Title: Grey Dims to Black
Author: Flatkatsi
Email: flatkatsi@optusnet.com.au
Status: Complete
Category: Angst, Hurt/Comfort, Episode tag
Pairings: None (some mention of canon Jack/other)
Spoilers: Hathor, Brief Candle, Into the Fire, Foothold, A Hundred Days, Shades of Grey
Season: 3
Rating: 13+
Content Warnings: Language
Archive: Jackfic, Incoming Wormhole
Summary: In the aftermath of Jack's undercover mission, the team is fragmented and things aren't looking like they will get back to normal any time soon – if ever.
Disclaimer: Stargate Sg-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the author.
Author’s Note: Written for the 2006 Jack ficathon. Many thank to Su, Jackie and Nutty for the betas and the support. The plot bunny is at the end of the story.

* ~ *

Grey Dims to Black

"We drew straws. I lost."

Jack stood, in the middle of the corridor, expecting his teammates to turn around and smile, laugh, anything – anything to show they were joking, but it didn't happen. They disappeared around the corner, heading for the elevators, and he just stood there – stunned, still with the ridiculous half-smile on his face as if waiting for the punch line.

Avoiding the curious eyes of a passing airman, he pushed his hands into his pockets and slowly turned in the same direction his team had taken, his thoughts returning to the brief conversation. He had told them it was all an act, but surely they had known that without him needing to explain? Their friendships were solid, nothing had changed.

Had it?

Perhaps it had. Perhaps this had been one undercover mission too many, especially so soon after being stranded on Edora for months. They hadn't had a chance to talk, for him to thank them for what they did to rescue him before he was thrust into the middle of the whole rogue NID mess.

The beginning of what he recognized as the headaches he'd been getting for days now sent a small spike of pain flying behind his eyes and he raised a hand to massage the back of his neck, grimacing at the high ridge of scar tissue that reached to below his collar.

It had been one hell of a crappy year.

There was no point trying to catch up with the others now – he had heard the elevator come and go again while he had been standing there. He had to get checked out by the Doc first anyway then he'd go home and get some rest.

Maybe he'd have a barbecue.

Yep, that was the best idea – invite a few people around and relax with his friends.

It'd be fine.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Cassie stretched, bent, touched her toes and spun, her arms flying out from her body. "Then we're going to do this." She stopped and stuck a pose reminiscent of a diver preparing to jump from a springboard. "Well, what do you think?"

"Looks good." Giving the girl a tired smile, Jack tried to muster some enthusiasm. "You'll be the hit of the talent contest."

"It isn't just me. I'm a member of the Foxy Flings."

"Don't say it, sir. I've already tried to explain how inappropriate the name is." Janet fixed her hat more firmly on her head and tipped her sunglasses down to glare at her daughter. "You have no idea ..."

With all the drama only a young teenage girl can produce, Cassie rolled her eyes. "I'm too young to be foxy and fling isn't a good word either. Give it a rest, Mom. We like the name. It's perfect."

Jack couldn't help smiling at the exasperated and very loud sigh Janet gave. It seemed Cassie wasn't the only one in his yard who was good at drama.

"Hey, Jack, the grill's hot and the steaks are waiting. When did Daniel and Sam say they were getting here?"

The momentary lightening of his mood was broken as Jack turned to look at Lou Ferretti. The other man gave him a look that would have done Teal'c proud, his eyebrow raised in enquiry. Jack felt a pang of disappointment that his alien friend wasn't there, helping with the cooking instead of offworld on some adventure with Bra'tac.

"They didn't, but I'm sure they won't be long." Jack strode towards the house. "I'm getting another beer. You throw the steaks on the grill."

He didn't stop until he reached his kitchen, but once there he turned his back to the window, resting it against the bench, and rubbed a hand wearily across his eyes. He stayed like that, his hand pressing into his closed eyelids for a minute, wishing he hadn't suggested the barbecue.

It was a stupid idea. As if some salads and steak could erase his team's anger at his actions.

Grabbing a beer from the refrigerator, he twisted off the top and took a long gulp, emptying a good portion of the bottle in one go before pulling some plates from a cupboard.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"Where the hell are you?" Janet hissed the words into her cell, a hand concealing it from a casual glance through the kitchen window. "You told me you were coming."

Prodding a steak with the long barbecue fork, Lou listened, frowning as he kept a watch out for the colonel's return. He had seen the look that ghosted briefly across his friend's face just before he went back into the house and felt a cold chill down his spine. There had been a time Jack had sunk so low Lou had thought he would never be able to get up again. That look had become familiar then. That cold, hurt, despairing look, a look that said he was all too willing to pay the price for his actions.

"Listen Daniel, I don't give a shit about your excuses. You get over here. NOW!"

"Mom? What's going on?"

Lou saw Janet visibly rein in her temper as she put her cell back into her pocket and turned to her daughter.

"Daniel's running late. He said he had a lot of work and needed to catch up, but I told him lunch was almost ready. He'll be here soon."

"What about Sam?"

"I couldn't get hold of her – just her voicemail. Maybe she's on her way." She gave a bright smile. "How about you go see if Uncle Jack needs help carrying anything out? The salad we brought is in the refrigerator, you could bring that."

"Okay. I'm getting hungry."

Both adults watched as Cassie headed for the house, seemingly oblivious to the undercurrents running beneath the surface of their pleasant afternoon.

"Do you think that's a good idea – sending her in?"

The doctor nodded. "Jack won't let anything affect his friendship with Cassie. She might just force him to cheer up."

"He hasn't got much to be cheerful about right now."

"No, he hasn't. Daniel doesn't think Sam is going to come."

"Ouch!"

"Ouch is right."

"Ever want to hit their heads together and tell them to grow up, Doc? It wasn't like Jack had a real choice in the matter."

"I know," Janet agreed, "But it isn't so much what he did as how he did it."

Lou sighed and turned another steak, watching as a few drops of blood fell sizzling onto the hot metal of the grill.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"Sorry I'm late." Daniel gave an apologetic smile. "I got caught up in some translations and didn't realize what time it was."

"That's okay," Jack said as he came forward to take the cans Daniel carried. "We were just about to eat. Beer?"

"No thanks, I'll have a coke." Daniel gestured to the drinks Jack now held. "I brought extra if anyone else wants one."

"Oh, great! A coke for me too please."

Janet frowned at Cassie's eager request. "You've already had two."

"Aww …"

Before Cassie could do more than begin her complaint, Janet threw up her hands. "Okay, have one. I'm not in the mood for another argument."

An uncomfortable silence fell over the group. Daniel picked up a can from where Jack had put them on the end of the table and popped the top, the fizz from the slightly shaken drink sounding loud in the quiet.

"Who wants their steak well done?" Ferretti's cheerful question broke the impasse. "Let me know and I'll leave it on a bit longer. These ones were ready ages ago." He gestured to a foil wrapped bundle sitting on the very edge of the grill, the smell of cooked meat rising from it enticingly.

"Ah, I do," Cassie said in a subdued voice, raising her hand as if in class. "And Sam likes hers well done, so leave another one."

"Sam can't make it, Cassie." Daniel moved to one of the vacant chairs, uncomfortably aware of the dismay his words had caused. Jack paused in the process of handing a coke to the girl, frozen for a brief moment, his face unreadable.

"Why?" Cassie protested, "I thought she was coming. I haven't seen her for ages!"

"She has something else on. I'm not sure what," he replied.

Everything had seemed fine when Jack first arrived back from his undercover mission, even though Daniel had only been half joking about drawing straws to go visit him. They had all been reluctant to beard the lion in his den after Jack had done such an excellent job of acting. Finally, after much discussion, Daniel agreed to be the sacrificial lamb – an experience he wouldn't forget in a hurry despite finding out it had all been an act for the listening devices.

Then Jack had been sent home to rest, given a few days off, and Teal'c had been called away the next day. Daniel found himself left with no one to talk the whole thing over with but Sam and together they had talked it round and about until all the simmering resentment over what Jack had said and done had been admitted. He had chosen the worse possible things to say to push them away, hurtful words that couldn't just be forgotten. Together they agreed to not let him off the hook so easily, that they needed more than a half-baked apology in the SGC corridor.

The barbecue should have been the perfect opportunity to clear the air and explain how they felt, but Sam had balked at the last minute – chickening out and deciding not to come. Daniel might understand Sam's motives but a part of him was selfishly annoyed at having to be here without her support and he wasn't prepared to lie to cover her absence. He wasn't comfortable with lying – unlike Jack who seemed to have elevated it to an art form.

His exasperation had him standing again, unable to just sit. Going around the table on the opposite side to where Jack sat, he gave Lou a smile.

"You need a hand?"

Ferretti nodded. "Thanks." He gestured to the foil enclosed steaks. "Those are done. Could you put them on the table? I'll leave the others for a little longer."

Glad for something to do, Daniel soon had the meat on a serving dish and carried it over to place it in the middle of the table. Janet and Cassie were busy positioning salads and bread within easy reach of each chair, while Jack dumped a handful of knives, forks and serving tongs in a heap beside the steak.

The noisy clatter of the cutlery banging together had Daniel grimacing with annoyance, but he didn't say anything. There was no point spoiling the day for the others just because he was in a foul mood.

"Carter's not coming, then?" Jack's voice was lowered and he didn't meet Daniel's eyes, keeping his head down while he put the tongs and serving spoons with the food.

"No." He was going to leave it at that, but the slight, unfamiliar edge of hurt in Jack's voice had him trying to make excuses. "She said she was really busy."

Even to his own ears the words sounded exactly what they were – a flimsy excuse - and he wasn't surprised when Jack merely muttered an 'okay' and turned to reach for another beer.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"We're staying right there, so we'll be able to spend hours and hours on the rides."

Cassie's gleeful words had even Jack smiling. He was happy for the young teenager. She and Janet deserved some time to themselves after the stress of the last few months. The alien incursion of the SGC had especially taken a huge toll on the doctor. The personnel whose memories and appearance had been used by the aliens had spent time with Doctor MacKenzie, and Jack knew Janet had the added burden of responsibility for the physical injuries sustained by the base personnel. There hadn't been a week recently when the infirmary wasn't occupied by at least one member of an SGC team.

Yes, Janet could do with a break, even if she would be the first to deny it.

Cassie's excitement at the prospect of visiting Disney World was a joy to see and he felt his mood lift a little.

"Are you spending the whole time there, Doc?" Ferretti asked, digging his spoon into his bowl of ice cream.

Jack listened with half an ear, already knowing the answer. His own ice cream was slowly melting as he idly stirred it, watching the swirling patterns.

"No, we're staying the first week with my cousin in Macon then we're hiring a car and driving to Florida. We spend a week there, with four days at Disney World."

"And we leave tomorrow. But I don't see why we can't go to Disney World first."

Janet gave a small laugh as she answered her daughter. "You know why. My cousin Annabelle can take a few days off work to show us around, but not later in the month. Disney World will keep."

"But I won't!"

"You'll have a great time with Annabelle and Greg's kids. Helen is only a few months younger than you and the boys are so cute!"

Jack looked up in time to catch Cassie's rolling eyes, an expression she seemed to be trying to perfect with lots of practice.

"Okay, we have an early start in the morning." Janet started to get up, ignoring her daughter. "Can we give you a hand to clear up before we go, sir?"

Jack managed to swallow down a laugh at Cassie's antics as she once again rolled her eyes, behind her mother's back, and shook her head vigorously.

"No, it's all right. You probably still have some packing to do."

"If we leave now, we'll have time to call in and say goodbye to Sam, won't we, Mom?"

The doctor hesitated before answering. "She may not be home."

"But we can try, can't we? I want to say goodbye to her. I don't want to miss her as well as Teal'c." Cassie's voice had the whining tone that every adult hated, and Janet's wince was obvious.

"Why don't you call her now and see if she's home?" Jack suggested, standing to gather up the dessert bowls. "I'm sure she'd like to see you." He strove hard to keep his tone unemotional, concentrating on the task of clearing the table.

"No, that's okay, sir. We have to practically go past Sam's place anyway." Janet paused, causing Jack to look at her. She gave him a long, hard look as if debating her next words, and O'Neill felt a twinge of worry and the need to stop her before she said anything more.

He smiled and put the bowls down, opening his arms wide. "Come here and give me a hug goodbye, kiddo." Enfolding the willing teenager in his embrace he saw the doc's face clear, and gave an inward sigh of relief at the danger of some sort of emotional confrontation being over. "Don't forget to bring me back something."

"As if!" Cassie gave a final squeeze and stepped back, her hands still on his arms. "And don't go getting into trouble while we're gone. You won't have Mom here to fix you."

"I'll try not to."

Jack waited as Janet and Cassie said their goodbyes to the others then walked them to their car.

The doctor stopped as she opened the door. "Damn, I forgot my salad bowl."

"Good excuse to come by as soon as you get back. That way I won't have too long to wait for my present."

Laughing, he waved them off, returning to the house. Before going back outside, he made a detour to the kitchen, getting some more beer to take with him.

If their posture was any indication, Lou and Daniel seemed to be having a rather intense conversation. Jack waved the bottles.

"I brought some cold ones."

Lou nodded and held out his hand, but Daniel shook his head.

"No thanks. I'll stick to coke."

"Not even one?"

"I said no." This time the annoyance was unmistakable. "What's hard to understand about that?" It was as if Janet and Cassie's leaving had set his tongue free. "I don't feel the need to consume beer after beer to enjoy myself.

"And I do?" Jack knew he shouldn't react but he couldn't help it.

Daniel waved a hand. "I'll let the evidence speak for itself."

Jack looked at the empty cans and bottles stacked ready for recycling. The fact that they were several weeks' worth hadn't seemed to occur to the other man. He'd missed so many trash days that he'd had to make a special trip to the tip to dispose of the stinky bags before his guests arrived, but the cans, bottles and papers weren't dirty and hadn't seemed quite as important. He opened his mouth to tell Daniel how wrong he was then closed it again, not wanting to get into an argument. Instead he just shrugged.

"So, can I get you a soda instead?"

Daniel shook his head, looking at his watch. "No, I can't stay much longer anyway."

"How long will Teal'c be gone, Jack?" Ferretti had settled back in his chair after moving it to follow the late afternoon sun.

"I'm not sure. I didn't get a chance to speak to him before he left. According to General Hammond the request from Bra'tac didn't have any details. I'm sure he'll report in soon though." He turned to Daniel. "Did he say anything to you?"

"Just that Bra'tac had asked for him. I don't think he knew anything more than that himself."

Lou leaned forward to grab a handful of nuts from the bowl on the table. "I hope everything's okay."

"If it isn't, Teal'c will let us know," Daniel replied, adding in a low mutter, "He'd trust us to help."

Jack paused in the process of sitting, his temper flaring at the comment. "Unlike me, you mean?"

"I'm sure he didn't mean anything, right Daniel?"

