Area 52 HKH

The Garden Of Kheb

by Ellison Wonderland

URL: http://www.area52hkh.net/ase/ellison/garden.php
Summary: A possible interpretation of the episode Maternal Instinct

If there was one thing worse than a planetful of trees, it was being stuck in an ancient building with time on his hands. Jack O'Neill was not the most patient man in the world - certainly not in this world. He knew that, had few illusions about himself in fact. But he hated this more than anything, having to wait with nothing to do while Daniel did his scholar thing. Minutes were ticking by. Shiploads of Jaffa were probably on their way, charging up their staff weapons and doing a bit of target practice as they came. Nothing for him to do except watch the grass grow.

Shit. Couldn't even do that.

What was wrong with this godforsaken garden, that they didn't have any grass in it? Now, a wide open lawn was one thing. You could get up an impromptu game of something or other, do some callisthenics, something, anything. But this garden was dark, closed in, oppressive even. Jack hated it on a visceral level. It was so alien to everything that a proper garden should be.

It had a good old-fashioned statue, of course. Except the damn statue was Teal'c, doing his patient, waiting thing. It made Jack want to take out his knife and carve his initials on Teal'c's leg. Yeah. That would get a reaction. Maybe not the sort of reaction he could live with.

The side of the building, maybe. One of those fancy red posts, probably older than the Vatican. "Jack O'Neill was here, 2000." It was childish, he knew, but the waiting was driving him crazy. Of course, then Daniel would have to come along and carve a footnote: "the year 2000, according to the Julio-Claudian calendar of the Tau'ri of Earth." Or something like that. Jack didn't think that Daniel would really get the concept of grafitti, the desire to leave your mark on something so mind boggling that otherwise you weren't sure you could cope with it.

Kheb.

What did they know about it? The place where Osiris hid from Set. Thanks, Danny. Real informative there. And Master Bra'tac hadn't been much more help. It was some kind of holy place to the Jaffa, hence this temple stuck in the middle of what was no doubt a picturesque wilderness. If you liked that kinda thing.

And other than that, they knew nothing except that it seemed to have a population of two. One priestess, now dead (killed by the Jaffa of Apophis, who were in their turn slaughtered by person or persons unknown. There was a bogey out there somewhere, Jack was sure of it.) The other person was a monk, who was unfortunately very much alive. And currently beguiling Daniel with Zen sayings instead of answering a few honest questions. Like: is there a third person on this planet? A small baby, perhaps? Care to give him up for adoption? Care to make him, and the little matter of the entire Gou'ald knowledge base trapped in his head, available to the nice folks of the planet Earth?

But no, Daniel was swapping obscure sayings with the monk and trying to get the information his way. Of course, Daniel's way often worked, hence the fact that O'Neill was now sitting in the garden twiddling his thumbs instead of searching the building, taking it apart one stone at a time. He was used to relying on Daniel. Why was this time so hard?

Rather than search too deeply for the answer to that question, Jack began to consider other pithy sayings to scrawl on the pristine walls.

"You are not pleased with Kheb, O'Neill?"

Jack sighed and favoured Teal'c with what he hoped was an inscrutable look. He must be off his game today, if the statue could come to life and sneak up on him without his noticing. But the look in Daniel's eyes when he talked about the child. Best not to think about it.

"Kheb's just fine, Teal'c." It was revered by the Jaffa, after all, so he had to be careful. "What do you say to a new coat of paint?" Damn. Why hadn't he stopped when he was ahead?

"A coat of paint?"

"Yeah, too much red and white. Let's get some other colours and paint this place up. It would be something to do."

"I find the colours to be as they should be, O'Neill."

Now it was Teal'c's turn to be inscrutable. But then, he was always inscrutable. He could give that monk guy a run for his money. "On the whole, though, this is not a - safe - place."

"Whaddaya mean?" demanded Jack.

He looked around hastily. Maybe he should do another perimeter search. If Teal'c's finely honed experience sensed a threat, it was time to get moving. They didn't know how far away Apophis' troops were, but they were surely coming soon.

Why was he just sitting here? This place seemed to drain the energy, the initiative out of him. Anywhere else and he would have already lapped it, spying out the weaknesses, working out the best places to set traps and, if the worst came to the worst and they were caught here, a final stand.

"There is a spirit to this place that I find unnerving," said Teal'c. "Is Daniel Jackson searching within for the Harsesis child?"

Teal'c couldn't even bring himself to glance in the direction of the large doors that led to the temple's inner sanctum. Something about this place really had him spooked. Jack wondered whether, if he ordered Teal'c inside to search for the boy, there would be the customary swift obedience to his authority. Jack wished that he knew more about why this was such a holy site for the Jaffa. If the Gou'ald had taught him anything, it was that religion had a way of kicking you in the balls when you least expected it.

"There's some monk guy in there. Daniel reckons it's some kind of early Buddhism."

Daniel had said a lot more about it - Jack was sure the word "proto" had figured prominently - but there hadn't been a lot of point to it so his attention had wandered. The monk seemed okay, but you couldn't trust this universe's priests any more than you could trust its gods.

"Daniel's gonna play along, see if he can find out what's going on here, and where they've got the boy. If they've got him."

"That is satisfactory," said Teal'c, turning on his heel and marching off towards the next courtyard.

"Glad you approve," O'Neill called to Teal'c's retreating back. There was no response.

"Moody Jaffa," he muttered, scuffing his heel in the carefully arranged pebbles of the footpath. Something about this place made him want to grind everything under foot, and he didn't like that, didn't understand it. Why would a place so peaceful, so strangely quiet, bring out the worst in him? It wasn't as if he didn't value peace, beauty, quiet sanctuaries like this one was supposed to be.

