Jmas Fan Fiction

Title: The Hunting Fields Part 2

Chapter 21

Jack jumped involuntarily when Daniel awakened with a start, looking around blearily then finally met Jack's eyes accusingly.

"Jack, we don't have time ..."

"It's only a few hours, Daniel. We all needed the break." Jack nodded to indicate Carter and Connor dozing nearby. Jack had tried to sleep, but found himself unable to relax. He was starting to get that itchy feeling again. So far the hunting fields had proved relatively tame and that worried Jack.

Even taking into consideration the attack of the alien animal, this place had proved unexpectedly calm. Jack doubted that Tel'nat was going to continue to be so easy on them. And Jack had no doubt that everything that happened was somehow orchestrated by Tel'nat. If they were being left alone, it was only because Tel'nat wanted it that way, perhaps to foster a feeling of misplaced security? To study them for weaknesses?

Jack moved to Daniel, re-bandaging his back...noting that the soaking had neither helped nor hurt the inflammation ... and helped him ease back into his coverall. Jack laid the cloak gingerly across Daniel's shoulders and received a grateful nod.

"Connor and Teal'c found another one of those markers on the other side of those trees..." Jack explained as he handed over another cup of water. Daniel looked at Jack strangely, "That's ... convenient ..."

Jack nodded agreeing with Daniel's tone as much as his sarcastic words. Daniel had more personal experience with Tel'nat; if he sensed a certain contrivance in this whole situation, then Jack was more than a little inclined to agree.

"We'll give them a few more minutes then move out."

Daniel took one of Carter's rags and washed his face with it, eyes closed as the cool water ran them.

"Daniel?"

Daniel shook his head, "It's okay, Jack. I'll be ..."

"Fine?" Jack let the doubt hang heavy in his voice, but let the subject drop.

<><><><><><><><><>

Thor watched the two friends once again exchange wordless communication. He wondered again if these two particular Tau'ri were not telepathic. The communication between them was extremely subtle, yet expressed much.

A high-pitched whine behind him warned Thor as Tel'nat appeared in a burst of energy.

"Interesting, are they not?"

Thor inclined his head slightly, but did not deign to answer further. Tel'nat moved to the holographic projection, studying the two men intently.

"I can see how their determination would help them prevail against the Goa'uld but this ... emotion...."

Thor noted that Tel'nat spoke the word as if it were as foreign a concept to him as the torture he had inflicted upon Daniel was to Thor. The irony was not lost on Thor.

"They see their emotions as a strength, not a weakness, " Thor observed. Tel'nat looked at the smaller alien in contempt, then back at the two humans. "Perhaps we should put that belief to the test?"

Tel'nat disappeared as swiftly as he'd come. Thor looked again at the tired, pale face of Daniel, the concerned, deeply lined face of O'Neill. Thor feared greatly for his human friends. Whatever Tel'nat had planned, it was almost certain to be directed at these two.

<><><><><><><><>

As they walked toward the place Teal'c and Connor had found, Daniel tried to keep his mind focused on the here and now. There was a definite feeling of imminent danger. Jack was right, Tel'nat had been giving them too easy a time so far. Daniel guessed that they'd been observed all along, studied for weaknesses. If that were so, then Daniel himself had given away the most crucial piece of information ... the bomb. He was sure that the Pal'noor would have some way of blocking the Stargate, unless they were so totally confident in their own superiority that they'd never considered the possibility. Daniel doubted it.

Daniel noticed the others eyeing the low trees warily; they felt it, too. Jack met Daniel's glance with a somber smile, then went back to scanning the trees. Daniel hadn't missed the way the group had moved to surround and support him. He appreciated the gesture for what it was, but worried that his increasingly poor condition was placing them all in even greater danger. A tap on the shoulder from Sam pulled him out of those dark thoughts and he gave her a slight smile.

" I'm okay, Sam."

She nodded in response, accepting his answer with a distinct lack of conviction in her eyes.

Daniel smiled again and returned his attention to the trail, just in time to see a flash of color and sound. There on the trail less than ten yards ahead of them was his cloak. The one they'd last seen wrapped around Thor. Jack moved forward one step, indicating that the rest of them should not follow. Daniel knew what his team leader ... his friend ... was thinking.

"Jack, no ... " Daniel's voice was low, but insistent.

Jack looked back at Daniel in frustration, with a definite edge of irritation.

"It's too easy, Jack," Daniel reasoned. "Tel'nat's not just going to hand it over to us."

Jack nodded once, his eyes on the pile of fabric lying so near.

"But what if he did...?" Jack looked deeply into Daniel's eyes. Daniel knew how bad he looked, they all knew he needed help, but only he knew how soon it would have to come. Already he could feel the stress on his system, the pull on his lungs and heart as they worked ever harder to keep up with the demands he was placing on them.

"It's not worth it, Jack," he whispered.

Jack met Daniel's eyes in that same level, soul-searching gaze they'd shared over the campfire just before the animal had attacked.

"Yes, it is."

Daniel could only watch helplessly as Jack moved forward into what was most certainly a trap.

Chapter 22

Teal'c was not entirely sure what had just passed between his two friends, but he was absolutely certain that O'Neill was knowingly walking into a trap. Every instinct he'd developed over decades as a Jaffa warrior was achingly alert to the danger O'Neill was placing himself in. Teal'c had to fight his own desire to reach out and pull the stubborn colonel back, but in the end he knew ... as they all did ... that Daniel Jackson's condition was deteriorating quickly. The possibilities paled in the light of the knowledge that this could be Daniel Jackson's only hope.

O'Neill moved forward, one slow step at a time, using the spear in his hand to search the ground before him for hidden dangers. Finally, less than four paces from the cloak, O'Neill hooked the spear point into the blue cloth, raising it gently and scanning beneath it carefully. As the last velvet fold cleared the ground, a building whine emanated from the place where O'Neill was standing. O'Neill turned back to them with a look that spoke of no regrets as he launched the cloak in Teal'c's direction and a flash of white blinded them ...

<><><><><><><><><>

Sam blinked hard to clear her vision of the blurry spots that were all she could see. As her world slowly returned to what was normal for this place, she heard Daniel's muffled curse.

"Dammit, Jack ..."

Sam's vision finally cleared enough to let her see that Daniel had fallen on his side, and was peering blindly down the trail. She moved to his side quickly, but Teal'c beat her there. Connor was still blinking and shaking his head behind them, but Sam could see that he was recovering.

Daniel sat up slowly, a slow expression of disbelief on his face as he stared in the direction where the colonel... ...was standing.

"Jack?" Daniel's voice was uncertain.

The colonel shrugged and walked back casually to sit beside them.

"Well that was ... interesting."

The words were a massive understatement, even for the colonel, Sam reflected as she reached for the cloak Teal'c held out to her. She felt along the inner lining where the healing device had been sewn in.

It wasn't there.

<><><><><><><><><>

Jack let his eyes close, sighing in frustration.

He mentally kicked himself for even beginning to believe that Tel'nat would just hand over the means to help Daniel. Jack wondered exactly what purpose the scenario had served. Was Tel'nat trying to see just how far they'd go to help Daniel? If so, Jack had just said it loud and clear.

Jack once again felt as if he were being played with. It was a feeling he hated almost as much as the helplessness he was feeling right now.

Jack felt a touch on his forearm and opened his eyes to find Daniel looking at him. The too-bright blue eyes spoke of gratitude, acceptance.

"It's okay, Jack."

Jack shook his head. "The hell it is..." Jack shook his head sharply, getting to his feet. "Kids, I'm getting a bad feeling here ..."

Jack was interrupted by a glimmering in the air a few feet away from them. "One should imagine you would, O'Neill."

Jack noted the defensive stances his team had taken up at the sudden appearance of Tel'nat's image.

"The device you seek is indeed with Thor. Your goal remains two-fold." Tel'nat gave them a glance that Jack would describe as curiosity, mixed with calculation. "I must warn you, although I am not required to do so ... I have been observing you thus far. Now the hunt truly begins, based on those observations." Tel'nat bared his teeth in what was likely intended as a smile. "As for your planet's notion to send an explosive device here, suffice it to say they will not succeed."

Jack felt something in him relax at those words, but sensed Tel'nat wasn't telling them this without a reason.

"However... do not let that knowledge lessen your sense of urgency." Tel'nat seemed to look at Daniel. " The illness you observe in Daniel Jackson is not the result of random biological conditions. It was introduced; an experiment, if you will. I admit to a certain amount of curiosity insofar as your tolerances are concerned. Daniel Jackson made a most intriguing test subject ... "

Jack felt a blind rage rise up in him once again, but pushed it back down. "Test subject? Is *that* what you call this?" Jack's hand broadly took in Daniel, still seated and watching Tel'nat warily.

"Of course." Tel'nat's tone was blatantly unconcerned. "How else can we learn of your strengths..."

Jack could read the unspoken 'and weaknesses' and felt the dark anger pull at him again. "What the hell gives you the right to..."

Tel'nat's image turned to meet Jack's glare. "Actually, it wasn't a what.

It was a who."

Tel'nat smiled and disappeared.

Chapter 23

"What the hell was that supposed to mean?" Connor couldn't help asking. Teal'c and Daniel answered in unison. "Ra."

Daniel shook his head, rubbing his eyes tiredly. "It goes back to the bargain Ra made with the Pal'noor. At that point in Earth's history, humans were slaves. Ra's property."

Connor felt a sudden shiver run down his spine. "So this guy thinks he can do whatever he wants to us?"

Daniel reached out to take Teal'c's offered hand, rising unsteadily. "I don't seriously don't think he does. It's just a means to justify ... all of this."

The colonel moved up to walk beside Daniel as they continued down the forest path. "So he wants to know what we're made of, hunh?"

Daniel smiled a little at that, nodding slightly. "Something like that."

Connor cast a worried glance at Daniel. "What did he mean by 'introducing' the illness?"

Daniel's voice was quiet. "He tried a lot of different, um, machines. They either didn't work ... or didn't work like he wanted them to. That's why he, uh..." Daniel gestured vaguely toward his back, his expression uncomfortable.

Major Carter jumped to Daniel's rescue. "He must've exposed the raw wounds to some sort of virus or bacteria. As a precursor to some sort of biological warfare?"

"I do not believe so," Teal'c offered gravely. " The Pal'noor have weapons effective enough to intimidate the Goa'uld. They would not need to rely on a biological one."

"Then why did he do it?" Connor asked.

The colonel cleared his throat before answering gruffly, " To prove a point."

Connor looked at the colonel curiously.

The colonel looked at Daniel, eyes reflecting something dark and distant, "That he could."

The answer made no sense to Connor, but from the colonel's set expression, Daniel's bowed head, and knowing looks from Major Carter and Teal'c, Connor knew it was all the answer he was likely to get.

<><><><><><><><>

Daniel had been working hard to forget everything that had happened with Tel'nat. He couldn't remember everything, flashes and pieces of pain, helplessness, anger. What had surfaced in his mind, he'd tried to sublimate, in the interest of surviving this place. Daniel was aware of the irony of his current situation. It seemed to be a recurrent theme in his life lately. He'd learned very well the lesson of putting away the bad stuff until time allowed him to take it out and deal with it. The real problem was that the *time* so often did not come. Daniel had lost track of how many things he had put away to be dealt with in a 'later' that never seemed to arrive. Daniel shook his head, trying to shake off the dark thoughts. As always, there wasn't time.

The forest had grown thicker, blocking out most of the strange yellow light of the ever-present twin moons. Daniel noticed the others growing more tense, closing the distance between them until they were less than a few paces from each other. The mood of the team had become wary since Tel'nat's message, and more overtly concerned for Daniel. The knowledge that Tel'nat had deliberately caused this had affected them all.

