A Murmur, A Sigh

Part Three

By: sharilyn

 

Part XIX.

I'm no mind reader, but I know exactly what Jack is thinking right now; as his gaze swivels from the mob at the door to slide frustratedly first over Sam's worried expression, then Teal'c's ashen features, and lastly across my own agitated face, I can read quite clearly every word blazing back at me from his pissed-off brown eyes:

Well, this day just keeps getting better and better.

The thought comes so clearly to me, every nuance of every word so distinct and vibrant with Jack's unmistakable spirit, that a choked snort of wry humor fights its way past my throat as Jack's lips curve oh-so-slightly upward in a brief, answering flare of ironic amusement at our shared plight. Oh, yeah, we are SO in control, here, his sardonic gaze sends mutely to me. And as I struggle to prop Teal'c's sagging form more securely between Sam's supportive clasp and my own, I find myself giving Jack an amazingly equable smile as my right eyebrow lifts slightly in rueful agreement.

Oh, yeah, we're gonna kick ass, I send back to him, not at all surprised by this surge of apparent telepathy that's sprung to life between us. It feels good--damned good--to have this connection back again, to be so easily in tune with my best friend and to sense once more the blessed familiarity of his unique soul--fully present now--peering out at me from those slitted amber eyes.

"Leave me," Teal'c rasps suddenly beside me, his voice low and trembling slightly. "You must assist O'Neill now; I will be fine here."

"One of us should stay with you," I reply distractedly, my eyes never leaving the perilous tableau unfolding before me. "Sam--"

"You're the civilian here, Daniel," Sam interrupts, her blue eyes stubborn on mine. "You stay with Teal'c; I'll go with Colonel O'Neill."

"Last I heard, I'm still the c.o. of this less-than-stellar mission," Jack's voice cuts into our low-voiced haggling over who will step forward and who will stay back with Teal'c. As all three of us raise startled eyes to his, he waggles an admonitory finger our way and interjects drily: "Every damned one of you shut up and stay put, and that's final."

"But, sir--" Sam begins, and despite the fact that at least two dozen distinctly unfriendly natives are advancing toward him with implacable resolve, Jack rather insouciantly turns his back on them to level a scathing glare in Sam's direction.

"Major Carter, what part of STAY PUT do you not understand?" he grits out with exaggerated patience, and a slow flush climbs the pale column of Sam's throat as she bites off the protest still lodged unhappily in her gritted teeth.

"Uh, Jack...do you really think it's such a good idea to turn your back on these people?" I hear myself ask with studied nonchalance, and a wry grin teases the corners of Jack's mouth as he watches me tilt my head exaggeratedly toward the restless, disturbingly silent mob behind him.

"I was thinking that maybe if I just ignore them, they'll go away," he offers blandly, standing with deceptive ease in the center of the room; only someone who knows him as well as Sam, Teal'c, and I do would be able to identify the coiled tension vibrating almost imperceptibly below the surface facade of calm he's putting forth now with such admirable panache. To the increasingly pissed-off mob milling about on the gore-slicked floor behind him, Jack must appear almost insultingly indifferent to the formidable threat they represent.

"I don't think that ever actually works, Jack," I inform him regretfully, my eyes darting worriedly to two burly natives who are shoving the others back in their single-minded quest to step right up behind Jack's lean form. The only indication Jack gives of his awareness of their presence is a slight, disturbingly feral narrowing of his eyes; but even as the men reach ham-sized fists to grab his arms, Jack merely shrugs and holds himself loose and unresisting in their grasp.

"Really? Bummer. I mean, back when I was a kid and I was SURE there was a monster in my closet, I always used that trick; I told myself that if I just ignored it, it would get tired of waiting for me to notice it and would go find some other, wussier kid to eat. I guess it worked, cause three decades later here I still am," Jack smiles crookedly, fighting back the grimace of discomfort tugging at his lips as one of the two men holding him gives his left arm a sudden, vicious twist before pinning it behind his back.

"Maybe there are just too many 'monsters' now to be able to ignore them all," I inform him resignedly as the two men force him to his knees, their hands settling with immovable force onto his shoulders to hold him still. "What can we do, Jack?"

His steady brown gaze settles on my somber face as the question leaves my mouth, and he gives me a poignant half-smile that seizes at my chest as a soft shiver of affectionate regret simultaneously ripples through me. I feel my fingers clutch reflexively at Teal'c's muscular arm, fastening there as a reluctant substitute for their intentioned target; a restless ache arrows down my spine as my hand tightens in frustration on the dusky flesh that isn't Jack's, my nails digging lightly into Teal'c's arm as I imagine it's Jack's arm I'm enclosing in carefully intimate support.

"We stand firm, and we tell these people the truth," Jack is saying quietly in answer to my quesion, his eyes never leaving mine as a red-faced woman shoves in close to savagely yank his short hair with blunt, angry fingers. "They've heard endless lies and bowed down to their false god long enough; if they can't handle the facts of who and what Aliph really was, then their society as a whole is in a hallava lot more trouble than we could ever face at their hands."

"They'll kill us; I think that's trouble enough," I murmur evenly, playing my usual role of devil's advocate. Hmm, interesting choice of words, given the tone and circumstances of this mission, I think distractedly as Jack flashes me a sudden, devastatingly affectionate smile. God! I find myself thinking as my throat tightens with unshed tears in the aftermath of that brilliant wattage; only Jack O'Neill could kneel so calmly in the face of all this with such inimitable style.

"I won't let them kill you," he mutters fiercely now, his eyes shooting sparks as they settle on my doubtful face. "It's me they want; I just have to make them see it. An innocent child's blood cries out for vengeance, Daniel," he continues, his voice amazingly soft and restrained as the two men holding him so roughly fend off the infuriated phalanx of arms and legs and bodies struggling to break past their guard and lay hold on my best friend's unresisting body.

"The rest of you are blameless," Jack goes on soberly, "but I OWE Lah'jhan's family. However inadvertent and involuntary my particiapation in his death was, I'm still the reason he's gone. And if this is my punishment for becoming the instrument of that kid's murder, then so be it. These people don't care about that, I know, but the end result will be the same--they've come seeking revenge for Aliph's death, and I am indeed the infidel who killed their god...and the very same bastard who also caused one small boy to die in terrible suffering."

"No, Jack," I interject, my voice trembling with emotion. "You did NOTHING wrong; you were as blameless in that little boy's death as he was, himself; and dammit, Aliph HAD to die. You're not going to sit there and become a martyr to your own guilt, Jack; we won't let you. And in case you haven't noticed, once they're done with you, I believe the rest of us are next in line. How the hell are you going to save our asses if yours is in little pieces all over the room?"

"I'll make a deal with them," Jack murmurs unconvincingly, his calm gaze darkening with the first, reluctant intimations of unease I've seen since the mob's arrival. "I'm the one with the dead god's guts all over me; I'm the blasphemous, deity-killing son of a bitch who slit dear old 'dad' from gullet to groin. The evidence is right here before their eyes, all over me; surely they can see that!"

"Do you think they really care which one of us did the actual deed, sir?" Sam suddenly speaks up, her voice almost angry as she lasers Jack with her piercing blue stare. "Daniel's right, sir; you cannot offer yourself up in the vain hope that they'll let the rest of us go free. And even if they did offer, we'd refuse. Wouldn't we, guys?" she asks, and beside me I feel Teal'c's head bob slowly in concert with my own stubborn nod.

"We would," I agree, my eyes burning into Jack's. "No one gets left behind, Jack; we all get out, or none of us do. So...is there some sort of alternate, last-ditch heroic effort we're going to pull out of our asses to try now, or should the rest of us come over there and join you before they DRAG us over?"

"If I admit that I don't have a plan, is that the same thing as saying we're fucked?" Jack mutters consideringly, a disgruntled gleam sharpening his gaze, and I breathe out on a heavy sigh as Teal'c stirs restlessly in my grasp.

"Um...yes. Pretty much," I murmur apologetically, and Teal'c pulls his head upright with some effort and fastens surprisingly alert dark eyes on Jack's wry features.

"Indubitably," he rasps out, his voice starting out weak but picking up strength and volume as he goes. "And without even the consolation of dinner and a movie beforehand."

At the stoic Jaffa's unexpected outburst of dry humor, Jack's mouth drops with befuddled, increasingly delighted amazement; I can feel my own eyebrows climbing my forehead in disbelief that I really heard what I thought I just heard, but Jack's sudden, raucous bark of laughter reassures me that I did, indeed, hear Teal'c make a joke. And the strangled noise Sam is making on Teal'c's other side provides additional confirmation that I haven't completely lost my mind.

"God, T, you just made my day!" Jack grins, his gore-stiffened clothes fairly crackling with the movement of his body as the two men holding him give him a punitive jerk to express their displeasure with his incomprehensible lack of fear. "Hell, Big Guy, I think you've made my whole week. How about a promotion?"

"I am content to retain the position I currently hold, O'Neill," Teal'c replies with the ghost of a smile, giving Jack a respectful, subtly affectionate tilt of his head. "And I do not believe now is a suitable time to discuss job advancement; we will most likely perish within a very few moments, which will effectively render the whole point of such a conversation moot."

"See, you had me right up to that last part," Jack sighs now, shrugging regretfully as a sudden surge of angry natives from behind almost knocks him flat on his face. "Your material definitely needs work, Teal'c; but I gotta say, that deadpan delivery slays me everytime."

