Yours, Mayan, and Ours

Written by Gallagater
Comments? Write to us at 7j4him@prodigy.net

Each of us earns his death, his own death, which belongs to no one else and this game is life.

George Seferis

Daniel Jackson could read between the lines in twenty-three languages. The message he was reading now could have been interpreted by a precocious kindergartner. As his finger nervously tapped out a cadence on the slide projector, his gaze fluttered between the faces of his teammates and General Hammond. They landed briefly on the unmistakably bored features of Jack O’Neill, then flitted away before eye contact could be established.

He wasn’t sure why he was suddenly so unsure of himself, particularly around Jack. The butterflies beating their wings frantically against the lining of his stomach were reminiscent of his earliest days in the Stargate Project when he stood like David against the Goliath of a room full of military skeptics. Chief amongst them, Colonel Jack O'Neill, looking at him as if he were some long-haired geek-like academian bug he would like to grind under his spit and polished boot.

But that had been nearly four years ago and a lot of water had passed under the proverbial bridge. A lot of water. He and Jack were friends now; best friends. Almost like brothers, who supported and fought each other in turn, pulling the other's butt out of the fire more times than either could count.

But that was before.

Before Jack's little undercover mission with Maybourne when words like 'trust' and 'friendship' took on new meanings that Webster never intended. Oh sure, Jack had said he hadn't meant it. That their friendship was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar.

But everyone knew how Jack felt about rocks.

Even the kind you build friendships on could threaten to crumble and break away under your feet when mistrust and doubt began the steady process of erosion.

Deep down you didn't trust him when he said he was just making up all that stuff, and it hurts like hell.

God, it still hurts.

A voice penetrated his inner dialogue, causing Daniel's face to flush as he ran a mental hundred-yard dash, desperately trying to remember where he had left off with his part of the briefing.

"Doctor Jackson, you were saying, something about a Mayan sun god?" General Hammond inquired discreetly.

Grasping the verbal bone with silent gratitude, Daniel glanced at his notes and continued. "Yes, sir, Kinich Ahau was one of many gods worshiped by the Mayan people. He was thought to be the patron god of the city of Itzamal and was said to visit the city each day at noon. According to legend he would descend as a macaw and consume the offering prepared by the priests."

With a nervous glance at the colonel’s fingers, drumming out their impatience on the mission report, the archaeologist rushed on. "Kinich Ahau is usually portrayed with jaguar-like features." Gesturing towards the picture beside him, he added, "Note the pointed teeth and slanted feline-like eyes."

"Daniel, would you just move on, before I grind my teeth to nubs?" Jack sighed in frustration as he ran his hand through his hair, causing what little order there was in the silver ranks to mutiny.

No one could personify impatience like Jack O’Neill.

Issuing an unspoken order for silence to his recalcitrant colonel, the general's look promised demotion, latrine duty, or a bullet if disobeyed. Hammond then turned back to the obviously rattled scholar. "Go ahead, Doctor Jackson. You were saying?"

Unconsciously picking up his pace, Daniel shot a glance at Sam, who smiled encouragingly at him and sent an imperceptible message of support.

Nervously clearing his throat and pushing at his glasses he continued. "If you look carefully, you’ll note that Kinich Ahau wears a symbol of Kin, a Mayan day, around his neck." Ignoring the impatient sigh which Jack issued, he pressed the button for the next slide and gestured towards a close-up of the pendent around the god’s neck. "Here is a close-up of the back of the symbol."

He heard a communal intake of breath as the next picture flashed on the screen.

"Oh shit," O’Neill muttered, "the eye of Ra."

**********

Well, this Disney on drugs slide show certainly had Jack’s attention now. All of it. Front and center. Eyes focused on

the . . . Eye.

Damn.

Jack finally regained enough control to cease his muttered curses and turn his misdirected anger on the man in front of him. "Daniel, are you telling us that this Kinish Haha is Ra? Because I know for a fact that you and I blew that egocentric little bastard into Chicken McNuggets back on Abydos." He shot a uneasy glance at the scowl on his commanding officer’s face, remembering their less than auspicious meeting just before he had been recalled to duty. "Really, General. Honest. Tell him, Daniel."

"That won’t be necessary, Doctor Jackson, I have Colonel O’Neill’s report on that mission," Hammond countermanded. "I'm quite familiar with the details and I’m certain it is accurate . . . this time." He tossed a shrewd glance at O’Neill, who had the good grace to look abashed, much to the carefully hidden amusement of his team. It wasn’t often anyone had the opportunity to make the colonel squirm, but Hammond had long ago mastered the technique in order to remind the colonel just who was in charge.

"Daniel," Carter interceded smoothly on the colonel’s behalf, "is it possible that there is a connection between the people of P7X-399 and the indigenous life form on P7X-377?"

"Indigenous life form," O’Neill snorted. "Ya mean the honkin' big white aliens, don’t you Carter? How is old Nick, by the way, Daniel? Heard from him lately?"

The brief pain which flashed in Daniel’s eyes caught Jack by surprise as did the disapproving looks tossed his way by the others.

Oh crap, he really shouldn’t have made that crack. It was way out of line. Everyone knew Daniel was hyper-sensitive about his tenuous relationship with his grandfather. But dammit, he was just jerking Daniel's chain to help alleviated the tension. Daniel should've realized that.

Hell, they'd worked together long enough that his team knew not to take his smart-ass comments serious. Hadn't they? Shit, it wasn't like he went out of his way to hurt Daniel's feelings.

Too often anyway.

Ignoring the path that particular thought was charging down, and very much aware of the cliff awaiting at the end, Jack began to disassemble the Bic he had hitherto been content to twirl like a miniature baton throughout the briefing.

Once again his team stepped in, as he tried to ignore the size eleven-and-a-half boot protruding from his mouth, when Teal’c broke the icy silence. "Daniel Jackson, was not the culture on P7X-377 also that of the Mayan people?"

"Yes, Teal’c, it was. It seems probable that there is some connection between the two races since the two planets are relatively close together in the same quadrant and they both emulate the Mayan culture. That’s speculation of course. I don’t have any hard facts yet." Pausing, he dropped his eyes and studied the floor, "Maybe we can try and contact Nick again, since he hasn’t seen fit to communicate with us," or me, he mentally added, "since we left him there."

"See to it, Doctor Jackson." Hammond's eyes narrowed as he cut to the heart of the matter at hand. "Now, people, what we need to determine is whether the Ra we’re taking about on this planet is *our* Ra, or possibly another Goa’uld who has taken on Ra’s personification. Either way we need a threat assessment."

"It may be possible that the people of this planet are not aware that Ra is dead, General Hammond," Teal’c interposed. "The system lords often do not return to a planet for generations at a time. If they are not in need of slaves or hosts, it is not unusual for the Goa’uld to allow a culture to develop without interference, as long as they do not prove a threat."

"Like a savings account drawing interest, huh?" O’Neill mused aloud, rather pleased with his analogy.

The tall Jaffa stared at the colonel impassively, causing him to shift in his chair uncomfortably as he played with the ink cartridge of the disemboweled pen. Geez, what was this, pick on Jack day? Shouldn’t he have gotten a memo?

"Indeed," the Jaffa finally granted, with a slight nod and carefully hidden amusement.

"That pretty much sums up what happened to Earth, sir," Carter added, thinking aloud. "After the Stargate was buried, neither Ra nor any of the other system lords bothered to come by ship until we used our gate to go to Abydos. Then they became aware that we could prove to be a threat."

"We're all very much aware of that, Major."

"Yes, sir, of course."

There was silence around the table as each person struggled with their own demons.

Hammond cleared his throat. "Well, people, let’s get back to the matter at hand." Some things it was best not to dwell on and like his grand-dad had always said, ‘It’s too late to shoot the rattlesnake once you’ve invited him into your bedroll.’ "Do we have a viable mission? Major Carter, based on your observations and data is the risk worth what we could gain?"

"Yes, sir. Even though we have a few signs of Goa’uld influence, the MALP and UAV indicate no visible Jaffa, simply a thriving Mayan culture. There is evidence of naquadah being used within the building structures of the city as well as trinium, and several other unknown materials that could prove invaluable. If we can convince these people that Ra is dead and that the Goa’uld are false gods, I think they would make excellent allies, assuming of course, that there is any Goa’uld influence left to overcome. It could be just as Teal’c stated and they have been left alone to develop and it’s a moot concern. The signs we see may be simply historic symbols, but that’s Daniel’s area of expertise, not mine, sir."

"Sam’s right. Besides that, General," Daniel added hopefully, "this is an incredible opportunity to study the native Mayan people. There is so much we don’t know about their culture. The Maya were the first people in the New World to keep historic records. It is theorized

that . . ."

Before Daniel could kick into overdrive lecture mode, Hammond smoothly turned to O’Neill. "Colonel, if you don’t have any objections, SG-1 will depart for P7X-399, tomorrow morning at oh-eight-hundred hours."

The colonel leaned forward and frowned. "General, correct me if I’m wrong but, if these people worship Ra, doesn’t that tend to point them in the direction of possible hostiles towards us? I’m hearing a whole lot of maybes, mights, and possibles, not to mention the whole Jaffa-could-be-present-but-not-visible issue. I don’t want to waltz my team into a situation where we’re caught with our BVDs down around our ankles. With respect, sir."

"Your exception is noted, Colonel; however, may I remind you that the people of Abydos also worshiped Ra before you and your team 'enlightened' them, for want of a better word. This mission is a go, people. Doctor Jackson, report to me immediately if you have any success contacting Nicholas Ballard. Dismissed."

"Ah, shit!"

Anger flared across Hammond's face at O'Neill's breach of conduct. It quickly faded into hidden amusement when he saw the colonel's ink-stained fingers clutching the remains of the ravaged pen. He was hard pressed not to smile at the disgusted look of betrayal on Jack's face as he surveyed the Bic's revenge exacted on fingers, reports, and table.

Wisely, no one made a comment as the colonel wiped ineffectually at the sticky red stains covering his hands and mission report.

The team left the briefing room and separated to complete the multitude of necessary tasks. As Jack strode towards the men's room to wash up, he was unaware that Daniel was studiously avoiding him.

******

As SG-1 stepped from the swirling blue event horizon and onto the grassy field where the Stargate stood, O’Neill scanned the immediate area. At least there're no trees, he thought. Trees concealed too many unknowns. Better, by far, to see any potential threat early.

Shielding his eyes against the bright sun, he reached for his shades confident for the moment that there was no direct threat to the team.

He noted with satisfaction that Carter and Teal’c had their weapons poised and ready. Daniel, too, seemed to be searching their surroundings carefully, but the colonel was willing to bet the archaeologist’s mind was already on the collection of cultural information to come, rather than spotting any danger.

Some things just never changed and while he treasured some constants in his normally inconsistent life, Daniel’s frequent failure to recognize that alien planets were unsuccessfully below par as ideal spots to make new friends in the meet and greet club certainly was one he could live without.

"Which way, Carter?"

Before Sam could answer, Teal’c nodded towards the distant landscape with his usual vigilance and customary brevity. "O’Neill, it appears that the natives of this planet are approaching."

Squinting against the strong rays of the sun despite his sunglasses, Jack spotted three figures walking towards them. "Daniel, front and center and get ready to make nice with the natives."

As Daniel stepped forward and held up a placating hand to the approaching trio. Jack unobtrusively slipped the safety catch on his weapon. He watched, his thoughts as hidden as his eyes behind the dark shades, as Daniel walked a few paces towards the approaching people. "That’s far enough, Daniel. Let them come to you."

Without taking his eyes off the men, Daniel hissed, "Jack, let me do my job. I’ve done this a few times before, you know."

Slightly taken aback by the sharp response, Jack nevertheless carefully kept his tone light. "I realize that, Daniel, but it pays to be careful, even if all you’re going to do is talk."

Jack strained to hear when Daniel spoke softly, almost as if speaking to himself. "Speech was given to the ordinary sort of men whereby to communicate their minds; but to the wise men, whereby to conceal it."

The insult was intentional and it struck its mark. Had they been on the pistol range Jack might have boasted on Daniel’s keen eye and steady hand, had it not been his picture on the bulls eye.

"Well Daniel," his voice equally quiet, carefully concealing his hurt, "this ordinary man is still in command of this outfit and I gave you an order."

"Yes, sir, Colonel, sir, message heard and received, loud and clear." Daniel’s face hardened and another nail was pounded into the coffin containing their friendship. So quick and subversive was the communication between the two men, that their teammates were seemingly unaware of what had taken place.

Almost. But the lack of easy camaraderie which the team usually enjoyed and relied upon was valued far too greatly to go completely unnoticed. The reverberations from Maybourne’s sting operation apparently had no problem traversing the event horizon of the wormhole and striking with deadly force light years away.

Shielding her eyes against the glare, Carter sought to refocus the destructive direction of the conversation. She gestured slightly towards the advancing figures. "Daniel, do those masks they’re wearing represent something? They’re hideous."

"They would indeed make the children of Chulak believe that the Har’esatac was approaching." Noting O’Neill’s raised eyebrows, Teal’c added, "I believe you would call it a boogeyman, O’Neill."

"Ah, right." Jack nodded, recognizing his team’s effort to smooth the static charged air. He and Daniel would hash this out another time, another place.

Maybe.

Possibly.

Peachy.

But for the present he did what he did best and packed away his personal feelings and stepped into colonel mode hiding his hurt behind orders and ignoring the resentment a blind man could read in Daniel’s stiff posture. "Okay, campers, let’s boogie forward a bit. Daniel, move up fifty yards or so. We’ve got your six."

The team stepped forward and waited quietly as the space narrowed between the two groups. The three men, clad in ceremonial masks, stopped in front of Daniel, and the leader raised his hand, either mimicking the archaeologist or in the inter-galactic symbol of greeting. "Welcome travelers," the leader’s voice reverberated eerily from behind his mask. "Have you been sent from the Gods?"

Daniel took a step closer and in his friendly, earnest way, quickly explained who they were and what they did. Within minutes, he was deep in conversation with the three men. The rest of the team stood quietly, straining to catch a word now and then, as the four men communicated through the use of English, copious hand gestures, and a guttural language, Jack assumed was Mayan.

It seemed a little disconcerting to him how easily the natives had accepted them, and it grated on O’Neill’s invariably suspicious nerves. Sure it had happened before, but there always seemed to be a string attached that had a nasty way of tightening around SG-1's collective necks.

Despite Jack's reservations, Daniel was not the same naive man who had stepped through the gate into the world of Sha’re and the people of Abydos. Experience and pain had taught him harsh lessons in life which too often Jack failed to acknowledge. Even now, as he conversed with the natives of this world, a battle waged between suspicion and his never-satiated thirst for knowledge. There was something slightly odd about a group of people who accepted strangers so different than themselves so readily.

Of course, perhaps that meant no one had ever come through the gate to threaten them. Turning back to his team, Daniel raised his voice so that everyone could hear. "We’ve been invited to join the leaders of the city."

As the natives turned to lead the way towards the distant city, O’Neill waved a hand towards the departing figures. "Okay, kids, let’s keep sharp, and follow Curly, Larry and Moe back to their city."

Shooting O’Neill a sharp glance, Daniel’s raw emotions snapped. "Jack, why do you always have to be such an ass? Just once can’t you think of the consequences before you open your mouth? How about thinking about what’s at stake..." Daniel’s eyes widened as he realized what he was saying, and he drew a shaky breath. "What’s at stake," he repeated quietly. "They’re priests, leaders of their society, not Stooges. Besides that, they appear to be peaceful, friendly and are willing to talk and share information. You’re lucky their gods don’t watch slapstick TV and realize how disrespectful you are to their religious leaders. Anyone can tell from your tone you’re not taking this at all seriously. The leaders might not be as amused at your sarcastic wit as the rest of us. They might just make you wish you’d kept that irreverent mouth of yours shut for once! I told you before, let me do my job and you do yours, Colonel."

With a withering glare, Daniel moved ahead of the group to join the masked priests, leaving in his wake a speechless, slack-jawed colonel staring at his back. Before Jack donned his own tight mask of indifference.

Perhaps, in another life, Daniel had been a prophet calling down fire and brimstone on an unrepentant land, Jack thought, shaking his head in resignation.

***

The hike to the city was made in relative silence. Jack was still smarting from Daniel’s unexpected verbal scourging. Carter seemed embarrassed at having witnessed the exchange, and Teal’c simply hated discord. He had been aware of Daniel Jackson’s agitation around his friend for several weeks now. The festering of the wounded friendship and the infection which had set in causing a slow death to the harmony and effectiveness of the team.

It was most disconcerting to be in the presence of two people who were either unwilling or unable to let bygones be bygones, as O’Neill would say. He had meditated long hours hoping to find a solution to the problem, but had been unable to determine a way to resolve the conflict which was threatening the balance of the team, short of knocking the two stubborn heads together and rupturing the growing abscess. At times such as these, that solution did seem to offer the best resolution.

***

As SG-1 neared the city, a soft whistle escaped O’Neill’s lips and for the moment the tension was forgotten. They had stepped into a gloriously Technicolor living version of a National Geographic article he had once read.

He heard a gasp from Carter as the scientist took in the sights. "Holy Hannah."

"You can say that again, Carter," O’Neill replied without taking his eyes off the incredible sight. Even Teal’c seemed impressed.

Catching himself staring with open-mouthed wonder at the great pyramid which rose up from the hub of the city, Jack irritably dressed himself down. Well, color me for a tourist. It’s a good thing this isn’t our first mission or I’d have my camera out taking snapshots for the folks back home.

Glancing around at his team, Jack noticed that Daniel had momentarily abandoned his Mayan travel guides, as well as his previous anger and was, in fact, happily video taping for the folks back home.

Seeing the carefree wonder on the archaeologist's face made O’Neill forget all about the wonders surrounding him. A sudden insight surprised him. Daniel had been hurting. You didn’t have to have an IQ that was way up in the stratosphere to be aware of that fact. It had been written all over him in a body language even a jaded old colonel could understand. He knew he’d hurt Daniel with that Maybourne crap. Had had no choice. But he'd hoped they'd dealt with it long before now. Made things right. Obviously he'd be wrong.

He kept meaning to have a heart-to-heart with him, but the timing just never seemed right. It wasn’t like he was one of those touchy-feely talk-about-your-emotions kinda guys anyway, just ask Sara. Hell, it was easier for Fraiser to dig a bullet out of him than for him to pry out the right words. But seeing the awe and genuine happiness on Daniel’s face, Jack realized just how much of himself his friend had closed off.

Jack sighed. It didn’t much matter that he’d rather face a firing squad than share his feelings. Daniel deserved it, and . . . well . . . he didn’t like the space Daniel’s withdrawal had left in his life. Time to step up to the plate and pay the fiddler, O’Neill. And that combination of clichés, he thought smugly, would have had Teal’c’s eyebrow shooting skyward.

As soon as we get home, Daniel and I are going to have that talk, O’Neill promised himself. For the good of the team if nothing else. And suddenly he felt much better, as if he’d dropped a forty- pound knapsack after a ten-mile run. Even knowing he was going to have to eat a healthy slice of his least favorite dessert - humble pie, it’d be worth it. Hopefully.

After the mission . . .

After the mission . . .

***

The bustling city was an archaeologist’s dream come true and Daniel felt like the big-money Lotto winner. Every direction he looked he found sights more fascinating than the one before. If Harlan had been here, Daniel would cheerfully have begged the little man to mass-produce an assembly line of Doctor Daniel Jackson clones in order to study the myriad of information available. It was fantastic. It was mind-boggling. It was why he put up with Jack’s crap and stayed on the team.

That, and the one-in-a- million chance to save Sha’re, although the odds of that happening too often felt like another sort of lottery.

But still . . .

Love of knowledge and love of his wife . . . passions that he felt to the very core of his being. The very center of who he was. And so what if Jack’s words had begun to open fissures in the very foundations of his soul. He was strong. He’d proven it over and over when life had contrived to knock him flat on his ass. What was one curmudgeonly opinionated Air Force colonel, who knew just when and where to twist the knife in order to kill a friendship, when weighed against the cost if Daniel left the team?

Yes, it hurt. And, yes, he was still bleeding from the assault, but life would go on. His life would go on. And discoveries like the one surrounding him now just fanned that ember of determination not to let Jack’s words destroy him and the chance he had to embrace his quest, just as he longed to embrace his wife.

***

The indigenous persons on P7X-399 paid scant attention to the strangers in their midst. There was none of the gaping, awed looks of wonder and fear with which the team had become accustomed. It was a bit disconcerting to be so unimportant that they merited only a curious glance every now and then. Either they were very used to outsiders visiting their city or there was something which proved to be more important than their puny distraction. Neither choice proved an encouraging start to this mission.

"If curiosity killed the cat then these people are still playing with nine lives," O’Neill snorted. No one commented.

As they strolled towards the great pyramid through the bustling marketplace, slowly drinking in the sights, they saw a thriving city teeming with a mass of people. Although he held his weapon comfortably in his hands, where he could defend himself should the team be threatened, O’Neill did not sense anything more than the mildest of curiosity from the passing people.

The natives were relatively short people with a robust physique. Most seemed to have slightly slanted dark eyes and black hair. One of the most unusual characteristics which was readily obvious was their slanted foreheads. Here and there the team saw people trading who were obviously not part of the same native people.

Motioning Daniel away from their guides, Sam asked, "Daniel, all the people seem to have that strange skull formation. An entire society couldn’t be effected by the same birth defect, could it?"

"The Maya Indians had a unique idea of what beauty constituted. They were known to practice skull deformation by tying boards to the forehead of newborn children." Observing the look of disbelief which crossed Jack’s face, he added quickly, "A parent who failed to do this would have been considered negligent in their parental duties and would have sentenced the child to a life of ostracism. You find the same practice in various forms back on Earth. For instance, the Chinese binding the feet of girl babies or the people of Borneo stretching their earlobes with heavy pieces of metal. And Burmese women used metal rings to elongate their neck up to twelve inches in the name of beauty. It really is a case of beauty in the eye of the beholder."

O’Neill shook his head in disgust and refused comment, although his team had no difficulty infiltrating his silence.

Steering the conversation to safer ground, Daniel discreetly pointed out other interesting examples of the Mayan idea of self-beautification as they slowly walked down the street. Many of the men sported body piercings and tattoos. And they were startled when a young man smiled at them, showing off his teeth filed to a point and filled with what looked like jade.

"They could walk through the mall and no one would blink." Jack had never realized a person could pierce so many different parts of the body, and not be arrested when showing them off in public, when Carter had dragged him to the mall to find a gift for Hammond’s birthday.

"Did you ever think about getting a tattoo, Colonel?" Sam asked with a twinkle hoping to lighten the tense mood. She thought of her own tiny shooting star, she had gotten one night after having too much to drink with some girlfriends at the academy. Not that she would ever mention its existence or location to her teammates.

Completely aware of her intentions, O’Neill picked up the ball and ran with it. Grinning and feigning a look of embarrassment he smirked. "Ah, yeah, Carter, I’ve got a tattoo. It’s the Liberty Bell. I had them tattoo it on my butt. The crack ... ."

He hid the grin, as the major’s eyes widened and a deep blush spread across her cheeks. What’s the matter Major, too much information, eh?

Sam suddenly decided it was the perfect opportunity to check out her instrument readings as a far too smug Colonel strode ahead.

"O’Neill, I too have observed such marking when . . ."

"Drop it, Teal’c. Let’s quit discussing my ass and pay attention to the mission."

"As you wish." Teal’c carefully filed this tidbit away to mention sometime in the future. Perhaps the next time he and O’Neill were sparring or at one of O’Neill’s cookouts for the members of the SGC. Bra’tac was correct. Timing was everything.

There seemed to be a class distinction in the city which was obvious to them all. The respect merited the priests who led their party was easy to recognize. The citizens, rich or poor, bowed with utmost admiration while nearly ignoring the strangers in the priests’ wake.

An obviously wealthy woman strolled towards the market with a group of servants in tow. She was adorned with jade jewelry shaped in fascinating designs. Sam nonchalantly hooked her arm around Daniel’s as he stopped and stared, drinking in the rich culture.

"Daniel, don’t you know it’s impolite to stare?"

"What?" Daniel stammered. "Oh, yeah, you’re right, Sam. There’s just so much to see and learn. I could study here for a lifetime and still not know it all. Do you understand how significant this is? The Maya are practically a lost civilization and they’re here in front of me, living, breathing people, not some picture in an ancient book. A lifetime’s work and I won’t get one one-hundredth of that time."

Carter nodded in sympathy. If anyone on the team could understand what Daniel was trying to express, it was Sam. So often she had turned over her findings to others when she ached to dig in and uncover hidden secrets. But that was the downside of being on a front-line team where exploration was the name of the game. It was a tough pill to swallow, but during the many nights she had lain awake debating that very topic, Sam had decided, despite what it was costing her, she had the best of the best. But, oh yeah, did she absolutely understand where Daniel was coming from.

"Come on, Daniel," she said, deliberately making her voice brighter, "let’s catch up with the others, we don’t want them to come back and get us . . ."

"No, we certainly wouldn’t want the Colonel to worry." Daniel’s voice, heavily laced with bitterness, startled Sam, but she covered her concern and smoothly and pointedly ignored his interruption. And the fact that he had resorted to using the Colonel's rank rather than his name. Something that Daniel did only if he was seriously pissed at O'Neill.

"... and waste what time we have to explore and learn what we can."

Daniel blew out a frustrated breath and whipped off his hat, slapping it against his thigh. "You’re right, Sam. Things aren’t going to change, so antagonizing Jack’s not going to help. I guess I’d better be thankful for the time I have here."

Tossing him a smile, and happy he'd reverted to 'Jack', Sam motioned for him to take the lead. Despite his words, Carter knew that in all likelihood Daniel would immediately get distracted and without her on his six playing border collie, she'd never get her intellectual sheep herded where he was supposed to go.

With Sam using her not-so-subtle shepherding skills, the team was reunited as the trio of priests led SG-1 into a beautifully ornate meeting room. The tapestry-covered walls spoke volumes about a culture rich in history. Daniel was hard-pressed to tear his eyes from the trove of chronicled treasures hanging temptingly all around him, in order to sit on the floor at a long, low table laden with heaping platters of food.

"These folks ever heard of chairs?" Jack grumbled, as he sought a comfortable position for his long legs beneath the short table.

The rest of the team ignored his grouching.

The priests were joined by several men, obviously nobles if their dress and bearing were any indication, who took their places gracefully opposite the team. SG-1 watched as scribes removed the frightening masks from the priests and young women began to fill golden plates with the bounty on the table. Each plate was reverently placed before the guests and officials.

Jack eyed his plate skeptically. He had learned the hard way to be very cautious with what he ate off world. Montezuma may not have been Mayan, but he sure as hell would have his revenge if Jack’s digestive system rebelled after this meal.

Poking discreetly at the food with his finger, Jack was relieved to recognize most of the items. The meat looked similar to turkey accompanied by what looked like black beans, maize, and a flat kind of corn cake. With a wary glance towards his team, but abundantly aware of their hosts’ scrutiny, he took a tentative bite. It proved to be one of the best meals by far that he had eaten in ages. Hands down better than anything the dining hall had to offer. Laying aside his normal recalcitrant attitude towards his off-world dining habits, Jack determined to enjoy the repast.

If only they could package stuff like this in MREs. But who was he kidding? It’d just end up tasting like macaroni and cheese. Daniel didn’t call them Moderately Repulsive Edibles for nothing.

As O’Neill and the others savored the relaxing repose, the women returned with goblets filled with a chocolate flavored drink. As he drank deeply from his cup, Daniel turned to Sam and said quietly, "The Mayan people were one of the first to make chocolate. They called it the drink of the gods."

"I always loved chocolate milk when I was a kid." Sam's entire face lit up with the memory. She had gotten over the discomfort of being the only woman seated at the table and was thoroughly enjoying the meal, as were the rest of the team, a temporary truce having apparently been established calming the earlier hostilities.

"Carter, you’ve got a bit of a milk mustache thing going." Trying his best to vex her O’Neill motioned to his upper lip with a smirk. "That’s not regulation, Major."

"Sorry, sir." Sam laughed at his effort to tease her. "It won’t happen again."

"See that it doesn’t." His dark eyes laughed with her.

While it felt good to enjoy a break from the tension that had become the norm for the team recently, the perturbed glances of the natives brought their fun to a rapid halt. Small talk was apparently not encouraged, and the meal was consumed in silence at a leisurely pace. The women refilled plates and cups until everyone was satiated and despite many curious glances at Sam everyone was treated as honored guests.

"I could go for a siesta," Jack gave a mock groan. "I’m stuffed."

"It was quite satisfying, however I am unsure as to the meaning of a siesta."

"The old snooze-you-lose routine, Teal’c. Ya know, a cat nap."

"And for what purpose would I wish to sleep with a feline, O’Neill?"

"Daniel, what’s with the weird pyramid shaped window?" Jack swiftly changed the subject.

The bright sun streamed through a triangular window above their heads. As the rays traveled across the sky, they cast a shadow through the window onto the floor.

"It is a sundial." Throughout the meal, Daniel had paid scant attention to the bounty offered his stomach. It was his mind and curiosity which proved insatiable rather than his appetite. "The lights and shadows show the time." It was obvious he wanted to say more. Much more. And Carter watched with morbid humor as Daniel’s patience was stretched as surely as the ear lobes he had mentioned earlier. The kid in the candy store of sweet facts and nary a nickle to spend. Perhaps that wasn’t quite right. More like a child in the presence of a stern parent who would nail his ass if he screwed up deportment in front of the visiting uncles. And his ass had smarted too many times not to have learned that lesson from Daddy O’Neill.

Oh, yeah. He could feel Jack’s eyes on him daring him to do more than look longingly at the living history at his fingertips.

As the last of the dishes were removed, much to Daniel’s relief, it appeared that it was now time to socialize as one of the priests leaned forward slightly and asked formally, "Bix a belex?"

Arching one eyebrow, O’Neill never took his eyes off the men seated across from him. They appeared completely relaxed and gave him no indication of a trap. Ever the pessimist, O’Neill wasn’t sure what was being said, but he damn sure wasn’t going to be taken by surprise. "Daniel, what’s he saying?" His hand reached down to caress the weapon laying beside him.

Daniel spoke with evident irritation under his breath. "Relax, Jack, there’s no need to shoot anyone. He’s just greeting you and basically asking us how we are doing." Bowing his head slightly Daniel answered for the group. "Maloob, yum botic."

Apparently it was the correct answer and satisfied the priest who smiled slightly. "Mixba." It is well.

"Do you speak Mayan, Daniel Jackson?" The great storehouse of linguistic abilities Daniel possessed had always intrigued Teal’c.

Daniel shook his head. "Not really, Teal’c. Just a few words and phrases I picked up here and there. It’s not too difficult once you know a few basics."

A scowl creased his face as Jack snorted. "Most people pick up postcards when they travel. Daniel picks up languages."

Without a glance at O’Neill, Daniel directed his answer towards Teal’c. "My grandfather spent his life on sites throughout Belize. Occasionally he would write to me when I was a kid. I learned the phrases from him. Any witty comment about that, Jack?"

O’Neill could think of nothing to say, as he thought of Daniel’s childhood and his tenuous relationship with a grandfather who had allowed him to become a very small child within a very large machine called social services. Crap. Couldn’t someone give him a break here? Fortunately, at that moment the conversation drifted back to the present.

"You have come to observe or play?" one of the priests asked politely in heavily accented English.

"You speak English, er, our language," Daniel asked in surprise.

"As the keepers of the Circle a few of us have learned the words of which you speak in order to better serve our God. Not many, but our scholars and leaders are taught."

Ignoring Jack’s frown at the mention of their God, Daniel made no attempt to mask his delight. "That’s great. It will make it so much easier to communicate, as I was telling my friend," gesturing towards Teal’c, "Mayan is not a language with which I am fluent. There are so many things we can learn from each other."

The priest nodded with a tolerant smile. "Have you come to observe or play?" he repeated.

"We will indeed be observing," Teal’c answered for the group, well aware of the tension between his teammates.

