Every. Step. Hurt. Flames flared in his skull with each impact of boot on sand, white hot pain searing his brain and leaving his vision a useless blur. Even his brief pauses brought little relief as the hot desert sun sun slowly baked him where he stood. It took every bit of his remaining strength to simply maintain consciousness - to stay upright - to keep moving forward.
The thrum of an engine, loud in the utter quiet, approached across the dunes. Jack threw himself down onto the ground, the abrupt movement and jar of landing sending new pain spiking through him. Curling helplessly into a fetal ball, he waited, hardly daring to breathe, expecting at any moment shouts of discovery followed by rapid gunfire followed by… nothing.
And he would have welcomed it. Almost. Except for her. So, when the truck had passed, leaving him undiscovered, he resisted the urge to simply stay, to let the sand embrace him in its warmth and to just sleep. Into oblivion…
But he couldn't. He wouldn't. She wouldn't let him. Her image swam before him through the haze of heat and pain, her love giving him the strength to pull himself back together. To get back on his feet and start moving forward. He had to see her again - would see her again - couldn't leave her alone in grief.
His pain was unimportant. Hers, insufferable.
So he continued on, one step at a time, mile after painful mile, minutes blurring into hours then into days.
It was cold. Mind numbingly, snot freezingly cold. Even breathing hurt - the shock of icy air hitting her lungs like a physical blow. The young Air Force captain's frozen fingers fumbled - again - with the stiff bandages. The frigid cold made doing anything at all problematic at best. Getting the Colonel's leg into a proper splint was proving nearly impossible. And she wasn't sure how much longer she could bear the pain in his eyes, or the muscle spasms under her hands as she worked. She was taking far too long, her ineptitude at the task under these conditions had hurt him far too much already.
As much to control her own rising panic as to distract him from the pain, she asked, "Is this your first broken bone?"
Stammering, trying to speak through his pain, no doubt knowing exactly why she had asked, he answered, "I'd a... I'd a... No. This will be.. This will be.. Uh.. Nine. If you count skull fractures."
She hadn't expected to really be curious. "How'd you manage that?"
"Little parachuting mishap, over the borders of Iran and Iraq, back in eighty….." he trailed off, and she used the moment to shift her hold. "Ah!"
She had to straighten his leg again. "Okay… this is going to hurt sir…"
"Uh.. I know - I know - I know…"
He had started wincing even before she'd started to manipulate the bone, and Sam couldn't bear the raw panic in this man who always seemed so absolutely in control. Desperate for a distraction, she continued, "So, what happened?"
"I hit the ground. Go figure…." And, as she wrapped his leg again: "Ah!"
He was suddenly quieter, his eyes starting to grow glossy with the pain. She was terribly afraid she had somehow done more harm than good.
"My chute… opened a little late.. And it hurt. Just like that."
"I'm sorry Colonel, I'm doing the best I can."
"I know you are, Captain. Can you just be done?"
But she wasn't done. "So you hit the ground, and….?"
Through gritted teeth, he tried again to stop her. "And … they all… lived… happily ever after."
"Almost there… almost there…"
"No, you're there, Captain, you're there. That's a great splint, stop. Stop….. Ah."
With his final gasp, she had finished positioning his leg. Resuming her wrapping, she continued, more softly, "So, how long before you were rescued?"
"No rescue. Wasn't exactly an… an official… mission. If you know what I mean. So, I had to make it out on my own. Nine days."
"Wow." She really was impressed. Surviving for nine days without medical treatment after a parachute mishap - let alone walking to safety - seemed impossible, even for a man as strong-willed as the Colonel. "What got you through it?"
"Your wife." Sam had expected words of wisdom about devotion to duty and country or perseverance or something along those lines. She hadn't expected that answer. Something that personal.
"At the time. I had to see her again."
As Sam looked at the Colonel, she could still see the remembered love clearly reflected in his face and in his voice, despite all that had happened between him and his wife since. Every time she thought she was starting to figure him out, she seemed to find a new layer to this man - depth hidden behind the unemotional warrior he tried to show the world.
When, much later, after all hope of rescue or return was gone and there was nothing left but to wait for the end, Sam curled closely against Jack, needing comfort at the end in knowing she was not alone.
"Sara...," he murmured into her hair, struggling even then, refusing to quit.
She knew then there was one thing she could give him - this man who had spent his last hours trying to bring her hope. "I'm here Jack."
"Cold… So cold." The colonel, who she'd seen literally laugh in the face of death, sounded suddenly like a frightened child, trying to excuse his own weakness.
But it wasn't weakness. His strength had kept them both alive longer that she would have thought possible. "I know. It's all right. You can sleep now." And as she spoke, finally giving him permission to let himself go, he relaxed under her, his breathing evening into the rhythms of sleep. She had failed to bring them home, but at least she could bring him peace.
They were, in the end, rescued despite Sam's failure. Afterwards, she would often find herself watching the Colonel closely, almost imagining she could still see the love that had been reflected in his eyes as he'd looked back into his past with Sara, and she'd wonder what it would be like to have those eyes look at her that way - to be loved by anyone as totally as her CO had loved his ex-wife. But Sam knew, realistically, that her life was full enough already. Romance, even if she ever decided she wanted it, was going to have to wait. Still, a part of her she rarely admitted existed, even to herself, couldn't help wishing that one day, she might find a love like that.
Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter stepped through the Stargate and into the SGC's embarkation room. Her eyes immediately sought and found those of Brigadier General Jack O'Neill as he stood watch in the control room. As their eyes met, she could see what few others would even notice - the barely perceptible relaxing of muscles as he let himself finally believe that she was alive and well and really back in the 'Gate room. And she had only been gone six hours.
Jack's upcoming promotion and transfer to Washington would take place weeks before her own move to Area 51; and as hard as it was now, they both knew his transfer would only make it worse. They had learned, through the pain of hard experience, that, as difficult as it might be to go, the greater trial belonged to the one who remained behind.