Title: The Night, All Along
Author: magistrate
Rating: T.
Genre: Gen character study. Angst, hurt/comfort, a dash of action and drama and a hell of a lot of rambledansen.
Beta: ...gamma, delta? No, not really, not at all.
Continuity: Legacy post-ep, but a Legacy AU. Machello's rapidly gaining notoriety at the SGC as someone for whom collateral damage is just part of the game.
Disclaimer: I suppose there's some wacky alternate universe where I owned the rights to SG-1 and could make money off this fic. That universe is not this one. The opinions expressed herein are the properties of the characters and not of Belle Waring. This product not intended for use as a dental drill. Questions, comments and carbamazepine can be left in replies or directed to magistrata(at)gmail(dot)com. Thank you for reading!
A/N: What? Sometimes a guy just needs to write six thousand words of angst without concern for plot or structure. If you want plot and structure, read Beneath a Beating Sun.

It's nine days after Carter returns to active duty – is returned, really, and no one quite misses that – and T-minus twenty minutes to her first mission since. Doesn't seem like so much time, put like that.

Fortunately, time has other ways of tracking itself.

For instance: Daniel's exhausted everything with text from the Linvris council room, and almost everything they've managed to decode from Machello's lab. Carter's gone through a book of practice exams in physics and mathematics too easy for her, apparently for recreation. The last of the snow has melted from the mountain, Teal'c's reported that Junior is doing well again, and Jack's hair is getting to the rakish, tousle-able length it only ever gets to when he's too busy, ill, or apathetic to get it cut for a month.

Carter's hair is almost back to a respectable length; the bruising and scabs where clumps were ripped out have faded away. Her fingernails have been their standard length for a while: just long enough to slide under labels or into small cracks in casings for leverage, not long enough to get in her way. Technically long enough to do damage, but that hasn't been a problem so far.

And Jack's watch is going off to tell him to get his ass and team in gear.

Teal'c is already heading to his locker when Jack finds him, and he rousted Daniel out ten minutes ago because Daniel has never been known to put aside his projects and gear up in less than a half-hour unless lives are on the line. So that leaves Carter, and Jack swings by her lab with the kind of iron grip on having this be a normal day that renders things abnormal right out of the gate.

"You ready?"

There's a microsecond's pause, and Carter sort of half-glances in his general direction, says "Yeah," and sweeps a bunch of plastic bits off her desk and into a container and sets it aside on a pile of papers. He steps in to take a closer look – it's the Rubix Cube she's been scrambling and solving for the past four days; apparently now she's gone on to taking it apart to see how it works. There's something plaintive about the jumble of black pieces and brightly-colored faces, and their strange, exposed interior ports and angles.

The weird things his scientists do. "Come on," he says, and hikes his thumb in the direction of the gear-up room. "Adventure awaits."

Not that he really believes adventure awaits.

It's a 24-hour recon with a possible 36-hour extension, just over to a temple the UAV picked up which Daniel said was reminiscent of somewhere important in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica – Jack's already given up on ever being able to pronounce, let alone spell or remember, the name. Simple, really: hike in, let Daniel take all the pictures and film he can fit on two cameras, point Carter at anything techy it looks like the Goa'uld or anyone else might've left behind, and hike back.

Just what the doctor ordered.

Because it is Carter's first mission back on the team, and Jack wants to put that entire sordid story in the ground. It's standard operating procedure, by now. Things happen, members of SG-1 get grounded, they pull through in the end, and life goes on. A few planets, a few narrow scrapes later, and everyone conveniently stops bringing up that Daniel got his mind torn up and was considered dead, or that Jack and Carter nearly froze to death right under the SGC's proverbial nose, or that Teal'c nearly mutated into a swarm of giant, nasty bugs, or – and this is the hope – that Carter was infested with alien assassin organisms and got tossed in the nearest loony bin until Daniel had noticed something odd about the things she'd been handling and Frasier had worked out something arcane and vaguely macabre involving Teal'c's symbiote to draw out and locate the things so she could kill them.

After all, Carter hasn't brought it up. And if she's fine with things being unspoken, Jack is pretty sure he is, too.

