Disclaimer: Everything belongs to MGM.

Author's note: This behemoth is all about rape and recovery. I sugar coat nothing. It gets explicit, it gets uncomfortable, it gets damn hard to read. But the ending is hopeful, especially to anyone who has ever survived similar assault. Oh, and it's 'ship. Complete and unabashed 'ship.

Warnings: Contains explicit rape scenes, swearing, and references to suicide, self-injury and disordered eating. …And arguments over breakfast cereal. Just in case anyone is morally opposed to Coco Puffs…

Rating: MA

Spoilers: Ya know, I think I wrote a novella and didn't once mention an actual SG ep. Weird.

Grammatical Nuances: I purposefully split some of the larger paragraphs up to make it easier to read. Nothing scares my ADD brain away from a story faster than a continuous barrage of text on the screen.


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Alea Iacta Est

Part I:

Deconstruction

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"Chevron six engaged." The stargate roared on towards the defining glyph, surging as the chevron locked into place. "Chevron seven…locked." The horizon coursed towards the members of SG-1, billowing with the energy of time, space, and density.

"SG-1, you have a go." General Hammond's voice clipped over the speakers.

Colonel O'Neill dug his sunglasses from out of his pocket and placed them securely on his head. "Let's go, campers." He dutifully led the way up the grate and stepped through the horizon, followed in turn by Daniel and Carter. However, instead of glittering lakes and lush forests, or even sweltering desert wasteland and ancient sandstone structures, P3X-275 greeted them with three foreign words torn from the throat of an unseen foe:

"Alea iacta est!"

The world shuddered then and grew infinitely black.

---------------------------------------------

Colonel O'Neill became aware of his head first and immediately wished for a couple of Tylenol. Then, as the rest of his body began to check in with their various cerebral headquarters, he would have given his right arm for an entire bottle of Tylenol. Scratch that, he thought. Morphine. He attempted to lift his head and open his eyes in order to survey his surroundings, but the muscles involved with such movement clenched and pulsed in vehement opposition. He groaned and decided that for the time being, movement was highly overrated. Yup, whole IV of morphine... His brain lapsed then, sending him again into swirling darkness.

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He was not certain how long he spent sprawled on the ground attempting to regain control of his senses, but he was quite certain that circumstances were foreboding and the probability of imprisonment high. Clothing rustled against flesh and he became aware of another individual in the nearby vicinity.

He heard Daniel's raspy groan, followed by an exclamation that came off sounding more like a plea. "Ow."

"Yeah..." O'Neill winced as he again attempted the odious task of lifting his head. This time, however, his body was much more cooperative, allowing him to not only raise his head, but gingerly sit as well. Things were looking up.

He rubbed his eyes, attentive to their sudden sensitivity and cautiously opened their lids. "Lights?" he asked into the darkness, "Anyone?"

"Pre-electric."

"Bless you."

"Prior to electricity."

"What?"

"No electricity, Jack."

"Oh."

Eventually he grew accustomed to the dim environment and was able to ascertain the dimensions of their cell and the thick metal beams that crisscrossed the only visible exit. Weak firelight drifted in from several yards away, its source unseen but welcome. The chamber was large for a cell, 6 meters by 8 meters if he had to guess. Straw littered the ground, providing them with a modicum of cushion against the rough stone floor. O'Neill squinted into the dark recesses of the room endeavoring to make out the shape of his third team member.

Daniel coughed then and tentatively pulled himself up to lean heavily against the wall. "I take it this planet isn't abandoned, then."

"Ya think?" O'Neill muttered quickly. "Carter over there?" O'Neill grimaced as he forced himself to physically check the back of the cell for any sign of his missing officer. "Carter?" he called, his concern mounting.

"She isn't over here, Jack." Daniel was on his knees now, rustling through the straw along with O'Neill.

"Shit." O'Neill sat down heavily and felt Daniel's weight settle about a foot away from him. He massaged his temples briefly. "I'm assuming that our gear and weapons have been confiscated by the people who supposedly abandoned P3X..."

"275. Yup." Daniel nodded. "I would assume so." Groaning slightly, the doctor stood and walked slowly to the bars, tapping them quickly before putting any substantial weight on them.

"What do you see?"

Daniel slowly scanned the premises. "Lots and lots of rock."

"Rock?"

"Yep." Daniel turned toward him. "Granite, or something of similar composition."

"Fantastic." O'Neill stood with surprising ease. Apparently the effects of whatever hit them were wearing off with greater speed. He strode over to the gate and wrapped his fingers around two of the bars. He pulled them inward, testing their resiliency, and was met with a low, sharp jolt of electricity. Yelping, he leapt back from the gate. Looking up at Daniel, he pointed to the bars.

"Electricity!"

Daniel had the decency to looked slightly abashed. "Apparently."

Glowering at Daniel, O'Neill turned his palms upward, inspecting them for injury. Finding none, he shook his hands briskly at his sides. "Did you see any guards, people, signs of intelligent life?"

Daniel shook his head. "Nope. I don't even think there are any more cells in the vicinity. This seems to be the only one." His met O'Neill's gaze, concern washing his eyes. "What do you think they did with Sam?"

O'Neill looked out into their captor's hallway and swallowed hard, his professional detachment firmly in place. "I don't know. She might not have made it through the gate. And if she did, maybe she got back to base in time to avoid being captured."

Daniel nodded and followed O'Neill's gaze. "Yeah, maybe."

He did not sound convinced.

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O'Neill awoke several hours later to hushed whispers. He blinked open his eyes and saw Daniel huddled on the ground by the gate in the corner. "Daniel? Wha…?" Light scuffling ensued followed by Daniel's quiet reassurances.

"No, no. It's all right. It's okay. He's a friend." The doctor was focused on something in the hallway, something that apparently O'Neill's movement had frightened.

O'Neill sat up. "Daniel, who are you talking to?"

Daniel turned to him and said, "Jack, this is Ra'ho."

The colonel was now on his feet peering over Daniel's shoulder. Huddled by the outside corner of the cell was a small boy, not more than ten years old. Clothed in rough dark cloth and topped with a long, ragged mop of dark brown hair, the boy looked up at him with large brown eyes and shyly bowed his head.

Daniel continued, "He brought us this," indicating to a small parcel wrapped in a large cloth. Opening it, O'Neill found a loaf of dense bread and a flask of water.

"Cool," he said, looking at the provisions. Turning to the boy, he smiled slightly, lowering himself to the balls of his feet. "Thanks, kid." Ra'ho returned the smile, his eyes gleaming now, and again bowed slightly to O'Neill. He looked at Daniel. "How long you been chatting?"

"Probably about twenty minutes. I had just woken up when he came with the package."

O'Neill shifted, lowering his voice. "Did he tell you anything about Carter?"

Daniel cleared his throat. "I was just about to ask him." He turned his attention back to Ra'Ho. Gesticulating to clarify his foreign tongue to the boy, he asked him, "The other one?" Daniel pointed to himself, then to O'Neill, and finally to a vacant spot beside the colonel before shrugging his shoulders slightly, his face a question.

Ra'ho looked quickly at the floor and eventually, reluctantly nodded. "Malkna," he whispered, his voice heavy and quite sad. The boy's eyes met Daniel's again and this time they were edged with tears, a gaze that caused Daniel's stomach to fold over into tight knots. The boy spoke again. "Malkna proeri toi mukanu."

Daniel held up his hands. "Whoa. Slow down."

O'Neill, impatient, whispered, "What was that?"

"I have no idea. I've never encountered this language before. It's not derived from anything of Earth origin as far as I can tell." He turned back to the boy. "Malkna?"

Ro'ha nodded. "Malkna. Malkna proeri toi mukanu," he said and then looked hard at Daniel. Seeing Daniel's lack of comprehension, the boy sighed and pursed his lips, thinking. Then, haltingly, as if speaking words that he had only heard once before, he whispered, "Alea iacta est."

Daniel's eyebrows furrowed and he began muttering to himself, his eyes suddenly glazed over.

O'Neill sighed, his frustration evident. "Daniel," he whispered harshly.

Daniel looked over at him. "The die is cast."

"What?"

The doctor glanced sidelong at the boy, "Alea iacta est. The die is cast. It's Latin, but I don't know what it has to do with anything."

"Malkna proeri toi mukanu," the boy repeated with increased enthusiasm.

"Yeah, you said that," Daniel replied. "But I don—." He was interrupted by the sound of a gate opening, a weighty latch being lifted. Heavy footfalls echoed down the corridor, and a whispered string of a foreign tongue rambled from the small boy's lips. Daniel looked at Ra'ho who was staring wide-eyed down the hallway.

"Malkna," the boy whispered and hastily scurried out of sight.

Both Daniel and O'Neill focused on the uniform march headed towards them. The footsteps grew steadily closer until six heavily armed guards stood outside their cell. The most decorated and highest ranking man spoke something unintelligible and thrust his palm at the prisoners. The result was instantaneous. O'Neill and Daniel flew backwards against the far wall and fell to the ground in two bedraggled heaps. The captain swiftly opened the gate and stepped aside to allow two of his men to deposit the guards' burden. With tenderness belying their bulk, they gingerly laid the naked, breathing body on the section of floor where the straw was the thickest, the most comfortable. After bowing slightly to the most recent of the imprisoned, they took their leave, the captain closing the gate and locking it securely behind them.

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Gradually consciousness seeped back to O'Neill, filling him with numbed awareness. Recalling his last encounter with this race, he pried his eyes open, hesitantly at first; when no pain met his movement, he sat up and shook his head lightly from side to side. "I really hate that thing," he muttered. He caught sight of a glistening white body laying where Daniel had been attempting to speak with Ra'ho; his heart quickened and his brain was overrun by the excruciating pressure of his pulse. Promptly his feet were under him and he crossed the cell in three strides, falling heavily to his knees beside the body, naked and sallow in the dim light.

