Title: Heart Of an Eagle

Author: Flatkatsi

Email: flatkatsi@optusnet.com.au

Status: Complete

Category: Hurt/comfort

Pairings: None

Spoilers: None

Season: Two

Content Level: 13+

Content Warnings: Jack whumping

File Size: 147kb

Archive: Jackfic, Incoming Wormhole

Summary
: SG-1 get to observe a culture a little too closely.


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: This was written for the Jackfic-a-thon challenge - I've put the challenge at the end. Thanks to Dee for the whole Jackfic-a-thon idea, Spanky for her support and Nutty for her wonderful betaing work as always.

 

 

Heart of an Eagle

 

Prologue

 

He was dead.

 

He knew that with an absolute certainty, born of unbearable pain.

 

There would be no last minute rescue this time.  No alien technology waiting in the wings, stage right, could replace what he had lost.  No great hunk of gold could lure him with its seductive power and cause his heart to beat again.

 

He was dead.

 

 **********

 

This must be limbo—that in-between state where his soul was weighed.  He wasn’t worried about the result.  He’d done his best—always had.  Sometimes his best hadn’t been good enough, but he had tried his hardest, and as far as he knew, that’s what counted at the end.  Win a few, lose a few.  The battles he’d lost were what made him what he was, as much a part of him as the victories, and he had learnt from them, used them to mould himself into the man he had become – unforgiving of himself and others at times, but basically a decent person.

 

No, he wasn’t worried about the outcome.  He would take the decision as he would have were he still alive.  With acceptance, and he hoped, dignity.

 

 **********

 

“You may take him now.  We are not inhuman.  We respect and honor a warrior such as he.  Take him home.”

 

Daniel stared at the High Priest, unable to speak, unable to vocalize his hatred.  It burned a path along his chest, tightening with each gulp of air.  For once he was at a loss for words, the horror of the past few hours submerging everything into one mass of sorrow.

 

“Daniel.”

 

The sound of Sam’s agonized voice brought his attention back to what he didn’t want to see, didn’t want to accept, but the sight in front of him was real, there was no denying the stench of blood and fluids, the smell of death.

 

No denying that all that remained of his commander and friend was that bloodied figure stretched out, and horribly limp, across the altar, its surface thick with gore.  Jack wasn’t there any more.  The essence that was Jack O’Neill had been ripped apart piece by piece, at first in silence, then, as the minutes past, in moans of agony, and finally in screams, having reached the limit of his endurance in the face of such pain.

 

Daniel pushed away from the hands restraining him, shaking them off, and moved to Sam’s side.  Behind him he knew Teal’c still fought his captors, the growls of anger all that broke the silence. Hundreds of eyes watched them, hundreds of faces stared up at them, here on this high stone platform above the crowd, and yet no one spoke.  No one protested the waste, the cruelty, or the loss of a man.  To the inhabitants of this city such acts of barbarism were a way of life, accepted, and in fact welcomed.  They had honored Jack by choosing him above one of their own.

 

As he reached his shaking hand over to close the staring eyes, Daniel shuddered.  Honor – where was the honor in this?  The tears tracked down his cheeks unchecked.  He lifted his hand again to wipe at them, only to recoil in horror at the blood covering it.

 

Jack’s blood.

 

He looked down at the red puddle at his feet, still running into the drains especially laid for this purpose.

 

So much of it.

 

The essence that was Colonel Jack O’Neill of Earth, draining away on an alien planet.

 

He closed his eyes, knowing he was wrong.

 

The essence that was Jack was already gone—torn away when his heart was ripped from his body and held up for the spectators to see.

 

And Daniel stood, acknowledging the blame, but not knowing what to do or how to fix it.  If he had listened, done his job, this would never have happened.

 

If only he could turn back the clock and relive these last few days….

 

 *********

 

Part One

 

“Do you think I’m stupid, Daniel?”

 

Daniel Jackson backed away from the furious man facing him.

 

“No, don’t answer that, you obviously do.”  Jack O’Neill spun, throwing the boot he had just removed onto the floor.  “Christ! I would have thought you knew me better than that by now.”

 

Daniel raised his hands in a calming gesture that was completely lost on the stiff back he faced.  “Look, I’m sorry Jack, but you have to see it from our point of view…”

 

He wasn’t given a chance to finish his sentence before Jack turned, interrupting.  “Our?  So Carter and Teal’c don’t trust me either?  Damn!”

 

“No, Jack!”  Daniel raised his voice, trying to get his point across. “I shouldn’t have said that.  I haven’t discussed it with them. They haven’t said anything.”  He took a step forward, but stopped when he caught sight of the look on the other man’s face.  He was about to speak again when a sound from the corridor distracted him.

 

Both men turned to the open door as a young woman entered, her long green skirt making soft swishing noises as she came towards them, her jet black hair gleaming in the fire light.

 

“Colonel?  I have washed your clothes.  Can I help you with anything else?”  She stopped, obviously waiting for an answer, peering demurely up at the tall man.

 

For a second O’Neill stood silently, before his glance flickered to the doorway.  Daniel followed his gaze and spotted a shadow moving, giving away the presence of others outside the Colonel’s room.  With a sudden change in attitude, Jack’s face broke into a smile.  “No thank you, Hetah.  Why don’t you take a break?  I’ll be ready for bed in an hour or so.”

 

“Hour?” She frowned in puzzlement.

 

“A little less than one of your cycles.”  Daniel interrupted, receiving a small smile of thanks.  The girl bobbed her head and bent to place the stack of laundry she carried onto the wooden chest under the window.  “Thank you, Colonel.  I will return then.”

 

They watched as she left, closing the door.

 

Daniel was the first to break the silence.

 

“Shit, Jack, she’s young enough to be your daughter.”

 

“What’s that suppose to mean?”  Jack glared at the other man, ignoring the fact he was half dressed, a towel slung around his damp shoulders.  “And would you mind not shouting, I have the beginning of a headache.”  His eyes shifted towards the doorway.

 

Daniel lowered his voice, understanding that they were being listened to, but refused to be distracted.  “Come on, you can see how it looks.  For god’s sake, she’s going to sleep in your bed!”

 

“And?”  The voice was icy.  “What exactly are you suggesting?  I thought you of all people would understand.  I explained what Yetzolt told me.  If you can see any other way to handle this, please feel free to tell me.”

 

Daniel looked down, feeling somewhat embarrassed at Jack’s words.  “I know, Jack, it’s just…it doesn’t seem right.  Surely there’s another way?”

 

“If there is, I can’t see it.”  O’Neill finally sat, the tiredness obvious in every line of his face and Daniel realised that this was the first time he had seen his friend resting since they had arrived on the planet late the previous day.  ”It was made quite clear to me that if Hetah didn’t ‘please’ me she would be ‘discarded’ and a new girl provided, and I don’t think ’discarded’ meant patted on the head and sent home to her mother.”

 

Daniel frowned, trying to reconcile what Jack was saying with what he had observed.  So far he had been treated with nothing but courtesy, the leaders of this large city going out of their way to help him in his investigations.  The civilisation here on PX2-906 was clearly descended from the Aztecs, and the library of parchments at the palace was a treasure trove for the archaeologist.  He and Sam had happily spent several hours poring over old documents, the astrophysicist having found numerous large codices relating to astronomical observations dating back hundreds of years, and he knew she was still rather stunned at these people’s accomplishments technology-wise since the Goa’uld dumped them here.

 

While Daniel and Sam were at the library, Jack and Teal’c had been shown the city by the Cihuacoatl, the equivalent, as Daniel had understood it, to the Vice-President.  They had returned just before dark, in time to clean up before the lavish dinner with the Cihuacoatl and his advisers.

 

It was at the dinner that Daniel first realised something had changed in the locals’ attitude to them.  Whereas before all of SG-1 had been treated equally, now Jack was singled out, seated at the Cihuacoatl’s left hand, and personally served by a bevy of slaves.  Daniel had taken the opportunity of a break between courses to try and work out why.

 

It seemed that Jack, instead of doing the tourist act Daniel had expected, while scouting the city, had spent the day talking to four generals—the ruler’s chief advisers.  Apparently spending hours exchanging stories with the equivalent of the Joint Chiefs had somehow caused them to see Jack as a fellow warrior, equal to them in rank.  He had even been granted a separate room and a servant for the duration of his stay.

