The lone Jaffa stood in the shade of the city's wall, guarding the entrance. The sound of tramping feet and clatter of metallic armour grew louder as the battalions of Jaffa inside the courtyard marched towards the exit.
Crouching behind bushes whose drooping, yellowish leaves were blatant signs of the drought decimating the people on this planet, Daniel pulled on the edge of his hood so that it protected his eyes from the brutal sun as he tensed, ready to attack.
This was it. Their chance to effect a rescue. The large, wooden doors swung open with a creak loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the marching aliens. The first wave strode through, each holding a staff weapon, helmets activated as if they were on parade. Daniel quickly counted as they exited the city. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Thirty.
"Where are they?" Ferretti's voice was tinged with frustration.
All of Neith's Jaffa came to stand at attention, the mid-day sun glinting brightly over their armour.
Slowly the twelve priests of O'isa strode regally through the doors, followed by several attendants. Daniel caught glimpses of the surreal green of the priests' eyes; the mark of their supposed favour with the gods. The head priest, Ibnak, whom Daniel recognized by his red hair, stopped before the First Prime of Neith and began preaching. He made a motion with his hand and one of the attendants scuttled up to the priest to fix something on his robe. It was more than obvious to Daniel that the man was more afraid of the priest than the First Prime.
"The Jaffa aren't taking them back to Neith. They're going to use them as sacrifices." Daniel had suspected this was what was going to happen in the first place once Sam, Teal'c and Jack had been taken prisoner. Especially since Ibnak had talked about the old ways of sacrificing people to appease their gods. It had been sheer luck that Daniel had stepped away from camp to relieve himself when the Jaffa had surprised them. He'd had a head start and managed to make it to the Stargate to get reinforcements without being spotted.
"To stop the drought? Look, Jackson, I know these people aren't technologically advanced or anything, but isn't that a little—"
"They're desperate, Colonel." Squinting through the hazy glare, Daniel wondered how long the Jaffa were going to stand there in this heat and listen to Ibnak. He couldn't quite hear what the priest was saying but from the paraphernalia the attendants were carrying, it looked like he had some sort of production in the wings. "Desperate people carry out desperate measures."
"Okay, since we can't storm the place, Plan B it is. The doors are wide open. If we could only sneak in there..." Reynolds shifted, and the dead leaves beneath his knees made a crinkling sound. "How long's that sucker gonna keep talking?"
Having experienced Ibnak's long-windedness and authoritarian rule first hand, Daniel shrugged. "Looks like he's on a roll. I'd say we've got a few minutes, unless the Jaffa gets tired and tells him to shut up."
"He's looking pretty submissive, if you ask me. For a Jaffa, that is."
Daniel nodded at Ferretti's comment. The First Prime, the only Jaffa with his headpiece disengaged, was staring straight ahead, body posed at full attention, as if his god were speaking to him and telling him the secrets of the universe. Obviously the priests of O'isa were useful to Neith to garner this type of attention from her Jaffa.
Wiping away sweat that was slowly dripping down his face, Daniel noticed the First Prime make a hand gesture to one of the Jaffa when Ibnak turned to take a brazier of incense from a waiting attendant. The Jaffa immediately left the group and began walking towards the Stargate.
"I've got an idea." Before Ferretti could argue, Daniel got to his feet and slunk away.
Moving faster than he should in this heat, Daniel caught up with the Jaffa and zatted him.
"What the hell are you doing?" Ferretti quickly helped Daniel grab hold of the Jaffa and dragged him off the path.
"Initiating Plan B." Hissing between his teeth as the hot armour burned his fingertips, Daniel began dismantling the pieces and putting them on over his robes. "We need to get inside and this way, I can get the door open when they leave without shooting anyone."
"They're going to miss him when they get to the Stargate."
"Yeah, maybe. But if they do, hopefully we'll be well inside the city by then."
In less than five minutes, Daniel was ready to go. He'd had to take off his utility vest, not because there was no room inside the chest piece for it, but because of the heat. He stashed it in a hollow beneath a boulder, along with his P-90 and extra water bottles. The zat, at least, could make up part of his getup, and his radio fit in his pants' pocket.
The stench of sweat filled his nose; he'd gotten inured with his own stink, that of the Jaffa exuded spices as well and it was well saturated inside the armour.
He left the headpiece open for the time being, feeling the heat of the sun on his bare head as he nodded to Ferretti before returning in a circuitous route. With the sun heating up the metal armour, Daniel had new respect for the Jaffa. Carrying at least sixty extra pounds, he wondered how they could just stand there and not collapse from heat exhaustion. Of course their symbiotes had a lot to do with keeping them healthy but just the idea of donning one of these suits for days on end was daunting.
He hurried as fast as he could until he came around to where the Jaffa all stood, still at attention. He activated the headpiece before joining them and felt a moment of claustrophobia when the metal covered his face. His vision was hampered and he moved slowly behind the last of the Jaffa, then took a position in the back, close to the open doors. He could hear Ibnak droning on and he stood there, knees locked, as sweat dripped from his body. He was starting to feel lightheaded when the priest finally concluded his speeches.
As Daniel had expected, two of the Jaffa turned to escort the priests back inside the city while the rest moved in unison towards the Stargate. Acting as if he was under orders, Daniel turned and trailed the two Jaffa and the priests, bringing up the rear. He followed them through the narrow streets until he was able to turn aside undetected.
Under the shade of a wooden lean-to, Daniel quickly removed the armour and hid it behind a pile of wood. "I'm in," he said into his radio while flapping his sweat-soaked robes against his skin, trying to cool off as he made his way back towards the gates.
"Jackson, if you ever pull a stunt like that again, so help me, God, I'll tell O'Neill about it and let him deal with you." Colonel Reynolds voice was tinged with anger.
"When we get my team out of here, I'll tell Jack myself." He stopped near a door, nodding to an old man shuffling by. When there was nobody around, he pulled on the heavy metal lock, opened the door a few inches and peered outside. "I've got a door open. Head east, past the entrance. It's about forty meters from there."
He waited, heart pounding, until SGs-2 and 3 slipped inside. He quickly locked the door once everyone was in, took a deep swallow of water from the canteen Colonel Reynolds handed him, then led everyone towards where he suspected his team was.
They walked in small groups, weapons hidden beneath their robes. Daniel had been to the temple only once, and he was sure this was the most likely place where his friends were being held - beyond the waterfall, deep inside the cliffs beneath the temple grounds. And if he was wrong, then he'd have to make it look good and hopefully talk his way to where they actually were.
Daniel stepped through the large arched entrance, noting peripherally as Colonel Reynolds posted two guards by the doors. Daniel went straight for the altar which stood facing a sheet of water flowing from an underground sea. As before, he could smell the salt in the air, its presence coating everything with a fine sheen of white.
Before he could stride through the waterfall, four priests came through a side door and stood before the altar. Daniel bent to one knee and lowered his head, hoping that they would simply move on. The rustle of cloth told him that the rest of the rescue teams were following his lead, mingling with several other worshipers. He kept his head down as footsteps approached, the crackle of dried salt on the stone floor loud over the soft tinkle of the waterfall.
A hand pushed his hood back, surprising him. He raised his head, only to peer into the luminous green eyes of Ibnak.
"I was wondering where you'd gone, Daniel Jackson." He made a slight motion with his chin and the other three priests grabbed him by the arms, forcibly pulling him to his feet. "You're just in time. We're about to start the ritual." The smile on the thin man's face sent a shiver down Daniel's spine.
"I invoke the right to be tested before the gods," Daniel said quickly as the priests began pulling him towards one of the side doors.
"What?" The look of shock on Ibnak's face was almost comical. But it quickly turned to anger as he glared at the priests, who had come to a stop at Daniel's request. "You are foolish. The gods will not bestow their blessings upon you." He made an impatient gesture to the priests holding Daniel. "You can't free your friends this way. Take him."
"You can't do this. Everyone has a right to be tested. If the gods decree that I'm worthy, then I will be made a priest of O'isa," Daniel said quickly, looking at each of the men in the eye before turning to Ibnak. "And you will free my friends, as is my right to request a boon if I'm chosen as a priest. It's written right there." Daniel pointed with his chin at the gold-engraved directive that Ibnak had been so eager to share with SG-1 before the Jaffa had showed up. "If they turn me down, then you'll sacrifice me for your land, along with my friends. But can you take the chance of killing someone the gods would bestow their favour to?"
With a wave of his hand, Ibnak instructed the priests to let Daniel go. Trying not to look at the SG teams behind him, who were watching with interest along with the rest of the worshipers, Daniel slowly walked to the edge of the pool, at the foot of the waterfall. During their visit here yesterday, he'd seen a man come and be tested. Daniel mimicked the man's movements, and as he knelt, he noted the two small, smooth indentations worn into the stone through centuries of knees hopefully being positioned in this exact spot.
Hiding his movements beneath his robe, he pulled the plastic container from his pocket and quickly unscrewed the covers. Head and shoulders bent, Daniel fished out a contact lens and balancing it on his index finger, eased his finger beneath his glasses and placed it on his right eye. He did the same with the other, then knelt there for a short time as he pocketed the container. Sighing heavily, he stood and turned around slowly.
"I guess it was worth a shot," he said as he faced the priests. His vision swam as his now perfect-vision was distorted through his glasses. He took the glasses off and looked at them in feigned confusion, ignoring the gasps of surprise as the priests now got a full view of his blue eyes suddenly turned nearly luminous green.
Ibnak looked angry as he approached Daniel. "Is there a problem with your...?" He waved a hand at the glasses that Daniel was still holding before peering closely at his face.
