Trying to ignore the cramps in her legs and the burning in her lungs, Vala dodged through the darkness, twisting around the jagged branches that grabbed at her green BDUs. The dense forest offered cover from the pursuing Jaffa, but made progress difficult, especially since night fell and the incessant ground fog rose almost to her waist. She stopped to catch her breath, hands resting on her knees, and checked her compass. If this planet didn't have a daily relative humidity of 99 and a continual cloud cover, navigation back to the Stargate would certainly be simpler. Wiping a sleeve across her face, Vala fought against the panic that lurked in her thoughts. There was no time for that, she had to find a way to get them off this world, and quickly. She raised her head, searching the still branches above her head as if for inspiration, an idea – any idea. Her usual plan when faced with pursuing mobs of any nature had been to run – run fast, run far, and run alone. Now, well, now it was different.
She blinked her eyes clear and took a deep breath, straightening her jacket unconsciously. Moving off through the trees slowly now, her eyes sought out the signs she'd left to lead her back. A strangled cough coming from the underbrush to her left startled her into stillness for a moment before she relaxed, lowered her zat, and made her way to the shallow ditch well-hidden beneath thick plants and thicker fog.
"It's me," she whispered, sliding down to rest beside Daniel whose entire body stiffened then relaxed. "How are you doing?"
Daniel Jackson couldn't keep a short laugh from escaping before his lips clamped together in a tight line, choking back a groan. "Great. Just catching up on my kel-no-reem." His right arm was pressed tightly across his ribs almost as if he were physically holding himself together.
"Huh," Vala turned the tip of her penlight and checked the thick bandage circling his right thigh. "Napping in the face of danger, that's my hero," she muttered, her eyes coming to rest on the bright red that was visibly seeping through the layers of gauze, making a trail down his leg. The soil beneath him was saturated with blood. The bleeding must have started again almost as soon as she left him to scout out the enemy location.
Unzipping her jacket, Vala pulled her black shirt out of her pants and hurriedly tore a three-inch strip from around the bottom edge.
Eyes at half-mast behind his glasses, Daniel attempted to raise his eyebrows. "Going for a new look?"
"Oh, yes," Vala quipped, folding the material into a thick pad, "all the girls are doing it." She lifted the bandage away from his leg and slid the cloth over the jagged knife wound; trying to ignore his gasp of pain she pulled the bandage tighter to try to stem the flow of blood. "Actually, I just wanted to see if you were too far gone to appreciate it."
Daniel closed his eyes and smiled, letting his head fall back onto the ground. "Flirting even in the face of certain death, that's what I love about you." His voice trailed off to a whisper.
"Oh, sure," she watched as the flow of blood slowed. "All the men tell me they love me when they've got me on my back in the bushes, but the next morning it's all, 'don't call me, I'll call you.'" Vala switched off the light and lay still to listen to the darkness. "They're still a good ways off. If we move quickly we might be able to…"
With an uncanny sense of direction in the pitch-blackness Daniel grabbed her arm, silencing her. After an entire silent minute went by and his grip started to ease she risked speaking. "What?"
"Don't." He barely breathed the word.
"Don't do that."
Daniel sighed. "Pretend I'm going anywhere."
Pushing herself up Vala brushed the dirt from hair and flipped it behind her back. "I'm not pretending anything, Daniel. If we move now while they're still fighting each other we can make it to the 'gate."
"You can make it to the 'gate," he corrected her.
"No," she began, getting to her knees beside him and taking his right arm with both hands. "We are going to get to the 'gate, dial Earth, and get reinforcements." She shifted her weight, hauling Daniel to a sitting position. "There is no way I'm going without you."
Daniel couldn't help the agonized groan that pushed through his clenched teeth. How could such a tiny little person have so much strength and sheer pig-headedness? Where did she keep it? Every breath came with a new biting pain that sliced through his chest but he braced himself against it and ripped his arm from her grasp. "Vala."
