Pure of Heart
Part Twelve


To hell with us.

He'd said it as a joke, in that room in that mountain farther away than he could quite get his mind around, but the truth was, he wasn't really going anywhere he wasn't already.

Hell. Been there. Living there full time. Where could this damned ship possibly take them that could be any worse than where he already was?

The bunks on this rustbucket were harder than Chronos' heart. Jack sighed, flipped over onto his back and promptly abandoned his pretense at sleep.

Sleep. What was that? He'd barely been able to catch so much as a wink ever since he'd come back. Couldn't stand to even try. Couldn't handle closing his eyes and falling into the dark, cold void that filled him. The seething pit of hatred that lived inside him because it seemed it was all that now lived within the man he loved.

All he got was the bad. Seemed it was all there was to Danny anymore to get. It flooded him, overwhelmed him, and choked up the channel between them preventing anything Jack tried to send to help Daniel from reaching him. He was still connected to Daniel, but he might as well not have been, for all he was able to reach him. All he could do now was know not only how bad it was, but how much worse it was getting.

And there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. To help Danny to fight it, or to stop from feeling it. Oh yeah, he knew what hell was.

He was feeling Danny slip deeper and deeper into it, and taking him right along with him. All the way down the slow slide into the abyss, with him all the way as he watched Danny's soul being eaten away by the blackness, bit by precious bit. Front row seat for the last thing he wanted to see, but had no choice but to be a spectator. No refunds, no returns, no last minute cancellations, no backing out on the deal. Even though the floorshow really, really sucked.

Together, pal, you and me, all the way, no matter what?

He'd had no idea what that would really mean, but he was getting a fair idea. Neither one of them was walking away from this one alive.

But that suited him just fine. If Danny went down into the darkness, he didn't want to be anywhere else but right there with him. Hell was as good a place to be as anywhere, as long as Danny was there, too.

'Cause with or without him, he was in hell either way.

Hell of a choice. Hell or hell. Go to hell, or be in hell. Hell, he didn't even know what in the hell he was even talking about now.

What the hell did it matter? Seeing as how he'd made a deal with several devils to be where he was right now. Seems as if everyone was signing their soul away to get what they wanted. Deal after deal after dirty deal. His particular pact was no dirtier than anyone else's was.

The hell of it was he finally had what he'd been wanting. Off the leash, through the gate, out on a rescue mission. Only it wasn't to rescue Danny. They were on their way to hell to rescue Jacob Carter. After cutting more deals with the Tok'ra, after the about face the President and the Joint Chiefs had done about leaving Danny high and dry.

Things were different now. Chronos had changed the rules and now Daniel Jackson's ass was the most desirable commodity in the frigging universe. Everyone wanted a piece of it. Wanted custody of the golden boy. Every Goa'uld with delusions of grandeur, the Tok'ra and now the government of the good old US of A as well. Everybody wanted to be the one to pull Chronos' strings, so getting a hold of the boy he'd jump through hoops for was the number one priority on everyone's hit parade.

Which explained why, after everything that had happened, they were in this frigging bucket of bolts hurtling across the galaxy on their way to Sokhar's happy little fire and brimstone vacation spot.

The Tok'ra wanted Jacob Carter and the intel he'd gathered about Sokhar's operation. They needed Carter and the stuff from Jolinar she had in her head to pull it off.

Deal the first. The Joint Chiefs wanted Daniel away from Chronos and somewhere safe where they could use him to further Earth's agendas. They needed the cooperation of the Tok'ra to achieve this.

Deal the second. Carter wanted to rescue her father. She wasn't going anywhere with anyone without her team. Oops, feel another deal coming on. And Jack O'Neill wasn't going anywhere with anyone unless he was given a free hand to do whatever he needed to do to rescue Daniel. With all the help he needed from their 'friends'.

As soon as they wrapped up this thing on Netu. No restrictions, no conditions, no questions asked. About anything he'd done, or anything he was planning to do to get the job done. Which got him out of having to go to Washington to get put through the third, fourth and fifth degrees regarding what he knew about Chronos as a result of his little visit. Got him through the damned gate like he'd been wanting all this time, even though they were heading in the wrong frigging direction. Hell, he could deal, too.

The last deal with Lu pretty much completed the set.

It was all as clear as mud. But he didn't give a damn. He'd tuned out all the wheeling and dealing, not caring who did what to whom as long as what was done to everyone resulted in him getting what he wanted.

Danny. Before it was too late, while there was still something of him to get.

'Cause although he was fully prepared to go to hell with him if there was no other way it definitely wasn't his first choice. And he knew if Danny was feeling a little more like himself he'd go along with him on this one.

Crap, he kept running around in circles like this he'd be crazier than a schizophrenic System Lord. He needed to talk to someone. Marty and Carter were over on the other side of the ship trying to jog Carter's memory with that Tok'ra mind thing. Didn't look like she was having any more of a good time than he was.

He'd already had to speak to Mr. Wonderful about pushing her too hard. Cold hearted bastard. Hope Sam was paying attention to this new side her buddy was showing her. Marvelous Mart had about as much consideration for her feelings as the snake in his head. Which wasn't a whole hell of a lot. And Jack still wasn't sure he bought this whole 'it wasn't me but someone who looked like me' line of crap. Wasn't sure he bought it at all.

Not that anyone was asking him what he thought or anything.

Enough of this. Teal'c was up front in the cockpit. Time to get his ass up off this thing and go and talk to Teal'c.

"You should be sleeping, O'Neill," Teal'c said in a gently admonishing tone as Jack plunked himself down in the other chair.

"I should be doing a lot of things I can't do right now, either, my friend," Jack answered him in a lightly irritable voice.

"DanielJackson is in good hands," Teal'c said quietly. "He will be protected until we free him."

Jack sighed and scrubbed his face with a weary hand. "You're really sure about this Jaffa guy?" he began in a bleak voice. "He's Chronos' First Prime because he wants to be. Why would someone like that care about what happens to Danny?"

"You must trust me, O'Neill," Teal'c affirmed levelly. "I have tested him. I believe he is a man of honour, and he will uphold the vow he swore to me. We have little choice but to trust him."

"Ain't that the truth," Jack groaned. "Dammit, Teal'c I wish I could find out for sure. I wish I knew. Then I could rest a little easier in the interim. I'd get a feeling from time to time from Danny there was -someone. When this person was around he'd be less scared. At least, that's the way it felt. Don't know for sure.

"Crap. Why did we waste so much time hiding from each other? Why didn't we figure it out sooner? Then maybe I would know for sure if this guy is what you think he is. Why were we such a pair of prize buttheads? 'Cause now I don't know. And there's no way of knowing. Dammit, I feel so damned helpless!" Jack slammed his fist on the console to punctuate his frustration. "I can't push through this block. I wish Lu was here. Maybe she could help with this."

"The Tok'ra required her assistance." Teal'c added in a mildly disapproving tone that more than echoed his own feelings on the matter. "Even if that were not so, she was emphatic in her insistence she could not make the journey to Netu with us."

"Yeah, I know," Jack nodded. "What the hell is up with that, anyway?"

"To which part of my statement do you refer, O'Neill?"

"Both parts, actually," Jack grimaced. "Why did the Tok'ra want her to go back to their base with them, and why couldn't she come with us? Get the feeling there is more going on than we are being told? On both counts?"

"I am certain the Tok'ra possess information they did not share with us," Teal'c replied. "I am further of the opinion the capture of Jacob Carter is not the only problem they required our assistance with."

"Got that feeling, too, my friend," Jack frowned unhappily at the man by his side. "In any case, Lu can more than handle those clowns. She'll get the straight scoop from them, and she's still got the Ashrak ace to play. She'll tell them they might have been compromised - if and when they play ball with her - and don't say why would they wish to engage in a sporting activity."

"DanielJackson will not succumb to this, O'Neill," Teal'c said softly, soothingly, his eyes never leaving the bewildering lightshow of the warp conduit ahead of them. "There is too much good in him. It will lead him back to himself in the end."

