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Bone of Contention

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Bone of Contention
By JJJunky

 

Daniel slowly walked toward the Embarkation room, one hand stretched awkwardly behind him trying to adjust his backpack to make it rest more comfortably across his shoulders. It felt unbalanced, as though something heavy had been added to one of the side pockets. He knew he should've checked the contents before allowing the airman to attach it to his vest but he was already late. One way or the other, he seemed destined to feel Jack's acid tongue whether due to tardiness or incompetence.

The roar of the Stargate powering up echoed down the corridor. Daniel stumbled, tempted to flee in the opposite direction. Once, the sound would've filled him with excitement and hope. Thanks to his recent experience with Ma'chello's Goa'uld killing device, it now filled him with dread. The invention had induced schizophrenia, making him hear and see the event horizon in the most unlikely places, including the closet in his office.

It took every ounce of courage he had to cross the threshold into the 'gate room. Washed by the blue light of the wormhole, Jack, Sam, and Teal'c stood at the bottom of the ramp, waiting for their teammate.

"You're late," Jack unnecessarily informed him.

To Daniel's surprise, the statement was without rancor. It was merely an observation. One the older man had made many times before, with justifiable provocation. Far too often, Daniel immersed himself in research or a translation and forget the time, resulting in missing meetings, meals, and even sleep.

Nodding a silent greeting, Teal'c started up the ramp, followed closely by Carter. As he pulled his boonie hat onto his head, Daniel could feel Jack's eyes on him. He studiously ignored the gaze as he stepped past. His heartbeat increased making his chest heave and his legs tremble. Several feet short of the event horizon he paused, fighting the image of a decayed hand grabbing his shirt and dragging him across. He wasn't aware Jack had joined him until the other man spoke.

"Are you all right?"

Daniel's mouth formed words, but nothing came out. A single reassurance finally whispered past his lips. "Fine."

Despite his assertion, Daniel shuddered. They'd just repeated the words first exchanged in the VIP room, the incident preceding Daniel's incarceration in a mental institution.

Hating his cowardice, but knowing it was the only way he could cross the mental barrier, Daniel closed his eyes and stepped into the pull of the vortex.

Already off balance when he entered, he arrived on the new planet with arms and legs flaying wildly. His eyes flew open in fear when a hand closed around his upper arm. Only Teal'c's intervention prevented him from tumbling down a steep slope. "Thanks, Teal'c," he breathlessly gasped.

"You are welcome, Daniel Jackson."

For the first time since returning from PY3-948, Daniel felt his enthusiasm return. He forgot the humiliation and fear that had been his constant companions since finding himself in a padded room, and studied the terrain. Huge boulders, streaked a bright red with mineral stains of brown and green, dotted the landscape.

"The Devil's Marbles," Daniel muttered.

"What?" Jack demanded, adjusting his sunglasses to combat the bright glare.

"In the Australian Outback there are formations like these," Daniel explained.

"And they call them the Devil's Marbles?"

"The white man does. To the Aboriginal they're the Dreamtime Eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. It's a sacred site."

"Daniel," Carter called, examining one of the towering boulders, "what do you make of this?"

Stepping carefully across the slippery shale, Daniel was enveloped by the monolith's shadow and instantly felt an accompanying coolness. More blind now than he had been in the bright sun, he flipped his sunglasses up. As his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, they were drawn to the paintings scattered across the surface of the rock. Many of the portraits were in an x-ray style, depicting the backbone and vitals of various animals. While a few bore a faint resemblance to species once found on Earth, most were unfamiliar to him, however one stood out from the rest. It depicted a snake-like creature arching in bright yellow ochre. "The Rainbow Serpent," Daniel reverently identified.

"That's the second time you've mentioned a Rainbow Serpent?" Jack said, frowning. "What is this place? The munchkins Garden of Eden."

Though he hated to encourage Jack's irreverent remarks, Daniel couldn't suppress a quick smile. "The Aboriginal believe the Rainbow Serpent is the giver of all life."

"Daniel Jackson, there are more paintings over here," Teal'c called.

Squinting his eyes against the sun's blinding rays, Daniel forgot caution. His feet slipping on the loose rock chips, he hurriedly crossed to the Jaffa's side. Awed by Teal'c's discovery, he reverently reached out to touch one of the drawings, pulling back before making contact with the supernatural gallery of large white-painted faces. Wide-eyed and lacking mouths, they appeared to have halos over their heads. "They're the Wandjina."

"They look like ghosts with thorny crowns to me," Jack decided, cocking his head one way then the other.

"Jack do you know what this means?"

"The ghosts are royalty?"

"They're not ghosts," Daniel impatiently snapped, irritated the other man couldn't see the importance of their discovery. "Aboriginals drew the Wandjina or Cloud Beings on Earth, too. Some have been carbon dated to be eight thousand years old. That's twice the age of Egypt's pyramids."

Exchanging confused glances with Carter, Jack prompted, "Which means?"

"These Cloud Beings were on Earth before the Goa'uld. They could be the original gate builders, the Ancients."

"Daniel," Carter unnecessarily reminded him, "this isn't Earth."

Daniel's eyes lifted to the sky. "But the similarity of the two paintings suggests the Wandjina have been on both worlds. There may be something here to help us find them."

"Or someone?" Jack quietly suggested, drawing their attention to two men crouching on top of the boulder. "Daniel, you're on."

For several long seconds, Daniel stared at his friend as if he had two heads. Once, the familiar greeting would've come automatically. Now it felt stilted. What little confidence he had gained in the last few years had disappeared in a padded room. Jack's eyes bore into his, encouraging him. Raising a hand towards the two men, Daniel stuttered, "I-I'm Daniel J-Jackson from the planet Earth. This is--"

"Jup-ba. Gokgo"

The commanding voice halted any further introductions. Daniel nervously licked his lips. Had he committed a breach of etiquette by speaking first? By speaking at all? The men, like the art on the boulders, resembled Australian Aboriginals. Just because people looked similar it didn't man they had the same beliefs.

Glistening flesh burned a rich brown, the two men scrambled easily down the boulder to stand level with the team. They carried no weapons. It was impossible to conceal anything in the sparse clothing they wore.

"Mani-jewo-ja."

A wave of a hand interpreted the unfamiliar term. Repeating the gesture, Daniel said, "They want us to go with them."

"Ya think?"

Daniel ducked his head, blushing at the sarcastic remark.

"Is it safe, Daniel?" Carter asked. Her rifle was grasped firmly in both hands, the safety still engaged.

"It should be." Daniel shrugged self-consciously. "They appear to be related to the Australian Aboriginal who are nearly extinct because of their abhorrence for violence. They wouldn't kill, even to save themselves."

Jack put a hand on the archeologist's arm to prevent him from following the natives. "A better question would be is there anything to be gained by going with them? We don't know how far we have to go or what we'll be walking into. We're not going to last long in this heat. It must be one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade."

"I don't know," Daniel unhappily admitted. Though he desperately wanted to accompany the two men growing smaller as brown legs carried them across the arid plain, Daniel knew he had to be honest. Lives were at risk. Possibly, despite his assurances, from the indigenous population certainly from the oppressive climate. "Even if they know how to contact the Ancients, I might not be able to translate the language."

Squinting up at the blazing sun, O'Neill reluctantly compromised. "We'll go two klicks. If we don't see any signs of a village by then, we're turning back."

