Cat's Cradle

by Corby


Chapter One

He met her on a night of rain and blood, when the sadness stole from his pores like a wronged sweat.

Someone had pulled a dirty chain across the entrance to the car park in the basement of his building, and he soon saw why; the lights from his car showed muddy water lapping at the foot of the stairs. A stormwater blockage, or burst pipe - it didn't really matter. The car park was closed, the rain was striking the windshield as if personally flung across it by God, and Daniel had left his jacket under the mountain in the headlong cowardice of hasty departure. So driven had he been that he had left no goodbyes in his wake. Just the relentless slap of rubber on concrete as he fumbled for car keys and wondered at the shaking of his hands.

It was a long walk around to the front entrance of his building, and somehow Daniel didn't think he could get any wetter if he simply waded through the mess before him. And somewhere sighing in his soul was thoughts of Lethe, a river that would wash away memory and guilt and the blood of children, children, the children….

He parked his car in the alley and heard it grind to silence with an ominous cough. It had only started with the help of jumper leads and a muttering airman at the SGC, and he knew there was no more driving of it tonight without similar assistance. He climbed out, leaning back into the passenger side to shove papers into his briefcase in order to clip it shut. Protecting the lonely files. Keeping them safe. He swung the case out, and considered using it to shelter his head; but the water was already leaking down the back of his shirt, and his glasses were battered with raindrops in seconds. There was no point to it. No point at all.

He made his way down the ramp and stepped into the brown flood. It slid up to the top of his calves, oozing cold into his shoes, and he gripped the handle of his briefcase more tightly as if that would ward off the chills in his flesh. A cold night. A bitter wind. And the cleansing he'd hoped for, without words or conscious thought, proving to be nothing but oily refuse, the waste-water of machinery and neglect.

A teenager leant against the stairwell, watching him with indifferent eyes. Daniel glanced at him, briefly, then lowered his head and concentrated on step-sliding across the car park floor. There were grilles under there somewhere, and parking bay kerbs, and he dreaded a sudden stumble that would shroud him in dirty water. Tonight - tonight he seriously doubted if he would have the energy or will to raise his head above the surface.

The boy was smoking a cigarette, Daniel realised as he drew closer. A spark of red was dipping and pausing with slow regularity, the only light in the basement apart from a single emergency light further up the stairs. The teenager's face was half-shadowed, as if he had placed himself there for dramatic effect, and Daniel found himself assessing a possible threat as if he really did give a damn whether he got home in one piece after all.

"Evening," he said, an offering to whatever gods of conversation lurked in sepulchres and flood washed basements. The boy nodded, the gesture almost a shrug, and flicked the cigarette into a death spiral, far out onto the water. The rain was too loud to allow the hiss of extinction to reach Daniel's ears. But he would have sworn he heard it.

His eyes tracked the spark, unwillingly, and as they did so he noticed a small sealed box floating across the bays.

It was a storage box, plastic, translucent, red lidded, and it lurched in lazy swirls with every new current brought from the source of the flood. Daniel paused to watch it tip and right itself, seeing liquid inside slosh in counterbalance. He squinted in the dim light, as a scarlet tinge seemed to echo the red above. No, not in the liquid. In his mind's eye only, as images from the days before swam alongside him in the cold water.

The box twirled suddenly, caught in an invisible eddy, and something pale inside it, something tangled and limp and shockingly formed splayed against the side. A moment of recognition caught Daniel, held him as if he were gripped by a spotlight, and then propelled him in clumsy strides towards where the box pirouetted, unconcerned.

Oh, he didn't want this. He didn't want to see this. But his cold hands were reaching to steady the box, and to peel back the lid, in defiance of his wishes, of the reluctance that clawed at his mind. Suck it up, he told himself, the internal voice heavy with loathing. Don't you dare walk away.

With a snap the lid sprang back, and Daniel gave a groan. He hadn't meant to make a sound. He didn't deserve that luxury. But the tiny bodies rocking in the foul liquid seemed so suddenly, sickeningly sad that he felt as if he could howl in mourning. Of all the horrors he had seen in the last hours - all the misery he had witnessed and fought against (and caused, the burning in his chest told him) - somehow, this little pile of domestic death, so banal and unremarkable, seemed to him at least as dreadful as anything else. The briefcase sagged into the flood as he prodded each little body, looking for movement. Heads lolled in the water, fur slicked into transparency, and limbs floated outward in mockery of the joys of bathing, but nothing responded to his clammy, shaking fingers. Until he reached the furthest corner, shadowed by his own body; and for a second he thought something scrabbled against his thumb.

Impossible, surely; nothing could survive in this cold, plastic hell, so mercilessly sealed and abandoned. But his hand curved around the last body and lifted it to the light, as gently as he could in spite of his shivering. And as he raised it closer to his face he could see the front paws waving vaguely in the air, the head rolling in blind search for warmth and nurture.

Daniel cupped the little creature, offering a bizarre comfort of cold flesh without thinking. It gave a slight wriggle, and he stroked it with his thumb, watching as it wriggled again at the contact. This one wants to live, he heard a voice other than his own smirk in his mind, and he saw again the carnage, and another young body too small to ever be so threatened scrabbling for life at his feet. He closed his eyes, hard.

A grinding of grit and concrete caused him to open his eyes again and glance at the teenager slouched in the stairwell. The boy was turning, heading for the lobby, and a sudden knowledge blossomed inside Daniel. Bringing the small life in his hand to his chest, he waded with increasing carelessness and anger towards the light.

"Hey! Hey, you!" The anger was firing through him, sending him heedless through the water. "Hey! You did this, didn't you?"

The teenager paused, half-turned back towards him. Daniel could see him clearly now, could see the complete lack of care in the surly face.

"They're cats, man." The teenager shrugged.

Daniel had reached the base of the stairs, and felt an overwhelming desire to reach for the boy's jacket and shake him.

"They're living creatures. They were alive when you put them in that box."

A blank look, then a curled lip. "Fuck off."

Daniel scrambled up the stairs, getting above the boy. His chest was heaving with emotion.

