Retrieval

by sharilyn

EMAIL: sharilyn

 

They returned at dawn, the clatter of their arrival so carelessly loud in the first gray light of morning that Daniel knew it couldn't be Teal'c and Sam approaching. So. There's to be no rescue after all, he found himself thinking with exhausted fatalism; this is it, then. Red-rimmed and bleak with pain, his blue eyes squinted blearily up through the gloom shrouding the bottom of the pit where he'd huddled stiffly throughout the night, clutching Jack O'Neill's grievously injured body against his own bruised chest in a futile effort to keep them both warm, to keep his friend alive until help came. He couldn't see their captors yet, but he could smell them now, drawing nearer; God, how could he have forgotten that stench?

 

I'm sorry, Jack; God, so sorry, he wanted to whisper, wanted to send both the words and the emotion accompanying them into the faint glimmer of the other man's fading soul. It just wasn't right that this should be the way it all ended. You deserve something so much...nobler...than this, he thought to his commander with sudden, fierce indignation; you deserve something so much grander. Those exact words were right there, poised on the brink of regretful expulsion from his mouth to Jack's recumbent form; but as Daniel's lips ghosted, featherlight, along the cold outer shell of his friend's unresponsive ear, something thick and bitter and choking rose so tight and sharp within his chest that all thought, all verbal expression, was instantly sucked up into the black, churning void of grief and rage centered around the linguist's shattered heart.

 

The pain of incipient loss, of their own meaningless annihilation, was so intense, so complete and inescapable, that Daniel was left mute and shuddering in its wake, unable to so much as groan aloud in a futile effort to release some of his soul's dark anguish from the prison of his battered body. Just let it be quick, he found himself muttering fervently inside his own head as the first, guttural barks of alien conversation sounded at the mouth of the pit, some twelve feet above his and Jack's position. Maybe Jack won't even wake up when they come for us; if he's lucky, he'll never know what hit him at the end, Daniel caught himself thinking with a weary, perverse sort of hope.

 

As a sudden shower of loose dirt and pebbles rained down on his head from above, the haggard archaeologist hunched his body protectively over Jack's limp form and grimly decided that the older man had endured enough pain already, enough suffering at the hands of the beings now milling about with such restless anticipation on the planet's surface. Even though he knew his own efforts to protect Jack from their captors for as long as he could would doubtless amount to little more than pathetic posturing, he stubbornly vowed to give it his all nonetheless, to make the bastards work at least a little bit for the prize they were so intent on taking.

 

You know, I've really had just about enough of this, Daniel groused silently to himself as a second deluge of small stones alternately bounced off his head and trickled down the neck of his rumpled bdu's. An uneven rain of coarse soil pattered down next, stinging the grimy skin of his arms and doing its best to land in his eyes; with his lips sealed tightly together to keep the falling dirt out of his mouth, Daniel pressed his face briefly into the curve of Jack's neck and right shoulder and lifted a hand to pull the other man's lax body more tightly against the sheltering barrier of his own.

 

He could smell the cold, rank odor of Jack's sweat where it had dried in the dirty hollow of the older man's collar bone, and some distant part of his mind mused that he would probably be able to taste the stale essence of his friend's pain if he but pressed his mouth to Jack's neck--right here--and allowed his lips to absorb the sour salt of rage and waning defiance that still clung like a bitter aftertaste to his friend's skin.

 

"Don't wake up yet, Jack; please, just keep sleeping," Daniel murmured now, his breath puffing softly above the thready beat of life moving like a sluggish stream through Jack's carotid. For the briefest instant the younger man's lips made fleeting contact with the exposed patch of chilled skin at the base of the Colonel's throat, and it was just as Daniel had imagined--Jack tasted of pain and exhaustion, his pallid flesh offering up the bitter, residual tang of the excreted hormones of extreme physical duress that his body had been producing all through the night.

 

"Shh...it's okay, lie still," Daniel whispered as Jack gave a low, harsh groan and began to struggle feebly against his team mate's careful hold.

"Jack, settle down; you're hurt, remember? It's just me--it's Daniel." Shit, shit; why'd you have to pick NOW to regain consciousness? the linguist fretted mutely as sounds of increased activity echoed down into the pit from overhead.

 

"God! What?--"

 

Voice taut with agony, Jack's panicked, disoriented struggles ceased abruptly as a spasm of intense pain stole his breath and drained him completely of what little reserve of strength his body had retained during the long night. Daniel could feel the wet, convulsive heave of Jack's chest against his own as he adjusted their positions to prop the other man into a more upright posture, trying to assist Jack's desperate efforts to suck more oxygen into his fluid-filled lungs.

