He was being hurled towards the end of the corridor, a tunnel of black light with blinding whiteness at the end of it, unbearable pain hurtling towards him at the speed of an oncoming train; in a moment it would impact knocking breath and life from his body –
As Teal'c's voice jolted him back into consciousness and he realized the Jaffa's strong arms were the only thing holding him up, he saw the snake sign glowing gold, but the ringing in his ears muffled the sound of Darius saying its name. "Serpent!" he gasped. "It was the symbol for the serpent." He'd almost heard it, there was the faintest echo of the sound the name had made but only a sense of it. He could only hope he'd recognize it when he heard it.
He was shaking so hard with reaction he couldn't have held the flashlight if he'd needed to and he saw Nelson and Teal'c exchange a glance.
"There has to be an easier way." Nelson looked at him anxiously.
"Are you okay, Daniel?" Sam's voice crackling down the radio momentarily lost its brisk efficiency in her unmistakable concern for him. "Do you still feel sick? Do you have double-vision?" He could hear what she wasn't saying as clearly as what she was: Damnit why can't I be there with you to help out, instead of stuck here having to do the things that only I can do?
It was her worry that jolted him back into the here and now. Sam had to move the rune-stones around and read the directions and he had to translate the symbols into words that would move walls. It was what they did.
"I'm fine, Sam." He gave Teal'c a look of gratitude as the Jaffa gently set him back on his feet. But then the smile faded as he focused on the serpent symbol on the wall in front of him in dismay. It was not drawn in a way that immediately associated it with any particular snake deity and there was nothing to put it in context. He also noticed that the second ram had vanished and a jackal was there instead. Another change in the alliance, perhaps, Amun leaving and Anubis taking his place?
"Apophis," Nelson said confidently. "Oldest baddest snake god there is and sworn enemy of Ra. Bound to be him."
He was almost sure that hadn't been the word he'd heard, but it made sense that Apophis would have been associated with Nekheny and Daniel looked at the Jaffa hopefully. "Teal'c?"
Teal'c examined the symbol gravely for a moment and then shook his head. "I have never seen this symbol used to denote Apophis. Nor have I heard of him being allied with any of the…gods you have mentioned."
Daniel groaned. "I knew it couldn't be that simple."
"Mertseger?" Nelson suggested.
"On the other side." The urge to vomit wasn't receding and it didn't mix well with screaming panic and rising terror. He was torn between hammering on the walls and yelling Jack's name and crawling into a dark place and gibbering.
"Wadjet was with Nekheny's accusers and she's associated with Werethekau. For all we know they could have been one and the same…god."
Daniel shook his head. "Daughter of Ra. I doubt she would side against him. Even Hather didn't oppose him openly. None from the Ogdoad are possible candidates either."
"Well, that does narrow it down a little." Nelson peered at the symbol curiously. "I know I've seen this somewhere, I just can't remember exactly where. Renenoutet…?"
"Too benevolent and too many associations with Horus and Osiris."
"Not wanting to rush you," Sam said quietly, "but we have company. NID are on their way. And the energy build-up isn't dispersing."
"How much time do you estimate that we have left, Major Carter?" Teal'c enquired.
"There should be enough time to get to the center, collect the Colonel and get out again. I just wouldn't advise spending too long looking at the scenery on the way…."
Oblivious of her comment, Nelson was still gazing at the serpent emblem with his head on one side. "Buto…? No, it would have wings and be green. It doesn't look like one of the cobra ones, anyway. We do know it's an Egyptian, do we? This looks so primitive I could be Babylonian, maybe even Hurrian. What about Hedammu...?"
Daniel held up a hand. "Let's assume it's Egyptian." No, they didn't know that for sure but there were hundreds of mythologies out there and every one of them had a snake god or goddess while Jack needed them to open the door right now. He looked at the symbol again, still trying to catch that elusive echo of a name, then shook his head as nothing sounded in his memory. "Just the oldest ones, John. Say them slowly, let me see if they seem familiar."
Nelson nodded. "Okay. Nehebkaou…?"
"No, on the other side."
Daniel shook his head. "Right number of syllables I think, but the mythology is all wrong. No allies of Ra or Osiris."
"Somtous is out as well then I presume? I'm running out of candidates. Amun's cosmogonic aspect, Kematef? Irto? Oh no, you said no Ogdoad deities. I've definitely seen this somewhere before. I'm thinking Hermopolis but not Predynastic. Graeco-Roman which would be too late to be relevant, so why am I thinking of it…?" He tapped his fingers on the flashlight making the beam flicker.
Daniel could feel the panic getting a hold again. There was barely a mythology in the world that didn't contain evil serpent demons or benevolent snake gods. They could be here forever. He shot the Jaffa look of desperation. "Teal'c?"
The Jaffa slowly shook his head, regret and concern in his brown eyes. "I am sorry, Daniel Jackson. If Bra'tac were here he may be able to assist us, but these events happened long before any history of the System Lords with which I am acquainted."
"Who are the System Lords?" Nelson enquired.
"Never mind." Daniel put his hand up to his right ear, remembering the pain of it, the sticky warmth of the blood on his cheek. "I have to go back in there, try to hear what he said."
Nelson abruptly grabbed his shoulder. "Wenut!"
And just for a second he thought he heard Darius saying the word, then he shook his head. "No, she was a hare-goddess."
"Only in the Graeco-Roman period. Before that she was a serpent goddess and she's definitely Predynastic."
"Okay." He remembered Darius telling him that sometimes you just had to go with instinct and guess. Before he had time to worry about whether or not it might be wrong and paralyzed himself into a state of permanent indecision, he slammed his hand down on the sign and said: "Wenut". This time the door slid back without a murmur, as if it wondered what could possibly have taken them so long. "We have to hurry."
He tugged at Teal'c's sleeve and the Jaffa obligingly pulled Daniel's arm around his shoulders and began to lope down the corridor supporting his weight, while Nelson trailed after them, distracted by the images on the walls. For the first time Daniel realized how annoying that could be when one was in the middle of a mission. He left following Sam's clear instructions to Teal'c, closing his eyes and trying to sink back into the black pit of his own fear.
He shuddered as he felt the blade under his jaw, forcing his head back, trying to speak calmly around his rising panic, his awareness of that deadly blade cutting into his skin: "Darius, you really don't want to do this…."
"Take off your shirt. Do it now. Do it silently."
His fingers were shaking so hard he couldn’t manage the buttons, barely able to feel them. After he'd fumbled incompetently for ten seconds Darius abruptly lowered the knife and he gasped with the relief of feeling that edge removed from his skin. He never saw the backhand coming, it just slammed him straight into the wall. He crumpled from the impact, an explosion of light and pain in the side of his head, then he was sliding down the unfeeling stone to end up slumped on the floor. He held up an arm to try to ward Darius off while he stumbled to find the words that would coax the man he knew back from this psychotic stranger he didn't recognize. He gazed up at Darius with blood pouring from his split lip to spatter onto his shirt, trying to sound calm when his teeth were chattering as if it was twenty below zero. " I'm sorry about your wife. I am so sorry about what happened to her but – "
"Shut up!" Darius unbuckled his belt one-handed, wrenching the leather loose.
Daniel could feel his mind and body both freezing, his attention divided between the gleam of the blade whose tip was darkened with his blood and the place where Golding's groin was leaving a damp stain against his straining trousers, but he tried to sound a lot calmer than he felt as he said quietly: "Darius, don't do this. You're better than this. You don't need to cross this line. You don't need to be this person…."
He ducked just in time as the leather cracked down, taking the force of it across his arm instead of his face. He wrapped his arms around his face and head while Darius swore at him savagely, raining imprecations in Ancient Sumerian upon him with the same ferocity with which he dealt out blows, doubling the belt to give it more weight as he beat him with it.
"Darius! Stop!" he shouted it at him while trying to protect his face, gasping with the shock of it each time the leather cracked against his body. He knew the man didn't want to hear him, was trying to deafen himself to that tiny voice of sanity which still had to be left somewhere in his drug-addled mind telling him this was wrong, that he didn't want to do this, that he could stop himself if he wanted to.
Abruptly, the rain of blows stopped, leaving Daniel sobbing for breath as his body stung from the welts coming out in angry shock across his skin. A hand was wrapped in his hair and, as he cried out in pain, dragged him to his feet. Darius shoved him up against the wall and pressed against him, stroking Daniel's hair back from his bleeding ear before whispering into it hoarsely, "Take off your shirt. Do it now." It sounded as if he was underwater but he could make out the words even through the ringing in his head.
Nodding as he shuddered, Daniel reached up, grabbed two handfuls of his shirt and ripped, tearing the buttons loose. Then he pulled his stinging arms free of the torn cotton and dropped it on the stone floor.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" Darius kicked his shirt away contemptuously, grabbed Daniel's wrist and slammed his hand down on the painted symbol for the –
"Jackal!" Daniel jolted back into the here and now to find himself huddled on the floor with one hand up to ward off imaginary blows.
Teal'c was crouched in front of him, distress on his face, holding out a hand to him as if he was a frightened animal. "Daniel Jackson…?"
"Daniel…?" Sam sounded beside herself while Nelson just looked shocked as hell.
Daniel looked between their faces and realized he must have been acting quite a lot of his flashback out for them. Wincing at the thought of the spectacle he must have made, he said hoarsely: "He was nuts. He didn't know what he was doing."
"What the hell did he do?" Nelson demanded.
Teal'c touched Daniel's arm so gently it was as if he knew exactly where each welt from the belt had landed. "Are you fit to continue?"
"Yes." Daniel reached out and grabbed Teal'c's arm, hauling himself up. "I'm fine. It doesn't matter what he did to me back then. All that matters is what he's doing to Jack now. Sam…?"
"He's fine, Daniel. Just keep going."
But he could hear the tension in her voice and he knew better than anyone just how dangerous Darius could be in the grip of a bad flashback. He tightened his grip on Teal'c's arm, looking around for the symbols on the wall. "It's Anubis. Let's go on."
As he reached out to touch it, Nelson caught his wrist. "Did you hear him say 'Anubis'?"
"No. My ears were…but it is, isn't it?" Daniel nodded at the jackal symbol. "And that's how they say it, not 'Inpu' or 'Anpu' or 'Yinepu' so it's 'Anubis' and we need to get a move on." He didn't understand why Nelson was quibbling over this one when it was the first easy one they'd had since Seth.
Nelson waved the torch across the symbols again. "I don't think it is a jackal. I think it's a wolf. It's more dark gray than black. And look at the outline – standing not lying. Think of the Narmer Palette."
"What?" Daniel felt his heart turn over in his chest as he realized how close he'd come to making a mistake. As he peered at the picture he felt sickness wash through him, the thumping in his head getting worse. "Oh my God, you're right. It isn't Anubis. It's Wepwawet."
Nelson patted him gently on the shoulder. "Definitely Wepwawet, but he's very like Anubis and this isn't the most precise bit of tomb painting I've ever seen. It's an easy mistake to make, Daniel."
Teal'c examined the sign. "I am not familiar with this…god."
"Wepwawet or Upuaut, the 'Opener of the Ways', the wolf-god of war and the dead. A very old god." Daniel was still feeling faint at how close he'd come to making such an error. It reminded him that he wasn't really fit for this. Stressed and concussed was not the best state to be in when trying to make split-second decisions.
"His standard is one of the ones being carried on the Narmer Palette," Nelson put in fondly. "I've always had rather a soft spot for him and Khenty-amentiu, that other neglected canine deity of Abydos. Anubis and Osiris are the ones everyone knows but they're really latecomers compared with Wepwawet and Khenty-amentiu…."
"John!" Daniel stabbed a finger at the symbol. "Just press it and say the damned name will you?"
Nelson blinked at him in surprise and then pressed the symbol cautiously saying "Wepwawet" in a slightly apologetic manner.
The wall slid into a door, Teal'c dropped a rune-stone to wedge it, and they passed through, closer to the dark heart of the Labyrinth where the Minotaur was waiting.
Daniel closed his eyes and let the Jaffa hold him up and pull him forward, let Sam's voice soothe him with her steady stream of instructions, before he took a deep breath and dived back into the past….
"Darius, nothing you do to me is going to bring Anna back. Why don't we go back to where the others are…?"
Darius tightened his grip in Daniel's hair, yanking his head back and putting the very tip of the knife to his throat. "You asked to come, Daniel."
And it was true. He had. Or agreed to come at any rate. Waking, bewildered, in his tent to find Darius’s hand across his mouth, the man putting a hand to his own lips in warning. Daniel gazing up at him in bleary-eyed confusion.
"I've found the way to the center. Do you want to come?" Darius’s trembling excitement should have warned him but he'd been too excited by the news.
"Yes." He'd nodded eagerly.
Darius had taken his hand from Daniel's mouth and moved back to let him get up, throwing the clothes at him. "Hurry then. There isn't much time. I can only see it for a little while."
"Shall I get John? Did you finish the translation? Was it the Inanna inscription which told you…?"
Darius’s paw across his mouth. "Be quiet, dubsar tur. Don't say a word. Just come with me and all will be revealed…"
Daniel swallowed painfully, body aching from the beating Darius had administered, head still ringing from the blow that had broken his eardrum, tasting blood, smelling sweat and what he sincerely hoped wasn't arousal. "You didn't tell me you were taking me there to…." Even now he didn't say it because a part of him couldn't quite believe Darius was going to go through with it. Things like this didn't happened to people like him. Not here in Egypt, on a dig surrounded by people he knew and trusted. Darius knew his grandfather. He knew his tutor. They were friends. It made no sense that Darius should be intending to do something…sexual to him. It was just insane. But then when he looked at Darius he saw that so was he. There was almost nothing left of the man he knew.
"Can you see them yet?" Darius twisted his fingers tighter in Daniel's hair, turning his head to make him look at the walls. "Do you see the gods?"
"In the paintings on the walls?" He was trying to hang on by his fingernails.
"No." Darius shoved him forward angrily. "Imbecile! Open your eyes."
Daniel stumbled, awkward in his bare feet and chilly without his shirt. "I don't know what you want me to see!"
Darius grabbed him by the hair again and yanked Daniel after him, dragging him along at a ruthless pace. "I want you to see what I see. You're my apprentice. You have to learn the mysteries I teach you."
"Is this supposed to be some kind of…initiation…?"
Darius yanked him into a small square chamber, throwing him carelessly against the nearest wall.
Daniel cried out as he hit the stone, flinching as Darius advanced on him, trying to keep eye contact when all his instincts were telling him to duck his head and act submissive if he wanted to keep breathing in and out. But he suspected if he did that it would just make it that much easier for Darius to stop seeing him as an equal and see him as an object, something to be used.
Darius smiled unpleasantly, looking him up and down. "Is that what you're afraid of, Goldilocks? The giving of arete? Personally, I think it would do you the world of good. Might actually make a man of you. But, no, that's not why you're here."
Daniel put a hand up to his mouth wiping off the blood, trying not to flinch even though he couldn't seem to stop shaking. "Then why am I here?"
"To pay for what you did." Darius jerked the knife at him contemptuously. "Take off your pants. You can keep your shorts until the next door."
Shivering violently but refusing to break eye contact, Daniel tried to imbue unzipping his trousers and stepping out of them with as much dignity as he could muster. For all his assurances, he didn't miss the way Darius looked him up and down before snarling in annoyance as though Daniel was deliberately tempting him. Daniel kicked his trousers away. "What is it I'm supposed to have done, Darius? And why do I have to be naked to pay for it?"
The look in Darius’s eyes as he focused on Daniel made the world go cold. Daniel realized that just because they seemed to be having a conversation, it didn't mean the other man was anything like approaching sane. The look in his eyes was nothing but psychotic, the black shark glare of something pitiless and utterly inhuman. For a moment it was like looking into the face of hell itself and then Darius was coming towards him and Daniel was pressing back against the wall saying rapidly, "I'm sorry."
The man loomed over him, an impassable wall of male sweat and anger, and this time Daniel did duck his head and look at the floor, trying to make his body language as unthreatening as he possibly could. "Whatever I did, I'm truly sorry. Please forgive me, Darius. Please…?"
Darius touched his mouth and Daniel shuddered violently before he could stop himself, the man's thumb brushed across his lips, parting them and Daniel waited to be shoved to his knees. He felt the moment twang between them like stretched piano wire when Darius thought about it, how it would feel, how much he wanted it… And then his fingers closed in Daniel's hair and he pulled his head back, looking into his eyes with remorseless intensity, as if he could laser him with his gaze alone. "She shouldn't have died."
"I'm sorry." Daniel couldn't stop the shudders of reaction going through him, but the ache in his voice wasn't just fear and he wasn't apologizing this time, just expressing his compassion, because the bottomless depths of Darius’s grief did move him, even now he couldn't help pitying him.
"You're going to help me bring her back." Darius stroked his thumb across Daniel's mouth again, looking him over as he did so as if Daniel's crimes were written on his bare skin.
"I wish I could do that." Daniel swallowed. "But I can't. No one can." Darius definitely stank not just of sweat and insanity but arousal as well, his resolve hardening along with his cock in close proximity to Daniel's body.
"Yes you can. And you will. Because this is what you do." Darius took Daniel's hand and put it between his legs. "This is why she died."
Recoiling, Daniel tried to pull his hand away and Darius twisted his wrist so savagely it forced him to his knees. "Whore!"
"Darius, please!" Daniel cried out as he twisted his wrist again.
Still holding onto Daniel's arm, Darius smacked Daniel's hand against the lowest symbol and it glowed gold as he said….
" Djehuty!" Daniel gasped it in triumph as he managed to claw his way back to the present, opening his eyes to find he was clinging onto Teal'c as if the Jaffa was the last solid thing in a shifting world.
Teal'c put his arm around him to steady him, patting him gently on the back and Daniel briefly laid his head on his shoulder, needing a second to recover from being Darius’s prisoner, being back in the grip of the past.
"Thoth, eh? Are you sure?" Nelson was examining the baboon symbol with his head on one side. "I would have laid money it was Babi. He had a terrible reputation for malevolence and cruelty and dwelt in the underground. Or Hedjwer maybe. I knew it couldn't be Hapy, because of the Horus connection, but – "
Daniel reached past him and slammed his hand down on the baboon symbol, saying, "Djehuty."
The door slid open and just for a second Daniel hesitated. The next step was the one that he was most afraid to take, the one he'd been avoiding ever since Nelson had first sent him that email inviting him to join this dig. No, for longer than that. He'd been running away from this memory for thirteen years and had buried it so successfully he hadn't even known he'd forgotten it. But now he was here where Darius had always wanted him to be, outside the doors of perception, waiting to remember what he had fled into a coma to escape last time he'd been forced to confront it. The truth Rajid hadn't arrived in time to save him from, which had literally broken that brave old man's heart.
The fear and sickness flowed through him in a chill gray tide for a moment, his veins running with lead, he felt dazed and exhausted; there was still another mental race to run and he hadn't the energy for it. Then he reminded himself that he'd suffered worse losses since then than any his past could inflict. Whatever Darius had done to him it couldn't be as bad as losing Sha're, nothing could be as bad as that except losing Jack or Sam or Teal'c. And losing Jack was exactly what he was going to do unless he got himself back to where he had been thirteen years ago in the dark heart of this malevolent maze.
"Daniel…?" He could hear all the things Sam wasn't saying in that catch in her voice. Darius was walking towards Jack. The energy was continuing to build, enraged at being held in check for so long, he could even sense it himself now, a fizzing anger sending sparks from the walls. The NID men were inside the inner core of the labyrinth now, probably only a few of those propped-open doors behind them, probably armed and, like Darius, definitely dangerous.
"Don't go back there again, Daniel." Nelson was supporting him too, holding onto his other arm as Teal'c gently but surely whisked him into the blur of deliberately confusing passageways. "We know the last symbol has to be the bow and arrows. So it's probably Sais, Seshet or Nit, and as Nit was the mother of Ra we can pretty much write her off."
"But she wasn't called the mother of Ra until later on. Before that she was a warrior goddess. And we also know she was associated with Khnum and Wapwawet so she is a possible candidate." Daniel could feel the weariness trying to drag him down but shook it off. "And we can't risk a guess. Not if we ever want to see Jack alive again."
Nelson's concern was undisguised. "But the last couple of times we damned near didn't get you back. If it hadn't been for Teal'c here…."
He knew there was something much worse waiting behind the final door. The reason for the fear. The blade and the blood and the black light closing over him like a shroud. He also knew that even facing that wasn't quite as bad as losing Jack.
He held Teal'c's gaze for a second, giving him a flicker of a smile that he knew must reveal everything about his fear. "Get me back, Teal'c."
Then he closed his eyes and took the last plunge into the depths, like a deep-sea swimmer hunting for pearls on the sea-bed, searching for that elusive name….