Eagerly nodding agreement to the concession, Daniel walked rapidly to catch up with their guides. Rivulets of sweat rolled from under his boonie hat to trickle into the corners of his mouth. The salty taste heightened his thirst. To add to his discomfort, his right shoulder screamed in protest from the uneven weight of his backpack. Fidgeting, he tried to adjust his vest to take the strain off his aching muscles.

"What's wrong?"

Taken off guard by Jack's softly spoken inquiry, Daniel stumbled. He was tempted to lie, but decided a verbal dressing down was preferable to the physical pain he was enduring. "There's something heavy in my pack throwing it off balance."

"Let me take a look."

Surprised when he wasn't chastised for failing to check his gear before they left, Daniel stopped. He heard a zipper open and sighed with relief when the weight disappeared.

"Got it."

"What was it?"

"Nothing important."

Puzzled by the suppressed anger he heard in the older man's voice, Daniel turned to see Jack trying to stuff a jar of nuts into Teal'c's backpack. His stomach twisted. Turning away, he felt empty and alone. He'd always wondered how others in the SGC viewed him. Now, he finally had confirmation. To them he was a head case -- nuts.

"Daniel, it doesn't mean anything." Jack put a hand on a tense shoulder. "It's just some jerk's idea of a joke."

Deep inside, Daniel knew Jack was wrong. "I'm the joke," he softly contradicted, pulling away from the comforting touch.

Picking up his pace, Daniel quickly closed the gap separating him from the two men guiding them across the sun-baked earth. They were setting a steady, even pace comfortable for them. They hadn't even broken a sweat, while Daniel was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up, despite his year on Abydos. What air he managed to inhale filled his lungs with a burning fire. His muscles were turning to liquid. It was amazing his legs could still support him. The faces of people he'd thought were his friends rippled along the waves of heat. He felt strangely detached until he saw Jack's then Sam's and Teal'c's among them. Pain pierced his heart at their betrayal.

"Daniel?"

A hand grabbed his arm. Daniel shook it off, careful to keep his face averted.

"Will you slow down? You're going to make yourself sick," Jack protested.

The hand returned. This time it was a steel band. Daniel tried to pull free knowing as he did so the effort would be futile. The grip tightened a fraction with each of his attempts to escape until he was sure there must be finger shaped impressions circling his arm.

"Daniel, we've gone two klicks," Jack impatiently explained. "Time to turn back."

"No." Daniel didn't need to see the chiseled face to know it would be twisted with exasperation.

"No?"

"This is important."

"So is our health. The sun isn't even at its zenith yet. It's only going to get hotter. If we go much further we're going to end up with a good case of heatstroke."

"I'm willing to take the risk."

The stern voice grew softer. "We've been through this before. You know what my response will be."

Daniel allowed his eyes to rest on the older man's face. He saw the same determination, the same concern for his safety that had been present when he wanted to stay behind on Earnest's planet. It was so at odds with the face he'd just imagined it confused him. Who was the real Jack O'Neill? The one standing at his side? Or the one who'd faced him in that padded room and thought he was nuts?

Jack dropped his eyes, ending the staring contest. Releasing his grip, he reluctantly conceded, "We'll go a little further."

"Thank you." Daniel started walking again, loath to admit he'd been strengthened by the short rest.

"Next time I say we're turning back, there won't be any discussion."

Concentrating on putting one burning foot in front of the other, Daniel didn't reply. Why fight a battle before it needed to be fought? Or he amended, noticing smoke rising in a long, thin column, a battle that didn't need to be fought at all.

Daniel walked with renewed enthusiasm. Each breath was like inhaling a flaming torch; each step a concentrated effort of will. His clothes clung to flesh, soaked with sweat. Yet the column of smoke appeared to draw no closer. Was it a mirage? A figment of his overheated imagination. Stumbling to a stop, he pulled out his canteen. Though he desperately wanted to empty it, he knew he didn't dare. It was less than half full already and they still had the long journey home. There was no guarantee the locals would have a plentiful supply or if they did, that they would be willing to share.

Their guides disappeared, apparently swallowed by the cracked earth.

Daniel blinked the moisture from his eyes, certain they were playing tricks on him. "Where'd they go?"

Displaying little of the discomfort affecting his companions, Teal'c walked on. "I believe they have gone underground."

"They fell into a hole?" Daniel tried to summon the energy to run to the natives' assistance.

"Their descent was too controlled to be the result of a mishap."

"Right," Jack sarcastically panted. "Walking into holes is their national pastime."

Without a word, Teal'c crossed to the edge of a crevice and dropped into it. "There is a tunnel here."

His plunge lacking the finesse of the Jaffa's, Daniel climbed down. Standing at the mouth of the tunnel, his voice echoed back to his teammates. "Come on, the air is cool and fresh."

Without waiting to see if his suggestion was agreeable, Daniel flipped up his sunglasses and pulled out a flashlight. The cooler climate allowed him to pick up his pace. His damp clothing grew stiff with the cold until he found himself shivering. This world was indeed one of extremes.

When the light in the tunnel increased, Daniel knew the short reprieve was coming to an end. The muscles in his legs registered the tunnel's incline before his other senses. Despite the shivers raking his body, he slowed his pace in no hurry to return to the oppressive heat.

"Daniel?"

Jack appeared at the archeologist's side. His sweat-streaked face becoming more visible with every step.

"If there isn't a village at the end of this tunnel, we're heading back. No arguments."

"No argument," Daniel reluctantly agreed. Putting his flashlight away, he wished his physical body had the strength of his academic curiosity.

The incline grew steeper, until they were once again above ground. The sun, closer than the one they were accustomed to, burned directly overhead. Sunglasses had become almost useless. Shielding his eyes with his hands, Daniel looked around. A column of smoke rose in front of him, the only sign of human occupation. There were no dwellings of any kind to indicate the presence of a civilization.

"That's it, we're outta here." Jack gripped Daniel's elbow to pull him back into the tunnel.

"No, Jack, wait," Daniel pleaded, resisting the man's effort.

"Daniel, you agreed."

"There's a village here, Jack."

"I know that sun is blinding, but--"

"They're underground."

"What, you have x-ray vision now?"

Convinced he was right Daniel was almost hopping in excitement. "There's a town in the Australian outback called Coober Pedy. It's so hot, they built their homes underground."

"Daniel?"

"I'm not crazy, Jack."

The older man flinched as though he'd been struck. "I know."

"It looks like Daniel's called it, sir." Carter drew the two men's attention to the flat plain. Heads were bobbing above ground, soon followed by the remainder of the almost naked bodies. Without sparing a glance for the strange visitors, they headed for the column of smoke.

One man, his dark hair so matted it stuck out in thick clumps, crossed to the team. "Welcome. I am Jandamar. We have waited a long time for your return."

"You speak English," Daniel gasped in surprise.

"I speak the language of the ancient ones. Is it not your language?"

"Yes, yes it is. It's just the two men who brought us here didn't seem to understand me."

"They are the people of the Ngaryin. Only the Wayrra speak the tongue of the Ancients. Wayrra is the power that let's you speak."

His impatience almost palatable, Jack interrupted, "You said you're waited a long time for the Ancients to return. How long?"

"Since the Dreamtime."

Jack looked at Daniel the look on his face clearly demanding an explanation.

Rubbing the steam from his glasses with a dirty finger, Daniel clarified, "The Dreamtime was a period when supernatural beings traveled over the land, giving it form and life."