"I'm not sure. I can't see... no, wait. I can see clearly without them." Moving his head around, Daniel pretended to be looking at everything in surprise. His conversation with Ibnak over his glasses the previous day was still fresh in his memory, no less the look of derision he'd given Daniel when he'd admitted that he needed the glasses to see.
"The gods have blessed you, Daniel Jackson."
"What?" Daniel pretended surprise, opening his mouth and staring at the priests, who stared back at him, a couple of them with smiles on their faces. He slowly shut his mouth and allowed a smile to form. "I've been... I'm a priest?" He raised a hand and touched his face, feeling the scratchy sensation of salt on his skin. He licked his lips, tasting the salt from standing close to the waterfall's edge. "But I don't feel any different," he said slowly, taking a chance as he remembered one of the older villager's description of her son's inclusion into the priesthood.
Ibnak turned to stare at the waterfall thoughtfully. "You must complete the ceremony and enter the sacred waters." He sighed softly. "Once past the pool of meditation, enter the corridor. At its end, a guard will lead you to your friends, and then will escort them to the Stargate. Remove your boots and cloak. The waters and sand must cleanse your feet before you leave the pool of meditation. Accoutrements will merely slow you down."
As Daniel shrugged out of his robe, he pulled the zat from its holster and hid it in the folds of the robe. Then he sat on the floor and quickly unlaced and removed his boots, sticking his socks into them. Lastly, he placed his glasses on top of the robe. The air was slightly cooler inside the temple, and without the weight of the robe on him, he felt almost comfortable.
Turning to the pool, Daniel stepped cautiously into the knee-deep water. It was warm, not cool, as he'd expected. The smooth stone beneath his feet was slippery so he moved cautiously. He closed his eyes and walked past the stream of water, quickly wiping his eyes before the salt water could burn them or dislodge his contact lenses.
About three feet in front of him was a second waterfall. He stood there a moment, rocks on both sides, water before and behind him, and squinted through the salty spray. Then he turned to look back, seeing vague shadows through the first waterfall. He regretted the loss of the zat but there was no way he could have brought it through with him without being seen. Not without the cloak.
He moved on, walking through the waterfall, only to see a third one. Then a fourth after that. Water had gotten into one eye and he stopped to rub gently until his eyes teared enough that he'd washed the salt away. As he stepped through the last waterfall, he rubbed his arm absently, feeling his skin burn near his bicep, as if he'd caught it on something. A quick look after he'd wiped his face showed his arm to be clear of any marks. And no more waterfalls, he thought with relief as he found himself in what must be the Pool of Meditation. A large chamber with sunlight reflected from mirrors placed at strategic angles illuminated a variety of ores in the stone walls. The designs in the walls were almost hypnotic, and Daniel could see how this could easily be a place used for meditation. There were benches spread around the cave, even a few at the water's edge. Obviously the priests got to meditate and soak their feet at the same time.
As he walked, he realized the ground had changed from slippery stone to sand, making it easier to keep his balance. Daniel slipped his radio out of his pants' pocket. "I'm at the pool. I see the corridor. I'm heading for it now." The water got deeper as he crossed the pool, rising up to his waist.
"We've left the temple," Ferretti replied, "and we're waiting just outside. Give us the word and we'll come back you up."
"I will." He slipped the radio back into his pocket as he left the pool. His feet slapped noisily on the stone and he dripped water as he walked. The corridor was hot and oppressive. He hurried along, until it connected with another. As Ibnak had said, there was a guard. He bowed his head in respect as Daniel approached.
"Take me to the prisoners."
"This way." The guard turned right, leading Daniel down a series of corridors, until they reached a large room with several cells inside. His team was the only occupants of the cells. He hurried to them, then pointed to the locked door. "Release them."
"Daniel, what happened to your...?" Jack, who was gripping the iron bars, leaned forward, staring intently.
"It's the most wonderful thing, Jack," Daniel said with a forced tinge of awe in his voice for the guard's benefit. "The gods of O'isa blessed me, made me one of their priests. Who'd think that contacts could turn into such spectacles?" He winked and Jack nodded, rubbing his eye with his finger to indicate he'd understood. "You're being released. This fine man will escort you back to the Stargate, Chaapa'ai, so that you can go home."
The guard smiled at Daniel, nodding happily at having a priest single him out.
"And what of you, DanielJackson?" Teal'c stepped out of the cell and moved to Daniel's side.
"Why, I'm going to give my service to O'isa, as soon as I see you guys home."
They walked in silence, allowing the guard to lead them through the warren of tunnels.
"Wouldn't it be faster to just go back through the pool and the waterfalls?" Daniel asked after they turned into yet another tunnel. They'd been at it for a good ten minutes already.
The guard turned back at him, eyes wide open in shock. "The Pool of Meditation is only for the priests of O'isa. The guardians would strike us dead if a mere mortal were to touch the sacred waters."
"Guardians?" Jack asked, eyebrow raised. Daniel shrugged. He hadn't seen anything, but then again, taboo could be as secure a guardian as the threat of death.
They stopped before a door and when opened, to Daniel's surprise, found that it led out into the countryside.
"The Chaapa'ai is just over that hill." The guard pointed to the right.
"Great. Thanks." Making a face, Daniel hit the man on the chin, knocking him out. "Sorry," he told the unconscious man as Jack and Sam stepped over him. "Okay, I changed my mind. I'm not cut out for the religious life." He quickly tied the guard up with a piece of cloth he tore from the man's robe and hurried after his teammates as fast as he could with bare feet. "With my luck, I wouldn't be allowed to have sex," he said in an affronted voice.
He saw Jack glance back at him with an amused look as Daniel pulled his radio out. "Ferretti? Reynolds? Get out of the city. We're on our way to the Stargate as we speak."
"Roger that." Reynolds voice was faint and Daniel put the radio close to his ear. "We shouldn't have a problem leaving the city but we'll need to do it over several minutes so as not to arouse suspicion."
"We'll meet you at the 'gate." He saw Jack glance back and nod his agreement.
They climbed the hill and then froze at the top. The Stargate was spinning and just as they all took cover, Jaffa came streaming out of it.
"Give me the radio." Jack held his hand out and Daniel quickly handed the radio over.
"This is SG-1 leader. We've got Jaffa at the Stargate. Stay inside the city for the time being as they're heading your way."
"Sir, they may not be able to leave the city if the Jaffa—"
"There's no cover out here, Carter. They'll be taken and questioned the moment they're spotted. They're safer mingling inside the village. I'm assuming you had a hand in this?" Jack glanced at Daniel before watching the Jaffa make their way along the dirt road. "They kinda look pissed."
"Yeah, sorta. I waylaid one of them in order to get into the city. They probably realized he's missing and came back to look for him." He reached for the radio again. "Do you guys think you can find the door you came in through?"
"Yeah. Not a problem."
"We'll let you know when it's clear to leave that way." Daniel turned to Jack. "If they search the city, then our men will have a chance to sneak out and make a run for it."
"We'll have those guys to deal with also." Jack pointed to the four Jaffa left guarding the Stargate and who decided to upend the M.A.L.P. SG-1 had left close to the Stargate.
"Won't be a problem when the others get here with weapons." Daniel grinned at his teammates and Sam answered in kind.
"Okay. Carter, you stay here and keep an eye on these guys. Teal'c, Daniel, you're with me. We're gonna follow the troupe and see what goes down. Where's this door you mentioned?"
"East, past the entrance, about forty meters."
"Okay, Carter, if anything happens, meet us around that area."
Using the sparse vegetation as cover, they followed the two dozen Jaffa back to the city. Daniel rubbed at his legs as he walked, which were stiff and threatening to cramp. He wasn't surprised; with this heat and exertion, he was bound to start getting dehydrated. The grass in the fields had died, leaving the ground sandy and easy to traverse in his bare feet. Oddly enough, it was his stiffening legs that were slowing him down, rather than the path itself. Finally they reached the city and to Daniel's dismay, six guards remained outside the walls.
"SGs-2 and 3 will be seen if they attempt to exit the city." Crouching beside Daniel, Teal'c watched as the Jaffa spread out.
"If we had weapons..." Daniel sighed and wiped sweat from his forehead. The worst they could do at the moment was throw rocks at the Jaffa.
"If we do not have the luxury of weapons, perhaps we could lure them with a diversion."
Jack shook his head. "Too risky. Chances are they'd call for reinforcements from inside the city and we'd be worse off than now."
Daniel shifted. The stiffness in his legs was moving up to his lower back and chest. His head began to throb.
"How much longer till sunset?" Jack looked up, squinting at the hazy blue sky.
Daniel checked his watch. "About three hours."
"Maybe our guys are better off sitting tight, and trying to sneak out after dark." Without looking at Daniel, Jack motioned for the radio. Fumbling slightly, Daniel slipped it out of his pocket and put it in Jack's hand.
"DanielJackson, are you unwell?" Teal'c's question was softly spoken, meant only for his ears. Daniel was unsure how to answer; he wasn't certain exactly what was wrong with him except for muscular aches and pains. Jack was busy talking on the radio, so Daniel nodded.
"Probably just dehydrated."
"That is highly unlikely. You are perspiring." His gaze moved from his face and down to his neck.
Still damp from his trek through the waterfalls, Daniel hadn't noticed that he hadn't truly dried off, even in the heat. He ran a hand over his face and it came back soaked.