The UAV snapped a photo of the temple, but it hadn't done a flyover – there's some intermittent radio interference which cut down the UAV's operable range, which is probably going to justify half of Carter's paycheck for the time she spends here. The MALP's been left on a passive scanning routine, and Carter seems fixed on spending the trip over with her eyes glued to her scanner. Every once in a while, Jack will glance over to see if it's flashing or beeping, those being the only two indications it might give him that something interesting is going on. "Energy signals?"

"None that I can detect," Carter says.

For the next few hours they trek through the forest around the 'gate, and then through a landscape broken up by small cliffs and bluffs, and then finally into the relatively-flat landscape around the temple: a three-story stepped pyramid out in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It's got a staircase too steep for human use going up one side, and dark and not entirely inviting doors to either side of that.

"This wasn't one of those temples where they cut your heart out and threw you down the stairs, right?" Jack asks.

Daniel gives him the usual look. "You're thinking of the Aztecs, Jack."

"And this is?"

"Well, there are obvious differences, but the basic construction is more along the lines of the pre-Columbian Nahua peoples, or possibly Totonac..."

"Right." Jack interrupts before Daniel can really start explaining. "Shall we go inside?"

The shade of the temple is refreshing after the bright sun, and the temple interior seems to be wall-to-wall carvings with the odd statue or relic. Jack pauses in front of a carved head jutting from the wall – it might be supposed to be a jaguar, or possibly a crocodile, or maybe a snake, hell if he can tell – and then pokes his way through the rooms to make sure nothing's lying in wait for them. He comes across several birds and a family of small rodents who scatter as soon as they see him, but nothing else living.

Toward the back of the temple he hears Teal'c's footsteps accompanying him, and finds carved and human-usable staircases into the upper levels. The stairs lead all the way to the roof, and he goes back down to fetch the rest of his team. "What say we burn our sunlight where we can put it to good use, hm?" After all, it doesn't make much sense to use up their flashlights on the unlit inside, and then use up the replacement batteries topside when the sun goes down.

They come up to the roof, where they find a ring platform, a lot of writing carved directly into the floor, and a very nice view. Daniel spends a second or two being fascinated by the writing before something off in the distance opposite the 'gate snatches his attention.


Jack walks up to see what it is that Daniel's so impressed with, and isn't that impressed, himself: it's the ruins of a city, looking to him just like a dozen other sets of ruins on a dozen other worlds, but Daniel is already going on about talud-tablero architecture and fishing out his monocular and wondering if the spots he can see are cenotes and Jack has the feeling that their 36-hour extension just got requested. He shades his eyes and looks out over the city. Briefing says there was no evidence of a moon; no moon means a damn dark night. "Anyone know how long day lasts on this planet?"

It's not that he was actually expecting an answer, but he's still a little disappointed that no one does.

"Right. Teal'c, you're with me; perimeter sweep. Carter, make sure Daniel doesn't translate his way off anything steep."

"Ha ha, Jack," Daniel says. Carter mumbles something affirmative, and Jack heads down through the temple to take Teal'c on a slow, expanding spiral around the grounds for a while.

When he comes back, Carter's set up a portable radio antenna and Daniel's managed to get something Goa'uld-ish and altar-looking to rise from the floor right in front of the wall-stairs. Jack ribs him about that–

"It just me, or was that not here the last time I stopped by?"

"It was concealed in the floor, actually. Like a ring transporter."

"A transporter, you say."

"...from what I can tell, more like a ceremonial altar or some kind."

"You're sure this isn't one of those heart-cutting-out temples?"


–tells Carter to make sure the temple isn't about to blow up or take off, and settles in to alternate his time between bird-watching, cloud-watching and people-watching, the way he does when the scientists are neck-deep in something and nothing is trying to kill them all. Half of these missions – the half that don't go horribly wrong – are like glorified babysitting gigs.

Routine, routine.

He's been working on this theory, and would have forgotten about it a long time ago except that it keeps being too apt not to notice. The theory used to be that Carter had an encyclopedic brain, but then he had to ramp that estimation up to libraric, and then up to… whatever followed that. Something like the knowledgebase systems that tracked the SGC's data, in miniature. He can even see it, watching her at work.

The stuff she works with day after day is all digital, in his mental image of her brain. You can see when she accesses it: a slight distance to the eyes, just for an instant, as she waits through a loading screen, then on with the show. The stuff she hasn't used since the Academy or just never thought would be relevant is all paper files, quietly waiting their turn to be scanned and digitized. When she has to call that knowledge up there's muttering as she goes through the indices, sometimes a snagged pad of paper to jot down Dewey Decimal numbers.

