Chapter 9

Sam had no idea how long they'd been moving since they'd left the foul water of the swamp behind them. She could still smell it on herself though; caked in drying mud. It was starting to make her nauseous. She was cold. So damn cold. She could feel herself shivering but couldn't stop it. The sun was still out; it was warm on her skin whenever the canopy was thin enough to let it break through. But it wasn't enough to warm her. Her mind was starting to drift. She knew it, but couldn't seem to stop that either. Strange, the thoughts that come into your mind when you walk, she thought.

Cookies. She hadn't thought of baking cookies in a long time. She used to enjoy it. Her mom had taught her. She'd said they would start with cookies and move to learning the basics of cooking meals from there. Her favourite was double chocolate chip. Sam could almost smell them. They'd never made it past the cookies.

She stumbled and just barely kept herself from toppling. She thought she heard someone say something, but couldn't quite make it out. One foot in front of the other, she told herself. Just keep moving one foot in front of the other. She felt the squelching of her wet socks in her boots. She stared at the ground; she didn't have the energy to move her head so she could look at anything else anyway. She saw the root poking up out of the ground in front of her, she tried to avoid it but her legs wouldn't move the way she wanted. God, they hurt. Her foot caught, she felt herself trip, but her momentum was stopped by a strong something, gripping her arm and pulling her upright. She blinked up and saw Teal'c. Right. They were in trouble. They had to get to the 'gate and home. His lips moved; he was saying something but she hadn't a clue what it was. She found her feet under her and locked her knees that wanted to buckle. She tried to smile, but didn't know if she'd managed it.

She kept walking.

Her thighs were burning. Think of something else, she told herself, anything else. But she couldn't anymore. Her mind was fuzzy. She held something in her hands, but wasn't sure what it was. Her arms were numb, nothing but a slight, unpleasant tingle in them. Her vision was blurred, black was creeping in at the edges. She thought she should tell someone, but couldn't think how. She felt her legs wobbling beneath her with every step. Pain was all she knew now. Her lungs were on fire; her chest felt small, like it was shrinking and pressing in on them. She didn't know how she would take her next breath.

And then she was stopped. Though it hurt and took a great deal of effort, she lifted her head. Vaguely she looked around and saw Teal'c's big hand leave her shoulder. Daniel was lying down in the dirt a metre away from her, legs and arms splayed. The Colonel was looking around...safe, she thought. To make it safe. She wanted to collapse but couldn't even do that. Her knees were locked in place. She felt herself panting, gasping for breath. She rubbed at her chest to make it grow bigger again; to let the air in, but it wouldn't work. Pain speared up her legs, her spine and ignited in her chest. She clamped her mouth closed to stop the scream. When it finally abated, she felt herself crumple to the ground. Her stomach contracted and she heaved, vomiting until there was nothing left inside her but her own blood. She lay there, quiet, unable to move. She didn't want to move.

She was moved, though. She felt herself being turned over; the single star in the grey sky above the trees hurt her eyes. But she saw them – the Colonel, Daniel and Teal'c. Someone was touching her face with something relatively soft.

"Sam? It's okay, we've got you."

"What the hell did they do to her?"

