Nah'tak knew the loathing flying freely at him, cast at him by every eye cast upon him was not inspired by anything in any way relating to who and what he really was. These people did not know him; most of them would never even know his name. They knew only what they saw - what he represented to them.
He was a soulless servant of a monster. Demon minion of a demon master. Nah'tak knew of such beings. He was aware of the stories. Such hopeless, damned creatures were the stuff of legends in his own cultural heritage as much as they were a part of those of many of the worlds he had visited.
Pre-existing as the damned, or ordained to become them.
He had also watched the former gods of a thousand worlds made into demons by the will of the one he had formerly thought of as the one true god.
But to these people, his god was a dark, perverted thing, the ruler of the ranks of the damned despised, and he was as evil as the demon he served. What was more, he was the only one they could blame for what had been taken from them.
The one who was responsible for the loss of their friend was not here to accept their hatred in person. Therefore, they offered it in free measure to the man who stood as his proxy.
As one who counted himself Daniel's friend as well, Nah'tak accepted it without reservation or resentment. It was the least he could to render some sort of comfort and release to them.
Nah'tak strode calmly through the corridors of the SGC, surrounded by the ring of armed soldiers whose function, after a short time, it seemed, switched rather abruptly from guarding his movements to protecting him from harm. He was swiftly and impersonally conducted through the winding, echoing halls until they reached their destination. The door they paused before was opened; the warrior who led the escort party grimly waved him inside.
The large room he was escorted into was dominated by a long table flanked on either side by several cushioned chairs. It was also, as he expected, already occupied.
Two men. Two women.
From Daniel's descriptions, he immediately knew the identities of the solemn assemblage who turned as one to study him with suspicious, resentful eyes while he took a few careful, slow steps forward.
The bald, solidly rotund older man standing at the head of the table clad in a blue emblazoned uniform was clearly the leader. This was the one known as Hammond, the General, the commander Daniel had spoken so highly of. Nah'tak bowed respectfully to him, addressing him by his title and name, noting the barely concealed surprise of the man's reaction before the First Prime turned his attention to the woman standing to his right.
Also a warrior, wearing a blue uniform and its badges of honour with fierce pride. She met his gaze fearlessly; eyes narrowing assessingly as he bowed once more and called her by name.
She said nothing, schooling her reaction admirably. Still, she could not prevent a flush of anger from touching her cheeks. Her cold blue eyes bored into him unrelentingly as he turned now to the other woman.
To see something he did not expect. This woman was not Tau'ri. What was more, not only did he know her people, but he also knew her. Daniel had told him her name, but had not told him - who she was. Who she had been. He hadn't thought, hadn't imagined, hadn't realized who she was.
He knew this woman. They had met before. When she had stood at the side of Apophis, as the host for his queen.
She remembered him as well.
Luena remembered. There were many things in her eyes. Singular eyes, wondrous eyes, unique among her fellows in that in their depths there was no hatred for him. Could it really be she remembered? He could see her reaching within, scanning the memories of the times she had known him while he had done his lord's bidding at the court of Apophis. It seemed as if Luena remembered many things.
Along with a certain something he had been trying very hard to forget.
"Nah'tak," she said softly, inclining her head in an imitation of his former movement, her eyes shining with a secret, inner light.
"You know this one?" A deep, forbidding voice rumbled through the room.
The Jaffa. Nah'tak turned to lock eyes with his kinsman as Luena answered his question in the same quiet, warm voice.
"I do. We have met before. He is First Prime to Chronos. He is a good man."
Nah'tak was aware by the restive reactions of the first two they found Luena's statement puzzling and incongruent. Nor were they inclined to believe it. He could also see from the barely perceptible flicker of interest in the dark eyes meeting his Teal'c was more intrigued by Luena's endorsement than his companions. Because he was more familiar than the others with the circumstances under which a First Prime and Apophis' former queen could have become acquainted.
Which made Luena's unqualified statement of trust very perplexing to him. Nah'tak hoped Teal'c's curiosity would somehow bridge the yawning chasm of mistrust standing between them. He would thankfully clutch even the most tenuous of threads, should one be extended to him.
But first he would offer his own and see how it was received.
The tall dark man wearing the golden brand of the god he had renounced crossed his arms and waited to see how Chronos' First Prime would address him. With a deep bow Nah'tak spoke the word which he was forbidden by all the laws of his people, his station and most especially the gods, to utter.
Not - Shol'va. Not 'Traitor'. Nah'tak addressed him not by the epithet of shame wrongly assigned to him by false gods, but his true name and right. Nah'tak gave Teal'c the gift of his name, and hoped his kinsman understood what he had also declared to him in so doing.
Teal'c bowed his head gravely in acknowledgement of the honour paid to him. "General Hammond, I believe we should question this one," he intoned in a deep, ringing voice.
The one known as Hammond studied him searchingly for several significant moments. "It would seem, sir, you come highly recommended on one front. You will forgive me, however, if I do not seem too inclined to be overly trusting with the enemy. No matter my personal feelings in this matter I am prepared to extend you all the proper courtesies commensurate with your rank and status. We are civilized beings and we will comport ourselves as such unless you give us cause to treat you differently. I would caution you, do not mistake a show of respect for stupidity or laxness."
"I would not be so insulting or unintelligent," Nah'tak returned as gravely. "I am aware I am here on sufferance, and I will do nothing to abuse your confidence as long as I am your guest. You have my word I wish to provoke no incidents or misunderstandings which could interfere with my primary purpose. I have come not simply to serve as a surety for the safe return of your colonel. I was sent to you because I have knowledge of the one you have lost. My master wished to give you this opportunity to learn of him. Through me."
"That is not the impression your 'master' gave the president." Hammond continued carefully. "My superiors were given to understand the envoy would be made available to them for questioning so as to be able to ascertain Chronos' further intentions toward the Earth."
The tension in the room was beginning to slightly abate. In response to it Nah'tak relaxed his shoulders in an attempt to render his posture less imposing. "I mean no disrespect to your leaders, General, but have I your leave to speak freely with you?"