But Teal'c was right. There was something unnerving, something.

There.

Jack whirled, gun pointed at the glistening surface of the oily- looking pool. He'd seen something out of the corner of his eye. A streak of silver, flashing under the cloudy waters.

Get a grip, O'Neill. Probably a fish. Ya gonna start shooting up ponds, now?

But it hadn't been a fish. He was almost sure of it. Still, what else could it have been?

"Nature is present here."

Fuck!

He had been a hair's breadth away from shooting the monk's head off. What was wrong with the guy? Didn't he know that you shouldn't sneak up on a USAF colonel in a hostile environment and not expect to get a bullet between the eyes.

"You're doing it again. Appearing out of nowhere." Okay, just a mild hint of exasperation in his tone. The monk seemed unaffected by it, continuing to perform that patently false smile.

Jack surveyed the gravel all around him with a jaundiced eye. First Teal'c, now the monk. Were Jack's the only feet hitting the ground?

"Thought you were talking to Daniel." Jack didn't lower the gun, nor did he reset the safety. Maybe it was time to get some answers his way. Polite questions backed by a gun might prove more successful than the sort of catechism that Daniel had been engaged in with this man.

"Your friend seeks answers within. You must do the opposite."

Jack lowered the gun at last, and tried for a friendly smile of his own. This guy was only a threat if you could literally die of boredom.

"Three across. Thirty-one letters." That was more like it. Time to out-obscure the obscure.

The monk met Jack's bland smile with one of his own. The silence stretched thin between them, but Jack had all the time in the world, now that he was finally doing something. If you were gonna play the enemy at his own game, you had to first make up new rules.

"O'Neill doesn't do cryptic crosswords," he added at last, when it seemed that they might just stand there all day. "See. I explained something. Your turn. To - explain - something. That's how it's done, see?"

"You must find your own answers," said the monk.

"I'm not leaving a donation," muttered Jack. "Is the boy here or not?"

"The surface is still. The eyes cannot see beneath. Does a fish swim there?"

Okay. Maybe he would need the gun after all.

"Ya wanna help me out, here?"

It had been a fish he'd seen, hadn't it?

"Your search is not the same as your friend's. To understand, you must seek in a different way.

The garden is here. The man is here inside it. Or is it in him?"

That made some sort of sense. Could the baby be concealed in the garden somewhere? Monks were unlikely to know much about caring for an infant, but even so, they wouldn't just leave one lying around in their garden. It seemed like a very poor effort at misdirection.

"You want me to search the garden. Why?"

"When you see, truly see, you will understand."

Jack cocked the trigger on his gun. "Care to be a bit more specific?"

The monk looked down the barrel with the same smile, clearly unimpressed. "What do you see?" he asked.

Apart from the fuckwit? Whom it now looked like he had to humour, if they were ever going to get the Harsesis child and get out of this damned place.

Jack turned slowly on one heel, eyes surveying his surroundings with his usual care and precision. That wall was too low. A man could scramble over it without breaking a sweat - it would prove no obstacle to an attacking force at all. Might as well not have bothered. Didn't even have any climbing plants to make it decorative. Damn stupid garden, if you asked him.

The oval gateway was a bit better. Fairly narrow. Not too many people could come through it at once, and they could be picked off from behind cover. This other low wall would do for that, since the bushes were far too skimpy to provide any sort of concealment or protection. The pond was no better - a grown man could jump over it easily enough. Although Jack had a strange feeling that if you stepped into it, you would sink like a stone beneath that murky surface and never come out again. The crunchy gravel that seemed to be everywhere should give early warning of intruders, unless they happened to travel soundlessly in some bizarre mystical fashion, like Teal'c and the monk.

"Is that really all you see?"

The monk sounded surprised for the first time, as if something Jack had said had thrown him. Not that he had said anything out loud at all.

"Are you reading my mind?" demanded Jack. For the first time, he felt something other than irritation at the individual standing in front of him. About 5'8. Solid build. Those robes would hamper him in hand- to-hand conflict. Seemed to be in the pink of health. And probably the most annoying person that Jack had ever met - with the exception of Daniel.

All in all, he looked just like the sort of generic monk that Jack would expect to see in a quasi-Buddhist temple. Except for the eyes. They seemed to know more about the world, and about Jack O'Neill in particular, than he was ready to deal with.

"You will not find that which you seek until you really see Oma's garden."

"Look," said Jack, "I haven't got time to go on some spirit quest or seek enlightenment, or whatever it is you think you're asking me to do. We've got to get the boy and get out of here. There's an army on its way, and they're sure as crap not gonna stand around admiring the flowers. Not that you have any goddamn flowers. And if you've got any sense, you'll come with us."

Had he just offered asylum to this guy? Good one, O'Neill.

"Oma will protect her children," replied the monk, turning and walking away. "Look at the garden. Your answers are there."

For a moment, Jack considered tackling the retreating figure and beating the truth out of him. But only for a moment. That wasn't the way that SG1 did things. Maybe Daniel had had more luck. In fact, it was time to check up on his wayward friend and see if he'd found the boy indoors, or gotten any real answers out of Mr Haiku.

He took a final quick look around the garden. The sun was beginning to sink in the sky but the late afternoon shadows painted nothing for him in the way of enlightenment. The pool remained opaque, its cloudy waters uninviting, and the small bushes were still scrappy and not worth shit in the way of cover. There were no flowers, no crystal waters, no grasses, hardly any trees, nothing that gave a garden any value. O'Neill could have forgiven it all if there'd been a playground and a nicely swaddled infant on a swing. But as it was, it was just a death trap.

