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Stay in Touch

by Tefnut

Part 5 (Jump to: 1 •  2 •  3 •  4 •  6)

 

Part 5

It had been so easy to be blind and naked in Skoukla. Paths were straight, edges were soft. Whenever he tripped, someone was there to put him back on his feet. It felt safe and warm. Hedlir was a good companion, as was Iskur, Teal'c's bigger brother. And Jack, Jack was always at his side. He longed, though, for the real Teal'c, for Sam, for the excitement of gate travel.

Daniel hoisted himself onto the leafy ground. He smiled bitterly as the cold wind slapped his face.

He wondered how easy it would be to be blind and naked out of Skoukla.

"Daniel, stop dreaming and help me out of here!"

Daniel drove the blade into the ground. Shifting to lay on his belly, he reached for the hole and found a pair of arms on the way. Jack. He pulled slowly, afraid of hurting him, until he heard evidence that his friend was crawling out on his own.

He sat again, pulling his knees up to his chest, and knew that Jack was sitting in front of him. Jack was silent for a moment, probably looking around.

"We’ll be fine here for now. Give me the blade, I’m going to remove this leech."

The blind man groped for Iskur's knife. He pulled it out and laid it flat on his palm. As he held his hand forward, Daniel felt a draft in front of his eyes.

Jack grabbed the blade. "You forgot to tell me something, maybe?"

"Maybe. It’s probably just temporary."

#

Jack spared a short glance back at the dark entrance of the tunnel before looking at their new surroundings again. He didn't recognize this area, though the probability was high that they were in the forest just below the Stargate plateau. The bare trees exposed enough of the landscape for Jack to make out an imposing grey mass, possibly the cliff itself. His sight was too blurry for him to be certain of that. He knew where his problem came from. Sensory deprivation tended to mess with your body like that. Been there, done that, got the funny tee shirt to prove it.

He suddenly remembered that Daniel hadn't bought this particular tee shirt yet. Jack squinted, bringing his friend into focus, and observed him in silence. He was filthy, covered from head to toes with mud and two types of blood -- one red, one blue. Despite the layers of dirt, it was obvious that he had lost weight. The stubble on his face, which Jack had known only by touch, was shorter than he had imagined. They couldn't have spent much more than three weeks in Skoukla.

From the way Daniel was drawing complicated patterns in the air, his head tilted slightly lopsided, Jack could tell he wasn’t quite out of the loony bin yet. "Are you all right, Daniel? You look like…"

"Jack, I can't see! I can't see anything at all. It's just as dark as underground."

"It will be fine, Daniel. The same thing happened to me in Iraq. I couldn't see anything after a while either." Jack neglected to tell him that he had still been able to discern basic shapes and distinguish between light and dark. A little white lie couldn't hurt right now. "Have a break, OK? I'm going to remove this Goau'ld wannabe from my leg, and then we'll go find Fraiser to fix us."

Jack took a deep breath and started working on the worm, using Iskur's blade as a lever to lift the jaws. Biting the inside of his cheek to stifle a scream, he dug into his own leg, carving around the teeth to get them out more easily. Some of them were embedded in the flesh. It would be easier to tear them out of the creature's jaws than to pull them out of his thigh. Unable to go on, Jack waited until Daniel livened up to delegate this task.

"Here… just one more on your left…", he guided him, sweat dripping from his forehead.

"All done!" A proud look lighting up his face, Daniel shook the dead worm in front of Jack's eyes, spraying him with blue blood.

"Thank you for that." Jack’s comment mingled sarcasm and thanks.

"You know, I wonder if we could capture one alive? If it's an alternate form of Goau'ld, it may be intelligent enough that we could communicate with it."

Jack snatched the monster from his friend's hands. "Daniel. Don’t ever think of befriending one of those beasts," he warned him, flinging the worm back into the hole it came from. "Never, ever, ever."

"I promise, but only if you never call me Cave Monkey again."

Jack smiled. "So you heard that?"

"Yeah. Sorry if I freaked you out down there, I was a bit… you know."

"Gone?"

"Gone."

#

Daniel took another step, one hand on Jack's shoulder, the other one trailing the cliff. He lifted his foot high before extending it slowly and lowering it to the ground. This heron gait was not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but as Jack was limping badly, he didn't feel like he was slowing him down.

