Title:  The Thorn Beast
Author: Winterstar
Category: Drama, Angst, H/C
Warnings: Violence
Rating: PG-13

Author’s Notes – I was lucky enough to have Babs offer to beta this for me. She was a dream come true. Her ideas and corrections helped the process and, I think, resulted in a better end product. So thank you, Babs! Oh and Babs, I wrote the epilogue especially for you. Any mistakes in the story are mine and only mine…Babs tried to convince me otherwise!

I.
The branch he braced against the creature’s threatening jaws snapped and he stumbled backward. The huge beast lunged at him, clawing at his chest. Daniel beat at the thing with the broken pieces of the branch. He could only describe it as a cross between a reptile and one of the big cats of Earth. Its maw mere inches from his face, he scratched at its multi-faceted eye. It screeched and nailed his flesh, tearing skin from muscle across his shoulder and arm. 

            Bent over a crumbling wall with the beast on top of him, Daniel had little leverage. The branch had been his only weapon after his gun was ripped from his grasp by the creature when he fired at the charging animal. The shot glanced off the side of the beast and only sent the thing into a fury. At least it focused on him and not the children huddled in the corner of the ruins.

            Reaching back, he searched and found a loose slab of rock. As he warded off the creature with the shortened branch, Daniel smashed the rock into its skull. It did little damage, but it afforded him the second he needed to scramble free of its clutches. He staggered on the uneven stonework path, falling to his knees.

            He called out to the children, the children he had invited to the dig. Their enthusiastic expressions had disappeared to be replaced with stark fear. “Run, run!”

            He never saw whether or not they listened to him. The creature grabbed hold of his leg and flipped him around, its face streaked with primal hunger It clutched his legs, pinning him to the ground. Growling, it perched over him with its entire weight crushing Daniel to the stone path. He bashed it with the small spike of a stick he still held. Spittle sprayed over Daniel as it howled at him. Its front paws seized his shoulders while its back legs trapped his lower half. Struggling, Daniel grunted from the pain as its long black nails dug into his tender flesh. He had no freedom of movement at all.

            The creature curved its long neck, a mane of spines flared out and several stuck Daniel in the chest. He screamed as they stung and punctured him. The thing twisted down, and its black tongue lapped at the puncture wounds, sucking the blood oozing out of Daniel’s neck and chest.

            Grappling against the great weight of the beast, he heaved with his torso to shove the creature off. The strain stressed the curving sliced wounds, and he battled against the forming tears. He groaned in protest but the thing possessed nearly opposable thumbs on its front limbs, and it used its hand-like paws to ensnare Daniel. He squirmed and kicked out, but his attempts to dislodge the creature failed. It snarled at him, blood and spit dripped onto Daniel’s face. The stench of the beast enveloped him, curdling his stomach as the odor of rotting flesh overwhelmed him. Sweat streamed off of the hide of the beast and mixed with his own blood.

            He jolted upward again and the beast tumbled off kilter and toppled against the bricks of the ruins. Freed, Daniel hurried to his feet but the cobbled pathway impeded him. The creature leapt at him, but he raised an elbow to ward off the attack. It wasn’t enough, he lurched forward and fell. His glasses flew off.  It was a wonder they’d stayed on as long as they had. He squinted against the dust flung in his face, coughing as he managed to crawl a few inches before the beast seized him by the legs again.

            Screaming out, Daniel bashed his foot into the eyes of the creature but it fought back. Its claws and spined mane extended once again. It stabbed into him. His cries cleaved the air as he sobbed at the pain. He cursed, beat, and hit at it to no avail. The thing captured his lower legs and, with its fangs bulging from its huge mouth, it bit downward.

            His world narrowed, contracted with violent pain. It shuddered through his calf, raced up his thigh, burning like acid. His blood churned, seemed to boil over within his arteries and veins. He opened his mouth to gasp for air as his body arched off the stones, then shook in seizure. The azure sky turned colors of gold and red as his vision faded and expanded all at the same time. Only a garbled moan issued from his lips as the seizure took hold of him. The tremors ravaged through his body, shredding his muscles and setting his nerves on fire. The poison from the beast’s bite spread through him, blossoming outward like a deadly mushroom cloud. He choked as bile and blood pooled in his throat. Gagging, he vomited as the quaking quieted and his muscles lay unresponsive, his bones frozen.

            The beast stood over him, blocking out the cloudless sky. It howled to the winds and looked down at him. It was then Daniel realized he was paralyzed by the infectious poison injected into him by the beast’s fangs. It was then Daniel knew he was about to be devoured.

II.
“Quickly, quickly!” the kid said as he ran up to Jack. “You must come.”

            He turned from the small canvas enclosure that SG1 had set up five days ago on P-whatever number it was this time, who could keep them straight anyhow? They’d been sent to lay the foundation for a lasting relationship with the locals, though not for any big honking space guns or anything like that. The planet might have some minerals for the SGC so it was good for his team’s soul, and he lobbied Hammond to get the gig. After his little outing as a spy for the Tollans and the Asgard, his team needed to find their center again.

            Carter surveyed the soil samples and the rock formations, her expressions reminding him of a kid opening birthday presents. He half expected her to say there might be something in them there rocks. He laughed a little when he thought about it. Daniel was happy as a lark showing the children of the village the ruins and what it meant about their history. They hung on every word he spoke, and Jack could clearly see how it bumped up his ego and verified something that had been waning in the archeologist for some time. His kids were happy, even Teal’c who was camped out with the Shaman of the Salomonites to learn their ritual methods of mediation. Life was oh so good.

            He squinted into the glare of the day’s light as several of the kids raced up to him, their expressions silhouetted out by the brilliance of the sun. They circled about him in a frenzy.

            “You must come, you must,” Ezod said. He tugged on Jack’s jacket and pulled him forward until Jack halted their progress.

            “Whoa, whoa, what’s this all about?”

            The kid’s black hair was matted and stuck out about his head in spikes, his robes tattered as were most of the Salomonites'. They were a nomadic tribe that hunted and gathered on the planet. They kept on the move through the canyons and long tunnels of the extensive cave systems etched across the planet’s surface, eluding their Goa'uld masters over the years.

            “No time, Big Man, you must come,” Ezod said his mouth stretched wide over his lips, his eyes round and terrified. It was enough for Jack to take notice.

            “Carter,” Jack said as he turned to the young boy. He peered over his shoulder at his second in command as she looked up from her small mobile lab set up. She scribbled something on a pad and then stood to join him.

            “What’s up?” Jack asked the boy. Was this one of the kids Daniel brought with him to the ruins? That’s when he noticed all of the kids surrounding him were the ones who had been trailing Daniel for the last few days. “Where’s Daniel?”

            “It’s Teacher, you must go to him.” Ezod clutched his sleeve and started to go forward toward the dig again. “Big Man you must help Teacher, you must.”

            “Damn it,” Jack said and keyed the radio. “Teal’c come over to the camp. Daniel’s in trouble.” He yanked Ezod to his side and knelt to face the kid. “What happened to Daniel?”

            “It is the wild beast, the Thorn Beast, it has him! It has him,” Ezod cried, tears scarred his face with rivers. One of the elders from the village crossed from the nomads’ tent encampment to the SG1’s work area.

            “What has happened? What have you done to Ezod?”

            “No Da, no,” the kid sobbed out and leaned forward to bury his head in Jack’s shoulder. He cupped the boy's head and hoisted him up into his arms as he stood. His knees protested the move, but he ignored the whine and creak of his joints. “The Thorn Beast, the Thorn Beast.”

            “What’s this about a Thorn Beast?” Jack rubbed the young boy’s back to soothe him as Teal’c jogged over the small makeshift bridge from the main ‘village’ of the nomads.

            “Ezod, you saw a Thorn Beast?” The father spoke quietly to the kid and in response the boy looked up and sniffled.

            “It has Teacher,” Ezod said. 

            His father swung around and asked the other kids, “Is this true? Did you see the Thorn Beast?”

            The kids hopped about and nodded, some starting to cry.

            “Sir?” Carter asked.

            “Not yet, Carter.”  Jack leaned down and allowed Ezod to go into his father’s awaiting arms. The boy scooted to his father, and the man knelt to comfort his son.

            “What’s a Thorn Beast?”

            The father shook his head and turned away. “It is too late for Teacher. He will be dead by the time you get there.”

            “Damn it,” Jack said and turned to his team. “Arm up, let’s go.”

            “But sir, we don’t even know what we're up against,” Carter said as she gathered up her P90 and a first aid pack.

            “Thorn Beast, Carter,” he said. “Use your imagination.” He slung his weapon over his shoulder, tugged on his cap and nodded to Teal’c. “Move out.”

            Carter continued to ask for more intel and, luckily as they jogged up the path through the upper canyons, several of the adults from the tribe trailed them.  Every nerve in him bristled as he listened to the tribesmen explain what a Thorn Beast was.

            “They are said to have been placed here by the evil gods to find us. They plague us during the long light season.”

            “So the Goa’uld are responsible for this creature.” Carter concluded and then asked, “What kind of animal is it?”

            Another man answered as they walked up the cobbled route to the ruins. “It is fierce. It has claws and a spiny mane. It bites and you cannot move then it eats you.”

            Jack cursed under his breath as they climbed the few steps to the plateau where the ancient temple stood. As he rounded the curved steps he heard a howl that could not have been human. Sprinting the last steps and praying his knees would not give out, Jack burst through the gnarled branches and dead trees around the crumbling structure to witness the beast hunched over Daniel’s inert body.

            Blood smeared across his friend’s body and stained his hands. Damn it, were they too late, had the thing ravaged Daniel? He aimed his P90 and sprayed it with bullets, but he was still too far away from the thing. He only managed to piss the thing off.

            It grabbed hold of Daniel’s limp body, lifting him up then slamming him onto the half stone wall. Daniel rolled and collapsed into a heap like tossed garbage. Was he even alive?

            The Thorn Beast looked like a cross between a giant iguana and a feline. Its body mimicked that of a lion but its hide was scaled and its face was reptilian in structure. The spined mane looked more than threatening especially since blood dripped from the long spikes. It flared its mane then stood up at its full height which was nothing less than twelve feet. It was then that Jack understood the hide was more than just scales. It seemed to be some sort of plating. Could a bullet even penetrate the natural armor of this beast?

