LATITUDES

BY: Lyn

Email: townsend297@ozemail.com.au

Notes: This was written as the second episode in the Stargate Virtual Season Six. At that time, we didn't know that Daniel would be back and a group of us decided we'd bring him back ourselves. I had a link to the Season on my page but it's now broken, so I decided it was time to put it up at my own website. It stands alone from the other Virtual Season eps and can be read as an alternate ending to Meridian.

RATING: G

General Hammond lifted his head from the report on his desk at the soft tap on his open office door and waved Doctor Fraiser in. "Doctor Fraiser, I'm hoping you finally have good news for me?"

The doctor stepped in and placed a thin folder on the desk. "Yes, sir. It would appear from the latest tests, that Selmak was able to correct the norepinephrine and adrenaline levels in Colonel O'Neill's brain. I think he's going to be fine, sir."

A tiny frown deepened on her forehead and Hammond was immediately alert. "Do I sense a 'but' in there, Doctor?"

"Not as far as the colonel's condition goes, sir. I only wish we could convince the Tok'ra to share more of their knowledge with us. It's just..." She sighed. "I'm worried about the colonel, sir. He's taking Daniel's loss very badly."

"We're all grieving."

"And we all grieve differently, I know that, but it's as though the colonel has lost all interest in the Stargate mission, sir. Not only that, he seems to be taking personal responsibility for Doctor Jackson's accident."

Hammond shifted back in his chair. "It wasn't his fault."

"I know that and I told him so. He says there's more to it than that, but I can't get him to elaborate further."

"Give him time, Doctor. It's been a terrible shock for all of us. I know I'm going to miss having that young man around myself and not just because of the skills he brought to the SGC."

Janet nodded, giving him a small, sad smile. "Yes, sir. I miss him too." She turned to leave and Hammond returned to the troubling report on his desk.

"Doctor Fraiser?"

"Yes, sir?" Janet paused at the door and turned back to face Hammond.

"Do you have any idea how I'm supposed to explain what actually happened to Doctor Jackson?"

"He was mortally injured trying to save others, sir. Shouldn't that be enough."

Hammond thought a moment, then nodded. "It should, and it will be. Thank you, Doctor."

~o0o~

Standing at the base of the ramp in the Gate Room, Sam Carter hugged Jacob tightly, allowing herself a brief moment of private comfort in her father's arms. "Thanks, Dad, for everything."

"No problem." Jacob reached a hand up and ruffled Sam's hair then pushed her back gently. "I only wish I could have helped Daniel."

"You did your best, Jacob Carter," Teal'c said, accepting Jacob's handshake.

"Sometimes your best just isn't enough," Jacob replied.

Tears stung Sam's eyes and she resolutely blinked them away. She watched Jacob walk up the ramp and step into the wormhole, then turned to Teal'c. "I'm going to go check on the colonel. See how he's doing."

Teal'c inclined his head. "Then I shall accompany you."

Sam smiled. "Thanks, I'd appreciate that. Any idea where he is? Janet already discharged him from the infirmary."

"I do not, but I suggest we begin at Daniel Jackson's office."

Sam led the way to the door. "Just what I was thinking."

~o0o~

Jack hesitated a moment at Daniel's office door then pushed it open and stepped inside. The room was in darkness and he made his way quickly to the desk, switching on the small lamp there. Gazing around, he could see several packing crates stacked precariously in one corner of the room, and empty spaces on the bookshelves and second desk indicated that someone had begun a half-hearted attempt to pack Daniel's things.

'Best of luck,' Jack thought, walking over to the boxes and lifting the flaps. He'd never been able to figure out how Daniel could find anything amid the seemingly disorganized clutter.

He picked up the first item inside the top box, a leather-bound journal, and flipped it open. Recognizing Daniel's familiar hurried scrawl, he realized it was a mission journal. Daniel kept several, the words spilling out onto the paper in the same way they came out of his mouth, as though he was afraid there might not be time for him to say all he needed to.

Jack flashed on a memory of Sam reading through Daniel's Abydos mission journal at his apartment on another day when they'd thought him dead. The kid had more lives than a cat, Jack mused. Every time Daniel had been given up for dead, he'd turned up again like the proverbial bad penny. Except this time.

This time, Jack had told him to go, not in so many words, but when Daniel had asked him for a reason to stay, only anger and recriminations had surged, replaced finally by exhausted resignation. Had it just been the crazy stuff going on in his head? He'd known what he'd wanted to say, "Stay, I need you. We need you." But the words wouldn't come, stuck in his gut like lead.

His guilt was too late in surfacing though. Daniel was gone and this time, there was no bringing him back. Jack swallowed around the lump in his throat and turned back to the journal, wondering when Daniel had decided to bring them here. They were not official reports, though Jack was sure someone in the Stargate hierarchy would beg to differ with him on that. These were Daniel's innermost thoughts, written from the first day he'd stepped inside the Cheyenne Mountain Complex and been shown the Stargate by Catherine.

Jack flipped through the pages, pausing now and then to read a sentence or two. Some were studious notes about bizarre alien rituals, a few angry, short words were peppered here and there when Daniel had failed to get his argument across to Jack or Kinsey or some other Air Force bean counter with his head up his ass. Many were heartbreakingly sad and full of desperation for those he had loved and lost.

