out how."

"Thank you, Sherlock Holmes."

"I'm serious, Jim. It must have something to do with that weird smell. Can you describe it?"

"No. Last night I had a fugitive wanted by the FBI sleeping in your bed, and this morning he's gone. Do you have any idea how much trouble you and I are in right now?"

"Hey, that's only if we tell anybody, right?"

Jim wouldn't even dignify that with a reply.

"Jim, we'll find him. He can't have gotten far. Do you know what woke you up this morning? Maybe you heard him leaving before you were completely awake, and if we can access that memory --"

"Stop." Jim put the heel of his hand against his forehead. "Stop a minute. Do you feel that?"

"Feel what?"

Jim winced and shook his head a little.

"Jim, what do you feel?"

"Like something heavy." He pressed both palms to his temples. "A change in air pressure maybe. Something. Oh, God." As he staggered back Blair sprang forward, covering Jim's hands with his own, trying futilely to shield Jim from whatever it was that was hurting him.

"It's all right. Just breathe. Just breathe." He tried to keep his own breathing steady and even as Jim winced in pain. "Let's just sit down a minute and--"

"Chief, please," Jim moaned as his legs buckled.

Blair was able to manhandle him onto the sofa as he fell and crouched over him as Jim tried to curl up in a ball. "Keep talking to me," he begged. "I can't help if I don't know what's hurting you. Jim, please, can you hear me? Jim!"

"No," Jim gasped. His eyes blinked open, bloodshot and swimming with unshed tears. "No. It stopped. I'm OK."

Blair slumped in relief. He reached out and laid his hand carefully on Jim's shoulder, then squeezed firmly when Jim didn't seem oversensitive to touch. "Way to scare a decade or two off my life, man." He managed a weak smile. "Just rest a second here. No, just rest."

"I'm resting," Jim said, although he was really struggling to sit up. Blair gave up and helped him.

"You got any clue what the hell that was?"

Jim just shook his head. "You didn't feel it?" he asked Blair again, his voice scratchy and hoarse.

"Nothing. Can you describe what it was like?"

"Like this weight. Or something. But it wasn't -- No. I can't describe it." He coughed and tried to clear his throat.

"I'll get you some water." Blair finally let go of Jim's shoulder when Jim nodded in acceptance, and dashed across to the refrigerator to get water. He turned back, unscrewing the lid, squawked, "Shit!" and dropped the bottle from suddenly nerveless fingers. The bottle shattered spectacularly, broken glass and water going all over the kitchen.

Daniel Jackson was sitting huddled on the floor against the kitchen island, his knees pulled up to his chest and his hands tucked under his chin. He flinched at the crash, but otherwise hardly moved at all. His face was blank as a somnambulist's.

"Uh, Jim?" Blair said, his voice just a little shaky, unable to take a step for all the broken glass on the floor. "Found him."

Jim was already on his feet, but he came around the sofa slowly, almost reluctantly. He looked like he was still hurting, despite his protestations to the contrary. He glanced down at Daniel for an instant and then looked away. "Don't move until I get that glass swept up. Don't let Jackson start flailing around either."

Blair wondered just how he was supposed to manage that without moving, but given that Daniel looked just this side of catatonic, it didn't seem to be an immediate concern. What was really concerning him was why the hell Jim had gone running all over the neighborhood looking for a man who had obviously been sitting on their kitchen floor the whole time. Something was screwing with Jim's senses big time, and other than the coincidental presence of one not-so-missing-after-all Egyptologist in their kitchen, Blair didn't have a clue what it could be.

"Throw me a pair of shoes and I'll help you clean up."

"I've got it," Jim said quietly, stiffly. Blair could see him wincing a little as he swept broken glass and water into the dustpan. No wonder. Glass on linoleum and metal was a dreadful sound even to Blair. "This floor is filthy," Jim complained as he straightened up. "How's Jackson doing?"

"I just mopped a week ago. It's not filthy," Blair said, relieved by Jim griping about housekeeping. "And I don't know how Daniel is, but he seems pretty out of it. I guess maybe I shouldn't have talked him into taking that Percocet after all." Blair half-knelt in front of him. "Hey, man," he said softly. "You in there?"

Daniel's eyes were open and they flickered to Blair and then past him. "Where ...?"

"Well, our kitchen floor, actually."

Daniel nodded as though that explanation made perfect sense to him. Blair had his doubts. "You remember who I am? How you got here?"

"Sleepwalking," Daniel said so quickly that Blair could almost suspect him of having rehearsed the answer ahead of time. "Sometimes I walk in my sleep."

"OK. Guess you were sleepwalking, then. Can you stand up? Don't slip on the wet floor."

Daniel nodded and allowed Blair to help him up. He kept his splinted hand cradled close to his chest as though it was hurting him. Probably was, Blair supposed. He was a little surprised by the way Jim seemed to be keeping his distance. He'd retreated across the living room to set the wet broom out on the balcony, not that it would dry very quickly in this weather, and now he was standing just in front of the windows, making no move to come closer.

Blair helped Daniel to the dining room table, where he sat down carefully, his arm resting on the table, not saying anything, not moving except for his eyes which were taking in his surroundings with a thoroughly befuddled air. "We came back here after you got your hand fixed up at the emergency room last night," Blair offered. "You were still kind of messed up."

"I know," Daniel said unconvincingly. "I remember."

Blair was hoping Jim would feel moved to join in the conversation, ideally even go ahead and tell Daniel they knew he was a wanted man. Last night, after figuring out what Daniel had been doing the past five years, he'd practically been ready to haul him downtown himself. Looking at the man sitting at Jim's dining room table now, though, it was aggravatingly difficult to hold onto his anger. He was obviously still off-balance from sleepwalking and probably the painkillers as well, in need of a shave and a shower, friendless and shivering in a borrowed pair of sweatpants. Blair supposed it was cowardly of him, but he didn't particularly want to be the one to tell Daniel that they had to turn him in to the feds this morning.

He grabbed a robe from the back of the bathroom door and draped it over Daniel's shoulders. Jim was still on the other side of the room, his arms crossed over his chest. Blair couldn't make out his expression with the light behind him. "Can I get you something? A glass of water? Some breakfast?"

Daniel blinked at him. "Coffee?"

"Coffee. I can do coffee. Pot of coffee comin' right up."

Finally Jim moved away from the windows, but didn't come closer than the sofa. Blair wasn't imagining it. Jim was deliberately keeping his distance from them. He looked again at their guest sitting silent at the dining room table. No, he was keeping his distance from Daniel.

"Uh, Daniel, this is my roommate Jim. You were already asleep when he got in last night. Jim, Daniel."

Daniel turned his head. "Hello," he said quietly, making the word into a question.

Jim didn't even nod and Blair wondered if this were some hitherto unsuspected variant on Jim's scary cop mode. He was more used to Jim pointedly invading a suspect's personal space and growling threats -- maybe this silent treatment was the one he reserved for recently awakened sleepwalkers sitting mildly at his own kitchen table.

"You take it black, right?" Blair said at last, setting a brimming cup down in front of Daniel. Daniel nodded, then wrapped his left hand around the mug and lowered his head. The quality of his silence had changed while Blair puttered around fixing a pot of coffee and pushing the mop over the wet kitchen floor. He seemed to be watching his surroundings warily now, not like a man simply too befuddled to know what was going on. "Jim? Coffee?"

Jim accepted the cup Blair held out to him without saying anything, but he seemed to have reached a decision. He finally walked to the end of the dining room table and set his coffee down untasted. "I think," he said carefully, "that I'd like for you to explain to me what you've been doing the last six months, Professor Jackson."

Daniel froze, his eyes on the table. Blair exhaled sharply, feeling a little sick at the pit of his stomach.

"It's Doctor Jackson," Daniel said after a long pause. He carefully took a sip of coffee without looking at either Jim or Blair. "I'm not a professor of anything, anywhere. In fact 'Daniel' is probably more appropriate given the circumstances, although I suppose you want to maintain some formal degree of distance before you turn me in. Have you already contacted the Air Force?"

"Please just answer my question Dr. Jackson. Daniel."

He smiled miserably and finally raised his head to look at Jim, his gaze peculiarly unflinching for someone who so often avoided looking directly into others' faces. "How did you find out?"

"Jim's a detective with the Cascade P.D.," Blair confessed.

Daniel continued to smile unhappily. "Ah." He glanced at Blair. "You didn't mention that last night. So is the NID already on their way?"

Blair felt the blood drain from his face. "The NID? No, no, the NID wouldn't be involved with something like this," he insisted, not sure whether he was trying harder to convince Daniel or himself. "It's FBI. You're wanted by the FBI, but just for questioning. They don't even call you 'armed and dangerous.'"

"The FBI?" Daniel looked confused for a moment. "That's not -- Oh. Right. The NID doesn't have the authority to arrest civilians. That's why they're working through the FBI."

Oh, shit. Could the NID really be looking for this man? Oh, shit. "Jim, we need to talk. Right now."

"You have to let me go," Daniel said stiffly. "And if you've already reported me to the authorities, then I need to go right now."

"I haven't called the FBI field office yet," Jim said. "You've got plenty of time to explain to me what you've been up to since leaving the Air Force."

What was Jim doing? Why the hell did he care? "Jim," Blair tried again, more urgently. "I said, we need to talk. Now."

"There's nothing I can tell you," Daniel said. "You can't turn me in to the FBI, because they'll hand me straight to the NID. Just let me get dressed and I'll walk out of here, and you can pretend you never saw me."

"Are you nuts?" Blair exploded. "I'm sorry, but Jim can't -- neither one of us can just let you go. Why should we? Geez, for all we know you really are some kind of national security risk."

"What does the NID want with you?" Jim asked. "Does it have to do with your --uh, sleepwalking?"

Daniel's head jerked up, and then he made a sudden, clumsy grab for his backpack. Jim obligingly shoved it across the table to him. "I already took out your Beretta."

Daniel slumped and didn't bother to open his pack. "You have to let me go," he repeated stubbornly.

"I'm sorry, but you know that's just not going to happen. Jim, I really need to have a word with you right now."

"I'm a washed up Egyptologist. My crazy theories were rejected by my peers a long time ago. How could I possibly pose a risk to anyone?"

"Then why the hell are these people looking for you?" Blair demanded. He just couldn't understand why Jim seemed willing to give Daniel the benefit of the doubt, far less when it looked like he was going to lead the NID straight to their freaking doorstep.

Daniel's lips tightened. After a long moment he rolled bleak eyes up to look at Jim and Blair. "Look, I do have a family history you should know about. My grandfather spent the last decade institutionalized, and I've already been committed once. Lakeside Clinic in Colorado Springs. Check it out. Very exclusive place for only the most valuable nutballs -- no grubby VA wards for me. I can personally report that Lakeside keeps their padded cells very clean. All the same, I'm not exactly eager to end up there again."

"Your former employers are looking for you because they think you -- what-- might spill military secrets in the midst of a psychotic episode or something? I'm sorry, but that's the most --"

"What have you been doing since you left the Air Force?" Jim interrupted, his voice tight. "Why were you at Rainier yesterday afternoon?"

Daniel was staring at a point on the wall somewhere over Jim's left shoulder. "You have to let me go," he repeated mulishly. "You can't turn me in."

"Yes, actually, he can. Jim, for the last time--"

"Does it have something to do with that rare book collection? Help me out here, Sandburg, I can't remember the name right off. Books on alchemy, witchcraft. You know what I mean."

Blair knew exactly what Jim meant, and even though two minutes ago he'd thought he couldn't be any more freaked out about this, obviously he was wrong, wrong, wrong, because now he really was ready to explode out of his skin. "You mean the Bollingen Collection, and no, I'm sure that's not what Daniel was there for."

"Yes, it was, actually," Daniel said calmly. "Before that I spent about three weeks at Cornell, and most of the previous four months doing research at Miskatonic. See? They're going to lock me up as a loon anyway, just on general principle."

"Oh my God," Blair moaned. "Jim, this is not up for debate anymore. I need to talk to you in private right now."

To his surprise, this time Jim finally acknowledged him. "All right." He walked around the table to Daniel and before even Blair knew what he was doing, he'd handcuffed Daniel's left wrist to the back of his chair. "Sorry," he told Daniel shortly as he looked up at Jim with shocked eyes. "You understand my position here."

"No, I don't," Daniel protested.

Feeling obscurely guilty, Blair shoved Daniel's coffee cup closer. Daniel looked at the cup, then up at Blair, and he realized what a pointless gesture it had been. Daniel's good hand was handcuffed to the chair and he obviously couldn't lift the cup with his other one. "Sorry," Blair muttered.

"Sandburg, we need to talk a minute here," Jim said impatiently, standing at the door to his bedroom.

"This won't take long," Blair told Daniel, wondering to himself why he was apologizing. "I'll get you a fresh cup if this one gets cold."

Daniel just looked at him, and Blair scurried over to join Jim, shutting his bedroom doors behind them. He had to take a few breaths before he said anything, trying to calm himself down, but once he started talking he exploded anyway.

"Jim, just what the hell do you think you're doing? Did you hear what he said? The NID is after him! Do you have any idea how dangerous those people are? The stories Jack Kelso has told me -- they operate in complete secrecy, their oversight committee in the Senate is headed by that reactionary nitwit Kinsey, and they think everything they see on the X-Files is God's honest truth. Since the Berlin wall came down those bozos have been spending millions, probably billions by now looking for little green men. Can you understand what a really, really bad idea it is to let these people get wind of someone like you? We have got to get Daniel Jackson the hell out of here, turn him over to the FBI, whatever. We cannot let the NID come sniffing around here. Are you getting this? Can I make it any more goddamned clear to you? Daniel has to go. It can't wait another hour. It can't wait another ten minutes. We have to get him out."

"I think you're right," Jim said.

"It just gets worse! Four months at Miskatonic! A month here studying the Bollingen collection!" Blair paced back and forth between his bed and the door, much too frantic to stand still. "You know what a bunch of stupid frat kids were able to do when they got hold of a live one from the Bollingen collection. What do you think someone like Daniel could manage? And he just happily volunteered the information that he has a history of psychosis. Oh, my God. This is like some unbelievable nightmare. He has to go."

"Sandburg, yes, I agree. I think we have to get him away from here."

Blair finally heard him. He stopped pacing. "OK, great. Finally. I just can't believe I brought someone that dangerous here, into your home, Jim. I am so, so sorry, man."

"I'm going to try and get him across at Osoyoos. Even if someone is watching the border for him, I doubt they'll be looking very hard that far east, especially in this weather."

"Excuse me?" Blair squeaked.

"As long as Blewett Pass is open we ought to be able to reach Oroville by dusk. While we're on the road, see if you can find out from Simon just how much heat is really on Jackson. I'll give you a call tonight -- oh, and don't use my cell phone. Too easy to trace. I guess our story should be that he didn't even spend the night here. Just say you dropped him off at some hotel and didn't see him again, all right? Unless you've got a better idea, in which case, Chief, I promise I'm listening. This is all just off the top of my head here."

Blair gaped at him. "Do I have a better idea? Fuck, yes, I have a better idea! We drive him downtown and turn him over to the feds right now. What the hell's the matter with you? Should I be checking the basement for pods or what?"

"We can't turn him in," Jim said calmly. "Frankly, I wish you hadn't brought him here either, but he's our responsibility now. I have to do this."

"Jesus, Jim, do you realize you are making no sense at all? Daniel is one of those guys you catch and lock up, not that you aid and abet. I don't know what's the matter with you, but frankly, you've been a little nuts since you got up this morning. Your senses have been acting up, you thought Daniel had somehow gotten out of the loft --"

"He did get out of the loft this morning."

"Jim, he went sleepwalking and ended up on our kitchen floor. Somehow you overlooked him because something's screwing with your senses. Do you feel like you have a fever?"

He reached for Jim's forehead, but Jim batted his hand away. "I don't have a fever, and nothing's messing with my senses. And when I got up this morning, Daniel Jackson wasn't here."

"Then he just reappeared. Out of thin air."

"Sandburg, I felt it happen. Shocked the hell out of me. I'm still a little shook up."

That's why Jim had been hovering over by the windows, why he'd had such a difficult time coming close to Daniel. Dear God. "So that's what you think that feeling of pressure was? A psychotic Egyptologist popping out of the ether?"

Jim looked hurt. "I kind of count on you to believe me, Chief. I know what I felt."

"I believe you when you tell me things that are reasonable."

"Ah. And seeing ghosts is reasonable. A walking corpse is reasonable. Having dream visions of a spirit animal is reasonable. These senses are reasonable."

"Yes, all that is completely reasonable," Blair insisted, but he knew he was losing Jim. His face was shutting down, his eyes going distant. "Dammit, it's not a fair argument. Just because a few things in your life aren't completely tidy and rational doesn't mean you throw in the towel! Jim, that man out there did not teleport himself into the kitchen this morning."

"One moment he wasn't here, and the next he was. I don't know how he did it either, all I know is that it happened. When he showed up again he was on the verge of going into shock. Body temperature was down, pulse was all over the place, breathing was real irregular. He came out of it pretty fast, but I can't imagine it was much fun."

"How about that smell you were complaining about before?" Blair was trying desperately to calm down. Ranting never worked with Jim. He had to sound cool and rational if he was to have a chance of talking Jim out of this.

"I don't. . ." Jim trailed off, trying to remember. "I don't know. Maybe."

"Aha, see, there you go. It's just that weird smell again. It's making your senses cut out. No wonder it seems to you like Daniel just appeared out of thin air."

"Sandburg, stop, please. I don't like this any more than you do, but I have to deal with what actually happened here, not what you wish had happened. Are you -- are you going to help me out on this, or do I need to handle it alone?"

Oh God. It was even more serious than Blair had thought. "Of course I'm with you," he said quietly. "You don't even have to ask, not ever. But just answer one thing for me, OK? Please? If I do agree with you one hundred percent, if I believe Daniel truly can flout our most fundamental understanding of the physical universe, in other words, assuming you're absolutely right, well, Jim, how does it follow that it's your responsibility to help him make a run for Canada?"

Jim looked at him, his expression faintly puzzled. "Think about it. He's all alone, worried about his sanity, trying to research some kind of terrible -- ability, something -- that he doesn't understand and I will swear to you, doesn't want either, on the run from a military organization that I also guarantee is only interested in his strategic importance -- Sandburg, if you hadn't found me when you did, that would be me in there."

No. Not ever, not in a million years, Blair thought. But what he said was, "I hear you, man, I really do. Now I want you to hear me. This is the way I see Daniel. This guy's probably been way too brilliant for his own good his entire life. A few years ago he decided to step out of academia and he thought all those smarts would be enough to see him through. They weren't. So whether he screwed up or was just unlucky, the world has turned out to be bigger and scarier than he ever thought, and now it's too late for him to go back to the place where he could be more than just a cog in the military machine. I think I'm still angry at him for turning his back on his real gifts, but mostly, I just feel sorry for him. Either way, he's not our problem."

Jim smiled then, but it was an expression as sad as one of Daniel's. "Chief," he said, and reached out to pat Blair's face, "Do you even hear what you're saying? He could be you."

~~~

Blair's fingers were sticky from peeling garlic when the phone rang. He started, angry and nervous despite the trance music on Jim's stereo and his attempt to relax by going ahead and cooking their big dinner even though Jim wouldn't be here to share it with him. He washed his hands quickly under the tap, wiped them dry on his pants and snatched the phone up before the third ring. "Yeah, hey. Hello."

"Sandburg, put Jim on the line."

Blair sagged a little. "Hey, Simon. Merry Christmas to you too, man. Jim's not here."

"What do you mean, he's not there? Never mind, I'll call him on his cell."

"No, you won't. He left his phone here with me," Blair lied easily, but icy little fingers of concern were starting to dance up his spine. "What do you need?"

"What I need is Jim on the line ASAP. Where is he?"

"Having Christmas dinner with Susan and her folks."

"Susan? Who the hell is Susan?"

"Real nice woman he met at the gym about a month back. You remember, that afternoon we were talking about her."

Lies on top of lies. He was pretty confident Simon wouldn't be able to call him on them.

"Spare me the details and just give me the number where I can reach him."

"C'mon, like I would know."

"You're telling me you don't know how to get in touch with Jim."

"Not right now. Sorry, man. What's the big deal? Jim wasn't on call today, was he?"

"The big deal is the Air Force colonel standing in my living room and demanding to speak to Detective Ellison."

Oh, God. Blair sank weakly into a chair. "What in the world does he want with Jim? Simon, if this is about the sentinel thing, you can't tell him anything."

"Of course not. I'm not an idiot, Sandburg. He and his aides are here about a report Jim phoned in last night. That mugging at Rainier you managed to stumble into the middle of."

"What does that have to do with the Air Force?"

"This is one situation where we're not the ones asking the questions. We're just trying to answer them."

"Are you telling me the Air Force has some kind of jurisdiction here? Because I really don't think I buy that."

"Dammit, Sandburg --!" Simon cut himself off with an effort, and Blair worried that he was playing this whole thing way too scared and defensive. He had to calm down, do a better job of pretending he had no idea what any of it was about.

"Blair," Simon tried again. "This isn't about jurisdiction. This is about extending a professional courtesy. What happened to the man you took to the hospital last night after the mugging?"

"Who, Dr. Jackson? Why didn't you just ask in the first place? I dropped him off at Second and Harbor. He was staying at the Days Inn. Or is that the Quality Inn there? Or maybe it was the Red Roof. Sorry, you know there are all those motels right there and it was getting pretty late. Plus Dr. Jackson was pretty jittery. I kind of got the impression he didn't want me to know which place he actually checked into."

"Have you talked to him since then?" Simon interrupted.

"No. Why would I?"

"You're certain you don't know how to get in touch with Jim? What's this Susan person's last name?"

"Jones, I think."

"Oh, great. Look, just have Jim give me a call as soon as you hear from him, all right? When do you expect him in?"

"Tonight, I guess. Sure, Simon, I'll have him call."

Simon had already hung up the phone. Blair laid the receiver down gingerly and sat very still, waiting for his heart to stop racing, hoping to God he hadn't just blown it. This was why Jim had wanted him to stay behind, after all. Daniel Jackson's trail led straight to the loft, and without one of them here to throw them off, the people looking for Daniel would be after Jim all too soon.

Blair had never been more sorry to have Jim proven right. Who could have known they would be so close behind Daniel?

Well, Jim had. Dammit.

He paced back to the kitchen, but the smell of garlic was sickening to him now. He washed his hands again to get the scent out from under his fingernails. Then, just to keep himself busy until he could calm down enough to think, he wiped down the phone receiver with a dishtowel dipped in a mild solution of detergent. He'd never hear the end of it from Jim if the phone still reeked of garlic when he got home.

Oh, God, Jim. The bastards were so damned close.

But it was going to be OK. Jim had known. Jim had it all worked out. With any luck the people looking for Daniel would spend hours checking out every motel close to the intersection of Harbor and Second, and by that time Jim would be most of the way to Oroville. It was going to be all right.

Blair walked to the balcony and flung open the windows. The snow was melting as soon as it reached the streets below, but it lay in soft white drifts against the edges of the balcony. A part of him couldn't help wishing he had never turned his car around and gone back for Daniel last night. His nightmare was still with him, casting vivid shadows over the ordinary, everyday world. Although, if Jim were right, then the ordinary world didn't apply anymore.

The cold breeze made him shiver, and he shut the windows.

