Ritual

Their team had arrived just in time for the ritual.

Normally this would pose no problem. Native tribes and towns had welcomed SG teams during periods of celebration before -- usually after a few awkward moments when the SG Team introduced itself and established whether the Ga'ould were in fact present or long gone. Typically, when the natives were disposed towards being friendly at all, the SG Teams were invited to share the celebrations as a gesture of good will and good luck.

The planet itself -- or at least this part of it -- was a nice, temperate place. It looked a lot like the western plains of North America with full, towering trees scattered here and there. The small village was situated near a river. Grass and mud huts were arranged in a sort of oblong circle around both the edge of the river and three large, square buildings.

The natives were friendly, greeting them with smiles and open arms when the Stargate Team arrived. As they'd looked around, Jack had heard Daniel wondering aloud whether the style of dress was Shosone or Apache and how the Plains Indian dress had come to be mixed with an Iroquoi-derivative language. The Chief came forward quickly, and explained that it was nearly time for their fall festivals.

Colonel Jack O'Neilll was not surprised when the Chief issued the invitation to join the Ritual after introductions had been made on both sides. He was, however, surprised by the way the man worded it.

"Visitors, we thank you for your participation in the Autumn's Ritual. Please come with us so the ritual may begin." The Chief had looked happy enough to see them, so that didn't explain why O'Neill got shivers up his spine. When they reached a small village, filled with grass and wood huts surrounding a large open courtyard of sorts, the Chief raised his arm.

The tribesmen grabbed Daniel, Sam, and Teal'c.

"Wait a minute!" O'Neill stepped towards the Chief.

The man faced him with a solemn expression. "The Ritual of Death may now begin."

That explained the shivers. O'Neill frowned and asked sternly, "What do you mean by 'Death Ritual'?"

"The Ritual of Death. As leader of your companions it is your right to choose. One may die. The others may live."

"May die?" He repeated hopefully.

"If you choose not to choose, then they all die." The Chief explained.

O'Neill frowned again and shook his head. "Look, I don't know what--"

"Choose." The Chief looked at him, a hard expression in his eyes. O'Neill knew from long experience with first contacts such as these that this man was not bluffing, not fooling around. But still he shook his head.

"We aren't here to participate in your annual ritual, Chief. I don't know what you expect from us but I'm not going to let you kill my team."

"It is the right of all visitors in the fall to participate in the Ritual. You have come, it is time. Choose." The Chief pointed towards the rest of O'Neill's team. Against his own will, Jack followed the gesture and saw his team watching them. They'd only been on this planet for half an hour. How could they have gotten into such a mess so soon?

"I can't..." he repeated softly.

"Then you choose for all to die?"

"No!" Jack whirled on the man. "If someone has to die for your ritual, it will be me. I'm not going to let you kill any of my team."

The Chief, as ought to have been expected, shook his head. "That choice is not allowed. The Ritual demands you choose. One, or all."

O'Neill stared in disbelief. The reality of this horrible turn of events had sunk in much farther than he'd wished it had. No semblance of a dream, this. The air was too cold, the ground too hard, and the Chief's voice too low to be anything of a dream. O'Neill looked back at the tribesmen holding his team hostage. They were each poised and ready, holding the SG crew fast despite their struggles. The native warriors appeared calm and ready to strike as soon as Jack made his choice.

He closed his eyes. Unbidden his mind reviewed his choices. Teal'c -- a trained warrior, who saw it his duty to die if need be. He would volunteer if he had the chance. But he was the only Jaffa they had -- the only one who knew anything about the Ga'ould. Who knew if he might someday give them that one piece of information they needed to finally defeat the Ga'ould, if not throughout the universe than at least on one single world. O'Neill could not risk losing that possible information. Not to save only two lives.

Then there was Daniel Jackson. Civilian, scholar -- and, from the expression O'Neill had seen on his face, not afraid to die. There was no way O'Neill could choose him. Not even a solider, it was neither his duty nor his right to die at the Colonel's command. Information was his saving grace, as well. Too many times his knowledge had led to saving a world, saving their own lives.

And Captain Sam Carter -- both scientist and soldier. She was Teal'c and Daniel combined. Her duty and her knowledge made her as valuable as either. But she had no unique knowledge as did Teal'c, and she was a soldier. Under his command, it was expected that she could be ordered...

O'Neill opened his eyes and looked at the Chief. "I can't--"

"You must choose now. The time has come." The Chief sounded almost sympathetic, as calm and understanding as one who had once been in O'Neill's position. It didn't make Jack feel any better.

