Authors: Sally Malcolm
O’Neill’s eyebrows shot up as he took in Teal’c’s costume, but he refrained from commenting — a feat that, by Teal’c’s estimate, took him an inordinate amount of willpower. Then a keen, calculating look stole across his face. “A contest?” he said at last. “Depends. We could hit O’Malley’s. If Big Molly’s there, she’s always game for shots. But I’m warning you. Last time she knocked
on my butt. I couldn’t see straight for three days after.”
Dr. Frasier gave him an exasperated look. “If either one of you is in here with a stinking hangover tomorrow morning, don’t expect any tea and sympathy from me!”
“My faith forbids me to drink tea, Doc” — O’Neill’s solemn tone struck Teal’c as slightly suspect — “and I wouldn’t dream of expecting sympathy.”
Teal’c was intrigued. Obviously, the Tau’ri denied combatants medical care for injuries sustained during the ritual duels. Indeed a harsh method of teaching caution in a race that could not avail itself of the healing properties of a symbiote. Of course, the efficacy could not be disputed. Even Master Bra’tac would be impressed.
The thought of his old friend and mentor triggered another sudden pang of wistfulness, but Teal’c resolutely shoved it aside. Regret would not magically bring his family or Bra’tac any closer, therefore it was futile. He had made his choice, and he would have to live with it.
“I am ready, O’Neill,” he said firmly. “Lead the way.”
?” O’Neill’s gaze scanned Teal’c from head to toe. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Like… pants, maybe?”
Teal’c cast a brief glance at the guards by the door. “Your men took my outer garments and footwear. Apparently they are deemed dangerous and require examination,” he added with a twist of irony.
Whatever it was O’Neill muttered under his breath, it did not sound flattering to the soldiers’ intelligence. His gaze snapped back to Teal’c. “As well as your weapons?”
“I considered it wise to surrender my possessions voluntarily.” Noting O’Neill’s scowl, Teal’c felt obliged on the one hand to prevent an incident and, on the other, to continue neglecting any specific mention of the
. “You would have been expected to hand over your weapons, had you wished to enter my encampment, O’Neill. It precludes complications.”
“That’s what you think,” O’Neill growled. Then he relaxed and caught the eye of the woman. “You think you could rustle up some scrubs for him, Doc? Else he’ll only feed into all those
reports of half-naked aliens boogieing around top secret US Air Force facilities.”
Dr. Frasier’s lips twitched. “We may have a set of xxx-larges back in the storeroom, but they’ll still be snug I guess. And we don’t have any shoes. Just booties.”
“Never mind. I just want to get him decent enough to head up to supplies where we can grab some BDUs and a pair of boots.”
“BDUs?” She cocked an eyebrow. Apparently there was some special significance attached to beedeeyous.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s part of my team,” O’Neill declared, looking mulish.
It coaxed another smile from Dr. Frasier. “You know what, sir? I think I like you.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions.” O’Neill grinned. “You haven’t treated me yet.”
“That’s true. Then again, you haven’t been my patient yet. I’m sure you’ll be a pussycat, Colonel. Follow me!”
While Teal’c was grateful for the more adequate clothing Dr. Frasier had procured, these ‘scrubs’ were worse than merely snug. They were as tight as a second skin and too short in the arm and leg, forcing him to walk with an old man’s stiff-legged gait. The ridiculous flare of fabric around his bare feet — the items the Tau’ri called ‘booties’ — only compounded the indignity.
The guards were still padding along like a pair of well-trained hounds, and O’Neill had not spoken since they had left the area of the infirmary. Teal’c sensed the anger boiling in him. The signs were minute, but they were there for everyone who cared to see — tense shoulders, stiff back, a small muscle ticking in his jaw now and again. As a purely ethnological observation it was fascinating: Tau’ri and Jaffa did not differ at all in this respect.
Teal’c wondered if it might improve Daniel Jackson’s opinion of him if he shared this observation, and almost laughed at his own folly. He had taken the young man’s wife. Should anyone dare to take Drey’auc from him, he would tear the offender limb from limb, and there was no observation in the universe that would have the power to mitigate his rage.
Of course, there was the question of what Drey’auc would think of her husband now. And what she would do. Teal’c attempted to deny his fear for her — after all, there was nothing to connect Drey’auc, or Rya’c for that matter, to his act of treason. Drey’auc of the Morning Glades had influential friends. He had to believe that she and her son would be safe.