Holding his hand up, Jack interrupted. "No, Lou, let him answer for himself. Let's get this out in the open – get it over with. I'm tired of pussyfooting around the issue."

"You're the one who ran off, Jack, not us. It's been five days and this is the first time you've bothered trying to speak to me. We were there if you wanted to apologize."

"First of all – I didn't 'run off'. Hammond ordered me to have some rather long sessions with MacKenzie, as per protocol after working undercover. And he's put me on ..." He raised his fingers in the air, making quotation mark signs. "... 'stress' leave – again protocol. And what do I have to apologize for? Doing my job? Obeying orders? What?"

"For being a bastard!" Daniel's voice rose to match his own. "Not for doing your job, but for the way you did it. Did you think you could say those things and expect us to forget about them?"

"This isn't a game, Daniel. There aren't any rules. I did what I had to do to get the job done."

"The worst thing is that you can't see what you did wrong," Daniel snapped back.

Jack was equally quick with his reply. "No, the worst thing is you don't understand why I did it!"

"I didn't come here to have an argument. I had hoped we'd have a chance to talk before you came back to work and that maybe you'd see it from my point of view."

"Any chance of you seeing it from mine?" Jack couldn't keep the bitter rejoinder from flying out.

Standing, Daniel took a few steps back from the table, hands clenched. His tone, when he spoke, was icy. "Can't say I didn't try." And with those few brief words, he turned and left without a backward glance.

"That was unexpected."

Jack started as if coming out of a daze. He had completely forgotten Ferretti was there. Gathering his thoughts, he replied.

"Not really. Daniel's always had a tendency to jump into things he shouldn't." He stood, going over to the now warm beer already on the table and taking one. He had drunk half the bottle before he continued, the angry tone having softened a little. "I suppose he's got reason to be annoyed, but I would have thought he'd realize it was an act. I couldn't afford for them to get involved. It was my way of warning them off."

"Here." Lou nodded in understanding and thrust another bottle at him, taking the one he already had. "This one's cold."

"Thanks." Jack took a long swig from the already open bottle, grimacing a little at the slightly bitter taste. "What's this? It's not one of mine." He glanced down at the label, unable to identify it.

"No, it's one of the ones I brought. Part of my tour of the world via beer. This one is from Greece." Lou pulled an insulated bag from beneath the table, opening the zipper. "I've got a couple more of those, four from Vietnam, and six from New Zealand. Thought we'd sample them after the others had left."

"I'm not sure that I'm in the best mood to be getting drunk, Lou." Jack put the bottle on the table.

With one finger, Ferretti nudged the bottle toward him. "I'd say it's exactly the best mood to be getting drunk, Jack. Forget about the SGC for a while. Remember that time in Afghanistan? When Charlie found that stash some jarhead had hidden?"

Laughing a little, Jack picked up the bottle and took another long mouthful. He sure did remember that night – up to a point. After that everything got sort of fuzzy, but he was damned sure he'd enjoyed every moment.

He tipped the bottle in salute to the other man.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

He was tied up, somewhere dark and hot, so damn hot that the perspiration dripped from his body. Heart pounding as if it was trying to escape his chest, he struggled to sit, but he couldn't move. The bands around his body were too tight, crushing him, eating into him, digging into his flesh. Except they weren't resting on his skin, they were within him, eating him away from the inside out.

In the blackness he heard nothing, nothing except his own frantic gasps.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

The morning sun was already shining through his bedroom window when Jack woke, shivering at the coolness surrounding him.

Shit – that had been some weird dream.

He frowned as the reason for the cold registered. His sheets were wringing wet.

It wouldn't have been so bad if he'd managed to change into the old t-shirt and shorts he usually wore to bed, but he had very blurred memories of being barely capable of pulling off his clothes and crawling beneath the covers.

He was too old for this sort of crap – and so was Ferretti. Damn, he hoped Lou hadn't driven home.

Untangling himself from the sheets and staggering out of bed, he threw on some track pants and went to the window, breathing a sigh of relief to see the major's car was still parked at the curb outside his house.

There was a short knock on his bedroom door, then it opened. Lou's cheerfully smiling face appeared in the opening.

"I thought I heard movement. How's the head?"

Jack waited a moment before he answered, taking stock and registering nothing more than a dull headache and a slightly fuzzy feeling.

"Surprisingly good, considering I don't remember anything much after the others left."

Lou came further into the room and leaned his shoulder against the wall, his smile broadening. "Not even the Vietnamese beer?"

Vague memories of a brightly colored label rose up unbidden and Jack nodded. "How many did we drink?"

"Too many, buddy, far too many, but I stopped well before you did."

Scrubbing his hand over his face, Jack grimaced as he felt the sure signs of dried sweat.

"If you don't mind me saying, you look like hell." Lou straightened. "I'll have coffee on when you're ready."

"I'll be there soon." As Lou turned to leave, Jack continued, "Thanks."

He didn't say what the thanks were for, perhaps not even knowing himself, but Lou seemed to understand, giving a small nod in return.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"I tried."

Sam sighed, but didn't turn, keeping her eyes fixed on the page of computations even though she no longer had any idea where she was up to in her calculations.

"What did he say?"

Daniel hitched a leg over one of the tall stools at the workbench, feeling embarrassed at how the afternoon had ended. "Nothing much. We got into an argument."

"Oh, Daniel ..."

He lifted a hand to stop her. "I know, I know. I set out meaning to be as dispassionate as possible and to just explain how we felt, but it didn't work out that way."

At least you tried. If he doesn't want to ..."

"It isn't that he doesn't want to." Daniel cut her words off. "He asked us to the barbecue. Maybe if you had come ..."

"It isn't that easy for me. I'm in the Air Force. I can't afford to get into an argument with my commanding officer."

"You have the right to disagree."

Sam finally looked over at him, twisting her body in her seat, her voice low. "Maybe I don't."

"Don't what, have the right?"

"No, disagree with him. I'm not saying I wasn't hurt by what the colonel said to me, but I've had time to think about it."

"And?"

"He had his orders."

"And that makes it okay?" Daniel hopped off the stool, pacing a few steps away from it before spinning and coming back to stand near Sam's side. "I know we agreed we had to put this behind us, but every time I see him I can't help remembering how he looked at me, with such contempt. I'm still angry and I know it's partly unjustified, but that knowledge doesn't make it any easier to bear. How much was acting and how much was what he actually felt?"

"You know you don't really mean any of it. He's your friend."

"So why have you avoided him for the past week?"

She threw down her pen, and they both watched as it skidded across the smooth surface to land on the floor at their feet. "I'll freely admit I still have problems with what happened, but I can't let it affect our working relationship. The team is more important than my grievances."

Daniel leaned closer. "The team? Is that what you think is important here, Sam. He's your friend too, isn't he?"

She started to shake her head, wondering how the conversation had gotten so turned around. "No, the colonel's ..." Then she stopped.

Wasn't that what this whole thing boiled down to? Friendship? Could she truly say Colonel O'Neill was nothing more than her CO? That after everything they had been through over the years since they had first walked through the Stargate together all she felt was nothing more than obedience and duty? Hell no! She would, and had, gone through far too much with SG-1 to ever believe that. They were her friends, her comrades – she trusted them with her life.

Damn it, she realized, she had been a fool for far too long.

"We need to end this, Daniel – like we said, put it behind us. The colonel's due back here tomorrow morning, we'll talk to him then."

"And say what?"

"That we're sorry. It isn't up to him to apologize to us. He was doing his duty to the best of his ability, as he always does. We wouldn't expect anything less from him, so why are we so angry?"

"Because he was unforgivably hurtful?"

"Unforgivably? Really? Is that really how you feel?"

She was pleased to see Daniel's intractable expression soften somewhat as he thought about what she was saying.

"Okay – maybe not unforgivable. I can see where you're coming from, but that doesn't mean I don't still have some issues with how Jack handled it."

She nodded in acceptance. "That's fair enough, but it doesn't mean we should let our anger override our commonsense. We have to try and put it behind us, get the team back together before this goes too far."

Daniel lifted his hands from the bench, straightening. He turned, again taking a few steps away from her, and stood for a moment, facing the wall. When he turned back she could see the dawning comprehension in his face. "We've been a bit stupid."

She nodded again, then smiled slightly. "Teal'c would be so annoyed with us."

"He certainly would." Daniel smiled in acknowledgement then his forehead creased in a frown. "I'll talk to Jack before you do tomorrow if that's all right. I have a bit more ground to make up after my behavior yesterday."

Sam couldn't help feeling a little relieved.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

It was amazing how much difference coffee could make to one's perspective.

Jack took a long sip and sighed, relishing the warmth as it slipped down his dry throat. He felt a little off color, but nothing serious, just the remains of a hangover from the day before and the general sense of dissatisfaction. To think that after a week's leave with only Ferretti and his exotic beer for company he had actually been looking forward to paperwork!

Oh well, back to work.

Picking up the next file on the ever-decreasing pile in his in tray, he quickly perused its contents, making a few notations before signing and dating it.

He had only been back for a few hours and was feeling a vague sense of satisfaction at how quickly he was clearing the backlog of work. Becoming engrossed in an analysis of a potential new ally SG-5 had encountered, the soft tap on his door almost went unnoticed. He looked up, called 'come' and waited.

"Hey. I just thought I'd come and see if you wanted to join me for coffee."

After their words at the barbecue Daniel was the last person Jack expected to see peering around the door. He hesitated, his need to finish his work warring with the knowledge that he couldn't ignore this overture of friendship.

"If it helps, I come bearing gifts." Daniel came further into the room, his hands shown to be holding two mugs, a very tentative look flitting across his face.

Jack smiled, quickly pushing his just emptied coffee cup to one side of the desk. "Thanks. I need something to wake me up. You know me and paperwork." He watched warily, prepared for the recriminations to begin again, but Daniel just sat down, placing one of the mugs in the now empty space.

"It seems to be agreeing with you for a change." Daniel was staring at the pile of completed work with an air of amazement and Jack couldn't help the annoyance that rose in him. It wasn't like he was incapable of reading a report or signing a form. He was 2IC of the base, a position he was experienced in, having held it during more than one posting. An officer with his seniority didn't have much of a chance of promotion without being fully able to fulfill the administrative duties involved in running a command.

He pushed down his resentment, changing the subject instead. "So, how's things? Anything exciting happen while I was away?"

"No, not really."

Jack waited, expecting more, even if it was just Daniel's normal chatter about his latest find, but the silence lengthened uncomfortably.

"It's a new blend." Daniel raised his mug as he spoke. "What do you think?"

"Ah –" He took a sip. "It's good. Different." Different was one way of putting it, he thought as he concealed a grimace at the bitter flavor. "Strong."

"Yes."

The conversation petered out again as both men sipped their coffee in silence.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

The call to the Control Room had been a welcome distraction for Jack, giving him an excuse to leave, and for Daniel to return to his own office. As he left the elevator, he pondered on the awkwardness he felt in the presence of his friend.

Maybe their differences were just too much this time.

"What have we got?" He stared at the spinning gate as if expecting it to give him the answer.

Sergeant Harriman didn't look up from his screen. "It's SG-1's code, sir."

Jack nodded, pleased at the answer. "Teal'c. Okay, open the iris." He was already at the stairs as he spoke, and taking them two at a time, he reached the gate room just as his teammate exited the wormhole.

"Hey, T."

The Jaffa inclined his head, the smallest of smiles ghosting across his lips. "It is good to see you, O'Neill."

The feeling that things were finally getting back to normal began to settle over Jack, causing him to come a step closer and take Teal'c's arm in a firm grip. "Yeah, back at ya. How was Bra'tac? What did the old coot want anyway?"

Without pulling away, Teal'c leaned towards him, his voice low enough so that the watching personnel in the large room would be unable to hear. "I must speak with you and General Hammond in private, O'Neill."

"Hammond's in a meeting up top."

"Can he be contacted?"

"Is it that important?"

Teal'c nodded, his expression grave. "Indeed."

"Okay, I'll put in the call. Come to the briefing room after you're finished in the infirmary."

Jack watched as Teal'c left the room, unease replacing his earlier feeling of happiness at his friend's return. Frowning, he hurried back up the stairs to call his CO.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"It was too much to expect it was all over, that it was solved so easily."

Jack couldn't help the dejection he knew his voice conveyed – Teal'c's report had thrown him back into the depression he had fought for days. Hell, even his stomach rebelled at the news, roiling and causing him to swallow compulsively.

"Yes, I suspect we should have known better," Hammond agreed as he returned to his seat at the briefing room table. As soon as he heard the basics of Teal'c's story he had gone to his office to put a call though to the President. Jack wasn't sure what had been said, but whatever it was, from his grim expression, it was clear the general was uncomfortable with it.

"How do you want to handle this, sir? From what Teal'c says they could be rounded up with a couple of teams. My team will be ready as soon as you give the word. SG-2 is on base as well." He turned his head, eyeing Teal'c. "You're good to go?"

"Indeed, however I do not think that is a prudent move, O'Neill."

Feeling a desperate need to thump his fist on the table, one he barely contained, Jack kept his tone as calm as possible. "You're not suggesting Daniel and Carter are involved in any way?"

Hammond interrupted before Teal'c could reply. "We can't be sure of anything at this point, Colonel. Apart from yourself and Teal'c no one here at the SGC is above suspicion." He raised a hand, stopping Jack's protest before it even began. "That's why Master Bra'tac contacted Teal'c directly when he discovered the second rogue base."

Jack's stomach was demanding attention now, and he rubbed it through his uniform shirt, his fingers clenching and digging into the soft flesh. He pushed the discomfort down, concentrating on his argument, not willing to concede his point so easily.

"You saw how Major Carter and Daniel reacted to my deception, sir. There is no way they had any knowledge of the rogue group. At least let me take them to deal with this new threat." He knew he was pleading, but the sinking feeling he had left him desperate to make Hammond agree.

To his dismay the general shook his head. "I'm sorry, Jack, I can't allow Doctor Jackson and Major Carter to know anything about this. Although I agree the chances of them being involved are remote in the extreme there could be more members of this command implicated. We just can't risk letting any news of this get out before the problem can be dealt with once and for all and ..." he fixed Jack with a stare, "... before our offworld allies hear of this. We need to clean up our own mess quickly otherwise we could lose their trust completely."

"But, sir ..."

"No, Colonel. This has to be handled as discreetly as possible. I'm afraid this must be kept to the three of us." He turned to Teal'c. "From what Master Bra'tac told you, do you think the situation can be dealt with by just yourself and Colonel O'Neill?"

"There would be less chance of capturing all of those involved without the help of more SGC personnel."

To Jack it was obvious Teal'c felt the same way he did – that, if not another SG team, Daniel and Carter should be included in their plans, but the general's inflexible expression showed he wouldn't be swayed.

"I understand that there may be casualties, but the President has agreed it is an acceptable risk. We do however need to know if there are any more traitors in our ranks. That is our top priority. Is that clear, Colonel?"

