Area 52 HKH

Jean Pool 1

Crusade In Jeans (Part 1/2)

by Mystic

URL: http://www.area52hkh.net/asm/mystic/jeanpool011.php
Summary: Jack knew that stepping through the gate changed his life, but he didn't think one more time would make that much a difference; he was wrong. Now, Jack O'Neill, John Sheppard and Rodney McKay are intertwined in an adventure of a lifetime, starting with how the hell to get back to being a grownup
Info: The title and basic concept comes from a book I read back in High School: Crusade in Jeans by Thea Beckman. The book was out of print but the story stayed with me and remains as one of my favorites.

Prologue

The turbulence only aided in keeping him from losing himself completely in his vain attempt to not think at all. He looked out the window and saw the storm clouds and being a pilot himself, knew that the weather was actually quite mild. He raised his drink to his lips only to see it was now only melted ice. He turned and with a gesture signaled the stewardess.

"Another drink, General?" the stewardess asked warmly, giving a slight hint of flirtation, which he found didn't effect him...nothing had for sometime now.

"Ginger ale," Jack said easily, not even feeling enough energy to be grumpy. He saw her take his plastic cup away and moved to get his drink. He really wanted to ask for a scotch or whisky, but he'd been doing that enough at home...HA...home, as if! He turned back to stare at the darkening clouds and felt it fit his mood...dark, yet unlike the storm, which would produce much needed rain for the land below, he felt his life had produced nothing and he had no one to blame but himself.

"Here you go, sir," the stewardess said as she returned promptly with his drink. "Also, Brigadier General Wallace wishes to know if you'll be joining him for the briefing, sir?" she asked after providing another napkin in case it was needed.

"No," was all Jack said and was glad she accepted it and took the hint that he wanted to be alone.

Once more he stared outside, glad for the private flight to Cheyenne Mountain, for he didn't think he could take a plane full of people at the moment. He didn't know who he dreaded seeing more, Carter or Daniel. He gave a soft snort, for that wasn't true, he knew who he didn't want meet up with. He had hurt Carter when he finally explained to her in great detail why there would never be anything between them...he wasn't in love with her. She'd been furious and rightly so. He should have said something sooner, but always thinking of the team and duty...but if she knew, she'd be pleased as Jack got his just dessert. It was Daniel that hurt him, when he went to explain that they could finally be together.

"It's too late, Jack."

That's what Daniel had said to him after quietly listening to Jack make a fool of himself, explaining how he had worked it out, where they could finally be together and have a life together.

"It's too late, Jack. You never said anything, so...I moved on."

Jack wanted to punch the plane as it jumbled him in its reaction to the turbulence, though he didn't do anything. He was still angry and hurt that Daniel had moved on. Hell, the main reason he took this damn job in Washington, DC was so he COULD be with Daniel, no longer being in direct command of him...but it was "too late, Jack." Taking his drink he sipped it, and then gulped it, really wishing for it to be gin even...something to deaden the pain in his chest and stomach. The last time he came back to the Mountain was only to get his heart stomped on, and now...now he had to face the two people that at one time meant the world to him, and now...now they were nothing more than a bitter mistake. How had his life become such a mess?

"We'll be landing shortly, sir. If I may..." the Stewardess began. Jack handed over the drink, replaced the tray table and buckled up with a knowing nod and once again, was glad she had left.

He looked outside the window and could see the wind as it pushed the rain across the wing of the plane, then saw the running lights to Petersen Air Force base, wondering why he was still doing this crap job. The answer hurt more than he wanted to admit...he had nothing else.

Atlantis

"I'm telling you I've never seen anything like it before," Zelenka said excitedly as he hurried down the hall followed by Rodney McKay.

"You said it was a mirror with an unusual power signature, right?" Rodney asked as they turned the bend heading to one of the new labs that one of the exploration teams had discovered.

"Yes, but..." Zelenka tried to said.

"Then it might be a quantum mirror," Rodney said with great enthusiasm. "Do you know the possibilities something like that could mean?" he continued on, his mind already imagining so much.

"But that is what I am trying to explain," Zelenka tried again, only to be cut off once more.

"We'll also have to post guards; for they let people come as well as go...I know that from my research on it from Area 51 and the reports I read before hand..." Rodney stated, not really paying any attention to the frustration he was causing to his co-worker.

They came to the room and entered and Rodney moved into the sub-room where he was told the mirror was located and stopped in his tracks and stared at it. "It's triangular in shape?" he said as he looked at the six-foot mirror triangle that was housed in a silver/gold frame that was NOT hung on the wall, but supported by several special designed blocks to keep it up right, the triangle pointing to the ceiling. "Quantum mirrors are generally a crooked rectangle..."

Zelenka sighed out his frustration, "That's what I've been trying to tell you. I do NOT believe it is a quantum mirror..."

"Then what is it?" Rodney asked looking at his second-in-command over the science team.

"I don't know, Rodney, that's why I brought you here...to figure it out," Zelenka added with irritation. If his boss, and at times friend, were not such a genius, he would smack him for how dense he could be. (LOL)

"Of course, of course," Rodney said, already getting lost in the possibilities of what was before him as he moved to the nearest console and began to attempt to decipher its meaning. "I think we're going to need Colonel Sheppard," he said after a few minutes.)

"We tried to activate it with the gene," Zelenka told Rodney as he stood near by reading the same screen. "But Layton couldn't get it to work..."

"Yes, I'm sure she tried, but we both know, that many items STILL only work for the Colonel...the STRONG gene verses the...not so strong gene, theory of Carson's," Rodney said with some irritation. He felt it had been an oversight of nature that he didn't have the gene to begin with, now everyone who got the gene therapy was being given the, 'you're only a second-class citizen' treatment by the City of Atlantis. It didn't even comfort him when Becket said that out of all those with the gene naturally and those via therapy; he ranked second in the City...a good distance after John. No, it bothered him greatly that he still couldn't interact with all of Atlantis they way he felt he should. Damn it!

"He is due back from the mainland within the hour. I will have someone let him know we are in need of his assistance...again," Zelenka said, knowing his words would sting Rodney as they were meant to.

"Yeah, fine, fine, do that," Rodney growled and turned back to see what marvels were now before him, as deep inside he had a feeling this mirror held the key to something amazing and couldn't wait to open it.

Earth

Being the 'man' over the 'man' as it were, had it's privileges, like telling Major General Henry Landry that he did NOT see the point of sitting through a briefing simply so they could tell him they only needed him to turn the damn thing on, whatever that was...he really didn't care. They only wanted him for that damn gene he seemed cursed with; all the others had tried the damned device and failed to get it activated. Maybe it didn't activate by Ancient gene at all. Had anyone bothered to consider that possibility? Oh well, things could have been worse.

If it weren't for Major...now Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, who he still felt bad about badgering into going on the Atlantis mission, he might have been in a real pickle, for Weir had been pushing The President and The Joint Chiefs to have HIM go, since no one had the same power or control over the Ancient items as he did...until Sheppard sat in that chair.

Jack wondered if it had been simply a fluke of gratitude that prompted him to grant Sheppard clearance which led to his life being drastically altered or if the gene could somehow recognize another with it. He had once thought to ask that Beck...guy, but then decided against it, for the last thing he wanted to do was to be probed and stuck a million times...again. As it was, The President thought him too VALUABLE to Earth not only for his gene and the Ancient outpost, which at the moment lay dormant as if not at all important, but his experience, which he now used to BS politicians for money for the SGC under the guise of Home World Security...some value. Sort of like modern art, everyone seems to want it, but no one knows why or what for, much less understand it.

Either way, Jack couldn't feel too bad, for John Sheppard had been an outstanding contribution to the mission, and though he felt bad for what the young man had to go through, he was glad he was there just the same. That's why he'd supported Weir in keeping Sheppard as Military CO of Atlantis when everyone else had wanted Caldwell.

"Ready, sir?" some Colonel asked him as Jack snapped back to the present, more than ready to get this over with.

"Yeah, let's get this show on the road, Colonel," he said, as he looked at the Stargate, which brought back so many memories, not all bad, but not all good. He watched as it moved, locking in one chevron at a time and then exploded to life, just like it did over ten years ago...boy did he feel old.

On the other side, Jack was pleased to see Teal'c, "T, buddy, good to see you," he smiled, turning up the charm; he had learned to use to cover up his real emotions. At least with Teal'c it wasn't all fake.

"It is good to see you again, O'Neill," Teal'c bowed and smiled.

"Good to have you with us, sir," Mitchell said sincerely.

Jack didn't want Mitchell to know how he really felt about him, for it wasn't his fault that Jack wasn't able to remain in charge of his old team anymore, or that things were screwed up between him and them. "Colonel Mitchell," Jack greeted him easily, resting his hands on the P-90 he insisted he carry, since he wasn't going through the Gate without one. It wasn't a matter of not trusting those around him; it was more of feeling naked without it. "So...show me to this...thing," he smiled tightly and then followed the two men, his team split by Colonel...oh, he really should learn the man's name since he was in charge of Jack's security, but he didn't register on Jack's radar so he didn't bother. Jack chided himself for slipping, for not that long ago, regardless of how he 'acted' he knew the names, ranks of everyone around him, and what they did and why...now...he really found he didn't care.

Jack entered the room, saw the lights and the Ancient designs and only felt a bit of the old enthusiasm he used to feel when he traveled through the Gate, but then he saw Daniel, who was not standing too far from Carter. He took a cleansing breath and proceeded full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes...pity that was a naval saying.

"Hey kids," he greeted and saw the tight smiles turned his way and chose to ignore them, for otherwise he wouldn't be able to get through this. "So, whatcha' got?" Thankfully that was enough to get both Wonder Twins started in a rambling speech that made no sense, apparently not even to them, demonstrated by how they kept debating things with one another.

"Basically, you need me to touch it and make it go...right?" Jack interrupted, having had enough of being with Daniel and Carter. They were good people, but he knew how he felt being in the room with Daniel, he could only imagine to a degree, Carter felt the same about him. It was a good thing she didn't know it was Daniel she had "lost out to" as she had put it.

"In a minute, yes, sir," Carter said professionally and moved to the console to set things in motion. "Okay, sir, now would be good."

Atlantis

"I heard you need me to turn something on...again?" Sheppard asked, his smile wide as he saw the irritation his words caused McKay. He knew he shouldn't, but there was something about Rodney that made it so much fun. At times he felt that perhaps there could be more, but there seemed to be a large gap between them that he realized that it was a bad idea to even entertain the idea so he found solace in their friendship; especially when he could pick on the man.

"Yes, Major, your job as a light switch is still secure," Rodney snapped back.

John chuckled, for that was Rodney, never to take it laying down. "That's Colonel," John said automatically, but he knew Rodney said Major on purpose. "So...what is it?"

"The mirror, I need you to touch the mirror..." Rodney said, already having the power to the rest of the console up and running. "Wait," he said, seeing John was about to just reach out and do so "...not yet," he fussed, reaching out to grab John's other arm, as John's right hand continued on its journey and touched the mirror.

Nothing else was said by either Rodney or John as they were no longer in the room.

Tender years part one

Unknown Location

His head hurt. Scratch that, his whole damn body hurt, but his head hurt the worst. Slowly, Jack shifted and realized he was on the ground and did a mental exam and again, his head was the worst, so he slowly opened his eyes. It took him a few moments but he soon realized he was NOT in the lab anymore and by the sound of quiet, he was alone. Turning his head slowly, so not to overdue the pain he felt, he saw that he was in a stone room, with strange writings on the wall. "Well, guess we're not in Kansas anymore," he said to himself as he began to sit up. It was then that he noticed something else was wrong...he was not in uniform and he was WAY too short!

He got to his feet and after a moment of dizziness he looked to see if there was a mirror or something and sure enough there was a large triangular mirror. He moved to it and stared with wide eyes as he saw the reflection: it was him, but at age TEN! "This can't be happening," he said as he raised a hand to run it through his honey blond hair then over his red and white stripped T-shirt that was all the rage with mothers when he was ten years old, and then to the pair of jeans he was wearing. He reached in his pockets and he felt nothing in them. That fact, along with having all the memories of being a fifty something year old man, made it clear that this was the result of some alien intervention. "Crap!"

Jack reached out to the mirror and touched it again and again, thinking of home, but nothing happened. The thing only reflected HIS image, his ten year old image. "Okay, this isn't good," he said to himself and turned and looked around and saw the many images and what could be writing on the wall and a doorway. The pictures were that of big people and little people next to them with what could be a faint line between them. "Adults getting turned into kids..." he surmised. But the pictures revealed little else. He looked at the writing, and realized it was Ancient and could only read some of it, but not enough to get a grasp of what it said. "Damn, knew I should have kept up on that," he chided himself, for he had learned Latin during his three months in the time loops way back when.

Not sure what else to do, Jack moved to the doorway and that was when he heard it...voices...voices of someone arguing...and it was in English! He knew he had to check this out and so carefully he moved out.

***

"This is all your fault, you know!"

"My fault, you TOLD me to touch the mirror."

"I said not yet and NOT with me touching you...so, yes, your fault, Major!"

John couldn't help but chuckle for that seemed so absurd at the moment. "Who knew you were such a cute kid?" John said in reply, knowing that by changing the subject he got Rodney off balance and hopefully off his tangent.

"Please," Rodney said as he tried to see if he could get a better look behind the large mirror on the wall of the large stone room they were in. He shifted back and once more looked at himself in the mirror and all he saw was a too small, too skinny kid, with a big nose. Then his blue eyes shifted to the taller lean kid behind him, wondering if Sheppard ever had a different hair style, though it didn't spike like it did when they were back on Atlantis. He noticed they both wore jeans, popular with kids regardless of age or parentage, he guessed, though John wore a tie-dyed shirt, oranges, purples and greens, while he was in his light blue button up shirt; it had been his favorite as a kid, for it made him feel more grown up...pity it wasn't working now. "There's nothing back here," he suddenly said, needing to get back on track.

"What about these pictures and scratches in the wall?" John asked as he tried to take a threat assessment but there didn't appear to be any and besides, he was unsure what he could do as a skinny ten year old verses any adults that might try to harm them...but he sure would try his best to protect Rodney and himself.

"I'm not an archeologist," Rodney griped as he moved to take a look just the same. "But the writing is Ancient," he added, feeling that at least that was something for he could at least read it. "It says, the road to rehabilitation begins at the beginning. The journey to...can't make out that word...will determine growth and return..."

"That doesn't make sense," John said, feeling a bit irked at being a kid and what bit of fun at seeing Rodney as a kid was quickly waning.

"Well, it's loosely translated, but that's generally what it says, Major..."

"Colonel," John snapped back. "Look, McKay, I'm in no mood..."

"Rodney McKay?" another voice asked, making both men spin in surprise to see a young boy with honey blond hair in a striped T-shirt and jeans standing in the doorway.

"You...you know me?" Rodney asked, feeling a bit surprised and startled.

"Better yet, who are you?" John asked, naturally taking a protective step between the kid and Rodney.

Rodney saw the handsome young boy chuckle, his dark eyes twinkling with amusement and for some reason this made Rodney relax. "You're in jeans too," he found himself saying.

"Seems it's a dress code," the boy replied with a smile. "If my guess is right, you'd be Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," Jack grinned.

John narrowed his hazel eyes, "you seem to have us at a disadvantage..." he said waiting for introductions.

"Jack O'Neill," Jack said, gesturing to himself. Then he gestured with his chin behind them. "We found one of those things and Carter had me touch it...next thing I knew I was here."

"General?" John and Rodney said together, a bit stunned by discovering Major General Jonathan 'Jack" O'Neill, here of all places. Then John got to his senses first, "Ah, sir, seems we did too," he said nodding back towards the mirror.

"It's Jack...John," Jack grinned. "It sounds too weird to be called General when I look like a ten year old." Jack put his hands in his pocket and moved in and looked around, "looks just like the place I woke up in...exactly the same," he said, having instinctively gotten on his game and kept his observation on high. "How long have you been here?"

"I...I think about twenty-minutes...we both woke up here, so, we could have been unconscious for a while...you said you found a mirror just like this one?" Rodney asked as he pointed to the mirror.

"Well, Carter found it, but they said none of the others with the gene seemed to be able get it to work, but they were sure it required someone with it...so..." Jack shrugged.

"You got drafted," John nodded knowingly. "Same here, but Rodney was holding on to me when I touched it, so he got dragged along too."

"Just my luck," Rodney griped.

"Well, I for one am glad you're here McKay," Jack said sincerely, then out of old habit, "we need at least one geek to be able to translate this," he smirked.

"Great, now I have two dumb grunts to make my life miserable," Rodney groaned.

"Flyboys..." John corrected. "We're Air Force not Army," he added and saw a similar smirk on Jack's face. Seemed he got a kick out of teasing fiery spirited scientists as well. Then he recalled his brief meeting with SG-1 or what there was of it at the time and after meeting Carter and Jackson, knew that would have to be the case or go insane.

"Well, as I explained moments before you almost gave me a heart attack..."

"McKay, you're ten," Jack interrupted, wanting to point out the absurdity of a ten year old having a heart attack.

Rodney rolled his eyes, "It's not like it couldn't happen," he griped back.

"Rodney..." John said, indicating he should get back on track.

"Basically, it said if I'm deducing it right..." Rodney began.

"Guessing, you mean guessing," John interjected with a grin.

"John," Jack said quietly with a shake of his head indicating they should back off as he could see Rodney wasn't holding it together as well as his mouth would otherwise indicate. With a glance of his eye, he could see John saw and nodded his understanding.

"Sorry, McKay..."

"Rodney...my name was Rodney. If he's John, I'm Rodney," he insisted firmly, hating feeling so out of the group, especially since it was only the three of them.

"Sorry...Rodney, please continue," Jack said evenly and moved in to stand on Rodney's right, as John had his left side.

Rodney took a deep breath then began again. "If I'm right from what LITTLE I've read so far, the word rehabilitation is a key word here..."

"You saying we're in some kind of prison?" Jack asked, as he arched a brow.

"I'm saying I don't really know, but it's possible," Rodney replied and wrapped his arms around himself, feeling cold.

"You okay?" John asked feeling concerned for his friend.

"I...I was about to go to lunch when Zelenka called," Rodney said, wishing desperately he had a power bar.

Jack saw John's concern and with a look, expressed his need to know what was happening. "He's hypoglycemic," John explained with a slight undertone that this could be a real problem soon.

"If we're discussing medical problems, you should know I'm deathly allergic to lemons and most citrus can have a similar effect, but lemons could kill me along with bee stings. And now that I'm a runt again, I also get colds easily..." Rodney added.

"Trees," Jack interrupted and saw the puzzled looks he got from John and Rodney. "I had a mild allergy to trees, made me sneeze a lot...what?" he said seeing the looks he got for that explanation, but it got Rodney off his doom and gloom kick...seemed some things didn't change. "Well, on my way here I did see another hall, but didn't hear or see anything else. I didn't get a chance to explore as I wanted to check out the racket I was hearing," he grinned, seeing a slight blush cross John's slightly tanned cheek, which meant he probably grew up somewhere with lots of sun.

"You think there's food?" Rodney asked, his stomach growling, reminding all he was in need.

"Well, if there's nothing here, might as well go check it out," John said, and then looked to Jack, "If that's okay with you, sir...er...Jack." He flinched for he was so unsure how to handle this moment.

"How about we stick to our names and that's a good idea, John," Jack said, not seeing a problem with taking charge, after all, current age aside, he did have the most experience. "We should stick together," he said as he moved to the archway and with a gesture, John knew to take the rear and placed Rodney in the cradle position, between them; the safest they had at the moment and moved out.

***

The temple, for that was the obvious deduction, was empty except for the large room Jack found at the end of the hall. Thankfully, on what passed as an altar, were offerings...food offerings. John and Jack checked it out, noting that the bread was no good, but the apples and pears, for they looked exactly like those on Earth, were good and tasted the same, before handing them over to Rodney. John and Jack split some grapes and all three took turns drinking from the pitcher of water that was there also.

Rodney explored what was in the room, which wasn't much besides some writing at the base of the altar and two small triangular stones under a mini-version of the mirrors in the back on a small alcove just behind the altar, while Jack and John checked the outside.

"Nothing out there," John said as he and Jack entered the temple area via the wooden door that led outside.

"Just trees and a path on the left side, probably leads to a village or something. Did you find anything?" Jack asked, seeing Rodney intrigued with the two strange colored triangular stones.

"Possibly," Rodney said not looking up.

Both John and Jack waited for a long minute, "Well?" they both said as one, and shared a smirk at their timing.

"Oh, sorry," Rodney said, turning to face them. "Seems we were partially right...about this being a prison of a sort."

"What do you mean, of a sort?" John asked, wanting to know what WAS the real deal.

"Well, from what I could read and DEDUCE," he said purposefully, "The Ancients had their own issues with their people not following their laws..."

"Bad Ancients, go figure," Jack mused, having read the report on the Ori and finding out that some of those bad Ancients were still at large.

"As I was saying," Rodney huffed before continuing, "they had problems too. But unlike us, they didn't believe in just shutting them up in a cell...they figured that the only way to TRUE rehabilitation was being...zapped...back to childhood."

"Then we can get zapped back," Jack grinned, but saw the annoyance on Rodney's face and dialed it down. "Or not."

"No, not that easy. Once a child, we were to be 'raised' properly for a year or two and then taken to another temple, where we were would be judged and perhaps gain some 'age' as it were. Then 'raised' some more and taken to a third temple and the process continued but basically you were guaranteed to be here at least ten to twenty years...depending on how long it took you to grow up or get 'raised properly'."

"I don't know about you, John, but I don't think I want to stick around that long...you?"

