Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

Following The Leader Series - Part 7: Being The Leader

by Elizabeth

 


*****

 

Funny how the first thing that comes back is the hearing, followed closely by the sense of taste. Usually it’s that Godawful anaesthetic. Do they take lessons in how to make it taste so damn nasty and then so thick that it clogs up your pipes, making you want to gag with it? No anaesthetic this time, but the feeling that something’s crawled inside there and died hasn’t gone. Can hear the road runner in the distance too. Its distinct *beep-beep* announcing to all and sundry that despite life’s many attempts to do away with me, I’m still here.

 

I can hear distant voices now. Can’t make out a darned word they’re saying yet, but that’s hardly a new sensation. Too used to waking up feeling my brain’s been scrambled and not having the foggiest how it got that way. In my younger days it wouldn’t have bothered me one bit, back then when the worst I had to recover from was too many chasers. That was back when life was sweet and nothing could hurt you, before life’s lessons got learned.

 

There’s movement nearby and I know someone’s very close, but I can’t feel anything and that’s strange. Normally someone’s holding my hand when I wake up in this joint. It’s not something I’d like to advertise outside of SG-1, but we all do it for each other, to help ground whoever’s coming round. I’d never admit to appreciating it, but now when it’s not there, I kinda miss it. Where are my team?

 

“Jack? Can you hear me, Jack?”

 

I’m too tired to even think of answering him, but at least Danny’s here.

 

 

<<<“Jack, you should hear this. This is amazing.”

 

Oh, yes? Now where have I heard that one before? Colonel’s executive toy, make and model reference: Daniel, anthropologist, is in full excite mode.

 

“If I can get all of these stories down on tape, it’ll help us so much in understanding how our own nomadic tribes developed. See where the similarities and the differences are.” Daniel’s eyes are lit up like Christmas trees, as he struggles to keep up with Woono. The native babbles on, saying something I can’t understand and probably wouldn’t be interested in, even if I *did* understand. Daniel can understand though, that much is obvious by his ‘kid in a candy store’ impression, and he’s enjoying every moment. I’m surprised his note book can keep pace with him, as he scrawls across page after page, taking copious notes.

 

The people we’re staying with remind me of the African Maasai plains peoples. Tall, proud, dark people, with laughing eyes and even brighter smiles. Their red clothing and red and blue beaded necklaces contrast against the tone of their skin as they walk and it’s difficult not to respond to their smiles. Their laughs are darn-right infectious. Danny says even the language they speak has a lot of similarities to Maa, the language of the Maasai, so it’s almost positive they’ve been taken from Earth at some point in the distant past. Everything about the Nabuui is fast: the way they move, the way they talk and the way they make friends. It’s as if life’s too fleeting to take their time about it. They seem to live harsh lives, from what Daniel’s been able to find out so far. Carter’s already said a lot of the vegetation on the plains is slightly poisonous, so Daniel’s been asking them about what they eat. A lot of the younger men herd and hunt for meat down here, whilst the elders farm crops higher up in the hills, where the ground seems to be ‘badness’ free. Carter reckons the local animals must have built up an immunity over the years and the tribesmen have gradually acquired their immunity from being higher up the food chain. Woono agrees, apparently. Then again, Woono laughs, smiles and agrees with everything.

 

They have a very structured social hierarchy, with the oldest people being the decision makers, so Daniel keeps fielding questions my way. Seems they expect my team to automatically be subservient to me and it’s an idea I’ve frequently toyed with myself. Teal’c seems amused by all the attention being sent my way, although you’d hardly guess it from his face. For once, he’s being ignored, as his skin colour is very similar to theirs and they have so many tattoos marked on their skins that his single one is of little consequence, even if it *is* gold. Daniel and Carter have hardly been able to stop smirking since the Nabuui have assumed we’re all one family on a journey together. We’ve played happy families before and it’s almost second nature to slip into these roles on some missions. Me, husband; Carter, wife; Daniel, brother; and Teal’c, visiting cousin, or blood brother, or whatever happens to work in that particular society. Sometimes it just makes life easier, but in others it’s a helluva lot safer. Some places have some weird ideas about unhitched individuals.

 

The Nabuui had been wary of us at first, as we’d stepped out of the gate, but that was understandable. They’d said no one had used the ring for generations, but once Daniel started with that soothing voice of his, they were all ears. Well, after their bright eyes and flashing smiles, that is. Seemed they’d had a run in with the Goa’uld at some point, but had simply fallen by the wayside in the snakes’ plans for universal domination. No one had taken offence when the slime-heads had shipped out and no one bothered to send a post card saying ‘wish you were here’ either. Carter wondered if the toxin getting into the food chain was something the Goa’uld couldn’t absorb and Daniel was ferreting for information like a dog unearthing a bone. However, getting the Nabuui to stay on any one topic of conversation for longer than two minutes seems to be a momentous task. They bore easily and change topic as the mood takes them.

 

They remind me of miniature whirlwinds, a bit like Daniel actually, and for some reason they like us. They like me, actually, as the leader I guess, and Daniel’s hard pushed to answer all their questions, as well as trying to get his own in. It’s such a refreshing change to see him struggling to get a word in edgeways. Perhaps I ought to take lessons from Woono.

 

Carter’s been hassling him to ask about mining possibilities. The initial MALP readings suggested some minerals in the soil could turn out to be something similar to Naquadah and she’s been flipping her proverbial lid ever since we gated here. All her tests so far support the MALP’s findings, although there’ll have to be much more in-depth tests done back at the base.

 

“They say they’re happy to discuss a treaty with us Jack, enrolling us in their brotherhood. That means we can then make a trade pact and discuss exchanges of resources. From what I understand, it’s a rare honour to make a deal with them, if you’re outside their tribe.”

 

“What sort of pact? Does that mean if Carter’s samples pan out we can actually discuss mining deals?”

 

“Yes. They aren’t interested in the lands down here, they’re only interested in hunting the animals on them. I’m sure that, as long as we’re respectful of how we go about it, then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

 

“Good. At long last, someone who wants to help us without taking chunks out of our hides at the same time. Actually, what *do* they want from us?”

 

“Well, they’ve never developed much in the way of medicines, probably due to not growing many crops, so I guess that’d be a good place to start.”

