Challenges by Imagine
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Category: Jack/Daniel
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Established Relationship, Hurt/Comfort
Rated: Adult
Warnings: Adult Themes
Series: None
Summary: Daniel makes a mis-translation and everyone's lives hang in the balance while he undertakes the challenges.

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Author's Chapter Notes:
Nothing too major -- some Danny whumping, lot of Jack worrying and some sex when they're left in peace.
My thanks to my Beta, Gateroller!
Jack looked out over the magnificent view. He'd seen this same view every morning and every evening for the past two weeks and as wonderful as it was, he was sick of it. There were other beautiful things he preferred to look at early in the morning and late at night but while they were stuck on this ball of rock at the wrong end of the galaxy he couldn't look, not properly and he certainly couldn't touch.

He wanted to look at Daniel's unguarded eyes as he tossed his head from side to side as he climaxed; he wanted to look at that beautiful body in the throws of ecstasy as the muscles rippled under the sweat streaked skin. He wanted to run his hands over that same body feeling the smooth velvet-like skin under his fingers, feel the nipples harden to nubs, feel the rise of Daniel's cock as he licked and sucked it to completion. He wanted to taste the unique flavour of the man he loved so deeply as he slipped his tongue inside that luscious mouth. He needed to feel the joy that overtook him when he slipped inside the man's body and took them both to the heights of passion and beyond.

He could do none of those things, not while they were off world on a mission. That was a rule of his making and one that Daniel agreed with. In all conscience he knew it was the right decision but that didn't stop it being damned painful. He'd never loved anyone the way he loved Daniel, not even his wife, Sarah, and though it had come as a shock to him, he'd never ever regretted the relationship. He'd always considered himself to be straight and to fall in love with his very male friend had been a revelation for both of them. However, they both acknowledged their love to be very real and their gender was really irrelevant.

It had taken them a while to feel comfortable about the idea of sex but once they had gotten over the initial strangeness they had something of a revelation. The sex was mind-blowing and quickly addictive, and considering that his partner never did anything by half measures, Daniel had studied! Now he didn't exactly lecture Jack but he certainly taught him and what lessons! He'd never had such fun in his life and he was positive that neither had Daniel.

They'd only been together a little over two months and it seemed liked torture that they had a mission of this length. Their missions were usually considerably shorter than this and you could even say it was all Daniel's fault for being too damned good at first contact situations.

They had first visited this planet about three months earlier and Daniel had made quite an impression, so much so that when it came time for the formal signing of the treaty, they insisted that SG1 and Daniel in particular was present. Hammond had been happy to comply because besides the fact that the treaty was important, he also considered that SG1 could do with a simple mission. Daniel especially was exhausted and Jack didn't begrudge his team the R&R they so richly deserved, he just wished they could have had it at home on Earth and then he and Daniel could have spent their time together, alone. Instead they were together and separate. Damn!

He turned from the window of his guestroom and the wonderful view over the valley below. Daniel was in the next room, so close but too far away. He wasn't in Jack's bed, in Jack's arms during the night; he was sleeping quietly only a few feet away. The rooms were even connected by a veranda and it'd taken all of Jack's willpower not to give in to his carnal urges and slip into Daniel's room. He was just grateful that this was their last day and tonight would be the last night.

The final celebration was due to begin early in the afternoon would end at midnight and as per Chalden tradition, all parties disbanded afterwards. They could head back through the Stargate and if he could swing it, Hammond would let them go straight home and hold the briefing later.

If he was honest he'd really had a good time; the Chalden people were very welcoming and interested in all things different. Daniel couldn't have been happier and even Carter was in her element as the scientists among these people loved to discuss their achievements. Teal'c was asked to give a talk to their military about the methods employed by the Goa'uld. And him? Well, they seemed to like him, though he couldn't understand why. Apparently his irreverent humour was something new in their society and they embraced new experience.

He'd seen Daniel eyeing him at the gala last night. It had been so tempting; I know he feels it as keenly as I do; this self-imposed denial was akin to torture. Akin, that was a word he would never have used if it hadn't been for Daniel. He found himself using vocabulary he would never have even thought to use a few years ago. Daniel was nothing if not addictive. He was going off track; what had he been thinking about? Oh yes, Daniel at the gala. Jack was sure that he'd been just as horny as Jack. He kept seeking him out, if only with his eyes across the room. Daniel was doing his mixing thing and as per usual, doing an excellent job. It seemed as if everyone in that huge gathering had managed to get a quick word with Daniel.

In the early hours of the morning Jack had managed to get Daniel to himself long enough to escort him back to his room. It hadn't been easy either, Daniel was a little worse for wear, not drunk but very relaxed and when they were walking he tended to lean into Jack as he spoke, their shoulders and occasionally their hips touching. Jack couldn't decide if Daniel did it on purpose or if he was too far-gone to even realise. However, he hadn't been too far-gone to refuse Jack's kiss when offered as they said goodnight. Daniel pursed his lips at Jack and with a light laugh had called him a tease. Like to do a damn sight more than tease. Jack hadn't pushed it knowing Daniel was right. He'd merely smiled and blew him a kiss instead before pulling the door to and going into his own room. He'd had to go straight to his bathroom and take a quick shower though.

The polite knock at his door broke his reverie. It was breakfast arriving; he usually ate that on the veranda with Daniel, and sometimes Carter and Teal'c joined them. This morning he wanted it to be just Daniel. At least they could talk about themselves if they were alone. That was another bone of contention between them. Daniel wanted to tell Sam and Teal'c about their relationship, he felt they owed it their team-mates. In principle Jack didn't disagree, he trusted both of them. Unfortunately, in this case it wasn't a matter of trust; he didn't see how it would be fair to put Carter into a position where she might have to lie to protect them, and he wouldn't tell one of them without telling the other. Daniel understood Jack's point of view, but he still didn't like it. He felt he was lying to them, which of course he was, if only by a lie of omission. However, it was their secret and it wasn't one Jack felt he could burden Sam with.

As the servant laid out the table on the veranda Jack knocked on the balcony door to Daniel's room. Daniel was not the brightest person in the mornings, but while on missions he was more self-controlled than he was at home and Jack knew he would be up. He wasn't sure how his head would be this fine morning though.

After a couple of minutes Daniel finally came to the door and when he opened it the first thing he did was shield his eyes.

"Oh my, someone's hung over," Jack said with a grin.

"Good morning to you too, Jack," Daniel said with a snap.

"Now you can't blame me for this one, I wasn't the one plying you with ... what the hell was it called... polaya?"

"Almost, it was plolaya and the damned stuff tasted liked fruit juice."

"Yeah, ninety proof fruit juice! Come on, have some breakfast and you'll feel better."

"Ugh, food. Not sure I can face food this morning. Got any of that coffee substitute?"

"Yeah, but no food no coffee substitute."

"Jaaack."

"Ne'er mind, Jaaack. Eat!"

Daniel scowled but knew Jack was right, especially as they had another full day of activities to look forward to, courtesy of the Chalden. He took a small portion of the Chalden version of oatmeal and poured some honey-like substance over it. Jack poured them both a 'coffee' and then heaped his own dish with oatmeal and topped it with honey and a fruit compote called chirida which Jack had fallen in love with.

Jack took another spoonful of the compote and leaned over the table to offer it to Daniel. Daniel looked up and was just about to refuse when he saw the expression in Jack's eyes. Daniel smiled and took the spoon partway into his mouth and sucked off some of the fruit. As Jack pulled the spoon away Daniel followed it with his tongue to lick his lips enticingly. Jack watched Daniel's tongue play with his lips and his eyes darkened as he brought the spoon up to his own mouth. Daniel's tongue stopped its exploration as he watched transfixed. Jack's tongue came out and leisurely licked the spoon drawing his tongue back into his mouth along with it. Jack slowly thrust the spoon in and out of his mouth licking it repeatedly.

Daniel's breathing increased and his eyes dilated until finally with a gasp he said. "God Jack, are you trying to be the death of me?"

Jack laughed and replied. "There are better ways to go?"

Daniel smiled the smile that turned Jack's insides to goo and simply said. "No."

"Oh god Daniel, I intend to put that to the test tomorrow."

"What, death by bliss? Can you imagine that on the death certificate?"

Sam and Teal'c joined them shortly after breakfast and they too seemed more than happy at the prospect of finally returning home. They too had enjoyed their stay but they'd had more than enough acclamation. Home was looking more and more tempting.

Most of the morning was free though Daniel did have an appointment to visit the huge central library. He'd casually mentioned being interested in the history of alac'imil-taprex, the Chalden title which he had translated as Celebration of Culmination and he'd hoped to be able to spend some time studying there before he left. However, his simple request had been transformed into an official visit and a tour around the library facilities. Jack knew that Daniel was privately pissed but he was way too polite to say so, so he would grin and bear it. Jack would just grin.

Jack had to admit a couple of hours later that the central library was an imposing sight and Daniel was genuinely interested in their method of cataloguing books. Jack just enjoyed Daniel enjoying himself; except for the time when Daniel wanted to wander off into the history section but the tour guide had been adamant they didn't have time.

They were due to attend the Agrra, the hall of meetings, where lunch was to be served prior to the gathering of the people for the Celebration of Culmination. Sam commented that she'd never met a people who seemed hell bent on celebrating just about everything; or as Jack put it, any excuse for a party. Compared to all the other festivities they'd attended in the last two weeks this celebration was a tad more formal.

There was a long table set on a raised platform at one end of the huge hall. The four members of SG1 were seated in the centre and on either side of them were seated the Council of Members and gathered behind the table at parade rest were about twenty senior members of the military. There was also a row of soldiers lined up below and in front of the table between the platform and the gathering of people in the body of the hall, which was full of interested parties including representatives of many of the groups of scientists, medical personnel, manufacturers and last but not least the general populace of the Chalden.

The treaty about to be signed was a wide reaching document covering many aspects of advantage to both parties. This would be quite a coup for the SGC and would go a long way to finally proving to Washington and the Joint Chiefs, and not forgetting of course the NID, that the SGC programme could bring positive results. In terms of Earth history the Chalden seemed to belong to an era around the eighteenth century, but their science and manufacturing techniques were superior to Earth's. A conundrum. There was also a legend among the Chalden that led Daniel to believe that sometime in the distant past a great evil had been defeated, possibly the Goa'uld, and/or possibly some other invader. There was no certainty but it could account for the discrepancies within the society.

They were only waiting now for the Chairman of the Council, and in all but title the nominal ruler of the society, Creanor, to arrive. He was a pleasant, very precise man, who had picked up English remarkably well in the few months since Daniel had first visited and left some texts behind for the Chalden to study. Even though Daniel still had to translate for many of the locals and for the members of SG1, there were a few on the Council or amongst the scientific community who had at least a basic understanding of their language.

Creanor finally entered to little fanfare, merely bowing to the room as he entered and then taking his seat next to Daniel in the centre of the long table. Jack sat alongside Daniel, then Sam and finally Teal'c. Teal'c had wanted to bring his staff weapon and Jack had understood his reasoning though he had to agree with Daniel that it wouldn't have been very complimentary to their hosts and soon to be allies. However, as a precaution that not even Daniel could dissuade him from, Jack insisted that they carry zats.

When Daniel attempted to argue the point Jack had reminded him that it was his responsibility to protect his team and while he agreed in principal with Daniel that it was most likely they were perfectly safe, it was not a risk he could take. Not a risk he would take, not with his team and most certainly not with Daniel. Even when armed they had been compromised too many times before to risk Daniel dying yet one more time. The only concession he would give was that the weapons could be hidden. Daniel reluctantly agreed to carry one himself at Jack's insistence.

Jack tried to remain interested but after a few speeches all sounding remarkably similar; he couldn't be certain of course because everyone but Creanor was speaking in their own language. Whatever the tongue, he found his mind wandering. It ended up where it always did these days, Daniel. He leaned back in his chair and was able to unobtrusively watch Daniel while appearing to be interested in the latest speaker. He watched Daniel's eyes flicker across the gathering, watching the audience's reaction to the speeches with eyes bright and fascinated. Jack never failed to be fascinated by Daniel's fascination in anything and everything. Daniel's head moved to watch Creanor as he rose to make yet another speech and Jack had to move forward slightly to keep his line of sight.

Although Creanor was speaking carefully in English, alternating with his own language so everyone in the hall was involved, and glancing from time to time at the members of SG1 and smiling, Jack still wasn't really listening to him. Something he would curse himself for later. He might have recognised the change in the atmosphere sooner if he had. Instead it was only when Daniel tensed that he noted everyone was a little more animated and he could hear whispers amongst the audience. Jack concentrated on what was going on.

".. it has been a time of great rejoicing for our people and for the people of the Earth I am sure. Now it is the time of Challenge." There was a cheer from the people.

Daniel's gut clenched. Oh no, how the hell did I miss that? One letter, one fucking letter and the whole meaning changes. Daniel turned to Jack and said hurriedly, "I've made a mistake. I...I don't know how I...but it is so similar I see that now.... I'm sorry Jack..."

"Daniel, what the hell are you talking about? What's going on?"

"It is not the Celebration of Culmination, it's challenge, the Celebration of Challenge!"

"What?"

"Did I understand him correctly DanielJackson?" Teal'c asked in a low voice.

"Well if you thought he was talking about a test and a forfeit, yes."

"I don't understand," Jack said irritably.

"Wait, let me hear more," Daniel said quickly as Creanor switched to his native tongue and was speaking more rapidly.

As Creanor spoke the soldiers standing behind snapped to attention and moved forward directly behind the table and the soldiers in front turned to face the platform. Jack rose quickly to his feet but Teal'c still beat him to it. They were both reaching for their weapons when Daniel's voice rang out. "Stop!"

Teal'c immediately halted his movement and stood still; Jack unsure about facing nearly forty armed men swung to look at Daniel but continued to bring forth his zat.

"Don't Jack," Daniel said in a quiet voice. "It's not what you think. This is a misunderstanding; it's my fault. They are just behaving as they ought by their standards."

"Daniel, what exactly are you talking about? What is happening?"

Instead of answering he turned to Creanor and spoke to him quickly in his own language. Creanor looked as puzzled as Jack did, his face clearing a little as Daniel spoke to him. Creanor said a few choice words back, to which Daniel frowned before exchanging a few more words, Creanor nodded and Daniel turning back to Jack and the others. "Creanor has given me a little time to explain. I'm really sorry, I can't apologise enough for this."

Jack frowned and interrupted. "Stop apologizing, Daniel and explain."

"Right, okay. As I said earlier, I mistranslated what this is, what it means. This is the Celebration of Challenge that is the final aspect of their procedure for the signing of a treaty. In the most basic terms each party to a treaty must prove their worth otherwise it can't go ahead. The representative of the supplicant must accept the challenge or forfeit immediately. Once he has accepted he must win the accolade, in this case the signing of the treaty; if he fails the treaty is lost and he must pay the forfeit."

"You mean like a penalty clause?" Sam queried.

"Kind of. But the more important the treaty, the higher the forfeit. I told Creanor I had made a mistake but he was quite firm that was our problem and did not.... Well, basically ignorance is no excuse. He allowed me time to explain this, and is waiting to tell me the challenge and the forfeit."

"Why you, Daniel?" Jack's voice was suspicious.

