Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Distant Thunder

by Arianna

Note, this is a crossover with Stargate SG-1…and is yet another TSbyBS resolution story. Sorry, I can't seem to stop writing these closure fics!

My thanks to Rhiannon, for her story consultant role to ensure I was accurate in my representation of the SG1 universe.

As always, my gratitude to StarWatcher, for her wonderful work as my beta…

…and to someone I don't thank nearly enough: Starfox, for coding and hosting my stories in your wonderful Mansion

********************

"You seem kinda quiet, Chief," Jim observed, shifting uncomfortably in the tight confines of the Volvo as he watched his roommate warily. Blair hadn't said much at all since Simon had surprised him with the offer of a full time job if he attended some courses in the Academy, like weapons use and marksmanship.

Sandburg cut his friend a quick look and then returned his attention to the road. He'd just dropped Naomi off with her friend, Windchimes, and was headed home to the loft. "Yeah, guess I am," he murmured softly. "There're so many things to talk about, I guess I'm not really sure where to start."

"You don't seem too excited about being my permanent, and official, partner," Ellison said, his voice tight and defensive as he continued to stare at Blair, trying to read the lines in the pale face and the tension in his friend's muscles. Heartbeat was pretty normal - but Blair was wound tighter than a spring, and seemed infinitely weary. "I…we…thought you'd be happier about the idea."

Blair swallowed as he glanced up to the rearview mirror and then back at the street ahead. "Why would you think that, Jim?" he asked a little hoarsely. When Ellison just gaped at him in consternation, Blair gave him a hard fast look before turning his attention back to the traffic. "Seriously, man, why would you or Simon ever think I'd want to be a cop? I mean, it was a really generous offer, and it - it blew me away, to tell you the truth. I never expected that. Especially after the University kicked me out and no one there will even look at me, let alone speak to me, I sure never expected the law enforcement community to welcome me with open arms. But everyone there this afternoon seemed really happy about it all. I don't get it. You guys are all about honesty and trust. How could a self-confessed liar and fraud who betrayed his partner's trust ever succeed in that community? Ever be accepted?"

Jim turned away, hunching a little into himself as he crossed his arms and stared sightlessly at the passing street. "Well, you've been a fixture there for almost four years, and you've done a good job. Nobody in MCU thinks you're dishonest…"

"No? Then you've got a problem, Jim," Blair replied darkly as he pulled into his parking spot outside the loft. Turning off the ignition, he turned to face his best friend. "If I'm not a fraud, then the diss was true and that makes you a Sentinel - just exactly what you didn't want anyone to suspect or know for a fact. Something you don't want to be, have never really wanted to be. Sure, Simon and Megan know, and it looks like the others have figured it out for themselves, but if I keep working with you then the whole PD will realize something's fishy, and it won't be long before the media get a whiff of it, too. How long would your secret last then?"

"Well, I…" Jim began, but faltered, not having really thought about the implications.

"Uh huh," Sandburg drawled, reading his Sentinel as well as he ever had and knowing that while Jim had had the best of intentions, he hadn't really considered the downsides. "I can't be your partner, Jim," Blair said then, gently. "It's over, man. Just the way you said you wanted it to be the other day, remember? You said you wanted to go back to the way things were before. Wanted to turn your senses off. And you wanted me to accept that it was over and time to let go."

"I was angry," Jim muttered as he looked away.

"You were scared," Blair countered. But he reached out to pat Ellison's arm lightly as he said, "And I don't blame you. You had every right to be." Turning away to open the car door, he added, "But, regardless, I don't think I'd make a very good cop."

"Why not? You've been doing most of the job for years now," Jim countered, and then shifted to open his own door as Blair climbed out of the car. Sandburg jogged around the vehicle to help Jim get out of the low-slung vehicle, conscious of his friend's bad leg.

As he steadied Jim, and reached inside to retrieve Ellison's cane before closing and locking the car door, Blair replied, "Yeah, I know…the research stuff, and the analysis, that I can do. And I have to admit, I've loved every minute of working with you, but how could I testify in court? My credibility is blown, man. And I'm not really sure I want to carry a gun, let alone be ready to use it. Oh, I know I've held weapons before, even shot them in emergencies, but I don't know - being a cop hasn't been my life's dream, you know?"

Blair pulled Ellison's carryall from the trunk, only too aware that his best friend had only just been discharged from the hospital, and was looking wan with pain darkening his eyes and lining his mouth. "Here, lean on me," he offered, as they made their way to the entrance.

"I'm fine," Jim replied tightly as he limped ahead, stubbornly self-sufficient, though he leaned heavily on his cane.

Blair sighed and shook his head. "Yeah, I guess you are," he muttered as he sprinted ahead to unlock the door and hold it open for Ellison.

Silently, they made their way to the elevator and then to the apartment. Once inside, Jim hobbled to the refrigerator while Blair dumped Ellison's bag and his own backpack on the floor and pulled off his coat to hang it on a hook.

"Want a beer?" Jim asked.

"Sure," Blair replied as he crossed the floor to divest Jim of his coat. Taking it and the proffered beer, he hung up the garment before turning to the living room. Jim had settled in his favourite chair and Sandburg dropped into his usual place on the sofa.

Ellison was frowning as he sipped from the bottle. Lowering it, he pinned Sandburg with a worried look as he asked, "If you don't go to the Academy, what will you do?"

Chuckling without humour, sounding edgy, Blair replied, "I can understand why you'd wonder about that, given how things have turned out. But, oddly enough, I've actually been offered a pretty good job."

"What job?" Jim asked, surprised and then ashamed of himself. He'd been thinking of Blair as a victim, vulnerable and a little helpless, and he realized he should have known better. The kid had taken care of himself for his whole life. But that didn't mean it was a decent job, one worthy of him - Sandburg had done everything from driving a truck to working on the docks to construction work to being an orderly in a hospital to pay his way at school. Honest work, sure, but nothing that used his amazing brain.

"Well, I've blown away my PhD, but my Master's Degree is still good for something," Blair replied as he studied the coffee table. "An old friend has been trying for a couple of years now to talk me into joining a project he's working on - a kind of longitudinal study of how ancient myth and legend impacts on communities today, influencing their choices and actions. It sounds pretty intriguing. Anyway, I've always turned him down before, but when he called again yesterday, I accepted." Looking back at Jim, he cleared his throat and then continued steadily, "It's not in Cascade, though. It's in Colorado…"

"Colorado?" Ellison echoed, looking like he'd just been sandbagged. "You're moving away?"

"Yeah," Blair sighed, but then his jaw tightened as he continued, "Jim, I really think we need a break from one another. I mean, you did say you wanted it all to be over, and that you wanted to go back to the way things were before. It's not the first time that you've signaled how much you resent your senses and hate being a Sentinel. And if I stay, well, people will always wonder why you'd keep putting up with me…"

"Maybe because we're friends," Ellison snapped, hurt that Blair had evidently made his decision without discussing it first. "At least, I thought we were friends."

"We are, man," Sandburg replied wearily as he pushed his hair back off his forehead. Leaning forward, he cajoled, "But you have to see that this is best for you right now. It's not like you really need my help anymore. You don't zone and you've got really good control of your senses. Or, if you want, you could just turn them way down…or off. Incacha said a Sentinel has to choose to be what he is - but you've never really felt you had any choice. You said you just want to be a normal cop, to do your job and be left alone. As much as I really hate to say it, maybe it's time for that choice, Jim. And, regardless, you really can't afford to have me hanging around, not if you want your secret to remain secure. Man, as far as the world is concerned, you should hate the sight of me."

Jim looked away as he took another sip of his beer. Everything Blair was saying made sense, and yet it felt wrong. It didn't help that Sandburg kept throwing his own words back at him, either. "I can't believe you'd just up and move out without ever discussing it with me," he said bleakly.

"Well, I'm not moving out, exactly, not unless you want me to put all my stuff in storage," Blair replied. "I kinda hoped that wouldn't be necessary. I'd like to keep thinking about this place as my home, for a while, anyway."

"It is your home," Jim said firmly. "Make no mistake about that."

"Thanks, I appreciate that," Blair sighed. "This job, well, I guess it's supposed to be permanent, but if things cool down here, maybe someday I could come back. I'm still hoping to finish my PhD, maybe use the stuff on the closed society. Maybe Cascade PD will consider hiring a forensic anthropologist - some of the other big cities are doing that. But, well, maybe you'll find that you won't really want me back as your partner - if you turn off your senses, it's not like you'd need me anymore or even need me now, for that matter…"

"You don't have to leave," Jim cut in, realizing that Sandburg really didn't want to leave but simply felt he had no choice. As he'd felt he had no choice but to deny the validity of his paper.

Swallowing, Blair looked up to meet Jim's eyes, and Ellison felt sick at the depths of sorrow he saw darkening the normally bright blue gaze. "Yeah, I do have to leave, Jim," Sandburg said hopelessly. "For all kinds of different reasons, I really do have to go away, at least for a while. You know it as well as I do."

"When?" Ellison asked.

"I'm catching the flight tomorrow morning to Denver. My friend, Daniel Jackson, is picking me up at the airport and I'll be crashing at his place in Colorado Springs until I find an apartment," Sandburg replied sadly. As if realizing how weary he sounded, Blair made an effort to invest some energy and enthusiasm into his voice as he continued, "It sounds like a really interesting project, and it fits with my skills and education…"

"Has your friend seen the press conference footage on the news?" Jim asked then, hating himself for even raising such a painful subject. But if Sandburg thought it killed his credibility, why then was this Daniel Jackson still offering him a job?

Blair winced but nodded. "Yeah, he called me right after it aired nationally. Said he didn't know and didn't need to know the whole story, but that unless I'd been taken over by aliens, he wouldn't ever believe that I'd lie about something so important. When I started to, well, obfuscate, he just cut me off, saying again he didn't need to know the details and that he respected my effort to protect my sources, but it didn't make any difference to his belief in me. And that was it. I guess, well, up until yesterday, you and Naomi were the only people who were still talking to me. I gotta tell you, I really appreciated his continued confidence and trust…"

Though Blair had spoken softly, with no note of recrimination in his voice, Jim felt the words land like blows. Looking away, he thought about how much Blair had given up for him, not just his paper and his PhD, as significant as that was, but his whole identity as an ethical man, and he'd suffered for it. More than Jim had realized while he was in the hospital, because Blair hadn't let on that he was being shunned and treated as a pariah. No wonder the kid felt he had to get away, and had grabbed onto this offer like a kind of lifeline. The sheer fact that someone still believed in him, regardless of the press conference, had to have been a much-needed balm to his aching soul. Swallowing, infinitely sorry, Jim realized his own words during the debacle hadn't helped, and that he and Simon had waited too long to offer an option for the future.

"Colorado Springs seems an odd place for the kind of project you described," Jim observed then with a frown. He knew there was a military installation in Cheyenne Mountain, but couldn't recall if there was a university in the community, other than the Air Force Academy.

"I guess it's just the headquarters," Blair answered with a shrug. "Daniel said there's a lot of field work, and that I could be away for weeks, maybe even months, at a time."

Jim boggled a little at the 'months', but didn't say anything. Blair had given up so much for him, had turned down other field work projects that were important for his own career, so he didn't really feel he had the right to challenge it further. Months. God. "You'll stay in touch, though, right?" Jim finally asked.

"As much as I can, but it can be difficult from field locations, depending on how remote they are," Sandburg sighed. Shifting, he stood as he said, "I've really got to finish packing. What do you say we order in some pizza or Chinese later? I really don't feel like going out tonight…"

"Sure, whatever you want, Chief," Jim answered evenly. But inside, he was talking about more than dinner. For years, Blair had accommodated him. And last week, Sandburg had destroyed his dreams for him. So what if Jim wanted to rage that he didn't want Blair to go, certainly not for months that could too easily turn into forever? He didn't have the right to make demands anymore. He'd relinquished those rights a little at a time over the past few months, first over being so defensive about the dissertation chapter, then with his bizarre behaviours over Alex Barnes - and most recently by being so quick to assume the worst when the paper got leaked. This Daniel Jackson hadn't assumed the worst of Blair - Jackson had continued to believe in him, regardless of the national media coverage and Sandburg's own words; had instinctively known there was more to the story because he trusted Blair.

Jim watched Blair walk to his room, and then began to pick at the label on his bottle. He'd given up the right to challenge this decision when he'd assumed the worst and then hadn't done anything about it when Blair had trashed his own credibility. The Sentinel had failed his Guide, had allowed him to be wounded and ostracized by his own people. So, for now, he had to respect his Guide's decision to leave, to find a place to be himself, to do work he was trained to do and loved to do.

Sighing, Jim leaned his head back against the chair and rubbed his eyes as he struggled for calm. Sandburg was right; part of him did want, very badly, to be able to go back to the way things had been before. But part of him wondered if it were even possible, and if he could function without Sandburg there to back him up. All he knew was, deep down, he didn't really want to find out. Sandburg was the best friend he'd ever had and Ellison felt suddenly very bereft at the thought that the kid was leaving, maybe for a very long time.

Maybe for good.

It just felt so wrong.

********************

Blair kept a tight rein on his emotions as he sorted out his clothes and stuffed them into his bags. He tried really hard not to think about how much he'd hoped Jim would fight him on this decision, would insist that he couldn't just up and leave. But he had to have work. There were so many debts to be paid - his student loans, the repayment of grant money - his first priority had to be to get a decent job or he'd have to declare personal bankruptcy. To be offered a well paying position that required extensive fieldwork, so that he wouldn't have to also pay rent someplace, was better than he'd dared hope for.

So what if he didn't really want to go? There really wasn't any choice, not anymore. He'd never get work in Cascade, not after the press coverage. And, despite Simon's offer, Sandburg knew he couldn't keep working with Jim, not without compromising his Sentinel's secret, and he didn't have the right to do that. More, he didn't want to risk Jim's well-being if the truth ever came out. So, he had to go away. And, besides, it was what Jim wanted, whether he'd admit it now or not. He'd been very clear about how he felt just a few days ago. Jim would be okay - he didn't really need help anymore, hadn't needed it for some time. So, leaving to give them both space and time to get on with their lives was the right thing to do.

But if it was the right thing, the only thing, to do…why did it feel so wrong?

********************

The packing done, Blair filled his time with tidying up the small room, aligning books in the bookcase, and ensuring everything that Jim might need was sorted into a box he planned to leave under the bed. Once that was done, he sat quietly on the edge of the futon, thinking about the years he'd happily spent in this apartment and wishing he wasn't about to leave the only place he'd ever called 'home'. But those thoughts were dragging him down into a well of despair he couldn't afford to lose himself in, so he had just stood to go back out into the main living area when the pizza arrived.

Jim hobbled to the door to pay for it and then carried it to the table while Blair got plates, paper napkins and two more beers from the fridge. Sitting down across from one another, both men kept their attention focused on the food and the business of eating, both lost for words.

When the silence became oppressive, Blair gave himself a shake and said, "I've left all my notes and cassettes and the only hardcopy of my paper for you in a box under the bed…"

"Thanks," Jim replied quietly, though he kept his head down.

"I'll leave Daniel's number by the phone in case you need to reach me," Sandburg continued, only to stop when Jim stiffened and his head turned toward the door.

"Somebody's coming," the Sentinel said.

"Probably just Kenny Mitchell, the guy who bought my car. He said he'd come by for the keys and registration this evening," Sandburg explained as he went to the door, opening it before Mitchell had a chance to knock. Blair had to suppress a reflexive grin. He'd always wanted to do that, but it was usually Jim who opened the door, startling the visitor who hadn't had a chance to knock. With little ceremony, he handed over the keys and registration in return for a cheque, and the Volvo's new owner left to take possession of his new car.

When Sandburg closed the door and turned around, stuffing the cheque in his shirt pocket, he found Jim staring at him bleakly. "What?" he asked.

"You said you'd be back," Jim accused. "So why did you sell your car?"

"Ah, Jim," Sandburg sighed as he moved back to the table. "I would have driven it to Colorado if Daniel hadn't stressed how quickly he wanted me there and arranged the air ticket. There's no point in it sitting around here getting rusty. I need the money, man…"

Jim blinked at that. He hadn't considered the financial pressures Sandburg must be facing now that his academic career was over. "How bad is it?" he asked, frowning in concern.

"Bad enough," Blair replied hollowly. "The loans come due as soon as a person leaves school. I've arranged a payment schedule I can manage, but I really need the job to start paying them back. And, uh, well, my last grant was forfeit, so I had to take out a loan to repay what I'd used of it. Again, the job was critical to being able to get credit."

"Can I help?" Ellison asked tentatively. He knew how independent Blair was, but Jim hated to think about more pressure that the kid really didn't need.

"Thanks, but I think I can manage," Blair sighed as he sat back down and took a sip of beer.

Ellison pondered the new information and then looked up, a spark of hope in his eyes that had been lacking moments before. "So, uh, you didn't accept this job to get away from me," he ventured.

Blair gaped at his best friend. With a slight smile of understanding, feeling warmed by Jim's concern for him and fear that somehow he just didn't want to be around Jim anymore, he replied gently, "Well, yeah, I am leaving mostly to get away from you, but not because that's what I want. Jim, if I stay now, people will wonder why you tolerate having me around, and that will just lead to questions you don't need. I wish I could stay, but I have to go to protect you - just like I had to deny the paper, to protect my source. It's an ethical issue, Jim, a professional responsibility. But I wouldn't go so far unless I was positive that you could manage without me - and, yeah, I also really need the income. This job pays a really good salary."

Ellison nodded, his throat suddenly tight, too tight to eat so he pushed his plate away. Rubbing his sore leg absently, he thought about how Blair had been protecting him since the first day they had met.

"Dial it down, Jim," Sandburg murmured.

"Huh? What?" Jim stammered, his thoughts having been far away.

"Your leg. Dial it down."

"Oh, right," Jim acknowledged with a sharp nod as he closed his eyes and focused on the dials Blair had shown him were there. When the pain receded, he looked back at Sandburg as he said, "I'm going to miss you."

"Yeah, like you'd miss a sore tooth," Blair quipped with a grin. "You'll hate the peace and quiet, and the lack of chaos in your home. And I'm sure you'll really miss having to explain why you've got this weird hippie tagging along with you at work. Face it, Jim - you're going to love having your space back. But don't get too used to it, because I do plan to come back at least to check on you from time to time."

Ellison looked around the loft as he mumbled, "It won't be the same."

Blair's attempt at humour fizzled away, more than he could sustain in his own grief. "I'll miss you, too," he admitted softly as he stood to clear the table.

They spent the evening reminiscing until it was time to retire, and found a certain solace in their mutual joy and laughter at some of the more ridiculous memories. They weren't parting in anger or indifference, but in friendship, and that meant a great deal to both of them.

********************

The next morning, Blair was up early to make breakfast before his cab came. Jim had wanted to drive him to the airport, but Sandburg refused, citing Ellison's bad leg and the need for him to take it easy. Besides, Sandburg figured that neither of them could handle a protracted 'good bye'. He'd done the grocery shopping the day before so he knew Jim had enough supplies to see him through his week of recuperation.

"I'll explain to Simon," Jim offered over breakfast.

"No, that's all right," Blair responded, trying to sound matter-of-fact. "I plan to call him from Colorado Springs, to thank him and, well, to let him know where to reach me if it's ever necessary. Though I'm sure it won't be - you'll be fine."

Before Ellison could reply, the cab's horn sounded from the street below the balcony, and Blair stood to put on his coat. Jim followed him to the door, feeling as if this moment had come too soon, and that there was still so much that needed to be said - but his throat was once again too tight, and he couldn't find all the words.

Blair opened his arms and Jim grabbed him in a tight hug. "I'm sorry, so sorry," Jim stammered, his voice thick with emotion. "You've lost everything because of me…"

"Ah, Jim, don't be sorry, man," Blair whispered back. Standing away, though he kept a tight grip on Ellison's arms, he looked up at the older man, his eyes shining with sincerity as he said with the strength of utter conviction, "I'm not sorry, not one bit, for having met you. Jim, my whole life I dreamed of finding a Sentinel - and you made all my dreams come true. More, you're the best friend I've ever had. Nothing happens in this Universe without a reason, Jim. Nothing. So, it must have been time for us to find our own way again independently. But our friendship is not over - will never be over. You mean way too much to me for me to ever forget you or ever stop being glad to have been a part of your life. I didn't lose, or give up, anything that mattered anymore to me - believe that. And don't imagine this isn't some kind of final farewell - we'll see each other again. This is my home, I know that, whether I'm here or not - where you are will always be my home."

The horn sounded again. It was time to go. Blair squeezed Jim's arms and then let his hands fall away as he bent to lift his backpack over his shoulder and to pick up the duffel bag. "Don't do anything stupid, okay? Don't use only one sense at a time. Stay off your leg until it's better. If you ever need help, call me or let Simon or Megan help you," he directed soberly, before adding with visible reluctance, "Well, I guess I have to go."

And then, utterly unable to choke out the word, 'good-bye', he turned and quickly left the apartment, looking back to wave at Jim - who was standing in the open doorway - before disappearing down the stairs.

Jim closed the door and hobbled as rapidly as he could to the balcony, waving when Blair looked up a last time before getting into the cab. With his sentinel sight, he could see the brightness of unshed tears in his Guide's eyes and, with his hearing, he could hear Blair's whisper, "I love you, my brother. I always will."

As the cab pulled away, Jim murmured hoarsely, "I love you, too, Chief."

********************

Blair moved with the rest of the passengers as they collectively followed the signs to retrieve their baggage. As he stepped onto the escalator to descend to the arrivals' level, he scanned the crowd, looking for his friend, Daniel Jackson. Instead he saw, with no little surprise and a sudden shaft of trepidation, a sign with his name on it, held by two men in Air Force uniforms. Frowning with uncertainty, he approached the airmen who had begun to move through the crowd toward him, as if they recognized him. "I'm Blair Sandburg," he introduced himself, confusion in his eyes. "Where's Daniel Jackson?"

"Mr. Sandburg, we're pleased to meet you, sir. I'm Sgt. Wilkins and this is Corporal Myers. Dr. Jackson was detained at the project, and asked that we meet you. The baggage carrousel is this way," the tall, black airman told him as he gestured toward the moving belt.

"Oh, okay," Sandburg acknowledged with a nod as he turned to get his duffel bag. Well, this was weird. What could Daniel have to do with the military? A hard ball of anxiety began to grow in his gut, getting colder and larger as he followed the airmen from the airport and got into the back of an official vehicle. This didn't make any sense.

Sgt. Wilkins turned to look back over the seat as he said, "I know you'll be staying with Dr. Jackson, but you'll also have accommodation at the project. With your permission, we'll head straight there."

"Yeah, sure," Sandburg shrugged. There wasn't a whole lot of choice since he didn't have a key to Daniel's apartment. Besides, the sooner he found out what was going on, the better.

They drove away from the big city, driving some distance in silence along the highway heading toward Colorado Springs, but turned off before getting there, onto a switchback road that wound up the mountainside. Blair swallowed as they climbed higher into the wilderness, and tried to remain calm as he watched the forest flash past. But the sight of the wire mesh electrified fence and manned gate at their destination didn't help his confidence any and, when they drove into the mountain itself, he tried not to allow his feelings of paranoia to overwhelm him. Daniel's a good friend, he told himself firmly. He wouldn't set me up to get at Jim. He just wouldn't.

But no matter how hard he tried to convince himself there was nothing to worry about, Sandburg was very afraid that somehow the military was going to use him to lure his Sentinel into danger. Damn that paper, and damn Syd Graham, and damn the media for printing details. And he damned himself for a fool, for believing that everyone would accept his denials. 'Cause he sure couldn't imagine why the Air Force would be taking him to work on a project inside a mountain unless it had something to do with Jim. Well, he'd lie and bluff and talk his way out - and if they wouldn't let him go, he'd just clam up and not say anything at all. How bad could it be? He really didn't think they'd torture him; that was a little too melodramatic even for his well-developed imagination. What the hell, he thought ironically with a trace of black humour he recognized as false bravado to offset his rising anxiety, at least it'll be free room and board.

Finally, the car stopped and he was escorted through another checkpoint before being led to an elevator. Sandburg moved stiffly, wondering if he should try to make a break for it, but knowing it was a hopeless thought. There were too many soldiers around for him to escape. If this was a trap, it had been quickly executed. He should never have identified himself to the soldiers at the airport, but even as he'd approached them, he'd realized that they had also been moving toward him. They'd known what he looked like and had recognized him. Even then, he couldn't have escaped. What the hell was going on?

The airmen led him to a small and utilitarian, but comfortably furnished, bedroom where he could leave his bags, and then led him back to the elevator. They remained courteous and deferential, giving no hint of any form of intimidation beyond the fact of having brought him into a maze of concrete corridors that he couldn't easily escape from. "What's this project about?" Blair ventured as he watched the indicator numbers flash downward, his voice tight with the strain of his effort to retain some vestige of calm.

"It's best if Dr. Jackson and the General explain it, sir," Sgt. Wilkins replied neutrally.

The door opened and Blair was led down another hall and around a corner. The sergeant knocked on a door and then pushed it open. "Mr. Sandburg has arrived, General," he said.

"Thank you, Sergeant, please show him in," came a voice that was warm and welcoming, confounding Blair further. Maybe they plan to confuse me with courtesy and kill me with kindness, he thought ruefully.

The airman stepped aside and Blair entered the room, pausing when he saw Daniel Jackson coming toward him from a conference table, around which were two men and a woman in Air force uniforms, and another large black man in fatigues. They all stood to greet him, and they were all smiling in courteous, if not exceptionally warm, welcome - well, except for the big black guy with the odd gold tattoo on his forehead who had all the expression of a very impressive, if somewhat intimidating, statue.

"Blair!" Daniel called out, his smile broadening with apparently completely sincere warmth and enthusiasm, "I'm so glad to see you. Welcome! Here, let me introduce you to everyone."

Sandburg found himself being moved around the room, to shake everyone's hand in turn. "This is General George Hammond, our boss. And this is Colonel Jack O'Neill, who heads up our team. Major Samantha Carter," and she interjected to offer, "Just call me Sam." "And this is Teal'c." Teal'c did not shake his hand, but lowered his eyes and inclined his head in formal welcome as he rumbled, "A pleasure to meet you, BlairSandburg."

"Uh, you, too," Blair mumbled uncertainly, feeling more and more disoriented. Turning to Jackson, he asked with a voice that quavered just a little, "Daniel, what's going on?"

Jackson waved him to a chair and then sat down beside him as he said, "I'm sorry I couldn't give you more information before you got here, Blair, but you have just joined the most exciting project on Earth. There's a ton of work, and we need your expert help. I have to tell you, I'm really glad you're here."

"Help to do what, exactly?" Sandburg pressed as he looked around at the others in the room.

"Dr. Jackson, if I may?" General Hammond cut in.

"Of course, General," Daniel deferred agreeably.

"Mr. Sandburg," the General began, "you have been recruited to work on the Stargate project. This is a highly classified, very secret project, to make contact with and study the civilizations on other planets."

"Stargate?" Sandburg echoed as he blinked in surprise. "Other planets?" Swallowing, he turned back to Daniel, an uncertain and tentative smile broadening into brilliant excitement as he put the pieces together and comprehension dawned. "Your theories were right, weren't they?" he exclaimed with exuberant wonder and more than a little awe. "The pyramids were built by aliens…"

"Uh huh," Daniel drawled as he smiled back, his eyes dancing. "And we've found a way to open wormholes in space that allow us to travel to other planets all over the galaxy in seconds."

"You're kidding," Blair breathed, astonished. "You're not kidding," he added when Daniel just shook his head. "Oh my God."

"Mr. Sandburg, you will be an adjunct to the SG-1 team, led by Colonel O'Neill," General Hammond continued briskly, though his tone remained warm and friendly, and he smiled slightly in response to Sandburg's evident enthusiasm and very quick adaptation to the extraordinary. "Your overall role will be to follow up on first contact when we encounter civilizations that require more time and study to understand them in order for us to reach agreements on mutual benefit treaties. There is much we have to learn from other civilizations, and much we can share in return. But Dr. Jackson has taught us well about the risks of just barging in, in terms of how we might inadvertently damage another society without understanding how we've impacted upon them. Though Dr. Jackson has worked miracles of communication and understanding with virtually all of the societies we've encountered for some time now, he's stressed how much we need someone who is specially trained in observing other cultures on particularly sensitive missions. Dr. Jackson has assured us that you are the man we need."

"Well, it's not like Sandburg here had a lot of other choices, is it?" Jack O'Neill intervened dryly. Though he'd agreed to bring in this new guy on Daniel's strong recommendation, Jack wasn't all that thrilled about another egghead joining the team. And this guy looked particularly undisciplined, not to mention very, very young for all that his file said he was almost thirty years old.

"Sir!" Sam Carter remonstrated, her tone clearly indicating her discomfort with his words and manner.

"No offence, Sandburg," O'Neill added with a wry grin. "With apologies to my colleagues, we're all misfits of a sort. It's just that your press conference pretty much destroyed any hope you might have had for a career in academia, right?"

"Uh, right," Blair conceded, his defences again rising. "If you know about that, then I'm surprised you'd trust me with this information."

"Relax, Blair," Daniel murmured with a quelling look at Jack. "Nobody believes that press conference. Like I told you on the phone, I know you. No way would you misrepresent your work, or outright lie, unless it was to protect your sources. You found your Sentinel, didn't you?"

"Look, maybe this was a big mistake," Sandburg replied, his gaze dropping away from Daniel's too discerning eyes. He began to rise, though he wondered where he would go and how he'd get out of the secure complex.

"It's all right, Mr. Sandburg," General Hammond soothed, astutely reading Blair's behaviours and appreciating his continued loyalty to the police detective he'd been studying. Though it was evident that Sandburg had been greatly excited by the prospect of what his job would entail, it was equally clear to the General that he would walk away before he would violate a trust. As he had, evidently, walked away from his career and sacrificed his own personal credibility to protect his Sentinel. It seemed, as Daniel had assured them, that he was, indeed, a truly ethical man. Well pleased, Hammond hastened to reassure Sandburg, who was looking at him warily. "We are interested in your knowledge of sentinels, not in the sentinel himself," he said firmly. Leaning forward, he continued, "We believe we have found a civilization in which many of the members have enhanced sensory capacity. Further, we have seen evidence that suggests that others may well exist on several of the worlds that we've visited. We need someone with your knowledge and skills to make sense of what we've found, both in terms of sentinels specifically, and more broadly in an anthropological context. On Dr. Jackson's strong recommendation, we accessed your records and publications and what we saw convinced us that he was right. While I won't deny that I would welcome someone with Detective Ellison's capabilities on my team, you were the one we most wanted to recruit."

