The room was eerily quiet after so much commotion. Bensada barked an order, and the remaining soldier hurried off to alert the guards outside they were needed.

The Iraqi kicked at the ground and knocked bits of dirt into O'Neill's face, then leaned forward and spat on him. He turned to the men just entering the room. "Take him to the chest of gold. This one will not meet his God so easily. As for the other, back to his cell."

Dusk fell, and Sykes noted with admiration the way O'Neill's team, as he thought of them, blended in with his own. He was sure his men would have to at least slow down to make allowances for the newcomers but not only did they keep up, the really odd one, Teal'c, could have outpaced every one of them and never seemed to need a break.

At the edge of the compound the group split into three teams: Sykes, Daniel and Blackstone would go after O'Neill and Sellers in the prison while the two Majors, Barnes and Carter went to the 'artifact's' presumed location. They were to mine it with C-4 charges and then move on to get as close as they could to the Command center. McGhee and Teal'c had the job of creating a diversion to allow the other teams a chance to complete their tasks. Once inside the perimeter, they took off to the small airfield neighboring the compound. C-4 and aviation fuel would make quite a display.

Keeping to the shadows and crouching, Carter and Barnes made it quickly to the building housing the sarcophagus and slipped around to the side away from the airfield. When the diversion came, they expected most of the soldiers would head toward it. With any luck only one or two guards would be left to keep the back door secured. She radioed to Sykes quietly.

"We're set. Not too much going on here, looks like they've just changed guard rotations." She nodded to Barnes, and they observed four men sauntering off in the direction of what Sykes pointed out earlier as the barracks. They bumped into each other occasionally as they walked and had their shoulders slightly hunched as if exhausted from their duties.

Carter covered her earpiece with her hand to better hear Sykes reply, "Your teammate is pretty adept with C-4, he and McGhee are just about done setting their charges. Prison guards have changed as well, looks like they've put all their new recruits on night duty." All six of the prison guards he'd seen looked to be not much over twenty.

McGhee's voice came across the radio. "Sir, we're ready. You're gonna love this. Just say the word."

Sykes smiled at the man's enthusiasm. "Lieutenant, five count, mark."

Five heartbeats later all hell broke loose. There were two helicopters in addition to Bensada's jets, and one of them suddenly became airborne, upside down of course. The nearby drums of fuel exploded with a deafening series of booms, and a moment later the shockwave made the air feel thick as it rolled outward from the origin of the blast.

Barnes rose up from where he'd crouched with his hands over his ears, and smiled at Carter, "That's our cue." As one they stood and entered the building, encountering only a single, somewhat stunned guard whom they disabled before he even saw them coming. They climbed the steps to the upper floor and quickly immobilized another two Iraqis just as easily then checked the rooms. It took them only a few minutes to locate their goal.

Barnes stood at the door and gaped at the gigantic thing shimmering even in the dim light. Never in his life had he envisioned being in the same room with this much gold. It reminded him of pictures he'd seen of Fort Knox. His arms dropped to his sides limply as he lowered his weapon.

Carter nudged his shoulder playfully. "Are you gonna be all right?"

"Uh, huh."

At the flat response she giggled and shoved a detonator into his hand. "Here. Get started."

He turned to her almost absent-mindedly and held out a hand to the huge object. "We can't-"

Her eyes flared. "Oh, yes we can. Believe me, if it was just for the gold, we wouldn't even be here."

He stared at her. "You know what it is."

She was already kneeling beside it placing the first charge. "Yes." She stood and dusted her hands off. "And that's why we've got to do this."

He ran a hand over his mouth and looked at the C-4 then at the mass of intricately carved gold and slowly nodded. "Okay. You want to blow this thing to Kingdom Come? Let's do it." He moved to the side opposite where she stood and attached the charge as she'd demonstrated back at the base, glancing once out the small window at the fire-lit night sky. "Everything Alianni said about this thing is true isn't it?"

Sam kept her head down and ignored the question as she placed a charge.

He moved up a meter and prepared to set another. "One more thing, the second part of our assignment; we're supposed to get close to Bensada."

She nodded, still not looking up. "Very close."

"But we aren't to engage him or his men in any way. What's that about?"

Carter glanced up to find Barnes staring at her with his eyes narrowed. He continued. "It has something to do with you and finding out something about Bensada, doesn't it? What are you, a psychic?"

