"I'm not wearing the white one," said Jack.
"Fine. I'll wear the white one. You can have the red one."
"You could have a red one, too. There's several of those."
"No, I can't, Jack," said Daniel, reaching for the flimsy white costume. "The red ones and blue ones are always matched up. They're always a couple. Haven't you noticed that?"
Carter had already picked out the blue costume, as it was the only one intended for women. She was holding it against herself, biting her lip in that adorable way as she gauged the size. She looked up, and their eyes met.
"And you can't have the furry one, either," Daniel went on. "Teal'c has to have that one."
"I know," said Jack, wrenching his gaze away from Sam's.
Though the furry costume only covered a man's head and lower body, the Ellasans who wore it painted their exposed skin black to match the costume's black fur. Which made it the perfect disguise for Teal'c. The only possible disguise, since there didn't seem to be any black people among the Ellasans – with or without gold tattoos on their foreheads.
Teal'c picked up the furry costume's head. One eyebrow rose as he studied the stubby horns and goat-like ears, the bugged-out eyes, and the hanging tongue that flapped around with every movement. Setting the head aside with dignified distain, Teal'c pulled out the costume's furry pants. His mouth stretched down as he examined the giant dick that stuck up from the crotch.
Jack's lips twitched. "You lucky dog," he told Teal'c. "You got the best costume." Jack was shedding his uniform, as was Daniel. Sam had retreated behind a screen to do the same.
"You may take it, O'Neill."
"If only I could, T. But that furry little number has your name on it. Besides, much as I hate to admit it, I just couldn't carry it off with the same – aplomb."
Looking just the tiniest bit mollified, Teal'c began removing his uniform.
"Let's hurry it up, kids," said Jack, quickly stripping off his underwear. "It can't be long before the Queen's Guard realize we've escaped. And if we don't get to the Stargate before they put sentries on it, we're screwed." He threw the red costume over his head and let it fall around his body. It was very simple: just a short, sleeveless tunic. The silky material draped down in front, baring part of his chest. Jack fastened the gilded belt, and then slipped his foot into a gilded sandal and began crisscrossing the long, golden laces up his calf.
"Guys – are you decent?" called Carter.
Jack checked his male teammates' progress. Teal'c had gotten the furry pants on, and was bent over trying to put on the furry footgear, but the big dick kept getting in his way. Daniel was scowling down at his hip, trying to tighten the golden ribbons that held his costume together. The white costume was basically a short tunic, too – well, more like half of one. It draped over the right shoulder only, and left most of the other side of Daniel's body bare. Golden ribbons tied at the waist on the bare side, pulling the front and back of the tunic together, but there wasn't enough fabric to close the gap. There was just enough to cover Daniel's groin, but the white material was semi-transparent anyway.
"As we'll ever be," announced Jack.
Carter emerged from behind the screen, dressed in her blue costume. It was very similar to Jack's red one, except instead of a belt, it had golden cords that wound around her torso from the waist to just beneath the bust, emphasizing her figure. The draped neckline revealed lots more cleavage than he usually got to see, and the very short hemline exposed her long legs in all their glory.
Jack's breath caught a little. And a flush of heat went through him as he noticed Sam checking him out, too, before quickly averting her gaze. Trying not to think about how none of these costumes included underwear, Jack pulled off his dog tags and dropped them on top of his uniform. Now he really felt naked, but these garments didn't allow much scope for hiding the tags – or anything else.
Which presented a problem. Well, it presented a couple, but the important one had to do with making it back to Earth. These costumes would allow them to blend into the festival crowds and reach the Ellasan Stargate without being noticed, but they needed the GDO to get through the iris on Earth's 'Gate. Their weapons and equipment had been appropriated by the Queen's Guard, but they'd managed to re-acquire one GDO by grabbing it off the Chief Jailer's desk as they escaped.
Jack took the signaling device from his discarded uniform. His gaze settled on Teal'c, whose costume looked like the only one that might allow for concealing the device. Though "might" was the operative word. The pants were furry, but fit quite tightly. And the furry leggings/boots didn't look promising, either. "Teal'c," he said, holding out the GDO, "think you could carry this without it showing? How 'bout inside that head? The one on the table, I mean," clarified Jack, waggling his fingers toward the satyr head. "Then again, the other one looks big enough…"
Teal'c gave him a brief, unreadable look before pronouncing, "I do not believe either head will suit the purpose. However, while donning these trousers, I observed that my scrotum is largely empty." He directed his gaze down to the enormous, furry sack that hung loosely under his costume's giant phallus.
Jack had to smile. The deadpan humor was probably deliberate, but with the Big Guy it was hard to be sure. "Well, that's handy!" he exclaimed. He passed the GDO to Teal'c. With a glance at Carter, Teal'c turned his back and began stuffing it down the front of his pants.
Carter was standing next to Daniel, holding the props that went with Daniel's costume: a golden bow, and a quiver of golden arrows. She was trying not to grin, her lovely mouth working with the effort, but laughter shone from her cobalt eyes. Then she looked at Jack, and the grin broke free.
Bring me my bow of burning gold, he thought. Bring me my arrows of desire. The verse didn't really fit, of course. William Blake had had a more spiritual sort of passion in mind. Then again, what he was feeling right now was both very carnal and very spiritual. Get a grip, Jack, he told himself. Escaping from a hostile planet here.
He scooped up his uniform, and began rolling it into a tight bundle. "That wouldn't be a real bow, would it?" he asked Carter.
"No, sir. Afraid not." Her expression sobered, causing him a pang of regret. She handed Daniel the bow and quiver, since he had finished arranging his golden headband. Daniel slung the props over his shoulders.
"You supposed to be Cupid or something?" Jack said to Daniel.
"Since this culture has Ancient Greek roots, and we're in the middle of a fertility festival – yes, I'd say so. But Cupid is the Roman name. The Greek equivalent is Eros, god of love and desire."
"Oh, that explains it," said Jack. "Guess it's the Greek version that wears glasses."
Pressing his lips together, Daniel reluctantly removed his glasses. "You're right. Greek gods don't wear glasses. And neither do Ellasans. Teal'c, is there any more room in your… um... satyr costume?" Daniel gestured toward the furry scrotum, which had swallowed the GDO without a trace. Teal'c gave him a rather unhappy look, but accepted the glasses.
"In both Greek and Roman mythology," Daniel went on, "the satyr is a symbol of runaway sexuality. Drunken lechery, in particular."