"You're a genius," Sam interjected enthusiastically. "Your work, even as an undergrad, was brilliant. You seem to intuitively grasp the subtleties and nuances of other cultures, illuminating key elements that help others to understand and value them as well. Your, uh, eclectic upbringing has made you unusually non-defensive and open to new experiences and different belief systems. I know the disaster around your dissertation must have been very hard on you, but it was the opportunity we needed to offer you this job. And not a moment too soon."

Blair pushed his fingers through his unruly hair, shoving it back behind his ears, nodding slowly as he tried to absorb the mind-blowing information, but mostly he just felt vastly relieved that no one here seemed to be any threat to Jim. They had found a way to travel, in seconds, to other worlds. It was incredible! And they wanted him to be part of the adventure. It was all very hard to take in, but then, no one had believed sentinels could really exist either. The Universe was a very big place, and it had always only ever made sense to him that other worlds and beings could exist - it was the thought of the only sentient life in all of creation existing in splendid isolation, solely on a single, relatively insignificant planet, that made him quaver with disquiet. So, years back when he and Daniel had first met on a dig in Egypt, he'd actively encouraged Jackson's theories, as Jackson had encouraged him in turn. The facts that they shared similar belief systems, were both smarter than the average genius and had each grown up in dislocating circumstances only served to hasten their bonding as fast friends.

Dragging his thoughts back from the past to the issues at hand, it occurred to Blair that if humans could travel to other planets, then aliens could also travel to Earth. 'Teal'c' was an unusual name and there was something very different that Sandburg could sense in the somber man across the table. Biting his lip as he gazed at each of them in turn, he decided to take a chance on his intuition when his eyes came to rest on Teal'c. "So, uh, I'm guessing you weren't born in our planetary neighbourhood, right? Where are you from?" he asked, a spark of undeniable fascination in his eyes.

"Got you in one, eh, Teal'c?" Jack laughed as he playfully poked his colleague's arm.

"So it would seem, O'Neill," Teal'c replied with typical solemnity and then turned to face Sandburg. "I am a Jaffa, from the planet Chulak."

"Jaffa?" Blair repeated. "Does that mean 'warrior'?"

"It does," Teal'c allowed with a dignified nod. "One who is trained to the highest level. I was First Prime to the false god Apophis before realizing the truth."

"False god…" Sandburg echoed with a frown as he noted the derisive venom that laced Teal'c's words. "That would be another being who uses advanced skills or technology to intimidate or control your people? And, uh, you're here now because you're helping us fight this false god, or others like him that could pose a threat to us as well as to your people?"

Teal'c nodded again as Daniel sat back with a broad smile. "Told you he was quick on the uptake," he said with evident satisfaction.

"That you did, Dr. Jackson," General Hammond rumbled, but he, too, smiled sparingly in approval. "Perhaps it would be best if you gave Mr. Sandburg a thorough briefing. We haven't much time, as you know. We need him on PX2299. But first, Mr. Sandburg, I need your word that what you learn here you will never reveal to anyone outside this mountain."

"You have it, General Hammond," Sandburg replied soberly. Chuckling wryly, he added, "Not that anyone outside would believe me anyway. I mean, I'm the guy who's famous for lying in his doctoral thesis about the existence of sentinels, right? If I started spouting off about aliens, I think they'd just lock me up and throw away the key." Blair paused, took a breath, and then said with utter sincerity, "I really want to thank you for your trust in me. I'll do my best to ensure you never regret it."

General Hammond nodded soberly in acknowledgement, as Daniel stood.

"The General's right, Blair, we don't have a lot of time," Daniel hastened to say, as he lifted his hand toward the door. "If you'll come with me, I'll do my best to explain what's going on and why we need you so badly."

********************

For the next twelve hours, Sandburg was given a crash course on how the Stargate worked and a history of its use. He was told about the existence of hundreds, even thousands, of other worlds and the nature of their societies as derivatives of old and even ancient Earth cultures. While his mind boggled at the vast amount of details being given him, Daniel continued to add more and more information. When Sandburg learned about the Goa'uld, he shuddered, stunned by the magnitude of their hideous enslavement of other cultures and the very real threat they posed to Earth.

"Whoa!" he finally exclaimed, holding up his hands in surrender. "I may be a 'quick study' as you put it, Daniel, but this is all - overwhelming! I mean, from what you've told me, I could make it a lifetime project just trying to better understand the cultures you've already encountered. I have to tell you, I'm fascinated - hell, I'm practically foaming at the mouth at the chance to be involved in all this. But I'm a little confused, too…"

"Only a little?" Daniel teased, laughter dancing in his eyes.

"Okay, a lot, about a lot of things, but mostly about what it is you want from me and why everyone seemed to think you needed me urgently," Blair explained as he stood to walk around while he talked, his hands gesturing with a life of their own. "You clearly need a research assistant of sorts and, with my masters, I'm qualified, I guess, to help you get a better handle on some of these cultures. But why did I get this sense of urgency?"

"It's not your degree we need, but your mind and your particular area of specialty," Daniel replied. "You're a lot smarter and better informed than any of the professors I ever worked with."

"Thanks, but that doesn't really answer my question," Sandburg replied as he gazed earnestly at his old friend.

Daniel rubbed the back of his neck and then pushed his glasses up as he explained slowly, "As an archeologist, I have a pretty good knowledge of many ancient cultures, and what I know of the ancient Egyptians has been really useful because the Goa'uld have drawn a lot of their own civilization from those roots. I've been able to establish basic communication using my knowledge of certain ancient languages and dialects, particularly those from Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as Latin and Greek. I've done okay, I suppose, but it's been a stretch for me to engage with living cultures - I used to deal with stone and encryptions, mute evidence of what once was, not with the living, breathing people themselves. Mostly, I've tried to be guided by certain basic principles of respect and courtesy, and that's worked pretty well. But you're an anthropologist, you have different and very specialized communication and observation skills, as well as a lot of the same core knowledge that I have. Plus, because of your fascination with sentinels, you've studied some cultures I haven't, like the ancient Mayans and certain Asian societies and languages which are completely foreign to me."

"Okay, so you have a culture that you need to interact with that is more in my area of study…" Blair extrapolated.

"Yes, exactly, only we aren't just curious about them," Jackson continued. "We really need to engage in a treaty with them, and they need to affiliate with us for protection. The world we designate as PX2299 has incredible reserves of naquada, a metal of sorts that the Goa'uld use in their weapons and spacecraft. The people of that world don't have the means to defend themselves, and we could help them in very real ways - in return for mining rights. We need the naquada to protect ourselves, and them, from the Goa'uld."

"Okay, first, I'll bet they don't call their planet 'PX2299'," Sandburg observed dryly. "What's their name for their world?"

"Ixlana," Daniel replied with a faint grimace of embarrassment. He'd been spending too much time with the others and had slipped into their kind of objective referencing - an unintended insult to the people they were discussing.

"And since there is some urgency, I take it things aren't going well in the discussions about the proposed treaty," Sandburg reasoned. "They don't want you digging up their world - it violates their principles or beliefs, right?"

"Right," Jackson admitted. "Look, I know where you're coming from here and, normally, I'd agree with you that we should honour their beliefs and just disappear from their lives. But it's only a matter of time before the Goa'uld remember them and go back to check on their development, if only to take them as slaves to host the symbiotes. We can't afford to have the Goa'uld discover the naquada reserves there - and believe me, the Ixlanans would be a lot better off letting us mine, and then restore their land, than they would be with the Goa'uld. They're helpless, Blair - a precivilized culture that appears to be a mix between Mayan and Aztec, that still uses blow darts, arrows and spears. The Goa'uld would destroy them utterly."

"So what's the hold-up? Why haven't you been able to convince them of the threat looming over them?" Blair asked.

"Well, first, I haven't been able to figure out their language so communication has been a big problem. From what we were able to discern, the Grand Chieftain is old, and often he doesn't seem at all lucid. There's a sort of political game going on over who will be the new leader, one candidate favouring a treaty with us, and the other absolutely against it. Somewhere in the shadows, I think there's a Shaman influencing the Chief, maybe drugging him, I don't know," Daniel explained with an exasperated sigh. "From what I can gather, there's some kind of test that the successful warrior has to pass to become the Heir to the current Chieftain, and that's going to happen soon."

"You've done exceptionally well to figure out that much if you haven't established any verbal communication," Blair reflected as he thought about the situation. "You think this Shaman is against the idea of a treaty with Earth." When Daniel nodded, he went on, "Do you think that's simply because of tradition, or is there a more insidious reason, like maybe the Shaman has links of some kind with the Goa'uld?"

"We don't know, and that's part of the problem," Jackson replied bleakly.

"You think this guy might rig the test?"

"Maybe; probably," Daniel concurred. He hesitated and then said quietly, "We need to send our own Shaman to help the candidate we'd like to see win."

Sandburg rolled his eyes as he threw up his hands. "You've got to be kidding me!" he exclaimed. "You want me to act like some kind of Shaman? To give an edge to another world's selection of Chief? Are you nuts? Wait a minute! There's more that you haven't told me, isn't there?"

"Yeah," Jackson nodded. "From what we can tell, we think that part of the competition is to identify the best sentinel in their society. Maybe you could think of yourself as a Guide instead of as a Shaman. In any event, you can, uh, see why we really needed you."

"Daniel, you know as well as I do that an anthropologist ethically cannot interfere in the culture they are studying. It's just wrong," Blair protested.

"Is it ethical to sit back and allow them to be enslaved by the Goa'uld?" Jackson countered with no little frustration. He felt like he was playing Jack O'Neill while Blair made the protests he understood only too well. "Blair, the Goa'uld are the personification of evil. Trust me, I know that for a fact. If they gain control of Ixlana, their power would be increased exponentially and the whole universe would be even more at risk. We can't let that happen. We just can't."

Closing his eyes, Blair turned away, his hands stuffed into his jeans. His lips thinned as he bowed his head and thought about all Daniel had told him as he struggled to accept that it was all real, all true. He trusted Daniel implicitly; if Jackson was certain about something, then Blair accepted it as more than a working hypothesis. So, could he stand aside and refuse to help a whole people that would inevitably be subjugated by pitiless, abusive overlords? Could he do that also knowing that eventually his inaction would put other worlds, even Earth, at risk? What if he got involved and failed? Surely there was someone better suited - but no, there wouldn't likely be anyone else who understood sentinel talents and behaviours, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as he did. On one level, it was clearly ethically wrong to intentionally influence the direction of another culture, most particularly for one's own gain. But on another level - did he have any real choice but to try?

Blair swallowed hard and then took a deep breath as he turned back to face Daniel. "Okay, I'll do what I can. When do I leave?"

"We leave immediately," Daniel replied with visible relief. "SG-1, er, our team will go with you to back you up."

Immediately?

It was all happening too damned fast.

Sandburg held up his hands as he thought about what he'd need. "Before we go, I need some supplies, like a white noise generator that runs on batteries, and another set that can be fitted like earplugs, and I need heavy duty sunglasses as well as a sleeping mask. Also, some hypoallergenic skin lotion, maybe a pair of rubber gloves and some silk sheets. Do these guys wear boots, clothing that covers their extremities?" When Daniel shook his head, Blair continued, "Okay, then a pair of jeans that would fit our candidate for Chief and a long sleeved shirt - a Kevlar vest wouldn't go amiss. A surgical mask. And some baking soda. We might not need all that stuff, but I'd rather have it with me than wish later we'd brought it along. Oh, and I need to make a phone call."

"You got it," Daniel said as he stood to lead Blair out of the briefing room. "I'll get started on your list of supplies while you get fitted with a uniform as well as be issued your weapon."

"Weapon?" Sandburg squeaked. "I, uh, don't carry a weapon."

"You do on this team," Jackson replied soberly as he motioned to Corporal Myers who had been posted outside the door. "Take Mr. Sandburg to Supply to get him outfitted, then back to his room to make a phone call. When he's ready, bring him to the Stargate."

********************

"Simon, I'm sorry to bother you at home," Blair began when Banks picked up the phone. "And, uh, I know it's kinda late…"

"What's this about, Sandburg?" Banks cut in, frowning at the odd effect of hurried hesitancy in the younger man's voice. The kid wouldn't call after midnight without a good reason.

"Well, things have happened kinda suddenly in my life," Blair replied as he ran his fingers through his hair while quickly marshalling his thoughts. "First, I want to thank you, and everyone else at MCU, for the incredible offer you made me yesterday…"

"But, you're not going to accept are you?" Simon guessed, his voice resonating with regret as he filled in the silence on the other end of the line.

"No, I'm not. I guess I just don't think I'd make a very good cop and, well, I also think that there'd be too many questions if I kept working with Jim after all that's happened. Questions none of us want to answer," Sandburg replied, his own voice revealing how hard it had been for him to turn his back on the offer that would have allowed him to continue backing Jim up.

"What are you going to do, Blair?" Banks asked then, sincerely worried about the fate of the former grad student. He'd come to both respect and like the kid over the years, and he knew as well as anyone the price Sandburg was paying for denying his dissertation on the national news.

"Actually, I've got a job, a really great job as it turns out, only it's not in Cascade," Sandburg told him then. "It's a kind of longitudinal study of societies and the influence of ancient myth and legend - right up an anthropologist's alley. Uh, Simon, the job requires fieldwork where I won't be easily reached, if I can be reached at all, and it turns out they want me to head out immediately on a current study. I wanted you to know so you could keep tabs on Jim, make sure he's all right. Well, you know what I mean. I'm sure he'll be fine, but…"

"You can't help but worry about him. Yeah, I know," Banks cut in on the rambling words. "I understand and I'll look out for him. Won't be the same as having you around, but Megan and I will do our best."

"Thanks, Simon, I really appreciate that," Sandburg replied sincerely. "Uh, Jim doesn't know that I'm heading out immediately, though he does know that fieldwork was a part of this deal. I'd call him, too, but I'm really pushed for time here…the team is waiting for me. So, um, I really needed to call you, to thank you, but could you let Jim know I'll be in touch as soon as I can? So he won't worry if he tries to reach me and can't find me?"

"Sure," Banks agreed, but his antennae were suddenly up. Blair had a tendency to ramble at the best of times, but he also used a surplus of words to confuse or obscure the fact that he wasn't really saying much in terms of real substance - and he sounded downright nervous. "Where are you headed?" There was enough hesitation after his question for Simon to know that he was about to receive one of the infamous Sandburgian obfuscations so he tried a preemptive strike. "Don't try to snow me, Sandburg. Fieldwork isn't usually a big secret."

"No, it's not," Blair agreed quietly. "But for the integrity of this project, I can't really say. Let's just say I'm headed to a jungle. No big deal, really, nothing that I haven't done before, sort of, anyway. I'm sorry, Simon, but that's all I can tell you."

"And that's the real reason you aren't calling Jim yourself, isn't it? He'd expect clearer answers," Banks snapped back, feeling more than slightly manipulated and not liking it.

"Like I've always said, there's a reason you're the Captain, sir," Sandburg returned with forced levity. But then he sobered as he concluded, "I'm sorry, Simon, I really am. But I'm new here and this job is important - I have to respect the rules. Thank everyone for me, please, and tell Jim not to worry. And now, I really do have to go. 'Bye!"

"Sandburg!" Banks shouted into the receiver, but the kid had already hung up. "Damn it, Blair, what have you gotten yourself into that you can't talk about? Jim is not going to be happy about this." Shaking his head as he hung up the phone, Simon muttered, "And, frankly, I'm not very happy, either."

********************

All decked out in his crinkly new combat fatigues, and feeling uncomfortably like a junior GI Joe, Sandburg followed Corporal Myers through the maze of underground corridors and stairwells. "What time is it?" he asked, trying to get his bearings in all the muddle of activity that had been going on.

"Just before 3:00 am, sir," Wilkins responded.

"Oh, man," Blair mumbled to himself, realizing how very late it had been when he'd called Simon.

Moments later, down yet another flight of steps, Myers led him into a massive cavern and Sandburg got his first look at the Stargate.

"Oh, wow," Blair breathed as he gaped at the massive structure.

"We're ready to go," O'Neill called out as he looked up over his shoulder at the Control Room. Immediately, the big wheel began to spin, and then stop momentarily as individual settings were encoded and locked into place with a loud metallic thud.

Blair could hear someone over the intercom crisply confirming the individual chevron settings just before the big wheel would start to revolve again. Daniel handed Sandburg a backpack and drew him to the side as PX2299 continued to be coded in. Blair found out why Daniel had moved him from the bottom of the ramp, and flinched in surprise, when the event horizon gushed into the chamber like a massive wave, and then settled back to form what looked like a horizontal pool of water that defied gravity. Immediately, O'Neill, Carter and Teal'c started up the ramp and Daniel drew SG-1's newest member along with him.

"It's okay, nothing to be alarmed about. We just walk through the Stargate and there's a short period of disorientation before we walk out the other side. Nothing to it," Jackson assured Sandburg as the younger man mounted the ramp beside him.

"Oh man, I'm not sure I'm ready for this," Blair muttered, his eyes wide as he watched the others disappear from view.

"You'll be fine. Trust me," Daniel said with a smile as they paused at the Gate. "Go ahead, touch it."

Tentatively, feeling like a wimp, Blair reached out to touch the veil of water, gasping in surprise as his hand penetrated the curtain. Though it looked wet, it felt dry, and there was no resistance. It was warm and tingled a bit, but that was all. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at Daniel and nodded.

"Mr. Sandburg," General Hammond called out over the intercom. "Good luck."

Blair looked back over his shoulder and waved. Then he and Daniel Jackson stepped through the Stargate together.

Sandburg hardly had time to gulp at the flow of light and the odd rushing sensation he felt before they stumbled out the other side.

"The first step is the worst," O'Neill said with a grin. "You get used to it."

Sandburg shook his head, and breathed, "What a rush," as he took in the other team members at the base of the platform that held the Gate on this side, well, on Ixlana. Then he looked up and around at the rich, thick foliage of a tropical jungle, already feeling the heavy humidity that covered them like a blanket. Though it had been the middle of the night back on Earth, it was at least early morning here judging by the position of the sun. He could see two moons low on the horizon over the purple, and snow-capped mountains that rose in the distance, but otherwise the place looked and felt a lot like Peru or any other jungle he'd ever been in. But it wasn't any other jungle. He was on another planet! It was incredible.

"Let's move out, people," O'Neill called out, though his tone was relaxed. One by one, they followed him into the jungle.

"If we're on a peaceful mission, why are we armed?" Sandburg asked Daniel, his voice low as he regarded the weapons the others carried, uncomfortably conscious of the service revolver in the holster around his own waist.

"Because you can never predict what will happen on one of these missions," Jackson replied stoically. He'd objected to carrying a weapon at first, too, but hard experience had taught him the necessity of being armed. "Like I said, we have reason to believe the Goa'uld could arrive at any time."

"What reason?" Sandburg asked, curious and more than a little nervous. He hoped never to meet a Goa'uld face to face.

"We have other allies, on other planets. The Tok'ra, for example, are a race of people who also have symbiotes but they do not 'take over' the host and they are sworn enemies of the Goa'uld. They've successfully infiltrated many of the Goa'uld worlds and they've warned us that this planet is likely to be checked on soon."

"Oh," Blair murmured, wondering how 'soon' that might be.

They'd been walking for about fifteen minutes when O'Neill dropped back to wait until they caught up to him, letting Teal'c take point. "So, what's our story when we get there, Daniel?"

"Well, we don't want to give away all of Blair's capacities, I guess, not at first anyway," Daniel replied slowly.

"Always good to have a few tricks in reserve," O'Neill agreed cheerfully.

"Yes, well, I thought we'd try to convey that he's our best expert from Earth on societies like theirs, so we asked him to come to meet them and to lead our discussions about a possible treaty," Jackson suggested, wishing they'd had time to thrash all this out before arriving. His lips twisted into a grimace as he wondered how to get across such advanced concepts if Blair was also unable to decipher their language.

O'Neill scratched his cheek as he nodded. "Well, I guess the truth works," he drawled. "Often the best thing, I've found, when trying to recruit allies."

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Jackson returned with the shadow of a grin.

"Who are the principal players that I'm going to meet?" Sandburg asked, badly needing some specifics to give him a sense of what to expect.

"Well, let's see, there's the Grand Chieftain Ixzut'l," Jack supplied. "And his unseen advisor, or Shaman or whatever, Tex'chin. The two contenders for Grand Chief designate are Xic'tal, not our favourite, and Pana'tul. He's the guy we especially like - the one we hope you'll be able to help. As soon as they find out why we're back and what your role is, they'll both likely make themselves known fairly quickly. The two of them really don't get along at all well."

Frowning in concentration, Sandburg asked, "How are the contenders chosen? Are they relatives of the current Grand Chieftain?"

"No, not necessarily," Daniel supplied. "I gathered that they are the best warriors of this world, but also men that others have come to respect as thoughtful and successful leaders."

Nodding, Blair murmured, "So it's basically a merit-based system, not entirely patriarchal or nepotistic. That's good - makes for better, stronger, leaders usually. Anyone else I should be prepared for?"

Joining the conversation, Carter replied, "There's the Priestess, L'teel. She seems to be trying to remain neutral, and the Priest Char'ten who seems to be afraid of the Shaman."

"These contenders are sentinels, right?" Blair asked and then clarified, "They have heightened senses?"

"Yes," Daniel replied succinctly. "So far as we've been able to observe."

"Then, who are their 'companions' or 'guides'?" Sandburg asked and then realized he had to explain though he felt uncomfortable giving out any specific information about sentinel vulnerabilities, "A sentinel needs someone who watches his back and helps him manage his senses, particularly when he or she is really focused on one sense. They can be, uh, somewhat oblivious to everything else when they focus like that and it makes them vulnerable."

The others looked at one another and shrugged. Teal'c had slowed to give them time for their discussion before getting too close to the walled city and now answered for them all, "We have seen nothing that indicates such a companion, BlairSandburg."

"Uh, just call me, Blair, okay?" Sandburg replied.

"As you wish," Teal'c agreed with a nod.

"Why didn't I ever think of that?" Daniel muttered to himself, having found Teal'c's propensity to use his full name disconcerting, though he'd gotten used to it.

"It doesn't make sense that there's no companion or guide," Blair continued thoughtfully. "Even if they've been trained from childhood, in a competition a companion would seem to be essential, especially if one side isn't playing fair. This invisible Shaman is likely giving his contender personal coaching and assistance."

"Makes sense," Jack replied briskly. "So, you'll do the same for our guy, right?"

"They may not let me play, Colonel," Blair cautioned.

O'Neill slung an arm around Sandburg's shoulder as he said amiably, "You can call me, Jack. And, Blair, it's your job to make sure they let you play. Okay?"

"All I can do is offer, Jack," Blair retorted. "Pana'tul will have to accept."

"Daniel says you're great, and I believe him. So I'm sure you'll have no trouble convincing Pana'tul," Jack returned in a tone that, while bantering, held an edge of command. "You'll do just fine."

"I hope so," Sandburg sighed as they resumed their trek along the jungle path.

"Don't pressure him, Jack," Daniel warned. "Blair understands how serious and important this is."

"With respect, sir, Daniel's right. Blair's absorbing an awful lot, awfully fast," Carter added quietly.

"Pressure? What pressure? It's not like the fate of the galaxy and maybe the entire universe depends on our success here," Jack replied sarcastically. "Oh, wait, yes it does. Failure isn't really an option, now, is it?"

"No, sir," Carter agreed somberly.

Blair just rolled his eyes and kept walking. He felt more than a little surreal, as if it was all some kind of very weird dream. In part, he knew he was just really tired, drained emotionally from all that had happened over the past couple of weeks, and physically worn out from lack of sleep over the same time period. His mind was spinning as he grappled with the reality of being on another planet; and the thought that Jack was serious, that the fate of the universe rested on his shoulders, frankly terrified him. For the first time since he'd landed in Denver, he had a few minutes to just think about everything that was happening and he felt nauseated by the tension that roiled in his gut. Failure might not be an option, but it was a possibility, and his fear of not living up to their expectations tightened in his chest so that he had to consciously breathe deeply to keep from hyperventilating. 'God, Jim, I wish you were here,' he thought dismally. 'You'd know what to do, how to handle this pressure. You'd be practical and take one thing at a time and you wouldn't be as scared as I am.'

But Jim wasn't there, wouldn't ever be there. Blair sighed heavily as they emerged from the jungle and then he lifted his head and got his first look at the major city on the planet. Ixlania, named in honour of the planet, was a holy city, and from what Daniel had told him, the center of this world's government. And it was huge! A great wall stretched in either direction and behind it rose a massive city built of stone in an architectural style very reminiscent of the ruins of the great Mayan cities on Earth. Sun and star symbols were carved into the walls and on the arch over the two-story high gate through the thick wall. Flowers grew in vines and garlands over the walls and on the buildings beyond, lush and beautiful. Tall, bronzed guards dressed in ceremonial leather armour stood on either side of the gateway, and each held a deadly looking lance festooned with feathers at the base of the wicked, serrated, blade, as well wearing blowpipes hooked on their belts next to pouches that no doubt held poisoned darts. He could hear the cacophony of voices from inside, the high-pitched squeals and laughter of children at play, the banter of women gossiping or haggling at the market which was likely somewhere very near the entryway. The deeper voices of men rumbled, like thunder in the distance. He listened intently to the cadences, picking out the sounds of vowels and consonants, unconsciously referencing memories of source material about ancient dialects and vocabularies, relaxing when he found that he could pick out some words and guess at their meaning.

And for the first time, it all felt real. The life and society of this alien people was vibrant and Sandburg found his sense of excitement rising to defuse the tension inside. Any anthropologist who sincerely loved his work would kill for an opportunity like this - to be the first to observe a wholly new society - to study and learn about a never before known people. Squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin, Blair told himself he could only do his best - and he'd give no less.

Jack was watching him and, at the visible signs of engagement and determination, he grinned and winked at Daniel. The kid would be okay.

********************

Jim had awakened with a sharp jerk, panting from being so badly startled. Getting himself under control, he stared up at the skylight, his sense of hearing reaching out to determine what had wakened him so abruptly. But he only heard the soft sounds of the night, the whish of a car passing on the street below, the low rumble of snores from the apartments around him, and the utter silence in the rest of the loft. He rubbed his eyes and then sat up, squinting as he concentrated, trying to remember if he'd been having a nightmare.

A flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he stiffened warily as his intense gaze raked the darkness of the floor below. Maybe it had only been the shadow of an owl flying past the balcony - a dark sensation of motion with no sound.

But something had startled him awake. Something that had set his heart racing with alarm.

Cautiously, silently, he made his way to the steps and slowly descended, certain there was something down there.

And then he heard it - the low growl of a hunting cat.

Swallowing, he blew out a breath to steady his nerves. God, he hated these visions - they were always so damned cryptic, and they never boded well. Slipping down the stairs, he finally spotted the black jaguar prowling outside of Sandburg's room as if it were looking for something or, more likely, someone.

"He's not there," Jim muttered wearily. "He's in Colorado."

The cat looked up at him, the green eyes piercingly bright in the darkness, and then it snarled. Clearly agitated, it suddenly whirled and bolted into Sandburg's bedroom, only to leap back out, this time with a sharp yowl that sounded as if it were in pain. Again, the jaguar glared up at Ellison, its teeth and claws bared as it pawed at the floor, and then it turned and stalked into the bedroom, clearly expecting Jim to follow.

When Jim got to the doorway, the big cat leapt onto Sandburg's bed, turned to Jim, and then it just disappeared.

Ellison sagged against the doorframe as he rubbed his hand over his head. "What the hell was that all about?" he cursed in frustration, an uneasy feeling growing in his gut.

Turning back toward the staircase, he paused as his eyes swept the darkness of the loft, his gaze landing on the small sticky note by the phone on which Blair had left Daniel Jackson's number. Ellison looked at his watch. It was just after two am. Not a reasonable hour to be making calls to a time zone where it was only three o'clock in the morning. Sandburg would think he was going nuts and no way did he want to worry the kid the first night he was gone…no way did he want to worry Blair, ever, for that matter.

…but what if the kid was in some kind of trouble?

Sighing, Jim started back up the stairs only to pause when the jaguar snarled again, though the cat didn't reappear.

"You're going to have to be a hell of lot clearer if you want something from me," Jim growled back to the darkness around him. "I'm going back to bed. Send me a dream or something, you know, where you change into me and say incomprehensible and annoying things. Maybe then I'll have some chance of understanding what you're trying to tell me."

But though he tried, he couldn't relax enough to get back to sleep. The cat had been more agitated than Jim had ever seen it act before, and it had sounded like it was wounded or something. Why had it chosen to disappear on Sandburg's bed? Had something happened to his Guide?

Finally admitting to himself that he wasn't going to get any more sleep that night, Ellison got up and pulled on his sweats. Moving downstairs, he made himself a cup of coffee and then went out to the balcony where he stood blowing idly on the hot liquid until it had cooled enough to drink.

Restless, feeling anxious, he found himself staring up at the distant stars as he wondered what the jag had been trying to tell him.

********************

The guards at the city gate recognized the visitors from their last visit, just over a week before. They nodded formally, speaking slowly in their language as they crossed their spears and blocked the entryway.

"Oh, come on, what's the hold-up here?" Jack groused impatiently. "Daniel? Blair? Do something."

"How did you communicate with them the last time?" Sandburg asked as he studied the burly men, his head tilted unconsciously as he struggled to make out their words.

"Drew pictures mostly, played some charades," Daniel replied. "Why? Do you understand any of the language?"

"Maybe, a bit - it's sorta like what we know about the Mayan language," Blair replied as he diffidently stepped forward. He bowed formally to the guards and, with a hesitation borne of his unfamiliarity with the sound of spoken Mayan, he introduced himself and the others.

The guards laughed at his odd pronunciation, but seemed relieved that he could communicate, if rudimentarily, with them. Their relief was nothing compared to the sighs of happy approbation behind him. Emboldened, Sandburg went on to request an attendance with the Grand Chieftain Ixzut'l, indicating that they had brought the Chief a gift to show their respect and their concern for his health. The two guards exchanged a look and moved closer together to speak softly without being overheard. Blair noted that they were barely moving their lips and realized they had to have enhanced hearing ability.

"Daniel, who's got the white noise generator?" Blair called back quietly over his shoulder.

"I do," Jackson replied as he rummaged in his backpack. When Daniel handed him the small battery powered instrument, Blair waved at the guards to get their attention. When they turned to him, he held out the generator and flipped the switch, mimicking the act of sleeping as he tried to explain that this was a gift to help the Chief rest.

