* * *
  
Samantha Carter wakes up one day after Jolinar and thinks that her life is divided into two neat segments - before snake and after snake.
She thinks that Colonel O’Neill would be amused by that, if she ever told him.
  
She sleeps through day two, oblivious to the visits of her team mates. It's not an easy sleep; her temperature is high and Janet fusses, holding back medication because of a possible reaction with the naquedah in Sam's blood.
Colonel O'Neill is standing by her bedside when she moves in her sleep, her face twisting in agitation, relaxing, and twisting again. He reaches out and carefully straightens the sheet caught around her wrist, and her eyes flutter open. "Martouf?" she asks, and then a small frown creases her forehead and her eyes close. He sits by her bedside for another two hours but she doesn't wake again.
  
On day three, she wakes up and throws up almost in one motion, the blood pounding in her head. Janet is by her side in an instant, but Sam doesn't have time to be embarrassed before she retches again.
"Sorry," she says softly, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
"Shh." Janet strips off the top blanket and takes it away.
Sam leans forward, willing the nausea away but she keeps feeling the slick mass of parasite forcing its way through the back of her throat and she's about to throw up when Janet returns with a glass of water and a fresh blanket. Janet sits beside Sam and rubs her back, letting Sam wash her mouth out thoroughly and tucks the blanket over her when Sam lies back down.
Sam closes her eyes, regulates her breathing and knows Janet is sitting by her bedside long after she fakes falling asleep.
Day five is the first day she manages to keep all her meals down.
  
She's out of the infirmary after a week, although she's confined to the Base and checked on every two hours. The next few couple of days seem to pass too quickly as if her life is in fast forward, a mess of barely constructed black and white images. One minute she's in the commissary, trying to swallow as her throat aches with ghostly pain and the next, it's five hours later and she's removed one part off the 'zat she's painstakingly disassembling.
She knows people are watching her but their gazes slide past her whenever she looks towards them.
She doesn't care.
  
Teal'c finds her topside on day nine, and sits beside her as she systematically strips a bush of its leaves.
"Captain Carter, it has come to my attention that you are not sleeping well."
Understatement of the century, she thinks, slashing a leaf open with a fingernail. "You could say that."
"I thought I could offer my assistance. I could teach you some meditation practices, similar to kel'no'reem."
She knows how much the offer is worth and wishes she could accept, but the idea of letting her mind explore itself is enough to make her stomach twist. She doesn't want introspection. She doesn't want to know exactly how much of her isn't her anymore.
"Thank you, Teal'c, but I'll be fine."
He inclines his head graciously. "The offer is always open, Captain Carter."
She's left with the feeling that she didn't convince him.
  
Day ten marks her first day home, and it's late, past eleven, when she opens her front door.
She looks around her house, dim, silent, already filled with a musty abandoned smell and the first twinges of panic creep around her like the shadows from the street lights. The Colonel had offered to drop her home and help her settle in, but she refused. "I'm fine, sir," she'd told him. "I'm not afraid of monsters." The notion that she has to prove herself is banked deep.
She sees Jolinar's slow exploration of her house in her mind, reliving it again; the Goa'uld had been facinated with the appliances, and had toasted a whole loaf just to watch the bread jump out of the toaster. ("So primitive," she'd told Sam. "But so complex. You like making things hard for yourselves, don't you?") Jolinar had spent an hour in the shower, sponging herself with Sam's citrus-smelling body wash until the hot water had ran out, and then had gone through her cupboards and tasted everything that was edible, even the spices, flour and sugars. She'd made cookies effortlessly and had eaten them all, curled up on Sam's couch while watching TV, flicking the channels, staring in bewilderment at the coloured screen.
"Your world is strange, Samantha," she'd said often, but Sam had been too busy screaming in her own head to ask why.
Sam empties the fridge of the rotten leftovers and lets the milk run down the sink with practiced ease. She's shutting the curtains in the front window when she sees a familiar truck slow down and roll very slowly outside her house. She wonders why for a split second before she realises that every light in her house is on, blazing into the darkness like a distress beacon. She takes an instinctive step backwards from the window and stands behind the curtains for another ten minutes, but he doesn't return.
Later, she lies sweating under the weight of her blankets and wishes the monster was in her cupboard and not in her mind.
  
