"I'm sorry, Carter."
"This isn't your fault, Sir."
Sam was right, there really wasn't anyone to blame, yet Jack felt responsible none the less. He didn't bother looking around the room that he'd called 'home' for the past week. He knew the place by heart anyway. He just sat on the floor starting at Sam.
Laying on the floor Sam looked close to death. She had her eyes closed, but she wasn't even trying to sleep. Every breath took energy and each one seemed to threaten to be her last. Blood streaked her skin, dried sweat had left a lace pattern in salt across it as well. Her brow furrowed as though she was going to start crying, but she reined in her emotions and held any tears at bay.
The mission had been dangerous, everyone knew that. The chances of success were small, everyone had known that as well. Even the idea that they could be captured had been on everyone's mind from the start.
The fact that someone had betrayed them before they had even started, that was not such common knowledge. Sam was now paying the price for that betrayal. The Goa'uld that had capitalized on the compromised mission was a ruthless creature, even by Goa'uld standards. A week in his hands had taken years off her life, and Jack feared that it may yet prove to take them all.
Sam's thirst was painfully obvious, she kept swallowing convulsively against her dry throat. Jack couldn't remember the last time he's had anything to drink either, but his own thirst didn't enter into his mind. He glanced up at the pitcher of water, its ice long since melted, that was sitting across the room. However, he didn't make any move to retrieve the clean water, it couldn't help her.
A sudden chill seized Sam's frame. Jack watched anxiously as Sam convulsed sickeningly. He wished he could do something, he wished he could ease her pain and fear. Although if he only had one wish he would wish to take her place. However, he knew from a week's worth of agonizing experience in this hell hole that the only thing he could do was watch and wait for it to be over.
The shaking eventually subsided and Sam was able to calm her breathing down once again. She opened her light blue eyes and looked up at Jack. He forced a comforting smile. Sam tried to return the gesture, but failed. For an unknown length of time they waited in silence.
"Sir, please...talk to me."
"What should I say?"
"Just looking to hear a friendly voice?"
"Okay...um, so..." Jack cleared his throat. "A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel in his pants."
Sam furrowed her brow and turned her head to look up at Jack.
"The bartender notices the pirate limping," Jack continued "and says: 'that wheel must hurt'. To which the pirate nods vigorously and replies: 'Aarr! It's drive'en me nuts!'."
Sam thought about this for a moment and then a bright smile lit up her face. For a fraction of a second, despite the sweat and blood, she looked once again like the beautiful young woman he'd fallen in love with all those years ago. Her smile faded quickly, but it proved that she was still with him.
For the next hour or so Jack recalled every off colour joke he could remember. Sam faded in and out of consciousness, however she chuckled several times and whenever he would stop she would look to him for the next one.
"...wrecked 'em? It damn near killed 'em."
Sam chuckled out loud, pressing her hand against her stomach as she did so. This time Jack smiled as well. Tears suddenly slipped down Jack's face when Sam's mirth turned to a wracking pain. He reached out to brush her cheek, stopping himself just a fraction of an inch from her skin. He held his hand near her until the shaking subsided. When he pulled away Sam looked up and locked her aqua eyes on his dark ones. She forced a weak smile as tears traced from the corners of her eyes as well.
"I'm so sorry, Carter." Jack repeated.
"I thought we already discussed that this isn't your fault, Sir."
"No, it's not." Jack admitted. "However, that's not what I'm talking about."
Sam gave him a confused look.
"I'm sorry for being such a coward...you deserve better."
"Coward?" Sam repeated in concern. "You are without question the bravest man I know."
"Then why haven't I ever told you that I love you?"
Sam's eyes widened in shock. She took what strength she had left to push herself up. She couldn't make it quite to sitting up, instead settled on holding herself up on her elbows. Jack wasn't even daring to breath at the moment. Sam opened her mouth to speak several times before finding her voice.
Unable to truly find words in her battered state Sam simply forced herself up higher. She brought her lips just within touching Jack's own before stopping. He made no move forward, the gap between then could barely hold a piece of paper, yet at the same time they were a Universe apart. They held their position as if waiting for someone to take a photo of the moment. Unable to make contact Sam closed her eyes as tears slipped down her face once again.
"This isn't fair." Sam whispered.
"No, it isn't."