"Can I at least talk to them?" Jack tried to stall for time. The Chief shook his head. Pointing to his tribesmen, he then gestured and three knives were raised.

O'Neill felt his voice stick in his throat. He looked at his team. Each was staring back at him -- waiting silently. Only Daniel looked less than completely composed but he controlled it well, letting only a worried expression show on his face as he stood as still as his companions.

"I'm sorry." O'Neill said. He could not believe he was about to say this. He was afraid, for a split second before he spoke, that he would be unable to say anything out loud and the decision would be futile. Then he heard himself whisper, "Sam." He wanted to close his eyes, but instead he watched. The men holding her arms pulled her backwards. She looked at him squarely and gave him a nod. Her face was quiet, there was utterly no blame to be seen. Jack knew there would not be. That, too, did not help.

They took her into a long building and as they vanished inside a door was pulled closed and four tribesmen stepped in front to stand guard. The others released Daniel and Teal'c and they came forward to stand beside O'Neill. He didn't look at them. Instead he turned to the Chief. "Now what?" he demanded, trying to control his anger.

"We wait for the ritual to end."

O'Neill glared. He wanted to grab his remaining teammembers and get them the hell off this planet -- but there was no way he would abandon Sam's body in this place. He had done this, he had to see it through to the end, and take her body home. Decent funeral, dying in the line of duty...

Three minutes later the door opened, and Captain Sam Carter walked out.

They gaped at her. Jack looked at the Chief, couldn't form his question so he stared at Sam again. She looked a little confused, but otherwise unharmed. She walked towards them, unhindered; Daniel ran over to her and O'Neill heard him asking if she were all right.

"I'm fine. Don't ask me why."

O'Neill whirled on the Chief, furious and confused. "What's going on here?"

"The Ritual of Death is complete. As a Ritual, it is not the death of the body or the spirit we seek. Only the death of misconception. A small death for the mind. Your companion is unhurt. You may stay, for the remainder of the festival," the Chief began hesitantly, as if knowing they would refuse.

"Not on your life," O'Neill replied. General Hammond might want to send an SG team back, but he was taking his crew out of there. At least any other team sent in their place would be forewarned. As Daniel and Sam stepped up beside them, he reached out and took Carter by the arm. "You're OK?"

"I am. They took me in there, and had me stand in an empty room for a minute. Then they said the Ritual was complete and thanked me." She gave a shrug.

O'Neill didn't wait any longer. "Fine. We're going home."

Halfway back to the gate he stopped and turned to her again. "You're sure you're all right? No ticking timebombs planted in your head or anything like that?"

She gave him an alarmed look. "Thanks a lot, sir. No, they never even touched me. That I know of -- if they did anything to me, I didn't notice it."

Jack nodded. "We'll have Dr. Fraiser check you out millimeter by millimeter." He shook his head. "This planet is weird."

They walked for ten minutes then Daniel said calmly, "I wouldn't mind coming back--"

Jack silenced him with a look. Briefly.

"It really is extraordinary." Daniel continued, hesitantly only at first. "I'd like to know how the ritual evolved -- it's really quite clever. You have to admit--"

"It's a clever way of making sure visitors never come back," O'Neill growled.

"Possibly. That might even be why they chose visitors to participate. Or it may simply be that, growing up in the village you know what the Ritual really is and therefore it loses its effectiveness."

"Daniel." O'Neill snapped.

"Yes, Jack?"

"We're going."