Hammond's eyes flickered slightly. Nah'tak could see the Tau'ri leader could hear the underlying candor in his voice.
"I suddenly have the strangest feeling you wouldn't speak to me any other way," Hammond returned with a pensive set to his mouth.
"I am here for you," Nah'tak said simply. "My lord wished to speak personally with your colonel, and wished also to give the friends of Daniel an opportunity to learn of him. Those are his sole purposes. He is - uninterested - in the concerns of your government. Nor should your leaders be concerned. My lord's presence here will not in any way affect your world or the way you conduct your affairs, unless your leaders seek to interfere with his purposes."
"So it would seem," Hammond responded thoughtfully. "I have received some very unusual instructions with regards to your sojourn with us. It seems you are to remain here for the duration of your stay and you are to be accorded every respect and consideration within reason. It would also seem the delegation from Washington originally planning to come here to meet you - will not be coming."
"I could tell them little my lord has not already informed them of. No purpose would be served by the journey."
"Chronos has evidently told them something," Hammond smiled wryly. "Whatever it was, they're doing things his way."
"That is what usually happens," Nah'tak answered softly, a hint of sadness in his voice.
"Have a seat, and let's get to this, then," Hammond said as he indicated the chair to his right with an open handed gesture.
Oh my god. We're all...dead.
Somehow he'd known Danny was going to do it, but Jack still couldn't believe what he'd just seen. Just up and - spat right at him. Omigodomigodomigod.
There wasn't a sound in the room. It was so damned quiet you could hear a fart clear across the galaxy. Jack could feel his blood curdling in his veins as he watched the two men in front of him glaring at each other in the aftermath of what had to have been the single bravest and stupidest thing Daniel had ever done in his life.
Well, Daniel was glaring. Smirking, wearing that 'go on, do something, I double dare you' look on his face. As if things weren't bad enough already. Jack was thankful he was completely paralysed with shock because rushing in where the fool had already tread, even to try and keep him from making things go from really really bad to oh, so much worse, probably wouldn't have helped a whole lot.
Oh well, they were all already dead, so what did it matter?
Wait a minute. Something not right here. What the hell?
Smiling. Chronos was...smiling?
Things were getting weirder. While Danny huffed and glared Chronos reached up, swiped the back of his hand across the spittle on his face, looked at it a minute and then..and then...
The image of Chronos licking the spit off the back of his hand while reaching toward Daniel's face with the other was one Jack was never going to be able to get out of his head.
The Goa'uld's fingers had barely touched Daniel's cheek when all hell broke loose.
Delios was already moving, already had a hold of Daniel, and was starting to pull him out of the room as Danny went - nuts. He'd been saving up for another spit-take but was already well out of range before he let it fly. It fell to the ground, spattering unheard amidst the howls and curses flying out of Daniel's mouth. It took three of them to finally get him the hell out of the room, and Jack could still hear him long after he could no longer see him.
"Jaffa, kree!" Chronos bit out at his guards. Instantly they snapped to, wheeled and marched from the room.
Jack could feel bands of steel crushing his chest. The Goa'uld walking toward him was looking blurry. The whole damned room was blurry. He couldn't hear Danny anymore.
"Don't you hurt him, you fucking prick."
Crap. Wasn't easy to talk. Something wrong with his throat. Something blocking it up.
"You have my word no harm will come to him," Chronos had almost reached him. Jack swallowed and ground his fingers into his eyes. There really had to be something wrong with them. He was seeing things. The Goa'uld looked almost...sympathetic.
"This isn't over!" Jack forced the words out.
"Understand this as well, O'Neill. You have my word your world is now safe. Come what may."
Telling me something, he's telling me something.
"Fuck you! You haven't seen the last of me! I'll be back! I'm getting him back!"
Stupid, Jack! Really, really stupid. Why did you say that? Must be something in the goddamned air. I'm stupid, Danny's acting stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Smiling, Chronos was smiling. Backing away from him again, toward the control console, smiling like he had just been granted his fondest wish. What was going on?
"You are welcome to try, O'Neill," Chronos replied, still smiling as he activated the transport rings.
Delios dismissed the attendants who had carted Daniel back through the Stargate and straight to the suite, his eyes never leaving the furious man glaring up at him from the couch upon which he had been hurled. He could also plainly see Daniel's seemingly passive posture was anything but. His muscles were tensed and corded beneath concealing cloth and skin as limbs gathered themselves in preparation for action in accordance with the will of the man meaning to take flight as soon as he could.
Not quite yet, Daniel. Not before you are properly educated.
"I must speak with you," Delios began in a firm voice. Which Daniel paid not the slightest heed to. His eyes followed the burly attendants as they silently exited the suite. Nodding slightly to himself he surged to his feet, took two quick steps toward the stairs, and was stopped short as Delios deliberately moved to bar his path.
"Get out of my way," Daniel snarled. "I hate this place. I don't have to stay here anymore if I don't want to. And I damned well don't want to - so get the hell out of my way!"
"You may leave after you listen to what I say," Delios replied calmly to the slightly shorter man glaring and bristling at him.
"Eat my shorts," Daniel hissed. "I don't have to listen you, either."
"You do, and you will," Delios replied smoothly.
The next sound out of Daniel was a breathless squawk of astonishment as Delios placed a hand on his chest and effortlessly, dispassionately shoved him backward with so much force he was practically lifted bodily and flung back onto the couch he had just forsaken. The blow rendered him too stunned to do much more than lie where he had fallen while he pulled desperate draughts of air into his lungs in an attempt to recover the breath which had been roundly pushed out of him.
Delios strode up to the couch and stood over him as he struggled to breathe, satisfied to see much of the fight had been knocked out Daniel along with his wind. Which had been the intention behind the action. One way or another, Daniel was going to listen to him.