"Sir? I can't possibly hope to take so many men prisoner with only Teal'c's help." He hoped he was wrong, but Hammond's next words made it plain he wasn't.

"I think my orders were clear, Colonel. Do what you must to ensure no word of this reaches our allies. There is grave concern that they will withdraw their support if news of another rogue base gets back to them."

"The Asgard would never desert us, sir."

Hammond rubbed his hand over his eyes, looking wearier by the second. "I know that, son, and I've tried to convey that information to my superiors, but I'm afraid the thought of being left to fend for ourselves against the Goa'uld has caused a somewhat knee jerk reaction."

Jack nodded, acknowledging the general's words. It was obvious he wasn't the only one who had been given his orders, and distasteful though they were, he could understand why they had been given. The trouble was, it wasn't the person sitting at the other end of the telephone in DC that had to carry them out. As he had done so many times before in his career he would clean up the mess.

He just hoped it didn't create an even worse one with his team.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

The clearing was large and well concealed by the surrounding mass of dense foliage, but that only made it easier for the watching men. Jack moved his binoculars a little to the left, counting carefully. Even though Bra'tac had told them the number of men at the rogue base he needed to confirm it for himself – not that he doubted the old Jaffa master's accuracy, but it was second nature for the experienced colonel to double check as much intel as possible before making his move.

Another green clad man exited the large tent in the center of the camp and, scratching at his crotch, made his way to the latrine area near the border of the trees. Jack mentally ticked him off the list he was keeping in his head and settled down to wait a while longer.

By the time the weak light of the small sun had finally reached their position, Jack was sure of his facts. As Bra'tac had told them, there were only nine in the camp and Jack was a little relieved to see they were all male. He could face killing women if he had to, as he had before, but it was easier now that issue wasn't a factor. His eyes narrowed as he lowered the binoculars, remembering his orders and the clear implication that taking prisoners was not a priority. It seemed he wasn't the only one capable of cold-bloodedness. No hint of this was to reach the Nox, Asgard or Tollan. It was fortunate Bra'tac had gone straight to Teal'c and could be relied on to say nothing about the camp to anyone else. The Jaffa was one of the few people Jack truly trusted.

"Plan A?" Teal'c's lowly rumbled words had Jack smiling despite his somber thoughts.

"Yep, I think we can go with Plan A for a change."

Without further discussion they edged out of their hiding place and separated, Teal'c heading toward the lone guard while Jack made his way around the perimeter of the camp to approach the small ammunition store they had identified near the main tent.

Crouching low, he just managed to hold back a groan as yet another stab of pain clenched at his guts. The MRE's he'd had for dinner and breakfast had settled very badly in his stomach. He spared a nostalgic thought for the freshly harvested and cooked food of Edora, but crept on silently.

By the time Jack was in position the brief discomfort had gone, leaving nothing but an easily ignored ache. The ache didn't get any worse when he dropped to the ground and crawled through the camp, listening carefully to the sounds of talking coming from the tent all but the guard had entered. He assumed it was a crude mess hall, an assumption confirmed by the smell of food wafting on the faint breeze.

It was the matter of only a few moments to set the charges against the tent and he regained the tree line without any indication he'd been seen. Teal'c was waiting, a gagged and struggling prisoner tied at his feet.

Jack took the M-24 from its case and fitted the telescopic sight, ignoring Teal'c's movements as he prepared. By the time he was settled on the small ridge overlooking the camp, his teammate had secured their prisoner to a tree and joined him, silently lying beside him. Glancing at his watch, Jack raised his left hand, showing a count of five.

The seconds ticked by as Jack took aim on the entrance to the mess tent.

He squeezed the trigger.

Even knowing what was about to happen, Jack had to use all his willpower not to flinch at the sound. Booms echoed across the clearing as the ordnance exploded, sending pieces of metal ripping through the thick canvas. The next few minutes played out like a scripted scene, the men racing from the mess tent entrance only to be cut off from escape by the steady fire of the M-24. The only pause came as Jack reloaded, continuing before the next man could do more than run a few extra paces.

Jack shouted down to them, making his voice as commanding as possible, despite the cliched words, straight out of some TV cop show.

"You're surrounded. Stay where you are and drop your weapons."

For a moment it looked like it was working. It was only in the last few minutes that Plan A went horribly wrong. One of the men crowded in the confined space in the clearing made a break for cover just as the final man ran from the tent. His concentration on the last man, Jack was only able to turn the rifle back to the escaping prisoner as he was almost around the corner of the mess tent and out of view. Having no other choice, he fired, the round taking the fleeing man square in the back.

But not before the dead man's handgun discharged – straight into a smaller tent as yet untouched by the fire. What the bullet hit, Jack would never know – some sort of alien technology, some super weapon stolen from who knew where – but the resulting explosion dwarfed those that had heralded the start of the action. When the smoke cleared all that was left of the rogue camp was a large, smoking pit.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Teal'c watched, ready to take action if any of the enemy escaped his commander's fire, but after the explosion there was no need. Almost before the echoes of the blast died away he came to his feet, motioning for O'Neill to remain where he was. There was one duty he could perform and if it helped to take some of the burden of this morning from the colonel then he was glad.

He moved carefully down the slope, entering the clearing and approaching the large crater with care.

There was no need to be cautious. Every man was dead, only scraps left to show that a person had once stood there.

Lifting his hand, he indicated the all clear and returned to his companion, leaving the site without a backward glance. The next part of their mission was the most important – finding out if there was a traitor in the ranks of the SGC. He hoped for O'Neill's sake that the captured sentry knew the answers and that they would be swift in coming.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"There isn't anyone left at the SGC. Makepeace was it!"

Jack wasn't one hundred percent sure Lieutenant Gordon was telling the truth, but the terror in his voice and the desperation in his eyes was reassuring. He had to admit that Teal'c had done a fine job of the interrogation, only needing to utter a few threats before the words started to spill from his mouth. It probably also helped that their prisoner didn't realize the death of all his teammates was a horrible and tragic accident. It was obvious from his pleas for mercy that he thought Jack had planned the whole thing.

The group had been cut off from Earth, not receiving any communication since Jack captured their colleagues at the main base. Apparently they had returned to find it deserted and thought it prudent to lay low for a while.

They didn't spend long questioning Gordon further as the short day was already ending, the shadows closing in and making it difficult to see beyond a few feet in the shade of the closely packed trees. Although he had given Jack answers to all his questions the man had also spat expletives at them both, but mainly at the colonel.

"To think Newman was so pleased to hear you'd be in charge. He thought you were a hero, read everything he could about you, about your career. I told him he was a fool, that no one would want to be like you, but he wouldn't listen. You're a fucking traitor to your planet, just wanting to feel important, ass-licking the aliens."

There was no point arguing, and the words hurt despite Jack's attempts to ignore them. The events of the day were already weighting heavily on his conscience.

"Let's start back to the Gate, Teal'c. We can continue this back at the SGC." He bent to untie the prisoner. "There's no point trying to get away, so don't bother."

"So what now? You going to hand me over to the Asgard, maybe let them do more of those experiments they're so fond of doing on humans? You going to sell me out like you've sold out Earth?" Despite his defiant words Gordon's eyes showed his fear.

Jack realized he didn't know anything about the man except his name and rank. For a second he wondered if there was someone back on Earth who puzzled over what had become of their sons, or husbands. If there was someone to grieve for the men who had died this day.

"No, I'm taking you back to Earth to stand trial, just like Maybourne, Makepeace, Newman and the others. Despite what you may think we don't just blindly follow the orders of our allies." He sighed, knowing it was useless to even discuss this with the man. He gave him a shove. "Get going."

Night was coming on fast – a night Jack knew lasted far longer than the day. Jack picked up the pace, lengthening his strides. They couldn't afford to be stuck on a planet they knew little about, with a prisoner to guard.

His fears were unfortunately well founded. As the gloom began to thicken under the trees the cry of a large animal pierced the silent forest, making all three men stop and look around, their backs together in an instinctive circle of protection.

"Shit! It's one of the big cats. They hunt at night." Their prisoner's eyes were darting around wildly, his voice showing his terror. "Quick, untie me, give me a gun. You can't fight it off with just the two of you, they're far too fast and there may be more than one. With my help we might have a chance!"

"Cat? What sort of cat? How big?"

"Too damned big for you to take on, if that's what you're thinking." He waved his bound hands. "Get these off of me!"

Jack made a rapid decision. Teal'c was already scanning the area, his staff weapon at the ready, so he quickly took his knife and cut through the plastic ties. It was as he did so that both enemies struck together, the black form of a monstrous feline leaping at Teal'c from the shadows just as Gordon flung his hands up, gripping Jack by the neck and dragging him to the ground.

Desperate to help his friend, Jack struggled against the pressure of the tightening fingers. The cries of the cat urged him on, stopping him from giving way to the encroaching darkness. His knife was still in his hand and he brought it up, his left hand dropping from the hand holding him and pushing against the other man's stomach to give himself room to maneuver. Then suddenly he felt a gap and was able to bring the knife up, stabbing it violently into his foe.

The sound of a staff weapon discharging came as he hauled himself to his feet.

"O'Neill!" Teal'c ran toward him, grabbing him by the arm. "Are you injured?"

Rubbing his hands across his neck, Jack shook his head. "Only my pride, plus a few bruises. What about you?"

"I was able to avoid the beast for long enough to kill it."

They both turned to the downed cat, its black fur still smoking around the large wound left by the Jaffa's weapon. It was definitely dead.

As was their prisoner.

Jack stepped forward and pulled the knife from the lieutenant's stomach, grimacing at the wet slurp that accompanied the action. Blood glistened along the blade and over his hands, and as he looked down at himself he realized it liberally covered his own uniform.

Well, it seemed Washington had gotten what they wanted after all. Despite his best efforts, they were bringing home no prisoners.

"We must make haste. There may be more of the creatures."

Jack nodded and turned from the grisly scene to follow his teammate on the trail to the Gate.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Daniel hurried down the corridor, running a few steps to catch up with Sam. He had just gotten word that Jack had returned several hours ago, in the middle of the night, from wherever he had gone with Teal'c, but he wasn't in his office, or, thank goodness, in the infirmary.

"Hey, where's Jack? Have you seen him?" He pulled the woman over to the wall, out of the way of a passing group of scientists. "Is he in the cafeteria?"

Sam shook her head. "No, I've checked there and I doubt he'd be in the showers this long after he got back. I just found out they'd returned when I came on base"

"Debriefing?"

"No." She shook her head again. "I asked Sergeant Harriman. The colonel and Teal'c were debriefed as soon as the doctor cleared them."

"Maybe he's gone home. What did Teal'c say?"

"I'm just going to his quarters now."

They both resumed walking, heading for the elevators. It was several minutes later, and when they were in the relative privacy of the otherwise empty elevator car, that Daniel spoke again.

"I wonder what they were doing offworld." He saw Sam frown and knew it was from irritation, but couldn't help repeating the same question they had pondered over for the past two days, since their teammates left through the Gate without a word of explanation.

"I don't know, Daniel, but let's not jump to conclusions – okay? Whatever they were doing, I'm sure the colonel had a good reason for not taking us with him."

Daniel saw the determination in her face and nodded. "I agree. Let's go talk to Teal'c."

They soon reached Teal'c's quarters and Sam knocked on the door, opening it at his gruff invitation. He was sitting cross-legged on the brightly colored rug in the center of the small room, surrounded by lit candles.

Sam was the first to speak, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary. "Hi, sorry to interrupt. We just heard you were back. Did everything go to plan?"

"It did," Teal'c answered but maintained his pose, his eyes staying closed.

Daniel had no time for subtlety. "Where were you?"

Teal'c finally opened his eyes, and Daniel felt his stare boring into him, the intensity of the gaze disconcerting. "I cannot say."

"Cannot or will not?"

"Both. It is not for me to answer. I suggest you direct your queries to General Hammond."

This time Daniel was sure he saw anger in his friend's eyes, but whether it was directed at himself or the general he couldn't tell.

"Did the colonel go home?" It seemed Daniel wasn't the only one to feel uncomfortable, because Sam's voice was uncharacteristically tentative.

"He did. I did not think it was wise, however he was determined to do so."

A small tendril of fear began to edge its way up his spine. "Why?"

Before he could continue, Sam interrupted. "Was the colonel injured?"

"O'Neill was not injured." Teal'c shut his eyes again, as the tendril grew tighter.

"What's going on, Teal'c? What exactly happened?" The worry Daniel was feeling translated itself into irritated questions. "What aren't you telling us? Was this some sort of undercover mission, like the last one? Is that what you're hinting at?"

The Jaffa's eyes snapped open, the anger flaring plainly. "You must ask General Hammond." His tone wasn't the calm one they were so used to; instead it vibrated with fury. "I can say no more, except that O'Neill has shouldered far too many burdens in the service of his planet." With that he closed his eyes once more.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

General Hammond lifted his gaze from the papers he had been staring at without reading for the past hour as Sergeant Harriman poked his head around his office door.

"Major Carter and Doctor Jackson are asking to see you, sir. Shall I show them in?"

For a moment Hammond almost decided to take the coward's way out and say he was busy, but instead he nodded. "Please do, Sergeant."

He waved the two members of SG-1 in. "What can I do for you, Doctor, Major?"

"It's about Jack, General. Teal'c said we should talk to you." Jackson came toward the desk.

Hammond knew exactly what Teal'c was doing, telling them to come to him for answers. The Jaffa had been ordered not to speak of the mission to anyone, and he would of course obey, but he was also prepared to lay the blame well and truly where it should lie – on the general's shoulders.

"About?" He wasn't going to make it easy for them.

"Ah ..." Jackson frantically looked at Major Carter, clearly appealing for support as he floundered.

"Given the recent undercover mission Colonel O'Neill took part in and his unexpected trip offworld these last two days, we are concerned that he left the base without speaking to us, sir, and we were hoping you could shed some light on the subject."

Oh, he could shed some light on it all right, Hammond thought, as the Major's speech came to a halt. The look of disgust on O'Neill's face had been clear when Hammond informed him he had to see an off base psychiatrist to discuss what had happened. Admittedly, without the doctor being aware of the full story, or even of the existence of the SGC, it was obvious there was a lot more behind the order from above than Hammond himself was being told. But he could guess at their motives. And so, unfortunately, could the colonel.

The subsequent discussion had been bordering on insubordination and still left a bitter taste in the general's mouth. It culminated in his ordering O'Neill to go home and cool down and to report to the Academy Hospital in three days for his first appointment. As soon as he gave his orders the shutters had come down as O'Neill snapped to attention and delivered a textbook salute, waiting to be dismissed, then turned and left his office.

"The details of Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c's last mission are classified, Major, as I am sure Teal'c explained. Colonel O'Neill will be returning to duty next week and I suggest you make no further reference to it."

He knew Doctor Jackson wanted to protest, but Carter, as he knew she would, stopped him with a hand on his arm and a quiet mutter, before thanking Hammond for his time.