"No, might miss the Super Bowl...again," John said, a glance at Rodney like it was his fault.

"I was thinking more Stanley Cup, but," Jack shrugged.

"You like hockey?" Rodney asked with excitement, for it seemed no one on Atlantis appreciated the sport like he did.

"Best sport ever," Jack grinned, rocking on his heels as his face glowed at the thought. "Almost went professional," he added with pride.

"But instead you chose a low paying job in the military and being shot at almost every other day, over the glamour of being a professional hockey player," Rodney said with a touch of distain, having dreamed of such things, which never could have been.

"I wanted to fly," Jack shrugged, though it was a lot more than that, but no one needed to know that.

"See, that's what I told him about my joining, but he doesn't get it," John added with a sympathetic shake of his head.

"Yes, but at least HE gets hockey," Rodney said, and felt good to have something in common with one of the two men...boys he was stuck here with, besides being stuck here. "Anyway, as I was saying..."

"There's more?" John asked.

"Of course there is more, and I'll tell you if the two of you would just shut up long enough," Rodney snapped.

"He always like this?" Jack asked John.

"Sadly, he can be much worse," John replied with a 'feel bad for me' look.

"Huh, thought he'd mellow with age...guess not," Jack shrugged then looked back at Rodney with innocence in his eyes.

"Why me?" Rodney asked the air as he rolled his eyes. "Now I get dumb in stereo," he muttered and then tried to press forward. "As I was saying, that WAS how it was supposed to go, except..."

"We just get sent to our rooms without supper and we can go home?" John interjected, not able to help the jest he was feeling. He knew it was immature of him, but then again, he was ten right?

Jack popped John on the back of the head, "let him finish."

"Ow," John replied as he rubbed his head. "Where do you get off hitting me?"

"General, remember?" Jack said pointing to himself with a smug grin.

"KNOCK IT OFF!"

Both boys turned to see Rodney who looked furious and his face was all red. "Do you or do you NOT want to know what's going on? For if not, then we can just go out there, get adopted by some lame-O set of parents and wait around here for the next ten, fifteen years. Otherwise, knock it the hell off and shut up!" he said, placing his small fists on his hips, looking very ticked off.

"Sorry," both John and Jack said.

"I couldn't help it," John added sincerely.

"That's because you're ten," Rodney snapped, then took a deep breath and once again tried to focus. "Now, as I said, that was what WAS supposed to happen, along with a full memory wipe, but to the age of five, not ten. We're all ten, we have our FULL memories, which means..."

"Something went wrong," Jack said, knowing that had to be it.

"Yes, something went wrong and it's taken me a bit but I think I know what," Rodney grinned, feeling proud of himself for it.

"Okay, what went wrong?" Jack asked.

"You did," Rodney grinned.

John took a side step away from Jack and looked him up and down as if that would suddenly explain things, then looked at Rodney. "How did he do that?" John asked.

"I'm guessing about at the same time or around the same time, we ALL...and by All I mean you and him, touched the mirror. Somehow having two transport...signals, what have you, at the same time kind of overloaded the machine from doing what it...does and we arrived ten, but with full memories," Rodney explained still looking smug.

"There's a catch isn't there?" Jack asked, looking at Rodney waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Rodney's face lost all smugness and looked kind of startled. "What do you mean, catch?"

"There's always a catch, Mc...er...Rodney. So, what is it?" Jack asked, for in his experience with alien technology there was ALWAYS something.

"Well how am I supposed to know? I didn't build the thing, I just figured out what happened by what's written there," Rodney pointed to the altar.

"Is there any way we can...speed this...growing process up?" John asked.

"And how do we get back once we're done?" Jack asked.

"And do they say what's supposed to happen once we arrive, cause we've been here quite some time...alone," John asked.

"You would think some alarm or something would have gone off to alert someone that someone was here. Although, maybe that's why the food was here. It's old, but not that old," Jack replied.

"We can't be caught here," Rodney said with great concern.

"Why not, we can tell them what happened..." John began.

"No, you don't understand," Rodney interjected and moved to the altar and pointed to some of the text. "It says here, anyone not able to be rehabilitated will be cast into the abyss of darkness to be born anew...meaning..."

"They find out we have our minds in tact, instead of three pliable kids, age ten instead of five..." John filled in the blanks.

"Other shoe," Jack sighed as he looked around. Then after a long moment of silence made a decision. "What's the name of the other temple we have to go to get 'aged' and does it say where it is?"

Rodney moved to the small alcove and looked at the two stones then moved to the altar and removed the items left behind as offerings and took the cloth that was under them and used it to wrap the two stones, one a soft opaque orange the other a translucent green, with in. "The temple is called Saharan, as to what it means I don't know and it doesn't say where. It DOES say we need these, so..."

"We take them and beat feet," Jack finished for him and moved to grab whatever fruit was still good and the pitcher of water because it had a lid and could come in handy. "We don't have any weapons, so John, we'll have to make do and keep our eyes open for what might be available. Rodney, stay between us and keep those stones close."

"Where we going?" Rodney asked and John looked at Jack wanting to know the same.

"The village," Jack said as he opened the door and saw the light of the evening sky filter in. "Hope it's not far, it's getting late and I don't want to be outside in the dark."

"Then...then don't you think we should stay here?" Rodney asked, not liking the idea of being outside in the cool air at NIGHT! "It could be cold at night, and didn't I mention I caught colds easier when I was a child?"

"Yes, Rodney you did, but you ALSO mentioned that we couldn't be caught here or we could get put to death, so..." John left his words hang, for he knew Rodney could fill in the blanks.

"Right...right," he said and followed Jack outside allowing John to close the door behind him.

"It'll be okay, Rodney," John said softly. "Between Jack and myself, you couldn't be in better hands," he smiled warmly.

"That's right," Jack grinned, having picked up on Rodney's fear and having read his file long ago and the missions he'd been on and how he performed, Jack knew and understood the man better. But now they were just kids, and as John had mentioned, they couldn't help their behavior, and they probably couldn't, for physically they were children, which if HIS guess was right, that meant their brains were ten too, even if their minds weren't. "It'll be like camping out..."

"I hate camping," Rodney said as they walked. "It's cold, damp, strange noises, probably belonging to starving wild animals, bugs..."

"Ah...you had to mention bugs," John's face went a bit pale.

Jack had read that report where John had been attacked and almost killed by an iratus bug, and didn't want John to think about it. "I doubt that and besides, I don't think we're that far from a village," he said pointing to the tracks. "They're about a day old."

"Oh, don't tell me it'll take a day to get there," Rodney whined. "I mean, this might be my favorite shirt, but I forgot I hate these shoes."

"Speaking of shoes, how come we're wearing jeans and shirts instead of our uniforms?" John asked and Jack smirked for that was what he was going to ask.

"Well...I have a theory about that," Rodney said, looking a bit unsure if to share it or not.

"Tell us," Jack said as he turned to take the lead as they walked, knowing that the chatter would keep Rodney distracted, and perhaps they'd all learn something. Rodney was listed to be many negative things in his record, but the one thing that couldn't be disputed was that he was most definitely a genius.

Tender Years Part 2

It had taken a few hours to get to the outskirts of the village, mainly because twice they had to leave the path and hide from those using it as a road of transportation in fear someone might connect them with the temple. Jack was feeling a bit on edge, tired and hungry himself, having forgotten how he ate like a horse when he was this age, and Rodney hadn't shut up once, unless they were hiding. Taking a deep breath, he turned to see John was already taking cover near the large set of trees and smiled, glad that at least someone had a good head on his shoulders besides himself and was dragging Rodney with him. He quickly moved to join them.

"Why are we hiding here? It's cold and almost pitch dark out," Rodney began, but a glare from Jack silenced him.

"You pointed out...rightly, I might add," Jack said, having long since learned how to deal with scientists having had two of his own for so long...as it were. "That we cannot afford ANYONE to associate us with the temple. Three kids coming out of the woods at night, dressed funny, since I have not seen anyone dressed even similar to us, WILL raise a few questions."

"Yeah, and it won't be: Where is the nearest GAP?" John added with a small smirk.

"Or Payless," Jack added, glad for the light banter.

"Yes, yes, I get it. So, besides the fact they are in serious need of a clothing revolution, which we of course are in no position to provide, why else are we hiding out here...in the damp, COLD night?"

"We need recon," Jack said firmly, hoping Rodney understood. "We go in blind and we could get pegged far too easily and that is what we want to avoid, yes?"

"Yes," Rodney said, John simply nodded.

"Then we need recon, now, I'll go in..." Jack began.

"Sir, I think it would be best if I..." John interjected.

"Drop the sir, we're ten," Jack replied quickly then met John's hazel gaze with his own amber ones. "Plus, as we're both of the same age and capability, I'm sure I can handle it, besides...someone needs to hold Rodney's hand," he smirked as he chuckled at the glare he got from the scientist.

"Ha, ha, laugh it up, Blondie," Rodney snipped. "What are you two 'flyboys' going to do when I'm sick with fever or worse, dying from pneumonia, hmm?"

"Would you relax, Rodney?" John said, also showing he too was tired from the long walk and the hours of bitching.

"We'd be in big, big, big, big...." Jack held his hands out as far as he could, "big trouble. Did I mention big?" he said as sincerely as he could, as his eyes twinkled his amusement. Then he got a bit serious. "Which was why YOU are staying here, SAFE, with John and I'll go find us a safe and WARM place to stay the night and some food."

"Oh," was all Rodney said, not used to too many people realizing his true value and was a bit taken back to see it now.

"Jack..." John said, placing a hand on Jack's shoulder, their eyes sharing a message that only one soldier to another would understand.

"Keep him safe," was all Jack said and moved out and in seconds to both John's and Rodney's amazement was gone in the shadows as if he were one of them.

"That was...impressive," Rodney said quietly, never seeing someone vanish with such skill before...by technology yes, but not like that.

"Years of Special Ops training...and more, I suspect," was all John said, recalling it was Jack O'Neill he was dealing with, and not the cute ten-year-old boy that just left.

"Right," Rodney said and turned to lean his back against the tree. "Any water left?" he asked and took the pitcher quickly and drank the last few swallows, then had the decency to look guilty as he realized he had finished it. "Sorry."

"S'okay," John said, more concerned with the situation at hand than less than a cup of water. "You think getting to that temple we'll be able to get back?"

"Not sure really, but at least we can get older. I recall HATING being a child, I don't see the need to repeat it," Rodney grumbled as he sat on the tree root, which was large enough to act as a bench. "You okay?" he asked, seeing John nervously watching the village.

"I'm fine, just concerned for the Gen...er...Jack," he said and gave a slight bashful smile.

"I don't want you to think poorly of me, not that you would, in that I've never done anything for you to think..."

"Rodney." John said as he arched a brow, looking very grown up at the moment.

"Right, right. What I meant to said was that I have heard so many stories of SG-1 and all the amazing and hair-raising situations they were in and got out off, I find I can't be overly concerned...in that..." Rodney said, and then once again fumbled.

"You mean, you're not worried as you know he'll be all right," John translated for them both.

"Yes. I mean, ten years through the gate, always brought his team home...got to count for something, yes?" Rodney asked, looking to John for reassurance.

John smiled, a touch of pride in his eyes, "Yes, Rodney it counts. In fact, to be honest, had it been anyone other then O'Neill who...insisted that I go on the Atlantis mission, I would have told them to screw off..."

"I thought you said you flipped a coin," Rodney asked, tilting his head with interest.

"Well, I did, but had it been anyone else, I wouldn't have even done that," John chuckled.

"Well, then many of us in Atlantis owe him more than we thought," Rodney replied, then looked away, suddenly a shadow over his eyes.

"Rodney?" John asked sensing something was bothering his friend.

"Nothing," Rodney said, not wanting to discuss it at the moment.

A strange whistle got John's attention and he cupped his mouth and gave it back, as Rodney looked at him like he was insane, then Jack showed up out of the shadows to their left, having gone right in the beginning.

"All that money for training and you learned bird calls, can you do a sparrow too?" Rodney snapped, finding their actions ridiculous.

"No, but I can do a loon," Jack grinned, not phased by Rodney at the moment. "I found a place we can hide for the night and it's warm and there was food nearby, come on," Jack said and got up from crouching, feeling no pain of his old age. He led them to the far left side of the village, which wasn't very big once Rodney got a real look at it, so that explained why Jack could cover so much so quickly.

"Most of the people are asleep or at least inside," Jack whispered as he led them to what looked like a stone building with no lights on and what appeared to be a cellar door, propped slightly ajar by a thick stick. "No one was inside and the basement was warm," he said gesturing John go first.

"It's dark, what if we trip on something..." Rodney began, but suddenly there was a small light from a candle, which John had lit, having found the flint and steel near by.

"Got that covered," John smiled and went down quickly so no one else saw the light.

The cellar had a lot of clay pots and barrels and a lot of straw on the floor, making it warmer than a cold floor. Where the heat was coming from was not clear, but no one was complaining. "Set up as best you can, I'll be back in a few," Jack said to John and left.

"Where is he going now?" Rodney asked, moving towards what felt like the source of heat, a wall in the far back and stood by it.

"I don't know but I'm sure we'll find out soon enough," John said as he went about doing a quick assessment of the place and found several places three small boys could hide in if need be. Then he examined the area and quietly moved a few things around, so they could make a place to not only take shelter, but also hide in case someone came down suddenly. "Rodney, check what's in the pots and barrels," he ordered as he went about securing the place.

Rodney grumbled but he did what he was told. "Dried plants...herbs I think, though I don't recognize any...dead plants was one of my electives, but I passed it over...silly me," he said more to himself then John.

"Oh, what did you take, how to bitch in several foreign languages? Or how to throw a fit in ten easy steps?" John said over his shoulder.

"No, I took a 101 ways to tell military officers to go STUFF themselves," Rodney replied with a growl.

"That would be number one, I'm assuming," Jack said as he entered the cellar and closed the door behind him, already knowing what was going on from eavesdropping. In his hand he carried a large sack and on his right shoulder a satchel and in his left hand, a closed jug. "You might want to consider getting a refund," Jack grinned and moved to the center of the room, nodding at how John had secured the place.

"Well, when and IF we get back to Atlantis and EARTH, I just might do that," Rodney replied, then saw the items. "You brought food?"

John and Jack laughed at how quickly Rodney changed tunes at times. "It's not much, but I didn't want anyone to notice too quickly that they had thieves here."

"Perhaps we should notify the police," John smiled as he moved to sit next to where Jack was setting the food out.

"Yeah, yeah, neighborhood watch," Rodney said reaching for a small roll only to get his hand slapped lightly by Jack. "HEY!"

"We need to share AND we need to leave some for breakfast, so moderation is needed," Jack said in an easy manner but he looked seriously at both men.

"It was just one roll," Rodney whined, holding his hand as if it had been battered. "You didn't have to hit me much less so hard."

"You want me to kiss it better?" Jack asked; willing to do almost anything to get him to stop whining so much, even a little bit. Seeing Rodney shake his head no, he turned to John. "What about you?" he asked John, wondering if he had any complaints.

"I'm good," John said easily, finding it amusing seeing someone else deal with Rodney.

"Okay then. Here," he said, cutting the roll into half with a knife he had found, giving some to Rodney then John. Then he pulled out what looked like cheese and cut three slices and put the rest in the pack where there was one other roll. He also pulled out two wool blankets from the bag and a small apple, which he cut in half then sliced in four, giving each a slice, leaving one on the makeshift table, which was one of the very small barrels.

"What's in the jug?" Rodney asked as he ate, the roll already fully in his mouth.

"Water," Jack said and opened it and offered it to John first, who was eating his slice of apple.

"Thanks," John said taking a sip, and then gave over to Rodney who gulped some down before passing it back to Jack. "You want half?" John asked, as he ripped his part of the roll in half.

"Naw, I'm good," Jack said, his slice of apple gone and currently gnawing on the cheese.

"That other slice of apple is going to go bad over night," Rodney said, eyeing it hungrily; even as he nibbled on his cheese slice, the bread and apple slice already gone.

"Rodney!" John scolded.

"It's okay," Jack said soothingly, knowing that both men were on edge, though John was dealing with it better than Rodney because of his military background. But even John Sheppard, regardless of the amazing reports he read and knew only spoke of a small portion of his deeds, was only human after all. "You said he was hypoglycemic, right? Well, I had a cousin who was and they ate what seemed like 24/7 or got the shakes...or worse. And he's right, we need him to be safe and well, so..." Jack slid the slice over to Rodney who looked stunned. "It's okay, Rodney, eat," Jack said, still wanting to call him McKay out of habit, but knew that would only cause other problems. They had agreed to first names, and so first names it was.

"Sorry, Rodney, he's right," John said contritely, not meaning to snap at his friend.

"Ah...thank you," he said and took the slice slowly, wondering if there was some sort of catch, but nothing was said as he ate it, the cheese already gone.

"Which was another reason we need to ration what we have," Jack said then continued on. "Rodney needs to have several small meals throughout the day, even if only an apple or slice of bread. Until we can find a way to get to this temple and how they barter or pay for items, we have to make do."

"Got it," John said knowingly then yawned. "Sorry," he said, feeling a bit embarrassed yawning before the General like that.

"How much sleep did you have before our little side adventure began?" Jack asked with a smile.

"Oh, a few hours," John said, reaching for the jug for some more water.

"You were up for at least twelve hours before you came to my lab, since it was that long since the morning briefing," Rodney interjected.

"Then it would explain why you're tired, go get some sleep. I'll take first watch," Jack said, but even the lightness didn't disguise the hidden order that well.

"Watch?" Rodney asked, getting the jug from John and looked at Jack as if he were missing something.

"Yes, Mc...Rodney, watches. We're on an alien planet, hiding in someone's cellar, with stolen goods. So, I think watches would be wise. But don't worry, you can have last," Jack smirked, though he didn't intend to have Rodney watch at all, at least not tonight, for the kid looked frazzled.

"What about you?" John asked as he got to his feet and moved the candle so it was secure and not easily tipped over.

"I slept on the plane over to the Mountain, I'm good," Jack lied, but had years of practice to pull it off. "Go on, rest. We'll need to plan our next move in the morning."

"I made a cove over here," John said, pointing to it, for both Jack and Rodney's benefit. He then took the two blankets and laid one down and used the other as a cover.

Jack watched Rodney move and settle next to John without too much complaint, obviously they shared the tent off world and then got himself settled near the cellar door, as it was the only way in or out of this place. Not the most ideal, but in a fix, it would do.

***

"I thought we were taking watches?" Rodney asked as he slowly got up from the hay bed he and John had been sharing to see Jack still up and pacing to keep awake.

"We are, just not that much time has passed," Jack tried.

Rodney glanced at the almost extinguished candle and looked back at Jack, "would you like to try again?" he asked, arching a brow as if he isn't going to buy the BS anymore.

"I couldn't sleep," Jack said and that was the truth. He was concerned for his team...ex-team back on that planet being worried for him and after watching Rodney and John sleep, looking so much like REAL ten year old boys, he couldn't shake the need to want to get them home safely, either.

"It must be a genetic predisposition that the Military looks for," Rodney replied, while moving to sit on the bottom step near the cellar door. "A...Worrying gene."

Jack snorted in amusement as he moved to lean on the wall near Rodney. "Worrying gene?"

"What else would you call it? Besides an overdeveloped sense of responsibility," Rodney replied. "You and John are a lot a like in that area. Take the world on your shoulders; I've seen you back at the SGC and I've seen John..."

"He has a lot to deal with and he does a great job, not many men would have held up much less prospered under such pressure," Jack stated seriously.

Rodney looked thoughtful for a moment, "Perhaps you should tell him that someday, as I don't think HE thinks so."

Jack gave a tiny smile, "I think I already did...right Colonel?" he said knowingly.

John sat up from his corner and looked a bit bashful moments before he covered it up with the casual mask he'd perfected. "Didn't your mother teach you about talking about others behind their backs?" he replied.

"No, she was too focused on how rude it was to eavesdrop," Jack retorted with an amused smirk.

"Please, both your mothers dropped the ball when it came to manners," Rodney replied. Then he saw the looks he was getting. "What? I never pretended to have manners to start with."

All three men chuckled as John moved with the top blanket in hand and sat next to Rodney on the step, draping it on his shoulders. "You looked cold," John said as way of explanation for his actions.

"Well, I have to admit, I've been colder," Rodney muttered as he tightened the blanket around his small frame. "That reminds me," he stated as he looked up rather harshly at Jack. "Why did you send me to Siberia? I mean, Carter was an adult, I'm sure she can take one barb just like the rest of us, there was no reason to exile me..."

Jack stood up away from the wall, looking confused, "Wait...wait, what are you talking about? What does Carter have to do with you going to Russia? And why are you asking me? If I recall correctly, you volunteered to go..."

Rodney now on his feet, staring angrily at Jack, "No, I most certainly did NOT volunteer to be dragged out to some icy WASTELAND. Plus, the fact it was only two days later after my conflict with Carter, it's the only thing that makes sense that you..."

"Again with the me," Jack interjected "And again, what does Carter have to do with this, much less me? I asked you if you wanted to join a SG team, don't you remember and you said NO, don't blame me they decided you were needed somewhere else."

"Wait...wait, when did you..." Rodney looked confused now. "You never asked me to join an SG team..."

"I sure as hell did," Jack stated firmly, not liking the idea of being called a liar.

"Hold it," John stated firmly and gets both boys' attention. "Okay, let's back this up," he said and moved so he's in between Jack and Rodney. "First, why do you think you being sent to Siberia was the Gen...er...Jack's fault?"

"And what does Carter have to do with it?" Jack asked, for it seemed a key point to what was going on.