When Daniel stumbled again, through a combination of fear, exhaustion, and his battered body closing down, Darius twisted his fingers in Daniel's long hair and began to drag him down the twisting passageway, declaiming as he did so:
"Naked and bowed low, Inanna entered the throne room.
Ereshkigal rose from her throne.
Inanna started from her throne.
The Anunna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded her.
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death.
She spoke against her the word of wrath.
She uttered against her the cry of guilt…."
"Darius, please!" Daniel got a toe-hold on the floor and staggered back onto his feet, grabbing the man's wrist to try to break his hold on his hair.
"Shut up!" Darius threw him against the wall, then grabbed him by the hair again as she started to slither down it. "Everyone goes to the underworld in the end but only she can return. If Dumuzi sacrifices himself for her she is saved."
"Her husband," Daniel gasped, clamping a hand around Darius’s wrist and gripping it tightly. "Not her servant, who was faithful to her. Not her son, who was her right arm and her left arm and a leader among men. She sacrificed her husband, who was worthless."
Darius yanked Daniel after him, off-balancing him so he was being dragged again, looking over his shoulder at him from eyes that burned with a terrible grief and rage. "That's what she told me. That she would have given my life a hundred times to save the life of our son. From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below…. My lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld…."
"It's a myth, Darius!" Daniel dug his fingers into the man's wrist as his hair was tugged again. "It's just a myth. It has nothing to do with you or me or your wife. It's to do with the Ancient Sumerian and Babylonians need to find an anthropomorphic rationale for the changing of the seasons. Inanna never existed. She never went into the Underworld. Summer ended and winter came and then spring followed winter and it had nothing to do with Inanna descending into the Underworld…."
They were getting nearer to the end of the corridor, to the last chamber and the last door, and the last hope he had of ever getting through to this man before Darius crossed a line neither of them could ever come back from and be the same again. He spoke rapidly, trying to keep his tone soothing, not to sound scared and angry and confused, even though he was all of those things, just to sound calm and as if he truly did know what he was talking about.
"Even with the myth you're copying, there isn't a logical parallel. Inanna didn't die because her husband was unfaithful to her. It wasn't the sacrifice of her husband's lover that restored her. Why Inanna, Darius? Why her?" And why me? But he didn't add that. As a rational human being, Darius was lost to reason, but perhaps as a scholar of Sumerian he could still be reached.
Darius pulled him upright, letting Daniel snatch a ragged breath, slowly untwisting his fingers from Daniel's hair. He even looked at Daniel's hair then, stroking a few strands of it, then looked at Daniel's face as if he barely knew him, automatically licking his thumb and reaching out to wipe the blood from the side of Daniel's mouth. "Were your foster parents cruel to you?"
Daniel stared at him in confusion and then swallowed. "No. They were kind to me."
"They didn't beat you, or starve you?"
Daniel blinked in surprise. "No. They were good people."
"I told Inga social services were careful who they placed the children with. That they'd be sure to find good homes for them."
Daniel had no idea what Darius was talking about now or what this conversation was a part of, but it didn't involve Darius threatening him with a knife or an erection and he was grateful for that. Even though he thought it made him sound like a spaniel found wandering on the streets, he stuck with Darius’s terminology: "They found me a good home."
"You don't hate Nick, do you?" Darius stroked his hair again, running his fingers through it to untangle the mats he'd made.
"No." He swallowed hard, shaking his head. "He's the only family I have left. I would never hate him."
"You should tell him that. Tell him you forgive him."
Daniel felt sadness sweep through him. "He's never admitted there's anything to forgive."
Darius breathed deeply then leant his forehead against Daniel's. He whispered, "I have to do this."
"No, you don't." Daniel gave him a flickering smile. "You really don't."
"I know she can be resurrected. I saw it happen."
"Inanna?" Daniel looked around at the painted corridors. "On the walls of the Labyrinth? Or saw it in a vision?"
"You saw it, too. I know you did."
Daniel remembered his trip after Darius had given him the pill, floating above the walls of the Labyrinth, seeing the gods with glowing eyes that Darius described to him. He swallowed, trying not to be so aware of the gleam of the knife blade, the smell of Darius’s arousal, and the fact he was only wearing his boxer shorts, that it banished every other thought. He moistened his lips, tasting blood. "She asked to go with them to the center."
"She rose up again more magnificent than before."
Daniel snatched a ragged breath and met the man's eye, talking softly. "Why don't we go back now, Darius? Why don't we go back outside and tell the others about Inanna?"
"No." Darius shook his head. "We have to go through with it. It has to be tonight. It's a full moon and it's her birthday. She was born on this day once. She can be born again now."
Daniel had a horrible feeling he wasn't going to like the answer to this question. "How?"
Darius leant his forehead against Daniel's again briefly, inhaling Daniel's scent. "You have to take her place in the Underworld."
"Why not you?" Daniel shivered as he felt the man's body weight pressing against him. He was looking for a chance to run. He was faster than Darius, he was sure.
"We have to be together. In life or death, it doesn't matter."
Daniel almost told him then that grief faded in time, it didn't feel as if it ever would at first, but in the end it did. Small boys stopped crying themselves to sleep eventually. They went out into the sunshine again. They even forgot they were orphans. They picked up a book and the story held them, lost themselves in tales without always remembering to cry because it wasn't their mother's voice saying the words. The human soul renewed itself a hundred times within a single life, recovered from even the deepest wounds, and struggled on towards enlightenment, only slightly ragged from its latest scars. But for once in his life he didn't have the words, was too scared and too exhausted to explain coherently that amongst all the other transitory things of life, grief too could sometimes be another passing phase. His tongue stumbled with weariness:
"In six months time it may matter. In six months time you may not want to have done what you're planning to do tonight."
Darius ran his fingers through Daniel's hair again as if the texture of it fascinated him. He moved back and looked Daniel over in confusion, frowning in concern. "Your lip's bleeding."
Daniel gave him a nervous smile. "It doesn't matter."
Darius licked his thumb again and gently wiped Daniel's mouth clean. "I don't want to hurt you. I just want her back. I wouldn't do this if there was another way."
"Perhaps there is another way." He swallowed. "Perhaps if we went and asked John he might know another way. He knows lots of – " As he made to dart past him, Darius hand closed on his wrist like a vice, yanking him back.
Darius searched his face in disbelief. "Were you going to run away?"
"No." Daniel shuddered. "I-I would never do that."
Darius stroked his hair back from his bruised forehead, explaining it to him reasonably and without accusation now: "Don't you know how important this is? She can come back, Daniel. She's the only one that can. They ate his heart but she died for love and was born again. It's because she died for love. She died because of love for me. There's no point in her coming back to find me dead, is there? It has to be you. You're the reason she died."
Daniel swallowed again. "Darius, I really think we should go back to where the others are. I really don't think I want you to do whatever it is you're intending to – "
The man was already marching down the corridor, dragging him after him. Daniel cried out as his already abused wrist was twisted some more. Darius didn't even seem to be trying to hurt him this time, he was just so focused on the job at hand he was barely aware of him. Daniel was necessary and possibly intending to escape so had to be hung onto tightly, but there was no animosity there any more. Darius had forgiven him for giving him a hard-on, beaten it out of both of them, transference of frustrated desire into anger, this wasn't about Daniel turning him down any more. This was about something Daniel didn't understand to do with those gods with glowing eyes. He spoke rapidly. "You said this was an evil place. Do you still think that? Is it evil? Did bad things happen here? Is that what you see when you take those pills?"
"Unspeakable things happened here, dubsar tur," Darius pulled him into a small chamber and scanned the blank wall as if trying to remember. "Terrible things. Things you'll never have to see. I shouldn't have tried to make you see them. You shouldn't have to know about things like that." He paused briefly to stroke Daniel's hair again, the same kind of absent fondness an uncle might bestow on a favorite nephew.
Daniel wondered what it was Darius was planning to do to him that was making him feel so protective and affectionate. He was treating Daniel the way a man might treat a child he knew had a terminal disease, pitying him but in one part of his mind already writing him off, seeing no future for him in this world, only the next.
"Take off your shorts, Daniel."
Daniel stared at him, shivering, trying to see any sanity in this new gentler Darius and finding less than in the vicious madman of ten minutes before. "I don't want to."
The point of the knife was pressed against his throat with a kind of regretful tenderness. "Do as I tell you, Daniel. Don't make me hurt you."
He swallowed, his Adam's apple scraping past the point of the knife as he did so. Darius being reasonable was frightening him even more than Darius being brutal. "Don't do this."
Darius shook his head as if Daniel was being very silly and irrational. "You have to be naked to enter the underworld. You know that. You have to go as Inanna went."
"She was killed and hung up on a meat hook, Darius. I don't want to be like Inanna."
"You want to see the center, don't you?"
And God help him, even in the midst of being so frightened he could barely speak there was a part of him that was still filled with curiosity about what lay on the other side of that wall. All this tangle of corridors, secret symbols and hidden names to stop the unworthy reaching the heart of the labyrinth, and here he was, bleeding, terrified, almost naked, and yet still wanting to know what was on the other side. He turned his head to look at the blank wall and in that moment he was lost.
Darius smiled in triumph. "I knew you wanted to come with me. I knew this was really what you wanted all along. Now take off your shorts."
Daniel sagged with defeat, closed his eyes, then pushed down his boxers and stepped out of them. Shame seared him but when he opened his eyes, Darius was matter-of-fact, looking at him but without lust, just nodding and saying, "Yes. She was beautiful too. I would never have been tempted unless you were beautiful. She'll understand when she sees you why I was tempted even though she was always the one I loved."
"Well, fine, as long as you get that sorted out, that's really the main thing." Daniel darted him a look of disbelieving reproach. He could feel his nerves unraveling. He reckoned he was about thirty seconds away from laughing hysterically and then curling up in a corner and crying like a child.
When Darius caught him by the hair and tugged him forward, it wasn't rough, just determined. Daniel wondered numbly if that was what the sex was going to be like as well. He could feel a kind of weary acceptance coursing through him. There was no point in fighting because he couldn't win, no point in anything really except trying to mentally get as far away from his body as he could so whatever happened to it might sear him a little less. He decided to focus on the chamber, on learning the secrets of the center, on anything except what Darius might be intending to do to him in the next ten minutes.
"Nit." Darius pressed the wall and the invisible image became visible, the sign of bows and arrows briefly glowed gold before the door slid back. He looked at Daniel with quiet triumph. "The center, Daniel. I told you I'd found the way and that I'd share it with you."
He pulled Daniel into a chamber illuminated by the same faint greenish-gold light which had illuminated all the inner corridors, then pulled one of those flares from the copious pockets of his old coat and crouched to jam the door open. That was the only hope Daniel could see in them coming here, that Darius had been bothering to wedge the doors. Except now he suspected it was because he was planning to return in triumph to the surface with his resurrected wife, an Orpheus who had made a successful foray into the Underworld and reclaimed his Eurydice without a fateful backward glance.
"We should tell John." Daniel knew he was just gabbling now. He saw a flash of gold, a line of thrones, blank walls, a stone floor, the altar oh god there was an altar, and the knife, the hypnotic gleam of the knife. There was also, even in the midst of his fear, disappointment because there was no great secret revealed here, just a plain chamber with no mysteries, no occult me given by the enchanted Enki to Inanna after all, just gray stone and blank walls. His teeth were chattering with fear, the cold from the floor burning his bare feet. He tried to pull his wrist loose but Darius just tightened his grip reflexively, not even reproaching him, just dragging him purposefully across the room.
Daniel could feel a terrible resignation seeping through him. He knew he should fight but fighting was just going to get him beaten unconscious, maybe brain damaged. This was about trying to stay intact now, holding onto the pieces of his soul Darius was trying to fragment, to stay who he was even when stripped bare, reduced to his essence by fear and nakedness, in refusing to be humiliated, in keeping his self-respect by any means possible.
But when Darius pulled him towards the altar he could feel the sight of it turning him to stone, if it touched his skin it would spread through him, contagious petrifaction and he would be fossilized forever. He'd thought his resignation had replaced his panic, but now he found they were working in harmony, his body too exhausted to fight but his mind was locked rigid in one continuous Munch-like scream. His toes curled, trying to get some purchase, but Darius was remorseless, tugging him harder. "Hurry, Daniel, the night's almost over. It has to be while the moon has ascendancy over the stars."
He found he was shaking so hard, speech was almost impossible, darting the man one last begging look not to do whatever horrible thing he was contemplating.
"Hurting me won't bring her back. Please, Darius…don't…!" He couldn't even bring himself to articulate what he was afraid of.
"Shshh." Darius let got of his wrist to clamp a hand across his mouth then put the knife to his throat.
Daniel shuddered as he felt the blade touching him, unable to focus on anything except the feel of that freezing steel against his bare skin.
"Lie down," Darius breathed, jerking his head at the altar.
Shaking so hard he couldn't have argued if he'd wanted to, Daniel found himself climbing onto the altar, sitting up awkwardly, hunched up to try to conceal his genitals. Darius caught his hair and gently eased him down flat "Ssshh"ing him again when Daniel made a last attempt to reason with him. The slab was freezing against his bare skin and he gasped with the shock of it. He could feel the chill seeping into his skin, just as he had feared, turning his bones to stone. He imagined them finding his skeleton, the powdery fragments of his clothes, a few strands of hair.
Darius was tying his ankles to the stone rings, he felt the rope biting into his skin while the stone continued to seep into his body like seawater. He felt as if he was falling backwards into a cold darkness, gradually dissolving into the stone.
Rope tightened around his right wrist and then his left one. He darted a glance at his arm to try to hang onto the last sense of reality, but even his own skin didn't look familiar in this strange green-gold light. Was that his arm? Was this even his body? Maybe it was just a bad dream? Perhaps he was still in his tent and he'd let Darius persuade him to take another pill? Perhaps this was guilt displacement. Mind displacement. Anything that meant he wasn't really here in the center of the labyrinth, bound naked to a stone altar with a man standing over him with a….
The blade was hypnotic. It gleamed so coldly, colder than starlight, colder than moonlight, colder than everything but death.
Darius bent over him and touched his face. Daniel stared up at the tears glittering in the man's eyes and thought how unexpectedly noble the man looked in that moment, not mad at all, like an Arthurian knight who had struggled through terrible hardship to get his glimpse of the grail. Darius pressed his lips gently to Daniel's forehead and whispered, "Goodbye…."
Then Darius lifted the knife over his head and, as Daniel gazed at him in horrified disbelief, plunged it down –
The impact was like being hit by a truck. He screamed as the force of it slammed into him, feeling bone break as the sound of it cracked in his ears, blood spray in a warm wet fountain. And then he was plummeting backwards into darkness through a tunnel, away from a tiny circle of light, getting colder with every millisecond while somewhere close by a clock began to beat slower and slower. As if he was falling through his own body like sand through a sieve, dissolving into nothingness until he was so far away from the end of the tunnel his vision had narrowed to a pinprick of light. The clock pendulum made one last attempt to swing and faltered. And then there was only blackness and the silence as his heartbeat stopped.
VII: The Center
He woke to the blackness of a confined space and a closed coffin lid, cold and naked and gasping for air that wasn't there, unsure as yet if he was alive or dead, with the darkness wound around him so tightly, filling his mouth and ears, wrapped around his eyes. He tried to push up the lid but made no impression as his lungs labored and strained….
Warm air being blown gently into his starved lungs. And suddenly the coffin was opening, not lifting up as he'd been trying to force it to do, but sliding to the side, letting in a dim greenish gold light, like being on the bottom of the ocean….
"How many minutes?"
Sam's voice. But not the way Sam usually sounded. Sam didn't usually cry.
"Two minutes, Colonel Carter." Perhaps Nelson thought most Air Force officers were colonels in the same way most archaeologists were doctors.
"Oh god, Teal'c. Keep trying. Where's that damned ambulance…?"
He was sinking back down to the depths. Damn. He didn't like it on the sea floor. Falling in slow motion while someone cried out to him in Arabic. Rajid this time. Funny that. He didn't think Sam and Rajid had met. Rajid was pulling him out of the coffin, surprisingly strong for such a small man, lifting Daniel as easily as if he was a child and wrapping him in a blanket. Someone was crying. Not Sam. A man. Darius. Darius was crying. So was Rajid. Sam just sounded as if she was crying. Why was everyone crying except him?
“What have I done? What have I done?”
Why was Rajid saying that? He hadn't done anything. It was Darius who had – The knife. Daniel remembered and shuddered at the same time as he realized he really needed to breathe.
"Daniel! If you don't start breathing right now I swear to God…. Teal'c just keep trying. Promise me you'll keep trying. Daniel…! Don't you dare do this on my watch! Don't make me have to tell the colonel…. Oh God, Teal'c, please get him back…."
Sam was crying and scary. In fact she sounded like the older sister from hell who was going to come after him with a baseball bat any minute. Definitely time he remembered how to inhale.
He opened his eyes to find that he was being kissed. Just like the sleeping princess in the fairy tales. Except he'd never read one where the sleeping princess was awakened by a kiss from two hundred pounds of Jaffa being coached in mouth-to-mouth over a crackling radio by a distraught Air Force major. He gasped again and realized he was breathing in and out all by himself. The look of relief on Teal'c's face told him he'd realized it too. Teal'c spoke rapidly into the radio in his breast pocket.
"Major Carter, Daniel Jackson is breathing and conscious."
"Oh thank God. Thank you, Teal'c, thank you."
"Well done, old man."
Daniel concentrated on breathing in and out for a moment as Nelson thumped Teal'c on the back triumphantly and said 'Good show' a lot as though Teal'c had just scored a six with a clear blow over the boundary and Nelson was commentating for the BBC. He'd forgotten the way Nelson always reverted to extremes of stereotypical Britishness in moments of high tension.
Sam's voice crackled through the radio again, hoarse with emotion: "Daniel. Don't ever do that again!"
"What did I do?" he protested weakly.
"You ceased breathing, Daniel Jackson." Teal'c helped him sit up, a strong arm around his shoulders. The Jaffa looked into his eyes for a long moment and briefly rested his palm against Daniel's cheek. That told Daniel more than a whole speech just how close he must have come to checking out for good.
He said breathlessly, "I'm sorry, Sam. I overshot."
"Promise me you won't do that again."
"I promise." He reached out and touched Teal'c's arm, squeezing it gently. "Thanks for getting me back."
As he struggled to get up, Nelson said, "Really, Dan, I think you should wait for the ambulance. We damned near lost you then."
"If the colonel were here he'd be ordering you to sit still and wait for the ambulance, and as second-in-command…."
Teal'c effortlessly rose to his feet, bringing Daniel with him. Daniel held the Jaffa's gaze as he was set gently on the floor. "Teal'c, I remember what happened now and Jack is in terrible danger. Trust me." He darted a glance at Nelson to show why he couldn’t explain.
The Jaffa took one look at his face and then spoke rapidly into the radio: "Major Carter we are proceeding to the next door. I will guarantee the safety of Daniel Jackson."
"You better had, Teal'c." Sam's voice still sounded thick with emotion and Daniel decided that when this was over he had better buy her a very nice dinner and the biggest box of Godiva chocolates he could find. Some groveling might also be in order. Sam didn't cry easily and she didn't cry in public at all, which meant he must have frightened her good and proper. One of the few things she had in common with Jack was a marked resentment of being scared by her teammates damned near dying on her.
Daniel felt limp as seaweed, which Teal'c seemed to know without need of explanation, pulling Daniel's arm around his neck, while one strong arm went around Daniel's waist. In seconds they were moving along the corridor at speed while Sam issued their directions in her usual clear voice: "Okay, second right, now straight ahead to the end then take the left passageway, then it's the third opening on the right hand side…."
Daniel whispered rapidly to Teal'c, "I know what the NID want now and we can't let them have it. We can't give them the power of life and death."
"I understand, Daniel Jackson."
"Teal'c, as you enter the chamber, the door is midway along the left wall."
Nelson moved ahead of them, shining the ultraviolet light onto the apparently bare wall. And there were the nine signs for the Ennead of Nekhen: the symbol for Min, the Setesh animal, the plumed falcon of Nekheny, the serpent of Wenut, the ram head of Khnum, the baboon of Thoth, the wolf of Wepwewat, the hawk of Sokar, and finally the crossed arrows of Nit.
"We're coming, Jack," Daniel breathed. There was still a rushing sound in his ears and a faint hissing like serpents uncoiling from a long sleep. Experience had told him that was often the prologue to him passing out, but given what he now knew Darius to be capable of and what danger Jack was in, he felt justified in ignoring it. He reached out to touch the last symbol and said "Nit."
Nelson looked at him in surprise and then said, "Oh right, the god. I've got you."
The symbol shimmered and Daniel felt the room perform a slow revolution. It took him a second to realize it wasn't actually the floor moving in response to the ancient Goa'uld technology, but his own faintness making the place swim.
"Daniel Jackson…" Teal'c bent over him solicitously.
