Chill of Midnight

Carter still looks...off. I don't know how else to describe it. She's restless and withdrawn at the same time, pale and unemotional. I had hoped it would pass after time. Sad thing is, I'm not sure if it's her I'm really concerned about or if it's me. I keep getting these flashes of her lying there in the corridor. Lying dead because I'd shot her. Lying in the infirmary on that goddamned gurney, an empty husk waiting for me to have balls enough to pull the plug and finish what I'd started. No matter what I do, those images keep superimposing themselves over reality, uninvited houseguests with which I don't want to deal.
It's too soon for her to be out here. I knew that the instant my feet lit upon this rock known to the eggheads back at the SGC as PX9 763. The visions came on even stronger off world than they had back home. So I took the low road, passing Carter off on Teal'c while I clung to Daniel. I'm man enough to admit it to myself, if no one else. For a short while, it actually worked. The whole pretending not to listen, pretending not to care act riled Daniel up but good.
Our new buddy Alekos was very chatty, piquing Daniel's interest with hints of some old scrolls or something. He and Daniel got along famously while I scoped the village for possible danger. I'm not sure why, but something here just doesn't sit right in my gut. Confirmation of Hathoresque influence didn't really help that, although Al was quick to assure us she - the Mother - remains omnipresent. Here but not seen. If only they knew she was dead.
"Jack, do you realize what this means?" Daniel's voice draws me back to the here and now. A place I'm not altogether comfortable with, I might add. Oh, hell. Who am I kidding? This flat out sucks. We're sitting here munching on veggies, completely unarmed and spooked. All of us. Teal'c actually came out and said it, which speaks volumes in my mind. And Carter just looks...crap, here come those images again, damnit. Have to focus on Daniel.
"Nope, but I'm sure you're going to tell me," I heave a great sigh and toss in an eye roll for good measure. This banter has been the only snippet of normalcy we've managed on this trip. I know he needs it as much as I. Daniel doesn't fool me. He thinks I think he's just fine, but underneath the feigned academic interest he's been showing, I know he's still very concerned for Carter. Every moment she's been around him, Daniel has been stealthily watching her.
Sure enough, my tactic works. Irritation spikes in his eyes and he snaps, "Fine. You don't want to hear it. I'll save it for my report."
Damn. Okay, Daniel's slightly tetchy. Indicator number two of his nervousness. I admit I frustrate him, but never to the point where he loses his cool. Time to do a little backpedaling. I try to mend, "Sorry, Daniel. I really do want to know what you're talking about."
"Well, we know Isis was representative of the Mother Goddess figure in ancient Egypt. The fact Hathor assumed that role, a role unlike that which she fostered on Earth, could be significant," Daniel bounces back.
"I don't follow. Significant how?" I ask. I really don't get it.
"If she's not the only-" Daniel starts, jumping slightly when Al shoves another platter of food in his face. His expression gets so addled, I almost laugh out loud. Movement from my right, Teal'c, kills the joy.
I lose Daniel's comments as I face Teal'c, alarmed to see him so disturbed. His features are set in harsh, grim lines. The same lines which have accompanied him throughout this mission, only deeper now. Teal'c is a man of great strength and passion. Usually very well disguised passion, but it's there. I've seen him study Carter lately as much as Daniel has been. It's like they both think if they don't keep an eye on her, she'll disappear. Hell, I wish I could look at her and anchor her here with us.
Shooting a quick glance at Carter to make sure something hasn't happened to her - these men have been mentally undressing her since we first encountered them - I'm relieved to see she's fine, physically. If her expression is any indication of her emotional state, I'd wager a month's pay she's not fine in that department. I scan the room to ensure none of the men have made any unfriendly advances. Technically, I'm one of her husbands on this weird planet, so if anyone touches her, I'm going to use that authority and pound the crap out of them. Pretty sure her other husbands will do the same, even Daniel, who abhors violence.
That's when I notice it. The something that's been niggling in the back of my mind. It's been right in front of me for the better part of ten hours and I didn't even notice it. Shit. All of the men in this room are young enough to be my sons. Some of the women could definitely be my mothers. There. The woman at the end of our table. She looks to be mid thirties, but her husbands are all about twenty. Oh, this is so not good.
"Daniel, what is your age?" Al nonchalantly inquires and that seals the deal. Blood rushes in my ears. That's why I was automatically chosen to participate in this thing tonight. Whatever this Rite of Vigor is, I'm damn certain I'm not going to enjoy it. I hear Daniel stammering his answer and I look back to Alekos, who's asking about Teal'c's age now.