"I want to believe that, Teal'c." Jack clenched his fist, choking back the panic, fighting to get the words out. "But you weren't there. You didn't see what happened - what that bastard did to him. Right in front of me. This is on top of everything he's already been through. If ever anyone has a reason to hate, Daniel does.

"There was a time I'd never have believed him capable of..capable of what I'm feeling from him. I thought I was the only one who had crap like this lurking around deep down inside. But I guess he's every bit as human as the rest of us. He's got his own shit that never should see the light of day. And now it's out. Oh boy, is it out. I don't even want to think about what it's doing to him. Where it's taking him."

"You cannot give up, O'Neill." Finally, the Jaffa turned to him and fixed dark, deeply solemn eyes upon him as if to impress his words upon him more fully. "You must not give up. You are DanielJackson's last hope. Nah'tak may guard his body, but you are the custodian of his soul. You have known more of what he truly is than any of us. You have been given the means to help him, to reach him that no one else possesses. You must keep trying. You must fight for him; you must reach him. You must show him what he really is. You must show him the way you see him, the way you know him. And you must do this until he hears you and understands."

"You're right, Teal'c" Jack whispered, lowering his head to escape the inescapable truth in the earnest eyes raking through to his soul. He felt his hand delving into his pocket to retrieve the object he'd been formerly absently fingering through the material. His fingers closed determinedly around the small, precious talisman. Swiftly he withdrew his hand and then lay it on his lap, opening the fingers so what lay cradled in his palm was finally exposed to view.

A keychain with a little golden pyramid twinkling encouragingly in the muted, dancing light of the cockpit. The keychain he'd lifted off the desk, right under Chronos' nose, when he'd faced him down. Once small piece of Danny. Rescued. Taken back. Safely in his keeping.

Teal'c was right. Time to start fighting back, no holds barred. He had something else of Danny's he'd been holding onto he'd be needing back a lot sooner than the key to their front door. Guess he should get on getting it back to him ASAP.

No matter what it took, this was one message that was going to get through.

Come hell or high water.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Had it been two days, or three? He wasn't sure of the exact duration of his blessed respite from this hated place, but unfortunately it was over. The summons had come. He'd considered resisting it, considered continuing to lurk in the temporary sanctuary he'd found with the humans after Nah'tak had been forced to leave him to return to his duties.

Having to suffer the company of the beast was the last thing he wanted to do, but he was thinking more clearly now. Much more clearly. Delios might be every bit as bad as all the others of his kind, but he'd been right to point out to him how unwisely he'd been acting toward the thing that had absolute mastery over all of them. The humans were his friends and had done nothing wrong. He wouldn't risk putting them in danger by using them as a shield. Even if it meant he had to be here. Now.

With it.

"Daniel, again, you do not eat. If what is before you is not pleasing, tell me what you would like and I will have it brought immediately."

It was speaking again. He didn't like looking at it, talking to it, but found occasionally doing both satisfied it enough to keep it from touching him.

Which he wanted to keep it from doing more than anything else.

Other than stopping it from doing anything, ever again. Permanently. Painfully. Slowly. With his own hands.

He enjoyed thinking about this. Was thinking about it more and more. How good it would feel to watch that damned light flare in those inhuman eyes, blazing bright with shock and surprise, just before it was snuffed out. Extinguished. Forever.

The thought of hearing the sound of its last breath rattling in its chest sent a quiver of excitement thrilling through him. Daniel wrapped his arms around himself, exulting in the secret, intoxicating sensation. Knowing he had to keep his true thoughts hidden from it Daniel turned his head away to give himself time to still the smile striving to spread all over his face. He allowed himself to briefly bask in the delight of the violent images flashing in his mind, drawing comfort from his plans. It wouldn't win. He wouldn't let it.

But for now, he had to be clever. Fool it, make it think it had nothing to fear from him. Bide his time, play the game. Watch and wait for his moment. It would come, and when it did, he'd rejoice as he did what needed to be done.

"Daniel?'' Softness, concern? Meant nothing to him. But the small stirring sounds, the rustle of fabric, did. It was moving, sliding across the couch toward him, reaching out.

DON'T TOUCH ME!

Ruthlessly quelling the fury and fear Daniel forced himself to turn, forced himself to smile at it, forced himself to speak to it.

"I'm sorry, I was thinking. This...this is fine." He made himself reach out, take a morsel of something from one of the plates in front of him and put it in his mouth. Would rather have eaten broken glass than touch anything it offered him, but that was stupid. Irrational. He had to eat. Had to keep his strength up. Had to be strong, alert, ready.

Ready for the moment.

Take whatever you can get. Take it all. So you can be ready to take everything.

He continued to eat slowly, chewing methodically as he occasionally paused to look at it and smile as if what he was eating was pleasing. He didn't even know what it was. Taste, smell, texture, none of it registered. All of his concentration was focussed on the tremendous effort of maintaining the pretense, for even looking at it offended him so deeply he wasn't sure he could keep down what little he had already consumed.

But it seemed to be working. It was relaxing, smiling back at him, moving away. Keeping the distance between them he desperately needed to maintain. Not coming close. Not touching. Thank god, not touching.

He ate a bit more, drank something, wiped his fingers on a napkin, all the while studying it, looking for signs from it he'd eaten enough to put it at ease, hoping he had, because he couldn't eat any more.

"You have finished?" it asked.

Daniel nodded. His body tensed with the incipient urge to flee. From its room, from its sight. Done what it wanted, went through the farce of the evening meal, made nice with the monster, now all he wanted to do was leave. Leave. Leave!

"Good. We will talk now. I have missed our conversations. I have missed...you. If you can forgive me the regrettable unpleasantness of late, I wish you to tell me how I can make amends. You are better, and yet you still reproach me with every look. I still do not understand what I can do to please you, and I wish to."

It was all he could do to choke back the howl of frustration. What was the point of this? Trying to explain the abomination of its own being to a BEAST? What could it know? Why did it care? It had no heart, no soul, no understanding. It didn't even deserve to live, so how could it possibly learn love and respect?

Best simply to stamp it out like the blight it was. It and every single crawling one of its kind. Not fit to live. Not one of them.

"What's the point?" he snapped before he realized he'd spoken. Angry, he was getting angry. Letting it slip, letting it show. Couldn't, couldn't do that. Had to stay calm, stay controlled. But it was getting harder to keep the lid on the longer he was forced to stay close to it, listen to it, and look at it. Hard to stop the hate from growing, the loathing from filling him. Hard to stop his hands from reaching out to choke the life out of it, the longer he stayed here.

It looked puzzled, almost pained by his outburst. Daniel barely suppressed a scornful laugh at the sight.

"I cannot change what is wrong if I do not know what to change." It was trying to sound as if it actually meant what it was saying, but that wasn't possible. It didn't have the capacity to change. "You will help me to understand."

"How?" The anger and impatience in his voice was as plain to it as it was to him. "We've been over this a million times. You're just not - you just can't - you're just too.."

Its eyes went cold, dark, piercing him as if it could suddenly see what he was trying so hard to hide from it.

Did it know? Suspect? Suspect what he was thinking, what he wanted to do? How much he wanted it dead?

It had the strangest look on its face. As if what he'd said had actually stung it. Hurt its feelings. As if it had feelings which could be hurt. Which of course, it didn't. But it continued to glower at him as if it nursed some sudden slight it struggled to repress.

"There is nothing wrong with my ability to understand," it suddenly announced in a terse voice. "If the lesson continues to elude me, the fault must rest with the teacher."

The red tide he was trying to hold back flooded up within him, carrying him to his feet with the violence of its upsurgence.

"You want to know why you don't get it? Do you? Do you!?"

He was screaming, but he didn't care. Didn't care because in that moment of rage he suddenly understood why it was what it was, and why it had to die.

"Daniel, calm yourself," it said in a soothing voice. "We do not need to speak of this right now -"

"I won't!" he raged back at it. "You asked for this! Now you're damned well going to listen! You want to know? You really want to know? It's simple. Just so goddamned simple! You won't get it in a million years with all your logic, rationalizing, running around in fancy philosophical circles. All that crap is smoke and mirrors. Doesn't mean a damned thing. Actions equal consequences. That's it. That's all there is!"