            He heard Teal’c fire up his staff weapon but the beast glared right at them, wailed, and then kicked at Daniel. They raced forward, but took cover near a broken wall of the temple. The creature shifted and yanked Daniel’s body toward it, keeping their friend and team mate between it and their line of sight.

            “Shit,” Jack said and lowered his weapon. “Anyone have a shot?”

            “Negative, O’Neill.”

            “No sir.”

            The locals cowered near the steps and he heard the kids crying. Why the hell did they bring their kids? Damn it.

            “Teal’c, aim at the wall.”

            “You could bring the whole thing down on Daniel,” Carter said.

            He glanced at her to acknowledge he understood but nodded to Teal’c all the same. They had to do this. That thing looked like it could swallow Daniel in one gulp.
The whine of the staff weapon hissed the air again and Teal’c pointed it toward the partially cracked wall behind the beast. They only needed to frighten it. Get it the hell away from Daniel.

            The blast exploded and fractured the air like a clap of thunder; the energy bolt impacted the wall causing bricks and stone to rain down. It spread out as if it was a swarm of locusts, pelting them and the beast. As he ducked for cover, Jack heard the creature growl, then screech in protest. Peering over the edge of the wall, he witnessed the thing clutch Daniel to it, and wrench back its arm to heave his friend’s body at them.

            Daniel landed against a short pedestal, his body crumbled, his face ashen. Jack swallowed hard against his growing anxiety then leveled his gun at the creature. He let out a volley of bullets, piercing the air but not worrying if he actually hit the thing. He just wanted it gone. It pawed the ground, scratching grooves in the stone surface. Snarling, it sniffed the air, eyed them, then shrieked. The sound ruptured the air to bring tears to his eyes as the pain pounded in his ears.

            Though he wanted to, Jack didn’t drop his gun to cover his ears. He aimed it again at the thing and pulled back. It opened its spiny mane, the spikes sticking in the air like a demented choke collar for a dog. A short snap at the air and it turned around and disappeared down the long slope to the lower canyons.

            He slumped back, his heart throbbed and wracked open his chest. His world lost focus, but he battled back to regain it.

            “Holy shit,” Jack said. “Holy shit.” He huffed in a breath trying to calm his nerves, to still his aching chest. Felt like he was having a damned heart attack. What the hell was that thing, the beast from Hell?

            He brought himself to his senses and called out to Carter. She was at his side without delay. “Daniel. Check on Daniel.”

            She nodded and picked up her first aid kit to follow orders. He followed her to their team mate. “Carter?”

            She crouched over him, her hands fingering his pulse.

            “Carter?”

            “He’s alive, sir.”

            His knees failed him and only Teal’c’s strong grip on his arm kept him upright.

III
They huddled around Daniel as Carter cut away the torn jacket to reveal the open slice wounds and punctures from the creature. She handed Jack a swab and directed him to clean the wounds on Daniel’s shoulder and arm as she dabbed at the holes in his neck and chest. Teal’c leaned forward and retrieved some swabs as well to clean out the bite wounds on their team mate’s hip and leg. As he tugged away the clothing, the ravaged flesh was exposed, colors of purple, blue and red blooming from the teeth marks.

            “You must not linger.”

            Jack ignored the local as he concentrated on listening to Carter. She instructed them to cleanse the wounds with antiseptic as she prepared a shot of antibiotic. A hand seized Carter’s before she administered the drug. She looked up as Jack slapped the man's hand away.

            Jack recognized the man as Ezod’s father. “She’s trying to help Daniel.”

            “You do not understand, you must go after it. You must not linger.”

            Another man from the encampment stepped up to them, his expression stern and his eyes milky white. It gave Jack the creeps, but he quelled his reaction as the man waved a knotted cane at him.

            “You must listen to Ayrod, he tells you the truth.”

            “O’Neill, this is Shaman Solinn. He possesses great knowledge and wisdom.”

            He considered Teal’c's words but shook his head. “Our main concern is Daniel’s life. When we get back to the gate we can have Hammond send some Marines through to hunt down Thorny.”

            “No, it is you who must hunt down the beast,” the Shaman spoke in soft tones; they sounded almost pitying to Jack’s ears. “For if you do not, your Teacher will surely die.”

            “What? Why?” Jack peered up at the man as Carter placed her hand on the swab he had been using to clean Daniel’s wounds. “Are you trying to threaten us?”

            The old man bowed his head; his wrinkles turned downward and mimicked his composure. “I do not try to threaten great friends. I only warn. If you do not go after the beast, your friend will die. Only the beast will cure him.”

            “Cure him?” Carter craned her neck so she could look at the Shaman and shifted her posture to study the man. Jack grabbed the cloth that she held to Daniel’s shoulder and relieved her of it. “What do you mean?”

            “The Thorn Beast has bitten your Teacher. He will only survive if you pull one of the spines from the beast and stab it into the wound,” the Shaman said.

            “For crying out loud, we don’t need this hocus pocus right now,” he replied.

            Carter stood and put her hand up in a gesture asking for silence. “Excuse me, but why?”

            “The fangs of the beast cause the person to undergo great pain and the shaking disease,” Ayrod said, standing sentinel to the Shaman.

            “A venom -- like the snakes on Earth,” Carter mumbled to herself as the man continued.

            “The evil gods made it so that only capitulation to them would permit the victim to be saved. For only a spine from the mane of the beast that bit the victim stabbed into the wound would save him. The evil gods would give us another choice to worship them and then they would put us in the healing box.”

            “A sarcophagus,” Jack said. “But these evil gods aren’t around anymore?”

            “They left us with only their demon beasts as a reminder of their evil ways.”

            “But it looks like Daniel already has several puncture wounds that were caused by the spines of the mane,” Carter said.

            The Shaman pursed his lips and sighed. “It does not matter; the beast did not release the cure from the spines. Only by taking one of the spines and pushing it into the wound will you save your Teacher.”

            “We’re not doing this. We’re going back to the gate,” Jack said as he glanced down at Daniel. His friend’s face paled with beads of perspiration streaming across his forehead and down his temples.

            “You do not have the time; the venom from the wound will kill him in less than a day.”

            Jack stood up. “What?”

            “The venom will kill him. You must go after that beast and that beast only.”

            Carter regarded Ayrod and then turned to Jack. “Sir, the Goa’uld must have genetically engineered the Thorn Beast so that only anti-venom from the spine of the animal that bit the victim could cure the victim. A formidable task, so the alternative was to declare their devotion to the Goa’uld.”

            “An insidious methodology to convince the native population to remain under Goa’uld rule,” Teal’c said. “A choice with a catch as you would call it. They are known for their disturbing sense of humor.”

            “Somehow I’m not laughing.”

            “We don’t have time to get to the gate, sir. Ayrod is right; the gate is nearly a day away. Even if we get the General to send in a rescue team, there’s no guarantee that Janet will be able to devise an antidote in time,” Carter said as she knelt back down again and started to bandage some of the wounds still seeping blood over Daniel’s arm and shoulder.

            “We need that particular animal?” Jack asked as he stared into the distance, looking at the broken pathway to the lower canyons.

            “Yes, any other animal and the cure will not work.”

            “How are we supposed to find it?” Jack said.

            “I shot it.”

            Jack turned around to see Daniel blinking awake. He fought to still his pained expression.

            “You couldn’t have Daniel. We tried with P90s and it did nothing.”

            Daniel groaned low in his throat as he struggled to sit up. Carter slid a hand underneath him and helped him into a reclined position against the rock wall. He shrugged but it caused him to grimace against the pain.

            “Closer, I must have been closer. I hit it, Jack. I know I did, in the shoulder near the spines.”

            “Right or left?” Jack asked.

            “Right.”

            “Then Teal’c and I will start out,” Jack ordered. “You’ll stay here with Carter until we get back.”

            “Sir, what if it takes you too long?”

            Jack examined the terrain. The canyon that looked so beautiful and majestic earlier in the week now looked daunting and rugged. The dashes of brilliant colors throughout the mesa now only meant different levels of rock formations, a dangerous hike on a good day. Today, definitely, was not a good day.

            “Your Teacher must go with you, once the spine is taken from the beast the cure is only good for minutes. If you do not your Teacher will be dead,” the Shaman spoke lowly and stared at Daniel as if he could see him. “I am sorry, son.”

            Daniel nodded but didn’t look up as his body shivered against the pain. The mountain passes made it and the distance to the Stargate impossible for any type of vehicle to aid them in their search. Bringing Daniel along for a jaunt was not going to happen. He barely looked like he could sit up straight.

            “I can make it, Jack. Just give me a minute,” Daniel said as if reading his reservations.

            “Damn it, Daniel, you can’t even sit up. You are not going on a climbing expedition.” Jack rubbed a hand across his clean shaven face, and yanked on the cap he wore. Shit, what could he do? If it took more than a few hours to find this creature, Daniel was as good as dead.

            “Sir, Daniel and I could follow you at a slower pace,” Carter offered. “We’ll stay in radio contact and you’ll tell us your route. We’ll follow behind so when you have the spine, Daniel won’t be far.”

            He bunched up his face in a frown then glared at the Shaman. “Where do these creature things hang out?”

            “In the lower river bed along the lower canyon.  It will take at least until the sun goes down to get there.”

            “We can overtake it before then, can’t we Teal’c?”

            “We will endeavor to do so, O’Neill.”

            “Still, sir, that’s at least ten hours. If you don’t catch the creature before then you won’t get back on time. If what the Shaman says is true then Daniel has to be close for the cure to even work,” Carter said.

            She was right; he knew it, could see it in that strident look flashing through her eyes. She was nearly willing him to believe her. Crap. He squatted down to talk with Daniel. The archeologist was breathing in short rasps against the pain.

            “Can you do this, Daniel?”

            “I have to, don’t I?” Daniel said through clenched teeth.

            There was no other choice, but Jack was fumbling, faltering with the decision. He kept thinking back to the look on Daniel’s face when he told him they had no foundation for their friendship. He was failing Daniel now.