 

“So what have we gotta do to get into this brotherhood then?”

 

Daniel returns to chatting with Woono, words occasionally accompanied by very specific hand movements, as the native cheerfully talks back.

 

“Seems we have to smoke a ‘brotherhood stick’ with them and their elders.”

 

“And what would *that* be?” Smoking a stick sounds to me all too much like some of the stuff I used to do when I was a lot, no make that a *whole* lot, younger.

 

“Some kind of peace pipe, I think, made from the local vegetation.”

 

“Some of that vegetation Carter warned us about?”

 

“Umm, possibly --- I’m not sure.”

 

Hum, now why don’t I like the sound of that?

 

“And there’s no other way to make this pact?” Damn. If we didn’t need this stuff so much! Why is my vision of Carter’s excited face, fiddling with her doohickeys over those samples, overriding my natural caution here?

 

“Unfortunately, no, it’s their tradition. Shows we’re not afraid of them and will meet them on their own terms, or something like that.”

 

If only we didn’t need some serious help on the resources side back home, I’d tell them where to shove their brotherhood stick and it wouldn’t be where the sun was shining.

 

“Seems like we don’t have any choice then! OK, we’ll do this, but there’s only gonna be *me* doing it.”

 

Daniel frowns at me, making those little crease lines above his glasses. “It has to be all of us, Jack.”

 

Um, that would be a *no* Daniel. Just ‘cause I’m schmuck enough to go through with this, I’m not dragging anyone else down what could be Hallucinogen Drive.

 

“No. You tell him our rules say only the leader can make tribe decisions like that. Tell him, I don’t know, you’re not old enough or something. I don’t care what, but I’m not having anyone else smoking stuff when we don’t know what it’ll do to us.”

 

“Well how about if I do it then? I speak the language and can discuss any weird sensations with them. Check if that’s supposed to happen.” Danny can be a little too keen to join in sometimes, like his common sense has just hiked off up the nearest pyramid.

 

“Which is precisely why you’re not going to. You’re the only one who knows the lingo and can talk us out of any unforeseen problems, if any arise. No one else bar me, Danny boy. I may need all three of you compus mentus if this goes wrong. OK?”

 

He looks crestfallen. “OK, Jack, I hear you.”>>>

 

 

“Jack? Can you hear me Jack?”

 

Daniel. The kid sounds worried. Always worrying about me when all I’m doing is worrying about him. I wouldn’t have to worry so much, if I could trust him to follow my orders, when my back’s turned, but no. He’s off before you can say ‘Archaeologist, Anthropologist, Linguist – aaah crap’ and it’s like trying to net a will-o-the-wisp. He has absolutely no idea of the dangers out there. OK, that’s not strictly true. He knows a lot of the dangers out there, quite intimately on some occasions, but he still keeps his enthusiasm in top gear and his sense of preservation in reverse. He’s suffered so much over the years and I wish I could take away some of what he’s gone through. Wish I could have been able to bring Sha’re back, for instance. God knows, I wanted to, but fate’s a bitch. I know what it’s like to feel loss, such gut-wrenching loss that you think your stomach’s trying to turn itself inside out. To feel the very physical reaction to the darkest despair and the blind certainty that daylight is never gonna shine again. He’s too young to have been put through all that, yet he’s still got that sparkle in his eyes. The one that says ‘this is an incredible universe, full of incredible things’. I never wanna see that light die in him.

 

Me? My lights died a long time ago. Like some honking great dimmer switch gradually turning the brilliance down over the years, until there’s nothing left. You can pick dozens of occasions that contributed, some more dramatic than others, but the final push came with a single tiny bullet. One small piece of moulded metal, so feather light that you could balance it on the end of your finger, took the light of my life away. One small movement of a child’s finger, a matter of a few millimetres, and it was gone. Six feet of earth ensured one family would never be able to touch each other again.

 

I can barely feel a hand wrapped around mine, ‘cause the sensation’s very faint and I’m not at all certain. Was it there before and I just didn’t notice? I think the fingers feel cold, like someone’s been staying still for far too long and hasn’t been looking after himself. I’d squeeze back if I could get the message from my brain to my fingers, but no can do. My RNA isn’t up to messaging right now. Wouldn’t Carter be surprised I know stuff like that? Though I can’t remember what the hell the letters actually stand for, but any signal being sent down my arm is being returned ‘Request Not Acceptable’ at the moment.

 

“Jack? Come on Jack. Janet says you’ve got to wake up soon, you’ve slept for long enough.”

 

There’s a desperation in his voice and I feel guilty for putting him through even more worry. There’s a ton of emotion in his voice and I guess he must feel pretty strongly about me to stay here for so long. I’ve absolutely no idea why. Why would such a bright spark, who’s forgotten far more than I’m ever likely to know, be interested in ‘bad-ass and even worse jokes’ O’Neill? Can hardly be for my eloquence, or chat-up lines!

 

I can hear a set of boots approach the bed and can tell instantly by the lighter, shorter stride that it’s my 2IC, the equally bright Samantha Carter.

 

“Any change?” she asks in a quiet voice.

 

Why the hell do people always whisper around you when you’re ill? Am I ill? Is that what’s wrong with me?

 

“Janet seems to think so --- but --- ”

 

I can hear the rustle of fabric being pulled close and I imagine Carter holding Daniel to herself, trying to comfort him. That should be my job, I’m the CO around here.

 

“Then we’ve got to believe her. If she’s sure --- ”

 

 

<<<“Are you sure, Sir?”

 

Of course I’m not bloody sure. I’ve had many a mean smoke in the past, in places my feisty little Major has only seen referred to on maps. I know the rubbish that goes into these things and, as for the places they send you to, well you’d better make sure you’ve got your pilot’s licence ready for takeoff. The going out’s brilliant, but the landings? Oh boy, some of them can be really rough.

 

“Well, let me put it this way, Carter. Do you want to get your hands on more of that dirt that’s been kicking around your back-pack since we got here?”

 

“You know I do, Sir. We’ve not had much success finding sources of Naquadah and the minerals I’ve found here seem to have very similar properties.”

 

“Then there’s not a lot else to be discussed, is there?” Sometimes I can bristle like a cactus, especially when I don’t particularly like the decisions I’ve had to make.