"As you wish," it stated, favoring him with a bland look.

"Don't patronize me!" Daniel flung back at him, "You haven't got a clue what I just said."

"Daniel, I did not mean -"

"Consequences!" he snapped. "Everything we do has an effect. Knowing that our actions affect others is what helps us decide what we should or shouldn't do. What helps us know what's right and what's wrong. Get it?"

"But this calls for a subjective interpretation of the terms, does it not?" it replied, seeming to be carefully consider what it was saying. "Who is to say what is 'right' for one being is not wrong' for another. My 'right' is clearly not the same as yours, but what determines which is correct?"

"You see! You see!" Daniel snarled at him, gesticulating wildly with the force of his frustration. "You're doing it again! Rationalizing instead of listening. It isn't subjective at all! What happens to others as a result of our actions isn't 'abstract! It isn't something 'theoretical' you can 'discuss', dispute or deny! It's real, damn you! Real! As real as..as..."

With no warning Daniel bounded over to it and slapped it across the face. Hard.

It looked at him, silent, stunned, the proof of what he had just done lividly branded upon its face. Flushed by his accomplishment, emboldened by how good the small sop to his anger made him feel, he stood over it, smiling cruelly as he continued.

"That was an effect of an action I decided to take. How did it feel?"

Its dark eyes flickered with a light he could swear was..interest...as if it considered its response before offering it.

"It was painful. I did not enjoy it."

"No, it wasn't," Daniel rapidly retorted. "It didn't hurt you a bit because I say it didn't. What's more, I don't care if you enjoyed it or not. I felt like doing it. I wanted to do it. I did it. How you would feel about me doing it wasn't even a factor in the decision."

"That is absurd, of course it was painful. Not only did it hurt, but I would not wish to experience it again."

"I couldn't care less about your pain. I've just shown you this by striking you, even though logic tells me someone smacking me across the face would hurt me, so odds are it'll hurt you, too. But I wanted to hit you, so I chose to ignore what would happen to you as a result in order to be able to do it. What YOU want, your feelings, what I would actually be DOING to you - I can't care about any of this otherwise I wouldn't have been able to hurt you.

"Why? You want to know why what's 'right' isn't some abstract concept open to discussion, interpretation or debate? It's simple. There's nothing 'theoretical' about pain and suffering. It's real, it happens as a DIRECT result of what someone decides to do to someone else and you can't RATIONALIZE its reality away. You can ignore it to suit your own ends, but it still won't change what HAPPENS! Someone gets hurt!"

It was looking at him with concern, looking as if it wanted him to stop but he wasn't finished. Wasn't finished.

"You didn't like it?" Daniel smiled mockingly at him. "Well, I did! And guess what, if I'm bigger, better and stronger than you are, if I have an army at my back, if I'm the toughest son of a bitch on the block, I get to hurt you again. As many times and as often as I wish. I get to have my way, to do whatever I want, and there's not a damned thing you can do or say about it except take whatever I want to dish out to you. Is that right? Is it? Is it!?"

"No, Daniel, it isn't."

It was saying something, but he couldn't hear it. The rage was leaving him, draining from him, as the power and the reality of his own words subsumed him. He wanted to stop talking, look away from its eyes boring into him, and stop the tears he could feel sliding down his cheeks. But he couldn't do anything but continue to be swept along by the torrent pouring from him.

"It's wrong, Chronos, it's wrong!" he heard himself sobbing. "Can't you see that? You think your power gives you the right to do whatever you want? It doesn't! You have no right to cause pain and suffering - no right to hurt others simply to further your own self-serving desires. They might not have your 'power', but the pain your victims feel is every bit as real as what you felt just now. And they dislike suffering every bit as much as you do. What gives you the right to consider your will more important than the suffering of those who must endure the effects of what you do?"

"Daniel," it said in a soft voice, as it started to reach out toward him. Alarmed, he took a hasty, reeling step backward.

"Stay away from me!" he gulped. "Just - stay away. You want to know why I despise you? Do you? Look at your hands - look at the blood on them. Every single drop in the ocean of blood you bathe in was a living, breathing being. Flesh and blood, just like you. With feelings - just like you. They had lives, hopes, dreams; they felt, lived, loved, were unique, special, every bit as deserving of life.

"All of them gone.. cut short - swept from existence, all because your driving, selfish determination to have your way at any cost made them nothing but objects to be removed if they inconvenienced you. They weren't 'things', they were REAL - and you just wiped them out. Just - waved your hand and they were gone. Like they were nothing. Nothing! You're a monster - a soulless, heartless..."

It had the strangest look on its face. Pain, mingled with something he had never seen it show him before. An intense gleam in its eyes - like a window opening.

"It hurts you, to be apart from him," it murmured softly as it rose swiftly from the couch and began to walk toward him, arms outstretched and seeking to suck him in.

Choking on his revulsion, Daniel took several rapid, drunken steps in retreat. It stared at him, the stricken expression on its face swimming sickeningly in his streaming vision. Everything was spinning, he felt as if he was falling into swirling black darkness as the hate and horror within him roared about him. Losing himself, he was losing himself. Like he'd lost Jack. Nothing inside now but the blackness. Soulless darkness, as dark as the glittering black eyes of the sad-eyed monster he had to get away from.

Blinded by tears and his own rising panic, Daniel began to stumble toward the stairs. Couldn't stay here, couldn't. Too much black. Behind him, in him, around him. Had to find the light.

"Daniel?"

He was almost to the door, almost free of it, and yet the surprising softness of the tone carrying his name stopped him just before the threshold.

"Daniel, don't go. Not like this. You are troubled. Let me help you. Stay with me? Please?"

Please? Asking? It was ASKING him? Not telling? Giving him a choice? Sounding concerned - for him - even after what he had just said and done? Daniel wavered, momentarily thrown into confusion by the startling turn of events.

Stupid. Don't be stupid. Just a trick. It hadn't changed. It was just trying to trick him. By using his own words against him and telling him what it thought he wanted to hear so he'd stay and it could start pawing him and slobbering all over him again. Stupid to think, even for a second, there was anything in it that might genuinely wish to do what it had said.

This changed nothing. Nothing.

Tossing aside the clinging tendrils of false concern from the thing behind him with a petulant shrug of his shoulders, Daniel stalked from the room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was quiet. Peaceful. Like the man who lived here. Nah'tak wasn't in his room; didn't seem to be anywhere he'd looked for him. But the refuge his friend had promised him was here, and the presence of the man he'd needed to find and couldn't dwelt in this place he called his own, almost as comforting as the man himself.

Daniel settled for what he could have, while the unknown reason for the lack of what he couldn't added its shrill, unsettling voice to all the others within him clamouring for satisfaction.

Angry thoughts tumbled through his consciousness as he walked slowly into the dimly lit chamber. Where was Nah'tak? No one seemed to know. Daniel had exhausted every avenue of inquiry he could think of on his single-minded quest to locate the First Prime. What he'd learned both frightened and angered him.

Nah'tak was no longer on the ship. That was all that was certain. Where he was, where he'd gone, and why, no one knew. No one except the thing no doubt responsible for his disappearance.

Daniel stood in the middle of Nah'tak's room trembling with the force of his frustration and rage. Taking Jack away from him wasn't enough for it. It seemed the beast wouldn't be satisfied until it made everyone he cared about disappear.

Daniel hugged himself fiercely, unable to stop the shaking that threatened to drive him to his knees. Why Nah'tak? Why had the beast taken him away from him? Nah'tak had done nothing wrong. All he'd tried to do was comfort him. Was the monster that threatened by anyone who showed any sort of kindness to his prized possession it had to make them go away? Had to remove anyone he might care for more than it?

If so, the beast was going to have a mighty big eradication operation ahead of it.