"No, I'm a scientist." Her eyes fell. Barnes was proving to be a lot more perceptive than she initially gave him credit for. How could she explain she needed to get close enough to be able to sense if the man was a Goa'uld, without explaining exactly what that was? She bit her lower lip and spoke tentatively. "But I can *feel* certain things. Please don't ask me to explain. It's real, and trust me, it's important."

His eyes returned to his task. After several moments of silence he spoke. "Someday I'd like to know what really goes on back at Cheyenne Mountain. I'd bet it's a hell of a lot more interesting than what I've been told. How does someone get recruited to that Command anyway?"

Sam smiled. "Invitation only. You'd have to impress a whole lot of people to get an assignment there."

Barnes was setting his last charge and frowning. "Starting with?"

"Someone who is already there, preferably of Command rank."

He stood to his feet. "You're O'Neill's Second, right? That puts you on the list."

She stood as well and arched an eyebrow in amusement. "It does."

He flushed at the look she gave him and was suddenly glad for the subdued lighting in the room. His statement had sounded a bit too much like a come-on, and her response didn't make it any better.

He was desperate to change the subject and glanced at his handiwork along the side of the box. "A person actually gets inside this thing. You think there's anyone in there now?"

Carter shook her head. "Not likely. I doubt Bensada would be benevolent enough to share it with anyone. Time to go."

Sykes team waited a full minute after the shockwave to proceed. The prison building was very near the airfield, and as the force of the explosion hit, all the windows on that side blew out simultaneously. Even on the back of the building bits of mortar flew, and the windowpanes rattled loudly. The three men hunkered down and waited for it to pass then sprang into action. Four of the guards were already outside swinging their weapons about and looking for the next attack. The other two were taken out quickly. This was the part of the job Daniel liked least, but he was determined to be as much the soldier as Blacksmith was just to show Sykes he wasn't a weak link. They incapacitated both guards without a sound and without killing them.

Sykes nodded his approval and threw a ring of keys to Daniel. "Back there. Cells." He didn't wait for a reply but turned and moved quickly toward the front of the room to keep an eye out for returning guards.

Daniel fumbled with the large keys but got the outer door open and ran in. He immediately called for the Colonel; there was enough commotion and noise outside he knew no one would hear him. "Jack? It's Daniel. Where are you?"

Blacksmith stepped in behind him, and they began to survey the cells one by one. At the last cell he stopped and waved his hand toward Daniel. "Here, open it."

Daniel made his way there and quickly opened the door- letting Blacksmith dart inside. He checked for a pulse quickly on the unconscious man. "It's Sellers. He's alive."

"So, where's Jack?"

"All the other cells are empty. Wherever he is, he's not here. We've got to go."

Daniel nodded, and the two of them raised Sellers up and dragged him out of the cell.

Back in the main room Sykes checked on the other teams. "Barnes? You ready yet? We're gonna need that second explosion in two minutes."

"All set. Carter and I are leaving the building now, moving to our next objective, the main bunker and Bensada."

"As soon as you're clear blow it. We need all the mayhem we can create right now." He turned just in time to see Daniel and the Lieutenant carry out a single man.


Daniel shook his head. "Not here."

"Shit. Come on, let's get outside and find a place to hole up for a few minutes. Can you wake him?"

"Maybe." Blacksmith offered. "He's bruised up and might have a head injury. I've got smelling salts in my pack."

Sykes nodded and gestured them on while he took up the six. Outside and hidden in the shadows behind a Jeep, the men paused and Blacksmith tried to rouse the unconscious Sellers.

Sykes radioed the other teams. "Teal'c, McGhee, rendezvous at the break out point. We've got a problem. O'Neill wasn't in the cellblock."

The deep bass voice of Teal'c came through the radio. "Colonel Sykes do you know where he might be?"

"Not a clue. Sellers is unconscious; we're trying to wake him now."

"Is it not true this 'Bensada' frequently interrogates his prisoners?"

"Sure, like every chance he gets."

"Then is it likely O'Neill would be wherever Bensada is?"

"Possible." Sykes chewed his lip.

Barnes voice came across the radio. "Sir, Major Carter agrees. We're just about in position. As soon as the artifact goes up, we'll be able to get a lot closer. We'll find him, Colonel."