Without warning Sam gasped and pulled away from Jack. With the look of a cornered animal she looked around the room frantically. Jack's heart pounded painfully, their tormentor was returning. Sam could reconize his footsteps. She had been up against her breaking point for days, with the threat of the Goa'uld's approach Jack knew she was on the verge of shattering.
Even though Sam knew in her mind that there was no escape her frightened heart demanded that she try to find one. When she began hyperventilating Jack took a deep breath to calm himself before trying to calm her.
"Carter," Jack whispered softly "Carter, look at me."
Abandoning her pointless search Sam brought her attention to Jack.
"Deep breath." Jack instructed. "I know that sounds lame, but trust me."
Sam nodded hesitantly and slowed her breathing with deep, purposeful breaths. She was beginning to shake, but there was nothing either one of them could do to fix that. Tears stained her already salty cheeks as she gagged slightly from fearful anticipation.
"I'm sorry." Sam said in as strong a tone as she could manage.
"You have every right to be afraid, there is no shame in it. But just remember how strong you are, you are going to survive this...help is coming."
This time Sam nodded with more conviction. Jack was so focused on bringing Sam back from the edge of panic that he hadn't even noticed Nirgali entering the scene. The ancient Goa'uld in the guise of the Babylonian god of death and pestilence strode up to them with a sadistic grin spread across his sallow face.
In his hand he casually held a innocent looking metal staff about three feet in length. Jack didn't recognize it, it wasn't exactly a pain stick. It wasn't as fancy, it didn't give the melodramatic light show that the pain stick did. Although it couldn't be seen he knew the effects were just as torturous.
Nirgali reached down and gently brushed his free hand against Sam's shoulders. She weld her eyes shut, but did not turn to face him. Jack had his jaw clenched so tightly he was in danger of breaking a tooth, however he did his best to look impassive.
"Have you given my offer any more thought?" Nirgali asked in his deep reverberating voice.
"Not really." Jack shrugged. "Why don't you give a few more days to think it over. It will give us a chance to come up with a stronger word for 'no' since you don't seem to understand that answer."
"You dare to insult my intelligence?"
"It wasn't an insult."
"Then perhaps it was a sad attempt at humour?"
When Jack didn't respond Nirgali raised the staff in his hand and gently rested the tip between Sam's shoulder blades. The effect was instantaneous and Sam cried out in animalistic pain. In the beginning she had tried to hide the staff's effects on her, she had growled and panted, but never screamed. However at this point she did not have the strength for secrets.
Jack closed his eyes to give her a sense of privacy even though he could still hear her strained voice. When it was over Sam dropped back to the floor. Laying on her side she stared forward sightlessly as she drew increasingly deep shuddering breaths.
"Did you find that amusing?" Nirgali chuckled.
Jack opened his eyes slowly. Rather than glaring up at the Goa'uld he kept his eyes locked on Sam. Eventually she looked up at him and flashed him a weak smile. Nirgali caught the silent communication between the pair and jabbed Sam hard in the back with the staff. This time Sam was simply reduced to a bitter weeping.
"I will kill you." Jack snarled.
"If that were true you wouldn't sitting there doing nothing." Nirgali gloated.
Jack finally took his eyes off Sam and stared up at Nirgali with an intensity that suggested that he truly believed he could kill the Goa'uld with his glare alone. In response Nirgali brought the tip of the staff within an inch of Jack's chest. Jack didn't flinch, he didn't even blink. He and the Goa'uld simply stared each other down. The silence was only broken by the soft sounds of Sam's weeping.
"I can not decide if you are a man of extraordinary honour, or one without it entirely." Nirgali said in a conversational tone. "You should spare this beautiful creature such pain, we both know you are going to give me what I want eventually. Why do you insist on believing otherwise? Just give me what I want."
"I would give you anything to end this, but I can't give you something that I don't have."
"Then I suggest you get it." Nirgali snarled.
"Believe me, I wish I had that power. If I did, I could kill you with it."
The Goa'uld's patients with this game was clearly running out. He placed his heavy boot on Sam's shoulder and forced her to lie on her back. Jack looked away as Nirgali went to press his staff against her stomach. Sam's strained voice split open the air once again. Unable to stop himself Jack began dry heaving violently. Even after she had passed out Jack continued to wretch as bile stung his throat.