Daniel saw the walls slide open and Nelson step towards the gap. "John, wait! Be careful."
Nelson looked over his shoulder at him in surprise as he stepped into the chamber, "Of what?"
The cry from Jack made Nelson jerk his head around in surprise. Which meant he was looking in the direction of the man who fired the shot as the bullet drilled a perfect circle in the center of his heart. The sound of the gunshot enveloped them all just a millisecond later, a deafening percussion as violent as a blow.
Daniel reached out to grab Nelson and the man fell back into his arms, looking up at Daniel in astonishment as he did so. They toppled to the floor together, Daniel barely aware of Teal'c behind him, catching him even as Daniel tightened his grip on the man in his arms. "John…"
There was disbelief in Nelson's voice as he said: "Dan, I think I've been…"
Daniel was still waiting for Nelson to say 'shot' when the blood welled from his mouth as fast as it was already pouring from his heart.
As the wall slid open, O'Neill shouted a warning that was muffled by the roar of the automatic. There was a moment when he found himself gazing into the shocked face of a dying Nelson and then the man toppled backwards, knocking Daniel into Teal'c who caught him and lowered them both gently to the ground.
"John!" The anguish in Daniel's voice cut straight through O'Neill.
O'Neill swore savagely as he saw the blood pouring from Nelson's heart, the grief on Daniel's face, the look of surprise and disbelief on Nelson's face as the life drained from him. Sorrow and regret twisted inside him and a terrible sense of failure that he, as a soldier, had failed to save this man.
Nelson murmured, "Dan…?" in confusion, while blood welled up from his mouth in a crimson gush.
Daniel tightened his grip on him. "I'm here, John. You're going to be okay. You're going to be fine…" But the look of anguish he shot at O'Neill told him than Daniel knew as well as he did Nelson was a goner. Nelson looked up at him, opened his mouth as if to say something else, and then his gaze slid into a fixed stare as, with the minimum of fuss, he gave a quiet sigh and died.
"Damnit to hell!" O'Neill would have given anything in that moment to spare Daniel that loss, and to keep Nelson alive. There weren't so many good men in the world that he felt he could easily be spared but he forced himself to stay focused. Golding still had a loaded gun and Daniel was still right in the line of fire.
"Daniel, watch out."
But Golding dropped the gun as if it was burning his fingers, running across the room to throw himself onto his knees by the dead Nelson.
"Nelson…? Oh my god, John…?"
Daniel was still holding Nelson in his arms even though the man's head had slumped quite gently onto his shoulder now. He looked curiously peaceful for a man who'd just been shot in the heart, like a traveler who had earned his rest, his baldness and thin skin revealing the shape of his skull and imbuing him with something approaching beauty, like the tomb of some crusader knight taken back to England to lie in some village church in state. Daniel touched his face, tears running down his cheeks as he gazed at the dead man.
Teal'c kept his arms around Daniel, murmuring some words of sympathy to him in the language of their dead loved ones. Golding's hands were stained red where he was still trying to staunch the wound with his fingers, as if he could push Nelson's life blood back into his body. "I thought you were the military. I never thought you'd come here…! I knew you couldn't come unless you remembered and if you remembered I thought you'd know how dangerous it was. How dangerous I was…."
A radio crackled somewhere, the words indistinguishable but the sound one of shock and fear.
Daniel looked around for O'Neill in sudden panic. "Jack? Are you okay?"
"I'm here." O'Neill spoke rapidly. "I'm fine." As Daniel focused on him, their eyes met and O'Neill shook his head helplessly. "Daniel, I'm so sorry."
The sight of him seemed to give Daniel strength. He gave his head a visible shake then
gripped Golding's arm and squeezed it. "Where's the sarcophagus, Darius?"
Golding looked up, tears running down his face. "I didn't mean to! I thought he was one of those NID bastards…." He touched Nelson helplessly, feeling for a pulse in his neck he clearly knew wasn't there with bloodstained fingers.
"We still might be able to get him back. There must be a sarcophagus here somewhere. A coffin. Remember? They put Inanna in it when she killed herself. You put me in it after you…." Daniel broke off.
Golding looked at him wild-eyed, still helplessly trying to stem the flow of blood from the dead Nelson's heart. "After I killed you. That's what you were going to say, wasn't it? That's what I did. All these years I thought it was just a nightmare but it was real. I was out of my fucking mind and I put a knife in your…." He put his bloody hands up to his face. "Daniel, what have I done?"
Daniel looked to Teal'c for help and the Jaffa understood his meaning at once, moving to take the dead man from Golding's anguished grip, rising to his feet with Nelson in his arms like some comrade fallen in battle.
Golding looked at him blankly. "I don't remember."
Teal'c said gravely, "Doctor Golding. It is most important that you recollect where in the chamber the sarcophagus of Nekheny is located."
The radio crackled again and this time O'Neill thought he made out Daniel's name. He checked his own chest automatically, but he wasn't wearing his radio. It was a surprise to see the blood on his chest from his split lip.
Daniel helped Golding up, making the man focus on him, despite the tear tracks drying on his cheeks. "You put me in the sarcophagus. There must be some kind of mechanism to make it appear. We can get John back the same way you got me back, I promise. You just have to find it again."
"I'll try." Golding stumbled dazedly across the room while Teal'c followed him with the dead man in his arms.
Daniel came over to where O'Neill was, looking more ill than O'Neill thought he'd ever seen him before. "You okay?" O'Neill demanded.
Daniel nodded. "Are you?" He knelt down and started to untie the ropes around his ankles.
"I'll live." O'Neill looked around the chamber, already hating this place with a passion. "How did you find me?"
Daniel pulled the rope loose and threw it away. "I remembered how to get here." The shudder went right through him and O'Neill winced. Daniel moved behind him to attack the knot around his wrists, hissing at the way the cords had bitten into his skin. "I'm sorry you got dragged into this, Jack." He began to tug at the knots with more determination than skill.
O'Neill turned his head. "Hey, I was the one who gatecrashed your dig, remember?"
"I should never have come back here. John would still be alive if I hadn't.…" He felt Daniel rest his head against the back of the throne for a second, heard his breath catch in a sob he couldn't quite suppress. He whispered so low only O'Neill could hear it: "He's got four children. And how can I tell Mary…?"
O'Neill felt the last knot pull loose and winced as the cords were gently eased from his skin. "None of this was your fault." He twisted around on the ornate throne and reached out to Daniel, holding his shoulders, making him look at him. Daniel looked at the absolute end of his resources. He tightened his grip despite the numbness of his fingers, the dull ache of his bleeding wrists. "Hey, we'll get him back, just like you told Golding. Everyone knows archaeologists are impossible to kill, right?"
Daniel wiped his eyes. "Right. Just like Air Force colonels." He gave O'Neill a flicker of a smile. "I thought you were a goner for sure this time, Jack."
O'Neill remembered the chill sensation of the gun barrel against his head and grimaced. "That makes two of us." He squeezed Daniel's arms gently. "Thanks for getting here."
"Thanks for not being dead."
"It was nothing." O'Neill looked at Daniel's exhausted, haggard countenance and couldn't decide who he wanted to kill the most, Golding or the NID. "How about when we get out of here I take you to DisneyWorld?"
"What, and deny me the chance to see the world's largest twine ball?" Daniel managed a smile. "And what about that Spam Museum?"
"Teal'c, what happened…?"
The raw fear in Carter's voice made them both start and he saw Daniel realize at the same time he did that they'd all been ignoring her crackled enquiries for what must have been at least three agonizing minutes by now.
Teal'c gave himself a visible shake before saying rapidly, "Professor Golding has shot Doctor Nelson, Major Carter, but we believe there is a sarcophagus somewhere in this chamber and are endeavoring to locate it."
"I heard the gunshot. I thought it was you or Daniel."
O'Neill completely sympathized with the guilt in her voice. There had been a fraction of a second when he'd seen Daniel's face behind Nelson and felt a tiny flicker of relief mixed in with his dismay that it hadn't been one of his team who'd taken that bullet. He got to his feet, wincing at the pins and needles in his legs, and limped over to pick up the revolver Golding had dropped.
"We are both unharmed, Major Carter, as is O'Neill."
Golding was standing in front of the blank wall with his eyes closed, his fingers barely touching the stone, as if to let some vibes from the place flow through him.
O'Neill paused to pick up the gun en route then limped over to where Teal'c was standing with the dead Nelson in his arms. He touched the Jaffa lightly on the arm. "May I?" At the Jaffa's nod, he reached across and plucked the radio from his chest. "Situation, Carter? Where are the NID goons?"
"On their way, Colonel. Are you okay?"
O'Neill looked across at the younger man, who was self-hugging as he watched Golding. "He'll be okay when we get Nelson back."
"What do you want me to do about NID? Have you discovered what they want?"
"The weapon they're after is long gone but that still leaves the sarcophagus, and I have to say I'm not too keen on the idea of the people who thought giving Golding LSD flashbacks was a good idea getting their sticky fingers on the means to torture someone to death, then throw them back in the sarcophagus for another bout." He glanced back at Daniel. "On the other hand, there are times when I'd have really liked one around the SGC."
"I think it's academic, sir. The way the energy is building up in that place I don't think we or the NID are going to have time to salvage anything. Right now, if you all get out of there alive, you'll be doing well."
"You are such a ray of sunshine, Carter."
"Darius…?" Daniel was visibly willing Golding to remember. Going by the way Golding was shuddering, O'Neill guessed that remembering was exactly what he was doing right now.
Golding opened his eyes and looked across at Daniel, eyes bleak and full of pain, but unmistakably rational. "I killed you. All these years I hoped it was a nightmare but I was always afraid it was true. Daniel, I…."
"It doesn't matter," Daniel insisted firmly. "All that matters is where the sarcophagus is."
O'Neill decided that much later he and Daniel were going to have a possibly quite loud conversation about all the reasons why there were some things you shouldn't let go. Like people killing you for no good reason.
Golding had his eyes closed, shuddering as he remembered, but making himself do it, feeling his way mentally, flinching from the impact of each presumably horrific bit of recall. If it was doing that to Golding to remember it, what the hell had it done to Daniel at the time? "I think it was here." Golding crossed over to the wall, closing his eyes and letting his fingers brush across the stone as lightly as a safecracker, then he pushed and a section of the wall glowed gold.
O'Neill took two rapid steps backwards as the sarcophagus appeared from the floor, the stone rippling like liquid as it rose up on a ornately carved dais, massive, gold and evil. With it came a crackle of raw energy that sent blue flickers of light across the gray walls. On a sonic scale he could sense but not quite hear, O'Neill thought he felt a low whine begin to get louder.
"Sir, the energy build-up just increased considerably."
"It's the sarcophagus." O'Neill looked at the dead Nelson in Teal'c's arms. "Can't be helped, Major."
"I don't want to worry you, Colonel, but when you get Nelson back and head for the exit, I would advise running."
Golding closed his eyes, clearly tracking another elusive memory, shuddered again, then pressed a hawk symbol on the side and the lid of the sarcophagus slid back to reveal the coffin-like interior in all its luxurious gold fittings. Nekheny had clearly believed in having the stretch-limo scale of regeneration.
Teal'c wordlessly carried Nelson past them and laid him gently in the sarcophagus, the dead man's eyes still staring straight ahead in disbelief. Golding looked grief and remorse stricken but undeniably sane. The flashback seemed to have receded and left his right mind in its place. "Will it bring him back?"
"If the mechanism is still intact it should indeed do so." Teal'c pressed the symbol and the top closed over, sliding across like a great maw closing.
Daniel still looked bled white of color and O'Neill winced inwardly at the charcoal shadows under his eyes, the bruise coming out on his cheekbone. He turned on Golding angrily. "Just because that damned box can bring people back from the dead, it doesn't excuse what you did. Not today, and not thirteen years ago."
Daniel flinched as if someone had hit him and for a second O'Neill knew what it was Golding got – those flashes of other people's memories – because he swore that for that second he knew how it felt to lie on a stone altar and see the knife come down. He thought of the impact of it, the slam and slice of that blade into skin and bone, the crunch of your own chest breaking, the sensation of the heat leaving your body as your lifeblood sprayed on the walls. Daniel shuddered and when O'Neill looked across at Golding he really wanted to raise that gun and pull the trigger.
Golding seemed to know exactly what he was thinking, returning his gaze unflinchingly, no trace of insanity in his eyes now. "I know that. And if it makes you feel any better, I see it every night, O'Neill. As I turn out the light I see the look on Daniel's face as I brought the knife down. I hear his breastbone crack. I feel his blood on my skin. I remember how light his body felt in my arms as I put him in the coffin and closed the lid and waited for my wife to magically reappear even though I'd watched her body burn myself. I see it and remember it so clearly I know it has to be true. And then I remember seeing him in that hospital bed without a scratch and I know it couldn't have been true so I must still be crazy after all. I didn't know it was the sarcophagus that brought him back to life. I thought I'd been delusional and almost buried him alive when there was nothing wrong with him."
Daniel wrapped his arms around himself. "I didn't remember it, Darius. I needed to forget it and I did. You didn't do me any…permanent damage."
O'Neill looked at him in disbelief, "How is killing you not doing you any 'permanent damage'?"
"It never happened, Jack. Ask the NID. I signed the forms that said so."
Golding looked up at Daniel. "After I put you in that thing, Rajid came in and asked what I'd done. He made me open it and get you out in case you were still alive. He never meant you to get hurt. He was only trying to avenge his daughter's honor and keep you safe. He never wanted any harm to come to you. I think that was what killed him, when he realized what I'd done." He began to walk around the sarcophagus visibly willing the golden artifact to do its work, while Teal'c kept a watchful eye on him,
"It was Rajid." As the last piece slotted into place O'Neill felt suddenly exhausted with too many old crimes. "He's the one who wrote to Golding's wife and he's the one who spiked Golding's drugs."
"I know." Daniel's voice sounded ragged and O'Neill guessed he had only worked it out a little while before himself. No wonder Daniel was twanging like an overstrung guitar.
O'Neill looked at Golding. "You asked his help in accessing your…visions and he said he could get you just the thing. The mandrake stuff was supposed to kill you, but it just made you so crazy you kidnapped Daniel."
Golding shook his head. "Rajid loved Daniel like a son. He never meant any harm to come to him. He was trying to protect him from me."
"Well, that worked."
"Jack." Daniel gave him a look of reproach.
He wasn't being tactless, damnit. He knew the old guy had meant a lot to Daniel. He knew Daniel's friend had just been shot right in front of him. He wasn't insensitive to the current situation. He also had very strong feelings about certain issues. "Hey, I just don't think archaeologists should go around killing people."
Daniel returned his gaze steadily. "Neither do I." There was so much behind his words it took O'Neill's already painful breath away. All those Jaffa Daniel had never wanted to kill, but felt he had to. Maybe he'd been having doubts for a long time. When O'Neill had doubts he tended to shout a little louder to blot them out, Daniel just went quiet. Perhaps he no longer believed in their way of fighting this war, he was just afraid the rest of them might get killed without him there to translate something vital, or they might end up at war with people Daniel could have gotten through to….
O'Neill wrapped an arm around his aching ribcage. "Shit."
"Are you okay?" Daniel's attention was torn between the sarcophagus and O'Neill.
O'Neill gazed into Daniel's worried blue eyes and wondered how they had ever got to this point anyway. "I was just wondering if I'm going through the 'gate to protect you, or you're going through the 'gate to protect me."
"We're going because it's the right thing to do and the best place to be." Daniel lifted up O'Neill's t-shirt and grimaced at what was probably a boot mark although he had no intention of looking in case it made it hurt more. Daniel was fussing enough for two anyway. "I think you may have cracked a rib. You've got a lot of bruises here."
O'Neill gently but firmly removed Daniel from examining his ribs. "Do you still believe that? About it being the right thing to do and the best place to be?"
Daniel looked back at the sarcophagus, then around at the walls, then back at O'Neill. He sighed. "Ask me if we get John back. And when I've had a shower, and some food, and some sleep. And I know you don't have a broken rib sticking in your lung."
Carter's voice crackled through on the radio. "The NID are almost with you, sir. What do you want me to do?"
"Tell her to get to a safe distance." Daniel leant across to speak into the radio himself. "Sam, you've done all you can. We can find our own way back from here. Go outside and make sure Alexis and the others don't come back in looking for us…."
"Sorry, Daniel, the energy build-up must be interfering with the transmission. You're breaking up. I didn't quite catch that…."
"Sam!" He looked at the radio on O'Neill's chest in indignation. "Is the channel still open? Order her to leave."
O'Neill shrugged. "You heard her. The energy build-up is interfering with the transmission." No way was he giving Carter an order she wasn't going to obey. That would just be plain bad leadership.
He looked at the golden sarcophagus with dislike. So this was what NID were after. A weapon of power, the ability to bring people back from the dead, to live forever, to make themselves faster, stronger, healthier, and ultimately no longer themselves. Heroin was nothing beside this thing. The ultimate high for the ultimate rich and powerful few, making it the ultimate bribe. Whoever controlled the sarcophagus controlled so much more than any NID officer should, while a president who'd been through the sarcophagus a few times would declare war on anyone because he'd know himself to be invincible….
O'Neill touched the radio again. "Carter, is the energy build up going to take out the sarcophagus or do we need to plant some C4 to stop the NID getting their grubby fingers on it?"
"You back away from it right now, O'Neill, and keep your hands where I can see them."
O'Neill turned around to see a tall broad-shouldered NID agent with a gun pointing at his head. Even without the gun and the uniform he was wearing he didn't think this was a guy he would have warmed to. He looked the kind who had been MVP of everything he did. The type who others picked out as leader of men even at High School and who got to go home and fuck the Prom Queen, but coupled with the dead-eyed expression of someone who wouldn't necessarily have asked her first. O'Neill felt his hackles bristle in the same instinctive hostility he'd felt towards Golding. Given that Golding had definitely been ready willing and able to kill him less than twenty minutes earlier, he guessed that was a good warning to listen to. The other three NID agents also had their weapons drawn and the unmistakable body language of men who had no problem with pulling the trigger but they didn't ring his warning bells in the way their leader did. There was a second when O'Neill thought about reaching for the gun he held but then he looked back into the shark eyes of the man in charge and reason reasserted itself. He put his hands up, although not without a look that he hoped spoke volumes. "Good of you to drop in. What took you so long?"
As Golding started forward, Daniel grabbed his arm. "Darius, don't…."
"What do you sons of bitches want?" Golding snarled. He shook off Daniel's hand but did stay where he was.
"What we've always wanted and what you've consistently failed to deliver, Professor," the first said coolly.
O'Neill dropped his head and whispered rapidly into the radio, "Carter, if you're getting this we could really do with some backup down here." Then he was forced to break off as an NID agent approached and plucked the gun from his hand and the radio neatly from his chest. He held his hands up higher. "And where were you guys an hour ago when I needed you?"
The leader scanned them all with unconcealed disdain. "Ah, Colonel O'Neill, Doctor Jackson, the Jaffa, and Professor Darius Golding. Four of my least favorite people all gathered in the same place. How convenient."
"The feeling's entirely mutual, Thornton," Golding made no attempt to hide his loathing and O'Neill didn't need to ask to know these two had a history going back a long time. He also didn't need to be told this was the guy who'd got Daniel to sign all those disclaimers from his hospital bed.
"Who did you kill this time, Professor?" The NID colonel gave him a look of contempt as he jerked his head at the sarcophagus. "That's a bad habit you've got there."
"You're the ones who gave him the illegal mind-altering drugs," Daniel retorted.
Thornton turned his head to look at Daniel and his smile was chilling. "Hello again, Doctor Jackson, Remember me? Now if you don't want me to beat the crap out of you before I put a bullet in your brain, shut the fuck up."
Daniel blinked in mild hurt. "It's good to see you again too, Colonel."
"Hey!" O'Neill held Thornton's gaze. "Don't talk to him like that."
Thornton smiled again. "You don't get it yet do you, O'Neill?"
"Why don't you explain it to me."
Thornton nodded at Golding. "Why don't I let our resident psychic do that?"
O'Neill looked at Golding who continued to gaze at Thornton with loathing. "We've outlived our usefulness, O'Neill, and they don't want your department to know their department has a sarcophagus. We were never supposed to walk out of here."
Thornton nodded. "Right first time, Golding. Now if only you'd been that speedy about working out how to get here, think of all the trouble we'd have been saved. Of course, I've always wondered why it was you never got one of those neat little psychic flashes when your wife was taking a bath with a razorblade."
O'Neill saw the raw pain on Golding's face darken into furious anger then as he started forward Daniel said rapidly, "Don't give him the satisfaction, Darius."
Thornton put his head on one side. "Oh that's right. He wasn't tuned into his crazy wife's psychic wavelength because he was too busy trying to get into your physical shorts. Isn't that right, Jackson?"