Daniel shut up. When the gate came into view it occurred to Jack that Daniel might simply have been trying to deal with a very difficult situation in the only way he knew how -- by turning it into something merely academic. But he had been though a hell of a time himself and was dealing with it the only way he knew how: getting his team home safe and yelling at anyone who made him think too much about what had just happened. He didn't apologize, though, and waited silently as Daniel dialed the DHD for home.

~~~~~

When the medical exam was over and Sam was cleared, they sat through one of the shortest debriefings ever. Fifteen minutes to explain what had happened, fifteen minutes to answer insane questions about whether they thought there was more going on than appeared and whether O'Neill wanted to take his team back, then a quick five minutes to hand out deadlines for the reports and they
were released.

O'Neill wasted no time. He stepped up beside Sam and asked quietly, "Can I talk to you?"

She nodded and they headed for his office. Once inside, Jack headed for his chair, but then paced behind it instead. She waited for a moment, then spoke up. "Sir, it's all right."

"All right?" He looked up. "I picked you to die and you say it's all right?"

She nodded, her composure never faltering. "Yes, I do. The fact that I didn't die doesn't really change how I feel. It would have been -- it *is* all right. It isn't the first time you've ordered me into a dangerous situation, one where there were no guarantees I'd come out alive. This really was no different."

Her words should have helped, but somehow they didn't. It was nice that *she* was acting so calm. He shook his head. "It feels different."

"Because it was pointless?"

He looked at her. "Yeah, I guess so. It wasn't like we were fighting them... they just grabbed us and said you had to die." He looked away again. *He* had said she had to die.

"I'd rather have died than let Daniel and Teal'c die. And they would have, sir, if you hadn't made a choice. You know that. All of us or one of us. You couldn't let them kill the whole team."

O'Neill continued staring at the far wall. He heard her, but wasn't ready to just shrug it off.

"Sir," she ventured. "If it had been you -- if they had told me to make the choice, and I'd chosen you -- would you have blamed me?"

"Hell no! I'd have wanted you to pick me rather than--" He stopped. She had a point.

"Then why should I feel any differently than you would have? Colonel, you don't have to feel guilty," she offered.

He thought about it for a moment, then looked at her. "I'd hope you'd have felt a little guilty." He smiled.

"Well, maybe a little." She returned the smile.

Jack stood up and walked back around the desk to stand beside her. Sam had never even sat down. "Thanks. Next time, though, let's visit during winter."

She grinned. "According to Daniel, winter rituals are often centered around huge feasts and involve a lot of drinking."

"See? It would have been so much nicer."

They left his office and Jack found that he almost felt better.

That lasted until he met Daniel in a hallway.

~~~~~

"Jack, I want to talk to you." Daniel was glaring at him. Taken aback, Jack led them to an empty conference room just a few yards away.

"What's wrong?" he asked, not thinking Daniel needed prompting but giving it to him all the same.

"How could you do that, Jack?" Daniel sounded angry and hurt.

Jack shook his head. He had expected this from Sam, not Daniel. "I'm not going to pretend I don't know what you're talking about -- but why are you so mad?"

"Why am I mad?" Daniel sounded incredulous. "Why shouldn't I be?" He wasn't yelling, but speaking in a low, controlled tone. It made Jack think he was in for a serious argument. "You picked Sam to die. Why?"

"Why?" Jack was surprised. He tried to figure out what had Daniel so riled up. He drew a blank.

"I can understand why you didn't pick Teal'c -- he would have been your first choice if he weren't the only person who has inside information about the Ga'ould. But why her? Damn it, Jack, did you pick her instead of me?"

Daniel's fury was clear, now. Jack wanted to step back from it but he didn't. "Daniel, I couldn't pick you--"

"Why not? What makes you think I wanted her to die to save *my* life?"

"What makes you think *I* wanted her to die?" Jack yelled. He kept the table between them so he wouldn't be tempted to reach and out grab Daniel. "She was the only one I could pick! I don't have the right to pick you-- " He tried to explain, but it was hard to think clearly.

Daniel's voice lowered again and Jack was reminded of a growling dog -- when they stop barking and start growling, it's time to worry. "You would have let her die because you couldn't pick me? How dare you give me that responsibility! Maybe you should leave me behind so next time her life won't be forfeit!"

Without waiting for Jack's reply, Daniel spun and stormed out of the room. Jack stared at the door and sighed, frustrated. Two seconds later he ran out of the room after Daniel.

Jack caught up with him in the next corridor and grabbed his arm. Daniel pulled loose, but as he turned to leave again he found his way blocked by Teal'c. The Jaffa looked at him, then at O'Neill.

"You're not going anywhere, Daniel. Not until you've heard me out," Jack said.

"What's to hear? You're going to tell me I'm more valuable than Sam is?"

"No." Jack crossed his arms and stood, blocking Daniel's passage in one direction. Teal'c picked up on his Commander's obvious wishes and blocked Daniel's escape in the other direction. Daniel just glared at each of them. Jack tried to explain, again. "You are not more valuable. You are not less valuable. The fact remains that you are a civilian, and as such I am not allowed to order you into a combat situation."

"Like that's ever stopped you before?" Daniel asked, incredulously.

"Daniel." Jack gave him a direct look. "I have never ordered you into combat situations. In fact, I usually order you out of them."

"You're telling me that that's the only reason you picked her over me?" Daniel didn't sound as if he believed it.