Noting the disappointment which flashed across the man’s robust features, Carter spoke quickly. "But we would be interested in knowing what you are playing."

Glancing over at the major, O’Neill flashed her a unobtrusive look of approval at her diplomatic answer. Daniel, he noted, had lost his battle with temptation and was engrossed in reading the stories portrayed on the tapestry. Jack shook his head in amusement. Turning back to the priest he asked, "So what’s the name of this game?"

"It is the game of Pok-A-Tok. It is our most important of traditions. Only the sons of nobles are allowed to participate," the man said with a glance at Sam. "We play to honor Kinich Ahau."

"Sorry, Carter, guess that leaves you out of the running. No one’s going to mistake you for a son of anyone, noble or otherwise." Jack grinned at the blush on his second’s cheeks. "Teal’c, how about you? You been holding out on us, in the nobility department?"

Giving O’Neill a regal stare, Teal’c answered with his customary dignity. "I have not."

"Come. We will watch as a practice match is played before tomorrow’s festival," the Mayan commanded.

"Sounds like a plan." Jack was eager to work off the lethargy brought on by the feast. Leaning towards Sam he added, "I don’t know about the ‘honoring the God’ crap, but I sure would like a chance to stretch my legs. How about you Carter?"

"Yes, sir. Definitely." Everyone rose from the table. Completely absorbed in his translation and having missed the entire conversation, Daniel remained where he was.

Teal’c nodded towards him. "I shall wait with Daniel Jackson."

"Yeah, that’s good, Teal’c. Carter and I will go check out this Pok-a-mon game and meet back with you." Looking at the oblivious Daniel, he frowned and started to speak, but apparently changing his mind, O’Neill turned and followed the natives from the room.

**********

Some time had passed, according to the Mayan Timex, before Daniel consciously returned to P7X-399 from the fascinating site to which his study of the tapestry had carried him. He found Teal'c, alert as always, watching over him as he studied. "Where is everyone, Teal’c?" He could read no condemnation of the fact that he had once again lost himself in his passion for learning in the Jaffa's impassive face. But he felt a niggling of guilt eat at him.

"O’Neill and the others have gone to observe a sporting event."

Daniel climbed to his feet and rubbed the kink in his back as all thoughts of guilt fled beneath the cloud of disdain. "Sporting event. Trust Jack to find a hockey match, even off-world. He’ll probably corrupt the Maya with beer and pizza before the second half."

Daniel was completely caught off guard when an enormous hand clamped tightly to his shoulder and spun him around effortlessly to face what was obvious to those who knew him a monumentally pissed Jaffa.

"Enough." Teal’c’s voice thundered as it echoed throughout the hall. He punctuated his displeasure by striking the floor with his staff weapon. "Daniel Jackson, this behavior is beneath you. It is time that you overcame this bitterness you hold towards O’Neill. It is unproductive and serves only to make you both miserable as well as to disrupt the effectiveness of the team."

Daniel hung his head. It was so rare for Teal’c to show his anger that he had no choice but to address the issue. Glancing into the stern face, he knew Teal’c would brook no denial. Apparently, despite what the sun clock read this was high noon, Jaffa style.

"Teal’c, you don’t understand."

"You are quite right, Daniel Jackson, I do not. You and O’Neill consider yourself to be friends, closer than brothers. And now because he was ordered to complete an assignment and was forbidden by his superiors from informing his team, you have allowed your feelings of hurt to cloud every aspect of your relationship. Do you not realize this pettiness will, in the end, destroy all that you both hold dear? It will succeed in the destruction of SG-1 where the Goa’uld have failed."

Teal’c stayed his emotions as he stared into the wide blue eyes filled with hurt.

"But, Teal’c, Jack said even after all we’ve been through we didn’t have much basis for our friendship."

"And are you not aware that this was a falsehood?" The unrelenting warrior cornered his opponent and stepped in with a machete to attack the vines of deception that had taken root and were choking the relationship of his friends. He was finding it impossible to observe the death of the two men's friendship and remain neutral. If the friendship of O’Neill and Daniel Jackson was the fruit on the vine, then he had been thrust into the role of vine keeper. And as such he was hacking ruthlessly at the unproductive, diseased branches in order to assure ample room for new life and growth.

Clearly miserable, Daniel nodded. "Yeah, Jack told me it was all a lie after the mission was over."

Arching one eyebrow, Teal’c’s look forbade anything but the entire truth, ugly though it may be.

"And I told him that the reason I had come to visit him was that I had lost when we drew straws, didn't I?"

"Was this not also a falsehood, Daniel Jackson?"

Shrugging ruefully, Daniel began, "But, Teal’c ..."

"Cum tua pervideas oculis mala lippus inunctis; cur in amicorum vitiis cernis acutum quam aquila?" Teal’c interrupted, ignoring the look of surprise Daniel was unable to hide.

"When you view your own sins your eyes are dim and sickly; so why, for a friend’s failings, do you have the sight of an eagle." Daniel translated smoothly. It’s from Horace, Satirae, III. You’ve been studying again, Teal’c."

The tall Jaffa gave a regal nod and waited, saying nothing.

Nothing more needed to be said.

Daniel stood quietly for a few moments, as the words soaked into his soul. "You are a wise man, Teal’c."

"As are you, Daniel Jackson."

"Let’s go find Jack and Sam. I’ve got a lot to think about." Pausing, he looked into the serene eyes of his friend. "Thank you, Teal'c. I needed that."

"You are welcome." With that Teal’c led the archaeologist to find the rest of the team.

**********

The night passed uneventfully. As O’Neill sat observing the night sky during his watch he allowed the beauty to caress his weary thoughts. Things had seemed a little better between he and Daniel this evening. He was thankful for that; however, he wasn’t going to let himself off the hook. They would have that talk when they got home. But for now he was just grateful for a small reprieve from the tension that had grown between the two of them recently.

Sipping his coffee, Jack watched as a planet he speculated might be Venus rose. Maybe. It seemed to be dimmer than normal when he observed it from his rooftop sanctuary back on Earth. But of course it would be. That only made sense. They were further from it than when they were back home.

There was a name for when Venus dimmed. He allowed his mind to search through the stacks of astronomy magazines he had back home. ‘Oh yeah, the Superior Conjunction.’

Of course, maybe it wasn’t Venus at all. Just one more nameless planet with a history he might someday explore. It was a sobering thought.

As he sat watching the stars wink out one after another, Jack mused quietly to himself. The mission was turning out to be kinda fun after all. Great people, good food, plenty to keep Carter and Daniel happily occupied, and for once it looked like there was something to keep him busy and interested while the scientists did their thing. Normally on this type of mission he and Teal’c were the resident bodyguards. Not that he minded . . . much. But this trip through the gate had offered a little bonus for the old colonel.

That hokie pokie game had turned out to be a hell of a sport. It combined field hockey, soccer, and basketball as the players did their best to get a heavy rubber ball through a ring that looked for all the world like a miniature stargate, mounted about twenty-seven feet high, without using their hands or feet. The court itself was the shape of an I and was surrounded by stands for the crowds.

Obviously it was a popular sport. Even the practice match they had observed had filled the stands with cheering masses.

O’Neill took another sip of his rapidly cooling coffee. He had been invited to play in tomorrow’s game. Listening idly to the chirping of the early morning birds he realized it was today’s game now.

Why shouldn’t I play? Curly, or was it Moe, told us everyone will be watching the game, and no other activities are allowed during that time, so Daniel and Carter will be on down time anyway. It’ll give me a chance to show them the old man’s still got something going for him. Besides, Daniel’s always harping that we should ‘integrate into the cultural entity’ of the society we’re visiting. Guess it’s time to show the kids that I can integrate as well as the next guy.

Maybe I can teach them about tailgate parties. It’d be worth it to see Daniel’s face. But then again, why screw up the tentative truce that they seem to have established. Was yanking Daniel’s chain worth the price?

Nah. No way.

With that thought, Jack stood, threw out the last dregs of his coffee, and went to wake his team for the day.

**********

It was a beautiful day, although the temperature was sure to rise later threatening to make it uncomfortable. The excitement was almost palpable as the crowds poured into the amphitheater. It appeared that the priest was right when he had told them everyone would be there. As honored guests, the remaining members of SG-1 sat in a specially-designed area reserved for the nobles whose sons were participating in the game.

Looking around at the excited crowds, Carter could almost imagine that there should be hawkers selling peanuts, popcorn, and hot dogs to the spectators. She was so enthralled by the excitement permeating the air that she failed to notice when Daniel slipped out of his seat and fought his way towards the exit.

As he edged his way through the excited crowds, Daniel glanced over his shoulder. Sam was busy taking in the sights, and Teal’c was no where to be seen, but in this crowd it would be easy to even overlook someone of Teal’c‘s stature. Being careful not to draw unwanted attention to himself, Daniel edged out of the stands and made his way towards the exit gates.

Escape seemed at hand, when Daniel once again felt a familiar hand close on his shoulder.

"Daniel Jackson, should you not be back at your seat? The game is about to begin?"

With a sigh of frustration and feeling like an errant child, Daniel couldn’t quite rid himself of the guilty look he knew he was wearing. "Teal’c, we’ve only got today before we have to report back to the SGC. You heard yourself - - this game will take hours and then there will be celebrations and feasting. I won’t get another chance to look around and study. There’s so much to learn here. This is living history. It’s important to me. I might never get another chance like this. I’m not going to get in any trouble, I promise, and Jack won’t even know I’m not sitting in the stands. Sam can fill me in on the details of the game later. He’ll never know. I’ll slip back and watch the end and be there in time for the festivities."

Reluctantly, Teal’c nodded. "O’Neill would not approve of you exploring unattended. Perhaps I should inform Major Carter of your plans and accompany you."

For the first time, the look of a pleading child evaporated, as the Jaffa saw genuine anger flash across Daniel’s face. "Teal’c, despite what the rest of this team may think, I am not a child. I’ve been responsible for myself for many years now and am perfectly capable of taking care of myself in this situation. Who do you think babysat me before I came to the SGC? I’ve been on digs and in foreign places most of my life. There has been no sign of danger here. Everyone in the city is in the stadium. All I want is a chance to explore a little on my own. Okay? What Jack doesn’t know is not going to hurt him."

He stopped and waited, unblinking under Teal'c's scrutiny.

There was a seemingly endless amount of time as Teal'c weighed the facts in silence.

Slowly, Teal’c nodded and turned back towards the entrance. "I shall await your return before the end of the game."

Daniel smiled, not missing the emphasis the Jaffa had placed on the word ‘before’. "Thanks, Teal’c,"

And thanks for showing that you trust me.

"Do not delay your return, Daniel Jackson. O'Neill will not be pleased if you encounter a delay. Nor will I.

Waving his hand in agreement, Daniel hurried away from the crowded area. He felt a surge of adrenaline shoot through his veins. For so many years of his life he had felt unwanted and unloved. No one really cared where he was, or what he was doing for that matter. He had often wondered if anyone would even notice had he disappeared from existence. There was no angel named Clarence in his life to prove him wrong. It had not been A Wonderful Life growing up as a child in the foster care system.

That had changed drastically when he had met Catherine and Jack, and found a new family with SG-1. Now, it seemed he rarely had a private thought or moment alone in which he wasn’t watched over. While that was nice, he was basically a private person and he sometimes missed the solitude his anonymity had warranted. It could be downright suffocating, especially with Jack’s Mother Hen tendencies and Teal’c, the ultimate watchdog.

Exploring on his own gave Daniel the heady feeling that he was getting away with something. This was a feeling he hadn’t really experienced since he was a small boy and had snuck away from his tutor to spy on his parents at one of their digs. He still remembered the feeling of power it gave him as he hid from his angry tutor. It had been worth the cuff he’d received when he had finally been rousted from his hiding spot.

Walking towards the towering pyramid, Daniel stopped to study a large well in the middle of the courtyard. Translating the inscription, he sadly swore to keep Jack from coming near this area. There was no way his friend would understand the Well of Souls in which young children were thrown alive as a sacrifice to the gods. Knowing how his friend felt about children, Daniel could easily imagine just what the man’s reaction would be.

No, the well was definitely not on the O’Neill highlights tour. It was one small way he could protect Jack.

Crossing the empty courtyard to the base of the massive pyramid, Daniel mentally compared it to the more familiar Egyptian variety. He began videoing the architecture, reveling in the discoveries. Nick would have loved this. He couldn’t avoid the quicksand of regret that threatened to suck him down as he thought of how different life might have been for them both had his grandfather made a different decision.

Following the bread crumb trail of antiquity, Daniel wandered out of the bright sun and into the comforting coolness offered by the interior of the great pyramid. It was a living museum he had stepped into, a quantum leap into the past. The very air that filled his lungs was charged with knowledge.

Daniel breathed deeply, reveling in the mystique and promise that surrounded him.

As he changed tapes, another set of glyphs caught his eye. That was interesting. This was obviously the Stargate and the symbol for Kinich Ahau. He couldn't quite make out the other part. Could be a staff weapon or maybe a hockey stick, a baseball and bat. It was probably a commercial for a sports store. This place Jack would find fascinating.

After filming the small series of pictures, Daniel succumbed to temptation and moved deeper into the depths of the past.

**********

As O’Neill marched into the stadium with the thirteen other players, he scanned the stands searching for his team. In the sea of people it was impossible to find familiar faces. Shrugging, the colonel tugged on the short cloth that barely covered his loins. Shit, what was it with these people. Thank God, for the protective padding he was also allowed to wear. The uniform itself was damned indecent.

He had to admit he was pretty protected for this game. The helmet, gloves, and hip protectors gave him a feeling of security and all he could say for the knee pads was, ‘Thank God’. Maybe Janet wouldn’t kill him for this stunt when he got back to base. And possibly he could bribe the kids to keep their mouths shut. Yeah, right. Teal’c maybe. But between Carter and Daniel he didn’t have a prayer of this little outing escaping Doc’s notice.

Tuning back in to his old buddy, Curly, Jack caught the tail end of a speech which included something about the game being necessary in order to feed cosmic order.

What the hell? Where was Daniel when he needed him to translate that mumbo-jumbo cosmic karma crap. He glanced back at the crowd hoping to spot his friend. No such luck.

It was no use. He didn’t understand these guys any more than he had understood the priest back home when his mother dragged him to confession every week. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned...

His reverie was cut short as Moe and Larry walked down the two rows of athletes, each carrying a large goblet.

"Drink."

Shaking his head, Jack tried to refuse. "Fellas, I’m more of a Coors kind of guy. Ya know, on tap’s good, but pop me a cold one if it’s all you’ve got. We’ll throw back a few. This communal cup kind of thing just isn’t my style, if you get my drift."

"Drink."

The priest's stern face brooked no argument. The stands were silent as thousands of eyes waited for the ceremony to be completed before the game could begin. Realizing he had little choice, Jack drank.

As it was lifted to his lips, Jack relaxed as he tasted the chocolate ‘drink of the gods’ he had enjoyed with his meal yesterday. As the last player drank deeply, the crowds stood with a resounding cheer which echoed off the rock walls. O’Neill felt a surge of adrenalin which for too long he had only experienced in the heat of battle. God, he needed this.

The two teams faced each other. The captain of O’Neill’s team held up a hard flat bat, and giving the ball a solid whack began the game.

Sweat dripped from every part of his aching body as Jack, once again, threw himself towards the ball. It caught him in the chest with a resounding thud. He knew there would be hell to pay when Doc caught sight of the bruises he’d have, but right now it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting that damn ball in the goal.

Competitive by nature, and a natural athlete, Jack had sorely missed the pick-up ice hockey games of his youth. Now his knees wouldn’t allow him to participate and while he still loved watching the game, observing placed a dim second to actually playing. This game was fast, filled with all the strategy employed in a war game, and dangerous. He was loving every bone-jarring moment of it.

Now, after hours of play, all the athletes’ limbs were shaking with fatigue and they were drawing air in great gulps. Despite the protective equipment, most of the players sported a colorful palette of cuts and bruises.

But now the end was in sight. The priests had indicated that time was running out and that, as the scores were tied, the next team to score would win. The crowd began a chant which O’Neill felt vibrate throughout his body. It seemed to keep count and match the rhythm of his racing heart. Glancing around, Jack could see the other players being affected in the same way. It was almost hypnotic.

Adrenaline surged through his exhausted body as Jack once again raced towards the ball. A young player on his team fielded the ball towards him and on reflexes alone, Jack dropped backwards and kicked hard with his shin ignoring the fiery pain which knifed through his knee. The ball rocketed upwards over his head and towards the vertical circle above him. As he crashed to the ground beneath a tangle of legs, O’Neill was aware that there was suddenly complete silence throughout the stadium. The ball hit the bottom edge of the goal and simply rolled across to land in the grass below.

Bedlam erupted as the silence was eradicated by hundreds of screaming voices. Jack collapsed back into the soft grass and watched as his teammates celebrated with wild screeches and uninhibited celebration. He was just too tired. The seven young men on the other team hung their heads in disgrace and filed silently off the field.

Slowly the colonel pulled himself to his feet. Following the others towards the winner's circle, Jack reached eagerly for the cup of liquid that was being passed out to the victorious team. He was surprised when he realized that, firstly, it wasn’t the chocolate that these people had a thing for and which he had been given to drink earlier, and, secondly, it was very definitely alcoholic.

Taking another drink to quench his raging thirst, O’Neill shrugged. Okay, so it wasn’t beer, but it was better than that moonshine of Skaara’s. He wearily raised his cup to the kid next to him. "Salut."

Raising his own cup, the young man smiled. "Octli."

Carter had cheered herself hoarse. The game had been incredibly exciting. No slouch in the athletics department herself, Sam couldn’t help but admire the skill, stamina, and determination with which both teams had played. It had held her captivated. Wait until she told Janet about the Colonel’s final goal. Wait till she told her about the Colonel’s outfit. God, if only she had a camera. Maybe she could get Daniel to video it. She could do some screen caps. They’d be priceless, assuming, of course, the Colonel never found out. She’d be dead meat if that ever happened. But still . . .

Caught up in the excitement of the Colonel’s victory, Sam was startled when Teal’c spoke quietly. "Major Carter, I believe something is wrong with O’Neill."

Turning towards the victory circle, Sam could see the men were drinking from what appeared to be golden goblets. As she watched, the three priests joined the winners in the circle. Dread suddenly filled her as the men began to drop to the ground.

"Colonel!" But even as her scream battled a hundred others, Carter saw that she was too late.

As O’Neill turned towards her, Sam watched the goblet drop from her commander’s limp fingers and his lanky body fall bonelessly to the ground. At that moment Goa’uld transportation rings rose up. In an instant the priests, the Colonel, and the others had disappeared before their stunned eyes.

Wide blue eyes filled with disbelief, Sam turned and sought her teammates fighting to be heard above the growing noise of the crowd. "Teal’c, where’s Daniel?"

"Daniel Jackson left before the game began. He wanted to explore. He has not returned. I have, however, observed him several times from a distance without his knowledge. He is fine, Major Carter."

"We’ve got to get Daniel. He knows more about the Mayan ceremonies than you or I, even though that was clearly Goa’uld technology being used down there."

Nodding, Teal’c turned and began to make his way towards the exit with Carter following in his wake, but despite his size and strength, the sheer number of people exiting made it impossible to travel quickly. The two found themselves being swept along by the crowd and fighting to remain together.

"Teal’c, just follow the crowd. If we try to go the other way we’ll run the risk of being trampled." The Jaffa nodded that he understood. "Maybe they’ll take us to where those rings transported Colonel O’Neill. I didn't see any signs of a ship so where the hell did he go?" She shoved past two men who were engaged in an animated recap of the game highlights. "Why take him now, Teal'c? They've been on that field for hours. Dammit, how much further until he meet up with Daniel?"

Pushed along by the hordes of people, Teal'c had no opportunity to answer the string of questions before they found themselves at the base of the enormous pyramid. Fortunately, both the teammates were taller than the natives and once the mad crush had stopped they were able to look over the crowd. Sam was relieved to see Daniel working his way towards them, his beloved camera held high above the masses.

Sam signaled to Teal’c, who nodded affirmatively that he had also seen the wayward archaeologist. Hanging onto Teal’c as he pushed his way over to their teammate, Sam was reassured that just as Teal'c had promised, Daniel appeared unhurt. Now, if they could only find the Colonel.

"Daniel, where have you been?" It was an unnecessary question. One look at the flush of excitement lighting the man's face told her he had been in the arms of his mistress, Knowledge.

They were yelling in order to hear each other over the noise of the crowd even though they were holding tightly to each other to keep from being jostled away. Teal’c provided a strong anchor to keep the waves of excited humanity from sweeping them downstream.

"Sam, you wouldn’t believe everything I found. Years worth of history, there for the taking. Decade after decade of records. It was fantastic. We can’t leave now. Jack has to talk to Hammond. This is just too important." Daniel stumbled in the midst of his excited out-pouring, as a shove knocked him forward. Only Teal’c’s quick save kept him from falling. "Thanks, Teal’c." He righted his glasses on his nose. "What’s going on with this crowd? Where’s Jack, by the way? He doesn’t know about me leaving the game does he?"

"He does not, Daniel Jackson. O’Neill has been taken by Goa’uld transportation rings. We do not know the location, nor the reason. We have followed the crowd in the hopes of finding him."

Sam continued to survey the crowd as Teal’c brought Daniel up-to-speed. Although the crowd appeared excited, there didn’t seem to be any immediate danger. That is if you ignored the fact that one of their teammates was missing. "Daniel, we need to know why the Colonel might have been taken. Can you think of a reason?"

Daniel shook his head in frustration, trying to rid himself of the growing headache from the noise and push of the crowd. It was all very claustrophobic. "Tell me what happened right before Jack was taken."

"He knocked in the winning goal. Then the losing team left the field and his team walked over to the winner’s circle. The colonel looked like he was really tired, but okay. Then the priests passed out this drink and the next thing we knew all the players on the winning team had fallen to the ground and that was when the rings took them somewhere." Sam’s anxiety was apparent as she quickly related the events.

Before Daniel could pull together the pieces of a disturbing puzzle that was beginning to formulate in his head, Teal’c interrupted. "There is something occurring at the pinnacle of the pyramid."

Grabbing for her binoculars, Carter watched as the three masked priests stretched seven unconscious forms onto a large stone altar. Sam gasped as she recognized Colonel O’Neill’s graying hair, so out of place among the pitch black locks of the others.

It was obvious from his unresisting form that Jack was completely unaware of what was occurring. Sam watched as the priests stretched the limbs of the men tightly with leather bindings and gently placed jade death masks over the slack faces. Had they poisoned the Colonel? Was he already dead? A multitude of questions bombarded her and right now it didn’t look like she could answer even one of them.

So engrossed was she in watching the scene that she jumped when Daniel grabbed her arm. "What’s going on, Sam? Can you see anything?"

"Yeah, he’s up there. They’ve got him stretched out on some kind of altar." Quickly she described the scene and filled in the details. "Daniel, have you got any idea what’s going on?"

Daniel snatched the binoculars away and struggled to focus on the drama taking place far above their heads.

"Oh God, Sam, I think they’re going to sacrifice the winners of the Pok-a-Tok game to their gods! Dammit, I should have thought. I should have warned Jack, but I just didn’t think." Daniel’s eyes widened. "I just didn’t think. But . . .," he looked around, desperately, "it would all fit. Only the winners would be deemed worthy of the honor of sacrifice. We’ve got to get Jack out of here. God, Sam, do you have any idea what they will do to him?"

Taking a firm grasp on his staff weapon, Teal’c interrupted before Sam could respond. "Is there another way to the top of the pyramid, Daniel Jackson?"

"Yeah, there are stairs, Teal’c, around on the other side. I found them while I was exploring." Daniel gestured broadly in the general direction, but before the words had left his mouth, the Jaffa was running towards the long flight of stairs at a speed which belied his size, and screamed his anxiety.

Daniel remained focused on the frightening drama playing out far above their heads. The priests had painted the 'Eye of Ra’ on the bare chest of each of the unmoving men. Oh God, please let them be unconscious and not . . .

The priests moved from the bound figures to stand in a cluster away from the altar, each raising a ceremonial knife above their head. It was much too far to hear, but Daniel guessed that they were chanting in prayer. Oh God. This is my penance. His thoughts swirled around him crazily, am I going to have to watch as they sacrifice my best friend? I never even got a chance to tell Jack I was sorry for the way I’ve been acting.

Teal’c was making steady progress up the tremendous staircase. He had neared the half-way mark when suddenly he felt a growing vibration which threatened to topple him from his precarious perch.

Dropping to his knees, he looked far above him at the apex of the pyramid. A Goa’uld Tel’tac hovered directly above the pyramid. As all eyes watched, an energy beam shot out from the ship. It surrounded the altar. In a flash the men had disappeared leaving behind only their jade masks staring hideously upward and the leather thongs abandoned on the stone. The ship rose gracefully and flew from sight.

Teal’c made his way slowly down to his waiting teammates, he found a stunned Major Carter attempting and failing miserably to comfort a dazed Daniel Jackson.

**********

Jack groaned aloud as he slowly regained consciousness. Oh God, whatever that stuff was he had been drinking sure packed a wallop. He hadn’t felt this bad since he got blitzed the day he and Frank graduated Special Ops training. Shit. Another groan escaped as he squeezed both sides of his head trying to apply enough counter-pressure to keep it from exploding or imploding, or whatever the hell it was trying to do while still attached to his shoulders.

Struggling to his knees, Jack took a chance and opened one eye just wide enough to take in his surroundings. What he saw made both eyes snap open in surprise, which proved to be a monumental mistake as his stomach screamed its protest concerning his choice of beverage. Clamping a shaky hand over his mouth, O’Neill crawled over to a corner of the room and began to heave.

Apparently he wasn’t the only one with a rebellious stomach by the sounds of it. Great, nothing like listening to a bunch of guys puking their guts out, especially when you were adding your own two cents worth already. Nothing like it to calm your own stomach. Yeah, right.

Geez, the room was filled with a regular chorus in the key of hurl. Tonight's featured guests included the great composers Gagner, Fryderyk Chokin, and every ones favorite Johann Sebastian Barf.

Spitting out as much of the vile taste as his dry mouth could muster, Jack cautiously opened his eyes again. Apparently his stomach was temporarily satisfied with its retribution for now. Thank God for small favors.

He was in a large stone room with an equally large barred door. Daja-view. Ya seen one prison, ya seen them all. But, unless he was seeing double, there were a hell of a lot more of the Mayan kids in here than the seven who had been on his team.

Glancing down, Jack saw that like those around him, he was still wearing that stupid, scant loincloth, sans the protective and less revealing padding. Well, excuse me Tommy Hilfinger, but give me my BDUs any day of the week. But considering the alternative maybe he should be grateful for the Mayan Speedo after all.

Oh yeah, he was getting a really bad feeling about this.

Figuring he was unable to effectively communicate with the others and not overly inclined to try, O’Neill didn’t waste the effort. That was Daniel’s gig. He simply scooted back against the stone wall, doing his best to blend into the rocks and ignore the pounding between his eyes.

‘I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.’ Somehow, he didn’t think Simon and Garfunkel had this situation in mind when they wrote those words.

His chameleon routine would have come in handy as the door was flung open violently and a troop of Jaffa with fierce Jaguar heads and glowing eyes suddenly burst into the room. They were followed by a monstrosity which Jack recognized immediately from Daniel’s pre-game slide show as Kinich Ahau.

Great, a Goa’uld. Just what he didn’t need. Wasn’t that just special? The catch of the day O’Neill style. A heaping portion of shit with a side order of crappy for good measure.

"Kneel before your god."

That was rapidly so becoming his least favorite cliché. What was it with the Goa’uld anyhow? Did these guys go to a ‘what to say when addressing captives’ school? Jack could imagine all the little larvae lined up in a row at their mama’s knee, as she explained the pros and cons when addressing inferiors.

Shit, he was really losing it.

A low moan of terror filled the air as the young Mayan men hastened to do as the god commanded, hiding their faces from his hideous features. As the Jaffa made their way through the ranks of prostrate men, they aided stragglers in their quest to adopt the proper manner to greet a god. Jack slowly peeled himself from the wall and sank into the appropriate position.

Although it made his head pound; he knew that he needed to remain invisible as long as possible if he had any hope of escaping. Pissing off the guards in a battle he couldn’t win wasn’t going to help him get out of this mess. And draw unnecessary attention to him. His job was to stay alive by whatever means he had to until his team arrived. Bottom line: stay alive. And if sticking his ass in the air and kissing the dirt would help then so be it.

Still, it galled him have to assume this subservient, damn embarrassing position. Just remember Jack, Special Ops motto number 21 . . . Humble yourself if you have to and then blow the son of a bitchin’ bastards away.

"You have proven to be the best in each of your cities and villages through the test of Pok-a-Tok," the false god thundered. "Now, as your reward, you have the honor of serving your god with all your strength, loyalty, and courage. Those who submit themselves to Kinich Ahau will survive to serve another day. Those who fail will die a most painful and slow death." In a cloud of red smoke, which left the young Mayans gaping in fear, the god seemed to disappear before their eyes only to reappear on the other side of the room, causing a wail of mindless terror to fill the air.

O’Neill snorted, not in the least impressed. Smoke and mirrors, what’ll they think of next? David Copperfield eat your heart out.

With the prisoners, sans one, completely cowed, the guards stepped forward and began dragging the frightened men to their feet, forcing them into a line. With the threat of a staff weapon wound looming, Jack didn’t argue, but quietly made his way towards the end of the line. That bad feeling had just called in the reserves and they were all screaming retreat at the top of their lungs.

Unfortunately, he had nowhere to go. His back was against the wall and the ground was crumbling under his feet. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

**********

It was a despondent group which filed quietly from General Hammond’s office. The briefing had been long, intense, and emotion-filled. At one point, Hammond threatened to have Doctor Jackson sedated and confined to quarters if he didn’t get himself under control. He still debated the wisdom of not carrying through with his threat as he watched the remaining members of his premier team drag themselves towards the stairs. Damn, sometimes he wished he had never left the family ranch. Picking up the red phone he wished to God he didn’t have to make this call.

"This is General Hammond. I need to speak to the President."

In his own cluttered office, Daniel sat at his desk staring into the depths of the cold cup of coffee. The conversation from the briefing ran over and over through his mind.

Jack had been captured.

No, they didn’t know by whom.

No, they didn’t know where he had been taken.

And once again no, they didn’t have a clue as to how to get him back.

One, two, three, strikes and you’re out.

Yeah, Jack, you’re out.

Daniel was unaware when a tear fell into the coffee and sank into the inky depths.

**********

It was hot.

Netu could have taken lessons. He’d have to remember to mention that to old Sokar if and when the SGC discovered that the old boy had been resurrected like these damn Goa’uld were wont to do. Course the ambiance here was lacking the hot and hotter flowing volcanoes, with the lava chaser which had been such a nice touch. So he’d have to give that point to old Suck'ar. But, overall, he’d have to call this form of Hell the winner for style, originality, and total suckiness.

Maybe Sokar should have taken lessons from Kinshe baby.

Sometimes Jack wondered if maybe he had been adopted by the O’Neills as an infant, because when it came to luck of the Irish, his sucked.

Big time.

The men had been ordered into a long line. Then the master magician wannabe had done another one of his disappearing Goa’uld tricks just to keep the audience captive. He needn’t have bothered. The younger crowd was already terrified and Jack had a healthy respect for the staff weapons the Jaffa were brandishing. Submission at this point was a pretty safe bet.

As the faux god inspected his latest property carefully, O’Neill watched unobtrusively from his place at the end of the line. As each of the men was carefully examined, the Goa’uld spoke a few words to a scribe standing next to him. The servant duly noted his master’s comments and then, in turn, issued orders to another servant.

Then each young native was spun around and held in place by a pair of towering Jaffa. A wickedly curved knife was then brought into play and a design was carved deeply into the skin of the victim’s shoulder. The bleeding wound was immediately rubbed with a finely ground black power which stanched the blood flow and created a perfect outline of the design, in effect tattooing the symbol permanently into the skin.