Daniel ducked his head before replying quietly. "I am the representative."

Jack was furious as he paced the room. It was a very beautiful room; for a prison. The Chalden didn't call it a prison of course; no it was just that he, Carter and Teal'c were to be kept safe while the challenge was met but he didn't know where Daniel was and it made him so angry that they had been separated.

By the rules of the Chalden, the challenge had to be accepted once the negotiations reached the final stage. The only time they could have withdrawn was before the gala yesterday evening. Apparently that had been the end of the previous stage of the negotiations and if they had stated then that they were not prepared to accept the challenge, the negotiations would have been called off and all parties retired. Now however, they were committed and Daniel was the one who was obliged to accept. Jack had tried to argue that he, as leader of the party, should represent his people. Creanor could not understand this. As far as his people were concerned, Daniel was the representative; how could anyone else take his place?

Jack remembered the look on Daniel's face when Creanor had explained the rules of the challenge and told him of the forfeit should he lose. Creanor had spoken to Daniel in his own language and it wasn't until Daniel explained to them all a little later, that Jack understood the odd expression that had flitted across Daniel's features.

The three of them were to be the forfeit should Daniel fail to win the challenge. It had been noted how close they were, how important they were to him and therefore they were the perfect forfeit. Daniel had tried to argue the point but Creanor simply said that his passion for their safety merely proved they were the perfect forfeit. Daniel was stunned.

All four of them had been led, surrounded by a dozen of the solders, to this suite of rooms in a small tower abutting the main citadel where they had been staying as guests for the last two weeks. The guards were posted in the corridor outside the entrance to the suite and in the foyer as well as dotted at strategic positions outside.

Daniel was clearly distressed but would say nothing until they were alone.

"Come on, Daniel, spit it out," Jack demanded.

Daniel sighed and looking from one to the other, said. "There are three challenges and the three of you are the forfeit." Daniel ducked his head but then took a deep breath and raised his head to face them. "I can't tell you how sorry I am. Not only did I translate the damned phrase incorrectly, I never even discovered anything about this challenge phase."

"Hang on, back up there, Daniel. We're the forfeit, literally?" No wonder Daniel had looked so shocked earlier.

"Yes Jack. If I fail we lose the treaty and ...and you'll all die." Daniel felt his gut clench as he said those words. How can I sound so normal?

"That's barbaric!" Sam stated.

"I have heard of such practices before. To prove sincere intent a penalty is demanded. In some societies it would have been a monetary value, in others an exchange of manpower or perhaps knowledge," Teal'c commented.

"In this case they put value on human life," Daniel explained.

"Value? How can you say they put value on life when they are willing to sacrifice it?" Sam asked.

"But that's the point don't you see? It's because it is of value that it is a sacrifice. Otherwise where is the loss?" The loss? I couldn't bear to lose any of them, but Jack...

"Daniel, what happens to you?" Jack asked softly interrupting his thoughts.

"What do you mean?"

"Danny, you know what I mean. We'll die if you lose, right?" Daniel nodded. "The challenges, they're to the death aren't they? We'll only die after you do."

Daniel sighed but looked Jack in the eye. "Yes. I promise I'll do everything I can. I...I don't know what they'll expect of me, but ..." his voiced faded, his head dropped.

"We have faith in you DanielJackson," Teal'c said calmly.

"Yes, Daniel. Please don't worry about us. Just do what you have to, it'll be okay," Sam added.

"Thanks Sam, Teal'c." Daniel looked up and glanced at Jack. "Err, guys could I have a word with Jack?"

"We will investigate our surroundings," Teal'c said and he and Carter left through one of the connecting doors.

As soon as they left Daniel turned to Jack, who before the younger man could speak, took him in his arms and hugged him to his chest. "It's all right Daniel. Please stop feeling guilty, this isn't your fault."

Daniel dropped his head onto Jack's shoulder. "Not my fault? How can you say that? There is no one else to blame. I missed the translation. I never even bothered to check deeper into the ceremony, just accepted the obvious meaning of the translation I made. Now ..."

"Daniel, you're not infallible and we don't expect you to be. It's *my* responsibility to make sure that every aspect of the mission is covered. If anyone failed it's me. I should have asked you to check into the ceremony but I never even gave it a thought."

"That's because you trusted me to do it and I didn't."

Jack could hear the despair in Daniel's voice and realised he couldn't let him face the trials to come in that frame of mind but how the hell did he snap him out of it? Daniel always looked to take the blame, even for things that were not his responsibility and there was no way Jack could pretend that the translation error was anyone's but Daniel's. However, he really didn't hold him responsible for this debacle. No matter how good he was, and Daniel was the best, he couldn't possibly be expected to be correct all the time. Only Daniel would expect that of himself.

"Yes Daniel, I do trust you and I always will. You do your job to the best of your ability and that ability has meant that we travel the universe. You told us this language was an offshoot of an old middle-eastern language that hasn't existed for two thousand years. It's a miracle that you could learn to understand it enough to communicate at all." Jack lifted Daniel's chin from his shoulder and looked into those beautiful blue eyes that he loved so much. He smiled as he brushed his thumb over the warm luscious lips before saying. "I need you strong Daniel, I need you focused. You can't allow yourself to be distracted by guilt. I need you to trust me."

"Trust you, Jack? Of course, no one more," Daniel replied softly.

"Then trust me now, trust me to believe in you." Jack reached up to caress Daniel's cheek and he leaned into the caress. "I love you and I'll show you how much after you get us all home."

Daniel sighed, closed his eyes and leaned in for a kiss. Their lips never met as suddenly someone hammered on the door before throwing it open.

Sam and Teal'c hurried back into the central room as a senior officer of the guard entered. He announced in a firm voice, though he said the words slowly. "It is time for the representative to retire and prepare for the first challenge."

"Retire? You mean I must leave these rooms?" Daniel asked in a small voice.

"Yes, I am to conduct you to your quarters. You will meditate this evening in preparation for the morrow." He said the words in a parrot fashion, as if he were repeating a lesson.

"I can do that here," Daniel replied.

The man frowned. "The tradition dictates that the champions occupy adjoining rooms and perform the rituals."

"Your traditions. Our traditions say that he stays with us," Jack snapped.

"The Challenge must meet the requirements or it is forfeit."

Daniel was still standing very close to Jack and he stepped away from him glancing back over his shoulder. Jack made an aborted effort to reach for him but let his hand drop as he realised there was little they could do. Daniel gave a swift nod in the direction of Sam and Teal'c and the Jaffa returned the gesture with a deep bow. The young man flashed a smile at Jack before turning and walking out with the guards.

A prison just the same, Jack thought bitterly.

"Damn!" Carter suddenly said.

"What?" Jack asked; anything to get his mind off his fear for Daniel.

"We never even asked what the challenges would be."

Jack couldn't believe that he had never even thought of that. He saw Teal'c glancing at him and something in his expression made Jack wonder for the first time if perhaps his relationship with Daniel was not exactly the secret he thought it was. Catching Jack watching him, Teal'c raised an eyebrow and Jack knew that it wasn't something he felt ready to discuss; if he ever would.

"Nope, got kinda distracted there," Jack told Carter. "Maybe we can find out." Jack marched over to the door and banged on it, yelling. "Oi! Open up. Wanna talk to someone."

The door slowly opened, just a little, and the same officer stood in the gap. "What you want?" he asked hesitantly.

Jack decided the officer didn't speak the language very well and replied slowly. "We want to know about the challenges."

The man frowned. "Tomorrow," He said.

"Yes, but what are they?"

He frowned again and said, "Three. Tomorrow."

"Damn!" Jack's short fuse had blown.

Teal'c moved forward and said calmly but firmly. "Send for Creanor. Now."

The man stared at Teal'c for a moment before glancing at Jack. Suddenly he nodded and spoke a sharp word to someone behind one of the doors. Then he pulled the doors closed again.

Daniel was left alone in another well-appointed chamber, but as before, the doors were guarded. Oh he wasn't a prisoner, he was a valued representative. Shit!

He paced up and down the room. He knew he should get some rest but he also knew that would be impossible. How could he be responsible for the lives of his three best friends, for the life of the person he loved best in the whole world? He couldn't do it, but he had no choice; not to act was to condemn them out of hand, and probably him too, all for one stupid word.

He had no idea how long he'd been pacing up and down the same narrow space in the large room when suddenly the door opened and much to his surprise, Creanor entered.

"Daniel," he said; his tone friendly.

Daniel attempted to keep his voice level as he replied. "Creanor. I am glad you're here."

"I have been visiting with your friends. Colonel O'Neill demanded that I tell him what challenges you will face on the morrow. He seemed quite concerned for you."

"Well, we're a close team; we've served together for a long time. We're more than a team..." Daniel hesitated afraid he had been about to say too much.

Creanor smiled. "Yes, your Colonel told me, you are family."

Daniel nodded but said nothing. Creanor looked at him for a long moment before smiling and saying. "Well, as I was saying the Colonel asked about the challenges." Daniel raised an eyebrow questioningly. "I told them of the first one - the test of speed and stamina."

"Which is?" Daniel asked when Creanor did not explain further.

"You will take part in a race against our champion."

"A race?" That doesn't sound too bad; I'm a pretty good runner. Wait, stamina? "Is it a sprint race, a race at flat out speed over a short distance? Or is there more to it than that?" he asked suspiciously as Creanor gave him a speculative look.

"It is a race in that the first one to complete the course wins; but there are obstructions on the course that you must overcome."

"Obstructions? Such as?"

"Aah, but that would be telling. How can you judge how to overcome the obstacles if you know what they are in advance?"

"You described it as a race of speed and stamina, nothing of problem solving abilities!"

"No, no. They are simple obstacles but still you must decide how best to circumvent them and the quickest mind wins.

Daniel had no fear of the speed of his mind, he just hoped his body could keep up. "Just one question Creanor. You said that if I lost we would pay the forfeit. If I lose the race would my team be killed?"

"You know the rules."

"And me, if I lost but survived, I would be executed too?"

"The final responsibility would be yours, how could it be otherwise?"

"And your champion? If I win does he die? Three times?" He sounded as sarcastic as Jack ever did.

"If he survives he continues to the next challenge. If he dies he is replaced, you must complete all three challenges."

"That doesn't sound fair. I have to win three times, you play substitutes!"

"I don't understand this word."

"If I lose the first challenge it's over. If you lose the first challenge you just change champions."

"It has always been thus."

Daniel swore and began to pace again. He stopped. "Can you honestly tell me that is just? You pride yourselves on your society, lack of crime, justice. Tell me that is just."

Creanor did not answer at first, and then repeated. "It has always been thus."

"Can I suggest a compromise?" Daniel put up a hand as it was obvious Creanor was going to object. "I will complete all three challenges, but let each member of my team stand forfeit for just one challenge, then if I fail allow the survivors to go home. You'll have your forfeit either way." Daniel saw that Creanor was wavering, "*I* am the representative after all."

Creanor smiled. "I knew you were worthy. It shall be as you ask." Daniel was about to speak but this time Creanor put up a hand. "I will choose the order," he said sharply correctly guessing Daniel's next request.

Next morning came too soon for Daniel. He hadn't been able to sleep even though he knew he needed to get as much rest as he could. He was just too concerned for his friends; too much was resting on his shoulders. He was afraid he wouldn't be good enough.

Creanor had decreed before leaving him alone last evening that Sam would be forfeit for the first challenge. He hadn't been surprised by that and knew if the choice had been his, he would have chosen Sam first too, not that he would have admitted that to her. She would've been annoyed, probably called him chauvinistic. It wasn't really like that; he knew damned well she could take care of herself but that didn't stop him feeling protective of her. However, he also knew it would have been the choice both Jack and Teal'c would have made so he felt no need to apologise to himself for it.

There was a sudden knock at the door and his breakfast tray was brought in. The guard stood in the entrance as the servant placed the tray on the small table before bowing and leaving. The guard stood there for a moment longer silently regarding Daniel. He just stared back at the man for a moment before heading to the bathroom. When he returned the door was once more closed and Daniel shook his head. So much for the honoured guest.

He looked at the food, a platter of fruit, oatmeal, cheese and bread and his breath hitched as he remembered sharing his meal the day before with Jack. He didn't feel hungry but he knew he needed his strength; it was bad enough that he had hardly slept. He forced himself to eat though everything tasted of cardboard.

There was another knock at the door and the servant returned; this time carrying clothing. The man made to lay it on the bed and Daniel told him he did not need it, he would wear his own clothes. However, the servant explained it was customary attire for competing in the Challenge and he must wear it. Daniel sighed but nodded to the man.

Jack paced up and down their quarters, unable to sit still even though he knew he was getting on Sam's nerves. Teal'c was impassive as usual though Jack was well aware that didn't mean he didn't feel as frustrated as they did. Their meeting with Creanor last evening hadn't done anything to ease his mind. This first challenge might sound innocuous but he wasn't so naïve to think it would be as simple as it sounded. After all, the risk of death existed in all the challenges.

Jack didn't doubt Daniel's speed or his stamina; he'd proved it time and again on their missions, and as for problem solving, Jack had never met anyone who could think outside the box the way Daniel could but Creanor had been positively clam-like when it came to discussing the obstacles. It could be something as simple as a hurdle or as impassable as a crevasse. Oh god this was driving him nuts. Couldn't they just get on with it!

Almost on cue the door opened and Creanor was there with a complement of guards. Creanor had made it quite clear yesterday evening that he did not trust them to abide by the rules, not surprising after Jack had told him to 'stuff it with their stupid contest' and that it was unfair to hold Daniel to it when they hadn't known about this challenge. Creanor had just repeated what he'd said to Daniel, that ignorance was no excuse. That seemed totally ridiculous to Jack; how the hell can ignorance NOT be an excuse?

"Good morning," Creanor said pleasantly. "You will accompany us to the arena for the commencement of Celebration of Challenge."

"We can be present?" Sam asked.

"Of course. You will witness the proceedings so there can be no error of judgement. If your Champion fails than forfeit will be required."

"Oh, we'll all be nice and handy for you," Jack's voice dripped sarcasm as he glared at the man.

Creanor met his glare steadily and replied, "Not all, just Major Carter."

"What?" Jack snapped.

"Daniel and I came to an agreement. He requested that only one of you was to stand forfeit for each challenge. For the first challenge it is you, Major."

"So if he wins she is free whatever happens after?"

"Yes Colonel, and if Daniel loses only she, and he, will die."

"He won't lose, sir. You know Daniel, stubborn as they come," Sam said but Jack wondered who she was trying to convince.

They were led into a large area, oval in shape and surrounded by seating on three sides set back in tiers. The seating was filling up quickly as they were led to a large box set centrally along one of the long sides. It reminded Jack of those old epic films where the Romans threw Christians to the lions, except they hadn't contained a huge screen in place of one of the long sides. Creanor saw their attention drawn to the screen.

"That is so we can see the challenges as they take place," he explained.

"They do not occur inside this structure?" Teal'c asked.

"They begin and end in the arena but the challenges are wide ranging; you will understand as we progress."

Jack looked around for Daniel but he couldn't see him. The more he learned about these challenges the less he liked them.