"So it was too much bother to find them homes, right? Too much trouble to get the mother spayed? Easier just to kill what is inconvenient? Is that right?" He was yelling, and the impulse to grab the jacket was too great. Even one handed, he knew he was stronger than this loathsome child of the night.

"Hey, shithead - " the boy began, but Daniel's fist pushed him against the wall and held him there.

"This is a living thing. You have no goddamned right!"

"Get off me! Let go!" The boy twisted, but Daniel's strength and anger were too much for him, and he stayed pinned. "Fuck you, asshole. What's your problem?"

Daniel pushed his face into the other's. "My problem, you little bastard, is people like you who don't give a damn about anything but themselves. Who can be so cruel without even raising a sweat. That's my problem."

He searched the boy's face, feeling the shaking begin again deep inside himself, feeling the helpless anger skewer his nerves, his brain, so that the search became a desperate one. With rain soaked fingers he held the other to the light, glaring into his eyes for some sign of regret, compassion. Humanity.

There was nothing. Not even fear.

If he were looking for a celestial apology in this grim place of darkness and functional waste, he would look in vain. Comical, really, to ever think such things as balance existed. Why should there be balance, when ignorance provided as much pain as hatred and was so easily come by?

The wash of feeling left Daniel as abruptly as it had claimed him, a chilled shame trembling through his limbs in its wake. His fingers released the jacket, and the boy immediately slid up and away from him, reminding Daniel of a whipped dog slinking away from a loathed master. The boy was mouthing something, words of retaliation and lawsuits and obscene threat, but Daniel didn't listen. Instead, he leant forward against the wall himself, trying to quell his stomach and the rise of a terrible fear.

In the face of a human boy at the entrance to his own home he had seen the arrogance of a Goa'uld, and the uselessness of his own crusade was so apparent to him, so clear and unequivocal, that he could have wept where he stood and left the tears to join the murk of the water at his feet. There was nothing sacred about the tears of a fool. Especially one as dangerous and absurd as he was.

Another wriggle on his palm distracted him, and he pulled his head away from the wall to glance down at the kitten he had saved. Its mouth was opening, pink and hungry, feeling for a teat to suckle.

Why on Earth had he saved it?

He watched as it tried to raise its head, tried to drag its body towards his fingers in the blind hope of food and survival. It was a brave and tenacious spirit struggling against its fate, and Daniel felt an ugly resentment build inside him.

There was nothing he could do to prolong this tiny life. He had no home to provide it. Impossible for a man like him to keep a pet.

Impossible, the thought resounded in his head, for a man like him to save anything.

The only kindness he could offer it was a quick death. His thumb stroked the fur again, and he felt exactly how much pressure it would take to crush the spark from this creature in his hand. Barely as much as it took to open a candy bar.

"I'm sorry," he murmured to it, as it mouthed the tip of his thumb. "I don't really do rescues. I'm sorry."

Gently, he grasped its neck. Its blind eyes fluttered at the end of its grotesquely short life, and Daniel swallowed hard.

"At least I have the courage for this, Little One. Trust me, this is the best I can do. The best thing for you. No place for innocence in this world."

He closed his eyes, and began the last brutal task of this most brutal of days.



Chapter Two


Water dribbled onto the phone in his hand as Daniel stood in his kitchen. He had heeled off his shoes as he entered his apartment, but the dripping from his trousers had darkened a trail of moisture from the door to the cold floor of his kitchen. He needed a hot shower, and dry clothes. He needed to take one tumbler of whiskey and down it in a gulp. He needed to lie down on his couch, grab the cushions, and bury his head into their velvet depths where he could scream against his own cowardice and stupidity and utter inconsequence.

He did not need this.

"I'm sorry, Mr Jackson, I don't really know what you want me to tell you."

Scowling, Daniel watched the bundle on the bench as it moved.

"I just need to know what a new born kitten would need to make it survive the night until I can get some proper stuff tomorrow, that's all."

"There's kitten formula available in most supermarkets."

"I'm not going out again tonight." He spoke into the phone, but the words were meant, defiantly, for the small pile of sweater beside his coffee maker. Lines needed to be drawn, and Daniel was capable of drawing them.

"Where is the mother?"

"I have no idea," Daniel snapped. "As I said, the kitten was abandoned."

"Have you ever kept pets before, Mr Jackson?"

There was a pause.

"I have fish."

Another pause. "I see. Tropical?"

"Yes."

"Good, so you understand the need for regular care and feeding." When there was no immediate response, the voice continued. "You have kept them successfully, I take it?"

Daniel set his jaw. "Some of them."

A longer pause accompanied by a sigh and an incomprehensible mutter.

"Mr Jackson, do you have children?"

"No."

"A yard, a house?"

"No."

Daniel heard the unspoken question. What the hell are you doing with this kitten? It was one he'd asked himself as he rummaged in the bottom of his closet for the sweater ruined on its first day of wearing by Jack's idea of yard work.

"Look, I'm sorry if I'm wasting your time." It was unnecessary and unfair asperity, but Daniel had little left with which to bring politeness to his cause. "If the kitten makes it through the night I'll get the stuff you mentioned tomorrow. But right now I'm tired, I'm wet, I'm freezing, my car has collapsed and I'm the only chance it's got. I daresay I'm the last person on the planet who should have this responsibility, but I'm damned if I'm going to put it back in that box."

"Oh, I don't know." There was a warmth in the voice that had been absent before, and a hint of amusement. "I think that kitten just got a hell of a lucky break."

Approval? It was the last thing Daniel wanted, and he flinched a little because he knew he needed it so badly.

"So what should I do?" he asked, his eyes on the bundle as it wriggled again.

"Get a little milk, dilute it, put a little sugar in there, warm it up and feed on demand. Keep the kitten warm and dry. If it's survived this long, chances are it will make it till morning."

"Okay then." He cleared his throat. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. And if it does survive, perhaps you can come in to the clinic in a few week's time and get it properly vaccinated."

"I'll do that." Daniel watched as the kitten's head pushed through a loop of the neckline. "Sorry about… well, sorry. Goodnight."

He hung up, and shivered again. Then pushed the tiny head back under cover.

"Stay there," he told it sternly. He began to turn towards his bathroom, with the cumbersome roll of true exhaustion; but at the last moment he paused, and turned back to the bench.

