It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an I
by Gallagater


"Loyalty is still the same, whether it win or lose the
game; true as a dial to the sun, although it be not shined
upon."
Samuel Butler

~ ~ ~

There was something about digging in the dirt that touched Jack O'Neill's soul. Perhaps it was a recessive gene hidden away, waiting only for a chance to blossom, a gift from some long-lost Irish relative, who engaged the flinty soil in a life and death battle for a potato. Perhaps he and Daniel Jackson were more alike than either of them cared to admit. Treasure after all, was such an ambiguous term and one man's rosebush could certainly be another man's antiquity. A simpler, and therefore more likely explanation was the fact that the act of planting and watching things grow was for Jack an unspoken symbol of redemption. It was a chance for renewal for a man who had spent too much of his career taking life. Gardening, according to his Grandma O'Neill – one of the wisest women he'd ever known – was the law of sowing and reaping in its purest form.

But philosophy had never held any interest for Jack and, if asked, he would have said with pithy smugness that at least flowers didn't ask stupid questions about things that didn't matter.

It was still early and already his t-shirt clung to his sweaty back. It was hot for this time of year. Normally, early Fall would be teasing him with whispering of upcoming trips down snow-covered mountains, but this year, Summer seemed reluctant to fade away gracefully. Jack brushed the back of his hand across his brow and tried unsuccessfully to visualize the pristine slopes of Breckenridge. A single drop of sweat sluiced down his nose, hung momentarily, before plunging into oblivion to water the thirsty soil.

He might have considered stripping the t-shirt off if he hadn't known that at nearly eighty, his neighbor, Mrs. McClure, had developed some markedly voyeuristic eccentricities. The last time he'd opted to mow the grass sans shirt, the old woman had refused to leave her back porch to take her medication as she leered unashamedly across the hedge row. After a mutually embarrassing chat with Mrs. McClure's harried daughter, Jack had agreed not to work bare-chested in deference to her mother's pacemaker.

Sitting back to rest his protesting knees and back, Jack rotated his neck, stretching until he found the right combination and unlocked, with a satisfying crack, a deposit of pent up tension tucked away along his vertebra. He'd debated whether he should spend his rare day off lying in bed, or haul his procrastinating ass outside to work on his neglected garden. He'd surprised himself with the fluid eloquence of his argument. Since he was reasonably
sure he'd be flying solo no matter which activity he chose, he wasn't unduly influenced by peer pressure. In the end nature called in the form of a full bladder and since he was already in a vertical position and only a few steps from the shower, it hadn't taken all that much persuasion to tip the scale in favor of the Great Outdoors. So it was he found himself sweating under the too warm sun with dirt-stained nails, an aching back, a lustful octogenarian leering at him and enjoying every minute of it.

It seemed even the flowers were reluctant to surrender to the seasons. Roses had never been his first choice - too snooty for an average Joe like him. They'd been Sara's favorite and had gotten him out of the doghouse more times than he cared to remember. She'd claimed he and roses had a lot in common. They were both damn pleasant on the eyes and despite the fact that they could both be major pricks, she thought they were worth the trouble.

He'd always seen himself as more of a wild flower kind of guy: Scarlet Gilia, Bindweed, Mariposa, Sego Lilies, Globe Mallow, Wild Onion, and Showy Milkweed. They graced the far corner of his yard, asking nothing; and with the freedom of dancing gypsies, they thumbed their noses at their supercilious staid counterparts. Self-sufficient and with wild abandon they scattered their spores to the wind, where man-made boundaries such as fences had no meaning and less control.

Shortly after returning from their little unplanned vacation on Hadante booked courtesy of the Taldor Travel Agency, he'd started an Iris bed – poor man's orchids his Grandma had called them. They needed little in the care department, which suited his unpredictable schedule, and other than their tendency to choke themselves out by multiplying like stray cats, he could pretty much leave them to their own design.

It was the threat of tangled Iris roots that now had him on his knees. Tall intertwined green stalks paid testament to his procrastination. This job was long overdue. He'd already dug a new area along the fence, near the garage, and a basket full of bulbs was ready to be transplanted. Biting back a grunt, Jack stood and wiped his grubby hands on his jeans. Tossing a good-natured wave in Mrs. McClure's direction, he picked up the laden basket and headed around the house.

Sunday mornings were always quiet on his street. The church-goers were sitting somewhere between the offering and wondering who would win the honor of being first in line at the Golden Corral this week. It'd be a couple of hours before the various mini-vans and Subaru's headed home. The muted sound of kids playing - having been liberated from the bonds of dress clothes and parents' expectations – would add color to the subdued neighborhood.

Habitually, Jack scanned the street before setting the basket down and reaching for the trowel. A lone jogger, wearing spandex and a ribbed tank top void of decoration save his own sweat, was bent, fiddling with a designer running shoe that probably cost more than Jack's first car. Opting to ignore the taunting thought that only a few years ago he might have chosen to spend his Sunday morning running, rather than gardening, he dismissed the man in favor of non-judgmental foliage. Aging gracefully might sell AARP memberships, but as far as he was concerned getting old sucked.

He was carefully untangling a knot of slender stems and leaves, letting his mind drift like wildflower seed, when something stabbed the ball of his thumb. Yelping, he spotted a bead of blood welling up. Ignoring the grunge, he stuck the wounded digit in his mouth, effectively cleansing it of blood and dirt, while he eyeballed the greenery.

It wasn't hard to spot the perpetrator. He stared at the limp flower he had just pulled from the basket. It was now laying on the turned soil, patiently waiting to be transplanted. The long celery green stalk was covered with thorns, one of which was no doubt responsible for his punctured thumb. Curious, he cautiously skirted the barbs and picked up the flower, pinching the delicate stem between throbbing thumb and forefinger. Instead of the lacy tongues of delicate Iris petals, he was holding circular symmetry of classic perfection. The crimson rose stared at him as an equal, daring him to repudiate its rights of existence.

One finger inched forward, stroking the velvety petals. Warily, Jack lifted the blossom to his nose and sniffed the delicate perfume. Confusion had always irritated the crap out of him – which often explained his mood when dealing with Carter and Daniel - and he scowled at the flower, willing it to quake in fear, repent and return to normal. But just as its human counterparts often ignored the silent directive, so did the rose.

His brow as furrowed as the ground in front of him, Jack stared in disbelief at the row of Cannas, Zinnias, Gladiolas, and Sunflowers waving gently in the breeze on their tall Iris stems. A mass of exotic birds of paradise claimed dominion in the basket over a simple daisy nearly buried under the broad sword-shaped foliage of Iris leaves. Despite the overwhelming feeling he was the butt of an elaborate practical joke, there was also the nagging fear he had somehow slept through the part of the briefing where Carter explained why SG-1 would be gating into Wonderland. If he spotted Hathor in a Queen of Hearts get up, or Walter holding a watch and chanting 'I'm late', he knew he really was in need of some serious down time.

Cautiously, he looked around, but fortunately he spotted no queens
– red or black, and even Mrs. McClure seemed to have thrown in her hand. The only rabbit on the scene was content to nibble clover in the neighbor's front yard. The jogger had abandoned his shoestring, apparently finding a delusional colonel masquerading as a gardener and an Iris bed with aspirations of a float in the Rose Parade, more intriguing.

Baffled and feeling uncomfortably vulnerable on his knees, Jack tossed the flower aside and clambered to his feet with a grunt. Wary, he inched around, clutching the small shovel in lieu of a more conventional weapon, ready to defend himself, if necessary. But he was alone; the jogger was gone.