"Supernatural beings?" Jack's eyebrow rose until it disappeared under the bill of his cap. "Are you talking about when God created the world?"

Jandamar looked at Daniel. "I am not familiar with this word. What is a God?"

"Wandjina," Daniel translated, hoping the Aboriginal term would be more familiar to the man.

"Yes." Jandamar nodded. "That was the last time they visited."

"That's it, we're out of here," O'Neill ordered, turning to reenter the tunnel.

"Jack . . ."

O'Neill's raised hand terminated Daniel's protest. "If I understand this correctly, these people haven't had contact with the Ancients for over eight thousand years. Right?"

"Right," Daniel softly verified.

"Under the circumstances, I don't think there's too much we can learn from them."

"That's not true. We've already learned the Ancients speak English."

"We did?" Jack looked to Carter and Teal'c for confirmation.

"Jandamar said only the Wayrra speak English, the Ancient's tongue."

"Sir," Carter hesitantly interjected, "it would go a long way to explaining why English is spoken on so many of the worlds we've visited."

"When O'Neill's brain was downloaded with the knowledge of the Ancients," Teal'c thoughtfully reminded, "he did not speak English."

"Good point, Teal'c." Jack triumphantly glared at Daniel.

For a moment, panic seized Daniel. They'd come all this way for nothing if he couldn't convince Jack to give him just a little more time. "In World War II, the Marines used Navajo Native Americans to send radio messages because their language, combined with a code they devised themselves, was unbreakable by the Japanese. The Ancients probably did the same with their library. They used a language the Goa'uld couldn't understand."

Holding his hands up in defeat, Jack growled, "All right. What has all this got to do with leaving?"

"Licking his lips, Daniel wished he hadn't when the salty taste squeezed his taste buds, making him thirstier. "There must be more we can learn."

"It was a lengthy journey," Teal'c unexpectedly offered. "It would be prudent to make inquiries before departing."

Outnumbered, O'Neill gruffly relented, "One hour." When he saw Daniel open his mouth, Jack beat him to the punch. "Ahhh! One hour, we'll be lucky if our water lasts until we get back as it is."

Jack didn't drop his hand until Daniel nodded his reluctant acceptance of the terms. Still, Jack wasn't naive enough to think he wouldn't have another fight on his hands in fifty-nine minutes. When it came to his work, Daniel could be obsessive, a term the younger man would disagree with. He would call it intellectual curiosity. Whatever label one chose to use, it often drove him to work so hard, it threatened his health.

As he watched Daniel move off with Jandamar, Jack was tempted to follow. Though it was normal mission procedure, he knew Daniel would resent it, seeing his presence as an intrusion.

Catching O'Neill's eye, Teal'c bowed his head slightly in silent acknowledgment before accompanying the two men. Marveling at how often his Jaffa friend read his mind, Jack relaxed.

How long, he wondered before Daniel learned to trust them again? That stupid jar of nuts certainly hadn't helped matters. Jack hoped whoever did it liked cold weather. Their next assignment would be to the remotest base in the Antarctic.

Ever since Daniel's release from the mental institution, Jack had tried to read his emotions. Once they had been an open book. Now they were in a language as foreign to him as the one the Ancients had drilled into his head. Jack knew he was partially to blame. Instead of being a crutch Daniel could lean on, he'd pulled away. He'd tried to distance himself from the tag he'd labeled Daniel with himself: nuts. He'd been so scared the condition had been caused by 'gate travel, so sure it was only a matter of time before he was occupying the room next door, so consumed by his own fears, he'd forgotten Daniel. Even if the younger man ever forgave him, Jack knew he would never forgive himself.

Tempted to return to the coolness of the tunnel, Jack absently watched Carter take soil and mineral samples. Keeping one eye on the industrious major, he kept the other on the villagers gathered around the column of smoke. Even with his limited knowledge of cultures and their traditions, he could tell they were preparing some kind of ceremonial offering. More villagers approached with armloads of wood. Where they had gotten them was a mystery to Jack. There wasn't a single tree within view. Nor had there been any on the long trek to the village.

It had been a long time since he'd heard it, but the familiar cooing of a baby still had the ability to stab at his heart. It drew his gaze to a bundle gurgling in her mother's arms. The sounds turned to soft whimpers when she was taken from her refuge by an elderly man. Without a word, the man carried her to the fire and thrust her into the billowing smoke.

Horrified, Jack screamed, "No-o-o-o!"

Shocked faces turned in his direction but no one attempted to save the baby. Heedless of the tribal taboos he might be breaking, Jack ran to the fire and snatched the baby, folding her protectively in his arms.

"Jack, no."

Daniel's warning came too late. Though Jack doubted it would have stopped him in any case. He couldn't watch a child being offered to their god no matter what these people believed the gift would bring. It wasn't in his nature.

Cries of outrage rose until Jack's ears ached, the loudest came from the mother herself. His eyes burning from the aromatic pyre, he backed away, looking for salvation. "Daniel, what's going on? Can you make them understand sacrificing this child is wrong?"

"They weren't sacrificing her, Jack. They were conducting a purification ceremony."

"Burned alive is a hell of a way to be cleansed."

"She wasn't going to be put in the fire, only the smoke."

"Oh." Embarrassed, Jack relinquished the baby to her mother. "Tell them I'm sorry and they can continue."

"It's not that simple. A new fire will need to be built. As you may have noticed, finding the wood is not an easy or quick task."

"I guess sorry won't cut it, huh?'

The elderly man who had been conducting the ceremony lunged at O'Neill. Despite his contrition and exhaustion, Jack's reaction was lighting fast. His gun was in his hands with the safety off before anyone else could react. "Back off, Bub."

Though the other man's only weapon appeared to be a bone, Jack didn't relax his guard. He'd lost too many good men to apparently innocent threats.

"Jack."

Uncomfortable with the touch of fear he heard in Daniel's voice, Jack snapped, "What?"

"He's pointing a bone at you."

"I don't think it's loaded."

"If an Aboriginal Lawman points a kangaroo bone at someone they get sick and die. It seems the same might be true here."

"Hey, Carter," Jack demanded, "does that smoke have a narcotic?"

Stepping between the villagers and O'Neill, Daniel urgently insisted, "This isn't a joke, Jack. I'm not nuts."

"I never thought you were," Jack quickly soothed, seeing the pain in his friend's thin face. "But you gotta admit the whole thing sounds crazy."

"Jandamar is a Lawman. He understands you didn't mean to be disrespectful. Let him help."

"Help me how?"

"He can take out the bone."

"Daniel, there's no bone in me."

"Metaphorically speaking there is."

Exasperated with a conversation he couldn't fathom, Jack tapped his watch. "Time to go, kids."

"Jack, please." Daniel put a hand on the older man's arm.

Surprised, Jack hesitated. This was the first time Daniel had touched him since their ill-fated confrontation in the VIP suite. But no matter how much faith he had in his friend, he couldn't believe pointing a bone at him would kill him. "Your hour's up, Daniel."

His hand slipping limply off Jack's arm, Daniel ducked his head and walked away without another word.

This was one time Jack would've welcomed an argument. He was surprised by the depth of his disappointment when he didn't receive one.

***

Daniel lifted his canteen to his lips and emptied it. By his calculations they were approximately halfway into their journey back to the Stargate. As usual, Jack had been right. They should've turned back before they reached the village. If they had the team wouldn't be in danger of dying of thirst. And Jack wouldn't have been cursed.