–not that they're ever really Dewey Decimal numbers. He thinks. But it's a metaphor, and whatever it is that she scribbles on those scratch pads seems to jog her memory on where to find the info in her mind. The unconscious fidgeting in her fingers even looks a little like someone paging back through folder tabs.

And any new information, things she's just run across or Daniel's just filled her in on, is post-it notes on the screen, scribbled out in shorthand, complete with a quick glance to the side, to nothing in particular, when she's calling the information to mind. It's a strange little theatre and one she's probably unaware of – like the unified theory of Daniel's coffee predicting the mood he'll be in for the rest of the day. Daniel still hasn't worked out how Jack always seems to know.

Say what you will about Colonel Jack O'Neill, but he's damned perceptive when he has a mind to be. It's why no one but Teal'c ever seems amenable when he suggests a game of poker.

Peoplewatching the scientists is easy, because they tend to get wrapped up in whatever they're doing and not notice. Usually Daniel is markedly worse than Carter, at that – Carter has enough situational awareness to keep an eye out, and some preternatural ability to discern when anyone above the rank of Major has an eye on her and might want something. Today, though, she must be engrossed in whatever Daniel's found; she doesn't look back once.

After ten or fifteen minutes, Jack gets up and wanders around the perimeter of the platform, looking down at the riot of weeds and unruly grasses that have taken over what was once probably a very nice lawn. Behind him there's the quiet shhhnk of something opening, and Daniel says Um, followed by six words Jack doesn't like anyone on his team to say.

"How long has this been transmitting?"

The rings in the middle of the platform answer him by roaring to life.

Jack's spun around with his rifle ready just in time for eight Jaffa to materialize, and he knows he takes down two of them and sees Carter take down a third but no one is that fast and aside from the altar there's nowhere to take cover. To make matters worse, the Jaffa happen to be between him and the interior stairs.

Next thing Jack feels is the bright static of a zat blast, and a searing pain as his foot finds the edge of the temple in a way it's really not meant to. He's out before he falls.

Consciousness fades in to the steady jolt, jolt, jolt of someone running. Why Jack should be feeling it, considering that he's certain he's not running, is still yet to be determined, as is why he can feel it in his skull instead of his feet.

It takes him a few moments to work out that Carter's got him in a fireman's carry and is powering on toward the 'gate at full speed.

Well, is his first thought. That's different.

He's got a great view of Carter's SGC patch and armpit, and the rough material of her MOLLE is abrading his cheek and feels like it has been for a while. He starts to shift, then thinks better of it. "Carter."

He can actually feel the twang of surprise that goes through her. "Colonel," she says, getting the word out between inhalations. "You're – conscious. Sir."

And nauseous! chimes a little voice in the back of his head. "Put me down."

Three paces later and she changes course, thunders down a small ridge and stumbles to a stop under a shallow overhang. Nice, somewhat defensible, and at least partially concealed. All in all not bad on such short notice.

"Careful," she says, crouching down to roll him off her back. "Hit your head – pretty hard. On the way – down – the temple." Breathing is apparently still interfering with getting complete sentences out.

"I can feel that." He catches his weight on his hand, easing himself back into a sitting position against the cliff. Everything blurs for a moment, and then almost resolves, but there are still at least 1.3 Carters doubling over to catch their breath in front of him. He blinks, and they wobble between 1.1 and 1.9. "You alright?"

She nods. "Fine. Sir."

It's not the most convincing thing he's ever heard. Maybe if she didn't sound so much like she was strangling something back he could take that at face value; as it is, he chalks it up to being winded and gives a sympathetic wince. Crazy woman. If he hadn't come to, she'd probably have tried to make it all the way to the 'gate at that pace.

She goes on trying to catch her breath, and he reaches for his canteen automatically to offer her a drink. But, no. No canteen. His canteen was on his pack, Carter's was probably on her pack, and neither pack is in evidence. Carter must have dropped them. Given that she was hauling more than her own body weight in unconscious CO, he's not inclined to blame her. He makes a mental note to keep the canteens on his vest proper, after this.

"Pursuit?" he asks, and she shakes her head. After a moment she takes one last gasp of air and wrestles her breathing down to a more normal level.