Sykes thought a moment. "Okay. McGhee and Teal'c get over to the bunker and back up Carter and Barnes. We've got orders to have a one-on-one with the guy if possible anyway. Stay low; any minute now your 'artifact' is gonna be history. Sykes out."

He released the button and shifted his position to see how Sellers was doing. The man was groggy but awake, and Daniel was already questioning him.

"There was another American, Colonel Jack O'Neill. He was here. Did you see him?"

Sellers nodded, holding onto the right side of his face "Yeah, whew! Ow, my head! Yeah saw him. Actually saw Bensada beat the crap out of him."

'Typical' Daniel thought. "So where is he now?"

"Not sure. Just not here. Actually, don't take this wrong; I think Bensada killed him. You're gonna thing I'm crazy but I swear I'm not. He's got this 'thing', some big device, and it can 'fix' people. I woke up inside the damn thing myself. I know the Iraqi sonofabitch, and he's not through with O'Neill just yet, he's probably doing it right now."

As he spoke two things happened. Sykes mouth dropped open, and the ground shook as a series of explosions rocked the compound. The Colonel gasped. "Tell me you don't mean he was *inside* that thing!"

The Major nodded. Sykes lowered his head nearly to his chest. "Dammit. Screw the bastard. I'm not losing anyone else over him." He keyed his radio. "Teams. Listen up. Abort. Repeat, abort mission. Breakout point *now*, everyone."

A female voice came through the radio. "We can't go Sir. We haven't found Colonel O'Neill yet."

Sykes eyes locked with Daniel's as he spoke into the microphone. "Yes we have. According to Sellers he was inside that artifact we just eliminated. Move out."

Carter choked, and her hand dropped from the radio. "No. He couldn't-"

Barnes reached over and took her shoulder. "We had no way to know."

Her voice was so quiet he almost didn't hear. "I should have checked. I never thought- what we did- we killed him." Despite the racket going on around them as soldiers came and went trying to put out fires and secure the area, there was utter silence between the two Americans. Carter visibly paled and blinked back the sudden moisture in her eyes. She turned her face away from her companion and blew out her breath in a muffled curse. "Dammit."

Wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she forced her emotions down. "I'm going on. If that man is what I think he is, and I don't at least confirm it, the Colonel will have died for nothing."

Barnes gave her shoulder another squeeze and nodded. "I'm in too. I didn't know him as long" he paused and looked carefully into her eyes, "or as well as you, but the guy earned my respect the day I met him. Now that Bensada's 'cure-all' device is out of the way, I just might take over O'Neill's mission and plant one between his eyes. If he is whatever-it-is you're afraid of, just say the word, and he's a dead whatever-it-is."

O'Neill's eyes flickered, and he slowly opened them to the familiar soft white glow surrounding him. His eyes moved from one side to the other and he groaned. Not again. Shit.

A low grating sound alerted him to the completion of the cycle as the two halves of the lid swung away to permit his release. Odd he thought as he extricated himself, the room was vacant except for the sarcophagus and him; no guards were to be seen. Although dim lamps were lit on the walls, a fair amount of light entered the small window, and O'Neill glanced outside to behold the camp in chaos.

He glanced back into the room and immediately spotted the C-4 and detonators spaced along the outside of the massive device. Interesting. He made a slight huffing sound as he wondered to himself.

Quickly before the lid shut, he removed one of the explosive packs and set it inside the chamber. He removed another smaller one and checked the reading. Set to detonate by remote, if no signal was received it would go off by timer in one hour. Definitely interesting. He altered the setting and deactivated the device then shoved it in his pocket.

Not to be left out of whatever fun was going down, he inched down a back staircase and outside. Just as he stepped out into the moonlight there was a tumultuous explosion from somewhere just over his head. The force of it threw him several feet, and he tumbled in the dirt. Shaken, but uninjured he quickly righted himself and ducked in a doorway.

He watched as people ran in all directions, some to escape the still falling debris and others toward the building to assist survivors of the blast. The entire top floor had had its windows blown out, and dark smoke poured from the openings. The Colonel blew out a breath; less than five minutes ago he was still in the accursed thing and would now be dead, permanently.

He knew what he had to do and where Bensada would be, in the large bunker directing his troops. Quickly, quietly and completely unobserved in the darkness and confusion, O'Neill set out to complete his mission. His only regret was that he was still shirtless and didn't have time to procure one from somewhere; the night air was chilly enough to raise the gooseflesh on his exposed skin, but he went on anyway, picking his way from shadow to shadow, stealthily as a great cat.