Jack closed the book and put it to one side. These were not reports to be read by the dispassionate eyes of someone who had never known Daniel.

"Sir?"

Jack jumped a little at the voice from the door and turned to see Carter and Teal'c standing there, looking somewhat lost. "It's okay. Come on in, you're not interrupting anything."

"We thought we might find you here." Sam walked to the desk and ran a finger over a funerary urn.

"Yeah, just sorting through a few things." Jack picked up the journal. "There's some things here that don't belong at Area 51."

"Daniel's journals?"

"Yeah. Hey, Teal'c."

The Jaffa inclined his head. "We can assist you, if you wish, O'Neill."

"Sure, knock yourself out."

"Colonel?" Sam seated herself on the edge of the desk. "Is there something else bothering you, sir?"

"What, you don't think Daniel being gone is enough, Major?" Jack tried to bite off the sarcasm but it slipped between his clenched lips too quickly.

"That's not what I meant."

Jack sighed and nodded, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "I know, Carter, I'm sorry. Got a bit of a headache still."

"Doctor Fraiser said your brain chemistry was back within normal range."

"Jacob said I might have a headache for a day or two. It's nothing." Jack looked away, studying the blank wall intently. There was a lighter patch there as though something had been removed. Jack's brow furrowed then smoothed out as he remembered. Daniel had framed the sheet of newspaper with the map that had given him his first clue to deciphering the Stargate and hung it there. He'd have to go through the boxes and find it.

"Are you certain you are all right, O'Neill?" Teal'c spoke from beside him, and Jack detected the concern in the Jaffa's voice.

"Just thinking. The last time I spoke to Daniel, he asked me to give him a reason to stay. I didn't."

"You said it was his choice to go with Oma Desala," Sam reminded him.

"I know." Jack turned to face his teammates. "But what if it wasn't? What if I had been able to convince him to stay, to fight harder to survive?"

"Jacob Carter said that Daniel Jackson could not be fully cured," Teal'c put in.

"Not by the Tok'ra, but this Oma character's supposed to be all-powerful. We've all seen the stuff she could do. I keep thinking that maybe if I'd asked Daniel to stay…. If I'd been in my right mind, I could have convinced him he still had things to do here." Jack tucked the journal under his arm. "Come on, we've got to go see Hammond."

"Why?" Sam fell into step beside him as she spoke.

"I need to be sure that Daniel made his choice because he wanted to, for the right reasons."

"How can we do that?" Teal'c asked. "Daniel Jackson has ascended."

"We have to find him. We have to go back to Kheb."

"He's not there," Sam said, her weary face puzzled, though Jack could see a spark of hope in her eyes.

"How do we know that?" Jack asked, punching at the elevator button and stepping inside as the doors opened. He turned to face the others, keeping his finger on the button to hold the door open as he continued. "We didn't know Oma was there until she chose to show herself to us. Even if they're not there, those etchings on the wall that Daniel was so fired up about might give us a clue."

"We're going to have to convince the general that we need to go back there," Sam said as she followed Teal'c into the car.

"Leave it to me." A glimmer of a smile relaxed the tension on Jack's face. "Just follow my lead."

~o0o~

Jack tapped briskly on Hammond's door, then poked his head inside. "General? A minute of your time?"

Hammond looked up and waved them in. "Come in, Jack. How are you feeling?"

"Never better, sir." Jack ushered Sam into a seat then stood behind her, waiting a moment as Teal'c did his customary prowl of the territory before settling. "We've been sorting through Daniel's stuff and - We need to go back to Kheb, sir."

If the general was startled by the revelation, he didn't show it and Jack decided he wouldn't want to play poker with the man. Instead, Hammond leaned back in his chair, his arms folded over his ample chest, and fixed Jack with a curious stare, though Jack was certain he detected a faint hint of amusement in the twitch of Hammond's lips. "Go ahead, Colonel. Convince me."

Jack stood flat-footed for a moment, having geared himself up for an argument. "Well, sir…."

Sam leaned forward and rested her folded arms on the desk in front of her. "General, when we were on Kheb, Daniel said the writing on the walls of the temple were of significant importance."

Hammond nodded slowly. "I remember."

"I think we need to go back and record them," Jack said quickly.

"We have Doctor Jackson's mission report from Kheb and his research notes, not to mention a number of other well-qualified linguists on staff."

"He might have missed a few. You know Daniel, sir, attention span of a gnat and he was sort of preoccupied at the time." Seeing Sam's forehead crease into a frown, Jack rolled his eyes. "With finding the boy. Geez, Carter, Jacob tweaked my brain chemistry. I'm hoping he didn't remove my scintillating wit."

Sam gave him an apologetic smile and relaxed, then turned back to Hammond. "Sir, I think the colonel is right. We could go back to Kheb, do a quick recon, make a full video recording of the etchings in the temple and anything else of interest, then run them through our base computers. We might pick up something we missed before. If nothing else, since we've seen what Oma Desala can do, I think we need to know more about her. We might pick up additional information about fighting the Goa'uld, too."

"And?"

Jack frowned. "Sir?"

"Come on, Colonel. Level with me. You think there's some chance of contacting Doctor Jackson." He made it a statement.