Jack shook his head. Before he could say anything, however, Teal'c spoke up. "Had you not been present, Captain Sam Carter would have been chosen regardless." Jack looked at the Jaffa in grateful surprise. Teal'c continued. "Since you *were* present, you have the honor of giving her death meaning. Had she died, it would only be our lives that would have made her death worthwhile. Do not belittle her sacrifice, Daniel Jackson."

Daniel said nothing when Teal'c finished speaking. Jack nodded his thanks, and the Jaffa returned it. Without saying anything, Daniel stepped past Jack and walked away.

"Let him go." Jack held up a hand when Teal'c would have pursued him. "He has a lot to think about. I think we finally got through to him." He paused, hoping he was right, and glanced back at Teal'c. "You don't have any problems with what I did, do you?"

Teal'c shook his head. "I understand your choice. I would have blamed you only had you chosen Daniel Jackson to die." The Jaffa looked as though he was hiding both a glare, and a grin.

Jack slowly shook his head. "I've had enough for one day. I'm going home."

General Hammond had given them three days off, to 'recover' from their latest hour-long mission. Jack hoped to spend it at home in peace and quiet, but he wasn't entirely sure he was going to get to. He didn't get to leave right away, of course. Military efficiency demanded that he spend some quality time in his office, filling out reports before he left. He didn't want to have to come back tomorrow morning to get them done in time for Hammond's deadline. It was three hours later that he finally left the base.

He drove home, stopping only long enough to pick up some Japanese food for dinner. Sushi was easier to deal with than cooking. He went inside, left the bag in the kitchen, and headed for the study.

"Daniel?"

He found his lover sitting in the chair facing the window, staring out.

"Danny?" He tried again, softer.

Daniel turned and looked up at him. "Tell me it wasn't because you love me. Tell me you wouldn't have made her die because you couldn't let me be the one."

Jack stepped forward and crouched beside the chair. He grabbed Daniel's hand and brushed a finger along his cheek. "I love you more than anything. It would have killed me to see them take you away to die." He leaned forward and gave Daniel a kiss. "But that isn't why I couldn't pick you." He glanced down and added in a more normal tone, "Well, it isn't the only reason. But Daniel -- I'll show you the manual if you want to see it -- but I *don't* have the right to order you to die. You aren't under my command. You're a civilian; we're just borrowing you."

Daniel looked at him for a long moment. Then he whispered, "I thought you meant... when you said that you didn't have the right, I thought... I wasn't really part of your team. Just a civilian hanger-on, getting underfoot and in the way... and that Sam would have to die because I was there."

"Oh, god no, Daniel." Jack kissed him again, longer this time, holding his lover's face with both hands. "Daniel, you are never underfoot, never in the way, and if you weren't a part of the team it wouldn't *be* a team. Just three soldiers blundering our way in, shooting what we don't understand." Jack tried to hold back a grin.

Daniel slowly smiled, then shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"So am I. I guess this is what they meant, though. Death of misconceptions."

Daniel sighed and rested his head against Jack's. Then he tensed, and sat up. "Do you think so? That this sort of thing is what the ritual is all about?"

Jack groaned silently as the scholar re-emerged. "Danny, we're not going back."

"But now that we know about the Ritual they can't do it again. I mean, it wouldn't work because we'd know it wasn't real. Don't you see? Now we *can* go back--"

"Unless it's Russian Roulette? One time out of five it's for real? Maybe next time they really *will* kill her."

Daniel sat quietly, then replied, "I hadn't thought of that. I guess we'd better not..." He sounded clearly disappointed.

"God, Daniel, only you would be upset by not getting to go back to a place like that." Jack said. "Maybe next time you can be the leader!"

Daniel looked up at him sharply. His eyes suddenly went wide. "I'm sorry. Here I've been yelling at you and you're the one--"

"I really don't want to talk about it." Jack cut him off. "I just want to forget about it."

Daniel nodded and smiled. "Maybe that's a good idea. I can think of something to help."

Jack looked up at the tone in his lover's voice. "Daniel, I'm not sure I'm really in the mood. I nearly killed Sam today." The words sounded odd, like they couldn't possibly be true.

"Then why don't we celebrate the fact that she's alive? That we're all alive, unhurt, and home?" Daniel reached out and held onto Jack's shirt, preventing him from moving away.

Jack half-grinned. "I don't normally think about Sam while we're in bed."

Daniel looked at him seriously. "Is there anything I can do? Now that I've yelled at you and given you twice as much to worry about all afternoon?"