She finds the picture on day eleven while she's making her bed. It's lying tangled in the end of one sheet and she picks it up and sits down on her bed, turning it over and over in her hands. It was the Carter family on one of their rare holidays, up in the Rocky Mountains, bundled in coats, red faced and beaming at the camera. She'd forgotten that Jolinar had found it, rubbed the dust off it with her shirt and studied it, running her fingers over the intricate frame.
“You look like her,” the Goa’uld had said. “You have her smile.”
Sam had lashed out mentally then, with all the savageness of grief and pain. Jolinar had been caught off guard and dropped the photo frame down beside Sam's bedside table. Sam had been bracing herself for Jolinar's retaliation when the Goa'uld had spoken, her voice little more than a whisper.
"I'm sorry," Jolinar had said. "I will not think about it again."
Sam carefully wipes her - Jolinar's - fingerprints from the glass and places it in a drawer. She can see her Dad crying, hear Mark's disbelieving, horrible sobs and smell burnt cookies as if it happened yesterday. She tries hard to fight the tears - Carters don't cry - but they are relentless, and she drops her head into her hands and sobs until her head throbs and her jeans are damp with tears.
  
She rearranges her house over the weekend and the only pieces of furniture safe are her bed and wardrobe because they are too heavy for her to move on her own. She buys new curtains, new shower gel and, oddly, a new toothbrush. She contemplates painting her kitchen but decides that might be taking it too far.
It starts raining late on Sunday when she's out in her garden, tearing at the weeds until her fingers are red and aching. The droplets of water startle her and looking up, she's suddenly aware that the sky had clouded over and a chill wind had picked up and she hadn't noticed. She's about to let herself get drenched when she realises the last thing she needs is a bad cold. Janet would never let her out of the Infirmary.
  
[Jolinar stands in front of the mirror, still dripping from the shower. Water runs in rivulets down over her body and drips onto the carpet. She doesn't notice. A faint smile crosses her face as she traces the skin across her hips, stomach and breasts with tentative fingers, constantly turning and looking at herself from every angle. Her eyes flash white gold as they take in the line of her back, the curve of her neck and her hands come to rest flat on her stomach.
"You are so beautiful," she tells Sam. "It's been so long since I've been beautiful." There is a wistful note in her voice. "He would have loved you."
"Love?" Sam almost spits the word back at her.
Jolinar's response is instantaneous and Sam’s consciousness is flooded with feelings, thoughts and images that are both alien and so familiar - Jolinar’s life, Sam realises before she surrenders to the memory of a ridge under a fiery sunset, her hair catching the breeze and tangling in the fingers of a tall man with sad eyes. The next instant, his mouth is warm against hers and there is fire and ice and a dream of falling and a need and want so intense a tremor runs through her body. Then it is all gone, leaving her aching with the echo of so much feeling.
"That is what it is to love, Samantha," Jolinar says. "You have not experienced love."]
Sam stands in front of her mirror, dripping water from the shower and retraces the lines Jolinar had drawn on her body. It's been sixteen days and when she looks into the mirror all she sees is flashing eyes.
  
Janet visits her lab a lot now, always with a new piece of gossip hiding the worry in her eyes.
"Apparently Nurse Leymann and Lieutenant Ward have this thing happening - "
"Well, you know how it is on base."
Sam nods. She's been the subject of the rumour mill for eighteen days now.
"You'd think people have enough to talk about, what with imminent apocalypses and alien invasions, but apparently not.” Janet’s eyes flash over her, shifting from friend to professional. “How are you, anyway?"
"I'm fine, Janet," Sam replies wearily. The words are weaker every time she says them.
"You'd tell if something went wrong, wouldn't you?"
"Well, we've never had a - a case like yours before, Sam, and we don't know what complications - "
Sam slams her safety glasses down on the bench top. "I'm sick of people treating me as if I'm going to break."
"This is my job, Sam," Janet replies, her voice louder. "I have to ask these questions."
"I know. And I'm fine."
There is a tired silence.
"I'll see you later," Janet says finally.
"Meet you for coffee in the Commissary in an hour?" Sam asks and Janet's shoulders relax.
"Okay," Janet says, "I'll come past in an hour." She smiles and is gone in a whirl of dark hair.
  
