By the time Cam gets through debriefing General Landry, Teal'c has disappeared -- back to Dakara, he thinks; their Jaffa's only a time-share -- and Sam's holed up in her lab with Dr. Lee and Dr. Lam, poring over the data they managed to capture from Khalek's scans in the hopes they'll be able to find something useful. Cam wants a shower, a beer, and eight hours' sleep so badly he can taste it, but he's got one more stop before he can pursue any one of the three.
Cam's not sure why Jackson hasn't found an apartment off-base yet, isn't even sure why he let the lease lapse on his apartment in the first place, but he has a sneaking suspicion it involves still having one foot in another galaxy. He brushes his knuckles over the door of Jackson's quarters on level 25, and when no response is forthcoming, knocks a little louder. The words that reach his ears through the door could be "come in" and could be "fuck off", so he opens the door anyway. If it was "fuck off", it'll probably be good for Jackson's blood pressure to get a chance to say it to his face.
For a minute, he thinks he's stepped into Teal'c's quarters by mistake; there are rings of candles on the floor, in a faintly geometric pattern that teases the mathematical section of his brain into trying to figure it out. Jackson's sitting on the floor too, his back up against the foot of the bed, his feet tucked up underneath him in a way that makes Cam's adductors hurt just thinking about it.
He had an opening line planned -- it's safer, he's found, to rehearse his conversational gambits before he tries them out on these guys, because otherwise he opens his mouth and says things that will humiliate him for the rest of his life when he remembers them -- but Jackson's eyes are closed and his face is peaceful, more peaceful than Cam's ever seen it before, and he doesn't want to interrupt. In the candle-light, without his glasses, Jackson looks five years older, which puts him at about the age his file says he really is. Cam's caught by the flicker of shadows across his face and wonders what he's thinking.
"Did interrupting me have a point, or did you just come to stare?" Jackson asks, without opening his eyes, and then winces. "Sorry. I don't mean to be rude."
"Naw," Cam says, automatically. "I am interrupting, I'm sorry. I just came to say ... thanks." He takes a few steps; Jackson's got all these little knick-knacks scattered around, and for a second all Cam wants to do is wander around and touch things, pick them up and ask 'and what's this one?', but he doesn't want to get distracted, so he settles himself down on the floor across from Jackson. For a minute he contemplates trying to mirror the position, too, but he knows he doesn't bend that way, so he settles for sitting with his legs out in a V, trying to keep from kicking any of the candles.
"You're welcome," Jackson says. He's sitting perfectly still. Cam's never seen him this still before: even when Jackson's intent on something, his hands and eyes stay in motion, thoughts written across his face in huge glowing neon letters. "For what?"
The candles are mesmerizing. Cam lifts his hand and passes his fingers through one flame, pulls them back when it's hotter than he expected. He sticks his fingertips into his mouth and says, around them, "If you hadn't shot Khalek I'd probably be lieutenant-colonel-puree right about now. 'Preciate it."
Jackson's voice is soft, even. "Ah. Yes. Well, I wish I were mature enough to avoid saying 'I told you so'."
Cam takes his fingers out of his mouth. "Yeah, you kind of did, didn't you," he says, more to himself than to Jackson. He's said what he had to say, and Jackson doesn't seem to be interested in carrying on a conversation, but he's here and he knows Jackson's too polite to throw him out, so he figures it's a good time to try to get to know the guy a little better. "What's with the fire hazard?"
Jackson opens one eye. His pupils are totally blown, Cam notices; large and dark, like he's looking right through Cam. "The Jaffa have a ritual they call kel-no-reem. It's a form of meditation."
Perfectly accurate, which Cam well knows, and completely devoid of any useful information. "Yeah, see, the thing is," Cam says, "last time I checked, you weren't a Jaffa."
The eye closes again. For a quick second, Cam's presented with the mental picture of Jackson intoning 'indeed', and he presses his lips together to keep from cracking up. Jackson sighs a little, the faintest breath of air making the flames dance and shiver, and says, "I've found in the past, it's useful in helping me remember things I've forgotten."
It's the most personal thing Cam's gotten out of Jackson in weeks, and he counts it as a small victory. "Think it'd help me remember where I parked the car this morning?" he asks. "Or are we talking, like, the trauma of losing the fourth grade spelling bee kind of repressed memories?"
"I mean," Jackson says, even and clipped, "things like the mysteries of the universe, which, I have been told, our primitive brains are not equipped to understand."
