A Fine Aim
by Marzipan77
Chapter 1
“You okay, Jack?”
Blue eyes peered over wire-framed glasses beneath a shock of golden-brown bangs. Concerned blue eyes. Just what he needed.
Jack finished tucking his black t-shirt into his pants, grabbed his jungle camo jacket from his locker and swung the door shut. He turned a purposefully confused face on his revoltingly sincere teammate.
“Who, me? Why do you ask?”
He noted the tension in the younger man’s shoulders, the sudden hesitancy in his stance as if, now that the question had escaped, Daniel wasn’t quite sure whether or not he should have opened his mouth. Jack squelched a groan as Daniel’s eyebrows rose and the blue gaze dropped to the floor, his hands busy with the buttons on his own jacket.
“Well, I know it’s been a… difficult… few weeks,” Daniel managed to get the words out.
Jack stepped towards the alcove where their two vests still hung, newly re-packed according to each man’s particular needs. For Jack, his binoculars, C4, ammo clips, extra tissues for Daniel, and a new yo-yo, his last one now in the hands of an eager Councilman Kalan; for Daniel, power bars, allergy meds, tissues, a set of brushes, a bandana, pens, a notebook, and, oh, yeah, a couple of ammo clips, maybe. The Air Force veteran automatically checked each tightly velcroed compartment while silently urging Daniel to beat his way out of the bushes and finally get to whatever his point was. The archaeologist automatically mirrored his own movements, shrugging on his vest and absently patting the pockets as if he could identify the contents by touch.
“The whole situation with the Orbanians—with the children,” Daniel finally began, “it hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park.”
‘…for you.’ Jack mentally added his teammate’s obvious but unvoiced ending to that statement. He zipped his vest, wishing he could do the same to Daniel’s current obsessive bleating. “Yeah?” he muttered, narrowing his eyes and setting the ‘do you really want to go there?’ expression on his face. Daniel should recognize this one—it had been directed at him often enough. It usually preceded the ‘clueless bastard’ face that either shut Daniel up completely or released a torrent of passionate rhetoric.
The brightness of the archaeologist’s eyes told Jack they were veering into fervent speech territory. The icy coil that slithered through his gut as soon as he’d found out what Merrin faced when she returned to her world had left familiar wounds—some that had scarred over as the weeks progressed and some that had opened a trench between Jack and his favorite civilian scientist. Jack’s anger was all too easily revived at the memory of Daniel’s disturbingly reasonable excuses for handing over the innocent young girl, even if it had ended up being the only possible outcome. He’d get over it—he just needed some more time. A couple of run-of-the-mill missions, a few bad guys to shoot, captures to escape, boring old ruins to wander around while Daniel enthused for hours and he’d be able to look at his teammate without the urge to snarl in his face. He sighed and shot one hand out to clamp on the young man’s shoulder—gotta derail the ‘talking about it’ train.
“Daniel. I’m fine.” He squeezed, once. “Gotta get your mind off this and into the present—new mission, new aliens, new… trees,” he swept one hand through the air as if to paint them into existence.
“Uh huh.”
The dryness of Daniel’s linguistic comeback juggled the colonel’s eyebrows upward. Nice wasn’t working, time to try something else. “What?” Jack finally snapped, arms crossing over his chest.
The fair head dropped again and Daniel stepped back to his locker and grabbed his boonie off the shelf before closing door. “Nothing, I guess,” he shrugged. Fiddling with the limp brim, he glanced back in Jack’s direction. “I guess if you say you’re fine, then you’re fine.”
“Thank you,” Jack replied, opening his arms dramatically and raising his eyes to the ceiling. “Now, can we please go to PR6-898?” He’d pay for it later—some dark night his doorbell would ring and an antsy, pizza-carrying Daniel would be standing there insisting that Jack unburden his soul about residual tension and too-smart, blonde-headed children getting the shaft, but by then, hopefully, Jack’s game-face would have been reconstructed over his bitterness and a few minutes of blathering on about feelings would convince his teammate that Jack’s scar tissue would hold. He opened the door and gestured Daniel ahead of him with a tight smile. Yeah, let’s work on avoiding that for as long as possible.

A far off rumble of thunder greeted the team on the other side of the wormhole and Daniel frowned up at the darkening sky. The air was heavy, the clouds perfectly still. If they were on Earth, he’d be closing his windows, making sure the matches and candles were in arm’s reach, and settling in for one of Colorado’s frequent downpours.
“Well, who forgot to check the weather report before we made our travel plans? Carter?”
Jack’s voice was playful and Daniel glanced over to see that Sam was grinning as she adjusted the brim of her field cap.
“Sorry, sir,” she replied evenly.
“Well, don’t let it happen again,” Jack added, flipping his unnecessary sunglasses down to lie against his chest. “You seem to have forgotten my last memo detailing the ‘Sunny Seventy Degree Planets with No Sand’ initiative. And, will you look at that,” he waved one arm towards the thick forest surrounding them, “trees! Again! Have you no sense of variety?”
Jack had been unreasonably even-tempered all day, considering, Daniel mused. Once Merrin and the other Rhone children had been evaluated and the rudiments of the school system had been set up on Orban, Jack had made a few more trips through the ‘gate, claiming his seniority allowed him to be the self-proclaimed Professor of Recess, and genuinely seemed to find his equilibrium among the squealing and giggling children. But Daniel watched him gravitate time and again to the side of the slim, adolescent girl, carefully patient in the face of her inability to communicate with him, painfully grateful for every shy smile or gesture that she made in his direction.
As the team broke into its familiar formation, Daniel fell into step with Sam a few yards behind where Jack’s lanky figure led, his long-legged gait eating up the miles between the ‘gate and the elaborate village structure the UAV had picked up. The wide path through the thick forest was well-defined—hard packed dirt bordered on each side with fist-sized rocks—and was sheltered by the sweep of leafy branches that arched overhead. The first drops of rain spattered loudly against broad leaves high in the canopy, but no moisture made its way through the maze of greenery to Daniel’s upturned face and he dropped his head to watch the back of the man who moved easily in front of him. Jack’s reaction in the locker room, his light-hearted comments to Sam, his usual studied carefree attitude all added up to a man completely at ease with the developments on Orban. Daniel just couldn’t bring himself to believe it.
Sitting in General Hammond’s office with an indignant Kalan who insisted that young Merrin return to her people to have her mind stripped of thought and memory, Daniel had felt the blaze of Jack’s anger—disgust and denial had radiated from the colonel where he stood rigid in the doorway, and Daniel had known he’d placed himself in its path. Jack’s words were hot and searing, accusing, harsh, but his eruption was not what Daniel had feared the most. It was the icy bitterness that was left once the first rush of heat had passed, the dark, emptiness that could eat at his strong friend’s soul, that filled the archaeologist with dread. Anyone who stood between Jack O’Neill and what he saw as the welfare of a child risked the military man’s sharp tongue and fierce tactical mind, but Daniel had been more worried about the grieving father reminded of his most tragic loss in this virtual ‘death’ of the innocent blonde girl he’d bonded with.
“Let’s step it up—maybe we can reach the village and do some recon before the visibility goes completely to shit.” Words thrown over Jack’s shoulder were easily heard in the damp stillness of the air and Sam and Daniel exchanged glances before quickening their pace. They needn’t look back to know that Teal’c would not fall behind.
He felt a sharp nudge in his ribcage and looked over into Sam’s glittering eyes. “You think it’s his trick knee telling the colonel to hurry?” she whispered.
“Which one?” Daniel blinked innocently in return.
“I heard that.”
Daniel smiled at his blonde teammate’s shameless shrug. Maybe Jack was right. Maybe Daniel should just believe his reassurances and set his mind to the mission. He dug both thumbs under the tight straps of his pack and jogged down the trail into the budding storm.

Chapter 2
The drizzle had turned into a steady rain falling straight down without a breath of wind—it silenced their booted steps and muted every other sound—voices, the crack of twigs beneath feet, the rustle of leaves as figures slowly pushed through the undergrowth. It drummed against the slight protection of Daniel’s boonie—he’d abandoned his glasses to a vest pocket a few yards back—and he squinted through his headache into the gloom that had grown beneath the large-boled trees as the team progressed.
Jack had slowed their pace when it was clear they’d never outrun this storm; now his back, jacket darkened to almost black by the rain, was visible as a moving shadow just ahead. Daniel turned to glance backward, strangely relieved by the sight of Teal’c’s silent presence not too far behind. He hadn’t realized how much he depended on his sense of hearing to map his teammates’ places around him, to secure their positions nearby, even when he couldn’t see them. Here, on an alien world, beneath a rain that seemed to drill into the ground, it wasn’t his hopelessly rain-spotted lenses that he missed the most, but the small noises of his friends that his mind would process instinctively as a reminder that he didn’t travel alone.
That lack of even a breath of wind, the emptiness of the air of all but the soaking downpour, was the only reason Daniel recognized the stinging brush against his cheek as an immediate sign of danger. He let out a warning shout and pushed Sam hard, sending her stumbling to one knee at the edge of the path. Daniel followed her down, automatically shielding her with his larger form and turning his pack-clad back to what he believed was the source of the projectile. Jack was at his side in a moment.
The inarticulate grunt behind him had spun Jack on his heels and sent him back along the pathway to crouch next to his downed teammates, eyes flicking from point to point to take in the seemingly empty forest, the Beretta in Daniel’s hand, and the large figure of Teal’c standing, back turned to the other three, staff weapon pointed into the underbrush. The tension that had been growing along the back of his neck, that instinctual knowledge that the pounding rain was muffling the presence of watchers well-hidden in the trees, was whispering ‘I told you so’s’ into Jack’s mind, the voices all but shouting when Daniel pointed to the feathered shaft that had sprouted from the tree just off the path, and Jack’s eyes narrowed on the thin stripe of blood that decorated the archaeologist’s cheek. He nodded, one hand on Daniel’s shoulder to keep him in place, as he pulled his weapon around to sight along the trembling arrow and follow its path into the blur of green leaves and dark wet trunks that surrounded them.
The sound of Teal’c’s staff weapon opening fizzled sharply through the continued drumming of the rain.
The dark head did not turn. “At least two—possibly three—O’Neill.”
Jack sensed the frustrated movement of his 2IC at his knee. “Stay down, Major,” he breathed, his sharp gaze trying to pick out the tell-tale movements of leaf or branch, or an undisguised footfall among the noises of the storm.
“Jack, let me…”
Daniel. Of course. The colonel felt his lips thin in annoyance. Probably wanted to do his ‘we come in peace’ speech for the guys shooting arrows at them.
“Daniel…” Jack let the threat sound clearly in that one word.
“It might just have been a warning, Jack. I mean, we’ve been out here in plain sight for over two hours, they’ve had plenty of time—I doubt they want to hurt us.”
“Spoken by the guy with the blood on his face,” Jack snapped, momentarily distracted by the paling streaks washing down against Daniel’s white skin. He glanced down at Carter and saw that she’d pulled herself into a crouch, still sheltered by the bulk of Daniel’s back and backpack, and she was peering over Daniel’s shoulder, binoculars to one eye, scanning the forest. “Major—anything?”
“Maybe, sir,” she replied quietly, barely moving her mouth. “A couple of dark shapes at about 100 yards.”
Jack grunted. “That’d be a hell of a shot.”
“Well, they missed,” Daniel’s quiet reminder was altogether too sarcastic for Jack’s current level of anxiety. Someone was shooting at his team, but… Daniel wasn’t wrong. Teal’c stood unmoving and untouched in the center of the path, making himself the biggest target the worst shot on record would ever need.
“Okay. Carter—flank left, I’ll take the right. You and I will circle.” He glared at Daniel, making sure to capture the younger man’s wandering blue gaze and undivided attention for the moment. “Make nice, Daniel, but stay behind Teal’c. One target is enough—”
Jack snapped a glare at the Jaffa.
“There is movement—two voices.”
He felt the movement too late as Daniel slipped away and stood, weapon holstered again, hands held out to either side in familiar supplication. Jack clenched his teeth and shifted quickly to the right, searching for the figures he knew were there, watching, waiting.
“My name is Daniel Jackson. We are not here to threaten you; we just want to talk, to meet with your people in peace.”
The words floated through Jack’s awareness. In his mind’s eye he could see the earnest concentration on his teammate’s face, the sincerity in his blue eyes, always ready to meet a new culture, strap on a smile, shake hands, and get down to the sharing, no matter what downright lethal practices that other culture held to. He shook his head sharply to flick the water from his face. Hopefully Daniel’s yammering would draw the attention of whoever had targeted them and he and Carter would get closer before any more hell broke loose. He edged quickly between low hanging branches, careful not to make any more noise than the pelting raindrops. Movement ahead sent him to a silent crouch against the bole of a huge, gnarled tree and he shifted his aim to cover the one large and two smaller shapes that seemed to coalesce from the blur of the forest around them.
“Perduun, Nobelle. Nona abbene paresca! We mean you no harm!”
“Could have fooled me,” Jack murmured to himself. He watched the figures move slowly between the trees passing from right to left, their clothing shades of tan and green that easily blended into the foliage around them. The deep voice obviously came from the taller figure—his posture and broad shouldered bulk beneath a dark brown cape and hood signaled strength and an almost regal bearing. The two smaller figures seemed almost childlike in comparison, each covered with cloaks and hoods of similar style in dark green and grey. Jack watched them pass through narrowed eyes, frozen in place, his wary gaze trained on the longbows held in the shorter figures’ hands. The bows were strung but not aimed, no arrows were poised to threaten, but those cloaks could hide a world of hurt if those weren’t the only weapons they carried. And he’d bet a pound of Carter’s favorite chocolate that they weren’t.
“Sounds like Italian, or proto-Italian, maybe Ligurian or Sabine…” Daniel’s muttered comments carried clearly through the heavy air. “Amico—friend,” his raised voice attempted the connection.
The trio continued forward towards the path, passing only a couple of yards from Jack’s crouched position. The muzzle of Jack’s MP5 followed them. It was only as the group slowed and made to step out into the open that one of the shorter figures slowly turned its head, the shadowed opening of the cloak centering on Jack’s motionless position. One hand thrust upwards, pushing the hood back to lie against his back, and dark eyes within a tanned face stared straight into Jack’s.
A boy. Jack moved his finger from the trigger. The face was smooth, adolescent, slightly soft in its features where the worries of manhood hadn’t taken root. The large eyes were wide, the lips set in a semblance of dignified irritation, dark hair drawn back from a high forehead in braids that disappeared behind the boy’s back beneath the cloak. And down the center of the forehead and on to the straight nose beneath were a series of black marks—dots or circles—that gave the human-looking boy an exotic, alien air.
It was the unblinking stare that drew the colonel to his feet, the muzzle of his weapon gradually falling to aim at the dirt as his feet. The youngster tilted his head as if in curiosity before turning back, the firm hand of the larger figure splayed on his back urging him forward. As soon as the dark eyes released him Jack moved left towards his exposed teammates, frowning at the look of dismissal on the young man’s face as he turned away.