 

“But some of the plant samples I took earlier show signs of toxins. We’ve no idea what you’d be subjecting yourself to.”

 

“*They* seem to be doing OK on it. Woono doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.”

 

“With all due respect, Sir, the Nabuui are used to it by now. Their systems have adapted to the conditions here over a long period of time. What’s OK for them may not be OK for you.”

 

 So --- I’d already figured that one out myself and was hoping the good Major would  be so geared up over her rock collection that she’d forgotten that possibility. Guess I should have known better. She’s my 2IC and that’s what she’s paid to do. To keep me as safe as possible and, if I’m down, to take care of the rest of the team.

 

“Carter, Earth and the SGC need the stuff that gets you all fired up. Our so called allies are about as useful as a fifth wheel when it comes to helping us with technology. If we’re ever going to get better equipment, and better materials to make them with, we’ve gotta go out there and find them ourselves. None of those so called superior race friends of ours are gonna help us where it counts, we’re on our own.”

 

“I know, Sir.” Her face shadows for a moment and I know without asking that she’s thinking of her father.

 

“I’m sure Jacob would help us if he could, but he’s got to follow the Tok’ra rules now. He’s no longer just your father.”

 

“I know, Sir, and I agree with you in principle. It’s just that --- it’s a risk, Sir. That’s all. It’s a risk.”

 

I’ve thought about it, with as much time as we’ve been given, and I’m the only one who truly isn’t needed around here on this safe planet. I’m also the one, as the oldest and the leader, who they want to do this anyway.

 

“I know Carter. Which is why there’s only gonna be me doing this. You, Daniel and Teal’c will just have to take care of everything --- if --- you know ---. Daniel can speak their lingo, you’re needed to do your chemical magic stuff and Teal’c will have to do his Atlas routine --- if --- if it’s needed. I’m trusting you to get them back safe.”

 

I’m just one heavily used Colonel, who as per usual, doesn’t have any skills needed here.>>>

 

 

“The Colonel doesn’t need you all to stay here you know. You’re not going to help him by making yourselves ill too.”

 

I can tell Fraiser’s losing her patience with them. It’s all in the inflection with the doctor. There’s even a tempo in her footsteps when she walks. It’s amazing what you can pick up about people, when you’ve spent as long as I have laid in one of these damned beds.

 

“OK, Doctor’s orders now. Only one of you in here at a time until the Colonel regains consciousness. I don’t care how you arrange it, but only one in here whilst the others eat, rest, or wash, whatever you want to do, as long as you don’t do it here.”

 

There’s the slight tapping of one high heel and I hear a chair being pushed back.

 

“I’ll go now Sam, I could do with a shower anyway. I’ll see you later.”

 

“I will also leave the infirmary at this time, but I *will* return later.”

 

I can hear the sadness in Daniel’s voice and the sheer ‘you try to stop me’ assertiveness of Teal’c’s, as two sets of feet march away into the distance. At least I know they’re all safe now, but I still feel alone somehow, separate from what’s going on. I can’t feel anything around me, no concerned touches, or gentle squeezes and it’s damned disconcerting. Fraiser’s click-click footsteps recede and I hear Carter pull her chair closer. I’m still too tired to move and too darned tired to worry about it.

 

“I’m so sorry, Sir. I should have made you listen more, or explained myself better.” There’s a pause in voice as she probably tries to sort out her thoughts. “Why don’t I stand up to you more and why are you so stubborn that I can’t get through?”

 

Me? Stubborn? Perish the thought! I think she may have forgotten the tiny matter of me being her CO though, that’s why, and shouldn’t it be ‘why are you so stubborn, *Sir*’?

 

“You scared the living daylights out of us back on that planet and you’re still doing a good job of it now, Sir.”

 

Ah, we’ve got the Sir back now. Good. I’ve worked hard for these eagles over the years and wouldn’t want them overlooked. Not when I can have fun with them, anyway.

 

“I don’t know if you can hear me, but Janet says the toxin in the plant leaves you smoked has had a paralysing effect on your muscles. She seems happy that she’s halted its progress, but Teal’c, Daniel and I would be a lot happier if you’d just snap out of it, Sir, and wake up.”

 

And I guess now would be a good time too, huh? Sorry Carter, the mind’s willing, but the body seems to be taking a vacation at the moment. At least that explains why I can’t move or feel anything though. I think I ought to be a tiny bit worried about that paralysing bit, but right now I couldn’t give a flying fig. Still feeling a bit loopy and out of it. I’m sure that’ll change pretty damned soon though, once I’ve got my act back together, so Fraiser had better be right about having it under control. She’d also better be able to get rid of the damned stuff. I can’t even feel if I’ve got any IVs, or catheters in and I’m pretty darned certain I must have. Guess the funny mushroom stuff has deadened the nerve endings too, unless that’s the Doc’s happy juice doing that. Hard to tell right now.

 

Carter’s gone quiet and I miss the sound of her voice. God, I’d miss everything about her if she left. Her smile brightens up my day, even if her technobabble sends my eardrums into shock. Bet she knows what RNA stands for too, not that one should bet around Carter. She’s got a mean right hook on her – just ask anyone at O’Malley’s.

 

“I feel so useless, sat here, watching you lying there. What on earth are we doing, risking so much for --- when no one out there knows, or cares? You joined in that ceremony, knowing full well it might be dangerous, and no one will ever know, bar us. What does that say about us?”

 

I’d sigh if I could. I’d love to actually, to feel my chest rise, with the extra air I’d inhaled, and then let it drift out of my nose again. At least I’m not on a respirator, so I guess my autonomic systems are still on auto-pilot.

 

Anyway, Carter thinks waaaay too much. I don’t think enough --- I don’t like to think. Thinking involves the brain and mine has a tendency to wander down memory lane when I don’t reign it in. Too many skeletons in the closets and too many damned closets in the dark corners of my mind. You don’t ever want to clear the cobwebs outta there. They say the truth will set you free, but that’s never been the case in my experience. The truth is the last thing that some people need, or ought to hear.

 

“You’re worth so much more than you think you are, Sir.”