~~~

They stopped at a weigh station forty miles down I-90 for Jim to put chains on the tires. The snow was coming down like a white veil. Daniel asked if he could help even though he knew perfectly well there was really nothing useful he could do. Jim said, "Thanks, I've got it," with grave courtesy instead of laughing, and told him to open the food if he was getting hungry. It wasn't like they'd had time for breakfast before taking off this morning.

He was hungry, now that Jim mentioned it. He reached down and pried the lid off the black box Blair had dumped on the front floor of the truck before they had left.

"Dean & DeLuca" was stamped in gold on the lid of the box. Good lord, Daniel thought. Surely not.

But it was. Truffled foie gras, marinated artichokes and eggplant, goose rillettes, pates de fruits, brioche toasts, smoked salmon, salami rolled in lavender and rosemary, truffenade aux olives noires, chocolate Amarena cherries. He stopped rummaging through the carefully packaged luxuries to look up in amazement as Jim swung himself back into the truck. "This is -- uh, not really what I was expecting."

"Oh." Jim looked faintly worried as he eased the truck forward a few inches and then jumped out again to fasten the chains. "Nothing in there you can eat? Hate to mention this, but it's Christmas day. We're not gonna have an easy time finding a grocery store that's open."

"No, I mean this is incredible," Daniel called to him. Jim had left the door open this time, and a few snowflakes came drifting in. "Not exactly a Swiss Colony cheese basket."

"It wouldn't be." Jim climbed back in, unsmiling, and let the truck roll forward a few more inches. "Pops sent it, so nothing but the best would do," he continued flatly. "Anything in there that isn't flavored with truffles?"

"Well, yeah, the salami, the rillettes, and the smoked salmon--"

"Good. I don't care what Sandburg says, truffles just taste like mildewed dirt to me." Out of the truck again to fasten the last links of the chains. "Times like this I really miss the 4x4 on my old F150."

"Oh. We should have left the foie gras and the olive paste for Blair," Daniel said, feeling guilty. Those were the very delicacies he'd scooped into his lap, along with the brioche toast.

"Nah, he wouldn't have eaten them either." Jim settled himself into the truck. "That should do it. You know, I don't think it's getting any warmer out there. Need some help getting into that stuff?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

Jim ripped open the packaged toasts and unscrewed the lid on the olive paste, then used the can opener on his pocket knife to get into the foie gras, arranging the containers on the bench seat between them. "Pass me the salmon?" he asked. Daniel obliged. The smells filling the cab of the truck were incredible, and he was suddenly ravenous. "You mind if I--?" he hesitated before using the toast to dig into the silky texture of the foie gras.

"Be my guest," Jim said, peeling away a paper-thin slice of salmon with his pocket knife.

"Oh my God," Daniel mumbled around a mouthful of foie gras. "Oh, God, that's incredible." He swallowed and grabbed another piece of toast. "Are you sure you don't want to try this? I think the only truffle is a little bit in the very center."

"I can taste it all the way through. No thanks."

"Neither you or Blair likes truffle?" Daniel thought to himself that he should slow down before he made himself sick on such decadent fare, but he wolfed down another mouthful before saying, "You don't know what you're missing."

"Oh, Sandburg likes truffles just fine. He wouldn't eat that because he's pissed off at my father this year. A little pissed off at both of us, I think. You know how it is." Jim gestured vaguely with his pocket knife. "Do I smell dried fruit in there?"

"I don't know." Daniel stuffed more foie gras into his mouth and went back to rummaging in the box at his feet. Sure enough, near the bottom of the box was a tray of beautifully arranged apricots, dates, figs, pineapple and something else Daniel wasn't sure of. Pears, perhaps. The size of the tray made it awkward for him to pull out with his left hand, so Jim reached over him and got it out instead, slicing through the ribbon that held the cellophane in place and placing the tray on the seat between them as well. Daniel helped himself to one of the mystery fruits. Dried pear, he'd been right. It was as delicious as everything else.

"Sandburg just doesn't get that it's easier for both of us this way. Pops is happier sending an expensive present than a dinner invitation; I'm happier not having to sit through dinner with the old man. I don't see what the problem is." Jim scooped up a handful of apricots and popped them into his mouth one by one, interspersing them with rolled slices of salmon. "You ready to hit the road?"

Daniel nodded, dunking one last piece of toast into the olive paste before Jim screwed its lid back on. Sometimes it made him a little nuts, trying to understand how people could be so casual about cutting their parents out of their lives, but it was hardly an argument he was going to get into with this cop who was helping him escape over the border. He had no clear idea why Jim was doing it, and the risk this total stranger was taking on his behalf made his gut twist with guilt. If he could have left on his own, he would have, and he'd made the offer more than once while Jim and Blair were packing the truck. Blair had finally snapped, "Look, you wouldn't get ten feet by yourself, so just give it a rest, all right?" The truth had been obvious under Blair's angry, impatient words. He was scared to death.

Daniel wondered just how clear a look Blair had gotten at the men in the parking lot last night.

He helped Jim stack the food back into the Dean & Deluca box at his feet, rather less neatly than it had been before. Jim left the dried fruit tray on the seat between them. "Water?" he asked Daniel, and twisted off the lid of the bottle before handing it to him. The snow seemed to be falling harder as they rumbled along the entrance ramp. "Damn," Jim muttered, shivering a little. "I hate the feeling of those tire chains on the road." A snow plow was in front of them, its shovel raised. Jim passed it easily and then said, half smiling, "That might have been dumb. We'll probably end up having to sit and wait for that guy to catch up once we get a little higher into the mountains. By the way, you need to tell me what you know about the people who are looking for you. If they catch up to us up in the mountains, I'd like some advance notice of who we're dealing with."

Daniel set the water bottle between his knees and carefully screwed the lid back on tightly. There, that was something he could manage by himself. "There's not really anything I can tell you."

"That's not really very helpful. Let's start with an easy one. I know the FBI is after you. Who else?"

"Actually, I kind of doubt the FBI is looking all that hard. From what I understand about interagency politics, they may have issued that wanted poster because a friend of the NID with a lot of political clout leaned on them, but really, I have a hard time believing they're actually wasting Bureau resources and manpower on me."

"Thank you. See, that wasn't so difficult." Jim was allowing the faintest drawl of sarcasm to color his voice. "Will the NID come after you directly?"

"They're not supposed to. Technically, I think it would be a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act."

"Uh huh. Would they do it anyway?"

"Maybe. Well, probably."

"That's what I thought. Was that NID in the Rainier parking lot last night?"

"I don't know. No, you're right. It must have been NID."

"Jackson, you've been on the run for, what, six months now? So I understand how automatically lying has probably just become a way of life."

"I'm not --"

"However, I'd just like to point out that I'm putting my neck on the line to try and help you catch a break. I don't think a little cooperation is too much to ask for."

"I am cooperating. I don't know who those men in the parking lot were. I--uh--I don't think they were NID."

"Do they know what you can do?"

Daniel felt cold. He tried to adjust the borrowed coat he was wearing over his shoulders, wishing he could zip it up. "I don't know what you mean."

"I think you understand perfectly well what I mean. Sleepwalking. But that's not really what it is at all."

"I do suffer from sleep disorders. Nightmares, night terrors, sleep paralysis, somnambulism, interspersed with the occasional bout of insomnia just to keep it interesting --"

"You appeared out of thin air this morning," Jim said calmly. "I wouldn't call that a 'sleep disorder.'"

The world went gray around the edges. Daniel could hear Jim's voice talking to him, but the words didn't make any sense. His chest felt hollow, as though he hadn't been able to draw a breath of air for a long, long time. His pulse roared in his ears like the ocean. Eventually he realized that he couldn't hear the rumble of the tire chains. The truck was stopped. He turned his head slowly. Jim had one hand on his shoulder and was shaking him gently. "Jackson. Are you all right? Jackson."

"You -- you actually saw it happen?" His tongue felt so thick in his mouth it was difficult to form the words.

"I know it did happen," Jim said.

"I -- oh, God. All this time." He was still having trouble catching his breath. "I didn't know if it was real or -- I have dreams that are so -- Either they were real, or I was crazy." Daniel heard himself give a hiccoughing laugh, and thought he sounded so pathetic and so frightened. "Up until now, I didn't know which would be worse."

"Do you know now?" Jim's expression was patient and calm, watching him like none of this was strange or even particularly unexpected.

"Yeah." Daniel was mortified to feel tears come to his eyes, and he looked down as though that could hide them from Jim. The tray of dried fruits had somehow gotten spilled. "I do."

~~~

Though he'd watched Naomi make it a time or two, Blair had never actually cooked reshteh polo himself, and he kept having to double-check his recipe. It gave him a pang that Jim wasn't there to tease him about it, but cooking had turned out to be a pretty good distraction from the craziness of the day and his own anxiety. The only question was what the hell he was going to do with all the food. The way his stomach was knotted up, he was sure he wasn't going to do justice to the rice or the chicken.

Maybe he should have found another way to keep himself occupied for the morning. He could have patched that little hole he'd knocked in the wall hanging his bike on the rack a few weeks ago. This would have been a good time to do it, too -- wouldn't have to worry about fumes from the plaster patch with Jim out of the loft all day. Save the fancy rice for when Jim was back where he belonged, safe and sound, not driving a fugitive Egyptologist over the mountains in a snowstorm.

Blair had the sound turned all the way down on the Weather Channel, but that didn't stop him from periodically going over and staring glumly at the graphics on the TV screen.

Dammit, Jim. Daniel Jackson wasn't worth this. He couldn't be.

Blair shook himself a little. Thinking that way did him about as much good as staring at the Weather Channel maps and charts. In other words, none at all. He would just concentrate on cooking. He'd already started after all, and there was no point letting all that good long-grained rice go to waste.

He scooped it into a careful mound in the center of the pan, the water-soaked rice sizzling ferociously in the hot oil and broth. The smell of turmeric and garlic and fried onions filled the kitchen. Homey and comforting, as if everything were all right. He folded a kitchen towel on top of the rice to absorb the steam, put the lid on top and turned the burner down to a simmer. According to the recipe, it would be done in thirty to fifty minutes, which was a little more leeway than Blair was really comfortable with on a new recipe. See, so maybe it was a good thing Jim wouldn't be here to sample his first stab at this dish after all. He could think of this as his trial run.

When the knock came at the front door, Blair nearly jumped out of his shoes.

Another rap came, louder and sharper. Maybe it was one of the guys from the station coming around to wish them Merry Christmas or maybe it was a friend from Rainier, but even as Blair told himself that, he knew he didn't believe it for a second. He and Jim had planned for this, what he would do when the people looking for Daniel showed up at the loft, but aw, shit. Shit. They weren't supposed to get there so soon.

Maybe he could do something about that. In fact, maybe it would turn out -- oops -- that he had already gone out for lox and a bagel at the deli a few blocks over. That Air Force colonel would just have to wait an hour or two for Blair to finish his coffee and come sauntering back home before he could ask questions. That would be an hour or two longer Jim and Daniel had on the road before anyone came after them.

His decision made, Blair ducked into his bedroom to grab his coat and wallet, eased himself out the back door, and then took off flying down the back stairwell.

At the first turn he barreled head-on into a mountain-sized man in green fatigues who imperturbably set him back on his feet and told him, "I am looking for Blair Sandburg."

Christ, the guy was big. The only reason Blair could meet him eye to eye was because Blair was standing two stairs up.

"Sandburg? Oh, yeah, right, right, he's a neighbor of mine, but I'm pretty sure I heard him leaving earlier today. You might try the front door, though. The back staircase is really just for tenants."

He tried to sidle past, but was stopped by the big man's simple refusal to budge. "I believe you are attempting a subterfuge," he informed Blair calmly. "Are not you, yourself, Blair Sandburg?"

"Look, I'm sorry, but you've really got the wrong person here. Now do you mind getting out of my way? Shapiro's is closing at one today and I'm supposed to bring a loaf of challah to dinner tonight." He optimistically tried again to squeeze past, but a hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

"We will discuss the whereabouts of Daniel Jackson upstairs."

"I've never even heard of Daniel Jackson, but if you insist--" Blair turned around and took a couple of steps, and as soon as he heard the man behind him following he whirled back, planted two hands in the center of his chest and shoved as hard as he could.

He might as well have been shoving at the side of the building. The big man looked down at the hands on his chest, one eyebrow rising. Blair gave him a quick, apologetic smile, then whirled and darted up the stairs. If he could get back into the loft ahead of this guy maybe he could hold out long enough to --

No good. For all his size, the other man was damned fast. Blair was yanked to a stop, then found himself tumbling backwards. He hit a wall of muscle and yelled for help, but at the first yelp, a hand was clamped over his mouth. He tried to bite, but his assailant's hand was so big he simply cupped Blair's chin and physically held his jaws shut. Blair found himself being marched up the stairs and back into the loft. Some of his wild kicks and blows were finding their target, but none seemed to have any effect until Blair finally managed to ram his elbow sharply into the guy's belly. The big man's grip didn't loosen, but he gave a grunt that might have been pain. Encouraged, Blair tried again, but this time his wrist was caught and twisted behind his back.

"Please be calm," rumbled the voice behind him. "You are likely to harm yourself if you persist in this unavailing resistance."

As he was pushed back into the loft, Blair wondered a little insanely where the heck this person came from. His accent was TV-land North American, but the inflection was off and the vocabulary and syntax were distinctive to say the least. Maybe he had a slight speech impediment.

Of course what his stilted speech patterns really made him sound like was a graduate of Mr. Spock's Guide to Conversational English, Blair thought, and wanted to either giggle or scream as he was frog-marched into his own bedroom. All at once his arm was released. Blair felt pins and needles in his fingertips, and then he was scooped up as effortlessly as a child and thrown onto his bed. Hitting the futon knocked the breath out of him. Before he could manage to start yelling again the big guy was on top of him, pinning both wrists over his head with one hand, holding him down by kneeling with one leg over Blair's thighs.

Blair got out a gurgle of furious protest, but his assailant grabbed a T-shirt off the floor with his free hand and proceeded to stuff a good third of it into his mouth. Then he started to unbuckle Blair's belt. Blair froze in shock, but as his assailant slipped the belt out of his pant loops he told Blair politely, "We are only interested in ascertaining the whereabouts of Daniel Jackson. Please be assured I do not propose to initiate sexual contact."

Blair blinked up at him as the big man tied his wrists together with his belt. The cap he'd been wearing when Blair had first encountered him in the stairwell had gotten knocked off in their struggle, and unless the U.S. military had drastically relaxed their regulations about facial tattoos, he didn't see how this guy could be Air Force, regardless of his fatigues.

Then he remembered his dream of men in the parking lot yesterday, and he started fighting again even though he knew how useless it was.

The man with the amazing tattoo paid no attention at all to Blair's flailing and thrashing. Effortlessly keeping him pinned to the bed, he leaned forward and grabbed the bedside lamp, yanked the plug out of the wall, ripped the other end of the cord out of the base of the lamp, and calmly proceeded to tie Blair's ankles together despite the way Blair heaved and kicked. Then he stood and regarded his captive impassively. Less than five minutes had passed since Blair had first run into him in the stairwell, and the son of a bitch wasn't even breathing hard.

"I regret the necessity of this restraint, but it is of utmost importance that we speak to you concerning Daniel Jackson."

Blair thrashed his head furiously. Not going to be doing a whole lot of chatting with a goddamned T-shirt stuffed in my mouth, he thought, wondering how good this guy was at reading facial expressions. As far as Blair had seen, he didn't appear to have any of his own.

The room flipped over as Blair was picked up and tossed over the big man's shoulder like a human duffle bag. He was carried humiliatingly out into the living room, the blood rushing to his head, and then set very gently back down again on the yellow chair. "Excuse me while I let my friends in," said the world's most polite assailant, before he walked to the front door and released the dead bolt.

~~~

The snow chains were grinding through ice and slush and traffic was down to twenty-five miles an hour. At this rate it would be two in the morning before they reached Oroville, and Jim wasn't planning on trying to smuggle Jackson across the border in the middle of the night. Make a lot more sense to wait until morning, slip across with the crush of holiday traffic the day after Christmas.

Besides, if they closed Blewett Pass this afternoon, they wouldn't be going anywhere fast. Poor Sandburg would be climbing the walls.

"Snow's getting worse," he said out loud.

"Mmm?" Daniel mumbled beside him.

Christ, he'd been falling asleep. Jim reached out and shook him. "Hey. Come on. Wake up."

"Yeah. Awake," Daniel grumbled sleepily, and then sat bolt upright. "I'm awake. Oh, God. I didn't--"

"Nothing happened. But maybe it would be better if you kept talking."

"Yeah. I will." Jackson looked around and stretched his good arm. "I'm sorry. Guess I was more tired than I realized."

"It's all right. Just let me know if you start to get sleepy again."

"I will." Jackson laughed unexpectedly, a short, almost angry sound. "I can't believe I -- You know, this is taking some getting used to. Actually talking about this. Taking it for granted practically."