"Should we survive, I will endeavor to 'brush up' on the content of my humorous asides," Teal'c nods gravely, and Sam and I exchange "What drug did we just smoke?" expressions over his head as Jack snorts appreciatively. This whole situation is becoming way too surreal, even for me, and some small, screwy part of me almost wishes the bloodlust-emboldened slaughter would just hurry up and start, already; this suspense is killing my burgeoning ulcer.

"And speaking of surviving," I begin cautiously now as Teal'c pulls himself upright and gently but firmly disengages himself from the protective hold Sam and I have on his arms.

"My symbiote is strong enough now to begin healing me in earnest; I am much better," he explains quietly as both Sam and I shoot him uncertain frowns. "Thank you for your assistance."

"Way to go, Junior," Jack murmurs from across the room, and Teal'c gives him a brief smile.

"Enough of this useless gabbling!" one of the two men holding Jack bellows suddenly, his anger-reddened face turning an interesting shade of puce as he gestures for Sam, Teal'c, and myself to take our places at Jack's side. "You will speak aloud no more; you have murdered our Holy One and are well-blessed that these now present have not already ripped you limb from limb for the heinous atrocity you have committed!"

"Yeah, we admit we're a bit flummoxed that you're all showing such restraint," Jack mutters with genuine curiosity as Sam and I begin helping Teal'c maneuver across the blood-slimed floor to join the festivities. Several members of the mob, both male and female, meet us halfway and press in close on every side, their sullen glares and clenched fists not doing a whole lot to calm the nervous churning in my gut. I foresee intense pain in the near future, I think morosely to myself as my two team mates and I are herded to Jack's side and forced down onto our knees beneath a multitude of rough hands.

"Careful, careful with him!" I hear myself mutter disgustedly as Teal'c goes very pale and sways helplessly on being jerked so fiercely to his still-weak knees. "He's not going anywhere, just get your hands off him!"

"QUIET!" a sour-smelling, pockmark-featured man roars in my face, his saliva spraying me as he draws back a fist and cuffs me soundly upside my head. "NO MORE TALKING!"

"I get that," I murmur under my breath, unable to stop myself from cringing slightly as Spit Man backhands me across the face this time. As my head jerks reflexively to the side, I catch Jack's exasperated scowl and can't decide if he's angrier with the goon who's hitting me or with me for getting myself into trouble with my big mouth yet again.

"Look, fellas, I freely admit that I'm the one who offed your god," Jack begins, smoothly pulling attention away from the rest of us and back onto himself as the meaning of his words sinks in to the mob around us. "Yes, I sliced and diced him, I gutted him, shivved him, killed the motherfucking son of the devil with my own hands...so lay the blame on me, not on these others. They were merely helpless victims, powerless to stop me from my homicidal madness..."

"Your 'God'--your Most Holy One--was not much of a god, if he could die so easily," Teal'c interrupts, his voice cold and implacable beneath the hoarseness that still lingers in his throat. "Could the true God--the Absolute Ruler and Power of all creation--be killed by this lowest of creatures you see before you now?"

As his words are absorbed by the suspicious, angrily muttering herd of people hemming us in, Jack turns his head long enough to mouth, 'Lowest of creatures, T?' to the stoic Jaffa. Aside from a very slightly raised eyebrow, Teal'c makes no reply; and before any of the rest of us can throw in our two cents' worth to take some of the heat off of Teal'c, one of the two men holding onto Jack lifts his head and gazes intensely at something beyond SG-1's decidedly limited line of sight.

"Enough! She comes," the man announces, loudly enough for all to hear; and as Jack and I exchange puzzled glances, the restive but amazingly well-behaved mob becomes very still.

"Don't tell me there's a Mrs. Aliph waiting in the wings to take his place as the One True Deity," Sam mutters apprehensively under her breath, and Teal'c moves his left arm very subtly so that his fingers brush a light, comforting stroke down the pale skin of Sam's right arm where she kneels next to him. She shoots him a brief smile of gratitude for his concern, but before my mind can ponder the possible deeper ramifications of Teal'c's seemingly innocent gesture, the huddled mass of natives surrounding us begins to clear a reluctant path around us.

"Will the Mystery Guest please sign in?" Jack intones in his snarkiest gameshow-host voice, and I have to choke back a completely unexpected snort of laughter as his wonderfully sardonic brown eyes briefly connect with mine in sly complicity. I am rapidly coming to the decision that this mission has long since left the vicinity of Surreal and is now COMPLETELY off in the ether somewhere, when Jack's laconically amused expression suddenly pales into shocked disbelief.

Oh, God, Aliph ISN'T dead, I think with stunned despair, convinced that nothing else could put such a haunted expression on my best friend's face. For Jack to suddenly go to pieces like this when he's endured so much horror with such sheer gutsiness and attitude...God, it has to be something truly heinous.

I'm suddenly certain I do NOT want to lift my eyes and see just who it is that has him going so dead-white pale and still; but I realize I HAVE to know, have to see what it is that he's seeing...and though I know that he's so out of it now that he's unaware of anything BUT the figure moving toward us, I find myself reaching out to him nonetheless, sliding my hand into the lax tangle of his fingers and gripping hard with my own fingers to let him know he's not alone, that I'm right here with him through whatever this is--whoever this is--that's coming. With his hand in mine, and feeling a convulsive tightening of Jack's fingers beneath my own as his stricken eyes chart the progress of our mysterious new arrival, I finally force myself to look up and behold the slight, robed figure of a young woman making her way through the mob to stand directly before Jack.

I know you, I think agitatedly as I study the elusively familiar figure gazing down now at Jack. Jack's hand is cold and dead in mine, his pulse beating with dismaying rapidity beneath the curve of my index finger where it stretches along his wrist; his expression as he gazes up at this unknown female is so filled with helpless grief and sorrow and mind-numbing guilt that the truth hits me like a bolt of killer lightning from the blue. Oh, God, I know now who this is; I HAVE seen her before, cradling the limp, bloodied body of her dead child in her arms as Jack looked on in mute horror, his own empty arms trembling convulsively in a feverish ague of guilt and rage.

Lah'jhan's mother, I identify this ordinary, mildly attractive woman standing now before Jack; and as eyes as deep and dark and ineffable as endless midnight bore into my best friend's tortured amber gaze, I comprehend with a feeling of sick dread that THIS is the avenging angel with the only real power to destroy Jack O'Neill's immortal soul.


Part XX.

I can't do this. Oh, God, this is too hard; it's too much. Her eyes have become the world, and I can't escape the judgment that awaits me in their dark, silent depths.

I can feel Daniel clasping my hand, and some small, distant part of my mind takes vague comfort in the simple, eloquent supportiveness of this physical contact between us. I know it's his way of reminding me that he's here for me--that they're ALL here for me, Sam and Teal'c, as well. But Daniel knows that none of them can take this cup from me; none of them can do or say a damned thing to erase the truth that this woman's child was taken from her because of who I am and because of the dark, scarred memories of another small boy that I carry in my mind and soul.

"Jack?..." Daniel begins now on a low, worried murmur, his tone rising to a question that falters and dies away with the brief, hard squeeze of my fingers around his. No, I refuse him, mutely transmitting both gratitude and implacability with the firm pressure of my hand against his. NO. This is mine alone; this far and no further for you, Daniel.

And as the group of natives tighten ranks around us, I am only peripherally aware of their rough hands dragging Daniel, Sam, and Teal'c to a spot in the room several feet away from me. My team's tense protests fade into the background of my consciousness as my eyes stay glued to those of Lah'jhan's mother, and I taste the bitter acridness of grief and bile rising in my throat as the slender woman standing before me slowly extends a hand toward my face, stopping short mere inches from brushing her fingers across my lips. I can't read the expression on her pale features, but the hand she drops once again to her side trembles as it withdraws.

"Are you now truly Darius, son of the fallen God?" she murmurs quietly, a terrible, deliberate calmness holding her voice steady and inflectionless as she peers down into my eyes. "Was my child's life--was the innocent soul of one small boy--indeed sufficient to complete the transformation? Was Lah'jhan's blood the magic elixir needed to drive out the tortured, fallen soul of the offworlder, Oh-Neal, to incarnate in his place the spirit of Aliph's one, true son? And did this same son--this much-vaunted messiah who kneels before me now--then savagely butcher the God of us all?"

Violet eyes made black with a mixture of grief and disdain stab straight into my heart, and I flinch helplessly as a very real spasm of brutal pain radiates suddenly outward from the center of my chest, the force of it freezing the breath in my lungs. My eyes burn with the sting of tears, and I find myself blinking rapidly to clear my vision, my shattered soul holding grimly to the sight of this lone woman standing so spare and powerful, her will bolstered and fueled by the immutable strength of a mother's inconsolable grief and fury.

"Darius didn't kill your god, ma'am," I hear myself murmur now, my voice low and respectful and inexpressibly weary. The rawness of my own grief for Lah'jhan's tragic death adds a rough edge to my words as I continue hoarsely: "I killed him--me, alone, all on my own. Colonel Johnathon O'Neill, commander of SG-1 of Earth, owner of this body and of this soul...I'M the one who murdered Aliph, the one who drove the knife into his lying, festering, evil body and sent his less-than-divine soul straight to Hell. I'm sorry, ma'am, but he really wasn't a god at all, much less THE God of All."

"So now you kneel before me and tell me that my child died for nothing, that Lah'jhan suffered so horribly merely because some stubborn offworlder refused to submit to the fate ordained for him, a fate decreed from the beginning by the Most High." The voice pummeling my senses has tightened, every word bitten out short and sharp with embittered pain. "I know that my son resembled your own lost child, Oh-Neal; this much I grasped early on, and within your eyes I beheld a world of pain and loss welling up from your soul with the memories his presence stirred in you, memories of your own dead boy. And I allow that in your way you cared for my Lah'jhan; I saw it in your gentleness toward him, in the smiles you gave him."