[She’s running, running flat out and her legs are trembling and her lungs burning from oxygen deprivation. Almost sobbing with desperation, she pushes the underbrush aside with scratched arms and tries not to look back because it slows her down and the people chasing her are already faster and stronger. The pounding footsteps behind her are impossibly close when she finally sees what she’s been looking for and dives to the side, flattening herself against a tree.
Ten seconds later, the footsteps pass her and two screams wrench the air apart as the Goau’ld begin fall into the ravine that opened in front of them with no warning. The sound echoes sickeningly against the walls of the canyon.
Jolinar doesn’t move until the screams stop, and then she walks to the edge and spits after her pursuers. Her body is trembling uncontrollably when she collapses against the tree that helped hide her.]
Sam sits upright in bed on day twenty-two still shaking, still feeling the bark against her back and with saliva damp on her chin. Sweat prickles along her hairline and her heart is hammering. She doesn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
  
Sam wakes up on day twenty-three gasping an unfamiliar name and rolls over, crushing the sheet between her legs. She wants warm skin slick under hers, wants to tangle her fingers in real hair so badly that her body aches.
Not for the first time, she considers putting on her black leather pants and come-fuck-me-boots, finding a sleazy little bar and going home with someone who will make her feel that much. She knows she never will.
Oh god, she thinks, this can’t get worse.
  
On day twenty four, she wakes up screaming in remembered pain and thinks it just did.
  
On day twenty-five, she takes up running in the late afternoon again, because the sound of her feet slapping the pavement and the cool wind on her forehead is somehow numbing, and she thinks if she just pushes her body that bit harder, makes her lungs and legs and feet hurt and the sweat pour off her forehead until she is trembling with exhaustion, then maybe she'll won't dream that night.
  
On day twenty-seven, she realizes that one place she doesn't dream where she falls asleep is the briefing room. Daniel nudges her awake just as General Hammond is dismissing them, and the General, Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c all kindly look the other way as she rubs her eyes and gets to her feet.
Daniel briefs her on their upcoming mission as he walks her back to her lab and she hovers between humiliation and gratitude but decides she's way too tired to feel anything.
  
“So that’s why synchronised swimming shouldn’t be an Olympic Sport!” Colonel O’Neill proclaims, sweeping a branch out of the way and ducking under another.
“What about rhythmic gymnastics?” Daniel asks, and Sam can hear the grin in his voice. It's been a month since she's been off world and today she feels almost normal, walking along the narrow overgrown path behind Daniel and the Colonel.
“What is rhythmic gymnastics?” Teal’c asks from behind her and she grins as Daniel and Colonel O’Neill exchange a look.
“All yours, Daniel,” O’Neill says, leaving Daniel to explain the impossible. Dropping back in the line, he leans in close to Sam. “So, do you think Teal’c would do well in the ribbons or the hoops?”
Sam snorts at the image of Teal’c in sequins and spandex waving a ribbon, and misses the branch flying back after O'Neill had pushed through it. It slaps into her face and her lip stings. She licks it without thinking and the taste of blood sends her stomach slamming up into her throat.
She hadn’t realised she’d stopped walking, and Colonel O’Neill’s face swims into focus. Her stomach is heaving and she sinks to her knees on the path and tries not to throw up.
“Sam!” Daniel’s kneeling next to her. “Sam.”
“I’m fine.” His knees are muddy, she notices. “Sorry.”
And then she’s sitting on the path with Daniel’s arms around her, shaking so much she can barely breathe. Not so fine after all.
  