"How's your head?"

"Foggy. Pounding. Everything's a bit blurry." He shakes his head, which makes things worse. "...ack. Give it a minute; I'll be good to go when you are."

Carter gives him an alarmed look for about a quarter of a second before shaking her head and looking... somewhere off toward the side of the overhang. Checking for enemies? "No, sir. I think you're concussed. Your ankle's twisted – at least – and God knows what else might... I didn't have time to examine you. I'm sorry." She swallows. "This is the only way we'll make any speed."

Leaving my dignity well and truly behind, he thinks, but knows that's neither the point nor fair. If it were Daniel or Teal'c injured – hell, if it were her – the dignity argument would be just as dead in the air.

Come to think of it, where the hell are they? Teal'c, at least, is probably better suited to hauling him across the countryside. "Daniel and Teal'c?"

"Hopefully, they made it to the 'gate already and radioed for backup," Carter says. "We got split up. They made it down through the temple and I ordered them to keep going."

Fair enough. "And us?"

"...you took a somewhat more direct route, sir."

That explains the percussion solos going on against his skull. "Three stories?"

"At an incline, sir."

They're interrupted by a Jaffa horn sounding over the landscape, answered by a second and a third, and Jack relaxes. "Sounds like they're two or three klicks off in the wrong direction," he says. "One of these days you're going to have to tell me how you managed that." He did hear the noise they were making during the run. It hadn't exactly been stealthy.

Carter doesn't answer.

"Well, unless you've got a show to catch, I'm going to vote we dig in here," Jack says, looking around. It's not quite a dugout, but it's rudimentary shelter and cover. "No offense, Major, but I'm not sure my head can take any more of your rickshaw service." Besides, so long as they aren't moving, they'll hear the Jaffa long before the Jaffa hear them. And if Carter can't have a drink, the least he can do is offer her a rest.

She nods, straightens up, and still seems to deflate a little. "...I'll check the area."

Jack is still trying to make the blurry Carters resolve into one. He's checking and re-checking his vision enough that he notices, in a kind of edge-of-his attention, niggling way, that she doesn't quite look at him when he says that. Like she's trying to hide something.

Then she's gone. Vanished around the lip of the overhang, though he can hear her footsteps doing a perimeter sweep. He groans and settles back, closing his eyes in a vain attempt to make the headache recede.

Her footsteps come back around after a minute or two, and he slits his eyes open. At least the sky is beginning to cool from its earlier intense blue; it's not quite as much of a knife in the eyes. "What the hell happened back there?" he asks. "I thought that place had been abandoned for a few thousand years."

There's a quiet moment, and Carter says "There was a subspace transmitter in the altar Daniel found. We must have activated it when we raised the altar itself. Then I guess there was a Goa'uld ship in the vicinity, they sent down a force to see what was signaling them..."

"Punchline," Jack finishes for her.

"Yes, sir." Then, after a moment, she adds "I'm sorry." There's something oddly plaintive about her tone. He kinda wonders if he's hallucinating it; Carter doesn't really do plaintive.


She shakes her head. "It shouldn't have happened, sir."

"Well, I usually prefer not to get ambushed by Jaffa and knocked off a building," Jack says. "But was there something we could have done differently?"

Carter fidgets, and gives the impression that there's something just in front of her right foot that requires an awful lot of her attention. "I don't know. Maybe I should have seen it earlier. I should have seen it earlier."

"Well, Daniel caught it," Jack says. "Gave us a moment's warning."

Carter makes a pained noise, and that's all. She crosses in front of him, going to the other edge of the overhang, and tucks both arms around her stomach as she looks out over the landscape and listens to the distant horns. And now Jack is getting worried, because Carter doesn't really do the brooding shutdown thing either, unless she's convinced one of them is as good as dead – e.g. Antarctica.

"...you're sure Daniel and Teal'c got out," he says.

She nods. "Teal'c radioed to say they'd lost the Jaffa, just before they went out of range."

That's two down, and Jack can tell he isn't carrying a staff blast or bleeding internally or anything. His entire body aches, he has a headache like he's just come back from drinking something Feretti handed him and he's still fighting down the urge to throw up, but the discomfort is fairly constant. That leaves one, and while Jack isn't convinced that Carter would've been able to make this distance at that speed carrying him if she was hurt, he's totally convinced that she'd try. "You wouldn't happen to be injured, would you, Major?"

