Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

Creature Comforts

by Flatkatsi




Part One

The area he had to lie down in was tiny, barely enough room to curl up on one side, his arms pressed hard into the unforgiving bars of the cage. He knew better than to let any part of his body extend beyond the confines of the enclosure, his hands still bearing the cuts from the first time.

He had gone beyond uncomfortable, his bare feet numbly balancing on the thin pieces of metal, the gaps between them too wide for support and not wide enough for escape. His shoulders ached from being hunched into such an unnatural position. In fact every part of his body that could still feel ached.

They had thrown water on him yesterday, laughing as some of the filth washed away, leaving him cold and shivering. Then they had brought their children. The first tentative touches and prods had increased in confidence until he had endured hours of pinches, each reaction from him eliciting gales of laughter. As night fell, and the room was cleared, a parting poke with a stick had connected with his right eye. He still couldn't see out of it.

They had given him a piece of some sort of bread, perhaps as a reward, and left him in the dark.

The other animals had been restless, unfamiliar growls and calls cutting through the silence. Cries of despair.

He hadn't cried out once.

The third day had seen the games begin. The novelty must have worn off, and at first he had been grateful. Fewer visitors meant less humiliation.

He should have known better.

He had some warning when the people started filing in, filling the room, their voices eager with anticipation. None had any pity in their eyes, all they saw was an animal waiting to entertain them. He had tried to crouch, get in some sort of defensive position, but even if he had been able to move his cramped limbs, there was no room. All he could do was wait and try to reason with them, even though he knew it was most likely in vain. From the start it had seemed that all his attempts at communication had done was amuse.

The keeper had been the last to enter, his old worn jacket replaced with one covered in metal beads that shone and glittered in the torch light. He began his speech with a flourish, quieting the crowd immediately. Jack didn't need to understand the language to know he was the main attraction in this little show. A hand signal brought forward two of the burly men who had first manhandled him, half conscious, into his cage. The clank of keys and hiss of chains and the door was open, freedom as far away as ever. He couldn't help the yelp that escaped him as he was grabbed and pulled out, his long legs hanging uselessly, the muscles and tendons shouting their agony. From his one good eye he saw faces staring at him, no pity, no common feeling, just something he recognised as lust. He had seen looks like those before, on the faces of his torturers.

A wooden platform had been set up in the middle of the open area, complete with metal restraints at each corner. He knew what was coming next as soon as he saw it, and it was no surprise when he was placed on it, face up, his legs and arms stretched up and out as far as possible, his wrists and ankles locked into place. For one brief moment he thought of the irony of going from squashed like a pretzel to stretched out like a rubber band about to snap. One brief moment only. Then the feeling of metal on his skin brought his attention back to his surroundings with a start and he knew he had been drifting, three days of no sleep and very little food pushing him to the edge.

The cold air on his skin as his ragged clothes were cut away revived him, the whispers and giggles made him shut his eyes to try and distance himself. The keeper's loud announcement and the clink of coins passing into nearby hands made what happened next almost more unbearable. He held himself in, and, controlling his breathing as much as possible, tried not to react as the hands groped and fondled, stroked and pulled. Some were rough and calloused, others smaller and soft. The most disturbing were the children's hands and he wondered what sick excuse for a civilisation could expose their young to such a thing and make a show out of it. Only once did he open his eyes, blinking away the moisture pooling in the corners. The hand had stroked his hair, gently, and the face had shown compassion and pity, the old wrinkled fingers lingering for a moment as if imparting strength. The moment was soon gone, and he again shut his eyes, enduring what seemed like hours more as the customers continued to pass around him and back to their seats. Just once his body betrayed him, the slight twitch causing even more laughter, enough to put paid to any chance of that happening again, despite the best attempts of those taunting him.

By the time it was over, he was a mass of pain, every touch agonising, making him clench his teeth and bite his lip, the sharp, metallic taste of blood on his tongue.

They poured water into his mouth, forcing it open, holding his nose to make him swallow, then left him there, the night air cold on his sensitised skin, the torches smothered into darkness. Part way through the night he must have slipped into an exhausted sleep, the uncomfortably stretched limbs an improvement on being squashed for so long.

He woke to an involuntary bath, the water splashing down across his face and over his body. By the time he realised his hands and feet were free he was turned, his face forced roughly into the hard wooden surface, a cloth wiped across his buttocks and yet more water poured over. This time he screamed as he was locked into place once more, face down. This time it wasn't just hands. The coins clinked once more.

The only consolation he had was that there did not seem to be any children this time. He didn't think he could have borne that.

Where was his team? He knew he hadn't been left behind. He knew they would come.

One vicious push, god knew what it was, an object - long and blunt - and he felt himself rip and tear into darkness to the accompaniment of annoyed shouts from the keeper.

He didn't know how long he was out, only that he woke to hard slaps around his face. He was on his back again, still held firmly down, still surrounded by spectators. At least he seemed to have some vision in his injured eye, albeit blurred. Of course the blurring could have been caused by the weakness he felt, the pain that lurked deep within him, the steady loss of the blood that seeped slowly from inside. He had experienced this feeling too many times before to not know what it was, and this time there wasn't the cold of Antarctica to numb the sensation.

A face appeared, leering into his, the man crouching beside him. A nod, a smile, and the keeper came into view, his latest attraction once more alert.

The show must go on.

The crowd seemed even larger than before, the murmuring more excited, the anticipation palatable, and Jack felt his pulse begin to race. Every voice fell silent, only the sound of footsteps approaching the bound figure broke the quiet. He jerked his head, trying to see, to prepare himself.

He couldn't.

The touch of fire on his upper leg broke his resolve and he shouted, writhing, pulling away. A call and hands held him, uncaring where they gripped, holding him still as the torch was run along the entire length of his left leg. A brief moment of reprieve, a repositioning of the hands, and the heat seared his right arm from shoulder to fingertips, only the wrist escaping the burning, raw as it was under the metal cuffs. His chest was next, the smell of burning hair pungent in the air, mixing with the scent of body fluids and the musk of the crowd's arousal. He didn't scream. He cursed, damned them all to hell thrice over, their whole planet with them, wishing them an eternity of pain and sorrow, even their children. He cursed until he sobbed, the flesh withering.

At first he hadn't realised it was over, the burning sensation continuing long after the torch was withdrawn, his pants loud in the still silent room.

Slowly he came to understand something. They hadn't finished. There was something more to come.

He didn't know if he could take any more.

A quick glow of sunlight, quickly gone, and the keeper entered the room, holding the leash of two creatures unlike any Jack had seen before. The closest he could come to anything familiar was monkeys, but that wasn't quite right, their teeth and claws almost catlike, their long fur white and clean, glowing with health and grooming. The keeper smiled proudly and walked the creatures around the room, displaying them to the onlookers like a proud father.

Jack watched warily, noting the orange eyes always turned in his direction, the noses quivering. Finally the keeper lead them over, clipping the larger one's leash to the manacle at Jack's right hand, the other to his left ankle.

A claw on his burnt shoulder, a tongue across his face.

Crap, what now?

A pull on his upper thigh, the sound of crunching, a licking of lips. The crackling of burnt skin being peeled. Of swallowing.

Oh god! Dear god! They were eating him.

He screamed and the crowd cheered.

Part Two

How long it went on for Jack was never to know, the horror overwhelming him, every sound magnified a hundred fold. On the edge of his awareness he heard the happy mutterings, the small sighs as the people were allowed a closer view, their cruelty an almost concrete presence in the room, the keeper's jolly tones urging them to approach the platform, money once again changing hands. But the closest sounds were the ones that caught him up and held him, the loud rumbles of pleasure, the lapping and licking, the brittle noise of skin crisp and broken and chewed.

Intermingled with the sounds were the feelings, every nerve tingling with awareness. Wet tongues sweeping across him, finding the sweat, the blood, and lapping it up, nibbling at him, grabbing in sharp teeth and ripping, ever so delicately at the places perfectly cooked for their enjoyment. The slow peeling of flesh, eaten away bit by bit, the claws digging in and holding him down, pressing hard on rawness. When one of them found the blood around his eye, there was a tussle for possession, claws scrabbling across his body, snarls of defiance, until the larger won out, its dry tongue savouring the taste as Jack cringed back, feeling the teeth across the injury, fearing for his sight if the creature slipped. The smaller of the two grabbed a mouthful of flesh as if in protest, chewing and ripping it from his chest, pulling a long strip down his stomach until, somewhere below his pelvis, it snagged and refused to let go. A jerk of its head saw it release its tentative grip on his body, coming away accompanied by his scream. A few gulps and it was gone, a part of him no longer.

He wished for anything to end the pain, and finally slipped into shocked oblivion to the disappointed catcalls of the crowd, even the hardest slaps unable to rouse him. He didn't hear the footsteps leave the room, the growls as the creatures were pulled from their meal or see the torches extinguished.

He woke to darkness and hands upon him once again, but this time gentle touches releasing his restraints. A cup at his mouth, a few sips of water and he was pulled upright and thrown across broad shoulders. Out the door, and the night air made him moan, a hand clenched over his mouth smothering his cries. His body was moved frequently, different bodies, different hands on his skin, they blurred together into a mass of pain. He didn't know how long it took, but it seemed hours of cold air, hours of purgatory as his abused body was jolted with every movement, and the tang of other people's sweat mingled with that of his own blood. Suddenly he was still, a solid surface beneath him. A brief warmth appeared as a blanket was firmly wrapped around him, a piece of bread placed in his hand, and they were gone. All he could imagine was that the local version of the animal liberation movement had released him back into the wild to sink or swim as he could.

He would have been thankful if he had been capable of coherent thought.

He shivered and shook, reaction setting in, vomiting the meagre contents of his stomach onto the grass beside him, and then crawling a few feet away, tugging the blanket after him. Dawn saw him huddled under it, the urge to tightly wrap it around himself in conflict with the harshness of rough fabric on raw and bleeding skin. He couldn't have hidden if he had tried, his total concentration taken up by sensory overload, and he quivered and jerked hour after hour, the tenseness fighting with his exhaustion, until finally the exhaustion won and he slept.

Rain beat hard on his bare body, each drop a gunshot, reawakening the burns, causing them to sizzle deep under what little remained of his skin. His leg was the worst, the burn on the upper thigh almost meeting the one extending down his front, only a thin strip of untouched flesh dividing them. He couldn't feel his hands, the uninjured one seemingly going out in sympathy for its partner, but he knew he would have to use them soon.

He couldn't stay here. There was no protection from the relentless fall of water, or the chill wind that tossed the branches above him, releasing showers of icy needles even in those brief moments when the drizzle eased. He was alone here, miles from the town, that much he remembered from the night before, so he let his misery out, knowing there was no one to hear. The groans were loud, wrenched from the core of his soul, embarrassing in their sound, but he felt the better for them, despite the toll they took on his energy. Finally he subsided into whimpers, the ache down and into his hips sapping his strength along with the steady oozing of blood that dripped and burnt across his thighs.

Time passed, and with it his grip on awareness. One thought remained, however, he couldn't stay here.

He couldn't stay here. The piece of bread lay forgotten by his hand, now a soggy mass, slowly washing away into the soil. No whimpers now, just harsh breaths, struggling their way out, sometimes choked back before they escaped.