"Ah," Cam says, and his mouth keeps going without any guidance from his brain: "So, like, the real reason 'enough' and 'through' are spelled the same and pronounced totally differently?"
There's a second where he thinks he's gonna get hot wax thrown in his face, and then Jackson snorts and unfolds his legs, wincing as he stretches them out. "Khalek clearly had abilities that normal humans don't. And the Priors are completely human, too, or so we presume. So clearly they've managed to tap into something -- some bit of Ancient knowledge --" Cam can hear the capital letter. "And it gives them an edge."
"Right," Cam says, slowly. "And you were Ascended."
Which still gives him the heebie-jeebies when he thinks about it too much, because, well, he hasn't been to church regularly in a long time, but his grandmother would roll over in her grave if he didn't at least make it for Christmas and Easter, and every good Methodist boy can recite the Apostles' Creed backwards, forwards, and upside down.
Jackson rolls his shoulders, slowly, like he's been sitting here for a long time. "And therefore I should be able to do some of this, too."
One of the guys on SG-3, one of the guys who'd been here for a long time, had taken Cam aside when he first arrived and said: don't ever let 'em see you sweat. At the time, Cam had thought he was talking about the aliens. "So you're trying to figure out if you can remember how to -- what? Stop bullets? Throw Marines against the wall?"
There's a quick flash of irritation in Jackson's eyes, but he hides it well. "Any tactical advantage at all would help," he says. "I remembered once. I think. I lost it again."
Cam skims over the last few years in his head, trying to piece together something, anything, that might fit. "Anubis?" he hazards, because from what he can tell, half the SGC thought Jackson had something to do with that; he'd been 'gone' at the time, which Cam's starting to realize, around here, is usually a euphemism for 'temporarily dead; I got better'.
"No," Jackson says, and rocks his neck from side to side. Cam winces at the pop-pop-pop of vertebrae clicking back into place. "No, that one wasn't me." He frowns a little, faintly. "But I think the Replicators might have been."
Cam leans forward. It's creepy, yeah, but it's a puzzle, and Jackson's fascinating enough that he wants to take the time to figure the guy out. "You think," he says. "You don't remember?"
Jackson closes his eyes again, but this time it's not anything more than weariness. It has been a long day, Cam thinks. "Bits and pieces. Nothing concrete. I've had more people fucking with my head over the years than you could possibly imagine. You lose a lot in the process."
There are a lot of stories Cam wants to hear someday. Someday when all of this is over, or at least has slowed down, and they're sitting over a beer and can bullshit about the old days. "Are you sure you're ... supposed to remember?" he asks.
Jackson's lips quirk up, around the edges. "Pretty sure I'm not, actually. But I do a lot of things I'm not supposed to."
Cam doesn't have much of an answer to that, but he doesn't quite want to let himself out yet, because this is the most he's gotten out of Jackson in a single conversation ever, and if he's going to command this man -- although, in the middle of the night, when he's honest with himself, he knows he's not in command of shit around here -- he's going to have to figure out how to crack that shell. He pokes at one of the candles again, and his finger breaks the surface tension of the wax and makes it run down the side of the candle in rivulets, spreading out across the concrete floor. He winces at the mess and draws his hand back. Jackson doesn't seem to notice.
"What was it like?" Cam finally blurts out. It's the question he's been looking for the chance to ask for months, now, and it's probably too soon to ask it, but he doesn't want to let the chance go by.
Jackson studies him with quiet eyes. Cam gets the sudden impression he's gotten points, somehow, for having the balls to ask. "Well, I wouldn't recommend radiation poisoning as a way to go," he says, light and airy, mocking without a trace of mockery in his tone. "Or a sword through the chest. Staff blast, not bad, really. It's over quickly, at least, even if it's tough on the clothing. The Goa'uld ribbon device is quite painful, but you probably won't be running into those much any more --"
"I meant," Cam says, "being Ascended."
"I know you did." Jackson tilts his head, looks away. "You don't know me well enough to get to ask that question yet."
Cam's been using his sweet and reasonable and persuasive voice a lot in the past few weeks. It's starting to grate on his nerves. "You ever going to let me get to know you well enough?"
Jackson sighs. "Probably not, no," he says, and Cam's taken a little bit aback, because people aren't supposed to be that honest, not right to your face like that. "We might be heading in the same direction, but we're not friends."
"You know," Cam says, trying his best to nail the same mix of detached and sardonic Jackson's using, "nobody warned me you could be this much of an asshole."
Jackson snorts again, but Cam thinks he might have gotten some more points. "They did; you just weren't paying attention. What do you want, Mitchell?"