"Carter," he breathed. "God…" Her hair hung matted against her face and fingerprint bruises dotted her arms and torso, their surfaces raised and colors deepening. Pressing his fingers to the base of her neck, he noted her pulse steady, yet a bit weak. He watched her chest rise and fall in shallow, rapid succession and bent an ear over her mouth to listen for abnormalities. There were none and he thanked the heavens for it. Now that he was relatively certain that she was no longer in immediate danger, anger frothed in the pit of his stomach and wound itself tightly around his chest.

"Oh, God…" Daniel was awake and kneeling next to him. His mouth opened again, but words refused escape. He scanned the bruises on Carter's body while O'Neill whipped the large cloth from around their provisions, sending the loaf and cask flying. The colonel was about to cover her nakedness with the fabric when Daniel stopped him. "Jack...?" Daniel was peering between Carter's upper thighs, his face slackened, his eyes bitterly cold.

No… he thought distantly as his brain quickly calculated the result of the contusions, her state of undress, and Daniel's reaction, his eyes closing painfully as the answer filtered down through his consciousness and into undeniable reality. Daniel moved over as O'Neill advanced and stooped beside him, his jaw and fists tightening as his eyes confirmed what his brain had already deduced. Congealed blood clung to the skin of Carter's inner thighs, painting her porcelain skin a hideous reddish brown. Beyond the crusted fluids, her tissues were speckled with purple bruises, indicative of severe, forcible battering.

"Goddammit," O'Neill muttered, his eyes flashing dangerously as he forced his anger to the back of his throat and swallowed harshly. Shifting his focus back to her face, he covered her with the cloth, his fingers lingering on the cool skin of her cheekbone as his gaze softened, wavering in the dim light, and then gently scooped her into his arms.

Silently, his movements heavy with anger, Daniel followed him to the back corner of their cell where the light was dimmest. After piling the surrounding straw into the rough size of a cot, he spotted Carter's head as O'Neill slowly lowered her onto the makeshift bed. They both elected to sit a respectful distance away, far enough from her that she would not be overwhelmed by their presence, but close enough to assure her of her safety.

Silence descended on the small room then, broken only occasionally by Carter's strained, shallow breaths.

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She lay still for about an hour during which Colonel O'Neill's eyes never broke their steady gaze on her face, his own taunt with rage. When Carter's eyebrows began to gently furrow, O'Neill sat up, pulling his body away from the wall and into Carter's immediate line of sight. Soft mumbling emanated from her throat, her head shifting slightly towards O'Neill.

"No…"

Daniel glanced at his compatriot, whose jaw was set in a hard line, his fists clenched. The doctor did not blame him and acknowledged the new spring of rage that erupted deep inside his belly.

She woke with a start then, her eyes wide and frantic, her body tensing and immediately compacting itself into a small, defensive semi-circle as her breathing became heavy and labored.

O'Neill shifted slowly from the wall, his hands outstretched and his palms facing her. "Easy, Carter. Easy. It's all right. You're safe," he said soothingly, his voice low.

Her breathing slowed slightly as his voice registered. "S-sir?"

"That's right," he answered, smiling at her from a distance. "That's right. Daniel's here, too." Cocking his head towards the doctor, he watched her eyes dart nervously from him to the man sitting several feet away from the end of her bed and back again. "Is it all right if I come a bit closer?"

He heard her draw a deep breath, her exhalation tremulous and raspy, and then whisper, "Please…" as her hand emerged from the blankets and extended towards him, her fingers quaking uncontrollably. "…Jack…" Her voice cracked, the brightness of her eyes visible even in the dark swath encompassing her. In that moment, every rule, every regulation, every goddamned directive that had kept them professionally at bay for the past five years ceased in their importance and he could not get his arms around her fast enough. Pulling her trembling form across his lap, he held her tightly to his chest, assuring her silently of her security as tearless sobs mercilessly racked her broken body.

God, he could kill. Holding her as she shook hysterically, her professional decorum forgotten, her training obsolete—damn them. Damn the mission.

He could fucking kill.

After she had calmed many long minutes later, her fingers still entrenched in the fabric of his jacket, she whispered, "They'll come again tomorrow."

His arms tightened around her. "We won't let them take you again, Sam."

"You have to."

Eyes widening in disbelief, he looked at her askance. "What?"

She closed her eyes, her chest expanding with the force of a thousand breaths. Looking up at him, her eyes set firmly against his impending protests, she whispered fiercely, "You have to let them take me."

O'Neill's mouth dropped open as his eyes narrowed, his head shaking quickly back and forth. "There is no way I'm just going to sit here and let them ra—"

"Colonel," she said firmly, the strength of her tone catching him off-guard. Taking his face tightly in hand, her eyes burrowing into his with the weight of her severity, she said, "You don't have a choice. If you try and stop them, they'll kill you. If you try and rescue me, they'll kill you. Either way you're dead." Her eyebrow arched as she continued quietly, her tone still quite stern, "And there's no way in hell I am losing you over this."

He stared at her, unable to fathom her reasoning. They had gotten out of supposedly hopeless situations before; how was this any different? "Sam, I--"

But she cut him off. "Promise me that you will not try anything unless Hammond sends reinforcements. They'll let us go as soon as this is all over."

His brow arched at her words. "They told you that?"

"They made it apparent, yes."

He narrowed his eyes, his incredulousness tangible. "And you believed them?"

She sighed, her frustration increasing as the seconds ticked by. "Yes. I believe them. They don't care what happens afterwards just so long as we cooperate now." The severity in her eyes lessened then only to be augmented by an equal measure of desperation. "Please, Jack," she whispered, her eyes pleading with him. "Please promise me."

Suddenly his head was too heavy for his neck to bear its weight any longer and it fell to his chest as his eyes slid tightly closed. She knew exactly what she was asking of him, and knew also that he would despise every moment of his helplessness. You don't have a choice… Dammit, he thought, there's always a choice. But looking back into the frantic, glistening eyes of his second in command, the woman with whom he was so desperately in love, he knew his choice. His choice was to trust her judgment, to trust her.

Silently and with decided reluctance, he nodded. "I promise," he whispered. "But when Hammond sends reinforcements, I'm going to kill every bastard who stands in my way."

She smiled softly. "I know."

Tightening his embrace, he allowed his head to fall back against the wall as she carefully rested her head on his shoulder, drinking in his blessed scent, rich in its warmth and security. Moments later, despite her troubled thoughts and intense dread of the day to come, she began to gradually succumb to the tainted delusions of sleep.

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They awoke to footfalls echoing down the corridor. Instinctively, O'Neill clutched Carter closer to his chest, knowledgeable of the coming fate, yet unwilling to give her up to it.

"Colonel," she whispered, her body tensing incrementally as the guards approached their cell. "You promised…"

His jaw tightened as the import of his promise grew all too apparent as the guards came into view and stood like looming, emotionless drones just beyond the bars. The largest one, bearing the decorations of a higher rank, began to lift his hand, an action that would result in their incapacitation.

"No, wait!" The plea tore from Carter's throat before she even thought to voice it. Turning firm, steady eyes towards O'Neill, she quietly ordered, "Help me up." His eyes closed painfully and a deep sigh tumbled from his lips, but he complied with her demand and helped her to her feet, his fingers tightening around hers before they released her to her fate.

Grimacing, she traveled the length of the cell alone, her steps uneven and deliberate, each one driving a gruesome jolt of pain deep into her lower belly. As she came to the gate, she released the fabric from around her body and allowed it to fall to a puddle at her feet before exiting the chamber and taking her place in the center of the six guards. They turned towards her and bowed slightly before turning back down the corridor at the pace the Malkna set.

O'Neill watched her retreating figure, his face flickering in time with the anguish lapping bitterly in his throat. This was worse than defeat, he thought. Calling to mind Carter's insistence last night, her desperation that bound him to his helplessness, he added, mournfully watching her limping figure fade from view, This is much, much worse than death.

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The attendant gently cleansed the dried discharge from between her legs, the oil soothing and warm against her battered flesh, and she struggled against the urge to break away from them, to fly back to the stargate, far away from this god-forsaken planet. But she did not. She knew what would befall Daniel and Jack should she choose disobedience. That had been made quite clear yesterday after she broke the jaw of one of the guards and attempted to escape.

The attendant's warm hands slipped behind Carter's shoulders and supported her as she slid off of the bed and onto the floor. The young girl seemed surprised that this Malkna required little assistance from her apart from rising initially.

"Malkna."

Carter turned slowly, her stomach suddenly filled with violent dread coupled with fear as the captain stood in the doorway, his arm indicating to the door across from them. She bowed her head slightly and led him into the room that would delude her waking dreams for many years to come.

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She lay in the middle of a stone slab, her wrists and ankles bound to the corners by steel cuffs secured to the altar by thick linked chain. The muscles in her arms and legs had given out long ago, followed closely by the remaining pairs. Eyes unfocused and pulse thready, she did not hear the final man cry out,

Malkna proeri toi mukanu!
Da'Ni'I rekipce roi extanui!
Malkna rekipci roi traegnasiu!
Da'Ni'I libate rai aug expre!

Malkna you stand condemned!
Da'Ni'I hear my plea!
Malkna receive my sin!
Da'Ni'I release me from death!

And neither did she feel him drive his sin into the bloodied folds of her body.

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This time when Daniel and O'Neill heard the guard's footsteps falling towards their chamber, they made certain that they were standing against the back wall when the six men appeared. The captain smiled slightly when he saw their sign of submission and allowed two guards access to the cell, one to carry Carter and the other to keep a weapon trained on the two men. They placed her still body on the makeshift cot that O'Neill had reconstructed earlier in the day in an attempt to reign his growing sense of helplessness, bowed slightly to her bruised body, and left them. Only after the gate was secured and the guards were out of earshot did either of the men dare move.

O'Neill began to cover Carter's body with the cloth, but not before noting the purple-green swells over her breasts and hipbones.

"Daniel!" Ra'ho beckoned from his customary corner. The boy held a small bucket and a handful of old, discarded cloth; he smiled at Daniel triumphantly as the man walked over and shoved the articles through the bars. Ice chips glistened from the depths of the bucket, tiny bits of sawdust clinging to their smooth, melting edges. "Malkna," the boy said, pointing first to the bucket and then to Carter's still body.

Daniel smiled at the young boy and bowed. "Thank you, Ra'ho."

