Tunnel Vision

Written by Charli Booker
Comments? Write to us at charli.booker@netzero.com

[Items appearing in brackets represent nightmares/flashbacks/hallucinations.]


‘Slowly up silent peaks, the white edge of the world,
Trod four archangels, clear against the unheeding sky,
Bearing, with quiet even steps, and great wings furled,
A little dingy coffin; where a child must lie....’
By Rupert Brooke

There were monsters in the closet. He’d tried to warn me. I hadn’t believed him then. Now I do.

* * * * *

"So, Colonel, I hear you’re off to," Janet Fraiser looked down at the chart laying on the exam table next to where Jack O’Neill was sitting, "P1S-S3D." She looked back up at him as she held the stethoscope against his lean chest.

An old pro at the medical exam routine, Jack waited until she pulled the instrument away before replying. "Pissed."

"Excuse me?"

He pointed a long finger at the typewritten planet designation at the top of her as-yet incomplete medical report. "It looks like ‘pissed.’"

She chuckled. "You’re right. It does."

"Janet, please don’t encourage him." Daniel’s voice floated over the curtain from the next exam cubicle.

"You’d better shut up, Daniel." It was Carter, who was another bed down on the other side of Daniel. "He’ll get pissed."

"Oh, great. Here we go."

At Daniel’s grumbling, Jack smiled at Fraiser. She leaned close, whispering, "You’re going to have fun with this one, aren’t you?"

"Harassing Daniel is such a benefit, he throws me into another tax bracket."

"I heard that."

"Piss off, Jackson." The words were gruff, but O’Neill’s eyes were sparkling.

Janet couldn’t help but smile back at him. It was rare to see the Colonel having a good time. "Well, sir," she opened the curtain around the bed, revealing Daniel Jackson who was being examined by one of the staff physicians, "you’re cleared to go." As Jack hopped off the bed, buttoning his shirt, Janet picked up something from a tray beside the bed. "Oh, Dr. Jackson," she held out a small container towards the archeologist, but was looking at Jack as she spoke, "I’m going to need you to, uh, well. . . ."

"I think what the good doctor is trying to say, Daniel, is she needs you to take a piss in a cup."

Daniel glared at Jack, his gaze slightly unfocused in the absence of his glasses. "Your jokes aren’t even funny. You know that, right?"

"Now that was just mean." Jack looked wounded. "Doc, you have my permission to do what you want with him, but then I want his butt in the gate room. I want to be off to Pissed within the hour." As he left the infirmary, he could hear Daniel whining to Carter and Fraiser about having to listen to Jack’s running joke for the next two days.

* * * * *

"What the–," Jack was propelled out of the wormhole at a surprising velocity. The Stargate was perched on a tall platform accessed by a series of rough, stone steps. He landed on the top one hard, bounced, and managed to hit about every fourth step until he reached the ground. There, he rolled awkwardly, stopping only when his knee banged into a large rock with a hollow thump. "Aagh, shit!" He grabbed the joint, rocking slightly in an effort to ease the pain. On top of all that, it was raining. Hard. "Dammit."

Hearing grunts and groans behind him, he eased himself up to check on his team. Carter and Teal’c had also been flung out of the vortex, but were at least spared the ride down the stairs. They had landed on the edge of the wet platform, and teetered there, gasping for breath and trying to regain their equilibrium. Just as he was getting to his feet, Jack saw Daniel being tossed out of the blue event horizon. Like himself, Jackson bounced and tumbled his way down the steps. His knee throbbing and his feet slipping in the mud, Jack was unable to jump out of the way before Daniel slammed into him.

The two went down together in what must have looked like a perverted version of a lover’s embrace. Daniel reached out for something solid to stop his fall and instead got Jack’s face. Jack’s backpack splashed into the mud and he heard something crack, hopefully a piece of equipment and not his spine. Just as the thought crossed his mind that he might get out of this mess relatively unscathed, his head snapped back and met something cold and hard.

* * * * *

"Jack?"

He felt something wet on his face, and heard a dripping noise.

"Colonel? Can you hear me?"

He tried to open his eyes, but was having a little trouble figuring out exactly how to do that.

"Sam, I think we’d better go back."

Ah, finally, his eyes opened to – rain. He blinked, and reached up as if he could somehow stop the downpour with his hand.

"Sir? Are you all right?"

Jack tried to sit up and pain shot through his head, he dropped back down with a groan. "Holy crap."

"Try not to move."

"Carter?" Jack lowered his hand into the mud, trying to put a stop to the heaving and yawing of the dark sky overhead. How long had he been out? Obviously, long enough for someone to remove his backpack, but not long enough to rid himself of the ache in his head. "Help me up."

"I don’t think–"

"Dammit, Carter, I’m drowning here."

He felt a large hand slip beneath him, and realized Teal’c was there, too. They raised him to a sitting position, and he wobbled. Teal’c steadied him as Jack waited for the ground to right itself. It didn’t, so he shut his eyes and braced himself with both hands.

"Who shot me?"

"No one shot you, O’Neill."

"Sorry, Jack. I sort of, well, hit you when I came out of the gate."

Jack risked lifting one hand and felt the back of his head. His cap was MIA, and his fingers came away sticky and wet. He heard someone digging through a pack, followed by a tearing sound. "This may hurt a little." Without any further warning, Carter pressed something against the gash on the back of his head.

"God! Shit! What the--." Eyes still closed, Jack wanted to swat her hands away, but he needed both of his own planted on the ground if he wanted to stay upright.

"Sorry, sir."

He opened his eyes, only to find everything around him was tilting again. He shut them, then risked squinting through just one of them. A little better. Where was Daniel? "Daniel?"

"I’m fine."

Okay. That meant he probably wasn’t. Jack tried to turn toward the sound of the voice. Pain blossomed through the back of his head.

"Hold still, sir. I need to stop the bleeding."

"Dammit, Daniel. Where the hell are you?"

"Uh, back here."

Jack was going to say something smart-assed, but instead he murmured, "Sorry," and promptly vomited up his breakfast. Teal’c moved back just in time to miss getting it on his pants. "Ugh." Jack spat, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Okay. That was gross."

"Sir?"

"I’m fine, Carter. Check on Daniel."

"I’m not the one barfing my guts out, Jack. I just," Jack could hear a slight intake of breath, "I think I bruised some ribs. That’s all."

"Carter. Check on him." He squeezed open his other eye. Okay. Not great, but better. Just one and a half Teal’c’s in front of him now, holding out something towards him. A large hand placed one of his own around a canteen. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until he felt the container. He took a small sip, wobbling again and getting another eyeful of rainwater as he tilted his head back to drink. He rinsed and spat, then took a real drink.

"Teal’c, check out the neighborhood."

"I did, O’Neill, while you were unconscious."

"Well, do it–," Jack felt something under his hand, and looked down to find his mud-soaked cap. "Dammit." He started to shake the mud off of it, but the movement sent his universe spinning and his stomach roiling, so he stopped. "Make me happy. Do it again."

Teal’c nodded and, reluctantly letting go of Jack’s shoulder, picked up his staff weapon and walked away.

"Carter, how’s Daniel?"

"I’m fine, Jack."

"He’s okay, sir. It doesn’t look like he broke anything. He’s just bruised."

Jack shoved the wet, filthy cap inside his jacket and forced himself to his hands and knees. His left knee sent a burning tendril of agony up into his groin. "Ah, crap." He’d forgotten about the knee.

"Colonel?"

He bit his lip, grabbed onto the DHD – which by the way was apparently what he’d slammed into in the first place – and pulled himself to his feet. Then hung on for dear life as the ground tilted drastically.

"Hel-lo." Feeling the nausea return, he shut his eyes and leaned over slightly, waiting for everything to settle into a slow spin. He felt a hand on his elbow, and then something against the back of his head again.

"You’re still bleeding."

He braved opening his eyes, and saw Daniel sitting in the mud a few feet away, clutching his ribs and looking up at Jack like a wet puppy dog. "Carter, I realize I just got conked on the head, but I don’t remember rain being in the brochure."

"No, sir. The MALP showed sunny skies."

"Well, Daniel, I don’t know about you, but I think I can guess why they call this place Pissed."

"Only you call it that."

Jack let go of the DHD and brushing aside Carter’s help, stood upright for the first time since he’d arrived here. "Not after today."

Still squinting against the pounding in his head, he looked around. They were in the middle of a clearing several hundred yards in diameter. He could see Teal’c at about 10 o’clock walking the perimeter along the edge of the tree line. In the distance, through the dense curtain of rain, rose the silhouette of mountains. Big mountains. All around them.

"Well, Colonel, at least there’s no lightn–." A streak of bright light shot out of the clouds and lit up the sky, followed immediately by a loud crack, cutting off the Major’s next words.

As the sound died away, Jack looked at her. "You were saying?" Before she could reply, another flash hit somewhere close by, shaking the ground under their feet. Then the rain began in earnest.

"Sir," Carter was shouting now to be heard, "we should get away from the Stargate. It acts as a lightning rod."

The rain beating painfully against the wound on the back of his head, Jack could only nod in response. This day just got suckier and suckier. He pointed in the direction of Teal’c, then helped Carter get Daniel to his feet. "Go!" He shoved them in front of him and grabbed his pack.

They slid their way across the muddy ground, Carter and Daniel leaning against each other. Jack limped along behind them, pulling his jacket up over his head with one hand in order to protect his aching head as much as possible from the needle-like onslaught. It seemed to take forever to reach Teal’c and the relative protection of the trees, and by the time they stepped into the dense forest, Jack’s nausea had returned with a vengeance and his knee was about ready to explode.

Teal’c covered their six as they picked their way deeper into the forest. Just as he saw Carter leading Daniel towards the protective canopy of low-hanging limbs, Jack dropped his pack and leaned up against a tree, throwing up the little bit of water he’d swallowed just minutes ago.

"O’Neill," Teal’c slipped a hand under his arm and helped Jack over to the makeshift shelter.

He didn’t crawl inside so much as he fell, missing Daniel by mere inches. He lay there, eyes closed, face resting on his forearm, trying to get his life back together and wondering what the hell he’d done to deserve a day like this.

"Jack?"

"What?" His voice was muffled by the sleeve of his jacket.

"You okay?"

Was the guy really that stupid? Jack decided not to answer. He shivered instead. It was cold. He was wet. And he just wanted to sleep. Sleep away this raging headache and wake up at home in his warm, dry bed.

"Sir," Carter’s voice was suddenly close by, "I’m just going to try to stop the bleeding."

Jack didn’t respond. He didn’t care. He was vaguely aware of her digging into her pack once again, could hear her fumbling with zippers and snaps and paper and plastic. Teal’c said something to Daniel, who mumbled something back. There was a sharp sting on the back of his head and he felt pressure there, but other than shivering away the cold, he didn’t move. He was too tired. Even the throbbing in his knee drifted into the background.

"Colonel?" Soft, cool fingers pressed against the side of his neck, feeling for his pulse. He could have counted it himself against her fingertips, a steady, painful throbbing. "Teal’c, help me get him into one of the sleeping bags. I think he’s going into shock."

Major Dr. Samantha ‘Paranoid’ Carter. He wasn’t going into shock, he was just resting his eyes.

"You, too, Daniel."

Jack heard the slick sound of nylon and a zipper, then hands were gently rolling him onto his side.

"Colonel? Sir? We need to get you warm."

Someone was pulling something around him, tugging on him, arranging his jacket, fussing with him. He could do it himself. He pushed at their hands, then sank down into sleep.

* * * * *

["There’s monsters, daddy."

"Charlie – son, how many times have I told you? There are no monsters under your bed."

"Not under my bed. In my closet."

"Okay. Your closet. There are no monsters in your closet." Jack padded barefoot across his son’s darkened bedroom, opened the closet door, and flipped on the light. He pulled aside the neatly hung clothes, and looked behind the small toy chest. "See."

"Inside it."

Jack sighed. It was late, and he was tired. He rubbed a hand over his face and looked at Charlie. All it took was one glance at his wide-eyed boy for his anger to instantly evaporate. After all, he knew how it felt to be afraid.

He opened the lid on the plastic chest, and flinched as a pair of yellow eyes glared up at him. Damn! He hated that piggy-bank. Shaped like a bear, it had yellow eyes with tiny red pupils. What kind of person made a kid’s toy that looked like that? And what kind of aunt bought a gift like that for a five-year old kid?

"Nothing. No monsters." There was no response, and Jack looked back over his shoulder. Light from the closet fell across the bed, illuminating his son. Charlie’s eyes were watery with unshed tears.

"They only come out when you’re not looking."]

* * * * *

His son’s voice woke him. That, and the fact that he was freezing. He was laying on his side, curled up within the confines of the sleeping bag, shivering.

"–lets up."

"I believe the rain is slowing, Daniel Jackson."

"We should move out. We’ve been here," he heard the velcro of a watch cover being pulled back, "over three hours. We need to get him and you to the infirmary."

"I’m fine. It’s Jack I’m worried about."

"Don’t worry about me." His voice was barely audible, doused by the confines of the nylon sleeping bag. He stretched out his legs and rolled onto his back, groaning softly at the pain in his knee and in his head.

"Colonel?"

He blinked up at two pairs of blue eyes. "I’m fine."

Daniel grinned. "Yeah, you look great. Never better."

"Smart-ass."

"How do you feel, sir?"

He thought about it a moment, then swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth. "Like the morning after Kathy Bancroft."

Carter frowned. "Excuse me?"

"That’s when her father found out and paid me a visit."

"That good, huh?"

Jack snorted softly. "She wasn’t bad."

Carter smiled down at him, then changed the subject. "How about a drink? Then we’ll head back home." They helped him sit up, and someone shoved a canteen in his hand. He was too tired and thirsty to argue. "We’ll be back in the infirmary soon, so I really don’t want to give you anything for the pain."

"That’s fine." He shivered and looked over at Daniel. "How you doing?"

"Better than you." Daniel shrugged. "Really, I’m okay. Just a little sore."

"Major Carter, I believe we should leave while the storm has abated."

"You ready for this, Colonel?"

"Can hardly wait." He sat, gathering his strength and shivering, as they packed up the little bit of gear they had unpacked while he was sleeping – well, passed out. Then, sighing deeply, he let Daniel and Teal’c help him to his feet. He staggered, leaning heavily against Teal’c. "Sorry."

"That is all right, O’Neill. I will assist you."

They were back at the Stargate in less than 20 minutes. By the time they arrived, Jack had the strength of an earthworm and was about as appealing – covered head to toe with mud. Panting, still shivering, he let Teal’c take most of his weight as they watched Daniel dial home and Carter punch in their code.

Stepping through the gate on the other side, the first thing he noticed was, it was warm. The second, it was dry. And last but not least, Fraiser and her goons were there, waiting. He thought about sitting down on the ramp, wanted to in fact, but he was afraid his knee would keep him down and he really didn’t want to be carried to the infirmary. It was embarrassing, even when he was unconscious.

"Colonel," Hammond was standing at the base of the ramp, looking stressed, "you’ve been gone less than four hours."

Stepping tentatively away from Teal’c, Jack looked down at his CO. "Yes, sir." His voice was shaking from the cold, and he and his team were dripping water all over the floor. "Little problem, General." He took another step forward and staggered slightly. Teal’c’s hand was immediately back on his arm, supporting him. Doc, who was giving Daniel a quick once over, saw the move.

"Colonel?" She handed Daniel over to the care of one of her nurses, and walked up the ramp towards him. "What happened?"

"I’m fine." He felt fine. Well, except that he was freezing and his head hurt. Oh, and the knee. Don’t forget the knee. And now that he thought about it, the room was beginning to list slightly to one side, throwing him slightly off balance. "I’m fine."

Fraiser glanced over at Carter. "We got thrown out of the gate pretty hard. He and Daniel fell, and the Colonel hit the back of his head on the DHD."

Jack squinted at his 2IC. Carter had a big mouth. She was probably the kid in high school who always ratted him out to the teacher. Got him into trouble.

"Sir?" Fraiser startled him by suddenly appearing in front of him. "Let’s sit you down before you fall down."

Someone, Teal’c probably, was pulling on his arm, forcing him down to the ramp. Well, not pulling him really, just not holding him up anymore. Fraiser leaned over and looked at the back of his head, poking at it.

"Ow." He swatted at her hand. "I’m fine. It’s just a concussion."

"Well, you’re probably right, but let me earn my keep. Okay?" She shone the dreaded penlight in his eyes, making him wince, then grabbed his wrist, checking his pulse.

"Carter checked that already. You’ll be happy to know I’ve got one."

Doc smiled, then glanced at her watch and let go of his arm. "Colonel, you’re going for a ride." She nodded towards the goons with the gurney. Before Jack realized what was going on, he was flat on his back, strapped down and being rolled down the ramp and out of the gate room.

"Crap." He draped an arm over his eyes, more to hide than to shut out the overhead lights.

* * * * *

[He awoke alone in a dark room.

"Where the hell?" He sat up quickly, too quickly, and felt the room spin slowly. "Shit." He grabbed his head in his hands. Headache. Gradually, the pain faded and he looked around. The room wasn’t as dark as he’d first thought. In fact, things were beginning to come into focus. He was in a bed in the infirmary.

"Pissed." The wet planet. He remembered hitting his head, returning to the gate room, and being hauled out on a stretcher. Everything after that was a blank. Jack was a little surprised to find that he was still wearing his trousers and black t-shirt. He must not have been hurt too bad. Doc had taken his shirt and boots, but obviously didn’t mean for him to spend the night or he’d have woken up wearing one of those god-awful backless gowns. Great.

Cautiously, he swung his legs over the side of the bed. The room stayed in focus, motionless. He slid off the bed and tested his weight on his legs. Pretty good. Looking around, he wondered where his boots had gotten to. As a matter of fact, where had all the people gotten to. It was strange to find the infirmary so empty, so dark; must be the middle of the night. He glanced at his watch. 1805 hours. Holy crap! He was scheduled to meet with Hammond five minutes ago.

Just when he decided he’d have to go bootless, he spied them in the corner of the room, beneath the chair usually occupied by one of his team. Jack made his way over and sat down, putting on his shoes. That done, he felt a little more human. Actually, he felt very human. Good, especially considering he’d acquired a huge gash on the back of his head less than six hours ago.

He stood up and made his way out into the hallway, marveling that he wasn’t even dizzy and that no one seemed to be around. The halls, the rooms, were empty. All of them. Must be a hell of an emergency somewhere. That thought scared him, and spurred him into motion. He hurried to the elevator, his heart thudding perilously loud in his chest. Something had to have happened somewhere. He banged on the elevator button.

"Come on. Come on." Nothing happened. He ran to the stairwell, leaping down the stairs four and five at a time in his rush to reach Level 28. He had to get to the gate room. Whatever had happened, he knew that was where he needed to be. He shot out of the stairwell, gasping for breath, amazed that his knee had held up under the onslaught. No one was in the corridor. The emergency lights weren’t even flashing, and for some reason that scared him more than the disappearance of the personnel.

Jack was flat out panicked now, and he ran all the way down the hall. Just as he realized that he didn’t have his ID card, he saw that the blast doors were open. He skidded to a stop and flattened himself against the wall. Shutting his eyes, he cursed his loud breathing. Trying to calm himself, he slowly peeked around the corner into the gate room, and froze.

"What the–"

Jack stepped into the open doorway.

"Surprise!"

They were all there. The whole crew. His team, Hammond, Fraiser, the nurses, the SF’s, the technicians, Siler, everybody, even the cafeteria personnel. They nearly filled the room, and were even packed onto the ramp.

Grinning, Hammond stood at the front of the smiling, laughing group. "Colonel."

"Sir, what the hell?"

"Are you surprised, sir?"

"Carter?" Jack suddenly felt confused, and his head began to throb where he’d hit it. "What’s going on?"

"You didn’t think we’d let the day go by without celebrating, did you?" General Hammond was beaming. "We have a big surprise for you, Jack." He reached a hand behind him, towards the densely packed crowd.

Still feeling confused, wondering what the hell was going on, Jack shook his head slightly, sending his headache skyrocketing. He rubbed a hand across his temple, trying to press away the pain and sort out what was happening.

"Dad?"

"Wh–," Jack’s breath left him. Literally. He felt the air sucked from his lungs, and he staggered.

He was only peripherally aware of Fraiser stepping forward, a concerned look on her face. "Colonel? Sir?"

"Dad?"

The crowd parted, allowing Hammond to pull the boy forward. The General smiled proudly. "Look who’s here, Jack."

"Charlie?" Jack sank to his knees. Didn’t even notice when his joints struck the cement floor with a resounding crack. "Oh, God. Charlie."

"Colonel?" Fraiser was struggling to reach him, but too many people were pressing forward, crowding her.

The blonde-haired boy squirmed free of the crowd, free from Hammond’s hand on his shoulder, and ran to Jack. He threw himself into Jack’s arms with a laugh. "Dad!"]

* * * * *

SG-1. Again.

Janet sat down behind her desk and sighed. At least this time it was nothing serious. Just a couple of bruised ribs and a concussion. Every time a team went out, particularly this team, she and her staff tensed. While there were people off-world, everyone on base found relaxing difficult. You could almost feel the tension in the re-circulated air. It was just too easy to imagine what could be happening. What had happened before.

Granted, most missions were nothing to write home about. In fact, according to the mission reports, typical missions were, as O’Neill once put it, as boring as SG-1's sex life. At least, rumor had it that’s what he’d told Hammond in front of a group of visiting bigwigs from Washington.

Still, when you were stuck here, and the people you cared about were stuck out there, it was hard not to be worried. So, whenever they heard the announcement of an incoming wormhole, everyone seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief. Followed immediately by a worried frown as they wondered who it was, and were they injured. Or worse.

This time the worry factor had increased tenfold when they’d been told SG-1 was returning after only four hours out and days ahead of schedule. Thankfully, the worry had proved unnecessary. The Colonel and Daniel were injured, but nothing serious. Nothing a night in the infirmary wouldn’t fix. In fact, she’d already sent Daniel to his quarters, where he was hopefully sleeping.

Janet made a notation in Daniel Jackson’s file, then slid it to the corner of her desk. She pulled the Colonel’s file over in its place. Unfortunately, this was merely one volume in what was rapidly becoming a series. The contents provided a rather amazing and disturbing read. At times she found it difficult to believe that one man could endure so much and still be alive, but if she doubted the validity of the records, all she had to do was look at the scars on his body or at the x-rays. It wasn’t something she would recommend, however, at least not on a full stomach.

She was reaching for a fresh cup of coffee when Gloria stuck her head in the door. "Doctor? It’s the Colonel."

Crap. Now what? Well, she could narrow the odds down to two: he was either harassing her staff, although it seemed a little early in the game for that, or he’d developed a complication. Knowing her staff would understand, she prayed for option one. She was wrong on both counts.

When she arrived in his room, Daniel, Teal’c and Gloria were gathered around the bed on which Jack O’Neill thrashed, deep in the throes of a nightmare. It was obvious they’d all done this before. While Daniel called out to him, trying to awaken him, Gloria and Teal’c dodged arms and legs while making sure that the Colonel didn’t hurt himself.

"Jack! Come on. Wake up."

As she approached the bed, she could hear him mumbling, but the only thing she could make out was his dead son’s name. Crap, crap, and double crap. Not this.

"Gloria, go on. I can handle this." Janet stepped up beside the bed, gently moving her nurse aside. The fewer people Jack awakened to, the better. "You, too, Teal’c. And, Daniel, you’re supposed to be in bed." The men hesitated, watching her. "Go."

As they slowly moved away, she turned back to the bed. Unfortunately, she and the Colonel had danced this dance before. Many times. She placed a hand on his forehead, pressing gently, but steadily.

"Colonel!" Through the years, she’d found through trial and error that calling him by his rank was more effective. She supposed it had something to do with military conditioning, the ingrained habit of snapping to attention. Sure enough, as she repeated it, his movements eased. Panting, covered in sweat, his body grew quiet and he turned his head towards the sound of her voice.

"Colonel, wake up."

His chest heaving, he blinked up at her, his eyes glassy and unfocused. "What?"

"Sir?" She pretended not to notice the tears streaming down his face, something he would normally never allow. As she smiled down at him, he began to choke, coughing, gasping for breath. She moved her hand to his shoulder, helping him to sit up. "Colonel, it was just a dream."

"What?" It was obvious that he was still trying to figure out where he was.

"You were dreaming, sir."

He looked around, and she saw reality dawn in his eyes. "Oh, God."

As Jack dropped back on the bed, curling up on his side, Janet kept her hand on him. Reaching down to straighten the tangled sheets, she noticed Teal’c and Daniel still hovering in the open doorway.

"Hey. Go. He’s fine. Teal’c, see that Daniel goes to bed." They studied her, and she waved them away.

Alone, she pulled the sheet back up over Jack’s shaking body and waited. Finally, his breathing slowed, and she reached up to brush the damp hair off his forehead. His eyes were closed, but she knew he wasn’t sleeping. If history repeated itself, he wouldn’t for the rest of the night.

"Sir? Are you okay?" There was no response. It was always hard to know what he needed. He would never ask for help, never admit he needed it or wanted it. "Do you want me to go?"

She was startled when he opened his eyes. "He hugged me. It felt – real."

Janet blinked. She knew who he was talking about. There was no need to ask. "I’m so sorry, sir." Since he didn’t push her away, she stayed; saying nothing, just monotonously brushing her fingers through his hair. Not knowing what else to do. Suddenly, she saw his face tighten with pain. "Colonel, what’s wrong?"

His voice was soft. "Headache."

"I’ll get you something."

"No." The hand that grabbed hers was strong. He glanced at her, then suddenly pulled his hand away. "No. I’ll be fine."

Janet watched him, aware of what he was doing. She thought about insisting, then realized there was no point. He was afraid to sleep, and who could blame him? "All right. But if you change your mind. . . ." She placed the call button on the bed near his pillow. "Okay?"

Jack nodded and shut his eyes. Quietly, Janet slipped out of the room. She thought about returning to her office, going back to the files, but suddenly her heart wasn’t in it. There was no rational reason to drive all the way home. It was late, and she was due back here in less than seven hours. Besides, Anna Simpson would be at the house. She was an elderly neighbor lady whom Janet paid to stay with Cassie on the nights she couldn’t make it home. Anna and Cassie would both be sound asleep. Still, Janet felt a sudden need to go home, to see her daughter, even if it was just to watch her sleep.

She walked up to the nurse’s station. "Gloria, I’m going home. Check in on the Colonel in about 30 minutes. Try to get him to take his pain meds, but don’t force it on him. Okay?"

Gloria smiled up at her. "Sure, Dr. Fraiser."

Janet left, knowing that her patient was in good hands.

* * * * *

Jack sat at the briefing table, rubbing his eyes. They felt gritty and swollen, and his head was aching. He’d been awake since 0240, afraid to go back to sleep, afraid Charlie would be there. So, after Janet had gone home and after her apprentice – Glenda or Gilda or somebody – had checked in on him, he’d removed his IV, found his clothes, and left the infirmary. He knew Janet would be furious, but he couldn’t stand laying there in the dark, standing watch against sleep. Hell, who was he kidding? Standing watch against Charlie.

Charlie. Jack swallowed, his throat aching from the lump that seemed to have permanently lodged there. He’d been plagued with nightmares off and on for years. He was more or less accustomed to them; had learned to shake them off. But the ones about Charlie were always the worst, whether they involved reliving his son’s death, or reliving his life. Of the two, Jack wasn’t sure which was harder to endure. Last night, feeling his son in his arms, hearing his laughter – it made waking up the nightmare. Feeling a small hand on his arm and knowing it was Doc’s, not Charlie’s. Would never be Charlie’s. And for a brief moment, he’d hated her for it as he faced anew the reality of a life without his son.

So, he’d made his escape. Besides, he had a mountain of paperwork he could be doing. Or so he told himself. Actually, he had gotten quite a bit of it done before he’d found himself nodding off at his desk. Hauling himself up, he’d gone to the mess hall and had eaten breakfast at the mind-boggling hour of 0445. Well, he’d had a slice of day-old apple pie, and coffee, a lot of coffee. But that had been over four hours ago.

"Colonel O’Neill?"

"What?" Startled, he glanced over at the General. His teammates were sitting across from him, staring.

"I said, you’re dismissed."

"Oh. Yes, sir."

Jack scrubbed a hand through his hair, forgetting about the neat row of stitches until after he’d brushed against them, sending a slice of pain across the back of his head. Shit!

"And Colonel–"

"Sir?"

"You look like hell. Go home. You’re on stand down for 72 hours. I don’t want to see you back here before then. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Excuse me. General?" Uh-oh. Janet Fraiser had snuck into the room and looked mad, her face slightly flushed. "The Colonel can’t leave yet. He discharged himself from the infirmary during the middle of the night. He’s not been officially released from my care."

"Colonel, is that true?"

Jack looked from Fraiser to the General, trying for the sheepish grin that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. "Well, sir, I couldn’t sleep and I did have a lot of work to do. You know – all those reports you’ve been needing. And a stack of requisi–," but he could tell by the look on the General’s face that this was falling into the ‘sometimes didn’t work’ category, so he let the excuse die. "Okay, sir. I’ll be honest with you." Jack smiled over at Doc, trying not to look as sick as he felt. "I think the Doctor has it in for me and much as I hate to admit it, she actually kind of, well, she scares me." Jack looked at Hammond, who was frowning. "Sir."

The General looked at Jack, but nodded towards his CMO. "Get down to the infirmary, Colonel. When Dr. Fraiser says you can, go home. But not a minute before. Then, and only then, you’re on stand down until she clears you. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Colonel." Fraiser waved a hand towards the exit, waiting on him to precede her.

Jack heaved himself to his feet, sighing deeply. "Well, kids, if I don’t come back alive, it’s been nice knowing you."

"Oh, Jack?" He stopped and looked over at Daniel, who had a huge, shit-eating grin on his face. "For your information," Daniel pointed at Fraiser, "she’s pissed."

* * * * *

"Okay, Colonel. You’re free to go."

Sitting on the exam bed, buttoning his shirt, Jack studied the back of Fraiser’s head as she scribbled something in his chart. "I told you I was fine."

She turned around, looking just as angry as she had an hour ago. "I didn’t say you were fine. What I said was that you’re free to go. In fact, you are definitely not fine. Which is why Daniel is driving you home and staying with you for a couple of days."

"Oh, good grief." Jack hopped off the bed. The movement caused his head to swim, but he hid it by leaning back against the bed and concentrating on fastening his belt. "That’s ridiculous."

"Colonel, you have 11 stitches holding the back of your scalp together over a nasty concussion. Your head hurts so bad, I can feel it from here. Your knee is badly bruised, and is still hurting, despite the fact that you’re trying hard not to limp. On top of that, you’re in need of some serious rest."

Jack mumbled under his breath, and reached for his boots. Unfortunately, bending over caused the blood to rush to his head, which in turn made his headache blossom and his vision swim. He staggered slightly and reached out for something to hang on to. What he got was a handful of Janet Fraiser. She helped him sit down in the chair beside the bed. He had to hand it to her, she stood there in front of him like the Napoleonic power-monger he’d once claimed she was, but she didn’t say a word. Instead, she knelt down in front of him, and helped him on with his shoes. After they were on and tied, she put her hands on his knees and looked at him.

"Why do you do this to yourself, sir?" Her voice was quiet, almost intimate, and she was totally serious.

He opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t. He shook his head and smiled.

Fraiser studied his face, then patted his leg and stood up. "Let Daniel take you home. Let him stay with you a couple of days." When he started to protest, she held up a hand. "Ah, ah! He feels guilty for you being hurt. Let him do this. It will make you both feel better. Trust me."

Jack looked up at her. He studied the determined set of her jaw, and the narrow shoulders. Then, he looked at her hands. The hands that had calmed him last night after the dream, after Charlie. The hands that had saved his life and the lives of his teammates more times then he could count. The hands that had stooped down to tie the shoes of someone who didn’t deserve any of the niceties that he received from her.

"Okay."

She smiled. "Thank you."

"Hey! Ready to go?" Speak of the devil, Daniel stood in the doorway, smiling.

"Yeah. I’m ready." Jack grunted as he got to his feet. "But remember, I’m only letting you drive my truck because I won’t be caught dead riding in that clunker of yours."

* * * * *

Daniel Jackson could be a royal pain in the ass. He was also one of the best friends that Jack had had since his time with Special Ops. Since Frank Cromwell in the days before Club Med. Or so Jack kept telling himself as he listened to Daniel expounding about the importance of yada yada yada in translating the bada-bing bada-boom of whoever’s planet XYZ-whatever. Jack already had a headache and Daniel was making it worse.

It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, traffic was heavy, and Jackson seemed to have the uncanny ability to slam on the brakes at the absolute last minute. For what must have been the twentieth time in the last ten miles, Jack put one hand on the dash and braced himself for an impact that miraculously didn’t happen.

"God, Daniel."

"–get help to do it. What? What’s wrong?"

Someone behind them laid on their horn and whipped around them, flipping Daniel a bird he never even saw. Jack leaned back against the seat, closing his eyes. Maybe if he didn’t see death coming, his head wouldn’t throb so much. Or maybe he was dead already, and this was his own personal hell.

"Nothing. If you want anything to eat, we’d better stop at the store."

"Janet said to take you straight home."

"Geez, Daniel. You never do what I tell you even when I’m standing right there, but Fraiser tells you to do something–"

"Okay, okay. Just tell me where."

"There’s a little mom and pop place about two miles ahead on the right." Jack swore he heard an approaching impact and although he refused to open his eyes for this one, he couldn’t stop himself from squeezing the armrest. "Maybe I can call 911 from there," he mumbled to himself and to God, if He was listening.

"What?"

"Nothing. Just praying out loud."

There was a moment of relative quiet, then, "Jack, you okay?"

"I’m fine, Daniel. Bit of a headache. You?"

"I’m okay. Just a little sore. Listen, about yesterday–"

"Daniel, please, if you apologize one more time, I swear I’m going to puke on you." Actually, now that he mentioned it, Jack thought a good puke might be in his future. His stomach was rolling dangerously.

"Is that the place?"

Jack squinted. "Yeah. There’s parking on the other side." He closed his eyes again until he felt the truck come to a stop.

"Why don’t you wait here. I’ll take care of it."

Jack opened the door and climbed out. "No way. I’m not eating tofu burgers and rice cakes for two days."

As they made their way through the small grocery, Jack thought about what a strange sight they must make. Daniel hunched over protecting his sore ribs, and Jack limping and wearing sunglasses to cut down on the glare. People probably thought they were a modern version of the Odd Couple. Daniel dropped a box of soy milk in the cart; Jack added a gallon of whole milk. Veggie burgers; bratwurst. Whole grain cereal; Fruit Loops. Jack wasn’t even hungry, but he was enjoying the game. It became a challenge trying to find the ‘opposite’ of whatever Daniel picked. Organic bean soup; red chili with no beans. Whole wheat crackers; nachos and a can of cheese dip – although he’d never admit it, Jack’s stomach rolled heavily at that one. Yogurt covered raisins; a box of Ding-Dongs. When they reached the produce section, Daniel carefully selected and bagged some apples. With a daring smile aimed at Jack, he placed the bag in the cart. Jack looked around, then made his own pick. Smiling at Daniel, he set a bag of oranges into the cart next to the apples.

Daniel laughed softly. "You never give up, do you, Jack?"

"It’s one of my better features." He said it in jest, but after hearing it out loud, Jack decided there was a lot of truth to the statement. Whenever he was able to pull his team out of a sticky situation, more often than not it was from sheer determination and not because of any great skill or daring on his part. O’Neill stubbornness had pulled him through a lot of rough times in his life: teenage rebellion; bootcamp; Special Ops; his nine-day crawl across a desert; Iraq; his vacation with Ba’al; and those were just some of the biggies.

Too bad that stubbornness had its dark side. It also prevented him from letting go of things he should: his bitterness toward Frank Cromwell; his guilt over Charlie; his feelings of failure with Sara; the wall he’d constructed between himself and his family; and so many smaller things that they blurred sometimes. That Irish bull-headedness was what made him want to eat a bullet when Charlie died, but in the end it was also what saved him.

"Jack?"

He felt a hand on his arm, and he tensed. "What?"

"You okay? You look a little – dazed."

"I’m fine." Actually, he was and he wasn’t. His head was pounding and his knee throbbed, but he knew he’d be okay. He just needed a little time, and he needed to quit being so maudlin. Jack slipped out his wallet and handed Daniel his debit card, indicating the grocery cart. "Can you do this? I think I need to sit down for a minute."

"Sure. You all right? I can come back later."

"I’ll be fine, Daniel."

Jack limped out of the store and was headed for his truck when he saw a small bench in the shade of the building. He sat down and leaned his head back, careful to not bump his stitches against the brick wall. Closing his eyes, he tried to tune out the noise of the traffic, and instead concentrated on the light, erratic breeze. He was nearly asleep when Daniel came out.

"Jack? You ready to go?"

"Yeah."

He hauled himself up and helped Daniel load the groceries into the truck. Half an hour later, they were safely home, despite Daniel’s driving, and had the groceries put away. Daniel was folding up the paper bags and shoving them in the cabinet beneath the sink.

"How about some lunch?"

Still nursing a headache and nausea, Jack shook his head tiredly. "Think I’m going to take a nap, but help yourself."

"Uh, aren’t you forgetting something?" Daniel held up two small prescription bottles that Janet had sent. "She said you’re supposed to take these religiously."

"For cryin’ out loud." Jack grabbed the bottles and shook out one of each into his palm, popping them into his mouth and dry swallowing. "Happy?"

"Very. Have a good nap."

Jack’s bedroom was dark and cool. He turned on the ceiling fan to block out the sounds of Daniel rummaging around in the other part of the house and stripping down to his boxers, slipped between the sheets with a groan. Laying on his side, staring over at the bookshelf without really seeing it, he sighed and blinked heavily.

When had he gotten this old? Sometimes it seemed like he’d been so young when he’d first teamed up with Carter and Daniel and Teal’c. He’d been fitter, more energetic, a lot less grey. Now, there were times when his weight dropped so much that he looked gaunt and Doc worried; his hair was totally silver now; and while he was still fit, there were days when he felt old and worn out. Those days were the ones that scared him a little. Days like this, when he hurt so bad he didn’t want to move. When he wanted to quit, wanted to turn it over to the younger guys, but was afraid of what awaited him. He would rather face down a squad of enraged Jaffa than look boredom in the eye.

Would he know when it was time to retire? More importantly, would he be able to admit it? He couldn’t afford to place anyone at risk because he was too stubborn and macho to admit that he couldn’t, shouldn’t, try to cut it any more.

Jack sighed again, hearing the soft whine of the can opener despite the fan overhead. He closed his eyes, concentrating on the soft, rhythmic whir of the blades slicing through the air.

* * * * *

[He was in the crowded gate room. The crowd parted, allowing Hammond to pull the boy forward. The General smiled proudly. "Look who’s here, Jack."

"Charlie?" Jack sank to his knees. He didn’t even notice when his joints struck the cement floor with a resounding crack. "Oh, God. Charlie."

The blonde-haired boy squirmed free of the crowd, free from Hammond’s hand on his shoulder, and ran to Jack. He threw himself into Jack’s arms with a laugh. "Dad!"

Jack did what he had wanted to do every minute of every day since the moment he had heard that single shot: he threw his arms around his living, breathing child and he hugged him, and he sobbed. "Oh my God. Charlie. Charlie." He rocked back and forth, his son cradled in his arms. His son. His little boy. Charlie. Charlie was alive. Again. Breathing, laughing, hugging him back. Charlie. Who should be dead. Jack gasped softly, and the boy tensed in his arms. Should be dead. "It can’t–"

Charlie pushed against him, trying to pull free. "Dad?" Jack grabbed onto his son’s arms, holding him at arm’s length, still sobbing and staring at the miracle standing before him. "Dad? What’s going on?"

Jack studied the freckles on his son’s face. There had been times when he had had trouble remembering what his son looked like. The shape of his nose, the curve of his mouth, his eyelashes, the freckles. He looked at the face just inches from his own, and realized he hadn’t forgotten after all. It was all so right, so familiar. There was even a small cluster of freckles on the right side of Charlie’s nose that he distinctly remembered. He used to tease Charlie that if they played connect the freckles, they’d find a map of the universe on his face. Still crying, Jack smiled at the memory. "Son."

"Dad, are you going to hurt me?"

"Wh–," Jack flinched. "What?"

"Colonel." Suddenly Hammond was standing beside him. His voice was stern, and he was no longer smiling. "You know what you have to do."

"I–," Jack stared back at his son, frowning, confused again. His vision swam and a sudden, fierce pounding in his head made him moan softly.

"Are you going to hurt me?"

"You know what you have to do, Jack." The General stretched out a hand towards him. He was holding something out to him, but Jack’s vision was swimming, the pain behind his eyes nearly blinding him.

"Do it." Hammond’s voice was soft, close, insinuating itself into his ear. Jack could feel the man’s warm breath on his cheek.]

* * * * *

He sobbed. "I can’t. Please. Don’t make me."

"Jack, wake up!"

"Don’t make me."

"Jack!"

Something shook him, and chest heaving, Jack sat up. He was gasping for breath, choking, and his face was wet with tears. "Oh, God." He couldn’t catch his breath.

"Jack, you’re dreaming."

"Wha – Daniel?" Daniel was kneeling beside his bed, his face pale in the darkness. He looked as panicked as Jack felt. Panting, choking back sobs, Jack pressed his hands against his eyes, trying to block out the world. A world without Charlie. And something bad. Something bad was going to happen. And Charlie was dead. "I can’t–"

"You can’t what, Jack?" He suddenly realized Daniel’s hand was resting on his shoulder. Jack shuddered, and Daniel patted him gently. "Sshh. It was just a dream. It’s over."