The harsh censure in her voice has dipped into something small and fragile and unbearably poignant, and I want so desperately to look away from her, to close both my heart and my mind from this pain, this ovewhelming guilt, eating me from the inside out. But this is justice, this is retribution; this is where I belong now, and no price she asks of me will be too great.

"You cared for my 'Jhanny...and yet you did nothing to save him," she accuses now, her voice going hard and cold again. "YOU should have died in his place, Oh-Neal; at the very least, you should not have let him go alone across the Great Barrier between the living and the dead. You should have accompanied him, should have carried him safely in your arms to the Other World so that the journey would not have been so lonely and so frightening for him. You failed in the most sacred duty your deepest soul demanded of you, and yet still you live...still you breathe."

"Yes...still I breathe," I rasp out, heedless of the tremors arcing like a palsy up and down the length of my body; my voice is raw with the corrosive poison of my own abject guilt, and I know I will see those eyes--those fathomless, spirit-drained mother's eyes--in tortured dreams for whatever's left of my miserable life.

"Was it worth it, Oh-Neal?" the woman before me continues relentlessly, and I realize with numb frustration that I don't even know her name. My God, her son died because of me, and I couldn't even learn her NAME?

"Is your soul truly worth more than that of my son?" she is grilling me now, her fierce gaze merciless on my face. "Is your life so valuable that you would kill God Himself to preserve it, leaving a whole society in utter chaos in your wake?"

"No...no, it's not so valuable," I mumble flatly, vaguely aware of Daniel voicing a low but vociferous denial in the background. "Not so valuable at all."

"Your clothes are smeared with the blood of our God; the stench and filth of his bowels clings to you like a sickness," my judge continues as though I had not spoken. "You freely admit to murdering the Highest, to driving His Godhood from the shell of this ruined body?"

"I killed him," I corroborate her accusation, my voice toneless. "But I don't believe he was a god; he was just a man, just like every man here." As angry rumbles of discontent stir behind me, I draw in a tired breath and plow doggedly onward.

"He was wily enough to deceive you for years, to hold your entire society under some sort of religious subjugation; I'm sorry if that offends you and your people, here, but it's the truth. If he was truly God, He would have killed me without the least bit of effort well before I could ever have gotten near him; if he was God, he would have had no need to use torture and duress to brainwash me into thinking I was someone else--into believing I was the incarnation of this Darius, his supposed son."

My voice has tightened with suppressed rage, a rage directed not against the woman before me but against the sick bastard lying dead in the floor behind me. As Lah'jhan's mother listens without visible expression to my tirade, I feel a surge of grief-stricken bitterness well up within me and am helpless to prevent its overflow as more words spill from my dry lips.

"And I just have to add that, even though our own holy book back on Earth sometimes seems to represent God as a Being of great wrath and vengeance, I personally don't believe that any God worth His salt would EVER brutally murder an innocent child. Aliph wasn't God, ma'am; he was just an evil man who took your son from you to further his own agenda, a man who used me in an attempt to increase his own corrupt power. I can't give Lah'jhan back to you--if my death could accomplish that, then I would gladly die a hundred times over to bring him back. But I can't return him to you. And I can never remove the pain and horror of what he suffered--of what YOU suffered and will continue to suffer now without him. For that I am deeply sorry, more sorry than you can know. But I can't take it back; I can't...fix this."

My voice is raw and trembling, my limbs leaden as I bow my head and fight back the rush of acid bile threatening to erupt in a shower of indigestible guilt from my burning throat. I hear Sam make some sort of low, grief-stricken moan from somewhere off to my left, and dimly I realize that the sound is her way of expressing the helpless empathy she's feeling for me now as I accept my culpability in the death of this mother's hopes and dreams for the future, for the loss of that singular, inexpressible parental joy that she'll never share again with one sweet little boy.

"Anoria..." one of the men in the throng of natives mutters roughly now, and I sense the bereaved form standing over me transfer the almost palpable chill of her relentless gaze from my bowed head just long enough to bark out a brusque order for silence to the one who spoke her name. I can feel the massed hostility roiling in the air all around me as it radiates in tense waves from those who are now bearing witness to the shocking end of untold years of a strongly held belief system; their fear and their angry confusion is thick in the atmosphere, and I'm surprised they've held off this long on the whole revenge thing. I also find myself surprised and silently impressed by the power of this woman--Anoria--to hold her fellow citizens at bay this long--long enough, perhaps, to extract her own pound of flesh from the s.o.b. who caused her child to die. But the natives are indeed growing restless, and I raise my gaze to hers again now, silently adjuring her to get on with it before these others take the choice away from her.

"You believe we have come to punish you for killing our God, our esteemed Creator," Anoria murmurs to me, and the hint of dark irony I surprise in her unblinking regard sends a strange little chill down my back. "You believe that we can look at the butchered remains of this pathetic corpse and continue to cling to the notion that he really WAS the God of All, really was the One who made us."

"Well, um...actually, that IS sort of the impression you've been giving," Daniel speaks up softly but stubbornly from across the room, and I find myself wavering between the desire to turn and scowl blackly at him and an equally strong urge to snort dry laughter at his matter-of-fact tone.

"We have been watching you, Oh-Neal," Anoria speaks, sparing only the briefest flicker of a peeved glare in Daniel's direction as one of her cohorts cuts my team mate off short by the simple expedient of planting a fist in some obviously tender portion of Daniel's anatomy. Daniel's muffled grunt of pain is swallowed up in the darkness of Anoria's eyes as she leans in close to me, her hand darting out to fasten tightly around my jaw, fingernails digging into my skin with indifferent force.

"Over the years we have witnessed many of our kind give themselves in service to Aliph, some voluntarily, some not; we have seen him 'incarnate' his son over and over, all the while explaining to the rest of us that it was a test of our faith, a way for us to prove our undying loyalty to He who made us by offering our very lives and souls up to him to use as He wished. He explained to us that Darius was a spirit being of such power and energy that he quickly used up all the bodies sent to house him; when you four came to our world, Aliph announced that your bodies were different, stronger. He claimed that he would be able to prepare one of you to accept Darius's spirit and that you would survive the experience for a much longer time, thus sparing the rest of us from that particular service. Even had we wished to contest his decision, we were powerless to do so; our 'God's' inner circle of protectors has become much too strong for the commoners among us to rebel or protest in any way."

Her gaze never leaving mine, Anoria lightly scratches her nails along the side of my jaw, the sensation bordering just on the edge of painful; heedless of the stiffening in my knees from such prolonged contact with the hard floor beneath me, I hold myself still and offer no resistance as sudden wrath flares in her eyes, transmitting itself from her gaze to her hold on my face. As the points of her nails dig into my flesh, releasing a stinging trickle of blood along my jawbone, her voice fills with a pain so virulent and so intense that I want to curl protectively inward, desperate to ward off the raw agony coming off her in wave after anguished wave.

"I made myself believe," she whispers to me now, her fingers trembling violently as they score furrows in my cheeks. "Even when his people came to take my child from me, assuring me that Lah'jhan would be returned to me unharmed and that his service to Aliph would be handsomely rewarded both here and in the Other World...even then I told myself to keep faith, to trust that my son would indeed come back to me, his beautiful head heaped with glory and honor and praises from our Most High. I was too weak in my soul, too frightened, to do other than submit. Somewhere deep inside myself, in my truest soul, I knew my child was doomed; I knew I was handing him over to the dark Master and not to a benevolent God.There were others, you see, others who felt as I did, and sometimes we gathered in secret to talk...at first I thought it was that which had them taking my son from me; I thought that maybe they had been spying on me and knew of my heresy..."

"It wasn't your fault," I begin hoarsely, my soul writhing with the anguish I see in Anoria's tormented eyes. "You had no choice, He would have taken the boy regardless--"

"But I did have a choice," Anoria informs me with deadly calm, a slow rain of tears beginning to trickle unnoticed down her pale cheeks as she gives me the most bitter, self-loathing smile I have ever seen. "I had the choice to die in defense of my child, to give up my life in the attempt--however vain and hopeless--to keep my son away from that butcher. But I let them take him, let Aliph twist 'Jhanny's innocent little mind into believing YOU were his father, his sire, when his true sire died years ago. I did nothing to prevent his being sent to you; even when I realized WHY my son had been chosen, WHY Aliph wanted him so badly, I told myself it would yet be all right. I made myself believe that you would submit quickly to our God's will, that my child would be returned to me once Darius inhabited your form and your own soul was sent away forever...I even convinced myself that if worse came to worse, you, Oh-Neal, would save Lah'jhan yourself before you would allow anything--whether man, beast, or God--to harm him."

"And I failed you...I failed Lah'jhan, too," I murmur, my reply so soft I'm not even sure she can understand the words. But she does understand, I see it in her eyes; and she releases my bruised and bleeding face with a terrible, empty bleakness falling like a heavy curtain over her colorless features.

"We failed him together," she whispers, leaning in close and closer still until her lips are poised a hair's breadth from my own. "Tell me, Oh-Neal; did you kill the false god because of what he did to you and to your comrades...or did you kill him because he murdered my child, because he made you a partner to his own evil? Were you after vengeance for 'Jhanny...or were you merely trying to find expiation for your own sins?"

I can sense that my answer now is very important to her--crucial, actually--and I'm also aware that I cannot and will not lie to her, not even to save my team. If I'm anything less than honest and sincere, we'll all be done for, anyway. I feel it, I know it deep inside. It's a heavy load to bear, but nothing in comparison to the brutality suffered by one lost little boy. My voice is steady now, my eyes clear and calm on Anoria's as I nod once and murmur my reply.