Startled to find all their hearing of the loud confusion of sounds from beyond the city wall and the jungle around them vanish, so that they only heard what was in their immediate vicinity at a normal level, the guards approached and warily touched the small white machine. Blair turned it off and looked at them hopefully, doing his best to convey concern for the Chief and only the best of friendly intentions. One of the guards smiled and nodded. He'd have liked one of the magical boxes himself on nights when the noises of his world kept him awake. Turning back to the gate, he called out and another guard appeared. Waving at the newcomers, the man indicated they were to be taken to the palace.

Blair smiled and nodded, offering his thanks as he waved to his companions to follow him through the gateway into the passage carved out of the massive wall.

Jack moved up beside him and slapped him on the back. "Way to go, professor!" O'Neill crowed softly as he smiled in congratulation.

"You do realize that they think it's magic?" Daniel mumbled as he moved alongside.

"Yeah, well, you wanted them to mistake me for a Shaman," Sandburg replied, not altogether happily, but relieved that he'd been able to establish some limited communication, and had gotten them in the gate.

********************

Blair felt he was balanced between a state of perpetual awe and outright terror as they made their way along the wide ceremonial approach to the palace. The street was paved with a stone that resembled pink marble but glowed softly and felt warm underfoot. Covered porticoes lined the broad road, and the sidewalks they shadowed were tiled with tiny, brightly coloured ceramic squares. Behind the porticoes, there were shops that held an impressive and rich array of goods, from clothing and jewelry to pottery and weaponry. Tall three-story buildings rose up from either side; solid, well designed structures built of stone. The townsfolk, curious and apparently without fear, watched them from the sheltered walkways and from apertures in the walls of the buildings that loomed above them, and Blair could hear them murmuring in speculation, wondering why they had come.

Ahead of them, the wide paved road branched around a huge round pool of crystal blue water that held a fountain shaped like a bird, something like a phoenix, in its center. Around the fountain, there was a low stone wall, broken at intervals with statues of jaguars. Sandburg cocked his head, wondering if there were actual jaguars, or something very like them, on this planet or if this was evidence of ancient mythology still holding mystery and meaning for these people. Beyond the fountain, two tall edifices, at least six stories high, commanded the view. One was very obviously a temple, built clearly along the lines of the ancient Mayan pyramids. And the other was the palace, a breathtaking structure of glistening white stone festooned with crimson flowers that bloomed on the thick emerald green vines twining up the walls. There were balconies and palisades, decorative arches over window embrasures and carved within the stone itself were representations of many different animals and birds, some of which Sandburg recognized, like the jaguar and wolf, the cockatoo, serpents and eagles, while others were distinctly alien in nature.

"This place is incredible," he murmured, unconsciously smiling in appreciation of the beauty of the design and craftsmanship.

"Isn't it?" Daniel sighed in return. Neither of them noticed Jack rolling his eyes at their academic rapture or Sam's indulgent grin.

As they approached the palace, a statuesque, lightly bronze-skinned woman with large beautiful eyes, and long, straight ebony hair crowned with an elaborate headdress of deep blue feathers, moved out of the shadows at the top of the staircase that led to the main entrance. She was garbed in a flowing gown of something that looked like cerulean silk, with one shoulder bare. On that arm, she wore a heavy bronze-like band that was encrusted with gems that glittered in the sunlight, while her other arm was covered by the drape of fabric. She waited patiently, perfectly still, for them to climb up to meet her.

"The Priestess, L'teel," Teal'c rumbled in a low voice for Blair's benefit.

Sandburg flashed the big man a smile of gratitude as he began to mount the steps, the others following close behind him. His palms were sweaty, and his mouth felt dry as he swallowed against the lump of anxiety in his throat.

"Okay, Shaman, do your stuff," Jack encouraged softly.

"Please don't call me Shaman," Blair muttered back. "It's a title of reverence and respect that has to be earned and, believe me, I don't qualify."

"Maybe not, but you're the best we've got, so perk up and look like you know what you're doing," Jack counseled firmly.

"Right," Sandburg sighed but he lifted his chin to meet the steady gaze of the priestess who awaited them.

When he reached a position two steps below her, he stopped and sank to one knee, his head bowed. "Most honoured Priestess L'teel, we come in peace and bring a gift for the Grand Chieftain, Ixzut'l," he tried to say and hoped his message approximated his intent.

"I welcome you in peace," she replied, her voice low and musical.

Lifting his head, Blair smiled up at her as he said haltingly, "You have met my companions before. My name is Blair Sandburg. May we enter?"

"You may," she replied, a slight smile touching her lips as she stepped back a pace and turned to wave them forward.

"You're doing good, kid," Jack mumbled as they climbed the rest of the way up and followed her into the cool shadows.

"Real good," Sam echoed softly.

L'teel led them through exquisitely decorated hallways that were tiled in elaborate mosaic designs and populated by massive sculptures of the same animals and birds that decorated the outside walls. The air was light and cool, and Blair was impressed to see an internal waterfall that fell from the top floor within the inner circle of the wide stone stairwell that climbed up to the roof. The slight waft of a cool breeze indicated the palace was open to allow in air that would circulate around the waterfall and refresh the palace.

"It's like the Palace of Knossus," he murmured.

"The Palace of who?" Jack asked.

"The Minoan palace on Crete, the original maze of the Minotaur," Sandburg explained quietly. "It's an amazing feat of engineering…"

"Whatever," Jack replied, not really impressed.

"You don't understand," Sandburg explained. "It could indicate some kind of sharing of knowledge between those two early cultures, before the ancestors of these people were brought here. There's never been any evidence found of such contact on earth."

"And that matters because…?" Jack prompted, pretty sure the information was esoteric at best.

"Because it's fascinating," Sandburg snapped back, finding O'Neill's continued sarcasm and jibes irritating, and too tired to ignore them completely. But he swallowed and explained more patiently, "And also because it might give us some other clues about how these people think, what they believe."

"Okay, I can see how that would be helpful," O'Neill capitulated with a lift of his hands in surrender.

"Jack, would you give him a break," Daniel protested in irritation. Turning to Blair he added, "He's only half as dumb as he acts."

"That's a relief," Blair replied straight-faced, but his eyes twinkled when Sam snickered and Teal'c unbent enough to let a smile twitch on his lips. Jack just snorted. It was then that Sandburg realized what they, and especially Jack, were up to. They were trying to help him relax with the light byplay and he was more than willing to aid and abet their efforts on his behalf. His stomach was tied in knots and he was so very afraid of screwing up, he needed all the help they could possibly give to let some of the tension go, so that he could concentrate on the tasks ahead. He felt oddly comforted by the behaviours that reminded him of how Jim teased him in that dry way of his, to get him to loosen up when he was on the edge of panic.

L'teel continued to guide them up five flights of stone steps and then she turned into a spacious hallway, more a palisade that was open to the air, the ceiling supported by intricately carved columns. They could look out over the whole city and see the tropical rain forest and mountains beyond as they followed her across and into the most richly appointed chamber they'd yet seen. Elaborate, multi-coloured tapestries graced the walls and miniature waterfalls cascaded down either side of the inner doorway, to disappear into the floor below. There were exquisite statues with inlaid gems and fine metals around the walls, and arrangements of small groupings of stone benches made comfortable with plush pillows. As a waiting room, it was pretty impressive.

The priestess turned to Blair as she said, "The Grand Chieftain rests. Wait here, and I will come for you when he is ready…"

Blair nodded and motioned his companions toward the benches near the inner doorway.

"What was that?" Jack asked.

"We're supposed to wait here, I think," Blair replied. "If I understood her right, the Chief is resting right now."

"And we're going to wait how long, exactly?" Jack pressed, impatient as always.

"Until he's ready to see us," Sandburg replied with a shrug as he sat down, weary to his very bones. Actually, 'resting' sounded like a pretty good idea. "I, uh, I think I'll just lie down, if nobody minds," he said to anyone who was listening, and then he promptly curled up on the bench and closed his eyes. Even his acute state of anxiety wasn't enough to keep his exhaustion at bay.

********************

Jim's leg had begun to ache hours before from standing too long in the damp darkness. So he'd sat down on one of the balcony chairs as he'd continued to contemplate the heavens. Gradually, the dark gave way to a pale, watery gray, and the light grew as dawn became early morning.

Blinking, Ellison stretched and looked at his watch for the umpteenth time since he'd come out to stare at the sky nearly four hours before. Rising, he went into the loft and directly to the phone. It was seven AM in Colorado, a semi-reasonable time to call to catch his friend before he headed out to his new job.

But the phone only rang until the voice mail with a strange voice, presumably that of Daniel Jackson, clicked in. "I'm sorry, I'm not available to take your call. Please leave a message at the beep and I'll get back to you as soon as possible."

Frustrated, Jim left his name and number, and the brief message that he'd like to speak to Blair Sandburg, and then he hung up.

Sighing, he made himself a pot of coffee and some toast, but then didn't feel like eating it. His sense of disquiet had grown during the night to the point where he felt itchy with irritated helplessness. Chewing on his lip, he was debating the wisdom of making flight reservations to Denver when the phone rang.

Grabbing it, he didn't bother with the usual 'hello', expecting it to be Blair returning his call. "Sandburg?" he asked immediately, hopefully.

"Sorry, Jim, it's Simon," Banks replied somberly. "Look, I apologize if I'm calling too early, but I think we need to talk."

"What about?" Jim asked, butterflies twitching in his stomach at the grave intonation of Simon's voice.

"Sandburg called me around 1:30 this morning to tell me he had this other job and that he was going out immediately on some field assignment," Simon explained. "But - he got cagey when I asked him where he was headed, especially since he didn't think he'd be reachable while he was away. He wanted me to tell you not worry, but…"

"But…?" Ellison echoed when Banks' voice trailed off.

"But what's so secret about an anthropological field trip?" Simon asked. "And where can you go that is that far out of reach?"

"I don't know, but Naomi seems to manage that little feat on a regular basis," Jim replied with no little sarcasm to cover the anxiety that twisted inside.

"Yeah, I guess, but there's something very odd about all this," Banks continued. "I called the phone company to find out where he'd called from, intending to call him back - but when I learned the caller number and location, I thought I'd better talk to you before doing anything else. Jim, what kind of project would Sandburg be working on in a military establishment inside Cheyenne Mountain?"

"What are you talking about?" Ellison growled, startled into aggravated and very active worry.

"The number he called from is listed as an Air Force establishment, Jim," Simon clarified. "You see why I'm a little confused - and concerned."

Jim frowned in consternation. "He said he was going to work on some kind of project that studies the impact of myth and legend on modern day societies…" he finally answered. "You're right. It makes no sense. But he knew the guy, a Daniel Jackson, who offered him this job, and it was pretty clear that he thought it was a legitimate position. I honestly don't think he was lying to me about the job offer, at least as to what he thought it involved. I've even got Jackson's home phone number…it's 713 555-5280. I tried the number a little while ago, but only got the voice mail."

"Why'd you call this early in the morning?" Banks asked, only surprised that Jim had caved so soon to his not unexpected need to be in touch with Blair.

"Ah, Simon, you're not going to like this," Jim sighed as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "The black jaguar appeared around two this morning and acted really weird, like he was hurt or something. He led me to Sandburg's room and then disappeared after he jumped on the bed."

There was a long silence. "You're right, I don't like it, and I don't understand it, but now I'm more worried than ever. Let me run a check on this Daniel Jackson and see what I come up with," Simon rumbled. "I'll get back to you as soon as I can. And listen up, Jim - I know what you're thinking about doing. Don't, and I repeat, don't leave town until you hear from me, okay? Let's get a little more information before you fly off to Colorado, so we have some idea of what we're dealing with."

"Okay, thanks, Simon," Jim replied and then hung up the phone. For a long moment, he stood and stared at it, wondering what was going on, and if somehow the military had tricked Blair into something, maybe related to his dissertation. But that didn't make sense, either. If they were interested in sentinels and didn't believe Blair's public denials, then wouldn't the military have come after him and not Blair?

Turning, he looked toward Blair's room and thought again about the jag's mysterious behaviour during the night. Something was wrong, very wrong. Blair was in some kind of trouble.

His expression grim, Jim limped across the loft and up the stairs to his room to get dressed and pack a bag. Carrying it downstairs, he pulled out his personal phonebook and looked up Jack Kelso's number, to have it handy when Simon called back.

And then he sat down to wait with increasing impatience by the phone.

It was a long hour before Simon finally called back and Jim practically pounced on the phone. "What have you got?" he demanded.

"Dr. Daniel Jackson is an archeologist who lives at 62 Ridge Road, Apartment 11, in Colorado Springs. He achieved a certain notoriety a few years back with his theories that the pyramids had been built by aliens and then he dropped out of sight. His tax return indicates that he's employed by the US Air Force. That's it," Simon reported.

"Got it," Jim replied as he finished scribbling down the address. "I'm going to call Jack Kelso, to see what he knows about this project, whatever it is. I'll call you after I've met with him, and then I'm heading out to the airport."

"Want company?" Simon asked.

"I don't know yet, but thanks for the offer," Jim replied carefully. Simon was just out of the hospital himself and still recuperating from a very serious gunshot wound through his back and chest. No matter how much he wanted to be a part of this, Ellison had no intention of dragging him along. Still, Jim didn't have time to debate it with Banks, so he used avoidance instead. "I'll get back to you on that."

Immediately after disconnecting, Jim punched in Kelso's home number. "Hey, Jack, it's Jim Ellison. I need a favour. Blair's accepted some job from an old friend of his, an archeologist named Dr. Daniel Jackson, that Sandburg said was a study of the impact of myth on society. I've just found out that this Dr. Jackson is employed by the Air Force inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs. Blair called last night to say he was heading out on a field trip and would be out of reach for a while, and the number he called from is one of those assigned to the military establishment in the mountain. I need to know what's going on."

"You guys get into the weirdest stuff," Jack replied sardonically. "I've heard a few vague rumours about the mountain, but let me check with my sources to see if I can get anything more specific. Can you meet me in my office in, oh, say an hour?"

"I'll be there," Jim confirmed.

And then he called the airline to book the noon flight out to Denver.

********************

Jim hobbled into Jack Kelso's office at the University, a cane in one hand and his duffel bag in the other, precisely one hour later.

Kelso, a former CIA agent disabled in the line of duty, and now a professor of Political Science, looked up, a quizzical expression on his face as he waved Ellison to a chair. "How's your leg?" he asked with evident concern.

"It'll do," Jim replied briskly. "What have you got on Daniel Jackson and this project in Colorado Springs?"

"Well," Kelso sighed as he scratched the back of his head, "you're venturing into X-files territory, I'm afraid."

Blowing out an impatient breath, Jim grated, "Look, I don't have time to beat around the bush here. What's Sandburg gotten himself into?"

"I'm sorry, I couldn't get much," Jack replied unhappily. "This is a very hush-hush project, linked directly into the Joint Chiefs and the President. All I could find out was some iffy speculation about the amount of money that disappears into that mountain, and some outright mockery about the uselessness of a project that is designed to learn about alien civilizations, you know, a little like Area 51. As for Daniel Jackson, he's an archeologist who was considered brilliant at one time and then dismissed as flaky because of his theories about aliens building the pyramids. The Cheyenne Mountain operation is headed up by a General George Hammond, a very solid and highly experienced, respected senior officer. Not someone given to pursuing fairy tales. I also found out that a Colonel Jack O'Neill was called out of retirement to work on this same project. Jack O'Neill is not someone to mess with - he had extensive combat experience and some covert ops classified assignments. Maybe you know…"

"Jack O'Neill? I know him," Jim muttered, surprised to hear that he was involved in this somehow. Frowning, he considered what he remembered of O'Neill from his Covert Ops days - the man had been his first unit commander and something of a legend, until he'd been rotated out to HQ for his next posting; unfortunately, Oliver had been promoted in, and it had all gone downhill from there. But Jim had heard a while back that O'Neill had gotten tired of the politics in Washington and had retired. Ellison didn't know General Hammond, personally, but remembered his reputation as a very sensible, ethical officer who was broadly trusted throughout the force. Some of his anxiety eased just in knowing that men like that were a part of the mystery, though it only left him with more questions. What could they want with Sandburg? And what the hell was this shit about aliens?

"Does any of that help?" Kelso asked into the prolonged silence.

"Uh, yeah, I think it might," Jim said absently and then he focused back on the former CIA agent. "Thanks, Jack. I owe you a big one."

Kelso shrugged, a worried frown on his face. "You'll let me know - I mean, I wouldn't want Blair to be in any kind of trouble. Regardless of that press conference, well…I know there's something up between the two of you, but you don't owe me any explanation about that. But if anything in that paper was true, the military might be very interested in learning about sentinels and their abilities. Let's just say I don't think he was lying in that paper. Blair's not the sort to commit fraud."

Jim gazed at Kelso for a long moment and then nodded briefly as he stood. "You're right. He's not. We'll tell you what we can when we get back."

"Have a good and successful trip - call me if there's anything else I can do to help," Jack said as Jim turned to leave, unsurprised that the detective was evidently heading to Colorado.

Outside, Jim called Simon while he waited for the taxi that would take him to the airport. As the cab pulled up, he finished his report, such as it was. "Given that I know both Hammond by reputation and O'Neill from the Black Op days, I'm going to head out on my own. If it turns out I need some back-up, I'll give you a call."

"All right, Jim. Good luck…and keep me posted. I don't want you disappearing on any fieldtrips where I can't reach you, you hear me?" Simon directed.

"I hear you, Simon," Jim replied with a grim smile. "I'll do my best to keep you in the loop, sir."

He heard Simon's snort as he disconnected and got into the taxi.

********************

"Blair, wake up!" Daniel called softly as he shook the younger man's shoulder.

"Huh, what?" Sandburg mumbled, slightly disorientated as he blinked and tried to remember where he was.

"The Grand Chieftain is ready to see us," Jackson told him.

"Oh, right," Blair said as he sat up and ran his fingers through his unkempt hair. Smothering a yawn, he stood to bow to Priestess L'teel and then, backpack over his shoulder, he followed her into the inner chamber; the others close on his heels.

Blinding late afternoon sunlight poured in through the open window embrasures, making Blair wince in reflex. Even this high above the city, he could hear the cacophony of sound, voices calling out shrilly, drums beating and bells ringing. Sniffing, he caught the bitter tang of smoking herbs in the air, and then his eyes found the Grand Chieftain and he moaned in unconscious empathy, "Oh, you poor guy…"

Ixzut'l would have been a tall, strong man in his prime, but now he was old, his shoulders rounded and bent as he huddled under a woolen blanket on a throne-like chair made of finely woven, but rough, reeds. Lines around his eyes and mouth revealed the presence of some terrible pain - he looked as if he'd been battered by life.

Over his shoulder, Blair murmured, "Don't say anything unless you have to - and if you do speak, whisper." And then he moved to kneel by the Chieftain, biting his lower lip as he studied the old man. Bowing his head in respect, he said very softly, "Most honoured and wise of men, I am Blair Sandburg, and I bring you treasures from Earth to ease your pain and aid your rest. Please, may I approach and present you with our gifts?"

The old man stared into space as if he hadn't heard, and Blair's eyes grew dark with concern. Turning to L'teel, he said, "Chieftain Ixzut'l is in great pain, but I believe I can help him if you will allow me."

The beautiful priestess studied him in silence for a long moment, but having read the honest concern in his eyes, she nodded. "Do what you can and we will be forever grateful."

Nodding, Blair stood and stepped away from the suffering man to murmur to her, "Could you bring me some fruit and herbs that have a slightly sweet smell? And some morsels of his favourite food, and his most preferred drink?" She nodded and left the room. Turning to the others, he directed quietly, "Close the blinds on all the windows and get that smelly herbal stuff out of this room. I need someone to put the silk sheets on his bed, and I also need the sleep mask and the skin lotion." As he spoke, he pulled the white noise generator from his pocket and clicked it on. Jack took care of the windows while Teal'c pulled the sheets from his bag and moved to the bed in an alcove behind the throne. Sam handed Blair the skin lotion and the sleep mask while Daniel gathered up the smoky pots of herbs and carried them out of the chamber.

Blair moved back toward the Chieftain, setting the white noise generator on the polished wood floor as he knelt beside the old man. Gently, Sandburg removed the coarse blanket from the Chieftain's knees and cast it aside, wincing at the sight of inflamed and irritated skin. Murmuring softly, he did his best to explain what he was doing so that he wouldn't startle the ruler with his ministrations.

"I know it hurts, that everything hurts, but I can help you," he whispered softly as he laid a gentle hand on the old man's arm. "We will dim the light so that it will not burn your eyes any further, and I have a mask for you to wear when you lie down to bring you soothing darkness. I am going to put medicine on your skin and, while I do, I want you to picture five flowers, each of them a different colour, and each of them fully in bloom. Can you tell me their colours?"

Slowly, Ixzut'l blinked and then turned his head to face Blair. "Red, yellow, green, orange and white," he replied in a low, hoarse voice.

"Good," Blair murmured. "The red flower represents the pain in your body. As I soothe this medicine into your skin, I want you to imagine that flower closing as it does as the end of the day. As it closes, the pain will diminish…"

Smoothly and ever so gently, after he warmed the lotion in his palms, he stroked it over the irritated skin, and all the while he kept up a low, encouraging murmur. Under his hands, he felt the old man begin to relax. "There, the red flower is half closed, but it can still close more. While it is closing, think of the white flower, which represents bright light. It too is fully open, but as you picture it, imagine it also closing and the light in the room becoming dimmer…"

Blair continued to soothe on the lotion, his voice a soft melodious murmur as he instructed the Chieftain. "Now, the yellow blossom is your sense of smell. Right now, it is fully open and you can smell the sharp bitterness in the air, but as the flower closes, the bitterness goes away." When L'teel returned carrying a large basket of fruit in one hand and a plate of delicacies in another, a maid behind her bearing a pitcher and goblet, Sandburg whispered, "Can you smell the fruit, how fresh it is? The food? Your favourite?" Ixzut'l nodded, and sighed. "Very good, my lord, very, very good. And now the green flower is what you can hear. I've brought a gift that already silences the noises that have grated upon your ears. But the flower is still open, and it needs to close…"

Tentatively, Blair touched the nubbly shawl that covered the Chieftain's shoulders and back, drawing it away from the skin and then he applied the cream to the man's reddened shoulders and down along his spine. "The orange flower is what you taste." The old man twisted his lips unhappily. "Yes, I know, you have a bad taste in your mouth, but we've brought you food and drink, only that which you enjoy." Having finished with the lotion, Blair looked around for something with which to clean his hands, and found that L'teel had anticipated his need. She moved forward with a pottery bowl of water and a length of soft cloth over her arm.

"Thank you," Sandburg said softly as he washed and dried his hands. "You are most helpful. And now, if you would bring me his food and drink?"

Delicately, Blair fed the old man one small morsel at a time after first smelling it and tasting it himself to ensure the flavours weren't too strong. As he watched Ixzut'l chew and swallow, he was gratified to see that the lines of pain on the man's face had eased. Still, he continued his murmuring, and kept one hand lightly on the Chieftain's arm. "The flowers are closing up, the noise has disappeared, and the light is soft on your eyes. Your skin is warm and soothed. You smell fresh fruit and good food, the flavours dancing on your tongue. The pain has drifted away…you can truly rest now, and sleep."

Ixzut'l nodded and allowed Blair to help him stand. Slowly, they walked to the bed where Blair settled him on the cool silken sheets. The old man sighed with pleasure as he relaxed. Finally, Sandburg held out the sleep mask. "I wish to place this over your eyes to bring the ease of darkness. May I?"

"Yes," Ixzut'l allowed, so Blair slipped it over his head and down to cover his eyes.

"When you have rested well, perhaps we may speak again," Sandburg whispered. "But, remember always the flowers. When the pain and discomfort is great, think of the flowers and watch them close, taking the pain away."

He withdrew his hand from the old man's arm, but Ixzut'l fumbled to grab at his hand. Smiling, Blair asked, "Is there something you wish?"

"To thank you, young Shaman," Ixzut'l rumbled, his voice stronger and less strained than it had been. "You have powerful magic and wondrous gifts. You are generous and I call you friend. I look forward to knowing you well."

"It's been my honour to serve you, my lord," Blair murmured and then withdrew, gesturing to the others to leave the room with him. They'd been standing aside, silently watching him minister to the most powerful man on Ixlana, amazed at how the Chieftain had responded. By the time he'd finished, Ixzut'l had actually looked younger, and had been smiling in contentment. Though they'd not understood the old man's words, they'd all noted that he was more alert and stronger than they'd ever seen him. Indeed, in the past, they'd rarely seen him able to speak at all.

When the wooden doors to the inner chamber were closed behind them, Sandburg turned to the Priestess. "L'teel, I suggest that the blinds always be closed against the bright sun, and that bitter herbs never again be burned in his presence. Get rid of that reed chair or cover it with soft pillows. Here, you may keep this medicine for his skin - apply it twice a day until the redness goes away."

She took the plastic tube in her hands, studying it and then looked up at him, as she replied, "You counsel very differently than does Shaman Tex'chin. It was he who ordered the herbs and bright light. He who required us to use coarse woolen materials to make the demons tormenting the Chieftain abandon his body. But you use gentleness, and soft, sweet-smelling ways to bring him comfort and peace."

"Demons no more plague Ixzut'l than you or I," Blair said, his tone sharp with anger and unconscious authority when he realized Tex'chin had been deliberately torturing the man, albeit subtly. "Your Grand Chieftain was chosen because he has powerful senses, of sight and hearing, of touch and taste and smell. They no doubt made him a great warrior and defender of your people. But the senses can be irritated, causing pain. I have shown him how to control them better, but you and others can help by easing his environment."

She nodded thoughtfully and then, glancing at the others, she said, "You must all be tired and hungry. Come, I will show you to your chambers and we will bring you food and drink."

"Thank you for your kindness," Blair replied as he bowed his head in respectful gratitude. When she turned away, he signaled to the others to follow. "She's taking us to our chambers and will have food brought to us," he explained.

"That's nice," O'Neill muttered absently, his eyes narrowed as he studied Sandburg. The kid was full of surprises. He might seem little more than a teenager, with his wild, unkempt hair and wide innocent eyes, but he'd taken charge back in that chamber without conscious thought. And, he'd worked a minor miracle by the look of things. The last time they'd visited Ixlana, they hadn't been accorded the privilege of rooms in the palace. As they crossed the glossy wooden floor of the spacious waiting area, he loped a few steps to catch up with Sandburg and then said, "You did good in there, but, uh, what did you do, exactly?"

"The Grand Chieftain has very heightened senses which were out of control. He's not sick, but he was in a huge amount of pain. I eased that and showed him how to control his senses better, that's all," Blair replied matter-of-factly.

"That's all?" Jack echoed, his brows lifting. "What did he say to you when he grabbed your hand?"

"Well, uh," Blair hesitated and the others noticed a slight blush creep over his cheeks, "he called me 'shaman' and said I had powerful magic, that we were friends and he wants to get to know me better."

"Way to go, Sandburg!" O'Neill crowed as he slapped the younger man on the back. "'That's all,' he says," he added mockingly. "We're in!"

They had just crossed into the open palisade when Blair felt a jolt of pain lash through his body like a hot flame. He stumbled, lifting his hands to his head.

"Hey, are you all right?" Sam asked, hastening to give him a shoulder to lean on.

"I…yeah, I'm fine," he muttered as the pain washed away as if it had never been. "Just for a moment, it felt like fire was racing through me…"

Sandburg straightened and looked around. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end and he felt as if someone was watching him, but the palisade was high above the ground. The only building tall enough to give a vantage point was the Temple. Squinting into the bright light of the afternoon, Sandburg stared across the courtyard that separated the two edifices. "Tex'chin," he muttered to himself.

"You can see him from here?" Daniel asked, surprised as he followed Blair's gaze. Teal'c also looked across the wide intervening space and then back at Sandburg, a considering look in his eyes that turned to surprise when he heard Blair's response.

"No - I can feel him," Blair stated flatly and then turned to L'teel who was watching him with a worried look in her eyes. "I'm fine," he assured her so, after a slight hesitation, she turned to lead them back down the steps to the level below.

They were shown into an opulent suite that consisted of a large central lounge with smaller but still airy sleeping quarters opening from it. They each had their own private chamber with a couple left over, and yet another doorway led to a large communal bath area complete with indoor plumbing.

"This place is amazing," Sandburg muttered as he examined the facilities. Looking up at Daniel, he added, "This is beyond anything we've found in the ancient ruins. These people have evolved their engineering to an extraordinarily sophisticated level."

"Yes, they have," Jackson replied thoughtfully. "It only makes sense, though. They're an intelligent people and they've been here a long time. ut - again, there are what I would call Minoan influences. Maybe there was some early contact?"

Scratching his cheek, Sandburg reflected, "The Minoans were accomplished sailors and their craft resemble that used more than a millennia later by the Polynesian peoples when they crossed the Pacific. I suppose it's quite possible that they could have crossed the Atlantic." He looked up at Daniel, his eyes glowing with excitement, "You know what this means, right? If we could make the links between these cultures back on Earth, it would revolutionize the way we look at both peoples!"

Jack overheard the conversation as he came to the doorway to tell them the food had arrived and shook his head. It never ceased to amaze him that such discoveries about long dead civilizations could get Daniel, and apparently his little buddy, so excited. "Chow's on," he told them, an amused glint in his eyes.

They all settled onto cushions around the low table, curiously eying the ceramic dishes loaded with unusual foods. There were raw fruits and vegetables, as well as cooked meats and something that resembled pita bread. The others recognized most of the offerings from their last trip, though this time the meal was presented with more style and flair with a variety of accompanying sauces and relishes.

"Most of the meats taste like either beef or chicken," Sam told Blair as she helped herself.

"And the fruits and vegetables are most flavourful," Teal'c offered, also digging in.

Sandburg grinned as he served himself generous portions - he was starving. "Well, lizard tastes like chicken, too, and fried locusts are very similar to corn chips."

"Eww, that's disgusting," Jack whined playfully as he grinned at the kid. At least Sandburg wasn't a complainer and he seemed comfortable eating whatever was put in front of him. The grin faded, however, as he asked with a gesture up toward the palisade above, "What did you mean that you could 'feel' old whatshisname?"

"Tex'chin," Blair mumbled around a full mouth. Swallowing, he suggested, "I think he was using magic."

"Magic?" O'Neill repeated. "Come on, you're kidding me, right?"

Teal'c looked up from his plate, listening intently, while Sam and Daniel exchanged hidden smiles of amusement at Jack's predictable reaction.