The regular tapping of Jack's staff soothed his tired nerves. The wind had calmed. He welcomed the drizzle that had started as soon as they had left the woods. As raindrops pattered on him, mud dripped off his body. He felt clean, but naked, his many wounds uncovered.

Jack stopped. "The staff is not enough."

"It isn't?"

"Do you think you can help me?"

Daniel nodded. He moved his hand from Jack's shoulder to his waist. Jack answered by placing his left arm around Daniel's shoulders. They went on in silence, their progress even more impaired than before. Jack only talked to warn Daniel of impending obstacles.

"Maybe we should stop here and have a break," Daniel suggested.

Jack hit a rock with his stick. "No way. I'm not going to push our luck."

"What do you mean?"

"We haven't seen a single worm so far, apart from the one that wanted me for breakfast. I don't want to stay here until they find us."

"It’s fine. Their mating season is over. They'll stay underground for the next few years. Hedlir told me so."

"… And why didn't you share this little bit of information before?"

"Well, I… Oh. Duh."

"Duh?"

Daniel let go of the cliff, allowing his fingers the freedom they needed to dance in hypnotic motions. "It was down there. I told you. In a way."

"You know, telepathy is highly overrated."

"That it is." He frowned. It angered him that Jack kept thinking of the cave dwellers as some sort of freaky mind readers. They were not. Daniel knew they had simply developed their sense of touch to a new level, thanks to the sensitivity of their skin. Hedlir had taught him some tricks that Daniel feared he would soon forget.

Jack slapped his fingers. "Anyway, let's go. After the next turn I think we should be able to see the stairs. We'll be home soon."

"Home? Sam. Teal'c. Home. Sam. Teal'c. Home…" Daniel found enough energy in this mantra to concentrate on the difficult walk.

#

Daniel's babble had long degenerated into a "hawk miss tale" nonsense before stopping altogether. Jack leant heavily on him. He had dropped the heavy staff, knowing that he couldn't have kept it until now while still holding the knife. And he wasn't going to give a weapon to a delirious man.

They reached the bend Jack had been aiming for late in the afternoon. He spotted the road first. There wasn't much left of it. Only the trees framing it were untouched by the cataclysm that had ploughed through it, digging a river where cobblestones had once paved the ground.

A humongous worm was lying dead at the base of the cliff, its black body pricked open by long-necked birds. Its bowels were strewn about. Small grey mammals were playing with the bluish remains, tearing them apart. A piece of meat, thrown by one of the playful animals, landed on the fifth step of the stairs. It couldn't have gone higher. The rest of the stairs had collapsed. Shards of stones were scattered around the deflated carcass, some under it. The worm had destroyed their access to the gate.

Jack blinked, wishing he could be blind like Daniel. "We have a problem."

"What?"

"Remember the stairs?"

"Yes. I've noticed similar examples of helicoidal structures in Skoukla."

Jack paused. That almost sounded coherent, if a bit inappropriate. "Those helicopter things are a bit…"

"Flimsy," completed Daniel.

"I wish you would stop doing that," mumbled Jack. "The whole thing is kaput."

"Well, we can climb, then. It's not that high, if I remember correctly."

Jack dropped to the ground. The birds and mammals dispersed with various alarmed noises.

"Jack?" Daniel slowly lowered himself to Jack's level, and sat.

Although the bleeding had stopped, Jack felt faint. His right leg prickled. It was also distinctly cooler than the rest of his body. He had managed so far, but this limb wouldn't carry him any longer. "That's a no-go, Danny. I won't make it up there."

"I'll do it alone and bring back some help." Daniel's abrupt answer left Jack speechless.

#

The first time he fell, he just laughed and started again. The second time, he decided to listen to Jack's advice. It proved too hard to decide which voice among the two or three ones he could hear was true, and he failed again. The third time, he was disturbed by the sudden appearance of Teal'c. He tried to reach his hand, met with empty air, and fell.

"You're fine?"

"I didn't bounce this time. I'm getting better at landing." He tried to sound as if he was making light of it, but his confidence was faltering. Maybe, just maybe, he had been a tad arrogant in believing he could carry this out.