Time to seek answers inside, with Daniel.

~~~

Jack was a little disconcerted to find Daniel sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring at a candle. He'd become accustomed to thinking of Daniel as the best damn reconnaissance agent that he'd ever worked with. Stepping through the stargate onto more worlds than he cared to remember, relying on a quick aerial survey which often told them nothing, SG1 needed to find its own information and find it quickly. Survival and the success of the mission required nothing less. And Daniel was a key part of that, with his incredible ability to analyse other cultures, translate obscure Earth-related languages, and work out what the hell was going on because some fool had taken the time to write it down on one of their walls.

But sitting around meditating in front of candles was not one of Daniel's more usual data-gathering exercises. You'd think he wasn't almost on top of the one thing that had kept him going since Shau'ri's death - the child that he had promised to protect. It was ironic to think that the offspring of two of the galaxy's worst abominations, Apophis and Amonhet, was what got Daniel out of bed in the mornings. Yet it was Shau'ri's child too, born of her body, maybe more hers than that of the snake that had lived coiled inside her. Daniel had promised his dying wife that he would find and protect her child.

Maybe that explained the closed intensity, the almost desperation, with which Daniel was staring at that candle. He was willing to do anything, jump through any mystical hoops set up by the mad monk, if it brought him closer to Shau'ri's child. Jack could understand that. He would have done the same for his own son. No. Don't think about him. Focus on Daniel.

So white, so tense, Daniel looked as if he really had gone far away without ever leaving this room. Jack resolved, then and there, that he would search the garden a hundred times if it got Daniel any closer to what he needed. He would dig up every stone and pile them in that godforsaken pond, till the oily water streamed over the flags and poisoned all the green and growing things.

There was the official mission, of course, to find the Harsesis child and the possible knowledge that would topple the Gou'ald. But Jack didn't set much store in that. Increasingly, they seemed to be grasping at straws, searching for ghosts, rather than the solid advantages of allies and technology that could help Earth to withstand an invasion. A baby might or might not have the wisdom of an entire race encoded in its genes - how were they to know, or to access it? Excuse me, Apophis, would you mind not attacking Earth for 14 years or so, till the boy hits puberty and unlocks the secrets in his mind. Or maybe Harsesis children didn't get to access or understand that knowledge till they were in their 80s. Who knew? The Gou'ald always successfully killed them before anyone could find out.

No, SG1 was here for one reason only - to find Shau'ri's child and bring him back to Earth, before Apophis could get his paws on him. Anything more than that was an added bonus. And since Apophis had nearly wiped out the population of Teal'c's home world in his search for this child, the boy must never be allowed to fall into that monster's hands. Anything that important to Apophis must be denied him, it was obvious. To think that his "father" wanted the baby as a new host was almost unbelievable, even for the Gou'ald. And Daniel, whom Jack was fairly sure had started to think of himself as the child's real father, was willing to do anything to stop that from happening. Even stare at a goddamn candle for hours at a stretch, mouthing platitudes all the while.

Of course, Daniel might just find it interesting. You could never be sure with him.

Turning with quick, military precision, Jack strode out of the inner sanctum and into the chill of late afternoon. It was time to search the garden.

~~~

A quick circuit revealed nothing of great interest, except for a few good sites to set up booby traps. If you didn't mind blowing up bits of a temple that had existed longer than the Acropolis. On the whole, Jack would prefer not to do that unless he really had to, no matter how dismal the place was. There was no sign of the child, no hidden nurseries, nothing that would help with the mission. This was a wipe out.

"You walk away from Oma," said a voice behind his shoulder.

Great. Who or what the fuck was Oma? And how did this guy keep sneaking up on him like that?

"To find what you seek, you must be still and look. I cannot be plainer than that."

Okay. Still and look. Seemed fairly straightforward.

Jack didn't dignify his benefactor's intervention with more than a hard stare.

The monk seemed amused. "Do not look at me. I know nothing. See the garden."

"You know nothing," muttered Jack, swearing under his breath. "Fine time to tell me that."

"To see the garden All that it is and can be One sees with one's feet."

"Thanks," replied Jack politely. He wouldn't mind seeing the monk's ass with his foot.

Turning a back stiff with outrage on his spiritual adviser, Jack stared blindly off into the distance. He saw the pond directly in front of him, its waters a kind of greeny-white, speckled with lilies. Motionless. Beyond the pond stretched the pebbles, scattered in a natural mosaic without form or pattern. Then there was the wall, and the portal that bisected it, through which he could see the next part of the garden stretching away towards another wall and portal. If they'd built things a bit higher, they could have had a good concentric ring of defensive walls there. Of course, you shouldn't have all your portals in a straight line. Kinda gives the enemy a clear run at you.

Were those a man's hands on his hips?

"I don't know what the custom is in these parts, buddy, but on Earth we don't do that till the second date."

"Let me guide you," whispered a voice in his ear, the hands trying to steer him.

"Hey, if you wanna dance, I'm gonna lead," snapped Jack. It felt strange to have the hard, square fingers of a man on his body. Calm down, O'Neill. There's at least two layers of combat fatigues between him and your actual skin.

The monk seemed to be trying to push him forward and to the left.

Jack took a step. And another.

"Now look."

Same damn view, same damn garden. Although, as he catalogued the scene automatically, that wasn't strictly true. From this angle, he couldn't see the outer edge of the pond. No telling how big it was, really. Even though his rational mind knew exactly where it ended beyond his range of vision, well, he couldn't actually see that without turning his head.

"No. Straight ahead. That is your way, is it not?"

Yeah, right. What did this asshole know about Jack O'Neill?

There was now a small tree at the left of his field of vision, the centre of ripples of shrubs, spreading out into the sea of gravel that formed the solid base and core of this place. Tiny stone after tiny stone, each one placed randomly, in colours of black and white. He could see half the portal, and through it a pattern of shrubs that seemed different without the counterbalance of greenery that he knew, from memory, was just out of sight.