The logical part of Daniel's mind equated the bone with shoes upon the table or stepping on a crack, silly superstitions. There was another part of him though, waiting for Jack to show symptoms of the invocation. A part of him that knew modern medicine couldn't save his friend's life. Yet, instead of insisting Jack let Jandamar save him, Daniel had backed down, fearful his teammates would think he'd lost is mind. That he really was nuts.

"Daniel Jackson, are you in need of fluid?" Teal'c held his canteen out towards the younger man.

Lifting his head, Daniel fixed blurry eyes on Teal'c's wavering figure. Since he was fairly certain it wasn't Teal'c whose stance was unsteady, Daniel realized it must be his own. He opened his mouth to reject the Jaffa's kind offer, but no words could form in the desert expanse that was his mouth and throat. With no other means to communicate, he shook his head. It was his fault they were in this predicament. He would not take what Teal'c, Jack, and Sam more richly deserved.

"My symbiont provides me with the liquid I need. If you do not put fluids into your body you will collapse," Teal'c wisely observed. "Then we will be forced to carry you."

And we will all perish, Daniel silently finished the Jaffa's scenario. For he knew they would not leave him behind. No matter how much he pleaded or the fact that it would spell their own doom. Hating his weakness, Daniel took the canteen from Teal'c's strong hand. His own shaking uncontrollably, he twisted off the top. The metal lip clattering against his teeth with each spasm, Daniel poured the lifesaving liquid down his throat. Long before his thirst was quenched, he forced himself to stop. When he saw Teal'c frown, he lifted the canteen again pretending to drink. He didn't deserve to be refreshed when his friends were suffering. Replacing the cap, he pushed the container into Teal'c's hand and stumbled away. He would not endanger the others any further. He would make it back to the Stargate on his own two burning, aching feet.

***

Jack wasn't sure if the Stargate was real or a mirage. He hoped it was real. It was years ago, but he could still remember most of what he'd learned in an intensive desert survival course. Only Teal'c lacked the symptoms associated with heatstroke. Both Carter and Daniel's faces were red, though this could be attributed to sunburn. However, they had also stopped sweating. And, judging by his own body, Jack guessed they had splitting headaches and were having trouble breathing. Though he hadn't spoken a word, Daniel also appeared to be experiencing heat cramps and confusion. He would've kept walking past the Stargate if Jack hadn't snagged a sleeve and pulled him to a stop.

With a strength Jack envied, Teal'c stepped up to the DHD. A soft red glow on the back of the Jaffa's hand showed he hadn't totally escaped the sun's deadly rays. Ignoring the pain his action must be causing, Teal'c firmly pressed the symbols to send them home.

The wormhole exploded before settling back into the event horizon. The resemblance to a blue ocean had never been stronger. It drew Jack like a magnet. Only years of putting his team first stopped him. Carter passed him as though she were hypnotized. The soft undulating waves enveloped her. A soft moan of desire escaped Jack's lips. He took a step to follow her only to realize Daniel hadn't moved. He appeared to be unaware their salvation was only a few steps away.

"Daniel?" Though Jack knew he had spoken his friend's name even he had trouble translating the raspy sound.

If there had been any fluids left in his body, Jack knew there would've been tears in his eyes when he turned his back on the Stargate and forced his feet to step back towards Daniel. But he would've been hard pressed to keep from bawling when Teal'c picked up the archeologist and carried him up the slope to O'Neill's side. Once again, Junior had saved their lives.

After the muted silence of the desert, the controlled chaotic roar of the embarkation room drilled daggers into Jack's heat fevered brain. Carter was being wheeled out on one stretcher as three more arrived. Teal'c crossed to the closest and gently laid Daniel on it. His arms captured in the firm grip of two orderlies, Jack didn't resist when he was led to the second one. The heavy clomp of feet echoing down the corridor behind him was audio proof Teal'c had disdained the last stretcher and was walking to the infirmary on his own. At least one member of SG-1 was returning carrying his shield, rather than being on it.

***

Standing in the doorway of her office, Janet could see Daniel's bed. He hadn't moved or opened his eyes, but she knew he was awake. The compassion that had compelled her to become a doctor, urged her to go to him. The intelligence which had made her dream come true held her back. Once, her caring presence would've been welcomed by the afflicted man. That was before Ma'chello's Goa'uld killing devices. Before she had him committed to a mental health facility. Fighting the distress the memory invoked, she was grateful when General Hammond breezed into the infirmary putting an end to the unwelcome replay.

Sparing a glance for the two men seemingly asleep in their beds, he entered Fraiser's office. "Report, Doctor."

Snapping to attention, Janet crossed to her desk and opened the folder lying on top. "Teal'c's symbiont has repaired the burns on his hands and head. I released him last night. By this morning, Major Carter's temperature had returned to normal. I agreed to let her rest in her quarters here on the base."

"What is her duty status?"

"Nothing for two days. Restricted for the following week. Her hands weren't as severely burned as Teal'c's. She's under orders to drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest."

"What about Colonel O'Neill and Doctor Jackson?"

Fraiser turned the page of the report. She really didn't need to see the words, she'd written them herself. However, the familiar action gave her the time she needed to separate the facts from her emotions. "Colonel O'Neill's sunburn has been treated. We are continuing to infuse normal saline to combat the heatstroke. He has a low grade fever I can't explain."

"Is that unusual after what they've been through?"

Janet hesitated. How did she explain something to a layman, she couldn't define for herself? "It's more unexpected than unusual. The treatment we've been administering should have taken care of any infection."

"What about Dr. Jackson?"

"Daniel's heatstroke was acute. When he arrived, he suffered from heat cramps and was on the verge of slipping into a coma. He had temperature of 106 and his respirations were dyspneic. We've managed to lower his temperature to where it's almost back to normal. With plenty of rest and fluids, he should make a full recovery."

"Well done, Doctor," Hammond nodded approvingly. "When can I speak to Colonel O'Neill?"

Though she hated to thwart her superior, Janet wouldn't hesitate to do so when it came to the welfare of her patient. "He's sleeping, sir. I'd like to keep him that way until his temperature comes down."

"Understood. Notify me when he's well enough to make a report."

"Yes, sir." Fraiser's eyes strayed from her superior's retreating back to the young man feigning sleep. She wanted to ignore Daniel. Pretend as he was pretending. Her compassionate nature wouldn't allow her to walk away. Crossing to the bed, she put a hand on his arm and gently squeezed. "Do you need anything, Daniel?"

"No." The word was spoken quietly, emotionlessly.

Tears pooled in Janet's eyes when the arm was weakly pulled out of her grasp. Swiping at the wetness staining her cheeks, she checked the IV and monitors before unhappily returning to her office.

***

Curled on his side, Daniel yawned and burrowed deeper into his pillow. The stinging flesh on the back of his hands was the only obvious remnant of PA2-797. The tubes and needles had been disconnected earlier in the day. Last night had been the first real sleep he'd had in weeks, but he was still tired. He was also surprised. After his years in Egypt and on Abydos, he was dismayed by the toll the heat had exacted on his body and mind.

Desperate to leave the infirmary and Janet Fraiser's presence, he did his best to hide his weakness. Once, the physician had been his friend. Now, he couldn't stop seeing her as an enemy. She had been the hardest to convince that his mental breakdown had been due to an outside influence. He had never realized she thought so little of him. The knowledge hurt. Her friendship had been like so many others in his past -- fickle.