But it didn’t feel like it was over. Jack opened his mouth to speak, and felt his stomach heave. "Shit." He stumbled out of bed, away from Daniel, and into the bathroom. He barely made it to the toilet before vomiting. He hadn’t eaten much today and didn’t have much to throw up; it might have been better if he had. His stomach cramped, and bile burned the back of his throat, made his eyes water and his nose run. Still choking back sobs, trying to catch his breath and calm his racing heart, Jack sank onto the floor next to the toilet. Leaning back against the bathtub, he wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his head on his knees.

"Here." He looked up and Daniel was squatting in front of him, holding out a damp washcloth.

Jack took it, nodding his thanks, and pressed it over his face. He heard the toilet flush and then heard Daniel doing something in the other room. Jack lowered the cloth from his face, draped it over the back of his neck. He was starting to regain control of himself when Daniel came back and stood in the doorway, watching him closely.

"You want to talk about it?"

He looked up at his friend and shook his head. "No."

Daniel smiled. "Why doesn’t that surprise me?" He stood there studying his CO, then reached out a hand. "Come on. At least get off the floor."

Jack let Daniel help him up, then followed him into the bedroom. "What time is it?" He grabbed his jeans off the foot of the bed, and sitting down, pulled them on.

"Just a little after six."

Jack leaned back on the bed, pulling the jeans over his hips and fastening them. He lay there a minute, staring up at the ceiling but seeing Hammond holding the weapon just inches from Charlie’s frightened eyes. "God." He scrubbed a hand over his face.

"You slept less than two hours. You need more rest."

He sat up. "Don’t think that’s going to happen, Daniel."

"Iraq?"

He looked over at Daniel. If anyone else had presumed as much, it would have pissed him off. But Daniel, his team, knew enough about his background and about his nightmares, that they could pretty much figure things out. But not this time. What could he say? Actually, this one was worse? Well, it was. The Iraqi nightmares were bad – memories that shook him up sometimes for days. But this dream was different. It wasn’t a memory; therefore, it remained unpredictable, yet he was afraid he knew where it was going.

"No. Actually–," but he couldn’t finish the thought.

"I didn’t think so."

"What? Why?"

"You kept saying Charlie’s name."

Jack looked away. "Yeah, well–," he stood up and left the room. He stormed into the kitchen, his knee aching with every other step. Daniel was right behind him, but for once he used his head and let the subject drop.

"You want to eat? I can make you something. Warm up that god-awful canned chili."

"I’m not hungry. Just need to wash the puke out of my mouth." Jack leaned in the fridge and grabbed the first thing he found, a bottle of some fruit nectar crap that Daniel must have bought after he’d left the store. Jack twisted off the cap. He’d rather have a beer, but the need to keep moving drove him into the other room.

He dropped onto the sofa and studied the television. Daniel had the sound off, but it looked like a National Geographic special. Two men were talking very seriously to one another; in the background, a large tiger or wildcat of some kind was licking itself. Jack swigged down some of the nectar. The drink was sweet, too sweet, and the aftertaste mingled poorly with the bile still burning the back of his throat. He studied the bottle without seeing it.

Daniel sauntered into the room, switching on a lamp at the end of the sofa. "So, Sam and Teal’c are on their way over. Hope you don’t mind." Jack didn’t answer, but picked up the remote and began channel surfing. "Sam called a little while ago. They were bored. Thought we could play some poker or something. If you feel up to it."

Jack stared at the television. God, he’d forgotten what a cute kid Charlie was. He would be a teenager. Driving. Dating. Playing sports. Hell, he and Jack would probably hate each other’s guts by now, and he and Sara would lay awake every night waiting for Charlie to get home so Jack could chew him out for missing curfew. It was weird to think how he had dreaded those days. Back then, when he’d known those days were coming. When Charlie had been alive and cute and growing and – alive.

"Jack?"

He flinched and looked over at Daniel.

"You sure you’re okay?"

Jack wiped sweat off his forehead with his arm, suddenly realizing he was shirtless, then took another pull off the bottle. He grimaced. "What is this stuff anyway? It tastes like shit." He set the bottle on the coffee table and looked up at the television. He’d been watching Martha Stewart and hadn’t even known it. "I’m going for a walk."

He pulled on a jacket that was hanging in the front closet and slipped on a pair of grass-stained tennis shoes that he used for mowing the lawn. He hurried out the front door, wanting to be gone before Carter and Teal’c arrived. Setting a brisk pace, he took off up the street towards a path that cut through some vacant land behind the small subdivision. His house was located on the northwestern edge of Colorado Springs, about halfway between the Academy and the mountain, in one of the last subdivisions before you entered the foothills. Once he reached the final row of houses, the homes were sparse and numerous paths cut through the increasingly rugged terrain. It was a great place for a hike or a run, something which he did less and less as the years went by.

Jack quickly reached the trail and chose his path without thinking. Head down, ignoring his protesting knee, he walked. His mind trapped in the vacuum left by the nightmare, he covered time and distance simultaneously, his footing sure despite the fact that he saw only his son’s face. He walked, and he thought about how life was like the trails here. You started off thinking you knew where you were going, settled into your pace, and suddenly, without warning, something forced you to change course. You came upon a bend in the trail you weren’t expecting, or you were faced with a series of paths and you could only hope you chose the right one.

Where had he made the wrong choice? Had he made it just a few short days before Charlie accidentally shot himself, when he and his son had had a stupid argument over a dumb water pistol? Or had he made the choice a few weeks before while digging through the drawer of the nightstand where he kept his 9mm, looking for an old address book that he knew he’d seen there? He was trying to find the telephone number of an old Air Force buddy back east while Sara waited on the phone in the other room, yelling at him to hurry as she laughed and talked with the wife of another buddy. In the middle of his search, he remembered he’d seen it in the cigar box on his closet shelf, and he’d slammed the nightstand drawer closed without locking it. Or maybe his choice had been launched years before when he’d bought the damn weapon on a whim. Or before Charlie had even been born, when he’d decided to make a life in the military his career. How far back could he trace his wrong choices? Maybe if he retired, he could take the time to chart it out – his own little O’Neill family tree that ended with the death of his son.

Slightly breathless, Jack stopped and looked around, suddenly aware of his surroundings. The sun had dropped over the rim of the mountains and there was a damp chill in the grey light of dusk. The dark and the cold come suddenly, simultaneously, in the mountains. He turned and looked back the way he had come. The path that had brought him here was invisible, swallowed up with the dying of the daylight. But in the distance, he could see the flickering, taunting lights of houses filled with warmth and laughter and families with kids that didn’t have access to their dads’ sidearms.

Shivering, Jack pulled up the hood of the jacket and began to pick his way back down off the mountain. The trail was hard to find – a mere paleness in an otherwise black landscape. The loose gravel and the steep incline turned treacherous in the darkness, made him unsure of his footing. That, combined with the fact that the cold and the exercise were making his knee throb incessantly, meant that he had to slow his pace considerably. Squinting, he stepped over a rock and miscalculated. He stubbed his toe on the top edge of it and tripped. He caught his weight with the palm of his hands, and tumbled a good 12 feet down the path before sliding to a stop.

"Shit." Catching his breath, he sat there in the dark picking sharp bits of gravel from the palms of his hands by touch alone. That done, he gently felt along his legs, making sure he hadn’t hurt himself without realizing it, but he didn’t feel any tears or cuts. So, just his hands then. He pushed himself up, and his knee buckled, dumping him gracelessly back down on his ass. "Dammit."

Frustrated, his head and knee aching from his exertions and from the fall, Jack leaned back and looked up at the stars. They blinked down at him, uncaring. They never changed. Not when he had been pulling himself across a cold desert floor, not when he’d looked up at them from an Iraqi prison camp, not when he had held Charlie up to their first telescope, not the night after Charlie died. Not even the night when he had slipped out of his and Sara’s bed and had slept curled up on his son’s freshly covered grave. And not now. Even off world, they were unchanging. They looked different, seen from a different perspective, but they didn’t change. Not really. Some died out, of course, but new ones came along and replaced them so that only an expert would know the difference. Kind of like here on earth. The insignificant died every day, unnoticed, unmourned.

"Damn you all to hell!" But his voice drifted up and out into the thin mountain air and settled harmlessly over the houses below. He waited. Waited for someone to yell something back, or for a door to slam somewhere, or for – something, anything. Even a damn dog to bark. But nothing changed. His presence here, his grief, made no impact on the world. With a supreme effort of will, driven by the cold, Jack slowly pushed himself upright and carefully limped his way back home.

When he stepped through the front door, he could hear the television in the front room; its light flickered across the walls, dimly lighting up the hallway. He slipped off the tennis shoes, but left the jacket on, shivering slightly from the cold. Besides his knee, his head and his hands were throbbing. As he stepped into the dining room, Daniel looked up at him from the living room below.

"Jack. We were starting to worry."

He glanced at his watch, surprised to find that he’d been gone nearly three hours.

Carter stood up from the sofa and looked over the half-wall at him. "Colonel."

"Hey, Carter." Jack ducked into the kitchen and flipped on the light switch. Going to the sink, he turned on the faucet and began rinsing his hands, wincing as the cold water revived the sting. His palms were covered with cuts and gashes, but none were deep and there was very little blood. It was just uncomfortable, inconvenient.

"My God, what happened?" It was Carter. She had snuck up behind him and was looking over his shoulder.

Jack shrugged and looked over at her. "Took a tumble in the dark."

"You seem to be taking a lot of those lately." He grunted, but said nothing. "First aid kit?"

"Under the bathroom sink."

He finished washing up and carefully dried his hands on a kitchen towel. When Carter returned with the first aid kit, he was sitting at the dining room table, sipping a cold beer. Without a word, she began putting antibiotic cream on his palms and wrapping his hands. Jack watched her work as he listened to the television and to Daniel and Teal’c quietly talking in the next room.

"Hey." She laid a hand on his wrist, and Jack suddenly realized she was finished, had been for a few minutes and he had zoned out. "You okay?"

"Sure. Fine." He pulled his hands away and looked at the bandages. "Thanks."

She nodded, but continued to study him. "To be honest, you don’t look so good."

Jack smirked and took a long pull on the beer before answering. "Yeah, well, I’ve had better days."

She looked away, concentrating on putting everything back in the kit. "Is there anything I can do?"

Jack studied her profile. ‘Can you turn back time?’ That’s what he wanted to say. That’s what he needed: to turn back time to one of those forks in the road. He desperately needed the opportunity to correct a mistake he hadn’t even seen coming.

"I don’t think so. I think–," Jack swallowed. "I think it’s too late." She looked up at him, shocked, and he knew it was because it was the first time he’d ever admitted hopelessness to her. Actually, he was as shocked as she was by what had come out of his mouth, and he smiled a little to make up for it. "Don’t worry about it, Major. Just a tired, clumsy, old man feeling a little sorry for himself." Jack patted the back of her hand, then stood up and looked over into the living room, not wanting to hear her response. "So, Teal’c, what have you guys been up to while I was gone?"

* * * * *

["Do it." Hammond’s voice was soft, close, insinuating itself into his ear. Jack could feel the man’s warm breath on his cheek; it smelled of coffee and – something. Something familiar.

He sobbed. "I can’t. General, please. Don’t make me."

"Colonel O’Neill, you have your orders."

"Sir–"

Hammond grabbed Jack’s free hand, the one not holding Charlie. Jack struggled to pull free, but the General was too strong.

"Dad?" Charlie was crying now, quietly sobbing. "Dad, please."

"Oh, God." The General forced the Beretta into Jack’s hand, wrapped his fingers around the grip. The metal was so cold that it burnt his palm. Jack’s hand was shaking uncontrollably, and Hammond steadied it, holding it in his own as he leaned close, looking straight into Jack’s eyes.

"Colonel, get a grip on yourself. You can do this. And you will."

Jack couldn’t speak. He shook his head. No, no, no.]

* * * * *

He woke up crawling across the living room floor, screaming. Scrambling to get away from – something. Someone. Hammond. Orders. And Charlie! Stay away from him. Don’t get close.

"No, no, no, no." Gasping for breath, sobbing, he scurried across the floor in the dark and bumped into something. There was a loud crash and the sound of breaking glass. He kept going, vaguely aware of a burning in his hands and knees.

"Jack?"

Finally, he reached something solid. The wall. He rose up, feeling it with his hands, looking for an escape.

"Jack, is that you?"

A light came on, blinding him. Like in the dream. "No. Leave me alone!"

"My, God. Jack?"

He swung around, pressing his back against the wall, squinting over at someone. Someone walking towards him. "Please, don’t make me do it."

"Jack, it’s me. Daniel."

The man held out a hand towards him, and Jack cringed, crying softly. "He’s just a kid. Please."

"I’m not going to hurt you. Okay? See." The man held up both hands as if surrendering. "Jack, come on." He inched closer, slowly.

Jack studied him. It wasn’t Hammond. It was – "Daniel?"

"Yeah, Jack. It’s me."

"Daniel? Oh, God." Suddenly, his world tilted and Jack felt himself sliding downward. Daniel rushed forward and caught him, easing him down to the floor.

"It’s okay. It’s okay, big guy."

"What’s happening to me?"

"It was a dream. It was just a dream, Jack."

"No." He shook his head. It was more than a dream. It was a memory. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t right. Nothing was right.

"You’re bleeding." Daniel grabbed Jack’s wrists, looking at his hands. Still feeling the General’s grip, Jack struggled, tried to pull away. "Hold still. I won’t hurt you."

He was panting and sweat ran into his eyes. "I didn’t want to do it." He needed Daniel to understand. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. Hammond was making him.

"I’m going to call Janet. I think she should look at these cuts. There’s glass in them." Still holding onto his wrists, Daniel looked up at him. "Jack? Do you understand? You’ve cut your hands and your knees on the broken lamp. I need to call Janet. Okay?"

Finally, Jack looked down at the object of Daniel’s concern. The white bandages that Carter had wrapped around his hands were now torn and bloodied. Still shaking, his vision fuzzy from tears and sweat, even Jack could see that a couple of the cuts were bad. Seeing them made them hurt worse. He nodded.

"Yeah. Okay."

Daniel released his grip and patted Jack on the shoulder. "Wait here." Barefoot, he picked his way carefully across the living room, avoiding the overturned end table and the broken lamp, and went to the phone.

Jack leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to calm himself. He was suddenly tired, and felt sick to his stomach. He could hear Daniel dialing. There was a long silence filled only with Jack’s still ragged breathing. Then, trying not to think about the dream, he concentrated on the one-sided conversation.

"Janet? It’s Daniel. Sorry to wake you. No. It’s Jack. He’s – he’s hurt himself. A lamp got broke and he’s cut himself pretty badly. No. I don’t think so. I–," Jack could tell when Daniel stepped around the corner, lowering his voice, "I really don’t want to take him to the hospital. Not like this. Well, he’s pretty upset. He had another nightmare. I thought it would be best – yeah. Okay. Thanks."

He heard the soft click of the receiver, then Daniel rummaging in the kitchen. A few minutes later, he returned.

"Jack?"

He opened his eyes. Daniel was sitting on the floor in front of him, holding a towel.

"Let’s just wait for Janet, okay? She’s on her way."

Jack nodded, and let Daniel lift his bloody hands and place the towel under them to catch the blood.

"Is that okay? Do they hurt? What about your knees? They don’t look as bad as your hands."

He didn’t answer, just let Daniel fidget nervously with his wounds. He shut his eyes. He felt calmer now, but was still sick and he hurt: his head, his hands, his knees. Worse, he could feel where tears had dried on his face.

It grew quiet. Jack could hear a clock ticking somewhere, marking the passage of time that he couldn’t retrieve. Couldn’t call back. Couldn’t do over.

"You doing okay?"

Jack opened his eyes, looked at Daniel. He nodded, and closed his eyes again, seeking shelter.

The clock recommenced ticking. Finally, there was a soft tap at the door.

"That must be Janet."

Jack didn’t respond. Didn’t even open his eyes. He heard the front door open, and then their hushed voices.

"Thank God. He’s in here."

"How is he?"

"Quiet, too quiet."

Jack could hear them making their way towards him, then he felt the warmth of a human body almost, but not quite touching him.

"Colonel?"

He opened his eyes again, exhausted. Doc was kneeling in front of him. She smiled and reached out a hand to touch his forehead. Maybe she was just checking for a fever, but her touch felt nice, reassuring.

"What have you done to yourself this time?" She moved the towel and gently grasped his wrists. "I’m just going to have a look." Pulling back Carter’s bandages, she studied his hands, frowning. Then moved to his jeans; the knees were torn and blood-stained. "Well," she looked back up at him, "doesn’t look too bad. Probably doesn’t feel too great though, huh?"

He couldn’t answer. He was too tired. He’d fought too many battles today.

"Okay. Let’s get you fixed up. Uh, Daniel," she looked over her shoulder, "would you get some more light in here, and some water and clean rags, please." She moved her bag closer and rummaged through it. Jack shut his eyes as she began to work. "Why were your hands bandaged?"

He thought about not answering, then realized he was probably scaring her. And Daniel. He quietly cleared his throat. "I fell."

"You fell? When did you fall?" He shook his head; he didn’t want to get into it. "Colonel? When did you fall?"

Daniel turned on the other lights in the room. "He went for a long walk earlier, and fell down. Didn’t you, Jack?"

He looked up at Daniel, irritated that the man was talking to him like he was a child. Janet did something to his hand, and pain shot up his arm. He flinched, and tried to pull away.

"Sorry, sir." As Daniel left to get the water and rags, Fraiser looked up from removing the glass, studying Jack’s face. "Colonel? Are you feeling all right?"

Jack nodded. "Yeah. I just–"

"You just what?"

That’s what he’d like to know. He just what? Flipped out? Went a little crazy? He started to scrub a hand over his eyes, then remembered he couldn’t. He shook his head, and heard himself take an involuntary gasp. "What’s happening?"

She frowned. "You had a nightmare, and you knocked over the lamp. Cut yourself. You don’t remember that?"

He nodded. "I remember." God, he remembered all right. Hammond wrapping his hand around the sidearm. Trying to get him to – "Doc, I think I’m losing it here."

She stopped working; looked at him. "What makes you say that?"

Jack laughed softly, and indicated the room. "Take a look around you."

She did. "You had a nightmare. You had a nightmare, and you knocked over a lamp. That does not constitute ‘losing it.’"

"Is that your professional opinion?"

Janet stared at him a minute, then went back to picking glass from his palms. "Yes. It is." He watched her working. She’d told him once that it had bothered her at first, him watching everything she did. Most people looked away; they didn’t want to see the things she did to their bodies. He grimaced as she pulled out a particularly vicious looking shard of pottery. She glanced up at him. "Doing okay?"

"Yeah."

She went back to work. "You know, Colonel, you probably just need a good night’s sleep."

He quietly snorted.

"I could give you something that would help." She was avoiding his eyes; she knew how much he hated drugs.

Jack looked at the top of her head. "Yeah. Okay."

She glanced up at him, startled. "Really?"

He’d surprised her. Surprised himself.

As if wanting to take advantage of a moment of weakness, Janet stopped what she was doing and reached into her bag. She pulled out a hypodermic needle and a vial of liquid. Studying the label closely, she filled the syringe, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye as if she expected him to change his mind.

Jack realized he was still wearing the jacket he’d put on earlier when he’d gone for his walk. He tried to unzip it, but it proved more than his hands could handle. Janet put the cap on the needle, and helped him remove the jacket, tossing it onto the couch. He was still shirtless underneath. Without a word, she swabbed his arm and gave him the injection. He watched the needle going into his arm, piercing his skin. Doc capped the needle again, slipped it into a small container, and put it back in her bag. As she went back to work on his hands, Jack leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.

"Charlie."

"What about him?"

"He’s in my dream." She didn’t say anything. He was glad. It made it easier to pretend that he was talking to himself. "He’s in my dream, and he’s so – real. He’s so–." He lifted his head and looked at her. She was staring at him. "You’re there, too."

"I am?"

"Yes, and–," Jack stopped as Daniel came back in the room carrying a bowl of water and some towels.

"Here, Janet. Is this all right?"

She looked a little irritated, probably upset that Daniel had interrupted. "Yeah. That’s fine. Thank you." She turned to Jack, who sighed and leaned his head back again, closing his eyes. Shutting her out.

* * * * *

Was he ready for this? He wasn’t sure.

Jack sat in his pick-up, the engine still idling, staring out the windshield at the path that led into the heart of the forest to his favorite lookout point. Without realizing it, he flexed his hands, loosening them up. They were nearly healed. Janet was supposed to remove the stitches today. The ones on the back of his head, too. It had been a little over a week since his tumble onto Planet Pissed. If everything went according to plan, he’d be back on the active duty list as soon as he saw Fraiser.

So why didn’t he feel ready? He usually couldn’t wait to get back to work. But this time, he’d been dreading the trip up the mountain. Seriously dreading it. In fact, he’d almost called in this morning and said he wasn’t up to it yet, but that would have meant Janet coming to him and he was up to that even less. Despite his sense of dread, this seemed the lesser of two evils.

He ran the back of his hand over his forehead, wiping away a thin layer of sweat. Seems he’d been doing a lot of that lately – sweating. The kind that had nothing to do with the temperature and everything to do with nerves – or a lack of them. He wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but he had a pretty good idea: the dream. The same one. Not every night, but almost and at least every other. Often enough that he was afraid of lying down. And each time he dreamt it, it felt a little more real, a little more – desperate. It left him feeling wiped out. Grimy. Dirty. Lost.

Three times in the last week, Jack had found himself at the cemetery sitting near Charlie’s grave. Except for anniversaries and birthdays, he hadn’t done that for years. Now, he couldn’t seem to stay away. And he wasn’t sure if it was to prove that Charlie had been real, or if it was to prove that he was still dead. Not alive. Not that 10-year old boy he kept hugging in his dreams. Yesterday, he’d even thought about visiting Sara, and he had no idea what compelled that urge. Fortunately, he’d come to his senses before actually doing it.

A tap on the window near his head made him jump. It was Carter. Cursing under his breath, Jack shut off the motor and opened the door.

"Hey, Carter."

"Colonel. You okay? You looked kind of out of it there."

"Yeah. Fine. You just getting here?" It was nearly 0900. Usually Carter was here before daylight, if she left at all.

"I had some errands to run. Thought I’d better get them done before SG-1 goes back in rotation." They walked towards the entrance. "So, ready to get back to work?"

"Sure. Why not."

Carter looked over at him. "You don’t sound too thrilled."

They entered the building. Jack offered a tight smile to the guard on duty, signing his name to the security log and waiting as Carter did the same before heading for the elevator.

"Oh, I’m thrilled, Major."

They entered the car and headed down, switching elevators on Level 11, where they once again checked in with the guard. They stepped into the second car and Jack punched in Level 21 for himself, then looked at Carter.

"My lab," she responded to his unanswered question.

He punched in 19 and leaned back against the wall. "So, what’s on the agenda today?"

"We’re going to take another look at P1S-S3D."

"Pissed."

She nodded, smiling. "Yeah. The General still wants us to check it out."

"Why?"

"Well, um, different reasons. Because we detec–"

"No. I mean, why do you think the MALP readings were so," he searched for the right word, "off?"

"I’m not sure. The weather readings weren’t the only things off, though. Radar showed signs of life that didn’t correspond with the video feed."

"Life such as?"

"Such as people. Bodies moving around."

"Crap."

She laughed softly as the car came to a stop. "What?"

"Oh, I don’t know. Just thinking" The doors slid open and as he spoke, Sam stepped out, keeping a hand in the door to hold it open while she waited for him to finish. He shook his head, waving her on. "Just hoping they’re not, you know, invisible or something."

Sam stared back at him, obviously deep in thought. "I hadn’t thought of that."

"No?" He waited for her to move. "Carter. Carter!" She jumped, looking at him. Jack pointed at his watch. "I have an appointment."

"Oh." She pulled her hand away, letting the doors shut. As they closed, he heard her murmur, "Sorry, sir."

Jack smiled to himself. He loved giving Carter something to think about. It happened so rarely. And it was usually something like this where she had her head wrapped around scientific and technical theories, causing her to totally lose sight of the simple basics. Unfortunately, thinking in simple, down to earth terms was never something he’d had a problem with. He frowned. Except when it came to his own life, that is. That was a whole other ballgame.

* * * * *

Janet Fraiser stood between his legs and leaned close. He could feel her breath against the corner of his mouth. This was the closest thing to intimacy with a woman that he’d experienced in almost two months. Jack swallowed, and licked his dry lips.

"So," she moved the penlight to his other eye, "how have you been sleeping?" Apparently happy with what she’d found, or not found, she took a step back but was still close enough that his knees brushed against her small waist.

"Uh, on my stomach mostly. Curled up, butt in the air." Janet opened her mouth to speak, and Jack held up a hand, silencing her. "I know, I know. Worst thing in the world for my back. To say nothing of my knees. But–," he shrugged, forcing a tight smile.

"Colonel, I think you know that’s not what I meant."

"Yeah." He looked away, then back up at her. "Alone, okay? I’ve been sleeping alone."

Janet put her hands on her hips and frowned at him.

Jack sighed softly. "I’ve been – sleeping."

"Nightmares?"

He swallowed again, for a different reason this time. "Nightmare. Singular."

Janet turned away, picking up his chart, making a note, and then fiddling with something that he couldn’t see. "Charlie?" Her voice was soft, but steady.

Jack flinched as if she’d struck him. He’d forgotten he’d told her. Twice. It wasn’t his fault really. He’d been drugged both times, and wasn’t quite himself. "Yeah." As she turned back to face him, he rolled his head, loosening his tight neck muscles. "So, I hear Daniel’s good to go."

Janet smiled at him. "Yeah. I released him four days ago. He’s fine." She slid her hand under his t-shirt, placing her stethoscope against his chest. As she listened, she studied his face. "Deep breath."

He did, staring at a vague spot on the wall beyond her shoulder. Still, he could see her watching him. She removed the stethoscope, and he pulled his shirt back down.

"You look tired." She jotted something on his chart, then turned back to him. "How have you been feeling? Any headaches, nausea, dizziness?"

"Nope."

She smiled. "And your knee?" As she spoke, she examined his leg, flexing it and feeling with her fingers around the joint.

"Fine. Even went for a short run yesterday."

She stopped what she was doing, and glared at him. "Please tell me you’re lying."

"O-kay. I’m lying," he dead-panned. But he wasn’t. After spending three hours sitting on a bench, staring at Charlie’s headstone, he’d felt the need to move, to escape. He’d driven home and changed into his running clothes, hitting the trails up behind his house. It hadn’t been the easiest, most pain-free 8 miles he’d ever run, but it hadn’t been the worst either.

"Colonel, we’ve been over this before. Running is very hard on your body. Especially for someone–"

"My age?" He raised his eyebrows, daring her to continue.

"For someone with knees like yours."

Jack straightened his leg, looked at it. "What’s wrong with my knees? You trying to tell me I have ugly legs?"

Janet snorted softly. "I’m serious. No more running. Got that?"

He snapped a salute that would have made Hammond proud. Hammond. Jack shivered slightly. "So. Am I out of here?"

"The cuts on your hands have healed nicely, but make sure you keep the incisions clean. Same with your head. And no rough stuff yet. I want you to be careful. It wouldn’t hurt you to wear a helmet through the gate, you know. I don’t want you taking any chances on another knock on the head any time soon. Let me know if you have any problems with headaches or nausea–"

"Or dizziness or yada, yada. Yeah, I know all that. So, am I a free man?"

Janet studied his face again. "Yes. You are. But," as he hopped off the bed, she placed a hand on his arm, "try to get some sleep. If you’d like, I can give you a prescription for something."

"I’m fine."

"Colonel–"

"Really. I’m fine." He started pulling on his trousers. She turned to leave, then stopped at the door.

"And, sir? Really, I mean it. No running."

One leg in his pants, Jack looked at her, smiling innocently. "Yes, ma’am."

After getting dressed, Jack headed to his office. Sitting down behind his desk, he eyed his in-box and sighed. "Crap." Seems like every quarterly report, requisition request, and evaluation form that he ever had to sign off on always came due when he was out on an extended mission or medical leave. If he were in his office for days on end, the paperwork trickled in. But let him be gone for a day or two, and he returned to an influx of paper that rivaled a mother ship in size. Okay, a task like this called for coffee. A lot of coffee.

His knee twinging only slightly, he made his way to the mess hall. Fortunately, Natasha was working in the kitchen today. Natasha was shy, around 20 years old, and according to Sam, had a huge crush on him. If Carter were right, he couldn’t help but wonder what the hell a cute kid like Natasha saw in an old guy like him. Still, he couldn’t help feeling a little full of himself, and a little guilty, as he begged an entire carafe of fresh coffee from her. Carrying his own pot of black gold, he made it back to his office without having to speak to anyone else, and shut the door. Blowing the dust out of his favorite cup, he poured himself a cup of the dark brew and settled down to work on his in-box.

He’d been at it for over two hours when someone knocked on his door. He finished typing a comment on Lt. Harris’ evaluation form before switching the computer screen over to another program operating in the background. "Come."

"Jack?" Daniel cracked the door open, peeking around it.

"Hey."

"Sam said you were back, but I wasn’t sure." He entered the room and shut the door behind him. "I haven’t seen you all day."

"Yeah, well–," Jack waved at his in-box. "Playing catch-up."

"Yuck." Daniel sat down across from him. "No need to ask how it’s going then."

"It’s going. You?"

"Oh," Daniel yawned and stretched elaborately, propping his feet on Jack’s desk, "I’ve been keeping busy actually. You know, don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s kind of nice when you have to take medical leave. It gives the rest of us a chance to catch up on our backlog."

"Well, thank you. I do what I can."

"Can’t argue with that."

Jack lifted Daniel’s feet off a stack of requisition sheets he’d spent an hour and a half completing, and stacked them on the floor beside his chair. "If memory serves, that last ‘incident’ wasn’t entirely my fault."

"You’re never going to forgive me for that, are you?"

He chuckled and turned his chair around, refilling his cup. Without asking, he blew dust out of another cup and poured one for Daniel, as well.

"Oh, I came to tell you, Hammond’s called a briefing."

Jack’s hand trembled slightly as he set the carafe down and pushed the cup of coffee over to Daniel. "Yeah. About what?"

"Planet Pissed." In response, Jack nodded, but said nothing. "Those crazy environmental readings have been driving Sam crazy." Daniel laughed softly, sipping the coffee. "She won’t admit it, but she’s spent nearly all week trying to figure out why the MALP was so screwed up."

Jack mumbled. "It’s not a big deal."

"I know that. Try telling her." He set down his cup, and stood up. "Anyway, guess we’d better go."

"What?" Jack looked at him, startled.

"Hammond. Briefing."

Jack didn’t move.

Daniel waved a hand in front of his friend’s face. "Hel-lo. Earth to Jack."

"What?" He didn’t intend to sound mad, but he did.

"Hammond wants to see us."

"Yeah. Okay. Uh–," Jack looked at his computer, then pulled open his desk drawer searching for something. "You go ahead." He shut the drawer and stood up. "Uh, men’s room. I’ll catch up."

"Sure."

Daniel left. Jack stared at the open doorway, his heart racing and a fine layer of sweat beading up on his forehead. He wiped it away, then walked down the hall to the bathroom. He walked over to one of the urinals and stood there. Stretching out his hands, Jack studied the slight tremor. He squeezed his hands into fists and pressed them firmly against the wall. He was sweating again, and was almost breathless. What the hell was wrong with him?

When he heard someone else enter the bathroom, he straightened up and forced himself to empty his bladder before walking over to the sink. He meticulously scrubbed his hands, then shutting off the faucet, glanced up at himself in the mirror. His face was pale. He had dark circles under his eyes. Had those been there all day? He didn’t remember seeing them this morning, but then again, he hadn’t looked. God, he looked old. Haunted.

"Excuse me. Sir?"

Jack flinched and glanced at the young airman standing behind him. The man nodded towards the sink.

"Oh. Sorry." Jack stepped away and dried his hands. Leaving the bathroom, he headed for the briefing room. The closer he got, the faster his heart beat, the faster the beads of sweat formed. Too soon, he stood outside the doors. Taking a deep breath, he wiped away what he hoped was the last of the sweat from his forehead before entering.

"Colonel. Glad you decided to join us." Hammond didn’t sound too upset.

"Sorry, sir." Jack didn’t look at him as he took his usual seat between Teal’c and the General.

"Major Carter was telling us her theory of what happened on P1S-S3D."

There was a slight pause, and Jack realized they were probably waiting on him to make his ‘pissed’ comment. Instead, he wiped away another bead of sweat that was running down his left temple.

"Uh, yes. Anyway, as I was saying, I think the Colonel may be right."

He looked up at Carter’s comment. "Me?"

"Yes, sir. This morning. What you said about the life forms not being visible to the naked eye." That wasn’t exactly what he’d said, but that’s probably what Carter had heard. Or, she was just being kind. Either way, he wasn’t going to argue the point. "What if things on the planet are out of phase? Even slightly."

"Reetou," Jack breathed softly. He immediately thought of the other Charlie, which brought to mind the real one, the original one.

"Yes, sir."

"So, we go in with TER’s." Trying to keep his mind focused on the task at hand, he glanced over at Hammond out of habit, then quickly looked away.

"Wait a minute, Jack." Daniel sat up in his chair. "We can’t just assume these life forms are hostile. Just because they’re out of phase like the Reetou, it doesn’t mean they act or think like them." He looked at Sam. "Does it?"

She shook her head. "No. But–"

"But," Jack cut in, "I’d rather go in expecting Reetou, armed with TER’s, and find – Nox, than the other way around."

"But Teal’c didn’t sense–"

"Teal’c doesn’t have a symbiote any more, Daniel!" He hadn’t meant to yell, but that’s how it came out. Jack leaned back, sighing and wiping a shaking hand across his forehead. More sweat.

"Colonel?" Hammond sounded concerned.

Jack looked down at the table in front of him. "Sorry, sir."

"Are you all right?"

Jack tried to ignore him. Just like he tried to ignore the way his hands were trembling and the way the sweat continued to bead up on his forehead. Just like he tried to ignore the uncomfortable silence that permeated the room. He nodded abruptly. "Yes, sir. Fine."

The silence continued for a moment longer, before Carter cleared her throat. "So, we go in with TER’s, General. Just in case."

"On second thought, maybe Jack’s right, sir." Without looking, Jack knew Daniel’s eyes were on him as he spoke. "I guess it’s best to be – cautious."

"Teal’c? Your thoughts?"

"I agree, General Hammond. We should return, armed with TER’s. There is no way to know if my use of tretonin and lack of a symbiote will still enable me to detect the presence of the Reetou."

"But you didn’t sense anything while we were there."

"I did not, Major Carter. However, perhaps there were none in the immediate vicinity."

Jack swallowed, and forced himself to look at Hammond, if only briefly. "SG-1 would like the mission, sir."

Staring over the General’s shoulder, Jack was aware that Hammond was studying him, assessing him. "All right, Colonel. You have a go for tomorrow morning. 0800."

"Thank you, sir."

Hammond looked around the table, then nodded. "Dismissed."

Jack shot up from his chair and was the first one out of the room.

* * * * *

If he hadn’t been waiting for a call from his granddaughter Kayla, George Hammond would have ripped the telephone cord out of the wall. It was late, and he was tired and cranky, and entirely too fed up with politicians. On that day years ago when Apophis had opened Earth’s Stargate, George had thought that the Goa’uld were going to be the bane of his and Earth’s existence. He was wrong. The Goa’uld they could deal with – some C4, a bit of ammo, problem solved. Politicians, on the other hand. . . . You couldn’t live with them, and you couldn’t kill them. Not legally anyway. But, God knows he’d been sorely tempted numerous times over the last few years.

Pushing his chair back from his desk, he leaned back and sighed deeply. How many times would he be required to defend the SGC and its actions to people who had no concept of what his people were doing: defending Earth – watching out for the unsuspecting masses, even the politicians. Sometimes when he watched his kids coming back through the gate, battered and exhausted and at the end of their rope, he was ashamed of the treatment they received at the hands of their own government. It reminded him of the Vietnam veterans who had managed to live through the unimaginable, only to come home to be spit on and jeered at and made to feel as if they’d done something wrong, horrific.

A soft knock on his office door startled him out of his thoughts. He cleared his throat. "Come."

As Janet Fraiser stepped into his office, he felt his anger suddenly dissipate.

"You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Yes, Doctor. Come in. Have a seat."

His CMO shut the door and took a seat across the desk from him. As she settled herself, Hammond studied her. Like him, she looked tired. The demands of working at the SGC were trying, on all of them.

"General," Fraiser smiled slightly, prodding him.

"Yes." He pulled himself up further in his seat. "How are things in your world, Doctor?"

"Things have been rather quiet this week, sir. For a change."

"Well, that’s especially good to hear."

"Yes, sir."

Hammond reached over on his desk and straightened an errant piece of paper, aligning it on a stack of other, identical looking papers. He stared at the fine print, unable to read it from this angle, but it didn’t matter. His thoughts were elsewhere.

"Is something wrong, General?"

"Hmm? Oh, no. Nothing." He looked at her. "So, tell me about Colonel O’Neill."

"Sir?"

Hammond was not unaware of how protective Dr. Fraiser could be of her patients. But, she also knew her place in the hierarchy of the SGC. Doctor-patient privilege went only so far here, and she knew it. He smiled at her, admiring her acting skills. "Doctor, it’s late. I’m sure we’ve both had a long day, so I think we can dispense with the usual two step, and get right down to it." She gave him a blank look, and he leaned back in his chair, immediately losing the smile. "Do we have a problem with Colonel O’Neill?"

"The Colonel’s concussion was nothing serious, General. And the injuries to his hands have healed nicely. I don’t think there’s anything to worry–"

Hammond sat up, placing both hands palms down on his desk, effectively silencing her. "I think we both know that’s not my concern, Doctor." Janet met his gaze, then glanced away, studying her hands. "I need to know if there’s a problem with the Colonel. Because the Jack O’Neill that sat at my briefing table a few hours ago had all the markings of someone who’s been rode hard and put up wet way too many times."

"Sir," Janet met his gaze, "since SG-1's return from P1S-S3D, the Colonel has been having problems – sleeping. He’s been having nightmares."

Hammond studied her closely, his mind already jumping ahead. "Anything else?"

At his dismissive tone, a look of anger flashed across her face and he waited, making sure she’d said all she was going to say. He could tell by her eyes what she was thinking. One word, two little syllables: McKenzie. Jack’s arch-nemesis. Well, one of them anyway.

Despite the fact that neither of them spoke the word aloud, he smiled. "I’m sure it won’t come to that."

"Why?"

"Doctor?"

"Why are you so sure that it won’t come to that, sir?" Janet studied her lap again for a moment; he could almost see her gathering her thoughts, making a decision about what she could say and what she should hold back. "Because you’ve seen his file?"

Hammond snorted softly, holding back a laugh that held no humor, only bitterness. "Partly. And partly because Colonel O’Neill won’t let it come to that."

"Yes, sir." She looked at him and when she spoke her voice was oddly cold, almost mimicking. "After all, nightmares are nothing new to Jack O’Neill. He’s suffered through far worse than bad dreams."

He nodded.

"Given time, he’ll be fi–," she stopped, unable to keep up the charade. "Given time, he’ll be back to his usual self. Right, sir?"

Time. He frowned and stared at the telephone, his hands clenching. He had higher-ups breathing down his neck, throwing conniptions, demanding results. But, that wasn’t something the good doctor needed to know.

"I’m afraid, Doctor, time is not something we have in abundance. I need the Colonel out there. Yesterday. Is he ready to lead SG-1?"

Fraiser met his glance, then pursed her lips and nodded, frowning slightly. "Colonel O’Neill won’t let you down, sir."

Hammond sighed heavily at her non-answer. "Of that I have no doubt."

* * * * *

["Oh, God." The General forced the Beretta into Jack’s hand, wrapped his fingers around the grip. The metal was so cold that it burnt his palm. Jack’s hand was shaking uncontrollably, and Hammond steadied it, holding it in his own as he leaned close, looking straight into Jack’s eyes.

"Colonel, get a grip on yourself. You can do this. And you will."

Jack couldn’t speak. He shook his head. No, no, no.

"You can, and you will," Hammond repeated.

"No–no, sir." Jack’s voice was weak, pitiful.

"You did it once before, Jack. Remember how easy it was?" He shook his head, but Hammond merely smiled. "Here, I’ll help you."

Jack cried out – a wordless, pathetic sob of desperation and denial.

"Dad!" Charlie was trying to get away, but Jack refused to let go of his arm. He had to protect him. It was his last chance. He’d screwed it up before – years ago. He had to get it right this time. "I want mom."

Jack felt his arm bending under the force of Hammond’s iron grip, the muzzle of the 9mm inexorably turning towards Charlie. Jack was straining, sweating, shaking. He fought with everything he had. He looked up, caught the General’s eye.

"Sir. I’m – begging you." It was hard to speak; it took all of his strength to fight against the hands wrapped around his own. "I beg you. Please. Don’t do this."

The General stared back at him, emotionless. "You have your orders, Colonel." He smiled, almost kindly, not showing the slightest effects of their struggles.

"Dad?" Charlie clawed at Jack’s shoulder. "Dad, please. I love you, dad. I–I missed you. Please. Don’t hurt me. Let’s just go. Can we go?"

Jack stared in disbelief as the tip of the sidearm nudged against the tender flesh of Charlie’s left temple. His son’s eyes widened, teared up. Charlie’s mouth moved, tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks, raining across the constellations.

"I’m scared, dad."]

* * * * *

Hours later, Charlie’s words still rang in his ears.

"Colonel O’Neill?" Although he didn’t recognize the voice, the tone of disbelief was nevertheless unmistakable.

Bleary-eyed, Jack looked up from the report he’d been staring at. "Uh," hell, what was her name? "DeWitt."

"Judy." She stood across the table from him, one hand wrapped around a Colorado Rockies insulated mug, and the other holding a small paper plate covered with the largest doughnut he’d ever seen.