Rocking back on her heels she growled in frustration. "What, Daniel? Do you want me to leave you here, because that is not going to happen," she snapped.
"Yes, it is." Daniel reached up to grasp her shoulder. "You've got to get word to the SGC, get some fire power. We've got one Beretta, empty, one standard issue pack with everything of consequence removed, one knife, one zat gun and a GDO between us, and if I try to stand up I'm just going to start bleeding again, and you know it." He gave her a little shake, his teeth gritted. "Use your head. You can be back in hours with three teams of Marines." When she began to argue he shook her again. "You can go faster alone, hell you were born to work alone. And you know I'm right."
"And what, you're just going to lie here in the bushes until I get back?" That little voice inside her knew he was right, knew he was a liability to her as wounded as he was. She had always been the first to bail out or improvise at any sign of trouble. Vala knew she'd gotten an extra large helping of that instinct for self-preservation at the root of every human being, and experience had given her the wits to escape any number of life-threatening situations one step ahead of her pursuers. Lately she found that instinct swamped by other feelings, other priorities, and the words that Daniel had spoken to her in that warehouse a few weeks ago echoed through her head again, "You've been running so long it's almost second nature to you. You don't remember it, but you made a decision to stop running. It's over. Now it's time to come home." It was amazing how a group of people who believed in her changed her entire perspective. Well, that and an unstoppable intergalactic threat.
"Yes." His arm fell from her shoulder and she knew he was gesturing at the unseen forest. "They'll have a hell of a time trying to find me in this muck. They know we're going for the 'gate, so don't think I'm trying to be brave or noble or anything. I'm hiding in the dark while you're taking all the chances."
"Right," she snapped, coldly.
"Besides," he grunted, gingerly lowering himself back to the warm soil, "there's more at stake. And you know it."
She bit the inside of her cheek and propelled herself to her feet. "Fine. I'll head back to sound the alarm, but if I come back and you're dead you are going to have a lot of explaining to do." Turning her back on his sigh of relief she re-zipped her jacket and placed both hands on her hips. "And don't forget, you still owe me dinner."
Forty minutes later, Vala crouched beneath a thick-leaved plant that only partially sheltered her from the driving rain that had been falling for half an hour. The yellow moon had risen, and caused a slight lightening of the clouds overhead, just enough to outline the Stargate against the dark hills that lay behind it. Two Jaffa stood beside the DHD, apparently more interested in watching the 'gate itself than they were worrying about someone slipping up on their position. Well, that made sense, Vala shrugged, since the muscle-bound oafs were convinced that they had completely neutralized SG-1. They weren't far from wrong, unfortunately. She could use their over-confidence against them – it wouldn't be the first time that she took advantage of an enemy's condescension.
A few minutes later, the Jaffa were lying face down in the rain, and Vala was dialing the 'gate to Earth. Hopefully when they woke up they'd tell the others that she and Daniel had both escaped and they'd call off the search. She punched in her iris code and hesitated on the brink of the event horizon, turning to squint into the dark forest. "I'll be right back," she whispered into the night.
One week earlier
Dr. Daniel Jackson left a trail of melted snow behind him from the surface of Cheyenne Mountain all the way to his lab on Level 18 of the underground complex. Winter in Colorado Springs made him long for the scathing desert winds of Abydos, and often kept him at the Stargate Command facility for days on end, just to avoid the bitter chill on the surface. Of course up until a few days ago his single-minded search for Merlin's secret weapon had kept him at the SGC and at his desk for 50 hours straight. Eyes filled with grit and bloodstream teeming with liquid caffeine, it still took two SFs, Mitchell and finally General Landry's face-to-face confrontation to physically drag him from his computer and into an Air Force car for transport back to his neglected apartment. He shook his head, dislodging a few more ice chips from his hair onto the concrete floor as he thought of Mitchell, assigned to sit watchdog so that Daniel wouldn't just continue his research at home. The colonel had seemed truly heartbroken to find out that, not only didn't Daniel have cable, he didn't even own a television. He must have snuck out shortly after Daniel dropped into bed and 14 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Under orders not to return to the base for 48 full hours, Daniel attempted to embrace the time off to live in the current century for a change, eating real food and catching up on world events, but every so often he'd find himself staring off into the distance while his brain tried out different unlikely anagrams of the words Castianna and Sahal. After checking his cell phone for messages for what seemed like the eighteenth time in less than three hours he'd finally dropped it into the drawer on his nightstand, plopped down on the couch and lost himself in Geoffrey of Monmouth's supposed history of Arthur in the original Latin that had been collecting dust on his shelves for years. Not exactly what Landry might have had in mind, but it was the best that he could do.