 

Daniel hadn’t seen any harm in it—quite the opposite in fact.  That was until he had noticed the girl trailing along behind his friend, pandering to his every whim, and sitting on his knee during the after-dinner entertainment.  Being given a slave girl to turn down his bed, and clean his shoes was a far cry from having one performing a lap dance.  The last straw for Daniel was watching Jack, arm around her shoulder, leading the girl to his room and he had taken it upon himself to follow them.  Finding Jack in his current state of undress had just added fuel to Daniel’s indignant fire, resulting in what he now acknowledged were ill-conceived words.

 

“Surely you don’t think that they would harm her?”  He was still reluctant to believe that these pleasant, friendly people had a darker side.

 

Jack looked up, idly rubbing his wet hair as he did so, leaving it standing up in short spikes.  He lowered his voice still more.  “Come on, Daniel.  Wake up and smell the crap!  These are descendants of the Aztecs aren’t they?”

 

“But they’re hundreds of years removed from their roots.  Europe wasn’t exactly a civilised place when they were taken from Earth either.  Things change over time—just look at how Sam’s being treated.  In the time of the Aztecs on Earth women were considered to be very low status.”

 

“That’s as may be, Daniel, but how they treat Carter is hardly indicative of their attitude to women as a whole.  We’re all being treated differently.  We’re being feted, given anything we ask for.  You must have noticed the average person on the street doesn’t look all that well nourished or happy?”

 

Daniel shook his head ruefully, turning his eyes away.  “I hadn’t noticed.  I’ve been in the library all day.”

 

Jack dropped the wet towel on the bed, standing to pour himself a mug of water from the jug set on the low table in the centre of the room.  He spoke with an intensity normally absent from his easy-going demeanour.  “Well you’d better get your head out of those books and have a damn good look around before you start espousing on how marvellous these people are.  They tried to not let Teal’c and I see too much, but we did visit the markets.  They hardly have anything for sale, Daniel; nothing but a few stalls of vegetables, and the queue for the butcher shop was lined up around the block.”  He looked Daniel in the eye and the other man found himself feeling uneasy  There are undercurrents here that we’re missing.  I want you out on the streets with Teal’c tomorrow.  Look around, do your thing.  Carter can continue her investigations, and I’ll make nice with the Chihuahua.  We don’t want to be signing any trade agreements or making treaties until we know exactly who we’re dealing with.”

 

“Okay.  Ah…”  Daniel hesitated.  “So I’ll get back to Sam and Teal’c and let them know what’s going on.”

 

“You do that, just be careful who’s around to hear you when you do.”  Jack turned the richly woven cover back from his large bed.  “I’m going to try and get some sleep.  It’s amazing how exhausting talking can be.”

 

Daniel raised an eyebrow as he finally had time to look around the room.  “You’ve certainly ended up in the lap of luxury.”  His gaze took in the gold masks adoring the walls, the thick mats in rich reds and blues on the floor, and the overflowing platters of fruit on the beautifully carved table.  “Not that we have anything to complain about, but our room looks pretty ordinary in comparison.”

 

“What can I say?”  Jack shrugged, yawning.  “They like me.  Now, unless you have any other problems…?”

 

“No.  I’ll see you in the morning.”  Daniel beat a hasty retreat; the fact that his friend was still annoyed was not lost on him.  The last sight he had as he shut the door was Jack stripping his trousers off and sliding under the covers.

 

 **********

 

Woken by the sound of the door opening, Jack lay silent for a moment, letting his tired mind process the information it was being given.

 

“Colonel?”  He felt the bed dip as Hetah slipped under the covers.  He stayed silent, hoping she would assume he was sleeping.

 

Crap!

 

Soft hands pressed into his shoulders, massaging the rigid muscles, bare breasts brushing against his skin.

 

He flipped from his side to his stomach and buried his face in the pillow, stifling a groan.  There was no way he could pretend to be sleeping now!

 

“You are very tense, Colonel.  Try to relax.”  The girl’s weight shifted, and Jack felt bare legs straddling him as she bent forward, running her tongue along his spine.

 

“I thought we discussed this.”  He forced himself to stay still, not lifting his head.

 

“Yes, Colonel.  I know you said your ruler did not allow you the pleasure of a woman while on duty, but you are not on your world now…”  One hand moved from his shoulder, lightly tracing a line down his back to reach his waist.  “And my orders are to ensure you are…”  It snaked around, reaching under his shorts.  “…happy, and contented.”

 

Shit!  Jack flipped again, grabbing the hand as he did so.  He looked down, their positions reversed, finding himself straddling a very naked, smiling, beautiful girl who couldn’t be more than fifteen.

 

“No.”  He ground the word out from between gritted teeth.  “I’m prepared to pretend to be enjoying your company, but no way, no way, is it going to go any further than that!”  He ignored the reaction of his own body, knowing it hadn’t been missed by Hetah, the small mocking twist of her lips making that much obvious.  “Now, I’m going to let you loose, and you’re going to turn over and go to sleep, no more than that.  Is that clear?”

 

“But no one would know.”  Narrow hips wiggled, sending waves of sensation straight through him.

 

“I would know.  Now stop that. I’ll make it an order if I have to.”  He glared down at her, focusing resolutely on her face, refusing to drop his gaze any lower.

 

“All right, Colonel.”  The smile turned into a pout, suddenly making her look even younger.  Jack shuddered, pulling himself off her, and laid on his side once more, facing the wall.  Weight shifted in the bed and a naked body pressed up against him.

 

“Goodnight, Colonel.”

 

Jack sighed.  It was going to be a long night.

 

 **********

 

Daniel looked up at the huge structure towering above him with a feeling akin to awe.  The massive twin stone staircases stretched upwards towards a large flat courtyard topped by two small building covered in what Daniel could see even from this distance, was richly carved wood and bright paintings.

 

“I believe our guides wish us to continue.”  Teal’c’s words brought him out of his musings, and he saw the three nobles assigned to show them the city were already moving off.

 

He hurried to catch up with them, hopped in front and causing them to stop.  Their leader, a short, stocky white haired man named Zomunatec, gave him a look of irritation, so quickly hidden that Daniel almost missed it.

 

“What is it, Doctor?”

 

“The temple.”  Daniel turned and pointed behind them.  “I’d like to see it.”

 

Zomunatec shook his head.  “I’m afraid that is not possible.  We have a full schedule, and a visit to the temple would not fit into it.  Now, if you would follow me, we will attend a sitting of the local calpuli.  It is fortunate their annual meeting coincides with your visit.”

 

Daniel weighed up the prospect of sitting through a council meeting of small landowners against a visit to the temple on the hill behind him, and found it wanting.  He tried to find the most diplomatic way to approach the issue.  The decision was taken out of his hands with a suddenness that had him staring at his companion in disbelief.

 

“Daniel Jackson would rather see the temple, Zomunatec.  He is an archaeologist and anthropologist – he studies other cultures, particularly their religious rituals, and the temple is of great interest to him.  Please give our apologies to the calpuli.”  Teal’c bowed his head regally, and turned, beckoning Daniel to follow.

 

“Ah…”  Giving the three men an apologetic look, Daniel followed, almost trotting in his effort to catch the Jaffa.  “Teal’c?  What’s going on?”

 

“It is obvious we are being prevented from visiting the temple building.  O’Neill ordered us to investigate anything that looked suspicious, and that is what I am doing.”

 

A quick glance behind showed Daniel the three men rapidly running to catch up, the two younger ones clutching their obsidian knives tightly where they were sheathed beneath their brightly feathered cloaks.

 

“They have every right not to let us enter the temple.  It’s probably a religious taboo, just like some religions on Earth.  We shouldn’t be forcing them like this.”

 

“Doctor!  Please stop!”  Zomunatec’s angry voice cut across Daniel’s.  Grabbing Teal’c’s arm, Daniel brought him to a halt, shaking his head.

 

As the other men caught up to them, he whispered a few quick words.  “This isn’t the way to do this.  Let me try.  Okay?”

 

A grudging nod was the only response he got.