Her shoulders jerk in surprise. "I'm fine. Sir."

Four of four, and back to square one. No help there. He debates the possibility that Carter's lying, wonders how he'd find out, and then decides to take the direct and tactless route. It's easier on his head. "What's bugging you?"

Surprised, surprised. This time she actually tries not to show it, and trying takes her just long enough that Jack automatically can't believe the next words out of her mouth. "It's nothing, sir."

"Then think nothing of telling me," Jack growls. Then, "do I have to make this an order?"

Her silence is the answer.

"Carter!" That's at a full military bark, its only concession in volume and not tone. Still pinballs between his temples hard enough to hurt.

"–I didn't notice it," Carter says, startled into admission, and startled into turning around to face him. Sort of. Now the eminently fascinating nothing is just in front of his right foot. "Checking for any change in the energy signatures after the altar activated should have been the first thing I did. It's elementary. It was a stupid mistake."

"And Daniel picked up on it, and so far as we know, we're all still alive, so what's the issue?" he demands. "People make mistakes, Carter. It happens." She should know this. By god, he's known for a while that she's harder on herself than anyone, but this is ridiculous even for her.

"No; I should have seen it," she repeats, and there's a catch in her voice that gets Jack's internal alarms screaming. "I don't know why I didn't."

He tries to get a good look at her face, tries to hunt for clues in her expression, and she just looks away. That's when it occurs to him that she's been deliberately avoiding his gaze.

And then it occurs to him that this hasn't just started since he took a zat blast and a tumble down a temple.

Even concussed, Colonel Jack O'Neill can be damned perceptive when he needs to be. At the moment, all of that damn perception is just feeding the growing certainty that Carter hasn't actually looked at him since the debacle of PY3-948.

And suddenly he knows exactly what she's been doing, locked away inside her mind these past few weeks.

"...Carter," he says, and he can hear the realization breaking in his voice. Carter flinches away. Back in that holistic data system of a brain of hers, she's been checking all the drawers. Inventorying everything that was supposed to be in her mind, going over all the files and systems that had been ransacked first by Machello's devices and then MacKenzie's drugs, and likely panicking at every misplaced post-it and record out of order.

Apparently she's found one.

"You were cleared for duty," he says, and Carter makes a sound that isn't quite a laugh or a scoff but sounds painful, whatever it is.

"Sir, permission to–" She cuts that in half, shakes her head, tries to push it away, then finishes the sentence anyway. "Permission to speak freely."

"Granted," Jack says. "Demanded, even."

At first, Carter doesn't say anything. Turns, after a moment, and scans the horizon again, then turns and scans the horizon in the opposite direction, where there's no indication Jaffa are or ever will be.

"Carter." It's going to be a long conversation if he has to press her into every response. Then, he's not sure he really wants to hear what she's saying.

She looks down, strangling back another noise before the words make it out. "Sir, they didn't recognize sanity when it walked up and introduced itself."

He winces. It's right, though – that had been Fraiser's doing, Fraiser's and Daniel's, after the bugs had left her. And then it had been another day to get the drugs out of her system, and another three days under observation to confirm that her behavior had returned to normal. As much as normal behavior had been possible in a padded room under constant threat of restraint and sedation. Never mind that the violence hadn't started until they'd tried to drug her, and the self-injury hadn't cropped up until after they'd succeeded.

"But you did," he says. "Trust me, here on out–"

He's going to say something about how they'll be trusting her judgement going forward, but the noise she's been strangling back breaks her grip and escapes into the twilight. It's an ugly sound, one-quarter sob to three-quarters choke, and should he live to be a hundred he'd prefer never to hear her make that noise again.

"Carter?" he asks, because he has the feeling that this isn't done getting worse yet.

"I didn't," she says.

That makes no sense. "Didn't what?"

She shakes her head, and hugs herself a little tighter. "I didn't know – I couldn't tell–" Another shake of her head, harder, this time, like she's trying to rattle something back into place. Percussive maintenance. He can't follow this.

"You were the first one to tell us what was going on."