"You forget who you are talking to, Tau'ri," Delios sneered at him as he crossed his arms and looked down his nose at the man sprawled gasping beneath him. Daniel was gingerly rubbing the assaulted spot on his chest while he peered up at Delios with narrowed eyes and a guarded expression. "Chronos may love you for the moment, but I do not share his inexplicable sentiments. What is more, I am quite unwilling to hang my life and my future upon the uncertainty of his continued tolerant attitude toward you in the face of your escalating, self-indulgent excesses of behaviour."
From the expression on his face it was clear Daniel had been about to hurl another rude rejoinder at him but stopped himself as Delios' last words penetrated. The First Maintainer did not allow him the chance to recover or question. Knowing Daniel was hearing him, he pressed ruthlessly onward.
"Your selfish antics exceeded even my expectations of you," Delios chided, his voice rising as his anger began to gain speed. "Do you understand what you did back there? Do you comprehend the implications of your reckless actions? No - you do not. You do not understand you condemned yourself to death. Not only you - oh, no, it does not stop there! Foolish, ridiculous child! How dare you place my life in such jeopardy! You still do not understand what you have done!
"Sacrilege! You committed a sin punishable by instant death. You defiled a god. In so doing you not only condemned yourself, you sealed the fate of everyone in that room! Everyone who witnessed the act - all of our lives were immediately forfeit. Simply because we happened to be unlucky enough to be in your company when you decided to behave like the thoughtless idiot you are. Do you truly care for nothing but yourself? All of us, Tau'ri - we should all be dead. Including your equally foolish and heedlessly reckless 'Jack'. I am not concerned about any of the others - especially your smelly friend, but I am less than impressed with having my own life so casually frittered away!
"Fortunately, I still live. I do not understand why, but I tell you truly I will see you dead by my own hand before I allow you to place my life in such needless peril again. Chronos may love you now and forgive you much, but no one knows better than I how fleeting a thing his 'favour' truly is."
Delios watched with satisfaction as Daniel's face grew paler and more shocked with every syllable he absorbed. Plain to see he understood what he was being told.
"I - I - oh god - I didn't think," he stuttered in a deeply horrified voice. "I - was just so- so.so..didn't think. Oh my god - Jack!"
Propelled into motion by the terror engendered by the realization Daniel flew to his feet, grabbing two handfuls of Delios' robe as he desperately sought the answer he needed.
"Jack! He was still there! I - I left him there with Chronos! I don't know - I don't know if he got back. Oh god, what have I done? Delios! Let me go! I have to know - have to find out if he was returned to Earth safely!"
Delios grabbed him roughly by the chin and forced Daniel to look him in the eye. "Now, you are sorry. I am gratified to see you are truly not as stupid as you appear to be. Your remorse is a bit late in coming. It will not help your friend now. You have already sealed his fate. What is done, is done. I do not know what has befallen him, any more than you do. He could be safe, he could be dead. I do not care. I do care, however, for the fact you consigned me to the same fate. As I am still alive, I can only infer Jack is as well. Take what comfort you will from that, but take also responsibility for having been the instrument of his death if that has been his fate."
Delios paused, tightening his grip on Daniel's chin until he could see the pain wringing in his eyes. He smiled cruelly before he continued.
"So tell me, your empty little gesture - was it worth Jack's life?"
Rage flared anew in Daniel as he flailed furiously, but ineffectually, against the hands holding him fast. "Take your hands off me!" he cried, tears of angry frustration springing in his eyes.
Delios laughed lightly as he easily hefted the man he held and slammed him back down on the couch. He continued to laugh at him as he effortlessly restrained Daniel's most determined and frenzied efforts to escape.
"You see?" Delios mocked the man beneath him as he leaned closer to the mouth working furiously with loud, sputtering curses. "You see how pointless all your struggling is? How truly powerless you are for all this ridiculous effort? How little what you 'want' - matters? Yet you will not cease. Very well. If you insist on expending yourself in such a ridiculous way, I will indulge you.
"Do you feel anger, Daniel? Does the rage boil within you? Do you want someone to really hate? Here I am."
Delios sneered at Daniel again, by his expression seeming to revel in the fact the man he pressed into the couch was completely unable to ward off the sudden, searing kiss that brutally, briefly silenced his verbal protestations.
Delios released both his mouth and his body before Daniel gave way to the scream shuddering inside him. Shocked and shaking, Daniel scrambled off the couch as Delios backed quickly away from him. Realizing his path to escape was at last clear, Daniel blindly fled from the room, stumbling up the stairs in his panic. He neither stopped nor looked back as he ran. Out of the suite, back out into the ship. As far from the man behind him as quickly as he could travel.
"Hate me, Daniel!" Delios shouted after him. "We'll all stay much safer that way."
Delios stood silently, alone, staring at the emptiness around him. The cruel mocking expression fell from his face now that it was no longer required. To be replaced by a look which would have puzzled Daniel greatly had he still been there to see it. Sighing, Delios shrugged his shoulders, crossed slowly back to the couch and sank wearily into the soft, yielding cushions.
"Hate ME, Daniel," he said in a soft, sad voice as his head fell into his hands.
Daniel moved swiftly, sightlessly through the ship, spurred by his need to escape what lay behind and his greater need to learn what had befallen Jack. Nothing. There was still nothing inside him of the pervasive, comforting presence of Jack which had been the once constant assurance in his life practically since all of this had begun. Daniel kept moving, afraid to think too deeply on what this continuing emptiness could mean.
When he was back on Earth it would start up again. That's what Jack had said. Nothing. Still nothing. How long had it been? How long since they were torn apart? Not long enough? Not long enough for it to start happening again? That's what the nothing meant. That's all it meant. Just hadn't been long enough. That's all. That's all.
He wouldn't allow himself to consider any other possible explanation.
Head lowered, mind racing, Daniel was still speeding heedlessly forward when he impacted quite emphatically with a living, breathing obstacle he had not even been aware he was on a collision course with. As proprietary hands curled about his upper arms Daniel looked up from the chest he was staring at into the concerned eyes of Chronos.
"Is Jack all right?" It was all he wanted to know about, all he cared about. Chronos could pour a sea of false compassion over him, he wanted no part of any of it. Wanted no part of the thing holding him, pressing close to him, looking at him like it knew what it meant to care for another so much it was like a blessed, constant ache inside.