O'Neill didn't know what it cost him but he was proud of the way Daniel kept his voice so even. "Why don't you go and take a cocktail of LSD, Mescaline, Mandrake, Opium poppy, and Blue Lotus flower and see how clear your thinking is, Colonel."
Thornton gave him a nasty smile. "I think I'll pass but I hope you're equally forgiving when I kill you, which is going to be happening…." he looked at his watch, "Ooh any minute now."
"You can't be serious." O'Neill looked at the four NID men in disbelief, all staring back at him impassively, eyes invisible behind their sunglasses. "You're going to shoot us all just so NID doesn’t have to share its new toy?"
"We're tired of the SGC interfering in our business. If you hadn't messed up our operation two years ago we would have an effective deterrent against the Goa'uld by now."
"Or have allied yourselves with them in order to obtain the technology to which they have access," Teal'c rumbled quietly.
Daniel shook his head. "This is insane. You're supposed to be working to protect the country from the Goa'uld. How does killing us help you do that?"
"Well, let me see." Thornton walked towards him. "O'Neill originally risked the safety of everyone on Earth lying about the true outcome of the first mission to Abydos just to cover your sorry ass, Jackson. You've repeatedly interfered with our attempts to obtain the benefits of alien technology and know-how. If it hadn't been for your totally unwarranted interference, for instance, we would have had the use of Tollan technology for the past five years. You also prevented us from obtaining the use of Eurondan weaponry. Something that would have been invaluable to us."
"The Eurondan leaders were pondscum," O'Neill could see the golden coffin gleaming at him, sleek and dangerous and magical. As if it knew how much power it had, like the king's ankus of Kipling, able to make men kill one another just by existing.
Thornton shrugged. "How they chose to run their own country is no concern of ours. They had valuable technology, which you failed to obtain due in no small part to the interference of Doctor Bleeding Heart here. In my opinion, given his questionable loyalties, the Jaffa should never have been placed in a position of trust. While you, O'Neill, by screwing up our operation to obtain alien technology have set us back at least ten years in our fight against the Goa'uld. And as I really don't think we want Golding writing his memoirs, frankly, I don't think there's a better job I could do for the defense of this planet than to put a bullet in each of you here and now."
Daniel folded his arms. "And the fact that's cold-blooded murder doesn't bother you at all?"
Thornton gave him another mirthless smile. "Please keep being the same sanctimonious little do-gooder you always seemed to be in the reports, Doctor Jackson. It will make it so much more pleasurable to put a bullet between your eyes."
"Hey!" O'Neill held up his hands. On another occasion he might have found Daniel's look of hurt indignation amusing, but whether it was something in the chamber affecting him or whether he was just naturally an amoral bastard, Thornton looked deadly serious in his irrational dislikes to him. "Daniel's a civilian. Technically, so is Teal'c. No one is going to believe anything they say, and, given his medical record, Golding is no threat to national security either."
"But Hammond will believe them, O'Neill. And Hammond has friends in high places. Doctor Jackson will go running back to the SGC complaining about us nasty unethical soldiers taking the big bad Goa'uld technology to Area 52 and before we know it we're going to have people interfering in our business once again."
"You haven't been sticking your head in the symbiote pool, have you, Thornton?" O'Neill demanded. "Because I have to say right now I'm finding it a little difficult to see any difference between you and a Goa'uld."
Thornton gave O'Neill a long look. "Your choice, O'Neill. Do you want me to kill Jackson cleanly with a bullet or do you want me to beat him to death? I mean – it's Golding who's going down on the report as the murderer so either would be appropriate. In fact, given Golding's psychiatric reports, there are a whole lot of things we could do to Jackson before we kill him which you might not enjoy watching."
O'Neill stared at Thornton in disbelief and then realized he'd come in at the tail end of a very long grudge match between this guy and Daniel, that Daniel, ironically, didn't even know about. He wondered if this guy had missed out on a promotion because of the screw-up of nineteen eighty-nine. Whatever the reason, Thornton was clearly a guy who could harbor resentment for his country and it was a waste of time trying to appeal to his better nature, as he didn't seem to have one. O'Neill turned to the other three NID men. "I don't believe this is what you signed up for. This has nothing to do with national security and you know it."
"Your trouble, O'Neill, is that you can't stay focused," Thornton told him over his shoulder. "We're supposed to be protecting the planet from alien invasion and you're worrying about keeping in with the Asgard. Haven't you ever noticed that our so-called 'allies' aren't sharing what they know? We've tried your way for five long years and it doesn't work. Time for you to step aside and to let the people who get things done do their jobs."
"Call me old-fashioned, but I still don't get how killing the people who are out there in the frontline fighting the Goa'uld you supposedly oppose is you 'doing your job'." Behind Thornton he could see crackles of blue light getting brighter. There was an energy pulse from the floor discharging straight into his nerve endings, making his knees throb a protest. The way all the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up told him that this was definitely not a drill.
Thornton was still looking at Daniel with dislike. "Do you know how long I had to work on Golding, holding his hand, keeping a lid on his medication, putting up with his crap, only to see it all ruined because you got in the way?"
O'Neill stepped forward holding up his hands, trying to get the attention away from Daniel and back onto him. "Daniel was kidnapped at knifepoint by a guy you'd been supplying with dangerous mind-altering drugs. Given what Golding did to Daniel, I think an apology might actually be in order here."
Thornton shrugged. "Frankly, O'Neill, I don't give a damn what Golding did or why. I care that we spent a million dollars and didn't get anything to show for it just because Jackson apparently makes for a nice piece of ass."
O'Neill saw Daniel reach out and grab Golding and Teal'c who both started forward at the same time. "Don't," Daniel said quietly, watching Thornton. "That's what he wants."
O'Neill realized in the same moment that Daniel was right. Thornton wasn't quite as able to shoot them down in cold blood as he was claiming so it would make life a lot easier for him if they could provide him with an excuse by rushing him.
"Stay put." O'Neill looked across at Teal'c. "That's an order."
"Sir," one of the other NID officers was looking extremely unhappy. "I thought our orders were to retrieve any Goa'uld artifacts without injury to any of the civilians?"
Thornton didn't look at the man. "There are no civilians in this room, Harris. Everyone here is an employee of the United States military. That makes them all legitimate targets. No one walks out of here alive. That's an order."
O'Neill heard the grate of the sarcophagus lid sliding back behind him at the same moment he saw Carter moving silently into position behind the NID officers. The paintings on the walls made for a strange backdrop to an Air Force officer with a Beretta but he couldn't help thinking she made for a much better view than a bunch of gods with strange headdresses sailing down rafts to the underworld.
Thornton was turning his attention to the opening sarcophagus and Daniel spoke rapidly. "John doesn't work for the military, Colonel. He doesn't know a damned thing about the Goa'uld. You can't justify – "
"Shut up." Thornton pointed the gun at Daniel's head and O'Neill had to stop himself from lunging forward. He looked at Teal'c and saw the Jaffa was poised to grab Daniel and pull him out of the way, but even he wasn't faster than a speeding bullet, especially when the gun it was going to be fired from was barely a foot away from Daniel's head.
"Don't do this, Thornton," O'Neill said quietly. "They don't pay you enough for this."
"It's people like Jackson that are stopping us defending ourselves," Thornton snapped. "We're in the middle of a war. We could be invaded at any minute. We have the right to defend ourselves by any means necessary."
O'Neill saw Golding take one step backwards, then another one, inching almost imperceptibly in the direction of the sarcophagus.
Daniel darted a glance over his shoulder at the lid still sliding back with agonizing slowness. "Colonel, please, just put the gun away for one minute. I'll tell John something to get him out of here. He can go and join the others. You don't need to kill him."
"Nelson's a civilian," O'Neill added. "Your own men are telling you civilians are off limits."
"He took the Air Force funding when it was offered. That makes him part of the military."
Harris was looking at Thornton anxiously. O'Neill heard him murmur, "Sir, I don't think this is part of our mandate."
Carter was directly behind the other two NID officers who were unhappily observing the scene from the doorway. One gun, two opponents. As O'Neill watched she simultaneously jammed her M-9 and two fingers against the necks of the two officers. The way they both froze, silently, did O'Neill's heart good. In a moment she had whipped the sidearm out of the second one's hand before he'd realized it was her fingernails against his skin rather than a gun barrel. As the two men turned their heads to look at her she put a finger to her lips and then pointed at the floor. With only the briefest show of reluctance, they lay face down on the floor with their hands behind their heads. O'Neill wondered if a part of them was glad of her intervention, so that whatever happened next it wouldn't be their responsibility.
As the sarcophagus lid continued to open with agonizing slowness, Thornton leveled his sidearm on the place where Nelson was going to appear, expression utterly ruthless.
O'Neill looked at Daniel's poised body language and mentally willed him with everything he had not to make a dive for that gun, because he was damned sure that when Thornton had finished cracking his skull with it, he was going to have no problem with blowing a hole through his head.
His attention torn between the sarcophagus and Daniel, O'Neill watched as Nelson slowly sat up, one hand to his head and a bewildered expression on his face.
Thornton's finger was tightening on the trigger as Carter leveled her sidearm and shouted, "Drop it, Colonel! Now!"
Thornton looked over his shoulder at her, shouted, "Harris, take her out!" then swung his automatic back to fire on the confused Egyptologist.
"Daniel, don't!" O'Neill yelled.
Daniel was diving for the gun while O'Neill was still shouting at him not to. In that agonizing split second as Thornton's attention wavered from the clear target of Nelson to the Daniel who was launching himself at him like a particularly desperate alley cat throwing itself at a pit bull, O'Neill could see exactly where the bullet was going to enter Daniel's body and how there was no way he could ever get there in time to prevent it. A gunshot roared deafeningly in the small chamber.
Worried about hitting Daniel, Carter fired a split-second after Thornton, not quite in time to stop his finger from squeezing the trigger. So many things happened in the same instant that they seemed to burn themselves on his retina while his ears were still ringing from the double percussion of those two gunshots. The puff of red and gray matter in the air which told him Carter had gone for the headshot the situation had warranted and taken out Thornton and half his skull with one perfectly placed bullet. The blur of dark muscle and determination as Teal'c dived at the same instant Daniel did, and with greater speed, precision, and weight, intercepting Daniel and wrapping himself around him so that it was Teal'c's body instead of Daniel's that the bullet found. It tore a furrow along Teal'c's side before speeding towards the place where Nelson was staring at the scene in disbelief. The simultaneous gold and gray blur of Golding throwing himself in front of Nelson.
He blinked and then there was another carousel of images. Golding slumped back against the sarcophagus, a bloody hand clasped to his shoulder, Nelson gazing at the scene of carnage all around him with open-mouthed disbelief, Thornton's body jolting as it hit the floor like a mealsack, Daniel in Teal'c's arms, the Jaffa still shielding him from a danger that wasn't there anymore, blood pouring from Teal'c's side from where the bullet had furrowed it, and most of all of Harris, the NID man who was leveling his gun to point on the back of Carter's head.
O'Neill said rapidly, "Don't do it, Captain."
Harris' finger tightened on the trigger and O'Neill had time to see the horrified look on Daniel's face, the anguish on Teal'c's, saw Carter close her eyes as she waited for the bullet to hit, and then Harris slowly eased his finger off the trigger, put the safety on and held up the gun in submission. "I'm putting this down now, Major Carter," he said quietly.
"Good choice," O'Neill told him.
Carter turned around as Harris slowly lowered the gun to the floor and then dropped it. There was barely a tremor in her voice as she said, "Thank you, Captain." Only the bead of sweat trickling down her forehead revealed how scared she'd been for that moment. But looking at Daniel's face, O'Neill guessed that Carter had just paid him back for whatever fright he'd given her earlier because he was still frozen with the horror of Harris leveling up that gun with the back of her head.
O'Neill said quickly, "Daniel – breathe!" and was relieved to see him gasp some air back into his shocked lungs. Then he was recovering enough to help roll Teal'c over and look at the bloody furrow along his side, grimacing in sympathy and reaching out to staunch the wound. "Thanks, Teal'c. I owe you another one."
"You are welcome, Daniel Jackson."
O'Neill said shortly, "You're welcome to a thick ear from me if you ever try jumping another guy with a loaded gun when I've told you not to, Daniel!"
Daniel gave him a look of shocked surprise and he guessed that he had momentarily forgotten his resolution of the past few years about always treating Daniel like an equal and a fellow adult, and not letting the toddler-approaching-a-shark-infested-paddling-pool effect Daniel occasionally had on him alter the perfect balance, trust, and mutual respect of their relationship.
"Golding, old man, I think you've been shot," Nelson observed, still sitting up in the sarcophagus in open-mouthed bewilderment, staring at a bleeding Golding.
Golding closed his eyes, one hand pressed to his shoulder, he half-laughed as he winced, the dim lighting making the blood look greenish and alien. "Well, under the circumstances I rather think that serves me right, don't you?"
O'Neill held out his hand for one of the guns Carter was holding and she gave him a sidearm. He took in her pale face and trembling hands and spoke quietly undercover of checking the clip. "It was Thornton or Nelson, Major. He didn't leave you any choice."
She nodded, still looking shaken. "I know. Thank you, sir." She went and crouched down by Teal'c, pulling out a sterile pad with fingers that barely shook. He saw Daniel saying something to her that made her nod, saw Teal'c clasp her hand briefly, and thought how lucky he was that after all they'd been through his team still knew the value of a human life, even the life of someone as intrinsically worthless as Thornton appeared to have been.
"Golding, how are you doing?" O'Neill enquired, keeping a wary eye on the NID agents as he did so.
She tossed him a sterile dressing and he crossed over to where Golding was still trying to breathe around the pain of a bullet wound. O'Neill knew how much one of those babies hurt but he knew he was also the only person in the room apart from Golding himself who really thought the guy had it coming.
Golding his gaze and smiled through another wince, answering the expression on his face. "You get no argument from me, O'Neill."
"What happened here?" Nelson made a face at the sight of Golding's injury.
"The right guy died…eventually." O'Neill peeled the old coat back from Golding's shoulder to look at the injury. "Well, the bullet wound isn't too bad, Golding, but I'd say you're up to get ten different kinds of infection from this coat."
As Daniel helped Teal'c to his feet, Carter looked around the chamber checking some little whirligig in her hand while the blue light fizzled and crackled across the stones. "Sir, we have to leave now."
Golding was looking at Carter in unconcealed admiration. "You know I've been wanting someone to blow a hole in that son of a bitch's head for the past fifteen years and she did it with such…style. Is she single?"
His and Daniel's "Don't even think about it!" came out in perfect unison.
Carter gave them a look that could have stripped skin and Daniel held up a finger. "We were just saying…. I mean he is a serial adulterer with a history of mental illness and…. But we weren't interfering. At all…." He trailed off unconvincingly.
O'Neill slapped the sterile pad on Golding's shoulder with more force than was strictly necessary and shoved his blood-stained hand over it to hold it still before looking at the other archaeologist. "You okay, Nelson?"
The man gave his head a shake. "A little confused to be honest, old man. I don't really understand why there were all those bullets flying around and while I presume there's a good reason why I woke up lying in a royal sarcophagus nothing is actually coming to mind."
"Daniel can explain later. We have to leave now." O'Neill turned to the NID men. "You've got almost no time at all to get out of here."
"What about the sarcophagus?" Harris protested.
Carter said rapidly, "Captain, this place is going to blow up any minute and anything inside the perimeter is going to be reduced to powder, including the sarcophagus, and you, if you're still here. Now can you remember the way out of here?"
Harris nodded. "Grosvenor has a photographic memory."
O'Neill pointed to the exit. "You heard Carter, kids. Move it."
The NID men set off at a speed O'Neill just knew the motley crew of people for whom he was temporarily responsible weren't going to be able to match. With Carter helping Teal'c and Daniel helping Nelson it was left to him to assist the wounded Golding. The blue light was crackling all around them now and O'Neill imagined he could feel the rage in the air. Carter could tell him all he liked it was to do with energy fields and the properties of naquada but it felt an awful lot like the ghosts of the Goa'uld who'd died in this place determined that no humans were going to escape from the fate which had greeted them here. O'Neill wondered if they were going to get out of here. Nelson was looking very shaky from the sarcophagus and was clearly particularly bewildered by the bullet hole in his shirt, he kept poking his finger through it in confusion and then feeling across his chest for a wound that wasn't there. Golding had been shot and was clearly hurting, ditto Teal'c. Carter had just been forced to put a bullet through the brain of a fellow soldier and looked as if a stiff drink wouldn't have gone amiss. He and Daniel were both borderline concussed and generally looked like crap. At least he presumed he looked like crap because Daniel kept darting anxious glances over his shoulder at O'Neill and looking not remotely reassured by the sight of him.
He could never have remembered all these twists and turns. But Carter and Golding seemed to know the way, taking it in turns to shout out 'Right here!' or 'Second left!' at the appropriate moment. To him it just seemed like a waking nightmare, the kind of place in which he had only found himself in the past when he was trapped in a bad dream and couldn't wake up. Up ahead, Nelson was breathlessly asking for an explanation of various things and Daniel was panting back that he couldn't tell him now, but he would later. O'Neill wasn't so convinced there was going to be a later. It felt as if they were running in circles, all these lefts and rights, and little chambers that looked identical to the ones they'd just left. What if all they were doing was chasing their own tails? The build up energy was getting more and more difficult to ignore. Every hair on his skin was prickling with the electricity in the air, and the walls were starting to pulse with a louder and faster rhythm, like a heart getting ready to burst.
"Left here, and then straight ahead…." Golding murmured to him. Somehow in O'Neill helping the wounded man it had turned into the wounded man helping him, Golding's immense strength helping to keep him upright as that weight and pain in his chest got worse. He was breathless and bathed in sweat, all the too-familiar signs that he was more badly hurt than he needed to be if he was going to get out of here alive.
"Here, O'Neill," Golding tightened the grip on him. "This is the last doorway. We're out of the center now." Golding shuddered as they passed through it and O'Neill wondered just how much he was remembering now that he'd managed to help himself to forget in the intervening thirteen years. He had a feeling there were things Golding had done to his prisoner that Daniel was never going to tell him about.
"Nearly there now, sir!" Carter shouted it back to him over his shoulder and he could tell by the edge in her voice she was worried he wasn't going to make it.
She wasn't the only one. He had a horrible feeling he was going to die here. That this was what the Labyrinth wanted and had always wanted, that half of the reason for Daniel's fear had been him all along, not just what had been done to Daniel in this place, but what he feared might be done to O'Neill here if he came along. He wondered if there was something in the walls that made even ordinary people see visions and if that was why for someone like Golding it was like declaring open season on his sixth sense. A white-heat of too much psychic information shorting out his reason circuits, his mind filled with an entire satellite network of 24 Hour Goa'uld Horror TV.
He didn't know if it was his own exhaustion, a trick of the murky lights or if some of Golding's psychic energy was leaching into him, but, as he ran, the pictures on the walls seemed to turn their heads to look at him, the jackal heads snarled, the snakes hissed, scorpions shook their stings, hawks raised their wings, and the Goa'uld turned their glowing eyes upon him. There was noise all around them, a buffet of angry energy which was rising from a whine to a roar. The weight in his chest was getting heavier and heavier and he was no longer sure if he was holding Golding up or Golding was supporting him. When he stumbled and Golding hauled him to his feet, he guessed it was definitely the latter.
He could see Daniel ahead of him, turning his head, eyes huge with worry while blue lighting sparked all around him. Just for a second O'Neill knew what it felt like to be Eurydice in the damned myths Daniel insisted on telling every night when they sat around the campfire on alien worlds and he and Teal'c exchanged fairy tales. That must have been what her last sight of Orpheus was like before she was sucked back into the darkness. He could feel an unearthly wind wrapping itself around him now, trying to pull him back into the center where Nekheny and Inanna had died. He was never going to get out of this place.
"Go!" he shouted at Daniel. "I'll catch up with you."
As Nelson stumbled and Daniel turned to help him, O'Neill felt his legs sag with exhaustion and knew he couldn't make this, it really was going to end like this, here on earth in a damned alien spaceship, with the ghosts of the dead Goa'uld cackling in his ears for all eternity.
"No you don't, O'Neill." Golding grunted with exertion as he hauled him up. "You're getting out of here alive even if I have to carry you."
Before O'Neill could remind Golding that he'd been shot, the man was hauling O'Neill's arm around his shoulder and running with him, that Herculean strength which had been such a disadvantage when the man was insane and his captor suddenly one hell of an asset.
As they ran, O'Neill saw the falcon-headed Goa'uld snatch at them angrily, heard Nekheny's death scream, saw a lion-headed goddess smile as she ripped open his chest with her taloned fingers, saw the blood run down Hathor's chin as she bit into his heart, heard Inanna's despairing cry of grief, and then he was shaking his head to clear it and instead hearing the gunshot from the garden, seeing the look on Sara's face, then he was being hunted in the dark corridors of Ra's ship by Anubis guards who moved with the speed of serpents and struck with the force of lions, the staff weapon flared and Daniel was dead before he hit the ground.