            “O’Neill, we must leave immediately before the creature is able to put distance between us.”

            He clutched Daniel’s hand in his before giving him a firm pat on his uninjured shoulder. Standing he said, “We’re doing this. Teal’c, you’ll scout ahead, find our route. Carter will lead Daniel as I’ll watch our six.” He held up a hand to stop any protests from the Major. “I need you to keep your full attention on Daniel. You won’t be able to protect him and care for him at the same time.”

            The Shaman motioned to one of the other nomads and the young boy rushed off to do his master’s bidding.

            Jack glanced around then said, “Teal’c, go back to camp and get anything and I mean anything you think we might need on this little hike. Carter finish fixing him up as best you can.” Teal’c started off as Carter bent down and began wrapping Daniel’s thigh and hip. “Daniel, give me your radio.”

            With some effort Daniel freed the radio from its pocket on his shoulder and handed it to Jack. In turn, Jack gave it to Ayrod. “I want you to go back to the ring and wait for our leader General Hammond to open up the ring. He’ll talk through that machine we have there. You tell him what’s going on, and ask him for a medical team. Do you understand?”

            Ayrod hesitated but then nodded.

            “This is a way to talk to me even if I’m not here.” He showed him the radio and demonstrated how to speak into it and listen. “I want you to keep this. We’ll send you updates, and you’ll tell our leader how everything is going and our route, do you understand?”

            Again Ayrod considered what Jack was saying to him and then agreed. In due time, Teal’c came back with three packs filled with supplies. The youth the Shaman had sent on an errand came running back with a small scroll and package in his hand. He presented it to the holy man, gave a short bow, and moved away.

            “None of my people are great warriors as you are, Big Man,” the Shaman said. “We have only weapons to kill small game but we would like to help you in your quest to save your Teacher. To us, a Teacher is the greatest gift to our people.” He handed Jack the small scroll.

            “What’s this?”

            “It is only a small sketch of the canyon and river bed. It may help you find your way.” The Shaman also handed him the small package. “It is a tea to help him recover when the shaking comes over him.”

            Jack clutched the soft skin of the scroll and the package of herbs to his chest and nodded to the man. With Carter on one side and Teal’c on the other, Daniel stood up. He swayed and clenched his jaw against the onslaught of pain.

            Jack placed his hand on Daniel’s uninjured shoulder and said, “You can do this.”

            His friend kept his eyes averted, looking instead to the distance vista. “Yes, yes I can do this.”

            Jack gritted his teeth, gaze at each of his team members, and said, “Then let’s do it.”

IV.
Daniel kept his eyes on his booted feet; kept his mind on the rote conjugation of verbs in Latin. The spears of pain jolted through his hip with every step. It felt as if his nerves had been burnt raw. He could only liken the feeling to nails scratched across the surface of a blackboard, yet deep within his body, eating away at him. Biting his lips, he muffled any moans or grunts he longed to make as Sam tightened her grasp on him. She shifted his weight as she allowed him to lean on her, his uninjured arm slung over her shoulder. It didn’t help much, since the position put extra weight on his opposite hip, his bitten hip and leg.

            Daniel could tell she was peering at him, gauging his level of pain and his exhaustion. He pretended not to notice, not to see the growing concern but it flashed over her expression. He almost read her mind, knowing what she was thinking. She dropped her gaze and it relieved him somewhat. He hated that look in her eyes, that look that wondered if he would make it.

The mesa was cut by a great gulch, the rock formation showed signs of erosion from the river. The river, though, was far below them in the curve of the canyon. The ground was uneven, jagged and hard on his hip. Daniel let out a grunt and almost apologized that he vocalized the pain growing in his body. Sam didn’t need to know, none of his team did. He looked behind them to see Jack trailing, watching, his P90 gripped like a lifeline in his hands. Somewhere up ahead, Teal’c led the way. He shook his head but said nothing.

            “So Daniel, I understood all of the names except for mine,” Sam said. “Well almost anyway.”

            “Hmm?” Daniel peered at her for a moment; then averted his attention to his boots again. He needed to watch each dogged step to make sure his feet actually fell and balanced his weight.

            “The Salomonites called the Colonel, Big Man, because he’s in charge,” Sam said.

            “Right,” he replied.

            “They called Teal’c the Guardian, which is pretty obvious.”

            Swing his leg, drop his foot, balance as he pulled the other leg around. God, it hurt. Daniel nodded to Sam’s conversation. He knew she was doing her best to keep his mind off of injuries.

            “They called me Kiva Woman, what’s that all about?”

            “Kiva,” he repeated and then gathered himself mentally before saying, “Kiva is a place for ritual religious ceremonies in many Southwestern Native American cultures like the Hopi. This culture is loosely based on some of the Native American tribes of America but there’s been considerable cultural drift. They’ve become basically nomadic where the Native cultures these people originated from probably were not. The Kiva is a place for spiritual rituals.” He stopped then added, “There’s a connection to the idea of Mother Earth and speaking with the spirits.”

            She considered his explanation then asked, “Okay, well I understand a little bit more but why connect me with a place for religious rites.”

            He gave a little laugh which hurt more than he wished. “I think all of your equipment and neat little toys made them think that you could speak with the spirits of the land, especially since you’ve been studying the soil and rock samples.”

            “And they call you Teacher because?”

            He shrugged his shoulder but instantly regretted it. “A teacher in their society learns all that once was and all that is known by the tribe at present. The Teacher of the tribe is the sole source of all information.”

            Daniel noticed through Sam was not focusing on what he said instead she was looking behind her and to the side. “Seems like an honor,” she commented.

            Shifting, he tried to see what she was studying but noticed for the first time that Jack had disappeared. “Sam?”

            They stopped walking as she said, “I know, Daniel.” She fingered the radio and said in a whisper, “Sir?”

            “Stay sharp.”

            She angled him over to an outcropping of rocks and eased him to sit on the boulder. “You okay?”

            The change in position set fire through the bite wound and stressed the clawed injuries on his shoulder. He nodded to reassure her. Clenching her weapon, she scanned the area. They were well protected since Sam had selected an indentation in the rocks to find cover.

            Teal’c voice came over the radio. “Major Carter, please, be aware there are several creatures converging on your position.”

            “Got that T,” Jack said as he appeared around the bend of the indentation. “Carter.” He didn’t need to direct her. She crouched near Daniel’s position and gripped her gun.

            Daniel moved back into the rock hole, the rough ground digging into his wounds. He hissed against the pain and closed his eyes as numbness suffused over his bite wound. When he opened his eyes the world rippled like the ever expanding waves in a pond disturbed by a tossed pebble. He reached out, his hand finding no purchase then started to fall forward when he began to shake. As Sam dropped her grip on her weapon to kneel by his side, a dark shape lunged from behind the pillars of rocks.

            He heard a scream and a report of a P90 before his world faded and the seizure took him.

V.
Creatures looking like gigantic hyenas from Earth appeared through the dry bush of the canyons. Jack cursed as he watched them sniff about the area, searching for the source of the blood smell. He stayed put near the pillar as he observed Carter and Daniel crouch low into the small hole in the rocks.

            Damn it, all they needed now was a pack of rabid dogs after them. He aimed his P90 at the pack when a low growl issued from behind him. Swinging around, he caught the giant hyena as it launched itself from the overhanging rocks onto him. He screamed and let a volley from his P90 rip through the air, killing the beast.

            At the same time, he heard Carter yell for help then realized the small pack was circling her position. What was once a nice hole in the wall of rocks now was a trap.  Teal’c thundered from the dried bush, his staff weapon already primed. He hit several burst of fire at the flanking animals as the pack leaders advanced on Carter’s and Daniel’s positions. Carter shifted position to aim her weapon at the leader of the pack, giving Jack a clear view of Daniel.

            He swore low in his throat. His friend was convulsing and, therefore, was totally vulnerable to attack. Shit. He jumped up, giving a great whoop before firing at the pack. It worked, and they turned their attention to him. Their hackles up, they snarled and spat at him.

            “O’Neill, down!”

            He dropped like a stone, and Teal’c laid down a line of suppressing fire. It caused the animals to back away from the small conclave but they did not surrender their advances. It was enough though for him to find shelter behind a boulder and start picking off the pack members one by one. The giant hyenas were still between Jack and his two stranded team members.

            Growling, one leapt at Carter but a sharp explosion of Teal’c’s staff weapon took it out while at the same time two others bounded forward. He was able to hit one but the other eluded him, landing on Carter. Her gun rattled off, and the dead body of the hyena fell to the side but the rest of the pack charged her position.

            “Everything you got, Teal’c, everything you got.”

            The air filled with cracks of gun fire and blasts of the staff weapon. Clouds of smoke, dust, and rock permeated his lungs and Jack coughed against the pollutants. Squinting against the thick smog, he kept firing to be rewarded by the whines of dying animals. Through the fog of the battle, he saw the last of the hyenas collapse to the ground.

            “Carter?”

            “Sir?” Her voice sounded weak and pained.

            He waved Teal’c over to the small cave like hole in the rock formation to see that Carter’s head was bleeding profusely. Though she sat upright, she swayed and fought to keep herself from crumpling to the ground. Daniel lay still and, for a second, as Jack looked at him he thought his team mate was dead.

            “Hit my head,” Carter said as she dabbed at the open slice at the crown of her head. “When that thing leapt at me, I slammed backward and hit my head on the boulder.”

            He opened the first aid kit as he signaled to Teal’c to check out Daniel. Pulling out a few swabs, Jack pressed it against Carter’s head and said, “You did good. Don’t worry about it.”

            “But Daniel,” she hissed as he cleaned her wound with antiseptic. “He went into a seizure. I think it was pretty bad. It lasted more than a few minutes.”

            He ignored the growing concern over his friend and shook his head. “Daniel will be fine.” Glancing over at Teal’c, he said, “How’s he doing?”

            “Daniel Jackson is yet unconscious and I am unable to discern his state of well being.”

            As he finished bandaging Carter’s wound, she said, “It might take some time before Daniel wakes up.”

            “Time we don’t have,” Jack said then turned to Teal’c. “Keeping scouting a head, and radio in every 20 minutes to tell us where you are.”