Jack sighed and rubbed again at the bridge of his nose. Damn headache was beginning to settle in for the duration. "General, I need to know that Daniel wanted to go with Oma…whats'ername. I haven't exactly been at my best for a few months and if there's any chance that I could have convinced him to stay, I want that chance now that I'm thinking straight."

"Jacob said Doctor Jackson's injuries were too severe."

"I know that, sir, but this Oma, well, we saw her do some pretty amazing things on Kheb, and if Daniel decides that he wants to come back… She took him…" he held a finger up to point at the ceiling, then shrugged. "… somewhere, maybe she can bring him back."

Hammond was silent for a moment, then looked at the Jaffa in the corner. "Teal'c?"

"I concur with Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter."

Hammond nodded. "I expected no less. All right, Colonel, provided you get medical clearance from Doctor Fraiser, you have a go."

Jack snapped off a salute. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Colonel? I was about to sign the official report on the incident on Kelowna and Doctor Jackson's accident. I'll hold off for twenty-four hours, that's the best I can do."

"Thank you, General. We'll be in touch."

~o0o~

The room he currently occupied, if indeed you could call existing on another plane, occupying somewhere, was stark, plain, devoid of any ornamentation or color, or, for that matter any of his things. He wasn't sure why it bothered him so much. Had he died, he certainly wouldn't have been capable of taking his books and mementos with him. He stifled a suspiciously hysterical-sounding laugh as the old saying came to mind. 'You can't take it with you.'

He supposed he was more concerned about his journals than anything else. Personal thoughts tied up with observations about the things he'd experienced, that even five years down the path had never ceased to amaze and awe him. They were probably being pored over right this moment by Maybourne's cronies, all of them anxious to get at the secrets hidden within. Yet the only secrets they held were how much he missed Sha're, how sorry he was he'd been unable to do more to help her, how troubled he was by Jack's uncharacteristic behavior over the past several months.

He supposed he was one of those incredible phenomena himself now. He pictured himself strung out on a pin board like some exotic butterfly and suppressed a shudder. He wasn't sure he liked the idea of being someone's exhibit.

Oh, sure, he'd been eager enough when Oma had first hinted at ascension, wanting nothing more than an end to the agony. Not just the physical pain of the radiation poisoning, but the emotional body slams that seemed to keep him reeling from one crisis to another, until all he'd wanted to do was curl up into a ball and die.

No family, no life to speak of, and Sha're gone forever without hope of bringing her back. A team, once as close as he had imagined a family would be, slowly breaking apart under the stress of what they had to endure and witness every time they stepped through the Gate. Man's, no, make that Goa'uld's inhumanity to man. At least the boy was safe here with Oma.

Still, ascension didn't bother Daniel nearly as much as the constant troubling thought that he'd deserted his friends, and had proven to Jack once and for all that when it got too tough, you could count Daniel out.

None of it though was worth worrying about now, he decided. He'd told Jack that he could do more this way, although he was unsure whom he had really been trying to convince. He'd made his choice and now he had to get on with making that difference he was so fond of preaching about to Jack.

"Daniel, are you troubled?"

Daniel startled at the voice behind him. Oma's silent approaches took some getting used to. He watched her glowing form, waiting until the light coalesced into human shape before answering. He smiled uneasily. "I guess I am. I mean, it's very nice to no longer be in pain." He winced mentally at the memory of the agony that had engulfed his entire body during his final hours at the SGC. The fiery pain had been so all-consuming that, even now, his other memories of that time were somewhat dull and vague… Except for the pain, and for Jack.

He remembered standing at the Gate telling Jack that it was right for him to leave, that he could achieve so much more this way, yet hoping that Jack would say one thing that could convince him to stay. That the pain, the sorrow and loss were worth fighting through. That his journey alongside those he loved was not yet over. Jack had said he'd miss him. That should have been enough.

"Daniel?"

He jerked back from his reverie and looked at Oma. "I thought once I got here, it would all fall into place."

"You are still uncertain if you have made the right choice."

Daniel smiled whimsically. "I'm not sure if there was a right or a wrong choice to make. Can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"When I was dying from the radiation, Sam and Teal'c came to me in my dream when I was trying to decide if my life thus far had been a worthy one."

"Indeed. The people closest to you have been trying to tell you, you have made a difference. That you did change things for the better."

"Yes, that's what you said at the time."

"Do you still doubt it? If you do, then your place is not here. Perhaps your journey there was not as complete as you believed it to be."

"That's not true. There was nothing left there for me. Even Jack couldn't give me a reason to stay."

"We each have our own paths to tread, Daniel. O'Neill's own path is a rocky one, fraught with unspoken regret and guilt."

"What do you mean?"

"There were things he wished to say but could not."

"Because he thought the choice should be mine."

Oma shrugged. "Perhaps. Who knows what is truth in a mind altered by others? Perhaps the truths he sought were not his own."

"Are you telling me Jack is sick?"

"No longer. The Tok'ra were able to do for him what they could not do for you."

Daniel's mouth dropped open. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"Your own choices cannot be colored by the needs or desires of others. You have released that burden," she reminded him gently.

"I didn't make my choice with knowledge of the whole situation then."

"Had you known, would you have chosen differently?"