Nekheny stepped out of the painting on the wall and stood in front of him with his arms folded, seven foot tall and with his eyes glowing gold.
"All those who disturb my tomb will die here."
As he watched, Teal'c and Carter then Daniel and Nelson ran straight through him, the dead god rippling like a curtain before turning into something unmistakably solid as they approached.
O'Neill reached for his gun but Golding breathed, "It's not there, O'Neill," before dragging him on. O'Neill flinched in readiness for the impact but then they were the through the other side of the place where the Goa'uld wasn't standing and running for the distant hole of light that was the exit.
"If it wasn't there how could you see it too?" he panted.
"I'm psychic. What's your excuse?" Golding gasped back.
He could feel the strength draining out of his body. He coughed and blood spattered on the floor, the weight on his chest was like a medicine ball now, his legs running with water where blood and bone was supposed to be. He saw Carter and Teal'c and then Daniel and Nelson pass out into the sunlight. The Labyrinth was roaring its anger at losing prey now, the walls alive with blue fire. His legs gave out and he felt himself slamming towards the floor, a singing in his ears, and then he was being hoisted up.
Golding said hoarsely, "No one else is dying because of me today, O'Neill."
"Golding, you can't…!"
Before O'Neill could finish his protest, the man threw him over his shoulder, grunting with the pain as he did so, and then began to run with him for the exit. As they ran O'Neill heard the roar of the fire, felt the heat before he saw it, and then he could see it, a red ball of rage hurtling out towards them at the speed of thought. The power of the blast hit them before the flames licked over them, propelling them out of the darkness into the sunlight. They hit the ground so hard O'Neill swore he heard Golding's ribs crack, and then a new wave of blackness wrapped itself around him and carried him into a soft velvet sea.
The last thing he heard before he sank beneath the surface was Daniel calling his name.
This time when he woke up it was to the smell of antiseptic and the crispest sheets he'd ever felt against his skin. No one was putting an oxygen mask over his face or telling him to count backwards from ten. Nor were they crying, or holding his hand or whisper-shouting at him that he'd damned well better not die or they were coming to the Underworld after him to fetch him back. They weren't shining lights in his eyes, or prodding at him either. It was daylight outside but someone had pulled the curtain half across to dim the daylight. The curtain was the color of verdigris and as the light poured through it the effect was a little like being at the bottom of the sea, the sunlight sending a pattern dancing on the far wall in different shades of green and gold.
He turned his head to find Daniel sitting up blearily on a hospital chair at the side of his bed, glasses askew, fumbling sleepily to put them on properly.
O'Neill focused on him. "I told you to go away hours ago."
"I did go away." Daniel reached for the ice chips. "Then I came back again."
Daniel had shaved and changed his clothes. He still looked as if he hadn't slept in a week, but he didn't smell of anything but soap, not only the sweat but also the fear scent had vanished too. When O'Neill looked into Daniel's eyes the rabbit-in-front-of-headlights look had gone.
"I guess that doctor was telling the truth then and I really am going to live."
Daniel gazed at him for a moment. "Talking about telling the truth – Sam and Teal'c both have a bone to pick with you for lying to them."
"I didn't lie to them." He accepted the ice chips Daniel held out to him and popped one in his mouth. He liked the way they first numbed his tongue then melted on it although he still thought they should come in different flavors.
"You had a broken rib sticking in your lung and you told them you were 'fine'."
"Am I a doctor?" O'Neill countered. "How was I supposed to know I had a broken rib?"
"You told me you were fine too."
The reproachful look was on full beam and O'Neill winced then rallied, determined he wasn't going to be guilt-tripped today. "I told you I'd live – which I have. Come to that, I don't remember you telling me you damned near died getting to me and Teal'c had to give you CPR." Carter had told him that in one of his brief forays into consciousness at the same time she'd told him that the site was secure, the explosion had been contained, and the other archaeologists were bewildered but unharmed. He distinctly remembered saying 'Good work, Major' before he sank back into sleep.
Daniel scratched his neck as a blatant displacement activity and then thrust the cup at him again. "More ice chips?"
"Did you tell the doctors about that whole having-to-be-resuscitated thing?"
Daniel wrinkled his nose. "Sam mentioned something."
O'Neill smiled smugly. "Doc Fraiser flew over, didn't she? Bet she yelled at you."
Daniel gave him another reproachful look. "She would have yelled at you, too, except you were under anesthetic at the time having major surgery."
"I thought it was her shining that penlight in my eyes last time I woke up." He tried to look at his watch then realized he wasn't wearing it. "What day is it anyway?"
"It's three days after you…you know." The damned near died was silent but O'Neill read it in his eyes anyway.
O'Neill swallowed the ice chip he was sucking. "How is everyone else?"
"John's fine. He's being discharged tomorrow. Alexis is pissed that we blew up his archaeological site when he was supposed to be delivering a paper on it in Boston in a few weeks but otherwise okay. Sanjay and Hélène are being philosophical about it. Inga has been by Darius's bedside almost the whole time – except for coming into see you a few times. She thinks you look sweet when you're asleep by the way."
He decided to ignore that. If they were going to start jeering about who got the most sappy looks directed at them while they were asleep, Daniel was toast. Even Carter could hit Defcon 7 on the Sap Scale when Daniel was in the infirmary, every nurse in Cheyenne Mountain wanted to fluff his pillows, and he couldn't stub a toe without Fraiser wanting to keep him in for an overnighter in case of complications. "Golding?"
"Touch and go for a while, but he's making a good recovery now. What’s really interesting is that he said he'd been having headaches and visions to do with that place since 1989 and as soon as the Labyrinth blew up they all stopped. He said he feels better than he has in years, apart from his lacerating guilt about John and me, of course, but I hope he's going to get over that."
"I don't." O'Neill realized he was hungry. "Did anyone bring me any fruit?"
"He saved your life."
"He killed you." O'Neill met Daniel's eye, forcing him to confront it. "He killed you because you wouldn't sleep with him."
Daniel shook his head. "He killed me because his wife had just committed suicide, he was out of his mind with guilt, and that place was affecting him. I think he was possessed by the Goa'uld." He shivered. "He did things Darius wouldn't have done. The same way I did things I wouldn't have done after I went through the sarcophagus too many times."
He heard that 'did things Darius wouldn't have done' and mentally filed it away as a subject to return to when Daniel was drunk enough to let his bad experiences be coaxed from him, and hopefully exorcised. O'Neill held out his hand for more ice chips. "How many times is it you've died now? I've actually lost count."
"Oh, like you've never needed to be put through a sarcophagus." Daniel held out the cup.
He grabbed a handful of chips. "Once. And then only after I got turned into a Jaffa. Which could happen to anyone. Ask Teal'c." He took in Daniel's haggard appearance and said gently, "Why don't you get some sleep? I'm not going anywhere."
"You're right about that, Colonel." There was an ominous note to Janet Fraiser's voice, and by the way Daniel winced O'Neill gathered he'd been on the business end of a serious scolding already.
Despite the way her high heels clicked a warning on the tiled floor as she approached, O'Neill gave her his most winsome smile. "Is that my favorite doctor in the whole wide universe? My, you're looking beautiful today. Have you done something different with your hair?" He swallowed a mouthful of chips quickly in case she decided he wasn't entitled to them and took them away.
She gave him a withering look. "Don't waste your breath, Colonel, it's not going to work." When she turned to Daniel her expression softened to one of concern. "Daniel, I distinctly remember telling you to get at least eight hours sleep." She looked at her watch. "That was three hours ago."
"I'm not tired." Daniel wrapped his arms around himself.
"Daniel…." There was the usual mixture of pleading and reproach in her voice. The way Daniel could turn scary Janet Fraiser into total mush was always educational, especially as half the time Daniel wasn't even doing it on purpose. O'Neill would have made fun of the doctor about it except for the fact that he wasn't much better than she was at staying tough when Daniel looked unhappy.
Fraiser put her hands on Daniel's arms and squeezed them gently. "Colonel O'Neill is going to be fine, I promise you. And as I believe that in a rash moment when he came out of the anesthetic you agreed to take a fishing trip with him to Minnesota, you really need to go and build up your strength for that coming ordeal."
Daniel smiled at her, his rare sweet smile, and O'Neill swore he saw her visibly wilt under the power of it. "Okay, Janet." He waved to O'Neill. "I'll see you later."
O'Neill waved back then watched him walk across the room, veering a little as his tiredness caught up with him. "He loves Minnesota, you know. Can't get enough of it. He just hides it well."
Fraiser waited until Daniel was out of the room before turning on O'Neill crossly. "You scared the hell out of Daniel, Colonel. Do you know how many hours you were in surgery?"
"I didn't do it on purpose," he protested. "At no point did I invite one of his loony-tune grave-robber pals to take me prisoner!"
"Did you or did you not pretend to be in a sexual relationship with Daniel for the sole purpose of aggravating a man you knew to be delusional, inhumanly strong, and taking psychotropic drugs?"
There were times when Janet Fraiser really reminded him of his mom. O'Neill shifted uncomfortably under her gimlet gaze. "Not…much." As her gaze continued to laser him, he waved a hand. "Hey, he was really annoying and he had it coming."
Janet flashed a penlight in his eyes, making him wince. "This is a long list of avoidable injuries for you. I see it's not enough for you to regularly smart-mouth System Lords or go out of your way to irritate aliens with short-tempers and advanced weapons, you now have to start annoying dangerous ex-mental patients as well."
O'Neill tugged at his earlobe. "I hear he's recovering?"
"Yes, although it's a miracle he survived. The man must have the constitution of an ox."
"Confused but fine apart from that."
O'Neill thought about the sharpness of Alexis' disappointment, the hint of defiance in Nelson's voice in the jeep as he defended Daniel from O'Neill's imaginary criticism. "He's been a good friend to Daniel."
Fraiser picked up the chart from the end of his bed. "So have you."
He thought about Euronda, the look on Daniel's face as he killed the robot, a hundred little slights and hurts and moments when he'd said the wrong thing or not been paying attention, hadn't had the guts to say the kinder words because he didn't want to look sappy because after all he was a guy and guys didn't express their feelings. He felt suddenly very tired. "Sometimes."
Fraiser scanned his chart. "I've told General Hammond you both need at least two weeks off after you're released and he's agreed."
"Good." He could never work out what she was thinking from the way she read his chart. As far as he could tell professional poker players had nothing on doctors when it came to keeping their feelings hidden.
"The general told me to tell you that you did good, Colonel."
He had a horrible feeling that praise from Hammond still made him light up like a Christmas tree. His father had never been generous with praise, so from people he respected it meant a lot to him, which was why he'd tried, in the past at any rate, not to be unstinting with it to his teammates when he felt they deserved it. "He's not pissed about the sarcophagus?"
"He's glad you're alive." She put the clipboard back. "As are we all, sir."
He blinked at her in surprise.
"You nearly weren't, you know." Her tone was gentle, her eyes a little reproachful. "The doctors here saved your life. By the time I could get here it would have been too late."
He met her gaze. "Make sure Daniel gets some sleep. Sedate him if necessary. He made himself remember how it felt to die to save my life. I think under those circumstances, the least I can do in return is teach him how to fish, and that's going to take energy, determination, and perseverance on his part, so he's going to need to be fully recovered."
She smiled, clearly relieved at his display of normality. "You're all heart, Colonel."
He watched her walk away and lay back down on the pillows, feeling the crisp Egyptian cotton against his skin. He wasn't a fanciful man but he had to admit he believed that place had been out to get him, and by the sound of things had come very close to succeeding. It had been out to get Daniel too, using Golding as a convenient conduit to drip-feed insanity into the disturbed man's mind. Golding's knife to Daniel's heart had claimed his life once, and Golding's boot in his ribs had damned near claimed O'Neill's. O'Neill and Daniel were undoubtedly enemies of the Goa'uld and he couldn't help wondering if in some way the Labyrinth had known that. He'd felt a strong sense of evil when he'd been in there, Nekheny still a presence in that place in a way that Ra wasn't on Abydos. He wasn't going to put that in any report because he didn’t want to sound crazy but perhaps in a few months time he might ask to have a word with Bra'tac. See if there were any myths among the Jaffa about the older Goa'uld, the System Lords that had come before Ra. If they'd had powers these more technologically advanced Goa'uld didn't, like the ability to look into the future and know this harmless-looking scholar was one day going to help bring down the most powerful System Lord in the galaxy and save the Earth from invasion. Apophis had hated Ra, but he'd hated them more because they'd killed him, and as slave stock they weren't supposed to be able to do that, they weren't supposed to do anything except what the Goa'uld told them to.
There might have been variants of Goa'uld species in the same way there were Tok'ra. The Goa'uld had been very different once, perhaps they hadn't followed in a straight line to become what they were today, and perhaps some of those offshoots were still out there somewhere. The SGC had spent the last five years realizing what a very big place the universe was and what a tiny part of it they'd explored so far. Perhaps there were clues here on earth to what could be lying out there around the next corner, the next leap into the unknown through the next new 'gate address. Perhaps, scared though they were of the System Lords, they hadn't always been scared enough.
O'Neill reached across to get the last of the ice chips and poured them into his mouth, letting the cold burn his tongue, enjoying the moisture from the ones already half-melted. He could feel exhaustion weighing on his eyelids and hoped that Daniel was succumbing to it in just the way he was about to himself. Horrible thought though it was, O'Neill felt that before too long he and Daniel were going to have to hold a serious conversation about Ancient Egyptian mythology. But in the meantime he urgently needed to sink into a deep dreamless sleep for about the next…twenty-four hours.
The exhaustion was still prone to come over him in waves. Daniel climbed unsteadily out of the Air Force car. He'd been told twice already he wasn't going anywhere without what looked suspiciously like a minder until Hammond had satisfied himself the NID team didn't have a back-up group looking to get even with any of his team the hard way, and he didn't think it was coincidence the 'driver' he'd been given was on a physique scale a dead ringer for Teal'c. He asked the driver politely if he would mind waiting.
The driver gave him a tolerant look. "That's what I'm paid for, Doctor Jackson."
He would have much preferred to travel by himself and use the local transport, but Hammond was taking no chances. The events of the Labyrinth had left him decidedly shaken, the thought that he'd sent Daniel into danger, when he'd imagined he was keeping him safely on Earth until he'd recovered, had really upset the man. Daniel was still feeling physically groggy but he hadn't seen the harm in just going around a couple of native bazaars and getting to taste the food again, to enjoy the sunlight, and the sound of that beautiful language on his tongue and in his ears. Hammond had seen things differently. Sam and Teal'c had been dispatched to fetch him back to the hospital to be fussed over by Janet, and then scolded via satellite telephone by Hammond, the man's worried countenance even more of a reproach than his words about how irresponsible Daniel was being, and Doctor Fraiser had thought she'd made it clear to him that he wasn't yet well enough to.… He'd been packed off to his room in the hospital like a naughty child and when he'd tried to sneak off to see Jack he'd found a solid wall of Air Force sergeant outside his door saying, "Can I get you anything, Doctor Jackson?"
"I want to see Jack," he'd protested mutinously, trying to edge round him.
The man had been blandly implacable, blocking his escape and walking him back into the room by sheer weight of personality and breadth of shoulders. "Colonel O'Neill's asleep right now. Why don't you visit him in the morning?"
Swearing, Daniel had ended up showering, eating the food someone had left on his bed on a tray while he was in the shower, drinking the damned decaff which was all Janet was letting him have, and then sleeping for eight hours straight, just the way Hammond had told him to do. Something which still rankled.
He'd complained so much about being a prisoner that they'd reached a compromise of Sam and Teal'c agreeing to accompany him so he could visit his old haunts on condition that as soon as they thought he looked tired he had to agree to return to the hospital without arguing. Sam had later told him in exasperation that the 'without arguing' clause also covered whining, pouting, sulking, heel dragging, and generally acting like a 'difficult five year old'. As Sam almost never got angry with him, Daniel realized he was either being very annoying or her nerves were still particularly raw. Teal'c invariably backed Sam and Janet up even when they were being harpies-in-training, so, with Nelson already discharged he'd found his only real soulmate in Jack, who was as bored as he was with being imprisoned in a hospital and was willing to share his fruit baskets with him in exchange for chocolate bars and company. Bizarrely, Jack and Darius had even struck up something of an alliance over the matter of alcohol, which Darius had managed to get smuggled into the hospital despite security checks that were supposed to be tight enough to stop an NID agent or even an ashrak getting through. Darius had always had the uncanny ability to obtain whiskey on any dig in any country however 'dry' it was supposed to be and Jack had been grudgingly forced to admit that this was a trait he could appreciate.
Luckily for both of them, Janet had been recalled to the SGC as soon as it was clear they were out of danger, or Daniel was certain she would have worked out what they were up to at once. But the other medical staff didn't have her eagle eyes or uncanny sense of smell and so far Jack and Darius been able to work their way through two bottles of single malt without being rumbled.
Daniel often came in to find Darius and Jack engaged in strange two-handed poker games on Jack's bed, both of them still hooked up to their drips, communicating in monosyllabic grunts with one another, and surreptitiously passing the whiskey backwards and forwards. They reminded Daniel of WWI English and German soldiers playing football in No Man's Land. The second the festivities were over they would return to trying to kill one another with only mild regret, but for the moment sheer boredom had made them temporarily set aside their differences. Jack and Darius were currently playing something called 'Chicago Lowball' with rules that they seemed to have made up and which only they understood. Despite the now numerous occasions on which Daniel had been dragged into playing with them he was no wiser about what he was supposed to be trying to achieve. Every time he'd thought he'd lost he'd been handed a Snickers bar and every time he thought he'd finally accumulated a decent hand he was told 'better luck next time' and denied his sip of whiskey. He didn't like the damned whiskey anyway but it was still annoying.
Sam and Teal'c had been forced to fly back to Colorado the day before and he already missed them. Sam had hugged him a little longer than usual at the airport, eyes suspiciously bright as she told him to wrap up warm in Minnesota. Teal'c had gazed into his eyes for a long moment before gripping his shoulders gently in farewell and saying, "Daniel Jackson…" in that very intense way Teal'c had that made Daniel's name sound like something of great significance. He'd realized for the first time that they were both having problems with the fact he'd technically died before they met him and they might never have met him if it hadn't been for that sarcophagus. But that had always been the case as he'd technically died again on Abydos, but perhaps because Ra had deliberately brought him back to life whereas Darius had only done it by accident, they seemed more shaken up by his earlier trip to the wrong side of the Styx. He supposed stopping breathing right in front of Teal'c and leaving Sam with only an agonizing expanse of static and John's incoherent commentary while Teal'c tried to resuscitate him hadn't done a lot for their nerves either. For himself, he was still seeing the bullet go into Teal'c, that gun pointing at the back of Sam's head, while if Sanjay hadn't arrived when he had with the ambulance Jack would have been dead. So he was very aware of how it felt to be scared for a teammate.
The hospital felt lonely and sterile without Sam and Teal'c, and Egypt like an old love affair whose fires he could never rekindle. He was actually looking forward to Jack getting out of the hospital even though the day Jack was signed out he was sentenced to two weeks in Minnesota freezing his butt off in a fishing boat. Egypt was too melancholy for him at the moment, too beautiful and too lost to him, just like Sha're.
He made his way slowly up the hill to where the grave was, very aware of that Air Force driver watching him all the way, ready to leap out and shoot anyone who might possibly threaten him. The day was hot despite the clouds overhead and his shirt stuck to his skin. He wished he'd remembered to wear a hat. Then he saw the gravestone and forgot about everything except the man who it commemorated.
Nelson had been right about Rajid's grave. It was a magnificent headstone, carved in hieroglyphs and Arabic, facing towards Mecca, naturally, and commending his wisdom and courage, explaining that he had died saving others.
Daniel knelt beside it, his knees indenting the earth, and touched the cool stone. When he closed his eyes he remembered the younger Rajid swooping him out of the way of the danger his curiosity was constantly leading him into, never once losing his temper, despite the way the young Daniel was enough to try the patience of a saint. Being there to comfort in an instant if he skinned a knee or frightened himself getting lost in a tomb. Teaching him Arabic as he shared his food with him.
Then he remembered sitting up in the sarcophagus and Rajid reaching into him, stroking his hair back from his face, breathing, "What have I done? What have I done?" Tears running down his face.
"I thought he was dead." Darius was shaking like aspen leaves in the breeze. "Get him out of here. I'm crazy, Rajid. He isn't safe around me. I keep seeing things and I swear they're real and then they…."