"I guessed." She lets out a short laugh at that, but by the time it hits the open air it's been roughed up and bloodied. "I didn't know what was right; I took a wild guess as to what constituted sanity and ran with it. I couldn't tell if I was sane. They changed the way my brain worked, Colonel; I–"

She turns, looks away. Considers her words carefully, each one checked for nuance and right function and whether or not she can really say what she so obviously needs to say. I still can't, is what Jack's mind fills in.

"I am less afraid of dying," she admits.


Jack pushes himself up against the cliff, and Carter's tone turns to concern with the same immediacy the world turns to vertigo. She's at his side a second later, grabbing his arm to keep him from toppling back to the ground. "Sir, you really should sit down."

"I'm fine! –fine," he says, and fumbles in her direction until one of his blurry hands encounters one of her blurry shoulders.

Of all the conversations to have a concussion for. At least his one good ankle is good enough to hold his weight.

"Why didn't you say anything?" he asks, and she goes stiff at that. "...I mean afterward," he amends, When we all knew you were sane, because the thing was, she had. Back when MacKenzie was just lurking around the SGC, back before the hallucinations got unmanageable, she'd looked straight at him and said They will take my mind away. Colonel, do not let them, please, and he'd dismissed it – they'd all dismissed it – as the ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic. Thought she'd been worried about mind-control rays or body snatchers or organ harvesting or whatever horror-movie scenario the madness was convincing her was real.

Shit. His turn to look away, at that. She'd known exactly what she was saying, and said exactly what she'd meant.

It occurs to him that for being such a perceptive son-of-a-bitch when he puts his mind to it, a hell of a lot escapes him when he doesn't.

"Was there any point?" she asks. "I thought it wouldn't affect anything. It was over. It was done." Which he has trouble believing, because his mind's already gone and tacked on Avoidance to her gaze-dodging, Restricted range of affect to the way her voice has just gone flat, and Intrusive recall to her fixation on that damn transmitter. It's trying to make a connection to something else, something he'd label Hypervigilance, but the threat circumscribing her is too abstract. How does someone keep an eye out for their brain not working the way they think it should?

Aside from second-guessing everything.

Shit, again.

He knocks his head back against the cliff face, and feels the startle response through Carter's hands. An ugly burst of fireworks accompany it on the inside of his eyelids, and the pain from the impact does a divebombing run on his stomach. This time, he really doesn't care.

"Colonel." Her voice is stern, like she'll wrestle him to the ground herself if he makes his concussion any worse. Not that she needs to. He isn't planning on doing that again.

"You know, you can talk to me."

Another noise: one quarter sob, one half laugh, one quarter snarl. "Yeah? 'Sir, I'm experiencing anomalies in my cognition.' You'd be – you're obligated to report me to MacKenzie."

Like hell. "You think I'm just going to turn you back over to him?" Jack asks.

And then she looks at him, looks right at him, and he wishes she hadn't. He never wants to see that expression again, because it's accusation wrapped up in pain wrapped up an utter lack of faith, all bolted back behind the splintering professional neutrality she's normally so good at displaying. She doesn't even need to say Of course, you dumb fuck, you've done it before, because she already has, without words.

That hurts a lot more than he expected it to.

He opens his mouth, ready to say something about the sacred trust he damn well knows is placed in him and how the wellbeing of his team is the concern that runs right over everything in its way and that's the only reason he let them commit her in the fist place, and he wouldn't expect her to remember but he was trying to get her through it, every step of the way, and then it hits him that it looks a lot different from where she's standing, and it hits him like a gutpunch.

Right, he thinks, too late to do any good, one man's ceiling is another man's floor; he'd thought the least they could do – in the absence of being able to do anything – was see her off, make one last show of solidarity or at least usher her off with honors. She probably did remember. That's the problem. Whether neatly categorized and logged or strewn across her mental floor, there's some record of her team (her team!) standing and watching and doing nothing as her demons hauled her away.

No wonder she isn't meeting anyone's eyes. He'd be having nightmares, too.

Maybe it's a good idea to sit down again.

He slides back down the wall, and Carter lets go of his arm once he's situated. Takes a few steps away, which he doesn't find surprising, because now that he's looking it looks a lot like she went in for a false alarm on schizophrenia and came out with a post-traumatic disorder. A rousing endorsement for modern mental health, that.

Rousing endorsement for his stewardship of his team, too.

He leans to one side and does throw up.