Pissed at his over-active paranoia and yet unable to shake the feeling, Jack glanced at the flowers. The mixed bouquet was gone – no roses, not even an innocuous daisy remained. Only one variety of flower graced the garden. As Jack stared, the delicate multi-colored blooms of newly transplanted bearded Irises laughed at the joke – a joke, his gut warned, with a punch line to rival Muhammad Ali.

* * * * *

'Capacious' - \kuh-PAY-shuhs\, adjective: Able to contain much; roomy; spacious. A small groan escaped Jack's parted lips as he stood and flushed. Damn the call of nature. Yesterday's gardening stint was playing hell on his knees. Belatedly, all that kneeling had reminded him of church. It felt pretty good while you were doing it, but then you had to deal with the consequences the next day. Come to think of it, the same could be said for sex, which had the power to drive you right back to your knees in confession. Thoughts like that could soon be as tangled as the roots of the Irises.

Despite his meander into Strangeville, the rest of the day had proven to be normal in every regard, down to losing twenty bucks in a sucker bet he'd made with Carter. Who the hell would have thought the Aggies would kick Minnesota's ass? Hammond would be crowing. Throughout the game he'd caught himself venturing to the window an embarrassing number of times. Peering out the window at the perfectly ordinary Iris bed, he'd finally decided he'd better knock it off or his neighbors would begin to think he was a closet Peeping Tom. So by the time Hammond had called to gloat, he'd relegated the Irises to one of those unexplainable mysteries which seem to dog his steps more and more frequently since he'd first ventured into the wormhole.

After a quick glance in the mirror, Jack tossed the dog-eared edition of the word-of-the-day on the back of the stool, washed his hands, and raked his wet fingers through his hair. 'Capacious.' After taking a dump, the colonel's bowels were capacious. The face in the mirror broke into a rakish smirk. Oh yeah, let Daniel try and top that one.

The drive to work was remarkably unremarkable. No emergency emerged, no incursion incurred, in fact for a Monday morning it was bursting with normalcy and that in itself sucked. He hated mundane. He hated monotonous. Those two words were synonymous with backlogs of boring paperwork. Oh yeah, he especially hated mundane, monotonous, Monday mornings at the Mountain. But until Daniel whipped this intestinal parasite he'd picked up on the planet of Sushi fanatics, SG-1 was grounded and he was stuck behind a desk.

He was early, but Sam had beaten him to his favorite parking spot this morning. First football, and now parking. Her little Volvo was parked in the coveted slot with its unremorseful owner grinning triumphantly up at him. Jack scowled. Carter was so freakin' competitive. Damn territorial, too. That was his favorite space. As his second-in-command it was her duty to know that. Some people had such a narrow line when it came to deference for their superiors. She was probably setting her alarm fifteen minutes early just so she could beat him in and claim his spot. Crap. That meant he'd have to set his thirty minutes earlier tomorrow. He couldn't believe how childish Carter could be sometimes.

Giving his smirking teammate a noncommittal wave, Jack pulled the big Ford next to the interloper. He hid his own grin when Carter's victorious smile melted into a puddle of alarm as she realized there was no way even her skinny behind was going to be able to exit from the driver's side. Oozing innocence and donning his best casual air, Jack threw open his door and sprang from his truck with far more exuberance than necessary. He had to admit the part of his brain responsible for self-preservation was glad the big, solid truck stood between Carter and him at the moment. Hopefully she wasn't armed. He wondered if she'd ever figure out he was well versed in reading lips. Whoa. He took an involuntary step back wondering on which bathroom wall a nice girl like Carter had ever picked up a word like that.

Leaning casually against the tailgate, Jack waited patiently. He was enjoying every muttered grunt escaping from the Volvo's rocking interior. Carter was surprisingly nimble, although that gear shift did present even an over-achiever like her a few challenges. Sam was scowling by the time she emerged Venus-like from the passenger side of her clam shell car. "Cute, sir. Real cute."

With the purity borne of the innocent, Jack blinked with wide-eyed surprise. "Whoops, sorry about that, Carter. Guess I pulled in a little close. It's hard to judge when you drive such a capacious vehicle."

"I'm sure," Sam snapped. "You know what they say about men and their trucks."

"No, Captain," Jack raised an eyebrow, his face deadpan, "what _do_ they say?"

Sam's face flushed. "Uh, I seem to have forgotten, sir."

Jack's grin escaped. "Good answer, Carter."

"I thought so," she chuckled. "Capacious?" Jack shrugged modestly.

They walked in companionable silence towards the mountain, signed in, and entered the elevator. "Going to your lab, Carter?" Jack's restless finger hit level 19 simultaneously with her nod. "Frasier call with any word on Daniel yet?"

Concern clouded Sam's face. "No, sir. As of last night the diarrhea was unchecked."

"Crap."

"Yes, sir. Often."

Jack chortled. "Humor, on a Monday morning, Captain? Isn't that against regulations?"

"Probably," Sam grinned, looking decidedly guilty at having made sport of Daniel's infirmity. "It's just that he's been . . ."

"In a shitty mood," Jack suggested.

"Exactly. You know how patient Janet is with Daniel normally. Yesterday she was muttering threats about crowning him with a bedpan - before the orderly emptied it."

"Ewww," Jack grimaced. "Okay, that's a visual I could have done without."

The elevator stopped and the doors opened. Sam stepped out. "Have a good day, sir."

"Carter, what's a nine letter word for sucky?"

Sam's forehead wrinkled as she thought for a moment before grudgingly admitting defeat with a shake of her head. "I don't know, sir. What?"

"Paperwork," Jack groaned. The elevator closed.

* * * * *

"Noodles?"

"Yes, sir." The man stared at Jack, his pronged ladle decorated with glistening coils of pale pasta.

"For breakfast? Isn't that a little odd, even by Air Force standards?"

"If you say so, sir. We have canneroni, vermicelli, cavatappi, garganelli, capellini, and of course, pappardelle, or if you're in the mood for Chinese, soba." He paused and waited patiently for the Colonel's decision.

"But we're talking about noodles here, right?" Jack stared at the steam table brimming with helixes and spirals, strands and tubes, wide ribbons and filaments fine enough to be the tresses of an angel. "Shouldn't there at least be something to put on it? Sauce or something?"

"I couldn't say, sir."

"Bacon and eggs?" Jack glanced over his shoulder. Maybe the security camera had been replaced with the 'Candid' variety. "If you haven't got bacon, I'll settle for sausage – links, not patties. I have my standards."

"Just noodles, sir?" The man never blinked – never cracked a smile revealing this as some elaborate, stupid practical joke. If he found out Teal'c was playing with Daniel's camcorder again, so help him God, there was going to be hell to pay. It had taken months to live down the humiliation of the little home movie the big guy had shared as his contribution to the entertainment at last year's Christmas party.

"We have some really good lasagna I'm sure you'd enjoy."

"Where's the beef?" Jack cringed at the cliché. "And cheese – how the hell can you call it lasagna without mozzarella, never mind the ricotta?" His mouth watered as he visualized the Italian masterpiece, befitting Michelangelo, which sprung from the kitchen of his Irish grandmother. Just the lust-filled thought of her deep dish lasagna was enough to drive him to the shuddering brink of an orgasm of the pallet, which was rather alarming in and of itself, if you thought about it. "No garlic?" he whimpered; before regaining enough control and self-respect to snap, "Just give me the damn noodles."

"Which ones, sir?" The man was patience epitomized, or a freakin' broken record. Personally, Jack was leaning towards the latter. "We have canneroni, vermicelli, cavatappi, . . ."

"Those curly things," Jack pointed frantically. "Just give some of those."

Snagging a cup of coffee, Jack carried his noodle-laden tray towards his favorite table. "Morning, Jack."