Bensada paced back and forth stomping as he went. News of the destruction of his prized possession made him more irate than any had ever seen him. Only one soldier was in the room, and he stayed back as far away as he could in case Bensada's wrath came in his direction. They'd all witnessed the results of that.

O'Neill crouched in the hallway and slipped into the room at a moment when no eyes were turned toward him. Once inside he hid behind a curtain and listened to the tirade as Bensada vocalized.

"What have you done?" He screamed his words at the two kneeling prisoners. "Insolent Tau'ri garbage!"

O'Neill would have snickered at that had he not taken note of Bensada's newest guests. On the floor in front of him knelt Major Barnes and of all the people in the world he did not expect to see, his 2IC, Carter. She flinched as the Iraqi cursed her, but at the name 'Tau'ri' her eyebrows twitched. O'Neill nodded to himself, 'Good girl. You know what he is'.

His hand idly fingered the C-4 in his pocket. There had to be a way to take down this aberration yet not harm Carter and Barnes. His initial plan was to simply chuck the C-4 in the room and let the faster man win. Now that wasn't an option. He ran a finger over the face of the detonator where it was in his pocket. He knew it so well, he could almost set it without looking.

It occurred to him that the best action is usually a direct one, and they were running out of time. Once the explosions were dealt with and the injured rescued, the soldiers would be back at their posts and even more watchful than before. He quickly took out the charge and molded the putty so it was more rounded in form and set a two second countdown to start when he activated it then stuck it back in his pants. Beside him a large round ornamental knob was screwed into the wall to be used as a stay for the heavy curtain. He quickly unscrewed it and shoved it in his other pocket.

Indifferent to his lack of attire, he squared his shoulders and strode boldly into the room. "Hey, Ben. Got a minute?" He waved a hand at the soldier, already with his weapon trained on the intruder. "No, no, don't get up. I'm obviously not armed."

He turned to Bensada. "Got yourself some new prospects huh?" He walked around behind the prisoners to the other side, and when he turned he caught Carters eye and expression of shock. He merely smiled and gave her a quick wink.

The Iraqi spat in anger. "So, you had the honor of being the last to receive the gift of life, short though it may be. All of you will pay for this. Get on your knees, and die with them."

As he spoke he pointed gruffly to the floor, and O'Neill noted he was not wearing the dreaded hand device. On the inside the Colonel smiled, his adversary may be a Goa'uld but he still made mistakes.

"Ah, c'mon. What threat am I? I'm not even wearing my ball cap. You know how we Americans love our baseball." He produced the ball shaped knob from his pocket and tossed it lightly in the air, catching it without looking. He turned to walk away from Bensada, momentarily turning his back to the man and quickly mouthed the words 'get ready' to Carter.

Carter's eyebrows knit, and she glanced at Barnes. She had no idea what was about to happen, but knowing her CO it would be big. She lowered her head and whispered a warning to her companion.

"As a matter of fact it's my favorite game. You should try it sometime, hones the reflexes, you know."

Carter's eyes closed momentarily; only O'Neill would strike up a conversation about baseball with a Goa'uld. When she opened them again, her CO was behind them. She could tell from his shadow he was mimicking a pitcher tossing the ball and catching it again as he talked.

"You gotta be fast, anticipate the unexpected; you never know if what's comin' at you is gonna fly straight or not. Catch!"

With that O'Neill switched hands and pulled the explosive out of his pocket. He'd already activated it and now delivered his best C-4 laden fast ball pitch into Bensada's waiting hands. He dropped immediately; Carter and Barnes both took his lead and threw themselves away from the Iraqis position and flattened themselves to the floor.

Bensada easily caught the 'baseball', but when he turned his hand over he found himself with a handful of C-4. His eyes widened as the counter turned to zero. It was the last thing he ever saw.

The explosion was big enough to rock the entire room and blow out both windows. Inside parts of the ceiling gave way, and debris showered down from above covering the interior with bits of plaster and a creating a huge cloud of chalky dust. When the shockwave abated the only sound was the gentle falling of airborne particles as they continued to clear from the air.