Daniel rolled his eyes. They were back to talking in circles again. "I don't know," he said finally. "I know I wish I'd been given the chance to weigh everything."

"A soul cannot be weighed, Daniel."

"Yes, you told me that before, too. What about a conscience? My guilt that I had not been able to achieve what I set out to do on Earth weighed on my conscience for a long time. Even knowing others feel I made a difference in their lives doesn't expunge that guilt entirely. I made my decision based on the fact that I thought I had nothing left there, nothing more to fight for."

"One cannot ascend if one's conscience is heavy. Do you wish to return?"

"I don't know. I only know that suddenly I don't to seem sure of anything. Answer one more thing for me." Daniel raised a finger. "Is Jack all right now?"

Oma inclined her head. "He is as he once was."

He grinned wryly. "Well, that's not necessarily reassuring."

There was suddenly an inexplicable and somewhat disconcerting shift in Daniel's surroundings. Looking around, he recognized the temple of Kheb and realized he was once more in his ascended form.

"Carter! Get down. Teal'c, cover me."

Daniel's attention snapped immediately to the direction from which the familiar voice came. Sam's blonde head ducked beneath the level of the stone wall surrounding the courtyard fountain a split second before a staff weapon shattered the wall where her face had appeared. "What the -? Oma?"

Oma's voice floated to him above the raging firestorm. "Choose, but remember, until you make your choice, you must not interfere in what is their destiny."

"What do you mean? Are you saying I can't help them? You interfered, and more than once as I recall." He could hear the laughter in her voice even though her words were as profound and as puzzling as ever.

"I had already been banished, Daniel, for attempting to change the paths of others. I can hardly be banished again. You, on the other hand, are being offered a second chance to decide which fork in the road you wish to take. Any action you take now will send you in what is the right direction for you. Once you choose to interfere, you choose your own destiny. Is that clear?"

"As mud," Daniel grumbled, but the noise of the battle rose around him, and if Oma replied, it was immediately swallowed up in the deafening sounds of the attack.

A sharp explosion from the trees opposite him had him spinning to face an unseen adversary and he flinched as a streak of fire passed through him.

~o0o~

"Carter! Get down!" Jack swiped at the rivulets of rain running into his eyes and blinked rapidly, trying to get a clear view of the attackers who had ambushed them the moment they'd stepped into the courtyard in front of the temple. "What the hell happened to the MALP reading that told us no one was here?"

Carter shrugged as best she could, scrunched into a ball below the wall. "Maybe they arrived just before we did."

"They could have some kind of cloaking device," Teal'c added. "We were not aware of Oma Desala's presence until she showed herself to us."

'Maybe it's a test from Daniel,' Jack thought. 'To make us prove how much we need him back.' As much as he hoped it was, he didn't voice the thought aloud. Carter and Teal'c would probably think Jacob had removed a sizable chunk of his reasoning ability along with the chemical crap that had cluttered his thought processes for so long. He tempered that with the notion that they would hardly have accompanied him if they hadn't believed there was some chance of contacting Daniel.

Jack ducked as another shot hit the wall near his head. 'If you're around here somewhere, Daniel, we could sure you use your help about now, buddy.'

Raising his head during a sudden lull in the attack, he turned to Teal'c. "We're fighting a losing battle here, and it sounds like SG-2's having trouble holding the Stargate. Teal'c, I'll cover you. When I give you the signal, you two head back toward the Gate."

Teal'c hesitated. "What about Daniel Jackson?"

"If he's here, he's going to have to come to us." Jack saw his own regret mirrored in his teammates' eyes.

He waited a moment to check that Carter was unhurt as staff fire spat at the stone wall above her. Rolling up into a crouched position, sidearm in one hand, zat in the other, he focused his sight on the forest beyond and let loose a volley of shots.

A surprised grunt from the trees met his ears as one of his shots found a target but it was followed rapidly by a succession of weapon fire from their attackers. He watched as Teal'c pushed Carter ahead of him, turning back to the trees to return fire with his own staff weapon. Suddenly Teal'c staggered, blood blossoming on his pants as a shot found its target. Carter turned, hurrying back toward Teal'c, half-dragging him behind the fountain wall.

Jack slumped back onto his butt. "Well, that's not going to work." He raked a quick assessing gaze over the Jaffa at his side. "You all right?" Teal'c nodded wordlessly and Jack could see the wound in his thigh was a shallow gash that oozed blood freely. "That's not from a staff weapon." Jack watched Carter slap a pressure bandage over the wound.

Teal'c shook his head. "Some are using a sidearm similar to your own, O'Neill."

"Who the hell are these guys?" O'Neill eyed the dead humanoid body dressed in armor not unlike that of the Goa'uld Jaffa, that had slumped from the cover of the trees to lay in the courtyard. The distinctive tattoo that adorned Teal'c's forehead was absent.

"I believe they are Scaupers."

"They're not Jaffa?" Sam asked.

"Indeed they are not. The Goa'uld attempted at one time to create hosts from the Scaupers but they have a poison within them that caused much illness to the Goa'uld."

Carter turned a hopeful face to O'Neill, who nodded. "I know, and if we get a chance to take one of them back with us, we will. For now, I think we've got to figure out how to get back to the Gate and back up Mason and the rest of SG-2."