"Morning, Siler." Jack mumbled as he walked past the table where the sergeant sat with his wrench, enjoying a tall stack of pancakes. Normally an observant man, he was distracted enough by his cannelloni-stuffed thoughts to nearly miss the obvious. He turned back just in time to see Siler wrap his thin lips around an enormous forkful of flapjacks. He watched in rapped fascination as the man's tongue snaked out, cleansing his lips of golden beads of syrup. "Pancakes?" His mouth watered. His stomach growled in envious idioms just before Jack blinked. "Siler, did you just call me Jack?"

"Jack, come and join me." The oily voice rose above the normal clatter of forks on serving trays, as out of place as arugala in a bowl of iceberg.

Jack whipped around, a white-knuckled grip on his tray, Siler's familiarity - and the breakfast of pseudo-champions - usurped in favor of a new source of clear and present danger more menacing than pancakes and maple syrup. He ignored his traitorous stomach's rumble. "Harry?"

"Very good, Jack. I see a few gray hairs aren't indicative of the onset of dementia. Sit down and relax."

"How the hell did you get in here, Maybourne? Or an even better question is when are you leaving?"

Amusement lit Harry's face as he snorted. "I heard rumors you served a good breakfast here and decided I'd check it out for myself." Slathering an asiago bagel with cream cheese, he chewed with rapt enjoyment, easily ignoring the questions as well as the drool beading at the corner of Jack's mouth as his gaze wavered between this interloper and his heaping plate of cheesy scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, with the side of covered and smothered hashbrowns.

"Geesh, can you spell cholesterol?" Somehow Harry managed a convincingly blasé look around his bagel.

Jack scanned the room, checking to see if anyone else was the least bit concerned – surprised – interested in the presence of a known slimeball in their midst. A lone airman, leaning casually against the wall seemed to be the only one paying attention. The man looked vaguely familiar, but Jack couldn't put a name to the face.

"Are you just going to stand there doing your imitation of cannon fodder?" Harry smirked.

"Can it, Maybourne. I prefer not to shoot anybody before I've had my morning coffee, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception. Jack's eyes narrowed as he resisted the urge to rub the back of his neck where the hair stood at attention. "Harry, what's going on?"

Maybourne smiled and nibbled daintily on a piece of bacon. "Eat your noodles, Jack."

* * * * *

Jack recognized team leader meetings for what they were – necessary evils. Perhaps not evil in the same league as So'kar or any one of numerous other snakeheads, but more on the annoying side of evil. Evil in the 'this is gonna feel so freakin' good once it quits hurting' kind of way. Evil in the 'my kids are better than your kids' pissing contest that was sure to start as soon as Hammond pulled the boss dogs into the same kennel. In fact, Jack felt his hackles rise just thinking about Makepeace or Castleman bragging as if their kids had just used the can for the first time instead of depositing a load in their diapers. Honestly, it was sickening the way those guys boasted, wearing the accomplishments of their team members like vicarious medals of honor.

Scowl carefully neutralized, Jack took a deep breath and stepped into the briefing room. Nodding a universal greeting, he headed straight for the coffee pot, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction when he managed to snag the last cup.

"Morning, Jack." Ron Castleman took a casual sip from his cup, grimaced and stirred in another package of sweetener. "So what's new?"

"Castleman," Jack nodded, cautiously sipping his own brew. He allowed an appropriately modest time to pass. "Actually it's been a pretty quiet week. Daniel discovered the meaning of life, Carter managed to save the planet again – he paused gauging Castleman's reaction before pulling out his ace in the hole – " oh, and Teal'c bench pressed 875."

That did it. The man gave a low whistle. "Wow, 875? That's impressive."

Jack took his seat smugly, his shoulders squared, listening to murmurs of 890 and 902 around the table. Yeah, chalk one up for the home team. "He can probably do better. He was having an off day. Junior had a cold." He shrugged modestly, leaned back and sipped his coffee, enjoying the muttered awe winding his way around the table. He could always count on his kids.

Small talk dried up, along with Jack's self-satisfaction as Hammond stepped into the room and headed for the coffeepot. "Which one of you gentlemen, and I'm using the term loosely at the moment, emptied the pot and didn't start another?"

The weight of condemnation sold him out as all eyes pointed towards the perpetrator. Damn traitors, giving up one of their own to the man. Swallowing a bitter mouthful of grounds and gall, Jack casually pushed back his chair. "I'll be happy to start a fresh pot, General."

"Thank you, Colonel," Hammond nodded, his strawberry blond curls bouncing. "That would be appreciated. By the way I heard a rumor Teal'c pressed 912. That's impressive. Congratulations."

"920, sir." Jack corrected, modestly tilting his head as he accepted his due and struggled not to stare at the wig-encrusted pate of his follicly challenged commander. "But I'm not one to brag about the accomplishments of my team."

"Of course not," Hammond beamed like a doddering uncle as he gave his curls a loving pat.

Jack risked a quick glance around the room. Was he the only one who noticed the General's new locks? Nah, couldn't be. But even Makepeace, who was known to be one of the worst poker players in the SGC watched deadpan as Hammond coiled a curl around his finger, pulling the entire mass askew.

What the hell? Jack was torn between an overwhelming desire to wake up and discover this was a bizarre dream and the need to chortle aloud. His hand inched upward, running his fingers reassuringly through his own spiky mane.

"Care to share what seems to be amusing you, Colonel?" Any seed of humor dried up at the censured warning in Hammond's voice. " - before you get busy with that pot of coffee."

"No, sir, I mean yes, sir" Jack stammered quickly, rubbing his finger along his nose as he calculated the risk of making eye contact with the General. The finger wound tighter in synthetic tresses and Jack's jaws ached beneath the pressure as he ground his teeth beneath the tension of the inevitable.

And still he seemed to be the only one who found something unusual in the General's behavior, not to mention his appearance. "Ah, sir," he hesitated at an uncharacteristic loss for something to say as the wig crept another inch upward.

At that moment the elastic reached maximum give and the wig yielded to the unavoidable. It snapped off Hammond's dome in a graceful arch,
tap-danced in Shirley Temple fashion down the length of the briefing table and lay like road kill in front of Castleman. The man never blinked. Ignoring his AWOL toupee, Hammond leveled a steely glare in Jack's direction. "Colonel O'Neill, the coffee?"

"Would you like cream or sugar, sir?"

* * * * *

Jack's nostrils flared, alerting him to the presence of the thick bank of nicotine-laden fog long before he spotted the glowing red-eye perched between the lips of SG-1's resident archaeologist. Instincts born of a former smoker kicked in before his brain engaged and Jack inhaled deeply, propagating a lengthy coughing session from his outraged lungs.

"Daniel, what are you doing?" Vaguely Jack recognized the rhetorical nature of the question, but it seemed his brain was incapable of doing two things at once and posing a sensible inquiry while hacking out a lung appeared to be beyond him at the moment. So rhetoric it was.

"Smoking," Daniel's voice floated through the cloud.

"I can see that," Jack snapped, as he waved his hand back and forth, creating dancing cancerous ghosts as he tried to clear his line of vision. He was grinding his teeth again. He could practically hear the dentist ordering crowns to repair the damage today's events were causing. "Let me rephrase my question. What in the _hell_ are you doing?"

Daniel blinked in myopic nonchalance as he pursed his lips and answered with two billowing puffs - the Native American smoke signal for 'all is well.'

Rubbing his hand over his burning eyes, Jack shook his head, ordering himself to wake up from this asinine dream. "Okay, I'm going to start again." Overwhelming weariness was evident in his voice. "Would you just tell me what's going on?"

Daniel stared at him with concern. "Jack, are you alright? You don't look too good."

