In the top ten list of all-time worst missions, Sam reflected, P7D- 783 was right up there with the best of them. Or the worst. Not that they'd been captured, had their memories wiped, been infected by an alien virus or anything like that. Quite the opposite, in fact. They'd spent three dull days hiking to some ruins that Daniel had insisted were Goa'uld, merely to find what could only be described as nothing more than a pile of rocks.
After poking around them for half a day even Daniel had been forced to admit that rocks were all they were. And so they'd started the three day hike back to the gate, with a disappointed archaeologist and a more than irritated Colonel. And then there was the rain.
P7D-783 was a wet planet. Or at least, their little corner of it was. Wet and cold. They trudged through marshland punctuated only by ugly, stunted trees that clawed their way feebly out of the marshy landscape towards the rain-sodden skies. Their roots did little to stabilize the ground, and Sam's feet had been permanently bathed in cold, stinking marsh water for the best part of five days. And she'd had enough.
"You'd think," O'Neill muttered as he sank knee deep in mud for the hundredth time that day, "if they can figure out how to send a man to the moon they could figure out how to make a damn boot that doesn't leak? I think I'm getting trench foot."
He glanced at Sam, as if expecting her to smile at his wry comment. And she would have done, if she'd had the energy. But she didn't. They'd been walking since just after dawn, her heavy pack was digging into her shoulders, her lower back ached dully, and all in all she felt as if she could curl up in her bedroll and sleep for a week. So she didn't smile, she just kept her eyes on the ground, trying to keep to the tufted grass and avoid sinking into the marsh.
Beside her she heard the Colonel mutter "Suit yourself," as he deliberately lengthened his stride and moved ahead of her to where Daniel and Teal'c were leading the way. She watched him go with a sigh, realizing that her silence had given offense. Again. It always seemed to be the way these days.
"Looks like it's getting dark," Daniel said, turning around as Jack approached him. And then, squinting out through the trees, he pointed. "That might be dry - ish."
They stopped, and Sam was grateful for the breather as she closed the gap that had grown between them. But she kept her distance, bending over to allow her back to take the weight of her pack and easing the pressure on her shoulders for a moment.
Jack glanced up at the water-logged sky, the rain dripping from the peak of his cap. "Good a place as any, I guess," he muttered at last. And without saying anything more, he headed out towards the small stand of trees Daniel had pointed out.
As Daniel followed him, Teal'c turned towards Sam with a slight look of concern on his impassive face. "Major Carter?" he asked quietly. "Are you well?"
Straightening up, Sam smiled and tried to put real feeling into the expression. "Yeah," she nodded. "Just tired, sick of this planet, and feeling the cold."
Teal'c nodded as they fell into step beside each other. "It is indeed unpleasant," he agreed. And then, after a moment he glanced at her again and said, "O'Neill does not appear to be in good humor."
Sam's smile turned dry. "You noticed, huh?"
Inclining his head in agreement he fixed her with an unusually intense look as he said, "Perhaps he too suffers from the cold?"
Pretending not to understand the veiled reference, Sam just nodded. "Perhaps," she murmured, noncommittal. But she knew Teal'c. He was a shrewd observer and, more to the point, he'd been there when all this had started. With a sigh, she thought back to the day, months earlier, when the close friendship she'd shared with the Colonel had been knocked askew.
'Because I care about her. A lot more than I'm supposed to.' From the moment he'd uttered those words things had changed, and they'd been walking on eggshells ever since. They had never discussed it of course, beyond her hurried suggestion that his confession need go no further, but nonetheless something between them had shifted profoundly. An awkward self-consciousness had forced a brittle edge into their friendship and they both felt the discomfort of their new, uneasy relationship. Instinctively they had started putting some distance between each other, both emotionally and physically. And so, where once they would have swapped friendly banter or discussed the details of their mission as they walked, now O'Neill would invariably seek out Daniel or Teal'c for company instead. And increasingly, Sam found her mind turned inwards. The emotional turmoil of Martouf's death and Jack's revelations had made her more introspective than usual and less inclined for company. Of any sort.