By the time he had his stomach under control Nirgali was gone. Sam was completely motionless other than the slight rise and fall of her chest. Sweat beaded her skin making her look a though she was fighting a fever. Fresh blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and mixed the dried version that already stained her throat.
"Goddamn it, Daniel, where the hell are you?"
Jack had hoped that speaking Daniel's name might help actually bring the man to him. However, after an hour of staring blankly at the wall no rescue arrived. Exhausted physically and emotionally Jack laid down on the floor next to Sam's crumpled body.
He wasn't sure how long he slept, however when he woke he snapped his eyes open to the vague shapes of intruders. Acting on a combination of instinct and training Jack automatically placed himself over Sam and snarled at the new comers like a jackal defending a carcass from a pack of hyenas.
"I am at your side."
Sitting back Jack furrowed his brow and looked over to see Teal'c standing just a few feet away. A relief he never thought he'd feel washed over him, draining what little energy he had left. He closed his eyes for a moment.
"Bring her home, Daniel."
Daniel simply nodded. Teal'c bent down and lifted Sam up with a gentle touch that Jack didn't usually associate with the large Jaffa. His heart lurched when Sam didn't stir as she was raised up. Daniel read the look in Jack's eyes and pressed his fingertips against Sam's ivory throat. He looked at Jack and gave him a slight reassuring nod.
Without another word Daniel and Teal'c took Sam from the room. Jack didn't watch them go. Still sitting on the floor he just stared at the place where she had laid. When he found the courage he reached out and picked up the small device in front of him. He turned over the tiny box with its jewel like surface.
Taking his eyes off the box Jack looked up at the SGC briefing room that surrounded him. The large table had been pushed to the side, along with the chairs, and he had locked all the doors. Getting to his feet Jack dropped the device on the floor. He wanted to crush it, destroy it for what it had done, but he knew he wasn't strong enough to.
Seemingly frozen in time Jack stared down at the glittering device. It had been left in the place where Sam had been stolen. It was unlike anything that they had come across, but it only took a few hours before its use became clear.
The hologram that it projected was so lifelike that it had taken Jack days to stop trying to reach out and touch the visions. The arrogant Goa'uld's laughter had grated against Jack's ears every time he had swung his fist through the face that wasn't really there.
He had wanted nothing more than to go on the mission to physically save Sam from the snake. However, someone had to keep Nirgali talking, someone had to make the Goa'uld feel like he was being listened to, and above all someone had to keep Sam sane during it all.
Jack had wondered more than once if this was what it had been like for Daniel when he had been the Ascended observer. At the time Jack thought there could be nothing worse than being under Ba'al's cruel hand. He knew know that it was a far harder thing to watch and be powerless.
Shaking off the thought Jack wandered over to the briefing room table. There was a simple letter laid out on the wooden surface. He didn't read it, he already knew what it said, seeing as he was the author.
"It's not over yet." Jack sighed to himself.
Walking over to the large glass window that looked over the Gateroom Jack put his palm on it. Waiting alone was almost as painful as listening to Sam crying. He stared at the inactive Gate, willing it to open. When the first chevron sprang to life Jack's heart almost failed from the stress of it. He rushed into the Control Room. Medical was already in the Gateroom, at the ready. After the vortex snapped out the young Captain went to close the iris.
"Leave it open."
"You heard me."
The Captain followed orders and kept the Gate unprotected. It was a dangerous call, but Jack had already promised Daniel they'd leave the front door open for them. Teal'c stepped through the Gate first with Sam held in his arms as though they were posing for the cover of a harlequin novel. Blood dripped from a nasty staff blast wound on the outside of his upper thigh, but he did not seem concerned with his injury.
Jack's eyes searched the shimmering pool of blinding light, waiting for Daniel. He breathed a sigh of relief as Daniel joined the others on the ramp and the wormhole snapped shut. Although there was no blood on him Daniel was holding his left arm close to his body protectively. He jerked back defensively when one of the medical team reached out to touch him. Guarding his injured arm Daniel allowed them to lead him off to the infirmary.
Knowing he would be in the way in the infirmary during the first few minutes Jack retreated to the briefing room. The once innocent room now held a dark feel to it, as though it remembered what had transpired there. Walking up to the letter on the table Jack picked up the pen next to it and added his name to the bottom.