"No, I really think he used magic," Sandburg replied seriously. When Jack looked away, a profoundly skeptical look on his face, Blair continued, "I know, it sounds crazy. But so does going through a wormhole to another planet, or that a man can have such advanced senses of sight or hearing that he can read a shoulder insignia from a mile away, or hear the flap of a butterfly's wings. I mean, do you really know how the Stargate works? Maybe it's magic - it's as good an explanation as any for what we don't fully understand. In our modern world, we discount anything we can't objectively prove scientifically, but that doesn't mean that other realities, other powers, can't exist. In any case, the mind is a powerful instrument that can manipulate energy over time and space if you know how to do it. This Tex'chin is a powerful and dangerous shaman and may well be a sorcerer who can conjure up evil things."

"Soooo - you think he put a spell or something on the Chief?" Jack asked, cocking his head a little as he waited for the answer, thinking that this kid dropped into lecture mode as quickly as Daniel had a tendency to do.

"No, not at all," Sandburg replied, anger again tingeing his voice. "That was deliberate, very subtle, torture. Tex'chin obviously knows how to prey upon a sentinel's weaknesses. He had prescribed exactly the opposite of what Ixzut'l needed to bring his spiking senses under control. This is one scary guy, Jack. Don't take him lightly."

"But whether he's doing this to get control of the world for his own ends, or whether he's working on behalf of the Goa'uld isn't clear yet, is it?" Daniel mused.

"We have to get closer to him," Sam said then. "To see if he is a Goa'uld."

"You can tell by looking at someone?" Blair asked.

"Often, if they make their eyes glow," Sam replied. "But, I was once a host to a Tok'ra and that left me with the ability to sense the presence of a Goa'uld."

"Really?" Sandburg exclaimed, his brows lifting in sharp interest. "What was it like? I mean, to host a symbiote?"

Sam looked at Teal'c who nodded once and then said, "It depends upon whether the symbiotic is fully mature or not. I host a young symbiote, as it requires another body in which to develop. Occasionally, when in deep meditation, I have been able to sense its thoughts and feelings. A mature symbiote shares consciousness with the host, if it is a Tok'ra, as they do not treat their hosts as mere vessels. The Goa'uld, however, are arrogant and they use their mental powers to subjugate the host, taking full control of the mind and body."

Blair's lips had parted as he listened to Teal'c's explanation, for the first time realizing that the big man carried another intelligent being within him. "What will happen when your symbiote matures?"

"It will have to be destroyed as it is a Goa'uld," Teal'c replied darkly. "And I will need a new larva immediately, or I will die."

"What! Why?" Sandburg stammered.

"Because its union with my body provides my immune system, my own having been completely suppressed and destroyed by its presence," Teal'c explained patiently. "It also gives me more physical strength and stamina, but without it my body is greatly weakened."

His appetite gone, Sandburg set his plate aside. "So - that's how they enslaved your people and made you dependent upon them," he murmured, disgusted by the way the Goa'uld preyed upon their victims.

"It is how they enslave them still," Teal'c replied, sadness and anger mingled in his eyes.

********************

Ellison rented a car at the Denver airport and, cursing his sore leg, he found he had to drive more slowly than was his wont because the stiffness did a real number on his ability to react quickly and reflexively. Arriving in Colorado Springs in late afternoon, he went first to Jackson's apartment, just in case someone was home. But the apartment was dark and silent; he could tell it was unoccupied from the street below.

His jaw tight as he battled a combination of pain, fatigue and anxiety, he headed out of town and up the mountain to the entrance of the military installation. Outside the electrified gate was a small parking area for visitors where Jim locked and left the rental vehicle. Leaving his cane in the vehicle, as he didn't want to give anyone any reason to suggest he wasn't 'fit' to go into the field after Sandburg, and trying not to limp too obviously, he approached the gate, his gaze taking in the line of the fence and the well-guarded opening into the mountain beyond. An Air Force corporal stepped out of the gatehouse to meet him, courteous but also wary in her demeanor.

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked.

"My name is Jim Ellison. I'm here to see General Hammond," he replied without expression.

"Is he expecting you, Mr. Ellison?" she enquired, knowing there was no such name on her list of approved visitors for the day.

"No, I don't think so," Ellison replied, unfazed. "Tell him I served in the same unit as Jack O'Neill in Covert Operations and that I'm here about Blair Sandburg. I'm pretty sure he'll see me."

"If you would wait a moment, sir, I'll call his office."

A few moments later, she emerged again from the small gatehouse and motioned him forward as the gate swung open. Another corporal approached from the tunnel entrance. "Makins, please escort Mr. Ellison to General Hammond's office."

Jim followed the young man into the tunnel, through another checkpoint and then into an elevator. They descended rapidly down through several levels and Ellison swallowed against the slight pressure in his ears. Then, they walked through a maze of corridors until the Corporal rapped smartly on a door and, when permission to enter was given, showed Jim inside.

General Hammond rose from behind his desk to wave Ellison to a seat.

"General, thank you for agreeing to see me, sir," Jim acknowledged as he sank gratefully into the padded chair, though his carefully controlled expression betrayed nothing of his relief.

"Detective Ellison, I wasn't expecting you, though in retrospect, perhaps I should have," Hammond replied as he too sat down and studied the tall man across from him. "What can I do for you?"

Jim noticed the designate 'detective', though he'd not identified himself as a police officer, but he wasn't really surprised. They would have done a thorough backgrounder on Sandburg before offering him the job. "You obviously know who I am," he began. Hammond nodded, and Ellison continued, "I'm worried about Blair Sandburg. With all respect, sir, I don't think he had a clue about what this job was really about when he came out here."

"That may be so," Hammond replied neutrally, "but he was thoroughly briefed on arrival and has accepted the position we offered. There's no need for you to be concerned on his behalf."

"What kind of Air Force project hidden away in the middle of mountain, in an old missile silo, requires the skills and abilities of an anthropologist?" Jim asked bluntly.

"I'm sorry, but that's classified information, Detective," the older man replied blandly. "I'm sure that, with your own military background, you understand what that means."

"General, you tricked him and misrepresented his duties when he was offered this job," Ellison argued.

"How so?"

"He believed he was joining a project to study the impact of myth and legend on current societies," Jim replied, his voice tight with control. "Not likely something the Air Force would be engaged with."

"You might be surprised at the breadth of our interests," Hammond replied calmly, a slight smile on his lips.

This was getting him nowhere and Jim knew it. The General could stonewall him into the next week if he so desired, or have him forcibly ejected at will. He stared at the older man for a long moment while he weighed his options and decided he didn't have many - and hiding what he was, was probably a waste of time. Ellison rubbed the back of his neck and then sat a little straighter, unconsciously assuming a military posture. "Sir, we've never met before, but your reputation is that of a fair-minded, ethical, trustworthy man."

"Thank you," Hammond replied, wondering why Ellison had come looking for Sandburg.

Licking his lips, Jim continued, "I have reason to believe that Blair is in some kind of danger."

Hammond shifted a little in his chair, pursing his lips as he leaned back and shook his head. "I have no such knowledge," he hedged. "What reason, specifically?"

Jim scratched his cheek, his eyes roaming the ceiling before coming back to meet the General's steady gaze. "General, I'm assuming you're aware of Sandburg's dissertation."

"I am," Hammond allowed.

"And you suspect it contained accurate information notwithstanding his recent public disavowal of the paper?"

Hammond sighed and leaned forward, clasping his hands on the top of the desk. "Detective, let's stop fencing, shall we? Yes, I believe you are a sentinel, a man with extraordinary sensory gifts. Let me assure you, however, that our interest is in Mr. Sandburg's academic and personal qualifications; his work here has nothing to do with you. But, you are obviously very worried about him and I'd like to know if you have any specific reasons for your concern or whether you simply suspect your nation's military of acting for nefarious purposes."

Well, that was blunt, Jim thought as he chewed on his cheek. His senses told him that Hammond was telling him the truth, but that still didn't explain why they had sought out Sandburg. Everything he knew about Hammond suggested that he was a man who valued candour and could be trusted unquestionably to act with decency and honour. Taking a deep breath, Jim made his decision. "Okay, I know this is going to sound, well, crazy, but being a sentinel includes more than sensory advantages," he began, his voice flat and resigned. "I, uh, see spirit guides, mine and Sandburg's and on one other occasion, another sentinel's. Last night, around three AM your time, my spirit guide, a black jaguar, appeared in my apartment and behaved oddly, as if it was wounded. It led me to Sandburg's room, jumped on his bed and then disappeared. I later learned that Blair had called my boss for personal reasons concerning a job offer the Cascade Police had made him, but also indicated that he was leaving on a field trip immediately - that call was shortly before the jaguar appeared to me. It's my belief that this trip puts Sandburg in grave danger. I'd like to know where he is because it's my job to protect him. He's my Guide."

"I see," Hammond murmured, frowning in thought. It was a wild story, but so was the idea of mini-dragons taking over human beings as hosts. It was the General's turn to chew on his inner lip, his fingers tapping unconsciously on the desk as he pondered Ellison's revelation. "Detective Ellison, it's true that this assignment is not without its risks. However, Mr. Sandburg was accompanied by my best team, which is led by Colonel Jack O'Neill, who I've been told you know. I can assure you that Jack will let no harm come to your Guide."

"Where is he, General?" Jim pressed.

"I'm sorry," Hammond replied, looking honestly regretful, "but I can't tell you that."

"Dammit," Jim cursed softly as he stood to pace the office, grimacing at the ache in his leg. But his attention was caught just then by distant thudding sounds. Cocking his head unconsciously, he narrowed his eyes in concentration as he strained to hear more. Distantly, he could make out, "Incoming off-world signal. SG-15's signal is verified. Open the iris."

Off-world?

Spinning around, Jim gaped at the General in astonished understanding. "He's not on this planet anymore, is he?"

"I beg your pardon?" Hammond replied, pretending innocence.

"I just heard someone say, 'Incoming off-world signal. SG-15's signal verified. Open the iris,' Jim replied, a look of incredulity on his face. "You've found a way to travel to other planets. That's it, isn't it? And you needed an anthropologist to help understand the alien cultures…"

Hammond looked away, shaking his head bemusedly. "I should never have allowed you into the facility. Your senses are more powerful than I imagined," he said ruefully. Turning back to Ellison, he continued, "Only a few hours ago, I told Mr. Sandburg I'd welcome someone with your talents on my team. I'm sorry, Detective Ellison, but only the people who work here, my superiors and those who support them are privy to the details of our activities. Mr. Sandburg is in good hands. The best. When he returns, I'll have him call you immediately to reassure you of his wellbeing. For now, you may as well just go home."

"I'm not leaving here until I see Sandburg," Jim stated unequivocally. "Don't force me to make threats, General - I don't want to do that, and you don't need the hassle of media attention."

"Detective, you could threaten me till the cows come home but it wouldn't make a whit of difference," Hammond replied, a note of steel coming into his voice and glinting from his eyes. Leaning forward, he continued, "Let me assure you, my people checked you out as thoroughly as they screened Mr. Sandburg. And you know what they learned? You, sir, are a brave and an honourable man. You are loyal, even devoted, to your country and you would do nothing to willfully prejudice efforts to ensure its security. So, I don't believe your threats, Detective. If I did, I'd have you tossed in the brig for national security reasons. Please don't force me to change my mind."

There was a reason this man was a general and had earned the reputation he enjoyed, Jim reflected wearily. He swallowed and his shoulders slumped, only too well aware he couldn't fight the battle on this level. God, he was helpless unless he could convince Hammond to let him go after Sandburg. Jim's feeling of desperation was very real and he didn't dare ignore the warning the jag had given him. But how the hell could he find Sandburg, help him, if he wasn't even somewhere on Earth? Blair's life could depend upon what was decided now, in this room.

Frustrated, Jim was wondering what he could say or do next when he froze at the sound of a cat's snarling yowl.

Hammond frowned at how Ellison froze, and his sudden pallor. Rising in concern, he moved rapidly around the desk to take Jim's arm and draw him back to his chair. "Are you alright, son?" he asked.

"I'm fine, sir, just a…a little tired," Jim stammered, his hand lifting in response to the headache that thudded with sudden acuity. His anxiety about Sandburg was roiling in his gut, and he was beginning to feel panicky. Where the hell was he? What was going on? Though Jim hated to admit it, he was completely helpless here and wouldn't be able to do a damned thing without Hammond's cooperation. His jaw was rigid and his voice tight with his effort to contain his emotions as he looked up at the General and said with all the sincerity in his soul, "I don't know how else to convince you, but I am absolutely certain that Blair is in grave danger. Please, sir, you have to let me go after him."

"You aren't in any condition to go anywhere right this minute," Hammond replied bluntly. "But I'm persuaded that there may be some merit in your concerns. Tell you what, Detective. Why don't you accept our hospitality for a day or so? I have a means of contacting my team and I'll request an immediate status update on their situation. That's the best that I can do."

Hammond's voice had held kindness, but also a note of firm decisiveness. There was no doubt that this was as far as he was prepared to go, at least for now. Jim looked away as his shoulders slumped, but finally he nodded, conceding defeat for the moment. At least he'd alerted them that there were dangers on this mission, whatever it was. And if he was inside the complex, it gave him the opportunity to figure out a way to get to wherever Sandburg was. "Thank you, General. I accept your compromise, for now."

Hammond went to the door to tell the Corporal waiting outside to escort Ellison to one of their guest suites and to get him something to eat. As soon as Jim left, and more or less well aware that the Detective could likely still hear him, he picked up his phone and ordered the Control Room to send a MALP to PX2299, and then to transmit a message through it to Colonel O'Neill requesting a detailed report of their status and alerting them to possibly as yet unknown but significant threats.

Hanging up the phone, Hammond sat back and chewed on his lower lip as he pondered the questions he now had about sentinels and their guides. It seemed more, much more, than a relationship of convenience. It was almost symbiotic - Ellison had clearly been in a state of considerable distress, his fear for Sandburg's wellbeing tangible, his need to protect his Guide very real. The timing of the spirit guide's appearance also concerned Hammond, because he didn't believe in coincidences. Ellison had been alerted the moment Sandburg had left the planet. For the first time, Hammond realized that sentinels and guides were joined somehow, linked empathically or something, and likely needed to be in proximity to one another - and that raised a lot of questions about the viability of Sandburg remaining on his team.

Unless he could persuade Ellison to come on board, too.

********************

After they'd eaten, Jack responded by radio to Hammond's unexpected request for an update, letting him know they were making progress. O'Neill frowned at the transmission that warned of unspecified threat, wondering what the General was getting at. Shrugging, he replied that other than the unseen and presumably hostile Shaman apparently aiming some bad magic at Sandburg, they hadn't had any trouble. In fact, Sandburg had impressed the Grand Chieftain and appeared to understand the alien language very well. In short, everything considered, things were going pretty darned great.

He'd just finished his verbal report and signed off when a tall, well-muscled young man burst into the salon, closely followed by another equally impressive in build. Both had their long black hair tied back in a leather thong, and both wore kilts. Each had blue tattoos on his left arm and right cheek. They might have been brothers.

They certainly squabbled like siblings.

"By what right did you interfere with our Grand Chieftain?" the first man bellowed aggressively as he charged into the room.

"Enough, Xic'tal. They were curing him, banishing the demons that tormented him," the second man exclaimed as he darted in on the other's heels, and took the first man by the arm to stop his rampage.

"Ah, Xic'tal and Pana'tul, how nice to see the two of you again," Jack drawled as he rose to face them.

A third man minced into the room, looking nervous. He was smaller, thinner and a good ten years older, and wore a flowing saffron robe. "They are demons come to destroy us!" he intoned.

And behind him, Priestess L'teel strode in quickly, looking somewhat harried.

"The third guy is the Priest Char'ten," Daniel murmured to Blair. "What's going on?"

"Xic'tal objects to my treatment of Ixzut'l and Pana'tul is saying I helped him. Char'ten says we're demons," Blair muttered back, and then he moved forward to stand next to Jack.

"Enough," Sandburg called out firmly, his expression stern, treating them like he would unruly and aggressive students. "We are not demons but visitors from another planet called Earth, as I'm sure you have been told before by my friends. Grand Chieftain Ixzut'l is not possessed of a demon, but his senses are very powerful and were irritated by poor care. The sunlight was too bright, and burned his eyes. His coverings were too harsh for his skin. His chamber stank of bitter, burning herbs. We did nothing more than alleviate his discomfort. Now, in courtesy," he continued, his voice softening, "let me introduce myself and my comrades. I am Blair Sandburg, and this is Colonel Jack O'Neill. The woman is Major Samantha Carter. That is Teal'c and this is Daniel Jackson. We have come to offer your people an alliance with ours that could bring us both great benefits. We have met the very courteous Priestess L'teel. Who, may I ask, are the rest of you?"

Astonished by his use of their language, albeit with an odd accent, the three men gaped at him. L'teel took advantage of the sudden silence to move in and formally introduce the two contenders for the role of Heir Designate, and the Priest.

Pana'tul took a step forward as he asked curiously, "How did you know how to help our Chief? You are strangers here - and how do you come to speak our language? Your colleagues could not speak with us when they last came."

"Your ancestors came from Earth a very long time ago," Blair replied steadily, not surprised when they regarded him with shock. "I learned your language there, I have studied it. I have also studied people with superior sensory abilities, and I am Guide to a Sentinel on my planet. I simply helped your Chief the way I have often helped my own Sentinel."

Xic'tal glowered at him, but Pana'tul appeared intrigued. L'teel looked thoughtful and Char'ten seemed utterly astonished…and more than a little frightened.

"You are demons," Xic'tal spat. "Your words cannot be believed."

Sandburg rolled his eyes in exasperation. "We are not demons. We are human beings, exactly like you. We traveled here through the Stargate, the large round metal device about a half-hour's walk from here. But I warn you, we are not the only ones who know how to use the Gate - there are other races in the Universe who would seek to conquer you, not come with gifts and the offer of an alliance."

Xic'tal snorted and crossed his arms defiantly, but Pana'tul gave him a look that clearly said he thought his opponent a fool. Turning back to Blair, he asked, "Do all of your sentinels have guides?"

"Yes," Blair replied, but then thought of Alex and of how well Jim was now managing on his own. "At least until they learn how to control their senses. If they do not have a Guide, they are vulnerable to danger because they can be unaware of a threat when concentrating on something else. In time, without a guide, and without the desire to serve and protect, their senses can drive them mad. Why? Do you not have guides or companions in this world to work with your sentinels?"

"You seek to mislead us," Char'ten shouted then. "The words that have come down from our ancestors teach us that it is the companion who is weak, and who is a burden to his sentinel. Long ago, at the beginning of time, the gods told us this truth and ordered all the companions to be executed."

Blair blinked at that. "You killed them all?" he stuttered, appalled.

"What's going on?" Jack demanded, concerned at Sandburg's sudden evident shock.

"Their gods told them long ago to kill all the companions, all the guides," Blair told them, sounding stunned.

"False gods," Teal'c rumbled. "The Goa'uld who brought them here lied to them and led them to kill those who they needed most to be strong."

Sandburg closed his eyes and shook his head, debating the wisdom of challenging the word of their gods, or even more, the legitimacy of those gods in the first place. He decided that he had to stick with the truth - it was really the only weapon he had. Swallowing, he took a breath and said firmly, "Your ancestors were brought here from Earth, to be made slaves of the beings pretending to be gods. They lied to your ancestors so that they would kill those who helped keep them strong, so that one day they could come back and rule over you without challenge."

Xic'tal lunged at Sandburg with a snarl, but even as Jack raised his weapon, Pana'tul blocked the angry man and shoved him back against the wall. "Listen to what he has to say," Pana'tul growled. "You know as well as I how our senses sometimes rage, causing great pain, or making us lose contact with the world around us. You could see, as I did, how he eased our Chief's pain. What he says makes sense to me, if we can believe we came from another place. How else could he know our tongue?"

"Tex'chin says he is a demon, that they are all demons," Xic'tal raged.

"Tex'chin plays his own game," Pana'tul snapped back. "And you are nothing more than his puppet."

"I will be Chieftain," Xic'tal snarled.

"Perhaps," Pana'tul replied with deadly calm. "But first you must win that honour."

Hatred glowed in Xic'tal's eyes as he pushed Pana'tul away and then stalked from the salon, closely followed by Char'ten.

L'teel stepped forward as she said, "I apologize for the rudeness you have been shown."

"You have no need to apologize," Blair replied with a warm smile. "You have been nothing but kind to us."

She bowed her head and then she, too, left them.

Blair turned to Pana'tul, who was studying him intently. "Thank you for being willing to listen to my words," Sandburg said with evident sincerity.

Pana'tul nodded thoughtfully and then said, "I would learn from you, Guide, if you would teach me."

A brilliant smile lit Sandburg's face as he nodded eagerly in turn. "I would be honoured to teach you, Pana'tul" he replied.

Jack turned to Daniel who was also smiling brightly. "Are you getting any of this?" O'Neill asked with no little frustration.

"Maybe not the words," Daniel replied with great satisfaction, "but I'd say Pana'tul has just joined our team."

Blair looked back over his shoulder at the rest of them, his eyes sparkling with delight. "He wants me to be his Guide," he confirmed. Sam cheered softly and Teal'c allowed a small smile to bloom on his lips.

Jack grinned smugly, cocking a brow as he drawled, "You know, Blair, I'm beginning to be real glad that we brought you along."

Sandburg snickered and then turned back to Pana'tul. "I understand that you are to take part in a competition, a test. When is that to occur?"

"Tomorrow night we are to head into the jungle, and it will begin," Pana'tul informed him. "Is that sufficient time to teach me?"

"If you'll work hard with me, and perhaps allow me to Guide you during the competition, yes, I think I can help you," Sandburg answered soberly, seriously worried about the lack of time. But if it was all they had, it would have to be enough. "We must begin immediately."

And so they began. The first lesson Pana'tul learned was about the flowers he could see in his mind, and how to open or close them at will.

Later that evening, Jack radioed in another update, informing the General that Pana'tul was working with Sandburg and that the critical competition would begin in less than twenty-four hours.

********************

There was a sharp rap on his door just as Ellison was finishing the meal that had been brought to his room, along with the carryall bag from his rental vehicle. He limped to the door, and felt a sudden jolt of alarm to find General Hammond standing there. After their brief discussion when Hammond had received Jack's initial report, Jim hadn't expected to see the older man again before the next day. Since then, Ellison had been worrying over the brief and somewhat cryptic mention of Sandburg being attacked by a shaman using magic, wondering what it meant. Though the bottom line had been that all was going well, Jim couldn't rid himself of a sense of looming disaster.

"May I come in for a moment, Detective Ellison?" Hammond asked courteously.

"Of course," Jim replied, waving him inside and closing the door on the guard who stood watch in the hall. Though he was ostensibly a guest, he hadn't been given wandering around privileges. "Has something happened?"

"Only good things," Hammond answered with a warm smile. "I thought you might sleep better if you knew that matters have progressed exceptionally well, and Mr. Sandburg has gained the confidence of the people we need on our side. From what Jack tells me, your friend has an amazing grasp of their language. If all continues to go well, they may be back within two or three days."

Ellison nodded, wishing he could believe that everything was as fine as it seemed. "Thank you, I appreciate you letting me know that, sir."

"Rest well, Detective," Hammond said with a warm smile. "We'll talk again tomorrow."

********************

Blair and Pana'tul might have talked together all night had Daniel not intervened with Jack's approval.

"Hey," he said softly, as he interrupted their intense discussion.

Blair looked up, blinking in weariness as he shifted his mind back to English. "What?" he asked and then had to stifle a yawn.

"That," Jackson replied. "You're exhausted. It won't do Pana'tul any good if you both wear yourselves out before the competition even begins. You need to call it a night and get some rest."

"But…" Sandburg tried to protest.

"Daniel's right, Blair," Jack cut in quietly. "I know there isn't a lot of time, but you'll use what you have more efficiently if you're rested. Tell him to come back at dawn - that'll let you both get at least five hours of sleep."

Reluctantly, Blair conceded they were right, and turned to end the session with Pana'tul. The warrior nodded, accepting the judgment that he needed rest to be strong the next night during the test of a lifetime. He left, promising to return with the light. When Sandburg headed to his room, he heard Jack, Sam and Teal'c dividing up the watches for the night.

"You think you need to stand guard?" he asked with a frown of concern.

"It's always good to remain alert in a strange place," Jack replied with a shrug. "Besides, some of the natives aren't that friendly."

Sandburg caught Daniel's eye and saw his friend nod in agreement with Jack. Wearily, Blair shrugged and turned back to his room. It occurred to him that he'd never been in a situation where someone had to be awake during the night to keep watch. Before meeting Jim, it had never been an issue in his peaceful existence, and after, well, a Sentinel woke up at the least hint of an intrusion or danger. As he undressed and lay down, pulling the blanket over his body, Blair thought about how much he missed having Jim nearby, and it seemed to him that it just took more energy to do things, but maybe that was just because he was so tired. I wish you were here, he thought wistfully as he stared into the darkness. You could show Pana'tul and the Chief so much about what is possible with their abilities - so much more than I can just tell them. I miss you, my brother.

With a sigh, he rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. Minutes later, he was asleep.

********************

"JIM! Please! Help me!" he cried out, thrashing wildly, moaning in pain.

"Wake up, BlairSandburg, you are having a nightmare!" Teal'c called out softly as he knelt by the bed and laid a steady, strong hand on Blair's shoulder.

"Huh? What?" Sandburg yelled, jerking awake. "Oh, God," he gasped as he focused on Teal'c's concerned face. "So hot. Fire."

"What's going on?" Daniel asked from the doorway and then entered the room, squinting a little in the dim light.

"It was a nightmare," Teal'c explained as he stood away from the bed. "But - I fear he may be ill. His skin feels hot to my touch."

Concerned, Daniel knelt to feel Sandburg's brow and agreed his friend seemed to have a fever. "Could you bring him some water, Teal'c?" he asked and then turned again to Blair. "How are you feeling?"

Sandburg blinked and blew out a long breath. "Hot. I feel hot," he replied. "I was dreaming about fire - it was burning me alive. I couldn't move, couldn't get away…"

"Sounds like Tex'chin might be messing with your head again," Jackson hypothesized. Teal'c returned with a goblet of cool water and Daniel helped Blair to sit up to drink it. "Maybe a cool bath might help."

But Sandburg shook his head. "No, I'm alright now; I feel cooler already," he said quietly as he handed the goblet back to Teal'c and then pushed his hair back behind his ears. "You're right, I think, about Tex'chin. It was fire earlier today, too."

"Is there anything we can do to defend you against his actions," Teal'c asked soberly.

"Think positive thoughts," Blair quipped but then sobered at the confused look on the big man's face. "No, it's okay, I'll be fine. He can't really get to me when I know what he's up to. It's a contest of wills, sort of."

"You can't fight back when you're asleep, Blair," Daniel replied, frowning with concern.

"Well, sleep is pretty over-rated in my experience," Sandburg replied dryly as he swung his legs over the side of the raised pallet. "I think I've had enough of it for tonight. It's okay, Daniel, you can go back to bed. Sorry I woke you."

"But you have only slept four hours, Blair," Teal'c protested. "Surely that is insufficient to meet your needs."

"It's more than I've gotten many a night, my friend," Sandburg chuckled mirthlessly as he stood to pull on his pants. "So, Teal'c, since you seem to be standing watch, how about you tell me more about Chulak and the false god, Apophis?"

********************

Jim woke with a start, the echo of the jaguar's scream in his mind. "That's it," he muttered as he rubbed his eyes. Blair was in some kind of danger because he'd taken a job he needed badly to pay off debts that came due when his university career had ended because he'd protected Jim's secret. The causal logic of events and outcomes was very clear to Ellison, and he had no doubt that it was his responsibility now to ensure Blair wasn't hurt any more than he'd already been over the past couple of weeks. But, all logic aside, Jim couldn't deny the almost irrational need he felt to find his Guide and ensure his security. "I've got to get Hammond to send me to - wherever it is."

The only question was…how?

********************

Pana'tul was as good as his word, and he returned as the pink light of dawn filtered through the northern sky, bringing fruit and bread with him. He and Sandburg moved to the corner of the salon, quietly continuing their conversation so as not to disturb those who still slept while Sam kept the last watch.

But less than an hour later, Blair and Pana'tul were summoned to the Grand Chieftain's quarters. Jack and Daniel were both up by then, and they insisted on going along as Sandburg's escorts and protectors.

When they were shown into Ixzut'l's quarters, they found the old man looking far better than the day before. His colour was no longer sallow, and the lines of pain and fatigue on his face were gone. He stood to greet them as they walked in, a slight smile on his lips and in his eyes.

"Blair Sandburg, my friend, and Pana'tul, one of my champions, thank you for responding to my summons so promptly," he declared with warm courtesy. "Please, sit with me - I have heard of the disruption in your chamber last evening and there are matters I would discuss with you."

For the next hour, Blair answered the Chieftain's questions about Earth and about why Earth wished an alliance with Ixlana. Often, he had to turn to his colleagues for assistance, acting as translator while Daniel, and occasionally Jack, provided detailed information about what they knew of the Goa'uld and how they had seeded communities on other planets from Earth millennia before, returning when the population had grown and developed over the new world, to enslave them. They explained how the mining operation would work, and the care that would be taken to protect the environment as well as fully restore the land when the mining in any given location was concluded. In return, Earth would offer knowledge and training in medicine and technology, including sending as many of the little white noise generators that Ixlana wanted since Ixzut'l seemed to favour them so much, and Earth would help Ixlana defend against the Goa'uld when they came, as come they surely would.

Ixzut'l listened thoughtfully but they couldn't really tell what he was thinking. "My people study the heavens and I accept that there are many worlds like ours in the Universe. It is possible, since we seem so much the same, that we are indeed all brothers. Let me ponder your words and your offer of this alliance," he said in measured tones. "I will consult as well with the Heir Designate tomorrow night when the competition is concluded as he will have to also live with this alliance, if that is what we choose."

Blair relayed the information to Daniel and Jack. They exchanged looks and nodded. "Seems fair to me," Jack replied, nodding formally to the Chieftain to indicate his agreement.

Thinking they were done, Blair began to rise from his place beside Ixzut'l, but the old man placed a staying hand on his arm. "Now," he said, "I wish to learn more about what you call sentinels and their guides. L'teel has told me some of what was said in your chambers last evening, and I am curious to know more. Most especially since you have restored me to good health."

Another hour went by as Blair did his best to summarize all he knew about Sentinels and their Guides or Companions, sharing both from his academic research and from his experience in working with Jim for nearly four years.