So the tension had grown, and continued to grow. And it was really beginning to wear her down now, making her dog-tired however much sleep she got. Even her bones seemed to drag with fatigue as she battled to deal with the stresses of the past months.
Her gloomy thoughts were interrupted by her arrival at their campsite. Daniel and Jack had already discarded their packs and the Colonel was scanning the sparse branches in an attempt to figure out how best to rig the tarp to provide the shelter they needed; they'd given up on trying to pitch a tent on the marshy ground days ago.
"Carter," he called as she dropped her pack to the ground, "you wanna give me a hand, here?"
"Yes, sir," she sighed, unable to keep the reluctance from her voice as she rubbed at her aching back. What she wouldn't give just to sit and rest for five minutes!
But her sigh had drawn another irritated glance from O'Neill. "If it's not too much effort, Major?"
Damn, but he could be cold when he chose to! "Just catching my breath, sir," she muttered, stepping over her pack to help him with the tarp.
Despite everything, they still worked together smoothly; their minds had always run along similar paths and it didn't take long for the bivouac to take form, keeping the rain off the soggy patch of ground they were to call home for the night. As Sam cinched the final rope into place she became aware of him standing at her side and glanced over. He was watching her, as he often did. But this time his eyes didn't slide away when she looked at him and he frowned, taking a hesitant step closer. When he spoke his voice was low, betraying the embarrassment he always seemed to feel when he was afraid that his feelings for her were on show. "You seem a little tired, Carter," he said quietly, one wary eye on Teal'c who was searching for dry wood nearby. "You okay?"
She nodded, his awkwardness fuelling her own discomfort. "I am tired," she told him. "But I think we all are, sir. It's been a long few days."
"Yeah, it has," he agreed, a tentative smile touching his lips. "Long and miserable."
She felt the tug of her own smile. "And wet."
"Ya think?" he asked, but his voice was indulgent, not sardonic.
"I'm smart like that," she reminded him, and he laughed. It had been too long since she'd heard him laugh, and for a moment everything was all right between them. But the moment was short-lived.
"O'Neill," Teal'c interrupted. Jack stepped away from her as if caught red-handed, his face darkening with frustration.
"What?" he snapped.
"Dry wood," Teal'c replied, holding out a small arm-full towards him.
The Colonel nodded brusquely. "Looks good," he muttered, taking the wood. "I'll get a fire started."
And without a backward glance he moved to the edge of the tarp and busied himself with the fire-making. Sam watched him with a sudden sadness, their brief moment of renewed friendship only making her regret their current problems all the more.
With a sigh, she turned to her pack and started delving for the rations she carried. But she noticed Teal'c still standing nearby and glanced up again. His face was fixed on O'Neill and a slight frown marred his brow. "He still appears cold," he said, in reply to Sam's silent question.
She nodded. "Yeah," she sighed. "He does."
The rain fell in a staccato patter against the tarpaulin, dripping into puddles outside their makeshift shelter. The noise was soporific and Jack felt his eyes growing heavy as he ate in silence, barely tasting the food. It was hot, that was enough, and it filled a hole. Next to him Carter toyed with her own meal, eating slowly as she stared out into the firelight which cast dancing shadows over her features, glinting dully against her hair. She was miles away, he realized as he watched her slowly chew her meal. Thinking about Martouf, he guessed, and felt a little stab of jealousy. Irritated with himself, he glared down into his own bowl; the man was dead and still he had the power to aggravate him!
"You know," Daniel commented from where he sat cross-legged under the tarpaulin, "it's amazing how good this stuff tastes after a long day trekking through the mud."
Jack looked up and shook his head in disbelief as Daniel shoveled in another mouthful. "Personally," he muttered, "I'd kill for a steak."
No one spoke and the rain continued to rattle down above them. And then, to his surprise, Carter added, "With a baked potato and sour cream."
Jack glanced over at her, but her eyes were still lost in the firelight. "Deep-fried mushrooms," he suggested, remembering her favorites. "Onion-rings."