When she wakes up, the word is deliciously blue and hazy. She sits up slightly, propping herself on her elbows and screwing her face up against the pins and needles in one hand.
He’s watching her from about three metres away, with careful eyes and fingers poking stick after stick upright into the grass.
“You have two shadows,” she says without thinking.
He smiles. “The other sun came up while you were asleep.”
Oh, she thinks, looking at the sky, so it did, and she tries to shake the blue fuzziness away. There is a faint twinge of pain in her lip, and she runs her tongue over the scratch that has had a day to heal.
“How long was I asleep?” she asks. Her arm is too heavy to check her watch.
“About an hour. Teal’c and Daniel are setting up camp.”
She remembers lying down now, on the short, sweet smelling grass with the sun chasing away the nightmares.
He shrugs, scooting a little closer. “You needed it, Carter. It hasn’t exactly been the easiest time for you.” He pushes another twig into the soil. "Do you remember much?" he asks, almost clumsily.
The question catches her by surprise. "Yes," she answers honestly. "Almost all of it."
"That time when I came to see you, and you - " he trails off.
[She feels the Goa’uld abruptly release its control on her mind, and she starts babbling, running her words together in an effort to get them out.
"Oh god, she's telling you the truth! Please Jack!"
His face changes, tightens, and he turns away from her, hitting the door.
"No, Jack! Please don't leave me, please, give me a chance! Don't leave me like this, please!"
The door closes behind him, and Jolinar takes back whatever control she'd let Sam have.
"What will it take?" the Goa'uld asks, staring after O'Neill and Sam feels her desperation. She ignores it.
"How much of that was me?" she asks instead.
Jolinar pauses. "Most of it."]
Was that you?"
She looks at him as he looks at the ground. "No, sir. None of it."
He nods. “Okay,” he says softly and she wonders if she imagines the fleeting look of disappointment on his face. “Get some sleep while you can, Sam. I’m watching out for you.”
  
Day thirty-five finds all of SG-1 in the infirmary for a post-mission check-up, surprisingly uninjured. Daniel looks quite proud of himself when Janet announces that he’s in perfect health.
All three men hang around in the room for Sam’s check-up, which takes easily double the time of all three of her team mates combined. Colonel O’Neill makes a big point of looking at his watch every three minutes but Janet ignores him.
"Did you eat properly?"
"Yes," Sam answers. "At least, when Daniel was cooking."
"Carter!" Colonel O'Neill says from across the room. "I resent that."
"You can't blame her for telling the truth," Daniel says, and Colonel O'Neill is looking around himself for something to throw at the archaeologist when Janet speaks again.
"Any dizzy spells? Feel faint, shaky?"
There is a tiny, guilty silence.
"No," Sam says, but not quick enough and Janet's already scenting blood when Colonel O'Neill butts in.
"She was fine, Frasier. Perfectly normal."
Janet looks around at the innocent faces of SG-1 and Sam knows she’s not convinced. “Okay,” Janet says. “I guess you’re done.”
Later, over an unidentified dinner in the mess, she cuts in over Daniel’s explanation of rollercoasters to Teal'c. “Thanks, guys,” she says and Teal’c bows his head slightly. Daniel smiles and pats her arm.
“We don't know what you are talking about, Carter," says Colonel O’Neill says, but he winks. “More jello?"
  
She's engrossed in one of Cassie's emails when there is a tentative knock on her door.
"Come in," she says, preoccupied, and Simmons steps selfconciously into her lab. "What can I do for you?"
"Captain, General Hammond wants to know how the 'zat is progressing."
"The 'zat..." Shit. "Tell him it's almost done," she says, looking around the room for any trace of it.
Simmons nods but lingers in the doorway. Sam pushes her hair out of her eyes. "Was there something else?"
"I just wanted to say that - " The young man trailed off and then finished in a rush. "I just wanted to say that we're all impressed with how you took being - being - "
"Snaked?" Sam fills in, quirking an eyebrow while she mentally decides that she's been spending way too much time with Colonel O'Neill.
Simmons gapes at her unattractively for a moment. "Well, yes," he finally stutters and Sam chalks his reaction up as one of the more memorable.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." He doesn't move and finally she looks pointedly at the door. "Thank you, Simmons," she says again and this time he gets it.
"Oh! Right. Sorry." And he backs out of the door. Sam grins down at her desk. Definitely the best reaction in thirty-nine days.
  
It's 8:45am on day forty-two and she's already heading out the door of her lab for her second coffee. Engrossed in her report, she doesn’t look where she’s going and slams into the Colonel, who was apparently attempting to enter her lab at the same time.
"Going somewhere in a hurry, Captain?" Colonel O'Neill asks, after Sam untangles her report from under his arm.
"Not really, sir. Coffee break." There is a tiny pause. "What can I do for you?"
"I brought you this."
He hands her a slightly squashed box and she opens it to find that it's packed with her favourite donuts. "My favourite!"
"I know," he says. "Have a good day, Carter."
He's gone before she can even thank him.
  