Chapter 3
Jack watched as the tableau came into focus through the lessening rain—Teal’c still rigid, staff weapon primed, Daniel at his shoulder, gaze trying to take in everything at once, and a movement at the corner of his eye that Jack barely had to glance toward to identify as Carter, covering the three newcomers from her obscured position within the underbrush.

“My name is Daniel Jackson. We also mean no harm…” he hesitated a moment. “Do you understand me?”
The larger figure reached up with both hands to lower his hood revealing a head of wiry grey hair, subtly lined features, and a wide smile. “Of course, Nobelle,” he bobbed in a truncated sort of bow and Jack moved slowly to his left to place himself closer to Daniel and in line of sight with all three figures. “If you wish to speak the common language for your vingille, of course.”
Jack watched the thoughts chase themselves behind Daniel’s eyes. “Vingille… I don’t…”
“I am Gavorre,” the man placed a hand against his chest, “at your service.” Another short little bow. The man brought both hands to his sides to rest against the slender shoulders of the other two. “These are Soreen,” he smiled down at the young boy, “and Natua.”
Jack’s eyebrows rose as the smallest figure threw back her hood with a shake of her head. She couldn’t be more than seven or eight—features as smooth and even as the boy’s, her hair shading more towards auburn than dark brown but also held back in braids, with the same series of dots sweeping down from her forehead. Gaze flicking back and forth among the three, Jack noticed that the older man wore a similar, but smaller, design—consisting of only a few dots just on the forehead. Some kind of tribal tattoo? He shook his head—that was Daniel’s area, not his. At least everybody seemed to be making nice—for now. A family outing? His tension level receded.
Daniel gestured towards the figures at his side. “This is Teal’c and Colonel Jack O’Neill,” the linguist’s blue eyes settled on Jack for a moment, brows quirked up in a question, and Jack shook his head. No need to give away Carter’s position just yet.
“Pleased to meet ya,” Jack drawled, twisting his lips into a half-smile as the stranger’s gaze wandered his way for a moment before focusing back on Daniel.
“Nobelle,” the man seemed suddenly distraught, “please forgive.” He stroked his own cheek with one hand and then pointed to the cut on Daniel’s face. “Soreen did not intend…”
“Quente!” The boy raised his arm and the older man stammered to a halt. A flush of red across his cheeks signaled the teenager’s anger and a long mouthful of hurried syllables followed.
Daniel’s face bore that expression of intense concentration that made him look like he was passing a particularly difficult kidney stone, but Jack could read enough body language to know that the kid didn’t like his dad’s apology at all. The little girl—Natua—smiled smugly, clearly on the other kid’s side, and Jack couldn’t help a quick grin at the scene playing out before them. Kids 1, Adult 0, was his score from the sidelines when all the fast talking was over.
“Um, it’s okay,” Daniel smiled at the scowl deepening on the young boy’s face. “No harm done, see?” He reached up and dropped his boonie to his back and turned his injured cheek towards the three.
Gavorre drew in his breath sharply and lowered his gaze. “Perduun, mellti perduun, Nobelle.” One hand tightened on the boy’s slender arm and the man dropped what was clearly a stern command into Soreen’s ear. The boy jerked his arm, trying to draw away, but the older man shook him firmly.
“Hey,” Jack stepped forward, frowning at the kid’s rough treatment. “Never mind. We’re all good here.” He gestured to Daniel who stood blinking in confusion, mouth open to protest. “‘Nobbie’ here doesn’t want to get anybody into trouble, do you, Daniel?”
“Of course not.” His teammate hurried to follow Jack’s lead and change the subject. “We’ve come from far away to meet with your people, your leaders, to trade, form alliances.” He smiled as Gavorre released his hold on the boy, and Jack felt his own tension ease back from immediate threat to station-keeping. “We were just following the path to… your village—town?”
“Yes, yes. We all travel together to Oscanno, Nobelle?” The grey-haired man bobbed and smiled and looked around at the small group. “Has the other gone ahead?”
The little girl reached up and tugged on the older man’s cloak, pointing her bow into the underbrush directly at Carter’s position. Jack shook his head. Observant little kid.
“C’mon out, Carter.”
Weapon carefully lowered to rest against her vest, the major stood, smiling, and moved to flank Teal’c. “Hello.” Her smile widened as her eyes met the stare of the slender young girl’s. The Air Force major crouched, tugged off her field cap, and extended one hand. “My name’s Sam.”
Natua edged backwards, teeth set in a snarl, only to meet Gavorre’s broad hand against her back.
“Nobella,” the older man breathed, bowing again. “We are honored.”
Jack watched as Sam’s smile faltered and her arm dropped to her side. “Well,” he snapped into the strained silence, “now that we’re all friends, what do you say you take us to your leader?” He winked as the girl raised her eyes to his face and then chuckled to see her brows tighten in uncertainty. He gestured at the path and the old man, darting a swift glance at Daniel’s encouraging face as if seeking permission, ushered his charges before him, smiling widely as Daniel fell into step with him. Jack jerked his head at Carter, sending her to follow their teammate closely, knowing that Daniel would be too engrossed in language and customs and all that other crap to watch out for himself. He moved into position to bring up the rear with Teal’c.
“What do you think, T?”
Staff weapon now held as if it were no more than a walking stick, the Jaffa never took his eyes from the unfamiliar figures. “I am uncertain, O’Neill. It would seem that the child shot the arrow that wounded Daniel Jackson.”
“Target practice?” Jack smirked. The kid didn’t even know Daniel and he’d picked the most annoying one to aim at, how about that for karma, he mused.
The momentary silence that greeted his light-hearted comment told the colonel that his Jaffa buddy might not quite see the same humor in the situation that he did. He cleared his throat. “Heck of a shot for a teenager, don’t ya think?” Heck of a shot for anyone, Jack added to himself.
“The boy’s reaction indicates that he did indeed ‘hit that at which he aimed,’ O’Neill.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jack agreed.
“Although he is not repentant of his action, the child’s guardian seems most apologetic.”
Jack shrugged. “No matter where you go, kids will be kids.” He frowned. When they’re not being used as human encyclopedias and then shunted off into warehouses and forgotten, he ground his teeth at the thought. At least the kids on this planet were running around in the woods getting into trouble. Being kids. He tried to shake off unsettling memories of the brilliant little girl painting flowers among the other school children, wise beyond her years, and her blank eyes as he first saw her crouched against the stone wall back on her homeworld. He’d take a few scratches and temper tantrums over those empty stares any day.
The dark eyes of his teammate angled towards him for a moment. “Indeed. I sense no Goa’uld presence,” he added.
“Well, thank heaven for small favors,” Jack muttered. He squinted up into the brightening sky. “Looks like somebody up there might be on our side after all.”

Chapter 4
By the time they moved out into the weak sunlight and were ushered within the thick stone walls of Oscanna, the large town the UAV had picked up during its original flyover, Daniel’s sodden BDUs were all but steaming in the humid air. He tugged at the fabric stuck to his skin, silently envying the three natives who had thrown off cloaks that seemed to shed water like duck feathers to walk, comfortably dry, in intricately embroidered vests over fine linen shirts and breeches made from some sort of softened animal skin. The children—Soreen and Natua—who Daniel had learned were not Gavorre’s children as he’d first thought—had dropped their cloaks and run ahead as soon as the group passed the gates. Daniel watched them disappear ahead, the rich colors of their clothes swallowed up by adults who were quick to move out of their hurried path, the closest reaching down to take up discarded bows, quivers of brightly fletched arrows strewn without thought along the ground, as if this scene were nothing new, completely expected. He traded a few sentences with their guide who simply smiled and shrugged as if excusing the children’s behavior and yet apologizing for it at the same time. Daniel and Sam had shared a glance and walked on.
Beneath his cloak, Gavorre’s outfit was more sedate in browns and tans, and his vest seemed more a type of padded leather armor than a fashion statement—that coupled with the business-like sword hanging from one hip told Daniel that the man was more soldier, bodyguard perhaps, than companion. Other men in similar clothing had approached SG-1 and their escort first with suspicion, and then, as they stepped closer and examined the strangers, had each dropped the same kinds of strange bows and bobs of the head that Gavorre had greeted them with. Daniel had sensed Jack and Teal’c stiffen behind him, but the other guards seemed more interested in staring and exchanging whispered conversations with each other than in threatening the team.
The old man had been anxious to answer Daniel’s questions as they’d traveled through the forest, always keeping an eye on the teen-aged boy and young girl who strode ahead, backs stiffly turned on the four teammates as if refusing to acknowledge their existence, and shooting quick glances at Daniel and Sam, utterly unwilling to be coaxed into using their first names. ‘Nobelle’ and ‘Nobella’ he called them—Daniel assumed it was an honorific akin to ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady,’ but had no luck getting an explanation for the words’ use for himself and his teammate. Gavorre had been quick to offer his own name, though, his comments and body language clearly placing himself lower in rank—Daniel wondered about the combination of what looked like a strict caste system with the obvious Latin-based language and early Renaissance period clothing and weaponry.
The town—Oscanna—was the seat of government of a large farming region that apparently reached for miles in every direction. Daniel smiled at the pride reflected in Gavorre’s eyes as he described the beauty of his home, the nobility of its citizens, the worthiness of the Pretezze—a title that continued to defy Daniel’s translation but by inference must refer to the ruler or governor. It was by the Pretezze’s order that the path to the Stradina—Stargate—was carefully maintained even though no visitors had used the device within the old man’s memory.
“Please, Nobelle,” Gavorre reached out as if to take Daniel’s arm but aborted the motion at the last minute, simply bowing and gesturing towards a large structure at the other end of the open square before them. Daniel sighed and turned away from the fascinating sights in the large open courtyard—market booths selling everything from textiles to farm animals to jewelry—the quality of the merchandise rising as they proceeded towards their destination at the other end. He glanced over his shoulder at Jack for guidance and got only a blank expression and one shoulder raised in a shrug. Right. Meeting the leader. He looked up at the imposing façade of the structure before them. Looked like they were on the right track.