"Stop lecturing, Daniel," said Jack. "Even I know what a satyr is."
"But Teal'c probably didn't," said Daniel.
"I did not," said Teal'c, who was once again facing away from them and struggling with the front of his pants. "However," he added, with the barest hint of exasperation, "I was able to deduce the creature's nature."
Carter was standing on a chest, stuffing an SGC uniform inside one of the large, decorative urns that occupied niches in the walls. As Jack moved toward another of the urns with his rolled up uniform, he couldn't resist saying, "Don't forget your prop, Teal'c."
Teal'c flashed him an acid glance. Then he turned slowly and confronted the peculiar rattle that lay next to the satyr head. It was shaped like a set of male organs, with a wrist-strap attached to the tip of the dick. After a pause, Teal'c stoically picked up the object and slipped the strap over his wrist. The balls rattled softly.
Oh, man, thought Jack, that costume is so wasted on Teal'c.
Teal'c peered out at the boisterous crowds through the eyeholes in the satyr's pupils, feeling most displeased. This costume had many annoying characteristics, but the restriction it imposed on his field of vision was disadvantageous as well. And he could not compensate by relying on the holistic sensory awareness taught him by Bra'tac, since the celebrants who filled the streets were producing so much noise and movement that his perceptions were swamped. Furthermore, the straps that looped under his armpits to secure the costume's head were beginning to chaff.
So far, SG-1 had succeeded in blending into the Ellasan crowds. Most of the people around them wore festive clothes rather than costumes, but here and there could be seen other foursomes consisting of a satyr, an Eros, a woman in blue, and a man in red. SG-1 had passed a pair of Guardsmen without incident.
The team was walking down a broad, straight avenue, moving as quickly as they could without calling attention to themselves. The columned buildings that lined the avenue cast long shadows over the crowd. A man in the yellow tunic of a public employee was lighting streetlamps. Teal'c could see the Stargate, which stood in a plaza at the end of the avenue. He estimated they would reach it within fifteen minutes, and there was as yet no sign of pursuit. Nevertheless, long experience had taught him not to be sanguine.
"You know," said DanielJackson, "there are more costumed groups in the crowd than there were at the beginning of the festival. I wish I understood the significance. What roles are we really supposed to be playing? I didn't get a chance to learn about this holiday before everything went to hell." DanielJackson directed an accusing look at O'Neill. "Just what did you say to Queen Maea that pissed her off so badly?"
Teal'c, MajorCarter, and DanielJackson had learned that SG-1's royal welcome had been withdrawn when two formerly friendly Guardsmen threw a powder in their faces that caused immediate unconsciousness. The three of them had awakened in the same cell, but O'Neill had been held separately, so they had not been able to compare notes. However, O'Neill had been with the Queen just prior to their incarceration.
"Maea needs to grow up," said O'Neill, his tone curt.
O'Neill's comment was the literal truth, as Queen Maea was but fifteen. One would have hoped that the heavy responsibilities of her position would have engendered a precocious maturity, but such was not the case. Though the Ellasan ruler had always behaved well in O'Neill's presence, Teal'c had observed the anxious uncertainty with which her courtiers approached her, and had concluded that her true character was spoiled and capricious. As had now been demonstrated.
"You said that to her face?" exclaimed DanielJackson. "You implied she's immature? Jack, no matter how true that may be, insulting the Queen is a crime under Ellasan law. These people regard their monarch as divinely appointed. You can't talk to her like that."
"The fact nobody talks to her like that," said O'Neill, "is why she's such a brat. And if somebody doesn't start talking to her like that, she's going to stay a brat her whole life."
"Indeed," agreed Teal'c.
MajorCarter turned toward O'Neill with a gently reproachful expression. "Yes, sir," she said. "But it's obvious the Queen has a huge crush on you. It must have been pretty devastating to hear you call her a child."
"She is a child!" complained O'Neill. "And she wasn't too devastated to order a sneak attack and have us thrown in prison."
"But do you think she would have really harmed us, sir?" asked MajorCarter.
It was clear MajorCarter did not believe so, but Teal'c was not so certain. Children could be cruel, particularly if they had never been encouraged to restrain their egos. "I do not believe she would harm O'Neill," said Teal'c.
O'Neill gave him a significant glance. Clearly, his brother warrior had also noted the way he had been separated from the other members of the team. Queen Maea was young, but highly intelligent. She would have realized that a powerful lever for influencing O'Neill lay within her grasp.
"I wouldn't put it past her to try to keep us here indefinitely," said O'Neill.
"The SGC wouldn't stand for that," said DanielJackson. "Like I said before, Jack, it might have been better to wait for this situation to be resolved diplomatically. We could really use an alliance with Ellas. They have some amazing medical resources."
O'Neill snorted. "SG-9 wouldn't have gotten anywhere with Maea. She's the worse kind of brat – one that's smart enough to know what she can get away with. She needs to be taught she can't always have what she wants. Once we get back to Earth, I'll deal with her."
Teal'c wondered exactly what had transpired between O'Neill and the Queen. Though Maea was but fifteen, there were many societies in which girls of that age were considered marriageable young women. He wondered whether Queen Maea regarded herself as such; and, if so, whether she had made inappropriate advances toward O'Neill. O'Neill would have been quick to put her in her place, which must have come as a shock to a girl accustomed to being treated with fawning deference. Then again, Teal'c suspected that a paternal response was precisely what Maea truly wanted – though she was probably not consciously aware of that.
A wave of increased commotion spread though the crowd ahead of them, causing Teal'c to snap to full combat readiness. A peculiar vehicle came around the corner of a building. It was a large chariot, drawn by three white horses. Three women in long, white robes rode the chariot, each of them controlling the reins of one of the horses. With three separate drivers, the horses did not work smoothly as a team, and the chariot lurched through the laughing, cheering crowd as if drunk. It was fortunate the chariot's speed was not great, or some of the inebriated revelers would surely have met their ends beneath its wheels.
Teal'c relaxed slightly, allowing himself to enjoy the sight. The chariot's framework was festooned with small globes full of orange-white radiance. The globes flickered, dimming and brightening in a manner reminiscent of fire. The light was most likely produced by bioluminescent micro-organisms, as was the case in certain other Ellasan devices they had seen. In the deepening twilight, the effect was impressive.