But would she maintain her allegiance to a husband who was
Teal’c attempted to push the thought away, but it refused to melt into oblivion. Instead it brought him back to his own rashness and the knowledge that he should have considered the consequences of his actions more carefully. Then again, he had hardly had leisure to do so. Hesitation on his part would have meant the death of O’Neill and the other Tau’ri.
Why had the life or death of these prisoners mattered when the lives or deaths of hundreds before them had not?
Had it been O’Neill’s insane refusal to give up hope in a situation where one was best advised to suspend hope and prepare to die well?
Teal’c realized that he might never find an answer, that it had merely felt right and compelling at that moment in time. Whether it remained to be right and compelling would have to –
O’Neill had stopped so abruptly that Teal’c, lost in ruminations, almost collided with him. He gathered himself and managed to take a step back, just in time for O’Neill to whip around and glare at the guards. The men came to a halt, a little shuffling and insecure.
They were of the black-clad variety of warriors, like Sergeant and Jenkins. Teal’c had noticed that the colors of the Tau’ri warriors’ garments varied, but he had yet to discover the relevant rules. The most reasonable assumption was that the colors denoted clan affiliation.
Undoubtedly, at this precise juncture in time, these men devoutly wished to be safe at the hearths of their clan. Teal’c could all but see them wilt under O’Neill’s stare. If truth be told, he himself would not wish to be at the receiving end of it.
Leaden silence rolled through the corridor, and under the low ceiling the tension between O’Neill and the guards turned the air into a compressed and stifling mass.
But the men did not budge, and at last one of them spoke. “Uh… sir?”
He received no answer. Instead O’Neill continued to stare. Teal’c himself had never stood on this kind of ceremony, but he had known and served under First Primes who would not abide lower ranks addressing them unless they had been spoken to first. Could O’Neill be one of those? And how would the man fare, now that he had stepped out of line?
O’Neill’s eyes narrowed, and his stare grew even more intense. “Do I know you, Airman?” he growled.
Concerned for the well-being of the forward warrior, Teal’c wished he were familiar enough with Tau’ri customs to know whether it was appropriate for him to intercede. Familiar or not, action had to be taken. He could not let –
“I dunno, sir. But I sure as hell know you.” The man grinned.
What was the fool doing? Did he not realize that he was dicing with his life? No inferior rank had ever addressed a First Prime in this way — none who had lived, at any rate. Teal’c’s own father had been killed for far less than that.
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud!”
What was that supposed to indicate? A ritual invocation of impending grief? Teal’c could make as little sense of it as he could of the odd look on O’Neill’s face.
“Lowenstein?” The enigmatic look dissolved into a grin that was at least as wide as that of the offending warrior. “Who the hell decided you were suitable for a posting here?”
“Apparently you did, Colonel. Something about a list you had to draw up?”
“Crap. Didn’t think anybody would actually read it… You’re only on it because I was running out of names, by the way.”
“Naturally, sir.” Impossibly, the man’s grin grew even wider. “You don’t wanna underestimate General Hammond, sir. The guy reads stuff…” The grin dimmed at last and, with a tilt of the head in Teal’c’s direction, he added, “Including his own orders, if you know what I mean, Colonel.”
“Starting to,” O’Neill acknowledged soberly. After a moment’s pause for thought, he spread his arms in an apparent attempt to look harmless. Unsuccessfully so, as far as Teal’c was concerned. “So, now that we got reacquainted, obviously you know that you can trust me.”
“Oh yes, sir!” Lowenstein snorted loudly enough to make his comrade wince. “As far as I could throw you, sir. I was there when you ran rings around those Ba’ath boys in Iraq, Colonel, remember? And I was with the team that dragged you home when we finally managed to find where they kept you… more dead than alive, I might add. Don’t try to kid a kidder. What do you need me to do, sir?”
“I need you to decide that my vast expertise and exceptional common sense are sufficient to guarantee the… safety… of our
and valued guest here, and that he won’t require an escort to the storeroom that merely diverts valuable resources from where they’re needed. Which means that, when I tell you to leave us the hell alone in… oh” — O’Neill threw a perfunctory glance at his wristwatch — “about thirty seconds or so, you’ll follow my orders.”
Lowenstein pinched the bridge of his nose, scrunched his mouth into a moue, and wrinkled his forehead — all in a show of strenuous deliberation, Teal’c presumed. Finally he said, “I guess I could do that, sir… provided we make it ‘pigheadedness’ and ‘a pinch of crazy’ instead of the expertise and common sense stuff.” The man’s grin flashed briefly, then he turned serious, slanted another look at Teal’c and asked, “You’re absolutely sure, Colonel?”