"Teal'c?" I dumbly ask. Truth be told, I don't have a clue how old he is. "How old are you, Teal'c?"
"I am one hundred and two years of age, O'Neill," Teal'c solemnly reports, focusing on Al. "Please explain the reason you wish this information."
Teal'c's not stupid. He knows what's going on here. Alekos mumbles to himself. I'm not really listening to him, instead I'm kicking myself for being so obtuse. The Cretinian prattles on about worthiness and starts praising Carter for being so beautiful. Who ever thought being attractive would be such a drawback? I'm blurting out something in her defense, not completely in control of the words escaping my lips.
This is all happening way too fast and I don't know how to stop it. The alarm that's been a mere tickle is now puncturing me with all its might. It heartens me to see we're all on the same page, though. Daniel's doing his thing - seeking as much information as possible. Teal'c looks sufficiently ominous. To think, only a short time ago, I thought it amusing to be adopted into this community. What an idiot.
"We shall retire to the bull yard," the woman at the end of the table announces. Who the hell is she again? Wait a minute. What did she just say?
"Bull yard? Oh, I don't like the sound of that," I tersely comment. Nope. We will not be sticking around for this.
"O'Neill, our weapons have been removed," Teal'c tells me.
Oh, no, no, no. Damnit. I think I just created a new rank for the Air Force. Dumbass Colonel. Hi, how are you doing? I'm Dumbass Colonel O'Neill. Nice to meet you. Care to sucker punch me? No, really. It's part of the job description. Go ahead. Man, I've got to pull it together.
I stand, hoping my height will intimidate, "What? All right. I have no idea what this Rite of Vigor is, but I'm damn sure you have no right to force us to stay and take part. I think you'll be giving us our stuff back and we'll be on our way."
No go. Al shuts me down with a little help from Daniel. I know he's the one best equipped to deal with cultural FUBARs, but right now his suggestion of passivity just isn't doing anything for me. Does he really think the Cretinians have something benign in mind? I snap at him and glare long enough to see he realizes we're in deep. Deep enough where I'm uncertain we'll be able to dig our way out. But I...we...have to try.
I attempt to run for the door, trailed by Carter, Daniel and Teal'c, but we don't get very far. The Cretinians outnumbers us and we're carried along with the surging crowd, down the street toward that big building Daniel and I spotted earlier. He said it looked like some type of arena, but Al said he'd show us later and that was that. Guess we'll be getting the fifty-cent tour shortly. Daniel's muttering now, saying something about physical prowess and bull leaping. Bull leaping. Please don't tell me we're expected to take part in some glorified rodeo.
Carter's screaming at the men, using her status as a woman to try and stop them. I can see it's not going to work as we're shoved into a dark foyer. Those men too young to participate branch off to one side of the stadium and the women head to the other. Alekos and that woman...Jacinta?...stay with us, trying to calm Carter down by telling her she can stay with us and that we'll still be her husbands. Hopefully, that is. If we survive.
"Hopefully? What the hell?" I spurt. I'm still not ready to face what's going down.
"Jack, we have to...in order to prove..." Daniel chokes off, unable to continue. Not. Good.
Jacinta laughs at him and calls for the beast, dictating the line-up before moving away from us. She climbs up on some platform, obviously the best seat in the house.
"Beast?" I dumbly repeat as Teal'c guides me to the gate to peer into the playing field. Al is already out there, calmly watching as a monstrous bull is brought out before him. Oh, damn. We're going to have to literally jump over that mountain of an animal. I don't see this working out to our advantage. Al oozes confidence as he suddenly starts running for the animal. The bull doesn't move, just stands there as the guy gracefully flips onto its back, bounces his hands off it and nails his landing. Al's a regular Olympic gymnast. We are so screwed.
"No. No way are we doing that! These people have probably been practicing for this. No," I draw the line. The only one of the three of us that stands a chance is Teal'c, and even his chance is far too slim.
"Do we have a choice, Jack? There's no way out of here," Daniel whispers. I look at him for the first time since we got to the arena. He's terrified. So am I.
"Well...shit. Shit!" I swear as if that will help. Daniel's right. Carter desperately rambles on about talking to Al and Jacinta. I can only nod and swallow as Teal'c is pushed to the front of the line. No matter if she succeeds. Teal'c's already up. I snag his sleeve as he passes and we lock eyes for an instant. I try to tell him too many things at once. Good luck. I'm sorry. Survive, damnit.