"And there's the chariot of fire," murmured O'Neill, speaking as if to himself. DanielJackson gave him a sharp look, leading Teal'c to suspect O'Neill had made a reference to Tauri literature or history. Teal'c had long since realized that O'Neill was much more knowledgeable in those areas than he was wont to reveal. Nor was his knowledge of science as meager as he pretended.
Teal'c thought MajorCarter had realized this as well, but DanielJackson was surprisingly slow to do so. If past experience were any indication, DanielJackson would dismiss or forget O'Neill's slip. He was too fond of regarding himself as vastly superior to O'Neill in intellectual matters. It was a manifestation of DanielJackson's competitive streak; which was, in turn, an aspect of his warrior spirit.
Teal'c understood why O'Neill hid his intellectual abilities: camouflage was useful to a warrior. But DanielJackson sometimes seemed to be denying his competitive and aggressive qualities, rather than simply hiding them. That made no sense to Teal'c. In any case, Teal'c found it interesting that O'Neill and DanielJackson were much more alike than either wished to admit.
"Queen's Guards at five o'clock," said MajorCarter. "A large group is entering the street. I don't think they're here to supervise the crowd."
Without appearing to do so, O'Neill glanced in the indicated direction. "Crap," he said. "They're led by Commander Deanus. The Palace must know we've escaped."
Teal'c silently cursed his costume. He could not see the enemy without turning his body in a conspicuous manner, and it was more important than ever not draw attention to themselves. Commander Deanus knew their faces well.
"Uh, Jack," said DanielJackson. "All the people in costume seem to be following the chariot."
DanielJackson was correct. A stream of satyrs, love gods, and blue-and-red couples was crossing the avenue in the wake of the chariot, and all the costumed members of the crowd around them were joining the stream. Clearly, if SG-1 were the only costumed group that failed to do the same, they would be noticed.
"Okay, kids," said O'Neill. "Guess we need to do as the Romans do. Well – as the Greeks do."
SG-1 began to follow the glowing chariot.
Sam saw that the large, domed building up ahead was their final destination. The chariot had pulled around the side, but the costumed procession they had joined was beginning to make its way up the broad steps at the front. Like all Ellasan buildings, this one had a Classical look to it, with a pillared portico at the top of the steps. Greek letters were carved above the pillars, dimly lit by bioluminescent bulbs.
"Daniel," whispered the Colonel, "what's that say up there?"
"I don't know, Jack. To read it, I'd have to be able to see it."
Sam sighed. Without his glasses, Daniel was astigmatic. So they were denied any clue as to the purpose of the building.
Using her peripheral vision, Sam checked whether there were still Guardsmen in the vicinity. She saw that the group with the bearded leader was standing under a nearby lamppost.
Though the large contingent led by Deanus had marched on in the direction of the Stargate, there were now patrols in most of the streets. But at least there hadn't been any public announcements regarding four fugitives from Earth, so ordinary citizens weren't involved in the search. Daniel thought that was because the royal advisors didn't want to disrupt the festival.
"Those Guardsmen are still behind us, sir," she said.
"Yeah," said the Colonel. "Guess we get to find out what's in the building."
Guess we get to play our roles, thought Sam, even though we don't know what they are. She'd been watching the other costumed Ellasans on the way here, but their behavior hadn't revealed anything that wasn't obvious from the costumes themselves. The satyrs pranced around some, and shook their rattles a little, while the love gods strolled along with a more dignified air. And the pairs of blue-clad women and red-clad men were definitely couples; you could tell that by their body language.
Some of the couples were holding hands. She and Jack had been walking side by side, their hands close together, and Sam had thought, We could do that, too. After all, we're trying to blend in. Her palm had tingled at the prospect of touching his. They so seldom allowed themselves to touch one other. Her heart had started beating faster, which was ludicrous. It was just holding hands, for God's sake! But what was more ludicrous was that their hands had never come together. Sam had felt too self-conscious to reach across that little gap. And Jack hadn't crossed the gap from his end. Apparently, he hadn't been as eager to hold hands as she had.
No, Sam chided herself, it's just that the Colonel's mind was where yours should have been – on the team's predicament, instead of on the nuances of our non-relationship.
SG-1 made its way up the steps, and between two of the pillars. Ahead of them, an open doorway spilled soft, golden light. "Keep an eye on the other people who are wearing your costume," said Daniel. "Just do what they do."
They passed through the door, and into a wide foyer. Beyond an arc of columns lay a domed chamber, with cavorting Greek deities painted on the walls. A bioluminescent starburst filled the apex of the dome. Long, luminous teardrops were affixed across the ceiling around it, radiating from the top of the dome as if shooting stars were falling on the dancing gods and goddesses.
There were small tables between the columns that edged the domed area, with a short sofa behind each. Blue-and-red couples had begun to seat themselves in these sofas. Sam glanced at the Colonel, but found his expression unreadable. She followed him to one of the empty tables, and they sat down together.
The constraints of the "love seat" made it impossible not to touch him. Sam was very aware of the heat of his bare thigh against hers, and the muscular firmness of his chest and arms as they jostled awkwardly for a moment. Then Jack flashed her a warm smile, and put his arm around her shoulders.
All the tightness went out of her body, and she nestled against him. They fit together perfectly. Don't get too comfortable, she told herself. Stay alert. She noted that a golden chalice filled with red wine sat on the table before them. Every table had one.
The men costumed as satyrs and love gods were positioning themselves behind the seated couples, so Daniel and Teal'c came and stood at their backs. "Five Guardsmen have entered the building and stationed themselves beside the doors," said Teal'c. "They are armed with those large handguns." Ellasan firearms were rather primitive from a mechanical perspective, but they packed an amazing punch, because the Ellasans mixed some sort of sophisticated accelerant in with their gunpowder. It was fascinating how Ellasan science was less advanced than Earth's in some respects, yet more advanced in others.
"Peachy," said the Colonel, not looking back. "Anybody we know?"
"I recognize one. I believe his name is Henitius."
Oh, great, thought Sam. But at least we're facing away from him.
"Swell," drawled the Colonel. "I'm not seeing any other exits, but we need to find one."
The painted walls on either side of the domed area had no doors, only small, high windows. On the opposite side was another semi-circular line of white columns, but she couldn't see what lay beyond them. Rather than being filled with tables, the spaces between these columns where hung with golden curtains.
"I'll take Curtain Number 2," said Jack.