"It was a little of both," I admit, uncaring that several in the crowd around my team are hissing in disapproval at my response. "The son of a bitch deserved to die ten times over for what he did to Lah'jhan, for ALL the evil he's perpetrated on your people for all these years. I'm not sorry I killed him; I'd like to do it again, if I could. But it wasn't JUST for your son or for you that I killed him--you're right about that, as well. He tortured my friends, tortured ME and screwed with my head till I didn't know who I was anymore... because of him I hurt the people I care most about, did terrible things to them..."

I find that I have to close my eyes now as sudden, horrifying visions of my own demonically contorted face looming over Daniel flash into my consciousness; I see it all so clearly, Daniel strapped down to a table of some sort, his tightly restrained body arching up off the hard surface beneath him in unbearable agony as his feet drum a frantic, spasming rhythm against the wood under his heels...Oh, God, what did I DO to him, how could I have EVER hurt him like that, how could I have done those things to him? A choked groan escapes me as the agonized sound of my best friend's guttural screams echo in my memory, and I wonder now how in the hell he can even stand to be in the same room with me, much less hold my hand as he did moments ago while offering me his usual solid support. Oh, jeez, Daniel, I am just SO fucking sorry...And I don't even want to know what I must have done to Carter and Teal'c.

But there's no time to think about that right now; Anoria's eyes are burning into mine, searing me right down to my core, and off to the side several of her companions begin urging her to let them teach me a lesson, demanding their turn on the great wheel of rage and revenge threatening to spin out of control here in the confines of this room. I hold myself still, fighting against my own, instinctive need to take action, to surge up from this blood-smeared floor and do all in my power to keep my team from any further harm. The mob milling about so sullenly with their furious eyes and hungry, clenching fists won't be held in abeyance much longer by their appointed spokeswoman; and as Anoria holds my gaze with hers, I know she realizes it, too.

"These belong to me," she announces suddenly, decisively, her voice loud and firm as she draws away from me and stands with both hands fisted on her slender hips. The stance of her body is one that will brook no opposition, and for a moment the crowd pressing in so closely and so threateningly around my team freezes in startled silence, various expressions of surprise and growing anger rippling across individual faces in the group. For the briefest instant it almost seems that the small mob will cave in without a fight, that they will defer to Anoria's wishes without demur; but then an almost visible vibration of resentment and disagreement shudders its way through the crowd, and my stomach drops to my feet as I realize what this means for my team and myself.

"He killed our god," a surly, unkempt man standing just behind Teal'c rumbles ominously, his brows drawing down over glittering black eyes. "He has disrupted the safety and sanctity of our whole society, and you expect us merely to turn him and his offworlder friends over to YOU? No. We came here for vengeance, for justice; we came to mete out that justice to the infidels."

"Do not play games with me, Traylar," Anoria replies with a dark rage building in her voice. "Each and every one of you here knows in your deepest heart that Aliph was no god; that, just as Oh-Neal so aptly stated, he certainly was not THE God. For months now we have been gathering our courage in secret, planning clandestine meetings, speaking in hushed, hurried tones of overthrowing 'God' and freeing our people from this living hell...and yet now, when deliverance has finally come, you are too cowardly to embrace it."

"I know what this is, what you mean to do," Lah'jhan's mother continues with inexorable force, her eyes flashing contempt at the ones who came here with her. "You think that if you are seen to take part in some sort of vengeful retribution against these offworlders, that those in power who have been protecting Aliph--and who will doubtless quickly insert another false god to take his place--will view you as heroes rather than discovering your true duplicity. I can smell it in you already, the fear and the repression; rather than standing strong now against the tattered remnants of Aliph's retinue, you will cave in before their bullying and their threats and give them time to shore up their defenses, to reestablish their absolute authority. You are no better than Oh-Neal; your actions here today will have made my child's death mean absolutely NOTHING. Such cowardice is not what you promised me; I will NOT accept defeat and continued subjugation as my son's final legacy to this world and to the people he belonged to. I am shamed by your conduct, disgusted by this neverending cycle of violence and brutality."

As the disheveled phalanx of subdued natives mutters and grumbles and sends threatening glares in the direction of myself and my team, Anoria turns slowly back to me and reaches a slightly trembling hand toward my face. Her tone is harsh, but her gaze is strangely gentle as she tosses stringent words back over her shoulder:

"I claim first rights on this man, on the assassin of false gods; perhaps it was through no fault of his own, but his presence here--and the memories inside his mind--created the impetus behind my son's senseless death. He owes me a debt he can never repay, and it is my RIGHT to demand retribution in whatever way I see fit."

"And just what form will that retribution take?" someone calls out from the crowd; I can hear several muttered suggestions as to which course of action Anoria should pursue, and some of the ideas bouncing around definitely weigh heavy on the pain and suffering scale. Briefly I turn my head to the side, my gaze locking with Daniel's where he kneels unhappily between Sam and Teal'c; his eyes are dark with foreboding, but he lifts the corners of his mouth in the tiniest of half-smiles as I crook one eyebrow at him in an expression of sardonic resignation. How are we doing, Daniel? I send to him with a dry grimace, and the corresponding lift of his right eyebrow sends back the expected answer: About as bad as usual, Jack. It has become a code of sorts between us, a standard bit of repartee under pressure; and the inclusion of it now, in the middle of this fucked-up mission, is undeniably comforting.

"I have decided already upon his punishment," Anoria says now, her tone stiff with warning for those who have begun making ominous mutterings about lynchings and beheadings and such; as my attention leaves Daniel's worried face and swings back to Lah'jhan's mother, I feel suddenly ashamed of myself for forgetting even for a second that we are in this position now because I screwed up so badly, because I let an insane maniac butcher an innocent kid.

"Are you prepared now to accept my judgment, Oh-Neall?" Anoria asks me, shutting out the voices complaining behind us through the intensity of her gaze on my face. All I can do is nod, some part of my soul surging up almost eagerly to face whatever retribution this strong but emotionally ravaged woman has in her to unload on me. As I kneel in silence before her, my aching knees wobbling a bit unsteadily in drying pools of Aliph gore, Anoria merely stands staring down at me with a closed expression before suddenly darting out a hand to swing it at my face with impressive force.

I keep my eyes trained on her, unblinking, unflinching, waiting for the sharp sting of her palm against my cheek and for whatever follows after; she could never hurt me enough to make up for the loss of Lah'jhan, for the empty days ahead with no warm, giggly ball of delightful boyhood snuggled on her lap for hugs and kisses and a story or two. I'm no masochist, but if it will help at all with the intense pain inside her soul, I will offer myself up gladly for all the physical abuse Anoria can dish out to me. I can sense the strained tension radiating from my team mates as they wait as well, braced for the loud impact of flesh on flesh, and I can only hope that once she's done with me, Anoria might be persuaded to plea with her fellow citizens for mercy for my friends. So far we've been damned lucky; as lynch mobs go, this one has been remarkably tame. But I guess it makes sense; if the people in this room were already more than half convinced that good old Aliph was a fraud, then that will make it difficult for them to turn so brutally against those who accomplished what they themselves secretly longed to do. I suppose the big dilemma facing us now is whether or not these people will have the strength of their convictions, whether they'll have the courage to go up against Aliph's secret cabal and a town filled with frightened, spiritually beaten down citizens looking for a focus for their fears, for their rage at having the status quo so brutally interrupted...never mind that things couldn't have been all that peachy under Aliph's dominion.

Caught up in thoughts of worry for the rest of my team, it takes me a long, befuddled second to realize that the forceful hand swinging at my face has stopped its forward momentum with rather startling abruptness; as Anoria's flattened palm jerks to a halt less than an inch from my face, I lift mystified eyes to hers to discover something deep and still and almost mystically knowing peering back at me from her dilated pupils.

"Aliph was no god; neither am I. How then can I judge; how can I inflict more pain, more suffering on another being, thereby further blackening the interior of my own soul?" Anoria sighs deeply, her chin quivering with the effort to hold back her emotions. " Lah'jhan would expect better from me," she continues resolutely. "It's not the way I would teach him to react, to behave. I see in your eyes, Oh-Neal, the truth that you will be a far more effective purveyor of your own punishment than any outside force could ever hope to match. Every single day you will carry the knowledge of what has happened here; as the years pass on your world, you will remember how one little boy on THIS world was never allowed to grow up, to choose a profession and a wife, to present his aging mother with grandchildren to spoil. Each time you visit the burial place of your own son, you will say a prayer for mine, as well; you will never forget. This is what I require of you; this is what must be."

"I never will forget," I murmur gravely, speaking nothing more than the truth. "I won't forget Lah'jhan; I won't forget you. None of us will forget the mercy you've shown us here today, either," I add softly as my gaze flickers to the rest of my team, watching in somber silence.

"You expect us just to let them go?" a heavyset woman growls angrily, sliding forward to grab a painful handful of Carter's blonde hair. "You would have us fling wide the doors leading from the city and watch as these four leave us here to suffer the terrible consequences of their uninvited actions? No; we will not stand for it! We won't let the offworlders go; they will answer for what they have done here today!"

"They must die, Anoria; surely you can see that," a skinny, rope-veined stick of a man speaks up, his huge adam's apple bobbing nervously up and down as his gaze flits evasively from Anoria to his fellow malcontents to my kneeling team mates. "We WILL begin to speak for ourselves, to take back some control over our lives and our destinies; but these things take time and care and...and caution. It wouldn't do for all of us to end up in prison or worse, forced to take the blame for the most heinous sin a soul could ever carry out. We did NOT murder Aliph, be he god or no; we will NOT stay here and be accused of such a despicable act! These offworlders are responsible for all the evil that has gone on here on this infamous day; they must pay!"