Suddenly a cacophony filled the area. Jack supposed it was their idea of music though unlike anything he would consider as music. From an entrance that he hadn't noticed earlier, a small parade entered led by a group of musicians. Following closely behind were two men wearing flowing cloaks flanked by guards. One of the men was Daniel.

Jack stood immediately hoping to catch Daniel's attention but he was shoved back into his seat by one of the guards beside their box.

"Do not concern yourself, Colonel, the challengers will be brought before us," Creanor said smugly.

If I could just get my hands on your neck. Jack couldn't understand how he'd ever thought these were nice people. A sudden drum roll brought his attention back to the proceedings and his eyes moved back to the approaching parade as they came to a halt just a few metres away. Creanor rose in greeting giving a small bow, to which each challenger responded. The cloaks were removed to reveal the two men in identical attire of pale grey one piece outfits, except that Daniel wore a dark blue sash diagonally from right shoulder to left hip while his opponent's sash was red. Jack couldn't help but notice how the outfit they'd shoved Daniel into fit him like a glove, the material clinging like a second skin. He sought out Daniel's eyes trying to read his thoughts. For once Daniel was giving nothing away.

Creanor was making a speech in his own language, his image appearing on the huge screen across the arena. The crowd was clearly excited but well controlled. He was apparently introducing their champion as the man walked back into the centre of the area and raised his arms in salute. Daniel's name was then mentioned but Daniel neither moved nor acknowledged the introduction. He stood just looking calmly at his team-mates. Jack, watching him, knew damned well that he was anything but calm; Daniel was a past-master at keeping his emotions under check when he needed to.

Creanor sat back down and explained quickly that the race was about to begin. It would be a straight race out of the arena following the flagged path up to the hills above the arena.

"And what of these obstacles you mentioned?"

Creanor smiled and indicating the screen said simply, "Watch."

Everyone in the arena settled back in their seats to watch. There was none of the noisy excitement that accompanied a sporting occasion back home. It was unnerving. Daniel and the other man, Feyor, moved to a red mark in the centre clearly waiting for the race to begin.

Jack glanced at Carter who looked just as spooked as he felt. He knew he ought to say something comforting to her but for once he could think of nothing to say. She gave him an odd smile then by unspoken accord, they both turned to watch Daniel.

As if pulled by an invisible string Daniel turned to look at them. He lifted his chin and treated them to one of his patented smiles and for the first time that day Jack felt perhaps it would be all right.

He turned to Carter and said. "That boy can outrun staff blasts."

"Yeah, and run rings around so-called experts," she replied with a grin.

"He has the heart of a warrior and the soul of a poet," intoned Teal'c.

"Wow T, what'cha been watching this time?"

"DanielJackson"

"There's no answer to that," said Jack, and he wasn't joking.

Creanor frowned as he listened to this odd conversation, not understanding the words but understanding the effect it was having on the participants. He rose to his feet and indicated it was time to begin. A flute like sound filled the arena and both men were off.

Daniel and Feyor were pretty much neck and neck as they raced for the exit with Daniel just managing to get the inside turn as they passed through the gates.

The route, which was clearly marked by tall thin poles topped with a pennant coloured half red and half blue, could be seen snaking off into the foothills and then up towards the cliff above. Daniel hadn't been told how far up they had to climb; all he knew was he must follow the flags directly, not to veer off but take the direct route past, over, through whatever was there until he reached the white flag. Whoever returned with what was under the white flag was the winner.

He felt at a distinct disadvantage because logic would dictate the Feyor would have knowledge of what these challenges normally entailed, even if each one was slightly different, there would be a pattern he would recognise. Daniel was going in blind. He couldn't quite understand the philosophy behind this system. The whole idea of this challenge seemed odd. If he, as the representative of the other party were to lose, beside the obvious fact that at least part of his team would be dead, the treaty would become null and void. He understood the idea of ensuring all parties were honourable but he wondered how many treaties or trade agreements were lost because some individual wasn't fast enough, strong enough or clever enough; and how many lives were lost in the process, on both sides. Honour could have too high a price.

Honour, is it worth the price of a life? Is it a price I'm willing to pay? For a treaty that might help in the war against the Goa'uld? Daniel knew the answer even as he asked himself the question. No, he couldn't sacrifice anyone to such a vague possibility. If he had to forfeit anything on this world it would be his honour rather than his life or the lives of any of his friends.

He was still just fractionally ahead of Feyor and for all he knew the man was simply tracking him, allowing Daniel to take the lead. Daniel knew how to run cross-country, how to pace himself but he also knew it was almost impossible to know how much an opponent had kept back. It was always down to stamina and determination. Jack called him a stubborn bastard with good cause.

So far the run has been hard but simple, straight up a well trodden path but just ahead it veered off into the rocks. He began to slow his run to take the obstacles without risk of falling. A broken bone would literally be the death of him, and Sam. He leapt over rocks and small boulders in his path, feeling Feyor gaining on him. He concentrated on his own race. Daniel was just grateful that as they were climbing a mountain he wasn't too aware of the height. The higher they climbed the larger the boulders till they were no longer running but jogging and clambering, leaping from rock to rock. They were neck and neck as they approached a deep crevasse passable only by a narrow rope bridge. It consisted of one extremely thick rope as the walkway with other horizontal ropes set higher either side attached to the base by vertical ropes which acted as supports for the hands. Feyor got to the narrow entrance just in time to elbow Daniel out of the way. He stumbled slightly and when he regained his balance Feyor was already making his slow way across.

Stubbornly keeping his gaze straight ahead not allowing himself to be distracted by the open expanse below, Daniel began to follow, the structure swinging a little more with his extra weight. Feyor was built a little heavier than Daniel and he didn't appear to be quite as agile, or as comfortable on the comparatively fragile structure. Daniel was catching up slowly but surely and by the time they were halfway across Feyor was slowing Daniel's progress.

Daniel either had to find a way past him, or trail him across and hope he could regain the lead. Deciding not to risk h is nerve waiting, Daniel needed to take the lead. He twisted himself so he was now facing in the opposite direction and moved swiftly so he was face to face with Feyor. Feyor yelled at him not being sure of Daniel's intention. Daniel leaned back against the left sided support and swung his weight to the right and almost leapt passed Feyor on the inside. The rope swung almost violently at his sudden movement and both men had to hang on tight. Feyor yelled again and Daniel couldn't quite make out the words but he was pretty sure it hadn't been complimentary.

"Sorry but I can't afford to lose this. I lose I die, you lose you get a frown. In the words of a friend, tough shit," he muttered as he steadied himself.

Daniel made up quite a bit of time with that manoeuvre as Feyor was so shaken it took him precious seconds to move again. Daniel was on solid ground and running while Feyor still struggled on the rope bridge.

The route continued to climb and Daniel could see the flags up ahead continuing up the cliff face. He could still only see coloured flags, no sign yet of the white one.

He began to climb seriously now and he needed to slow the adrenaline pumping through him. He took deep cleansing breaths to calm himself. He had nothing, no equipment no ropes and it was a steep climb. It wasn't something he'd ever attempt from choice, but that was the point, he had no choice. He was grateful now for the close fitting outfit and soft shoes he had been provided with. Nothing to snag and he had a good feel for the rock under his feet. He had a sudden vision of that day in the Gateroom; Jack, that hug and spacemonkey. First time he'd ever considered being called a monkey appropriate.

Climbing unaided was even more difficult that he'd have thought. The strain of hanging on literally by his fingertips and toes was horrendous. His arms felt like lead and his legs felt like jelly. God I hope it's not much farther. I've got the return trip to make yet. Oh Jeez hope I can do this.

Spurred on by the fact that Feyor was slowly gaining on him again, Daniel had to reach the top first and try and find the white flag. When he finally reached the summit it was all he could do to roll himself over the edge and gasp to fill his aching lungs with air. He lay for a moment getting his bearings and was overjoyed to spot the white flag just across the narrow plateau. He staggered to his feet and painfully made his way over to the flag. He dropped to his knees at the base of the pole searching for the item he had to collect. They hadn't even told him what it was he was looking for. The pole was held in place by a pile of rocks and Daniel began to move them carefully to search there. As he worked he heard a noise and realised that Feyor was coming. As he scrabbled amongst the rocks he felt something long and narrow. He quickly pulled it out and held a cylinder about 30cm long. As he rose to his feet, Feyor lunged at him trying to take the cylinder from his hands. He managed to twist aside and Feyor landed heavily on the rocks.

Daniel felt a moment's compassion and almost bent to help him up before he remembered. Instead he turned and hurried as fast as he tired legs would carry him again following the coloured flags that led him away from the white one. This time they led him across the plateau from where he could see a gentle path meandering down towards the foothills and back to the city.

Jack could at last breathe again. At first he hadn't been too worried, Daniel could run all day if he had to and at least it seemed a straight forward run; till they headed off the path and towards the cliff. Jack was concerned now that Daniel might slip and if he damaged, or, god forbid, broke something...Jack watched with baited breath. He forgot to breathe at all when Daniel twisted and virtually leapt across Feyor on that damned rope bridge; the relief when he landed safely had him gasping. As for Sam, she could hardly keep still. Teal'c's arm must be bruised where she kept gripping his bicep.

Jack had leapt to his feet and yelled a warning at the huge screen opposite when Daniel had finally tottered painfully towards the white flag. They could see from the aerial view provided that Feyor was closing quickly on Daniel who seemed unaware of his presence. Jack flopped back down into his seat with a sigh of relief as Daniel gracefully twisted out of the way leaving Feyor floundering in his wake.

Jack turned to Creanor with a triumphant grin only to be greeted with an indulgent smile.

"The race is not over until the winner crosses the red line," he said, indicating the line from which the race had started.

"Do you mean Feyor can still take back the .....cylinder if he can wrest it from Daniel?" Sam asked frowning. She had believed herself safe, but now...

"Of course."

"And of course you told Daniel this?" Jack asked coldly.

Creanor looked shocked. "Of course Daniel was informed of the rules of the challenge. This is an honourable contest Colonel."

Jack had the grace to look shamefaced at his accusation.

They returned their attention to the screen and they watched as Daniel loped down the path. Jack noted that now he seemed to have developed his second wind; gaining the prize must have boosted his adrenaline. However, Feyor was still following though Jack thought perhaps the distance was growing, albeit slowly.

They saw the path become a steep decline into the valley below and Daniel had to slow his momentum. It appeared that Feyor was being more reckless perhaps deciding this was his opportunity to catch Daniel. If anything, he increased his pace and Daniel must have become aware of his approach for he suddenly looked back over his shoulder just as Feyor attempted a flying leap at him. Daniel tried to turn aside but didn't make it as Feyor slammed into him. As Daniel had already been turning Feyor's collision had the effect of spinning Daniel to one side but Feyor's momentum carried him forward and he was unable to stop himself tumbling head over heels. He slammed into a small boulder just to one side of the trail of coloured flags.

Daniel regained his balance and hesitated as he looked over at Feyor. For a moment he looked as if he may be unconscious then he attempted to rise and slowly shook his head before sinking back down again with an audible groan. Daniel's glance was enough to assure him that though Feyor was hurt it was not serious and he continued on his way.

It looked very unlikely now that Daniel would be caught.

Jack leaned over and squeezed Carter's shoulder. She turned and gave him a sheepish smile knowing that she may be safe now but neither the Colonel or Teal'c were out of the woods yet.

Daniel was finally approaching the city again, exhausted but relieved. One challenge completed; one team-member safe. He couldn't help but wonder what would come next and whose life he would hold in his hands. He had the oddest feeling that Creanor suspected, if not exactly the relationship between him and Jack, at least that they were very close and Daniel was pretty sure he would keep the Colonel as the last forfeit. That scenario had an advantage and a disadvantage to it; the advantage being that if Daniel failed the second challenge then he and Teal'c would die but at least Jack would be safe. The disadvantage however was that if he succeeded and had to face the third challenge he would have longer to worry about Jack and about the odds of succeeding in what would most likely be the hardest of the all challenges.

He remembered a conversation he and Jack had had shortly after they got together. They had been drinking and were a bit maudlin and they had agreed they would do their best to die together. The next morning Daniel had brought up the subject of their 'pact' and Jack had commented that he may have been less than sober but the sentiment was genuine. He had no wish to live without Daniel and if death was facing them on a mission then he would rather they go together. He was not being suicidal he insisted, he had no wish to die; in fact he had everything to live for but as that 'everything' was Daniel it was somewhat self-evident. Daniel had never actually voiced his opinion, merely nodded at Jack's statement but now he understood as perhaps never before what Jack had meant.

He was almost content with the notion that if he failed Jack would not be left behind to grieve for him. Daniel knew first-hand the depth of grief Jack was capable of and he had no illusions as to how much Jack loved him. It had taken Daniel a while to accept that he was worthy of that kind of devotion but the hard-assed, sassy Colonel who was intractable about talking about his feelings was a closet romantic and once the dam had been broken Jack had no qualms about explaining to Daniel exactly how much he was loved.

At last Daniel saw the gates of the arena and breathed a sigh of relief. As he approached, the gates opened for him and he moved inside to the shouts of the crowd. He had eyes only for his team-mates though and wasn't surprised to see them all on their feet waving; even the stoic Jaffa was standing though his version of waving was one hand raised in salute. Daniel managed a smile but even that made him ache. Jack leapt over the low wall of their box and ran toward Daniel.

"Easy big guy," he grinned.

"O'Neill!" Teal'c shouted. Jack stopped and turned to Teal'c.

Carter was waving and pointing. "The line, sir. He must cross the line unaided."

Jack stood back to allow Daniel to finally cross the line. Unnoticed by the colonel, Creanor had left the box and was waiting beyond the finish line. As Daniel approached he held out his hand to receive the small cylinder.

Jack's hands were itching to grab Daniel and hold him close; knowing he was safe in his arms, but he knew this was not the place for such intimacy. He could sense Carter hovering at his shoulder too; she was obviously almost as keen to get her hands on Daniel too. It was also clear that Daniel needed their support, emotionally as well as physically.

"Feyor," Teal'c announced indicating the gateway, as the other challenger made his unsteady entrance.

"What now?" Daniel managed to ask between shaky breaths.

Creanor dipped a small bow to Daniel and then moved to the centre of the arena where he turned in a circle with a raised hand. The crowd immediately quieted.

"Daniel Jackson has completed the first challenge. His first forfeit is released." Creanor waited a beat before continuing. "The second challenge will commence tomorrow at noon-day in the Centrium."

Creanor moved back to the others as the crowd began to withdraw.

"We will all share our evening meal in harmony this evening before Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c must return to their quarters..."

Cell you mean, thought Jack but decided it wouldn't help to voice his unease.

"..though Major Carter can return to your original chambers."

"Good, Carter, you can keep Daniel company," Jack gave a small smile.

"I am not staying in our original quarters Jack. Like you, I have been given special consideration. They make sure I am not lonely," Daniel added with a touch of Jack's trademark sarcasm.

"It would be permissible for Major Carter to stay in Daniel's rooms if that is what he requires."

"He requires," Jack stated firmly.

Creanor turned his back on Jack and raised an eyebrow in query at Daniel.

"Yes, I require." Daniel replied sharply.

Even though it had been an uncomfortable meal Daniel wished for it to continue. They sat at a large oval table; he and the rest of SG1, Creanor and Feyor. Creanor had seemed to be the only person there even remotely comfortable.