"Why are you not now with your Sentinel - or why is he not here with you?" Ixzut'l asked curiously. "Does he not require your presence by his side?"

Blair swallowed and looked away briefly and then turned his earnest gaze back to the Chieftain's wise eyes. "My Sentinel is a warrior who is sworn to protect his people from those who would murder them or steal from them. He must fight very dangerous people who, if they knew of his skills, might use that knowledge against him. So, we keep his enhanced senses a secret. Recently, there was a danger that that secret might become known." Blair sighed sadly, and then continued softly, "My Sentinel has learned how to control his senses very well, and so he doesn't need my help every day anymore. It was best, for a time, if I was seen to go away, so that no one would guess the truth about him. But, honestly, I hope someday to return to his side. In my heart, he is my brother, and I miss him."

Ixzut'l gazed silently at Sandburg for a long moment, and then he nodded to himself. "I thank you for your candour," he said. "I can see that it causes you pain to speak of it."

But Blair shook his head. "No, I'm happy to talk about Jim and about his extraordinary gifts and talents. And I'd like to share all I know about sentinels with you so that you can understand why it's good to have guides or companions to help, even to protect, at least until the sentinel has mastered his or her abilities. I think it would make you stronger as a people if you once again allowed that partnership to exist here on Ixlana."

"My lord," Pana'tul spoke then, for the first time since they'd entered the room, "Blair Sandburg has been teaching me a great deal about how to use and control my senses, but I have much yet to learn. I would ask that we test this partnership, to show what it can do, how great a difference it can make, during the competition. I would ask that he be allowed to participate with me."

Blair looked down, surprised by the request, knowing how truly revolutionary it was for this society that had murdered all companions long ago and defiled their memory for generations. Pana'tul was taking a grave risk in making such a suggestion to change the process of competition.

Ixzut'l pursed his lips as he pondered the young man's request. "If I grant you such a boon, in fairness I will have to offer Xic'tal the right to have a companion to guide him as well. He will likely choose his grandfather, Tex'chin."

"So be it," Pana'tul intoned as he bowed his head. "I thank you for granting my request."

Blair felt his throat go dry as he lifted his eyes to Daniel's questioning gaze. "I'm to join Pana'tul in the competition as his Guide. Tex'chin will likely do the same for Xic'tal."

Jack couldn't stop the smile that bloomed over his face. "Kid, you just keep batting them out of the park! Very good work."

But Daniel frowned and pursed his lips, understanding Blair's disquiet. They didn't yet have many details about what this competition would entail - only that it was designed to select the wisest warrior to lead the world of Ixlana into the future.

That meant it wasn't likely going to be easy…

…and worse, Blair would be confronting potentially their most dangerous enemy head-on.

But as Blair turned back to Ixzut'l and Pana'tul, he was beginning to wonder how tough the competition would be in terms of strength or stamina if Xic'tal's grandfather seemed a reasonable choice of companion to these two men. Perhaps the greater part of the test was of wisdom.

********************

Jim had paced his room for hours, struggling to come up with a convincing argument as to why Hammond had to send him after Sandburg. When his leg started to bother him, the dull ache becoming a sharp and distracting burn, he forced himself to stop and focus on his dial, turning down his awareness of the pain. He didn't have time coddle himself; it was just a flesh wound after all, nothing really serious, though he knew Sandburg would have his head for ignoring the pain. Blair had always insisted that pain was the body's 'sentry', the one that warned of danger and was ignored at a person's peril. While he'd helped Jim manage pain in extreme circumstances, either when they were in a critical situation or when Jim was in hospital recovering from wounds, he never allowed Ellison to over-exert himself when it wasn't absolutely necessary for survival. But Jim thought better when he was moving, particularly when anxiety kept spiking and he needed to work it off. If having Sandburg lost in space isn't a critical situation, Jim reasoned, then I don't know what is. He had to come up with a way of getting to Blair before something bad happened to him, so if that meant pacing through the pain, well, that's just what he was going to have to keep doing.

Finally, he sat down by the small desk and picked up the phone. He just couldn't come up with anything better and he needed Simon's back-up for what he wanted to do.

********************

The first order of business when the men returned to their suite was to learn more from Pana'tul about the competition itself. The young Ixlanan was more than willing to share what he knew of the test he would be facing and swiftly outlined what they could expect. Blair listened carefully, nodding to show he understood but didn't interrupt; even so, it took more than half an hour for the trial to be described.

Blair leaned back when Pana'tul finished, lost in thought.

"So - what did he tell you?" Jack prompted.

"It's a combination test," Sandburg replied, his eyes still narrowed in concentration. But then he gave himself a little shake and focused on O'Neill. "Part of it is about strength, cunning and endurance. The test begins tonight when the competitors are given their challenges, which will include a particular pathway they must follow up into the mountains, a journey of eight to ten hours, one way, even at a good clip. I gather the route out is specified to ensure the two candidates are going in different directions. There and back, they must find their own nourishment, and protect themselves from any hazards. There are wild beasts and other dangers, like poisonous snakes, and equally poisonous nettles, in the jungle. They may take only the clothing they are wearing and two weapons of their own choice, and they may return by any route they choose. Another part of the test is wisdom and judgment. As they journey, their quest is to find the treasures of Ixlana, including samples of this world's most precious gems. They must make it back here by sunset tomorrow or they are disqualified automatically. If neither competitor makes it back, then new contenders are chosen and the test is redone. If both make it back, the test of wisdom and judgment becomes the deciding factor."

"What kind of treasures?" Sam asked.

"That's not exactly clear," Blair replied. "I gather upon their return, the two challengers present what they have chosen as the treasures of Ixlana to the people, who then judge whether they have chosen correctly."

"That sounds fairly cryptic," Daniel muttered.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Sandburg agreed. "In the past, various candidates have brought precious metals and jewels they've hewn from mountain caves, and the one with the most has won - maybe also because he demonstrated his strength in being able to carry back what must be a heavy load." Again Blair frowned as he stared into space.

"Something's bothering you," Jack observed. "I mean, more than the obvious. What's on your mind?"

"It's just that I'm confused, I guess," Blair replied uncertainly. "I'm trying to figure out why both Pana'tul and Ixzut'l thought Tex'chin would be able to manage this competition as Xic'tal's companion."

"Why is that such a mystery?" Daniel asked, not seeing the issue.

"Oh, I guess I didn't tell you, Tex'chin is Xic'tal's grandfather," Blair clarified. "Sorry, I picked that up from Ixzut'l."

"His grandfather?" Daniel echoed. "That doesn't make any sense."

"How could some old guy manage a strenuous competition like that?" Jack queried.

"My question, exactly," Blair murmured as they all lapsed into puzzled silence.

Pana'tul stirred uneasily, not having understood their discussion or their uncomfortable silence. Recalled to the room around him, Blair hastened to smile at the man and to resume their work. It was time to acquaint Pana'tul with his ability to use one sense, like hearing, to lock in another, like vision and to do so with conscious control.

The hours of the afternoon passed all too quickly for Sandburg's liking, but the time came to prepare to head downstairs for the beginning of the competition. There was less than a half-hour remaining until sunset. Having learned of the physical hazards presented by the journey to come, Blair asked Daniel to bring out the pants and shirt he'd requested be brought for Pana'tul. While Daniel retrieved the clothing from his sack, Sandburg explained to Pana'tul why the different clothing would be an asset as protection against poison nettles in particular.

Daniel returned with an oversized, long sleeved cotton shirt and a well-worn, soft pair of jeans. "They're mine," he admitted. "And, well, having read excerpts from your paper, I thought loose, comfortable clothes would be less irritating to his heightened sense of touch than new stuff from the storeroom back at the base."

"This is great, Daniel - perfect, even," Blair answered warmly. "Thanks for thinking about his special needs."

Jack came forward with the Kevlar vest he'd carried in his kitbag. "You'd wanted one of these, too, if I'm not mistaken."

"Oh, yeah - it might be overkill, but since we don't trust the other team not to pull a few dirty tricks, I'd rather be safe than sorry," Blair replied soberly.

Pana'tul had just finished dressing in his new outfit when they were distracted by sudden loud drumming and bell ringing from outside the palace. Sam moved to the open embrasures to see what was going on, while Blair went back to discussing last minute details about the competition with the younger man, and Pana'tul's planned strategy, including the weapons he planned to bring along - a hunting knife and a blowpipe with poisoned darts, as it turned out. A few minutes later, Sam called, "Sir, something big is going on."

"Probably just everyone gathering to see the competitors off, Major," Jack replied with a shrug.

"Maybe, sir, but the crowd seems, I don't know, tense. We may have a problem developing."

Jack, followed by Daniel and Teal'c went to the window to join her, and saw the massive crowd gathering in the courtyard and the broad street below, their attention upon the Temple. As they watched, a man in a bright saffron robe with scarlet trimming came out of the Temple and stood high upon the steps. He lifted his arms and the crowd fell to their knees. And then he began to shout, exhorting them - he sounded angry and he kept waving toward the palace.

"Blair, ask Pana'tul to tell us what's going on out there," Jack called as he fished out his binoculars to get a better look at the priest. It was a man of perhaps thirty or thirty five years, tall and strong in his prime. "I guess all their priests aren't wimps," he muttered as he handed the glasses to Sam, who then passed them to Daniel. Teal'c was looking through them when Blair replied, "He says it's Tex'chin, calling us demons and telling the people that the gods will come to strike us down and punish them for having harboured us."

"Oh, that's not good," Jack muttered as he took the binoculars back from Teal'c, while Sam and Daniel exclaimed, "That's Tex'chin?"

"Blair, ask Pana'tul just how old Tex'chin is," Daniel directed sharply.

Blair posed the question and then boggled at the reply. Quickly, he stood to move to the windows, pulling out his own set of binoculars for a closer look. "He says the guy is 243 years old!" he exclaimed.

"Uh oh," Sam breathed.

"Uh, ask him if Tex'chin's eyes ever glow, or if his voice changes drastically when he talks," Daniel ordered abruptly.

There was another quick exchange, and Blair reported grimly, "He says, yes, certainly. It's apparently the way the Head Priests have been chosen through the ages, by having been 'revealed' through the gods speaking through them. That and the fact that they don't age normally."

"Oh, goodie," Jack breathed, his jaw tight. "Old Tex is a Goa'uld. No wonder he's been so against the alliance with Earth. And, yes, Carter, I do believe we have a problem."

"You think he's told the System Lord he reports to that we've made contact?" Sam asked as her mind flashed through what they'd need to do to be prepared for more enemies arriving.

"Wouldn't you?" O'Neill drawled. "I mean, if you were him."

"And what better time for the gods to arrive and slay the demons than during the competition?" Daniel muttered, shaking his head.

"Right," Jack concurred as he toggled on his radio. "Get me General Hammond," he said when he received confirmation that his signal was being received. "We've got a problem."

Staring across the courtyard at the haranguing Head Priest, Blair couldn't decide what he felt. Disgust at a creature who could live so long amongst these people, pretending to be their spiritual leader while plotting to destroy them. Awe that the guy could be more than 240 years old and look no older than he was. And a shiver of terror as he wondered what would happen if Pana'tul lost the competition. Would he be blamed, claimed to have been a burden to Pana'tul, a weakness rather than a help, and held up as a living example of why the companions had been murdered centuries before? Closing his eyes, he bowed his head at how badly this whole mission could end up if they failed. As a minimum, Tex'chin would sure want to see him dead, and Pana'tul, too, for daring to challenge the teaching of the gods.

Sighing, he lifted his chin and gazed at Pana'tul. Well, they'd just have to win - there really wasn't an option. Ruefully, Blair recalled that Jack had made that fact clear when they'd first arrived.

********************

Jim had just been granted time with the General and was about to set out his proposition when Hammond's phone buzzed.

"Excuse me, Detective, but that's the line from the Control Room and I have to take the call," Hammond said as he reached for the phone. With his hearing, Jim heard the message as clearly as Hammond did when the duty officer said briskly, "Sir, Colonel O'Neill requests to speak with you. He says they have a problem."

"I'll be right down," Hammond replied curtly, standing as he hung up.

"I heard that, and I'll listen in from anywhere in the building, so you might as well take me along," Jim said bluntly as he stood as well.

With no time to debate the issue, and realizing that, with the man's senses, the issue of confidentiality was pretty much moot, Hammond nodded briskly and led the way out, setting a fast pace as they hurried along the corridor and down the stairs to the Control Room below his office.

"Colonel O'Neill, report," he called sharply as soon as he arrived.

"Sir," O'Neill's voice responded, sounding crackly with static, "we've just learned that Tex'chin is a Goa'uld. We have reason to believe that he'll have reinforcements arriving later tonight to ensure his candidate wins the competition. I'd like to request some backup, General."

"Mother Ship or Gate transport?" Hammond snapped back.

"Probably the Gate, General. They wouldn't need a Mother Ship to conquer this world. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a couple of death gliders, though."

"I'll have SG-5 and SG-12 prepped to join you inside of two hours, Colonel," Hammond replied as he looked at a subordinate and jerked his thumb toward the door, the order to muster the two teams clear. "Can you hold on until then?"

"No problem, Sir. We don't think anything big will happen until the competition is well underway, but it's scheduled to begin very soon now."

"Very good, Colonel. Keep me posted."

"Roger, General, SG-1 out."

Hammond turned to Ellison and said preemptively, "Don't start with me on this. I will not send a civilian who is not under my Command into this conflict."

Jim nodded and looked away as he blew out a breath and tightened his jaw. His eyes were hard and very cold as he returned his gaze to General Hammond. "Sir, I was about to make a suggestion upstairs that might meet both of our requirements. My superior, Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department is prepared to offer my services to you for as long as this mission requires. Accordingly, General, I would technically be under your Command, and I assure you I would not violate your trust. Sir, I have to go."

Hammond's look of surprise was quickly replaced by one of assessment. Finally, he nodded sharply. "Alright, I agree. As it turns out, your skills may be very useful. This is a planet full of sentinels, and my people could use the edge you'd give them." Turning, he gestured to the guard assigned to Ellison. "Corporal, take Detective Ellison and have him outfitted to accompany the teams going to PX2299. Return him to my office when he's ready to go." Returning his attention to Jim, Hammond continued, "I'll call your Captain Banks to ensure the proper paperwork is put into the system. You do know that I cannot reveal to him where you will be going, only that this is a hazardous mission."

"All he knows is that I wanted the possibility of such an assignment in my back pocket as a last resort to persuade you to let me follow Sandburg into the field," Jim replied. "He's not very happy about being told information is classified, but he understands the situation."

"Very good," Hammond nodded. "When you return to my office, I'll brief you on what's happening on planet PX2299."

********************

Major Carter and Teal'c had been dispatched to keep watch on the Gate while Jack and Daniel remained in the city to keep an eye on Tex'chin. Blair hurriedly explained to Pana'tul that the Shaman and Head Priest was one of the conquerors that had originally taken his people from Earth with the intention of enslaving them. When Pana'tul protested that Tex'chin had been born on the planet, Blair explained as well as he could, with Daniel's help, that the Goa'uld were actually symbiotes that resembled flying snakes, and that they took humans as hosts, one being living within and controlling the other. The young Ixlanan paled as he listened and then anger flared in his eyes.

"How does one kill such a creature?" he demanded.

When Blair shrugged and relayed the question to the others, Jack provided the answer. "Oh, we have weapons that can take them out. Don't you worry about that."

Pana'tul's eyes flashed at Jack as Blair translated, clearly wanting to deal with Tex'chin himself, but he swallowed his ire and turned back to Sandburg. Taking a steadying breath, the young man suggested it was time that they descended to the entrance steps of the palace, the official starting point for the competition.

"You show wisdom, Pana'tul," Blair told him soberly. "You know which battles to fight personally, and which ones to leave to those with the special training and weaponry needed. I'm proud of you."

********************

By the time they made their way down to the entrance, the Grand Chieftain was already there, calming the crowd and remonstrating with Tex'chin for having insulted honoured guests by libeling them as demons. Ixzut'l assured the gathered host that the people from Earth had come in friendship and had already been very helpful. The crowd was uncertain and confused. They feared Tex'chin, but they trusted and respected Ixzut'l, so for the moment at least, an uneasy acceptance of the strangers appeared to prevail.

Xic'tal climbed the steps to stand before the Grand Chieftain as Pana'tul and Blair emerged from the palace. The sun had set, but hundreds of torches flared, casting a surreal effect of light and shadows over the assembled Ixlanans. Ixzut'l raised his hands for silence and then spoke with a ringing voice, "Tonight you are here to witness the start of the competition between Xic'tal and Pana'tul to determine who will be your next Grand Chieftain. The competitors may only take the clothing that they wear and two weapons of choice up into the mountains. Their quest is to return by sunset tomorrow with the treasures of Ixlana, including the most precious of our world's gems. I have granted Pana'tul's request to attempt this test in the most ancient of ways, with the assistance of a Companion."

The crowd stirred restlessly at that news. It was blasphemy to go against the teaching of the gods, and companions were anathema. But Ixzut'l remained unfazed, his confidence in the legitimacy of this unusual undertaking calming the masses. Turning to Xic'tal, Ixzut'l asked, "Will you also take a Companion?"

"NO!" Xic'tal cried out. "Companions are a burden and endanger the mission. I will walk alone, as we are taught to do by our gods."

"So be it," Ixzut'l replied neutrally, giving sign neither of approval nor disapproval.

Standing behind the principals, Blair murmured to Jack and Daniel, "Xic'tal has not chosen a Guide. So - that means Tex'chin will not be engaged in the competition."

Jack and Daniel exchanged looks, through their long association understanding without words that this wasn't good news. If he wasn't racing up a mountain, Tex'chin could be engaged in all kinds of other diabolical enterprises.

Ixzut'l had continued the commencement of the competition, handing each warrior a goatskin map outlining the separate routes they were to take into the mountains.

The Grand Chieftain raised his hands high into the air, and then in the absolute silence, he let them drop to his sides - the two warriors and one companion raced down the stone steps and into the crowd that parted before them, beginning their arduous test to determine who would rule Ixlana in the future.

********************

"Carter, do you read?" Jack's voice came over Sam's radio.

"Yes, sir," she replied with a glance at Teal'c. They'd taken up a position with a clear line of sight to the Stargate. "No activity here, yet, Colonel."

"Okay, just remember, I don't want any heroics," Jack reminded her. "If it's a small party of Goa'uld you can easily contain, fine, but if they come in significant numbers before our guys get here, let them pass for now. Your job is to be there to give cover to our own people when they arrive."

"I understand, sir," Sam replied with a slight frown. Jack O'Neill didn't make a habit of calling his subordinates simply to repeat orders he'd already given.

"Oh, and keep an eye out for Tex'chin," O'Neill counseled. "Our favourite bad guy decided not to back up his candidate in the competition. We think he's still in the Temple, but it's hard to be sure."

Carter nodded, her eyes locked with Teal'c's narrowed gaze. They, too, understood the underlying message. The Goa'uld Shaman was up to something, and it wouldn't be anything good. "We'll watch out for him, sir. Thanks for the heads-up. Has the competition begun?"

"Yeah, just a couple of minutes ago," Jack replied. "They lit out of here like cats with their tails on fire. All for show, I guess - no way could any of them keep up that pace for the next eighteen or so hours."

A low metallic hum and then a thunk drew Sam's attention toward the Gate as she and Teal'c crouched lower behind their cover of vegetation.

"The Gate's activating, Colonel," Sam reported, her voice professionally brisk, masking the tension she felt in her gut. "The Goa'uld are arriving."

"Keep your heads down, and keep me posted," O'Neill ordered. "Over and out."

********************

As he scrambled to keep up with Pana'tul, Blair thanked the powers that be for his four years of experience racing behind a Sentinel on a mission. As soon as they'd passed through the gateway in the wall of the city and had reached the edge of the utterly dark jungle, Pana'tul had slowed briefly, calling to Sandburg to grab hold of the tails of his shirt. Grateful, lacking the sentinel-sight advantage of his companion, Blair latched on and had held on for miles. The Ixlanan had set a grueling but not killing pace, his long strides eating up the distance as he ran with assurance through the darkness, seeing as well as if it were clear daylight. Blair had no choice but to run as fast as he could, his shorter legs requiring more steps to maintain the speed set by the man he followed.

********************

The choosing of the Grand Chieftain's Champion, or as he was more formally called, the Heir Designate, was a major event on the world of Ixlana. People had traveled great distances to observe the beginning and end of the competition that was critical to all of them, as it would determine their leader when Ixzut'l died. As rumours of his ill health had long been circulating, this particular competition held great interest for everyone, though the Chieftain's evident robust health that evening had reassured them that perhaps his demise was not imminent after all. Still, in keeping with tradition, the occasion was a massive festival and thousands of people filled the streets, planning to camp out all night and continue their celebrations throughout the next day as they awaited the return of the contenders.

There was music and dancing in the streets, singing and laughter. The scent of meats grilling on open fires filled the air. Families enjoyed reunions, couples courted, young men boasted and older men told stories of past glories. Women fussed with their children, or flirted with their admirers, and some few strutted their wares.

In short, it was chaos in Ixlania. The press of the crowd, the constant activity, made it impossible for Jack and Daniel to maintain any kind of reasonable surveillance upon the Temple. They had the uneasy feeling that Tex'chin had likely slipped away to do who knew what.

And, when the Goa'uld arrived, it would probably be a bloodbath, reducing the crowd to a screaming, frenzied mob.

Jack stood on the palisade over-looking the festival, his jaw tight and his eyes dark with worry, as he waited for Sam's report. Beside him, Daniel kept his eyes trained upon the Temple, but it was dark, a foreboding shadow that loomed over the partying Ixlanans.

"What do you think he'll do, Jack?" Daniel asked quietly.

"Old Tex, you mean?" O'Neill asked with a sideways glance. When Jackson nodded, Jack replied, "Haven't got a clue - I'm just kinda hoping he doesn't resort to magic."

********************

Jaffa warriors in their ceremonial armour stormed out of the Stargate, the first arrivals taking up defensive positions to cover those still coming through. Carter swallowed hard as she counted them and blew out a long, slow breath to settle her nerves. Teal'c crouched like a tiger, poised for attack, beside her.

Finally, the invasion slowed and stopped. The warriors fell into their ranks and brief orders were issued, and then all but four stomped off into the jungle toward Ixlania. Those that remained were clearly responsible for keeping the Gate secure.

Carter toggled her radio and when the brief, very soft burst of static indicated O'Neill was receiving, she murmured, "Thirty Jaffa have headed toward town, but from what Teal'c could hear of the orders given, they are not to attack but to hold their position until given further direction. Four are guarding the Gate. In thirty minutes, we plan to remove the threat to our incoming teams."

"Roger that," came the brief reply and the contact was terminated.

********************

The route they had been given by Ixzut'l led Pana'tul and Sandburg on a slightly circuitous course toward the mountains, and soon the land under their feet was rising, often steeply, so that they had to grab onto plants and trees to haul themselves upward and for balance. Less than two hours into the race, Blair was wondering why he'd thought he could ever do this, and was sympathizing with the view that Guides only held their Sentinels back. He didn't know if any of the prickly nettles and sharp thorns they'd brushed past were poisonous, but he was sure glad, despite the oppressive heat and humidity, they were both wearing sturdy jeans and long sleeves.

It was so hard to run blindly through the darkness. He'd stumbled and fallen so often that his hands were scraped and bleeding, one pant leg was torn and his leg badly bruised. But Pana'tul never chided him, simply paused and held out a hand to help him up before turning to resume his loping pace.

********************

"So that's it in a nutshell, Jim," Hammond concluded his briefing, having become more informal now that Ellison was a member of his team, if only for the duration of this mission. "Any questions?"

Jim grimaced wryly and a small smile played around his lips as he replied, "Only about a thousand, but none requiring immediate response, sir. Thank you, you've been very thorough."

"Good, well, you've got the highlights, anyway," the General nodded. Leaning forward, he sobered as he said bluntly, "Remember this if you remember nothing else. You are not, I repeat, not a free agent on this mission. You will report to Colonel O'Neill and get a situation update from him. You will advise him that you have been deployed to secure the safety of Mr. Sandburg, thus allowing O'Neill and the rest of the SG-personnel to concentrate on neutralizing the Goa'uld. However, you will be under O'Neill's command, and if he requires you to assist in some way, you will comply before heading out after your Guide. I know Blair is your personal priority, Jim - but the fate of an entire world rests on our shoulders tonight."

"I understand, sir," Jim replied, his voice tight. He didn't like it, but he understood that duty superceded his own desires; it was the price he had to pay to get to go along. The good of the many… he thought wearily. But, as he understood the mission, Sandburg was critical to its successful completion as he was the only one who understood the language well enough to draft a treaty of alliance. So Ellison hoped that O'Neill would give him quick leave to find Blair and back him up.

The Control Room rang and informed the General that SG-5 and SG-12 were ready to go.

"We'll be right down, Sergeant, thank you," Hammond replied.

********************

"Ready?" Carter murmured.

"I am," Teal'c replied.

"Let's do it!" she ordered and they fired simultaneously, each taking out their first target and then the second before the Jaffa guarding the Gate knew what had hit them.

They left the shelter of the thick vegetation and ran forward quickly to haul the bodies out of sight and then took up defensive positions at the foot of the Gate.

Carter signaled O'Neill. "The Gate is secure, sir," she reported.

"Good job. When they arrive, brief them on the presence of the Jaffa and take out the hostiles on your way back to town," Jack replied.

"Roger that, Carter out."

********************

"Chevron seven - encoded and…locked!" Sgt Davis, the Gate Traffic Controller, called out just before the wave gushed through the Stargate and then settled back to its watery appearance.

Ellison frankly gaped at the phenomenon, and swallowed heavily. Taking a deep breath, he followed the other men and women up the ramp, only pausing for the briefest of moments before resolutely striding through the event horizon.

The disorienting sensations and whirling, streaming light very nearly overwhelmed him, nausea spiking in his gut as bile burned the back of his throat, and he stumbled, no longer sure of which direction was up - and then it was over and he was staggering through the other side.

"Listen up!" Carter called out to get their attention. "There are thirty Jaffa between us and the city, which is a half hour walk from here through the jungle. Colonel O'Neill's orders are that we are to neutralize the hostiles on our way into Ixlania. In addition to the Jaffa, we are aware of one Goa'uld posing as the High Priest or Shaman Tex'chin. His whereabouts are unknown at this time, so keep an eye out for a guy with long black hair who looks like he's around thirty years old. Any questions?"

Teal'c had been studying the new arrivals, and had spotted the one who wasn't a member of any established team. He touched Carter on the arm and nodded toward Ellison.

Carter quickly found him in the crowd, recognizing him immediately from the photos in Sandburg's file, and one brow arched as her head tilted slightly. "Well, Detective Ellison, I wasn't expecting to see you here."

"General Hammond sent me along to report to Colonel O'Neill and secure Sandburg's safety so the rest of you could concentrate on the hostiles," he explained briefly.

"I see, well, circumstances dictate that you assist our entry to the city before you can report to the Colonel," Sam replied. "I'm assuming you've been briefed on what to expect from the Jaffa?"

"Yes, ma'am, I have," he replied.

"Good, well, as there seem to be no questions, let's move out. Teal'c take point," she ordered.

********************

Within three hours, Pana'tul and Blair had reached a well-maintained, stone-paved trail that ran between cities and villages over the mountains, very like the ancient roads built by the Mayans on Earth centuries before. It was less than two feet wide and consisted mostly of stone steps, but it made the going easier. They'd taken only two brief breaks to slake their thirst at the edge of streams gurgling down from the heights above. Once, Pana'tul had sensed the presence of a predator and had led them around the potential danger. Having eaten before the competition began, albeit lightly, they planned to run until Sandburg just couldn't take another step without some modicum of rest.

Determined not to slow Pana'tul down any more than he already was, Sandburg pushed past the burn of his aching leg muscles and dragged in great gulps of air, resisting the urge to pant. When muscles in his side cramped, he bit his lip against the twisting pain, and pressed a hand against his ribs for support, but he kept on running.

********************

Jack was getting antsy. He hated just standing around, most especially when part of his team were engaged in potentially hazardous pursuits like taking out thirty Jaffa, or racing through the midnight jungle on a quest to find some kind of treasure. He hated even more not knowing what Tex'chin was up to or even, for sure, where the Goa'uld was.

But much as he wanted to be part of the action, he knew it would be foolhardy in the extreme to head out alone into a jungle where those Jaffa lurked. And he couldn't risk Daniel. If anything happened to Sandburg, Jackson was their only hope for even minimal non-verbal communication with Ixzut'l. Once hostilities broke out, he needed Jackson in the city to interface with the locals.

O'Neill stretched and looked at his watch for the umpteenth time since Daniel had gone to the Chieftain's quarters to try to explain that Ixlana was being invaded by the Goa'uld. Jack didn't envy him the task but sorta wished he could have seen the charade moves Daniel would be using to get the information across. But he was stuck here, on the palisade, keeping watch - for what it was worth - on the Temple, and waiting for his small army to arrive.

Daniel returned just as Ixzut'l appeared on the steps below. When Jack quirked a brow at him, Jackson rolled his eyes and shrugged. "I did my best to get the seriousness and urgency across to him, and I also tried to convey that Tex'chin is one of the enemy. I think he got enough of it that he's about to tell his people they are under attack."

Ixzut'l's voice rang out and suddenly there was a pounding of drums and ringing of bells that lasted only moments, but it was enough. The signal for silence understood, the mass of people below turned toward their ruler. Again, they heard Ixzut'l call out to his people, his words running together and sounding like sonorous music to their ears.

"God, I wish I knew what he was saying," Jack muttered.

There was an answering shout from the top of the Temple's steps as torches suddenly flared, illuminating its dark shadows. Tex'chin cried out something or other, and then his eyes began to glow as his voice deepened.

"My guess is, he just told everybody he's a god," Daniel observed sardonically.

"You think?" Jack replied with a mirthless smirk.

Ixzut'l yelled back, and the crowd grew restless, murmurs arising and then there was shouting.

********************

Belatedly realizing as they headed through the jungle that sentinel senses could come in real handy in pinpointing enemy locations, Sam directed Jim to move up front with Teal'c, and to signal them as soon as he became aware of other nearby beings.

Jim nodded and loped forward, his eyes narrowing as he observed the big man ahead, glad that Hammond had warned him that Teal'c was an alien very like those they now hunted. Swiftly, Ellison 'catalogued' Teal'c with his senses, noting the presence and location of the two separate heartbeats. It was all he needed as a model, so he then cast his sense of hearing outward while continuing to use his enhanced vision to rake the darkness around them, his expression one of intense concentration.