“Cassandra’s been asking about you,” Janet says on day forty-five, leaning over the bench as much as she can as Sam tries to interlock the some of the final pieces of the ‘zat.
"She was wondering if you'd like to come to the park with us this Saturday."
"Saturday..." Sam rubs her forehead, trying to massage the headache away. "What is it today?" she asks, and instantly regrets it as Janet's eyes flash with professional concern.
"Are you getting enough sleep?"
"I’m fine, Janet."
"Saturday sounds good," Sam says to pacify her, and Janet rolls her eyes.
"That was a change of subject if ever I saw one, but I'll take it." She bounces on the balls of her toes. "Cassie will be so excited. She wants ice-cream, and apparently you are the pushover."
Janet laughs, and pauses in the doorway. "Oh, and Sam? It's Tuesday."
  
It's after ten when she hears a knock on her door. Inwardly cursing, she gets up from the couch strewn with magazines and remotes. Daniel is standing outside, looking sheepish and holding a tin of something that looks like hot chocolate.
"Hey," he says. "Can I come in?"
"Sure," she says, opening the door wider and wishing she'd cleaned up sometime in the last six weeks.
He stands awkwardly in her living room as she shuts the front door, looking around in bewilderment at the rearranged furniture. "Hot chocolate?" he asks, catching her gaze, and holding out the tin.
She decides not to ask questions. "Sure."
They are halfway through his grandmother's secret recipe when she finally asks. "What exactly are you doing here, Daniel?"
"I'm making you hot chocolate," he says, chopping the marshmallows into neat squares with a dexterity that surprises her.
"Daniel..." When he doesn't rise to the bait, she continues. "It’s a little odd for you to be turning up on my doorstep at ten at night."
He drops the marshmallows into the mugs, smiles in satisfaction and hands her a mug. She raises her eyebrows.
"I was just wondering how you were doing..." He pushes his glasses up further on his nose, and she wonders whether he’s nervous.
It's the first time someone has challenged her, and she's almost as shocked as he looks. She has no answer.
"Sam, Janet's worried about you, Jack's worried about you - we all are."
She nods automatically, wrapping her hands around the hot mug. She's heard it over and over again from Janet - she's losing weight, her iron levels are down - but hearing it from Daniel makes her wonder exactly how wrecked she looks. Daniel is silent for a moment and when he speaks again his voice is lower and softer, and far more persuasive.
"You don't have to do this on your own."
"I should be fine by now," she answers, her throat tight.
"Sam." Daniel puts down his mug, takes hers out of her hands and places it carefully onto the bench and pulls her into his arms.
"I should be," she said again ridiculously, but this time the words are swallowed by the green of his shirt and then she's hanging onto him as if he's the only thing keeping her head above water and he's saying all sorts of soothing things into her hair.
She doesn't cry against his shoulder and almost wishes she could, because it might make her feel better. His shirt is soft under her cheek and it's a struggle to keep her mouth shut against all the things she wants to blurt out - how this is the first time chocolate ice-cream and movies that make her cry haven't helped, how she thinks she's lost part of the 'zat she's working on, how her body still doesn't feel like her own, even now, after so many days, and how she wakes up screaming most nights. She doesn't want him to know the extent of just how much she isn't dealing.
It's a minute later when she starts to relax and Daniel lets her go of her, rubbing her arms briskly.
"Your cocoa is getting cold," she says self-conciously.
"I'm staying the night," he replies, and she thinks half-heartedly about arguing before the thought of some company makes her smile before she can help it. She wonders how much he's guessed.
"Thanks," she says. "I'd like that."
So he stays, and later she drifts off to sleep with Daniel's slow breathing next to her and feels safe for the first time in forty-six days.
  
On day forty-seven, she picks up the 'zat, fires it and there is a strange whirring sound and nothing happens. She thinks briefly of the impressive smash the 'zat would make if she hurled it at the floor, but settles for throwing her spanner. It smacks into the cement with a satisfying clang and promptly rolls under her desk.
Cursing, Sam dives after it and is feeling around on the dusty floor when her fingers touch a thin piece of metal. Pulling it out into the light, she examines it and realises that it's part of the 'zat and is torn between wanting to break something and relief that it's not completely her fault that the 'zat isn't working.
She gets another cup of coffee before she starts taking it apart it again.
  