Unable to stay away any longer Jack rushed down to the infirmary. The scene was one of organized chaos. He was quickly informed that Teal'c had already been taken to surgery. Sam was laying unconscious on one of the infirmary beds, strung up to several IVs and various beeping devices. As Jack stepped up to her bed a random nurse seized his hand and with practiced skill placed an IV in the back of it.
"What are you doing?"
"I can see you're dehydrated from here, Sir." Janet called over her shoulder before turning back to Daniel. "Daniel, if you don't let go of your arm, I can't help you."
"I'm fine, help Sam."
"She's actually surprisingly stable. Now stop changing the subject." Janet snapped. "Can you look to the right for me?"
Without thought of the consequences Daniel followed the doctor's orders. With the speed of a striking snake Janet lashed out and slammed her palm against the front of Daniel's shoulder. Daniel screamed in a mixture of surprise and pain. Sam jerked awake forcing Jack to hold her down to keep her from hurting herself.
"Daniel?!" Sam cried in panic. "Daniel!"
"It's okay, Carter."
"They caught him! I can hear him!"
"No, no, it's all right. He and Teal'c brought you back, you're home."
"Wh...what's happening to him?"
"They're just...uh..." Jack looked over to the medical staff surrounding Daniel. "What exactly are you doing to him?"
"Resetting his dislocated shoulder."
"Ouch," Jack hissed in sympathy "sounds painful."
"It is." Daniel moaned pitifully. "But I'll live."
"Ah, good to hear." Jack turned back to Sam. "See? He'll be fine, it's not even broken."
Sam didn't look assured. Her terrified eyes raced around the room. Finally being able to make contact Jack lightly touched her cheek with the back of his hand. Sam gasped in surprise and she instantly reached up and snatched his wrist. To convince herself that he was real she pressed her face harder against his hand. The corner of Sam's lip twitched in a smile before she passed out.
Tied to his own IV stand Jack settled for sitting in a chair next to the sleeping Sam. Unlike her restless semicomatose state before she now looked peaceful, as if truly just sleeping. Daniel had been given a host of pain medications and was currently sleeping as well, slowly soaking his pillow with drool. Teal'c was still recovering from surgery, but Jack had been told that he was doing well.
As the hours passed the chaos in the infirmary died down and eventually as the Base turned to night the calm was restored. Jack drifted in and out of sleep in the chair at Sam's side. When he fully came to he looked around and discovered everyone at rest. The night nurse smiled at him and ducked into the next room to allow for some privacy.
Still hardly believing that Sam was here in the flesh he smoothed out her hair. Whatever pain Nirgali's staff caused it had seared its mark into her hair. Sam's once pure golden blonde was now streaked with bright silver. Jack smiled sadly. He couldn't stop touching her, he took her hand and held it.
Another hour or so past. Jack spent the time just staring at the broken Colonel. Sam's lax grip suddenly strengthened. Jack held his breath as Sam's eyes fluttered open. She looked up at Jack and instantly reached up to touch his face. A smile spread across her lips as he nuzzled against her hand.
"You're really here." Sam breathed.
"Or rather you are really here." Jack teased.
"I don't know yet, Teal'c been in surgery, and Daniel..." Jack looked over at the heavily drugged archeologist "he's not saying much, nothing that makes sense anyway. How are you feeling?"
"Never better, Sir."
"You...uh...you don't have to call me 'Sir' anymore."
"I've been discharged?" Sam asked distressed.
"No, of course not." Jack shook his head and chuckled. "I...I retired ...again. It's going to stick this time, I swear."
"Sir..." Sam hesitated, she licked her lips nervously "you...you aren't giving up your career...for me...you can't."
"I can't or you don't want me too?"
Sam was at a loss for words.
"I know I'm...a bit older, don't know how much life I have left to offer, and of course now that I've resigned from the Air Force there's a good chance that I'm out of a job...which doesn't make me much of a financial cat..."
Jack was cut off as Sam reached up and snaked her hands into his hair. She used the purchase to pull herself up and him down at the same time so that they met in an aggressive kiss. Jack found it difficult to continue the passionate kiss and contain his ear to ear grin. Still not recovered from her ordeal Sam was forced to break off and lay back. Sam kept her grip on Jack's hand as he gently caressed her brow.
"So..." Sam purred. "What finally gave you the courage?"
"I promised myself that if we lived through this...I wouldn't spend another second of my life unable to touch you."