Jim held up one hand in denial. "I'm not taking it for granted. Believe me. I'm not about to take any of this for granted."

~~~

"Well done, T. Did you run into any --"

Carter saw the kid tied hand and foot in the yellow chair at the same time Jack did. "Oh," she said quietly. "Uh, Teal'c --"

"It was as you suspected, Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c informed him. "He was attempting to exit by the back stairwell and was unwilling to remain and discuss Daniel Jackson's whereabouts."

"Uh, yeah."

"He was most insistent about not remaining," Teal'c explained, sensitive to the unspoken criticism of his methods.

"Yeah, I understand. It's OK." Jack walked over to the kid. Furious blue eyes regarded him over Teal'c's makeshift gag. He was red-faced, breathing hard through his nose, and he really was a kid. Younger at any rate than Daniel'd been when Jack had first laid eyes on him. And Jack had thought Daniel's hair was long back then.

Nevertheless, this little hippie grad student was the one who had charged to Daniel's rescue last night, helped him fight off NID thugs in a parking lot, taken him to the hospital, even put down his own home as the billing address on Daniel's intake forms. What was Jack missing here?

Maybe the lesson was simply never to underestimate an archeologist. Anthropologist. Whatever the hell the kid was. "I'm just going to, um --" Jack gestured vaguely at his own mouth before stooping to remove the gag.

Teal'c stopped him. "I would not advise removing that until you have convinced Blair Sandburg that we are not his enemy."

Sandburg's eyebrows shot up.

"Right," Jack said. It occurred to him that it would really be a nuisance if this kid turned out to be even half as mule-headed as Daniel could be. "Look, about all this. I know it's probably a pretty tough sell right now, but we really aren't the bad guys here."

Sandburg's eyes widened briefly, still blazing. If those eyes had been laser beams, Jack would be nothing but a smoking, oily patch on the floor.

Carter came up beside him. "Captain Banks showed us the police report. Thank you for helping Daniel. He's a very close friend."

No detectible softening at all. Sandburg glanced at Jack, and then he closed his eyes. The message was clear enough. He wasn't listening to anything while they left him trussed up like a thanksgiving turkey. Jack supposed he could hardly blame him, but it was a pain in the mikta all the same. Hospital administrators, police captains, Rainier campus cops, everyone else they had talked to this morning had fallen all over themselves to be helpful. Dress uniform really did have a function that justified the cleaning bills.

Except with this kid. Having been chased down and hogtied by Teal'c probably wasn't helping matters.

"Anyway, about now you're probably thinking that with friends like us, it's no wonder Daniel's been on the run for the past six months."

Aha, that worked. At least Sandburg opened his eyes again and looked at him. "Believe me, compared to the other people looking for him, we're the best friends Danny's got."

Sandburg continued to look dubious, but that was all right. Jack hadn't expected love at first sight. "The bottom line is, we need you to tell us where he is so we can get to Daniel first. A happy ending on Christmas Day. It'll be just like It's a Wonderful Life." Jack mentally congratulated himself as Sandburg blinked in sheer astonishment. "Now I'm going to take out that gag, but if you start yelling, back in it goes."

Jack pulled the gag out, watching Sandburg closely, but the kid only swallowed hard a couple of times. "I hear Kansas is pretty damned cold this time of year," he finally growled in a hoarse voice.

Sam got up and walked to the kitchen. Jack heard her rattling around in the cabinets as he asked Sandburg, "Excuse me?"

"Fort Leavenworth, man. Kansas. Because that's where you're all going to end up over this."

Yup, not even remotely impressed by the pretty ribbons Jack was wearing on his chest. "That's entirely possible," he told Sandburg. "But for some reason, Daniel's worth it to us."

That earned him another flicker of response. Sam returned with a glass of water that she held out to Sandburg, who looked down at his bound wrists, and then back to Sam.

"Not just yet," Jack said. "I'd rather we talk a little first. Save Teal'c the trouble of running you down again."

Sandburg's expression darkened, but after a pause, he took the water glass awkwardly with his bound hands and swallowed a few sips before handing it back to Sam. Jack went on conversationally, "The cooking smells great. Need us to turn down the oven before something burns?"

Another long moment of silence from Sandburg, who was apparently trying to gauge the strategic advantage of being willing to let his dinner burn to a crisp. Then he looked at Jack sharply, as though suddenly divining what Jack was thinking about him. "The chicken will dry out if you leave it in the oven," he said shortly. "Take it out and see if it's done. The rice probably needs another ten minutes."

"Carter?" Jack asked. "You mind?"

She looked a little startled but immediately said, "Right. No problem, sir."

The cooking did smell incredible. Jack had been too tired and jet lagged and -- to be honest -- too damned psyched over the prospect of finding Daniel to eat anything this morning, but it was catching up with him. He was starving. He wondered if it was too much to hope that Sandburg would offer to share. "So anyway, introductions. That's Sam Carter, that's Teal'c and I'm Jack. We've worked with Daniel for years. Right up until he took his little walkabout six months ago."

Sandburg blinked at him, utterly noncommittal, then raised his bound hands and rubbed the backs of his thumbs against his forehead.

"You're Blair Sandburg. Captain Banks told us all about you. Archeology -- uh, anthropology grad student, writing your doctoral thesis on police culture, been rooming with Detective Ellison for two or three years now. Captain Banks says you both have a habit of taking in strays. He seemed to think it was pretty funny."

Sandburg apparently didn't think it was so funny.

"Excuse me," Carter called from the kitchen. "I'm looking for something to get the pan out of the oven."

"Hot pads are in the first drawer to the right," Blair called back. He glared at Jack, then glanced over at Teal'c, who had been standing at parade rest all this time by the windows. "You, I can almost believe really are a friend of Daniel's," he told Teal'c. "Your forehead tattoo. It's a modified Egyptian hieroglyph, right? A serpent. The sign for Apep. Apophis."

Jack snorted, "Of course not," simultaneously with Teal'c agreeing, "Indeed it is."

"No," Jack repeated firmly. "It isn't."

"I was mistaken," Teal'c said. "It is not."

"Heck of a mistake, man. I've never seen that technique before. Not really a tattoo, more a combination of ritual scarring with some sort of skin-grafting --"

"I don't know if the chicken's done," Sam interrupted. "Colonel, would you mind taking a look?"

Jack wasn't entirely sure whether Carter was just playing along with his we're-all-friends-here strategy, or if a woman who could build a naquada reactor from scratch really didn't know how to tell when a chicken was cooked, but either way, he couldn't fault her timing. "Sure. You got a long fork?"

Another glare from Sandburg. Nope, he wasn't making a whole lot of headway convincing this guy that Jack was his best buddy, but at least they were talking. "First drawer on the right beside the sink," Sandburg grumbled reluctantly. Dollars to donuts Sandburg knew exactly what was going on. Didn't mean he would be immune to it, though.

"Great." Carter had found the fork by the time Jack walked around to the kitchen island and she handed it to him. The roast bird was beautiful and smelled like heaven, stuffed with parsley and garlic, juices sizzling in the bottom of the pan. Jack felt himself salivating. He plunged the fork into the fattest part of the thigh. The juices ran clear, but just to be sure he dug a knife out of the same drawer where Carter had found the fork and sliced down to the bone.

"Perfect," Jack pronounced. "Can I bring you a drumstick?"

"I'm not really very hungry."

Jack strolled back and sat down across from Sandburg, feeling a little cranky from the maddening smell of the chicken and the necessity of taking things slow when the NID could be closing in on Daniel even as they spoke. "Awful lot of food just for one person, Blair. I guess you have family, friends coming over for Christmas dinner."

"Not exactly. I'm Jewish."

"Still a lot of food. Detective Ellison going to be back soon?"

"I doubt it."

"Where is he now? You mind me asking?"

Sandburg tugged at his bound wrists. "I mind everything about this. Now let me go so I can call Simon and get your sorry asses hauled off to military prison."

"You know, not just yet. Sorry. Captain Banks thinks your roommate is having Christmas dinner with his girlfriend. What I think is that Daniel has managed to convince you guys to help him out. He tends to have that effect on people. Hell, look at the three of us." He smiled a little. Sandburg didn't smile back.

"I already told Simon this, and now I'm telling you," Sandburg said tersely. "I dropped Dr. Jackson off at Second and Harbor last night after they finished with him at the hospital. He was going to get a hotel room. I haven't seen him since."

"Yeah." Jack laid the tips of his fingers together. "That's what Captain Banks told us. The thing is, I'm having a little trouble believing it. Last night you jumped to the rescue of a complete stranger, you stayed with him at the hospital, you were even willing to be dunned for his emergency room bill, and then you just dropped him off on a street corner?"

"It's what Dr. Jackson wanted." Sandburg met Jack's eyes unblinkingly. "He knew he was being followed. He didn't want anybody else to get involved."

"Uh-huh. He'd just had a couple of broken fingers set. Daniel must have been pumped so full of pain meds he could hardly see straight. But you let him go wandering off in the middle of the night by himself."

"I didn't like it. Dr. Jackson insisted."

"Blair, I'm going to lay it on the line for you. If the people who attacked Daniel last night catch up to him before we do, Danny's going to spend the rest of his natural life as the guest of military intelligence. I don't want that to happen, Daniel sure as hell doesn't want that to happen, and I'm betting that you don't either, or you and Detective Ellison wouldn't be sticking your necks out for him. Teal'c, Carter and me, we really are Daniel's friends, and we can help him, but only if we get to him first. Now I know you're just trying to help, and I appreciate it, but you've got to let us take it from here. Where has Detective Ellison gone with him?"

"If you're really such a friend, then why didn't Dr. Jackson come to you for help?"

Jack couldn't see a good reason to lie. "Believe me, that's the first thing I'm gonna ask Danny boy when I find him."

Sandburg looked at him. "I guess you already know this from the hospital records, but those guys who jumped Dr. Jackson in the parking lot knocked him out with something like a taser. The thing is, when he woke up the first person he called for was 'Jack.' You think he meant you?"

That caught Jack so off guard that he had to look away. "Yeah. That would be me."

Sandburg held out his bound hands. "Let me go."

Jack sighed. He didn't believe for one minute that he'd convinced Sandburg of anything, but there was probably no reason to keep him trussed up any longer. "Teal'c," he said in surrender. "Get this stuff off him."

Sandburg's eyes suddenly went wide and Jack turned to see what was upsetting him. Teal'c really, really needed to practice that smiling thing.

What he saw made him lurch to his feet in sheer astonishment.

The staircase leading up to the bedroom loft was moving. Undulating like a snake and corkscrewing its way up through the skylight. He heard Carter exclaim behind him at the same time Teal'c whirled around, all three of them going for weapons that they weren't carrying. The staircase swayed and unwound, continuing to grow like a vine.

It had to be some kind of optical illusion, Jack told himself even as he gaped, light-headed with amazement. This was ludicrous, utterly impossible, and goddammit, he wished he was armed, because something was coming down the staircase. Several somethings, descending as from a great height, passing through a mist Jack couldn't really see except for the way it obscured the approaching figures. They had human shapes, but Jack didn't trust that for an instant, because nothing human could walk silently through glass and brickwork on a staircase that couldn't possibly exist. They wore business suits and one of them had a briefcase and they looked like a gaggle of executives on their way to a business lunch, except there was something a little off about their faces.

Plus, they were carrying zat guns. Fuckin' hell.

He yelled, "Down!" and pulled the Sandburg kid out of the chair, pushing him to the floor and getting in front of him. Teal'c grabbed a coffee-table sized book off the nearest bookshelf and flung it upwards like he was hurling a discus. It hit one of the impossible intruders at the knees, but even as he stumbled, disappearing into the invisible mist, another of them caught Teal'c with a zat gun blast. The big guy went down like a ton of bricks and suddenly all of them were in the room, and the staircase was a perfectly normal wooden staircase that led only to the upstairs loft, and two of those unconvincing businessmen were standing over Teal'c with zats trained on him.

"Hey, hey, hold on." Jack stepped forward fast, his empty hands held up. "I'm sure we can talk about this. What do you want?"

One of the zats aimed at Teal'c was lifted until it was pointed at Jack instead. Good. It was a start. He just hoped Sandburg had enough sense to lie still and keep quiet while Jack tried to figure out what the hell was going on. He didn't have a flipping clue who these guys were. Not goa'uld, not with an entrance like that, even if they were packing zats. That freaky staircase illusion reminded him of something, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.

One of them knelt beside Teal'c and roughly rolled him over onto his back. Jack started forwarded, protesting, "Hey!" but was stopped by the zat leveled at his face. The kneeling intruder shrugged his suit jacket off his shoulder, flipped his blue silk tie over his shoulder, and calmly rolled up his right sleeve. Teal'c was just beginning to stir when he pulled up Teal'c's shirt and plunged his hand to the wrist into Teal'c's belly.

Jack was vaguely aware of the sound Sandburg made behind him at that, but all his attention was focused on the creature holding the zat on him. He turned his head just a fraction as the symbiote was dragged, screaming and thrashing, out of Teal'c's body. It was as good an opportunity as Jack was going to get. Certain that Carter would be watching as closely as he was and would follow his lead, he leaped for the nearest intruder.

Too slow. Way, way too goddamned slow. He felt the nerve-shredding heat of a zat blast before he even realized the intruder had squeezed off a shot. He hit the wooden floor hard, and as he lost consciousness he could still hear Junior screaming.

~~~

Once Jackson started to talk, it turned out he could be as chatty as Blair. Kind of a surprise, really, though it was true, the way he talked was nothing like Blair. He rambled and trailed off, didn't finish his sentences, never even glanced over to see if Jim was paying attention, certainly never tried to involve Jim in his monologue. That was all right. Jim wasn't sure he wanted to be involved.

Of course, a tiny voice inside Jim that sounded a lot like Blair Sandburg argued that Jim could hardly get any more involved than he already was, helping a wanted man flee the country. But even Blair could see that Jim had no choice.

Or maybe Blair couldn't see it, in which case Jim would have a lot of fence-mending to do when he got home again. Ah, well, one thing at a time, and the first thing was getting over the pass. The snow was heavier, it was getting colder the higher they drove, and the heater in the truck was not the greatest. Traffic had slowed to a crawl, and the ice crystals on the windshield formed intricate castles, entire fantastical kingdoms. Although, Jim thought with some concern, maybe it was just the influence of Dr. Jackson's story that was making him see lost kingdoms in the snow.

"The funny thing was," Jackson was saying, "the first few times it happened, I thought it was all a beautiful dream. I was even sort of -- I don't know. Grateful, I guess. When the dreams started I'd been having -- You could say things had been kind of -- A lot had happened. Work stuff. Um, family stuff. My, well, stepson, really, showed up. I hoped he would be able to stay with me, but it ... didn't work out."

"You a married man?" Jim asked. Somehow he hadn't guessed that.

"Widowed." Jackson ducked his head, and Jim wished for about the hundredth time he'd been able to bring Blair along.

"I'm sorry."

"No. It's, um--" Jackson spread the fingers of his left hand out across the dashboard. Clenched them into a loose fist. Spread them again. "Then I was--there was--I was exposed to an -- an environmental hazard at work. The stuff messed with your head. With my head. Anyway. That's when the dreams started, while I was in, uh, rehab. Detox." Jackson laughed without much humor. "They were practically a relief. It had been a while since I'd seen anything remotely pretty in my dreams."

Jackson had started to shake a little. "There's a blanket behind the seat if you're cold. I could pull over at the next turn-off and get it out for you."

"What? No. I'm fine. I'm fine."

"The dreams?" Jim asked eventually.

"They were lovely," Jackson said again, his voice getting a little far away. "So peaceful. Every night, almost, I would dream that I was looking down at the streets of this amazing city. Like nothing I'd ever seen before, and I've seen -- it felt -- it's stupid, but at first the dreams felt like forgiveness, almost. Absolution." Another bitter laugh. "I should have known better. 'Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread, for he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.'"

"Pardon me?"

"But I thought they were just dreams. Something my mind made up out of the old legends of Constantinople and Alexandria and Babylon. The stories that couldn't have been true, but, you know, should have been. Somewhere, in some reality." Jackson made a hicupping sound. "Oh, God. So beautiful, and it was real after all. So wonderful, and so terrible."

~~~

I've seen worse.

It was a good mantra. It was working for him. Over and over again in his head when the staircase suddenly swooped up and out through the clerestory. Repeated with real feeling as incomprehensible beings in conservative business suits descended from the ether. Silently chanted over and over and over again as one of them extracted a snake the size of Blair's forearm from the big guy's stomach and flung it across the living room. The snake was shrieking.

"I've seen worse," Blair told himself again. But not by very goddamned much.

Teal'c was groaning, his eyes squeezed shut, trying and failing to pull himself to his knees. Jack and Sam were out cold. From where he crouched on the floor, Blair could see Jack's limbs twitching, and he wondered if these were the same beings who had attacked Daniel in the parking lot.

One of them came up to Blair and looked down at him. Blair held very still, even though he couldn't have moved much if he'd wanted to. Probably shouldn't make eye contact either, but he couldn't force himself to look away. Everything about these creatures was wrong, and the faces were the worst. They were human-looking, more or less, but something didn't track. Like watching a badly dubbed Japanese movie, except it wasn't just the voices that were out of sync.

One of the beings aimed an oddly coiled weapon at him. Blair swallowed hard. "Please," he muttered, no idea if he had any chance of being understood. "You don't have to use that."

Whether it knew what he was saying or not, it didn't fire. It bent over him, close enough for Blair to feel the cold radiating from its body. The being's eyes weren't focused on him, but Blair had no doubt that he was being examined closely all the same. Like it was . . . smelling him instead of seeing him, and for some reason that freaked him out more than the physical proximity. At last it straightened and turned away, and Blair couldn't help a groan of relief.

The creatures fanned out across the loft, hands held out in front of themselves, heads cocked to the right, none of them making a sound. As cautiously and slowly as he could, Blair drew his knees up to his chest and began to pick at the knot in the electrical cord tied around his ankles. He felt almost calm, though he suspected it was more probably shock.

One of the beings ran its hand down Blair's coat hanging on the rack by the door. The coat slid to the floor with a muted rustle, and when the intruder turned back, it was holding Daniel Jackson's broken glasses cupped in the palms of both hands.

Aw, damn, Blair thought, suddenly furious at Daniel. They had tried to be so careful about removing every trace of Daniel's presence from the loft. What kind of a pathetic absent minded professor type was he, the guy couldn't even remember his own glasses?

Then the hairs rose on the back of Blair's neck as the creature lifted the glasses to its face and seemed to sniff at them. Apparently satisfied, it raised its head and turned to gaze blankly in Blair's direction once more. Blair blinked and tried to look innocent, though his heart was pounding away in his chest like hammer and tongs. It only got worse when every other being in the loft turned to look at him as well. They glided in Blair's direction, and Blair noticed through his terror that their legs moved more slowly than they were actually walking. And that one of them walked right through the couch.

Two of the beings took firm grips on the shoulders of Blair's flannel shirt and effortlessly hauled him to his feet. The third came up and showed him Daniel's glasses, still cupped in his palms. He had too many fingers on both hands.

"Hey," Blair began shakily. "Whatever you want --"

"My name is Mr. Brown," the creature said mildly. His voice had a faint, buzzy trace of static, like an overloaded speaker. "I'm from the Internal Revenue Service."

Got it, Blair thought, as the floor of the loft began swaying underfoot and blackness speckled the edges of his vision. Got it now. I'm sound asleep and this is all just a crazy dream. God, what a relief.

"The owner of these spectacles is wanted for income tax evasion," explained Mr. Brown. "Do you know where I can find him?"

Blair swallowed hard. He wasn't waking up, even though he was trying to with every fiber of his being. "Income tax evasion?" he whispered at last.

Mr. Brown nodded. His head moved faster than his face.

"Oh. Well. Income tax evasion." Blair still felt like he was on the verge of fainting. "Why didn't you say so? I dropped him off at the corner of Second and Harbor about one o'clock this morning. He was gonna--" Blair's head was spinning and he couldn't seem to catch his breath. "He was going to get a hotel room," he finished in a rush as his knees buckled.

The beings let him fall in a heap. "Thank you for your civic-mindedness," said Mr. Brown. "Happy Kwanzaa."

Blair curled up, panting. He squeezed his eyes shut for long moments, but in the end not knowing what was going on was worse than knowing. He opened his eyes in time to see the corner of the room behind the fireplace begin to twist in upon itself, and one by one, Mr. Brown and the other intruders folded themselves into the collapsing corner and disappeared. Once they were gone the walls snapped straight to meet once more at a nice and sane ninety degree angle.

Blair curled up tighter and pressed his forehead to his knees. Fainting was still a distinct possibility. Teal'c sounded terrible. He was moaning, his breath a loud rasp across the room. Blair couldn't ignore him. As little reason as Blair had to like the big man, he was still considerably more human than those . . . those revenuers, and right now, that was enough to command sympathy. How anthropocentrist of him, he thought as he struggled to free his legs from the electrical cord. Sam and that annoying colonel were beginning to stir, but Teal'c was clearly in bad shape now.

Blair finally flung the cord away and staggered upright. The floor seemed to dip and sway underfoot, but this time Blair thought it was his own vertigo, not the building itself. He stumbled and fell heavily to his knees at Teal'c's side, unable to balance himself with his hands still bound. Teal'c was curled up with his eyes half-closed, his breathing loud and ragged.

"It's just me," Blair said quietly. "I'm going to roll you on your back to see how bad it is, all right?" Bleary eyes blinked open at him. "See? You already know I'm no threat to you, right?" Laying his hands on the huge shoulder as gingerly as he would touch Jim during a sensory spike, he pushed Teal'c over onto his back. "I just want to help."

Teal'c's lips were gray, his flesh burning with fever. His stomach was crosshatched with a tremendous, bloodless incision.

Blair sat back hard. "Oh, Jesus." He shook himself and tried to concentrate. "Just keep calm," he insisted, and didn't know whether he was talking to Teal'c or to himself. "I'm gonna call 911 and let the specialists handle it from here, OK? Everything's going to be fine."

The moment he began to get up, Teal'c's hand shot out and grabbed his forearm. "No," he moaned.

Blair looked down at the big hand restraining him. "Yes," he said, hoping he sounded calm and reasonable. "Let me go. Please let me help you."

"My symbiote," Teal'c said. His eyes had closed once more.

"Your what? Oh, my God. That snake? You share your body with that snake?"

"I will die unless you return it to me," Teal'c told him calmly and hopelessly as he released Blair's arm.

No, Blair thought, scooting backwards out of range. No, no, no, no, no. Wasn't anybody paying attention? He had already exceeded his six impossible things before breakfast lifetime quota. He fumbled at the leather belt still securing his hands, but it was tied too well for him to escape, especially as badly as his hands were shaking. He rocked to his feet, his entire body feeling trembly and weak, and staggered in the direction he had seen the revenuer throw the thing he had torn from Teal'c's stomach.

He found it on the floor in front of his bedroom window, flopping weakly like a goldfish out of water. Not a bad comparison. It was as unworldly-looking as one of those deep-sea bioluminescent creatures. This thing wasn't glowing, though. And it wasn't at the bottom of the sea. "Found it," Blair said weakly. "Do I just -- pick it up?"

"It will be confused and frightened," Teal'c said. Makes two of us, Blair thought. "Although it is too young to take a host, in its current state it might try nevertheless. You should not allow it to enter your mouth or to burrow into your neck."

"Oh." Blair could feel the incipient hysteria welling up inside like champagne bubbles. "OK. Thanks for the tip."

He stepped around it, trying to approach the thing -- the symbiote, God help him -- from behind, but it coiled weakly on the floor at his feet, following his progress. "Easy there," Blair said. "Not going to hurt you, either. Just going to get you back to Daddy, all right?"

Quick was probably the best way to go. Just pretend he was snagging a copperhead. For some reason that didn't make him feel any better.

Before he could think about it any more, he knelt and quickly clasped his hands around the back of the creature's head. It thrashed so powerfully that Blair felt it all the way up his arms to his shoulders, and he yelped, afraid he wouldn't be able to hold onto it. As he lifted the symbiote off the floor, all the fight seemed to go out of it, and he was able to carry it quickly to Teal'c's side.

"What do I do now?"

Teal'c's eyes were closed, his breathing shallow and fast. "Just release it."

Oh, God.

Blair let it fall carefully and slowly onto the big guy's torso, and once he let go of the head, it whipped around and burrowed into the incision with a wet squelch. Teal'c groaned sharply, but almost at once his breathing became easier. Blair, on the other hand, was afraid he was about to vomit. He staggered back and sat down hard. When he managed to open his eyes again, he saw that Jack was finally conscious. He was white to the gills and shaking like a leaf -- in other words, he looked like Blair felt -- but he smiled crookedly when he saw Blair watching him.

"You did good, kid. Thanks."

"Oh, no problem, man," Blair whispered. "I've seen worse."

~~~

The ski lodge was booked solid, but the motor court half a mile down the road was able to put them up. Daniel made a quiet joke about it being a shame not to get a room with a hot tub as Jim helped him across the icy parking lot, but Jim, seeming both tired and intensely focused, only looked at him as if he weren't speaking English.

The lock stuck. Jim cursed mildly and tried the key card again. This time the knob turned and Jim pushed open the door with his shoulder and held it for Daniel who made for the nearest bed and sat down heavily, then flopped backwards. Bouncing on the mattress hurt his hand and he bit back a groan, feeling foolish. Jim only said, "Take it easy while I bring in the rest of our stuff. You've had a rough day."

Daniel closed his eyes. Rough day? Not exactly. He'd sat in a truck and eaten foie gras and marinated eggplant while someone else drove. Here they were turning in at two in the afternoon. Certainly an easier gig than a typical stroll through the stargate.

The sudden ache of loneliness almost took his breath away. Dammit, he thought miserably. He never should have let Blair bully him into going home with him last night, never should have agreed to this harebrained scheme for getting him out of the country. He'd been doing great for months on his own, not talking to anybody, not thinking about anything but how to control the time bomb he'd become, and now look at him. Less than twenty-four hours after meeting Blair hey-it's-Christmas-man Sandburg, he was endangering innocents -- the one thing he'd sworn he would never do --he was spilling his deepest secrets to a total stranger, and he was missing his old life so badly it hurt. God, he wished he could talk to Jack.