"What has caused this?" Teal'c caught his hand, lowering his arm so that his bicep was exposed. There was a small, round rash, with the skin surrounding it raised in goose bumps. As Daniel craned his neck to look more closely, Teal'c pressed alongside the raised area. "Is it painful?"
Daniel rubbed the area, his skin sweat-slicked beneath his fingers. "No, it doesn't hurt." But then he remembered the same area stinging slightly just a short while ago. "The guardians... the guy insinuated that there was something in the water, didn't he? The pool is only for the priests. And I'm not..." He swallowed at the sudden nausea which assailed him. He only had time to scrabble a foot away from the group before he heaved. A dribble of bile-tinged saliva splattered the ground, burning his throat as it came up.
"Hey, you okay?"
Daniel waved Jack off as he dry heaved several times. When his stomach settled, he cleared his throat and spat, somewhat embarrassed when he turned back to his team. When Jack raised his chin in unspoken inquiry, Daniel wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and met his concerned gaze.
"I think I've been bit or stung by something in the water when I pretended to be one of the priests."
"If you were attacked by what the guard insinuated was a guardian, then it is highly likely that the priests would be immune." Teal'c took hold of his arm again and peered at the sting. "Whatever is in the water which causes a transformation into a priest appears to affect a very small percentage of the population. Major Carter theorized it could be attributed to either a mutation or an allergic reaction to the water in the temple."
Daniel shivered. A chill suddenly replaced the heat of the day. He blinked sweat out of his eyes and mopped his forehead with the bottom of his tee shirt. He'd barely lowered the tee shirt when nausea hit again and he dry heaved once more.
"Okay, no offence, Daniel, but we need to get you away from here before the Jaffa hear you."
Teeth clenched against the heaves, Daniel managed a slight nod. He stood with Teal'c's help, his head pounding along with a growing ache in his lower back. They moved a short distance into what was once a lush wooded area, but now the leaves were sparse, yellowed and dying due to lack of rain.
"Cliffs?" Jack looked up and over the city at the hard rock face in the background.
"It would provide sufficient cover." Walking directly behind Daniel, it almost felt like Teal'c was crowding him. "Although to reach the area, we will need to go around the city and—"
"It'll take at least an hour—"
"I can make it," Daniel said, the force of his statement lessened by his doubling over to retch once again. He was aware of his team keeping watch and he forced himself to straighten even though his stomach was still cramping. When he began walking, a wave of pain swept over his chest and through his back. He had to stop and lean against a tree until the pain receded. His headache was quickly growing worse, feeling like his forehead was caught in a vice. He pushed one aching leg in front of the other, trying to keep his balance by holding onto the trunks, but his arms were stiff and holding on was difficult.
Daniel looked up and saw Teal'c pointing to a jumble of fallen trees.
"That'll do." Holding onto Daniel's arm, Jack helped him step over broken branches so that they could use the trees for cover.
Daniel bent his legs, intending to sit on one of the trunks but his legs cramped at that moment, sending pain cascading into his lower back and he ended up on his knees instead. Using the tree for leverage, Daniel stretched onto his side. But the pain in his chest and abdomen had him shifting onto his back, searching for a comfortable position that he couldn't seem to find.
- - - - - -
Jack couldn't stand to see Daniel writhing in pain. He reached to wipe the sweat from Daniel's forehead but he turned from Jack, seeming unwilling, or unable, to stand his touch. Jack fisted his fingers, then turned to Teal'c.
"We need to take the Stargate and get Daniel home."
"We require weapons—"
"I know. Maybe we can lure one of the Jaffa away, knock him out, take his weapons and—"
"Don't." Daniel was staring at Jack, those weird green contacts making him look almost alien. "If you try something..." He stopped, panting in pain. "...You'll alert the Jaffa and risk the others getting captured."
"Daniel, you've been poisoned. I can't let you—"
"Yes, you can." Daniel raised one hand, rubbing at his forehead while he shifted his legs restlessly. "How much longer until sunset?"
"Couple hours," Jack said hesitantly.
"Okay... piece 'a cake." He shifted again, face pinched in pain.
"T... Do you think you can find your way to our camp without being seen?"
Nodding, Teal'c glanced down at Daniel and spoke softly. "You wish me to ascertain if our medical supplies were taken by the Jaffa."
"Yeah. Actually I was hoping they might have left the first aid kit. He could use some morphine."
"I concur. I do not recall the Jaffa taking possession of our belongings, nor the priests of O'isa. I shall endeavor to return as quickly as possible."
"I need you to go to Carter first, let her know where we are, tell her what's happening with Daniel."
Teal'c bowed his head and moved out of their shelter. Jack listened for his footsteps but other than the occasional falling leaf, he couldn't hear Teal'c's movement.
"Jack?" Daniel stopped moving for a moment, then rubbed a hand, almost spasmodically, across his chest, then shifted his legs, his toes curling as his feet rubbed against one another. "I don't think I'm..." He gasped in pain, curling onto himself as he struggled to breathe. "I'm not going to make it."
"Don't. Don't say it." Jack tried to pull Daniel's shoulders into his arms. Daniel shifted into the movement, rested his head against Jack's chest for a moment then moved restlessly, rolling back off.
"God, it hurts, Jack." Daniel rubbed at his face again.
"What? Tell me exactly what—"
"Everything. My head. My back. My skin... I want to rip it off my body. Cramps. I..." Daniel suddenly began gagging and Jack grabbed him and pulled him onto his side. But the heaves didn't produce anything and Daniel quickly thrashed so that he was on his back.
"What did this, Daniel? Did you see what did this to you?"
Lips tightly pressed together, Daniel shook his head. He rubbed his hands over his cheeks, then lowered them, turning slightly to rub at his back before shifting restlessly again. "... Teach me... to impersonate... priest. Maybe this world's... hell."
"Stop it." The words came out curtly and immediately Jack was sorry, but Daniel didn't seem to hear. He felt helpless, unable to do anything to relieve Daniel's agony or get him home for medical treatment. He sat there, alternating between watching Daniel writhe in pain and looking at the time, trying to figure out in his head where Teal'c might be.
The next thirty minutes dragged by, the sounds of the dying woods punctuated by Daniel's rapid breathing and soft grunts of pain, accompanied by the crackling of dead leaves whenever Daniel shifted.
When the radio crackled, Jack was confused for a moment as to why Teal'c's voice came through. Then Teal'c's words hit him.
"O'Neill. Jaffa approach."
He dived for the radio and spoke quickly. "How soon?" He fumbled for the earpiece, placing it into his ear as Teal'c replied.
"They will reach your position within minutes. I will attempt to draw them away."
"Are they looking for us?"
"I am uncertain. I believe they may merely be reconnoitering the area."
Jack thought quickly. Their hiding place wasn't the best but thanks to the amount of leaves on the ground, they hadn't left enough of a trail that anything except a hound dog could find them. Unless something caught their eye, or if a noise alerted them, he and Daniel should be safe. "T, don't put yourself in danger unless you think they've made us. We gotta sit tight until nightfall so the others can get the hell out of that deathtrap. I'll... I'll keep Daniel quiet."
"Teal'c, did you get the morphine?"
Relief and frustration filled Jack as he stuck the radio in a pocket to free his hands. He caught Daniel's shoulders and shook him to get his attention. Green, tear-filled eyes gazed up at him. "Daniel, we got Jaffa on our tail. You have to lie still for a little while."
"I can't," Daniel panted, twisting away from Jack's hold. "Oh God, Jack, I can't anymore. Stop this, please." He jerked, almost folding himself in two as a cramp hit him. "Please, help me," he pleaded in an almost-whisper.
Jack stretched out beside Daniel and pulled him close. "Soon. Soon, I promise. You have to stay still, Daniel, do you understand me? Teal'c says there are Jaffa close by."
Daniel struggled, moving with the pain. Jack let go of him and cupped his face, turning him so he was looking straight at him. "Daniel, do you understand? You have to lie still. No noise."
"O'Neill." Teal'c's warning was soft in his ear. Jack could hear the tramp of multiple footsteps approaching as he clicked on the radio to let Teal'c know he'd gotten the message.
Daniel nodded and pressed his face into Jack's neck. He held himself still, trembling with the effort. His breathing hitched, then he panted against Jack's skin. He moaned softly as Jack wrapped his arms and legs around Daniel and pressed a hand against the back of his neck.
Daniel's body was soaked through with sweat, dripping as if he'd stepped out of the shower. Jack could smell the sour scent of it, and he knew in this heat if the poison didn't kill Daniel first, then dehydration surely would.
"Shhhh," Jack whispered into Daniel's ear. Daniel's breathing seemed loud to Jack, but soon the Jaffa's tread seemed thunderous. Daniel tensed, then the trembling worsened but his breathing quieted as he grabbed two handfuls of Jack's tee shirt. Keeping his head down, Jack rubbed his fingers against Daniel's nape, listening intently. To his relief, the Jaffa, four of them, from what he could make out, walked right past their hidey-hole. If Teal'c was right and they were simply doing a perimeter check of the area, then they should keep right on going and not even come back in this direction. Very soon he couldn't hear them anymore. He was about to relax his grip on Daniel when suddenly a shadow loomed right in front of him.
He bit back a yell, recognizing Teal'c a split second later. He took a deep breath, then loosened his hold on Daniel.
"Okay, they're gone," he said softly against Daniel's ear. Daniel gasped loudly and jerked, moving away from Jack, moaning softly as he curled up on his side, legs and arms moving restlessly.
"There were no weapons at the campsite. Most of our supplies were destroyed but they did not take our medical supplies, as well as our communication devices." Even as he spoke, Teal'c tore open an antiseptic wipe and rubbed it over Daniel's bicep while Jack removed the pre-loaded autoinjector.