The boy brightened slightly, and returned the bow before scampering off.

Daniel brought the supplies to Carter's side and quickly began constructing ice packs for her wounds, handing them to O'Neill upon their completion. The colonel hesitantly lifted the fabric away from Carter's body and gently placed one of the lighter packs on the swell of Carter's right breast.

The sudden shock of the ice hitting her skin startled Carter into consciousness, but before she could speak, her lungs seized in a violent coughing fit. O'Neill dropped the ice pack and slipped his arm underneath her shoulders, elevating her torso.

"Daniel, grab the flask." Instantly, it was in O'Neill's hand, the unscrewed top dangling down the side. He waited for her coughing to subside enough to enable her to drink safely and tipped the flask to her lips. She drank deeply from the stream of water, cherishing the cool, cleansing sensation coursing down her throat and settling in the pit of her stomach.

"Whoa, Sam," O'Neill warned. "Slow down. Too much and you'll make yourself sick." He frowned when she failed to respond to his gentle reproach. "Sam?" He craned his neck around and tried to catch her gaze. Her large eyes, once bright and sparking with fervor, were now dull and unfocused, her pupils unnaturally dilated until only slivers of blue remained.

O'Neill looked deeply into her eyes, trying to discern any sign of her customary spark. He could not, but that did not mean it was not still present. "Sam," he whispered firmly. "Sam, come on. Come back. Samantha." He began to gently stroke her face, attempting to lure her back into time with them. "Come on. Sam. Please. This is kind of freaking me out, here."

A small groan escaped Carter's throat and her eyes fluttered briefly. She blinked several times before focusing on O'Neill's eyes. He smiled down at her. "There you are."

She smiled painfully back at him.

A flash of brown caught O'Neill's eye. Ra'ho was crouched by the gate, apparently waiting for Daniel. O'Neill indicated to the boy with a quick jerk of his head and mouthed "water" to Daniel. As the doctor strode over to the corner, O'Neill turned his attention back to Cater, too late, apparently, to stop her from drifting off once again. He again clasped the sides of her face in his hands and ran his thumbs across her cheeks.

"Sam, come back. I'm right here. You're safe. Talk to me, Sam. Come on."

Her eyes widened momentarily before she blinked several times and gently shook her head.

"There ya go," O'Neill whispered. "Stay with me, Sam, all right?"

She nodded absently, still not making eye contact with him.

"Sam, look at me," he said, his voice firm. Her eyes did not move. He took her head more firmly in his hands and gently guided her face towards him so that their eyes were perfectly aligned. "Samantha. Look at me. Please." Slowly, her eyes, unfocused and bleary, met his; he could see her attempting to focus on him, but not quite being able to do so. "That's all right, Sam. Just keep trying okay? Stay with me. You're safe right now. You're wi—"

"No," she whispered.

"No?" he asked, his brow creasing slightly.

Her face contorted then, anguished and pained, her eyes closing once again, her face turning away from him. "No…" She continued to whisper the word over and over again, shifting out of his arms and away from him until her nose lay only centimeters away from the wall.

O'Neill moved towards her, and gently brushed the hair away from her face. "No what, Sam?"

She did not acknowledge him, and appeared caught up again in her mantra and the events playing out across the canvas of her mind, her voice growing increasingly louder with each passing moment. Struggling against the confining fabric, she sharply disentangled her arms and pushed his hand away from her head. "No," she cried, her voice crackling with unshed tears.

Suddenly her fist pounded into the biting surface of the wall, the small, sharp crystals gouging the flesh of her hand. She drew in a shuddering breath and opened her eyes, the mantra gone. Slowly she opened her hand and pressed her palm against the wall, reveling in its texture and intrigued by the sensation it caused across the expanse of her skin.

O'Neill watched her carefully, more than a little apprehensive about this new fascination. When he saw the muscles in her upper arm flex as she drug her hand across the rock, he gently wrapped his fingers around her wrist and removed her hand from the wall. Blood filled hairline cuts across the inside of her hand; he winced for her who seemed unable to comprehend what she had just done.

"Sam, no. Look over this way. Look at me." This time Carter appeared to hear him and followed the sound of his voice until he was able to see her eyes. He smiled slightly. "Hey there. Try to focus on me, Sam. I know it's hard, but try."

She drew a ragged breath and closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, they held a new determination, a spark that was not present before. His hand brushed away a stray lock of her hair and came to rest with his fingers curled around her neck, her jaw encased in his palm.

And then she was present; quickly and steadfastly, Carter stared up unto his eyes, her own shadowed by exhaustion and sorrow. But they were hers—unmistakably, beautifully hers. He smiled in relief, thankful to have her with him again. Carter's face relaxed slightly when she saw him, and she allowed her head to loll over into the warmth of his hand.

"What was that?" He asked her quietly.

She shook her head slightly, unable to summon the energy to think, let alone form words.

He nodded. "Tell me later."

She nodded, shifting her face deeper into the palm of his hand.

Slowly, he let go of her jaw and snaked his arms underneath her body. Lifting her easily, he settled her again into his lap, cradling her body delicately and searching for any signs of her discomfort. Detecting none, he wrapped his arms around her, clutching her close to his chest. In the stillness of the cell, he was able to feel her heart beating, clear and strong, and undeniably alive. Gazing down at her still form deeply blanketed by shadow, he silently swore to her that she would survive P3X-275. He was unsure of the formula, but of the result, he was certain: Carter would return home—and these people would not be her undoing.

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Days passed, the three members of SG-1 oblivious to the actual number, yet caring little for it. Guards came every morning to collect their Malkna and returned her at varying times throughout the afternoon and early evening. At least, O'Neill assumed it was the afternoon or early evening—he had no way to be certain. Carter's condition steadily worsened and she eventually refused the refuge that O'Neill had supplied her with since their arrival.

"No," she whispered through lightly clenched teeth as O'Neill began to slide his arm beneath her neck. Resting her hand delicately on his shoulder, her muscles visibly trembling with the effort, she continued, her words half-swallowed in pain. "Please, Jack. Don't…" Her eyelids slid closed then, and her arm fell freely against his chest. Taking her hand in his, he brushed his lips faintly across the back of her fingers. He draped his other arm carefully above her head and lay down next to her, her warmth melding easily with his. Beneath her skin's abhorrent odor of caked sweat and semen simmered her own unique scent, only faintly discernable now.

Sleep well, Sam, he thought, gazing at her unabashedly in the dim light. At least they haven't yet taken that from you.

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"Malkna?"

Daniel glanced over his shoulder into the shaded corner presently concealing both Carter and O'Neill. "Not good," he told Ra'ho, furrowing his eyebrows and shaking his head.

The boy grew very quiet and stared openly into the corner. "She die," he said finally, his tone solemn and tinged with bitterness.

Daniel's eyes grew wide as he considered the implications of his broken English. As far as he could tell, the sentence had one of two meanings. One, Carter was near death or two, these people were intent on killing her. Needing clarification, Daniel shook his head. "No," he said firmly and narrowed his eyes as he watched the boy's reaction.

Ra'ho's eyes darkened and he stared at the floor as his head slowly moved up and down. Yes, he was saying. Yes she will die.

"Oh, not an option," he muttered, his brain clicking rapidly as he sorted through their very limited resources. Suddenly, he glanced up at the boy, cursing for the umpteenth time the communication barriers separating them. "Ra'ho," he said, his voice deliberately pleading, fully aware that emotion was universal, even if language was not. "Help Malkna. Help us."

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Two pairs of hands jolted Carter harshly into wakefulness causing her to gasp audibly, both out of shock and sheer pain. Cold infiltrated her limbs as the fabric was torn from her body and long, muscled arms lifted her from her resting place. They had come to take her again, their strength and knowledge of her weaknesses rendering her core substance, augmented by her years of training, obsolete. Never had she experienced this degree of vulnerability or despondence of this blinding intensity. Her only comfort that they had yet to strip from her was Jack's continued existence.

They had assured her that if she cooperated with them and fulfilled the obligations bound to her by their spiritual writings that they would allow Jack and Daniel to return home unharmed. If the ceremony was fulfilled in its entirety, she would accompany them as well, but as a body only. The ritual demanded that the blood of the Malkna be sprinkled over the heads of the penitent, thereby cleansing them of their transgressions in this life and into the next. The Malkna, according to their spiritual teachings, was condemned to an afterlife of sorrow—the word literally meant "the sorrowed one." While she did not desire an eternity of sorrow, she did not fear it; and if Jack's life would be spared by her sacrifice, so be it. He would never know the underlying reason for his release and, therefore, would be pardoned from that agony.

Glancing over at Jack's face, drawn with fatigue and rounded out by dark stubble, she smiled inwardly. Yes, he would go on. That was enough.

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"I'm damn sick of this."

"Of what?"

O'Neill sighed and raked his fingers through his hair. "Of this, Daniel. The whole blasted situation." Stillness overcame him then, but Daniel could see that O'Neill's mind was still churning through the implications of his last statement. An anguished cry tore from the colonel's throat; before Daniel could do anything, he had curled his fist and thrown a hard jab at the wall. The impact audibly echoed through O'Neill's bones, though he did not seem to notice. Crumpling to the floor, O'Neill buried his face in his hands, feeling as if the world had turned suddenly and grown silent. "I hate being so damned helpless."

Daniel moistened his lips. "We're, uh, not entirely helpless, Jack."

O'Neill looked up at him, his eyebrow arched. "What are you talking about?"

Traversing the cell in two quick strides, Daniel sat down beside the colonel, weighing his next words carefully. "We have a friend," he said at last.

--------------------------------------

"Incoming wormhole," the sergeant called. Turning to the general, he said, "It's from P3X-275, sir."

Hammond glanced down at the screen. "SG-12? They aren't due back for two hours yet."

Johnson looked up at him, his widened eyes belying his calm demeanor. "It's SG-1's IDC, sir."

Hammond's gaze snapped directly to the stargate. "Open the iris." The team had been due back six days ago; he had sent teams to search for them, but thus far all rescue efforts had been unsuccessful.