Rodney looked flustered and a bit embarrassed. "We were having a major difference in opinion and I...I may have said something she didn't care for," he replied.

John and Jack shared a look and grinned, "Just what did you said to Carter?" Jack asked, finding it amusing that anyone could stand up to Carter when she was in one of her I-know-all states, which according to what he'd read McKay outdid rather frequently.

"I...ah, may have called her...ah...blond bimbo," Rodney muttered just loud enough to be heard.

John laughed and Jack looked stunned and amused, then he too laughed. "Oh, I bet that didn't sit well with her," he chuckled.

Rodney smiled relieved that no one was mad at him for what he said, then looked at Jack, "If that isn't the reason, then why was I sent away?" he asked, really wanting to know.

"Look, Mc...Rodney, I really don't know the reasons behind why you were sent, I do know, that even if you got on my nerves, I wouldn't send YOU to the Russians," Jack stated seriously, his dislike for the Russians having faded but not completely gone. "All I know was I was asked to see if you'd join a SG team and I did...."

"Then why don't I recall you asking?" Rodney asked, folding his arms around his chest, looking a bit smug, covering for his insecurities.

"I don't know. You were in the mess hall..." Jack began.

"Wait...you approached him while he was eating?" John asked and saw a nod from Jack. "Did he have his laptop open and was he staring at it?"

"Yeah," Jack nodded, wondering where John was heading with all this.

John snickered then looked at Rodney, "I've made that mistake myself. Unless he's looking at you, you might as well be a bug on the window for all the attention he's giving you. I bet he grunted a few times, said go away then said no to your question. Am I right?" John asked knowingly.

Jack looked surprised and then a bit amused, "that would be exactly what happened, yes."

"Oh, I can't believe this," Rodney moaned. "I got exiled because I didn't pay attention? I mean, if it was that important, why didn't you ask me again or...or something?"

"Well, to be honest, you were being an ass and once you said no, I didn't see the point in pressing it," Jack replied, feeling only a tad guilty about not following up a second time, but only a little, for what was done was done.

"Well, it's over with, I think you can let it go now," John advised "and it's still dark and I do believe it's my watch, isn't that correct...Jack?" he asked, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

"Yeah, it was," Jack nodded, feeling tired and thinking that perhaps now he could rest a little.

"Fine," Rodney said. He was still not happy about what had happened back on Earth and getting sent away. He moved to the corner, took the warmer section of the straw and huddled back down.

As Jack turned to go, a hand on his arm stopped him. He turned to see John looking at him seriously. "Thank you," John said quietly, referring to what Jack had said earlier.

"No need, you earned it...and more, which is why I supported Weir in keeping you as Commanding Officer of Atlantis," Jack replied just as quietly. Then he looked away for a moment as guilt filled his eyes, then he looked up and met John's gaze, "Sorry about pressuring you into going, but..."

"No need to explain, and though at times I think that perhaps things could have been better for those at Atlantis if I weren't there..." John shrugged, "it's become my home." John paused, he looked like he debated on what he was going to say next before he finally spoke, "It's been awhile since I've had one," he added even more quietly and then turned to go take watch.

Jack understood what was being said and though John didn't see, he nodded, and moved to join Rodney who had hogged the blanket. "Hey, share," he stated, grabbing his portion and tugging it free from Rodney's body.

"I'm cold," Rodney whined.

"Then snuggle, cause I want some blanket too," Jack grumbled as he shifted to his side to get comfortable.

"Snuggle?" Rodney asked in stunned surprise.

"It's the least I can do for the man that saved my life," Jack muttered, trying to get some shuteye. After a long moment of realizing he was being stared at, he rolled over and saw Rodney looking nervous and confused. "I probably should have said thank you a long time ago for that," Jack said, then took a deep breath hoping they could move on, but saw Rodney didn't get it. "You do remember when we had to remove the gate and transport it away from Earth?"

"Yes, but that was Jonas' idea, mine didn't work; in fact, it got Samantha hurt," Rodney replied looking remorseful and guilty.

Jack reached out and put a hand on Rodney's arm, "but it was YOU who wrote that override program that allowed me to eject in time before sending the gate and plane to hyperdrive and blowing up with it. And before you dismiss it, which is really not like you," Jack stated with a playful smirk, though his eyes were serious, "I asked about it, and that was short of brilliant in the small amount of time you had, especially never having dealt with that program before...so, again, thank you."

"Well," Rodney seemed bashful under the praise, "I am a genius, after all, it isn't that big of a deal to pin point the algorithm and..."

"Ack...save it. I said thanks, don't make me regret that," Jack stated, taking the rest of the blanket and rolling to his side, his back to Rodney.

"Hey!" Rodney replied, no longer thinking of giving a scientific report, but wanting his part of the blanket back, which unknowingly was exactly what Jack was hoping for.

"I said you could snuggle, I won't say it again," Jack muttered, relinquishing a part of the blanket and felt Rodney moving in, his body feeling a bit chilly. Knowing they really couldn't afford Rodney McKay to get ill, Jack rolled over and pulled Rodney closer, but also felt him tense. "First, we're ten, second, first rule of survival is do what it takes to survive, now, go to sleep before I knock you out," Jack muttered, his own body, though young, was tired from a full day of adventure.

"How touching. Was that how your mother put you to bed, a lullaby then a blow to the head?" Rodney griped.

"If it works, why knock it?" Jack smirked from behind Rodney, who now had his back to Jack's chest.

"Both of you be quiet and go to sleep or no supper," John scolded playfully, and was pleased by the smile on Jack's face and the scowl on Rodney's. The night remained quiet as John kept watch and the night progressed.

Tender Years Part 3

After a few hours of morning recon and a sketchy plan, Jack, John and Rodney, were now each dressed with an oversized tunic. Jack had gone out very early and stolen them, so they didn't stand out too much from the local village folk who had a Middle English feel to them. Because the tunics were not all that warm and they didn't have backpacks, they chose to wear their jeans and regular clothing underneath for warmth. They began heading into the village.

"I still say the brother bit won't work," Rodney griped in a voice so low only John and Jack heard him. "I mean..."

"Look, Rodney, let it go. We need to stick together and explain if asked why three kids are wandering around together," John interjected.

"Let it go? We don't look anything alike," Rodney pointed out.

"Well, we're all boys, about the same age and too skinny for any of our own good," Jack pointed out in a helpful manner, that wasn't so helpful by the glare he was getting from Rodney.

"You have amber brown eyes, him hazel and I have blue," Rodney continued as if Jack hadn't said anything. "I have dark brown hair, you have light brown or dark blond and he has black," Rodney said pointing to John.

"Different fathers?" Jack smirked, then walked forward leaving John and Rodney to their own as he saw a man who looked like a blacksmith from the forge behind him. The man was sweeping. "Hey mister," Jack called out and saw the man barely look at him, but didn't let it bother him. "For a few coins, we could do all that for you?" he said, turning on his charm, which amazingly enough, still worked at ten.

The thirty-something gruff man stopped sweeping and looked at the three boys with a sour expression. "Why would I want to do that?" he growled.

"Because you can tend to more important things?" John said, moving up to stand with Jack, understanding what he was doing. If they wanted to make a long journey, they needed supplies and items cost money. They had two options: working or stealing them.

"What are you two doing...?" Rodney started to say only to be hushed by both Jack and John.

"What ya' say, Mister?" Jack said, sounding more ten than he had moments before. "We sweep up, put things away only a few coins?"

"Two," the man said.

"Three, one for each," Jack smiled innocently but firmly.

"Very well, but ALL of you must work," the man said as he tossed the broom over the heads of John and Jack to Rodney, as if it were obvious he wasn't planning on taking part. "I'll be back in one hour," he grumbled and stalked off.

"What is WRONG with you two?" Rodney snapped, having been startled by the flying broom. "We're supposed to be finding our way to the Saharan temple..."

"Which is probably not around the corner," Jack muttered, as he moved and picked up the broom.

"Which means food and supplies," John said as he grabbed Rodney's arm and pushed him along to the Blacksmith's work area. "How did you think we were going to get them...for as good as we might be, I'm sure they have laws against thievery."

"I...um...good point," Rodney conceded. "But, ah...what do you expect ME to do?"

Jack moved, grabbed a cloth and handed it to Rodney, "wipe EVERYTHING down...like dusting." He said lightly, but the look in his eyes meant it was not really up for debate. Jack then looked to John, "you want to sweep?"

"Naw, I'll start putting this stuff away...I think," John said as he looked around, hoping he'll be putting the odds and ends away in the right place.

"Great, we've gone from intergalactic explorers to ten year old house boys," Rodney muttered as he wiped what passed as a counter, which was actually two slabs of wood over several large stone. "Aarrr, do you see this?" he demanded, showing how black and filthy the cloth now was.

Jack sighed as he dropped the broom to the dirt floor and moved to get a bucket and then went to the barrel just outside and filled it, then brought it and sat it next to Rodney. All the while, John was just watching. "You have two choices, McKay..."

"I thought we were using first names," Rodney whined, suddenly hating his last name.

"Okay, you have two choices, RODNEY, either use the water to rinse the rag and clean or I use the water on you?" he grinned, but the threat was clear.

"You wouldn't..." Rodney started, but saw the look, "well, perhaps YOU would," he then added and rung out the water, bitching and moaning about dirt, possible infections and any other complaints he could think of as Jack went back to sweeping up the straw and other 'items' about as John continued putting stuff away.

An hour later and the three boys were sitting just outside the shop, Jack and John all sweaty and Rodney was still wiping his hands on another cloth trying to get the black stuff off. "This'll probably stain," he griped.

"Do you EVER stop?" Jack asked, sounding very whiny himself.

"Do you EVER not play dumb?" Rodney retorted.

"What are you talking about?" Jack asked, looking annoyed.

"You know what I'm talking about it. I've seen you do it back at the SGC...seems another trait the Air Force looks for," Rodney snapped. "I happen to know what the educational requirements are to be promoted to a Colonel or Lieutenant Colonel, for that matter. But you both play like a monkey could out smart you in a game of tic-tac-toe."

Jack stared at Rodney for a long moment then turned to look at John, "You?"

John shrugged, "works," he replied easily.

Jack nodded yes, then looked back at Rodney. "Okay, I...We'll make a deal with you. You stop bitching 24/7 and WE'LL," his gesture indicating him and John, "won't play 'dumb' around YOU, sound good?"

"Why?" Rodney asked, really wanting to understand.

"Why what?" John asked, closing his eyes, as that had been a lot of hard work to pull off in such short time.

"You just promised..." Rodney began.

"Hey, give us a break," Jack interjected, "besides, it was an incomplete question, so don't blame us if we don't know exactly what you're looking for."

"Fine, why the act?" Rodney asked, but before anyone could answer, the man was back along with what might have been his wife. She was carrying a tray, and he, a small sack. "Company," Rodney said and got to his feet and felt a stab of guilt seeing how tired Jack and John were, having done all the bending and lifting, but remained quiet...for once.

The man looked around and whistled, "You three did an excellent job," he said, his eyes showing they did much more than he'd expected.

"My husband said there were three boys looking for work. I figured after such hard work, you'd be hungry," the woman said, lowering the tray, which held three sandwiches of some sort and three cups of juice of some unidentifiable nature.

"Thank you, Ma'am," John said first, followed by Jack and Rodney.

Jack reached out, as did John, for the cup and sipped it, and shared a glance with John moments before Rodney reached for it, only to have Jack hand him a sandwich, aborting Rodney's move. "Ma'am, I don't wish to sound rude, but our brother doesn't take well to this juice, as fine as it was," Jack grinned, hoping to sound polite and not offend the woman's hard work.

"Oh," the woman looked a bit surprised, "Upsets his stomach?" she asked, looking at Rodney expectantly.

Rodney looked a bit off balance, hearing what Jack said and having the woman staring at him. "Yeah," John spoke up for him. "Those sandwiches sure look good, thank you," he said, hoping to distract the two adults from Rodney's 'deer-in-the-headlights' look.

"Would you like some milk instead?" the woman asked Rodney, who only nodded yes, then was glad when she smiled warmly and placed the tray on top of the water barrel, which was now doubling for a table, and went to get some.

"Eat," Jack hissed quietly to Rodney, and was glad the young boy listened, and then was quickly caught up in the delicious meat and cheese within the thick bread.

"I take it, citrus?" Rodney asked with his mouth full.

"Yeah, like a lemonade, but looked like fruit punch," John told him as the man had gone in to inspect their work.

"Thanks," was all Rodney said.

Moments later the woman was back with a cup of what could only be goat's milk for Rodney, who barely managed not to spit it back out as he drank it, especially after being told by the woman what kind of milk it was. The man exited the work area and handed Jack the small bag. "Bread and cheese and a few coins. We take it you're joining the crusade?" the man asked, motioning to himself and his wife.

"Crusade?" Jack asked, while handing the bag to John.

"Yes, the monks have sent word far and wide for all children who have no family or whose families can no longer support them, to join up with them at the crossroad. They are traveling west where there are many families without children of their own or work for older children to make a good start for themselves. That was why you three are alone right?"

"West, is that where the temple of Saharan is located?" Rodney asked with hope.

"Yes, it's along the way, but why would you three be interested in a long forgotten temple?" the man asked with amusement.

"Hush, their parents may still honor the old ways," the woman scolded her husband, then looked apologetically to the boys. "Few follow the old ways the further you go...so be aware of this," she advised.

"So, just to be clear, this...crusade, it'll take us...past the temple?" John asked, seeing a plan formulate in both Jack and Rodney's eyes.

"It might," the man replied. "I cannot say for sure, but it was going along the same road the old ones traveled many life times ago, so it will go close if not passed. Why?" he then asked, curios as to why three small boys would care to do so.

"Parents, as you said," Jack replied, turning on his charm with his smile.

"You know," the woman said, looking sad as she spoke. "We have no children of our own..."

The three shared a quick look and the meaning was understood and rather touching, but John spoke up first. "Sorry, but we promised," he lied rather convincingly.

"We thought as much," the man said, but his tone was clear; he like his wife was a bit disappointed. "Then you three should hurry, the monks said they would only wait another day for those who wanted to join; you are already behind."

"Ah...which way?" Jack asked, not sure of the direction, only it wasn't the way they had come.

"Come, I will show you," the man stated and moved to gather a few things in a satchel.

"Wait," the woman said and hurried back to the small hut they lived in.

Jack looked in the sack and saw a small cloth and pulled it out and opened it and found three copper-like coins, two silver ones, and one gold. "I think we just got over paid," he said sagely.

"Wow," Rodney said quietly. "Imagine that...strangers that care more about us than..." his words faltered. "I mean, that's gracious of them."

"Don't go spending that all in one place," the man chuckled, and then crouched down next to them. "I don't wish to offend your parents, but just in case, the silver coin is worth five of these," he pointed to the copper ones. "And the gold one is worth five of the silver, understand?" he asked, hoping it made sense to them.

"Very much," Rodney said with a roll of his eyes, wanting to tell this man that he learned basic math at two. Would have been sooner, but he had gotten a bit distracted with all the colors his crayons made when mixed.

The woman soon exited and handed each of them a rolled woolen blanket that was buckled to keep it closed. "I wish it could be more, but...well, I will pray you find what you are looking for...you never told us your names."

"Jack, John, and Rodney," Jack said, first pointing to himself then the others. "This is...very kind of you, ma'am he added, actually glad for a moment Daniel wasn't with him, for he'd be telling them not to keep it, and that just wouldn't be prudent considering they were in for a long walk and had little with them.

"I will pray for you, Jack, John, and Rodney," the woman said and placed a kiss on each of their heads before stepping back looking teary-eyed

"Ah...thank you..." Rodney said, and then started forward. "We need to get our stuff," he added.

"We'll meet you..." Jack said, looking at the man, who pointed to another crossroad on the other side of the house. "We'll be there in five minutes," Jack finished and the three of them hauled ass to get their stuff from the cellar. Jack opened his and John's buckled blankets and added the two they had from the night before, and then rolled them up again. They didn't say a word as they finished getting their things, the stuff now distributed evenly. Rodney had the satchel with the stones and his blanket, Jack had the two blankets, the bag of food along with the other bag folded inside, since what was left of the food inside had been breakfast, and John had his blankets and the water jug, which had been filled first thing in the morning, before they headed out to meet the Blacksmith.

***

It was a consensus that none of them liked Father Parkell, who was in charge of the scraggily band of children. The kids ranged from as young as five to as old as sixteen, though there were not many of the older ones, and they were looking after the very young, as they were probably their siblings. Parkell spouted a lot of stuff, among his words were promises of a home and people that would love and care for them. It didn't take much for the three to know something was up, but they needed to get to the temple and this 'Crusade' provided transportation of a sort; plus there was safety in numbers, or so they were hoping.

By evening, even Jack had to admit he was not feeling very cheerful and couldn't blame Rodney for his griping. With a look to John, who looked like he felt, Jack moved to the front of the procession where most of the monks rode in a wagon, going slowly only because there were so many children with them; about fifty. "Hey!" he called out several times before one bothered to look at him.

"Get back in line," the monk snapped.

Father Parkell suddenly gave a weaselly smile. "What can I do for you, son?"

Jack bit his lip to keep from telling the man he was not his son, and then focused. "Everyone's tired, and it's getting late. Unless you want to be making camp in the dark or want everyone to get sick...which would REALLY slow you down, I suggest we stop for the night."

"You are a very bright boy," Parkell said after a long moment. "We shall stop," he then added and called the wagons to halt.

Jack hurried back to where John and Rodney were. "We're stopping for the night."

"Oh, thank goodness, I don't think I could walk another step," Rodney gasped. "Did I mention I hate these shoes?"

"About twelve times...in the last hour alone," John teased, giving Rodney his shoulder to lean on.

"You three are weird," one of the other boys about their age said as he moved past them, also looking tired and appearing to have not eaten a full meal in awhile either.

"I'm hungry," Rodney said, hearing his stomach growl, his hand shaking as he lifted it to rub his belly.

"I slipped you some cheese earlier, we need to conserve what we have as I don't think Father Parkay and his greasy bunch are going to be plying us with any large meals." Jack snapped under his breath.

"I can't help it," Rodney whined, looking angry and sickly at the same time.

"Here," John said, reaching in the sack that he'd bundled between his blankets and pulled out a bit more cheese, making sure no one else was looking. He then looked at Jack, "Doctor Beckett said, for all Rodney's bitching, it can be a serious problem it if gets too bad."

Jack looked contrite. "Sorry, but I don't like the feeling I have about all this and I hate seeing kids being taken advantage of and that's what's going on here, I just know it."

"Well, what can we do about it, we can't exactly contact child welfare...there is none," Rodney said between eating bites of the section of cheese John had given him.

Jack glared at Rodney, but knew he was right. "Come on, let's find us a spot to make camp, or what we can of it," he said and turned, knowing the others were behind him. It didn't take long for them to find a sturdy tree with low branches and with a bit of ingenuity from Jack and John, they had a blanket tent with a blanket floor, where Rodney was already sleeping in.

"You know him better, how's he doing?" Jack asked seriously as he moved next to John who was keeping watch over their little camp.

"Remarkably well, considering. But food is going to be an issue. He can die from the hypoglycemia," John informed Jack, looking concerned. "I made the mistake of making light of it when we first met and then one mission..."

"Bad," Jack said knowingly.

"Very bad. He's not there, but the monks are barely staying the hunger pains off with their meager portions, how do they expect so many to travel so far? They make it sound like we're going to be traveling for weeks..."

"They're being vague on purpose, and most of these kids have nothing to go back to, so they buy into the bits of BS they're being fed...speaking of which, I'm going to give old margarine face another shove. He needs these kids for something, I just haven't figured out what...yet."

"So, if he wants them he'll have to care for them, which means," John grinned seeing Jack's point.

"He'll have to feed us some more. Plus, I'm going to see if I can get some information out of the other kids. Keep an eye on him, but do the same. The more we know..."

"The more we can plan, gotcha," John smiled and watched Jack hurry off to do his thing.

"Where's he going?" Rodney asked, a blanket around his shoulders, as he shivered a bit.

"To get some food and do some recon. How you doing? I thought you were sleeping?" John asked, the concern present behind the casual tone.

"The ground was too hard," Rodney muttered.

"Imagine that. Though I suppose we could go look for some mud..." John smiled.

"Why don't you go to hell...o," Rodney said instead seeing a seven-year-old girl wander up to them.

"How you do that?" she asked, pointing to their blanket tent, the only one in the makeshift camp, though the adults had large tents for themselves only.

"With blankets," John replied easily. "You have any? I can show you."

The girl shook her head no. "Most don't, but the nights are warm..." she stated.

"Warm? You call this warm?" Rodney griped immediately.

"Oh yes, the fall and winter are MUCH worse," she replied, not at all insulted by Rodney's snapping. "Father Parkell said we'll all have warm homes and families long before fall arrives...I can't wait."

"What's your name?" John asked.

"Shay," the small blue-eyed, blond girl said with a bit of bashfulness. "My big sister is Nya," she added, pointing to the twelve to fourteen year old girl who appeared to be bossing the other kids into some sort of order, near a small fire where a pot was being placed, among several put out by Father Parkell and the monks. For what was still in question, because nothing came with the pots but some water.

"Have you ever heard of the temple of Saharan?" Rodney asked hopefully.

"No," Shay replied while shaking her head. She then looked at John, "My sister thinks you're cute, for a twerp," Shay giggled, and then ran off.

"Great, young and old, they all flock to the Kirk within," Rodney muttered.

"I have NO interest in a child...even if I AM one myself at the moment," John snapped irritated that Rodney could even think such a thing.