"Not having you fall off there," he muttered, before scooping the sweater and its fragile burden into his hands and placing it gently on the floor.

Now. Now he could find warmth and cleanliness and pain.

The bathroom felt as chilly as the basement, but even so he set the water temperature in the shower to a barely lukewarm level. His shirt gripped his skin in a clammy brotherhood of old sweat and new rain. It peeled from him with reluctance, pulling against the scrapes that crossed his upper arms and back. The jagged nails on his fingers caught in the buttons. He held his pants out from his thighs as he eased them down, trying not to touch the avulsed skin that burned from his hip to his knee, trying to ease the pain across his back from muscles that had proved too weak to earn the name.

The water stung, as he knew it would. He was too cold, too bruised. It felt like icy fire into his skin.

He stood awkwardly, holding himself still; his body twisted so that the raw places didn't take the brunt of the assault. Stillness in the face of pain was an art he'd learned long ago. This was a necessary trial to reach a readiness for warmth, and as his body slowly adjusted to the feel of the water, he increased the temperature by careful degrees. Without warmth now he knew his body would seize up tomorrow; and tomorrow, there were things he must do.

Like travel back to the cursed mountain and offer up his soul for flaying. Give a mission report that could never sound the cries, the screams, the pleadings and curses and gurgles of blood through accusing lips. That could never capture the smells of dirt and shit and vomit and death. That would lie on clean paper, in a clean folder, and be opened by hands fresh washed and ignorant.

Daniel closed his eyes and tilted his head under the spray.

He didn't want tomorrow.

Some other chore awaited him… oh, yes. Kitten formula. It really was grotesque, this habit of his of missing the goddamned point of everything. It was all wrong, all spectacularly wrong, and here was the good Doctor Jackson, PhDs in Bad Decisions and Moral Equivocation, floundering about looking after a scrap of life that would have been better served by a quick twist of the neck.

He looked down to see blood trailing into the drain, and realised it was time to dry off, re-medicate, re-bandage and re-assess just what the hell he thought he'd been doing these last few days.

It hurt to pat dry the scraped skin, to ease cream and bandages across it where he could. It hurt to bend as he pulled on old sweats, leaving his feet bare because he knew his back couldn't flex far enough to wrangle socks.

It just hurt.

Well, tough. So it damned well should.

He tottered back to the sitting room, remembering at the last moment that he had a task in the kitchen. He found long-life milk in the cupboard, a small container for the microwave, sugar. An eyedropper in a vitamin bottle, and he set the vitamins aside to add after the gentle heating. Couldn't hurt, he thought, then winced. For all his judgement was worth, it could kill. When all was ready at last he returned to the sitting room, bent gingerly and retrieved the sweatered bundle.

At once there was wriggling, but it was less forceful than it had been. He felt a sudden pang in his heart. Not more failure. Not tonight. He peeled back the warm wool and held the creature up, close to his face. He hadn't looked at it properly yet, and now he did so with critical eyes, assessing weakness and the betrayal of possible surrender.

"You're fine," he croaked. The blind eyes in the too-large head fluttered again, and he saw how the ears were pressed close to the skull, how fine the fur was, how soft and silken. One paw waved at him, the claws mere dots on each pad, and he felt something like a smile twitch across his own lips. "Scrap," he added.

For the first time he heard a faint sound, a mewling, as the kitten demanded less talk, more feeding. The sound went straight to his belly, to some inner core of him, where the desire to protect warred daily with the fears of his own inadequacy. It was the place where his love for children grappled with his terror of loss. He'd told Sha're they should wait.

Gently, he positioned the kitten in his left hand. Marvellous, he thought, how it fit into his palm - the whole universe expressed in one tiny life, one perfect newborn thing. He lifted the dropper, fecund with the milky mixture, and dripped more life back into the pink mouth. It mewled again, as if in excitement, and another almost smile flitted across his face.

He saw the lesson, even as he rejected it. This baby was fighting for its existence in the face of utter hopelessness, dependent upon the kindness of a stranger, even to its species. And still it had the courage to demand that kindness, to take it without apology or regret. That was a kind of faith that Daniel couldn't find tonight, and doubted he'd ever find again.

And yet, for this bleak night - perhaps it was enough for him to work through exhaustion and pain to keep this useless, charming thing alive. Perhaps that was sufficient ransom to an unknowable future.

No. Ridiculous. Real grief, real battles had brought him here, sprawled along his couch, too sore in body and spirit to move. Retrieving one tiny animal from the edge of death could never sop up the anguish in his bones.

But for now - for now, it was all he could do. So he shifted his elbow a little, lay back against the cushions, and tucked the sated baby against his stomach, in the crook of his right arm. He would feed the need on demand, as instructed; and if morning found them both alive and relatively sane, he'd consider what to do next.




Chapter Three


"What the hell is this?" cried O'Neill.

Daniel stumbled back from the door, startled by the sudden irruption into his apartment of his SG-1 teammates. Led by a seemingly outraged Jack O'Neill.

"Er - " he directed a level look at the foremost of his uninvited guests. "It's a cat, Jack."

"Oh, he's adorable!" Sam pushed past O'Neill to reach for the animal in question.

"She's a minx," said Daniel drily.

"No," said Jack, undeterred, "I mean - what the hell is this? You've got a cat?"

"What's her name?" asked Sam, lifting the cat into her arms and being rewarded with a nuzzle under her chin that prompted a radiant smile. "Daniel, she's so cute."

"You're a switch-hitter?" Jack continued, clearly unimpressed.

"A 'switch-hitter'?" Daniel allowed himself to gape for two seconds longer than was remotely polite. "Jack…"

"Hello, Daniel Jackson," said Teal'c, closing the door behind him.

"I thought you were a dog guy," Jack said.

"Hi, Teal'c. Um - not that I'm not delighted," Daniel flicked a non-committal glance at Jack, "but what brought you guys by?"

"Hello, beautiful," Sam crooned to the cat she held up to her face, " what's your name, sweetie?"

"Abby." He had been determined that no names would be necessary. 'Cat' was appropriate. She had come to him by an act of rescue, not adoption, and as such he was neither proprietorial nor emotionally involved. He was clear on that, and considered his position on the whole 'name' thing very sound.

