by elfin

Stepping out onto the surface, Jack realised he was shaking.

It was a beautiful evening, clear blue sky, the distant sound of birdsong, the air warm.  Late summer.  He'd lost track of the seasons, spending days, weeks, sometimes months of his life off-world. 

The natural beauty here stunned him for a moment.  He rarely looked and *saw* these days.  Too busy worrying what was hiding in the bushes or wondering when death would next pass overhead.

For a few minutes he just stood, looking out over the woodland and wild shrubs.  He was glad to call this place, of all places, home.

A light breeze touched the grass beneath his feet, swayed the small flowers close by, moved a few strands of his hair.  And suddenly the raw grief crashed back over him in a storm of emotion and he choked on the unexpected sob that rose in his chest.

Tears fell in torrents, blinding him to everything but the brutal pain tearing his heart in two.

Wrapping his arms around himself he bowed his head and screwed his wet eyes shut.  In the darkness behind his lids he could see only white and red, bandages and blood, flesh, a body slowly ripped apart by radiation.

He wept, harsh and painful, for a long time.  They'd all spent the last day walking around with tear-misted eyes, knowing the grief which was to come, unable to give in to it until Daniel had actually died, close enough to look into the darkness of it and feel its black caress.

He'd been strong for all of them, venting his terrible anger on the Kalonian traitor who'd finally helped clear Daniel's name.  Here, now, he could do nothing but shatter.  There was no strength holding him together any longer.  That had come from Daniel, right up until the end.  And then he was gone.

Not dead.  But still gone.

Eventually his tears slowed through sheer exhaustion.  For now he felt nothing but an awful numbness and a vague headache but it was better than the hysteria he knew was to come.  Probably the following morning when he woke in blissful ignorance just before the grief and the *knowing* overwhelmed him.  It had happened the day after Charlie's death.    It was a feeling he knew better than any other.

Sam and Teal'c needed him but he couldn't see them right now and not have to face Daniel's absence.  And absence which would never, ever fade.

He forced his lungs to pull in a shuddering breath and pulling one sleeve over his hand he swiped at his eyes and nose.

Daniel wasn't dead.  Initially he'd imagined that would help, somehow make his loss easier to deal with.  He didn't completely understand what had happened but there was no radiation-ravaged body to cremate.  The only evidence of anything at all happening was the bloody bandages left lying in a gruesome parody of a mummy's corpse on the bed just after Daniel's disappearance. 

The General would expect him to carry on, of course, after some downtime, a given number of days allocated for grieving and then back to saving the Earth.  Without Daniel on it, the bitter thought came uninvited, was it still worth saving?

On thing was for sure, he couldn't look on the Kalonan's face without seeing Daniel's expression of shamed regret as he'd sat on the bed in the infirmary, legs dangling, awaiting a slow, painful death, the clock already ticking away on the last few hours of his life.

More tears fell unheeded from his eyes and he wondered idly if they'd ever run completely dry.

Another breeze ran warm fingers through the shrubs, the grasses and Jack's hair.

He closed his tired eyes and willed the pounding in his head to at least quieten.  His sinuses ached from the crying.

Exhaustion hit him full on, as hard as the grief had.  He swayed slightly and balanced himself without thinking.  He knew he should go back into the mountain or at least drive himself home if he was going to.  He would have liked to think that his house held too many memories of Daniel and in a way it did, but none of them were recent. 

They had history there. 

The first few weeks after they'd dragged Daniel back from Abydos, before he'd reluctantly rented an apartment - nothing permanent, nothing that would mean admitting he was on Earth to stay because he couldn't return without Shau'ri.

Long, comfortable evenings spent in one another's company, watching a game and sharing a couple of beers.

And then that one afternoon which had left him empty inside - the afternoon he'd lied to Daniel from the heart and watched his best friend die a little more inside.

Nothing had quite been the same since.  He and Daniel had grown apart while he and Sam had started to get closer.

He wished he could say he had no regrets, but he couldn't.  He regretted every angry word, every scowl whenever Daniel spoke, every minute wasted arguing because neither of them had ever really thought they wouldn't have the time to make it up.  Now - now it was too late.  He'd had one chance to wipe all the pain and distance of the last year away and he'd blown it.

*"I admire you."*

His tears began again in earnest and his lips moved in a silent apology to a man who could no longer hear him.

The breeze got stronger, somehow warmer, seeming to brush over his shoulders and down his back.  He mocked himself for finding an odd comfort in it but he was so tired now.  He felt as if he could lean back into it.

His fried mind recalled the bright *thing* Daniel had become and he imagined his friend in his new form, a shining light not so different from what he had been.  A baser part of his mind imagined Daniel's presence behind him now, fingers without form ghosting over his neck, head as light as the clouds rested on his shoulder, blue eyes closed in contentment.  So close, so *real*.

With a startled breath, Jack stepped forward and turned.

There was nothing there, just the breeze all around him, in the shrubs and the grass.

He swallowed his disappointment, hoping he hadn't lost his mind too.  It was all too much. 

Shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket, he made his way back down to where his truck had been standing for days, maybe a week now.  So easy - too easy - to lose track of time.  But maybe now that was a good thing.  Maybe he could carry on because it was the only thing he was able to do.

Out from the shelter provided by the woodland, the breeze was becoming a light wind and looking up he saw clouds starting to gather on the horizon.  In a couple of hours the storm would move in.  He wanted to be home by then, he decided, sitting on his sofa with a glass of whiskey lost in some inane film that would let him believe, just for a couple of hours, that everything was okay. 

Pulling his keys out with his hands he unlocked the truck and climbed inside.  Reaching for the door to pull it closed, he felt something brush over his wrist.

He yanked it back, looking around, rubbing his skin where he could still feel the tingling of another's touch.  But there was no one there, no one hiding in the gathering shadows.  There was no where to hide.  No one could have moved fast enough for him not to have seen them.

Shaking his head he once again reached for the handle and this time closed the driver's door without incident.  Starting the growling, unfeeling engine, he threw up gravel in his rush to get away from the only place in the universe he knew he belonged.