"Danny? Hold still. I'm going to give you some morphine now. Hold him," Jack warned Teal'c as Daniel continued to move. He injected the contents into Daniel's arm and tossed the now empty autoinjector to the bottom of the first aid kit. "I guess you didn't find any water?"
"I did not."
Teal'c stood as Jack gently rubbed the injection site. "I will follow the Jaffa and ensure they do not catch us unawares if they return this way. I would also endeavor to supply Major Carter with one of the radios. I did not take the time to do so as I hastened to return with the morphine."
"The Jaffa probably are just doing a perimeter check but yeah, I'd be grateful if you could make sure. And while you're out there, keep an eye out for a well or a spring or something. He needs liquids."
"I will endeavor to do so."
As Teal'c left the shelter for a second time, Jack leaned over Daniel. "Hey, the morphine should start kicking in soon. How're you feeling?"
"Nuh... Not helping." Daniel turned onto his side, grabbing for Jack, and pushed his face against Jack's thigh. Jack touched his fingers lightly to the back of Daniel's head as he stayed like that for several seconds, trembling visibly.
"Give it a few minutes." When Daniel pushed away, Jack wiped his sweat-streaked fingers on his pants. He pressed his lips together, pushing the anger and fear away, hating the situation they were in and knowing that as bad as things were now, it could get worse in the blink of an eye.
"Where're the others?" Daniel turned his head and managed to focus on Jack for a moment.
"Teal'c's keeping an eye on a patrol of Jaffa and Carter's watching the 'gate."
"No... mean... SG-2 and..." Daniel winced and shifted onto his side, his breathing speeding up for several seconds before continuing. "...Three. They... were going to meet us... at the Star... Argh." Curling up on his side, Daniel panted through what seemed to be painful cramps.
"They're sitting tight until nightfall. We can't do anything on this end 'cause we don't have weapons."
Daniel reached an arm and grabbed Jack's leg, pulling himself closer. He was still in considerable pain but some of the restlessness seemed to have eased.
Daniel nodded as he turned onto his back.
"About ten minutes from the front gates. Not much cover but it was the best we could do at the time."
Jack winced. "Sorry. Teal'c managed to get some morphine from our camp but there wasn't any water." He stretched out beside Daniel, reaching out to wipe the remnants of dried leaves which were stuck to Daniel's sweat-laced cheek and forehead. Daniel closed his eyes, grunted as another cramp hit him. A moment later he turned onto his side, facing Jack again.
"How's the pain? Is the morphine helping?"
"A little." Daniel shifted closer until his face was buried against Jack's chest. He brought his knees up, curling into a ball, the front of his legs pressing against Jack's thighs. Another grunt and he threw his arm around Jack's ribs, pulling himself closer.
Daniel's breaths were hot, damp puffs against his side. Jack rubbed his hands gently over Daniel's back as Daniel trembled.
"You have to get out of here." Daniel's voice was muffled. "You can't stay here... they're going to find you... eventually. I'm endangering you."
"There's nowhere to go, Daniel."
"Guns. You need... weapons... to take the—" Daniel made a soft sound deep in his throat as he tensed with pain. He straightened his legs, one at a time, only to bring them back up to his chest.
"I know, but we're a little short on firepower at the moment."
"No. I mean, my weapon. Had to hide it... when I put on... armour."
"Armour? What armour?"
"Took out a Jaffa. Probably why they came back... but it was the easiest way... to sneak in."
"You got into the city pretending to be Jaffa?" Jack had no problem with Teal'c walking amongst thirty or so Jaffa because, hey, he was one. But Daniel, on the other hand... "Are you crazy? What if one of them noticed you were missing an integral part of being a Jaffa. Like a snake in your belly?" Jack's voice rose and immediately he forced himself to calm down.
"Too many of them to notice." Daniel jerked as his breathing sped up again. "But you can get... my weapon—" Voice laced with pain, face still pressed against Jack's chest, Daniel's next words had Jack reaching for the radio. "Water... I left my water bottles... no room in the suit."
"The Jaffa show no sign of turning back. I am on my way to MajorCarter's position."
"Listen. Daniel says he left his P-90 out there, along with some water. Once you've gotten to Carter, I want you to go look for them." As Daniel gave him the directions, Jack conveyed them to Teal'c. Some of the tension that had wrapped itself around his neck and stomach eased with the knowledge that they might have one gun and some water between them. Not that it would make much difference against the horde of Jaffa inside the city but still, it might help ease some of the helplessness he was feeling.
"I can't believe Reynolds let you get into that suit."
"Didn't give him a chance to say no. Told him... I'd tell you myself about it... if we got you guys out safe."
"Well thank you for that." Deliberately sounding sarcastic, Jack hoped to get a reaction from Daniel. But he remained quiet for several long minutes.
"Is there more?" Surprised at the hesitant quality of Daniel's voice, Jack rolled back slightly so he could see Daniel's face.
"More what?" he asked softly.
"Daniel... I don't know if we should..." Jack thought quickly as he pushed back the realization that Daniel was still in considerable pain. They'd given him 5mg, his breathing wasn't compromised and it had seemed to help a little. "Okay, hold on a sec." Rolling back, Jack reached for the first aid kit and pulled it close. He found a second autoinjector and took it out. He hesitated, wondering if maybe he should wait before administering it. Without knowing how long they'd be here, Daniel might need the painkiller to take the edge off once again. He checked the contents of the kit, but didn't come up with any more of the drug.
"Please? I can't..."
Seeing the agony reflected in Daniel's face made the decision for Jack. Without a word, he swabbed Daniel's arm and gave him the morphine. Then he lowered his head, resting his chin lightly against the top of Daniel's skull as he waited to see if there'd be any more relief.
Other than a slight lessening of pain-induced jerks, there didn't appear to be much of an improvement. He was so focused on Daniel that when Teal'c's voice came through his earpiece, he jumped.
"I am approaching your location. MajorCarter reports that there has been no activity at the Stargate."
"Did you get the stuff?"
"Indeed." This time Teal'c's voice came from behind him. Jack craned his neck backwards to watch Teal'c ease his way amongst the fallen trees. He was carrying a P-90 and even more importantly, blessed water.
"Hey, Danny, we got some water." He eased Daniel back again as Teal'c knelt next to them and put the lip of the water bottle to Daniel's lips. As Teal'c tipped the bottle so he could drink, water overflowed out of Daniel's mouth before his throat moved as he swallowed. Teal'c pulled the bottle back, allowing only a little water at a time so as not to waste it. But before Daniel was able to get a couple of half-decent swallows in, he coughed and pushed the bottle away. Water bubbled out of his mouth and then sprayed forcefully onto Jack's chest as he vomited it back up. He dry-heaved a couple of times before lying still.
Jack exchanged a worried look with Teal'c as Daniel stared at the wet patch on Jack's chest.
"The sun will set in approximately thirty minutes. With luck, DanielJackson will be in DoctorFraiser's care within the hour." He thrust the water bottle at Jack. "You must drink."
Jack took the bottle and allowed himself a couple of small sips before capping it and putting it on the ground close by.
"There was a Jaffa secreted with the weapon and the water, devoid of his armour and in restraints. I believe it is he the other Jaffa may be searching for."
"Daniel said he snuck into the city by taking down one of the Jaffa and wearing his armour. I guess by now they also know we've escaped."
Trusting Teal'c to keep watch, Jack stretched out again next to Daniel. His green eyes flickered once towards him, then seemed to lose their focus. Jack wasn't sure if it was the effects of the morphine or the constant pain, or possibly a combination of both. Because it was still evident from the tremors running through Daniel that even with the second shot of the drug, he was still in agony.
A pulse was visibly beating against Daniel's neck and Jack lay there for a while, transfixed at the sight of the rapid throbbing, until he began to have trouble keeping his eyes open. Blaming it on the heat, Jack sat up, relieved to see that the shadows were long and that the sun was on the verge of setting. He'd hoped that it would get cooler with the setting of the sun but it felt just as hot.
"Almost time." Jack sat up and stretched, then reached for the water. "Daniel, do you think you can drink some water?" Daniel stared at the water bottle for a moment, then turned his head away. "I'm thinking that's a no." Jack took a long sip, then clipped the bottle onto his belt as he got onto his knees and looked out over the fallen trunks into the growing gloom.
"Any signs of life?" he asked Teal'c.
"There is not."
"We need to start moving." He slipped the radio from his pocket and brought it close to his mouth. "Sierra Gulf leader to SG-2 niner and SG-3 niner."
There were a few seconds of silence before Ferretti answered. "Colonel. Good to hear your voice again. Are we a go?"
"That's an affirmative. Are both teams ready to check out?"
"That we are, although it'll take a couple of minutes for SG-3 to join us near the door. We decided to split up so not to arouse suspicions."
"We're on our way now, Colonel," Reynolds interrupted. "ETA is five minutes."
"What about the Jaffa? They gonna pose a problem?"
"They've been scouring the town for you, but the locals aren't being much help. Doesn't look like there's any love lost between the locals and the priests, either."
"Okay, here's the plan. As soon as it's dark enough, you sneak out of that city and make for the Stargate. There's at least six guards at the main entrance so you'll have to make sure you stay clear." He released the radio and glanced at Teal'c. "The spot where you found Daniel's weapon... is there cover there for us to wait?"
Once Teal'c nodded his affirmation, Jack clicked the radio again. "We'll meet you where Daniel put the Jaffa's armour on and stashed his weapon. Give it ten more minutes, and then get the hell out of there."