But one day as she lounged against him, spent after killing a particularly aggressive tissue, his hand had drifted idly to her flank and he'd found himself comparing her silver-grey fur to the sands of Abydos. How they'd looked on those nights when moonlight ghosted the dunes and the lamps were soft with welcome; when he and Sha're would slip giggling into the night, to bed themselves in the soft sand and make love amongst the shadows.

Abydos. Abby. A requiem in quicksilver and fur for a planet, a way of life, forever gone from him.

Sam got it. He saw that at once, in the way she looked up at him and gave a sad little smile.

He returned it, tight and fleeting, then said, "Sooo…?"

"Now, see, dogs I get. You know where you are with dogs." Jack had helped himself to Daniel's softest chair and was scowling directly at the cat now draped across Sam's shoulder.

Daniel put his hands in his pockets. "Yeah, Jack, right before they rip your face off."

"Hey, that's the owner's fault."

Sam addressed Daniel's question. "It's just that - it's just we've noticed that you've changed your schedule a bit the last month."

"Two months," Jack corrected.

"Right." Unconsciously, Sam's hand ran down Abby's back. "I mean, you don't pull all-nighters any more, you always leave at the normal time and take that extra stuff home."

Jack stretched one hand along the back of the seat. "I figured it was a union thing. Stargate Geeks and Boilermakers Local 585. You and Siler getting militant."

"Major Carter believed you had found a woman," Teal'c said.

"But now we find you've been running home to a - a cat?" The disgust in Jack's voice was supreme.

"No," said Daniel, with a worried upward inflection that said, 'Yes, but please don't laugh at me.'

"Tell me you're not sleeping together, Daniel."

Daniel bristled. "She's not allowed on the bed. She knows that."

"Good, 'cos you can get arrested for that kind of thing."

Sam groaned. "Ignore him. Where did you get her?"

"You get to play with dogs," Jack grumbled.

"You know, Jack, " Daniel said pleasantly, "it's interesting to consider that two of the less delightful people in history, Julius Caesar and Napoleon, were both ailurophobes. And Hitler loved dogs."

"Yeah, well, the bad guy in James Bond had that cat he kept stroking."

"Oh, touche."

"Cats look at you." Jack gestured towards Abby where she gazed at him in majestic serenity from around Sam's neck. "I mean, look at that - what's it thinking?"

Daniel leant back against his kitchen bench. "She's thinking, 'I used to be a goddess and now I have to put up with dog-loving Air Force types with too much cologne.' "

Jack squinted at him. "Too much?"

"I'm thinking chemical spill."

Jack sighed. "It's the stuff Cassie gave me."

Daniel raised his eyebrows. " 'Eau de Tarpit'?"

"See, a dog would let you know that in a nice way."

Teal'c nodded. "I, too, have seen dogs lick their testicles when perturbed."

"Oh, I miss Schroedinger," sighed Sam, as she eased forward and dropped Abby back to the floor. "I want to get another one."

Abby dropped gracefully, but then froze in rigid alertness as she spied Teal'c. At once, her fur began to swell, and she gave a sudden hiss as her eyes glared fixedly at his belly.

"Wow. Fascinating." Daniel stared at her, then Teal'c. "I think maybe she senses your symbiote, Teal'c."

"Hey! Maybe we could use cats as Goa'uld detectors," Sam said, grinning.

"Cat Patrol?" Daniel settled easily into the conceit.

"Oh, yeah. We could fit them with little transmitters, so when they became agitated we'd get a warning signal."

"Put a miniature cockpit on the UAVs, send them out scouting."

"It's a conspiracy." Jack shifted in the seat as Abby eyed his lap with the sort of speculation Daniel equated with a gambler and a pack of cards. "Hey, forget the Goa'ulds, it's cats that want to take over the world. You know, I've got a theory. Cats have all got mini-Goa'ulds inside 'em, that's why their eyes do that glowy thing at night."

"Indeed, O'Neill, that would explain much."

"Ah, Teal'c, don't tease the dog guy," Daniel said, glancing at the coffee maker. "You guys want something to drink?"

"We're good." O'Neill, making another executive decision. "We're going to Janet's. Thought we'd swing by and check you out, take you with. That is," he added, with rather unnecessary sarcasm, Daniel thought, "if it's alright with the cat."

"Oh, I think it will be," Daniel replied with all seriousness. "She's usually fine if I explain it to her."

"Oh, God, he's gone Dolittle. We have Dolittle."

Sam had crouched to continue her introduction to Abby, but the cat brushed past her towards the kitchen.

"Who looks after her when we're away?"

Daniel knew he had a solid ally, and his tone was warm as he answered. "Abel. The night doorman. He lives in a tiny apartment off the lobby and he's got a thing for cats. In fact, he's got a cat himself. An 'illegal', as he calls him."

"Name?" asked Sam.

" 'Castro'. I thought it was a Cuban reference, but Abel says it reminds him of some place in San Francisco and the good times he had there."

"Nice."

"Castro and Abby get along famously. She gets thoroughly spoiled. She seems to be glad to see me when I get home, though."

"Kiss at the door? 'How was your day, honey?' " Jack fixed a ferocious smile on his face.

"Yes… " Daniel said. "Well, I was imprinted on her before her eyes opened. For all she knows, I am her - " he waved a hand vaguely.

Jack raised his eyebrows again. "Mother?"

Daniel was about to reply when he noticed a sly movement on the far bench.

"Abby! I don't believe you did that! We've discussed this before." He hastily rounded the bench to pick her off. She gave a questioning chirrup. "No. Now please don't take that tone, you remember perfectly well when we had that conversation."

He smiled inwardly as he saw his friends' studious avoidance of each others' eyes. In truth, he and Abby spent their days mostly in silent companionship, aware of each other in a bodily sense that did not need verbal embellishment. It astonished Daniel how readily she had learned to detect his moods. She knew those days when he would welcome a playful pouncing on his toes, and those when gaiety would provoke an irritated shove of his foot. And the times that moved him, when ghosts shivered across his neck and he was so drowned in sadness that he sat until darkness; when she would sit beside him, content to be near, or creep into his lap to be a warm presence he barely noticed. He refused to anthropomorphise. He knew that she probably scented his pheromones, or some such thing. But there was a part of his soul that also knew there was a healing of sorts in bringing trembling fingers to rest inside her fur.