 

And what would you know about that Carter? She’s hardly been around the block once, compared to me. Not saying she hasn’t seen action, either on this world, or off it, but what she’s seen has been in nice contrasting black and white tones. Us, the good guys and them the bad guys. Nice to understand and compartmentalise. I’m just a worn out, washed up, on the edge of retiring and very much has been Colonel. I might have been something once, a force to be reckoned with, but I’m not what’s needed around here anymore.

 

“If you weren’t my CO, I’d tell you how stupid you are to risk yourself so willingly.”

 

It’s my job to risk myself willingly, to protect her and others like her. People like me are a dime a dozen, but people of the calibre of her and Daniel are incredibly rare. That’s why I take my responsibilities so seriously. Everyone under my command, or protection, is important, but people like Carter and Daniel? Their intelligence is unique and to be protected at all costs. Without them, our chances of making a difference out there plummet dramatically. I sometimes wonder what I did to deserve the team I’ve got. What makes me so unique that I deserve wonder boy, super brain and the only alien on campus on my team?

 

“You act as though you’re nothing special, but I couldn’t keep us as safe as you do. You’re the best field commander on the base, on any base I’ve ever worked on. Don’t you realise how important you are to us? *You’re* what holds us all together.”

 

I’m somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of her words and can feel my heart quickening its pace. To my surprise, *beep-beep* echoes the sentiment and suddenly Carter’s on her feet beside me, pressing the call button.

 

“Please don’t let this be bad news, Colonel. Don’t you dare. Do you hear me – don’t you dare!”

 

Heavy booted footfalls only just precede the Doctor’s lighter ones and I hear Teal’c’s steady voice.

 

“What is happening? Has O’Neill’s condition changed?”

 

 

<<<“O’Neill, what is your condition?”

 

I’d answer if I could, only gimme a minute here big guy. It’s bad enough being hunched over the greenery like this in the first place, spewing my guts up, without having an audience that wants to talk to you about it at the same time.

 

I wave him away, back from the overpowering smell and continue heaving for another minute, until I’m sure there’s nothing left between me and breakfast two days ago. Once my stomach settles back down again, I crawl away from the offensive mess I’ve made and settle a few feet away on my butt. My team are instantly around me, Carter offering me a canteen of water and Daniel passing me a couple of tissues. I wipe my mouth on the tissues and then take a long gulp of warm water to rinse my mouth out and spit the taste away. I can still taste the nausea at the back of my throat, but it’s not as bad as before. I then stuff the tissues in a pocket. No one litters another one’s planet on my watch, even if they’ve got disgusting smelling tissues. We’ve just made good and friendly with the natives, at my expense, sealed a treaty with ‘em and I’m damned if I’m gonna ruin all the effort I put in, by littering the place up. They might have rules about that kind of behaviour.

 

“O’Neill, are you able to proceed now?”

 

All I can do is nod and get shakily to my feet. It’s been four hours since I smoked that disgusting stuff they gave me. Looked like the biggest honking cigar I’ve ever seen. It was the kind of green that Daniel usually goes when you show him your latest festering wound and big enough to play hockey with. We took turns, Woono, me and a bunch of elders from up in the hills. Carter said they use a plant that grows on the plains and, from the after-effects I’m getting, guess they use one with the toxins in. Apparently Woono said it was one of the better batches they’d made, would send me far away, Daniel translated. Haven’t smoked shit like that since high school and I wish I hadn’t just now either. Guess my cast iron constitution isn’t so cast iron anymore.

 

I sway slightly to one side with my first step and feel Teal’c instantly by my side, his arm gripping me around the waist.

 

“I shall assist you, O’Neill.” He informs me, after the fact. I’d love to argue, hell I’d love to be able to stand up on my own two feet right now, but I’m way past getting my mouth to co-operate. It’s still recovering from the exercise my throwing up has just given it.

 

I’d been fine for the first couple of hours after the Brotherhood Stick. So, everyone had looked a funny colour for the first hour and the noises they’d come out with had been anything but words. Hour number two had been a big improvement: Daniel *did* speak English; Carter *wasn’t* hoisting a reactor about on her back; and Teal’c’s junior *was* still inside his pouch. Hour number three had me feeling a little nauseous and a little tingly in my extremities, but nothing that reduced me to my knees or anything. Hour number four was the killer. I don’t recall ever being so sick, not even on the worst benders I’d had as a rookie.

 

Five times I’ve stopped now to heave up over some poor excuse for a shrubbery. The first couple of times I’d been able to carry on standing, the next couple of times I was able to get up off my knees by myself. Now I don’t think I can even walk on my own. I feel Teal’c’s grip getting firmer, as he weaves his fingers into my belt, and I realise I’m stumbling as I walk. My vision’s dimming down to concentrating on my feet, hypnotised by the sight of them moving beneath me, forwards and backwards. There’s a funny whooshing noise in my ears, drowning out any other sounds and suddenly the ground comes a whole lot closer. I can see another two sets of boots appear near my face and feel more hands under my shoulders as the world tips over. There’s  the funny coloured green sky above me for a second or two,  before Teal’c’s concerned face replaces it. I try to reach out with my hands to grasp him, as a pain in my stomach robs me of breath. That funny tingly feeling in my hands is getting stronger. Teal’c’s lips move, but I can’t hear a word he says, as everything goes dark and completely silent.>>>

 

 

I can feel a slight tingling sensation in my fingers and try to move them. It’s an incredible feeling, to *be* able to feel again. A hand is quickly pressed into them, a large warrior’s hand, like my own.

 

“O’Neill, are you trying to move your fingers? They appear to be flexing slightly. Can you attempt to move them again?”

 

I try to move them once more and I can hear the relief in his voice. It’s only a slight inflection and no one else might have noticed it, but I do.

 

“You were again successful, O’Neill. Perhaps it is time to attempt to open your eyes.”

 

It’s a battle, and my eyelids feel as though they’re glued together, but I’m fed up of listening to what’s going on around me and even more fed up of staring at the insides of my eyelids. Slowly and with stubborn persistence, I finally manage to raise them half way open. I never thought I’d be so happy to see those tiles above me. The lights are turned down, so I guess it must be night time in the infirmary. I still can’t move my head, but I can just make out Teal’c’s solid presence leaning towards me. There’s the slightest of smiles on his face, as he looks down on me, his eyes bright and kinda happy looking, for a Jaffa.