He opened his eyes as Jim returned with their scant luggage. "Not falling asleep, are you?" Jim asked.

"No."

"You probably should try to catch some shuteye if you can. If they get the road open before dusk I'd like to go a few more miles tonight."

Daniel nodded, still lying flat on his back and staring bleakly up at the ceiling. "There are, um, precautions I can take," he said before Jim could ask. He thought he sounded like he was trying to avoid passing on a case of genital herpes, and laughed bleakly.

"Am I missing something here?"

"No." Daniel struggled to sit up. Harder than you'd think with one arm strapped to your chest. Jim caught his good hand and pulled him up with a firm grasp. "It's pretty simple really," Daniel said. "I just have to be careful. Last night I thought this hand, I mean, the way it hurts to move it -- I thought it would wake me up before anything happened. I know better now."

Jim took his own and Daniel's coats and hung them up in the open closet. Then he sat down on the other bed. "I suppose it's too much to hope that you'll just explain to me what's really going on."

Daniel looked away. "As far as I can tell, I actually do walk in my sleep, so anything that stops me from doing that seems to keep me from, uh, disappearing too. Usually I just tie my hand to the bed." He got to his feet, noticing as he did that he really was exhausted, and dug around one-handed in his backpack until he pulled out his belt. He also got out the folded piece of notebook paper with the cuneiform inscription written in red magic marker. Better safe than sorry, and Jim was acting pretty unflappable. "This, is, um, like a charm," he explained. "Just for backup. It seems pretty effective at keeping me, uh, here on earth." He struggled to safety-pin it to his shirt, but dammit, he couldn't manage that one-handed either.

Jim got up and helped him. He almost smiled at Daniel when he was finished. "Looks like I'm ready to pack you off for your first day of nursery school."

That surprised Daniel into an almost-smile, too. He glanced down at the bent and creased paper pinned to his chest. "Yeah. My folks were archaeologists and they carried me along to the digs with them as soon as I could toddle. Sooner, even. Mom would fasten instructions to the back of my shirt in case I went wandering off ...'please return Daniel Jackson to the excavation at KV12.'" He looped the belt around his left wrist and handed the free end to Jim. "If you could just --"

"Got it." The headboard was a flat piece of laminated wood, so Jim raised the edge of the mattress and wrapped the end of the belt once around one of the springs. He hesitated as he straightened up, and waved his hand a few inches above the page of cuneiform. "That's odd."

Daniel looked at him sharply. "You can feel it?"

Jim backed away slowly, the unflappable cop looking a little ... flapped. "I don't know. Like a weak magnetic charge." He turned his hand and looked down at it as though he expected to see magnets on his fingertips. "You feel it." It wasn't a question.

"Not so much now, but after a few hours, it gets sort of tough. Like trying to sleep with a forty pound weight on my chest."

"Your research at Rainier and back east taught you how to control your, uh, condition?"

"It's not unprecedented. I found a detailed account at Miskatonic of a mathematics student during the twenties who believed there were certain formulae -- special geometries -- that would allow him to travel vast distances across space, maybe even across dimensions. He became convinced that he was really doing that in his sleep. In the university museum there's an ornamental finial made out of a very peculiar metal alloy he believed he had brought back from one of his dreams."

"And is this --" Jim waved his hand vaguely in Daniel's direction, "--the way he learned to control it?"

"No. He died. He was living in a rat-infested boarding house while he tried to finish his degree, and one night a rat ate his heart out."

"Ah."

For some reason Jim's calm reaction made Daniel laugh again, albeit without much humor. "After his death they found human skeletal remains in a boarded-up closet in the corner of his room. Guess the rats were hungry. No, there were much older texts. He might not have known about them, or not have been able to read them if he did. That's where I found this." Daniel touched the paper on his chest. "But until today -- um, I mean, all I really knew was that the --delusion at least was as old as written human history." He swallowed hard.

"Did you find what you needed at Rainier?" Jim asked matter-of-factly.

"No. Not yet."

"What did you want to find?"

"A way to stop it, not just -- just manage it. Now that I know it's real --" But he couldn't say everything that meant. That he'd been right to leave, that he was as great a danger to the rest of SG1 as he'd feared, that he could never go back. "I guess now I know for sure it'll be Area 51 instead of a psych ward once they catch up with me."

"They're not going to catch you," Jim announced shortly. "That's what we're doing here in the first place. You can get yourself free from that belt if you have to, right?"

Daniel raised his left hand. All he'd have to do was loosen the slack a bit. "Yeah."

"I'm going back up to the ski shop at the lodge and see if we can rent a snowmobile."

"A snowmobile?" Daniel asked incredulously.

"Well, I don't think you could manage cross-country skis right now, do you?"

"We're heading out cross country? In this weather?" Suddenly this guy was reminding Daniel a hell of a lot of Jack.

"I hope not, but as long as the pass is closed we can't go forward, and if the snow keeps on like this we can't go back either. If the people looking for you start closing in, we may not have any other choice."

"Oh, my God," Daniel muttered. "This is crazy."

"That reminds me," Jim said, turning back. "I should call Sandburg and let him know where we are. He's probably going nuts by now."

~~~

Jack was watching carefully, but so far Sandburg didn't seem to be going nuts. He was fussing over his complicated rice dish that smelled like curry, mumbling to himself and in general making a whole lot of noise banging pots and pans around and acting as though cooking dinner were the only thing on his mind. Jack didn't say a word. As coping mechanisms went, this was more benign than most, and they really needed the kid sane to find Daniel. If cooking worked for him, then Jack was perfectly willing to let him cook.

"Miracle it didn't burn," Sandburg grumbled. He had filled the sink with a couple of inches of cold water and carefully lowered the big dutch oven into it. The hot metal made the water hiss furiously, and steam rolled to the ceiling. Sandburg backed away, the glasses he'd put on in order to read his recipe completely fogged over. He yanked them off his nose with a snort of disgust and wiped them with the tail of his shirt. "I know Jim's got a big serving platter around here somewhere, but I'm fucked if I can remember where I last saw it."

He pulled open cabinet drawers one at a time and slammed them shut again with obviously unnecessary violence, at length finding what he was looking for on a top shelf at least four inches beyond the reach of his outstretched fingertips. Sandburg dropped onto his heels, then started when he found Teal'c at his shoulder. The big guy still looked a bit woozy to Jack, but otherwise seemed to be making his usual fast recovery.

"Permit me," he asked Sandburg seriously and the kid nodded after just an instant of hesitation. To his credit he didn't back away from Teal'c, but when he took the platter from him, Jack noticed that his hands were trembling.

"May I be of further assistance?" Teal'c inquired.

Jack thought Teal'c was pushing his luck, but Sandburg only gave a shaky nod and said, "Thanks. Yeah, you can." He shoved a couple of hot pads into Teal'c's hands. "You want to hold the pot while I scrape the rice out? The cold water is supposed to loosen it up, but I've got my doubts."

"It smells wonderful," Carter said quietly, stepping back in from the outside hall where she'd gone to put a call in to the base. She shook her head in response to Jack's unasked question. So nobody back at SGC knew anything about those dimension-hopping interlopers either. Sweet.

A moment passed, and then without turning around Sandburg said in a slightly strained voice, "It's the first time I've made this recipe. Got no idea whether it'll even be edible or not." He was scooping the yellow rice onto the platter in huge serving-spoonfuls, and when he got to the rice stuck to the bottom of the pan, he switched to a metal spatula. The rice came away in crisp sheets which he laid on top of the already-mounded platter.

Jack was hungry enough to start chewing on the sleeves of his own dress uniform. Surely Sandburg was going to offer to share. A good-hearted kid like that wouldn't pile up so much food in front of them and then not offer them any.

The last bit of rice proved stubborn. Sandburg jabbed harder with the spatula while Teal'c braced the pan against increasingly violent scrapes. He started to say, "I fear that your implement will not --" just as the spatula broke with a snap like a gunshot. Sandburg swore violently, threw down the broken handle and stalked away. He ended up in front of the windows, his back to them all, arms crossed hard over his chest.

"Help yourself," Sandburg managed at last. He didn't turn around. "There's the chicken and the rice. I was going to steam broccoli and make a salad but --"

"Won't say no to that," Jack announced cheerfully when Sandburg trailed off. He rummaged in the kitchen cabinets for plates and silverware and set the table for four. Teal'c carried the rice and chicken to the table while Carter got out glasses. "Water will be fine for me," Jack said. "Teal'c?"

"For me as well," he agreed with his usual gravitas.

"Blair? Can I get you a beer?" Probably do you good, Jack thought, though he didn't say it out loud.

Sandburg snorted and shook his head without turning around.

"OK, water for Blair too, then." He carved the roast chicken and divided it among the four plates and then served the rice. "Blair? You gonna eat?"

The kid only dropped his head. Jack took a few appreciative bites. "This rice is just incredible. Never seen it prepared this way before. Is this Jewish cuisine or Indian?"

Sandburg finally turned back. His face was red but his eyes were dry, and as he looked at the strangers sitting around his dining room table and eating his food, Jack could almost pinpoint the instant when he must have decided he was too tired and too angry, too freaked out and too frightened to keep fighting any longer. "Who the hell are you people?"

Jack pointed with his fork at the empty place setting. "Sit down. Eat. We'll talk."

He came to the table but didn't sit down. His hands were far more open and expressive than his face. "Do we really have time for talking?"

Jack chewed another bite, pretending to consider the question. "Well," he said at last, "We could just run around like chickens with our heads cut off instead, but then all this great food would go to waste."

"This chicken is most appetizing," Teal'c put in. "I would be gratified if you would share your recipe."

Sandburg stared at him. "The Stargate program," he said slowly.

Aw, crap, Jack thought. He hadn't seen that one coming.

"Yeah, of course," Sandburg said, warming to the topic. "The biggest black box project in the whole military budget. Area 51 barely holds a candle to it. Dr. Jackson must be associated with Stargate. God, I'm right, aren't I?"

"I don't know," Jack said. "What's a Stargate?"

"Oh, don't even. If the Air Force really wanted to keep it such a deep, dark secret they wouldn't have out-sourced for those keen uniform patches." He sketched a circle at his right biceps. "You know, with funny symbols on it, the upside-down 'v' with a little circle at the top. Do you have any idea how much a conspiracy buff will pay for one of those?"

"Nope. Haven't really been in the market for one," Jack said evenly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Carter turning her water glass with one hand.

"All I know about Stargate is that it's a deep space telemetry project using military satellites," she told Sandburg. "You probably know that much about it yourself, as well as the fact that its funding is blackboxed to keep the Russians from thinking we're violating the ABM treaty. Frankly, I think all the secrecy is a mistake since the Russians believe we're in violation anyway, but as usual, no one asked me for my opinion." She smiled blindingly and Sandburg visibly melted a bit. Unfortunately, not even Carter's smile could erase for long the impression that handling Junior seemed to have made on the kid.

"No," Sandburg decided stubbornly. "No. Stargate isn't just some ridiculous UFO boondoggle at all, is it? You've actually found something out there. Or they've found us. And you're using what you've found to do what exactly? Cloning? Genetic engineering with human subjects?" Sandburg glanced at Teal'c and then stared down at the table. "Is the military trying to create some kind of -- super soldier or something?" He was blushing a little, stumbling over his words and refusing to meet anyone's eyes, especially Teal'c's. Must be having trouble figuring out the PC way to talk about genetic experiments in the presence of one. "What does the symbiote do for you? Can you go without sleep? Do you heal faster, breathe under water, see in the dark, what?" He gave a shaky laugh and finally managed to look at Teal'c again. "Is it worth it, man, what they've done to you?"

"It is who I am."

The kid was visibly shaking. Carter got up and pulled the chair out for him, and Sandburg sank into it without a murmur of protest.

"Try the chicken," Jack said. "Delicious."

Sandburg put both palms flat on the table. He didn't try the chicken. "If you won't tell me who you are, then at least tell me who those other people are. The ones with the stun-gun things. Who walk into corners and disappear. They're the people who tried to grab Dr. Jackson in the parking lot last night, aren't they? That wasn't you at all."

And crap, part two. Jack hadn't seen that one comin' either. Maybe it was good news that the NID wasn't closing in as fast as they had feared, but those Freakazoids from the Ninth Dimension -- who incidentally knew about zat guns and Jaffa and the Internal Revenue Service -- were such a screaming unknown maybe they would have been better off dealing with the NID after all. He caught Carter's eye again, and she fielded this one for him, too.

"We don't know who they are, Blair. The fact they're looking for Daniel makes it all the more important we find him as soon as possible."

Sandburg wouldn't even look at her. "They sure seemed to know a lot about you though, didn't they?" He turned to Teal'c. "And they knew all about you."

Teal'c inclined his head. "It is most perplexing to me, as well."

"No." Sandburg shook his head. He was still visibly trembling, but his eyes were dark and resolute. "No. It won't work, whatever you people are trying to do."

Shit. Jack had thought they were finally making some progress. "What we're trying to do is find Daniel Jackson."

Sandburg looked around the table. "Is there anything I could tell you that would make you just -- just go away? Leave Jim in peace?"

Jim? Oh. Detective Ellison. "Blair, we don't care about you, we don't care about your -- about Detective Ellison, besides not wanting to see either one of you get hurt, of course. We simply want to find Daniel before things get any more out of control."

Blair met his gaze. "Jim is the only one who knows where Dr. Jackson is right now. He's gonna call me sometime this afternoon or early this evening. When he does, I'll tell him to pick up Dr. Jackson and come back home. Will that work for you?"

"Might work better if we go pick Daniel up ourselves, you think?"

Sandburg shrugged. "All right. Maybe. I'll see what Jim says." He picked up his knife and fork and cut himself a little bite of chicken, following it with some of the rice. "You're right. It did turn out pretty good. Wish I'd had time to steam broccoli to go with it, though."

Carter met Jack's glance. Yep, she felt it too; the kid was hiding something, but what it might be had her stumped as well.

Then the phone rang. Sandburg started, but then carefully laid down his knife and fork. He made no move to answer it.

"Is that him?" Jack demanded.

"I don't know. Could be my mom calling to wish me happy solstice." The phone rang a second time. "You mind if I get that?"

"Please," Jack said through gritted teeth, wondering if he should risk answering it himself. The phone rang again. "Would you please pick up the telephone?"

Sandburg pushed himself to his feet. Jack got up too as Sandburg answered the phone mounted by the kitchen cabinets. "Hello?" He glanced up at Jack over his glasses. "Jim," he said. "I thought it would be a lot longer before I heard from you."

Jack couldn't help making a little hurry-up gesture with his hands. Sandburg nodded. "Yeah . . . right. Well, you thought that might happen. Look, things have gotten sort of complicated on this end. No, I'm all right. I'm fine. But it turns out the stuff Dr. Jackson is involved in with the military is worse than we thought. Genetic manipulation, cloning, something. Jim, they're using human subjects."

Jack felt a prickle of concern at that, but didn't interrupt. Probably be safer for Sandburg and Ellison if they did think the Air Force was breeding clone armies under Cheyenne Mountain.

"I don't know much more than that," he was saying, "But I've seen what they're doing, and you've got to keep going, Jim, no matter what. Don't ever come back to Cascade. They're looking for you."

Oh, for cryin' out loud -- Jack tried to snatch the phone away, but Sandburg huddled himself against the wall to get in a few more words. "I'm so sorry, man. I love you --" By that time Teal'c was there. He pulled Sandburg away from the wall, plucked the phone from his white-knuckled grasp and handed it to Jack. Sandburg struggled furiously for an instant more as Jack turned away, the phone to his ear, and tried with little hope to undo the damage.

"Detective Ellison? Colonel Jack O'Neill, U.S. Air Force. I'm afraid your roommate has misjudged the situation. We're only here to help Dr. Jackson. There's no --"

"Jim, run!" Sandburg yelled before Teal'c clamped a hand over his mouth.

"I don't give a damn who you are," growled the voice on the other end of the line. "Let me talk to Sandburg."

"If you'll just listen to me a moment," Jack began.

"Put Sandburg back on the line."

"Detective Ellison --"

But Jack was already talking to dead air.

~~~

Daniel sat up fast, extricating himself from the belt loop, struggling to unpin the charm from his chest. Five minutes and already it felt heavy as lead. Jim Ellison had slammed the phone down but hadn't turned around yet, and when he did, his face was shuttered with fury.

"What's happened?"

"Do you know a Colonel O'Neill?"

"Oh, God. Was that Jack?"

"So you do know him."

"Well, yeah, of course. He's my -- he was my --uh, commanding officer."

"Great. That's just great. He's at the loft and he's got Sandburg. What can you tell me about him?"

"I don't know," Daniel said helplessly. It was all over now, and it had all been for nothing. Jack had caught up to him, and Daniel was no better off than he'd been when he'd first left Colorado Springs. "I don't know. What do you want me to tell you?"

"Will he hurt Sandburg?"

"Are you serious?"

"You've spent the last six months running from the man. You tell me if I'm serious or not."

"No, of course not. I mean, no, Blair's safe. He's a noncombatant, a civilian. Jack would never -- even if -- what would be the point?"

"Well, that's the question, isn't it? He's sure done something to scare the hell out of him. If your commander is such a swell guy why did Blair just tell me to keep running and never go home again?"

"I don't -- I have no idea."

"What kind of work were you doing for the Air Force, Dr. Jackson?"

"It's not safe for either one of us to discuss that."

"What does an archeologist have to do with genetic engineering?"

Completely bewildered Daniel said, "Well, nothing. Why?"

"Did you know who I was before Blair brought you home?"

"What?"

Jim looked at him for a long moment. "No, I didn't really think so," he agreed after a moment. "Here's the way it works now. I can't take you any further, because I'm going back to Cascade. You can stay here and arrange your own transportation the rest of the way, or you can come back with me. It's up to you."

"You're giving me a choice?"

"Not a great one, I know. Best I can do today." Jim swung his bag onto the bed.

"But I'm the one they're looking for," Daniel said. "It would be a lot easier for you and Blair if you took me back with you."

"Maybe," Jim agreed. "But I don't intend to negotiate for hostages, or play along with whatever advantage your O'Neill thinks he'll gain by holding Blair."

So Daniel could keep going. It was his duty, after all. He knew what the alternative was. Shifu had shown him the consequences of using this kind of knowledge. The burning wall, the broken tower, and Agamemnon dead. He wasn't a strong enough or a good enough man to be entrusted with it, and if he returned to the SGC, they would make him use it. He wouldn't be able to resist, not with the fate of the world at stake, not if the goa'uld were coming, and it would all play out again. For real this time.

He saw Jack's eyes, Jack's sad, resolute expression as he fired again and again.

You never were very bright.

Jim returned from carrying his bag out to the truck. There was snow on his shoulders, in his hair, clinging to his eyelashes. "I'll leave the food for you. Enjoy the truffles."

"Jack's a good man," Daniel said. "He won't hurt Blair, or try to use him against you."

"I hope you're right. Is there anything you need before I go?"

Daniel couldn't figure out why it felt so wrong. He knew what path he had to choose, but he couldn't shake the suspicion that the monster he'd become in Shifu's dream had started this way, too. Sacrificing one individual after another for the sake of what seemed like the greater good. Did abandoning Jim and Blair now eventually lead to Moscow in flames? He laughed shortly, and Jim looked at him. "Dr. Jackson?"

"I'm sorry," Daniel said. "Maybe you should call Jack back. Let him know that I'm --"

"Wait --" Jim held up his hand. "Be quiet." His head was cocked. "We've got a problem."

"What is it?"

Jim swore quietly then said, "They've probably been following us all the way from Cascade. Dammit, I should have noticed them before now. Guess the snow had me distracted."

"Should have noticed what? What are you talking about?"

"Aw, Christ. They've got a white noise generator," Jim said, defeated and angry. "Sandburg's right. They know who I am." He moved quickly to the back of the little motel room and swung open the bathroom door. "They're behind us, too. Must be ten, twelve men in all. Are you the one who rates the really big guns, Jackson, or is it me?"

"Uh, Jim," Daniel said, holding out his good hand in a placatory gesture. "Can you hang on a minute here? What makes you think there's anyone out there in the first place?"

"You don't hear it? They're stomping around like a herd of elephants out there. They've got three trucks, and they're setting up in the front lot. Your buddy Jack's guys, you think?"

"No," Daniel answered, straining to hear. "No, Jack wouldn't do that." Or at least, once upon a time Jack never would have sent SF or heaven forefend, NID after him. But that had been six months ago. Who could tell what Jack believed about him now?

"Let's get your colonel back on the phone," Jim said, still calm, but talking quickly and softly. "See if you can convince him to call off his dogs. I think they're setting up a teargas cannon." He picked up the phone. "Tell him we'll surrender. They don't need to do this."

"This is crazy," Daniel protested. "Even if there is anyone out there, can't we just open the door and--"

Jim kept dialing, shaking his head tightly once. "Those boys out there are spooked bad. You open that door you're likely to get a bullet in your -- dammit!" Dropping the phone, he grabbed Daniel and yanked him sideways off the bed. Daniel yelped in pained protest as he hit the floor, but Jim bundled him onto his side between the beds, curled next to him with his head down. An instant later Daniel heard an explosion of shattering glass, and a hot, sinister hissing. Oh, hell, he thought, instinctively covering his nose and mouth with his hand. Had they really just been tear gassed?

Jim was grabbing for something just out of Daniel's sight. Then he pushed a pillowcase into his hand. "Use this," he managed in a hoarse whisper. Jim's eyes were streaming with tears, and as he grabbed for a pillow to shield his own face, he began to cough and choke. Daniel caught a whiff of an odor that reminded him of the dentist's chair, and then he was retching as well, blinded by tears. He couldn't believe it. Firing tear gas into a motel room? There were civilians everywhere. Whoever it was out there, SF, FBI, NID, how could they possibly hope to get away with it?

Then he vomited up all that expensive food he'd eaten on the way. The sensation was terrifying, his stomach violently contracting over and over again while he was unable to breathe. He and Jim could both die in here. They had to get out. He dragged himself to his knees, tried to stagger to his feet. He stumbled at once and would have fallen, but Jim wrapped a strong arm around his waist and pulled him forward. Halfway to the door, Jim was the one who stumbled to his knees. He wasn't coughing anymore, just taking weak, small gasps, as though he couldn't drag air past a constriction in his throat.