Everything in the room was covered with a layer of gray-white dust including the people, and O'Neill raised his head and spit out some that had gotten in his mouth. He shook his head to knock it out of his hair then tightened the grip he had on Carter's wrist. "Carter? You okay?"

She moaned and raised her head then coughed as she inhaled a bit too much dust. "Yeah. Sure. Nice entrance, Sir."

He grinned at her dirt-smudged face. "What are you doing here?"

"Rescuing you." She coughed again and let him pull her up to a sitting position. "Can't you tell?"

Another cough struck, and she grunted as a pain assaulted her side. O'Neill quickly wrapped an arm around her to give her some support. "Sure you're okay?"

"Am now." She turned her head into his chest and leaned her forehead against him. "I thought-" She took a breath that was half sob. "Sir, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were in there, I thought we'd-"

He grasped her shoulders and pushed her away so that he could look into her eyes, and her hands automatically rose to grasp his upper arms. "Didn't happen, Sam. That's what matters. It didn't happen. It's okay." He moved one hand to her cheek and brushed a fleck of plaster away with his thumb.

Barnes sat up and coughed loudly then looked at the two people in front of him. One corner of his mouth curled up in a smirk. He'd had a feeling ever since he'd met them there was something more to the team from Cheyenne Mountain, and now he was sure if it. The two men, Daniel and Teal'c acted a lot more like brothers than just teammates or even friends, and here were O'Neill and Carter sharing a moment in a way that didn't look much like CO and 2IC. Seems there was something to O'Neill's refusal of that little *gift* Alianni had bestowed on him after all.

At the sight of the Major sitting up, O'Neill pulled Carter over to one shoulder, and extended a hand to him. "Rick, you old dog!"

"Sir. Nice to see you. Um, a surprise though."

"Actually for me, too." He loosened his grip on Carter and stood, then helped her up as well. He suddenly remembered something else. "Toby?"

Barnes grinned, his white teeth standing out against the dirt on his face. "Alive and well, Sykes has him."

O'Neill smiled back at him then turned to Carter, "Feel free to commence that rescue, Major. I am *so* not gonna miss this place."

The guard was still conscious and armed but instead of securing the three prisoners he quickly moved to see what had become of his leader. Bensada lay face up, or what was left of it with one eye staring lifelessly at the ceiling. His arms and hands had been mangled to the point they were barely recognizable, and the whole front of his torso was a blackened bloody mess.

The guard stood silently for a moment then stepped toward O'Neill and dropped to one knee. He held out his rifle with both hands to the American. O'Neill accepted his surrender, and gun, with a silent nod.

The man stood and spoke in English. "Praise be to Allah. The demon is dead. We are, all of us, in your debt. Only a few of us knew the truth; I must tell them what has happened. Fear not for the results of the explosions, the injured will be cared for, and if any have died, they have gone on to their reward. You will not be held accountable." He pressed his fist to his heart and bowed his head then turned and quickly exited leaving the stunned, and now free, prisoners alone.

O'Neill turned the weapon over in his hands. "Well *that* was a surprise. Truth, hmm. Do you think he knew?"

O'Neill's question was obviously directed towards Carter. She stole a glance at Barnes before answering. "He called him a 'demon'. Maybe they thought he was possessed by something."

"Right." Barnes voice dripped sarcasm as he looked at the two other officers, fully aware they both knew just what kind of 'demon' Bensada really was.

Suddenly Carters radio crackled to life. "Teams! What was that third blast? Carter, Barnes, respond. Where are you? Are you okay?"

She slid the radio out of its pouch and handed it to O'Neill.

"Sykes, is that you? Can't find anything better to do on a Saturday night?"

There was silence for a moment. "O'Neill?"

The pause was broken by Daniel's excited voice. "Jack! You're not dead!"

He looked at Carter, momentarily confused, then keyed the radio. "Oh, that. Was, I guess, not is." He shrugged. "If I'm right, we shouldn't have much trouble getting out of here. We've got one well toasted bad-guy here. Anybody else want to blow this joint?"

"Waiting on you, flyboy. Barnes and Carter know where to meet." came the response from Sykes, his voice completely different than it had been just a moment ago, now full of laughter.

The two groups met behind one of the large bunkers between the main camp and the airfield. Although O'Neill believed the guards words about Bensada's death being a blessing, he, Carter and Barnes still moved in the shadows, trying to stay out of sight. Who knew how long it would take for word to get around to everyone, and how many would still be loyal to the downed beast?