Turning the corner to his office, Daniel was pleased to find the room in total darkness. Too many people had been traipsing in and out of this room lately, especially one particularly irritating person, as it had become unofficial anti-Ori central. Flipping on the lights he shrugged out of his parka, scarf, and sweater thinking about how his role on SG-1 had changed over the past ten years. A momentary longing for the days when he was more the token cultural geek on the team than the one everyone turned to for the ultimate solution to defeating intergalactic bad guys swept over him. There had been months at a time when the only other person wondering what he was working on in his lab were Sam and a few of his colleagues on other SG teams. He rubbed at the tension that never really left the back of his neck and wondered how long it would take for someone to show up with the usual question – any luck? 'Oh, yes, I've found the entire solution to the mystery this morning, I just didn't feel like telling anyone,' he often felt like replying.
Hanging his outerwear to drip dry on a hook in the closet, he turned towards his desk and allowed his eyes to settle on a picture of Share for a moment, but just for a moment. He smiled, turned away and picked up the carafe of his personal coffee pot that someone had been nice enough to clean out while he was gone and headed into the hall in search of cold water. He didn't get very far.
"Daniel Jackson." One large hand reached out to steady Daniel while the other neatly snatched the glass coffee pot from midair. "I did not mean to startle you."
"Hey, Teal'c," Daniel laughed, reaching for the carafe. "No problem. You know for a big guy you don't make a whole lot of noise when you walk."
Falling in beside his friend, Teal'c lowered his head in acknowledgement. "So Colonel Mitchell has told me. You have just returned to the base." It wasn't really a question. For many years Teal'c had made it a point to know where each of his teammates was at any hour. "I am sorry, had I been asked I would have been pleased to escort you to your apartment myself. Colonel Mitchell did not inform me of his plan until I inquired as to your location."
Stopping at the water fountain, Daniel looked up at his friend in surprise. "Were you looking for me? Did you need something?"
"I did not."
Daniel shrugged and turned back to fill the pot. "I'm sure Mitchell didn't think you'd go for kidnapping me and making me leave the base. Probably thought it was easier to keep you in the dark."
"Indeed," Teal'c growled.
Heading back to the lab, Daniel continued. "Don't like it when he throws his weight around?"
"He is not so weighty as he sometimes believes," the Jaffa replied harshly.
"Hey, Jack would have done the same thing," Daniel reminded his friend. "Thinking they know what's best for everyone comes with that little silver thing the Air Force puts on their shoulders." Daniel upended a bag of ground coffee into a filter and shoved it into the top of the coffee maker. When the dark brown liquid was dripping into the pot, he took a good look at Teal'c.
Hands clutched behind his back, Teal'c prowled Daniel's lab, head slightly bowed as if he were examining the collection of books, artifacts, and reports that littered the tables with great intensity. Daniel frowned, observing after a moment that Teal'c's dark eyes never rested, but his gaze seemed to slide over the items without seeing, just the way he could look out over the horizon of a new planet and immediately assess any potential danger to the team. His broad face bore little of the calm confidence that he had acquired after the defeat of the System Lords and the freeing of the Jaffa people. Instead he looked like the old Teal'c, the Teal'c who rarely smiled, the one who was so weighed down by his past and so hopeless about the future that using the word grim to describe his expression was an understatement. If it weren't for the hair, Daniel could easily place the Teal'c standing in his lab today in that stone prison cell on Chartago, awaiting his own execution. He'd been so wrapped up in his own pursuit of Merlin's weapon he'd almost missed his friend's anguish.