"Copy that." There were several seconds of silence from Ferretti. "Shouldn't take us more than twenty minutes to get to the rendezvous point."
"We need to get moving." Jack stared at Daniel for reaching for the radio. "Carter," Jack said into the mic. "Any movement back there?"
"No, sir. All's quiet."
"Good. We'll see you in about twenty minutes." Jack reached a hand out and gently touched the back of Daniel's head. "Teal'c...?"
"I am able to convey DanielJackson to the Stargate." He thrust the P-90 into Jack's hands and crouched next to Daniel. "DanielJackson. I must raise you up in order to bring you to safety. I apologize for any discomfort I may inflict."
Daniel gasped and shuddered, trying to fight Teal'c as he positioned him into a fireman's carry.
"Easy, easy. Teal'c's just trying to get you up onto his back" Jack tried to calm Daniel, rubbing a hand over his shoulder until Teal'c stood. For a moment Jack was afraid that Daniel's writhing would dislodge him but after several seconds, he seemed to realize where he was, and went limp.
- - - - - -
Daniel found himself in an extremely uncomfortable position; stretched awkwardly over Teal'c's back was putting more stress on his own lower back, which had been throbbing painfully ever since he'd been afflicted with... whatever this was. He needed to move, to shift, to ease the pain, and he couldn't anymore in this position. Except that there never was any surcease from the waves of pain that kept coming over and over. The morphine had made the unbearable agony into near something closer to simply excruciating, and this sudden change in position seemed to have restarted the cycle.
He was going to die. He was sure of it and at this point he could only hope it was sooner rather than later. He couldn't think, all there was, was pain. Unbearably agony. He tried to push away as the muscles around his ribs cramped, and two steel bars – one around his arm and the other around his thigh, tightened, preventing him from moving.
"Daniel, stay still or Teal'c'll end up dropping you." Jack's voice was laced with anger, but his hand was gentle as it moved up to cup his cheek. Hanging halfway upside down, he was hard pressed to move his head to look at Jack, but he managed it for all of a couple of seconds. It was dark and he could barely make out Jack's face. But the tightly compressed lips and clenched jaw were softened by the compassion and worry expressed in his eyes as he met Daniel's gaze.
"We're going home. Fraiser'll have you on the good stuff in no time. Just hang in there." Jack's hand kept intermittent contact with his cheek as he walked. Holding onto Jack's promise and his touch, Daniel pulled into himself, trying to manage the worse of the cramps without screaming the house down.
The pain in his lower back kept growing worse, acerbated by the uneven pace as Teal'c circumvented tree trunks. He'd beg for more drugs if they had it but he suspected he'd been given the last dose. At this point he just wanted to be knocked out, put out of his misery, anything to take away the pain.
His lower back spasmed and he jerked, biting his cheek to stop from screaming. For a moment Daniel was disoriented, until Teal'c's hold on his arm and thigh reminded him he was balanced on Teal'c's back.
The spasms continued, and it felt like someone was burning a hole in his lower back. He needed to get down, to find relief and he found himself struggling, begging Jack to help him.
"Down, put him down."
Hands grabbed him and he was eased onto the ground. Someone had hold of his hands and it was only when they began prying his fingers open that he realized he'd had a death grip on Teal'c's tee shirt. He let go and immediately rolled onto his side, desperate to ease the pain.
"Daniel, what is it? What's wrong?"
"My back. Please, make it stop." Hating himself for begging, Daniel reached back with his hand, trying to find the knife that was burrowing into his spine. Then hands brushed his aside and began to massage the area. The action both relieved the spasms but made the pain worse. He began to drag himself away from the torturer, his movements hampered by the pain coursing down his arms and legs, and by the fact that Teal'c simply grabbed hold of his hips and pulled him back towards him to continue the massage.
"I thought the morphine was helping." Jack latched onto Daniel's shoulders, forcing him to stay still.
"It is." Daniel burrowed his forehead into the ground and shoved his arms down, trying to raise himself onto hands and knees. The kneading stopped and he was eased up and back so that he was lying in Jack's arms. "It was." It was hard to concentrate, but he knew he'd just slowed the team down. "Where are we?"
"We're almost at the rendezvous point. Let's give it five minutes before we go the rest of the way." He pulled insistently until Daniel's head was on his shoulder. The position was uncomfortable but he stayed that way for a moment, trying to accept the comfort that Jack was offering.
It was so hot. He shifted once more, trying to ease the stiffness of his body while searching for cooler ground. Then his chest cramped and he tensed, forcing a small sound of pain through his gritted teeth.
Jack started to say something but was interrupted by Teal'c calling his name. Even through the haze of pain, Daniel realized something was happening. Jack put him down gently and then hurriedly got to his feet.
"All right, that's far enough."
Daniel blinked in the growing light. It took him a moment to realize that someone was carrying a torch; the flickering light threw odd shadows on the trees and bushes around them.
He struggled to get up, losing track of the conversation as he forced trembling limbs to hold him. He got no further than his knees when Jack barked at him to stay down. Daniel raised his head to glare at Jack and finally got a good look at the situation. Jack was holding a P-90 at three strangers. None of them were carrying anything except torches and Daniel remembered that this was a very low-tech planet, except for the Jaffa who had swarmed the planet twenty hours after SG-1 had 'gated in.
"My Lord." One of the strangers appeared startled and took a step towards Daniel, only to be stopped by Jack aiming the barrel of the gun directly at him. "You are the new Priest, the one who helped the strangers escape. The one whom the Others are searching for."
"By others, I take it you mean the Jaffa?" Jack nodded at Teal'c when the men didn't answer. "Those that look like him?"
"Yes. The Others come and take away our young in the name of their gods. The priests allow this and—" He glanced at Daniel fearfully before putting his hands together in supplication and lowering his head. "Please forgive me, My Lord. I do not mean to insult your ways."
Daniel couldn't hold himself up anymore and rolled onto his hip, and then his side. A spasm caught him and he couldn't answer. When the wave of pain finally eased slightly, the men were babbling incoherently until Jack yelled at them to shut up and talk one at a time.
"He is ill. You must bring him to Lord Ibnak. The Priests' healers will help him—"
"No, Lord Ibnak will slaughter the other three as in the old ways. You must go and allow us to bring the Lord to the temple—"
"Will Lord Ibnak not punish this young one for helping the strangers escape?"
The words were coming fast and Daniel was having difficulty following. Then another wave of pain followed the first one and he lost the whole thread as he fought through the cramps.
"Hatallah," one of the men was saying as someone rocked him gently back and forth. He opened his eyes to find himself in Jack's arms again, with Teal'c and the three crouching around him. "He has been stung by the Hatallah."
"That is not possible. The priests of O'isa are immune to the sting. The Hatallah are the guardians of O'isa."
"But the illness... my brother's wife ventured too close to the sacred waters two seasons past and fell into the pool. Before she could be helped from the waters by the priests, she had been stung by one of the Hatallah. Her pain was identical to his."
"What are these Hatallah you speak of?"
The speaker turned to Teal'c and seemed hesitant for a moment. "They are very small creatures who live in the blessed pools of O'isa." The man curled his index finger against his thumb so that a thumb-sized hole was apparent. "No bigger than my nail, it floats in water and has small tentacles." He made a small pulsing motion with his hand. "But they should not harm the priests."
Daniel recognized fear in this man's voice. He cleared his throat and suddenly had five pairs of eyes on him. He avoided asking the question that was foremost on his mind. He didn't want to die, as much as he almost wished he would in order to stop the pain.
"The priests are human—" He stopped, gasping as the pain overwhelmed him. Thankfully Teal'c seemed to know what he was trying to say and continued speaking.
"The priests are human, as are the Jaffa. Even though it... appears as if the Hatallah does not harm them, they can still be hurt, or killed, by other means."
"One would never—"
The speaker was interrupted again by another of the men. "The Priests are meant to be revered. But Ibnak has brought dishonour to our land with his association with the Others."
Daniel closed his eyes as the three men bickered, breathing through yet another painful wave. "Bury the Chaapa'ai," he finally managed when he could talk again.
"Jack, we can't let a Goa'uld take over this world."
"The Goa'uld have ships—"
"It doesn't mean they'd bring the ships here."
"You're talking not only about rebelling against their new Goa'uld, but against their religious beliefs."
"Maybe not all the priests are corrupt—"
"And maybe not all—" Jack suddenly cut off, swearing under his breath as he reached for his radio. "We're fine, Carter. Ran into a small snag. We'll be at the rendezvous point in a minute." He released the radio and turned to the men.
"Look, we gotta go. We're taking your priest here to our world to try and heal him."
"The Hatallah is not deadly unless the victim has been stung many times." The man whose brother's wife had been stung raised his torch over Daniel and looked at him carefully. "You will not die, although you will probably beg to end your life before the pain ceases."
"I'm already past that point," Daniel muttered beneath his breath. He saw Jack startle and turned his head in embarrassment.
"Teal'c, get him up." Daniel glanced quickly at Jack, trying to assess his mood but he was looking at Teal'c.
"We will not stop you." The three men exchanged looks and all of them nodded. "Once you have gone through the Chaapa'ai, we will bury it, as My Lord has commanded. We must go to the Elders and tell them of this immediately, so that we may do as you wish."
"No," Daniel cried out, both in response to the first statement and to the pain as Teal'c sat him up. "Wait until the Jaffa leave." He gritted his teeth, unable to say any more.