Feyor was undoubtedly annoyed and even a little embarrassed at his failure to win the challenge and being forced to pretend polite goodwill to Daniel and his team was obviously difficult for him. Also he must have been physically uncomfortable; the bruises on his face and the stiff manner in which he held his right arm were all too obvious.

Jack was still simmering with anger and only his concern for Daniel and for Teal'c too, was keeping him controlled. Sam was fidgeting, probably feeling guilty in some obscure way that she was the only one who was truly safe.

Teal'c, on the surface, seemed his usual calm, stoic self but to one who knew him the slight twitch in his cheek was an indication of how his control was shaken.

Daniel, his innate polite self, was trying to make conversation but even Creanor, the consummate politician, seemed uncommunicative this evening. It may have been Jack's attempts to wheedle from Creanor details concerning the second challenge and his blatant disregard for Creanor's repeated explanation that by tradition the challenges were never announced publicly and only to the participants just prior to the event.

Eventually Creanor had enough and snapped at Jack that if he persisted he would be returned to their rooms. Daniel just knew Jack was about to reply in his inimitable fashion - Daniel could almost hear 'sent to bed without any supper' - and it was only Daniel's quick glare and shake of the head that kept Jack quiet.

Shortly after that however, Creanor drew the evening to a close and they were all sent their separate ways. Daniel had never felt so lonely as Jack was led away. True he had the company of Sam, but it wasn't the same. In fact, for once Daniel would rather have been alone if he couldn't be with Jack. He couldn't make small talk tonight, not even with his surrogate sister.

Luckily she seemed to understand and merely gave him a goodnight hug suggesting that he rest for the next day.

It was only when he was already undressed and in bed that he realised he had not considered where she would sleep. However, he decided she would only be annoyed if he got up to find out; she was more than capable to sorting out sleeping arrangements for herself, especially after spending in excess four years camping out on more planets than he could presently remember.

He knew he should sleep, he was tired but his mind didn't seem in sync with his body. He had to get his mind off the next day and he resorted to a usually foolproof method, he fantasised about Jack. He was hard in short order and he let himself get carried away imagining Jack's hands as they caressed him, Jack's tongue doing wonderful things to his body, Jack's fingers brushing across his ass before slowly entering to prepare him for making love, until he climaxed coating his stomach and chest as he imagined Jack thrusting hard and fast into him.

He awoke next morning not even remembering drifting off to sleep, the evidence still visible in the dry stains on his tee and the smooth sheets on the bed. He craved a coffee but knew he wouldn't get one having instead to settle for the substitute version. Instead, he dragged himself out of bed and headed for the bathroom wondering if Jack had managed to sleep.

After kicking his heels all morning, to the extent that even Teal'c had suggested that Jack sit and relax, they were finally escorted to the second challenge. This time they headed into the centre of the city towards a large low building - the Centrium. Jack had no idea what the purpose of the building was and he couldn't care less. All he wanted to know was what Daniel had to do this time and which of them would be forfeit to it.

They arrived to find Creanor already present, accompanied by Daniel but Feyor was absent. There was no huge crowd this time, just SG1, Creanor and a couple of other dignitaries and, of course, the guards. Jack expected that as before the whole thing would be broadcast but this time there was no sign of a screen in the huge room.

Jack tried to catch Daniel's eye but he seemed very withdrawn this morning. His eyes were firmly on the ground at his feet and Jack wondered if he was simply worried; could it be that Jack was the forfeit this time? Suddenly he looked up and almost as if he had only just realised they were there his face lit up on seeing them. Jack winked at him and Daniel grinned. Jack felt the weight in his chest lift and he hadn't even been aware of it until Daniel had grinned.

Creanor walked forward and began to make a speech, something he seemed to have been born for. Jack looked around but could see nothing that looked even remotely like it could have to do with a challenge of any kind. They seemed to be in simple large room with only one other door besides the one they had entered through. Of course the building was huge so who knew what lay beyond that door.

Jack suddenly heard Teal'c's name mentioned amongst the alien language in which Creanor was speaking. He glanced at Daniel to find that he was looking at Teal'c. So Teal'c was to be the forfeit this time. Jack was not really surprised, it stood to reason that Creanor would keep him back till last as he was the official leader of the group, Daniel's position as representative notwithstanding.

Teal'c understood all too clearly that he was the next forfeit. If it were possible he would wish to relieve this burden from DanielJackson and face the danger himself. However, this was not permissible and all he could do was to offer DanielJackson his support and his trust. He had acknowledged the glance the young archaeologist had given him when his name had been mentioned in the speech but he needed to know that DanielJackson understood.

When Creanor finished he came over to them, Daniel close behind.

"What is it this time?" Jack asked quietly of Creanor.

"This challenge is a test of ingenuity. Each challenger will enter that door, one at a time, the other waiting in seclusion for the allotted time for the test. They will not be informed of the result of the other participant until they have completed their test. There is a time allotment of four hours for the completion and of course if they fail to complete the test within the time the forfeit is required. If both participants complete within the time then the fastest to do so is the winner."

"And what is behind the door?" Teal'c enquired.

"More doors. The challenger has to make a choice four times and enter the correct door in turn; the method of opening each door is to be found in the previous room. The doors may not be opened out of sequence. To exit the fourth door with the item is the requirement."

"Item, what item?" Jack asked.

"To discover that is the test."

"The challengers have already tested for the order of the challenge and Feyor was the first to undergo this challenge."

"*Was* the first?" Sam asked. "You mean he's already started?"

"Feyor has completed his second challenge," Creanor responded. "Daniel will commence his attempt shortly."

"DanielJackson," was all Teal'c needed to say and Daniel quickly walked over to him.

"Don't worry Teal'c I..."

"I am not worried DanielJackson, I have complete faith in your abilities. I merely wished to request that you do not concern yourself with my wellbeing. Use all your energies to extricate yourself from this conundrum."

"Thanks Teal'c for the vote of confidence and I will do my best."

Teal'c nodded and moved back to the others.

"Thanks Teal'c," Jack said. Teal'c merely raised an eyebrow.

Daniel stood off to one side watching them, waiting.

Daniel took one last look at Jack before walking through the door to begin the second challenge.

He was in another large room, not as huge as the first one but large enough. In the opposite wall there are two doors. He walked over and tried to open each one, not at all surprised to find them locked. The room was empty except for a small table in the centre and he could see a few items scattering its surface. He moved over to investigate. Frowning Daniel picked up an odd twisted piece of metal. There were seven items on the table each one as peculiar as the last and none of them seemed to help in opening the doors. It would have been too easy to find a key but a crowbar wouldn't have gone amiss.

Wait! A key. Is that it? What did Creanor say? Enter each room by turn. It's a key. Clever! He looked again at the items on the table; a long thin cylinder, a short fat cube, a flat disc, a small pyramid and three oddly twisted pieces of thin metal, none of them more than 3cm in length. Obviously none was a key, well not an obvious key. He walked over to the two doors again and studied them; solid wood, nothing but a simple ordinary door; usual shape and size. Each door had a simple turning handle and just below it was a small plate and as Daniel peered at first one door and then the other, he moved back to the table and picked up the three pieces of metal and brought them to the door.

At first glance none of them seemed as if they would possibly fit but Daniel had spent a lifetime looking at squiggles and lines and he let his mind drift as he stared at the shapes. After a few moments he placed two of the pieces back on the table, Creanor said they could only take one piece from each room. Taking the third piece and after a little manoeuvring, he fitted the metal into the lock and opened the door. He moved into room two and had to swiftly move back to the door in case it closed with the key still in the lock. He may need that. There had to be a reason he was allowed to take something with him, presumably he would need it.

Daniel was in a room similar to the previous one just considerably smaller. Again he was faced with two doors and a small table with seven items. He immediately studied the locks on the doors and then checked through the items on the table. He discarded the larger ones instantly and picked up the two remaining pieces of metal, frowning as neither of these looked to be the correct shape either. He returned to the doors, studying the locks but concluded something was wrong. He felt in his pocket and pulled out the key he'd used to open the first door and even though he was sure it wouldn't fit he tried it. Damn, now what?

Jack was surprised to see a screen appear on one of the walls as soon as Daniel was through the doorway. Surprised but relieved that they were going to be able to watch the proceedings again. It had been almost torture to watch Daniel during that race but it would have been worse not to watch at all. He glanced at the others, his gaze lingering on Teal'c who met his look with his usual imperturbability before turning his eyes to the screen. Carter hadn't even noticed the look; she was already studying the scene before them.

Smiling as Daniel did his usual lost in thought act; Jack wasn't overly worried by this challenge. Give Daniel a puzzle and he was in his element and knowing that not only his own life but Teal'c's too depended on his success, would only push him harder. Maybe some people would find such pressure overwhelming but not Daniel; the man thrived on it. Even as he was having that thought he watched as Daniel opened the first door. He was soon studying the locks again.

Suddenly feeling eyes on him, Jack turned to find Carter watching him. When he met her eyes she smiled and it became a grin. She'd had the same line of thought obviously and Jack couldn't help but grin back.

"O'Neill," Teal'c interrupted the silent communication. "DanielJackson knows."

Jack turned back to the screen so quickly he almost pulled a muscle. Daniel was standing near the table and he placed two of the pieces of metal back on the table. Then he proceeded to fiddle with something in his hands.

"What's he doing?" Jack queried tilting his head to one side as if he could better see exactly what Daniel was doing.

"I think he's trying to fit those two pieces together," Sam postulated.

"He is constructing the next key," Teal'c said.

Jack couldn't help the smug look he threw in Creanor's direction. However, being a true politician the man gave nothing away. Jack wondered then how well Feyor had done in this challenge and how long it had taken him. Four hours, you could do a lot in four hours and yet it wasn't any time at all when the life of the person you loved depended on it. For the first time since this challenge began, Jack felt afraid.

Daniel felt his frustration rising. He just knew the two pieces fitted together; damn they just had to. Nothing else would fit the lock and he was sure this was how it would work; so why wasn't it?

He took a deep breath to calm himself; saw a picture in his mind's eye of Teal'c meditating surrounded by his candles. He closed his eyes, felt the pieces in his hands again turning them around letting his fingers get used to the shape and feel. He opened his eyes slowly and tried again. The two pieces slid together at a forty-five degree angle creating exactly the shape he needed for the key. He sighed in relief and proceeded to fit the key into the lock. The door opened. Daniel took out his key and walked to the next table.

This time it should be easier. He knew what to look for, a third piece to fit the puzzle and open the door. He walked over to the door. Now that was different just one door this time. That should lessen the odds, no choice of locks so why did his chest tighten and his temples throb? He studied the lock and compared it with the key in his hand. Obviously it needed a third component and he returned to the items on the table. This time there were no larger items that could be discarded. Instead he was faced with seven pieces of thin twisted metal. So the odds were cut, as there was only one lock but were trebled by the number of key parts he had to search through. After a period of painstaking observation it was clear that some of the pieces were obviously wrong and he discarded four of them.

He looked at his watch. About an hour and half had gone by, leaving him almost two and a half hours. Should be enough, god I hope its enough.

As he was thinking he was tossing the pieces of metal around in his hand and he realised that they were becoming warmer. He placed two of the pieces back on the table and studied the remaining one. It was definitely warmer and he continued to rub it between his fingers. It was then he understood; the metal reacted to body heat becoming malleable. He carefully studied each piece one more time and finally picked up one of those from the table turning it over and over in his hand. If he were wrong he could try again, unless once he had made the attempt the metal would fuse or join in some way that he could not remove. He needed to be sure before he tried. The problem was he could not be *certain* until he had made the attempt. He would just have to trust in his judgement. Teal'c would have to bet his life on it.

Daniel took a breath and decided that waiting was only making it more difficult. He carefully straightened one portion of the metal and bent one end to what he hoped was the correct angle before inserting the piece into the centre of the key he had brought from room two. Then he proceeded to twist the central portion forty-five degrees. He tried to take a deep breath but found that he coughed instead. Fuck this! He walked to the door and inserted the complicated device into the lock and tried to turn it. There was a grinding noise and for a moment he thought he'd failed till the noise passed and the key turned. The door opened. The relief made Daniel feel dizzy.

He suddenly wondered if the others could see him, as they had been able to while he was participating in the race. If so, this would be more difficult to watch he supposed, more cerebral and frustrating, especially for Teal'c.

He dragged his mind back to the present and the last room, last door; presumably the most difficult puzzle to decipher. He had quite a bit of time left so he mustn't rush. Then he suddenly realised he did not know exactly what would happen, if anything, once he opened door four. All he knew was that he had to collect the item but he had no idea how easy, or difficult that would be, nor how much time he might need. So he had to be careful but he couldn't afford to waste time that he may need later. Again, clever.

Daniel saw that again this time there was only one door. He moved to the table and saw another seven pieces of thin twisted metal. This was getting monotonous. He took a deep breath and went through the procedure again. It took longer than before to discard pieces until he was sure - almost sure - that he had the correct piece. He warmed it in his hand before carefully bending into shape and fitting into the key. It was now almost spherical in shape with an area cut into it so that when Daniel inserted it into the lock he had to turn it till it clicked four times, not unlike the tumblers on a safe lock. He had to admire the remarkable design and the intricate workmanship.

Finally he was in room four and he was puzzled. This time there was no table and more confusing no other door. As usual the door behind him closed and he was inside a completely empty room with no other exit. He glanced at his watch and saw that he had thirteen minutes remaining. Is someone trying to tell me something?

There had to be something here to find. He was an archaeologist; search Daniel. He walked around the small area running his free hand along the walls, his eyes studying the floor. There had to be something. There was another way out, somewhere. He was on his second circuit this time and he believed whatever it was, he would find the exit on the wall. Screwing up his eyes in concentration he was running his hand along the wall again a little lower than before about the height of the lock plates on the doors. He was almost opposite the door when he thought he saw a shadow on the wall, or was it a different shade of stone. He ran his fingers over the place and felt a very slight indentation. It wasn't deep enough yet it seemed all there was. There was nothing else for it. He pressed the still warm sphere shape into the indentation and sphere began to reform. Daniel reacted to the increase in heat and released the sphere. It remained seemingly attached to the slight indentation, filling in all the empty places. As Daniel watched the sphere decreased in size as its material was reformed to fill in all the empty spaces until it became a solid sphere. Once solid it seemed to move into the indentation in the wall until it disappeared into the structure of the wall, at which point a portion of it alongside the indentation slid to one side allowing Daniel to move through.

Daniel found himself back in the original entrance hall where everyone was waiting for him.

Jack had been watching Daniel with trepidation and not a little fascination as he tried to work out how to exit the final room. When he'd first entered that room it seemed to Jack more like a cell than anything else and it filled him with a sense of foreboding. He glanced at his team-mates and caught Carter glancing in his direction; it was clear she shared some of his feelings. Teal'c as usual merely sat and watched, giving nothing away. They watched quietly as Daniel searched the room carefully knowing his time was running out.