Daniel felt no better, but no worse, and was content to leave it at that for the time being. He didn't have the energy to devote to concerns he could do nothing about. They had to find Thor, and Daniel was more certain than ever that they were to be kept from that goal in every way that Tel'nat could devise. Jack had been right. Tel'nat wanted them to fail, wanted to break them, for no other reason than because he thought he had the means to do so. Privately, Daniel theorized that Tel'nat's attitude had as much to do with Thor as with them. Although Daniel was unsure of the reasons for Tel'nat's intense dislike of the little alien, everything he'd heard Tel'nat say or express about the Asgard had been tinged with a scathing hatred. Daniel once again had to pull himself out of his thoughts, to concentrate on the trail that was becoming darker by the moment. Jack looked over, a question in his eyes. Daniel nodded, indicating that he was fine ... at least, as fine as he could be under the circumstances. Jack raised a doubting eyebrow and gave a slight smile. He wasn't buying it, but knew as well as Daniel did that they had no real choices right now. Daniel knew very well how Jack felt about 'choiceless' feelings. Daniel smiled in return at the thought.

A sudden chill blew through the trees, causing the team to look around warily and raise their assorted weapons.

<><><><><><><><>

Thor watched tensely as the Tau'ri group obviously sensed something in the dark forest. Thor was growing more concerned about the humans, especially since Tel'nat's proclamation to them. The Hunting Fields were no more than an excuse for the Pal'noor to exploit the humans in an effort to discover their worth as enemies or their value as slaves.

Thor felt a moment of extreme remorse. The Asgard had studied the humans for years, on Earth as well as other planets, in order to decide their worthiness to be protected. Was there really any difference? Were his people any better than the Pal'noor as they sat back and observed the Tau'ri without helping them against their enemies?

Thor felt a sudden chill and wrapped himself deeper in the cloak that still held Daniel Jackson's only real chance of surviving to return home. Thor wanted to help the Earth humans. Regardless of the High Council's decision, these incredibly brave and loyal people were risking their lives for him, as well as to save Daniel. To Thor that spoke of a maturity of spirit that was unique in the galaxies, not to mention the human species. As Thor watched the hologram, he knew something was about to happen. The tension was palpable even over the imprecise image he was viewing. Thor saw a darkness dislodge itself from the shadows of the forest and advance on the group of humans. Thor had to stifle a shout of warning as the darkness enfolded Daniel Jackson.

Chapter 24

Teal'c glimpsed the shadows moving only moments before Daniel Jackson was enveloped in them. A gasp of pain was all they heard as it tried to move away, taking Daniel Jackson further from them. Teal'c moved forward, wishing for his staff weapon, and raised his spear to block the shadow-creature. Within the darkness, he could glimpse the pain-etched features of his young friend. However incorporeal the creature seemed, it was capable of causing injury. Teal'c hoped that meant it was also capable of *being injured.

The others had followed Teal'c's lead and encircled the dark thing that sought to take their friend. Teal'c had a strange memory flash of a story O'Neill had once told him of a 'boogey-man', a story told to frighten children of a creature that would steal them away from their parents if they wandered too far from their protection. It seemed Tel'nat, or perhaps the Pal'noor, had an equivalent tale.

O'Neill experimentally prodded the darkness and watched it reflexively back away. At the same moment, Daniel Jackson cried out in pain.

"Daniel?" O'Neill called out.

"I can feel ..." Daniel Jackson's voice was breathless with the pain, the words and the tone making it very clear that the creature's pain was shared by him.

O'Neill looked helplessly at the shadows that nearly concealed their friend...a helplessness shared by all of them. Teal'c wondered how they could stop the creature without causing Daniel Jackson further agony?

Teal'c felt a sudden chill. Once again he was faced with the choice of saving Daniel Jackson by a means that could only hurt him more. Teal'c hesitated a moment, cursing the gods, false and otherwise, for the cruelty that seemed forever to lock himself and Daniel Jackson into this fate....then plunged his spear into the darkness.

<><><><><><><><><><>

Sam didn't even have time to react as she realized what Teal'c was about to do. The colonel was nodding slightly even though Teal'c had not asked permission. She hoped it was the right decision.

As the spear point plunged into the swirling darkness, Daniel screamed.

Sam felt her heart freeze at the sound, the last time she'd heard Daniel express this level of pain had been when he'd suffered through the hellish withdrawal from the sarcophagus. This was much worse. The darkness clung to Daniel for what seemed an interminably long moment, as if it didn't want to let him go, then dissipated back into the surrounding darkness of the forest. Daniel stood there a moment, eyes closed, body trembling convulsively. The colonel and Connor rushed forward to ease Daniel to the ground, the colonel providing gentle support for the damaged back.

Sam started forward but glimpsed Teal'c's face and stopped. The Jaffa's face was locked into an expression of guilt and deep regret, an expression identical to the one he'd worn for weeks following Sha'uri's death. Sam knew what must be passing through the big man's mind at this moment, but couldn't find words to express everything that needed to be said. She laid a hand on Teal'c's arm, trying with the simple gesture to convey the platitudes that she knew were ultimately useless. No amount of words would assuage Teal'c self-recrimination. Even Daniel, with his amazing capacity for forgiveness, hadn't been able to do that entirely. Only Teal'c would be able to release himself from the weight of guilt that dragged at his heart.

Sam unrolled the cloak she'd been carrying and laid it over Daniel. He was still shivering but not so violently as before. Sam checked him thoroughly, but couldn't find evidence of any new injuries. She speculated aloud that the shadow creature must have been telepathically linked to Daniel in some way, must have somehow transferred its pain.

The colonel looked on in quiet rage, still cradling Daniel against him in a way they hoped wouldn't add to his pain. Sam noted with a grim smile that the colonel's hand was absently rubbing Daniel's arm as if to ward off a chill, and Connor was doing the same thing on the other arm. It looked like Daniel had two mother hens now.

<><><><><><><><><><>

Jack was getting completely and totally pissed with Tel'nat and his alien head games. He wasn't sure what the purpose of this one had been, what he did know was that it hurt Daniel. Again.

Daniel had finally stopped shaking and seemed to be unconscious. His fever had spiked again and Carter was not even trying to conceal the fact that she was worried. Connor and Teal'c had gathered wood and started a fire. The light and the warmth seemed to ease them all.

Jack kept catching strange looks Carter was giving to Teal'c. Jack didn't have to think too hard or too long to figure out what was going on there.

The whole situation had a warped, déjà vu quality to it. Jack didn't need to point out the obvious to Teal'c ... there really hadn't been a choice with that shadow creature. If Teal'c hadn't acted, Daniel would have been missing at the very least, or more likely dead. Teal'c knew that. They all knew it. Daniel would know it. But that didn't help Teal'c.

Daniel shifted slightly in Jack's arms, hissing quietly at the pain the movement caused. Jack saw Teal'c flinch at the sound.

"There wasn't any choice, Teal'c," Jack stated quietly.

Teal'c nodded, but made no comment.

"We couldn't let it take Daniel, " Connor added. "He'd have died for sure."

Teal'c nodded again.

"Daniel won't blame you, " Carter said quietly, delving into the heart of the problem.

Teal'c looked up then, his dark eyes flashing with self-disgust. "He should."

Jack could only watch as the big Jaffa stalked away into the darkness.

Chapter 25

//The darkness surrounded him, probing, invading his mind ... tightening around his body as if trying to squeeze his very soul out to join its shadow realm. Daniel panicked as he realized that was 'exactly' what it was trying to do. It would absorb him into itself, leaving nothing behind ... dragging him into the blackness that had no end, and no escape.... //

Daniel called out from the depths of his nightmare, "Jack? Teal'c?" He felt a coolness on his forehead and turned to it. He was so hot.

"We're here, Danny. It's okay." Jack's voice. Jack said it was okay. It must be then, Jack never lied to him.

So why did he feel like he was fading away like that shadow creature?

Something touched his lips and he tried to obey the voice that told him to swallow, but it seemed like his throat was constricting and he couldn't manage more than a sip. Strong arms enfolded him gently, keeping him still, holding the pain at bay. Daniel tried to open his eyes like the voices were pleading for him to, but his eyes would not obey.

A woman's voice was saying something about fever. She ... Sha'uri? ...was worried that it was too high.

The strong, deep voice vibrated against his back, demanding that he be okay, wouldn't let him go back to sleep. An 'order'?

Daniel struggled against the arms, it felt safe here, but he wanted to sleep. To stop fighting. He was so tired of fighting...

Why couldn't he just let go?

<><><><><><><><><><>

Connor had been scared. As scared as he'd ever been in his life. Being lost in that spirit-limbo had been downright benign compared to the pure evil they'd all sensed in that shadow thing. Just watching it wrap itself around Daniel had been enough to supply Connor with a month's worth of nightmares, he couldn't imagine how Daniel must have felt while trapped inside it.

Daniel was delirious now. His fever had spiked and nothing they'd done would bring it down. Daniel called out for his dead wife, the colonel, his mother and father ... also dead, Connor discovered ... and even for Teal'c. Teal'c had looked up in shock as the hoarse, strained voice called for help to escape the nightmare place the shadow creature, along with the damnable fever, had taken him to.

Major Carter had explained a little about Teal'c's role in the death of Daniel's wife. It helped Connor better understand SG1 as a whole, and the almost obsessive protectiveness he had observed in Teal'c. The big Jaffa, so seemingly untouched and untouchable on the surface, was being eaten from the inside out by guilt.

Connor wished there was something he could do to help, but, as close as he felt to these people, Connor was all too aware that he was a guest at this particular party. This was something that SG1 would have to get through together. As a team.

<><><><><><><><><>

Thor watched the humans as they struggled to keep Daniel alive. They expressed concern that the young man was growing too weak to fight much longer. Watching the gaunt face as it fought through another round of delirium-induced dreams, Thor was inclined to agree. He knew enough about human physiology to recognize that Daniel could not survive much more.

The pop-whine that announced Tel'nat's arrival could not distract Thor from the drama unfolding before him. Tel'nat walked slowly to the hologram.

"Why do they do that?" Tel'nat seemed genuinely curious.

"It is their nature to care for one another."

Tel'nat looked confused, "More 'human' emotion? I still believe it is a weakness."

Thor was quiet a long moment, the very fact that Tel'nat was so intrigued by the humans could be a potential advantage. "Perhaps they could teach us something of compassion."

Tel'nat laughed. "Compassion? Such things do not win battles."

Watching Jack O'Neill holding tightly to his friend as he arched and twisted away from enemies only he could see, Thor felt an unfamiliar anger.

"Perhaps there is more than battles to be won. Perhaps what you see as weaknesses are the very things that will help the humans defeat the Goa'uld, despite their technological deficiencies." Thor raised himself slowly, pointing to the image of the two human friends. "Observe O'Neill and Daniel Jackson. They do not admit defeat. They do not submit. Their will is strong."

"True, " Tel'nat agreed. "None of my methods could extract information from Jackson. I will accede that point, they are stubborn. But is that enough? The dark one killed Daniel Jackson's wife, why does he not exact retribution from him? Even the Jaffa believes he deserves it."

Thor was unsure of how to respond in a way that Tel'nat could understand. The concepts the humans took for granted were difficult for Thor himself to comprehend. How much more difficult would it be for the Pal'noor who had been warrior's for centuries untold?

"Humans have many qualities we would both find strange. Among those is 'forgiveness'...a dismissing of the wrongs done to them. Many of them believe that vengeance is wrong, that to forgive brings them to a state of being much more desirable."

Tel'nat looked at the image of Daniel Jackson for a long moment. "I wonder if he would be able to forgive even me?"

Thor could not help but be shocked by the Pal'noor's tone. It almost sounded as if ...

Tel'nat shook himself and turned away from the hologram. "It is of no consequence. Should Daniel Jackson survive the effects of the Del'nae, he will not likely live to reach this place."

Tel'nat disappeared abruptly, leaving Thor to wonder exactly how much the humans were beginning to affect the Pal'noor leader. Looking back at Daniel's face, so deathly still at the moment, Thor hoped that Tel'nat was wrong.