He couldn't stay here. He knew that.

His body might have been battered into submission, but his spirit wasn't. Crawling like the wounded animal he was, he edged his way towards the rock wall a few feet from him, seeking its meagre protection instinctively. There he stayed, until the rain stopped.

He came back to himself as the sun came out, his natural anger winning out over the desire to just stop and give in. Those bastards weren't going to beat him. He was not some mindless creature in a zoo, to be used however they wanted. Not once, from the time he had been caught, separated from his team in the confusion of the battle, had they shown the smallest iota of compassion. Thrown into some sort of medieval cross between a zoo and a circus, he had been treated as an object of amusement, used and humiliated in the worst possible ways - ways that even his fertile mind had never imagined. If he could have, he would have burnt the town behind him, wiped out all vestiges of their sick and putrid society.

Jack was as close to hatred as he had ever come. Normally some tiny spark within him understood his enemies, even the Goa'uld, knew their motivations and kept him focused on the fight. This time, the hatred overtook everything. His rage brought him the strength to survive. He huddled against the cold rock, his eyes black with fury.

He was miles from the gate, any possibility of making his way there without help the dream of a fool, and he was never that. His only hope was his team, the last glimpse he had of them was their retreat into the forest across the clearing from him. He knew they had escaped, because they must. They would be looking for him now, Teal'c tracking, Daniel worrying, and Carter watching their backs.

He could hold out until they got here.

Jack sat, his back against the cliff, the blanket covering his legs, the raging thirst competing with the hot wounds for his attention. He had already checked his injuries as best he could, taken a mental inventory, and knew he hadn't much time. The burns were crusting over, puss oozing in places as infection set in, the thick substance coating his body in an eerie sheen of dirty yellow mixed nauseatingly with red and black. He had been light headed before, the lack of food and water taking its toll on his abused body, but now he was sinking slowly, his systems shutting down. With glazed eyes he looked at his blackened fingers, curling in on themselves. Above them his arm looked like skinned road kill, as if some demented hunter had taken only the best parts and discarded the rest.

There was nothing he could do, except stay awake. He stubbornly refused to give in to the weakness, and when he could hold his eyes open no longer, he continued to listen to the noises around him, alert for any sign of company, friendly or hostile.

Hours wound down into night, as Jack slipped in unconsciousness, slumping over until he came to rest on the damp ground, a lonely forgotten figure, waiting for nature to reclaim him.

His own coughing woke him, shaking him and leaving him gasping like a fish out of water. Each movement telegraphed pain to his nerves, and he cried out, the sound sending birds aloft from the surrounding trees. Instinctively he pushed himself upright, only to have his hand collapse, throwing him back to the ground with a force that sent him spinning back into the dark.

The next time he surfaced it was to chaos. The trees seemed to reach their branches towards him, although he could not feel the gales that must be moving them. For a minute the last shreds of logic tried to find a reason behind the irrational and found none. His vision tunnelled and wove, dancing colours sweeping across from the edges, making him start in surprise and cringe back. He watched as they formed rainbows, crazy lava lamp blobs and swirls and he giggled, his parched throat making croaking noises that seemed the finest of songs. If he had been able, he would have followed the waltzing lights off into the forest, but try though he might, he couldn't get to his feet, his feeble efforts only rubbing dirt into the wounds to mix with the fluid he was losing by the minute. The blanket, blood stained now, was crumpled under him, and he pulled at it, sniggering at the thought of nudist colonies and volleyball games, his fingers cracking.

The sight of his fingernails fascinated him and he stared with some dazed amazement at them. The sight sent him into paroxysms of laughter, his body shaking with the pain they caused. Some of the nails were gone already, and the one or two that remained, hanging by a thread, he rubbed off across the ground. Then he watched them, lying there, and waited for them to move, to grow, to turn into soldiers like dragon's teeth.

Itching. Sharp and raw. Unable to ignore it, he scratched at his chest, rivulets of red and yellow sweeping over him with every movement of his hand. Nothing stopped the itching. It became unbearable, all consuming. He dug deeper, wishing his dragon nails back, crying in frustration. An edge caught and pulled, a thin strip of blackened skin stripped off.

And the itch stopped. Just in that spot. Just where the hand had scratched.

A grin lighting up his haggard face, Jack lay on the ground and gouged pieces of himself off, continuing the job the creatures had begun.

His laughter echoed among the trees.

Part Three

Jack's laughter brought them. Betrayed him.

The trees moved for a reason this time, signalling the arrival of the very people he least wanted to see. They held cudgels, and he put one arm across his face to protect it from the blows, shutting his eyes as he was pulled from the rock face by his legs and out into the open.

He fought the hands that held him as best he could, considering the circumstances, but his best was pitiful, and clearly not enough.

Voices raised in anger cut through his head, making him tighten his already closed eyes against the pain. Angry voices that made him struggle harder, not knowing clearly why, but knowing on some instinctive level that he shouldn't go with them willingly. All he got in return for his efforts was a chain passed over his head to settle around his neck, then tugged, tightening in a strangle hold against his throat, cutting off oxygen until he lurched forward on all fours to release the pressure. He whimpered as a hand patted him hard, touching his bare flesh and leaving icy imprints, before another tug urged him on.

Rocks cut into his knees, slicing his one good hand open as he struggled for purchase on the wet and slippery leaves. He could have lain down then, let them pull until he lost consciousness, but even with as little awareness as he had left, that would never be his way, and so he crawled the few feet his captors wanted, before being lifted and thrown up into something, the jolt making him groan. The chain was pulled tight once more and his head swam from the pressure, the only way he could find relief was by kneeling, his head down low, resting against a wooden board.

He had been placed on a short leash, a dangerous animal that had already escaped once and was now given no latitude.

A sudden motion sent him careering down, hanging himself in the process, his weight making the metal links cut deeply into his throat, his choking gurgles loud in his own ears until rough hands pulled him to his knees again, the voice amused, and the chain loosened.

It was a voice he recognised, the voice of his keeper, and as the cart lurched and swayed across the uneven ground, taking him back to his cage, he felt the surge of red hot hatred rise again, pulling him back to himself, away from the pain wracked insane depths he had sunk into in the forest. He raised his head as much as he could manage and stared his tormentor straight in the eyes, deliberately communicating his defiance as a threat.

He got laughter in return.

Laughter, and a blow across the face, rocking him backwards, followed by another pat and a caress from a calloused hand running down his spine, lingering on his lower back. He held back a protest, his voice lost with his humanity, and held himself as still as possible, feeling the hand lightly exploring him, tracing the contours of his body. He shivered involuntarily, eliciting a snort of pleasure from the keeper, and pulled away, the leash tightening around him.

By the end of the journey, he was beyond miserable, shaking and trembling on knees that had been barely able to hold him up before his recapture, and much less now. Twice he had fallen, the second time he was yanked up by his hair, and the chain left tight around his neck. He had managed to ease it loose with shaking fingers, feeling wetness under the metal. He got another pat for his efforts.

When the cart stopped and the voice commanded, he could not respond, just kneel, unthinking and not caring when his air was cut off once more. His keeper's voice scolded him, but he could do nothing, nothing until he fell forward once again, the sensation of dying an almost erotic experience.

Back in his cage, Jack woke to pain, hardly remembering a time when he had been without it. On some level he welcomed it, because it meant he was still alive, although perhaps not for much longer. His sight was going, the hypnotic colours of his fever ridden mind giving way to greyness. The fire on his skin burnt duller now, the itch merciless, and the ache deep inside had settled and become such a part of his existence that he would have missed it if it had stopped.

He was left alone, thirst raging and gouging at his gut, sweat pouring down his face and stinging the still oozing open wounds. He moved weakly, writhing and turning to try and find a position that gave some relief from the constant agony, but nothing helped, the movement only causing more pain, as his burns rubbed against the cage bars. He couldn't stop himself, his need for comfort had become so desperate that he cared about nothing else.

Moments of clarity became shorter. One came when the cage was opened and he was pulled out. He was unable to stop himself crying out hoarse croaks of distress when his body was sluiced with buckets of cold water, rubbed and polished, laid down flat, instruments without name pressed into his forced open mouth, clamping it painfully wide, a thick tube inserted in his throat and an endless stream of foul liquid poured down until he could hold no more, his stomach pressed and kneaded violently until he swallowed and swallowed and swallowed. When he began to gag and vomit the tube was ripped out and the instrument removed. His mouth was pressed closed and something wrapped around it, holding it firmly shut, leaving him with no choice but to swallow back down the vomit laced with blood and bile, struggling to breathe enough air through his nostrils, pressure forcing his regurgitation into those precious airways. His stomach spasmed, clenching and unclenching, distended and desperate to push the liquid out, and he felt wetness trickle between his legs. He retched and swallowed, and retched again at the taste.

They waited until the spasms subsided before flipping him like a carcass in a butcher's shop, and he felt fingers pulling at him, mutterings as the blood and muck that had begun to dribble from him again was wiped away, cold metal spreading him and yet more liquid forced inside, the pressure beyond description. A wad of something hard did the same job as the gag, and the liquid was trapped. At least this time he couldn't taste it and he could only guess that he was being treated with some primitive form of doctoring, to be kept alive for a while longer.

Turned again, the gag stifled any protests when the burns were rubbed with something moist, making them flair into life, the dried fluids coating them were scrapped off, taking with it what little remained of the skin in those areas. Those animals wouldn't be getting another meal anytime soon, that much was evident. Then the hand touched the bottom of his stomach and he arched upwards, crying out against the obstruction over his mouth. Lightening flashed inside his head. The pain was too much, and he dropped back out of life and into the limbo where he was safe.

Bars beneath his body. Darkness all around. He couldn't raise his head, couldn't move, couldn't even moan past the piece of vomit tasting cloth still firm around his mouth. What he could do was feel and hear. Hear the voices of a crowd, eager with anticipation. Feel the stares that went with the voices. Hear the footsteps walking around his cage. Feel the hands on his bare flesh. Feel the pinches. Hear the tinkling laughter of children. Feel pieces of flesh pulled away for no reason except to cause pain. Hear his own moans.

Feel the hopelessness.

Feel the humiliation.

Feel the hatred.

Feel himself dying.

The fever boiled his blood, the tremors wracked his body, and bit by tiny bit he faded.

The sound of gunshots hardly registered. Shouting and yells. Screams. Running footsteps. Furious voices laced with horror. The voice of his keeper accompanied by the triple blast of zat fire.

He barely understood when he was freed from his prison and laid on the ground, gentle hands holding him, pulling at the cloth on his mouth.

The only thing he knew was that the gag was gone and his head was turned, his mouth cleared of muck and he could take a shallow breath. He didn't recognise the voices, didn't hear the shocked tones, or the questions, didn't rouse enough to answer. He felt something soft covering him, a prick in his arm and knew true comfort for the first time in days. He surrendered to the drug induced oblivion, his pulse fluttering and stuttering.

Motion. Floating. The tread of boots and quiet murmurs of worried voices.

So hot and yet cold enough to freeze his blood. Shaking.

Sharp, sharp daggers through his chest, spearing him.