Daniel didn't have the strength or the balance to get Jim to his feet again, not one-handed, but he wrapped his fist in the back of Jim's shirt and yanked him forward, and Jim shuffled and crawled the rest of the way to the door. He had no idea if it was safe to open it or not, but frankly, a hail of bullets seemed like a nice clean alternative to death by suffocation. His fingers were thick and clumsy and he vomited again before he managed to get the door open. It sure as hell wasn't like this on television, he thought miserably as cold, sweet air swept over him and he fell face-first on the icy sidewalk. On cop shows, tear gas victims came stumbling out under their own power, coughing decorously, not crawling on their elbows and throwing up on themselves.

He tried to reach back for Jim, but suddenly there were men all around him. Someone grabbed him by the collar and pulled him a few feet away, then dropped him on a dirty snow bank. Daniel had to turn his head to breathe and the fresh air was wonderful. There were voices everywhere, men, women and children, yelling and sobbing, barking orders. He had no idea what had happened to Jim, and he was still choking and gagging, saliva running from his mouth in a thick stream. When he tried to push himself over onto his side, something sharp jabbed his upper back, and someone called him a son-of-a-bitch and informed him that he'd get his fucking head blown off if he fucking moved again.

OK, so he wasn't moving. Daniel tried to blink the tears out of his eyes so he could focus, but all he could see were dirty snow crystals. The momentary relief of the sharp, cold air had turned biting, and he was shivering so hard it hurt. Then, to his horror, one voice pierced the cacophony.

"He's not breathing!" Pissed off, frustrated. "Shit, he's not breathing!"

Jim. Aw, God. The bastards had killed him. Daniel pushed himself up with his good hand, not caring anymore about the goon standing over him, but this time no one tried to stop him. A few feet away was a cluster of men in blue ATF jackets, some standing, some crouched around Jim's body laid out in the snow. "It's a reaction to the gas," someone snapped impatiently. "Get him hosed off, and for chrissakes get Jackson out of the open before the goddamn tourists start snapping pictures."

Daniel was surrounded again, yanked to his feet. He couldn't balance and he felt like he was going to be sick again, but he fought back anyway. "I know you're not really ATF," he snarled at the men holding him up. "You killed him, you bastards, and Jack will find you no matter what rock you try to crawl back under."

"Yeah, you're a real spitfire, all right, Dr. Jackson," one of them said. Freckles, short red hair under his ATF cap, sharp green eyes. "That may give the fly boys a boner but I'm lettin' you know right now, it don't do jack shit for me." He turned away, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

Daniel finally saw Jim again, being hauled into a motel room across the narrow parking lot. His arms hung limply at his sides and his legs were dragging through the snow. "You bastards," Daniel groaned again in helpless fury and then he was sick again even though there was nothing left to vomit up but bile. The men carrying him cursed and flung him down into the snow, and it occurred to Daniel, a little insanely, that one advantage of the tear gas was that at least he wasn't noticing his broken fingers anymore.

He was yanked up again and thrown into the same motel room as Jim. The door looked like it had been smashed off the hinges, and someone's luggage case was open on the dresser. Jim had been flung across the bed, and to Daniel's relief, his chest was visibly rising and falling. The red-haired agent was giving brisk instructions, something about the CS gas residue on Jim's clothes. Two of the agents proceeded to strip Jim with quick efficiency, shoes and socks pulled off, blue jeans yanked down over long legs, his sweater and T-shirt dragged off his shoulders. Jim did nothing to resist -- Daniel wasn't even sure he was conscious -- and his painful, rattling breaths were the loudest sound in the room. When they hauled Jim up again, as big a man as he was, his naked limbs seemed obscenely fragile against the agents' dark blue jackets.

"Be sure his eyes get flushed good. Last thing we need's a fucking blind sentinel on our hands."

"What are you doing to him?" Daniel demanded, and the red-haired agent whirled around with a nasty smile.

"I got a great idea, Dr. Jackson. You say one more word before we get to Nevada, and I'll break your jaw. How's that sound to you?"

"Frankly, like it would cause problems with your superiors. How much use am I going to be if I can't write or talk?"

For a moment Daniel thought the guy was going to take a swing at him anyway but at the last moment, when Daniel steadfastly refused to flinch, the red-haired man lowered his fist. "You're a disgrace to your uniform." He waved his hand disgustedly at Daniel's vomit-spattered clothes. "I'm not riding cross country with this guy stinking up the back of the van."

Strangers' hands were on him then, unbuckling the sling that had kept his right arm strapped immobile across his chest, pulling Jim's borrowed sweatpants off his hips. From the bathroom came the sound of running water. Then Jim screamed.

"Damn you!" Daniel lunged forward furiously, hopeless and ridiculous as it was, surrounded by muscleheaded government agents and his pants around his ankles. He was pushed back contemptuously. Jim cried out hoarsely twice more, and then Daniel couldn't hear anything from the back but splashing water.

"Make sure he's secured before we move him," the red-headed agent said. He reached out and grabbed Daniel's splinted right hand after they got his shirt off. "Wouldn't want him to break any more fingers while he's in our custody." He kept tightening his grip until Daniel swayed on his feet, light-headed with agony, only letting go when they brought Jim out of the bathroom.

Between the nausea and pain, Daniel would have collapsed then except for the agents holding him up. Jim was in worse shape. He was conscious, struggling but hopelessly outnumbered. The bedspread had been rolled off the bed along with Jim's contaminated clothes, the whole bundle shoved into a bright yellow bag. Jim was thrown down onto the bare sheets and he gasped, flinching and twisting away as though the material itself hurt him. They had to hold him down in order to towel him dry, and he made terrible hurt sounds the whole time, his skin flushed so red over his throat and abdomen he looked as though he'd been scalded. For all Daniel knew, he had been.

"You don't have to do this," Daniel insisted miserably. "He doesn't know anything. He just thought he was doing me a favor." He tried to pull himself free again, and this time, at a sign from the red-haired agent, he was shoved down on the nearer bed and a bundle dropped onto his naked lap.

"You actually did us the favor, Dr. Jackson." The red haired agent raised his voice, as if he wanted to be sure he was heard. "We've had hands-off orders on Ellison for years. Then you bring him straight to us."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"I think you'll be more comfortable if you get dressed before we move out," said the agent. "Up to you, though."

Across the tiny room Jim had been pulled upright and was being manhandled into green surgical scrubs. Daniel looked down at the bundle they'd thrown at him. Same kind of clothes for him. Doing anything they told him to do felt like surrender, but he had no doubt these bastards really would haul him all the way to Area 51 in the altogether if he didn't dress himself.

Besides, he didn't want them touching him.

He pulled the pants on clumsily. "You're wrong about Jim Ellison," he insisted. "The man's a Cascade police officer. He'll be missed. People are going to be looking for him, and they're going to find him." He tried to pull on the shirt, but his splinted hand wouldn't fit through the sleeve. They'd finished dressing Jim and he was sitting on the other bed with his head down, eyes closed, shaking from head to foot.

"Get them ready to move," barked the redheaded agent.

"You don't think this is going to make the evening news?" Daniel demanded as he was jerked to his feet, flinching when they fastened a metal chain around his waist. His hands were secured to the chain in front of his body, and another length dropped from his wrists to attach to the shackles around his ankles. All for a discredited archeologist with a couple of broken fingers. They were making him feel like Hannibal Lector. "And what about my shirt?"

"What's the matter, Dr. Jackson? Don't want to flash your tits for the six o'clock news after all?"

Daniel heard and felt the clank of chains behind him, and they did something to Jim that made him cry out.

"Stop hurting him!" Daniel snapped in frustration, trying to turn back to see what was going on. He was yanked back and found himself practically nose to nose with the red haired agent.

"You know," he told Daniel, "Once you get to Nevada, you can talk all you want." When he stepped back he was holding a zat gun. So much for any lingering doubt about whether these guys were really NID or not, Daniel thought in bleak triumph. As if the pyrotechnics and lack of discipline hadn't been a big enough clue.

"In fact," the agent continued, "I bet chatting will be positively encouraged. For right now, though --" he opened the zat and pressed the snake-head muzzle against Daniel's sternum, "Shut -- the fuck -- up."

Daniel felt the tingle of power buzzing against his flesh like thousands of ants crawling, and he clenched his jaw hoping it would prevent him from biting his tongue when the zat went off. The eyes of the red haired agent were bright with anticipation. The guy seemed to know all about him. Probably knew all about Jack as well. Probably thought he could be Jack O'Neill some day. Sadistic little S.O.B. didn't have a clue.

"You couldn't even clean Jack's P90," he said, wondering why he thought it was a good idea to be saying it out loud. Seemed to have struck a nerve. Snarling, the agent clubbed him in the side of the head with the zat.

Real waste of technology there, Daniel thought as he slumped to his knees, ears ringing and the chains rattling. He heard Jim again, very close behind him, and felt the chain around his waist biting into skin. He and Jim were shackled together, Daniel realized as he was yanked back to his feet. Their own little two-man chain gang. In the distance he could hear the wail of police sirens. If there were any way to delay until the cops arrived, there might be some hope, but nothing occurred to him as he and Jim were dragged and pushed outside. The icy sidewalk burned the bottoms of his feet, and each snowflake on his shoulders was a little kiss of fire.

The back doors of a white van were standing open. Pulling Daniel from the front and half-lifting Jim from the back, the agents hustled them inside and dumped them on a bench seat. Grillwork separated them the front seats, and rings had been welded to the walls of the van. An agent fastened Daniel's shackles to one of the rings. If the van had an accident on the icy roads, it would take a hacksaw to get them out.

Of course, considering what had happened to them so far, burning to death in a fiery crash or going over the side of a mountain before they got to Area 51 almost seemed like an acceptable alternative. He wondered if Jim felt the same way. He was shivering violently at Daniel's side, both from the cold and in reaction to the tear gas, and he flinched when the doors of the van were slammed behind him, as if the very sound hurt him.

"You OK?" Daniel asked quietly, when he thought the van's engine would cover the sound of his voice.

Jim turned his head slowly. He looked terrible, his flesh blotched red, bloodshot eyes still streaming tears. "Nothing personal, Jackson," he whispered hoarsely. "But the next time Blair turns up with a houseguest, I'm sending him straight to a motel."

~~~

Jack was really hoping that Carter's second phone call to the mountain would be a short one. The unfortunate geeks stuck on duty on Christmas Day (though if they were anything like Sam or Daniel, they had probably volunteered) would feed Jim Ellison's name into their big super-extra-classified databases and absolutely zilch would come out. Jim Ellison: Cascade, Washington police officer. No rational reason in the world for his little roommate to have jumped to the conclusion that an Air Force colonel would turn up on his doorstep on Christmas morning looking for him. Just paranoia fed by his likely political affiliations and too much time reading government conspiracy rags. Right? Of course, right.

Carter was on the phone for nearly half an hour.

While he waited for the news, his hopes sinking with every passing minute, Jack put away the leftovers and Teal'c watched Sandburg. Carter stuck her head out from the little bedroom under the stairs to indicate with a shrug that she was still on hold, and then Jack watched Sandburg while Teal'c washed their dinner dishes. Finally, Jack dried the dishes and put them away as best he could while Teal'c took his turn again watching Sandburg sulk and refuse to talk to them.

Fine, Jack thought irritably. If the kid would rather have his dishes put away in the wrong place instead of just opening his mouth and telling Jack where things belonged, then so be it.

He did remember seeing Teal'c get the rice platter down from the high cabinet beside the sink, and he was standing on tiptoe sliding the platter back into place when Carter came out again, no longer holding the phone. She wasn't smiling. "May I speak to you a moment, sir?"

Oh, it wasn't good. It so wasn't good.

He followed her back into the bedroom -- Sandburg's, if the books piled up on the desk, shelves and floor were any way to judge. "OK. Give it to me straight. I can take it."

Carter looked at him. "Yes, sir," she said, and proceeded to tell him what they knew back at Cheyenne Mountain about one Detective James Ellison. Jack listened without interruption until she was done.

"Well," he said at last. "That's just lovely." Carter gave him a tight-lipped smile in return. Lovely probably wasn't the way she would describe her news. Even the sketchy, coded information they had been able to give her on a non-secure line was bad enough. "You think Daniel knew when he came here?"

"I have no idea, sir. The police report made it sound like Blair helping him in the parking lot was just a chance encounter, but how do we know what Daniel could have been up to all this time?"

Jack shook his head and looked through the door to check on Sandburg. He was still sitting at the dining room table, arms crossed over his chest, pointedly not paying attention to Teal'c who was looming politely beside him. "And when's SG2 supposed to arrive?"

"Still four hours away."

"That's a hell of a long time considering we're looking at a foothold situation. Hammond does realize that we're sitting ducks here, right? If those -- people, things, alien whosits, whatever the hell they are -- come back before we've got reinforcements they'll have us for Christmas dinner."

Sam shook her head. "Getting here from Colorado Springs isn't like stepping through a stargate, Colonel."

"Give me an alien world on the other side of the galaxy anytime. So how much do you think Sandburg knows about all the people following his roommate's career?"

"Enough to make him understandably paranoid about us, but he doesn't seem to have much in the way of actual facts."

"No. Well, let's see if we can shake some loose." He crossed the room, and Sandburg raised his head warily to watch his progress.

"I want to make a phone call," he announced to Jack.

"Maybe in a little while." Jack swung a chair around and straddled it. "I'd like to talk about your roommate Ellison first."

"Kind of a neatness freak. Wants the kitchen floor kept clean enough to eat off of, but otherwise, you could do a lot worse."

It was a good shot, not a tremor in the kid's voice to betray how scared he must be. "Does that have anything to do with this whole 'sentinel' business?" Jack asked, not enjoying it. "I'm not sure I get that. What makes someone like Jim a sentinel anyway? In terms a layman can understand."

Sandburg didn't flinch. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Short memory. You published your first paper on the, um --" Jack waved his hand around, "-- theoretical existence of sentinels while you were still an undergraduate. Reminds me of Daniel, that way. You've probably always been too fast out of the gate."

No answer at all this time. Sandburg glared at him, his hands flat on the table.

"According to university records, you're writing your doctoral dissertation on sentinels. You keep missing deadlines, though, which could turn out to be something of a problem given that you're not exactly keeping your nose squeaky-clean with the administration. Weren't you supposed to have defended your dissertation nearly two years ago?"

"This is my tax dollars at work?" Sandburg finally snarled. "Keeping tabs on grad students? If you've got to spy on somebody, couldn't you people be out doing something useful like watching those numb-nuts in the Christian Identity movement or hey, how about keeping a closer eye on Operation Rescue to see if you could maybe catch the loonies before they blow up another abortion clinic?"

Jack glanced up to see Teal'c at Sandburg's shoulder and looking way too interested in all of this. Later, Jack thought. Maybe he could fob him off on Carter.

"So a sentinel is, what, like some kind of a superhero, right? Someone who can leap tall buildings in a single bound?"

Blair snorted and then looked away, obviously sorry to have shown any reaction at all.

"Right. The truth is nobody but you knows exactly what a sentinel is capable of because you stopped talking about them after you met Ellison. By the way, that little paper you gave last year on police interactions with Cascade's Russian immigrant community was apparently riveting, but it didn't actually fool any of the people watching you and Ellison."

"Jesus," Sandburg muttered, staring down at his hands spread on the table.

"So the best we can tell, the CIA has been trying to recruit your roommate for nearly three years now."

Sandburg looked up, blinking once. His face was calm but very white, and with a sudden flash of insight, Jack realized the kid really may not have known anything about that part of it. "He didn't tell you, did he?" Jack said, not without sympathy. "Well, if it's any consolation, they haven't been trying all that hard. Detective Ellison's not a kid anymore, and you've gotta figure that no matter what kind of a superman he is, his background as an Army Ranger -- a bona fide hero, for chrissakes, face on the cover of Newsday and everything -- would tend to limit his usefulness as an agent.

"Same deal with the Pentagon, apparently. Sure, the Army would probably like to reactivate Ellison, but all indications are that he and his family -- and you -- would kick up a fuss, and the Pentagon is choosing its battles a little more carefully under this administration. One soldier, no matter how impressive, just isn't as important as making sure they get those next dozen Apache helicopters funded."

"Why are you telling me all this?" Sandburg was losing the battle to keep his voice level. "I don't know where Jim is and I wouldn't help you find him even if I did."

"Smart guy like you? I think you already know. There's a third group keeping their eye on Detective Ellison, and they're the ones who want him bad. They're in the business of collecting weapons, human, technological, or anything else, and they don't give a damn about politics or bad publicity or human rights or the rule of law or congressional oversight. Hell, they are congressional oversight. If it hadn't been for the CIA and Pentagon watching Ellison all this time, they would have snatched him already."

"The NID knows about Jim," Sandburg said in a strangled voice.

"Damn straight they know about Jim. They know about Daniel, too, and if they catch up with them before we do, there's not much chance we'll ever see either one of them again. The NID will deny everything, and Jim and Daniel will spend the rest of their lives turning tricks at Area 51."

Sandburg flinched visibly, and Teal'c suddenly pronounced, "Colonel O'Neill is speaking the truth. I myself have witnessed their dishonorable acts."

"Wherever they're going, Jim and Daniel won't make it by themselves," Jack pressed on. "The NID is too close and they know too much. Blair -- all right, it's true, Daniel can annoy the hell out of me at times, and this last stunt was really just about the final straw, but the little son of a bitch is my best friend, and I can't let this happen to him. Not if there's any way to stop it."

Sandburg shook his head miserably, one fist clenching on the table. "How can I possibly trust you?"

Jack reached out and covered Sandburg's fist with his hand. He started, but then he raised his head and looked Jack in the eye all the same. "How can you afford not to?" Jack said.

~~~

The heater was running full blast, but as far as Daniel could tell, it wasn't getting appreciably warmer in the back of the van. He and Jim were pressed shoulder to shoulder to share body heat, and the chain that linked them together was digging uncomfortably into Daniel's back. At this rate, he was going to have permanent links engraved over his kidneys by the time they got to Nevada.

"So what is a 'sentinel,' anyway?" he whispered, not particularly expecting an answer, just hoping to take his mind off the cold. His bare feet felt like blocks of ice.

Jim shifted slightly beside him. He wasn't shivering as hard as Daniel, but Daniel thought he was worse off all the same, his skin pasty-white now that the hectic flush had faded from his cheeks. His gaze was unfocused. "You're looking at one. Impressed?"

"Are you feeling any better?"

Jim shook his head and shrugged, seeming distracted. "Be quiet," he muttered like someone talking in his sleep.

OK. Quiet. It was just as easy to shiver in silence. Maybe easer than talking, really. He wondered if Jim believed what the agents had said about him betraying Jim to them. Not much point in protesting his innocence, though it had to be obvious he wasn't any better off than Jim was.

"They don't know," Jim said suddenly, his voice so low Daniel had to strain to hear him. "They don't even know what you can do."

"Nobody knows. Nobody until you. Why do you think I took off in the first place? I couldn't let --" He broke off and looked at the agents in the front of the van. Their voices were barely audible over the noise of the laboring engine and clanking whine of the snow chains. Nevertheless, Daniel had been following enough of their conversation to know they had been complaining about the dearth of radio stations between here and Idaho, and not about him.

"Dig sites?" Jim was saying. "Translations? I don't believe this. All this firepower because they need an archeologist?"

Worth more than a day's rations in some parts of the galaxy, Daniel was ridiculously tempted to say.

"And they really don't like you, Dr. Jackson." Jim didn't quite smile, but the corner of his mouth quirked up momentarily. "Me, they don't much give a damn about, except to be surprised that I went down so easy. But you --" He turned his head to look at Daniel with something like respect. "You, the special agent in charge would like to gut with a fishing knife and string up for the buzzards. What did you ever do to the NID?"

So Jim had figured out they were NID, too.

"And who are the Tollans?"

Daniel stared. That wasn't just good inductive reasoning, and he was damned sure nobody had mentioned the Tollans within earshot. "How do you -- who told you that?"

Jim just shook his head again in that same distracted way, his eyes unfocused and still tearing from the gas. His breaths rasped. "Sandburg didn't quite get it right about you, did he?" he asked softly. "Whatever you've been doing with the Air Force these past few years, it's bigger than --" he trailed off, wincing in concentration. "Who's Shifu?"

Daniel felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, and it wasn't from the cold any longer. Jim seemed to be pulling information out of thin air. Out of the minds of the agents themselves. Was that what a sentinel was? A human telepath? No wonder the NID had shot first and asked questions later. "How do you know about Shifu?" he whispered.

Jim didn't answer, and Daniel put out his hand to draw his attention. He flinched before Daniel's fingertips actually touched him. "Special Agent in Charge Franklin is talking about him in the van ahead of us," he said.

God, not a telepath; he could actually hear them. Daniel should have figured it out before. Jim had already told him he could hear the agents in the parking lot before the gas attack.

"That's incredible."

Jim closed his eyes. "And look where it's got me. Jackson, that thing you do. Your -- sleepwalking. Can you do it when you're awake?"

It took him a moment to even understand the question. "When I'm awake? No, of course not. I've given up everything to stop it. Why would I ever deliberately try to make it happen?"

Jim bowed his head, eyes still closed. He was taking shallow, careful breaths, concentrating as though each one required special effort. His limbs were trembling, but as Daniel watched him, he saw beads of sweat appear on Jim's forehead. At long last, his breathing seemed to grow a little easier and eventually he blinked his eyes open again, looking as exhausted as a man who'd just run a marathon.

"You're not well," Daniel said. "We've got to tell them."

Jim shook his head groggily, impatient with him. "So if you've never even tried sleepwalking when you're awake, how do you know you can't?"

He couldn't understand why Jim was being so insistent. "Because it doesn't matter. I wouldn't do it."

Jim looked around himself, his gaze taking in the back of the van, the chains on their hands and feet and around their waists, the agents in front. "Not even to get away from this?" he whispered.

When he realized what Jim was proposing, it took his breath away. "Oh, God. You can't be serious."

"Can you do it?"

"No. I wouldn't dare."

Jim took a few more of those careful, shallow breaths. "I don't have to explain to you how serious this is, do I? The Special Agent in Charge up there is talking about thiopental sodium and cattle prods."