Chapter 26

Jack swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. Daniel was on fire, the heat from his body was like a furnace against Jack's own. Carter had tried everything she knew to do, short of immersing Daniel in water ... they'd found another small spring, but it certainly wasn't big enough to dip a fair-sized archaeologist in. They'd settled for soaking one of the cloaks and wrapping Daniel in it. It didn't seem to be helping.

Daniel shifted against him again, trying to pull away from only he knew what, some nightmare image conjured up by Tel'nat's shadow creature ... or maybe just one of the nightmares that were Daniel's life lately. Jack murmured quiet reassurances, trying to keep Daniel grounded to the present, to 'this' reality. Daniel didn't seem to have much left to fight with. Or maybe he didn't think he had anything to fight for.

Jack couldn't help remembering the conversation they'd had that first night here. Daniel was on the verge of giving up then, maybe not actively...but the dark thoughts and empty feelings were definitely there. Thoughts and feelings so familiar to Jack that all he had to do was close his eyes to return to that place where they had existed so long ago. But he was only a visitor there now, he no longer lived that ache that had been life after Charlie. Daniel lived there now and Jack wasn't sure he knew how to bring his friend back from that place.

Teal'c brought another wet cloth to put on Daniel's head. The man's dark eyes were haunted at this new pain he believed he'd caused Daniel, nothing they could say could convince the Jaffa that it had been necessary. Teal'c knew it had been necessary, if he hadn't done it one of them would have ... there was no way Jack would have allowed that thing to take Daniel ... but knowing didn't help. All Teal'c could see was that Daniel was in pain because of something *he* had done. Jack couldn't help thinking that it was becoming a pattern in the life of his two closest friends. Teal'c had taken responsibility for Daniel long ago when he discovered who Sha'uri was. Events had seemed to conspire to always bring the two of them back to the same place ... and Jack, for one, was getting more than a little tired of it. Teal'c hovered for a moment, eyes only for Daniel's drawn face, then started to back away.

Daniel shifted again, murmuring in some language Jack didn't know, but Teal'c obviously did. The big man's face closed off against something deep and terrible as he translated for Jack.

"Daniel Jackson asks 'where is my wife, why does she not come.' " Teal'c bowed his head, listening closely as Daniel's voice faded away. "He asks us to help him find her. He asks me. "

Jack could only look on in sympathy as Teal'c spoke to Daniel in the same language, his tone soft and reassuring in a way Jack had never heard before. Teal'c looked up. "I told him to wake up and we would search for her together. Perhaps I should not..."

Jack shook his head swallowing hard again. "No, Teal'c. You did the right thing."

Jack noted the flash in Teal'c's eyes as he turned away, but couldn't pursue it as Daniel cried out again.

Jack held on to the younger man, it wasn't as hard as it had been before ... Daniel didn't have much strength left. Jack started to shift a little, to ease the ache in his back, when Daniel opened his eyes.

"Jack?"

Jack stretched his head around so Daniel could see him. "I'm here, Daniel."

Daniel nodded, resting his head back on Jack's chest. "Okay?"

Jack wondered exactly what Daniel was asking. He didn't like the thoughts that came to him. "You're going to be okay, Daniel."

Daniel raised an eyebrow, "Dunno 'bout that, Jack...."

Jack tightened his arms, "You will, you hear me? You've just got to hang on a little longer..."

" S' tired...."

"I know, kid. But you've got to stick with it." Jack was getting more worried than ever.

Daniel shook his head weakly, "Please, Jack...."

Jack felt his heart try to jump out of his chest. Daniel was asking ...

"NO! Do you hear me, Danny?" Jack was speaking urgently to his friend, suddenly realizing that it was a mistake. As his friend, Jack would eventually be able to forgive Daniel for letting go; Daniel knew that.

"Listen here, Doctor Daniel Jackson. You do not have permission to go anywhere. Got that?"

Daniel nodded weakly, swallowing reflexively the way he used to when Jack put on his Commanding Officer tone.

"You aren't going anywhere, Jackson. That's an order."

"Jack...?" The blue eyes fairly glowed at Jack, pleading.

Jack had to pull out every hard-ass military memory he possessed to look at Daniel coldly, "An order, Jackson."

Daniel nodded, letting his head fall against Jack as his eyes closed again.

Jack tightened his grip on his friend, feeling his heart crack and break at what he'd just done. He closed his eyes against the tears that threatened to fall. He'd had to do it. Hadn't he?

<><><><><><><><><><>

Sam could hear the quiet murmuring between the colonel and Teal'c but didn't want to intrude. They really needed to think about splitting the team. She and Connor could go search for more clues to find Thor, while Teal'c and the colonel could stay with Daniel. Sam was seriously starting to worry about how long Daniel could keep on like this before he suffered serious physical ramifications. A prolonged high fever could affect the internal organs, as well as the brain.

As Teal'c got up and joined Connor on watch, Sam saw that Daniel was awake. She started to walk over to check on him when she heard the colonel's voice raise. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. As outrage built up in her, she let it die again as she realized what the colonel was doing ... and why. She stepped back into the shadows as Daniel nodded with a look of hurt resignation in his eyes, and went back to sleep. She watched the colonel for a long moment, the self-loathing and fear were as evident in his eyes as if he'd spoken them aloud. She felt tears sting their way to the surface as she walked away, leaving the two friends alone with their pain.

Chapter 27

Teal'c had overheard the conversation between O'Neill and Daniel Jackson. He understood O'Neill's actions, and grieved for the pain his commander was going through as a result. Watching O'Neill rocking the still figure in his arms in an instinctive rhythm of comfort and apology, Teal'c knew in his heart that Daniel Jackson would understand O'Neill's motives ... and most certainly would forgive him.

Just as he'd forgiven Teal'c.

Just as Daniel forgave nearly all trespasses ... save those of the Goa'uld.

Teal'c had learned long ago that Daniel Jackson could not be judged by any concepts he had been familiar with in his former life.

In his many years as Apophis' First Prime, Teal'c had known many people, Jaffa, slave, and Goa'uld alike; but none had possessed the peculiar variety of integrity and honor he found in the young human scholar. Master Bra'tac had taught a system of honor subtly different from that of the other Jaffa teacher's, but it was nonetheless a system based upon the Jaffa mold. A system grounded in antiquity and fashioned around the military mindset that was their life among the false gods.

Daniel Jackson was different. His honor was based on something far more tenuous, but so intrinsically a part of him that he could conceive of no other way to be. Daniel Jackson believed in a universal goodness, that at the heart of nearly every life form lay something that could redeem them. All too often he'd been disappointed, but occasionally, and usually quite surprisingly, he was proven right.

Teal'c himself was proof of that.

<><><><><><><><><><>

// Ra approached across the burning sand. Daniel was too tired to play the game again. He knew how it had to end. Ra looked down at Daniel where he lay, the heat penetrating his body, aching and soothing all at once.

Ra smiled that same secret smile, stooping down to sit beside Daniel.

"You already have the answer, Daniel."

"I do?" Daniel's exhausted voice was laden with doubt.

Ra nodded kindly. "You need only to remember it."

Daniel closed his eyes, "I guess I should wake up then ..." //

Daniel opened his eyes slowly, watching the shadowy forest tilt in his bleary vision before righting itself abruptly. He wanted to laugh at the peculiar sight but couldn't seem to find the energy, so he settled for a smile. There was something rumbling against his back and he became aware of being very wet.

As his thoughts settled into something approaching order, Daniel realized the rumbling vibration behind him was Jack. Snoring. He smiled again at the image that it brought to his mind. They must look quite the mess indeed. Personally he felt like a drowned rat. A very drained, very weak, but very much alive, drowned rat. Daniel wasn't quite sure yet how he felt about that...

Glancing around, Daniel could see Carter and Connor sleeping around the fire. He didn't see Teal'c, but knew the Jaffa was keeping watch or Jack would not be sleeping so soundly ... or so loudly. He knew Jack had been holding him like this for a long tome. The few lucid moments he could recall had found him in this same position.

Daniel remembered darkness, but it didn't pull at him now like it had before. He remembered voices, caring, afraid, gentle... He remembered...an order. Jack wouldn't let him go.

No. Colonel O'Neill wouldn't let him go.

Daniel knew, better than most, that his friend Jack and Colonel Jack O'Neill were two different people. Colonel O'Neill was the stranger he'd walked through the Stargate with four years ago. Daniel hadn't seen much of that cold bastard lately. He remembered being rather surprised that Jack had managed to find him again.

On some deep level of understanding, Daniel realized that he hadn't given Jack much of a choice. He remembered asking permission...for what he wasn't even sure himself. He remembered the look of fear in Jack's eyes. Daniel knew it was the fear that had given birth to the implacable voice that had ordered him to stay. He knew Jack would beat himself up over it and wondered if he could ever make Jack understand that it was the fear that had made him fight to stay ... not that other guy.

Daniel tried to raise up a little on trembling arms that didn't seem to want to support him. The snoring stopped immediately and he felt Jack grip him tighter as if the older man expected another round of nightmares.

"Ow. Easy, Jack..."

"Sorry, Danny."

Jack straightened up against Daniel and the worry-lined face appeared over his shoulder.

"Daniel?" Jack's voice was incredulous.

Daniel smiled a little, nodding. "Yeah. What'd I miss?"

<><><><><><><><><>

Connor woke to the sound of Colonel O'Neill laughing. His first thought was that he was hearing things. His second thought was that maybe Daniel had died, and what he was hearing was crying not laughing. He didn't have time for a third thought as he looked over to see that Daniel's eyes were open and more than a little teary as the colonel wrapped him up in a dry cloak with a big hug that had nothing to do with restraining him.

Teal'c was looking on with an unfathomable expression, but Connor could definitely see moisture glistening in dark eyes before the big man moved quietly to join his friends. Major Carter woke up at Connor's touch on her shoulder.

"Daniel ...?"

The major rolled to her feet in one fluid motion and rushed to Daniel's side. Connor was less than a step behind her, but hung back. He understood that SG1 needed this time together. Daniel was alive.

Once again and against all probability, Daniel Jackson was alive.

Chapter 28

Thor felt his own heart lighten as he watched the Earth people gather around Daniel with an almost hesitant hopefulness. He was beginning to see just how vital this one terribly young, terribly ill man was to his friends. If Daniel Jackson was lost, Thor feared that this team would be as well. With a certainty that had no logical basis, Thor understood that, for this one moment in time, the lives of these four humans were completely and irrevocably intertwined around the spirit of Daniel Jackson.

Thor had watched through the hours of struggle, the tense moments when it seemed that Daniel's fight was nearly lost. He'd felt himself drawn into O'Neill's pained refusal to allow Daniel to surrender to the sickness that sought to claim him. He'd seen the memories return to Daniel's too-wise eyes and seen the forgiveness take easy root there.

Thor felt in his heart that his own people could learn much from the example of these particular humans and vowed to at least attempt to make them listen. Assuming, of course, that any of them survived to leave this place. Daniel had defeated one aspect of the Hunting Fields, but Thor knew that many more dangers lay between him and the humans. He was not at all sure that Daniel could survive to find him.

Thor started to go to sleep, he had feared to do so while Daniel had been so ill, but a flicker behind Samantha Carter caught his eye.

It was Tel'nat.

He was standing there at the edge of the shadows watching the humans with an expression that spoke of deep bemusement. With a sudden nod, Tel'nat set down the box he was carrying and disappeared. Thor saw the human called Connor discover the box and take it over to the others.

It was food.

<><><><><><><><><><>

Jack was suspicious.

Tel'nat hadn't shown any sign of compassion up until now and Jack wasn't inclined to believe the Pal'noor had suddenly turned over a new leaf. There had to be a catch. And yet..

They all needed to eat...especially Daniel.