"O'Neill would not have needed to act in this manner," Teal'c snarled, eyes never still. "You would have trusted his judgment instinctively, as would I."
"Trusted Jack's judgment," Daniel pronounced slowly. "I'm sorry, which one of us had his memories erased a few years ago?" Getting no response, Daniel sighed and leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. "This isn't about Mitchell, is it."
Teal'c stopped moving around the cluttered room and turned just his head to meet the perceptive eyes of his teammate. After all these years he should not be surprised by Daniel Jackson's keen sense of awareness. His tightly creased forehead relaxed for a moment. "Am I so transparent to you then?" he asked quietly.
Daniel's eyebrows rose and he unconsciously reached up to adjust his glasses. "Transparent? No. But it can't be easy for you now that Dakara and the Jaffa High Council have been destroyed." Teal'c's frown returned. "Teal'c, you are the most self-possessed, reserved person that I've ever met. I know you don't resent Mitchell, or his command of SG-1. But I also know that you've fought every day of your life for the past ten years to free the Jaffa people from their enslavement to the Goa'uld." His intensity brought Daniel a step away from the wall and towards his friend. "And now another, stronger enemy has taken all of the progress that you and Bra'tac have made and destroyed it with one shot. You'd be less than the man I've always known you to be if that didn't affect you."
"The Free Jaffa Nation is no more." Teal'c straightened his shoulders and raised his head as if determined to cast off a burden.
Daniel hesitated. "You're right. The Free Jaffa Nation died with Se'tak and the Council on Dakara." Surprised to hear his own fatalistic words echoed from his optimistic friend, Teal'c turned and saw the compassion and commitment that filled the young man's eyes. "But that doesn't mean there is no hope of building another, stronger, more just Jaffa Republic. I've studied history, Teal'c, and I know how people have salvaged societies after devastating defeats. I mean, isn't that what Bra'tac is doing right now? Meeting with Jaffa from all over the galaxy to try to rebuild?"
"Bra'tac is persistent, but I fear it is a futile effort," Teal'c replied, turning towards the still open door to Daniel's workroom.
"Teal'c," Daniel lurched forward, as if to physically stop the Jaffa's progress. Before he could reach him, Teal'c quickly turned back to face him, startling Daniel into stillness. The pain plainly visible in his friend's eyes choked off his reply.
"I have lived over one hundred years, wondering if my people would ever taste the freedom that yours have known for centuries."
"I know," Daniel agreed quietly.
"I have bled and burned and fought for freedom, only to see it snatched away by yet another set of false gods."
"I know," he repeated.
"And you ask me to continue to hope?"
"Yes," Daniel breathed. "As frustrated and as tired as you must be, Teal'c, I ask you to continue to hope."
The two stood silently, yet communicating.
Teal'c closed his eyes and bowed his head in acknowledgment. "Because you ask, Daniel Jackson, I will try." He looked up to see Daniel shove his hands into his pockets and shift his weight uneasily. "Your own journey has been no less discouraging, Daniel Jackson, and yet, despite your own frustration and exhaustion you continue to hope."
"Oh, you know me," Daniel replied lightly, shrugging.
"Indeed," Teal'c began, a slight smile beginning to tug at his mouth.
"Hey, how's the. . ." Lt. Col. Cameron Mitchell stomped around the corner and into Daniel's lab, stopping short of the broad back of the Jaffa that almost blocked the doorway. "Whoa, sorry, Teal'c," he added, unconsciously holding the very thick file he'd been carrying between himself and the imposing figure. Giving Teal'c a wide berth, Mitchell planted himself between the two men, leaned back against a table, and glanced between them. "Sooo," he drawled, crossing his arms, "what am I missing?"