As they both left his office, the general could only hope they would be able to give Jack the unquestioning support he would need.

The door closed behind them and the general turned back to his work, but the feeling he had obeyed his orders just once too often couldn't be shaken.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

He was damned if he'd go see a shrink, especially one who had no idea what the members of SGC units went through on a daily basis. Hell, Mackenzie would be preferable, he at least understood. But it was obvious his mental health wasn't the prime concern here, just a need to cover everything up, sweep it under the carpet and hope their allies never found out. The shrink would be on the phone to DC before Jack's ass had barely left his chair, reporting on whether he was a security risk. He was only glad Teal'c would be spared the indignity, his emotional stability unquestioned. It was better that Jack distance himself from his teammate. It would be safer for Teal'c.

Jack slammed down a second shot of bourbon, grimacing as it passed down his sore throat and hit his still tender stomach, igniting a slow burning.

There was nothing to discuss – he had merely being obeying orders – as always.

As always.

He would deal with the aftermath in his own way, as he always had, and he sure as hell wouldn't be discussing it with anyone any time soon. Certainly not Carter and Daniel.

Crap – if they knew...

He grabbed at the bottle, pouring another glass before staring into its depths morosely.

Daniel had enough trouble understanding he had been obeying orders when he lied to them. How could Daniel possibly understand what he had been ordered to do this time and the result of his actions? And Carter – she hadn't spoken more than two words to him since his return from the first rogue base.

It was so damned unfair.

The wave of loneliness that swept over him was followed swiftly by nausea as the face of the man he killed rose up unbidden in his mind. He swallowed it back down and followed it with a bourbon chaser.

No, it would be far better if he just got out of Dodge, went to ground and licked his wounds.

This time the Air Force could go fuck itself.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"Are you sure we should be doing this?"

Daniel pushed Jack's doorbell again, leaning on it for far longer this time than the last. "Well, I'm not exactly looking forward to being told our friendship is worthless again, but at least this time I have you for backup."

"You don't really think he'd do that."

Daniel shook his head. "No, not really, but I'm worried. There's something going on and I don't think it's good."

"I suppose the general didn't exactly order us to not visit the colonel." Sam noticeably brightened as she spoke, the light of determination in her eyes. "Let's do this. He isn't answering." She pulled a key ring from her jacket pocket and selected a key, pushing it into the lock.

"Maybe he isn't home."

"His truck's in the drive." She gave the door a push, opening it wider and calling out "Colonel O'Neill!"

There was no answer.

"Oh well, we've come this far ..." Daniel moved past her, walking toward the living room. "Jack, you here?"

The house was quiet. Daniel looked around the room, seeing the half empty bottle on the coffee table.

Sam was staring at it too. "What if he's asleep? He won't appreciate it if we wake him. Maybe we should leave."

Where Sam's courage had obviously deserted her, Daniel's had grown at the sight of the bottle. "Only one way to find out." He strode toward the master bedroom.

It was empty.

Daniel pulled open the closet. "He's gone somewhere."

"How do you know?"

He pointed. "There's a lot fewer clothes in here than there should be and one of his suitcases is gone – the one I borrow whenever I go on vacation."

They looked at each other, not sure what to do next.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Six days after he holed up at the small resort in the mountains, Jack was beginning to seriously wonder if he'd done the right thing and what exactly had possessed him. The initial burst of energy that had gotten him moving and on to a plane out of the Springs had worn off very quickly, leaving him with the uneasy feeling that he had finally burnt his bridges. Trouble was, he didn't know now if he wanted to leave them burning or maybe throw a very large bucket of water over the smoldering embers.

He lay on the ridiculously large bed, staring up at the pale tan ceiling, his mind cycling through his possible actions and their probable consequences, while ignoring his body's steadily growing aches and pains.

AWOL.

Or maybe not. He was after all, meant to be on leave.

He pulled his left arm out from under his head and rested it on his chest, closing his eyes as he pictured Hammond's ruddy features, the anger and disappointment plain.

Nope, there was no way he could rationalize what he'd done. The general had made it clear that the appointment with the psychiatrist was not negotiable. And he'd well and truly missed that – by several days. There was probably a search underway for him right now.

Probably – who was he kidding? They definitely would be looking for him. Hammond wouldn't have had any choice in the matter.

Twisting, he sat up, his bare feet cold on the polished floorboards, and scrubbed his hands over his face.

He had to go back – face the music, see if he had any career left. Maybe he could plead temporary insanity. The thought had him giving a short, self-deprecating laugh. Temporary insanity. Wouldn't they just love that. The perfect excuse to lock him away somewhere where he couldn't rock the boat, hide him away where even the Asgard couldn't find him.

God – he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Damned no matter what he did. He was a complete idiot, playing right into the hands of people like Senator Kinsey. Why the hell had he run?

His body ached, his head hurt, and he wanted to throw up. He felt like he was in his eighties rather than his forties. It was a disturbingly familiar feeling, except now he didn't have the comfort of Kynthia's company.

Now what? He could disappear, no problem, hide out for a little longer, just until he had gotten his head on straight. Then call Hammond, try and explain ... what? Explain what? That he wanted to find a hole and crawl into it in the hope that everything would go away? That he felt betrayed and alone?

That he didn't want to do this anymore?

Jack got to his feet slowly and stared around him at the bland walls and the impersonal furnishings. He hadn't spoken to anyone since he arrived, going to ground as soon as he checked in. Was this really what he wanted?

Damn it, no it wasn't.

It was time to go home.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

General Hammond wasn't a man normally given to being easily startled, but the sight of his errant officer standing calmly at the observation window of the Briefing Room, had him taking a step back and wondering if he was having hallucinations.

The general's next reaction was as close to fury as he had experienced in years.

He had been fielding phone calls for days, from the Pentagon, and from everyone up to and including the President of the United States, trying to explain how he had misplaced his second in command, and here the man was, looking for all the world like he was back after just popping down to the cafeteria for a bite to eat.

"Sergeant Harriman!" He barked out the words and noted how O'Neill's back stiffened.

The door to the outer office opened as the colonel turned.

"Sir?" Harriman's gaze was immediately drawn to the second person in the Briefing Room, and Hammond saw the same look of amazement on his face that he knew had been on his own only moments before.

"Find out why I wasn't informed of the colonel's return as soon as he signed in." He continued without pause. "And send in the SF's."

"General, I ..."

At the halting, softly spoken words, he finally focussed his attention on O'Neill. "I don't want to hear it, Colonel." He was already planning his call to the Joint Chiefs as he gave the order for the colonel to be taking to the holding rooms.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"Surely you must know something?"

Teal'c ignored the question, wondering why his teammates seemed to think he would know more than they. He was not privy to the thoughts of General Hammond, nor was he one to whom the base gossips gravitated. It was far more likely that Daniel Jackson would hear any news first.

So why did they persist in asking him?

Instead of answering he continued down the corridor, followed closely by the other members of SG-1 – or at least the members not presently in the SGC holding rooms. However, despite his silence, he couldn't help inwardly speculating on the reason for O'Neill's incarceration. O'Neill had been given leave, and yet General Hammond had ordered him returned to the SGC. Even more puzzling was that now O'Neill had returned he had been put under arrest. Teal'c could only assume whatever had occurred had been a result of their most recent mission.

He must speak with the general and it would be far better to do so without an audience. Turning sharply, he detoured down a side corridor where the chance of being overheard was lessened, and stopped.

"It would be best if you accompany me no further."

"Why?" Major Carter asked, as she halted alongside him. "Where are you going? To see the colonel?"

Teal'c shook his head. "I cannot give you any information. You may discover more if I did not accompany you, and instead made enquiries with others. Now, if you will excuse me ..."

He was already turning the corner before he heard the first protest.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"Hey!" Daniel called after Teal'c but the Jaffa ignored him and was soon out of sight.

"I don't think there's any point trying to follow him." Sam folded her arms as she leaned slightly against the corridor wall, taking time to think about the events of the last hour. She had the uneasy feeling that things were not as they seemed. "What could possibly have riled General Hammond up enough to throw the colonel in a cell?"

"It isn't really a cell, Sam – more like very basic motel accommodation."

"With CCTV and a door locked on the outside. It might as well be a cell as far as the colonel is concerned, and like I said, why would the general have locked him up at all?"

"Jack can be pretty annoying at times."

Sam stared down at the floor as she shook her head. "Not this, the general wouldn't do this." Then a thought struck her, making her numb. "I've only seen the general this angry once before." From the puzzled look on his face it was obvious Daniel hadn't made the same connection, so she continued. "When we thought Colonel O'Neill had stolen from the Tollan."

"No ... they wouldn't ... Jack wouldn't. He'd tell us."

"Would he?"

Daniel turned his back to her and Sam waited, seeing the slump in his shoulders as he considered what she had said.

"Do you really think this is all another act?" He didn't turn but Sam could hear the plea in his voice.

She couldn't say what he wanted her to. "Yes. It's the most logical explanation."

The sudden movement took her by surprise as Daniel spun on his heels to face her again, his eyes flashing with visible anger. "I don't know what I'll do if you're right."

"I might not be." Sam knew she was backpedaling, but she couldn't think what else to say in the face of his anger.

"It fits."

"Yes. It does, but I'm sure if we could just talk to him, he'd explain." She felt like she was going in circles, arguing the same things she was denying a few minutes before.

The fire died in Daniel's eyes, leaving a deep sadness. "Like he did last time? Anyway, I've already tried to talk to Jack and was told he's allowed no visitors."

"None?"

"Apparently not." Daniel started walking, and Sam moved to come pace him. He lowered his voice as they quickly reached the busier section of the level. "Maybe we should hope this is an act, because otherwise I think he's in serious trouble."

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Jack stared listlessly at his surroundings, not even able to summon up the energy to be angry at the circumstances he found himself in.

The thud of the closing door echoed with a finality that at any other time would have made him shudder, reminding him of far worse moments in his military career than this, when he thought there was little chance of escaping his imprisonment.

He glanced briefly at the bare toilet in the corner. At least this time he had one, even if it was a trifle public.

And there was a bed of sorts, not just a dirt floor.

He moved slowly over to the narrow cot and sat, wincing as the pain in his gut worsened. Looked like he should be thankful for whatever toilet facilities he had. Maybe after a meal – something else he could be sure of getting – he would feel better.

The dripping faucet over the small hand basin reminded him of yet another difference to his previous jail experiences. He unconsciously licked his lips at the memory of the small cup of filthy water pushed through the bars at irregular intervals.

Yep – in pretty well all respects this was five star accommodation.

Now, if he could just get the general to listen.

So far he was batting nil for nil. All that sneaking onto the base to take advantage of the element of surprise hadn't gotten him anywhere. He had to admit that he hadn't expected to be just banished to a holding room without even a chance to explain. Boy, Hammond must be mad!

The sound of keys gangling in the lock had him sitting, and he pushed to a position with his back resting against the wall and waited, ready to leap up if it was General Hammond. Unfortunately it was one of the Marine lieutenants. The man carefully balanced a tray in one hand as he pushed open the door then walked to place it on the cabinet beside the bed.

"Here you are, sir, dinner. I'm afraid the coffee is probably a little cold."

"Thanks, I'm sure it will be fine." Jack twisted on the bed, slowly standing. "Could you see the general gets a message from me before he leaves for the evening?"

The young man shook his head apologetically. "I sorry, Colonel, but General Hammond has left orders that he isn't to be disturbed."

Oh boy, this was bad!

"Then could you ask one of my team to visit?" Maybe if he could just talk to Daniel, and tell him, he could explain things to Hammond. Daniel was pretty damned good at getting people to see things from his point of view.

With another shake of his head, the Marine dashed that hope. "I have orders that you aren't permitted any visitors, sir."

"Okay, Lieutenant. Thanks."

There wasn't any point in pursuing it further – it was clear the Marine had his orders. He sat back down as the door was locked again, leaving him alone once more.

It was several minutes before he summoned up the willpower to lift the covers from the plates on the large tray. What he found didn't instill him with confidence. Apart from a dish of chicken macaroni and a plain salad, there were two single serve boxes of cereal, a container of that milk that lasted for weeks and tasted revolting, a small bottle of juice, some peanut butter, and several slices of bread, as well as a bowl, glass, and small plate.

It looked like he couldn't expect to be let out of the holding room any time soon.

Jack picked up the large plastic mug of coffee and grimaced at the lukewarm liquid. He drank it regardless, knowing it was probably the last he'd be given for several hours, then, casting a rather disappointed look at the rapidly congealing pasta, he lay back down, willing his churning stomach to settle again, visions of Leavenworth circling in his head.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"No, my decision is final." Hammond glared at the towering Jaffa standing over him. "Now, if you'll excuse me ..." He made a show of picking up a report, hoping Teal'c would take the hint.

"Very well." Teal'c's answer radiated displeasure and Hammond couldn't help looking up again. For a long moment their eyes met, but the general didn't allow himself to be distracted from his anger over O'Neill's actions. With a curt nod, Teal'c left the office and Hammond expected to see the door reverberate despite its careful closing.

He sighed with frustration. Already there was a red light flashing on his telephone, showing that yet another call was waiting. If only Teal'c realized just how close O'Neill had come to losing everything with this one act of defiance. Even now the hounds were snapping at his heels, and Hammond was beating them off with a stick. The colonel should count himself lucky he was in a holding room at the SGC rather than on his way to some unnamed location in an unmarked van.

Yes, once again Hammond had O'Neill's back, saving him from himself, but he couldn't be let off so easily this time – not given just a slap on the wrist. O'Neill had to realize there were consequences. He had to learn that orders were orders, not requests.

At least he had come back. There was that. Now if only George could convince his superiors to hold off and let him handle his own officer.

O'Neill could stay in the holding room for a few days, not knowing what was going to happen to him.

George gave a grim smile. He could image what the colonel was thinking right now, knowing how many reprimands there already were on his record. He was probably more than ready to throw himself on Hammond's mercy, but he could stew a little longer.

It would do him good.

And maybe his own blood pressure would be lowered by the time he finally worked out a suitable punishment for Colonel O'Neill.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Time seemed to be passing abnormally slowly Jack thought, while he bent at the knees, trying to warm his stiff muscles. He had decided that a little exercise would help with the aches and pains, as well as going some way toward passing the time, but now, standing in the small room, knowing the camera was watching his every move, he was reluctant to begin.

Oh, to hell with it! It wasn't like some nameless grunt hadn't already watched him taking a crap. The video was probably already doing to rounds, to the great amusement of the base personnel.

He dropped to the floor and pushed up.

One.

Down.

Two.

By the time he reached seven push ups he was sweating. On the eleventh he was shaking with the effort, and by the fifteenth he decided to give it up and go back to bed. Much more of this enforced inactivity and he'd be good for nothing but a desk job. Two days – how much longer was he going to be kept in solitary?