 

“I apologise for Teal’c’s enthusiasm.”  He smiled as sweetly as he could, portraying a naive misunderstanding, gesturing towards the looming structure ahead of them.  “Please, you lead the way.”

 

“You cannot visit the temple.  It is not permitted.”  The youngest of the trio tugged on Daniel’s sleeve, forcing him to turn, his grip digging into the shirt-covered arm.

 

 **********

 

Why hadn’t he insisted?  Why had he let himself be turned away, carried off  to sit through a meeting about the number of goats allowed to graze on a piece of land, and what crops were scheduled to be planted?

 

Daniel paced behind the solemn procession heading for the gate, bearing Jack’s body.  It had been wrapped in a cloak of brilliantly iridescent feathers and laid on a wooden board, carved with serpents and demons and gods and wonders that normally Daniel would be aching to investigate.  Now he just saw them as more clues he had missed, ignored because he refused to believe.

 

 ***********

 

Sam stumbled, and caught herself, regaining her balance without pausing.  The pace was slow, the bearers careful not to trip on the uneven ground, but she still found it hard to keep up—her mind constantly returning to earlier that day.  Her cheek throbbed, and she knew it was badly bruised, but she ignored it, considering only a down payment for her inability to do any thing to save the Colonel.  Her protests had been short lived, brought to a sudden halt by a hard backhand across the face from one of her guards—the same guards that marched beside them, flanking the procession.

 

Colonel O’Neill’s face showed above the greens and blues of the cloak he was wrapped in, the cuts lining it marring his normally handsome features.  She knew there were more cuts, hidden by the cloak.  She had watched as each one was inflicted, unable to turn away, as they covered his body, the priest slowly dragging the large ceremonial knife down each limb, across and up, down and under, etching his torso, his hands, his feet, his genitals, even his scalp with gashes, some shallow, some deep—all deliberately placed, as if to a set pattern, each drawn out as long as possible, as if crafted with love.

 

There, beneath the terrible injuries, beneath the concealing blood, were clues, clues she should have seen before it came to this.

 

Before the Colonel died.

 

 **********

 

Part Two

 

 

Sam closed the large codex, shutting her eyes wearily.  Three hours of reading and she had barely managed to scratch the surface of the works lined up on shelves stretching to just below the high ceiling.

 

Damn, what she wouldn’t give for a cup of coffee!

 

Fascinating though they were, she was beginning to wish it were Daniel who had been ordered to continue investigations in the library, rather than her.  She blinked, seeing the bright sunshine through the window above the main entrance.  It was a lovely day.  At least, she thought it was—she had barely seen a few minutes of it.  She glanced at her watch.  Lunchtime.  Teal’c and Daniel were probably sitting at some equivalent of the local outdoor café, lapping up the sun, and the Colonel….

 

Sam pursed her lips, frowning as she thought of the morning.  Now that had been a shock.  She wanted to give the Colonel the benefit of the doubt, but the glimpse of the naked servant still asleep in his bed, had almost had her questioning his command.

 

Almost.

 

No.  She stood, easing the stiffness out of her legs.  She trusted the Colonel.  He had proven over and over that he was an honourable man.  Daniel had explained the reason for his actions, but she had seen nothing to confirm the Colonel’s suspicions, nothing to indicate that these people were anything other than they appeared—pleasant and friendly.  So far.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t there to find.

 

Sam headed for the door, the lure of daylight too much for her.

 

“Captain, can I be of assistance?”

 

Setztuml’s cheerful round face peered up at her enquiringly.  The library assistant looked like a beach ball, his colourfully stripped robe wrapped tightly over his rotund body.  Sam couldn’t help smiling.

 

“I was going to take a walk outside.  I thought I’d go look at the market Colonel O’Neill mentioned yesterday, and buy something to eat.”  She paused, considering her next words, but decided to continue.  “Would you like to join me?  You could show me the best food stalls.”

 

“I would enjoy that very much, Captain.”  Setztunl managed to look both pleased and disappointed at the same time.  “But I was wanting to show you this.”  He held out a very old, surprisingly small codex, its cover crumbling at the edges.  “It is one of our most precious works, and I just obtained permission for you to read it. I’m afraid it must be back in the temple three cycles before sunset.  Perhaps, I could send for some food, and we could go over it together?”

 

Sam moved closer, lured by the scent of old parchment and time.  The little librarian opened the volume, turning the thick pages, giving her tantalising glimpses of star charts and gods riding winged serpents across the dark void of the sky.  Sunlight forgotten, she followed the man back to her table, already caught up in the thrill of discovery.

 

 **********

 

“Carter!  We were wondering when you where you were.”  Colonel O’Neill made his annoyance at her tardiness obvious by looking pointedly at his watch.  “Now that you’re here, we’ll begin.”

 

“Sorry, sir.”  Sam slid into a chair beside Daniel, grabbing a handful of nuts from the bowl in the center of the table as she did so.  “I got involved in my research and forgot the time.”

 

“I hope it was valuable research then, Captain.”  Jack couldn’t help replying with a shortness he knew Carter didn’t deserve.  His instincts were screaming at him that there was danger surrounding them, yet none of his team seemed to believe him, treating his concerns as if they were minor.  There was an undercurrent here, as if something was hidden, as if something was building—to what he didn’t know.

 

He rubbed the bridge of his nose and took a sip of the water Hetah had poured for him before he sent her from the room.

 

“Let’s get on with this shall we?  Teal’c—check the corridor.”  He waited until the Jaffa had given the all clear before beginning.  “Teal’c, you start.”

 

The Jaffa nodded.  “I accompanied Daniel Jackson to several sites around the city.  At all times we were accompanied by three guides and guarded by four soldiers.”

 

“What?”  Daniel interrupted, frowning.  “I didn’t see any soldiers.”

 

“They were not intending to be seen.  Never the less, they were there.”

 

The Colonel held up his hand as Daniel trying to speak again.  “Go on, Teal’c.”

 

“Several times the route we took was longer than necessary.  I can only speculate that this was to prevent us from seeing something the authorities did not wish us to see.”

 

“Maybe it was because the road didn’t go straight.  Maybe the path was blocked by something, like a building.”  Daniel jumped in, obviously irritated.

 

“Daniel, please!  You’ll get your chance to give your report.  Don’t interrupt again.”  The Colonel glared at the other man, angered by his stubbornness.

 

“Perhaps the detours were necessary.”  Teal’c continued.  “However, I do not believe this to be the case.  For example, we skirted the temple several times, yet came no closer than four blocks from it.  I noted what appeared to be a large number of people heading for the building, and yet we were kept well away.”

 

Daniel opened his mouth, but shut it again at a look from Jack.

 

“There were many more soldiers than citizens on the streets, all heavily armed, and I did not see a single child.  In fact, there seemed to be very few inhabitants of this city, despite its large size.”

 

“Your conclusions?”

 

“The city is suffering the effects of a severe famine and is under martial law.  The authorities are attempting to prevent us from seeing this, for reasons I have yet to ascertain.”

 

Colonel O’Neill nodded.  “That fits in with what we saw yesterday in the market.  Daniel—your turn.”

 

“I don’t see how you can come to that conclusion.”  Daniel folded his arms, and sat back, his whole posture defensive.  “I didn’t see any evidence of it.  The lack of children on the street could be easily explained by them being in school.  At no time during the meeting of the landowners did the subject of famine come up, and as for the temple…”  He looked slightly apologetic.  “I’m sorry, Teal’c, but they are quite within their rights to stop us from going anywhere near it.  We are outsiders.  They know nothing about our beliefs or customs.  Let’s face it, we wouldn’t let some aliens just walk into one of our cathedrals without making sure they weren’t going to do anything disrespectful, would we?  Maybe they’re just checking us out, getting to know us better, and having Teal’c try to force his way into the temple is not the best way to get them to trust us.”

 

“Okay, so we have two completely different interpretations of what’s going on.”  Jack shifted in his chair, trying to ease the tension from his muscles, but not succeeding.  ”Carter, do you have anything that could shed some light on the problem?”