"I didn't say you were, only that they are," Rodney defended himself.

"Now, now children," Jack said hearing the beginning argument upon his return.

"Any luck?" John asked, as he watched Jack get himself settled. He was alarmed to see Jack wincing. "What happened?"

Rodney saw it too and immediately dropped his blanket and shifted for Jack to sit. "What did he do?" he demanded.

"Oh, it seems Father Parkell's henchmen don't like mouthy kids, especially while they're dining," Jack grimaced.

"They're...dining...in there?" Rodney asked, looking wishfully at the large tent.

"Sorry, but yeah," Jack replied, understanding more than before how Rodney must be feeling. "I mentioned that if he wanted all fifty some kids to make it to wherever we were going, he'd have to start feeding us at least twice a day."

"And?" John asked, moving to see if he could see any injuries on Jack.

"Ballpark said, 'God will provide' as he...ate," Jack said, glancing at Rodney who was still staring at the other tent. "Then one of his thugs grabbed me and tossed me out on my ear...almost literally," Jack said, rubbing his side.

"So, what are we going to do?" Rodney asked, still hungry and not feeling very well.

"Well, one of the kids said there was a small town ahead, we can get some supplies there, but in the meantime..."

"Soup," John suggested.

"And just how are we going to get the ingredients to make soup from, the local grocery store is miles away," Rodney snapped.

"I'm with him on that one. I don't see anything off hand we can use..." Jack replied, not recognizing many of the plants around.

John pointed to Nya, who was walking from the woods with a hand full of what look like herbs and roots. "But she does," John said.

"Oh great, Prince Charming to the rescue," Rodney grumbled. Seeing Jack's confusion, "Her name's Nya, her sister Shay said she thinks John's cute, for a twerp."

Jack grinned mischievously, "Well, you ARE rather cute...for a twerp," he teased, only to get a playful punch in the arm from John. "You charm the cook and we get dinner, is that the plan?"

"It can't hurt, can it?" John asked.

"Make sure that you don't get engaged...again," Rodney said, giving a knowing look, then looked at Jack. "On one planet, you smiled at a woman and it meant you were interested in getting married. If she smiled back and took your arm, you were engaged. Prince Charming was about to marry the whole tribe if Teyla hadn't ... ah...you know"

"Yeah, read the report, so...she cleared it up for you," Jack chuckled.

"Hey, how was I supposed to know they were being more than friendly?" John protested.

"For me, it was eating some cake," Jack nodded with understanding.

"Hey, isn't that where you got those nanites and got all old and wrinkly?" Rodney asked with some excitement.

"Wrinkly?" Jack asked with amusement. "What are you...ten?"

"Ah...yeah," Rodney replied and all three laughed.

"Okay, okay," Jack said, feeling better. "John go make nice with the older 'woman' but remember be back before dark."

"Yes, dad," John grinned as he went off to speak with the teen who seemed to have a handle on the food around here.

Jack watched as John moved off and turned to Rodney. "I'm sure we'll have another long walk tomorrow, why don't you get some rest," he said easily.

"I can pull my own weight," Rodney said defensively.

Jack gave a patient smile, "I have no doubt, Rodney. I've read the reports and I assure you, John would not have you on the premier team if you couldn't. However, what we really need you for isn't going to be for a couple of days yet when we reach the temple and since it WILL be a strenuous journey, it's OUR job to keep you well, and if that means sitting on you to take a nap, I will," he grinned.

"This what you did for Doctor Jackson?" Rodney asked as he shifted farther back in their makeshift tent under the blankets. He closed his eyes and almost fell asleep instantly as he really was exhausted.

"Practically," Jack said, his voice even but his eyes showed his sadness. "When he let me," he added softer, then turned carefully because his side and left wrist hurt from being tossed as he watched John speak with the local girl. Part of him wanted to jump up and tell these kids what fakes these men were, but he had no proof and nothing better to offer them, so he had to wait and protect his team. Duty above all else; it was what had sustained him many times when all else was bleak and this really wasn't so hopeless nor was he alone. He turned towards the soft snoring sound and saw the vulnerable little genius sleeping and immediately felt affection for him. He was fiery and full of spirit, but at least he'd let Jack look after him...at least for a while and as strange as that was, Jack knew he needed that.

Jack got to his feet as he saw John coming back looking pleased with himself. John was like him in that he knew his duty and was smart enough to adapt to whatever role he had to play; be it 2IC, brother, or Prince Charming, or even a babysitter. He was a good asset and Jack could feel, quickly he was becoming a good friend. "Well...will there be wedding bells chiming soon?"

"Might be, but not for me, I'm too young," John replied smirking, and then he noticed Rodney all bundled up and his eyes showed he was pleased and concerned. "They're willing to share, it'll cost us a blanket but we get soup tonight and a lesson on how to find the good stuff."

"Good," Jack nodded, even though he wanted to keep their blankets, five was a lot and there were many that had none; and they could spare one. He gently removed one of the overhead blankets, shrinking their already tiny tent. "Here," he said. "We'll wake him when dinner's ready. Any chance we'll be able to keep some for later?"

"Not the soup, but perhaps some of the raw items. I'll see what I can do," John nodded knowingly and began to go, before a hand stopped him.

"Do only what you're comfortable doing to get what we need. We're not that desperate...yet," Jack said, knowing John understood exactly what he meant.

"Thanks," John said, and hurried off to continue with his deal making.

Jack sat down at the edge of their tiny tent and did what he did best...observe.

Tender Years Part 4

They were once again walking down the dirt road, a trail that was worn over time by travelers and animals, while trying to keep the wagons in sight. Most of the smaller kids rode on the shoulders of the older kids, if not they wouldn't be able to keep up, because the monks wouldn't let any of the kids ride with them as they traveled. The boys trailed behind just a bit on purpose, so not to be overheard. Jack and John's sneakers were more comfortable then the footwear being worn by the other kids, the uneven terrain and rocks didn't help them either.

"So, you think you'll be able to locate those roots and herbs on your own?" Jack asked John as they went.

"Yeah, they're pretty distinguishable," John said, "though a bit bitter in raw state, otherwise they're not too bad."

"Not too bad?" Rodney protested, "They're barely above eating shoe leather, speaking of which," Rodney said and looked down at his feet. "These shoes are killing me. We should have traded that blanket for more than just a watery bowl of soup..."

"Okay, I've had enough," John snapped has he stopped to turn and face McKay.

"Easy," Jack said, not sure what John was going to do.

"Our feet are not that dissimilar. You can wear MY shoes and perhaps that will quit your bellyaching," John said and sat on the ground to undo his sneakers.

Jack saw that Rodney was surprised but he sat next to John nonetheless to do the shoe exchange. Jack kept an eye on the group so they didn't fall too behind. "You might want to hurry," he suggested.

"Whew! What died in here," Rodney said holding up one of John's sneakers while pinching his nose.

"Oh, like yours smell like a bed of roses," John replied, looking at the narrow shoes, which were at one time plain white tennis shoes.

Jack grinned then looked down at Rodney's feet and saw the stains on his socks. "Hold it," he said before crouching down and, to Rodney's protest, removed the thin socks and saw the broken blisters. "No wonder you were bitching so much," he said, feeling a little guilty for not taking it seriously before now.

"Yeah, well, I said my feet hurt," Rodney replied, but since the problem was now real, he suddenly wanted to play it down. "It's not like I couldn't walk..."

"No, and we need to hurry. Here," Jack said, as he quickly took off his shoes and thick socks his mother always made him wear. "Take these," he offered, handing Rodney his socks and taking his thin ones in exchange, thinking some was better than none.

"My word, what is it with you two and smelly footwear?" Rodney griped.

"Think of it as bug repellent," Jack smiled. He held his shoes up to John's then Rodney's and, after a moment, took Rodney's shoes from John and gave his shoes to him. "They'll fit you better," he said. "We don't need you getting blisters too."

"What about you?" John asked, as he did what he was asked and put on Jack's shoes, which felt better then the narrow ones Rodney had.

"I'll deal with it," Jack said as he quickly slipped Rodney's shoes on, not bothering to tie them, but tucked the laces in on the sides. He then lent a hand for John to get up, then Rodney. "When we can, we'll tend to those blisters," Jack said as the three headed down the road again.

"Ah...much better," Rodney smiled, for the lack of rubbing was heavenly compared to what he had been going through. "So, you really think you can pick those plants again without poisoning us?" he asked John.

"Us, no, you on the other hand..." John said with a mischievous smile.

"You know about gardening?" Jack asked, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Well, some. My grandmother taught me a lot of stuff before she passed away about five years ago," John replied, looking a bit sad at the thought.

"So, you're a regular Jack-O-Green," Rodney zipped right back, not noticing the look John had, for he had turned his head away.

"No, I'm Jack, that's John...and here I thought you were the genius," Jack teased, seeing John needed a moment. "My grandmother taught me to cook..."

"Wait I heard that all you could cook was steak and even that was burnt," Rodney stated, for that was what he had heard Carter tell Jonas when they'd 'all' meaning not him or Jonas, were invited to O'Neill's place for a barbeque to celebrate Earth still being around, once he'd gotten back from his little ocean drop.

"Hey, grilling is grilling and the kitchen is for cooking, which I can do," Jack replied a tad defensively.

"What did your grandmother teach you, how to lick the bowl?" John asked, keeping it light.

"My grandmother was a great woman," Rodney replied defensively, then gave a slight sigh, as if missing her. "She taught me a little baking, but mostly we only got through the canning process before..."

"We understand, Rodney," Jack said softly. "My grandparents died when I was a teenager, years apart, but it didn't make it feel any better and my parents are long gone. Dad went first with a heart attack and my Mom two years later, cancer."

"Ovarian?" John asked, his eyes holding a deeper question.

"Breast," Jack said, giving John an open invitation to spill.

"My ah...well, it was ovarian cancer...I was twelve," John said quietly.

"What about your father?" Rodney asked, for he recalled Sheppard didn't give a personal message when everyone thought it would be their last chance to do so.

Sheppard just shrugged, and realized, he could remain silent or he could trust, and at the moment, he felt closer to Rodney and Jack then anyone in a long time, so he took a risk. "Don't know. He left my mother when I was a baby. She raised me with my Grandmother, who did her best to finish the job after my mother died."

"Though I am sorry, hearing it never was enough was it?" Rodney replied knowingly, his gaze to the dirt road they were walking on. "Car crash," he finally said after a long pause.

"What?" Jack asked, for he didn't hear what Rodney said.

"My parents died in a car crash...their own damn fault," Rodney growled, but not angry with his companions, just his parents. "The were going to some damn social event and had too much to drink..."

"That must have sucked," Jack said knowingly. "How old were you?"

"I was lucky, I was fifteen and already in college and became emancipated, but my sister Jeanie, she was thirteen and still in junior high, though top of her class... it still meant foster care for her. Oh, our parents left us well off, once we reached 'of age' but the lawyers sucked most of it dry...but I had enough to finish my doctorate and well, the military already had me pegged, so..."

"So," John said with quiet understanding.

"Well, for what it's worth, you've more than earned your keep, Doc," Jack said with a mild slap on Rodney's back.

"Ow! What are you trying to do, give me whiplash?" Rodney demanded.

Jack and John laughed, and Rodney's eyes didn't look so dark as he hurried to catch up with them, a smile curling at his lips.

***

The three boys wandered into the town, having decided they needed to get more information on the location of the temple. Few had even heard of it among the group of kids they were traveling with, and the Monks seemed to know even less. They also needed to get some more food, even though they ate a bit better, the portions were small and despite the fact that Jack and John were both willing to do without here and there, they too needed to eat and Rodney was not looking too good.

After asking and looking around, they came across a place that someone said they could get a map...for the right price. Of course, Jack surmised they wouldn't have enough money to purchase it, but Rodney said if they could at least look at it, between the three of them, he HOPED they could memorize enough to get there. So, standing before the mapmaker, bookmaker, whatever maker, the three boys went inside. There were two fairly well dressed older men standing by a counter, where the older man with grayish hair, was talking. There was a large map laid out before them.

After five minutes of being ignored, Jack cleared his throat. Rodney didn't think that was good enough. "Hey, we want to look at a local map," he said outright.

"This is no place for children," the older man by the counter snarled. "Be off with you."

"I don't think you heard him correctly," John said evenly, giving a small we-friendly-smile. "We would like to see a map of the local vicinity if you, please."

One of the two men by the counter laughed, and then looked down at them, his eyes showing he didn't think much of them either. "You need to be able to read a map to use it."

"Well, duh," Rodney replied.

"Duh?" Jack asked with amusement.

"What did he think were going to do with it, use if for wallpaper?" Rodney replied, looking at Jack, his small arms wrapping around his chest.

"Watch your mouth, boy," the man who spoke moments ago scolded.

"Hey, hey, no need to get hostile," John said, again using that we-come-in-peace tone he employed when he went off world. Of course, like now, it didn't always work.

"I think you children should leave before I call the Constable," the older man growled.

"How much to at least get a good look of one?" Jack asked, seeing things were going south fast. "We need to find the temple of..." he hesitated, about to mispronounce the temple name, but a deal was a deal, and Rodney was trying to not gripe 24/7, now it was down to twelve hours a day...it was a start, so Jack went against his habit of the dumb façade and said it correctly. "Saharan, if you don't mind."

"Saharan?" the other customer asked, jumping into the conversation. "Why would the three of you need to go to an abandoned temple?"

"Abandoned?" John asked, fearing the worst.

"No, it's not abandoned," the shopkeeper spoke up. "But few use it anymore," he added.

"Look, we're tired, hungry, and have a lot to do before it gets dark and not a lot of time to it. How much to get a good map or accurate directions to get there?" Rodney asked with his usual impatience.

"I think you should call the constable," the other man who was still looking darkly at the boys spoke up.

"No...I want to see if they really can read the map," the other one said, his tone sounding more curious than friendly. "I presume you have one, correct?" he asked the shopkeeper.

"Of course, sire," the shopkeeper said to the other well-dressed man and moved to get it, returning only moments later.

Rodney had moved up and realized he couldn't see over the counter much less the map. "Do you have a stool or something?"

"Please, allow me," the nicer of the two men said, moving to lift Rodney up, but Rodney stepped away faster than anyone could have thought and stepped behind John and Jack.

"Shy," John said easily.

"Stool or chair would probably work better, easier on the back," Jack grinned.

"Ah...yes, keeper?" the man who had just been surprised by Rodney's reluctance to be lifted up said.

Two minutes later a large bench was brought about, and all three boys got up and looked down at the map. "It's a rough version of Ancient," Rodney said, not particularly caring if the adults around him understood what he meant or not. "Elizabeth is better with languages than I am, but...I can make out enough."

"There...that's where we were," Jack said, pointing to a small picture that had a triangle on top of it and the word was a derivative of the Latin word for temple.

"So, calculating how far we walked and the direction we traveled," Rodney said, still mentally imagining the map in his mind, imprinting it for future need.

"Here," John said, pointing to a smaller picture with something written underneath.

"They seem to be doing fairly well," the semi-kind customer said, with some amusement to his companion.

"Luck," was all he said.

"Here," Rodney said, pointing to what looked like a similar building to the first temple, but it was a white picture and the symbol was that of a woman holding a child. "That's it."

"The monks said we'd be passing right by it," Jack said, his fingers traveling down the non-existent road, mentally seeing the path they would be taking and drawing his finger across and saw it went to a seaport. "Why am I not surprised?" he said with a huff.

"We'll have to go north at this intersection," Rodney said, tilting his head to see the name of the road. "Crow North..." he began.

"North Crow," the annoyed man spat out.

"He may have gotten it backwards, but he STILL read it," the other replied with some teasing in his voice.

"You know, I'm sooo glad you find my lack of understanding your grammar system so amusing, but do you mind?" Rodney growled and before anyone could say anything, he reached out to grab some parchment and the ink quill and began to write notes.

"What are you doing?" the shopkeeper protested.

"Writing down the directions, what's it to you?" Rodney snapped, but didn't look up from what he was doing.

"Ah...let me guess, you charge for that, don't you?" John asked, seeing the anger building in both the shopkeeper's eyes and the other man's.

"Just how much is it going to cost us, since we had to do it all OURSELVES?" Jack asked, hoping by mentioning THEY did the work, it wouldn't be that much.

"What's that scribble you're putting down?" the man who wanted them gone asked, seeing Rodney's eloquent handwriting, which was in English.

"It's called English, something I'm sure YOU'VE never heard of," Rodney replied as he finished.

"Powder," Jack said quickly before Rodney could roll the paper up.

"What?" Rodney asked, getting stares from everyone.

"You need to add that powder he has over in the cup to help it dry or it'll smear and be of no use," Jack said.

"Oh...right, right," Rodney said and again without asking, reached over grabbed some, "A pinch?" he asked Jack.

"Look here..." the shopkeeper had had enough.

"I'll pay for your services," the kinder of the two customers said, laughing as he pulled his purse from his inside pocket.

"They belong in jail," the other man snapped.

"And what would we do there but learn how to be better criminals?" Rodney retorted as he had dropped the powder back in the bowl and let Jack do it, as he seemed to know how.

The other man laughed harder and paid the man a silver coin. "After all they DID do the work themselves," the man said.

"You are a generous man, sire," the shopkeeper said, with a slight nod.

"Thanks, we appreciate it," John smiled, more than ready to leave, seeing the other man meant trouble. He pulled on Rodney and they got down, soon followed by Jack who rolled the map up and they headed to the door.

"Wait," the kind man said after placing a coin down on the counter and then caught up with him, a piece of leather in his hand. "To keep it safe, gentlemen," he smiled.

"Thanks," Jack said taking it and wrapping the rolled paper inside it.

"If you don't mind my asking, just how do you three boys plan on getting all the way there? It's at least a three day journey by horse."

"The old fashion way," Jack said pointing to his feet. "Speaking of, do you know where we can get some ointment? Sores, ya' know," he smiled.

The other man swore and turned back to the shopkeeper, done having his time wasted, but the kinder man walked outside with him. "Down the street and to your left there's a place I think might be of help, and here," the man said, handing Jack three gold coins. "Few have ever proven my friend wrong and the entertainment value was worth it," he smiled and then went back inside.

Jack beamed, "if this keeps up, we might be able to buy some transportation."

"That would be heavenly," Rodney said with a wistful sigh.

"But we're sticking to the plan," John said, giving Jack a look to be sure.

"Yes. Though we do need to find something to make a better shelter as I'm sensing rain," Jack said as he slipped the coins away and they headed down the street.

"What now you're a weatherman?" Rodney asked, for he had been impressed by what Jack knew about camping. "Why didn't YOU know about the herbs and roots?"

"I know about the ones from Earth, but I don't recognize a lot of the plants around here, and Nya would only make time for Pretty Boy here..." Jack replied, giving John a grin.

"Hey...Shay said you were cute too," John replied, knowing he was referring to a seven, or eight-year-old girl.

"Be still my heart," Jack said with a hand over his chest. "Shay said Rodney could play with her any time he wanted...so I think she liked him more."

"She's a child," Rodney griped.

"Hate to break it to you, Rodney, but so are you," John laughed.

"Go soak your head," Rodney snapped.

"Lesson two of how to tell military officers to go stuff themselves?" Jack asked as he chuckled.

"No three, two was too impolite for public use," Rodney retorted back, his eyes showing he wasn't upset in the slightest, but having fun.

"Okay, kids...and I say that literally," Jack smiled, "A tarp of some sort, ointment for Rodney's feet, and food that we can travel with. Cheap is the operative word here, for though luck has been kind, it won't hold out forever. Got it?"

Rodney and John agreed and they all headed into town to do their shopping as cheaply and as best as they could and get back before dark or miss the evening meal.

***

Jack had been right about the rain and the tarp or hide material they got made for a great tent, top and bottom, but Jack being Jack, and John being John...Rodney hadn't been surprised to find themselves under a wagon with their blankets, Rodney having three by Jack's insistence and John's agreement, while the tarp was used to provide shelter for the other children, mostly the small ones. It seemed Father Parkell didn't think much of the weather in regards to himself, as he and the others remained dry in their large lush tents.

Thankfully it was a light rainstorm and didn't last long and the sun came out the next day. It was not a traveling day because they were staying it seemed to 'wait' for others who may join their cause to a 'better future', as once again promised by the religious leader, who said very little about what religion it was.

The boys kept busy that rainy evening by playing twenty questions, but changed it to twenty with a good clue by the end, for there was no way they would have guessed neutron under the category of mineral...so limits were set too. The next day, everyone went about their tasks, John went with Nya to forage for the herbs and roots, Jack set up the tent, and Rodney, whether he liked it or not got stuck babysitting the smaller ones.

By the afternoon, the ground was dry again, the sun bright and they had time on their hands...it was time for some fun!

"Rodney, I need a ball," Jack said with a huge grin on his face.

"A ball...should I rush down to the nearest sports store and get you what? Soccer ball, basketball or the funny shaped football, you Americans want to call a ball?"

"How about you put that inventive mind of yours to use and make me something?" Jack replied.

"Fine, gets me away from these brats," Rodney stormed off; he'd more than had enough of children who thought he was mean anyway.

"What's your problem?" Jack asked, having seen Rodney not get along with the small kids very well. "They're just kids."

"And that would be my problem," Rodney said as he moved to THEIR tent again, since Jack had set it up again and started going through their few supplies.

Jack could see Rodney wasn't going to say more and knew most folks would take that comment at face value, but Jack was good at reading people and Rodney was hiding something and he was going to find out what, but now was not the time.