He should eat some of the food the lieutenant brought him to replace the almost untouched tray from the previous day, but the selection looked as equally unappetizing. Maybe he should ask for some MREs – they couldn't be any worse.

He flicked the light switch on the lamp near the bed and settled back into the comforting darkness, shutting his eyes, lethargy overtaking him. It was a lethargy he found impossible to shake as the hours past by. Even the cramps that hit some time in the afternoon weren't enough to move him from his curled position, one hand clutched tight over his stomach.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

General Hammond waited as the guard unlocked the desk drawer and pulled the holding room's access card from it. "How is he, Lieutenant?"

"Quiet, sir."

"No complaints."

"No, sir. Colonel O'Neill has barely said a word when I've taken him his supplies."

Hammond gestured to the young man to precede him down the long corridor, concealing the slight unease he felt as he past the line of featureless doors. It was strange how this level felt so much deeper somehow than the one on which his own office was situated, despite being far closer to the surface.

Finally they reached the holding room O'Neill was in, and at his nod, the lieutenant swiped the card down the reader, before also unlocking the door with the key he carried.

"You may return to your post." Normal protocol demanded any visitor to a prisoner be accompanied by at least one guard, but this wasn't just any prisoner, and the general was damned if he was going to allow a witness to hear what he was about to say to the colonel. The gossip was already bad enough – something else O'Neill would just have to deal with when he returned to duty.

He looked into the small room, seeing that the man appeared to be asleep, facing the wall – not even reacting to the sound of the door being unlocked.

"On your feet, Colonel!" Determined to start the way he intended to continue, Hammond's tone was sharp and uncompromising, but instead of the immediate reaction he expected, O'Neill barely moved, only his twitching shoulder showing he had heard the order. Hammond waited, but there was no further reaction from the colonel except to bury his head further into the pillow.

Feeling the vein in his head pulsing in time with his rising ire, the general took a step forward, then stopped. There was no point in getting into a shouting match. A visit from the very psychiatrist he had been so anxious to avoid might be just the cold water O'Neill needed to bring him to his senses. It would have to be carefully arranged so that the doctor saw as little of the base as necessary, but it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. Then Hammond would think up some far more creative punishment – confining him to his office to finish paperwork was not an option this time. Maybe a long secondment to Elmendorf Air Force Base and the Alaskan branch of NORAD – O'Neill had always been vocal in his dislike for cold climates after his experiences in Antarctica.

The general left the holding room, feeling slightly calmer as he slammed the door violently.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Jack was vaguely aware of someone entering the room, but a blinding stab of pain ripped through his abdomen, freezing him where he lay.

Oh, Christ, this was far more than some stomach ache. This was something serious and for once he wouldn't mind if the doctor came and stabbed him with some of those big needles.

Help, he needed help ... but he found he couldn't ask for it, when he opened his mouth to speak his mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood.

General Hammond's voice echoed through him, but he couldn't make out the words, just the harsh tone.

He fisted his hand, clutching at the blanket under him, trying to lift his head – anything – and with a push, he managed to turn on to his back – just as the door closed.

The blood in his mouth came flooding in, filling it and drowning him with its flow. There was nothing he could do as he writhed, trying to catch a breath of air through the liquid. He wasn't even aware of falling off the low bed, landing face down on the floor, a crimson tide surrounding him.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Janet Fraiser actually found herself whistling, something she hadn't done in public for years – not since that embarrassing time when...

She was in such a good mood that she smiled at the memory. Nothing was going to get her down, not after the great vacation she'd had. Everything had gone perfectly. Cassandra and Helen had hit it off immediately, and the two girls had become inseparable for the whole time they stayed at Annabelle and Greg's house. As for Disney World – Janet grinned as she pictured her daughter's face as she raced from ride to ride, her teenage poise lost in the excitement.

She couldn't wait to show Sam the photos.

There didn't even seem to be much work waiting for her return. Her in tray was surprisingly empty and the infirmary only had two patients – a young lieutenant from SG-10 with a minor rash on his hands and face that seemed no worse than poison ivy, caused by an offworld plant, and one of his colleagues, with a matching rash on a rather more embarrassing part of his body.

There was a rap on the door and Doctor Hamilton entered. Janet smiled a greeting and gestured for him to sit.

"Thanks for all your hard work, Peter. I hope there wasn't too much to do while I've been gone."

The man smiled back as he stretched his short legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. "No, nothing major at all – quite a disappointment considering all the warnings you gave me. It probably helped that SG-1 was taken off the mission roster."

"They were?" Janet raised an eyebrow inquiringly. "Any medical reason I should know about?"

"No, nothing. Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c completed one offworld mission but checked out fine on their return, and Doctor Jackson and Major Carter stayed on base." He shifted uncomfortably. "Of course, now the colonel is under arrest SG-1 is grounded indefinitely."

"Under arrest?" Janet winced at the high note her question ended on, almost making it sound like a squeak rather than a word. "What do you mean under arrest? Why?"

"I thought you knew." Hamilton sat forward, his pleasure at being the first to tell her the gossip obvious. "No one knows why. He's been in a holding room on Level 16 since Tuesday."

"Haven't you spoken to the general about it?"

Hamilton shook his head. "No. I saw no reason to, and he's been in a terrible mood all week, since he ordered Colonel O'Neill be brought back to base under arrest."

"What?" This time Janet almost shouted the single word. "Brought back here from where?" What had been going on while she was away? And all this was on Colonel O'Neill's own planet!

"That's something else no one seems to know. The colonel just turned up again without any warning and was thrown in the holding room straightaway."

"Didn't you do the normal medical examination required on a prisoner?" Janet knew he hadn't, if he had there would have been a report in her tray, but she waited for her fellow doctor's answer.

He had the grace to look embarrassed. "I didn't see that it was necessary. I examined him only a few days before, on his return from his mission. He had nothing more than some minor contusions to his neck."

She shuffled through the files, finally pulling out the one containing the latest personnel medicals, and leafing through them until she found the colonel's.

After a few minutes she looked up and fixed her colleague with a glare. "This isn't very thorough, Doctor. In fact I would go as far as to say it is perfunctory." She pushed her chair back on its rollers. "We'll speak about this further later, Doctor Hamilton, at the moment I have a patient to see!"

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"I'm sorry, Doctor Fraiser, General Hammond's orders were clear – no visitors what so ever under any circumstances."

Janet tapped her foot, using it as a release for her agitation. "I am not a visitor. I'm a doctor – the chief medical officer of this base – and I have authority to see any prisoner without needing the general's permission to do so."

She was pleased to see the guard gulp. "General Hammond is with the colonel now, ma'am. Perhaps you could take it up with him?"

"Why don't I just do that, Sergeant?" She pushed past the Marine, taking advantage of his reluctance to physically stop her.

Her tactic didn't get her far. She was only a few feet down the corridor when she saw the general hurrying toward her, his face thunderous. He came to an abrupt halt.

"Doctor. Welcome back."

"Thank you, sir." She frowned as she took in his flushed face. "I understand Colonel O'Neill is a guest in the holding rooms." She flourished her bag. "I was about to examine him."

"That won't be necessary, Doctor."

The general stepped aside to let Lieutenant Wheeler pass. Janet noted the tray of food he carried and wondered at its quantity, but she dismissed that issue for the moment, continuing her argument, while keeping her tone polite and respectful.

"Oh? Has another doctor carried out the examination as per regulations, General? I understood Doctor Hamilton hadn't done so."

She held the general's gaze and saw his eyes narrow slightly. With some internal trepidation she waited for his reply.

"Colonel O'Neill is ..." Hammond's words were drowned out by the P.A.

"Medical emergency in holding room 7-26. Medical emergency in holding room 7-26."

They both took off running.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

General Hammond's rush ended abruptly when he reached the door of Colonel O'Neill's room. The sight that met him stopped him cold.

"I think he's killed himself."

The general tore his horrified gaze from his fallen officer to find Lieutenant Wheeler's wide eyes staring straight at him out of a pale face. He reached out his hand, gripping the lieutenant's arm tightly as the young man swayed.

"What happened?" He was surprised at how calm he sounded.

"I ..." Wheeler swayed again, and Hammond tightened his grip. "I heard a thump and found ..." He turned his head slightly in the direction of the holding room's interior, but stopped, paling further. "Is he ...?"

Hammond released his arm. "I don't know, son. Go and sit down. I'll send someone to take your report as soon as I can."

He didn't wait for the lieutenant to leave. He turned quickly and hurried as near to Doctor Fraiser's side as he could reach without stepping in the ever-widening pool of blood that surrounded O'Neill.

It seemed to be everywhere.

"Doctor?"

"He's still alive, sir – barely." She had already shifted O'Neill into the recovery position, on his right side. "I can't see any obvious wound and most of the blood seems to be from his mouth. Although ..." She looked down and Hammond saw the spreading stain covering the colonel's lower body. "He could have ingested poison."

They both heard the strangled gasp from the fallen man.

"Oh, dear Lord." George felt his heart clench at the desperation in the sound.

"Damn it, where's the medical team!"

They were arriving as she spoke and the general moved aside to give them room while Fraiser snapped out rapid orders, including for someone to search the room for possible sources of poison. It was mere minutes before they were once again heading up the corridor, the doctor glued to the gurney's side.

Hammond stood, staring after them.

Then he stared back down at the pool of red staining the floor.

Had he driven Jack to this? To taking his own life?

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"Jack's in the infirmary!" Sam gave a start of surprise as Daniel ran into the lab, coming to a screeching halt at her stool. "He tried to kill himself."

"What! No, that can't be right. What happened? Is he all right?" She was already leaving the laboratory, operating purely on autopilot.

"I don't know. He drank something."

Sam thumped the elevator call button, hitting it several times, willing it to hurry. Where was it? Why did the damn things always have to be so slow?

"Who told you? Maybe they got it wrong."

"Sam." She dragged her eyes from the lit button to look at Daniel. He met her gaze and held it. "It was Walter. I was waiting to see General Hammond when he got the news. Janet and the general were visiting the cells when it happened."

She barely realized she was entering the open elevator doors.

The colonel... Jack...

The doors slid open again and she followed Daniel blindly, the pounding of her heart loud enough in her ears to deafen her.

Teal'c was there, standing solidly at the main infirmary door, and through her own panic she could see his far more concealed, but still visible worry.

"I was prevented from entering. O'Neill was taken into the operating theatre before I could speak with Doctor Fraiser."

"Operating theatre ..."

"This can't be happening."

She must have spoken aloud, although she didn't think she had, because Daniel answered.

"It is."

Sam felt the tears forming, blinking them back as a solid rock of despair settled in her stomach.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

The silence in the Briefing Room contrasted strongly with the muted buzz of speculation that filled the SGC's corridors. The three people sitting at the large table made no attempt to talk, each lost in their own thoughts.

Daniel looked up as the door opened, but the sight of General Hammond's solemn face did nothing to relieve his fear about what was happening up in the medical facility. He automatically got to his feet, but dropped gratefully back into his chair at the general's command to sit.

Hammond didn't waste words. He came straight to the point. "Colonel O'Neill is still in the OR. At the moment his condition is critical. Apparently whatever he swallowed has damaged his stomach wall, which they are attempting to repair. I've ask that word be sent as soon as the operation is completed."

"Did Janet say what the poison was?"

Hammond shook his head in reply to Sam's question. "I didn't speak to Doctor Fraiser, but Doctor Hamilton told me they were still unclear as to the cause. They're running blood tests to pinpoint the substance."

"I do not believe O'Neill would take his own life. What proof do you have of this? Has anything been found in his holding room that could account for such symptoms?"

Daniel nodded in agreement. "Teal'c's right, General. What reason would Jack have to do this?" He had a sudden thought, one that put a whole new spin on the situation. "Have you considered that someone else could have given him the poison to make it look like he tried to commit suicide?"

"Yes, that could be it!" Sam jumped in before the general could speak, her expression going from depressed to animated in an instant. "Perhaps there are more of the rogue NID here on Earth. There could be another traitor here on base." She almost looked pleased at the idea.

"I'm sorry, but we are almost certain that is not the case. Colonel Makepeace was the only member of the SGC in the rogue organization."

Hammond's gaze passed over each of them and Daniel saw the compassion and the understanding in it. He felt the hope die as Teal'c nodded in acceptance of the general's words.

Sam wasn't quite so ready to give up. "How can you be sure, sir? I still think it's far more likely that the colonel's been poisoned than he tried to ..." Her words petered out as if she was reluctant to say the terrible phrase aloud.

"I can't divulge that information, Major. Suffice it to say that line of inquiry, although it won't be ignored completely, is unlikely to be fruitful, and leave it at that." The order was clear, but he lowered his voice as he continued. "I'm afraid we have to assume the scenario we all most hope is untrue is the more likely one."

There was a moment of silence as they each took in what the general had said.

The general pressed his hands together and rested them on the table, his fingers interlocked, and when he spoke again, it was with obvious sympathy. "Who was the last of you to speak with Colonel O'Neill? Did he give any indication that he was depressed?"

Daniel caught Sam's eye as he thought back, trying to remember exactly when the last time he had spoken to Jack was.

After the mission he went on with Teal'c?

No, he hadn't seen Jack then.

He was shocked to realize it was almost two weeks since he'd last spoken with his friend. He saw the realisation dawn in Sam's eyes at the same time and she swallowed before she spoke.

"I haven't really talked to the colonel since he returned from his covert mission, sir."

General Hammond gave Sam a sharp look at her answer to his question. He raised an eyebrow and turned to Daniel.

"Doctor Jackson?"

"We had coffee the day after he got back from leave, just before he went with Teal'c, but we didn't talk much. He seemed fine."

But he hadn't really seemed fine, had he, Daniel thought. Jack had been quiet and subdued and they'd both been more than happy when he was called to the Control Room.

"You are already aware of O'Neill's mood on our return from the last mission."

To Daniel's surprise Hammond ignored Teal'c's comment. His fingers drummed an anxious beat on the tabletop. "So none of you has spoken to Colonel O'Neill for several days?"

"We have been unable to speak with O'Neill, General Hammond. You gave the orders yourself." The Jaffa's voice was matter-of-fact, but Hammond shifted uncomfortably.

"May I ask why you had Colonel O'Neill arrested, General?" Hammond glared at him, but Daniel refused to back down. "If Jack has tried to kill himself, which I very much doubt, maybe the answer lies there?"

This time he was sure he saw the general flinch and his shoulders slump a little. But despite his posture, the general's answer was clipped and firm. "Colonel O'Neill disobeyed a direct order, the details of which I will not discuss." Hammond pushed back on his chair, rising from the table. "I will let you know when there is more news."

Sam got to her feet as well. "May I have permission to assist in the search of the holding room, sir."

"No, Major Carter, that search has been completed. Nothing was found except some cleaning materials. They are being analyzed now."

"So Jack can't have tried to kill himself!" Daniel almost shouted the words in his excitement.