Now he held her with careless affection and continued the show.

"I'm sorry, guys, She's usually got much better manners than this. I think she's just testing the boundaries."

"Oh?" Jack stood, ready to go. "Where did you get that from? 'Spock on Cats'?"

Teal'c quirked a brow at him. "I was not aware Vulcans performed their mind-meld on felines, O'Neill."

"Mind-meld? They cross breed with 'em. How they get to be so freaky."

"Indeed? I would have thought that impossible."

"You'd think so, wouldn't you."

"While the Klingons," said Daniel, unceremoniously dumping Abby into the vacated chair, "are busy miscegenating with Rottweilers, right, Jack? So on one hand, you've got enigmatic intelligence, and on the other you've got a guy that eats meat raw and busts heads as a conversation opener. I rest my case."

Jack smirked. "What case?"

"Cats v. Dogs."

"You don't have a case."

"Do too."

"Do not."

"Daniel Jackson," Teal'c interrupted, "I approve of your new companion."

"Thank you, Teal'c," said Daniel, gravely. "I take it your vote's in too, Sam?"

"Oh, yes. She's a sweetheart."

"You be picking out china patterns in Bloomingdales any time soon?"

"Well, Jack, that could be a stumbling block." Daniel gazed down at where Abby had very happily curled into Jack's body imprint on the chair. "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Middle Kingdom guy, while she's New Kingdom. Sometimes even Late Period. You can see the problem."

"You know, the scary thing is - I think you mean it."

Daniel flashed him a quick grin.

"Should we not leave for Doctor Fraiser's house?"

"Yeah, Teal'c. Come on, Daniel, say goodbye to the little woman."

"Okay." He knelt in front of the chair, and Abby reached up to tip her nose to his. "I'll leave Dvorak on repeat, Abby. No Beethoven." A chirrup. "No, no TV. It's bad for your eyes, and I don't know what's on tonight." He heard a strangled noise behind him, and kept his face perfectly neutral. "Well, Jack, I'm not subjecting her to all that mindless free to air rubbish, and you never know what might be on Discovery."

Sam nodded. "Nightmare stuff." She followed Teal'c to the door.

Jack dropped his voice. "And speaking of which, Daniel - I hear you haven't followed up on that psych consult. Think that's a good idea?"

"I think - " Daniel paused, surprised and wondering briefly if he should be irritated by the fact that Jack had neatly ambushed him in his own home. "I think I've got a better shrink right here." He frowned at the floor, aware of Jack's keen scrutiny. For a moment, he worried that Jack was going to pursue the matter; but then he heard a sigh, a soft, "Okay", and a hand was gently pushing him towards his team mates.

"Bye, Abby," Sam called.

"I, too, take my leave," said Teal'c, bowing.

"Oh, that is it. We are leaving before this gets any more whacko. Abby, " and Jack gave a slight, mocking bow, "it was a pleasure to meet you, ma'am. If he ever breaks your heart I think you could hitch a ride with Sam."

Daniel stopped at the door and looked back. Abby was following his departure, great green eyes fixed unblinkingly on his face. Was it ridiculous, he asked himself, to feel as though someone would miss him if he were late? Simply because an abandoned cat was waiting at home?

Yes, absolutely; but he smiled again as he closed the door behind him.




Chapter Four


The briefing room looked bigger, somehow. Odd. The windows were faintly curved, no longer their rigidly straight selves, and he wondered at the change. A stronger shield, perhaps? He would have to ask Sam. She'd know.

General George Hammond sat at the head of the briefing table. He seemed bigger, too; or was it just that Daniel felt very small these days? George was smiling beneficently, his eyes warm as he caught Daniel's attention.

"It's time for your report, Doctor Jackson," he said, so gently the order was like the caress of a father's blessing. Daniel felt the approval, the respect, and his faint unease began to subside, filtering through a notion as intangible and strong as 'home'. An impulse moved him, and he reached for George's hand. The general's smile widened, and he took Daniel's fingers in his own, his hands so light and powerful the gentling of them was homage indeed.

It came to Daniel to wonder why they didn't do this all the time. The worlds through the Stargate were so often cruel and uncertain; it would be so nice if they could all hold hands as they told their tales of dangers faced and to come.

He looked about him. Only he and George were present. Where were the others?

"They can't be with you right now," George explained, and Daniel thought, yes; we really should use telepathy more often too. Save a lot of time and misunderstandings.

A book lay on the far side of the table, and the unease prompted Daniel to reach for it. He would need that book, he knew. It was very important he read it, and he stretched towards it, fingertips brushing the spine.

"Come," said George, and he was pulling Daniel out of the seat, away from the book, leading him to the viewing window. Daniel wanted to protest, but the fear of that approval fading was too strong a motive to resist, and he found himself standing alongside the general at the window's edge. He could see blue sky through the 'Gate, the hot, bright blue of a Punjabi sari, an Egyptian midday. Funny that he never noticed the portal to the outside world in the Gate Room before; but then, George hadn't been holding his hand. Made all the difference.

"I have something to show you," George said, and his smile grew even sweeter. Daniel peered down, feeling George's grip tighten, feeling his own chest constrict in sympathy. Something terrible, wonderful, impossible was below. He knew it. Could taste it. And as he turned to George for reassurance, the babble of excited voices trumpeted the incredible fact far below him.

The children!

The children were back, they were alive. Of course! He had been so stupid. Of course they were all safe. He had wallowed in this place of dark horror for months now, and George's smile was telling him how unnecessary it had all been. The children had listened. They had understood. And that understanding was now bubbling up from the Gate Room floor in cries that told of young joys and happy discoveries. Of course. How could it possibly be otherwise?

"Thank you! Thank you!" Daniel turned, exhilarated, the weight of another mountain, another sky a million light years away falling from him as if it were as simple as the dropping of a backpack. "I have to see them!"