It's more than just 'what do you want from me right now'. Cam doesn't know how he knows it, but he does. And he knows he should come up with something cool and snotty like Jackson's 'you don't know me well enough to ask that', but he opens his mouth, and what comes out is, "This isn't just a job for you."
Jackson blinks. "Okay, that was a non sequitur."
"None of you. And I don't think it ever was. You're in this because -- I don't know, you just wake up in the morning and say, okay, coffee, donuts, saving the world, and you go out and do it, but you do it because you believe. Because you have to. Because you don't know any other way to be." Dimly, he's aware of how stupid he sounds, of how Jackson's staring at him, of how this is shit he wouldn't even tell his own mother, even if she had security clearance, but he can't seem to make himself shut up. "I want that. I want to stop feeling like I'm ten years too late to the party and I brought the wrong present when I got there."
Jackson's looking at him with something almost approaching sympathy. It makes him feel sick, vulnerable. He shouldn't have come. Shouldn't have opened his mouth once he did. He's getting ready to stumble to his feet, pretend he never even started this whole disastrous conversation, when Jackson's hand flashes out -- too quickly for Cam's eye to follow, even -- and wraps around his wrist.
Jackson's skin is warm. Soft. Too soft, like it's still new, like it hasn't remembered its calluses yet. But his grip's firm, and Cam thinks that struggling will only make him look like more of an idiot. "You wanna let go of me?" he asks, trying for casual.
"Actually," Jackson says, tipping his head to one side, his voice still distant, detached, "I don't, really." Just as Cam's starting to think about really getting annoyed, Jackson continues, talking to himself, as though he's dredging something up he hasn't thought of in years. "The true nature of a man is decided in the struggle between his conscious mind and his subconscious desires."
It would be Cam's turn to blink, but he's almost gotten used to Jackson's lightning leaps by now. "Which means?"
"You want to be a hero, but subconsciously you're afraid of paying the hero's price." Jackson's eyes are a thousand miles away.
"Look," Cam says. "I get my monthly psych eval like everyone else on this base. I don't need it from you, too." He does tug, subtly, and is met with about as much resistance as he'd expected. This is insane. It was stupid of him to come.
Jackson's still looking at something only he can see. "I want to remember the knowledge of the Ancients, but subconsciously I'm afraid of what it would turn me into," he says, slowly, like he's puzzling his way through parallels in a new dialect of some language that hasn't been spoken on Earth in thousands of years, and suddenly Cam realizes this isn't about him at all.
"Let me go," Cam asks. A request, not an order. More like a plea. Because he doesn't know what's inside this man's head, but really, it should probably be listed on a map and labeled 'here there be dragons', and Cam's got dragons enough of his own.
Jackson's eyes re-focus, drawing in on Cam's face like he'd almost forgotten Cam was even in the room. For a second it seems like the fire of the candles has caught in his eyes, is burning behind his pupils, and Cam shivers, a frisson of wrongness creeping up his spine. Then it passes, and Jackson's wincing, loosening his grip but not letting go entirely.
"Sorry," Jackson says, and it's almost sincere. His fingers rub gently at the marks he's left, soothing them with a light touch, and Cam's spine tingles again, but for an entirely different reason.
Maybe Jackson's forgotten that human bodies bruise, Cam thinks, and not for the first time wonders whether or not you can even call the man human anymore. Jackson's good at deflecting any line of conversation that might lead to that question.
"I should go," Cam says. "Let you get back to what you were doing." He doesn't move. He isn't sure why. Maybe he's hoping that if he's still long enough, Jackson will drop another piece of the puzzle, even though he gets the feeling he could spend a lifetime talking in circles and never even get close to understanding the man.
"Yes," Jackson says, absently. His fingers stroke the inside of Cam's wrist, until he seems to realize what he's doing; he draws back, abruptly, and twines his fingers together in his lap.
Cam tries not to miss the touch. He waits a minute, to see if Jackson's going to say anything else, but he seems to already be off in his own world again. Cam struggles to his feet; he almost kicks over a candle, but catches himself at the last second, before he can humiliate himself any further. He stands there, awkwardly, before he just shrugs to himself and says fuck it. "Good luck," he says, and turns to go.
Jackson's voice stops him at the door. "Mitchell?"
"Yeah?" He's proud of himself; his voice is steady as he turns around.
Jackson already has his eyes shut again. "You aren't doing as badly as you think you are."
Somehow, it's actually almost comforting.