He searched his way to the small crag he used as a starting point when Jack dragged him aside.

#

God, the man needed a break. "Daniel, you can't go on like that."

"I'm just practicing for the moment. I'll be up there in no time, you'll see."

"Daniel…"

Daniel closed his eyes. "I know… I'm sorry, Jack. No can do."

Jack stared at the mess. The numerous scrapes and bruises Daniel had picked up from digging in the tunnel, impressive as they were, were not Jack's main concern. The fever was more worrisome. Jack couldn't tell for sure without a thermometer, but he suspected that his friend's temperature was somewhere on the wrong side of the dangerous 103 F. That could account for the confusion and the hallucinations -- although Jack had noticed that Daniel was suffering from them even when his temperature was low. It still didn't explain why his limbs jerked uncontrollably when he was not climbing.

It was impossible for his blind friend to scale the cliff. And yet, Jack needed him up there.

"Daniel, you're doing well. Just have a break. When you feel a bit better, you'll try again."

"And I will fall, again."

Daniel had been lucky until now, landing on the soft soil or on the worm's cadaver. Jack hated to think of the result of Daniel's skull striking rock. His next try would have to be successful.

"I'll fall, because I can't see where I'm going."

Jack squeezed his friend's shoulder, feeling for the tension that had built up. "You didn't need to see before, down there. What has changed?"

"I don't know. Maybe it's because the others are too far away."

"Hedlir wasn't holding your hand when you killed the worm in the tunnel."

"True," Daniel admitted. "I have no idea what's wrong with me. I keep hearing voices. It's disturbing."

"Yeah, you're whacko. That's not new. So, what’s changed?" Jack asked again.

"I'm blind. That's what has changed."

"Excuse me? Could you see in Skoukla?"

"No. But I didn't know I was blind. I just thought that there was no light. It's different. Now I'm blind. The Voice was right."

Jack pondered on this. So that was the problem. Daniel was too shocked and frightened by his newfound handicap and by whatever this 'voice' had told him to feel his way up the cliff. Jack needed to calm him down. He needed Nightbird.

Daniel had to be touched to remember what his body was capable of. A massage would do the job, but Jack was too tired for that. He would only contaminate Daniel with his own exhaustion if he tried. Jack inclined his head. Just as he was about to admit his defeat to himself, his gaze fell on Iskur's blade.

He smiled. The cave dwellers had provided him with a solution. "Daniel, you can’t go up there like that."

"I told you. No can do, sorry."

"That’s not what I meant. You… Well, if Carter and Teal’c see you like that, they’ll run away screaming. You need a shave."

"Ja-ack?"

"You. Need. A. Shave."

#

Daniel gaped. "And I thought I was insane," he said slowly.

"Oh, but you are. Nice necklace, by the way."

"Thanks. It's Hedlir's… Hey, don't!" Daniel hit Jack's arm, which he could feel approaching his left ear. "You were trying to change the subject of conversation, weren't you? Well, guess what? It doesn't work that way."

"My bad, then. Anyway, we really need to do something about your face."

"I don't know. I kinda hoped they would notice the beard instead of my fanciful wardrobe."

Jack laughed. "Can't fix the clothes."

"You can't fix the beard, either."

"Yes, I can. My great-great-grandfather was a barber, so it shouldn’t be too hard. That kind of thing runs in the family, you know."

Daniel rolled his eyes. What was so crucial about his appearance?

"Relax, Daniel. Just sit against this big rock there, and relax."

The relaxation part sounded good. Daniel leaned back. He'd been shaved with a rusty knife without the help of a mirror before, and it hadn't been all that difficult. Jack would have no trouble, considering he could see him, and Iskur's blade was razor sharp.

If only he managed to stop twitching, of course. "I'm not sure, Jack. It's going to burn like hell. Unless you’ve hidden some shaving cream in your pockets somewhere?"

"You’re burning already, anyway, aren’t you?"

Daniel closed his eyes. Jack's hands cupped his face until he stopped shaking. He jerked when he felt the first cold touch of the blade on his skin, but Jack's gestures were confident. Daniel's fears of having his throat slit by mistake slowly receded as he focused on the regular scraping of the blade. It itched a little, but the wetness of his skin lessened the burn. When Jack shaved off his moustache he tried his best not to surrender to the tickling.