If the screams were any indication, it wasn’t proving to be the most pleasant of experiences.

And your first clue would be, Jack

O’Neill watched, sweat trickling down his back. Had he mentioned lately that this so sucked? How about the fact that he wasn’t fond of knives. At least the cutting end. He wouldn’t mind having the throwing end in his sweaty little hand right about now. And he’d give about anything to have the opportunity to drill a nice, neat little bullet hole right through that mask and into Quiche-boy’s fucking head.

As the procession grew nearer, his eyes darted around the room searching frantically for a way out. Nothing. Nada. Nil on the options. There were simply too many guards and nowhere to go.

Suddenly, without warning, the kid next to him bolted. Even as Jack was reaching out to drag him back in line, two Jaffa opened fire, catching the young man full in the chest. He was dead even as Jack caught his body and laid him gently on the floor. Kneeling beside the remains of the youth, who only a short time before had celebrated victoriously on the playing field of his planet, O’Neill could only glare at the Goa'uld in impotent anger.

O’Neill’s fury grew as the guards tossed the body aside like so much refuse. The Goa’uld never spared it a glance. Jack did his best to ignore the crimson trail darkening the dust and focus on the enemy gloating before him.

Snapping his fingers in an unspoken order, the self-proclaimed god watched as the two burly guards wrenched the kneeling man to his feet. If Kinich Ahau was surprised by the tall, lean, gray-haired man glowering at him, it was well hidden behind his mask. But Jack had no trouble recognizing the evil in the glowing eyes as they sized him up and down.

"You are not of the Maya people."

"Yeah, well, no shit, Sherlock. What was your first clue?" He knew he was playing with fire, ignoring his prime objective of survival, but senseless death had a way of affecting him that way. "Bet you were at the head of your class with that kind of genius."

It was reckless. It was stupid. And he didn’t give a shit as he fought to break the guards’ iron grip.

So much for remaining anonymous, Jackie me boyo. Looks like the infamous O’Neill luck, fickle as ever, was fast deserting him. Crap. If someone had given him a four leaf clover, three of the petals would have crumpled up and died the moment he touched it.

His eyes blazed with anger as the Goa’uld backhanded him across the face, snapping his head to the side with a sickening crack. Jack shook his head, his tongue tracing the cut inside his lip, and spat a mouthful of bloody saliva at the feet of the god.

"Take this one to the training camp," the scribe was ordered. "A few days under the blazing eye of Kin will remind him of his station."

****

Although Jack had no way of seeing beneath the elaborate mask, the Goa’uld watched him and smiled in amusement. It was vastly entertaining to observe his Jaffa hold the man tightly as the thrall plunged the bohlohn knife into the prisoner’s muscular shoulder, carefully carving the symbol for the skull deeply into the captive’s skin. The wound was cauterized by powder from the maguey plant. It was disappointing when the man failed to do more than hiss in pain as the acidic powder met the flayed flesh. Although the taut ropes of pain-stretched tendons in his neck gave some pleasure as they revealed the pain the Tau’ri sought to conceal.

Ah, but there would be plenty of time for real enjoyment in the future. He would hear this one scream, Kinich Ahau promised himself. And he would scream. Until he was hoarse.

The rock feels no pain ...

**********

Sam didn’t bother to knock on the door to Daniel’s office. She knew she would find the archaeologist hiding in the clutter. That in itself wasn’t the least bit unusual. Daniel had new levels to the term workaholic. But as she opened the door and walked in, Sam knew what she would encounter.

Daniel sat in the darkened office staring, unaware, at a book of the El Castillo Pyramid at Chich’en Itz’a. No surprise there. The book had been opened to those same pages for days now and had the coffee stains to prove it. That fact in itself proved just how distraught Daniel was. Normally, he cared for his books as a mother would a beloved child, never allowing harm to come to his prized possessions. Now, his carelessness was a red flag of warning about his fragile state of mind.

"Hi, Daniel." She forced her voice to project a cheerfulness she didn’t feel. "Teal’c and I are going down to the dining hall and we thought you might like to take a break and come with us. That cute redhead’s on duty." Sam was teasing despite the bleakness of the situation, hoping to get a reaction. "You know, the one who always gives you the biggest piece of chocolate cake?"

"No thanks, Sam. You guys go ahead." Daniel’s bloodshot eyes never left the page. "I’ve have a lot of research to do. You guys go on without me. I’ll grab something later."

A frown marred Sam’s features as she fought the urge to scold. Damn, Daniel hadn’t even reacted to her teasing.

"Daniel, that’s the same page you were looking at when I came by earlier today - - and yesterday, for that matter. Holing up in here and starving yourself isn’t going to help the Colonel."

"Sam, you just don’t get it." He looked up into her face for the first time since she had entered the office, shocking her with the bleak desperation flooding his eyes. "It’s my fault Jack’s gone. I have to find a way to help him. I have to find a way to get him home."

"You’re right , Daniel, I don’t get it. How do you figure it’s your fault?"

His head drooped in self-condemnation and shame. "I’m the team expert on societies. I should have recognized the possibility that the winning team would be sacrificed. Those people would only give their god their best. I ignored all the signs and allowed Jack to walk right into a deathtrap. And to top it all, I put my own desire to go exploring ahead of the team and I talked Teal’c into letting me go. Teal’c was right about me."

Sliding a chair over, Sam refused to rise to the bait. Instead she sat down and leaning over she gently clasped his hand and closed the book. "Daniel, I don’t know what you mean about Teal’c being right, but I do know what the Colonel would say if he saw you like this."

A brittle ghost of a smile glimmered broke across his wan features. "He’d say for me to get my ass out of this tomb and go eat cake."

"Yep, that’s exactly what he’d say. In fact he’d make it an order, Doctor Jackson." Squeezing her friend’s hand, Sam spoke gently. "Daniel, you’re going to solve this, but it won’t help if you make yourself sick."

"All right, you win. ‘Let them eat cake.’" Helping Sam to her feet, Daniel gave a squeeze of his own. "Thanks, Sam."

"Anytime."

As they left the office and walked towards the cafeteria Daniel suddenly stopped, a bewildered look on his face. "Wait a minute, Sam, what cute redhead?"

**********

Jack O’Neill was learning the hard way just what happened to a Tau’ri foolish enough to piss off a Goa’uld. Of course it wasn’t like he hadn’t had plenty of practice in that department: Ra, Apophis, Hathor, Seth, and the list went on; but it was never a good idea to annoy a snakehead when one was in a vulnerable position - - and boy, was he in a vulnerable position now.

It hadn’t taken more than a couple of minutes for the different tattooed groups to be divided up and marched towards their as yet undisclosed destination. Much to the Colonel’s displeasure he found that he had now acquired a matching set of his own personal guards, guaranteed to produce a multitude of bruises and abrasions or your money back. Jack wasn’t sure where they were all headed, but if the tattoo on the shoulder of the kid in front of him was any indication, that death’s head didn’t mean their destination was Oz.

Jack would have given just about anything for a pair of ruby slippers, size eleven and a half.

There’s no place like home.

But, unfortunately, the hot-air balloon had already lifted off and his team had gone home to Kansas without him.

The weary group had been marched out of the holding cell, through the streets, and towards an enormous coliseum in the heart of the city. He didn’t think it was the same one where the team had enjoyed the hospitality with the Stooges. Enjoyed it until they had brought up that damn game and everything went South.

O’Neill’s face burned at the stares he received from the people walking on the streets and he determined to wear his own brand of mask. Whereas the folks back at the other city had been friendly or had pretty much ignored them, these people seemed to be of a different caliber. While most of his companions drew nothing more than curious stares, he was not so fortunate.

A pair of merchants elbowed each other and laughed as they pointed directly at the pale stranger at the back of the line. A child picked up a stone and hurled it at the prisoners, bringing a roar of approval when it stuck Jack in the forehead. A large goose egg hatched trickles of blood which tracked down the sides of his nose making it appear that he was weeping crimson tears. His attempt to stop and confront his pint-size attacker brought an instant jab in the kidneys from a Jaffa’s staff weapon. The marketplace was filled with laughter as the hard blow drove O’Neill to his knees on the rocky pavement.

... and an island never cries.

Not waiting for their prisoner to regain his feet, the guards simply caught his arms again and continued to drag him along, ignoring the bloody, burning abrasions on his knees and shins, as well as his empty threats and curses.

There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

The weary line of men were eventually herded into a cavernous room beneath the coliseum where a muscular giant, who towered over the Colonel’s six-foot-two frame, met them.

O’Neill watched warily as he saw the man’s glowing eyes look over his new toys.

Oh, man, this is so going down in my book as one of the top ten worst vacation spots. He couldn’t suppress the groan that escaped when one of the guards struck him again.

"Kneel before the mighty Kin." The younger captives fell immediately before the powerful leader. The Goa’uld’s eyes locked with O’Neill’s, recognizing the unspoken challenge being hurled his way. Nodding slightly, Kin signaled the Jaffa to force the stubborn human to his knees. Jack fought to no avail as powerful hands pushed him firmly to the ground.

The Goa’uld strode towards the helpless human, amused by his insignificant struggles. Reaching down, Kin caressed the angular jaw. A simple twist forced O’Neill to cease his struggles or break his own neck. Flashing brown eyes glared furiously up at the towering giant.

"You will be a challenge, little man. But I see potential in you. And when I have taught you who is your master, you will be a fine achievement. And then when I am through with you, you will die." He reached out a meaty hand and stroked Jack’s cheek again, laughing as the man jerked to escape the caress despite the obvious pain his struggles caused.

"Take him to the altar."

For once the deep well of smart-ass retorts came up dry, as O’Neill recognized the truth in everything the Goa’uld had said.

O’Neill was dragged from the relatively cool shadows of the underground caverns into the blazing heat of the midday sun. As he struggled to figure out where in the hell he was, Jack recognized the playing field of a sporting arena.

Bet they didn’t play baseball here. Maybe he could teach them. Sure that was it, get the Goa’uld obsessed with baseball and they’d give up on this ‘ruling the universe’ shit. He’d have to tell Hammond when he got home, maybe even call up the President. He was a big baseball fan, even if his team sucked. Oh, but hell, the stupid Snakeheads would probable figure out a way to cheat, or at the very least draft the best players.

Okay, Flyboy, you’re so losing it and that is not acceptable. Pull it back together. Don’t let the bastards know you’re scared shitless.

Don’t let them know.

In the center of the stadium lay a large, flat, black rock. Daniel would have probably found it fascinating, an object de’ art, to be studied and prized. But it was a rock. A big, honkin’, ugly, mother of a rock. And a rock by any other name was still a rock.

This just keeps getting better and better, Jack thought as he was flung onto the stone. His inadvertent yelp as his back touched the sun-heated stone brought cruel smiles from his guards. The Jaffa quickly and efficiently spread-eagled O’Neill’s limbs to the rings imbedded in the four corners of the altar. Then, without a word, they left.

Giving a tentative tug at his bindings, Jack squinted and tried not to think about how miserable he was. Or how much worse he was going to feel soon if things didn’t change. Fight back. Don’t let the bastards know they have you where they want you.

You’ve been in worse situations and survived.

Sometime.

Somewhere.

Maybe.

Jack fought against the heavy leather straps attached to the rings, as sweat started to flush out of his skin unchecked. The unforgiving sun beat down, causing him to squeeze his eyes shut in an attempt to block the strong rays from frying his eyeballs like eggs. God, what he wouldn’t give for his shades.

Hadn’t the Goa’uld ever heard of sun screen? How the hell could they think of themselves as superior and not know about Coppertone. Right now he’d even settle for that cocoa-nutty stuff Carter slathered on herself. The stuff that made her smell like a Pina Colata.

The hot stone pressed against his freshly carved shoulder, grinding the powder deeper into the wound. Before long his entire back felt like it was on fire. He felt like he was inside an oven, like one of those little cakes Teal’c liked, the ones with the pink frosting. So what did that make him? A Jack snack? A brick oven pizza? Hold the anchovies. Could someone pass me a beer with that?

The radiated heat made it hard to draw even one breath, much less the quantity his heaving lungs were seeking.

Demanding.

Before he realized what was happening he was panting. Short, desperate panicked gasps for air. The burning hunger for oxygen numbed the pain radiating throughout his body feeding the fuel.

Calm down, Airman . . . at ease . . . that’s an order and one that you’re are damn well gonna obey.

The leather cut into his wrists and ankles. Blood speckled the hot surface of the rock and immediately dried, leaving a morbidly abstract pattern the Marquis de Sade would have proudly hung on his living room wall.

Jack could feel it as his body betrayed him, and leaked the life-giving moisture he desperately needed. The sweat dripping on to the stone, hissing out a feeble protest as it hit the obsidian surface.

Finally, Jack felt a shadow block out the torturous rays. Cracking open one eye, he saw that Kin was standing at the base of the altar, his arms folded and a benevolent smile playing on his lips, which mocked the message Jack read in his eyes.

"Now you begin your lessons and soon, when you have learned to obey me, you will be ready to learn so much more."

His eyes gleamed with malice.

"Much, much, more."

In spite of the heat, Jack O’Neill shivered.

**********

A full day and a half beneath the blistering, unforgiving sun passed before the master deemed his pupil had learned his first lesson.

Jack had never been the slow study he so often chose to portray. Long before his body had begun the process of shutting down he knew it was over. He was gonna lose this battle. He knew the score: Snakeass 1 - O’Neill 0.

Damn, it was a freakin’ embarrassing way to go, though. Cooked to death on this big hunk of stone. Pan-fried steak, well done. A little tough and grisly, but overall a nice cut of meat. A side order of mushrooms, a baked potato, butter, sour cream and a cold beer.

It was his turn to pick up the check. And wasn’t that an amusing euphemism for biting the big one? A hell of a lot better than ‘riding off into the sunset’- especially given his current situation; better than ‘buying the farm’- what’d a city boy like him know about cows; even better than ‘going to that big kennel in the sky’- although considering how many times he’d been in the doghouse that one fit pretty well.

Section 4 in the Survival Manual talked about the effects of heat on the body. He was willing to bet the guys who wrote it didn’t have this extreme a situation in mind. But, as his struggles grew weaker and finally ceased, to allow the sun to complete its task, Jack knew it was over; he had failed his team, he had failed the mission, and he didn’t even have the scant comfort of tears to mourn his own passing.

By the time Kin had judged the lesson at an end, O’Neill was unconscious. He was so dehydrated that he had long since ceased to sweat, and was nearly suffocating, as his own swollen tongue blocked his airway.

The short panting gasps and fixed stare as a meaty finger lifted a blistered eyelid told the Goa’uld all he needed to know - - the human was near death.

He was so far gone as to be unaware when his bonds were being cut. Or when he was being dragged from beneath the insensate rays of death. He was unconscious to the care the Goa’uld ordered. He was oblivious when the healing device was carefully used to eradicate the physical damage to his body, if not to his mind.

If Jack had been aware of the care he was receiving, his cynical nature would probably have wondered what price he would have to pay to give this devil his due.

**********

Weeks passed slowly. The blessed numbness, which in a way had insulated SG-1 from the pain of reality, gradually dribbled away. Sam returned to her lab, burying the hurt in her tried and trusted method of long hours and over-work. Daniel finally closed the stained pages of El Castillo and placed the book on a shelf. They seldom saw Teal’c, who seemed to spend the majority of his time in his quarters meditating.

General Hammond was finally talking about a new leader for SG-1. They knew it was only a matter of time, but it was just one more thing to try to avoid thinking about.

Life went on at the SGC, but it was a pale comparison to the norm - - the norm being when a tall, lanky Colonel roamed the halls. One who had a wicked sense of humor and a charisma that children and dogs sensed immediately, but which he kept carefully in check behind his military hard-ass bravado.

They seldom spoke his name. It simply hurt too damn much.

Like a helium-filled balloon with a pinhole prick, what was left of the team was slowly deflating. What remained could still officially be classified as a balloon, but without the gas it was useless, unable to fulfill it’s true purpose.

And wouldn’t the Colonel have gotten a kick out of being compared to a gas.

Oh, yeah, he’d have gotten some mileage with that one.

General Hammond sat at his desk, testily going over the stack of folders in front of him. He was getting pressure from higher up to quit stonewalling and officially declare Colonel Jonathan J. O’Neill MIA, presumed dead. Then some little piss ant clerk in Washington could rubber-stamp his file and officially close the book on one of the finest officers with whom he had ever served. Signed, sealed, forgotten, and oh, yeah, thanks for your years of service. Too bad you won’t need the gold watch, Colonel.

Hammond’s mind was telling him that this was the way it was when you dedicated your life to the military, but his heart just couldn’t accept the reality. Too many times Jack had pulled a rabbit out of a hat and hey presto- chango, fooled the grim reaper one more time. Hell, it had only been a few months since he had survived a meteor-storm holocaust on Edora - - not only survived, but thrived.

And that was why, while George was sitting staring at a list of Jack O’Neill wannabees’ he couldn’t give up on a man he knew was a survivor, no matter what the odds.

Slamming the folder shut, the General shoved it away. He was going to gamble and let his money ride on the long shot a little while longer. And by God, Jack had better prove him right, or they were both going to go bust.

**********

Kin proved a man of his word. Jack was learning lesson by pain-filled lesson that it was best to keep his teacher happy. Disobedience brought instant consequences involving maximum discomfort . . . agony extreme . . . hurt to the highest. However, should he choose not to fight the inevitable, he was rewarded and praised. Who the hell did they think they were dealing with here, some dog and pony show reject? Screw ‘em. He’d danced to this tune before. He knew the steps and the Goa’uld could shove their Pavlovian conditioning up their snaky- asses so far as he was concerned. He’d be damned if he’d drool every time that action figure on steroids rang his freakin’ bell.

There were long regiments of exercises which reminded Jack of Basic Training. Well, Basics of a sort, if one could ignore the armed guard who didn’t hesitate to impress a slacker, not with extra KP, but with the broad side of a staff weapon.

It was baffling. God knows he was no stranger to the whole captured-being-held-prisoner-by hostiles thingy, but this Goa’uld, for all his obvious threats and punishments was not playing by the rules Jack recognized and expected. Neither were his fellow prisoners, for that matter. It was beyond strange in his book, that they were not chained, or at least locked up at night. The single guard at the open door would have been a piece of cake to eliminate and yet not one of the young Mayans showed the least interest in even trying a bid for freedom. It was confusing and disconcerting to see them calmly return to their quarters at night when freedom loomed so tantalizingly close.

Slowly it began to dawn on Jack that they were not prisoners in the standard sense. At least not the others. For him the rules were different, but these kids acted almost like they were proud to be here. Scared shitless of the Goa’uld and his guards, but proud none-the-less. The look of determination and fierce pride on their swarthy faces reminded him way too much of himself when he joined the service.

In some twisted way, Jack could have let down his guard and allowed himself to get caught up in the excitement of the competitive training. Even though he was easily twice these kids’ ages, his training and stature allowed him to keep up and often surpass his competition. His competitive nature forced him to push harder, strain for just one bit more, drive himself beyond what his quivering muscles and gasping lungs told him made good sense. It sent him back to the time when he had joined Special Ops. Frank would have laughed his ass off, that the self-destructive stubborn streak for which Jack had been famous, was alive and well on PX-wherever the-hell-he was.

If he didn’t know better, Jack would have thought that the Goa’uld was training an army. But an army against whom? The pieces didn’t add up. And in this equation two plus two added up to for cryin’ out loud there was no freakin’ way he’d fight for a Goa’uld no matter who the enemy might be.

And so he pushed hard during the day in passive resistence. Cooperating because he had little choice if he was going to give his team the time they needed. Trying his best to avoid the personal attention of Kin. He had no desire to end up on that damn black rock again which beckoned threateningly in the center of the training ground. Or nursing a split skull because he failed to run fast enough, or complete an exercise to the Goa’uld’s satisfaction. It was an extreme balancing act. A narrow beam he walked, upon which he balanced a persona of cooperation and yet constantly watched for an opportunity to breed dissension and orchestrate a plan of escape. At night he collapsed exhausted and did his best to ignore his complaining muscles by focusing his thoughts on the code.

I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.

And so O’Neill fought a covert battle with every ounce of tenacity he could muster, reciting the Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct over and over in his mind. His kids were coming. He just had to hang on a while longer. They’d proven it over and over: Antarctica, Edora . . .

No way he’d believe otherwise. No way. Carter was too smart to be fooled by any Snakehead sleight of hand. And Daniel was too tenacious to take no for an answer. He’d proven that fact countless times. And Teal’c, well Teal’c was his brother-in-arms and undomesticated equines wouldn’t stop Teal’c from getting him out of this mess.

I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape.

The day was especially hot. Even the Mayans seemed to be suffering. Sweat stung his eyes as Jack ran the gauntlet of drills under Kin’s watchful eye. There had been no water break, no chance to catch his breath. Experience told Jack this was some kind of a test. He recognized the signs. Instinct told him not to slow down, not to show any weakness. Ahead, a young man stumbled to a halt and dropped to his knees, panting in painful wheezing gasps.

As he ran past the young Mayan, Jack hissed an order. "Don’t stop, kid. Come on, try and keep up."

Jack would never know whether or not the young man understood, or even heard the warning. He was concentrating on keeping up with the others when a single blast of a staff weapon and a muffled cry stopped everyone in their tracks. Jack swallowed hard, trying to steady his breathing. He knew what he would see when he turned around and the horrified reaction of his companions confirmed it before he turned.

Kin stood beside the crumbled body of the young man. "This is what happens to those who fail to give their all; fail to give their best, to their god. Only the best deserve the honor of serving Kinich Ahau." His eyes locked onto O’Neill. "Those who fail will meet the same fate." He paused and smiled, "Or worse."

That night, O’Neill cautiously crept from the sleeping vault. It was surprisingly simple for him to slip out towards the dark and its promise of relative safety. Apparently, it had never occurred to these Mayan kids that they could run away. Or maybe they had just bought into that Goa’uld bullshit about honor and duty to their god. And it seemed the goons had been lulled into a false sense of security believing that it wouldn’t occur to someone to try and escape. Typical of the Goa’uld superiority shit he’d dealt with over the years. Under-estimate your opponent. It was a weakness based on their intrinsic arrogance he had used to his advantage more than once. It had always stood him in good stead to get his team out of the fire before, and it would again.

The guard went down with a minimum struggle. O’Neill had lots of practice over the years and knew exactly where to find a Jaffa’s Achilles heel. He could feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins as he knelt beside the downed guard. The staff weapon felt good as he clutched it like an old friend. Not as comfortable as his own P-90 or Beretta, but a weapon by any other name would still kill the first bastard who tried to stop him. Jack moved cautiously down the hall.

If he could just put some distance between himself and the Goa’uld he could lose himself in the city. Let the bastards try and find him then. A needle in a Special Ops trained haystack. They didn’t have a prayer. And it’d give his team more time to find him. Jack had no doubt that they were looking for him. He just had to hang on.

His bare feet were silent on the rough floor. He and his shadow were one. Jack was edging his way towards his escape, allowing himself the glimpse of hope that this might work, when without warning, a blinding pain drove him to his knees. The staff weapon slipping from his fingers to clatter on the stone floor, shattering the silence and his hope for escape. But beyond that, a sound echoed that dwarfed the physical pain knifing through his body. Laughter. The bastards were laughing at him.

‘Careless, damn careless, O’Neill,’ he could hear his Ops commander berating him. ‘There was a time when they would have never caught you.’ His vision began to revolve, doing a techno-colored version of Dorothy’s twister as the pain did its best to pull him apart. In wordless agony, O’Neill learned the cost of his disobedience.

Watching the man writhe in the dirt, searching blindly for the lost staff weapon he foolishly thought could save him, Kin smiled. A gesture lost on his victim.

"You will learn. There is no escape and obedience is your only option."

As he once more drove the pain stick into Jack’s back, the silence of denial was replaced by screams that flooded the night.

**********

If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available . .

He tried. Oh, God, how he tried to fight them. But, lesson by painful lesson, Jack learned that overt resistance simply wasn’t going to cut it. If he were to survive long enough to be rescued he would need to change his tactics.

Even a mile-deep well of resistance will eventually go dry if drained enough.

It seemed as if Jack’s escape attempt had been taken as a personal affront by the Goa’uld. Go figure. It was obvious that the stakes had been raised and Kin was determined that Jack would be the loser. At every opportunity, the Goa’uld delighted in humiliating the stubborn Tau’ri, forcing his obedience, punishing on every whim.

The days were long, the sun and the competition fierce. Once again Kin had used water as a motivator, allowing only the first man to win each drill to receive the prize of a cup of water. The men quickly learned to win at all cost or suffer the consequences. As the afternoon heat intensified the combatants became more desperate, often ganging up on others to quell a stronger man.

It felt as if Jack’s swollen tongue would block his airway as he forced leaden legs forward. Thirsty, oh God, was he thirsty. Thirst had become all consuming, pounding through him, demanding, beseeching, begging to be quenched, a slave and his master.

He hadn’t thought much about it this morning, but now he realized that he had been suckered by that damn Goa’uld. He had played the fool and that was not a role he relished. His breakfast had lacked the usual mixture of fruit and grains. Rather it consisted of a large piece of dried meat which looked and smelled like jerky. Jack shrugged. It wasn’t Fruit Loops, but he had learned from experience to eat what was offered so he quickly began to chew the leathery meat. It was salty and tough, but Jack figured he needed whatever nutrients it had to offer. He’d had worse.

It wasn’t until he stood under the hot sun with the others and understood the rules of Kin’s game that Jack realized what the Goa’uld had done to him. Thoughts of the salty meat made his stomach clench and his throat burn.

He nearly won the first race. But as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, not when your throat feels like you swallowed a sand box. The second competition was no better. He might have stood a chance had he not been knocked off balance and tripped by the desperate competitors.

Laying there under the blistering sun, Jack thought of another time long ago, when thirst had driven him nearly mad and the sun had become a mortal enemy for nine endless days . . .

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.***

Slowly, Jack pushed himself up. He’d done it before. He’d survived. He’d do it again.

Somehow.

By the time the Goa’uld called a halt to his games for the day, Jack felt as if he’d go mad from thirst. But somehow he’d made it. Some hadn’t. They had collapsed and been dragged from the grounds. The trail left in the sand, a reminder of the fate that awaited those not strong enough to endure.

Standing in line, his thoughts consumed with his need for water, Jack locked his knees and prayed he wouldn’t collapse in a heap before the guards brought their evening rations. He was surprised when Kin walked into the room, an easy smile of confidence on his face. Casually he strolled down the line, examining the men, as one might see a prospective buyer at a horse auction.

Stopping in front of O’Neill, the smile broadened at the Tau’ri’s deadpan expression. "You have survived the games for today, Tau’ri."

Jack glared at the smug expression of confidence. Swallowing hard, he struggled to express his contempt through his parched throat and cracked lips. "Yeah, Ken, it must be a disappointment to you and Barbie."

The Goa’uld ignored the bait. "On the contrary, I am not in the least disappointed. You continue to delight me, my pet. I have great plans for you."

"Yeah, well, do those plans include giving us some water because we’re just a little dry here?"

The Goa’uld’s eyes blazed, a warning that Jack was not going to enjoy what was coming down the pike. "Of course, my pet. You shall have all the water you desire. All you need do is beg for it and acknowledge what is already fact. The mighty Kin is your master."

Jack stared into the blazing eyes as his weary mind slowly wrapped around the ramifications of the Goa’uld’s demand. Jack lay aside his exhaustion. Pulling himself straight and tall he glared straight into the face of his enemy. "Bite me, you bastard."

There was a tautness on the smiling lips of the Goa’uld that hadn’t been there a moment before, the only indication that Jack’s words had registered. Gone in a flash, the supreme Goa’uld haute returned two-fold. "So be it, Pet. Then you condemn, not only yourself, but your brethren to the same fate." Turning to the guards he ordered, "Take them to their quarters. There will be no water for anyone until this one acquiesces to my demands."

Jack surged forward. "You sick son of a bitch! You don’t have the right."

Kin grasped the face of the struggling man as the guards tightened their grip. "Learn this lesson well, Tau’ri. I have every right."

Jack lay on his pallet, listening to the murmurs from the young Mayans. He stared into the darkness, knowing that he was going to lose this battle if he was to survive the war.

Choice-less-ness.

His least favorite seasoning. The Goa’uld had him by the short hairs. If it was only him, he might have stood a chance at holding out, at least for a while, but there was no way he could allow these kids to die because he refused to ask for water. His mind refused to accept the term beg.

Damn the Goa’uld, singular and/or plural to eternal Hell! Tomorrow the games would begin again and in that heat, weakened already, there would be casualties. Lots of them. Jack was many things, but he was no fool and he knew that in all probability he’d be among the casualties if he went through another day like today without water. Even then he might have risked it for himself, but he couldn’t be responsible for these kids dying like that when there was a choice. He didn’t have that right.

But at what price . . .

Another piece of himself gone . . . stolen . . . ripped away. He wondered idly just how many pieces of his soul a man could lose and still survive. With a deep sigh, Jack pushed himself wearily off the pallet and walked towards the destiny Kin was carefully laying out.

**********

Lesson by pain-filled lesson Jack fought, but deprivation of basic human needs, basic human dignity were chipping away constantly at his stubborn will. He was fighting the proverbial losing battle. Each day promising himself he would do what was necessary to survive. Each night laying awake, his mind struggling to find a way out, a way in which he did not have to compromise who he was; a way to escape the narrow path down which the Goa’uld was driving him towards a dead end.

The beginning of the end came in the wee hours of pre-dawn. O’Neill had learned quickly to lie completely still at night. The large communal room in which he slept was furnished with straw mats and an overabundance of scorpions as roommates. It was a constant concern that the little pests would decide that white-fleshed Tau’ri Colonels make excellent bed partners in the early morning hours before dawn.

Not that there were many places for the creatures to hide in the skimpy things they had given him in the name of clothing. Shit, his boxers had covered more. He would have been downright humiliated if he could have worked up the energy.

It was pre-dawn, prime time for scorpion visits, when Jack awoke to a fiery pain shooting through his leg. Clutching his knee, he let out a howl of outrage and distress. He had rolled over onto one of the little creatures that had apparently decided the joint under his knee would make an excellent place to rest. It was a hell of an alarm clock. One no one would ever sleep through. The stinger had caught him right in the back of his left knee. Oh, God. Though he wasn’t in danger of dying from the poison, it felt like a Zat gun had blasted through his leg.

He’d spent the better part of the day puking and alternating between sweating and shaking with chills. Not high on his top ten favorite ways to spend a vacation, thanks very much. Whether he had an particular intolerance to the venom, or this particular breed of scorpion packed more of a punch than its Earth-bound cousin, seemed a moot point. Apparently all those helpful pages in the Survival Manual didn’t apply. The sting had festered, causing his knee to swell and develop into a nasty painful reminder of the perils of tossing and turning in his sleep.

He’d tried to doctor the bite, but between the lack of fresh water, the location of the bite, and the unwillingness of the others to aid the man who obviously had found Kin’s displeasure, what would have been a trivial annoyance was damn difficult to deal with as he went about his daily assignments.

For three days, Kin watched as the man limped through his tasks, sick and in obvious pain, unable to keep up with the others, but refusing to admit defeat. The Goa’uld ordered the work load slowly but steadily increased, until O’Neill could not possibly complete the tasks on his swollen pain-filled joint.

Punishment was at hand. O’Neill had learned that lesson painfully well. Failure to complete the assigned task was not accepted. Others had died for less. There were no excuses, no mercy. The artist had carefully, painstakingly painted a masterpiece of a Catch 22.

But what the Goa’uld did not realize was that it would be the canvas who controlled this painting.

Fully aware of the trap his captor had set and realizing he had few other options, Jack made the decision. If he were to survive this ordeal, and give Daniel and Carter the time they needed, a change of tactics was in order. Strategy had always been his strength. Strategy and bull-headed stubbornness. That he had in aces. In some battles there was no choice but to make sacrifices. Hell, General West had taught him that lesson. In this battle the casualty would be his pride.