This wasn't helping, wasn't helping to think like this. He was losing it. Panic clutched at him, clashing with the utter disappointment of his total desolation. Needed - he needed Nah'tak to help him deal with the darkness. He didn't have anyone else to hold on to, now that Jack was gone.

Jack was gone. Not just ripped from his arms, but torn away from inside him as well. Where Jack's love and strength had formerly resided within him was a gaping void. Only blackness, rage and pain. Jack had promised, he'd promised the emptiness wouldn't last forever. He'd promised the connection between them would return.

It hadn't. Days had passed since Jack was taken from him and he hadn't come back. Days of restless, hopeless waiting while every empty second without Jack stoked the furnace of hate within him. The thing keeping him here had done this. It had done all of this. It had taken Jack away from him. And now it had taken the only other person who might have helped him find his way back through the darkness.

Calm. He had to find a way to be calm. He couldn't find Nah'tak, so he'd come here to try and find peace. But first, he had to rid himself of the trappings of the beast.

With an angry snarl, Daniel hurriedly ripped the gown he was wearing from his body, flinging the offending garment aside as he strode into the other chamber. The First Prime's 'wardrobe' was much more modest than the huge, gaudy room where his master preened and pampered himself. Nothing more than a walk in closet, really, adjoined by an equally small and utilitarian area dedicated his personal ablutions.

It didn't take Daniel long to locate what he was seeking. After taking a brief moment to fondly touch the fabric, Daniel pulled Nah'tak's meditation robe over his head, drawing a small measure of comfort from the smell and essence of the man who owned it imbuing the garment. For the briefest of instants Nah'tak seemed to surround him as his robe draped down around Daniel's body in comforting, healing waves.

The robe enveloped him, almost obscuring him in its immensity. Daniel was by no means a small man, but Nah'tak was even less diminutive. The robe was huge. He was swimming in it, hands completely disappearing in billowing sleeves seeming to hang down to his knees, while the hem of the robe lapped out all around him onto the floor well beyond his feet.

Daniel looked down at himself, knowing he had to look absurdly overwhelmed by his current covering, and felt himself suddenly...smiling.

He looked like an idiot. That was funny. But he didn't care. Because he felt good. It was just a little feeling. A tiny shiver of amusement, twinkling bravely in the midst of all the bad, but it was there. He felt it. He could feel it.

And then he felt something else.

The coldness against his skin of the one gift the beast had given him he couldn't remove and cast away from him. The collar that signified his enslavement, the constant reminder he could never escape from of the way things really were.

The bloodless cold of it seared his skin as surely as if the fingers of its inhuman owner were touching him in its stead. Violating him as it violated the goodness in the warm, simple fabric it was also touching.

Contaminating it as surely as it poisoned everything the beast touched.

Groaning with anguish Daniel was barely able to resist the impulse to shed Nah'tak's robe as quickly as he'd cast aside the other he'd previously been wearing. Too late, too late. The damage was already done. The efficacy of the moment was shattered, his mantle of protection soiled, his solace tainted.

He couldn't let this happen. Couldn't let it win, let it take this away from him as well. He had to find a way to make this right, to restore what he'd unthinkingly allowed to become sullied.

Purification. Cleansing. Nah'tak had spoken to him of this. Beginning within, seeking inner strength, peace, harmony. Purging oneself of baser emotions and impulses. Maybe..if he could.he could make it right if he tried...

Cleansing. Cleansing. There had to be a cleansing.

The word echoed through him, growing in strength, becoming a screaming inner mantra as he stumbled back into the main chamber. He hiked up the impossibly huge sleeves hindering his movements as he lit the ring of candles with shaking hands. His mind howling with the beating repetition of the only word it seemed able to contain, Daniel breathlessly dropped into the centre of the circle of light he had just created. He closed his eyes against it as he sat in silence and opened himself up to what lay within.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Well, this sucked.

They'd barely arrived and here they were already, in the worst room in the place. 'The Pit' was much too kind an appraisal. Only good thing about this whole mess was in coming here, they'd found Jacob. But not before the fearless leader of SG-1 had managed to get himself whammied by one of those ribbon thingees again. Still, it was as much as he deserved for letting other concerns distract him from the task at hand.

He should have been paying more attention. Shouldn't have let worrying about Danny and thinking how strange it felt to be going into action without that familiar, necessary presence at his side keep him from focussing on the task at hand. Shouldn't have been wondering how he was going to be able to do this without him and had his damned wits about him. Not let those guys get the drop on them and force their hand, not let Carter draw attention to them without first finding out more about the lay of the land.

He should have been doing his job.

But - he hadn't. So here they were, up shit creek. Again.

Oh well, not like they weren't pretty used to the neighbourhood.

Also no point beating himself up about it. Things were bad, but they were all still breathing. They'd found Jacob, thereby accomplishing the first part of their mission. They still had Teal'c, waiting for them. And they still had Carter, who looked, for all her worry about her father, as if she was closing in on the solution to accomplishing the second part of their mission still locked in her head.

Getting them the hell out of hell.

Jacob didn't look too good. Marty said Selmac was dying. Jacob didn't look as if he was faring any better. He'd lost consciousness shortly after they'd found him, and hadn't told them very much.

A fact which had set Marty fretting away in a corner as soon as it became apparent he wasn't going to be able to pass on what Jacob and Selmac had learned right here and now.

Time is of the essence, pal? Tell me about it.

Time was the enemy, in more ways than one. Jack rubbed the aching spot on his chest and closed his eyes. To open them almost immediately again as he retreated from the wall of black, cold rage surging up to meet him. Crap. What a mess. He was running out of time. Danny needed him, needed him now. No time to waste. They had to get out of here.

He cast an anxious glance at Carter. She was leaning down over the man she was cradling in her lap, her expression both anguished and determined. Worried sick about her father, pushing herself to remember.

He didn't have the heart to push her any more. She knew what was at stake. She knew how much was riding on her. She didn't need him to rub her nose in it. She was already giving it her all, and then some.

An impatient sigh from across the way caught his attention. Jack darted a quick glance over toward the author of it, in time to catch the restive expression on Martouf's face as he began to move toward Sam and her father.

No way, snakeboy. Leave the woman alone. She's doing her job.

Driven as much by his ire as his determination, Jack shot forward, intercepting Martouf and dragging him with him to a spot against the wall out of earshot of Carter.

"Leave her alone, Marty," he warned the man at his side. "Leave them both alone."

"You don't understand, Colonel," Martouf insisted. "I cannot. We must revive Jacob. I must know what he has learned. It is imperative the Tok'ra council be informed of Sokhar's plans immediately. There is no time to waste."

"Why?" Jack fired back at him. Warning bells were going off. Had been going off ever since this damned thing started. If he hadn't been so...preoccupied, he'd have clued in sooner, but something about this whole business was so damned rotten it made this stinking sinkhole smell like a rose garden.

"Whazgoinon, Marty? This isn't just about Selmac and Sokhar. You've been holding out on us. There's a lot more happening here than you've told us. What's the deal, pal, and what do your snaky little schemes have to do with Lu?"

From the conflicting expressions racing across Martouf's face Jack could tell he was fighting with himself. Or rather, fighting with the thing in his head. Jack suppressed an involuntary shudder at the thought. He'd only had a mercifully brief taste of what it felt like to have something squirming around in his mind, and that small exposure had been more than enough to completely creep him out about the whole process.

He couldn't imagine anything that would want to make him experience it again. Never mind agree to have it going on full time.

Martouf sighed, lowered his head, and then lifted it again, high beams on bright and blazing. Jack suppressed yet another shudder as Lantash began to speak.

"You must not blame Martouf for any of this," the snake said gravely. "He is very fond of all of you and has suffered much because of the requirements of doing his duty."

"Cry me a river," Jack drawled. "I've heard just about enough about how hard you guys all have it because of what you have to do. Maybe if you stopped screwing us around and tried being straight with us for a change you'd all sleep a little better at night. Trust. It's a concept. Try it out, you might like it!"

"Someday you will understand why things must sometimes be the way they are. When you at last comprehend the true scope of what you are involved in."