The quickly improvised strategy worked like a charm. Jim found the double heartbeat of the Jaffa easy to spot, and when he held up a hand, those following stopped. Silently, he'd dropped back to Carter's position and then, with her concurrence, he set off with three soldiers, disappearing into the darkness of the rainforest. Moments later, he returned for another group, and then another, until he had the entire SG-team arrayed in ambush against the unsuspecting Jaffa.

When he returned to Carter's side, he led her and Teal'c into position, pointing out the location of their targets. Each SG-team member had to take out up to three Jaffa and they had to do so quickly or risk losing their advantage.

Carter counted to three in her head and then breathed into her radio, "Go!"

********************

The confrontation between Ixzut'l and Tex'chin was suddenly interrupted by the racking sound of gunfire and explosives, and the darkness over the encroaching jungle outside the walls was split by flares and fire.

"Here comes the cavalry," Jack noted, but he kept his eyes and his weapon trained on Tex'chin. Much as he wanted to shoot the guy so bad he could taste it, if he did, he knew he'd provoke the mob below into mindless violence. Damn, but he hated feeling this helpless.

Below, women and children shrieked in terror at the sudden, unexpected outbreak of violence, and the crowd surged as people pushed and shoved in a panic to find shelter.

"It's beginning to get ugly down there," O'Neill grunted.

A burst of fireworks, a high multi-coloured spray, rose above the Temple as Tex'chin struck a pose and shouted something that sounded like a command. Transfixed now with fear of the god, the people down in the streets dropped to their knees, their foreheads pressed to the ground.

"I don't know, Jack. This doesn't look good," Daniel sighed heavily.

"Tell me about it," O'Neill snapped back. "He's just trying to keep them from killing themselves - hate to waste good hosts, doncha know?"

But Ixzut'l was not intimidated. Into the sudden silence of the city, he shouted out, apparently - from the look of fury on Tex'chin's face that Daniel could clearly see through his binoculars - warning his people against false gods. Glancing down at the street below, he saw a few heads lift and then more and more as many of the people listened to the ruler they trusted.

"Go Ixzut'l," Jack breathed.

********************

The element of surprise gave them an edge, but the Jaffa were resolute and highly skilled warriors. Those not killed or disabled in the first barrage lunged for cover and swiftly returned fire. Beams of power lashed out from lances, some of them hitting their marks, as first one and then another SG soldier cried out and crumpled. Machine gun fire racketed with ear-shattering sound, grenades were tossed to explode with killing violence within clusters of Jaffa, and flares were unleashed to light up the night, making targets clearer for both sides.

Having turned down his dial for sound in anticipation of the battle, Ellison coped with the cacophony but he flinched against the sudden burst of light. Momentarily blinded by it, he scrubbed at his eyes and blinked rapidly to clear his vision while he hugged the ground to avoid being shot while temporarily disabled.

"You okay?" Carter called out from nearby.

"Yeah," he shouted back, and then was up on one knee, again taking very accurate and deadly aim against the enemy.

********************

The sudden abrupt silence after the hideous noise of battle caught the attention of everyone in the city. People scarcely dared to breathe as they waited with ever-mounting tension to see what would happen next. Even Tex'chin and Ixzut'l had stilled their tongues.

Up on the palisade, Jack and Daniel waited, as tense as anyone else, to learn the outcome. Impatient, Jack clicked on his radio. "Carter? Report," he ordered brusquely, sick with worry he couldn't allow himself to show.

"The hostiles are neutralized, sir," her voice came back, and he grinned with relief as Daniel clapped him joyfully on the shoulder.

"Very well done, Major," O'Neill replied. "Ah, look, things are a little tense in town. Tex is doing his god-thing and the Chief is debating the issue - people are understandably confused. So, I suggest you come in over the wall and circle around the back of the palace. I'll meet you at the back door."

"Understood, Colonel, Carter out."

"Hold the fort, Daniel - and keep your eye on snake-boy over there," Jack directed as he turned to jog along the palisade to the stairwell.

On the way to the back of the royal edifice, Jack took a brief detour to stand in the shadows behind the Grand Chief. "Ah, Ixzut'l," he murmured quietly, not wanting to attract too much attention.

The Chieftain turned slightly in order to see Jack from the corner of his eye. O'Neill grinned broadly as he bent his elbows and clasped his hands together, hoping that he was conveying the idea that the good guys had won.

Ixzut'l frowned slightly and then gave a brief smile as he slightly dipped his head in acknowledgement. Jack nodded back, still grinning like a very cheerful maniac, and then slipped away from the entrance.

********************

Daniel was probably the first person in the city to realize that all hell was about to break loose. He saw the priest, Char'ten, hasten to Tex'chin's side, and the subsequent look of rage on the Goa'uld's face.

"Just got some bad news, didn't you?" Daniel murmured to himself, his binoculars fixed to his eyes.

Char'ten cowered in terror as Tex'chin glared at him in silence, and then barked something that sent the priest scrambling. The Goa'uld turned to face the crowd, his chest puffing up as he raised his arms and cried out to them. Ixzut'l bellowed back but Tex'chin continued to exhort the people.

"Ah, right, this would be the 'faithful followers, kill the unworthy' command," Daniel muttered. "No doubt followed by, 'Great will be your reward if you do my will, and death to the rest'."

The crowd below rose up, shouting and screaming, as each was finally driven to choose whom they supported, the god or the Chieftain. Brawls broke out all through the streets and blood began to spatter the stone pavement.

"Jack," Daniel called into his radio, "the people are fighting one another now, some for Tex'chin, some for Ixzut'l. It's going to be a bloodbath. Do something."

"Gotcha, the cavalry has arrived," Jack snapped back.

Less than two minutes later, there was a racketing burst of gunfire from below as the SG-team surrounded the Chieftain protectively, clearly signaling which side had the currently superior weaponry. The crowd fell back in fear, hands lifting into the air as people pled for mercy.

Daniel looked up from the scene below to check on Tex'chin's reaction, and swore. "Jack, he's disappeared into the Temple."

"I hear you," O'Neill replied, exasperation clear in his tone. He didn't have enough manpower to surround the Temple and still ensure the Chieftain's protection.

********************

"Carter, Teal'c, Murchison and your team. Get back to the Gate ASAP. Tex'chin's on the move and I don't want him leaving this planet," Jack ordered sharply. "Go!"

Once they'd headed out on the run, Jack sighed and pulled off his cap to run a hand over his short-cropped hair as he tried to sort out the various scenarios that were possible, and what to do about each of them.

"Colonel O'Neill?"

"Yes, what?" Jack snapped as he turned toward the speaker and then his jaw dropped. "Why, it's Jim Ellison as I live and breathe. What the hell are you doing here?"

"In order to allow you to focus on other matters, General Hammond sent me along to secure Sandburg's safety so that he can continue the alliance negotiations when he gets back from his jaunt with one of the locals," Jim hastily explained. "If you can point me in the right direction, with your permission, I'd like to head out after him."

"Right," Jack sighed as he scratched his neck. "Well, that might present a problem. You see, they were given a secret - in that nobody knows but them and the Chief, I guess - route up into the mountains. They headed out at a dead run and they've been gone over four hours. I have no idea which direction they went in once they left the city, and with the action that just took place in the jungle, their tracks would have been obliterated."

Jim's gaze flashed away, but not so quickly that Jack didn't see the surge of frustrated and helpless fury, nor did he miss the tightening of the lantern jaw. Taking a breath, he continued quietly, "I'm sorry, Jim. I wish I could give you more to go on. All I really know is that they are due back here by sundown tomorrow, and they'll likely come back as directly as possible. So, maybe, the best bet would be to find yourself a vantage point where the mountains descend into the jungle on a direct line to the city."

But Ellison was shaking his head. "No, I think I might still be able to track them and I'd like to try."

"Fill your boots, Jim," Jack allowed with a nod as he slapped Ellison on the shoulder. "Good luck."

********************

They were running at an even pace, or as even as it could be up the steep trail of apparently endless stone steps. They'd been traveling for almost six hours, most of it uphill, at least so far as Blair could remember, though his mind was more than a little foggy. His body had gone way past anything he recognized as normal pain more than two hours before, and now it felt increasingly heavy, his legs reluctant to keep lifting his feet. His lungs felt like they were on fire and he was soaked with his own sweat. Panting, and increasingly groggy, he finally failed to negotiate a step, and he stumbled hard down onto the sharp edge of stone, cutting his leg. Too winded to do more than grunt softly, too weary to even really notice the pain, he sprawled upon the steps and lay heaving for air.

Pana'tul immediately turned back and squatted down next to him, placing a gentle hand upon Sandburg's back as he waited silently for his Guide to catch his breath. Gradually, Blair's breathing slowed and deepened, and when he could, he murmured, "Sorry."

"No, you have done well to run so far," Pana'tul replied quietly as he listened to the jungle around them. "We have made good speed and you can rest here awhile. Sleep."

"No, can't," Blair mumbled. "If I stop, I'll stiffen up and then I won't be able to move at all. I can still walk. Help me up."

Pana'tul knew well that Sandburg was right, and that at this point he needed to keep moving if he could, or his muscles would cramp and seize up. So the warrior reached an arm around Sandburg's back, and took a firm grip on the smaller man's arm as he heaved Blair up to stand unsteadily. "Lean on me," he instructed, which Blair gratefully did, and then they continued their journey up the steps.

********************

Jim quartered the jungle once he got past the battle area, and within fifteen minutes he'd picked up the residue of Sandburg's scent hanging in the heavy, humid air. Ten minutes after that, he found their footprints - and he began to run, following the dim vestige of the trail through the darkness.

********************

High above the city, Priestess L'teel leaned against the balustrade around the roof of the palace as she stared at the again darkened Temple, not that that the darkness challenged her exceptional clarity of sight. Though not a full sentinel, she had enhanced powers of hearing as well.

It was more than two hours after the conflict in the streets had stilled into uneasy watchfulness when she detected shadows moving around the back of the Temple. She cocked her head, straining to hear the soft whispers of sound and then shook her head in frustration.

Swiftly she turned to hasten quickly done the long flights of stairs and then through the corridor to the palace entrance. Though she called to Ixzut'l to attract his attention, it was Daniel's arm she gripped urgently.

"L'teel, what is it?" Daniel asked as he gazed at her intently, noting the signs of agitation.

He couldn't understand the words she spoke for the Chieftain's benefit, but when she raised her hands to her eyes, encircling them and widening them dramatically as she glared at him, Daniel guessed, "You've seen Tex'chin?"

At the sound of the name, her hands dropped and then, several times, she walked two fingers of one hand across the palm of the other. Immediately thereafter, she brought her hands together, finger and thumb tips touching to form a large open circle.

"Thank you!" Jackson gasped as he turned and called out, "Jack, L'teel saw Tex'chin heading toward the Gate! I think she was telling me that he's got company."

"When?"

"I'd guess just a few minutes ago," Daniel replied somewhat hesitantly with a small, helpless shrug. Nonverbal communication had its limitations.

"Good enough," Jack drawled back with his typical façade of calm as he toggled on his radio. "Carter, heads-up. We think Tex is on his way - and he's likely not alone."

"I copy, Colonel, thanks."

********************

Blair had completely lost all sense of time as he stumbled wearily forward, one painful step at a time, but he refused to quit. Failure is not an option, he repeated over and over in his mind as a mantra. Nor was he really aware of their surroundings, allowing himself to be guided along through the darkness, trusting the sentinel he accompanied implicitly. But when Pana'tul drew them to a halt, he looked around, blinking and squinting in what he realized was the first faint light of dawn.

"Why've we stopped?" he mumbled.

"We can only cross the bridge one at a time - it is old and not strong," Pana'tul informed him with a wave toward the rickety, narrow, rope and wood suspension bridge that swung over what looked like a very steep chasm.

"Ohhh," Blair acknowledged as he took a tentative step closer to the edge to peer over, hoping it wasn't as deep as he feared.

But though he could see a fair ways down in the growing light, he couldn't see the bottom. "Oh, God," he gasped in his own language as he reflexively pulled back in fear. Aware that he was trembling, and deeply ashamed of it, he looked up at Pana'tul. "I don't know if I can do this," he admitted.

"I do not doubt you," the taller man replied. "Why do you doubt yourself?"

"Because I know I'm a coward," Blair muttered, again in English. When Pana'tul cocked his head questioningly, Sandburg sagged wearily. He had to do this. He had no choice. The fate of the galaxy, if not the whole universe, could rest on Pana'tul winning this competition. He couldn't be a burden, couldn't weaken the sentinel he had agreed to serve. "It's alright," he finally said to his companion. "I'll, uh, follow you."

"If it holds me, it will surely hold you," Pana'tul encouraged with a playful grin as he strode confidently forward and onto the ancient structure.

Blair had to swallow back nausea and close his eyes when he saw the bridge sway as Pana'tul moved lightly across it. Once the Ixlanan had reached the other side, he forced himself to approach the bridge, eying it with grave trepidation. "How do I get myself into these things?" Blair wailed softly to himself as he reached out to grip the ropes that formed the railing, such as it was, on either side of the less than a foot wide wood and mesh platform. Taking a deep breath, reminding himself not to look down past his feet, he stepped onto the bridge and felt it give under his weight.

"It's normal for it to do that," he told himself, sternly, "it has inherent flexibility that gives it resilience, hence its great age." Another step. And then another. The bridge swayed and his knuckles whitened as he held a death grip on the ropes. "You can do this. You have to this. Think of the story you'll be able to tell Jim when you get home. This is the payback for that crazy tale you told Joel years ago. Man, will he laugh when he hears about this. It's a bridge, you idiot, you're supposed to cross it. You can't just freeze - you want to spend the rest of your life swinging in the wind over a bottomless pit?"

He kept up his self-chatter as he forced himself to take one uncertain step after another.

Finally, with infinite relief, he stepped off onto solid ground. "Oh, thank you, God," he sighed.

And just as he thought this journey could get no worse, he heard the sound of distant thunder rumbling around the mountain's peak. "It's going to rain? Oh, come on, give me a break," he whined wearily. "Why is my world always wet?"

But he cast an approximation of a grin at Pana'tul and waved the sentinel onward. Surely it couldn't be much farther to the turnaround point - because he sure did want to go home. Oh, but wait, we still need to find the treasures, he thought dismally. Ah, well, like Mom always said, life is a journey, not a destination.

********************

The SG-team was ready and waiting when Tex'chin's advance guard stepped out of the edge of the jungle, moving cautiously toward the Stargate. Sam waited until the Goa'uld was also a few steps beyond the shelter of the thick foliage, and then she called out, "You're surrounded. Drop your weapons and surrender." Although she knew the Ixlanans couldn't understand her, she was equally certain that the so-called Shaman could.

Tex'chin reacted with a bellowed order and his followers immediately began firing weapons he had given to them toward the direction of Sam's voice. She dropped to the ground and rolled to a new position, her team members already returning fire. By the time she was in position to shoot, she saw that Tex'chin had activated the personal shield the Goa'uld favoured, the one that none of their weapons could penetrate.

"Damn it," she cursed, as she saw him fade back into the rainforest.

While some of Ixlanans fought to the death, others made it back into the cover of the trees and disappeared from view.

Frustrated, Sam toggled on her radio. "Colonel, he arrived with at least thirty supporters. We took down some of them, sir, but he got away. Sorry."

"I'm sure you did your best, Major," Jack drawled back, sounding tired. "Is our MALP still in one piece?"

Carter walked over to the mobile unit that had been maneuvered by computer guidance to a point about fifty feet from the Gate, where it was partially hidden by tall bushes. "Yes, it is, amazingly enough," she reported back.

"Good. I'm going to call the General and request he send through some of our finest to hold the Gate. When they arrive, the rest of you come back here."

"Copy that, Colonel," she replied. Wearily, she pushed her fingers through her hair. It felt like all she'd been doing all night was run back and forth between the Gate and the Palace.

Maybe because that was what she had been doing - and it didn't seem like they'd made much progress except for neutralizing the Jaffa.

Which, she supposed, was something - though the price had been very high.

********************

Jim reached the trail cut into stone steps, and paused to get his bearings. He'd been on Sandburg's tail for about four hours and he realized that, at the pace the others were maintaining, he wouldn't likely catch up to them before they were on their way back. The only good news he'd been able to discern was that it didn't appear that anyone else was following them.

Turning, he gazed back the way he'd come and found he had a good view down the long jungle valley and could make out the city in the distance. Biting his lip, he decided O'Neill had been right. The trail he'd been following wound away from the city as it led up the hills into the mountains, but Pana'tul and Blair would likely take a much more direct route back.

Frustrated, feeling as if he was getting nowhere fast, he angled away through the jungle, striking out in a direction which would cut across their return route. He'd spotted a pinnacle of stone about a mile away that would give him a good vantage point from which to watch for them.

********************

Dawn was breaking by the time Carter and her small troupe had made it almost back to the city gate. But Teal'c stopped suddenly, tensing at full alert.

"What is it?" Sam asked as her eyes raked the forest that closed in around the trail.

"I thought I saw someone," Teal'c replied. "I suggest we take cover."

"Spread out, find cover," Sam ordered the others quietly and they all slipped silently off the trail.

They'd barely dropped from view when the air thickened with arrows. There was a brief burst of weapons' fire as the SG-team spotted the attackers, killing them.

"Well, that was close," Sam murmured as she stood to wave her team on toward the city. But she frowned when Teal'c didn't appear.

"Teal'c?" she called out as she moved quickly to where she'd last seen him.

And then she was rushing forward through the waist high growth to kneel beside the still Jaffa. His eyes were open but unfocused and there was a graze of blood on his arm, the arrow that had wounded him lying nearby.

"Teal'c? Can you hear me?" she called out as she reached to check his pulse - and froze. "Oh, no," she groaned, closing her eyes as she bowed her head, fighting the sudden burn of tears.

"Major?" Murchison queried from behind her.

"The arrowheads are poisoned," she grated bitterly, her voice cracking with emotion. "He's dead."

********************

Sandburg figured it had to be about an hour after dawn. The sky overhead had darkened again, though, with heavy clouds, and the wind had picked up. He didn't think he'd ever been so tired in his life - and hoped never to be this tired again.

A few paces ahead, Pana'tul had stopped to kneel by a large cluster of snowy white flowers, their delicate petals just beginning to open to the day.

"Beautiful," Blair murmured as he moved to stand beside his companion. As he watched, Pana'tul reached up to his shoulder and ripped off the sleeve of his shirt.

"What are you doing?" Sandburg asked, thinking it an odd thing to do, but a little too weary to really care.

"I am going to use this to wrap around some of these flowers, to protect them for the journey back," Pana'tul told him as he dug out a few stems, being careful of their roots. Once the flowers were wrapped, he slipped the small package inside his shirt.

"Why?" Blair asked.

"They are one of the treasures…" the warrior replied with a slow smile.

Blair blinked and shook his head to clear it. "Oh, okay," he agreed. "Can we head back now?" Sandburg grinned feebly, and shook his head at how pathetic he sounded, like a little kid asking, 'Are we there yet?'

"Soon, but first we need food and rest," Pana'tul said. "Come, it is not much farther to the place I wish to stop."

"Fine," Sandburg replied as he shuffled along after the taller man.

Less than half an hour later, Pana'tul stopped again, this time beside a small pool of water surrounded by a rocky shelf. Swiftly, he stripped off his clothing and motioned to Sandburg to do the same. Blair gave him a doubtful look, figuring the water would likely be pretty cold. Thunder rumbled directly overhead, and rained suddenly cascaded down, drenching him. Sighing, he stripped down and followed Pana'tul into the pool.

And was pleasantly surprised to find it was luxuriously hot!

"Oh, does that feel good," he groaned in a close approximation to ecstasy as he as he sank down and dipped his head back, leaving only his face above the surface.

"The warmth will help your muscles - you will not stiffen up now," the warrior said, well pleased by Blair's reaction.

They soaked for long minutes, relaxing as the raindrops pattered and plopped on the pool's surface as well as giving the sensation of light massage to their faces, and then Blair asked quietly, "How are your senses doing? Got a headache?" They'd climbed quite high, and the altitude along with the thinner air had sure made Blair's head pound.

"Yes, but it is normal," Pana'tul replied.

"Picture the red flower," Blair coached, wishing he could do the same. For the next several minutes, he helped Pana'tul realign senses that had begun to slip out of control because of the warrior's weariness. When he was finished, Pana'tul reached for the blowpipe and bag of darts, which he'd left near to hand. Moments later, he'd brought down a bird that flashed suddenly overhead.

"Great shot!" Sandburg exclaimed.

"It helps greatly when my eyesight and reflexes are aligned so well, and that is because of you, my Guide," Pana'tul responded with a smile. "We have each contributed to this small hunt, in our own way."

Blair closed his eyes as he listened to Pana'tul climb out of the pool. From the slight sounds, it took little imagination for him to visualize the other man retrieve their breakfast, pluck and gut it. He heard Pana'tul take a few steps away and then return, and the sound of sticks scraping together. Blair sighed, figuring that getting a fire started in the rain was pretty hopeless. His lips twisted as he considered the idea of eating the bird raw.

"How'd you do that?" Blair asked in surprise, opening his eyes at the smell of smoke. "Everything's soaking wet."

"I knew months ago that I would be taking this test," Pana'tul told him. "And I knew it would require an arduous trek into the mountains. So, I came up here last month and placed enough wood for a good fire under the shelter of rocks and that bush over there, where it would remain dry."

"Good planning," Sandburg replied with a grin. He had come to really like the warrior, and to respect him. Pana'tul had exhibited the natural protective instincts of a sentinel throughout their journey, and now he'd shown that he could plan ahead and be prepared for anticipated needs. He was open-minded and intelligent, thoughtful, yet willing to risk for something he believed was right. He'd make a good Chieftain.

********************

Jack and Daniel gaped down at the body of their friend, shocked to see the others carry Teal'c into the palace, L'teel leading them to the chamber in which he could be laid with the two SG-team members who had been killed fighting the Jaffa.

"What the hell happened?" Jack exclaimed.

"We were ambushed just before we reached the city," Carter reported, her voice hollow with grief. "It was a poisoned arrow. It was only a scratch, but it must be very powerful stuff. The effect was practically instantaneous. There wasn't anything anyone could do…"

"Oh, damn," O'Neill grated, swiping his fingers across his eyes.

Daniel didn't say anything - but his shoulders sagged and he blinked hard as his jaw tightened, and his eyes darkened with deep sorrow as he watched Sam place Teal'c's weapon beside him on the pallet, and then turn away with tears blurring her eyes. Three men had died under her command that night, and she was pale with grief. Daniel knew she was also, no doubt, blaming herself but he didn't know how to ease her pain, let alone his own. He looked over at Jack who just shook his head wearily and turned away. Closing his eyes, Jackson bowed his head, wondering how they coped with the responsibility they bore when people died under their leadership.

********************

Sandburg and Pana'tul rested for almost two hours, too tired to care about the warm rain that continued to fall upon them. But they did not dare tarry too long - it was a long way back down the mountain. Though they were both weary, the food - and more, the soak in the hot pool - had restored them. Blair's muscles were complaining, but Pana'tul was making good use of his internal flower controls and he again set a brisk pace, moving lightly down the steeply sloping terrain through the jungle.

Each time they stopped for a brief rest and drink by a spring or stream, Blair helped Pana'tul align his controls, so that his senses remained sharp but not so high as to be irritating or risk either pain or a zone out when the thunder cracked loudly overhead.

At one stop near a rushing stream as they left the steep terrain behind, Pana'tul stopped to pick up a good-sized gourd. Carefully, he sliced off the top in such a way that it would fit back together again snugly, and then he hollowed out the remainder. Sinking to his knees by the water, he filled the gourd and then closed it. Moving toward one of the trees, he dug into the trunk with his knife. Sticky sap began to leak out and he used his fingers to brush it around the joining of the two sections, creating a natural seal. When he was finished, he slipped the gourd into his shirt, letting it rest below the flowers he carried as well, so as not to crush them. And then he ripped off his remaining sleeve. Stooping to the ground, he scooped a handful of rich dark earth onto the material and carefully wrapped it. Once it too was secured inside his shirt, just over his belt, he redid the buttons and looked over at Blair.

"More treasures?" Sandburg asked, with a slow smile of dawning understanding.

"Yes, now we have all we need," Pana'tul replied with a bright smile. "Feel like running for a while? We have yet many miles to travel."

"Sure, why not?" Blair snickered. It was so much easier running in daylight, even it if was dull and raining. He could see where he was going and didn't have to cope with the anxiety he'd felt when racing blindly through the stygian darkness of the jungle at night.

********************

Jim wasn't happy with the unceasing downpour. Though he'd selected a good vantage point that should have given him a clear view for miles, the rain obscured the forest, and the sound of it mimicked the effects of his white noise generator at home, muting everything else.

Twice, he'd thought he'd caught movement in the jungle below, but the thick foliage and the grayness of the day left him uncertain. His gaze continued to rake the forest above and below his position. He figured he was about an hour from the city, so he couldn't really expect to see them for a couple of hours yet. Still, he could not seem to relax his compulsive vigil.

"Come on, Sandburg. Where the hell are you?" he muttered as he hunched his shoulders against the pouring rain.

********************

Daniel found Jack leaning against the wall by the Palace entrance, staring moodily out at the crowd.

Despite the rain, the people had remained in the streets, waiting uneasily to see what would happen next. Would the god strike the Chieftain down? Or was he an imposter as Ixzut'l claimed? And they still awaited the return of the competitors, Xic'tal who was Tex'chin's grandson, and Pana'tul, who favoured the ways of the strangers from another world. Who would be their next leader when Ixzut'l died? The outcome of the competition mattered greatly to them, for their leader would determine their future.

"You should get some rest," Daniel said quietly. "We can't expect them back for at least another couple of hours."

"I'm not tired," O'Neill muttered.

"Jack, you're exhausted, we all are," Jackson sighed.

"Then you go rest," Jack said, his voice dull.

"Teal'c died a warrior's death; it was the way he would've wanted to go," Daniel murmured.

"That's crap," O'Neill grunted. "And you know it. He didn't want to die - he wanted to go on fighting the Goa'uld to free his people."

"Sam feels really bad…guilty," Jackson said then, shaking his head.

"I know," Jack sighed. "So do I. I hate losing my people - I feel like I should have done something, expected the ambush."

"You're not a god, Jack - you do the best you can, we all do."

"Yeah, I know, Daniel," O'Neill replied sadly as he turned to face his friend. "Sometimes, though, that just isn't enough. God damn it," he grated, his fury at the waste suddenly swamping him, "Teal'c faced the full power of two Goa'uld Mother Ships - only to be taken out by the scratch of a miserable poisoned arrow in this backwater world? This shouldn't have happened! If I'd blown that snake away when I had the chance…"

"Jack, you know that would have caused a riot and probably gotten us all killed," Daniel reasoned. "There was nothing you could do. This isn't your fault."

O'Neill grimaced, but nodded, his eyes dropping away from Daniel's too understanding gaze. Heaving a sigh, fighting for control, he mumbled, "I'm going to miss the big guy. Miss him a lot."

He turned away and walked slowly down the corridor with his head bowed and his hands stuffed in his pockets, heading back to their suite of rooms. Daniel was right; he should take the opportunity to rest when it was available.

And he should check on Sam and make sure she knew that this wasn't anybody's fault. Sometimes, shit just happened no matter how good you were or how hard you tried.

********************

It was with considerable relief that Ellison pushed himself off the outcrop of rock he'd been leaning against when he finally spotted Sandburg through the leafy canopy of the forest. Blair was close enough to be within shouting distance, running at a good steady clip behind the Ixlanan warrior.

Jim couldn't resist smiling with relief to see that Sandburg was all right, as he waved and called out, "Hey, Sandburg! Chief!"

He could see that they'd heard him as Sandburg and then the warrior, what was his name, oh yeah, Pana'tul, stopped to look around, wondering where the call had come from. Ellison waved again, catching Sandburg's eye, and he could see the look of incredulous disbelief and then a brilliant smile fill his best friend's face and light up his eyes.

But a movement out of the corner of his eye caught Jim's attention, and he froze as he made out the shadowed form of a man drawing a bow.

"Get down!" he screamed then as he lifted his weapon.

********************

"Jim?" Blair murmured, hardly daring to believe his eyes. It couldn't be! But it was, and Blair was never so glad to see anyone in his life. But then Ellison screamed to get down, and he didn't think, just lunged toward Pana'tul to push him to the ground.

Arrows thudded into the earth around them, one bouncing off the back of Pana'tul's reinforced vest. They would have killed them if they hadn't so suddenly hit the deck. Both men scrambled for cover behind some thick vegetation and Pana'tul hastily loaded his blowpipe.

"Listen," Blair whispered urgently. "Just listen - for movement around us, for heartbeats and the sound of their breathing. It'll help you find them…you can link your sight to the sounds…"

Pana'tul nodded sharply, his head cocked as he struggled to hear past the sound of the rain pattering through the leaves and into puddles on the slippery, muddy mulch of the jungle floor. But he flinched in pain when the sound of Jim's weapon firing split the air.

"It's okay," Blair said quietly as he laid a hand on Pana'tul's back to steady him. "The man shooting is my Sentinel, Jim Ellison. Just ignore the sound of the gunfire, put it aside and listen past it…"

Two more arrows whisked through the leaves just over their heads, and they ducked reflexively. But the fire of the hunter had entered Pana'tul's eyes as he smiled grimly. He had found his targets. Easing a little to the side, the pipe at his lips, he lifted his head just enough to give a clear flight to the dart he blew out with a great puff of air. Quickly, he dropped down, pushed in another dart, and then sent it after his next target, the first one already dead.

Blair tried to swallow the lump of fear in his throat as his eyes raked the jungle around them, doing his job, watching Pana'tul's back. The Ixlanan's full attention was on the threat ahead of them, his keen sight now picking out another attacker, grateful that his Guide's Sentinel was hitting his targets as well.

Jim's unexpected presence had thrown into disarray the ten men who had lain in wait to ambush Pana'tul and the demon who accompanied him, so many were now focused on trying to fight Ellison before he could kill them. But he was out of range of their arrows and darts, and his bullets found them, one after another, as did Pana'tul's deadly darts.

Blair had begun to think they might get out of the ambush alive and unharmed when he spotted stealthy movement in the shadows behind them. Without hesitation, he threw himself against Pana'tul, to knock him out of the way of danger, covering the warrior's hunched body with his own. Pana'tul had to survive intact - he had to make it back to the city before sunset!