"Take another step."

This one veered further left, turning his body slightly. Jack let the man move him passively. If this business didn't result in the production of the Harsesis child, there would be time enough to murder the priest before Apophis' goons arrived.

Now the lone, twisted tree took centre stage, and for a strange moment Jack felt as if everything in his line of sight radiated from its gnarled, silvery trunk. It was the exact height of the wall, so it could not be seen from the other side. Only from where he was standing, could you see this tree in quite this way. Its branches seemed to point to various parts of the courtyard, as though trained over long years to create a compass for his eyes.

"Do not turn your head."

The shrubs around the tree - there was a geometric pattern to them that he hadn't noticed before, that didn't make sense from further away, beside the pond. That was strange. Wasn't distance supposed to make patterns clearer?

Another step, this time without being told, pulling against the confining hands on his hips.

From this angle, the branches on the left side of the tree no longer seemed to point to other things, practically forcing his eyes to seek out the object of their gestures, making him want to look wildly around. Instead, he now saw an imperfection, a branch that appeared to be broken, with its top half hanging down to collide with another. But as he stared ever more closely, Jack realised that it was a wood so supple that the branch had been moulded that way, to form what looked like a window frame. Whether naturally or artificially, he couldn't tell. And through the frame, in the middle distance, he saw a rock. Just standing there, stark and simple. Perfectly in shot, as though the tree branches were a photographer's dream lens. And beyond the rock, framing it in turn from behind, was the miniature mountain that had somehow been crafted and dumped at the far end of this long courtyard. Maybe not dumped. Maybe carefully placed so that a person, standing here, on this spot, would see its fake slopes forming the perfect backdrop to this very unremarkable, remarkable rock.

Jack stared at the tree, through the tree at the rock, past the rock at the mountain. It was so still. Silent. Nothing to distract him from what should have been a quick look and pass on. Nothing but the weight of a stranger's hands on his hips.

Fuck. No hands.

Where had the monk gone? Jack swung around, gun at the ready, but there was no sign of another living soul anywhere in the courtyard. The lengthening shadows told him that he'd been standing here, unmoving, for some time. How long, he couldn't be sure.

Damn it to hell. What was that supposed to have accomplished? Okay, so there was a bit more to this garden than it's being an indefensible death trap without flowers. But so what?

"We're out of time," he decided, setting off for the inner shrine at a fast jog.

Walls made of paper. You didn't even need a bomb to bring them down. What were these people thinking when they built this place?

"Jack!"

Daniel leapt to his feet, eyes alight with excitement. It was a little disconcerting, really, to be the focus of so much intensity. When had he last seen Daniel looking so - alive?

"It's amazing, Jack. The writings on these walls are a guide, not just to the history of Kheb but to the path of enlightenment."

There were writings on those walls? Hmmn. Maybe that explained the paper. Jack took a closer look at the faint black squiggles while Daniel waved his arms excitedly, talking nineteen to the dozen.

"But it's not enlightenment in the sense that Buddhist traditions describe on earth. No Jack, this is a very literal enlightenment, a transition to another plane of existence. And it's all here. I think that the aliens who built this place ascended to this higher plane millennia ago. And they left the shrine as a guide for others who wanted to follow them. And at least one of the aliens has visited Earth - Oma Desala. Mother Nature."

So far, it seemed to Jack that enlightenment had consisted of staring at ponds and rocks. He fixed on the core of what Daniel was trying to tell him.

"Aliens? He's an alien?"

The monk didn't look up from his meditation on the floor, same infuriating smile fixed on his lips.

"Um, no," said Daniel, halting in mid-flow. "No, the aliens are gone. He's the curator of the shrine."

Jack allowed his satisfaction to show in a broad grin. "Kinda like a janitor."

"More like a guide," corrected Daniel, shaking his head gently.

"An usher?" asked Jack, hopefully.

"Um, I think you're missing the point, Jack."

No, not the damn candle again?

Jack started to seethe as he watched Daniel resume his cross-legged pose on the floor in front of the candle, arms resting comfortably on his thighs. Seconds later, the candle flickered into life, as if lit by the serenity blazing out of Daniel's face.

"Am I supposed to believe that you did that?" asked Jack cautiously.

They had to get the Harsesis child and the monk, if he wanted to come, and hightail it back to the stargate before the bombs started dropping. There wasn't time for parlour games and magic tricks. But there was room in his irritation for a qualm at Daniel's coming disappointment, when the monk's tricks were exposed. Like David Copperfield. It was fun while it lasted, but an anticlimax when you knew how it was done.

"Daniel, a word?"

Jack gestured with his head towards a quiet alcove, away from the monk, and was absurdly pleased that Daniel jumped up immediately and followed him. Remembering the ghostly imprint of fingers on his hips, guiding him, Jack reached out and placed both hands on Daniel's shoulders. It felt right, somehow, to grip him like this, steadying him against the flights of fancy adrift in this spooky place. Daniel trembled a moment before stiffening, but Jack kept his hands where they were. He liked the feel of Daniel's strong shoulders beneath his fingers, and the idea that he was earthing Daniel, grounding him.

"We didn't come here to learn parlour tricks," he said calmly, in the no-nonsense tone he used when he needed to pull Daniel's head out of the clouds. "Is the boy here or not?"

"I think so."

"Cos every minute we're here, we're risking our necks."

"I know that, Jack." Ah, Dr Jackson's patronising tone had come to visit.

"I'm on the verge of ordering a full search of this place, with or without his co-operation."