The fever, the lack of fluids and the fact that he hadn't had a decent meal in days had left the younger man with a trembling weakness...a dangerous weakness according to Carter. Jack was in a definite confusion. For Daniel's sake, they needed to take the risk, but what if the stuff was drugged...or worse, poisoned?

Teal'c had offered himself up as guinea pig again, but, as before, they couldn't really be sure if the Jaffa would be affected if there were anything in the food. Without waiting to ask permission, Connor had taken a few bites as well, stating what they all knew too well...they had to eat, soon. Jack didn't know whether to be angry or proud of the young captain, so he settled on a light cuff to the jaw, blunted by a quiet thanks. They could only hope...and wait.

Daniel lay there quietly on his side, dressed in warm, dry clothes that had been included in the box of food. Jack had finally gotten up, but didn't stray far. Daniel was watching them all with an almost fearful expression, as if they would disappear if he took his eyes off of them. Jack had tried to be as reassuring as possible, but he felt awkward and hugely guilty for the means he had undertaken to make Daniel keep fighting. He wanted to say something, but didn't quite know how or what. He didn't even know if Daniel remembered what had happened. He hoped not. Jack had come a long way from the days when that tone and attitude had been an everyday part of his military life. He hadn't liked calling up that part of himself any more than Daniel had likely enjoyed being a target for it. Jack found himself watching Daniel for signs that he remembered and hated him for it. But all Jack had seen so far was the tentative gaze that watched them so quietly.

"Y'okay?" Jack asked him.

Daniel nodded briefly. "Better..."

Jack couldn't stop himself, he had to know. "Daniel, do you remember... ?"

Daniel looked up and met Jack's eyes with a levelness and depth that said more than his words. "Jack, all I remember is that you were there when I needed you to be..." Daniel ducked his head a little and Jack knew that he remembered everything, but that it didn't matter. Nothing Jack had done had affected their friendship. Jack wondered if there was anything that would.

He hoped he'd never have to find out.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Sam watched and waited with the rest of her team. Neither Teal'c nor Connor had shown any sign that the food was in any way tainted and she hoped it wasn't just her own awareness of the desperate need in them all that pronounced that it was probably safe for them to eat it. They were a little hesitant at first, but finally hunger won out over caution and they ate their fill. Daniel picked at his portion, and Sam understood that his stomach was probably less that cooperative, but he did manage a little. There had been a bottle of water in the box and she made him take as much as he could of that.

Sam realized the colonel was suspicious of Tel'nat's gift. She was too, but she found her mind lingering on Tel'nat's motives. Was something changing the Pal'noor's mind about them, or was aid and comfort a standard component of the hunting fields? Somehow Sam doubted either possibility, but she had no idea what else to think....

The colonel proposed to build a stretcher out of poles and one of the cloaks so they could carry Daniel ... while he regained his strength. She knew the colonel had added the condition for Daniel's sake, but she knew as well as the colonel did ... as well as Daniel did ... that if they didn't find Thor soon, Daniel would likely never regain his strength. Daniel had survived this round, Sam didn't delude herself into thinking that he'd survive another.

Chapter 29

Teal'c looked down at Daniel Jackson as he slept on the stretcher he and Connor were carrying. The young man had argued weakly that he neither wanted nor required to be carried. O'Neill had allowed the stubborn scholar to attempt to stand and had been just as unhappy as Daniel Jackson that the attempt had been unsuccessful. Teal'c had never known two such stubborn and willful men who could still, somehow, become such steadfast friends. Even now O'Neill was hovering a few steps away, his eyes on Daniel Jackson as much as on the trail.

Teal'c had been deeply relieved when Daniel Jackson had awakened from his delirium. It had not lessened his guilt, but it had eased the immediacy of his torment. Teal'c knew he would have to spend much time in meditation later to learn to accept this new transgression into himself and discover a means of living with it.

As they finally passed out of the shadows of the forest into a sloping grassland, Teal'c heard all of his Tau'ri companions breath a collective sigh of relief. The forest had left them all wary and depressed, and Teal'c admitted to himself that he was glad they would be leaving that pervasive darkness behind. Major Carter called out that she had found another marker, they were still on the right trail.

<><><><><><><><><><>

Connor felt a weight lift from his shoulders as they moved further away from the forest. He hadn't realized how down he was until he stepped back into the weird yellow light of the twin moons. The mood of the others had lightened along with their surroundings and Conner thought he could see a smile on the colonel's worried face as they walked. Connor looked over his shoulder to check on Daniel, still sleeping away on the stretcher he and Teal'c carried.

The improved lighting only served to make Daniel's pale gauntness more evident. The trials of the past few days had taken an all too visible toll on the already lean scientist. It was as if the illness was stripping away the layers of Daniel's physical form, leaving only an exhausted, unprotected spirit in its place. Glancing around at SG1, never wandering more than a few paces from their teammate and friend, Connor amended that thought.

Daniel wasn't unprotected.

<><><><><><><><><><><>

Daniel stirred to a feeling of motion, remembering the argument he'd had with Jack before collapsing in a heap and proving the obstinate older man right. Daniel had known he couldn't make it on foot, but his own band of stubbornness wouldn't allow him to just give up and be carried like a child.

Daniel opened his eyes carefully. His first sight was Teal'c's worried face, looking down at him with an expression of utter guilt.

"Teal'c?" Daniel realized that even his voice betrayed the weakness he felt, but let it go in his greater concern for Teal'c.

"Are you well, Daniel Jackson?"

Daniel almost laughed at the irony of Teal'c's question, but nodded anyway. "You okay?"

Teal'c looked away, trying to conceal whatever it was in his eyes that he didn't want Daniel to see. "I am."

Daniel looked up at Teal'c doubtfully, making it clear that he wasn't buying it.

Teal'c sighed deeply. "I regret causing you further pain, Daniel Jackson."

"Wha...?" It took Daniel a moment to register what Teal'c was saying, and what he meant by it. "Teal'c, that thing was killing me. It would have, if you hadn't stopped it."

Teal'c nodded, accepting the fact if not the reality.

As sleep moved in to claim him again, Daniel knew he'd have to work on making Teal'c understand exactly what he'd been saved from.

// Darkness...deep, empty, unending....

"You aren't going anywhere, Jackson. That's an order..."

"You already have the answer, Daniel...."

"You have the answer, Daniel...."

"You need only to remember..."

"Remember..." //

Daniel woke again with a stifled gasp.

"Jack!"

Chapter 30

Jack felt a moment of panic when he heard Daniel's raspy voice call his name. Motioning for Teal'c and Connor to lower the stretcher, Jack knelt down beside an obviously agitated Daniel.

"Easy, Danny..."

Daniel was shaking his head and trying to sit up. Teal'c bent to provide the needed support, earning a grateful smile from Daniel.

"No, Jack. I remember. Ra's bargain ... "

Jack was growing more concerned by the second. The blue eyes were flashing with that familiar light of discovery and insight, but Daniel was beyond pale and every word seemed to rob him of precious energy.

"Daniel, it can wait."

Daniel shook his head emphatically, leaning back against Teal'c for a moment. "No, no, no. Jack, please listen ..."

Jack sighed in resignation. He knew this was one argument that he couldn't win. Daniel on a mission was a Daniel that Jack found difficult to counter on a good day. Now, with Daniel struggling to force out every word, pleading for Jack to just shut up and pay attention ... Jack knew the battle was lost before it had ever begun. He sat back and waved a hand, letting Daniel know that he was ready to listen.

Daniel sighed, taking a deep breath and visibly gathering his scant energy, before continuing.

"The original deal ... "

"Ra's deal?" Jack asked, to spare Daniel the necessity of repeating it.

Daniel nodded, "Exactly. Ra's deal."

The quiet, drained tone managed to reveal much in those few words as Daniel looked expectantly at Jack. Jack thought hard, but the words meant nothing and he shook his head as if to concede defeat.

Daniel's exhaustion couldn't quite suppress the impatient edge in his voice, "C'mon, Jack. Don't you see? It was Ra's deal. Thousands of years ago, when Ra pretty much ruled the Earth, humans were property." Daniel had to stop to catch his breath, leaning even heavier upon Teal'c.

Jack still hadn't caught up to Daniel's train of thought. Jack wondered privately if his train had even begun to leave the station. Jack could see that the others were as much in the dark as he was, which served to make him feel a little better about being so dense, but gave him no clue as to where Daniel was going with this.

Daniel drew a ragged breath and continued. "Ra ruled then. He had a certain kind of right to speak for Earth and to promise things on its behalf."

Carter seemed to catch on a little. "But Ra was shut off from Earth..."

Daniel nodded, closing his eyes in concentration, his brow furrowing as his thoughts visibly sought to untangle themselves. "Ra was kicked out, the humans living on Earth were free. Humans on Earth have lived free of Goa'uld influence or control for thousands of years now.:

Teal'c seemed to be catching on to something. "The original bargain spoke of Ra as supreme ruler of the First World, possessing all that fell within that domain ..." A light seemed to dawn in Teal'c's dark eyes and the big man actually smiled. He spoke the words at the same moment as Daniel, "For as long as he ruled there."

Daniel smiled, tiredly. "And Ra hasn't ruled on Earth for a very long time..."

Jack smiled, tentatively at first, absorbing what he'd just heard. "A loophole, a damn big loophole." He grinned hugely. "Way to go, Daniel."

Daniel made no response. His message delivered, Daniel had let go and returned to the sleep he needed so badly. Teal'c laid the young man down gently, reaching to lay a hand on his forehead at the same moment Jack did. Jack won by default of his rank, feeling the scorching heat rising off of Daniel in waves. It wasn't as bad as it had been the night before, but it was still far too hot.

Tucking the cloak back around his friend Jack wondered just what they could do with this newfound knowledge, and whether it mattered to Tel'nat in the least if he was holding them here illegally.

<><><><><><><><><><><>

Thor could hardly believe what he was hearing. In that horribly weak voice, with an urgency that had to be forced by aching degrees from a body and soul stretched to its limits, Daniel had just revealed that Tel'nat had no right to detain, much less test, the humans. The Pal'noor did not generally take notice of the law which governed this sector of the galaxy ... or any other for that matter. Thor took small comfort in the fact that Tel'nat was well known to be honorable among his people, but the extent and capacity under which that honor was exercised could definitely be called into question.

Thor tried to rise and found his strength returning but still uncertain. He could actually manage a few steps, but could not travel far. The machine Tel'nat had used on him had drained him seriously, but not irreparably. If Thor could return to his ship, he could heal himself quickly...along with Daniel Jackson. If the Goa'uld healing device he could feel through the lining of the cloak he held wrapped around himself failed, Thor knew that his ship would indeed be the final hope for Daniel.

Chapter 31

They traveled on without stopping. They all knew, without any of them having to put it into words, that they couldn't afford to stop anymore. Daniel didn't have the time. Sam was sure as it was possible to be of that fact. Daniel had been asleep since his desperate revelation about the ancient contract that had brought them here in the first place.

Sam had been well aware that something had been weighing on Daniel's mind for several days. Knowing Daniel's propensity for worrying a problem on every level of his psyche, Sam knew that even in his fevered dreams Daniel had likely been sifting through every angle of that translation, probably not even consciously. Daniel's free-style intellect had saved them on more than one occasion. Sam just hoped this new information would make some sort of difference.

Somehow Sam doubted that, if Tel'nat knew about this, he would even care that he had brought them here under false pretenses. And Sam was pretty sure there wasn't some sort of intergalactic police that they could seek any sort of justice from.

<><><><><><><><><><>

Connor looked over his shoulder at the soft murmuring coming from Daniel. The major stepped alongside the stretcher and wrapped the cloak tighter around the restless form. Her hand lingered on Daniel's forehead, her mouth tightening in grim confirmation of their fears.

The fever was rising again.

When the major had changed Daniel's bandages before they left the forest, Connor had known they weren't out of the woods on that front either. The wounds on Daniel's back were nearly lost among the inflamed flesh that surrounded them. Daniel may have defeated the delirium brought on by that shadow creature, but the core illness that Tel'nat had exposed him to was far from gone.