"You've roused my curiosity though," Jack continued, looking back at Teal'c. "What the heck is a Scauper?"

"They are a scavenger race who travel the Stargate systems searching for anything they believe will be of value to them, particularly in their own fight against the Gou'ald. They aspire to conquer all. I believe you would call them marauders."

Jack pushed himself up and fired off another round. "Would it help if we told them we're on the same side?"

"They wish no alliance with anyone. Like the Goa'uld, they seek only to conquer and enslave."

"Great," Jack said glumly. "Why do you suppose they're here?"

"Perhaps, like us, to seek the mysteries of the etchings on the wall of the temple in the hope they may discover the secret to defeating the Goa'uld. Master Bra'tac told me that many others have attempted it, none have left this place alive."

Teal'c broke off as a movement from the trees behind them revealed a handful of men bursting from the foliage, their weapons already primed to fire. All three clenched their eyes against the blinding flash of light that erupted suddenly in front of their attackers. Jack heard an unearthly scream and by the time he blinked away the black dots crowding his vision, the twisted metal of several weapons lay abandoned on the ground, their owners fleeing into the woods at their backs. Several more explosions and terrified cries accompanied the passage of the light as it ripped through the forest.

"Oma?"

Jack saw a flicker of hope cross Carter's face. "Maybe, maybe Daniel, though I admit it's not his usual way of fixing things." Despite the clamor that surrounded them, Jack felt an exquisite pang of grief that he'd no longer hear Daniel's endearing greeting to all, alien and human alike.

Panicked shouts sounded from the temple across the courtyard and the team watched as a small group of the Scaupers fled through the temple doors as though the devil himself were after them. A huge ball of flame burst over the top of the fleeing soldiers accompanied by a deafening roar of thunder. Jack ducked, bringing his arms up to shield his head from flying debris, aware of Carter and Teal'c mimicking his actions.

A deathly quiet settled over the place. Jack's nose wrinkled at the unpleasant odor of charred flesh in the air. Gingerly, he lifted his head and looked over the top of the wall.

The courtyard was littered with bodies, some ominously still, others stirring slightly with pained moans. He checked Carter and Teal'c, relieved to see neither appeared injured. Distant shouting and staff weapon fire indicated the battle was not yet won. "Let's get the hell out of here. Carter, contact Mason at the Gate. Tell him to have it dialed up."

Carter nodded. "Yes, sir." She took off, running back in the direction from which they'd come, thumbing on her radio as she ran. Jack nodded at Teal'c, who stood and followed her, favoring his injured leg, half-turning from time to time to cover their backs.

Jack hefted his weapons and took up the rear, peppering the trees with bursts of fire as he ran. Behind him, he could hear bodies crashing through the foliage in pursuit. He ducked as a flare heralded the priming of a staff weapon and felt bark cut his face as the bolt of flame hit the tree above his head.

~o0o~

All of Daniel's actions from the moment he saw the soldiers clad in armor step from the forest, their weapons aimed at his teammates were instinctive. There was no room for debate and no time for arguments with himself or anyone else. Indeed, he had no conscious thought of doing anything. His team was in trouble and he would do all he could to get them out of it as he had so often in the past.

Once the gunfire ceased, he watched as first Carter, then Teal'c took off into the trees, heading back toward the Stargate, followed by Jack. As the colonel disappeared, Daniel felt a pang of longing that was rapidly replaced by panic. "Jack, wait!"

He saw Jack pause and half-turn, throwing a puzzled glance over his shoulder and felt hope blossom. Picturing the Stargate in his mind's eye, he did what he supposed he was meant to do and simply wished himself there.

~o0o~

As he cleared the last of the trees, Jack could see Carter standing in front of the rippling wormhole, flanked on each side by members of SG-2, their weapons firing spasmodically at the remaining armed Scaupers as they covered Teal'c and Jack's approach. He hesitated a moment, turning back to look over his shoulder as a voice floated faintly to him.

"Jack, wait!"

"Daniel?" There was nothing but the shouts of the Scaupers and the SG team's answering bursts of weapon fire. Jack turned back and waved Carter and Teal'c through the gate. "Go! Go!"

Regret merged with an urgent desire to get his team home safely. They hadn't even had a chance to look for Daniel and after this, there was no way Hammond was going to let them come back.

He picked up his pace, then cursed as his foot skidded on the slick, muddy ground, sending him to his knees. Staggering up, he bit back a groan as a shaft of hot pain sliced through his ankle. He limped up the steps toward the Gate, throwing his body headfirst into the vortex.

~o0o~

"So, you have chosen."

Oma's voice whipped through the raging storm. Cold liquid spattered against Daniel's face and he opened his eyes, looking around in confusion.

He was standing in the middle of a clearing. Rain teemed down from a blackened sky and the ground beneath his feet was muddy, sucking against his boots. Boots? He looked down, recognizing the familiar khaki of a uniform, and on his sleeve, the patch proclaiming SG-1.

He felt something impact his chest with stunning force, knocking him to his knees. Fire coursed through him and he touched a hand to the ragged hole in his shirt, his fingers coming away streaked with blood. He fought to get back to his feet, trying to suck in air with recalcitrant lungs. The pain threatened to overwhelm him as he struggled to make his legs work. He felt as though he was walking through a sea of molasses. Nausea churned in his stomach and he felt bile burn his throat. Black dots that danced at the edge of his vision began to coalesce and he could feel himself slipping into the maelstrom of unconsciousness.