Halfway into the retching he feels Carter's hand on his shoulder, which he's tempted to wave off. He doesn't. Just finishes up, makes sure there's nothing left in his stomach to come up later, and knocks dirt over the puddle of bile and spit. Carter lets go when he sits back up, with a grimace.

"I'm sorry, sir. I dropped the water along with our packs."

Rinsing his mouth out sounds wonderful at the moment, and he kinda wishes she hadn't brought that up. "I noticed."

She half-turns, fishes in her pockets for a moment, pulls out a handful of odds and ends, and locates a pack of gum, which she offers. He blinks at it, then accepts with a muttered "Thanks." All the while, he's thinking Jeez, he has to teach her to be less damn nice one of these days. If he was dealing with someone under these circumstances, he'd just stand back and watch them suffer.

He decides not to bring that up until they're back at the SGC.

There's another horn call in the distance, longer and more complex. Jack tilts his head, trying to pick out the tones in the distance. "Is that...?"

"Stand down and come home," Carter confirms. "They must have figured we'd made it back to the 'gate and escaped."

Good. "That's what I like them assuming," Jack says. He spits out the first stick of gum and replaces it with a clean one. Then he closes his eyes, tells his stomach to settle, and breathes for a minute.

When he opens his eyes again, Carter's moved off, watching around the lip of the overhang. He wonders if she can actually see the Jaffa or the temple from here.

Sam Carter is the smallest person on SG-1, not that you'd know it to look at her. She can hold her own. More than her own. Except now, she's looking every inch and pound of that smallness.

"MacKenzie is never going to hear about this," Jack says. Promises. And yeah, maybe that wouldn't be the brightest of all possible moves in the best of all possible worlds, but if she has some kind of psychiatrist-induced trauma he's sure as hell not going to throw her to the next psychiatrist he sees. "No one is."

She spins back around to face him fast enough to make his head spin, a question already on her lips.

"You missed something today," he says, before she can say anything. "And there's a nice, easy explanation for why: you were preoccupied. You've got a lot on your mind. It'll clear up." And if it doesn't, and if it gets worse... then he'll deal with that bridge when it blows up in his face. Until then, well, of course he's going to worry about it, but hopefully he can keep her from doing the same.

She's still staring like he's sprouted horns, or possibly wings. "Sir," she protests. "You can't just violate procedure for me."

That gets a raised eyebrow or two. "Sure I can," he says. If procedure means he can't look after his own? In his book, that means he can do whatever the hell he wants. "Just tell me if anything gets worse. We'll work it through."

He's promising more than he may be able to deliver, and he knows it. And Carter probably knows it, too; she's a smart gal. But for the next few seconds Carter just stands there looking like she's going to protest again, or maybe thank him, and that's enough of that.

"Here; help me up," Jack says, waving an arm. "I'd rather hobble back than piggyback. Sure you'd rather that, too."

It's so easy to distract her with orders. She crouches down beside him, helps him get one arm over her shoulders, and hauls up when he says he's ready. The world tilts and wobbles for a moment but Carter is steady and isn't about to let him fall down. He's not about to let her fall, either.

"Okay," he says, and takes the opportunity to give her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. Okay. "Move along home."

And that's what they do.

After a while, approaching the edge of the forest that hides the 'gate, he catches something at the edge of his vision and looks up. "What's – do you see that?"

They stop, and Carter follows his attention up into the mostly-clear night sky above them. Color coruscates above them, isolated flecks of luminous blue glimmering, fading, and flickering back until with a silent roar they combine into a vast curtain weaving through the sky.

"That's our radio interference," Carter says softly.

"Northern lights," Jack says.

Carter nods. "Any planet with the correct sort of magnetosphere...", and she goes on to explain something that even without a concussion he'd have little hope of understanding, like it's simple, like it's familiar, like she hardly needs to think about it at all. He looks over to check her expression. It's not so blurry, this close up.

The hurt hasn't receded, but it's getting there. And the usual unabashed wonder is washing back in over it, combined with the quick staccato glances of noting the particularities down, always analyzing, recording, filing away. He lets her explain, and she lets him lean on her for five more minutes after that, just watching the sky.

It's not such a bad planet, really.

The lights show no sign of stopping, but time waits for no man, and Jack nudges Carter forward. "Come on. Daniel's probably getting worried."

She nods, and they start moving. The aurora dances above them as they head into the trees.