Losing himself.

They were back, his tormentors had him again. They were pushing on him, pounding on his chest, thumping and screaming at him, pushing him this way and that. Something was going down his throat again and he tried to reach a hand up to push it away - better to be punished than be made to swallow more of that putrid liquid sludge. He fought and gagged as the thing was pushed deep inside, another invasion. His hand was grasped and held, he was held, captive and at the mercy of these people, and his heart thudded until it burst within him.

Part Four

"What in God's name happened out there, people?"

General Hammond frowned up at the faces around the briefing room table, faces that were lined with tiredness and worry. Well, he was worried too, but that would have to be set aside until he got some answers.

It was Major Carter who replied, one hand brushing freshly washed and still damp hair from her eyes.

"I'm not sure, sir. We were several miles from the gate, heading for the town the UAV had spotted when we were attacked."

"I didn't have time to try to talk to them, General." Daniel interrupted. "They came out of nowhere."

"We had been crossing a clearing, sir, and managed to retreat to the tree line. The Colonel had been separated from us almost as soon as the attack began. It was as if they were targeting him." Sam glanced over at where Teal'c sat impassively. "Teal'c tried to get to him, but by the time we managed to fight off our attackers, he was gone."

"Gone, Major?"

"Yes, sir. The clearing was empty when we returned, even though it must have only been a few minutes."

The General nodded his head, picturing the scene.

"We then radioed for SG-3 to follow us and started tracking the men. It didn't take long to confirm that they were heading for the town."

"It was a good thing SG-3 accompanied you on this mission, or things may well have turned out differently." Hammond glanced down at the report in front of him. "Major Ferretti, you encountered a problem when rendezvousing with SG-1?"

The major sat up a little straighter in his seat, putting the pen he had been fiddling with down. "Yes, sir. We had to avoid some large parties of locals. It was several hours before we reached the coordinates Major Carter had given us, just at dusk. We decided to wait until the morning before continuing to the town."

"The topography was very steep, sir. There was no point stumbling around in the dark and risking injury. We wouldn't have done the Colonel any good that way." Sam and Lou exchanged small nods, ignoring the mumble from Daniel.

"Do you have something to add, Doctor Jackson?"

Put on the spot, Daniel shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Yes, General, I do." He raised his voice, his distress obvious. "We shouldn't have waited. We should have travelled through the night, and reached the town late the next day. Look what happened when we delayed."

"We were delayed because of a storm, Daniel." Sam's voice was angry. "The river rose and we had to find a way around. We had to wait for SG-3. We couldn't have gone in without backup, it would have been suicide."

The General raised his hand, cutting off Daniel's retort. "I agree, Major. You made the correct decision. It was just unfortunate circumstances that delayed Colonel O'Neill's rescue."

"A delay that could now cost O'Neill his life." The emotion in Teal'c's voice was clear to anyone that knew him. "I should have followed O'Neill's captors immediately."

"No Teal'c." The General's voice was firm as he stared the Jaffa in the eyes. "The decision to stay together was the correct one, as I have said. The Colonel was rescued and brought home without any further injury to either team. From what I understand, that may not have been the case if you had not been with your team mates during the river crossing."

"If Teal'c hadn't been there I doubt we would have made it across." Major Ferretti interjected, shooting a quick smile at the other man, and receiving a slow nod in reply.

"How is the Colonel doing, sir?" Lieutenant Foster of SG-3 spoke for the first time.

General Hammond rubbed a weary hand over his chin before answering. "Not good I'm afraid. According to Doctor Fraiser the burns he sustained are badly infected. He also has internal injuries and has been placed on full life support." He closed the file and stood, followed quickly by the others. "I would suggest you all get some rest, but I won't make that an order. Dismissed."

Daniel slumped back into his seat as soon as the General left. "Oh God." He put his head down on the table, resting it on his folded arms. "I don't know what to do. Janet won't let us near Jack. I know I won't be able to sleep, but I can barely keep my eyes open."

Lou Ferretti leaned on the table beside him, rubbing his hands over his eyes. "I know what you mean, Daniel. It's been pretty intense these last few days, no wonder we're all exhausted." With a sign he shut his eyes, sinking into the chair next to Daniel. "Those damned animals. What the hell did they do to him?"

"God knows, Lou. God knows."

"Perhaps O'Neill will tell us when he recovers." Teal'c stood by the open door, looking out into the corridor. The certainty in his voice made the others lift their heads. A few tentative smiles and straightening of shoulders, and Daniel and Lou stood.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to get something to eat. Join me?" Sam turned towards the door, briefly touching Teal'c's arm as she exited, followed closely by the others.

**********

Doctor Fraiser took another look at the readings from the monitors surrounding the Colonel's bed, and sighed. She caught the eyes of the nurse sitting beside her patient, and shook her head. He wasn't responding to treatment, the antibiotics doing nothing to combat the infection that ravaged his body, the burns still raw and weeping. The internal damage, and she didn't even want to think how that had happened, had been repaired and wouldn't normally be a major concern, but he had gone into arrest in the Gateroom, soon after being carried through the wormhole, succumbing to internal bleeding, severe dehydration and shock.

There was something more to it than that, though, and Janet was waiting for the results of the tests they had run on the substance found in the Colonel's body. It appeared to have invaded his entire digestive system, starting with his throat and following right through to his bowel. It had overflowed into his nasal passages and despite their best efforts, was still present throughout his body in massive quantities. They had had to intubate him, his lungs beginning to fail as if he had inhaled the thick goo. But instead of stabilising, O'Neill's body was shutting down, piece by piece, and now only the machines were keeping him alive.

She returned to her office, closing the door before pulling her chair out and sitting down. For a moment she stared into space, then picked up her pen and began to write. She had a report to make to General Hammond. She also had to decide just how much to tell the Colonel's team.

After a few minutes she laid the pen down again.

She couldn't think of the words. No matter how many such reports she had written they never got any easier, especially when the patient was a friend.

When she thought of the damage she had found on O'Neill's body she wanted to weep, or at least hit something. There had been signs of animal bites and claws, even marks of human teeth, as if he had been eaten alive. The burns were too localised to be caused by an accident, and she could only imagine the agony he must have been in with them left untreated for so long.

What had happened to him?

Maybe she didn't want to know.

They probably would never find out. The Colonel had been unconscious from the time his team had rescued him, except for a brief moment in the Gateroom when he had weakly fought the intubation.

A knock on the office door and the results of the tests were laid on her desk by a technician. The lab must have worked overtime to finish them so quickly, and Janet made a point of asking the young man to pass her thanks to his colleagues. Only when the door was firmly closed once again did she turn the cover page and begin reading.

By the second page her tears were falling freely, staining the paper.

The liquid was toxic.

Even if the infection raging through Colonel O'Neill began to respond to the antibiotics, the damage already done by the substance was irreversible, the poison spreading as if it had a life of its own. They had never seen anything like it, had no answers.

Janet took a tissue from the box on the desk, and blew her nose. Throwing it into the bin she pulled out another and wiped her eyes, holding it wadded up in her left hand.

She stood, opened the door and walked across the infirmary to the small ICU room, lifting herself up on her toes to look through the window in the door. The Colonel was surrounded by machines, covered by dressings and pierced by needles. Tubes ran in every direction, the machine pumping oxygen into him wheezing beside the head of his bed. The skin on his face was so pale that it appeared translucent. Even as she watched one of the monitors gave a small stutter, causing the nurse to look up, worry etched into the lines of her face. The stutter settled again, and Janet saw the nurse sit back, taking the Colonel's unbandaged hand lightly in her own, picking up the papers she had been reading in the other.

The doctor lowered herself back down onto the soles of her feet and turned her back, returning to her office and sitting again, the sodden tissue still clutched tightly in her hand.

She picked up the pen again, pulled the barely started report from beneath the test results, and began to write.

Part Five

"Come in, Major."

"Thank you, sir." Sam moved into the General's office, taking a stand in front of his desk.

"You asked to see me?" Hammond gestured at a chair. "Please sit down."

She shook her head. "No, thank you, sir. I'd rather stand." Standing straighter, her black-rimmed eyes held him. "I would like to request permission to contact my father."

"I already have. Major." Hammond was just as tired as the woman in front of him, and for a moment he let it show in the slump of his shoulders. He nodded to the chair once more. "Sam, please sit down."

He gave a small, tight smile as the Major perched herself on the edge of the seat, every line of her body screaming with barely concealed tension.

"I sent messages both to the Tok'ra and the Asgard as soon as I received Doctor Fraiser's report on the Colonel's deteriorating condition. So far no reply has been received."

She nodded, her eyes on her clasped hands held in her lap. "I have another request, sir."

"Yes?"

"Under the circumstances, SG-1 would like permission to visit Colonel O'Neill?"

He nodded. "I'll arrange it with Doctor Fraiser." After a brief hesitation he continued. "There may still be hope, Major. They are still analysing the toxin. They may yet come up with a solution."

Sam raised her head and smiled a grim smile. "Yes, sir. They may."

They both heard the lie in the other's voice.

**********

"You understand you can only stay for a few minutes and you have to go in one at a time?"

Daniel gave an irritated nod.

"Yes Janet. We know. You've told us. We'll try not to upset Jack. After all he is comatose. We wouldn't want to wake him."

"That is enough, Daniel Jackson. Doctor Fraiser is only concerned for her patient." Teal'c turned from the window of the ICU and frowned at his colleague. "You may enter first."

"Does the nurse have to be there?"

"I'll stay myself, Daniel, but there has to be one of us in the room. I'm sorry."

With a curt nod, Daniel accepted Janet's words, waiting impatiently for the nurse to leave and the doctor to take her place. He was inside the room the second Janet nodded. His rage drained from him as soon as he was beside his friend's bed.

"Oh god, Janet. He really is dying, isn't he?" Daniel wrapped his arms around himself, his hands gripping the folds of his jacket as he stared down at the still form. His expression flickered between anger at himself and pure anguish. "We should have gotten to him sooner. This should never have happened." He shook his head and suddenly started to back away, his retreat only halted by the solidity of a wall. His mouth opened to speak, his eyes glued to the form on the bed, but for a moment nothing came out but a choked sound, and when he did finally get the words out, his voice was only a whisper. "He wouldn't have waited if it had been one of us. He always looks out for his team. I ... can't...I can't do this."

Daniel spun around, pressing down the nearby handle and throwing the door open. He lurched out and kept going, his footsteps retreating rapidly.

"Janet?" Sam tentatively took a step into the room. "May I come in?"

"Sure, Sam. Is Daniel alright?"

Sam shut the door softly behind herself. "No, he isn't." Her voice was quiet, edged with sadness. "But then none of us are." She approached the bed, and sunk into the chair. "How's he doing?"

Janet instinctively looked up at the monitors in response to the other woman's question, noting the erratic beat of the heart monitor. When she looked away, her eyes caught her friend's, and both knew the answer to the question. She chose to answer it anyway.

"He hasn't long, Sam. If we don't find an answer it will only be a matter of days, maybe even hours. I really don't know, the effects of the chemical are so unpredictable."

As she spoke, the monitor emitted a warning shriek, and she reached over, adjusting the IV above the bed.

