a thousand petals, a thousand paths

“Daniel?” Jack called softly around the edge of the door. He slid his key from the lock and opened the door a bit further. He didn’t want to be too loud on the off-hand chance that Daniel was actually sleeping. Daniel had been home from his convalescence in the Mountain for only a couple of days, under the strictest of instructions from Dr. Fraiser to take it easy for another week. Knowing his team member, Jack had had to stop by to check on Daniel. The spare key Daniel had given him came in handy on so many occasions when it needed to be seen if Daniel was pushing himself too hard, too fast. And Jack refused to relinquish the key, and if it was forcibly taken from him, he surrendered in the happy knowledge that he’d made several spares, and would continue to make spares for as long as they needed to play the game.

Nope, he found Daniel brushing his teeth before getting into the shower, wrapped in a ratty blue bathrobe and humming the theme from Masterpiece Theatre. Daniel smiled in greeting through a mouthful of toothpaste, and said something minty and inarticulate.

Grinning, Jack leaned a hip against the doorjamb. “You ever gonna throw that bathrobe out?” he asked critically, eyeing frayed hem and cuffs.

Daniel glared and spat into the basin, clearly expressing his thoughts on Jack’s sartorial commentary. “Not as long as you continue to loathe it so openly,” he retorted finally, spitting again.

“Mm,” was Jack’s retort, knowing this was a battle he could only lose. Daniel had had this same bathrobe for years. Jack was of the opinion that it was held together by the sheer force of Daniel’s determination and hot glue.

“I’ll just go make some coffee,” he said as Daniel pointedly pulled the shower curtain and glared at Jack over his shoulder.

“You do that,” Daniel said firmly, and started to slide out of the bathrobe.

Whatever his new outlook on life and Daniel, Jack didn’t feel up to this much so soon, and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

To start with, to make things as normal as possible, he brewed up a batch of toxic coffee for his teammate, just the way he liked it. He drank a cup for himself while he waited, amused by the humming he heard (now it was the National Geographic theme), muffled by gallons of water, and wondered just how long Daniel thought he could stay in there before his pores completely opened up and his brains oozed out. Then the shower shut off, the bathroom door opened, the bedroom door shut, and there was silence. Lots and lots of silence.

He could take the silence for a little bit. It gave him more time to think. He felt completely naked in the face of his Glacier Planet realization, and then his subsequent slumber at Daniel’s side in the VIP room. While everything seemed to click into place, like a Rubik’s Cube finally giving up its puzzling ghost, he was still floundering in both the newness and his lack of panic at the newness. Really, if he was panicking at anything, it was the fact that he wasn’t panicking. Whether this was due to his training, his inherent insouciance in the face of all things supposedly illegal and not good for him, or his basic impatience, he wasn’t sure.

Daniel gave him a jolt. In the most unsappy of ways that he could express, Daniel jazzed him. He was argumentative, stubborn, hyperintelligent, constantly curious to the point of death (literally), so open-hearted and open-minded that he made Jack’s hair hurt, and yet, he was everything Jack needed to exist and breathe and think he might see another day.

This wasn’t easy. It wasn’t hard. The duality, the complexity, and giddy rush of joy this paradox gave him was something he’d never thought he’d experience. This was so much different from Sara, it wasn’t even in the same library, let alone the same book or page.

He didn’t even have time – and yet he had all the time in the world – to wonder if Daniel could feel even a fraction of what he felt. It was as if it was a Given, a Preordained Determinate that Daniel was in the same place he was, and if Jack had learned anything in his seven – eight – whatever, in all the years since he’d first gone through the Stargate, it was that if something was meant to be, it would damn well happen and be, so, please, keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.

Finally, his curiosity got the best of him, and Jack meandered down the hallway to Daniel’s bedroom, a fresh cup of coffee – made to exacting, multi-PhD standards – in hand. He knocked softly, then slowly opened the bedroom door. This afternoon was, apparently, all about listening at doors and hoping he was welcomed when he snuck in.

