Merit By Kalimyre
* * *
The first thing I notice when I wake up is that it’s still dark; the second is that I’m alone in bed. The other side is cold at—let me see—three in the morning.
I pull myself up slowly, wincing as my knees take my full weight. I grab a pair of sweats and slide them on, because I get the feeling that whatever has Daniel up at this hour isn’t going to be something that should be discussed naked. Then I stumble out of the room, stubbing my toes on that dratted little statue thing and cursing under my breath.
I really don’t like Daniel’s apartment. We stay at my house—our house—most of the time, but tonight he wanted to come here. Hell if I know why, but it seemed important to him, and if he was going to be here, then so was I.
The place is dark, and it feels empty, but Daniel’s keys are still on the counter. If we were home, I’d bet he was on the roof, but here... has to be the balcony, which is one of the reasons I don’t like his apartment. The last time I found him on that balcony, he was on the wrong side of the railing. The memory still has the power to make my insides clench and shiver.
Sure enough, he’s standing out there, wrapped in his blue terry robe, his arms tight around his middle. It’s April now, but Colorado in the middle of the night is damn cold, even in spring. I wish I’d put on a shirt. Better yet, I wish I were still in the bed with my warm archaeologist.
“Hey,” I call, stepping out beside him.
“Hey,” he replies. “You’re awake.”
“I was cold.”
“Oh,” he says. That’s all. I move behind him, to share his warmth and to hold him, because he looks like he needs it, but he ducks away.
He bites his lip. “Don’t, Jack. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
An unpleasant twinge goes through my stomach, and I try to catch his gaze. God, please don’t let that mean what it sounds like.
“Don’t make what harder?”
He finally looks at me, and I’m startled to see how puffy his eyes are. The moonlight picks out silvered lines of moisture on his face, and I reach for them, cupping his cheek. I wipe my thumb beneath his eyes and they drift shut.
“Jack,” he murmurs. He holds my hand in both of his, rubs his cheek against it. Then he folds it over, kisses the knuckles, and takes a deep breath.
“Daniel, what’s wrong?”
He looks like so much is wrong, he doesn’t even know where to start. For a moment, his face twists as if he’ll cry again, but he fights it down.
“You should go home,” he whispers, avoiding my eyes. He drops my hand and backs away, trembling. Maybe the cold, maybe more than that.
“Yeah, we should,” I say, deliberately misunderstanding. “We should go home, start a fire, curl up on the couch together. We’ll get warm and comfortable, and you can tell me whatever this is about, and we’ll fix it.”
“That’s what you said before,” he says, with a smile that doesn’t touch his eyes. “Whatever’s wrong, we’ll fix it.”
I copy his posture, wrapping my arms around myself. It suddenly got a lot colder out here. “I thought you didn’t remember that.”
“You told me.”
“Oh.” Of course I did. “Daniel—“
“Don’t,” he interrupts. “Please, this is hard enough. Just... just go.”
I take a step forward, needing to lift his chin, to see his eyes, but he backs away. “Why?” I ask. “Did I do something? Are you angry with me? Please, Daniel, just tell me.”
“It’s not your fault,” he insists. “It’s for the best, Jack.”
“No,” I tell him. “No, I refuse to believe that. Us, together, that’s for the best. And if you say it’s nothing I did, then what is it? Because you can’t tell me nothing’s wrong, Daniel. If nothing was wrong then we’d be at home, wrapped up together in our bed, not out here in the cold.”
He shrugs, turning away. If he thinks I’m just going to give up and walk away, he’s got another think coming. I grab his shoulders, spin him around to face me, and cradle his face in my palm again. His eyes, when they finally meet mine, are miserable. “Tell me, Daniel. Talk to me.”
“You’ll only argue with me.”
“Of course I will! You think I’m going to agree that I should leave you alone when something is obviously tearing you apart? That’s never going to happen, and you know it.”
He wavers, biting his lip again, and I run my thumb over it, smoothing his mouth. I hate to see him bite like that, to ruin the perfect curve of those lips. “God, Jack,” he whispers, closing his eyes. “You’re not making this easy.”
“Good,” I say. “Tell me.”