Was he going to get this far only to die and be left behind after all? Gritting his teeth against the pain, resolutely fighting off the darkness that threatened, Daniel cast aside the agony and concentrated on completing his journey.

Just ahead of him, he saw Jack skid and fall, then clamber back to his feet and limp rapidly toward the Gate. With his vision clouding, his head pounding with every echoing beat of his heart, Daniel staggered after his friend. He hesitated only a moment before diving into the wormhole behind Jack…. and all conscious thought fled.

~o0o~

Jack hit the ramp hard Earth-side, rolling onto one shoulder to break his headlong fall. The impact stunned him for a moment and he lay, gasping air into his heaving lungs, shivering from the icy re-entry and the dampness of his clothes, feeling the hot pounding of his swollen ankle.

In front of him, at the base of the ramp, Carter knelt beside Teal'c, pressing a bandage to the bleeding gash on the Jaffa's leg. The sudden cocking of weapons had Jack lifting his head cautiously, and he looked up to see several weapons trained on him. No, not on him, behind him. Crap! What had they brought back with them this time?

He twisted himself painfully, craning his neck to look over his shoulder and the sight had him scrambling toward the man lying crumpled on the ramp, his twisted ankle forgotten.

Crawling on his hands and knees, he lifted the limp shoulders and turned the body so that it lay face-up. Jack sucked in a breath and touched a trembling hand to the cold, white face. "Daniel?"

The blood seeping through Daniel's khaki shirt caught his attention and he turned to shout at the rest of the Gate personnel who stood shell-shocked below him. "Get a medical team. He's been shot!"

~o0o~

"I'm sorry, Colonel but until we get the final results of the MRI and other tests from Doctor Fraiser, Doctor Jackson will remain in isolation under armed guard."

Jack paced the length of the infirmary waiting room and back again. "For crying out loud, General. He's badly wounded, unconscious."

"Your concern for Daniel Jackson is clouding your judgement, O'Neill," Teal'c said. "Were it anyone else, you would be insisting on these measures yourself."

Jack swung his gaze to Carter who shrugged. "I feel the same way you do, Colonel but they're right. We don't even know how Daniel got here, and it wouldn't be the first time the Goa'uld has infiltrated the base in a human body."

He huffed out a breath and nodded. "Fine. We'll watch him ourselves."

Hammond nodded. "Just what I was about to suggest, Colonel."

"Oh. Right."

"General Hammond." They turned as one at Janet Fraiser's voice. Jack felt his knees tremble a little as she smiled.

"Doctor Fraiser," Hammond said. "What's the verdict?"

"Good news, sirs. No indication of a Goa'uld infestation, DNA reports are conclusive that he is indeed Daniel Jackson."

"What about his injuries?" Jack asked.

Janet frowned. "It was a nasty wound, collapsed a lung, and he lost a substantial amount of blood. His lung's been re-inflated and he's been transfused. Now we wait."

"Wait? For what?"

"He's heavily sedated, Colonel. He would be in extreme discomfort if he were conscious. He's still at risk from infection, and he's very weak. If all goes well, I'm hoping to taper off the sedation in a couple of hours. I just wish I knew how..."

"Don't we all?" Hammond replied fervently.

~o0o~

 

He existed in a netherworld of fevered dreams, a vague sensation of pain pricking through the cotton wool that he seemed to be wrapped in. Voices whispered over him, and he fought to make his way back to consciousness, but each time he neared the light of day, the pain sent him tumbling backward into the comfort of darkness.

"Daniel?"

"Oma?"

In his dream, he was back in the Gate room. Oma stood in front of him, Shifu at her side. Was he going to have to choose again? He supposed it didn't matter. This time Daniel was certain of where he was meant to be.

"The path you have chosen is not an easy one."

"I know where I need to be now."

"You have made a courageous choice. You will not be alone. Your friends are here to help you."

"Will I see you again?"

"All roads lead to one destiny, Daniel, many cross on the way." Oma turned to face the Stargate, her human form beginning to waver and transform into blinding brightness.

Daniel smiled at Sha're's son. 'You told me something like that, the last time I saw you. I wish I could have saved Sha're. I still regret -'

"Oma says regrets are burdens that strip the wings from our feet, making our journey slow and cumbersome," the boy replied. "I have my mother's memory here in my heart, as you do."

'"Be good, Shifu. Your mother would be proud of you."

"And of you."

A cluttered kaleidoscope of images swirled dizzily through his mind's eye and he struggled to sort through them.

Sam, resolutely refusing to leave Cassie alone in the bunker. Teal'c's face, full of abject sorrow and remorse as he told Daniel that he'd killed Sha're. Hammond talking to his granddaughter on the phone, telling her how one of his good friends was missing. Nick, with a gentle smile on his weathered face - "I'm proud of you, Daniel."

'Jack?'

Jack's face wavered and blurred, finally settling into a mask of anger, bitter words spewing from his mouth as they argued about the real agenda of the Eurondans. Jack's features softening then, into a look of sorrow and regret as their surroundings morphed into Apophis' ship. Daniel could feel burning agony in his chest. "I am not leaving you behind, Daniel."