She could hear them - see their animated faces as they discussed something - but she couldn't grasp the meaning of the words. She felt as though she were floating. Only the steady hands on her grounded her, let her know that she wasn't about to float up into the sky and be lost to the cosmos. The blackness that had been creeping in at the edges of her vision expanded...until the only face left was the Colonel's as he crouched down next to her. His forehead was creased in concern and then he disappeared. She felt something warm touch her hand. Then she didn't feel anything.

~~~SG1~~~

"Are you telling me they tortured the crap out of her, and then she spent God knows how long..."

Sam moaned. Did they have to be so loud? Wasn't it enough that her head was pounding? That everything was aching? She wanted to rub at her eyes to make them open, but couldn't move her arm above an inch. Eventually, she managed to get them to pull apart. A forest. The memories poured back into her sluggish mind...they were still offworld. More stars dotted the darkening sky. She tried to move, to get up. But all she managed to do was turn her head and she couldn't help letting another groan escape.

"Carter?" Something was batting at her face and she tried to move her head away from it. "Can you hear me?"

"Sir?" She wasn't entirely sure who'd asked.

"Yeah, Carter. Wakey, wakey." When her eyes finally focused she found the Colonel leaning over her. He was wearing a familiar scowl. She found it strangely comforting and a part of her wanted to laugh.

She had to swallow to be sure her voice would work. "Sorry, sir," was all she could think to say.

His voice gentled. "You think you can get up? We're not too far from the 'gate and I don't wanna hang around in one place too long."

"Jack!"

"Shut up, Daniel!"

Right, she thought, the men who had captured them might have discovered their escape by now. She had to get up, whether she liked it or not. "Yes, sir."

But there was just not enough left in her to manage it. She started to collapse back onto the ground, but she felt a pair of arms slip under her back to catch her. Teal'c slowly pulled her up, giving her time to adjust. Her legs were still killing her and they felt like jelly, but at least her lungs were only smouldering now and she didn't feel like she was going to pass out again.

"I will assist you, Major Carter." She thought about protesting, but she knew that this time she wasn't going anywhere without help.

"Thanks Teal'c."

The Colonel gave her a small sip of water from his canteen and then told Daniel to take Teal'c's zat. She hobbled alongside Teal'c.

She knew poor Teal'c was taking most, if not all of her weight now. But she couldn't do anything about it. She kept losing a grip on things; zoning out so that when she would manage to focus back in on what was happening around her, it took her a moment to remember where she was. It was at once an eternity and only a few seconds when they finally reached the Stargate.

She felt Teal'c settle her down on the ground. She gazed dazedly around for a moment before she realised they'd made it and she was sitting just near the stone steps, but well away from the 'gate.

She dropped her head in her hand and drew in one long, relieved breath, trying to clear the rest of the cobwebs from her mind. Black boots intruded on the periphery of her vision. When she looked up, she saw they belonged to the Colonel.

"How ya doin', Carter?"

"I'm fine, sir."

He nodded down at her, an enigmatic smirk twitched at his lips and she wondered what he was smiling at. She heard the deep rumble and clash as the 'gate came alive and the first chevron was locked. She looked over to see Daniel punching the symbols into the DHD. For some reason, she wished she had a camera so she could take a photo of him right there in that moment.

She looked back up at the Colonel when the 'gate roared with connection and the event horizon hurled itself out of the centre. He wasn't watching the 'gate, but kept his eyes on the trees through which they'd come. Sam reached up a hand for Teal'c to help her, but...

"I got it, T. You and Daniel head on through, we're right behind ya." The Colonel gripped her hand and pulled her up, his palm was warm in hers and she could feel the heat of his other hand on her waist as he steadied her. "So, were you gonna tell me what happened back there, before you guys effected my rescue?"

"I figured it could wait for the mission debriefing, sir."

He just nodded for several seconds and Sam just barely registered the slurp as Daniel and Teal'c passed through the 'gate.

"That red lightening was a hell of a thing, wasn't it?" His eyes were serious now as they held hers.

"Yes, sir," she admitted.

The fact that he'd admitted to the same was not lost on her. She felt herself genuinely smile, despite her exhaustion, and shrugged. His eyes softened and he gifted her with a smirk of his own. And then he turned toward the 'gate. She'd forgotten his hands hadn't left her until he'd removed them. But he gripped her elbow and helped her up the stairs.

"Sir," she started to say once they'd reached the 'gate, but she didn't need to continue. He released her.

"Your own steam?"

"Something like that, sir."

She shuffled along next to him as they approached the event horizon, and tried to draw herself up so she could step onto the ramp at the SGC with some measure of dignity. If she passed out after that, she didn't really care.