Daniel was asleep. Sweatpants on, socks on, horrific green-and-yellow flannel shirt on but not buttoned, he was sprawled out on his bed like he’d been dropped from a height, his right leg hanging off the bed, toes almost brushing the hardwood floor, arms outflung, head turned into the pillow beneath him. Jack leaned against the doorframe and felt a certain peace steal over him. The room was a study in light and shadow as twilight quietly fell, shafts of pale sunlight striping the bed, Daniel’s thigh, his cheek. The world seemed so very far away.

With a push of his hip, Jack moved away from the door and into the bedroom, grabbing the white down comforter from the foot of the bed. Putting the coffee cup on the bedside table, he took the long, slender foot that was dangling to the floor and eased it under the comforter. Daniel sighed in his sleep, a deep and relaxed sound, his hands tucking up under his pillow on either side of his head.

Jack smiled fondly, feeling that rush of warmth again, a besotted feeling that left him useless as a wet towel, then paused in his bedclothing ministrations. His eyes caught sight of the scars that liberally decorated Daniel’s torso, framed by the faded, threadbare edges of the open flannel shirt. Without thinking, without wondering, simply following the burst of heat that had suddenly blossomed behind his ribcage, Jack sat next to Daniel so they were hip to hip. With his right hand, he tenderly traced the appendectomy scar on the plane of Daniel’s stomach, directly above the right hipbone. It was so long healed, it was so many years healed, but the memories that were bound up with that little strip of shiny flesh were still fresh in Jack’s memory. The scar was smooth beneath his fingers, slightly knotted at the ends. Then his hand drifted up to the healing incisions, souvenirs of their recent trip to Glacier Planet, barely touching the wounds, but paying them their due nonetheless. Beyond that, he traced another scar along the fourth left rib, then another above that, his movements slow, ghosting over the warm skin.

It was a wonder. This man was a wonder. Each scar was precious to Jack, he realized, thumbing the ladder of a scar from a dragging knife wound and its subsequent stitches. Each one was a badge of honor, inscribed bone deep, cell deep, part and parcel of the man who had become a warrior in body, as well as in intellect. Jack’s thoughts came heavy and dragging, as if they were thought by someone else, then presented to him as a fait accompli of his own internal processes, yet the emotion that accompanied that Moebial twist of noncompos mentis put every confused and raw thought to a gentle rest. While he was laden with the realizations of this new and completely different self, the freedom those realizations brought sent him skimming, trustingly, without burden.

The sound of Daniel’s breathing changed, the deep, easy susurrations of air shifting to something tenser, more controlled. Jack looked up to see that Daniel was awake, eyes clear of his usual sleepy befuddlement. Those blue eyes were the color of periwinkle, all unspoken questions and soft bewilderment, the thick eyebrows arched in puzzlement. Jack just shook his head slightly, that sense of peace filling him further, that relief that came with the surrender of logic, and Daniel relaxed under his hand. His arms slid down from the pillow, resting atop the comforter, his left hand loose and alone, his right hand resting easily on Jack’s right thigh.

The pads of his fingertips a hair’s breadth above Daniel’s skin, Jack moved his hand up over a pectoral muscle, watching in quiet fascination and satisfaction as the muscles bunched and the skin prickled, goosebumps following his passage as Jack pressed his forefinger along the sternum and up to that strong neck, thumb brushing over the ivory curve of collarbone. It was like a meditation, this thorough exploration of his friend’s flesh and bone, with no direct goal, no driving purpose but to understand, to the core, what it felt like to be this close to this person who meant so very much, and had, for so very long. Again, a stab of reality, of logic, of the bare and agonizing truth that his heart, his brain and his soul had done an about-face on Glacier Planet, and things would never, could never, be the same, and what might come in the next minute, hour, or day, scared him to death with its perfect possibilities and its endless questions.