 

Sam hastily finished the mouthful of nuts she was chewing, washing them down with some of the juice from the jug on the table.  “Yes, sir, I think I do.  It seems like the old religious beliefs of the Aztecs have changed over the years.  They still worship the gods—I found references to Xipe Totec, Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and several others—but the practise of human sacrifice died out centuries ago.  According to a document I was given permission to view, they now use a technique that’s described as a sort of dream reading.  The High Priest, rather than killing a person, now sends his energy to the gods.  I assume that’s what the people were doing at the temple.  It seems quite harmless and in fact, it’s an honor to be chosen to do it.  This time of year is when the earth goddess, Teteoinnan, is worshipped to ensure a good harvest.”

 

“And you’re saying that none of this involves human sacrifice, Carter?  None of that cutting out of hearts and eating them stuff?”

 

Sam shook her head, laughing at the Colonel’s words.  “No, sir.  They’ve moved on from that.  I don’t think we need to worry.  I did find some fascinating references to the early years of their civilisation though, and I don’t doubt the Goa’uld played a major role in their religion, but there is no record of the gods visiting for hundreds of years, and the old practices have died out.”

 

“See, Jack.  I told you there was nothing to worry about.”  Daniel smiled at Sam, showing his pleasure at her confirmation of his conclusions.  “Now maybe I can get back to the library tomorrow?  I’d love to look at these documents Sam found.”

 

“I wish I could take the credit, but it was Setztunl that showed them to me.  I don’t know how much I would have found without his assistance, there is just so much to go through.”

 

“With my help we can get through a lot more.”

 

“That would be great.  You can handle the cultural side, and I can get back to the astronomical records.  I found some very interesting references to travel between stars.  I think there could be some gate coordinates hidden amongst the information, maybe ones we haven’t recorded before.  I’ll show you tomorrow.” Carter stopped, and turned to the Colonel, looking embarrassed.  “That’s if it’s okay with you, sir?”

 

“I’m not sure…”

 

“Oh, come on, Jack.  We’ll be careful.  It’s not like we’re doing anything dangerous, and we’ll keep an eye out for anything suspicious.”

 

“You did not tell us what you did today, O’Neill.”  Teal’c broke into Daniel’s words.

 

Jack thought for a second.  What had he done?  It seemed that the day had gone by in the blink of an eye.

 

“I talked with the Grand Chihuahua, but we didn’t get a lot of negotiating done.  He had some meetings, so he left me with the generals again.  They were pretty closed mouthed about things.  We mainly compared training notes—they have very rigorous standards, made me glad I didn’t go through their boot camp.”

 

Truth be told, Jack knew he had been given the run around whenever he asked awkward questions, but there had been little he could do about it, and had hoped for more information from his team.  Perhaps his instincts were wrong for once, perhaps there was nothing more here in the city than first appeared.

 

“Okay, Carter, you and Daniel can play together tomorrow.”  He raised a finger.  “But keep your eyes and ears open.  Don’t take anything at face value.  Okay?”

 

 **********

 

She hadn’t believed him really.  Everything seemed so above board and open.  Looking back, it was obvious to Sam that Setztunl had carefully manoeuvred her into looking at the codices he wanted her to see, away from any that might expose the truth.   She had thought she was better trained than that, that she had learnt enough from the Colonel to not blindly accept what she was shown.

 

Obviously not.

 

And now she wouldn’t have the chance to learn anything more from him.

 

 **********

 

Part Three

 

“Tell me about yourself, Hetah.”

 

“What do you mean, Colonel?”  The girl stopped, the knife she was using to cut up the fruit, dripping with juice.  She looked across at him, clearly puzzled.  “There is nothing to tell.”

 

“How did you come to work here?”  Jack took another slice of the pink fruit on the tray, resting leaning his chin on his hand, his elbows on the table.  “Were you always a slave?”

 

“No.”  Hetah gave a small laugh, smiling.  “My parents sold me when I was five to pay debts.  I am pleased they did.  It is an honor to work here at the palace.”

 

“An honor?  How is it an honor?  Wouldn’t it be better to be free?”

 

She laughed again, shaking her head.  “No, Colonel.  Here at the palace I have plenty of food and fine clothes to wear.  And now, since you have arrived, I have the honor to serve both you and the gods.  I am very happy.”

 

The soft flesh of the fruit felt cold on Jack’s tongue as the sweet juice ran down his throat.  “How does serving me serve the gods?”

 

There was silence and Jack looked up from the plate, just in time to catch a glimpse of something in Hetah’s brown eyes, but it was gone before he could recognise it, her face breaking into a broad and open grin.  “You are a great warrior, Colonel, and serve Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.  He watches over you, and sees that you are being properly treated and is pleased.  My greatest wish is to serve the gods well.”

 

The girl’s voice rang with a fervour that Jack found disturbing.  God of war?  He could live with that—it actually seemed quite appropriate.  He’d have to remember to ask Daniel if he had seen a picture of this god, or read a description.  Bet he had glowy eyes, and a really bad attitude.  It would have to wait until morning.  Right now he was so exhausted he could hardly keep his eyes open.  He finished the last piece of fruit, taking a drink of water to wash it down, and wiped his hands on the cloth Hetah had placed beside the plate.

 

“You look tired, Colonel.”  Hetah put the knife down and rose, moving to his side, her hand stroking along his arm.  “Come to bed.  Tomorrow it is the rite of Tlaxochimaco.  Your tonalli must be strong for the morning.”

 

Tonalli?”  Jack blinked, wondering if he was hearing her words properly.  Half of what she said went right over his head.  He needed Daniel to translate.

 

“Your life force.  There will be much celebration and you need to be rested.”  She slipped a hand under his shirt, undoing the top button, pushing his hand away as he weakly protested.  “Together, we will give our lives to the gods, helping them in their tasks.  When his life force joins with yours, Huitzilopochtli will shine upon our city, and Teteoinnan will wear my skin, allowing the goddess to visit with us and bestow a bountiful harvest.”  She pressed against him, almost kneeling on his legs, taking his lolling head in both hands.  “I am so happy to give my life to serve the gods.  We are truly blessed.”

 

Hetah pressed her lips to Jack’s, ignoring his low moans of protest.  “The juice from the grua fruit will relax you while the preparations are made, but do not worry, the effects will wear off by the morning and you will be able to feel the ecstasy as you become cuauhtecatl, the eagle man and fly to meet the gods.”

 

Jack could do nothing as the blood seemed to freeze in his veins, even his voice now stilled.  He felt hands lifting his unresponsive body, taking it to the bed, and realised that he and the girl were no longer alone.  Low chanting had him turning his eyes to the left, finding the High Priest Yetzolt standing alongside him; his tall feather head dress bobbing as he sang.  Then his vision was filled with Hetah’s face, and once again she slipped her hand into his shirt, undoing the buttons and deftly tugging it from his body.  He felt the featherlight movements of her fingers on the buckle of his belt and tried to protest, only to have the protest die unspoken, unable to move at all.  Minutes later, cool air breezed across him, and he knew he was naked, lying there, surrounded by people, completely helpless.

 

He had let his guard down and now he was paying the price.  But what was the price?  What did they want with him?

 

One thing he did know—he was so going to kick Carter and Daniel’s butt when they got home.  Friendly.  Harmless.  As if!

 

And finally the juice of the grrrr plant, or whatever it was called, hit his brain and he dropped away into nothingness.

 

 *********

 

Teal’c was not taken by surprise.  He could count the number of times he was taken by surprise on the fingers of one hand, and this was not one of them.  It was, however, not a situation he could resolve to his advantage.

 

Daniel Jackson was already subdued, and Captain Carter, although valiantly fighting overwhelming odds, would soon join their teammate in the hands of their attackers.  Teal’c had been unable to reach his staff weapon, set upon as they were just as they stepped through the door into the large room they all shared.  Sensing something amiss, he had managed a warning shout, but not much more, the bulk of the attackers concentrating on him.  The sheer number of the warriors soon had him held fast, leather bindings twisted around his forearms, tying them to his body.  Each movement he made only served to tighten the leather further, but although it was futile, he could not help struggling against his captor.

 

“Why are you doing this?”  Daniel Jackson looked dazed, but defiant as he questioned the men.  “What’s going on?”