Jack looked at his lover. Daniel was watching him, concerned and loving. Jack wanted to hold him in his arms, all night, and let the day just go away. "There's sushi in the kitchen," he began.

"All right." Daniel stood up. Jack reached out and stopped him from walking out of the room.

"I think the food will keep til morning, don't you?"

Slowly, Daniel smiled. "I'm sure it will." He let Jack pull him close again, and they kissed.

Jack began tugging at Daniel's shirt and his lover moved backwards just far enough to let him pull it off. Jack placed his hands on Daniel's chest, loving, as he always did, the sight of this man in any state of dress -- but undress was always so much better. He wanted to sit back and watch Daniel undress completely, but that would have made it impossible to touch him.

Daniel was waiting silently, smiling, as Jack stared at him. When Jack glanced up he saw the grin and said, "Like you don't ever stare at me?"

"Only whenever I can, only whenever I can." Daniel reached out and slipped his hands underneath Jack's shirt. Pulling Jack towards him, hands warm on Jack's waist, he kissed him again.

Jack held him tightly. He wanted to feel everything there was to touch, mind and body both urging him to move, strip the rest of their clothing away and touch his lover everywhere. He tried to hold himself back, at least long enough to lose himself in the embrace but soon he found he couldn't. He had to have Daniel naked in his arms, embracing or not he had to be able to feel all of him.

He pulled away and began working at Daniel's pants. He heard a short laugh from Daniel, no doubt at his haste but he really didn't care. The sound was too wonderful to mind, anyhow.

He thought briefly of mornings spent, lounging in bed, making his lover laugh long and hard at one silly thing after another. He'd drink in the laughter and fill himself with it. So let him laugh, if he wanted, because getting him naked was worth hearing that sound.

Soon he had Daniel stripped, and standing in front of him. Jack stepped backwards, and looked. There were too many things that were glorious about this man to try to catalogue what he loved best. The line of muscles of long, slender legs or the smooth skin of his stomach; the feel of his hair as Jack ran his hands through it or the feel of his buttocks when Jack pressed a hand flat against them. He wondered what there was not to love, and in a fit of practicality decided it was Daniel's mouth.

Not when it was doing any of a number of wonderful things, but when it was talking at the most inopportune times. He'd found Daniel ready to prattle on for hours when all he wanted was to curl up and fall asleep.

Fortunately he could find better things for Daniel to do. Right now, for instance, he could use that mouth to kiss him. Jack came forward and did just that. Daniel didn't make a sound as Jack pressed their bodies together.

"Ow! Jack, your belt..."

"Sorry." Jack undid the belt, discovering how cold the metal buckle really was, and gave Daniel a quick kiss on the shoulder as he took the opportunity to remove his boots, pants, and shirt as well.

"Better. Much better." Daniel gave him an appreciative once-over, and stepped forward again. As they pressed themselves close he smiled. "*Much* better." He wriggled, and they both responded.

Jack tilted his hips slightly to one side so he could feel Daniel's erection beside his own. Rubbing them together he heard Daniel gasp and watched his lover's eyes close. He wrapped his arms more tightly around Daniel's waist and held him up, rubbing again.

He felt his own legs shaking as Daniel moaned again and leaned forward to rest his head on Jack's shoulder. Daniel moved his own body this time, rubbing them both harder then he snaked one hand between their bodies and took a loose hold of their erections.

Jack shook, and tried to both hold onto Daniel and move into his lover's hand. It was difficult -- difficult to do without falling over, but he managed to move his body back and forth without overbalancing himself. Daniel seemed to have all his attention focused on his hand, and moved without apparent regard for remaining on his feet.

Throwing his head back, Jack tried to gulp in air but as soon as he did he began panting even harder. Daniel moved his hand faster in response, and Jack was suddenly given all he could do, to keep them upright. He held onto Daniel, letting his body thrust against his lover's, and hoped when they fell it would be on something soft -- or at least not breakable.

Daniel's moans suddenly hit a higher pitch and Jack felt him tensing; he held on tighter and felt Daniel's' orgasm hit. His entire body began vibrating, shaking with the force of it and, as he kept his hand on Jack, it didn't take much until Jack came, as well. He kept his grip on Daniel and let the rest of his body go.

When it became easier to breathe and slightly easier to think, he opened his eyes and took aim. As they collapsed he nudged them a tiny bit and they fell, sideways, into the chair.

After a moment, Jack asked, "You think the sushi's still cold?"

Daniel goosed him.