"Here! Here!" the majority of the crowd cries out with disturbing enthusiasm, and Anoria has to shout several times, her voice increasingly hoarse and desperate, before the agitated hubbub around us finally settles enough for her words to be heard clearly.

"You say, Elar, that the killing of Aliph, a mere man really no different than any of the rest of you here, is a heinous sin," she begins with slow fury. "And yet you would condone the equally brutal murder of these offworlders, deceiving yourselves all the while that somehow they don't count because they are not of us. I am aware that a goodly portion of you are already questioning whether or not these four even have souls. I say to you now that such speculation is pointless; in the long run it matters not whether these have souls. It matters only that WE do. And unless your soul is as black and as twisted with evil as the one Oh-Neal slew in order to rescue himself and his friends, then you will follow the paths of mercy the Ancient Knowledge once taught, and you will allow these beings to go free. They have no part in this any longer; they are unimportant. What WE do next, the direction WE choose to go, is all that matters."

As my eyes widen in mute amazement and genuine admiration for the impassioned speech she has just made, Anoria turns to me again and places both hands on my shoulders, grimacing a bit with the strain as she urges me to try rising to my feet.

"They are really not so bad," she mutters drily as I struggle to straighten out my cramped knee joints and stagger stiffly to a rather unsteady standing position. "Their terror of the unknown makes them cruel and foolish, but they surely know enough to do the right thing." With that last remark Lah'jhan's mother swivels her fiercest gaze on the mob of almost comically chagrined townspeople huddling behind my team.

"This is our battle now, my friends, and the sooner we have these four offworlders out of our collective business, the sooner we can get down to the serious work of returning this broken city to something approaching sanity. I WILL make sure that my child died for a purpose, and I dare any of you to stop me." Her dark eyes flashing fire, Anoria gestures imperiously toward my still-kneeling team mates and orders the natives holding onto them to release them.

For a long moment it appears that her impassioned and incomparable speech was all for naught; a veritable sea of disgruntled, grudging faces glares from Anoria and me to my team and back again, and I find myself literally holding my breath as I await the outcome of this bizarre stand-off. The battle of wills raging between Lah'jhan's petite mother and the would-be subversives of this brutally subjugated society hovers on a knife's edge for several endless, pulse-pounding moments; and in the breathless vacuum of this strained limbo, I find myself anxiously studying my friends' uncomfortably huddled bodies to reassure myself that they will all be able to go ambulatory and haul some serious ass very soon if this situation should happen to turn in our favor.

Teal'c still looks dismayingly weak and sick, his complexion a nasty grayish shade; but the look of calm readiness I see in his brief glance my way clues me in that he should be able to at least make it as far as the outskirts of this hellhole. After that, I'll be happy to carry him piggyback the rest of the way to the stargate if necessary. Daniel isn't looking too hot, either, and who can blame him after everything I put him through when I thought I was Darius. But the look he gives me now is every bit as sternly stubborn and resolute as Teal'c's, and I find myself nodding briefly to him, letting him know I get the message. Carter is hurting, that much is obvious despite her stoic efforts to hide her discomfort; I won't let myself even go near the memories roiling just beneath the surface of my mind concerning my interaction with her in the guise of Darius. For now all I need to know--all I WANT to know--is that she's in good enough shape to make it back to the gate unaided. The mulish glint that appears in her blue eyes beneath my speculative scrutiny tells me that she'll do just fine; and with that element of concern safely dealt with, I turn my attention back to the breathlessly awaited decision of the mob shuffling its collective feet around us.

There's no place like home, there's no place like home, I hear the words trill nonsensically round and round in my aching head as my exhausted gaze rests on Anoria's tense face; and as visions of myself in ruby slippers with a scruffy little dog tucked under my arm turn this ordeal into a surrealistic fantasy nightmare in my brain, the inimitable Traylar steps forward, complete with a formidable Oz-worthy frown, to deliver the mob's final verdict.


Pt. XXI.

I can't believe they're going to let us go; one minute we're all kneeling down in Aliph's blood and guts, surrounded by angry natives champing at the bit while Lah'jhan's mother puts Colonel O'Neill through a version of Purgatory sublime in both its pathos and subtle cruelty...and then, before any of us really even has the time to try to come up with some desperate, last-ditch effort to keep the natives from carrying out their own brand of vigilante justice, the whole thing comes to a jarringly abrupt end awith Anoria's soft, anticlimactic pronouncement:

"Release them. No more of this; just...let them go."

For a long, breathless interval it seems that her quiet but nonetheless firm command will not be followed; the mood of the crowd pressing in on all sides around us is decidedly hostile, and I can feel both Daniel and Teal'c tensing up anew as they kneel stiffly beside me. My own heart is thumping erratically in my chest, and I find my gaze fixating on the Colonel, the action almost instinctive as I try to gauge his reaction to Anoria's decree.

From his own kneeling posture at Anoria's feet, I am able to see the briefest, telltale tightening of his shoulders as the meaning of her words sinks into his exhausted, guilt-ravaged brain; for only a second his half-bowed head lifts sharply, his eyes seeking out Anoria's carefully impassive features, and I chafe futiley at the realization that I'm unable to see the expression on his face as he looks up at her. Something flickers in her gaze in response to whatever it was she just saw in his; an expression dark and weary and inexpressibly grieved, yet at the same time unaccountably gentle, ghosts across her eyes, and then the Colonel's head drops again, his shoulders slumping almost bonelessly beneath the terrible, combined weight of this woman's judgment and his own.

For another, timeless breath he sways there beneath her regard, wavering between frightful remorse and an almost heartbreaking need to reach out for cleansing, for absolution. Something close to a sob hitches wordlessly in his chest, and as he clenches his jaw to contain it within the cracked shell of his soul, he relinquishes any further semblance of self-control and seems to fall into a hazy sort of relieved resignation, his gore-streaked hands uncurling in slow increments, his fingers falling open in peaceful surrender.

Tears well up in my eyes at the sight of him kneeling so silent and vulnerable, clothes and body encrusted with the physical evidence of the evil he's fought so hard to destroy--even at the prohibitive cost to his own sanity and spirit. Dimly I'm aware of Daniel's sharply indrawn breath nearby, an abrupt gasp that contains and reflects back to the room all the empathetic pain he's feeling on the Colonel's behalf; and when I turn my own blurred eyes to his, the dark suffering that slams into me from Daniel's silent gaze stuns me into agonized breathlessness.

Oh, God, I find myself thinking almost wildly as all four of us are suddenly and unceremoniously dragged to our feet; getting out of here suddenly sounds almost easy compared to the brutal after-effects this horrible mission is going to have on us, both individually and as a team. But especially on the Colonel. After everything he's been through, after all that was done to him here and the things he did to US while under Aliphs's influence, how will he reconcile all that's happened with his own internal code of ethics? He has always been hardest on himself above all, and the death of yet another little boy he felt such a strong responsibility for is a tragedy that has the potential to break him utterly if he can't somehow find self-forgiveness within his soul for a situation that was completely beyond his control.

"You will be escorted to the far north gate," Anoria is saying now, directing her words to Colonel O'Neill, and I shrug off the painful clasp of native fingers digging into my arms as I struggle to stand unassisted, dismayed by the weakness and vertigo coursing through my system. "You must go quickly, before the rest of Aliph's inner guard sounds the alarm and the city is locked down. Traylar will lead the escort, and you will follow his directions without argument if you wish to escape with your lives. Is that understood?"

As Anoria's eyes flash around at all of us, her fellow citizens included, I can feel an angry protest rising in my throat at the idea of Traylar being trusted to lead us ANYWHERE after his earlier comments. And Traylar's expression of disgust doesn't do much to boost my pretty much nonexistent confidence in putting our lives into his hands; but after a hurried, infuriated exchange between our reluctant guide and Anoria--their words unfortunately hissed in tones too low for me to understand--Traylar finally nods grudgingly and turns a distinctly ominous scowl first on the Colonel and then on the rest of us.

"I will take you from the city," he mutters with ill grace, brows drawing down in an expression of pure distaste. "I still believe you should not be allowed to live, let alone leave this place; but as much as it pains me to say it, I begin to see the wisdom in Anoria's words. It is imperative that we take back control of our own lives, our own destinies, without the intrusive proddings and interference of insane offworlders who would bring us nothing but more grief and trouble. Come; a small contingent of those of us here will see you swiftly to the far gate. After that you are on your own. And if you or your kind should ever prove so foolish as to try to return here--"

"We won't be coming back," Colonel O'Neill speaks up gruffly, his voice rough-edged with dark exhaustion and something more--something fierce and pained and austerely dignified. "Carter, Daniel, Teal'c...everybody ambulatory?"

Even though he barely seems able to stand himself, his brown eyes lift with dogged determination to sweep up and down the ragged line of his team; as soon as his gaze touches us, the three of us instantly and automatically pull upselves up as straight and as strong as we are able. It's obvious to all of us that he's hanging on by a thread; and even though the knowledge that we are not much better off glitters in his eyes, the pain of that awareness is tempered by the flash of pride that flares briefly in his gaze as he scrutinizes each one of us.

"We're good to go, sir," I murmur quietly in response to his query, and Daniel nods silent agreement next to me, his hand surreptitiously sliding up to give my arm a reassuring squeeze.