"Actually, no." He picked up a heavy book from the desk and leafed through it. Nearly as unsettling as Daniel's sudden nicotine habit was the fact he hadn't immediately plucked his precious tome from Jack's hands, protecting it from the restless fingering. "Do you know the symptoms of a nervous breakdown?" Dark eyes widened in disbelief as Daniel casually tapped the cigarette against the lip of an elaborately decorated pot. "Are you using that . . . that vase thingie as an ashtray? Isn't that sort of un-Jackson-like to desecrate an objet d'art?

Daniel looked at him smugly. "It's an ancient Roman crematory urn and well, you know - when in Rome."

"This is the same man who refused to allow us to use the communal village urinals on our last mission because he had dubbed them artifacts?"

Daniel shrugged with noncommittal indifference. "There's a difference between knowing your own ash and having a pot to pee in."

Jack tossed him a look of disgust. "Daniel, at the risk of being perceived as dense for perhaps the first time in my life, I'm going to state the obvious. You don't smoke."

Daniel beamed with scholarly pride as if at a student who has successfully untangled a complex equation. "I do now and don't give me that clichéd drivel about it being bad for your health because you smoked."

"I quit," Jack growled. "And I don't do clichés, so don't change the subject. We were talking about you."

"You still have cigarettes. I've seen them, hidden away behind the Jamaican Blue Mountain dark roast you keep in your top cabinet. Not only do you keep a hidden pack of Camels, Jack, but you are a closet specialty coffee drinker." The accusation wafted between them, teasing the tendrils of smoke.

His eyes widened, Jack shook his head in vehement denial, unnerved by the blatant breech of the 'don't ask-don't tell' policy. "That's just not true, Daniel. I bought that coffee for a friend. Besides, I only smoke after intercourse, which explains the overabundance of funds in my nicotine budget and I don't have any of that gourmet crap you drink in my house. This whole conversation is just wrong."

The headache forming behind his eyes had nothing to do with a nicotine overdose. In a desperate attempt to change the subject, Jack went on the defense and blurted, "You're supposed to be sick? Carter said you were still in the Infirmary with that parasite in your gut and I find you in your office playing Puff the Magic Dragon. What's wrong with this picture?"

"Jack, not that this isn't loads of fun, but was there something you wanted because I'm pretty busy here?"

"No. I just . . . Daniel, something is -" Jack cringed at the weary acceptance in his voice. "Just no." Becoming paranoid was a common side effect when you were in Special Ops – it went hand in hand, like erectile dysfunction from those pills they were constantly pushing during T.V. commercials. But the feeling of being watched - that something was off – it was driving him nuts. He never had put any faith in coincidence and too many weird things were piling up. Math had never been his strong point, but he kept adding two and two and getting one fucked up mess.

* * * * *

"Colonel, you're perfectly normal. Other than slightly elevated blood pressure and pulse rate which can be taken into account by the way you charged in here like your pants were on fire." Janet's nose wrinkled as she sniffed, "Which would explain why you smell like you just spent the evening at the Fireman's Ball. When did you start smoking again?" She glared at him, bridging the years and carried him effortlessly back to Sister Mary Frances, a tyrant of a woman with a heart and will too big to be trapped within her tiny frame.

"It isn't me, Doc. Honest," Jack reiterated petulantly at her look of Hippocratic disbelief. "But don't even ask, because you so wouldn't believe it if I told you." He shifted forward, ready to slide off the table, eager to escape. He felt foolish for voluntarily having come in for a checkup. That in itself was proof positive he was as wacked as the rest of the base. Fraiser was like a hound on a scent and to have willingly allowed himself to become the fox was the highest order of stupidity. Damage control mandated escape, or at the minimum throwing her off the trail. "Well, I need to run. Paperwork's calling. It's been nice talking, Doc. Tell Cassie I got the tickets to the Avalanche game."

A small hand against his chest sealed his escape and fate. "Hold on a minute, Colonel. Before you go, I'd like to make sure you're not experiencing some sort of a stress induced flashback."

"Trust me, I'm not. Stress yes - hell, yes - flashback, no." He glowered; the non-verbal threat intended to mildly intimidate her in to backing off. The frown deepened when it had the expected results and the doctor stood her ground. "Seriously, Doc. That much I know. Been there, had the PTS to prove it." He gave her a winning smile.

"Post trauma syndrome is nothing to joke about, Colonel."

The grin faded and Jack sighed deeply. "Yeah, I know," he admitted softly, "but trust me, this isn't it."

"Oh, I do trust you, sir, except when you're so obviously lying to me." Janet softened the reprimand with a smile warm with concern.

"I'm not -"

She held up a placating hand, forestalling his protest. "I know, sir. And I agree it's not PTS." Jack relaxed, allowing a cautious sigh to escape. "But something is causing these – ah abnormalities."

"Forget it, Doc. There had to be a perfectly normal explanation."

"For noodles, sir? I had French Toast. Captain Carter had –"

"Okay, I get the point," Jack snapped.

"And the General's new hairdo, not to mention Daniel's new nicotine fixation."

"I said I got it." Jack's frown deepened. "Wait a minute. How'd you know about Daniel? I didn't mention – "

Janet's eyes narrowed slightly as she interrupted. "Not that this hasn't been entertaining, Colonel, but it's time to get serious." Before Jack could wrap his beleaguered thoughts around her choice of words, she continued. "I would like to ask you something, not only as your physician, but as your friend." She continued as he gave a wary nod. "Do you think - could it be - that the make-up of your team might be responsible for your, ah, . . . stress related episodes?"

It suddenly felt as if the entire mountain was awaiting his response. "What exactly are you saying?"

"I'm sorry, Colonel, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I have a duty to look at any potential cause that could have an effect on the health of my patients." She hesitated and took a deep breath before releasing it slowly. "A duty, sir - even when the cause could involve people whom I admire and consider friends."

Jaw clinched, Jack jumped from the table, forcing her to take a step back. "You're out of line, Captain."

Few people dared challenge an angry Jack O'Neill. Janet Fraiser not only dared, but fueled the fire when she crossed her arms and cautiously backed the tiger into a corner. "I'm not suggesting SG-1 disband, but think about it sir, you admit you're under constant pressure and now it's affecting your performance."

"My performance is just fine."

"What is it that makes SG-1 so loyal to each other when the result of that loyalty is unimaginable stress? In the past two years each member of your team has brought extraordinary strain into your life. Anxiety has a nasty tendency to add up and take its toll. Think about it, sir - Daniel's addiction to the sarcophagus, Captain Carter taken as a host to Jolinar, Teal'c's abduction by Thor's Hammer, not to mention the Cor-ai."

"That's enough.

"I could go on. It certainly isn't one sided. You've caused your own share of problems for your team. Take the incident in Antarctica. Logically it made no sense for Daniel and Teal'c to press on with a search that had no hope of success."

"But they found us –"

Janet ignored the stammered rebuttal. "What about Teal'c refusing to leave your side when you were pinned to the wall? Why would he do that? He's an alien, first prime to -"

"He's my friend!"

"Well forgive me, sir, but it appears friendship is the anchor which is now threatening to pull you and your team under."

"No. It's not."

"But, sir, if –"

"If nothing - I said, that's enough. That's an order, Captain. I don't know what you're getting at, but if I'm finally cracking under the stress, as you seem to think –"

Janet shook her head. "I didn't say that –"

"It's my team that's kept me from losing it all together." He pushed passed her. As he reached the curtains, he stopped. His back to her, tension radiating throughout his posture, he said wearily, "You really want to know what's causing my stress?"

"Yes, sir," Janet said quietly, her former aggressive demeanor eerily subdued.

"One thing. The same damn thing over and over. Saving your ass - yours and every other person on this planet. It's called doing my job and my team is what makes it possible."