The gate slams and my world becomes two inches high and ten inches across. A window not big enough to see well through; far too big to witness the death of a friend. I have to tell him...I don't know what to tell him. "Teal'c. God, this is so messed up. Teal'c, we'll be right here."
He just bows in that noble way he's got. I see regret and honor in his eyes, making this even more painful. This might be the last time I see my warrior friend alive. I have to close my eyes as he turns and walks toward the bull, which is agitated from its little exercise with Al. No wonder the guy's survived to be the ripe old age of twenty-six. If he's always had a fresh bull, he's had a major advantage over all the other schmucks.
"Be safe, Teal'c," Daniel murmurs, voice nearly inaudible.
Oh, God. This is so selfish, but I'm glad I'm going before Daniel. I couldn't watch two of my friends die right before me. Teal'c's bad enough. No. Teal'c's not going to die. Daniel's not going to die. I'm not going to die. It won't happen. Because I'm pretty sure if we die, it'll kill Carter. I think I've finally been able to look past my own problems with her recent...death and see the true impact it had on her.
As much as Teal'c and Daniel have been surveying her, she's been tracking us. I think I was too caught up in my flashbacks to realize the blank stare I was witnessing was real, not a figment of my imagination. Carter's not sure we can see and hear her yet. What a perfect time to have this revelation.
Violent silence envelopes me. The crowd has quieted to pay respect to Teal'c as he plays their game. The only sound I can hear comes from Daniel. His breathing is frantically noisy. I take back my selfish thoughts. I don't want to go before him, not knowing he'll have to see me die. I can't watch Teal'c. I can't turn away.
This can't be happening. The bull looks pissed off as it's released and immediately starts running for Teal'c. For a second, I think he's just going to stand there, but then he starts moving. Warily jogging into the face of hell, like he's done it a million times. Crap, I can't look. I cover my eyes with a sweaty palm, jerking it away when the clamminess seeps into them. I feel my heart leaping into my throat as Teal'c jumps into the air, mimicking Al's moves from before.
Everyone is shouting with excitement now, aggravating me. Through the cacophony, I can hear Carter plaintively calling Teal'c's name. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her leaning over the wall as far as she can without falling over it. Blinking once, I turn my attention fully to Teal'c and see him go down on his knees right behind the bull. It's hard for me to tell if he's all right. Then he moves toward the wall, not as smoothly as he usually carries himself, but he's alive! I laugh with everything I've got, swinging my head to Daniel. He's closed his eyes and is leaning his whole body on the gate. A rough pat on his back lifts his head and I see him smiling.
"Sir," Carter calls, on her way back to our sides. "He did it!"
"Yes, he did, Carter," I proclaim. The relief doesn't last. Carter's face bears no good news. Smile fading, she squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head. Jacinta didn't budge. I really didn't expect her to. "Go see if he's okay, Carter."
She almost protests, but just looks at me with sad realization. I want to grab her into a hug. That'll hurt her even more, so I salute her. She steps back like she's been burned, distress trouncing heavily on her face. God, this is killing me. She pulls herself together and weakly salutes back, pausing only to lay a hand on Daniel's shoulder. As she turns to go, I'm happy to see she seems to know how much she is to us.
"God, Jack," Daniel groans as though he's in pain.
I'm startled to see tear brightened eyes blazing into me. Daniel doesn't cry. The gate is opened and I'm shoved forward. Before I can say a word, I'm on the field with no direction to go but forward. I can't look back. Jesus, the bull is a lot bigger than it looks from a distance. I really don't think I can do this.
The ropes are withdrawn from the animal's neck and it's charging me, much faster than it bore down on Teal'c. Instinct tells me to get the hell out of its way, but I know if I do that I have no chance at all. It'll plow over me and I won't even see it coming. Reaching down into my reserves of O'Neill bullheadedness - no pun - I run at it.
As soon as my feet leave the ground, I know I'm not going to clear it. I don't know how, but everything becomes crystal. I'm flying straight for one of the very large, very sharp horns just as the bull raises its head in defense. I'm so close I can see the growth striations. Shit. Close my eyes.
Ripping, brutal agony. Intense, all consuming anguish. I can hear my own flesh ripping, feel the hot breath of the beast all over me, feel air whipping through my hair as I plummet to the dirt. I know I can't stay lying here. Panicked, I try to move but pain tortures me and I can't stop the wracking tremors. I long for the blackness teasing, reach for it.