Sam smiled. "Chocolate fudge cake."
"Hmmm," she nodded dreamily, turning her eyes to him at last. "A cold beer!"
Jack smiled at the expression on her face and nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly, enjoying the unexpected warmth in her eyes, "that sounds great."
Setting his bowl down outside their little shelter, Daniel pulled his blanket up around his shoulders and chuckled. "We all know how much Sam enjoys the occasional beer, don't we?" She flicked him a puzzled glance and he grinned. "Or what was it they called that stuff on P3X- 595? Kuzo?"
"Oh please!" she protested, shaking her head but smiling despite herself. "Not that again."
Jack grinned at the memory. "Now *that* was a party!"
"I can't believe you guys still remember that!"
"Are you kidding?!"
Sam was still shaking her head, a self-conscious flush adding a sparkle to her eyes. "That was a *long* time ago," she pointed out. "I'd know better now."
Daniel nodded sagely. "Never drink the local brew." And then he flung a mischievous grin at Jack. "Or eat the local cake."
Jack grimaced, but the expression turned into a smile. "Oh I don't know," he decided, "we certainly knew how to have fun back then." He nudged Sam in the ribs, "Right, Carter?" Any reply she might have made was cut short by a sudden gasp. "Ow!" she yelped, clutching at her side and pulling away from him. "Damn it!"
Guessing that she was joking, Jack smiled warily. "Oh, come on," he said, "I hardly touched you."
"Well it hurt!" she snapped through gritted teeth, one hand still held protectively over her side.
Jack scowled. Okay, he thought, I get the message! Keep your distance, Colonel. "Sorry!" he muttered, not meaning it and not sounding like he meant it. Carter didn't reply, she just sat holding her side with her lips compressed into a tight line. Great, just great, he thought. Just when things were warming up between them, she flies off the handle because he dared to touch her. What the hell did she think he was going to do?
"You okay, Sam?" Daniel asked, peering at her through the darkness.
"Fine," she said shortly, "just a little sore."
"I barely touched her," Jack insisted irritably, pushing himself to his feet.
Sam made no reply, just turned and retreated further back under the tarp to where her bedroll lay. She winced a little as she moved, only deepening Jack's exasperation; there was no way a little nudge could cause her that much pain!
"I'll take first watch," Daniel offered, but Jack shook his head.
"You sleep," he said. "I'll watch. I'm not tired."
Daniel's glance was disbelieving, but he wisely chose not to argue and curled up under his blankets to sleep. As Jack stepped out into the rain he felt Teal'c's eyes on his back, but didn't turn around. Teal'c knew as well as he did the reason for Carter's behavior, because he'd been there. He'd heard it all.
Even now, months later, the memory of that day haunted him. And as he stomped around the perimeter of their little camp, making all the usual checks, memories surfaced like unwanted flotsam after a storm. He let them come, the familiar pain almost soothing after the new blow Carter had dealt to their already battered friendship.
The memories were sharp and vivid, playing before his eyes like an endless video loop. He was strapped into that damn chair, his eyes fixed on Carter's face as he told her - and the whole goddamn room - that he would rather die than lose her. It wasn't exactly a declaration of love, but it was close enough to scare the crap out of him. Admitting that he needed anyone didn't come easily to Jack O'Neill, and he'd felt as if Anise had turned him inside out and bared his heart to the world. But it wasn't his remembered feelings of exposure and vulnerability that haunted him now, it was the memory of Sam's face that swam before his eyes as he squelched through the rainy darkness.
Her wide eyes had squeezed shut in an expression of pity. Or disappointment. He wasn't sure which. Pity that he'd been forced to voice what was best left unsaid? Or disappointment that he had allowed his feelings for her to so cloud his professional judgement? Perhaps it was both. But either way, he'd never forget that expression. It was burned forever into his mind. As were her own words, voiced under duress.
'I knew that he should leave,' she'd said. 'That it was the only decision that made any sense.'