* * * * *

Jack stifled a groan as the doorbell rang. In theory he was watching a National Geographic Special on white water rafting down the Animas. It was a hopeless cause. The Animas, the River of Lost Souls, caught him in its current and dragged him helplessly into a tangled drift of confusion. What was going on? Who was involved? How high up did this mess go, because he was feeling so far over his head already?

The doorbell rang, tossing Jack a lifejacket and rescuing him from the thoughts threatening to take him under for the third time. He pried himself off the couch and cautiously opened the door. Sheriff Andy Coleson's wide, easy smile greeted him. "About time, Jack. Thought maybe you'd forgotten what day it is and I'd interrupted you in the middle of somebody."

Jack took a step back as he stared at the man holding a big deli tray from the local grocery. "Andy," he greeted with neutral caution. He scanned the scenery beyond the man, but could detect nothing amiss. Still he couldn't escape the feeling there was another shoe just waiting to drop - most likely on his head.

"Jack – what the hell's the matter with you, you look like crap? You start on the beer early, or something?" He held up the lunchmeat. "Let's get set up. The other guys will be here any minute now."

"For the poker game?" Jack shook his head, unable to shake the feeling that he was playing Russian Roulette blindfolded with a fully loaded weapon, and someone else's finger was squeezing the trigger. But instead of a gun, Andy gave him another relaxed smile, handed him the tray and pushed easily passed him. He stopped and gave Jack a quirky grin.

"No, Dipshit, for the Tupperware Party. Bill is going to show us how to color coordinate our cabinets. Come on, Jack, wake up. It's Monday night. Football and poker - the finer things in life."

"But I thought," Jack began. He shook his head and stepped back. "Never mind. Come on in."

Andy walked into the house with the confidence of someone who knew their way around, which of course he did since he rarely missed Jack 's Monday night poker games. "National Geographic? Come on, Jack, your roots are showing."

"I'll get the card table," Jack mumbled as he set the tray on the counter, choosing to ignore the good-natured jibe.

"Good. I'll go set up the chow." The faint sound of doors slamming shut alerted them. "Sounds like the rest of the guys came together," Andy answered as he began rummaging through the refrigerator. He set an armload of condiments on the counter. "You have any more of that guacamole?"

"In the back – bottom shelf, I think – get the door, I'll find it," Jack shot an order towards the butt sticking out of his fridge.

Andy stood up, grinned, and tossed a jar of kosher dills in Jack's direction. "Yes, sir."

Catching the pickles, Jack reached in and snagged the guac. Ignoring the expiration date, he pried off the lid and gave a quick sniff test. "Good enough." Jack dropped it on the counter. He could hear the sound of genial jesting punctuated with laughter as Andy welcomed the others. Okay, poker game - beer, betting and bullshit. He could do this. Relax a little and hopefully all of today's wrinkles would iron themselves out and start making sense. And if not, well, he'd cross that bridge.

"Jack, get off your knees and get in here. No amount of praying is gonna save your sorry ass tonight. I feel lucky."

"Come on Coleson, everybody knows the last time you got lucky was on your wedding night."

"You been talking to my wife?"

In the kitchen, Jack allowed a tiny bit of tension to bleed away. Everything sounded normal – no noodles, no wigs, no smoking, no unwanted questions from Doc. He heard someone flip on the game. "Jack, get in here. Let's get started while Andy's still delusional."

"Yeah, I'm coming. Keep your shorts on," Jack yelled as he wrapped his fingers around the necks of a half dozen Budweisers. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, allowing the slipknot of worry, threatening to strangle him, loosen.

"It's about time, Jack. Get over here and empty your wallet."

"In your dreams, Coleson." Good natured laughter filled the room as the man relieved Jack of the beer.

The front door opened and another man walked in without bothering to knock. "Sorry I'm late, gentlemen. Hope you haven't started without me." He tossed a couple bags of chips on the counter. "Got one of those with my name on it, Colonel?"

Jack stared at the newcomer. The slipknot had suddenly formed a hangman's noose around his throat. "MacKenzie?"

"It's a good thing this isn't a professional visit, Colonel. The price of house calls is absorbent. Based on the look on your face, I'd probably have to charge you double. Tonight, I have better uses for your money." Andy chortled loudly as he peeled the cellophane off a fresh deck of cards. "Now, about that beer?"

Jack stood there dumbfounded as the man walked confidently to the card table and sat down, swapping good-natured digs with the others as though he had done it many times. Tracking the interloper's progress, unwilling to allow the wolf access to his back, Jack searched for answers to questions he was afraid to vocalize. Finally, he locked onto one appearing to be safe, at least on surface-level. "MacKenzie, what are you doing here?"

Uncomfortable silence replaced easy laughter around the table. Andy leaned back and nudged Jack with his elbow. "Come on Jack, relax. Stephen's here every week, just like the rest of us. What's wrong with you tonight?"

"Nothing. Not one damn thing. He just doesn't belong here, that's all."

"That's for damn sure. The sneaky bastard nailed me for fifty bucks last week." Doctor MacKenzie joined in the round of easy laughter, giving a triumphant little bow in acknowledgment of the truth of Andy's statement. "Sit down, Jack, and quit stalling. I told you, I feel lucky today."

Jack could feel all eyes on him, watching and waiting. He searched each face, but could detect nothing amiss, which did little to alleviate the ripples of tension emanating from the epicenter in his gut. MacKenzie caught his eye and gave him a disarming smile. He seemed confident and completely at ease with the predictability of Jack's actions. "I believe it's your deal, Colonel."

Andy pushed out the empty chair with his foot and gestured towards it. "Come on, Jack. Relax. Everything's okay. Has there ever been a time you couldn't trust me?"

Slowly, Jack eased himself in the chair and picked up the deck of cards, keeping his eyes locked on the psychiatrist sitting opposite him as he shuffled them automatically and passed them to Andy for the cut. "Ante up, boys. Deuces wild, the front door is open and the dealer's the nut buster." Genial laughter galloped around the table, rounding up the concerned strays caused by Jack's outburst as he dealt the first hand.

On the surface, had anyone been observing, it would have appeared to be a typical evening poker game. Jack's instincts were screaming warnings. Despite appearances, he was trapped in a situation that was anything but typical. However, he had little choice, but to play along. His beer sat warm - forsaken and untouched. Despite his pre-game boastings, Andy was down. A universal groan echoed 'round the table as Miami slipped by Denver's defense and scored. Paper plates, half-eaten sandwiches and empty bottles littered the table, competing for space with the chips – both poker and potato variety. Typical – perfectly normal - and yet Jack couldn't relax. Not with MacKenzie observing him, watching his every move as if O'Neill was the center-ring attraction at the flea circus and the doctor was eager to scratch an invisible itch left behind by his performance. But for the life of him, Jack couldn't get a clear handle on which of them was performing.

Jack was staring at an ace high flush when MacKenzie casually leaned back, stretched and tossed in his hand. "Don't you ever wonder what would have happened if things had been different - if you had left Daniel Jackson on Abydos?"

The flush was forgotten as Jack stared across the poker chip battlefield at MacKenzie. "What?"

"You heard me, Colonel." MacKenzie sat back, relaxed and confident; apparently completely at ease with breaching security in front of non-SGC personnel. "Hasn't that thought ever crossed your mind? Your life would certainly be different."

Jack's mind was racing on black ice as thoughts slipped from one plan of action to another – slid between potential aid and further compromise. The others sat quietly, the game forgotten in lieu of one with higher stakes. Even Andy had silenced his perpetual banter and seemed to be waiting for Jack to respond. Well, it was obviously time to take the plunge and go for a little swim in Denial. "I have no idea what you're talking about, MacKenzie."