It didn't. It knew nothing. Except what he needed to know. So he'd suffer the touch and the look as long as it took to get it to tell him.
"Daniel." It spoke his name softly, kindly, making him want to scream. As much as the feel of the hands on his arms, stroking, caressing, making his skin crawl.
Make it say. As soon as you know, you can run away.
"What did you do to Jack? What did you do to him?"
Tell me. Tell me. Damn you, just tell me.
Its lying eyes looked confused, as if it didn't understand the question, or his driving need to have it answered. As if it couldn't grasp why he should be so distressed.
Liar. Liar. Liar. Tell me!
"Daniel, you are still upset." Soft voice, kind tone, lying voice. To go with the lying eyes looking at him. Empty of every gentle emotion and consideration they counterfeited. As empty as the false endearments and words of concern pouring out of the lying mouth.
"I have much to atone for. I do not even know where to begin to make up for what I have done to you."
Smiling now, touching his face. What was it talking about now? Atoning? Making up?
Try dying. That ought to just about cover it.
"What did you do to Jack?"
"Colonel O'Neill was returned to Earth, Daniel. Just before I was retrieved. He is safe and well. Be at peace."
Nah'tak. That was Nah'tak's voice. Daniel looked past Chronos, toward the man standing slightly behind him. Daniel hadn't even realized he was there.
Nah'tak. Eyes warmly smiling at him. Eyes of a friend. Eyes that didn't lie. Nah'tak didn't lie. Jack was safe. Safe. Home. Thank God.
"Of course he is safe, dear one. Why would you think otherwise? Have I not promised you no harm would come to him?"
Had what he needed to know. No need to listen to more lies or let it touch him any more. No need to be here. Safe. Find somewhere safe. Somewhere to hide, rest. Somewhere no one would bother him. Somewhere he could find a little peace.
He pulled quickly away from its hands, turned away from its eyes, tuned out its voice calling his name as he turned and fled. Didn't know where he was going, knew only he had to get away.
Footfalls behind him, pursuing. A voice calling his name. Different voice. He would hear this voice. It had never given him cause to fear it. No need to run from it.
Daniel stopped running, allowing Nah'tak to catch up to him and fall into step at his side. The First Prime did not touch him, merely walked beside him in silence.
"Where are you going?" Nah'tak said finally.
"I - I don't know," Daniel replied softly, not looking at the man walking beside him. "I don't know where to go. I want to lie down, rest. I want.."
"You want to feel safe," Nah'tak supplied the rest of his thought. Daniel nodded, the weariness suddenly stealing over him so profoundly it robbed him of the energy necessary for speech.
"I know of such a place," Nah'tak continued in a deep, reassuring voice. "If you will permit me, I could take you there. I will watch over you as you rest. I promise you, you will be safe. If you wish, I can also tell you about your friends. I have just come from seeing them. From Earth. If it would not pain you too much to listen, I will tell you of them."
"Okay," Daniel murmured, feeling suddenly deeply grateful for the strong, supporting arm around his shoulders that was just - there - the instant he most needed it to be. He felt relief wash through the weariness as he slumped against the man supporting him and allowed himself to be steered toward the promised safe haven.
He was so glad he didn't need to fight anymore, because right now there just wasn't any fight left.
Nah'tak moved with deliberate, slow care as he travelled to each wick in the forest of candles in his quarters. He ignited one after the other patiently, with ritualistic reverence, all the while feeling the hungry, haunted eyes hiding in the corner silently watching him. Though Daniel had never seen this Jaffa ready himself for Kel no reem, still the familiar, evocative actions were calming him. As Nah'tak had known they would. After conversing at length in private with his kinsman in his own quarters at the SGC.
"What you have told me of Chronos' decision deeply concerns me," Teal'c had said to him. "Once the other System Lords learn of the status Chronos has conferred upon DanielJackson his position will become extremely perilous. If it is not already so. Once DanielJackson himself understands what he has become, the danger to his mental well being will grow even more acute."
Nah'tak found he could not dispute Teal'c's conclusions. Not then. Certainly, not now.
"In the past I had sworn to protect him," Teal'c had continued. Nah'tak remembered the utter gravity of his tone and his dark, searing eyes as clearly as if the Jaffa was standing before him, uttering the words anew. "Now, due to circumstances beyond my control, I can no longer do this. He is alone, undefended, separated from the concern and protection of those who care for him and would give their lives for him. This must not be so. "
Nah'tak had listened with equal gravity, knowing he was hearing nothing less than a solemn charge delivered to him by one who was entrusting him with a sacred duty. The guardianship of Daniel. A task he was expected to give his life for, if need be. As would the man who was placing the responsibility for Daniel's safety into another's hands, fully confident his proxy would appreciate and be worthy of the honour.
The scope of Teal'c's trust astonished him, but it had not been easily given. Much serious conversation and many honest, probing questions had preceded it, and it had only finally come about after an admission Nah'tak had been brought to by the relentless Jaffa. One he had not even been aware of himself until he heard himself speaking the words in response to Teal'c's uncompromising interrogative.
"This is difficult," Teal'c had said to him. "You serve Chronos not from fear, but from conviction. He has not commanded your loyalty nor forced it from you, you give it to him freely. That is as you chose. As you feel and believe from your heart. Luena trusts you. That speaks more for what you really are than you realize. I have questioned you also. I have found nothing within you to dispute your appearance as a being of honour and conscience. But still, I must know one thing before I put my friend's life in your hands. Know this, Nah'tak, if I discover you have lied to me in any way, or have allowed him to come to harm while you are still drawing breath, I will make it my sole purpose in life to find you and kill you. Think upon what I have said, and answer me truthfully.
"How will you protect DanielJackson if your master's wishes proceed contrarily to his continued well-being? If it comes down to a choice between obeying Chronos and preserving DanielJackson from harm, how will you act?"