The Lieutenant nodded and began entering the access sequence. "Yes, sir."

The horizon billowed before them and then eased into quiet ripples. A stunned hush descended upon the room as a small boy, clad in a rough tunic and crowned with thick brown hair, fell through the portal and landed on the platform with a low thud. Quickly finding his feet, the boy faced the confused onlookers, a small circle of material and a metallic string clenched in one hand, and nervously cleared his throat. "H-Hammond?"

Hammond entered the deck in a matter of seconds and approached the boy. "I am Hammond," he said. "And who are you?"

The boy ignored the train of strange words and said simply, "Sam," his eyes obviously troubled and quite desperate. Thrusting the articles towards the general, he added, "Daniel say come now. Follow."

Hammond looked at the objects in his hand—Carter's SGC badge and her dog tags, both bearing traces of blood—Carter's apparently. Glancing quickly from the boy to the control room, Hammond barked, "Johnson, send a message to SG-12. Tell them to meet this boy and teams 3, 6, and 7 at the Stargate in ten minutes." Hammond turned Carter's badge over in his hand several times before meeting the boy's eyes. "I hope we're not too late."

--------------------------------------

Penitents lined the walls of the Passing Room each clothed in a simple shift covering their naked bodies, their heads bowed in muttered prayer. Quiet cascaded over the room as the doors opened to reveal the Malkna cradled in the arms of her chief guardian. Heads bobbed lower in respect as her body passed each one in turn. The guardian laid the Malkna on the smooth stone table and fastened her restraints, chanting,

Malkna etali ke respicai
Toi etali wota amblati notai
Tae magni maganti rui libatei
Malkna, hui rekipei rui traegnasui

Malkna be forever cherished
You will forever walk in night
Your power great to free us
Malkna, now take from us our sin.

Carter felt the weight of the shackles encase her wrists and ankles and willed herself into the narrow space of dreams, readily accepting the numbness that accompanied her delusion. Each muscle loosened in turn, causing her extremities to lay lifeless across the expanse of the table. Slowly she began to descend into conscious unawareness, her mind trekking farther and father away from her body's confines and resultant anguish. It simply was not safe to remain integrated any longer. She would stay here, tucked comfortably between states, in limbo, as the case may be, until it was deemed safe again on the outside.

Yes.

That is exactly what she would do.

------------------------------------------

"Why didn't you tell me that you sent Ra'ho through the gate!" O'Neill's eyes flared brightly, his irritation palpable.

"Uh, well, because he left twenty minutes ago, right before they came for Sam. You weren't in the mood to talk," Daniel pointed out.

O'Neill sighed, conceding his point. "You explained the GDO to him?"

Daniel nodded. "I wrote the address and the IDC down for him with a charred stick on a scrap of cloth he brought me." He smiled dryly. "As long as he doesn't get caught in a downpour, he should be all right."

Grunting slightly at the man's attempt at humor, O'Neill refused to let himself grow too hopeful at the prospect of reinforcements. A ten-year-old alien gating to Earth with only stolen articles as evidence of his credibility…he was not sure the general would buy it. But, then, SG-1 had used such methods of communication before. The delicate pattering of light footfalls descending the corridor beckoned to his attentions then. His heart quickening in anticipation, he muttered, "That ain't the six ugly giants…"

In a matter of seconds Teal'C, Ra'ho, and four other heavily armed officers stood outside their cell. The two prisoners leapt to their feet and stood several feet behind the grate as they grinned down at the beaming boy standing next to Teal'C.

"Way to go, kid," O'Neill enthused. Turning his attention to Teal'C, he said, "Good to see ya, buddy. Now get us the hell out of here."

"Step back," he said as he aimed his staff directly above the cell. After O'Neill and Daniel had cleared a suitable distance, he fired once, sparks spurting in the wake of the blast and cascading rapidly down the front of the enclosure. After a few seconds, the gate shook briefly and then fell open, their way cleared for immediate escape.

Teal'C tossed O'Neill a zat gun as the man emerged from the cell, stepping carefully across the field of the downed gate. He glanced at Ra'ho, the boys eyes wide as he beheld the disabled console, and, after tapping him briefly on the shoulder, O'Neill pointed down the corridor. "Lead the way, kid."

As the boy looked into the man's dark eyes and detected the faintest traces of his bridled anguish and haunted desperation, he understood his intent perfectly. Without a single glance back, he took off down the hall at a brisk trot, intent on leading them to the Passing Room, and knowing for certain that the others were close behind.

Q'taer muttered an interminable string of repentant pleas in preparation of his eternal soul for the passing of his transgressions into the Malkna. The stone pressed coldly against the soles of his bare feet as he advanced towards the center altar. He must not look at her until he called upon Da'Ni'I to accept this, his Passing, as a sign of his belief and devotion to The Way. Lifting his face towards Da'Ni'I listening from the heavens, his eyes still closed, he called out,

Malkna proeri toi mukanu!
Da'Ni'I rekipce roi extanui!
Malkna rekipci roi traegnasiu!
Da'Ni'I libate rai aug expre!

As he untied his shift, he prepared to expunge himself of his iniquities according to the ancient custom of his people. Deftly climbing the four short steps that rose to the Malkna's body, he allowed himself finally to inspect her culpable form. As his eyes freely roamed the body, he witnessed the manifestation of amalgamated sins. Bruises covered her skin in large purplish-green masses; blood and semen stained her hips and upper thighs, apparently rubbed into her flesh by the preceding penitents. Her face was turned from him, disallowing his appraisal of her features, but that did not matter. Her possession of beauty or her lack thereof had no bearing on his spiritual awakening. He had merely to give her the sins of his body. Kneeling before her, he ran his hands firmly over the Malkna's cold, moist flesh, his eyes slipping closed as he prepared to begin his act of Passing.

The Malkna's body rocked steadily back and forth beneath his own, her head lolling against her own shoulder as Q'taer forced his transgressions into the depths of her inner sanctum. In his desperation to purify himself, his thrusts rapidly gained intensity and strength, the shackles binding the Malkna's ankles straining against the force of his rhythm. Impulsively, he took one of her bruised breasts into his mouth and sank his teeth into her delicate flesh causing spurts of blood to flow across his tongue and down onto the Malkna's abdomen.

Suddenly, the room's reverberation of gentle murmuring was overcome by thunderous, livid cries. Unable to help his surprise, Q'taer's head snapped up, the Malkna's breast sinking back against her body. Blinding pain coursed through the bridge of his nose and across his cheekbones right before the room grew dark and silent. He did not feel his body strike the ground. He did not see the intruders open fire on his people; nor did he see a dark, stone-faced man destroy the Malkna's shackles in a single, mighty stroke; he did not see the Malkna being raised gingerly into the arms of another, her lifeless body sagging against the stranger's chest. As suddenly as they appeared, the soldiers vanished, apparently having stolen away with their designated objective.

Outside, the sirens tolled, announcing the dearth of their most precious idol. Guards streamed out of the building in response to the city-wide distress issue. They knew the invaders' target and knew also that the Malkna must not—would not—leave the planet in their company.

After Ra'ho had led them to the Passing Room, O'Neill ordered his team into action. The plan had been simple:

"Daniel, get that gate open as soon as you see the first man coming. We may have a lot of very angry, very large men on our asses. The rest of you, rush the doors and lay down cover fire while Teal'C and I retrieve Carter. As soon as we're out, turn around and run like hell to the stargate. Go through it when you get there. Don't wait for me or anyone else. Questions?"

Hearing none, O'Neill nodded once. "Let's do this."

The doors opened readily, fierce determination driving the blow the soldiers delivered to its ornate face. The force with which the doors swung open knocked four guards off of their feet and into the line of waiting transgressors. Taking advantage of the upheaval, O'Neill raced towards the altar in the middle of the room upon which a man lay violently ravishing Carter sprawled beneath him, her left breast dripping with blood. All of the frustration and rage that had amassed inside of him over the past few days fueled O'Neill's single strike to the bridge of her attacker's nose; his eyes were open and blood trickled from his nostrils as his body fell lifelessly to the ground.

Metal links shrieked apart behind him and he saw all of Carter's binds slacken at once. Teal'C grabbed one end of the broken chain in one hand and pulled it through the eyes stationed around the table, allowing Carter's wrists and ankles, though still encased by the cuffs, freedom from their confines. Wasting no time, O'Neill scooped her still body into his arms and sprinted quickly from the room. The entire ordeal lasted less than fifteen seconds.

In a short time, the structure was a far distance behind them, but the faint cries of the city's guards grew steadily closer until blue bolts of energy surged around them, crashing into the ground surrounding the stargate. O'Neill watched as the members of his team ran through the horizon; Daniel grabbed a gun off of one of the fleeing officers and stooped behind a rock outcropping close to the foot of the stargate. He managed to pick off four of the guards closest to O'Neill and Teal'C before the pair reached the horizon. Without hesitation O'Neill stepped through with Carter clutched tightly to his body, his chest heaving in exhaustion.

"Close it!" he managed to cry through his gasping breaths. Immediately, the iris swirled shut behind them, the soft pattering of reintegrating molecules echoing throughout the room as several of the guards attempted to pursue them.

Janet greeted him as soon as he stepped onto the ramp of the SGC, an open blanket ready in her hands. Quickly covering Carter's bare body, her detachment firmly in place, she escorted O'Neill down the ramp and instructed him to place her on the gurney before ordering the medics to the infirmary, the woman's still form already being entangled in wires and tape.

O'Neill moved to follow her, but was stayed by General Hammond. "Let the doctor do her job first, Colonel." Glancing at rest of SG-1, he offered, "Welcome back," as he absorbed the depth of their disheartening. "I take it the mission did not go well, Colonel."

The man's back stiffened, his jaw tightening as he regarded the general with wild, vacant eyes. "No, sir," he answered, his voice soft and eerily steady. "It didn't. In fact, the term 'FUBAR' comes to mind."

Raising his eyebrows, he nodded crisply. "Debriefing now, gentlemen. I want to know what happened on that planet."

No you don't, O'Neill thought tiredly as he trudged out of the gate room. I don't even want to know what happened on that planet.

