Author's Note: This one is with many, many thanks to Gumnut and Yllek.
Without them both, it wouldn't be half the fic it is.

Extreme Cost

He could see the colour of her eyes through the scope, blue and clear, staring up to where she knew he lay concealed on the ridge. Although she tried to hide it, her fear was almost a physical presence, emanating off her. It was so powerful it was as if he could feel it through the telescopic lens.

There was a slight movement beside him, the shifting of a body on the rocky ground, but no one spoke.

No one thought he would do it. There had to be another way.

But there wasn't.

He shifted his aim, centring the crosshairs away from her head, no longer able to see her eyes. His finger tightened on the trigger.

The sound was sharp in the stillness.

Blood blossomed from her chest, and she dropped.

He lowered the rifle slowly, aware of the incredulous intake of breath from the large man on his right, then the others moved off, hurrying down.

To where she lay.

And he turned onto his back and looked up at the sky, his face expressionless. Just for a moment, he shut his eyes, then, standing, he brushed himself off, picked up the rifle, and followed the others down the slope to where Carter was bleeding.

xoxoxoxoxoxo

"Report, Major." General Hammond watched the activity around the stretchers, with a worried frown. Even before Major Pierce was able to answer, gurneys were being rapidly pushed towards the elevators. The General turned his full attention on the leader of SG-15. "Where's Colonel O'Neill?"

"He ...he ordered us to go ahead. Said he had some cleaning up to do, and that he'd be following soon." Pierce glanced back at the gate as if expecting to see the Colonel appear. "Teal'c is with him, sir."

Hammond nodded, knowing that the major could have done nothing else under the circumstances but return to the SGC, bringing the wounded with him. He dismissed the officer, and ordered him to the infirmary for his post mission physical. He was barely able to prevent himself from following, knowing there would be enough for Doctor Fraiser to worry about without his getting in the way. Besides, he had something else to organise. He gave the large rectangular metal box sitting in the middle of the gate room a considering look, already deciding the best means of disposal. A flurry of orders later, and he watched as it was carried carefully from the room.

As he made his way wearily up the steps to the Control Room, he tried to put himself in Jack's place, back there on the planet. God only knew what was going through his mind. Why hadn't he returned with the others? The only consolation was that at least he wasn't alone.

xoxoxoxoxoxo

Teal'c watched as the wormhole disengaged, the ripple of blue replaced by a view of the distant city. He allowed his shoulders to relax for a second before straightening up and turning to face his commander and friend.

O'Neill was gone.

All that remained to show anything had occurred by the chap'pai was the slumped over body of a local man, and the marks of many footprints in the trampled grass.

There was only one place the Colonel could be, so Teal'c set out, hurrying past the low shrubs and on into the tall trees of the nearby forest. Almost as soon as he entered their shade, the sunlight was cut off by the thick canopy of leaves, making him squint to adjust his eyes to the gloom. Not only the light was reduced. All sound seemed to have been dulled, only the very faint calls of birds high above penetrating the quiet.

He had walked for several minutes and was beginning to become concerned, when he found him, if merely by chance. It had only been the recognition of an out of place colour that caused him to stop, peering into the shadows.

The Colonel was sitting, back propped up against the rough trunk of a large tree, his head resting on his bent knees, his eyes closed. Beside him, on the dry loam of the forest, lay the sniper rifle, its barrel glittering in a small patch of sunlight.

"O'Neill."

It was only when he bent and squatted next to the other man that the Colonel raised his head slightly, his face pale in the diminishing light. His voice was low, with an edge of soul-destroying tiredness that sent warning signals to the Jaffa.

"Hey, Teal'c. I suppose you've come to drag me back."

He lowered himself further until he too was sitting on the soft soil, legs crossed, close enough to touch the other man, but keeping his distance. Long seconds passed as he considered his reply. Finally he answered, his tone as quiet as the greeting had been.

"I came to find you, not to make you return."

The Colonel shut his eyes again, lowering his forehead to his folded arms. "Well, you found me."