Carter's calm, impassive face had given nothing away as Anise had asked, 'What were you feeling?'
'Sadness,' she had replied slowly, her eyes fixed on his. 'And regret. Regret that he wouldn't leave because of his feelings for me; regret that we were both going to die.'
Sadness and regret. Two words, that was all. But they had been slowly tightening around his heart from that day forward, strangling the powerful feelings he had harbored for so long. Sadness and regret. And yet...? In that moment aboard Apophis' ship, when all the barriers between them had fallen away, he had thought he'd seen something more than regret in her eyes. But whatever her feelings, Carter had kept her words brief and her face guarded as she answered Anise's questions. Sadness and regret. Yeah well, he had a few regrets of his own. And being forced to admit to feelings he'd done a damn good job of concealing - from himself and the world - was right up there with the biggest of them.
Stooping, he tucked himself back underneath the tarp and settled for the first watch. He'd wake Carter in a few hours, as usual. He always took first, she always took second. Another one of those familiar patterns they'd slipped into so easily. But glancing over at her lying on her back, he frowned. She normally curled up on her side so that little more than her nose and a mop of hair peeked out beyond the blankets. But not tonight. Tonight she slept on her back, the arm closest to her 'wound' laying tight to her side, the other flung above her head. A voice whispered in the back of his mind that, perhaps, he really had hurt her. But he dismissed the thought immediately; it wasn't possible. It was only a friendly nudge! And this was Carter, as tough as any soldier he'd served with. No, if he'd hurt her at all the pain wasn't physical. He felt his jaw tighten at the thought that his touch could be so unwelcome, and his mood soured further.
"O'Neill?" Teal'c's voice was low, speaking from the shadows.
Jack glanced over at him. "Thought you were kel-whatever-ing?"
"I am concerned about Major Carter," Teal'c replied, ignoring his words.
Jack felt himself stiffen. 'Oh here we go,' he thought bitterly. But all he said was, "Why?"
"She has appeared tired throughout this mission," Teal'c said. "But when I have inquired, she has always insisted that she is well." He paused. "I do not believe her."
Jack frowned. He'd be lying if he hadn't noticed a certain lack of enthusiasm in her, but he could make a shrewd guess at its source. Not that he was going to point *that* out to Teal'c. If the man couldn't figure it out for himself, he didn't deserve the truth. Jack chose a half-lie instead. "She's probably a little down about Martouf," he said, his eyes turning to her once more, wondering if she was really asleep.
"You have spoken to her about his death?"
"No," Jack admitted slowly, his frown deepening. "She didn't seem to want to discuss it."
Teal'c was silent for a moment, before he said, "Sometimes it is the duty of a friend to speak difficult words."
"Yeah?" Jack replied, feeling irritable and defensive. "And sometimes it's the duty of a friend to shut the hell up."
He sensed, rather than heard, Teal'c's disapproval. But the man said no more and Jack was left with the dubious satisfaction of having managed to piss off two out of three of his team in one evening. Way to go!
The day dawned dull, wet and chill. Just like all the other days on P7D-783. As Daniel stirred the fire at the end of his watch, the rest of his team began to stir themselves. Teal'c, as always, merely opened his eyes and rose fluidly to his feet. He glanced out at the gray, rainy sky and a slight shiver of disgust ran across his face.
"I am glad," he said, "that today we reach the Stargate."
Daniel nodded around a yawn. "Coffee?" he asked as he tried to balance the pot on the wooden tripod Jack had rigged up the previous night.
"Did someone say coffee?" O'Neill mumbled. At least Daniel assumed it was O'Neill, as very little was visible beneath the pile of talking blankets.
"It's a close approximation," he replied, sniffing at the brew.
"As long as it's got caffeine," Jack muttered, poking his head out from beneath his bedroll. He sighed, staring out at the morning. "How can it *still* be raining?"
"Do you really want to know?" Daniel asked, glancing at him in no doubt of his answer.
Jack sat up and shook his head. "Not really." Glancing around, his eyes rested immediately on the sleeping figure at his side. "Time to get up, Carter."