Rajid helped Daniel to scrambled awkwardly out of the sarcophagus, exclaiming at the sight of him. Rajid had a blanket around his shoulders to keep out the cold, but now he tore it from his back and wrapped Daniel in it, pulling it close around him. Daniel shivered convulsively, feeling as if every atom in his body was fighting its neighbors. He stared at the blood on his chest in disbelief, flinching when Darius came near, brain locking in terror at the sight of him.
"What did you do to him?" Rajid demanded.
Darius held up his hands, tears running down his face. "I think I killed him. I don't know. Maybe he's a ghost."
"Why is he naked?"
Daniel flinched again from the anguish in the old man's voice, clinging onto the blanket while the shame and fear rippled through him.
Rajid grabbed Darius's coat. "What did you do?"
"I don't know!" Darius stepped back. "I think I…did something very bad to him. Get him away from here before this place blows up."
"Put out the fires!"
"No. It’s evil. It whispers to me. It tells me to do terrible things. If there's a Satan he lives here. It has to be destroyed and I have to be destroyed too before I do anything worse."
"Come." Rajid took Daniel's arm and tugged him decisively towards the exit.
He'd run blindly because Rajid told him to, even though he felt so strange and remote from his body that he thought he might be the ghost Darius feared. After an eternity in the darkness, they emerged into the light and he collapsed on the sand, shuddering. The dawn light was pink and gold but so cold it chilled the sweat upon his skin. The breeze tugged at his blanket while he clutched it to him, gazing over his shoulder at the Labyrinth, trying to remember what had happened, how he'd got there, why he was naked, but too afraid of what the truth might be to be sure he wanted to know. He thought he remembered Darius dragging him into the darkness, and then there was something else, something terrible, pain and fear, and the knife…
As someone shook him he gasped with shock and fear, putting up a hand to ward off a blow.
"Daniel…" There was an ache in Rajid's voice as he crouched in front of him. His eyes were full of tears and he reached out very gently to stroke Daniel's matted hair back from his face.
Daniel stared into his face and saw something broken in the old man's heart, a grief in those kind brown eyes that went so deep his soul was seared with it, whatever had been done to Daniel in there had all-but killed Rajid.
Acutely aware of his nakedness, Daniel pulled the blanket more tightly around himself, the blood on his chest sticky against his fngers.
Looking into Rajid's sorrowing eyes Daniel said desperately, "I'm sorry."
Rajid touched his hair again, so gently and with such regret, the gnarled old fingers like velvet against his skin, then he leaned across and touched his lips to Daniel's forehead, granting absolution. He whispered softly in Egyptian, "Forgive me…?"
And then he'd gone back into the Labyrinth to rescue Darius, leaving Daniel rocking in the dirt, cold and filthy and full of shame, skin prickling away from the trails of congealing blood, seeing those tears glistening forever in Rajid's disappointed eyes….
Daniel opened his eyes to find himself kneeling next to the old man's grave, feeling as if the last link to his past had been broken, and the loneliness was like the maw of the Labyrinth, about to devour him whole.
He jerked his head around in surprise to see Jack standing five feet away with a bunch of flowers in his hand. He blinked at him in confusion, having to swallow the lump in his throat before he could speak. "Are you allowed out of the hospital?" His voice came out muffled.
"Would I be here if I wasn't?" Jack came over to where he was kneeling and crouched down next to him. He laid the flowers next to the grave, looked at Daniel's face and tentatively touched his back. "I'm sorry about Rajid, Daniel. I'm sorry he died and I'm sorry it was him who gave Darius the drugs that made him go crazy, but it wasn't your fault."
It was too much what he needed to hear. Too much what he needed in every way to have someone from his present turn up at the exact moment when his past seemed in danger of overwhelming him. Although he'd promised himself he was never going to cry in front of Jack again for as long as he lived, he felt the grief twist through him like a knife and then the world was blurring to a salt sting of unbearable sorrow.
"It's okay." Jack put an arm around him and pulled him in close so as the tears welled up Daniel could hide them in his neck.
"He was a good man," Daniel breathed. "He really was. It was just one moment of temptation and he gave way to it. He asked me to forgive him but I didn't know what he was asking. I didn't know what he'd done. I didn't tell him I forgave him, Jack."
Jack tightened his grip on him. "He knew you forgave him." He rubbed his back gently. "I promise you, he knew."
"I miss him." Daniel was ashamed of acting like an eight year old but feeling like he had back then, when his parents had been taken from him right in front of his eyes, missing them and Sha're and Rajid and all the possibilities life had seemed to hold when he was five years old and playing in the shadow of dead pharaohs' tombs.
"I know." Jack kept rubbing his back gently. "I miss Charlie. I miss his sense of humor. He told the best jokes, you know…? He never forgot a punch-line. I miss finding out what kind of an adult he would have made."
Daniel reluctantly disentangled himself from Jack's embrace, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "He would have made a great adult, Jack. His father did."
"Thank you." Jack wiped his eyes as well, sitting back on his knees. There was a pause while they both composed themselves then Jack made a face. "We weren't just really sappy, were we?"
Daniel pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. "Of course not. We work for the Air Force."
Jack straightened his jacket, brushing off imaginary fluff. "I think even if we were really sappy it would be okay because we're both taking a lot of painkillers and everyone knows morphine does that to you."
Daniel put his handkerchief away. "I'm not on morphine, Jack."
"Oh." Jack cleared his throat. "Well, you're on anti-histamines. That counts."
"I'm on those all the time."
Jack opened his mouth and then shrugged. "Well…anyway…we work for the Air Force so that means we're not sappy, and I think that's really the clinching argument."
Daniel nodded. "Works for me." He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering his younger self trying to reason with Darius and failing so miserably, then sitting there shivering in that blanket in the chill morning air. He winced. "God, I was such a wuss in those days."
"Daniel…" Jack gave him a reproving look, visibly affronted on behalf of the person he had been. "You were twenty-three. Cut yourself a little slack. And anyway you're not like that now. You're a completely different person even from the guy I first met."
Daniel wiped the tears from his face pointedly. "Oh yeah. I'm so different now."
"Hey, I'm a lot older than you were back then and a career soldier, and Golding on a bad trip flashback scared the crap out of me."
Although he still thought the person he had been in the past had been embarrassingly wimpy and the person he'd been on this particular mission wasn't anything to write home about either, Daniel was grateful for Jack's defense of that scared naked kid he'd once been. He got up and held out a hand to the older man. "Well, maybe next time I tell you a guy is dangerous and you shouldn't provoke him you could try listening to me."
"Nag, nag, nag. You're worse than Fraiser." Jack clambered awkwardly to his feet, wincing as his broken ribs clearly twanged a warning. He looked back at the grave and then took Daniel's arm, steering him away from it. As they walked down the hill to the waiting car, Jack said quietly, "I thought it was Rajid's daughter Golding had killed until I realized it was you."
Daniel looked at him in surprise. "Fatima?"
"Yes." Jack seemed surprised by his surprise. "She seemed the obvious choice. Girl he'd got pregnant who'd maybe written to his wife – "
"Darius didn't get Fatima pregnant, and it was Rajid who wrote to his wife. And you should have known Darius couldn't have killed her."
Jack gave him a look of exasperation. "Because he was such a morally upright guy? He was a serial adulterer, drug-addict, and borderline alcoholic who kidnapped you at knifepoint!"
Daniel grimaced. "No, you should have known Darius didn't kill Fatima because you met her the first night we were in Egypt. It was her house we stayed in. I introduced you to her. Doctor Fatima Shihata. She's an archaeologist who works on the Hierakonpolis site."
"Oh." Jack scratched his jaw. "You introduced me to lots of people. Some of the names didn't stick too well."
"I got that." Daniel looked back at the gravestone. "I wish you could have met him."
"In another universe I probably did."
Daniel looked to the west to the place where the Labyrinth had been for all those thousands of years, buried and malevolent. "In another universe it probably got us."
Jack put an arm around his shoulders. "But in this one it didn't, and that's what counts."
Daniel forced a faint smile. "The only reality of consequence, right?"
"Well, a wise man did once say that. Although if you ever tell Teal'c I called him 'wise' I will hurt you." Jack steered Daniel away from grave and the view over to where the Labyrinth was. The Air Force officer already getting out to open the passenger door for them, saluting Jack crisply as he did so. Jack returned his salute.
Daniel took a last look at the grave on the hillside and breathed softly, "I forgive you, Rajid, and I miss you, and thank you for everything you did for me. Thank you for saving my life…."
Jack rested a hand on his shoulder gently.
Daniel nodded. "Yes."
Jack winced as he got into the car, cradling his ribs as he sank back into the seat carefully. "Next stop Minnesota."
Daniel sighed. "The Gopher State."
"We prefer North Star State, Daniel. Anyway, have you got something against gophers?"
"No." He sighed again. "Nor fish. Nor snow. Nor big cold wet lakes with no fish in them. Nor cabins with roofs that leak. Nor generators that make enough noise to wake the dead. Nor blankets with moss on them."
"Cool." Jack grinned at him smugly.
"You're really going to milk the fact one of my colleagues nearly killed you, aren't you?".
Jack grinned wider. "Yep."
Daniel slumped back into the seat. The interior was already hot despite the air conditioning, the plastic trying to glue itself to his skin. "Minnesota here we come." After a pause he said wearily, "Our luggage is already in the back, isn't it?"
"And you discharged yourself from the hospital against the doctor's recommendation?"
"Yep." Jack looked completely unabashed. "I was bored, we were out of whiskey, and I was losing at poker."
"Are we flying in an Air Force jet?"
"Yep." There was a hint of defiance in Jack's answer as if he was expecting an argument.
Daniel gave him his best under-the-eyelashes begging look. "Can we go to Minnesota via Boston? I didn't get much chance to explain to Alexis and at least if I went and listened to his lecture…." He trailed off.
Jack gave his most martyr-like sigh in return. "Only as long as I'm not expected to attend any lectures or visit any Museums for the rest of my natural life. And I don't want to hear one whine about how cold it is in Minnesota. Ever."
Daniel held out a hand. "Deal."
Jack shook it gravely, his fingers warm against Daniel's palm. "Deal."
They drove the rest of the way to the Air Base in companionable silence.
He never got bored with museums. He knew he had more reason than most to dislike them but they still soothed him. He supposed they were to him what cathedrals were to Christians, places stretching back into the past proving there had been others like him before him who had cared enough to collect these objects and build a place in which to house them that did justice to their significance.
He'd listened to Alexis' lecture then slipped out here to the Museum to meet Nelson. They'd spoken in the hospital, of course, but Nelson had worn the faraway look of a man still processing information, he'd been absently fond but essentially unreachable. Daniel had started to make him an explanation several times and then realized that an explanation wasn't what Nelson wanted yet, just the time and space to assimilate the inexplicable. He hadn't known what Nelson knew, what he remembered, if anything, if there was any comprehension there of how close he had come to being permanently dead. Remembering the near-fatal consequences of tripping those memory landmines in his own mind, he hadn't wanted to push anything and had ended up talking about everything except the Labyrinth itself.
A week later Alexis had demanded a proper explanation for both himself and Nelson before they flew out, insisting that they were owed that. Daniel had agreed and had obtained Hammond's permission to tell them what they wanted to know. He'd told Hammond he needed to handle this his way and the SGC needed to trust him, and Hammond had given him his approval, another reason why Daniel loved the general quite as much as he did. Hammond had also told Daniel he would be doing a follow-up call to Alexis and Nelson himself to put their minds at rest and answer any outstanding questions they might have. Daniel had been grateful for Hammond's respect for his friends and their intelligence and had promised their discretion. He'd met Alexis and Nelson in the airport over bad coffee and an intercom that threatened to perforate the eardrums, and told them the truth about the Labyrinth, about what it was, and what it so effectively wasn't. They'd taken it surprisingly well, given him their assurances that the information would not be passed on, and then hurried to catch their flight. Daniel had known he would be receiving a follow up call from one or both of them before too long and had been only relieved when it had arrived. The Boston conference had provided the perfect excuse, and, safe in the knowledge Daniel was committed to two weeks fishing in Minnesota, Jack had been uncharacteristically obliging about getting Daniel to Boston on time.
Daniel had agreed to meet Nelson by the statue of Horus-as-Nekhen, it seemed appropriate. Daniel took a moment to walk around the statue, which had been carefully reconstructed from its broken parts, and replacements recast to fill in the gaps. It was an interesting statue of a black falcon with plumes on its head, large and impressive, but it didn't fill him with the same horror the labyrinth had done. Whatever Nekheny had left behind, none of it had been transferred to this statue which mentioned his name.
He turned to find Nelson standing by the window. It was impossible to see the man again and not remember him lying dead in his arms with that bleeding hole in his heart. Daniel hurried over to him and hugged him, holding him tightly. Nelson looked embarrassed and pleased, gently patting his back before disengaging himself.
"Well, you look a lot better than the last time I saw you." He held Daniel at arm's length. "I gather O'Neill and Darius are both on the mend?"
Daniel nodded. "Both patients doing well and apparently both headed for Minnesota. Darius is going to recuperate with Inga and one of her relatives."
"Be funny if those two ended up together after all this time." Nelson began to walk around the Boston Falcon curiously. "Although I can't say that would be my first choice of a state in which to recover from major surgery. What's wrong with Hawaii?"
Daniel sighed regretfully. "Nothing from where I'm standing."
Nelson looked across at him. "I'm not going to ask you lots of difficult questions about what you told us, by the way. I've thought about it a lot over the past few weeks and I came to the conclusion that I don't think I want to know what you know." Nelson half-smiled. "Well, the truth is, I don't have your energy. Or your bloody-minded stubbornness. I really don't want to have to write papers about alien spaceships and demonic possession and defend them to my peers. Not really my style. I mean the damned place blew up so we can really say what we want about it now and I'd prefer to stick to the stuff I can make sense of, like the Ennead of Nekhen concept. Hunt around – see if I can find any more evidence of mythology linking Wenut, Wepwawet, and Nekheny."
Daniel nodded. "I think that's very wise."
"I know there's quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, but I don't think Darius is a danger to anyone any more."
Nelson shrugged. "I mean if you and I aren't scared of him…?"
Daniel wrapped his arms around himself to keep out a sudden chill. "I think I'll always be a little scared of him. But I think it was that place that made him do the things he did, and that place no longer exists." He darted him a sideways look. "Is Alexis still pissed with me?"
"I think you're safe enough. He's not too happy with the United States Air Force, but I think he's managed to convince himself you're blameless. You do have to remember that as far as Alexis is concerned you're still about eighteen and can do no wrong. And even if you did do something wrong it would only be because someone else was leading you astray. So although you might appear to have rather carelessly destroyed an invaluable archaeological site, he's determined to blame anyone but you. Which I'm all for, incidentally."
Daniel blinked innocently. "Me too."
Nelson half-laughed. "Just don't tell him what you really do for a living or I think he'll have a stroke. Don't tell me either. I don't want to know. Just tell me you take better care of yourself usually than you were when we were getting to the center of that damned maze."
Daniel wrinkled his nose. "Yes. I do. Believe me, John. I like my work much better when it doesn't physically injury me in any way."
"You know the really funny thing?" Nelson was still gazing at the plumed black falcon.
"For five years now – or is it six – I've been telling our learned colleagues that just because you’re working for the Air Force it doesn't mean that you're not getting the chance to do wonderful work. For all we know, I've been saying, you may have access to sites and resources the rest of us can only dream about. For all we know you might have already found Atlantis, solved the mystery of the Anazasi, touched the skeletons of the Nefilim. And you know what? I never for one minute considered the possibility it might be true." He gave Daniel another gentle smile. "Do you like your work?"
Daniel thought about Reese, about the pain of a staff weapon blast, the somber formality of a requiem for yet another dead colleague whose loved ones could never be told the truth about how he or she had died. And then he thought about the gate shimmering, that incredible tightness in his chest he got at the prospect of it, the excitement as they stepped through onto an entirely new world, the infinite possibilities of the universe only seven 'gate addresses away, and he smiled. "Yes. I love my work. Of course some days I also hate my work, but on the whole I love it."
Nelson nodded, stepping back from the statue. "Well, that's all that matters. I should have asked you that a long time ago, but the truth is I was afraid of the answer I was going to get. I think we all felt we rather abandoned you. We wanted to help but we didn't know how. By the time we heard you'd been kicked out of the university you'd vanished, and then there were rumors you were dead, and by the time we'd had it confirmed you actually were alive and well you were working for the Air Force. None of us knew if we should be happy for you or if we were being terribly neglectful not to be trying to break you out of that place."
Daniel half-smiled. "Don't believe everything you hear about the military. They do unlock the leg irons from time to time."
"Having spoken to your General Hammond I'm feeling a lot easier in my mind. He asked for my discretion rather than demanding it. He didn't bully or threaten and he was obviously very fond of you. So clearly a man of impeccable taste."
As Nelson smiled at him, Daniel felt his breath catch, the guilt stabbing him. "John, if anyone abandoned anyone, I abandoned all of you. I fell in love, first with a woman, and a way of life, and then with a job and it…consumed me a little. But I would have told you if I could."
Nelson shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Perhaps my views about the history of Ancient Egypt are illusions, but they're my illusions and they're important to me. I don't want to know what you know and, to be honest, I suspect I don't want to have seen some of the things you've seen. But whatever you're doing you seem to have good people to help you do it."
"The best people." Daniel nodded.
"At least with Colonel O'Neill you've got a fellow enthusiast to talk to."
Daniel stared for a moment and then nodded. "Absolutely."
"And your friend Teal'c is an Egyptologist as well, isn't he?"
"Yes. He's an expert on some obscure Egyptian dialects and customs."
"And Major Carter kills bad men with great efficiency and gives sterling instructions on how to administer CPR."
Daniel held up a finger. "That's just scraping the surface of Sam's talents."
"Well, she's clearly very fond of you. The poor girl was beside herself when you stopped breathing. She's very pretty too." Nelson darted him a look that was as subtle as a steamroller.
Daniel laughed. "No, John. Sam and I aren't dating, but I love her dearly and she is definitely one of the good things about my job."
Such formality from Alexis was as ominous as when his father had used his whole name in the past. Daniel grimaced expressively at Nelson and then turned around slowly. Alexis was walking towards him briskly with no hint of his usual welcoming smile, his normally expressive countenance unreadable. Daniel noticed for the first time that there were hints of silver in Alexis' springy black curls, and his beard was now as much gray as black.
"Alexis." Daniel waited for the man to come up to him, not quite sure how to deal with a disapproving Alexis.
Alexis looked him up and down and then abruptly pulled him in for a hug. Daniel gasped at the strength of the embrace, getting his first inkling of how badly he'd scared the man with how close he'd come to being incinerated in the Labyrinth for the second time in his life. As he hugged him Alexis muttered a reproach in his ear in Greek which it took Daniel a moment to translate as 'scary pest boy'. The thought that Jack would probably approve of it made the title rankle no less.
As the man finally let him, Daniel protested mildly, "I'm thirty-six, Alexis."
"Don't be absurd." Alexis glanced over at the black falcon without liking. "If you're thirty-six that means I'm almost sixty and that's clearly untrue."
"Alexis, you've got four grandchildren," Nelson pointed out equably.
"A man can have grandchildren before he's forty if he starts young enough and his children follow suit. Grandchildren prove nothing. Daniel being thirty-six makes me an old man, therefore he can do the decent thing and stay twenty-five forever." Alexis looked Daniel up and down. "He looks more like twenty-five than thirty-six anyway."
"Mary would say he looks as if he needs a good meal." Nelson also looked him over critically.
Daniel shifted uncomfortably under their gaze. He'd forgotten how maiden-auntish archaeologists could be. "Good lecture," he offered. "About there being fragments of the Book of Enoch on the walls of the Labyrinth."
"Yes." Alexis narrowed his eyes. "In Proto-Canaanite. A confirmation that the Aramaic version amongst the Red Sea Scrolls was a copy of a much older document. Possibly one of the most significant finds of the last decade in the field of Ancient Hebrew Mythology. The only fly in the ointment being my having to tell everyone the site no longer actually exists as we somewhat carelessly allowed it to get blown up." Alexis glared at Daniel in mock-reproach.
"Hélène sent me a mournful little card in hospital saying that all her sites died and she thought she was cursed," Nelson observed. "Poor girl. The next place she works on had better come with a certificate guaranteeing it against having motorways built over it and unexpected spontaneous combustion."
"Sanjay is never going to get over losing his snake pictures. I've asked my wife to make him a tapestry of them from the videotape. Which, incidentally, Daniel, I told the Air Force had been destroyed in the explosion. I'm damned if I'm giving them anything after the way they vandalized the place."
Daniel winced. "Understood. Can I have a copy as well?"
Alexis looked at him for a moment. "How old are you?"
Daniel moistened his lips. "Twenty-five?"
"Good boy. I'll put a copy in the post to you. Where's O'Neill?"