Jack nodded. "Judy." She was one of Janet’s best nurses. This woman had seen him naked about as often as Sara had. Well, that might be stretching it a bit. But not by much.

"Aren’t you here a little early, sir?"

Okay, officially, that made nine. The guard at the gate, the guard at the front desk, the guard on the 11th floor, two airmen in the corridor on the way to his office, one on the way from his office to the mess hall, and two members of the cafeteria night shift. Now, Judy. Nine people who had asked him the exact same question in almost the exact same words.

Jack glanced up at the clock on the far wall. Just after 0330 hours. He and Judy were the only patrons at the moment; the other tables were empty. "Yeah. A bit. You?"

She smiled and shrugged. "I’m pulling a double shift. Covering for Nancy. Her mom’s been sick, and she flew down to stay with her for a few days."

Jack nodded like he had a clue who she was talking about. "That’s too bad."

"She’ll be fine." Judy stood there a moment, looking at him, then shifted her weight. "Well, I’d better get to work."

Jack smiled. "Yeah. Have a good day."

"Hope we don’t see you later," she smiled back at him, looking young. Very young. And energetic.

Jack watched her leave. A huge honkin’ doughnut and a tight little ass. She probably didn’t work out either. Life was so unfair. Rubbing his eyes, he looked back down at Carter’s report. He’d read it, but honest to God, he couldn’t remember a thing it said. Leaning his elbows on the table, he rested his head in his hands. He’d been up for over two hours. After the dream, he’d prowled his house for 30 minutes before deciding he might as well do something productive. He’d dressed and driven to the mountain. Once here, he’d tried to finish the evaluations, but his mind was so screwed up and fuzzy from lack of sleep and – other things, that he knew it wasn’t fair for him to evaluate anyone else’s performance. So, he’d grabbed Carter’s report on Planet Pissed, and had headed here to the mess hall for some coffee. Where, apparently, he’d been staring at page 4 of 16 for – he looked back up at the clock – 40 minutes.

"More coffee, sir?"

"No." He shook his head, and waved the man away. "Better not. Thanks." Jack stared as the guy headed back to the kitchen. God, when had they all gotten so young? Did that kid even shave? Did his parents know he was out this late? Shaking his head and grabbing Carter’s report, Jack stood up and left the mess hall.

He wandered the nearly deserted hallways, not really wanting to go to his office. He certainly didn’t want to go to the gate room or the infirmary or the briefing room. Nor did he have any desire to lose himself in the bowels of the sublevels hidden away below Level 28. Finally, he found himself headed for the locker room. Tossing Carter’s report onto a bench, he wandered over to the sink and washed his hands, studiously avoiding his reflection in the mirror.

Drying off, he sat down on the bench in front of his locker. Stared at it for God only knows how long before realizing he was about to doze off sitting upright. He stretched, trying to work the kinks from his back, and noticed a stack of magazines on the floor beneath the bench. He picked them up and set them beside him, looking through them.

Seven outdated issues of Archaeology Magazine. "Who could you guys possibly belong to?" he mumbled. Give you one guess, O’Neill. Smiling, one issue caught his eye. Jack picked it up, studying the cover: a bright red banner across the top and a picture of a stone whatchamacallit, fresco or something, of three men across the bottom. "The World of Paul," he read aloud. Good lord! "1996?" He looked again. Yep. November/December 1996. Daniel really took the antiquities thing to heart.

Jack turned, straddling the bench and leaned over, his head resting on one hand while with the other he leafed through the old issue. One article grabbed his attention. It was called ‘Race Against Time,’ about a huge dam being built on the Yangtze River in China. According to the article, it was supposed to be 1.2 miles wide and 607 feet high when it was done, which wouldn’t be for at least 13 years. Jack’s tired brain fumbled with the numbers. Old as the magazine was, 40,000 workers were still working to complete that dam. He kept reading, cussing under his breath as he read about the number of towns that would be submerged by the resulting 370 mile-long reservoir.

He quickly skimmed the remainder of the article where it talked about all the archaeological evidence that would be lost under the floodwaters, then resumed leafing through the magazine. Flipping through the still glossy pages, his numb brain saw something and he turned back a page or two.

‘Inka Child Sacrifice.’ He felt his pulse jump slightly as he stared at the title. He started to turn the page, move on, but he was drawn back. ‘The mummified body of a seven-year-old girl has been found atop the 18,070-foot Andean peak Sara Sara in southern Peru. The young girl, dubbed "Sarita," was sacrificed more than 500 years ago as an offering to Inka gods. . . .’

"Shit!" He slapped the magazine shut, and rubbed his face. Jack sat in silence. Then, tentatively, he reached down and opened the book again. It fell open to the same page, and he pulled his hand away, absently wiping it on his BDU’s.

‘Found in a fetal position, Sarita had been placed on the platform. . . .’

Without otherwise moving, Jack shut his eyes, taking deep breaths. When he opened them again, the opening sentence of the final paragraph captured his attention. ‘Because Sarita had been left on the sun-drenched east face of the mountain, her body had decomposed.’

He read the sentence four times before hurling the offending publication across the length of the room. It slapped loudly, but harmlessly against the cement wall, and fell to the floor, its pages splayed out like a limp fan. He stared at it, his heart racing.

"Assholes." How could someone do that to a child? Groaning, pressing his hands against his temples, he lay back on the bench and stared up at the ceiling. It blurred. He blinked, forcing a single tear to run across each temple and disappear into his hairline. Sniffing once, he shut his eyes. Sarita was a pretty name. At least she had that, even if it wasn’t her real one. He wondered vaguely what her mother had called her. When they laid her on the platform, had she been awake? Struggling? Drugged? Crying for her mom? For her dad?

"Freakin’ bastards," it was said quietly, and was soon followed by one arm slipping off his stomach and dropping against the cold tile floor.

* * * * *

Jack was instantly awake, but he didn’t move. He wasn’t sure where he was, but it was somewhere unfamiliar. Eyes closed, he was aware of someone talking softly in the background, as he tried to remember where he’d made his bed this time. It was a problem most people didn’t have to deal with. They went to bed in their bed, in their home, every night. He, on the other hand, was so accustomed to making his bed wherever he happened to fall, whether on the floor, on the ground, on a bed – any bed, be it in the good old US of A or on foreign or alien soil, that the concept of trying to figure out where he was, was normal. It was sad, but true. So, he didn’t panic. He merely lay there narrowing down the endless possibilities before giving away to whomever might be observing that he was awake and aware.

He was obviously laying on something hard and narrow – a ledge? Unlikely, because his legs were bent with his knees level with his waist and his feet were resting on a smooth, hard surface – which was killing his lower back, by the way. Both arms were also dangling off to the sides, and the backs of his hands were resting against something smooth and cold. Concrete? Tile? So, whatever it was, it was narrow and hard – very hard – and beneath it was a smooth, probably man- or alien-made surface.

"How long has he been like that?"

The voice was faint, and although Jack could barely make out the words, it sounded distinctly human. That had to be a good thing, right?

"Who knows?"

A different voice, and a very good question. Jack waited to see if an answer was forthcoming.

"I found him like this over half an hour ago."

A female this time. This could prove – interesting.

"Should we wake him?"

Might wanna be careful doing that. Could prove hazardous to your health.

Jack heard a soft bark of laughter.

"What?" It was the female again. "We can’t just leave him there."

"You might want to wake him from across the room, that’s all."

Wait a minute, that sounded a lot like Daniel.

"Well, that’s why I came to get you, Dr. Jackson. We thought – well, we thought you could do it." It was the other male voice.

There was a moment of silence. Jack continued to keep his breathing even. Just because he’d heard Daniel, it didn’t explain where he was. Or why.

"Jack?" Daniel was standing a little closer now from the sound of things. "Jack!"

Okay. Time to face the music, or the aliens, or the irate husband. Taking a deep breath, Jack opened his eyes and found himself staring up at a distinctly grey ceiling. Only the SGC had ceilings that color. Damn! The locker room.

He sat up, groaning at the muscle spasms which traversed the length of his spine, and the deep ache which had settled in his hips, knees, and shoulders. "Crap." He was now facing the back wall and a weird looking fan-thingy laying on the floor. He looked down at his bed – the friggin’ bench.

"Jack?"

He looked over at Daniel, who had braved approaching to within a few feet of him. "Daniel." He managed to sound more awake than he was, as he blinked sleep from his gritty eyes. "What’s up?"

"What’s up?" Daniel smiled at him, incredulous, then looked back over at whomever was standing out of Jack’s range of vision. "I think we should be asking you that."

Jack tried to look behind him to see who was there, but a crick in his neck prevented it. He gasped slightly and reached up an aching arm to rub his neck muscles. "Why?"

"Why?" Daniel’s grin went even broader. "Jack, you’re sleeping in the locker room. On a," he gestured towards his friend’s impromptu bed, "on a bench."

"Yeah. So?" Jack stood, his knees popping loudly. Carter’s report had fallen to the floor, and too late, he realized he was standing on it. He stared down at it, wishing he’d seen it before he’d gotten upright. Now he was going to have to bend down to pick it up; couldn’t leave it laying around for just anyone to see. Postponing the inevitable, he glanced over to see who else had witnessed his little cat nap. Two young airmen. She looked vaguely familiar; he couldn’t place the guy at all.

"Sir." The girl looked tense. Then again, finding the 2IC of your base crashed out, sawing logs, on a bench in the locker room would probably do that to a person.

"Airman." He nodded over at her, then leaned down and bracing one hand on the bench, managed to extricate the report from under his boot. He stood back up, biting his lip against the full-body ache that had wrapped itself around him during his sleep. He really shouldn’t have done that – for more reasons than one.

He rolled Carter’s report into a tube and stuffed it into his back pocket, sauntering over to the sink like it was any other day of the week. He’d learned a long time ago that the most important part of being an officer was maintaining the attitude, no matter what the circumstances. He scrubbed his hands, then splashed cold water on his face.

"So, Daniel," he grabbed a towel from the stack near the shower room and dried his face and hands, "what time is it? Time to visit Planet Pissed?" Jack was happy to see the two airmen, looking uncomfortable, wander off to their lockers. He headed for the door, knowing Daniel would follow.

"It’s almost 0600."

Shit. No wonder he was sore. That meant he’d been laying there nearly two hours. It also meant that he had about the same amount of time within which to eat breakfast, check in for his pre-mission physical, get geared up, and double check the ordnance. Thankfully, he’d turned in the ordnance list at the armory on his way to the mess hall in the middle of the night.

"How ‘bout some breakfast, Daniel? I’m buying."

"Sure. I was headed there anyway when Grant came to get me. Speaking of which – sleeping in the locker room?"

* * * * *

Jack was tired of sitting on the exam table, so he lay back, drawing up his legs and throwing an arm over his eyes to block out the light. With his other hand, he tapped a restless beat on his stomach. Newsflash: Three hours of interrupted sleep was not enough. Not even for him. Especially not over the long haul. He realized the drumbeat was slowing, had stopped, and he was beginning to doze off. He lowered his arm, exposing his eyes to the bright infirmary lights, and picked up the tempo of the beat, with both hands now. A minute later, he added in a toe tap for good measure.

"Colonel." Fraiser stepped inside the curtained off area around the bed. When she saw him starting to sit up, she held out a hand. "That’s okay. Just stay there."

He sat up anyway. "Bout time."

"Good morning to you, too, sir." Without looking at him, she smiled pleasantly, and picked up his chart.

"So, what? You were delivering a baby?"

Doc looked up at him, her smile still intact, but a bit tighter. "If you must know, sir, I was called in for an emergency at Academy Hospital early this morning. Major Griff was in a car accident."

Jack looked down, studied his left boot, then reached down and wiped off an invisible smudge.

"The Major is fine, by the way. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your concern."

He glanced back up at her. Even playing the role of insubordinate bitch, she managed to take the higher road. "Is he really okay?"

Janet stared at him a moment, then smiled again, setting down the chart. "Yes. He’s fine. Now," she pulled out her stethoscope, "let’s see if we can say the same about you."

Twenty minutes later, he’d been poked, prodded, stabbed, folded, violated, and she still wasn’t done.

"What the hell?" Jack pulled away as Fraiser prodded, for the third time this morning, the recently healed incision on the back of his head.

"Colonel, if you would hold still. . ."

"Hold still? I’ve been sitting here, holding still, for the last hour."

She sighed and stepped back, glancing at the clock on the wall over the bed. "You’ve been here less than 20 minutes."

"Well," Jack wiped sweat from his forehead, "it feels like a lot longer. Especially from this angle."

"Sir. . ."

"I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you sit here, and I’ll stand there and poke you."

Janet grinned. "Well, that’s the best offer I’ve had in weeks. Sir."

Jack flushed slightly as he realized how that had sounded. "Dammit, you know what I mean."

The curtain parted and DeWitt entered, carrying a small stack of papers. "Dr. Fraiser, here’s the Colonel’s bloodwork from last week." She smiled over at Jack. "Good morning, sir. Again."

Jack nodded, still frowning uncomfortably over his ‘poking’ remark. "Yeah. Morning."

Fraiser studied the papers, glancing briefly at Jack. "Judy, I take it you’ve met Colonel Grouch."

Jack glared at her.

"Oh, yes. I mean – well, Colonel O’Neill and I met over breakfast. Or was it dinner, sir? It has been a while." As Judy glanced at her watch and opened her mouth to speak, Jack cringed. "Nearly four hours, actually." She smiled brightly, innocently. "Almost lunchtime, hey, Colonel?" then disappeared around the curtain the way she’d come.

He could only pray Doc hadn’t noticed.

"You’ve been here four hours?"

No such luck, of course. He didn’t answer.

"Well, guess that explains why you’re so happy."

"So, can I go?"

"To the planet? Or home?"

He cocked his head. She wouldn’t. "You wouldn’t."

"Wouldn’t I?"

Jack felt the blood rush to his face. "Listen–"

"No, you listen. Sir." Janet drew herself up to her full height, lacking as it was. "General Hammond may be the head of this facility, but I am the CMO. Despite what you or he may think, I’m the one who ultimately decides that someone is fit for duty. Or not. What I am looking at is someone who is physically and mentally drained."

Anger evident in the hardening of his face and in the precision of his movements, Jack hopped off the exam table and began tucking his shirt in his trousers.

"Colonel, we are not finished here." Fraiser’s voice shook slightly.

"We’re done," he mumbled.

"Excuse me?"

"I said, we’re done!"

The curtain parted and a wide-eyed Daniel appeared. "Uh, excuse me. Is everything okay?"

Janet glared at him, and Jack looked away, fumbling with his belt.

"I’ll be with you in a minute, Dr. Jackson."

Daniel took the hint and disappeared. When Fraiser turned back to face Jack, her tone was softer, quieter.

"Sir, I think–"

"Doc," he shut his eyes and took a deep breath, calming himself, before looking over at her, "don’t do this."

"Colonel, you’re exhausted. How can I, in good conscience, clear you for a mission when you’re obviously hanging on by a thread?"

"I’m okay. Really." At her look of disbelief, he reached over and lightly touched her arm. "You’re right. I’m tired. But other than that, I’m fine."

"You need rest."

"Yeah. I do. And I need to do something. I’ve been sitting around for over a week doing nothing. You know me." She glanced up at him. "If I honestly thought I wasn’t okay to lead my team through the gate, I’d be the first to admit it. I just–," he scrubbed a hand across his face, then looked back up at her. "I need to do this. I have to. Please."

Fraiser stared at him, obviously debating something with herself. Finally, she looked down at the chart in her hands. Pulling a pen from her pocket, she made a notation on his chart before looking back up at him. "God help me, sir, if you so much as skin your knee, I will never forgive myself. Do you hear me?"

Jack smiled at her. "Understood. No skinned knees." He started to walk away, but stopped and looked back at her. "Thank you."

* * * * *

Geared up, his P90 dangling from his vest, Jack faced the ramp. Watching the blue event horizon shimmer liquidly, his stomach churned. But it wasn’t brought on by the wormhole. It was the room itself. This is where it happened. Right here, where he was standing. This is where Charlie came alive. This is where he – Jack flinched slightly and tugged his cap lower on his head.

He felt the skin on the back of his neck tingling because the man who caused it all was standing somewhere above and behind him. Looking down on him. Eyes drilling into the back of his neck. Jack had to keep reminding himself that that other Hammond wasn’t real; this Hammond, the real one, would never ask that of him. Still feeling slightly unsettled, Jack took his sunglasses out of his pocket and wiped them off with his fingers before slipping the cord around his neck and settling the glasses in place on the bridge of his nose.

Eyes hidden behind dark lenses, he looked over at his team. Carter was studying the TER which she held in her right hand; Teal’c was his usual stoic self, staff weapon held in one hand like a damned walking stick, the other hand wrapped around his own TER, patiently waiting for permission to proceed. Daniel Jackson stared back at him.

"Daniel. Problem?"

"Huh? No. No problem." Jackson shrugged his backpack into a better position and looked away.

Jack watched him a moment longer, then looked back at the Stargate. Just keep your eyes straight ahead, flyboy. Forget about the rest of it. Concentrate. But it was difficult. Especially after his morning so far. Let’s see, we start with his performance in the locker room. You know, his own little theatre in the round – the drama where he woke up surrounded by an audience. Then, we proceed to the even better episode involving himself and the Doc duking it out in the infirmary. When he’d stepped out of the curtained off area around the exam table, to his dismay Jack had found that not only was there a room full of nurses, but all the members of his team were awaiting their own exams and had heard every word exchanged between him and Fraiser. Lovely. Just friggin’ beautiful.

"SG-1, you have a go."

Jack grimaced as Hammond’s voice echoed over the speakers. Grasping his P90, he motioned his team forward, and looked down at the base of the ramp, for a brief second seeing Charlie staring up at him. Then, waving an acknowledging hand to the control room, he stepped up on the ramp without looking back.

"Colonel O’Neill?"

Jack froze, then slowly turned and looked up at the glass. Behind it, Hammond leaned into the microphone, the frown on his face visible even from here.

"Is there a problem, Colonel?"

Jack stared at him, then forced a tight smile on his face. "No, sir."

Hammond paused a moment before nodding. Jack tossed him a sloppy salute and stepped through the gate.

"Holy crap!" What the hell was it with this place anyway? Grabbing his cap from where it had been tossed and shoving it back down on his head, Jack picked himself up off the stone platform. At least he hadn’t been flung down the steps this time and, oh look, it was his lucky day. The sun was shining. Cursing softly, he rushed toward the MALP which was perched precariously on the edge of the platform.

"Heads up, people!" he yelled as he unfastened the remaining TER from the MALP. But his warning was unnecessary; even Daniel had his weapon drawn. Teal’c and Carter, having gone through first and armed with TERs, were already performing a sweep of the area as Jack ran down the steps and flanked Carter.

"There are no signs of Reetou, O’Neill." Teal’c cautiously lowered his TER, still scanning the area with his eyes.

"Same here, sir."

Jack swept the area behind them carefully. Finally, satisfied that they were truly alone, he glanced over at the others. Sam had lowered her weapon, and was brushing off her trousers. For the first time, he realized that Daniel’s glasses were askew and one leg of his trousers was stained with dirt. Even Teal’c looked a little – disheveled. Obviously, Jack wasn’t the only one who’d enjoyed the train ride to Planet Pissed.

"Everybody okay?" Getting affirmative responses from all members of his team, Jack slipped the TER into a holster strapped to his thigh. "Daniel, check out the DHD. Help Carter unload the MALP and send it home."

As the two moved to follow orders, Jack motioned to Teal’c. Without a word, he and the Jaffa headed out in opposite directions, circling the area around the Stargate. Fifteen minutes later, they re-grouped.

"Which way, Major?"

Carter was standing behind Jack, fastening a coil of climbing rope to his pack. "42 degrees west, sir."

Jack looked in the direction she indicated. Trees, lot of trees, backed by lots of mountains. "Oh, goodie."

"About 19 miles, sir," Carter mumbled.

"Nineteen–," Jack looked over his shoulder at her.

"Well, 20."

"Miles." At her nod, Jack rolled his eyes and made a vague movement with his head. "Oiy." This trip was getting better and better. "In that case, we’d better move out. We’ve only got five days, you know." He headed towards the thick line of trees. "Teal’c, watch our asses, buddy."

Jack set a brisk pace, stopping every two hours for a 15-minute break. Still, by dusk, which apparently came early and quick here on P1S-yada yada, they had only covered a little over 12 miles. They set up camp in a small area that contained slightly fewer trees than they’d encountered so far. It was better than a clearing – not that there were any of those – in that it provided cover if any nighttime visitors paid them a call. Then again, it would make it difficult to see anyone coming.

Due to the thickness of the foliage, they dispensed with the tents and spread their sleeping bags out around a small campfire. After he and Teal’c had patrolled the area, Jack joined Carter and Daniel around the fire. He sat down with a soft groan. The air had cooled considerably with the arrival of dark, and Jack’s back and knees weren’t happy with the change. Zipping his jacket closed, he accepted the cup of coffee that Daniel offered him.

"We’ve made good time, considering."

Sipping the warm drink, Jack looked over at Carter. She was right. Twelve miles wasn’t a lot for a day’s walk, but the forest was thicker than they’d first thought, and the terrain was gradually rising as they entered the foothills. From the looks of the mountains that he knew were looming somewhere in the darkness, it was only going to get worse.

"Tomorrow is not going to be pretty."

"No, sir."

Daniel was rubbing one ankle. "Not going to be pretty is an understatement."

Jack mixed up an MRE, and quickly consumed it before the taste could set in. Daniel sniffed his suspiciously, then took a tentative bite, looking over at Jack.

"How do you do that?"

"Do what?" Jack rolled up the empty container and stuffed it in a pocket on his pack where he kept all of his trash.

"That. Eat so fast."

"Habit."

Daniel shook his head. "Sam doesn’t eat like that, and she’s military."

"I didn’t say where I picked the habit up."

Daniel took another small bite. "Oh."

"It’s a product of my natural survival instinct." Jack paused dramatically, and smiled over at him. "Sara was a terrible cook."

Sam snorted in laughter, covering her mouth with one hand and talking around a spoonful of MRE. "With all due respect, sir, I think you’re lying. He’s pulling your leg, Daniel."

Jackson looked at him, studying him. Jack smirked and leaned back on his sleeping bag. For the second time tonight, she was right. He stared into the flames as his team finished their meal. It was a habit all right, but one he’d acquired at Club Med years ago. It was one of the first lessons he’d learned as a guest of the Iraqi government. You ate whatever garbage was given you. You wolfed it down before you could see what was in it, before you could taste it, before they took it back, before someone else could steal it.

Jack sighed and looked up through the canopy of the forest. A small patch of blackness with a few twinkling stars was all he could see. It didn’t matter; he could pretty much imagine the rest. His back aching deeply, he rolled onto his side, laying his head on his arm.

"Teal’c, take first watch would you?" Teal’c nodded. "Carter, then me. Daniel, you get to make breakfast."

"Whoopie," Jackson muttered as he looked at something inside his MRE packet.

Jack shut his eyes. He was tired. He hurt. But at least he was doing something.

* * * * *

["Dad?" Charlie touched Jack’s shoulder. "I love you, dad. I’ve missed you. Please. Don’t hurt me."

Jack stared in disbelief as the tip of the 9mm nudged against the tender flesh of Charlie’s left temple. His son’s eyes widened, teared up. Charlie’s mouth moved, tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks.

"I’m scared, dad."

Jack squeezed his eyes closed, unable to look as he felt the pressure of the muzzle against Charlie’s head, not wanting to watch as his finger slowly curled around the trigger. The sidearm was going to go off. Any minute. Any second now a bullet was going to enter his son’s brain, snuff out his life. Again. Just like last time.

"I can’t go through this again," he sobbed. Jack opened his eyes, startled to find that his finger was still pulling back on the trigger, and that Hammond’s hands were no longer on his. But it was too late. Too late to take it back. And it was no one’s fault but his own.]

* * * * *

"O’Neill!"

Jack opened his eyes. He was standing in the middle of a forest, near a dying campfire. His chest heaving. No tears this time, just a bone deep ache in his chest. Winded, gasping for breath, he dropped to his hands and knees onto his sleeping bag. He’d been standing on his own damn sleeping bag. Shit! Awkwardly, sweat dripping off him, he forced himself upright, feeling the need to escape, to run.

"Colonel?" Carter sounded scared.

She stood facing him just a few feet away, her P90 clutched in one hand and her face white, strained. Still panting, Jack glanced around at their campsite. Daniel was sitting up, rubbing sleep from his eyes, looking confused. Jack turned; Teal’c stood behind him.

"I – I–," Jack started to walk away. He didn’t know where he was going; he just needed to move, to get away. He couldn’t stand them looking at him. Staring.

"O’Neill."

A firm hand grabbed onto his shoulder, stopping him. His heart racing, sweat running down his face and his back, Jack swung around and launched himself at his attacker. His hands grabbed onto Teal’c’s shirt, trying to wrestle the bigger man aside, but Teal’c didn’t let go.

"Jack!"

He was aware of Daniel getting to his feet, of Carter stepping around the campfire, coming closer. The two men struggled, or one struggled and the other held firm. The only sound was Jack’s ragged breathing, his grunts of anger and frustration. Teal’c pushed him slowly, inexorably back, until Jack found himself pressed against the trunk of a nearby tree.

"O’Neill. I will not hurt you."

"Let me go!"

"I will not."

"Teal’c, let me go, dammit! That’s an order!"

"Colonel," Carter had edged up near Teal’c’s shoulder, "Teal’c’s just trying to help, sir. We can’t let you wander off in the dark."

Jack glared at her, then back at Teal’c. The Jaffa calmly watched him, studying him. Jack gasped softly, then relaxed. He felt himself sag slightly until Teal’c was no longer restraining him, but was helping to support him.

"God." With Teal’c’s help, he eased down until he was sitting with his back against the tree. Drawing up his stiff knees, he pressed his palms against his eyes, shutting them out, trying hard to rub away the remnants of the dream, the nightmare. He sat there in silence until the sweat dried on his skin and his racing pulse slowed. The ache in his chest remained.

When he looked up, they were sitting near the fire, just a few feet away. He glanced at his watch, and cleared his throat. "It’s almost my turn at watch, Major. I’ll take over."

"Sir–"

"Go to bed, Carter." It was an order, but it was spoken softly.

"Jack, we need to talk about this."

He stared at the flames. Blinked. Then looked up at Daniel, who was staring back at him. "No. We don’t."

"Perhaps it will help to discuss it."

"Et tu, Teal’c?" The Jaffa merely cocked his head. Jack forced a smile before looking away. "Trust me. It won’t."

"It’s about Charlie, isn’t it?"

"Dammit, Carter!" He felt his pulse begin to race again. She had no right. None of them had the right to say that name out loud.

"Is it the same?"

Jack squinted over at Daniel, not understanding his question; not really wanting to. "What?" he hissed.

"The dream. Is it the same dream? You always say the same thing about–"

Jack pressed his hands against his temples, shaking his head. They were not going to discuss this.

"–about not making you do something."

"Shut up, Daniel."

"Not making you do what, Jack?"

Suddenly, he stood up, for once not feeling the grinding of his knees. "Daniel, you’re out of line."

Daniel tilted his head, glanced at Sam and Teal’c, and then back at Jack. "No. No, I’m not, Jack. None of us are."

"Sir," Carter stood up, "maybe–." She faltered, looked away.

"Maybe what? Say it." He pressed himself firmly against the tree, needing the security, the realness of it to solidify his crumbling world.

She looked up at him, her eyes huge in the soft light of the dying fire. "Maybe Janet was right, sir. Maybe you shouldn’t have–," but again she hesitated.

"Maybe I shouldn’t have come on this mission? Is that what you’re trying to say?" She wouldn’t look at him, but Daniel did, and Teal’c, too. "Is that what you all think?" No one answered. "Have I compromised this mission?" He took a step toward them, angry now. "Teal’c, have I done anything to compromise this mission?"

Sitting by the fire, outwardly serene, Teal’c met his gaze and clearly considered his answer before replying. "You have not."

"Daniel?"

"Jack–"

"Have I compromised the mission? A simple yes or no will do."

Daniel looked down at his feet, then wiped a hand across his mouth and glanced up at Jack, hurriedly answering. "Not yet."

"God, you son-of-a–," Jack shook his head, and rubbed a hand through his hair. He studied this man who was supposed to be his friend. Finally, tilting his head back, he stared up at that tiny bit of sky. No way it could be the same patch he’d looked at earlier, but by God if it wasn’t, he sure as hell couldn’t tell. It was the same damn thing. Everywhere they went.

"Colonel, I’m sorry. We – we’re concerned, that’s all. We just–"

He glared at her. "What? You’re concerned I won’t get you home in one piece? You’re concerned I’ll lose it and take you all out with a bit of C-4 in your sleeping bags? What? What are you concerned about, Carter? Exactly."

She shrugged, looking a little lost, her P90 swinging slightly as it dangled from her vest. "We’re worried about you, sir. We just want you to be okay."

"Then you’ve got your wish because I’m fine." She opened her mouth to speak, but he beat her to it. "Go to bed. All of you. We head out at daybreak." They hesitated, looked at him. "That wasn’t a request, people."

He was sweating, a little worried actually, until Teal’c moved to take his place on his sleeping bag.

Carter followed his lead. "Yes, sir."

That left Daniel, who was still sitting by the fire, staring at him. Jack met his gaze. "Do we have a problem here, Dr. Jackson?"

Daniel didn’t answer at first, just frowned, his eyebrows pulling together. "No, Jack. I don’t think so. I – I hope not."

Jack cocked his head, questioned him with a look, but received no response. "Then I suggest you follow my order, and go to bed. You still have last watch."

As Daniel pulled himself to his feet and stumbled over to his bed, Jack heaved a quiet sigh of relief. He stood there, waiting until they settled. He knew they weren’t asleep. Even Teal’c was faking it; Jack had observed his friend in kel-no-reem often enough to recognize the signs. But, under the circumstances, he’d take what he could get.

Pretending with them, he quietly made his way to his own sleeping bag and gathered up his P90, slipped the TER back into the holster on his thigh. His Beretta was still strapped to his other thigh. He’d slept with it on; dreamt of it. Took it with him even in sleep. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Jack trudged out to walk the perimeter of the camp.

Thirty minutes later, satisfied that they were alone here, Jack found a spot about 20 feet from camp. He leaned back against a tree, listening, watching over his team. His brain swimming with the doubts they’d voiced, he stood guard. He wouldn’t fail them. Despite their fears, he was up to this. He would bring them home.

"I always bring you home," he whispered to unhearing ears.

* * * * *

He was up 15 minutes before daylight. It wasn’t so much his internal alarm as it was the tossing and turning that woke him. He crawled out of his sleeping bag feeling every bit his age. After last night, and the night before, he felt decidedly bruised, beat up, and used.

Daniel had made coffee and was sitting 15 feet away, leaning up against a tree and sipping from a steaming cup. He looked over at Jack, frowning slightly. "Morning," he said softly.

Jack acknowledged him with a nod, and disappeared into the trees for a bathroom break. The early morning air was cold and dark and damp, and Jack was more than happy to return to their small fire. Silently, he cleaned his hands and helped himself to a cup of coffee. As expected, it was the usual ‘don’t measure just pour in the grounds until you can’t fit any more in the filter’ brew that was a Daniel Jackson coffee trademark. Jack couldn’t help but grimace as he swallowed the scalding liquid. It was so strong it tasted like tuna juice, but it was hot and, unfortunately, he’d had worse.

Rolling up his sleeping bag, Jack settled down next to the fire and pulled his pack over so he could get it lined out for the day. Knowing that they’d hit the mountains by afternoon, he double-checked their climbing gear. Satisfied with what they’d brought, he pulled out an MRE and mixed in some hot water without even bothering to read the label -- freeze-dried egg, macaroni and cheese, goulash -- it all tasted the same going down and looked the same coming out. He ate it in silence, then bagged up his trash.

By the time he had finished with his breakfast, day had fully dawned and the others were stirring. Daniel joined Teal’c and Carter around the fire. As his team ate, Jack donned his pack, and strapped on his TER and his P90.

"I’m going to scout ahead. Be ready to move out in 30."

"Yes, sir."

"I will accompany you."

"No, Teal’c. I’ll go alone." Ignoring them as much as he possibly could, Jack took a compass reading before stepping into the dense woods. Maybe it was the cold or because he was tired and stiff, but within minutes he was puffing slightly. His breath misted in front of him as he walked, carefully sweeping the dense foliage with the TER as he went. They were definitely in the foothills now – the ground rising and falling in gentle waves that he feared were a mere portent of what was to come. He’d hoped they would soon leave the forest behind, but it didn’t look promising. It was possible that the trees stretched right up to the tree line in the mountains. Fortunately, he didn’t think they would have to go that far before reaching the area where Carter’s MALP had read life signs. Just as he’d thought, it was going to be a rough day of traveling. God, what he wouldn’t give for a nicely blazed trail.

Glancing at his watch, Jack holstered the TER and turned back. He started to radio ahead to tell them to meet up with him, but decided against it. He needed the extra time alone, away from them. It was with a natural, instinctive stealth that he approached the camp. A mere shadow in the thick forest, he stopped, observing his team from a distance.

Teal’c was putting out the fire, and Carter was helping Daniel get packed up. Their movements were self-assured, efficient. He could hear the soft murmur of their voices as they worked. They were a good team, and it hurt to think that they didn’t trust him. Didn’t think he was up to this mission. It hurt worse than he cared to admit. Frowning, looking for anything to get his mind off the caustic memory of last night’s little ‘intervention’ group, Jack stepped around a large tree in time to hear Daniel’s words.

"–losing it."

Carter mumbled something mostly unintelligible, but Jack picked up the words ‘nightmares’ and ‘bothering him.’ Suddenly, his head was pounding as he thought about what they must have been discussing in his absence, what they must be thinking. He purposely stepped on a large branch, cracking it underfoot in order to shut them up.

"O'Neill." It sounded more like a word of caution to Carter and Daniel than a greeting, so Jack didn’t bother responding. Carter and Daniel swung around to face him, startled, looking slightly guilty.

"Sir! We – I didn’t hear you."

Daniel was more subtle, a bit smoother at covering. "Hey, Jack. Everything okay out there?"

Feeling their assault as surely if it had been physical, Jack didn’t look at them, but moved around the campsite, making sure they were leaving everything as they had found it.

"Teal’c, take point. I’ll catch our six." He was aware of Carter and Daniel exchanging a look, but they said nothing.

Due to the thickness of the undergrowth, they were forced to walk single file. As they moved, Jack watched their surroundings, using the need for caution as an excuse to keep from staring at the back of Daniel’s head. He caught brief glimpses of Carter and Teal’c as they stepped around trees and bushes. Wondering how long it would take, Jack won an internal bet when barely 30 minutes into their trip Daniel began to drop back, edging closer to him.

"So," Daniel looked back over his shoulder, studying his CO, "you okay?"

Jack barely glanced at him, keeping his eyes on the woods surrounding them. "You’re the doctor, you tell me."

"Jack," Daniel sounded frustrated, hurt. They walked another 10 minutes in silence before Jackson gathered his nerve to try again. "I think you should talk to someone about your – problem."

"Problem?" Ever the diplomat, hey Daniel? Jack shook his head in disgust.

"Yes. Problem." Daniel lowered his voice. "You’ve had nightmares before, off world, but never like this. And don’t forget, I was there last week, too. I was the one who called Janet, remember?" When he got no response, Daniel continued. "Then there was yesterday. The locker room? I’m sure that had absolutely nothing to do with anything."

Jack looked everywhere but at him. "Are you finished?"

"Matter of fact, no." Daniel looked at him, as if debating how far to push his luck. "You were yelling at Janet."

"I wasn’t yelling, Daniel."

"No?"

"No. Believe me, when I yell, you’ll be the first to know."

Daniel smiled at him. "I don’t doubt that, Jack." They continued walking. "Sam and I–"

"Are sticking your noses where they don’t belong."

Jackson stopped, and turned to face him. The path blocked, Jack was forced to stop as well. "See, that’s where you’re wrong. Because you made it our business when you brought it here."

He flinched as if he’d been struck. What could he say? On that point, at least, Daniel was right. He never should have let it happen. He should have exercised more control.

"Besides, we’re your friends, Jack. We care about you. All of us. We just want to help."

"You want to help?" Jack studied Daniel’s face, the earnestness there, the openness. Things Jack hadn’t felt, experienced, since – when? He couldn’t remember. When was the last time he’d felt earnest about anything? Opened up to someone? Suddenly, Jack envied him. He envied Daniel his life. Yeah, he’d lost his parents. Sure, he’d been raised by a bunch of crappy, abusive people who didn’t give a shit about him. And he’d lost his wife to the damned Goa’uld. So what? He hadn’t killed his son. He hadn’t held a 9mm to his kid’s head and pulled the trigger. And he hadn’t stood there in the hospital covered in blood and gore while his wife screamed at him for doing it, beat at him with small, anguished fists for allowing it to happen. He hadn’t dressed himself in formal attire to stand dry-eyed beside an obscenely small casket while friends and family, the curious, filed by, crying, gaping at him because they knew what he’d done, that he was to blame. Hell, even Apophis knew it. And First. The whole damned universe recognized his guilt, his deepest shame. And Daniel hadn’t sat on Charlie’s bed and cradled the friggin’ sidearm in his hand. He hadn’t slipped the cool barrel inside his mouth, tasted it, placed his finger on the trigger, covering the tiny fingerprints with his own, and begged God for the courage to pull. To end it. And he hadn’t been there when Jack had made the conscious decision not to do it. Not because that would be the easy way out. Not because it was wrong or because he didn't want Sara to find another bloody corpse in her son's room. But because suffering was the only way he knew to keep Charlie alive. To make him real.

"Yes, I want to help."

Jack gasped, took a small step back, shocked to find himself still surrounded by trees and facing Daniel.

Daniel repeated it. "I want to help. So do Sam and Teal’c."

"Then let me do my job," Jack’s voice shook slightly.

"O’Neill!" Teal’c had stopped and was motioning him forward.

Jack slipped by Daniel, brushing roughly against him, pausing long enough to stare at him. "And stay the hell out of my way."

He squeezed past a stunned Carter who’d overhead his last, biting comment, and climbed the short, steep embankment to stand beside Teal’c. "What’ve you got?" But as soon as he said it, he saw it. A path. A trail leading northwest, pointing the way for them. "Holy–"

"It is new," Teal’c commented as he cautiously made his way down the hillside and stepped onto the path.

Jack followed him. "New as in someone’s been down it recently?" Without waiting for an answer, Jack pulled his TER free of the holster, and performed a careful sweep of the surrounding area. Carter stepped up beside him and did the same.

"No. There are no tracks." Teal’c squatted down on the 4-foot wide swathe through the forest. He held up a small branch. The fact that it had been recently broken was obvious.

"Oh. You meant, new as in – new."

"Yes, this trail has only been recently cleared."

"Crap," was the only response Jack could think of.

* * * * *

The back of his neck tingling and pinging and trying to warn him he was being an idiot, Jack led his team along the path. It was all wrong. Too wrong. They’d followed it for hours, when Jack called a lunch break, insisting that they divert into the forest before settling in for a short break.

"Why are you so nervous, Jack?"

He looked at Daniel, trying to read any hidden message that the archaeologist might be conveying. He looked for any sign that Jackson might be referring to the nightmares again, anything to suggest that he even remembered their short, harsh conversation of earlier, but Jack saw nothing in Daniel’s face except open curiosity. "Because it isn’t natural. There wasn’t a sign of the trail on the pictomap."

"He’s right, Daniel. No way this was here when we sent the UAV."

"What? It just appeared out of nowhere?" Daniel was great at sarcasm. Almost as good as Jack.

"Yeah, somebody muttered the magic words, and it just appeared." Almost as good. Jack shook his head, which had started to pound again. "Here’s a thought. Maybe a whole passel of Reetou are carving their own little Appian Way that leads to the City of Doom. And maybe, since we can’t see them, they’re standing right over there." The others couldn’t help but turn in the direction he pointed, then glanced back at him before sharing a look between themselves. He ignored it.

"So, maybe they’re good Reetou. It was only the rebel faction who attacked us."

Jack snorted with laughter. "Yeah. Sure, Daniel."

"Well, sir, Mother did try to help us."

Jack frowned at the mention of Mother, which made him think of Reetou Charlie, who made him think of his Charlie. He stood. "Come on. Let’s get this over with." Without waiting to see if they followed, he headed back to the edge of the trail. Should they take it? Or should they stay in the trees? Parallel it? He considered their options, and liked none of them. His headache flared slightly, and he grimaced, rubbing a hand over his forehead before tugging his cap in place.

"O’Neill?" Squinting, he looked over at Teal’c. "You sense something."

It wasn’t a question. Jack nodded. "Yeah. I don’t like this." He didn’t move from his spot overlooking the path. Carter moved up alongside him.

"Sir?"

"Teal’c? You gettin’ anything here, or is it just me?"

Teal’c considered the question before responding. "It is unusual. It would be wise to proceed with caution."

"Yeah." Jack nodded. He really should have taken some aspirin. If he wanted any now, he’d have to take off his pack to get at it; either that, or ask someone else for some. Okay, so he’d ignore it. "Just to be safe, I’d rather we not play the part of the sheep in some grim little fairy tale." Studying the terrain ahead, he made his decision. "Carter, you and Daniel, follow the yellow brick road here. T, cut over to the other side. I’ll stay on this side. We’ll dog the kids. See what happens."

"Why aren’t we sticking together?"

Jack looked over at Daniel. Then at Carter. She hadn’t said anything, but she, too, seemed to be waiting for an answer to Daniel’s question. So – what? They were questioning his decisions? He rubbed his eyes, tired from more than mere lack of sleep. Dammit, he was the leader of this unit. He wasn’t required to explain every little decision.