"Of course you do." MacKenzie's eyed him as a mongoose would a cobra, mentally feigning – circling – before lunging for another attack. "If you'd come back through the stargate and left Doctor Jackson wouldn't your life have been simpler?"

"What about Hathor?" Andy piped in and suddenly Jack found himself against the wall, blindfolded and dodging a firing squad of friendly fire.

"Never heard of her?"

"What if there hadn't been a sarcophagus available? What would you have done as one of her Jaffa? Would you have taken out Captain Carter to protect your queen?" Jack felt sick as the carcasses of rotting thoughts were ripped from the graves in which he'd carefully buried them and flung in his direction.

Another voice fired an accusation. "Speaking of Captain Carter - her father aside - haven't you wondered whose ass she had to kiss to land a place on your team? Makes you wonder where her true loyalties lie, doesn't it? Pentagon favors have a way of being called in at the most inconvenient times."

"That's true. While we're discussing your team, don't you sometimes feel that Teal'c simply transferred his loyalty from Apophis to you?" Is his loyalty towards Earth, or towards you as a person? Surely you've doubted the wisdom of handing over access of our most classified defense plans to an alien, not to mention the whole ramification of having a civilian such as Daniel Jackson on a front line team."

The table rocked and the bottle toppled, vomiting a hop-filled tide, as Jack jumped to his feet. "Get out!"

The others stood, clustering around the table, ignoring the mess. MacKenzie still wore the insipid smile. "But Colonel –," he held up a placating hand.

"I said get out of my house. All of you."

Andy looked towards MacKenzie who shook his head calmly. "That's fine, Colonel. You relax. We're leaving for now." The other men followed his lead and without even stopping to collect their money from the soggy pot, they turned and followed MacKenzie to the door.

Jack stared at it rigidly, feeling nauseous and emotionally battered, when an unexpected wave of dizziness drove him to his knees.

In a ridiculously oblivious gesture towards normality, a cheer erupted as Denver rallied. Slowly, Jack risked opening one eye. He felt as if all two hundred ninety-five pounds of Bronco's player, Cooper Carlisle had just used him as the tackling dummy. He watched with morbid fascination as his toppled beer bottle performed perfect aerodynamic barrel roles.

Swallowing hard, Jack rode out the air show until the bottle made a perfect one point landing between a jar of salsa and a White Owl propped on a makeshift ashtray, smoke drifting lazily from its tip amid the clutter. Cautiously releasing his death grip on the floor, Jack reached up and managed to snag the edge of the table. Thank God, everything else on the table appeared to be grounded. Determining the gain outweighed the risk, Jack set his jaw and opened the other eye. He felt the entire table drop away like the crest of a rollercoaster, but he managed to clutch white-knuckled and hang on until the world righted itself and he was able to struggle to his feet.

He stood there, his head drooping as thoughts, buffeted by the day's events, performed graceful loop-t-loops in his mind. Maybe Doc was right. He had lost it - the twig had snapped - the bubble burst - the cookie crumbled – hell, maybe his id had finally left him an idiot. There were those who thought that had happened years ago, but this whole thing was seriously beginning to freak him out.

When was the last time things had been normal, well okay, as normal as his life ever got? It was hard to concentrate when his head had apparently decided to take up the steel drums while his stomach danced the reggae: Hammond wigging out, Daniel making an ash of himself, Harry and the Magical Mystery Tour, Carter usurping the coveted parking space. Okay, maybe that one fell in the range of normal. Carter was always beating his ass - competitively speaking. And then there was the attack of flower power yesterday morning reminding him of a bad vacation or two he'd experienced in the 70's. Day tripper, yeah.

He was staring at the label on the downed beer, ignoring the way his vision insisted on doing laps as it swam in and out of focus, when the entire plane shifted. With a suddenness that nearly drove him to his knees again, Jack found that he was no longer in his den with the comforting background noise of Denver whipping the Dolphin's ass. He was in a small room, a lab of some kind. More disturbing was the fact that Andy, Sheriff Andy Coleson, poker buddy – fishing partner - friend – the man who had bailed him out of more than one jam, was standing near the door engrossed in conversation by the door with MacKenzie.

"Do you think he's suspicious?"

"Confused and no doubt thinking he's having some sort of a break down." Both men laughed. "The first few episodes he experienced were excellent tests of the technology."

"Not to mention an outstanding way to get a feel for how O'Neill would react to the stimulus. Let me know if you need me again," Andy chortled. "It's been interesting finding out what makes SG-1 tick and a hell of a lot of fun planning the scenarios that would mess with his mind. I'm still laughing about his reaction to Hammond and the wig."

"I doubt the good Colonel would appreciate the irony of becoming a test subject in a piece of alien technology his own team brought home." Andy laughed again.

"Who would have thought the Gamekeeper's apparatus could be used to unlock the secret of SG-1's loyalty? At least that's what Maybourne hopes to find out. If O'Neill will cooperate and give me something to work with, maybe we can let him go home. I'm not all that keen on working for an organization that stoops to kidnapping."

"Just keep telling yourself the end justifies the means. It's how I sleep at night. I need to get back to my lab. I'm running experiments on the cube SG-4 brought back from PX8-675. Colonel Maybourne and the Muckity-mucks want the results ASAP. Someone let it leak that the cube had the potential to become the new 'doom's day' weapon. And if you don't think that rumor didn't give the Brass an erection -"

MacKenzie shook his head and gave a mirthless snort. "The end of life as we know it, courtesy of your friendly personnel here at Nellis."

Andy shook his head. "Yeah, makes you proud, doesn't it? It's not exactly the kind of thing I thought I'd be doing when I signed up."

"Yeah well – You better keep those thoughts to yourself. The walls have ears."

"Don't I know it. I helped plant 'em. Have fun with O'Neill."

"Oh don't worry, I have some interesting sessions planned for the Colonel, but I may let him take the lead for a while and see which direction he chooses. After that, if I don't get anything, we may take a walk down memory lane and see how a few classified missions made O'Neill into the man he is today." Jack watched as the scene blinked in and out like poorly spliced film. Andy chuckled, shook his head and left the room, leaving him with MacKenzie, who he personally planned on killing at first opportunity.

Jack's vision gave yet another sickening lurch eliciting a low groan. MacKenzie disappeared, replaced by the image of a stranger. Only it wasn't a stranger. It took Jack's looping thoughts a few seconds to land and determine when and where he had seen the man before – not wearing his current lab coat, but jogging shoes. It was the runner who’d watched him from the street while he planted the flower bulbs. He'd been there when all this insanity had begun. Jack shook his head, fighting to untangle the threads of information.

"Sorry Colonel, it's not time for your wake-up call yet. Let me fix you right up."

"Why?"

Even to Jack the question came out more as a thick groan, but apparently the man understood because he gave a resigned smile. "Because I have my orders and until I have a good reason not to, I'll follow them. Good night, Colonel." Jack opened his mouth to vocalize a protest. Out the corner of his eye he saw the man straightening a kink out of a tube. As he turned a knob, the room faded away.

* * * * *

"Sir, I need your signature."

Jack stared in confusion at the young airman who was watching him with all the vigilance due a senior officer - or a timber rattler - especially when said senior officer was acting as if he were the one who was more than a little rattled - which he was. Rattled by the fact that he'd suddenly found himself inside a top security facility and even more so because he had no idea how he'd gotten here.

"Your signature, Colonel O'Neill?"

Slowly, bits and pieces of the conversation he had overheard fit together to make one majorly ugly picture. "Get on the horn and pull my team together. Tell them I'll meet them out on Abbot Lane at –" he looked at his watch – "2200 hours. Tell them to look for my truck. They'll figure it out." Jack tossed the clipboard towards the airman. "Get moving, Sergeant. Those are orders, by the way, and I wanted them carried out yesterday. I'll personally take out anyone who screws them up." He spun and strode purposefully towards the exit. If they want to find out what makes SG-1 tick, then let the games begin.