If he had to lay down his pride in order to survive, so be it. He’d kissed ass before. Not his favorite memory, but it’d served its purpose and he was alive to tell the tale. Others had continued to slam themselves against the concrete wall and they were now buried under six feet of sand in Iraq. This was a means to an end. Not a pretty strategy that would look good in a textbook for eager cadets, but one that might keep him alive for a while longer.

But, please, speed it up, kids. I’m laying my cards on the table and it’s not looking like I’m gonna take home the pot at this point in the game.

***

Sitting calmly, feigning indifference, the Goa’uld watched as the prisoner dragged himself before him. The subservient manner of this proud human was like the most powerful of aphrodisiacs. The manipulation needed to bring about this wrecked shell before him had been a most satisfying game. He had to admit, this one had been so much of a challenge, he was almost sorry to see him broken. It had taken much longer than any other he had trained, but, ah, all good things must come to an end, and there was serious work to begin.

Looking contemptuously down at the pitiful sight before him, the Goa’uld spoke with benign indifference. "Have you come to receive the punishment for your failure?"

Kin was hard-pressed to suppress the evil smile of triumph when a cracked voice began to beg his forgiveness and to plead for clemency.

Leaning down, the Goa’uld gently lifted the haggard face of the man cowering at his feet. "Of course, my pet, you will be forgiven of your sin." The eyes glowed in triumph. "You only had need to ask."

***

Resisting the temptation to look up into the glowing eyes, Jack O’Neill suddenly realized the stakes had been raised in this game he had been thrust into and all he could do was continue to bluff. And so he kept his head bowed in an act of dutiful respect and submission.

"Now you are ready for me to mold you into a gladiator for your god Kinich Ahau."

And, somewhere deep inside, Jack felt his soul tremble.

**********

Daniel lay in the semi-darkness of his office. For weeks now, he had slept for what little he could on the battered couch in his office. He made a quick dash home every now and again to sort through his mail and feed his fish, but he never stayed for long. Somehow, the thought of returning to his apartment was tantamount to finally admitting that Jack was gone forever. As long as he stayed here, hidden in his office, Daniel could pretend that he was working towards a solution to finding his friend.

Even now, as his tired body refused the solace of sleep, his mind worked feverishly. SG-1 had been temporarily disbanded and its members reassigned. Sam had gone on a geological survey with SG-12 and Teal’c was off world with Major Ferretti’s team. Thus far he had managed] to escape a similar fate. Daniel was pretty sure Hammond was aware of his stall tactics, but thus far the general had accepted his weak excuses to avoid ‘getting back in the saddle.’

Every avenue he had explored had proven to be a dead end. The Tok’ra, the Tollan, even the Asgard had failed him - - had failed Jack. Over and over, Daniel twisted and rubbed a small quartz figurine of El Castillo his grandfather had sent him as a child.

Finally, flinging his glasses down, he rubbed his weary eyes in frustration. Reaching for the remote he hit play and began to watch again the video he had shot on the mission. The answers had to be there. They had to be. He just had to find them.

Something . . . he was missing something.

It was late, or, rather, very early, depending on your point of view. A time when sleepy night staff yawned through the final hours of their shift and the only people wandering around the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain were insomniac archaeologists and over-worked generals.

Hammond looked up from his never-ending paperwork.

"Come." He barked in response to the knock on his door. Dear God, what now? If someone was looking for him at this hour it undoubtedly meant trouble.

He was surprised when Daniel walked into his office. The young man looked like hell in a handbasket. "Doctor Jackson, sit down. When was the last time you slept? Do I need to call Doctor Fraiser?"

The stark pain emanating from Daniel’s earnest blue eyes stopped the tirade.

"What? Oh, no, sir. I’m fine." Having Janet on his back was the last thing Daniel needed. He’d spent the better part of the past few weeks dodging her as it was. He really didn’t need the general to issue an order that would turn a five foot tall determined bounty hunter on his trail.

Hammond snorted. "Fine? Sure you are, son. Have you looked in a mirror lately? I thought Jack O’Neill had a patent on that line."

"I guess I had a good teacher, General."

Hammond nodded and shared a pained smiled that bespoke his own loss in this whole mess. "What can I do for you, Doctor Jackson?" Glancing at his watch, the general shook his head. "Military or civilian time, it’s too damn early for you to be up."

"Well actually, General, I never really went to bed." Fearing the dreaded call to that pint-sized pitbull of a doctor, Daniel rushed on, "General, I think I have an idea of someone who might be able to help us find Jack."

Sensing that he now had the general’s complete attention, Daniel hurriedly explained his idea. "General, I need to try to find my grandfather."

"But, Doctor Jackson, you’ve tried to contact Nicholas Ballard at least three times, . . .

"Four actually."

". . . four then, to no avail. We have to assume, as hard as it is, that your grandfather could be dead."

"No, sir, I don’t believe he is. I think that maybe Nick was simply being, well, Nick and ignoring me. God knows, he’s had enough practice over the years. But, I think what is happening is that he just isn’t getting my messages." Daniel leaned forward. His red-rimmed eyes steely in their intensity.

"Remember, sir, that until we allowed the crystal skull to complete the transformation, the neutrinos effectively blocked communication, visual as well as auditory. It wasn’t until after transformation into another plane of existence that SG-1 actually met the giant aliens."

Seeing a look of confused concentration on Hammond’s face, Daniel rushed ahead. "Sir, I think the leptons within the pyramid are keeping us separated. Nick’s not ignoring me, he just isn’t getting my calls! It’s like when an e-mail doesn’t get delivered for days and then just mysteriously appears. My messages are floating around in a void somewhere, waiting to be delivered."

"Just how do you suggest we deliver these messages, Doctor Jackson?"

"I have no idea, General, but Sam will. We’ve got to recall her, sir, and Teal’c, too. Jack needs us and this is our link to finding him. I just know it."

Daniel sank back in his chair wearily as the general reached for his phone, "This is Hammond. I want you to contact SG-2 and SG-12 and arrange for the immediate return of Major Carter and Teal’c." Glancing up at the hopeful face of the younger man sitting in front of him, he added, "For all of our sakes, I pray you’re right, son."

**********

". . . swear to endure branding, chains, flogging, or death by the sword. Doing all asked of me by my master, with absolute fidelity unto the point of death."

The litany echoed through the room as the men chanted the words. It had been one of the first lessons taught since the second phase of training began.

Jack droned in perfect time with the others. He knew without making eye contact that Kin would be watching him, studying his every move, seeking a reason to doubt the sincerity of his capitulation. It was hard, damn hard, being on stage constantly with a critical audience determined to catch you fumbling your lines. Ready to pounce should you slip and let down your guard, even for a moment. Harder still when the role in which you had been cast was so diametrically opposite to who and what you are.

Or once were-

Time. It was all about time. Giving his team time to find him. It was just that time seemed to have slowed down. To a pace slower than when the Black Hole had threatened the SGC. Slower than the lifetime it took for Frank to be ripped from his grasp and sucked into that swirling maw of death.

He’d thought a lot about Frank lately. Laying on his pallet at night, too tired and worried to sleep. Knowing that freedom lay beyond the walls of this prison and that it was just as inaccessible as the last time. The last time when hate kept him alive for those four months of Hell.

Hatred. Pure white hatred. Not thoughts of Sara and Charlie, not training, nothing but allowing himself to be swallowed alive by hatred for Frank and his betrayal; his failure to protect him one way or the other. Either by coming back for him, or, had that not been an option, by putting a bullet through his head before the Iraqis got him.

It was their code. It was their promise to each other. More sacred than life itself. And when Frank broke that trust he left a crack in the foundation of everything Jack believed in, everything he was. Blackness seeped through that crack and filled his soul, adhering itself to who he was like a damn Goa’uld. An entity in Its own right.

Alive.

Powerful.

Demanding.

Even after he was released the Blackness remained. He hid it well from the powers that be. But Sara knew it was there and Charlie, too. And Frank knew it was there the few times he tried to see Jack. To apologize. To try and explain. Then the Blackness would rear up and take control devouring everyone in its path.

But gradually the Blackness sank back into Its lagoon and slept, leaving a lingering gray shadow to save Its place.

But now Jack knew the Blackness was rising to reclaim Its territory. He could feel the cold grip as the talons pierced his soul once more. He could feel the ever-present shadows becoming darker, and still darker gray, until the Blackness had reasserted Its claim.

Jack knew. And this time he welcomed it. Greeted it as an old friend. Grabbed hold of it like a black life preserver allowing it to keep his head above the tides that were threatening to drown him. The Blackness might keep him alive. Might be the *only* thing to keep him alive. And maybe, hopefully, after this ordeal was over, after he was safely back home with his kids at the SGC, then he could return to shades of gray. But, right now, the Blackness fitted him. He found Its presence comforting like a trusted old friend. He understood Its rules. The way It worked.

Time was standing still and the iris was made up of a thin Black curtain. And, relatively speaking, this hole he was in now sucked every bit as much as the other one.

**********

The shell that housed everything that remained of Jack O’Neill stared down, seemingly unmoved, at the crumbled corpse of the young man he had just killed. Somewhere, deep inside, there was a vague feeling that somehow what he had just done was wrong, but it was buried so deeply beneath the layers of what he had become in order to survive that it no longer mattered. Turning away from the grisly sight, O’Neill handed over the blood-covered sword to the attending slave. He waited silently, as other servants quickly stripped him of the leather bracelets and collar he wore and removed the wide belt from his trim waist.

"Well done, my pet, well done," the massive Goa’uld praised. "Your skills improve daily. Now go. And allow the slaves to care for your needs and then rest. The tournament will begin in a matter of days and then I shall reveal my prize and collect the accolades as my due."

***

Bowing deeply, O’Neill left the arena without a word and made his way to his quarters. Kin stood watching the lithe form, which moved with natural athletic grace. This one flowed like the jungle cat, the jaguar, as he fought in the arena. In all his years of training gladiators for Kinich Ahau, never had he trained a warrior such as this. It seemed as if all the necessary killing skills were already buried beneath the surface. All that had been needed was to harvest the bounty. He had created a killing machine.

***

Well fed, and having bathed and lounged in the steam room, Jack rolled off the table where he had received a thorough massage from the skilled slave. Every abrasion and cut on his body had received care from the healing device. Training could be dangerous, but Kin made sure the gladiators’ bodies were kept in perfect condition.

Like show dogs, fluffed, primped, and waiting to win the owner the blue ribbon. As long as the show dog remembered he was a pit bull when his master released him into the ring ready, willing, and able to rip out the throat of the opponent.

Wrapping a towel around his waist, O’Neill left the communal area and entered his private sleeping quarters. Throwing the towel aside, a groan of pleasure escaped as he collapsed naked into the soft bed. He no longer had to be concerned about scorpions joining him as bedfellows. Kin had seen to it that he and the others now slept in safe comfort, on a raised bed with a plush mattress.

Another of the arena slaves stepped quietly into the room and began stirring the air with a long plume, creating a more comfortable sleeping environment. As a young woman entered the room seeking an answer to her unspoken question, O’Neill shook his head. With wordless disappointment she turned and left to make her rounds among the others in training. It was an honor to serve the gladiators in such a fashion.

O’Neill rolled over onto his stomach, burying his face in the soft comfort. Years ago he had once told Daniel that Sara had forgiven him, but couldn’t forget Charlie’s death. He, on the other hand couldn’t forgive himself, but was sometimes able to forget.

Sometimes.

He wondered if he would ever be able to forget this. Forget the faces of the dead. Forget their fear.

Guilt was a funny thing. When he was in the arena, forced to play out the Goa’uld’s whims there was no external sign of the guilt which wracked him at night as he thought of the life he was forced to take in order to survive another day. There was no room for guilt in the arena. No room for emotions of any kind.

Only survival.

But this was war and over his military career he had leaned against the concept of duty and orders allowing them to blanket his guilt and sin when those orders called upon him to do the damn distasteful things. But somehow now, as then, Jack found that the cliché of all being fair in love or war, left a bitter taste in his mouth. The bed suddenly seemed crowded as O’Neill’s conscience took a lion’s portion of the darkness of the room and he fought a battle just as he had in the arena.

A battle with himself in which one way or the other he would be the loser.

I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.

The training had been brutal. Even the gore Jack had witnessed during a lifetime in front line military actions paled into nothing, compared to the atrocities he had witnessed and been forced to participate in under Kin’s tutelage.

The Ludi, as the gladiator school was called, was a strange mixture of history and Goa’uld technology. The warriors were trained to use the trident, daggers, swords, nets, and war chains. Traditions were honored as unbreakable truths and yet the evil which was the Goa’uld’s hallmark was readily evident. Jaffa sentineled the arena and the grounds. Their presence assuring that there would be no uprising among the ranks of warriors. The healing device kept the men’s bodies in perfect condition, just as the exercise and training they received strengthened and melded them into perfect fighting machines.

If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades.

It had taken Jack some time to realize that his initial assessment was correct. Something Daniel, no doubt, would have realized immediately. His fellow prisoners did not, in fact, view themselves as prisoners, but gifts . . . willing sacrifices to their god. They trained and fought for his honor and the honor of those they represented. They were respected. They were gladiators. Chosen as the best.

It was a strange mind set. But then again, not so strange when he thought of what he had gone through during his Special Forces training and the pride that filled him when he was awarded that red beret. There was those, including some in his own family, who would never see him as anything other than a hired killer, a trained assassin. They would never understand that strange sense of pride and excitement at having been chosen to have the honor of putting your life on the line for what you believed in.

Were these kids so different?

And as Jack lay there on his isolated island, without so much as his Man Friday to keep him company and share his thoughts, he realized that these young men’s beliefs weren’t so unlike his own when he had long ago pledged his loyalty and life to his country.

He had once told Harry Maybourne that he and the commander of Air Force One went way back, and that, of course, was true. He had no struggle, no debate with his conscience, about pledging and serving the current administration, despite the fact that he saw it with all its bumps and warts. But what would happen should the likes of Kinsey become his Commander in Chief? How different did that make him from these kids with their skewed sense of honor, giving their lives at the whim of a false god?

Such thoughts made for sleepless nights.

Jack barely suppressed a shudder that ran through him as he thought of the day Kin had ordered him to fight the young man called Teco. He was not one of the men who had been captured with O’Neill, so he must have been brought from another village or city. At first glance it would have been easy to discount him as the weak link among his athletic brethren. But there was a fire that burned bright in Teco’s eyes that reminded Jack of Daniel. A fire which promised pure silver inside his soul.

Although they could not communicate verbally, Jack could read a trust and admiration in the young man’s face that should not have been there. Despite O’Neill’s repeated rebuffs, Teco had sought to attach himself to the older man, seeking a crack in the defenses O’Neill had erected.

The kid reminded him of Skaara. Way, way too much. The eyes shining with innocence. The inner courage that was immediately evident and way out of proportion to the shit life had thrown at him. A boy thrust into a situation that would have scuttled most men. One who saw excitement and adventure rather than the darker shadows, and the danger and the death that hid there. He lacked the acceptance of a jaded, old soldier.

More oft then not, Jack had found Teco seated next to him at meals seeking simple ways to please the older man. The gentle spirit had no place in the harsh surroundings in which they were trapped. No matter how often O’Neill’s rebuffs ordered him away, like a homeless puppy Teco crept back, squirming under the emotional barbed wire behind which Jack sought refuge.

At first it had been easy to rebuff the boy. Darkness preferred solitude. But there was something about the kid. Something that sparked a response in Jack’s soul. He was lonely. He missed his team, his kids. And this Mayan kid was desperately trying to slide into that hole in his heart that his team had filled after he lost his family.

It started with little things; Jack accepting a cup of water or a piece of fruit from the boy. The older man showing the younger a way to overpower bigger opponents in the wrestling games.

Sitting together.

Eating together.

Exercising and training together.

Finding in the midst of a nightmare, small things to share and smile about: the beauty of a small flower, the freshness of the air after an unexpected rain, the day Teco defeated the others and was declared the winner.

Jack’s triumphant whoop had surprised them both. Teco threw his arms around the man, ignoring the way O’Neill stiffened in rebuff to his enthusiasm. Slowly Jack returned the embrace, drawing and responding to the comfort of a human touch. It was as if he were reliving the best of times with Charlie, his most precious memories: a homerun, the winning goal, finding the perfect gift for Sara on Mother’s Day. Shared victories between father and son. And Jack realized the small, dark face, his eyes lit with excitement, had illuminated the darkness in his soul.

And suddenly, like the leak in the dam, that tiny trickle of water eroded the wall and before Jack realized what had occurred he found that he cared deeply about what happened to this kid.

It was too late by the time Jack awoke to the extent of danger their friendship had placed upon Teco. The day they had walked out together to join the others awaiting Kin’s orders. The Goa’uld had sneered at Jack as he ordered the two to face each other in the ring. There was no choice. Reluctantly, Jack had stepped forward and pick up the rudis, the wooden training sword, watching as Teco had been shoved roughly into the circle. The wooden sword bruised and battered the opponent, but failed to kill.

Kin’s voice stopped him. "Today you will learn what it is to truly be a gladiator owned by an all powerful god. Your mighty lanista, your owner and master, Kinich Ahau, has deemed that this day you will prove your loyalty to him with a sacrifice of blood." He tossed a victorious sneer in Jack’s direction. "A gladiator’s only friend is the master he serves. Any other is a weakness. Today you will battle that weakness unto death. Take up the sword."

Jack tried to ignore the look of fear on Teco’s face as they were handed the heavy metal swords, tried to ignore the fierce pain that shot through his stomach at the Goa’uld’s words, tried to ignore the anger that shot through him to his core- anger at the Goa’uld and anger at his own stupidity for endangering another child with his carelessness.

Facing off in the ring, sweat glistened off Jack’s body. He knew in the deepest part of his being that he could not do as he had been ordered. He could not kill this boy. This boy who had offered him friendship in the midst of Hell.

At Kin’s orders they began to dance the macabre movements they had been taught.

Graceful.

Sensuous.

Deadly.

Turn and slice.

Thrust and gouge.

Yet neither fighter was striking their opponent.

Kin’s rage grew as the obvious charade continued. Jack’s eyes drilled into those of Teco, silently ordering him to follow O’Neill’s lead.

The air suddenly vibrated with the sound of staff weapons charging. "You will obey me," Kin screamed. "One of you will die. Our God will have his blood offering."

With those words, Jack dropped his sword and stood defenseless. "Go for it, kid."

He knew the kid wouldn’t understand his words, but his meaning was unmistakable. While Teco hesitated, Jack threw a glare of hatred towards the glowering Goa’uld. He was shocked, when, without warning, Teco’s chest exploded in a gory mess as the staff weapon blast struck. The victorious smile that lit Kin’s face was too much for Jack’s battered nerves.

"You sorry son of a bitch, you had no right!" O’Neill launched himself without warning towards his keeper. Had he been thinking, Jack might have reached for his fallen sword, but he reacted in pure rage. His hands were on Kin’s thick neck, squeezing, praying that he would be able to crush the life from the murdering son of a bitch before they could stop him. The Goa’uld’s face reddened. His eyes bulged as he fought to draw a breath and his meaty fists beat the air as he fought to stay on his feet beneath the fury of the attack. Jack’s fingers dug into muscular flesh, tightening, giving in to the pent-up rage that he had kept carefully hidden all this time.

And suddenly his chance for revenge, revenge for himself and revenge for Teco, was gone as quickly as it had begun when he was knocked to the ground by a hard blow of a staff weapon. Even as he was fighting off unconsciousness, fighting to get to his feet the staff weapon pressed down on his throat, depriving him of the breath to say the words that were straining to escape. "You had no right," was all he managed to choke out.

Standing over Jack, eyes glowing, his teeth clenched in fury, Kin stared down at the struggling man. "Ah, but I told you once before, I have every right. This time you will remember that fact."

They had dragged him away, exactly as they had dragged away the body of the boy. But Teco was dead and Jack could only wish. He’d failed another kid. Another kid who had put his trust in his hands. Why the hell couldn’t he learn? What was he, the butt of some sadistic cosmic joke? The punch line always ending in the death of a child foolish enough to get close to him.

The whip bit into his back. "You will be flogged for your transgressions," the Goa’uld ordered and when Jack failed to cower he hissed, "to the point of death."

At first Jack welcomed the pain-numbing effects to the guilt drowning him in its tide. The pain helped hold him in the present, each stripe, the glue keeping him from thinking of the boy. But slowly as the punishment continued, pain re-established its dominance and dragged him by the hair, out of the inky black waters beneath which he longed to sink. It forced his head above the surface of guilt and proved the dominant predator in his life, devouring him inch by bloody inch.

The guards took turns, making a joke of it. Laughing as his garment slowly saturated with blood. Laughing as he had bit his lip through in an effort not to give them the satisfaction of hearing him scream. And finally, when the screams ripped from his lips, like the whip tore ribbons from his back, they had gambled as to which one would be the one to bring him to the point of death as ordered.

And through it all he could hear Kin’s laughter.

Jack had awoke to find Kin’s hand stroking his chest. He silently cursed his body’s betrayal as his involuntary cringe brought a benevolent smile to the Goa’uld’s lips. The blood soaked clothing was all that remained of the nightmare. That, an all-consuming guilt, and a small, frightened young man watching him silently from the corner of the room.

Teco.

They had a sarcophagus. The bastards had a sarcophagus!

Jack struggled to shrug off the hand which continued to stroke his chest like a mother soothing a fretful child.

"Rest, my pet. The sarcophagus has brought you back. And now you have learned another lesson. There is no escape, even through death."

Jack closed his eyes, but there was no escape from the truth either.

**********

To the reunited members of SG-1 it might have seemed like déjà vu, sans the Colonel as they entered the enormous pyramid on P7X-377 and crossed the tremendous cavern on the narrow bridge. Glancing down into the misty depths, Daniel couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a wild goose chase and he had become as mad as his grandfather.

But there was nowhere else to hunt for the clues they were desperate to find. Questioning the elders and priests had proven fruitless.

They simply said, it was as it always had been. We offered the sacrifice, and Kinich Ahau came down in the fire bright as the sun and accepted our offering. Our God’s acceptance of the gift assured a year of blessings.

As they reached the gleaming crystal skull, sitting majestically, like a silent sentinel, on the pedestal, Daniel bent and gazed into the eye sockets, beseeching whichever gods were listening to show mercy and allow this to work.

Carter and Teal’c watched silently. The only noise in the vast cavern, was the soft ticking of Sam’s instruments which sounded deafening as it played a duet with their heartbeats.

Sam recalled the last time she had tried to explain the concept of neutrinos passing through solid objects. The Colonel’s comment had thrown her for a moment, but she quickly realized it was just his way of telling her he was listening and trying to process her ‘techno-babble.’ The memory brought a smile to Sam’s strained features even as the tears welled.

"Major Carter, are you unwell?"

Sam glanced away, realizing Teal’c had noticed her unshed tears. "I’m okay, Teal’c. Thanks. I was just remembering something the Colonel said about this place."

She was surprised when Teal’c gave her a rare gentle smile. "No matter how dense?"

"How did . . .?" A rogue tear escaped and rolled unchecked down her face. "Yeah."

She was saved from further embarrassment when the air was suddenly filled with streaking lights. Sam’s equipment let out a resounding screech as it fell unchecked to the ground.

"Did it work, Daniel?" Damn, her voice sounded nervous, even to herself.

"I don’t know, Sam. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see." So much was riding on this. He had to be right.

Daniel thought back to the glyph he had recorded from the great pyramid. The Maya, the Jaffa, the Stargate sealed by the sword and the trident. What the hell was he missing?

Teal’c’s deep voice interrupted his thoughts. "Daniel Jackson, I believe you have your answer."

Looking in the direction of Teal’c’s gaze, Daniel and Sam stared up into the misty face of Quetzallzelcoatl. Carefully Daniel repeated the phrase he had learned on their first trip here. "Uy ah ual ing ual ing wetail, the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

"You and your friends are welcome here, grandson of Nicholas Ballard. Come." Holding out a misty hand Quetzallzelcoatl beckoned them.

**********

Tournament day was one of great rejoicing and excitement throughout the city, but nowhere so much as in the massive arena of the gladiatorial games. It was a day when the great god, Kinich Ahau, was present in their midst. It was a day of music and poetry in his honor. It was a day of sacrifice and death.

The gladiators had risen early to fast and prepare themselves for their greatest of all days before their god. It was why they had been selected above all others of their cities, villages and towns. They would assure the blessings for their people. This was the reason they had been trained. It was what they lived for and certainly what many would die for during today’s games. It was the day they would fight another God’s team in battles to the death.

The rival team had arrived and was preparing in their own quarters on the opposite side of the arena. Their god, Nacon, the god of war, was said to be a fierce ruler, bloodthirsty and unforgiving. It was said he and his entourage had traveled in a massive ship from a distant planet to arrive for the tournament.

It was known that a great rivalry existed between the two mighty gods as to the outcome of the games.

Victory, only victory.

As O’Neill entered the hall, the younger gladiators grew silent. He was dressed in a short leather skirt, his muscular thigh muscles bulging. The wide leather belt, fan shaped collar, and heavy wrist guards, the manicae, were in place. He wore sturdy sandals decorated with pieces of jade. The thongs crisscrossed his calves. Every inch of the lean muscular body glistened with scented oils. In the afternoon sunlight his torso rippled as the strength sought a means to emerge for all to admire. This was his day. He was their champion who would lead them into battle to live or die to honor their god.

Kin walked into the room for one last look at the results of his months of training. The pride in his creation knew no bounds. He would be honored. He would be praised. His pet would assure that this happened. "Gladiators of Kinich Ahau, today is one of great victory. You will meet the enemy and overcome. Our God will brook no defeat. Failure means only eternal damnation." He searched each face for any weakness or fear. Finding none, he shouted, "Victory unto death!"

"Victory unto death!" The cry echoed throughout the great hall as a multitude of voices raised it like a banner.

Well satisfied, the Goa’uld turned to take his place in the stands and observe the fruition of his labor, the beginning of his glory.

‘Unto death ... Which, if not victory, is revenge.’

O’Neill glanced over at Teco and wasn’t surprised to find the warm brown eyes studying him seriously. That’s Milton, kid. He had a lot to say about old war horses like me. He looking at the young man, just a kid really, dressed proudly in his Thracian garb. Too young. The kid was too young to fight in this farce in the name of honor and glory for a false god. He was too young to be fighting at all. He should’ve been back in his village playing ball or chasing skirts.

It was easy to forget he had been about the same age when he had donned a uniform and pledged to fight for his country.

Ya know, kid? Sometimes you just got no choice. You deal with what life throws you. Even if it sucks.

He turned away coldly, no vestige of warmth registered on his hard features. Since that day, the day his weakness had cost the boy his life he had scorned the relationship, building an impenetrable fortress around himself that no overtures of friendship could penetrate. It was easier that way. It was safer.

For both of them.

At the signal, the gladiators paraded, weapons in hand, into the blazing sun of the Colosseum to be greeted by thousands of voices, roaring in approval. The adulation afforded these athletes was a palpable entity in its own right: intoxicating, invigorating, invasive. The men inhaled it like a drug, allowing the power to seep through their veins and stimulate their minds and souls, until it became their very heartbeat.

Mighty.

Powerful.

Masterful.

A master who demanded blood.

As one, the teams raised their weapons in salute and bowed low before the golden boxed area where the gods sat.

Kinich Ahau stood, he raised a hand and the stands were silent. "I am Kinich Ahau, the trusted brother of the great god Ra. Today I descend to walk among you, my people, to observe if you are worthy of my continued benevolence. Enjoy this entertainment, my children, as these warriors willingly sacrifice themselves in my name. May they demonstrate their worthiness through their deeds today." The Goa’uld stepped back, his eyes glowing as the crowds roared his praises.

Nacon sneered, his eyes glowing. "How do you manage to impress the peasants?"

"We shall see who is impressed in the end, Nacon. I am told of a champion who will gain even your worthy attention. Do we have the same stakes as the last time?" Receiving Nacon’s affirmation Kinich Ahau spurned further conversation and turned towards the games. At his regal nod and wave of a jewel-clad hand a gong sounded and thousands of voices rejoiced. The Goa’uld leaned forward. He was eager to see this champion Kin boasted of, the man he had condemned to a gladiator’s life . . .

. . . and death.

"Let The Games begin."

**********

Samantha Carter made her way carefully through the crowded stands, towards the gilded box where the faux gods lounged. It would be her responsibility to take out the Goa’ulds.

Hidden beneath the colorful shawl which completed her disguise was her cache of C-4. It was doubtful that even her father would have recognized her at first glance. The hair dye and dark make-up had worked its magic even though her new black locks made her look like a candidate for a Gothic band.

Still, it had been worth it when she was able to blend into the crowd and infiltrate the target area under the very noses of the Jaffa guards.

It would be her job to set up as many charges as she could before Teal’c signaled. It was a relatively simple task to work her way around to the boxed area, plant the explosives, and set the timer. Every eye was riveted on the bloody battles taking place on the arena floor, including those of the two guards standing at attention on either side of the box.

Already two of the gladiators had met their deaths beneath the swords and trident. Gradually the battles were becoming more fierce as the weaker warriors were weeded out. She speculated that the better warriors were kept until later in the Games. Hopefully that included the Colonel. Maybe that would buy them the time they needed to pull this whole thing off, assuming the Colonel was even here.

Well, I hope Nick's alien buddies' suspicions are correct. Because if the Colonel isn't here, we're right back where we were and I’m not sure we’re going to get more than one shot at this if we come back empty handed.

The noise was deafening as the crowd screamed when another man fell, his feet tangled in a net. A dagger wound in his chest pulsated blood which soaked into the sand.

Sam was sickened by the sheer violence when the crowd shouted, "Habet, hoc habet, he has had it." She watched in horror as the victor glanced up at the gilded box and receiving his answer, drove the dripping dagger into the wounded man’s throat. Sam was hard pressed not to vomit as the body was dragged from the arena and the next game began.

Hurry up guys, get in position and signal. Let’s get the Colonel out of here.

***

Teal’c was preparing himself to disable as many Jaffa as possible. As soon as Daniel Jackson was able to work his way into the gladiator area Teal’c would signal Major Carter to set off the charges, creating a diversion and destroying the Goa’uld with one blow.

It was a bold and daring plan, given the sheer number of people involved, but it was their only hope if they were to get O’Neill back alive. The aliens of P7X-377had been adamant. The winner of the games would be sacrificed on the black altar of Ra.

Should O’Neill defeat his opponents, as Teal’c had no doubt he would, his friend was unaware of the fate which awaited him.

Teal’c had seen countless atrocities ensued by the Goa’uld. Many things which to this day left him sickened. Things which he knew would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life. But what the false god Kinich Ahau had established on this planet in the name of worship was reprehensible.

The Goa’uld harvested the best of the young men from the land through the game, Pok-A-Tok. The people had been taught that it was the greatest of honor to be selected by their God. Therefore competition was fierce, and the families of the winning team highly honored. Once taken, the young men were divided into groups selected for a variety of tasks: mining, servants, farmers, and gladiators. To be chosen as a gladiator was tantamount to a death sentence; however, in the minds of the people it was the highest of honors to die in such manner, sacrificing their life for their God.

As repulsive as this false religion was, Teal’c understood how it could come about as honored and revered part of their culture. He had only to look to his own planet to understand blind loyalty to the whims of a God. Glancing towards the arena from his place of hiding, the black altar waiting, Teal’c’s grip on his weapon tightened. We have come for you, O’Neill. Undomesticated equines will not remove me until we leave together.

***

Daniel Jackson had the most difficult part of this most difficult plan. It was up to him to somehow work his way into the area where the gladiators waited and locate Jack. He could still hear Janet in the briefing as she expressed doubts as to the stability of Jack’s mind after all this time. "Daniel, he may not even recognize you. It’s been months and from what we have been told he has been basically brainwashed by torture and depravation. The Colonel is a strong man, but . . ." she shared a worried glance with Hammond and chewed her bottom lip before continuing. "What I’m saying Daniel, is, be careful and don’t be surprised if he tries to fight you. After all, if the Goa’uld have successfully manipulated the Colonel’s thinking, then not only could he see it as a honor to fight in those Games, but he could see you as a threat standing in his way."