--------------------------------------------

After hearing O'Neill's account of their experiences on P3X-275, Hammond immediately ordered the coordinates of the planet locked out of the system permanently. No words were spoken after Daniel recounted what little he had determined about the nature of the ceremony and what Carter's role had entailed. Finally, after tolerating a broad pastiche of emotion for several long minutes, O'Neill cleared his throat. "Permission to be dismissed, sir."

Hammond simply nodded, unable to speak as the implications of Daniel's words rumbled through his head.

O'Neill quietly expressed his thanks and quickly exited the room, turning immediately towards the infirmary. As he pushed the door aside with an impatient brush of his hand, the sight of Carter, still surrounded by medical personnel and swathed with wires, greeted him directly. He stared at her face—silent and horribly sallow—upturned in the bright, white brilliance of the medical lamps. His conception of time altered then as he heard words and phrases such as "emergency surgery," "local anesthesia," blood and fluid loss," and, finally, "severe hemorrhaging." People began moving slower and more deliberately, or, at least, he imagined they did. Then a light weight alighted on the back of his upper arm.

"Sir?" Was that Janet? Perhaps, but the voice reverberated in his ears laden with tiny scratches, as if it had been rubbed across the surface of coarse sand. "Sir? Colonel?" Yes, that was definitely Janet. Slowly, the world came back into focus and the activities around him resumed their previous rapidity. "Jack?" the doctor repeated for a fourth time, concern edging her tone.

"Yeah?" he answered tiredly. "What is it, doc?" Suddenly, the information he came specifically to acquire, he no longer desired. Instead, he longed to simply hold Carter, free from the complication of medical jargon, and allow her to just be, quiet and slowly breathing, as she had been in their cell on P3X-275.

Next to him, Janet's voice grew soft, her words uttered for him only. "I don't know for certain what happened down there, but considering the extent and placement of her injuries, I think I can make a pretty descent guess." She moistened her lips which had suddenly gone quite dry. "You can stay, watch from over there," she pointed to the far corner of the room; it was separated from Carter's bed by space only and if he angled himself correctly, he would have an excellent view of her face. Janet cleared her throat and continued, "Aside from the visible marks, Major Carter has also incurred moderate damage to her kidneys and liver, four broken and three bruised ribs, several bone fractures," the doctor drew a deep breath, "as well as severe trauma to the internal walls of her vagina. I've managed to stop the bleeding for now, but as soon as we get her fluids back up, I'm going to go in and butterfly the lining to make sure that the wounds don't reopen before they are given a chance to heal."

O'Neill grimly nodded, absorbing the information without a visible emotional flinch. "She's unconscious?"

"Yes, for the time being. I expect her wake up within the next few hours, but," she shook her head and looked mournfully up at him. "I can only diagnose and formulate a prognosis based on her physical injuries. I don't think I have to tell you that we're dealing with much deeper wounds."

He shook his head. "No, you don't," he said, remembering the tone of Carter's voice when she weakly but firmly asked not to be touched last night. Her fear had been readily apparent, followed also by her own disgust; O'Neill was not sure of the object of that last bit of her resentment, but he had an inkling that it had been directed both at her assaulters and at herself. It would not have surprised him in the least.

He stood watching Carter for quite some time after Janet returned to her medical duties. She allowed him to stay, a mask secured across his nose and mouth, while she performed minor surgery on Carter's abdomen. As Janet removed her gloves after completing the task, she walked over to him, the corners of her lips upturned slightly. "That went well. No complications. She's stabilized for the time being." Scrutinizing the haggard lines gouging his face and the hollows that sagged beneath his eyes, she added, "Perhaps you should get some rest, sir. I can page you if her condition changes."

He did not respond, at least not perceptibly. After a moment of silence, he muttered, "Can I have a few minutes with her?"

Janet smiled. "Take as long as you need."

"Thank you."

Janet disappeared into her office, most likely to start her report for General Hammond. O'Neill drew a deep, calming breath and slowly, very slowly, walked towards Carter's bedside. The bruises speckling her body had flourished into deep purples and greens, and had become even more pronounced on the ashen canvas of her skin. Perched on the stool beside her, O'Neill reached out a steady hand and gently brushed a few stray locks of hair away from her face.

Finally, secure in the knowledge of her physical stability, he allowed himself to bear the full weight of his own infinite sorrow; guilt endeavored to weave slowly into the flux as well, but he refused it, knowing that selfishness in this situation would serve no justifiable purpose.

Tears began their gentle descent down his cheeks as he ran the backs of his fingers delicately over her forehead before bringing his mouth close to her ear. "You are…everything," he whispered simply.

He brushed his lips against her temple, indifferent to the probability of onlookers. Passing his hand over her head one last time, he reluctantly turned from her and made his way towards his quarters. He had a feeling that Carter would not awaken within the next few hours as Janet has speculated; if he knew anything, he knew the effects of trauma on the human mind. No. He would consider both Carter and himself fortunate if she awoke within the next week.

--------------------------------------------

When O'Neill awoke several hours later, his exhaustion dulled to a faint gasp in the piths of his muscles, he headed immediately to the infirmary to be apprised on Carter's current status. In two hours, he and the remaining SG-1 members would be briefed on the immediate future of their team; he intended to be affixed to Carter's bedside for the interim.

Walking through the infirmary doorway, he noticed with a start that Carter's cot was nowhere in sight. He stopped a passing medical officer and inquired into the major's whereabouts, breathing an internal sigh of relief when she pointed to a curtained off corner. She informed him that Dr. Fraiser had ordered that Carter be moved to a more secluded area of the infirmary and given as much privacy as possible. Thanking the officer, he silently praised Janet for her foresight and started towards the white barrier. Dr. Fraiser was seated next to Carter, her back to him as she entered information into a device beside her patient. She turned as she heard his approach, smiling gently when she saw him.

Holding up his hands to stave off questions, he said, "I slept—no lectures."

Her eyebrow raised slightly in surprise. "Wow. You took my advice. I'm impressed, Colonel." Turning back to the machine, she asked, "How was your sleep?"

"Dead."

She spun around, shocked by his description. "What?"

"Dead. My sleep was dead." He sighed and settled onto the side of the Carter's cot, carefully avoiding jarring her unexpectedly. Staring at the wounds still festering on her face, upturned and unaware, he placed the tips of his fingers next to Carter's.

"She isn't in any pain right now, sir," Janet said, her voice soothing.

O'Neill did not move. "Not physically, no."

Fraiser sighed, her eyes dropping to stare into the palms of her hands, and searched for something helpful to add to the waning conversation. Finding nothing, she looked up at him, his eyes directed at the floor, fixed in a blank stare. Finally, she tentatively inquired, "How are you doing?"

Air sped sharply from between his lips serving as Fraiser's first warning that she was treading on unstable ground. "Fine, Doctor." The flatness of his voice begged otherwise.

Fraiser, discontented with the colonel's dismissive reply, rounded the end of the bed and stood decidedly in front of her superior, her arms crossed over her lab coat and her eyebrow upraised in a severe arch of disbelief. "I find that hard to believe, sir."

O'Neill opened his mouth, ready to defend himself against Dr. Fraiser's prying inquiries, but realized that the extent of his exhaustion disallowed his typical stoicism. His head dropped slowly down to his chest as he admitted the truth in Dr. Fraiser's implications. "So do I."

He was silent for quite some time, staring blankly at his hand resting millimeters away from his second officer's. "This far and no farther." The remark tumbled from his lips quickly, too quickly, it seemed, for his mind to recognize that he had vocalized the thought. His fingers curled away from Carter's and his shoulders rounded as sorrow tied strongly to the tail of anger visibly washed over him with renewed force.

Fraiser leaned forward, her expression softened by the suddenness and heft of his admission. Major Carter and Colonel O'Neill shared a bond unlike any other she had witnessed during her years in the military. Of course she had seen the iron ties forged between soldiers during the heady hours of combat, but even they paled substantially against the strength and subtlety of that which existed between these two officers.

They were desperately in love, that much was certain. The respect with which they held each other was unsurpassable; the trust they instilled between the two of them was astronomical; and the passion they daily repressed was agonizing.

She reached down and gently plucked his hand from the bed, her eyes bright with sympathetic tears. "Sir," she began, hesitating slightly before delving full-force into the substance of five years worth of observation. "Sam will recover. Her body will heal and she will want to go back to work as soon as she is able. But, I'm certain that's not the best choice for her." She stilled his impending objection with a quick wave of her hand. "You've been through a lot in the past five years, the both of you, together. She will need you when she wakes up, even if she won't admit it. Give her time, sir." Fraiser drew a deep breath and tilted her head slightly. "Perhaps farther isn't as far as you might think." She squeezed his hand reassuringly, and then set it down, deliberately allowing his fingers to mesh with Carter's. "I'll be in my office if you need me," she said and then deftly brushed the curtain aside to make her exit.

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, silently admitting that Fraiser might be correct in her assumption: Carter, once she awoke, would not be psychologically fit for duty. He did not see how anyone could be after going through an ordeal of that caliber. The memory of her quiet plea, "Please, Jack, don't…" as he attempted to comfort her as he had the previous nights returned to him unexpectedly and consequently racked his body with an unquenchable rage. They had raped Carter to the brink of death for the sake of spiritual purity. The juxtaposition of the two concepts proved incomprehensible.

Slowly his rage soothed into an abiding hatred that throbbed painfully in the back of his throat. He rose stiffly from Carter's side and pulled up the chair that had been placed, probably by Dr. Fraiser, beside her cot. He rested his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers, leaning his forehead against the pads of his thumbs.

There had been nothing he could have done to stop them; logically, he knew that. Emotionally, however, was a different story. As long as he lived and whatever became of their relationship after this, he knew that he would never forget the sensation of drowning in his own helplessness. He had decided since then that out of all the feelings inherent to the human condition, helplessness remained the least pleasant. In fact, he despised it. He was, after all, the one who helped. If his actions were ever made public knowledge, he and the rest of SG-1 would go down in history as the ultimate do-gooders of all time. Do-gooders do not deal well with being dissuaded from doing good, especially if it is to the detriment of their most beloved.