There is a long stretch of quiet while he stands, tense and unhappy beneath my hand, but I can see the moment he gives in. The tension runs out of him and he slumps, his breath whooshing out in a long sigh.
“Do you remember the last time you wore your dress blues?” he asks.
I blink at him, but he’s perfectly serious. “Um... yeah... couple weeks ago, right? Colonel Mears’ retirement ceremony?” I have no idea where he’s going with this, but at least he’s talking.
“Yes,” he says, short and bitter. “Retirement ceremony. I know Benjamin Mears, Jack. I’ve gone on several missions with SG-11. He’s a good man, a good leader. His people respect him, and they like him. I like him. Even if we didn’t spend time together off base, we’re still friends.”
“Okay,” I reply slowly. “So why are you upset? Uh... did something happen to him?”
“Something happened all right,” Daniel snarls. “The Air Force happened.”
I frown at him. “Daniel, I’m sorry but I’m not following.”
“During the ceremony, I was looking at your uniform,” he begins, and I smile. I know he has a thing for my uniform. That is, if the speed he took it off me when we got home is any indication. “I was looking at the ribbons. You have so many, Jack; Ben, too. I did a little research. Asked some questions. I know what your ribbons mean.”
“Hush. You wanted me to talk, so listen.” Duly chastised, I nod and wave at him to go on.
“The black one with the thin blue and red stripes on the end—Prisoner of War ribbon—for Iraq. The purple one with white ends—Purple Heart—four of those for being wounded in battle. You’d probably have a lot more of those if so much wasn’t classified. The Silver Star. The Distinguished Flying Cross. The Air Force Longevity Award. Expert Marksmanship. I could go on, Jack. What it amounts to is a lifetime of service and sacrifice for that uniform, for the rank on the shoulders and the ribbons and the respect. You’ve given your life to the Air Force. Time spent on missions instead of with your family.” He slides me a sideways look, and his eyes soften. “Time you could have had with Charlie.”
My throat tightens the way it always does when he talks about Charlie. I have to swallow, and he takes my hand for a moment, squeezing it. “Don’t you see?” he murmurs. “You’ve given up so much for that uniform, and everything it represents. And so did Ben. He had as many medals as you do. He gave the Air Force his all, served his country and risked his life, and what did they give him in return? They gave him the ‘opportunity’ to retire, instead of going to prison.”
“What? Prison? What are you talking about, Daniel?”
He laughs, a short, humorless sound. “Once the oh-so-perfect Air Force found out the truth about Ben, his lifetime of service didn’t matter. He gave them everything, and they took it away.”
“Ben has a lover, Jack,” he tells me. “He used to talk to me about him—Ronnie—on missions. Because I’m a civilian, and because he trusted me, I was the only person he felt safe telling. He and Ronnie have been together twenty-two years. All that time he was earning those ribbons, being an exemplary officer, he was going home to a man. He’s living proof that gay men can be good soldiers, but they don’t see that.” He pauses, and then adds, in a cold, disillusioned voice, “Maybe they don’t want to.”
I reach for him, but he pulls away again, his arms going even tighter around his chest. “Daniel,” I say. “I know it’s wrong. I know it’s not fair, but it’s the system we live in. I wish I could change it, love, but I can’t.”
“Exactly!” he says. “It’s the system we live in. You know, they didn’t even have any proof about Ben? All they had were rumors and the ‘appearance of impropriety.’ That’s what the regulations say. It just has to look like you’re doing something, and that’s enough.”
“I know the regulations as well as you do. Probably better. I knew them when I chose to start a relationship with you, and the reasons for my choice haven’t changed.”
He narrows his eyes at me. “Yes, you knew the rules. I didn’t know just how real this was until it happened to Ben.”
“So what are you saying, Daniel? That we have to be more discreet?”
His shoulders hunch, and he raises those miserable eyes to me again. His eyelashes are dark and spiky with moisture, and it hurts me to see him like that. “More than that,” he says. “We... we have to stop, Jack. After you’ve worked so hard to get where you are, after you’ve given up so much—I can’t ask you to risk it for me. I’m not—“
“Don’t you dare,” I snap, cutting him off. “Don’t you dare tell me you’re not worth it. Let me decide that. It’s my risk to take, and my decision—and Danny, you are worth it. After all we’ve been to each other, how can you even doubt it?”