Connor turned his eyes back to the trail, but not before catching a look of utter desperation in the colonel's eyes. Connor knew Colonel O'Neill well enough by now to understand that he was a man of direct action. He could handle anything that he could counter in a physical way. The problem was that nothing he, or any of them, could do was going to help Daniel defeat this thing. They had to find Thor ... and the healing device ... and there was no guarantee that even that would be enough. They were locked in a probable lose-lose situation based on uncertainties and hope, and Daniel would be the one to pay the price if they were wrong.

<><><><><><><><><><><>

Teal'c could understand a few of the muttered words coming from Daniel Jackson's agitated dreams. The phrases were familiar from the translation they had worked on together before coming here. Somewhere in the depths of Daniel Jackson's mind, he was still hard at work on a solution to aid them. Teal'c reflected once again on the tenacity the young man so often showed in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition. Looking down upon Daniel Jackson, Teal'c could see the concentration being exerted by the scholar even subconsciously. Teal'c had learned over time that Daniel Jackson did not give up easily. This situation was no different. Daniel Jackson would fight to the last.

Teal'c had a feeling that there was something vitally important about the information Daniel Jackson had given them. Obviously Daniel Jackson believed there was. Teal'c had a vague memory worrying at his mind, something he had once heard Apophis say to another System Lord. It had been sometime before Teal'c had earned his place as First Prime. The young Jaffa who had been Teal'c had overheard things then; Jaffa ... rather like slaves ... were ignored as a rule, considered too ignorant to understand much, if they were considered at all.

Teal'c knew that whatever it was that eluded him, it had a definite bearing on their current situation. Teal'c wished they could spare the time for him to indulge in the deep concentration provided by Kel'noreem, it would help him to focus his thoughts. Teal'c settled for a lighter state of meditation that would allow his conscious mind to maintain focus on the task at hand ...and remain alert for danger... while it would also aid him in isolating the memory that he was sure held a vitally important clue.

And at this point, Teal'c knew, Daniel Jackson's very life could depend on that memory.

Chapter 32

Jack was very close to losing it. The hunting fields were getting more than a little monotonous. They walked, Daniel got sicker. They stopped, Daniel got sicker. Daniel woke up, Daniel got sicker. And, damn it all, Jack knew that if Daniel got very much sicker ... he wasn't going to make it.

Jack felt a cold dread run through his veins at the thought. Daniel couldn't die, not here, not like this. Hell, Jack had been pretty sure Daniel just couldn't die...It had gotten to be something of a running joke among them, Daniel had a wonderfully consistent habit of returning from the dead. Ra, Nem, the Nox, Klorel's ship ... It just couldn't happen. Daniel couldn't die. Especially not because of some alien virus on a planet they shouldn't be on in the first place....

Jack was pulled from his angry thoughts by Carter's voice. She was indicating a stone marker beside the trail. Jack's first instinct was to call for Daniel to read it, but he hesitated. If what Daniel was doing could be called resting then he needed to keep on doing it.

"Teal'c?"

Teal'c seemed to take a long moment to respond, then gently lowered the stretcher and stepped forward. He studied the marker intently. "I believe it is a symbol for 'Journey's End'. The completion of a task..."

A quiet voice behind them amended Teal'c's words gently, "The completion of one task, to be followed by another..."

Jack moved to Daniel's side quickly, squelching the instinct to tell the younger man to go back to sleep. " So what does it mean? What have we completed?"

Daniel started to shake his head. " I don't..."

A glowering whine sounded in the clearing ahead of them and a displacement in the air resolved itself into a stone structure almost like a pyramid in size, but more rectangular in shape.

"Oh. And that would be...? " Jack asked.

That other whining sound, the one Jack had come to recognize as a precursor to one of Tel'nat's holograms, sounded behind them.

"Thor's prison," the image of Tel'nat announced.

Jack couldn't restrain the impulse to rush the image, knowing full well that it was futile. "You sorry son of a ..." Jack broke off as his hands passed through the place where Tel'nat's neck should have been.

The image laughed. "Somewhat foolish, O'Neill. But admirable."

Teal'c spoke quietly, the sort of low tone he used that his friends knew belied a deep rage within him, "You have no right to hold us here, Tel'nat. The terms of the agreement are no longer valid."

Tel'nat snarled slightly, "The terms of that agreement were valid at the time it was made, and the witnessing parties ... those that might have enforced any infraction ... no longer are a concern. This test will continue as planned, I will hold to my end of the bargain. If you free Thor, I will free you all."

Jack could hear the 'but' in that statement long before Tel'nat spoke again.

"However, only Daniel Jackson and O'Neill may enter the structure. It is my wish to see them act together in the manner that destroyed Ra."

Jack started to protest, the Pal'noor had eyes, had probably been watching them from the very beginning...he knew Daniel wasn't up for this. Daniel's voice behind Jack startled them all.

"Done." Jack turned to yell at his friend, but stopped again when he saw that Daniel was on his feet, his eyes begging Jack to go along with him on this. Jack sighed deeply, every instinct told him not to let Daniel attempt this....but something in those eyes pleaded for Jack to trust him....again.

"Okay, " Jack fairly growled it, throwing up his hands in frustration.

Tel'nat smiled, studying the two humans intently. "Then let it begin."

Jack reached out for Daniel's arm as the bright light that had brought them here in the first place overtook them again.

<><><><><><><><><><><>

Thor felt a rush of hope as the white light transported O'Neill and Daniel into the structure that had been his prison for days. He knew that things would not be so simple as Tel'nat made them sound. The very things that had kept him in would no doubt be called into play to keep the two humans out.

Thor could see the pair reintegrate in a dark corridor. O'Neill provided a bit of buffering for Daniel as the younger man landed heavily upon him, quite the reverse of their original entry upon this world. O'Neill shifted carefully to maintain support for Daniel, who seemed to be having difficulty recovering the determination that had allowed him to stand and face Tel'nat at the marker. O'Neill looked around assessing their surroundings, while Daniel leaned against him breathing deeply. Thor could see the raw concern in O'Neill's eyes and understood it. They were in a potentially very hazardous situation, Daniel was barely able to stand and they had no idea why Tel'nat had brought them there.

Thor had been puzzling over Tel'nat's words at the marker. Who were the 'witnesses' to the agreement, and why did Tel'nat feel that he no longer had anything to fear from them? Thor was sure that it had not been the Asgard, even that long ago, relations between their races had been strained at best. That left the Furlings, the Ancients or the Nox. Thor couldn't see the Nox taking part in any sort of agreement that would use human lives as bargaining chips, it simply was not part of the Nox philosophy to cause harm to any life form...even the Goa'uld. The Furlings were less well known to Thor, but had something of a reputation for isolating themselves; if that were so, they would not embroil themselves in petty disagreements between two other races. That left the Ancients, the original builders of the Stargate system. Thor thought they were most likely the witnesses Tel'nat referred to. The Ancients had been remarkably quiet for the past few millennia ... no one was quite sure where they had gone, or if they still survived. That in itself might make Tel'nat bold enough to disregard a clause in the agreement that clearly put him in the wrong.

Watching the two men who might die trying to free him, Thor began to formulate a plan....

Chapter 33

Daniel felt the darkness worrying at the edges of his vision and grabbed onto Jack's arm in a mute request to stop a moment. Jack nodded just as silently and held on to Daniel as they sat carefully against the wall. It was almost certain that they were being watched constantly, so Jack hadn't really seen the need for stealth. Daniel thought Jack was probably either angry with him for talking his way into this situation or simply didn't wish to distract Daniel, who admitted to himself at least that most of his concentration was focused on staying upright and moving.

Daniel laid his head in shaking hands for a moment and felt Jack's cool hand at he back of his neck. "I'm okay, Jack, " he murmured, not really believing it, but hoping Jack would.

"Sure, Daniel," Jack's voice was laden with doubt.

Daniel shook his head, resisting the impulse to laugh. "Sorry..."

Jack's hand tightened on the back of Daniel's neck briefly, causing Daniel to look up.

Jack was looking down the hallway, "Ready to go?"

Daniel nodded and accepted Jack's hand to help him up.

They moved forward slowly, Jack insisting on keeping a hand on Daniel at all times, ostensibly in case Tel'nat decided to transport them again. Privately Daniel thought it was more likely Jack's unsubtle way of helping him without ruffling his pride. Daniel admitted to himself that his pride was definitely the last thing on his agenda, and was grateful for the supporting hand.

As they came to a juncture of three corridors, Jack looked at Daniel questioningly. Daniel smiled a little. "Pick a direction?"

Jack grinned, with a surprised quirk to his eyebrow. "Works for me."

<><><><><><><><><>

Jack had to admit that Daniel was doing better than he would have thought possible. The younger man was obviously tiring easily and Jack could feel the heat and tremors through Daniel's sleeve, but he just kept pushing onward. Jack knew that Daniel would hang on as long as he had to, or until his body just wouldn't let him anymore.

The corridors seemed to go on forever, but Jack got the distinct impression that they were moving steadily downward in a slope so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible. The lighting was sparse, but adequate to make their way without stumbling or walking into each other. So far they hadn't seen anything but stone blocks and dirt. No doors, no windows, no indications that life had existed here at any time in the recent past.

Daniel raised a hand beside him then, indicating a small block of writing on the opposite wall. Jack had no choice but to follow as Daniel knelt down in front of it, lips already moving and brain fully engaged.

" 'The center is the beginning, the only escape'. " Daniel looked up, shaking his head.

Jack looked down with a slight smile, "An 'exit' sign?"

Daniel nodded, hesitantly, "I suppose...as long as you know where the center is."

Jack thought for a moment. "Has it felt like we've been moving down to you?"

Daniel considered the words, "I thought it was just me..."

Jack winced inwardly at the words, Daniel had just admitted to feeling badly enough to be questioning his perceptions. "No, it was me, too. So if we keep bearing to the same direction at every intersection, and make sure we keep moving down, we should wind up at this 'center'?"

Daniel seemed to have trouble following Jack's convoluted logic, but nodded.

"Let's do it then."

They traveled on for a long time in silence. Jack became aware that Daniel was leaning on him more heavily by the moment, and finally Jack put Daniel's arm around his own shoulder firmly. Daniel looked at him strangely but finally nodded, admitting in the gesture that he needed the help; a fact which worried Jack all the more.

The corridors had indeed wound around in ever-tighter circles, bringing them to a steel door. Jack traded a questioning glance with Daniel, receiving a shrug in response. They really didn't have any other choices. Daniel removed his arm from Jack's shoulder, leaning on the opposite side of the door. Jack traded a nod with Daniel, then opened the door.

Chapter 34

Although Thor had known the humans were approaching, it still made him jump involuntarily as the door swung open loudly.

"O'Neill, " he called out quickly, "you must proceed cautiously."

O'Neill favored him with one of his stinging glares. "Y' think?"

Daniel Jackson looked in from the opposite side of the door. "Traps?"

Thor nodded. "From a few steps around the bed to the door."

O'Neill picked up a small stone from the corridor and slid it across the floor, it was targeted by a hidden laser device and destroyed within seconds. With another small stone, O'Neill smashed the device. By the same process, two other devices were destroyed.

"Anything else?" O'Neill asked.

"I do not know, O'Neill, " Thor admitted. "Those devices sufficed to keep me from attempting escape."

O'Neill nodded, eyes scanning the room carefully. Taking a deep breath, he took one careful step into the room. Thor noticed Daniel moving unsteadily into the room behind his friend.

"Thor, what about that transporter thing you used to get back up to your ship from Earth?" Daniel asked.

"The device which allows me to control it was damaged when I was 'questioned,' " Thor admitted.

O'Neill took another small step forward. "Nice. Bet that was no accident."

"Undoubtedly," Thor agreed, watching O'Neill's footsteps with utmost fascination.