"Okay, there was no way I can make something of kicking value with what we have here, but I can make something to throw around, will that do?" Rodney asked, not sure why he was even bothering, but he didn't have much else to do. There was NO technology of interest and none for years to come from the looks of things on this planet, so making a 'ball' was something.

"That's fine, make it about this big if you can, BUT," Jack said, seeing Rodney about to protest. "I'll take what I can, then meet me in the field over there in say...?"

"Ten minutes, fifteen on the outside," Rodney said, barely paying attention.

About fifteen minutes later, Rodney walked over to where Jack had said he'd meet him and saw most of the kids gathered around, the little ones ages seven and younger sitting on the sides. Jack and John were picking kids for teams...for what Rodney didn't have a clue. "Here," he said, handing Jack a tightly bound ball, made of clothes he found in the camp and the leather buckles they were using to carry their blankets with. "What's going on?"

"We're going to play a game and you're just in time to join my team," Jack beamed at John.

"You think Slowpoke Rodriguez, the slowest mouse in all Mexico is going to help you defeat me?" John said with a defiant laugh, the little ones laughed along although they didn't really know why, as they would have never heard of the Loony Tunes character.

"Me?" Rodney asked, a mix of insult to be compared to cartoon mouse and confused that Jack was pulling him to be on his team.

"You wait and see," Jack grinned knowingly. Then he faced Rodney and patted him on the shoulder, "Here's the rules," he began, going over them once more for Rodney's sake.

Two hours later, the kids were all covered in dirt, sweat and grinning like idiots, even the little ones who became cheerleaders. The mock football game, with lots of the American flavor to it, just without the kicking or tackling, just tossing, and two-handed touch, was now tied 19/19. First team to twenty points would be the winner as previously agreed by Jack and John and Jack's team had the 'ball'.

"This isn't going to work," Rodney griped, but he like the rest of the kids was covered in dirt and sweat and a crooked smile on his face...until Jack told him his plan on how they were going to win the game.

"It's the last play, then they get the ball...it'll work," Jack assured him, and then ruffled his hair. Everyone met on the 'yard line' or where the ball was and got in a line, much like American football players with their quarterback.

"Hike one, hike two, buckle my shoe...throw it now!" Jack shouted, for it took too much time to explain when to throw the ball back to him when he said hike, hike. Once the fake ball was snapped back to him, everyone scrambled in different directions, as usual, John tried to get to Jack, he turned after passing around Rodney and was hugging the ball to himself and was looking to get around everyone.

"GET AWAY FROM ME!" Rodney shouted as one of the kids from John's team came towards him, and Rodney had dropped to one knee hunched, screaming, which was enough to get the kid to glare at him and go after Jack.

John weaved around the other kids with ease and with much effort, finally grabbed hold of Jack's shirt with one hand and with more effort than probably necessary, pushed Jack who went to the ground, as John got his other hand on his shoulder. "Gotcha!" John grinned.

"Me, perhaps, but nothing else," Jack said, and laughed as he opened his arms and showed nothing within.

John only took a few seconds to process he'd been tricked and looked around as the other kids had stopped when they saw John take Jack down, and saw Rodney running toward the goal, unopposed. With a huge grin on his face he got up, "sneaky son-of-a-bitch," he said and started to run after Rodney. "RODNEY!" he shouted and saw the slight panic cross his friend's face and was pleased that Rodney sped up instead of slowing down.

Rodney turned to see John speeding like a bullet toward him, and then turned to see the goal line was not that far, and ran faster, his lungs killing him, his legs hurting and wobbly like jell-o, yet something inside him wanted to make the goal...the WINNING touchdown and so he pushed himself harder.

Inch by inch, foot, by foot, and soon, he was almost there, but the sun let him see the shadow of his pursuer meaning he was almost on top of him, for Rodney knew he was never a fast runner, and something in him snapped, and he did what he would have not done when he was truly ten...he leaped toward the imaginary goal line, in desperate hope, and forgetting it was going to hurt when he hit.

"Ow," was all Rodney could think, for not only was the ground hard, but also apparently made more so by the body on top of him. "Get off!" he grumbled, letting go of the fake ball and attempted to turn over, only to see John leaning over him, grinning like an idiot. "What?"

"You won," John said good-naturedly.

Before Rodney could ask what was going on; he was swarmed by the kids of his...Jack's team and they were cheering him, lifting him from the ground, hugging him, slapping him...all thinking him the hero. "I did it?" he finally asked and looked to see he was more than halfway over the imaginary goal. "I did it!" he said, looking surprised and very pleased at what he'd done, seeking out both Jack and John, who both looked happy for him. Only some of John's team glared at him, but at that moment he didn't care.

"Scored the winning touchdown," Jack called out and gave him a 'thumbs up' and got a half hug half handshake from John.

"Okay guys, go get cleaned up," Jack shouted out, and Rodney thought it funny that even at ten, the man sounded like a dad.

Jack and John were laughing and saw Rodney looking exhilarated, then suddenly the light dimmed in his eyes and they both approached him. "Hey, what's up? You won the game?" John asked, not understanding why Rodney would be sad suddenly.

Rodney did what he always did and brushed the negative emotion aside. "Shock," he said after a moment, and then grinned ear to ear. "So...we won...what do we get?" he asked, looking at John and Jack.

"Winning," John said. "What do you want more, a medal or a chest to pin it on?" he teased.

"Since I'll get the chest in about ten years, I'll take the medal," Rodney replied quickly and Jack laughed and put an arm around his shoulder, which felt good.

"Told you he was my secret weapon," Jack gloated at John.

"Hey, he faked an injury," John protested.

"Ball never touched the ground," Jack replied with a knowing smile.

"Hey...we were discussing my prize," Rodney interrupted.

Jack and John laughed and John placed an arm over Jack's also wrapped around Rodney from the other side; it was a unique and great feeling. "Come on, MVP, I'll get your medal," John said and the three started moving off towards their camp.

"Really?" Rodney asked, for he really didn't think he was going to get anything.

"Yeah, it's called a spoon," Jack teased, and he and John were laughing, and glad to see Rodney join in, though he still tried to look annoyed, he was failing miserably. Over all, it was a good day, and Jack couldn't have asked for anything else.

Tender Years Part 5

When they left the town, they had picked up five more kids, but lost three who went to work for different people in the town. Jack had been disappointed that so few had even tried to find work or shelter in the town, but knew they were all clinging to the false promises of a monk, which Jack still couldn't prove was lying to them. His gut said these kids were in danger, but no one seemed to care, which was the whole problem. If anyone cared for these kids, they wouldn't be here in the first place. All he could do was keep his team...John and Rodney ... safe and hope for the best.

They were less than an hour into their trip again when Jack first took notice of it...sniffling. First he hoped it was Rodney's allergies, but even John started to look concerned as the sniffling increased and Rodney's griping decreased, which was never a good sign for someone like Rodney. When John reached out and placed a hand on Rodney's head he gave Jack a serious look, Jack knew, Rodney was sick.

Knowing Father Parkell would never stop; Jack ran ahead with a different plan in mind and hoped it would work. "Hey," he shouted to the monks, having left them alone over the last few days...they really should have known he'd be back. "My brother's sick," he shouted.

"All is God's will," Parkell said in a mock sincere tone.

"He needs to rest. The back of the last wagon is low on supplies, he and some of the smaller kids could ride in there and not slow us down," Jack suggested, hoping the creep would see the benefit of the idea.

"That would be unfair to those who couldn't ride," one of the other monks said, being the company line when the little ones were exhausted and others had asked in the past.

"Then we're leaving," Jack said and stopped running, ready to turn around. He was surprised to see the wagon stop and see the old bastard get down from his high horse as it were, and walk over to him.

"You can not leave, God has prepared a special place for you and your...highly...intelligent brothers," Parkell said, looking down at Jack.

Jack was surprised that the man had noticed or cared which made him feel even more uncomfortable about the situation. It also meant when the real time for their leaving arrived, they'd have to slip away. "He's sick. We got medicine from the town," he said, for they had, just in case. Jack was so glad he had grown so precautious over the years. "But he needs to stay warm and be cared for. Some of the others are not doing so great either. Let them ride in the back and John and I will trade off looking after him and the others. There won't be a problem, I'll see to that," Jack promised.

Jack saw how the man was scrutinizing him, probably wondering how such small a boy had such influence over the others or be so 'mature', but Jack knew he'd never guess. "Deal?" he asked.

"You are responsible then," Father Parkell said, and then moved off. "You have until we're done feeding the animals to get them settled, and then we must press on."

Jack nodded and ran back with the news. Soon, he had Rodney, John, and ten other little ones, including Shay who looked a bit worn for wear, settled before they started off again.

Between the rest, the warmth, and food, not to mention the medication, Rodney was feeling better four days later. He noticed that while he was not feeling well, it was John that took care of him the most. At first he thought Jack didn't want anything to do with a sick kid, but as he got better he realized something else; Jack was doing most of the walking, letting John rest and Jack didn't eat much of his food, offering it to Rodney and John, with no word or concern for himself. John protested the non-walking thing, to the point he jumped out of the wagon and left Rodney alone for ten minutes, until Jack realized if someone was going to take care of him, he'd have to do it. John wasn't much better on eating his own food either. He shared less with Rodney and some with the others, as Jack was giving the two of them the bigger portions. Well, now that he was feeling better, that was enough of that.

"Eat," Rodney said to Jack and John, handing a bowl of some stew Jack had managed to make out of the odds and ends they'd gathered, and it was actually quite good to eat.

"I'm good," Jack said.

"I'll get some later," John replied as he had before.

"Eat or I won't eat either," Rodney said flatly. Seeing the looks he went on. "I know you two have not been eating so I have more than enough. Well, you both look like something the cat dragged in and I'm fine...so eat!" he said, shoving the bowls at them.

"Rodney," John started.

"NO," Rodney growled. "Eat or I swear I won't eat a bite for the rest of the day, and then see what that'll get you."

"You'll get sick again," Jack said flatly.

"Look, I appreciate you guys taking care of me, but if you don't take care of yourselves, I'll be here on my own, and then what am I supposed to do?"

"So, this is purely a self-motivated thing?" John asked, his tone indicating he didn't fully believe it.

"Of course," Rodney replied all too easily. "Now, please...eat," he said, almost begging.

Jack and John took their bowls and began to eat, and Rodney smiled and after they both finished he got some for himself.

Soon it was time to pack up and get moving again. Father Parkell had seen the wisdom in letting his charges eat lunch if he didn't want too many stragglers, or worse, kids leaving. Jack had also gotten him to agree to continue to let the little ones ride in the back of the last wagon, for it did speed them up some, and they were loading up the kids when the clattering of hooves rang out through the area.

The three boys moved to see what was coming and saw three men, fancy caps flying from their backs, as they were racing as they sped down the road towards them. They didn't seem to think anything of those before them, only shoving or kicking at the other, in some vain attempt to slow the other. What happened next happened too quickly for anyone to stop it, though none of the boys would ever forget it.

The riders were approaching fast, their attention on themselves when suddenly Shay stepped out into the road, probably to see what was happening and saw the horse like creatures bearing down on her and probably froze in fear. Nya's scream filled the air, but it was too late, the riders stampeded over her as if she wasn't even there...they didn't even have the decency to slow down.

Jack and Nya ran with all their might to the crumbled and bloodied body of the small girl, whereas John, fury in his eyes, ran after the riders, grabbed rocks and threw them with all his might, other kids followed suit, and Rodney...he froze to his spot in silent shock.

Nya's wails of grief over the body of her baby sister could barely be heard over the angry shouts of the children, as Jack knelt next to her, seeing that Shay was dead. He turned and saw what was happening and since some of the rocks had found their mark, the riders had stopped and one had pulled a sword and was heading back towards them. Jack jumped to his feet, determined that no more children would be hurt. "Stop!" he shouted, moving until he was next to John who was in the front, glaring at the rider charging him.

"Stop, sire, stop." Father Parkell called out, actually moving in front of the children. Jack surmised it was not out of pity, but for some other greedy reason he hadn't quite figured out yet. "Please."

"Your scourge has dared insult my person," the finely dressed man shouted back with anger.

"You KILLED a little girl!" John shouted back with equal anger.

Jack was with him in anger, but seeing the sword and John's determination, his need to keep John safe was all that was keeping him from charging the bastard himself.

"One less street beggar, good-riddance, I say," the young man snarled, then almost fell off his horse when a thick stone hit him in the head.

"One less imbecilic, self-righteous, pompous-ass, good riddance," Rodney snarled back, his hand still filthy from throwing the rock. "She was not even eight years old, you cold-hearted bastard!" he said with such cold fury it was downright scary.

Jack felt the same as he turned to glare at the man, his head now bleeding from being hit. He saw the other two riders approach, one grabbing the man's sword arm, apparently saying something wise, as the man placed it away.

"Here," the third young man said, pulling his purse out and tossing it to the ground before the Father, "For your loss," he said rather annoyed, and gathered the reigns of the injured rider's horse and led him off, all put out for having lost the joy of their fun that day.

"That's NOT for you," Rodney snapped, seeing Father Parkell reach for the bag of coins. The tone shocked the man into stopping his motion, and Rodney marched up, grabbed the coins and went to Nya, still sobbing over her sister's death and dropped them by her and then moved off.

"We are losing light," Father Parkell snapped, no hint of the fake kindness he typically sported.

"No, we're done for the day," Jack said out loud, still feeling angry, especially since no justice would be found this day if ever over Shay's death. "And as a 'father' you need to prepare for the funeral," Jack said in his best command voice, which was rather firm for a ten year old boy.

"Look, boy," Father Parkell growled, turning on Jack, more than ready to put him in his place, but all the other kids saw Jack meet his gaze without fail as did John.

"A child has died today, what more do you want?" John asked, his tone even, but still laced with anger.

Father Parkell suddenly realized he was being watched by everyone and knew this was a crucial moment and once again relented. "Fine...dig, we'll hold a quick service, when it's done, then we can..."

"Rest...no one's going anywhere tonight," Jack said firmly and he knew his time here was limited, for whatever worth Father Parkell was imagining with him being around, it no longer seemed worth it by the look he got back, before the man stormed off.

"I'll dig," John said and moved off, closing off like a good solider so he could get the job done.

Jack understood John so well at the moment, but found it so much harder to do the same. Swallowing back his own grief, he moved to help Nya, for the body would have to be prepared, and he realized Rodney was nowhere to be found. One thing at a time...there was a funeral to be attended to, for he knew Parkell would not wait more than a night before forcing them onward.

Several hours later, all were gathered around a small poorly marked grave, but Jack did his best, taking what wood he could find and carving Shay's name on it. Only Father Parkell attended, the other monks suddenly too busy to do so...another glimpse of their true colors. After a few words, everyone drifted off, Jack grabbed John and after a long quiet moment of resistance, John followed Jack as they went to find Rodney.

Rodney had apparently paid attention on how to set up their makeshift tent, for it was up and a small meal prepped to be cooked, awaiting a fire, which Rodney didn't know how to start, but knew what to gather. "If you light it, I'll get it heated," he said rather flatly.

"Why weren't you at the funeral?" John asked, his tone angry as if Rodney had insulted him and everyone by not being there.

"What's the point, she's dead...not coming back," Rodney said coolly, not looking at anyone.

"Just one less street urchin to bother you, is that it?" John shot back angrily, having heard Rodney bitch so much about kids back on Atlantis and a good deal here, foregoing how most of that had stopped days ago.

Rodney jumped to his feet fury in his eyes, but not a word spoken, which made Jack jump between them. "We're not doing this," he ordered. As John took a step forward, more than willing to get into Rodney's face, Jack growled deeper, "I SAID, we're not doing this...stand down!" When John didn't move, "Stand down, Colonel," he ordered.

"You're ten, where the fuck you get off giving me orders," John snarled at Jack, then glared at Rodney.

Jack chose to ignore that, his own emotions running high enough as it were. "What's really going on, Rodney?" he asked, knowing something more was going on inside. He'd come to see the facade for what it was, and he was covering for a much deeper pain, that much he could tell, but what exactly he could not. "Talk to us," he pleaded, hoping John could see what was really happening here.

Not getting anything from either of them, Jack sighed, and focused on what he knew. "We're all hurting here for one reason or another..."

"Save the Field Psych 101," John snapped.

"For once I agree," Rodney growled, glaring at both of them.

"Fine," Jack said between thinned lips. "Bottom line, we lost a child, a friend and there was NOTHING we could do to prevent it. It HURTS, and you blaming yourself isn't helping squat," Jack snapped at John, "and you going all Ice Bitch, isn't helping either. If I learned ANYTHING in my old age, it's that you can't keep all the shit in...or you pay a higher price than you can imagine, for doing so," Jack told them, thinking of how he lost Daniel for not sharing what was going through his head and heart all the years he knew the man...loved the man. Now, he had two new friends and he didn't want to repeat that mistake or let them follow his stupidity, especially John.

"We heard the horses," John said, his arms wrapping around himself.

"She was in the wagon, we couldn't have known she'd get out...I..." Jack closed his eyes, feeling his own pain at the loss. "I told them to stay put."

"I was the one that forgot to close the back," John said with self-accusation.

"Enough of the self-accusation, bleeding heart crap," Rodney snapped and stomped into their much larger tent, due to the tarp they'd purchased not that long ago.

"Why you little shit," John snarled and went after him. "Where do you get off being such a bastard?"

"You wouldn't understand," Rodney barely said.

"Why don't you try us?" Jack encouraged.

Rodney shook his head, "I've never been good with kids," he muttered. "Not like you, you're a natural father," he said looking at Jack.

"Well, perhaps some practice would make a difference," John said, his tone cutting.

Rodney whirled around in fury, "I had six months of practice for all the damn fucking good it did me!" he shouted, as a few tears fell down his face, then he turned his back once again, not wanting to see the stunned faces.

"You were a father?" John asked with quiet shock. "I...it didn't say in your file you were married...."

"News for you mastermind, you don't have to be married to have a kid," Rodney growled over his shoulder, his arms wrapped tightly around himself.

For a long time there was tense silence.

"Charlie was ten when he died," Jack said in a pained, hushed voice. He saw John look at him with surprise, as did Rodney. "He shot himself with my gun," he added, knowing deep down this had to be said. They needed to get past this together, why he didn't know, he just knew it was important, and he was done ignoring the important stuff. "To this day, not a night goes by that I don't wish that I had taken the extra thirty seconds it would have taken me to check to see the gun case was locked, but..." he took a steadying breath, "but I can't change that...so perhaps...to a degree, Rodney, I might understand."

Jack then looked at John, "I also know you," he added. "Not only because of being a solider, but I've read your file too, and I KNOW what you've seen and done, and I KNOW how that feels too...probably some of the same reasons I left special ops..." he left a pause on purpose, knowing John would understand the unspoken, and other stuff, before continuing. "I know how hard it was to do nothing or to second-guess yourself...but I learned you can't keep doing it and continue...and I mean living, not the job. Shutting down seems like the answer, but trust me here...it's not."

"Her name was Melinda," Rodney said in a very tight and hushed voice. "We...we were not really going together, per se, but we had sex a few times...she said I was convenient and I was eighteen...what did I care?" he said, then gave a slight laugh as if trying to joke, but he didn't make it.

Jack sat down and pulled Rodney down to sit almost in front of him and then reached out and pulled John next to them as well, not a word spoken, as he gathered the extra blankets and wrapped them around each of them as a whole. "Go on," he said quietly, getting the feeling this was the first time Rodney had spoken about this to anyone in a long time, if ever, by the look in his eyes.

"Well, when she told me she was pregnant and I was the father, being I was the only one she was having sex with, I was scared and elated at the same time. She didn't want to get married, didn't believe in it and I didn't think much of it either at the time, but I wanted to be there...." He looked at both John and Jack and saw they were really listening and gave a small smile. "It was a boy...Ronald."

"Ronald McKay..." John said with a slight approving smile.

"Ronald Collins, Melinda wouldn't take my last name and though it appeared on the birth certificate...well," Rodney closed his eyes as some tears began to fall. "He had a heart defect...which she...she blamed me for..."

"That's why all those DNA tests you nagged Beckett over," John said with sudden insight.

"And?" Jack asked, wanting to know.

"He didn't find anything like that...but still..." Rodney replied, looking extremely guilty. "He died at six months...one moment I was holding him the next..." he couldn't say anymore as the damn of emotions broke and he sobbed.

Jack pulled Rodney towards him as his own tears for so many reasons fell, and before John could move half an inch, pulled him in as well. For a long moment there was resistance from John, but the need to touch, for comfort, for security to grieve surpassed the macho programming to run away, and he too caved and all three young boys cried and shared their grief until exhaustion took over and the meal long forgotten.

Tender Years Chapter 6

Jack hadn't been surprised when he woke up and found Rodney and John curled up on him. In fact, he rather liked it...liked being needed. Slowly he shifted out, since nature was calling. He made sure they were covered with the blanket. John opened an eye to see where he was going but Rodney kept snoring away. "Nature," he said quietly and it was enough for John to go back to sleep.

Once outside, Jack took stock of the camp and the other kids. There was still so much that needed to be done, but it was better than when they had first arrived. The kids were fed small meals three times a day and though they had to group up, they now had shelters. Jack wandered to the trees to take care of business, and as usual, contrary to what many might think back at the SGC or Washington DC, a ton of thoughts raced through his mind. He was worried about the kids, but didn't know enough about the people or what resources, if any, were available to help them. He gave a tiny grin as he thought how Daniel would probably have pushed the monks into divulging their plan and pushed for each child to have blankets and decent meals...hell, Jack had tried, but where he knew when to back off, his friend at times didn't. Jack sighed, as he thought of his friend, the man he loved, who had moved on without him.