“Okay, somebody want to explain just what the hell this is?” Jack waved his arms at the large chamber, the bowing servants, and, more importantly, the clothes the smiling woman kept thrusting at him. “Daniel?”
At least his teammate had the good sense to look guilty. “Um, I think this my fault, Jack.”
“Well, I assumed as much,” the colonel shot back. “But how, exactly, is it your fault this time?” He rolled his eyes and patiently pushed the offered garments back towards the old woman who was his particular cross to bear at the moment. “Thanks, but I’m good, really,” he assured her for the third time.
Daniel had been enduring the same treatment from a twenty-something pretty boy with a few dots on his face who kept following him around the large room practically simpering to get the distracted archaeologist’s attention. “I might have mentioned to Gavorre how uncomfortable I… ah… we were and how, no, really, thank you,” he turned and smiled warmly at the guy who’d become attached to his left elbow before facing Jack again, “how good it would feel to get dried off and into dry clothes.”
Jack heard Sam’s quiet chuckle at his back and spun to fix his 2IC with a frigid stare.
“Is it really so bad, sir?” she asked, happily threading her fingers over the sleek, lavender fabric that a pleasant featured, dark-haired woman held out for her inspection. “I mean, if we’re going to meet their leader, maybe it would be better if our shoes didn’t squelch so loudly we couldn’t hear the discussion.”
The colonel shook his head and turned to the only other sane member of his team to find the tall Jaffa had already shed his vest and sodden BDU jacket and was being helped out of his black t-shirt by an eager older man. “Et tu, Teal’c?” he muttered.
A series of shocked gasps seemed to suspend all movement in the chamber. Jack looked down into the wide eyes of the small woman who had a death grip on the edge of his sleeve. “What?” He raised his eyes to Daniel’s. “What?”
“Um, that’s Latin, Jack, one of the precursors to the language spoken here by what I figure is the higher caste in this culture. I’m just guessing,” Jack watched the linguist turn an oh-so sincere smile on the woman who stood at Jack’s side, “but I think hearing it spoken by someone outside their caste system is considered, ah, scandalous.”
“The noble one speaks true,” the old woman clucked, and Jack felt a sharp smack on his arm.
“You will change before you are brought before the Pretezze.” She thrust the clothes into his hands and he grabbed for them automatically. “And learn to hold your tongue among your betters. Have you had no schooling?”
Jack’s eyes narrowed at the sound of a stifled snort from the ‘noble one’s’ side of the room, but he kept his gaze riveted to the woman’s. “Thank you,” he pulled his lips back in a feral grin that reflected every ounce of his insincerity. “Daniel,” he growled.
“Um, thank you. Thank you very much but we can dress ourselves. If you wouldn’t mind…”
A few more assurances, some gestures, and a very firm refusal to a very determined and disappointed pretty boy and the team was finally left alone. Jack tugged on the wooden door to make sure it hadn’t been locked on them, only to find himself slamming it closed on the four eager faces turned in his direction from the hallway. He slumped against the sturdy wooden barrier wearily. “Well, that was fun.”
“They seem very… friendly, sir.” Carter was perched on the edge of a bench, head bent over the tangled laces of her boots hiding what Jack knew was a grin.
“Indeed. The people of this world are most welcoming.” Teal’c’s t-shirt dropped to puddle on the stone floor with a loud thwack. Jack managed to control his grimace and slanted his gaze from the x-shape carved into his teammate’s abdomen to Daniel’s hands which had dipped into his vest pocket and were now polishing the lenses of his glasses on the edge of a cloth that covered a low, central table laden with food.
“Honestly, Jack, Gavorre said they’d dry out our clothes for us. I don’t think they mean anything threatening or insulting by it.” The archaeologist slipped his glasses onto his face and blinked at him. “They didn’t even question our weapons.”
“I noticed that, Daniel,” Jack commented, “which begs the question. Are they that trusting, or do they think our weapons aren’t much of a threat?”
“Or,” Carter toed off her boots and raised her head, “are our weapons so far beyond their experience that they don’t recognize the threat?”
“Well, they know knives,” Jack replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “Those kids each had a short knife on their belt, and Gavin—”
“—was wearing a nice, shiny sword.” The guards in the courtyard were armed but hadn’t seemed threatening. Gavorre practically bowed and scraped at Daniel, and nothing about the servants raised the ‘red-alert’ hairs on the back of Jack’s neck. He noticed that three pairs of eyes had turned in his direction, waiting. “Okay. We’ll make nice, put on the fancy duds, and go and meet the wizard. But keep your sidearms,” he stared down the question in Daniel’s blue eyes, “they seem to respect personal protection here.” Jack’s eyebrows shot up as Daniel nodded. Huh. Would wonders never cease.
He nodded at the four inner doorways that branched off into private rooms. “Daniel, Carter—pick a room, check out the facilities, change. Teal’c and I will wait until you’re done. Then I want some answers.”

Chapter 5
Sam sighed and tugged at the unmoving too-tight neckline of the too-tight lavender bodice, trying desperately to hitch the damned gown up a millimeter before she died of either exposure or embarrassment. She’d already endured the colonel’s eyebrows disappearing into his hairline and Teal’c’s quite honest and open visual assessment before the two had excused themselves to change; Sam twitched the filmy layer of silk over the darker, embroidered underskirt and thought how gladly she’d trade a pair of thighs chafed red by her soaking wet trousers for the awkwardness of being dressed up like Princess Stargate. Why had she ever thought this was a good idea?
“Hey, did you notice the Etruscan carvings over the lintels? I knew it was a proto-Italian civilization, and, since no one has ever heard the language of the Etruscans spoken we… Sam? You okay?”
Yes, Daniel. This healthy glow is sheer frustration, not some dangerous off-world fever setting in. Sam felt her lips curve up into a smile. Well, misery loves company. “Nice outfit, Daniel. What exactly do you call that?” she pointed at his blue ensemble.
Her teammate looked down at himself as if seeing the clothing for the first time. Hands adjusted the rigid collar and smoothed down the tightly fitting top before tugging at the wide leather belt around his narrow waist. “Oh, it’s a fairly standard jerkin,” he began to explain, “origins in the early 900s, granted its fabric and embroidery is fairly elaborate, and the leggings are thin silk, clearly made for indoor wear—too light for any sort of foot or horse travel. And these boots are more like slippers, really.” He took a few steps closer. “Combined with the decorated forepart,” his finger sketched a pattern over her dark purple underskirt, “of your gown, I’d say this civilization is going through its own Renaissance period. Interesting.”
Trust her brilliant teammate to totally overlook the ultra form fitting and slightly breezy nature of each of their outfits. Well, if he could do it, so could she.
“Interesting in what way, Daniel?” She sat down on a cushioned bench and adjusted the fit of her holster against her leg through the fabric of her skirt.
“Well, the Renaissance on Earth brought a renewed interest in the arts, philosophy, politics, and is generally remembered as an enlightened period of human development. We think of that era as a search for beauty, artistry, writing, the triumph of human potential. It was also, however, the beginning of a more humanistic approach to life issues—man depending on man to solve problems rather than relying on some omnipotent god-figure to act from on high to deliver one from enemies or ensure a fruitful harvest.”
Sam watched as Daniel wandered the room, stooping to examine an urn, or running his hands over the carved wooden furniture with absolutely no sense of self-consciousness as his clothes molded themselves to his skin. She glanced down at herself. How the heck did he do that?
“You can see how that might be important.”
She snapped her attention back his face. “What could be important?”
The colonel’s voice drifted from behind a partially closed door. “Hey, theorize louder,” he shouted. She exchanged a grin with her teammate—the colonel hated to be left out.
Daniel moved to a more central location and raised his voice. “If these people are at a similar stage of cultural development, I imagine they aren’t blindly worshipping a Goa’uld as their god—I mean, Gavorre didn’t seem to react to Teal’c as a Jaffa at all.”
“No,” Sam nodded, “I think there was more of a reaction to you, frankly, Daniel.”
Her teammate frowned. “Me? Well, I assume he addressed me because I was the one doing the talking.”
“What Carter means, Daniel,” Sam turned to watch her CO wrench his door open and stride into the room, “is that old Gavin did his bowing mostly in your direction—not to mention the fact that nobody else earned an arrow to the face from the kids.” The colonel lifted his hands to his sides. “Well, what do you think?
Sam shook her head. Nothing ever seemed to rattle the colonel, not even a quilted black tunic and matching leather pants. Teal’c joined him a moment later and the two eyed each other’s identical ensembles. “Very… fitting, sir, Teal’c,” she stated evenly.
The barely audible exclamation drew all eyes to Daniel’s face. Sam stood, suddenly wary. Daniel had that look—expression carefully blank, one line creasing his forehead between his brows, blue eyes unfocused as if concentrating too hard on an internal debate to be concerned with his surroundings. She turned back to examine the colonel and Teal’c and the room around them for any threat, listened for any out of place sound, her eyes flicking quickly to try to discover whatever had prompted Daniel’s distress.
“Is something wrong, Daniel Jackson?” Teal’c’s dark eyes were scanning as well.
“No—well, not wrong…”
“Daniel, spit it out,” the colonel demanded, hands on his hips.
A flash of temper sizzled quickly through Daniel’s blue eyes and then was gone. “Well, Jack, I think you’re right.”
The colonel crossed his arms over his chest. “Really? You don’t say?” Sam didn’t like the undertone of annoyance in the officer’s voice. “Once in a row and we’ve barely been in town an hour. This might be some kind of record.”
“What is the colonel right about, Daniel?” Sam asked quickly. She thought this undercurrent of hostility that had been directed towards the archaeologist had finally fizzled out—the colonel’s icily sarcastic remarks and stiff demeanor had eased off since the blow-up with the Orbanians and the two men had seemed to settle back towards friendship during the past few days. But, clearly, not all had been forgiven.
“You’re right that the people here have obviously placed me—and Sam—” Daniel gestured in her direction, “in a higher caste than you and Teal’c. And caste seems to be very, very important here.” Daniel’s tone was carefully even, but the strain in his shoulders under the tight fabric of his shirt was obvious.
“O’Neill and I are dressed as warriors, guards,” Teal’c dropped into the silence.
“Exactly.” The golden-brown head nodded once.
“While you and Carter…” the colonel twirled the fingers of one hand as if to describe their clothing, “look very pretty,” he finished, smirking.
She straightened her back and put as much ice as she could into a return glare. Well, the playful teasing was better than outright antagonism.
“Cute, even.”
Maybe not. “‘Cute,’ sir?”
“I was referring, of course, to Daniel.”
Sam turned her back—maybe if she ignored him he’d get the message without her having to resort to outright insubordination. “Is that what the facial markings are about, Daniel?”
Her teammate ran one finger absently down his nose. “It seems a good explanation. The more dots, the higher the caste? That would explain the, um, strange attitudes of the children.”
“Strange? Why, because they obviously hated you? Seems appropriate somehow.”
Dammit! Any light-heartedness in the situation had disappeared in a flash at the first mention of children. The colonel was on a roll, barely covering his aggression with pseudo-humor, his whip-like comments might not leave a physical mark, but they were sharp enough to draw Daniel’s metaphorical blood. Sam watched as the archaeologist struggled, guilt chasing resentment across his expressive face. Colonel O’Neill’s attitude had stung, sometimes flaying right down to the bone over the past few weeks and Daniel had taken it, accepted it, but the thinned lips and painful frown told Sam that her gentle teammate was at the brink and edging towards verbal retaliation. She didn’t know whether to applaud or cringe.
A subtle movement of air at her back preceded Teal’c’s carefully casual tone. “The faces of the children were decorated more extravagantly than any others we encountered.”
Good. Focus on culture—Daniel could never resist his teammates’ curiosity about anything related to his fields of interest. Probably because it was so rare.
“Yes.” Sam watched the archaeologist come to a decision, watched him purposefully rearrange his features into a calmly studious mask. “Gavorre had fewer marks on his brow, three to the children’s six, and the other people we saw out in the square, they all wore between two and five, at least that’s what I observed,” he added, sliding a furtive glance in her direction.
“Me, too,” she agreed readily. “The woman—servant, I guess—who gave me the clothes, she had three, too.”
“Sir?” Sam turned, confused.
The colonel pointed to his forehead. “The crone that smacked me and told me off—she had two.”
“And mine, um, the young man,” Daniel was frowning again, “he had four.”
Daniel turned and paced towards the far wall, putting some physical distance between himself and the colonel before he turned back. “So, we’ve got a very clear ranking system in place here. Now we’ve just got to figure out their criteria for caste membership, and how they managed to lump us into our categories without knowing a thing about us.”
“Yeah, well, we know something else, too,” the colonel’s drawled comment drew Daniel’s attention and Sam found herself stepping back out of the line of fire between the two.
The dark, hooded eyes of her CO regarded the wary scholar. “If the tattoos denote rank, and the more the merrier,” he began, “then I like these people.”
Sam’s feelings matched the befuddled expression on Daniel’s face. “You do.” It didn’t sound like a question, but she knew it begged for an explanation.
“Oh, yeah,” the colonel’s smile was dangerous. “Compared to the last ‘friendly types’ you buddied up to, these guys sure as hell know how to treat their kids.”