The sight of O'Neill, only half dressed, striding toward them through the smoke and haze from the still smoldering fires was like someone emerging from a dream. The only hints at reality were the two Majors behind him, in their full black attire, though now scuffed and covered with white plaster. Sykes stood and waved a hand at them.

As soon as they were within sight of the others O'Neill began to scan the faces, looking for one in particular. He was surprised to see the non-military members of his team but even as he greeted them with a broad smile, his feet did not stop until he was standing in front of Toby. Without hesitation he pulled the younger man into a bear hug. Sellers responded by grabbing hold and returning the hug so tightly his knuckles turned white; a sob escaped his lips.

"I should have known they'd pick you to come get me."

O'Neill hugged the man more tightly. "I thought I was too late."

"So did I. Funny how things turned out." Toby pushed back out of the hug and eyed O'Neill. "Tell me I'm not crazy. Both of us, we *were* dead, weren't we?"

O'Neill released the man. "It's a really long story, Toby. Let's talk about it later, okay? The debriefing you're gonna get will make our usual special ops ones feel like a kid's game."

Sellers frowned. He never did like long reports, and he had an idea of why he'd be undergoing something akin to an interrogation. "That weapon he used-"

O'Neill cut him off with only a look, then inclined his head toward his friend and spoke in a hushed tone. "Is seriously classified."

Sellers quickly shut his mouth and nodded. In a way he wasn't surprised that O'Neill seemed to already be aware of these strange things.

Daniel stepped up to the men brandishing a jacket, which he slipped over O'Neill's shoulders.

"Daniel!" O'Neill exclaimed as he turned and clapped him on the shoulder.

The archaeologist bowed his head slightly and smiled crookedly. It was obvious he was glad to see his friend, but O'Neill saw there was a hint of something else. He opened his mouth to ask but Daniel looked away and cut him off. "Come on. We've arranged a pick up but it's a ways out from the camp. You two up for a hike?"

"Or not." O'Neill was looking over Daniel's shoulder at the large covered truck that was heading in their direction. Before it even got close to them, several armed men appeared out of the shadows, weapons trained on the Americans.

They were forced to close ranks and stand close together as the truck pulled up and stopped in front of them.

The passenger side door opened, and a familiar face emerged. Alianni held his rifle in the air and waved it. "O'Neill! I am glad to be seeing you!" He jumped to the ground and strode up to the group. "You see; I knew you would be the one!"

O'Neill shook his head, "Not just *me*, all of us. You've got a chance for a new start now. No more Bensada, no more magic boxes."

Alianni caught O'Neill's arm in a warriors greeting instead of the standard hand clasp and gave it a tug. "Come." The Iraqi gestured to the truck. "Tomorrow we rebuild. Tonight we celebrate."

O'Neill glanced at the small troupe of Americans and back at the compound behind him. "And them?"

"Do not fear; the soldiers will not follow. Many of them are as glad to see Bensada go as I. Come." He walked to the rear of the truck and pulled back the flap, revealing only a few men and some assorted crates; there was plenty of room for everyone.

O'Neill smiled and accepted a hand up from Alianni's brother-in-law, Hassan. The others joined him, and soon the truck was bouncing along the road. Alianni got in back with the passengers and chatted continuously as they rode.

Daniel interrupted him. "Jack? This isn't the road back to our extraction point. We're going the wrong way."

Alianni and O'Neill exchanged glances before O'Neill responded to him. "No, but it's the *right* way to camp."


Somewhere enroute from Bensada's compound to Alianni's camp, Sykes radioed to the extraction team to abort and return to base. The pilot was concerned, but Sykes assured him they were all right. As a matter of fact they were great. O'Neill and Sellers were alive and well and back among friends, and Bensada was permanently out of the picture. Sadly so was the 'magical' box Sykes had so wanted to see.

Alianni told him he might yet get the chance to see at least a piece of it. He had what he called 'inside information' that the fledgling Iraqi government had been becoming increasingly unhappy with Bensada and his policies. It was possible, for a price, they could be convinced to part with anything left of the destroyed artifact, a dark reminder of too many men, women and children who'd suffered the wrath of its owner.