Sam smiled. Given that the Stargate was now under guard, they were being hunted by the Palace, they had no weapons, and they seemed to be stuck participating in an alien ritual of unknown nature, she really shouldn't have been smiling. But, as usual, Jack's silly jokes made the whole dire situation feel more manageable. And cuddling with him felt so nice.
"No, wait, I changed my mind. I'll take all of them. Teal'c, see if you can mosey over there and peek behind the curtains. Pretend to be looking for the john. It's been overdone, I know, but it still works."
"I don't think we should leave our places, Jack," said Daniel.
"Come on, Daniel. Even Greeks have to answer the call of nature. And Teal'c's got that cool mask to keep him totally incognito."
At that moment, the central pair of golden curtains parted, and a line of young men and women began to file into the domed chamber. They were dressed in green tunics, and each carried a basket.
"Like I said, Jack…"
"All right. Guess you'll have to hold it till after the show, Big Guy."
The Ellasans with baskets crossed over to SG-1's side of the building, and began taking up positions near the tables. Behind them came the three women who had ridden the chariot. They stopped at the center of the domed chamber, and stood facing the tables. The bioluminescent starburst shone directly down on them, giving them golden halos.
"Okay," said Jack, "those women didn't come in the front doors. So there's got to be a back door behind those curtains. And we need to get to it."
Though all three women were dressed in white robes, and each carried a staff, their attire was not identical. The first woman's staff consisted of a fresh branch, with leaves and fluffy white flowers on the end. More of the same flowers were arranged in her hair. The woman in the center wore a conical hat, and her staff consisted of dry stalks woven together, with several heads of grain protruding from the top. The one on the left had a staff tipped with a pine cone, and wore a wreath of ivy on her head.
"Daniel," said Jack, "what's going on here?"
Daniel squinted at the three chariot-riders. "Those women are probably priestesses," he said. "At any rate, they seem to represent Aphrodite, Demeter, and Dionysus. And this building might be a pantheon – a temple dedicated to all the gods. Or, rather, to the One, since Ellasan religion has evolved in the direction of seeing the individual gods as manifestations of a single, overarching Divinity."
"That's fascinating," said Jack. "So, what's going on here?"
"I don't know, Jack. This festival has no Classical equivalent; and, thanks to your big mouth, I didn't get a chance to do any research. It's a very important festival, and it seems to involve all the gods that have anything to do with fertility, love, marriage, etc. That basically all I can tell you."
The central priestess raised her staff, and a hush fell over the temple. Sam sat up straighter, her tension returning, and traded glances with the Colonel. Clearly, they were about to find out what was going on here.
The priestess smiled and said, "Supplicants, the time has come!" The acoustics of the domed chamber were apparently superb, for though the woman did not raise her voice, her contralto rang cleanly through the golden air. "If any of you has the smallest doubt, leave now, and feel no shame." She gestured toward the front entrance.
The Colonel's mouth thinned. "That should have been our cue," he muttered.
A woman got up suddenly and bolted for the door. Her partner pursued her, looking distressed. After they had left, there was a nervous silence. But no one else had second thoughts.
"Very well," said the central priestess. All three priestesses raised their staffs in the air. Speaking in unison, they commanded, "Rise, Supplicants! Rise, and accept the gift of the gods!"
All the blue-and-red couples rose to their feet, so she and Jack did the same. Then each couple took hold of the golden chalice, using a rather odd grip. The woman's right hand and the man's left went on the right handle, while her left and his right went on the left handle, so that their arms crossed. She and Jack duplicated the pattern.
Two basket-bearers approached Daniel. The boy handed him a wreath made of leaves, while the girl handed him one of flowers. Out of the corner of her eye, Sam watched Daniel try to act as if he expected this, while surreptitiously checking what the other love gods were doing. Copying their actions, Daniel held the leafy crown over Jack's head, and the flowered crown over hers.
Sam looked down the row of tables, and saw the same tableau repeated over and over: a man and a woman sharing possession of a golden cup, while Eros held crowns over their heads. Sam's heart began to beat faster. This felt very… significant. Jack was staring straight ahead, his craggy face like a mask, but his hands were touching hers on the chalice, and the entwined grip brought their bodies close together.
The priestess on the left spoke: "May Aphrodite bless your love. May passion liven your days, and set fire to your nights." She brought her staff down on the marble floor, and the tap echoed through the temple.
The priestess in the center spoke: "May Demeter bless your love. May it prove as strong in the chill of winter as in the pleasant days of spring, and may it bring forth many children!" As her staff also came down, Sam's stomach did a peculiar flip. Children? Daniel's words came back to her: it seems to involve all the gods that have anything to do with fertility, love, MARRIAGE…. Her hands were beginning to feel clammy, and she didn't dare look at Jack.
The third priestess spoke: "May Dionysus bless your love. May it be touched by the madness that liberates, and not by the madness that destroys." She brought her staff down.
Then all three women spoke as one, saying, "May the spirit of the Most High fill your hearts."
The love gods all lowered the wreaths onto the couples' heads. As she felt the velvet touch of petals on her forehead, Sam closed her eyes for an instant. Her mind was filled with a kind of static, like a TV tuned to an empty channel, but with scenes flickering in and out of definition. She saw the team returning to Stargate Command, and heard Jack saying to General Hammond, "We're hitched, sir. Sam and me. Sorry, sir, but you know how it is when you visit strange planets. Things happen. We didn't break any regs, I swear we didn't, but there it is. Fait accompli. Get used to it."
She looked at Jack, and her heart jumped when she found him looking back. There was such longing in his eyes that her throat closed up. Then he turned his eyes forward again. And the rational part of Sam's mind kicked back in. This isn't a real marriage for me and Jack, no matter what it is for the Ellasans. We didn't consent to anything. We didn't know what was going to happen. There's no way the Air Force would accept this as a legitimate marriage – nor should they.
Sam was startled out of her thoughts by a chorus of male voices. "Drain the Loving Cup!" they shouted. It was the men dressed as Eros. She noticed Daniel belatedly moving his lips. "Drain the cup," chanted the love gods. "Drain the cup. May your love prove true."
All the couples raised the golden chalice to their lips, and began to drink. Each man and woman drank from the wide bowl at the same time. Jack flashed her a worried glance before working with her to follow their example. Ever since his experiences on Argos, he'd been a little paranoid about off-world food and drink. But the team often didn't get to be choosy.