I'm moving. I have no idea how, but it's certainly not of my own doing. Can't see. Don't want to breathe. Hurts. Firm pressure on my stomach and on my face keeps me aware, but unable to respond or move. Swaying. Rocking pain. Being carried, not gently. Pulsating misery, can feel the blood pumping with each weakening heartbeat. I need to scream. Afraid such a release will only split me in half and quicken my death. Can't die yet. Have to tell someone something. Don't have a clue who or what.
Falling to the ground again. Numb now. Good. I can smell blood. Lots of blood. Hearing comes back. Didn't know it was gone. Talking? Who? Daniel. Is he the one I have to tell? Not sure. Should try to move. Pathetic. I groaned, didn't I? Sounded like a sick kitten. Ooh, jarring, bumping again. Warmth behind. Solid strength. Teal'c? Hugging me close to his chest, I can feel his heartbeat and the rumble when he talks.
"Jack."
Yup, that's Daniel. He sounds scared. Don't want him to feel this. They've got to get out of here. I can feel the blood still draining from my body and I can't help but wonder how much I could possibly have in there. Should have run dry already. Very surreal. Floating a bit now. Really have to let them know I'm here, if not really here. I have to move something. Arms. No, too hard. Head? I can nod.
"Colonel? Teal'c, I think he's coming around," Carter's face flickers before me. She moves to the left and I follow. "Yes, he's tracking me. Sir, can you say anything?"
Not yet. Teal'c's slow heartbeat relaxes me. All I want is sleep. Need it. No, need to stay awake. Something's not right. Something more than my imminent death, but I can't figure it out. Guess you lose brain function when your body is drained of blood. I close my eyes. Stupid move. Can't...can't open them again.
"Jack? Sam, do you think you can convince Jacinta to let you get our packs?" Daniel shakily asks. Concern helps me peel my eyes open. Daniel has pushed his way into my line of sight. I think he's holding my hand, but I can't be sure since I still can't feel a thing.
"Not sure. She'd probably think I was going for the weapons," Carter whispers. She's very calm, militarily cool.
"Could you not ask for an escort?" Teal'c asks and I jerk as little vibrations shoot through me. Stabbing pain ensues and I swallow a groan. Whoa. Maybe not totally numb.
"It's worth a shot, Sam," Daniel encourages. I can feel his hand now. He's tracing a pattern on the back of my hand with his thumb. Going round and round in circles. "He needs major painkillers. If there's any way to-"
"Not. Not worth..." I finally gasp. Oh, crap this hurts, agony reasserting itself ruthlessly.
"Jack? What? Not worth?" Daniel wavers. His grip tightens as he gets what I'm talking about. "No. Damnit, Jack. It is worth it."
"Dead...already. You know..." I can't get any more out.
"Sir, do I have to remind you of Antarctica?" Carter challenges. "You're not going anywhere."
"Different..."
"I do not believe that situation was dissimilar to this one, O'Neill. The only variance is now Daniel Jackson and I are present as well," Teal'c murmurs, lessening the reverberation of his voice. "Major Carter, you should try."
Her face falters, pale but purposeful. It's not for me she needs to go on this wild goose chase. For herself. I understand that now. I flop my head down on my chest, intending to nod. I can't raise it back up. Daniel tilts it back so I'm looking at two worried faces. Carter unsteadily smiles and disappears, leaving me staring at Daniel. Daniel. Shouldn't he be out in the arena by now? Not that I want that, but I'm suddenly confused.
"Y...you? Bull?" I pant. I cling to the fantasy he's already undergone the challenge and has miraculously survived.
Daniel shakes his head, biting his lip. He looks away, the direction Carter took off. Returning his gaze back, I see fear. Fear for me. He cringes as he realizes I can see his emotions clearly. A bleak smile, an attempt at reassurance, takes over as he replies, "Not yet. Apparently they change animals every third person, to provide some iota of fairness. For what that's worth. I've got a while."
"You should...get out of here..." I breathe. Another bout of pain washes over me and I tense. Teal'c's arms tighten just a little around me, giving added support. "All of you."
"I believe I speak for all when I say that is not an option, O'Neill," Teal'c rebuts.
I've never been more pleased or more distressed to hear anything in my life. Their refusal is no shock, but I still can't let them stay here for me if there's a chance of escape. Even as I'm objecting their loyalty in my head, I realize the futility of continually ordering them out of here. If one of them were dying, the last thing I would do is leave them alone. Teal'c's heart rhythm is slowing down, thudding gently near my left ear. It lulls me closer to sleep and I know I shouldn't go there yet, but it's so alluring. Just a little rest.