At camp the first thing Alianni did was arrange for a satellite link phone call to Al Jaber Air Base. O'Neill was shocked to find himself reporting in to Hammond and not Marchman. The General gave his 2IC the go-ahead to sit tight until he was able to contact the current Iraqi administration and arrange for a troop transport helicopter to pick them up. The days of covert ops were numbered in Iraq, and Hammond decided the legacy of his short term commanding Al Jaber would be to extend a hand of friendship, or at least tolerance.

Alianni was true to his promise of celebration, and though in deference to his religion, no alcohol was served, in every other way it was a festive event. Bonfires were lit to chase away the nighttime desert chill and provide illumination, and several of the men demonstrated their skills with sitars and other instruments. Food was plentiful too as the women set out plates of fresh and dried fruits, nuts, and goat cheese.

Throughout the celebration Daniel had been unusually quiet, and O'Neill decided it was time to confront him about it. He sat next to the younger man and plucked a chunk of feta cheese off his plate. "I was really surprised to see you here, and Teal'c." He popped the cheese into this mouth.

"Not like either of us are novices at this kind of stuff. We just don't normally do it on this planet."

O'Neill nodded. "Still, thanks are in order."

Daniel nodded and lowered his eyes. "Sure. Anytime."

O'Neill made to swipe a date, but Daniel quickly moved the plate beyond his reach. The Colonel smiled and leaned back, resting against the log behind them. He gazed out across the camp. "Anything you want to talk about?"


The answer was too quick, even for Daniel, so O'Neill pried a little further. "This place has a way of throwing curve balls at just about everyone at some point. There's nothing wrong with admitting it."

"There isn't anything to admit."

"There is."


O'Neill grinned. He'd never admit it openly, but he just loved yanking Daniel's chain. "Is." Instead of a retort, there was silence. O'Neill slowly turned his head to meet Daniel's eyes.

"I never had you pegged as an assassin." The younger man took a breath and looked down. "I mean, I knew you had it in you, with all the Special Ops stuff and the 'suicide' thing from the first trip to Abydos. I just didn't know-" His voice faltered.

"I was still doing it."

"Yeah." Daniel looked up and winced.

It was O'Neill's turn to sigh. His mind immediately dredged up memories of that little assignment he'd accepted to expose Makepeace and the rift it had left in its wake. "You know it doesn't have anything to do with trust, right?"

Daniel set down his plate where O'Neill couldn't reach it. "I know, just don't like it. And don't give me any of that military garbage about it; I don't have to like it to deal with it. Sneaking around on missions is one thing, but you killed a man in cold blood, and at the time you didn't know he was a Goa'uld."

'Point taken.' O'Neill thought. Damn, it was getting harder to argue about it all the time. Apparently Daniel's morals were rubbing off on him. "You're right, I didn't know. What I *did* know was that he, as a normal human, was enough of a threat old Uncle Sam wanted him gone. And they didn't care about making it look like an accident either." He paused a moment, then went on. "Daniel, some things are hard, and sometimes there's a fine line between right and wrong; but things still need to be done. It's all part of the job."

"For someone who has the strength to make the tough choices."

The words sounded odd coming out of Daniel's mouth, and O'Neill glanced sideways at him. "Yeah." He wondered if someone had put that idea in Daniel's head, or he'd come up with it on his own. His friend would never understand all the nuances of the military, but apparently he was willing to let it go this time.



Daniel had to crack a smile. He picked up the plate and set it on the ground between them.

"Thanks." O'Neill spoke the word as he selected a slice of some greenish melon-like fruit, but both of them knew it was really meant for the forgiveness and acceptance Daniel had offered. The younger man nodded and picked out his own fruit to munch on. Both men turned their attention to the latest part of the festivities, a group of children trying to mimic western-style dancing to the very *non*-western style music being played.

A while later Daniel left to talk with one of the locals and O'Neill yawned and stretched out on a thick layer of blankets on the ground. He lay with his hands behind his head, and let his mind wander as he watched the fire. This was still Iraq; he had to remind himself, though his opinion of the place was beginning to change. There were so many good people here, Alianni and his people to name just a few.

It was good to see his teams, both the ones from Al Jaber and from Colorado getting along so well and enjoying themselves. And, he was glad to have put to rest so quickly the snag that had come up with Daniel. As he relaxed, Alianni came over and sat with him. The Iraqi was always ready with a story or some amusing anecdote, and they soon fell into a comfortable discussion of the budding camaraderie between the Iraqis and Americans, and what the future may hold. Eventually the conversation turned more personal.