Jack's heart was beating a tattoo in his chest and he felt everyone must have heard it. His hands were itching and he had to keep rubbing them up and down his pants. He knew it was a psychosomatic sensation caused by his need touch Daniel but that didn't stop it annoying the hell out of him. He didn't know what he would do if Daniel failed this challenge. He wouldn't just stand by and let these people execute him and Teal'c but they were outnumbered and outgunned. If it came to it he would die fighting to protect Daniel. He'd told Daniel once that if it ever came to it he would prefer to die with Daniel than to survive without him. He hadn't been sure if Daniel really believed him but he had meant it. He'd lived through such a loss once but only with help from Daniel. He could never do it again, especially as this time his loss would *be* Daniel.

His thoughts were pulled back by Carter's gasp and Jack quickly looked at the screen. Daniel had found something.

It was with profound relief a short time later that Jack watched as Daniel walked through the gap in the wall; he was surprised to be greeted by his friends. Jack could no more than slap him on the shoulder but the look in his eyes must have been enough to tell Daniel how he really felt for the younger man flashed a smile that he usually kept for Jack in private.

Daniel turned as he heard Creanor approach. "Of course," Daniel said, "the question now is did I complete the test in time?"

"Oh yes, Daniel you did. I am pleased to inform you that won that challenge also."

With a release of breath he hadn't realised he was holding, Jack said. "So Daniel and Teal'c are safe."

"Where is Feyor? Did I beat him by much?" Daniel wondered absently.

"In fact Feyor failed to finish. He was unable to find the second key and could not proceed."

"Wait a minute. You're saying that you knew all along that Feyor had failed? You actually made Daniel go through all that when Feyor ... *that* is barbaric. He struggled through that damned ordeal believing his life and his friend's life was on the line!" Carter was yelling and closing on Creanor.

Jack was so angry he could not speak. He simply glared at Creanor, the nerve in his cheek jumping the only outward sign of his fury. Daniel approached him and put a firm hand on his shoulder to try and calm him down knowing what he was capable of. Teal'c walked forward and placed himself between the colonel and Creanor.

Creanor recognised the anger of the four people facing him but squaring his shoulders he faced them and explained. "Even though Feyor did not complete the challenge that did not mean that Daniel automatically won. He had to face the challenge to determine if he could complete it. If he too had failed it would have been classed a draw and a further second challenge would have been set." He moved forward slowly towards Daniel. "You may like to know Daniel that we have used that particular challenge on many previous occasions and you are the first who has actually managed to complete it in the allotted time."

While Daniel looked at him somewhat bemused, Jack spoke up sharply. "Oh so he should be proud of that should he, you bastard? Do you know the hell you put him through worrying that he might fail and cost the life of his friend? Have you any idea what kind of man this is?"

"Jack please..."

"Actually Colonel O'Neill, I think I do." Creanor turned and walked towards the exit, only pausing on the threshold to say. "You will be escorted back to your rooms to rest for the final challenge."

Unable to settle, Jack paced up and down his room resembling a tiger prowling its cage.

Teal'c offered to stay with Jack though now he was free to join Daniel and Sam; free being a relative term, of course. Daniel agreed with the suggestion, not liking to think of Jack being alone. Jack however refused, thanking Teal'c for the offer but admitting he wouldn't be good company and preferring to be on his own.

Daniel pulled him to one side but before he could say a word, Jack simply told him that if he couldn't be with him on this night of all nights then he might as well be alone because he was an all or nothing man. Daniel felt his heart rise in his throat and he couldn't speak; for once he wouldn't have known what to say anyway. He really wanted to take Jack in his arms but as they weren't alone he couldn't even do that. Instead he stared hard into Jack's eyes trying to convey what he couldn't put into words and by the softening of Jack's expression he knew he'd succeeded.

Daniel moved a step closer and said in a whisper, "Together."

Jack's eyes widened and he gave a small smile as he whispered in reply. "Together always."

Daniel swiftly turned on his heel and walked away. Sam looked taken aback at the swift departure and bid a hasty goodnight to Jack as she followed Daniel with the guards in tow. Teal'c watched them leave then turned to Jack.

"DanielJackson will not tolerate failure."

"He doesn't even know what he'll be up against," replied Jack wearily dropping his chin onto his chest.

"It will not matter, O'Neill. The only thing that DanielJackson will not sacrifice for you will be his life and that is only because it would be at the cost of your own."

It was not so much the words that Teal'c spoke, telling as they were, it was something in the tone of his voice that made Jack look up at him. He knows. Jack frowned, studying his friend's face and Teal'c looked him square in the eyes. And he doesn't mind. Jack nodded at Teal'c, in his acceptance of the knowledge and the words.

Teal'c gave his customary bow and left, accompanied by more guards.

Jack stood for a moment longer before allowing his guards to lead his back to his cell - sorry, room.

Now pacing that damned room, the only consolation he could think of was that if Daniel failed tomorrow he would not be alone. Jack played over and over in his mind Daniel's final word to him, maybe his last ever word. Together. I can live with that. Okay, so I can't and as I said, always. But dammit I don't want to. I don't want to die with the man I want to live with him.

Jack smiled to himself as he envisioned them in their dotage, still bickering, still annoying the hell out of each other and being unable to stand being apart after all those years together. That was the future he wanted. Years of memories of being with Daniel.

He suddenly remembered that morning a few days ago when he'd been feeling sorry for himself because it had been two weeks since he and Daniel had last made love. God what a fool he'd been. Feeling sorry for himself when he should have simply revelled in the memory and the knowledge of all the times to come.

He let his mind drift back trying to recapture that last night again. He remembered warm bodies and gentle kisses; he remembered a passionate exploration as he lay sated and recovering after Daniel had gone down on him. He remembered the wonderful feeling of having the love of his life inside him as he writhed under the onslaught. With a smile he thought of the chocolate sauce that he had liberally coated Daniel with afterwards as a punishment for falling asleep. Dr. Daniel Jackson had remarkable recuperative powers! Jack had spent a loooong time licking that off a squirming archaeologist.

Jack slowly realised that he had tears running slowly down his cheeks.

"Daniel please try and eat something. You're going to need your strength for whatever you must face tomorrow."

"I know Sam, but the very idea of food turns my stomach."

"DanielJackson," intoned Teal'c. "I informed O'Neill that he had no need for concern. I would not like to think I was in error."

"But that's the problem Teal'c. I am concerned; I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. What if it's something I'm no good at? Oh god, I can't stand this."

"Daniel, you've gotta stop this. You must eat and sleep."

"How the hell can I?"

"Daniel!" Sam snapped. "What good is this? You know better, pull yourself together."

Daniel sagged and even managed a small smile. "Is there any soup?" he asked quietly. "Some fruit maybe."

Sam glanced at Teal'c who was standing near the table on which the servant had laid out their meal. He nodded and Daniel walked to the table and sat down. He didn't say anything else but tucked into the bowl of soup that Sam put before him. He ate very quickly and drank some of the fruit compote he liked, filling another glass to take with him when he retired to his room promising Sam that he would try and sleep.

Daniel closed the door shutting out Sam and Teal'c. He wanted to wallow in self-pity and they just wouldn't let him. He knew he was being neurotic but god he had good cause!

He could easily cause the death of the most important person in his life and he couldn't even tell his other close friends how he really felt. The only person he could share this with was the one person he shouldn't, even if he could and the *bastards* wouldn't let him.

This wasn't helping. Sam was right; he did need to rest but he was too wound up. He was also afraid he might dream and he too often had bad dreams rather than good ones. He decided he would rest by lying down on his bed and trying to think of something good. Smiling to himself he knew exactly what he would do.

Daniel let his mind drift back to the night a couple of months back when he'd decided he'd had enough. He couldn't stand this walking on eggshells around Jack O'Neill any longer; they were going to settle things once and for all. Daniel knew damn well how Jack felt about him; it was so damned obvious. It was just as obvious that Jack wasn't going to do anything about it either. Daniel had waited now for years and the last few weeks had been sheer torture. It was as if Jack was ready to explode and anyone in the line of fire got it. It just seemed he was the one mostly in Jack's sights. Well, he was going to ambush the good colonel.

Jack had invited him over for TV and fast-food that evening, something that seemed to have become more infrequent recently and the fact that Jack had invited him over after a reasonably peaceful mission made it seem even more unusual. It had become more usual for him to want Daniel's company when a mission had gone bad. Maybe Jack wanted to sort things out too. If that was the case then so much the better and if not, then tough because Daniel was going to, one way or the other.

Daniel had dressed carefully, plastered on a happy face and acted the cheerful friend well enough to earn an Oscar. Underneath he was seething hormones. Jack, too, had made an effort. He looked delectable, had ordered Daniel's favourite take-out, put on the Discovery Channel not hockey! Jack seemed a contradictory mix of relaxed and a nervous wreck. Daniel knew he was correct in his assumption but he also guessed that Jack had cold feet. Not literally he hoped.

Jack had gone to the kitchen for more drinks and Daniel followed him, ostensibly chatting about the documentary they'd been watching. Actually he walked up behind Jack, whispered in his ear that he'd waited long enough and proceeded to suckle on Jack's neck. Jack went so still and rigid that Daniel wondered it he'd been wrong about this, until with his usual lightening reactions, Jack spun around and grabbed Daniel's shoulders. Jack had stared into his eyes for a split-second and then devoured Daniel's mouth with such passion that his knees had buckled.

They'd ended up making love on the kitchen floor, nothing more than a quick jerk off each in their haste to feel each other. Then they'd spent a phenomenal night in Jack's bed that Daniel would never forget.

Opening his eyes slowly and it took Daniel a moment to realise that it was morning; he'd actually slept. Not only that, he'd slept well. The memory of that wonderful night had sent him off into a dreamless sleep. He smiled; Jack comes to the rescue again!

Jack.

Jack paced up and down the entrance hall of the Centrium again. He was alone, unless you counted his guards and he was waiting for the others to arrive. He hadn't spent a good night; his thoughts and memories of Daniel had been wonderful but had only accentuated the dread Jack was feeling. He was afraid for Daniel. Just then he heard approaching voices and tried to calm himself. It wouldn't help Daniel to see him worried.

First to enter were Carter and Teal'c, followed soon after by Creanor, accompanied by Feyor and Daniel, who looked more rested than he'd expected. Jack smiled at Daniel and the light in Daniel's eyes heartened him when he smiled back.

Creanor was saying something but Jack couldn't concentrate, couldn't get his mind off Daniel. Carter and Teal'c were standing beside him now and he never even saw them approach. Teal'c gave him a hard stare and Jack recognised the silent message. He pulled himself together and tried to listen to Creanor.

The view screen was already visible and operating this time. Creanor was speaking in his own language, apparently to the listening, watching public. Jack assumed he was explaining the final challenge and he watched Feyor for a moment and thought he saw a flicker of fear in the man's eyes. Jack then switched his glance to Daniel who was listening closely, his brows knit tight in concentration.

Creanor clearly came to the end of the presentation and turned from the screen, which dimmed and faded. He gave a slight smile in their direction and Feyor and Daniel were led to the side of the room. Jack traced Daniel movements before Creanor's voice drew back his attention.

"The third challenge is about to commence. Daniel and Feyor will be transported to another location and there they must face the beast and retrieve the prize from its chamber, returning it to me."

"The beast, what's that?" Carter asked.

"It is the mythical name given to the creature that guards the caves of Andrani. The legend is millennia old. It is said to guard the prize of the ages." Creanor suddenly smiled. "Of course that is just a legend. However, we have used the legend to create the third challenge. The caves exist, there is a prize to be retrieved and we have ...created a beast to be defeated. It is difficult and it is dangerous. It will test the mettle of the challengers; in more ways than one," he added cryptically.

"What the hell are you really saying?" demanded Jack, clearly holding his temper in check.

Creanor gave an enigmatic smile. "Watch and learn," he said as he turned to watch Daniel and Feyor being led through one of those disappearing re-appearing doors. Daniel glanced over his shoulder at the others as he was led away.

Jack was wondering if it was Daniel's way of saying goodbye.

Daniel came back to awareness slowly and was surprisingly clear-headed, except the last thing he could remember was walking alongside Feyor through the door at beginning of the third challenge. He had been glancing back at Jack and the others when one of the guards had given him a gentle shove through the doorway. After that everything was a blank. He gingerly opened his eyes and looked around; he was still wearing his glasses he realised. Feyor was lying on the ground a few feet away, obviously in the process of waking up himself. The other man grumbled as he tried to sit up.

Looking carefully around him Daniel got to his feet. It was fairly cold in the cavern to which they'd been transported. He had no idea how far they had travelled or how much time had passed; they had removed his watch. He turned to Feyor who had now risen to his feet and seemed to be taking stock of their surroundings.

"Do you know where we are?" Daniel asked.

Feyor glared at him for a moment before deciding it would do no good to keep the truth to himself. "Yes, these are the caves of Andrani. The lair of the Beast."

Daniel frowned. "But I thought Creanor said that the caves of Andrani were half way around the globe."

"They are but I have no doubt that is where we are. Besides the fact that they are famous and I have seen pictures and vids of them since I was a child that..." he said pointing to the far wall which was shadowed from where Daniel was standing.

Daniel moved closer and looked up to see a design carved deep into the rock over a narrow archway that led deeper into the darkness.

"...is the mark of the Beast," Feyor continued moving alongside him. "Once you pass beyond the portal..." his voice faded.

"Yes?" Daniel asked sharply.

"What? Oh, once you pass the portal you are at the mercy of the Beast, except it has no mercy. At least that's what the legend says. No-one has seen the Beast in millennia, at least no-one who has ever returned to tell of it."

"You don't believe it's real? So what will we really be facing here then?"

"You heard Creanor. We have to defeat the beast and gain the prize. Whatever is in here is dangerous, beast or no beast."

"We?"

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah I suppose. Then again, we were sent here together but I am the one with the key and cylinder. I presume I have them because I need them. If I need them then I presume so would you to defeat whatever's in here. We should work together, Feyor."

"How can we? This is a contest that only one of us can win." With that Feyor suddenly ran through the opening, the portal.

"Feyor stop! You have nothing..." he yelled, then stopped, realising that he had nothing either really. Okay he had the cylinder, which as yet he had no idea what it contained and he had the key but the key to what?

He was torn, should he follow Feyor who in theory had a head start. But follow him into what? Or should he see what the cylinder contained; it may provide a clue to what they were facing. He remembered Creanor's little presentation quite well, a masterpiece of political correctness; many words saying nothing. A brief explanation of the legend and that they must face a trial of strength, strength of body, strength of mind and strength of will. Daniel was a linguist and just now his sixth sense was telling him that Creanor was not being quite the politician he surmised; those words were a clue. Daniel sighed; these challenges had never been quite what they seemed. Even the first one had seemed obvious at first glance; there had been a lesson there in deciding what honour really was. The second test, ingenuity Creanor had called it. Yes, it had taken logic but it had also taken imagination and a little faith to solve that puzzle. So he knew there was more to this challenge too.

He took the cylinder out of the deep pocket in the outfit he was wearing and twirled it around for a moment considering. He saw one end clearly opened but there was a seal over it. He grasped the end firmly and twisted until the seal stretched and then snapped. He twisted the top off and tipped out the contents. Inside was another cylinder but this was open at one end and the other end was a little bulbous. He had no idea what it was. It was too dark in the cavern to see clearly and therefore he used touch. His fingers were sensitive after years of tracing what Jack lovingly called chicken scratchings. He felt along its sides feeling for a control, anything. At first he thought there was nothing then he traced what he had to admit to himself felt remarkably like scratches.