"Jack! Aren't you listening to us?" Daniel harshly snaps, his voice echoing as though he's speaking into a megaphone. Strong fingers dig into my jaw, constricting to the point of discomfort. "Stay here. Just till Sam gets back. Where is she?"
This new pain is negligible, a sliver. Annoying but bearable. I ignore Daniel's pleas, choosing to follow the darkness. With astonishment, I realize I'm incredibly tense. Can't sleep like that. I loosen my muscles and let myself flop around. Teal'c grumbles in Goa'uld, pretty sure he's swearing at me. He jostles me and the mundane pain now burns brightly again.
"O'Neill, it is imperative you remain conscious," Teal'c orders.
I'll never get any rest with these two around. I don't know why they're so big on my company all of the sudden. Usually both seem to tolerate my presence at a bare minimum. Wasn't always like that. Wish I could stick around to plaster over that little friendship hole. Hell, I'd be willing to tear the walls down and rebuild from the ground up. Maybe that's the thing I need to talk about? Talk, that's right.
"Awake. I'm...awake," I attempt, not quite able to open my eyes.
"Open your eyes, Jack," Daniel coaxes.
Didn't he hear? I can't open them just yet.
"Why do I have...to follow your...orders," I grouse as lightheartedly a one can when one's dying, "when you...won't follow mine?"
"Totally different, and you know it," Daniel retorts. I can hear the half pained smile in his voice.
Good. This is good. A little war with words should keep the brain...keep the brain...crap. Where's Carter? She might want to be here for my last hurrah, though I'm not too sure I want her here. Open, open, open my eyes. If I can just see what the hell is going on around me. See if I can track her down.
"Not even," I weakly gasp.
Never a more stunning rebuttal. Many a debate won with those two words. Prying my sticky eyes open reveals one gigantic close up of Daniel. Strong and beautifully stubborn. I have to chuckle at the inane thought of the SGC rumor mill getting a hold of this little tidbit. Can almost hear the scandalized whispers now. 'I heard Colonel O'Neill called Doctor Jackson beautiful. I knew there was truth to those stories!' It's too much. A laugh escapes and I instantly regret it, searing pain leaping through my gut.
That strong and beautifully stubborn face manages to get even closer. Daniel drops my hand and cautiously wraps his hands around my shoulders. I'm sandwiched between him and Teal'c. A fortress more mighty I dare anyone to build. Together, they immobilize me and the pain slinks back to the far corners of my body.
"Your friend is dying," a strange voice intrudes.
Daniel jolts slightly, turning to greet the spectator, "You don't know that. He could...he could pull through."
Great. Now Daniel's having delusions. He's pulled back far enough for me to see who's joined us. It's Al. The guy looks surprisingly distraught at my...condition. Well, too little, too late. For me, anyway. Maybe we can convince him to let Daniel off the hook.
"I have seen this many times before, Daniel. My own father died in a similar fashion. Fortunately for him, he had a friend who helped him end it with minimal pain," Al recites the words like he's said them to countless dying men. He probably has. "It is customary and considered honorable to help those unable to overcome the Rite of Vigor along their journey."
Damn, he's pulling a wicked looking blade. Where did he have that thing stashed? My vision may be getting blurry, but I can see he'll be of no help, not for Carter, Teal'c and Daniel. Teal'c shifts behind me, preparing to pounce on the Cretinian if necessary. Fumbling, I manage to slide a hand onto his arm, putting as much pressure on it as I can. Aggressive action will only spark the other men I know are still around here somewhere. He keeps his muscles tensed, but he won't do anything to jeopardize Carter or Daniel.
"You think...no," Daniel, horrified, cries. "That may be a custom for you, but it certainly isn't for us."
"You are Cretinian now," Al corrects.
"Not entirely. We are still who we are. You can't change that," Daniel spits. "Don't even think about it. Put that thing away. But tell me, have you seen Major Carter?"
"I'm right here, Daniel."
"Sam!"
Carter's here. Good. I can go to sleep now. Blinking heavily, I turn my head toward the sound of her voice. Out of the dark, Carter comes running. She's followed closely by two Cretinian women, who halt on the fringes of darkness. Carter flies to Daniel's side, carrying a lumpy black bundle. The daypack she was going to try and finagle her way into getting. Looks like she managed. All sorts of wonders in there, I'm sure.
"Major Carter, it is good to see you were able to retrieve aid for O'Neill," Teal'c greets her, stating the obvious as usual.
"Sir, how are you holding up?" Carter asks, rummaging through the pack.