Quetzallzelcoatl and his people had explained in colorful detail the techniques commonly used by the Goa’uld to train the gladiators. Between their information, the melding of his own knowledge of Roman history with Nick’s there was little doubt in his mind as to what Jack had endured. It had made Daniel sick to think of Jack suffering the pain and humiliation described. Branding, flogging, the list was as endless as his ruthless imagination.

The team had been briefed on the missing gaps of information, beginning with the use of the Pok-a-Tok game, to insure a harvest of only the highest quality for the Goa’uld. Traditionally played at the Superior Conjunction of Venus, it provided a ready supply of new slaves from all the cities and villages in Kinich Ahau’s territory. What did the Goa’uld care if the entire group of gladiators was killed in the name of their bloody entertainment? A new harvest was always available for the taking. Daniel could feel seething hatred for the Goa’uld pound through his veins at their blatant disregard of life.

It sickened the benevolent natives of P7X-377 to see the Mayan people deceived and used in such a grievous way.

Word had come to them of a gray-haired warrior who was said to be a champion among champions. When Daniel had heard the description he’d known immediately they had found the key to the puzzle which haunted him. It had to be Jack. It just had to be. There was no other explanation. They had to go and get him out, he demanded.

It was the gentle, accented voice of his grandfather which finally convinced the young man to calm down. "Daniel, listen and remember what Herodotus said: ‘Haste in every business brings failure.’ In this instance, your haste will bring about a failure that could end in the death of your friend. Is that what you want?"

Rubbing his tired eyes in frustration, Daniel looked at his grandfather, "Of course it isn’t what I want, Nick. Don’t be ridiculous. You know that. But ..."

"Oh, Daniel," Nick scolded his grandson, "some things never change. You were always impatient and wont to take any but the proper path to reach your destination."

The reprimand stung, particularly issued as it was in front of his teammates and friends. "How would you know that, grandpa? When did you ever know what path I took?"

"Because I am the same way, Daniel, and I see myself in you," Nick admitted softly.

Unshed tears blurred Daniel’s vision as he whispered, "I’m sorry, Nick. You’re right. For Jack’s sake we need a plan."

And so, here he was, scooting along the walls of the alleys like a rat caught in a maze in search of the elusive cheese. Turning right at the next intersection, he knew from the sound of the crowd that he was getting closer. He checked his pocket for the tranquilizer Janet had provided should Jack be less than cooperative. He hoped that it wouldn’t be necessary, but if it was Daniel was prepared to jam the needle into whatever part of Jack’s anatomy presented the best target. He’d apologize later.

He had a lot of things to apologize for later. But for now he knew he could rely on the quick-acting tranquilizer to see to it that Jack stayed put until Teal’c arrived and they could get him out of here. Even Daniel’s myopic eyes could see all the holes in the plan, but they were desperate. And desperate people do desperate things when a friend’s life is on the line.

So, here he was doing his version of a mouse in a Mayan Maze Mystery hoping that he’d find the prize before time ran out.

Up to now the streets had been ominously empty. Obviously, Kinich Ahau and his minions were confident in their control over the population. Arrogant bastards. But, as Daniel turned a corner, his luck nosedived as he suddenly came face-to-face with a pair of Jaffa patrolling the streets. They were on him in an instant. His stammered explanations were ignored. An armor-clad arm choked off his cry as it wrapped securely around his neck thus ensuring he had no hope of escape. Daniel cringed as he realized he had just tripped and fallen head first into one of the holes in their plan. He could only hope he didn’t inadvertently drag the rest of the team down with him. Jack was depending on them.

The tranquilizer dropped harmlessly from Daniel’s fingers and rolled away into the dust of the street.

**********

A slave timidly brought a message to Kin as he sat enjoying the show. His eyes glowed angrily at the effrontery of the intrusion on this his most important of all days, but as he heard the message a plan for some surprise entertainment suddenly came to mind. Kinich Ahau would enjoy it as an appetizer before the main course, when his masterpiece was revealed. It would simply whet his master’s appetite for more blood.

"These are my orders. See to it that they are carried out exactly if you do not want to find yourself on the playing fields today." The frightened look on the slave’s face assured him that his instructions would be carried out just as he instructed.

The Gods would be pleased with his plan.

**********

Where the hell are you guys? The same thought had run through Sam’s mind twenty times in the last ten minutes. Time was running out. The rendezvous was less than a hour from now and if they missed it they were screwed. There was no way the guards could miss her father in a Tok’ra cargo ship.

Once the team had returned to the SGC with their Intel and the news that Colonel O’Neill may have been located at last, there had been no shortage of volunteers; even General Hammond had given serious thought to coming along. The Colonel had been missed on more levels than he would have thought possible. Coffee was consumed and tempers flared as plan after plan was discussed and discarded.

It had been Daniel’s idea to contact the Tok’ra. And Sam had almost felt guilty with the relief she felt when her father agreed to do his part to help bring Jack home. Selmac had come through for them one more time, arguing with the Tok’ra Council until Jacob had complained he was blue in the face. But the council had finally given their approval for a rescue attempt, or, more likely, simply grown weary of hearing Selmac argue.

"Ever thought of joining the debate club, Selmac?" Jacob had teased aloud.

"And what might a debate club be, Jacob?" It was like listening to a tennis match on the radio as her father’s symbiote spoke aloud.

"It’s a group of people who pick a topic of interest and spend hours arguing their point. It is a form of entertainment on Earth."

"But, Jacob, how does this differ from the role politicians play in the government of your planet?"

The dumbfounded look on her father’s face had given them all a much needed laugh to relieve the tension and gone a long way to help them focus on the task at hand. It wasn’t until later Sam realized that without a doubt that was the reason for the Abbott and Costello routine, Tok’ra style. They didn’t call Selmac the wisest of them all for no reason.

It was finally decided in the wee hours of the morning that a small covert operation had a better chance of success. And so it had been the remaining members of SG-1 with the addition of Jacob Carter and Janet Fraiser who boarded the cargo ship waiting at the rendezvous established on P7X-377, in the hopes of bringing home one missing Colonel.

**********

Jack leaned forward and scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, watching and waiting for his turn. He knew it would come soon. God, how had it come to this? Dressed in a skirt, thrust into ‘Battle of the Gladiators Live’. It was a freakin’ nightmare. If only that’s all it was. If only he could wake up back in his own bed and suddenly realize he’d been dreaming. That this whole thing was brought on by him eating four bean burritos smothered in over-ripe salsa, from the Taco Shack.

After he’d come back from the dead bed, things had definitely gone south. Kin had pulled out all the stops and suddenly Jack had found himself under the uncomfortable glare of the limelight. Kin had upped the stakes by making Teco, Jack’s personal whipping boy. Every transgression was dealt with severely. With every refusal to pick up the sword, it was the boy who suffered. Twice now Kin had killed the boy despite Jack’s anguished cries to take him instead.

But still that damn kid kept coming back for more despite the fact that he had done everything he knew to sever the connection between them, sever the friendship for both of their sakes. Looking at him with trust oozing from those dark eyes, Jack realized that those eyes were starting to haunt him at night.

The day came when Jack was shoved into the practice ring with another warrior. O’Neill had a clear view of Teco’s frightened face from where he stood. The boy had good reason to be frightened as one of Kin’s guards held a dagger to his neck ready, at his master’s orders, to cut the kid’s throat should Jack fail again. Kin gave his orders. This would be a death match.

His opponent nodded and saluted with his sword. Jack felt nothing, nothing but over-whelming weariness. He didn’t want to kill this man. He wasn’t the enemy. That son of a bitch standing outside this ring with Teco’s life in his snakey hands was his enemy. He and every other fucking Goa’uld in the damn universe. They were the ones to blame, not this man he was facing now.

Jack looked into his opponent’s face, but instead he saw the faces of all those who had died because of his failures. Who was Jack O’Neill anyway? Was he God? Why did it always fall to his actions to decide who would live or die? It was an impossible decision. A no win situation with no guarantees that Kin would use that damn sarcophagus. Nothing to assure him that this time the decision he made wouldn’t have permanent consequences.

Like Charlie, like Kawalsky like Frank, and Hank Boyd and all the others. No going back. Only living with the regrets that haunted you the rest of your life.

What’d he have? A crystal ball telling him what to do? Telling him whose life was more valuable. No, nothing but instincts that were failing him now, and the knowledge that the guilt would be his. Where the hell did the Code of Conduct fit in now?

The man facing him, sensing his opponent’s hesitation, had immediately acted on the weakness and sliced a long gouge in Jack’s forearm. Blood poured from the wound making it difficult to maintain his grasp on the heavy weapon. Jack dared not allow his eyes to drift towards the sound of Teco’s voice crying out in pain as Kin reminded O’Neill just what was at stake. The guard pricked the boy’s neck deeper with the tip of the knife. Amusement momentarily lit his opponent’s hard features at the sound of the boy’s pain.

"That one would have been better off being sacrificed in the Well of the Souls, as a child," his opponent crowed. "He does not belong here with men. At least then his death could have brought glory to our God and his family. As it is he is worth nothing more than food for the great cats of the arena."

Laughter erupted around the ring as the cruel words were heard by the spectators. Jack risked a glance at Teco and the defeated hurt written on his face translated the words O’Neill did not understand. But cruelty was a universal language and one Jack didn’t need Daniel to translate.

A quick upward thrust, a sharp half turn and it was over. The ring was silent except for Jack’s harsh breathing as all eyes stared at the body quivering in the dirt at his feet. It was so sudden and so unexpected that it caught everyone by surprise. Everyone. Including O’Neill. Who stood with his head bowed, his eyes closed and his jaw tightly clenched at what he had just done.

The silence was broken when the Goa’uld voice washed over the ring of men. "Well done, my pet. You now know what it means to be a gladiator."

Kin had smiled as Jack fought his way through the ranks, fallen to his knees and vomited. It was Teco, who Kin sent to comfort and provide aid.

It hadn’t mattered that Kin had opted to use the sarcophagus to bring the man back. Self-hatred was poisoning Jack. The same scenario was played out time and time again until Kin had worn away O’Neill’s conscience.

Placing him in impossible situations, killing being his only option. It never got easier, even though, thus far, Kin had made death only a temporary condition. But each time there was always the fear that *this* time there would be no golden box brought into play. That this time he would murder an innocent victim of the Goa’uld’s madness.

The Blackness was the only thing that saved his sanity, the only thing that kept him from going stark raving mad, caught as he was as a pawn in the Goa’uld’s game. Jack began to retreat, taking with him a single candle that would hopefully help him to find his way home in the dark after this nightmare was over.

Hurry it up kids. I don’t know how much longer I can play this part. It’s getting harder to remember who I am.

Those awaiting their turn in the arena had received word that a special event would take place. A surprise Kin had arranged for the amusement of the Lords on this most special of days, the day of the Games. Jack wondered briefly what it might be, but dismissed the thought as unimportant to his immediate purpose. He needed to concentrate on those things which would keep him sharp, utilizing and blending the skills he had learned with his natural abilities. If he were to survive this mess, he was going to have to focus.

Kin had made it clear: today there would be no waiting sarcophagus to revive the losers. Today the charade ended and the games began. Today the lives which were forfeited would pave the way for their God’s benevolence and good-will towards their peoples.

Except, these weren’t his people. His people were the people of Earth, the people of the SGC. His people were Daniel, Sam, Teal’c, Hammond and Fraiser. They were the Silers and the techs, the kid who collected his mail when he was away, and Sara, and the old couple who ran the grocery store who always made sure they stocked his favorite brand of bratwurst. Those were his people. And sure, if you wanted to get technical, you could include Thor and the other allies he gave a rat’s ass about. And the kids he had met, Merrin and Reetou Charlie and the others. And Teco . . .

. . . God, help him, because that damn kid had crept into that special place reserved for his family. He had decided a long time ago that when you didn’t have a family of your own, it was okay to rewrite the definition of the word. Screw Webster. His family was what and who he made it.

And this fight didn’t have squat to do with his family. Except Teco. But he’d been forced into it just the same. Now all he could do was try and survive and pray that by some miracle the kid did too.

So engrossed in his mental preparations that he ignored the roar of the crowd, never-the-less O’Neill lifted his head as a frightened voice shouted his name, failing to blanket the panic underlying the simple words.

"Jack, if you’re here somewhere, now would be a really great time to let me know."

It was Daniel, of course. Who else would be calling his name while standing blindfolded, his hands bound tightly behind his back, in the middle of the gladiatorial games?

No one but Daniel Jackson, trouble magnet extreme of the SGC and all worlds beyond the Stargate. Who else could appear more out of place than Daniel as he stood looking like a scribe who should be taking inventory of his master’s riches rather than a warrior in the arena?

Jack was unprepared for the wave of emotions which swept over him as Daniel called his name again, desperately.

"Jack, er, I’m here to rescue you, in case you haven’t figured that out. Ah, I could probably use a little help though. Jack, can you hear me? Jack . . . "

In the months since his capture, not once had he been called by his name. Such a simple thing really. But one that touched something deep within him, shooting through the core of his being like a bolt of electricity. It surprised the hell out of him with the intensity of his feelings.

The crowd heckled the man who was not a gladiator, who was obviously not a warrior of any kind. This man was obviously a prisoner, placed before them for their amusement. A shout of laughter filled the stands as a the guards shoved a small figure into the ring.

Teco.

Jack watched, his stomach knotted with anxiety, as the boy slowly picked himself up and carefully dusted off the costume he had so proudly donned earlier. Ignoring the catcalls and ridicule, Teco lifted his head and walked with quiet determination towards Daniel. The boy moved with grace and pride. His face mirrored his hero.

Watching, his heart pounding with dread, Jack recognized the mask the Mayan boy wore as his own. It was as if he were looking in a mirror as he watched a reflection of his own determination. Damn that kid, why had he picked him to attach himself to? It had been easy to teach him. Easy to help him learn the lessons. He was a quick study. It had been too easy, until Kin used it against them both. But as Jack watched, he could see the results of those lessons gliding towards his best friend, his present moving towards his past.

Damn the Goa’ulds to eternal hell. Whatever Kin’s game was, Jack’s trouble meter was off the scale. He stood up, only to be waved back to his place by the guard.

Damn, what was going on?

Finding it impossible to sit still, Jack jumped up and peered around the side of the gladiators’ stable hoping for a glance of Carter or Teal’c. He needed to be able to figure out the plan so even if he couldn’t help at the moment, he didn’t hinder the mission and make things worse.

Although how that was possible he couldn’t imagine as he threw a worried glance at the figures in the arena. God, he hated being out of the loop. Especially when that loop was tightening around his teams’ collective neck by the second.

His scan of the crowd was a bust. He did spot Kin, looking way too pleased for comfort. This whole situation was too twisted even for late night TV and that knot in Jack’s gut had apparently called in the reserves.

They were here. They’d come. He always knew they would, had never had any doubt that they’d give up on him. He scrubbed his hands over his face, surprised by the moisture beading unexpectedly in his eyes. They’d come. His kids. His family. They’d pulled off some astronomical odds once more and found him. Looking across the expanse to where Daniel stood helplessly, Jack’s face was taut with tension and anger. He’d be damned if he’d watch his team harmed for a fucking Goa’uld’s amusement. He had a personal score to settle on that account already, but there was no way in Hell his kids were going to suffer the same fate. Not as long as he had anything to say about it.

A rough prod with the guard’s staff weapon forced Jack to abandon his scan and return to his seat. The heckling of the crowd seemed] to take on a life of its own as the demonic cries ebbed and surged, surrounding them with the evil sounds of laughter. It reminded Jack of the nightmarish cries of Netu, the cries of the damned condemned to Hell.

A sudden roar of excitement as well as his own solicitude forced Jack to his feet once again despite a threatening gesture from the guard. Ignoring it he moved quickly to the low stone wall separating him from the arena.

Teco had moved closer to Daniel, but some distance still separated them. Jack’s taxed brain searched for a reason for the obvious excitement rippling through the crowd. Just as Jack caught a shadowy movement with his peripheral vision, he saw Teco break into a run.

The sleek sinewy form of the jaguar was carved of the blackest marble and melded onto the great altar in the arena. An artist’s masterpiece. So still was the great cat, that for a moment Jack thought it was just a figment of his imagination. Until the challenging snarl of a savage hunter echoed through the stadium. And then he knew with sickening clarity just what Kin’s demented game was, as the pieces fell into place.

It was common practice to starve and taunt the fierce jungle cats before turning them loose in the ring. Made more savage and eager to kill, it effectively eliminated their natural tendency to avoid humans. This was obviously the case with this big cat, which soon spotted the two men standing in the ring.

Teco skidded to a stop just as the cat sprang from its perch and charged. Blindfolded as he was, Daniel had stopped his awkward stumbling at the roar of the crowd. Jack watched, his stomach knotted with fear, as Teco deliberately placed himself between the cat and Daniel. The boy had his weapon raised in a defensive position. Jack could see his lips moving, but the noise of the crowd kept him from hearing the words, whether prayer or conversation. Daniel, however, seemed to understand. He stood quietly. His head cocked trustingly in a familiar way that made Jack’s chest ache.

As always, Daniel may have been standing in a swamp, up to his ass in alligators, but he was still Daniel Jackson, optimist extra ordinaire. Daniel No Matter How Bleak the Situation There’s Always a Way Out Jackson. His grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side of the ruins fucking best friend.

There was no damn way he was going to stand by and watch his friend and that kid become catfood. No way in Hell!

In one smooth motion Jack had grabbed his waiting sword and thrust it with a precision born of desperation between the armored plates of the guard. The Jaffa fell without a cry leaving Jack free to fling himself over the wall.

Hearing the gasps and shocked whispers from the other gladiators, Jack tossed them a challenging look. "It’s Showtime, boys. Time to shit or get off the pot."

And then he was running, his determination over-riding the message his knees were telegraphing to his brain.

The cat had reached Teco and was crouched low to the ground snarling as the hunger pangs overrode its natural fear. Whipping out razor sharp claws the cat sought to drag the boy off his feet. Teco fought in silent desperation for himself and the helpless stranger he had apparently been charged to protect.

Teco couldn’t suppress the hiss of pain as the jaguar’s claws whipped past his defenses and tore deeply into the muscle of his calf. Thrown off balance, he was ill-prepared as the cat chose that moment to spring, knocking the boy to the ground. In his terror, Teco failed to hear the screams of the crowd, Daniel’s shout, or the pounding of sandal-clad feet.

Jack reached out with his sword prepared to stab the cat in order to stop the attack. He was caught off guard when, without warning, the jaguar rolled onto its back and raked a deep trough of parallel scratches across his chest and down his biceps. With a loud shout, Jack drove the sword into the cat’s exposed belly. A quick thrust and the cat lay dying next to the still body of the boy.

Dropping his blood stained sword, Jack ignored his own wounds and knelt next to Teco. His hand refused his order to check the unmoving form of the young man laying in the dirt under the gaze of a thousand eyes. Jack was afraid. Afraid he was too late to help this kid who had fought so bravely to protect Daniel. This kid who was sent out as a clown and proved himself a warrior. This kid who had, despite what common sense said about self-preservation, become his friend. Jack bowed his head and wished he had the words to pray.

A sudden groan was sweeter than any concerto he had ever heard.

Teco groaned again and struggled to sit up.

"Daniel, get your ass down here and help me." Jack knew his voice was rough with emotion and pain. Shit, if he wasn’t careful he was going to humiliate himself and start crying. And he’d be damned if that was gonna happen. Especially not in this freakin’ skirt. A quick flick with the knife and Daniel’s hands were free.

As Jack fought to gain control, Daniel pulled off the blindfold and blinked painfully in the bright sun. "Hi, Jack. Nice, er, em, outfit. Going for the Russell Crowe, gladiator look?"

"Oh for cryin’ out loud, Daniel. Is that all . . ." Jack’s words were drowned out by a series of horrific explosions which rocked the stands causing them both to flinch.

"That’ll be Sam, Jack. Teal’c’ should be over towards the entrance taking care of the guards." Daniel’s eyes were wide with anxiety which belied his calm words. "Jacob’s supposed to pick us up at the rendezvous."

Jack nodded, much less anxious now that he was doing something, now that he had an idea what the plan was. "Daniel, take care of the kid. Get him to the pick-up point. I’m gonna help Teal’c." Reaching out, Jack squeezed Teco’s shoulder. "Thanks kid, I owe you."

"Jack, you’re bleeding," Daniel began, as he eyed the deep bleeding scratches nervously.

"Trivial, Daniel." Jack cut him off ignoring the incredulous look Daniel tossed in his direction. "I’ll deal with it later."

And then he was running again towards the sounds of battle.

*****

It was chaos. People ran screaming hysterically through the smoke and debris created by the explosions. The gilded box was a pile of rubble. Sam thought with grim satisfaction that Kinich Ahau and company had been blown into bite size pieces of Kibbles and Bits. Ridding herself of the confining shawl, she peered through the smoke hoping to get a glimpse of Teal’c or the others. A glance at her watch told her they needed to move quickly. Bright flashes of energy through the wisps of smoke confirmed that Teal’c was in place and working towards the completion his part of the plan.

Shoving through the panicked crowd, Carter edged her way towards the floor of the arena. Damn, Daniel had given her a scare when she had spotted him being dragged into the arena. Sam had been surprised at the depth of her own anger towards these people when the jaguar had attacked the boy trying to protect Daniel. Her customary level-headed coolness during a catastrophe had evaporated in the red-hot fury that flooded through her. Only by sheer will and training had she been able to ignore the laughter and cheering and focus on the task at hand.

Thank God she had spotted the tall, lanky form of the Colonel running towards Daniel. Even in that ridiculous outfit there was no doubting it was Colonel O’Neill. Sam felt tears prick her eyes that had nothing to do with the stinging smoke.

The Colonel was alive. They’d found him. They were going to bring him home.

Despite the worrying and delays in rescue, despite the bad feelings and mistrust before all this mess started, despite everything, it seemed SG-1 had fallen effortlessly into what they did best. Working as a team. Working as the best damn team there was at the SGC or anywhere else for that matter.

And Sam felt a wave of pride wash through her that she was lucky enough to be a part of it. Moving into position she spotted Teal’c and signaled to him that she was in position to help. Raising her weapon Sam chose her target and opened fire.

The sprint had left Jack panting more from the adrenalin rush than the effort of running. His chest and arm had bands of fire running across them, but he couldn’t worry about that now.

"Teal’c, where’s Carter?"

The reassuringly beautiful clatter of a P-90 gave him his answer before the Jaffa could shout his reply. Carter was in a good position to help Teal’c. A few more minutes and they could haul ass. Not a minute too soon as far as O’Neill was concerned.

Jack had taken only a step or two towards Carter’s position when a blinding pain drove him to his knees.

His injured arm gave way under the force of his fall and Jack found himself in an awkward heap wondering just what in the hell had happened.

He let out a choking cry as his entire body was violently wrenched off the ground and then he was once again slammed down, this time face upwards. Fighting encroaching unconsciousness, Jack struggled to make sense of what was happening.

A voice shaking with madness provided more information than Jack needed or wanted.

Kin.

"You have failed me, my pet. You have failed to bring me the accolades and honor due me."

Jack’s answer was swallowed by an agonized cry as the Goa’uld savagely jerked the heavy trident he had thrust deeply into O’Neill’s thigh. Jack’s vision blurred as he fought against the fires of pain burning into him.

He had a sudden urge to giggle hysterically at the absurdity of the picture he made, dressed as he was, while flopping helplessly like a gigged fish.

He wanted to giggle. He wanted to make some incredibly witty comment that would show the Goa’uld bastard just what he thought of this whole situation. He wanted to, but instead he screamed.

He screamed and writhed helplessly as the barbed hooks shifted and tore deeper into his flesh and muscles, and as nerves ignited with fire because the enraged Goa’uld viciously twisted the staff. O’Neill pushed against the ground, pushed against the hands that held him down, pushed against anything to desperately try and counteract his assailant’s actions.

But it was no use, Jack could feel the darkness edging in. He scrabbled for the sword he had dropped, knowing it was his only chance. Long fingers wrapped around the steel. Desperate strength drew it towards him. He could feel the heavy grip in his fist. But dammit, his body was failing his orders to ignore what that sick bastard was doing to his leg and refusing to ram the fucking sword up to the hilt into his guts. He wanted it as badly as he had ever wanted anything.

Almost anything.

But every time he thought he had a chance, Kin gave another vicious twist and laughed as his feeble efforts to respond grew weaker.

"You were nothing without me. Less than nothing. And now, as I promised, you will die." Mad laughter filled the air.

And as Kin stepped forward and braced to drive the trident right through Jack’s leg, so pinning him to the ground, the simultaneous blast of a staff weapon and the cough of a single round from a P-90 sang the unlamented death song of the Goa’uld.

As Kin toppled forward, impaling the trident further in his victim’s flesh, Jack’s back arched in agony and darkness was crowned the victor of the games.

**********

Janet Fraiser wiped the back of her hand roughly across her forehead and rubbed her sweaty palms across her thighs in a decidedly less than ladylike manner that would have had her dear sweet grandmother gasping with feigned angina. She thought of a few of the things that she’d dealt with over the past couple of years that would have had Granny laid belly up in the morgue.

But then again, maybe not. Granny was a survivor, just as Janet was. In fact, Janet always imagined she had gotten the steel rod of a backbone from her four foot six grandmother. She remembered asking once why her grandmother was so short when the kids at school had teased her about her own diminutive stature.

‘Why, hon, all the Peters are short in our family. In fact, we come from a long line of short Peters.’

Janet never was sure if Granny had meant that statement in jest, but she’d never dared to broach the subject again. She wished Cassie could’ve met Granny. They would’ve been kindred spirits. Looking at the sedated man laying on the make-shift examining table, Janet sighed. Jack O’Neill would have found a kindred spirit in Granny as well.

Granny would have teased the tall, good-looking officer unmercifully and then sat him down to a real Southern fried chicken dinner with homemade biscuits, the thought of which still made her mouth water even after all these years. That was Granny’s idea of medicine. Good food and good company and a healthy dose of teasing throughout the evening.

I’m afraid the Colonel’s going to need a lot more than even you could give, Granny. Maybe more than even I can provide this time.

Janet’s musing was interrupted as Daniel stuck his head around the corner.

"Knock, knock," he said with forced humor.

"Come on in, Daniel." Janet knew her smile was strained and that she wasn’t fooling Daniel for a moment. But comforting came as second nature to her, were it with her patients or those worried friends and family that hovered near.

Daniel’s arms were locked in their customary ‘I’m worried out of my mind, please tell me I’m over-reacting even though I won’t believe you for a moment’ position. "How’s he doing, Janet?"

"Daniel, what can I say? It was an horrific injury, aggravated by the necessity of extracting the Colonel to the pick-up site before appropriate emergency medical attention could be provided."

"We didn’t have any choice, Janet. Sam and Teal’c had cleared the immediate area of Jaffa, but we couldn’t take the chance of being over-run and surrounded if reserves were called in. Sam said the best thing we could do was leave the trident in place and get Jack out of there."

"She was right, Daniel, and I still don’t know how you managed with two wounded men, one of whom was unconscious, to make it back."

Daniel gave a grim smile. "It wasn’t easy, believe me. Teal’c blasted off the handle and somehow between she and Teal’c they managed to keep that damn thing level enough not to rip off Jack’s leg. I really don’t know how they did it. I had my hands full, trying to help Teco make it. How’s he doing by the way? He’s a gutsy kid."

Janet nodded. "Gutsy and scared to death at the moment. I can’t imagine the time he’s had, poor thing. I finally administered a mild sedative to help him relax while I treated his leg. He’s sleeping now, but I’m going to need you nearby when he wakes to help communicate with him, if you don’t mind."

"No problem, Janet. I don’t know much Mayan, but maybe I can calm him a bit with a few phrases of his own language. We’ll have to make do with other forms of communication after that."

Janet’s smile relaxed a little. "I know you . . ." A groan interrupted her as Jack began to thrash out weakly, pushing against the sheet which covered him lightly, with clenched fists.

Moving quickly over to lay a comforting hand on the Colonel’s sweat drenched brow, she gently pulled back the sheet. "Damn, he’s bleeding again. Colonel, I do not need this from you right now, so do me a favor and cut it out, sir."

Even as she spoke, Janet was injecting a coagulating stimulant into the IV. "Come on, sir, cut the crap. I need you to stabilize until I can get you off this ship and back home. So if you’re going to be uncooperative, please wait until then."

Daniel’s eyes were glistening blue gems behind his glasses. "Janet?"

"It’s okay, Daniel. The Colonel is just being a little too free with the blood donation and he’s a bit shocky. It’s nothing I can’t handle right now, but I’m going to need to keep a close eye on him for the next few hours." She glanced up at Daniel’s pale face. "Why don’t you go find out from Jacob just how much longer it’ll be before we get back to P7X-377."

Daniel moved reluctantly towards the door. "Okay, Janet, I’ll find out."

This time Janet’s smile made it to her eyes. "Thanks, Daniel."

Janet was in the process of changing the saturated bandages when a shocked gasp told her she and the Colonel had more company. Without taking her eyes off her patient she spoke. "Hi, Sam, I’ll be done here in a second."

Covering the wound and wiping Jack’s brow gently Janet looked critically at Sam’s pale features. "Sam, honey, you okay?"

Sam ran her hand roughly through her dyed locks. "God, Janet, is it as bad as it looks?"

Janet sighed as she checked the tubes feeding fluids into the Colonel’s veins. "Sam, I won’t lie to you, I’m worried. There is some major damage to the vastus lateralis muscle in the thigh. I won’t know how much until I can get him home and run some tests." She watched as Sam processed the information. "Right now I’m more worried about shock and infection."

"I gave him a shot of antibiotics before we moved him."

"I know you did, Sam, and believe me it can’t hurt, but puncture wounds are notorious for infections and basically what we’re dealing with are three very deep, very complicated knife wounds. I’m not even mentioning the added dangers from the mauling across his chest and upper arm. You did a great job of triage given the circumstances, but right now what the Colonel needs is to be back at the SGC where I can monitor him closely and get a handle on what’s going on."

The women turned as Jack muttered restlessly in his sleep despite Janet’s medication. Sam’s face was a mask of guilt. "Janet, I just don’t feel like I did enough. I mean, I screwed up." Ignoring Janet’s frown she continued haltingly, "Think about it. I’m the expert in physics. I’m the one everyone expects to figure out this kind of thing. It’s what I’m good at. It’s my job. I should have figured out months ago that something was blocking our messages. Before any of this ever happened. Look at poor Daniel. All this time he thought Nick was just ignoring him."

Janet nodded sympathetically. She knew exactly, the feeling of pressure that came from being in a place of responsibility at the SGC. And the guilt that went hand in hand when the answers came too late, or not at all. Sam wasn’t the only one with a guilt complex the size of the Rockies. She’d had to bury too many of her failures not to understand exactly where Sam was coming from.

"If I had figured all this out earlier, maybe the Colonel wouldn’t have had to go through everything he did."

"And maybe if I wish hard enough I’ll get a call from the Lakers and get drafted as their star center. But that’s not too likely, is it?" Janet’s eyes twinkled as the absurdity of her statement sank in and Sam gave a snorting laugh.

"Sam, we’re out on the front line in a battle few people even know exists. We’re bombarded with situations daily that defy science fiction writers. Yes, we’ve all made mistakes, and, yes, there’s no doubt we will continue to make mistakes, because despite what some may think we are human and therefore not perfect. But what we can’t afford to lose focus on, is the fact that what we do is important and that we have a hell of a lot more successes than failures." She gave Sam a challenging glance, daring her to deny this.

"One thing I’ve learned is that it’s the ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybe’s’ in life that will drag you down faster than anything. Let it go, Sam, or those doubts will destroy you. Take it from me. I know. Focus on the fact that you got the Colonel out. You said yourself that the Goa’uld would have killed him. You did a great ‘scoop and run’ rescue despite all the unforseen variables you had to deal with, like Daniel getting captured . . ."