            Teal’c nodded and left to follow Jack’s orders. He turned his attention back to his second in command. “How are you doing?”

            “A little dizzy, sir, but I think I’ll be all right.”

            “All right enough to check out Daniel?”

            “I’ll do my best, sir.” Sliding over to Daniel, Carter went through the routine of checking his pulse, his temperature, his eye reactions. “Maybe that tea the Shaman gave us?”

            Jack nodded and, after he released his pack, retrieved a portable sterno to warm the water. He poured some from his canteen into a small tin mug and set it to heat. As he did so he heard a rasping cough. Looking up, Jack saw Daniel stirring as Carter slipped her hand under his head to help him. His eyes were pale and weary as he struggled to get into a sitting position.

            She spoke to him in low tones but he didn’t answer her, just shivered in response and nodded his head. From her own pack, she pulled out a blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. When the tea was done, Jack handed it to Carter and she brought it to Daniel’s lips. Daniel sipped it, but made no attempt to cup the mug in his own hands. His gaze lowered to the ground.

            “O’Neill.”

            He keyed the radio and, while scanning their surroundings for any signs of trouble, said, “You’re a little early, Teal’c.”

            “I have successfully discovered the trail of the Thorn Beast that injured Daniel Jackson. You must follow the path through to the plateau. The plateau has several naturally formed steps down to the ravine.”

            “Path to the ravine,” he said. He didn’t ask Teal’c how he knew it was the specific beast that attacked Daniel. There had been obvious signs earlier that Daniel had been right; he had grazed the thing enough to make it bleed.

            “It is treacherous, O’Neill.”

            He eyed his companions and said, “Understood. I’ll radio when we get moving.” Turning back to his team mates, he noted that Carter was changing Daniel’s bandages, though the archeologist barely made a sound in protest against her ministrations. He flipped open the map and studied it, trying to ignore the fact that Daniel looked like a vegetable right now, and his second in command looked like she was going to drop over from the obvious nausea assaulting her due to her concussion.

            He lined the path they would have to take through to the ravine; there was no other choice. They had to stay right behind Teal’c, as it was they needed to get moving now. He glanced up at Carter and said, “When can you be ready?”

            “Daniel needs rest sir. He’s still a little out of it,” she said as she touched Daniel’s forehead. He closed his eyes in response, but his mouth remained slack.

            Damn it to hell. “I need him up and ready in five Major.” He tried to sound like a hard ass and she glared at him. He leveled his gaze at her, conveying how very serious he actually was. He needed her to get Daniel ready, to get their injured friend up and hiking down the side of a mountain. Shit.

            He packed away the supplies and tossed Carter an energy bar.  She slid it into her pocket. It proved to him that she was sick to her stomach. This was not going to be easy. Not at all.  He looked down at the map again, pinpointed the steep slope they had to negotiate, then he peered up at his team mates. Carter grappled to help Daniel to his feet. She swooned while Daniel grunted and frowned. At least Daniel was more aware, at least the pain brought him back to the stark reality of the situation. His team mates hobbled over to him. Though Carter was supposed to be supporting Daniel, he had the distinct feeling they were both barely hanging on.

            Nope, not easy at all.

VI.
Sam kept her weight pressed against his side and, though Daniel tried not to focus on the constant rubbing, the irritation burned through his flesh. His hip alternated between numbness and flaring pain. When the numbness grew he linked that to the onset of his seizures.

            Jack had directed them to the small ledge along the mountain pass, telling them it would lead to a plateau. Once they reached the plateau they would have to negotiate naturally formed steps to the ravine and riverbed.

The ledge was barely three feet wide and since he needed support to stay upright, both he and Sam climbed the ledge together. As before, he concentrated on his steps, keeping his eyes lowered to the ground. The buzzing in his head made it easier to ignore the outside world, made it harder to think. The poison spread through his system and he faded. Conceding that fact, Daniel grunted as Sam tried to find purchase along the crumbling pathway. He reached out and navigated with his free hand on the rock wall. His shoulder and arm objected, but he gritted his teeth against the pain.

            “Doing okay, Daniel?” Sam asked.

            “Hmm,” he replied. Speaking hurt his brain, caused the words to ricochet in his head like a possessed ping pong ball. “Jack?”

            She shifted and looked behind them. “The Colonel is a bit behind us.”

            He nodded. God, it would not be good if he went into a seizure now. He gave a little laugh at the morbid thought but Sam scowled at him. He felt like a disobedient school boy and flushed as she tightened her hold.

            Even as Daniel made to apologize to her, Sam’s foot hit a rock near the edge of the path. The rock skidded and popped, then dropped down the slope. Though it was not quite at a 90 degree angle, the slope was a formidable drop. She found her footing again and led them onward. Daniel cringed against the pain, yet bit his lip in order to keep alert, trying to stem the ever increasing possibility that he would go into a convulsion.

            Sam’s foot lost purchase again, slipping along the outer edge of the ledge. Glancing up at her, Daniel realized her expression was pinched in concentration as beads of perspiration streamed down her temples.

            “Sam?”

            She shook her head and made a low noise. Her foot skidded again and he gripped her to keep her from tumbling down. Daniel felt her legs weaken, her knees unlock.

            “Sam?” His inner alarm bells screeched at him and he went for his radio before he recalled Jack had given it to Ayrod. “Sam, we have to stop.”

            She clenched her jaw and gestured to him to continue. She was not stopping. He needed for her to stop, for Jack to check out what was wrong with her. Daniel tried to halt their progress but Sam yanked him forward, nearly toppling him over. As her foot skidded over the ledge more rocks loosened, crumbling away.

            Just as easily as the pebbles and rocks fell away from the face of the mountain pass, Sam slipped from his grasp. She stumbled along the edge as he fought to hold onto her. She let out a startled yelp and plunged down the side of the mountain, her only handhold, his outstretched hand. Sam dropped with a scramble of rocks, cascading down along the length of the mountain. Daniel slammed down onto the ground. Each movement Sam made as she gambled for purchase yanked at his injuries and caused bolts of pain to jar him.

            “Sam, stop, stop,” he yelled down to her.

            “If I, If I can get a foothold,” she paused, panting as she spoke. “I can get, get back, back up.”

            She was right, of course. He could barely hang onto her; he doubted he could pull her up to the ledge. Damn it, where the hell was Jack?

            “Jack, Jack,” he cried out as Sam continued to slide. It drove him across the jagged rocks of the pass. He felt the rocks digging into his arms and abdomen, scratch and abrade the surface of his skin. Every movement Sam attempted wrenched Daniel closer to the edge, tore apart the flesh of his injuries.

            Where was Jack? His mind circled around as he called for his friend to come to their aide. How far behind was he trailing?

            Sam gave a loud groan as she lifted her other arm up and dug her fingernails into Daniel’s forearm. The strain etched across her face, deep ridges lined her grimace as she labored to find leverage.

            Without breath she rasped, “Stay, stay put. Gonna, gonna try to, to heave myself, self up.”

            Another inch eroded away and his elbows were over the edge, his body sliding further toward her. Daniel’s one hand was useless to help her as the wound on his upper arm broke open and blood rivered down his arm. Sharp rocks scraped against his soft belly, puncturing him as he clutched onto Sam.

            He watched as she caught up her feet on the mountain side only to have the loose gravel and rocks give away again to jerk her to the ground. The jolt was enough to send him over the edge, his body skimming the jagged ground. Just as his weight pitched forward like the balance on a see-saw, Daniel felt hands seize his belt, felt hands claw at his hips to haul him back toward the ledge.

            “Keep hold of her, Daniel,” Jack commanded as he hauled Daniel toward the side of the ledge.

            Daniel felt scabs split open, as skin ripped apart. He couldn’t stop the moan issuing from his lips as the pain fractured all thoughts. He wanted to curl into a ball, to protect the blistering wounds cracking open. His hand began to release.

            “Damn it, Daniel, hold her.”

            He tightened his fist as Jack yanked again, this time giving Daniel the angle he needed, giving him leverage against the edge. He gathered his strength and tugged Sam free of the side. She landed next to him as he inhaled once, twice, as the pain turned to numbness in his hip.

            Sam smiled at him and, looking down at him, said, “Thanks, Daniel, thanks.”

            He swallowed as the spit formed in puddles in his mouth. Shaking his head, Daniel said, “Hold me.”

            “What?” Her startled expression was the last thing he saw as the convulsion tore open his world and he rolled toward the edge of the slope.

VII.
Jack nearly knocked Carter over the ledge as he lunged for Daniel’s trembling body. The seizure grew in intensity as Jack caught his friend’s belt and hoisted him to safety. He let out a long exhale, sighing with relief that both of his kids were okay.

            A snarling stopped him. He peered upward and saw the snout of an over grown hyena growling down at him. Several other animals appeared on the ridge above them.

            Damn it to hell. Could they get down here? Could they jump that far and not careen over the edge? All Jack knew was, he did not want to find out. He grabbed a hold of Daniel and, though the seizure still shook the archeologist’s body, hoisted him into a fireman’s carry.

            In his harshest voice yet, Jack ordered Carter to follow him. She staggered to her feet, her hands searching along the side of the mountain. Did he say, damn it to hell already? Grasping her jacket, he hauled her along as he started to run down the ledge. Rocks and pebbles came loose, making the surface like one covered with marbles. He didn’t bother turning back as he heard the hyenas screeching and calling to one another. Somehow they were finding their way down to the ledge. Somehow they were coming after them.

            Turning back for an instant, Jack glimpsed a half dozen of the hyena creatures charging. He had no hands free to call Teal’c for help or to fire a weapon. With one hand he steadied an unconscious Daniel on his shoulder closest to the wall of the mountain, and, with the other, he jerked Carter along on his mad run. Her feet slipped and slid as they skidded down the side of the mountain.

            “Carter, zat now,” he said.

            Her one hand flung out and clasped his as she twisted around, pulled her zat, primed it, and fired at the hyenas. Two flew over the edge but it didn’t stop the rest of the pack from rushing them. Their crazed flight down the side of the mountain caused Carter’s next series of shots to hit far off target. Stone and rock pelted them as boulders rocked loose and the side of the mountain rumbled against the attack.