She pulls out the med kit and opens it on the ground before me. I think this shot of morphine will probably tip me over the scale. No blood left in my body for it to flow through anyway. What difference does it make in the grand scheme of things?
"Really...dumb question, Carter," I slur. Whoa, did she already give me that shot? World's doing a crazy flippy-spinny thing. Nope. Hear fabric tearing, my pant leg. A quick jab and heat sifting slowly into the muscle. Won't be long now and I can go to sleepytown, where all the good little boys go without antagonizing their mothers. Crap. Stuff works fast.
"Just rest now," Carter hollowly whispers.
I feel her breath on my cheek. Her tone pulls me back, half closed eyes snapping all the way open. She thinks she's failed. If she does, Daniel and Teal'c probably do too. Have to tell them they're wrong on that and try one more time to get them to leave. My mouth doesn't want to cooperate. I can feel it flapping about, but nothing worthwhile is coming out. Damn it all anyway. Why do I have nothing profound to say unless I'm doped up or on death's door? Or both, as the case may be.
"Take it easy, Jack," Daniel soothes now. "We already told you we're not going anywhere."
So I did get something out, though I really doubt it had the dramatic effect I intended. Voices hover above me. Teal'c. Daniel. Carter. Al. There's roaring in the distance; the crowd watching as man after man...I remember there were only twenty...face life or death.
Teal'c's heartbeat is slow again, the best lullaby I could want. I lean my head into his chest, pressing my back into his stomach to garner as much warmth as I can. It's so cold. As I fade, I suddenly have two alarming realizations.
Carter and Daniel's voices are gone.
Junior isn't moving.


I'm moving back and forth, back and forth. A child on a swing.
"Sam...ergh...think...work..."
When I was little, I used to have this recurring dream: I'm lying on my back on some type of wooden raft. It rocks gently beneath me as I float lazily down a river. The sky is cerulean and perfect, dotted only by a few fluffy white clouds.
"Bleeding again...need...stop..."
Birds chirp cheerfully from all around me and I've never been so relaxed. I'm thinking how great life is. That whole clich of life not getting any better rolls through my young dream mind and I believe it to be true.
"Don't think...Daniel...no time..."
Then, after being eased into complacency and pure enjoyment I hear it. Thunder in the distance. See clouds darkening ominously. The raft starts accelerating, pitching dangerously as the river becomes white with fury.
"If...he'll die!"
Not thunder at all, I realize dumbly. It's a waterfall. Adrenaline surges and I desperately try to move, to save myself from the awful plunge which will surely cause my death. My muscles seem to atrophy, becoming useless, cumbersome deadweights.
"Have...believe...Jack can't die..."
Moments before absolute death, I wake up, drenched in cold sweat.
"You know...cannot help..."
I'm not dreaming now, but almost everything's the same in this waking nightmare. The only difference is this is very real and I'm really going to die. Hazy, choppy voices belt out around me and it takes me a minute to pull myself out of the dream fog to figure out what's going on. Daniel is on my left. I can hear him breathe, feel him tremble with exertion and fear. Teal'c is on my right. No shivering there, only strength. All the more impressive, since I know he's hurt bad. At least Junior is. Do Carter and Daniel know...
Daniel! If we're not in the village anymore, it must mean Daniel made it through the Rite intact. Wonders will never cease. Time to open my eyes and see for myself. I furrow my eyebrows and concentrate on clearing the drug fuzz from my brain. Pain teases on the periphery - a ghost of what it was. Not sure if it's because of the drugs or because I'm so close to death.
"I think the morphine is wearing off already," Carter worries, voice now sharp and clear.
She's in front, leading the way for Teal'c and Daniel. She's only about one step ahead, not too far away.
"I agree with Daniel Jackson. We must stop," Teal'c states as I feel the swaying steady.
I don't want them to stop. I was wrong before about Teal'c exhibiting nothing but strength. Daniel's not the only one trembling. I can feel both sides of me ripple with tiny tremors. Damn. Now we're completely stopped and there's harsh breathing on either side of me. Have to open my eyes, see if it's simply exhaustion causing Teal'c's abnormal weakness. Now or never. Rough fingers probe into my eyes, beating me to the punch. An abrasively bright light shines into each eye and I struggle to keep them open after it recedes. Carter flickers before me, looking...old.
"Okay, set him down," she concedes with a weary and worried sigh.