Jack finished up and washed up and then decided to get a fire started so they could have something hot in their stomachs before they hit the road again. Jack looked in on John and Rodney and found himself grinning; they looked so cute, curled up next to each other. John in some ways reminded him of himself, solider, dumb things down so others underestimated you, sharp wit. But John Sheppard was his own person, and a man to be respected. He was a good man that put other people first...most times, when he could. He was bright and from what he'd read from the reports Weir sent back, was proving to be a good strategist. He also hid his heart and soul with a mask. Oh, Jack knew that trick all too well; a trick that had cost him more than he wanted to admit.

"You never tell me what's going on inside, I have to guess or wait next to forever to find out. When it comes to matters of the heart, it shouldn't be a guessing game, Jack."

Jack shook his head, Daniel's words ringing very clear. He had tried to balance it all, solider, commander, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, death all around him, and the scrutiny, but in the end he'd failed; he'd closed off and cut Daniel out, and now it was too late. But it didn't have to be that way for John Sheppard, no, Jack thought with determination, if he did anything with what was left of his life, for he was sure when this was over he'd be that old man again, he would help Sheppard...John, avoid the damning pitfalls and traps he'd hit or at least do his damnedest to try.

Jack was smiling a little, feeling a bit better, and then heard Rodney snuffle as he rolled over, his hair was sticking up all over and it struck Jack as funny. Rodney McKay, now there was an enigma. He admitted to himself that he hadn't thought that much of McKay the few times he'd met him before. He thought he was brass, arrogant, full of shit, and as pleasant as a wolverine...but then he'd never had much time for scientists. He'd tried hard to keep the tough as nails, dumb as a rock Colonel facade in place. Jack realized he'd missed a great deal.

The reports showed a different man all together, one of courage, bravery, self-sacrificing, and the honorary hero, along with Sheppard, of Atlantis. No disrespect to John, but that was kind of expected of the man, but not of McKay...Rodney. He was to bitch up a storm and run the other direction at the first sign of trouble. But no, Rodney didn't run...bitch up a storm yes...but not run. Jack smiled warmly thinking of the person hidden under all the I-am-better-than-sliced-bread facade, and saw an insecure man, who wanted the same thing Jack did...to be loved; to be accepted for who he was; and to be worthy of the effort it took to achieve those things with. Hell, Jack knew he wasn't the easiest person to live with, ask his ex-wife, even before Charlie died, Jack could be difficult. Oh, it isn't always a bad thing, but still...not typical in any way, and it seemed Rodney was the same way...he needed to be needed.

Jack sighed, shaking those thoughts from his head, wondering why he bothered with them at all. There was things to be done so Jack focused on getting the fires started in the several cooking areas that would be needed as he was the most skilled and it was a fact that none of the monks were going to do it. Jack took the flint and steel he had 'borrowed' from the monks and began to light the kindling, the sparks catching, when it hit Jack like an arrow between the eyes. "Crap!" he growled. He made sure the fire was secure before going back inside the tent and shook Rodney as John opened his eyes upon his entering the ten.

"Mmmm, if the city isn't sinking or about to blow up, go away," Rodney groaned.

"Wake up," Jack snapped.

John sat up, "What's up?"

"I finally figured out what they're planning," Jack said and was glad he got part of Rodney's attention. "I don't know why I didn't see it before, but it's so damn obvious..." he closed his eyes in fury.

"What?" Rodney asked, still trying to figure out what was going on.

"Slavery," Jack said between clenched teeth.

"You don't know that for sure," John said, but his tone showed he doubted his own words as he spoke. "They could have something...better."

"Slavery?" Rodney gulped. "You sure?"

"Something very similar happened in our own history and like a brick, it hit me this morning. During the middle ages, during the time of the other Crusades, men would cross parts of Europe posing as holy men and making large promises to the homeless children or to families who were too big to care for their older children, so they would lead them to the coast...where they boarded ships, thinking they were going to the 'promised land' and a better future, only to be sold into slavery," Jack explained.

"That happened on OUR world?" John asked, not caring for what he heard.

"I don't recall the dates, been a long time since I studied the Middle Ages," Jack said, and then looked at Rodney. "We have to do something," Jack insisted.

"Like what?" Rodney replied, and saw how John and Jack were looking at him. "What? It's not like I can build them a Stargate or something or even a house...and it's not because I'm ten either. We don't have much money; just a few coins and just where would we get the materials and the labor to do it...plus, most of them are brainwashed into believing all that garbage Parkell is spouting is true."

"We have to do something," Jack said again, determination clear in his face.

"I hate to say this, but we may not be able to," John said after a long pause. "I mean, we can warn them, but most of them have nowhere to go and it's not like we can take them with us...can we?" he asked Rodney.

"No, we can't," Rodney replied, resenting having to be the bearer of bad news. "I don't know what we have to do at the temple if there is ANYTHING I can do. I don't know if it'll have a way back or what, and even if it did, there is no telling what would happen to them if they touched the mirror. Hell, we screwed it up and we're only three people," Rodney explained, folding his arms around his chest, shifting on his back and looking annoyed.

"Mission first," Jack muttered, and then nodded, more to himself, and then looked up at John and Rodney. "We warn the older kids...hope for the best," he said, his face tight as if holding back the rage within. "When do we reach the crossroad?" he asked, looking at Rodney.

Rodney saw how this was upsetting Jack and to be honest, it upset the hell out of him too, and he could see John was no less affected. But what could they do? He shifted and got the directions from the leather bound and showed it to John. "Well?"

John smiled, for he knew he was being asked to calculate distance from how far they walked to how far they had to go based on current events. "Well...from what I recall, I don't think that map was accurate for distance, but at the rate we've been going, we should either reach it later tonight or sometime tomorrow."

"Good," Jack said, again, still tight lipped. "I'll get the rest of the fires going," he said as he began to move out when Rodney's hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned to see a concerned face.

"We feel the same way, Jack," Rodney said quietly.

"Yeah," John agreed. "And who knows, perhaps something will come up," John shrugged.

Jack appreciated the support and gave a small smile. "Thanks," he said, and then moved out.

"You and he share the same complex...take the world on your shoulders kind of thing," Rodney told John.

John thought about that a moment. "It's who we are...our nature is to protect," he finally said, not sure why he was admitting this to Rodney.

"Then perhaps you can help him with this?" Rodney asked as he got to his feet, a blanket still wrapped around him. "He's going to take leaving hard...perhaps harder..."

"You mean because of Charlie?" John asked.

Rodney just nodded.

"And you?" John asked, placing a supportive hand on Rodney's shoulder, having stood up moments after Rodney did.

Rodney looked over his shoulder, his eyes guarded, and then gave a tight smile, "I don't like it either, but we all know I'm the practical one here...voice of reason..."

"Save it, McKay," John said with a light smile, and then took a step closer, "I'm sorry about what I said yesterday, I was out of line."

"Yes...yes you were, but," Rodney sighed. "I understand why you would think that...I portray the Scrooge well...too well." He looked away.

"It doesn't have to be that way, Rodney. Not among your friends...and you DO have them, you know," John said, giving a squeeze on Rodney's shoulder to let him know he was one of those friends. "And you have another one right out there," John added, nodding to the front of the makeshift tent.

Rodney gave a genuine smile and nodded, and then his stomach growled. "Food," he said and moved outside to see the secure fire going, a water pot on to heat and nothing else. "What I wouldn't give for an MRE right about now," he moaned.

"Only you would wish for an MRE," John laughed. "Me, a thick juicy steak with some freshly cooked shrimp."

"Did I hear some talk of some surf and turf?" Jack asked as he made his way back, the other two cooking fires already going strong. "I'm all for the steak, though I wouldn't mind some shrimp, what about you?" he asked Rodney.

"HE, was wishing for an MRE," John grinned and chuckled at the astonished expression that crossed Jack's face. "He likes hospital food too," John added.

"Hey," Rodney protested.

"Only you, McKay," Jack laughed. "Okay," he said as he held up three blades of grass that looked the same height. "Short one does the dishes," he said.

"Can't we just take turns?" Rodney groaned. "I swear you two have some code or something, I've gotten the short blade twice as much as either of you."

Jack and John just laugh mischievously.

***

John had called it right; they came upon the crossroad just as evening was upon them. Jack wanted to leave when it got dark, so they didn't fully set things up, moving to the farthest point in the camp away from the monks and their fancy tents. Once it was dark, Jack gave the signal and they packed what they needed, and without a goodbye, they moved out.

They had warned the older kids of the fate they believed awaited them, but there was nothing more they could do, so it was with heavy hearts they departed the camp. Unfortunately they didn't get more than fifty yards up North Crow Road when they were discovered departing.

"Just where the hell do you three think you're going?" one of the thug monks asked.

"I would think it's obvious," Rodney snapped. "We're leaving."

"Yeah, not that we didn't appreciate your hospitality and all, but we're looking for better accommodations," John added with a smile.

"I agree, you'd never get a five-star rating with the same décor in every room, and I think you took the term outdoor plumbing a bit extreme don't you?" Jack added, tagging off John, which they did very easily. "Besides, Rodney here is very delicate and your beds are just not up to his standards."

"Their not even up to existence," Rodney joined in.

"Shut up and get back there," the other monk who was standing behind the three boys ordered.

"Oh...I don't think so," Jack said, carefully putting his stuff down, and sharing a look with John, who also slowly put his items down.

"Look, it's late, and I'm in no mood for the I'm big, you're small, crap. We're leaving, deal with it," Rodney said firmly.

The monk in front moved to grab Rodney, but was met with a kick in the groin by Jack, then a painful full body jump on the man's instep, followed by another punch in the groin, and then the throat, as the man bent over, before dropping to the ground gasping for air.

The man behind went for John, and John knowing that size didn't matter when it came to martial arts, grabbed the monk's wrist with both hands, turned and flipped the man over his body and onto the ground. Then he moved and popped the man in the chest, instead of the throat, for there was no need to kill the man...yet. He stepped back and saw Jack was having way too much fun hurting his target. "Hey," he said, moments before Jack put his man down. "Having fun?" he asked, sounding a tad disproving.

"Yeah, actually," Jack admitted, and then kicked the guy in front of him in the butt. "He's the one that threw me out of the tent," Jack explained as he got his stuff and saw Rodney look stunned. "You okay?"

"I...I didn't know you could do that...I mean as grown ups...but I mean..." Rodney stuttered, looking shocked but also impressed with both of them.

"I've always told you, with the right skills, size doesn't matter," John grinned, having gotten his own stuff.

"Yeah, tell that to Conan," Rodney said as he quickly skirted the groaning men to join Jack and John on their journey to the next temple.

"Conan?" Jack asked.

"His pet name for Ronon Dex, I'm sure you read about him," John explained.

Jack snickered. "What does he call your fourth...Teyla?" Jack asked, wanting to know what nicknames he'd come up with for his team.

"Xena, but never to her face," John replied with a huge grin.

"I can't believe you showed her the show...though I'm more shocked someone had it downloaded, in the first place," Rodney said.

"What, it's okay to have all the original Star Trek episodes downloaded, but not Xena?" John teased.

"You have ALL of the episodes?" Jack asked, a curious tone in his voice.

"Yeah, why?" Rodney asked slightly defensive.

"Oh...nothing, it's...well, I've never seen them...all of them. Teal'c said he'd show me sometime, but...between saving the world and paperwork..." Jack shrugged.

"WAIT," Rodney said, stopping in his tracks. "You have NEVER seen ALL of original Star Trek?"

"Hey, what can I said. Haven't seen all that Star Wars thing everyone was talking about either, what's the big deal?" Jack replied with a slight smile, his eyes hiding his delight at seeing Rodney's reaction. "But we digress," he then said. "What does he call you?" he asked John.

"He's Kirk," Rodney explained. "Alien woman drop at his feet and beg to have his baby on about every other planet we go to."

"Knock it off, they do not," John protested. "That happened once...once," he said to Jack.

Jack laughed, "You must get the good planets or are using the same cologne Daniel used, for it was usually him they dropped to their knees for, or kidnapped him for to make their prince or whatnot."

"Not you?" John asked, not meaning to sound so surprised, but recovered quickly, "I mean, some women like older men," he teased.

Jack smirked, "No, not usually, though I had a few...turned them down."

"You're both insane," Rodney said with frustration. "You have extremely beautiful and hot women offering themselves up on silver platters and you walk away..." he shook his head in disbelief.

"Not getting any back home was he?" Jack asked in a mock whisper to John.

"Probably not, though I don't know why, it's not like he hasn't had a few women make a move on him," John replied.

"Do you mind?" Rodney snapped. "We're not discussing my love life..."

"Or lack of...gotcha," Jack nodded simply, and then winked at Rodney, which made Rodney growl and storm forward but not by much. "He's so easy to wind up."

"Tell me about it," John chuckled. "But he can take it, and boy oh boy can he dish it out," John added.

"Of that I have no doubt," Jack said.

"Hey...HEY," Rodney called from up ahead.

Both John and Jack ran to see what was wrong. "You okay?" Jack asked as they arrived at the spot where Rodney was standing, only the moonlight showing their surroundings.

"I'm fine and we're here," Rodney said, pointing to his right and sure enough, covered in overgrowth, were the remains of the temple.

"I hope that's not a bad thing," John said as he saw how long it had been since the place had been used.

"Well, it's been my experience not to judge old things by their covers," Jack said and then saw the looks. "What?"

Rodney and John just snickered as they turned and headed towards the temple. Jack hurried to catch them. "You're not thinking of going in tonight are you?"

"As much as I'd love to, without light I couldn't get anything done anyway," Rodney replied.

"And we don't have anything for lanterns, though perhaps we can make a torch from some of the overgrowth if we still need it in the morning," John suggested.

"Good idea," Jack agreed. "Though I think we should have a watch tonight," Jack added. "Rodney, you can skip it, as we'll need you fresh in the morning to work your magic, but I'd feel better if John and I take a shift. I don't trust Parkell, he seemed too eager to keep us."

"I'm capable of taking watch too," Rodney protested immediately.

"I agree," John replied

"We know that, Rodney, but in case you weren't listening, we need you FRESH in the morning, cause I really don't want to go to bed tomorrow night as a ten year old, if you don't mind," Jack replied.

"Ah...yes...right," Rodney nodded with sudden understanding.

"I'll scout out a location," John said and before more was said was off doing just that.

Jack kept an eye out on the road they had traveled upon but he didn't see anything. He mentally debated if Parkell would waste the time to come look for them or move on. Jack had to draw on his experience of self discipline to keep from going back there and doing bodily harm to those men, but short of killing them, he wouldn't be able to stop them and he had no place to take those children, so he remained silent and bitter over it.

John gave a soft whistle announcing his sudden arrival, more for Jack's sake than Rodney's for Jack was the one who could hurt him if he reacted too fast. "Found a good spot in the back."

"I'll take first watch," Jack announced, as they set up a fireless camp for the rest of the night.

"Just make sure it's a shift and not the whole night," John said lightly, the moonlight showing the hint of warning in his eyes.

"Yeah, we can't afford you getting sick either," Rodney added and snuggled under the blankets, having given another away in trade with some of the other kids. "I have no intentions of dragging your sorry ass all over the place," he added with a mock huff.

"Okay," was all Jack said as he watched John and Rodney get comfortable and go to sleep.

Jack quietly walked the perimeter to not only keep watch, but also warm, as there was more of a chill in the air as the days had turned into weeks. They were going on two and half weeks now according to his mental clock. Jack had mentally calculated how long it took him to walk the perimeter and how many trips he would do to make it a shift. He knew John and Rodney were right that he was getting more tired lately and not eating as much was going to make him sick and then who would look after them? True, John would take up the slack, but why should he have to, was the point, so Jack would try to take better care of himself.

The night went by fairly quietly, and John woke them shortly after the sun rose so they could get started on what they hoped would be a growth spurt. John had made some torches like he suggested the night before in case it was still too dark when they went inside and indeed they came in handy after they found a way in for there was little light inside. "I'll keep watch since I don't have a clue about this stuff," John said.

"Don't go too far, we may need you for the transition, and it might be rather quick," Rodney said over his shoulder, his eyes scanning the dark stone for clues of what to do.

Jack watched John move to the entrance to keep watch and followed Rodney inside, wishing he had more than his torch to defend himself and his people with, but so far the place looked deserted, unlike the last temple.

"Finally," Rodney said when he spotted the altar and moved toward it and began to exam it. "More light," he demanded.

Jack brought his torch over to provide the requested light to let Rodney do his thing. After five minutes he asked, "Well?"

"Well what? It's only been a few minutes and it's not like I have my laptop or scanner to know if there is any energy readings or not..." Rodney growled, looking a bit frustrated himself.

Jack watched Rodney pour over the etchings all about the altar and the little alcove, the place looking very similar to the other one, but without the backrooms, as this area appeared to be all there was to the place. "Hidden panels?" Jack asked after another ten minutes, for that seemed to be the case with a lot of other ruins he'd visited over the years.

"Possibly, but they're very well hidden, as I can't see anything...but then they wouldn't be hidden if they were easily spotted," Rodney muttered, his eyes on the alcove at the moment.

Jack looked around and found a holder for the torch and placed it there and began to feel around, his eyes closed, and letting his fingers do the reading. It had been a while since he'd done something like this, normally Daniel and his quirky way of discovering things found the panels in question, but Jack did know what he was feeling for. He wondered for a moment what people would really think if they knew that a lot of Special Ops could moonlight as thieves. He started with the walls, leaving the alcove and the altar for last, but he found nothing...didn't mean it wasn't there, just meant he wasn't going to find it.

Jack then moved to the altar, aware of John's eyes on him, as Rodney was still too focused, and slowly moved his fingers over the stone, which was rather smooth for such a rough material. The obvious indents were the small triangular mirror imbedded into the top with some writing. The front of the altar also had some etchings in it as did the side, but the back was smooth...ah...not so smooth. "I found something," Jack said with a bit of excitement. With a bit of pressure here and there, a portion of the altar came loose and he shifted the panel away and the room lit up from the glow of the circuitry within.

"How did you..." Rodney began, but suddenly didn't care how Jack found it, he moved in, almost knocking Jack aside as he knelt down before the circuitry.

John had come in to see what was found. "Do you recognize any of it?" he asked.

"Strangely enough, I do," Rodney smiled, relieved that he wouldn't be working completely in the dark as it were. "Give me a bit to see if I can't figure out the rest, genius I do instantly, but the impossible takes me a bit," he said and gently started tracking wires and other leads backwards.

"Good job," John said, smiling at Jack. "I'm not sure I could have found that," he admitted.

"Sensory deprivation training?" Jack asked, meaning didn't John take that course.

"Next rotation, took helicopters," John replied, knowing Jack would understand. "Of course, next rotation was to McMurdo..." he shrugged.

"Yeah...you liked it there," Jack teased.

"What's not to like? Open skies, few hassles and the occasional penguin to bright up the place," John grinned.

"Penguins?" Jack asked, arching a brow in Teal'c fashion.

"What can I said, I like penguins," John chuckled.

"Pittsburgh has penguins...the hockey playing kind," Jack smirked.

"I think I like the wobbly cute kind better, thank you very much," John replied.

"Well, I like quiet, think you two clowns can manage that," Rodney growled.

"No," Jack replied, "but I can manage lunch."

"Lunch?" Rodney asked his head popping up from behind the open altar.

"Heaven forbid the enemy ever discovers Bob's Bigboy, we'd be doomed," John said quietly to Jack, knowing Rodney would be offended by the joke. He knew the truth, Rodney would never betray his people, but the joke was too good to pass up.

Jack chuckled. "Here," he said as he moved to the altar and handed Rodney some of their supplies they had kept from their time in town. "Should tide you over," he grinned and watched Rodney eat like a starving man...kid. He then split an apple with John, both knowing that supplies were low and by silent agreement decided to keep the majority for Rodney.

After a quick meal, Rodney had gone back to work and another twenty minutes passed when he got to his feet, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Well, I think I not only got it figured out, but how to increase the aging. If it works, instead of being twelve we should be about fifteen...I think," he admitted, looking at his companions.

"Well, five years is better than nothing," John shrugged.

"Ack, now I'm going to know what my mini-me is going through," Jack muttered. He saw the looks. "I'll explain later," he said and nodded to Rodney. "Well...we ready to do this then?"

Rodney pulled out the two stones and moved to the altar. He placed the orange stone under the yellow one, also opaque in nature and the whole room lit up with power. "Power stone," Rodney said to himself. He then got the translucent green one and placed it under the translucent blue one, and got a deep humming sound. He then moved to the altar. "Okay...NOT until I say, but we need to touch the mirror on the altar at the same time, got it?" he asked, eyeing both John and Jack.

"Got it," John and Jack said as one.

"Okay, together," Rodney said, reaching out, keeping his hand hovered over a section of the triangular mirror as did John and Jack. "Now," he said, and they all touched the mirror and then things once again went dark.

Teen Years Part One

His head hurt, this much he knew, as it throbbed. He was also lying on his back and it was cold, so it had to be ground. It was also quiet except for some breathing nearby, so he slowly opened his eyes and only the flicker of light from a nearby torch let him know they were still in the temple. Slowly he sat up, his body feeling awkward and a bit numb. He looked and saw a tall skinny young man with blond hair, jeans and a peace sign T-shirt and mused it had to be Jack...damn, he was always fine, he thought, then shook his head, wondering what was wrong with him.

Slowly he got to his feet and leaned on the altar, now dark, no power illuminating from it at all, and looked over and saw another young man, full semi-long reddish brown hair, seemed Rodney's hair did a mix of color as he aged, John grinned. He noticed that Rodney was like Jack, very lean and even with his large nose that did seem a bit big for his face, that cute crooked smile was as pleasing as ever. "Knock it off," he muttered to himself, wondering why he was thinking of Jack and Rodney like that. Well, he knew, but still...it was inappropriate to say the least.