"I'm trying out a new combination of drugs the lab suggested. As you can see, it helps to slow the fall in the Colonel's blood pressure. Unfortunately, each time it is administered the period it is effective is shorter."

"I wish I could help."

"It isn't really your field, Sam. No one expects you to come up with the answer." Janet put her arm around her friend. For a second Sam sat rigidly still, then she dropped her head onto Janet's shoulder, and raised one hand to cover her mouth, muffling the soft sobs.

They stayed that way for several minutes until Sam's tears subsided and she raised her head, giving Janet and apologetic smile.

"I'm sorry."

"There's no need to apologise, Sam." Janet stood, pulling her blouse straight. "It's time Teal'c visited the Colonel. Are you ready?"

"Just give me a second." Sam stood as well, coming to attention. She raised her hand and snapped off a quick salute. "It's been an honour serving with you, sir."

For a long moment she waited, as if expecting a reaction from her CO, then she turned back to the doctor.

"I'll tell Teal'c he can come in."

Teal'c was already at the door when she opened it.

"Your turn, Teal'c."

He inclined his head. "Thank you, Major Carter." He nodded to Janet as he entered the room, paused and then pulled the chair nearer the bed. He sat in it and bent forward, taking Jack's hand in a firm grip.

"I am here with you, O'Neill." He spoke softly and yet forcefully, as if determined to make the other man understand. "I have not come to say goodbye. I have come to tell you that your friends are waiting for you. You are safe now." He lowered his voice still more.

Janet sat watching as the Colonel's heartbeat slowed and steadied as Teal'c continued to whisper into his ear, holding his hand tightly. She couldn't hear what he was saying, but the effects were obvious. She felt a sob catch in her throat, and she swallowed painfully.

After about ten minutes she coughed, gaining Teal'c attention immediately.

"I understand, Doctor Fraiser. It is time I left. O'Neill knows now that he is home."

The door shut behind him.

Janet sat alone, reluctant to call the nurse to take her place just yet. She was surprised by a soft knock on the door.

"May I come in, Doctor?" General Hammond's voice called quietly.

"Of course, sir." She stood as he came in, resuming her seat at his gesture.

"How is he?"

She had a different answer this time to when Sam had asked the same question.

"He seems to have rallied slightly, sir, but I don't expect to see any significant improvement."

"We are still waiting to hear from our allies."

"They'll have to hurry, General. At this rate I would give him thirty six hours at the most."

The General nodded, his face grave. After a minute, he spoke again, keeping his eyes on the Colonel. "Despite all the trouble he's given me, he's a damn fine officer. I couldn't have asked for a better 2IC." He paused again, before continuing. "Or a better friend." He moved away, speaking as he did so. "Thank you, Doctor. Please inform me if there is any change." With that he left Janet alone with her patient once more.

"Damn it, Colonel. You can't do this." Her angry voice hissed into his ear as she lowered her face to within an inch of his. "There are people here that care for you. Don't you dare leave them. Don't you dare!"

She jumped up, calling for the nurse, and walked rapidly towards the lab, her face set into a mask of determination.

Part Six

That night Colonel O'Neill died.

The struggle to bring him back was hard fought, and won only after it was thought hopeless.

Only the General and the medical staff knew how close they had come to losing him, the rest of the SGC, if not blissfully asleep, at least in their quarters. His team arrived in the Mess Hall for breakfast to be met with whispers and glances from a group of nurses in the corner. They had no need to confer, leaving their trays untouched and making it to the infirmary within minutes.

Janet wouldn't let them anywhere near him.

In the middle of their argument, she was called back into the ICU, and through the window SG-1 watched their CO struggle for life. A high-pitched shriek sounded loud even on the other side of the closed door, and the activity became even more furious. A glance, the recognition of the faces at the window, and the curtain was pulled, blocking their view. They could still hear though. Hear the controlled panic, the firm commands, and electrical thumps. They didn't look at each other. Daniel and Sam both had their eyes closed, identical expressions on their faces. Teal'c watched intently, as if trying to see through the curtain.

After what seemed like hours, Janet came out, wiping her hands on a towel. She threw it into a nearby laundry basket before turning to face the waiting group.

"It's pointless saying you shouldn't be here, and I won't even ask how you knew. You can't go in. There just isn't room. Every one of those machines is essential, they're all that is keeping him alive."

"How long?"

"Probably anytime in the next two hours, Daniel. I'm sorry, but there isn't anything more we can do for him." She pulled her hair back, rubbing the back of her neck, and twisting her shoulders. "I have to get back in there. Sam, could you please ask the General to come up? Did you have any breakfast?" After they shook their heads, she continued. "I'll get someone to bring coffee and sandwiches."

Daniel waited until Sam and Janet had both gone in opposite directions before commenting. "I doubt I'd be able to eat anything at the moment."

"I do believe that Doctor Fraiser is endeavouring to keep us occupied by providing us with food." Teal'c stared towards the ICU. "Although I too do not feel like eating, I shall attempt to do so, if only to keep her from worrying."

The food had arrived, and Daniel was into his second cup of coffee by the time Sam returned, the General hard on her heels. A nurse fetched Janet and she was soon conferring with Hammond in quiet tones.

Sam hurried over to her teammates.

"We just received a message from the Tok'ra. My father isn't available, but they are sending someone else with a healing device. They should be here in about fifteen minutes."

"Why did they not come immediately, Major Carter?"

"I don't know, Teal'c. I wondered that myself, but at least they are coming." She smiled weakly. "I just hope they are in time."

As one, they turned their eyes towards the ICU, seeing Janet going back in, her back a little straighter. Hammond waited until the door was completely closed, watching the activity inside, before walking towards them, his face lined with worry.

"I have to get back to the control room." He glanced once more at the ICU. "As soon as the Tok'ra arrive I'll bring them up."

"Would you like me to come with you, sir?" Sam asked, but her reluctance to leave the vicinity of the infirmary was plain and Hammond shook his head.

"No, Major. That won't be necessary."

Sam and Daniel perched themselves on the bed nearest the ICU, Teal'c standing next to them, and stared at the closed door.

Long minutes passed. Once Janet poked her head out, looking at them enquiringly, but disappeared back in almost immediately in response to a worried voice.

When it was broken the silence was shattered with a vengeance. The call for a medical team to report to the gateroom was totally unexpected and had Sam and Teal'c running for the elevators just ahead of the medics. Janet didn't leave the Colonel's room, her failure to do so a measure of the battle waging inside.

Daniel couldn't help tapping his feet, his frustration growing by the second, until it finally broke over him, and he strode to the door, pushing it open.

He stopped, dumbfounded by the sight of Jack, his top half uncovered, an IV needle threaded straight into his chest, surrounded by medical staff. Even as Janet turned an angry face towards him, the machines set up their awful caterwauling yet again.

He staggered back, letting the door slam shut, only to almost collide with a gurney being pushed into the middle of the room. The figure on it was totally unexpected. Anise was barely conscious, her eyes fluttering, a large gash across her head. For once she didn't look perfect, her clothes torn and covered in dust. As he watched, she reached into the folds of her dress and pulled out a healing device.

"I brought it." Her voice was barely audible in the confusion. "I fear I can be of little help to the Colonel, concentration is needed and I..." She grimaced, her face crumpling in pain, "I will try..." She made to get up, but immediately slumped back with a low moan. "You will have to do it." She was looking past Daniel and he spun to find Sam standing behind him, shaking her head.

"No. I can't. The last time I tried to use a healing device it just made things worse." She glanced towards Daniel as she spoke, her tone showing her distress.

"Damn! Doctor!" Daniel turned back at the cry, seeing Anise's eyes close as she succumbed to the effects of her injury. He watched as she was placed on a bed, the healing device left on the gurney. Janet hurried out to examine her in response to the calls of her staff, and the curtains were pulled around the bed for privacy.

"What's going on? How was Anise hurt?" Daniel turned back to his teammate, and saw her walk reluctantly to the gurney, hesitating before picking up the alien device.

"We don't know. Anise came through the wormhole alone and already injured. She hasn't managed to tell us anything, except for us to shut the iris behind her. Teal'c is readying a team to go through if they can re-establish contact." Sam looked down at the device with trepidation. "I don't know if I can do any good with this."

"That didn't look like too bad an injury, Sam. Anise should be able to heal herself, and then she can help Jack." Daniel looked hopefully at the curtained off bed. With a nod, Sam settled into a chair and tiredly shut her eyes.

Silence surrounded them for a while. At one point Janet crossed the room and entered the ICU, but soon returned, going back to the Tok'ra. Sam opened her eyes at the movement and exchanged worried looks with Daniel.

The quiet tick of the clock on the wall, and the low hum of voices soon had both exhausted members of SG-1 dropping into a restless sleep.

The loud cry of a machine brought them both into stunned alertness within seconds. Janet reappeared, running to push open the door of the Colonel's room, already barking instructions to her staff. The door stayed open slightly, the voices clear and seemingly echoing some old episode of `ER'. The long mournful cry of the machine was broken several times, but returned within a few seconds, and as the minutes past, the listeners outside could tell that the Colonel had lost the fight.

"Daniel!" Sam's voice broke through the sound. "Come on." She leapt up and strode with rapid steps towards the ICU, the hand device clutched to her chest.

Daniel hurried after her, ignoring the attempts of the nursing staff to stop him.

They burst into the room, the opening of the door hardly noticed in the chaos, and then Sam stopped, looking down at the object in her hands.

"What if it doesn't work? What if I can't do it?" Then she shook her head, answering her own questions. She had to try.

Teal'c's strong voice answered her from the open doorway. "You are correct, Major Carter. You have no choice. If you do not try, O'Neill will die. If you are unsuccessful nothing will have changed and no more harm can be done."

With a nod of determination, Sam approached the Colonel's bed, the nurses moving back to give her room. She inserted her right hand into the device and held it out a little above the Colonel's chest. Taking a deep breath, she visibly calmed, and when a warm glow began to flow downwards the people around her exchanged relieved glances and small smiles.

The readings on the monitors began to even out, lines settling into recognisable patterns, beeps steadying and becoming constant. Janet stayed silent, her eyes flickering between the readings and her patient, everyone afraid of breaking the Major's concentration.

It was five long minutes before Sam slumped sideways, Teal'c barely managing to catch her before she hit the floor. She stayed awake long enough to register the encouraging smiles of her two teammates and return them, before the Jaffa took her out and placed her gently on a bed in the outer room, sound asleep, one of Janet's nurses hovering over her.

"Janet?" Daniel couldn't take his eyes from Jack. His pallor was gone, replaced by a healthy tinge of pink, the only physical sign of improvement. He watched as Janet read the various screens scattered about the room.

"Give me a chance to run some tests, Daniel, but at the moment he seems to be holding his own, which is more than I would have said ten minutes ago. Why don't you wait with Teal'c and I'll be out as soon as I can?" She had already turned back to her patient, her attention clearly focused on him alone.

Sam was covered with a blanket, her shoes removed, Teal'c watching over her.

"I thought you were going to the Tok'ra base?"

"We have been unable to establish a wormhole to those coordinates, Daniel Jackson. General Hammond gave me permission to return to the infirmary when it was clear we would not be taking a team through immediately."