Perhaps farther isn't as far as you might think. O'Neill mulled over Dr. Fraiser's comment as the tendrils of a migraine headache began to wrap themselves around his brain. This is too much, he thought bitterly. Seriously, how much is one man supposed to take? Bringing his eyes level with Carter's profile, he added, How much can we be allowed to suffer before we're broken forever? He would not dare answer the question in quantifiable terms, but, if there was indeed an answer, he assumed that the battered woman lying before him was it.

----------------------------------------------------

"Dr. Fraiser, please report." General Hammond's typically gruff tone was subdued somewhat as he glanced at the doctor. He did not envy her impending duty, nor did he desire to hear of her findings.

Dr. Fraiser cleared her throat briefly while the remaining members of SG-1 mentally prepared themselves for what they were about to hear. "Yes, sir," she began, opening the folder in front of her. "Varying degrees of contusions and lacerations cover Major Carter's body, the worst of which damaged her kidneys and her liver. Both injuries are reparable and non-threatening given the proper care. I detected seven injured ribs, four broken and three bruised, along with several smaller stress fractures along her upper torso. These injuries, as well as…further severe internal damage, initially led me to believe that Major Carter had been the victim of a brutal sexual assault. I ordered multiple tests, all of which not only came back conclusive, but horrifying." Here Dr. Fraiser paused, visibly struggling to maintain her composure as she endeavored to inform the team of the test results she had received minutes before the meeting. "I found evidence of forty-seven different assaults, but that number is in no way conclusive. Without Major Carter's report, we have no way of knowing the precise number."

Silence, excruciatingly painful silence, lurched through the room incited by a veritable potpourri of overwhelming passion. Even Daniel seemed to be rendered speechless by Dr. Fraiser's report. After several grave moments, Colonel O'Neill spoke.

"Does the number really matter, sir?" Eyes blazing, he fixed Hammond with a flaming glare, his anger readily apparent.

Hammond closed his eyes, silently agreeing with the colonel's sentiment. "Not to me, but Washington's going to want a full and exact briefing."

O'Neill's eyes narrowed, fury fomenting just under his skin. "Would they be this interested if it had been just one son of a bitch that attacked her?" His question caused the other members of his team to turn to the general, curiosity and condemnation twitching in their features.

"Jack, I honestly don't know," he said calmly. Leaning forward, the passion behind his eyes evident, he stated, "I know you all are dealing with a hell of a lot right now, a lot of it things that people should not have to deal with. It's my opinion that as a result, your physical and emotional states have been compromised. For your sakes and the sake of the SGC, I'm ordering you all on stand-down. One month from now you will report back to base. I've consulted with Dr. Fraiser and she agrees with my decision." Turning to O'Neill, he emphasized, "Anyone who argues will be subject to disciplinary measures. Have I made myself clear?"

Affirmations resounded throughout the congregated.

"Sir, what about Sam?" Daniel asked.

At the general's request, Dr. Fraiser answered for him. "I have no way of knowing how long she will remain unconscious, but regardless Major Carter will remain on base until she is stable and well enough to leave." Glancing quickly at Colonel O'Neill she added, "We're not sure if she will be returning with you in a month."

"You will be informed should a replacement for Major Carter be necessary," Hammond gently informed them and then paused briefly. "Any questions?"

Silence.

"You're dismissed." After Daniel, Teal'C and Dr. Frasier had left the room, Hammond called O'Neill over to him. "Jack, I know that Major Carter means a lot to you and I want you to know that I'm doing everything I can for her." The general took in a long, deep breath before continuing. "But there's a chance that the psychological damage done to her on P3X-275 will disallow her further field work with the SGC."

The room began to gyrate around O'Neill as if it were a child's plaything; his fingers sunk into the upholstery of the nearest chair in an effort to steady himself. Hearing this information from Janet was one thing; hearing it from the lips of their superior was entirely different. "W-what are you saying, sir?" He stammered. "She's unconscious. You can't know what's going on in her head."

Hammond held up his hands to quell any further questions. "All I'm saying is that it's possible that she will not return to SG-1. I didn't say that she would be leaving the SGC permanently." The corner of his mouth rose gradually in a small half-smile. "Carter's not leaving this mountain, not while it's under my command. She's too valuable an officer to give up that easily."

O'Neill nodded, his jaw set in a grim, unmoving line. "Yes, sir."

"She's a fighter, Jack," he reassured him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. "She'll get through this."

Again, O'Neill nodded. "Yes, sir."

Removing his hand from the colonel's shoulder, Hammond straightened slightly. "You're dismissed, Colonel."

"Thank you, sir."

General Hammond watched Colonel O'Neill's figure amble out of the room and down the hall towards the infirmary. Heaving a great sigh, he gathered his briefing materials and headed for his office. Major Carter would get through this, he thought. He had always known that her determination was steely, her resolve unbreakable, both required traits in a USAF officer of her status; but he silently prayed that when she did regain consciousness again that those qualities would not impede her recovery. Fraught suddenly with past recollections of similar situations, his eyes closed painfully and he leaned against the top of his desk. Major Carter was too valuable an officer, too brilliant a woman, to lose to the rage of madness.

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Waves rippled around her ankles as a delicate breeze fingered its way through her hair, the long strands shimmering brilliant gold under the gaze of the mid-afternoon sun. Footprints, pooling with gentle tides heavy in their saltiness, lined the edge of the shore behind her. She was not certain how long she had been walking, or even why, only that she felt an overwhelming compulsion to maintain her pace. Unsure of her destination, but decidedly unconcerned about it, she kept moving, her longs legs, lean and strong against the gentle pull of the damp sand, ever propelling her forward. Though her purpose here, on the brink of the ocean, remained vague, a peace unlike none she had ever known swathed her in its radiant robes of comfort and safety. She was safe here, she felt certain of that. Here, no one could harm her or infiltrate her senses again.

…Again? What did she mean again? What had happened? The peace began to fade then, as the doubts began their measured descent into her mind. She shook her head, recklessly scattering the questions asunder. Nothing had happened. Nothing had happened, she silently repeated, her adamancy compelling her Self to believe the assertion in its entirety. Pulling her shawl more tightly around her shoulders to stave off the wind, she continued her nameless journey, leaving no trace of her presence, save a trail of footprints winding along the water's edge.

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Thankfully, the hallway to the infirmary was all but deserted, giving Daniel Jackson adequate space to immerse himself in thought while continuing his stride. Officially, he was on vacation and had been for the past nine god-damned days; officially, he was not supposed to be on base, but all of the officially's and regulations could go to hell as far as he was concerned. SG-1 had been planet-side for almost week and a half and, even though Dr. Fraiser had assured them that Carter's condition had been stabilized, she still had not regained consciousness. While not a medical doctor, he sensed the growing severity of his friend's condition.

Vacation, my ass, he thought. I'll be damned if I'm going to vacate anything right now. Thus far he had been "vacationing" in his lab on base, allowing him immediate access to Sam should her condition alter. According to a tacit agreement, he and O'Neill, who had also elected to remain on base, took turns watching over her, promising to alert the other immediately should she regain consciousness.

Stepping through the doorway of the infirmary, he strode over to Carter's small, curtained haven and quietly shifted the barrier surrounding her, allowing him view of—

"Jack," he said, checking the time with chagrin. "I should've known you'd be here. I'll leave." He began to turn away when O'Neill stopped him.

"Why? I smell that bad?"

Daniel's mouth rose in a tired half-smile. "Well, I wasn't going to say anything…"

The colonel waved him in. "Get in here." Rising from his chair, he offered it to Daniel. "Here," he said. "I've been sitting for awhile. I think my ass may start to mold itself to the chair if I don't move." After he stretched and stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, O'Neill rounded the end of Carter's bed and stood over her, his form looming directly across the cot from Daniel.

Daniel took Carter's hand in his. "Any change?" His tone was hopeful, but O'Neill's darkened face promptly dashed his optimism.

"None." He closed his eyes and sighed. "But after what she went through down there, I don't blame her a bit."

Daniel's brow furrowed slightly at the colonel's implications. "You think she's choosing to remain comatose?"

"Like I said, I wouldn't doubt it."

The doctor leaned forward, his confusion evident. "I don't understand," he said. "Why would she do that? And how?"

"You know, Daniel," O'Neill said, nailing him with bemusement. "For an intellectual wahoo, you can be pretty stupid sometimes."

Daniel took the comment in stride. "Thank you, Jack."

"You're welcome."

"Answer my question."

O'Neill shifted, suddenly slightly uneasy. "Uh," he began. "Well, the mind is powerful. And after trauma, sometimes it just…shuts down. It can't handle the pressure, so it, I dunno…hibernates for awhile." Eyes glazed over, he muttered, "I've seen it before. I know what it looks like." Retreating into silence, O'Neill rested his head against the back wall.

"So…" Daniel paused briefly to give O'Neill the opportunity to add the needed addendum to his statement. None forthcoming, he prodded. "How do we unhibernate her mind?"

"I don't know if we can."

The admission hit Daniel square in the chest. "But I thought you said that you've seen this before," he protested.

"Yeah, I've seen it," O'Neill replied, his tone crisp and his eyes flashing with recovered grief. "That doesn't mean I'm an expert on it. I'm not a psychologist, Daniel."

Daniel sighed. "Yeah, right, sorry." He gazed down at Carter, his eyes softening. Resting his hand on the crown of her head, this thumb brushing tenderly against her forehead, he said, "I just wish we had the medical equivalent of Dorothy's ruby slippers."

A smile flickered across O'Neill's face. "Me, too. But the Cowardly Lion couldn't have used them to send the kid home. She had to do it herself."

"Yeah." Daniel paused momentarily, mulling over the colonel's comment. "Jack, I thought you hated metaphors."

O'Neill shot him a withering glance. "I do. But the principle of the thing still stands."

"Ah, yes," the doctor answered, his eyebrows raised. "The principle." Turning back to Carter, his face darkened once more as he continued to run his thumb along the smoothness of her brow. "When you're ready, Sam," he whispered to her. Glancing up at O'Neill, he asked, "How long were the others out…hibernating?"