 

"Easy, Jack, just go easy...try to slow your breathing down, try to control it," Daniel murmured soothingly, rubbing one cold-numbed hand up and down Jack's back as the Colonel jerked helplessly in an agonized paroxysm of strangled coughing. "You've made it this far, don't quit on me now."

 

As Jack gasped and shuddered and moaned unintelligibly against him, Daniel briefly closed his gritty eyes and fought off a wave of despair as he listened with angry helplessness to the all-too-audible evidence of his best friend's agony. The laborious whistling of air in and out of lungs already gurgling with life-threatening fluid had been the terrible music keeping Daniel awake all night as he'd struggled to stay alert and keep Jack's sagging body elevated enough to prevent the injured man from drowning in his own blood; and as the seemingly endless hours had dragged on, Daniel cradled Jack's fragile life in his aching arms and grimly decided that the agonized breathing coming from the other man was the most disturbing, heart-rending sound he had ever heard...or ever would.

 

At one point during the deepest watch of the night, some dim part of Daniel's mind had just wanted the noise to stop, just wanted one moment of blessed peace and silence to descend into this cold, hopeless pit so that he could rest, so that he didn't have to think about the ominous implications of that terrible sound if help didn't come soon. But then he'd jerked back into full, stunned awareness as he realized that it would be worse, so much worse, if the frothy slush of Jack's breathing did indeed go quiet. Oh, God, NO silence, I don't want the silence! Daniel found himself crying out in his exhausted mind to whichever deity might be listening. I'm sorry, I CAN take this, I can listen to this for hours, for another day, for as long as it takes to be rescued, to get Jack some help...

 

God, don't let him die down here! Breathe, Jack, just like that; damn you, don't stop breathing, even though it must be hurting you so much, must be so exhausting...

 

And as the cold, unfriendly night wore on, Daniel came to be possessed of a strange sort of reverence for the liquid burble of tenacious life vibrating weakly but with reassuring steadiness from Jack's damaged chest; his admiration for the other man's courage and perseverance swelled within him with each passing hour until the sensation of fierce pride rising from Daniel's heart bordered almost on joy. To know a man like this--to know THIS man and to experience firsthand all the stubborn, sardonic, fiercely independent vitality that made Jack O'Neill who and what he was--was a singular, shining gift from the universe, one whose value was beyond estimation.

 

They were both in a horrible spot here, Daniel conceded, both in imminent peril of not surviving another full day; but the fact that they were here together, that they would meet their fate side by side with unquestioning loyalty and brotherhood, was much more than most men ever experienced in a lifetime. True, their work together was a duty each man had taken on when first joining the SGC; but the quick friendship that had sprung up between them was an invaluable added bonus, one which filled Daniel's soul with bittersweet satisfaction as he cradled Jack against him and just listened to him breathe in the night, his own easy respirations blending with the short, stuttering gasps of his companion's to create an oddly compelling rhythm between them.

 

As long as I still breathe, so do you, Daniel found himself chanting soundlessly as the night wore on and it grew colder, so much colder, on the planet's surface above. Down here in the pit it was actually several degrees warmer than the air temperature above ground; but 'warmer' was merely a relative term, Daniel had reflected wryly as he'd shivered through the night with Jack in his arms, their combined body heat just managing to stave off hypothermia. It was still too damned cold for comfort, and wistful fantasies of piping hot coffee and warm blankets had just begun to torment the exhausted man's thoughts when the first sounds of their captors' return had disrupted the predawn hush.

 

"Daniel?..." Jack's groggy croak of inquiry broke into the linguist's nervous concentration on the racket going on above them now; dragging his gaze from the amorphous shadows milling erratically at the open rim of the pit, Daniel turned his attention to the man shivering in his arms and dredged up a tired smile for the grim brown eyes studying him with such resigned awareness.

 

"Morning, Jack; thought you might just sleep in this time," Daniel quipped levelly, and Jack merely lifted one scarred eyebrow in reply, his mouth tightening into a thin grimace as his pain-dulled senses began coming back online again. Daniel felt his friend's body tensing against his, felt the distinct, uncontrollable tremors of pain and fatigue twitching through Jack's nervous system as the Colonel struggled to ride out the awful discomfort that had his hands clutching convulsively now at the front of Daniel's shirt. Daniel wanted to murmur words of comfort, wanted to brush his hand across the other man's pain-lined forehead and smooth out the creases there; but he knew Jack too well, knew that the soldier within his friend's battered body would most definitely not appreciate useless palliatives at this moment. So Daniel stayed quiet, pensively worrying his lower lip between his teeth as he continued to cradle the other man's body and waited for Jack to sort himself out.