            Jack could see the plateau that led to the ravine. It was close, not more than a handful of meters. Carter blasted off a few more shots, hitting two animals but missing the other two still in pursuit. Her gait stumbled causing Jack to lurch forward as he released his precious bundle. Daniel rolled down the ledge, hurled off the side and collapsed onto the plateau. With his hand free, Jack spun around, pulled up his P90, aimed, and let off a volley of gunfire. He hit his targets.

            Both he and Carter managed to get to the rift formation where Daniel lay. Slumping to the ground next to Daniel’s unconscious form, Jack shuddered with relief. His fingers found the strong steady pulse of his friend. Carter crumpled beside him, her breath coming in short gasps that mimicked his own.

            “I think,” Jack paused to gulp for air. “I think we need a break.”

            She nodded, swallowed then said, “Good, good idea sir.”

            He took out his canteen, sipped some water then gave it to her. “Slow.”

            Her hands trembled as she brought the water to her lips. She drank with sputtering sips though she tried to slow down. He reached over to her shoulder and grasped it. She nodded again to tell him silently that she understood.

            After a moment, he said, “How bad?”

            “Seeing double, nauseous, dizzy, are those the same thing or two separate things?” She bowed her head into her folded arms as they rested on her bent knees. “Just not good.”

            Jack glanced at Daniel and ground his teeth at the sight of the man. His skin was sallow and clammy. His wounds bled freely again and the skin around them colored to purplish hues. New scrapes and cuts appeared along his abdomen and forearms.

He squeezed the radio and said, “Teal’c?”

            “I heard gunfire and am on my way back, O’Neill.”

            “Good, all clear now but we need a little rest. We’re at the plateau.” He sank back against the outcropping of rock. Below in the ravine the wild river ran freely.

Jack glimpsed his friend’s inert body and watched as Carter doggedly pulled out the first aid kit. Knocking her hand away, he started the task of cleaning out Daniel’s many wounds.

“Rest, Carter, I’ll take care of this.”

Daniel’s newest abrasions were infiltrated with dirt and tiny gravel like rocks. Just digging them out was torturous and he was glad Daniel was still out of it. Carter did assist by cleansing the larger, older wounds and replacing the bandages.

“We don’t have many bandages left, sir, she whispered.

“Just do your best then rest, Carter. I mean it.”

As he picked out the sharp edges of tiny rocks from the scratch marks along Daniel’s forearm, his friend came awake. Daniel groaned and thrashed at them but Jack gripped his wrists and stopped him. “Whoa, buddy, settle down.”

            “Jack?” Daniel said as he blinked, then brought his hand up to rub his eyes. “Don’t feel good.”

            “Join the club,” he replied. “Daniel, hold on.”

            “What?”

            Before Daniel could protest any further, Jack took the swab and dug at the abrasions, pulling out grit and gravel. His friend arched up, groaning against the pain Jack inflicted.  Pushing his forearm against Daniel’s chest and he leaned his full weight against him.

            “Stop it, stop it.” Daniel thrust upward but Carter grabbed his hand.

            “Just a bit more, Daniel,” Carter murmured.   “Hurry, sir.”

            Jack nodded and, blocking out the cries of his friend, peeled out the last of the gravel stabbing into his wounds and flesh. He cleaned the last of the grime out.  Jack took out a cloth from the kit, wet it, and pressed it against Daniel’s forehead. Daniel’s nostrils flared, his friend hissed through his clenched teeth.

            “You’re okay, now,” Jack repeated, “you’re okay now.”

            Daniel squeezed his eyes closed but nodded in agreement. Tears glistened at the edges of his lids. “Yeah, yeah. Fine.”

            “Good,” he said and looked up to Carter. She leaned back against the rocks, her eyes lidded and heavy. Frowning, he wondered how they were going to even move again. As he considered his options, the faint sizzle of a staff weapon erupted and echoed across the canyon walls.

            He hit his radio. “Teal’c? Report, Teal’c?”

            For a few minutes, there was no answer. The radio switched on just as he was about to key it again. “I have engaged the beast in battle, O’Neill. Out.”

            Jack peered over the edge to the gulch. He could see nothing. Another blast of the weapon burst through the air and the beast screeched in response. Where were they? Jack shuffled around on the plateau above the gulch. Where the hell were they?

            “I think they’re directly under us sir,” Carter mumbled as she balanced close to the edge. He grabbed a hold of her collar and yanked her back.

            Jack mover her back against the rock wall. “Stay there.”

            Daniel had curled into a ball in the shade of the mountain side. His shoulders shivered but he wasn’t having a convulsion. Jack twitched as he tried to see what was going on with Teal’c. He could hear the clash and bang of a battle below him. Jack glanced back at his team mates. Shit, he couldn’t leave them. He couldn’t help Teal’c. Shit.

            Another shot of the staff weapon burned the air, and the creature bellowed low and then growled. He heard Teal’c give a great howl of his own and then silence clamped down, slamming like an iron portcullis on an ancient fortress.

            He pressed the radio button. “Teal’c? Teal’c? Answer me.” Peering over his shoulder, he weighed leaving his companions to check on Teal’c.

            Daniel opened his eyes, sweat smeared across his brow. “Go, Jack, go.”

            Carter raised her hand and gestured for him to go, her other hand clutching a zat to defend them.

            Just as Jack scrambled to his feet to search for their missing team mate, he glimpsed a bloody hand grip the naturally formed steps that led down to the riverbed.

VIII.    
His team mate, Teal’c, was dying because of him. Daniel rolled his head from side to side as he lay in the corner of the cave. He stayed well away from the rest of the team. Daniel could tell that it had taken all the strength Jack had left to get them all to the lower ravine near the riverbed to the small cave. Teal’c was torn apart. Lacerations from the thick claws of the Thorn Beast covered him. He looked as if he was a paper-doll that had been sliced to ribbons with scissors. Daniel squeezed his eyes closed; his friends were in danger because of him. He had to find a way out of this mess and he had to do it soon.

            Sam and Jack were huddled together discussing their strategy. Jack had cleaned Teal’c wounds and they’d used the last of the first aid kit to assist Junior in its job of putting their friend back together again. Teal’c reclined against the side of the cave in a deep state of meditation. He would not surface for a long time, time far beyond what Daniel had left to live.

            Grimacing against the pain in his hip, Daniel pushed himself up along the cave wall. He needed to get his team to leave him. Teal’c needed serious medical attention. Who knew if Junior could help him? He’d lost so much blood; Daniel doubted that a month or more of kel’no’ reem could actually help the symbiote piece Teal’c together again.

            Daniel started to fight his way to his feet. He needed them to understand that it was time to give up, that he needed them to leave, and get help from the SGC. The gate was now more than a day away. Looking over at Teal’c, Daniel shook his head. Did his friend even have a day left?

            Stumbling along the cave wall, Daniel went to the side of the mouth of the cave before Jack stopped him.

            “Heidi-ho, where are you going?”

            Daniel said nothing, just stared at the river. Its surface churned and rolled. There was some part of him that wanted Jack to just tell him to go, to get out. His friends suffered because of him. Shivering against the cold, Daniel noted that the sun was throwing hues of deep orange and magenta across the sky high above the canyon. What did it matter anymore? He felt the poison radiating outward from his hip, encompassing his entire leg. He dragged his leg when he walked now.

            Jack stood next to him as Sam shifted over toward Teal’c. The Jaffa warrior never remained still.

“Don’t think, Daniel, just don’t.”

            “It’s sundown, Jack.”

            His friend peered up to the ridge of the canyon wall. “So it is.”

            “Not too much longer now.”

            Jack dropped his head in silence, his eyes shut as if in prayer.

            “I don’t want to be here when it happens,” Daniel whispered, the words choking his throat. “You have to worry about Sam and Teal’c. Teal’c especially, we don’t know if his symbiote can actually repair the damage. You shouldn’t have to worry about me too.”

            “Damn it,” Jack said and tilted his head away as if cringing.

            “Just let me walk out. Just let me go,” Daniel murmured. He kept looking at the river, mesmerized by the rapids, the harsh roll of it.

            Jack glanced up at him then. He nodded and said, “Wait a minute.”

            A release of tension overwhelmed Daniel, as if for the first time since this nightmare began that he could actually take a free breath again. He leaned against the entrance to the cave while the pain in his shoulder pulsated across his upper back.

            In seconds, Jack was back but with a backpack slung over his shoulder and Teal’c’s staff weapon in hand.

            “What the hell?” Daniel asked.

            “You think I’m gonna just give up?” Jack said then eyed him. “You don’t have a clue do you Daniel?” He turned back to Sam who had a P90 clutched in her hand and sat facing the cave entrance. “Get in touch with Ayrod and give him an update on your position. When daylight hits he should be at the gate and Hammond should be calling for our check-in. Get them to send out a medical team for you and Teal’c,” Jack said. “We’ll be back here or we’ll be dead.” With that pronouncement, Jack grabbed a hold of Daniel’s arm, braced him up against Jack’s muscular frame and forced him out of the cave.

            “God damn it, Jack,” Daniel said. His struggles to get free were useless. “Hell, let me go.”

            “Shut up, Daniel,” Jack said his gaze focused forward to the bloody trail of the creature. “I said I was doing this, I asked you if you could do this and you said yes. I don’t see any reason to stop. Now shut the fuck up and get moving.”

            Daniel glanced at Jack and the determined lines of a fighter crossed his friend’s brow. There was no stopping Jack. He was like a pit bull, holding on and not letting go. Jack grunted a bit when Daniel gripped his arm to steady himself but he said nothing just shifted Daniel’s weight so that he could guide him along the banks of the river.

            The animal must have been bleeding freely. It left long streaks of blood staining the side of the canyon walls and along the rock bed. They followed the trail, though the beast was not in sight. Daniel shuffled and glanced up at the sky. The sun crested at the edge of the canyon lip, they would be in shadow soon. Night called and he felt as if he had only one answer.

IX.
Haggard. The one of the words he would use to describe Daniel. Another would be failing and failing fast. Jack clung to the archeologist as if he might never let go. Daniel’s feet staggered and stumbled along while his eyes glazed and drooped. Jack wasn’t even certain his friend was even still actually conscious.