Sipping simultaneously from the same cup was awkward, especially given their tangled grip on the chalice. It didn't feel as if there was enough room for their arms, elbows, and shoulders, and they had to press their cheeks together, and it wasn't easy to tip the bowl in tandem, so that they drank without spilling. The wine was cool and strong.
Rattling noises began all around them. It was the satyrs. "Drain the Loving Cup!" they yelled. They began to prance around the tables, shaking their rattles. "Drain the cup!" they repeated. In keeping with his role, Teal'c moved to the front of the table. But he didn't prance, and he shook his phallic rattle with a severe lack of enthusiasm. The contrast between his body language and the expression of demented lust on his mask nearly made Sam snort wine up her nose. "Drain the cup. Face your folly!" yelled the satyrs. Interesting wedding ceremony, though Sam.
The satyrs returned to their stations behind the love seats. She and Jack drained their cup as ordered, and replaced it on the table. To either side of them, couples who had finished the wine were sitting back down. The men and women were smiling, making eyes at one other, and conversing in low, excited voices. She and Jack sat down as well, but not with the bubbling sense of anticipation that had infected the other couples. Sam felt leaden, and even the touch of Jack's thigh against hers brought little comfort. Jack showed no expression, and his body was very still, as if drained of energy. Then he reached beneath the table, and took her hand. The gesture made her eyes sting.
Sam gazed up at the luminous starburst on the ceiling, trying to get herself under control. She couldn't afford to lose it. None of the other newlyweds were crying.
The golden starburst seemed to expand, sending shards of scintillation across her vision and pulling her within a protective ball of light. Her awareness contracted down to the feel of Jack's hand enclosing hers – large, calloused, and precious. Then she became keenly aware of his warmth beside her, and his wonderfully masculine scent.
Sam turned and looked. The sight of Jack sent a shockwave through her mind and body. She shivered, drinking in every detail of him with joyful fascination. She loved his muscular forearms and lean chest. She loved the hollows under his cheekbones, the grooves beside his mouth, the scar in his left eyebrow. She loved his meltingly brown, long-lashed eyes. She loved his salt-and-pepper hair, so aptly crowned by a wreath of leaves. He was Caesar, he was Alexander the Great, he was every conqueror of all worlds.
Jack smiled at her – that lopsided, shining-eyed smile she loved so much. "Your crown is crooked," he said. God, she loved his voice. Then the meaning of the words penetrated, and she reached up to adjust the wreath of flowers on her head.
But Jack caught her wrist in this long fingers. "No, don't," he softly begged. "Please. It's perfect." His face was so open, so full of wonder.
A frisson swept through her, making her scalp and limbs tingle. Her hand slid down into his, and their fingers caressed. Jack loosened his grip on her other hand, playfully wiggling his fingers in hers. She giggled, and he grinned at her, looking unreservedly happy – as he so seldom did. Sam blinked back tears at the sight. There was an invisible string stretching from her heart to his, and it was tugging at her, inexorably drawing her body toward his. Her mind felt weightless and full of light, almost ready to float away, but the tight sensation in her groin kept it anchored.
Sam let go of Jack's hands, greedily reaching for more of him. One hand clutched at his tunic, while the other curled around the nape of his neck. His arms went around her at the same time, enclosing her in his warm strength. Their mouths came together urgently, tongues dueling and teeth scraping. Sam gasped and pulled back a little, wanting to savor the taste of him. Their kisses became gentler, more playful and exploratory; while, at the same time, their bodies pressed together more tightly. Her hard nipples rubbed against his chest.
Sam's mind went white, empty of everything but the feel of Jack's body against hers.
Daniel looked away from his friends' steamy kiss, feeling like a voyeur. Sam and Jack had gazed at one another with naked adoration, and embraced with completely unselfconscious sensuality. God, it was beautiful.
At least one good thing had come out of this screwed up mission! After working so hard for so long to stay inside the lines demanded by duty and honor, Sam and Jack had been given the opportunity to stray outside those lines without violating duty or honor. Because, all down the row of tables, every single couple was kissing, and Sam and Jack had to blend in.
But then Daniel glanced back at his friends, and found himself frowning in consternation. To see them expressing their love like that was wonderful, and yet… why did he have the feeling something wasn't quite right?
He scanned the line of couples. Some of them were making out in a relatively restrained fashion, while others were getting… um, pretty unrestrained. But there was a sameness to the way every person was so completely focused on his or her partner. Daniel had the sense that each couple had retreated into their own little universe.
There was a loud clatter. Daniel turned toward the sound, and saw that one of the couples had knocked the golden chalice off their table. They were attacking one another hungrily. The man yanked at the woman's tunic, exposing her left breast, and fastened his mouth on it. Daniel felt his jaw drop as the woman climbed into the man's lap, her face slack with desire. It looked as if they were about to do it right there, and he'd thought the Ellasans didn't approved of public sexual intercourse. Were the normal rules suspended during this ceremony?
But the satyr and Eros standing behind the couple quickly moved in. The satyr grabbed the man, the Eros grabbed the woman, and they pulled the couple apart. The man struggled against the satyr, but not very effectively. It was as if he was so focused on his partner that he couldn't spare any attention for the man who was preventing him from reaching her. The woman hissed in frustration and flailed against the Eros who held her, but in a similarly ineffective manner.
Two of the young men in green set their baskets on the floor, and began to help the satyr and Eros. Between the four of them, they physically carried the man and woman across the domed expanse, to the golden curtains on the other side. The curtains between the central pair of columns stood open, having admitted the basket-bearers and priestesses, but all the others were still drawn.
The Eros parted one of the closed pairs of curtains, revealing a square cubicle defined by more golden drapes at the back and sides. Within this curtained cubicle was a bed. The satyr and his helpers shoved the couple toward the bed, and the Eros hastily closed the curtains.
As the randy couple was hustled behind the curtains, the priestesses watched. So did many of the people standing near the arc of columns. But not one of the people seated at the tables so much as glanced at the commotion. And that included Sam and Jack. Oh, hell, thought Daniel.
"O'Neill. MajorCarter." Teal'c didn't raise his voice, as that would attract attention, but the alarm in his tone told Daniel that he, too, had realized they were in an altered state of consciousness.
There was no response from Jack or Sam; Teal'c's voice didn't seem to have registered. All that came from them was continued smooching, groping, and heavy breathing.