 

"We're still here, Daniel," Jack gritted after a long moment, his death grip on Daniel's shirt relaxing as he attained a measure of control over his pain. "Why are we still here?"

 

Acerbic brown eyes glittered into Daniel's, and the younger man couldn't help but smile crookedly at the reassuring note of disgruntled snarkiness that sounded now in Jack's voice. Jack's pissy tone was pure music to the linguist's ears, and Daniel struggled against the sudden urge to ruffle his c.o.'s hair in an impulsive gesture of affection.

 

"I guess we missed the last bus out of here," he replied mildly instead, and Jack gave a disbelieving snort as he tugged once, imperiously, at Daniel's shirt. Correctly interpreting his team mate's unspoken signal, Daniel hesitated briefly but then obligingly slid his arms around Jack's torso and helped the commander shift his body to a fully upright seated position; murmuring "Easy, Jack, easy!" Daniel kept steadying hands on the other man's quivering body as Jack gave a low, strained moan and almost fell over onto his side from the rush of pain and dizziness assailing him.

 

"Fuck...didn't...miss the bus, Daniel...damned thing...ran over me!" Jack grunted breathlessly, and his already pinched features went completely gray as a horrible, choking cough suddenly ripped loose from his chest, spraying a shocking splatter of crimson blood droplets down the front of his shirt.

 

"Oh, Jesus, Jack!" Daniel muttered helplessly, his own face blanching dead-white as he tightened his hold on his team mate's weakly swaying form. "I shouldn't have moved you, I'm so sorry!--"

 

"Zip it, Daniel," Jack wheezed rustily once he'd caught his breath, the dark fear in his eyes at his own frailty flickering over into momentary annoyance. Having something else--someone else--to focus on seemed to both anchor and reassure him, and as he grudgingly allowed Daniel to support most of his weight again, the older man bowed his head tiredly against Daniel's left shoulder and muttered restively:

 

"Not your fault. Anyway...looks like we've got...company." Too enervated to even move his head, Jack settled for merely rolling his eyes heavenward, and Daniel made a half-startled noise as he was suddenly and jarringly reminded of the impending threat waiting to descend on them from above. Way to go, Jackson, he silently castigated himself as a frisson of guilty apprehension skittered down his spine. You're doing a real bang-up job of keeping your eyes and ears peeled for the first signs of certain death. Some protector you are.

 

"So...it's not Sam and Teal'c up there, I take it," Jack coughed weakly, and Daniel shifted his narrowed gaze from the rounded aperture that was their sole means of either death or liberation, back down to Jack's strained face.

 

"No, it isn't them," Daniel murmured regretfully, and for a brief moment his eyes locked with Jack's in a form of intense, silent communication that shut out the rest of the universe around them, including the deadly peril less than a dozen feet above their helpless position.

 

Well, here we are again, Jack's gaze said clearly, a glimmer of exasperation and something like wry affection sparking from his eyes. How many times does this make, now? Daniel read the thought as clearly as if Jack had voiced it aloud, and an answering gleam of gentle humor briefly brightened his haggard blue eyes as he sent back his silent response.

 

I've stopped counting; but at least we're TOGETHER this time. Daniel communicated his gratitude for that small blessing through the sudden, stark emotion in his eyes and through the squeeze of his fingers against Jack's shoulder. Yes, yes, never mind that we wouldn't BE together if I'd run off like you wanted, his shrewd blue eyes added drily as he correctly read his team mate's unspoken rebuttal. Jack winced at Daniel's seemingly effortless reading of his exact thoughts but then gave the other man a sudden, disarmingly charming grin, his gaze never leaving Daniel's face; and as a loud voice began barking out guttural orders overhead, the two men exchanged slight, somber smiles, smiles heavy with sentiments too private--too sacred--to be defiled with the crudeness of mere words.

 

The communion between them lasted for a mere breath, two at the most; and then the spell was broken as both men sensed the imminent intrusion of at least two of their captors into the pit. Eyes squinting up into the first, hazy rays of morning light arrowing down now into their makeshift oubliette, the team mates observed the sight of two ropes being tossed over the lip of the entrance above them, followed almost immediately by the addition of two rather large, decidedly hirsute bodies sliding over the rim, their impressively sized hands taking firm grips on the ropes as they began to lower themselves down into the hole.