The Colonel squinted and released a heavy breath, his eyes focused over the top of Daniel's head as he recalled the events. "Uh, I'd say anywhere from a week to six months."

Daniel's eyes widened. "Six months!"

Nodding, O'Neill replied, "Yeah, he said it sucked big time."

"Well, yeah," the doctor answered, removing his hand from Carter's head. "I would think so." Silence filled the small enclosure then, each man tied to his own thoughts and sifting through his own heartache. Finally, Daniel whispered, his eyes, brimming with compassion, staring intently at Carter's bruised face, "Where do you think she is right now?"

O'Neill tracked Daniel's gaze, his eyes coming to rest on Carter's eyelids, swollen and red from her neglect. Grimacing against the involuntary memory, he recalled the distance, unfocused and hazy, that had taken residence in those same eyes on P3X-275. Unwilling to admit it at the time, he was now forced to retrospectively recognize the visual cues of Carter's deliberate detachment of her Self from her body. He has seen it before behind the eyes of tormented POW's and other victims of cruelty, but he never dared think that he would see it also in a passing, machinating glance from his second officer, from the woman he loved.

"Jack," Daniel said, his voice slicing through the colonel's musings. Knowing that the last thing his friend desired were inquiries regarding his own welfare, Daniel simply repeated his question. "Where do you think Sam is right now?"

O'Neill's eyes glassed over momentarily as he cleared his throat. Drawing a deep breath, he answered, "Safe." His eyes fell upon her once more, agony constricting his voice as he continued, "Very, very safe."

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The wind had died down substantially, manifesting itself only now and again in riveting gusts that coddled her legs in the soft, flowing material of her dress. Unaware of time and space, she kept her steady march along the shore that unfolded endlessly before her. She realized that her identity remained elusive, though her several efforts to unravel it had been half-hearted at best. But she should not try to recall her Self. Her Self had sent her here alone, in order to complete a task of utmost importance. Then she remembered—she remembered that she was here in order to forget and in order to accomplish that vacuity, she must keep walking. She must keep walking until the questions vanished, until there was no doubt, no reservation. She must keep walking until she had reached the end.

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"Okay, guys," Dr. Frasier said as she stepped through the curtains, clipboard in hand. "Party's over. The doctor's here." She stared at them expectantly, waiting for them to acknowledge her authority; when they did not move, she rolled her eyes and groaned. "Fine, you can stay. But you're going to have to move, Colonel." As O'Neill stepped aside to accommodate Dr. Fraiser, she muttered, "I told Hammond that putting you two on leave wouldn't get you off the base."

"Uh, no," Daniel answered.

Fraiser sighed. "You can leave her for awhile, you know. I will tell you when she wakes up." Her face brightened in a small smile as she glanced wistfully down at her friend. "Even if I didn't want to, I don't think I could contain my excitement."

"What ever happened to professional detachment, Doc?" O'Neill raised his eyebrows at her slightly.

Her smile faded, and was now etched with melancholy. "That flew out the window a long time ago, sir." Clearing her throat, she continued, "According to these readings, her condition remains unchanged." Her eyes downcast, she turned to O'Neill. "I'm sorry, sir. I don't know what else I can do for her."

The colonel shook his head. "It's okay, Doc. You've done enough." Looking down at his second officer, he said, his voice hushed, "It's up to her to meet us halfway."

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I should go back. The thought came to her abruptly, as if from the depths of a dream. No. I-I…I need to go back. Confusion settled in around her, obscuring her view in all directions. No longer able to decipher the route set before her, she spun around, sand flying out from under her feet. The wind picked up again and gusted around her body, ruffling her hair and calling further confusion around what little equilibrium she had retained. I need to go back, the thought came again, its urgency undeniable. Unable to detect any recognizable point ahead of her, but certain, somehow, that it did not matter, she began to retrace her steps, slowly at first and then with greater alacrity as her assuredness grew. Closing her eyes against the wind's needles, she ran headlong into them, her arms outstretched like bones.

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O'Neill narrowed his eyes at the printouts Dr. Fraiser was displaying to him and Daniel. Try as he may to follow the doctor's explication of the readings, his mind would not wrap around the concepts and he eventually grew exhausted listening to what had become her incessant droning.

"Cut to the chase, Doc," he interrupted her as she spurted off some incomprehensible medical jargon. "So what you're saying is…?"

Fraiser glanced from O'Neill and back down to the charts. "I'm saying that Sam was traumatized to such a degree that her mind's reaction has been this coma she's been in."

"Yeah," Daniel said. "Jack was telling me about that. Some kind of psychological reaction to overwhelming negative stimuli."

"Those weren't my exact words, but, yeah, I said that."

"Well," said Fraiser, drawing a deep breath. "You were correct. Unfortunately, this means that I have no way of predicting when she will regain consciousness, or even if she will regain consciousness."

"Whoa, wait a second." Daniel held up his hands and fixed Fraiser with dubious eyes. "You're saying that she might just stay like this?" He asked her, his thumb thrust over his shoulder towards Carter's bed.

She nodded. "There have been some recorded cases of traumatized individuals slipping into a psychologically induced coma and never awakening, yes."

O'Neill shifted his feet and crossed his arms over his body. "What can we do to prevent that from happening?"

Fraiser hesitated, uncertain of her next few words. Quietly she said, "I'm not sure we can, sir."

"There has to be something we can do," Daniel began. "We can't just sit here and wa—"

A faint cough interrupted his impending diatribe. O'Neill wheeled around, his eyes widening. He knew that cough. Hell, he'd know her sneeze from across the room at an allergen convention. "Sam," he breathed, his stomach leaping into his throat as he crossed the distance between them in two quick strides, Fraiser and Daniel immediately behind him. Impatiently pushing the curtains aside, he rounded the end of the bed, his eyes intent on her face, contorted with coughing.

Fraiser punched a button beside the bed and slightly elevated Carter's upper body. "Sam," she said softly as Carter's coughing fit abated somewhat. "Sam, it's Janet. You're at the SGC. You're safe now, honey. Can you open your eyes for me?" Carter's head lolled slightly from side to side, her forehead and eyebrows twisting in a concentrated effort to regain her sense of awareness. A soft, strangled groan escaping her lips, her eyelids lifted halfway, her expression still unfocused and edging on confusion.

"Good, Sam," Fraiser said, relief lighting her features. "Colonel O'Neill and Daniel are here with you. You're going to be just fine, honey." She lifted her pen light in line with Carter's eyes while gently nudging them farther open. "Sorry about this, but it's going to get a little bright for a second, okay? Look over my shoulder at Daniel." Fraiser could hardly contain her joy as she watched Carter's eyes slowly trek over her shoulder and up to Daniel's waiting smile.

"Hey Sam," he said as Fraiser shot a brief beam of light into each of Carter's eyes in turn, causing her to flinch at the sudden brightness. After she blinked her vision to clarity, Carter's attention returned to Daniel. He smiled down at her over Fraiser's shoulder, the relief he felt at her recovered awareness palpable.

She blinked slowly then, her eyes drifting away from Daniel's face to faint gradually left. The muscles of her neck, however, refused to heed her demands, weakened as they were from prolonged immobility and debilitating exhaustion. O'Neill, aware of her frustration, reached out and gently cupped her jaw in the palm of his hand, guiding her head to face him. When her half-lidded eyes found his, he was smiling at her, something he could see her struggling to match. Running his thumb across her cheek, he whispered, "There you are. Take it easy, Major. You've been out for awhile. Give yourself a chance to catch up."

"That's good advice, Colonel," Fraiser intoned. "In fact, I think that we should let her get some rest."

"Agreed," O'Neill said. Looking back down at Carter, he raised his eyebrow. "No more comas. That's an order." Her expression did not change and he was unsure if she understood him or not. Deciding not to push it, he began to release her hand, but she was reluctant to relinquish his presence and struggled to maintain her hold on his fingers.

"Don't go…" Her words were soft and slurred, mangled by the aridity of her throat. "Please…don't lea—" The request interrupted by another fit of coughing, O'Neill glanced up at Fraiser, questioning her silently. The doctor nodded her consent and handed him a glass of water, filled halfway, with a straw poking over the rim.

"Get at least half of that into her before she goes to sleep. If she can handle more, that's great," she instructed, her hand resting on Carter's shoulder. When Carter's fit had abated, the doctor stooped to meet her gaze and asked, "Did you hear that, Sam? Drink as much as you can manage. The colonel will stay with you, all right?" She paused. "I'm glad you're back. You're going to be all right." After giving her a small reassuring smile, Fraiser turned to Daniel, nodded slightly, and then disappeared behind the white curtains.

Daniel cleared his throat and stepped towards Carter cautiously, wanting to embrace her, yet reluctant to shake her further. Her eyes remained blank, stark, devoid of her characteristic spunk; that vacuity tore at his heart even more so than the wounds she had incurred. She gazed at him with those lifeless eyes, and for once he felt as if he could see inside of her, through to her core. What he detected there served to only further his grief. Faced with her deep-set apathy—regarding herself, more so than any assembled—he was unable to locate the appropriate words; he settled for the next best thing. Leaning over her, he placed his lips chastely against her forehead, wincing internally as he felt her body flinch at the contact. "I'll check back on you later," he said, his voice suddenly husky. "Hang in there, Sam."

As Daniel withdrew from them, Carter's grip on O'Neill's hand lessened and what little tension had gathered in her muscles dissipated, leaving her body slack and indifferent. O'Neill sensed the change immediately, and guided her eyes again to his. "Hey, no zoning on me, Major." Swallowing with great difficulty, she reinstituted her grip in his fingers in an effort to retain her awareness. "That's it. There ya go," he whispered to her, smoothing stray wisps of blond away from her eyes, behind her ears.

Catching both sides of her jaw between his palms, he gently brushed his thumbs over her mottled cheekbones. "I'm not leaving," he said finally. "And I am not going to let anyone ever hurt you again, Sam. You hear me? Never again."