He looked at Daniel again, and the periwinkle blue had deepened to something blue-gray, like the wing of a mourning dove, watchful but trusting. Deepening the pressure of his hand, Jack smoothed down the soft chambray of the plaid shirt, down Daniel’s left arm, thumb skidding over the concavity of the inside of the elbow, the fuzzy cloth ending, the tenderness of skin beginning. His palm was rough against the thinner skin on the inside of the wrist, and he moved the heel of his hand over the blue vein, the tautness of sinew and tendon locking together where muscle and blood became joint and bone. Carefully, slowly, Jack threaded his fingers through Daniel’s long, expressive ones. Like dancers, their fingers clasped and unclasped, squeezing lightly, then releasing, knuckles clashing, roughened skin whispering against roughened skin, that left hand no longer alone but embraced.

Slowly, as if the air around them had thickened like honey, Jack drew Daniel’s hand to his mouth, and with the tiniest of movements, kissed each fingertip where it lay along the back of his hand. The fingers were long, elegant, the nails short and squared, and they burned against his lips as if some molten fluid ran through Daniel’s veins.

All this, he couldn’t figure out any of this, not on a coldly logical level, not when he focused on it. All that was left to him was to blindly fumble with his emotions, emotions of which he was usually a master at controlling, except for those gut-wrenching moments when his mouth shot off before his brain could pull the emergency brake. But the very lack of fear at any impending cliff face or Jersey barrier impelled him forward, logic left withering in the dust and unmourned. He was both raw reality of this newer self, and fuzzy watercolor emotions that softened the blow.

Another look to evaluate Daniel, and Jack saw that the eyes were now a deep, cornflower blue, shining in sunlight that had deepened to gold, slanting sideways through the great bay windows, glinting off the blond highlights in Daniel’s short hair. With a small tug, Daniel pulled Jack’s hand to his own mouth, returning the reverent favor, the rounded bottom lip pliant along Jack’s toughened fingers.

Those fingers, so handy with a gun, so clever with a knife, pulled from Daniel’s grasp and ran along the smooth sweep of Daniel’s cheekbone, the skin soft and flushed as a peach. For long moments, Jack just stroked that spot with his thumb, his other fingers laid against the cheek, their tips buried in the hair above Daniel’s ear. Over and over, Jack felt the glide of blood and skin beneath the whorls of his thumb, and he wondered about the fragility of life, the perfection that was life, the amazing concatenation of cells and atoms and some cosmic spark that made the human body what it was, made this particular human body what it was. He felt another sigh that started in the very bottom of his lungs, and he was even more aware of, and at one with, that peacefulness he’d felt when he’d seen Daniel from the doorway. It was always this way with Daniel – it was just them, who they were, who they are, stripped, unvarnished, as honest as with each other as two people could get without saying a word between them. Against his thigh, he felt pressure as Daniel’s hand flattened, the fingers pressing into his jeans.

Leaning closer, Jack let his hand wander from Daniel’s cheek and into his hair, feeling the shimmy of each short strand, and he remembered when he’d first seen this hair, long and academic and always in the way, a perfect veil for eyes that looked upon the world with equal parts bemusement and curiosity. Over the years, the hair had changed, there had been sideburns, there had been cowlicks, until now there were just the short, utilitarian locks that still somehow seemed always to be mussed, that sure sign of an intellectual who forgot where he was and ran his hands through his hair in distraction. The eyes – so blue now as to be almost incandescent as they focused intently on Jack’s face – still looked upon, not the world, now, but the universe with bemusement and curiosity, and perhaps a touch of cynicism.

But there was no trace of that cynicism now. Instead, there was a curiosity and a wonder that burned away the bemusement until all that was left was a naked truth. Jack met that gaze honestly, throwing the shutters wide, feeling Daniel’s eyes laser through layers of sarcasm, hurt and his fierce privacy until there was nothing left but blue and brown and the shimmering moment between them.

No worries there, then. Daniel was not only on the same page, but in the same paragraph. The knowledge clubbed Jack upside with the head with such a rush of relief, joy and stark, frantic terror that he was, quite literally, breathless.