The slight tremors that passed through his body would have gone unnoticed by most, but years of observation of his leader had honed Teal'c senses as far as O'Neill was concerned. He looked closer, seeing the fine beads of sweat begin to form on the too pale skin. He was not surprised when the Colonel abruptly unfolded himself and stood, staggering a few feet to one side before vomiting violently into the undergrowth.

Teal'c was beside the grey haired man in a heartbeat, supporting the swaying body, his hand soothing on the bent back, as the Colonel stood, leaning against a tall pine tree. It was some minutes before all that was produced were the painful dry retches of an empty stomach.

"Shit!" The Colonel straightened, just for a second leaning into the Jaffa's strong arm, before pulling away, scrubbing a hand across his mouth. "Sorry about that."

"You have nothing to apologise for, O'Neill." He led his companion back to the spot he had found him, steading him as he slid down to rest beside the rifle once again. Pulling his canteen out, he unscrewed the lid and handed it over, pleased to have it accepted with a small smile of thanks.

Teal'c resumed his previous position, allowing himself to fall into a light state of kel-no-reem, but staying aware at all times of the man beside him.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Jack took another swig from Teal'c's canteen, careful to replace the cap, noting with a sense of disgust, the way his hands trembled, making such a commonplace task difficult.

In one way the big man beside him was a calming presence, in another he wished the Jaffa had not been there to see his weakness.

And it was weakness. A self-indulgence he shouldn't have allowed himself. He had watched as Carter was worked over by the medic. Watched as her life's blood ran from her. Watched as she was carried through the gate. Daniel's unconscious form following quickly after Carter's. Arrangements for the safe containment of the primitive atom bomb were made. He had given orders, remained outwardly calm and in control.

He had seen the looks the others gave him. Seen the speculation.

All he could see inside his mind was Carter as she fell.

Gradually the images began to overwhelm him, and he felt the first telltale tingling in his hands. He knew the signs.

He had barely held it together long enough to order Pierce back to the SGC. The wormhole hadn't even disengaged before he was off, seeking the anonymous shelter of the forest.

He had shot her again. And the second time was the killer.

He remembered the feeling as he pulled the trigger of the zat, back in the corridor of the SGC a year ago, as if it were yesterday. He could hear the cracking of the electrical discharge, see the entity's malevolence glaring from Carter's eyes. Feel his heart pounding as he took the second shot.

Heard the thud as she fell.

He had made a decision to kill a friend that day. A decision he thought he would never have to make again.

Bile rose up in his throat as he thought of the events of today, but he forced it down, casting a quick glance at the silent man beside him.

The fanatic at the gate, unstable bomb, armed and ready to send through. Daniel unconscious, Carter captured. The city, vulnerable, all too near.

He couldn't let the bomb be armed, couldn't risk it.

One woman's life against the lives of thousands.

One friend standing between them and the means to end it before tragedy struck.

He had done what he had to.

The high-powered rifle had sent the bullet through Carter and into the man behind, killing him where he stood.

Thousands saved.

A friend lost once more.

The first time had been once too many. The second had undone him.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Teal'c saw the movement from the corner of his eye, the rub of the face across the knees. Then O'Neill's head lifted, eyes blinking. In their depths he saw utter desolation.

"You should never let yourself get too close."

He nodded in response, not agreeing, but understanding.

"Sometimes you cannot help it, O'Neill. Sometimes you must allow yourself to care. But in doing so, you risk much."

The brown eyes stared through him, as if at a point far distant.

"Is it worth the risk? My hesitation today could have cost the lives of countless people. Is any friendship worth that?" He pushed himself off the ground, his hands covered in the rich red dirt of an alien world. "Look at me. Cowering under a tree, scared to go home for fear of what I'll find. What sort of soldier am I?"

Teal'c remained still, looking up. "A human one, O'Neill. One that cares. And a better one for that caring. Anyone can take lives, O'Neill. It is the saving of lives that makes the difference to a man's soul. No matter the outcome, no one will think the less of you for what has occurred here today." He paused, giving his commander time to digest his words, watching the long fingers twisting against each other, soil falling from them. "There are many who care for you, many who look to you for guidance, far more than you know. Today some saw what being a leader truly means."