"Doctor Fraiser?"

Daniel could hear a note of alarm in the nurse's voice. Dreading the worst, he opened his eyes.

"What is it?" Fraiser calmly inquired, leaving her office and crossing to the nurse's side.

"Colonel O'Neill's temperature has gone up another degree. It's at 103."

"This doesn't make any sense," Fraiser growled, in frustration. "There's no reason for him to have any fever at all much less for it to keep rising."

Once, before he'd seen decaying corpses in his closet, Daniel wouldn't have hesitated to explain the bone and its sinister connotations. He might even have thought he would be believed. That was before he'd been locked in a padded room. Before he'd found a jar of nuts in his backpack.

"All right." Fraiser rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. "I want a blood workup, complete urinalysis, chem profile and a chest x-ray."

As the nurse hurried away to get the equipment she would need, Daniel called, "Dr. Fraiser." The young woman winced. A part of Daniel regretted hurting her. He just wasn't ready to call her Janet again.

"Do you need something, Daniel?"

"I'd like to be released."

"I don't . . ."

"I'm fine." Honesty made him add, "I'm just a little tired."

"And you would sleep better in one of the dormitory rooms," Fraiser finished for him.

A loud clatter echoed around the room as a package of instruments slid off a tray onto the cement floor. His lips curving at the timing, Daniel nodded. "Yes."

"You're probably right," Fraiser sheepishly agreed. "I'll get your clothes."

Throwing back the covers, Daniel swung his legs over the side. Warm feet encountered the cold floor, making him shiver. The temptation to crawl back into bed was strong. One look at O'Neill's flushed face killed the desire. Daniel knew he was Jack's only hope. He couldn't give into his weakness physical or mental.

"Here you are." Fraiser returned holding the clothes to her chest. "I want to make two things clear. First, you are restricted to base. Second, you report back here first thing in the morning for a checkup."

"Okay." Daniel avoided her eyes. He hoped she would associate his unusual evasiveness with their present relationship.

"All right." Fraiser laid the clothes on the bed and pulled the curtain to give him privacy.

Daniel barely suppressed a sigh of relief. He'd successfully cleared one hurdle. Only two more to go.

****

Janet watched Daniel limp out of the infirmary. She was tempted to call him back. Tell him she had changed her mind. A derisive smile touched her lips. Such an action would surely destroy any hope she had of ever rebuilding a friendship with the sensitive man. Daniel was certain to view it as another betrayal.

Biting her tongue, she turned away, surprised by her decision. This was the first time she had ever put her relationship with a patient before his physical well-being. Even knowing how flawed her judgment was, she didn't change her mind. She was surprised at how important it was to her to regain Daniel Jackson's trust. What was there about him that made everyone, Hammond included, want to make him happy. Was it because he'd had so little in his life thus far?

A muffled groan drew Janet's attention to her remaining patient. His fever weakened body appeared to be struggling against some unseen enemy.

****

A decayed arm emerged from the event horizon and grabbed Daniel by the throat. Jack wrapped his arms around Daniel's waist, knowing he would lose his friend forever if he let go. Daniel's hands weakly tugged at the flaking hand circling his neck.

Jack's gaze swept the empty 'gate room desperately seeking assistance. Where were Teal'c and Carter? Where were the guards?

One of his arms slipped, partially losing its grip. Jack frantically adjusted his hold, amazed at the dead alien's strength. Despite his best effort, Jack could feel Daniel slowly slide through his arms. "No-o-o-o-o-o!"

****

The unexpected cry unnerved Janet. There was so much fear in the exclamation she started to shake. O'Neill's eyes moved frantically behind closed eyelids, trapped in an inescapable nightmare.

Crossing to the drug cabinet, Janet extracted a vial. Drawing two cc's into a syringe, she returned to her patient's side and injected the sedative into his IV. When the body under her soothing hand relaxed, her own followed suit.

Even though O'Neill hadn't spoken his name, Janet knew the nightmare involved Daniel. She knew the signs. She'd had a few herself in the last week.

***

Lightly slapping his cheeks to give them some color, Daniel knocked on the door to Teal'c's room.

"Enter," a muffled voice invited.

His conscience fighting with his heart, Daniel entered to find his friend sitting on the floor, surrounded by candles. Meditating was the Jaffa's definition of relaxing. Daniel was relieved. The dim light would hide his pallor.

"Daniel Jackson, I am happy to see you are well enough to be released from the infirmary."

Guilt gnawing at him, Daniel knelt on the other side of the circle. "How do you feel, Teal'c?"

"I am fully recovered."

Daniel's eyes rested on his friend's sunburned hands. He wanted to apologize. His quest to find the village and evidence of the Ancients had needlessly endangered his friends' lives. But Daniel knew Teal'c would never castigate him for his curiosity. Taking a deep breath to bolster his courage, Daniel admitted, "Teal'c, I need your help."

"How may I be of assistance, Daniel Jackson?"

Relief at the big man's easy acquiescence turned to panic. The time had finally come. Daniel would have to speak the words out loud and hope they wouldn't put him back in a padded room. "Jack's very sick. His fever keeps rising. Fraiser doesn't know why."

"But you do?"

The question was spoken in a normal tone, giving Daniel no indication of the Jaffa's thoughts. His heart beating so fast his breaths escaped his lips in short hard gasps, Daniel nodded. "Jack was cursed by that Lawman. If we don't take him back to PA2-797, he's going to die." Poised to bolt, Daniel waited anxiously for Teal'c's reaction to his revelation. He felt as though he would suffocate in the silence.

"Have you presented your theory to General Hammond?"

"What do I tell him?" Daniel snorted, eyes fixed on a flickering flame. "That an aboriginal pointed a bone at Jack and now Jack's going to die? Hammond would have MacKenzie filling out commitment papers before I finished talking."

"I do not believe that would be General Hammond's response."

"I can't take the chance." Rising, Daniel paced, a fist pounding a thigh in agitation. "If I could carry Jack by myself I wouldn't be bothering you."

Calm, despite his visitor's agitation, Teal'c clarified, "You intend to kidnap O'Neill and take him back to PA2-797."

"Yes."

"It will be a difficult journey. Will this not endanger his health further?"

"Probably. Worse case scenario, if we don't try, he'll die."

"Will you request Major Carter's assistance?"

"No. She could be court-martialed. The worst they can do to us is throw us out of the program. I'm willing to take the risk if it'll save Jack's life."

Teal'c blew out the candles in a ritualistic fashion.

Daniel watched in apprehension uncertain what the action signified.

"I believe the risk is acceptable as well."

***

Daniel checked his watch. Though it felt like ten, the second hand had ticked off a mere minute since the last time he looked. He wondered how Teal'c was doing. Even at this time of the morning the infirmary was adequately staffed, especially when there was a patient with deteriorating symptoms. Considering the circumstances, Daniel began to think maybe he was crazy. If Teal'c was successful in kidnapping O'Neill, Daniel still had to convince the sergeant on duty in the control room to activate the Stargate.

Heavy footsteps echoed down the corridor. Recognizing the familiar sound, Daniel took a deep breath and climbed the stairs to the control room. His confidence rose when he saw Pullman was on duty. The older man was new to the SGC. With luck, he would be easy to convince. "Sergeant," Daniel ordered, approaching the noncom with a confidence he didn't feel, "dial up PA2-797."

"Sir?" Pullman checked a sheet attached to a clipboard next to his console. "I'm not scheduled to activate the Stargate until 0600."