"Let us leave this place quickly," Teal'c rumbles, and the restrained vehemence in his tone echoes the feeling of urgency churning within us all.

"Daniel, help Teal'c," Colonel O'Neill orders, forestalling any protest on Teal'c's part with the admonitory lifting of one hand in his direction. The truncated frown the commander sends Teal'c speaks volumes concerning his awareness that Daniel isn't exactly in stellar condition himself; but it's obvious that for once Teal'c is the weaker of the two, and Daniel steps up willingly now to carry out Jack's orders. "Both of you watch our backs as we go," the Colonel adds, and Teal'c gives a brief, somewhat chagrined bob of his head.

"Carter, you're with me." Colonel O'Neill gestures wearily in my direction, and I nod wordlessly and do my best not to fall over my own feet as I take a cautious step toward him. Beside me Daniel releases his hold on my arm, his fingers trailing one last, private message along my skin before dropping away: Look after him. The words tingle along my nerve endings in the wake of his caress, and I turn to Daniel just long enough to nod my understanding. Yes, I will.

"You will not forget the experiences you have had here; you will not forget Lah'jhan," Anoria speaks suddenly, the words emerging half on the order of a command, half on the order of a plea. "And on our part, we will not forget what you did here today, Oh-Neal."

"Good luck to you, Anoria," Jack murmurs evenly now in a tone that struggles for sincerity but only manages a flat, exhausted sort of civility. "And thank you...for our lives."

"My son will now be remembered in two worlds, Oh-Neal," Anoria speaks out, a rising note of some wild, strange pride sounding in the words. "Though our paths will never cross again, for as long as we live his memory will yet be honored and will bind our races beyond these sad events, far beyond this single day. You will see to it, Oh-Neal; I will see to it."

"Yes," the Colonel replies, turning one last time to look into the determined face of Lah'jhan's mother. He trembles slightly as he gives her a slow, grave nod of his head, and as I step up behind him I realize I am bracing myself to catch him if he should lose what's left of his waning strength and collapse. But he pulls himself straight through sheer effort of will and flaps one absent, disgruntled hand behind his back, shooing me away from his immediate personal space.

"Good-bye, Anoria," he murmurs, a note of sober regret in his voice. "Good-bye and...godspeed." A small gasp escapes her at this last; but as an intense look passes between the two of them, it becomes obvious that the Colonel meant nothing profane or disrespectful by the remark. I find myself thinking that his parting words were delivered not in a spirit of sarcasm but more as a message of hope and of renewal for these people as they head off into a new and no doubt perilous future.

Apparently Anoria has chosen to take his words in that spirit, as well, for she nods once, gravely, and then turns abruptly away, calling for Traylar and the four surly men he has chosen to escort us to the north gate and from there, hopefully to the stargate, to home and freedom.

"After you, pal," the Colonel mutters as Traylar stomps over and scowls forbiddingly at him. "Sorry we don't have time to clean up after ourselves, but then, that's what the rest of you are here to do, isn't it?"

"Get moving before I change my mind!" Traylar snaps angrily, and as he whirls around and storms toward the closed door across the room, his four friends herd Teal'c, Daniel, the Colonel, and myself in his wake as if we're a small herd of wayward sheep. The reek of blood and fear and death settles heavily on the air behind us as we near the doorway and the blessed promise of redemption from this hellhole; I can feel the poisonous glares of the other natives drilling into my back as I walk alongside Colonel O'Neill, and I force myself to breathe evenly as we pass together through the narrow portal in Traylar's furious wake. God, just get us out of this insane asylum, just get us to the 'gate, I can hear myself repeating over and over inside my head; and as my worried gaze surreptitiously takes in the gore-splattered, sickeningly pale visage of Jack O'Neill striding grimly and somewhat unsteadily along at my side, I find myself suddenly feeling almost desperate to get him out of here, to rush him back to the SGC and into Janet Fraiser's capable hands before he's used up the last dregs of the adrenaline fumes he's currently running on and crashes and burns bigtime.

Hang in there, sir, I urge silently as we make a covert run for our lives through the busiest sector of the city, trying not so successfully to blend in with the teeming masses pressing around us on every side on the narrow, crowded walkways. We're getting out of here, we'll be home soon...I chant to him in my mind.

But as we make our agonizingly slow and laborious way toward the north gate, hustled unceremoniously along by Traylar and his nervous cohorts, I know that the Colonel isn't going to make it much further. Throwing a fretful glance back over my shoulder, I can see that Teal'c is doing his best to convince Daniel that he needs no assistance in traversing the city; his dark face is set into implacable lines of grim determination, and to the apprehensive natives milling on all sides I'm sure he looks very formidable. But I know him too well to buy his tough guy act; Teal'c is hurting and is almost as weak and enervated as the Colonel, and it is mainly through sheer willpower that he is able to keep planting one foot in front of the other, stubbornly shrugging off Daniel's offers of physical support.

Talk about the blind leading the blind, I snort mutely to myself as my gaze moves to Daniel, taking in the unhealthy sheen of sweat on his too-pale face and his carefully controlled grimaces of discomfort that he can't quite erase completely as he trudges gamely along at Teal'c's side. My own body is screaming out for rest, for pain killers, for water and food and about three straight days of deep, dreamless sleep; but Colonel O'Neill is weaving a bit drunkenly now as he veers away from an impatient native man shoving through the press of people around us, and I push my own exhaustion and injuries to the back of my mind as I step closer and feel a shaky hand encircle my upper arm.

"How much...further?" the Colonel rasps against my ear, and I stifle a pained gasp for breath as he suddenly flounders hard up against me, almost knocking me down. "Son of a bitch!..." he swears shakily, his voice tight with aggravated strain, and as I manage to regain my balance and take the greater portion of his sagging weight against my left hip, he grins weakly at me and mutters:

"Sorry, Carter...guess I shouldn't have...had that...last...nightcap."

"Almost there, sir," I reply as brightly as I can manage, and in that instant I truly do feel a renewed surge of energy flooding my exhausted system with endorphins; my desperate eyes have suddenly spied the blessed, upthrusting posts of the north gate in the near distance, and the sight of our deliverance so near at hand has my heart pounding wildly in my chest.

"The gate, Jack; we can see the gate from here!" Daniel's voice erupts behind us, low and intense and so very, very desperate to get to that gate, to safety; and at the sound of urgency vibrating in Daniel's hoarse tones, the Colonel lifts his pain-glazed eyes and tries to focus on the elusive promise of liberation we seem to be holding so tantalizingly before him.

"Hurry, hurry, you idiots! Look, over there; some of Aliph's guard!" Traylar hisses the warning over his shoulder, his dark eyes wild in his pale, sweaty face, and for a moment I'm convinced he and the others are going to sound the alarm and turn us in themselves, or at the very least abandon us here and leave us to fight our own way through the last of the crowds to the gate. But Colonel O'Neill has rallied his strength, his will, and his eyes are piercing and relentless as he pulls himself upright against me and fixes his gaze on Traylar's anxious face.

"Just shut up and get us to that gate," he growls, and something in his tone has the native facing quickly forward again, a brief glint of resentment and something almost like admiration sparking in his eyes as he turns away and pushes a path through the crowd for the rest of us to follow.

It seems to take forever to cover that last fifty feet to the gate, and even before we reach the ornately carved iron doorways that mark the north entrance and exit to the city, all of us can feel the influx of curious, disturbingly unfriendly eyes needling into our spines. Traylar halts on the side of the double-doored gate meant for exiting the city and spends several long, furiously gesticulating moments arguing with the two suspicious wardens of the gate while they glare back at all of us in stubborn resistance to Traylar's insistence that we be granted egress to the outside.

"Oh, for crying out loud!--" Colonel O'Neill begins, his hands tightening into agitated fists; I am aware that the rest of our little escort party has already melted away into safe anonymity, and if Traylar cuts and runs and leaves us high and dry, as well, I'm not sure how much damage the four of us can do in our compromised condition. But just as Daniel and Teal'c both slide up alongside the Colonel and myself to lend whatever strength and support they can to any escape attempt, the surly wardens of the gate suddenly seem to grow bored with the brief distraction our presence has provided. With several loud insults they accept the grubby wad of currency Traylar shoves into their outstretched hands and, with agonizing slowness, open the gate so that the four of us can pass through to the outside, to freedom.

"Go, go, go!" the Colonel hisses urgently, shoving both Teal'c and me out ahead of him; and as Teal'c obligingly takes my arm and moves me with commendably gentle haste to a well-worn road leading out of the city, I turn my gaze anxiously back over my shoulder to see Daniel and Colonel O'Neill hustling along right behind us.

Can it really be this easy after all? I find myself thinking in dim wonder as we get the hell out of there, pushing ourselves to the limit until we can be reasonably certain that no one is going to come charging after us in the next ten seconds. After all we suffered, after all the evil that Aliph and his guards were capable of, how could it be this easy to just walk away, to escape? It seems too good to be true, too suspect after all that's happened to us here. But as sudden exhaustion overtakes the four of us at once and we are forced to scramble off the roadway and take temporary cover in thick shrubberies off to one side of the road, the Colonel grasps my arm in an astoundingly strong grip as he slides down beside me, and his eyes burn into me like coals of fire.

"Enough," he rasps at me, somehow able to read my mind, my heart, as he glares into my eyes. "We've suffered enough; we deserve a goddamned 'Get out of jail free' ticket, Carter. And now we're going home; HOME. You got that?" As he looks at me his expression softens, his fierce glower fading into rueful exhaustion again; but he's said what he needed to say, what all of us needed to hear, and my voice trembles betrayingly as I clear my throat and murmur:

"Got it, sir."