After a careful investigation he realised that at the same end of each scratch was a tiny spot. A little dubiously he pressed the nearest one and a bright beam of light shone out from the narrow end. For god's sake it's a fucking torch! Being his usual thorough self he tested the other two spots expecting lesser intensity of light, so it was with a shock that a narrow blue beam rather like a laser appeared and began slicing into the rock wall opposite. Daniel breathed a sigh of relief that it had only been a rock wall he cut into. Much more carefully he pressed the final spot aiming well away from his body and any obvious instabilities in the cavern. Another beam of blue light erupted from the device but this time much larger in circumference and it hit the wall with explosive force blasting a hole about a metre into the rock. Hey a phaser, wonder if it's got stun setting. God, he was channelling Jack again!

So he had a weapon, against what he would find out he was sure, and a key, to open what would be the question. The answer too I guess.

His reverie was broken by a shout and under that an odd sound, a deep grinding sound like rock rasping on rock. Daniel froze in shock for a moment then the shout came again and he was running.

Jack watched as Daniel ran to help Feyor. It was just so Daniel, to rush in where angels fear to tread. And so damned stupid. Smiling, Jack had watched as Daniel carefully surveyed his surroundings and checked out his only advantages; practical threat assessment; Jack had approved. Of course Daniel would just say it was common sense, something he'd always had, not a lesson learned from Jack.

Sam and Teal'c were standing either side of Jack watching the proceedings on the large screen, the only back up they could give either Jack or Daniel on this mission; a fact neither of them liked. When Daniel had struck out in pursuit at the sound of Feyor's yell, Carter had put a tentative hand on Jack's shoulder. Whether in support or to remind Jack that he was here with them and not in a position to help Daniel, Jack didn't know but it did give him a strength he needed at that moment. He knew that Daniel had no real choice but to act. Standing there would do no good. Based on the previous challenges, even if Feyor were to get killed by whatever this Beast was, Daniel still had to face and defeat it to win the challenge.

Jack was a little mystified by the rules of this challenge, as Daniel obviously was if his attempt at conciliation with Feyor was any proof. While competition was not Daniel's natural proclivity, he was not averse to proving himself if he must but he clearly believed that it was necessary this time for them to work together. As Daniel knew no more than they did about this Beast, Daniel's assumption was obviously the work of his genius intellect and Jack was never inclined to argue against that, not that he'd ever admit that to Daniel, of course. Unfortunately, Feyor had neither the familiarity with Daniel's intelligence or his remarkable record, nor any real reason to trust Daniel in the circumstances. The man was so wrapped up in the need to win the challenge he hadn't even taken the time to assess things properly. He never thought that the items Daniel had been given were worth consideration. This was something else that Jack couldn't fathom. Why give Daniel an obvious advantage?

The strategist in him smelled a rat but this rat seemed to be chasing his own tail.

Daniel ran through a narrow corridor, the sounds ahead chilling him to the bone. The fight or flight reaction kicked in and his mind was hammering at him to run the other way. Only his stubborn streak kept him going forward. Jack's salvation lay in this direction but Daniel couldn't afford to get hurt. If he was injured and couldn't continue then Feyor would win by default and he and Jack would die. He couldn't allow that but how the hell could he possibly guarantee anything in this madhouse?

He skidded to a halt as the passageway came to an abrupt end and he entered a cavern, freezing at the sight that greeted him. The cavern was huge, so high the ceiling was lost in the darkness above, so wide the torches spaced around the area at regular intervals only made the spaces in between more shadowed and mysterious. But there was nothing hidden about the monstrosity that reared and screamed as it strained against the thick chains, being all there was between it and Feyor. The terrible sounds emanated from a combination of the creature's screams and the scraping and clanking of the chains.

Daniel was unsure what Feyor had been trying to do but judging from his position, curled in on himself and trapped in one corner by the antics of the creature, he'd been trying to get past it not realising how far the creature's reach was. The chains holding the creature were fastened high up on the wall behind it, one set attached to its hind legs and another set attached to a thick collar around its neck. The creature was like something out a fairytale, one of those hideous Grimm Brothers monsters that should have frightened children but had only entertained them. There were bulky limbs supporting a huge body and a thick neck with a head in proportion to its body. It had a long tail tipped with spines and the whole thing was covered in substantial scales. Its mouth opened in a roar and Daniel got a good look at its twin rows of teeth. God this was something out of nightmare. How the hell am I supposed to defeat that thing?

Just then the creature moved away from Feyor as it had become aware of another presence and Daniel spied the door behind it. The creature lumbered across the cavern to the extent of its ability, yanked on the chains and screamed in frustration, as it couldn't reach Daniel.

Perhaps it's only necessary to get past it. Halfway up the door was a lock plate and even from this distance Daniel could see the circular markings. He had the key, now he just had to reach the door.

Okay. He had the key he had a weapon. He looked over at the still cowering Feyor. He also had a distraction. The question now was could he use it? God what am I thinking? How the hell could I ever consider using him as bait? Yet if I don't do something...

"Feyor, for god's sake get out of there!" Daniel yelled the words without thinking.

Two things happened at once. The creature roared again and Feyor finally snapped out of whatever fugue he was in. Instinctively, Daniel moved farther away from Feyor, drawing the creature's attention away from the other man. Feyor finally got his act together enough to stagger to his feet and run back towards the entrance to the cavern, scooting round the inside wall and pressing himself back against the wall behind Daniel. Both men were well outside the creature's reach.

"What the hell were you trying to do?" Daniel asked backing away but keeping his eyes firmly on the creature.

"I knew the prize would be behind the door. The Beast was sleeping when I got here so I tried to slip past it. It woke almost as if it knew I was here," Feyor explained in a weary voice. "I didn't want to fail again," he added quietly.

"You won't fail if we work together. I tried to tell you before it's the only way. Why else would I be given these? The whole challenge has been leading to this, don't you see? Each challenge was a lesson. Creanor said it himself if you'd only listened."

Feyor frowned, "What the hell are you talking about?"

"When he explained to us the mechanics of this challenge. I thought at the time some of his phraseology was a bit odd. It was deliberate, he was giving clues." Feyor still looked confused so Daniel continued, "Do you remember how he described this challenge? We had to face a trial of strength, strength of body, strength of mind and strength of will."

"Yes I remember that but so what?"

"Challenge one was a test of the strength of the body, two was strength of mind. The others were like...lessons; to show us the way but we have to be willing to see. This challenge is really about strength of will. The will to work together to defeat this creature and take the prize."

"But how can we? Only one of us can win." Feyor sounded frustrated.

"Neither of us can win without the other. We can't defeat that monster alone. We HAVE to work together. Don't you understand? I have the will to trust you; you must have the will to trust me in return. Can you? Do you?"

Feyor looked from Daniel to the Beast, still stalking the cavern to the extremes of its restraints. He paced a short distance away and then came back, clearly considering Daniel's word. He stopped and looked at Daniel again and his eyes travelled to Daniel's hand where he still held the cylinder and the key.

"I still have a problem with how one of us can win this way but.... You won both the other challenges; I never even managed to finish the second one. How can I dispute what you say? You are clearly the champion." He nodded, as if agreeing with his own decision. "What is your plan?"

Daniel sighed in relief. "Do you know what the cylinder contains?"

"No."

"It's a weapon, a powerful weapon. One of us must distract the creature and protect himself with the weapon, whilst the other must use the key to enter the room and retrieve whatever is inside."

"Simple but very dangerous. Whoever provides the distraction is at least protected by the weapon, whoever goes inside for the prize will have to rely on the other to be able to keep the Beast from the door at the correct time."

"It is a matter of trust," Daniel said simply.

"Yes, it is. If I act as the distraction and you obtain the prize you could keep it for yourself."

"And if you act as distraction I have to trust that you will not allow the Beast to kill me on my exit; then by killing the Beast, retrieve the prize.

"As you say, trust."

"The will to believe in each other."

"This time I ask. Can you? Do you?"

Daniel knew he didn't really have a choice. There was no safe way to attempt this on his own, even with the weapon. It was either trust Feyor or risk his life and Jack's. No real choice.

"Yes."

Jack and the others had watched the unfolding drama on the screen with increasing confusion. Glancing from one and to the other and making comments that only proved they were as confused as each other, Jack finally turned to Creanor.

"What the fuck is going on here?"

"You can see exactly what I can see Colonel O'Neill," Creanor replied calmly.

"Yeah, but I wasn't the one who devised this ...this...whatever the hell this is." Almost as an afterthought he added, "And I seem to remember you saying something about watch and learn."

"I am not sure, O'Neill that we are the only ones who are meant to watch and learn." Teal'c added.

"How the hell can Daniel win, was he ever really meant to?"

"Of course he can win. Do you not know your own...friend, Colonel?"

Jack winced a little at the subtle insinuation in the comment before answering sharply. "I know my *friend* very well. However, I can't say the same for your friend."

"Ah, but Feyor's behaviour does not affect Daniel's choices."

"Are you saying that providing they both survive this, the winner will be selected by the choices he has made during the ordeal?" Carter asked.

"As Daniel said, it is a test of the strength of will. How far is he prepared to go to win, to protect the life of the forfeit?"

"He'll do what he has to, within the bounds of his own morality. You saw him trying to warn Feyor, risking himself to help. That is Daniel Jackson. He can't be any other way."

"Not even to save your life. You're special to him."

Jack smiled. "Not even for me. He knows I wouldn't expect it." He glanced at Carter and shrugged, this much she knows. "I know him inside out as he knows me. I'd rather die than destroy him."

Creanor merely nodded.

"O'Neill!"

Jack turned back to the screen, shocked by what he saw.

Daniel was slowly making his way around the wall towards the left hand side of the Beast, wanting to get into position before Feyor was ready to start. He was keeping one eye firmly fixed on the creature and the other on Feyor. Reaching the position he'd decided was the best place from which to begin, Daniel carefully raised his hand to signal Feyor. He had no intention of attracting the creature's attention until he was fully ready. Feyor signalled back and waited.

Daniel took a deep breath and prayed to all the gods he didn't actually believe in that this worked and that as a consequence Jack would be safe. Even as he thought about Jack he realised that SG1 would be watching this challenge as they had the others. Grinning absurdly he wondered just exactly how angry Jack would be at what he was about to attempt. Taking a firm grip on the cylinder he moved out to confront the Beast.

Jack staggered forward, anger and fear battling for dominance. Fear won out as his yell of "No" emerged only as a choked cry.

It simply hadn't occurred to him that Daniel would be the one to face the creature. Jack expected that he would be one to collect the prize, obviously. He should've remembered this was *Daniel* they were dealing with. The man never did what was expected, that would be too easy. God Daniel, what the hell d'ya think you're doing?

Jack felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and a quiet voice spoke in his ear. "Do not fear O'Neill, you have taught him well."

He turned to look up at Teal'c. "Pity I never got him to practice self-preservation," he replied just as quietly.

A roar broke the silence in the room and every eye was glued to the screen. Jack couldn't have looked away even if he'd wanted to as Daniel stood his ground while the Beast stirred itself and lumbered in his direction.

Out of the corner of his eye, Daniel watched as Feyor moved forward slowly and carefully doing his best to keep under the creature's radar. Knowing this was the time, Daniel purposely moved further over to the left drawing the creature with him, lifting the cylinder to arms length as he did so. He had no particular wish to kill the creature, as formidable as it appeared; after all it was just doing what came naturally to it, probably exacerbated by its imprisonment. Though that didn't mean he wouldn't if he had to, he would simply prefer to keep it occupied until Feyor returned and hopefully they could both safely escape.

It was only at that moment that a possible flaw in his plan suddenly occurred to him. He'd been so concerned with getting past the creature to the door that he hadn't considered the possibility that the only way out was on the other side of that door. If that was true then he'd really fucked up. Feyor could take the prize and simply leave him. Now he really had to trust to Feyor's good intentions. God Jack, I hope you can forgive me if I really have fucked up and killed us both. You used to threaten to haunt me, now you'll have to chase me round heaven. Or should that be hell? No, if we're together it couldn't be hell, wherever we end up.

The clanging of chains grew nearer as the Beast struggled against the restraints in its desire to get to Daniel. The creature used one of his front claws to scoop up a large boulder and throw it in Daniel's direction and the young man was forced to dive out of the way. He quickly moved again, trying to keep out of reach of the Beast but he was running out of room. He aimed the weapon, on the lowest setting and aimed at the creature's nearest leg. It might have looked little more than a beam of light but even on that setting, the beam created heat and where it struck the creature its scales smoked. The creature recoiled, though perhaps more with shock than real pain, bellowing loudly and straining even harder against its restraints; there was a definite grinding noise competing with the roars of the creature.

Swinging its body round, the long tail suddenly careened towards Daniel with far more speed than he could've expected. He was forced to jump back and fell over something in his path. As he scrambled out of the way he found himself staring into the sightless sockets of a skull. Involuntarily shuddering, he pushed away from it and struggled to his feet. Realising he couldn't afford to be magnanimous he increased the power of the weapon to the second level and aimed it carefully at the creature. The Beast had at least rudimentary intelligence as it shuffled backwards slowly keeping its deep black eyes fixed on Daniel.

Feyor couldn't be much longer now Daniel reckoned and edged a little further to get a view of the door. The creature moved with him and he only managed a split-second view before the creature blocked the way. Daniel decided to try a different tack and fired the weapon at the ground to the right side of the creature and was gratified when the creature gave a bellow and backed away. While it was rattled Daniel risked a yell.

"Feyor, FEYOR!"

The yell apparently enraged the creature and with a tremendous racket it attempted to leap at Daniel, who reacted instinctively by firing at the creature even as the chains, creaking and grinding, pulled it up short. The fine blue beam shot out of the cylinder and drilled a hole into the creature's left flank and it screamed and screamed, sending a chill of fear chasing down Daniel's spine. The pain of the wound enraged the creature as never before and it seemed to have lost any intellect it previously displayed.

"Feyor, answer me damn you! FEYOR!"

"Here, I'm here. I have it and the way out. You've got to come this way."

"Damn it, I was afraid of that." Daniel still couldn't see Feyor; he must still be either at the door or inside the room.

The creature roared and struggled against it bonds, the noise level in the chamber climbing until it was almost deafening. Daniel's only option now was to try and herd the creature in the opposite direction so he could make his way around to the door. The problem was the nearer he got to the door the nearer it brought him to the creature and the chains which affixed it to the wall not far from the door. Uncertainty as to the security of the chains had to be pushed to the back of Daniel's mind; that door was the only way out.

Jack's move caught everyone off-guard as he closed the space between himself and Creanor before anyone could react. He had Creanor pressed back against the wall with his forearm across the other man's neck forcing his head back. Creanor's breath was reduced to gasping for oxygen. Jack sensed the guards moving in on him and heard scuffling behind him; Teal'c's shout of warning was cut off to a grunt.

"Touch me and I lean on his throat. He'll be dead before you get me off him." Jack spoke without turning round. His eyes boring into Creanor's he continued. "Stop this now, get him out of there. I know you can do it."

Creanor held Jack's glare and raising one hand calmly, indicated his throat. Jack released the pressure just enough to allow the man to speak. "I'm sorry Colonel, I can't do that. The challenge was accepted and must be completed."