"Do we have any idea what happened?"

"The only explanation seems that the base was already under attack when the Tok'ra sent us the message. Other than that it would be purely speculation."

Daniel turned to the cold coffee on the nearby table, pouring himself a cup and drinking it down, a look of distaste evident. With a shudder he poured a second cup and drank that too, ignoring his friend's incredulous stare.

Long minutes became an hour. Sam still slept. Anise lay still, her eyes flickering beneath their lids, and Daniel and Teal'c waited.

Finally a nurse approached with permission from the Doctor for them to visit the Colonel. They found her standing at the head of Jack's bed, looking more tired than even Daniel. She wavered on her feet for a moment, giving Teal'c a grateful smile when his large hand reached out and steadied her. She nodded towards the door, clearly indicating a wish to speak to the remaining members of SG-1 privately and they followed her into her office.

As soon as she was in the privacy of the small room, her face softened into anguish and she made a grab for the tissue box on the desk, dropping into her chair.

"We had lost him that time, you know. If Sam hadn't healed him he would be dead now." She paused as if steeling herself, then looked at them both, her tone firm and uncompromising. "I'm going to be brutally honest here. The tests show that although Colonel O'Neill has stabilised, he really hasn't improved. I don't think the device did enough. I'll have to wait for more results to confirm it, but it looks as if, although the burns are completely healed, there are still signs of infection and it is already beginning to spread again. The toxin is still present as well."

"What are you trying to say, Janet?" Daniel asked in dismay.

She glared at him impatiently, knowing that he had clearly understood her words, but was refusing to believe them.

"I'm not trying to say anything, Daniel. I'm telling you. All Sam did was buy us some time. Colonel O'Neill is still dying."

"But the healing device..."

"Wasn't enough. I don't know why..."

The Doctor's voice was interrupted by the echoing tones of a Tok'ra.

"I can give you the answer you seek, Doctor Jackson." Anise stood in the doorway, her figure backlit by the infirmary lights. "Major Carter was unable to use the device to its full potential. Being human, she lacks the concentration of will required to control it."

"She controlled it well enough to save O'Neill's life." The censure was clear and Anise bowed her head slightly towards the Jaffa.

"I did not mean to minimise Major Carter's achievement, just to explain why Colonel O'Neill is not fully healed. Now I am sufficiently recovered I will complete the process."

Janet came to her feet, moving around the desk, a pen light already in her hand. "I'll be the judge of that. You had a severe blow to the head."

The Tok'ra woman backed away. "No Doctor. If what you say if true, the quicker I attend to the Colonel the better. I am fully healed. In fact my host is anxious to complete the healing of Colonel O'Neill. Her concern for him is extremely distressing to me." She spun on her heels, her next order tossed back over her shoulder. "Come."

This time the healing beam shone brightly enough to make the observers' eyes water, its light steady and unwavering. The Tok'ra woman moved it up and across Jack's chest, and down each of his limbs, concentrating on the areas where the burns had once been. The now unbandaged skin was pink and new looking, still tender, but it was restored and that was all they asked, the terrible gaps and rips freshly grown over and repaired. The fingers, once curled and blackened, lay still on the white sheets as if just waiting for the chance to dance their familiar rhythms of impatience. With awe the humans watched the once broken body restored, the signs of its healing clearly reflected by the monitors.

At last Anise stepped back, resting her hand momentarily on Jack's bed before taking the only chair that remained in the room.

It was the sight of her that Jack's eyes focused on as they flickered open.

Part Seven

The Colonel's eyes had slammed shut at the sight of Anise, almost as if he didn't believe his eyes, and despite the Doctor's attempt to rouse him, he had drifted quickly into sleep.

They all tiptoed from the room, Janet whispering that she would join them shortly. The two members of SG-1 headed straight for their remaining teammate to find Sam yawning herself awake. She sat up and stepped down from the bed, rubbing her hands through her hair, her attention focused on the shut door of the ICU.

"Did it work?"

"Do not worry, Major Carter, the healing you achieved gave me time to recover and complete treating Colonel O'Neill. He is well." Anise came up behind the two men.

Daniel shot a grateful look at the Tok'ra, and hurried to follow up on her explanation. "Janet's checking Jack out now, Sam, but it looks like the danger is past."

Sam nodded, a smile breaking over her face.

"How do you feel, Major Carter?"

"Actually, surprisingly good, Teal'c, especially now I've heard the good news." Then she abruptly sobered, turning back to Anise. "What happened on your base? Were you under attack? Was my father there?"

The other woman nodded. "You have reminded me. I should report to your General Hammond and explain. Will you accompany me Major Carter? I have news of your father."

"I'll stay here, Sam. You go. If anything happens I'll contact you immediately."

"I also will accompany you, Major Carter." Teal'c bowed slightly towards the Tok'ra. "We are in Anise's debt. Without her O'Neill would have died. Perhaps my assistance can go some way towards the repayment of that debt."

Daniel watched them leave. With another glance towards the closed ICU, he beckoned an orderly over. "Do you think you can arrange some coffee for me?" At the man's nod and pleasant smile, he sighed gratefully and settled down in a chair to wait, truly relaxed for the first time in days.

**********

Janet Fraiser frowned at the results of the blood work she had carried out on the still sleeping Colonel. His obvious injuries were healed, but there were still traces of the toxin in his digestive system. Twice now he had opened his eyes, but only for a very few seconds before closing them once more. The intubation tube was still in place, a precautionary measure until he woke fully and she could be sure his breathing was not compromised.

The Colonel's team had asked to see him before Teal'c left with the SG teams being sent through to the Tok'ra base to look for survivors of the Goa'uld attack that had almost prevented Anise's arrival. Jacob Carter had led the evacuation, and was safe and well, much to Sam's relief. Apparently, Anise had stayed behind, risking injury to retrieve the healing device, and had barely made it through the gate to the SGC, Jaffa close on her heels.

Janet knew she was with Teal'c, Daniel and Sam, and under the circumstances, given what Anise had risked to save O'Neill's life, she could see no reason to prevent her or the others from visiting, just a nagging worry that all was not right. With a sign and a last look at her patient she went to fetch them.

It was as if the opening of the door had woken him at last. As they filed inside, the Colonel began moving his head from side to side, and as Janet reached him, he looked up at her, his eyes wide and staring. Anise hurried forward to stand on the opposite side of the bed, the others close behind her.

Colonel O'Neill gestured desperately, pulling at the tube snaking down his throat. His panic communicated itself clearly and Janet made quick work of removing the obstruction.

She was just in time.

Projectile vomit is not normally the way you greet an ally, but it was clear the Colonel couldn't avoid it. He folded in on himself, his whole body shuddering with the effort, as he violently coated the bed and everything around it in a thick black substance. Anise reeled back, her hand to her mouth, dripping. Janet lurched forward, grabbing a large bowl and holding it to the distressed man's face.

When the spasms finally subsided, she eased him back onto the bed, taking the wet sponge handed to her by a nurse, and wiped him down as best she could.

She was too soon.

He retched again, this time more weakly, struggling to breathe, his head turned on the pillow. With Teal'c's help, Janet pulled him upright, only to see his eyes roll up in their sockets, and feel him slump into unconsciousness.

"What the hell just happened? I thought you fixed him?" Daniel glared accusingly at the shaken Tok'ra, as the medical staff hustled them out of the room.

"I did. His physical injuries are healed. There must be something more."

"The toxin. It must be the toxin." Sam turned to the other woman, grabbing her arm urgently. "Can the healing device cure poisoning?"

"Only marginally. It is designed to augment our own healing powers, and poison is easily eliminated by the symbiont part of our joining. The device is not designed to deal with toxins. I was not aware that Colonel O'Neill had been poisoned."

"Shit!" Daniel's unaccustomed swearing surprised them into silence. "Don't stand there arguing about reasons, Sam. Just work out what you can do to help Jack!"

Carter snapped back immediately. "I would, Daniel, but I'm an astrophysicist, not a chemist or a medical doctor. I have no idea where to start."

"Oh hell, Sam, I'm sorry." Daniel leaned against the wall, his body screaming how close to the edge he was. He had had virtually no sleep since their return from the planet, and this last crisis was too much.

Teal'c approached him and guided Daniel to a chair, carefully making him sit, as if he were made of glass. "Perhaps if we reviewed what we know of this substance, we could assist Doctor Fraiser in finding a solution."

"You're right. Plus it can't hurt. Daniel, can you get a nurse to show Anise where the showers are and have someone bring her some clean clothes? I'll go talk to Janet. We'll see you back here." Sam began to walk towards the ICU with determined steps.

"I'll just do that then." Daniel's sarcasm was lost to the exiting woman.

"I shall remain here, Daniel Jackson." Teal'c raised an eyebrow, a smile edging up the corners of his mouth, only to be extinguished as quickly as it had appeared.

**********

"We have to find the solution soon. He can't go on like this." Janet watched helplessly as the Colonel twisted weakly on the bed, his face flushed and sweating.

"Doc?" His voice was weak, but it was him, coherent for the first time since his rescue.

"I'm here, Colonel."

"Team?"

"We're here, sir." Sam answered for all of them "We're all okay." She smiled down at him.

"God!" He writhed on the bed, pulling his legs up into his stomach, and a nurse hurried to untangle the many tubes and lines running into him.

"I'm sorry, sir. I've given you something to stop the nausea, but I can't do any more than that until we know more about what's wrong." Janet placed a hand on Jack's shoulder, feeling the tremors. "Do you remember anything about a chemical you were given? Anything at all that could help?"

"Tasted foul." His shaky voice still managed to convey his disgust.

"Yes, sir, I'm sure it did." Janet replied sympathetically, "Anything else? Did they say anything to you about it."

"You can't expect him to know anything, Janet. Look at him - he can barely stay conscious, let alone think." Daniel frowned down at his friend, the frailness of the man scaring him.

"I know, Daniel. You don't think I enjoy questioning him like this, do you? But any tiny detail might help. I'm clutching at straws here."

"Didn't talk"

Their attention was brought back to the Colonel by his words. He moaned, his hand going to his head, pulling the IV lines with them, the delicate pink of freshly healed skin stretching and becoming white. Teal'c gently stopped the movement, taking the hand in his, allowing the long fingers to press into his palm.

With an effort, Jack turned his head and looked straight at the Doctor, swallowing before repeating his words in a firmer voice. "They didn't talk to me. Animal. You don't talk to animals."

"God!" Sam put a hand to her mouth, her eyes showing her anger.

"The General has locked the address out of the computer, hasn't he?" Daniel spat his question out furiously, nodding when Teal'c answered with a tight "Indeed."

"Wait!" Surprised faces turned to Anise, quiet until now. "They treated him like an animal. That could be our answer."

A "What do you mean?" from Daniel was interrupted by the excited voice of Janet.

"Of course! I understand." She looked up at Sam to find an answering comprehension in her friend's eyes. "It could have been some sort of treatment designed for animals, not meant for humans. No wonder it was toxic."

Daniel paled. "What, you mean something like a worm or flea treatment?"