Chapter 6
Daniel let his chin fall to his chest and closed his eyes. Right. Jack was definitely fine. No lingering effects from the whole Orbanian crisis, no resentment aimed in the direction of the slow-moving archaeologist-shaped target, and no backlog of unresolved grief channeling into anger to rip through the team dynamic. He wrapped his arms around his chest, suddenly chilled in the warm air of the richly furnished chamber as the silence grew in the wake of Jack’s last comment.
“You believe the people of this culture value their citizens based on youth, O’Neill?”
“I think it’s fairly obvious even to an uneducated shrub like me, don’t you, big guy?”
Forcing two fingers of each hand beneath the lenses of his glasses to rub at his eyes, Daniel tried to listen unemotionally to the discussion. Any responses on his part had to be made very carefully. Whatever he said now would be automatically deflected just as easily as the Air Force colonel would dodge an enemy attack. Sam and Teal’c would hear him, probably, but the stress of keeping an even keel among Jack’s verbal projectiles would wear on all of them. He opened his eyes and dropped heavily onto a nearby bench—maybe it would be better to avoid the battle entirely.
Sam’s voice held a touch of exasperation. “So Daniel and I have been singled out because we’re younger than you? That seems to be a weird way to structure a society—it would put the people with the least experience in charge.”
“But it sure would make life a whole lot more fun, Carter. And—good news—no broccoli, early bed times, or spanking!” The cutting undertone was not particularly well hidden beneath Jack’s words.
He watched the byplay silently, biting at his lower lip, knowing that Jack was just getting started. Over the past few weeks Daniel had gone back and forth, at times wishing they’d never met the Orbanians and he’d never seen the awe-inspiring artwork of the people descended from Earth’s Meso-Americans or heard of a naquadah reactor, for Jack’s sake. But, he shook his head, then those people would still be warehousing their brain damaged children, unable, or unwilling, to reach out and teach them how to live. A spark of anger flashed through him when Jack focused an ugly glare on Daniel’s face. He didn’t mind bearing the brunt of his friend’s hurt, for a while, but…
“Daniel’s pout alone will probably net us the keys to the kingdom.”
Yeah, it was definitely getting old. “A cult of youth doesn’t really work that way, had never actually worked well when practiced in ancient human society at all,” Daniel stated carefully, tamping down any emotional response. “Many medieval rulers came to the throne as children, but their more childish whims were tempered by older advisors. Here, we don’t really have enough information to assume…” he let the sentence trail off.
“We did observe the adults within this city make way for the two children, even stooping to retrieve their discarded items without a word of censure.” Teal’c clasped his hands behind his back and swept his gaze over his teammates’ heads.
Daniel snorted silently. He wished he could pull off the solid, taking no sides, utterly neutral stance that the Jaffa fell into whenever the team was in discord. Teal’c could stare, remain completely alert, and make no eye contact whatsoever. Daniel had never been able to master that well-honed skill of politicians, lawyers, and, apparently, Jaffa—he couldn’t help himself. He had to look into people’s eyes. He didn’t feel that he was truly communicating if he couldn’t—and didn’t that make it hopelessly obvious when he did avoid eye contact that he had something to hide. Even now he had to remind himself to keep his gaze moving, never letting it rest on Jack’s dark, taunting glare or Sam’s soft glance.
“Well, Daniel, you are the youngest and you were given the highest ranking servant.” Sam looked at him with raised eyebrows, inviting, almost willing his comment.
“Maybe.” He shook his head. It just didn’t feel like the right answer.
Jack’s grunt came as no surprise. “No ‘maybe’ about it—those kids were definitely bossing old Gavin around.”
Sam turned to face SG-1′s leader, a question in her eyes. “I don’t know, sir. Gavorre spoke mostly with Daniel and me on the way here—he seemed to be much more interested in us than in the children. If they were in charge…”
“Hey, maybe the rules are different for visitors, what do I know, I just work here,” Jack shot back, gesturing at his guard outfit.
Daniel’s mind spun back to the comments of the man in the forest. ‘If you wish to speak the common language for your vingille, of course,’ he’d said. Vingille. Perhaps rooted in the Latin vigilo, vigilans, adjectives for watchful, alert, to care for by watching. That would fit with the slightly lower caste old man traveling with the higher caste children—perhaps son and daughter of a high caste ruler? And maybe Daniel and Sam’s position in the center of the team’s formation—guarded before and behind by obvious warriors—gave Gavorre the impression that they were more valuable?
He rose to his feet as Jack moved towards the door. It still didn’t explain the arrow attack. Why would a high caste child—a royal heir perhaps—want to take out a total stranger, someone who hadn’t threatened him, or his standing, in any way? No, there was more going on here, and it was his job to figure it out.
“We should be careful of making assumptions. We need to observe more of this culture’s dynamic before we decide exactly what is going on here,” he finally stated, forcing himself to meet Jack’s narrowed gaze.
A long moment passed, and Daniel felt some of the tension drain from his rigid stance when Jack nodded sharply. “Okay, observe. We can do that.” The colonel’s watchful gaze quickly inspected each of them, settling on the sidearms clearly in view and then coming to rest on the draperies of Sam’s gown. “Major—you armed?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Then let’s get this show on the road.” Daniel held onto his composure as Jack turned to him. “You about ready, oh ‘noble one?’”
Daniel hesitated, another apology ready on his tongue. He bit it back and stalked past his teammates into the corridor.

Now this was more like it. Jack blinked away the fog of half-awareness that had been wrapping around his head like a blanket for the past—he checked his watch again—forty minutes during the fifty cent tour he’d personally entitled ‘Big Rooms with Lots of Artsy Shit.’ He let out a low whistle as he twisted his neck to take in the displays hanging from the walls and ceiling—much better than moody portraits or statues—you’ve seen one naked Adonis and you’d seen them all—this room was filled with armor and armaments, everything from swords, daggers, garrotes, poniards, a couple of examples of the type of longbows he’d seen the kids in the forest carry, and even, at one end, something like a ballista. Hell, if Daniel could drool and sigh over rocks and squiggly lines this room was a wet dream for Jack’s more military mind, and it felt good to just ignore all that emotional swill that kept foaming up from deep in his gut and spewing out his mouth.
Had he been the one who’d thought he just needed a mission, any mission, to get a handle on the leftover sludge he seemed to need to vent all over Daniel? Well, who else? Carter wouldn’t take it—that deadly tone she’d used to quote back his little ‘cute’ comment made it quite plain that she was one Air Force Major who would gladly remove his balls with an ice cream scoop if he decided to place her in his target zone. And Teal’c—yeah, he wouldn’t even need the ice cream scoop; one lift of that lethal eyebrow and Jack would be reduced to a stammering, and possibly bloody, wreck. He glanced over at his archaeologist where he was making nice with the three kiss-asses who’d dragged them all over this joint and felt the roiling in his gut. Daniel would take it—he’d take it and tell himself that Jack needed this, he seethed, tell himself that Jack’s poor wounded psyche was so raw that he couldn’t help himself. Well he damned well should be able to ‘help himself’—this was a battle Jack thought he’d won four years ago under three alien moons.
He turned away and focused his attention on the row of swords on display along the far wall. Nothing fancy; no filigree or jewels for these puppies, just some damn fine metal work on blades that had been made for only one purpose—tearing through an enemy’s flesh and spilling his blood. That was the kind of battle Jack understood—in your face, bullets flying, no regrets, not tiptoeing around, walking on eggshells, hoping your words didn’t blow up in your face and that the guys you thought were friends weren’t looking forward to the shrapnel’s pretty wounds. He walked the length of the display, listening with half an ear to the nattering going on behind him—Gavorre and his two flunkies gently putting off Daniel’s continued insistence on speaking with the ruler—king—governor—leader; it was kinda fun trying to anticipate which synonym Daniel would throw out there next.
Jack reached the end of the row and turned, immediately startled to stillness by a familiar slender figure crouched in the shadows staring across the room towards Jack’s teammates—and by the raw emotion he saw in those brown eyes. Hatred. Naked, searing hatred.

Chapter 7
“Hey,” Jack said quietly.
The dark gaze snapped to Jack’s face and the colonel watched as the boy’s hand momentarily tightened around the hilt of the short sword hanging from his belt. Jack held his relaxed stance, head tilted to one side, hands dangling casually at his sides. After a tense silence, the teen—Soreen—stood with fluid grace and crossed both arms over his richly embroidered silk tunic, a slight sneer on his face as he looked Jack up and down in obvious assessment.
“You address me, Vingille?” The boy’s voice was still fluctuating between youthful soprano and mature tenor and Jack could tell the quivering sound filled the kid with angry shame.
He tried a crooked smile. “Is that okay? I mean, I can talk to you, right? Like ole Gavorre over there does?”
An ugly frown darkened Soreen’s face before it was replaced by a sly, calculating look. Jack’s inward grin grew—typical kid trying to get away with something expression.
“I will permit it,” the boy nodded once, narrowed gaze flicking quickly towards the knot of worshippers surrounding Daniel and Carter and then back to Jack’s face. His chin lifted and he turned to the doorway behind him. “Accompany me,” he demanded before striding quickly from the room, not a doubt in his mind, apparently, that Jack would do just that.
Jack exchanged a glance with Teal’c, jerked his head towards their teammates in what he knew the Jaffa would recognize as a command to keep them in sight, and followed the teenager into the shadowed hallway. The kid had stopped a few yards down the windowless passageway as if waiting for him, his furious expression giving way to smug satisfaction. As Jack drew alongside him, the boy studied his face carefully in the dim light and the colonel forced himself to stand patiently and endure the examination. He seemed to find something he liked there, because suddenly Soreen smiled tightly and began to walk again, leading Jack slowly towards a heavily barred wooden door at the end of the passage.
“You are Vingille to these Nobelle? You and the other cecterice?” The boy drew a circular design in the air before his forehead with one finger.
Jack frowned and found himself mimicking the gesture. “Cactus…catch… Oh, you mean Teal’c—” he sketched the design of Teal’c’s tattoo himself, “the big guy with the gold tattoo on his head.”
Soreen nodded.
“Well, I don’t know what a Vingel is, but the name’s Jack—Jack O’Neill.” He held out one hand.
The boy stared at it for a long moment, the dark gaze sliding from Jack’s empty hand, up his arm, to linger again on his face. “There is time enough for vauti.” He bent his neck in something like one of Teal’c’s bows and then started back down the hallway towards their destination.
Huh. Not exactly best friends, but the kid seemed to be opening up a bit. Jack’s much longer legs closed the gap and he continued silently at Soreen’s side. When they reached the door the teen stood, waiting, arms crossed, staring at the wooden impediment to their progress. Jack felt his lips twist in a half-smile and reached forward to slide the long wooden bar from its place and pull one door back. His smile widened when he caught the lessening of tension around the young man’s mouth before he walked through.
Hazy sunlight flooded the open, dirt-floored courtyard, its walls topped on three sides by a parapet decorated with rows of arches and columns where well-dressed figures strolled, looking casually down on the activity below. One figure—tall, formidable, dark hair falling past wide shoulders and dressed in a rich, red tunic—caught his attention. Too far away to make out the man’s features, Jack narrowed his eyes as he realized the man was staring back at him. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a woman approach the man and offer some kind of cup or goblet, the light reflecting sharply from its metal rim; she was dismissed with a quick flick of one wrist. The tensing of the slight figure at his side brought Jack’s gaze down to the young boy who had stilled under the scrutiny.
“Nothing can be decided before the Poreva,” Soreen murmured, and Jack watched the careful calculation on the young face as the boy lowered his eyes and examined each group of figures within the courtyard closely before turning to gesture Jack to a weapons rack nearby.
“Po—” Jack managed to stop himself before he repeated the alien word, remembering the scolding he’d received from the old woman servant. He cleared his throat and, with one more glance thrown at the figure above, followed the kid towards a frame holding bows of various lengths. “I don’t understand,” he finally stated, smiling.
The teen turned again, frowning. “The Poreva—the testing.” He pointed towards the bows, one brow arching impatiently.
Jack’s own eyebrows were doing the same kind of dance. “Okay,” he drawled, “I get it.” He glanced back at the groups of obviously seasoned warriors wrestling, banging at each other with swords and small round shields, and a few practicing knife throwing at a human-shaped target. His quick gaze took in another larger door in the outer wall, racks of weapons situated on each side wall, and a dozen targets set up along the courtyard’s periphery. He glanced down to the boy at his side and shrugged. Boys and their toys, he thought to himself, one constant in a large, weird galaxy.
“It’s been a few years since Camp Winnetonka, but I’m game.” He chose the least warped looking bow, measured it against his height, looped one curved end around an ankle and leaned against the wood to pull the loose string to hook over the other end. Fingers plucking at the now taut string, he nodded. The kid grabbed a bucket filled with arrows that was sitting to one side and walked towards some targets lined up alongside one wall. Jack followed, intrigued as the men between the kid and his objective parted before him like the Red Sea, and then came back together after as if nothing had happened. He straightened his back against the fiery stare he felt between his shoulder blades as he followed. Testing huh?