No response. Which was odd, Daniel realized. Sam was usually the first one up; she always seemed to need far less sleep than the rest of them. Jack frowned a little, reached out to prod her, but changed his mind at the last moment and said, "Hey, Carter. Come on, rise and shine."
Mumbling something incoherent, she shifted in her sleep and rolled towards him. But the movement seemed to pain her and she sucked in a breath as her eyes flashed open. She groaned when she saw the daylight. "Morning already?" she croaked. "I feel like I just...." She frowned and glanced up at Jack. "You didn't wake me for my watch," she said.
He just shrugged, looking self-conscious. "Well, I knew you were still recovering from that nasty nudge in the ribs," he muttered, climbing out of his bedroll and heading out of the shelter. "Be ready to move out in fifteen," he called over his shoulder.
Daniel was still watching Sam as he crouched next to the fire, and he saw the tight expression on her pale face as her eyes followed Jack out of the tent. Then she sat up and grimaced in obvious pain. "Sam?" he asked. "Is that really bothering you? Your chest?"
She shook her head. "Probably slept funny," she muttered, raking a hand through her tangled hair. And then, changing the subject, she said, "Is that coffee?"
Each day on this planet, Teal'c mused, seemed longer than the last. The rain, the chill and the soggy ground were beginning to grate on even his stoic nerves. And their effect on his companions were even more pronounced.
Daniel traipsed along at his side, head bent and eyes focused on the ground in a vain attempt to avoid the marshy depths which lurked beneath the deceptively dry looking grass. He said little, absorbed by physical discomfort and weariness. Teal'c did not regret the lack of conversation. The Tau'ri talked entirely too much for his taste, and he would have found the silence restful had it not been edged with an unusual tension.
Glancing ahead, he watched as O'Neill stalked along, setting a fast pace towards the Stargate. Hostility bristled in every clipped movement, his anger unexplained and yet, to Teal'c, transparent; the Colonel's heightened feelings for Major Carter had left him sensitive to every nuance of her behavior, and he had taken her apparent injury of the previous night as a personal affront. And today the Major bore the brunt of his animosity.
Glancing over his shoulder, Teal'c couldn't help but feel a beat of anger towards O'Neill as he watched Carter struggle to keep up. The Colonel's hurt feelings had blinded him to her obvious difficulty as she trailed along behind them. Teal'c couldn't begin to imagine how O'Neill's innocent nudge could have caused her such pain, but he had no doubt that she was suffering. He had asked her several times during the course of the day whether she was well, but his inquires had always been dismissed with a smile. O'Neill had said nothing, just watched the exchanges with dark accusatory eyes. Both, Teal'c knew, were as stubborn as the other and while O'Neill refused to drop the pace, Carter refused to ask him to.
But as he watched her now she stumbled over a tuft of grass, catching herself with one hand on the ground before she fell completely. When she straightened, her face was very pale and her lips compressed tightly against obvious pain. Enough, Teal'c decided, was enough. Ahead of him, O'Neill was deliberately oblivious to her difficulties - grossly unprofessional, in Teal'c's opinion - and he was about to call the Colonel to a halt, when he noticed that Carter herself had stopped. Protocol insisted that she alert the team to the fact, but he saw her glance warily at O'Neill before obviously deciding to ignore the rules. She had stopped on a relatively dry grassy ridge and slid her pack awkwardly from her back. The way she had to twist to get it off caused her to suck in a sharp breath.
Hurriedly, she opened her pack and pulled out her med-kit, while keeping one eye on O'Neill's back as he strode resolutely ahead. Finding a small bottle she tipped a couple of pills into her hand, and popped them into her mouth as she quickly stuffed everything back into her pack. She was just reaching for her canteen when Teal'c heard an angry shout from behind him.
"Carter! What the hell are you playing at?"
She grimaced as O'Neill stalked back across the marsh towards her, and Daniel muttered, "Now what?" with a note of concern Teal'c shared.