Jack smiled broadly as he hooked a friendly, firm arm around Martouf's shoulders and used it to draw the Tok'ra close to him.

"Dude," he began in a deceptively equable voice, "If you don't stop sounding like a fortune cookie and start giving me some straight answers I swear to God I am going to take this fist and ram it right into your face. His face. Whatever. Stop screwing around and spill."

"Luena's assistance was desperately required because she was Amonet's host. We need the knowledge and experience of Apophis' Queen. Her contacts, the spheres of influence she can access that we cannot. Because Amonet's true status appears to be unknown to the System Lords at large."

"Chronos knows she's bought the farm," Jack replied, puzzled.

"He does not appear to have made this fact known to the other System Lords. Her fate remains a mystery."

"So? So what?" Jack pressed. "What's this got to do with anything? "Why should you need Lu to try and pass for her former awful self?"

"Her word will carry a certain weight," Lantash continued. "Will open doors we cannot access any other way."

"You're doing it again," Jack warned. "Get to the point or get ready to start spitting out teeth."

Lantash visibly faltered. Whatever this was, he really, really wasn't going to like it. The snake was SCARED.

Of him.

"There seems to be a problem with the resistance cell attached to Chronos' flagship," Lantash finally said in a low, careful voice.

Jack calmly grabbed a handful of Marty's shirt and pulled the snake toward him until their noses were practically touching.

"Talk to me!" he hissed.

"We are still receiving reports from the cell, ostensibly from the cell leader. But they do not contain the correct identifying code signal. The sender would have us believe they originate from him, but they do not. From previous concerns relayed by the leader we believe this deception is being attempted by one of the other cell members."

"One of your own guys?" Jack gaped at him. "Why do you think that? I thought you fanatics were all pretty tight. Wouldn't it be more logical to think they've been discovered and Chronos is the one trying to jerk your chain and suck you in?"

"If only that were the case," Lantash sighed. "If it were even possible, which it is not. Our operatives have the means to destroy themselves if they become compromised or captured to prevent being used in such a fashion. What we are facing is far more serious and dangerous than even this."

"I'm listening, " Jack said, releasing his hold on Martouf's tunic and allowing the man to shift back and away from him.

"As a rule we do not like to leave operatives in a deep cover situation for any period of time due to a hazard they could be subjected to against their will. They would have no choice but to submit themselves to this influence if the situation arose or risk drawing undue attention to themselves, even though they run the risk of experiencing dangerous personality alterations due to continued, repeated exposure to it.

"We believe one of our operatives has fallen prey to this influence and consequently has gone rogue. Driven by the same mad desire for power which possesses the Goa'uld she will be seeking to attain the same for herself by whatever means available to her."

"The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree after all, huh?" Jack drawled sarcastically. "What do you mean, what influence are you talking about?"

"The sarcophagus," Lantash answered unhappily. "You know we do not use it. Have you ever wondered why?"

"Not particularly," Jack admitted. "But you've got my undivided attention, now."

"The prosaic explanation is that it steals the soul. The reality is far less poetic. Repeated exposure not only builds a bodily dependence to the device, but also alters the biochemistry of the brain. Warping the personality, enhancing aggressive tendencies, distorting the judgment.."

"It makes you power drunk!" Jack exclaimed.

"In a manner of speaking," Lantash admitted uncomfortably.

"So what you're saying is you've got someone on the loose right now on Chronos' ship who knows all the ins and outs of your operation running around whacked out of their skull with delusions of grandeur trying to do a poor man's impersonation of a System Lord."

"In a manner of speaking," Lantash echoed.

"What about your other guys?" Jack demanded. "Why aren't they doing something about this whacko?"

"I would surmise she has, as you would put it, beat them to it."

"So they're toast."

"The fact that she is continuing to make reports posing as her supervisor would seem to indicate this. Also, that she is using the deception to attempt to keep us from realizing what has happened so we will not take any action against her."

"Jesus Christ," Jack breathed. "As if Danny doesn't have enough to worry about already without having someone he's supposed to be able to trust turning on him. Dammit!" he spat, banging his thigh with his fist. "I gotta get this thing back online. I have to warn him!"

"We are hoping Luena will be able to assist us in neutralizing her before she has an opportunity to do too much damage," Lantash quickly interjected in an attempt to calm the man who was becoming rapidly agitated as the full impact of the situation washed alarmingly over him. "She has a contact close to Chronos who might prove equally useful once we have secured the intelligence Selmac gathered for us."

"You're going to warn Chronos!" Jack blurted out as he abruptly twigged.

"Given it is much more conducive to our goals he be the victor, yes. Sokhar achieving control of the System Lord collective is something we wish to avoid at all costs. Even if it means we must give assistance to a lesser enemy. Doing so will have the further strategic advantage of placing Chronos in a position of indebtedness to us which could prove extremely useful."

"Sonofabitch, and I thought the Goa'uld were cold!" Jack cried.

"Colonel!" Sam's low, urgent voice cut through the maelstrom in his mind. "Dad's awake. He wants to talk to Martouf."

Lantash was already moving. Shaking his head, Jack crawled to his feet and made his own way back to the other members of their party.

It didn't take long and Marty had what he wanted. Along with some information about his long, lost ladylove he could have lived without. If the way he looked was anything to go by.

Carter was looking a little better as well. Still scared about her father, but he could see whatever she'd been trying to get at was starting to come clear. Which was just as well, because after what he'd just heard, he couldn't get out of this place fast enough.

Marty was in the middle of trying to pass the information on to Teal'c when the sound of the rusting cell door reluctantly opening alerted all of them to a much more immediate problem.

They had company. The man in the iron mask had come back to call. This couldn't be good.

"Samantha Carter," Metal Head boomed at them. "You will come with me."

Crap. It sure wasn't.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Still so much inner darkness, confusion, and yet...faintly, a shimmering...a tremour of serenity. Daniel could feel something within him shifting, subtly, as if a haunting, aching memory of what was lost was resurfacing as some kind of optimistic precursor to its restoration. Telling him as long as he could still remember what it felt like to be with Jack, there was still hope.

Still something to keep striving for.

Even only a memory of something was infinitely better than the reality of nothing. The unconscious clenching of the hands in his lap the only outward signs of his inner determination, Daniel pushed the full force of his thoughts toward the first promise of light he'd found within in days.

More, there was more. Just there, just beyond his reach. He knew it, could feel it, could almost..almost..

"One of those slinking humans told me I'd find you here. So, this is where you've been hiding. What are you doing?"

Kirma's deeply contemptuous, cold tones knifed unexpectedly through his consciousness, slashing his concentration to futile ribbons. Cruelly ripping from him the spark he was striving for even at the very instant he was about to claim it.

Dashed reeling and abruptly to full awareness, riding back to the outer edges of his mind on a rolling wave of renewed hatred, Daniel's eyes snapped open, the venom spewing from them equally matched by the words launched at the thing who'd come between him and what he needed.

"Nothing you would be capable of understanding, bitch!" he spat at the woman who stood just beyond the circle of light, smirking at him.

"Daniel!" she gasped, affecting a wounded voice and expression. "Now, is that any way to talk to someone who's come to do you a favour?" Her eyes narrowed, glittering suddenly with entirely honest, unrestrained hatred. "By way of returning the many considerations you've bestowed upon me, lately."

"I had nothing to do with Delios' decision to demote you," Daniel heaved an impatient sigh. "How you snakes choose to screw each other over and your stupid little power games are of no interest to me. Take it up with him if you're sore about losing your job. Leave me the hell alone about it. And while you're at it - just get out of here."

"Without hearing what it is I've come to tell you?" she responded coolly.

"What - more lies?" Daniel laughed harshly. "And stow the false concern on my behalf - you're no good at it. You can't even stand the sight of me, and no big surprise here, the feeling's entirely mutual. You're here because you've got another scheme hatching and you want something from me. Just off the top of my head, I'd say you're probably wanting me to put in a good word with your boss to get you reinstated. What's the problem? Scrubbing out toilets in the Jaffa quarters not good enough for you? The high council giving you a hard time because the quality of your intelligence reports has slipped a bit? I'm so broken up for you I can hardly speak."