"Or the Colonel having a honkin’ big hunk of metal sticking out of his leg." Sam’s smile was hanging by a gossamer thread, but it was a start.

"Or the Colonel having a honkin’ big hunk of metal sticking out of his leg," Janet smiled with a glance towards Jack. "We do the best we can do, Sam. Sometimes our best isn’t good enough." With a shrug she added, "You did a good job. Now go get some rest, Major, and let me do mine. That’s an order."

Sam smiled. "Yes, ma’am. She walked towards the door and turned to see O’Neill quieting under Janet’s gentle ministrations. "Thanks, Janet. For everything."

"Now shoo." And as Sam left Janet shook her head with a tired smile.

As the hours passed too slowly, Janet continued to monitor Jack carefully. The succinylcholine seemed to be helping to relax the damaged muscles, but Jack was far too restless for *her* to relax and until she could get him home she was just playing doctor in the dark. She had a bad feeling that despite the wide spectrum of antibiotics Sam had administered, and the cephalosporin she had him on, it wasn’t going to be enough to counteract the inevitable infection.

Janet glanced over at the blood encrusted trident laying discarded after she had removed it from the Colonel’s leg. She couldn’t help but shudder at the thought of the pain and damage the weapon had inflicted in the hands of an enraged Goa’uld. Laying her hand on Jack’s forehead she was surprised when dull brown eyes opened and gazed wearily up at her.

"Hi, sir." She gave him a reassuring smile. "Guess I don’t have to ask how you’re feeling, do I?"

Jack started to speak, cleared his throat, and tried again. "Does the term ‘road kill’ mean anything to you?"

"Sure, it usually makes me steer clear of the Chef’s Surprise in the dining hall on Tuesdays."

Jack gave a weak snort. "Ow, Doc. Stow the kidding and don’t make me laugh." His voice was worryingly weak.

"Who’s kidding, sir." Janet was quietly working through a mental checklist as she shared the joke and was not the least bit happy with her findings: clammy skin, rapid and, thready pulse. Not good, not good at all. "So, Colonel, road kill aside, what can you tell me?"

She watched silently as Jack ran a checklist of his own. She’d seen him do it too many times not to know exactly what he was doing. Whether or not he’d share the results was still up for grabs.

Looking at him expectantly, she gave him a bit of verbal nudge. "Colonel?"

Jack refused to make eye contact, instead his eyes locked on to the stained head of the trident laying at eye level on the tray next to him. Janet gave herself a mental kick in the butt for having left it there.

Moving quietly to the other side of the bed Janet stepped in front of the tray and its offensive contents, blocking it effectively from Jack’s sight.

"You better brush up on your ‘subtle’ routine, Doc."

Janet gave another smile. "I’ll do that, sir. Now, about how you’re feeling?"

"Ah, huh, Doc, subtle as a fart in church."

"I learned from a master, sir. Now, you were sharing how you’re feeling."

Jack’s exasperated sigh signaled his acknowledgment of defeat. "Leg hurts, chest, too."

"Okay Colonel, you know the drill. Give me a number, sir."

Jack sighed again. "Leg seven, chest a little less, maybe a four or five. Happy now, Doc?"

Janet frowned. "Ecstatic, sir."

"Need to work on your sarcasm, too, Doc. It sucks." Jack shivered and took a gasping breath.

"Colonel?"

"Cold . . ." And as Janet watched, Jack’s eyes suddenly fixed and rolled back leaving her a frightening view of white sclera.

"Dammit, Colonel, not now! Don’t pull this shit on me now. For once in your life just follow my orders and don’t give me any grief."

Janet’s monologue was cut short when Teal’c entered quietly into the room. She wondered briefly if the man had placed himself on guard duty just outside the door in the event he might be needed. Whatever the reason, Janet was grateful for his calm assurance and steady presence.

"Doctor Fraiser, may I be of assistance?"

"Teal’c, get the Colonel’s legs elevated and then cover him with an extra blanket, but don’t wrap it too tight."

Janet didn’t wait to see if her orders would be followed, but continued muttering to herself.

"Pulse 110, respiration 22-25. Damn, damn, damn, sir, I don’t need this right now. Pull yourself together."

"Doctor Fraiser?"

Janet glanced up. "That’s perfect, Teal’c. The Colonel’s in shock and we’re going to need to get it under control. His leg is bleeding again and that’s contributing to the problem. Can you use this gauze pad and put steady pressure on the wounds, please, while I get some fluids started?"

"I can."

The room was silent save for O’Neill’s harsh shallow breathing which sounded overly loud as it competed with the sounds of Janet Fraiser’s near silent battle ground.

Gradually, the ragged breathing evened out and Janet blew out a weary sigh. "Okay, Teal’c. That’s better, the Colonel’s stabilizing. Let me get around there and check his leg."

Teal’c stepped back smoothly to allow the petite doctor access to the wounded area without releasing the pressure he was skillfully applying. "O’Neill’s leg appears unnaturally warm, Doctor Fraiser."

"He’s running a touch of fever, Teal’c. I’m not surprised given the nature of the wounds. Hopefully we’ll get back to the SGC before it gets any worse. Right now it’s not too bad, but it’s a sign that an infection could be developing." She glanced up into the calm face and received a nod of understanding. "I can take care of things now, Teal’c. Thank you for your help. Why don’t you go get some rest? I expect the Colonel to sleep for quite a while."

"I will stay with O’Neill, Doctor Fraiser. I believe it is you who are in need of some rest at this time."

Janet started to argue, but as she looked into the knowing dark eyes it was as if she could see herself in a mirror. She was tired and Jack was going to need her fresh and sharp once they returned to base. As she debated the decision, a wave of weariness washed over her and a yawn betrayed her. She glanced sheepishly up at Teal’c to see if he had noticed.

He had. The amusement that lit his face was hidden in a flash, but it was enough to let her know she was busted.

"All right, Teal’c, you win. I’ll sack out over on one of the other bunks for a while. The boy shouldn’t wake up and I’ll be surprised if the Colonel does either, but if anything changes with either of them, please wake me."

"I shall, indeed. Rest well."

There was no one more gallant than Teal’c, Janet thought as she kicked off her shoes. If anyone else had tried to speak in such a manner it would have made her laugh out loud, but Teal’c’s assurance left her with nothing but a feeling of warm trust.

She was unsure how long she had slept. Much to her chagrin she discovered her sleeve was wet where she had drooled on it. Before she could stretch out the kinks in her tight muscles Janet realized that Teal’c and Jack were talking softly. It must have been their voices that had woken her.

"Is the kid okay, T?"

"Doctor Fraiser has said he should recover, O’Neill. He was quite disturbed by the events of this day and it was decided to allow him to sleep for the remainder of the trip."

"Yeah, I bet he was disturbed. Not every day you get turned into Kitten Chow for someone’s amusement. Dammit, T, that kid didn’t deserve that."

There was a long silence and Janet had to strain to hear as Jack said softly, "He didn’t deserve any of the shit that happened to him. None of them did."

"I do not understand, O’Neill. Was this boy not trained in the skills of a warrior just as Ry’ac has been? It seems he has proven himself to be a man of great courage."

"That’s just it, Teal’c, don’t you see? He shouldn’t have had to. He’s just a kid. Another kid who put his trust in me and I let down by not getting him out of that damn place. I should’ve figured a way out. Dammit, I let them lead me like a lamb to the slaughter and the kid followed right behind. I should’ve done something, anything, before I allowed him to be put in that position. It was just pure luck that I didn’t get him killed like the other times. Like the others?"

Teal’c’s voice was soft and soothing as a homemade quilt on a stormy winter’s night. "Please explain further, O’Neill."

There was silence and for a long moment Janet thought Jack would refuse to speak. But finally, in a voice staining to choke off the emotions, Jack began to speak.

"There was this kid. A long time ago, T, who tried to help me. He was just a poor kid who didn’t have anything or anybody in the world that gave a shit about him and yet he tried to make things better for me. And the bastards used him to try and get to me. Just a kid, a poor, hurting, lonely, kid and they used him."

There was a sound of a ragged breath being drawn. "Atta Mohammed, that was his name. They said he was a thief. That he stole a blanket for me. And that made him an enemy of the state. They set him up, Teal’c. It was a fucking blanket, a rag, for God’s sake. But to me it was worth all the gold in Fort Knox. And to him it was worth his life. I should’ve seen it coming. I was the one trained to know better. I should’ve seen it coming."

O’Neill’s voice was unsteady, teetering on the edge of the cliff. Janet knew that he was holding himself back with every ounce of effort he could find. It would take little to pitch him over the precipice and into the dark ravine below.

"They killed him, Teal’c. Murdered him, right in front of me. For a blanket. For a damn blanket."

Janet thought back to the night in her infirmary when a confused, hurting O’Neill had revealed that scrap from his past. Shared the nightmare of the child’s death and his guilt at being a part of it. Beneath the warmth of the blanket Janet shuddered.

"Nothing’s changed. They used this kid, Teco, to force me to fight and when I didn’t . . . they killed him. Damn them, they had no right, but they did it anyway. And I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t do anything to stop them."

"They used a sarcophagus to revive the boy?" Janet could hear the confirmation in Teal’c’s voice even as he asked the question.

Silence was affirmation.

Some time later, Jack spoke again, quietly. "T, when I look at the kid, all I can see are the faces of the other kids I’ve failed to protect. Atta, Skar’ra, the other kids on Abydos, . . . Charlie." There was a long, long pause. And Janet could feel O’Neill’s pain, even if she wasn’t looking at his face to see it reflected there.

"When’s it gonna end, T?"

Janet’s eyes welled with tears at the raw pain.

"That I cannot tell you, my friend. Of all the horrors inflected by the Goa’uld, it is those involving children which bring the most grievous hurt to my soul. I cannot give you an answer that would take away your pain, O’Neill, but know that I share your sorrow and together we will find a way to end this suffering. This I know, you did not fail the boy. He acted only as you taught him through your actions and deeds. If he performed as a warrior, it is because he saw the face of a warrior when he gazed upon you. He chose well when he modeled himself on you. He showed great wisdom when he chose you as a friend, as do I. Now rest well, my friend. I shall inform Doctor Fraiser that we are nearing our destination."

There was a long pause and Janet wondered if Jack had fallen asleep. Finally, a quiet voice broke the silence. "Teal’c, if I were you I’d just pretend you don’t notice the drool. Women are funny about things like that."

There was a quiet chuckle and Janet felt her face redden as even breathing told her that the Colonel had dozed off once.

As Janet sat up and stretched , she couldn’t keep from smiling at the Jaffa standing silently over the Colonel. "Thank you, Teal’c."

He nodded and although no words were spoken, Janet knew that he understood that her thanks went far beyond a few hours of sleep. In his own quiet manner, Teal’c had opened a deep wound and allowed a small amount of healing to take place.

**********

Jack managed to sleep the remainder of the trip home which was just as well considering how damn embarrassing it was to be carried from the gateroom like an invalid. And considering that nearly everyone on the base seemed to be on hand to welcome the Colonel home, the rest of his team knew how much Jack would have hated it. He hated being the center of attention and especially hated being seen at less than full capacity.

Almost as one, Janet and SG-1 surrounded the stretcher, protecting the Colonel from well wishers and, like a modern day wagon train, they circled up, shielding him from the arrows of gossip that were sure to fly.

"Well done, SG-1. Mission accomplished." George Hammond beamed down at his people like a relieved shepherd whose lambs had returned safely to the fold. His face wore a perfect combination of concern and delight. "Doctor Fraiser, report?"

Janet looked up with barely concealed impatience. "General, Colonel O’Neill sustained serious injuries prior to the rescue. It is imperative that we get him to the infirmary immediately, sir."

"Understood, Doctor." Looking at Teco’s sleeping form he added, " Major Carter, the boy?"

"Yes sir, this boy was injured while attempting to protect Doctor Jackson, who was at the time a prisoner of the Goa’uld."

The general’s face had taken on a perplexed countenance that promised a long, in-depth debriefing. "All right people, carry on. Debriefing immediately after Doctor Fraiser releases you. Doctor, you are excused to care for your patients. We’ll meet at a later time. Dismissed."

If at times the SGC became a three-ring circus it was no surprise then that Janet donned the costume, sans the top hat, of the ringmaster and began orchestrating the act before the gurney had completely stopped. In this circus, it was Janet and her staff who walked the tightrope while balancing the lives of those entrusted to their care. And this time, Janet feared, should Jack O’Neill fall it would be without a net and so she determined to maintain that delicate balance wrought when the Colonel had once again cheated Death and been rescued.

But Janet knew Death was a cheat and at best a poor loser and so she played the game with all the skill she possessed looking for a tiny flaw in Death’s strategy, for Janet wasn’t above double dealing and reaching for an ace up her sleeve if it meant saving a life.

The host of tubes and machines simply told Janet what she already knew. Jack was getting worse. His fever was up. Both the leg and chest wounds were showing signs of infection. The antibiotics where failing. Yes, the tubes and machines told Janet what she had already surmised for herself.

The Colonel was in trouble.

**********

It was hot. It was always hot, except at night. Then it was ‘your tongue will freeze to a flag pole if you’re stupid enough to experiment with it’ cold. Except here there wasn’t a flag pole. And even if there had been one, it wouldn’t have been waving the comforting red, white, and blue that told you baseball was king, mom still baked apple pie, you’d be home for a white Christmas, and all was right with the world.

Here, nothing was right in this world. Not one damn thing. And it hadn’t been for a very long time. Days and weeks and months and much of a whole lifetime. A very long time indeed.

They’d left him outside again, chained to the post. The post that had dozens of uses. All of them bad. He knew. He’d sampled them all. Now he was on his knees, collared like a dog on a short tether. His face forced mere inches from the ground and his ass up in the air, hands cuffed behind his back, knees locked under the strain.

Completely and totally uncomfortable for the first few minutes. Then it edged its way into agonizing as the hours slipped slowly by. Especially when all you had to chew on was thoughts of the sun beating down unmercifully, seeming to burn right through the tattered rags that once passed as a uniform. Especially when the only moisture which wet your cracked lips was the stinging sweat which fed the parched sand drop by precious drop. Especially when you were so tired you wanted to die, but you knew that if you closed your eyes and gave up the fight you would. Especially if you were so filled with hate that you couldn’t give the bastards the satisfaction of knowing that they’d beaten you and your only escape was death.

His eyes were too dry to produce the cleansing tears he desperately needed. Not tears of anger at his captors, nor frustration at the unfairness that he was trapped in a place where human life was held in such little value. He had long ago run out of those sort of tears. They were of no use and served only to weaken his body as well as his resolve. No, his body was simply too hot and dry to produce the tears to clean the grains of sand from his eyes. A single grain, an entire sand dune, it mattered not in the least. His own body betrayed him and added to his captors’ torment.

He knew they were there. They always approached from behind in such a way that no matter how he strained to turn his head, the collar refused his order and he was left vulnerable. Sometimes it was a hard kick or a club striking. Once a heavy boot connected with his entangled fingers and he heard audible snaps as bones gave under the assault. He wondered briefly what it would be this time, but he knew better than to try and prepare for it. That only made it worse when he guessed wrong.

It was better to hide and as his body was no longer his own, he could only attempt to seek solace in his mind. They would find him anyway. He knew that. He’d learned it the hard way. They were experts. Sooner or later they’d find where he had hidden and drag him out: exposed to the light and their laughter.

The laughter hurt the worst. More than the beatings, more than any physical torment because it could slide into any crack in the defensive wall he’d built around his feelings. The laughter was as malleable as clay and fluid as quicksilver, and it knew his lines of defense intimately. It slipped through the weakest point along his battlements and lowered the portcullis of his bastion. It left him weak and exposed.

But, uneffective as it was, it was his only defense . . . to hide.

And so he left his body behind and slipped quietly, silently, into the artificial safety of the darkness. Darkness where he could hide in the shadows and pray that the blackness of his desperation would meld with that of his soul and camouflage him just once. And just once he would be safe.

But the darkness failed him and the laughter found him and dragged him out into the light under their glowing eyes. And he tried to keep from cringing as it flailed him. And once again he realized that he had failed.

It was Frank this time. Frank, whose laughter he’d once treasured as they shared a joke to maintain their focus when a mission had gone south. When they were so weary they wanted to drop in their tracks and knew they could only go on. Frank, who laughed in delight as he held Charlie for the first time. Who had watched as Jack presented his son with his first Teddy Bear. The one in uniform. Frank, who laughed at his antics behind their CO’s back. Who stood beside him and took equal blame whenever punishment was meted out. Frank, who remained firm beside him through thick and thin and never let him out of his sight. Frank, who he could count on more than life itself.

Frank.

And then the laughter was drowned out by his screams as Frank rammed the pain stick into his leg. And spoke laughingly in a foreign language. In Arabic? In Goa’uld? Gloating, as the pain blossomed through his flesh and on deeper, into muscles, until it felt as if his very bones had become liquid fire and lava poured through his veins, radiating their own heat and cooking him from within. Laughter and screams battling for dominion. Again and again.

"What’d you want from me?"

But the only answer was laughter.

No mercy. No forgiveness. Just endless swirling pain sucking him in, pulling him away from himself, pushing him toward the laughter.

And then it stopped and it was over until the next time. And he would have wept with relief had he been able.

Until he saw the boy.

They dragged him into his line of vision. Made sure he had a ringside view. Made sure there was nowhere to hide. Dark, frightened eyes. A child’s eyes who has awoken from a nightmare and seeks comfort only to find there are no waiting arms to protect him.

Lonely . . . beseeching . . . haunting . . .

And then he fought, knowing he was playing by their rules, playing into their hands, playing a game he had no hope of winning, but finding himself powerless to do anything, but fight. Fighting and knowing that he was feeding their sadistic appetite of power to the point of gluttony. Knowing he was helpless and would fail this child in the end.

And he watched as Frank drew out a sword and at Kin’s orders, Teco’s head rolled towards him as it was severed from his slight body. Everything was so mixed up. So frighteningly confused. Jack stared like a trapped animal as the sightless eyes stared accusingly into his, and dead lips communicated a message he would never understand.

He remained frozen as Frank took the dripping sword from Kin and cleaned it with a ragged scrap of blanket, and then carefully walked over and wrapped the bloody blanket over the truncated body like the remnants of a battle flag draped over a dead soldier. And the sun beat down on that blood-encrusted piece of cloth, trapping, enveloping Jack in the heat of its stench. Forcing him to gasp as the super-heated air deprived him of the oxygen he needed. And the head lay, like a discarded trophy. Mocking him with the defeat he had suffered.

And there was no breath to scream. Nowhere to escape to. Nothing but heat. Nothing left to do but surrender and die.

"Doctor Fraiser, his temperature’s spiking.

"He’s seizing people. Get me 0.5 mg of Lorazepam. Move it, now! "

**********

Janet Fraiser was long accustomed to working around obstacles. At the moment those obstacles included one large Jaffa, and an overly tired, medium built archaeologist with a guilt complex that made Niagara Falls look like the leak in her guest bathroom sink.

It was those guilt-filled eyes housing an innocence, which Janet was well aware Daniel could use to his advantage should the need arise, that allowed him to get away with parking his behind in her infirmary for hours, and even for days, on end. Those eyes of liquid blue pleading, which were finally closed, giving in to the exhaustion brought on by long days and nights of constant worry.

Her non-military colleagues might not have understood her leniency towards the visiting policy here at the mountain, but then neither would they understand the bond that was thicker than the blood too often shed by these people in the name of sacrifice to the planet. And so Janet stepped around Daniel’s sprawled form and made a note to bring him some ointment for what was sure to be the mother of all stiff necks when he awoke.

They were all tired. Even Teal’c wore a shadow of exhaustion over his normal bearing . Yet here they were, guarding one of their own while he was unable to protect himself. And so Janet swallowed the irritation when she stumbled over a discarded text on some long dead civilization and smiled at the concern which flashed briefly in Teal’c’s eyes. And moved over to check the accuracy of state-of-the-art machines with her own eyes.

"Damn."

"Doctor Fraiser?"

It was a sign of the length of this battle that Teal’c allowed his question to go further unspoken.

"There’s no change, I’m afraid, Teal’c. If anything the infection is spreading and elevating the Colonel’s fever." She absently straightened the sheet covering Jack’s still form. "I thought . . . I had hoped that by now the antibiotics would have kicked in and started getting the infection under control. But they haven’t. He just keeps getting worse and nothing seems to be helping."

"Perhaps Major Carter will discover a cure soon."

"I hope so, Teal’c. But so far, Sam hasn’t had any luck. It’s a mutated variant of bacteria we’re dealing with. Sam’s doing her best, but this is a lifetime’s worth of work and the Colonel just doesn’t have that long."

"I understand. I will go and see if I can be of assistance to Major Carter." He gave a slight bow and stepped with regal grace over Daniel’s legs.

"That’s good, Teal’c. I’m sure Sam will appreciate your help." Janet gave him a worried smile and reached out to touch Jack’s brow once again. "Come on, Colonel. I have faith in you, sir. I know you can fight this stuff. Please, sir, try."

The past days had been rough on all of them. The exhaustion etched on Daniel’s face even in his sleep was testimony to that. Janet felt like she had run a marathon despite the fact that the general had ordered her to get some sleep.

Lifting the sheet gently, Janet grimaced as she checked the drains sutured loosely into the wounds. There should have been some sign of healing by now, but a thick, yellow, putrescent pus still filled the tubes. More than there should have been considering the amount of meds the Colonel was being given. The amount of apparently useless meds he was being given. God, she hated this helpless feeling. Watching a vital, vibrant man like Jack O’Neill drift slowly away from them while she stood helplessly on the bank was maddening. It was against everything she had trained for, against everything she was.

But even as Janet railed in silence, she could feel helpless rage growing exponentially. She suddenly wished she was in the gym taking out her frustration on the weight bag or her ex’s nose. That would work, too. The overwhelming urge to strike out got the better of her, as she found a victim in Daniel’s forgotten book. With unabashed fury, Janet kicked the hapless volume.

"Shit!"

Daniel woke with a snort. "Janet, what’s going on? How’s Jack?"

"Sorry Daniel, I didn’t mean to wake you. I tripped over your book." Janet was counting on Daniel’s semi-stupor to buy her the lie. "I hope I didn’t damage it."

Reaching down to retrieve his tome, Daniel caressed the dented spine. "It doesn’t look too bad. I was reading aloud to Jack, but I don’t think he heard me." He sighed and Janet unconsciously joined him in a duet.

"You never know, Daniel. Maybe he does. It certainly can’t hurt for him to know you’re here."

"Is he any better at all?" Daniel read the answer even as Janet shook her head.

"I’m sorry, Daniel. I wish I had better news." She dropped her voice and glanced at Jack. "Doctor Warner recommended we consider amputation, but I don’t see how that will help at this point. The infection in his chest is spreading throughout his upper torso. Even if we took his leg, we have nothing to stop the chest infection from continuing to spread unchecked."

Daniel’s face had drained of color. He swallowed hard. "Where’re Teal’c and Sam?" he managed to croak."

"In the lab working." Hating herself for throwing the bucket of water on the spark of hope in his eyes, Janet simply shook her head. "Nothing yet."

Daniel pulled at a tiny thread hanging from the frayed edge of the book. As Janet watched he carefully worked it loose from the binding, leaving a minuscule flaw in the otherwise smooth cover. It hurt to see the pain in his face and know she shared it, and yet could do nothing to alleviate it. When he balled the slender string between his fingers crushing it in frustration, Janet knew exactly how he felt. Daniel’s string wasn’t helping any more than her throbbing toes were.

At O’Neill’s restless stirring, Janet and Daniel stood like bookends against the bed as his unfocused eyes opened.

"Colonel." "Jack . . ."

Daniel mouthed ‘Sorry’ at the irritated look Janet shot him.

Janet could see the lines of pain and exhaustion written on Jack’s face. The pallor of his normally tanned skin was frightening. He looked old and worn, two adjectives she had never referenced to the Colonel before.

Plastering a smile, albeit a weak imitation of the real thing, Janet wiped the feverish brow with a cool cloth. "How you doing, sir? Hanging in there?"

"Atta?" Jack’s voice quivered under the strain of speaking.

"Who’s Atta, Jack?" Daniel’s arms were cellophaned to his body in classic Daniel Jackson in worry mode.

The glazed eyes never flickered in response to the question. "Atta?"

"Colonel, Teco’s fine, if that’s who you’re worried about," Janet cut in. "He’s responding well to treatment. In fact, Sam took him to the dining hall and introduced him to Jello today."

Janet’s smile took on a more genuine hue as she thought of the report she had received second hand on that venture. Apparently, before it was over everyone present had put in their two cents worth by way of colors, flavors, and preference as to with fruit or without was best. Evidently the episode had ranked a close second to the introduction of Teal’c to ice cream, an event that was still talked about with longing by those who had missed it.

"Colonel, I know you’re feeling pretty lousy, but hang in there, sir. Sam and Teal’c are working to find a cure."

There was the briefest of responses in the flat stare, that gave Janet hope that the Colonel was in there somewhere and still fighting, before the lids closed.

"Daniel, go get some rest, I’ll stay with the Colonel until you get back." At his sputtered protest she added, "Please Daniel, I don’t need you sick too."

Daniel choked his negative response and nodded. "Okay, Janet, I’ll stop by and see how Sam’s doing first. Call me if anything changes."

"Thanks, Daniel." Janet knew he could see the gratitude in her eyes. She was just too spent to argue with him.

As Daniel stumbled out of the room, Janet pushed the call button. "Denise, could you come in please? Bring another cooling blanket. I want to try bringing down the Colonel’s fever again."

**********

Daniel stumbled into the lab proving once and for all that he actually was capable of finding his way around the SGC with his eyes closed. A rumor started by Jack in his early days on the program.

‘For cryin’ out loud, Daniel, would you watch where you’re going. You’ve always got your nose buried in some moldy oldie or some vastly vital report that could wait a few minutes. You may know where you’re going with your eyes closed, but the personnel are kinda tired of playing ‘Dodge Doctor Danny’ anytime you wander down the halls.’

God, he missed Jack and his bossy, big brother attitude. He missed their constant bickering, comforting in its familiarity. He missed Jack’s bad jokes and worse temper. He even missed the fact that despite working together for years, Jack somehow continuously overlooked the fact that he was a grown man who had lived on his own in less than friendly countries and managed to survive quite nicely, thank you. Survive perhaps, but managed to alienate most everyone who crossed his path in the process, until a hostile, hard-ass Colonel with a death wish came along.

He had never been into the drinking and party scene in college. Too young, too shy, too serious, he’d used all the excuses. The bottom line was he’d never seen the point in getting bombed in order to make friends. Well, Jack had brought a whole new definition of that term into his life. When you got bombed with Jack O’Neill you better hope there was a handy Goa’uld mother ship nearby to dump your load on. But be it booze or a nuclear warhead the result was an explosive friendship between two unlikely candidates.

The sound of glass shattering startled Daniel from his revere.

"Damn, what am I missing?"

In the harsh light of the lab, Daniel could see the signs of strain accenting Sam’s normally clear skin as she stared at the remains of a beaker which had just met its demise on the concrete floor. They were all tired. And her burst of temper was just a small indicator of the stress that was building in them all.

Even Teal’c’s expression left no doubt that he would enjoy sending another beaker to join its former twin. Daniel had to admire Teal’c’s self-control. His own nerves were stretched so tightly he feared that if he gave in to the urge to break something, the result would be a congressional investigation for gross misappropriation of funds in the laboratory here at the Mountain. He was sure by the time he was finished no glassware would escape unscathed.

Releasing a deep sigh, Daniel moved into the room. "Hi guys, is it safe to come in?"

"You may join us, Daniel Jackson. But be aware that despite our frustration over this current situation with O’Neill, I will not allow any one of us to depart with half a penis until we have this problem solved."

Two sets of red-rimmed blue eyes attached themselves to his face in shock.

Daniel glanced at Sam’s crimson-stained cheeks and felt her mentally shove the ball into his court. "Ah, er, okay, Teal’c. We certainly don’t want to do that, do we, Sam?"

"No, we certainly wouldn’t want that."

"Indeed, then I suggest we continue until we have a solution." Teal’c’s command brooked no refusal.

"Half a penis?" Daniel whispered as Sam smacked his arm and tried not to giggle.

"I wouldn’t touch that," she whispered back receiving her own smack.

"God, I hope not," Daniel chortled and Sam lost her battle and burst out laughing as Daniel collapsed next to her wiping tears from his eyes.

Neither noticed the twinkle in Teal’c’s eye as he smiled briefly at the sight of his younger teammates releasing the tension which was crippling them.

"Shall we continue, Major Carter?"

Feeling much better for the high levels of endorphin pumping through her body, Sam smiled and nodded.

"Okay, here’s what we know so far. . ."

She was interrupted by a choked snort from Daniel. "Depart with half a penis. Teal’c, you meant to go off half cocked, didn’t you?"

The smug look on the dark face sent the two scientists into another round of unabashed laughter.

Teal’c hid his smile well as he watched his teammates giggle helplessly. O’Neill would be pleased.

**********

He was looking into Skaara’s eyes. They were so cold they froze him where he stood and left him exposed and shivering. But that couldn’t be right. Skaara’s eyes glowed with friendship and admiration, not hatred. Warmth that had made him feel at home even on another planet a whole galaxy away. Warmth that began to thaw the ice surrounding his heart, like a frozen mountain stream loosed from its icy slumber, and gave him a glimmer of hope that Spring was finally breaking Winter’s death grip on his life.

"O’Neill, you come to murder my people."

He shook his head, denying it, even as the truth of the words echoed in his head.

No, he had come to meet the people of this planet, befriend them, he protested.

"Lies. You wish only to kill us. You are a murderer, O’Neill."

The words cut cross his chest leaving a mangled trail of flesh. Skaara gestured wildly with his arms. "Look around at what you seek to destroy. Look at the helpless babes in their mothers’ arms. The young, the old ones, too feeble to flee. Will you destroy them in the name of duty? Look into their faces. See what you will kill. See those who will die because of you. See those whose blood will coat your hands."

He had no choice, locked as he was in his frozen prison. He did as he was ordered. Looking, seeing, understanding what he was about to do. And knowing he would do as West had ordered, despite all. Knowing he was bound for Hell with the blood of his son staining his soul and the blood of these innocent people raining down on him for all eternity.

"Come, see the cost of your mistakes, O’Neill." Skaara led him to a dust covered tent, holding the flap open and gesturing for him to enter. His heart pounding, he stepped into the gloom and his hand dropped to caress the comforting presence of his Berretta.

It was cold in the tent, so cold he shivered and the droplets of sweat on his forehead froze and burned his skin. Not the refreshing, satisfying cold of a tall glass of ice tea on a summer afternoon, not the cold shock of the water when you skinny dip in a Minnesota lake, not even the cold of the first taste of Coffee Almond Fudge ice cream that freezes the brain in sadistic rapture.

No, this cold was death. The morgue . . . the silence after a battle when the field is littered with bodies of those who were friends only this morning . . . the icicle on the porch which grows thicker and thicker until it falls beneath its own weight, shattering into a million crystals, cold and fragile as he now felt.

Skaara gestured like some alien Dickensian ghost of Christmases past. In the flickering light he could see a woman, Sara, weeping silently. She stood bent and broken in front of an impossibly small white coffin with gold trim. Cold, so cold.

He was afraid. More afraid than he had ever been in his life. More than when he realized Frank was gone, leaving him behind for the enemy to feast upon. More than when he realized the chute wouldn’t open in time and he was going to die alone on the desert floor. More than any mission: any time and any where. Afraid because nothing would change the outcome of his deeds. No amount of working, planning, threatening, promising, begging, entreating or crying would change what had happened.

Especially the tears. They had no comfort for the guilty. They held no absolution for a murderer.

The coffin drew him like a deep sigh, inhaling him into the abyss of the knowledge of what it contained. Of whom it contained.

Step by step, closer, moved the man facing the dark barrels of the firing squad. The man awaiting the fatal bullet. Praying the end will come quickly.

Death . . .

Death of dreams . . .

Death of a future . . .