Hammond shot Daniel a quizzical look, then nodded in sympathy. "I certainly hope not, son, although the chemicals cannot be ruled out. We have to wait on the test results before we can know more."

The realisation that Jack could have been depressed enough to drink something like toilet cleaner sent a wave of nausea through Daniel.

"When was the last time you spoke with O'Neill, General Hammond?"

Once again Teal'c's calmly spoken words seemed to unnerve the general. Daniel noticed his hesitation before he replied.

"Today was the first time for several days. Doctor Hamilton said he was probably already feeling the effects of the poison."

"O'Neill had been under arrest for three days and in that time had spoken with no one but his guards." Again the words were unemotional, but filled with meaning.

Hammond stiffened. He nodded, then turned to Sam. "Major Carter, would you and Doctor Jackson please go over the room's surveillance tapes and see if there is anything that can help. Teal'c ..."

Teal'c interrupted. "I shall wait in the infirmary to ensure I receive news of O'Neill."

"Very well. Please inform us immediately you hear anything."

The general turned and entered his office, shutting the door behind him.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

General Hammond dropped into his desk chair and opened the bottom drawer, the bottle of fine malt whiskey more appealing today than it had been for a very long time.

Was Doctor Jackson correct? Had Jack been poisoned? Or was that just his guilty conscience looking for an out? Heaven knew, he had certainly heaped enough on to the man's shoulders to weigh down the average human being several times over – from the original mission to the insistence O'Neill bare his soul to the Pentagon's tame psychiatrist. He'd known they didn't have Jack's interest at heart, but instead of doing everything he could think of to change their minds, he had gone along with it, like the good officer he was, and had damned Jack in the process.

The colonel's flight from his orders had been a cry for help, one he had ignored. Even his actions in returning to the SGC with as little fanfare as possible had shouted that he wanted to talk, to overcome their differences.

And what had he done? He had ignored the cry, refusing not just to listen, but also to even try to understand. Despite what he had said to the rest of the colonel's team, Jack wasn't the sort of officer to disobey orders – not unless he had a very, very good reason. How many times did the man have to prove himself before George trusted him?

Hammond firmly shut the drawer again and stared at his hands, thinking about the many times Jack had turned disasters into miracles.

He had deserved more from him. He came to a decision - whatever the cause of the colonel's condition, George would be there for him, supporting him in any way possible.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Janet blinked her eyes wearily, trying to get rid of the tiredness that threatened to drop her where she stood, and once again attempted to concentrate on the report on her computer screen.

Colonel O'Neill was finally in the ICU and she could relax, if only a little. Three holes had been found in his stomach wall and more in his intestines and Doctor Warner had repaired them in an operation that was straightforward enough, but time consuming. Now they needed the results of the tests to identify the cause and begin the correct treatment to ensure no more damage was done.

A knock on her office door heralded the very results she was waiting on, and she barely acknowledged the lab technician before she was reading through them, her eyes widening at the content. She hurried into the ICU, needing to confirm with her own eyes what she had read.

A thin line of red ran from the corner of colonel's mouth, falling to stain the white hospital sheets. The hollows of his face were deep, his cheekbones standing out prominently, making his eyes appear sunken.

Janet gave the duty nurse a quick greeting before beginning her examination of the still sleeping man. When she was done she stepped back.

The signs were all there.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"Radiation poisoning!"

Janet watched as her companions each reacted to the news she was giving them. Sam's hand was at her mouth, as if she was trying to prevent herself from being sick, while Daniel had half risen, subsiding again to sit, staring vaguely at the table top. It was General Hammond's reaction that was the most extreme. His face had visibly paled then he stood, pushing his chair back violently, turning his back on the others in the room.

"General? Are you all right?" She began to rise, suddenly concerned for the older man's own health.

It seemed Janet was not the only one to be alarmed by the general's reaction. Teal'c had followed him up, his expression changing from troubled to worried in the blink of an eye.

"I'm fine, Doctor. It's not me you should be worried about." Hammond turned, his demeanor once more that of a commander, a lingering paleness the only sign of his previous distress. "If you would explain your findings ...?"

The general resumed his seat and Janet, after giving the man a searching look, sat back down as well. Teal'c stayed standing, taking up a position between Sam and Daniel's chairs as if lending his teammates support.

"All the tests we have carried out confirm that, rather than a self administered poison, Colonel O'Neill is suffering from the effects of exposure to radiation. The bleeding from his mouth and rectum, and now his gums, are classic signs. Did he complain of feeling nauseous or seem tired to you recently?" She waited for their answer, already certain that the colonel wouldn't have done anything of the sort.

What she hadn't expected was the embarrassed looks exchanged by two of the three members of SG-1 in the room.

"Ah... I haven't spoken much with Jack lately. He seemed fine when I saw him last."

The memory of the barbeque before she went on vacation rose in her mind as Daniel spoke, and Janet gave an exasperated sigh.

"You aren't still giving the colonel the cold shoulder, are you?"

Daniel shook his head. "No, Sam and I spoke about it but we hadn't had a chance to talk to him before he went on the mission with Teal'c."

"How long ago did the exposure take place, Doctor? Could it have been on the planet we visited last? I did notice that O'Neill ate little while on the mission, however I put the cause down to other considerations." Janet noted the look the Jaffa gave the general as he spoke, and wondered at the undercurrents she felt, but elected to ignore them and concentrate on the colonel's problem.

"I doubt it. We can't be sure, but judging by results I have here it could have been several weeks ago, possibly a month or more. The colonel would have been feeling ill for quite some time. I'm surprised none of you realized ..." She paused, but when no one spoke, she continued. "He would have been in a great deal of pain even a few days ago. He didn't say or do anything to give you any indication before he was placed in the holding room, sir?"

"I didn't give him a chance." General Hammond stared her straight in the eyes, as if daring her to protest. "I didn't give him a chance to say anything. He tried, but I wouldn't listen. He had been acting a little uncharacteristically. Would the radiation sickness have affected his judgment?"

She thought for a moment, then nodded. "Colonel O'Neill has been under a lot of stress lately." She gave each of the people around her a sharp look. "Combined with the increasing effects of the radiation exposure he certainly wouldn't have been thinking as clearly as he normally would."

"But how is he?" It was Daniel that brought the conversation back to what was most important.

"Colonel O'Neill is extremely ill." Janet heard Sam's quick intake of breath. "We haven't been able to identify the radiation. He's being given a blood transfusion due to his low red blood cell count. Another concern is secondary infection, so he is being given antibiotics. When he comes around he'll still be in a great deal of pain, so we'll also administer pain killers as well as antiemetics to stop the nausea."

"And they'll cure him?"

"There is no cure I know of." There, she had said it, and now she finally looked down, unable to watch the horror grow in their faces. She turned a page, not reading it, just so that she could avoid their eyes. "All I can do is help relieve the symptoms." She carried on, giving them what little information she knew herself. "There are some drugs that could help, but without knowing the source or type of radiation ..." She allowed her words to trail off while she buttoned down her anger at what she had learnt in the last few minutes, trying not to think about how the colonel must have felt – sick and hurting and very alone.

"What do you need from us, Doctor? What can we do to help?"

Janet turned her attention to the general. "The first priority is to identify the source of the radiation. I would also like to request some of the drugs I mentioned, so that they are on hand if needed." At Hammond's nod she continued. "Colonel O'Neill should be coming around in an hour or so. He's going to need all the support we can give him, especially as he is likely to get worse." She turned her gaze to include the others. "It isn't going to be easy, not for him, not for any of us. I won't sugar-coat things – he may not win the battle." She saw Teal'c nod and knew he at least understood. "The general asked what was needed. There is a simple answer. The colonel will need his friends." She gave them all a firm stare, allowing her anger to show. "Will he have them?"

"Of course."

Daniel nodded as Sam answered, echoing her emphatic reply while Teal'c gave a brief bow of his head.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Waking to the sounds of the infirmary was, for once, a relief to Jack. He hadn't thought he would wake up at all after the final moments face down on the floor of the holding room.

He remembered the awful feeling of suffocation as his whole throat became awash with blood and the struggle to breathe through the choking wetness.

And he also remembered the helplessness he felt as the general left him.

So he lay quietly, tasting anesthetic in his mouth and with comforting drugged clouds floating in his head.

"Sir? Colonel?"

Janet's voice came hard on the heels of the first doubts that all was completely well. A deep, solid ache spread across his body, like he was being squashed under the weight of tons of stones, like he was being trampled under the foot of some huge beast. It seemed he must have made some sound, perhaps a grunt as the monster's foot settled over his stomach, crushing it, because the Doc was there, calling.

Opening his eyes, Jack could do little more than swallow, hoping to coax some moisture into his bone-dry mouth to allow just enough speech to ask for something, anything, to stop the ever increasing pain.

"Here, sir." As always, Janet anticipated his needs, spooning cool ice into his waiting mouth. "Take your time. Don't try to talk."

He wasn't going to. Talking would be far beyond his capabilities just at the moment. Just breathing was effort enough, even with the help of the tubes blowing air straight up his nose and making him want to sneeze.

The doctor fiddled with something and warmth flowed through him, taking just a little edge off the agony. Surely a stomach ache shouldn't be this painful?

Various causes cycled through his fogged brain. Appendicitis? An ulcer? He knew he hadn't been stabbed in the stomach – that wasn't something you could forget happening. And none of those could account for the all encompassing sense of 'wrongness' that enveloped him.

Proving himself a liar, he did manage to talk, albeit just a vague sound.

"Whaa …?"

And once again Janet showed that she was way too familiar with his infirmary-speak, because she seemed to know exactly what he was asking. She bent down to him, almost sitting on the bed.

"You're very sick, sir. It's radiation poisoning."

Radiation. Even dopey on the Doc's happy-juice Jack knew that wasn't good. In fact it was very, very bad. It didn't sound like something you bounced back from after a short hospital stay.

Quite the opposite.

He turned his head, swallowing hard, but this time not because of thirst.

Janet put a hand on his left shoulder and squeezed it gently. The light pressure was enough to make him tremble, but he didn't ask her to take her hand away. She spoke again and he knew he should be listening, but he already knew what she was telling him.

He was dying and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"O'Neill."

Jack turned to the sound of the deep voice, biting back the groan that threatened to escape when the movement sent sharp needles of pain arching through what seemed to be every bone in his body.

"Hey, T. What's happening?"

"Not a lot is happening, O'Neill. It is amazingly quiet without your presence. The SGC appears to be running smoothly and efficiently. I shall endeavor to not draw the obvious conclusion."

"Of course."

Daniel nodded as Sam answered, echoing her emphatic reply while Teal'c gave a brief bow of his head.

It really wasn't worth the agony, but Jack couldn't help it. He dissolved into a fit of laughter. By the end of it he was almost crying, while Teal'c's strong hands supported him.

"I am sorry, O'Neill." For once the distress was clear in Teal'c's voice.

Jack waved his concern off with a weak brush of the hand not tethered by the IV.

"It's okay. I needed the laugh." Because there certainly wasn't much else to find humor in, Jack thought, still trying to get his racing pulse back to what passed for normal these days.

He moved to lie back on the raised pillows, grateful for Teal'c's help, and shut his eyes, unable to fight the pull of sleep.

"How is he?" The words were softly spoken, but enough to rouse Jack from his doze.

Licking his dry lips, he murmured an answer. "Just peachy, Daniel. Thanks for asking."

"Sorry, did we wake you, sir?"

He kept his eyes shut, not wanting to bring back the headaches that had finally lessened now that Janet had refined the cocktail of drugs she was dosing him with.

"No, not really." He waited and when the silence grew longer, tugged his eyelids apart, wincing at the light.

Carter was hovering at the foot of the bed while Daniel was standing over him, his gaze moving slowly over Jack's face. When their eyes met he blinked, looking guilty, as if caught out.

Jack didn't bother commenting. He didn't need to see himself in a mirror to know how bad he looked.

"Look, Jack, I'm really sorry about the way I acted ... before ..."

"Forget it." He couldn't say the words he knew Daniel needed to hear, but at least he could give him that much. And it wasn't important anymore, not now.

"I can't forget it. I was too busy thinking of my hurt feelings to consider your point of view. Sam and I talked about it and she made me realize that you were only doing what you had been ordered to do."

"I want to apologize too, sir..."

Jack stopped listening as memories of hurt feelings and words exchanged in the heat of anger were submerged in the waves of pain that ripped through his chest, eating through the morphine induced haze and making his whole body shake. He tried to not cry out, to accept the strength from the arms that again held him tight, but a whimper escaped.

Janet was there, saying something about staying calm, but he fixed his eyes on the face closest to his – Daniel's – looking almost as pale as he knew he did. He saw fear there, and a deep sadness.

"Don't care ... don't want you to ... not important ..."

"What?" Daniel leaned in closer. "I didn't catch that."

He couldn't choke out the words past the terrible dryness in his throat and he needed to make them understand.

Before his time ran out.

He reached out a hand and felt it taken and held gently as he faded away.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Despite being asleep, the colonel's face contorted and Sam watched as he drew his knees partially up to his chest, as if in an attempt to relieve some of the pain that must be coursing through him. It must be terrible, she thought, if he felt it even through the increasingly strong drugs Janet was administering.

As she sat by the bed, her eyes took in every inch of his appearance, right down to the smallest detail, something she could never allow herself to do when he was well.

It was shocking how much a man could change in such a short space of time. His skin was tight across his far too prominent cheekbones and had the same unnatural whiteness as that of an old-fashioned porcelain doll. What little remained of his hair was thin and wispy, loose strands coming away as he moved his head weakly, turning and moaning while he dreamed.

She had never seen him look so vulnerable.

Even when he had screamed in pain as the Goa'uld burrowed its way into his neck, he had been defiant, insulting his enemy until the last possible minute and fighting with everything he had to stay himself.

She didn't think he had any fight left in him now. Any strength he had was consumed by the sickness eating away at him.

Closing her eyes, Sam fought to control her emotions. This was far too familiar. Far too personal.

Her father hadn't wanted her to watch him die, keeping his illness from her until the last possible moment, but those last few weeks after he'd moved to Colorado Springs, she hadn't been able to stay away.

She never realized just how evil cancer could be until she'd seen her father suffering.

"You're crying."

She hastily brushed the back of her hand across her face, wiping away tears she couldn't hold back.

"No ..."

Her denial was dismissed before it had even begun.

"Don't lie to me, Carter. Not now."

She nodded, unable to object to the order even though it was given in a voice so unlike that she was use to obeying.

"Why?"

"I ..." She stopped, wondering how she could explain what she felt, watching someone she cared for waste away all over again.

The silence was punctuated by the sound of shallow, straining breaths. She just sat there as the tears refused to stop.

"Don't cry for me. I'm not worth it."

The words made her lift her head. That he would think such a thing...

"You've made such a difference to so many people ..."

The hooded eyes that stared into hers blinked, and his lips thinned even further as he twisted his head away.

She realized what she had said ... and how wrongly he might take it.