Nah'tak hadn't known the answer to that question until that very instant. Twice he had stood by and done nothing, listening while he believed Chronos was ending Daniel's life. Wishing more than anything to be the one dying in his stead. Nah'tak loved his master. Would die to serve him without a single thought or regret.
But there would not be a third time.
No matter what it required of him, Daniel would not be harmed. By anyone. He had no higher purpose than this. It was so clear to him then. Even clearer now since he had returned and seen the painful evidence something terrible had happened to Daniel while he was gone.
"I will protect him," he'd answered. "From any and every hand that might be raised against him. No exceptions."
Teal'c had studied him deeply, calm approval and satisfaction welling in his dark, knowing eyes. "It will be as you say," he'd replied after slowly inclining his head in a respectful nod. "I put my trust in your word and your honour. You have also my word of what awaits you if you are less than what I believe you to be in the keeping of your vows."
"I will not fail him. Or you."
"We shall see."
We shall indeed, Teal'c.
Nah'tak sighed gently to himself as he continued lighting the candles. Daniel was still watching him from the corner into which he had taken himself. Peering at him over the top of one of the huge pillows he was hugging fiercely after having snatched it up from the floor on his way to the corner. Daniel had been huddling tensely, silently there from the moment they had first arrived. Nah'tak had let him be, saying nothing to him, withdrawing wordlessly to the adjoining room to divest himself of his uniform. After donning one of the loose, plain, comfortable robes he habitually wore prior to commencing his meditation he'd returned to the main chamber. Still saying nothing, still not looking at Daniel, he'd begun lighting the candles.
Teal'c had told him Daniel had developed the habit, shortly before he'd been taken, of slipping into his room and quietly watching him while he was deep in Kel no reem. Never disturbing him. Never saying a word. Just silently sitting for a small space of time and then leaving just as unobtrusively. Teal'c had been aware of his presence during these visits but had not informed Daniel of this fact. Nor had he asked him the reason for them. He had been more than content to leave matters as they were, allowing Daniel the dignity of the visits without any needless questions or explanations. Clearly they satisfied some need in him or he would not have been compelled to engage in the activity.
Teal'c did not need to know the 'why' when 'how' he was able to be of service to his friend was quite enough. It was, however, a useful piece of information to pass on to the new guardian. That it was highly likely Daniel would find the opportunity to witness a Jaffa he trusted and considered to be a friend engaging in Kel no reem familiar and comforting.
From the sounds of calmer breathing and the evident relaxing of the body of the man in the corner it would seem Teal'c had been correct.
Nah'tak smiled slightly to himself as he finished lighting the last candle. Turning his back on the softly glowing perimeter of brilliance he crossed to the centre of the room and lowered himself to the floor in a graceful arrangement of limbs made almost perfect by the practice of countless repetitions. Resting his hands placidly on his knees he closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply.
"I - I thought you were going to talk to me," Daniel said in a small, tentative voice. It sounded so lost, so unlike him, and Nah'tak was hard pressed to keep reaction from marring the neutral expression on his face. "Tell me..tell me about my..my friends."
Nah'tak opened his eyes in time to see Daniel's face contort just before his head fell into the pillow he was clutching. "No, not my friends. Not any more. Not after all those things I said. You want to hear how much they hate you now? Smart, Daniel. Why don't you just stick your head in a meat grinder, it'd be more fun."
Nah'tak smiled warmly at the man who could not see him. The First Prime had been witness to and the recipient of many emotional responses from Daniel's friends, but hatred for the man they had lost had not been one of them. Certainly the most vocal and vociferous expressions of the most distrustful ones had come from the fiery female major. Major Carter had done little to suppress her disgust of him, or her disbelief in his concern for Daniel, given his admitted willing service to the author of Daniel's misfortune. And he had spared himself nothing in answering her most difficult and damning questions about what he had and had not done during the course of Daniel's trials.
"You care about Daniel?" she'd sneered at him. "After what you've let happen to him - how can you say that?"
"You are a soldier," he had replied calmly to her, trying to answer her pain and concern while showing her he respected her feelings. "I believe you do your duty not simply because it is required of you, but because you also believe in the cause you uphold, the leaders you obey. You serve because you believe in the rightness of what you have dedicated your life to. So did I. Chronos is not only my master, he was my god. I believed what he did was right because he had the authority to declare it so. It was all I needed to know, and to believe.
"That is, until Daniel gave me cause to question what I had formerly accepted without question."
"So why aren't you doing something to help him?" she'd retorted angrily, bothered by his response but still unwilling to relinquish her contempt.
"What makes you think I am not?" He had no answer for her hatred. He could only tell her the truth.
She'd made a wide show of looking about the room as if seeking something which clearly was not in evidence. "Well, I'm looking, but I don't see him here. So whatever you're doing, it's not enough."
"I am sorry if my efforts seem lacking to you, Major. Please tell me, what else would you have me do?"
He remembered the look on her face. So earnest. So very angry. He found himself deeply regretting the dictates of circumstance and responsibility which would most probably forever bar him from knowing this woman's respect and friendship. Her passion and loyalty did her much credit. Daniel had powerful friends.
But from what he had come to know of him from knowing the man himself, that was a fact Nah'tak had never had any doubt of.
"Get Daniel the hell out of there!" she'd yelled at him. After which she had immediately remembered herself and where she was, and sat abruptly back in her chair and cast a remorseful look at her commanding officer. "Sorry, sir," she'd murmured. "I apologize for being out of line."
The man who commanded the SGC had not looked at the major as he'd responded to her. Nah'tak had been the sole focus of the wise, penetrating scrutiny.
"That's all right, Major," he'd begun in a quiet voice. "I think a little latitude can be granted, given the circumstances. Besides, our guest does not seem offended by your statement."
"I am not," Nah'tak had answered him. "I would furthermore not be adverse to speaking to her concern."
"Is that so?" Hammond had arched a thoughtful brow while narrowing his eyes. "I would be very interested in hearing this."
Nah'tak had bowed his head to him before turning his full attention back to the major.