"Jack!" hissed Daniel. "Sam! Snap out of it!" He started to reach for Jack's shoulder, but realized it would look out-of-place for an Eros to disturb one of the couples. So, instead, he leaned a little closer and said, "Jack, you've got to listen to me. Your behavior is endangering us all."
Jack twitched, as if shaking off an insect. But that was it. An image came into Daniel's head, of Teal'c and himself trying to drag an obliviously amorous Sam and Jack to the Stargate. As if our prospects for escape weren't already dim enough, he thought.
He looked at Teal'c. He couldn't see Teal'c's eyes, just the satyr's bugged-out ones, but he knew Teal'c was looking back. "It appears the cup contained something more than wine," came Teal'c's voice, issuing one of his gravely-delivered statements of the obvious from around the satyr's lolling tongue.
Daniel grimaced and nodded. "We know the Ellasans have some very sophisticated drugs." His guts churned with worry. Just because a drug was in customary ceremonial use didn't necessarily mean it was safe. However, given the advanced state of the Ellasans' pharmacological science, it could probably be assumed that the health risks were small. "But," Daniel went on, his gaze returning to the Ellasans around them, "what kind of drug was it?"
"A powerful aphrodisiac," said Teal'c, his tone indicating he thought that self-evident. "It would seem the Ellasans believe in enhancing the pleasures of the wedding night through chemical means."
Daniel watched as the randy couple's Eros set the fallen chalice back on its table, and then took a sprig of myrtle from one of the helpers' baskets and placed it in the chalice. Daniel had already observed that the baskets held myrtle, which was sacred to Aphrodite; sheaves of grain, which symbolized Demeter; and pine cones, which were associated with Dionysus. Some of the pine cones were charred and blackened, while others were dusted with gold.
Daniel's brow furrowed. "Something tells me it's not that simple, Teal'c."
A second feverishly aroused couple was taken behind the curtains, and then a third, and then a few more. One of these couples was less frenzied than the others. The man and woman laughed and teased as they reached for one another, and even being held apart didn't turn them into snarling maniacs. Daniel noted with interest that both a sprig of myrtle and a sheaf of grain were placed in their cup.
But not all the pairs had to be hustled off to the "bedrooms." Many were engrossed in intimate conversations. Jack was nuzzling Sam's neck, while murmuring things that made her giggle. And some couples didn't look as if they'd be sharing a bed any time soon. Their voices were becoming heated, their expressions angry or distressed.
The female member of one of these pairs abruptly stood up and glared at her partner. "You bastard!" she cried. "I knew it would come to this!"
Her partner smirked at her. "And yet, you still wanted to marry me. So, what have you got to complain about?"
The woman's face contorted with rage. She shrieked and launched herself at the man, her fingers stiff and curled, as if she wanted to claw him to shreds. But the satyr caught her and pulled her away. She struggled, shouting incoherently, her eyes never leaving her partner. When he stood and contemptuously turned his back on her, she screamed in pain and fury. The satyr hauled her away, while a young man in green escorted her partner in the other direction. Meanwhile, the Eros took a charred pine cone from one of the baskets and placed it in the couple's golden chalice.
The madness that destroys, thought Daniel, remembering the words of the Dionysian priestess. Insight flared through his mind in one of those numinous bursts that made the pursuit of knowledge so exhilarating. "Incredible!" he breathed. "The Loving Cup. I think it…"
"DanielJackson," interrupted Teal'c, "more people are entering from the other side of the dome."
Pulling himself back into his physical surroundings, Daniel saw that several men and women in white robes were coming out of the central opening in the curtains. Behind them, deeper inside the passageway, he caught a glimpse of a small figure in purple and gold.
An electric shock seemed to hit his brain. It was the teenaged tyrant herself! They were caught! But then his mind flashed on their relative positions. SG-1's table was off to one side of the arc of columns, and Sam and Jack were turned toward one another, faces partly hidden by their caressing hands. And Teal'c was masked.
On the other hand, he was just standing there. Daniel hastily ducked behind the table, pretending to adjust the laces on his sandal.
"Queen Maea has entered the temple," came Teal'c's stoic report. "She is accompanied by four Guardsmen."
"What's she doing?" hissed Daniel, feeling as if he were stuck in a Marx Brothers movie.
"She is speaking to the three priestesses." After a pause, Teal'c said, "They are all moving toward the far end of the row of tables." And then, "They have stopped before the first table. I believe you should stand now, DanielJackson. The Queen has her back to us. If you remain in your present position for too long, you will draw the attention of the Guardsmen stationed at the doors behind us."
Daniel stood up, trying not to cringe visibly. He kept expecting someone to sound the alarm, but nothing happened. The Queen, her Guardsmen, and the people in white robes – including the original three priestesses – were all standing in a clump at the far end of the arc of tables. They seemed to be asking questions of the satyr and Eros at the first table.
The couple at that table were talking and cuddling happily. The priestess of Demeter took a sheaf of grain from a basket, and placed in their cup. Then, the Queen and her party moved to the next table.
"They're working their way down the row," said Daniel. "I think they're doing final assessments of the couples. The Queen must be here in a ceremonial capacity, as the chosen of the gods. She's bound to see us eventually."
"I believe you are correct," said Teal'c.
"Is that all you have to say?"
"Yes," said Teal'c.
Daniel grimaced in frustration. "I can't think of a way out of this, either. Anything we did would just get us noticed sooner. We're trapped."
He glanced at Sam and Jack, who had stopped talking to concentrate on more tactile forms of communication. Their bodies were rubbing together rhythmically as they kissed, and Sam's hand had strayed under Jack's tunic. How would Maea react when she saw that?
Wait a minute… Sam and Jack were getting seriously physical.
"Teal'c," he said, "we can take Sam and Jack behind the curtains. That's what our roles would be at this point. I'll keep my back to the Queen, and we'll make sure Sam and Jack are facing away from her, too. We'll get across the temple as quickly as we can, draw the curtains… and then keep going. Run for the back exit."
Teal'c turned toward him, his expression hidden behind the mask. But, knowing Teal'c, his expression wouldn't have revealed much, anyway. "We cannot hide our faces from the Queen and the Guardsmen at the front door at the same time. I believe we would be recognized before we reached the curtains."
"Probably. But would you rather just stand here until…"
Sam moaned – a low, drawn-out sound that ended in a sob. It was a moan of anguish, not desire.