Pain seized him, flashing fire through his chest, and he moaned, clenching his eyes tightly shut.

"Spacemonkey." He felt Jack's arms wrap around him, gathering him close and resolutely, Daniel pushed away the fatigue and pain, and summoning strength he didn't know he possessed, began the trek back to life.

~o0o~

They were watching Daniel sleep. Jack forced his legs to stay in place despite his overwhelming restlessness. Janet had said Daniel wouldn't be conscious for several hours but he looked so lifeless, so still, so un-Daniel-like that Jack had to repress the urge to lean over and shake him awake.

"Colonel?" Sam's voice broke into his thoughts. "He really is back, isn't he? I mean, you don't think Oma sent him back just to help us out, and now he'll have to go again, do you?"

Jack knuckled his scratchy eyes. "He was bleeding," he said, touching the bandaged wound on Daniel's chest gently. "He feels real to me." He paused, remembering something. "I heard him calling to me on Kheb."

"The storm, perhaps," Teal'c suggested. The Jaffa had given in to his natural instincts and stationed himself, sentinel-like by the door.

Jack shook his head. "It was Daniel. I wasn't sure then, I am now."

Jack watched as Carter stroked Daniel's brow, her other hand gently clasping Daniel's limp one. Beneath his hospital gown, thick bandages covered the sutured wound in his chest, and a clear tube sucked blood and air from his punctured lung. An IV dripped saline into a vein while a morphine pump administered measured doses of analgesia to keep the pain at bay. The lower half of his face was concealed by an oxygen mask, but his eyes roamed restlessly beneath closed lids.

"He's dreaming," Sam whispered. "Just rest, Daniel. You're okay now."

"It seems an impossible sight." Teal'c spoke with a touch of awe in his voice. "I have seen many strange things, but this I would not have believed had I not seen it with my own eyes."

Sam turned slightly to look at Jack. "What do you suppose happened on Kheb, Colonel? Even after sharing Orlin's vision, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to grasp the enormity of all that's happened."

Jack reached out and touched his fingers to Daniel's wrist, the regular beat beneath his fingertips and the warmth of Daniel's skin far more reassuring than the beeping of the heart monitor. "I guess we'll have to wait until he wakes up and ask him."

Daniel's eyelids fluttered suddenly, a soft moan puffing past his cracked lips. Blue eyes opened and roamed vacantly around, pausing on each of them in turn, though there appeared no awareness there.

Jack leaned forward, positioning himself directly in front of Daniel's face. "Daniel? You awake?"

Daniel's gaze floated back to Jack, fixing there, and Jack was sure he detected a glimmer of recognition in the blood-shot eyes. "Carter, get the doc. I think he's waking up."

The bustle of activity came too quickly for Jack. He grunted as a petite nurse ducked under his arm and shouldered him out of the way.

"Sorry, Colonel," Fraiser said as she checked the monitors with a critical eye. "I'm going to have to ask you all to wait outside while I examine him."

Jack went reluctantly, steered through the door by Carter, his eyes still fixed on Daniel's slowly moving form.

~o0o~

Three pairs of eyes looked in unison to the door as it was pushed open, and Janet Fraiser stepped out. She stood facing them, her expression weary, then a smile slowly appeared. "He's awake. He's going to be fine. You can go in and see him again, just for a few minutes. He's still very weak."

Sam and Teal'c strode to the door. Once there, Carter hesitated, turning back to Jack. "Colonel?"

"You go ahead, Carter. There's something I need to do."

Jack watched them enter the infirmary, then touched Janet's arm. "Thanks for pulling him through. You sure he's going to be all right? No side effects from whatever…" His hand waved in the air. "… Whatever happened to him."

The doctor shrugged. "I'm no expert on any of this, Colonel. If my eyes hadn't seen what they did, I doubt I would have believed it could happen, but no, all his tests appear to be normal. I need to let General Hammond know."

Jack nodded. "I'll be back."

He lengthened his stride through the corridors until he reached his office. Unlocking and pushing open the door quickly, he went straight to the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled it open, finding immediately what he sought.

~o0o~

"Daniel?"

Daniel struggled to open his heavy eyelids at the sound of Sam's voice. His chest throbbed with lingering, uncomfortable pain and his head felt stuffed with cotton. Finally, he managed to force his eyes open and focus on the two people standing by his bed. "Sam, Teal'c. It's good… to see… you both." His voice sounded weak and rough to his ears and it was difficult to pull in enough air.

He felt Sam grasp his hand, squeezing gently, and saw tears streaking her cheeks. She reached up with her other hand and wiped them away.

"I missed you," she whispered.

Daniel nodded. "Me too." His gaze wandered to the stoic Jaffa. "Hey, Teal'c."

Teal'c inclined his head. "It is good to have you back with us again, Daniel Jackson."

"It's nice… to be back." He shifted in the bed, gasping as something pulled sharply in his chest. "I think."

"Go easy, Daniel. You've got a chest tube in." Sam stilled his movements with a touch.

"At least… if I can feel it… I know I'm not dead." He regretted the words as tears brimmed again in Sam's eyes, and he fumbled for her hand. "Hey, it's all right. I wasn't… ever actually dead… I guess, not really."