Daniel blinked up at the watery sun barely visible between the heavy clouds. Well, at least they were outside and away from the seemingly endless tour conducted by Gavorre and the two other servants that had been assigned to SG-1′s ‘noble ones.’ He took a deep breath and let it out, determined to hang onto his fracturing patience. Yes, the artwork and architecture had been fascinating, the tapestries elegant, the delicacies offered to him and Sam intriguing, but Daniel Jackson was definitely not made for a life of being pandered to by anyone, let alone a group of smiling, simpering, court toadies. Once he’d convinced Gavorre to allow them to visit the merchants in the outer courtyard, Daniel noticed a deep sigh of relief from Sam and he met her eyes, barely suppressing an answering grin. Yeah, she’d been as bored as he was. He’d trade all this for a snarky Jack O’Neill’s barbs anytime.
Where the hell was Jack, anyway? He fell back to walk next to Teal’c, allowing Sam to pull away slightly with the others.
“O’Neill has departed with Soreen—the young one from the forest.”
Daniel looked up at the Teal’c’s calm expression, wondering, not for the first time, how the alien managed to constantly anticipate his teammate’s questions and concerns. “Do you think it was wise to let Jack go off alone?”
The large Jaffa glanced down at him briefly. “Do you not?”
He felt the tension pull his brows down and a headache begin to pound behind his eyes. Jack going off alone with an alien child? What could happen? “I don’t know, Teal’c. I’m… I’m just not sure that Jack’s thinking very clearly right now.” Daniel crossed his arms over his chest, his jaw aching to deny the words that slipped out through his lips. A wave of silence greeted him and Daniel wondered if Teal’c, too, somehow blamed him for what had happened on Orban. He stepped forward, trying to slip into the middle distance between Gavorre and the other courtiers ahead and his silent teammate behind.
The sounds and smells of the alien marketplace increased the farther the group progressed, and neither was doing much to help Daniel draw his thoughts into any kind of order. The fawning Cisere, the young man who had become all but attached at his elbow since they’d left their rooms, fell back to his side, but Daniel did his best to ignore the constant stream of commentary not to mention the thinly veiled propositions offered with every third word. He’d just decided to approach Gavorre and demand to be returned to their rooms so that they could rendezvous with Jack when a thin, wailing cry rose above the shouts of the marketplace and a compact bundle of limbs struck him at waist level. He unconsciously grabbed at the small figure to try to regain his balance and realized he was holding onto a frightened, sobbing child.
“Hey, it’s okay…” Daniel crouched down and patted the boy’s back awkwardly, twisting to try to get a look at his face. “You’re okay,” he muttered reassurances. “Are you lost? Did you lose your parents?”
Suddenly hands grasped at the boy, yanking him away from his desperate clutch at Daniel’s leg and the archaeologist became aware of strident voices filled with anger directed at the cowering child. Gavorre’s flushed face was thrust close to the boy’s, his hands holding the thin arms in a crushing grip, shaking the child over and over again. Daniel stood quickly, stepping forward to stop him when a large, familiar hand reached out and twisted itself in the neck of Gavorre’s tunic, breaking his grip and hauling the older man into the air. Sam was there in an instant, kneeling beside the boy and holding him securely against her chest, blue eyes flashing over the tousled brown head as if daring someone else to try to get in her way.
The natives swirled around them, raised voices tumbling over each other. A woman in an embroidered rose gown, her face wet with tears, was being held nearby between two guards. Daniel yanked his elbow from Cisere’s grip, barely noticing as the young man fell back with stammering apologies, and placed one hand on Teal’c’s rigid shoulder until the enraged Jaffa loosened his hold and lowered the man to the ground. Gavorre clutched at his throat, gasping, his gaze darting between Daniel’s tense posture and Teal’c’s looming presence.
“Arrette!” That single word halted all movement and silenced the crowd immediately.

Chapter 8
“Arrette! Stop!” More than one voice had spoken, and the people that had gathered around the dramatic tableau shuffled to either side. Gavorre picked himself up from the ground and moved aside more quickly than Daniel thought possible, and Cisere and the woman who had been attending Sam followed. Teal’c and Daniel moved back, flanking Sam’s position where she knelt beside the hysterical child.
Three figures made their way forward past the parting crowds, one woman and two men dressed in the most elaborate costumes Daniel had yet seen. He shook his head, frowning: they were not at all what he expected. The man on his right was short and heavily built, his nearly bald head rising over a well-tanned face and neck, a dark green ankle-length robe falling in elaborate pleats from massive shoulders was circled at his ample waist with a gold cord. His hands were thick-fingered; the fingers calloused and covered with the faint white lines of old scars. His small dark eyes widened as he examined Daniel’s face, and his fingers twitched as his gaze scanned down the archeologist’s body and then moved on to focus on Sam’s frozen posture at Daniel’s left.
The other man was a study in opposites. Slight and small boned, the man’s dark hair flew around his head like a thin, graying halo. His robe, styled in a similar manner as the first, was blood red, also belted in gold, but hung gracelessly from his thin shoulders to puddle across his sandaled feet, its lower edge filthy from where it had dragged through the dirt. His nose was beak-like beneath muddy brown eyes and his lips were tightened into a thin line.
Flanked by the men, the woman in the center of the group strode forward calmly, her short brown hair lying flat against her head, her dark purple robe straining across her full bosom and equally generous hips, the gold cord at her waist criss-crossed in an elaborate pattern. Her bright black gaze seemed to dance across each of them, and it looked as if she was committing every detail of the scene playing out before her to memory. Her bare arms were each wrapped in gold and jeweled armlets and ended in long fingered hands that rested on her hips.
Daniel’s eyes narrowed. All three of them had two columns of the strange facial markings running down from their hairlines to the tips of their noses.
The woman smiled. “Peri fivorre, Nobelle, Nobella,” she moved both hands into the air before her in a welcoming gesture. “Perduun quis piuculle.” She pointed to the child.
Daniel saw Sam’s hands tighten around the boy’s slender shoulders. “Daniel?”
“Ah, I haven’t got the vowel shift down yet,” Daniel muttered out of the corner of his mouth before addressing the newcomers. “I’m sorry, um, perduun, but if you wouldn’t mind… non possiamo parlare…”
“As you wish,” the woman nodded, a slight frown appearing momentarily on her face before it cleared. “I am Pinatra, these are Scaelletre,” she motioned towards the heavy set man, “and Goello,” the thin man grunted. A murmur sped through the watching crowd. “We are Poreva.” The three bent their necks stiffly in a well-rehearsed motion.

“Yes,” Jack muttered as his arrow hit just a hair to the left of dead center. He’d managed to find the distance and tighten down the aim after only about a half-dozen tries, and his last ten hits had been within the smallest yellow circle. He flashed a grin at Soreen where the boy stood silently to his right. “Not bad, huh?” A slight tap on his forearm when he reached down to grab another arrow from the bucket stopped him. Another, longer shadow had joined the boy’s on the light dirt.
Jack looked up into the face of the dark-haired man from the wall—smooth, striking features, haughty expression, and a whole bunch of little dots climbing up his forehead. “Hello there,” Jack drawled, straightening and easing the bow to his left hand. “You must be Dad.” He noted fleeting amusement on the man’s face and glanced down to see a formidable scowl on the kid’s. “Okay, not Dad.”
“I am Pretezze,” the man announced, his smile lightening his dark eyes.
Oooh. This was the guy they’d been waiting to see. Score one for the clueless colonel. “Colonel Jack O’Neill.”
The man nodded and then reached down and placed one arm possessively around the teenager’s shoulders. The boy shifted closer, leaning into the hug, and raised his dark eyes to the tall man beside him. Jack swallowed the harsh knot of jealousy that burned northward from his gut and blinked away images of a blond, tousled head and bright smile, all knees and elbows racing towards him across the grass. He forced the memories back down where he was sure they’d been held securely behind the locked doors of his mind, barely clamping a controlled mask onto his features before the Pretezze turned back. The two men stood, dark eyes considering, gauging each other, and the Air Force colonel wondered about an answering darkness within the depth of the other’s warm gaze.
“Your Nobelle have chosen well in you.” The voice was rich and confident.
“It’s more of a team effort, actually,” Jack replied wryly. He’d be damned if he’d continue this whole ‘noble one’ spiel. When in Rome and all that, but enough was enough.
The Pretezze shook his head as if confused before nodding towards the target. “I am sure you are even more formidable with your own weapon.” He tilted his head at the sleek pistol riding Jack’s hip, a slight smile hovering about his lips.
Jack recognized it as an invitation. He hesitated, a cold chill creeping down his neck. “Yeah.”
“Would you show us?”
“Sure, why not.” Another test, huh? Jack didn’t see the harm in demonstrating his team’s greater firepower. His gaze darted from the man’s face to the kid’s and he felt sweat break out along his forehead. “But only if you back him up out of the way,” he gestured towards the kid with his chin. “This isn’t like your other weapons—it’s not a toy. It’s dangerous.” Words he’d said before in another place, another time. “Your kid might be good with a bow, but this?” he tapped one finger along the cold barrel, “this he can never touch. You get me?” He couldn’t help the fierce stare he pinned the other man with, nor the steel in his voice.
The Pretezze’s eyes narrowed fractionally, but he inclined his head and backed to the wall, Soreen held firmly at his side. Jack breathed out a sigh and turned to see that the other warriors were now watching from a respectful distance. He shifted to stand in front of the human-shaped target the knife-throwers had been aerating, making sure there was no one close to his line of fire. He raised his weapon and fired, once. A shocked gasp followed closely on the sound as the target’s head exploded in a shower of straw and burlap. Jack flicked on the safety, returned his Beretta to its holster, and turned back to see the teenager whispering intently into the adult’s ear. He walked towards the pair slowly.
“Very impressive, Vingelle.”
“Why, thank you, sir,” Jack returned, folding his arms over his chest and trying to resurrect his casual manner of a few minutes ago.
The Pretezze glanced down at the eager face of the young man. “Soreen would meet your ‘team effort,’ Colonel Jack O’Neill, as would I.”
“Sounds good.” He rocked up onto his toes. “Lead the way there, kid.”
The man smiled. “They are with the Poreva.”
Jack frowned, glancing at the headless target. “But I thought…”
“It is no matter,” the Pretezze held Soreen closely to his side for a moment. “Soreen will show you the way. Then, perhaps this evening there will be time for us all to speak.”
“Your wish is my command.” Jack shrugged.
Two brows arched elegantly above the Pretezze’s wide eyes. “Of course.”