The blade left contact with his skin. He realized that it had stopped raining, and Jack was talking. "You remember what you have to do?"

"Of course! I'm not dumb." Daniel frowned. Even though he hadn't been actively listening to Jack when he'd given him his orders, it seemed to have registered on a subconscious level.

"Well, enlighten me!"

Maybe if he got it right Jack would shut up and let him doze. He felt the cold edge of the blade switch from his left cheek to the right one. "All right. I climb up there. I find the DHD. I dial Earth. Then I wait for the cavalry."

"Good. And what don't you do?"

"I don't go through the gate."

"Because if you do…"

Daniel made a face. "Splat!"

"That's it. Stop moving, will ya?"

Daniel tilted his head back to allow Jack access to his throat.

#

Daniel had never deserved his Monkey nickname more than this evening. Jack smiled as his friend crooked his fingers into a small crevice, using it to lever himself up to a better position. He lifted his left foot to a hold he had spotted before by brushing the grit with his hand. His right foot found support in a recess, and up he went.

Jack admired his confidence. He had guided him for the first few meters, until Daniel had made him understand in a not so subtle way that his constant chatter was bothering him. He had to admit that the irascible climber was doing better without his help.

The wall sloped the wrong way. Jack watched Daniel's struggle with gravity. His leg momentarily lost contact with the rock before he could clamber up, his body tilted backwards. His balance was tenuous, but he was holding on.

"Keep it up, Danny," whispered Jack.

Above, a big overhang shadowed his friend's shape. It was the last obstacle before Daniel could reach the platform, and the most dangerous one. If he fell now, no surface could be soft enough to save his life.

Jack heard him swear when he touched the horizontal plane above his head. Daniel stood still for a while, before moving to the left, only to find the same bulge.

"Jack? I don't know how to do that."

"Bring your feet up," shouted Jack. "Make yourself as small as possible."

"Yeah, but what's it like after that? Does it look like the Old Bat Route?"

"I'm not sure." Jack tried to remember the layout of this particular portion of the artificial wall they'd been practicing on in their down time. He didn't need to be reminded that a fully geared up Daniel had failed every single time, even with the help of color-coded handholds. "It's getting dark. I can only see a crevice from here."

"Where's that?"

"On your right."

Daniel leaned his forehead against the rock. Jack held his breath until he started moving again. He brought his feet up, gathering his limbs until his back was almost parallel to the ground. He tentatively lifted his right arm, brushing the underside of the overhang until he could feel the sharp upward crook of the stone. Extending his upper body as far as possible, he searched the vertical surface for a hold.

Jack was biting his lower lip, forbidding himself to talk. He couldn't risk breaking Daniel's concentration. His muscles tensed in sympathy when Daniel finally found the crevice Jack had spotted, as well as a smaller hold for his hands. He stretched his left leg up to a tiny bulge on the side. Folding his right leg, the climber brought his knee up to waist level and stuck his foot against the wall.

Jack wasn't sure whether he had actually reached a proper foothold or not. The clouds lifted, allowing the last rays of sunlight to tint the cliff orange. The impossibly smooth surface above the bulge wasn't speckled by shadows like the bottom of the wall. It was much worse than the Old Bat Route. Daniel moved again, shaking with exhaustion, and Jack could only bite his lip harder.

#

The rock felt cold under his fingers. Daniel studied the tiny irregularities, choosing which ones would offer the best support for his next step. His skin sent him precious information on the texture of the rock and on the remaining distance to the top. But before going anywhere, he had a very bad case of disco leg that he needed to fix if he didn't want to fall.

Putting most of his weight on his left leg, he pushed the heel of his right foot downwards, toes remaining in contact with the rock. Breathing slowly, he fought the cramp in his calf. His pulse slowed, his muscles relaxing slowly. Ready at last, he slipped one finger into a small pocket and attacked the last portion of the slab.

The moment he rolled onto the platform it started raining again.

"I've made it," he yelled.

"I knew it! Atta boy. You're the best!"

It sounded like Jack's voice, but his friend couldn't possibly be here at his side, tousling his hair, could he? Daniel frowned at the illusion, and focused on the job at hand.