 

"Don't even think about it, Jack," Daniel murmured warningly, tightening his arms around the other man's body as O'Neill made an abortive attempt to rise and face the alien menace currently rappeling down into their prison.

 

"You know you don't have the strength to even stay on your feet, much less face off against our lovely hosts," Daniel continued implacably, a note of mild censure entering his voice as he easily subdued Jack's feeble, infuriated struggles against him. "For God's sake, don't make my job harder, here!"

 

"YOUR job?" Jack began disbelievingly, but Daniel cut him off with an astonishingly ferocious scowl that instantly quelled his friend's disgruntled protests.

 

"I need for you to just lie still and stay out of the way, Jack; I'll hold them off as long as I can--which we both know won't be very long." Daniel's tone was one of rueful resignation, and as a grimace of frustrated denial and regret settled over Jack's gray face, Daniel lifted a cold hand and pressed it briefly, gently, over his friend's erratically racing heart.

 

"Let me do this, Jack; give me this one," the linguist murmured calmly, and Jack found he could do nothing but nod once, shortly, one shaking hand rising to his chest to settle lightly over Daniel's hand there. The older man's agitated heartbeat thrummed up through his chest wall, vibrating faintly first through Daniel's flattened hand and then into his own, binding the two men together at one purpose.

 

"Stay low and feint to the left; watch your weaker side," Jack coughed thickly, his pain-darkened eyes worried on Daniel's pale face; Daniel merely nodded and then carefully settled the other man's debilitated body against the wall immediately at their back, his attention anxiously divided between trying to spare his friend unnecessary pain and trying to keep a wary eye on the two ominous figures descending into the pit on their sturdy lengths of rough rope.

 

He knew he had very little time before the moment of inevitably futile confrontation with the descending natives; but as Daniel leaned both hands on the wall just above Jack's head and used the unyielding surface to pull his stiff, sore body fully upright, he was secretly dismayed by his own, drained emptiness. It took almost all his concentration just to stay on his feet, his pulse throbbing dully in his skull in tandem with the sick, acidic churning in his gut; his arms and legs felt like blocks of wood, and he could barely feel his feet at all. Dimly he fretted over the possibility of spinal damage from yesterday's fall, but he knew it wouldn't matter soon. For now he just wanted to give a good accounting of himself, wanted to keep the natives away from Jack for as long as possible--just in case Sam and Teal'c managed to pull another miraculous, last-minute rescue out of thin air.

 

But Daniel knew that wasn't going to happen; and as a sudden surge of vertigo had him stumbling drunkenly over his own numbed feet, arms flailing clumsily to keep his balance, Jack's voice sounded low and mournful behind him:

 

"Oh, shit, Daniel..."

 

"Yeah...just give me a minute, dammit," the younger man returned quietly, without rancor; but there wasn't that much time to spare. The two natives descending into the pit had literally reached the end of their individual ropes and were hopping to the stony ground, their bodies moving with amazing agility given their impressive bulk. As one they turned on the two puny, near-hairless interlopers who'd dared to invade their tribal territory, and the feral grins on their heavily-bearded faces matched the fearful light of savage enjoyment blazing in their dark almond eyes as they took Daniel Jackson's measure and quite obviously found him wanting.

 

A flash of something very like disappointment passed between the two natives as one gestured at Daniel and uttered a scornful grunt. His meaning was all too clear, and Jack gave a raw snort of pained laughter as he sagged against the wall like a sack of potatoes.

 

"I don't think...they're impressed, oh Mighty Warrior," he quipped breathlessly, and Daniel fought back the snicker of unexpected and decidedly inappropriate amusement that rattled suddenly in his chest at the ludicrous picture he must be presenting now. Oh, yeah, it's Super Daniel to the rescue, Jack, he wanted to retort smartly; I'll just activate my extraordinary geek powers and incapacitate the enemy with the ballpoint pen in my pocket while they're busy laughing their huge, hairy asses off at me.

 

"Yeah, well, maybe they're laughing at YOU, Jack," he answered drily and heard his c.o.'s brief, sardonic snort behind him. And even as the words left his mouth, Daniel thought somewhat dourly to himself that it just wasn't true; even as incapacitated as he was from his injuries, Jack O'Neill still managed to give off a dangerous, don't-fuck-with-me aura that Daniel Jackson could never hope to emulate, even on his best day.