* * * * *

"The Pikes Peak Regional Humane Society?" Daniel resisted an urge to clean his glasses in disbelief. Instead he stared at Jack, who was focusing on the handsomely rugged, surprisingly modern, facility nestled against its mountain backdrop. "This is some kind of a joke. You called me away from translating the summit to meet you at the . . . the pound."

Jack's smile collapsed. "Humane Society," he corrected. "And I said it was important."

Teal'c stared past the split log entrance to the neatly maintained fenced areas in the side and rear of the main building. "What is the purpose of this establishment?"

"It a place organized to provide care for animals until a home can be found for them," Sam answered. "I went to the local animal shelter when I adopted Schroedinger."

Jack looked over in surprise. "Good for you, Captain."

"You still haven't explained what we're doing here."

"Consider it a field trip, Daniel. All work and no play make an archaeologist a dull boy."

"Jack –"

There was no hint of teasing in Jack's dark eyes. "Just trust me, Daniel."

Daniel expelled a pent up sigh, tipped his head in acquiescence and shrugged. "I can do that."

"And kids, keep your eyes open for anyone who doesn't belong here."

"That would be us," Daniel muttered. He trotted faster to catch up with the others as Jack opened the front door with a flourish.

Windows ran from floor to cathedral ceiling, allowing Nature to provide her own décor. Striding confidently across the large lobby, Jack ignored the scenery, focusing instead on a young woman sitting behind a rustic, rough-hewn counter. She wore a t-shirt emblazed with the words, 'By loving and understanding animals, we humans shall come to understand each other.'* "Colonel Jack, we haven't seen you in a while. Brought some friends, huh?" She set aside the latest Jodi Picoult novel and gave them all a friendly grin. "Well, go on back. You know the way. I'm on desk duty so you’re on your own. I’m betting you'll manage though."

"Ya think?" Jack's taut smile relaxed into a genuine grin as he nodded his thanks and led his way through the double doors. "Thanks, Jess. There was an air of tension, which the wafting smell of caged animals only accentuated. He wasn't sure who he was looking for, or what he was going to do if and when he spotted the interloper. Talk about shooting blind.

He glanced back at his team. It was a pretty sure bet each of them were clean. If what he'd overheard was correct, Maybourne and the other asswipes at Area 51 wanted to know what made SG-1 tick. If that was the case they weren't likely to screw around with the members of the team. What he was looking for was someone else – a peripheral player – someone on the fringe who belonged, but whose actions were slightly off. Damn, it wasn't much to go on, but at least he was playing on his turf, by his rules.

Rapidly, Jack moved down a wide tiled hallway, stopping occasionally to open a door and stick his head inside before moving on. "Colonel, may I ask what you're searching for?"

"Who, Carter. Who, I'm looking for. Don't worry, I'm banking they'll find us."

Daniel gave an uninhibited sniff as he eyed the cat cages with distain while he fanned the invisible dander attacking his sinuses. "Jack, is this supposed to make sense, because if it is, I'm not getting it."

"I have to admit, sir, I'm a little confused, too." Sam stuck a finger in a wire cage, tickling the ear of a striped tabby.

"Patience, kids. It's one of those virtues, which supposedly pays off. Let's hope it does." Jack turned into a large room filled with rows of cages of different sizes. The chorus of barking left little doubt as to the occupants of the enclosures. Several people wandered through the rows, individually or in small clusters. A father held tightly to the hand of a small boy whose entire face was lit with anticipation as he chattered, with obvious animation, to the dogs that pressed against the wire, their wildly wagging tails proclaiming the child's excitement was mutual in both human and canine species. It was clear a common language was not necessary to promote communication. Jack grinned and dismissed the child. Moving slowly down the rows, Jack focused his attention on the human occupants. Thus far, no one had given the team more than a cursory glance.

"I see no point in maintaining an animal so ill-equipped to aid in battle." Teal'c stopped, staring impassively at the tiny terrier yapping at them.

"Actually Teal'c, it's rather interesting. Mafdet, was one of the earliest of the Egyptian cat goddesses, but the association between man and dog can be traced back to pre-historic man. It's hard to believe a small specimen such as this could be associated with -" Daniel waggled his fingers trying to get the attention of the petite animal. His mouth snapping shut in mid-lecture as he stumbled back a step, when the dog sprang effortlessly into the air, making direct eye contact as it yelped a loud challenge.

"I stand corrected, Daniel Jackson." There was a glint of amusement in Teal'c's eyes. "This animal has the heart of a warrior and has proven its worth. Is it not possible to free it?"

"Is that such a good idea?" Daniel stammered, still cautiously eying the wildly leaping dog.

"Don't worry, Teal'c. I have a feeling that won't be a problem for long." Jack grinned as the child they had seen earlier broke away from his father and knelt in front of the fence, his chubby fingers stretching through the wire to touch the sleek ears and shining coat. Wild giggles erupted as the dog reciprocated and licked the tip of the boy's fingers.

A friendly voice, shouting to be heard above the barking, interrupted the scene. "Hey, Jack. It's been a while."

Jack's eyes narrowed as he studied the portly man wearing a coverall and clutching a broom and long-handled metal dust pan. "Leo." He nodded an abbreviated greeting. "Brought my team for a look see."

"Good idea," the man nodded, shifting his bulk to lean on the broom handle. "Guess there're no hard and fast rules when it comes to the best place for team bonding." He eyed the team with open curiosity.

"That's the truth," Jack agreed neutrally. "Later, Leo."

"Yeah, good to see you, Colonel."

Jack, whistled softly as he moved easily down the corridor, leading the others to an area with larger fenced-in areas, obviously built to accommodate the bigger dogs. He could feel Leo's gaze follow them. 'Bingo was his name – oh.' It was somewhat quieter here. "These guys are more mature," Jack explained, as he stopped to make friends with a large German Shepherd.

"He looks pretty old." Sam observed as she looked at the gray speckles along the dog's muzzle.

"We prefer the term mature, Carter. Don't we, boy?"

Sam grinned at Jack's ersatz-offended tone and the quick alliance he had formed. "If you say so, sir."

"The one you called Leo appears to have followed us, O'Neill," Teal'c interrupted softly.

"I was expecting him." Jack shot a quick glance towards Leo assuring himself the man was indeed close enough to eavesdrop on their conversation. "We have an NID spook with a pooper scooper in hand, which is so appropriate it's downright scary. He's about to get one whopper of a pile to clean up. Just ignore him and play along." Jack's long fingers reached through the wire, gently scratching the dog's ears. He smiled at the soft whine. "You're just glad to have someone pay attention to you, aren't you fella? Well, you play your part right and I'll see what I can do to find you a nice home that serves hot and cold running kibble." A long pink tongue wrapped around the tip of his fingers. "Dogs are my favorite people. Did I ever tell you that, Carter?" His voice was raised, carrying easily over the distant barking.

"Yes, sir," Sam hesitated. "I've heard you say that before."

"I have too, Jack, but you've never explained why."

Jack grinned. Leave it to Daniel to feed him leads like a pro. The boy was good. His team knew only the basics of what was going on and yet they had unquestioningly climbed up and joined him in the ring. "I'm glad you asked, Danny Boy. Dogs are fur-covered, tail-wagging encapsulated personalities. Take General Hammond, for example, he's a sheepdog, minus the hair." Jack grinned at the vision of a wig skidding across the briefing table. 'Enough irony,' my ass. How's that for an allegory? Hope you're keeping track, Leo or MacKenzie, or whoever you are, because you ain't seen nothing yet. "The sheepdog may fool you with the endearing, affectionate exterior, but beneath all that hair beats the heart of a fighter. He knows his duty and his first and foremost thought is protecting his flock. He'll do whatever it takes to defend them."