They both glanced at the monk, who continued to smirk away to himself. Jack was itching to wipe that smile off his face, but it would have to wait for later.

"You can't do that Jack."

Ah. Daniel's earnest look, half pleading, half defiant. Absurdly, Jack felt a faint stirring in his groin. It always happened whenever he was the undivided object of one of those looks. No time to worry about it now.

"You're mistaken, Daniel," he said gently. His cock stiffened a little more, as Daniel seemed to hang on his every word. "I can order a search - so far, I've chosen not to."

"I'm gaining his trust," whispered Daniel. "I need more time."

"How long is it gonna take?" A little exasperation escaped with that one, but hey, he was sporting major wood here. It was time to get things moving.

"Jack, you don't understand." Daniel pulled out from what had become a crushing grip and took two steps back. Shit. When had his fingers started to tighten?

Eyes closed. Face intent. Was Danny gonna have some sort of fit?

Just as Jack was about to start forward, he felt ghostly hands at his hips again. Dammit, that monk needed to stop pawing him and start showing some respect. But there was no one there. Nothing there, in fact, since the gun hanging at his hip was no longer in its holster but was now floating in mid air, suspended between himself and Daniel. Fortunately, the business end was pointing at Jack, not Daniel.

"Okay, that was a little more impressive. How'd you do that?"

But the monk ignored him, as if he wasn't worth the bother of a reply.

"Actually, I did it," said Daniel quietly.

Damn. Should the thought of Danny holding a gun on him be making him harder?

The gun clattered to the floor, lying between them like an accusation.

"That's what I've been trying to tell you." Oh yeah, fair bubbling with suppressed excitement there. "He's been teaching me how to do things with my mind. It's amazing."

There had to be a rational explanation for this. A human being couldn't learn telepathy in a few hours. Could he? Not when Jack had learnt nothing more than that standing round in lots of gravel scuffed your boots.

"He can teach you, too," offered Daniel. It was hard, so hard, to resist that puppy dog look. Bet they taught that one in grad school.

"I cannot teach you what you already know," chimed in the monk.

"Oh, I don't know as much as you think I know," said Jack. It was a loaded comment. They both knew that he was talking about the garden, and his failure to understand what the monk had tried to show him.

"You must come to know Oma Desala. You must make her your friend," said the monk.

Was that a non sequitur? And if not, what did it mean?

Jack was tired of riddles and non-answers. He wanted to collect the boy, his team, and go home. And then get a whole lot more friendly with Daniel, not this Oma Desala.

As if in answer to that thought, the loud whine of a low flying aircraft shattered the peace of the shrine. The monk didn't even look up, seemingly oblivious to the threat, but Jack knew exactly what it meant. They were out of time.