“Yessir!” Then, to his comrade, “Let’s go, Sanchez!”
The man he’d called Sanchez opened his mouth as if to argue, but thought better of it. He shrugged, in a long-suffering way that suggested that he was used to his comrade’s caprice. Then he fell in behind Lowenstein, who after a moment’s pause turned back to face O’Neill once more.
“Permission to speak freely, sir.”
O’Neill’s eyebrows shot up. “You require permission now, Sergeant? Since when?”
Lips twitching in an effort to suppress another grin, Lowenstein replied, “I dunno. Just thought it was the polite thing to say… Sir, you may wanna consider trusting General Hammond. He’s one of the good guys. Our kind of people.”
“So noted, Sergeant. And thanks. I’ll take it under advisement.”
Lowenstein nodded and he and his comrade turned to leave. O’Neill watched the two men walk away until they had reached the end of the corridor and disappeared.
Finally in a position where he might ask for information without being taken for a dolt, Teal’c tried to prioritize his questions according to the potential importance of their answers.
“How do the Tau’ri know where they are going on their world?”
O’Neill blinked slowly and shook his head, as though attempting to dislodge some kind of blockage. “Come again?”
This time the reply was a sigh. Perhaps Teal’c had been wrong to assume that questions could or should be asked. But then O’Neill shook his head a second time and said, “Okay… sorry, Teal’c. How do we know where we’re going?”
“Indeed. I have previously met troglodyte races but your burrows seem to be exceptionally…” He struggled to find a descriptor that would not sound insulting and at last settled on “uniform.”
“You mean ‘boring’?”
Teal’c felt a flush creep up from his toes. Some people claimed that Jaffa were incapable of blushing. He wished they were here to witness it. Or perhaps not. At any rate, he opted for honesty, especially since O’Neill seemed to be quite aware of the monotony of his abode. “The thought had crossed my mind.”
“I bet. But I still don’t–” A sudden flash of inspiration lit O’Neill’s eyes. “Wait a minute! You think this is it? Seriously?”
“I would not presume to jest about someone’s home.”
“Yeah. A person’s home is their mothership or something, right?”
“For some persons, yes.”
The look on O’Neill’s face indicated that he did not wish to further discuss such persons. Or perhaps it was a Tau’ri’s understandable envy of the Goa’uld’s superior design. “Well, this” — a sweep of O’Neill’s arm encompassed the corridor and, by extension, dozens of its ilk — “isn’t the mothership. But for now you’ll have to take my word for it. We need to get you some clothes.”
More corridors. However, there were fewer people. While Teal’c was reluctant to admit it, the absence of an escort had put him at ease. O’Neill, at least, seemed willing to trust him, and there was a surprising amount of solace to be found in this particular Tau’ri’s trust. The warriors they encountered along the way — several more of the black-clad clan, some in the dingy kind of green O’Neill himself wore, and yet others in a sandy color that was marbled with whites and grays — showed O’Neill the respect accorded to a First Prime and otherwise went about their business without displaying any undue curiosity or attempts at interference.
At last O’Neill stopped outside another unmarked metal door, took the thin rectangle of plastic he wore on a piece of cord around his neck, and inserted it into a slit in the chunky piece of metal that was fastened to the wall beside the doorjamb. It struck Teal’c as an oddly simplistic and antiquated way of securing access, but it worked smoothly enough. The door slid open, and they entered a room that was filled with tall metal shelving units. The shelves in turn held stacks of clothing of various descriptions and orderly rows of foot- and headwear.
“It’s not exactly Paris,” remarked O’Neill, sounding vaguely apologetic, “but we should be able to find something that fits.”
Paris was a minor — a very minor — Goa’uld who had possessed the bad sense to abduct a rival’s consort, thus causing entirely unnecessary and absurdly drawn-out complications in that particular sector of the galaxy. The fool was known for his taste in fine clothing, but how O’Neill — or any of the Tau’ri for that matter — could possibly have known about it was a mystery to Teal’c.
They made their way to the back of the room, to a set of shelves that held fewer items than the others.
“X-Large section,” O’Neill observed as though this explained everything. Then he chose several folded items of clothing as well as some footwear that looked supremely uncomfortable. “These should fit. If they don’t we’re gonna have a problem…”
“I shall endeavor not to cause any problems, O’Neill. Thank you.” Teal’c took possession of the items handed to him and studied the color. The dingy green. “Will your clan be agreeable to my wearing their color?”