Daniel almost laughed out loud at the frustrated rage evident in the face of the woman before him. Knowing he could yank her chain so effectively brought him no end of satisfaction. He sneered at her as she struggled with herself, stuffing down the almost homicidal anger his thrust had kindled in her, and met unafraid the answering promise she was as prepared and eager to do him as much verbal harm.

Well, she could do her worst. Give it her best shot. She couldn't possibly say anything worse to him than what had already been said and done. And if she kept pissing him off like this she might not be too happy with what he could be happily persuaded to say to a certain someone. With just a little more provocation.

He didn't imagine the beast would have any qualms whatsoever about squashing a pest for him.

"Very well," she said stiffly. "I will leave. As you wish. Forgive me for disturbing you, 'Divine One.' Evidently the fact that your friends are in danger is of no interest to you!"

She turned scornfully on her heel and began to stalk toward the door. The contents of her last statement send Daniel surging to his feet. He had to stop her! Make her explain herself! Impeded by the bulky robe swaddling him, Daniel threw himself toward her, leaping over the candles, nearly upsetting several and setting himself on fire in the process. Several stumbling bounds and he was at her side, just as she reached the door.

"Wh-wh-what are you talking about?" he cried, grabbing her arm and roughly wrenching her around to face him. "What do you know about my friends?"

"What are you prepared to do for me in order to find out?" she countered savagely.

Daniel seized her other arm and slammed her forcefully back against the door. "Do not play games with me!" he howled at her. "I've learned a little bit about the way you snakes do things during the time I've been here, and trust me, you would not enjoy being my first object lesson."

Kirma's eyes blazed golden as she swiftly broke his hold and pushed him emphatically away from her with strength a woman of her size should not have possessed. "Do not threaten me, you pathetic child! I should snap your neck right now, for your arrogance and your presumption!"

"You have exactly thirty seconds to start talking," Daniel warned as he moved back toward her, deliberately towering over her. "Then I start yelling, Jaffa come running and you - start dying. Do we understand each other?"

"We do," Kirma snapped grudgingly. "Very well. Your friends were sent to Sokhar's moon of Netu to attempt to rescue a member of the Tok'ra resistance. They were captured. Colonel O'Neill, Major Carter and two of our operatives are in the custody of the governor of Netu. Sokhar has ordered them to be questioned and then killed."

"What?" Daniel swallowed down his panic and focussed on trying to read the woman before him. Was she telling him the truth? Was she playing with him? The game had just taken a turn he hadn't been prepared for. Shit!

God, Jack! Why can't I feel you? I don't know what to think - don't know what to do!

"What are the Tok'ra doing to help them? Why are you telling me this? What do you expect me to be able to do about it?"

Triumph gleamed in Kirma's cold eyes as she licked her full lips and smiled sweetly at him.

"The high council are unaware the mission has gone awry. Your friends can expect no help from us."

"Is that so?" Daniel replied, his mind racing with questions, scenarios and possible solutions. "If your superiors don't know about this, how does it happen you do? And how do I know you're telling me the truth?"

"Can you afford to doubt me?" she answered archly. "Can your friends?"

"No," Daniel murmured.

"As to how I know," she continued in a voice replete with the smugness of ascendancy, "I am in contact with someone on Netu who could be persuaded to extend their interests in this situation to encompass not only mine, but yours as well. For some suitable concessions on your part," she finished happily.

"So much for doing me any favours," Daniel growled. "Okay, let's have it. What do you want?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was all he could do not to scream his frustration and sorrow to the stars. For just an instant, the part of Jack's mind that never left the part of him connected to Daniel's had felt something.

For just an instant the blackness faltered, hardly enough to even notice, but just for a moment, he could have sworn,..

Then waves and waves of black cold rage, slamming back into him, banking and feeding his own fury and frustration. No outlet for any of it, no way to know what was going on with Daniel.

Or Carter.

She'd begged him to trust her; said going with Ferrous Face was what she needed to do. Was their best hope of getting out of here.

He hated like hell sending her off alone to do his job. Knowing there was no way he could help her if she was wrong, and it all went bad on her.

Hell, if it got much worse then all their worries would be over.

He didn't know how long she'd been gone. Too damned long. What the hell was going on? He really, really needed to punch something.

"I'm worried about her, too, O'Neill," Martouf's quiet voice sounded from the dark corner harbouring him.

Crap, Marty! Not now! Do not mess with me right now. I mean it!

"Leave it alone, Marty," Jack growled at him, his voice laden with violence. "I don't want to hear any false words of sympathy from the likes of you. You've had that damned thing in your head so long you've forgotten what it's like to be human. Anyone who'd sell out their grandmother if the cause called for it without batting an eye couldn't possibly understand what I'm feeling at the moment."

"I am well aware of what you think of me," Martouf moved angrily forward out of the shadows, his entire body taut with the rage spilling out of his eyes. "The contempt with which you view me and my kind. You think I am unaffected by what I must do, that it does not bother me the Tok'ra have chosen to collaborate with Chronos?"

"Well.yeah," Jack grumbled, unsettled by this sudden, unexpected outburst from the usually carefully 'correct' and controlled Martouf.

"I do not care how much you despise me, but you are wrong in your assumption. I would cheerfully strangle Chronos with my bare hands for what he did to Jolinar," Martouf continued, his eyes terrible with rage and grief, his chest heaving with rapid, anger driven exhalations. "I must live with the knowledge that not only will I never see my love again, but that my efforts will allow her murderer to continue to live and harm others. You, at least, still have a hope I can never have. Your friend still lives. There is a chance you can still save him. No such chance exists for me."

This was definitely more than Jack wanted to hear. Even though he knew damned well because of the way he'd shot off his mouth earlier, he more than had it coming. Jack shifted uncomfortably, hoping the angry man before him had gotten it out of his system, but Marty wasn't done yet.

"And do not tell me I cannot understand your concern for Samantha! You cannot begin to comprehend how hard it was for me to ask her to come here. To place herself in such danger for the sake of this mission. All that remains of the one I once loved resides within her, and yet I respect her and care for her equally as herself, not simply because of Jolinar's legacy. She has gone to confront Binar - knowing what Jolinar was forced to do to buy her freedom. I pray, for her sake, she is not forced to purchase ours in a similar fashion!"

Martouf took a deep, shuddering breath, visibly mastering his anger and regaining control over his uncharacteristic tirade. "I do not need to justify my actions to you, O'Neill," he said finally, in a calmer voice. "I am prepared to do whatever I have to. I will not let personal considerations or feelings prevent me from doing my duty. Make of that what you will, it is your prerogative to do so. We do not have to like each other to work together."

Speechless and slightly shame-faced in the aftermath of Martouf's anger, Jack found he could only stare at him. Crap. Marty had a heart after all. Who knew? Quite feisty for a snake handler, to boot. Maybe there was hope for him, after all.

"Listen, Marty...ah...Martouf - " Jack began awkwardly, only to be interrupted by a commotion at the door behind them.

The rust bucket. Coming back. With Sam.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, they brought her back. She looks okay; she's okay!

Iron Man shoved Sam into the cell and Jack smothered a smile as she sauntered toward them like she was just coming back from a stroll in the park.

"You all right?" Jack asked casually, taking his cue from her.

"Yeah," she responded in an equally matter of fact tone. "How's my Dad?" she then said quickly, shooting a glance at Martouf and the man slumped against the wall beside him, his eyes closed.

"He's hanging in there," Jack answered her.

"Resting," Martouf added softly, his relief at her safe return evident in his voice. "It is imperative he receive medical assistance soon."

Sam grinned at him as she hunkered down by Jacob's side. "Yeah, well, I think we just might be able to do something about that." She turned her gaze to her commanding officer. "Sir, there are transportation rings in Binar's quarters."

"They must lead to Sokhar's palace," Martouf replied.