"Daniel's right. Bury the Chaapa'ai once all the Jaffa gone through it. But if the priests unbury it again, it'll all be all for nothing."
"The Priests of O'isa will not unbury the Chaapa'ai." The declaration was firm, and Daniel had no doubt that Ibnak was in for a surprise awakening in the coming days. Then all thoughts left him as he was quickly hoisted up onto Teal'c's shoulders again when the sound of gunfire shattered the silence of the night.
- - - - - -
"Damn it." Jack wished he'd had the forethought of borrowing one of the torches the villagers had been carrying as he tripped over an unseen root. He deliberately slowed his pace; breaking his neck while running towards the firefight would most definitely put a damper in their plans.
"SG teams, report." At least now the gunfire had become sporadic, which meant they probably had one or two Jaffa pinned down.
"No casualties, Colonel." Reynolds' voice didn't sound rushed or panicked but the words were nearly drowned out by the sound of gunfire close by. "Just one sonofabitch who's managed to pin us down. Ferretti and Warren are moving into position to take him down."
The gunfire was repeated, sounding closer as Jack led the way. Then came silence. He reached for the radio just as Reynolds came through again. "We're clear, sir. We're dialing home. What's your ETA?"
Jack glanced back as Daniel grunted in pain, then as he turned forward to focus on the trail, he saw the glow of the wormhole just ahead. "We're almost there. Just another hundred yards." The going was easier now as the flickering wormhole illuminated their way. Within moments, he saw the Stargate, with the two teams standing on either side, waiting for them. Carter came down the stone stairs to meet them, just as a burst of energy flew past Jack, barely missing him, and erupted next to the overturned M.A.L.P. not two feet in front of Carter's position.
Jack put on a burst of speed and yelled, "Go!"
She turned and ran through the wormhole, then Jack was up the stairs and running. He paused to make sure Teal'c was right behind him and he went through, the sound of gunfire echoing in his ears, only to be cut off suddenly as he was expelled onto the SGC's metal ramp. He heard the tail end of Carter's request for medical assistance. Confident that SGs-2 and 3 would follow right after Teal'c and Daniel, Jack ran down the ramp to get out of their way.
By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, Teal'c was hurrying down the ramp. As he bent down to lower Daniel to the ground, next to the ramp, Jack grabbed Daniel's arms and helped support him. He gathered Daniel close against him, feeling him shivering in the air conditioned environment of the SGC. His clothes were soaked with perspiration and Jack had no doubt that he could wring out some liquid from them if he tried.
The rest of the two rescue teams fanned out around them while Ferretti leaned over and spread his robes over Daniel. Jack nodded his thanks.
Jack looked up to see Hammond quickly approaching. "Some sort of sea creature stung him. He's hurting bad."
"Doctor Fraiser is on her way. Were there any other casualties?"
"No, sir. Doctor Jackson appears to be the only one injured." Reynolds crouched down, wincing as he watched Daniel jerk and then shift restlessly.
Then Fraiser was rushing into the Gateroom, medical staff pushing a gurney following just a few feet behind her. "Sir, what happened?" She knelt next to Daniel, scanning him visually as she took his pulse.
"Some sort of sea creature. We've given him morphine for the pain but I don't think it helped much."
"What kind of pain? Daniel, can you hear me? Can you tell me where it hurts?" She eased Daniel's head back, trying to get a look at his face. Jack was shocked at the pallor, clearly evident in the harsh lighting. Instead of answering, Daniel moaned and tried to pull away from her.
"He said his back was killing him, and his head. He's been having some sort of cramps, legs, arms, abdomen, chest." Jack let go of Daniel as Fraiser waved for her staff to put him onto the gurney. The moment Daniel was flat on the gurney, Fraiser ordered an IV started while she took his blood pressure. Her face looked grim when she removed the stethoscope from her ears.
"Infirmary, now." Without a backward glance, she half jogged beside the gurney as the medical staff wheeled him out.
Jack had taken two steps after the gurney when Hammond spoke up. He stopped, military protocol weighing heavily on him at that moment.
"It's late and I'm sure you're all exhausted. Get yourselves checked out and get a good night's sleep. We'll schedule the debrief for tomorrow morning."
Jack nodded and closed his eyes a moment. He was anxious to get his sweat-dampened clothes off and jump into the shower, once he'd gotten news of Daniel's condition. As the general left the Gateroom, heading for the stairs leading up to his office, Jack continued down the corridor, towards the elevator.
Whether by accident or design, the only two persons who entered the first elevator car with him were Carter and Teal'c. He suspected Reynolds or Ferretti might have purposely held back, giving him time to recoup with his team. Staring at the control panel, Jack could feel Carter's eyes boring in him. "Sir...?" she started tentatively.
"It's bad, Carter."
"Teal'c told me, sir, but I didn't think it was... that bad."
Lured by the sound of pain in her voice, Jack couldn't help but glance her way. Her eyes were shimmering with unshed tears and she was obviously attempting to be strong. He knew exactly how she felt.
The elevator doors opened and Jack hurried towards the infirmary. Like flies drawn to honey, the team made for the only bed with activity surrounding it. They stood out of the way, watching as Fraiser gave Daniel a thorough examination.
"Colonel. You said the cause of this was some sort of fish. Was it a bite or a sting?"
"I dunno. I didn't see it. Although whatever got him, it was on his right arm. There was a rash earlier, and the skin around it looked like goose bumps."
Fraiser examined first Daniel's right arm, then moved to his left. "There's no sign of a rash now. There's no teeth mark so he must have been stung by something."
"The creature that caused this was apparently small in size." Hands clasped behind his back, Teal'c's attention was focused on Daniel. "Although the inhabitants called them guardians, the impression I received was that they were not necessarily deadly unless many attacked the victim."
"And I guess you don't know how many stings Daniel received?"
When Fraiser looked up at Jack, he could only shake his head slowly.
"Well, hopefully we'll be able to find something in his blood work to help us. He's dehydrated, he's tachycardic and his blood pressure is dangerously high. We've given him some morphine but he's at the limit for painkillers."
Daniel was still restless; obviously the drugs weren't doing that much more to help him.
"He was throwing up earlier. Couldn't even keep down any water." Jack picked up a Q-tip from a small jar and wiped it across his palm. "Guess that didn't help the dehydration any."
"Doctor Fraiser?" One of the nurses stopped what she'd been doing and stepped forward. "I'm sorry to intrude, but Doctor Jackson's symptoms look familiar to me." She looked towards Jack and his team. "The creature that did this to him, it wouldn't have been a jellyfish, would it?"
Jack tossed the Q-tip into a garbage can and rubbed a hand across his mouth. He tasted salt on his lips as he slowly shook his head. "Wait a second. What did that guy say about the Hat... thing?" He made the same pulsing movement with his hand the native had done. "Could be referring to a jellyfish, couldn't he?"
The nurse turned back to Fraiser. "Five years ago, I went to visit my sister in Australia for Christmas and we went out snorkeling. My sister's husband suddenly became ill and his symptoms presented exactly like Doctor Jackson's. We never saw the creature that caused this because it's so small, but we were told it was the Irukandji jellyfish."
Relief swept through Jack. "So if this is the same thing that stung Daniel—"
"I'm sorry, Colonel. There's no antivenom for the Irukandji sting. Although the good news is that it's seldom fatal if treated in hospital. My brother in law also developed acute pulmonary edema as a result of the envenomation, but recovered fully."
"So all we do is wait?"
"The symptoms should start to ease a few hours after they've been stung—"
"It's been over four hours."
"Margaret, why don't you go research the Irukandji, just in case this is similar to what we're dealing with. In the meantime, there's not much more we can do except stabilize him and keep monitoring him." She pointed to the beds behind Daniel with her chin. "And, I believe none of you have been checked out yet. So, who's first?"
- - - - - -
"Shhh, I know, I know," Jack crooned as Daniel moaned and shifted restlessly onto his side. They were alone at the moment, the nurse who'd been checking on Daniel every few minutes having stepped away for a minute. He brushed his fingers along Daniel's jaw and reined in the disappointment when Daniel pulled away. He wished he could do something to help, to ease the suffering, to give comfort. But even though his awareness was dulled by the morphine, the agony Daniel was experiencing prevented him from relaxing enough to appreciate his touch.
Jack sighed and picked up the cup of coffee he'd been drinking. He guzzled it down too fast, and part of the mouthful dripped down the side of his mouth and onto his pants. Cursing softly, he wiped the coffee stain from the material.
"Why don't you go get some rest, sir?"
Jack jumped, not having heard Fraiser approach. Instead of answering, he shot back the last of the coffee before dumping the empty Styrofoam cup into the wastebasket next to the bed.
"It's been ten hours." He tried not to sound accusatory, but the words came out sounding that way anyways.
"I know." She walked over to the bed and checked Daniel's chart, then gave a quick glance at the various readouts on the equipment. "If this truly is a sting from the Irukandji, the symptoms can last up to two weeks."
Jack sighed, looking away.
"But Daniel's vitals have been stable for the past two hours, so I'm hopeful. We just need to wait, Colonel."
The blankets rustled as Daniel shifted legs and arms. Jack leaned forward, resting his elbows against his thighs as Fraiser adjusted the nasal canulla that Daniel had just dislodged. He was tired. Exhausted, actually. After their stint as captives, the debilitating heat and now worry over Daniel, he knew he wasn't thinking straight. He needed rest before the briefing which was scheduled in just a few hours from now. But he couldn't bring himself to leave Daniel, not with the possibility that he could start getting better any minute now.
"Sir, there's nothing you can do. He doesn't even seem to be aware that you're here."