"So how long were you here before we showed up?" O'Neill asked.

"I am unsure, several days."

Another step.

"So the Pal'noor are the ones you told Jack about?" Daniel Jackson asked, placing his feet precisely in the path O'Neill was treading.

"Actually, they are not. They are as 'bad' as the Goa'uld, in many ways they are worse, but they are not the ones of which I was speaking then."

O'Neill nearly looked up then, but refocused his attention quickly. "You mean there are worse out there than Tel'nat?"

"Infinitely so, I fear."

Another step.

"How did they get you?" Daniel asked, following in O'Neill's footsteps.

"My own error..." Thor responded, stopping when he heard a small clicking noise as O'Neill advanced another step.

"Uh oh."

<><><><><><><><><><><><><>

Daniel felt his heart sink as the click resounded all too loudly throughout the room.

"It's okay," Jack assured them. "As long as I don't move, we're fine."

Daniel took a deep breath and moved forward a few steps, less carefully than they had been moving.

"Daniel!" Jack shouted at him.

"Quiet, Jack," Daniel almost shouted back. "We can't just stand here."

Daniel reached Thor's side and motioned for the small alien to climb onto his back. Thor complied, obviously at a loss as to what Daniel had in mind. If Daniel were being precisely truthful with himself, he wasn't entirely sure either.

Daniel moved gingerly, even Thor's slight weight was agony on his damaged back. When he reached Jack's side again, Daniel stopped.

"Take h-him, Jack," he grated out.

Jack was hesitant, but could see Daniel was in pain. Thor was transferred to Jack's back and Daniel nearly collapsed in relief, bending over in an effort to sublimate the pain.

"Now what?" Jack asked.

Daniel raised up slowly. "Four long steps to the door... Run for it?"

Daniel could see Jack mulling over the possibilities in his mind, they really didn't have many options at this point.

"You up for it?" Jack asked, giving Daniel a long assessing look.

Daniel nodded with a certainty he didn't entirely feel. "I can do it."

Jack transferred Thor to his chest, wrapping the small alien tightly in the cloak.

"Then let's do it."

Chapter 35

Jack gave a deep sigh before tightening one arm around Thor and the other around Daniel. Win or lose, Jack determined, they were going to do this together. He looked at Daniel, swaying on his feet but returning his gaze levelly. Daniel might be hanging on by his fingernails, but Jack knew his friend wasn't ready to let go.

Jack nodded and began a slow three-count. As the last word left his lips, Jack launched himself and Daniel toward the door at a breaking run. They'd gone three strides when the flash came, followed by an explosion of sound and searing heat that propelled them into the corridor. Jack lost his grip on Daniel as he rolled to keep Thor from bearing the brunt of the impact.

Jack lay still for a moment, reassuring himself that he was still in one relatively whole piece. As his senses caught up with him, Jack felt Thor rise slowly.

"O'Neill?" Something in Thor's tone made Jack sit up quickly.

Daniel was lying less than two feet from them...very still. Jack moved to his friend's side, reaching for a pulse. Daniel was alive and , outside of some definite singeing around the edges, seemed to have no new injuries.

Thor laid a long-fingered hand on Daniel's forehead. "His strength is failing, O'Neill."

"No," Jack stated firmly. "He'll make it. He's got to..."

Thor looked up at Jack with a level, sympathetic gaze.

"The hunt is complete, Tel'nat," Thor spoke aloud to the empty air. "You must keep your word."

Jack waited, expecting....something. There was only silence.

"Come on, Tel'nat," Jack snapped. "We beat your game. Let us go."

Tel'nat appeared. Not a hologram this time, Jack was sure of it.

"But O'Neill, why would I want to do that?"

Jack started jump up and ring Tel'nat's neck. All the rage and frustration of the past few days, the final straw atop all the liberties too many power-mad aliens seemed to be taking with all of their lives lately, surged to the surface in a rush of blind fury that just wanted some sort of justice for his team.

Tel'nat took a step back involuntarily, raising a weapon just as Jack started to move toward him.

"I think that may be unwise, O'Neill."

Jack sank back on his heels, feeling the emotions churning within him all the more strongly as they were denied release.

"So what now?" Jack asked, tiredly.

Tel'nat looked from Jack to Thor to Daniel, lying so still between them.

"Now we see the limits of Tau'ri forgiveness...."

<><><><><><><><><><>

Thor could see that O'Neill was more than a little confused by Tel'nat's words ... as was Thor himself.

The few conversations they had shared as the humans had endured their trials had made it apparent to Thor that Tel'nat was intrigued by the humans, especially by the emotions the Pal'noor claimed to view as such a hindrance.

Thor could sense that Daniel Jackson was slowly returning to consciousness, and feared for the young human. For some reason Thor could not yet fathom, Daniel had become Tel'nat's focus. Thor could only speculate as to the reasons. Daniel Jackson was so clearly the driving spirit of this group of humans, even Thor hadn't realized how true that statement was until he'd observed the distress the team had suffered throughout Daniel's ordeal. Tel'nat had obviously centered his study upon the intelligent and passionate human...but why?

As Daniel Jackson moaned softly and opened his eyes, Thor saw Tel'nat's expression change. Thor felt a sudden chill as he realized that this human's capacity to care and forgive, to remain steadfastly human and humane was about to be tested as never before.

Thor was afraid. A gripping fear shuddered through him that he had not experienced in many years. But it was not for himself, it was for the two humans who were his friends.

Chapter 36

Daniel slowly became aware of distant voices and tried to sort them in his mind. Thor's soft, melodious tones were closest. A little further away was an exhausted question that could only have come from Jack.

"So what now?"

Daniel felt a chill run through his body that had no connection at all with the fever he felt returning in full force. Tel'nat's voice. Saying something about forgiveness in a tone that neither asked nor offered it. Despite the simple fact that Tel'nat had no right to be using them this way; despite the basic qualities of honor by which they had so wrongly assumed that Tel'nat would keep his word ... Tel'nat was not going to let them go.

Daniel opened his eyes slowly. He wasn't particularly ready to face whatever Tel'nat had in mind, but figured he'd be no more prepared later. And waiting only brought him closer to ... things he preferred not to dwell on. Daniel was quite well aware of how close his body was to giving up on him. The last hour or so in the maze had been accomplished through sheer stubbornness on his part. He'd gotten Jack into this, and Daniel was determined not to give up and leave his friend to finish this alone.

By the time they'd found Thor, Daniel had almost managed to convince himself that the searing heat of his body was as normal as the tremors and the tunnel-vision that had become his world. Until Thor had climbed on his back. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but it had renewed the agony of the original wounding ... stealing away the resolve that he had managed to fold around himself. The blast of heat from the exploding trap had barely registered to him before he'd felt himself ripped from Jack's supporting arm and thrown into darkness.

But now the numbing darkness was fleeing just as swiftly as his strength and he knew that the time to act was now. While he still could.

<><><><><><><><><><><>

Jack wasn't sure whether to be comforted by the fact that Daniel was regaining consciousness or not. Part of him wanted to protect Daniel from this new test that Tel'nat seemed intent on subjecting them to. Jack was sure, without really knowing why, that whatever Tel'nat had in mind ... Daniel was the one who would suffer because of it.

Looking down as Daniel opened his eyes, Jack knew that the younger man had been aware long enough to know that they were in another bad situation. A quirk of Daniel's eyebrow spoke volumes about the singular monotony of that particular state. Jack returned the smile and lent a hand to help Daniel sit up and face Tel'nat.

The Pal'noor was watching them, the alien-ness of his features making it nearly impossible to read what lay beneath that steady regard. Somehow Jack got the impression of a curiosity that bordered ... almost ... on respect.

Tel'nat waited until Daniel was upright and looking at him levelly before speaking.

"As you have likely surmised, the Hunting Fields have been more a test of your...humanity than your physical qualities. Although, I will admit to being somewhat surprised by your tenacity and determination when faced with a common goal. " Tel'nat sat one of the fallen stones almost casually, the gun in his hand never wavering. "We have tested humans before, I had no need to observe your physical abilities. I wanted to see what it was about you, in particular, that has defeated such overwhelming odds." Tel'nat's glance took in both Jack and Daniel.

Daniel sighed deeply, but Jack could see his mind churning over Tel'nat's admission. "So what did you learn?"

Tel'nat regarded Daniel thoughtfully. "An excellent question, Daniel Jackson. I learned that humans are not weakened by their emotions, but are instead strengthened. The weakness I'd perceived this 'feeling' to be can also, with sufficient motivation, drive you to rather impressive feats of honor and courage."

Jack felt more than a little confused. Tel'nat seemed almost amiable. "So what did you mean about 'the limits of forgiveness'?"

Tel'nat smiled, his expression changing, but still unreadable. Before he could speak again Thor interrupted. "What is it that you think you know, Tel'nat?"

"I know that you had the means to save Daniel Jackson's wife and did nothing."

Chapter 37

Daniel's voice was strained. "The Hammer?"

Tel'nat shook his head briefly, looking directly at Daniel. "When the Goa'uld System Lords came to Earth, your wife could have been among those chosen to come. Although Apophis had fallen from grace at the time, Amaunet still held his rank and properties. Your good friend Thor was the one who demanded she not be included."

Thor was acutely aware of Daniel's long look of confusion. He did not know if he could fully explain his motivation for his actions. "It seemed the wisest course at the time, the fate of Earth was in the balance ... that goal could not be risked to the uncertainties of your obvious desperation to rescue your wife."

Daniel nodded stiffly, all animation draining from his face. O'Neill jumped to his friend's aid, his outrage at what he was hearing palpable and cutting. "Daniel has always put his duty to Earth before everything else."

Thor knew that was true, now, and said as much. "However, at the time, I based my decision on what we knew of the human species as a whole. I did not know you."

Thor realized that simple statement was even more true than even he would have believed. These humans could not be assessed by any factors he had previously accepted ... and used ... to measure the worth of a species. All undeveloped species deserved Asgard consideration, Thor firmly believed that. Thor had vehemently disagreed with the Asgard High Council's decision to leave Earth to settle its own fate, but other concerns had kept him from pursuing the matter.

Thor had regretted learning of the death of Daniel's wife. He realized all too fully that it had been within his means to help the young man. After the past several days, watching Daniel working so hard to rescue him, Thor felt even more regretful that he had been unable to act.

Thor could only look at Daniel with an expression of deep regret. No words could change the fact that Tel'nat was right.

<><><><><><><><><>

Daniel had always been aware that the Asgard possessed the technology that could have freed Sha'uri, but to learn that the alien race was not only aware of his situation, but had actively forestalled a chance to bring her to Earth...

Daniel was aware of Tel'nat's eyes on him, but could no more control the emotions he knew passed through his eyes than he could save Sha'uri...

With a sudden start, Daniel realized that Jack was looking at him. Jack knew what the missed opportunity meant to Daniel, Jack always knew. Just like Jack knew that Daniel wouldn't have done anything to jeopardize Earth's tenuous position at that time. But the knowing didn't help the ache in Daniel's heart, and Jack knew that, too.

Daniel sighed, looking up into Thor's surprisingly expressive, sorrowful eyes. Daniel knew, better than most, how regrets could insinuate themselves into a person's soul and destroy it ... or at least come very close. Daniel also knew, too well, that he had been traveling steadily down that path since he'd seen Amaunet fall under Teal'c's staff blast ... and Sha'uri had looked at him long enough to say goodbye.

Daniel knew he was a long way from letting go of his love for Sha'uri, he doubted he ever would, and an even longer way from releasing the pent up anger and helplessness that her loss had created in him. He also knew that there were a lot of things inside him that were going to drag him even further down a road it might someday prove impossible to return from unless ...

"It's all right, Thor, you couldn't have known."

Thor bowed his head deeply, accepting Daniel's words like a benediction.

Tel'nat had stood up and approached while Daniel had been lost in thought. Now Daniel could clearly read the anger in the Pal'noor's eyes.