"This is an unscheduled mission, Sergeant." Hoping the man couldn't hear the quiver in his voice, Daniel crossed to the stairs.

"Doctor Jackson, I need General Hammond's permission."

"If you want to call him at this time of night to get an authorization you know he'll grant, be my guest." Daniel knew SG-1's reputation was well known. In fact he was counting on it.

The sergeant glanced at the clock. "I guess it'll be all right, sir."

"Thank you," Daniel guiltily acknowledged, realizing the sergeant would probably be a private in a few hours.

As he descended the stairs, Daniel's nervous energy dissipated, leaving him weak and dizzy. His vision clouded, he gathered the two backpacks he'd left at the bottom of the stairs and joined Teal'c outside the Embarkation Room. Though the thick door muffled the sound, they could hear the clank as each chevron locked into place. When the number reached seven, Daniel swiped his card through the lock, opening the steel door. The wormhole settled into the event horizon with Teal'c on its heels the weight in his arms barely affecting his speed. Feeling like the tortoise chasing the hare, Daniel followed, praying the sergeant wouldn't have time to deactivate the 'gate before he reached it.

"Stop!"

A guard's angry cry chased Daniel into the wormhole.

***

Tossing restlessly in the bed she'd commandeered, Janet felt her guilt multiplying with each decision she made. Concerned for Colonel O'Neill, she'd chosen to stay on base, not only missing a teacher/parent conference, but the opportunity to kiss her daughter goodnight. When she'd talked to Cassie on the phone, the little girl was very understanding. Her only thought was for her friend, Colonel O'Neill.

In her own mind, Janet knew her presence at the SGC wasn't necessary. Warner was a very capable physician. This knowledge only increased her guilt. She'd failed Daniel as a doctor. Now, she was failing Cassie as a mother.

Realizing sleep would never come in her present state of mind, she threw back the covers and rose. Climbing into her clothes, she ran her fingers through her hair. Avoiding the mirror near the door, she walked out into the empty corridor. Though so far below ground the sun's rays would never penetrate, the base operated in the same time zone as the rest of Colorado, which could often be disorienting to an SG team returning from a planet with a totally different day/night ratio. Sometimes, she wondered if Daniel Jackson's initial insomnia wasn't partially due to the thirty-six hour cycle he'd become accustomed to on Abydos.

Janet wasn't surprised when her feet led her to the infirmary. Hoping Warner wouldn't feel she was checking up on him, she entered. Her eyes immediately rested on the bed O'Neill had occupied only a few hours before. It was empty. Fear choking her, she ran to the surgery. The dark room filled her with relief and puzzlement. If Warner hadn't been forced to perform an emergency operation, where was their patient? Methodically searching every room, she finally found her colleague in a lab.

Her rebellious emotions fighting for calm, Janet demanded, "Where's Colonel O'Neill?"

"In his bed in the infirmary." Warner pushed his chair away from the microscope, giving him a clear view of the seething woman.

"No. He's not."

"I checked on him myself not more than," Warner glanced at the clock on the wall, "fifteen minutes ago. I took some blood samples and decided to analyze them now."

"I'm telling you he's not in his bed."

"A man with a hundred and four temperature doesn't get out of bed and walk away."

Calming, Janet agreed, "No, he doesn't. Was anyone with him when you left?"

"Teal'c. Doctor Jackson left when I arrived."

Janet didn't know how, but she knew Daniel and Teal'c had taken O'Neill back to the planet, a place they'd barely escaped from with their lives. Now, all she needed to know was why. Without a word to her bewildered colleague, she left, almost running to the room Carter had been assigned. Throwing the door open, Janet let it slam against the wall.

One hand reaching for a non-existent weapon, Carter sat up, instantly awake. "Janet, what the hell . . .?"

"Sam, Colonel O'Neill's gone."

Her sleep fogged brain assimilating the information, Carter demanded, "Gone where?"

"My guess is PA2-797," Janet offered, sitting on the bunk beside her friend.

"On his own?"

"He couldn't walk on his own. My guess is Daniel and Teal'c took him."

"Why?"

"I was hoping you could tell me."

"I don't know," Carter stuttered in bewilderment.

Forcing herself to speak calmly, Janet pressed, "In your report you said the natives were unhappy when Colonel O'Neill ruined their purification ceremony. Did anything unusual happen due to his actions?"

"This old guy pointed a bone at him."

"A bone?"

Enlightenment made the pale face flush a bright red. "Daniel was very upset. He said something about the Australian Aboriginal believing a man could die if a kangaroo bone was pointed at him by a Lawman. And that only another Lawman could undo the curse."

"Was the curse supposed to do anything else?"

"Make a person very sick."

"Why didn't someone tell me this before?"

"I thought Daniel would," Sam sheepishly admitted.

Eyes glowing with a rage that would match a Goa'uld, Fraiser snapped, "Why wasn't this information in his report?"

Carter avoided the other woman's angry gaze.

The gesture was the only answer Janet needed. Daniel had deliberately left it out because he thought it would label him as crazy. Not sure who she was madder at, herself or the tortured archeologist, Janet rose and hurried from the room. Heels clicking loudly on the cement floor, she ran to the control room. She wasn't surprised to find General Hammond already in attendance.

Half-moon pouches framing brilliant blue eyes, Hammond snapped, "You seem to have lost a patient, Doctor."

"Yes, sir." Afraid he would prevent her from leading the rescue team, she didn't point out that she wasn't on duty, so technically O'Neill wasn't her patient. "We need to go after them, General. Even Teal'c isn't in condition to withstand the hardships of such a harsh environment."

Hammond gazed out at the dead Stargate, worry etched on the weary face. "Assemble whatever men and equipment you'll need, Doctor. You may leave when ready."

"I'm going, too," Carter breathlessly announced, panting as she entered the control room. Her black T-shirt was inside out, a testament to her haste.

Janet shook her head. "No, you're not." A hand rose to stop the protest before it found a voice. "You'd be a liability. They have a head start on us. We're going to have to move fast. Something you aren't capable of right now."

"Stand down, Major," Hammond ordered.

Numbly nodding reluctant agreement, Carter whispered, "Yes, sir."

***

The stretcher grew heavier with every step. Daniel's shoulders felt as though they were on fire. Arm muscles screamed in protest. Fingers wrapped around the round handles spasmed, threatening to drop their precious cargo. His eyes had been blinded by a sun that grew increasingly closer and hotter. Daniel trustingly followed Teal'c, confident his friend would find the village.

"Daniel Jackson, we need to rest." Without waiting for an acknowledgment, Teal'c stopped, resting the head end of the stretcher on the ground.

"We don't have time, Teal'c," Daniel protested, obstinately clinging to his burden. "Jack doesn't have time."

"Our bodies need fluid. If we do not take care of ourselves, we can not save O'Neill."

Even as he accepted this truth, Daniel didn't budge. It had as much to do with physical inability as with stubbornness. Bending would take more effort than he could exert. He was certain his palms were permanently affixed to the wood handles.

Teal'c's hands closed over Daniel's. He slowly lowered the stretcher before peeling the cramped fingers off, one by one. Thrusting a canteen into Daniel's arms, the Jaffa ordered, "Drink."