 

Face it, Nerd Man, he chuffed silently to himself; at heart you're still a philosopher, not a soldier...no matter that the lines between the two seemed to have become somewhat blurred the longer he'd remained with SG1. The insatiable curiosity and love of languages and cultures that ran in his veins still took precedence over the side of him that had learned to fight and fire weapons and even kill when necessary; and Daniel knew now with a tired sense of fatalism that if Jack wasn't here with him--rousing to the limit what fierce, protective instincts the younger man DID possess--then he'd probably just let these goons do to him whatever they wanted, probably not even put up much of a fight at all. He was that tired, that numb, that sick of the relentless throbbing low in his back.

 

For now the pain was bearable, but the dull sensation of heaviness pressing against Daniel's lower spine had his legs so wooden and clumsy that it was taking an inordinate amount of his concentration just to stay upright on them, much less focus on the two ominous figures advancing toward him. But Jack needed him now, Jack was in even worse shape; and though Daniel knew objectively that there was really nothing he could do to protect his friend--no way to talk the two glittery-eyed, determined natives out of carrying through with their deadly plans--he still had to stand against them for the handful of seconds it would take them to knock him flat on his ass.

 

"What do you want with us?" he began harshly now, in no mood to try the calm, placatory spiel that had often worked so well for him in the past...well, SOMETIMES worked, he amended ruefully. But he had an instinctive feeling that that particular demeanor and tone wouldn't earn him any points with these two, and with the pain in his back steadily increasing from merely uncomfortable to borderline excruciating, Daniel found he had no patience for kissing up to these smelly behemoths.

 

"Look, we've already been through the 'let's pound the geeky Earthlings' routine with you guys last night; and right now we're tired, we're hungry, and we'd LIKE to get the hell out of here. So either kill us fast or back off," he muttered irascibly, only vaguely aware of Jack's disbelieving snort behind him in the peanut gallery.

 

"Don't forget to tell them...how much they stink," Jack coughed roughly, his voice wheezing out somewhere between sardonic humor at his own wit and dry admiration for Daniel's unexpected chutzpah. "I mean, honestly, they REEK."

 

"If I knew their word for putrid, I'd let them have it with both barrels," Daniel retorted quietly, and he almost turned back to give Jack a wry smile. But he didn't dare take his eyes off the two uglies growling lazy strategies to one another not two feet away from him; so he contented himself with a minute shrug of his shoulders instead and added affably: "Not that our critique of their hygiene habits would have any lasting impact. I'm sure that to them, WE stink."

 

"Maybe, maybe; but it's like comparing the stink of rotted cabbage to the...slight 'bouquet' of milk...JUST starting to turn," Jack huffed out, and Daniel found himself wanting to chuckle aloud at this very bizarre, innocuous conversation between them here in the face of imminent death.

 

"Well, there's definitely a world of piquant difference between the two," he agreed drily with his friend, and Jack snorted once more, the sound degenerating into a wet, sucking gasp that tore at Daniel's heart. Suddenly filled with a surge of rage for their situation and for the beings who'd put them here, the archaeologist clenched both fists at his sides and lifted smoldering eyes to the mildly amused countenances of their gaolers. For the most part he abhorred violence on principle; but in this one case Daniel decided he was more than willing to set those principles aside if it would mean he could take Jack out of here and get both their asses back through the stargate. I'm tired, he thought again, shoulders slumping infinitesimally with the weight of that knowledge; God, I"m so tired. And of all the aliens who've ALMOST killed us, it's going to be an anticlimax to find ourselves done in by THESE idiots.

 

"Daniel...Daniel, stand down, why don't you?" Jack rasped gently from behind him, and Daniel started slightly and came back to himself and to the grim realization that his body had suddenly been overcome by a relentless series of tremors, his frazzled neurons burning and convulsing within their protective myelin sheaths like the sting of a million ants marauding through his system. It was so hard to keep standing, so hard now to keep his vision focused on the increasingly blurred outlines of their captors; and he could hear it in Jack's voice behind him, hear the older man's compassionate understanding of just how near the edge Daniel's endurance was, of just how much it was costing his friend to keep standing.

 

"It's okay, Daniel; you did good," Jack continued, his voice warm with approval and still amazingly steady despite his own pain. "Come here; sit with me...won't be long now, they're just playing with us..."

 

Slowly, so slowly that it seemed to take years--eons even--Daniel coaxed his stiffening body to turn halfway to the side, swiveling his head in creaky tandem till he could find Jack's gaze with his own. And as those familiar, reassuringly calm brown eyes met his, Daniel discovered that he didn't really give a shit anymore about what was to come, didn't care what the two smelly hominids infringing on their space here had in mind. Jack's suggestion suddenly seemed so sensible, so obvious; and Daniel thought acerbically to himself that if only he wasn't so damned tired, he probably would have thought of it himself before now.