~~~SG1~~~

Showered, clean, dry and warm, Jack was feeling human again. His muscles had stopped their twitching under the hot spray and even the dull ache was fading since he'd taken the nice pills Doc Frasier had pushed at him. The General had met up with them in the infirmary – where they'd wheeled Carter almost the instant they'd come through the 'gate – and upon the Doc's insistence had agreed to postpone the full debriefing till the following day. Though Jack had told him he might want to lock those particular coordinates out of the dialling computer, for future reference.

He pushed through the infirmary door and found Carter lying peacefully in one of the beds. Daniel and Teal'c were sitting atop an adjoining bed, in the midst of a rousing game of Go Fish. Jack shook his head; it was Teal'c's favourite card game. He really needed to make the time to teach the man some poker. Maybe he'd enlist Carter's help. Though that might not be a good idea...she could probably count cards or something. He swiped a chair that was sitting in the corner and made himself at home between the two beds. Chess was about the only game he could beat her in... and he strongly suspected she wasn't really trying very hard.

"Do you have a Queen, Daniel Jackson?"

"Teal'c, are you sure you shuffled these after the last game?"

Jack let the quiet voices of his friends fade into the background as he fixed his eyes on Carter. She was still pale, but at least her brow was smooth and relaxed; her breathing, slow and even. Doc Frasier had said that whatever that bastard had used on them had packed one hell of a punch...something about severe muscles spasms and other medical gobbledygook that Jack wasn't interested in. He just wanted to know what was wrong with her and how they were gonna fix it. He'd only been hit a couple times and he was still feeling sore. From what Daniel and T had told him, Carter had been chained up and zapped over and over - neither of them could say how long it had been - till she'd passed out. Jack had to work to quell the surge of anger that welled inside him at the thought. It was over, they were home, and with any luck Dr Evil was sitting in hell right now, spitting rubble out of his ass. The Doc had said time and rest were all that was needed. He was going to make damn sure she got it.

"I have thirty four cards."

"Eighteen. You win...again."

"Indeed."

Jack glanced over when Daniel slid off the infirmary bed. "Looks like Sam's finally resting nicely. I'm going to get some sleep."

"I too shall retreat to my quarters, O'Neill."

Jack just nodded and watched them leave, noting that Daniel was dragging a little. T checked his pace to keep from overtaking him. They all needed their rest.

Jack stretched his legs out and dropped his head against the wall, closing his eyes. Whether an hour had passed or only a minute, he couldn't be sure when he heard the rustle of stiff sheets. He opened his eyes to see Carter turn over. She was still asleep, and he watched her curl her hands up under her chin in that way she had. He kept watching and eventually the dark lashes against her pale skin fluttered and with a slight crinkle of her nose she opened her bleary eyes.

"Hey there, Carter." He leaned forward in the chair so she wouldn't have to move to see him

"Hi, sir." Her voice was a little croaky, but she managed to focus on him.

"You should get some more sleep. Doc says a few more hours and you'll be feeling better."

With a little cough, she cleared her throat and her voice was stronger when she spoke again. "Do you think Janet will let me out of here, now?"

"Hah! Not a chance."

"I didn't think so."

It was strange to think of it, but she seemed to despise the infirmary almost as much as he did. They were nothing alike, the two of them, and yet... sometimes he felt they were the same. He shook his head at himself.

"Sir?"

He glanced back up at her. Her cheek was resting on her hands now. And he remembered with a sudden clarity the way she'd touched her single finger to his lips to remind him not to breathe without her.

"So you know..." He got to his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets; stifling the urge to sweep a lock of hair behind her ear. "I was wondering how you'll write this up in your mission report?"

"Colonel?" Her brows drew together, confused.

"Well, Carter, you gotta admit...I took your breath away."

She beamed up at him. The sun shone bright and warm, though it was midnight outside the mountain, and Jack strode casually into the corridors of the SGC on a mission to get some shuteye.

~~~~~~~~SG1~~~~~~~~