A moan to his left let him know that Jack was coming around. "Hey," he said, so Jack knew he wasn't alone, but moved close carefully, not sure what mental state the special-ops general was in. Seeing the bright amber eyes open, John grinned. "Need a hand?" he asked reaching out and helping Jack to his feet. Before more could be said, another moan let them know that Rodney was coming around as well.

Both men moved and helped Rodney to his feet, noticing he was dressed in jeans and a Metalilica T-shirt, which struck John as odd, since this was Rodney...geek extraordinaire. "Metalilica?" he found himself asking.

Rodney took a few moments to get oriented and then looked down and gave a small grin, then looked up defiantly, "Hey, I wasn't a complete geek and besides, they were cool in their day..."

"Hey...just asking," John said with a chuckle.

"I wouldn't talk if I were you, Mr. Beetle Juice," Rodney smirked.

John looked down and pulled his shirt out so he could see and sure enough, there it was, a Beetle Juice T-shirt. "Ah...this didn't come out until 1988..." he said, looking up at Rodney. "I was eighteen, not fifteen," he added.

"Yeah, neither of you look fifteen," Jack added, eyeing both carefully.

"Hmm, may have over powered the unit," Rodney muttered and went to go look, finally noticing that the altar was dark. "Hmmm."

"What do you mean...hmmm?" Jack asked a bit impatiently.

"Means it's dead," Rodney said as he stood up. "But we're older," he shrugged, feeling he was still successful.

"What if someone else gets tossed through the mirror?" John asked, knowing it was possible, for anything was possible if he was standing there as an eighteen year old again.

"They'll be skipping this place," Rodney said casually as he moved to the alcove. "The two stones I brought are gone?"

Jack moved with John to see and sure enough only the yellow and blue stones were left. "Guess they went back, makes sense," Jack nodded.

"They'd need them there and it would take a bit to return them," John added. "So, we take these two and go...where?"

"Another temple, right?" Jack grinned, looking pleased with himself.

"Your deductive reasoning is utterly mind boggling," Rodney said sarcastically as he removed the two stones and like the last two, wrapped them up carefully before placing them into the satchel. "And yes, it's another temple. I've got the name, Koharan. As to where it's at...?" he shrugged.

"Well, there's another town not too far from here, from the looks of the map we had, I'd say about two, three days journey at most," John replied.

"Traveling this road or the one we came from?" Jack asked.

"Came from," John said, "I didn't pay much attention to this one, it was too quick."

"You remember the map?" Rodney asked with a bit of surprise.

"Not all of it, but the main area...I may not have a photographic memory, but I do recall a lot of what I see," John replied, trying to sound casual about it.

Jack grinned. "Good job," he offered, and moved to gather their things. "We'll have to go gather some roots and herbs, since we're bigger we're going to need more supplies..." he then stopped and looked thoughtful then shook his head. "I didn't even think of this before...hunting!" he said looking at John and Jack.

"I know, I'm thinking clearer now too," John replied, for he could think better about the details around him.

"It's because we're eighteen," Rodney said, looking at both of them knowingly. "As a child, we thought as a child...even with adult knowledge...now that we're older, the brain will process things faster and better...makes sense?"

"Makes sense," Jack nodded, and then grinned as he looked at Rodney, his expression a bit unreadable. "Good thing you were always a genius," he said, and then went back to gathering their things.

John felt a mix of emotion tug in his chest at that moment. First it was anger that Jack shouldn't be looking at Rodney that way, and then it was a flash of hurt, for Jack was not looking at HIM that way. Then John shook it off, for there were things to focus on, and that was not one of them. "Here, let me help," he offered, taking part and handing Rodney his share.

"Let's get going," Jack said, taking the lead and heading outside, glad it was still early in the day, for it meant lots of light for travel and hunting.

"You know anything about hunting?" Rodney asked, and then rolled his eyes at the looks he got from Jack. "Of course you do. You're a regular Daniel Boone...and you...?"

"I can make a mean rattlesnake," John teased. Seeing Rodney's eyes go wide he chuckled. "Survival course, desert training. But I'm sure I can help and if we find a lake, fishing!"

"Now you're talking," Jack beamed at John and John felt his heart flutter a bit, but kept his cool facade in tact...barely.

"We're burning daylight, campers," Jack said and headed down the road they came, John and Rodney behind them.

***

Knowing it would take them sometime to hunt and gather, Jack found a good spot to set up camp, not too far from a small pond and together they set up camp. The makeshift tent from the tarp they had purchased previously was reset into a lean-to, for all three of them were fairly tall and though slim, they wouldn't fit the small tent. Rodney set out the blanket as John tended to the fire, Jack having shown him what his grandfather taught him long ago about making fires, which worked wonders around what the Air Force taught, while Jack made a bow and was in the process of making arrows.

"What are you? Some kind of MacGyver?" Rodney snorted, impressed that Jack knew bow and feather along with all the other outdoor survival skills he'd shown all along.

"What?" Jack tried to shrug off the question.

"Isn't there anything you can't do?" Rodney demanded, nearly getting in Jack's face

"Calculating the speed of light while moving backwards?" Jack replied with a chuckle.

"It's the same backwards as forwards," John laughed.

"Einsteins, the two of you," Rodney muttered. "So...what are we doing?"

"I'm going to see what I can find with this," Jack said, holding up the bow. He looked over at John, letting him decide what he would do.

"Well, there's a pond, it might have fish," John said and again saw that twinkle appear in Jack's eyes, which made him smile. Then he looked at Rodney and just caught the tiny sigh and understood what caused it ...he felt useless. On missions, Rodney was the tech guy, and they were definitely without tech. "How about you boil some water? Some to replace our drinking water and some for whatever we find...might be fish soup or...?" he shrugged.

"Great idea," Jack said as he got to his feet. "We won't be far. If you have any problems, shout, we'll come running."

"You're leaving me here...alone?" Rodney asked, feeling very much out of his element.

"I'm only going to be over there," John said and pointed to the pond well within view, though it was a good fifty yards away.

"I'll stay close, perhaps find some rabbit or something similar, since we can't salt the meat or smoke it to keep it fresh, so we don't need much," Jack said and patted Rodney on the shoulder and shared a smirk with John before heading off.

John saw Rodney sigh again. "Come on, walk with me," John said offering to carry the pot as Rodney gathered the second, now empty jug, the pitcher with the lid still filled with some water.

After a minute or two, "I know you're feeling a bit useless at the moment, but you really came through when we needed you and I'm not talking about just the temple either," John said, placing his free hand on Rodney's shoulder.

"I did?" Rodney asked surprised.

"Yes, you did. And you will again," John offered. "But you have to accept that this is Jack and my areas of expertise, just like we have to accept that getting us back to normal or close to it and home will be yours...teamwork," he grinned.

"I guess, but you both seem so comfortable and at ease with all this..." Rodney gestured to the great outdoors.

John laughed, "We may be young, but we recall our training, and if it makes you feel better, Jack makes me feel inadequate at times too."

"He does?" Rodney asked, looking once again surprised. "You two come off as bookends, and work so well together, I'd never have guessed."

"Thank you." John smiled. "But it's true. He doesn't do it on purpose, but let's face it, he was raised in the outdoors as he told us and he's had a HELL of a lot more experience than I do, so...it just happens."

Rodney got this slightly bashful look. "He is rather...impressive, isn't he?" Rodney said, not looking at John as he spoke.

John laughed, a flush crossing his face as he thought of the handsome young man currently hunting right now and nodded. "Yeah...he is," John agreed as evenly as he could, not seeing Rodney's expression.

"Okay, I got this," Rodney said suddenly, taking the pot from John and moved ahead to get the water.

John let Rodney do his thing as he went about finagling a fishing line and bait. He could see there were some fish, and hoped to catch some. He'd try the string and if that didn't work, he'd try like the bears and grab some. Thankfully the day was warm and the water didn't look that cold.

Time passed and John was pleased he had caught two fairly good-sized fish and was looking at possibly getting a third when the cry on the wind caught his attention. He looked up and saw Rodney was in some sort of trouble. He dropped the pole and was glad to see Jack was nearby and had arrived to help, as John continued his fifty-yard sprint to see what the matter was.

Upon his arrival, his chest burning from the mad dash, he saw Jack toss him a large branch, the tip on fire, but mainly smoking and Rodney was on the ground in a ball holding very still. It took a moment for John to understand what they were doing...BEES!

John helped Jack smoke the bees away and then went to Rodney who was shaking. "Come on," Jack said calmly, gently helping Rodney to his feet. "We need to get you to the lake," he said and with a look John knew he was to keep smoking the area around them as they went.

"Don't move too fast and don't touch anything," Jack said, as he quickly walked Rodney to the lake with John behind them.

Once at the lake, Jack took Rodney into the water, up to their chest, "I'm going to take your clothes off, make sure no bees went in there," he explained, then went under to do that as John decided to join them, providing some support for their terrified friend.

"You seem okay, so you didn't get stung," John said, deciding to help Jack and slowly lift up Rodney's T-shirt to remove it. He did notice the dead little bodies of a couple of bees but decided not to mention it to Rodney.

Jack surfaced and gasped for some air. "You seem okay, now the rest," he said, and Rodney was so frightened he followed orders without a word.

After a few minutes, Rodney was in the pond naked, and Jack decided to follow suit, "Might as well let them dry," he said as he moved to the shore and stripped, laying out his clothes, but John saw that Jack was shaking Rodney's stuff out to be sure as well.

John stripped in the water and tossed his things to shore where Jack laid them out with the others before rejoining them. John couldn't help but take notice of Jack's fine body that was coming into the water again or the lightly dusted chest, which was very appealing, but then snapped out of his thoughts when he saw Rodney shiver. "It's okay, buddy," John said, placing an arm around Rodney's shoulder.

Jack was on the other side of Rodney. "You're all right, they're gone," he added, but knowing Rodney's medical history, understood why he was so shaken, because one sting and Rodney would have died. They didn't have anything to give him and they were who knows how far away from help, if such things existed in this world. He too placed an arm around Rodney's shoulder.

"Th...they...they came out of nowhere...a...swarm of them," Rodney stuttered, his body only remotely beginning to relax.

"I'm afraid it might be my fault," Jack said with some guilt and sorrow.

"Your fault?" John asked, looking surprised for he knew Jack wouldn't have put either of them in danger, at least not on purpose.

"I was hunting and didn't see much on the ground, but a few animals in the trees. I shot an arrow and saw something like a hive drop, but I was a bit far...I didn't realize...I'm really sorry, Rodney...I would never..." he said, his remorse clear in his dark eyes.

"I could have died," Rodney gasped out with anger. "What the HELL were you thinking?"

"He didn't mean it and you KNOW neither Jack nor I would purposefully put you in any danger, Rodney. He took care of it, and you're fine..." John said, only to be cut off by an angry McKay.

"Purposeful or not, you have to be more careful or you'll be living the rest of your lives here," Rodney snapped, his fear transforming into anger.

"He's right," Jack agreed. "I should have been more careful," he said, getting an arched brow from Rodney. "I would never endanger my team much less a friend...and you have become a friend, Rodney," Jack said, rubbing his hand up and down Rodney's bare back.

Seeing Rodney shiver again, John thought that rubbing Rodney's skin was a good idea and did the same, but soon he realized that the shivering that happened next wasn't from fear or a chill, as his face flushed and his blue eyes darken. John lifted his eyes and looked at Jack, their gaze meeting and instantly it smoldered with heat and Jack's eyes filled with mischievousness as well as he glanced at Rodney, as his smile widened. The message was given and it was up to John to accept or decline it. John knew he could stop anything from occurring with a single word, and part of his mind was telling him this was a bad idea, but his body was vibrating with need, his cock hard as nails and Rodney and Jack looked delicious...what the hell, John thought and with a nod, took a step closer, as did Jack placing Rodney in the middle, of what he hoped would be an extraordinary experience.

"Ah...what..." Rodney tried to ask, as he felt the simple touches on his back become more intimate, and Jack's other hand caressed his chest, his fingers moving through the hair and caressing over his left nipple. "Oh..." he shivered. "Um..." he tried to speak, but John mirrored Jack's actions and Rodney had to close his eyes as his body shook and his cock twitched, already hard from having the two sexy men naked next to him. He swallowed hard and tried once again to ask if this was a good idea, but before he could, Jack had moved behind him, rubbing his thick cock along his crack and John was in front, still matching Jack's maneuvers...oh boy was he a goner.

John had always found Rodney appealing on so many levels. His mind and quick wit only enhanced everything else, but the lean body before him was appealing to his more basic needs and so he moved in front and started to touch, rubbing himself against Rodney and glad to see he wasn't opposed to this, from the pleasure that was crossing his face. He then saw that crooked smile and those lips and knew what he wanted, and he leaned in and got it...a taste of that incredible mouth...he wasn't disappointed, as it came to life under him, and soon all thoughts were lost.

Jack liked the tangy taste of Rodney's skin, but he also wanted to touch that hairy chest before him, meaning John's and so he did, and he liked the feel of the fine hair as it slipped between his fingers. He also liked the moan of pleasure he got when he caressed John's nipples. He was on fire, his hormones raging, and he barely remembered his youth, but he did recall he had a LOT OF sex as a youth, and now he had two hot men under his finger tips, he couldn't help but want them, and with a bit of maneuvering his cock slipped between Rodney's firm round globes, seeking only the friction as it was too soon for more, causing Jack to gasp in delight. Then he saw John come up for air, his lips puffy from the kiss and needed to know that mouth himself, and reached over Rodney's shoulder and pulled John in for a kiss of his own.

John thought Rodney's mouth was heaven, now with Jack's tongue doing things to his mouth he never knew possible, even after the education Rodney's just gave him, he felt that Jack's was paradise...he didn't think he'd live through this, and frankly didn't care. He switched between kissing Jack and Rodney, Rodney biting along his neck and Jack nibbling on Rodney's neck when not kissing John, as the heat continued to build between them.

John didn't think he'd last much longer, between Jack and Rodney's hands all over his body, and Rodney's body pressed up to his, the heat was incredible. He broke off his kiss from Jack, having to breathe, as he grinded into Rodney. "I'm..." was all he got out before his body exploded, followed by Rodney and then Jack, their cries of passion filled the air, and then were gone.

"Oh...that was...um..." Rodney wobbled a bit as John held him up and laughed.

"Yeah," was all John said, opening his eyes and saw Jack resting his head on Rodney's shoulder. "You okay?"

"Oh yeah...forgot how fast things went off when I was this age," Jack chuckled, and soon all three were laughing.

"We should get out and let the sun dry us, and hang the clothes by the fire to dry them before dark," John panted, still trying to catch his breath.

"I'll go first, check the area," Jack volunteered and leaned up placing a kiss on Rodney's cheek, and gave John a leer before moving out of the water.

"You okay?" John asked, rubbing Rodney's arm, as he still looked out of it.

"I just had sex with the two sexist men in two galaxies, are you kidding!" Rodney beamed; his blue eyes still looked a bit unfocused.

John laughed, not only from the compliment, but also from seeing Rodney happy. At that moment a wave of affection came over him and he kissed Rodney tenderly. "Thank you," he said. "And for the record, I find you very hot too," he smirked.

"Really?" Rodney asked, for he was aware of how he looked as a teenager.

"I wouldn't lie to you, Rodney, not about this," John said seriously, and he wouldn't. Rodney was his friend and Jack had become a good friend as well, and he didn't want to lose either of them.

"IT'S OKAY," Jack's shout filled the air.

"Come on," John said, and helped Rodney to shore. "I have to get the fish I caught so we can get them cleaned up for dinner."

"I'll...ah...wait here," Rodney said, not really wanting to go back to the campsite.

John understood, as it hadn't been that long since Rodney's bee scare...THEIR bee scare, for he too had been scared out of his mind that he could have lost Rodney. He was suddenly very glad Jack had been there, for he wouldn't have thought about smoking the bees away, just grabbing Rodney and taking him to the water and who knows how that might have turned out. John reached the other side of the lake and looked up and saw Rodney relaxing a bit in the sunlight, his voice light on the wind, griping about needing sun block and Jack was tending their camp...both looking tempting all over again. He looked down and saw his cock was interested again and groaned. "I forgot how quickly you reloaded," he said to himself, and then smiled, for it couldn't be all that bad, for he knew that if he was feeling it, so were Rodney and Jack. He grinned as he gathered his catch, sure that after dinner if not before dinner was going to be interesting...very interesting.

***

A part of John's mind knew that he should not be as open with his 'interest' as he had been with Jack and Rodney, but he found he couldn't help it. One minute he was flying high that they were not only flirting with him, but also touching him, the next he was totally depressed, as he knew this could never last. He forgot how much he hated being a teenager!

John chuckled as he saw Jack and Rodney goofing off, knowing that Rodney needed the laughter...he had a great laugh, as did Jack, but Jack's was soul deep, and Rodney's seemed...discovered, as if he never realized he could laugh and enjoy life like this. Jack was good for Rodney...hell; Jack was good for him too! The man had a way of bringing out the inner child out and making it okay to have fun and enjoy life, while not forgetting they had responsibilities. He found himself wishing he could be like that all the time. He had managed a bit, to a degree, but as the pressures of keeping the people on Atlantis safe continued to grow, he found he didn't smile as much or laugh as deeply...Jack and Rodney were bringing that back to him, and for that alone he was grateful; he just wanted it to last.

"You're both dorks," John called out, as Jack picked Rodney up on his back like a horse and was galloping around John. "You both look ridiculous," he said, grinning like an idiot.

"I still don't see the point in this?" Rodney asked as he let Jack do what he was doing, enjoying the moment.

"I never said there was a point, I just wanted to do it," Jack said and stopped and put Rodney down, as he chuckled. "What about you, John?" he asked.

John shook his head. "No...no need to play horsy," John laughed. "But..." he looked at both Jack and Rodney panting and smirked. "I'll race you to that oak looking tree," he said and took off, hearing Rodney's protest and Jack's footsteps behind him.

"You two are insane, you know that?" Rodney said as he caught up with them, not really that far behind, as he panted and leaned on the tree. "You act more like kids then when we WERE kids," he added.

"That's part of the sense of freedom one gets when this age," Jack said as he reached up to a tree branch and pulled himself up and with some maneuvering was now sitting on it. "Though, I think it's also knowing this isn't permanent...I can't imagine being this age...permanently ...or should I say until I grow up again..." Jack shook his head.

"You thinking of your clone again?" John asked, having been shocked to learn what the Asgard had done.

Jack shrugged, and then got to his feet, looking very agile as he leaned one hand on the tree to keep his balance. "I see the roof tops over the trees, we'll be there soon."

John saw Rodney frown at Jack's evasion of the question. John understood, he was evasive about things too, but Rodney didn't evade as much as barely answer questions if he felt they were too personal. He wondered why guys were like that. Why couldn't they share what was in their heads and hearts? "We should keep going," he said, scrubbing Rodney's hair, it was soft and he had a lot of it. Even Jack's hair was fuller than he would have imagined. Jack had said it was his rebellious stage, which apparently didn't last long, as he went into the Academy shortly after high school. But for now, it was a good look on him, all that blond fluff...reddish brown...John sighed, and focused his mind forward, they'd already let off steam as it were, four times already...it wasn't time for a fifth time...yet, he grinned and hurried his walking.

Moments later, Rodney and Jack joined him as they continued down the road. "Can I ask you two a question?" Rodney asked, hesitating only a little, and then continuing on anyway before either could respond. "I would never have thought either of you gay...bi...what have you, why...why now?"

John looked to Jack to see if he was going to say anything, and the man looked in debate if to answer that or not, and John was tempted to evade or brush it off, but the look in Rodney's eyes was persuasive, so he sighed. "Hormones," he said, hoping that would be enough of an answer for Rodney. The man didn't know how much John cared...this was temporary, so it was best to let him think that.

"Please," Jack said, startling Rodney and John with the anger that was associated with that one word. Seeing Jack look at him with such fury, John felt prompted to speak.

"Then why are YOU?" John asked, knowing the best defense was a good offense.

Jack sighed, "Look, we have a LOT in common, John, and sadly evading what's going on inside is one of them. Duty...don't ask, don't tell...all that crap, believe me, I know ALL about it," Jack said, his eyes looking determined as he spoke. "The problem is, it gets easier and easier to put off or put aside what you feel for sake of 'duty' that before you know it...you either feel nothing or so much damn time has passed it's too late to say anything. I KNOW you have feelings for Rodney, perhaps even me. Don't make the same mistake I did and bottle it up...you'll regret it," Jack said, his eyes now looking pained and filled with sorrow, as his hands went into his pockets as he looked away.

John didn't know what to say to that. It was like Jack was reading him like an open book, and yet was speaking from his own experiences. He also saw the mixed emotions in Rodney's eyes, as he looked at him and Jack. "I do...care for you," he said to Rodney. "But this...it's only temporary...once we get back to Atlantis..." he shrugged, not knowing what to say.

"If you CARE, don't give it up because of backwards thinking," Jack advised, his eyes looking closed off. "I made that mistake, thinking that perhaps in time I could finally be in a position to have what I wanted...all I ended up with was my fucking job...is that what you want?" Jack challenged.

"I...I...like you both," Rodney said, looking very insecure and uncertain.

John was once again stunned by Jack's words and Rodney's. "I..." he didn't know what to say.

"What happened?" Rodney asked an unsure glance at John, then an arm around Jack, who had folded his arms around his chest in a closed body language position.