"Of course you do, son," George smiled, but he didn't release his grip. Well, there was no help for it. Daniel had to go down there, had to touch them, embrace them, scold them for his fears. George would just have to come too.

Daniel ran to the top of the circular stairs. George was a dead weight behind him, but Daniel wasn't going to let that slow him down. Boots clattered on the steel steps that dizzied into infinity beneath him. Where did those lower stairs lead, he wondered, glad he hadn't seen them before. The prospect was terrifying, Dantean, and he kept his eyes upon the railing as he raced down and around the stairs towards those happy voices.

A stumble; a trip, and the adrenaline surged in his body as he fell. He slammed onto his hip, and the sharp rocks that studded the staircase tore at him for the rest of his sliding descent. It hurt. It burned. But ultimately it didn't matter in the least.

The children were waiting for him.

George was still with him, but an instinct, a breath of knowledge across his mind told him not to look back. George's hand was heavy in his own now. George's breathing had changed. He could hear it scathing his ears, harsh and low and wrong. Better not to look, Daniel decided. Safest thing. And he scrambled to his feet with a sudden sense of dragging his own golem with him, repeating to himself the fact that only by facing the golem could it have any power over him. Simple. Peek-a-boo, I won't see you. Child's play.

Someone else was waiting for him, squatting at the base of the wall. Familiarity and discord struggled within him as he recognised the slope of the shoulders, the brindled shock of hair. This was Jack, his closest friend; but he felt no welcome from him, no sign of easy comradeship. Daniel paused in his maddened rush for a moment to reassure him.

"It's okay, Jack." He fairly shouted the words. So much light in here, from the brilliant, alien sky above, but Jack stayed in shadow. "The children are alive! I didn't - there's no need for us to be like this, any more. Jack, it's wonderful!"

But Jack was silent, and the golem of his own making breathed hotly on his neck.

Then one child screamed.

It was Aku, little Aku, the impish boy who had menaced Doctor Jackson's careful notes with his wild curiosity. Aku's hands were too big, as wide as his smile, and he was clumsy in the way of soon-to-be adolescents. Aku had peered and pestered and poked and pried and driven Daniel to distraction as he gasped and clicked over an archaeologist's workplace.

Aku had stolen Daniel's heart.

And now Aku was screaming, pointing to the thing that Daniel dragged behind him. The other children followed his accusing finger, staring with him, and joining in his cries.

"No, no, it's alright. It's okay." Daniel offered one free hand, quelling the urge to let go and outstretch both. "Um - kishbal. Kishbal. It's alright."

But the children were scrambling away, up the Stargate ramp, and that was wrong. Dreadfully wrong.

"No! No, don't! That's - that's not safe!"

"I wouldn't bother." Jack's voice was dry and hollow, the rattle of death from an empty water gourd. "You couldn't do it last time. You won't do it now."

Daniel swung back from the children to gaze into the shadow. He could see Jack's face, though it was dark, and he flinched from that seeing. No comfort there, only the pitiless truth. Jack's mouth was a thin line of contempt, and his eyes were condemnation made flesh, searing into Daniel's hypocrisy, his vanity, his useless defence of degrees and defiance. Jack had weighed him in the balance of life and death, and found him sorely wanting; and Daniel wanted to weep his regret at the foot of the ramp.

"Jack -?"

"Wait." Jack held one finger up, a mockery of Daniel's usual gesture. Daniel felt the tug on his hand and shuddered as Jack tilted his head to listen for something beyond hearing, beyond reproach. "Ah. There you go."

In silence, the Stargate was spinning. The Stargate was opening.

"Chevron four encoded," Simmons announced placidly. He was sitting beside Jack on the Gate Room floor, holding a microphone.

"Four? No!" Daniel spun about, catching a glimpse of the Thing that claimed his shadow, catching an odour of corruption and malevolence. "No - don't go up there! Ul-shak! Ul-shak! Please, please… please… "

A grip as inexorable as age speared his shoulder. His burden, come to dance him to his grave.

He was thrown roughly to the floor.

"This one wants to live," his burden sneered into his ear; and then giant claws wrenched him onto his back and it was the Lion of Babylon astride him, its shaggy fur matted with blood, the enormous teeth scraping his face.

"Ul-shak," Daniel gasped. But the words were wrong. The words, his gift, his joy and life and comfort, the only thing that gave him worth - the words were failing him. What had been diamonds in his mouth were now newts and toads crawling over his lips, and the children were going to die because the words were wrong.

"Big mistake, Daniel." Jack came to crouch beside the massive lion and his disgust was as strong as the carcase stench from the creature's jaws. "Got it sooo wrong. Thought you were supposed to be the hotshot linguist, huh? What does Ul-shak mean, anyway?"

" 'Come back,' " whispered Daniel, but Jack shook his head, his lips tightening. He referred to the book in his hand, the book from the briefing room, the book Daniel hadn't reached in time, hadn't found until afterwards.

"The hell it does. Rukanski and Sepanyit, 1997, page 149, and I quote; 'Ul-shak was the term used to signify a return of the spirit after the burial rites had been performed.' So, basically, you were asking these kids to come back from the dead. No wonder they didn't listen to you, Danny."

"I didn't know that till we got home!" Daniel cried out. The lion's jaw dropped lower, kissing his own. "It's a dead language, Jack. I had three days. I got the context wrong!"

"Bad time to screw the pooch, Danny boy."

"Please - please, tell me the right words. Tell me what to say."

But Jack just shook his head, grim faced.

"Your job, Daniel. Your job to call them back."

"I don't know how! I don't remember!"

The lion's eyes glowed, corrupt stars in a night sky of blackened fur.

"Call them back and they will live, Tau'ri."

Daniel shook his head violently, trying to get up. "Please! Tell me! Just tell me the words. I'll do anything - anything - please…"

"Chevron Seven encoded," said Simmons, smiling beside him.

And Daniel screamed, writhing under the weight of the beast, his burden, flailing as the killing light flew out to drop the children, the children, the children…

"No!"

Daniel gasped and thrust with all his strength. Something met his rage and was gone, something small and soft, something that wept with him in a high pitched cry as it was thrown aside.

He lay still, staring at an expanse of darkness above his head.