Sandburg scarcely felt the dart that plowed into his shoulder - just a quick sting, like an insect bite. But he suddenly felt searing heat blast through his body, like flames eating him alive from the inside. A cry of agony built in his chest, but got caught there - his jaw and throat were locked tight. He tried to roll away from the blistering pain, and just managed to slump over onto his back before his whole body clenched into immobility. Rain pattered onto his face and into his open eyes but he couldn't blink - wasn't sure he could even breathe…

But he heard the vicious low laughter, and he recognized Tex'chin's odd voice as the Goa'uld Shaman vowed with a snarl, "I'll see your body burn…"

********************

The jungle fell silent but for the sound of the rain and the low distant thunder, the attackers dead. Grimly, Jim loped down the hillside, sliding a little in the mud. On his way to join Sandburg and Pana'tul, he checked the bodies, finding nine in all.

"Sandburg?" he called out, as he pushed his way through the thick growth behind which his friend and Pana'tul had taken shelter. "You guys okay?"

But he stilled in numb disbelief when he found them, Pana'tul holding Blair in his arms. The younger warrior looked up to meet Jim's gaze, his eyes dark with grief.

"Chief?" Jim gasped as he pushed himself forward and dropped to one knee to reach out with his fingers to find the pulse in Sandburg's throat. Ellison wouldn't accept the silence he heard where there should have been a heartbeat, or the unfocused, staring eyes that should be sparkling with life. But his hand trembled when he couldn't find the beat and bitter bile rose to the back of his throat as his gut clenched in horror. His desperate gaze raked Blair's body, looking for a wound, and Pana'tul seemed to understand. Lifting Blair's upper body gently, he pointed to the dart in Sandburg's back.

Jim's face twisted in fury as he ripped the projectile from Sandburg's shoulder and threw it into the undergrowth. He shook his head, his jaw gritted tight against the wail of denial that built in his chest as he gripped Blair's body, pulling him away from Pana'tul and into his own arms. He'd failed. He hadn't found Blair in time. Dammit, he should have tried harder, made the deal with Hammond sooner, something… "No…" he choked as he bowed his head, resting his cheek on Sandburg's sodden curls. "Ah, God, Chief…no…"

Pana'tul touched his shoulder to get his attention. Though the warrior sincerely loathed to abandon them, he was only too well aware that the competition was still in play - and the future leadership of his world hung in the balance. He could see the sun was sinking in the afternoon sky that was visible beyond the bank of clouds above, and he had to get to Ixlania before it set. He had no choice but to race on ahead. Most especially now, he believed he had to win because he wanted the authority to hunt down the one who had perpetrated this atrocity, and punish him for killing his Companion. The young warrior knew without doubt that there was one who had not died here; one who had gotten away. He, too, had recognized Tex'chin's voice, but when he'd turned to throw his knife, the evil man/snake had disappeared.

If Xic'tal won, then the High Priest would ultimately hold the power of the Grand Chieftain's throne and Pana'tul could not allow that to happen. Though a handful of the false High Priest's followers had died that day, Pana'tul did not doubt that were more, maybe hundreds, even thousands, who believed his lies and in the delusion that he was a god. So long as Tex'chin lived, Pana'tul's world was in danger.

When Jim looked up, the younger sentinel pointed to the sun and then the city. Numb, Ellison yet understood. Hammond had briefed him on the importance of this competition so he'd understand why Sandburg was involved in it. Nodding, he tilted his head toward Ixlania, signaling Pana'tul to go. With a last look down at Blair's face, Pana'tul lifted his fist to his heart and bowed his head in a gesture of solemn respect, and then he turned to race away, disappearing into the mist-shrouded jungle.

Ellison hunched over Sandburg to shelter him from the rain, lifting a hand to gently close Blair's eyes and then brushing the wet curls from his Guide's face. He cupped Sandburg's cheek, and his heart clenched to find the skin was still warm - so close, he'd been so close to saving Blair, protecting him, had struggled so hard to track him down in time, only to be moments too late. "Come on, Chief, don't do this," he grated, his voice rough and cracking. "You can't be dead. Not here. You promised you'd come back home…"

But his voice cracked and he had to grit his jaw against the sob that threatened. He blinked against the stinging in his eyes and pulled Blair closer, wrapping both arms around him to hug his best friend tightly to his chest.

It was then that Jim noticed the unnatural rigidity of Sandburg's body. Frowning, he pulled back and studied his Guide. It wasn't rigor; it was too soon for that, and the stiffness of Blair's body wasn't so complete as natural rigor mortis would be. It was as if all his muscles were clenched tight; not flaccid as they should be immediately following death. Cocking his head, Jim frowned in concentration as he strained to listen deeply and he thought he heard a dull, distant and very muffled thump. Trembling with hope, he lifted his hand to hold his palm in the air just above Sandburg's slightly open lips and nose. It was very hard to be certain, but he thought he felt the barest hint of an exhalation. Looking around, he spotted an arrow on the ground within reach and, lifting it, he sniffed at the barb, his nose wrinkling in reaction to the bitter scent. But he didn't recognize the alien poison the Ixlanans used on their weapons.

He knew he might be fooling himself, holding on to some hopeless possibility that Sandburg wasn't really dead, not yet anyway. But he just couldn't accept that it could end like this, in a wet jungle on some distant planet. Suddenly fired by a sense of urgency, Ellison pulled Sandburg up with him as he stood. Cradling Blair in his arms, ignoring the sharp spike of pain in his leg, dialing it down, Jim strode as hastily as he could through the jungle toward Ixlania.

********************

The rain had finally stopped and the sky was clearing over the city, though thunder still rumbled threateningly over the distant northern mountains. However, the passing storm had not cleared the air, which remained heavy and oppressive with humidity. The people of Ixlana sat huddled around small cooking fires or stood in clumps in the street, alternately watching the Temple and the Palace, especially the activity going on in the courtyard between the stone edifices, or turning to gaze down the long ceremonial avenue toward the city gate, waiting for the contenders to return.

Grand Chieftain Ixzut'l had declared that the people who had died to protect them from the invaders were heroes. It didn't matter that they came from another world; they deserved to be honoured in accordance with the customs of Ixlana. Accordingly, he'd had a bower built in the center of the courtyard, and covered it personally with boughs of flowers. He then had the three bodies of the fallen warriors carried out, their pallets laid upon a raised platform of wood under the scented boughs. As was proper, their weapons were laid under their hands, and more flowers were strewn upon the ground all around them. A drummer thumped out a solemn beat - the sound of mourning - and three small bells tinkled on the breeze, their sound the symbol of the souls of the fallen, lifting now free into the air.

Jack's expression was strained as he stood with his hands on his hips and stared down from the palace entrance at the bodies of his comrades.

"It's good that Ixzut'l wants to honour them, Jack," Daniel murmured from behind him.

"Yeah, I know," O'Neill sighed, crossing his arms as he lifted his gaze to the street. This mission had cost too much already, and it wasn't over yet. He felt as though they were sitting on a powder keg, waiting for the violence, that simmered below the surface of the restless crowd, to explode. Suddenly, he noticed a wave of agitated excitement ripple through the crowd from the distant gate and he squinted to see what was going on. Finally, the reason for the commotion became clear. "Pana'tul's back, but I don't see Blair," he said darkly with a quick glance at Daniel. Tense, they both strained to see through the mass of people, seeking a sign of flying curls and flashing blue eyes, but only Pana'tul raced through the parting crowd toward the palace.

The young warrior ran up the steps directly to the Chieftain, who had come out to welcome him on his return. Agitated, Pana'tul leaned close to murmur in Ixzut'l's ear. The old man looked outraged, and then moaned softly as he shook his head, but as Pana'tul continued to report what had happened, Ixzut'l stiffened in anger, fury lighting his eyes as he looked toward the Temple.

"What's going on?" Jack wondered. "And where the hell is Sandburg?"

He didn't like the answer he thought he was being given when Pana'tul and the Chieftain turned to gaze at him and Daniel. Sorrow lined their faces and darkened their eyes as they both crossed their arms, fists resting on their shoulders, and bowed to them.

"Oh no," Daniel groaned, his chest tightening in dread. "Tell me that doesn't mean he's dead…"

"Well, you're the expert on communicating with the locals," Jack grated, his own throat thick. "Tell me what the hell else it could mean!"

But Daniel shook his head as he turned away, his hand over his mouth as sudden nausea spiked in his gut. He'd brought Blair into this. This time it was his fault - his responsibility - and he didn't know how he could bear it.

********************

An hour later, Xic'tal staggered into the city carrying rich chunks of precious metal in his arms and a full leather bag, presumably of gemstones, hanging from his belt. But as he made his way toward the palace, the crowd behind him started to murmur darkly. He turned and saw a stranger from that other world called Earth striding down the street behind him, the body of the one who had gone with Pana'tul in his arms.

Xic'tal kept his expression stolid as he turned back to continue toward the end of his journey, wondering if this meant that Pana'tul had failed and he would be the next Grand Chieftain. Satisfaction bloomed in his breast and glowed from his eyes, but dimmed when he neared the palace and saw his rival standing beside Ixzut'l. But when he saw no evidence of any treasures at Pana'tul's feet, he smiled grimly, believing his challenger had failed after all.

Once he'd reached the top of the long flight of steps, Xic'tal knelt to set his burden on the stone at the feet of his Chieftain, and pulled the bag from the belt of his kilt, opening it and pouring dazzling gems into his hand.

But Ixzut'l had eyes only for the man who followed, bearing his precious burden. Behind him, Jack shook his head and laid a comforting hand on Daniel's shoulder. Beside them, Sam's eyes glittered with tears. The Chieftain seemed about to speak, when suddenly there was a shout from the crowd and hands pointed toward the Temple. They turned to see Tex'chin standing above them, garbed in a flowing robe of crimson.

"Why that sonofabitch," Jack growled as he lifted his weapon.

"Don't Jack," Daniel choked out, laying a hand on the barrel and pushing it down. "You can't. Not here. Not now." The people packing the street believed Tex'chin to be a god, and they were supposed to be friends. If they killed him now, the crowd would believe them to be the enemy, and would tear them apart.

"I'm sorry, sir, but Daniel's right," Carter said quietly, her voice strained with emotion.

Tex'chin's eyes started to glow and he called out something in a deep, strangely resonating voice as he pointed down at Ellison and Sandburg. The crowd growled and Jim was startled when men crowded around him, trying to wrench Blair from his arms. He shouted in furious protest as he tried to shoulder them away, but he was exhausted from the long trek. He could feel his grip on Sandburg loosening as the frenzied Ixlanans grabbed at Blair, tugging to gain possession of his body.

Suddenly, there was a burst of weapons' fire over the crowd that drove the men back, cowering in fear.

"Bring him up here," Jack called out as he held his automatic rifle pointed menacingly at the crowd.

Tex'chin shouted again, this time at Jack and in English. "He dared challenge me as Shaman to the Chieftain and I will see him burned on a pyre as a demon."

"Over my dead body, snake head," Jack shouted back.

But Pana'tul had pushed his way forward past Xic'tal, and this time it was his voice that rang out as he raised his fist at Tex'chin. The crowd gasped at his words as they looked from the warrior to the god, but Tex'chin only laughed, ignoring him. Still staring down at Jack, he trumpeted, "I am their God, and they will obey me. You, and all those who came with you, will die a slow and terrible death."

"False God!" another, very unexpected, voice cried out with loathing and then there was a flash of light and power that blasted through the Goa'uld's body. Women screamed as Tex'chin stumbled sideways and then toppled over the edge of the steep stone steps, tumbling down like a rag doll to land in a crumpled heap at the base of the Temple.

"A real God cannot be killed," Teal'c snarled derisively as he lowered his weapon.

"Teal'c?" Sam gasped while Jack and Daniel gaped at the big man who looked up at them and then smiled slowly.

"It is good to see you," he said solemnly.

"Ah, well, I say it's GREAT to see you!" Jack called back with a joyful grin, his eyes glowing with relieved delight. "Uh, good shot by the way."

The crowd gasped in terror, falling back at the sight of a dead man, one Tex'chin had claimed to be a demon, now risen to kill their god. Jim ignored them all as he pushed past the people between him and the palace, and then rapidly climbed the steps.

Ixzut'l was calling out to his people, evidently trying to calm them as Jim skirted around him, gasping to the others, "Help me! He was hit by one of their poisoned darts but I think he's still alive!"

Glancing back at Teal'c, Jack nodded hopefully. "You could be right about that. Carter, get our supplies!"

Sam ran to retrieve the medical kit from their suite as L'teel stepped forward from the shadows of the entrance to wave them inside to a small antechamber. Jack and Daniel accompanied Jim, who refused to give up his burden, while the remaining SG-team members maintained their protective position around the Chieftain. Teal'c loped up the steps and then followed the others inside.

********************

"It's a poison that paralyses quickly but kills slowly," Teal'c told them. "My symbiote was able to overcome its effects, and though I could neither move nor speak, I was aware of all that occurred around me."

Jim looked up from where he was kneeling beside Blair, whom he'd gently laid on a well-cushioned couch. "Aware?" he echoed, and then he turned to Sandburg, laying a hand on his friend's cheek. "You can hear me, Chief? Listen, you're going to be okay…"

"God, he must be terrified…" Daniel muttered as he raked his fingers through his hair.

"It is, indeed, disconcerting to be held prisoner within your own body, Daniel Jackson, and have all around you believe you to be dead," Teal'c rumbled as he gazed down at Sandburg with concern. "The effect of the poison is also extraordinarily painful," he added with a sorrowful look of empathy at Sandburg.

Sam rushed back, a khaki bag of medical supplies in one hand and their small portable oxygen tank in the other. She knelt by Blair, and Jim put the mask in place while she adjusted the flow. Looking from Blair to Jack, she licked her lips. "I don't know what to give him, Colonel. I could make things worse. Maybe we should just get him back to Janet."

"I fear there might not be time, MajorCarter," Teal'c hastened to intervene. "From my body's reaction, I believe the poison will kill a human in very few hours."

"It's already been about three hours since he was poisoned," Jim told them quickly, his face pale with dread. Even if Blair still lived, was it too late to save him?

Jack toggled on his radio, which was already on the frequency to link back through the Gate. "Base, we have a medical emergency. Repeat, this is a crisis situation. I need to speak to Dr. Fraiser immediately!"

In two minutes, they had Janet on the line, and were relaying the symptoms - basically, that Blair appeared to be dead, but that - given Teal'c's apparent demise and subsequent recovery - he might yet still be alive.

"If he's breathing that shallowly, you need to bag him, to force air into his lungs, and if his heart is barely beating, begin cardiac massage to get his blood moving," she replied crisply. "Sam, give him 50 ccs of epinephrine to counter the effects of the poison and 10 of valium to relax the muscular contractions. If he doesn't respond within three minutes, give him another 50 ccs of epi."

"Got it," Sam muttered into her radio as she dug in the medical pack for the airbag, two syringes and the vials of the solutions ordered. Jim had begun cardiac massage while Daniel pumped the airbag he'd swiftly taken from Sam and attached to the mask. She injected the two medications into Sandburg's arm, and then sat back on her heels, watching him intently as her hand absently stroked his arm gently.

"Come on, Chief," Jim growled, desperation resonating in his voice.

Jack looked at Daniel and then at Teal'c, who was watching the proceedings with intense concentration. Then he checked his watch, keeping track of the passing minutes.

No one spoke. They were all too focused on watching Sandburg for any reaction. But he continued to lie limp and unresponsive under Jim and Daniel's ministrations. Pana'tul had come to stand silently in the doorway with Priestess L'teel, both of them stiff with concern.

"It's time, Carter - give him another dose," Jack said quietly. Sam nodded and gave Blair the injection while Jim and Daniel continued the CPR.

"Damn it, Sandburg," Ellison snapped, sounding harsh with his effort to fight his growing sense of despair. "Wake up!"

Another long minute ticked past, and they feared their efforts to revive him might well be hopeless, but then Blair's eyelids fluttered, and they opened. His eyes flickered up to Daniel's worried gaze and then shifted to Jim, who saw fear and pain in their depths.

"It's okay, Chief," Jim soothed as he continued to rhythmically compress Sandburg's chest. "You're going to be fine."

Sandburg blinked to signal he understood. Though he couldn't yet move or speak, he could feel the searing fire of the poison receding and that helped relieve the terror that had built since he'd been hit by the dart. For all of the past hours, he'd been able to hear everything - and had sure felt the torment of the poison holding him hostage, killing him. It had been like his nightmare the first night in the palace; like being burned from the inside out. He'd known that Pana'tul had thought he was dead, and he'd been so scared that the only end to the pain would be his death in Jim's arms during the long journey back to Ixlania - or worse, that because he was believed to be dead, he would be buried alive. He hadn't realized that Jim thought he was still alive until Ellison had told the others when they'd arrived at the palace - and he'd been so grateful, so profoundly thankful, that Jim hadn't given up on him, had somehow sensed the life force within him.

They had to work over him for fifteen more long minutes, Jack spelling Jim on the chest compressions, before he was able to breathe on his own, and it was a half hour more before he could move or speak. But finally, he lifted his right arm weakly to push away the oxygen mask.

"Oh, God," he rasped, grimacing against the pain that still burned through his body, panting with his teeth gritted in his effort not to cry out against it. Ellison gripped his shoulder and one hand reassuringly while Daniel laid a warm palm on his brow. Blair locked his eyes on Jim's steady gaze, the strength there holding him safe and calming him. Gradually, the last of the pain dissipated, and the panic that had filled him for hours receded as his breathing eased. "I don't understand," he murmured hoarsely when he could finally trust himself to speak coherently. "How did you get here?"

"Through the Stargate," Jim replied literally with a straight face, but relieved humour sparkled in his eyes.

Sandburg snickered weakly and shook his head, his gaze drifting around the room. When he saw Pana'tul, he smiled. "You made it back before sunset?" he asked in the strange language none of the others understood, though Jim frowned, thinking it reminded him a little of the language of the Chopec, in the jungles of Peru.

"I did," the Ixlanan warrior replied as he moved closer and dropped to one knee by the couch. "I owe you my life," he said soberly. "How do I thank you?"

"No thanks are necessary, my friend," Blair replied softly. "I was just doing my job - a guide's first responsibility is to protect his sentinel - just as you, as my sentinel, helped me endure the rigors of the competition. Is it over?"

"Not yet," Pana'tul informed him. "As the sun sets, we must each present the treasures we found to our people. They will then decide which has the most value to them."

Shifting his gaze to Jack, Sandburg told them, "The competition isn't over yet. How long before sunset?

"Must be soon," O'Neill replied.

"Then help me up," Blair directed. "We need to get outside."

Pana'tul and Jim supported Blair, who still felt very weak, out of the anteroom and back to the palace entrance.

When Ixzut'l turned and saw Sandburg up and walking, the old Grand Chieftain's weathered face broke into an astonished and very joyful smile. He immediately stepped closer to grip Blair's shoulder warmly as he said, "You live, young Shaman! It is a miracle! Did I not say you had powerful magic?"

"Not magic, lord," Blair replied soberly. "Medicine and the excellent care my friends gave me saved my life - medicine that we can share with your people."

"We will talk further, my friend," Ixzut'l replied, but his gaze shifted to Pana'tul. "First, however, we must finish the competition."

The Chieftain turned back to the crowd and lifted his arms. The drums beat and bells rang, signaling it was time for the mass of people to fall silent.

"Xic'tal," Ixzut'l commanded, "tell us of your journey and of the treasures you have brought to lay before us."

The tall warrior inclined his head to his leader and then turned to the crowd. "In the ways of our people, I traveled alone into the mountains," he called out, underscoring that he'd not chosen a Companion to travel with him. However, he hesitated to emphasize the teaching of the gods given what had happened earlier. He was still shocked by Tex'chin's death and, given the man had been his grandfather and teacher, he wasn't sure what to think or how to feel about the claim that the Shaman had been an enemy of his people. Setting his confusion aside, he continued, "It was a long journey and rigorous, as it was meant to be. My task was to bring the treasures of our world to you, and that I have done - gold and silver from the mountains and precious gems, the wealth of our world. I have fulfilled the quest you set out for me." Again, he turned to bow formally to the Chieftain, and then he stepped back.

"Pana'tul," Ixzut'l commanded then, "tell us of your journey and of the treasures you have brought to lay before us."

Pana'tul stepped forward, gently but resolutely drawing Sandburg and Ellison with him despite their wish to resist him. After bowing in respect to the Grand Chieftain, he turned to the people. "I did not travel alone. In the ways of our most ancient ancestors, I set out with Blair Sandburg of Earth as my Companion, to help me focus my senses more effectively on the world around me. When I grew tired along the way, he encouraged me, and when in my weariness my senses faltered, so that I could neither hear nor see as well as I should, he helped restore my strength. As I told you earlier, during our journey, we were attacked by the false god, Tex'chin and his followers, who sought to kill me before I could return to you. My Companion saved my life at the risk of his own - he took a dart meant for me."

The people gasped and stared at Sandburg, knowing he'd been carried back by the tall man by his side. He had seemed dead, but clearly now lived, like the other who had risen to kill Tex'chin. Truly, they had witnessed miracles that day. Pana'tul raised a hand to reclaim their attention as he continued, "Tex'chin told you the men and women from Earth are demons. I tell you now that he lied and that they are our friends. More, I call my Companion, Brother - I owe him my life. I also wish to acknowledge his Sentinel of Earth, Jim Ellison, who stands here with us, for helping me to stave off our attackers. I call him Brother, as well."

Blair bowed his head, moved by Pana'tul's words and the sincerity glowing in the warrior's eyes. Jim didn't understand the words and felt uncomfortable when he realized everyone in the crowd was looking at him with a kind of awe.

"As for the treasures," Pana'tul went on, "I do not know if you will value what I have brought back as I do." Opening his shirt, he drew out a small, grimy cloth-wrapped parcel. Unrolling the remains of what had been a sleeve, he gathered the soil into his hand and then scattered it reverently at Ixzut'l's feet. "I bring you the earth that is our home and strength, that gives us all we need, nourishing and sheltering us." Then he pulled out the gourd, and opened it, spilling the water onto the stones. "I bring sparkling water, fresh and clear, that refreshes and restores us, provides us with a wealth of fish and other foods, and nurtures the jungles and the fields, that we may eat and drink our fill." Once again, he reached into his shirt, drawing out another grimy package, unwrapping it to reveal the delicate blossoms from the mountain's heights. "And I bring you life and beauty, that our souls might be uplifted with hope as these blossoms open with each new dawn. I did not bring our most precious gems, as they were already here. Our children, who hold the love of our hearts and the dreams of our future - nothing is as precious as they. These are the rich treasures of Ixlana that I bring you - treasures that we all share. In bringing them to you, I hope I have served you well."

Bowing to the people and then to Ixzut'l, he stepped back - or intended to, but the crowd roared out his name, cheering wildly, some through their tears. He had moved them and won their hearts; more, he'd inspired them with simple truths, reminding them that wealth is a state of mind and not solely the richness of material things in the possession of a fortunate few.

Xic'tal looked away, his face impassive though the hurt of the loss was clear in his eyes. But he lifted his chin and took a deep breath, letting go of his deep disappointment. He had done his best, but Pana'tul had won fairly - Xic'tal would honour the people's choice and show respect to the man who would, one day, be his leader.

Ixzut'l moved to stand at Pana'tul's side, and the cheering gradually abated. Finally, when he could be heard, the Grand Chieftain proclaimed, "The competition for Heir Designate is ended. You have chosen Pana'tul to serve by my side and to rule in my stead when I go to join our ancestors."

The crowd roared once again in approbation, while Ixzut'l and Pana'tul exchanged glances and Pana'tul nodded, understanding the unspoken question and giving his agreement.

Ixzut'l raised his hands once more, again drawing the mass of people to silence. "Pana'tul and I wish to thank those who have come from Earth to save us from those who would have enslaved us. They are all heroes, and two of their number have given their lives that we might remain free. We honour them as if they were our own. They came as strangers but became our champions and then our friends. More, we know them to be of our ancient lines and so they are our family, long lost to us but now found. Tonight, we will frame a treaty between us, to share our knowledge and skill, to trade between the stars - and to support one another against our common enemy, the Goa'uld. Let it be remembered for all time that this night was the first night of our alliance - may there never be a last night."

The Grand Chief and the Heir Designate turned as one to bow in respect and gratitude to the men and women of Earth - and the people bowed to them, as well, in reverent silence, and then roared out their approval, cheering the strangers who would become legendary heroes as their stories were told and retold around the whole world.

Blair closed his eyes and blew out a long sigh, and then he looked up at Jack who was regarding him quizzically, wondering what the hell was going on. Blair grinned and gave him a thumb's up. "We're in," he said quietly under the roar of the crowd. "They'll sign the alliance. Mission accomplished, Jack."

Well pleased, O'Neill grinned smugly. "See, Blair, I said you'd do just fine."

"Not just me," Sandburg protested as he shook his head vehemently. "They are cheering the men and women Ixzut'l called champions and heroes, friends and now family. To them, we are Earth and Ixzut'l, speaking as well for Pana'tul who will lead in his turn, said he hopes the alliance between our two worlds will never end." Pausing as he looked out at the cheering masses, he smiled brilliantly, his eyes sparkling with awe and delight as he added, "It's so incredibly amazing to be part of something as huge and wonderful as this!"

"Well, kid, yeah, I gotta admit, it is pretty neat," O'Neill drawled. "I love it when a plan comes together."

Daniel snorted softly as Sam grinned in indulgent amusement, while Teal'c bowed his head to hide his small smile. Jim just looked bemused by it all. He was relieved that it looked like Blair was recovering fully from the poison, and warmed by the glow of happiness on his best friend's face. But he also felt a twinge of anxiety as he wondered what would happen next. He wanted Sandburg to come home - and he sure didn't want his Guide roaming around the Universe without him.

But…would Sandburg want to come home after this?

Or had Blair found a new dream?

********************

The celebrations carried on in the streets throughout the night, the people wild with relief that Ixzut'l seemed to have had the right of it - Tex'chin must have been lying, for if he'd been a true god, he would have risen by now to strike down the unbelievers. And they were delirious with self-congratulation for having chosen a leader who was wise as well as strong, one who would ensure the security of their world when the day came for Pana'tul to take on the mantle of the Grand Chieftain.

The SG-team members remained wary, however. Guards were kept at the Gate to ensure no more Jaffa snuck onto the planet and, though they accepted gifts of flowers and food from the Ixlanans, they stayed alert at the top of the palace steps and on the roof to ensure that no remaining supporters of Tex'chin tried to wreak further havoc. Teal'c remained with those on the steps, while Sam went up to the rooftop palisade with the others. Jim left with Sam because he felt his senses would be of more use to them where he could get some perspective on the crowd as he looked down upon the entire city and the jungle beyond.

Inside, Blair, Daniel and Jack worked through the night with Ixzut'l and Pana'tul, hammering out the specific terms of the alliance between the two worlds. The Chieftain and his Heir were both appalled by the realization of what the poison did to their victims. All had always believed that death was instantaneous and merciful, but now they knew not only how warriors suffered a horrific death, but also the animals and birds they hunted for food. Further, given Teal'c's recovery, they all knew the poison would provide no defense against the Jaffa or the Goa'uld when they next came, as come they surely would someday. So, the first order of business under discussion was defence.

It was not an easy discussion.

The men from Earth refused to consider providing the Ixlanans with advanced weaponry or with the specific learning that would allow them to build their own. Jack cringed at the indignant arguments made by Ixzut'l, uncomfortably recalling similar words he'd said to the Tok'ra in the past. Poisoned weapons were not necessary for the hunting of game, they argued back, nor was a machine gun. The Ixlanan level of defensive technology was more than sufficient to meet their internal needs. A compromise was reached when Earth agreed to maintain a permanent communication link by which they could be immediately alerted to a Goa'uld attack and arrive in force to safeguard the Ixlanans. To underscore the immediacy of that commitment, Daniel gave Ixzut'l his radio, and Blair helped explain how it could be used to communication instantly with Earth.

Further, Earth offered other technology and specific reference materials to assist the sentinels. Pana'tul insisted that Blair commit personally to overseeing the training of Companions as quickly as possible. Sandburg agreed, but wryly wondered how long it would take for him to revise his scuppered dissertation on sentinel capacities to remove specific references to Jim by name, and translate it into the Ixlanan language. It really felt good, though, to know the document would actually be useful to the people of Ixlana, and the grieving ache he'd been carrying inside since his press conference, about the waste of having to trash it, eased.

In addition to the training of Companions, Ixzut'l wanted an unlimited supply of the white noise generators, which in turn required a commitment to an unlimited supply of batteries to keep them running, at least until technologists and engineers from Earth could assist the Ixlanans in developing sophisticated power supplies. Blair grimaced at the thought of the thousands and millions of dead batteries accumulating on the planet and suggested a more ecologically sensitive option. As he pointed out, if solar-powered battery chargers and rechargeable batteries were employed, it could become the purview of the priests and priestesses to maintain the supplies, and distribute them as needed. Daniel agreed enthusiastically, and the two Ixlanans agreed to the concept, more out of their trust of Sandburg than full understanding of the technological options.

In addition, Earth offered support in the fields of communication and medical technology and medicines, as well as transportation and environmental management, promising experts to teach as well as equipment and supplies to set up clinics, and labs, and schools, and land movers, such as bull-dozers and backhoes, until the Ixlanans were self-sustaining.

But, for all the help and learning that would be provided, Earth wanted unlimited access to mine naquada. And this required an extensive discussion of exactly what that would mean…

********************

Jim kept moving around the perimeter of the roof, watching and listening intently. But his concentration was fragmenting, the searing pain in his leg spiking so badly that it nauseated him and made him dizzy. He'd been holding it at bay with sheer force of will, having grimly held his internal dial at zero while he'd carried Sandburg through the forest and into the city. But the fierce urgency and sense of desperation that had driven him for the whole of that journey had dissipated with the relief of Blair's recovery, and now his dial refused to respond to his efforts to turn it down.

As he walked the perimeter, he could no longer hide the pain that assailed him, though he hoped the darkness hid any telling pallor or lines of strain on his face. He gritted his teeth and endured, but when one the others unwittingly backed into him, he stumbled a little as his leg almost buckled beneath him. Though he tried to bite it back, he couldn't quite suppress the small moan of misery that escaped his lips.

Sam heard the groan and frowned as she turned to study Ellison intently. "You're hurt," she said with concern as she realized he was limping badly. "What happened?"

"Nothing important," Ellison grated. "I injured my leg a week or so ago. It's fine."

"No, I don't think it is," she challenged, moving close enough to see he was as white as a ghost and that pain was etched deeply in the lines around his mouth and eyes. "You're suffering badly." Looking around, she spotted a stone bench nearby and, pointing to it, she ordered, "Sit. Now."