 

"Make room, then," he suggested roughly, and Jack gave a small nod and reached, wincing slightly, to pat the cold stone floor next to him.

 

"Right here, you beautiful man, you," he smiled wearily, his gaze suddenly and inexpressibly gentle on Daniel's wan features; and with a subdued but eloquent smile of his own, Daniel returned Jack's earlier nod and turned his back on their captors. Dimly he was aware that his sudden, stolid indifference to the natives' presence was not being well received by the said natives, themselves, and a part of him instantly tensed up, just waiting to be summarily struck down from behind for his insolence. But the expected blow never came, and Daniel kept his gaze fixed on Jack's supportive, quietly compelling regard as he reached the wall and pressed his back gingerly against it, using its rough surface again to slide his abused body down onto his ass this time rather than up onto his feet.

 

"Oh, yeah, not moving again, now...that's about done it," he gasped tightly against Jack's left shoulder as the pain in his lower spine flared suddenly and viciously to new heights of discomfort. "Sorry, Jack," he added in a subdued mutter as the other man reached a shaky hand to give Daniel's thigh an awkward pat of reassurance. "Jackson's Last Stand, eh; the annals of SGC history will no doubt record that I went out even more ignobly than Custer, I guess."

 

"Nonsense; you've left the Hekyll and Jekyll twins completely nonplussed," Jack growled sardonically from his place at Daniel's side. "Shocked 'em so bad with your badass routine that they've temporarily forgotten to get on with the maiming and killing. Mental warfare, Daniel; just as effective sometimes as shooting the hell out of everything."

 

"But you'd still sell your soul right now to have your P-90 back," Daniel huffed drily, and Jack gave a rough chuckle that turned into another blood-flecked display down the front of his ruined bdu's.

 

"You know me so well, Dr. Jackson," he managed to grit out, just before the two hairy mountains before them ceased their muttered confabulation and turned full attention to their injured captives, their dark eyes gleaming with feral anticipation in the dimness of the pit.

 

"Well, shit," Jack mumbled sourly, and all Daniel could do was nod, too tired to even summon up enough adrenaline to be scared spineless. Ha, that's funny; back injury--spineless--he hooted to himself as one of the natives suddenly appeared right in front of him, huge hands reaching down to clutch the front of Daniel's shirt and drag the limp archaelogist to his feet. Daniel heard himself cry out, his voice almost embarrassingly loud and raw with pain as his aggressor slammed him without ceremony into the wall behind him, Daniel's already-abused spinal cord seeming to explode into razor-sharp shards of exquisite agony upon impact with the stone surface. Almost immediately his consciousness began to fade (good, that's a good thing, don't want to be here for this, he could hear himself thinking fuzzily as darkness descended...); and as he slid down, down into a grey and hazy netherworld made up of equal parts pain and numbness, Daniel thought he heard Jack cursing viciously, relentlessly, KNEW he heard the other man bellow at least once in unbearable agony as the sickening thud of gigantic fists on tortured flesh filtered like a nightmare soundbite into the fading well of Daniel's conscious awareness.

 

Dying sucks, Daniel remembered thinking, angry and regretful and vaguely terrified all at once; but knowing your best friend is dying alongside you REALLY sucks. God, Jack, I'm sorry, he sent with almost the last of his will, the last of his fading brain power; and he could have sworn he heard Jack's voice in return, grim and regretful and filled with quiet affection in his head: No; I'M sorry, Daniel. Couldn't save us, couldn't help you...

 

And then things got weird.

 

Suddenly, in the very midst of dying, Daniel felt the brutal hold on his ravaged body drop away with such instant, implacable force that all he could do was fall, hitting the ground beneath him like a useless jumble of jellied bones crammed haphazardly into a sack of bruised and bleeding skin; he couldn't think, couldn't formulate words or sounds of inquiry to ask his murderer why, how, or what the fuck?--

 

All he could do was lie there on the cold, hard--very hard--ground at the bottom of the pit, trying not to cry like a baby with the terrible pain in his body as a series of incongruous but oddly familiar sounds impinged on his fragmented consciousness. He thought he heard the inelegant and sickeningly painful sound of another sack of inanimate, ruined human flesh impacting the unforgiving stone floor next to him, and dimly he named the groaning, choking blob of protoplasm writhing weakly at his elbow: Jack.