He sighed. "Just a hunch. Humor me." With that, he walked away, not looking back.

They walked for nearly two hours, steadily uphill. Jack was puffing from the combined exertion of constantly skirting fallen logs, climbing up and down steep embankments, toting a full pack, and dealing with a throbbing headache. Carter and Daniel were having a much easier time of it as they followed the path. There were a few times when they’d had to do a little free climbing over large rocky areas, but most of the hills had been terraced along the path, making it rather like climbing a steep staircase. Jack was finding it difficult to keep up with them. He and Teal’c performed radio checks periodically. So far, nothing to explain the Disaster Is Imminent-O-Meter that had the back of his neck humming and zinging.

He paused and bent over, resting his hands on his knees, panting softly. God, he really should have taken time for that aspirin. He counted to 30, then stood back up, his back muscles protesting. Even though it was dim under the thick canopy of the trees, he dug out his sunglasses and slipped them on trying to relieve his eyes. He watched as approximately 80 feet away, Carter and Daniel made their way towards another outcropping of rock. Looking up, he spied movement.

Jack grabbed his radio, and keyed it twice. Carter and Daniel froze, and although he had no evidence of it, he knew that Teal’c had done the same. Something or someone was in the rocks directly above two members of his team. He knew that from their perspective, there was no way Carter or Daniel could see what he was seeing.

He spoke softly. "Carter, I’ve got movement dead ahead of you. In the rocks." He saw her weapon being raised, and her head go up as she scanned what she could see of the area he’d indicated.

Her voice came back over the radio, quiet and calm. "I can’t see anything from here, Colonel."

"Stay put, Major. Teal’c, move up."

There was no response, but Jack had no doubt the Jaffa was doing as ordered. His aches and pains suddenly forgotten, he began moving forward until he was even with the two down on the path. He was on a slight rise, up an embankment from Daniel’s and Carter’s positions. Looking straight across, he had a clear view of the rocks. He pulled out his monocular, but just as he lifted it up to peer through it, three ‘people’ stepped out onto the largest of the boulders, looking down towards his team. Shit!

Pulling his P90 into position, he looked through the monocular. They were human, or seemed to be anyway. Small though, the largest not much bigger than Fraiser. And very pale. They didn’t appear to be armed. Tucking the monocular into his jacket, he let the P90 swing from his vest as he drew the TER. Were these their invisible aliens, or were there others? Sweeping the surrounding area with the TER revealed nothing. He breathed a sigh of relief and pressed the radio with his free hand. "Teal’c?"

"I see them, O’Neill."

Apparently, Carter and Daniel could see them now, too. Carter clutched her weapon a little tighter as Daniel lifted a hand in greeting. One of the aliens returned Daniel’s wave by lifting a hand and smiling.

"Hello," he heard Daniel call out.

Jack moved along the edge of the embankment, stepped out of the thickest of the trees, and onto a large boulder. He was standing on equal footing with the aliens, approximately 30 feet away from them. The tallest member of the group turned to glance at him. The man studied Jack for a moment before mumbling something to his companions.

"Hey." Keeping one hand on his P90, Jack lifted the other in greeting. "How ya doin’?"

There was a momentary pause, then the taller alien stepped towards Jack and smiled. "Tra’on."

Jack cocked his head. "I’m sorry?"

The alien was joined by his two companions as they walked towards Jack. He could also see Carter and Daniel starting to climb the rocks up to meet them, as Teal’c stepped out on the opposite side of the path, cautiously advancing.

"Tra’on. My name."

"Ah." Jack nodded sagely, keeping one hand on his weapon. With the other, he pointed at himself. "Jack. Nice to meet ya, T-Bone."

"Tra’on," the alien smiled as he corrected him.

The three stopped approximately 10 feet away, studying him. After a quiet pause, one of the others took a single step forward. "Jack," he sounded the name out very distinctly. "I am E’ba. This," he pointed to the last of the three, "is Stil’ke."

Shit. He was supposed to remember that? Well, at least they had vowels in their names. Jack nodded at the third member of the odd group as Daniel and Carter joined them.

"Hi, I’m Daniel Jackson." Daniel was nearly breathless, although whether from the climb or his excitement, it was hard to say.

"Daniel, calm down. You’re hyperventilating."

Jack didn’t think Daniel even heard him as he stepped closer to the aliens. "We’re peaceful explorers from a planet called Earth."

"Daniel," Jack hoped the archaeologist heard the warning tone in his voice. Daniel was getting a little too close to their new friends for his own comfort. "Why don’t you step back a bit, and let me introduce you to T-Bone, E-Bay, and Stilted."

The middle alien laughed softly, putting a hand to his mouth. Jack suddenly noticed that they were not just very pale, they were extremely pale. Their skin was almost translucent. They had very straight, fine hair. Two of them were what his mom used to call towheads – hair so blonde it was almost white; E-Bay, the one who’d laughed, had hair the color of Jack’s. Poor guy.

The taller one stepped towards Daniel, causing Jack and Carter to tense. As if sensing their unease, he stopped. "Daniel Jackson, I am Tra’on."

Daniel smiled. "It’s very nice to meet you, Tra’on. This is Major Carter." As Sam nodded a greeting, Teal’c approached from the side. "This is Teal’c." Teal’c bowed his head, causing the aliens to smile again. "And this," Daniel motioned towards Jack, "is Colonel Jack O’Neill."

"Jack," E-Bay grinned.

"Yeah." Jack gave the man a two-fingered salute.

"You will come to our homes?"

"Oh, I don’t–"

"Jack, come on. Isn’t that why we came here?"

He looked at Daniel, then at Carter. "I don’t know. Is this why we came here, Carter?"

She shrugged. "We came here to try to find out more about the – life forms, sir."

The invisible life forms, he wanted to add. But he didn’t. Instead, he looked over at the aliens who were all staring at him.

The quiet one, Stilted or whatever his name was, smiled gently. "No need to worry, Jack. We will not harm you."

Eyes hidden behind his sunglasses and beneath the brim of his hat, Jack looked them up and down, then glanced at his team. All of them were watching him, waiting for him to give the word. Rubbing his tingling neck, his headache suddenly returning, Jack smiled tightly. "Sure. Lead the way, boys."

* * * * *

Jack and Teal’c kept behind the others. Daniel and Carter were talking to the three aliens as they followed the path through the forest and up into the mountains. Three times they had had to climb rocky bluffs. The aliens proved agile, and climbed with an ease that he envied. Once, Jack had felt his insides twist as T-Bone had reached down a pale, slim hand to assist Carter up the side of a smooth-surfaced stone. His jaw clenching, Jack was surprised when E-bay looked over at him, and smiled.

"We will not hurt you," he stated.

As the alien turned away to lead them further on, Jack thought about the fact that that was the second time they’d mentioned that. "The lad protests too much, methinks," he muttered softly. Teal’c lifted an eyebrow and tilted his head at him. "Never mind, T. Just thinking out loud."

"Stil’ke, this trail looks new."

The alien looked over at Carter. "Yes. It is."

"Did your people clear it?"

"Yes."

Carter looked back over her shoulder at Jack, shrugging. She must have decided she’d have better luck with one of the others, because she turned to E’ba. "Why?"

E’ba smiled kindly. "It was made for our guests." At Carter’s questioning look, he waved towards her and Daniel. "For you."

Jack froze. "Wait a minute." Everyone stopped, looking back at him. He saw the same tension he felt in himself reflected in Carter and Teal’c. "You knew we were coming?"

E’ba started to approach him, but stopped at the look on Jack’s face. "You came before. Through the ring of light." Jack didn’t respond. "We – believed you would return."

"You knew we were here? Before?"

E’ba nodded, glancing over at Tra’on. "Yes."

"How did you know?" The Imminent Danger-O-Meter tingled violently.

"We – saw you."

Jack looked at his team, then back at the aliens. "We didn’t see you."

E’ba smiled. "No."

Well, that explained everything then. Jack still didn’t move.

"We intend you no harm."

"Yeah. You’ve mentioned that. Why didn’t we see you? Why no – welcome wagon?"

E’ba frowned slightly, obviously confused by Jack’s question. Tra’on stepped forward. "You did not see us because we did not wish it. We were," he paused as if considering his words, "unsure of your motives."

"Oh." Jack smiled tritely, and nodded. "And now, suddenly, you’re sure."

Tra’on nodded back. "Yes."

Jack shook his aching head. Were all opaque aliens this obtuse? "Daniel."

Jackson recognized the tone in his voice, and stepped up. "Tra’on, how can you be sure of our motives now? And why," Daniel gestured to the path on which they were standing, "all this trouble when you weren’t sure we would return?"

"You would not understand."

"Try us." Jack knew he sounded pissed, but he was feeling decidedly – unsettled.

"We – sensed it."

"You sensed it." Daniel looked over at Jack, who pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, frustrated.

Tra’on leaned towards him. "Jack, we will–"

He held up a hand. "I know, I know. You will not harm us."

Tra’on stepped back as if struck. "We will explain it all. But, please, come to our homes. Eat with us. Let us welcome you. It is just ahead."

Jack sighed, looked at each of his team members as if seeking their input. They stared back at him, not helping. He looked over at E-bay. The alien was no longer smiling, but was looking at him curiously, as if truly confused about Jack’s unease.

Hoping that he wouldn’t regret it, Jack slipped his glasses back on. "Okay. But no cake. I don’t eat cake. Not after last time."

* * * * *

Jack was bored. It was difficult to imagine traveling millions of light years away from home, hiking across an alien planet, meeting aliens belonging to that alien planet, being taken to their freaky alien homes, eating and drinking alien . . . stuff – and that was a kind word for it – and being bored out of your skull all in a single 24-hour period. Difficult to imagine. Even more difficult to actually endure.

The first hour or so with their new little friends had been all well and good. Despite the knees and the raging headache, a little rock climbing was good for the soul. And it would be hard to beat the moment when they’d stepped over the crest of the first small mountain and had found themselves facing what looked like a living, breathing version of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings.

"Holy Hannah," Carter had whispered.

Daniel, nearly vibrating with excitement, had merely muttered, "Amen."

Jack looked over at Teal’c who, as usual, seemed unfazed by the whole shebang. Still trying to ignore the pounding in his head, and trying not to listen to the echoes of last night’s mud-slinging ringing in his ears, Jack leaned down to wipe dirt from the toes of his boots. When he stood back upright, fighting a small wave of dizziness, E-bay and T-Bone were watching him, smiling slightly.

"Welcome, Jack, to Alle’Ra."

Jack forced a smile at E-bay, and nodded slightly. "Uh, thank you."

"What did you call it?" Daniel was staring wide-eyed at the vertical city.

As if hesitant to do so, Tra’on tore his gaze from Jack and looked over at Daniel. "Alle’Ra."

Jack suddenly felt his heart jump. "Ra? Ra as in–," he looked back at the city as if it could provide the answer, then swung his gaze back around to his team. "Daniel?"

"Alle’Ra." Daniel repeated it softly, three times, before looking at Jack. "No. No. Not Ra as in – Ra. I think it’s a form of Alera." At Jack’s blank look, he continued. "A Latin name. It means," he frowned slightly, then smiled as it came to him, "eagle." He turned back to the city. "It means eagle. It’s so–"

"Are you sure?" Jack’s hands had tightened on his P90. Once again, the three aliens were watching him closely. What was it with them anyway? He purposely looked away, tempted to tell them to take a freakin’ picture.

"Of course, I can’t be positive. But I’m pretty sure."

"Oh, well," Jack made a face over at Teal’c, "as long as he’s pretty sure." Teal’c raised an eyebrow and looked at Jack as if he were – well, crazy. Or something. Jack frowned at him and looked back at E-bay who, of course, was still watching him. "Elvira, huh?" Somewhat reluctantly, he gestured towards the city. "Fine. Lead on, boys."

It had taken a full hour to reach the base of the city. A little over halfway there, they started meeting other aliens, who laughed and ran to greet the group like they were long lost relatives. Of course, if it were up to Daniel, they probably were. Nevertheless, Jack couldn’t help cringing a bit when he saw swarms of them surrounding his team, chattering and laughing and giggling. They seemed particularly taken with Teal’c, which struck Jack as odd until he realized that Teal’c was almost the opposite of everything these aliens were. He was big, and he was dark. They were little and see-through. Well, not exactly see-through, but as white as the albino tiger that Jack had taken Charlie to see at the zoo.

Charlie. Jack flinched and put a hand to his head at the thought of his son, which was immediately followed by a vision of the packed gate room and a looming General Hammond. Rubbing his temple, Jack was stunned to notice that the group around them had grown rather subdued. When he glanced up, he was being watched. With the exception of Teal’c, his team seemed oblivious. Towering over the diminutive natives, Jack swept his gaze across the group until they began to talk and to smile and finally to laugh again. As they returned their attention to the others, Jack couldn’t help but shudder slightly.

Now, hours later, the sun was beginning to set and they were still seated around a large fire pit in what appeared to be a communal area located in a cavern three-quarters of the way up the side of the steep cliff. The cavern was huge; approximately three stories high and half a city block wide. He couldn’t see all the way back into the depths of the cavern, but it had to have been at least 60 feet deep where it disappeared into the shadows.

Jack set down the cup of amber-colored drink that had been served up with dinner. He wasn’t sure what it was, but Jim Beam had nothing on these folks. He already had a headache the size of Texas, he sure wasn’t going to test his luck with that concoction. Jack had taken one whiff, an even smaller sip, and had nursed the same cup for the remainder of the meal – meal being a relative term. The stuff being served made MRE’s look good. But, he had to admit that once he’d gotten past the smell and the color, which was a very patriotic red, white and navy blue mix of some slick, soft vegetables – he hoped – the taste wasn’t half bad. He’d eaten his portion in a dozen bites and had even accepted a second helping, to the chagrin of Carter, who’d moved her food around on her wooden plate while surreptitiously sneaking bites of a power bar on the side. Of course, odds were she’d be the only one not looking for the outhouse in the middle of the night.

As Daniel talked it up with the crowd of aliens, Jack managed to slip to the fringe of the group relatively unnoticed. That in itself was a minor miracle considering the amount of scrutiny he’d been under since he’d met these folks. They seemed like nice little aliens as far as aliens went, and so far had done nothing that even vaguely hinted of a threat, but Jack was still a little creeped out by all the staring. Funny thing was, until Daniel had opened his mouth, they hadn’t seemed half so interested in staring at any of the others. Really, considering the fact that they could have been admiring Daniel and Carter but chose instead to ogle him, it didn’t bode well for the little buggers.

Daniel launched into an animated version of some tale about an upturned bowl that formed the sky and some turtle or something, and Jack took the opportunity to sneak away to do a little reconnaissance. He slipped around a small, square, tower-like structure that was built at the front of the cavern and made his way down the ladder that led to the level below.

As the sky darkened, he managed to find his way around the various structures that filled this level of the city, thanks mostly to the fact that each of the buildings seemed to be lit from the inside by a small, flickering light. He peeked inside a couple of the open doorways, and saw that each of the structures contained a smaller version of the communal fire pit. Around the edges of each of the rooms, he was able to identify what looked like sleeping pads and bowls and personal items. These must be homes then, and like the city itself, they contained more than one level. In what would be the southeast corner of each dwelling, a steep ladder led to a floor above.

This level of the city seemed empty of any aliens. They must all be attending tonight’s big dog and pony show. Of course, considering the fact that Jack and his team were aliens, and according to T-Bone the first to arrive through the ring of light in at least a couple of generations, it wasn’t surprising that it was a big deal.

Jack continued wandering through the maze of structures, impressed with the cleanliness of the whole place. It suddenly occurred to him that he’d not seen any ‘facilities.’ Did they hang it off the edge? He frowned. Maybe these aliens didn’t, you know, need facilities. Now, there was a thought. He chuckled softly to himself. Being full of shit would take on a whole new meaning. Of course, you wouldn’t think they’d be quite so – white if they didn’t unload once in a while.

Ducking his head, Jack entered a structure that was larger than any of the others he’d seen so far. The interior of this one was different, too. It looked more like a chapel than a home. A small altar stood just to the right of the ladder, and the fire pit was larger and positioned slightly off to the side of center. He wandered over to the altar and studied the statues sitting on it. Careful not to drop it, he picked up one of them. Holding it up to the firelight, he was amazed to find that while it was made of stone, it was so thin he could see the glow of the light through it. It was vague in shape, but it somehow reminded him of the Madonna his grandmother had kept on the dresser in her bedroom. Thinking he might be committing some religious faux paus, Jack gently replaced the statue and turned to go. At the doorway, he hesitated and looked back across the room, an odd feeling of being observed tingling along the back of his neck.

With a final glance around the room, he ducked his head and stepped through the doorway. When he straightened, he was hit with a wave of dizziness and had to lean a hand against the outer wall of the building as he waited for the moment to pass. Hopefully, it was just exhaustion and not the beginning of some blue veggie flu. He took the opportunity to take a drink from his canteen and leaned back against the wall, enjoying a slight breeze that managed to wind its way through the maze of dwellings. From here, he could just see what could have passed for Earth’s moon peeking over the top of the neighboring building.

Jack sighed. It was nice. Quiet. He stood there for several minutes, hesitant to re-enter the chaos of the crowd above. But, he was merely postponing the inevitable and his search here had revealed nothing for him to worry about. Pushing away from the building, he took two steps and stopped, suddenly engulfed in darkness. Not a single flickering light remained. Even the moon had disappeared.

Standing absolutely still, breathing shallowly, quietly, he waited and listened. Nothing. Then, just as suddenly as the darkness had struck, he was completely surrounded by lights. A lot of lights. Flashing and twinkling and flitting around him with dizzying speed. A crazy, dancing kaleidoscope of what looked like fireflies. Or farfels, as Charlie used to call them when he was little. "Come on, daddy, catch me a farfel."

Jack took an awkward step, hands stretched out towards the farfel-filled darkness, and went down on one knee. Like a blind man, he reached for something that wasn’t there, and cried out in pain as an agonizing streak of light filled up the darkness, truly blinding him. He fell onto his stomach, hands clutching his head, moaning.

* * * * *

Okay. It was official. She had the coolest job on the entire planet – well, technically, in the universe. Totally unlike the beginning of her day, Samantha Carter had spent the last part of it trying to wipe a perpetual grin off her face. After all, she was an officer and a scientist, and she felt a trifle embarrassed about the level of her excitement. Embarrassed, despite the fact that the only ones here to see it were Daniel, Teal’c and the Colonel. Of course, Daniel was absolutely as bad as she was, and Teal’c would never let on that he thought her giddiness odd. The Colonel? Well, the Colonel would privately harass her to no end, but he would never say a word to anyone else that would make her look like anything less than a consummate professional.

Sam smiled and managed to set down her plate and push it aside without being noticed. Well, it looked like she’d eaten something, at least. Somehow, despite the fact that she regularly consumed MRE’s and other off-worldly things that often times made her cringe, she couldn’t quite bring herself to eat red, white and blue food, especially when it had all the consistency of overcooked spinach and smelled like the Colonel’s locker. Speaking of whom, he had merely studied the contents of his plate curiously, sniffed it, and after one cautious bite had proceeded to eat two servings of the stuff. Well, he’d better not come crawling to her in the middle of the night when the stomach cramps ensued. Not that he ever would.

"On Earth, where I come from, there is a tale of a turtle who carries the world on his back."

Sam smiled again as the group of aliens laughed at Daniel’s comment. She glanced over at Teal’c, who was standing off to one side of the group. He noticed her glance and tilted his head, nodding almost imperceptibly. Despite the lack of emotion on his face and the staff weapon in his hand, she could tell that he was at ease.

She looked back over at Daniel, who was sitting in the midst of a group of the small natives. He looked so incongruous, and yet so at home. It reminded her of when she’d first seen him on Abydos. Here he was, a man with multiple doctorates, decked out in Air Force gear, surrounded by a group of people who looked like they’d stepped out of Earth’s history books. The natives’ clothing appeared to be made from a combination of tanned leather and rough, linen-looking material. She wondered briefly how they made their cloth but her mind was soon on other subjects as a small group of women and children snuggled in around her feet, intent on listening to Daniel’s story.

As a young girl climbed trustingly up onto her knee, Sam pulled the child closer and glanced around at the crowd. For reasons she couldn’t explain, Sam, like Teal’c, felt totally comfortable with these people. Even at their first meeting. She had to admit it had rattled her a bit when the natives had admitted knowing that the team had been here before and that they’d expected them to return. And she still didn’t quite understand what they’d meant about the path. Still, she felt safe here.

God, if the Colonel knew what she was thinking, he’d have a cow. The man probably didn’t loosen his grip on his P90 even in his sleep, or at the latrine. Sam flushed as she realized how unfair she was being and feeling guilty, she looked around for the object of her thoughts. He’d moved from his previous spot at the edge of the crowd, had managed to disappear. It was something he was good at. If she had to take a guess, she’d say he was probably checking out the neighborhood. Either that or puking his patriotic-colored guts out somewhere. Sam smiled at the picture that invoked.

The child on her lap squirmed and turned to study her face, smiling a soft, pale smile.

"What’s your name?"

The child touched Sam’s cheek gently, as if intrigued at the pigment of her skin. "Sa’bri."

"Sa’bri. What a pretty name. My name is Sam."

The little girl giggled and turned back around on Sam’s lap. Resting her chin on Sa’bri’s soft hair, Sam glanced around again at the natives, fighting that inevitable, foolish grin. It didn’t matter if they found anything else, they’d found this – a culture that was absolutely amazing; a people so much like the missing Anasazi that Sam could hardly wait to discuss the possibility with Daniel, who was in the midst of his turtle tale. She was still grinning several minutes later when she spied E’ba and Tra’on speaking seriously to Teal’c.

* * * * *

[When common sense told him it was already too late, he felt the chute snap open.

Too little.

Too late.

Too bad. And then he hit.

The darkness within him slowly merged into the darkness surrounding him, as he forced his lids open. He lay there staring up at the vast expanse of night sky. With nothing to pollute the view it was an incredible sight. Stars that equaled the grains of sand upon which he lay, sparkled so close and yet just out of reach for a wounded man lost in the desert.

Even so he gleaned what comfort he could from them. He tried to imagine that he was on a soft blanket laying next to Sara, reveling in her closeness. The moonlight kissing her hair. The starlight reflecting in her eyes. Her lips curved in that special smile she reserved only for him.

And it worked. It worked until he foolishly tried to move. And then pain drove all thoughts of Sara from his mind. Biting his bottom lip to keep from screaming, the coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. Jack slowly spiraled down once more into a darkness blacker than the night blanketing him.

The sun was crawling up the sky before Jack surfaced into consciousness again, immediately aware of the pain which seemed to have grown worse as he had, er, slept. Squinting against the brightness, he would have given just about anything for his sunglasses and some sun screen and, while he was at it, about a gallon of happy juice. Oh, and a ride home in air conditioned comfort would be nice while he was wishing for the moon. He settled for a couple of aspirin he had stuffed in a pocket and a small swallow of stale water from his canteen, hoping to God the pain involved in completing this not so simple anymore task would be worth it.

He wished he could find some shade from the fiercely beating rays of the sun, but the chances of that happening were somewhere between slim and none. And besides, as Grandma O’Neill would have said, ‘If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.’

‘I’d take one of your beggar’s horses now, Grandma,’ he thought.

Having no choice, O’Neill ignored the sun and began to assess his injuries methodically as he had been trained, while moving as little as possible to avoid the stabbing pain that knifed through his head.

Ankle. Broken. Maybe. Maybe just torn ligaments or a bad sprain. No surprise there. Typical in a parachuting accident. Hurt, no matter what it was. Wrenched knee. Oh shit, that sucked. Left leg screwed up royally, then. Crap. He quite definitely wasn't going to hike out of this easily with just one leg in proper working order.

Hike ... march ... walk ... hobble ... stagger ... crawl.

Oh, just peachy.

He continued his less than encouraging inventory.

A fracture of his left arm. Damn! He must have landed on his left side and been dragged to produce these spectacular results. Lucky he hadn’t shattered both legs. Hell, face it O’Neill, you’re lucky to be alive at all.

He’d have to do something to support the break in that arm. Carefully, he ran his right hand up the damaged limb. Nasty, but, thank God the bone wasn’t sticking through the skin. Given the less than sanitary desert conditions, it would have been next to impossible to deal with an infection that might set in. Still, a simple break was going to complicate an already complicated situation. But, hell, it isn’t like it’s your first broken arm so quit being a baby and deal with it.

Was that it? Any other dislocations, breaks, or strains he needed to consider?

He tried to roll over.

Big mistake.

Oh God! His back!

His back was definitely wonky. He probably jarred the hell out of it when he landed. Hopefully that was all that was wrong. Where was a chiropractor when you needed one? He probably couldn’t find one who would make house calls in the middle of the Iraqi desert anyway, he decided with sour humor. Some people just had no commitment to their profession. He lay there for some time thinking up possible bribes that he could offer to induce a reluctant practitioner to aid a dying soldier in the middle of a baking hot desert. Before he realized his mind was wandering, and he needed to get back on track.

And it was such a bad idea to start thinking along these lines, Jack. Dying? Like hell he was. Shake it off and move on. Were there any other injuries?

Just that soft spot that probably shouldn’t be there on the back of his skull that he was so trying to ignore. The massive headache, the nausea, the niggling that told him it was more than a simple concussion. He could only pray he had somehow avoided scrambling his brain. He wasn’t even going to think about the possibility of internal injuries.

He was so screwed.]

* * * * *

Jack came to. He was panting softly, still feeling the broken bones, the heat of the desert sun on his skin, the nausea, the thickness of his tongue as it filled up his parched mouth. Laying on his stomach, face-down on the stone floor of the cavern, he pushed himself up to his knees, and cried out as the pain in his head threatened to topple him. He leaned forward, butt in the air, his forehead resting on the cool ground.

"Oh, God. Oh, God." He repeated it softly, a quiet prayer for mercy offered up outside an alien temple. Slowly, his body began to come back on line. He felt the pain in his ankle recede; his back ached, but it was an ache brought on by sleeping on a hard bench and on a damp, forest floor. It was no longer the hurt caused by hitting the ground at bone-crunching velocity. Jack waited as his body slowly filled with aches and pains that were soothingly familiar; he waited as the memory of nine gut-wrenching days of agony seeped out of the here and now, and took its rightful place in the long ago.

Slowly, he eased himself back onto his knees. Then, finally, mostly blind, he crawled to the closest building. His head pounding, sweating and shaking, he pulled himself into a sitting position, and leaned back against the temple wall. Panting softly, he braced himself upright and blinked, waiting for his vision to clear.

He looked across the top of the neighboring structure. He could see only a narrow tunnel of the night sky, sparkling with stars not farfels. But the remainder of his sight was gone, nothing but complete and utter blackness. From what he could see of the moon, it had moved only slightly. His trip to the desert had apparently taken only minutes. He looked around, able to see soft, flickering firelight only when staring directly at the open doorways. He had no peripheral vision.

Jack sighed and lifted a shaky hand, wiping his face and rubbing his eyes. It had been a long time since he’d had a flashback. A person could forget how bad they really were. Until they had another one, that is. He remembered when he used to have them regularly, after his return from four months in Hotel Iraq. For the first few months, he had had them as often as two or three times a week. And they were always brought on by the most stupid, most least expected thing imaginable. It made it impossible to anticipate them, or avoid them.

One evening, seven weeks after his return home, he and Sara had taken Charlie to a small carnival that was in town. For the first time in longer than he cared to remember, Jack had enjoyed himself. Still recovering physically, underweight and gaunt, he had progressed from crutches and was using a cane to hobble around. But that didn’t stop him and Charlie from enjoying some of the kiddie rides. The sight of long-legged, hard-assed, Air Force officer Jack O’Neill crammed into a tiny airplane and being swung around in a circle had made Sara laugh out loud. It was the first time he’d heard her laugh since before he’d left on the mission over six months before. It had taken the help of Sara and the teenage boy running the ride to pry him out of the tiny plane, and Jack had limped away in more pain than he’d been willing to acknowledge, but it had been totally worth the humiliation to see his young son’s face light up.

As they’d walked away, Sara still laughing softly, Charlie had smiled up at him, clutching an ugly, red, stuffed dog that Jack had won by tossing rings onto bottles. "Daddy, you’re funny."

"Yeah," holding tight to the cane with one hand, Jack grasped Charlie’s tiny hand in the other, "daddy’s funny all right." He smiled down at his son wondering why the hell anyone would dye a stuffed dog red.

That was all it took. Suddenly, he’d been back there. Watching as one of the guards, a guy he’d nicknamed Stanley, had swung a two-by-four at the scrawny mutt that one of the POW’s had had the misfortune to befriend. The damn dog had been as skinny and as flea-infested as the men. Even in his own sorry condition, Jack had pitied it, and had once allowed it to lick the grease of some unidentifiable meal off his fingers – a privilege that even the dog itself seemed to recognize. Now the guard was beating the poor animal to death, as the man who’d tamed it screamed and sobbed like a kid, begging for the animal’s life as the guards had laughed. Jack could still hear the prisoner’s cries, the sound of wood hitting furred flesh, the yelps of confused pain. The dog’s final, shuddering breath hit him like a punch in the gut. Another life snuffed out; no more, no less important than any of them. The damn creature had even rated burial. The guards had forced its ‘owner’ to dig a grave and shove it inside. A week later, the man had been buried alongside it.

Jack had awakened from the memory curled up on the filthy ground, surrounded by empty popcorn bags, crusty candy apple sticks, and a crowd of gawking bystanders. Sara, laughing just moments before, was crying, trying to help him up even as he fought to escape her touch. Charlie stood to one side, little red dog dangling limply from his hand, wide eyes full of frightened tears. It had been one of the most horrifying, humiliating moments of his life. Unfortunately, it was one of many.

He kept a mental list. Places he refused to go because something there triggered a memory which had caused a flashback, or the mere possibility of one. Like the lobby of his bank where the canned music sounded like that played over the speakers to keep the prisoners from sleeping. Or the factory he wouldn’t drive past because the smell in the air reminded him of the odors that permeated the prison yard. Just last month, he’d crossed off the name of a local hardware store because the automatic doors sounded a little too much like the door of his cell slamming shut.

And places weren’t the only offenders. People. People were great little triggers. The young guy who sacked groceries at the mom and pop store reminded him of one of the prisoners who’d been shot in the head early on in Jack’s tenure. He’d discovered through trial and error that the kid only worked weekday mornings and Sunday afternoons, so he made a point of never shopping then. Or the family who’d moved two houses down from him last year. The wife looked an awful lot like one of the whores who’d regularly visited the guards at the camp. While the woman herself had done nothing wrong, she had been a shocked eyewitness to one of the worst beatings that Jack had had to endure. So, Jack avoided his new neighbors.

The list grew. Every year. He quietly added to it; had yet to cross anything off. Never admitting its existence to anyone, least of all himself. When the team wanted to eat at the nearby BBQ joint, Jack begged off – the sawdust covered floor too much like the floor of his prison cell. A jog through the park out near the Garden of the Gods, no can do – something about the path there reminded him of the trek to the oft-visited graveyard. He always offered some flimsy excuse that he was pretty sure his team didn’t buy. But how could he explain to them something he wasn’t sure he understood himself? Hell, sometimes, even he didn’t know why some place or person or thing set his teeth on edge.

Like now; like here. He had no idea what had triggered the trip back in time to the parachuting accident. He only knew that for him, it had been real. He had been there. He had felt it all – the pain, the heat, the fear, the desperation. It had been as real as the first time. Jack sat there, alone and in the dark, and for the first time in days, he wanted the reassuring presence of his team.

"O’Neill."

His radio squelching just as he thought of them made him jump. His hand trembling, his vision still not fully recovered, Jack reached for the radio he’d forgotten he had. "Yeah. Go ahead." He sounded so normal, he surprised even himself.

"Are you well?"

Jack frowned to himself. "Fine, T. What’s up?"

"We were concerned."

"Uh, just checking out the neighborhood. I’ll be there in a few. O’Neill out."

"Very well."

Okay, that was – odd. Jack sat a little longer, his vision slowly returning, before pushing and pulling himself to his feet. The headache he thought he’d had earlier was nothing compared to the current pounding behind his blurry eyes. Taking a couple of deep, preparatory breaths, Jack made his way towards the ladder leading up to the crowded common area. It was only about 100 feet away, but by the time he reached the base of it, he was exhausted and had to rest. Standing at the open edge of the cavern, he studied the night sky a moment before hooking his hands around the rungs of the wooden ladder and beginning his climb.

Between bouts of vertigo and the trembling of his arms and legs, it took nearly five minutes to climb a mere 30 feet. When he stepped onto the upper level, Carter and Teal’c were waiting. He must have looked as bad as he felt because Carter rushed forward to give him a hand up.

"Sir? Are you okay?"

Without immediately answering, Jack sat down, unable to disguise the shaking hands and the breathlessness. Carter and Teal’c knelt on either side of him, studying his face, looking concerned.

"O’Neill, you are ill."

He took a shaky breath, forcing a smile. "Just a bit."

"E’ba said something was wrong."

Jack looked at Carter. "What?"

"He and Tra’on went to Teal’c. Told him to check on you. That something was wrong."

Jack looked over towards the crowd that was still being enthralled by, and was still enthralling Daniel. E-bay and T-Bone sat to one side, looking over towards them. E-bay looked concerned; T-Bone smiled slightly and nodded his head towards Jack.

"Why would he say that?"

"O’Neill, these people appear to have unique abilities."

"Meaning?"

"Colonel, from what E’ba said, it seems these people are able to – I don’t know, sense things about us."

Jack frowned at her; his headache made it hard to think and his vision was still a bit wonky. "I don’t understand. Sense things."

"It’s like they can read our minds."

Jack felt a small surge of panic. "They’re reading our thoughts?"

"I don’t think so. Not exactly. I think it’s more general than that. It’s like they know our intentions, what we’re feeling."

"Counselor Troi."

"Sir?"

"That lady on the Enterprise could do that. Empathic or something." Jack looked at her. "Sara used to watch it."

"Of course." Carter smiled, and looked away.

"Are you feeling all right?"

Jack looked over at Teal’c. "I’m feeling better. Thanks." If these people really could read thoughts, Colonel Jack ‘the Pathological Liar’ O’Neill was royally screwed.

"Jack?" He was startled to find that E-bay was standing nearby, had approached without him realizing it. The alien smiled down at him. "You are not well."

"I’m – I’ll be fine. I think it was the blue stuff. Never been my favorite color."

E-bay tilted his head, the smile still in place, but for some reason Jack didn’t think the alien bought his story. Maybe there was something to this mind reading stuff. "You have traveled from far away. You should rest. I will show you to the place where you may sleep."

Jack looked over towards Daniel, who apparently had finally realized he was alone with the aliens and was looking around for his teammates. "Yeah. That’d be good. Carter, fetch Daniel. He’s looking lost."

"Yes, sir."

Teal’c stood up. "I will see to our gear."

"Great." Jack began struggling to his feet, and found an alien hand grasping his own, helping him. He suddenly realized it was the first time he had touched one of them. He was surprised at the warmth of E-bay’s skin. For some reason, he’d assumed anything that pale would have to be cold. He was also taken aback by the strength of the slight alien. Standing, Jack looked down on him.

"Can you climb?" E-bay pointed towards the ladder. "It is not far."

"Yeah. Sure."

"Jack," Daniel hurried over, dragging his pack and followed by Carter, "are you all right? Sam says you’re sick."

"I’m not sick, Daniel. Just a little–," he made a vague gesture with his hand. "E-bay’s going to show us to our quarters."

The alien smiled and led the way up the ladder. Trying not to show how weak and sick he really felt, Jack followed. By the time they reached the next level, he honestly thought he was going to go blind again. His vision had faded drastically on the trip up, and he had to stand, hands on his knees, waiting for it to come back.

"O’Neill?" Teal’c stood near him.

Jack straightened. "Fine. I’m fine." E-bay had stopped, was waiting on him, and Jack motioned the alien onward.

This level resembled the one two stories down, but there were fewer structures, and the ones that were here were larger. Maybe this is where they got the term ‘moving up in the world.’ Walking slowly, keeping an eye on Jack, E-bay led them to a large square building near the center of the cavern. Ducking his head, Jack followed the alien inside. It was laid out like all the other homes, just bigger. He did notice that the sleeping pads seemed thicker. Guess some things were universal – you bring out the good stuff for company. There was also a low table on the back wall complete with a large pitcher, cups, and a deep basin with a rough square of cloth folded over the edge.

"Uh, E’ba," Daniel sat his pack down on one of the sleeping pads, "where do we, um–," he blushed slightly.

E’ba smiled. "There is a small building just outside for your personal needs."

"Oh, thank you." Daniel smiled and looked relieved.

Jack sat down on one of the beds and leaned back against the wall, his head pounding.

"My home is just over there," E’ba pointed to his left. "If you need anything, please come to me." He looked over at Jack. "You are safe here. Rest."

Jack nodded, and the alien smiled and left. Not bothering to remove anything aside from his weapons, he stretched out on the mat, throwing an arm across his eyes.

"Sir?" He moved his arm and glanced at Carter, who was kneeling next to him, holding something out. "Aspirin."

Grimacing, he leaned up on one elbow and took the pills from her, washing them down with the water she offered. "Thanks, Major." He dropped back down and shut his eyes. As he began to doze off, he realized he’d forgotten to assign watch.

* * * * *

["I’m scared, dad."

Jack squeezed his eyes closed, unable to look as he felt the pressure of the muzzle against Charlie’s head, as his finger slowly curled around the trigger. The sidearm was going to go off. Any minute. Any second now a bullet was going to enter his son’s brain, snuff out his life. Again. Just like last time.

"I can’t go through this again," he sobbed. Jack opened his eyes, startled to find that his finger was pulling back on the trigger and that Hammond’s hands were no longer on his. But it was too late. Too late to take it back. And it was no one’s fault but his own. Too late.]

* * * * *

"Too late," he heard himself say as a shot rang out.

With a gasp, Jack sat up and looked around. He was in a strange room, sunlight streaming through an open doorway. He was alone. No, wait – there was movement near the back of the room. Sweating profusely, still feeling the effects of the now familiar nightmare, Jack squinted into the dim shadows of the far corner.

"You are Jack."

It was the voice of a child. Sitting up straighter, wiping his eyes, wondering if this was a continuation of the dream, Jack studied the darkness. Slowly, shyly, a very small, very pale alien stepped towards him. He was about the size of a three-year old child. But they were all small, so he might have been much older. He stood with his head tilted down, blonde bangs falling over his brows, looking up at Jack through wide blue eyes while with one small hand, he pulled on his bottom lip. Charlie used to do the same thing.

"You are Jack," he repeated softly.

He quietly cleared his throat. "Yes."

The child grinned, and the hand moved away from his mouth. "I am J’mi."

Jack stared, still struck by the proximity of a child so soon after the deadly dream. Absently, his hand dropped, assuring himself that the 9mm and his P90 still rested near the edge of his bed.

"Nice to meet you, Ge–," Jack grimaced, "Gemini."

The boy laughed, and took two steps closer. "They said you were funny."

‘Daddy, you’re funny.’

Jack rubbed his face, wiping away a layer of sweat, and forced a smile up at the child. "Suppose I am."

Jimmy squatted down a few feet in front of him, hands clasped together in front of him, still smiling broadly. "You are a warrior."

Jack nodded. "Yeah. Guess so."

"I’ve never met a true warrior before."

"Me neither." The boy cocked his head, and Jack took pity on him. "So, what do you think? Am I everything you imagined?"

Jimmy edged closer, sat down on the floor. "You are big. But not as big as Teal’c."

"No." Speaking of whom....

"But you are the leader." He sounded impressed.

"I try." Jack fumbled for his radio. "Carter, report."

"Morning, sir."

Jimmy flinched slightly as Jack’s radio came to life, but he didn’t move other than to lean forward, watching closely. Brave little fart. Jack studied him.

"What’s your position, Major?"

"We’re one level below, sir. Having – uh – breakfast."

Jack smiled at the uncertainty in her voice, something he wasn’t accustomed to hearing from her. "I’ll join you shortly. Tell Daniel to mind his manners."

"Yes, sir."

Jack dropped his hand back to his lap. "So, Jimmy, how old are you?"

"I am nine."

"Nine, huh? Wow, that’s – old." Older than Jack would have guessed anyway.

Jimmy nodded and puffed out his skinny, little chest. "I will be old enough to join father in the dance this year."

"Yeah? Cool. So, who’s your dad? E-bay?"

The boy nodded again, suddenly eyeing the weapons laying on the floor near Jack’s leg. "You must be very brave to be a warrior." Jimmy looked up at him with eyes that made Jack’s heart lurch.

"No." He picked up the weapons, securing the 9mm in his holster, and moving the P90 away from the kid, resting a hand on it. "Not really." He squeezed his hands into fists to hide the tremble that had settled there.

"J’mi!" At the sound of the harsh voice, both Jack and the boy turned. E-bay stood in the open doorway, frowning over at Jack’s young visitor. "I told you not to bother him."

"I didn’t wake him. I promise."

"Go on. Your mother needs your help, and La’tu and the others are waiting for you."

"Yes, father." Jimmy scrambled to his feet, then looked over at Jack and smiled. "I can show you how to play the hunt game."

Jack nodded. "I’d like that."

"Later, J’mi. Leave the man alone." E-bay stood to one side as the boy slipped past him, then he turned back to Jack.

"Nice kid."

"Thank you. You have a son."

Considering the fact that these guys could read minds, Jack wasn’t sure if it was intended as a question. He studied the alien, but the little guy had one up on him because he had no idea what the man was thinking. Slowly, Jack shook his head. "No."

"That is too bad."

Jack squinted. Too bad I don’t have a son? Or, too bad I don’t have a son any more? He started to rise to his feet, divert the direction of the conversation, but before he could move E-bay strode across the room and took his son’s place on the floor near Jack.

"You do not trust us."