Though he resented his weakness, Jim didn't resist any further, and sighed with relief as he eased himself down and took the pressure off the muscle. She was right - he just needed to give himself a bit of a break and he'd be fine.

"You want anything for the pain?" she asked as she dropped to one knee beside him.

"No," he replied with a sharp shake of his head. "Medication can, uh, have unusual effects on me."

Nodding, she smiled softly as she acknowledged, "Yeah, I guess with your senses, you have to be careful. Okay, let's have a look." Without further preamble, though Jim tried to protest, she rolled up his pant leg until she could see the reddened, angry sutured wound that was leaking blood. Gingerly, she touched his skin and he flinched at the modest contact, the shaft of pain excruciating. "It's hot to the touch, and swollen badly," she muttered. Shaking her head, she stood and flagged Murchison over. "Mike, help Jim down to our suite and into the bath. He needs to soak this leg right away. And dig out some bandages from our medical supplies so that he can bind the wound for support."

"No, wait - it's fine," Jim challenged, leaning forward to unroll his pant leg. "I just need a few minutes off it."

Samantha cocked her head as she asked with feigned innocence, "You want me to call Blair and see what he has to say about it?"

Sighing, his shoulders slumping in defeat, Ellison shook his head. "Uh, that would be a 'no'," he replied wryly.

"That's what I thought," she quipped back as she and Murchison helped him to stand. And then, his bad leg bent at the knee, and leaning heavily on Murchison, Jim hopped to the top of the steps and down to the suite below.

********************

Finally, as dawn was just beginning to break in the north, the draft alliance was completed. The Ixlanans had agreed to allow Earth five years of unlimited access to mine naquada, further privileges to be renegotiated when that time came, providing that Earth fully restored the land once the mining in any given location was concluded. Blair had agreed to return in a week's time to work with Pana'tul in translating his diss into Ixlanan and to begin working with the sentinels to help them choose their companions. Once a sufficient number of sentinels had been trained, their companions recruited and also trained, the pairs would set out around the planet to train others. Realistically, Sandburg figured it would take him at least two months to give basic training to the sentinels as well as their companions and he sighed, thinking how much easier it would be if Jim…but no, Jim had his own life back in Cascade.

Once he'd written up a clean copy of the alliance in both languages, Ixzut'l and Pana'tul placed their marks upon the document - and only then did everyone relax. The local equivalent of wine was brought forward to toast the event, along with cheeses, cold meats and bread, and both Ixzut'l and Jack thanked Blair for his invaluable assistance in crafting the agreement. Daniel dropped an arm around his shoulder, beaming with congratulation.

Weary to his soul, Sandburg nodded to them and smiled wanly. Taking pity on him, Jack asked, "So, you ready to go home for a little R'n'R?"

"Oh, yeah," Sandburg sighed. "Way past ready."

Chuckling, Jack couldn't resist rumpling the kid's hair - provoking a "Not the hair, man!" protest - as he toggled on his radio to order his force to pack up and be ready to head to the Gate in fifteen minutes. He then radioed the General to give Hammond the good news.

********************

The soak and the rest had helped considerably, as had a few hours sleep, so Jim was able to regain control of his erratic dials, turning them all down to a point below normal use - the pain dial he kept on lowering a notch or two further. It was only a half-hour walk to the Gate, and then he just had to make it back to the room that had been assigned to him in the mountain complex. He was pretty sure that everyone would head to bed immediately, except maybe Jack who would need to report to Hammond. By the time he woke up the next day, his leg might be stiff, but Jim figured it would be pretty much back to normal.

They mustered at the palace steps. Ixzut'l bid them a formal farewell, and assured them that each and every one would be welcomed back gladly whenever they had an opportunity to return. Then the Chieftain detailed his own warriors to carry the SG-team members who had died to the Gate. Jack led the way down the steps, and the crowd parted before them, cheering and throwing flower petals as they strode toward the city gates.

No one spoke much on the journey back - they were all too weary and saddened by the death of their comrades. Blair had a ton of questions for Jim, about why Ellison had come after him, and how he'd persuaded General Hammond to send him through the Stargate. But Sandburg's mind was fogged with fatigue and he figured he could wait until he'd had some sleep to get the answers. Besides, he thought with a slight frown as he studied Jim, who was walking beside him, Ellison also looked whacked out. It had been a grueling few days, not to say weeks, for both of them.

Daniel dialed in the code on the DHD and, when the event horizon settled, they took over carrying their own fallen, then trudged up the steps to the platform and on through without pause.

Unfortunately, though his dials were turned down, Jim found the disorienting effects of the wormhole as bad or worse than his first trip through. Dizziness assailed him, and the world grayed as he stumbled forward, agony ripping through his leg…

…and collapsed as soon as he'd staggered out the other side.

"Jim!" Sandburg exclaimed in alarm as he dropped to his knees and pulled Ellison over and into his arms. But he got no answer - Jim was unconscious.

The impromptu Honour Guard, assembled to welcome them back in respect for the dead, broke apart as Dr. Fraiser rushed up the ramp, pushing her way through those walking down, as Hammond called for a medical support team. Sam had wheeled around at Blair's exclamation, and now hastened back up the ramp toward the two civilians, close behind Janet.

"It's his right leg, I think," Sam told Janet. "He injured it a week ago, and it looked bad last night."

"He was shot a week ago," Blair spat out, disgusted with himself for having failed to check on Jim's injury, especially after his Sentinel had carried him for three solid hours through the jungle the day before. "He must have been suppressing the pain…"

The others stared at him, vastly surprised to learn Jim had been recovering from a bullet wound. Recovering quickly, Sam pulled out her knife to rip Jim's pant leg to a point above the injury.

"Ohh, that's gotta hurt," Janet murmured in sympathy as she expertly probed the hot, swollen tissue around the sutured incision, which again dribbled blood. The medical team had arrived with a stretcher, so she stood aside to let the attendants lift Jim away from Blair and carry him down the ramp to where the gurney waited. "I need x-rays and an ultrasound of his right leg stat," she ordered as they sped away.

Blair was intending to go with them, but Janet grabbed his arm. "Oh, no. I need you to brief me on what medications I can safely give him to alleviate the pain. Come with me."

Sam moved down the ramp to join Jack, Teal'c and Daniel, who were standing with General Hammond.

"He was shot a week ago?" Jack exclaimed to Sam, whom he'd been surprised to see had apparently known that Ellison was injured. "What the hell was he doing running around that jungle!"

Carter shrugged. "I didn't know he was even hurting until last night, Colonel. I ordered him off his leg, and he claimed he was fine this morning."

"He was worried about his Guide," Teal'c observed. "Such concern renders a small injury insignificant."

Daniel and Hammond nodded in agreement, though neither could imagine how Ellison had carried on so long with no one guessing he shouldn't have been on that leg at all. Sighing, recalling himself to the matters at hand, Hammond turned to Jack as he said, "Congratulations, Colonel, on achieving the alliance with the Ixlanans. I know you're tired, but I'd like you to go over the details with me before you call it a day."

"No problem, General," Jack agreed. "But, I gotta tell you, sir, we owe it all to Sandburg. The kid was awesome. I'm real glad he's a member of my team."

********************

Janet and Blair looked over the test results together and soberly assessed their findings. Blair's lips compressed tightly as he realized the extent of the damage Jim had inflicted on his leg - the muscle had torn around the original bullet wound and would require surgical repair as well as extended rest, physiotherapy, and light duty, for a full recovery. They discussed the medications Dr. Fraiser could use without severe adverse effects, and then she had her patient prepped for surgery.

Feeling dirty and bedraggled, Sandburg took a quick shower to clean up and donned fresh clothing. But he was back in the infirmary long before Jim was wheeled out from the small, but fully functional, operating room two hours later. Ellison's leg was stiffly bandaged and elevated in a sling. Though he woke briefly, he was too disoriented for any conversation.

"Just rest, Jim," Blair soothed as he stroked his Sentinel's brow. "You're going to be just fine. Sleep."

Sighing softly, Ellison looked up at Blair for long moment, and then closed his eyes and relaxed, slipping into normal, healthy, sleep.

Though Fraiser wanted Blair to go to his assigned quarters to get some sleep of his own, he refused to leave Sickbay. So, in resignation, she assigned him a bed next to Ellison's and ordered him into it. Though Sandburg struggled to stay awake, exhaustion overcame him and he, too, slipped into slumberland.

Hammond and Jack arrived to check on Jim shortly after and found both men sound asleep. Janet moved to join the two officers, knowing Hammond would want her report.

"The muscle of Jim's thigh was severely torn around the original injury, General," she stated clinically. "But, we've made the repairs and, providing he follows medical advice this time and stays off it for at least a week, and then takes it easy for a month or so, he'll be fine."

"That's good news, Doctor, thank you," Hammond said with a look of relief in his eyes. "How about Blair? How's he doing?"

"From what I can tell, he's not suffering any lingering effects from the poisoning," she replied with a faint smile as she gazed at the anthropologist. With his long curls and masculine beauty, he looked a little like a sleeping angel, in her opinion anyway. "He's just exhausted. He wouldn't leave Ellison's side, so I ordered him to bed here."

"Good," Hammond nodded as he looked from the Guide back to the Sentinel.

Noticing the General's frown, Jack asked, "Something bothering you, Sir?"

"Yes, Colonel, something is bothering me," he rumbled. Hammond chewed his lip for a moment and then added, "We need Sandburg to live up to the terms of our alliance, and there's no question that he's an asset to the project, but I'm really beginning to seriously wonder if these two can be separated for any length of time."

Jack cocked a brow and then he, too, turned to gaze at the sleeping men with a speculative expression on his face. "I never thought of that," he admitted. "But, now that you mention it, it does seem that they should be sticking pretty close together. Blair sure seemed to think it was essential for sentinels on Ixlana to have regular companions or guides or whatever they are…"

"Yes, so I gathered from your report," Hammond concurred. "And from what I've seen of Ellison, he has an overriding and overwhelming need to ensure the safety of his Guide."

********************

Blair woke with a start, feeling disoriented, but the muted sounds of the infirmary around him, and the presence of Jim in the next bed, soon restored his memories of where he was and why. It was dark except for the glow of a few soft lights around the work desk, so he assumed it was sometime in the middle of the night. Sitting up with a yawn, he scrubbed at his eyes, pushed his hair behind his ears and slipped off the bed to move back to the chair beside Jim. Reaching out, he gently took Ellison's hand in his own.

When Jim began to stir, Blair murmured softly, "Shh, you're back on Earth and in the Sickbay. It's okay. I know your leg hurts, but it's going to be fine. Easy does it - check your dials. Bring them down, one at a time, to a normal level before you open your eyes."

A minute later, Jim blinked his eyes open and looked around, searching for Sandburg.

"I'm right here," Blair said quietly. "And I'm not going anywhere, so relax." Standing, he poured some water from the flask on the bedside table into a plastic cup, and then lifted Jim's head enough to drink easily as he held the cup to his Sentinel's lips.

"Thanks," Jim murmured a little hoarsely when Blair removed the cup and lowered his head. "What happened?"

"You, uh, overdid it just a little," Sandburg replied sarcastically as he sat and leaned forward, his expression stern. "Dammit, Jim, you were supposed to stay off that leg!" he scolded then. "What in blazes brought you out here to Colorado, let alone all the way to Ixlana?"

"You," Jim sighed, his eyes staring up at the ceiling.

"Me?" Blair repeated, frowning in confusion. "I don't understand. You seemed fine when I left. You knew I'd be going out on field trips, so why…"

"The black jaguar appeared the night you left, about a half hour or so after you talked to Simon," Ellison cut in, clearing his throat before continuing, "It was acting like it was hurt, and then it led me to your room, jumped on your bed and disappeared."

"Oh," Blair grunted. Yep, that would be enough to kick up his Sentinel's 'anxiety-meter', all right.

"And Simon got suspicious when you wouldn't tell him where you were going, so he checked the telephone number and discovered you'd called from this military installation," Jim continued.

"I see," Sandburg sighed, knowing that that information would have gravely concerned both men. Hell, it had terrified him when he'd first arrived and didn't know what was going on.

"And Jack Kelso told me about the rumours that this project had something to do with studying alien cultures, and told me Hammond and O'Neill were involved in it," Jim told him then. "I was under O'Neill's command for a while in Covert Ops, and I knew Hammond by reputation, so I decided to come out and see what was going on…"

When Jim lapsed into silence, Blair studied him a moment before saying, "You were worried about me."

"Yep," Ellison concurred, his eyes still on the ceiling.

"How did you get Hammond to tell you what was going on, let alone let you travel through the Stargate?" Blair asked then. His voice had softened from his earlier irritation.

"Well, I told him I could hear what was going on in the Control Room, so I'd figured out that there was some way of traveling off-world, and I told him about the jag, so he'd know why I was so convinced you were in trouble," Jim replied, his voice carefully neutral.

"You're kidding?" Blair exclaimed, albeit softly as he gaped in surprise. "You really told him about your visions of an animal spirit?"

"Well," Ellison sighed, "he already knew I was a sentinel, so I figured it didn't make much difference to give him more information. It was the only way I could convince him to listen to me…"

"I still can't believe he let you go through the Stargate," Sandburg reflected. "I had to make a vow of secrecy before they'd even tell me about Ixlana and, technically anyway, I was already working for them…"

"Things were pretty hot by that point, and Jack was calling for back-up," Jim replied with a shrug. "So, uh, I offered him a deal. Simon agreed to loan my services to this organization for the duration of the assignment to the field location. Technically, for now at least, I'm under Hammond's command…"

"Simon's involved?" Blair gaped with astonishment.

"He doesn't know about the off-world travel or any of the details, but yeah, he was worried about you, too, and I needed his approval of the assignment in order to be able to get to you," Jim said quietly. "I did what I had to do, Chief. No way was I not going to track you down when I knew you were in danger…"

Blair looked away as he struggled to swallow the lump that had grown in his throat. Jim had wanted, so badly, to have his secret remain secure. And now, Jim had been reduced to having to confide to strangers about his visions, something he hated to talk about at the best of times, let alone freely admit he was a sentinel. And he'd gotten Simon to give him leave so he could alleviate Hammond's concerns about confidentiality and control. Jim had turned his back on his responsibilities to the people in Cascade to come after him - he really had done everything he could, not letting anything stop him. All for him. Because of him. "I'm sorry," Sandburg murmured. "I've really made a mess of things, haven't I?"

"No, you haven't," Jim muttered as he rubbed one hand over his face. Finally turning his head to look at Blair, he went on soberly, "You did real good on Ixlana - I'm proud of you."

Blair blushed slightly at the compliment, but when he lifted his eyes, they were dark with emotion. "I would have died out there if you hadn't come for me," he said softly. "You wrecked your leg carrying me back so fast, when anyone else would have thought I was dead…because you believed I still had a chance. Thank you."

Jim shrugged like it was no big deal, but a slight grin twitched around his lips as he said, "I was just doing my job, protecting my Guide - no big deal."

"Ah, Jim," Blair exclaimed, his voice cracking as he reached out to grip Jim's arm. "What am I going to do with you, man? I can't live or work with you, and I'm a walking disaster looking for a place to happen without you, so I end up dragging you halfway across the country…"

"…don't you mean, galaxy?" Ellison quipped to ease Blair's intense emotions.

"Right, galaxy," Sandburg agreed with a hiccup of a laugh. But the forced levity didn't last and he had to blink hard against the tears burning in his eyes as he choked out, "I don't know what to do anymore, Jim. I honestly don't. I have to be part of this Ixlana deal; it's part of the terms of the alliance, at least for a few months. And I can't go back to Cascade the way things are. I just seem to keep getting you into situations where more and more people know about you, and I'm sorry, really sorry."

"Ah, hey, Chief," Jim muttered, devastated to see Sandburg so upset when he hadn't done anything but his best all along the line. "Come here," he added gruffly, as he tugged Sandburg towards him, until the younger man was perched on the side of the bed and pulled down into a comforting hug. "None of any of this is your fault, kid. Yeah, so they know I'm a sentinel. So what? It's all highly classified information and they aren't going to tell anyone," he murmured quietly. "And they really did need you out there - no one else could have pulled off that alliance - and you saved Pana'tul so he could live to be their next leader. You taught them enough to understand themselves as sentinels, and to know they need guides to be at their best - you affected the future of an entire world. I really am proud of you, and you should be just as proud of yourself."

"But what are we going to do?" Blair persisted as he hugged Jim back. "How are we going to work this out? You can't be running out here every time I might be in some kind of danger…you've got a job to do."

Jim sighed, his eyes searching the ceiling. "I don't know, Chief. I just know that this being apart thing isn't working."

********************

Janet Fraiser and her staff treated the fact that Jim was a sentinel like it was no big deal, just something to be accommodated. They'd supplied a white noise generator to help mute the noises around him so he could sleep, before Blair asked for one. They used silk sheets on his bed to ensure his comfort, and stopped wearing scented products, like cologne, to work in case the smell bothered him. They kept the lights around him muted and indirect. Jim knew their subtle care for his comfort was deliberate because he'd overheard her, at a time when he was awake and the generator was turned off, softly discussing the importance of being alert to his sensitivities with her staff.

He found himself thinking back to the planet, and how easy it had been there to do what he needed to do and could do. Like Carter automatically sending him up on point because he could suss out the Jaffa. And Jack trusting him to go out into the unknown jungle to find Sandburg. He reflected on how matter-of-fact Hammond had been. Everyone he'd met on the project just seemed to accept him - maybe because they'd encountered far stranger things in the universe than a man with enhanced sensory perceptions.

For the first time since his senses had come on-line again, Jim had been able to relax with them around people other than Sandburg and Simon Banks. It had been a kind of relief to be able to use them openly, knowing they were trusted and respected, and that he was seen as an asset, not as a freak of nature. Hell, Teal'c's symbiote was a far stranger phenomenon than were his senses.

And he thought about the Goa'uld - an enemy that made the drug lords and gunrunners, and the everyday psychos he encountered, seem like child's play. He remembered the beauty of Ixlana, and the decency of the people who lived there. They reminded him in many ways of the Chopec - Ixzut'l, in particular, conveyed the same wisdom and presence that Incacha had had. They could have all been so easily destroyed.

And the Goa'uld were still out there, a threat to all other civilizations on every planet.

Including Earth.

In Jim's view, Blair was doing really important work as a part of all this, contributing to peace and security in the galaxy -- work that was necessary, even vital. But Blair would likely have died in that jungle if he hadn't been there, and Ellison knew it. Just as well as he knew that future 'fieldtrips' would hold very real dangers for his Guide - his best friend. He didn't have the right to ask Sandburg not to do this work, but nor could he imagine standing aside, knowing how very risky it was.

Once he'd managed to convince Sandburg he was all right, and that the kid should either go get some rest or get started on the work required by the alliance, Jim bit his lip as he thought long and hard about it all…

…and then he asked to see General Hammond.

********************

"Are you sure about this?" Hammond asked with a penetrating look. He'd come to see Jim in the infirmary, and was sitting beside Ellison's bed.

"I'm sure," Jim replied staunchly.

"I don't think Captain Banks will be very pleased," the General mused, his lips pursed. "You know, I was impressed with that man when I talked with him. Very focused and sensible. Also knows how to get things done."

Jim laughed at that, nodding in full agreement. "No disrespect to Jack O'Neill, General, but Simon Banks is the finest leader I've ever known."

"Really?" Hammond replied, his curiousity piqued. "How so?"

"Well," Jim clarified thoughtfully, "he's very sharp, misses nothing. And he's willing to go into the field in dangerous situations when it's necessary; in fact, I think he sometimes misses the action. He's good with the higher-ups; a lot more politically astute and tactful than I'd ever be in his position, or I've ever seen Jack be, that's for sure. He's strong in character, as well as physically. He knows how to get the best out of his people, treating us all fairly, but dealing with us in ways that are sensitive to what is important to us. Professionally, he knows when to risk and when to pull back - but he takes significant personal risks to back his people or to do the right thing, like protecting my secret from his seniors or offering to come with me to find Sandburg, though he's still recovering from a massive back and chest gunshot wound that very nearly killed him. He's tough, real tough, when he has to be, but I've never once seen him abuse his power or authority. Simon Banks is a very ethical man, a very decent man. I'm proud to be one of his friends."

"He sounds a very impressive individual," Hammond murmured thoughtfully.

"Oh, he's impressive, all right," Jim agreed, chuckling softly. When Hammond looked askance at his amusement, Jim replied with a grin, "Simon is a six foot five, African-American who can rattle the rafters with his booming voice when he wants your attention. He'd give a parade ground drill sergeant a run for his money! Believe me, sir, nobody messes with Simon Banks."

"Uh huh," Hammond grunted with a glint of amusement in his eyes. Standing, he nodded to himself and then focused on Jim as he said, "Well, I should go and let you rest. We'll talk again before you head back to Cascade to sort things out."

********************

When Blair dropped in later, Jim was concerned at how haggard his friend looked. "What's wrong?" he demanded. "You look like shit."

"Thanks, I really needed to hear that," Blair quipped back as he raked his fingers through his hair. Shrugging, he went on, "The edit and translation of the paper is tiring, I guess. I have to keep going back to the reference books to examine the written form of ancient Mayan, and then it doesn't really help anyway because the Ixlanan language has evolved, so I don't really know how they spell. And the concepts aren't easy to translate. So, I've changed tack, and for now I'm just extrapolating information into fairly crisp guidelines and trying to translate them so I have something to show Pana'tul for his input when I go back to Ixlana next week. He can help me later with the full translation of the document. And, uh, I guess I haven't been sleeping too well. I keep going over our situation, trying to figure out how…"

"I've taken care of that, Chief," Jim cut in.

"What? How?" Sandburg demanded uncertainly, wondering what Jim had done now.

"I talked to Hammond and asked for a full-time job on the project, and he's agreed," Ellison replied with a shrug. "Seemed the only sensible option."

"Oh, God, Jim," Blair groaned as he sank into the chair by the bed. "How could you do that? You're the Sentinel of the Great City, man! You love your work - not to mention your home. I never wanted you to give all that up…"

"I thought you'd be happier about it," Jim interjected, looking confused.

Blair looked at his best friend as his emotions threatened to overwhelm him. "Oh, man, nothing would make me happier than working with you here, and out there." He waved to the ceiling as he spoke. "There were so many times when I wished you were with me, and I really missed you, a lot." Heaving a sigh, he continued, "And you would make such a difference in the work with the Ixlanans - it would go so much faster because you could show them how you do things, explain to them how to work with their Companions. But that's not the point…"

"Chief, what is the point?" Jim interrupted. "Okay, sure, I loved my job and I got comfortable in the loft. But I think this may be a whole lot more important - and it's something that fits for both of us. They need your skills and abilities; you're perfect for the role you have here. And, I think my capabilities, the whole package of my army training, investigative experience and enhanced senses, are also pretty useful to them. Chief, I don't have to pretend around them, any of them. They all know about me, and you know what, they take it all in stride because my senses are no big deal in the great scheme of things, just another good asset. It's a relief not to have to pretend, to tell you the truth."

Blair nodded in understanding. He knew, better than anyone else did, how hard it had been for Jim to conceal his true nature, to live something of a lie.

"And," Jim shrugged, "the Goa'uld are a huge threat. How can I go back to Cascade and be satisfied chasing after your average bad guy when I know they're out there? I'm not prepared to let you wander the galaxy without me - nor am I prepared to sit back and let others safeguard the security of this planet when I know I can help make a difference."

Blair looked pensive, a soft smile on his lips as he said, "I didn't tell you what Pana'tul called you when he spoke to his people. He called you the Sentinel of Earth."

"Well, that's stretching it a little, Chief," Jim replied with unconscious humility.

"No, Jim, I don't think it is," Sandburg countered thoughtfully. "I think the title fits real well."

Ellison shrugged and looked away, embarrassed.

"Thank you, my brother," Blair offered then, his voice quavering a little with sincere gratitude and abiding affection, though his smile was brilliant. "Thank you for finding a way for us to remain together."

********************

"Simon? It's Jim," Ellison said into the phone while Blair looked on. It was the day after he'd offered his services to General Hammond, and been warmly accepted. Though he hated to have the conversation with Simon over the phone rather than in person, he wasn't going to be able to travel for at least a week and he owed his friend the truth about how things stood.

"Well, it's about time you got back to me," Banks groused. "You both okay?"

"Yeah, everything's fine, but there's something I need to talk to you about," Jim replied slowly, a little awkwardly.

"And what might that be, Detective?" Simon asked, his tone wary in response to the unusual temerity he'd heard in Ellison's voice.

"Well, you see, it's like this," Jim hesitated, grimacing at Blair when Sandburg rolled his eyes. Taking a breath, Ellison just said what had to be said. "I've decided to resign from the force and take a job with the project out here."

"Uh huh," Banks grunted - and then said nothing more.

"Simon? You still there?" Jim queried, looking anxious. The last thing he wanted was to alienate Simon over this.

"Oh, yeah, I'm still here," Banks drawled. "Care to tell me what you find so intriguing about whatever it is that's going on in that mountain?"

"Well, uh, I can't - it's classified," Jim replied with a wince.

"Ri-i-ight," Banks replied dryly, but then made an odd sound.

"Simon, are you laughing?" Jim demanded, now completely confused and wondering if Banks was on too many pain meds.

This time the guffaw came through loud and clear. When the warm, rich laughter died away and he could speak again, Simon replied, "Sorry, Jim, I just couldn't resist stringing you along. Your General Hammond flew out last night to meet with me and he had a very interesting proposition to make if I was willing to consider a mid-life career change. In return for joining the Air Reserve, I'll be granted the rank of Colonel and given the privilege of leading an extra-planetary force consisting so far of a Sentinel and his Guide."

"You're kidding," Jim gasped in shock, causing Sandburg to stand, wondering what was going on, but Jim just waved him back.

"No, I'm not kidding," Simon replied, sobering. "Jim, I've held this job for quite a while now, and to tell you the truth, I don't want to do it for the rest of my life. But I also don't want to move higher in the PD. Too much politics, and too little action. When I heard how exciting and important the work is there, and the implications of it for our planet as well as the galaxy, I couldn't resist. Daryl's grown up; and he's going to college back East in the fall, so there's really nothing to hold me in Cascade. Besides, why should you guys have all the fun flitting around strange new worlds?"

A wide smile illuminated Ellison's face as he shook his head. "This is really great, Simon. I mean that. My only real regret about leaving Cascade was knowing I wouldn't be working for you any longer. So, this couldn't be better news. When will you start?"

"Well, I need a month or so here to clear up things," Banks replied. "How does that timing work for you?"

"Couldn't be better," Jim replied. "Blair's got a project that I'd like to help him on for at least a month. And I'll have to sort out the loft."

"Good, then I guess we're settled," Simon said. "Oh, just one other thing. Hammond says the teams are made up of four people, and while he has some suggestions for our fourth member, he's also given me the option of bringing another person in. I was thinking about Conner…"

"Megan?" Jim exclaimed, not entirely sure he was comfortable with that idea.

"Well, yeah. She's smart, tough, insightful, very capable," Simon replied with a grin in his voice. "And you know she's prepared to travel and work within 'alien' cultures. She got used to us, didn't she?"

Jim thought about it and nodded. "As usual, sir," he replied with a chuckle, "You're probably right. I guess I'll just have to trust your judgment."

"Well, don't get carried away by enthusiasm, Jim," Banks laughed, unperturbed. It usually took Jim awhile to cozy up to a new idea. But Simon was sure the four of them would make a dynamite team.

When Jim hung up, Blair was looking at him with his head cocked and barely contained excitement glittering in his eyes. Always a quick study, as Daniel had noted when he'd joined the project, he'd gotten enough out of Jim's end of the conversation to pretty much fill in the pieces. "Simon's going to join up, too, right?" he demanded eagerly.

"Yep, he's going to be our boss," Jim grinned.

"Right on!" Blair cheered as he thrust his fist into the air. "Oh, man, this SO cool. And, the bit about Megan? He wants to bring her along?

"Yeah," Jim agreed with a faint grimace, but Blair just crowed as he did a victory dance around the bed.

"We are going to kick some serious ass, man," he exclaimed, his face alight with joy. "The Goa'uld don't stand a chance!"

Jim just nodded, but his own eyes were shining with pleasure at Blair's very evident happiness. It was a far cry from the sober, somber man in the car the day Simon had offered the kid a badge - or the tear-glazed eyes the morning he'd set out alone, because he didn't want to leave, but had to, to protect his Sentinel and best friend. A bubble of elation filled Ellison's chest and he smiled.

It all felt so right.

"You got it, partner," he agreed with a decisive nod. "We are going to have a blast."

Snickering, Sandburg quipped, "Have Stargate, Will Travel?"

When Jim rolled his eyes at the nonsense, Sandburg heaved a happy sigh, and was simply unable to stop grinning. "This is SO great…"

********************

Two months later…

Two SG teams were gathered in the Gate Room awaiting the destination to be locked in. It wasn't at all common for one team to show up to lend morale support to another heading out on assignment, but SG1 had taken a proprietary interest in this new team from their inception. Well, the interest was only natural, given that Sandburg had originally been a member of their team, and they'd adopted Ellison, as well, as soon as he'd come on board. So, when the unusual new team had been created, bringing in two more individuals from civvy-street, O'Neill had insisted that SG-1 have the lead in their training and orientation. The eight of them had been working together for over a month and had come to know, respect and like each other a great deal. Now, it was a little like watching their kids head off for school on their own for the first time. SG-1 felt proud of them, and certain of their capabilities - but they were also concerned about them. The galaxy could be one tough neighbourhood.

"Chevron Seven, locked in!" Sgt Davis called out sharply.

The wave effect burst out and then settled back to the watery image of the event horizon.

Four khaki-clad people in full exploratory gear climbed up the ramp as General Hammond called out through the intercom, "Good luck, SG-22."

Sam smiled as she gave a little wave to the departing team, while Teal'c stood stiffly at attention in respect for his comrades. Jack crossed his arms and grinned as he watched the newest team set out on its first assignment. A former police captain with military experience, a former detective with prior Black Ops experience who also happened to be a sentinel, an anthropology whiz who was a certified genius as well as the sentinel's guide, and another former police inspector - the first Aussie to join the SG project - who was bright, forthright and knew how to kick ass. Well pleased with their protégés, O'Neill winked at Daniel, who grinned back, also very pleased and proud. This new team was going to do just fine, even if they were, pretty much, all civilians.

Banks turned to wave an acknowledgment over his shoulder - and then led his team to another world…

Finis

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