Daniel sighed. "He's gone on ahead to Minnesota to make the cabin even wetter and colder and nastier than it usually is."
"Nonsense. He's avoiding me because he's scared because he damned well blew up my site."
"We didn't do it on purpose," Daniel offered. "We were just trying to find Jack and we switched off the thing that was stopping it from exploding."
"In my experience normal archaeological sites don't explode, Alexis," Nelson put in. "That's probably a clue right there that we were well shot of the place."
"That's a good attitude, Nelson."
At the sound of Jack's voice, Daniel swung around in surprise. Jack was wearing his chinos and leather jacket in what Daniel suspected was a bid to look as non-Air Force as possible which, given Alexis' current feelings towards the Air Force was probably a good idea.
"Colonel O'Neill." Alexis' tone was forbidding. "I thought you were en route for Minnesota."
Jack gave them his best shit-eating grin while radiating the kind of body language he usually reserved for General Hammond after he'd done something wrong and didn't want to get canned for it. "I was halfway to the airport when I remembered that the last time Daniel told me he'd catch up with me, he perforated his appendix just to get out of fishing, so I thought I'd better make sure he didn't rupture a kidney or something this time."
Alexis looked at Daniel accusingly. "You've had appendicitis? Why didn't you tell me?"
"He told me," Nelson offered, then realizing that it made things worse gave Daniel an apologetic wince.
Alexis looked outraged. "But I'm your godfather, you're supposed to tell me things like that."
"You fuss, Alexis. I don't."
"You're his godfather?" Jack seemed to think this was something he should have known.
"The humanist equivalent." Alexis shrugged. "I was the person around when his father got stinking drink and sentimental after the baby was born so I got roped in. An obligation it becomes a little difficult to carry out when aforementioned godchild disappears for several years at a time and leaves no forwarding address."
He turned his head to glare at Daniel who shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. "I said I was sorry."
"You did and you can keep right on saying it." Alexis looked Jack up and down. "Talking of abject and groveling apologies, are you ready to apologize for destroying my site, Colonel? A site of unparalleled significance in the annals of – "
"Alien spaceships," Nelson put in.
Alexis pointed down the corridor. "I think you'll find Forbidden Archaeology lies thataway Doctor Nelson. Do leave your career in the dustbin on your way out."
"Alexis, it was a spaceship and it's a damned good thing it blew up before we all made first-class idiots of ourselves publishing a lot of nonsense about its provenance."
Jack turned to Daniel. "This is you being discreet, is it?"
"It was the right way to go." Daniel had no doubts about that.
"Yes, it was." Alexis gave Jack a warning look. "We're archaeologists. In case working with Daniel for five years has somehow failed to teach you what that means, it means that makes us damned good detectives and it also makes us incredibly stubborn about not giving up on things before we've unraveled them. Had Daniel tried to fob us off with some cover story you people had come up with, we would never have left this alone for the rest of our natural lives, but by telling us the truth he has effectively killed our interest."
Jack gave his head a shake. "What?"
Alexis rolled his eyes. "I'm a serious archaeologist, O'Neill. I don't write papers about little green men from outer space or parasitic aliens with glowing eyes. When I thought the Labyrinth had something new to say about the ancient civilizations of this planet I was interested in what it had to say. As it apparently didn't, I'm not. Same with John. He's interested in Predynastic Egypt, not this B-movie science-fiction nonsense."
"Good. I think." Jack looked slightly hurt. " 'B-movie science-fiction nonsense'?"
"I told you to let me handle it," Daniel pointed out.
Jack gave Alexis a sideways look. "You're not really pissed that we blew up the site, are you?"
"Well, if it had been what it seemed to be then, yes, I'd be furious. As it is, I'm still grieving a little for my illusions, but I suppose I'm safe to approach."
Despite the smile, Daniel saw the truth of Alexis' words. He didn't feel any sense of loss for the evil he now believed that place to have been, but he did for what he'd thought it was thirteen years ago, what it would have meant for archaeology if it really had been a temple to all those different gods from all those different cultures….
"We're sorry," Daniel said gently, and he didn't mean for blowing up the Labyrinth this time, but for not having protected Alexis from the truth.
"I'm consoling myself with the thought there are no shortage of archaeological wonders on this world and no lack of questions still in need of answers." Alexis reached across to ruffle his hair even though Daniel was taller than he was these days and carried a gun and went through the Stargate to other worlds, still his dead friend's son to Alexis, and in his own way Daniel supposed he found it as comforting as Jack did to be treated like a small boy by Inga. Alexis turned to Jack. "What time does your flight leave?"
Alexis beckoned to him sternly. "Then let me walk you to your car, Colonel. We can have a little chat en route."
Jack shot Daniel a 'youch' look over his shoulder then obediently walked next to Alexis, head bowed so he could hear what the man was saying to him so rapidly and with so many hand movements.
Daniel and Nelson followed them at a discreet ten paces. Nelson sighed. "Is everything we know about Ancient Egyptian history wrong, Daniel?"
Daniel shook his head. "No. There's just a little more to it than we used to think, but there always is with archaeology. We never have and never will know everything about every civilization lost to us. My job asks more questions than it answers, John. Just like we thought the Labyrinth did."
Nelson looked thoughtfully at the back of Alexis' head. "I'm not a believer in any religious faith, so for me a 'god' has always been interesting only because of what it says about the human condition. Even though I'm not an anthropologist, I still find myself asking the same questions people like Hélène do. Why do we need to believe there is something omniscient and omnipotent that watches over us? Why do we have to believe that the good will be rewarded and the guilty punished? Is it just because that's the glue that binds society together? Why be good when it's more fun to be bad unless there is some reward in the afterlife for not being bad, some retribution visited upon the evil people who seem to get away with it in this life. But what if it isn't that? What if Von Daniken was right all the time, and the reason our forefathers believed in gods from the skies was because they saw them descend? What does that tell us about the human condition? The entire basis of our society?"
"I think our belief systems would have been the same whether the Goa'uld had come here or not," Daniel reassured him. "It seems to be something we need within ourselves, as you say, a belief that our good or bad deeds don't go unnoticed. I don't think we believe in good and evil because thousands of years ago alien creatures visited us from space. I have to believe that our consciences are more than just race memories."
Nelson looked around at the museum. "I don't want the pyramids to be something our ancestors were ordered to build by spacegods, Daniel. I need them to be incredible feats of engineering through technologies designed by us even if they have since been lost by us. I need to believe that all the languages which evolved on this planet came from us, from our evolution, from our need as a species to find a means to communicate with one another, not because they were given to us by others. I have to believe we came down from the trees and learned to walk upright because we were more curious than the other animals, not because some aliens diddled with our DNA."
"I don't know the answer to that." Daniel didn't know what the Asgard had done in the past, or the Goa'uld, if some other race had encouraged the evolution of Homo sapiens because they could, but they hadn't found any evidence of it yet, and Jack had told him the Asgard had seemed to be thinking of them as possible equals. The Nox had done the same. Lya had been persuaded by Teal'c's arguments. Thor had sought Sam's help. However the human race had come about didn't invalidate what they now were, and what they now were seemed to Daniel to be incredibly resilient, creative, indomitable, and unpredictable. "But when I look at all the things we've invented and created in the millennia since I think there is plenty of confirmatory evidence that we are an extraordinary race. The Goa'uld steal what they use. They steal from the best, and one of the races they steal from is ours. But I don't believe the Goa'uld built Stonehenge and they certainly didn't write Mozart's operas or the love poetry of Hafiz, or the histories of Herodotus. We went into space without them. We developed antibiotics without them. A million tiny acts of compassion and charity and courage take place across the surface of this planet every day that no race except us has a part in."
Nelson smiled and patted his shoulder gently. "Dan, I will forbear to point out that the same could be said of acts of cruelty, indifference, and cowardice because I love your belief in the essential decency of the human spirit." He looked around the museum again. "And I'll take comfort from that, most of all, because you've been out there and seen more of humanity than I ever will, and you still believe that human beings are basically okay and can be reached by reason."
"Yes. I do believe that." Daniel thought of the bullet hitting Reese, of her falling to the ground but then he thought of Chaka risking his own life to save Daniel's then refusing to abandon his race on another world rather than returning in safety to his tribe. He thought of Nem letting him go, and Omac offering his hand, and Narim sacrificing himself for a principal and the lives of people on a different world, of Sam staying in that bunker with Cassandra, Teal'c taking Ko'ra's place to save the Tok'ra, Jack, the hardass military guy, forgiving, in the blink of an eye, a hysterical sobbing wreck in a storeroom who had just tried to kill him. "And not just human beings, John. I've found it works for other species too."
Nelson nodded. "Well, I suppose that means there must be an awful lot of evil scary bad people out there as well to balance up all the good ones but I'm hoping O'Neill does his best to keep you away from those." He looked at the still gesticulating Alexis. "I suspect he's probably getting a bit of a pep talk on that subject right now."
"Great. Jack will retaliate by making me freeze to death in a fishing boat for two weeks. I swear if the generator breaks down again this time I will kill him." Daniel looked sideways at Nelson, still getting those horrifying flashes of how the man had looked dead in his arms with blood pouring from his heart. He touched his arm. "I was thinking on the way here that what we wanted the Labyrinth to be Hierakonpolis almost is. There is something genuinely miraculous about it. All those different strata of Ancient Egyptian life preserved in one place. And that, at least, is totally authentic, totally untouched by the Goa'uld."
Nelson smiled. "I'm glad you said that. Barbara offered me a place on the dig there and I accepted. I'm sure what you do is jolly exciting but I really just want to know about everyday life in Predynastic Egypt. I'm not really the battling with aliens type."
"You saved Jack's life." They were out into the sunlight now. Jack was putting on his sunglasses. Daniel hadn't remembered his and was forced to squint instead. "I would never have reached the center without your help."
"Oh." Nelson lit up. "I suppose I was some use. Not bad for a man who has never been able to get past level one of Tomb Raider and whose children mock his baldness."
Daniel smiled. "Not bad at all."
They shook hands while Jack watched, apparently unaware of the many admiring glances he was attracting from passersby clearly impressed by Jack's leather jacket-chinos-and-shades ensemble. Daniel reached out and pulled Nelson into an embrace, hugging the man tightly. "Bye, John."
Nelson gently disentangled him, embarrassed and pleased in equal measure. He patted Daniel on the shoulder. "Take care and don't be such a stranger." He looked at his watch. "Damn, I have to go. I promised Professor Eckhart I'd listen to his lecture." He moved away then looked over his shoulder. "Keep in touch."
"I will, I promise." Daniel watched Nelson go, still thanking whatever fate looked out for Egyptologists that the man was alive and well and walking to a lecture he didn't want to attend out of kindness to an old friend, rather than dead in a dusty tomb in the center of a grounded Goa'uld spaceship.
Alexis sighed. "I'd better drop in on Eckhart's lecture too. He never gets a full house, probably because his theories are even more out there than…."
"Mine were?" Daniel returned.
"Trust me, yours were perfectly reasonable by comparison with his." Alexis pulled Daniel into a hug that squeezed his ribs. "Look after yourself. Be good. Look both ways before crossing the road. Always carry a clean handkerchief. Don't accept lifts from strange men." He stood back. "There, I think that's my duties as a godparent carried out. I've told O'Neill what will happen to him if anything bad happens to you, and reminded him that we Greeks originated the tragic revenge drama. Make sure you read him some Sophocles while you're staying in this cabin of his."
"Oh, he'll appreciate that." Daniel smiled. "Goodbye, Alexis. May all your sites be nonflammable."
He was still watching the man head towards the exit with brisk purposeful strides when Jack touched him on the arm. "We need to go. We're going to miss the flight."
"Oh woe," Daniel murmured.
As they walked towards the waiting taxi, Jack said conversationally, "I'm sure part of the agreement to you coming on this vacation was a 'no-whining' clause."
"I said 'oh wow' in a 'take me to that Spam Museum now' kind of way. With just a hint of 'lots of big icy lakes with no fish in them – whoopee' as well."
Jack held the door of the taxi open for him. As Daniel climbed in, he thought he heard the man murmur 'Damn, I knew there was something I'd forgotten.'" As Jack sat next to him and gave the driver directions, Daniel narrowed his eyes. "What did you forget this time?"
"Nothing." Jack settled back against seat as if he didn't have a care in the world.
"Tell me you didn't forget to get the generator serviced again?"
Jack looked affronted. "Daniel, do you honestly think I'd take a sun-loving boy like you to Northern Minnesota, and not make sure the generator was working?"
Daniel looked at him for a moment. "What was I thinking?"
"I've no idea." Jack folded his arms.
Daniel cleared his throat. "You forgot, didn't you?"
"No." Jack was saying it with too much emphasis. He had to be lying.
"I just want to go on record here as telling you that if it does break down I will kill you, so if we make this trip and as a consequence you end up axed to death in your own leaky cabin, don't blame me."
"How can you not like my cabin?" Jack protested.
Daniel glowered at him. "I like hot coffee, hot showers, and electricity."
"My cabin has all those things!"
"Only when the generator is working. When the generator isn't working, it is the coldest, dampest place on earth and the reason there are no damned fish in the damned lake is because they're in the beds."
Jack shot him a reproachful look. "I bet when you were on Abydos you didn't keep bitching to Sha're that you couldn't plug in your coffee maker and you weren't going to stay unless she cranked up the generator."
Daniel gritted his teeth. "That was a different culture. You're a North American. You should supply me with the benefits of North American culture and that includes hot coffee and bedrooms where there isn't ice on the inside of the windows."
"Just think of Minnesota as a foreign country," Jack suggested. "A place with customs different than our own. A place where the people are decent hardworking folk who like to ski in the winter and fish in the summer and listen to the wolves howling at night – "
"There is no summer in Minnesota! It's winter all the year round!"
"And where they don't always have generators that work all the time, but no one minds because the air is so clear and the woods are so beautiful and the fish taste so good."
Daniel knew that resistance was useless. Once Jack had anyone within reach of Minnesota there was never any escape. He would get that evangelical look in his eye and start talking incomprehensible thing about walleye and muskie. Better to give in gracefully. He sighed. "Yes, Jack."
Jack looked at him sideways. "You're not humoring me, are you?"
Daniel sighed again. "No, Jack." The taxi swept them past the building in which Professor Eckhart was telling a dwindling audience his theory about apparently winged fossils found in the walls of caves in Iraq, and carried them on to the airport where their plane was waiting to take them to the North Star State, land of moose, wolf, beaver, and sub-zero temperatures.
The wind that scudded across the lake seemed to know exactly where to find him. It climbed inside his borrowed coat and borrowed sweater and chilled every inch of his skin. The slight rocking of the rowboat made him lake-sick and the sky looked ominously overcast given that the snowy season was supposed to be over. All the way up in the car, people had been telling them that even in Minnesota they'd never known it so cold for this time of year, that there might be late snows, and to be sure they had plenty of fuel for the generator. Jack had told Daniel to stop looking at him like a martyr on his way to the scaffold unless he was looking to get pushed into the lake when they reached it. He'd also told him that people always said snow was on the way around here, even in summer. Daniel had responded waspishly that perhaps that was because it did snow here, even in summer, and he absolutely refused to be snowed in again so if it was going to snow he wanted to know now so they could stay in town. He was actually quite proud of the way he'd put his foot down on that matter but Jack had insisted it wasn't going to snow and they'd still ended up here with the cold and the lake and the fish that weren't biting.
Now he blew on his fingers and looked longingly at the shore and the cabin. It wasn't that Jack's cabin was a haven of comfort, but it was out of the wind that seemed to be coming straight from Siberia, and it didn't rock sickeningly from side to side, it also had books in it, something Jack had banned from his boat on the grounds that the rustling of the pages would scare the fish.
"In a movie Sam and I watched about lake-fishing there was a huge crocodile living in the lake," he offered. "It ate fishermen."
"That was in the Adirondacks," Jack assured him blandly. "Would never happen here."
"Are you sure?" Daniel thought being eaten by a giant crocodile might not be such a bad way to go if it meant he could stop being on vacation with Jack. He scanned the blue waters longingly.
"Too cold for crocodiles."
"You say that like it's a good thing."
"Ssshh," Jack warned. "You'll scare the fish."
"They scare me," Daniel retorted. It was true. The size of the fish people kept brandishing at him in this state was very disconcerting. The locals were even proud of the fact their mosquitoes looked like that bug which had tried to take over Teal'c and came in swarms of Biblical plague proportions. Minnesotans had clearly never heard the old adage about size not being everything. And he didn't trust a state which could have four seasons in a single day. "NID should have tested the Touchstone here," he observed. "Who would have noticed?"
"That's why we don't need crocodiles to separate the men from the boys," Jack returned. "We have the Minnesota winter."
"And cheese with everything."
"That's the Norwegians." Jack waved a dismissive hand. "Nothing to do with me."
"Jack, your cousin's married to a man called Olaf, who as far as I can tell has seventeen brothers also all called Olaf."
"You forgot Sven, Lars, and Ole."
Daniel looked around at the frosty woods, trying to inhale slowly so he didn't chill too much of his lungs at the same time. As he opened his mouth, Jack said, "When I brought you here in the summer you bitched about the mosquitoes. When I brought you here in the winter you bitched about how cold it was. Now I bring you here in the spring and you're still bitching."
"That's because I don't like Minnesota."
"Don't be silly." Jack flexed his rod so the line skimmed out across the clear waters before sinking again. "No one could not like Minnesota. It's the most beautiful place on earth."
Daniel started so violently at the sound of Darius’s voice he set the boat rocking precariously. Jack who was standing up, rode out the lurching of the rowboat without a word of reproach, then darted a glance across the lake to where two figures were approaching. He waved briefly before turning back to Daniel. "Golding and Inga. They said they might drop by. You okay?"
Daniel nodded, annoyed with himself for reacting so obviously to Darius’s arrival. Intellectually he was okay with the man, it was just his instincts that seemed to still have a problem.
Jack pulled in his line, sat down and picked up the oars. In a moment he was rowing strongly for shore, making it look easy as the boat scudded lightly along the surface of the blue-green water.
Their greetings were muted. Inga looked apologetic and anxious, her salt and pepper hair sticking up in agitation. Daniel saw Darius notice that he was wearing Jack's clothes, which he was, kitted out in the entire heavy coat, woolen sweater, checked shirt, and thermal trousers gear that Jack had lent him after his own clothing had proven inadequate. Darius’s face momentarily darkened and then he was making an effort to rise above his initial spasm of annoyance, shaking Jack's hand and offering a cheery greeting to Daniel.
Jack made coffee on the old woodburning stove, warning Daniel quietly to watch his fingers on the mug as he handed it to him, then poured more for their visitors. They talked about neutral matters in a desultory manner for a while until Inga said abruptly, "I need to talk to Daniel. Alone."
Daniel nodded and led the way outside, sitting down on the small wooden jetty. The sun had come out from behind the clouds and the water looked beautifully blue, the rich loam of the woods filling the air. Air so rich you could bottle it, Jack always said, and today Daniel could even agree. But he still shivered as the breeze blew in across the water and did its best to climb into his clothes.
Inga reached out and took his hand. "Daniel, I wanted to apologize. I was wrong. I was so wrong, and you were right. If you'd listened to me Colonel O'Neill would be dead now. I should have paid more attention to what you were saying."
"I didn't remember what had happened myself."
She squeezed his hand. "But you knew he was in danger, and I knew that you'd been taken there by Darius in the past. I just…I wanted to believe he was a good man. I wanted to believe it so much I shut my ears and my eyes to everything else."
"You didn't know." Daniel winced at the sight of her obvious distress.
"I knew he'd kidnapped you at knifepoint. That you were naked when Rajid found you. He told me recently he had…fantasies. That for a long time he didn't know himself if he…" She shook her head. "All these years I thought I was a good judge of character and I was blind. I was dazzled. I was in love with Darius, and he was a brilliant scholar, therefore Darius was a great man and should be excused anything. That's what I thought. I thought he was worth any sacrifice because he was this giant among pygmies who couldn't be judged by ordinary rules."
Daniel looked out across the moving water of the lake, a fish jumped sending out a spreading circle of ripples that lapped all the way to the jetty. "I think I thought that too. A part of me still does. He is a great scholar and he's not a bad person. He's had a lot of problems to contend with that most of us don't. His wife killed herself and –"
"And your parents are dead. And your career isn't what you wanted it to be. Everyone has disappointments, myself included. His wife had just lost her child and he left her to grieve alone and had an affair with me. He made me give up a baby I wanted because he didn't want his wife to find out that he'd been sleeping with someone else. He had an affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter in front of me and in front of her father. I don't even want to think about what he did to you."
She looked so distressed that Daniel rubbed her hand between his. "Inga, Darius dazzled me too. And he is a great man in his own way."