Death of hope . . .

Death of a child . . .

And then he was looking down from an impossible distance, seeing the final resting place of an innocent.

Cold. Bitter cold. Penetrating and cutting, even as Sara’s tears, even as Skaara’s eyes, as Atta’s outstretched pleading hand. Unvoiced, yet shouted accusations from the living . . .

. . . from the dead.

It was Teco.

Small, helpless, silent, cold, dead.

And as he reached out a trembling hand to touch the still cheek, he could feel the heat of hatred igniting him. Sara’s . . . Skaara’s . . . and the untold multitude of innocent victims he had failed to protect. Those he had pushed over the threshold, for whom he had pulled the trigger with his own hand or with his own carelessness. The voices of the dead rising in flaming cries for sanctification. But there was none for him as the cold gavel fell and shattered and the dead issued judgment on his soul.

He watched as the coffin lid fell, covering his sin with its finality. And could only tremble as Skaara reached out in silent hatred with a flame: the flame ignited by the cigarette lighter he had once proudly carried as a talisman because of the man who had given it to him.

The flame burned brightly, drawing in all other light until, like a moth drawn to its death by the light, it consumed him. Brighter, hotter it flamed, until the ice melted that held him captive and sweat poured in rampant rivers fleeing to escape the banks which held them in check. Sweeping him along in the destructive power helpless, heedless of his cries. Drowning him in the guilt, the weight of the accusations in their eyes pulling him under. Pulling him under forever.

"Doctor Fraiser, the cooling blanket is failing to maintain Colonel O’Neill’s temperature. I’m sorry, ma’am, but it’s rising again."

**********

The overhead light glared nearly as fiercely as Sam when she surveyed the latest lab results. ‘Damn.’ The infection wasn’t being affected by the new antibiotics in the least. In fact, if these results were any indication it was no longer a matter of the Colonel hanging on by a thread. The thread had now unraveled into a single fragile strand held together by stubborn will. And, despite the many hours invested or the experts sought, Sam had a sinking feeling that they would fail in the end.

Every phone call made her stomach knot in fear that this time it was Janet. That this time they were too late and the Colonel wouldn’t pull a rabbit out of his ball cap, astounding the audience by once again defying logic and the laws of nature to survive. Proving that the great Harry Houdini was alive and well and had simply chosen the body of a certain Colonel Jack O’Neill as his new abode. That this time Jack was dead.

Daniel had tried. He had worked his own brand of magic and contacted the allies. Talking, pleading, bargaining, the results were the same. The Tollen, the Asgard, the Tok’ra, . . . all dead ends. She was still shaking from the intensity of her reaction to Daniel’s report that High Chancellor Travell had sent her regrets, but the council had deemed it unwise to interfere medically with the people of the Tau’ri.

"Daniel, that’s ridiculous. Did you tell them it’s Colonel O’Neill who’s sick? That he is the one who needs their help?"

"Of course I did, Sam." He knew he was snapping, taking his anger out on the wrong person, but Daniel couldn’t keep the irritation from his voice. "It didn’t matter. Their answer remains the same. They deeply regret the Colonel’s illness and consider him a true friend of the Tollan people, but . . ."

Sam’s own issues of anger sounded loud and clear as she snapped back. "Daniel, that’s such a cop out and you know it! What the heck was all that undercover mission about? The Colonel risked his life because of their demands. I thought the Tollan were supposed to be our friends and allies. Of all the sanctimonious rhetoric. These people ought to work at the Pentagon, maybe even run for office. They’d fit right in with the self-serving autocrats there now.’

A Texas drawl had short shanked her outburst and probably saved Daniel’s favorite coffee mug from an untimely demise as her temper sought an outlet. "Major, those self-serving autocrats still sign our pay checks the last time I bothered to look, and make it possible for us to keep this place running."

It was a cold bucket full of a reality check and it effectively doused the flames into smoldering embers.

"Yes, sir. I’m sorry, General, it’s just that ..."

"I know, Major, and I understand, believe me. We’re all worried about the Colonel." Hammond’s strained features bespoke the truth of his simple declaration. "But name calling and accusations won’t help at this point."

"The Tollan’s response was negative, therefore they are no longer a viable option. Move on, Major, and come up with an alternative plan. Start thinking like the Air Force officer you were trained to be. Like the one Colonel O’Neill knows you to be."

This wasn’t kindly old Grandpa George describing with pride his grand-daughters’ latest antics over a beer at one of the Colonel’s impromptu barbecues. This was General George W. Hammond, her commanding officer who had two stars lighting his shoulders to back up what he was saying as gospel.

"Yes, sir. I’ll get back to it immediately."

"See that you do, Major. I’ll be waiting in my office."

And as the general left and Daniel snagged his mug, Sam sat down with an uncharacteristically heavy sigh. "Daniel, I just don’t know what to do next. I’ve tried everything I can think of. The Asgard, the Tok’ra? What about my father and the healing device?"

"There’s no word from the Asgard and I honestly don’t know what they could do even if I can get a message through. I did speak with Anise. She volunteered to send a couple of Tok’ra here."

Sam’s tired features lit up with hope. "That’s good, Daniel. Why didn’t you say something earlier? She must think she can help if she’s willing to come."

Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose as he mumbled a reply. "Well, actually, Sam, Anise said there wasn’t anything the Tok’ra could do to cure Jack. The healing device might be able to heal the wound, but it won’t stop the cause of the infection spreading throughout his body."

"So why come, if she can’t help?" Sam demanded with a frown at Daniel’s obvious discomfort.

"Actually she wanted, well, she requested . . ."

"Daniel, would you just spit it out," Sam snapped impatiently.

"Anise said that the Tok’ra would like to have Jack’s body in order to study whatever killed him." The blood drained from Sam’s face and he added quickly, "The general told her in very colorful language what she could do with her request."

Sam knew her face was failing to hide the horror that swept through her. She swallowed hard and blinked at the sudden sting of tears as Daniel reached out a comforting hand and squeezed her hand in silent support.

"Let’s get back to work," she whispered. "Hand me that vial."

They worked quietly, praying for a miracle, knowing the chances of it happening were somewhere between the galaxies of Slim and None. When Teal’c entered the laboratory, having completed his kel’no’reem, the scene had not changed. Twin expressions of concentration colored by desperation told him the answer to his unspoken question.

Indeed. Nothing had changed.

"Major Carter, Daniel Jackson, I have brought the boy, Teco, from the infirmary. Doctor Fraiser suggested that he was in need of exercise."

"That’s good, Teal’c." Daniel greeted the young man with a simple gesture. "Teco."

With a hesitant smile Teco answered. "Gelenah."

Daniel returned the smile. "Gelona."

"Gele."

"Daniel, what’s he saying?" Sam couldn’t help smile at the young man who had defended Daniel so bravely.

"Oh, basically, he said, ‘I’m here’ and I answered, ‘yes, you are.’ And then he agreed he was."

Sam’s smile was a welcome addition to the room. "Very profound, Daniel. Teal’c, why don’t you get Teco a chair. I’m sure his leg is hurting after the long walk from the infirmary."

"On the contrary, Major Carter. Doctor Fraiser has stated that the boy’s leg appears to be nearly healed.

Sam’s brow furrowed. "Wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense. Teco was attacked by the same jaguar that mauled the Colonel."

"But Jack’s injuries were complicated by the leg injury."

"Granted, Daniel, but the tests indicated that the infection is spreading from both wound sites. Even without the leg injury, the Colonel would still be sick and the antibiotic still failing."

"Why would the body of this boy be able to defeat this illness when O’Neill’s is incapable of doing so?"

"That’s what I’d like to know, Teal’c." There was a familiar gleam in her eyes which her teammates recognized. Sam was on to something. "Daniel, do you think you could explain to Teco that I need some of his blood?"

"All I can do is try, Sam." Turning to face the boy, Daniel studied the intense dark eyes. "Teco, tea pancha be, I seek the truth."

They watched as comprehension gradually spilled on the young face as Daniel struggled to make himself understood.

Touching his hand to his heart, Teco nodded solemnly. "Yaxkin In Lak’ech."

"In this center place of renewal, I am you and you are me," Daniel translated quietly.

With a trusting smile, Teco offered them his hand.

**********

"Now we wait and see if it works."

Her eyes glowed, not with the warm love which filled Sara’s eyes when he came home drained, exhausted, mentally and physically from a mission. A mission they couldn’t and wouldn’t discuss. A mission that would be locked away like a gun in a night stand next to the bed.

If early in their marriage the secrets he kept locked away bothered Sara, she had become so accustomed to their presence she no longer gave them more than the occasional passing thought. Secrets in their lives were as natural as the air she breathed. As much a part of her life as they were his. He had learned to use them from his earliest days in the Special Forces. Now they were as comfortable as his sidearm. And so they concentrated on what they could share with abandoned pleasure.

Her arms were wrapped around his neck, caressing the muscles, stiff from the weight of command. Feeling the tension emanating from him like an independent being with a life of its own. The aftermath of some missions were like that. Not easily shed, the memories clinging to him like lichen to a rock. Like she was to him now. Afraid he would bolt and her arms would be empty. Almost as if their physical proximity could make them one. Make them a part of each other.

He wanted her. Wanted the physical comfort of the parts of himself he could share. He wanted it. He needed it. Passion smoldered just beneath the surface. What began as a spark, flamed to a forest fire careening past logic and reason as she fanned the flames with her teasing and gentle breaths along his exposed neck. Stubble from his unshaven face scrapped gently as her teeth and tongue pushed things like duty and honor further and further from his mind.

And suddenly he was the aggressor, his hot breath making her throw back her head and laugh in delight. Entwined in a spider’s web, feasting off each other. Fulfilling carefully hidden needs and desires in which logic played no part. He caressed her soft flesh and forced her closer, allowing her to feel his desire. Pulse racing, he breathed in her scent, intoxicating, arousing in its own right. Their lips met in a lingering kiss and he could taste her tongue teasing, striking like a seductive serpent, numbing his thoughts with its poison. And her eyes glowed.

She whispered words that he could no longer comprehend. Words that held no importance to him and yet contained the answer to everything. To his very life as he knew it. Words he was incapable of speaking. Words filled with promises and mysteries, that filled him with dread even as he walked towards them with open arms. Open arms that became the jaws of a trap, ready to devour him as the fly trap does its victim. Closing around him, cutting off escape, concealing until it is too late. And the trap snaps shut.

There was pain. Harsh, all-encompassing, radiating waves of pain. Her hands, the gentle caressing hands of a would-be lover, had turned into claws, cutting, digging into his flesh. And in that brief instance he saw her for what she really was, but it was too late. The escape hatch had been bolted and he was trapped in the arms of the monster he had so casually invited into his life. The creature who only moments before had allowed him the illusion that he was the one in control. And now she was the one in control, in control of the situation, the pain, and his life. She owned him.

His cries brought a smile to her lips, his groans, a laugh. The shocked horror in his eyes reflected only domination feasting on the kill. The lioness reflecting satisfaction as her victim’s blood pulsates into her mouth and the spill from a severed jugular satiates her needs.

His strength was gone, as surely as his control and choices and he watched her step away, her laughter ringing with triumph. Limbs quaking in the shock of what she had done, he could only stare at the wound. Blood, torn muscles, ravaged flesh, refused to support him and he felt his world tilt and slide in a gray fog. And he shuddered helplessly as she looked down on him and bent with fluid grace to caress him. Her hair redder than the blood pulsating in a pool around him. Her eyes glowing.

Hathor.

And then she was gone and he knew he was alone and would die. He cursed his own stupidity for falling into the trap she had set and for allowing her to use his own body to betray him. The wound pulsed with every heartbeat, allowing him the luxury of counting the cadence of his own death march. Stronger, harder, faster until he was running to keep pace. But still he felt its rhythm pounding him towards the end, the finish line in this race he was running. He closed his eyes and ran blindly on.

And suddenly he knew he was no longer alone. For a moment his heart seized with the fear that she had returned, but he dismissed that fear in the realization that his friends were near. He couldn’t see them, he couldn’t hear them, but deep within his being he knew they were there and he wouldn’t have to die alone. And he drew comfort and strength in that fact. Warming his cold hands over the fire that flamed with their friendship, the icy fear that held him melted.

And then their hands were reaching into him. Searching for the part of him he kept hidden away, even from himself. It hurt to acknowledge that they recognized that there was a part of him which he refused to share, because in that acknowledgment denial became truth. And truth became fear.

They picked him up, gently carrying him to find help. He knew it was too late, but he refused to burden them with the knowledge that there was nothing they could do. He reasoned that at least they would glean some comfort in the effort.

The golden coffin lay waiting, flag-draped, open, ready to receive him. The prize awaiting too many of the men he had served with over the years. Frank. Frank’s coffin had been empty, an empty shell, abandoned on the beach by the tide. Meaningless, yet symbolizing the pearl that once inhabited it. Empty, dead, buried, like their friendship. Now it was his turn.

He felt them lay him gently in the cold, hard confines of the box. He felt the suffocating waves of fear as he tried to communicate that he wasn’t dead. Soon perhaps, but not yet. Silently, he pleaded, begged them not to lock him away in this dark place. Alone and frightened, knowing there was but one escape. He watched as they shut the lid, trapping him with Death as his only companion.

He had always thought death would be cold. But that, after all, was a cliché, so he should have known better. Death he discovered was warm, comfortable and welcoming. He snuggled down into its depths just like he had done as a child under the mountain of quilts at his Grandfather’s cabin. Burrowing his way into the warmth. He was safe here, in death. He was, if not happy, then, at least, content.

It was over.

And then the lid began to slide open.

The light poured over him, stripping him of the safety he had sought in the dark. Slowly, he opened his eyes. They were waiting for him. All of them wearing weary, expectant smiles. Smiles which told him nothing, and yet everything.

"Hi, kids," he breathed, " what’s going on?"

**********

In Cassandra’s school the crash would have been heralded by catcalls and whistles. Here it meant the Colonel was at it again. Janet could feel her ire rising even as she stepped into the room. The young orderly, red-faced and teary, squatted down attempting to clean the mess. The Colonel lay in his bed, his arms folded in classic ‘Get The Hell Out Of Here And Leave Me Alone’mode. The anger radiated off of him even as the feverish heat had only days before.

"Karen, just leave that for right now. We’ll get it taken care of in a bit. Go take a break."

The young woman gave the doctor a grateful look and fled.

Crossing her own arms in irritation, Janet met the Colonel head on. "Colonel, is there a problem we need to discuss?"

Refusing eye contact, Jack locked his line of sight on a crack in the wall in the far corner of the room, his lips slits of anger. "Nope."

Keeping a tight reign on her own temper, Janet tried again in a carefully neutral tone. "Sir, that’s the third time you’ve done this. I know you probably aren’t feeling your best, . . ."

"Don’t patronize me, Doc. It pisses me off and I’m not in the mood."

". . . but you need to eat to regain your strength." Janet continued smoothly ignoring his interruption.

"I’m not hungry. I told her that. Warned her. She wouldn’t listen. Now leave me alone and tell all those blood-sucking vampires you got working for you the blood bank’s closed. I’m sick of all the poking and prodding. Waking me up to give me a pill to sleep. Bringing crap in here that isn’t fit to eat. Dammit, just tell everyone to leave me the hell alone." His eyes sparked, not with the mischievous amusement she so often associated with Jack, but instead with ice cold anger. "That goes for you, too."

Over the years Janet had earned a degree in Jack O’Neill Speak, twice over. One of the first courses she had mastered was the art of knowing when to stand fast and when a tactical retreat and regroup was in order. Right now Patton himself would have seen the wisdom in hauling ass and giving the adversary a wide berth and some extra breathing room.

So, as much as she was aching to chew a piece of the Colonel’s irritable butt and tell him to quit acting like a spoiled four year old, she mustered a deep calming breath. "Fine, Colonel, have it your own way." The ‘for now’ hung unsaid in the air. "Try and get some sleep, sir, and I’ll leave ‘Do Not Disturb’ orders on your door." When he didn’t answer, Janet turned to leave. "But I would appreciate it if you would refrain from throwing food trays in the future. My staff doesn’t deserve it and I certainly don’t need it."

His gaze flickered and briefly touched her face before springing back to his corner. "Fine."

"Fine." Janet shut the door softly, mentally patting herself on the back for not giving in to the temptation to slam it behind her. Standing silently, Janet heard the bed squeak and the short, panting groans that told her the Colonel was attempting to find a comfortable position. Within a few moments a deep sigh told her that he was settled for the time being. Satisfied that he was okay for the moment, Janet walked towards her office.

She smiled and gave a little wave to Daniel, who was seated next to Teco’s bed. The young Mayan was perched on the side of the bed, legs swinging in time to the music Daniel was playing on his CD player. Occasionally Daniel would ask a question and the boy would struggle through an answer the man could understand. The two appeared to have effectively bridged the communication gap.

She had released the boy from her care. His leg was healing fine with no signs of the infection that had ravaged the Colonel. Janet wondered what the powers that be planned on doing with Teco. For now he was being happily entertained by Doctor Jackson and vice versa, but eventually a permanent solution would need to be reached.

As Janet entered her office she wasn’t surprised to find Sam and Teal’c making themselves at home. Sam, at least, had helped herself to her last bag of peppermint tea and her last Oreo, which Janet herself had scavenged from Cassie’s lunch bag. Damn; the tea she could forgive, but she’d been looking forward to that cookie.

She watched silently as Sam demonstrated to Teal’c the proper technique to disassemble an Oreo and lick off the icing. Finally, when the twice filched dessert had been devoured down to its last ill-gotten crumb, Janet spoke. "You owe me an Oreo, Major."

"Did I not state that such a prized confection would be missed, Major Carter?"

"Yes, Teal’c, you were obviously right." Sam’s eyes shared silent laughter with Janet over the brim of her mug. "Don’t worry, I’ll replace Janet’s cookie. How’s the Colonel?"

Janet walked around to her desk ignoring the question. Sitting in her chair, she dug around in her top drawer until she emerged triumphantly with a fuzzy pineapple lifesaver. Brushing the lint off as best she could, Janet tossed it into her mouth and threw a glare in Sam’s direction.

Sam caught it and tossed back a smirk. "So, Janet, the Colonel?"

". . . is a royal pain in the ass, but you didn’t hear that from me." She ignored Teal’c’s eyebrow as it free-climbed the Matterhorn and Sam’s choked snort. "The fever’s down and his white blood cell count is in a much more acceptable range, not normal, but closer. The wounds are beginning to dry up and look like they’re healing nicely."

"That sounds good, Janet. So what’s the problem?"

"I don’t know, Sam. You tell me. I’m convinced we would have lost the Colonel if you hadn’t discovered that antibody in Teco’s blood. That was the key we need to unlock the mystery as to why the antibiotics we were using were ineffective with the Colonel, and yet worked on Teco. The transfusion did the trick, but it seemed that as soon as the infection started to clear, it opened the door to one very foul tempered Colonel. It seems as if as his physical condition improves, his attitude nosedives."

"Does O’Neill not have a reputation for being difficult in the infirmary, Doctor Fraiser?"

"Oh yeah, Teal’c, that would be an understatement." Janet smiled as Teal’c nodded in agreement. "But this is different. The Colonel can be cranky and demanding and drive my staff crazy with his pre-pubescent stunts, but he isn’t mean, even when he’s sick. He isn’t cruel. No, something else is going on."

"Do you think he’s just not feeling well, Janet? You know how guys are." With guilty amusement, Sam added, "Sorry, Teal’c."

"Indeed." He stared down at her with wounded male dignity.

"Like most guys are."

Janet shook her head as she absently picked a piece of lint from her teeth. "No, it’s more than that. He has no appetite, his stomach’s upset, he’s tired which is understandable. In fact most all of the symptoms are things I could write off as results of the aftermath of the wounds. The headache, the fatigue, but, I don’t know, call it a gut feeling. Something else is going on and right now he’s being so uncooperative I can’t put my finger on it."

"Shall I endeavor to put my finger on O’Neill for you, Doctor Fraiser?"

Janet was never sure if the big man was kidding when he made statements like that. She could read nothing in his face to clue her in one way or the other. He’d be one heck of a great poker player. So she did what she always did and took him seriously much to Sam’s amusement. "No, Teal’c, it’s just a figure of speech. It means I need to try to figure out what’s wrong with the Colonel."

"I see."

Janet was just quick enough to catch the glimmer in the Jaffa’s eye that told her she’d been had. Damn, men on any planet were still men. Swallowing her irritation along with the remainder of her lifesaver, Janet silently indulged in a moment of retribution scenarios.

"We’ll get the Colonel’s latest lab results back on the blood samples I ordered, in a few hours. Maybe those will tell us something. In the meantime, unless you have a death wish, I’d avoid going into the lion’s den."

**********

Jack shifted and bit back the groan of frustration as he failed to find a comfortable position. The cramping in his stomach was giving him the distinct feeling he’d win the gold medal for hurling in the Olympics should he opt to compete. He was tired, but he couldn’t sleep, he was shaky and tense, and the damn headache that made him feel as if his head were about to explode, just kept getting worse. He knew he should be hungry, but just thinking about eating caused him to break out in a cold sweat. Every time he tried to sit up his head swam and brought the whole ‘barfing your guts up’ issue into play again.

He didn’t want to admit it, but it’d scared the shit out of him when he’d reached for a glass of water and the sudden weakness in his hand had caused the glass to smash on the floor. It probably hadn’t sounded as loud as his pounding head imagined, not like a claymore exploding, maybe. If it had Fraiser and her minion would have stormed the place despite their earlier conversation. Either that or there was always a chance that he’d really pissed off Doc and she was letting him stew in his own juices for a while.

Probably some of both.

He’d pushed the envelope with Doc. He knew that, and somewhere deep down he felt bad about it. But above the feeling of guilt that he was acting like a royal ass, was layer upon layer of other stuff. Stuff he couldn’t and didn’t want to explore. Stuff, that if he poked at it too hard just might dislodge and start an avalanche that would bury him alive.

Rolling over on his side, Jack tried to ignore the gnawing fear that something was seriously wrong. He eyed the remains of his lunch with distaste and his stomach cramped at the sight of the chicken broth pooling around the melting red Jello. He shut his eyes and swallowed down the nausea.

As the minutes ticked slowly by and the cramping made sleep impossible, Jack began to wish he hadn’t gotten his wish for solitude, but stubborn pride kept him from pushing the call button. Pride, and the growing fear that something was seriously wrong. It was easier to ignore the compounding symptoms, the weakness, the dizziness. Easier just to pretend that everything was really okay and he wasn’t feeling as badly as he did.

A noise outside his door filled him with a confusing mixture of hope and dread. He eyed the door, willing it to open and remain closed, at the same time. He didn’t know whether the feeling was one of disappointment or relief when the person outside, left without disturbing him.

Panic gripped him momentarily as the coagulated Jello smeared over the tiles brought to mind the young men he had killed under orders of the Goa’uld. Bile burned his throat and tears stung his eyes at the image of the sword, his sword, slicing through living flesh. The look of horror, of fear, that washed over the face of his opponents, his victims, burned in his mind, played on the inside of his closed eyelids like a big screen T.V. Their blood pooling in the dirt at his feet, the fear of death frozen on their faces as their unseeing eyes locked on to his, before they were dragged off to the sarcophagus and the pantomime began again.

Jack hissed in pain as he rolled over to escape the mess he had made. The mess he had made of everything. He welcomed the unmerciful throbbing of his leg as he curled on his side, the physical pain more endurable than the mental. He wanted to lose himself in the tide of the waves of pain, drown beneath its surface. But he found that he was caught in the riptide of memories that refused to allow him escape and swept him out further from shore into open water.

And too late he realized he had turned the Lifeguard away.

**********

Janet slammed the latest lab results down with a furor that startled the members of SG-1, who had for the past few hours used her office as a roost while they all awaited the test results. She had made a half-hearted attempt to shoo them away several times, but like pigeons who sense a soft touch they would scatter for a bit before flocking back to her park bench. Now they eyed the lab results like they might be the choicest of bread crumbs and only fear that they might instead be stale and dry kept them from swarming her like something from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

"It’s lead poisoning. The Colonel has a form of lead poisoning. Why didn’t I think of that before?" Janet looked at them, her eyes an open invitation for them to peck at her conscience, sharing in her meal of shame and guilt. Invite them to walk gingerly through the mess this mission had deposited on the Colonel’s head.

Janet might have laughed under different circumstances, when the trio of pigeons suddenly morphed into wide-eyed, mouth-hanging-open chicks demanding food. Well two chicks, because Teal’c somehow managed to maintain the look of a wise owl while illustrating his demand for information.

"Lead poisoning, well that’s odd isn’t it, Janet?"

"That damn trident was made of a lead-based material, Daniel." Janet watched as their faces mirrored the concern in her own.

"Doctor Fraiser, is this condition curable?"

"Yes, Teal’c," Janet nodded absently as her brain raced through the pages of medical text. "There has been a lot of research done on lead poisoning. It will take a while, but the Colonel will be fine now that we know what we’re dealing with." She watched as Daniel picked up her stapler and began, in very Jack-like fashion, to play with it. She had to force herself not to grab it away or warn the multi-doctoral linguist that he was going to staple his finger if he wasn’t careful. At the very least he was going to jam the damn thing. Sam’s voice refocused her attention.

"Janet, I know most of the research that has been done deals with children and the effects of lead poisoning."

"Why is that, Major Carter?"

"At one time, Teal’c, our paint used to contain lead. It would flake over time and children would ingest it. Now, thank goodness, we don’t see that too much any more, but kids still seem to be susceptible to finding lead in everyday objects. The results can be deadly. At least now we have treatments to help. But Janet, what kind of treatment is available for adults?"

"We can use calcium gluconate or chloride IV for the cramps. I’ll start the Colonel on opiates for pain and then use calcium disodium in two courses of treatment over the next ten days to prevent kidney irritation. I’ve also read about a treatment called chelation therapy. That certainly an option to consider, as well. The patient is injected with a chemical which bonds with the lead which is then voided through the urine."

"So the next time Jack complains that he has gas . . ."

"Daniel, don’t say it," Sam warned although the laughter in her eyes belied her warning.

"Sorry, Sam, but in Jack’s absence I have to." Daniel grinned impudently at her. " When Jack complains of gas we should check to see if it is regular or lead-free?"

Janet watched in amusement as Daniel grabbed his arm when Sam punched him and he in turn reached out to muss her hair in the beginnings of a impromptu rough house. Their antics might seem totally out of place given the seriousness of the circumstances, but Janet felt like joining them in the silliness. It was no longer a mystery what was wrong with the Colonel and as such it had lost some of the power to frighten them. They could meet it head on and cure it. And so she permitted herself an indulgent smile at Daniel’s bad joke, because after all he was right. Had Jack been there with them it was exactly what he would have said.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Teal’c apparently reached his limits of tolerance and like the strict school master brought his unruly pupils back into line. "Major Carter, Daniel Jackson, enough. It is time we allowed Doctor Fraiser to cure O’Neill."

Twin looks of guilt spread over Sam’s and Daniel’s faces. "Oh, yeah, you’re right, Teal’c. Sorry."

"Me too, Teal’c, Janet. We got carried away." Sam ran her fingers through the mess Daniel had managed to make of her hair in lieu of a comb. It was one of the perks of Air Force hair.

Teal’c’s look was one of classic indulgence, forgiving the pair their indiscretion. "Indeed."

As Janet watched and Daniel and Sam exchanged a guilty look, Teal’c turned and walked silently towards the door.

"Where are you going, Teal’c ?" Daniel asked fearful that they had offended the Jaffa with their foolishness.

"I shall go inform O’Neill that it is time for him to get the lead out."

And without another word Teal’c exited gracefully from the room.

He smiled to himself as the effect of his words sunk in. Never let it be said that Jaffa were devoid of humor. Just as in battle, timing was everything.

**********

This was odd. Standing outside Jack’s office feeling unexpectedly like a kid waiting to be called into the principal’s office. At least he had the support of his peers and wasn’t marching in to face the dragon alone. He had just gotten off the phone with Sam and she had promised to find Teal’c and meet here in a few minutes.

They were all worried about Jack. Physically, Janet had assured them he was improving every day. His blood work showed no abnormalities with the infection, nor the lead. Daniel himself had seen in the locker room that the long jagged claw marks were healing and would soon join the road map of scars that lined Jack’s body.

He could tell by the slight limp that the nasty leg wound was still bothering Jack, but in true O’Neill form he never mentioned it and stoically worked his way through the series of crutches, cane, and PT that Janet threw in his path. Physically, they could all see Jack was almost back.

Mentally, was another story.

Daniel was the first to admit, on occasion, he could lose track of the big picture when focusing on details. The big picture was Jack’s department. Daniel was a detail man. Eking out the tiniest clue from fragmented pieces of the puzzle was what he excelled in, what made him who he was. But now he couldn’t help wondering what he was missing in this picture.

True, Jack had been through a traumatic ordeal. Not that he had shared anything but the barest bones of details during the debriefing and subsequent report. Jack: the master of brevity; the crown prince of diversion, juggling worn jokes and one liners to create a sleight-of-hand to escape that which he wished to avoid.

No, it was Teco who had filled in the blanks, blanks big enough to crawl into and hide, in Jack’s story. Teco, who even with a communication gap wide enough to span the Grand Canyon, had allowed them a glimpse of what those weeks must have been like for Jack.

It was also true Jack had nearly lost his life, coming within a hair of succumbing to the ravages of the infection and the complications which followed. But to quote Jack himself, ‘Aliens were always poking holes in him.’ If anyone was pragmatic about life-threatening injuries, it was Jack. There had to be another answer, another fragment he was missing.

Jack was avoiding the team. From the time Janet had released him, he had seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in his office, a place usually not on the list of places he enjoyed haunting. Even when he did leave his burrow, they would usually find him shadowed by a plethora of reports which seemed to be his dining companion of choice.

That in itself seemed out of place. Daniel knew, having been on the inner-workings of the military machine for the past few years, that the paper trail which kept the machine fueled would have filled the Assyrian libraries. Twice over. He also was not the least bit naïve about the fact that, as second in command of the Stargate Project, Jack had more than his share of paperwork to complete on a day to day basis. However, another trick up Jack’s sleeve was his ability to complete the paperwork to Hammond’s satisfaction and still avoid the calluses on his ass that plagued most desk jockeys.

Daniel never bothered to think about the fact that despite the time of day, it was the norm for Jack to be hanging around, making wise cracks, playing with the equipment, and generally keeping his finger on the pulse of the SGC. It was just Jack. It was what he did in his annoying, yet reliable manner. Until he wasn’t there. Then his absence was glaringly apparent to everyone. Now, without Jack, things felt strangely off kilter.

So Daniel had decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns and see if they could pull a bit of a Quantum Leap on Jack. It wasn’t likely that Doctor Sam Becket would leap into the mountain and ‘right that which was wrong’ any time soon, so that left it up to the team to sort out what was going on in Jack’s head and do their best to fix it. And that in itself could prove to be something out of a sci-fi show. Because one thing Daniel knew for sure, Jack wasn’t talking. Something was going on and that bastard MacKenzie didn’t have a prayer of digging it out.

So now, if their stubborn Mohammed wouldn’t come to the mountain, Daniel was determined to use an unconventional, impromptu intervention, to take the mountain to him.

There was no welcoming, ‘Come,’ to the polite knock Daniel first attempted as soon as Sam and Teal’c joined him. Ah, but Danny the Space Monkey was in reality Daniel the Badger, who had no problem digging in and fighting for what he wanted with tenacious ferocity.

And right now he was fighting for the right to confront Jack which was, in fact, a bit like fighting for the right to swim in a pool of piranhas. And now that he thought about it the result could well be the same. Jack was quite capable of stripping the flesh from your bones using only the razor sharp barbs of his tongue if he was so inclined. He’d had that pleasure before and it wasn’t an experience he’d recommend that a person should repeat. And yet, here he was prepared to dive in again knowing what could await him in the murky waters beyond that door.

And they called him a genius.