 

“Let us go!”  Captain Carter added her voice to the protest, and he felt a surge of anger at the sight of a red handprint, vivid across her face.

 

It had been no use.  Their protests ignored, they had been locked away until the morning, the whereabouts of Colonel O’Neill their main concern.

 

They had their answer soon after dawn.

 

 **********

 

The guard holding Teal’c’s left arm grunted as he swung an elbow towards him, just managing to avoid the blow.  They were weakening, these cowards that held him, refusing to fight.

 

O’Neill was being carried near him, carried by more of these deceivers.  He struggled again, pulling towards the bier, but couldn’t reach it.

 

The High Priest, Yetzolt, walked at the head of the procession, his cloak swinging around his knees.  For a moment Teal’c stilled, remembering.

 

 ***********

 

The High Priest nodded, and Jack was tugged forward, struggling against the hands holding him, forced to his knees at the base of the steep flight of stairs.  Yetzolt’s fingers grabbed hold of the short hair on his head, and he found himself being pulled along towards the first step.  The pain as his scalp was stretched was sharp and sudden, and he barely had time to register his being taken by each limb and dragged, his knees painfully bent, scrapping the edge of each step as the whole entourage climbed towards the top of the structure.

 

They reached the top, and Jack’s hair was released, freeing him to turn his head.  Standing, several feet away at the edge of the small group of spectators here atop the steps, were his team, their faces horrified.  Teal’c was bound, tight rawhide digging into his flesh, a warrior on either side of him.  Carter and Daniel were free, but also guarded, a knife held to Carter’s neck.  A large red mark, already bruising on the Captain’s face testimony to her attempts to escape.

 

It looked like Daniel was finally getting to see the temple.

 

Instead of the fresh breeze he expected this far above the buildings, Jack smelt a stench immediately bringing to mind a slaughter-house, acrid smoke filling the air from several torches burning around them.

 

“No! You can’t do this!”  Daniel voice broke the silence, and the High Priest turned, smiling benignly.

 

“It is a great honour, Doctor.  The Colonel will become a cuauhtecatl, his spirit will join Huitzilopochtli in the sky, and he will sit at his right hand.  I envy him.”

 

Raising his arms, the priest beckoned to waiting slaves, and they carried a long heavy cloak forward, letting it unfurl as they draped it over his shoulders, using a large gold clasp to hold it in place at his neck.  Thick black hair hung in glossy strands from the narrow top, flowing down the priest’s back.

 

As Yetzolt moved towards him, a raw smell of rotting meat emanated off the cloak in waves.  Jack stared at it, trying to not see the obvious, to not accept the evidence of his own eyes, but as the bile rose in his throat, Jack knew he could deny it no longer, the birthmark staining the human skin crossing over the other man’s left arm.  The same birthmark he knew had been echoed on Hetah’s upper arm, and he fought, redoubling his struggle, the image of a beautiful young girl, full of life, making him scream his defiance.

 

When he was stretched out, his bare back against the hard rock of the altar stone, a roar of approval rose from the crowd below.  Every inhabitant of the city was there, every citizen, every slave, all come to see the warrior from beyond the stars give up his life force.  Yetzolt had taken great care to explain it to him as they had washed his body carefully, anointing it with fragrant oils.  Like their ancestors of old, they went willingly to their doom, rejoicing as they gave their life for the gods, as Hetah had done.  Jack would join her soon.

 

But there was one major difference between Jack and Hetah - he would not go willingly.

 

And as the priest held the obsidian knife to his face, and carved the first of many lines into his skin, Jack cursed him with every breath he took.

 

Until Yetzolt tore his heart out.

 

 **********

 

The priestly procession left them several miles from the gate, telling them that they needed to return to the temple - many others were waiting patiently to give their life that the sun might ride across the sky. SG-1’s packs were handed over, but their weapons were missing, giving them no chance for vengeance.  It was made quite clear that they were to leave immediately, and although Yetzolt farewelled them as if they had been honoured guests, the soldiers’ threatening looks were not lost on them.  Untied, Teal’c bent and lifted the Colonel’s body, cradling it as they walked away, not looking back.

 

Going home.

 

 **********

 

Part Four

 

They turned a corner of the trail, finally out of sight of the soldiers standing watching them.  They had been followed to this point, as if to be sure they did not try and return to the city, although that was the last place any of them wanted to visit again, but now, at last, it seemed they were to make the rest of the journey alone.  Daniel could barely put one foot in front of the other, his exhaustion overwhelming.  The walk to this point, the emotional turmoil he was in and the lack of sleep all combined to numb both his mind and body.  There was no hurry.  No need to rush.  No point in one of them racing ahead to request a medical team be ready.

 

Teal’c didn’t look any more tired than he had when he first woken the morning before, even carrying Jack’s body, but Daniel knew that the determined Jaffa must be near the end of his energy after so many hours without kel-no-reem.  The sound of the stumbling footsteps at his side told their own tale, Daniel not needing to look to see his own exhaustion reflected in Sam’s face.  He steeled himself, knowing that Sam would soon order them to stop so they could check Jack, pointless though it was.  He cringed inwardly at the thought of what he knew they would see.  Just a few minutes more…they needed to be certain the soldiers would not follow.

 

He found his gaze held by the pale hand he could just see hanging from where it had escaped Teal’c weakening grip, the gashes etched down each finger running slow drops of blood that splattered onto the lush undergrowth beneath their feet.  He looked down, realising he was treading on a trail of red, and took a step to the side to avoid it.

 

Jack’s blood.

 

 **********

 

The knife had been sharp, designed especially for this work, its handle the shape of a crouching god, eyes painted gold against the black.  His assistants had held Jack down as the High Priest had carved slowly through the skin, holding him still, not because he struggled, but because, by the end, he shook uncontrollably, shock sending messages to his overloaded nerves.  They had placed a piece of wood between his teeth when he began to scream, dulling his cries down to whimpers, but the slice deep down across his belly made him arch his back, the force throwing off one of the younger priests, the one holding his left leg.  And, even as far gone as he was by then, he had lashed out, almost knocking a smoking torch from its stand.

 

They held him firmer then, as the priest continued his ritual and his team had watched on, repulsed by the brutality of it.

 

His blood had flowed freely into the drains.

 

 **********

 

Jack’s blood!

 

Daniel’s head snapped up and he pushed himself forward, catching up with Teal’c in a few strides.  His teammates stopped, looking at him in puzzlement, but he didn’t say anything – just held out a trembling hand and pulled aside the feathered clock, holding a finger to Jack’s neck.

 

Daniel gasped.  It couldn’t be, but it was there – a faint pulse throbbing against his fingers, confirming to him that a man still bleeding after several hours could not be dead.

 

“Oh, god! He’s alive.”

 

“He can’t be.”  Sam shook her head, stepping up to put a hand on Daniel’s arm, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.  “Daniel, he can’t be – we saw Yetzolt She stopped, obviously unable to continue.

 

“Look!”  Daniel pointed to the blood dripping onto the ground.  “He is. Jack’s alive.  I don’t know how, but he is.”

 

Sam looked down, seeing the evidence for herself, at the same time as Teal’c dropped to his knees, placing the Colonel on the ground.  All three stilled for a fraction of a second, before Daniel wrenched the cloak open, exposing O’Neill’s chest.  The gaping hole they expected to see wasn’t there; instead they found a wound, one of many marring his body.

 

“I…I don’t understand….”

 

Teal’c yanked his pack off his back, pulling out a medical kit.  “I do not understand it either, Captain Carter, but I do know that we must tend O’Neill’s injuries or this miracle will be for nothing.”

 

Grabbing a pressure bandage, Daniel pressed it to Jack’s abdomen, holding it in place, but his eyes roamed over the figure beneath his hands.  “Where do we start?  We’ve got to get him home.”

 

“I know, but Teal’c’s right, we have to stop the bleeding first.  We’re still several hours from the gate.”  She wound a bandage around the Colonel’s leg as she spoke.  “We should get off the trail.  I don’t think Yetzolt would be very happy to see the Colonel was still alive.”

 

“I’m not too sure about that, Sam.  Look at how shallow most of these cuts are.  I think they’re designed to cause the victim to bleed to death over a long period of time.  Maybe the longer he takes to die, the more life force feeds the gods.”