"Carter!" O'Neill snapped again. "I asked you a goddamn question." He stopped a few feet away from her, glowering.
"I needed something from my pack, sir," she told him, meeting his glare with an expression that definitely bordered on insubordination.
"What?" he asked.
"What did you need?"
Carter's jaw tightened. "Advil, sir."
"Advil." His tone was flat, disbelieving. "Don't tell me. For the ribs."
Through gritted teeth Carter said, "Yes, sir. Sorry for the delay, sir." Teal'c could see anger in the glare she flashed him, and noted the way O'Neill flinched before it.
"You're getting slack, Major," he replied, his own anger returning. "You know damn well you don't just stop without reporting."
"Yes, sir," she replied, not giving an inch.
He shook his head. "I don't know what's gotten into you recently, Carter," he growled.
"No, sir," she replied. And then, with an obvious effort not to show how much it hurt, she hefted her pack over one shoulder and swung it onto her back.
The Colonel was watching her the whole time, his eyes dark and unreadable. "Ready?" he asked, as she cinched her hip-strap tight.
She nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Good. And try to make better time," he said brusquely. "No more dawdling, Major." And with that he turned away, stalking past Daniel and Teal'c without a glance at either. With a shake of his head Daniel started walking again, but Teal'c didn't move until Sam had reached him.
"Are you well, Major Carter?" he asked quietly, falling in at her side.
His words of concern drew a smile of gratitude. "My chest hurts," she admitted. "But other than that, I'm fine."
Teal'c nodded. "I will walk with you," he decided.
"Thanks, Teal'c," she said, smiling up at his serious face. "I appreciate it."
He did not trouble her for conversation as they walked, but could not help but notice how weary she seemed. It was disturbing in the Major, who was usually so full of life and enthusiasm, and he hoped that her difficulties with O'Neill had not dampened her bright spirit. They walked in silence for more than an hour, and it was with infinite relief that they at last saw the Stargate, gray against the gray sky, looming towards them out of the murky gloom. "Thank God," Major Carter murmured to herself as she fixed her eyes on it. And, had Teal'c had a god to thank, he would have echoed her words; this was one mission he would be pleased to forget.
Ahead of him, he saw Jack glance over his shoulder and run a frustrated hand through his hair. Some contrition had apparently penetrated his angry fortress and his pace slowed enough for them to catch up. His hostility seemed to have burned itself out, and Teal'c sensed a wary humility about him as he glanced over at the Major. "Looking forward to a hot shower, Carter?" he asked as he fell in beside her.
Carter's humor, however, had not improved. She was obviously in pain, weary, and in no mood to ease any guilt the Colonel might be feeling. Teal'c was not surprised to hear the ice in her voice as she snapped a brusque, "Yes, sir." Her cold tone had the desired effect; O'Neill winced slightly, glanced over at her once more in an endeavor to catch her eye, but getting no joy he strode ahead and left her alone. Again.
By the time they stood at the base of the gate Teal'c doubted that Major Carter could have walked much further, despite her stubborn pride. And it was with obvious effort that she stumbled up the steps to the Stargate and, ignoring O'Neill's half-concerned and half- irritated glances, almost fell into the embrace of the wormhole.
The tired and bedraggled team that emerged from the Stargate must have made a rather pathetic sight in the gate-room. Hammond took one look at their dispirited faces, frowned, and said, "Debrief in one hour."
Taking off his cap and shaking the excess rain onto the ramp, the Colonel turned to Carter and said, "Ladies first?"
But the Major shook her head, still clearly in pain and with little patience for his belated attempt at generosity. "You guys can have the locker room," she told them, heading down the ramp. "I'm gonna go have Janet check out my chest."
O'Neill's sudden exasperation was evident, and Teal'c heard him mutter, "Yeah, I'll be interested to see the clinical diagnosis for a nudge in the ribs!"
Carter just ignored him and pushed angrily at the gate-room doors, letting them swing shut behind her before she could hear the rest of his witticisms.
"Anyone ever tell you that you can be a real ass, Jack?" Daniel asked, as soon as the doors to the gate-room had closed.