Could hardly be worse than the Blood of Sokar, Daniel thought. "Don't ask me about this any more. I won't do it. It's not safe for me to even think about it."

"Then think about whether 'safe' is a relative term right now." Jim's eyes closed once more. His brow creased with concentration. "Lieutenant Sims thinks it's . . . ironic. They first got the idea to use lysergic acid in conjunction with the Tokra memory device after reading SG1's reports about Netu. Apparently yours was particularly informative." Jim opened his eyes again. "They think they'll do better with you than Apophis did."

The bastards. The bastards. Daniel hadn't known the NID still had the power to shock him anymore, but hell, obviously they did. "Jim, if you can -- I don't know -- turn it off now, stop listening, it would probably be safer for you."

"Safe?" Jim husked a dry laugh that doubled him over with coughs. When they finally subsided tears were streaming from his eyes. He leaned forward with his forearms resting on his thighs, his chained hands clasped before his face like he was praying. "You and your definition of 'safe.' Jackson, for the last time, you could get out of here. If you don't go, if you don't even try, then I can't understand why you ran away in the first place. I sure as hell don't know why I tried to help you." The necessity of whispering didn't rob his words of any of their vehemence.

Daniel leaned back on the vinyl seat. "You wouldn't understand, and I can't possibly explain."

"Does it feel too good?" Jim asked, just as softly. He was still bowed forward and looking at the floor. "Is that why it scares you so badly? You're afraid that if you reach out and just take a power like that you'll never be able to let it go? Afraid it'll make you less human?"

Daniel closed his eyes, feeling the remembered despair and exhilaration welling up inside. "If I tell you 'yes,' will you leave me alone?"

"You think I don't know what it feels like? Seeing yourself as a freak instead of a human being? You think I don't understand wanting to shut it all away and pretend like it doesn't exist? Jackson, people have nearly died because I wasn't ready to accept the consequences of these abilities."

"I've already seen the way it turns out. I mean, if I try to do what you're asking." Daniel had no hope that Jim would believe him, but the man had risked everything for him. He did deserve an answer, even one no sane person would accept. "My wife's son -- it was -- the thing is, he must have known what was going to happen to me, even though I didn't understand until afterwards. I thought it was about him, but it was about me all along. He showed me a -- like a vision. A warning. If I use this power I'll betray the people I love most in the world. I'll destroy everything that means anything to me. I'm sorry, but I can't risk it. I won't."

He was expecting Jim to either laugh at him or explode with rage. Either way, give him up as a lost cause and stop asking him to do this impossible thing. Instead, Jim didn't speak for a long time, and when he did, his voice was louder, as though he didn't care whether the agents in front overheard him or not. "You know, I had a dream a few months ago, too. I dreamed I killed someone who loved me, and when I woke up I thought it was a warning, and I sent him away from me so it could never come true."

Jim fell silent again, save for the rattle in his lungs. Daniel didn't ask what had happened next. The end was implicit in the story's beginning. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Jim shook his head and didn't say anything else for a long time. Daniel eventually turned to try and see out. He couldn't distinguish much. The van's windows were tinted and covered with grillwork. The snow had ended, and apparently the plow must have caught up with them not long after he and Jim had stopped at the motel, because the road seemed clear.

Although maybe they were heading east and out of the mountains. It bothered him that he couldn't tell. He supposed Jim would know where they were headed. For certain Jack would.

Eventually even the agents in the front of the van fell silent, their exhilaration over having captured their quarry settling down into the routine of a very long drive. He wondered if Jim were still listening to the agents in the other vehicles, and he wondered what they were talking about. He was so cold his bones ached, and the warmth from the van's heater made his skin flush without seeming to warm him up inside. Jim trembled beside him, and when he finally spoke again, his voice was more hoarse, as though it hurt to speak at all.

"It'll be rougher on you."

Daniel shrugged. "Like you said, they don't like me."

"No." Jim coughed twice, and clenched his hands together. "I mean, you'll live longer. They don't know what I am; they don't know how to -- take care of me." The words came out like a curse. "The tear gas was stupid." Jim's head twitched, and his arms jerked involuntarily. "Too much exposure, too close. I can't --" He broke off with a sudden gasp then curled forward, shaking so hard his manacles and leg irons clanked noisily. "Tell Sandburg it wasn't --"

"Jim!"

He convulsed beside Daniel on the seat, choking and thrashing. An elbow caught Daniel in the ribs, and as Daniel screamed at the agents to stop the van, Jim's head snapped back and smacked his cheekbone so hard Daniel saw stars. He was still fruitlessly trying to steady Jim as the van slid to a stop on the icy shoulder. The back end slewed around and threw Jim off the slick seat, dragging Daniel with him. For long moments he hung agonizingly suspended by his shackled wrists, the chain biting into his waist from Jim's weight as the back of the van was thrown open and agents swarmed in, shouting orders and cursing. They tried to haul Jim back onto the seat, but there wasn't enough room for them to work in the close confines, and after an interminable delay, as Jim's convulsions grew weaker, someone finally unfastened Daniel's shackles from the side of the van. The two of them were pulled out the back, where Jim collapsed in a heap and Daniel was dragged to his knees beside him in the slush.

The red haired agent was there, almost apoplectic with rage, and by his directions Jim was stretched out onto his back and an oxygen mask forced over his face.

"Dammit, that's not helping," Daniel groaned in protest, close enough to see Jim's face, wide eyed with pain and terror, and hear the rattle in his throat. "Can't you see you're hurting him?"

No one paid the slightest attention. Someone tied a short length of elastic around Jim's upper arm, and the red-haired agent himself pushed in the needle of the syringe. For an instant Jim went absolutely rigid, and then his back arched in a violent spasm. He didn't have breath enough to scream out loud anymore, but Daniel could feel the silent cry of every rigid muscle, in every rattle of the chains that bound them together.

Daniel couldn't deny the battle any longer.

Shifu must have known all along that he would fail. No wonder he hadn't stayed.

He groped for Jim's hand, and when he found it, held on hard. He closed his eyes and stopped fighting, embracing the knowledge that had changed him forever in that goa'uld palace by the sea. Not a sunny pleasure dome at all. The Light wasn't an empty visual narcotic, but a method of traveling without a gate.

Over the past six months, Daniel had often wondered if the doomed members of SG5 had known as well, because length of exposure had to be the key. It had to be the reason Daniel alone of SG1 had been so affected. The alternative was to believe that he was the only one corrupt enough to be permanently changed by the Light. Shifu had shown him his capacity for evil, but surely Daniel wasn't even worse than the goa'uld. Even they no longer used the Light to travel, and Daniel thought he understood why.

Once you knew the secret, the knowing lay closer than a lover, as irresistible as the final stroke before orgasm.

Once you knew how, you could never sleep in peace again.

He was dimly aware of hands closing around his arm, trying to pull him away from Jim, then of a violent clout to the side of his head. The blow surprised him into opening his eyes for an instant, and past the knot of agents surrounding him, a quarter mile or more down the shoulder of the road he saw a man in a business suit walking briskly in their direction. He swung his briefcase in a jaunty way as he tromped effortlessly through the snow.

Daniel squeezed his eyes shut, and embraced the burden Shifu had told him he had to reject.

---

"And keep an eye on Sandburg," Captain Banks growled. "He's got a bad habit of giving people the slip."

"Yes, sir," Jack said as Blair protested furiously on the other phone, "Aw, Simon, c'mon, man, you can't expect me to just sit here while Jim --"

"It's that or protective custody down at the station," Banks said flatly. "In fact, that would probably be safer anyway. I'll send a patrol car around to pick you up."

"I don't think that will be necessary," Jack interrupted. "We'll wait here with Mr. Sandburg in case Detective Ellison is able to call home."

It wasn't a choice that made Captain Banks very happy, Jack could tell, but then, nothing about this situation was likely to do that. "Sandburg, it's your call," Banks said at last, and that gruffness in his voice sounded suspiciously like affection to Jack. "You can wait at the loft or here at the station. You know Jim would have my hide if I let anything happen."

"Please, Simon," Sandburg begged without shame. "I'll be careful, I swear, but you've got to let me help."

"And that's what you'll be doing by staying put and not forcing me to waste limited manpower on Christmas day sending people out to look for you. I can't afford that and neither can Jim."

"Simon --"

"Give me your word, Blair, or I'm bringing you in to the station."

There was a moment of mutinous silence from Blair, and then he said at last, "You've got it. Under protest."

"Glad to hear it. Now put the phone down so I can have a word alone with Colonel O'Neill."

Sandburg protested that immediately. "This is Jim's life, Simon! I have a right to know anything that you --"

Jack put his hand over the mouthpiece. "Teal'c," he said softly. "Blair's done with the phone now."

Sandburg shot him a furious look, but he only said, "You've gotta tell me everything, Simon. As soon as you know anything. You've got to," and put down the cordless phone before Teal'c could take it from him.

"Colonel O'Neill," Banks said then, and the growl was back in his voice. "I'm pledging my department's absolute cooperation in finding Ellison and your man Jackson, and while I don't condone the way Sandburg misled both of us today, I have to say that a part of me certainly understands his lack of trust. You don't need me to tell you how damned irregular this whole business is."

"You'll get no disagreement from me, sir," Jack said. They were finally getting somewhere after wasting most of the day tap-dancing, so there was no point in antagonizing local law enforcement now. Especially when, as Captain Banks knew perfectly well, Jack had no standing whatsoever, national security interests or no national security interests. Jack thought he would probably win a turf war in the long run, but by then Daniel would be buried so deeply in the bowels of Area 51 even a presidential mandate wouldn't get him out again. "Of course, I've found that's what tends to happen anyway when civilians are involved."

That surprised a chuckle from Banks. "Everything gets damned irregular? Indeed it does, Colonel." He immediately turned serious again. "One last thing. If I ever find out that you were involved in Detective Ellison's abduction in any way, or even that you knew what was going to happen and didn't do everything in your ability to stop it, it'll become my fulltime job to ensure that you're called to account for it. Just so we understand each other, Colonel O'Neill."

"I have a secondary unit with an ETA of under three hours," Jack answered flatly. "We'll liaise with you immediately upon their arrival."

Sandburg was on him as soon as he put the phone down. "Well, come on," he said, his hands making frantic hurry-up gestures. "It's going to take us at least a couple of hours to get up there in this weather, maybe more. We've gotta get going."

"Where do you think we're going?"

Sandburg stared at him in disbelief. "Blewett Pass. Where that phony ATF crew tear gassed the motel. We've gotta get up there."

"Excuse me," Jack said with exaggerated patience, "Weren't you listening to any of the preceding conversation? We're going to be spending the rest of Christmas right here. Want to turn on the tube and see if any of the cable stations are playing 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas'?"

"Oh, I was listening, all right." Sandburg was apparently trying to keep his voice down, but it kept rising out of his control anyway. "They found Jim's truck there. They used tear gas, man. On Jim. He could be --" He broke off, shaking. "He needs me. I have to get up there right away, and you have to help me."

Carter was standing behind Blair, and though her eyes were bright with sympathy, her lips were pressed together in a tight line. She didn't like this either, and was clearly itching for the chance to tell him exactly why. Well, Jack could only handle one unhappy person at a time right now. She'd just have to wait her turn.

"Detective Ellison isn't at Blewett Pass. The people who took him are an hour away from there by now, and we can't do him any good aimlessly driving around in the Cascade Mountains in a snow storm. The highway patrol is setting up road blocks, and as soon as they catch them --"

"By then it could be too late," Blair said furiously. Tears of anger or despair glittered in his eyes, but he didn't let them fall. "Goddammit, you said I could trust you. Well, fuck this, and fuck you too, Colonel O'Neill. I'm not waiting around here for some uniform to call and tell me that Jim is dead." He turned around and stalked for the door, grabbed a set of keys out of the basket and a coat from the hook on the wall before Teal'c caught up with him, stopping him with a heavy hand on his shoulder.

"Indeed you will be 'waiting around here'," he informed Sandburg politely. "Perhaps you would be more comfortable sitting on the sofa?"

For a moment Sandburg actually looked like he was considering taking Teal'c on, but instead he shrugged himself free of Teal'c's gentle restraint, threw his coat and keys onto the floor and stalked up to Jack. "Jim could die," he said. "Depending on his exposure and the amount of stress he's under, which you and I both know is a hell of a lot right now, the tear gas could kill him. It's part of the deal with him being a sentinel. Now please, for the last time. I'll do anything. Once Jim's OK we'll both do anything you want, I promise, but please let me go to him."

"I will," Jack told him honestly. "Just as soon as we know where he is." He looked away from Sandburg's face as it twisted with grief. "Carter, did you want a word with me?"

"Yes, sir," she said in that way of hers. When she had something to say that she knew Jack wasn't going to like.

"Teal'c, keep an eye on him," Jack said unnecessarily, and he followed Carter out on the balcony. The cold air felt good. The early winter sunset was perhaps an hour away, and the snow had stopped some time earlier.

"Sir," she said again. "I'm concerned about Daniel."

He smiled tightly. "You're not the only one, Major."

"No, sir, I mean, I'm not sure it's a good idea counting on highway patrol officers to intercept the NID."

"If we were up there I'd agree with you, but like I was just explaining to Blair, they're at least two hours up in the mountains, maybe more, and we're down here. And like I didn't explain to Blair and shouldn't have to explain to you, unfortunately we have more to worry about right now than an AWOL archeologist."

"The aliens. I know that, but what concerns me is the possibility that the NID might not wait to get to Area 51 to begin questioning Daniel. You know they believe Shifu told him more than he ever admitted in his debriefing, and it's entirely possible they have stolen mind probe technology from the goa'uld or other races that could --"

"I know that," Jack interrupted her flatly. "And right now there's not a goddammed thing we can do about it."

She looked at him. "No, sir," she said. "There isn't. I have one other concern, Colonel."

"Go ahead."

"Well, like you said, this is a foothold situation." She nodded her head in the direction of Sandburg through the windows. "He's a civilian. Now that we've gotten what we needed from him, he should be out of the line of fire."

"If you can figure out where that might be, I'd be glad to send him there, believe me. But you saw the way those alien whosits arrived. Blair said they found Daniel's glasses by scent alone. Do you really think sending him to a police station would thwart them for very long if they come back lookin' for him?"

"But the fact is, Colonel, we can't protect him either. Not until SG2 gets here. We don't have weapons; we don't have anything."

"We can do better than a civilian police force. At least we know what we're dealing with."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Carter interrupted, sounding at the end of her rope. "But we don't know what we're dealing with. We don't know anything at all."

"O'Neill!" It wasn't a scream, because Teal'c didn't scream, but Jack knew even before he'd turned around that there was just no way SG2 could get there in time.

~~~

Daniel thought Sam would have loved this part. He even wondered if this was a tiny glimpse of what it was like to be Sam Carter. He didn't have the words to describe what he saw and what he knew, but he was sure it could have been expressed in Sam's vocabulary. The mathematics of space. The geometry of existence.

He saw the Light as soon as he relaxed his guard, the memory etched into the coils of his mind from the uncounted hours he'd spent enraptured in that goa'uld palace by the sea. Seeing it allowed him to tumble forward, no longer resisting the sweet tug into understanding that had haunted his dreams ever since Janet had pronounced him cured of his addiction.

Everything was so clear, so obvious. Tweak the equation a bit and the universe furled up like an umbrella.

Sam, I wish I could show you.

It couldn't have been more different than gate travel, which was all noise and light, the splash of the event horizon before hurtling through a jagged rip across the very soul of reality. This was -- this was a careful turn or two. An accommodation. An easy, comfortable shift. Daniel curled himself into the folds of existence as though he were a small child again, hiding in heavy velvet draperies while his parents made polite small talk at a faculty reception, and when he was on the other side he found himself moving through the twilight of his dreams. He didn't know if he were walking or crawling or flying. He hoped Jim was there with him, but he couldn't begin to fathom where he might be, even though when the currents shifted, sometimes he caught a fragmentary impression of his fellow travelers. They weren't human. They weren't anything he could understand, and Daniel thought he, himself, must lie beyond the pale of anything they could have understood as well.

Save for his pursuers. They understood, and they were following him now.

Just passing through, he implored them. One last time, I promise.

The stone was cold under his bare feet in the tower room. The windows facing the sea were tightly shuttered, but he could hear the crashing of the waves. As always, the sound made him a little uneasy, and he was glad the shutters were closed.

"Jim." He had never tried speaking out loud here before, and his voice was strange to him. "It's all right. We're safe."

Daniel turned his head to find Jim standing right beside him. He held himself rigid, his hands curled into fists and his wrists pressed together as though he were still manacled even though his chains, like Daniel's, were gone. His eyes were closed.

"Jim."

He shook his head tightly, once.

"Are you all right?" (How the breakers crashed, the unseen ocean surging and pounding against the cliff.) "Can you open your eyes?"

"No," Jim whispered.

"It's probably -- we need to go. Even when I thought this was just a dream I never tried to stay here long." He reached for Jim's hand, and Jim's fingers closed around his with convulsive strength. "I'll lead you."

"Tell me." Jim's throat worked. "What do you see?"

He tugged gently, pulling Jim with him to one of the open windows.

"There's a city out there, down below us. Vaster than Byzantium and even more beautiful." Daniel felt the familiar, half-pleasurable ache of longing below his breastbone. "The streets are paved with moonstones and opals, and in the daylight they must look like rivers of fire pouring down from the hillsides. I've only been here at night, though, and right now they're like ribbons of silver. The moon is up, and it covers half the sky. There aren't any stars. I don't know, maybe the moon is too bright and too close for me to see them. But maybe there simply aren't any. We could be at the edge of the galaxy here. The edge of the universe."

Jim shook his head again, still holding hard to Daniel's hand. "Behind us," he said impatiently. "What's that behind us?"

"It's just the breakers. This tower is on a cliff over the sea." Daniel looked down at the dreaming city once more. More beautiful than anything he had ever known, and forever just out of reach. "You could open your eyes for a moment," he urged Jim, knowing he was being selfish, but wishing desperately all the same that he could share this with one other person in the universe. "It's so lovely."

"That's not a city down there." Jim's voice cracked. "And that's not the sea."

Daniel looked at Jim's face, strained and white in the moonlight that streamed in the open window, and he remembered the first time he had come here, when the shutters had been flung open wide. He had gone to the windows, and looked down at the pounding surf. He didn't ask Jim to look again.

"Jackson," he said suddenly. "There's something else here."

"I know. They've been following me for a while now. Maybe right from the beginning. I don't think they want me here." Daniel closed his own eyes, the way these dreams always ended. "It's time to go."

~~~

Blair almost missed it. He was pacing furiously under Teal'c's watchful gaze, trying to figure out how the hell he was going to get away from his keeper and get up to Blewett Pass. He was tempted to just make a run for his car, but he already knew how fast Teal'c was. If he caught him, he probably wouldn't hesitate to tie him to a chair again.

Then as he turned around, he saw it. A flicker of motion like a stray reflection on the glass of his bedroom doors. Blair glanced over his shoulder, trying to figure out what would have caused that reflection, and when he looked back, the panes of glass were rippling like water in a pond.

Oh dear God. They were back.

Waves spread out across the wooden floor. The walls on either side of his bedroom door warped gently, swaying like heavy curtains in the breeze. By then Teal'c had seen what was happening and was bellowing for Jack O'Neill, but Blair couldn't tear his eyes away from the spectacle even though he knew that he should be diving for cover. He saw shadows following the flex and give of the wall before the walls snapped tidily to right angles again. His bedroom door slammed shut. Jack yelled at him to hit the deck, and he could hear Teal'c behind him, but even Teal'c wasn't fast enough to stop him from putting his shaking hand on the doorknob and pushing it open again.

This was still his home, dammit. His and Jim's, despite every invasion.

Reaching him an instant later, Teal'c grabbed Blair's upper arm and dragged him back. As soon as he saw over Blair's head into the bedroom, he let him go again.

Jim and Daniel lay curled on the floor, so close their foreheads almost touched. They looked, as Blair struggled to comprehend what he was seeing, as if they were both wrapped up in chains. Each was grasping the other's wrist above their manacles, hanging on as grimly as a pair of skydivers sharing a single chute. Jim's eyes were open and he was panting softly. He flinched when Blair threw himself to his knees beside him.

"Teal'c?" O'Neill called. "What the --"

"We have found Daniel Jackson. Or rather, he has found us."

"OK." O'Neill suddenly sounded a little nuts. "OK, so not possible."

Bending low over Jim, Blair ignored them. He was ignoring everything, the fact Jim could not possibly be there, that the entire world was so fucked he would never take the laws of physics for granted again. All that mattered in the universe was the sound of Jim breathing.

"Hey, man," he whispered. "Can you hear me? You're home, Jim. You're home."

Jim's hair was wet and so were his clothes, baggy green surgical scrubs that clung to his body. He was shivering violently, his face and throat blotched red. He and Daniel were in handcuffs and leg irons, chained together with body manacles. Both were barefoot and Daniel didn't even have a shirt. God, God. They looked like someone had been dragging them through the snow.

Jim winced at Blair's first touch, and so Blair moved slowly and carefully as he lifted the back of Jim's wet shirt and put his open palm between his shoulder blades. Jim's bare skin was so cold Blair shivered in sympathy. "It's OK," he murmured. "I'm right here. You made it. You're safe."

Sam was kneeling beside Daniel, two fingers on his throat to check his pulse, and Jack was behind her. Wondering if these people were going to continue being a hindrance, Blair spared a single quick glance up at O'Neill, and was startled by the expression of naked relief on the colonel's face. "Pass me that blanket," Blair said, emboldened.

O'Neill scooped it off the bed at once, and Sam helped Blair tuck it around Jim and Daniel's shoulders. "What's wrong with him, Carter?" he demanded harshly, though Blair could still see the vulnerability in his eyes.

"I don't know, sir. If I didn't know better I'd say they were both suffering from exposure."

"I'm hoping it's mostly shock," Blair said, keeping his voice low. "Daniel was like this when we found him last time, too."

"Last time?" O'Neill snapped, but his tone didn't fool Blair any longer. "You mean he's been making a habit of this?"

"He's cold," Sam said, putting her hand on Daniel's forehead. "We need to get them off the floor." She looked to Blair as though for confirmation, and he nodded.