"It is not possible," Tel'nat nearly whispered it.

Daniel felt Jack pull him back quickly as Tel'nat raised the gun in his hand.

Chapter 38

Jack had never been as proud of his friend as he was in that moment when he saw the darkness flicker away from Daniel's eyes and glimpsed the man he'd come to know and respect...the man who had forgiven so much, felt so much. This was the part of Daniel which had been slowly closing itself off for so long, the part that Jack hadn't realized how much he'd missed until he'd seen him again in Daniel's eyes. Jack reached out a hand to welcome it back even as he registered Tel'nat's deep growl of disbelief...and saw the gun raise toward them again. Toward Daniel.

There was no where for them to go, no opportunity to run. But Jack knew without having to think about it that Tel'nat would have to go through *him* before he'd allow Daniel to be hurt again. Pulling Daniel back with an internal apology, Jack covered the younger man with his own body, glaring defiance with all the strength his outraged mind and body could muster. On the edge of his vision, Jack could see Thor moving into a similar defensive position. Jack was alternately shocked then pleased that the Asgard had finally taken a personal stand ... at least as far as one particular human was concerned.

Tel'nat glowered at them all. "I do not understand. You would die in defense of this one man?"

Jack wasn't sure who the question was aimed at, but he'd been quiet long enough.

"We would die to protect our friend. No that's not it either. Daniel died to protect me long before we ever got close to being friends. I won't try to tell you that all humans are like that, " Jack glanced down to where Daniel was painfully trying to sit up, meeting the level blue eyes in an instant of perfect clarity and understanding ..."just the best ones."

Daniel smiled sadly at Jack's words. Jack was aware of a multitude of things said and unsaid passing between them at that moment. Daniel reached out a hand to implore assistance, to sit beside them and face Tel'nat ... as they'd faced so many dangers ... together. Jack smiled, returning his courageous friend's smile with one of his own particularly ironic variety. Jack knew he would never ... could never ... deny that his scholarly friend had more than earned the right.

<><><><><><><><><><>

Tel'nat stood there watching the exchange, allowing the three friends to arrange themselves, Jack carefully supporting Daniel at one shoulder, Thor taking the same position on the other.

Thor was more than a little humbled by Daniel's obviously difficult decision. Thor was aware on some level that it had been a close thing. Thor remembered Daniel from their first contact via the living transmission from Cimmeria. Thor had based a lot of his decision to physically return and remove the threat to Cimmeria on Daniel's actions, and his impassioned honesty which had admitted culpability for placing the Cimmerians in danger. Thor remembered Daniel's courage then as well as the young man faced one of his deepest fears in the effort to help another. Thor wondered idly if Daniel still feared heights.

Thor watched Tel'nat processing this new behavior, but could not begin to guess what the Pal'noor was thinking.

Tel'nat took one step backward, but the gun never wavered. "I believe I can understand how you have managed to defeat the Goa'uld. You are stubborn beyond reason, tenacious as the Del'nae, and illogically devoted to one another."

Thor saw the confusion on the two humans' faces, and admitted to himself that he was also at a loss. Tel'nat's words and tone, albeit more than a little exasperated, sounded almost respectful. But the gun hadn't wavered.

Tel'nat breathed a deep sigh. " I truly regret that I must do this. But I cannot allow you to leave..."

The gun raised again and Thor knew suddenly that there would be no reprieve this time. Thor knew, as did the humans, that Tel'nat had acted dishonorably, he could not let them leave...or live...if he were to preserve his place among his people.

Thor breathed deeply, touching an inner part of himself that had heretofore been too damaged to respond, hoping against impossible hope that his plan would work.

Chapter 39

Daniel was aware of the sensation of time slowing down, caught in an all too familiar loop of enhanced awareness that allowed him to be conscious of several things at once...

Daniel could see Tel'nat's finger tightening on the trigger of his weapon.

He could feel Jack's grip closing protectively over his shoulder.

He could feel Thor move closer, gray fingers patting his shoulder slightly as if in reassurance...

Caught in that strangely elongated space of time, Daniel thought to himself that he was glad to have found some small measure of peace with himself. He hoped ..if there was any sort of justice out there on those higher planes ... that he would see Sha'uri again. As much as he yearned for that possibility, Daniel knew he no longer sought it ... actively or otherwise.

Daniel closed his eyes, feeling very few regrets. Deep within himself he knew he'd done more in his life than he could ever have dreamed. With very few exceptions, he'd met every challenge to the best of his ability. He had failed to save Sha'uri, but at least he'd seen her at peace...as herself...before she died.

Daniel realized with a sudden burst of sarcasm, that the 'moment' seemed to be lingering somewhat longer than usual. Was this just another of Tel'nat's games?

Daniel opened his eyes to see Tel'nat staring past them. Daniel turned carefully to see a glowing presence coalescing behind them. The sparkling shape resolved itself into a form seeming to consist of little more than sculptured light. Hard planes of golden crystal formed a generally recognizable face, but Daniel couldn't make his eyes focus on any discernible features, making him doubt his unaided vision ... and perhaps his sanity. One look at Jack, his jaw dropping by slow degrees, reassured Daniel on that front.

Daniel could see that whoever ... or whatever ... the newcomer was, Tel'nat was afraid. The weapon had fallen from the Pal'noor's nerveless fingers, but Daniel didn't think Tel'nat had even registered the loss.

Daniel traded glances with Jack, admitting with a raised eyebrow that he was as clueless as his friend was. A look at Thor brought a glint of ... something ... in the large eyes. Something that made Daniel relax, if only slightly.

"The Ancients." Thor said quietly.

Something connected in Daniel's mind. "The witnesses?"

Thor nodded once. "It would appear so."

The crystalline form shifted slightly, its body seeming to ebb and flow in rhythm with its speech. "The Pal'noor have broken faith with their contract."

The statement seemed to register in Daniel's brain on several levels, in several languages.

Tel'nat lapsed into his own language, an outward sign of his fear. The Pal'noor was all too obviously lying through his pointed teeth.

Daniel tried to pay attention to the exchange between Tel'nat and the newcomer, but felt his strength fading quickly, felt his body leaning into Jack's swift embrace as the darkness overtook him with an almost tangible finality.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

Jack was aware of Daniel's struggle to remain upright even as he watched Tel'nat squirming under the imperious gaze of the Ancient. Jack couldn't help the surge of vindication, the sweeping sense of cosmic-level justice, that rippled through him. He wondered if perhaps they hadn't just been rescued by the intergalactic equivalent of a contract lawyer. Even as that incongruous thought crossed his mind Jack felt Daniel slump and reached out quickly to ease his friend into his arms. Daniel was dangerously hot again...and far too still.

Thor looked up briefly in concern. "His time grows short, O'Neill."

Jack felt a resurgence of the outraged helplessness that had been his constant companion for too long now. Daniel had to hang on just a little longer...

Tel'nat seemed to be losing his argument with the pulsating Ancient. Jack took no small amount of pleasure in watching the Pal'noor get back a little of what he'd subjected Daniel and the rest of his team to. The figure waved an encompassing arm toward Jack and the precious friend he held so close, raising a golden gaze to Tel'nat.

Tel'nat looked physically ill, his eyes moving rapidly from Jack to the Ancient and back again. "I am to tell you that you are free to go." Tel'nat looked back at the Ancient, who nodded forcefully. " I am also to make apologies to you, Daniel Jackson, Thor and the rest of your team." Tel'nat glanced once again at the Ancient who said something that sounded suspiciously like 'And...'

Tel'nat looked decidedly uncomfortable. "And I am also to give my word that the Pal'noor will make no aggressive moves on Earth, now or at any future time." Tel'nat smiled a little, his expression shifting as if he'd come to some sort of realization. "Truthfully O'Neill ...I'm not sure it would be a battle I would care to fight. You are a remarkably unpredictable, inventive and tenacious race. I regret that my actions have made us enemies."

Jack felt as if Tel'nat actually meant what he was saying ... but that didn't change the facts. Jack stood up slowly, easing Daniel into Thor's care, one hand lingering on the burning forehead.

"You regret?" Jack asked in disbelief. "You've kept us here for days, you tortured Thor, you nearly killed Daniel...and you regret?" Jack had to stop a moment and breathe deeply, to still his raging emotions before he could speak again. "Why him, Tel'nat? That's what I want to know. Why Daniel?"

Tel'nat returned Jack's look levelly, then glanced down at Daniel, something flickered in his eyes for just a moment before he looked back at Jack. "I knew before you ever arrived that he was the focal point for your team. You lead, the Jaffa guards, the female thinks ... but he feels. I wanted to test the limits of human emotions. Daniel Jackson embodies them, without fear or reservation. I saw him as your weakness, never realizing that he was your strength."

Jack could hardly believe what he was hearing. Tel'nat sounded genuinely regretful. Jack thought about Tel'nat's words, coming to an understanding of his own.

"He is all of that," Jack agreed, looking down at the still form in Thor's grasp, "and more. He feels everything, he cares, and forgives .. a lot. Someday, he'll probably even forgive you." As remote as the possibility seemed to Jack from a personal standpoint, Jack knew that it was probably true. Even Tel'nat looked shocked at the concept. Jack advanced one step, placing himself directly in front of Tel'nat.

"You remember what I said about Daniel being one of the best as humans go?"

Tel'nat nodded, his eyes confused.

Jack looked down at Daniel once again, the flood of hot emotion returning in full force at the sight of his too pale, too thin friend. "He is the best. The best I've ever known. If he were awake right now, he'd probably be figuring out a way to create a relationship between the Pal'noor and Earth." Jack smiled a little. "And if you took the time to talk culture and languages with him, he'd probably forget what you put him through and, eventually, he might even try to be your friend." Jack's words were spilling over themselves to get out, to release themselves after being held back for so long. "The thing is Tel'nat...I'm not one of the best. I'm working on it, but, hey, that's how it is. I don't forgive something like this. I don't want to be your friend. And damn it all..." Jack brought up in a hand in frustration, before pulling the same hand back and launching a fist into Tel'nat's furry chin. "I'm not Daniel."

Chapter 40

Tel'nat dropped to the floor bonelessly. Thor thought to himself that O'Neill had shown remarkable restraint throughout the situation, he certainly didn't blame the human commander for exacting this small release for the sake of his friend. Thor knew they had more important things to deal with at the moment.

"O'Neill, we must go." O'Neill seemed to shake off his anger and returned to Daniel's side. The young human was failing quickly, Thor knew that without a doubt.

O'Neill glanced up at the unmoving Ancient. "Go how? Him?"

Thor ducked his head a little, there was no time to explain. "Not exactly."

Thor reached again for that part of himself that was connected to his ship and was gratified beyond words to feel it respond. In the space of a breath they were aboard Billiskner. Thor took a moment to feel an immense relief at returning to his home among the stars, before moving to the control console. He was able to locate the rest of SG1 within minutes and transported them immediately, then set a course for Earth before returning to the humans.

They all looked terribly confused. O'Neill and Teal'c were at Daniel's side, while Major Carter had taken possession of the cloak and was searching it with increasing agitation. Thor knew she would not find what she was looking for and that he had a lot of explaining to do, but first...

"Bring Daniel," He ordered with a hand raised to forestall any questioning. O'Neill looked at Thor strangely, but nodded to Teal'c and Connor. Thor led them to the ship's medical facility and directed them to place Daniel beneath the central control unit.

"This device is capable of much healing," Thor explained. "If I were completely healed myself, I could restore Daniel without delay. At the moment that is not possible." Thor activated the unit. Daniel was immediately bathed in a soft blue glow as the machine scanned his still body, seeking the areas of greatest need so that it could begin its work.

O'Neill stepped closer, asking, "Why can't Carter just...?" O'Neill gestured with his hand imitating the use of the healing device.

Thor knew it was time to reveal what he had done. "The healing device was destroyed. By me."