"And that's why she's the one with all the brains, follks," the Colonel smiles at Daniel and Teal'c; and for just a moment--for one blessedly familiar, bittersweet moment, I truly believe that he's going to be okay. To believe anything else is unthinkable; to desire anything else is unimaginable. And as our commander wearily but determinedly orders us to get our asses back in gear and on the road to the 'gate, the expressions of grim resolve on both Teal'c's and Daniel's faces bolster my own stubborn vow to see to it that SG1 will come through this experience stronger than ever.


Epilogue

He's finally sleeping again, tossing and turning with fitful restiveness; so, okay, he's not exactly peaceful about it, but at least he's asleep. I think it's the first real shut-eye he's had in at least two days, despite his acerbic protestations to the contrary; and as I move quietly about Jack's living room in the wee hours of the night, I catch myself keeping an ear cocked for the first, ominous hints of fevered muttering or broken curses from his bedroom upstairs.

I don't intend to let him sink into nightmares again, not tonight; I won't let it go that far. I know what all the 'experts' have said about his subconscious trying to work things out; in the past two weeks I've listened to hours of their bullshit rhetoric and their pedantic, ultimately useless professional advice regarding Jack's post-traumatic stress diagnosis (oh, yeah, that was a tough one to pull out of the hat). I've listened and I've held my tongue, and I've watched Jack being ground into emotional powder right before my eyes at the hands of self-important idiots masquerading as healers. But now that Sam and Teal'c and I have gotten him safely away from all the headshrinkers and psych consultants and back to a place where he can feel safe, where he can actually breathe again, I'm not going to insult Jack's intelligence--or mine--by adhering to one damned thing suggested by MacKenzie or any of the others.

I know just how rough all this has been on Jack and how amazingly patient and receptive to assistance he's been under the circumstances; it really isn't like him to accept ANY type of counseling at more than face value, and the fact that he actually gave it a shot this time and TRIED to listen to all the psycho-emotional garbage that was dumped on him under the aegis of therapy and 'healing' speaks volumes about the terrifying depths of his pain and need.

But as well as all the headshrinkers might know their stuff and as easy as it is for them to sit around all day smugly talking shop to each other, none of them has the first damned clue how to help Jack. If you pureed every last brain among them together in one big blender, not a single useful idea about how to supply Jack with what he needs to get past this latest crisis would float to the top.

Not that I have any special insight myself into what his soul requires right now; I learned long ago that most of the time I can't even fathom my own, murky mind, much less help someone else figure out the intricate web of his or her psyche. But Jack is my friend, and I feel like I know him probably as well as anyone else on this world or any other; and I know that all the crap they were putting him through these past two weeks didn't do a damned thing to cleanse the soul-ravaging grief from his heart and mind. It's going to take a lot longer than that for the nightmares to stop, for the horrifying interior images of himself as Darius--methodically and coolly torturing the rest of us--to even begin to fade.

But the top brass don't want to hear that; all they can do is yammer on and on about the prohibitive cost of the Stargate program and how essential it is that such a 'valuable human resource' as Jack not be wasted. If they had their way, the Colonel would have headed right back through the gate on a new mission two DAYS after our last mission, not two weeks and counting. Time is money, folks, and the longer Jack is on down time for 'recuperative purposes,' the antsier the monkeys holding the purse strings in Washington get. Bastards, every last one of them. Even when the nightmares eventually stop, Jack's not going to be able to just shove Lah'jhan to the back of his mind like yesterday's laundry and carry on as if nothing ever happened; he's been able to pull that stunt off before, with other traumatic experiences, but not this time. Unfortunately, right now he's lying to himself that he can, and it's only making things worse for him.

"Well, they've had their turn, thrown their two cents into the mix. And now, Dr. Jackson, forget everything the psychiatrists and those yahoos from the Pentagon have been telling you these past few days; you and the rest of SG-1 know Jack better than anyone, and I trust your instincts over their mindless blather anyday. So these are MY orders--take him home and just...be there for him. Help him if you can; show him the way back to himself. And to hell with any proscribed timetable."

General Hammond's low, heartfelt words echo in my head again as I turn off the lamp in the living room, then move quietly in the darkness to the kitchen to make myself a cup of hot tea. Thank God for that man, I muse now as I rummage carefully in the cabinet for tea bags; what a relief it had been to see the silent understanding and empathy in the General's blue eyes when he'd called me into his office the morning Jack was being released from the gauntlet of his final psych review. In the privacy of his office he'd clasped my hand in his and ordered me--ordered all of SG-1, in fact--to use our own best judgment in dealing with the ongoing rigors of healing Jack and ourselves in the wake of Aliph's twisted theocracatic experiment.

"He'll have all our support, sir--we'll all help each other," I'd promised him, my fingers squeezing firmly around his hand to reinforce the strength of stubborn conviction behind my words; and as I turned to leave, George's parting words followed me into the corridor outside.

"I know you will, son; I know it."

But what good has it been, all our so-called mutual support, I think morosely now as I pour boiling water over the tea bag in my cup and slump into a chair at Jack's kitchen table. I can feel a headache coming on as I watch steam rise from the pale brown liquid before me and waft upwards, fogging the lenses of my glasses. I know it's been rough on all of us, but Jack in particular is dealing with a hell of a lot of terrible stuff right now; and I know that there's only so much any of the rest of us can do to help him. If I could erase all the hell he's been through lately, I would; at least the part with Lah'jhan. That's been the worst for him, the hardest thing for him to deal with.

But I know it's not my place to decree what should or should not be allowed to happen in the course of a person's life; maybe I'm merely displaying a lot of bombastic hubris, picking and choosing which traumatic events I'd expunge from the Jack O'Neill Record Book of Life if I had the power. But what the hell do I know about the deeper meaning or the purpose behind all the crap that happens to us as we journey through the world? I know nothing, really; so who am I to shake a fist at the heavens and demand an accounting of all that Jack has suffered?

I'm his best friend, that's who, I silently answer my own question, a surge of futile anger rising up in me as the first, troubled groans of imminent crisis sound dimly from the darkness overhead. He's MY friend, and he shouldn't have to go through this at all, dammit. But since he IS going through it--since none of us was given a choice in the matter--I can at least make sure he doesn't endure it completely alone. I can step only so far into his soul, into his space, and no further; but I want him to know that I'll always be waiting just there on the threshold, hand outstretched to grasp his own whenever he needs the connection. It's the least I can do for him, and maybe it's also the best I can do for him right now. That, and stopping yet another reappearance of Darius in Jack's dreams.

"Tell him to fuck off and die, Jack," I hear myself mutter darkly as I abandon my cooling tea and move quickly out of the kitchen and up the stairs to Jack's room. As I near the black square of doorway leading to the moaning, increasingly agitated man on the other side, I can feel my gut tighten with helpless empathy for his torment.

I've had a few Darius dreams myself since we stepped back through the gate, and having to factor in the knowledge that Aliph's implanted mental construct took root in Jack's body and used Jack's hands to carry out its 'holy will,' hasn't made it exactly easy to deal with the nightmares on a rational basis. Even while retaining the knowledge within the dreams themselves that the sentience looking out at me from Jack's eyes ISN'T Jack, I still wake up gasping and groaning with the dark horror of being tortured by the one man I trust most in the universe.

A shudder ripples through me as my own recent horror of sleep, of dreaming, tries to creep up on me again. The things Jack did to me on that godforsaken planet, the excruciating pain I felt while those brown, liquid eyes just stared down at me, unmoved...NO. Not Jack, it was NEVER Jack. Darius. And this isn't about ME right now, dammit; Jack is building up a full head of steam on tonight's nightmare locomotive to Hell, and it's time to pull the emergency cord and stop the ride before this particular train derails into territory he won't be able to navigate.

"Jack...JACK. Wake up now, open your eyes...It's me, Daniel, your friendly neighborhood archaeologist...Come on, Jack, no more dreaming."

From hard experience I've learned what to do, how to manage this; though I've crossed the threshold into his bedroom, I hold myself still just on the other side of the door sill, the muscles in my legs quivering slightly with the need to keep moving, to traverse the vast, barren space of carpeted floor separating us so I can kneel by his bed, touch him, pull him from Hell back into the world...But I've learned better. It almost took a broken jaw to heed the lesson, but it finally did sink in.

So I stay put, resisting the almost unbearable urge to shift nervously from foot to foot or to wrap my arms around my own torso in a futile attempt at comforting myself and passing that comfort along to Jack through some mystical, long-distance process of osmosis.

"JACK!" I call out again, louder and harsher this time, and the amorphous blob of writhing, muttering limbs in Jack's bed suddenly stiffens and grunts almost inquiringly, the tangled mass of covers twisted around the naked torso tightening up as though struggling to subdue their agitated captive. "Jack, time to wake up; you're home, you're safe."

"DAMMIT...Son of a bitch, cocksucking...Daniel?" Jack's voice is a rusty, agonized growl, low and desperate and inexpressibly pissed, as he sits up suddenly, so suddenly he almost chokes himself on the noose of bedsheets that's tightened around his neck during his restless tossing and turning.

"Yeah, it's me," I reply quietly, steadily, taking one cautious step forward in my bare feet while my eyes drill through the murky darkness of his room, trying to gauge his level of conscious awareness. I've been fooled before, thinking he had all his marbles back, believing he was wide awake and ready for a little reassurance...only to find myself flung violently down onto the floor or his bed, his weight pinning me, his arms and hands hurting me, his mind still captured by the nightmares, by the terror of being someone else, someone so very bad...