He hesitated to respond. Where was Diplomat Daniel when he needed him? "No offense. I don’t trust anybody. Not at first." When E-bay said nothing, Jack glanced down at his hands, which were still curled into tight fists. When he looked back up, he saw that E-bay had followed his glance. He met the alien’s eyes. "It sort of comes with the job."

"You – protect the others." Jack stared at him. "Does no one protect you?"

"We sort of," Jack swallowed, "we sort of take care of each other."

"I see," E-bay nodded wisely. "But you are in charge. When things go wrong, you take responsibility."

Jack wished he had a clue where the guy was headed with this. "Yes. I suppose."

E-bay smiled. "The others are different. Carter and Daniel," he pronounced the names so clearly and distinctly that Jack felt a little ashamed at his own lack of proficiency in the name-remembering area, "they are – more open. They are excited and eager to learn what they can from us. Teal’c watches us, but he is not concerned."

If it were anyone but an alien he’d just met, Jack would have uttered his standard ‘and your point is...’ line right about here. Instead, he waited.

"But you do not trust us. You believe we mean to harm your people. You believe we hide something from you."

Jack paused, suddenly aware that his left fist was resting on the stock of his P90. "Are you? Hiding something?"

E-bay smiled. "No."

"You read our thoughts."

"No."

"Then how – last night. How did you know?"

"I sensed pain. No thoughts. Pain. And something else."

Jack lifted an eyebrow. "Something else."

E-bay closed his eyes and sighed, as if trying to remember. "Fear. Loneliness. Desperation." He opened his eyes, stared at Jack. "Regret," he added softly. Jack felt his pulse rate increase; he was sweating again. "You are still in pain, Jack. You carry it with you. It is a part of you. Why?"

Jack snorted, and looked up at the ceiling, over at the far wall, then back at E-bay. "You don’t happen to know a fellow by the name of McKenzie, do you? Went to school with him perhaps?" At the alien’s blank look, Jack laughed and shook his head. "Tell me, E-bay, what else can you chaps do, besides the biofeedback psychology gig, that is? Not that it’s not nice and all."

"The storm."

"Excuse me?"

"When you came through the ring of light the first time. The storm."

Jack had to think a minute. When understanding dawned on him, he felt like he’d been punched in the gut. No, maybe kneed in the groin was a more apt description. "You did that?" He knew he sounded disbelieving.

E-bay nodded.

"You – what? Made us see a storm?"

"No. The storm was real."

"And you caused it? Created it?"

"Yes." E-bay smiled kindly.

Holy crap! Shit! Jack wanted to run a hand over his face, wipe away the shock he knew must be evident there, but he was afraid to move. Afraid because he’d just discovered that this was the friggin’ prom and he’d been dancing with Carrie all evening. Holy shit!

Trying his best to not show the effect the alien’s calm confession was having on him, Jack smiled over at E-bay. "How do you do that?"

E-bay shrugged. "It is difficult. It takes many of us, together with the Elder, to do such a thing. But when we knew the ring of light was being used, the Elder made us remember the old stories of the evil gods, and we were afraid. We hoped to drive you back through the ring."

"Well," the fingers of Jack’s left hand uncurled and wrapped slowly around the grip of the P90, "it worked."

"Yes. It is a long way to the ring. By the time we understood that you meant us no harm, it was too late."

"But you knew we’d be back."

E-bay nodded. "We knew the one called Carter was determined to return."

"Yeah, I just bet she was." Jack thought a moment. "The path. You made it the same way?"

"Yes. To welcome you."

Jack studied the odd little creature sitting in front of him. The thought of this guy, of anyone, digging around inside his head, poking through his thoughts freaked him out. Pissed him off. But they hadn’t really done anything. Didn’t seem to have anything but the best of intentions. Had been anything but threatening. So far.

"You mentioned the Elder. Who or what is the Elder?"

"The Elder," E-bay reiterated as if Jack should know.

"Oh. Okay. So, I take it that’s not you."

E-bay smiled. "No."

"Of course not."

"But I am of the Elder’s lineage."

"So he’s, what, your granddad or something?"

The alien seemed to consider Jack’s question. "Perhaps. I believe so."

Jack nodded, still not sure he understood. "Anything else I should know about?"

E-bay cocked his head.

"You guys get a little ticked off, you rain down boulders on us or something?" If the guy could read his thoughts, he might as well be upfront.

"No," the alien laughed, shaking his head at the question. "Of course not." Still chuckling, he spoke as if to a child. "There are natural laws, Jack. Laws that cannot be broken. We cannot make boulders appear from the sky."

"Of course. But you could, say," Jack looked around him, "bring the mountain down on us."

E-bay seemed to think about that. "It would be extremely hard. Even the path was difficult."

"Well, we wouldn’t want you to go out of your way or anything."

The two sat quietly, watching each other, thinking. Finally, E-bay stood.

"We would welcome you to share our meal."

Jack nodded. "Yeah. Sure. I’ll – I’ll be there in a minute."

He watched E-bay leave, then drew up his knees and crossed his arms over them, resting his aching head. What the hell had they gone and gotten themselves into this time?

* * * * *

It was warm on the mountain top. Jack followed Jimmy, letting the boy lead him across the flat, grassy mesa that formed the top of the mountain sheltering the cliff city.

"Jack," Jimmy called to him, waving him forward.

He raised a hand in return, hoping the kid stopped sometime soon. He’d not realized when he’d agreed to go that the boy was going to lead him quite so far away from where Carter was cataloguing samples of the local plant life. As Jack watched, Jimmy disappeared over a small rounded horizon formed by a mound on the northwestern slope of the mesa. Hiking towards the point of the boy’s disappearance, his mind drifting back to a much warmer, much more painful, nine-day sojourn alone across another foreign landscape, Jack was taken aback as he stepped up onto the high point of the swollen mound of rock.

He could almost hear Carter’s ‘holy Hannah’ echoing across the deep crevasse of the canyon stretching out beneath him. It was a lot like looking at the Grand Canyon from the northern rim. Only different. Familiarity in an alien setting. The knee-high grass that covered the mesa converged with small, distorted looking, leafy trees that grew along the upper rim, tapering off as the canyon yawned deep into the Earth – or Planet Pissed, as the case may be. The dirt itself was also different. Instead of the reddish brown hues one would expect, the layers here were vibrant shades of color leaning towards the violet end of the spectrum. Alien, foreign, achingly familiar; a sight that held him captive and yet made him yearn for the real thing, for home.

"Jack!" He looked down and over, tracing the sound of the young voice. Jimmy was standing approximately 15 feet below him on a ledge wide enough to be safe, and narrow enough to provoke fear in the hearts of any mother, or father for that matter. Then it dawned on him that Jimmy and his people spent their lives hanging precariously from the mountainsides. Jack looked back across the vast gorge ripped through the heart of the planet, and breathed deeply before following the steep, narrow path that led to the boy’s hideaway.

He dropped the last few feet onto the ledge and found himself standing in front of a dark cavern. Jimmy stood a few feet inside the entrance, a lighted torch already in hand, smiling proudly.

"See! I told you. It’s our secret place. La’tu’s and mine. Come on."

As the boy stepped into the dark depths, Jack took one last glance over the ledge and then ducked his head and followed Jimmy inside. The cavern was just over six-foot high, less in a lot of places, and Jack had to walk with one hand brushing the rocky ceiling, feeling for outcrops that threatened to remove a large portion of his skull. From what he could tell, it was about 20 feet across at the entrance, narrowing into a funnel-like formation that led to the heart of the mountain. Ahead of him, Jimmy’s small torch lit their way foot by foot. The boy was obviously on familiar turf, and chattered, walking backwards, and smiling up at Jack as he told him all about the great things he and La’tu had done here.

"Isn’t it wonderful?"

Jack ducked his head at one last, low-hanging rock and stepped inside a huge cavern. The edges of it disappeared far beyond the reaches of Jimmy’s meager torch, but from the echo of their footsteps and the boy’s voice, it was obviously vast. It didn’t rise up so much as it dropped away beneath them. They must have been tunneling downhill, because the ceiling was at least three stories high from where he stood on a wide, slick ledge. Jack could hear water dripping somewhere in the distance.

Jimmy headed off to the right and Jack followed, gawking like a country boy on his first trip to the big city. He was three feet into his descent to the cavern floor when he realized they were on a set of smooth, worn steps. Old, ancient, but definitely not natural. Someone or something had carved it millenia ago.

"How big is this place?"

"Big." Jimmy hopped down a few feet, the light bobbing across the cold, dark walls. "Watch it. That step is broken."

Jack carefully stepped over the missing riser and suddenly found himself standing next to his young friend on the floor of the underground cathedral.

"Holy shi–," he looked down at the child. "Sorry. Holy cow."

"La’tu and I have spent many hours here. There’s a room over there." He pointed with the torch. "It has stuff in it. We play games here. You know, just pretend stuff." He wandered away, leaving Jack in a huge dome of darkness lit by a small, glowing child. "There’s writing here. On this wall. And over there."

Jack stumbled over loose stones on the floor, wishing he’d brought his flashlight. "Daniel’s gotta see this," he mumbled.

"What?" Jimmy’s voice echoed to him from 50 feet away.

"I said, can I bring my friend, Daniel, to see this?"

The boy stared at him, seemed to hesitate. "Do we have to?"

"I’d like to. It might be important."

"But La’tu and I swore we wouldn’t show it to anybody. I wasn’t supposed to bring you here."

Jack smiled, knowing the boy couldn’t see it in the darkness. "Well, you didn’t really break your promise. My friends and I are leaving day after tomorrow. No one will ever know. So, can I bring my team?" He could see the boy thinking about it. "I’ll make them swear not to tell the others."

Jimmy looked over at him, squinting to find him in the darkness. "Okay. But they have to swear."

Smiling, thinking about the fact that boys were pretty much the same everywhere, Jack blinked and rubbed his eyes, his headache suddenly back. He reeled slightly without taking a step. Suddenly, he was surrounded by fireflies. Swirling, flashing, lighting up the dark expanse of the cavern.

Stumbling, Jack tried to call out, to warn the boy. He didn’t want to scare him. But before he could even speak the name, there was an agonizing flash of bright light and Jimmy was gone. Jack was no longer in a cavern on a planet he’d jokingly nicknamed Pissed. He was back there. Back in time. 1985. Nicaragua. Being dragged down a filthy, rat-infested hallway, his bruised body and injured feet bringing tears of pain to his eyes.

* * * * *

[Forced into a chair and held in place by strong vice-like hands that clamped down tightly on his shoulders, Jack swallowed the bile of fear that rose in his throat. He knew how to handle this. They had taught him in Ops training. Been very specific how to act and what you could or could not say when being questioned by the enemy. He and Frank had joked that there was a better chance for them to behave correctly if captured than they would if the General’s wife invited them to a tea party.

It wasn’t so funny now. Now that he was actually putting theory into practice for the first time. Please God, let this be the last time he ever had to go through something like this. Because dammit, it had seemed a lot simpler when he wasn’t sitting half naked in front of a man with the eyes of a shark, who was looking at him like he was going to be the guy’s next meal.

"You are a child killer."

The statement caught Jack off guard, though he should have expected it or some other surprise attack, an attempt to confuse the prisoner into blurting out information.

Recovering his balance, Jack answered as confidently as he could muster, "Nope, you got the wrong guy. I’m a greeting card salesman. I was hoping to get into coffee beans, but I kinda figure that’s a wash, so I may as well go back to cards."

"You see Colonel, it is just as I told you," the captain blurted out. "He is a liar." He froze and shrank against the wall as Vicente turned his icy eyes towards him.

With no warning the colonel turned and brought a heavy boot down on Jack’s unprotected toes.

Jack let out a choked gasp of pain. The hands on his shoulders tightened their grip as he strained to escape.

Ignoring the eyes brimming with pain, Vicente ground down harder as if crushing the discarded butt of a cigarette. "Now, Americano, will you cease your foolish chatter and tell me the truth? Who are you and what are you doing here?"

His teeth gritted in an effort not to scream, Jack looked the man in the eye. His voice was ragged with pain. "My name’s Bob Valentine. I came to start a new business." It took all his will not to cry out as Vicente took a step back and then once again stomped down with crippling force on the other foot. Sweat beaded on Jack’s forehead and he swallowed again and again trying desperately to get enough saliva down his parched throat to keep himself from gagging.

"You are a liar, Americano. And a poor one at that. You come down here from the United States to cause trouble for my country. The CIA sent you to provide guns and supplies to the Contra rebels. You and your people kill our children with your interference."

Jack shook his head, "No, you got it wrong."

Vicente stepped back and gave Jack one of his glacial smiles. "We shall see, Americano, we shall see."

Walking over to the desk, Vicente picked up a manila folder. Slowly tapping the folder with one finger he turned and walked back to Jack. "Would you like to see what your interference has wrought, SeZor ...Valentine?"

Thrusting the folder towards Jack he ordered, "Look and see what you are responsible for!"

Trying desperately to regain some control of the situation, Jack focused on calming his breathing. "You know, that could be a problem, Colonel, I seem to have misplaced my reading glasses."

Vicente’s face grew hard. "I have warned you once what will happen if you choose to defy me. For your own good, you would be wise not to continue to toy with me."

His attempt to shrug was easily thwarted by the pair of guards book ending him. Picking up the file, Jack slowly began to leaf through the pictures.

The pictures were graphic ... sickening. Dead and dying women, young and old, and children lying in the streets, gutters, and fields. There were children crying over the bodies of their mothers and mothers clutching dead children to their breasts. Some of the bodies had been mutilated. In no picture was there a soldier dying a soldier’s death, only the weak and innocent.

When he had finished viewing every shot, Jack looked up at Vicente who had been leaning against the desk observing his reaction. "In my country we call this propaganda, and not even very good propaganda at that. I’m truly sorry these people died. But truthfully, they could just as easily have been Contra supporters killed by your own forces. So I’m sorry, Colonel, but these don’t prove anything other than war sucks."

Snatching the file from Jack’s hands, Vicente turned and flung it at the desk scattering pictures across the floor. "It is time I teach you some manners, Americano." He picked up a large knife, played with it, testing its balance and weight, and stood staring at his prisoner, a leer of anticipation lighting his dark features.

"Perhaps we will begin by teaching you Americanos not to stick your noses where they do not belong." One of the guards caught hold of Jack’s head, stretching it back painfully until he could not move. Vicente allowed minutes to pass, as he enjoyed the near panic in his prisoner’s eyes. When he deemed enough time had passed to heighten the fear through anticipation, he slowly pressed the knife next to Jack’s nose and allowed the blade to kiss the skin.

Sweat stung Jack’s eyes and he could taste the fear building up in his chest until it consumed his senses.

Enough pressure was slowly added to the knife until the blade sliced through the skin and Jack could feel a trickle of blood flowing down his face.

"Where is the location of the rebel camp?" Vicente’s eyes sought to bore past the line of defense Jack was fighting desperately to build.

Unable to even shake his head, Jack closed his eyes and whispered, "I don’t know."

He was caught off guard when the knife was removed and the agonizing pressure on his head was released. But before he could feel any sense of relief, Jack was dragged over to the desk and forced on his knees in front of it. His arm was laid on the hard wood and held in a vice-like grip. The barrel of the machine gun pressed against the back of his head assured he would not move.

He could sense Vicente’s presence, but couldn’t locate his exact position with his head pressed against the hard wood of the desk.

"I think you are a soldier, Mr. Valentine. A very good soldier."

Jack could hear the tap ...tap ...tap of the knife against the desk top. Sweat was running down his back now, stinging the cuts and abrasions from the earlier beating. But el capitan’s little bash was beginning to seem like a picnic compared to the shit this guy was dealing out. He had a really bad feeling about what was coming down the tarmac.

So Jack concentrated on the things he could control, like breathing. Breathing was good. Swallowing, that was a good one, too. It was harder to accomplish with his mouth desert dry, but it was something to work towards. What else? Thinking, yeah, that bastard couldn’t stop him from thinking about Sara and the baby.

Jack found out rapidly how wrong he was when the heavy steel blade of the knife was scraped slowly across the back of his hand and up the exposed flesh of his arm. Its caress mocked the man who was desperately trying to cling to thoughts of his wife’s touch.

Vicente’s voice purred like the tiger ready to devour its prey. "Will your army still want you if you are missing your fingers, or will you become useless to them? Perhaps it would be enough to remove only your trigger finger to keep you from murdering more of my people. What do you say now, Americano? Shall I put just a little pressure on the knife and slice off the finger you so foolishly pointed in the direction of the Sandinistas?"

Jack felt the blade bite into his skin. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and clenched his teeth to keep from screaming out as the knife sliced a fraction deeper. ‘Oh God. No. Don’t let this maniac do this. Please.’]

* * * * *

"Please!" His own cries echoed wildly, rousing him. He was curled on his right side, on a rough, hard surface. He was freezing. His left hand was cradling his right protectively against his chest. Something sharp was gouging him in the hip, and he could feel a small circle of cold fire on the back of his head – an imprint left by the barrel of the machine gun.

"Jack? Jack, what’s wrong?"

A child’s voice. Quivering, scared. Charlie? Shaking, surrounded by darkness and confusion, Jack tried to lever himself up, gasping at the pain in his hip. His feet. Oh, God. His feet. Despite the pain, he stretched his left hand towards the darkness, blind to the torch a few short feet away.

"Charlie," he whispered.

"Jack?

"Charlie, I can’t see you." Still panting, heart racing, Jack pulled himself across the uneven surface, groaning against the pain in his lower extremities, desperately seeking his son.

"I’m not Charlie. I’m J’mi. Remember?" The kid sounded like he’d been crying.

Jack stopped; breathing shallowly, leaning on one elbow, blinking against the darkness that engulfed him. Not Charlie? Comprehension eluding him, his body screaming out in remembered pain, Jack lowered himself back down to the floor.

"I don’t–," he gulped loudly, and rubbed his eyes, blinking furiously. "I can’t see."

"I’ll get help."

"Wait!" Panicked, Jack forced himself into a sitting position. "Don’t leave me." He heard a sound on his right, and turned his head, squinting. He could make out a vague circle of flickering orange. Not Charlie. J’mi. "Jimmy?"

The child sobbed in relief. "Yes. It’s me. What’s – I don’t know what happened." He was sobbing quietly, openly now. Unashamed.

"Jimmy." Jack’s vision was slowly returning, and he could see a pale figure squatting a few feet away. "I – oh, God." It had happened again. In front of a child this time. Nicaragua. The jail. The mission that had so nearly killed Frank Cromwell and himself. Frank stabbed. Jack beaten and tortured, nearly drowned, his elbow dislocated. They’d barely made it out alive, and not without loss of life to their rescuers.

Jack sobbed dryly and pressed his hands against his blurry eyes. Oh, God. What was happening to him? He was losing it. The absolute worse case scenario – PTSD. In the field. On a mission. With people counting on him.

The boy forgotten for the moment, Jack sat there, the pain in his feet slowly receding until all that remained was the throbbing in his head and a dull ache in his right hip. He felt a soft touch on his shoulder, and he jumped, lowering his hands. His vision, while still narrowed to a small circle, was coming back. Jimmy sat beside him, torch in one hand and the other resting on Jack’s shoulder.

"Are you all right, Jack?"

He stared at the boy for a moment before nodding. "I’m okay." Jack looked down to see that he was once more cradling his right hand, trying to protect it from a distant threat. "I’m sorry I scared you, Jimmy. I shouldn’t have done that."

"Father said something is wrong with you. Are you sick?" Even though he had stopped crying, Jack could still see the wet tracks glistening on the boy’s face, and could hear the threat of more tears waiting to be shed. He felt a wave of shame wash through him.

"It’s not like that. It’s–," Jack stopped, unable, unwilling to put it into words.

"It’s something here," and Jimmy’s hand moved from Jack’s shoulder to rest gently, warmly on Jack’s chest, over his beating heart.

It was so like the touch of that other Charlie, the crystal image of his son, that Jack felt something in him tighten, threaten to break. He gasped softly, and raised a hand, laid it over the small, comforting one. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead gently grasped the tiny, pale hand and pulled it away, unable to stand the boy’s innocent, well-meaning touch.

"I can’t talk about it. It’s just – it’s something that happens sometimes to old warriors."

"Is it a wound? Something you got in battle?"

Despite the circumstances, Jack smiled. "Yeah. That’s it exactly."

The boy nodded. "Should I get Carter? Or Teal’c?"

"No." Jack shook his head. His vision was nearly back, and he recognized that a large part of the darkness he saw was real, the cavern itself. He still felt a little lost, shaken, but he knew where he was. When he was. And aside from the aching in his head and hip, the ghost pains were gone, back in the past. With a mighty effort, he pushed himself to his knees, then to his feet. A tiny, pale hand wrapped around his forearm, needing to help. As he stood, swaying slightly, Jack dropped a hand on the boy’s soft hair and looked around for the stairs.

"It’s this way, Jack. Come on. I’ll help you."

Jack let Jimmy lead him out of the dark crevasse.

* * * * *

The fire in the large pit popped and snapped loudly. Jack stared into the hypnotic flames, unaware of the activity around him as the aliens and his team ate dinner and talked companionably. Watching the fingers of flame, Jack himself was being watched, surreptitiously, by humans and aliens alike. By different means, each group knew there was something wrong with the tall human, but neither knew what the problem was. Pushing his food around on his plate, Jack didn’t notice Jimmy and Daniel anxiously hovering.

‘You are a child killer,’ Colonel Vicente had declared. Years ago. Prophetic. The same man who’d laughed and toyed with the list of possible baby names that Sara had sent to Jack, a list that he had foolishly allowed to fall into his enemies’ hands. Another weapon to be used against him.

‘You are a child killer.’

Jack shut his eyes, trying not to see the scene in the gate room, shoving away the memory of putting a gun to his son’s temple and pulling the trigger. No, not a memory, Jack. A nightmare. That’s all.

And the others? Nicaragua. Iraq. Were those nightmares as well?

His hip still aching, he shifted his weight and looked down, suddenly realizing he was holding a plateful of food. He set the plate on the ground beside him, and stared into the fire.

Nightmares? Hell, yes. But nightmares of the worst kind because they were real.

They were blending – the nightmares, the memories. They were becoming one. He could see it, feel it happening. Just last week, sitting at home, he and Teal’c had watched a National Geographic Special about the mating habits of Anacondas. At the time, he’d inwardly cringed at the sight of a huge ball of twisting, writhing serpents. It had been impossible to distinguish them, and the scientists studying them had been unable to pry the damn things apart. That’s what he’d become: a writhing mass of indistinguishable parts. Blending and swirling until he was unsure what had happened, what was merely imagined.

Sighing, Jack rubbed a hand across his tired eyes, and looked up to find Daniel and Jimmy watching him. How long had they been here? "Hey."

Daniel nodded. "Hey, Jack. You doing okay?"

In response, he smiled tightly, and nodded his head towards the boy. "Jimmy and I have a secret we want to share with you tomorrow. Right, Jimmy?"

The boy forced a smile, clearly worried about something. "Yes."

"What is it?"

"I just told you. It’s a secret." Jack winked at Jimmy, who glanced wide-eyed up at Daniel. "We’re going to take you somewhere, but you’ll have to swear an oath of secrecy before we can let you in on it. It’s a rule."

Daniel smiled down at the small boy. "Okay. Sounds interesting. Does it have anything to do with you two disappearing today?"

Jimmy’s eyes darted over to Jack, who grimaced and looked back at Daniel. "Yeah. Yeah, as a matter of fact, it does." He had to hand it to the kid. He was a trooper. During the climb out of the cavern, Jack had still been shaky on his feet, having to stop often to let his vision clear. Jimmy had taken his hand and had reversed their roles, taking charge, leading the mighty warrior up to the daylight as if he were the small child. And Jack had let him. Had had no choice really.

The walk across the mesa had been quiet, subdued. Nothing more was said about the strange incident. The kid hadn’t asked a single question, as if Jack’s meager explanation had been sufficient. And when they had met up with Carter, the boy hadn’t said a word. Not even when Carter had pointed out that Jack wasn’t looking well. He and Jimmy had shared a glance, but nothing more had passed between them.

"J’mi," a tiny woman approached and glancing at the humans, held out a hand to the boy, "it is time for bed."

"Yes, mother."

As the boy stepped past him, Jack gently grabbed a tiny arm in his hand, stopping him. "You okay, buddy?"

The boy studied him. "Yes," then tiny arms were circling his neck, hugging him warmly, tightly. Jack squeezed his eyes shut as other, bittersweet memories tugged at him. "Sleep well, Jack."

He patted the tiny back. "You, too, kid." It took a few minutes before he was able to face Daniel again. "We need to talk. But not here."

Daniel frowned slightly. "What’s wrong, Jack?"

"Why do you assume it’s bad?"

"Isn’t it?"

"No. Not all of it anyway." Jack glanced around as if noticing the crowd of aliens for the first time. "It can wait. You should mingle. This is what you live for after all."

"Yeah." Daniel nodded almost absently, still watching him curiously.

"Daniel, would you quit worrying. Please. We’ll talk later. At the hotel. Now, go." Daniel sat there, not moving. "Do I have to make that an order, Dr. Jackson?"

"Okay, Jack. We’ll talk later." He stood up. "But I’m holding you to that."

"My word of honor."

Daniel smirked. "You’ll have to do better than that."

Jack chuckled softly as the man walked away. His laughter dying quickly, he glanced around and spied E-bay and T-Bone sitting side by side, watching him. When they noticed him looking, they smiled and lifted their cups to him. Jack nodded, then turned his tired gaze back to the fire. Twenty minutes later, he slipped away unnoticed.

When the team entered their quarters over two hours later, the small fire in the center of the room softly illuminated Jack, who was sitting on his sleeping mat, leaning back against the wall. He had dozed restlessly before pulling himself out of the nightmarish gate room just as the 9mm went off and Hammond muttered, ‘Colonel, you are a child killer.’ Thirty minutes later, he was sitting in the same position, struggling not to replay the scene in his mind, instead trying to concentrate on what he needed to say to his team and how best to say it.

"Sir." Carter dropped down onto her mat across the room, staring at him from beyond the flames. As Teal’c and Daniel followed suit, an uneasy silence permeated the small room.

"You said we needed to talk." Of course it would be Daniel who broke the silence.

Jack glanced over at him. "Yeah. But first, what did you guys find out today?"

Carter had spent most of the day topside. She had found no traces of naquadah or trinium, or any of the other minerals for which she typically searched, but she had managed to take samples of numerous varieties of the local plant life. Mostly, she had concentrated on those cultivated by the natives for food. Tomorrow, she hoped to go with the local healer to obtain samples of healing herbs that she was told grew wild on the mesa.

Daniel and Teal’c had stuck together. Daniel had found nothing which surprised him. The natives were, it seemed, everything they appeared to be – a civilization similar in lifestyle and technology to the ancient Anasazi. In fact, Daniel suspected that they were actually descendants of the Anasazi who had mysteriously disappeared from the American Southwest hundreds of years previous. Daniel was excited to think that the mystery might finally be solved; but once again was frustrated by the thought that even if his theory proved correct, he wouldn’t be able to share the knowledge with anyone outside the SGC.

Teal’c had kept a particular eye out for any weapons the natives might be using. Aside from knives, axes, spears and a few bows, he had seen no other weaponry, certainly nothing to indicate Goa’uld technology was being utilized. All in all, there seemed to be nothing to worry about. Except, of course, for the mind reading curve they’d been thrown.

"What about you, sir?"

"A couple of things, actually. First, according to E-bay, these people can – effect changes using their minds."

"What sorts of things?"

Jack looked at Daniel. "The storm, for instance. The one when we first came here? Seems they drummed it up, so to speak, to try to drive us away. Then, when they figured out we weren’t here to hurt them, and that we were coming back, they made us a path."

"Shit." The curse from Carter was rare, and a good indication that she was as freaked out about the idea as he had been.

"They can’t do just anything. Seems there are some laws of nature here that even they can’t bend. Still, I wouldn’t go pissing them off." Jack paused as his team took in the concept. "And, seems it takes a whole bunch of these dudes along with someone they call the Elder to create some of these effects. Sounds like it wears them out. So, chances are, they have to re-fuel between performing their little magic acts."

"God, just think of the damage they could do." Even Daniel was stunned by the ramifications. Good.

"Now, on a more pleasant note." Jack looked at the archaeologist. "My little friend, Jimmy, showed me a cavern today where he and his buddies play. You’re gonna love this."

Daniel blinked, clearly trying to re-focus on the new subject. "I am?"

"There’s a room full of goodies. And lots of writing on the walls." Daniel’s eyes were already lighting up, and he sat up straighter. Too late, it dawned on Jack that he’d probably just sent Daniel on an adrenalin surge that would keep him up half the night. "Hell, there’s even a staircase carved right out of the rock. The place is huge."

"What kind of goodies, sir?"

Jack ignored her question. "So, I suggest that tomorrow Daniel and I go back there. Teal’c, why don’t you stick with Carter. Help her with her samples. You guys get done in time, you can join up with us. It’s easy enough to find."

"So what kind of goodies did you find?"

He looked over at her, unable to ignore her for a second time. "I don’t know."

"Well, were they weapons, tools? Did they look like Goa’uld technology?"

"I said, I don’t know."

Carter blinked at his harsh tone. "Oh."

"I didn’t – I didn’t get a chance to really look at them."

"What about the writing, Jack? Did it look like anything you’ve seen before?" At Jack’s glare, Daniel smirked and ducked his head. "Right. It all looks like squiggly lines to you. Never mind."

As the rest of his team began discussing the significance of his find, and the possibilities it offered, Jack grew quiet. Staring at his boots, his fingers absently playing with the strap of his P90, he was unaware of when they turned their attention back to him.

"Jack?"

"Huh?" He jumped, startled. "What?"

Daniel frowned. "I said, is that all."

Jack looked down at the knot he’d managed to tie in the strap, studied it. Without being aware of it, he’d somehow managed to tie a small Spanish bowline.

"Sir?"

"No, it’s not." He sat up, grimacing against the stiffness that had settled in his back and his hip. Shifting his weight to the left, he settled into a new position. Toyed with the perfect knot.

"O’Neill, if one has something to say, it is best to say it."

Irritated, he looked over at the calm Jaffa. "How very profound, T." Jack shook his head and tossed the strap away from him. Finally, he sighed. "There’s a problem. We – I have a little problem." He blinked, rubbed his eyes. ‘You are a child killer, Colonel.’ His pulse beginning to thud wildly, Jack rubbed his neck, then without thinking, pulled his 9mm from his holster. He froze, stunned to realize that every one of them had tensed at his action. Carter’s hand had dropped and was resting on the grip of her weapon.

Was this how far he had come? They trusted him that little? His insides hurting, he spoke softly, "I’m not going to shoot you, Carter." Slowly, he held the weapon up, pointing it towards the ceiling, and dropped the clip onto the mat between his legs. Without looking, using touch only, he stared at her and began dismantling the sidearm. All he’d wanted was something to do with his hands; what he’d gotten instead was a painful lesson in reality.

Carter’s mouth moved, she licked her lips. "I’m sorry, I–," she moved her hand to her lap.

"The dream."

"What?" Jack glared at Daniel.

"That’s the problem, isn’t it? You’re still having the nightmare."

He blinked, shook his head.

"You have it every night."

"No." He shook his head again, looked down at the metal carcass in his hands. "That’s not the problem, Daniel."

"You wake up screaming, running, and you say that’s not–"

"Just shut up about the damn dream!" Jack was trembling, sweating. He could hear his own heart beating at his temples in the raw silence. The fire popped, and he flinched. He inhaled deeply through his nose, calming himself. "I can – I can deal with the dream."

It took guts. It took Daniel. "Then, what?"

‘You are a child killer.’ The weapon clattered to the mat as Jack pressed both hands against his eyes. He wanted them gone. The flashbacks. His team. He’d been through this. Had worked his way out the other side. He didn’t do this. Not anymore. Colonel O’Neill did not do this. The author of that old book was wrong: once was enough. And he’d been through it times beyond counting. He was done with it all. It was in the past.

"What can’t you deal with, Jack?"

He lowered his hands, looked into the flames. "Flashbacks," his voice was cold, distant. "You need to be aware that I’m," he squinted at the fire, "having flashbacks." He heard Carter whisper ‘PTSD,’ but he didn’t stop, didn’t look at her. "Yes. PTSD. I had an – episode last night. Another today. Obviously, I’m jeopardizing the mission. Carter, we should consider that I may be unfit to remain in command."

"Jack, no."

"Daniel–"

"Just because you’re–"

"Stop!" Jack finally looked at him. "Have you ever witnessed a flashback, Daniel? Have you?" The archaeologist didn’t answer. Jack looked over at Teal’c, his voice when he spoke was harsh, angry. "You?" Teal’c nodded solemnly. Jack looked across the fire at Carter. "What about you, Major? Ever had the pleasure?"

She nodded. "Once."

"Care to share?"

"Sir?"

"Enlighten Dr. Jackson."

"Well," Carter looked down, clearly uncomfortable, "it was an instructor in one of my classes at the Academy. Major Pearce. He was speaking about the geography of the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq. Nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, he’d been discussing it for days. We all – we all talked about it afterwards, trying to figure out what had triggered it. We never knew." She seemed lost in thought.

"What happened?"

Sam jumped, startled out of her thoughts. "He was talking, pointing out something on a map on the overhead. Before we realized what was happening, he had pushed over the podium and was," she hesitated and glanced briefly at Jack, "he was trying to pull the students out of their seats and onto the floor. He was crawling up the aisles, screaming at us to get down. Cussing at us, telling us we were all going to get our heads blown off. He said that we were under attack, and he was yelling for air support." Sam stopped.

"How long did the episode last, Major?"

"Um, I don’t know. Three, four minutes, I suppose."

"Was he armed?"

"No. Of course not."

"What if he’d been armed?"

"I don’t–"

"Would he have drawn his weapon?"

She didn’t answer.

"If you had approached him, if he’d thought you were the enemy, would he have used his weapon?"

Sam hesitated. "Yes. I guess he would have. But he–"

"What?" Jack’s voice was bitter, unforgiving.

"He didn’t realize who we were. It wasn’t his fault. He was a wonderful instructor. He was such a great guy. Sir, we didn’t think any less of him because of what happened. I felt sor–," she stopped, realizing her mistake.

"You felt sorry for him," he whispered.

"Jack, he didn’t hurt them."

"He wasn’t armed, Daniel!" When the younger man didn’t respond, Jack lowered his voice. "Do you have any idea what can happen in the space of four minutes? Three?"

Daniel shared a glance with Carter, who looked pale in the firelight, still lost in thought. Teal’c was calmly watching their CO, his face unreadable.

"A flashback is not a dream, Jackson. It’s not a damn nightmare that hits when you lay your head on your fluffy, little pillow and go nightie night. And no one comes along and shakes you, or calls out your name, and you miraculously awaken. I wish to God it worked that way, but it doesn’t. You don’t believe me? Then ask my ex-wife." He shifted his weight; his nostrils flaring slightly as he attempted to calm his breathing.

Jack rubbed his left hand over his face, grimacing. "It hits without warning. It takes over. It has all the finesse and subtlety of a damn snakehead." Looking desperate, he stared at Daniel. "Am I making my point here?" Daniel nodded, and Jack shook his head in disgust. A man of words who never listened, never seemed to hear what Jack was saying. "You have no concept of what I’m talking about, do you?"

"It’s just – I know you, Jack."

He tilted his head back, looked up at the dark ceiling, chuckling softly. "Really?"

"Deep down, I know you would never do anything to hurt any of us."

"See, that’s where you’re wrong."

Jack moved so quickly that Daniel didn’t have time to comprehend what was happening. Suddenly, Jack was kneeling in front of him, and had the barrel of a fully assembled 9mm pressed firmly against the center of his forehead. Aside from a slight tremor in his hand, Jack looked for all the world like a man ready to kill.

"Bang," he said softly, and lowered the weapon. "You’re dead."

* * * * *

Jack had grown weary of listening to Daniel tossing and turning throughout the night. Apparently, the man was sleeping no better than Jack himself. He would have liked to think it was due to an adrenalin rush brought on by the thought of Jimmy’s cavern, but he was afraid it had more to do with fear than excitement. Finally, around 0300, Jack had given up. As he was making his way past Daniel’s sleeping mat, he was stopped by a soft voice.

"Jack?"

He hesitated. "Go back to sleep."

"Are you all right?"

‘What about you, Daniel? All better after having had a loaded gun shoved to your head? By your best friend, no less?’ That’s what he should have said. "I just need some air."

He heard the rustling of cloth. "I’ll come with you."

"No." He said it too quickly. "I think it – it’d be best if you didn’t." Biting his lip, he wondered when he’d turned back into the cold-hearted bastard that had gone to Abydos to commit genocide. "Daniel?"

There was a lengthy delay during which he could hear Sam’s soft snores from across the room.

"Sure. If that’s what you want."

"Yeah. It is."

Jack had spent the remainder of the night sitting up against the ladder on the outer rim of the cliff. He watched the night sky, studied it, tried in vain to recognize something, anything, familiar. He kept telling himself it was the same. That nothing had changed. He was just looking at it all wrong. He smiled. Maybe he and McKenzie thought more alike than he cared to imagine.

Just before dawn, he dozed, and was awakened less than an hour later by the feeling that he wasn’t alone. He opened his eyes, turned his head, and stared at E-bay’s profile. Jack supposed the alien was handsome in a pale, opaque sort of way. He wasn’t ugly anyway. And he seemed like a nice guy, albeit a bit too mellow for Jack’s taste. Hell, the man made Teal’c seem hyper.

E-bay stared out across the low, rolling foothills. "It is beautiful here, is it not?" Finally, he looked over at Jack, that serene smile plastered on his face. As usual.

"Yeah. It is."

"Is it beautiful where you come from?"

Jack turned away. Now that the alien sun was rising, he could make out the undulating horizon, the trees that carpeted the planet as far as the eye could see. "Yes. It looks a lot like this actually. Not everywhere. But where I live it does."

"Then you and I are very fortunate."

Jack glanced at the man. Was is just his own addled senses, or was everything the guy said an implication of something deeper?

"You do not agree."

"Actually, I do. It’s just–," he paused, licked his lips. "I’ve stepped in some pretty deep shit out there. Being fortunate seems relative."

E-bay grinned, not the serene smile of earlier, but a happy grin. "Yes."

Now, what the hell was that supposed to mean? Yep, way too Zen. Jack shook his head, and leaned back against the ladder once more.

"J’mi says you and he are going exploring again today."

"Yeah. Is that okay with you? I mean, me hanging out with your kid?"

"He likes you."

"The feeling’s mutual."

"I trust you, Jack. I am not worried about my son."

"Well, maybe you should be." He hadn’t intended it to sound threatening or self-pitying; he hoped it hadn’t.

Suddenly, he felt a warm hand on his arm, squeezing gently. He flinched, startled. Wanting more than anything to pull away, held in a passive captivity, Jack looked over at his captor.

"I am sorry. We cannot help you."

"Wh–what?" Jack’s pulse was racing, the touch like a brand on his arm.

"We cannot heal. It is like," E-bay smiled gently, "raining down boulders from the sky."

"Yeah, well–," he was sweating. The grip on his arm tightened imperceptibly.

"I cannot heal you, Jack. Your mind, it plays tricks on you."

He was panting softly.

"It causes you to see things that are not there. It is more powerful than we are. It creates something from nothing."

"Not nothing," he mumbled, hearing the sound of a 9mm discharging. Slowly, he pulled his arm away from the alien touch on his skin. ‘I am a child killer.’

"It is deceitful. Do not trust what you see." E-bay’s smile disappeared. "Or hear."

‘I’m scared, dad.’

"Me, too," he agreed.

E-bay cocked his head. "What?"

Realizing he’d spoken aloud, Jack cleared his throat and stood up. "I should check on my team."

He left E-bay sitting in the rays of a rising sun.

* * * * *

"Okay, before we go any further, there’s something we need to do." Jack came to a halt in the knee-high grass of the mesa. Jimmy, a few feet ahead, stopped and turned around to look at him. Daniel, who’d been walking quietly alongside him, also stopped, his eyes moving from Jack to the boy, and back.

Jack looked over at Jimmy and smiled. Sometime between their trip yesterday and this morning’s hike, the kid had fashioned himself a pack. Considering the fact that it was made out of the hide of some unrecognizable beast and a bit of rope, it was an amazingly good replica of the ones carried by SG-1. A small bow and a quiver of tiny arrows were tied to one of the ropes wrapped around the boy’s shoulders, dangling off his scrawny chest, mimicking Jack’s P90.

"Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the oath?"

Jimmy smiled. "I did."

"What am I going to do with you?" Jack shook his head, then looked over at Daniel. "Okay, Dr. Jackson, raise your hands for the taking of the oath."

Daniel frowned at him. "Huh?" Then, at Jack’s glare, he raised his right hand in the air.

"Good grief. Do I have to do everything around here." Jack reached over and pried apart the fingers of Daniel’s hand, forming the well-known Vulcan salute. Then, he pulled Daniel’s left arm out in front of him, palm up. "Repeat after me. I, state your name."

Finally getting into the act, Daniel threw back his shoulders. "I, Daniel Jackson."

"Solemnly swear allegiance to the flag."

"Solemnly swear allegiance to the flag."

"And to my Colonel."

Daniel hesitated. Jack glared.

"And to my Colonel. I don’t think I like this."

Jimmy giggled.

"And I swear that I will never reveal the whereabouts of the marvelous, miraculous, mysterious, very secret cavern of Jimmy."

"Uh – what?"

"Daniel."

"Okay, okay. I won’t tell where the cave is. I swear."

"Good enough." Jack began unsnapping the P90 from his vest, smiling over at the boy. "And I swear that I will eat all of Jack’s and Jimmy’s blue vegetables."

"Red," Jimmy blurted.

Jack looked at him. "Really? The red ones?"

Jimmy grimaced and nodded.