"Yeah," Sam nodded. "Once there, Jolinar stole a cargo ship and escaped."

A sudden howl from the denizens beyond their cell drew Jack's attention.

"What's going on out there?" he directed at Sam.

"Nayonak just killed Binar."

"What? Why?"

"I have no idea. Binar was about to kill me. Nayonak just came in and shot him with his staff weapon. He didn't say a word, he just sent me back down here."

"The denizens will riot," Jacob said weakly, surprising everyone with his sudden entry into the conversation. Jack guiltily wondered how long he'd been conscious, and how much he'd heard.

"This could be our shot," Jack said to the others.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kirma moved swiftly through the gleaming corridor, her thoughts thrilling with the triumph swelling within her. She was so enthralled with the success of her most recent gambit the tiny mental whimper went almost unnoticed.

...you lied to him...

We lied to him, dear. It was necessary, you understand.

...starting to...

Yes, dear, yes, I can feel it. You're finally beginning to realize I know what's best. This pleases me. I haven't enjoyed having to hurt you. It would be far better for both of us if I didn't have to any longer, now wouldn't it?

...yes...

Things are going so well, now. Exactly according to plan. I would prefer to have our relationship return to its former condition. Suppressing you is distasteful to me. It distresses me deeply to have to harm you, my love. But you've been so unreasonable, lately. You've left me no choice. I don't want to hurt you, and doing so is such an annoying distraction. It prevents me from devoting my full attention to more important matters. We don't want that, now, do we, dear?

...won't...won't fight anymore. Promise..

Ah, this pleases me! How wonderful you are! I'm so happy we can be friends again. Were you watching how clever I was? Did you see? Wasn't I wonderful? How I fooled that ridiculous human? He thinks I agreed to help his friends. It's fortunate his foolish concern for them allows us to manipulate him so easily! Now, things are proceeding exactly as they must. We will be restored to the place close to the prize, and properly positioned when our ally is ready to move against Chronos.

...too bad our ally doesn't realize you're using him, as well.

We, dear one. We.

Yes. That's right. We.

You see! That wasn't hard, now was it? But you're right. Too bad for him he doesn't. But then, he wouldn't. He's just as stupid as all of the rest of them. He'll supply the means for securing the prize. And then, we'll take everything he has. Including that which he so thoughtfully provided for us. Won't that be fun?

Yes. Fun. Whatever you say.

Oh my dear, I'm so very happy we're friends again. I have missed you. You know how much I need you. I'm going to need you even more, now. In order for the plan to succeed, it's vital Daniel believes we are friends once more. For some silly reason he doesn't like me. But we both know he's much fonder of you. You'll be able to win his trust back. I know you. I know you can do it. This is a very important job, my love. And no one can do it but you. Can I trust you? Can I count on you to help?

Yes. Of course. I won't let you down.

That's exactly what I wanted to hear, my pet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sleep was out of the question now.

Long after Kirma had left him Daniel sat on the floor of Nah'tak's room, staring at the candles burning with mocking serenity a few feet away from him. What little hope he'd previously harboured about finding any sort of inner peace had been snatched from his grasp by the alarming words from the snake's mouth.

Jack. Sam. Out there - somewhere. Helpless. Hurt, maybe. Teal'c, at least, was free. If anything Kirma had just told him was to be believed. He could only hope the Jaffa was indeed in a position to be able to mount some sort of rescue. Daniel had no doubt his large, determined friend would do everything in his power to help Jack and Sam. If he could.

But he couldn't be sure. Couldn't be sure of anything. There was no way of knowing. No way of knowing for sure what was happening. Had a way. Had a way once. Once, all he had to do was close his eyes and he'd know. Everything Jack was feeling, sometimes thinking, when Jack would let it happen. He wouldn't have to be sitting here in the dark, fear churning his guts, he'd know. Without a shadow of a doubt. Daniel groaned, rubbing the heels of his hands viciously into his eyes as he cursed himself for wasting his time whining about spilt milk.

Can't help what isn't, can't change what can't be helped. No one knew that better than him.

Do something, do something, he had to do something. There had to be something he could do. No matter how hopeless a situation seemed, there always were options. Alternatives, solutions. That you couldn't see them at the moment didn't mean they weren't there. You just hadn't tried hard enough to find them yet.

Hugging himself fiercely, Daniel closed his eyes, rocking silently as his thoughts wove frantically within the confines of his skull, feverishly seeking the elusive solution he stubbornly believed was indeed there to be discovered. Not only did it have to be there, he had to find it. Failure wasn't an option. Too much depended on success.

He put no faith in the word of the creature who'd just left him. He'd agreed to help her regain her place as his attendant because it seemed smarter to keep her close so he could keep an eye on her. All the easier to keep tabs on her and her schemes. Belief his acquiescence would ensure his friends were rescued was not a factor in his decision. He'd let her believe it, for the same reason he was going to let her believe a lot of other things that weren't going to be any truer than this was.

He might deplore the necessity of playing snake games but that didn't mean he couldn't do it. What was more, he was going to beat the whole damned lot of them at it in the process.

We'll just see who the 'stupid' one is around here.

Okay, so help from Kirma was out. By default, so was expecting assistance from her man on the inside. More to the point, the fact she was working with someone on the inside could prove more of a danger to Jack and Sam than a help. He would be a fool to discount the possibility, having just let her see how much stock he took in the safety of his friends, it just might occur to her to tell her buddy to take them prisoner himself. So she could hold even more over his head. That was a scenario he wanted to avoid at all costs.

Having her taken out of the game permanently was a tempting thought, but too risky. He had no way of knowing how close this confederate of hers was to his friends, or the extent of the relationship between Kirma and the unknown quantity. The last thing Sam and Jack needed was some pissed off loose canon seeking retribution on Kirma's behalf. So, stomping the snake was regretfully - out.

He also had no way of knowing for sure if this convenient connection even existed, but Kirma had been much too smug and self assured for the whole thing to have been a complete fabrication. No, she'd been telling the truth about Jack and Sam's situation and the say she had about changing it, as much as she was capable of speaking without a forked tongue, that is.

So, nothing he could do to Kirma, plenty she could do to Jack and Sam, 'cause she had something he didn't. Someone on the scene, acting on her behalf. Ah, rewind just a bit, this looked promising.

What did he need? What Kirma had. Someone on the scene. Okay, okay, getting somewhere here, now. That's what he needed; now all he had to figure out was - how was he going to get it?

Daniel groaned again, letting his head fall into his hands with dismay and despair as the only possible course of action - the solution he had been seeking blazed bright in his mind.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Any time, Marty. Not that we want to rush you, or anything, but snap it up!

Jack gripped the arm draped over his shoulder as he cast another anxious look at the door behind them. Winced as he watched it visibly shudder beneath the impact of another hollow, thunderous blow assaulting it on the other side.

No way it was going to stand up to much more of this. They were running out of time.

They'd already faked out the guards, fought their way free of the pit and scampered toward the only available bolthole like a bunch of desperate bunnies only one step ahead of the slavering pack. Only to be left standing around once they got here with egg on their faces. With a lot of unfriendly folk just a few feet away, evidently unhappy with them they'd decided to cut their stay short. Without saying 'mother may I', first.

Desperate bid for freedom temporarily halted due to technical difficulties.

"Marty!" Sure, he shouldn't be nagging, especially as he couldn't do it any faster or better but still..

"Almost got it," Martouf shot back at him, never taking his eyes from the device on the wall he was fiddling with.

"I am in position, O'Neill," Teal'c's strong, urgent voice crackled from the device in his hand.

"Copy that, Teal'c," Jack answered. "Hoping to be dropping in - real, real soon."

Any further comments were halted by new sounds in the corridor beyond the only barrier keeping everything wanting in - out. The pounding had stopped, to be replaced by a lot of shouting, and what sounded like weapons' fire.

What the hell?

"Got it!" Martouf roared. He hurled himself toward them, making it into the small area proscribed by the circumference of the rings just as they descended about the little band already clustered there. At almost the same time the doors exploded inward before the force of a staff weapon blast and Nay-o-nut burst into the room.