"Exactly. It could have been something to rid the body of parasites. Parasites that the Colonel didn't have. This gives us a starting point." Janet answered. "Sam, could you contact the lab? Explain the possibility of an anti-parasitic agent or even a crude antibiotic" She started ticking things off her fingers. "Check the toxins and chemical register for something similar, this time focussing on those particular types and these symptoms. With a bit of luck we might be able to find a parallel substance and an accompanying treatment we can adapt. I'll be there as soon as I can to help." Sam left in a hurry.

"I will go with Major Carter, Doctor. I may be able to assist."

Janet nodded to her gratefully. "Thank you Anise. Any help you can give will be appreciated."

"I will remain with O'Neill." Teal'c still sat, the Colonel's hand clenched tightly around his own.

"Alright, but I want you to get some sleep, Daniel, I don't need you in the infirmary as well." At the rebellious look on the man's face, Janet continued firmly. "Do I have to make it an order?"

"No." He gave a shrug, accepting her decision reluctantly. "You'll call me if there's any change?"

"Of course."

Soon the only people left in the Colonel's room were Janet, a nurse, and Teal'c. Jack was still awake, but how aware they could not be sure. He hadn't spoken since his explanation of his treatment at the hands of the people on the alien planet. Teal'c's thumb rubbed soothingly across the back of his hand, and gradually the trembling settled, and he fell into a restless sleep.

**********

Teeth nibbled away at him until he could feel the coolness of air on his stomach as the skin peeled back, burnt and blackened. Given easy access, the claws dug into his insides, sharp shooting pains running across his organs and up and out the top of his skull. He wanted to scream and yell, but he stayed quiet, holding in the agony, keeping his body still.

Only the touch of warm fingers on his kept him sane.

Part Eight

"I told you, I'm fine." Colonel O'Neill's angry voice caused the nurse standing in front of him to flinch. But she held her ground, and answered him in a low, controlled tone.

"No, you are not, sir. Doctor Fraiser left clear instructions that you were not to even sit up. Do I have to call her in?"

"No." With a sigh, he lay back on the pillows, his fingers scratching at the skin on the back of his hand. "It's about time she had a break from this place."

"Yes, Colonel, it is. And, sir, please don't do that." The nurse gently pulled the offending hand away.

"Alright! God, I can't even scratch myself without supervision." He folded his arms, tucking his hands under them and out of sight, glaring up at the woman.

"I'm going on my lunch break, sir. Is there anything I can get you first?" She smiled determinedly.

"How about a hotdog? Oh wait, it won't fit down the tube."

"No, sir." Her smile slipped slightly. "Just buzz if you need anything." She waited until he acknowledged her answer with a small nod, and left, her footsteps moving rapidly away down the corridor.

Jack slowly allowed his hands to unclench, sliding them down, and under the sheets. He closed his eyes wearily, sinking back deeper into the pillows, careful not to disturb the tube threaded into his stomach. If he was honest with himself, he knew there was no way he could sit up properly in bed, the energy required to just move his head was almost more than he had in his weakened body.

Doctor Fraiser, with the help of Carter, and he hated to admit it, the Tok'ra Anise, had found the answer, identifying enough similarities in the toxin to a type of commonly used sheep dip. The lab had taken it from there, devising a treatment that had been almost as bad as the initial `dosing'. At least it had been administered while he was anesthesiatised, he thought, shuddering as his mind brushed against a memory, he had been under for most of it, totally unaware of the stomach tube pouring the mixture into him, but he still felt the effects. He still had bouts of nausea, his arms trembled, and his legs were too weak to hold any weight even if the Doc would let him try. His stomach was too delicate to take any solid food, the tube feeding him liquids. God he hated it! Why the hell couldn't he eat like a normal person? Janet said it was only to be expected, that he would have to have patience, and to give himself time to get his strength back.

He didn't want to. He wanted to get out of here.

And his skin itched.

It even itched when he was asleep.

He found his fingers twitching across his chest, under the thin pyjamas he had finally been allowed to substitute for a gown, and pulled them back. The skin tightened across his prominent knuckles when he flexed his hand and he held it up, staring at it, looking at every line, every indentation.

His fingers looked the same.

Even the fingernails were back, restored by the healing device.

They didn't look like his nails. His nails were back there in the soil of that planet.

That was one of the details he remembered, one of the few from his "freeing". Had those people just thought he was a creature to be returned to the wild? Surely they had known he couldn't survive in the state he was in without help?

His skin was so soft. Not like his own at all.

And so itchy.

There was a noise just outside his room.

He dragged his fingers away from his arm, concealing the slight scratches by hiding them under the sheet, just as the handle finished moving and the door opened.

"Hey, Jack. How are you doing?"

"Great, Daniel, just great." Jack smiled. "I've sent Nurse Whatsit off to get me a hotdog. And you? You had lunch? What did you have? How many cups of coffee have you had today? I don't think I should have coffee. Might burn my stomach. Wouldn't have time to cool on the way down. What do you think, Daniel?" He cocked his head and beamed brightly up at the other man.

"Okaaaay. Do I get the feeling that you have food issues, Jack?"

"Ya think?"

Daniel pulled out a chair, sitting forward and leaning towards the bed. "You know the tube is just temporary, so why act like this?"

The answer was immediate. "Because I don't like it. I don't want it stuck into me. I want to get it out and get out of this room. That's why."

"Janet explained that the toxin did damage the healing device couldn't cure. You need to give your body time to heal. It'll only be a few more days, Jack."

Jack shut his eyes, raising his hand to the bridge of his nose. "I know that, Daniel." He spoke in a quieter voice, sounding exhausted. "I just want everyone to stop poking around with my body. I want to be left alone for a bit."

"I can understand..." Daniel stopped, leaning further forward. "What have you done to your arm?"

The Colonel pulled his sleeve down, "Nothing. I must have scratched it on something. Maybe the bed, I don't know. It isn't anything."

"You should get a nurse to take a look at it. You should have a dressing put on it." Daniel looked worried, as if he was about to jump up and go running for help.

Jack grabbed for the buzzer, forestalling his friend's actions. When the nurse hurried in he held up his arm, pointing. "I need a bandaid here."

"How did this happen, Colonel?" The middle aged, grey haired woman held the arm gently, turning in under the light.

"I don't know, how about sticking a bandaid on and forgetting about it?"

"Sorry, sir, I'll have to tell Doctor Fraiser about this. We have to be sure it doesn't get infected"

"For crying out loud, it's only a scratch!"

"With your weakened system, Colonel, it's a potential problem."

"Crap!" Jack slumped back, his face a picture of chagrin.

"Could you come back in an hour, Doctor Jackson?" The nurse turned to Daniel. "Just while I see to the Colonel." She flicked her eyes towards the site where the tube ran into Jack's stomach.

"Oh, okay." Daniel nodded in understanding. "I'll be back soon, Jack."

"Yeah, I'll see you later then." Jack's dejected voice followed him from the room. As the door closed the Colonel's voice could still be heard. "This is so much fun. Pump it in, empty it out. Much easier than having to chew." There was silence for a moment. The last comment Daniel heard as he hesitated in the corridor had him moving away, grimacing. "Damn! I hate this!"

"Hey, Daniel, wait up." He turned to see Sam hurrying towards him. "I was just going to visit the Colonel."

"Take my word for it, now is not a good time." Daniel touched her arm lightly, moving them both to the side and out of people's way. "I was told to come back in an hour."

"So you haven't seen him today?"

"No, I did visit him, briefly, before being kicked out." He lowered his voice and began walking again, heading for the elevators, Sam following. "He had scratched his arm. Said it was an accident, but I don't buy it."

"Well, healing skin does tend to get itchy." The elevator doors opened and they stepped in, nodding to the three occupants. They stayed silent as it descended, waiting until they were alone again before continuing.

"I know healing wounds are itchy at times, Sam, but given what happened to Jack, I think we should keep an eye on him."

"But we really don't know what happened to the Colonel, do we, Daniel? He hasn't exactly told us much. I know he made a report to the General, but he hasn't given us any details at all." They moved into Sam's lab, and she waited for the door to close before continuing. "Colonel O'Neill told us he was bitten by animals while in the forest, now do you buy that? I certainly don't"

Daniel frowned in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"He wasn't just bitten, Daniel. Those wounds were caused over a period of time. There is no way he would have just lain there and wait to be bitten, no matter how badly injured he was."

"So what are you suggesting?"

She shook her head slowly. "I'm not sure. Think about it. Think about how we found him."

"Are you saying..." Daniel paled a little and leaned heavily against a table. "That Jack was held down, burnt and..." He swallowed.

"That's exactly what I'm saying, Daniel. It's the only possible explanation. He couldn't defend himself from them because he was restrained."

"Oh god!" Daniel folded himself into a chair, rocking slightly. "Oh god, Sam. I just realised..."

"What, Daniel? What is it?"

"Those people in the room where we found Jack. The way the chairs were set up. They were an audience, Sam, a god damned audience!"

Sam stared at her teammate, disgust and panic warring for dominance on her face. "They were watching him being eaten alive, being burnt? What sort of people could do that? God, Daniel, what else did they do to him?"

Daniel stood up, wiping his hand across his mouth. "I don't know, Sam, and I doubt he'll ever tell us, but I do know this." He straightened, looking her in the eyes. "We're going to have to watch him."

Sam nodded. "We should tell General Hammond what we suspect."

"No, let's not jump into things too quickly." Daniel disagreed. "I'm going to speak to Teal'c. Perhaps the three of us can keep an eye on him for the meantime."

Sam nodded again, carefully considering her next words. "This could be bad, Daniel. Very, very bad."

Part Nine

"O'Neill."

"Hi there, T. What have you got there?" Jack greeted the other man, and tried to see the parcel he was holding at the same time.

Teal'c smiled. "I was told that it is customary to bring a patient in hospital grapes. I have done so. I must admit to not fully understanding this custom, as you are not able to consume these fruit, or any other for that matter. I have come to the conclusion that the gift of grapes allows the patient to enjoy the sight of the giver as they feast on the gift." He took a small bunch of purple fruit from the bag, and began to eat. "These are most pleasant. Thank you, O'Neill."

"Damn, Teal'c, did anyone ever tell you that you were truly evil?"

"No, O'Neill. At least no one who lived."

Jack began to laugh, snorting a little, holding his hand across his belly. "Don't. Oh crap!" He started to breathe in short gasps, thumping his head on the pillow.

Teal'c pressed his hand into the Colonel's shoulder, holding him firmly. "Calm yourself, O'Neill."

"Easy for you to say." Jack's voice came in a breathless whisper, but he began to relax. Within a few minutes he was breathing more easily, and the tremors that had been running through him gradually subsided. Finally Teal'c released his hold and sat back.

"I am sorry I caused you distress, O'Neill."

"It wasn't your fault, Teal'c." He rubbed a shaking hand across his face. "I hate this. I feel like I'm never going to get out of here."

Teal'c looked confused. "Did not Doctor Fraiser tell you she intended to remove the stomach tube tomorrow? Within a few days you should be well enough to leave the infirmary. Has something changed?"

Jack shook his head, shutting his eyes. "No. Nothing's changed. Except I don't feel like I'm getting any better. I wouldn't be surprised if the Doc delays the removal procedure and keeps me in here."