            Cursing deep in his throat, Jack hoisted Daniel’s arm up on his shoulder to keep him from falling. At this point, he wasn’t sure any of his team was going to make it through the night. He shook his head. This was not the great team building off world mission he had hoped it would be. When Hammond had suggested that SG1 spend time on this planet with the natives, he’d scoffed. When he realized it gave each of his team something they desperately needed after his jaunt as the Asgard/Tollan agent, he readily agreed. He wanted to give them a bit of time to recognize how much he did value them, especially Daniel, that there was a strong foundation.

            He glanced at Daniel. His friend’s face drained of color, his mouth stayed open as he stared sightless into the twilight of the coming night.

            God damn it to hell. Daniel was dying. Damn it to hell. Teal’c was dying too. And Carter? She wasn’t coherent. Jack peered over his shoulder back toward the cave where he’d left half of his team. Carter kept forgetting his instructions, kept asking him to repeat them. Would she remember when it was time to contact Ayrod? Would she even remember how to use the damned radio?

            What the hell kind of leader was he?

            Daniel coughed and doubled over, nearly plunging to his knees before Jack caught him. “Easy there, buddy, easy there.” He patted Daniel on the back as his friend shuddered. “Let’s take a breather.” He ushered Daniel over to an outcropping of rocks, where the river was below them and he had a good overview of the surrounding area. He scanned the shore, the canyon walls. It was a good place for them to rest for he could see in all directions.

            The beast had traveled this way, though the thing was no longer bleeding as freely anymore. It was ahead of them, and Jack estimated they would come upon it within two hours. By his calculation, he angled his neck to look at the last of the burning orange colors in the sky, it would be the dead of night. God damned luck.

            He glanced back at Daniel and noted the man sat without moving exactly where Jack had deposited him. His friend hadn’t said much of anything in the past hour except for an occasional moan or grunt. How much longer did he have?

            Jack dropped to his knees and started to dig through the backpack. He could at least start a fire, get some coffee for his friend. They had little else. He pulled out the needed supplies and started to pour out some water from his canteen when a movement caught his attention. He startled, jumped up then saw that Daniel had actually moved from the notch in the canyon wall to the edge of the outcropping. For a moment, he thought Daniel might be going there to relieve himself in the river but then his friend turned and looked at Jack.

            The moment froze in Jack’s mind in the same way a still photograph forever captured a single instant in someone’s life.  Daniel gazed at Jack, his focus startlingly clear, his purpose deadly. Daniel mouthed the word ‘goodbye’ then simply stepped off the edge into the raging river.

            “Daniel!” Jack scrambled to his feet, tipping and skidding along the outcropping until he slipped to the edge and had to stop himself from toppling over it. He glimpsed Daniel bob up and down in the waters, rushing away with the current. Glancing back at his gear, it only took a second for him to decide. Jack steeled himself, left all their gear behind, and dove into the rapids.

            The water gushed over him, its icy chill a testament to its origin up in the mountains to the east of the canyon. He fought to keep his head above the rolling waves as he searched for Daniel. The sheer force of the water swept Jack in the general direction he needed to go, but it also carried Daniel further away. The crash of the waves hurtled Jack along as if his body was the car of a rollercoaster on some mad dash to escape the confines of the tracks. He sputtered and gulped for breath as he tried to get a glimpse of Daniel.

            In the dimming daylight, he could barely make out the Daniel as the river’s torrent ushered his friend down the river. Jack strove to control his movements, with each swing of his arm through the harsh waves he felt his energy flag, dissipating as the light of day died. Yet the sight of Daniel kept him moving, kept him pulling his leaden arms out of the water, helped him to kick, and beat the water back into submission.

            Jack saw the swirl of the rapids pick Daniel up and ram him against an outcropping of rocks down river from where he’d originally jumped. While it knocked the injured man around, it did slow his progress in the waters. Jack exerted another kick, a push, a swing and pull of his arms to get to his friend. As he swam into the recesses of the outcropping, the dense pull of the waters diminished and he could see that Daniel was unconscious, face down in the water.

            Unconscious or dead?

            Shit. Jack grabbed hold of Daniel’s collar and hauled him along to the edge of the water. He grappled with the weighted mass, but was able to drag Daniel ashore. As he examined Daniel, Jack realized his friend’s lips were already turning blue.

            “Damn it, Daniel,” he murmured as he rolled his friend to the side and cleared his mouth of water and debris. He bent over him, listening for any heart beat but the roar of the river made it near to impossible for him to discern anything at all. Was he supposed to breathe for him first or pump his heart? Crap, why couldn’t he remember?

            Well breathing was a good start, he decided and set to giving Daniel mouth to mouth, then pumping his heart with his hands locked over Daniel’s chest. Jack counted, and rhythmically went back to breathing for his friend. “Come on, come on.” He slammed harder against Daniel’s chest. The heat of anger growing, Jack battered the unconscious man laying by the side of the river.

            “Damn it, come on!” Jack pumped again to five then breathed again. When there was no response, the red heat of anger welled up in him and he fisted his hand and pounded Daniel’s chest.

            A moan of pain issued forth from Daniel as he curled into a ball to protect himself. Coughing, he moaned again. This time it sounded like a quiet sob. Jack jerked his friend around to face him. “Daniel?”

            Daniel looked up at him, his eyes lost yet frighteningly aware. “Why’d you do it, Jack? Why? God damn it, you should have let me die.”

            “I should have? I should have let you die?” Jack said then jumped to his feet. He paced back and forth over Daniel. “Who the hell are you that you get to decide that? This isn’t over, not by a long shot, buddy. We’re in this and we’re gonna make it. I don’t give a crap what you think. Do you understand?”

            Daniel closed his eyes, his body shivering against the chill.

            “I asked you if you fucking understood.”

            Daniel put his arm over his face and whispered, “Don’t you understand, Jack? It doesn’t matter anymore. I can’t feel my legs, I’m dying right here, right now, and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it.”

            “That’s what you think,” Jack said. The fury wouldn’t abate and he desperately needed something to squeeze the life out of. “We’re finding this thing, and we’re killing it and saving you.”

            “I can’t,” Daniel said as he lowered his arm. “I can’t feel my legs. My chest feels like someone clamped a vise around it.”

            “I just beat the crap out of it so don’t worry about it,” Jack said, trying to brush Daniel’s concerns away as well as his own.

            Daniel met his gaze and, with only a breath of sound, asked, “Please, Jack, please will you go?”

            Jack’s answer was a resounding, “No.”

X.
Daniel remained still as Jack carried him up the ridge of rocks and settled him into a small cove. It was a little less of a cave and a little more than a notch in the canyon wall. He glimpsed the concern flicker over Jack’s face.

            “We’ll stay here a bit, and get moving once we dry out a bit more.” Jack said and pulled out his berretta to check it.

            “Will it work?” Daniel asked, his shoulders kept trembling and he couldn’t contain it. It racked his muscles and strained against the pain inside his chest and at sternum.

            Jack shrugged. “We got wax sealed bullets, so we’re probably good to go.”

            The gun was their only line of defense and he cursed himself for failing in his mission to drown himself in the river. Jack was now stuck with him. Daniel frowned; at least it wouldn’t be long now. His ravaged body ached for release from the pain, the torment. Each breath constricted his ribcage like a gigantic fist squeezed his chest. He knew it was more than Jack’s rescue of him, he knew the poison had spread.

            Laying his head back against the rock, Daniel closed his eyes yet his shoulders wouldn’t relax, just stayed hiked up and tense. He felt arms encircle him and the soft texture of a blanket.

            “Where’d you get it?” he asked as the small fabric wrapped around his shoulders.

            “Just a little thing I learned years ago,” Jack said and pulled Daniel closer. “You know, always be prepared.”

            “I think that’s the Boy Scout’s motto, Jack.”

            “So it is, so it is,” he said and rubbed Daniel’s back in soft circles.

            Daniel’s eyelids drooped and his head fell forward onto Jack’s shoulder. “You were never a Boy Scout.”

            “How do you know?”

            “Not your personality.”

            “And the Air Force is?” Jack laughed but he quieted quickly. The silence stretched out between them as the last of the twilight died away.

            Daniel felt a movement, and a flicker of light told him that Jack had switched on his flashlight. He closed his eyes and said, “Almost time.”

            In a whisper, Jack said, “I know.”

            “Hurts,” he said, the grip on his lungs ate away at him. Dragging each breath in ripped away at his strength. He felt as if a necrosis devoured the very tissues within his chest.

            Jack cupped Daniel’s head against his shoulder and said, “Daniel.”

            He gasped for air as he said, “Don’t ask, don’t ask me to – to stay.” The groan issued up from deep within, seemed to grow from his very bones. “Can’t, Jack. Hurts.”

            A howl tore the night air asunder, opened up a split in the essence of the universe as the Thorn Beast appeared over the ridge.

            “God damned son of a bitch,” Jack cursed and swung the gun around to aim at the charging creature. He shot at the thing as Daniel curled further into his friend’s chest. Daniel was jarred loose though, when the beast lunged forward. Jack shoved Daniel away and behind him.

            The creature raised its spiny mane; it vibrated and shook in the eerie shadows thrown by the flashlight. With large razor claws, it scratched at the ground before it stood up on its hind legs and wailed at them. Its teeth glinted in the dim light. Jack fired another few shots at it but it was undeterred. It stalked closer, edging toward them as if it was a cat playing with a hapless mouse.

            Daniel’s empty stomach twisted and threatened to lurch as he watched the thing inch closer to Jack. His mind reeled as he thought of watching his friend die at the hand of this creature. The crack of the gunfire did nothing to halt it as it jumped at them. Its clawed hand seized Jack’s collar and yanked him away. Daniel cried out as he saw Jack wrestle with the thing, as the gun flung loose from Jack’s grip, and skidded close to the edge of the rocky outcropping. It would tip over into the river if the fighters so much as brushed by it. Daniel had to get to it, had to stop their only defense from plunging into the waters.