"I've got it, Carter." O'Neill touched her shoulder and she stood up and moved back, making room for him to kneel beside Daniel in her place. "C'mon, Daniel," he said gruffly. "Up and at 'em." He slipped his hand under Daniel's face and very gently raised his head. "I just hope you gave better than you got."

He was talking about the bruises. They had darkened impressively since last night, and there was a trickle of dried blood from a contusion across Daniel's temple that Blair knew hadn't been there when he and Jim had set off this morning. It seemed like about a million years ago.

"Think we can get them to let go of each other?" O'Neill asked him quietly.

"I can." Blair ran his hand down Jim's left arm, feeling the tension of rigid muscles. If Daniel was holding on even half as tightly, the two of them were giving each other new bruises. "Jim, man, it's OK. I've got you." He wrapped his hand around the back of Jim's. "You can let go now."

Jim blinked and groaned. His head rolled back against Blair's knees. "Sandburg," he rasped.

"Yeah. Yeah. Welcome back."

Jim's clenched fist suddenly went slack, and Blair saw white fingerprints glowing against the livid flesh of Daniel's wrist. Daniel made a quiet sound as he was released, and then his hand relaxed as well. Jim's inner wrist showed the imprint of Daniel's fingertips, too.

"Daniel," O'Neill was saying. "Danny. Come on."

"We're home?" Although Jim's eyes were open, he didn't seem to be taking in his surroundings.

"Got it in one, man."

"Jackson?" Jim asked next, his voice just a rough whisper.

"He's right here. You're both OK. Just take it easy."

Jim nodded, satisfied. "You were wrong about him, Chief." He began to cough, but he pushed back against the pressure of Blair's hand between his shoulder blades, and after a moment he was able to continue. "He got us away from there. He got us home."

"Sure looks like it," Blair agreed quietly. He glanced across at the colonel and found himself pinned by a sudden appraising stare. "I'm glad. Jim, I need you to concentrate for a moment here. Were you exposed to tear gas?"

"Yeah," he groaned. "Nasty stuff. They injected me with something, too. Steroids, probably." He smiled faintly, eyes still closed. "You'd have been freaking out, Chief."

"Well, it's still a possibility," Blair told him shakily, but despite everything Jim seemed calm now, on top of his body's reactions.

Daniel flinched and his eyes suddenly popped open.

"Daniel." O'Neill's voice was very soft.

"Hi, Jack," Daniel answered mildly. He blinked. "Where've you been?"

O'Neill swallowed hard before he spoke. "Runnin' around like an idiot looking for you, of course."

Daniel nodded contentedly, his head still supported in Jack's hands.

"Look, Daniel, there's a fire going in the other room. You feel like you could get up and walk in there? Be warmer than lying on the floor here."

"Yeah. I'm fine." He shifted slightly and was brought up sharply by the leg irons and cuffs. He blinked again, eyes going wide with surprised hurt. "Can't you get this stuff off us?"

"How about it?" Jack asked Blair. "Don't suppose you've got a pair of bolt cutters just lyin' around, do you?"

"Jim has some in the truck."

"That would be the truck the highway patrol impounded up at Blewett Pass?"

"Afraid so. As soon as we get them settled I'll call Simon and get him to send a locksmith from the PD out." Blair kept rubbing gentle circles across Jim's back, frustrated that they couldn't even get them out of their wet clothes yet. "Hey, Jim," he said quietly. "If you're up to it, we're gonna move you and Daniel into the living room so you can sit in front of the fireplace. You think you can get up?"

Jim and Daniel regarded each other from a distance of a few inches. "I'm game if you are, Jackson."

"Fire sounds nice," Daniel agreed in the same calm, rather vague voice. "Maybe some coffee?"

"Oh for--" O'Neill broke off. "Coffee, whatever. First let's try sitting up."

They managed it with help, but once he was sitting upright Jim began coughing again. Blair held his shoulders, forcing himself to stay calm. When Jim was breathing easier he said in as casual a voice as he could manage, "I'd really like to call the paramedics, Jim. Get you started on oxygen. What do you say?"

Jim flinched. "No. I'm handling it. I don't want anyone -- Sandburg, please."

"All right, all right. No paramedics, but if it starts to get away from you, you've gotta promise me, man. You'll tell me right away."

Jim nodded, closing his eyes in relief. "We ready?" O'Neill asked, and with his and Blair's support, Jim and Daniel got shakily to their feet. The clank of the leg irons and manacles seemed obscenely loud in the confines of the little bedroom. It must have struck O'Neill the same way, because as he helped Daniel shuffle to the door he asked, "NID chain you up like this?"

A faint, rueful smile from Daniel. "Yeah. Impressive, huh?"

"Looks like you had them scared to death, broken fingers and all. Atta boy. How's your hand feeling there?"

"It's OK," he said unconvincingly. Blair saw O'Neill's scowl, but the colonel didn't say anything. Until they got the shackles off, there was really nothing they could do.

In the living room, Teal'c and Sam had pulled one of the sofas closer to the fireplace, and they both hovered nearby as Jim and Daniel made their slow progress across the floor, Blair and O'Neill supporting them on either side. Blair thought he remembered Daniel coming around faster last time, and it was worrisome that he and Jim still seemed so dazed and slow. Getting them dry and warm would help, surely. Both men were still shivering hard. Maybe a pot of coffee wasn't such a bad idea after all.

"Easy does it," O'Neill directed, helping to settle them on the couch at last. Sam produced the blanket and wrapped it around them as best she could.

"There are more in the closet," Blair said. He debated trying to explain to Teal'c how to find them and then said, "Jim, I'm gonna grab a couple more blankets, OK? I'll be right back."

"Not going anywhere," Jim murmured.

When he got back a moment later with his arms full, Sam helped him cocoon the two men in fuzzy striped blankets. "Does this look to anyone else like the setup for some wacky, wacky sitcom?" O'Neill asked thoughtfully. "You know, the laughs never stop when an NID mix-up leaves Oscar Madison and Felix Unger chained together..."

"Who are Oscar Madison and Felix Unger?"

Daniel opened his eyes. "Teal'c?"

"It is good to see you again, Daniel Jackson."

"Heya, Daniel," Sam said quietly, and he seemed to realize she was there for the first time, too.

"Sam. Aw, Sam."

"Daniel," she said softly, and bent forward to quickly hug his neck, kissing his cheek before she let him go.

"So what have you been up to, Danny?" It was probably supposed to come out jokingly, but the sudden hurt in O'Neill's voice was too raw. "Missed you down at the office, oh, the last six months or so."

Daniel pressed his lips together and bowed his head.

"Sandburg," Jim interrupted, his voice very hoarse when he tried to raise it. "Who the hell are all these people?"

"Detective Ellison, Jack O'Neill," Jack said briskly. "I've heard a lot about you. Sorry to have dropped in uninvited. Sam Carter. Teal'c."

Jim turned his head slowly. Teal'c was standing a few feet away, inclining his head slightly at the introduction. Blair saw Jim's eyes widen, his nostrils suddenly flaring, and he put his hand on his shoulder. "It's OK, man," Blair said quickly, then amended, "Well, really, it's not OK at all, but he's OK, I think. Don't worry about it. Don't -- just don't listen to it. Jim, I'm gonna call Simon now, get a locksmith out here, all right?"

It was an effort for Jim to drag his attention away from Teal'c, but he nodded at last. Blair looked around for the cordless phone, but Sam had already found it, and she put it into his hand. "Thanks." He switched it on and punched the speed dial, wondering what, exactly, he was going to tell Simon.

Daniel suddenly blurted out, "What are you gonna do with me, Jack?"

Jack snorted. "What I'd like to do is haul your butt back home in a sling." He turned away from him. "Sam, we need to let Hammond know what's up, and we need SF here on the double, screw their security clearance. Send people from McChord or Fairchild, whoever the hell can get here the fastest. I just don't think we can wait for SG2, not when we're liable to have the NID dropping in on our heads at any minute in addition to our other friends. Don't suppose you can tell us anything about them, can you, Daniel? Wavy guys, walk through walls? You folks seem to travel in the same circles these days."

"You've seen them?" Daniel asked, bewildered. "They've been here?"

"Oh yes," Jack said with exaggerated patience. "Oh yes, they've been here. They zatted me and Carter, yanked Junior out and pitched him across the room, generally made nuisances of themselves."

"You know, Sandburg," Simon said as he answered the phone, "I suppose it's just as well I don't have custody of Darryl until New Year's Eve this year."

"Simon --"

"I haven't heard anything new on Jim yet. I'm sorry. I promise I'll call as soon as I know anything."

"Simon, that's what I'm trying to tell you. Jim's here. He's here at the loft right now."

"He's what?"

Blair explained what he could while Simon sputtered disbelievingly, but evidently "top secret military project" actually carried some weight with Simon Banks. At any rate, he calmed down when Blair presented it as an explanation, and promised to have a locksmith at the loft as soon as he could round one up.

Meanwhile, Daniel's head was down, his lips pressed in a stubborn line that Blair was already too familiar with, and Jim was looking across the room at him with concern. He hoped O'Neill had shut up about the intergalactic revenuers, because frankly Jim had enough to worry about right now. Sam was standing by the windows talking on her cell phone, and Blair found himself hoping Jim was too tired to focus on that conversation too. "It's going to be all right," he said firmly as he put the phone down. "Simon'll have someone here ASAP. Jim, you want some coffee? Might help warm you up."

Ordinary and normal was the way to go. Jim was here and safe, when not fifteen minutes ago Blair had been afraid he would never see him again. Nothing else, no matter how bizarre, could possibly matter half so much.

"Look at you," O'Neill was saying to Daniel, sounding more weary than angry. "You'd rather endanger civilians than ask us -- than ask me -- for help? What the hell were you thinking? Did you even think at all?"

"Not now, Jack." Daniel sounded tired, too, and he wouldn't raise his eyes to look at O'Neill.

"This is the man you've been running from the past six months?" Jim said.

"Running?" O'Neill said. "From me? Is that what you've been telling people? For chrissakes, Daniel, are you deliberately trying to give MacKenzie a reason?"

"Sir." Sam had put her hand over the receiver of her phone and was staring at him with shocked eyes from across the room.

"That's why you came after me? Just to cart me back to a padded cell?"

"God dammit, Daniel!" O'Neill snapped. "How the hell can you say crap like that to me? I'm not sure I even know who you are anymore."

"I believe hot coffee would be most welcome," Teal'c announced. "Do you require assistance, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Uh, no. I've got it. Thanks."

"You never did know who I was, Jack." Daniel stared determinedly at the floor. "But it's not your fault. I didn't either."

"Now, see, see! I knew it, I knew it! That's not you. That's Shifu messing with your head until you don't know which end is up. Something happened to you on P4X347. While the rest of us were relaxing by the seashore, you met those freaky guys, or somehow you figured out how they do what they do, and whatever Shifu showed you in that dream had you so paranoid and confused you decided you couldn't even tell us about it. Daniel, can't you see how crazy that is?"

"Sir," Carter interrupted. She'd put her phone away. "Um, sir, maybe this isn't the place."

"Oh, I think it's a dandy place. Not like security is exactly an issue anymore, is it? Blair, Detective Ellison, you've both noticed that Daniel has a real knack for teleportation these days, am I right?"

"There's nothing to talk about," Daniel muttered. "I'd already seen what could happen. I couldn't take the risk."

"But you did," Jim said unexpectedly. "To save my life, you did it anyway."

"They were hurting you." Daniel sounded absolutely miserable. "I couldn't just --" He looked away, his good hand knotting on his knee just as Sam's phone rang. She stepped away to answer it but turned back almost at once.

"That's funny."

O'Neill's head jerked up. "What's funny?"

"General Hammond was going to have the CO at Fairchild give me a call about getting SF down here. I thought that's who it was, but there's no one on the line."

"Wrong number?"

"I don't know, sir. There's a funny kind of buzzing -- now it's gone. I'm not even getting a dial tone."

"Crap," O'Neill said flatly.

"You don't think --"

"We're not waitin' around to find out. Let's move, people. We're getting Daniel and Detective Ellison out of here right now."

But it was already too late.

This time they used the front door. They even knocked, a dreadful, hollow rattling that boomed through the loft like thunder, though they didn't wait for anyone to answer. They let themselves in, stepping through the door a half second before it actually opened. The walls snapped and waved like flags in a violent wind, but the intruders themselves were as poised and well-dressed as before. And this time they didn't screw around. Jack and Teal'c were felled by blasts from their s-shaped weapons before they were fully in the room, Sam a moment later.

Blair held up his hands and said, "Please," hoping to distract them from Jim. The nearest intruder, resplendent in a Brooks Brothers suit that somehow seemed to accommodate an indeterminate number of arms, leveled his weapon and fired at him without a word.

Blair felt an instant of warmth, and then every ganglia in his outraged nervous system began to shriek in protest. Oh dear God, don't shoot Jim, he thought. He felt as though he were burning up from the inside out. He didn't know if he was still standing or, more likely, collapsed in a twitching heap on the floor. He was sure he was still alive only because death couldn't possibly hurt this much. Please, he wanted to beg, and couldn't unlock his jaw enough even to moan. Please, don't do this to Jim.

~~~

Zatted twice in one day. Okay, there was no doubt anymore. As of right now, this was officially a top ten contender for Jack's worst Christmas ever.

Through the roaring of blood in his ears he could hear an inhuman screaming, and knew the unimaginative bastards had extracted Junior again. Lousy Christmas for Teal'c, too.

Jack managed to slit his eyes open, not moving any other part of his body to betray the fact that he was conscious again. He couldn't see much. A stretch of extremely clean wooden floor giving way to an equally clean area rug. The legs of furniture. The back of Teal'c's head. Junior was still screaming, so the Sandburg kid must not have been spared this time, or at any rate wasn't in any condition to be returning symbiotes to their Jaffa hosts. Damn.

Moving with excruciating slowness, Jack rolled his head to the side, trying to recon without giving himself away. Everything hurt and his nerve endings were still jangling like sleigh bells. Carter was sprawled on the floor in front of the windows, and the sofa near the fireplace where Jim and Daniel had been sitting was empty save for a puddle of blankets. Blast and damn.

He pushed himself up on his hands and knees, blinking away the dark spots obscuring his vision. First things first. Needed to get Junior back to Teal'c. He followed the gasping, outraged shrieks and found the parasite flopping on the floor in front of the TV set. Y'know, when you saw them like this, helpless as a landed trout, it was easier to understand why the entire species had such a fatal tendency to overcompensate. He grabbed it around the neck, twitching in distaste, and crawled back to Teal'c. He was conscious, but his face was gray with pain, his breathing uneven. It occurred to Jack to be very relieved that the interlopers hadn't casually snapped the symbiote's neck after pulling it from Teal'c's body.

"Got the little guy back for you," he muttered, and when Teal'c nodded in relief, Jack let it go. He didn't watch, though he couldn't blot out the squelching sound of the symbiote reentering Teal'c's pouch.

"Where is Daniel Jackson?" Teal'c groaned when he could speak.

Jack shook his head. "That's next on the agenda. You all right?"

"I will be."

"Good man." Jack patted him on the shoulder and then staggered to his feet. That was when he finally saw Detective Ellison on the far side of the kitchen island, hunched awkwardly on his knees over Blair's prone form. Daniel's manacles were hanging empty from the chain around the detective's waist.

Oh, God. He made his way clumsily to Ellison's side, legs wobbling, head pounding. Christ, he was getting too old for this. A couple of zat blasts and he was fallin' to pieces here. "Ellison," he said, and repeated himself when the detective didn't respond. He wondered if the man was in shock. "Detective Ellison."

Blair moaned and tried to raise himself. "Jim?"

"Don't try to move yet."

"Yeah." Blair closed his eyes for a moment, but they flew open again. "Jim, are you all right? Help me sit up."

Ellison's shackled hands made it awkward. Jack knelt beside them, feeling lightheaded himself, and helped Blair turn around and sit up against the kitchen island. "Oh, man. Oh, man, that sucks." Blair clutched at his forehead. If he was fighting the same headache as Jack, Jack didn't blame him. "Jim," he said again, "Did they shoot you?"

"No," Ellison said. "Sandburg, are you --" He spread his hands over Blair's chest. "I can still feel it. What the hell kind of a weapon --"

Sandburg caught his hands. "I'm OK. I am OK, right?" he repeated a little uncertainly, looking to Jack.

"It's temporary, pretty much. You're OK. Detective Ellison, what happened to Daniel?"

Ellison looked at him. "They took him. I'm sorry, Colonel."

"How?" Jack picked up a handful of the locked manacles, as though evidence of its impossibility would somehow make Ellison tell a more acceptable story.

Ellison bowed his head a little. Jack noticed that Sandburg was still holding his hands. "They just walked up to us. We couldn't defend ourselves. One of them held out Daniel's broken glasses and told him --" Ellison took a hitching breath. "One of those things told Daniel that he couldn't write off the depreciation on his home computer as a business expense. Then they grabbed him and . . . just yanked him through."

"I don't understand." Jack looked across the room, hoping somehow that Sam would be able to make sense of this. Of course she couldn't. She was just beginning to recover, pushing herself up, shaking her head in groggy pain.

"Do you know where Daniel is now?" he asked Ellison helplessly, knowing that if he did he would already have told Jack.

"No." Ellison gazed straight ahead, his face white, blue eyes steely. "When they touched Daniel he -- They weren't human, Colonel. They weren't anything." The muscles in Ellison's jaw balled up. "Sandburg," he continued very quietly, as though no one else could possibly believe him. "They made him like they were, and I couldn't see him anymore. I couldn't even look."

"It's OK, man," Sandburg said, rubbing Ellison's hands between his own. "It's OK. This is way beyond anything any sane person is supposed to be able to deal with."

It was not OK. In fact, it was so far past OK Jack didn't even know where to begin. "Didn't you see anything that might help?" he demanded in frustration. Sandburg shot him a furious glance, but Ellison closed his eyes, face tense with concentration. Behind him, Jack could hear Sam talking softly to Teal'c.

"Jackson took me someplace," Ellison said haltingly, eyes still closed. "To get away from the NID he took me somewhere and told me it was a beautiful city beside the sea. It wasn't. It wasn't any place sane or real. It was like nothing at all, and what Daniel thought was the sound of waves crashing was really the sound of that nothingness getting bigger and bigger." Ellison took a sudden deep, gasping breath, like a man awakening himself from a nightmare. His eyes flew open and he began to cough violently.

"Oh, God," Sandburg muttered to himself, but his actions were calm and deliberate, shifting around so he could support Ellison as he coughed, one hand on his back, moving in circles, his other arm around Ellison's waist, finally curling close enough to lay the side of his head on the back of Ellison's shoulder. His mouth moved, whispering quiet reassurances. After a few endless moments while Jack watched with clenched fists, helplessly imagining Daniel having been torn into his component atoms (because how else could they have gotten him out through those chains?) Ellison grew calmer. He weakly tried to shrug himself free of Sandburg's hold, and the kid let him go carefully, watching with concerned eyes. At the moment, he probably didn't even remember Jack and rest of them were still there.

Ellison did, though. He lifted his head and looked at Jack. "I can still feel them," he whispered. "Like a sludgy black oil leak. This ugly trail of nothing torn right through everything." Suddenly Ellison was struggling to stand.

Sandburg said, "Wait, easy," but didn't try to stop him, supporting him when the manacles and leg irons made it hard for him to get his balance.

"They didn't take him back," Ellison said abruptly. "They don't want -- Jackson's still here," he announced flatly. His eyes rolled up, and Jack found himself looking up as well, as though he expected to see Daniel floating in midair.

"Sir," Sam said cautiously. "Do you have any idea what --"

Jack made an impatient shushing gesture, hardly looking at her until he realized Teal'c still wasn't on his feet. Damn. Must be having some trouble bouncing back from two extractions in the course of a single afternoon.

"Blair, help me," Ellison demanded. He was shuffling towards the front door, making awkward progress with his ankles hobbled, not doing much better when Sandburg put his arm around his waist to support him.

"Please hang on a minute," the kid was objecting, even as he helped him. "What are you doing? Where are you trying to go?"

Ellison shook his head impatiently, pulling the front door open. "Carter, stay with Teal'c," Jack called over his shoulder. He caught up to Ellison and Sandburg on the landing. Ellison was starting up the stairs that probably went to the roof while Sandburg fussed and protested every step of the way.

"You think he's up there?" Jack asked. Ellison gave a tight, quick nod. "Then let me go first," Jack said, easing his way past them and taking the stairs three at a time.

"Jim, wait, wait," Sandburg was saying. "If he's there, Colonel O'Neill will find him. You need to --"

"He saved my life," Ellison cut him off, his voice almost savage. "Help me."

Jack pushed open the door at the top of the stairwell and found himself on the roof. He'd lost track of the time, but it had to be near sunset, or just past. The cloud cover was lowering and gray, a dark contrast to the twinkling holiday lights in home and shop windows below. A dusting of snow had gathered in the leeward side of HVAC units and skylights, and a few random flakes were still drifting down from the sky. There was a wooden chair near the edge of the roof, overlooking the city. Ought to get that in out of the weather, he thought vaguely. He could hear Sandburg and Ellison clanking noisily up the stairs behind him, every step an effort. Ellison seemed pretty damned certain that Daniel was up here and God knew, Jack wanted to believe him, but if he were here, why couldn't he see him?

He had a horrible mental image of Daniel right beside him, helplessly trapped in another dimension, just out of phase. Never able to see or touch him even though they were so close. "Danny," he whispered, half to himself. "Throw me a line here. Something." He turned slowly, blinking and trying to focus through the dusk, and suddenly found an upside-down face only inches from his own.

"Jesus!" He stumbled back half a step in shock. "Daniel! Jesus!"

Daniel's eyes were open but unseeing, his arms out-flung, Saint Peter crucified in the air. Jack reached out but was afraid to touch him. There was nothing to show how Daniel was suspended there, and no sign of the beings who had done this to him. "Daniel," he said again, pleading this time, his hands hovering inches from Daniel's face. Daniel's eyes remained so vacant Jack wasn't even sure if he were still alive, and there were lights, he saw now, sparkling faintly across Daniel's brow and curving around the back of his skull.

A crown of thorns, Jack thought insanely, blasphemously, decorated with little Christmas tree lights ...

"Oh, God." Ellison and Sandburg had made it to the roof, and the Sandburg kid sounded just as freaked out as Jack felt. Not a whole lot of help there.

"What are they doing to him?" Jack demanded all the same. Ellison had gotten them this far, after all. "How do we get him down?"

"Jim, you're barefoot," Sandburg protested, but didn't try to stop him as Ellison shuffled across to them. He looked up at Daniel, eyes wide and very dark in the gloom, and raised his shackled hands as high as he could. "I can still feel them," he murmured, almost whispering, "but I don't know if they're here anymore."

"Blair, go get Carter up here," Jack ordered in desperation. "Maybe she'll have some idea what the hell this is. Hurry."

The lights glittering around Daniel's head grew brighter, pink-tinged, and at the same time Jack realized the lights were on the inside, Daniel's mouth opened and he cried out. It was a senseless, agonized exhalation that lasted as long as the air in his lungs. Then Daniel sobbed for breath and cried out again. And again. Jack couldn't stand it. Those fucking weird-ass sons of bitches were killing him and there was nothing Jack could do. "Daniel," he pleaded, and reached out to take Daniel's head in his hands.

The instant Jack touched him, Daniel began to fall. It was just as well the Sandburg kid had ignored his orders, because he was close enough to help Jack arrest Daniel's sudden plummet, grabbing Daniel's legs and wrapping his arms around them while Jack dove to protect his head, hearing both knees pop as he hit the roof. At that instant, he couldn't have cared less. Better his knees than Daniel's poor addled brains. Sandburg knelt awkwardly, lowering the weight of Daniel's body as gently as Jack supposed he could.

Jack held Daniel's head in his lap, unable to do anything to stop the lights in Daniel's skull from suddenly flaring, fiendishly bright. Daniel's back arched hard, and his last scream was silent, jaws prised open wide, the tendons in his neck standing out. Jack was afraid he was dying, and there was nothing he could do here in the wilderness, half a day's travel even by plane from the nearest goa'uld healing device on the planet.

Then Daniel collapsed. The lights in his head vanished. Somewhere above him, Jack heard Ellison swear violently, and a startled exclamation from Sandburg. He couldn't pay any attention to them, because even though Daniel's eyes were closed, Jack knew he was waking up. His head rolled, and Jack told him to lie still, which was Daniel's cue, of course, to try to sit up. "Don't move, dammit," Jack growled, his voice breaking, and Daniel's hand came up to grab the sleeve of Jack's dress uniform.

"They took it from me, Jack," he moaned, his voice hoarse from screaming. "Oh, God, Jack, it's gone."

"Doesn't matter," Jack tried to reassure him, no idea what Daniel was talking about, and in the relief of hearing Daniel make whole sentences, not particularly caring either. "You're gonna be OK."

Daniel shook his head, yanking in frustration at Jack's sleeve. "They didn't want the goa'uld to have it, and I tried to explain that I wasn't -- they wouldn't listen." He released Jack's sleeve and pressed the heel of his good hand against his forehead, hiccoughing a sob. "I didn't even want it, but it was beautiful, and now it's gone. Aw, dammit." He sounded like he was crying, although Jack couldn't see his tears in the dusk. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Hey, come on. Easy," Jack whispered. They needed to get Daniel in out of the weather. He wondered if Teal'c was well enough to come up and give them a hand. "Don't worry about anything. Got all it under control here."

Daniel scrubbed at his eyes. "I'm so tired, Jack. Can't I just go home now?" His voice was so soft Jack had to strain to hear him, and when he'd made out what Daniel was saying, he had to swallow hard before he could answer. He caught Daniel's hand and held on carefully, curling over him to shield him from the drifting snow.

"Sure you can, Danny," he told him, and was glad for the dusk himself. "Just waitin' for you to decide it was time to go."