Alianni bowed his head to the Colonel. "I wish to apologize again my friend for sending you the girl. It is customary to see to *all* the needs of my guests, but as I have met your Major Carter now I understand."

O'Neill knew he had to come clean with his host. "Look, Ali, I haven't been entirely truthful. It's not like that. We're not married; we're teammates."

Alianni smiled, "Mates, yes." He clasped O'Neill on the shoulder as he rose. "That is why she yet grieves."

The Iraqi moved on without saying another word, leaving O'Neill to wonder what he was talking about. Why would Carter be grieving? He looked around the camp and realized she was not in the gathering with everyone else. As a matter of fact he couldn't remember seeing her for most of the night. He quickly stood and left to track down his errant 2IC.

O'Neill found the blonde Major sitting alone on a rather sizeable rock off a short ways from the camp. She had one knee drawn up and her arms wrapped around herself as if cold. He walked up behind her making a little noise on purpose so as to not startle her, and slipped off the additional light jacket Alianni had given him. She shuddered slightly as he gently draped it over her shoulders. "Penny for them."

She didn't answer right away but eventually shrugged and spoke. "All the things that have happened here. The sarcophagus, the Goa'uld, you..."

He allowed there to be a pause before completing the sentence for her. "Dying."


As he lowered himself to the rock, she shifted to make more room.

"We might as well consider it an occupational hazard for how often it happens to us."

She still didn't look at him. "One of these times it will be permanent."

He turned to her in mock surprise, "And here I thought we were all going to live forever."

The joke fell flat as she ignored him, the silent pause stretching out to several minutes. She glanced down and noticed his knee twitching a little, he'd kept still as long as he could and something had to give.

"You're really not very good at this are you?"

"Um, no."

He gave in to the need to do something and let his arm move around behind her. His hand rested lightly against her hip, and she leaned ever so slightly into him. After a few moments savoring his warmth she spoke. "I had an interesting conversation with a lovely young lady tonight. It seems she was presented to one of the American officers as a *gift*. She was very detailed about the encounter."

He froze.

"She explained that she tried *very* hard to please him and couldn't understand his refusal until she spoke to Alianni about it."

He stopped breathing. The moment seemed to last indefinitely.

"Wife, huh?"

His breath hissed out between clenched teeth. The sound of one being bitten in the ass. Of course, as soon as Alianni had seen them together he'd given O'Neill a knowing head nod, and O'Neill had smiled back, only cementing the idea in the Iraqi's mind. Apparently he should have 'fessed up' a lot sooner than he did.

"I can explain that." After a long pause she turned her face toward his and raised her eyebrows.

His mouth was open, but he snapped it shut as he looked into her eyes. "No I can't."

Carter did not smirk. That couldn't be a smirk, could it?

The *smirk*, he'd decided that's what it was, subsided, and he found himself staring into two moonlit blue pools in a somewhat wistful face. The change in expression tugged at his heart, and he spoke to her in almost a whisper.


Her eyes lowered to stare at the small space between them where her fingers lightly brushed over a button on his jacket. "If you *ever* go off on another mission like this without backup-" Her head rose to where she could meet his gaze. She narrowed her eyes at him, noting that he had enough sense at least to *appear* to be chastised. "Or leave us out of the loop again-"

"Yes, Ma'am." He touched the brim of his cap in a mock salute.

She glared back at him as sternly as she could and faked a punch to his arm. The action didn't quite have its intended effect, and he grinned stupidly back at her. She lowered her head, barely holding back a giggle.

He spoke in a soft voice, now the serious one. "So, we're okay?"

She sighed and moved so that her head rested lightly on his shoulder. "Yeah. We're okay. We always are."

Jack nodded. He raised his head and listened to the sounds of the celebration still going on. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Some things change, and some remain the same. He was glad dawn would bring a new Iraq, at least for these kind people, and that he and his team would be returning home.

As always there were issues to face, and after dealing with two thirds of his team he wondered if there was something he needed to patch up with Teal'c as well. Still, issues or not, they had come for him. Once again proving that they were stronger together than apart.

He let his head drop to one side and touched his cheek to the soft golden locks on his shoulder, and the woman beside him responded by nuzzling just a bit closer. Two contented sighs added to the music of the night.