Sam laughed, the look in her eye told him even though she was busting with unanswered questions, she'd follow his orders and play along. "That's a pretty good analogy, Colonel, although I'm not sure General Hammond would appreciate it. How about Teal'c? What does he remind you of?"

"Easy one, Carter. Teal'c's a Bull Mastiff." He smirked at Teal'c's raised eyebrow. "He's the big guy. Looks as intimidating as hell, but is actually pretty damn mellow. But he can move quickly when he wants, or needs to, despite his lumbering appearance. He's loyal to a fault, but territorial and protective when those under his care are threatened." He grinned at Teal'c. "No offence, Big Guy."

"Indeed."

"You've obviously given this way too much thought, Jack. Does Sam have a dog-twin?" Daniel grinned sheepishly at her insulted expression. "Ah sorry, that didn't come out quite right."

"Definitely a Border Collie," Jack rescued him with a snort. "Very smart – one of the smartest breeds, in fact. But you have to keep 'em busy," he grinned at the mollified look Sam tossed Daniel. The grin transferred to Daniel's face when he added, "Because they'll drive you nuts if you don't because they're extremely hyper. They look great," he hid a smile as Sam wrinkled her nose at Daniel, "and are workaholics. So all in all they're pretty high maintenance in that you have to find ways to keep them occupied and happy. But they're definitely worth the trouble." Jack snuck a look. Yep, their audience was all but taking notes.

"Now Daniel –"

"Jack," Daniel warned.

"Piece of cake, Carter. Daniel is the Jack Russell of the SGC. Smart and unbelievably popular, not to mention headstrong and tenacious to a fault - which can be a positive, or one royal pain in the butt. He's yippy and sometimes annoying as hell because he's got a wellspring of energy that needs to be properly channeled."

Sam was laughing aloud and even Teal'c looked highly amused at Daniel's mock expression of outrage. "Well, what about you, Jack? Don't tell me this canine caricature doesn't extend to you?"

"Well, I'm glad you asked Daniel, because I've actually given this a lot of thought."

"I'll bet," Daniel retorted snidely.

"I guess I'd have to say this old guy and I have a few things in common," he nodded towards the big Shepherd." The dog sat back and cocked his head. Jack gave him a crooked smile. "Yep, a big goofy working dog, just waiting for his orders. That's us, isn't it fella?"

"What else?" Daniel pushed.

Jack gave him an annoyed looked, but added almost reluctantly, "Shepherds are dependable and smart." Daniel interrupted with a soft snort. "Okay, so not every analogy is perfect."

"Of course not." Daniel grinned at Sam. "Keep going, Jack. This is interesting and so far I'd have to say you and Fido, here, were perfect matches. Aren't Shepherds known for their courage and fearlessness?"

"My brother had a Shepherd. He was great with kids. He never got tired of playing with them. All it took was one look and he could scare a stranger into submission, but with the kids he was a big pussy cat."

"Well that sure fits," Daniel agreed, clearly enjoying it when Jack glared at Sam.

"I'll ignore the pussy cat remark, Captain. You left out the tendency for bad joints. That's a biggy – hips, knees -"

"But despite that, he's willing to jump in front of the people he cares about and take a bullet for them," Daniel added softly.

Jack glanced away, clearly uncomfortable. "Yeah, well –"

"You are correct, O'Neill. There are a great many similarities between you and this beast." Teal'c stared down at the old dog with respect.

"Well, see kids, the way I look at it is that individually each breed has its strengths and weaknesses. The trick is finding a combination that accentuates the good qualities and compensates for the rest. SG-1 is the perfect Heinz 57 mix."

"Did you just call us mutts, Jack?"

"Yeah, Daniel, I guess I did."

There was silence for a moment and even the distant barking ceased. "It's just a matter of loyalty. What's the most loyal creature on the face of the Earth?"

"Siler?"

"Close, but no cigar, Daniel. The dog, Canis familiaris, that's Latin by the way."

"Quinymo iocus," Daniel grinned. "That's Latin for 'no shit.'"

"Smart ass linguist," Jack said with admiration. "Just think about it, kids, Lassie –'"

"Old Yeller," Teal'c added mournfully.

They all looked at him in surprise before Jack laughed. "Damn straight. Astro, Rin Tin Tin, Snoopy, Scooby Doo – Loyal to the end."

"I always wanted a puppy when I was a kid," Sam admitted. "But we moved around so much it never happened."

"I used to play with the strays that hung around the digs."

"I had a great desire for a Skink," Teal'c confessed.

He ignored the others' stares. Finally Daniel asked hesitantly, "Teal'c, I may be wrong, but isn't a skink a type of lizard?"

"Indeed. It was delicious."

Jack bit back the bubble of laughter at Daniel's expression. Jaffa humor. "The point I'm trying to make is we could all take a lesson from man's - or woman's - best friend."

"Jack –"

Holding up his hand, Jack glanced towards the cage where 'Leo' had been listening. The broom lay abandoned on the ground. "Okay, now we wait and hope they don't figure out the tail was chasing the dog. It's a simple matter of an old dog teaching them a new trick."


Epilogue:

Jack blinked a few times, clearing his head, as Teal'c quickly released the straps and provided a steadying hand while Carter disconnected the power source to the machine. "Hey kids, I was hoping you would show up. How'd you find me?"

Daniel stood near the door. "It was the weirdest thing, Jack. You left the mountain after work and just disappeared. The SF's found your truck, but it had been wiped clean."

"We were at a loss where to search, sir. Then, out of the blue, we got a tip you were being held at the Groom Lake facility. General Hammond started making calls and called in a couple of favors and well, here we are."

"The caller said he had a stray mutt named Sparky when he was a kid who was a lot smarter than his current employers. He said you'd thrown him a bone and given him his 'reason' whatever that means. He said it was going to make one hell of a report and he hoped his boss choked on it. It wasn't going to matter because he was going to be looking for a new line of work. Then he told us where to find you. Does that make any sense?"

"Haven't got a clue." Jack shook his head with a smile. "Let's get out of here. I'm starving. We're going out – my treat. Any place that doesn't serve noodles, but I want to stop someplace first." He threw a long arm companionably over Daniel's shoulder and gave a smile that encompassed his entire team. "Did I ever mention why dogs are my favorite people?"

*Quotation by Dr. Louis J.

Plot bunny assignment:
Time frame: Any
Pairings: None specified
Plot: Colonel Jack O¹Neill is at work in his garden, thinking about how
He likes to make things grow. To him it is a form of redemption for all the death
that he has had a hand in. As he sits back, he notices that some of the flowers are
wrong (colors, breeds etc. maybe an orchid on a rose bush). He feels somebody
watching him, and turns around to see a man observing him from the street. He
turns to the flowers once again everything is back to normal. When he turns back
to the street the man is gone.

Jack goes to work has a perfectly boring day. Paperwork, meetings, wishing
for an excursion, but Daniel is sick so the team is on down-time. Every so often
through-out the day, Jack notices something 'hinky' about the environment, and
when he turns around the man is there. He encounters people from the base, who
try to engage him in conversations that seem abnormal to him. Picture Siler calling
him Jack, etc. A Healthy Daniel appears at some point. Jack gets suspicious.

It turns out that the NID has a 'Gamekeeper' machine, and have kidnapped Jack
in order to try and find out what makes his team, and the others on base, so loyal
to him. He figures this out, and starts using it against them. The Team gets him out.