"How did you -" Sam's free hand waved expressively in the air. "Who -"

"I'm not really sure… to tell you the truth. I expressed… some misgivings that I was… where I was supposed to be."

"Oma let you come back."

Daniel reached up to scratch under the annoying oxygen mask, frowning as Sam aborted the action and laid his hand on his chest. "I don't know… about that. I don't think Oma does anything… she doesn't want to do." He caught movement at the doorway and rolled his head sideways, feeling warmth suffuse him. "Hey, Jack."

"Hey, Daniel." The colonel stepped into the room, and Carter stood to make room for him. "So, why do you suppose she let you come back?"

"I think… she realized all along… I had unfinished business here. I just had to… figure it out for myself."

"Me, too."

"Look, we're going to go. Let you get some rest," Sam said. She leaned in and pressed a kiss to Daniel's forehead.

Teal'c laid a hand on his shoulder. "I am pleased to have you back, Daniel Jackson."

"Teal'c, when you come back, you want… to bring your chess set? I have a feeling I'm going to get… pretty bored before Janet lets me out of here."

"It would be my pleasure."

Daniel watched them go, aware of Jack shifting from foot to foot at the bedside. "Sit down, Jack… before you fall down. That ankle… must be killing you."

Jack's eyes widened briefly then he lowered himself into the chair beside the bed with a sigh. "I heard you, back on Kheb. You asked me to wait."

"Why didn't you?"

"Thought it was my head going crazy again. All those chemicals Jacob sucked out of my brain."

"Nope… it was me."

"Yeah. Daniel, I'm sorry for what's been happening the past few months."

"Not your fault, Jack. I should have known… something was wrong. I mean you're pretty irascible… at the best of times, but lately… you've been way over the top." He smiled to take the sting from his words.

"Thanks, I think. It's good that Carter figured it out, huh?"

Daniel tried without success to stifle a yawn. "Yeah, Oma, too."

"She's a crafty old bird. Guess she's smarter than I gave her credit for." Daniel felt an infinitesimal squeezing of his fingers. "You, too." Daniel frowned at him and Jack shrugged. "You're back, aren't you?" He leaned back in the chair, his hand still in contact with Daniel's. " You're back, but are you back?"

Daniel's brow furrowed again then smoothed out as he grasped the meaning of the question. "Oma told me… that though I may now have chosen… the longer, rockier path… my journey isn't over."

"So, are you back?"

Daniel smiled. "I'm back. Can I ask you something?"

"Shoot."

"Am I going to have to go… looking for another apartment?"

"You just might," Jack began, the beginnings of a familiar grin touching his lips, "but most of your stuff is in packing crates at my place."

Daniel cocked an inquisitive eyebrow. "Most?"

Jack shrugged and stood, reaching beneath his jacket. "The goons might have managed to get their hands on a few rocks, nothing important."

"Artifacts, Jack."

Jack rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Here's something for you to get started on anyway." He placed the journal beneath Daniel's hand where it lay on top of the sheet.

Daniel's fingers traced reverently over the leather-bound cover. "Thank you," he whispered.

"My pleasure." Jack squeezed Daniel's shoulder gently, and Daniel felt enormously comforted by the gesture. He smiled as Janet stepped into the room.

"Hey, Daniel. How are you feeling?"

Daniel considered the question. "Alive."

She smiled, nodded, then turned to Jack. "Colonel O'Neill, I'm going to allow you to stay here with Daniel tonight on one condition. You leave now and get some food into you and let someone strap that ankle."

Jack rolled his eyes. "Doc, I'm fine…."

"Jack. Just for once… do as you're told."

Jack stared at Daniel for a moment, then nodded. Janet's hand reached out toward Daniel but Jack second-guessed her action. Leaning over, he adjusted the oxygen mask back over Daniel's mouth. Satisfied, Janet left the room. "Get some sleep," Jack said.

"Okay." Daniel nodded, his eyes already drifting closed. "You'll be back?"

"Before you know it."

"I'll be here."

"You better be."

~o0o~

Jack made his way to the door, stopped there and looked back, watching Daniel shift in the bed, then subside into sleep. He knew, while Daniel was prepared to accept Jack's actions over the past few months were totally a result of the mind-altering functions of the Eurondan machine, he still had a long way to go before he could either excuse or forgive himself.

He stepped into the waiting room. He felt wired, his stomach still churning with the overload of adrenaline that had kept him on his feet so far. As Sam and Teal'c stood and walked toward him, he smiled, pushing his troubling thoughts back to be dealt with later. "I'm starving. Let's go find a steak place we haven't been kicked out of yet."

Sam's eyes darted toward the infirmary. "Daniel…"

"… is sleeping. We said everything we needed to say for now."

She smiled, nodding. "I'm glad, sir."

"Once he's back on his feet, we'll all talk. There's still a lot that he hasn't told us, but I think he needs time to process everything that's happened. He's not the only one. And I doubt he's going to let me get away with not telling him what happened with that damned Eurondan fighting machine either." Jack led the way through the doors. "You think O'Malley's might have forgotten us by now?"

Sam grinned, and Jack was sure he detected a faint snort from Teal'c at his back. "I doubt it, sir."

FIN

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