<><><><><><><><><><>

Sam could hardly believe her ears. "What! How could you...?"

Thor looked up. "It was necessary. I assure you."

The colonel just looked expectantly at the little gray alien. Sam knew that the colonel had always had more than a little faith in the Asgard, but something had obviously happened inside that prison to increase that trust.

Thor moved to a low cabinet, pulling out small containers of green liquid which he gave to all of them. "Please drink, it will help restore you."

Sam noticed Teal'c and Connor eyeing the bottles just as suspiciously as she was, but the colonel just removed the cap on his and drank. At the colonel's slightly pleased expression, Sam sighed. If she didn't quite trust the Asgard, she certainly trusted the colonel, so she sipped at her own drink. It really wasn't bad.

Thor checked the readout on the table that held Daniel wrapped in its blue glow and made a minute adjustment before returning to sit before them.

"I had been watching your ordeal from the beginning by holographic transmission. When Tel'nat transported O'Neill and Daniel into the prison, I knew it was only a matter of time before Tel'nat had to kill you all. I realized that he had no choice."

Teal'c spoke up quietly from his place at Daniel's side, voicing the theory that had finally resolved itself in his mind. "He feared the Ancient's would return?"

O'Neill looked at the Jaffa curiously.

Sam explained that Teal'c had been working hard to remember a reference to the Ancients as a sort of judicial body. "It seems the original gate builders police those who used their technology."

Thor nodded. "They once did."

The colonel looked confused. "Once did? Then who was Mr. Day-glo down there?"

Thor looked a little uncomfortable. "I used the inner workings of the healing device, along with parts of Tel'nat's holographic projection unit to create the illusion of an Ancient."

The colonel looked at Thor for a long moment, his weary face breaking into the first genuine smile Sam had seen there in a very long time.

"You bluffed." The colonel wasn't asking a question.

Thor nodded.

Sam felt a tension inside of her release as the colonel burst into laughter.

"Thor," he said earnestly, "there's hope for you yet..."

Chapter 41

Teal'c tried to make sense of O'Neill's reference. After long association with humans ... O'Neill in particular...Teal'c understood the concept of 'bluffing'.

That the Asgard would have risked the only certain means of helping Daniel Jackson, not knowing if it would work or even if he could safely return them all to his ship, caused Teal'c great concern. Thor had taken a very extreme chance with Daniel Jackson's life. While Teal'c was very gratified that it had worked, he couldn't stop his mind from dwelling on what could have happened to his young friend if it hadn't.

As if O'Neill could discern Teal'c's thoughts, he launched into a detailed account of what had taken place inside the prison. Teal'c looked down at Daniel Jackson, aching inside as he absorbed what this new information must have meant to his friend. Once again Daniel Jackson had proven himself unique among humans, but Teal'c grieved for the young scholar; once again Daniel Jackson ... and his wife .. had suffered due to alien interference.

<><><><><><><><><>

Connor was more than a little awed by the fact that he was on a UFO headed for Earth at, God knew how many times, light speed. Connor resolved that once his feet hit terra firma he was going to go off and get as drunk as a three-day pass would allow.

Watching SG1 hovering around Daniel as he lay enveloped in the blue glow of Thor's machine, Connor felt apart from them. They had worked well together, and Connor would never forget the experience of being a member of this exceptional team, but Connor knew that SG1 was complete only as long as the four of them were together. Four distinct and powerful personalities had meshed over time to become this unstoppable force that found its strength in the very uniqueness and diversity of its parts.

Connor watched Teal'c on guard...as always... at Daniel's side, Major Carter, splitting her attention between the readouts on the display and Daniel's unmoving form... and the colonel, standing despite his extreme exhaustion, at Daniel's other side, his eyes never leaving the still face ...

Watching the colonel's unwavering gaze, Connor felt as if the man were exerting every ounce of his considerable will to help Daniel make his way back to them ... Connor knew that SG1 was awaiting the return of that so important missing piece that was Daniel Jackson.

Chapter 42

Daniel was warm, but somehow knew it wasn't the internal fire that had been his constant companion for so long. His head felt strangely ... detached. Not necessarily a bad thing considering that it had taken the pain with it when it left. Daniel was distantly aware of voices, but couldn't quite bring himself to focus on the words. It was just too comfortable here. Too easy to let the warmth hold him ...

"Daniel!"

Daniel recognized Jack's voice. Part of him hoped Jack would just go away for awhile and let him enjoy this peace. The other part of him knew Jack wasn't going to go away. Jack never would. As Jack's voice called out his name again, Daniel realized he ought to answer. Jack was starting to sound a little worried...

Daniel called his head back from wherever it had been. It seemed to require rather more effort than he would have thought possible, but eventually Daniel felt it settle into its accustomed place, bringing with it a tight ache that seemed to encompass his entire body.

"Daniel?" Jack again, really worried now.

Daniel concentrated on eliciting his body's cooperation in opening one eye and then the other. It took several tries, but finally the two of them decided they could work together again and opened.

Daniel had to blink a few times, but eventually the blur he was seeing settled into Jack's worried features. Daniel concentrated next on finding his voice, succeeding after a few tries in making a sound that was intended to be Jack's name. Daniel closed his eyes a moment, concentrating a little harder.

"Jack?" Not a monumental success, more like a breath with just a glimmer of sound attached, but Daniel was pleased.

Jack smiled, sighing deeply. "Yeah, big guy. How're ya doin'?"

Daniel thought about that for a long time, taking inventory of the various aches his body reported. He hurt, but it was a bearable pain...almost like a memory of pain. Daniel felt a complete lassitude creeping over him, but it was in no way similar to the torturous weakness that he remembered.

Daniel tried to smile at Jack, but he wasn't entirely sure if he'd succeeded. " 'S all right, Jack."

Jack didn't look particularly convinced, but he smiled again as his hand tightened on Daniel's shoulder.

Encouraged by his last almost-sentence, Daniel tried again. "Everybody okay?"

Jack motioned over his shoulder at Teal'c, Connor and Sam. Daniel smiled then realized he didn't recognize their surroundings.

"Where...?"

Jack seemed to understand what he was trying to ask. "We're on Thor's ship, Daniel. On our way home."

Daniel nodded, letting his eyes close again. Daniel felt the word as if it were a blanket over his weary soul. He wanted that. He wanted to go home.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Jack felt himself relax for the first time since well before they'd left Earth. Daniel was more than a little disoriented. Thor had explained that the machine's healing had only mended the injuries and removed Tel'nat's little experiment. Daniel's recovery was only beginning, but he would live. Not too long ago, Jack had been more than a little doubtful of that possibility.

Jack had sent the rest of his team to the couch-like beds that Thor had shown them before finding a chair and planting himself at Daniel's side once again. They'd been through too much on this trip and Jack wasn't quite ready to detach himself from the scare he'd been given as Daniel had struggled through the past few days. As long as he could see Daniel, still pale but sleeping peacefully now, Jack could relax.

Jack reflected on everything they'd been through. He was inordinately proud of his team, more than a little shocked by Thor's deviousness, and rather more hopeful of Daniel's mental state than he had been a week ago. Jack knew his friend still had a long way to go in the grieving process, a long journey toward finding himself...not necessarily the same self he had been, but hopefully a version that combined the best of who he had been with the maturity of the person he had become. Jack grieved quietly for the loss of that impassioned young man, but deep down he understood that change was a part of life, it was just that some changes really tended to bite.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Thor paused at the door of the medical facility. He could see Daniel was sleeping well, and even from this distance the readouts told him all he needed to know about the young human's improved condition. O'Neill was asleep as well, one hand thrown across Daniel's arm in a gesture both protective and watchful.

Thor felt a surge of protectiveness of his own as he watched them. These two were more than just humans, more than just men who had saved his life...they were his friends. Thor was beginning to realize just how great a responsibility ... and honor ... that was.

Thor moved quietly to one of the cabinets and withdrew a blanket. As carefully as possible, he drew it over O'Neill and stepped away. O'Neill stirred a moment, his hand tightening on Daniel's arm. With that reassurance, he sighed and returned to sleep. Thor walked away quietly, leaving his friends together in rest, determined that somehow, someday, he would return their friendship in kind.

Chapter 43: Epilogue

Jack stretched lazily, his toes hitting the end of his bunk with a comforting familiarity. Military bunks were never built long enough for his lanky frame, but today it was a welcome taste of reality.

Jack lay there for a moment, savoring the memory of the look on Hammond's face when the team he had almost written off as MIA suddenly materialized in the middle of the gateroom. Hammond had taken one look at them and called for a medical team. Countless tests and one huge debriefing later, they'd finally gotten Janet's report on Daniel's condition.

Daniel was mentally and physically exhausted, the wounds on his back were little more than half-healed scars now, and Janet expressed concern at the extreme weight loss and dehydration, but he was alive...and would fully recover.

Jack knew it wasn't that simple.

In his few conscious and coherent moments, it had become apparent that Daniel's memory of the ordeal was full of blank spaces. Janet assured them that it was normal after such extreme and prolonged illness and stress. Jack knew, even without Janet's reassurance, that Daniel would remember everything eventually ... and would need a lot of help and support in dealing with those memories.

Jack's thoughts turned dark at the memory of his callous order the night Daniel had been so close to giving up. Daniel had told Jack it was all right, but Jack couldn't help feeling guilty for pulling rank on his friend. Daniel understood and forgave, but Jack wondered if he would ever be able to forgive himself.

Jack shook off the dark thoughts. Daniel was better, they were home...everything else would come in its own good time. As long as his team was together, they could deal with it. Hell, they could deal with anything.

<><><><><><><><><><><>

Connor had dropped by to see Daniel in the infirmary, figuring that the late hour would find the young man alone. He realized he should have known how unlikely that possibility was.

Teal'c was at Daniel's side, solid and immovable as always. The tech from the control room, Harriman, was just leaving. Hammond was in the corner, laughing at some comment from Feretti. Daniel was lying there, drinking it all in with a slightly dazed expression.

Connor thought Daniel was looking much better. He was quiet, but the doc had said that it would be a long time until his energy returned to anything near normal. Connor stepped over to Daniel's side, depositing his gift of chocolate-walnut cookies on the bed beside him. Daniel laughed softly, placing the bag beside the dozen or so others on his bedside table.

Connor laughed with his new friend, just happy to be there. Daniel thanked him in that soft voice that still didn't have much strength behind it.

"Guess this means I'm getting predictable," Daniel offered.

Feretti looked up at the comment. "Predictable? You? Ain't gonna happen, Daniel."

A voice behind them chimed in. "God, I hope not."

Colonel O'Neill stepped in with a broad smile. "The day Daniel becomes predictable, I really will retire."

Daniel looked up at Jack curiously. "Retire, Jack? Why?"

Jack looked down at Daniel with a smile, but Connor could see the edge of utter sincerity in his eyes.

"Because, Danny...my life just wouldn't be as much fun with a predictable Daniel."

As the others laughed, even Teal'c venturing a smile, Connor could see something wordlessly pass from one man's eyes to the others. Connor didn't entirely fathom all the subtleties, but he knew it spoke of friendship, understanding and forgiveness. Daniel smiled then, a slight tentative thing, that Connor knew meant that Daniel was touched and trying not to show it.

Connor resolved not to lose the friendships he had found with the members of SG1. They were a special bunch of people and he hoped they'd work together again someday. Connor remembered his feelings on Thor's ship, watching the team gather around their ailing friend. The strength of will they'd focused solely on Daniel had been something to see, and cherish. SG1 was a team in a million, each of its members...one of a kind. Connor had seen them walk through a living hell together and back out the other side...a little ragged around the edges, but still...as always...friends.

*Fin*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jmas Fan Fiction | JayEm Fan Fiction | JayEm Music Vids | JayEm Art | Webrings | Links | Ancient's Zines

related links webrings jayem art ag zines jayem music vids jayem fan fiction jmas fan fiction