Jack shrugged. "Okay. You’ll eat the red ones."

"Yes, Jack, I swear I’ll eat the red ones. Yours and Jimmy’s."

His P90 in one hand, Jack reached down and patted Jimmy on the head, then untied the bow from where it rested against the boy’s chest. Turning, he placed both weapons on Daniel’s outstretched hand. "And I promise to carry Jack’s and Jimmy’s stuff."

Jimmy laughed.

Despite the Vulcan salute, Daniel’s face was serious as he shook his head slightly. "Jack–"

"Daniel," Jack whispered, "just do this. Please." Watching Jackson’s face, he took the 9mm from his holster and removed the clip. He re-holstered the sidearm and offered the ammo to his friend. "For the boy."

Daniel swallowed and blinked, studying Jack’s tired, drawn face. He smiled tightly, then slipped the clip into his pocket before raising his hand once again. "I solemnly swear that I will carry Jack’s and Jimmy’s stuff. So help me God."

Jack smiled, then patted him on the shoulder before turning back to the laughing youngster. "Did I leave anything out?"

"You should make him swear to kiss a girl if he tells."

"Oh, yuck!" Jack shuddered dramatically. "You’re a mean little fart."

Jimmy skipped away, still laughing, as the two men trudged along behind him. Despite the circumstances, the silence between them was a comfortable one, and they walked nearly 30 minutes, were almost at the cavern, before Daniel spoke.

"I had an interesting conversation with your little friend this morning."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Did you know that they can’t ‘read’ each other like they read us?"

"No." Jack glanced up at the young boy who had disappeared over the horizon and was making his way to the unseen ledge below. "I hadn’t really thought about it, I guess."

"Well, they can’t. In fact, J’mi laughed at the very thought."

"Guess that goes towards explaining why they have to play doctor like we do." At Daniel’s questioning look, Jack continued. "According to E-bay, they can’t use their minds to heal people." The two men drew near the final outcrop that marked the edge of the mesa.

Daniel nodded. "That would also explain the need for the healing herbs that Sam’s collecting."

"So here’s a question." Jack walked to the edge of the overhang, looked down at the empty ledge below. "If they can’t read each other, and no one has come through the gate for as long as anybody can remember, how come they knew how to read us?"

Daniel thought a second before replying. "Reflex? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just something that they do without thinking, like – breathing."

"But if they’d never had the opportunity to do it before, why weren’t they as shocked by it as we were?" Daniel shrugged. Jack glanced at him, then back out over the deep gorge that lay at their feet. "Beautiful." He thought he heard Daniel grunt in agreement. "Unless they’re lying."

"Lying about what?" Daniel had moved to follow Jack down the steep path to the ledge.

"About having no visitors. About their ‘abilities.’ Other than a few parlor tricks that even I could pull off, we’ve never actually seen them do anything. It could be a line of bull."

"Why would they lie?"

Jack hopped onto the ledge and turned to face Daniel. "You’re joking, right?"

"What?" The archaeologist had reached the ledge and was looking over at the opening to the cave.

"‘Why would they lie?’ Come on, Daniel. No one’s that naive. Least of all someone who’s been on my team as long as you have." But Daniel was already making his way to the cavern. Jack shook his head in disbelief, staggering slightly as a wave of dizziness hit. He reached out for the wall of rock, steadying himself as a handful of fireflies exploded in his vision. He remained absolutely still, waiting.

"Jack? You okay?"

He turned to the sound of Daniel’s voice. The younger man was standing just inside the cave entrance, pale against the dark rock, looking worried and loaded down with the added weight of Jack’s P90.

"I’m–," but aside from a sudden, steady ache in his temple, nothing happened. The here and now remained here and now. He stood upright. "Nothing. I’m okay. But – watch yourself." One glance and Jack knew that Daniel understood what he meant. He smiled crookedly, embarrassed and sorry that he was forcing his friend into the role of watchdog.

At that moment, the boy yelled from somewhere inside the shaft leading to the cavern. "Jack! Daniel!"

He nodded towards the entrance. "We’d better go. The boss is calling."

Daniel still looked worried. "You sure you’re all right?"

"Yeah," Jack smiled and nodded, patting Daniel’s arm reassuringly as he pulled out his flashlight and led the way into the heart of the mountain.

They soon caught up with Jimmy, who had stopped and was leaning up against the wall, waiting impatiently. The added light made the journey less precarious, and Jack was able to dodge the low-hanging rocks more easily. Still, when he ducked his head beneath the last one and stood at the top of the roughly hewn stairs, peering out over the huge cavern, he was stunned all over again. His and Daniel’s flashlights didn’t make a dent in the edges of the vast room. If anything, the effect made it seem even bigger, more alien. Above the sound of Daniel’s soft, excited panting, Jack could hear the dripping water. Echoes followed every sound, no matter how slight. He shifted his weight and could swear he heard an answering movement from across the room.

"Come on!" Jimmy ran down the stairs at break-neck speed, causing Jack’s stomach to churn as he watched the pale form recede to the floor of the cavern. He followed more slowly, pursued by Daniel.

"Ohmigod, Jack, this is amazing."

"Told you."

"Yeah, but–"

"Watch out for the last step." Jack hopped over the missing riser, his headache thrumming in protest to the movement.

As soon as Daniel was safely on the floor of the cavern, he dropped his pack and began hurriedly trotting around the room, nearly falling over the rocks which littered the floor. Mumbling to himself and to Jack and probably to Carter, who wasn’t even here, he ran his hands over the walls where writing had been carved millenia ago. Jack had to smile as the man stumbled his way from one wall to another. He was worse than Jimmy ever thought about being. Speaking of whom. . . .

Jack swung around looking for his small, pale friend. "Jimmy!" The call echoed back to him, startling Daniel enough to make him flinch, but not enough to interrupt his perusal of a small section of the wall on the back side of the cave. Jack heard the muted sound of a child’s laughter. Picking his way carefully across the rocky floor, he followed the sound.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are," he sing-songed. The laughter sounded again, closer this time, and to his left. He began to make his way in its direction. There was a small rectangle on the wall ahead that seemed darker than the surrounding rock. He shone his flashlight directly on it. A doorway? He made his way over to it. It was. A doorway. He stuck his head inside, shining the light over the ceiling and walls of a small room. It appeared empty.

"Jimmy?"

The growl coming from behind him, while obviously a child’s, still made him jump.

"Ha! I scared you!"

Heart racing, his headache pounding loudly, Jack turned to find Jimmy standing a few feet away, torch still in hand. "Where were you?"

Jimmy smiled. "The secret room. I’ll show you."

He turned to the wall immediately to the left of the doorway and pointed with his torch. There was a small crack in the rock that upon closer inspection revealed another, smaller doorway. It had been cut into the rock wall at such an angle that even seeing it up close, it was almost impossible to imagine it was an actual door. Jimmy stepped through it easily. Jack removed his pack. Then, his heart racing slightly, he squeezed his way through.

The rock formed a narrow, four-foot long entryway that opened into a hidden room approximately 12 feet wide and at least twice as long. Jack shone his flashlight up towards the ceiling, but the reach of the light was too short and it met nothing but a vague darkness. True to the boy’s word, there was definitely ‘stuff’ here. And, although he didn’t immediately recognize anything, it sure looked like Goa’uld toys to him.

"Oh, Daniel," he called softly. As his voice echoed back around him, his headache suddenly ratcheted from a 2 on the Fraiser pain scale to a solid 5. "Shit." He leaned back against the cool, rock wall. Make that a 5.5.

"What’s wrong?" Jimmy held his torch up to look at him.

The heat and warmth too close to his face, Jack turned his head, trying to escape. "Nothing."

He saw a single firefly. Just one. It scared him worse than if Jimmy’s eyes had glowed. Panicking, he turned to make his way back to the doorway, to get out of the confined quarters, away from the kid. The headache swelled, dropping him to one knee.

"Oh, God." He fumbled the flashlight, heard it clatter to the floor and saw a circle of light sway drunkenly across the opposite wall. Trying to get to his feet, Jack staggered and dropped back to the floor, shutting his eyes against a rush of dizziness.

"Jack?" He could hear Jimmy stepping closer.

His voice shaky, his eyes squeezed shut, he put a hand out to stop him. "Stay back." He said it softly, not wanting to frighten him. Opening his eyes, he watched as the torch in Jimmy’s hand began to shrink. "Just get – get Daniel for me. Okay?"

"Okay."

The boy left and Jack allowed himself to sit down, only then remembering the radio in the pocket of his vest. Just as he reached a shaky hand up to it, two more fireflies darted in front of him. He flinched and gasped softly. His breathing, though shallow, sounded loud and his vision was narrowing.

"Jack?"

Daniel. Thank God. Panting, he sat there on the floor, flat on his ass, arms and legs splayed out like a damn G.I. Joe doll. Except for the heaving and the sweating, he probably looked the part, too.

"Jack?"

The voice was nearer now, within the room, or at the very least within the passageway leading to it. He turned his head towards the sound, and saw a tiny circle of bright light bobbing closer.

"What’s wrong? What happened?"

"Get Jimmy out of here," he ordered in a rush.

"He’s not here. I told him to wait outside."

"Daniel?"

"Yeah. Right here." His friend knelt down beside him. Jack could see the narrow outline of his face, saw a pale hand reaching out to him right before he felt the touch on his shoulder. "Tell me what’s happening. Is it another flashback?"

"Maybe. I don’t know. It’s not right," he was panting in earnest now. It was starting like the flashbacks, but then – it wasn’t. It was sitting there. Growing. Gaining strength, momentum. It heard him, and he pressed one hand against his temple. "Aagh," he cried out as the pain soared, took on a life of its own.

"Jack?"

He heard the fear in Daniel’s voice. Wanted to comfort him. Couldn’t.

"Something’s – wrong." Fireflies danced in front of him, shutting out the comforting sight of his friend. "Daniel, I can’t see you."

* * * * *

It would probably come as a surprise to a lot of people, especially those who’d known him before his involvement with the SGC, but very few things truly frightened Daniel Jackson. Sure, there were things that set his heart racing. For instance, proposing the theory that aliens built the ancient pyramids to a large crowd of his peers. When he’d thought he was going crazy like Nicholas while Machello’s little Goa’uld busters had rushed through his bloodstream. Or when one of his teammates was lying wounded in the infirmary. When they were on Hadante. When he’d lost Sha’re. Every time Jack whispered ‘heads up, people’ just as a group of Jaffa tromped into view. Or when Teal’c simply said ‘O’Neill’ in that particularly soft, warning tone he had.

Hell, even last night, with Jack’s sidearm pressed into the center of his forehead, even as he froze in shock and disbelief, a small part of him had known there was nothing to worry about. Jack was just trying to make a point. Scare him into caution. And it had worked. More or less. Looking back, Daniel realized it had even been necessary. He would be the first to admit that too often he tuned out what Jack said. Didn’t really not hear him, so much as he took whatever Jack said about anything with a grain of salt. He knew Jack was overly cautious when it came to his team, and overly judgmental when it came to himself. So, combining the two, Daniel naturally tended to water down the combination.

But, when Jimmy had come running out of the hidden room yelling at him that something was wrong with Jack, Daniel had felt something inside him harden, grow cold and weighty. He knew now it had been a solid stone of fear. As he’d stumbled across the room towards the boy, he’d mentally replayed this morning’s conversation with Teal’c and Sam.

Before Jack had come back, right before dawn, they had sat in their darkened room and discussed their options behind their CO’s back. They were a day and a half from the gate. An hour from a possible treasure trove of Goa’uld technology. There was no obvious outside threat. The only threat was from within – from one of their own. Finally, not showing a hint of the hesitation that Daniel knew she must be feeling, Carter informed them of her decision: They would proceed with the mission – with caution. She would leave Jack in command. For now.

"For now?" Daniel remembered the hard look that flashed across her face when he’d asked that question. "Sam, you don’t really think Jack’s a threat, do you? I mean, he’s had two flashbacks. You wouldn’t ask him to relinquish command over two flashbacks."

"You’re wrong, Daniel. I would. I will. In a heartbeat if I think he’s compromising our safety. Or the safety of these people." She’d smiled at him then. "Didn’t the Colonel make his point last night? He could kill any one of us within the space of a few seconds, Daniel. Imagine what he could do to one of these people who haven’t had the combat training we’ve had. Imagine the damage he could do during a flashback that lasts even just a few minutes. What would he do if he thought you were one of the bellhops at, what did he call it, Club Med? Besides, Daniel, as much as I would hate doing it, he expects nothing less."

Now, rushing towards the hidden doorway where Jimmy stood wide-eyed, Daniel felt a rush of real, honest to God fear. And as he squeezed down the narrow passageway and stepped into the small room, he barely registered the archaeological significance of it as he stared at his CO and his friend. Jack was sitting awkwardly on the floor, obviously in pain. The look he turned on Daniel was unfocused, wavering. Remembering last night’s lesson, Daniel unclipped the P90 and laid it by the passageway before making his way to his friend’s side. As he watched Jack’s disjointed movements and the odd stare, Daniel silently prayed. ‘Please, God, just don’t let him hurt anybody. He’d never forgive himself.’

And then the fear that he’d thought was absolutely real a moment before, suddenly festered into something raw when Jack uttered that simple phrase: ‘I can’t see you.’ Daniel felt his insides clench in panic. They had made a mistake. They never should have split up the team. Carter and Teal’c were over an hour away on foot, and he was sitting in the bowels of an alien planet with a small child and a sick, dangerous man.

"It’s okay, Jack. I’m right here." Daniel kept one hand on Jack’s shoulder. ‘I’m right here, and I have absolutely no idea what to do.’ Jack was the decision maker. Yeah, he played funny man to their straight lines. He could, and often did, play the clown, the overgrown kid, the annoying bully, the one they were afraid to take home to momma. But push come to shove, when everything was heading south, Jack was the one they turned to. He was the one who stepped into the ring, did all the swinging, and took all the punches for the whole damn team. And now he was out for the count.

"God, Daniel." Jack weaved drunkenly, his hands pressed against his temples, his face red from the pain. Daniel could almost measure his pulse by watching the large vein which stood out against his otherwise smooth forehead.

"It’s okay. I’m going to get you out of here." As soon as he said it, Daniel knew what he had to do. He had to get them out of the cavern, up to the surface. Once there, he could radio for help. First things, first. "I’m going to leave the room. Just for a minute. Okay?" Even though he’d warned him, he saw Jack flinch when he removed his hand from his shoulder. "I’m not going to leave you." He hurried across the room, grabbed Jack’s P90, and looked at his friend. "I’ll be right back. Jack?"

"Just – hurry." Daniel cringed at the desperation in Jack’s voice.

"I will."

He did. He squeezed his way through the tunnel, already unloading the magazine from the gun before he entered the cavern. He stumbled over Jack’s pack.

"Is Jack okay?"

He’d almost forgotten the boy. "He’s going to be fine. But we need to get him out of here. Okay? You can help me."

"Okay," the boy suddenly sounded as young as he looked.

"See my pack over there? By the stairs?" Daniel was shoving the magazine inside Jack’s pack, fumbling in the meager light for the med kit he knew was there. "Do you think you can carry it?"

"Yeah."

"Good. I’m gonna get Jack. You go ahead and climb up. Start without us. Okay?" Finding the kit, Daniel opened it and grabbed the painkillers, finally looking over at J’mi. The boy seemed even paler than usual and was trembling. Daniel forced a smile, suddenly remembering that this kid could probably sense his own terror. "It’s going to be okay. Jack’s just not feeling well."

"It’s from the war," J’mi mumbled. "He told me."

Daniel was surprised. "Yeah. It is. But he’ll be okay. We just need to get him out of here. Now, go." J’mi nodded and hurried over to the foot of the stairs. Small biceps bulging, he tugged on the straps of Daniel’s pack and began slowly backing up the stairs, pulling it up behind him. Daniel didn’t have time to worry about whether the boy could manage. Grabbing a canteen, he ran back into the hidden room.

Jack had moved. He was sitting up against the rock wall, his torso turned towards it, hanging on with both hands. His eyes were squeezed shut and even from six feet away, Daniel could see the sweat beading up on the man’s face.

"Jack? I’m back." Receiving no response, he approached slowly. "Jack?"

Brown eyes opened, sought him out, missed. "Daniel?" His voice was soft, tentative.

"Here, take these." Gently, Daniel grasped one of the long-fingered hands, pulled it from the wall and placed four of the painkillers in his palm. "I don’t know, maybe they’ll help. Can’t hurt."

Jack did a very un-Jack-like thing: he popped them into his mouth without argument, without even asking what they were. His hands were trembling, and Daniel helped him drink from the canteen.

"Okay. Come on. We’re getting you out of here."

Fifteen minutes later, they were nearly at the top of the stairs. Wearing Jack’s pack, carrying a flashlight, the useless P90 swinging from his chest, Daniel stayed close behind his friend, offering encouragement in the form of soft words and a steadying touch. With no rail and slick, worn steps, it was a treacherous climb even under the best of circumstances. Watching Jack crawl his way up the stairs, his left shoulder pressed against the safety of the wall, Daniel felt like crying. He had never seen Jack look so vulnerable. As much as he needed their help, he was glad Sam and Teal’c weren’t here to witness this. It would be bad enough if – when Jack realized that Daniel had seen him crawling up out of the earth like a wounded animal.

Fifteen minutes. This wasn’t a flashback. Daniel had never witnessed one, but he knew without a doubt that he wasn’t witnessing one now. For one thing, although he wasn’t sure, he didn’t think a flashback would last this long. Plus, Jack had said something was wrong. So far, Jack knew where he was. But he couldn’t see. Was in obvious pain. Things weren’t adding up to a flashback.

Three steps from the top, Jack stopped. Froze.

"Jack?"

The man didn’t move.

"You’re almost there, buddy. Three more."

Daniel nearly panicked when he saw Jack sway, then sink down until he was sprawled across the stairs.

"Jack!" Despite the voice in his head warning him he was doing something stupid, Daniel scurried up beside his friend. Knelt down by him. The dark drop into the open cavern loomed just inches away. "Come on, talk to me. Tell me what’s happening."

Jack mumbled something, and twisted his head.

"What? I couldn’t hear you. What’d you say?" Daniel leaned over Jack’s body, pressing his ear as close to the man’s mouth as he could get.

His heart hammered wildly as he heard Jack whisper, "Frank, don’t leave me here."

Shit! Daniel lowered his forehead to the stone. Crap! He knew what this was. Where this was. They had to get off the stairway. Now.

"Hey, Jack! Come on." He stepped over the prone form, sat on the step above him, away from the yawning crevasse. Like J’mi with the pack, he tugged hard on Jack’s shoulders, straining to drag him up the remaining steps. "Who the hell is Frank anyway, huh?" But he knew. As he struggled with the dead weight of his CO, aiming for the relative safety of the tunnel just a few short feet behind them, he knew. Frank was Frank Cromwell. Jack was in Iraq.

Daniel managed to get them both into the tunnel just moments before Jack began struggling. He kicked and swung his arms, but his efforts were weak and his aim was off, as if he were injured, disoriented. He was mumbling incoherently, and grunting from the efforts of his struggles. Dodging the long arms and legs, Daniel thought about the little he knew of Jack’s time as an Iraqi prisoner of war. Apparently, Jack had been wounded in a firefight, and had been left behind by Cromwell and the rest of his unit. Which meant that right now, in Jack’s world, he was probably injured and facing the enemy.

Once he realized the situation, Daniel knew he had to change tactics. Without a word, quietly, Daniel let go and backed off, hoping that the scene in which Jack was immersed would play itself out without either one of them being hurt in the process. It took nearly four minutes, Daniel timed it. Four minutes before Jack quit lashing out at unseen enemies. His friend had been right: a lot can happen in four minutes.

His chest heaving with the effort of drawing breath, Jack dropped to his hands and knees, then onto his side, moaning softly. Daniel sensed the change as desperation was replaced by confusion and pain.

"Jack?" He crept closer, carefully watching for any reaction. "Jack, can you hear me?"

"Frank?"

"Frank’s not here. It’s me. Daniel."

Jack lifted his head, wearily. "Daniel?" He let his head drop back to the stone floor.

Daniel felt a wave of relief wash through him at the sound of his own name on Jack’s lips. "Yeah, Jack. I’m here." He rushed over to his friend’s side, and knelt down by him, resting a hand on Jack’s head.

"Where are we? Why is it dark?"

* * * * *

Jack’s heart was racing. The last thing he remembered, he was staggering in the dirt of an Iraqi desert, head spinning, confused and in pain, trying to fight off half a dozen Iraqi soldiers. The beating he took was nothing compared to the punch in the gut that he felt as he watched the chopper, his squad, his best friend, lift into the air, leaving him to die. Or worse.

Leaving him. Years later, it still hurt. He could still taste the gritty bitterness of the desert sand being kicked in his face; could feel the boots and rifle stocks landing with dull precision against his body; could hear what he had assumed were curses being flung at him in a foreign tongue. But over his cries of pain and frustration and protest and fear, over the grunting and screaming of his captors, he heard the rotor blades slapping, slicing through the pungent heat. He felt the powerful vibrations thrum through the earth beneath him as the machine soared into the air; squinting through the blood and grit, he watched in stunned disbelief as his life was borne away. To this day, the sound of a chopper sent an icy mix of fear and hatred pulsing through him.

Jack heard movement, and only then did he realize he was huddled on a cool, hard surface. Not hot sand. And a scorching sun had been replaced by blackness. His head throbbed, incessantly. That hadn’t changed. He moved a hand tentatively to his temple, fully expecting to find the bloody trail left by a glancing bullet. Nothing.

"Jack? Jack, can you hear me?"

Oh, God. They’d come back for him. "Frank?" He felt a moment’s regret for the horrible things he’d prayed down on the man who’d been his friend. He should have known Frank wouldn’t leave him. They’d sworn an oath.

"Frank’s not here. It’s me. Daniel."

Lifting his head, staring over at the vague shape of a man, Jack felt an odd sense of loss. He missed Frank. Missed the sound of his laughter; missed the stupid, adolescent rough-housing that used to drive Sara crazy; missed the feeling of knowing there was someone there who understood what he was going through without the need to talk about it. Not a CO, not a subordinate, just a friend. But Frank was dead. He’d died to Jack in an Iraqi prison camp long before he’d died to the rest of the world.

"Daniel?"

"Yeah, Jack. I’m here."

He felt a warm hand on his forehead. "Where are we? Why is it dark?"

Then, it came back to him: where he was. The why of it escaped him. They’d been exploring. A cave or something. And then, suddenly, he couldn’t see. He remembered that part. A kid had been there. He’d been afraid for the kid. He remembered that, too.

Without warning, panic struck and he drunkenly struggled to rise. "Charlie!" His call echoed wildly, and the name he seldom spoke aloud was endlessly repeated back to him in his own voice.

"Jack, calm down." The hand, hands, were now holding his shoulders.

"Where’s Charlie? Is he okay?" Nearly blind, his mind fogged by the pounding agony in his head, he sensed hesitation in Daniel’s touch. "Daniel?"

"Charlie’s not here, Jack. Remember? Charlie’s – Charlie’s not here."

"But–," and he remembered. The shot. He had shot Charlie. In the gate room. Under orders. He sank back down to the cold floor. "I – I killed him," he confessed.

"No! No, Jack. You did not kill Charlie. It was an accident." Daniel sounded angry, adamant.

Charlie dead. Frank dead. The chasm widened. Across it, Jack watched himself run into the bedroom. Saw Charlie’s blood splattered across the window, across the curtains that Sara had put up during Jack’s last mission. He remembered thinking that Charlie was going to be in deep shit when his mom saw the mess he’d made. Then he’d seen his son sprawled across the floor, dying. Dying even as Jack, sobbing, fell to his knees and held him, rocking him like he had when Charlie was a baby. Wanting, needing to make him better.

He desperately clutched at the hand. The hand he’d touched in friendship, wrestled, played, fought; the trembling hand that had passed him the ring to place on his bride’s finger. The hand he’d missed all these years without even realizing it. The hand he’d grown to detest. He’d forgotten the strength behind it. It was so strong. Too strong to willingly drag him down with it. Too late, he felt the hand release him, slip out of his grasp. He watched, helpless, as Frank was sucked into the shimmering, beautiful, liquid silver of the wormhole.

Stupid, unforgivable accidents. Fatal mistakes. Wrong turns.

"Jimmy," he whispered. The boy’s name was Jimmy. An alien.

"Jimmy – J’mi is fine. He’s outside. Waiting for us. Jack," he felt Daniel lean closer, "we should go."

While I can? It didn’t have to be said. Jack knew what was happening. He’d been through this before. With Sarah. But this time was different. Something was wrong – as if anything could be right about flashbacks. Still, these were not like any flashbacks he’d suffered before. They were happening too often, and without the usual triggers. Spontaneous, gaining momentum, and accompanied by a growing sense of unease.

The physical effects were different, too; not only lingering, they had nothing to do with the flashbacks themselves. In the past, his flashbacks had been followed by fleeting, remembered pain. Now, the pain in his head was steadily increasing, a solid 8 on the Fraiser scale. To say nothing of the tunnel vision which was disorienting, incapacitating. Funny thing that. Sara had always tried to tell him that the flashbacks would go away if he just kept his focus on the here and now. ‘Well, Sara, here I am in the here and now, and I’ve lost my focus. Again.’

He felt a hand slip under his arm. "Come on, Jack."

He allowed the shadow that was Daniel to pull him to his feet. Staggering, one hand braced against the rough wall, he kept his eyes trained on the narrow beam of light that he assumed was Daniel’s flashlight. It became his lifeline, and his Achilles heel. If he lost sight of it, he was truly lost. Once when Daniel swung the light suddenly, unexpectedly, Jack couldn’t find it. He felt his heart leap into the back of his throat, and he froze.

"Daniel?"

"I’m right here. It’s okay."

The light returned, bobbing weakly in front of him, and he followed it. Jack wasn’t sure how long they walked. Running one hand along the wall, stumbling over the rocks that littered the floor, it felt like an hour, but was probably less than half that.

"Jack, we’re almost there. See?"

Tentatively, he raised his eyes from the tiny spark of hope, and squinted into the distance. Slowly, vaguely, a ghostly image grew, took form. The open doorway of the tunnel. Something small moved across it, stopped at its center.

"Jack!"

Jimmy. "Daniel, I don’t want him here."

"He’s scared. He wants to help."

"He’s just a kid. He shouldn’t – see this." He felt ashamed. Just like with Charlie and the damn carnival.

"Come on. We’ll send him ahead, to meet Teal’c and Carter."

Daniel tugged on his arm and Jack allowed himself to be led. Like a lamb to be slaughtered. Like a condemned man to the gallows. The ghostly doorway grew, opening onto a dim fog and the silhouette of a small boy.

"Are you okay?" They stopped at the mouth of the tunnel, and the small shadow ran at him. Tiny arms clutched at his legs, clung to him. "I was scared, Jack. But I carried the pack like Daniel asked."

"Good – good boy." Trembling, one hand still on the wall, he patted the boy’s head which was pressed against thigh. "Good–"

"I’m scared, dad."

He grunted softly. Denying the memory.

"Jack?"

He glanced towards the voice. No, not a memory. Not a flashback. A nightmare. Just a nightmare. It hadn’t happened. Not like that. "Not real."

"What’d you say?" Daniel reached for him.

Jack took a step away, one hand clutching at Charlie, who was clinging to him, frightened. A fierce pain shooting through his head, Jack squinted over at his CO. The General’s hand was stretched out towards him. Jack’s Beretta rested on his palm. Jack blinked, trying to clear his blurred vision.

"You have your orders, Colonel."

"Sir?"

"Jack, what’s happening?" Not the General. Another, familiar voice.

"Daniel?"

"Just let him go. Jack, please."

"Wha–," he looked down into the face of a small child. A very small, very pale child. Jack’s hand was wrapped firmly around the scrawny arm, and the boy looked up at him, terrified, trembling. He looked back over at Daniel.

"It’s okay." Daniel’s hand was still reaching out towards him. "Let go of his arm." He slowly stretched closer, and as Jack watched the hand touched a small, thin shoulder.

"No." He had to protect his son.

"Colonel, are you disobeying a direct order?" Hammond was pissed. "Take it!" His own 9mm was shoved towards him. Charlie stared at it, his eyes wide with fear.

"No." Jack maneuvered himself between his son and the weapon. "God, please." Trying to think around the pounding in his head, Jack stepped back, pushing his son back with him. "Get away! I won’t let you hurt him."

"Jack, no!"

Hammond kept coming, advancing. Jack took another step away from him, feeling Charlie begin to struggle beneath his grip. No one was going to hurt his son again. No one. Desperate, Jack considered his options. He was unarmed. Hammond had his Beretta. Suddenly, almost without thought, he reached down and removed the knife from the sheath at his belt.

"I swear to God, I’ll kill you."

"Jack, listen to me." Daniel’s voice again. "Don’t move. You’re not where you think you are."

What was Daniel doing here?

"Do it." Hammond’s voice was soft, close.

Jack shook his aching head, trying to rid himself of the sound of the sickening command. "Please. Please, don’t make me."

"Jack, no one’s making you do anything. Look." Jack squinted over at – Daniel? Where did he come from? Where was Hammond? Daniel held up both hands as if in surrender. "See, Jack. I’m not going to do anything. But – just step away from the edge. Please. I know you don’t want to hurt him."

"Please don’t hurt me." Charlie was crying, a sound that tore Jack’s heart in two.

He glanced down at the child beside him, and was startled when a small, unrecognizable face looked up at him. A pale little boy clung to him; skinny little arm trembling under Jack’s grasp.

Suddenly, Jack felt a hand close around his wrist, and he cried out, began struggling. Hammond was trying to force the Beretta into his hand. He looked up at his attacker. Fingers were trying to pry open his fist. He tried to twist away, but two hands had wrapped around his hand now, nearly overpowering him.

"Colonel, get a grip on yourself. You can do this. You can and you will."

"No, no, no." He was losing; he felt something cold and hard in his hand, his fingers were wrapped around the grip of a weapon.

"You can, and you will."

"No – no, sir."

"Jack, let go of the knife!"

He was going to have to let go of Charlie. He couldn’t fight off the General with one hand. Panting, grunting from fear and adrenaline, Jack reluctantly released his grip on his son. With two hands, he stood a chance. He swung at the General, and felt Charlie let go of his leg, trying to slip around him, towards Hammond.

"Charlie, no!"

He lunged for his son, but the hands wrapped around his wrist hindered his movements. Jack was able to grasp Charlie’s shirt with one hand as he fell sideways, hearing a soft gasp as his body slammed into the smaller one.

"Jack!"

The hands on his wrist slipped loose as the world dropped away beneath him. He heard a high-pitched, childish squeal of sheer terror and then they were falling. He and Charlie. Together.

* * * * *

[The stars were beginning to fade. Soon he would have to stop and try to rest. At least he had escaped from the nightmare of the salt marshes sometime during the night. He thought it was during the night. Time had actually lost all meaning for him.

The last of his water was gone. Just like the last of his food some time ago. He couldn’t remember exactly when. He just knew he had ceased to feel the hunger pains in his gut. It just didn’t matter any more.

He had lost track of how long he had stumbled through the salt marsh. Lost track of how many times he had broken through the crust and fallen. Lost track of how often the sharp crust had ripped through his fatigues and sliced his skin. Lost track of how often he had wanted to just lay down and give up.

Now he was just plain lost.

And Jack knew it was over.

He was just too stubborn to admit he had lost the battle.

Lost the war.

He had always promised Sara that his last thoughts would be of her and at least that was one promise he would keep. His thoughts of her had been something precious to cling to. Now they were everything he had.

Soon he’d have no energy to keep going. Soon he’d have no choice but to lie down and let Nature take her course. Let Nature win.

He raised his weary head one last time to look towards the stars that had guided him this far. That had reminded him of Sara, and lying in her arms. The stars that, like his memories and thoughts of Sara, had been beacons on his journey. The stars that now, like Sara, seemed so far out of reach. Beyond him. And despair ran through him like a shot of lightening. And if his body hadn’t been wrung so dry he knew then, that, for the first time in as long as he could remember, he would have cried. Because Sara would never know. How he died. Where he died. When he died. But, more importantly than that, she would never know how sorry he was for the things he hadn’t said.

And he looked up to the heavens in a despair that was so heavy and pressing, that he found himself sinking down, to his knees. And, somehow, he knew he would not find the strength to get up again.

And then . . . he saw it. Through red-rimmed eyes. A sight so incredible it could only be a mirage. One last cruel trick Mother Nature had deemed him worthy of enduring.

Red, white, and blue. Stars and stripes waving proudly against the azure sky of the breaking dawn.

Representing freedom . . . Mom’s apple pie . . . baseball . . . ideals . . . the American way . . . home. Somehow . . . incredibly . . . unbelievably . . . he had made it.]

* * * * *

"Jack!"

He was tired. Too tired to open his eyes.

"Jack!"

His radio crackled; he heard voices, vaguely familiar voices that sounded strangely frantic. Desperate. Far away.

Then, nearer, "Dammit! You son-of-a-bitch, you’d better answer me!"

Why was Daniel yelling at him? He’d made it back, hadn’t he? Had limped and crawled and dragged his way across the desert. So, why was Daniel angry?

"You selfish bastard! Open your eyes, Jack!"

Against his better judgment, he tried to do as ordered. After an exhausting struggle, tiny slits revealed white, hot agony. He groaned, and turned his head away from the pain. More pain flared.

"Jack?"

"Daniel?" but his voice was a whisper. Even he could barely hear it.

"Don’t move!"

Blinking, Jack tried opening his eyes again. He was laying on his back, head turned to the right, staring over at – sky? What the – he raised his head, trying to identify his surroundings. Pain shot through him, making him gasp, and he lowered his head back down, rolled it to face upward. About 20 feet above, he saw what looked like someone’s head and shoulders, hanging out over the edge of a cliff, looking down on him.

"Jack, don’t move. Sam and Teal’c are on their way."

"Daniel?" At least he sounded more human this time.

"Yeah. It’s me. How bad are you hurt?"

‘I’m hurt?’ He frowned, trying to remember what had happened. He knew he’d injured his left leg and arm when his parachute had opened too late. The pain in his head had been the worst, but his back had been pretty wonky, too. Still, the dehydration and hunger after endless days in the desert sun had made his injuries seem minor in comparison. So, why wasn’t he hungry now? Or thirsty? Without moving his head, he glanced around. And why didn’t this look like the desert? To his left was a wall of rock.

"Jack, can you tell me where you’re hurt?"

He reached up with his left hand to touch the rock wall, to see if it was real or imagined. Pain shot through the entire right side of his body, and he instinctively tried to roll to that side, to protect the hurt part of himself, but that only made it worse.

"Jack, no! Don’t move!"

"Oh, God." He moaned, forcing himself flat on his back, trying to relax muscles that wanted to cramp, protesting the pain.

"What? What’s wrong?"

Oh, God, that hurt. "Hurts."

"Where are you hurt?"

Biting his lip, pushing his head back against the hard ground in an effort to rally against the pain, he tried to assess what exactly was hurting. The answer was almost everything on the right side of his body: his shoulder, ribs, hip, and a strange sensation in his right hamstring, a burning which inched its way down toward his knee. He tried to reach down to feel with his right hand, but his arm didn’t move; all he got for his efforts was a streak of agony that shot through his shoulder and raced down his arm, followed by a familiar tingling sensation. Dislocated shoulder. Been there, done that.

He couldn’t move. Was immobilized by pain. He opened his eyes, squinted up at Daniel.

"Jack? Can you answer me?"

"Where am I?"

"You’re on a ledge. You fell. We’re on P1S-S3D. Remember? Planet Pissed?"

"Oh." He sort of remembered. He’d fallen as they came through the gate. No, wait. Hadn’t they been in a cave? So why was he out here on a ledge, in the sun. He wanted to ask, but felt sick. Was afraid to open his mouth to speak. Instead, he closed his eyes.

"Jack, can you see J’mi?"

He looked back up at Daniel. "What?"

"Jimmy. Can you see him?"

"Jimmy?" He had to think about it a minute. Who the hell was Jimmy? There was Carter, Teal’c, Daniel. So who – oh, God. It hit him like a blow to the stomach. Oh, God. The kid. Where was the boy? "Where is he?"

"You – he fell. He fell with you. I can’t see him from here."

Jack felt panic rise within him. He had a flash of he and Charlie going over the edge. Together. Shit. He’d had his hands on the boy. Had pushed him off. Despite the pain lancing through him, he raised his head enough to look around the ledge on which he’d fallen. It was narrow, not much wider than he was, and extended only a few feet in either direction past his head and feet. It was amazing that he’d landed here at all. His right arm was bent with his hand trapped beneath his hip; his elbow was hanging over the edge of the ledge. The kid was nowhere in sight.

"Jimmy!" He dropped his head back to the ground, gasping at the pain in his chest. But, as soon as he’d recovered his breath, he yelled again. No answer. Grunting, he tried to roll to the left in an effort to lever himself up onto his good arm.

"Jack! Don’t move!"

He kept struggling, without much success. He was sweating and nauseated, trembling, but he had to find the boy.

"I’m coming down! Just – just stay where you are! I’ll find him, Jack!"

Over the sound of his own moans and gasps, he could hear Daniel’s muffled cursing. Unable to get to his elbow, his right side screaming in agony, Jack forced his left hand up to the cliff face, trying to grasp onto a rock, a tree root, anything. He wrapped his fingers around a small outcropping of rock and managed to pull himself up three or four inches before his hand slipped and he fell back, crying out at the pain in his shoulder and his leg.

"Oh, God. Jimmy," but it wasn’t a yell this time, just a mumbled plea.

Something brushed against his injured arm. He opened his eyes. A rope. Looking up, he saw that Daniel was lowering himself down. Jack turned his head as small pebbles and dirt began to rain down on him.

"Hang on. I’m coming."

The radio crackled softly, and he heard Carter calling for Daniel. Blinking against the falling dirt, Jack looked up. It took everything in him to lift his left hand, press the mike.

"Carter?"

"Colonel," she sounded relieved. "Are you all right? Where’s Daniel?"

He ignored the first question. "Daniel," a clump of dirt fell on his chest, bursting, and sending a cloud of dust into his mouth and eyes. He coughed, then gasped at the pain it caused.

"Sir?"

"He’s – he’s climbing down."

"Teal’c and I can’t be more than 15 minutes away. Tell Daniel not to move you until we get there. Colonel?"

"Copy that."

"How’s J’mi?"

He didn’t respond. Didn’t know what to say.

"Sir, is J’mi hurt?"

Jack blinked and took a shallow, painful breath. "I don’t know. We haven’t located him."

"Okay. We’ll be there soon, Colonel. Everything will be fine."

* * * * *

Daniel was sweating profusely and as his feet touched the narrow ledge, he wondered where he’d found the nerve to make the climb down. Not only was he afraid of heights, he wasn’t an experienced climber by any stretch of the imagination. The only heights he traversed with any regularity came complete with steps and were shaped like triangles. Panting, he looked down, carefully planting his feet before letting go of the rope.

Wiping sweat from his eyes, he removed his glasses from the jacket pocket where he’d placed them for safekeeping and slipped them on. Oh, God. Jack looked worse up close. Easing along the face of the cliff, Daniel knelt down by his friend. The normally tanned skin was pale beneath a layer of dirt, and it was obvious that the man was in agony. Pain was evident in his tense, unmoving body. Even Daniel’s untrained eyes could see that something was wrong with Jack’s right shoulder, and he could see a fair amount of blood pooling under his right thigh.

"How you doing?"

"Can you see him?"

"Not yet. Let me just check you to–"

"Find him, Daniel!"

Putting one hand on the outer edge of the ledge, Daniel leaned across Jack and looked down, fearing the worst. Tucked away, hidden from view if you were standing at the top of the cliff, was another ledge, about five feet below the one they were on. J’mi’s little body was sprawled across it, face down.

"J’mi." Daniel watched closely, but there was no response. He yelled louder. The boy didn’t even twitch. There was nothing he could do until they got Jack off this ledge so that he could maneuver his way down. As it was, J’mi didn’t seem to be in any danger of falling. With a grunt, Daniel straightened up and knelt back over Jack. "He’s only about five feet down. He’s not moving."

"Well, get him."

"I can’t, Jack. Not until we get you out of here. It’s too narrow. Once you’re up, I can climb down and get him."

Jack immediately started trying to move, to sit up. "Help me."

"No." Daniel pushed him back down. "Jack, stop. We need to wait for Sam and Teal’c. They’ll be here any minute. I can’t get you up alone. We need their help."

Groaning, his face covered in sweat, Jack dropped helplessly back down. "God, Daniel. What’ve I done?"

"It wasn’t your fault." He knew Jack didn’t believe him. He also knew that Jack being Jack, he would never forgive himself if the boy were seriously injured, or worse. "I need to know where you’re hurt."

Jack had his eyes squeezed shut, his breathing rapid, shallow.

"Jack?"

"What?"

"Where do you hurt? Come on. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can get to J’mi."

Jack looked up at him, stared through him a moment, then he blinked and his eyes appeared to focus. "My right side."

"Something’s wrong with your shoulder."

"Dislocated."

Daniel glanced at Jack’s face. He was sweating, biting his lip as if to fight back the pain. "Are you sure?"

"I know what dislocated feels like!"

"All right. What else?"

"Ribs."

"Broken?" Daniel cringed at Jack’s firm nod. "What else?"

"Hip hurts, but I don’t think – it’s broken. Something’s wrong with my leg. It – burns."

"It’s bleeding. Okay. Hang on." Daniel inched his way down Jack’s left side. He ran his hands along Jack’s thigh, feeling for a broken bone but finding none. "Does that hurt?"

"No."

Daniel leaned over, trying to look at the back of the injured leg without moving it, afraid of causing more damage. "I can’t tell. You must have cut yourself on something during the fall." While there, he ran his hands over Jack’s lower right leg, then checked the left one. "I don’t think anything’s broken. Is that all that hurts?"