"Is that your friend?" he spat at the others, grabbed his gun, and made his way back out into the garden.

~~~

Teal'c and Bra'tac were on their way into the forest to scout out the landing place of the Jaffa gliders that had just flown over the temple. With any luck, it was only a small advance party to which they could mount an effective resistance. He had Carter mining the entrance with claymores, getting ready to make a stand here if they had to. And in the meantime, Jack was going to do a little scouting of his own.

Not an armed search, per se. No noise and guns. Just one stealthy colonel having a quick hunt through the inner sanctum, looking for a small boy and the heart of a friend. Maybe even a lover, if his now constant erection had anything to say about it. Jack had always found Daniel attractive, from the very beginning. But Daniel had been faithful to Shau'ri, even though the glances he sent Jack's way were scorching sometimes in their intensity. It was damn near impossible to be gay in the military anyway, if you didn't want a bullet in the back from your buddies one day. But SG1 was different. Teal'c and Carter were absolutely reliable. And Daniel - was Daniel. Even with Shau'ri dead, there had been a time of mourning, an emptiness that Jack wasn't ready to fill. Until now, maybe.

Slipping quietly through empty chambers, Jack flashed back to Daniel sitting cross-legged on the floor of the shrine. But in his memory, Daniel was the centre of the room, with everything else retreating from his still figure. The monk, even the cursed candle, were off to one side. Daniel was perfectly framed by red pillars and squares of colourless paper. A single bead of sweat rolled down his forehead, trickled down a slightly flushed cheek. Jack wanted to reach out with his tongue and taste it. His cock was aching against his tight uniform pants. It was all strangely erotic, like going to church one day and suddenly realising that you fancied the priest.

Shaking his head, Jack concentrated on scanning yet another empty room. This one seemed to have a false wall, complete with windows, three feet away from the real wall. Almost against his will, Jack was drawn to look through two sets of windows, out into the garden. It was dark outside now, the light of a thousand stars glittering in the alien sky. And, if he looked down, he could see another damned pond, right outside the first window, between the false wall and the true.

Okay. Maybe it was an indoor pool. Same murky, white-green water, opaque to the eyes. Reflective, but of shadows, not images. Light and dark danced on the surface, to the tune of the flickering torches on the wall. Jack couldn't see himself in the water, just a slightly darker patch where he registered on its surface. Again, he felt a strange pull as he had in the garden, a sense that he could step off the edge and disappear without trace, drowning in impossible depths.

Crap. This was a waste of time. Maybe the boy wasn't here after all.

There was another doorway to his left - he could try there.

Oops. Back to the heart of the shrine, where Daniel and the monk stood as if they hadn't moved since he'd seen them last.

Exasperation made Jack's voice sharp. "So is the kid here or not?"

Daniel shook his head in protest. "Jack."

"Daniel, that was a Jaffa glider. Time's up."

Jack might have known that the monk would start to spout some mystical crap about time having no meaning. He would sing a different tune when the Jaffa staff weapons gave him a wake-up call.

"Jack, look," proclaimed Daniel sonorously. He'd been spending too much time with that damn priest.

A sudden wall of flame rose between them, almost six feet high, and burning very hotly. Daniel stared intently at the fire, seemingly willing it into existence.

Jack clapped his hands very slowly, trying not to look impressed. "Great. You wanna toast marshmallows?"

Daniel blinked. "Oma Desala is teaching me how to do these things. Giving me powers. It's all on the walls, Jack, just look around you."

"Mother Nature's teaching you to start fires? Um, why?"

Jack willed his errant cock to subside. Did he really want to go to bed with someone who could start a fire just by thinking about it? Could give a whole new meaning to the concept of hot sex. Besides, there was some trick to all of this. Hidden technology or something. Truth to tell, Jack had been more impressed by the gun thing. This was just showy.

"She wants me to have the powers, so that I can protect the child. I have to protect him, Jack. I have to."

I hear ya, Danny. Loud and clear. "We don't know for sure that he's here." Very gentle. "Daniel, it's time to go now."

"We have to stay, Jack. I - I don't think I'm ready yet. There's so much more to learn," said Daniel, pleading with eyes, voice, face, straining hands, everything he had.

Thank god for Carter, who burst into the room as if the Jaffa were on her heels. Jack didn't think he could have said no to Daniel at that point.

"I've laid the claymores, sir," reported Carter, watching Daniel and the monk warily. "What's going on?"

"Daniel thinks we should stay," said Jack. "Daniel, why don't you show her?"

Carter was a real scientist (not that he would ever put it that way to Daniel.) If anyone could get to the bottom of this mental "powers" business, it was her. He watched with mingled amusement and relief as she scanned the area for hidden devices, obviously unimpressed with Daniel's fire-starting abilities. Still, it was a very hot fire that sprang to life in the centre of the room once more.

Jack took a step back, as the wall of flame flickered between them. False walls and empty gardens. This place was a hollow shell. There was nothing inside it; no child, no powers, no meaning of life. Just an empty mockery, he was sure of it.

"This is impossible," said Sam, her eyes as full of conviction as Daniel's. Jack and the monk shared a wry glance, before Jack recalled that this guy was probably an enemy and looked away.

"If I had the time, I'd bring in the right equipment and find out how this is being done," said Carter. "You can't just start a fire with your mind, Daniel."

Daniel spread eloquent hands. Oh yeah. They did half his talking really. And how would they feel on Jack's body, stroking the small of his back, parting his thighs?

"Sam, isn't there the smallest part of you that wants to believe, to accept that we can ascend to a higher level? I have that power now."

"Power to do what?" asked Sam, as Jack had done. They were the practical ones, the ones who got everyone home when the chips were down.

"Power to protect the child. I don't think she wants me to leave until I've learnt how to do that."

"Who doesn't?" demanded Sam, looking round suspiciously for the mystery woman.

Cherchez la femme, thought Jack, surreptitiously adjusting his erection. Damn Daniel, why did he have to look so good, all fired up like that.

"Mother Nature," Jack hissed to Carter as an aside.

She looked at him in disbelief. "Mother Nature?" she mouthed back at him.

Before he could do more than nod in reply, Teal'c and Bra'tac slipped into the room, looking as if they were more worried about what was inside than what was coming behind them. Teal'c, especially, looked nervous in a way that Jack couldn't remember seeing before.

"Kheb is holy ground." The words echoed in his head.

"O'Neill," said Teal'c, getting straight to the point, "the Gou'ald mother ship has landed. There are about 2000 troops heading this way, through the forest."

"We're leaving. That's an order, Daniel," said Jack flatly. It was not open for debate. For a moment, he could still see the reflection of the flames, flickering in Daniel's glasses. Then it was gone.

"Been nice chatting to you," he added for the monk.

Without waiting for a reply, Jack led the way out of the shrine. They could still lose themselves in the woods out there and work their way back round to the stargate, without the Jaffa even knowing they'd been there. Looked like they were all walking away empty-handed from this one, Jaffa and SG1 alike. When they'd found the corpses of the other Jaffa and the priestess in the woods, Bra'tac had been sure that the dead woman's hands were unfettered because she'd been carrying a child. But when it came down to it, that was nothing but speculation.

There was no child here. Just tricks and shadows. Kheb was a bust.

Jack could see the light of approaching torches in the distance. Lots and lots of torches. It was going to be a close thing but they were experienced at disappearing in the wilderness.

"Fall out," he ordered.

"Sir, what about Daniel?" asked Carter.

Crap. Daniel had been right behind him, hadn't he?

Nope. No irritating archaeologist, bringing up the rear. Damn the man.

Jack headed back into the shrine, clenching his fingers into tight fists. In a way, he was almost looking forward to this. At least he would get to touch Daniel, even if it was just to drag him by the scruff of the neck. Maybe manhandle him a little. Let him know who was boss.

Who was he kidding? When had he ever been able to make Daniel do anything against his will?

The central shrine was empty, the candles casting mocking shadows on the blood-red walls. No Daniel. No monk.

Fuck.

"Daniel!" he shouted.

There was no reply. Jack headed through the inner doorway into the rest of the temple at a dead run. Pounded his way through the rooms he'd searched earlier. Empty. All empty. Where the fuck had they gone?

Maybe. No. No time for that.

Even so, Jack found himself stopping to look through the false window, down into the silver-green pool. It steadied him a little, heart pounding, guts churning in his throat. He was not leaving Daniel behind. Not again.

If he closed his eyes, he could still see the scene on the Gou'ald ship, the smell of ozone and burning flesh. Daniel, ripped and torn, lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Daniel's eyes, dull with pain and - love?

"Just go, Jack. Just go. I've got your back."

Not this time, Danny. Never again. He remembered the touch of his fingers on Daniel's face, giving comfort. Saying goodbye without words. Message given and received. They had always communicated best through touch.

First, he couldn't find the boy. Now he couldn't find Daniel or the monk. And he'd been through every room in this godforsaken place. There was more to Kheb, it would seem, than empty platitudes and lousy décor. Hidden passages and concealed rooms would be an added bonus. He just had to hope that Daniel knew what he was doing, and that in the meanwhile Jack could buy enough time for him to do it, and to still get them all out of here.

Jack pulled back from the window and walked away, whistling quietly, heading for the garden. Jaffa were a challenge he understood.