Jack leaned in again fury sparking in his eyes. "Damn you, you bastard. I could kill you in a heartbeat."

Teal'c stood regal before the guards' weapons not sure if O'Neill's ploy was the correct action to take but nevertheless understanding his commander's need to act. It was the natural instinct of such a warrior to act but Teal'c believed the driving force behind O'Neill was passion not policy. He could understand such a reaction to such a unique individual as DanielJackson. However, even in such circumstances he knew that O'Neill would not risk the lives of MajorCarter and himself.

Teal'c glanced over at the Major and realised she was concerned not for herself but for O'Neill. He managed to catch her eye and she telegraphed her feelings quite clearly.

Sam had watched the colonel expertly grab Creanor but wondered what he really expected to gain. They were surrounded and outnumbered and it wasn't like the colonel to act so precipitously. Okay, they were all concerned for Daniel, and by extension for the colonel, but this was just rash.

"I am sure you could but where would that leave your companions. My guards are, I believe quite fond of me."

A voice spoke harshly from behind Jack. "They would be dead before you hit the floor, Chairman."

Jack sagged a little as he again released the pressure slightly. Looking at Creanor with eyes like flint and a voice to match he said, "End this. If you must have a sacrifice for your damned Celebration then let it be me. Let Daniel and the others go home."

Sam sighed to hear the colonel say that, that was the man she knew.

Jack suddenly released him and stood back, Creanor almost falling to the floor. The guards swarmed forward, some to grab Jack and others to support the Chairman. Creanor waved off the help and signalled the guard to release the colonel.

Creanor looked carefully, the defeated man doing his best to control his anger. The distress was obvious and Creanor's voice was gentle when he spoke. "I'm sorry Colonel, but I cannot accept your very generous offer. As I said the challenge must be completed. You know the rules."

Jack threw back his head and looked at the screen again, lost in his despair, until Creanor suddenly spoke. "Have faith, Jack."

The platitude, the familiarity, the hopelessness of the situation crashed onto Jack and he snarled back. "I have perfect faith in Daniel."

"If that is true, then why do you doubt him?"

"What? I don't doubt him, there's no-one better at what he does, but THIS kind of thing is MY job."

Creanor gave Jack a deprecating smile. "We are all more than the sum of our parts."

"Oh don't quote clichés at me, that's also my job!"

"Clichés become clichés because they are oft quoted not because they are inaccurate."

"Save me from politicians," Jack snapped. And Daniel from hideous monstrosities!"

Daniel managed to cover half of the way back across the cavern towards the door. The Beast was roaring and slamming itself forward as hard as it could in an attempt to break its restraints. Daniel prayed he could reach the other side and then use the weapon to keep the creature at bay while he made the final run for safety.

Then all hell broke loose as with the shriek of tearing metal and a bellow of triumph, the creature finally succeeded in snapping one of the chains, the one holding its hind legs captive. Still held fast by the remaining chain on its collar, the creature managed to reverse its body so its huge tail was now between Daniel and his freedom. Daniel understood all too well just what a formidable weapon that tail was. It was very muscular, flexible and tipped with sharp spines. Daniel quickly fired the weapon in the direction of the Beast and kept moving as fast as he could toward the door.

Feyor suddenly yelled out a warning and Daniel dropped to the floor as the huge tail sliced the air just where he had been a moment earlier.

"For god's sake fire at the creature. Your morals have no place here now. FIRE!"

Knowing he was right, Daniel fired the weapon at one of its hind legs and amidst screams of agony, the creature collapsed. With Feyor's yells and the imagined encouragement of his friends, Daniel ran towards freedom.

Enraged, the creature struggled to rise on its one remaining leg and with strength difficult to believe, it pulled against the chain attached to its neck. Daniel hesitated in his run for safety, hardly daring to believe what he was seeing, as the creature bucked and heaved, struggling against the chains embedded in the cavern wall high above it. Daniel resumed his movement, ready to fire again if he must, when the creature spied his movement and with a bellow of rage it thundered back down onto its front legs, shaking the whole cavern with the impact and knocking Daniel off his feet. He quickly rolled over onto his back, lifting the weapon in a smooth movement that would have made Jack proud and fired at the creature towering over him.

Feyor had already left the safety of the doorway, skirting the still falling rocks from above as the beam from Daniel's weapon on its highest setting, struck the Beast directly in the centre of its chest. The dying creature's forward momentum finally snapped the chain and the Beast was falling directly towards an unsteady Daniel.

Understanding in a split-second, Feyor leapt at Daniel and knocked him aside as the creature pounded into the chamber floor. Not daring to check if it was alive or dead, Feyor pulled Daniel's hobbling figure after him through the safety of the door, which he slammed behind him. Not that it would keep the creature out if it were alive and free but Feyor felt a sense of security as it shut out the lair of the Beast.

Daniel slid to the ground, dizzy and exhausted. Feyor pulled a small flask from a pouch on his belt and handed it to Daniel. "Water, drink," he said shakily.

Feeling a little better, Daniel took the opportunity to look around the small room they were in; a small room with only one other exit and a table in the centre of the room, remarkably similar to the one in the second challenge. In the centre of the table was a small casket made of some kind of dark wood, inlaid with an intricate design with something that looked similar to mother-of-pearl. The prize?

As if reading his mind, Feyor moved to the table and picked up the casket. Daniel's gut clenched. Had he made a terrible mistake? But Feyor had come back for him, if he intended to betray him now, why bother?

Feyor looked at him solemnly before holding out the casket to him saying, "It belongs to you."

Daniel looked at the other man, his opponent and smiled. "Thank you."

"It is as it should be. You deserved to win."

"I couldn't have done it alone, you know that."

Feyor smiled; the first real smile Daniel had seen the man give. "I couldn't have done it at all. *You* know that."

Jack unconsciously inched forward and this time the guards didn't try to interfere, until he was so close to the screen that all he could see was the image of Daniel facing that monstrosity. Jack's hands were clenching and unclenching, as was his gut. It was tearing him apart to simply stand and watch the man who made him feel whole, when he knew he should be there fighting to protect Daniel. It was more than what he did it was who he was. His whole body was crying out to be with Daniel, to at least face this terrible ordeal with him. Doing nothing was torture beyond imagining.

God, he'd been in a relationship with Daniel for less than eight weeks and for the first time in longer than he cared to admit, he felt truly alive. It brought a whole new dimension to their already close working relationship, something that Jack treasured more than life itself. Everything seemed different; the sun was warmer, the rain bright and clean, the grass greener, things even tasted better. He laughed more, his acerbic wit gentled by a mere glance from those blue eyes. His mood was so improved that people commented on it. He wanted everyone to know the reason and it hurt that they couldn't say. But he knew and he revelled in the knowledge of what he'd found. When Daniel had held him that first night after they came down from their orgasms, Jack had felt closer to heaven than he'd ever thought possible. Not even with Sarah had he ever felt such bliss. The very idea of losing that...Jack almost wept.

Watching as Daniel staggered through the door to safety, the Beast lying dead on the floor of the cavern, Jack felt as if his heart would burst from his chest, his relief was so palpable. Jack unwittingly reached out blindly searching for contact. He couldn't touch the one he wanted to but his friends were close and gratefully he felt the slim hand of Sam Carter slip into his at the same time as Teal'c's hand dropped onto his shoulder. He turned to Carter, for once not hiding the emotion roiling through him. If Carter saw the truth in his eyes he wasn't about to deny it, not this time. He was sure that Teal'c already knew of his relationship with Daniel, the truth of their relationship that Daniel had always wanted to share with his team-mates. It was Jack who desired to keep it secret and in that moment of need he realised his mistake.

As usual, Daniel had been correct. His team, his friends would never have held it against them and though, as his 2IC, he was putting Carter in an awkward position, he understood then that for she would cover for them. Don't ask, don't tell worked in both directions. His team meant too much to each other to allow such petty rules to come between them. He felt ashamed that he hadn't trusted them before. He owed them an apology when the circumstances permitted.

Sam held the colonel's hand, feeling his grip tighten further as he turned to look at her and Teal'c. She'd been really worried about him ever since this damned fiasco had started. She knew, of course, how close he and Daniel were. Only close friends could fight the way they did and continue to be such good friends. Yet even knowing the closeness of the friendship, she'd been unnerved by the colonel's obvious anguish.

She'd thought at first it was simply because it felt so wrong that it was Daniel acting to save them rather than the other way around. There was a running joke at the SGC that Colonel O'Neill should charge Daniel an insurance premium for the number of times he'd pulled Daniel's nuts out of the fire. Though she knew it was unfair, that Daniel more than pulled his weight on the team, it was also true that it was their duty to protect the civilian on their team and Jack took that responsibility very seriously; Daniel being his friend only made it more personal. Just how personal though she'd begun to wonder. A subtle difference in their banter has surfaced over the last few weeks, less acerbic from Jack, less cutting from Daniel. Affectionate. She'd also noticed that Jack was touching Daniel again. That had been a common occurrence at one time but it had faded as they'd bickered and argued for real. But it was back; sometimes it seemed Jack couldn't keep his hands off Daniel. Just a pat to his back, hand on the wrist, arm round the shoulder.

Now, seeing Jack's expression she sucked in a breath at the raw emotion exposed. Jack O'Neill was a man who kept his emotions under strict control. Those who believed they knew the man, who judged him to be a crass, loud-mouth of little intelligence, never saw beyond the carefully crafted façade that hid the real complexity of Jack O'Neill's character. She was one of the few who actually knew that man, but even she had never seen him so exposed. In that instant she understood. How could I have been so blind? She glanced at Teal'c and realised that though he was surprised by the revelation, he was not surprised by *what* was revealed. Seeing her expression, Teal'c merely raised his customary eyebrow. She shook herself. I call myself a scientist and completely miss all the obvious empirical evidence.

Letting go of her military mask she swept her C.O. into an embrace saying, "Jack, he's all right," before pulling back to look into his face. "I'm happy for you both," she added quietly.

The smile that broke out on Jack's face was all the answer she needed. "I'm sorry we never said anything," he said, his glance taking in both of them. "Daniel wanted to tell you from the beginning but I stopped him."

They'd been so involved with each other they never noticed Creanor quietly observing them. Even Teal'c hadn't noticed that the guards had withdrawn. It was only as Creanor finally approached them that Teal'c reacted, turning to step between Creanor and the others.

Creanor held up a hand. "There is no cause for concern. Daniel and Feyor will return shortly and all will be explained."

"What's to explain? Daniel won." Jack didn't sound victorious, just weary.

"Yes. You have your treaty. We have much to share, much to teach and much to learn I think. But there is still an explanation due."

Daniel finally arrived back at the Centrium though he was puzzled, as he'd expected the trip to take much longer. The caves of Andrani were supposed to be half a world away and yet it had taken little more than half an hour to return. Even with the speed of their transport it didn't make sense. Feyor had promptly fallen asleep, leaning back in the comfortable corner of the cab and Daniel didn't want to wake him just to ask. He was exhausted himself and knew how the man must feel. Anyway that could wait. He was going back to the city, back to Jack. The transport finally stopped and they were helped out and led into the building - where Jack was waiting.

A smile ghosted over his face at the thought. Jack should be proud of him, happy that he was back safe but Daniel expected he'd probably be pacing up and down with frustration, mad at something Daniel ought to have done. If Jack'd been there he'd have killed the monster, shoved Feyor out of the way and claimed the prize! Daniel laughed at the vision in his mind's eye of Jack looking the Beast right in the eye and spitting at it just before he sliced it in half with his trusty phaser.

"What's so amusing?" Jack asked, shocking Daniel out of his daydream.

"Jack!" Daniel started forward swiftly, belatedly holding himself in check as he realised they weren't alone. Approaching more slowly, he smiled at his friends. "What no congratulations?"

He was suddenly swamped with pats on the back, squeezes on his shoulder and three voices all babbling at once. He laughed and quickly grabbed each one in a hug, reaching for Jack last of all.

Jack hadn't been able to take his eyes from Daniel from the second he'd appeared through the door, laughing at some internal thought, eyes closed looking exhausted yet elated. Watching as Daniel hugged the others he surprised Daniel when his turn came by lifting him from the ground in a rib-threatening hug.

"Congratulations are the least you'll get from me Danny," Jack said but in a voice Daniel only ever heard inside the bedroom. Daniel looked wide-eyed at Jack, breaking out in a grin when the older man added in a whisper, "They know about us."

Apparently deciding they'd had enough time for celebration, Creanor approached them. "Well done Daniel, though it's no more than I expected."

"You expected him to win?" Sam asked incredulously. Suddenly realising how that might have sounded she turned to Daniel and shrugged. "Sorry, that didn't come out right."

"S'okay." Daniel said grinning. "Bit surprised myself."

Jack sniggered and slapped him on the back. "That's my boy. Takes a lot to kill you and don't we know it!"

"I'm sorry we had to put you all through that but it was necessary." Creanor said apologetically.

"I understand you have your traditions," Daniel said carefully.

"Yes, we do. We've used the Celebration of Challenge for many centuries and it has helped us to choose our allies and trading partners."

"And how many times have your prospective allies failed? How many representatives have died with the guilt of knowing their failure cost the lives of their team?" asked Daniel his voice cracking with pain.

Creanor actually smiled. "I always knew I was right about you and I doubt that any representative has proved so wholeheartedly the validity of the test." Daniel visibly paled at the damning praise but Creanor continued regardless. "You and your colleagues have shown that entering into a treaty with your people would be honourable and worthy. Their distress and actions spoke as loudly as your own, and I..."

For once it was Jack who held back Daniel as his normally well-controlled temper snapped and he interrupted with a choked cry. "SHIT! You praise their DISTRESS! You cite me as an example to PROVE this...this abomination? God I don't believe this. We came here as friends and you threaten those I love, you force me to risk my life time and time again and make them WATCH."

"Please Daniel, calm yourself. No one has died during the Challenge in many, many years. None of you was ever in any danger," Creanor said evenly.

Silence greeted this pronouncement. Daniel glanced from one to the other of his friends, each looking as puzzled as he.

It was Teal'c who finally spoke. "I do not understand. Explain."

Creanor took a breath, looked at Daniel specifically and began. "The Challenges were once, long ago, bloody and deadly and they weeded out the unscrupulous, those who would prove dangerous to us, but as we progressed we learned that we'd fallen into the trap of our own cunning - a phrase I heard you use seems to have been written for us. What was it? Oh yes, hoisted with one's own petard."

"You were becoming as bad as those you wished to eradicate." Daniel confirmed.

"Exactly. It was clear we must change; yet the philosophy behind the challenge is still valid. Over time we devised new challenges, less fatal but no less final. Only those with honour who were willing to give everything for their fellows would succeed. Those who fail are allowed to leave and never to return. We have technology to seal our Stargate against those who are unwelcome. Those who succeed are told the truth and offered whatever they wish. Our embrace is open to you. You have earned our trust and admiration."

"So at no time was anyone's life in danger?" Daniel's voice was soft, too soft. Jack recognised the tone. Daniel was either very sad or very angry. No prizes for which this time. "All the time I was terrified that my failure could cost..." His voice faded away but the fire in his eyes blazed anew.