            Dropping to his forearms, he dug his elbows into the gritty dirt and began to drag himself toward the gun. His focus shifted between the combatants and the weapon. Using his fingers to dig into the loosened dirt, he hauled himself to the gun. As Daniel reached the weapon, he twisted around onto his back. Light from the flashlight tossed elongated shadows on the canyon rock face. The Thorn Beast bent over Jack as his friend scrambled backwards, trying to escape the swipes of the claws.

            Daniel lifted the gun to aim but the creature dove forward, leaping on top of Jack. Jack struggled against the beast, as the two rolled across the small plateau. The flashlight was hit in the battle and it slid over the outcropping to the shore below them. The flashlight threw shadows up from the gully yet kept most of the plateau in the dark. Daniel knew he could never make the shot. He needed to get closer; he needed for Jack to get the hell out of there.

            Jack screamed as the beast pierced him with its claws. Daniel crawled closer, keeping the gun tucked into the collar of his shirt. In a mad dance, both Jack and the beast grappled with one another as if trying to lead. The beast in a frustrated rage howled and in one swift movement bit down into Jack’s shoulder. His friend crumpled, his legs giving out and dropping his balance. The slight change in weight though tilted the combatants over the edge to the stony shores of the river.

            Daniel could no longer see them, only heard the wails of the beast as it assaulted Jack, only listened to screams of his friend as it shredded him. He could not let this happen. He would not let this happen. With new determination, Daniel clawed his way to the edge and peered over it, all the time cursing his useless legs. Down on the shore of the river bed, the flashlight was still working and it illuminated the beast and Jack. His friend laid on his back, immobilized by the beast as it hunched over him.

            With only one choice, Daniel gathered himself and clutched the gun in one hand. Rolling his torso at the edge of the plateau, he launched his weight off of the rock outcropping. He landed on the ridged back of the beast. It growled and beat back at Daniel as if he was some annoying gnat to be swatted away. Pounding on the beast’s head, he tried to avoid the spines but failed. They cut into his hands and arms. The creature abandoned his prey and turned instead to Daniel.

            Swinging around, the Thorn Beast brought Daniel around to the front. Its great maw opened, salivating. Thrusting, Daniel shoved his whole arm into the beast’s mouth but avoided the deadly fangs. It clamped down, its teeth puncturing, ripping away at Daniel’s shoulder and upper arm. For a dizzying moment, he fought to stay conscious. He concentrated, his eyes closed.

            “Come on, Daniel,” he whispered to himself. Sweat beaded down his temples, streaking his dirty face. The muscles of his arm were numb, but he focused his energy on his hand, the hand in the mouth of the beast, the hand still gripping the berretta. “Squeeze it, Daniel.”  

            His hand spasmed, and the gun fired, once then twice. The beast stopped, halted all motion. It looked startled and puzzled. In one fluid motion, it dropped to the ground, dead.

            It wasn’t over, not by a long shot. He still needed to get the spines from the beast. He pulled his arm from the beast’s mouth, then with his other hand gripped a spine and pulled it free.

            He looked over at Jack’s still form, knowing he had to treat his friend first. Glancing down at his own legs, his bloodied body, Daniel knew he was as good as dead anyway. He put the spine in his mouth, clenching it between his teeth. He started to slide forward. His hands and arms left a bloody stain on the rocks as he heaved the dead weight of his body to Jack’s side. Panting, he grabbed a hold of Jack and dragged himself the last precious inches to his friend. He fell on top of Jack and lay there for a minute, his breath coming in gulps when he spat out the spine.

            Lifting up, Daniel tried to examine Jack in the dim light cast by the flashlight. He made out the slice marks, the bite wound on his shoulder. He had no idea how to do this, was there a way to make the antidote eject from the spine? There must be. He didn’t have the time, he had to do this and do it now.

            Daniel whispered, “Please let this work.” He stabbed the pointed end of the spine into his friend. Jack groaned in response but did not wake. “Come on, work!” Daniel said as tears started to form in his eyes. This would have all been for naught if he couldn’t make the damned thing work. As he cursed he noticed the spine was covered in small glittering hair-like projections that oscillated in the soft winds off the river.

            Mesmerized, he watched as they swayed and shifted in the breeze. With a tender hand Daniel stroked them. They were like silky threads. He brushed against the grain and they bristled then stood straight up from the spine. It turned molten colors of red and violet and he felt a rush from the stalk as if it released its burden. It withered, drooping and falling away from Jack’s shoulder. The antidote was delivered.

Even as the spine died away Daniel’s own strength ebbed and dissipated. He collapsed by Jack’s side, his gaze skyward. His last thought as the final convulsion took over his body was that he hoped Jack would remember him as a friend.

XI.
For a second when he awoke, Jack thought he’d gone blind but then his vision focused. He saw the clear night sky a million miles yet only an arm’s length away from his face. That’s how he always saw the sky out in the canyons of the Western United States – so far above him, yet so close he felt he could caress the velvet of the darkness.

            As he lay there, Jack realized he was not on Earth but on the banks of a foreign river light-years away from home. The situation crashed into him like a wrecking ball to the chest. His shoulder throbbed and stung across the slice wounds criss-crossing his back. If he felt this shitty how the hell did Daniel feel?

            “Daniel!” he said as he sat up. The world looped and tilted around him as he put a hand to his forehead to steady himself. Daniel lay beside him, his form still in his repose. Jack went to his friend’s side and, fetching the flashlight, examined Daniel. “Damn it.”

            Daniel was wan and pale. Jack touched his fingers to Daniel’s neck, checking for a pulse. It was thready and weak but there. He needed to retrieve a spine from that monster and save the archeologist. Jack realized as he searched around that the beast’s body was crumpled next to them. Its aroma stank up the air and curdled his stomach. It was dead. Jack considered the unconscious Daniel and shook his head. The man would never cease to amaze him.

            “How the hell did you manage that one?” Jack said as he felt a twitch in his shoulder, looked down, and pulled the dried twig of a spine from his bite wound. “Damn it, Daniel, how the hell did you do it?”

            Of course, now was not the time to figure out the mysteries of Doctor Jackson, now was the time to get one of those spines and treat his friend. On second thought from the way Daniel looked, Jack decided two spines might be in order. It seemed Daniel might have been bitten again, though Jack was unsure about the depth of the new wound or whether the fang producing teeth had penetrated.

            He eased over to the hulk lying dead in a heap next to them. Jack twisted two of the spines from the animal’s mane and slid back over to Daniel’s side. He pulled Daniel’s clothes open, looked at the ugly wound on his hip. If the damned poison didn’t get him, the infection would. Shit. Pointing the sharp end of the spine toward his friend, Jack stabbed it into the fleshy part of his hip.

            “His ass,” Jack murmured and raised his eyebrow. He hadn’t realized that Daniel had been partially bitten in the ass. If they made it out of this mess, this would be great material. He took the other spine and jabbed it into Daniel’s upper arm. His friend didn’t move, remained like a dead man. Was he supposed to do something else? He wrenched the spine in Daniel’s arm, digging it further in until a groan escaped his friend’s lips.

            “Sorry, buddy, I don’t have any idea what the hell I’m doing here,” Jack said. “Damn you, Carter, where are you when I need you.”

            “The hairs,” Daniel’s voice, though low and weak, cut through the roar of the darkened river.

            “Hairs?”

            “On the spine,” Daniel coughed and, by the dim shine of the flashlight, Jack glimpsed the splatter of blood across his friend’s lips. “Rub wrong, wrong way.”

            “What?” Jack leaned forward to try and understand what his friend was saying to him. “Daniel?” He grabbed Daniel’s shoulders and shook him. “Wrong way?  What the hell?” But Daniel sank into unconsciousness again and, as Jack watched, he swore he witnessed the archeologist relax as if to surrender his burden of life. “Shit, the wrong way?”

            He glared at the spine as if it might tell him what to do, then he twisted it hard. Daniel cried out but didn’t wake. Jack tried turning it clockwise then counter-clockwise. In a last ditch effort, he rubbed up and down on the thing. It pulsated at him and then turned shades of red, blue and violet before he felt it gush, injecting its contents into Daniel’s flesh. Jack quickly repeated the same actions on the other spine, wrenching, twisting, rubbing, until it injected the antidote.

            Jack slumped to his archeologist’s side, spent, and overwhelmed. He wondered if Teal’c and Carter were okay. His radio was smashed and useless. A sense of weakness washed over him. He should check on Daniel again, he thought. But he never moved from his spot as his eyes flickered closed.

XII.
The nightmare spread out before him like the wings of some blackened angel. He saw the Thorn Beast devour Jack; he witnessed the death of his wife again. He shrank from the visions, from the hell of his mind. He felt strong hands on his face, felt those same callous hands soothe him with a wet cloth. Promises were whispered to him, but though he tried to surface from the pain drowning him, he sank even deeper into its depths.

            Someone held him close as the night turned to day, and the day disintegrated to night again. Water was offered to him, but his scorched throat rebelled and he vomited it up. He lost all hold on reality and slipped into the nightmares again.

Winds surrounded him and made him shiver in the cold night. After a time, Daniel heard different voices, echoing and resonating. The sounds broke the fragments of his soul further until he shattered.

            “Fever delirium, strap him down.”

            They tied him and gave him to the predator, the Thorn Beast. Daniel called out for help but no one came, only the things in his dream. The beast answered his call; its spines flared out as if it was some holy mantle. He tried to escape, begged them to let him go, but they held him down and let the thing in his vision dig into his flesh.

            The voices ripped open the air about him, screeched in his ears. Daniel shied away trying to curl away from them, but the bindings prevented him from any freedom of movement. The whispers taunted his attempts to clear his mind.

“Temperature’s 105.5oF, Doctor.”

Hands gripped his arms as hot pokers seared his skin. Daniel screamed yet deep within him he knew he was fighting himself. He knew the landscapes before him melted and melded together in his mind. He needed to escape before he was consumed by it.

            Opening his eyes, Daniel saw the world swirl around him as colors mixed and streamed together like so many paints on a palette.

            “Daniel? Daniel?” Someone called out to him.

            He could only answer in a low moan. A hand cupped his face and he leaned into it for it was his only refuge against the haunting visions.

            “Daniel, you have a very bad infection. We’re trying to get it under control, do you understand?” Janet asked him. Her large round eyes were etched with concern.