 

Sam glanced anxiously back down the path towards the city.  “That’s a risk I’m not prepared to take.  Let’s get under cover in those trees.”

 

It only took a few minutes for them to find a suitable spot to hide, close enough to the trail to watch for any locals, but well concealed in a small dip behind large trees.  They broke out their sleeping bags to make as soft a surface as possible on which to lay the Colonel and bandaged his injuries as best they could.  Sam was pleased to find that, as Daniel had noted, most of the cuts, although painful, were not too deep.  However, at least two were serious – the one across his stomach, and the wound in his chest.  O’Neill’s pulse was thready and his skin was cold, the signs of shock unmistakable.  They did what they could - cocooning the Colonel in the sleeping bags for warmth – but he needed urgent medical attention.

 

Sam made the decision, ordering Daniel back to the SGC to fetch help.  She needed Teal’c with her, able to carry O’Neill if need be, and there was no way in hell she was going to leave.  She was in command now, and she was staying, so with a final look down at the friend he had given up for dead already that day, Daniel set off, running, his tiredness forgotten.

 

 ***********

 

The knife was raised high above Yetzolt’s head, and brought down in one swift motion, stabbing into Jack’s chest.  O’Neill jerked and shuddered in the grip of the priests, his eyes wide.  Sheathing the knife in the elaborate golden scabbard at his waist, the High Priest reached forward, pushing his hand into the chest of the man beneath him.  For one brief moment Jack’s eyes and the priest’s met, then, with a grunt of effort, he tore the living heart out of his victim, holding it high and dripping, as the light died from the staring eyes.

 

And Colonel O’Neill’s team watched, seeing only the death of a friend.

 

 **********

 

Jack O’Neill wasn’t a simple man.  He often pondered the mystery of life.  The question of his place in the universe and his reason for being had often held him enthralled as he looked up into the starry nights of many distant planets.  He had decided long ago that he had done only what he saw was right, and tried his best to live by his principles, such as they were.  His role was to defend and protect, and although he had failed in it when it most counted, since his son’s death he had found a new path – one he trod with pride, friends beside him.

 

And now he was being torn from them, sucked away into the dark, and he knew that wasn’t right.  He didn’t deserve this fate, and he would do as he always had, protest in the face of injustice, fight with everything he had.

 

This wasn’t where he was meant to be.

 

This wasn’t fair at all.

 

 ***********

 

“This is impossible, Teal’c.  We saw the Colonel die.”

 

“And yet he still lives.”

 

“But how?”

 

“Perhaps what we thought we saw was not what actually occurred.”

 

Sam waved her hand towards the still figure lying on the ground at her knees.  “This certainly seems real.”  She had just taken the Colonel’s pulse, and barely been able to feel it.  He had shown no sign of waking, even when together they had wiped the worst of the blood from him, Teal’c handling the more delicate areas.  Sam had winced and turned away, not because of any queasiness, but in an effort to preserve some of her CO’s dignity, knowing what a private man like he would feel in these circumstances.

 

“Did you not say that the old practices had died out?  You mentioned a ritual relating to sending energy to the gods.”

 

Sam nodded.  “Yes, and that’s what I don’t understand.  The documents were quite clear on that.  Sacrificing by cutting out hearts was something the newer works saw as old fashioned and barbaric.”  She paused, thinking. “The new ritual, sending energy to the gods, they’ve developed that since their arrival on this planet…maybe that’s the answer.”

 

“How so?”

 

She frowned in response.  “Obviously what we saw wasn’t possible.  The Colonel’s alive, so it must have been an illusion.”  She shuddered.  “A pretty graphic one admittedly.  We saw the priest put his hand into the Colonel’s chest.”

 

“No, Captain Carter, we did not.  All we saw was him placing his hand on O’Neill’s chest, then hold up something we took to be a heart.  Are there not people on your own planet that create the illusion of removing cancerous growths from the body without use of surgical instruments?”

 

“That’s true.”  She considered his words before continuing.  “But why?  And it certainly looked like the Colonel died.  There was more to it than just an illusion.”

 

“The natives of this planet say they do not follow the old customs, and yet they slaughter their own people in ways we find abhorrent.  From what Daniel Jackson has explained these closely parallel the rituals of their Aztec ancestors.  The only difference I can see is that they no longer actually cut the heart from their victims, only pretending to do so.  Perhaps they have found a more efficient way to perform this part of the ceremony whilst still retaining the spectacle?”

 

“The dream reader!  That’s it!”  Sam shut her eyes in an effort to visualise the codices she had read. “It was some sort of technology - that much was obvious.  I was going to ask Setztunl about it today.  It involved the transfer of energy, and sounded rather similar to a Goa’uld healing device, except the energy was transferred from the person the reader was being used on, not the other way around.”  She opened her eyes, and raised them to look at her companion.  “If it was a form of energy transference, then we have no way of knowing the effects it had on the Colonel.”  She gulped, a sudden thought sending shivers down her spine.  “Or the effects it is still having.”  Grabbing one of her instruments from her pack, she pointed it at O’Neill’s body.  “Damn!  There’s a strong energy reading.”  She stood, turning the machine outwards.  “It’s coming from the direction of the city.”

 

“That is why they did not concern themselves with our leaving.  This dream reader machine is still able to take energy from O’Neill even at a distance.”  Teal’c got to his feet, shouldering his pack as he did so.  “We must take O’Neill from this place as quickly as possible.”

 

 ***********

 

Slowly, inexorably he felt himself slipping away, sinking down.

 

He shouldn’t be going down.

 

He was sure up was the direction he was meant to be taking.

 

There was a bad down, and a good up, and up was the only option as far as he was concerned.

 

Piece by piece he was being eaten away, but he was going up fighting.  Up.  That was it – up.

 

 ***********

 

Part Five

 

They packed quickly, and Teal’c took up O’Neill once again, this time wrapped in a sleeping bag, the elaborate cloak left behind – concealed under low bushes.  They couldn’t afford to wait for Daniel to get back, hopefully they would meet up with the rescue team before they reached the gate, but speed was the main thing now, for who knew what the unknown energy drain was doing to the Colonel.

 

They were still several miles from their destination when the Colonel showed the first sign of waking.  He twisted his head slightly into Teal’c’s chest.

 

“Captain Carter.”  Teal’c called, dropping to crouch with the other man resting against his legs.  “O’Neill is stirring.”

 

The Captain hurried to his side.  “Colonel?  Colonel O’Neill, can you hear me?”

 

“Carter?”  The eyelids fluttered, finally giving up the fight and staying closed.

 

“Yes, sir.  I’m here with Teal’c.  Daniel’s gone ahead to the gate.”

 

“Carter?”

 

Teal’c caught the Captain’s eye, and shook his head.  It was obvious O’Neill could not hear her.  His head moved again, an agitated movement showing his distress, and Teal’c laid him down, allowing Captain Carter better access.  She had just placed her hand against O’Neill’s neck when the Colonel gave a loud cry, his eyes snapping open for a second before shutting, squeezing tight as if in great pain.  Teal’c felt the other man’s body pressing against his own as O’Neill arched his back, stayed rigid for a second, then flopped bonelessly back down, his head sliding sideways against Teal’c’s knees.

 

“Colonel?”  Captain Carter leaned forward, her hands busy.  “I can’t find a pulse!”

 

Without questioning her, Teal’c tilted O’Neill’s head back, and exchanging a quick nod, waited until the Captain was positioned across from him then bent and breathed into the Colonel’s mouth.

 

 **********

 

They had been working together for ten minutes now.  When Sam had begun to tire she had exchanged places with Teal’c, breathing for the Colonel as the Jaffa compressed his chest with strong, sure movements.  She took a second to glance at her watch.  If Daniel had made it to the gate, he should be back by now.  By her calculations the rescue team would be with them very soon.

 

If?  She gave herself a mental shake.  Of course Daniel got to the gate.  He was bringing help.

 

She looked at Colonel O’Neill’s pale, lifeless face, and sent up a pray that help would come soon.

 

 **********

 

Climbing up was almost impossible now.  For every hard fought step upwards Jack was being pushed three down, and his energy was almost gone.