“And what if we’re caught?” he asks, his voice begging me to find a way around this. He hates this, but he thinks it’s the right thing to do, and nothing stops Daniel when he’s trying to do what’s right.
“What if we are? I’d give it up for you in a heartbeat. I thought you knew that.”
“I do know that. And God, I love you for it, Jack, but what happens next? What happens when you get bored and restless and start to miss it? When... when you start to resent me for being the reason you lost the job you love? It would destroy us.”
I open my mouth, and then shut it again. When Daniel is sure he’s right, he won’t hear anything to the contrary. So the only way to change his mind is to agree. “You’re right,” I tell him, and he blinks, startled.
“Yeah. If I lost the Air Force because our relationship was discovered, I’d be upset. With them, not with you. I’d be angry at the system that says I can’t love who I want to, and disappointed, and I’d miss leading SG-1. I won’t lie to you about that. But you know what? I won’t be a Colonel forever. If the knees don’t give out on me, the eyes will. I already need reading glasses, and don’t you dare let that get out.” He smiles a little, and I take it as a personal victory.
“But, Jack,” he protests, and I hold up a hand, waving my finger at him.
“Ah, ah, ah. You had your turn. Now you listen. In time—not such a long time, either—I’m going to have to retire. I’m not getting any younger, Daniel. And when I do retire, I’ll have you. For the rest of my life, I’ll have you. But if I lose you now, tonight, then what do I have to look forward to? Maybe an extra year as the leader of SG-1? During which, I might add, I’d be miserable without you. And then what—flying a desk or out altogether, alone? I’d sell the house—too many memories of you there—and go out to the cabin. But that doesn’t work either; you know that’s our place. You’d be everywhere, and I’d miss you constantly. I’d get old alone. You think that’s what’s best?”
Daniel is staring at me, and I can see a blush creeping up from his collar. “I... you... really?” he stammers. “I mean, you... I...”
“Daniel,” I say softly. “Don’t you know what you mean? What you’re worth?”
He shuffles his feet, plucking nervously at the tie to his robe, watching his hands. I go to him, wanting so much to hold him, but he’s not quite ready to let this go and he sidesteps again.
“Let me ask you this,” I say. “Does Ben regret it? Does he wish he’d chosen the Air Force over Ronnie?”
Startled blue eyes blink at me, so defenseless without his glasses. “What? I... he didn’t say.”
“What did he say?”
Daniel thinks for a long moment. “He said... he said that now he could stop hiding. He could show the world how he felt.”
“That doesn’t sound like someone who resents his lover to me,” I observe. “Sounds more like someone who is relishing being free for the first time in his life.”
“That’s... God, Jack, you’re right. Why... why didn’t I see it?”
I smile at him, and reach one hand to cup the back of his neck. He lets me this time, pressing back into the touch, his eyes going half-lidded. “You’ve been worrying about this for a while, haven’t you, Daniel?” I ask gently.
“Yeah,” he admits.
“Not getting much sleep? Running it around and around in your head until it was driving you nuts?”
He ducks his head sheepishly. “Maybe I got a little confused?”
“First time for everything,” I say dryly, and this time his smile is real.
“Jack,” he breathes, and when I open my arms, he dives in eagerly, burying his face against my neck. I close my eyes and allow myself a sigh of relief—I don’t think he knows just how much he scared me tonight. First thing tomorrow, I start proving to him just how much he’s worth.
“Ssshh,” I murmur, stroking his back. He’s shaking, his breath hitching in his chest, and I’m startled by how cold his nose is against my neck. “Let’s go inside,” I say. “It’s cold out here.”
He pulls back enough to look me in the eye. “No,” he says, and my stomach plummets again. He must have felt me tense up, because he immediately kisses me in reassurance. “Let’s not go inside,” he says, his mouth on mine, moving deliciously with the words. “Let’s go home.”
I lean my forehead against his, letting one hand card through his hair. “Yes,” I say. “Home.”
* * *
Feedback makes the difference between writing and posting; please contact me at email@example.com