“Please forgive the little one—so young, they do not always understand, do they?”
“Um, no, I suppose not,” Daniel answered carefully.
Sam felt the small body shiver against her, the wild sobbing shifting into a soft keening sound interrupted here and there by loud hiccups. She stroked the child’s back—this was more than a child getting lost in a crowded shopping mall; Sam leaned back and tilted the child’s face up towards hers. He blinked unfocused, tear-filled eyes at her, one hand clutching at her sleeve and the other rubbing furiously at the two circular marks on his forehead. She frowned—something was definitely off here.
The spokeswoman—Pinatra—gestured towards the guards who were still hanging onto the rose-gowned woman. “Release her, vingelle,” she commanded. The guards loosened their grip immediately and the woman took a step in the child’s direction, her hands clenched together in a white knuckled grip and a look of utter misery on her face. Sam quickly and gently turned the child so that he could see her.
“There you go,” she whispered, wiping the tears from his face, “see? She’s right there.”
He launched himself from her and the woman caught him in her arms, holding the small head tight against her shoulder and rocking back and forth in the unconscious soothing movement of mothers everywhere. She flashed a grateful smile as Sam rose and brushed the dust from her gown.
The mother turned and sent a pleading look towards the three robed figures. Pinatra shook her head sadly. “Go now,” she urged, “the market is no place for such behavior. What will these think of us?”
Sam watched as the mother set her son on his feet and uncurled his clutching fingers from around her neck. She straightened her back and, with a regal nod, led the child away through the crowd. Sam’s eyes followed the figures, meeting the mother’s eyes as she passed quite close, and then letting her gaze fall to the child’s red face, his renewed wails driving straight through to her heart. She looked closer, her mouth falling open in shock.
Her teammate quickly glanced her way before again concentrating his intense focus on the trio facing them. “Sam?”
She moved closer to his side. “The mother’s face—did you see…”
Another disturbance in the crowd distracted her. A moment later figures parted to reveal their missing CO being led their way by the teenage boy, Soreen.
“Ah, buene,” Pinatra clapped her hands. “If you would follow us, Nobelle, Nobella, and your vingelle,” she picked up the edge of her gown and came towards them, her two companions shuffling along at her side.
Sam grabbed Daniel’s elbow as the woman drew close to him, her black eyes shining. “Where are we going?” she demanded, drawing the woman’s attention.
“The Poreva begins,” the wide-shouldered man answered.
The woman raised both hands in some sort of formal gesture, holding one a few inches before Daniel’s face, the other before Sam’s. Sam forced herself to stillness, feeling Daniel’s rising tension beside her.
“‘Sollti luiche e bellazze vuive siumprime,’” the woman whispered.

Chapter 9
The headache pounded behind Daniel’s eyes as he was ushered along behind the three robed figures. He glanced to either side, wondering how they’d managed to separate SG-1 so effectively without a word or overt gesture of threat. He and Sam had been easily corralled by their three doting companions, surrounded, and led subtly to the right, while Jack and Teal’c had been welcomed heartily into the company of town guards that walked along to the left, the teenage Soreen trailing along behind. It made quite a parade and Oscanna’s townspeople stood alongside and watched them go by.
He rubbed at his forehead. “‘Sollti luiche e bellazze vuive siumprime.’”
“What does it mean, Daniel?” Sam whispered. She hadn’t left his side, even when Cisere tried to retake his position at Daniel’s elbow.
“Based on the root language and a few educated guesses?” he forced a lightness he didn’t feel into his tone, “it means we’re in trouble, Sam. I may have been very, very wrong about the lack of a Goa’uld presence on this planet.”
“Okay,” Sam turned her head and Daniel knew that she was worried about the growing distance between them and the rest of the team. “But I haven’t noticed the presence of any symbiotes.”
Daniel nodded, but felt no real relief at her words. “Have you ever determined just how close you have to be to do that?”
Their eyes met for an instant, the answer obvious. “Do you know where they’re taking us?” she finally asked.
He looked up and pointed. “Um, I’d say right there.”
The stone on the façade of the high, narrow portico was a lighter color than the walls and buildings of the surrounding town. Two large columns stood flanking the open doorway, each intricately carved and painted with bright colors. Over the door was a lintel set with small windows, the surrounding stone covered with faint images and markings—obviously so ancient that time and weather had eroded the original designs into near invisibility.
The three Poreva had already stepped into the shadowed entrance and Daniel and Sam were shepherded behind, their faithful sheep dogs bowing and smiling to the last. “This is so not good,” he muttered, one hand falling unconsciously to rest on the weapon at his hip.
A narrow hallway greeted them, barely wide enough for he and Sam to walk abreast, but Daniel craned his neck to look behind, relieved to see that Jack and Teal’c—and company—were following at a distance.
He felt Sam press closer to his side. “Daniel—tell me what she said—what does it mean?” A fumbling movement against his leg told him that Sam was using the proximity of their bodies and the dim light of the corridor to lift her skirt and take her sidearm from its hiding place.
“‘Only he who is beautiful will live forever.’” His whispered words echoed from the thick stone walls.
The familiar, faint clicks as she checked her weapon were reassuring. “Sounds like a Goa’uld,” Sam murmured. He kept his gaze focused ahead where he could see that the hallway was ending, the flickering light of lamps or torches illuminating a much larger room beyond. Unconsciously mimicking her pace, he noticed that Sam had gradually slowed her steps. “Let’s see if we can fall back a little and get closer to the colonel and Teal’c,” she suggested.
Their companions had other ideas and all but stepped on their heels to prod them forward. But as soon as they moved from the confines of the narrow corridor, Daniel stopped, eyes wide, and stared at the extraordinary sight. Movement of air and the brush of voices around him prompted him to take a few steps forward as his gaze roamed the wide hypostyle hall with its forest of tall columns stretching off to either side, and the long, wide aisle down the center lined by pillars reaching up over sixty feet to the ceiling above. The voice at his back startled him.
“Doesn’t look so Renaissaucy to me, Daniel,” Jack drawled lazily. Daniel recognized the tone—the colonel’s instincts told him something was wrong, he just hadn’t quite figured out what yet. Daniel nodded, right hand never leaving the butt of his sidearm. That gesture alone should be enough to dial up Jack’s suspicion.
Teal’c had also moved closer. “There is a Goa’uld influence here,” he commented quietly.
“Junior acting up?”
“I sense nothing,” Teal’c answered, “but this temple…”
Daniel reached out to touch the nearest column, “Yes, this temple,” he noted cautiously. A strange combination of ancient and classical—lotus topped pillars, fronds branching in the representative designs of Egypt right alongside classic Doric columns and others carved into the idealized male and female forms of Renaissance artisans. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Nobelle—you will follow us.” The woman had walked a few paces back towards them, leaving the two men standing in the middle of the aisle, looking back with some impatience. She gestured with one hand and Daniel watched one of the guards lay a hand on Teal’c’s arm, trying to draw him away. The Jaffa raised one eyebrow, staring first at the intruding hand and then back up to the guard’s face. “Your vingelle may wait here,” another gesture brought the female servant to Sam’s side, “and we have arranged a place for the Nobella to refresh herself while we honor you.”
The woman frowned at Jack’s blunt refusal, her dark gaze flicking his way before she firmly turned her back to him and faced Daniel. “Please, Nobelle.” She smiled warmly. “It is the way, you understand.”
Daniel crossed his arms. “No, actually, I don’t understand,” he stated calmly, “and Jack’s right, I don’t think any of us should go anywhere until we do.”
Her lips tightened for barely a second before she covered her reaction with a thin smile. “Nobelle,” her voice dripped honey, “we would never harm you—we only wish to honor you, to display your worth.”
“Okay, that sounds even worse,” Jack moved closer, nudging Daniel’s hip so that he shifted to one side, allowing Jack to plant himself between his teammate and danger.
“But,” the thick-set man had joined them, “we must. It is written. All else follows the Poreva.” His hands were clenched tightly around the belt at his waist, his hungry stare trailing up and down over Sam’s form and then Daniel’s; the smaller man standing one step behind nodding vigorously.
“Written?” Daniel straightened, fidgeting under the man’s close scrutiny. “This is a ritual… something you’ve been instructed to do with, what, all visitors?”
The woman brushed one hand anxiously through her short hair. “Visitors? Non, tutte—all.” Her hands flew out to encompass each member of the group. “The Poreva is all, Nobelle.”
“Everyone is subject to this Poreva—this testing, Pinatra?”
“Yes, of course,” she sighed dramatically. “How else to judge? Who would rule? Who serve? Who love, marry,” her words had become clipped, hurried, “who chosen?”
The four members of SG-1 unconsciously drew into a familiar formation—Jack ahead, warily assessing, Sam flanking Daniel to the left, and the sturdy presence at his back had never felt so reassuring. Teal’c’s deep growl seemed to fill the huge chamber. “Chosen.”
The strong fingers of Jack’s right hand held tightly to his Beretta. “Chosen to be a Goa’uld?”
Pinatra frowned and exchanged glances with the two older men. “Guould? We do not know this word.” She shook her head.
“Slimy snakes, about so long,” Jack’s hands measured out two feet before he casually reached back for his weapon, “they like to burrow in through the back of the neck, wrap around a guy’s brain and make him into a puppet.” The confusion mounted on the trio’s faces. “They talk all echoey and their eyes glow?” he tried again.
“Ah!” The smiles had returned. “ecchie incallendza!” The woman pointed to her eyes and then to Daniel’s. “You and the Nobella—you are this Guould?”
“Wh-what? No!” Sam stuttered sharply.
“Oh, crap,” Daniel muttered, feeling a faint flush creeping up his neck. “Ah, Jack? I think we may have misunderstood.”

Daniel’s brief comment at his back didn’t dispel any of the tension Jack felt sizzling through his body. His eyes narrowed at the three robed figures before him, checking again for any sign of weapons or implied threat. He knew Teal’c would watch their backs—the four guards that had followed them into the temple appeared to be the only ones armed—at least that he could see; the pillars that stuck up all over this place could have hidden a damn army. One glance to his right told him that Soreen still stood quietly at the wall. Smart kid—he was half in shadow and definitely out of the line of fire. One less thing to worry about—he could give Daniel lessons.
Speaking of… “Daniel!” The warning shot out of Jack’s mouth as he felt the archaeologist try to slip past him. He reached out and blocked his teammate’s progress with a stiff forearm and pushed him backwards. “Stay put for once,” he growled.
“Jack, it’s the eyes…”
His own eyes still locked with the woman in the purple gown, Jack raised one finger beside him. “Aht! We need some answers, Daniel.”
“Yes and if you’d listen, I’d …”
“Vingelle!” the woman shouted.
The sound of a scuffle behind him kicked in an immediate reaction and Jack raised his weapon in one smooth motion to point right at the woman’s face.