O'Neill scowled. "You have," he replied, stomping down the ramp. "Frequently."
Daniel sighed, but wasn't going to let him get away with it that easily. "Why don't you believe her?" he called after him.
Jack didn't stop walking. "You saw," he said. "I hardly touched her."
Well that was the truth, Daniel had to admit. His friendly nudge couldn't really have caused Sam any pain. But still...? "Why would she lie?" he pressed, voicing his own question.
"How should I know?" came the cold, hard reply.
"Jack!" Daniel protested, refusing to let him walk away from the problem.
O'Neill turned, eyes flat and unrevealing. "Daniel?"
Pulling off his glasses and walking down the ramp towards him, Daniel said quietly, "We're talking about Sam, here."
"Yeah," Jack sighed. "I know."
"So, Sam wouldn't lie."
Turning away, Jack pushed open the doors to the gate-room. "Things change," he said bitterly. "People change." And with that he left.
Daniel watched him go in silence, before he rubbed a weary hand across his eyes. "Teal'c," he sighed, "do you have any idea what's going on?"
Teal'c remained silent for a long moment, and at last Daniel glanced over at him. His face was troubled, and Daniel had the distinct impression that the man knew more than he was willing to tell. At length he spoke. "I believe that Major Carter is in pain," he said quietly.
"Yeah," Daniel agreed. "Me too." But whether that pain was emotional or physical, he couldn't be sure.
"He just nudged me in the ribs," Sam was explaining as she eased herself onto the infirmary bed. "It wasn't hard, but it just really hurt."
Standing before her, a frown creased Doctor Fraiser's brow. "Show me," she said.
Tentatively, Sam touched the side of her rib cage. "Right there," she said. Lifting her shirt to take a look Janet's cool fingers probed lightly over the painful area, but still Sam winced a little.
"That hurts?" Janet asked quietly, as she stooped to get a better look.
"I think I'll take an x-ray, just to check," she said. And then, standing up straight, she let go of Sam's shirt and smiled, looking intently into her face. "How are you generally?" she asked, pulling her stethoscope from around her neck and placing it lightly on Sam's chest.
"Okay," Sam replied.
"Eating and sleeping okay?"
Sam had to think for a moment. "Well," she sighed, "I guess I haven't had much of an appetite recently, but I've certainly been sleeping!"
"More than normal?" Janet asked, pulling her stethoscope back around her neck and picking up Sam's notes.
She shrugged. "I guess. I've been feeling really tired," she confessed. "Can't seem to get enough sleep."
Janet jotted something down in her notes. "How long's that been going on?" she asked. Sam didn't answer right away, and Janet's eyes peered suspiciously at her over the top of her glasses. "Sam?"
"Oh," she said at last, "a few months...."
The doctor's eyes narrowed. "You didn't mention it."
"No," Sam agreed. "I think it's just stress - it doesn't feel like I've had five minutes to sit down and think since...." She trailed to a halt and ran a hand through her hair; it was getting too long, she thought absently.
"Since what?" Janet pressed.
Dropping her hand back into her lap, Sam sighed. "Since Martouf." She paused, and then in a quieter voice added, "And the whole Za'tarc testing thing."
"That was a pretty intense day," Janet agreed.
A thoughtful silence grew between them until Janet got back to business. "Any other symptoms?" she asked. "Aches and pains?"
Sam considered for a moment and then said, "My lower back."
Janet just nodded, flicked down the pages on her chart and looked up with a smile. "Well, let's take a look at that chest of yours, Major," she said. "Then you can go take a shower."
Sam smiled sheepishly. "Sorry Janet, guess I should've cleaned up first."
But the doctor waved away her concern. "You just look like you could do with a long hot soak," she said.
"Oh yeah," Sam smiled again. "That sounds like a prescription I can swallow!"
The tension in the locker room was palpable as Jack pulled a tee- shirt over his head and tugged it down over his damp skin. On the other side of the room Teal'c closed his locker quietly, preparing to leave, while Daniel was mumbling something to himself as he tied his laces.