After much crawling through the mud trailing the destroyed road, Daniel found the DHD. Reading his symbols with his fingers, he dialled Earth's address. The wormhole jumped to life. As the bright event horizon pierced the night, Daniel's eyes hurt as if they'd been burned. 'Another hallucination. Can't wait to see what Teal'c and Sam will look like.'

His mission accomplished, Daniel sank to the ground and fell asleep.

#

"Major Carter, Teal'c."

"Sir."

"General Hammond." Prompted by the general, Teal'c sat at the briefing table. His jaw muscle twitched when Hammond opened a dog-eared green folder.

"I have called you today to talk about the future of SG-1," Hammond stated without further ado. "As you probably know, I want you two back out there as soon as possible. I could redistribute you to other teams, but I would have to split you up to do so. That's not going to happen."

"Thank you, Sir."

"I approve of your decision, General Hammond." Teal'c knew his sentence bordered on insubordination. He was not supposed to give his benediction to a superior officer. A simple bow would have been the correct thing to do in this case. At the same time, he wanted the General to know that he was right in thinking that he and Carter needed to stay together.

Hammond was fiddling with a corner of the cardboard folder. His gaze fell on Teal'c. "It is my hope that the new members of SG-1 will live up to their legacy."

Teal'c dropped the military curriculum vitae that was handed to him when he heard the unmistakable clang of the chevrons locking. He ran to the control room, closely followed by Hammond, and Carter, and the blare of the sirens.

"Unscheduled offworld activation."

"Close the iris. Walter, who’s out there?"

"SG-11, Sir. They are not due back for…"

"Forty-eight hours," Hammond didn’t need to be told.

Teal'c recognized a rhetorical question when he heard one. He'd caught the glimpse of hope in the General's eyes. He could feel his heart beating a bit faster, himself. As long as he wasn't confronted with O'Neill and Daniel Jackson's bodies, he would continue to believe in the possibility of rescue.

"We don't have a code."

"Sir! Shouldn't we open the iris, Sir?" Carter's tone was remarkably neutral. If there hadn't been a slight hesitation at the beginning, no one could have suspected her emotional turmoil. Teal'c considered her something of a Jaffa at times.

"No, Major Carter. I won't put the security of the base at risk for whoever is knocking at the door."

Teal'c approached the observation window. He knew his friends were out there. Alive. "I volunteer to go on P8J-453 once the wormhole has shut down, General Hammond."

Major Carter straightened. "Sir."

"I didn't expect less of you, SG-1."

#

The faraway whoosh of the Stargate drew Jack out of the daze induced by blood loss. He found the strength to smile. Daniel had reached the DHD and had managed to dial a working address. The chances were too slim for a random dial-up to work out. He had phoned Earth, and Earth would answer back. Jack trusted Hammond would understand the message.

Jack just had to wait for the rescue team. Waiting. He'd done nothing else since being stranded on East Bumblefuck. Waiting for the snakes to get them. Waiting for a fish to fall on his lap. Waiting for the jelly-guys to kill his teammate. He had been crippled from the start. Daniel had been tough and smart for the both of them.

"You made it, Nightbird. I knew you would."

Now if only he could be sure that the kid had remembered his words, and hadn't jumped head first into the wormhole.

#

Teal'c and Carter rushed back into the control room, fully equipped.

"Chevron Seven… locked," announced the sergeant.

Hammond put his hands behind his back, and stared as the MALP disappeared through the 'gate.

"The connection is established, Sir."

"Can you move the camera around?" Hammond leant near the technician and keyed the microphone on. "Colonel O'Neill. Daniel Jackson. Can you hear me?"

Wind blew out of the speakers. The area illuminated by the event horizon didn't reveal anything of interest. The place looked as deserted as it had always been.

"Switch on the infra-red camera," the General ordered. He sensed the tall Jaffa just behind him, peering at the small monitor over his shoulder.

"There! Look at the DHD!"

Carter was right. At the foot of the device, bright green blotches painted the shape of a huddled body. God. It had to be one of them. Hammond almost sent the teams out right away. The words were already forming on his tongue when he realized he wasn't certain of who was out there, waiting for them.

"No haste, Major. We want to make sure it is one of our men. Sergeant, turn the headlamps on. I want to see him."