Chapter 10
This time the archaeologist got away from him and moved to stand at the woman’s side, facing the team, hands raised in a familiar plea for peace. A blaze of fury swept Jack and he could hear his own teeth grinding in anger.
Daniel’s one word seemed to stop everything—the sounds of fighting, the jockeying for position. A moment later the woman in front of him backed up a step, furious eyes still locked with Jack’s even as she bowed her head meekly in Daniel’s direction.
Daniel’s gaze was focused somewhere at Jack’s back. “Let them go.”
Shuffled feet, metal scraping against hard leather, the unmistakable small sigh of his 2IC—adrenaline still flooded Jack’s veins and his aim didn’t waver. “Teal’c? Major?”
“I am well, O’Neill.”
“Me, too, sir.”
The tension in Jack’s neck relaxed a fraction and he allowed his eyes to track to Daniel’s pale face. “Daniel.” He made sure the menace in his tone was obvious, even to his oblivious teammate.
“Okay, okay.” Daniel breathed, blue eyes clearly radiating gratitude. He turned to face the three Poreva. “You said, ‘ecchie incallendza.’”
The woman nodded but still watched Jack. “Your eyes, Nobelle, and the Nobella’s…”
“My eyes—Sam’s eyes—they’re blue, but they don’t ‘glow.’”
A tiny smile appeared and disappeared. “Eh, they are bright, Nobelle, like the sky.”
“And your people’s eyes are not bright.” Daniel turned and waved one hand towards Jack. “Like Jack and Teal’c—my… vingelle… guardians.”
All three heads nodded, shoulders twitching as if Daniel was stating the ridiculously obvious.
“Why do you care?” Jack spat. What the hell was this, they wanted to snake Daniel because his eyes were blue?
“Your writings,” Daniel said hurriedly, “they tell you to honor those with ‘glowing eyes?’”
“Of course.”
“Have you ever seen anyone else with eyes that glowed?”
The woman’s mouth turned down. “No. Never.”
Jack let his finger relax on the trigger. “Never?”
She shook her head.
A moment later, Carter moved to stand within his peripheral vision, facing the rear, her own sidearm aimed and ready. “And how would you ‘honor’ us?” she asked.
The woman blew out a huge breath between pursed lips. “The incallendza—they are the most beautiful, the most desired. The Poreva—we—honor them, so—” she gestured towards her own face, drawing one finger down her nose, “so that all may see, all know.”
“Wait a minute,” Jack felt his anger dissolve into amazement. “You want to honor him by giving him a tattoo?”
“So that all may see,” the woman repeated earnestly.
“O for…” Jack lowered his weapon. “Stand down, Major.” He shook his head at Daniel’s sigh of relief.
“T—they just want to draw some dots on our faces. I think we can handle that.” He holstered his weapon and turned to take in the scene behind him. The two servants were clutching each other near the opening to the corridor while the four guards and Gavorre stood stiffly, hands on sword hilts, not looking too happy about the Jaffa menacing them.
“Brava,” he turned back to note that the woman was smiling again. “Vingelle—you may go,” she dismissed the guards with the flick of a wrist and blinked happily at Daniel. “So, you will come, Nobelle? We would begin the mezzura.”
Jack watched the guards bow stiffly and move back towards the entrance, Gavorre stopping momentarily by the cringing servants and waving them back towards the group. When the grizzled soldier caught sight of Soreen standing silently near the wall he cocked his head. The boy frowned and waved him away.
“‘Mezzura,’ ah, misura? Measure?” Daniel’s voice sounded curious, probing, normal. Jack wandered back to stand at his side.
“Measure what?” Carter asked.
“You,” Pinatra laughed, seemingly delighted by the question, “for immetralle.”
Daniel was making his confused face again and, for once, Jack saw the humor, too.
“Immetralle,” the woman repeated. “Scaelletre in stone, Goello in metal and jewel, myself,” she splayed one hand against her ample bosom, “in color. The writings tell us that only the beautiful are to live forever,” the others joined with her in muttering and nodding agreement.
Yeah, that sounded like the Goa’uld, Jack mused. Somewhere these guys had learned only one lesson from the snake-heads—gather up all the pretty ones.
“You’re artisans!” Daniel’s shout startled him from his thoughts. “You rank the people here by physical beauty—and the dots, the tattoos, they denote each person’s status on that scale?”
The three bowed. “We are Poreva—who else to decide? Our eyes are trained from birth to see beauty, to judge, to decide.” She looked at each member of SG-1 but her eyes always returned to Daniel. “You are all comely, but the vingelle,” she pointed to Jack and Teal’c, “are scarred,” one finger traced along her eyebrow and then circled her brow. Her eyes clouded a moment as she looked at the graze on Daniel’s cheek. “Goello?”
The thin man stepped up and grabbed Daniel’s chin, tracing one a finger along the scratch. “This will not scar, Pinatra. A few days and it is gone.” He stepped away just as quickly.
“You and she—the eyes, faces, and forms are beautiful, yes?” Scaelletre’s voice was deep and booming and his large hands molded a human figure in the air. “The stone will sing under my hands,” he promised, “but I must see to work.” He reached out and flicked the gauzy draperies of Carter’s skirt with a thick finger.
Jack felt a laugh bubble up in his throat. This should be good.
“Wait a minute,” Carter’s icy tone didn’t disappoint him. “You want to measure us naked?”
“Of course,” the woman stated simply.

“It’s not that funny, Jack.”
“Nine dots, Daniel. They wanted to paint you up with nine dots, and that’s without seeing you in the buff. Wait until I tell the Marines,” he chuckled.
Teal’c pulled on his boots and began lacing. “I do not understand why Major Carter was to be given only seven.”
Daniel stood, brushing both hands down the front of his dry, black t-shirt, relishing the familiar feel against his skin. “I think it had more to do with her attitude than any lack of physical… attributes,” he commented dryly.
“Gee, thanks, Daniel,” Sam pulled her BDU jacket onto one arm. “Just because I objected—”
“—strongly—” Jack grinned.
“—to modeling nude for the local art class.” She finished with her jacket and knelt down to check her pack.
“Yeah, well, Soreen was pretty impressed,” Jack continued, zipping his vest. “Walking back here he told me that nine was the highest ranking he’d ever seen.” He shrugged and checked his watch. “Move it, people, I’d like to get to this meet with the pretzel-guy and back here before full dark. The little ‘beauty committee’ seemed to want to get an early start tomorrow on handing over the keys to the city and all.”
The Poreva had been disappointed when the team had apologetically refused to be honored by dots, measuring, or artwork of any kind, but after a banquet, a tour of the temple including the halls devoted to the Poreva—and their ancestors’—artwork, and an hour of negotiations, Daniel had finally gotten them to agree to a town gathering to honor the visitors, and a public pronouncement of their rankings tomorrow without the necessity of facial tattooing. He shook his head.
“The Goa’uld presence shows itself in many strange manners,” Teal’c again voiced Daniel’s thoughts.
“The insistence on physically appealing hosts is about the only thing that survived down through the centuries to come out a little garbled here,” he agreed. “Descriptions of the perfect, ‘god-like’ figures with ‘glowing eyes’ translated as a statement of physical perfection and has completely defined this world’s culture.”
Daniel watched as Jack opened and closed each of the pockets on his TAC vest, the older man’s brow furrowed in thought. Since the confrontation in the temple, Jack had been remarkably relaxed, happy to spend the walk back through the city talking with the young boy he’d befriended. The fact that this culture did not idolize youth after all hadn’t dented his teammate’s good humor, and Daniel wondered if Jack’s bond with another child had somehow erased the fresh bitterness and grief that the Orbanian situation had stirred up. Or perhaps it had just renewed the military man’s belief in the human spirit. He fingered his BDU jacket but found that the seams were still a bit damp and set it aside.
Sam straightened, apparently satisfied that her belongings were still in place, and placed her hands on her hips. “By the way, sir, nice job in arranging the meeting with the Pretezze. How did you manage that?”
“Hey,” Jack’s head shot up, “I can do diplomacy.” His eyes shifted towards Daniel’s and then away. “When it has to do with weapons, anyway.”
Teal’c tilted his head and raised one decidedly unbelieving eyebrow. “Weapons, O’Neill?”
“Well, yeah, Soreen showed me the armory, and it turns out the pretzel-guy was watching while we did a little target practice.” He shrugged, but Daniel noticed that the frown hadn’t left his face. “You might have noticed that the kid knew his weapons.”
The Jaffa hefted his staff weapon in one hand. “Indeed. His prowess with the bow was made evident.”
Daniel unconsciously raised one hand to feel the thin scab on his cheek. “Well, he hit the tree,” he muttered to himself.
“Pretzel wanted to meet the rest of the team, asked us to come by later,” he crooked two fingers of each hand in the air. “He was curious about our weapons,” he added, crossing his MP5 across his chest.
“Curious?” Daniel felt a sharp stab of concern. “As in…”
“As in curious, Daniel,” Jack replied sarcastically. “Can we just go meet with the guy, please? I promise not to shoot him.”
For some reason that did not make Daniel feel any better.

Chapter 11
For a change, no one was waiting outside their room when SG-1 opened the door. Jack led the way down the hallway, Teal’c at his side, while Daniel and Sam followed. The few people they met on their way back along the earlier tour route smiled and bowed, but kept out of the way. The facial markings now caught Daniel’s eye; he noticed that most of the men and women within the halls had between two and four marks visible along the ridge of the nose. He frowned, trying to find something about those with a great number of dots that set them apart—made them more beautiful or appealing. Youth did have some say in the matter, Daniel supposed, thinking back to the servant woman that had given Jack such a hard time. But, then again, Cisere, the young man who seemed so anxious to serve Daniel had four marks and yet was still a servant.
Turning one corner, he watched an elaborately dressed man walking towards them. He was tall, slender, his dark hair caught up in a thong at his neck. He nodded to Jack and Teal’c in passing, but stared openly at Daniel and Sam. Five marks, Daniel noticed. The child—Soreen—had had six. A dividing line of some sort?
“Jack,” he started, “did you happen to notice how many dots the Pretezze wore on his face?”
“A smattering,” Jack replied over his shoulder.
“A smattering,” Daniel repeated. “Could you define ‘a smattering’ for me? Five? Six?”
“More than a few and less than bunch—come on, Daniel, it’s not like I was counting.”
Daniel pushed up his glasses and traced one finger down his nose. “I wonder…” he murmured.
“Wonder what?” Sam asked with a smile. “And no, before you ask it’s not a military counting system.”
He snorted softly. “Um, nothing,” he shook his head. “Just trying to force some logic into a completely subjective and arbitrary caste ranking.”
“I know,” Sam agreed, “these people are completely at the whim of those artists—being told what defines beauty and then slotted into positions on some sort of ladder.”
“Well, having an elite group dictating to the rest of society what comprises beauty isn’t really that strange—it happens in our own culture every day,” Daniel explained.
Jack’s comment carried back to them easily, “It’s called Hollywood.”
“Not just Hollywood—fashion magazines, art, they all set up a standard for beauty that the rest of us accept. It’s not just the ‘eye of the beholder’ that’s important, it’s the public eye.”
“‘Beauty is as beauty does’,” Jack quoted in a sing-song voice as the group walked into the long room that displayed weapons. Jack gestured towards a side door set back within the shadows. “That’s what Granny O’Neill used to say.”
Daniel nodded as he and Sam followed them into the narrow hallway. “That’s the problem with a society such as this—they are equating physical beauty with worth, and, before you say it, yes, our culture does it too, but only to a point,” he held up one finger to stave off Sam’s reaction. “In this society, the more beautiful a person, the higher he rises and the more power he is given as if beauty on the outside equals wisdom, or intelligence, or a good spirit.”
“But it’s not just that.” Sam stopped suddenly and turned to face him.
Jack’s hand was raised to the bar across a wooden door at the end of the hall, but Daniel watched the colonel hesitate when he realized that his teammates were no longer following him. “Carter?”
“You heard them, sir, the Poreva—they said they decide not just who will rule and who will serve, but Pinatra also said they choose who will love and marry.” She grabbed Daniel’s arm. “Do you remember the mother and child from the marketplace?”
“Sure,” he frowned, trying to see her point.
“While I was holding the little boy I got a really close look at his face,” she’d lowered her voice to an intense whisper and Daniel saw that Jack and Teal’c stepped back towards them so they could hear. “He had two distinct marks on his nose, right here,” she placed two fingers at the upper edge of her own nose. “But above that, on his forehead, I could see mark—a round, white mark—something you might see if a person had a tattoo removed.”
“Okay, and the significance of this is?” Jack demanded.
“The mother had three marks,” Daniel added, his mind going back to the scene, the hysteria of the boy and the misery etched onto the mother’s face. “Pinatra asked us to forgive the boy—saying the young didn’t always understand,and then told the mother that she was acting shamefully.” His eyes widened in comprehension. “Jack, I think they might have been separating the mother and child based on, god, based on their rank. Their ranks didn’t match anymore.”
“What?” The darkness flared in Jack’s eyes and even within the dim light of the corridor Daniel could see his knuckles whiten against the metal of the rifle. “What the hell are you two talking about?”
“Love, marriage,” Sam straightened and seemed to pull her military persona around her like a shield. “This ranking isn’t just about power and position—it’s about family.”
Jack turned to Daniel and the archaeologist felt a wave of cold dread sweep him from head to toe. No. Not again. This could not be happening again. “We could be wrong, Jack. We might have assumed something here.”
All life left the older man’s face. “Let’s go.” He spun on his heels and hefted the bar from the door, letting it crash unheeded to the floor, and swung the door open. “We need answers—and the Pretezze is going to give them to us.”