I'm floating down with controlled speed, not tumbling chaotically as I half expected. Have to remember this is not my dream. I am not going down that waterfall. Not yet. Teal'c and Daniel grunt, trying not to jostle me too much. Warm wetness covers my belly. Oh. Bleeding. Something warm folds around me. Nicely soft, but also uncomfortably hard. Teal'c again? No, not big enough. Daniel. We're braced next to a tree, it's weight supporting both of us. I shake my head to try and clear it.
"Jack, try and stay still," Daniel breathes in my ear.
He contracts his arms around me and there's an intense weight on my stomach. Groaning weakly, I try and escape the sensation. Feels like a house landed on me. Daniel shifts a margin, withdrawing with a slight hiss when an elbow connects with his torso. The firm hold is back before I can question it. He's not as warm as Teal'c was.
"O'Neill, you are damaging yourself further. You must cease movement," Teal'c intones, voice holding a barely detectable quiver.
If you didn't know to listen for it, you'd miss it. We must be close to the village yet, because I can see Carter and Teal'c. Lights from homes or the arena give them an ethereal appearance. It's disconcerting. Studying Teal'c with bleary vision, I'm alarmed to find a fine layer of sweat shining his forehead. He looks pale. Carter should see something is wrong. I move my gaze to her, realizing she's too concerned for me to see I'm not the only one in trouble. Her face is taut and lined. She's harried as she pushes down on my stomach to stop what blood I have left from escaping my body. Immense, bellowing torture sneaks its way through the cushion of Daniel's arms, insipidly inserting itself between him and me. It's frigid and damp and so frightening. A blanket of cold.
"Ungh," I choke.
Brilliant first attempt at communication. Stellar. It's ignored.
"Sam, we can't move him any farther. I think someone should go back to the SGC and bring back help," Daniel hisses, still sounding winded.
"N...no," I wheeze.
"Jack," Daniel chides.
No, they have to all get out of here. Get Teal'c to the infirmary. Daniel softens his grip now he knows I'm fully operational. I can hear the distress in his voice as he utters my name. It's palpable from all three of them, hanging in the air all around us. The static in my head has subsided and I can still make out the applause of the onlookers in the arena. I have no idea how they've convinced the Cretinians to let us go, but I do know I don't want to be so close to the scene of the crime.
"Jack, even if... We won't leave you here," Daniel sounds like he's swallowing his tongue as he repeats the mantra.
I don't know why I keep objecting. Resigning to the facts, I acknowledge, "I know."
"Sir, Teal'c and I are going to go for the 'gate. You're already situated with Daniel and we can't risk moving you again. We're just outside the village, so it's still a half a kilometer away," Carter relays her plan. "I fully expect to see you here when we get back. And don't give Daniel too hard a time, okay?"
Oh, she'll see me here. I just don't think I'll be alive. Even till the end, none of them will face reality. Bless them. I wish I didn't have to disappoint.
Waitwaitwait...
"But..." I gasp. "Teal..."
Teal'c's face is immediately down to my level. Apprehension clearly displayed, he looks as though he's expecting to hear my last words. Apparently he is facing reality. It breaks my heart. The passion he hides so well is blazing through for all to see. I just stare at him for a while, searching his eyes.
"What is it you wish to say, O'Neill?" he gently prompts.
I open my mouth to give voice to my concern for him, but his expression prevents me. He knows he's hurting and has chosen to obscure that fact. I'm not sure why until he looks first at Daniel, then at Carter. His gaze lingers on her and he looks immensely sad. I don't think I agree with his concealment - it can only bring pain if my assumption is correct.
"Sir?" Carter asks.
Seeing her eyes watery with unshed tears, I find myself understanding. Carter and Daniel don't need the foreknowledge that both of us are dying weighing upon them. Death is death, and if Teal'c chooses not to tell them, I will honor his wishes. I remember the shock of Charlie's sudden death and I hate to inflict the same thing on them. I'm torn now. Either choice sucks.
"Tell...Fraiser...to keep," I sputter, "a bed...warm..."
"Yes, sir."
Carter's face alters from total despair to having a glimmer of hope. The cruelty of my decision is a couple of nails in my coffin. I have no right to do this to her. Or to Daniel, whose heart has sped up with my lie. I falter against Daniel in repentance and long to call back the foolish words. He squeezes me closer, disguising a gasp by clearing his throat. What?
"Sam, you should go," he prods. "We'll be here."
Not so sure about that. It's getting colder.
"Keep him as warm as you can and keep him talking. I think it's a good sign he's awake and aware. We won't be lo-" Carter nervously prattles.