"I'm sorry for that, please forgive us. I watched you, I saw how much it hurt but there was no other way for us."

Daniel shook his head, seemingly unable to find any words. For Daniel the linguist to be speechless, said much.

Creanor, blithely unaware of Daniel's distress, went on to explain that to all intents and purposes the challenges were real. Feyor was determined to win to ensure that his challenger was pushed to his limits. The only difference being that Feyor knew the only forfeit for failure was the loss of the treaty.

Carter asked about the Beast; it had seemed so real.

"It was real. We created the creature based on the descriptions of the old legend."

"Created?" Carter asked fascinated, her scientist's mind off on a tangent.

"Then DanielJackson's life *was* in danger," interrupted Teal'c.

"No, not really. We had a fail-safe device; a genetic marker that we could trigger at will to cause the creature's instantaneous death."

"Your technology is even more advanced that we realised," Sam said, continuing to ask more questions.

Daniel was too tired and heartsick to follow the conversation and let his mind drift. All that he cared about now was going home - with Jack.

Jack felt Daniel's weight sag against him as the younger man's exhaustion took hold. Deciding he'd had enough of this place, all Jack wanted to do was take Daniel home and show him how grateful he was that his Danny was safe and in his arms. They no longer even had to pretend in front of their friends, though of course they wouldn't flaunt it.

"Creanor," Jack spoke up. "Gotta take Daniel home now."

"Of course, it is clear he is exhausted," Creanor replied. Emotionally as well as physically, Jack thought.

Sam, seeing her C.O. was too wrapped up in considering Daniel's needs, spoke up. "We will make arrangements to send back our diplomatic team to finalise any details."

"No more challenges." Jack made the question into a statement.

"No, that won't be necessary, Colonel O'Neill. Daniel has shown us all we need to see."

You saw the best we had to offer. Hope you don't come to regret your choice. He's not typical. Aloud Jack said, "I suppose we should be grateful," but with a glance at Daniel's white face, continued, "but all I feel is exhausted and homesick. And as for Danny..."

Emotionally drained Daniel said, almost as a whisper, "All I care about now is that you're safe, you're all safe. And I'm so tired...."

Daniel just wanted to go home. Doc Fraiser had insisted on giving him a thorough examination even though he'd told her; told everyone, he was fine.

On arriving back through the 'Gate two days late, General Hammond had been relieved but full of questions. Jack had persuaded the General that everything was under control and Hammond had agreed to a quick debrief now and a more detailed one in thirty-six hours after they'd had time to recover. Doc Fraiser took one glance at Daniel, however and informed the General that she wanted to take a look at him right away.

"Aw, Janet I'm fine. Just a little tired; nothing that a hot shower and a good night's sleep won't fix," Daniel protested.

"I don't think so Daniel, you look like you've been through the wringer. Just let me check you out and if as you say you're just tired, you can go home later."

However, Jack solidly put the final nail in the coffin by announcing, "Look after our hero there, Doc. Dr. Daniel Jackson just saved all our butts by slaying the dragon single-handedly with nothing more than a fancy torch."

Naturally the questions flew thick and fast until Janet stepped in and ordered Daniel to the infirmary, commenting that Colonel O'Neill was obviously capable of telling the story. The fact that she made it sound as if it was just that, a story, annoyed Daniel. Didn't she think he was capable?

Jack took umbrage too commenting, "That was no *story* Doc, that's the abbreviated version of my report."

Raising her eyebrows Janet replied, "Well in that case Dr. Jackson definitely needs a thorough check-up."

Daniel groaned and was followed down the corridor by Sam's chortle and Jack's whistle before the General's voice cut off the ribbing.

A little time later Jack and the others called into the infirmary for their usual post-mission checks to find Daniel resting and waiting for some test results.

"Janet found something a bit off and is doing more tests. I'd forgotten about that time I was out, not sure how long for, after I left the Centrium until I woke up in the caves. Must've given me something. Probably nothing." Daniel was rambling, obviously exhausted.

"It'll be fine Daniel," Sam said smiling. "You were only out about what, forty-five minutes?" The question was directed at Jack and Teal'c.

"You knew? Oh, of course the screen. I forgot."

"I concur DanielJackson. The time we were required to wait after you were led from the Centrium until we saw you awaken, was no more than forty-five minutes."

Jack said nothing just noted the strain around Daniel's eyes. "I'm, erm, gonna find Doc," Jack suddenly said and flipped back the curtain to go search out Janet. He had to convince her to allow Daniel home. He recognised the signs. Daniel's conscience was kicking in. If he could get Daniel home he knew how to distract him, give him time to get used to his reactions, his feelings.

He met Janet coming back to see Daniel and waylaid her. "Everything okay Doc?"

She raised her eyebrows, "Favour, eh, colonel?"

He grinned, "Never could pull the wool over your eyes could I? Just want to take him home. He needs to get away from here. I'll look after him."

"Your home, colonel?"

Keeping it simple, Jack replied, "Yes, he's comfortable there and I can make him relax. He needs to unwind, you know?"

Janet cocked her head to one side and regarded him. "I think perhaps you both do. From what little I got out of Daniel you were all under a terrible strain. I'm waiting for one last test result though."

"Yeah, he said. Daniel didn't know but he was only out for about forty-five minutes. That's not long but he was fine when he came to. Does he have to wait here for the result? I know I'm pushing Doc but he does need to get ...home."

"Okay, colonel. I wasn't really going to make him stay for that one result. He was right, other than a few abrasions and strained muscles, he really is physically fine. However I would say he is emotionally drained."

"You've no idea, Doc. They put him through hell and it was all a sham. Read my report."

"All right colonel, take him home but make sure he gets plenty of rest."

Daniel was virtually lying down in the passenger seat of Jack's truck as he finally drove him home after escaping the mountain. Jack glanced over at Daniel and couldn't help smiling as the archaeologist shifted trying to get comfortable from an awkward position.

"Wake up, Daniel, we're almost home."

"Hmmm?"

"Daniel. Come on, Danny; let's get you into bed where you can really rest."

"Rest Jack," he muttered, "in bed with you?"

"Promise, I'll be good. I'm wiped too."

Jack pulled into his driveway and quickly got Daniel out of the truck and headed for the front door.

"Home, Daniel."

Daniel smiled, "If you're there."

"Sap," Jack laughed, secretly touched.

They entered and were finally alone behind closed doors. Daniel leaned against Jack, his hand coming up to caress Jack's face, one finger tracing his lips before he closed the gap and captured Jack's mouth. Jack pulled him in close; arms wrapped around the younger man as Jack gave himself over to the passion.

They broke apart when breathing became a necessity and simply touched foreheads. "Shame I'm too tired to follow that up," Daniel sighed.

Jack laughed. "Me too, save it for later eh? You, my young friend, up the stairs, quick shower while I sort out the bed. Never had chance to tidy it before we left."

Taking one last quick peck, Daniel made his way to the bathroom while Jack headed into his bedroom. He heard the water running while he stripped the bed and quickly re-made it. He took a couple of pairs of sweats and tees out of the drawer and threw them on the bed just as Daniel came in still towelling his hair. Jack sucked in a breath at the sight of *his* Daniel wearing just a towel twisted round his waist, his fingers itching to caress all that smooth skin.

Instead, he hurried past Daniel heading to the bathroom. "Get changed and under the covers, I'll be there as soon as I've had a shower. You left me some hot water?"

"Course, more than my life's worth." Daniel paled as he realised what he'd said.

"Daniel, don't." Daniel nodded and turned to get changed. Jack frowned but decided not to pursue it.

When Jack returned Daniel was already in bed, eyes closed. Jack got changed and slipped under the covers and put out the light. The curtains were still open a little and a sliver of moonlight flowed into the room falling across the bed and picking out the highlights in Daniel's hair.

Jack turned on his side, facing Daniel and just grateful he was there. Daniel turned over, his back to Jack and the colonel slid lower down draped an arm across Daniel and closed his eyes.

Ten minutes later Jack sat up with a sigh. "Can't settle Daniel?" he asked softly.

"Sorry, Jack. I'm exhausted but I feel tense and restless."

"How does a massage sound?"

"A massage? Didn't know you could do that."

"Ooh, yes. Mr Magic Fingers here," Jack replied wriggling his fingers suggestively. "Really, I'm pretty good."

"Oookay. But, just a massage - no messing Jack," Daniel said grinning.

"Who, me?" Jack said, raising his eyebrows, Jack at his innocent best.

Jack indulged himself helping Daniel remove his tee knowing this was as close as could get to making love to Daniel tonight, then he began a soothing massage of his back from the nape of neck downwards. Daniel made appreciative noises as Jack's fingers really did work magic on his body and by the time he reached his lower back Daniel was asleep. Jack smiled to himself as he imagined continuing with the massage when Daniel was wide awake.

Climbing into bed again, Jack pulled Daniel towards him and he mumbled a little at being disturbed but quickly settled, snuggling up to Jack's chest. Jack settled his arms around Daniel, feeling overwhelmed with love for this remarkable man who trusted enough to give himself to Jack and as he finally drifted to sleep the pleasant weight on his chest was a reminder of how fortunate he was.

Awoken by stirring sensations, Jack found the pleasant weight was still on his chest but it was no longer still as Daniel's head moved from one nipple to the other kissing, nipping or suckling as the need took him, sending shivers shooting through Jack to settle in his belly. Jack began to lean up but Daniel shoved him down again, mumbling around the nipple in his mouth, "Let me."

Happily settling back, Jack gave himself up to the stimulation. Daniel began to rise to move lower down Jack's body but hesitated with a low moan.

"Daniel?"

"Think I fell asleep too soon last night."

"uhHuh?"

"Stiffened up again, should have had a longer massage. Let your fingers perform more magic."

"Can still oblige, but perhaps a hot shower first?"

"Mmm. You stiff too Jack? Care to share?"

"I certainly am stiff," Jack replied with a filthy grin. Daniel rolled his eyes but couldn't help the laugh.

"Think I'd know by now to be careful what I say near you."

"You cope; after all you're the linguist."

"Maybe, but you're the one with the degree in innuendo."

Once in the bathroom they shed their sweats and got into the shower cubicle together. Jack saw again the bruises and abrasions marring Daniel's skin and raised his eyes to find Daniel watching him. Daniel gave a rueful grin and Jack smiled, suddenly realising he should be grateful that no one was really hurt. True, he expected that Beast to make appearances in their nightmares from time to time though he thought perhaps the spectre of responsibility for their lives would haunt Daniel's dreams even more.

Jack took up the washcloth and began to gently wash Daniel's back. This was one of the unexpected perks of their relationship; that such ordinary everyday things could prove to be so erotic. The simple act of washing Daniel's body or having Daniel wash him was a tremendous turn on for both of them. Running the cloth down Daniel's back and massaging his buttocks made Jack's cock fill and harden and as he leaned in against Daniel's back to reach around and wash his chest and belly, Jack's cock slipped between Daniel thighs.

Daniel laughed and said, "Not this time fly boy, it's my turn to take you."

The words sent shivers of anticipation down Jack's spine but he liked playing the game. "Are you sure, thought it was my turn? Anyway you're tired."

"Oh no, Jack O'Neill, I'm never too tired for that, and you know damned well it's my turn."

"Oooh, pissy. Who'd have thought the geek was such an alpha?"

"Who'd have thought the hard-assed soldier was such a slut?" Daniel asked as he turned the colonel so their positions were reversed. He took the washcloth and began to mirror Jack's movements of a few moments earlier until he was massaging the taut globes of Jack's ass, when he dropped the cloth to the floor of the cubicle, massaging with his hands instead. Jack groaned and undulated at the sensation.

"Hands on the wall Jack," Daniel instructed and Jack leaned his weight on his hands against the wall tiles, understanding that Daniel needed to take control of their lovemaking this time. He didn't want Jack to even be able to touch him. The first time Daniel had asked this of Jack he'd been a little uncertain but had been surprised to find it very liberating and intensely arousing. Not being able to touch Daniel, having to leave everything to him including when he was able to climax had been an incredible experience and one he was happy to repeat whenever Daniel needed it.

Daniel looked at Jack braced against the wall as the water cascaded over his shoulders and down his back to run off over his buttocks and down his cleft. Leaning in, Daniel followed the track of the water, licking down his lover's back. Jack arched at the sensation and he moaned when Daniel's fingers traced the line from his balls along the perineum to the small opening. Jack hadn't seen Daniel coat his fingers with anything but he knew Daniel would never try to breach him without something. Still licking and nibbling just at the top of the cleft, Daniel pushed gently inside with one finger. Working the finger slowly around inside him, Daniel's tongue moved up his back to his shoulder, tempting Jack to turn his head slightly so he could kiss Daniel's luscious mouth. Even as they kissed, Daniel slipped a second finger inside and twisted and scissored opening Jack up ready for him. Jack squirmed, his moan swallowed by the kiss.

This was sweet torture; Jack so longed to touch and hold Daniel in return but could do neither. He was so grateful when he at least had the opportunity to kiss Daniel, but all too soon the younger man withdrew from the kiss and instead, began nibbling along his jaw and shoulder where he suckled and bit down as he pressed the third finger into Jack's ass searching out the prostate. As he brushed across it, Jack shuddered and arched his back, muttering over and over, "Yes, Daniel, yes, yes there," or the more intelligent, "Oh, god please now Daniel, can't wait."

Daniel smiled, "Just give me a minute, I want this to be so good."

"Good now, Danny. NOW please."

Daniel pressed himself against Jack's opening and pushing gently but firmly and he slid in easily. Jack moaned as he felt himself filled and his hands became fists as he leaned heavily against the wall panting as he gradually became used to the sensation.

"All right, Jack?" Jack was unable to speak and he nodded.

Daniel's smile turned to a grimace as he pulled out and pushed back in, and again, setting up a steady rhythm pounding into the man who meant life to him, feeling that life all around him and under his hands so grateful that he could still do this; that he hadn't failed him. He needed to know that they were both so alive.

Jack was rock hard and needing to get off but Daniel had never touched him and he wouldn't do so himself. "Daniel, please. I need...."

Daniel reached round and ran his hand up and down Jack's length feeling the satin skin smooth over the hard member. He moved his hand faster in rhythm with his thrusts and Jack felt he would explode.

"Oh, Danny, Danny, oooh, god, god..."

Daniel increased his pace, muttering nonsense words over and over as he pounded into him feeling his life flowing and merging with that of the man he loved.

"I'm coming Danny, I can't .... Daniel, I ..." Jack felt his balls tighten and Daniel's hand on his cock felt like fire as suddenly he was exploding all over Daniel's hand and the cubicle wall as his ass muscles clenched. That was enough to send Daniel over the edge and he was coming and coming inside Jack.

Daniel's orgasm ripped through him and he knew he wanted to say something to Jack but he couldn't seem to remember how to form words. Instead he bit down hard on Jack's shoulder causing the other man to gasp and Daniel opened his eyes, he didn't remember closing them, to see Jack's hands splayed out against the wall supporting all his weight. Daniel replaced the bite with a gentle kiss and Jack turned slowly eyes searching out Daniel; relieved when he saw only love and happiness in those deep blue eyes.

They stared at each other till Daniel broke the silence. "I love you," he said softly.

"I know."

FIN
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