Too late, asshole, we're outta here. Give our regards to your boss.

No doubt the mug under the mask would be wearing a less than pleased expression. As the transport rings did their work Jack found his sole regret about the entire experience was not being able to see it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They had escaped. His task was completed. He smiled tightly to himself as he slipped unseen through the confusion in the corridor beyond Binar's now empty quarters. Time to make his report and receive new instructions.

He waited until he achieved the first deserted, relatively quiet corner before reaching for the communication device and activating it.

"Report!"

"It is done. The subjects have transported to their ship."

"All of them?"

"Yes. All alive, and unharmed."

"Excellent! The craft was detected and briefly pursued, but that obstacle has been removed as well. No further impediments to their escape remain. You have done well. Proceed with the next phase of the operation."

"Acknowledged. I will not contact you again until it is accomplished."

"Understood. Out."

He nodded to himself as he deactivated the device and restored it to the pocket where it habitually resided. His mind already moving toward his new task, he emerged silently from his temporary sanctuary, took a long, careful look at his surroundings, and then began to walk cautiously and quietly down the corridor.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Daniel refused to let his thoughts stray to the realm of regret as he abandoned Nah'tak's quarters and every comforting aspect within. He'd resumed his former robe and role and wouldn't let anything deter him from the path he was set on. He knew what he had to do. He wouldn't let himself think about anything else but getting it done.

His awareness was so buried in his determination he didn't realize the woman and child approaching him were in fact coming toward him until he found himself having to stop walking or walk right into them.

They stood before him, looking up shyly at him, a mixture of adoration and apprehension on both of their smooth, fresh, innocent faces. The woman looked vaguely familiar. Daniel realized he'd seen her, in passing, the last time he'd gone to visit Tomas and Ariana. One of her friends, Ariana told him her name but he couldn't remember it. She hadn't come...come close. Too shy. But he remembered her peeking at him, smiling, averting her eyes and looking away whenever his glance would touch her.

He was still feeling slightly confused, wondering why she was here and trying to remember her name as she scooped up the child in her arms, hugging him tightly to her as if for courage as she began to speak.

"Forgive me, Divine One," she said in a breathless, barely audible whisper, eyes downcast, cheeks crimson with the recognition of her presumption. "Please forgive me for daring to disturb you. I - I would not trouble you with this request, but..."

Her voice faltered, as it seemed her courage was beginning to do so as well. Daniel barely noticed, as he was preoccupied with the strange salutation she'd just greeted him with.

Divine One. Kirma had said that to him as well. He'd been so angry, he'd missed it. But here it was again. Divine One? Why had Kirma called him that? Why was this woman calling him that?

"I ask not for myself, but for the child!" The sound of her voice returning with new determination to be heard pulled him out of his confusion, forcing him to acknowledge her effort. "He would not sleep until he saw you. Please," she continued earnestly, and two pairs of wide, entreating blue eyes punctuated their desperate desire as she continued.

"Please, Divine One, the child will not sleep, will not be content until he receives your blessing. I would not ask, but it would mean so much to him. If you would smile kindly upon one of your children.."

What was she saying? What did she mean? Why were they - why were they looking at him like that? Didn't have - he didn't have time for this. Didn't have time to listen to this baffling request, suffer this strange look of dumb adoration. Confusing him. They were confusing him. He had to make them go away. Make them leave him alone. Stop talking. So he could focus. He had something to do..had to...had to..

A deeply frustrated groan escaped him as he tried to shut out the pleading voice and faces before him.

Tried and failed.

Her voice trailed away, blue eyes growing wider, this time with fear, colour quickly draining from her face as she took a sudden step backward, clutching the child protectively to her body.

"Forgive me, I - I did not mean to offend. Please, please do not punish the child, he meant no -"

"What - what are you saying to me?" Daniel demanded as he took her by the arm before she could retreat from him any further. "Why are you - what did you just call me? What's going on?"

The look of abject terror on the upturned face beneath his made him savagely inwardly castigate himself. Making a valiant effort to quell the resuming inner chaos her words had sparked in him, he tried to concentrate on keeping his voice calm while he tried to verbally reassure her.

"I'm sorry," he said quickly, forcing himself to smile at her. "I didn't mean to frighten you, I just need - I just need to know what you're talking about. I need - I need."

"Don't be scared, Momma," the boy flashed him a brilliant, trusting smile as he patted his mother's arm reassuringly with the full force of innocent, unshakable conviction of the truth he was asserting. "Daniel won't hurt us. Ariana told me. He's different from the other gods. He's our friend."

"G-g-gods!?" Daniel cried.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They'd done it. They'd pulled it off. Done the impossible, and made it out with everyone's hide intact. Jacob was still looking pretty rough, but he was here, he was alive, and he was going to make it. That's all that mattered.

By rights he should be sitting here feeling pretty damned pleased with himself right now. Wasn't everyone who could say they'd walked into hell and made it back out to tell the tale. Yeah, right about now he should be doing his patented 'I'm Jack O'Neill and damn, but I'm good yes, you may applaud now,' routine to the amusement and disgust of all assembled. He was entitled; he'd damned well earned it. But for some strange reason celebrating his freedom was the last thing on his mind.

Taking a quick look around the compartment at his other companions in the enterprise, he could see he wasn't the only one not in danger of breaking out into a celebratory buck and wing any time soon. In fact, if the whole gang succeeded in looking any less happy they were going to start bringing down the severely depressed.

Carter and her father had been talking quietly between themselves earlier, but Jacob was sleeping now, no doubt helped off into slumberland by the soft, hypnotically pulsing sound of the ship's engines. Carter herself sat silently with his head in her lap, staring ahead, completely wrapped up in whatever was going on in her head. Jack hadn't a clue what it was; she hadn't said a word to him since they'd gotten here.

He could take a few shots in the dark, though.

Jack felt eyes on him suddenly, interrupting his contemplation of Carter. Marty. Crap. They'd kinda been in the middle of something before all the fun had started, hadn't they? He really didn't want to think about it now. Definitely didn't want to go there. Not with everything else weighing on his mind.

Crap.

"I understand you do not intend to return to Earth immediately," Martouf said quietly.

"Nope," Jack sighed, reluctantly entering into a conversation he'd rather not be having. "Getting to stay out in the cold after this mission was the condition for agreeing to go on it in the first place. So, we're going to be hanging out with your crowd for a little while. Don't worry, I won't mind if you don't start jumping for joy at the prospect."

Surprisingly, Martouf favoured him with a wry smile. "Your reservations about me aside, O'Neill, nothing would make me happier than to play an active part in your efforts to rescue your friend."

"Getting to score one on Chronos?" Jack cocked an interrogative eyebrow at him.

"Something like that," Martouf nodded. "It will not be an easy task. Nor will Daniel's safety be assured by his rescue. Chronos' declaration has deeply complicated things."

Damn. There it was again. During the confusing back and forth 'I'll see your offer and raise you one of my own' stuff which had proceeded their little side trip there had been a thread of something about Daniel he hadn't quite gotten a handle on. The reason why both the Tok'ra and the Joint Chiefs had done the about face about rescuing Daniel, and why most of assembled Goa'ulddom at large now would seem to be wanting to have him drop by for a visit and stay for the rest of his life. Jack knew something had happened which changed things, but he didn't know exactly what.

Just before Marty and company showed up Hammond had been saying he had something to tell him.

Jack was seized with a sudden, terrible certainty these two bits of information were one and the same and whatever it was, he really didn't want to know. But for Daniel's sake he had no choice.

He had to find out.

"I'm a little fuzzy on this whole part of it," Jack began, simultaneously trying to brace himself for the worst. "What it is Chronos has done to change things. This 'declaration' you're talking about. Mind bringing me up to speed, here?"

The look on Martouf's face made him regret even asking.

"You mean you do not know?" Martouf answered him in softly apprehensive tones.

Aw, crap. And here he'd been thinking the worst part of the day was already behind him.

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