And then he was pulled. That was the only way he could put it. He was pulled, not by Daniel, but by that shimmering thing between them that connected them like an arc of electricity. Like he was caught a slow-motion riptide, Jack leaned further in, his left hand next to Daniel’s right shoulder, propping him up on the mattress, his right hand now cupping Daniel’s chin, his ever-inquisitive thumb slipping over that bottom lip until the skin was as flushed and rosy as the cheek.

Maybe this is what it means to be Ascended, Jack thought muzzily, his face just inches from Daniel’s, their breath warm and mingling. No fireworks, no rolls of thunder, no glowing beings from another plane of existence, no, just the muffled twitting of birds outside the bedroom window, the wind soughing softly through the eaves, and Daniel, vibrant, alive, trusting, not trapped between his arms but resting, fitted, a piece of the puzzle that had been slotted into place. Finally.

People say time stands still. Jack had always thought that yet another cliché by which he was to be eternally irritated. But it was true, so true, so unbelievably, ironically true. Everything focused into this one moment, tightened, contracted, as if the minutes and seconds were holding their breath. There was no thought in Jack’s head but that this was Daniel, not just a name, but a whole collection of memories and arguments and hugs and shouts and tears and laughter, a miraculous blending of bone and flesh and corpuscle, given life by the beneficence of some higher power. There had to be a higher power that made this all what it was, fresh, new, old, perfect, comfortable, frustrating, deeply fulfilling.

This wasn’t easy. Even though the part of him that was free-thinking enough to step through an alien device created by an alien people connecting to an alien world accepted unquestioningly the truth in this place, in this man, his lifelong expectations and loyalty to something bigger and further than himself sent up belligerent, if ignored, shouts of remonstrance that he studiously ignored.

He was tired of not being whole.

Jack touched his lips to Daniel’s. The moment tightened even further, Jack couldn’t have told you which way was up, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t know north from south, in this very instant there was just the humming of so many years spent in each other’s heads and hearts and holding each other’s lives in each other’s hands, precious as a newborn. Their lips barely moved, merely resting, feeling the heat of delicate skin, questions asked and answered with every breath.

Then the moment released, blew apart, fragmented and dissolved, and the pressure of lip on lip increased, the questions more difficult now, lips parting subtly to allow the tiniest touch of tongue. That’s all there was, tip and touch and tentative exploration, Jack’s right hand still cradling Daniel’s face, the other hand on the mattress, fingers slowly clenching the bottom sheet. The hand on Jack’s thigh tightened its grip on the denim, the inner seam digging into his flesh with a pleasant zing of discomfort.

They separated, no breaking apart, but instead a mellow disconnection of lips, the stubble around both their mouths prickling and stinging. Jack looked into Daniel’s eyes, mere inches from his own, and there was only an answering pleasure in this moment, and a complete and unwavering acceptance of the shift in their realities.

It was both as easy as that, and as difficult as that. A lifetime of conditioning warred with the perfect freedom and unexpected pleasure of having found something that was unburdened by guilt or obligation, and Jack was stymied into perfect stillness by the pressure exerted by the rock and the hard place.

With another sigh, filled with a sort of buzzing contentment, Jack leaned up and kissed one eye closed, then the other, feeling the tickle of the eyelashes against his lips. He pulled the comforter up around Daniel’s shoulders, his touch lingering, gentle, caressing, as he smoothed the hair back from Daniel’s forehead.

“I’ll be back,” Jack whispered, and he was gone, taking the cooled coffee with him, leaving the heavy shadows that now gathered in the darkened bedroom.

For a moment Daniel lay there, his mind a complete and utter blank, his body thrumming with warmth, comfort and a bewildering weightlessness.

Then there was the chink of the coffee pot, and the clink of coffee mugs, and the general sound of Jack bumping into things in the kitchen, and Daniel smiled brilliantly up at the shadow-dappled ceiling. 

.:.

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