 

“It is good to see you awake again, my friend.”

 

I’d try to reply, or nod my head, but I still can’t get anything else to work and I’m exhausted already.

 

“DoctorFraiser has confirmed that the toxin is slowly being removed from your body and there is no need for your concern about that matter.”

 

He removes his hand and I feel strangely bereft of the contact, and being able to feel it, but I guess it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. If the Doc reckons I’m gonna be OK, I can wait a little longer --- maybe.

 

“I should notify her that you have awakened.”

 

I guess something must have shown on my face, because I’m not really keen to get the medical third degree right now. I just want to relax here, watching one of my team, knowing we’re all home safe and sound.

 

“However, she did not specify *when* I had to notify her.”

 

There’s a slight lift of his mouth and I know under some circumstances we can read each other like the proverbial book.

 

“DanielJackson has left the base to check upon each of your houses for security and postal communications and MajorCarter is busy in her laboratory, studying the mineral samples she brought back from the Nabuui. She is most excited by her studies, although she only left after we were assured of your returning health.”

 

He sounds like he’s apologising for her, as if I didn’t already know my Major extremely well. But how well my team know me. Teal’c fills me in without me even having to raise an eyebrow in query. Just as well though, considering I couldn’t raise one if my life depended on it right now.

 

“You have been in the infirmary for five days. I carried you back to the stargate after you collapsed and DoctorFraiser was most concerned as to your condition when we arrived. However, she now appears satisfied by your responses, although she is eager to see you awake.”

 

He pauses for a moment and I wonder what’s going on behind that gold tattoo of his.

 

“I apologise that I was not able to undergo that ceremony on your behalf. My prim’ta may have afforded my system better protection against the poison.”

 

Huh? And what about Carter’s theory that the poison could be what drove the Goa’uld away? He’s kinda conveniently forgetting that bit.

 

I never did get around to discussing this peace-pipe thing with him before the event and maybe I should have. I know I’m the CO and don’t technically need to explain my orders, but with a small unit like ours it can be deadly important to understand where we’re all coming from. Teal’c doesn’t always understand the way we do things round here. Even though he’s had a lot longer than me in military service, those years haven’t been in the same type of unit as he is now. His many years of service as a Jaffa have instilled certain rigid concepts of behaviour in him. Some of that old style of behaviour is reflected in his reactions to failure, especially when anything happens to his commander. I don’t mean to suggest he thinks of me as some kind of Apophis, or anything like that. It’s just that he has a hard time dealing with his feelings, now he’s getting used to acknowledging them, when he’s unable to prevent something happening to me. He can still get caught up in that old loop of thinking he’s here to protect me, although that sense of responsibility has also stretched to cover Carter and Daniel now too.

 

When you’re running with reduced resources, like four men teams, you have to make the best use of what you have available. All those years of incredible blunt force power under Apophis have sometimes prevented him from thinking outside of those options. Sometimes what you *want* to do isn’t the best way to get a job done. I had to make a decision on that planet. I was the only one who could be safely out of commission for the return journey and I needed him safe to bring me back, if it all went south – as it obviously did.

 

He’s watching my face intently, staring at my forehead, and I wonder if it’s obvious how deeply I’m thinking about matters.

 

“However, I feel assured that you will explain your reasons to me once you are able to do so.”

 

I think I actually managed to smile at him then. I’d swear I could feel my lips moving.

 

“O’Neill, I do believe sensation is returning to your facial muscles.”

 

I’m very tired and my eyes slide closed again, but I stay awake long enough to hear the clickety-click of Fraiser’s heels approach my bed.

 

“Any change, Teal’c?”

 

“Indeed, DoctorFraiser. Colonel O’Neill opened his eyes and was able to move his fingers for me.”

 

“Any you didn’t call me? Really, Teal’c!” There’s definite annoyance in the voice of the Doctor and I think Teal’c had better make a run for it, even though he doesn’t scare easily. The Jaffa who turns and runs away, lives to see the Doc another day and all that.

 

In the middle of the Doctor’s renewed interest in me, I can hear my CO’s voice from the direction of the doorway. There’s concern and puzzlement in his words as they boom across the floor, only marginally in advance of his solid body.

 

“What’s happening? Is the Colonel alright?”

 

 

<<<”What happened to the Colonel? Is he alright?”

 

The intense cold of the wormhole must have brought me round, because now I’m being laid carefully down on the ramp in the gateroom. There’s a rush of BDUs around me, moving too fast for my sluggish eyes to follow and someone rolls me over onto my side. I can feel myself heaving again, but nothing comes out, luckily for the cleaners. I’d hate to have to clean *that* up around this piece of metalwork.

 

A set of airforce uniform pressed trousers kneels down beside me and I feel my CO’s hand on my shoulder.

 

“We managed to make a treaty with the natives, Sir, and got permission to investigate mining rights. The mineral samples I’ve tested bear out the MALP’s initial findings. However, the Colonel had to smoke a sort of peace-pipe with the natives to seal the deal. It looks like the plants had a toxin and the Colonel’s been getting sicker ever since.”

 

“Very good Major.” He leans a little further down and I can just about focus on his face. He looks worried and I try to grin back at him, but I’m rapidly losing all sense of feeling anywhere in my body.

 

The hand on my shoulder squeezes slightly and I barely hear his words.

 

“You take it easy, Colonel. We’ll soon have you taken care of.”

 

I feel questing hands on my body and a flurry of white surrounds me, but I’m way past being able to focus on anything, or hear what’s being said. I feel the restriction of an oxygen mask being placed on my face, but I’m too tired to complain about the sensation of being hemmed in by it. Gradually even the feel of that on my face disappears as I’m lifted onto the gurney. I can’t keep my eyes open any longer and allow myself to drift, as the motion of being rushed through the corridors lulls my remaining senses.

 

“You’re in good hands, son.” Seems to come from somewhere nearby and I force my eyes open once more, to see his vague shape receding behind the white coats around me.>>>

 

 

“You’re in good hands, Jack.” There’s an uncomfortable pause and it sounds like old George is clearing his throat. “Fraiser says she knows what got into your system and has been busy running all sorts of tests in her lab.” He lets out a tiny laugh. “Don’t know what she’s doing myself, but her and Carter ran up a fair steam back there, when you first came back.” There’s yet another pause, even longer this time. “Darn it, Jack. I’m sorry. I know I ordered you to do whatever you could to get those minerals, but I didn’t mean for it to be like this.”