"You nearly died. Rajid did die." She put her hands up to her face, tears trickling through her fingers. "And Colonel O'Neill would have died as well, and still I was more interested in hanging on to my illusions than helping you. I know it probably didn't seem like that to you at the time, but I am very fond of him. I would never have forgiven myself if harm had come to him."
He put his arms around her. "Inga…."
She cried into his neck, her gray hair unexpectedly soft against his skin. "I've spent so many years of my life being in love with Darius Golding and now I'm not sure that he was ever worth it. I gave up my child for him because I thought he was a great man and normal rules didn't apply to him. And now I have him and I'm afraid that all this time my idol had feet of clay."
Daniel held her close. She wasn't much older than his mother would have been now. He didn't know if his father had been a good man or not. Daniel had loved him and missed him dreadfully. He'd never questioned until now the possibility that his father had been anything but good. Who did with people that one loved? There was an assumption that they must somehow be worthy of the love one felt or else why would one feel it? No one wanted to believe their own instincts were unreliable. He knew, because they'd told him, that Jack and Teal'c had both done things that were what they considered to be morally unjustifiable. Yet he believed absolutely that they were good men. He cared deeply for them and they cared deeply for him, and when he looked at them he saw brave protectors who had risked their lives for those weaker than them countless times. If the widow of some soldier or Jaffa that Jack had killed came and told him that Jack was a danger to another member of her family, would he believe her? No. Never in a million years.
He spoke quietly, "Jack told me Darius reminded him of Hercules and I think he might be right. Darius risked his life to save John. He risked his life to save Jack. He had a bullet wound in his shoulder and he picked up six foot two and I don't want to think about how many pounds of Air Force officer, threw him over his shoulder, and ran with him. That's something an ordinary man couldn't do. You fell in love with a hero, Inga, and perhaps normal rules don't apply to them. Perhaps your instincts were right all the time."
She wiped her eyes fiercely. "For the first time this morning, Daniel, I woke up and I felt like a foolish old woman who had wasted her life. I thought about the twenty-seven years I haven't had my son, whoever he may be, and I thought that nothing and no one could ever make up for that."
"You could try to find him."
She sat up, reaching for a handkerchief and he wordlessly supplied one. "Why would he want anything to do with a woman who abandoned him to strangers?"
Daniel thought about Nick saying 'I am proud of you'. "Because children who've been abandoned to strangers need to know it wasn't anything they did. They need to know it wasn't their fault." He tried to find a smile but the wound too raw, he suspected it always would be. "If you won't do it for you, do it for him."
She leant across and kissed him on the cheek and he was taken aback by how much it moved him, how he could be affected so strongly by physical comfort or displays of affection. Did he still, after all this time, consider himself so fundamentally unlovable that it came as a shock every time someone gave him some affirmation that suggested he wasn't? Was he never to stop being that abandoned eight year old at heart? She straightened his collar automatically. Her question was unexpected. "Are you still afraid of him?"
He looked out across the water to catch his breath, stalling before he replied. "I don't think he's any danger to me or anyone else. That place was evil and it affected him. Now it's gone."
"You're still afraid of him." It wasn't a question this time.
He nodded, meeting her gaze. "Yes. But that's my problem. Don't make it yours."
She put her arm through his, looking out across the lake water. "It’s beautiful here, isn't it?"
"If you like being cold and wet all the time." He wrinkled his nose.
"I'll have you know I'm related to half the population of Minnesota."
He looked at her sideways. "How many of your relatives are unmarried Norwegian dairy farmers?"
She laughed. "You'll succumb in the end. Everyone does. They come to mock, and stay to get hypothermia every winter and be bitten half to death by mosquitoes every summer and wonder how they ever lived anywhere else."
"Never." Daniel promised her. "I will never succumb to Minnesota, whatever you and Jack might say."
Another fish jumped, a brief flash of silver in the sunlight, before diving back beneath the surface, sending another circle of ripples out to meet them.
Inga said unexpectedly, "I've never looked at the Kensington rune stone."
He turned his head in surprise. "You haven't?"
She shook her head. "I wanted it to be real, and I was afraid that if I examined it, I might decide it wasn't."
"You might find that it was," Daniel offered. "If you don't look at it, you'll never know."
"But what if it turns out to be a fake?"
He shrugged. "What if it turns out to be authentic?"
"Are you telling me I should try to make a life with Darius? That after all this time and all these…tears…" Inga wiped her face and then rubbed her hands off her old coat in exasperation, "I should give him another try?"
"He's a lot of things, but I don't think he's a fake." Daniel managed a dry smile. "I'm not quite sure what Darius is, to be honest, but I think he's definitely authentic."
"Unlike the Labyrinth?"
He nodded. "Very much unlike the Labyrinth."
"I asked John what that place was and he told me I didn't want to know."
He thought of the Goa'uld ripping out Nekheny's heart, Inanna dying for love, the blade descending, his own scream, his own blood. He shuddered. "He was right."
She nodded and looked back out across the lake. After a minute another fish jumped and then another, as if they wanted Daniel to know they were there where he could see them and where they would never allow themselves to be caught. For some reason he found that obscurely comforting.
Golding was restless, keeping an eye on the window as he talked as if he wanted to know what Daniel and Inga were saying, giving only O'Neill half his attention as he explained why they were there, a story of old dreams and old digs and a folder of site reports and artifact photographs that didn't exactly get O'Neill fired up with excitement. A few half-erased inscriptions in cuneiform and the fossilized remains of what seemed to be a giant archaeopteryx wasn't enough to get his blood pumping when he was looking for a means to defeat the Goa'uld.
"Given the conclusions Eckhart came to, I just thought you should know." Golding handed the paperwork across and O'Neill turned it around in his hands, not sure quite what to make of it.
"It's more Daniel's field than mine."
Golding shrugged. "I don't think Daniel would really appreciate a little tête à tête with me at the moment, O'Neill."
O'Neill put down the fossil picture and turned the photograph of the inscription around again. "You're telling me you saw…angels?"
Golding shook his head. "Trust me, this was not a Californian Crystal Worshipping experience. I remembered a dream I had when I was on a dig in Iraq. In the dream I was on a battlefield. One army was carrying the emblem for Ra. They were people like your friend Teal'c." Golding's glance was very direct. "Ones with snake-like creatures in their bellies."
O'Neill opened his mouth to ask how he knew and then thought of the psychic thing and said nothing. You couldn't argue with a psychic even when he was in his right mind.
Golding continued evenly, "The other side were creatures with wings. They were winning." There was a pause before he added in case O'Neill might be particularly slow on the uptake, "If the ones like your friend Teal'c serve your enemy then the enemies of your enemy…."
"Could be our friend?" O'Neill turned the photograph around but it still looked upside-down to him and he'd now tried it from every angle. "What does this say exactly?"
"It's written in a strange form of cuneiform and it was found on a broken tablet. The same kind of cuneiform that was in the Labyrinth. It says it speaks for Lulal, son of Inanna, who will avenge the murderers of his mother and his father. It says she who went into the world below and did not return shall know victory at last, that her murderers will be brought low, that those who arrived earlier shall return stronger than before and their reign will be everlasting, and he shall be their godking." Golding tapped the photograph. "He signs it 'Lulal, son of Nekheny, son of Inanna, lord of the Raphaim and the Nefilim, seeker of the Shebtiu and the Edimmu, guardian of the winged ones who will reign eternally'."
O'Neill looked at it again. "So?"
"So, Lulal is the one who ordered the inscriptions carved in the Labyrinth detailing Inanna's descent into the Underworld." Evidently seeing O'Neill's blank expression, Golding added in exasperation. "Given the fact she died by the hand of those…aliens, didn't you wonder who had told her story?"
O'Neill blinked. "Not really, no. But I'll take your word for it, it was this Lulu guy."
There was a pause before Golding said, "What the hell does Daniel see in you, O'Neill?"
He knew he ought to say something significant about their friendship. Spell it out for Golding what they'd been through – the four of them – that what he was misreading as romantic intimacy was actually a very different kind of love. It was what you felt for people you'd lived and occasionally died with, crossed universes with, crossed dimensions with, whose deaths you'd mourned, whose resurrections you'd celebrated, people you'd lost and found again so many times that they were part of you now. But he didn't want to share what Daniel was to him or what Carter and Teal'c were to him with Darius Golding. Although if Darius had only known it, there were plenty of people Daniel had slept with over the past few years who meant nothing to him compared with O'Neill, Carter, and Teal'c. Even if Golding had ever got Daniel drunk or drugged enough to seduce, he would still have lost him to the rest of SG-1, and O'Neill would still be closer to Daniel than Golding could ever dream of.
"Apart from my good looks, charm, and personality?" As Golding looked unconvinced, O'Neill tapped the photograph. "I don't see the excitement. Aren't there like a billion carvings on old bits of rock saying things about how some dead ruler is going to rise up and take over the world any minute? I've never heard of this guy, so whatever he was planning to do several thousand years ago, he obviously didn't do it. Even if he was a Goa'uld maybe he was just pissed the other Goa'uld killed his mom and dad, it doesn't mean he made good on any of these threats."
Golding sighed and shrugged. "True. But you asked if I came across anything I thought was relevant to pass it onto you, well, this could be relevant, and I've passed it onto you. Duty done."
"And I appreciate it." O'Neill didn't add that he suspected half the reason Golding had come here was because he wanted to see Daniel again, either to reassure himself the man didn't hate him or because he was still obsessed with O'Neill and Daniel's relationship and wanted to check on the sleeping arrangements.
Golding got to his feet again, crossing to the window to look out at Inga and Daniel. "We should go. The forecast is for snow tonight."
There was a silence during which O'Neill knew he should ask if they wanted to stay but the truth was, fond as he was of Inga and would have enjoyed an evening chatting to her, he didn't want Golding to stay. Particularly when he suspected most of the reason the man had come here had been to try to defeat any seduction O'Neill might have been planning. The idea that O'Neill might have brought Daniel out to his cabin and not been planning a seduction didn't seem to have occurred to Golding. Even now, all these years later, Golding clearly wasn't able to let go of his obsession where Daniel's sex-life was concerned, and, given the fact he'd told O'Neill he was determined to make a go of things with Inga and was no longer interested in anyone but her, O'Neill didn't think that was a very positive sign for Golding's supposed reformation. "Okay," he said quietly. "I'll walk you to your car."
It was obvious Inga had been crying and the look she gave him as he and Golding came out to meet her and Daniel on the jetty would have softened a heart a lot harder than his. He swept her into a hug, calling her his favorite runologist and asking if she'd shown Golding the wonders of the Spam Museum. She hugged him back tentatively, clearly very conscious of his broken ribs, whispering, "I'm so sorry, Colonel."
"Nothing to be sorry about," he reassured her gently. "I'm booked to come and see your next lecture."
"I think my lecturing days are over." She put her hand to his cheek as if to reassure herself he was alive and well, looking suddenly a lot older and frailer than he remembered. "I'm not sure of my findings any more."
As they walked to the car, Daniel and Golding valiantly carrying on a conversation about Alexis' last lecture as their feet sank into the loamy lakeside path, O'Neill noticed the snow clouds gathering overheard just as the forecast he warned. There was still sunlight showing through but the air held that ominous coldness that spoke of several inches of the white fluffy stuff being dropped on the unsuspecting. He winced inwardly at the thought of Daniel's reaction. He was never going to hear the end of how spring in Minnesota was indistinguishable from winter in Minnesota and how next time they were going to Florida.
"Make sure you're somewhere warm and dry before night comes in," he warned Inga.
She rallied, wiping her damp cheek. "Are you teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, Colonel? I was putting snow tires on my car when you were still playing with toy dumper trucks."
"Hey, some of the time I grew up here, remember?" O'Neill protested. "I had a toy snowmobile."
He hugged her again before she got in the car, but gently this time, very aware of how small her body seemed inside that enormous coat. He remembered the way his grandmother had done that suddenly, gone from being that tall raw-boned woman to suddenly seeming half her previous size. He and Inga watched Daniel and Golding shake hands formally, Daniel grave and unmistakably adult, putting off a quiet dampening field of his own that didn't invite liberties, but kind and polite all the same. Golding didn't bluster or attempt to ruffle his hair or call him by nicknames any more, just nodding with the same politeness as he said goodbye.
"Be careful." Daniel sounded as if he meant it and O'Neill saw him looking anxiously at Inga. "The roads around here aren't too…." He rolled his eyes.
Inga and O'Neill exchanged a look. "I think he's dissing our favorite state, Inga," O'Neill observed.
"I can't imagine why." Inga kissed Daniel on the cheek, hugging him tightly, before she got into the car with tears in her eyes again. He wondered if she'd had thirteen years of guilt hit her overnight, or if it was just something about the beauty of the spring coming in, all those new colors and the trill of the birdsong making her too aware of the briefness of the human life span.
Golding met his gaze for a moment, opened his mouth as if to say something, looked at Daniel, and then settled for a gruff, "Goodbye." He drove away quickly, hardly giving Inga time to wave again before he was rounding the nearest bend and out of sight. O'Neill supposed it was a step forward of sorts that Golding had admitted, if only to himself, that he had forfeited the right to dictate what Daniel did or didn't do with his private life, but he clearly still didn't like to think that he was making decisions which weren't being funneled through him.
O'Neill looked at Daniel and saw he was still listening to the sound of the engine whining and fading in the clear afternoon air. Coming snow always gave the air that richness, making every sound carry with extra resonance. Daniel looked cold though, shivering in his borrowed overcoat. O'Neill reached out and patted him on the arm. "Come on, let's go back inside."
As they trudged back to the cabin, Daniel looked suspiciously at the skies. "Does that look like snow to you?"
O'Neill shook his head. "No."
Daniel blew on his hands. "It's very cold."
"I told you to wear gloves."
"Why is it this cold if it isn't going to snow?"
"If it's not cold enough for the lake to freeze over, it doesn't matter," he countered.
Daniel gave him a look of disbelief. "Doesn't matter to whom?"
"The fish." As they passed the generator, O'Neill noted the unhealthy whine of its engine. There were a few puffs of blue smoke venting from it. Usually the sign of it heading for another breakdown. He looked at his watch and calculated that it would probably give up the ghost by about 3am, and that by that point there would be six inches of snow on the ground. The sky was decidedly gray now, the sun disappearing behind the cloudbank. On reflection, May would probably have been a better month for them to come here, or maybe June. He decided to spend the next couple of hours chopping a boatload of wood, then at least he could keep the stove going and Daniel supplied with coffee. If he ran out of caffeine things could get ugly, and there were a lot of sharp implements around the place.
As they reached the cabin, Daniel looked out across the lake in the direction in which Golding's car had headed. "I hope Inga's okay."
"She'll be fine," he said with more conviction than he felt.
"What did Darius want to talk to you about?"
"Fossils. Cuneiform. Angels. Apparently some guy called Eckhart delivered a paper that pretty much emptied the place and as it sounded as if he was talking complete crap, Golding thought we might be interested in what he had to say."
"Oh." Daniel looked relieved but not completely convinced.
"We didn't talk about you," O'Neill assured him. After a pause when he had intended to add something facetious about Daniel not being the center of the universe, he shrugged. "There's not a lot of common ground there." He took another look at the sky. About ten minutes before the snow came in, he reckoned. It would get very dark very fast, grayness muffling the windows. The reproachful looks and long-suffering sighs were going to be horrendous.
As they reached the door of the cabin, he looked back across the lake. The wind had picked up and was rippling the surface, the fish diving for warmth. He looked at Daniel and realized that for all his bitching, he was standing there wearing O'Neill's overcoat, in Minnesota, taking the fishing trip O'Neill had offered and he had so emphatically refused after the business with the robot. "Daniel…?"
Daniel turned to look at him in surprise, clearly alerted by the seriousness of his tone. "What?"
O'Neill grimaced. "Before we went to Egypt you said you didn't know if you believed in what we were doing any more. Do you now?"
Daniel looked across the lake, thinking for a long moment, and then he nodded. "Yes. I believe in what we're doing."
"I know things don't always go down the way you'd like. I know the military solution isn't the one you'd always choose, and that's a good thing."
Daniel raised his eyebrows in surprise. "It is?"
"Yes, because without the alternatives you offer, we're just running around the galaxy being at war with the Goa'uld. And like you said in Egypt, the Stargate should be more than that. This Program shouldn't just be about protecting the planet, however important that is. It shouldn't just be a re-run of the Cold War in space. There are more things out there than us and the Goa'uld."
Daniel shivered. "Yes."
"This Program needs you as much as it needs me." It needs a conscience and a heart and a soul. But he couldn't say that aloud. "To be honest with you I'm getting a little like Inga. Some days I don't trust my own judgment any more. I don't think I really like the idea of making decisions that don't get bounced off you first. I need you around to tell me when I screw up. Even when it's really annoying, it's still what I need."
Daniel looked across at him, eyes full of so much warmth, O'Neill wondered how he could ever have felt unwanted, ever thought their friendship might be over. Daniel said gently, "Ditto."
O'Neill felt the relief flood through him like brandy, because that look he'd seen in the infirmary was definitely gone from Daniel's eyes now. Whatever faith it was he'd lost he'd found again in the Labyrinth, in that dark scary place where he'd died, where he'd had to confront the fact a lot of the history he'd grown up believing in and searching for didn't exist the way he'd hoped. Somehow in following the tainted trail of the System Lords he'd found the missing part of himself Golding had stolen all those years ago. Or perhaps he'd just needed to confront that buried memory before he could move on. Whatever the reason, he looked like Daniel again, the same guy who'd just had to touch the event horizon and who stepped through the 'gate with all that curiosity and wonder he'd been afraid for a while he might have lost forever. "So, we need to keep doing what we do, right?"
"Exploring the universe or annoying the hell out of each other?"
O'Neill looked around the now decidedly wintry looking landscape and shrugged. "Both, I guess."
Daniel took a last suspicious look at the snow-clouds gathering overhead. "Works for me."
As they headed for the cabin, Daniel said, "Are you sure it's not going to snow?"
O'Neill put an arm around his shoulders, ushering him towards the door before those first fat flakes began to fall. "Hey, even if it did, and say, the generator broke down, and we were a little marooned up here, wouldn't that just be another interesting life experience?"
Daniel looked at him sideways like a small boy who'd just been told he couldn't have a puppy after all. "No."
"Now come on, Daniel." O'Neill pushed open the door, and gently but firmly urged him inside. "Where's your spirit of adventure?" As he looked back over his shoulder he saw the first snow begin to fall on the lake, the small dry kind that often turned into a blizzard of wild wet flakes, a curtain of white covering the land. He had a feeling that Daniel was not going to forgive him for this vacation for a long time. He put on his brightest smile as he firmly closed the door behind them and started pulling the drapes across before Daniel looked out and saw what the weather was like. "I made some fresh coffee. I brought that special imported roast you like."
"Thanks." Daniel brightened up considerably. He picked up the folder Golding had left. "What's this?"
O'Neill poured him a cup of coffee before putting it back on the stove to reheat. "Fossils of angels in the rock or something. A lot of things about the Book of Enoch and some of that Forbidden Archaeology stuff Nelson and Alexis were talking about. You put your feet up and take a look at it, I'll just go and fill the oil lamps and…." Chop a lot of wood, quickly, so we don't die of hypothermia tonight when the generator dies on us. "Check on a few things. And I'll cook tonight. You've had a long day."
Daniel sat down in the armchair by the fire. "Are you sure you don't need a hand with anything? You're supposed to be taking care of your ribs."
"No, no." O'Neill pulled the door open an inch and darted a glance outside at the snowflakes. "You just take it easy. I'm determined that you're going to learn to love Minnesota – one way or another."
"Keep this up and maybe I will." Daniel relaxed into the chair, switching on the electric light so he could study the information Golding had left, something which O'Neill reckoned would keep him too absorbed to notice the weather for at least an hour. The scent of coffee was permeating the room nicely now. As O'Neill opened the door a little wider, the snow buffeted at him and he heard the whine of the generator go up another note.
He said quickly, "I think what happened in Egypt proved that this whole…friendship thing we've got going is pretty hard to dent, wouldn't you agree?"
Daniel looked at him in surprise and then his face softened. "Yes, Jack. I would."
"That's good to hear." O'Neill braced himself against the cold and then stepped outside into a flurry of swirling flakes. Looking back he could see Daniel totally absorbed in cuneiform, tracing the carvings on the photograph with one finger while murmuring to himself with all his old enthusiasm, utterly oblivious of the wintry world outside. As he closed the door gently, O'Neill found he was smiling so hard the snow blew into his mouth and dissolved softly on his tongue. Across the lake an owl called from out of the fir trees, reminding him that even though he walked the surface of other worlds for a living, here, at least, he was nowhere other than home.
Started: Saturday, January 19, 2002 9:54:02 AM
Finished: Saturday, April 13, 2002 8:10:36 AM