~~~

Had it really been only last night, Jim was thinking irritably to himself, that he had decided to let Sandburg's latest refugee stay here instead of immediately calling the FBI? And hadn't he done it just because he didn't want feds crawling all over his home?

Simon was there, chomping on a cigar he wouldn't light and, for all of his grumbling, obviously having a hell of a time hobnobbing with Air Force officers. There were security forces from McChord stationed in the stairwell, all around the building and on the roof, and some hotshot team all the way from NORAD in Colorado Springs with the identifying insignia removed from their uniforms who seemed to be big pals of Jack O'Neill. They were expecting a liaison from the Pentagon to be here before morning, as well as Daniel Jackson's personal physician, whom Jim gathered was also flying out from Colorado.

Someone had turned on the television -- Jim strongly suspected O'Neill was the culprit -- and Boris Karloff's voice was discussing a fiendish plot to steal the Whoville Christmas. The loft reeked of pepperoni grease and oregano from the dozen carry-out pizza boxes still stacked on the dining room table.

Jim was a little hungry and thirsty himself, but he wasn't about to go downstairs. He flopped back on his bed and looked up at the ceiling, envying, though not begrudging, Jackson's snores from Blair's bedroom directly below. Probably the first sound sleep Jackson had enjoyed in six months. Had to be the only way he was sleeping through the commotion.

He heard steps and knew Sandburg was on his way up. Jim closed his eyes, gathering his strength, but in the end, it really wasn't a difficult decision to make at all.

"Hey, man," Blair said quietly. "You're not sleeping, are you?"

"How damn likely is that with the party we've got going on downstairs?" he grumbled without opening his eyes.

"I know." Blair actually chuckled a little. "Brought you something."

Jim peeled an eye open. "What?"

"Soda crackers and a little chamomile tea sweetened with honey. Thought it would feel good on your throat and help settle your stomach."

Jim groaned theatrically, but he opened his eyes and sat up all the same. "This is Christmas dinner?"

"Sucks, I know. There's some leftover rice you can have tomorrow if you're not still feeling all jangly from the tear gas by then. It turned out pretty good."

"'Jangly'? What, is that a medical term?"

Sandburg was right as usual. Jim felt prickly and on edge in an indefinable way that could have been from the tear gas or any of the other outrageous things that had happened to him today, and although he wasn't having trouble breathing now, he couldn't entirely shake the fear that at any moment his lungs might still collapse like a set of worn-out bellows.

He took the mug of lukewarm tea and had a careful sip. Too sweet, but it did feel good going down his throat. "Yeah," Sandburg breathed, reading him like a book, just like always. "That's it. Don't drink it too fast."

Not a difficult decision at all.

"Did you hear? They found the vans those bogus ATF guys were hauling you and Daniel away in. No sign of the guys themselves, though, which is a little freaky. Where the hell could they go up in the mountains in the middle of a snowstorm?"

Jim suspected he knew what had happened. Daniel probably did as well. Both of them had seen the man in the business suit walking up the shoulder of the highway, just before Daniel had gotten them away.

"'A little freaky,'" Blair repeated. "God, listen to me. What hasn't been freaky about today? Want a cracker?" He held out the plate for Jim, and when Jim shook his head, Blair took one himself and munched it thoughtfully. "How's Daniel doing? Can you tell? Colonel O'Neill's still pretty worried about him, I think."

Jim shrugged. "He's sleeping. I wish I could."

Blair bumped his elbow companionably against Jim's. "I know, man. I'm sorry. You want to see if maybe they'd let you go to a motel or something? At least till they finish up here?"

"It wouldn't help. They'd send guards with us, and I wouldn't even be in my own bed. I wouldn't sleep any better there than I could here."

"Yeah. I guess you're right. Just wasn't thinking." Blair set the plate of crackers down on the floor. He bowed his head when he sat up again, hair swinging forward to hide his face. "I haven't been thinking about a lot of stuff, apparently."

"Sandburg."

"No, man, let me go ahead and say this. I've pretty much been a complete idiot, haven't I? Just as naive as you always accused me of being. This could have happened any time over the past three and a half years, and I didn't even know. Even after Brackett, after Norman Oliver, I wanted to believe the government didn't know about you, or wasn't really interested even if they did know, and the only reason I had for thinking that, really, was that the alternative was just too fucking scary for me to deal with."

"Well, that makes two of us, Sandburg. Even when the CIA started sniffing around I wanted to believe I could just say 'no' and everyone would go away and leave me alone. No excuse for that."

He half-expected Blair to berate him for never having mentioned the recruiters, but he only tucked his hair back behind one ear and looked at him earnestly. "So what are we gonna do? Those Air Force guys aren't going to hang around forever, are they? God, are they?"

"Yeah, well, I've been thinking about that. How close are you to being finished anyway? For real, Chief."

Blair didn't even pretend not to know what he was talking about. "Few weeks maybe, if I sit down and really work my butt off. I've sort of been putting it off."

Jim had already figured that out for himself. "Then what happens? You show it to your advisor, you defend it to your committee, you rewrite the whole thing and if you're really lucky, it gets published by an obscure academic press somewhere down the line and nobody reads it but a handful of other sadly over-educated anthropologists with too much time on their hands. Well, them and the talent scouts at the NID."

Blair flinched but then managed a tremulous smile. "More or less. Yeah."

"And that's the big book deal you were talking about? The movie rights? Where do those come in?"

"Excuse me?" Blair's eyes got very round. "Movie rights?"

"You said it yourself. My story. Your book. You said the movie rights could be worth millions."

"Yeah, but that was just -- look, Jim, I was just being really young and really stupid when I said that. You know I would never --"

"Now you're saying I'm too boring for anyone to want to make a movie about me?"

"Jim, man, did you get hit on the head today on top of everything else? Because you're not making a whole lot of sense right now."

"You're right. We need the best-selling book first. Actually, we need the pre-publication publicity first. How would we do that, a press conference? You think Naomi could help set up something like that?"

"And now you're really starting to freak me out."

"I'm not trying to freak you out, I'm just trying to make the best of a bad situation, and frankly, Sandburg, it'd be a whole hell of a lot easier if you'd work with me here."

"I'm trying to, I swear, but I'm honestly not following you. You've made me promise to keep your abilities a secret for years. Now you want to publicize them?"

"Secrets don't work any more. They really never did, but you gave it your best shot, Chief. For me, I know you did."

Blair couldn't meet Jim's eyes. "It wasn't enough," he said at last.

"Maybe not, but that's not your fault. Listen to me, Sandburg, I'm convinced this is the right way to go here. Make a big tacky media splash, grab that fifteen minutes of fame, make sure I'm too public a figure for the NID to ever consider tear gassing me in a hotel room again."

Blair gave a choked little laugh, reached fumblingly for Jim's hand and squeezed it hard for a moment before letting Jim go. He looked away over the railing at all the people cluttering up his and Jim's tidy, safe home. "Are you sure you know what you're asking for?" he asked, still looking away. "Do you know what that kind of publicity would mean? You think this is an invasion of your privacy? This is peanuts compared to TV cameras, people looking into your life, calling your brother, your father. And who knows what kind of an impact it would have on your career with the PD, on your ability to do your job ... Jim, man, I'm just not sure you've really thought this through."

Probably not, Jim reflected, watching the back of Sandburg's head. It didn't matter. He didn't even have to close his eyes to remember what he had heard the NID agents talking about while he shivered in chains in the back of their van. They'd been a little worried about his continuing reaction to the CS gas, and the special agent in charge had decided it would be safest to pick up Sandburg for a second opinion.

They would have had Sandburg kidnapped off the street as casually as picking up a gallon of milk, and they would have ensured his cooperation with sodium pentathol and lysergic acid, and if they made another grab for Jim, they'd almost certainly take Blair as well.

So, no, he probably wasn't prepared for the publicity or the rest of it, but he was fairly certain he'd manage just fine. He dropped a hand on Blair's shoulder and shook him gently, and when Blair looked back at him, eyes too bright, lips pressed together hard, but managing a smile of sorts for Jim all the same, Jim decided he was sure after all.

"Besides," he told Blair, smiling back. "Just think how much it'll embarrass the old man down at the club to have a super hero in the family."

~~~

It had taken him a while to build the fire in the fireplace one handed, but he managed it at last, and frankly, it had been kind of nice to have something to keep him busy. He still felt at loose ends and suspected he was probably suffering a fair bit of culture shock. After all, it was still a surprise to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row. Downright startling to sleep in a comfortable bed at all, and definitely strange to simply lay himself down and close his eyes at the end of the day without worrying about what would happen to him as he slept.

He rocked back on his heels, watching the bright flame licking its way through the kindling. He was trying not to think about the important questions too much, because the obvious answers were all pretty unpleasant, and he was resting right now. He'd earned that. Even Jack had told him so.

The questions came creeping up on him all the same. How long was he going to wait around? Not even to find out whether he could return, but if he were even going to be allowed to grovel for his old job back in the first place. Did he even want it any more? He'd been doing all right on his own. Lonely, desperate, terrified, bored out of his mind, right, there was all that, but now that he wouldn't be running and could actually stop for a decent night's sleep, it might be nice to live unfettered by the demands of the military. Hammond had promised he could make that happen for him, if that's what Daniel wanted.

Daniel still wasn't entirely sure if the offer weren't General Hammond's polite way of asking him not to come back at all.

The click of the front door lock startled him and he lost his balance, almost landing on his butt before he flung out his good hand to steady himself.

"Whoa, there, Danny," Jack said. "Didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn't." Daniel got carefully to his feet. "Well, really, I guess I wasn't expecting to see you tonight."

"Uh oh," Jack said, making his way to the kitchen table and putting down a sack of groceries. "Hope I'm not barging in on a hot date or somethin'."

"Not exactly. No."

He raised an eyebrow at Daniel. "So why wouldn't I be coming home tonight?"

"Well, it's New Years Eve, Jack. I figured you'd be out -- celebrating."

"Nope. Tonight I've brought the celebration home." He produced a bottle from the bag with a flourish. "And nothing says Happy New Years like cold duck."

"Oh my God," Daniel said, laughing in spite of himself. "Why didn't you just buy grape soda?"

Jack curled the bottle to himself protectively. "Hey. This was always Grandda's celebratory beverage of choice. Thought we could do worse than stick to tradition tonight. Besides," he continued, turning to stow the bottle in the freezer, "You're not supposed to be boozing at all yet, so if you can manage more than a sip or two of this bubbly, then all I can say is, you're a stronger man than me. Had dinner yet?"

"Um, yeah. I had a sandwich. A few hours ago."

"How many hours ago?"

"I don't know. Three or four. Something."

"Three or four or something makes that lunch, Daniel. Good thing. Tonight you're in for a real treat. Spaghetti a la O'Neill." Jack kissed his fingertips. "Fit for a king."

"Honestly, Jack, you don't have to."

"Don't have to what? Eat?" He was cheerfully pulling groceries out of the sack. Ground beef, Italian sausage, half a dozen garlic bulbs, green peppers, canned tomato sauce and pasta. "Speak for yourself. I've been hard at work all day and am ready for some real food."

"And yet you're making spaghetti," Daniel said, just like this was old times. Jack's head came up, and Daniel steeled himself for a patented O'Neill crushing comeback, but instead, the expression on Jack's face was so open and affectionate that Daniel had to look away.

"You betcha," Jack said quietly. "Janet's got me under orders to fatten you up a little. Which reminds me. New debriefing next week on P4X347. Thought you might be interested."

The planet where they had found the Light. Daniel made his way to the sofa and sat down heavily. "Interested? Not really, no. I can make a suggestion, though. Keep the hell away from it."

"Well, yeah, that was going to be my idea, too. Hey, I got some celery in the fridge. You like celery in your spaghetti sauce? Sometimes I'm in the mood for it, sometimes I'm not."

"It's up to you, Jack."

"No celery then. Actually, I'm almost never in the mood for it, now that I think about it. Wonder why I even buy the stuff. Anyway, a couple of us were thinking it might be helpful if you felt like coming in for the debriefing, too."

"Why? To be Exhibit A in a discussion about why that place is so fucking dangerous?"

Jack shrugged. "Well, as Exhibit A's go, you have to admit you'd make a pretty damn good one. Really, though, it's Sam who's dying for you to show up. Turns out she had some pretty hot fantasies about non-Euclidian geometry while we were all coming down from the Light, and she just can't wait to share."

Daniel didn't know whether to be amused or appalled. "Sam did not say that."

"Maybe she did, maybe she didn't." Jack raised one eyebrow meaningfully. "You won't know unless you come in and ask her yourself."

"Jack." Daniel sighed. "It's not that I don't appreciate everything. All of this. Because I do. I'm just having a little trouble understanding why."

"Actually, she and Teal'c are going to pop over a little later tonight, and you can ask her then if you can't stand the suspense. By the way, Janet wants to take another MRI to check out your addled wits. If you're going to be on the base anyway she could do it after the briefing."

Daniel winced. "I'd rather -- No. I'd rather have it done at the VA Hospital. I'll give her a call and set up an appointment."

"Whatever works for you," Jack said, and Daniel supposed it was only his imagination that he seemed a little disappointed. Jack walked back to the bedroom, and when he returned a few minutes later he'd changed into jeans and a black t-shirt so old it was almost gray and most of the ribbing at the neckline had torn away. "I always end up with tomato sauce all over myself when I make this," he said, getting down a skillet and setting it on the stove. He turned up the heat and then tore open the package of ground beef. When he dumped it into the skillet it sizzled so violently he jumped back to avoid getting spattered.

"I looked at some apartment ads today," Daniel ventured cautiously.

Jack nodded without looking up. He seemed to be peeling the casing off the sausages. "Local listings?" he asked casually.

"Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, for now anyway. Someplace close so I can get out of your hair."

"You're welcome as long as you need a place to stay, so don't worry about it." The sausage went into the skillet along with the ground beef. "I was the one who let your apartment go, after all. Figure I owe you one."

"Don't even joke about that." Daniel stared down, acutely uncomfortable. "You did it to save me money-- it's the only reason I've still got an account balance at all, really, and I know how much trouble you went to, even though you were --"

"Hope you like lots of garlic in your spaghetti sauce," Jack interrupted. He'd broken apart one of the garlic bulbs in his fist and was smacking the individual cloves with the flat of a butcher knife to peel them. "Lots and lots of garlic is the key to a good sauce."

"Sam's told me how mad you were," Daniel pressed on stubbornly. "And I guess I can't blame you. I just didn't have a choice. In retrospect it all looks pretty dumb, I know, but all I could --"

"Daniel, please." Jack put down the knife and leaned forward, both hands flat on the counter. "There is no way you can explain to me why you thought it was a good idea to suddenly run away from home without a word to anybody, so it's probably better if you don't even try."

Daniel snapped his mouth shut and looked pointedly away through the patio doors. What else could he have expected?

Jack wasn't finished. "What I do understand is that between Shifu and finding the Complete Idiot's Guide to Interdimensional Travel on P4X347, you were one hundred percent convinced that you were the biggest threat to SGC since, I don't know, probably since Sokar burned his ugly mug through the iris. So you did the Daniel Thing. Again."

"The 'Daniel Thing'?"

"It'd be easier on the old ticker if you weren't always so quick to decide that the fate of the planet depended on you, but even I have to admit we've all done our share of world-saving the past few years. Some people, I guess it goes to their heads. So I'm trying to make allowances."

"Allowances. For members of your team not as well-balanced as Jack O'Neill, you mean."

Jack spread his hands tolerantly, gave the browning meat a stir, and then started chopping the garlic.

"If I decide to come back, you know they'll make me go through a psych eval."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Jack said noncommittally.

"With Mackenzie."

"Distinct possibility, there."

"And you'd really be comfortable with his conclusions? From the psychiatrist who had me drugged to the gills on neuroleptic meds on the basis of a couple of visual and auditory hallucinations in the course of twenty-four hours, even though I was perfectly aware of their pathological nature, and then once I was drooling on myself because I had so much Haldol in my system, he included 'affective flattening' and 'alogia' as criterion b symptoms of schizophrenia. That's the man you'd trust to decide I was fit for duty?"

Jack waited him out patiently. It wasn't exactly the first time they'd had this discussion, Daniel thought belatedly. It had just been a while. "No," Jack said at last. "I wouldn't particularly trust Mackenzie. I'd believe you, though, if you told me you thought you were ready to come back to work."

"I--" Daniel was so taken aback he wasn't sure what to say. "I just don't know yet, Jack."

"That's kind of what I thought. 'S OK. You'll figure it out."

Daniel suddenly felt like crying. For about the millionth time since he'd broken his fingers he tried to cross his arms over his chest and had to let his left arm drop to his side again in defeat. He was wondering if he could maybe convince Jack he was so tired he should really just go to bed now, when Jack continued, "Don't mean to be sticking my nose in here, but when Carter shows up, you might wanna ask her if she'd mind driving you around to look at apartments next week. I'd be glad to go myself, but you know, apartment hunting. That's kind of a girl thing. She'd probably be better company than me."

"OK," Daniel agreed quietly.

"Besides, she'd like to spend the time with you. I think it was kind of hard on her, you being away for so long. She missed you."

Daniel looked up to find Jack watching him steadily and just a little too carefully. Daniel had a memory left of something very lovely and always just beyond his grasp, but Jack O'Neill was right here. He'd always been right here.

"Teal'c missed you, too," Jack added thoughtfully. "In that completely stoic, utterly unemotional, would never say or do anything to let you know, former First Prime of Apophis kind of way. But I could tell."

"Right, Jack." Daniel stared down at the floor, still closer to crying than laughing, but that was only because his heart was so full. "Maybe Teal'c would like to come apartment hunting, too."

End.

feeback to soulcake@bellsouth.net

home

I was practically bludgeoning people on the street to get them to read this story, and yet, having sucked them dry of their good advice, I tended to muleheadedly go off in my own directions anyway. So I do want to publicly thank folks for their incalculable patience and help, but caution that whatever infelicities you found in "Lovely" were Not Their Fault. Dasha's been reading from the beginning, Kitty questioned damn near everything, and Salieri helped me make the big, difficult cuts. Thanks to Kormantic for forcing me to rethink a lot of stuff very early on, and to Brook, Jean and quercus for giving me the nerve to post after all.

As HPL fans already know, that tale Daniel tells Jim after eating all the truffled foie gras is nakedly cadged from events described in H.P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch-House" -- a wonderful novella which in large, obvious part was the whole inspiration for "Lovely" in the first place.

For all your online Cthulu needs!