His heart was beating under his ribs, an ugly tattoo like the sound of a man running to his own execution. One arm hung across the bed where he had flung it to rid himself of the Lion. The other clutched sheets to his chest, linen that held an unexpected scent. He blinked, and shook, and took a deep breath.

Well, that one wasn't so bad, he told himself. And shivered at what it meant to have an escape these nights.

Something moved against the far wall, obscured by the unlit bedside lamp, and he had a sudden memory of a jaw against his own, and paws upon his face…

Abby! Hell, it was Abby!

"Abby? Hey, sweetheart, is that you?"

An indignant miaow informed him that it was, indeed, Abby, and how dare he strike her like that?

"Oh, God, I'm sorry." He shuffled out of bed, shivering in the pre-dawn cold, and crouched next to her trembling body. "I'm sorry, Abby. You came to see what was going on, did you? Hey?" He reached one hand for her, and her ears flattened.

The sight hurt him as if he'd been slapped.

"Shh, Scrap, it's okay. Just had a bad dream, that's all. Shhh. It's alright. Over now." The hand he held towards her was shaking, but he kept it there. If she was going to scratch him, she may as well draw blood and be done with it. He owed her the chance.

He could barely see her in the gloom, but her eyes caught an occasional coal-fire from the streetlights far below. He crouched and waited, feeling goose-bumps dot his body. This was more farce than tragedy, he knew, but his stomach was dipping as though something mattered in this bathetic tableau. A man and his cat. One naked and sweating with ghosts four months had still not lain to rest; the other shaken as violence had been visited upon her for the first time by the one she should trust above all others.

"Here." Gently, very slowly, he put one arm under her front legs. A low growl bellied from her, and he paused. He was naked, after all; an indiscriminate attack could prove very costly.

"Abby, if you're going to scratch me, sweetheart, please just aim above the waist, okay?" He crooned the words to her as he carefully stood up. She stayed tense. Apology not accepted.

"How about - how about I let you sleep on the bed with me, hey? How would you like that?"

The tip of her tail twitched. Ominously. She'd think about it.

"You know, Scrap, you're as touchy as a Tollan sometimes." The tone was honeysweet, even as he lowered himself back onto the bed and allowed her to step away on the covers with high-backed testiness. "Okay, I'm just going to lie here. You make yourself comfortable. There's plenty of space on here. Why don't you - um, Abby? My legs are there. Okay, fine, I'll just move them around here a bit. That better?" They remained in silence for a moment as Daniel tried to re-align his spine to suit the new awkwardness of his position. The scars on his hip ached. "You do know, don't you, that I'm going to be a cripple tomorrow if I stay like this. Today," he amended, as he noticed the time.

Abby made no comment. Daniel sighed.

"Abby? Think you could forgive me before Christmas? I mean, that gives you four weeks. It would just be embarrassing if we weren't on speaking terms when the guests come." No response, and Daniel felt his head begin to ache.

What the hell. It was almost time to get up anyway. He slid across the bed, careful not to disturb his companion, who gazed at him with silent disapproval as he stumbled towards the shower.

He stopped before he disappeared inside the bathroom, and turned back to address the light lump on his bed.

"Abby, I'm sorry, and I promise I'll make it up to you, okay. But don't get it into your head that you'll be sleeping on there tonight. This is a one-off deal. I mean it."

Abby tucked her front paws beneath herself and closed her eyes to slits. Deep inside began a rhythmical purr.

From behind the bathroom door came a soft groan. "Oh, God. I'm never getting that bed back, right?"

Abby's ears twitched, but the subject was not up for discussion. Another groan from the bathroom, then a curse as a shaving brush clattered to the tiles, and the first of the day's light illuminated a cat in her queendom.



Chapter Five


"What the hell is this?"

Daniel blinked upwards to see Jack O'Neill standing before his desk, hands out and mouth open in the typical pose of a man pressed beyond all natural boundaries.

"Hmm? Oh, Abby was feeling a little peaky today. The vet says she'll be fine, but I thought I'd bring her in. Keep her company."

Jack gestured towards where Abby was snugly ensconced in a sweater-made nest on top of Daniel's workbench.

"You got a clearance for that?"

Daniel blinked again. "It's a cat, Jack."

"I know. I'm just sayin'…"

"What? What are you saying?" Daniel allowed his eyebrows to rise in ready defence of all things feline and their impact upon national security considerations, and Jack took the hint.

"Just saying… what'cha doing?"

Daniel pursed his lips, briefly, and returned his gaze to the screen in front of him.

"Well, I'm currently researching Bast. She was originally a lion-goddess, but gradually she came to be associated with cats. She was a goddess of pleasure and loved music and dance. I'm just refreshing my memory about who she was related to."

Jack thrust his hands in his pockets. "Dare I ask 'Why'?"

Daniel dropped his eyes. "Abby's interested."

To an outside observer, the smile on Jack's face was radiant. Daniel saw it, and flinched.

"Of course. Abby. Well, we wouldn't want 'Abby' to get bored now, would we?"

"Well, no. Considering I discovered I can charge for pet therapy on the base medical plan."

" 'Pet therapy'?! As in, 'Here, lie down on this couch, tell me about your dreams and by the way is that a furball you're hacking up on my psychology degree' therapy?!"

Abby stretched out her front legs, her paws wide, each claw extended.

"Oh!" said Daniel. "Oh, that's encouraging."

An exaggerated look of inquiry from Jack. "Encouraging?"

"She's just been - " Daniel waved a hand vaguely. "Sitting."

"So stretching is good?"

Daniel smiled suddenly, dipping his head. "Yeah, Jack. Stretching is good."

He sensed Jack's stance relaxing a little, and knew his friend was watching him. When Jack spoke, his tone was less abrasive.

"You smile a lot around her."

"I do?" Daniel looked up, surprised. "I guess it's healthy to have someone else to think about."

"Healthy?" The abrasion was back. "You and her? Please. You two give a whole new meaning to the words 'pussy-whipped'."

"You had to say it, didn't you?'

"Say what?"

Scowling, Daniel bent back to his notes. There was an uncomfortable pause, during which time Jack managed to nudge and fondle those artefacts Daniel had been thoughtless enough to leave within reach. It was a bit like taking a hyperactive child to an antique store, Daniel thought. Sooner or later, disaster was inevitable.