Talk about a Minnesota goodbye. I remember waiting for hours at my Aunt Jean's house as my parents 'were just saying goodbye, it'll only be a few minutes'. Probably not Minnesota specific. I can't believe I'm thinking about something so stupid. Doesn't matter.
"Go, Sam!" Daniel pushes again.
Without another word, Carter brushes her hands lightly on mine and backs away. Teal'c does the same and I can hear them retreating. Daniel and I are left alone. I feel like I should have said a real goodbye to Carter and Teal'c. Struggling to right myself, I wriggle around and gather strength. It doesn't work.
Fate is out there, laughing its ass off at me. Not only did it decide today is a great day for me to die, it also chose to cruelly attack Teal'c as well. Yet it's neither of us I'm concerned about. I suddenly want to see Daniel. He's been nothing but a disembodied voice since I regained some coherency. Not caring about the pain it will cause, I twist weakly to the side. Daniel stiffens in response, cursing under his breath.
"Damnit, Jack. Stay...put," he swears out loud.
My maneuver costs me surprisingly little pain, and affords great benefits. Daniel almost begrudgingly slides his body to the left and eases mine into a side cradle instead of the sterile back to stomach hold it has been. I can see his face grimacing, but he doesn't make a sound. Perplexed, I try to focus on him. He looks fine. Not a scratch from his round with the bull. The grimace was for me?
"Daniel?" I seek clarification.
"Jack," he sighs, looking away.
Uh oh. "D...daniel?"
This could go on forever, if we had that long.
"You know, I really don't think you should up and die on us," Daniel lamely accuses.
"Not...much of...a choice," I mutter.
That brings a strange expression to his face. Dots are being connected, memories accessed and studied.
"Before. What were you going to tell Teal'c?"
Damn. I think he knows. Should tell him. If I say nothing and Teal'c dies, he'll resent my silence for the rest of his life. No, that's not true. Oh, he'd be pissed, but he'd get over it. Always does.
"Jack?"
I can't. I have to.
"Jack?" Daniel fearfully repeats.
"Teal'c...no, Junior...I think..." I gasp. Forming words is getting more difficult. I feel like I've been injected with Novocain. "Hurt...bad."
Silence greets the revelation. I can hear a hitch in his breathing. The news has hit him as hard as I feared. He clears his throat.
"How...how do you know?" Daniel asks, unwilling to believe.
"Before...wasn't moving...when he...support..."
"Oh, God."
The desolation in his voice causes me to shift to get a better angle on him. Unprepared for the movement, Daniel bristles. My left elbow jabs weakly into his side again and a gurgle emits from his throat. Oh, crap. I don't think the noise is caused by emotional distress.
"D...aniel? What?" I ask, but don't really want to know.
He doesn't respond, whether because he doesn't want to or he can't, I don't know. Ice creeps into my veins to replace the chill already residing there. The longer he refrains from speaking, the colder it seems to get. I don't need to hear him say it to know.
I've failed in my promise. I'll be dead before Fraiser can get her hands on me. There's a good chance Teal'c might not make it. And now this. I don't even know what this is, but I'm praying to a God I don't believe in that I'm wrong anyway.
"Daniel!" my voice is strangely strong, driven by fear.
"I'm...I'm not sure, Jack," he finally answers haltingly. "I think something's...something's wrong...inside."
My guts twist in reaction. He thinks? I know.
"How...wrong?" I ask.
"Very," he grits out with a voice raised in pitch, more of an indication than his vague reply.
"God...why didn't...you go?" I rebuke.
At that, Daniel sniggers once and buckles in pain immediately. I fail to see the humor and I'm a little shocked at his ability to hide agony which is now obvious to me. Can't blame him. Carter and Teal'c would never have left him if they had known.
"Couldn't have gone...another step," he confesses.
That bad. My mind is swirling, and so is the world. I'm so tired. Exhausted. Weariness seems to settle over both of us at the same time. My head collides with his chest with a resounding thud, and his slams into the tree trunk. There's nothing left to say, really. Don't need to.
My brain torments me with pictures of Carter. Fitting, as I haven't been able to get rid of my guilt from before. Now it's just compounded. I've as good as killed her again, though she'll still live. Daniel is apparently thinking the same thing.
"Sam," he groans, self-reproach evident.
"Yeah," I murmur.
I can't manage any more. Nothing works. Eyes don't work. Lips don't work. Heart don't work.
Midnight is so brutally cold.
The End

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Disclaimer: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, 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. This is a parody for entertainment purposes only. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. This story may not be posted anywhere without the consent of the author.