With a glance at his companions Daniel took a deep breath and plunged into the ravenous school waiting silently in the deep end of the pool. "Jack, open this door. I know you’re in there. We need to talk. Sam, Teal’c, and . . ."

The door opened and Jack stood there like the flaming angel, charged with prohibiting entrance into Eden. But Jack, had no need of a flaming sword. His body language spoke very clearly in whatever language Daniel cared to use to translate: ‘Keep out.’

"Hi, Jack, you busy?" Okay it was a lame start, but he’d pick up the pace now that the race had started.

"Yes, Daniel, I’m busy. Thanks for asking." The door began to shut as Jack let them know in no uncertain terms the ‘No Soliciting’ sign was out.

Daniel surprised himself, and obviously Jack as well, with an excellent imitation of an unwanted, but persistent salesman, when he stepped forward blocking the door from closing.

"Get out, Daniel. I told you I’m busy." The words were clipped, cold.

"Jack, Teco’s been asking about you. He wants to know when he can see you."

There was liquid anger simmering just below the boiling point in Jack’s eyes. "The tenth of never sounds about right. Daniel, just tell the kid I’m busy. For cryin’ out loud, what’s so difficult about that? I’ve got better things to do than stand there staring at a kid I can’t talk to."

"You could before."

It was a powerful body blow, totally on instinct and reflex. And Daniel watched as Jack struggled, his jaw clenched tight, to recover.

Jack turned and stalked over to his desk, ignoring the rest of his team as they maneuver into the vacated doorway and spread out in an unplanned tactical move of surrounding the target. The pen he held vibrated with barely suppressed tension. He slammed the traitorous indication of his emotions on the desk.

Daniel flopped down in the spare metal chair next to the desk as Sam and Teal’c melted into the background, in silent support. Eyeing the stacks of files, Daniel cleared his throat and dove in. "So, Jack, it looks like you are . . . busy."

He earned a glare that could have started a nuclear meltdown for that brilliant comment. But to Jack’s credit he simply left it at a glare.

"Very."

"Why all the paperwork? Seems a bit inordinate even for the military."

Daniel showed what he was made of as a second glare failed to spontaneously combust him on the spot.

"A little gift from Hammond."

God, getting information from Jack was like pulling teeth from a tiger. You never knew when the jaws would snap shut on the pliers and take your hand with it.

Daniel glanced over at Sam. Her eyes were wide and her mouth formed a surprised, ‘Oh,’ as if Jack’s mysterious comment made perfect sense to her.

Well, call him Doctor Daniel the dentist and hand him the pliers, because this tiger’s molars were coming out.

"That’s funny. I didn’t realize it was Christmas yet."

Jack refused to take the bait. "It is for me." He picked up the ballpoint and began disassembling it as if it were his Beretta.

Disassemble. . . Assemble. . . Disassemble. . . Assemble. . . Disassemble . . .

The long fingers seemed to possess a life of their own, as if Jack wasn’t even aware of what he was doing.

"So, what makes you so special that you get gifted with extra work from the general?"

Suddenly the hands were deadly still. "What do you want from me, Daniel?" The voice was quiet, controlled and Daniel had to suppress a shudder as the room suddenly seemed several degrees colder.

Intense blue eyes locked onto steely brown and there was absolute silence. "I just want to know what’s wrong, Jack. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in your head." Daniel paused, his voice low and choked. "Are you still mad with me for leaving the arena and exploring on my own without your permission?" His voice broke and he whispered, "And for not recognizing the danger in time to warn you and for letting you get captured, because . . ."

His eyes broke away and dropped to his lap as Jack cut in. His obvious rage barely controlled. "Daniel, I may act like a TDS, but trust me when I tell you I didn’t find these birds in a box of Cracker Jacks.

"Yes, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t want to kick your ass four ways to Sunday for wandering off on your own. And yes, Teal’c and I are going to have a long talk about allowing you to do so. But listen to me when I tell you that it was my own damn fault that I got captured." There was a pause as Jack drew in a ragged breath. "I broke the rules. I let down my defenses. I committed a cardinal sin when I put my own desires before my team. In short, Daniel, I screwed up. So now I pay the price. And the sweet little black mark with Hammond’s signature informs everyone of that fact. That’s the way it works.

"Why the hell should I think they’d figure I’d suffered enough? I should have known they’d want their pound of flesh, too. I just thought . . ." He stopped, his breath coming in short gasps that sounded painfully loud in the silence. "Ah you know what, screw it, just forget it, I know how the game’s played."

Jack stood, flung the remains of the pen aside and walked out of the office.

Daniel sat, stunned at the outburst. Finally he shook his head as if to clear it. "Okay, that was interesting. You guys think Jack was serious?"

"Indeed, it appears he was."

"The Colonel’s right, Daniel. From a military point-of-view he had no business participating in a sporting event in which he could have been injured. I should have thought of that, but . . ." her voice trailed off. "God, I can’t believe the general would do that after everything the Colonel’s been through."

"Do what, Sam?"

"Didn’t you catch the reference to the black mark, Daniel? The general must have officially reprimanded the Colonel and put it in his file. And then added the extra paperwork on top of that. That stinks."

The silence was thick in the room. Finally Daniel broke it. "So Sam, what’s that TDS that Jack mentioned?" He knew Jack loved to drop military slang on him. It was one of their games, but somehow this didn’t seem like the time Jack would pick to play.

However it was Teal’c who broke his stoic silence. "Terminal Dumb Shit, Daniel Jackson."

There was nothing else to say.

**********

Guilt made a lousy bed partner, wooing, tempting him from the competition who sought to steal him away. Given a choice, Pain was always his prostitute of choice. But Guilt was an experienced lover. One who knew how to persuade and tease, and how to use her street sister, Pain, just enough to distract and then wrap her arms around him, drawing him closer, drawing him in until she consumed him with her passion.

With a frustrated curse, Jack flung back the rumpled sheets. He didn’t need to look at the clock to know he should have been asleep, especially the night before a mission, especially before this mission. And therein lay the crux. He needed to sleep because of a mission that was causing him not to sleep. He sat on the edge of the bed, scrubbing the heel of his hands over the blanket of stubble.

Jack pressed his hands into his tired eyes and hoping to massage the growing tension into a manageable package that would fit in his backpack. He’d packed it before. Knew just the right compartment it fit into. Daniel was always surprised at the stuff he managed to pack in the small space. It would have really shocked him to know how much room Jack delegated to tension, grief, anger and hurt, besides a whopping helping of weight of leadership. Frankly, it was amazing he could hoof it up on his shoulders and carry it around. But he did. And he would.

The moonlight formed a pool near the window. Jack couldn’t resist wading into it. It was bright. Must be close to full, but as he leaned against the glass and craned his neck to see, he was disappointed. For a moment he entertained the thought of climbing up to the observatory deck to spend a little time stargazing. But then he dismissed the idea as not worthy of the effort.

Standing there, bathed in the moonlight, Jack stared at his hands. His hands, which had done everything from swinging a hockey stick, to cradling his laughing baby. From holding his dying son, to pulling the trigger on a sniper's gun as he aimed at someone he had nothing against, but had been ordered to kill. From snapping the neck of a sentry, to grasping the hand of aliens in friendship, shaking the hand of First, to stanching the blood of a dying comrade on the battlefield where the pain etched in his friend’s face was the only thing he could see in the smoke. Clutching Frank's hand as his mind flashed back over the years they had and the years that stood between them, to the moment he was ripped away forever. Hands that had touched the shoulders of friends in comfort and support and then held their widows as they wept bitter tears. Hands that stroked his ex-wife with tenderness and passion and then killed innocents for a Goa'uld.

The light illuminated them as he held tightly to the window sash. Slowly, Jack turned them over, the beams played against his palms like a living thing he could close his fist upon and capture. Outwardly they were clean, not showing the blood staining his palms. The blood which haunted him and refused to allow him to sleep.

And then darkness encompassed him as the moonlight evaporated and deserted him. Jack stared, trying to pierce the darkness in order to see his hands. It was no use. The darkness had swallowed the moonlight and as he stood there, Jack felt the Darkness rise up and devour him as well. There was safety in that Darkness. It hid the blood. It hid his guilt.

**********

Hammond stood in his customary perch watching as SG-1 prepared to leave and return to P7X-399. Even from his eagle’s nest he could see that all was not well with his premiere team. Hell, if he had believed in karma, he would have sworn he could have felt the bad vibrations from here rather than those of the Gate as it locked. As it was, he had no difficulty reading the worried glances thrown at O’Neill by the rest of his team. Even Teal’c wore a weighty frown that made his normal glower look cheerful by comparison.

In contrast, the Colonel’s face was a deadpan mask, clamped on so tight, not a glimmer of the man’s usual light-hearted attitude shown through. A mask so tight it was almost painful to look at the man and compare this taciturn, hard-ass soldier to O’Neill’s typical gateroom antics.

The old saying, ‘The buck stops here,’ must have been written by an Air Force general who had been ordered to remind a certain Colonel that under no condition was an off-world mission the appropriate time to join the indigenous persons in ceremonial games. He’d argued, given a dozen reasons for leniency concerning O’Neill’s latest indiscretion. But the Colonel, like himself, had some powerful enemies. Damn the Senator and his cronies. And those people waving a battle flag with a dollar sign emblazoned on it.

Hammond’s arguments of Jack’s deeds of valor paled beneath the weight of the cost lying on his desk in black and white and red all over. His stomach washed afresh with acid, as he thought of the mounting dollars the rescue attempt had incurred. It had not been a pleasant report to write and the reaction to it had not surprised him. He’d been at this game too long, not to see Jack’s rescue for the opportunity it was for a few powerful people to make a play to destroy and discredit the Colonel and perhaps take the Stargate Project down with him. People who looked at the swirling blue vortex and saw dollars and cents disappearing into its depths, rather than opportunity and hope for the future of the human race.

The same people who had demanded O’Neill’s head on a platter.

Most people weren’t aware of the fact that Hammond was an outstanding dancer when the need arose. In fact one of the best, and when it came to defending his people, Fred Astaire himself would have envied George’s extraordinary tap dancing skill. He called in favors, blatantly bragged about the Colonel, as if he was one of his granddaughters, tweaked selective memories, and in the end managed to salvage Jack’s career.

He couldn’t tell the Colonel just how close he’d come to the edge of the precipice this time. All he could do was put on his own mask of hard indifference and channel his own anger at the bureaucrats towards the victim of the bureaucracy.

"Colonel, just what were you thinking? Joining in with indigenous persons? Participating in a dangerous ceremonial event? Allowing yourself to be drugged? What would have happened to your team had the Goa’uld attacked? Did that occur to you while you were out enjoying yourself?"

Jack stood stiffly at attention. His eyes drilling a hole into the wall behind Hammond’s desk. "No, sir."

"Dammit Colonel, is that all you have to say for yourself? I understand that during your absence, Dr. Jackson took the opportunity to explore unescorted and unprotected without your knowledge. Has the thought crossed your mind that he could have been the one abducted? A civilian abducted while the military participate in a native sporting event. God help me, if I had had to explain that one."

It was obvious to the General that very thought had kept O’Neill up at night, if the shadows under his eyes were any indication. He was also aware that Teal’c had surreptitiously kept Daniel Jackson out of harms way, as well as the fact that few team leaders took the safety of their teams as seriously as Jack O’Neill. Still, as much as he hated himself at this moment, he had a role to play. "Well, Colonel, I asked you a question. I expect an answer, mister."

"Yes, sir." Jack’s voice was low, steady and controlled. "It occurred to me after the fact."

"And a fat lot of good that would have done, eh Colonel? How many times have we nearly wiped out this planet with that kind of thinking?" He wasn’t being fair. The good Lord alone knew how many times this man had put his life on the line in the name of duty. "I expect more from the people under my command, Colonel O’Neill. I certainly expected more from my second-in-command." He paused, allowing the silence to punctuate his statement. "Do you have anything to say for yourself, Colonel?"

This time it was O’Neill who chose to allow the silence to build the tension.

Their eyes touched briefly and for just a moment Hammond thought Jack might actually share what was on his mind. For just a moment George saw his friend standing before him. The man who had tea parties with his granddaughters on his livingroom floor. The man who had put his own career on the line to protect Hammond’s. His friend, the man he respected and admired, the man whose career he was now trying to salvage. His voice was harsh, belying the emotions lying just below the surface. "I’m waiting, Colonel."

"No sir, I have nothing to say."

Hammond frowned at the flat tone of depression with which Jack spoke. Depression would kill a man like O’Neill faster than a bullet. So it fell to him to exchange that depression and lassitude for anger. It was all part of command. All part of knowing your men. An angry O’Neill he could deal with.

"Well, Colonel, as you have nothing to say on your behalf, I have no choice but to find you guilty of gross misconduct with reckless endangerment for your team." He was hitting below the belt, hard body blows, he knew would hurt. But he had to drag Jack back from the place that damn Goa’uld had taken him and God help him, this was the fastest way he knew to do it. "Consider yourself officially reprimanded, Colonel O’Neill. Your permanent record will be so marked. We will discuss further disciplinary actions as I see fit. Any questions, Colonel? If not, you’re dismissed."

Hammond ignored the flash of hurt betrayal which hardened like Super Glue into anger in an instant and silently congratulated himself on a successful mission as O’Neill executed a perfect about face and left the office, his entire being radiating hot anger.

Anger he could deal with, hurt could lead down the destructive path of depression. And that was something Hammond’s budget couldn’t afford. An angry Jack O’Neill could be channeled, focused, and eventually healed. God help him, if he had to deal with the man West had used as a tool.

And so the ruse to distract, a difficult task at best, had worked, at least for the moment. Focus the Colonel’s emotions on his anger. Allowing the cobra to lock his sights on the hand waving paperwork in his face in order to keep the venom of despondency from striking. If it took a plethora of extra paperwork to mesmerize the serpent then, by God, he was just the snake handler to do it.

They had work to do.

The briefing had been memorable, to say the least. Doctor Jackson had fairly vibrated with excitement at the thought of accompanying Teco back to his home planet for an unexpected family reunion.

"General, we have an opportunity to effect a positive outcome for not only an individual, but an entire community, as well."

"Doctor Jackson, you don’t have to convince me. We have already established the validity of returning the boy to his people."

"Yes, General, but this goes beyond simply tossing Teco through the gate and wishing him well. Through him, we have a priceless opportunity to really get to know the Mayan people. To study, to learn and to befriend them. Teco can provide the bridge we need to unlock so many mysteries surrounding these people."

Jack had remained ominously silent during the archaeologist’s discourse. God help Doctor Jackson. Normally he was the master of sensitivity. Perhaps it had never occurred to him that this mission could be a waking nightmare for the Colonel. As far as Doctor Jackson was concerned, with the threat of the Goa’uld nullified, this provided a marvelous field trip into living history. One that couldn’t be ignored.

But perhaps Dr. Jackson understood Jack O’Neill far better than he let on and he was dealing with the situation in his own way. Hammond somehow doubted Jackson had bought O’Neill’s act of indifference. Time would tell.

It was times like these that the gap existing between civilian and military mind set became painfully apparent. Glancing at the Colonel’s taut features, Hammond had no doubt Jack was struggling against demons which chose to haunt him during the time when he obviously should have been sleeping. Hammond recognized the dark circles and lined, strained features having seen them in the mirror more than a few times himself.

Despite the fact that they were revived, Jack was no doubt thinking about the people he’d killed, repeatedly, and from the reports, on the surface at least, without hesitation. Now, he was being ordered to go back and face their families, to possibly face those he’d fought. It was the stuff from whence nightmares spawned.

"General, it is a perfect opportunity to study the medical capabilities that are obviously present. We have only just scratched the surface of the implications through the antibodies Teco’s blood provided in aiding in the healing of Colonel O’Neill. The possibilities are staggering. With your permission, I’d like to study this further once we establish a rapport with the indigenous persons."

Only because he was watching for it, did Hammond see the slightest of shudders run through Jack’s slouched frame, before even that slight evidence of turmoil was quashed.

"Absolutely, Major. Should the opportunity present itself, by all means, gather as much information as possible."

Forgive me, son, for what I’m forcing you to face. I’ve had those demons gnawing at my ankles, too. You may not believe it, but this old desk jockey has had a few of those mission-induced nightmares myself. I know what you’re feeling and what you think you can’t share. I know the battle you’re raging with yourself, inside, where you think it doesn’t show. But you’re too valuable to put out to pasture and right now the only thing to do, hard as it is, is to make you get back in the saddle and ride, despite the fact that it’s the last thing you want to do.

It was his call and his gut was telling him the Colonel had left more than even he knew on that planet. His balance, his inner peace, the key was hidden there. And only Jack could find it.

And so he gave the orders and ignored the silent plea for escape and understanding which drained away. Watched as a miserable acceptance seeped into the void. And he stood watching as O’Neill led his little band into the yawning gulf and disappeared.

As the wormhole shut down Hammond’s stare was galaxies away. "God’s speed, Colonel."

**********

There was none of the normal friendly banter as the team stepped through the wormhole. Carter immediately checked the DHD, while Jack and Teal’c scanned the immediate area, weapons readied even though they did not anticipate a problem. Daniel stood quietly next to Teco, neither realizing they wore identical looks of concern as they looked towards Jack.

Gone was the pristine blue sky from their previous visit. In its place a matt gray finish varnished the heavens. There was a palatable tension in the air which mirrored the mood of the team as they awaited the Colonel’s orders.

It was a long, miserable day. Even Teco’s excitement at the prospect of returning home couldn’t breech the cloud of hostility and anger Jack emanated. Teal’c bore it in customary silence. Sam wore her good soldier face and ordered her skin to thicken. Teco’s mood swung back and forth like a pendulum between volumes of happiness and chasms of concern. And Daniel could feel grounds of anger brewing that had lain dormant during Jack’s long recovery. Resentment and unresolved issues bracing the pot to espresso strength as the miles and the silence continued.

Jack ignored them all and after checking his compass, set a hard pace across country sans his usual faux confusion as to the direction of their destination. It was obvious to his team, that despite his misgivings about returning Teco to his village, the Colonel was well prepared for this mission.

During the brief lunch break, his body language was such that even the young Mayan had no trouble translating. As dusk approached they had covered more than half the journey to the village. Thunder rumbled threateningly in the distance.

Blood red streaks greeted the team as they hurried through their morning routine. Jack stood at the edge of the camp away from the group staring off at the masterpiece painted across the sky.

"Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning, huh, Jack."

O’Neill shook his head to the coffee pot Daniel offered as an ice breaker.

"Only works if you’re a sailor, Daniel. One of the reasons I joined the Air Force."

"What was the other reason, Jack?"

"Ships suck when they take off from the runway."

Daniel snorted and then hesitantly, "Jack . . ."

"No, Daniel."

"I don’t understand, Jack. What do you mean no?"

"Simple concept Doctor Jackson. Just no. I don’t want to talk about it. No."

"Not talking is something you’re real good at, isn’t it, Jack. What’s the matter, is the NID out here too? Do they have your sleeping bag bugged? Is that your excuse this time?"

Jack’s face had hardened like clay in a kiln, his countenance so taut it looked as if a touch would shatter it into irreparable shards.

"Have it your way, Jack." The anger and hurt in Daniel’s voice echoed with the thunder rolling in the distance. Before the din had died away, he turned and left. Jack, a pillar of salt, having turned for one last glimpse of friendship, stood frozen in mute self-condemnation.

I wouldn’t be back here on this freakin’ planet if that was going to happen, Daniel. Trust me. It’s not gonna happen. Not the way I want it to anyway.

By late afternoon the brisk pace had brought SG-1 to the outskirts of a small village. The storm continued to hold off yet the air fairly crackled. Few people could be seen wandering the dusty road. Here and there an old woman worked diligently on a tapestry, wove a basket, or sat scraping corn from the cob. A grandfather, surrounded by eager faces, wove his own story, not with thread or reed, but ancient fables passed down over the generations.

It was a peaceful scene if the thunderheads building across the skyline were ignored.

If the thunderhead building across Jack’s face were ignored . . .

**********

Teco ran ahead, ignoring the Colonel’s irritated grunt of disapproval.

"Shall I accompany the boy, O’Neill?" Teal’c stopped beside Jack, his frown deepening. "Is it not possible that he will not be well received?"

"No, let him go. We’ll just hang out here for a while and see what happens, Teal’c. The village is small. The kid will either come back or he won’t. Our assignment was to bring the prodigal son home, not play nanny to him for the rest of his life. I’m not in any particular hurry to meet and greet the natives."

He raised his voice to include Carter and Daniel who were looking at the village with rapt curiosity. " We’ll stand down here. Get some rest and grab something to eat. No fire."

"Sir, from the looks of that approaching storm we may need to figure out some more substantial accommodations."

Without a glance in his second’s direction Jack continued to scan the horizon where they could all see the dark clouds stacking like lumps of black clay. "We’re fine for right now, Major. Let’s sit back and see what breaks besides the weather."

"Yes, sir."

The team sat, taking advantage of the opportunity to rest, and munching energy bars. Once again, O’Neill separated himself from the group and sat between the rest of his team and the distant village, as he sipped from his canteen and continued to observe.

Less than an hour passed before he spotted a small group of people exiting one of the small dwellings and moving towards them, Teco in their midst.

"O’Neill . . ."

"I see them, Teal’c. Daniel, get up here and get ready to make nice. Major, be ready in case these people are less than happy that we’ve returned one of their sacrifices."

"Jack, we can’t just . . ."

"Daniel, no arguments. Orders understood, Major?" His jaw was clenched tightly as he unobtrusively slipped the safety off his weapon.

"Yes, sir."

Daniel moved forward. "Teco?"

Teco’s smile broadened as he stepped forward, his arm around the waist of an elderly woman. "Sahal."

"Their clan leader," Daniel translated smoothly as the old woman looked past Daniel to search Jack’s face.

"You have brought my grandson, my al, the son of my heart, home. You are forever welcome here. You will find zuvuya , the place where all things return to themselves in this place."

Somewhere deep inside the Darkness shuddered as Jack stared into the wise eyes.

*********

With Daniel’s help, the old woman and her entourage made it clear that SG-1 should follow them into the village.

"The storm approaches. Very big. Very bad."

Jack nodded, as he glanced uneasily towards the threatening weather. Carter was right. As much as he didn’t want to do the old bed and breakfast routine with the natives, there was little choice. A novice meteorologist could tell they were in for one hell of a blow. Tents weren’t gonna cut it and making a run for the gate wasn’t an option. No way. As much as he wanted this mission behind them, there was absolutely no way he was gonna risk his team being caught in the open in that.

Teco led them to a small adobe-like structure. Looking through the open door, Jack could see the simple trappings of basic needs: a small table, a simple clay stove, a single bed, a few candles. That was it. Add the small, uncovered window cut into one wall and the simple wooden door and there you had it, Martha Stewart goes Mayan.

The team quickly settled in. It was getting dark outside, either dusk or the storm was approaching quickly. Daniel and Sam had gone to do a quick meet and greet with Teal’c watch-dogging. Jack begged off, opting to make a wide patrol around the outskirts of the town. His gut twisted with uneasy anxiety as he found himself standing at the edge of the village playing field. The Pok-a-Tok rings glistened a dull gray in the diminishing light. As he stood there staring up at the stone circles Jack shuddered and found himself reluctant to turn his back to the approaching storm. A loud clap of thunder made him jump.

God, O’Neill, what’s next? You gonna develop a fear of your own shadow? But as fat raindrops began to pelt him, a royally pissed Colonel hurried back to their shelter anxious to have something between himself and the menacing storm.

Quickly reaching the hut, he had just reached for his radio to check on the others when his hand dropped to the reassurance of his weapon. There was someone inside. Senses on over-load, he gripped the P-90, and cautiously eased into the room. He felt rather than saw the sharp black eyes on him.

Grandmother sat on the small wooden stool waiting patiently, Teco stood quietly by her side.

Jack eased into the room and lowered his weapon. "Howdy kids, what ya doing?" he asked uneasily. "Shouldn’t you two be tucked in for the night out of this weather?"

Grandmother stood and walked over to O’Neill, her eyes never wavering from his face. Teco was a silent shadow manifested only in the flashes of lightening. Outside the thunder rumbled, vibrating through the thick walls. Jack tightened his grip subconsciously, then realizing what he had done forced himself to relax.

Still, he felt himself jump as the small woman stopped in front of him, craning her neck to maintain eye contact, her face a road map of life. Slowly, she raised a small hand and placed it on his chest over his heart. Jack could feel the heat of the tiny palm pressing firmly through the rough material of his uniform. He could feel his heart pounding, hear it beating against his eardrums. He stood frozen beneath her gaze.

Slowly, carefully she reached into a pocket of her tunic and removed a small statue.

"Tlazolteotl."

Blinking slowly, Jack shook his head. "I don’t understand."

"Tlazolteotl." The old woman smiled and nodded encouragingly.

"A gift?"

She nodded and held the statue against his heart, still warm from her hand.

Slowly Jack reached up and wrapped his hands around the small figure.

"Tlazolteotl."

With that Teco took his grandmother’s arm and they walked calmly into the building storm.

Some time later when Daniel and Sam dashed in soaked, but happy, followed closely by Teal’c they found Jack sitting on the edge of small cot, staring into the face of the statue.

Daniel walked over and squatted down beside Jack, his curiosity peaked. "What do you have, Jack?"

Mutely, Jack held it out to the archaeologist.

"It’s a representation of Tlazolteotl, the filth eater.

The dust and the garbage The works of the flesh Were caused by Tlazolteotl, She light them. Tlazolteotl fomented them And only she discharged. She purified, she relieved She washed, She bathed.*

According to Maya legend she grants pardons and erases guilt. Where’d you get it, Jack?"

The man was silent for so long, Daniel had decided he was refusing to answer the question. "A gift from Teco’s Grandmother."

"Interesting. I wonder what . . ."

"Time for bed, kiddies. No doubt we’ll have a busy day tomorrow. You can tell old Uncle Jack all about your adventures then." The unexpectedly jovial tone caught them all by surprise. "Major, male chauvinism aside, you may as well take the cot. The rest of us will bunk on the floor. Standard watch. Nightie, night, kids."

The conversation had effectively been squelched.

**********

Jack lay awake staring into the darkness. Outside the storm raged. On the small table the statue was illuminated briefly by a flash of lightening. The ugly little mother was staring straight at him. The empty hollows of its eyes hidden in malignant blackness.

Thunder shook the walls. He could feel the vibrations through the floor, mimicking the trembling of his soul. Teal’c sat near the window silently watching the storm.

Another bolt of lightening stuck nearby and Jack jumped as if he had been hit. The damn thing, that figurine from the Island of Doctor Moreau, was seriously creeping him out.

And suddenly he was stuck by a overwhelming wave of claustrophobia . He had to get out. Get out of the small, suffocating confines of the room. Get out from beneath the gaze of the butt ugly statue. Get out of the pit of thoughts in which he was sinking.

Without a word Jack threw back the sleeping bag and stumbled out to face the storm.

**********

The wind buffeted against him like a living force.

Pouncing.

Tearing.

Clawing.

Snapping.

Bent on destruction.

Demanding obedience.

A force to fear.

To fight.

To savor.

Jack moved away from the village, relishing the absolute of the storm. He staggered over the rough path. He had no conscious destination, but he wasn’t surprised when he found that he had made his way to the playing field, the Pok-a-Tok, where in a sense, it had begun: a different time, a different place, and yet, the same. He stood, losing himself in the power and energy of the storm. Within Nature’s tantrum he felt small, a speck in the overall master plan, anonymous and insignificant.

Free.

The storm challenged that freedom and so Jack fought against it as if in battle with an animate being, matching his will against its own.

Lightning lit his path. He stumbled and fell to his knees. The wind howled in victory as the upstart was vanquished. The fury increased as Jack struggled to his feet and raised his arms against the foe.

The night was filled with wild shrieks of laughter, laughter of a Goa’uld, schooled in the art of manipulation and pain; hideous screams, screams of fear and pain as he took a young life; threats, and silent begging; hunger and thirst; pain of the knife.

Death.

And O’Neill stood in the swirling cusp of emotions and memories, faced the mirror, and for the first time opened his eyes to what he saw.

Torrents of rain soaked his skin, crying the tears he could not shed himself. Washing away the dirt, the residue left by humiliation and pain, fear and loss of control. Cleansing, hurting, and restoring, scouring old wounds, tearing away scabs, allowing the blood to flow.

Allowing healing to begin.

And suddenly the storm was his ally. Welcoming him. Wrapping her arms around him as a lover and friend. Recognizing who he was, acknowledging what he had done and granting acceptance and forgiveness. Acquiescing his right to move beyond.

Daniel moved cautiously to where Jack stood motionless in the diminishing storm. He knew Jack was aware of his presence even though his eyes were shut and his face was turned up in silent supplication. Teal’c and Sam joined Jack and Daniel and it was right.

Joined, supportive, unanimous, together. SG-1.

The last of the storm faded in the distance as Teco stepped out of the darkness and wrapped his arms around Jack. Ignoring the stiffness and attempt at rejection, until Jack’s arms seemingly of their own accord, reached out to hug the boy and return the embrace, melting the last resistance.

"Tlazolteotl. Forgiveness of others, forgiveness of self."

His face buried in the boy’s wet hair, Jack accepted the gift with silent gratitude. Absolution came in many forms. In his youth it came through the gentle drone of a priest’s words, through the wafer and chalice. He no longer allowed himself that comfort. Circumstances and events had shattered any hope that God would ever forgive him. Shattered the illusion that he had a right to expect forgiveness. And yet, here on this little God forsaken planet, a million light years from home, he had been offered just that - forgiveness.

Standing there, soaked to the skin, surrounded by friends, Jack felt cleansed. It was a start.

**********

The day dawned fresh and renewed. Jack and the rest of SG-1 stepped out into its newness to greet it as a friend.

"Well, kids, ready to go home?"

"Yes, sir, we’ll send a team in now that we have preliminary studies."

"How about you, Daniel? Sure you don’t want to stay longer?"

"And miss the next discovery altogether, Jack? That’s one of the best parts of being on the first contact team."

Jack smiled at the eager excitement which had been missing for far too long.

"O’Neill." Teal’c nodded towards the small group of natives walking towards them.

Grandmother stopped, searching, and finding her answer, her entire face lit with her near toothless smile.

Daniel moved to stand beside Jack. He murmured the team’s thanks and goodbyes.

Grandmother stepped forward and once again placed her hand on Jack’s heart. "You leave to travel the kuxan suum, the road to the sky leading to the umbilical cord of the stars."

"The Stargate," Daniel whispered.

"You are my al, my son, now. This place is your yaxkin, your place of renewal, your home."

Jack placed his hand over the old woman’s. "Thank you."

Turning to his team Jack smiled. "Let’s make like a baby and head out, kids. It’s time to go home."

And deep inside Darkness slipped back into its box.

For now.

**Fin**

*—The Codex Vaticanus B, Vatican Library, Rome

**—The U.S. Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct

***—Exert from Nine Days in a Battle Called Life by Gallagater




Author’s Notes: There are so many people who have had a hand in the rebirth of this fic. Originally it was written for and published in the Seventh Chevron #6; however, after reading the original version friend and sounding board Chrisbod encouraged (no Chris I won’t mention the words you used <g>) me to consider rewriting the story into novel length. Chris, it is amazing what a hundred or so pages will do to a story. Many thanks go to Charli Booker, my cheerleader and backboard who never grew tired of me bouncing ideas off her. Thanks to Badgergater for graciously allowing me to borrow the character of Atta Mohammed. Thanks Mary, you’re the best. Thanks also to Deleeca for her excellent help with medical research. Carol, you are great. Any mistakes are purely my own. Huge thanks go to my dear friend and beta Karen (Kent) who as always picked up her rag and wax and polished my work until it shines. Karen, I couldn’t do it without you. There are so many others who have had a hand in this fic, Denise, Margo, Flora, the Whiners Anonymous Club on Jackfic. Thanks gang. Hope it was worth the wait.

© February 2004 They’re not mine, sigh, a girl can always dream. 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 in intended. They don’t earn me a dime, just new friends and some time away from my laundry. That’s entertainment! 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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