 

I want to tell him it’s not his fault. He has his job to do, just the same as I do. The President wants resources to fuel our battles, so he orders the General and the General orders me. I want to open my eyes to tell him that, but I don’t know if that’ll make him uncomfortable, knowing I’m aware of what he’s saying. I also don’t know if I can talk yet, anyway, so I play possum for the moment instead.

 

You see, the difference between our two roles is that I don’t *have* to ask my team to do something I can’t do myself. I have that luxury in the field, if you can call it that, which he doesn’t and it makes a hell of a difference with the guilt trips afterwards. I’m the fulcrum that balances out our orders at one end, with the job being carried out at the other. I can decide which way to pivot, weighing up the situation with local knowledge and decide which action is the best way to go. It might mean choosing who’s the most qualified to get something done, or who’s the most expendable. They’re never easy decisions, and it’s something you can only figure out at the time, but the General’s base-bound role doesn’t allow him even those options.

 

I know he agonises each time he sees one of us come back hurt, but there’s nothing he can do about it, no matter how much he might want to. Out there, at least *I* can prevent some crap from happening, at least to the rest of my team and that’s all I’ve done now. There’s nothing heroic about it. I’ve just saved myself a whole heap of  worry over them, by doing the job myself. I was also the most expendable, so I can justify my decision without thinking too deeply about it.

 

“I’ve had everyone else’s mission reports back, and Carter assures me those minerals are worth the effort, but you and I are going to have a little chat when you get out of here. I’m sure you think you did the right thing out there, but why in the blue blazes are you so often the one being carried back here, Jack?”

 

Because that’s what you pay me the big bucks for?

 

“You’ve got to learn to take better care of yourself, son, you’re not getting any younger you know. You seem to forget how valuable you are to this endeavour. You’re a Colonel in the United States Air Force, leader of the primary field unit of the SGC and my second in command. That’s one hell of a job description, Jack, and I’m not sure anyone else could fill your boots around here.” He chuckles again, leaning back in the chair. I can hear it squeaking under the weight.

 

Personally, I’m not sure anyone else would *want* my boots. Not with the mileage I’ve put in them anyway. However, I’m touched by the strength of his words, even if I doubt I’m as irreplaceable as he thinks. I can hear the distinctive sound of Fraiser’s heels again coming towards me and I wonder when the Doctor last went home. The chair scrapes along the floor as Hammond pushes it backwards, to stand up.

 

“I’d better go now, Jack. I don’t know if you’ve heard one bean of what I’ve just said, but we will be having that chat later. You just concentrate on getting out of that bed.”

 

Sighing, he turns around and walks away, leaving me thinking how much stress this job must put him through. At least out there, I can take my stress out on the enemy, but who can George take his out on? His pencil sharpener?

 

As he leaves, Fraiser’s heels approach my bed. No doubt she’s been waiting for a bit more privacy, before giving me what is probably a regular check-over.

 

 “Colonel? Are you awake yet, Colonel O’Neill?”

 

 

<<<”Colonel O’Neill? Colonel, can you hear me?”

 

The relief from pain helps me surface again in the trauma room and, looking past the oxygen mask, I see an IV already in my arm. Guess the good Doctor’s quickly got me on some sort of meds. I’m on one of those gurneys, with the curtains pulled around me. Nurses are efficiently removing my clothes and I’d like to tell them where to go, but I’m having problems talking right now. My mouth feels huge and awkward, like when the dentist has been doing his worst. Fraiser’s busy with her pen-light, starting her usual response tests.

 

“Sluggish.” She mutters to herself, as she moves on to test my nerve reflexes with a pen. “Ummm.”

 

I guess I’m not quite up to par and I try to apologise. Somehow it seems polite to acknowledge her efforts.

 

“Sor ---”

 

“What was that Colonel? What did you say? ---  Sorry?”

 

She looks down at me and smiles but, even blurry eyed, I can see her troubled, worried eyes.

 

“You just lie there, Sir, and relax. Your team have told me what’s happened and, as soon as their medicals are done, Sam’s going to run some tests on those plants. We’ll have you right as rain in no time.”

 

She may think she’s fooling me, but I know better. Every time we come back through that gate we run the risk of bringing back something that she wont be able to deal with. Every return trip is like rolling a die, waiting for the one bug that’ll turn this base into a mortuary. It’s a lot for one person to have on their shoulders, especially someone with a child at home.

 

I suddenly want to heave again and something must have communicated itself to her, because she’s quickly helping me roll over.

 

“Bowl, now!” she urges and one of the nurses reaches over for one of those disposable types that are always piled up nearby. Fraiser supports me on my side, rubbing my back, whilst the nurse holds out the bowl for me. There’s nothing left to come out anyway, bar a mouthful of liquid, but I’m shaking like a leaf by the time I’ve finished. For crying out loud, when will this be over? Everything’s dimming again and the sounds around me fade away to nothingness as the Doctor rolls me onto my back again.

 

“Damn what is this? Come on Colonel, stay with me. Can you do that, Sir?”

 

 Soon even her voice has drifted away in the darkness.>>>

 

 

“Are you with me, Colonel, can you open your eyes? Can you do that for me, Sir?”

 

It’s not as difficult to respond this time and I’m rewarded by the sight of her petite face, peering down at me.

 

“Well, welcome back.” She positively beams down at me. She turns away for a brief moment, before I feel a straw against my lips. “Slowly.” She instructs needlessly, as I gently sip a few mouthfuls. I take the moment to look around and investigate my situation further. I can still hear *beep-beep*, but the oxygen mask has been replaced by a nasal cannula, which is a lot easier to cope with. I can also feel IVs, monitor leads and that little pulse-ox clip on my finger now. I’ve never been so pleased to be aware of those tiny annoyances, in stark contrast to previous visits here. I take a few more sips and turn my head away when I’m done. The effort is hard work, but I’m childishly thrilled that I can actually feel myself moving again. My surprise must have shown on my face, because the Doc’s still smiling as she puts the glass back.