"I..." He had to admit that part of his frustration was the blow to his ego... that he couldn't do anything for Daniel. That the sound of his voice didn't console him, or his touch reassure him. That was for the Harlequin romance stories that Sara had always read. This was reality. Pain and vomit and exhaustion and total helplessness.
"The fact that Daniel is stable is a very good sign, Colonel. And there's no indication of any developing complications." Then Fraiser smiled, catching Jack off guard. "And maybe the fact that he's now sleeping might convince you to do the same?"
"What?" Jack half-rose off the chair as he turned his attention back to Daniel. For the first time in many hours, Daniel was totally relaxed. And the lines of pain which had marred his face had eased. The heart rate monitor, which had been flickering at an unnaturally rapid pace, had also slowed. It still seemed fast, to Jack's inexperienced eye, but even as he stared, the numbers slowly counted down one by one.
Fraiser pointed wordlessly at the bed next to Daniel. Trying, and failing, to hold back a grin, Jack reached down and started unlacing his boots.
- - - - - -
The sound was insistent, slowly driving Daniel upwards from the depths of sleep. He didn't want to wake up. He was warm and comfortable and he somehow sensed that this hadn't been the situation up until recently. He just wanted to let his mind sink back down into sleep.
He realized somehow that he'd been hearing the noise for a while now, but hadn't really registered, except for somewhere in the back of his mind. He cursed his fuzzy subconscious and decided to ignore the sound.
His body felt heavy and lethargic, the last thing he wanted to do was get up. Wincing, he batted his hand, in his mind envisaging sweeping the room in a frenzy of energy, throwing out whatever or whoever was keeping him awake. Somehow he knew, however, that he'd accomplished nothing more than a weak flick of his fingers. Still, he hoped the movement would shift the annoying sound somewhere else.
Sighing, Daniel opened heavy eyelids. The room was fuzzy and he blinked, having to force his eyes open a second time as the lure to sleep was great. He watched, with great interest, as a coin flipped through the air and landed noisily in a metal emesis basin sitting on the mattress beside his hip.
A hand reached for the coin, plucked it out, and tossed it back into the basin. The next time the coin was fished out and tossed, Daniel made a grab for it, and missed. He struck the basin and it landed on the floor with a loud clang, the noise reverberating in the quiet room.
"Hey. What'd you do that for?"
Daniel visually followed the hand and arm of the person who had tossed the coin until he could focus on the person sitting next to his bed.
"Jack." Mouth and tongue thick and swollen, Daniel tried to lick his lips, searching for moisture. The fuzziness and dry mouth were familiar sensations of after effects of painkillers. "I'll get you a piggybank for your coins when we get home if you'll please stop making noise and let me sleep." The words were hard to form, both in his mind and with his mouth, but he was sure he finally got the message through. He closed his eyes, only to open them when Jack snorted.
"Better try again, because I'm not going to carry you piggyback so that you can put a candle in a glass of water."
"What?" His eyes were itchy and he raised a hand to rub the sleep from them.
"I'm guessing you're thirsty, huh?" Jack's mouth quirked into a smile.
Daniel nodded as Jack's mouth quirked into a smile. His eyelids grew heavy as Jack spoke with evident amusement.
"And more than a little loopy from whatever the doc's been feeding ya." Jack turned around, reaching for something behind him. A moment later, Jack was shaking him and there was something tapping at his lips.
"Drink. Doc said you could have some water when you woke up."
Daniel opened his mouth and sucked on the straw. The water was cool and refreshing but it didn't do much to relieve the pastiness. Still, he drank until his stomach gurgled. The water sloshed uncomfortably as he belched, releasing the straw, and then the discomfort settled.
Jack leaned close and his face had a halo around it. That was when Daniel realized he was still in the grips of some sort of drug. He ran a hand down his abdomen and chest, recalling incredible pain and half expecting to find an incision or sutured wound. But his hands encountered nothing but skin.
"—not really sure until we got back but Fraiser confirmed it."
"Huh?" Daniel blinked at Jack, wondering how long Jack had been talking and how he'd missed the conversation. His attention wandered again as Jack grinned at him lopsidedly and shook his head.
"You were poisoned by a jellyfish, Daniel."
Jellyfish? Jack had to be teasing him. Or else Jack was also on some sort of drug-induced trip. "But I didn't go swimming."
"No, but you walked through the private showers and pools those priests of O'isa like to lounge around in. They call the jellyfish 'guardians'. Seems like they're immune to the sting."
Visions of large, pulsating, maroon coloured and multi-tentacled creatures raining down on him seemed ludicrous. And the water he'd walked in had been crystal clear. He was sure he'd have seen jellyfish floating in them if there had been any. Still, it was probably better to humour Jack until he was feeling better. Later. Right now sleep was beckoning. "If you say so." He yawned as Jack's features blurred, and he stretched and turned his face into his pillow.
"Get some sleep."
"Mmm, 'k." There was a touch to his cheek, feather-light. He hummed softly as speaking was beyond him, and fell back into sleep with a smile pulling at his lips.
- - - - - -
The next time Daniel woke up, much of the fuzziness was gone. He was too comfortable to move, still drifting on the dregs of whatever Janet had given him to make him feel better. He lay there for a while, not quite sleeping but very close, trying to figure out what was keeping him from going back to sleep, until a cramp squeezed his belly. He tensed, expecting the pain to escalate, but it eased off almost immediately.
Surprised at his close call, Daniel opened his eyes as he shifted carefully, almost afraid of triggering another cramp. His legs hurt as he moved them, but the discomfort wasn't worse than the first days he'd begun working out in earnest to be on the team during his first year here.
Then he noticed Teal'c, sitting next to his bed, eyes closed, obviously meditating.
Brown eyes popped open and immediately the skin around his eyes crinkled as he smiled. Just as fast, the smile turned into an expression of concern. "DanielJackson. Are you in need of medical assistance?" Even as he spoke, Teal'c reached for the call button.
Daniel sighed, knowing the peace and quiet of the past few minutes would soon end.
"No, I'm fine. I'm just a little... confused." He pulled a hand from beneath the blanket and scratched the bridge of his nose with a fingertip.
"You have been very ill."
"Yeah, I remember some of that." He shivered; the pain was something he'd never forget. Folding the edge of the blanket neatly over, Daniel tried to make sense of a few more memories. "Um, did I dream that I was at the seashore? There was something about a... jellyfish?" He turned to look at Teal'c, who gave a small nod.
"Indeed. The guardians of the priests of O'isa apparently poisoned you. One of DoctorFraiser's nurses recognized that your symptoms were similar to a certain creature which inhabits the waters on this planet."
"So..." Daniel looked around at the empty infirmary. "Where's..."
"Colonel O'Neill was forcibly requested to leave the premises until he had attained eight hours of rest. As MajorCarter stated, he was not a happy hiker."
Daniel couldn't help smiling as he felt his cheeks heat up in a blush. "Thanks, but I meant SGs-2 and 3. Are they—?"
"There were no casualties except for yourself."
"Good." Suddenly unable to meet Teal'c's gaze, Daniel stared at the small bump his feet made under the covers. "So... Janet threw Jack out?"
"Indeed. Along with MajorCarter. I, on the other hand," Teal'c continued, his voice suddenly sounding smug, "was permitted to remain at your side as I was not fatigued."
"For which I'm very grateful." And he was, Daniel thought to himself as Janet walked up to his bed.
"So, Daniel, how are you feeling?"
"Fine, actually." His stomach grumbled noisily. "And hungry, apparently." He squirmed a little to make himself comfortable as Janet raised his bed. Then he sat there quietly as she gave him an examination, answering her questions as he tried to picture Jack throwing a hissy fit when Janet threw him out. He wondered how long it had been since Jack had gone, but wasn't quite sure how to word the question.
"What about pain? On a scale of one to ten?"
"Right now, honestly? A zero. I feel a bit stiff when I move around but I'm not hurting." He remembered that little cramp through his abdomen just as he'd woken up but as it hadn't happened again, he didn't bother mentioning it.
"You're sure? Because I can give you something for the discomfort."
"I'm sure." He smiled at Janet, partly because he wasn't hurting and partly because he thought he had a way of finding out how long before Jack came back.
"What time is it?"
"Morning or afternoon?"
"It's four in the morning. And before you ask, both Sam and the Colonel are at home under my orders, and are on medical leave for the next two days. They're fine," she said hurriedly as Daniel felt the blood drain from his face. "They were both suffering from exhaustion, and I didn't have the heart to shoo them away until we knew you'd taken a turn for the better.
"The few hours' sleep they got wasn't enough to counteract the stress of that mission, so I ordered them home to unwind and de-stress, and not come back to visit you after a good night's sleep. I'm predicting Sam went to the gym despite my orders and worked out her frustrations there, and the Colonel—"
"Is it Wednesday night?"
"Yeah." Janet grinned.
"Just what the doctor ordered."
Daniel actually could picture Jack, sprawled on the couch in the den in front of the TV, fast asleep, having drifted off in the middle of his favourite TV show. He wished he was there also, so that he could tiptoe up to him, lean over and kiss him awake, only to drag him up to bed so that they could sleep wrapped in each other's arms. And that, was what the doctor should have ordered. Daniel was pretty sure he could get Jack de-stressed and unwounded in no time.
He also realized now why he hadn't been able to fall back asleep. He missed Jack, and even though they'd spent an occasional night sleeping in their respective homes, alone, he'd gotten so accustomed to sharing his bed and personal space with his lover that he missed it when he didn't have it.