 

Why aren't we dead yet, Jack? he wanted to ask, but he couldn't figure out where his mouth was in relation to the terrible pain in his spine or how to make the words come out right; he wondered if this was Hell and if maybe they WERE dead after all and that this was their punishment for their earthly sins--to be forever trapped within these gelatinous, agony-filled bodies, beaten and pummeled and dropped again and again to the bottom of a lightless pit for all eternity...

 

But that couldn't be; Daniel told himself he didn't believe in Hell, WOULDN'T believe that either Jack or himself belonged in such a place, no matter their human frailties and failings; and he damned sure didn't think Sam or Teal'c belonged in Hell, yet he could hear them here somewhere, hear the suddenly identifiable sound of zat guns and P-90's and the unmistakable hum of Teal'c's staff weapon discharging its deadly energy into bodies that were not human, wringing deep-throated roars of defiance and fear and pain and death from the throats of those who would have seen Daniel dead, Jack dead instead...

 

"Rescue..." the word trickled thinly, weakly, into what Daniel was fairly sure was his right ear; and the voice was undoubtedly Jack's, the scrabbling, urgent fingers digging into his arm Jack's fingers. "Son...of a...effing...bitch...they came, Daniel. Damned if...they didn't..."

 

And Daniel remembered how to open his eyes, remembered how to arrange neurons and connections within the gummy morass of his brain and focused in on Jack O'Neill's blood-streaked, absolutely pasty-skinned face, focused in on the sudden, blazing light of life, of hope and defiance and downright smugness, that burned from Jack's brown eyes into his. He wanted to answer him, wanted to tell him that it couldn't be, that it was all too convenient and suspicious; but then he became aware of presences other than those of Hekyll and Jekyll here with him and Jack, became aware of the stench of burning hair and discharged zat energy and the heavy, cloying scent of death thick in the air around him. But not his death, oh no; and not Jack's.

 

Familiar, slender hands, amazingly gentle hands, were suddenly descending on his shoulders, turning and rolling him with infinite care onto his poor, brutalized back; and Daniel looked up into the bruised, exhausted face of Samantha Carter and felt his heart start to beat again, felt himself grasp that he was truly still alive when his team mate's blue eyes filled with the heated relief and gratitude of her own realization that she and Teal'c had indeed been in time.

 

"Lie still momentarily, O'Neill; you are gravely injured," he could hear Teal'c's low, considerate rumble from very close by; and as Jack groaned inarticulately beneath the Jaffa's careful touch, Daniel summoned the last reserves of energy left in his battered body and squinted myopically up at Sam, his lips twisted into a fretful frown.

 

"This...only happens...in the movies," he murmured faintly to her, still not trusting that this was real, that their eleventh hour rescue was anything more than an episodic tv wetdream inside his dying mind. But then Sam laughed--a warm, genuine, gloriously animated laugh of affectionate relief--and Daniel knew it was true, knew then that Teal'c and Sam were John Wayne and Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood and Laura Croft, Pit Raider, all rolled into one; and maybe, just maybe, there would be a happy ending scene of SG1 limping off into the sunrise, after all.

 

"We never...doubted..." Daniel heard Jack gasp weakly, or imagined he did; and then he was aware of a whole unit of other familiar faces and voices calling down to them from above, could see the sharpening outlines of the members of SGs 2 and 4 milling about at the mouth of the pit and calling down suggestions for retrieving Jack and himself from the bottom with minimal risk of exacerbating their injuries; and finally, finally, he knew it was all right to let it all go, to close his eyes and sleep. They would help Jack; Jack would be okay. And so will I, Daniel decided as everything went blessedly dark and quiet.

 

************

EPILOGUE

 

"And I'm telling YOU, there's no way you in your puny back brace could outrun ME, even with my beat-up lungs and this damned canula still stuck up my nose; if we ran that race right now, I'd beat your ass all to hell and back." Jack's voice was smug, the light of challenge glittering in his eyes, as he rolled over onto his side in the narrow infirmary bed and cocked one taunting eyebrow in Daniel's direction.

 

Daniel merely sighed exaggeratedly in reply, his blue gaze shifting to the left to take in Jack's relaxed posture in the bed next to his; held rigidly in one position as he was by the deucedly uncomfortable spinal brace Janet had fitted him out with, the linguist was in no mood for his c.o.'s annoyingly chipper harangue this morning.