~~~

Tactically, it made no sense. Jack knew that. Bra'tac, Teal'c, Carter, they all knew it too. He'd called for reinforcements from the SGC, but they would never get there in time. One of the team was missing. And instead of doing the sensible thing, and retreating into the forest, they were doing the right thing.

"Remind me to harm Daniel severely, when he turns up," Jack muttered to Carter, stretched out three feet away behind the meagre cover of a low wall. He rested his gun on top of the rough-hewn stones, pointing at the entrance. "And get ready to blow the claymores on my command."

The torches of the Jaffa army were fast approaching, though they were harder to see now that the bright moon had been hidden behind some clouds. A whole lot of clouds. In fact, the night sky was roiling above them, angry-looking storm clouds racing across the stars.

"Looks like Mother Nature's brewing up a storm," commented Jack. He was only half-joking. He knew that each of them was remembering the dead Jaffa in the woods, incinerated as if struck by lightning.

Crap. Daniel and the monk guy had got him thinking crazy thoughts. They were on their own in this one, as they always were.

The sound of voices and the tramp of heavy boots were now loud in the still night air. Above them, the dark skies brooded but it made little difference to the solid phalanx of soldiers marching up to the great round portal gate. Not that there was an actual gate in the gateway. It was as if the builders of Kheb had sat down and tried to devise the least defensible building ever. They had certainly succeeded.

Carter was looking a bit trigger-happy. "Don't blow the claymores yet," said Jack, calmly. "I don't want to get in to this until we absolutely have to. We have to buy as much time as we can."

"For what, O'Neill?" asked Teal'c.

"For Daniel," replied Jack.

"Get ready," snapped Bra'tac, clearly annoyed at all the talking. His staff weapon was trailed unerringly on the gate, where the first group of Jaffa were marching in as if they owned the place.

"You are not welcome here," called a voice from the entrance to the inner shrine. Well, looked like one of the missing folks had turned up. Jack kept one eye on the approaching Jaffa, the other on the monk, who was now walking forward to meet the intruders. There was no sign of Daniel coming behind him. Crap.

"You will leave," said the monk, his voice full of supreme confidence. Jack's finger tightened on the trigger. He had the head Jaffa firmly in his sights.

"In the name of the god Apophis, we have come for the boy," intoned the Jaffa.

Great. More dramatics. Why didn't they just get on with it?

"Stand aside," ordered the Jaffa.

The monk was as indifferent to this command as he had been to any of Jack's. But the servants of Apophis were less patient than a USAF colonel, and their weapons sang out loud in the cold night air.

A bolt from a staff weapon hit the monk full in the chest. He staggered back, a look of almost-surprise on his face, before crumpling to the ground. Claps of thunder filled the air. The sound was truly staggering, as if in answer to the outrage that had just been committed. Jack tried to cover his ears without loosening his hold on his weapon.

Even so, the noise wasn't enough to drown out the cry from within the temple, as Daniel came running out to stand next to the fallen monk.

Fully exposed, no cover, no weapon. Had the kid learnt nothing?

"Drop your weapons," screamed Jack, standing up himself to draw their attention. "Do it! Now!"

While his gun was already trained on the leader, and nothing was aimed at him, he had the drop on them. It would only last for seconds.

Daniel walked forward towards the Jaffa, hands high in the air. Like that would stop them from shooting.

"Drop your weapons," called Daniel softly. He was too far away for Jack to read his eyes. What if he was planning a stupid trick with fire or something? With the monk dead and a whole host of Jaffa to deal with, it could only go wrong.

"Do it, drop them," Jack shouted, still aiming at the leader and trying to distract them from Daniel.

"I was talking to you, Jack," said Daniel.

Oh.

"Do it now, all of you," he added.

The stand-off was the only thing keeping them alive, including Daniel. What the fuck was going on here?

"Daniel?" he called, sotto voce. Time to clue me in, here, was the unspoken subtext. He knew that Daniel would get it instantly. Whether he would do anything about it remained to be seen.

"Jack, I was wrong, I was very wrong," said Daniel urgently, talking fast. The thunder had died away and his voice carried clearly across the short distance between them. "One of those aliens I thought long gone is still here."

"We put down our guns and we're dead," said Carter, coldly, reminding him of his responsibilities, of the harsh realities in this unenchanted garden.

"You are outnumbered and surrounded. You are dead if you do not," said the head Jaffa, not quite daring to move and aim at them under the steady regard of Jack's gun. Didn't matter. His staff weapon was pointed at Daniel, and that was more than threat enough.

"Jack," murmured Daniel, his voice like liquid velvet in the cold night air. "If you are ever going to trust me on anything, now is the time."

Whoah. Pulling out the big guns, Danny. Jack was proud of himself for not flinching, for keeping his gun steady, even though he'd just been kicked in the guts.

"The alien is the one with all the powers," continued Daniel, apparently oblivious to the wound he had just inflicted, "and she is not someone to fool with. If you get my drift."

It was hard to argue with loaded staff weapons, though.