"Daniel..."

I stay still, watching as Jack angrily untangles himself from the covers and swings his legs over the side of the bed, slumping in his boxers on the edge of the mattress; his hands clench into fists that dig relentlessly into the sides of his head, and I can only stand there with my heart hammering sickly in my chest, my throat closing up with the unspeakable pain of seeing him like this, of feeling the confused anguish emanating from him like dark poison in the confines of the room. The odor of sweat and fear and of something even more bitter--something that reeks of shame and self-loathing--permeates the air, and I bite down hard on my lip to keep from moaning my own grief out loud when Jack asks me in a small, lost voice:

"Daniel, am I...me?"

"You are Colonel Jack O'Neill, leader of SG-1...you are my commander and my friend, and right now you are awake, at home and in your own bed...at, ah...3:56 am, give or take a few seconds."

I've been moving as I speak, keeping my voice calm and confident, taking slow, deliberate steps toward him across the dark abyss of his bedroom floor; in the faint light coming in his windows from outside, I can see the deranged spikes of silver hair sticking up on his scalp, as well as the faint sheen of perspiration slicking the skin of his naked back and shoulders. He is trembling slightly and continuously, I can see that too as I draw nearer; and as a strangled groan of mixed relief and mortification escapes his lips, I veer off course and head not for his side but to the master bath adjoining his bedroom.

Not bothering to turn on the light, I fumble quickly along the wall till my hands contact the cold metal bar of the towel rack I know is there; impatiently snagging the towel draped over the bar, I pull it off the rack and head back to Jack's bed, still moving with measured steps to keep from startling his already over-stressed senses. Wordlessly I kneel on the floor beside his left knee, my descent slow and steady; even though I'm careful not to touch him, I can feel the tremors of his leg muscles as he breathes deeply, roughly, his head bowed in strung-out silence.

One breath, two, then three...I wait, my mouth dry, my own hands threatening to shake and clutch too tightly at the terrycloth material wadded between my fingers; I listen to Jack's respirations, absorb the subtle ripples of fading terror still shivering along his nerve endings, goose-pimpling his skin. I can judge it with a fair degree of accuracy now, this gradual return from fathomless horror to reason and sanity; and when the muted gleam of Jack's eyes begins to lift reluctantly to mine, I feel the rueful half-smile that tugs at my lips as I offer up the towel.

"May I?" I murmur, and he swivels his head to look at me directly, the hollowed-out shadows of his face appearing shockingly gaunt and wasted in the dimness. He doesn't answer me in words, but the almost nonexistent bob of his head grants me permission to lift the towel and pat carefully at his sweat-slicked arms, my touch delicate and as non-intrusive as possible as I slowly transfer my ministrations to his neck and shoulders.

By glacially slow degrees he relaxes and slumps even lower on the side of the bed, his chest bowing in until his upper body becomes curved and lax and achingly vulnerable beneath my touch. As a heavy sigh escapes him, I rub the sweat from his back with the towel, gliding the textured material up and down the ridge of his spine and along the cooling flesh on either side of his backbone. When I'm done I drape the towel around the nape of his neck, reacting to some unspoken signal coming from his mute form; with another sigh he reaches up a pensive hand to finger the sweat-dampened cloth resting against his skin and then snorts drily, his voice still shaky but steadily regaining composure:

"Am I me...God, what a stupid question."

"Am I me...to be or not to be...same basic conundrum," I return lightly, and something warm and deep and unbelievably poignant breaks open inside my soul as Jack lifts one sardonic, mildly aggravated brow in my direction and then gives in and allows the barest facsimile of a smile to flirt with the corners of his mouth.

"Smart-ass geek," he mutters without heat, and after a momentary hesitation he lifts one exhausted hand to my shoulder and gives it an awkward, slightly embarrassed pat. "Is it really 4 am?"

"You've set a new record," I reply with a grave smile, and he snorts again, his fingers digging very lightly and oh-so-briefly into the flesh of my shoulder before giving me a light push away from him.

"Whoo hoo; three whole hours of uninterrupted zzz's this time before the boogie man came to visit," he drawls sarcastically and pushes himself to his feet, his lean figure seeming uncharacteristically pale and fragile in the darkness. "I am him and he is me and I gotta tell you, I am really getting FED UP with this shit. With HIS shit...which becomes MY shit, which is all very creepy and confusing and gives me a headache. Hey, Daniel, you had breakfast yet?" he finishes apropos of nothing, and I shrug as I rise slowly to my feet and stand facing him.

'It's 4 am, Jack; when would I have had the time OR inclination to procure breakfast?" I retort steadily. And at the everyday, normal lilt of exasperation he hears in my voice, the gaping void of dark despair that has lain like a shroud over my friend's taut features since he first awoke draws back into itself and thankfully retreats for another night.

"Well, I could eat," he muses consideringly, hands lifting absently to rub the used towel back and forth across the nape of his neck. "We could probably rustle up some scrambled eggs and bacon, a few slices of toast, some marmalade...That tofu and mushroom crap Carter brought over for dinner last night and had the nerve to call edible did NOT make me OR my stomach happy."

"Yes, I got the distinct impression that you didn't enjoy it very much," I reply, and I can feel a smile tugging at my lips as I relive Jack poking at the stuff on his plate with his fork held in a highly defensive and suspicious position, almost as if he expected Sam's main course to leap off the table and go for his throat.

"As if I needed to be even further traumatized," he sighs now; and even though we both smile at each other at the wry witticism, a pained awareness of just how NOT normal and okay all this still is lingers in the space between us. Not so hard, Jack, I want to tell him; don't try so damned hard. It's all right to NOT be all right, to still wake up shaking and scared shitless at this point because for a heart-stopping moment you can't remember if you're really YOU again or if you're still Darius, can't know for sure if you were EVER really you, or if the dream is actually reality and this whole, deceptively peaceful scene right now is the real nightmare, the real horrorfest for having wanted this interval of calm so badly, for having NEEDED a friend to reach out to, to hold onto when up becomes down and nothing makes sense...

Jack reads all that in my eyes now, his narrowed gaze piercing through the subtle darkness to suck the truth from my soul; his jaw tightens briefly in anger at what he sees revealed, and his fingers clutch spastically at the towel around his neck as accusation flares in his eyes. Don't offer me your pop psychology, his silent glare warns me; don't make me stand here in my godamned underwear at 4 am and look at you and admit that there are demons living in my head, demons and ghosts and the spirits of lost little boys who whisper to me in dreams that I am the lost one, not them, whispering to me to let them go, to remember who and what I am and to BELIEVE in myself and in the existence of good... and to believe in YOU, Daniel, in our friendship...

"I'm going to grab a shower," Jack says now, severing the breathless, darkly powerful jolt of connection between us with such abruptness that I feel a sudden, sharp pain in my chest at its rough sundering.

"Do you think you could gather up enough stuff in the meantime to make omelettes?" he adds with studied diffidence. "And maybe pancakes, too. But no damned coffee for you; you know Teal'c will show up for HIS Colonel-sitting stint in about three hours, and if you have coffee you'll NEVER go to sleep once you get back home."

"Omelettes, pancakes, NO coffee--I think I can handle it," I reply with the barest of sighs, stepping back regretfully as the walls come up again between us, trapping my friend once more behind his lonely barrier of guilt and rage and denial.

Part of me wants to scream in frustration, but I know that would do no good; better to tell myself that we both just took a mutual step in the right direction, however small and tentative the scuff of our feet on the convoluted trail. He's going to be okay; in his own time, on his own terms, he WILL deal with this in the best way for himself and for his soul's gradual healing.

It's inconceivable to those of us who care about him so deeply that he could ever be lost beyond redemption, that he would ever give up the core of his soul without a brutal fight to the ends of eternity and beyond to snatch it back, battered and roughened but no less beautiful, no less perfect in its natural expression of who and what he is and will always be. This is Jack; he is both my friend and my nemesis, my detractor and supporter, the thorn in my side and the strong hand of support at my back; he is weathered and taciturn and soft-hearted and fiercely loyal. And he is one of the best damned human beings I have ever known.

"The kitchen? Food, Daniel? Eggs, cheese, butter, omelette pan, spatula...any of this ringing any bells for you?" Jack's voice murmurs past me in the quiet waning of night, his touch on my arm featherlight and somehow all too brief as he glides by me to reach the bathroom doorway. "And there are oranges in a bag in there somewhere, if you can find them I'll make fresh squeezed when I get out of the shower..."

As he closes the door behind him, muttering grumpily to himself about the obtuseness of insomniac archaeologists who couldn't unearth a toaster from the pantry if their lives depended on it, I stand for one long moment more, absorbing the blessedly normal sounds of Jack turning the shower on and slamming drawers as he searches out the things he'll need for his morning ablutions. I can feel his energy all around me, flowing through me in some indefinable but no less vivid caress; in the fading warmth of his touch on my arm I sense the essence of that part of his soul that no evil can ever touch, and the raw power of it stuns me.

A feeling of indescribable lightness sweeps through me in a dizzying wave, and as I gasp and turn toward the bedroom door and the upstairs hallway beyond, I tell myself that it's just nerves and exhaustion washing over me. But deep inside I know better; deep inside, rising light and clear and free, is a spirit of absolute certainty, adorned with the simple truth of hope and friendship and the inviolable sanctity of the human soul.

"Morning is coming, Jack; it's just over the horizon," I murmur to the closed bathroom door; and as I move quietly downstairs to contemplate oranges and butter and eggs, my heart searches out the dawn and feels it breaking, new and whole and filled with breathless promise.

~THE END~

To Part Two

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