On day forty-eight, she fires the 'zat and the wall crackles with blue electricity.
"HA!" she says triumphantly into her lab and dances a little, pivoting on one foot and then stops dead because Colonel O'Neill is standing in the doorway. The heat creeps up her neck but he doesn't seem to notice.
"You did it?"
"Yes!" She can't stop smiling. "I couldn't get it to work yesterday, and then I realized that I'd lost the connection between the - "
"Carter." He holds up his hand. "Let's not ruin the moment."
"Yes, sir," she says, still beaming and it seems to chase the shadows out of his eyes. "Sorry."
He claps his hands together. "I think this calls for cake. Coming? My treat."
"How generous of you, sir."
"Think nothing of it."
  
On day forty-nine, she pushes herself too hard in her afternoon run and has to stop. She bends over, her hands on her knees, and almost falls because her skin is slippery with sweat. She braces herself on a tree instead and breathes in out in out slowly until she can feel the stitch start to relax. The deep empty ache has almost left her lungs when a spaniel suddenly bounds up to her and plants its paws firmly on her legs.
"Percy, down," a woman says sternly from behind Sam.
"Oh, it's okay," Sam says, rubbing the dog's ears. She straightens and smiles at the elderly woman standing on the footpath. "He's beautiful."
"He is," the woman answers proudly. She wraps the leash a little tighter around her wrist. "And he's a terror."
"He looks like he could be," Sam replies, grinning as the dog leaves her and runs helter-skelter after a low flying bird.
"Are you okay?" the woman asks tentatively. "You seemed like you were about to collapse back there."
Sam’s on the verge of saying her usual 'I’m fine' when something about the woman stops her. She shrugs. "Hard day."
The woman nods, pulling her coat around her a little tighter. “I used to do that - work my frustration out on the road. Does it work for you?"
"No," Sam says, after a pause. "Not really."
"It never did for me either."
The woman smells like her grandmother always had, sweet with jasmine and gardenias and on impulse, Sam touches her arm. "Has anything ever happened to you that made you feel unlike yourself?"
It's a muddled explanation and Sam is about to apologise when the woman's eyes, full of something like understanding, stop her.
"No," the woman replies. "Because you are always yourself and if anything happens, it doesn't make you any less you. It just changes who you are. And that can be hard to accept." As if sensing the embarrassment lurking under Sam's skin, she whistles for the dog. "Don't kill yourself on that road, okay?"
She gives Sam a warm smile and steps around her, walking away slowly along the path with the dog running around her heels. Sam watches until the two figures are both shadows in the deepening twilight and the smell of jasmine has faded.
She sleeps through that night without dreaming.
  
Saturday dawns fine - traces of cloud in a deep blue sky, and Sam is waiting on her doorstep when Janet pulls up with Cassie waving in the passenger seat.
It's a beautiful day in the park, postcard perfect, and Sam can feel the sun relaxing her muscles as it warms her hair. Cassie gets her ice-cream, and just as Sam is ordering hers, a car pulls into the car park. O'Neill, Daniel and Teal'c jump out and Janet looks a little ashamed of herself, but Sam snorts with laughter as O'Neill struggles briefly to extract a mammoth picnic basket from the backseat before slyly palming the job off to Teal'c, sneaking a quick look around to see if anyone saw him. Catching Sam's amused gaze, he smirks and wanders over with his hands stuck in his pockets.
"So much for leading by example," she says.
"Murray enjoys it," the Colonel replies. "And besides, he needs the workout."
"No need to be ashamed of your age, sir," she says, and grins at the slightly stunned expression that flashes across his face.
"Any more of that, Carter, and I'll confiscate your ice cream."
She laughs, and laughs again as Teal'c finally manoeuvres the basket out of the car and Daniel punches the air gleefully.
"And there will be lunch today!" she hears him say truimphantly.
The Colonel's shoulder nudges hers for a moment. "How are you?" he asks softly.
"I'm fine," she replies. "I'm fine." And she means it for the first time in fifty days and thinks that maybe, just maybe she can stop counting.