 

The void was filled with images, pictures flying past him, dropping away as parts of his life fell to the onslaught.  Feelings he had buried long ago welled up, tore through the hole in his chest, and away.

 

He was losing himself.

 

 **********

 

“Captain Carter, come in.”

 

Sam flicked the switch on her radio and waited until she had given the Colonel two more breaths before answering.

 

“Captain Carter here.  We’re approximately one kilometre from the gate, still on the path.”

 

“Colonel Makepeace here, Captain.  What is Colonel O’Neill’s status?”

 

“He stopped breathing over twenty minutes ago, sir.  Teal’c and I are administering CPR. Please hurry.”  She bent back to her task without waiting for the reply.

 

“Understood, Captain.  We have SG-8 with us.  Makepeace out.”

 

Sam pressed her fingers against the Colonel’s carotid artery.

 

She shook her head at Teal’c enquiring look.

 

Nothing.

 

“Come on, sir.”  She pleaded softly.

 

 **********

 

That was it!  He’d had it with this slow sucking of his soul.  There was no way he was going to let it beat him.

 

He pushed, forcing himself up, holding on to what little energy he had left and using it to fight.

 

 **********

 

A shudder was all the warning they had, and they barely had time to move back before the Colonel started struggling to get up.  His eyes were open, but the glassy stare showed he was unaware of his surroundings.  He had pushed himself half out of the open sleeping bag before they could stop him.

 

“O’Neill.  You must desist.”  Teal’c gripped the Colonel’s arms, holding him firmly.  He could feel the muscles rigid under his hands.  Slowly O’Neill’s head turned until he was looking directly into his face.  The brown eyes blinked twice.

 

“Teal’c?”

 

“It is I, O’Neill.”

 

“You dead too?”

 

“Neither of us are dead, O’Neill.  Captain Carter and I are taking you to the chappa’ai.  Daniel Jackson has brought help.”

 

“Carter?”  The Colonel’s eyes moved, searching.

 

Sam moved closer, bringing herself into his line of sight.  “I’m here, sir.”

 

“Where…?”

 

“We’re on our way to the gate.”

 

His eyes flittered, constantly moving.  “Where…?”  He made to get up again, pushing against Teal’c’s arms.  “Daniel?”  The cuts on his face had opened again, and Teal’c could feel moisture seeping through the bandages beneath his hands.

 

“Sir, you have to stay still.”  Captain Carter raised her voice, trying to get her commander’s attention, but it seemed impossible.

 

He wrenched one arm from Teal’c’s grip, his hand going to his chest.  “God!  It hurts.”  He fell back once more, his weight resting against Teal’c, as his breath came in harsh gasps, each one sounding more painful and labored than the last.

 

Teal’c reached one arm around the distressed man, holding him firmly.  He listened as Captain Carter used her radio to call Colonel Makepeace, telling him to hurry.

 

 **********

 

Major Ferguson, leader of SG-8, checked once more that the oxygen mask was secure before they lifted Colonel O’Neill.  He had been stunned to find the Colonel showing all the symptoms of a heart attack as well as the shock and blood loss he had expected when Doctor Jackson had reported his CO’s injuries.  They stabilised him, but the Colonel had lapsed into unconsciousness again.  Ferguson gave the signal, and his team lifted their patient, the stretcher carefully balanced so as not to jar him unnecessarily.

 

Colonel Makepeace was listening to Captain Carter, his face an unemotional mask, but his stance showing how upset he was with her report.  He kept glancing back down the trail towards the city as if he wanting nothing less than to go straight into its heart, straight up to the temple, guns blazing.  Ferguson was sure that if Makepeace did, Teal’c would have gladly followed.  The Jaffa walked alongside the stretcher, one large hand resting on O’Neill’s shoulder, the other tightly clenched at his side, his absent staffweapon a ghostly but almost tangible presence.  Doctor Jackson was firmly ensconced on the opposite side of the stretcher, refusing to take more than one step away from it, just as he had refused to remain behind at the SGC.

 

The journey to the gate was carried out in silence, except for the low murmur of Carter and Makepeace.  Ferguson watched them out of the corner of his eye, noting how they continually scanned their surroundings even as they spoke.  Teal’c too was on alert, even as he guarded Colonel O’Neill.

 

The Colonel was pale, the cuts standing out in vivid contrast to his skin.  Sweat beaded on his forehead, and the Major could see small tremors running across him.  He took his patient’s pulse – much too rapid – but catching Doctor Jackson’s concerned look, ignored the query in the other man’s eyes by quickly lowering his own.

 

He returned his gaze to Colonel O’Neill’s still figure and gestured for his team to pick up the pace.

 

 ***********

 

It was like swimming through mud, and as sensation returned to his body, it got harder and harder to keep afloat.

 

Was there any point to this battle?  He was, after all, dead.

 

But it had now become a battle of principle.  He had come too far to give up now, and somewhere, something was telling him to hold on just a little longer because he was almost there.

 

 ***********

 

Part Six

 

Jack slowly rose up out of the dullness, feeling an ache in his chest and a darkness in his mind that made him wonder if it might not have been better to stay in the limbo he had strived so hard to leave.  Gradually the familiar smells and sounds of the infirmary proved to him that he wasn’t dead at all, that somehow they had brought him back despite the vivid memory he had of his heart being wrenched from his body.

 

It was extremely strange, when he had been so positive he had died.

 

Unless, of course, this was some sort of hell – a punishment for annoying the medical staff so much.  Maybe God had a very warped sense of humor.

 

Testing the boundaries of his delusion, he tried moving, quickly finding it wasn’t a good idea at all if the pain shooting up his arm was anything to go by.

 

“Colonel?”

 

So the delusion came with a sound track.

 

He opened his eyes, finding Doctor Fraiser six inches from his face, her penlight at the ready.

 

He instinctively shut his eyes, only to have the lids pulled up and the light shone in them anyway.  His protest died in his throat, stifled by a hard obstruction.

 

“You’re intubated, sir.  Try to relax.”

 

Relax?  All he knew was confusion.  How could he relax when he had no idea what was going on?

 

The Doc bent closer, and began speaking slowly, as if to a child.  For once he didn’t mind; as it was he found it hard to pull the meaning of each word from his mind before the next one arrived.

 

“Your team is safe.  You’re back at the SGC.”

 

Damn, but she was getting good at this.  Way too much practise.

 

“You have some serious injuries, and you need to stay as calm and still as possible.”

 

What sort of injuries?  He remembered being laid out on that accused altar while pieces were carved from him.  He remembered…not a lot more actually….except.  He raised a hand, seeing it swathed in heavy bandages, and groped at his chest, searching for the hole he knew had to be there.

 

Another hand gripped his own and he found it surprisingly impossible to stop it from pushing his back down.

 

“One of the injuries was to your chest, Colonel.  You have a deep stab wound very close to your heart.”

 

He nodded his understanding.  That explained the ache in his chest.  The rest must have been a very realistic nightmare.  He settled back into the bed, feeling the seductive call of the drugs coursing through his system, and drifted back to sleep.

 

 **********

 

“So as soon as we left the planet, the energy drain stopped.”  Daniel’s voice ground to a halt, and Jack opened his eyes to look quizzically at his friend.  “Sorry, I thought you might have fallen asleep again.”

 

He shook his head, not blaming the other man for thinking that.  It seemed that all he had done over the past few days was sleep.  The Doc had explained that his tiredness was because he had had, to all intents and purposes, most of the symptoms of a massive heart attack, and his body was still recovering.

 

“From what I can work out, sir, the High Priest was using converted Goa’uld technology to drain this energy from his victims.  I wish I could have got a look at the machine.”  Carter paused, and reddened slightly.  “Sorry.”

 

“That’s okay, Captain.”  He summoned up a smile.  “I understand that it was the scientist in you speaking.”

 

“It is good to see you recovering so quickly, O’Neill.  We were concerned that your injuries were permanent.”  Teal’c ignored the horrified looks his two teammates cast in his direction, continuing.  “The damage caused by heart failure could have meant your retirement.”

 

“True, T.  Now I just have to pass the medical board.”