"You've changed whole civilizations. Made their lives better, freed them from slavery. You're a leader, sir – and a good person. I couldn't ask for a better example of an officer. And for a better friend." She gently tugged on his arm, bringing him reluctantly around to face her again. "And I'm sorry I haven't told you this before."

He didn't say anything, just stared back at her with eyes that seemed to see far too much, but his left hand patted at hers softly before falling back to the sheets. She took a tissue from the box by the bed and wiped away the few drops of blood that ran from between his lips and watched again as his eyes closed and he fell asleep once more.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Lou Ferretti brushed a stray hair from his eyes, grimacing at the sweat that had accumulated under his hat band. It sure was hotter on this planet than he expected, but then he hadn't been here before, so maybe this was normal.

"Is it always this hot around here, Major?"

Sam Carter didn't bother turning but he could see her head shaking. "No, it's quite mild at other times of the year. Pleasant." She was scanning the area around the Gate. "Someone's coming."

"Fair day." The man uttered the local greeting as he approached, and Lou could see he was middle-aged and fit, his clothes simple, but well made. "You come from Earth – Jack O'Neill's planet?"

Lou nodded. "Yes.. I'm Major Ferretti and this is Major Carter. Colonel O'Neill is the reason we're here."

The man interrupted, staring at each of them in turn. "He is not with you? I had hoped ..."

Lou exchanged a puzzled glance with Sam at his distressed expression, and was about to speak when the man's face cleared as if coming to a decision. "It cannot be helped. I have not introduced myself. I am Paynan, chief representative of our village." He smiled briefly at Sam. "I remember you from before. You helped my people escape to your planet during the fire rain. Please come – you are welcome." He gestured toward the nearby cluster of houses.

"Thank you." Lou began to move in the direction Paynan indicated, matching his stride to the taller man's with Sam hurrying to walk at his other side. Lou could see how anxious she was to get to work, so he gave her a small nod to explain their mission.

"I'm afraid Colonel O'Neill is very sick. We hoped, with your permission of course, to take samples from the soil and plants to see if his illness is related to his stay on Edora. They might help us to find a cure for him."

"O'Neill is sick?" Paynan threw them each a very worried look, frowning deeply. "Laira is also sick. That is why I hoped O'Neill was with you. I fear she does not have long to live and she wishes to see him."

Lou stopped dead, a sudden thought occurring to him – what if this was contagious? "Sick? What about the rest of your people? Anyone else sick?" He was somewhat relieved at Paynan's reply.

"No. Only Laira. We have never seen such a sickness. She is wasting away as we watch. It is very painful for her son and his new wife to see. Perhaps you have something that can help?" Paynan gave them a hopeful look which faded at Lou's answer.

"We can certainly have our doctors examine her, but we'd have to take her back to the SGC. Could we see her?"

"I fear she is too close to death to make such a journey, but please – she would welcome your visit.." He pointed to a house near the lake. "Garan is with her."

"The samples?"

He waved his hand. "Take what you want. If it can help O'Neill we will be happy to give what you need. He is a good man. I'll tell Garan you're here." He turned and hurried away, almost running along the short track into the town.

Sam pulled off her pack, unzipping it. "I'll get the samples, Lou. Could I have Sergeant Shaw's help?"

After giving his sergeant the order to assist Major Carter, and making sure the rest of his team were on hand if she needed further help, Lou knocked at the heavy wooden door, waiting for the call to enter.

The door was opened by a young man. "Fair day. Paynan told me you are from Jack's planet and that he is also sick, like my mother. This is sad news. Please – will you come talk with her?"

Blinking to help his eyes adjust to the dim light in the room, Lou followed Garan into a small bedroom. He couldn't help the start of surprise when he saw the woman lying on the bed, covered by a brightly woven blanket despite the heat. She looked old and sick, ravaged by illness, undoubtedly the same one killing Jack O'Neill. Her face was gaunt and her limbs almost skeletal, her complete lack of hair emphasising the seriousness of her condition. One hand was bandaged and Lou could see the dull red of dried blood staining the cloth.

"Come closer." Laira's voice was weak, but Lou could still clearly make out her words and obeyed, dropping into the chair beside the bed. "Jack is sick? Like me?"

"Yes. We think it could be something to do with the meteors."

"But why then is no one else sick, only my mother and Jack?" Garan asked.

"We don't know. That's something the samples Major Carter is taking may tell us."

Laira's fingers clutched at his sleeve, snagging the thick fabric. "I am dying. Is Jack?"

He couldn't lie, but he found it very hard to answer – to say the words and admit it to himself as well as to her. "Yes, he is."

"And what you find in the things you take back from our world could help him?" Her voice was fading as she struggled to breathe.

Lou nodded again. "Yes, they could. Our doctors will test them and may find the answer."

"It will be too late for me I fear, but perhaps in dying I may somehow help Jack."

Garan gave a choking sob.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

'His major organs are beginning to fail.'

Fraiser's words kept reverberating through General Hammond's head as he placed the receiver back on its base, not really aware of what he had said to the captain from Stores.

Jack was dying and there didn't seem to be anything that could be done to stop it.

George deeply regretted that duty had kept him too busy to see O'Neill, and he had to admit, he also regretted the sense of shame that had made his feet drag and turn away from the infirmary every time he could have taken a break. He had finally visited the colonel just an hour ago, arriving in the ICU to find he was too late to talk to him. As Jack's body shut down the medical staff had been forced to up the pain killers, and now he was unconscious.

The radiation sickness had taken a terrible toll on the usually vibrant man. In the space of a few days his hair had thinned and fallen out in clumps, the ulcers in his stomach and intestines had increased in size and number, and severe anaemia had left him a ghost of his former self.

There were so many regrets, so many things he wanted to explain, all now left unsaid. At least when his dear wife had died they had been prepared and he had a chance to say his goodbyes. He had always held on to those final memories, remembering the love, and although he never for one moment didn't wish her back, he knew it had been time for her to go.

This ... this was unfair.

"Sir?" Sergeant Harriman appeared at the partially open door. "SG-2 has reported in. They're returning in ten minutes."

"Thank you, Sergeant. Please tell Major Graham I'll be there immediately."

He waited a moment before standing, taking a second to enjoy the sudden feeling of optimism. Major Ferretti and his team, along with Major Carter, had been on Edora pursuing their most promising lead in the search for the source of the radiation.

Tests showed Colonel O'Neill's blood contained a small trace of naquadah –– something that had not been seen when given his medical examination after his last mission. The discovery had led Major Carter to request she be allowed to visit P5C-768.

The general paused at the top of the stairs leading to the Control Room, looking down at the activity below him. It all looked so normal, so routine, and yet he could almost feel the tension from where he stood. Everyone on the base was anxious for any news that could help the SGC's popular 2IC.

SG-2's identification code was being received as he took his customary place at the observation window overlooking the Gate Room. He nodded to Major Graham, gave the order to open the iris, and watched as it rolled its leaves back, allowing the wormhole to spit itself onto Earth. It had barely settled before Major Carter and the members of SG-2 walked down the ramp.

It was what they had with them that made Hammond lean forward and call a query into the microphone.

"Major Ferretti? Please explain."

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

The shower went some way toward washing off the clamminess of the Edoran summer, but Sam knew it would take a long soak in a tub before she felt truly clean. She hurried to dry herself and dress, wanting to get to the briefing with General Hammond as quickly as possible. The brief glance she had seen of Colonel O'Neill through the door of the ICU was enough to remind her that they had very little time to spare.

And now Laira's body was lying in the SGC's small morgue.

At least they had something more to go on – more pieces to add to the puzzle. When they had explained what happened during an autopsy, Garan was horrified, but Laira had insisted, saying she didn't care what happened to her body after she was dead if it helped Jack in any way. It had only taken a short time for Garan to agree, once he had seen how adamant his mother was.

Daniel and Teal'c were already in the Briefing Room when she reached it and she took the opportunity to pour a coffee, carrying it to the table and sipping it while still standing. She nodded a greeting to Lou Ferretti and Janet as they entered and took seats on the opposite side to her.

The debriefing started as soon as General Hammond took his customary chair at the head of the table. Sam was the first to speak, describing what they had found when they arrived on the planet.

"I took readings and samples from the soil and vegetation around the village, sir. As we suspected, there were traces of the same radiation that has affected Colonel O'Neill. It was especially concentrated in the areas directly hit by the meteors."

Lou took up the story. "None of the villagers seemed to be sick, but we hadn't been there long when we discovered that Laira was very ill."

"Doctor? Have you had time to form an opinion?"

Janet nodded in reply to the general. "Laira was definitely suffering from the same radiation poisoning as Colonel O'Neill, sir. However, without the benefits of our medical intervention her condition worsened much faster than the colonel's."

"Sir, if I may?" Sam took another sip of coffee, giving herself time to decide how to explain what had happened. "Laira was still conscious when we got to her. Major Ferretti told her why we were there – that Colonel O'Neill was sick. She was very upset at the news."

Lou had called her in to the small house, and she remembered the tears that rolled down the woman's ravaged face as she explained how she wanted to help. She glanced down at the table top in an effort to compose herself. "She knew she was dying, sir and asked that her body be used for any tests that could help find a cure for the colonel."

"It could be just the break we need, General." Janet interjected. "We've positively identified the source of the radiation and its type. The few tests I've already run show that the level of naquadah in Laira's blood was higher than the colonel's. Major Ferretti also managed to obtain blood and hair samples from some of the villagers, including Laira's son, Garan, and I can use them as a comparison. If we can just work out why Colonel O'Neill and Laira were the only two taken ill ..."

"Janet ..." Daniel stopped, and Sam waited, knowing by his tone that he was uncomfortable with whatever he was about to say.

"What is it, son?"

The general's question was enough of a prompt to get her teammate to continue. "Does Jack have time for this? Even if you do discover the cause, will it be in time to help him?"

There was silence of a moment as everyone turned to Janet. A slight flush rose on her friend's face, and when she spoke her tone showed how distressed she was by the question.

"I don't know, Daniel, but I can't just sit back and watch him die without trying everything I can."

"Of course not, Doctor." General Hammond stood and Sam automatically followed. "If you need anything – anything at all – please ask." He turned to Sam. "I know you're due for some downtime after your last mission, Major, but if you would assist ..."

"Of course, sir."

The thought of leaving the base and going home hadn't even crossed her mind. She was already thinking of the experiments she needed to do on the samples as the general left the room.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

"The colonel's awake, sir."

Hammond lifted his chin and pulled himself up in the narrow chair. After the debriefing he had tried to settle back into the routine of running the base, but found his attention constantly wandering, returning to the man lying in the infirmary. Finally he gave in and left the reports where they lay, to take up a position beside O'Neill's bed.

There had been some progress now that the type of radiation had been identified, and the colonel was being fed a continuous diet of drugs with names that seemed to George to be nothing but a random combination of letters and numbers. The only improvement seemed to be that the colonel now woke for brief periods.

The clock on the wall confirmed that he had been sitting there, dozing, for several hours. It was 3am and only a few lights were on, the only sounds the beeps and buzzes of the equipment surrounding the bed.

Jack's eyes were half open; their usual spark dull and unfocused.

The nurse gave him a small smile. "I'll be in the next room if you need anything, sir. I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Thank you."

George barely noticed she had left, his attention purely on his officer. He struggled to find something to say, all the words he had so carefully prepared for this moment flown out the window now that the time was here.

"Feels odd." Jack's hand brushed across his head before dropping back down to the sheet. "But the bald look is in Daniel tells me."

"I'd like to think so." Hammond smiled as he leaned forward, to better hear the quiet voice.

"It's not the first time. They shaved it all off when I got out of prison – lice. Nasty titchy little things, not that I noticed at the time. Had other things to worry about."

Hammond shifted in his seat as Jack's voice began to drop away as the sick man got lost in memories. He gave a small cough and was glad to see Jack's unfocused eyes turn back to met his, a look of puzzlement on his face as if he had forgotten where he was.

"Jack, I'm sorry –"

Having at last managed to say the words, he was startled when they were cut off mid-sentence by O'Neill's annoyed voice.

"Don't! I'm sick to death of everyone coming in here and doing nothing but apologise. It's done, it's over, and I don't want to hear it. If you're only interested in salving your conscience, don't waste my time! I don't have a lot of it left."

Hammond sat back abruptly as if he had been slapped in the face. Jack was staring defiantly at him.

"Colonel –"

Again he was interrupted.

"What? You going to reprimand me, sir? Go ahead. Right now I couldn't give a shit. I hurt all over, even though I've got enough narcotics running through my veins to supply a whole city. It hurts to breathe, to swallow, to talk and I'm only grateful I've got these tubes in me because I'm damned sure it would hurt even more to pee. I can't remember a time when I hurt this much and the last thing I need is someone telling me how sorry they are that they had to do their job."

"My job –" Hammond jumped in as the colonel paused, but only got in two words before Jack was talking again, his voice sounding raspy and dry.

"Yes, your job. You had your orders, just like I did. Sure you could have ignored them, but we both know how that would have ended – not well. Now don't come crying to me just because you're feeling guilty. This isn't a confessional and I'm not a priest – far from it."

Jack stopped, gasping for air and George quickly filled a glass of water and held it up to him, waiting while the colonel took a few small sips and winced as he swallowed. When he had finished he began again, his voice a little weaker as if the burst of energy was fading rapidly.

"We both did stuff we regret, but like I said, I've got other things to worry about. And tell Carter and Daniel the same thing goes for them. Order them not to come in here with their long faces and tiptoe around like they're walking on eggshells, it pisses me off." His lips turned up in a tiny smile. "You'd think a man could die in peace without all this crap."

George fixed the colonel with a stare. "Are you finished?"

His answer was a few blinks from half closed eyes, accompanied by some lowly spoken words. "Think so. If there's anything more I'll tell you."

"I'm sure you will, Colonel. When you're well again you are to report to my office to discuss this further. You can expect a little more paperwork than normal to be crossing your desk."

"Looking forward to it, sir." The small smile had grown wider, but vanished as a wince of pain twisted Jack's face, changing his expression to one of suffering.

"I'll call the nurse." George made to rise, but was stopped by a fragile hand.

"No, not yet." He waited while the colonel lay, his eyes now closed, visibly fighting down the pain. After a few minutes Jack spoke in a far quieter voice. "You're a praying man, aren't you, sir?"

"I am, son."

"Could you say one for me now? I think I need all the help I can get."

George took his friend's hand in his own firm grip, closed his eyes and prayed harder than he ever had before.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Janet took another bite of her sandwich, chewing it slowly and swallowing before looking up at her friends.

"O'Neill will not take this well."

She wondered at the Jaffa's capacity for understatement – one that seemed to be catching as Daniel agreed.

"God, no!"

"Do we need to tell him?"

"He'll find out, Sam. You know what he's like – you can't keep anything from him."