 

“Most of the toxin is out of your system now and all your motor functions seem to be coming back on-line. It’ll take a while and won’t happen overnight, but I don’t foresee any long-term problems, Sir. You’ve just got to be patient.”

 

“That’s me.” I manage to say in the weakest, croakiest voice I’ve ever possessed and she laughs at me.

 

“I’ll agree with you being *a* patient.”

 

“How long?”

 

“How long, what? You’ve been a patient, or you’re still likely to be one?” Her eyes are still laughing at me, although I can see the dark circles underneath them now I can focus more. “You’ve been here six days now and I think I’ll reserve judgement on how much longer you’ll be here, for a few more yet. Let’s just say you’ve got a lot of recovering to do before you can get out of that bed. --- And that’s not open to debate.” She smiles down at me again and I have an inkling of the worries she must have had over me.

 

Those dark circles are bothering me, because I know I’m the reason for them. She should be home with Cassie, not here nursing foolish old Colonels who willingly let themselves get poisoned. I wonder how she does it, balancing her career with Cassie at home? Granted, we help out as often as we can and Cassie treats us all as an extended family, but how much of that burden do we actually relieve? Fraiser looks so young to be running all this, although she started out as early as I did in my field. I know, ‘cause I’ve read her record and darned impressive it is too. She might be five foot nothing, but what there is of her is as volatile as any explosive I’ve ever handled.

 

“Cassie?” I ask, although this little chat is wearing me down fast.

 

“Cassie’s fine. Sam and Daniel have been taking turns in looking after her. In fact she’s spent the last two days, over the weekend, here on base. She’s been spoilt rotten. The only thing bothering her is you, so I suggest you rest up and then you’ll be out of here all the quicker. Cassie has plans for a beach party that includes you as the guest of honour.”

 

“Now there’s an offer I can’t refuse.” I manage to whisper, as I study the various machines keeping tabs on me.

 

“No, you can’t, because *I’d* have to answer to her otherwise and you don’t want to know how bad a scene that can be with a teenager.”

 

I guess I must have made a small sigh about that, because yes, I *would* like to know how it feels to create a scene with your own teenager. It’s something I’ll never get the chance to do now. Fraiser’s face blanches as she realises what she’s said and I feel even more guilty now for heaping that on her too.

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Jack, I don’t know how I managed to say that.”

 

“No, I’m sorry. I’m glad you have Cassie, but I’m really tired now Janet. I think I’d like to go back to sleep, if that’s OK.” I’ve just about used up all my energy on that one sentence, but we both know I’ve just made an excuse up to end the discussion with good grace. She nods her head and silently retreats away from me. Soon I’m left alone with my thoughts of what could have been and they follow me back into dreamland.

 

 

<<<“Oh, Dad!”

 

“Don’t ‘Oh Dad’ me, young man. Up those stairs, now, or you wont be going anywhere tomorrow, with anyone.”

 

Charlie stares defiantly back at me, before he looks past me and his face quickly changes from frowning into smiling. Then he storms up the stairs without a backwards glance my direction.

 

“You know, Mike,” I say to Sara’s dad, who’s just walked up behind me, “it’s a helluva difficult enough job laying down the law, without you undoing all my hard work.”

 

“Ahh, come on Jack. You were never not gonna take him to the game, why not admit it? You’re a push-over and everyone knows it, Charlie too.”

 

“You sure about that?” ‘Cause I’m not.>>>

 

 

<<<“Charlie, did you, or did you not break Thomas’s hockey stick?”

 

“It was an accident, Dad, honest.” He stares down at the floor, refusing to meet my eyes.

 

“Then why did Thomas tell his mum you did it on purpose?”

 

“I dunno. He’s always saying stuff like that.”

 

“I thought you two were friends?”

 

“We were. Look, can I play out again now, Dad?” He says, trying to change the subject.

 

“Not until you tell me the truth.”

 

He stands there with his arms crossed, O’Neill stubbornness personified, and refuses to say another word.>>>

 

 

<<<“But I wanna go, Dad.”

 

“You can’t Charlie. I’ve gotta go away again and your mom’s had this shopping day with her friends planned for weeks. We don’t have the time. There’ll be another chance.”

 

“You’re always saying that. You’re always going away. Why can’t you stop home like other Dads?” He looks at me with such hurt in his young eyes, that I cringe.

 

I know he wanted to go to the rodeo, but the drive’s too far. Sara will only just be back in time before I have to leave as it is. If it wasn’t for outfits for a friend’s wedding, she wouldn’t have gone at all.

 

“I’m sorry, Charlie.”

 

“You’re always saying that too.” The words are barely whispered, before he turns away and walks out of the house, pulling the door shut behind him.

 

“I’ll make it up to you, Charlie. I promise.” I say to the closed door, knowing I have to go and pack again, hoping he’ll have forgiven me by the time I’m next home.>>>

 

 

<<<It’s a beautiful warm sunny day and we’re sitting outside together, enjoying each other’s company. Sara cuddles up to me and I feel the familiar tingling that precedes arousal as we grin at the school photos. Charlie’s playing somewhere nearby and nothing could be any better in my world. Nothing could harm us. Nothing could touch us. Nothing could taint this sweet life I had.

 

*BANG*

 

Nothing could happen to us.

 

“Charlie!”

 

Nothing could disturb my world.

 

‘NO.’

 

Nothing.

 

“Nooooooo.”>>>

 

 

“Jack?”

 

There’s a small hand on my shoulder, gently shaking me awake, and the young female voice cuts through my dreams.

 

“Cassie?” My eyes are hardly open, before she’s putting her arms around my neck and leaning into me. I know she’s being restrained, as she doesn’t hug me with anything like her usual exuberance. Probably because I’m doing a good impression of a porcupine, with all the things attached to me, even if the nasal cannula seems to have disappeared. Pity *beep-beep* didn’t get lost too, but at least we’re getting there.

 

“You were having a bad dream.”

 

Crap. It’s bad enough that the infirmary staff get to witness them at times, without anyone else seeing me like this too, especially a youngster like Cassie. I want her to look at me as someone who can protect her, not someone who’s weak enough to have nightmares whenever they shut their eyes.

 

“I have them too.” She says quietly, disturbing my thoughts.