 

Jack thought about what the Doc had told him.  It wasn’t quite as easy as he made out, but there was no way he was going to let his team worry about him.  It had been a very close call, and he was in for an extended sick leave before he got back to active duty.  Fortunately, the damage wasn’t permanent, however nothing was certain yet.  Despite his attempt to conceal his concern, going by their reaction to his words, the others must have picked up on it.

 

“I’m sure you’ll be fine, sir.”

 

“Yes, Jack.  You just need to rest up, and then we’ll help you get back in shape, no problem.”

 

Jack lifted an eyebrow.  “No problem, Doctor Jackson?  This is from the man who can barely drag himself from bed before noon?”

 

Jack lay back, enjoying just listening to his team’s banter as Daniel protested his lack of zeal when it came to exercise.  He closed his eyes, and didn’t even notice when they tiptoed from the room.

 

 **********

 

The voice was low and soft – a seductive whisper that pulled him gently from his dreams.

 

“Colonel.”

 

She bent, touching him, sweeping her hands across his chest, circling the gapping hole, her fingers light.

 

“Lie still.”

 

Her black hair shone, her unlined face smiled, and her eyes sparkled with life.  He did as she asked, lying still, too tired, far too tired to move, but knowing that he should.

 

He should stop her.  This wasn’t right.

 

So he captured her hands in his, and felt the wetness of fresh blood.  And as he let them go, he saw the skin peeling back from them until all that remained was raw flesh and the smell of putrefaction.

 

His throat seized and he yanked himself back, huddled against the bedrail.

 

“Colonel?  Sir?”  Nurse Coglin stopped, one hand holding the wet sponge, the other a bowl of water.  “I’m sorry.  I tried to wake you.”

 

Jack slowed his frantic breathing, and forced himself to relax, sliding back down the bed.  “It’s okay.”

 

“I just need to clean the area around your chest and stomach wounds, sir, before changing the dressings.  I won’t be too much longer.”

 

He nodded, and watched as the pretty, young nurse carefully wiped her sponge against his skin.

 

Doing as she was ordered to do.  Doing it happily.

 

He shivered.

 

“Sorry, Colonel, I’ll get some warmer water.”

 

“No, it’s okay.  It’s fine.”  He shut his eyes, trying to forget.

 

 **********

 

Jack sat in the booth at the back of the coffee shop wishing that it wasn’t so damned hot.  Outside the sun baked the pavement, and people hurried to get back into the air-conditioned buildings.  He turned the mug in his hands, almost tempted to get a cold drink instead, but knowing that he needed the caffeine.  Weeks of leave, combined with a self imposed exercise routine that he was sure would have Doctor Fraiser furious if she ever found out, had left him here, suddenly, unexpectedly, and completely, exhausted.  He had barely made it into the shop, slumping into the seat, his grocery buying forgotten.

 

The coffee felt sour on his tongue, but he swallowed, savouring the kick, watching the thick, black beverage swirl around as he put the cup back on the table.

 

“Jack?”

 

He had a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach, confirmed when he lifted his head to meet the startled eyes of his ex-wife.

 

“Sara.”  She stared down at him, her floral print dress tightly hugging her curves, her blond hair falling softly around her face.  She didn’t look a day older than the last time he had seen her.  “Sit down.”  He gestured to the empty seat across from him, and she slid into it, her gaze still fixed on his face.

 

“God, Jack, what happened?”  She brushed her hair back with her left hand, hooking it behind her ear.

 

He was saved from having to answer by the arrival of the waitress, but it was only a short reprieve before Sara’s attention was once again turned to him.  She reached out, gently tracing the scars on his face.

 

“Don’t tell me it was a training accident.”

 

“Okay.”  He dropped his eyes, sipping the now lukewarm coffee.

 

“You’re not going to tell me what happened, are you.”  He could hear the tone of resignation in her voice.

 

“I finally lost my boyish looks, huh?”  The cuts were a reminder of his ordeal that he saw every time he looked in the mirror.  Not that he’d done that much lately, even shaving carried out mainly by memory now.

 

Sara smiled back at him, the fondness in her eyes outweighing the forced brightness.  “You never had boyish looks, Jack.  You always looked like a bit of a rogue, that’s what attracted me to you.”

 

He laughed, and waited as the waitress put Sara’s coffee down, before continuing.  “The plastic surgeon says they should fade and be pretty well gone in a few months.”

 

“That’s good.”  As he opened his mouth to comment she hurried on, smiling again.  “Not that I’m worried about you regaining the boyish looks you never had in the first place.”

 

Jack grinned and they lapsed into a companionable silence as Sara drank.

 

“Are there any others?”

 

The question puzzled him, until Jack saw that she was looking at his hands, long scars running down each finger in a pattern.  He realised for the first time just how much they looked like deliberate tattoos.

 

He had never been good at lying to her, so he didn’t try.  He rolled up one sleeve and wordlessly held out his arm for inspection.  “Yes. A lot.”  He didn’t bother to tell her that they were probably going to fade faster than the scars on his face.  Eventually he’d be left with only a few of the deeper cuts to remind him of just one more time when he almost died.

 

It was as if Sara had read his mind, her next words spoken quietly, but with a fierce emotion.  “It’s never going to end, is it Jack?  There’ll always be just one more mission, one more time when you have to put the world to rights, and eventually there’ll come a time when the scars don’t fade, when you don’t come home.”  She put her mug down, her hand shaking, coffee spilling across the green cloth, and stood.  “I’m sorry Jack, but I’m glad.  Glad I don’t have to wait for that knock on the door that tells me you’re not coming back.  I know it’s selfish, but I just can’t help it.”  He followed her up, and put a hand out to stop her, but she pulled away.  “I hated not knowing where you were, what you were doing, and I hated not being able to say ‘how was work, honey’ like a normal wife.”  She stopped, hesitated then swallowed, her voice suddenly breaking.  “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

He stepped closer, pleased to see she didn’t back away, and held his arms out.  She moved into them, and they hugged briefly, and memories of an earlier, far happier time flittering through his head.  He bent, breathing in the familiar smell of her shampoo then straightened.

 

“That’s okay, Sara.  You didn’t say anything I didn’t already know.”

 

“I would say ‘look after yourself’ but it seems very unlikely.”  She smiled and he smiled back.  “Goodbye, Jack.”

 

He watched her as she left the shop.  He pulled his wallet from his pocket, and walked to the register, paying for the two drinks, the decision already made as to what to do next.

 

Yes, it would be good to have an afternoon with his team.

 

His team.  They didn't have issues with his life; they didn't have to wait for him to get home.

 

Because they went with him.

 

He could catch up on all the base gossip he was missing.  He’d have to be up to speed for when he got back to work in a week or so.  Maybe they’d even discuss their last mission.  There was still a bit of butt kicking to do and some redefining of the terms friendly and harmless.

 

Blinking in the bright sunshine, he turned towards his truck.  The shopping could wait.  As he turned the key in the ignition he took his cell from his pocket.

 

“Hi, Daniel.  Want to get together at my place?  Give Carter and Teal’c a call, tell them I’ll provide the beer and pizzas.”  He smiled at the answer, and disconnected, pulling out from the curb.

 

 

The End

 

Assignment:
Time frame: Seasons 1-3
Pairings: None
Fic should be based on: Aztec rituals and archeological findings. As per a recent Time magazine: One ritual is to stake an enemy warrior down on an alter and sacrifice him, eating his organs and limbs afterwards, in order to assimilate his strength. One of the artifacts is called the "flayed lord" where evidently a religious leader or warrior is flayed to release his inner strength.
Restrictions: No Asgard, no ship, very team centered, no "supermen" (or superwoman).
Notes: Preferably team centered, where each member has their "job". No "rabbits out of the hat". Off-world culture that the team meet would be interesting, and maybe Daniel (or Jack) have to deal with a female who is interested in him (probably for the wrong reasons).

 

Author Note:  I did some research (I actually had three fairly weighty books on the Aztecs in my garage <g>) and found that there were various rituals involving flaying of victims, including one where a maiden was sacrificed in this way during harvest time.  The cutting out and eating of a victim’s heart is essential to the Aztec rituals, but it was very difficult to incorporate this into a fic and not kill off a major character.  I hope my solution works.