Trembling legs folding beneath him, Daniel complied. The warm liquid trickled down his parched throat, reviving him. Blinking to clear his vision, his eyes rested on O'Neill. The older man was protected from the sun beneath a sheet and the huge shadow Teal'c cast. But was it enough? Daniel fearfully watched as the strong chest slowly rose and fell, the only indication Jack was still alive.

****

Bones! They were coming at him from all directions. Jack knew they were a weapon, though he wasn't certain where this knowledge came from. He backed away, suspicious of this strange phenomenon. He groped for the MP-5 that should have been hanging off his shoulder. But it wasn't there. The threat moved closer. Checking for a sidearm, he slapped his waist. Again, no luck. Where was he? Obviously, he'd felt it was safe or he wouldn't be unarmed. So how did he know if he let a bone touch him he would die? It made no sense.

He tried to wipe away the sweat streaming down his face with arms too heavy to lift. Maybe if it wasn't so hot, he could think straight?

"Jack?"

O'Neill smiled, his sluggish brain identifying the familiar voice. Daniel. Dry lips tried to form a reply. No words could escape his constricted throat. Panic seized him. He had to warn his friends before they joined him in this trap. He would not give the bones more victims to claim.

****

Daniel wrapped stiff fingers around the stretcher's handles and lifted. Muscles throbbed, but he ignored them. The stretcher swayed, forcing him to tighten his grip. Jack weakly shifted, clearly agitated. Worried he would drop his friend, Daniel soothed, "Jack."

Instead of calming the sick man, Daniel's admonition had the opposite effect, forcing the two men to set the stretcher back on the ground. Daniel put a hand on a sheet-covered shoulder, hoping the contact would quiet his friend. The fevered body bucked, almost throwing him off balance, before laying still. Depleted by his actions, Jack succumbed to the illness ravishing his body. Daniel dropped his hand, leaving a bloody outline on the white sheet.

***

Janet wiped her face with a damp handkerchief. She thought she had come equipped to withstand the heat that greeted them when they arrived on PA2-797. She had been wrong. Nothing, not even a session in a sauna could have prepared her for these temperatures. Yearning for a tall glass of iced tea, she took a long swallow from her canteen. Though there was sixty gallons of water stored on the FRED, she was beginning to wonder if it would be enough for herself, the six men accompanying her and the three men they sought.

"Any sign of them, Colonel?" Janet asked.

Makepeace lifted the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the horizon. "Negative, Doctor."

Sighing, Janet replaced the lid on her canteen and hooked it to her belt. They weren't positive they were walking in the right direction. Carter had told them which way to turn after exiting the Stargate. However, there were no landmarks to verify their route once they left the Devil's Marbles behind them. Their one advantage was the barren landscape. It made it possible to see for miles.

"I think I've got them." Makepeace handed his glasses to Fraiser.

Focusing in the direction the colonel's pointing finger indicated, Janet saw what looked like a brown bump in an undulating sea of beige. It mystified her that Makepeace was so certain this irregularity was the missing men. Feeling rejuvenated by the confidence the discovery created in her team, she chose to keep her doubts to herself. "Let's go."

With their goal in sight it was tempting to increase their speed, a move which could doom their mission. Janet knew they couldn't help O'Neill, Teal'c and Daniel if they needed help themselves.

Slowly, so slowly she wanted to scream, the unidentifiable lumps became recognizable as human. Minutes later, Fraiser was close enough to see the sweat on Teal'c's face and the lack of it on Daniel's.

Teal'c stopped, obviously noticing their arrival. "I believe Daniel Jackson is in need of your assistance, Dr. Fraiser."

Without waiting for orders, the two corpsmen crossed to Daniel. One gently relieved him of his burden while the other led the dazed archeologist to a patch of shade on one side of the FRED.

Digging out her medical kit, Janet quickly handed her subordinate a saline package. Leaving the corpsman to start the IV, she turned to check O'Neill, grateful Teal'c and Santos had laid the stretcher within easy reach. She was relieved to discover her patient was in relatively good condition, though his temperature had risen another degree. Attaching an IV, she asked, "How are you doing, Teal'c?"

"I am well, Doctor."

Skeptical, Janet carefully studied the Jaffa. Though he had never lied to her before, there was always a first time. However, he appeared to be in remarkable condition, considering the circumstances. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she almost envied him. The symbiont he carried was easing his distress. "Let's load these men on the sled and head back to the Stargate."

A hand weakly clutched her arm as a raspy voice protested, "No."

"Daniel," Janet gently touched the blisters on the swollen fingers, "you need medical attention. You're suffering from heatstroke again."

Daniel's head weakly rolled from side to side. "We . . . have to . . . go to the . . . village."

"My supplies are limited. You or Colonel O'Neill could die if we keep going."

"Jack . . . will die . . . if we don't."

Studying the weary but determined face, Janet hesitated before her resolve strengthened. "Daniel, Sam told me about this bone curse . . ."

"I'm not . . . nuts."

Horrified at the misconception her words provoked, Janet stared into unfocused blue eyes pleading to be believed. "I never thought you were."

"Did . . . once. Not . . . this time."

Janet knew this wasn't the place to voice a defense. Two lives depended on the decision she was about to make. Daniel could be right. It wouldn't be the first time. There was no explanation for O'Neill's mysterious fever. If they returned and the colonel died, she would never forgive herself. Daniel would never forgive her. "Teal'c how much further is that village?"

"Doc?" Makepeace insolently objected, "Our orders were to find SG-1 and return directly to base.

"Do not . . . pass go . . . do not . . . collect two . . . hundred . . . dollars." Despite the levity of his words, anger was clearly audible in Daniel's voice.

A quivering smile graced Janet's face for a brief moment. O'Neill's influence on the younger man was becoming more and more pronounced. Her smile faded as the scientific side of her brain fought with the logical side. There was one irrefutable fact: Daniel would never do anything that would endanger his friend's life.

"I believe the village is close," Teal'c replied, pointedly ignoring Makepeace. "Without landmarks it is difficult to be certain."

Praying she wouldn't regret her order, Janet announced, "We'll go a little further." When Makepeace opened his mouth to argue, Janet held up a hand to forestall his comment. "Your protest is on record, Colonel. The welfare of my patient must come first."

The corpsmen quickly and efficiently settled O'Neill and Daniel inside the FRED, among the gallons of water and medical supplies. Fraiser was proud of her team. Neither of them complained or pointed out how her judgment was endangering their own lives.

Staying close to the sled, Janet kept a professional eye on her patients. Colonel O'Neill appeared to be stable. Teal'c and Daniel had taken good care of their friend, infusing him with fluids and keeping him covered against the destructive rays of the sun. Daniel, on the other hand, had slipped badly. His hands were bloody, blistered masses. His face was red and dry, and though his pulse was strong, it was bounding. He was also running a temperature that was beginning to rival O'Neill's. Of all of them, he was suffering the most from her decision. Several times, she was tempted to order a halt. Each time, Daniel's face would float in front of her eyes. Not the face of her friend, but the face of the stranger he had become. If she betrayed him now, she would destroy what little confidence the tortured man had managed to rebuild in the last few years. And she would lose a friend who had become very dear to her. If she turned back and O'Neill died, Daniel would never forgive her.

As a doctor, she was often forced to choose who would live and who would die. It was an evaluation that didn't get easier with repetition. But she had never been forced to select one friend over another. Neither man would thank her for choosing him over the other. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn't.

Unprepared when a chill breeze washed across her damp clothing, Janet shivered. Glancing around, she realized they were entering a tunnel. Reaching into a corner of the sled, she quickly pulled out a survival blanket. With Cooper's help, she spread it across her patients.