 

“What about?” I shuffle further away from her, so that I can see her better and try to sit up a bit more. At least there’s a bit of strength in my arms again, although I fail miserably at rearranging the pillows behind me. Cassie seems to take the opportunity to gather her thoughts and helps to plump the pillows for me. She reaches around me so carefully, that I think she’s picking up on Fraiser’s talents for nursing.

 

“Sit here.” I instruct her, patting the now empty side of the bed, next to where’s she’s standing.

 

Carefully, she raises herself onto the bed and sits beside me, as I wrap my arms around her, pulling her close, mindful of the IV that’s still attached. Placing a gentle kiss on the top of her head, as she leans into me, I wait for her to start.

 

“I never met him --- Charlie.”

 

My hand stops its slow caress of her arm for just a moment, before commencing again.

 

“No, you didn’t. He died many years before we found you.”

 

She nods her head and cuddles closer for a moment.

 

“You still love him, don’t you?”

 

“Of course I do. I’ll never stop. Why?” I keep my voice soft and continue to hold her close. Cassie is someone else who’s suffered far too much for one so young.

 

“I miss them.” She doesn’t say who, but it’s not hard to figure that one out. She covers up a slight sniffle before continuing. “My parents --- my family and friends.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Sometimes it hurts so bad that they’re all dead. --- It’s not as though I don’t love Janet and you and Sam and everyone else, but I loved them first and I don’t think I ever told them. Now they’re gone and I miss them so much.”

 

“I know sweetheart, but they knew you loved them. Families always do.”

 

“Did Charlie know you loved him?”

 

Of course, deep down I know he did, it’s just so difficult sometimes to remember the good times. He’d just started that stage of challenging everything I said, just like most kids do. All those images of fighting with him come back, but I can hardly help Cassie by thinking about those.

 

“Yeah, although we used to argue a lot.”

 

“I used to argue with my parents too. I always wanted to do things my way, never what they wanted to do, or when they wanted to do it. Now I wish I’d listened to them more. Sometimes I can hardly remember how they sounded. I can hear them in my dreams, but it’s all gone when I wake up.”

 

“Charlie was the same. He had my stubborn streak, but we have to remember the good times. Even during his worst tantrums, if he was in trouble, he’d come to me. His mom was great to cuddle if he hurt himself, but any other challenges he’d bring to me.”

 

“I used to go on long walks with my father. He’d take me places and show me things. Things I can’t even remember any more. I just remember being with him, holding his hand, feeling safe.”

 

“I used to love carrying Charlie on my shoulders, until he got too big to let me.” I can’t help the sigh that escapes. I don’t want to heap anything else on Cassie. I’m supposed to be helping her out here and if it wasn’t for my bad dreams she probably wouldn’t be so upset in the first place.

 

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” She pulls away to look me in the face and I’m grateful I still have at least one youngster in my life to watch over. The crystal entity wasn’t my son, the Reetou Charlie couldn’t stay, Merrin had to go back, but at least I can take some solace in Cassie’s presence.

 

“Yeah, but at least we have each other, right?”

 

“I’m glad I have you and Janet, Jack. You understand.”

 

“We *all* care for you Cassie.” I want to say Danny understands all too well what it’s like to lose his family too, but that’s up to Danny to discuss. I can’t do that for him.

 

“I know, but the others aren’t you. I can tell you things and you make it feel better. You’ll not leave me, will you?” She lies back down against me, her arms snaking around my chest again. Once more, ever so careful of the monitor leads attached to me.

 

“Never, sweetheart. I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”

 

“Good, because Janet’s going to be so mad I woke you up. I promised her I wouldn’t.”

 

The truth is I *am* tired again. I’ll be so grateful when I get my strength back and can get outta this joint. At least I’ve managed to stay awake long enough to have a decent conversation this time.

 

“Well, how about I go back to sleep and then she’ll never know?”

 

Cassie laughs a little and snuggles down even further. I’ve a funny feeling we’re both going to be asleep in moments. Her mother’s probably going to have a fit, but I’m relaxing too much under the warmth of Cassie’s hold to worry about it.

 

“Don’t ever leave us Jack, we all need you too much. They might not tell you, but I know everyone here cares about you. You’re special.”

 

I’m not sure why, but when children say things they seem easier to believe in. Youngsters see things in such simple terms, in black and white. They’ve not yet learned about the different shades of grey in-between and often see right through any façade that an adult presents to them.

 

“We all are, Cassie. Janet, Sam, Danny, Teal’c, Hammond. They’re all important. You are too.”

 

“But you’re the one who keeps us all together, Jack. You’re the one who always helps us when things go wrong.”

 

What? Bull in china shop O’Neill? I can’t help the yawn that escapes, as I try to come up with an answer for her.

 

“You’re tired Jack. Sorry, you should get back to sleep. I’ll stay here and keep you company till Janet gets back.”

 

“OK.” I give her a tight squeeze and can’t help but close my eyes and drift off again, surrounded by the total acceptance of her affection.

 

 

Some time later, I’m vaguely disturbed by voices near the bed.

 

“Ah, don’t they look sweet?”

 

“Shush, Daniel. You’ll wake them.”

 

“Indeed DanielJackson, DoctorFraiser has said that ColonelO’Neill still needs much rest before he can be released to our care.”

 

“Did Janet see them like this?”

 

“Yes, she was with the General too. Pity I don’t have my camera with me. Just thinking of the blackmail I could hold over him sends my pulse racing.”

 

“I would not allow you to do such a thing DanielJackson. O’Neill has done nothing to warrant such treatment.”

 

“Of course he hasn’t Teal’c. I’m just kidding, that’s all. Although I could still kick his butt for scaring us like that.”

 

“I’ll say Amen to that.”

 

“Why would one say Amen? Is there a religious ceremony involved that I have missed?”

 

I hear the voices recede into the distance again, as the sound of plastic chairs being moved joins them. It’s just too much of an effort to acknowledge their presence. Cassie’s still wrapped around me and my team are nearby, relaxing and joking. My life’s not perfect and never will be again, but I won’t complain. What I have is precious and I’ll always do whatever I have to in order to keep them safe. They can kick my butt, but I’ll always lay it on the line to protect them. They’re the special ones and no one can tell me any differently.

 

 

*****The End*****