"Just be thankful he'll be here to find out." Janet took another bite of her food, seeing the realisation slowly dawn on their faces that what she said was true.

The treatment was finally taking effect, but Colonel O'Neill was improving only very slowly, his body so weakened by the radiation that it would be a long time before he was back to full strength – if at all. They would only be able to tell over time if any of the effects were permanent.

"At least we now know why only Laira and Jack were sick."

Sam shifted in her chair and Janet could see how uncomfortable she was with the topic of conversation. The doctor could understand why.

The answer as to why Laira was the only member of her village to be affected came down to one simple thing – Jack. They had gone back over examinations done on Colonel O'Neill since his failed impregnation by a Goa'uld on Hathor's planet and found the tiniest of traces of naquadah, so small they had been missed in the original tests. It seemed even that tiny trace was enough to make him vulnerable to the effects of the meteors' radiation, meteors that contained naquadah themselves.

They had also been extremely lucky that Sam had not been taken ill. Although the level of naquadah in her body was much higher than that in either Colonel O'Neill or Laira it appears the radiation poisoning was directly related to the length of time the victim was exposed, and could also be passed to others by intimate contact.

There was no way the colonel was going to take this well. Janet knew she would have to keep the news from him for as long as possible. He was still a very sick man, far too weak and emotionally vulnerable to be told.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Moving as quietly as he could, Jack slowly straightened, clutching the bedside cabinet with as strong a grip as he could manage. This wasn't the first time he'd done this, but this time he was determined to do more than fall straight back into bed – this time he was going to make it to the doorway!

Oh, to have such a goal as the high point of his week. He was sick of being sick. Tired of being tired. Sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Running out of cliches, he concentrated again on moving forward.

The IV stand wobbled, making a low clattering noise, and he grabbed at it – and fell back down on his backside on the very edge of the bed.

Crap!

He winced, knowing there would now be a new bruise joining the many others scattered over his limbs and body, took a deep breath and tried again. This time he pushed the IV stand ahead of him, positioning it so that the tubes were still attached but the stand was out of the way.

His second attempt was far more successful and he managed to stand and take a couple of shuffling steps forward before he had really thought about what he was doing.

His knees quivered, and he cursed at how weak he was from lying down for so long. He'd never get back on his feet if he stayed in bed like the doc wanted. He needed to be up and exercising limbs that could hardly do more than shake.

The door was only a few steps away now. The outside drew him like an alcoholic staring at a bottle of bourdon.

By the time he reached the door he was exhausted and there was no way he could turn and go back without falling flat on his face. He needed to rest a while, and even knowing how badly Janet would react, the only option was the chair he knew was just outside in the corridor.

Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. He should have walked around the room instead – stayed close to the bed – but it was too late for regrets now.

He pushed the door open, cautiously checking that there was no one around, then edged forward, aiming for the chair right outside the door. It was with relief that he lowered himself into it, well aware that he was completed screwed. No way could he be missed by the medical staff, and the consequences would be – well, horrible.

It was odd that there was no one around, not even any staff bustling about the way they constantly seemed to do. Of course, the hour could have something to do with it. His body clock was completely mucked up and it was during these early hours of the morning that he often found himself wide awake with no one to talk to.

He rubbed his hand over the fuzz that was all he had for hair, wishing his scalp wasn't so itchy. But then there were a lot of things he wished for - and a lot of things he was very grateful for. It had been a close call and the treatment the experts had devised for the radiation sickness had only kicked in at the last possible minute. In fact, if he was honest with himself, he had really been scared this time. It hadn't been a pretty way to die, wasting away like that. And not nice for his friends to see. He wished they hadn't needed to go through that.

He tensed, hearing the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor.

Oh crap! Busted.

Knowing there was no way he could get back into his room in time, he decided he might as well not bother trying to hide, and stayed where he was, awaiting the inevitable.

"Jack! I did not expect to see you here."

Jack stared at the young man who had rushed up to him, a couple of SF's close on his heels. Garan was the last person he expected to find in the corridor of the SGC.

"I didn't expect to see you either. What are you doing here?"

Garan's expression was uncharacteristically sober. "I came to accompany my mother's body back to Edora." He bent and spoke softly, so that Jack alone could hear him. "She loved you deeply. She would have been very pleased to know her death helped you live."

Jack's stunned gaze took in the gurney with its covered burden as it was pushed to the elevators.

"I am sorry Jack, but I must go. Fair day."

He managed to mutter 'fair day' in return as Garan left.

He was still watching the elevator doors close as Janet reached him, crouching down next to the chair.

"Come on, Colonel, let's get you back to bed."

She didn't shout at him, or tell him how stupid he'd been, instead she had two of the orderlies help him back to his room and when they had left, carefully settled him into his bed, gently tucking the blankets around him.

"Laira's dead?"

She stopped fussing around and sat on the side of the bed next to him. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't want you to find out like that."

"How?" He already suspected, but he needed to hear it from her.

"She died of the same radiation poisoning you had. When we found out it was too late to save her, but she gave permission for us to take samples from her body. We were able to use her blood and tissues to test the various drugs. Without her we would never have found a cure for you in time."

"And the others? The other villagers – Garan, Paynan and the rest – were they sick too? Did any others die?"

"No, the others are fine. You don't need to worry. Now ..." She stood and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't need to tell you how foolish you were getting up like that. You could have easily fallen and your system is too weak to fight off infections if you'd cut yourself. You could have found yourself in serious trouble. Don't do it again, Colonel. You'll be up and around soon enough."

He barely listened to the doctor's words. It was obvious she was hiding something and trying to stop him asking questions. The mere fact she was doing so was enough to start him wondering. He nodded in agreement and closed his eyes as if he was drifting off to sleep, hearing her leave the room and quietly shut the door. But instead of sleeping he lay awake, thinking about what he'd been told.

And how he would find out the truth.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Janet looked over the night staffs' report, seeing it was a quiet evening for once, with a team returning from offworld without any injuries or strange diseases. Thinking of which... She picked up Colonel O'Neill's rather more extensive notes and frowned.

"Carol, when was the colonel taken his breakfast?"

Lieutenant Myers paused as she tucked in the sheet on an occupied bed. "About 7am, Doctor. He said he didn't want it, but I had the orderly leave it in case he changed his mind."

Janet turned to the previous day, seeing that the colonel had barely touched his lunch or dinner. Loss of appetite was never a good sign, and even though her patient was gradually improving it wouldn't take much to set him back a few steps on the road to recovery.

She headed for the small private room Colonel O'Neill had been moved into and gave a perfunctory knock before pushing the door open. The colonel was lying in bed – another indication that something was wrong now that he had been allowed to sit in the comfortable chair positioned close at hand.

He didn't look up, or even open his eyes, but he muttered a quiet 'Doc.' in greeting.

Keeping her tone light, she walked over to take his wrist, noting that his pulse was regular and strong.

"How are you feeling today, sir?"

"Tired. I want to be left alone, okay? Would you tell Daniel we'll continue our chess game another time?"

"Headache?"

"Yeah, bad. Could you give me something for it?"

"Of course." Even as she agreed she was looking him over, seeing the tenseness of his posture and the way his fingers held tightly to the sheets.

In the time she took to prepare a syringe the colonel had moved onto his side, facing away from the door. She tapped him on the shoulder but he just stuck his arm out, so she gave him the injection without insisting he turn over.

"Thanks." He pulled the cover up over his shoulders and it was very clear that he had every intention of going straight to sleep.

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Daniel's office was the scene of the latest meeting of the Jack O'Neill Preservation Society. The four members sat in various poses reflecting their despondency at the latest developments.

"I just don't get it! He's getting better." Daniel paced across the floor, avoiding the many objects stacked in every corner. "So why is he acting like this?"

"He is O'Neill. There is a reason. We just have to find it."

"He's barely eaten for days." Janet squeezed the executive toy from Daniel's desk – hard. The fist sized whale gave a squeak of distress. "And I was thinking of letting him go home soon."

"Could it be a side effect of the treatment?"

Janet thought for a moment then shook her head. "No Sam, the dosage has been reduced over the last week anyway."

"We need to look at this from another angle." Daniel threw himself back into his chair and spun it on its wheels as he thought out loud. "Think back to when we first noticed Jack was acting like this. Had anything happened?"

Sam was the first to answer. "No, things were getting back to normal. I finished the experiments on the samples from Edora and moved on to that device SG-4 found on P7S-498. The colonel seemed fine. He was telling me about his plans for renovating his house."

"He described them to me also. We discussed color schemes."

Teal'c's contribution to the conversation had Daniel's brain running off at a tangent, with images of the two hardened warriors comparing fabric swatches. He pulled his thoughts back to the matter at hand.

"When was that?"

"Last Wednesday. It was soon after the discussion that he refused to see me, saying he was fatigued."

"It was Wednesday morning that he first showed a loss of appetite," Janet commented.

"So we need to consider what may have happened on Tuesday night." Daniel turned to Janet. "Is there anything you can think of?"

The doctor raised a hand to her face, lowering her head to rest her elbow on the desk. She groaned from behind the cover of her hand. "Oh good god, it's so obvious when you put it like that. I don't know why I didn't realise – that was the night Laira's body was returned to Edora. Colonel O'Neill spoke to Garan in the corridor."

"Does he know how Laira died?" Daniel asked.

"I told him she died of the same radiation poisoning, but no more than that." Then she paused and raised her head, her eyes wide. "He asked if anyone else in the village had died. I told him they hadn't."

"That's it." Sam spoke what they were all thinking. "We talked about this. You know how the colonel is with a puzzle. He must have found out somehow."

Daniel nodded. "And typically of Jack, he only got half the story before he went off the deep end. At least this time we can fix it."

=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=

Jack tried to ignore the knock on his door, but it was useless. There was no privacy in the infirmary, no matter how much you put up the shutters and posted signs that there was no one home.

Sure enough, despite his silence, Daniel breezed into the room.

"Hi. I thought you might like to finish that game. I've got a couple of free hours before I have to start on some translations."

The last thing he wanted to do right now was play chess.

He grunted something inarticulate and pressed his head further into the pillow, refocusing on the faint mark on the wall. It was the same mark he had stared at for days now and he was becoming intimately familiar with its shape. He could lose himself in it, not needing to think at all.

The loud clattering was becoming difficult to ignore. A chair scraped across the floor, and something bumped the edge of his bed – hard.

"I've set up the board. It was my move, wasn't it?"

A flash of memory had Jack gasping. Laira, her bare back pressing against his as she asked him to move a little, to give her room. She had laughed, happy that after so long she had someone to share her bed. Garan had said she loved him, but like everything else good in his life he had thrown her away, leaving her alone.

And not just leaving her to die. He had killed her. He had let Laira into his heart and she paid the price.

"Jack ..."

He swung around, dashing the chessboard to the ground with a thrust of his arm.

"Fuck off, Daniel. Just go away and leave me the hell alone!"

"Why? So you can lie here and starve yourself to death? Why would you do that after you've fought so hard these last weeks to live? Why throw the chance of life away so readily? It isn't something most of us are given more than once." He paused and Jack briefly hoped he had given up, but instead he continued, his tone lighter. "Anyway, Janet would be really annoyed if you died now, after all her hard work."

Jack looked at the smirk on the other man's face and wanted nothing more than to wipe it off with a quick punch to the jaw, but instead lay back, the energy that had made him turn falling away and leaving him spent.

As he shut his eyes he caught a glimpse of Daniel's anxious face. It was almost as if his teammate had wanted to be punched.

"Damn it, Jack, I didn't mean that." Jack felt a hand press on his arm, fingers gripping his bicep. "It's just that I need you to listen to me. Will you do that?"

Behind his closed lids Jack watched the months on Edora play out, but this time his touch made the plants wither.

"They have the final results from Laira's autopsy. She had a much higher naquadah content in her blood than you. They think it was from a cut on her hand. She probably cut it on a piece of meteor and the poison was introduced to her bloodstream that way. The amount you passed to her during sex wouldn't have been enough to cause any significant damage."

Laira came to him and he held her, and where his skin met hers blisters formed.

"Did you hear me, Jack? You weren't the cause of Laira's death. It was direct exposure to the meteors. They were all over her fields. She probably got the injury while digging them out."

The words jumbled in his head, mixing and becoming mere sounds as he sought the spot on the wall again and stared at it. He was barely aware that Daniel was still in the room, and the soft click of the door closing several minutes later didn't register with him at all.

It was the early morning hours that again had Jack struggling to fall into the comforting nothingness of sleep. Despite himself he lay tossing restlessly, the words he had striven so hard to ignore cycling through his brain until they finally fell into place, his thoughts clearing as their meaning sunk in.

He turned over and, with some effort, sat up, using the controls to raise the head of the bed. The telephone was within easy reach, but he still hesitated, knowing he was about to make more than just a call. He was taking the first step to getting his life back – something he now realised he desperately wanted to do.

The receiver felt cold and alien in his hand and he pushed the buttons quickly, before his courage deserted him.

"Hello?"

"Have they warned the villagers?"

"What?" Daniel's voice was muffled and confused. "Who is this? Jack? It's ..." There was a brief pause, then more words, "three in the morning."

He stopped him with a terse command. "Get down here and bring some paper and pens." He didn't wait for an answer, putting down the phone as he concentrated on organizing his thoughts.

It was only a few minutes before Daniel appeared at the door, a jacket thrown over his pyjamas, rubbing his hands through his uncombed hair.

"Jack? What's the matter?"

"Have they warned the villagers? If it's so easy to be contaminated the Edorans should either have help clearing the meteor debris or move the village." He thought a moment. "No, moving the village won't work. The meteor strike was far too extensive. They'll have to have help clearing the fields. Has Hammond put together a plan? Who's in charge? Carter would be best. She knows the most about the risks. She can't go back to the planet – she's got naquadah in her too - but she can coordinate from here. Tell Hammond to put Carter in charge. Or better yet, get him to come up here and I'll tell him myself. Bring my laptop, I'll start putting together a proposal, but we have to get to work on this quickly – we don't want anyone else to get sick."

He grabbed the pad and pen Daniel held and started jotting down notes, only looking up briefly to give Daniel an annoyed glare. "Why are you still here?"

"Uh – sorry!" His friend hurried out of the room, for some reason that Jack couldn't fathom, smiling as he went.

The End

Jack ficathon assignment

Set in season 3 after Shades of Grey – Sam and Daniel are giving Jack the cold shoulder after the covert operation and fail to notice that Jack is unwell. Jack in return is giving his team space because he feels he’s let down his team. Janet returns from leave and immediately realises that something serious is up with Jack and kicks ass. I need lots of Jack scenes in the infirmary and angst from the others. No ship!!!!!!!

Author's Note

I hope the plot bunny giver doesn't mind the liberties I took with her plot. I'm afraid I couldn't have Jack feeling he'd let down his team, because I don't believe he did, but apart from that I tried to stay as true to the spirit of the bunny as possible (although General Hammond did slip himself in a little more than I expected him to)..