The other man looked down at him, for a brief moment allowing his vulnerability to shine through. "Yes, they almost saw me lose it, puking my guts out like the greenest cadet." Then the mask of indifference was back on, O'Neill's face closed and shuttered.

Teal'c stood, speaking firmly. "But they did not. They saw a commander. They saw you do what lesser men could not. They saw you do the right thing."

"Even if the right thing meant killing someone I care for? Could you have done that, Teal'c? Could Daniel? Could you have taken the shot? When did doing the right thing become so damn hard?"

He didn't reply, knowing O'Neill knew the answer. Yes, he could have done it. But how many could admit to that? It was a decision he could have made, just as his commander had, but at what cost? One part of him was selfishly glad he had not been called on to do as the Colonel had. They both had enough stains on their conscience. He wasn't sure how much more his friend could take before the load pulled him down, unable to carry any more guilt.

He was startled as O'Neill spun, but did not allow his surprise to show. He watched in silence as the other man leaned his head forward, resting it on the tree, his right hand thumping several times against the thick trunk. At last he stopped, his breath ragged, and nodded.

Teal'c noted the gathering gloom, dusk not far away. "Should we not return home, O'Neill?"

The reply came immediately. "Soon. I have something I need to do first." The Colonel bent and picked up the snipper rifle. Seating himself again, he took a cleaning kit from a vest pocket, and began to strip the weapon down.

Teal'c settled in to wait, patiently.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

The sound of the gate activation had Daniel leaping for the stairs, only a quick grab by the general stopping him.

"Let's wait for the IDC, son."

The identification seemed to take forever, before the announcement of SG- 1's code was confirmed. The order to open the iris came as he was already half way down the stairs, his boots clattering on the metal steps.

The ripple of two bodies leaving the cool liquid light hit the outer edge of the giant circle, dissipating back in on itself. The wormhole shut down, the iris slamming back into place, as they came towards Daniel. He couldn't wait, hurrying up the ramp to meet them.

In the moments before he spoke, he caught a glimpse of something in his friend's eyes, something so bleak that he almost stopped, but instead he came forward, placing a hand on the older man's arm, knowing exactly what he needed to hear.

"She's alive. Sam's alive, Jack. Janet says she's going to be okay."

For a moment Daniel's heart shot into his throat as the arm under his fingers trembled and Jack stumbled. He reached out his other hand to steady him.

"Jack?"

Two dark eyes, almost black against the pale of his face, caught Daniel's, and for a second the emotion normally hidden deep behind Jack's public facade, surfaced. Daniel's heart clenched at the anguish in that gaze. Self-loathing mixed with utter relief, shuddering as shock set in.

In his peripheral vision, Daniel was aware of the figure of the General standing to one side, awaiting answers. Daniel ignored him, placing his hands on Jack's shoulders, forcing him to look at him.

"Jack, she's going to be okay. You did the right thing."

The Colonel stared back but didn't answer.

"Jack?"

For a long moment his friend stayed silent, then Jack shook off Daniel's hands and turned to acknowledge the general, but Hammond didn't say anything, just nodding his head in the direction of the door.

Jack turned and left the gate room, his shoulders set and back straight.

Daniel stared at that straight back until it had passed through the doors, his glance then bouncing to Teal'c. The warrior bowed his head slightly and Daniel knew they both understood what this had cost Jack, what it could have cost them all if Sam hadn't survived.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Jack headed for the armoury, giving the sergeant a brief nod as he signed his rifle in, placing it carefully in its special case. Only when it was secure did he turn and head for the infirmary, his stride steady and determined.

He ignored the looks he was given as he passed, the quick words hidden by hands.

His face was expressionless. Ever inch the professional soldier.

He would wait until Carter woke up.

She would know he had done the right thing.

She would understand.

He was certain of it.

The End