Moving slowly so as not to startle her, he rested his forehead gently against her temple, his mouth centimeters away from her ear. After feeling the weight of her head rest against his own, he whispered, "You're safe. Don't slip away from me now. Please." He pressed his lips softly against the hollow of her temple before drawing back slightly to look down at her, his lips twitching into a curve of his hallmark wryness. "And besides, the doc will have my head if I don't get you to drink some of this," he remarked, twirling the liquid around the clear glass. Her fingers curled against his palm in response to his remark. "How 'bout it?" he asked her softly. "Just a few sips and I'll let you get some rest."

When he moved the straw to her parched lips, they parted just enough to allow the tube access to her mouth. She could manage only small draughts, and even they, the colonel observed, took a concentrated effort.

The cool liquid coursed over her tongue and down her throat and she welcomed it, grateful for the blessed relief it provided. Never had she experienced this caliber of multi-level exhaustion. She had, of course, been previously physically spent, emotionally drained, and mentally wiped, but never before had all three amalgamated with such deep intensity nor infested her body with such totality. But she was safe now. The realization caused a series of faint tremors to rampage throughout her frame, the sudden security shocking her system into the waking breach of her memory.

The sights and sounds, the sensations and smells from P3X-275 surrounded her conscious mind, surfacing the events with startling accuracy. Her vulnerability, the shame and horror, the helplessness and fear, everything, every emotion that she had experienced on that god-forsaken planet over six days time teemed and pooled over the generous expanse of her senses and sent her sweeping back through to the reality of that existence. No! Her mind shouted amongst the maelstrom, desperate for truth and honest circumstance. No! This is not real, she thought as she was mentally escorted away from the sanctuary Daniel and Jack had created for her and into the variable hell of her captors' choosing. This is not…I'm not here. This cannot be happening again! Please, God, not again…Jack!

"Sam!"

A violent quaver enveloped her, its source outside of her ravaged body. Fingertips dug heavily into her upper arms and for a moment, her mental suspicions seemed to have been realized. But they had not called her by name, nor had fear laced throughout their cries. She was jolted again.

"Sam!" The voice sounded familiar. "Goddammit! Samantha!" Very familiar.

Her eyes flew open and into the concentrated, terrified stare of—

"J-Jack…?" The name lanced through her throat, burning with feverish intensity. Unable to trust her vision lest his presence be her mind's conjuring and not factual, she lifted her hand, trembling and pale, to brush the line of his jaw. Catching her proffered hand with his, O'Neill pressed it firmly against his cheek, his eyes set in an unwavering line that bore into hers.

"Yes," he whispered. "Yes, it's Jack. And I'm not going anywhere." He buried his lips into the palm of her hand; his forehead creased with the vicarious power of her pain, and silently sealed his promise.

Running the tips of his fingers along the outline of her face, he continued, "I don't know what's going on in there, but I do know that you're safe." The strength of his gaze increased then, and his voice became serious, reassuring. "I am not leaving you."

Unshed tears crept along the ridges of her eyelids and her head nodded slightly beneath the gentle probing of his fingers, accepting without hesitation the full implication of his assertion. As tears of relief began their gradual descent along the contours of her cheeks and chin, Carter found herself wrapped once more in the security of O'Neill's embrace. His voice muffled by her hair and his own body of unshed sorrow, he repeated, "I am never leaving you."

Reveling in the quiet refuge of O'Neill's gentle kisses, whispered reassurances, and warm, breathing body, she allowed herself to be lulled to rest, her mind still and her body calm.

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After Carter's breaths slowed and deepened, and the remaining strain had been eased from her muscles, O'Neill withdrew from her, angling her head against the pillow so that she would see him immediately upon her awakening. In an effort to both comfort her and indulge himself, he laced his fingers with hers and every now and again ran his fingertips lightly over her pallid skin. Tension still edged the delicate lines of her face, pulling the corners of her mouth down at irregular intervals and crushing the skin around her eyes into hairline creases. Aching fomented in his limbs from intense longing to caress away that pain, to bury her in his arms, away from her dreams and haunts and the thoughts that plagued her. He resisted the impulse, knowing that she would not want him to assume the weight of her burden. Their entwined fingers would have to suffice for now.

He did not know the time, how long he had been with her, nor how long she had lain caught in the depths of sleep. Time had no meaning in this world they had come to inhabit; it was an irrelevant force situated somewhere below them, below the entirety of SG-1. Without intending to, Samantha Carter had effectively invalidated time itself. O'Neill shook his head and then rubbed his eyes with his free hand; that thought was too big. Way too big.

The curtains rustled behind him and parted, permitting access to General Hammond and Doctor Fraiser. O'Neill glanced up and nodded briefly to both parties, his eyebrows arched in question.

"Just came to see how she was doing, Colonel," the general assured him, silently noting the sight of his officers' intertwined hands. He supposed he should say something; he supposed that this grievous event had the capacity to catalyze into something decidedly against regulations; and he also supposed that he would not care should that reality come into being. Regulations be damned; he was not about to deny healing and happiness to two of his finest officers. Five years ago such a situation would have caused him great upset, but now, amongst what looked to be the bitter ruin of his finest team, he found himself contrarily swayed.

"She fell asleep awhile ago," O'Neill replied, aware of his proximity to his second-in-command in the presence of their senior officer, but particularly uncaring.

"How was she after Daniel and I left?" Dr. Fraiser intoned, pen hovering inches away from her ever-present clipboard.

"Uh…" O'Neill drew a deep breath and sifted through the many thoughts, emotions, and images that had surfaced since that time. He was quiet for a moment more before continuing. "She started to zone out again, but she came out of it quick enough. She drank some water, went to sleep." He shrugged his shoulders, before his face darkened suddenly. "Oh. She also slipped back to '275 for a couple minutes."

"Slipped back?" Hammond's eyebrows shifted around his brow, confused at the colonel's terminology.

"Flashback," he stated simply.

Dr. Fraiser's head cocked in reproach. "Next time that happens, call me over. Female victims of sexual assault usually don't respond well to men coming out of flashbacks. Seeing you immediately after she recovers might not bode well with her psychologically."

"Doc, she asked me to help her while she was flashback…ing. I'm pretty sure we were okay."

"But, sir—"

"What happened to 'Be patient, sir. She's going to need you.', huh? Didn't you just—"

"Yes, sir. I did tell you that. And I still expect that you're going to need to be patient. She's extremely fragile right now, and perhaps not entirely aware of her circumstances. I was shocked when she didn't adversely respond to you and Daniel being in the room when she woke up."

O'Neill rolled his eyes. "What were you expecting? After five years of saving each other's asses she was suddenly going to not trust us?"

Dr. Fraiser nodded, her eyes soft. "Yes, I did. And it's still a possibility, sir."

"I'm sure it is, Doctor," he responded tersely. "But that hasn't happened yet, has it?"

"No, sir, I'm just trying to prepare you for what mig—"

"Trying to prepare me to deal with the trauma of a member of my team?" The colonel's eyes flashed irately as he recalled the gory images wrought upon him by his time in Black Ops. "I think I wrote the book, Doctor."

"She's not just a member of your team, Jack."

O'Neill's eyes, rushed with passion and rage, bolted to the general's firm, sympathetic stare. After a moment, the colonel's body relaxed resignedly into the support of his chair and he stared intently at his knees. Disengaging his hand from Carter's, he mentally braced himself for the reprimand he was certain he was about to receive.

Hammond took a breath and continued, weighing his words, yet refusing to mince them to accommodate the volatile nature of the situation. If anything, O'Neill needed to be slapped with the obvious truth as a notice of permission. "I don't know how deep your feelings run for Major Carter, but I'm an observant man. Now, I know it's none of my business, son, but regulations be damned."

O'Neill's head snapped up at this curt dismissal of military propriety. Certain he had misunderstood his commanding officer, he ventured, "Sir?"

"You heard me, Colonel." Turning to Dr. Fraiser, he added, "Keep me apprised on her condition, Doctor. I want to talk to her as soon as she wakes up."

Fraiser nodded. "Yes, sir."

Unable to keep the incredulity out of his gaze, O'Neill stared open-mouthed at the retreating back of General Hammond. Shifting to glance side-long at Fraiser, he asked, "Did you just hear that?"

Fraiser shook her head and kept her eyes locked on the clipboard. "I didn't hear a thing, Colonel."

O'Neill blinked once. And then he blinked again. "No," he drawled, still held tightly in the grip of astonishment. "No, of course you didn't." Clearing his throat, he took Carter's hand in his again, this time heartened, yet still markedly shocked, by the knowledge that he would not be forced to relinquish his grasp again. "So…" he began, looking up at the doctor. "Call you when she wakes up?"

Fraiser nodded. "I think that would be best, sir. As soon as she's able, I've arranged a psychological evaluation. The sooner she gets it over with, the better, I think." She pegged him with her eyes, and drew a deep breath. "The longer it's put off, the greater the chances of her being denied future active field duty."

"She is gonna get through this, Doc." O'Neill insisted, uncertain whether he was speaking to assuage her or himself. "She's gonna be going through those gates again faster than we can say—"

"Jack…" The grip on his fingers tightened as Carter's eyes gradually eased open.

"Right here," he told her, his thumb reassuringly rubbing her fingers. "Janet's here, too."

Janet took a quick inventory of the monitors. "How are you feeling, Sam?"

O'Neill heard Carter's breath hitch as she looked distractedly at the bedspread, her lips parting slightly as if to respond. But nothing came.

Her mouth closed again and her eyes slipped tightly shut. Her fingers curled against his palm and he could feel her nails scrape gently across his skin.

He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. "Sam," he whispered.

Her eyes opened then, and she nodded in lieu of words, and gripped O'Neill's hand with an urgency that belied her injuries. Slowly, almost ashamedly, Carter's eyes drew across the plain of the bedspread with the intent of finding his, but discovered that she was unable to meet his gaze. She felt his finger gently crook beneath her chin, guiding her eyes through the last steps of their journey. Choking back the tears springing to life in the back of her throat, she allowed herself a few brief moments to revel unabashedly in the tenderness utterly apparent in his eyes, the lines on his face, the taut corners of his mouth, before dissolving into a heap of shuddering, prostrated sobs.


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