The powerful light fell on the mud-covered man. Startled, he lifted his head. His howl of pain kick started Teal'c into a mad rush to the stairs, and before Hammond could yell "Don't!" the Jaffa had disappeared.

#

Teal'c dropped the staff weapon on the dais. It would only slow him down. He jumped over the MALP and ran on in pursuit of the naked man who was quickly fading away, swallowed by the darkness.

He saw him falter and fall in the mud. He accelerated, but the other man scrambled to his feet and went on, limping. He was getting dangerously close to the edge of the plateau. Teal'c pressed on, afraid that he would arrive too late. When he heard the muffled gasping of his prey, he threw himself into the air. He had aimed for the back, but his leap was a bit short. Nevertheless, the other man lost his balance and collapsed face first.

Teal'c rapidly crawled on top of him. "Do not move! I am here to assist you."

It was hard to tell who the writhing body belonged to. By the shape of the shoulders, Teal'c was inclined to think it was Daniel Jackson. When a flashlight held by a panting young soldier revealed his features, the archaeologist started howling and screaming like a hurt animal. "Turn the light away!" Teal'c ordered.

Teal'c heard the rest of SG-2 and Major Carter gather around him. He fought his hardest to keep Daniel prostrate without burying his head in the mud. He hadn't thought he'd come to regret having taught Daniel Jackson so many wrestling moves. He was extremely combative, and Teal’c was struggling to hold him despite his greater strength and weight. He couldn't afford to hurt his friend.

"It is Daniel Jackson," he said through clenched teeth. "Stay away from him."

The younger man stopped squirming as soon as the flashlights were directed away.

"Iskur?"

"I do not know who Iskur is, Daniel." He didn't usually call his friend by his first name. He rarely allowed himself such familiarity towards his teammates. Keeping a cool head when one of them was endangered was difficult enough as it was. Sometimes there was nothing he could do to prevent his feelings for his friends from showing through, though. "It is I. Teal'c."

"Teal'c?"

Sam knelt at their side. "Daniel! Are you all right? Do you know where the Colonel is?"

"Who?"

"Jack," explained Teal'c.

"One-legged Leader down the slippery spiral."

"What are you talking about, Daniel?"

Teal'c loosened his hold and rolled Daniel on his back. It was odd that he, of all people, would be the one able to understand this enigma. He knew which spiral Daniel was referring to. He also knew the worm had destroyed it. If O'Neill had indeed lost a leg, he wouldn't have been able to climb up to the platform.

"Major Carter, O'Neill is down the cliff."

#

"Coburn! Long time no see." Sliding his arm out of the emergency blanket, Jack waved at the major. "Having a hard time up there?"

"Your ass is getting heavier by the minute." Coburn held tight to the rope, his feet firmly entrenched behind a low rock.

"I'm glad to see you, too."

Sam grabbed the side of the rescue stretcher and assisted Coburn's men in pulling Jack up to safety. "Colonel! Are you OK, Sir? How is your leg?"

Jack couldn't hide his relief at hearing Sam's voice. If only the guys let him see her. It looked like they had hijacked the flashlights to illuminate the mud instead of him and his 2IC. And why were they all concerned about his legs? Pierce had literally counted his toes when he had found him at the bottom of the stairs.

"I'm peachy, Carter. Spent a nice holiday in a stinking hole, been munched by a worm…" He held out Iskur's blade to Sam, gesturing her to shove it in a pocket. "Just peachy," he said again. "How's Daniel? Teal'c?"

"They’re over there."

Jack looked in the direction Sam was pointing, craning his neck out of the hollow he was stuck in. "Can't see them. Coburn, when you're finished unharnessing, give me some light!"

"Getting to it." Coburn dropped his gear to the ground and started packing the ropes into his bag.

"Sir, it might not be a good idea. Daniel…"

"What? What about Daniel?"

"He’s acting weird, Sir."

Carter released the straps from the stretcher, allowing Jack to sit. Coburn chose this moment to aim the flashlight his way. Jack blinked, his eyes burning as if someone had just pricked them with incandescent needles. "Let me guess. He's shying away from the spotlights, is he?"