Startled, Daniel saw that Sam had pushed away from Jack. Her eyes were enormous and full of tears, and her eyebrows and mouth formed two chevrons of grief. Sam's face had become like one of the masks used in Classical Greek drama: the one that still symbolized Tragedy.
"Sam?" asked Jack, his face mirroring her distress. "What is it?" There was a note of resignation in Jack's voice, as if he already knew and feared the answer.
Sam shook her head. Her mouth worked, trying to find words. "I'm sorry, Jack," she finally gasped. "I just… it just…." Her attempt to speak ended in another sob. Tears ran down her face.
She looked so frightened. And so young, somehow. Sam was only thirteen when her mother died, remembered Daniel.
Loss. Too enormous to comprehend. As crushing as a ten-ton block of granite.
Daniel took a deep breath and blinked rapidly, pushing the memories aside. He was better able to deal with the trauma of his parents' death now. But once, before meeting Sha're and Jack, he had locked it all away. And a huge chunk of his heart had been locked away with it.
He looked at Sam, and understood the fear in her eyes. But he'd always understood, hadn't he? It was one of the things they had in common, one of the reasons they both loved the pursuit of knowledge. That love wasn't mortal. It could never be taken away from you.
Jack's shoulders slumped, and his expression went blank. "It's okay, Sam. I don't blame you," he said, in that soft, clear voice he used when he was in anguish. His mouth twisted. "I wouldn't want me, either."
Jack had folded in on himself so completely that his body actually looked smaller. Before, his attention had been focused solely on Sam; but now, he seemed as oblivious of her as of the rest of his surroundings. "I don't deserve you, anyway," he whispered.
Daniel was extremely alarmed. He hadn't seen that dead look on Jack's face since their first mission to Abydos. He wanted to reach out to Jack, and felt a stab of panic as he realized he couldn't.
But the one person who could had seen Jack's pain, too. Daniel watched as Sam's focus shifted to him, freeing her from her miasma of anxiety. She grabbed Jack's shoulders and shook him. "No!" she cried. "Don't be an idiot! You deserve everything I could give you – and so much more. Don't you see? The problem is me, not you. I'm scared."
Jack grimaced. "Of me," he said. "I can see it in your eyes. You're terrified of me."
"Because I love you so damn much!" yelled Sam.
They both froze, giving one another stunned stares. It was as if someone had just knocked each of them over the head.
Off in the distance, a young voice shouted, "It's them!"
Tearing his attention away from Sam and Jack, Daniel looked up to see Queen Maea pointing at them. The rest of her party were turning toward SG-1. The priests looked confused. The Guardsmen were reaching for their guns.
Daniel pressed his lips together in annoyance, realizing that the prospect of imprisonment was no longer his top concern. It seemed unimportant compared to what was happening between his friends.
A hand clamped on Daniel's arm. He turned to find that the hand belonged to Henitius, one of the Guardsmen who'd been at the door. Daniel frowned at him. "Couldn't this wait?" he asked.
There was a thump. Daniel turned the other way, and saw that Teal'c had knocked a Guardsman to the floor, losing the satyr head in the process. Henitius's other two colleagues were struggling to restrain him. A flash of movement drew Daniel's attention back to Henitius in time to see him raise his gun toward Teal'c. Daniel knocked the gun out of his hand, and began to grapple with him.
"Stop!" shouted a deep female voice. "In the name of the Most High, I command you to stop at once!" It was priestess of Demeter.
"Don't shoot them!" added a higher female voice. It was the Queen.
Henitius froze, so Daniel did as well. "Teal'c!" called Daniel. "Stop fighting!" Teal'c threw him a frustrated glance but subsided, allowing the two Guardsmen to grip him by the arms.
The priestess of Demeter picked up her skirts and ran toward them, her two sister priestesses on her heels. The Queen was behind them, surrounded by her four bodyguards. The rest of the white-robed group followed in confusion, and the basket-bearers and satyrs and love gods stood around gaping at it all.
But the red-and-blue couples, of course, paid no attention whatsoever. Sam and Jack continued to commune in silence, their gazes speaking volumes.
The priestess of Demeter pounded to a halt before their table, her matronly cheeks flushed and conical hat askew. She looked at the Guardsmen who had taken hold of Daniel and Teal'c and said, "Let go of them! The Supplicants' friends are as sacred as they are. Would you offend the Most High?"
"But, Your Holiness," protested Henitius, "these people aren't Ellasans."
"That doesn't matter," she said sternly. "It's obvious this couple are true Supplicants."
"Can't you see the Loving Cup has taken effect on them?" interjected the priestess of Aphrodite. "They were meant to be here."
"You mustn't interrupt them," added the priestess of Dionysius. "Especially not now. It's clear this couple is past the infatuation stage. The Cup is bringing the foundations of their love to the surface, forcing them to confront their deepest hopes and fears. The sacred drama must be allowed to play out."
Henitius seemed uncertain. He looked toward the girl in royal purple who stood behind the priestesses. So did the other Guardsmen.
Queen Maea stepped forward. Her small form was weighed down by thick gold necklaces, large gold earrings, and a tall, filigreed tiara studded with diamonds. Almost lost amid the glitter was an unremarkable face still softened by baby fat. But the mouth had a stubborn set to it, and the eyes held intelligence.
Just then, Sam and Jack came together in a tender embrace. Sam let out a contented sigh and snuggled against Jack's shoulder. Jack buried his face in Sam's hair, completely unaware of the royal audience.
Daniel held his breath, certain the Ellasan monarch was about to turn into a drama queen, but Maea's dignified demeanor did not change. "It's true," she said. "They are in the grip of the Cup. And if they're still embracing like this…" Maea sighed. "He must love her very much."
Lightheaded with relief, Daniel said, "I'm glad you realize that, Your Majesty. And," he added quickly, "I know that Jack is sorry for whatever distress he may have caused you. We're all sorry. We hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us." Daniel winced inwardly, knowing he was asking for a lot. In addition to the original offense, their Ellasan rap sheet now included jail break, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer.