"I will explain the situation as fully as I can, and then ask you, what else you would have me do. All of you, and Daniel as well, desire his freedom. You imagine it is in his best interests. I would tell you now, though it might be hard for you to accept this, given what has recently happened, helping Daniel remove himself from Chronos' protection might well be the worst thing I could do for him."
The major had very much looked as if she'd wanted to insert an angry interjection into the conversation at this point. Nah'tak had forestalled her by holding up a hand.
"Please - I know the way that sounds. Please allow me to explain. I promise you will understand."
Nah'tak had turned then to Teal'c. Knowing the Jaffa would comprehend in an instant exactly what he was trying to tell him as soon as he heard the word.
"Chronos has openly declared Daniel to be his Kal ni esh."
Teal'c understood the situation so completely his mouth had actually fallen open in shock. A fact which was not lost on a single one of his companions, and made even more alarming by Luena's supporting gasp of dismay.
"He has done so formally to his Underlords?" she'd snapped. At his slight, sad nod of confirmation she'd closed her eyes and shuddered. "Oh Materai," she'd sighed. "Oh Daniel - how shall we free you now?"
The general and the major had exchanged brief, helplessly uncomprehending glances before the general had given voice to their mutual confusion.
"What is it? What's happened? What has Chronos done to Dr Jackson?"
"Nothing much," Luena had replied bitterly, her face dark with anger, her hands on the table clenching in fists of rage. "He's only just made Daniel a target for every uppity System Lord who wants a chance at getting the upper hand on Chronos."
"How?" the major had added, bewildered and frightened.
"The term is not easy to translate," Teal'c had finally found his voice. "It refers to a very archaic custom, rarely employed among the Goa'uld today but deeply steeped in their tradition. It is mean to confer status upon the recipient, along with certain rights and protection."
"Teal'c is partially correct," Luena had continued in grim, clipped tones. "Goa'uld society is strictly organized and striated, especially in the higher echelons, in the ranks of the System Lords. Formal unions, marriages as you know them, are based upon reproductive imperatives as well as political concerns. Chronos is a System Lord of the First Rank. The highest echelon of Goa'uld society. System Lords of the First Rank are the only ones entitled to 'marry' a viable Queen and reproduce. By viable - that is to say, one who is capable of bearing larval Goa'ulds. She gets his status, he gets to retain genetic control of the line. Because they like to keep it in family this candidate must also be of his own line. Sister, daughter, mother. "
"Larval bearing?" the major had interjected, frowning. "You mean like Hathor?"
"Like Hathor," Luena had uttered the name with a slight sniff of disdain. "There aren't a lot of viable Queens out there. They sort of 'happen' when there's a vacancy and a reproductive opportunity occurs. Like the opportunity that was created when Chronos killed his Queen a hundred and fifty years ago after she rather foolishly tried to replace him with one of his sons. He has a daughter who went viable after her mother was killed and who has been rather impatiently waiting for Chronos to crook his finger and call her on up ever since. Being elevated to the status of Chronos' Queen would quite increase her own power, influence and social standing within Goa'uld society, as you can well imagine. Not to mention enabling her to make a bunch of her own little Goa'ulds to wreck more havoc in the universe. However, for whatever reason, he has chosen not to do so. Mind you, I've met Hera, I can't really say I blame him much.
"In earlier days the Goa'uld were more susceptible to matters of the heart, as hard as that may be to believe. While they observed the necessity of form, it was not unheard of for them to fall prey to more tender feelings and adopt other more emotionally based liaisons. But whether the union was based on love or politics, these are Goa'uld we are talking about. Power and status are everything. These 'less than mates but more than mere lovers' wanted their piece of the status pie as well, but because of the way things were set up, weren't formally entitled to it. Also, a high ranking System Lord couldn't be seen with someone who wasn't their equal, no matter how they felt about them. So they came up with the title of Kal ni esh."
"The convention was basically devised as a way of bestowing 'royal' status on lower ranking Goa'uld," Teal'c had supplied. "And protecting them from the subsequent retribution of their 'betters'."
"Just so," Luena had nodded at him. "The Kal ni esh were to be recognized as equal in status to the System Lord who had bestowed the honour upon them, and were to be accorded the same loyalty, service, and protection. Not equal in power - that was quite another matter. They couldn't throw their weight around or supersede the importance and authority of the Queen, but they were to be protected and respected equally. Over time, it grew to become more than a bit of an accepted assumption of immunity from any sort of harm or molestation, and a warning as well. Especially to the Queen. Touch this one and die."
"Except DanielJackson is not a Goa'uld," Teal'c had continued, his deep voice heavy with the seriousness of the new danger his friend was in. "The System Lords will not recognize the immunity as applying to him as he is not one of their kind. What they will realize, however, is how important DanielJackson is to Chronos. By declaring this all Chronos has done is invite any System Lord who covets Chronos' power to attempt to capture his Kal ni esh. They will use DanielJackson to force Chronos to yield to them."
"Holy Hannah," the Major had blurted in a small, shocked voice. "Every Goa'uld in the galaxy is going to be after Daniel."
"You see now why trying to return Daniel to you at this particular point in time might not be in his best interests," Nah'tak had concluded sadly.
Oh, they had understood, at last. Understood that until a way could be found to 'decrease his value' to both Chronos and the System Lord collective at large, Daniel was much safer where he was. Understood that even if they got him back, the way things were right now, lacking the resources to properly protect him they wouldn't be able to keep him long, and any System Lord determined enough to take him wouldn't think twice about levelling a continent or two to get to him.
He'd told them much after this, and they had listened without censure or reservation. He'd been gratified for their attention, their credence, and the beginnings of trust. True there had been time for only the faintest beginnings of understanding, but during the hours he had spent with Daniel's friends he learned much about him and how much they cared for him which would no doubt be everything he needed to hear right now, and more.
What Nah'tak didn't know was quite how he was going to tell Daniel exactly what he had become. He'd have to find out some time, and as he wasn't exactly stupid, it wouldn't take him long to realize he was now even more trapped by circumstances than he had been before.