"Isn’t that – enough?"

Was it Daniel’s imagination or was Jack beginning to sound breathless. "Jack? You okay?"

He was rewarded with the O’Neill glare. "No. I’ve fallen and I can’t get up."

Despite the circumstances, Daniel had to bite back the laughter. Leave it to Jack to try to defuse the most god-awful situation with a really bad joke. He removed his bandana and began tying it around Jack’s thigh, trying to stop the flow of blood. Jack hissed as Daniel tightened the makeshift bandage.

"Colonel! Daniel!"

They both looked up at Sam’s yell. Sam and Teal’c were leaning out over the edge, looking down at them.

"Sam! Jack’s hurt." Daniel felt a wave of relief that he was no longer alone with two injured people. Sam and Teal’c were here. They would help him decide what to do.

"Where’s he hurt? Can you tell?"

"Dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, his leg is bleeding but not broken. He must have landed on his right side."

"How’s his breathing?"

Jack glared up at her. "His breathing’s – fine, Major."

It wasn’t, but still Daniel smiled up at Sam. When it came to a hurt Jack, Daniel would take cranky over agreeable any day.

"Yes, sir. Daniel, did you check for a head injury?"

"Crap." Daniel cursed himself under his breath as he inched his way back up near Jack’s shoulder. He should have checked for that first. He began running his hands beneath Jack’s head.

"Head’s fine."

"Yeah, I’m sure it is, but I need–," Daniel pulled his hand back when he felt a sticky wetness on his fingers. He knew without looking it was blood. "Damn it, Jack. Not again."

"Was he breathing?" It was a whisper, and Daniel didn’t miss the pleading look in Jack’s eyes.

He thought about lying. "I – I couldn’t tell."

"Oh." Jack grimaced and flinched in pain. "He’s a – good kid."

"Yeah. He is." Daniel looked back up at Sam. "He’s got a gash on the back of his head, Sam, but I don’t think it’s too bad."

"Okay. We’re going to have to haul him up. But first, you’re going to have to secure his arm. For now, just tuck it inside his jacket."

Daniel looked down at his friend. He really didn’t want to do this.

Sam must have sensed his hesitation. "Just go easy, Daniel. It’ll be fine."

"Easy for you to say," he muttered. "Jack, I need to move your arm, buddy. I’m afraid it’s going to hurt like hell."

Jack bit his lip and nodded. "Just do it – quick."

Daniel reached across Jack and grasped the wrist, tugging the hand out from beneath Jack’s hip. At the movement, he felt Jack arch his back, trying to ease the pressure on a joint that no longer was. Mumbling ‘sorry’ over and over, Daniel quickly unzipped Jack’s jacket and as gently as he could, he bent the arm and slipped the hand and forearm inside.

"Oh, God." Jack gasped, his face a sickly shade of white.

"It’s okay. I’m done. I’m done." Daniel waited until he felt his friend’s body relax back down to the ground, then using his sleeve, he reached over and wiped the sweat off Jack’s face. "I’m sorry."

Jack’s eyes were closed, his breathing shallow and slightly irregular. Still, he managed a quiet ‘s’okay.’ Typical Jack – always trying to reassure everyone else.

Resting one hand lightly on Jack’s chest, he looked back to Sam for guidance. "Done."

"Okay. Teal’c and I are going to try to rig a harness and we’ll lower it down to you. You’re going to have to–"

"No."

Daniel looked down at Jack.

"It’ll take too long. We can use your rope. I’ll help you. The quicker you get to the kid the better his chances."

"What? Daniel? What’d he say?"

He studied Jack for a moment, picturing the boy’s prone form just below them. "Sam," he squinted up at her, "Jack thinks that will take too long. He can help me rig something quicker."

There was only a slight pause before she responded. "Colonel, you're not going to be able to hold any weight on that arm and with your ribs–"

"Dammit, I know that!"

* * * * *

Jack stared up at his 2IC. He hurt, dammit. He hurt and he was frustrated, and he didn’t mean to take it out on her, but in the time they spent arguing about it, Jimmy could be dying. Without waiting for her response, he motioned to Daniel with his good hand. "Cut about four feet off the end of the rope."

Daniel pulled his knife and measured out approximately four feet. Then, using the short section of rope and following Jack’s instructions, he wrapped the rope once around Jack’s chest, trying carefully to avoid the injured arm. Jack tried to mask the pain caused by Daniel reaching under him and sliding the rope beneath his back.

"Tie a knot. Snug. But not too tight." Jack was sweating and trying unsuccessfully to hide a tremor in his good hand, squeezing it into a tight fist. He watched as Daniel made two attempts before getting the knot secured. Watching Jack’s face, Daniel pulled the loop taut. Jack grimaced, but nodded. Too much slack and it would be useless.

"Good. Now, thread the remaining rope through th–," Jack suddenly stopped as pain knifed through his shoulder and chest.

"Jack?"

"Thread it under the loop – top to bottom. You’re gonna need about six feet."

Daniel tugged on the rope hanging over the edge of the cliff. "I need some slack!" A few moments later, he felt the tension in the rope slacken and he was able to pull more down. Carefully, he ran the rope under the loop around Jack chest. "Now what?"

Jack suddenly remembered sitting in their room the night before, playing with the strap on his P90. "Make a – Spanish bowline."

"God, Jack, I – I don’t even know what that is."

"Calm down. I’ll talk you through it."

Slowly, Jack walked him through the complicated knot, stopping when Daniel fumbled the rope. Squinting through the pain, he instructed the younger man how to form the classic rabbit ears. He patiently corrected him when he got it wrong, like Daniel was the child and Jack the father, and they had all the time in the world. But Jack knew different. Every second counted as a hurt little boy lay dying nearby.

"No, Daniel. You have to roll the loop as you bring it down, then hold it in place with your thumb. Good."

Finally, with his left hand, he shakily demonstrated how to turn each of the lower loops one-half turn and insert them front to back in the upper loops. When Daniel grasped the loops and pulled on the rope, the end result was an abbreviated harness consisting of two large loops through which Jack’s legs could fit. Because the end of the rope was fed up through the loop around Jack’s chest, it would prevent him from losing his balance, tipping back too far, on the trip up.

As gently as he could, Daniel slid a loop over each of Jack’s legs, trying to avoid the gash on his right thigh as much as possible. "Okay?"

Jack felt light-headed, slightly unfocused. "Let’s do it."

Daniel looked back up at Sam. "We’re ready."

"Colonel, we’re going to do this slow."

With his left hand, Jack grasped the rope and pressing his lips tightly together, nodded.

"Okay, Sam."

Slowly, Jack watched the rope grow taut, then felt it tug at the loop around his chest. As his upper body was slowly raised from the ground, fire shot through his shoulder and across his chest, and he couldn’t smother the cry of pain.

"Stop!" Daniel’s hand shot up, signaling Sam.

"No!" His eyes closed, Jack was panting. "No, God, keep going. Just keep going." He didn’t know how he was going to last for another 19 feet, but he knew he had to. A small boy lay hurt, possibly dying, maybe even dead already, just a few feet away. If the only way they could get to him was over Jack O’Neill’s dead body, so be it.

"We’ll find another way." Daniel looked pale, frightened.

Jack leaned his head back, locked eyes with Sam. "Up rope!" The command, learned years ago, was squeezed out on a current of pain. Sam grimaced, but he saw her signal Teal’c and a second later, he felt the rope pulling him upright once more, squeezing his fractured ribs with agonizing force. He was lifted slowly.

When his legs came off the ground, the loop on his right thigh bit into the wound on the back of his leg, bringing tears of pain to his eyes. Clutching feebly at the rope with his left hand, Jack slumped and leaned his head against the rope. He could feel each tug as Teal’c pulled and heaved. As the Jaffa reached, pulled and reached again, each tiny, bone jarring bounce sent searing agony through Jack’s shoulder. He could feel broken ribs bend, flex unnaturally. Gasping, nearly breathless, he stared down at Daniel, who stood looking up, watching him. Next to Daniel’s feet lay Jack’s knife. Until he saw it, he’d hadn’t known that he’d fallen on it. As he inched away from it, Jack stared at the bright red blood which adorned the blade. Only when the rope pivoted, turning under his weight, did Jack pull his eyes away from it. He turned slowly and caught sight of Jimmy.

"Oh, God," he sobbed softly as he watched the tiny form grow smaller, the skinny arms and legs splayed out. Except for the blood which had pooled beneath one pale cheek, he could have been any human child, asleep in bed. He could have been Charlie. His son. Lying dead in the gate room. Jack squeezed his eyes shut, panting.

* * * * *

Carter panicked when she saw the Colonel’s hand go limp and drop from the rope. Her CO’s head dropped back and vacant eyes stared skyward.

"Colonel?"

He didn’t respond to her voice, didn’t seem to hear it. His body sagged, lifeless, testing the limits of the rope tied around his chest.

"Colonel!" There was no response. "Teal’c, hurry! Something’s wrong."

She added her own strength to Teal’c’s, then stretched out on the ledge and reached down, helping to guide the unresponsive man past a sharp outcropping of rock. As soon as he was close enough, she grabbed onto the rope tied around his chest and pulled, leaning back and putting her full weight into the effort. Teal’c rushed forward and helped her, grabbing their commander beneath the arms and dragging him to safety.

"Colonel." His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to be aware of her. She touched his face and was shocked to find that his skin felt cool. Grabbing his wrist, she took his pulse. 118 beats per minute. Crap! She checked his respirations. A regular but shallow 23. "Teal’c, get the ropes off him and help me to elevate his legs. He’s going into shock."

They moved quickly, knowing the risks. As soon as they had him situated, Carter draped her jacket over her CO and knelt down beside him while Teal’c went back over to the edge to assist Daniel. Watching her patient closely, she heard Daniel holler up that J’mi was alive. Thank God. With everything he’d been through the past couple of days, she wasn’t sure that the Colonel could handle it if the boy were dead.

She touched his cheek again. He seemed a bit warmer. While his legs were elevated, she dug out the med kit and pulled away Daniel’s makeshift bandage from his injured thigh. Sam frowned when she saw the back of his trousers. The cloth was soaked with blood from his thigh down to his knee. Glancing over at Teal’c, who was once more tugging on the rope, obviously helping Daniel with J’mi, she tore open the trousers to get a better look at the wound.

"Dammit!" She grimaced. It was a neat gash, approximately two and a half inches long, and deep. Even as she studied it, blood oozed steadily, heavily onto her fingers and dripped onto the ground. She tore open a bandage and pressed it in place. He groaned and tried to roll away from her. Keeping both hands on the wound, she rose up on her knees and leaned over him. "Colonel, can you hear me?"

He made a feeble attempt to raise his head, then lowered it again. He looked at her, but his eyes were glazed, unfocused.

"Colonel?"

"He okay?" His voice was so soft she could barely make it out.

"Daniel’s bringing him up now, sir. We’ll take care of him."

"Charlie’s okay?"

Oh, shit. Here she was thinking he was worried about J’mi, and he thought they were talking about Charlie.

He frowned and tried to twist away from her. "Arm hurts."

"I know it does, sir. I’ll see if I can help, okay? Just stay with me." But she could see that he was going under even as she called out to him again.

She lifted the bandage and peered beneath it. Still bleeding. She pressed it back into place and looked over at Teal’c, who was hauling a limp J’mi up out of Daniel’s grasp. Teal’c gently laid the boy away from the edge of the cliff, and went back to help Daniel up.

Untying the rope from around his middle, Daniel was panting and sweating. "How is he?"

"In and out. Shocky. I need one of you to hold this while I check J’mi." Teal’c took over for her and she rushed to the boy. She began checking him carefully.

"Jack was holding him."

"What?" Feeling the boy’s limbs, she glanced over at Daniel.

"When they fell. Jack was holding him."

Aside from a deep gash on the side of his head, Sam could find no other wound. "That’s probably what saved him. I think the Colonel took the brunt of the fall. Probably cushioned J’mi." She was unsure about alien physiology, but he didn’t appear to be in shock. Still, he was deeply unconscious, totally unresponsive. She pulled a casualty blanket from her pack and wrapped it around his still form, then handed a bandage to Daniel and asked him to take care of the head wound.

She turned her attention back to the Colonel. His color seemed a bit better and his respirations were down slightly, although his pulse was still a bit fast. She pulled her jacket off of him and unzipped his, careful to hold his arm in place. With one hand, she felt his ribs. Daniel was right, he must have landed on his right side. She felt at least two of the ribs give under her touch. Sam slid a hand under his shirt, gently felt the shoulder. Without waking, he moaned and flinched at her touch. The joint was obviously dislocated, maybe even broken. She sat back on her heels, and rubbed a hand over her face, sighing deeply.

"Major Carter?"

Sam glanced over at Teal’c. She was exhausted. It was early afternoon, but she felt like they’d been here for hours. At the most, a little over an hour had passed since Daniel had radioed them about the accident. "I don’t know what to do for him." She hated admitting defeat almost as much as the Colonel himself.

Teal’c was still putting pressure on the leg wound. "You have already helped him."

"But his shoulder – I can’t."

"Sam?"

She looked over at Daniel, wanting nothing more than to be back at the gate.

"Can’t you put it back in?"

"I don’t know how, Daniel. Do you? Have you ever done it?" She hadn’t meant to snap at him, but she felt helpless. And she knew that the longer the Colonel’s arm went without treatment, the worse it would be when he finally did get help.

"No. Sorry. I just thought–"

"It’s not like setting a simple broken bone. If that’s what it was, I could do it. But I’ve never reduced a joint. Never even seen it done. Odds are, I’d make it worse. Hell, the joint may even be broken for all I know." She looked back over at the unconscious form of her CO. God, she hated this. They should have gone back to the gate as soon as the Colonel told them about the flashbacks. She should have taken over command then, instead of hesitating.

"Major Carter, I suggest we secure Colonel O’Neill’s arm and transport him and J’mi back to the Stargate as soon as possible."

She looked over at Teal’c, who looked no more fazed now than he had this morning over breakfast. "Yes. You’re right." She glanced back at the boy, then at her commander. "Right. Let’s do it."

* * * * *

Jack awoke in agony, hearing his own moans. He tried to silence them, but couldn’t.

"Stop. Put him down."

Carter? He tried to open his eyes. It felt like he was moving. Maybe he was on a boat. The rocking motion was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Gently, he felt something solid press against the base of his spine, the back of his head, his shoulder – "Aagh!" He tried to raise himself up, to get his shoulder away from whatever was hurting it, but he couldn’t. Hands, lots of hands, were pressing on him, holding him down. "No. Please."

"Colonel?"

His eyes flew open. He was surrounded by faces, white faces. Strangers surrounding him, looking down at him. He felt panic rise in his chest. He was sweating, had trouble catching his breath. Then Carter’s and Daniel’s faces came into focus.

"Where?"

"Jack, it’s okay."

Carter was digging for something in her pack.

"What – happened?" Pain, icy pain, shot down the right side of his body. He shivered, flinching, trying to draw away from the pain and dragging it with him.

"Hang on. Sam’s getting you something. You fell, remember?"

Jack frowned, shut his eyes. "No."

"It’s okay, sir." He felt her touch his left arm, shove his sleeve up, then the prick of a needle. "That should help in just a minute."

He lay there, finally gathering the strength to open his eyes. Faces, white faces, frowning down at him. He took a deep breath, and felt the familiar sting of fractured ribs. He opened his mouth to ease his breathing, and glanced at the pale circle hovering over him. "Dream?" His eyes were sliding shut.

"No, Jack. It’s not a dream."

When he awoke again, the rocking motion had stopped and it was dark. The flickering light of a fire danced along a rough wall. He didn’t know where he was, but he felt no panic. He felt only pain which seeped around the edges of a morphine-induced lethargy. He recognized the drug; he also knew its effects were wearing off. Without moving, he assessed the pain. A sharp stinging in his right leg; a dull throb in his right hip; the jagged prodding of broken ribs. The worst was the pulsing ache behind his eyes, and a burning agony that wrapped itself around his right shoulder, stretching up his neck and down his arm. Beneath it all, he was aware of a heaviness, a deep ache in his back, alongside his spine.

Without thinking, he tried to move and was rewarded with a flash of agony that consumed the entire right side of his body. "Oh, God."

"Colonel." He heard movement nearby, and Carter came into view, leaning over him. "Sir, don’t move. You’re hurt."

Jack licked his dry lips. "Where are we?"

"Alle’Ra." At his blank look, she elaborated. "The village. We’re back at the cliff dwellings."

He blinked tiredly. "Get the number – of the truck that hit me?"

She smiled. "No, sir. You fell."

Jack grunted softly and closed his eyes against a rush of pain down his arm. "Sara, can I have a drink?" He opened his eyes, not realizing his mistake until he saw the look in Carter’s eyes.

"Sure, Colonel. Teal’c, give me a hand."

Together they eased him up. They were gentle, but still he gasped at the pain. Carter waited for his nod before helping him to drink.

"Thanks." As they eased him down, he looked up at his 2IC. "I know you’re not her. I – I don’t know why I said that."

She smiled tightly. "It’s okay. How are you feeling?"

He grunted and started to shrug before remembering his shoulder. "Status report, Major."

Carter nodded. "We were able to retrieve J’mi. We were in the process of bringing both of you back when we met up with Tra’on and E’ba, and a group of the villagers. Apparently, they sensed that something was wrong and came to help. By the time we got here, it was almost dark."

"The boy?"

"His only injury seems to be the one to his head. But, he’s still unconscious." At his deep sigh, she frowned. "I’m sorry."

"Not your fault, Major." Mine. It was my fault. All mine. "Where’s – Daniel?"

She hesitated, glanced over at Teal’c.

"The natives do not wish us to help the boy, O’Neill. Daniel Jackson is meeting with them now. He is trying to persuade E’ba to allow us to take his son to the SGC for medical treatment."

Carter had knelt down and was checking the bandage on his leg. "Hopefully, we’ll get permission to take him with us. We’re heading out at first light."

"Negative. Not without the boy."

"Sir, you need medical help that I can’t give you."

"Major Carter is correct, O’Neill. You need a doctor’s care."

God, he didn’t need them to tell him that. "And I’ll get it. But we’re not leaving without Jimmy."

Carter had inched up beside him, and he could see anger flashing in her eyes. "We’re taking you back. With or without the boy."

"Don’t. Don’t do this." Jack knew the sound of pleading when he heard it. Normally, he would never stoop to it, but his defenses were down. He was in pain, and there was too much at stake. The life of a child. He couldn’t live with the thought that he might be responsible for the death of another child. "If they won’t let us – take him, we’ll bring help here. Teal’c can go for Doc."

"Fine." Carter’s tone was sharp. "We’ll all go. And Teal’c and I can come back with medical help for J’mi. Sir, your shoulder alone would be reason enough to take you back. To say nothing of your busted ribs, your head, your leg, your – the flashbacks."

Jack glared at her, then at Teal’c. His head was pounding, and the morphine was definitely wearing off. Pain rose and fell in violent waves down the length of his right side, but he forced himself to face his 2IC. "Major, I’m giving you a direct order. If they won’t – allow us to take Jimmy with us, Teal’c will head back to the Stargate – bring back help. But I am not, I repeat not – leaving without him. You got that?"

She stared at him for a moment, then looked down at something in her hand. The pain must have shown on his face because without asking, she slowly reached over and injected him with an ampule of morphine.

"Carter?"

Finally, she met his eyes, and shook her head. "No, sir."

For a brief second, anger overrode the agony. "Excuse me."

She straightened her shoulders, risked a quick glance over at Teal’c. "I said, no, sir. You – you are no longer in command of the mission. Sir."

Despite his best efforts, Jack felt the morphine starting to dull his senses. "Carter–," but what could he say? He sighed heavily, squeezed his eyes shut against the pain that coursed through his body and the pain that knifed through him at her words. It had come down to this. He forced his blurred vision back to her pale face. As much as it pissed him off to admit it, he knew she was doing the right thing taking over command. But that didn’t mean he agreed with her decision about the boy.

"Carter, I’m asking you – to reconsider. Let Teal’c go back – alone." She didn’t move; made no effort to respond. "Don’t make me leave here not knowing–,"Jack gasped softly, fighting against the drug. "I have to know – he’s okay. Please."

She didn’t look away and when she spoke her voice was soft, but firm. "Decision’s made."

He’d heard the words before, many times, but always from his own mouth. Jack knew he had no choice. He was forced to give in – to the drug, and to her. He shut his eyes. Seems he’d taught her well.

* * * * *

Suddenly awake, she gasped and sat up. Something had touched her shoulder.

"Sam." His voice was whisper soft and his silhouette vague in the light of the fire behind him.

Blinking sleep from her eyes, Carter squinted over at Daniel. "What’s wrong?" She tried to look over his shoulder. "The Colonel?"

"Asleep. For now. I need to talk to you. You awake?"

She rubbed sleep from her eyes and ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah. Well, sort of." Daniel had had last watch, so it must be close to dawn. "What’s going on?"

"E’ba just came to visit."

"Is J’mi okay?"

"The same. But, we have permission to take him with us."

Carter sighed in relief. "Thank God."

"With a couple of conditions."

"And those are–," she felt a sense of dread. God, she didn’t want to have to force the Colonel to go back without taking the kid with them. Eventually, she knew he’d probably forgive her, but in the meantime, they’d both be miserable.

"Nothing serious. E’ba is coming, of course. And he insists that the Elder be allowed to go with us."

"The Elder?"

"Remember? Jack mentioned him. Said it was E’ba’s granddad or something. Anyway, no Elder, no J’mi."

Carter chewed on her lip trying to decide if there was a valid reason to deny the request. "Why haven’t we met this Elder guy before?"

Daniel shrugged. "I take it he’s fairly ancient. Reclusive. The way E’ba talks about him, it sounds like they almost worship the guy. He’s – revered." He smiled at her through the darkness. "Besides, considering the location, he probably doesn’t get out much."

She nodded, glancing towards the Colonel’s bed. She could see the merest outline of his long, lean body. Daniel followed her gaze.

"He’s feverish. I gave him more pain meds and some antibiotics, but," he shrugged, "I don’t know. He doesn’t look good."

"No. He doesn’t." Sam scooted up against the wall and leaned her head back, hugging her knees to her chest. "He was having a nightmare earlier. Woke up calling out to Charlie. Begging me, or someone, not to make him do it." She looked at Daniel, who was still watching their CO. "Make him do what?"

"I don’t know. He said the same thing the other night when he woke up screaming." Daniel turned back to face her. "Sam? Yesterday, in the cave? He scared the crap out of me. I mean, I really didn’t know what to do. You know?"

"Yeah, I know." She touched his arm. "Flashbacks are scary. But you did good, Daniel."

"No. Before the flashback. Jack said something wasn’t right. He knew where he was, who I was, but he couldn’t see. He was – kinda wobbly. Off."

"Before the flashback."

"Yeah."

Sam looked back over toward the Colonel, frowning.

"You think maybe that blow to the head when we came here the first time was worse than Janet thought?"

She chewed her lip. "I don’t know. Maybe."

As if he heard them talking about him, the Colonel groaned and kicked away the blanket covering him. As one, Sam and Daniel went to his bedside.

"Jack?" Daniel gave up trying to pull the blanket back up over the now thrashing man.

"Colonel?"

The Colonel tossed and turned on the small pallet, the sheen of sweat on his face visible even in the low light of the fire. Sam touched his face. He was burning up. She checked his pulse. It was rapid, but not unduly so. He moaned at her touch and tried to push her away.

"Sir, stop. It’s me. Carter."

With one arm and leg, he fought against them. Jack O’Neill looked lean, some would say a bit scrawny, but even functioning at 50% he was hard to manage.

"Colonel O’Neill!" Teal’c’s voice echoed around the small room.

Jack froze, then relaxed back onto the bed, panting softly. "Teal’c?"

The Jaffa squeezed in beside Sam.

"Yes."

"Teal’c," Jack swallowed and grimaced as if in pain, "I can’t do this any more. Please." As Sam watched, the Colonel began to fight again, but Teal’c reached down and rested a large, gentle hand on their CO’s face, calming him.

"You are among friends, O’Neill."

The Colonel’s eyes closed. "I don’t want to hurt him."

Teal’c looked over at Sam, obviously as confused as she was. "Who don’t you want to hurt, sir?"

The injured man looked up at her, his eyes slightly glazed with fever. "Carter?"

"Yes, sir."

"I’m sick?"

"You fell." It was the fifth time tonight that she’d had to explain to him why he was in pain. "You fell off the cliff. Remember?"

He frowned, obviously thinking. "I think I hurt Charlie."

For a moment, no one responded. Finally, Daniel shook his head. "No, Jack. No. You didn’t hurt Charlie. He’s not here."

"Help me up."

"No."

"Colonel, you shouldn’t move."

"I have to pee."

"Oh. Well," Carter looked around the room for something he could use.

"I need to get up. Please."

"Sir, I don’t think–"

"Come on. My back’s killing me, and I’ve gotta pee like a racehorse."

She couldn’t help but smile as he began to sound more like the obnoxious Colonel they all knew and loved to hate. She didn’t protest as Teal’c and Daniel carefully helped him to his feet. He groaned, sagging heavily in their grip.

"Jack, you okay?"

"Just – just give me a second." The three men stood there in the dark until the Colonel’s breathing calmed. Sam heard a soft hiss and saw him force himself upright. "Okay. Okay, I’m ready."

Slowly, they half-carried him out the door. The last thing she heard before they disappeared from sight was the Colonel asking them when Sara was getting home.

* * * * *

"Colonel?"

The voice was whisper soft, barely permeating his consciousness. He’d done it. He’d finally done it.

"Sir, can you hear me?"

Carter. Carter was here. She could bear witness to the atrocity he’d committed.

Numb, Jack looked down at the gun in his hand. The smell of gunpowder stained the air. It was sadly familiar; an old friend who’d finally betrayed him. He looked past the gun to the mess at the base of the ramp. It was only vaguely human. The striped shirt, the jeans with the hole in the left knee, the scuffed sneakers – they were the only things left by which he could identify his son. The clothes, and the small, pale hands with the fingers curled slightly inward, lifeless. Wrapped around the little finger of Charlie’s right hand was a Scooby-Do band-aid.

So much blood. Everywhere. Splattered on the ramp, on the floor beneath it, drenching the upper half of his son’s small body. Jack stared at a large splatter on his own forearm. Were the cells dead already? Or were they still struggling, unseen, grasping at life; the only living remnant of his son? Jack raised his arm to his mouth, and pressed his lips against the coppery wetness. He savored the smell of it, the taste of the precious elixir that had given his son life.

He began to shake. "Charlie." He whispered it like a prayer, a confession, against his skin, his lips smearing the cooling, red droplets. The tremors grew, giving birth to waves of agony that swept down his body. He didn’t cry out; he welcomed the pain. He deserved it. And more. So much more. Dropping to his knees, he lifted the gun with a trembling hand. No more. No more.

"Colonel, open your eyes. Please, sir."

He thought they were, but he opened them anyway. Carter, blurry, looked down at him. A halo of light surrounded her.

"Sir," she sounded sad, concerned, "are you okay?"

He blinked, causing tears to squeeze over his cheekbones, run across his temples and disappear into his hairline. Otherwise, he felt perfectly calm. Subdued. Dead.

"Jack?" Daniel’s face joined Carter’s. "What’s wrong?"

Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know he’d shot his son? That his own life was over? Not technically perhaps, but realistically. Nothing remained for him. Nothing else mattered. He blinked again and sensed movement around him. Life playing itself out despite his heinous crime.

"Colonel, we’re on our way to the Stargate. We’re taking you back to Janet." Carter touched his face. "Sir? Can you hear me?"

He refused to look her in the eyes. Instead, he stared up at the sky overhead, seeking a solace that he didn’t deserve and couldn’t imagine.

"Sam, what’s going on?"

"I don’t know. He seemed to be dreaming or something, then he just – he started convulsing, and," Sam grimaced and lowered her voice, "he was crying. I don’t know, Daniel."

Jack felt her fingers on his neck, checking his pulse. He counted with her. Steady, relentless life throbbing through his veins.

Carter grabbed his chin, forced him to look at her. She raised her voice, sounding angry. "Colonel, I need you to talk to me. Do you understand?" She shook him slightly, and Jack was surprised at the agony that engulfed him at her touch. His shoulder flared and his back ached. He groaned softly. "Sir?"

He licked his lips. "I did it." His voice betrayed him, shaky and soft.

"What’d you say, Jack?" Daniel leaned closer, his ear nearly touching Jack’s lips – lips that were stained with Charlie’s blood.

He’d dreamt it so many times. Come so close. Finally. "It’s over." I shot him.

"What’s over?"

Jack shook his head, once. He was tired. He didn’t want to do this any more – living, killing. He just wanted to be with his son. He wanted to play ball with his little boy. That’s all. Just a stupid game of catch. Was that too much to ask? "I killed him."

"Colonel, you didn’t kill anyone."

"Please. Leave me alone."

"We’re bringing J’mi with us. Janet will take care of him."

He looked at her. What was she talking about? He’d seen it. There was no one on earth who could fix what he’d done. "Dead."

"No, sir. He’s not dead."

Despite the knowledge of what he’d seen, he felt a spark of hope. "Charlie’s not dead?"

For a brief second, panic flashed across her face and she glanced at Daniel, then looked him in the eyes. "J’mi. We’re talking about J’mi. He’s hurt, but he’s not dead. They’re letting us to take him to the SGC for treatment. The natives are helping us with him. And with you, sir."

He stared at her a moment, letting it sink in, then he groaned loudly. He tried to sit up, fighting against the agony washing through him as the relief of realizing it had been a dream was instantly replaced with the pain of knowing that, whatever the cause, Charlie was gone forever. He pushed weakly, desperately against their restraining hands.

"Jack, calm down. It’s okay.

He tried to escape their touch on his skin. He was hot and clammy, and fire raced through his right shoulder, burning its way to his slightly numbed fingertips. He pushed up with his good leg, arching his hurting back and twisting his broken ribs. He cried out at the agony he brought on himself.

"Colonel, please."

Surrender was inevitable. His body betrayed him. Panting, sweating, trembling like a scared rabbit, he sank back down. Carter’s hand brushed his forehead in soft, calming strokes.

"Sshh. Just relax. It’s okay."

"Major Carter?" He couldn’t see Teal’c, but he heard the worry, the unasked question, in his friend’s voice.

"We can’t give him anything yet, Teal’c. It’s too soon." She continued to touch him, and he felt himself relaxing as his head began to clear and the pain began to take over.

He was sick. He must be sick. That was it. But where were they? Vaguely, he saw other shapes moving behind his team. He blinked.

"Hurts."

"I know."

"Jack, you need to lie still."

"Daniel," he reached for his friend with his free hand, "what’s wrong? Where are we?"

"You’re hurt. You fell. You and J’mi. Don’t you remember?"

Jack shook his head. "I fell in the desert, and – Frank left me."

Daniel closed his eyes, then smiled softly, and opened them again. "Yeah, Jack. Those things happened – a long time ago. We’re taking you home now. E’ba and the others, they’re helping us carry you to the Stargate."

He nodded, still slightly confused. "Sick."

"Yes, but you’re–"

Jack coughed softly and Carter realized what was happening.

"Help me turn him. Quick."

Before they could get him all the way over on his left side, he was vomiting. The heaving of his stomach sending agony through his injured ribs and his back. Spitting out the last of the rank, burning bile, Jack felt himself slipping into the darkness.

"Colonel?"

As the blackness settled around him, he gasped and flinched, fearing what he would find there: the gate room. Always the gate room. And Charlie.

When he opened his eyes, it was to darkness and a sky full of stars arranged in patterns that were alien, unidentifiable. Jack blinked, feeling the distant tug of broken ribs and a shoulder that had remained dislocated for far too long. His back didn’t ache so much as it felt heavy, and he knew something was wrong inside. He should probably let Carter know, but then again, there was nothing she could do aside from worry. Using his uninjured arm, he tried unsuccessfully to shift his weight. Everywhere, the pain awoke, but it was tempered beneath a false fuzziness that he recognized as morphine.

"O’Neill." The deep, warm voice came out of the nearby darkness, and was soon followed by the familiar form of Teal’c, sitting next to him.

For the first time in what felt like a long time, Jack knew where he was. He had a clear memory of the city in the cliffs, of the pale aliens, and a small, trusting boy named Jimmy – an alien child who reminded him of his son. He also remembered being in the vastness of an underground cavern, and more vaguely, he had a memory of crawling to the surface and of falling. After that, everything was disjointed, an odd blending of past events with nightmarish scenes of violence and death.

"Teal’c."

"We are on–"

"Planet Pissed. Yeah. I know." Jack tried again to move, his body aching beneath the haze of the narcotic.

"You should not move."

"I’m tired of laying in one spot. And, unfortunately for you, I’ve got to pee."

"Why is that unfortunate for me?"

Jack looked up at his friend, and forced a tired, feverish smile. "Because you get to help me. Oh, joy."

Teal’c smiled and nodded, then gently helped Jack to his feet. As they made their way towards the line of trees, Jack studied the dark campsite. Aside from the distinct sleeping bags that he knew held his remaining teammates, he could see the sleeping forms of probably two dozen aliens. Across the fire, which burned low, he could see what looked like a palanquin or a litter that, when in use, would be carried by men using the two long poles upon which the litter sat. Rough material draped the sides of the enclosure, hiding whatever or whoever was inside. A single alien sat near the litter as if guarding it.

"Hey, T," Jack carefully nodded towards the strange conveyance, "what’s with the wheels?"

"One of the conditions of taking J’mi through the Stargate was that the Elder accompany us. That is his method of transportation."

"So," Jack flinched as pain surged through his back, "how’s the boy?"

"He remains unchanged." Teal’c indicated a spot not far from the Elder’s litter. "He lies there."

Pulling his eyes away from the small form bundled in a layer of blankets, Jack grimaced and concentrated on staying upright. Even with Teal’c’s help, it was difficult. "I really did it this time, huh, T?"

"Did what, O’Neill?"

"You know, messed up."

"I was unaware that you had ‘messed up.’"

Jack squinted over at the Jaffa. "Come on. It’s my fault the kid’s hurt."

Teal’c tightened his grip on Jack’s good arm. "You intended to push him over the cliff."

"Of course not." Since when had the Jaffa become such a smart ass? "Wait. Stop." Teal’c halted and Jack leaned against the nearest tree, panting. Sweat was running in small rivulets down his face and back, and he was beginning to shake in earnest. "I didn’t intend to hurt him. That doesn’t change the fact that I did."

"It was an accident, O’Neill. You could not have prevented what happened."

Jack grunted in protest and opened his fly, his back to the sleeping camp. He squeezed his eyes shut against the agony of trying to take a simple piss. "Wrong, Teal’c, old buddy." The pain was evident in his voice.

"O’Neill, are you all right?"

"No," Jack gasped. He swallowed a moan as a small amount of scalding urine exited his body. It wasn’t enough to relieve the pressure building in his lower back, but apparently it was all she wrote. He was hurting and trembling so badly that he didn’t even care when Teal’c reached over and helped him button up. He sagged further against the tree as Teal’c steadied him. "We – I shouldn’t have been there, Teal’c. Daniel and I, and the boy. I wasn’t fit for duty." Jack couldn’t stop the tremor in his voice, and he wasn’t sure if it was brought on by the physical pain or by the humiliation of what he’d done. "I should have ordered us back at the first sign of my – problem." He couldn’t bring himself to say the word: flashback. PTSD and all its nasty connotations were part of a past he didn’t want to remember. Let alone relive.

"Come. You need to lie down."

"I want to see the boy." He tried to stand upright, but had to rely on Teal’c’s strength in order to do it. He stared at his friend, expecting an argument, but Teal’c merely nodded as if he understood what Jack was going through. Possibly, he did.

Slowly, carefully, they made their way to the boy’s side, and Teal’c lowered O’Neill to the ground. Winded, the morphine faltering in its fight against the pain, Jack leaned on his good elbow and studied the boy’s face. The child lay absolutely still except for the steady rise and fall of his scrawny chest. Jack lowered his head toward his good hand in order to wipe away the sweat on his forehead. When he looked up, E-bay sat across from him. Jack blinked. As far as he knew, it was the first time he’d seen the man since he had hurt the alien’s son.

"E-bay, I can’t – I can’t tell you how sorry I am about all this." The alien stared down at the boy, his normally tranquil face looking tired and old. "I’m not asking you to forgive me. I don’t expect you to. But I," Jack wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. What could he say that would make this man feel better? Alien or not, Jack imagined that losing a child felt no different to any father. It hurt no less if you were from Earth or from Planet Pissed. "Thank you for letting us take him back. Our doctors, maybe they can help him. They’re his best hope."

E’ba shook his head slightly. "I did not wish to take him."

"What? E-bay, we have medicines, equipment. He needs help you can’t give him."

E’ba swiped at his eyes as if wiping away alien tears. "The Elder agrees. The Elder says we must allow you to help."

Jack glanced at the litter, and silently offered a word of thanks to the invisible Elder. "He’s right. You’re doing the right thing. He’s your son, E-bay. You have to do everything – anything you can to save him."

The alien reached out and laid a hand on the boy’s cheek, gently petting the pale face. "He is a good boy."

Jack squeezed his eyes shut, unable to watch the simple exchange of touch. God, what had he done? He felt bile rise up in the back of his throat, and he groaned softly. "I’m sorry." He looked again at the alien, his vision starting to blur from the pain scorching through him. "So sorry."

His hand still brushing the boy’s skin, E’ba glanced over at Jack. His voice was soft, not unkind. "So you have said."

There was a moment of silence as Jack allowed the four words to pierce him. He didn’t try to dodge their gentle fury; he lay there, accepted them as his due.

"O’Neill. Come."

Without protest, shaking, Jack allowed Teal’c to lift him and lead him back to his bed.

* * * * *

[Jack could hear the tap . . . tap . . . tap of the knife against the desk top. Sweat was running down his back now, stinging the cuts and abrasions from the earlier beating. But el capitan’s little bash was beginning to seem like a picnic compared to the shit this guy was dealing out. He had a really bad feeling about what was coming down the tarmac.

Vicente’s voice purred like the tiger ready to devour its prey. "Will your army still want you if you are missing your fingers, or will you become useless to them? Perhaps it would be enough to remove only your trigger finger to keep you from murdering more of my people. What do you say now, Americano? Shall I put just a little pressure on the knife and slice off the finger you so foolishly pointed in the direction of the Sandinistas?"

Jack felt the blade bite into his skin. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and clenched his teeth to keep from screaming out as the knife sliced a fraction deeper. ‘Oh God. No. Don’t let this maniac do this. Please.’

Whether from divine intervention, or more likely part of Vicente’s plan to break his prisoner, Jack nearly sagged with relief as he realized the knife had stopped cutting. The machine gun was removed and as his hand was released, Jack clutched his bleeding fingers to his chest, more shaken by the experience than he could admit.

Finally, Jack dared to look up at the colonel just the man casually lit a cigarette and stared at him with mild amusement. "You are beginning to learn, are you not? Are you beginning to understand the peril of your position? You will provide the answers to my questions. You have no choice."

Beyond bone weary, Jack pulled together what shreds of dignity he could to drape over his slumped shoulders. His voice was soft and lacked his normal confident irreverent tone. "I can’t answer what I don’t know."

Vicente’s moustache twitched as he favored O’Neill with a benevolent smile. "Ah, but I believe you do know, my friend, and you simply require the right persuasion to be willing to share what you know. And you see, that is my job, to find the right persuasion. And I am very good at my job."

"I’m sure you are, Colonel. So am I." Jack’s head slumped back and hit the desk with a soft thud. His voice became stronger. "I was the best damn greeting card salesman in the entire fucking township and I’d like to get back home to my wife and pick up where I left off." At least the last part was God’s truth.

Jack couldn’t help draw a shuddering breath as Vicente picked up the knife and drove it with force into the top of the cheap wooden desk, leaving the quivering handle standing straight in the aftermath of his attack.

Responding to an unspoken order the guards quickly and efficiently bound Jack’s hands behind his back. They dragged him over to a large wooden tub filled with water, out of place in the police station, but apparently drafted into a new and more sinister occupation.

Forced on his knees, the tub of water looming before him, Jack wanted to remind the colonel he had forgotten the apples for the bobbing for apples game. He wanted to tell him that he preferred to bathe with a bit more privacy and besides he really preferred a shower to a tub bath anyway. He wanted to explain that he wasn’t thirsty right now, but unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for once words failed him and Jack remained silent.

His mouth was so dry that all he could taste was desperate fear. Fear that this time he would break. This time he wouldn’t be able to hold out. Fear that if he did manage to hold on Vicente would take it too far and kill him and he’d never see Sara again. Never get to hold his child. Never make sure Frank was okay and had gotten home safe to get the medical attention he needed.

Dammit to hell, why was this happening? He and Frank were supposed to be the good guys. They were following orders and doing exactly what they had been trained to do. They were helping to make the world a better place. Weren’t they? So why the hell was he beat up, cut up, tied up and on his knees in front of a tub of water that he doubted seriously they had brought in to baptize his sorry soul?

He fought to find something on to which his mind could latch, just as he had been trained. A person, a thought, a place, but his thoughts were swept along the rapids heading towards the falls.

Finally, his weary mind snagged onto a submerged log just before he was pulled over the edge of the cataract. Pain . . . pain was good. It helped him to focus. It became his lifejacket. He dug his ravaged toes into the rough flooring and battled the threatening current of events.

Jack barely registered the highly polished black boots that stepped next to him. He barely heard the voice slick with confidence ask him for the name of his rebel contact. He had retreated to a place where pain ruled and blocked out all else.

And it worked until the guards forced his head under the water’s surface and held his struggling form there with practiced ease. Held him there until his lungs depleted the scant supply of oxygen he had to offer them and blackness began filling his vision that had nothing to do with his tightly closed eyes. And in the end he only had one choice which in reality wasn’t a choice at all. He had to open his mouth and breath and curse the day he had not been born with gills.