Daniel glanced at Teal'c over the top of his glasses, as if leaving any explanation up to him, and then turned and busied himself pouring his coffee.
"Nothing," Teal'c replied. Facing Mitchell he quirked one eyebrow, "Nor will you be missing our scheduled sparring practice this afternoon, will you Colonel Mitchell?"
"Nope, I'll be there," Mitchell assured him. "Although your enthusiasm for smacking me around is a bit disturbing, I've gotta admit."
"Then I will take my leave," Teal'c bowed his head and walked out, but not before Daniel caught a glimmer of amusement in his hooded, dark eyes.
Falling into the chair in front of his computer, Daniel scraped one finger across the touchpad to wake it and frowned at the screen. "So. How long were you listening?"
Mitchell straightened, uncomfortable. "Sounded kinda personal, so I thought I'd wait 'til you guys were finished," he explained.
"Right." He tapped at the keyboard to open his email and pursed his lips at the number of new messages he'd received. After a moment he glanced up to see Mitchell looking at him pensively. "Thanks, by the way."
"For waiting? No sweat."
Leaning back in his chair, Daniel nodded quickly, "No, well, yeah, that too. But I meant thank you for forcing me to take a break. I didn't want to admit it, but it was just what I needed. I even thought of some other avenues to explore, so, thanks."
"Well, before you leap back into the search for Merlin's weapon with both feet," Mitchell began, tapping the edge of the report tensely against Daniel's desk, "I need to talk with you about something else."
Frowning down at the distinctive cover on the file in the colonel's hand, Daniel sighed. "That's one of Vala's mission reports, isn't it? Hey, I warned you and General Landry that asking her to go into 'some detail'," Daniel made air quotation marks with his fingers, "would lead to trouble. She does love to tell a story…"
Mitchell waved his arms to ward off Daniel's explanation. "Yeah, I know, 'and then we did this, and then we did that.' Concise is not a word she's grown familiar with. But for once, I'm glad she went into unbelievably minute detail." He flipped to a page towards the bottom of the stack that he'd marked with a paper clip. "This is her report of our recon mission to PV7-373 - the one that ended up with us on the supposedly empty Ori ship after the Jaffa used their super weapon on Dakara to kill everyone." When Daniel gave him a questioning look, he continued. "While you've been in here researching cool stuff like Sir Gawain and the Sangraal, and Sam's been playing with her tech toys, I've been re-reading mission reports."
"And you found something in Vala's?" The archaeologist couldn't quite keep the note of incredulity out of his voice. He swung his chair around to face Mitchell directly. "Hey, I'm sure hers went into much more detail than mine, but we were together the entire time we were on that ship."
"And yet…" Mitchell began, pinning Daniel down with a suddenly narrowed gaze.
Gesturing at the papers in Mitchell's hands, Daniel raised his eyebrows and signaled for the Air Force officer to continue.
"Look, Jackson, I'm having trouble with the idea that you didn't think it was important enough to include in your report." When Daniel's expression displayed only a deepening of his confusion, Mitchell's demeanor eased. "And you have no idea what I'm talking about."
"Nope. Not a clue," Daniel affirmed, head nodding. "Maybe if you let me see it…" He reached out and snatched the report, scanning quickly down the page that Mitchell had marked, brow furrowing, his other hand unconsciously grabbing his coffee mug and bringing it to his mouth. It never reached it. "Oh, that," he muttered, setting report and mug back on the desk.
"Yeah, that," echoed Mitchell, empty hands shoved into the pockets of his blue BDUs. "C'mon. You can't tell me that you just forgot about that." He concentrated on holding a carefully blank expression, and keeping his tone even and light. If he'd learned one thing working with this team over the past year, it was that he might never learn exactly what was going on behind those glasses. Getting insights about ancient cultures and dead civilizations was simple – just find the crack in the dike and everything Dr. Daniel Jackson knew or thought would eventually come pouring out. But pushing him to reveal deeper concerns, especially when it had to do with Jackson personally often led to all kinds of impenetrable barriers going up. Mitchell was finding that it might be easier to get a keynote address out of the taciturn Jaffa than a straight answer out of his slightly more human teammate. And Sam Carter was an open book compared with both of them.