"Whoa!" A lunge, and then Jack was replacing a Tuscan jar on the wrong shelf. "I got it."

"Jack -!"

"What?"

"Was there a particular reason why you decided to torment me this morning?"

Jack's back remained towards him, as he deliberately fussed with the jar, and Daniel's stomach suddenly tightened. He read tension in the line of the shoulders, because this was Jack with his own burden; and for a moment he thought he heard children, far off and lost to him, wailing in the dust.

A shrug, and Jack turned to him, because Jack O'Neill would always meet his burden head-on.

"You know about the Tok'Ra report? From P48X22? Belos is moving out."

Daniel touched the return key, scrolling to a new page. "I heard."

"So I thought maybe you'd be researching him."

"You've got my report." Don't shake, Daniel told his hands, don't you dare shake. "That's got everything I know about him."

Those eyes were pinned to him now, scanning him as he would scan an ancient vase. Looking for identity, and meaning, and cracks in the surface.

"Be nice to have a clue where he's heading."

"Yes, well, I've thought about that." Click and scroll to the next page.

"And?"

"And I have no idea." And this time his hand went not to the mouse, but the cat. He stroked her gently on the head, and she twisted up and into the caress, her teeth bared as she butted his hand.

"Daniel." The voice was level, monotone, and held a world of care within it. "You've got to leave it behind."

Daniel brought his fingers under Abby's chin, felt her stretch forward in trust and pleasure. "I have. I will." She began that delicious purr of utter contentment, and he smiled at her. "I have."

He heard Jack sigh. Man and Cat triumph again.

"Oh, er - Jack? How are we looking for P42X98 on Thursday?"

"Why?"

"Well, I need to let Abel know that Abby's staying overnight."

"Oh, of course. A cat's social diary is a constant whirl."

"I just need to get organised, Jack."

A heavier sigh, this time for effect. "Yes, we are going on Thursday."

"Great." Daniel scribbled a note on the workpad. "I'll organise the blintzes."

"I really don't want - "

"To know, no, you don't."

"So." Jack straightened up. "I just dropped by on the way to the commissary, thought you might like a bite to eat. That is, if you can leave without the cat developing abandonment issues or something."

"No, that sounds - er, that sounds good."

"Great. Pleased to hear it. Nice to know the umbilical cord can be snapped occasionally."

"Besides, Sam's dropping by to cat-sit in a minute."

"What?" Jack was now a man pressed beyond the natural boundaries and suffering a meltdown as a result. "Do the words 'obsessed' and 'co-dependent' mean anything to you?"

"Jack, you're raving."

"Not raving, Daniel. Reflecting."

"Reflecting, rambling, raving, ranting - all sounds like the same thing when you do it."

"Now, that's where you're mistaken. A good rant can - "

"Hi Daniel! Sorry I'm late." Sam gusted in, a fresh breeze of warmth and enthusiasm. "Colonel. Hey, Abby! How is she?"

"Better, I think," replied Daniel.

"She eaten yet?"

"No, and neither have we," snapped Jack. "Not that anyone cares…"

"Well, nothing much today, but the vet says to take it slowly," Daniel said.

"Oh, poor thing." As Daniel stood, Sam dropped into his chair, and bent to let Abby lick her nose. "How are you, sweetie?"

" 'Sweetie'?" Jack mouthed in disgust, and Daniel hurriedly pushed past him.

"Come on, Jack, the Tuna Surprise will be gone."

" 'Sweetie'?"

"Jack, you're fixating. Won't be long, Sam."

"Take your time." Sam grinned at them. "Abby and I will have a little girl talk. I hear your relationship has moved to the next stage. I want all the goss."

"Daniel?"

"Not now, Jack." Firing a decidedly irritated glare into Sam's unabated amusement, Daniel manoeuvred his friend out of his office. "Let's eat."

"Fine. Yeah. Let's eat. Then we can all come back and continue this weird cat-worshipping cult thing you've got happen - "

"Hey, Doctor Jackson!" A rushing young airman stopped beside them. "How's Abby?"

"Oh, better, thank you," said Daniel, hastily, glancing at Jack.

"Great. Tell her 'hi' from Randy."

"Sure. Er - thank you," Daniel called after him as he continued his rapid progress down the corridor.

Jack's face was like stone.

They continued to the next floor. At irregular intervals staff would stop them to inquire after Abby's wellbeing, and with each one Daniel saw Jack wind himself tighter and tighter inward with the sort of fury he usually associated with bad refereeing decisions and a losing hockey team.

The trip to the commissary had never seemed so long.

Finally, his friend could take it no more. As Sergeant Siler began with a, "Daniel, how's - ", Jack grabbed Daniel and marched him past at speed, leaving a surprised Siler in their wake.

He was frog-marched into the commissary while Jack found the words to express - exactly - what was on his mind.

" 'How's Abby'?" he stormed. "What is this? I get back from a mission, I'm lucky to get the time of day from Hammond. But this goddamned cat gets the royal treatment from the entire base?"

"Well -" Daniel began.

"Yes?"

"She's very … winning, Jack."

"Agh!"

"Oh, Daniel!" The woman behind the commissary counter waved him over, and with another quick glance at Jack, he went. "Daniel, there you are. I've got a little treat for Abby. Just wait there a moment while I get it."

"Er - thank you, Marlene. I'm sure," he risked a look over his shoulder to where Jack was looming with every intent of indicating his displeasure in a physical manner, "I'm sure she'll be delighted."

"How - the - hell does she even know your cat? For crying out loud, it's not like you've got pictures in your wallet!" Daniel kept his face perfectly still. "Oh, no. You don't! Tell me you don't!"

"Now, Jack - "

"Oh, that is it. We've got to get an intervention happening here."

"Sam took some nice snaps last time she was over and - "

"So Sam's an enabler, is she?"

Daniel felt in his back pocket. "Yeah. Some close ups and…" His face brightened. "You want to see them?"

 

Go on to part two




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Within the context and limitations of the site Disclaimer, Any and All original characters, situations, story line, dialogue and narrative © September 15th, 2001, the author