"That's a mild way to put it," puffed Pierce. He hauled his legs up to the platform and sat in the mud, wiping his hands on his dirty fatigues. "Jackson has gone bonkers."

"Bring me to him. Now!"

#

Daniel could hear Voices, many of them he didn't recognize. Illusions, as usual. He didn't care much about them. He was in the middle of a wrestling match with Iskur. Despite his efforts, he was losing. Iskur's Voice kept talking, breaking his concentration. It was not fair, but he had been stupid to listen to it in the first place.

"Stop fighting, Daniel Jackson. I am Teal'c. Can you hear me?"

Daniel pushed hard. Iskur lost his balance and fell aside. He didn't let go of his shoulders, though, and Daniel was forced to follow. Iskur swiftly turned him on his back, before rolling over to pin him to the ground. Daniel was sprawled prone in the mud, the whole weight of Iskur pressing on him. His energy was faltering. No amount of wriggling and hissing would get him out of this situation.

He signaled Iskur he accepted the outcome of the fight. Surprisingly, the worm hunter didn't release him.

"Hey, kiddo…" Cool. Another Voice. At least it was only repeating what Leader was already feeling.

"Hello, Leader." Daniel grabbed the other man's fingers. He revered this outstanding hunter. Leader had killed a legion of worms with skill and courage never to be equalled. His scars told of his bravery. This man had destroyed the foul beast that had found its way to Skoukla. He had lost a leg to save his people, thus becoming Leader.

"He is calming down, O'Neill."

"Well the match is over. I've lost." Daniel was satisfied with his own performance in the tournament. Fighting Iskur had been a great moment.

"That's good, Birdie. Squeeze my hand if you can hear me."

Daniel squeezed. Sometimes Leader's requests were a bit odd.

"What's wrong with him, Sir?"

"Long story. He's learned a new way of communicating. Too bad he forgot to give me a dictionary."

"Can you tell Iskur to go away? He is heavy."

"Teal'c, sit up with him. He looks quiet enough."

Daniel felt Iskur dragging him up to a sitting position. The big hunter still kept his arms wrapped around his torso, his fists locked on the painful bruise he'd gotten earlier from Leader tumbling over him. How did that happen again? Was it during the wrestling competition? That Leader could still fight was impressive.

"It hurts," he touched Iskur, trying his best not to appear too thin-skinned.

"Be careful with him, big guy. He's got a nice collection of bruises there. Pierce, Coburn, bring me closer."

Daniel let go of Leader's hand as he felt him trying to sit. He wondered why he was at the centre of the attention, and why Iskur kept him in his lap like that. He didn't complain. It felt nice to rest his head against the strong hunter's torso.

"Have you heard him speak?"

"Yes. He told us where to find you. He also called me Iskur."

"So you haven't quite lost your tongue." Leader grabbed his chin, forcing him to tip his head back to a straighter position. "Listen up, Danny. We are not in Skoukla anymore. That isn’t Iskur behind you. It's Teal'c. You remember Teal'c, don't you?"

Daniel nodded. It rang a bell. Now that Leader was slowly rubbing the line of his jaw, it was much easier to focus on the Voices. Some of them were simply repeating what he could feel with his skin. Others seemed random. They distressed him.

"Good. We're going home as soon as you're back with me, so it's up to you now."

"We could put him on a stretcher and…"

"No way, Carter. No fucking way! He came up here on his own, he'll go through the gate walking with his head high!"

Oh God. This sounded so much like the real Jack. Maybe the Voice was telling the truth this time. Maybe it was just that: a voice. Jack's voice. But he was Leader, wasn't he? Leader Jack hadn't lost a leg, it was… Daniel snarled. This made no sense.

"Snap out of it, for cryin' out loud!"

"Lead… Jack?"

#

Sam shielded the flashlight with her fingers and directed the reddish ray of light towards the trio formed by Teal'c, Daniel, and the Colonel. She wasn't sure what to do. The Colonel had made it clear he didn't want her to intervene in any way. If anybody could bring Daniel back from wherever he was, it was the colonel, but Sam hadn't any certitude about his mental state. The Colonel's, that is. She knew all to well that 'confused' didn't even start to describe Daniel's.

Coburn sidled up to her and whispered in her ear. "What do you think? Should we just… I don't know… zat them and drag them through the gate?"