And they pulled him up.

Coughing . . . sputtering . . . dripping . . .]

* * * * *

Jack gasped, and came awake. Wet. He was wet. He twisted his head, trying to escape his torturers.

"Sshh. Colonel. It’s okay."

He squinted up into the darkness. Carter? Why was Carter here? And where was Frank? It was just supposed to be him. Him and Frank.

"You have a fever, sir."

"Frank?" Was Frank okay?

Once more, he felt dampness as Carter wiped his face with a cool, wet cloth.

"Sshh. Go back to sleep."

* * * * *

[Just one firm yank.

Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! He did not want to do this.

But he had to.

So he did.

Before he could apply his makeshift splints, Jack suddenly lost the contents of his stomach. Shit, he did not need this when dehydration was already a given in the glaring sun. The nausea left him shaking and his head pounding unmercifully. Still he had no other options, but to ignore it and carry out his objective.

With a sigh that sent fresh waves of pain through his head, he reached for his pack of flares to see if he could make a mole hill out of the mountain of difficulty with which he was trying to deal.

And it hurt. Every bit as much, and more, as his over-active imagination had told him it would.

As the first rays of the sun sank over the horizon, Jack finally garnered the strength to move. It had taken a long time, way too long for him to accomplish his task. The flares made an awkward splint around his arm, but they held when he finally tied the last strip of cloth and pulled it tight. He cut a sling of sorts from the parachute material and managed to immobilize his aching arm.

Then, preparations complete, he finally gathered up his courage and his flagging energy to do what he could to care for the other injuries. The ankle was better off in the boot. So he had used two more of his flares to support either side of the damaged ankle and wrapped them in more of his home-made bandages. Hopefully, between the boot and the splints, he would still be mobile enough to stand a fighting chance.

There wasn’t a whole lot he could do with his knee, so he simply wrapped it as best he could. At least the stupid parachute had been good for something after all. He sure as hell wouldn’t want to cheat the taxpayers out of their hard earned dollars by having a useless parachute.

Far in the distance he could make out the shadow of the Zagros Mountains. Frank was somewhere northwest of there. He may as well have been on the moon. No, his only chance was to move south through the Shat-el-Arab waterway and try to make his way towards the Persian Gulf and into Kuwait. Hopefully there he would meet up with U.S. troops.

It was a daunting task, but the only way to end a journey was to take the first step.

He rolled over onto his stomach, and drew his knees up under his body with agonizing slowness. Resting his head on his forearms, he was ready to give up except that he’d be damned if he was going to be found dead with his ass in the air like that. So, slowly, with his head spinning and every inch of him protesting to the nth degree he gradually hauled himself upright.

Swaying, and with the feeling that the remotest breath of wind would knock him back down to his knees, he began to move.

One sickening footstep after another he slowly began to make his way across the sand. Each pace forward was a battle he must wage, an enemy to defeat, and yet each one brought him that much closer to home.

Home and Sara.]

And Charlie. Only Charlie wouldn’t be there. Charlie was dead. Jack had shot him, and left his body sprawled at the base of the ramp, like the warning sign he’d threatened to post there so long ago.

* * * * *

Daniel sat cross-legged on his sleeping bag, sipping his cooling coffee and trying to wake up. It was nearly dawn. He saw a couple of the aliens moving around, heading off into the trees and returning minutes later. He shut his eyes, rubbing with cold fingers at the sleep embedded there. When he opened his eyes, sparks danced in front of them and he had to blink to clear his vision. Dark brown eyes stared up at him.

"Jack?" He scooted closer to the Colonel. "How do you feel?"

The injured man didn’t respond, merely blinked and turned his head. Daniel reached over and gently felt Jack’s forehead. He was still feverish, but he didn’t seem as hot as he’d been during the night. If his friend felt his hand touching him, he gave no indication.

"You were pretty feverish earlier. How’s the pain?" There was no response. "Jack?" Teal’c had told Sam about the encounter between Jack and E’ba. Sam had told him. "It wasn’t your fault. He doesn’t really blame you, Jack. He’s just – he’s scared. He’s worried about his son."

There was still no response. Daniel lifted the blankets covering the silent man, and checked the dressing on the injured leg. It was bleeding again; not as bad as it had been at first, but he should have Sam take a look at it. Working around the immobilized arm, he opened Jack’s shirt and looked at the man’s right side. The rib cage was black and blue. He glanced up at Jack’s face and started to close the shirt when something caught his eye. He studied his friend’s bruised abdomen. It looked different; odd in a way that Daniel couldn’t quite name. Puffy maybe. Slightly swollen on the right side, just below the rib cage.

Oh, God! Daniel pulled the ends of the shirt together and covered Jack with the blankets. "I’m going to get Sam. Okay? I’ll be right back." He turned to go.

"Daniel." The voice was soft, but it halted him. He leaned over Jack, frowning. "Let her sleep."

"You’re hurt – worse than we thought."

Jack nodded once. "Yeah. Nothing she can do."

"You don’t know that." Jack glared at him pointedly. "Okay. Well, she still needs to know." Daniel looked closely at the tired face. Pain was etched in the lines of the square jaw. "You were dreaming again. About Frank."

Jack shook his head, his eyes closing. "No." He looked back up at Daniel. "Not dreaming. Remembering. But–"

Daniel waited. "But what?"

Jack took a deep, shaky breath and grimaced. "Everything is wrong." He touched his right arm with his left, and moved, tried to shift his weight. "I can’t think straight."

"It’s the pain, Jack. You’re hurt."

"No. There’s something else." He moaned softly, biting his lip.

"Let me get Sam. She should take a look at you before I give you anything for the pain." A cold, trembling hand grabbed weakly at Daniel’s arm, stopping him.

"Something bad is going to happen."

"Jack, come on. It’s going to be okay. We’re less than half a day from the gate. We’ll get you and J’mi back. Janet will take care of you. She’ll have the two of you fixed up in no time."

"Dammit!" Despite the pain it caused him, Jack tried to sit up, anger hardening his features. "You’re not listening. Something," he gasped and dropped back to the ground, had to regain control of his breathing. "Something bad is going to happen. Daniel," he looked up, pleading, "please. I don’t want to go through the gate."

"What?" Daniel was stunned. "Jack, that’s ridiculous. Nothing bad is going to happen." When Jack started to protest, Daniel pulled the man’s hand from his arm. "Let me get Sam." He patted his friend’s arm and smiled. "Everything’s going to be fine."

* * * * *

"Major, stop!" Jack knew he was acting somewhat like a petulant child, but that didn’t stop him from using his good leg to kick off the blanket that Carter kept pulling up around him.

"I don’t want you chilling." She tugged at the blanket again.

"I’m burning up. How could I be chilling?" One-handed, sweating, in pain, Jack fought against her.

"You’re running a fever."

"Carter!" She stopped at the angry tone of his voice. "Please. You’re hovering."

"I–," her mouth moved as if she would say more, then she smiled. "I am. Sorry. I’m just – worried, sir."

Jack sighed and relaxed back on the stretcher. "I know you are, Major." He threw his left arm up over his forehead, blocking out the sun. "You’re doing fine. I just – I really don’t feel like arm wrestling you."

"Yes, sir." He saw her hands drift back towards the blanket, but she made no further attempts to cover him with it. "How are you feeling? How’s the pain?"

He shut his eyes. "What can I tell you? It’s – pain. It hurts." He looked up at her. She was frowning, chewing her bottom lip. "I can handle it."

"Colonel, let me give you some more morphine."

"No." He shook his head. They were an hour from the gate and Doc’s clutches, and had only stopped for a 10-minute rest. But, truth be told, that had nothing to do with his refusal. Since his little chat with Daniel this morning, Jack had been consumed with a growing sense of dread. He wasn’t sure what it meant, if it meant anything, but he was clutching at a veritable straw of lucidity. Not that it was helping much. Even without the drug, his mind toyed with him.

Not more than 20 minutes ago, he could have sworn he’d seen Kawalsky standing between two overgrown pine trees silently watching them pass. It would have seriously freaked him out if Kawalsky hadn’t been preceded by similar glimpses of his granddad, Ska’ara, a nameless man he’d once carried off a battlefield only to discover he’d been dead for hours, Scout – a dog he’d had as a kid, and of course, Charlie. His Charlie. That had been the worst. Mainly because his son had waved, and smiled at him through a veil of blood and gore.

Jack took a shallow breath, trying to swallow the grief and confusion, and ran a shaky hand across his face.

"Colonel? Are you okay?"

"No. No, I’m not okay, Carter," he whispered. He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing hard enough to hurt, attempting to dry his watery vision, then he looked up at her. "But I’m not gonna die on you." Speaking of which. "How’s Jimmy?"

She shook her head. They both knew it wasn’t good. The boy had been unconscious for nearly 48 hours. Whenever he asked, Carter said there was no change, but something in her manner told him she was lying, and Jack suspected the boy’s condition was deteriorating.

His shoulder screaming in protest, Jack craned his neck, searching for the covered litter and the small stretcher that he knew would be nearby. E-bay sat on the ground between the two conveyances, his head bowed. As Jack watched, the curtains on the litter parted slightly. E-bay turned his head towards the shadowy occupant and nodded slightly, his lips moving in quiet conversation.

"Time to move out, sir." Jack shivered and turned back at the sound of her voice. She reached over and ran a cool hand across his forehead, and he didn’t pull away. It felt nice, grounding. "It won’t be long now."

"Yeah." But, somehow, the thought was more frightening than comforting.

He felt himself being lifted, was aware of movement throughout the small group, and then he watched as the sky bounced and rocked overhead. He turned his head to the side, fighting off a wave of vertigo, and was rewarded with the sight of Aunt June. Jack smiled softly as she glided through the trees, stepping over downed limbs, keeping pace with them. Once she looked over, smiled, and said something, but he couldn’t make it out. Finally, he closed his eyes. It just hurt too much. Everything hurt too much.

And worse – he was afraid. Jack O’Neill was scared. Scared of what was happening to him; scared of what he would find on the other side of the gate; scared of what he was becoming. He really thought he was losing it here, finally going over the edge that everybody knew he’d been teetering on for more years than he cared to think about. Going bonkers, insane, ballistic. And if that were true?

He cringed as he remembered what had happened to Daniel. Locked away in a padded room before the ink on his blood test results had dried. Hide him away; drug him out of his gourd. If that was McKenzie’s prescription for a scholar, what would he possibly do with someone trained to kill?

Jack knew the psychiatrist would be more than happy to classify him as insane. Hell, it was obvious the guy had suspected it for years. And because of Jack’s training, his history, he’d be considered extremely dangerous. No one knew better than Jack how quickly the very system that had trained him would turn on him. And if that weren’t enough, his mouth had earned him a queue of highly placed enemies who would scramble to put him under wraps. He knew too much; could cause too much harm.

If he were losing it, Jack knew he was facing a lifetime of small, locked cells, straight-jackets and drugs that would keep him calm and safe to handle. He would be stripped of everything – his dignity, his freedom, even his memories. And deservedly so. They were right to fear him. Hell, he scared himself. Just look what he’d done to Jimmy. Behind closed eyes, he saw again the bowed head of E-bay, a distraught, grieving father. Jack could sympathize; he had been there. Still, behind the thick layer of guilt, he felt a stab of jealousy. At least E-bay had the luxury of someone other than himself to blame.

"–dialing now, sir."

He must have dozed because her voice startled him awake. He opened his eyes to bright sunlight. Too bright. He squinted. "What?"

"I said, Daniel’s dialing home now."

His heart rate jumping, Jack raised his head and looked around. "Where’s Teal’c? I need Teal’c."

Carter frowned slightly. "Sure. I’ll get him."

Moments later the Jaffa was kneeling beside him. "What is it, O’Neill?"

"I need you to help me up."

"Do you think that is wise?"

"No," Carter jumped into the conversation, squatting down opposite Teal’c.

"We can carry you through the Stargate."

"Please, T. I need to stand up."

"Sir–"

"Dammit, I’m talking to Teal’c!" Once again, Jack heard the petulance in his voice, and he knew it was fueled by an almost desperate, nameless panic. He turned back to the Jaffa. "I – I have to be on my feet. I just – I have to. Okay?"

"Jack," Daniel had stepped up to the foot of the stretcher, "I told you nothing is going to happen. Everything’s going to be fine." Teal’c and Carter both stared at Daniel. "He said he didn’t want to go through the gate, that something bad was going to happen." All three of them turned back to look at Jack. "You don’t still believe that."

Jack trained his eyes on Teal’c, ignoring the others. "Please."

Teal’c hesitated only slightly before reaching down and easing the injured man up into a sitting position. Jack grimaced, and bit his lip to keep from crying out. As Teal’c lifted him to his feet, Jack was aware of Carter cursing under her breath. Frowning his disagreement, Daniel stepped forward and wrapped a gentle hand around his waist, lending what support he could without touching the injured right side.

Despite the pain, Jack heaved a shallow sigh of relief. As they stepped towards the looming, shimmering event horizon, he braced himself for the worst.

* * * * *

Carter went through first, followed by the natives carrying Jimmy’s stretcher and the litter holding the Elder. He, Teal’c and Daniel stepped through last and together.

When they came out the other side, Jack was taken aback by the crowd in the gate room. A stretcher, a litter, natives, SG-1, Doc and a team of medics, the SF’s – all were gathered at the base of ramp. Even as he watched, the blast doors finished rumbling open, and Hammond stepped into the embarkation room.

Suddenly filled with a dreadful sense of deja vu, Jack stumbled slightly. Teal’c held onto him, but Daniel released him and took a step in front of Jack, staring down the ramp towards the medical team.

"We need a medic here!"

Janet, kneeling over the stretcher on which Jimmy lay, glanced up the ramp at the sound of Daniel’s voice. "Dr. Warner," she motioned the doctor to her side and said something to him before starting up the ramp towards Jack, who was obviously badly injured.

Jack watched as just beyond her, not far from the base of the ramp, E-bay stepped up to the litter and pulled open the draperies. The alien reached a hand into the darkened litter. Slowly, his arm muscles tensing under the strain, he began helping someone out.

Janet stepped in front of him, assessing his injuries, and Daniel turned, facing Jack and blocking his view of the gate room. Frowning, Jack struggled to glance between them, inexplicably drawn to his first glimpse of the Elder.

"Sir!"

"Huh?" Jack flinched, startled as Doc touched his face, forcing him to look at her.

"Colonel, I said, we need to get you to the infirmary. Where are you injured, other than the shoulder and the leg?"

Jack blinked. Everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion.

"Colonel?"

"Janet, I’m pretty sure he has broken ribs, and I’m afraid he has some internal injuries. He had swelling on his abdomen, and there’s been blood in his urine."

"Okay, Daniel. Teal’c, can you help me get him on a gurney?"

As they began to lead him to a gurney sitting at the base of the ramp, Jack got his first clear glimpse of the Elder. He was shocked. He had expected an elderly man, but the Elder was a woman, and she was not nearly so old as Jack had imagined. She didn’t look much older than E-bay, or the General himself for that matter. E-bay had started to lead her towards Hammond, but suddenly she stopped and turned, looking directly at Jack.

Jack glanced at Teal’c and at the back of Daniel’s head. Carter was across the room, talking to Hammond. He glanced back at the Elder. No one else seemed to notice the oddity of her presence, except perhaps for E-bay, who looked up at Jack with sunken, desperate eyes. Frowning, Jack looked back at the Elder. She took a step closer to the ramp, the distance between them slowly closing. Jack’s gaze was riveted to hers. As they neared one another, she smiled.

Charlie. Charlie was clinging to him, frightened.

Jack grunted and sagged slightly in Teal’c arms.

"O’Neill?"

Janet turned. "Colonel? What’s wrong?"

Jack gasped softly, his eyes locked on those of the smiling Elder, as a fierce pain shot through his skull.

"Dad, please don’t hurt me."

"No." Jack cringed, trying to pull away from Teal’c.

"O’Neill." The Jaffa kept a firm hold on him.

Darkness surrounded him, and he was bombarded with the icy blast of rushing air whipping and tearing at his body, at his face, at his helmet. He was falling through a night sky, the ground rushing up at him unseen.

"God!" crying out in anticipated agony, Jack slowly sank to his knees.

He sensed that he was surrounded and looking up, blinking away the blurriness that was his distorted vision, he could see them moving in, edging close to him. Their voices were strained with hate and fear, and their words were foreign, alien. He cried out as the first rifle butt slammed without warning into his ribs. It was soon followed by others, by fists, by booted feet, and he wallowed in the desert sand, seeking escape as he heard the heart-wrenching sound of a helicopter lifting off.

"Aagh." One arm reaching up to protect his head, Jack looked up, blinking, in pain.

"Colonel?" Janet was leaning over him, her face pale and scared.

"Doc?"

Suddenly, behind her, he saw movement. The Elder moved forward, closer, and despite his blurred vision, Jack nonetheless had a clear view of the Elder’s lips forming a single, silent word. Simultaneously, his son’s voice ripped through his aching head.

"Dad?"

Oh, God. It was her! She was doing this!

Panting, Jack struggled unsuccessfully to get back on his feet. He had to stop her. Why? Why was she doing this?

The Elder was only a few feet behind Janet. She stopped, glanced down, then looked back up at him with glowing eyes.

Moaning a wordless cry of warning, Jack reached for Janet, struggling to get her out of harm’s way. Mistaking his movements, Teal’c and Janet and Daniel gathered round him, helping him.

"No." But they ignored him, lifting him up on shaky legs as the Elder inched closer. Panicking, Jack pulled his good arm free from Teal’c grasp, trying to reach for help, to grab onto anything that would stop her. Fighting against his unsuspecting friends, Jack’s hand brushed Daniel’s hip.

A lot can happen in four seconds. In less than four seconds.

"No!"

His shout rang out, echoing across the cavernous gate room and silencing the myriad voices. Slowly, all heads turned to look at him, and Janet and Daniel stepped slowly away.

"Flashback," Daniel murmured softly. Other than that, no one spoke.

Jack stood on the base of the ramp, facing them, Daniel’s Beretta clutched in his trembling left hand, pointed straight at the head of the visiting Elder.

Everyone froze, even Teal’c, who from his position behind the Colonel, was the only other person in the room who had a clear view of the Elder’s face, the glowing eyes.

Hammond glanced around at the SF’s, who’d raised their weapons but were at a loss as to where to point them. "Colonel O’Neill?"

Jack blinked, and his hand swayed slightly, before settling once again on the alien target.

"Jack, put the gun down." Daniel raised his own hands as if in surrender. "You’re not where you think you are. You’re–," Daniel began to ease over, trying to place himself between Jack and his target.

"Daniel Jackson, do not move. The Elder is–"

Teal’c was silenced by the Elder reaching out and grabbing Jackson from behind. The Elder wrapped long fingers around Daniel’s head and neck, gripping him in a vice and forcing a cry of pain from her captive.

The eerie voice resonated through the room, stunning everyone except Jack and Teal’c. "I will snap his neck, Colonel O’Neill." The Elder swung to the side, keeping her eyes on the SF’s and on Jack. "Lower your weapons." When the SF’s didn’t respond, her hold tightened and Daniel’s head twisted slightly.

"Aagh."

"I said lower your weapons, humans!"

Hammond glanced around the room, mentally calculating the number of armed guards stationed in the hallways outside the embarkation room. If the Goa’uld tried to leave taking her hostage with her, she would no longer be surrounded by his people and the other aliens. Daniel Jackson might get caught in the crossfire, but the snake would be eliminated with the least amount of collateral damage. It was a risk Hammond was willing to take. "Do as she says."

There was a clatter of metal as a dozen guns were lowered and placed on the gate room floor. But Jack didn’t move.

The Elder smiled over at him, her lips brushing against the side of Daniel’s head. "Colonel, do you need persuasion perhaps?" She smiled.

"No," Jack gasped softly as Daniel’s image blurred.

Charlie stared up at him, past the barrel of the 9mm. "Dad, please don’t hurt me. Please, dad."

His voice hitching with quiet sobs, Jack’s hand shook desperately. "No. Don’t do this."

"Jack, shoot!"

Daniel?

He heard a groan and then Daniel’s strained voice. "Do it!"

Charlie sobbed. Large tears ran down his cheeks and his eyes were riveted to the barrel of the gun. "Dad, I’ll be dead. Remember? If you shoot, I’ll be dead."

Teal’c’s voice was soft in his ear. "O’Neill, pull the trigger."

"Charlie?" Jack started to lower the gun, but couldn’t.

"Yeah, dad, it’s me." Charlie smiled at him through the tears.

Jack studied the freckles on his son’s face. There had been times when he had had trouble remembering what his son looked like. The shape of his nose, the curve of his mouth, his eyelashes, the freckles. He looked at the face so close to his own, and realized he hadn’t really forgotten after all. It was all so right, so familiar. Still crying, Jack smiled. "Son."

"It is not your son, O’Neill. Kill her."

Not Charlie? But it was. His son. Alive. "I – I can’t." The gun wobbled.

"O’Neill," the voice brushed against Jack’s ear with a familiar warmth.

"Teal’c?"

"You have to do this."

Jack glanced to his left, to the source of the voice, but he saw nothing except the gate room walls, and a brief, partial glimpse of the Stargate itself. He blinked and moaned softly as pain shot through his body. He trembled and looked back at his son.

"O’Neill, it is not your son."

But it was.

"We are brothers." Jack froze. Listening. Dreading the words he sensed were coming. "You must trust me." There was a pause as Jack stared at Charlie’s smiling face. "Pull the trigger."

Jack shook his head. "No. No." Tears were running down his face.

"She will kill Daniel Jackson."

Jack whispered to his friend, "Charlie’s here, Teal’c."

"No. Your son is dead." Jack sucked in a shallow, aching breath. "You know this."

"Please." Jack squinted through the pain, his eyes soaking up the image of his undamaged child. "I killed him once. Don’t make me do this again."

But there was no answer, and suddenly Jack knew. He knew because he saw the blood splattered across his bedroom window, across the curtains that Sara had put up during his last mission. And he remembered thinking that Charlie was going to be in deep shit when his mom saw the mess he’d made. Then he saw his son sprawled across the floor, dying. Dying even as Jack, sobbing, fell to his knees and held him, rocking him like he had when Charlie was a baby. Wanting, needing to make him better.

The gun wobbled, and Jack’s finger tightened on the trigger. "I’m sorry."

"Dad!" Panic distorted Charlie’s face. "No! Oh, God, dad! Don’t!" The small lips quivered, and the eyes lit up.

Daniel’s face replaced Charlie’s, and just behind him, to the right, emerged the face of the enemy.

The fatal shot echoed through the gate room.

* * * * *

Janet Fraiser stared down at the boy’s body. The bed, of a size that could barely contain the lanky form of a certain Colonel, dwarfed this alien child. It made him appear even smaller, even paler, than he actually was. With one hand, she pushed the silky hair off J’mi’s forehead, then tucked the sheet around his tiny frame and looked over at E’ba, who sat quiet and unmoving in a chair on the opposite side of the bed.

She was tired. Exhausted. It had been a long five days. Silently, trying not to disturb the man who was lost in thought, she slipped out of the room and down the hall. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she opened a door and looked inside at an empty bed. Tangled sheets had been tossed back, and a dangling IV needle dripped slowly, steadily, pooling clear liquid on the floor beside the bed. The room was vacant.

Dammit!

Janet hurried to the nurse’s station. "Judy, have you seen Colonel O’Neill?"

The young nurse looked up at her with a worried frown. "No, ma’am. He was in his bed when I went to check on him not half an hour ago."

"Sleeping?"

"Yeah. Quiet as a mouse."

Janet snorted softly. Quiet as a mouse? Jack O’Neill? Okay, that meant not sleeping. Playing possum? Maybe. Definitely not sleeping. The Colonel hadn’t had a quiet, good night’s rest since the team had returned. Hell, before that even.

"Is anything wrong, Doctor?"

She smiled down at Judy. It wasn’t her fault. "Seems we have a runaway on our hands."

"Oh my God. I’m sorry. I was just going over my–"

Janet held up a hand, silencing her. "It’s not your fault. Don’t worry about it. I – I have a feeling I know where to find him." Janet slipped her stethoscope from around her neck and placed it on the counter. "I’ll be back shortly and, Judy," Janet looked down the hallway, "make sure E’ba isn’t disturbed."

"Yes, ma’am."

Less than five minutes later, Janet emerged at the entrance to the mountain. She hesitated on the sidewalk, looking up at the vast night sky. It was clear, and there was a crisp, cold bite in the air. Wrapping her arms around herself, she wandered off the pavement and onto the short pathway that she couldn’t see, but that she knew by heart was there. She wasn’t the only one.

Barely 30 feet from the parking lot, she found him. He was sitting on a boulder perched on the edge of a steep overhang that looked out over a wide, distant meadow. A nearly full moon and a brilliant array of stars lit the meadow with a soft, unearthly glow.

Janet stepped up beside the boulder. If she’d startled him, he didn’t show it. He merely hitched himself over using his good arm, making room for her to join him.

"Doc," his voice was deep, soft in the darkness.

"Colonel." She eased up onto the smooth rock. As she settled herself, a shiver ran through her. "You’re going to catch your death out here, Colonel. It’s cold."

He didn’t respond at first, merely pulled the hospital robe closer around his shoulders and grunted softly. She watched as his fingers slowly loosened their grip on the thin cotton and his hand drifted down to his lap. "I just needed a breath of fresh air. No harm, no foul. Right, Doc?"

"I certainly hope so, sir." She turned to look out over the meadow, following his gaze and wondering what he was thinking. Wondering, too, what she was going to say. She was shocked when long, cool fingers moved from his lap to the boulder and pressed softly against the side of her hand, the touch slight, possibly accidental, yet somehow intimate. She took a deep breath. God, how could she possibly fix this?

"I killed him."

Janet flinched, unwilling to look at him. "Sir–"

"In my dream."

"Colonel?" She did look at him now, covertly, without turning her head.

"Every night the dreams come. I–," she felt his tight smile, "but you know that." She saw him look down, then back out toward the meadow. "I know it didn’t really happen. I know you told me that the – the Elder was just messing with my head, but it still seems real. It feels real. More like a memory than a dream."

"Like a flashback," she added softly.

At his quiet grunt of agreement, Janet felt a surge of anger and hate wash through her that surprised her with its intensity. The Elder. The – snake. From what they’d been able to determine after long briefing sessions with the aliens, the nameless Goa’uld had to have gated to P1S-S3D well over a hundred years ago. The natives had willingly told of a stranger who had come to them, and who had died in a fall from the cliffs soon after. They had never known the stranger’s origins, nor why or how he’d come. Apparently, unknown to them, when the stranger – the host – had died, the Goa’uld had blended with one of their own – the daughter of a man who had been a respected elder of the community. For over a century it had concealed itself in their midst, masquerading as an honored, wise elder of their small, trusting world.

Why it had never attempted escape was a mystery. Perhaps it had nowhere to go. Perhaps it was hiding from others of its kind. Or perhaps it had simply enjoyed life in Alle’Ra. In the wake of the Elder’s death, there were more questions than answers, not the least of which was why had it chosen to do what it did to the Colonel. Many, like Teal’c, thought it was nothing more than the deliberate act of an evil mind. Janet wasn’t sure if the Colonel agreed, or if he’d even considered his tormentor’s motives – he hadn’t said. Probably never would. But she had her own theory. She suspected that it had something to do with the blending of the Goa’uld with a telepathic species. The host and the parasite had had over a century in which to wrestle for control; a hundred years in which to slowly drive one another insane. It was just a theory but one which, for her, went a long way towards explaining outright cruelty.

There was some comfort at least in knowing there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. Looking back, considering the timing of the Colonel’s nightmares, it had become obvious the Goa’uld had done something to him when the team had first gated to the planet, when Jack had first suffered the concussion. Maybe the head injury had made him more vulnerable than the others. Or perhaps like E’ba and the other natives, the Goa’uld had ‘read’ the members of SG-1 and had sensed the hurt and torment that lurked within the depths of Jack O’Neill. Then, somehow using its host’s unique mental skills, the Elder had played with him. Toyed with the hurt it had found inside the man.

Five days after the Goa’uld’s death, the dreams and the flashbacks were as fresh and unforgiving as when the Colonel had been directly, unknowingly, in the snake’s clutches. And, as much as she hated to admit it, Janet couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. Jealousy that the Elder had been able to pierce the shield surrounding Jack O’Neill. Had had access to what made him tick. To what could hurt him. But, mostly, access to what could heal him.

If anything could. Janet had seen his files, studied them enough to know that the Colonel had to be walking a fine line most days. Damn him and his training and the sheer bullheadedness that prevented him from letting go. And damn whatever fates decreed that one man had to suffer what this man had suffered, and still go on. Outliving so many. Too many.

Janet glanced over at his moonlit profile, studying the firm jaw and the aquiline nose, which was just a smidgen too short. Dark, deep-set eyes that took in so much and revealed so little. Their power was amazing – they could make you want to crawl like a whipped pup into a dark closet; they could make you want to slap his handsome face; but they could also send a warm thrill through you when they sparkled with evil, boyish charm, or when they darkened with indiscernible feelings that would be left forever unspoken.

Janet realized she was staring when a long index finger wrapped itself over her pinkie in a subtle, protective, prodding move.

"You okay?"

Janet blinked and smiled, finally looking away. Damn him. Damn Jack O’Neill and his obsessive need to save the world. "Shouldn’t I be asking you that?"

He laughed softly, then immediately went quiet. They watched over the meadow, their skin prickling with the cold.

"How can something so beautiful go so – so unnoticed?"

His voice warmed her, and she studied the object of his gaze. He was right. It was there, in the same place, every night. How many times in the last month had she come out here to see this? Hell, how many times in the last year? Suddenly, she wanted to ask him how often he came here.

"Just one little boy. One, in a world – in a universe, full of little boys."

Oh my God. Janet blinked, her eyes filling. As usual, the Colonel’s mind had turned down a fork in the road she hadn’t even seen, and they were thinking about totally different things.

"He had the most amazing smile I’d ever seen." He suddenly looked at her. "Did I ever tell you about the first time I saw him?"

How could he have when he never spoke of the lost boy? Never spoke of anything even remotely personal. Janet merely shook her head and smiled in the dark. "No."

"He was almost three months old by the time I got home. When Sara held him out to me, I swear to God my heart was pounding so hard I thought I was gonna die. I’d been less scared lying on my belly in the dark in the middle of a minefield. He was so – so small. And, God, he looked like me. Poor kid." Jack shook his head, laughing softly. "When Sara was pregnant, I always said I didn’t care if it was a boy or girl so long as it didn’t look like me, and there he was. And I thought, my God, he’s the most beautiful kid I’ve ever seen. And we made him. Me and Sara. Just two ordinary, very imperfect people. We made this beautiful baby. So, I – I held him. Like he was made of glass or something."

Janet chuckled softly. She’d seen the Colonel with kids, with Cassie, often enough to know that they loved him as much as he loved them. Jack O’Neill could place a lethal bullet in an enemy brain without the slightest hesitation. He could snap a neck with his hands with no more emotion than it takes to snap a pencil. With practiced ease, he knew the mechanics involved in slipping a knife past ribs and soft tissue and into a beating heart. He could be ruthless, deadly, frightening. Janet knew this. She’d read his accounts, his team’s, in their mission reports; she’d even caught a slight glimpse of that stranger when Apophis lay dying, belligerent, in her infirmary. But she also knew that the Colonel could never hurt a child. Janet remembered the sight of those large, lethal hands cupping the smooth head of Charlie – the little Reetou boy – comforting him when no one else could. She knew without a doubt that if anything ever happened to her, there was no one else she would rather entrust with her daughter’s care than the man beside her.

"Sara was laughing at me, but I was scared to death I was gonna snap him in two."

"But you didn’t."

"No," he smiled over at her, briefly, before turning back to face the night. "I held him at arm’s length, and just stared at him wondering how the hell I was ever gonna be able to live up to this after everything–," Jack stopped, but Janet heard the unspoken ‘everything I’d done, everything I’d been through.’ "Then, Charlie smiled at me. If I hadn’t been in love before, I was then. I was a total goner. He had a killer smile. From day one."

Just like his dad, Janet thought.

Jack took a deep, shaky breath, and Janet wondered which sort of pain induced the hitch in his breathing. "He smiles at me in the dream. That’s why I think – thought, it was real. That smile. How could anyone fake that? How could it not be real?" He pulled his hand away from hers and rubbed his eyes.

She knew he was exhausted. He was still recovering from a lacerated kidney, broken ribs, not to mention a badly bruised hip and the leg wound. Hell, his arm alone would keep him off the active roster for a couple of months. It had been left untreated too long, and it had required surgery to reduce the joint. It would be at least two weeks before Janet would allow him to remove the bindings that held it firmly in place, and begin the long, painful regimen of physical therapy. And those were just the physical injuries.

"And I kill him. Despite the smile. Despite him begging me not to. I aim the gun and I – I pull the trigger."

She waited, knowing he needed to finish this. If he were ever to escape the torment that the Elder had started, he had to work through this. "And then?"

Jack looked over at her. The dark eyes hardened, the mouth tightened, and she wondered how many men had seen that look just before dying.

"And then my kid’s head explodes."

Janet flinched at the lack of emotion in his voice and in his eyes. Without meaning to, she leaned back, pulling slightly away from him. He saw it, and smiled tiredly as if he understood.

"Sir," she cleared her throat. "Colonel, it – it didn’t happen. It’s just a dream. A mean, evil, cruel thought planted by someone who enjoyed torturing you with Charlie’s death."

He searched her face for a moment, then turned away, back to his study of the meadow.

"You came here to tell me something. Something else."

Janet was startled. She’d almost forgotten. She’d almost succeeded in blocking it from her mind. She squirmed, the rock under her suddenly much too cold and much too hard. She slid off the boulder and stood, leaning against it, facing him.

"Colonel, J’mi–," she stumbled over the words. "We couldn’t – he died, sir. Just a few minutes ago." She watched him closely, but except for a slight hunching of his shoulders, there appeared to be no reaction to her words. Still, she knew not to trust the obvious, especially when it came to this man. "His physiology was just too different. There was nothing – we did everything we could. I’m – I’m sorry."

"I know you are, Doctor. You did your best." His voice was kind, attempting to offer her comfort that he somehow knew she desperately needed. He blinked, grimaced slightly, then lifted his chin towards the meadow. "Why don’t you go on back, Doc. I’ll be along."

"No, sir."

His brow tightened and he opened his mouth, but no words emerged. She watched as he struggled to reign in whatever threatened, whatever emotions were tearing at him. "I – I could use a minute here, Janet."

His use of her name was deliberate. Classic Jack O’Neill. Nothing he said, no matter how glib, wasn’t thought out in advance, vocalized for a reason. She would not allow him to soften her resolve. She didn’t want to be cruel, not after the cruelty he’d already endured, but she knew that he needed a minute to shove down whatever he was feeling. He needed privacy in order to pack it in that dark place where he kept every single piece of hurt. He was compelled to shut it away where it couldn’t be faced, or dealt with. And she wouldn’t let him do it. Not this time.

"You need to come inside, sir. Now. You’ve been out here too long as it is."

His eyes closed. He was struggling.

"Colonel, please. We need to get you warmed up and back on your IV. And you’re in pain." Other than opening his eyes, he didn’t move. "There’s a grieving father down in my infirmary. He’s alone, and he could do with some company."

That did it. He turned on her. "I’m the last man on earth that man needs to see right now, Doctor." His words were soft, but the tone was barbed.

"You’re wrong, sir. Very wrong." She knew that E’ba didn’t blame the Colonel. Not really. The man was no fool. After the scene in the gate room, the briefings, the hushed conversations, the alien knew, deep down, that Jack O’Neill was no more to blame than J’mi was. They were all victims of a harsh, evil deception. "It wasn’t your fault, Colonel. He knows that. He doesn’t blame you." Only you blame you. Sir.

Angry, Jack shuffled awkwardly across the boulder, towards her, towards the only avenue of escape. Janet took a small step to her left, effectively blocking him, preventing him from leaving. He froze, staring at her.

"He just watched his son die, and I can only imagine what he’s going through." The Colonel looked pale, and his breathing was quick, shallow, as if he’d been running. Gently, afraid of startling him, Janet reached over and rested a hand on his good leg. "But you know, don’t you? You know exactly the thoughts that are racing through his mind. You know what he needs to hear. What he doesn’t." Jack gasped softly, and Janet wanted to cry at the pain she saw etched in the hard lines of his unforgiving face. "He needs someone that understands. J’mi’s father needs you, sir."

She felt him surrender. Tense muscles relaxed under her hand, and he sobbed once, dryly, quietly. She waited until he made the first move, until he eased himself off the rock and his feet touched the ground. He staggered slightly and with both hands she clutched at his waist, trying to help him. A hand dropped to her shoulder as he attempted to steady himself.

His skin was ice cold and she suddenly realized he was barefoot. God, the man was an idiot, and so was she for wanting to take care of him, wanting to take him under her wing.

"Come on, sir. Let’s get you inside."

"Doc." He stumbled against her, and she suddenly found herself holding up a 6-foot 2-inch wounded, hurting man.

A long arm slipped around her, grasped at her, clutching desperately. He was trembling. She wrapped both arms around his waist, holding him tight against her. As his face pressed roughly against the side of her neck, she remembered the mission report. The one when Hathor had implanted a Goa’uld in the Colonel, when he’d been frozen. Sam had said that when he came out of the cryogenic chamber, he’d clutched at her, held onto her as if afraid of letting go. He clutched at Janet now.

"He was a good kid." It was mumbled softly into the skin of her throat, and as he said it, his fist tightened, grabbing onto her lab coat, wrinkling it.

Who was he talking about? Charlie? J’mi? It didn’t matter.

"Yes, sir. He was."

"He didn’t deserve to die. Just a stupid accident. He shouldn’t have died."

Janet was crying now, tears he couldn’t shed. "No, sir. He shouldn’t have. No child should."

Suddenly, he sagged heavily.

"Colonel?" She struggled beneath him, trying to keep them upright. "Sir?"

He tensed, gathered strength from that vast reserve that he drew on so often, and forced himself off her. Hunched over, his face tight with pain, it took him a moment to right himself.

"Okay, that’s it. We need to get you back to bed."

"E-bay," he mumbled. "I need to talk to E-bay."

"Yes, sir. You will. Now, come on."

They shuffled up the path towards the mountain, staggering like two drunks. Miraculously, they reached the sidewalk without falling, and Janet heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of the lighted entrance and the two guards. At the sight of her struggling under the weight of the wounded officer, they rushed over to help her.

Waiting on help to arrive, they stood there – a tall, hurting man and a tiny, determined healer. Panting softly, Jack looked at her. He studied her mouth, then her eyes, as if seeking an answer.

"It wasn’t my fault?"

Janet met his gaze. Charlie? J’mi?

She stiffened her spine, looked into the inky depths of dark, searching eyes. The rest of the night faded around them, and she was only vaguely aware of the approaching SF’s.

"No, sir."

The guards took him from her, easing him towards the door and safety. Following behind them, Janet studied the bare feet padding quietly across the cold cement. She followed in the invisible footsteps of feet that had been broken in a South American jail. Feet that had carried him, hurt and desperate, nine days across burning sand. Feet that had stumbled through four months worth of miles and torture in a dark, cramped, Iraqi cell. Feet that had paced a carpeted living room, walking a crying infant to blessed sleep. Feet that had raced a dying child to a stark, sterile, and ultimately useless hospital. Feet that had stepped on the surface of worlds unknown to the rest of the planet, and that never failed to bring his people home. Feet that had brought him here. To this point. And that would carry him on in his solitary struggle to save them all.

"There’s ten bucks in it for you if you help me escape."

One of the SF’s chuckled softly at the Colonel’s quiet attempt at humor. The four of them entered the elevator. Jack, pale and trembling, was forced to endure the aid of the young guards.

"Okay, well, I guess I could make it an order. Airman, I demand you drive me home."

"Yes, sir." The guard made no move, just smiled over at Janet as the elevator continued to drop.

Jack groaned, biting his lip, as the car jolted to a stop and he stumbled against the younger of the two guards, bumping his injured shoulder.

"Colonel?" Janet moved towards him.

"Sir?" The guard frowned, clearly afraid he’d injured the already wounded officer. "I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean–"

Jack held up his good hand, silencing the apology and forcing a grim smile. "Not your fault, son." He limped forward, making his way out of the car. "Not anyone’s fault. I’ll be fine." Wearily, he glanced at Janet. "Right, Doc?"

Charlie? J’mi?

Janet smiled back, and offered up a silent prayer.

"You’re gonna be fine, sir. Just fine."

The End



The articles "Race Against Time" and "Inka Child Sacrifice" appear in the November/December 1996 issue of Archaeology Magazine; both articles can be accessed at the Archaeology Magazine website.

The flashback scenes to the Frank Cromwell and Jack O’Neill mission to Nicaragua are excerpts taken from "So Builds An Absolute Trust," co-written by Gallagater and Flora. The flashback scenes to Jack’s parachuting ordeal are taken from "Nine Days In A Battle Called Life," written by Gallagater. You can e-mail Flora at stt121us@yahoo.com; you can e-mail Gallagater at 7j4him@prodigy.net or access her website at http://www.frondfic.com/filing/gallagater/swamp.htm. Special thanks go to both for allowing me to use their wonderful words in Tunnel Vision.

Author’s Note: Thanks to my betas, Brenda and Renwah. Their help was invaluable – another reason why they didn’t get paid for all their hard work. Also, thanks to Judy for continually prodding and tormenting my muse, and to Judy and Flora for allowing me to use excerpts from their very special stories for Jack’s flashback scenes (see endnote). All mistakes are mine, and mine alone. Feedback is welcomed.


© February 2005 Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only, and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the author


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