However, all of that could wait. Things were heavy enough on his young friend's heart. Time to see if there was anything he could do to lighten the load a little.
"Daniel, what has happened?" he asked gently but not obtrusively.
"I saw Jack," came the muffled voice from the pillow. "And now, he's gone again."
Nah'tak closed his eyes as the stark pain in those few words rent his heart in sympathy.
"My sorrow for your loss," he said quietly. "There is more, isn't there?"
"Don't want to talk about it." The voice quavered. Daniel's shoulders began to slightly shake.
Nah'tak decided to play a dangerous hunch.
"Chronos is concerned for you."
Daniel's head shot up as if he had been struck in the side with an electric prod. His eyes were red-rimmed, damp and cold with hot fury. "If you ever say that name to me again we are no longer friends!" he intoned in a dead, dark voice. Then the galvanizing fury deserted him as quickly as it had come. Exhausted, distressed, clearly almost at the limits of his emotional endurance his face folded upon itself with hopelessness as his head fell back down onto the pillow again.
"Sam told me to tell you she finally found Mister Boo," Nah'tak supplied gently. "Also, something called 'Snuffles' has been appropriated. She is not expecting you to be able to locate it when you return."
Nah'tak hadn't understood the meaning of the message, only that it was something deeply personal between two friends and the major had been most insistent he deliver it. Seeing the effect it appeared to be having on Daniel he regretted saying it until he came to understand Daniel's shoulders were shaking for an entirely different reason than what he had at first believed.
"That'll be the day," Daniel chuckled into the pillow before lifting his head again. A softer, more hopeful light glowing in his eyes. "So, after everything that's happened, are you saying they'll still take my calls?"
"They are your friends, Daniel. So am I. I don't know how yet, but somehow, we'll make all of this right. I promise."
At least Chronos didn't drop him off where he'd picked him up.
It took a moment to recover from the disorienting effect of the transport, but mere seconds after the rings released him Jack realized three very important things.
He was standing on Cheyenne Mountain, Hammond and his team were standing around him, and he was looking right into the face of the man who had been standing beside Chronos on Abydos while he kidnapped Danny.
He'd been needing to kill someone for a long time now; 'till he could finally get his hands on Chronos again his flunky would more than do.
Snarling with rage, Jack launched himself at his unmoving and completely unresisting target. The Jaffa didn't try to defend himself as Jack's hands clutched his throat and began to implacably squeeze. Fury, frustration and madness granted him impossible strength. The world was a red haze of bloodlust. He felt hands upon him, trying to pull him back, trying to break his grip and failing, failing. Finally, someone would pay. He wanted to howl with joy as he watched the light beginning to die into the golden eyes looking calmly, unflinchingly at him.
The strangeness of that look was only just beginning to penetrate when someone went and dropped a mothership on his head.
"I am sorry, O'Neill," Teal'c gravely addressed the unconscious man at his feet. "But I could not permit you to continue with your intention."
"I do not fault him for this," Nah'tak gasped as he struggled to recover from the effects of the attack while slumped against Luena's strong support. "My actions have caused him much grief. You must tell him this, when he is capable of understanding. Give him also my sincere apologies for the harm I have caused him."
He took several more deep breaths, nodded his thanks to Luena and Teal'c, and then straightened up and removed his arm from her shoulders. "I must leave you now and return to my master," he said quietly.
"You are unharmed?" Luena said quickly, tenderly, as she darted a hand to the First Prime's cheek and then as swiftly withdrew it.
"I will be fine," he reassured her softly.
Nah'tak took several paces back from the group clustered about the cold-cocked colonel, looked at each one in turn and gravely nodded, and then touched his hand to the gauntlet he wore on his left wrist. "I will protect him," he said solemnly to Teal'c as the transport rings descended and took him away.
Sam looked down at the man in the more than slightly rumpled dress blues sprawled in the dirt beneath her. "Holy Hannah," she observed with a wry grimace. "Is he ever gonna be pissed when he wakes up."
"Indeed," Teal'c returned as he bent down and easily hefted the limp man over his shoulder.
"We could always tell him George did it," Luena offered with a slightly impious grin. She shrugged her shoulders at the general, pulled a face at Sam in response to her more than scandalized expression and then turned on her heel and started to follow Teal'c, who had already begun to bear his burden back toward the surface entrance.
"Young woman!" Hammond called after her as he hurried to catch up to her. "I think the time has more than come for you and I to have a chat about military decorum."
"George?" Sam murmured, aghast, as she gaped after the swiftly receding assemblage.
Closing her mouth with a snap she frowned again and hastened to close the distance.
Jack came to in the infirmary with a head twice the size of the mothership someone had dropped on him.
"Crap," he groaned, as consciousness, memory and pain returned at about the same time. Pretty much making him wish he hadn't bothered to wake up.
"Did I kill him?" he groaned again.
"You did not," came the response in Teal'c's familiar basso profundo tones from somewhere fairly close to his right.
"Crap. I mean..good. Guess that was pretty freaking stupid. God knows what Chronos would have done if he'd gotten his boy back dead. Thanks for stopping me." He ventured cracking open an eyelid in order to cast a baleful glance at the tall, solemn man standing at the side of the bed. "But did you have to hit me so HARD?"
"Similar previous demonstrations of your determination to persist in an unwise course of action led me to believe subtlety would have been entirely ineffective."
"Yeah, well, listening to reason has never been one of my strong suits," Jack winced as he started to sit up. "That was probably about the tenth stupid thing I've done today. But then, who's counting?"
Jack completed the manoeuvre he was executing without managing to feel any worse than he already did. He found himself face to face with the whole damned gang including the lovely and ever popular Doctor Janet Fraiser.
"Welcome back, Colonel," she smiled warmly at him. "I'm happy to report your head seems to be hard enough to have enabled you to sustain nothing more serious from this incident than a stiff neck and a headache."
"Huge, honking headache," Jack complained. "I know what a stickler you are for detail."
"Thank you, sir," Fraisier replied as she turned to the general. "The colonel will be just fine." She paused to flash a warning look around the room. "That is, assuming we are all through beating up on him, now?"