            He nodded, yet the very action sent the world spinning around him, and his eyes flickered closed.

            “Stay with me, Daniel. We have just a bit more to go to the gate,” she said.

            “Others?” His mouth felt like he ate lead.

            “The rest of SG1?” Janet asked, as she offered him icy water. “We found Teal’c and Sam a few days after Ayrod told us what was happening. They were immediately sent back. They went through the gate yesterday; the last report indicated that they will recover fully. It took us another half day or so to find you and the Colonel.”

            “Jack?”

            “Better than you, but he does have an infection and some blood loss, but he’s mobile,” Janet said as she checked his bandages. It was then Daniel realized he was lying on a field stretcher in the middle of a meadow.

            “Where?”

            “Almost back to the gate,” Janet patted his shoulder. “It’s been over three days since we found the two of you.”

            He furrowed his brows and studied her. “Three days?”

            “Nearly,” she said. “I’m sure the Colonel will be happy to see you awake.” She raised an eyebrow. “It will make my life a little bit easier too, since he’s been driving me nuts about your condition.” She waved a medic over and gave a few orders that Daniel could not make out as he drifted in and out of awareness. A gentle hand touched his shoulder again. “Rest, Daniel.”

            He agreed with her as she slipped away. He should sleep but what he needed to do right now was to see Jack. Struggling in the bindings that held him to the mobile gurney, Daniel pushed up and called, “Jack.” His voice sounded pitiful and weak even to his ears.

            It took only that single call though for Jack to be at his side. His friend and team leader was haggard and dirtied with grime and blood. Jack eased down to the ground where the stretcher was laid out. Blues and purples stained his face where bruises from his fight with the beast marked him.

            “Hey,” Jack said.

            “Hey.”

            “Before Fraiser and the gang showed up I thought I’d lost you.” Jack looked up then turned back to Daniel. “You’re pretty banged up, and I couldn’t manage to carry you back. We just had to stay there near the river and wait for someone to come.”

            “How, how long?” Daniel asked.

            Jack shook his head. “Too long,” he paused. “I don’t know. I kept fading in and out, too. Damn it.”

            “Jack?”

            “I’m too old for this crap.” Jack grimaced as he sat in the grasses next to Daniel’s stretcher. “I’ve screwed up our friendship; I couldn’t even kill that damned thing. You had to, and you were the wounded one.”

            Maybe his fever was making him hear things now too. He knew Jack was referring to the infamous foundation remark. Their friendship had no ‘foundation’ and that haunted them both. Daniel squinted up into the sky; the sun had started to make its journey toward night and streams of orange and pink lit the horizon. He glanced back at Jack and afterimages superimposed there.

Tears burned away the blotches of light as he said, “We both did what we had to do, Jack. That doesn’t make you too old for this job.”

            “But it makes me a bastard,” Jack said.

            Daniel smiled and tried to suppress a laugh. The wounds lacing up and down his body made even the smallest movement harsh on his sensations. He thought a laugh just might split open his wounds. Jack caught a glimpse of him.

            “What’s so funny?”

            “You,” Daniel said and shook his head. “You think being a doubt agent for the Tollan and Asgard makes you a bastard. Jack, you’ve been a bastard since I met you.”

            “Very funny,” Jack started to stand. “I don’t need to take this abuse.”

            “Are you harassing my patient, Colonel?” Janet said as she knelt down beside Daniel’s stretcher again.

            “Hey, he was abusing me.”

            Janet rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, sir, he looks very dangerous.” She leaned over Daniel and checked the intravenous line. “We’re going to start toward the gate now. Break is over. You think you can manage a few more hours until we get back to SGC?”

            Daniel nodded.

            “I want you to try and sleep, your fever is still elevated but it is coming down,” Janet said as she offered him some water from a canteen.

            “Sure,” he said after he finished drinking his fill. She touched his forehead once and rubbed away the sweat there.

            “Sleep, okay?”

            “Yes,” he said.

            Jack started to move away, his actions hobbled by his injuries, but Daniel called him back.

            “Daniel?”

            He averted his eyes from his friend as he asked, “Can you stay close?”

            “Bad dreams?” Jack asked.

            Daniel only closed his eyes then opened them to acknowledge what Jack already knew. Jack placed a hand on Daniel’s arm and said, “I’m here.”

            As he looked away, Daniel said in a low murmur, “Thanks.”

            Two airmen gathered at the stretcher, and it was lifted. The sway of the stretcher reminded Daniel of the faint memory of his mother rocking him to sleep when he was a child. With this thought on his mind, he drifted along.

            “Daniel?”

            “Hmm?”

            “You okay?”

            “Yes, Jack, I’m fine.” Daniel never opened his eyes, just let the motion of the stretcher rock him to doze.

            “Good, good,” Jack said. “Because, you know, I wouldn’t want any of those memories to come back and, you know, bite you in the ass.”

            As the words filtered into his consciousness, Daniel’s eyes sprang open and he glared at Jack. “Bite me in the ass?”

            “Yeah, Daniel, in the ass,” he said and snickered.

            “Bastard.”

EPILOGUE

            With a cane in hand, Daniel swung open the door to his favorite coffee shop. It was only down the street from his apartment building and he needed the exercise if he was ever going to get back into shape. He was tired of being cooped up anyway. He’d spent a good three weeks in the infirmary, then another two weeks confined to his apartment. It was time to break loose and just get out.

            It was mid-day and the morning rush for coffee had long since faded in the tiny corner shop. He limped up to the counter and ordered, ignoring all of Janet’s sage advice. He pointed to the chocolate filled pastry as well, then paid for his order, and settled in his chosen spot. Daniel let out a sigh as the ache of his muscles reminded him he was still on the mend.

            Flicking open the newspaper he had tucked under his arm, Daniel spread it out on the table, and relaxed as he blew on his steaming coffee. He just wanted to forget things, wanted to drop into the headlines on the book review page, and ease away from the nightmares. He slipped a finger under his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. When was the last time he had a good night sleep anyway?

            “So, when was the last time you slept anyway?”

            The coffee jiggled in his grasp as Daniel startled out of his reverie to look up at Jack. “What the hell are you doing here?”

            Jack pointed to the coffee and said, “I could ask you the same thing.” He lifted his own cup of java and pulled up a chair. “Nice to see you too.”

             Daniel grimaced and pursed his lips. He guessed he deserved that, he had been hiding out for the last week. He left his voice mail to capture all of his messages, and only infrequently sent a one line email to report to his team that he was okay – just resting.

            “Sorry, Jack.”

            Jack reclined back in the wooden chair, his face in silhouette against the glare of the wide windows in the coffee shop. His long lean body framed the chair as he folded his arms and waited for an explanation.

            “I really don’t want to talk about it,” Daniel said and looked away. He considered trying to make a break for it, but with his bum leg and Jack’s Black Ops training, he didn’t have a prayer.

            “I think you do,” Jack said.

            “I don’t.”

            “Yes, you do.”

            “No, I don’t.”

“Do.”

            “Don’t.”

            “Daniel.”

            “Jack,” he huffed, then pushed the pastry plate away from him. “How the hell did you find me anyway?”

            “I went to your apartment, you were out of coffee,” Jack reported, the waved to the shop. “Pretty obvious.”

            Daniel rubbed his forehead. “God, I have to get less predictable.”

            “What you have to do; is tell me what’s up with you.” Jack sat up, then folded his arms on the table and stared at Daniel.

            “I just,” Daniel started, stopped, and then started again. “I keep seeing that thing.”

            “The Thorn Beast?” Jack kept his voice lowered.

            Daniel nodded and dropped his hands into his lap. He bowed his head. “I can’t sleep. I keep seeing it, you know, eating.”

            “Eating you?”

            Daniel shook his head. Without a voice, he said, “No.”

            “Daniel?”

            He looked up and saw that Jack was leaning down, trying to catch a glimpse of Daniel’s eyes. “I keep seeing it eating you.” He tugged his glasses off and tossed them onto the table. If Jack hadn’t caught them, they would have tumbled to the floor.

            “Funny,” Jack said, handing his glasses back to Daniel.

            “What?” Daniel said, as he yanked the glasses out of Jack’s grasp. He was not in the mood for sarcastic banter.

            “I keep having the same dream,” he paused then continued, “Only the Thorn Beast is eating you.”

            “Oh,” Daniel said as it dawned on him. “Oh.”

            “Yeah.” Jack slid his seat over to the side of the table, and Daniel could make out his features. Jack’s expression was solemn, serious as he laid a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “That’s quite a foundation, huh?”

            Daniel gave a smile. “I’d say so.”

            “How about we keep each other up with some classic B movies?” Jack said as he stood.

            “B movies?” Daniel grabbed his cane and his coffee.

            “After the pizza and beer.”

            “And the Discovery Channel,” Daniel said as he followed Jack out into the warm Colorado sun. He considered it, and then said, “Well, maybe not the Discovery Channel.”

            Jack raised a scarred eyebrow. “Yeah, let’s not do nature channels for a while.”

            “Somehow hockey is sounding really good tonight,” Daniel commented.

            Jack gave a deep sigh, shook his head, and slung an arm around Daniel’s neck. “What am I going to do with you? It’s July, Daniel.”

            “So?”

            “There’s no hockey in July.”

            “Don’t tell me the great resourceful full bird Colonel can’t come up with a hockey game for me to watch tonight?” Daniel said as they hobbled toward Jack’s truck.

            Jack flipped open his cell phone while he motioned for Daniel to hop into the truck. Daniel glanced up at his apartment building, shrugged, and climbed into the cab. As Jack slammed the door shut of the truck, he closed the phone.

            “What was that all about?” Daniel said.

            “Ask and you shall receive, Dannyboy.”

            The truck rumbled to life and Jack steered it down the street away from Daniel’s apartment. “Where are we going? What did you do?”

            Jack gave him a cocky smile and said, “We’re going to a hockey game staged by the great all stars of the S-G-C put on especially for one Doctor Daniel Jackson.”

            “Jack.”

            “Daniel?”

            Daniel was silent for a moment, and then said, “Thanks.”

            Jack gunned the engine and said, “Anything for a friend, Dannyboy.”

THE END.

           

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