"How would I know?" she whispered back.

"You work with them. Does O'Neill sound… Does he sound like himself?"

"He is sure as snappy as usual," she said, a bit too loud.

The Colonel glanced at her. "What are you two plotting about?"

"Nothing, Sir. Just how long do you think it will take?"

He hadn't stopped caressing Daniel's face. "I don't know."

"Jack, where's Hedlir?"

Sam was relieved when the Colonel's gaze left hers. He resumed talking to Daniel, too low for Sam to understand more than a few words. Home. Fever. Sushi? This one made Daniel chuckle. Names – her name, and Teal'c's, often repeated. Other ones, too. Hedlir, Iskur, and Skoukla. Nightbird. Daniel's new nickname? The Colonel seemed to call him that quite a lot.

Teal'c didn't twitch a finger. He was holding Daniel against his chest, tight enough so he wouldn't slip, loose enough so he wouldn't get hurt more than he already was. The feeble light revealed large, dark areas on Daniel's body. He had more bruises than Sam cared to see.

"We can't!"

Daniel's shocked cry startled Sam. She didn't manage to swallow back the questions that had already formed in her mouth. "What? Why?"

"We can't go through the wormhole! Otherwise we'll go splat. Leader told me so."

Daniel had looked at her. No, scratch that, thought Sam ruefully. He had looked in her general direction. He wasn't just photosensitive. He was blind. The colonel forcefully dragged Daniel's face away from her.

"Jack! It's Jack, for cryin' out loud!"

"Yes… Sorry. Slipped out."

"Focus, Danny! Teal'c has a GDO, don't you, Teal'c?"

"Indeed I have, O'Neill."

"You hear that?"

"Yeah… Yes. I think. I don't know."

Sam padded the short distance that separated her from her team to kneel at Daniel's side. She was starting to feel cold from the rain and the strong wind, and she hated to think of the toll the weather was taking on her naked friend. He wasn't paying attention, obviously. He was too busy murmuring nonsense and… what? Drawing in the air?

"I'm real, Daniel. I'm not an illusion."

The Colonel and Daniel were arguing, and Sam didn't like what she heard. Biting her tongue, she removed her backpack and searched for the first aid kit. She fumbled with the opening before simply tearing the pouch open. The little black package she'd been looking for slipped through her fingers and fell to the ground.

"What are you doing? Don't you see you're distracting him?"

"It's cold, Sir. I want to wrap him in an emergency blanket."

"It's not the right time!"

"With all due respect, Colonel, yes, it is!" Sam gasped. She knew she would pay for that later. Or maybe she wouldn't – if the colonel contrite expression was to be believed.

"Sam?"

Sam grabbed her chance. Never looking away from Daniel, she searched for the emergency blanket buried in the mud and freed it from its package. "Daniel, I'm just going to give you a blanket. To keep you warm. Is it OK with you?"

Daniel shrugged and turned back towards the Colonel. "Whatever. I'm hot already."

The colonel spoke up again, soothing the sick man. Sam didn't know how often she had heard this much softness in her commanding officer's voice. He'd used it with kids, she recalled, but never with his teammates, and never in front of witnesses like SG-2.

"Trust me. We're real."

Sam had finished wrapping Daniel in the blanket with some help from him. He seemed a bit more aware of his surroundings at last, although he struggled a bit when Sam hid his eyes behind a blindfold. "It will protect you from the light," she explained.

"Yeah, I know. Sun kills." He touched the Colonel's face, and stayed silent for a moment, listening to the rain bouncing off the shiny Mylar blanket. Sam couldn't take it anymore. The relief she had felt when finding them alive had long since evaporated. She didn't believe Daniel could be reasoned with. He was too far gone for that. Distraught, she grabbed his free hand and held it against her cheek.

The world froze still in the little bubble they had created. The four of them, SG-1, together. In touch. She'd been missing them. So much so that she hadn't been able to acknowledge the pain. But now… Oh boy. She felt whole again, and she was certain Teal'c felt the same way. Whole, and cherished, but not quite safe yet.

"Let's go home, then," Daniel decided.

 

Part 5 (Jump to: 1 •  2 •  3 •  4 •  6)

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