"We must do it," said Bra'tac in his abrupt fashion, lowering his own gun decisively. Sure. Bra'tac had been quick to kick off his boots and drop his weapon earlier, and get down on the sand with monk boy. But that hadn't lasted, had it? Minutes later he was outside again, talking about honour, duty, and the need to keep fighting. Jack couldn't trust Bra'tac's instincts in this place of all places.

Teal'c nodded in agreement with Bra'tac. No surprise there.

A thin line of sweat made its slow way down Jack's forehead. He could be dead before it reached his eyes.

We put down our guns and we're dead. Carter had said.

One sees with one's feet. The monk. Well, that was helpful.

If you are ever going to trust me on anything, now is the time.

Trust? He trusted Daniel. Trusted him to understand the writing on the wall. But did Daniel ever really see the writing on the wall?

How were you supposed to see with your feet, anyway?

Knowing it was insane, criminal even, Jack closed his eyes. He felt the remembered sensation of hands on his hips, guiding him. But were they really a stranger's hands? Or were they Daniel's? Strong, slender, beautiful hands. Moving him this way and that. One step. And another.

Black and white. A wall is a defensive object. And it should really, if it had to be decorative, have some old world ivy growing on it. That was how Jack had seen Kheb, searching the garden. He saw things in terms of how they should be, the purpose they served, the expectations that fed his sense of what was right in the world. But with his feet and body under the hands of another, he had seen something else. A different scene with every step, though his body had hardly moved. Corners that were not there before. Vistas that changed, seemed wholly new, with the blink of an eye. A rock framed by a mountain and the branches of a twisted tree. A world in which a garden was still a garden without flowers. Just different. Unexpected.

You will not find that which you seek until you really see Oma's garden.

But he hadn't been seeking the boy at all. He'd been searching for Daniel. And he knew that now. What he was seeing was Daniel, in the garden, or the garden in Daniel. Looking through Daniel's eyes, his hands on Jack's hips, steering him through the worlds as Jack now realised he always did. Seeing their light and shade. Seeing their beauty, their incredible diversity, through Daniel's eyes.

Swallowing convulsively, Jack stepped forward and sank into the pool. Its oily waters closed over his head without a sound.

Click. Jack's gun hit the gravel.

"Do it," he barked at Carter.

He heard her weapon hit the deck.

Jack's eyes opened in time to catch the triumph in the Jaffa's face.

"Kill them all," the bastard ordered, aiming his staff at Daniel.

Jack almost didn't see the faint streaks of silver as the night exploded with fire, bolts of energy tearing through the air at his beleaguered team. For one terrible second he thought he'd been wrong, made a fatal mistake, before the energy beams dissipated harmlessly about a foot in front of him. Remembering the silver streak he'd seen earlier out of the corner of his eye, roiling beneath the surface of the pool, Jack watched in astonishment as the Jaffa fired and fired their weapons without hitting anything. An unseen barrier seemed to be protecting them, a faint hint of silver its only sign. That, and the fact that nothing was getting through it.

Unable to help himself, Jack smirked at the Jaffa bastard. Just in time, too, as the sound of thunder ripped the air apart, followed by bright flashes of lightning. The long-threatened storm had finally arrived. But this was no ordinary storm. Shielding his eyes, Jack watched in astonishment as forks of lightning struck the Jaffa, burning them to a screaming crisp where they stood.

The awful smell of cooking flesh filled the air. Jack gagged, even as he moved forward for a closer look.

Yep. Dead. Every last one of them.

Wow.

Don't mess with Mother Nature.

"That was cool," he observed casually to Carter, trying to conceal the fact that his heart was hammering in his chest with the release of adrenaline. Daniel was safe and alive. They were all safe. He was going to get his team home again. Thank God.

The silver glow intensified over at the entrance to the shrine, where a figure shrouded in white light had emerged, a baby clasped in her arms.

The Harsesis child.

And Oma Desala, presumably.

Jack looked Mother Nature in the face, but she had eyes only for Daniel. Figured.

Oma was ethereal, some kind of spirit maybe, drifting through the air towards Daniel. And so beautiful. Jack didn't think he had ever seen anything so unreal, despite the daily wonders on the other side of the stargate.

The glowing white figure held out the Harsesis child to Daniel, as if to let him see it one last time.

"You're leaving," said Daniel flatly, his voice pressed free of any tone. "You know that more of them will come so long as they know you're here, so you're leaving."

Jack staggered a little. To have come this close, only to lose his son again - Shau'ri's son. Oh, Daniel.

"I'll see you both again some day, right?" asked Daniel. Jack could hear the tentativeness in the small voice, the unwilling hope.

No matter how much the universe knocked him back, Daniel Jackson always came back for more.

Jack sighed. They were going to be alright. So long as Daniel could hold on to some kinda hope, they would survive. They had to.

Oma's only response was to reach out with an insubstantial hand, drawing it across Daniel's cheek. It won her a faint smile, before she drifted slowly skywards, taking the child with her.

So much for the mission, official as well as personal. He'd been right the first time. Kheb was a bust.

Suddenly, without even willing his feet to move, Jack was face to face with Daniel. His eyes were glistening with unshed tears. Jack had never seen him cry, not even when Shau'ri died. God knows, he needed to let go. And Jack was gonna see that he did. As soon as they got home.

"Are you alright?" he asked gently. It would have to do for now, in front of the others.

Daniel looked away. "Yes," he said. But then Jack had known he'd say that, no matter what. His fingers snaked out to brush Daniel's cheek, where Oma had failed to touch him. Human contact. I'm here, Danny. It's gonna be alright.

"Let's go home," Jack murmured.

Some things never changed.

"Daniel - shoes," he reminded the barefoot archaeologist as they headed out of the garden of Kheb for home.

The End

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