"It's not that I forgot, exactly," Daniel began softly, choosing his words carefully, "I just didn't think it was that important."
Cameron Mitchell allowed a hot wave of anger to churn through him, clenching his teeth to choke off the kind of retort that any airman in his command could expect after a statement like that. But he couldn't keep the sarcasm from his voice. "You didn't think it was that important?" Trying to release his irritation in nervous energy, Mitchell moved, turning his back on his teammate for a moment, holding out his arms and raising his eyes to heaven, or at least to the surface of Earth some 18 floors above his head. "A crazed, intergalactic superchick threatens you, tells you that she and her god-like forces 'have plans' for you, and you don't think that's important?" Turning back abruptly he planted both hands on the startled archaeologist's desk and leaned over him. "Tell me, just what would you consider important?"
"Obviously," Daniel replied, his own annoyance level rising quickly to counter that of the colonel's, "I thought it was more important to focus on Adria's powers, her telekinesis, and mind control, her personal shield that countered even the Ancient weapon on Dakara, her complete control of the Ori vessel without being anywhere near the bridge and the control chair, and the tactical information that she has, by her own admission, many, many more vessels out there, in our galaxy, and that she doesn't stay with just one. Those facts that you will find in my report are what I consider important, not posturing and threats. When you've heard the over-the-top, cliché threats from egomaniacs that I have for the last twelve years…"
"Oh, here we go," Mitchell interrupted bitterly, backing away from Daniel's desk, "the old not-so-subtle reminder to the new guy that you've seen it all…" He gestured expressively.
Daniel shot out of his chair, stabbing one finger at his desk to cement his point. "No, that isn't what this is, Mitchell, and if you'd actually been listening outside my door you'd realize that no one on this team, including me, feels that way. But, by the same token, you should be willing to admit that sometimes I might just know what I'm talking about."
Staring across the desk, the two men, both intent, both sure of his own position, seemed to deflate at the same time. Mitchell crossed his arms over his chest and Daniel picked up his mug and drained it before walking back over to the coffee pot.
"Look, I'm sorry I didn't include Adria's threat in my report," Daniel sighed, "but Vala did. Isn't that why we each write Mission Reports? So that you and General Landry and whoever else up the chain of command can get insight into these experiences from many perspectives?"
Shrugging his grudging agreement, Mitchell relented. "Of course. And I don't mean to beat you over the head with it, but this tendency you have to be completely oblivious to your own personal welfare…man, it worries me."
A small smile settled on Daniel's lips. "Funny, that's kinda what Jack used to say. Only not as politely." The frown returned in a moment. "But I'm on the same team as everyone else, Mitchell, and we each know that this is the last line of defense between our world and absolute destruction. None of us is particularly safe right now."
"Yeah, I get that," Mitchell replied in low even tones, trying to get through Jackson's stubbornness. "But unless I'm totally off here, it sounds to me like Adria's singling you out for something. And that's got to be connected to the fact that you are the only one on this team, the only living human, that's ever actually been Ascended and has the t-shirt to prove it."
Settling back into his chair heavily, as if the past 48-hours of forced rest had already been forgotten, Daniel nodded tightly. "Probably."
Mitchell had expected a bigger reaction – or any kind of reaction, actually. "And?"
"And what?" Daniel's irritation was back. "What do you want me to say? The Ori are trying to destroy the Ancients, yes, and having lived among the Ascended Ancients for over a year I might have some intel that the Ori want."
Daniel's laugh was dry and bitter. "So, what am I supposed to do about it? Go into hiding?" he suggested sourly.
Mitchell allowed the silence to stretch between the two until the everyday noises of the equipment and the busy military base intruded.
"You're serious," Daniel's eyes widened in disbelief.
"I'm not the only one," Mitchell admitted.