"Has she not examined you, O'Neill? Has she said anything to that effect?"

"She said that I should start to feel better when I'm able to eat properly again, and not to worry." He gave a rueful half smile. "Not that I told her that I was."

"I am sure you didn't."

Jack opened his eyes and glared up at the other man. "Am I that obvious?"

"Only to your friends, O'Neill."

**********

Teal'c met his teammates, as arranged, in Doctor Jackson's office. Once the obligatory coffee was poured he began his report.

"I visited Colonel O'Neill as agreed. He appears depressed and is concerned that his continued frailty will delay his being released from the infirmary."

"Did you see any signs of new scratches?"

"No, Major Carter, only those we have previously noted, on his arms. However, his arms are bandaged and he does not have easy access to them. I am sure that the medical staff would have noticed any other injuries and informed Doctor Fraiser."

The second set of scratches had appeared on the Colonel's other arm within a day of the first. This time it had been the uninjured arm and it had taken some fast-talking on the part of O'Neill to placate the Doctor. It had resulted in the bed in his small private room being replaced, even though nothing sharp enough to scratch a sleeping patient could be found. So far there had been no further incidents.

"Maybe it was the bed." Daniel suggested hopefully. "We might be worrying about nothing."

"Perhaps." Teal'c nodded slowly. "However I do not believe this is the case."

"Well, we can't say anything to the General, that's certain. If he thought that Jack was harming himself deliberately, he'd never let him back on active service."

Sam began to pace, crossing the small space in a few short steps, before turning back towards her friends. "What about Janet? What if I spoke to Janet privately about our suspicions?"

"She'd be obliged to tell the General, you know that." Daniel answered, balling his hands into fists. "We're damned if we do and damned if we don't. Let's just keep watching him, and be there if he wants to talk."

"I can not see that happening, Daniel Jackson."

Daniel looked down at the floor. "No, Teal'c, neither can I."

**********

"It's good to see you out of bed, Colonel. Doctor Fraiser tells me you should be able to go home within the week." General Hammond smiled at the man sitting, cocooned in blankets, in a chair, a book on his lap.

"Yes, sir. I'll be out of her hair as soon as she gives the all clear. Then it's up and into the fresh air. I feel like I've been breathing in this recycled crap for years." He stopped, grinning. "Sorry, sir."

Hammond laughed, shaking his head. "No need to apologise, Jack. I know exactly what you mean. But, I know you. A few weeks of sick leave and you'll be begging to come back down here."

"Probably, sir."

"For a while there I thought you might be staying here a little longer. Doctor Fraiser had some concerns about your recovery." Hammond gave a quick look at the other man's now healed arms, his glance obvious.

"There is no problem now, sir." Jack's tone was firm. "I'm fine. Hell, I'm even able to eat jello without throwing up. Give me a few days and I'm sure I'll be sharing a pizza with Teal'c."

"Mind if I sit down?" The General didn't wait for permission, pulling a chair over closer to the other man and sitting, their knees almost touching. "Jack, we need to talk."

"What about, sir?" The Colonel stared his CO defiantly in the eye.

"Your report to me on the events on P6B-145."

"Ah, Planet Human Shish-ke-bob. I don't suppose we can just forget I ever made that report? Screw it up? I'll happily write a new one."

Hammond returned the Colonel's stare. "You know better than that, son. If you don't talk to me, you'll have to have a few more sessions with McKenzie than I've already scheduled." He frowned at the expression on Jack's face. "And there is no point giving me that look. You know the regulations, psychiatric sessions are mandatory after being tortured."

"I know that, sir." Jack spoke tonelessly.

"I know you do, son. Plus I know you've been through this procedure before, but this time it's a little different, so let's try and make it as painless as possible."

Colonel O'Neill's fingers moved restlessly against the sleeves of his robe. "What do you want to know?"

"You gave me the basics of what happened, Jack, and I have to say, it turned my stomach. I want you to tell me how you feel about it, now that you've had time to think on what they did and perhaps why they did it."

"How I feel about it?" The long fingers dug into the material, bunching it up. "A bit pissed off to be honest, sir. I mean, couldn't they have just opened a can of cat food?"

Hammond sighed and began to stand. "If you aren't going to cooperate..."

"Wait, sir." Jack held out a hand, snagging the General's sleeve. "I'm sorry. It's just not the most comfortable thing to remember, let along talk about."

Hammond resettled himself in the chair. "What do you remember?"

Jack's eyes flickered away, staring unfocused at the far wall. "Being stripped naked, tied down, and examined like some strange animal."

"This isn't the first time this has happened to you, Jack. I've read your file."

The brown eyes stayed resolutely fixed on the wall. "They paid for the privilege. They paid to touch me, to hurt me. They weren't doing it to get information. They weren't interested in even trying to communicate with me. They just wanted to watch me suffer as much as possible, like bullies hurting an animal that can't fight back. They didn't see me as human at all. Even the people that freed me didn't see me as any more than an animal. Once they let me go they didn't care if I lived or died. And when I was recaptured and had lost novelty value, they would probably have just finished feeding me to their pets, a convenient and amusing source of freshly cooked meat if I hadn't been rescued." Jack's voice was completely without emotion.

"Son." Hammond gently touched the back of Jack's hand, making him flinch, the hand quickly tucked into the robe's sleeves." Look at me."

"They did that." The Colonel kept his gaze on the wall, his eyes shadowed.

"What?"

"They touched me. Some like that, gently, stroking. Some harder, roughly. Some...laughed." Jack whispered the next words, making Hammond lean forward to catch them. "There were children. What sort of parents would let their children do that?"

Hammond didn't seem to have the words to answer.

But it didn't matter, because Jack didn't notice, his eyes vacant and staring at nothing. He carried on, speaking even more quietly. "In the end, it wasn't just hands. They paid. They used other things. Checking me out, seeing how much pain I could take. It was so impersonal, like they were just experimenting, probing and pushing, observing. It wasn't as bad as Iraq, not like that anyway, but at least in Iraq I knew why they did it. At least they knew I was human."

He tore at his arm with his nails, dragging them down the skin.

"Jack!" General Hammond jumped up, grabbing his hand and forcing it away. "Stop that! What are you doing?"

"I was just an animal. An animal with no feelings. But I do. See? I bleed just like they do. They just needed to look me in the eyes once to see that." He shook violently, as Hammond held him tight.

"Look at me, son. Look at me."

The eyes that gazed back at the General were filled with pain. Jack looked down at the gouges in his arm. "Oh god, what am I going to do?"

Hammond gripped Jack's hands, waiting as he calmed, catching his eyes with his own. "Don't you worry, son, you're home now, and we aren't about to give up on you. No way am I going to lose my best officer to those bastards." His voice softened. "We'll work this out together." He pulled away gently, slowly getting to his feet. He looked down at O'Neill, his eyes determined.

"I'm not going to leave a member of my team behind, Colonel. Have no doubt of that."

Part Ten

The crows, black in dark feathers. Waiting. Watching. Observing every move. Waiting for just one mistake. He wouldn't make one. He knew what not to do, at least where someone watches. They watched him now and he was careful.

Jack O'Neill turned restlessly in the narrow bed, fingers flickering across white bandages. Beneath the lids his eyes darted, watching.

A large hand took those wandering fingers and held them. The eyes froze.

"Teal'c?" Jack stared up into the dark face of the Jaffa.

"It is I, O'Neill."

"Ah...I can see that, and don't misinterpret what I'm about to ask here, it isn't that I don't like you or anything...well not in that way of course, but...ah...why are you holding my hands?"

"I think you know."

Jack's eyes stayed open, but shifted sideways, avoiding the other man's gaze. He pulled his hands from the other's grasp and used them to push himself up.

"What time is it?" The lights were dim, sounds from the infirmary muted.

"It is three in the morning, O'Neill."

"Three! What are you doing here at this hour?"

"Watching you sleep, O'Neill."

Jack grimaced at the answer. "Doesn't sound very exciting, Teal'c. Why would you want to do that?"

"On the contrary, it was extremely illuminating. As to why I would do it, because General Hammond asked me to speak with you, and I was waiting for you to awaken."

It was obvious that Jack had recognised the significance of his friend's words. He clenched his fists, folding his arms. "Well, you've managed to wake me up. What was so important that it couldn't wait until morning?"

"Why do you do harm to yourself, O'Neill?"

The Colonel reacted violently, throwing himself off the bed and standing in one fluid movement. He strode rapidly away, and for a moment it looked as if he was going to leave the room, but as he reached the door, he faltered, and, his face closed, his eyes black in the dim light, turned to face the Jaffa once again, his back coming up hard against the wall behind him.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Teal'c's actions were sudden, surprising, and equally rapid. He reached Jack's side before the other man could react, grabbing his right arm and pushing the long sleeves up, exposing the dressings.

"This, O'Neill." He let the arm drop, only to tug up the sleeve on the opposite one. "And this."

As Jack lurched sideways, Teal'c held him by the front of his pyjamas, pulling the jacket apart. "And these." He released the Colonel, letting him slide slowly down the wall until he was sitting on the floor, his knees up, concealing the bandages swathing his chest. "I am sure there are more, O'Neill. Do I need to go on?"

The reply was muffled. "No, you don't. You've made your point. Now why don't you get the fuck out of here."

"Because I wish to understand why you are doing this." He too sat on the floor, gracefully folding his large body, and assuming a cross-legged position facing Jack.

The Colonel must have felt Teal'c's eyes upon him because he lifted his head from its position resting on the arms clinging tightly to his knees, and spat out a furious reply.

"Because I'm crazy, perhaps? What do you think? Do you think a normal person would do this to himself?" He waited for a moment, then scrabbled sideways, pushing himself up with a grunt of effort, swaying slightly. "There, you've got your answer. Happy now?"

Teal'c stood, his arms out to steady the clearly tiring man. "No, I am not. O'Neill." He took more of the Colonel's weight, supporting his flagging body. "Return to your bed, you are weak."

"I don't need you to tell me that." Jack straightened, his expression stubborn, and moved to the bed, pulling back the covers to lie down, turning onto his back to stare at the ceiling.

"You are weak in body only, O'Neill. Your spirit is still strong."

"Yeah, right. That's why I find myself with blood on my hands every morning. That's why the nurses can't look me in the eyes anymore, and Janet has that worried frown every time she examines me. That's why I see the disappointment on the General's face."

Teal'c stood above him, his figure blocking the light as he gazed down at his CO. His voice was as impassive as it had been since the Colonel had woken, but it still managed to convey a depth of meaning. "General Hammond is not disappointed in you, O'Neill. However, he is worried. That is why he asked me to speak with you."

"And say what? I don't know why I'm doing this. Maybe next time I see McKenzie I should ask him." He shut his eyes and continued, his words resigned. "Then I'd be kicked out of the Air Force so fast your head would spin."

"Talking to Shrink McKenzie would be a bad move on your part. Not only will you do yourself harm, you will put Doctor Fraiser, her staff and General Hammond in the very awkward position of having to explain why they have not reported your injuries. Do you want to abuse the trust they have placed in you by doing so?"

Jack's eyes snapped open, finally being held by Teal'c's gaze. He answered slowly. "No, of course not."