"When can I go home?"
"We're keeping an eye on your blood pressure at the moment but if you keep this up," Janet said, smiling at him, "maybe by this afternoon."
"Really?" Daniel could feel the grin splitting his face in two and he turned to Teal'c, who was looking relieved.
"If you were to develop complications, they would have presented by now. You might have some lingering fatigue and continued stiffness for a few days, most likely your legs and back. If that's manageable, I don't see why you can't continue recuperating at home." She winked. "Considering Colonel O'Neill is on medical leave for the next few days, I'll be comfortable knowing you're not alone."
Daniel ducked his head, refusing to blush again despite the heat that started around the back of his neck. "Thanks."
"I'll see about getting you an early breakfast." She squeezed his toes as she walked by.
- - - - - -
"Hi." Daniel's greeting was accompanied by a face cracking smile as he put down a book he'd been reading.
Hi, yourself." Jack couldn't get over how good Daniel looked. Okay, maybe he was still a little pale and there was a touch of shadows beneath his eyes, but his eyes themselves were clear and he seemed pain-free. There were a couple of dirty dishes on a tray and Jack peered at the empty plate which seemed to have once housed mashed potatoes with meat and gravy. There was also an empty bowl with semi-dried remnants of Jell-O around the rim.
He cocked his head at the tray and said, "They feeding you okay?"
Daniel nervously scratched at his thumbnail with his third finger. "It's not O'Malley's but it filled a hole."
"Good." Jack sat on the edge of the bed, noting that Daniel wasn't hooked up to any medical instruments. "So...?"
"I can go home." The grin was back. "Well, I have to wait till my latest blood works come back but Janet was pretty sure that they'll be clear and that I can leave the moment she gets the results."
Jack could feel his mouth stretching into a matching grin. He'd half expected to return to the infirmary to find Daniel in a drug-induced stupor; this was much better than he'd anticipated. "Did she say when...?"
"A couple of hours. And that was a couple of hours ago so..."
"Any minute now." Jack eased slightly farther onto the mattress, then cleared his throat. "I saw Hammond before I came here..." He dusted some lint from his pants then looked at Daniel. "He said they dialed O'isa early this morning but..."
"They buried the 'gate?" There was both hope and resignation in Daniel's voice.
"We managed to get a connection to the M.A.L.P. we left there and the video transmission confirms it. The Stargate isn't anywhere in sight despite the fact we got a signal through. There's evidence of the ground having been displaced so..."
"They took my advice."
Daniel sighed softly as he took his glasses off and rubbed a finger across his eyelids, looking suddenly exhausted. "I wish I knew how things turned out."
"Hey." Jack punched Daniel's thigh lightly. "You told them to bury the 'gate once the Jaffa left so they won't have to fear the Goa'uld anymore."
"But they still have the priests to contend with."
"They saw you in pain. That most likely convinced them that the priests were human and not almighty—"
"We don't know that. For all we know, the priests are aliens who are as evil as the Goa'uld who—"
"Oh, come on. Just because we came across a couple of not-so-human types travelling around the galaxy, it doesn't mean that every planet is going to have a resident alien—"
"No, not every planet. But you have to admit there were a couple of physical attributes about them that were hard to explain. Like their eyes—"
"And short of getting ourselves a ship and flying back to kidnap one of the priests so Fraiser can run tests on him, we have to assume it's most likely some sort of genetic mutation, like Carter suggested."
"Still, I wish..." Daniel bowed his head and stopped the nervous fiddling with his thumb, laying his hand flat on his thigh.
"Yeah, I know." Not that he wasn't happy the planet was no longer accessible and that they wouldn't have to face those conniving priests again, but he knew how much Daniel hated it when they couldn't get answers.
He got a sideways glance from Daniel and a hint of a smile. "You're happy they buried the 'gate, aren't you?"
Jack shrugged noncommittally. Before he could reply, Fraiser entered the infirmary. Both of them watched her approach.
After giving Jack a welcoming nod, she smiled at Daniel. "Well, Daniel, you're good to go."
"Great." With a quick movement, Daniel swung his legs off the bed and stood, only to stop and catch himself on the mattress.
"Easy, remember what I told you."
"What? What's wrong?" Jack put a hand out to steady Daniel but found it wasn't necessary as Daniel took a slow, wobbly step away from the bed to gather his clothes, which were neatly piled on a table close by.
"Daniel will most likely experience muscle stiffness in his legs and lower back for a few days along with a bit of weakness. It'll wear off," she added with confidence.
Jack sure hoped she was right as he watched Daniel sit carefully back onto the bed as Fraiser drew the privacy curtain around it.
"I'll have a nurse come 'round and help you get dressed."
"Don't bother, I can give him a hand." He ignored Fraiser's soft smile as he reached for Daniel's pants. Jack basked in the grateful look his lover gave him for a moment before helping Daniel to stand and step out of his scrubs.
- - - - - -
"You sure I'm not keeping you up? I can go read in the den downstairs—"
Daniel stopped fidgeting and turned onto his back with a loud sigh. "No, it's not you. I'm just a little uncomfortable."
"You're hurting?" Jack immediately put his book down in alarm. "I thought Fraiser said—"
"That I'd have a bit of stiffness for a few days. Except I think I might have overdone it just a little..."
Jack immediately felt guilty for having allowed Daniel to seduce him into having sex tonight. "Damnit, Daniel." As much as he'd been careful, and Daniel hadn't seemed to be uncomfortable, Jack should have known better. "I knew I shouldn't ha—"
"Jack, don't." Daniel reached out and put a finger over Jack's lips, silencing him. "Making love to you was exactly what I needed." The finger eased down and caressed Jack's lower lip for a long moment. "Except right now, I need a couple of Tylenol. Would you mind?"
Jack licked the part of his lip where Daniel had touched him before getting up and getting the medication from the bathroom. He returned with the two pills, a glass of water, and a little extra.
He handed Daniel the pills and water. "Take your pants off and roll onto your stomach."
Daniel's eyebrows nearly rose into his hairline. Jack swallowed a smile and made a little twirling motion with his finger while Daniel took the pills. "And get your mind out of the gutter." He waved the bottle of scented oil in front of Daniel's face. "I'm going to try and see if I can help make certain parts of you feel better."
"Promise?" Daniel asked with a grunt as he raised his hips to pull the sweats down. Jack could see by his slow movements that he really was in pain. He grabbed hold of the soft material and eased it down Daniel's legs, then took the oil and straddled Daniel's thighs. After pouring a generous amount of oil into his palm, he rubbed his hands together, warming and spreading the oil before starting to massage Daniel's lower back.
A low moan came from Daniel as he slowly raised his arms and tucked his forehead on his crossed palms. "Oh God, this feels great."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm a god. You were saying the exact same thing not an hour ago."
Daniel chuckled, his body shaking slightly beneath Jack's hands. "And I meant it then, too. Ahhh," he moaned as Jack slowly circled his thumbs at the base of his spine. "Yeah, right there."
Jack concentrated on that area for a while before shifting down to his legs. He'd meant to bring the subject up the next day but figured this might be a good time as Daniel's defenses were lowered. "You know, I don't think I thanked you yet for coming in single-handedly to rescue us."
"Mmm, don't mention it," Daniel said sleepily.
"Well, actually now that you've brought it up." Jack paused a moment to pour some more oil onto his palms. "That hair brained scheme about getting into a Jaffa suit of armour and going in by yourself without backup—"
"I had backup, Jack. And I didn't like the suit... forgot to tell Teal'c that I won't be borrowing his." Daniel's voice was soft and slow.
"But you didn't have backup once you got those damned contacts on. That's when things went squirrelly."
"I know." Daniel turned his head to look back at Jack. "I didn't know about the guardians. Although I'm not going to admit that even had I known, I would have changed my plan. I was going to get you out of there, no matter what. And you'd have probably done the same."
Jack finished with Daniel's right thigh and started massaging his calf. "That's not the point." He concentrated on kneading the muscles for a moment. "You went in there with a half-baked plan which ended up putting you in a vulnerable position, and put your men in danger."
"And your point is?"
Jack released a puff of air through pursed lips, releasing some of the tension this conversation was evoking. He worked silently until he finished, trying to think if he'd done things differently. By the time he put the oil aside, he'd come to the conclusion he'd probably have done things exactly the same.
"Shut up and roll over," Jack growled in mock anger. Daniel simply chuckled and slid lethargically under the sheet.
Although Jack couldn't really find fault with Daniel's actions during the mission, except for the fact that he could have died, Jack thought he himself might have had second thoughts about the Jaffa armour. Although he did admit that he'd always wondered what kind of figure he'd make in that getup. He just regretted he missed seeing Daniel dressed up in chain mail, although then again, maybe he could do something about that.
He flipped the covers over a half-asleep Daniel and slid into bed next to him. With a heavy sigh, Daniel shifted onto his side and Jack snuggled up next to him, so that they were spooned together.
"Thanks," Daniel whispered sleepily into Jack's ear. "And no, you're not borrowing Teal'c's armour."
"Damn." Jack turned his head to nuzzle Daniel with his nose. "But you can't blame a guy for trying."
Author's Comments: This story is dedicated to Ann-Marie, who despite everything that's been going on in her life this past year, has taken the time to befriend a pathetic soul like me.
And I have to send hugs and thanks to devra, who's literally held my hand over the past couple weeks of hell I've been going through. And DebA, who's been more than understanding and took the time to fix the medical blunders I made. And also to Amy and Darcy and Wilma, with their words of wisdom and encouragement.
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