"Had it coming, Doc," Jack waved a dismissive hand as he swung his legs around and perched on the edge of the bed. "I went a little nuts topside. Nuts," he groaned and shook his head as he tried vainly to clear it of the flood of resurfacing, unwelcome memories. "This is all nuts."
"What happened up there, Jack?" Hammond asked gently.
"I saw Danny." It was all he could get out before his throat closed over. He was amazed he'd been able to say that much.
"Oh God," he heard Carter softly gasp.
"Jack," Hammond continued, still gently, but determined, "I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like up there, but you've been gone a long time, and in the interim there have been some rather serious developments. We've been given some disturbing information; serious decisions are being made which require your input. I know this isn't going to be easy for you, but Washington needs to know whatever you can tell us about your meeting with Chronos. I also have something to tell you about Doctor Jackson."
Jack looked over at him wearily and heaved a heavy sigh.
"I'm not going to enjoy this, am I?"
Jack never got to hear what Hammond was about to say next. The sudden, discordant whining of the red alert klaxon told them company was coming.
Well, well, what do you know. Another part of Snakedom rears its ugly head.
First it's Chronos, and now the Tok'ra are banging on the door. Wouldn't be neighbourly not to let them in. Besides, I've still got this itch I never got the chance to properly scratch.
"Colonel O'Neill!" Hammond's warning tones tried in vain to rein Jack in as he bolted from the control room and swarmed down the stairs toward the gate room.
"Get after him and don't let him do anything else rash," Hammond snapped at Teal'c. Hammond shook his head as he watched the Jaffa lope swiftly after the leader of SG-1. Beckoning wearily to the others he began to walk toward the stairs.
Too old for this. He was getting much too damned old for all of this.
Jack stood behind the line of SFs waiting with weapons trained on the rippling event horizon. He banged his clenched fist restively against his leg as he waited.
After what seemed to be longer than all of recorded history three figures came striding through the gate. Two of them he'd never seen before. But the guy in the middle..
"MARTOUF!" he roared. "You two-faced, lying PRICK!"
Yes, thank you, there is a god.
Teal'c made a grab for him as soon as he saw Martouf, but Jack was that much faster. The Jaffa's fingers closed on empty air and Jack was up the ramp and barrelling into the startled Tok'ra trio before Teal'c had time to register he'd missed him. Jack's charge had scattered the new arrivals like ten pins. Martouf's companions tumbled helplessly to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs while the object of Jack's ire did likewise.
Only he had one very enraged and bellicose US Air Force colonel sitting squarely on his chest while the other two didn't.
Martouf lay where he had fallen, pinned to the ramp by equal parts of surprise and O'Neill, staring dumbly at the man atop him with his fist primed and arm poised to launch it repeatedly into his face.
That is, it would have, if Teal'c hadn't grabbed it first.
Just before he grabbed Jack by the back of his collar, hauled him off and dragged him back down the ramp to a waiting and more than irritable general.
"Jack, if you don't settle down right now and start acting your rank I swear I am going to let this boy slap you around until you do!" Hammond thundered at him.
Jack struggled briefly against Hammond's dogged determination and Teal'c's emphatic restraint. Tried to hold onto his anger, but found the Jaffa's solid but unrelenting presence draining it from him as swiftly as it had possessed him.
"Normally I could probably think up about a dozen insubordinate things to say to that but right now, surprisingly, nothing's coming," Jack conceded with ill-concealed annoyance.
By now the Tok'ra had all managed to unravel themselves and recover their footing.
"General Hammond," Lantash barked as his eyes flashed eerily with his own anger. "What is the meaning of this attack?"
"Don't gimme that innocent routine you snake in the grass!" Jack barked right back at him. "You've got some nerve showing your creepy face back here again after what you did to Carter!"
"Samantha?" The bewildered face and the voice which responded belonged to Martouf. "I do not understand. The last words we spoke to one another were regretful, but I was not aware I had caused you any offence in what was said. If that is the case, I am most sorry, it was not meant."
"I'd call zatting her more than a bit offensive, wouldn't you?"
Martouf began to walk down the ramp, his companions following warily along behind him. His expression was both alarmed and concerned.
"Colonel O'Neill, I assure you, I have no idea what you are talking about. The last time Samantha and I spoke she told me she had been ordered to return to your world alone. Jacob was with me when she took her leave of both of us. She told us she regretted to inform us she had no choice but to leave, and furthermore all relations between the Tau'ri and the Tok'ra were indefinitely suspended. In respect for the wishes of your government we have not contacted you since, and in fact, would not be doing so now if the need for your assistance was not so great."
"I don't understand," Sam interjected suddenly, cutting off Jack's next angry remark. "You're saying I went to you and told you I was leaving. That I left without you? But, that's just not true. I did no such thing. I did return to Earth, but you came back with me!"
Martouf smiled patiently at her. "As you can see, Samantha, I did not."
"Well, SOMEONE sure the hell did!" Jack growled. "And he sure walked, talked and screwed us over just like you."
"That's enough, Jack," Hammond eyed him warningly. "Martouf, if what you are saying is true you are presenting us with a rather alarming scenario. If what BOTH you and Major Carter are saying is true than someone impersonated BOTH of you well enough to engineer a considerable misunderstanding between our peoples."
"Not to mention screwing up the signalling device," Luena sniffed.
"Have you attempted to contact us in the interim?" Martouf asked, a worried frown beginning to crease his brow. "If so, we have received no signal from you."
"Told you so!" Luena nudged Sam with her elbow. The major pretended to ignore her but her lips were tightly compressed in annoyance.
"My apologies, Martouf," Hammond said gravely. "But I think we have a problem."
"More than you know," the tall Tok'ra ominously intoned. "I assure you, we will address this problem, but first I must regretfully bring an even more serious one to your attention. We've come because we urgently need your help in a matter which concerns you as well. Especially you, Samantha."
"Something's happened to Dad," Carter blurted, her face draining of colour.
"Jacob has been taken prisoner by Sokhar."
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