The golden haze of the lowering sun lingered on the motionless forms and empty racks within the silent courtyard. Jack strode to the center, Teal’c a few steps behind, tension radiating from the Air Force colonel in nearly visible waves. Sam stepped out a moment later and headed to Teal’c’s side. Daniel entered slowly, grim, wondering how long the universe would torture his friend.
The murmur of voices from above dragged Daniel’s concerned gaze from Jack’s stiff back to an upper gallery populated by brightly garbed men and women. He squinted against the glare backlighting some figures, raising one hand to shield his eyes, and recognized the slight figure of Soreen, Natua at his side, standing close to a dark haired man with regal bearing. The boy held his bow.
“Hey, Pretezze,” Jack’s clear voice silenced the crowd as he stared up at the three figures. “You wanted to meet my team, huh? Well, here we are, and we’ve got some questions.”
The man placed one hand on Soreen’s shoulder. “You have done well, Vingelle Colonel Jack O’Neill.”
Daniel heard the unease in Jack’s voice and moved forward to try to diffuse what was sure to be a heated confrontation. “Jack,” he began quietly once he got close.
Jack spun—”No, Daniel. Not this time. This time we do things my way.” The colonel took a step towards the western wall where the Pretezze stood.
Daniel turned towards his teammates, hoping for some help, but Teal’c’s wary expression and his crouched position distracted him. The Jaffa’s piercing gaze swept the gallery, his staff weapon following the movement of his eyes, and, a moment later, he had reached up to yank Sam into a tight crouch at his side.
“Daniel Jackson!” He shouted.
A searing pain stabbed through his back and the world became a blur of sound and motion. Daniel had been moving, turning back to play the diplomat, to season Jack’s blunt demands with humility. Is that why Jack was racing towards him, his face a white mask, hands reaching out and lips drawn back in a grimace? He tried to step back, but his legs were shaking and he stumbled. And, just as suddenly, heat grew to agony in his belly and he felt rather than heard a cry steal past his lips. Time snapped back into place and he fell, quickly, as if dropped, but strong arms encircled him, one hand cradling his head, and the ground rose towards him more slowly than he’d expected.

Jack was turning even before he saw the arrow leave the boy’s bow. He wanted to shout, to hurl a warning, but his throat was choked with bile. The stark white of Daniel’s face above his black t-shirt told him no warning would have been fast enough. Jack wrapped both arms around his teammate and followed him to the ground, shielding him with his body and carefully cushioning his head.
“Teal’c! Carter!”
The flare of staff weapon fire and bullets blasted at the surrounding walls, sending a rain of stone and dirt down onto them, the cloud of dust that rose obscuring any further aim. Jack felt a hand on his back and he eased away from Daniel’s limp form, settling his teammate onto his side and tearing himself away to raise his weapon towards the open gallery above. Carter would see to him, she’d… “Teal’c,” he shouted, his eyes searching for a target.
“We must move, O’Neill!” The Jaffa’s voice reverberated from the stones.
“Not yet, sir,” Carter shot back.
“Cover!” Jack snarled, clambering around the Major’s huddled form to crouch over Daniel’s head.
An evening breeze ripped wide gashes in the dusty cloud that covered them and a whisper of movement drew Jack’s aim. His eyes locked onto wide dark eyes beneath a smooth forehead, the bow raised in steady, slender hands, the arrow’s point trained unerringly on the blonde head to Jack’s left. “No,” he whispered. “Don’t do it. Don’t—” He willed the eyes to blink, the hands to relax their tight grip on bow or string. His chest ached. “Don’t make me…”
The dark parody of a smile twisted the youthful lips.

Chapter 12
It was during Daniel’s third spate of extended consciousness that a weary Jack O’Neill turned up at his bedside—haggard face grey with exhaustion, hands shoved deep into his pockets, his tight-lipped smile further warning that the man had shut down, raised all of his formidable mental barricades, and was attempting to force the incidents in Oscanna behind the same bolted door as he had Orban with other, darker, memories.
Daniel’s mind didn’t work that way. The memories had bubbled up, becoming clearer and clearer each time he woke to Janet’s gentle hands or the prodding of a duty nurse. At first he’d only remembered the burning pain of the arrow’s wound, piercing him back to front low on his right side. Then a sea of faces washed through his mind—Sam, dust in her hair, eyes dark with anger and fear, Gavorre, the guard, tears streaming down his flushed face, mouth open in horror, and Jack, his face pale and his eyes… empty.
Frozen moments in time followed—the flash of bright robes, the warm trickle of blood across his back, the shock of movement as he was lifted into the air, confused language—orders shouted in English and the strange proto-Italian of the natives. He knew he was unconscious for a while, unable to sort images and sounds. And then the sudden chill of Stargate travel, voices echoing from concrete walls, Janet’s brown eyes above him.
It was Sam’s blonde head he’d seen first when he blinked crusty eyes open on the world. Even that movement had tired him and he lay, staring, feeling a rush of relief that she sat there, dressed, well, head bowed over hands gripped tightly around a coffee cup. He didn’t know how long he’d been awake when she finally looked up and met his eyes—and he noticed that hers were red rimmed and weary.
“Daniel.” She’d reached out to touch his arm, a smile of relief brightening her face. “Teal’c and the colonel are fine,” she anticipated his first question and he began to smile until he noticed the haunted look in her eyes. “They’re—you were the only one wounded, Daniel,” she clarified carefully.
He’d frowned and tried to raise his head only to ignite a small fire in his gut. He felt her cool hand move to his cheek. “You need Janet?”
It took him a moment, eyes closed in concentration, to smile and shake his head. He’d cleared his dry throat and immediately felt a straw at his lips. He swallowed a few sips and opened his eyes. “Tell me.”
She’d hesitated. “What do you remember?”
Memories slotted into place. “It was a trap,” he sighed. “Soreen shot me.”
Her eyebrows had risen at his bald assessment. “Anything else?” she asked warily.
Daniel let his head drift from side to side. “All hell broke loose?”
“Pretty much,” she whispered. She hitched one hip onto the bed next to him, being careful not to come into contact with any of the wires and tubes connecting Daniel to the beeping, dripping equipment in the infirmary. “Teal’c had already suspected a trap and pulled me down, he yelled—”
“I remember that.”
“—you went down fast. We concentrated our fire on the walls just beneath the parapet, hoping to push them back and to raise up cover.” She licked her lips, the pinched look of her skin increasing. “We covered you, the colonel and I, but the dust cleared too fast for us to move you…”
No. His physical wound barely registered over his racing pulse and the pain that blossomed somewhere near his heart. He suddenly had trouble pulling air into his lungs, as if a weight sat on his chest, heavy, crushing him. His fingers had scrabbled against the sheet, trying to find her, to stop her words, to keep her from bringing his fears into reality. Strong fingers closed around his as a grey mist filled his vision and a piercing alarm sounded.
Steady fingers on his wrist, a hand across his forehead and a clear, calm voice drew him back. “Daniel. Try to slow your breathing. That’s it. I’ve given you a mild sedative—you should feel the pressure easing up.”
He had, and he’d blinked back the moisture in his eyes so that he could see Janet’s face. “I’m okay,” he murmured, peering over her shoulder to make sure Sam was still there.
“Yes, you are,” Janet smiled. “But you need to take it easy. You were lucky—again—we’ve repaired the internal damage, but we don’t need you ripping out your stitches or placing a strain on your body—it’s banged up enough, thank you.”
He risked a small nod. “Sorry.”
“Okay—now I think Sam should leave you…”
“No!” Daniel clenched his teeth against the pain his unwise movement provoked. “No, please Janet, I have to know,” he pleaded.
She’d finally relented after another round of warnings aimed at both of them. Sam resumed her position at his side.
He knew the sedative would send him back to sleep soon, but he had to know. “Just tell me, Sam. Did Jack kill Soreen?”
She sighed. “No, Daniel. But he did pull the trigger.”
The story was filled in slowly by Sam and Teal’c as he faded in and out, and Daniel had learned how the presence of SG-1 had disrupted yet another culture on another world. Another world that had been hopelessly corrupted by the arrogant violence of the Goa’uld. His wife had been chosen to host a monster because she was beautiful, as had Skaara and so many others across the stars and the centuries. Oscanna showed them that even a long-gone Goa’uld could warp a society into an easy acceptance of evil.
The Pretezze was dead, killed by the bullet Jack had meant for Soreen. The trap had been neatly sprung by the ruler and his closest aides, using the young boy—his designated heir— as combination bait, spy, and assassin. Daniel’s fate had been sealed as soon as the Poreva had declared his worth—nine marks, the highest the boy had ever seen, he remembered Jack saying. One more than the current Pretezze wore; three more than dotted his own brow.
The boy must have suspected a challenge to his authority as soon as he’d seen SG-1 walking through the forest—he’d aimed for Daniel’s face, hoping to scar him, to eliminate the threat. Only the quick action of Gavorre—a guard, yes, but a guard loyal to the Poreva, not the boy himself—had kept the boy from making another attempt for Sam. Gavorre had saved them, the ‘incallendza,’ the ‘glowing ones,’ not once, but twice.
Eventually Sam told him. Jack had covered Daniel’s fallen body, weapon aimed at the only threat he’d seen. She’d heard him muttering to himself as the dust cleared, heard the heart-wrenching pleas, and the sharp sound of the weapon firing at the same time as the colonel’s body crashed into hers, knocking them both to the ground and the bullet wide of its mark.
The Poreva had caught wind of the ambush too late to prevent Daniel’s wound, or the Pretezze’s death, or the latest blow to Jack O’Neill’s soul. Gavorre and a squad of guards burst into the courtyard even as others swarmed the parapet, one dragging Soreen’s slender frame away from the edge even as the grey-haired vingelle, with a horrified shout and frantic lunge, sent Jack’s bullet into the Pretezze’s chest.
Looking now into his friend’s dark eyes sunken into the shadowed hollows of his face, Daniel knew that the reality of Soreen’s survival did not make a bit of difference. Jack had stared into that young face and had made the decision to end his life. He’d pulled the trigger. That the bullet never hit its mark was completely irrelevant.
Fate—God—the stars—the universe continued to send Jack O’Neill untimely reminders of his son, aggravating the wound every time it acquired the thinnest of scabs, as if keeping score of the man’s grief and guilt and continually finding him wanting. The crystal creatures back during one of their first missions as a team had emulated his dead son, had tortured Jack and Sara with Charlie’s memory and had exposed Jack’s darkest secret to the scrutiny of others. And then the Reetou had sent another innocent into Jack’s arms—the damaged child who had crumbled before their eyes and whose only hope had been implantation with a Tok’ra symbiote—a fate Jack O’Neill could not see as anything but lifelong imprisonment. Just weeks ago, Merrin had arrived, and Jack’s heart was engaged again, to be broken when her world betrayed her. And now…
“Hey, Jack.”
“Daniel. You look good.” The twisted smile faltered hopelessly.
Daniel dipped his head in agreement. “Getting there.”
He stepped closer. “Look, I’m sorry I haven’t been by…” One hand reached up to scratch through his short, greying hair.
The fidgeting movement stopped and anguished brown eyes met earnest, compassionate blue. Jack dropped into the empty chair with a soul-deep sigh. Silence grew, but this time the silence was filled with unexpressed regret, absolute understanding, and unconditional acceptance. Daniel watched as Jack’s weary muscles loosened and the first pinpoints of light could be seen through the sturdy walls he’d erected. He let himself relax against the infirmary bed, unshed tears blurring his vision. This silence wasn’t cold—no storm clouds stood between them, no bitter words or scathing glances. This silence was warm, healing. This silence of friendship was beautiful.

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.