"Surely you realised there was a conspiracy of silence about you. You are causing great distress to Major Carter and Doctor Jackson. Major Carter is torn between the desire to protect you and the knowledge that she should tell General Hammond what she suspects."

"Oh crap, what am I going to do, Teal'c? Maybe it would be best for everyone if I resigned." He lifted his arm, placing it across his eyes, the sleeve pushed up, exposing the bandages.

Teal'c sighed, the sound startling Jack enough to make him peer out from hiding. He watched as the other man sat in a nearby chair, his posture suddenly weary. "O'Neill, no one wants you to resign. Can we not discuss what happened to you on the planet and try to find a solution to this problem? We want to have you back with us."

"But I talked to the General, T. I thought it would help, but I still wake up with my fingernails digging into my flesh." He held his arm out to be inspected. "Sometimes I think I enjoy the pain, otherwise why would I do it?"

Teal'c laid his hand lightly on the shaking limb, pressing it down to the bed and holding it there. "Because you need to feel that you are here. That you have escaped from the torture and that you are back in control. You do it to yourself to show you can." He waited until the arm stopped shaking. "O'Neill, General Hammond and I spoke long into the night. He told me what you experienced on that planet."

When the anger flared in the hooded eyes, he carried on. "He did this because he hoped I might be able to help you explain your actions. In my long years as First Prime of Apophis I saw and did many things. I tortured men until all semblance of humanity was stripped from them, until they became as animals." Jack glanced down to where the Jaffa's hand rested, the brown skin contrasting starkly with the paleness of his own skin.

"The few that survived were broken in spirit, no longer able to function as human beings. We would leave them, taking bets on how long it would be before they took their own life, or starved to death because they would not feed themselves. We laughed at them, losing our own honour in the process. In all those years only one man survived such torture and joined the ranks of my own Jaffa as reward. He never once forgot that he was human, that ultimately he had control of his own destiny. His spirit was strong, and despite everything we did, he defied us. He couldn't fight back, but his eyes showed that he was unbowed."

He leaned forward, pulling Jack's eyes back to his. "I saw the same defiance in your eyes when we found you, caged and bound as you were. And I saw the same marks upon his body as I see on yours. He told me why he did such things, that he needed to prove to himself that he was still himself, that he was the one in control. He carried those marks with him until the day he died on the field of battle, defending my back. They made him no less a man and we honoured him with a hero's funeral, Apophis himself setting alight the pyre."

Teal'c waited, watching as Jack began to relax. For a few minutes there was silence as neither man spoke, before Teal'c continued once more.

"I am not saying that what you experienced was the same, O'Neill, but I am saying that I understand some of what you are going through. If you talk to me, tell me of your experiences, I may be able to help you come to a similar understanding of your actions."

The silence stretched on, the quiet footsteps and murmur of voices outside the room barely registering. Far up on the mountain the first rays of sunlight must have been touching the rocky soil, but here, far in the earth, there was only darkness. Darkness that stretched into far corners, leaving plenty of places to hide.

At last the silence was broken by a quiet voice.

"I couldn't believe they intended to put me in that cage. I didn't make it easy for them, and my struggles woke the other animals around me. They didn't like that. There was no way to sit or stay, there was barely room to lie hunched up, unmoving. Those first few hours I thought I would die from the cramps in my legs alone. I almost wished I would..."

Part Eleven

"Where are you going, Jack?"

Jack spun around at the unexpected sound of Daniel's voice.

"I didn't hear a knock."

"That's because I didn't. I've been leaving messages for two days now and haven't gotten a reply, so I thought I'd come over."

The Colonel turned back to the open suitcase on his bed, placing a carefully folded shirt into a corner of the case. "I gave you the spare key so you could look after the place when I'm not here, not to come in uninvited."

"Jack, where are you going?"

The Colonel picked up a pile of socks and began tucking them into spare corners of the case.

"On vacation."

"And when were you planning on telling us?"

Jack put the remaining socks down with a sigh, facing the other man. "I was about to call. Look, Daniel, I'm an adult. I do not need to explain every action to you, nor do I need to be " He raised his fingers and waggled them in the air, "'looked after'. I'm quite capable of looking after myself. I'm on sick leave. I'm going away for a few days. I don't have any definite plans. I don't know when I'm coming back."

"If ever."

The words fell into the silence.

Jack's face hardened. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Do you think Sam and I are stupid? We know what was going on. Janet must have known. And if Janet knew, General Hammond knew. Then one minute you're in the infirmary with bandages all over fresh wounds, and no one talking about it, the next you're gone and unable to be contacted. Like I said, Jack, we're not stupid." He moved over and sat on the bed, gesturing at the case. "I came here not knowing what to expect. Maybe to find you drunk, or lying dead in a pool of your own blood. But not this. Not packing. Not when you're still barely capable of walking across a room by yourself. So, what's going on, Jack?"

For a minute Jack just stood there, looking at Daniel. Then he turned on his heels and walked out of the room. Daniel heard the question "Coffee?" shouted from the kitchen. He sat for a minute or so, then got up and followed, finding a mug of steaming black coffee on the counter top waiting for him, Jack sitting at the table, a cup of what seemed to be tea in his hand.

"Tea?"

Jack grimaced. "Yeah. I can't drink coffee yet. The stomach's still a little delicate."

The two men drank in silence. Daniel took the opportunity to have a proper look at his friend. Jack still appeared pale and was obviously well under his normal weight, the gauntness showing in his face. Bandages poked out from under his shirt, and he was breathing deeply as if recovering from a long run. All in all, he looked like he should be in bed, not packing to go on vacation.

"I'm sorry I worried you."

"Pardon?" The soft words had been almost too quiet for Daniel to hear. He looked up from his cup to find Jack standing, going over to the sink.

"I said, I'm sorry if I worried you. You can tell Carter I'm okay now." Jack turned on the water, running his cup under it.

"You don't look okay, Jack."

"Gee, thanks for your vote of confidence, Daniel." Jack frowned over at the table "You finished with that?" Without waiting for a reply he picked up Daniel's mug and turned back to the sink.

"For god's sake, Jack, will you just stop for a second and talk to me?" The younger man thumped his hand down on the surface of the table, making the salt and pepper shakers in the middle bounce across the polished wood.

The Colonel gave a resigned sigh, putting the mug down and turning off the water before walking back to the table. He pulled out a chair and sat, resting his elbows on the top. Before he began speaking he rubbed one hand through his short grey hair.

"Daniel, you've got to understand that I'm probably never going to talk to you about what happened on our last mission." He held his hand out, stopping the other man from speaking. "I won't deny that I had some problems after we got back." He looked ruefully down at the bandages extending from one sleeve and across his hand. "But they're sorted, done." He looked back up, his dark eyes holding Daniel's blue ones. "I've talked, Daniel. I've talked to Hammond, I've talked to Fraiser. Hell, I've even talked to McKenzie. More importantly, I've talked to Teal'c, and now I'm done talking. I'm talked out."

At the hurt look on Daniel's face, he continued. "You have to accept that sometimes you aren't the best person for me to talk to, Daniel. Sometimes things happen that are totally outside your or Carter's experience, and, to be honest, I'm thankful that they are." He smiled a little at the slight nod of the other man's head. "I know I'm not one hundred percent fit. You can't expect me to be. But I'm going to go somewhere for a few days, maybe a week or so, relax, take it easy, get some fresh air, think things over. As to what happens after that, Daniel, we'll have to see. I'm not going to promise anything, but whatever happens, I need you to know that it'll be the right decision."

He pushed back his chair and stood. "Now I've got some packing to finish."

Daniel followed him up. "So, should I be saying goodbye, Jack?"

Jack shook his head. "No, Daniel, whatever happens it won't be a goodbye. How about a `see you soon'?"

Daniel clasped the older man's hand in his. "See you soon, Jack."

**********

The tiger paced restlessly across the short grass, passing by the glass of the window without giving it a second glance. Its muscles rippled under the fur, its movements tight and controlled. As it turned back towards the rear of the enclosure, it cocked its head slightly, staring at the small door in the wall, waiting for feeding time.

It stopped, turned around and dropped, to sprawl lengthwise on the ground. Keeping its eyes firmly on the keeper's entrance door, it opened its mouth in a huge yawn, long white teeth gleaming. The yawn seemed to last for minutes, the tiger closing its mouth only when movement was seen in the bamboo to its left. The big cat swivelled its head to watch as another, smaller tiger approached. It too sat, alert and watchful. Both heads turned back to watch the small metal door.

Jack O'Neill sat on the bench, his whole attention focused on the animals in the enclosure. He watched as they were fed, watched as they tore the flesh from the large hunks of meat, watched as they lapped from the small stream running through their territory - the blood running from their massive jaws and into the water. He watched as they washed themselves, licking each other with long, red tongues.

Finally he left, smiling.

**********

Jack unwound the bandages around his arms and hand, dropping them to the floor of his hotel room. He buttoned his shirt, placing it on the bed, and, twisting to reach the beginning, unhooked the larger bandage across his chest. Soon it too was on the floor. He examined himself in the long mirror, noting the lines scoring his skin. He turned sideways, holding his stomach firmly in and studied his reflection. Then with a self- deprecating laugh, he picked the shirt off the bed again and dressed.

He left the room, grinning.

**********

The sunset wasn't the best he had ever seen, but it was certainly one of the most memorable. Jack lay back, resting his head on his arms, and stared up at the sky. All around him the trees tossed gently in the breeze, reaching far up, almost seeming to touch the red, pink and orange of the clouds. Soft sounds disturbed the silence, the rustling of birds settling for the night, the occasional beep and squeak of territorial disputes over the best branch. If he listened carefully he could hear the hum of cars on the distant road, but he preferred not to listen that closely. He just lay back and let the peace waft over him.

After a while the temperature began to drop, the night air fast becoming cold. Jack pushed himself up, moving a little stiffly, and brushed the dried leaves from his clothes. With one last look around him, he left the forest.

**********

"Hey there, kids. Miss me?"

Colonel O'Neill's voice echoed through the Control Room, making everyone turn.

"Good to see you back, Colonel."

"Thanks, Sergeant Davis. I thought it was about time I came back. I hear you and Siler have been getting into all sorts of trouble while I've been gone."

He left the Sergeant spluttering with indignation, the concealed giggles of the other Control Room staff following him down the corridor.

"Sir! You're back!"

"Your powers of observation never fail to amaze me, Carter." He smiled at his teammate. "I was just coming to find you. General Hammond has scheduled us for an off world mission on Tuesday. Briefing at 0900 tomorrow. I've left the details on your desk. Have you seen Teal'c and Daniel around?"

"They were heading for the Mess Hall last I heard."

Jack grinned. "I should have guessed. Okay, I'll go find them and let them know." He turned, then spun back. "Want to go get something to eat tonight? I though I'd ask Ferretti and his team too. That's if you, Teal'c and Daniel can make it."

"Sounds great, sir." Sam nodded enthusiastically. She watched as the Colonel started for the elevator, a spring in his step that she hadn't seen for weeks. Just as he got to the door, she called out to him. "It's great to have you back, sir."

He turned, smiling broadly. "It's good to be back, Major. It's good to be back."

The End