"The village is at the end of this tunnel, Doctor," Teal'c encouraged.

Sustained by the knowledge, Janet took a deep breath. It was the first since she'd arrived on this planet that hadn't made her lungs burn. Though anxious to reach their destination, she was sorry when their brief respite ended.

Tired legs protested when they felt the gentle incline indicating the end of the tunnel. Despite the chills racking her body, Janet was reluctant to re-enter the furnace waiting for them on the surface. "Cooper, Santos, why don't you wait here for us?"

The two corpsmen nodded enthusiastic agreement. Janet was glad when Makepeace ordered two of his men to stay behind as well. Relaxing in the cooler climate would rejuvenate the men, hopefully ensuring they would all survive. Seeing the exhaustion on Teal'c's face, Janet wished she could order him to stay behind as well. But with Daniel drifting in and out of consciousness, they needed Teal'c's affinity with the natives. The FRED might cause complications.

"You have returned."

Janet jumped at the unexpected greeting. Turning, her eyes rested on a brown-skinned, black-haired native. Though his physique was imposing, there was a gentleness in his gaze that immediately put her at ease.

"I was afraid you would wait too long," Jandamar softly scolded, crossing to the sled.

Janet was surprised when he showed no fear of the mechanical conveyance. Remembering what Carter had told her, Janet asked, "Are you a Lawman?"

"I am."

"Can you help our friend?"

Pushing the blanket aside, Jandamar ran a hand along the length of O'Neill's form. The scaly palm hovered over the dry, cracked lips before pulling away. "The bone is gone."

"Thank you." Teal'c bowed his head, his way of showing appreciation and respect.

Despite the Jaffa's easy acceptance, Janet was skeptical. Grabbing a thermometer, she placed it in O'Neill's mouth. Waiting the requisite time, she removed it. To her shock, it already showed a drop of two degrees. "It worked," she gasped in awe.

Though she knew the walk back to the Stargate would be physically difficult, her heart was lighter. It looked like O'Neill would recover. Sliding her hand until it rested against Daniel's hot neck, she checked his pulse. She wished he'd regain consciousness so she could tell him he'd been right.

***

Jack drummed his fingers on the tray table and waited patiently – by his standards -- for Daniel to wake up. Janet had assured him it should be any time now. Daniel's temperature was back to normal. The only visible sign of the younger man's ordeal was the blistered hands and sunburn. The emotional scars were undetectable.

Most of the last week was a blur Teal'c had been kind enough to put into focus. In that one-sided conversation, Jack had learned two things, he owed Daniel his life and an apology.

"Will you stop that noise?" a worn voice gruffly protested. "It's giving me a headache."

"Daniel?" Jack guiltily dropped his hand.

"How's a person supposed to get any sleep with you making like Buddy Rich?"

"Think I should change professions?"

"No." A sad wariness washed across Daniel's face. "Am I under arrest? Or is Hammond going to send me back to MacKenzie?"

"Neither." Jack forced his voice to remain calm. Even though Daniel's tired face was void of emotion, the high pitched beep of the monitors told Jack the younger man was upset. "They aren't going to punish you. You saved my life. If I had listened to you in the first place, you wouldn't have been forced to take such drastic measures."

Frowning, Daniel stared at his bandaged hands. "It's hard to trust someone with a history of mental illness."

"You don't have that in your history," Jack vehemently denied.

Cracked lips opened only to close leaving words unsaid.

Disappointed when Daniel didn't continue, Jack revealed, "It wasn't a question of trust. I wouldn't have believed the Pope if he'd said a bone could kill me. You're not nuts. Stubborn. Single-minded. Irritating. But not nuts."

Wondering if the face that turned away from him was red with embarrassment or sunburn, Jack sighed and settled into the soft mattress beneath him. He knew Daniel too well to believe he was totally convinced. But it was a start.

***

Janet watched from her office as Colonel Jack O'Neill wished his friend good-night and walked out of the infirmary. The spring was still missing from his step, but she knew it was only a matter of time before he regained it. He'd only been released that morning. Despite his obvious relief at the reprieve he'd been granted, Jack had spent most of the day at Daniel's bedside. With his hands swathed in bandages, there was little the younger man could do for himself.

Dimming the lights to make it easier for her patient to sleep, Janet crossed to the bed. "Is there anything else you need, Daniel?"

"No."

Though she'd been steeling her heart to accept this new relationship, Janet was still finding it difficult. She would just have to accept it and resign herself to the loss. "Goodnight, Daniel."

"Dr. Fraiser."

Janet winced. The formal appellation from those lips was like a lash from a whip.

"Janet."

Blinking back the tears threatening to choke her, Janet put a hand on Daniel's arm. Her heart soared when he didn't pull away.

"Thank you for finding the village. For saving Jack. I know it must've been hard to believe me."

"Not so hard. Not after some of the things we've seen around here."

"You must've thought I was nuts," Daniel persisted, refusing to meet her eyes.

"Never!" Janet squeezed the thin arm under her hand. "Is that why you kidnapped the Colonel and didn't tell me about the curse?"

Lifting his head, Daniel caught her eyes with his own. "Would you have believed me if I'd told you?"

"Yes."

"Jack said the Pope could've told him and he wouldn't have believed it."

"I'm not Colonel O'Neill. If there's one thing I've learned since coming here, it's that not everything can be explained scientifically."

"Do you think you could teach Jack?"

A wavering smile on her lips, Janet shook her head. "Now you're asking for the impossible."

"Can I ask you something?"

Puzzled and a little frightened by the hesitant request, Janet reluctantly nodded. "Go ahead."

"Why was it so easy for you to believe I was schizophrenic?"

Feeling as though she was walking on eggshells, Janet said, "All the tests pointed to that diagnosis."

"But you just said not everything can be explained scientifically," Daniel earnestly reminded her, picking a loose thread with a bandaged finger and thumb.

"We've been expecting to see some kind of physical or mental anomalies due to 'gate travel." Unable to confront the disappointment she expected to see on the tired face, she focused her gaze on the floor.

"Would you have been so quick to make the same diagnosis if Ma'chello's Goa'uld killing device had gone into Jack or Sam or Teal'c?"

This was a question Janet hadn't dared to ask herself. Lips formed to answer yes. She was willing to lie to herself to regain this man's friendship, but she couldn't lie to him. He would know and never forgive her. "I don't know. I'm sorry."

"At least you didn't say no," Daniel muttered with a self-depreciating snort.

"Daniel . . ."

"It's all right. Really."

It wasn't all right, Janet mentally contradicted. It was never all right to hurt a friend. Unfortunately, she saw no way to avoid it. She wouldn't insult Daniel's intelligence with a lie. It would only hurt him more.

Despite his best effort to prevent it, a huge yawn cracked Daniel's jaw.

Janet pressed the button to lower the head of her patient's bed. A sob trapped in her throat, she suggested, "Why don't you get some sleep. You'll want to be rested for tomorrow. General Hammond is coming to see you."

Daniel flinched. "I don't suppose we have any kangaroo bones around here?"

"Not a one."

Concern furrowing his brow, Daniel tried to sit up. "Teal'c didn't get into trouble, did he?"

"I don't think so." Janet gently pressed him back down. "The general might be gruff, but he's fair."

"That means I'm either going to end up in San Quentin or get a medal."

"Probably something in between."