Maea gave him a wry look. "I doubt Jack is the least bit sorry about anything he said to me. I'm the one who owes all of you an apology." She sounded amazingly adult. "I shouldn't have thrown you in prison. I can see that now. It's just that Colonel O'Neill was so disrespectful that he made me quite angry, and… and…" She stopped, and all the adult dignity fled. Suddenly, she seemed like a girl playing dress up in her mother's clothes. "Jack yelled at me!" she whined. "I was afraid he'd leave and never come back." Maea's young face crumpled. "I went to the prison to tell Jack I was sorry, and let you all go, but you were already gone! I didn't want you to get back to Earth before I could fix things with Jack." Pulling herself up straighter, she regained her regal bearing and said, "You've all been pardoned. You're free to go where you choose. But I hope you will return to the Palace as my guests, so that we can continue to discuss an alliance between our peoples."
Daniel raised his eyebrows. "Thank you, Your Majesty. We are certainly very interested in establishing good relations between Earth and Ellas."
"Provided we have your word you will not throw us in prison again," added Teal'c.
"I promise, that's all in the past," the Queen told him. She turned to Daniel, her expression becoming uncertain again. "Jack won't be mad at me anymore, will he?" She looked at Sam and Jack, who were still locked in each other's arms, but had begun to exchange slow, burning kisses. "I mean, he's going to be in a really good mood now, don't you think? With this marriage and everything. I have a very nice pavilion in the mountains that I can lend him, so he and his new wife can enjoy some time alone. Do you think he'd like that?"
Daniel's eyebrows twitched as he realized Teal'c had been right. Maea's crush on Jack was based on filial feelings, not romantic ones. And, as Teal'c had also said, "Young people often test those from whom they desire parental guidance. Not willfully, but by instinct." Jack had been tested, and had passed. As long as he gave her the fatherly attention she craved, Maea wouldn't be jealous of Sam.
So, Queen Maea was anxious to get back into Jack's good graces. She was looking for ways to please him.
A huge light bulb went on in Daniel's head.
"That's a very kind offer, Your Majesty," said Daniel. "But I'm afraid the authorities back on Earth may not allow Sam and Jack to enjoy a honeymoon. They may not be willing to recognize this as a valid marriage."
"What?" cried the priestess of Demeter. "A marriage that has been proven by the Loving Cup is the most valid of all!"
"Earth's authorities are likely to argue that Sam and Jack didn't intend to get married," explained Daniel. "And that's true. We were trying to… um… correct our misunderstanding with the Palace. We just stumbled into this ceremony."
The matronly priestess frowned. "But wasn't this couple already engaged?"
"Or at least lovers?" asked the priestess of Aphrodite.
"No. You see, by the laws of our military, Sam and Jack are barred from becoming romantically involved."
"We fight the Goa'uld," said Teal'c. "Neither O'Neill nor MajorCarter would abandon a vital post, in a desperate war, for the sake of personal gratification. They are both true warriors."
Daniel knew that what Teal'c said was true. And yet, on some level, his friends must have felt a certain relief that regulations stood in their way. As revealed by the Loving Cup, each had harbored deep-seated fears about their love.
"It doesn't matter whether they had the conscious intent to marry," said the priestess of Demeter. "The Loving Cup has revealed that marriage was the most profound desire of their hearts. Furthermore, it has proven that their love has the qualities necessary to make a marriage succeed. For if they remain loving friends at this stage, steadfast in their commitment, that shows they have Demeter's blessing. And Demeter's blessing alone is sufficient to sustain a marriage."
The priestess of Aphrodite lifted an eyebrow and smiled as she watched Jack and Sam. Their embraces were unhurried, but intensely sensual. An almost palpable erotic charge was building between them. "I believe they enjoy Aphrodite's blessing as well," she said. "Which cannot sustain a marriage by itself. But, when combined with Demeter's blessing, it is a great boon."
"And," said the priestess with the pine cone on her staff, "they have avoided the curse of Dionysius."
Though it was a near thing, thought Daniel. "What about the blessing of Dionysius?" he asked. "The madness that liberates?"
"Ah, that is a great gift indeed. But the god gives it only rarely."
"What if," said Daniel, "there were a love that allowed a woman to overcome the trauma of losing her mother at an early age, and of feeling alienated from an emotionally distant father? What if this same love also allowed a guilt-ridden man, a man who blamed himself for his son's death, to finally forgive himself? Would that count?"
The priestess of Dionysius looked at Sam and Jack in wonder. "Amazing," she breathed.
"I begin to appreciate the nature of this Loving Cup," said Teal'c. "It is most astonishing. I take it that, on Ellas, any marriage that survives the wedding night will not fail thereafter."
The ivy-crowned priestess smiled wistfully, and shook her head. "I'm afraid not. Few lovers dare test themselves through the Cup. For, while in its grip, you can hide nothing. Not from your loved one, or from your friends, or from yourself. No, most couples prefer to let their marriage be tried by Time, in the ordinary manner. Even though the pain of failure is likely to be greater that way."
"Would the three of you be willing to tell Earth's authorities what you just told us?" Daniel asked the priestesses. "Do you think you could convince them this is a real marriage?"
"I should hope so!" cried the priestess of Demeter, sounding affronted. "Do you have any idea how rare it is for a couple to be blessed by Demeter, Aphrodite, and Dionysius?"
"So," said Daniel, giving the Queen a significant look, "I take it Ellas would be offended if Earth failed to recognize Sam and Jack's marriage."
Queen Maea's eyes narrowed in understanding. "Definitely. Ellas would be very offended."
Daniel drew a satisfied breath, and smiled at Teal'c. Teal'c smiled in return, his face suffused with quiet elation.
Teal'c understood what this meant just as well as Daniel did, because Daniel had helped him bone up on Air Force regulations regarding inappropriate relationships between officers. Given the impact those regulations were having on the other two members of their SG-1 family, it was natural to take an interest. So, they both knew that married officers were permitted to work together. Even if one were in the other's direct line of command, arrangements could be made for a different officer to have supervisory authority over the subordinate spouse. The problem in Sam and Jack's case had always been that, if they got married, they would be prosecuted for the courtship that led up to the marriage.
But if alien drugs had made them do it, that whole Catch-22 situation didn't apply. And diplomatic pressure from Ellas would ensure the Air Force saw reason. Therefore, this Loving Cup marriage would allow Jack and Sam to be together without breaking up SG-1.
Sam moaned. This time, it was definitely a moan of desire.
The priestess of Dionysius looked up from Sam and Jack's chalice, where she had just placed a gilded pine cone next to the sheaf of grain and sprig of myrtle left by the other two priestesses. "I believe it's time to escort your friends behind the golden curtains," she said.
"It will be our honor," said Teal'c.
Daniel smiled happily. He could get used to playing Cupid.