"It doesn't matter now," Jack said, almost shrugging Rodney, off, but then stopped himself. He gazed at Rodney, and then John, again that sad painful look back at them, gave John moment to pause. "You two have a LOT going for you. Don't let it go without a fight," he said and then pulled away from Rodney and hurried forward towards the town.

Rodney stayed where he was, looking confused and a bit hurt. John realized that Jack was right. He did care deeply for Rodney and found Jack was getting inside too. Unsure what to say, he did what his heart wanted him to – he placed an arm around Rodney and pulled him in for a hug. "Sorry," he said, and then pulled away before Rodney could say anything and followed Jack up the road turning every so often to be sure Rodney was following and was all right, though he had a feeling all right wasn't on the menu that day.

Teen Years Part 2

It seemed to John whatever luck they'd had as children hadn't lasted, for folks were even colder to the three men, even after Jack 'acquired' some casual clothes for them to wear over their Earth clothing. It also didn't help that both Rodney and Jack were quiet...well, Rodney being quiet was a real problem, for the man was hardly ever quiet, which meant he was more upset than John thought. As for Jack, had he not gotten a chance to see behind the mask, he'd have believed Jack was fine, but he knew better now.

John knew he'd brought this on himself, but he really didn't know what to do about it and they didn't have that much time to think about it either. They had to find a way to get some money for supplies and a map...again. John had suggested splitting into two teams, him alone and Jack and Rodney together, to check out the much larger town, but Jack had nixed that idea immediately, and John couldn't blame him. John just wanted some space to think, and though he knew he was on a mission, his emotions were still all over the place...he now understood why when he was first eighteen 'adults' kept calling him kid...all eighteen year olds. It was a physical thing, hormones, and not just the ones associated with sex. Problem here was, they were not seen as kids or teens, but as adults...made sense for the time period they parodied, Rodney had said to him earlier.

"Look," John said as they passed a larger building the window large enough to let those passing by to see within. He nodded and both Rodney and Jack saw it was a bar in nature and there were men playing cards...for money.

"Poker?" Jack asked surprised.

"It's probably some other game, but the winner still collects the winnings," Rodney observed over Jack's shoulder.

John felt a wave of jealousy fill him for Rodney had been staying closer to Jack than himself and Jack was keeping some distance too. John shook it off as best he could, but a part of him wanted what they had a few short hours ago. He then focused his attention back inside the window. "It's an option," he offered.

"We'd need to know the rules and have money to gamble, and we don't have either," Jack said with a sigh. "Otherwise...not bad," he replied, still not meeting John's eyes.

"So, back to square one," Rodney sighed as his stomach rumbled. "We need to get me some food before I pass out from manly hunger," he said, ignoring the rolled eyes from John.

"We passed an inn back there, let's get some soup and perhaps we can think better on a full stomach," Jack suggested.

Soon the three of them were sitting at a table; they ordered the cheapest meal they could get, three bowls of stew and some water. As they ate, the complaints of those around them became louder. It seemed there was supposed to be some type of entertainment, which was not being delivered.

"Excuse me, but what's all the fuss about?" John asked, for like Jack, he was getting an unpleasant feeling.

"I had hired a singer to perform this afternoon, but he didn't show, all his belongings are here, he's not," the keeper explained with exasperation. "Many have come for the show, only ordering more while they wait...if he does not show..." he sighed and moved off to tend to the needs of other customers who were arriving.

"What kind of music do you think they like?" John asked, and saw Rodney stop fingering the bottom of his bowl, still hungry.

"I doubt Chopin or Beethoven would make much of an impression here," Rodney muttered. "I'd say whatever farmers and other such backwards folk like."

Jack just shook his head at Rodney's gall, that he actually said that while being surrounded by farmers and such alike. He then looked at John. "Don't think it matters, does it?"

"Hmmm," was all John said and excused himself before Jack could object. He went to the innkeeper again and asked him some questions, which though frustrated, he answered nonetheless. John came back with a smile. "Country seems closest," he said.

"And just what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?" Jack asked, seeing John was up to something.

"The keeper said if we give one performance and don't cause a riot, he'll give us a free meal...with all the trimmings, and we can keep whatever we make," John said with a sly smile.

"Make?" Rodney asked his attention full on John. "Are you insane? We don't know anything about..." he gestured to the stage. "We could get lynched," he hissed.

"Come on," John said. "The worst case scenario they boo and we leave without losing anything. Best case we get was another meal..."

"And just what are we supposed to perform?" Jack asked, not looking at all pleased. "I'm not exactly a country music fan," he added. "And as Rodney pointed out, the classical stuff would be out, so I would assume would be arias, not that I could do one even if I wanted to, which I don't."

"You like opera?" Rodney asked surprised.

"Yes I do," Jack said and saw the look of surprise on Rodney's face. "I also love classical and good old fashion rock-n-roll. These folks..."

"That's it...folk...you HAVE to know John Denver," John said as he moved towards the stage.

"This is going to be a disaster," Rodney moaned, but habit was to follow John and so he did and Jack, not wanting to see Rodney and John go up there by themselves followed too.

Rodney and Jack were looking over the many items and various instruments that looked very familiar, thank God, while John, being John, moved to stand in front of the stage, believing his companions would be of little to no use here. Taking a deep breath, he got everyone's attention. "Evening folks," John greeted the crowd. "My...I...have come to share a bit of home with you. It might sound a bit different than what you're used to, but I hope you'll give it a chance and enjoy," he said, and saw the weary and wary faces looking at him.

"You can do this," John said to himself under his breath and saw Rodney and Jack still in the background.

"Clap your hands," John said and after a moment got the people in the rhythm he wanted. Then he started singing, his voice a sweet tenor, "Well life on the farm is kinda laid back, ain't much a country boy like me can't hack. Early to rise, early in the sack, thank God I'm a country boy. Well, the simple kind of life never did me no harm..."

John was pleased that the folks were still clamping and some smiling as he went on, then to his surprise a guitar filled the air. As he looked to his left, he saw Jack playing something that looked very much like one, right along and nodding to him, his voice joining in on the chorus. Then another shock arrived as Rodney was playing the violin...er...fiddle and both were very good. Their voices joined his on the chorus.

"Well, got me a fine wife, got me an ol' fiddle, when the sun's coming up I got cakes on the griddle, life ain't nothing but a funny, funny riddle, thank God I'm a country boy..."

John was grinning from ear to ear as he saw Jack and Rodney enjoying themselves too and it was kind of weird how in sync they were as they performed the song. When they were done, coins were tossed on stage and more was being shouted...they were a hit!

As Rodney scrambled to get the coins near him, Jack did the same on his end, while John gathered the ones in front of him, then behind him. "I didn't know you could play guitar and Maestro...piano AND fiddle...you're a regular renaissance man," John grinned.

"I think they want more," Rodney said. "And I don't know that many John Denver songs," he growled under his breath.

"Country Road?" John asked and was relieved to see Rodney and Jack nod yes. "Then let's give our encore and get dinner...a real dinner," John grinned.

"Remind me to let you know what a genius you are," Jack teased, his eyes warm and twinkling at John, which made John's heart flutter, then he saw Rodney smiling his agreement, John felt at that moment that he could take on a hive ship...with Jack and Rodney by his side.

John turned and introduced their next song and to even his amazement, they were really good, and by the end, having replayed Country Boy...TWICE, they were asked to play the next night by the innkeeper. They were also given a room for the night and the equivalent of ten gold coins.

"How long did you study the violin?" Jack asked Rodney as the three of them settled down in the large single room with one large bed. It seemed it was not uncommon for folks to share.

"I learned when I was ten...there was a girl involved," Rodney explained. "After she took up with the oboe player I gave it up," he said over his shoulder, as he removed most of his clothes, except his boxers. He felt full from the delicious meal the innkeeper had provided them with.

"Wait, you haven't played since...since you were ten?" John asked astonished. "What about the piano?"

"I gave that up at twelve..." Rodney sighed, "I told you about that, technical perfection but no soul..." Rodney waved his hand, as he didn't see the point in going over that all again.

"If you played the piano half as good as you played tonight, you could be playing Carnegie Hall..."

"You could have played Carnegie Hall and you gave it up...why?" Jack asked, as he too agreed with John on that point.

"Told you I lacked soul, look it's old news..." Rodney began.

"Rodney, the man was a liar, you proved that tonight," Jack said and John was quick to agree.

"I mean, not to have played in...ages and you played...BOTH of you played as if we rehearsed it," John said in awe. "What about you?" he looked at Jack.

"I was thirty-eight when I stopped..." Jack said, a bit of pain in his eyes. "I use to play for my son when I was home, but..." he sighed, then smiled, "It was good to do that again...thank you," he said sincerely to John and leaned in and kissed him softly. Then he moved and kissed Rodney just as lightly before moving to crawl into the middle of the bed.

"Speaking of talent, you've been hiding that voice of yours," Rodney said as he moved to the right side of the bed. "You have a great voice, John and I have to admit, you seem...different...lighter when you sing."

John felt a blush cross his face as he moved to the left side of the bed. "I...like to sing...but..."

"It's not cool," Jack said knowingly. "Believe me, I know that one. But you should do it anyway," Jack told him looking John in his eyes, showing he understood. "If it makes you feel better then do it...to hell with what other people think. If you're not careful, John, you'll turn into a lonely bitter old man...just like me...and trust me, it's NOT worth it," Jack sighed.

John laid down. "Conversation's getting a bit heavy," he said, feeling how close to the mark Jack was calling it...again.

"Sorry," Jack said, more than willing to drop it.

"I don't care if it's a boulder, what happened?" Rodney asked, also lying down next to Jack. "Why are you so...lonely? You're a great guy...for a flyboy," Rodney teased. Seeing Jack's eyes beginning to cloud over, he sighed. "Fine," he muttered and flopped to his back.

They all lay there for a while, not sleeping, not doing anything and John couldn't take the tension anymore. "If you're going to give advice, the least you could do is follow it yourself," he said to the ceiling.

A few more minutes dragged out when Jack cleared his throat, having debated what he wanted to say. "Daniel," he began.

"I knew it, you and Jackson were a couple," Rodney said sanctimoniously.

"No...we weren't," Jack said, his eyes focused on the ceiling but he wasn't really seeing it. "We should have been...could have been...but I waited. First it was the team dynamics I was concerned about, then the regulations...but I had hoped when the time came..." he closed his eyes and a lone tear fell down his right cheek. "I blew it," he finally said after a moment to compose himself.

"I'm...sorry," Rodney said, feeling like an ass for his comment moments before.

"What happened, Jack?" John asked, really needing to know, for Jack had been painting his own future it seemed and he was finally realizing he didn't want that to happen to himself.

"Oh, I'm sure you know, John. Kept it all inside; didn't let anyone in. Don't show how we really feel, much less say it. At first it's just the little things, like affection and fear, then it becomes, more, and soon you don't even share anything at all, so you can keep the pain of loss and the sorrow bottled up inside. You either pop or go numb...I had hoped to do neither, but in the course of my silence, with dreams of a future with the man I loved...I forgot to tell him..." Jack finally looked at John, his dark eyes pain-filled. "He moved on, fell in love and is making a life with someone else now, John," Jack said, giving a look with his eyes over his shoulder, hoping John understood his message that if he were not careful, he'd lose Rodney as he had lost Daniel.

"But can't you..." Rodney tried to say and saw Jack turn to look at him, the answer there. "No, I don't suppose you could," he said knowing that Jack wouldn't be so hurt over it if there had been a chance. He also had to admit, a part of him was glad for he found he really LIKED Jack O'Neill, probably more than he should. "It's...you know, not all over, you can still...have someone," Rodney found himself saying, wondering what possessed his mouth.

Jack grinned and lay back, the look in his eyes said it was a sweet thought, but he knew reality. John found he didn't like that look very much. "He's right you know," John said as he settled down to rest, and his head finding Jack's shoulder, as it had over the last three weeks. He saw Rodney do the same, their eyes meeting, and both showing their concern for the man that was now holding them and rubbing their backs so they could sleep. "He's right," John said again in a whisper, and found his eyes heavy. He knew Jack made a good point, and he would need to think things over...not so much to decide what he would do, that was a foregone conclusion now, but how to make it happen. As he fell asleep, his hand reached out and took Rodney's while snuggling deeper into Jack's embrace.

***

Even though the three of them made a decent earning from the second performance, they were NOT making the kind of funds they'd need to get to the next temple, which was all the way to the coast. Jack had also learned that the 'monks' were still nearby, and was determined to get more of the kids away from Parkell, which meant they would need to leave in a hurry if things went wrong.

Jack sent Rodney to learn the game the locals were playing from observing...but not by playing, because it was obviously a game of chance and they couldn't afford to lose anything at this point. John and he scouted the town for good buys and anything they could use for their journey. They found a wagon and horse like creature they could purchase but it would take a good chunk of their coins. Considering the distance they needed to travel, Jack made the investment, and now they would need funds to pay for the supplies.

As they went through the town, Jack also asked about work for the older children and other options for the homeless children. When he arrived back at the inn that afternoon, their room paid for while they performed in the evening, he was beyond furious. "I was right," he said to Rodney who was teaching John the card game. "They're going to be sold into slavery overseas!" he snapped.

"Who is?" Rodney asked having been focused on teaching the game.

"The kids, the ones we were playing with only days ago," Jack growled, but thankfully Rodney didn't take it personally.

"What can we do?" John asked. "They don't have a place for them here..."

"I've asked some of the shops if they'd be interested in an apprentice, but only a handful said yes..." Jack began.

"And mostly the boys, right?" Rodney asked knowingly.

"Yes," Jack sighed, fearing for the fate those kids had before them, especially the girls.

"Then we get out who we can and perhaps since we're not walking we can intercept or pass them and make some other arrangements in the city," John suggested. "We don't have a place to take them, or I'd be with you in rescuing them, but we can't just leave them to their own design...they can't survive, which is why they're following that ass in the first place."

"Agreed," Jack said as he flopped down in the chair between both men. He ran his hand though his hair, showing how frustrated he was. "So long as we do something...I..."

Rodney placed a hand on Jack's arm. "You ARE doing something," he informed the youthful General. "More than most are. Tonight, we go to the camp, you speak with some of the older kids and see if you can't persuade them that the options they have here are better than they have before them...the rest will be up to them," Rodney said, the word 'sorry' left unspoken.

Jack nodded. "So, how's the game going?"

"It's very much like poker with a few rule changes. A bit of card counting and some luck, and we'll be set," John smirked.

"Please," Rodney said, grabbing the deck and shuffling it like an expert and dealt, calling each card and suit, even with them faced down, and then John flipped them over and was amazed.

"You asked me if there isn't anything I couldn't do...what about you?" Jack grinned ear to ear, clearly impressed.

Rodney smirked. "Between John's card counting, your poker face and my dealing, we'll clean up," he said, feeling very confident at the moment. It was probably the insanity John and Jack suffered, but he couldn't deny it felt good. "We should consider a poker night on Atlantis..."

"Rodney, that would be cheating," John chuckled, seeing what Rodney was getting at.

"Yeah and but so, therefore?" Rodney replied, not seeing the problem.

"Hey, that's my line," Jack protested.

"You throw it out there so much back at the SGC, makes it free property, so until you show me a patent, deal with it," Rodney replied, his eyes twinkling though his tone cutting.

"Speaking of gambling, should we make a little side bet as to who makes the most at the end of the night?" John asked, feeling lucky.

Jack laughed. "What did you have in mind?" he asked, seeing the leer in John's eyes.

"Winner gets what they want...from the losers," John said, eyeing both Jack and Rodney like prime beef.

"So, what you're saying is, the winner gets to fuck the losers, am I right?" Rodney asked, his eyes darkening with arousal.

"Yes, how about it?" John asked.

"Works for me, so long as you don't mind getting some," Jack said with a confident smile.

"I'm in, since I can't lose either way," Rodney beamed, and all three laughed.

After a repeat performance of the night before and pleasing the innkeeper again with the crowd's enthusiastic response, Jack made a little side trip to the kids' camp, smiling that five of the kids said they would meet him in the morning to accept the offers of work and a home. Then the three men went to the gambling hall to try their luck. There were four tables and each took a different table, and worked their magic. By two in the morning, there was only one table, where Jack and John along with three others sat, Rodney having chosen to remain out of it by ending his session early, for logical reasons, he couldn't deal forever and he knew he wasn't a good bluffer, though he improved a lot over the last few years in Atlantis...plus, he wanted to see who would win between Jack and John and from the looks of things, it was close.

Except for the clothes and the décor, it looked like a scene from the Wild West and the great gambling halls. Jack and John were sitting back, looking all too calm and pleased with themselves, a drink on the right, a pile of coins before each, and Rodney was sure if they existed, at least one of them would be smoking a cigar.

By three in the morning, there were only three players left, Jack, John and a misfortunate soul that thought he could beat the two men. It seemed word that they were friends had not reached the ears of anyone here, but then again, those that favored the inn for entertainment did not frequent the slightly higher class gambling joint. Rodney did a mental count and again, John and Jack were tied, but the third man had held his own. "It's getting late," he said, for though he wanted to see who won, he wanted to collect his prize...or give it, whatever.

"Last hand," Jack said, his eyes mostly for John who was proving to be the best competition he'd had in ages.

"Last hand," John grinned, and saw the other man agree.

Rodney watched them ante up and Jack dealt. The game was very similar to poker, but you had several chances to change your cards, but it cost you to do so. By the third turn, the third man folded, admitting defeat, now it was down to John and Jack, a very large sum lay between them on the table. Rodney knew this had nothing to do with money, but who was better and he didn't even try to guess who would win, it was just too damn close.

Finally they were down to the last turn and Jack pushed it all in the center as did John, making those watching gasp, for only Rodney knew the money was already secured between them, but the eyes of both men blazed with daring and fire. It would all come down to the cards. Jack laid his cards down and had what would be the equivalent of a straight. John smirked and laid his cards down, the equivalent of a flush. Jack laughed with delight and stood and gave a light bow of his head. "I bow before the master," he said, having no qualms about losing, it had been a fantastic game.

"I'll need something to hold this in," John laughed, seeing two bags being offered, one by a fine looking, very endowed lady, the other by Rodney. He smiled his most charming, "Tempting as you are, I have to decline," he said, taking the bag from Rodney. "It's late, but perhaps another night," he smiled, causing her to blush.

"Thank you, gentlemen," Jack said, using his own brand of charm to keep their attention from John and Rodney packing the funds away, also doing a threat assessment, and saw that one fellow was going to pose a problem. He turned a bit and caught John's eye and with a few brief hand signals, indicated the problem and to split the funds into three bags, which John began to do as he gave a quick nod and continued to use his own charm to distract those around him.

Rodney was glad when most of the people left but was sure something was up by the way Jack and John were acting. He knew one thing, stay between them, let them handle it and keep out of the way. Once John had his winnings he put them inside a satchel he carried between him and Rodney, keeping everyone's attention, allowing Rodney 'slippery fingers' McKay do his thing, then he moved to stand with Jack and did it once more. He remembered how Jack said it was amazing he didn't have a police record, and Rodney only grinned and said, "Who said I didn't," and left both John and Jack wondering. He would never admit it, but he was enjoying this adventure.

Then Jack and he started out first, going to take up positions to watch John, to keep him safe. Sure enough, not long after John departed, he found himself confronted by two men with swords. "Gentlemen?" he said with his usual 'I-come-in-peace' smile.

"Hand it over, all of it," one of the men demanded.

"Hand what over?" John asked, playing dumb.

"The money," the other said, pointing his weapon at John.

"Oh...I don't know about that," John said, then saw Jack move in behind the two men, carrying a thick branch. "You might want to duck," he said, nodding behind them. Of course this only made them turn into the swinging branch, which smacked them right in the face and knocked him out. "Told you to duck," John said, as he stepped over them.

"You guys ready to go?" Rodney said, having been waiting in the shadows and now came out.

"Yeah," Jack said, taking the men's swords and any other weapons they had, which were two daggers.

They hurried back to the inn, the keeper not pleased at being woken up by their late night return, but a gold coin quieted him up. In their room the three men were laughing, the late evening, the few drinks and the adrenalin having them all wound-up.

"You both are so hot," Rodney said, grabbing Jack and kissing him wet and deep, since he was closer, then he stopped and turned and grabbed John and fell to the bed, pulling John with him. "Time to collect,' he said, and then kissed John senseless.

Soon, three horny teens were naked, kissing, touching, and the heat once more began to build. "Bowl...lube," Rodney panted out between kisses, for he was ready to burst but he wanted to get laid.

"Don't think I'll last to do you both," John panted, feeling how close he was already.

"I'll do Rodney, you do me," Jack said, and moved into position and began to prepare Rodney, delighted in the taste and feel of the young scientist's body before him. Then he felt John's fingers preparing him. "Oh fuck," he moaned.

"Fast, or no one's going to make it," Rodney snapped, for the sight of John behind Jack was becoming too much.

Soon Jack was in, much to Rodney's loud delight, and with patience born of mental discipline, Jack held it together long enough for John to enter him and then all three of them easily found a rhythm that suited their burning need, which burned fast and hot, before exploding. Then the sated exhaustion took over and they all feel asleep in a large lump on the bed.

By morning, as Rodney bitched about his back, they purchased what they needed for their trip including a better map which showed a short cut to the city the monks and the kids were going to be arriving at, for it was near the seaport. They didn't have much hope in getting help, but Jack would try his best to come up with something for the children and was glad that Rodney and John were going to back him. So, when they were set, they packed up, having purchased the instruments from the innkeeper, literally for a song, and headed out, their destination the City of Colver and the temple of Koharan.