 

"Dammit, Jack, neither one of us can even stand up yet without falling down like two strands of limp spaghetti," he pointed out acerbically, tempting the fates by rearranging his body JUST a little bit on his own narrow mattress. But at least I'm not still in traction, he mused ruefully to himself before continuing his argument with Jack in a reasonable tone. "And even if we DID hypothetically take on the fifty yard dash to see who'd win that bet we made, it wouldn't be a 'dash' by any use of the term; at this point it would be more of an agonized crawl, and I'd STILL kick your ass--cause I might move slower now but at least I wouldn't be flopping around like a fish out of water, gasping for oxygen ten yards into the race. I would SO beat you, Jack."

 

"Now that's just mean-spirited," Jack huffed in reply, poking disconsolately at the bits of plastic wedged into his nostrils before leveling an accusing finger in Daniel's direction. "I'd never make fun of YOUR...disability...in such a hurtful and demeaning way."

 

"Oh, come on, Jack; you've been calling me Turtle Boy and The Amazing Young Linguist on the Flying Trapeze ever since I was first put into traction," Daniel scoffed now, rolling his eyes at his team mate's quick snort of amusement. "The least you could have done was to come up with some DECENT jibes at me. You're losing your touch, old man, getting lamer and lamer with the insults with every passing mission."

 

"Hey, I was sick! Really, really sick...and injured, too, really injured a lot. You can't expect a man to be in top form after such an ordeal," Jack huffed, and Daniel merely rolled his eyes again and wished for the umpteenth time that he could get up, remove this damned torture device from his body and just get the hell AWAY from Jack O'Neill, even if only for an hour. He loved the man, really he did, and it was a constant source of joy for him to awaken from restless, pain-tinged dreams to find his c.o. and best friend still very much among the living; but a bored, recuperating-too-slowly-for-his-tastes Jack was not someone you wanted to spend a lot of time with, especially when you had pissy, glacially slow recuperative issues of your own to deal with.

 

I have GOT to win that race, Daniel thought to himself now with stubborn resolution as Jack shifted again on his mattress and began a long, snarky assessment of all the many, many pages of paperwork Daniel would be doing for him once they were both recovered enough to set up the competition between them. I am going to run his ass into the ground, and then I am going to eat like a king for the foreseeable future, Daniel fantasized to himself with a tiny, secretive smile. It's the least he can do to repay me for having to listen to his endless whining about the bloodwork and needles and the vitals checks and the catheters and canulas and the way Janet refused to switch his drafty hospital gown for scrubs the first few days after he regained consciousness and could actually BREATHE again without sounding like a dying, asthmatic whale...I mean, you didn't hear ME complaining, even trussed up as I was with all those levers and pulleys, like the victim of one of Sam's engineering experiments or the star of some bad s & m porno flick...

 

"Hey! Hey, Daniel, are you listening to me? Snap out of it and pay attention, here! I'm bored, dammit; what do you say we get Ferretti to sneak in a six pack when Janet isn't looking? Gah, I'm sick of jello and bouillon! And why can't we watch tv, would it KILL Sam to tape ESPN and then smuggle that sweet little tv/vcr combination of hers down here so we could catch up on all the games...Daniel, Daniel, I know you're not really asleep again, come on you coward, I'm not shutting up till you answer me..."

 

"Remind me again why I wanted to save you down in that pit, Jack," Daniel smiled ferally now; and as Jack gave a loud huff of highly aggrieved and insulted displeasure, Daniel merely closed his eyes and pictured in his mind the glorious day when he would rush like the wind down the SGC's running track, dashing straight into victory and all the Thai food and gourmet chocolates he could eat. Hell, maybe he'd even be a gentleman and help Jack finish up a mission report or two; after all, what were friends for?

 

The image of Jack groveling at his feet and offering up obeisance in the form of a box of deluxe truffles in gratitude for his clerical help washed pleasurably through Daniel's mind now; and as the Colonel rambled on and on about how severely he was going to flay Daniel's ass out on the track in front of ALL of Cheyenne Mountain's personnel, the linguist dozed off into peaceful slumber, oddly comforted and cradled by the familiar sound of his c.o.'s snarky blustering. That's Jack, he thought with lazy satisfaction; that's my friend, my main man. And it was good, so damned good, to be alive, to lie here waiting patiently to be released from this cocoon of braces and meds and intrusive nurses, back into a world of movement and action and the chance to publicly humiliate his best buddy in front of the whole base. Oh, yeah, it couldn't get much better than that, he sighed, and slipped down and down into a restful place where he was unable to see the brief grin of knowing affection that Jack O'Neill, intrepid infirmary patient, sent his way.

 

~END~

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