Carter still hadn't shown up to throw them out and claim the locker- room for herself and, glancing at his watch, Jack frowned. She would hardly have time for a shower before the debrief, and he wondered what was holding her up. She couldn't still be in the infirmary. Could she?
"I hope Sam's okay," Daniel said suddenly, as if reading Jack's thoughts.
"You know Fraiser," O'Neill said as he sat down to pull his boots on, "probably giving her an armful of shots."
"For a nudge in the ribs?"
Jack said nothing, scowling down at his laces as he tied them. Damn, he hated this. He hated the tension between them, the fact that their mutual trust had been compromised by other, more complicated feelings.
Daniel stood up. "See you in the debriefing, Jack," he said, his voice conveying a subtle disappointment.
Refusing to be drawn, Jack just nodded and said, "Yep." For a moment he thought Daniel was going to speak again, but he obviously thought better of the idea and left the room in silence. Standing up and slamming his locker shut, Jack gave a brief nod to Teal'c and headed in the same direction.
"Friendships are easier preserved than mended," the Jaffa said quietly.
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Did you read that in a fortune cookie?" he asked, hiding his awkwardness behind the sardonic reply. Teal'c didn't deign to respond, but fixed him with a penetrating look that seemed to say 'ignore my advice at your peril.' Jack did his best to hold the intense look, but he was no match for Teal'c and blinked first. "Yeah," he sighed, frowning down at his boots. "I know. You're right."
Teal'c nodded, acknowledging Jack's capitulation, and moved toward the door in silence.
Jack stood back to let him pass, and then he was gone and Jack found himself alone. His eyes drifted automatically towards the locker opposite him as he pondered Teal'c's words. 'Carter, S.' it read on the door. Sam Carter - his friend. The idea was novel, in a way. He was used to seeing her as his colleague, as someone he could trust with his life and more. He was even getting used to the other, less professional, feelings she aroused in his heart. But friendship, pure and simple, was something he'd never really considered. Daniel was a friend; Carter was...? Carter was Carter - his anchor, his rock. His hope. Any yet, perhaps he'd become so caught up in what he *shouldn't* feel for her that he'd forgotten what he *could* feel for her? She could be his friend, even if she could never be more than that, and he could be hers. And as a friend, he figured, he owed her an apology for today.
Turning to the door he glanced at his watch and realized that he'd have to hurry or be late for the briefing. There was no time to talk to her first, but afterwards he'd talk to her and smooth things over. That's what friends did, right? Talk.
It felt like a luxury after six days in the mud and rain, to stand under the steaming hot water and let it wash away all the dirt and grime. Sam was already on the third attempt at cleaning her hair, and it was at last losing its gritty quality as she ran her fingers through it.
She sighed a long, happy sigh and closed her eyes as the water pummeled her; the private shower in the infirmary was another luxury she was determined to enjoy. No need to rush, plenty of time to think. Her first thought was that Colonel O'Neill wouldn't be pleased that Fraiser had excused her from the debrief, her second was that she didn't give a damn. Not after the day he'd just inflicted on her!
The Colonel had acted like a total jerk, and she'd be the first to admit it. Her feelings for him didn't blind her to the fact that the man could be as cold and unyielding as granite when he so chose, and today he'd been in top form!
In the past she'd often chuckled at his snide remarks, but his temper had never been directed towards her and she'd suddenly found it a whole lot less amusing. "Now I know how Daniel feels," she muttered aloud, letting the water seep into her mouth as she spoke and grimacing as she tasted shampoo.
She'd rarely fallen victim to the sharp edge of his tongue, and decided that she didn't like it much. And then, out of the blue, she found herself wondering if his wife had ever seen that side of him. She must have, of course. Smiling slightly, Sam shook her head at the direction her mind was travelling; Jack O'Neill, she realized, would be an incredibly difficult man to live with! "Sara must've been a saint," she told the empty shower room as she turned off the water and reached for her towel.
Janet's voice through the door startled her in the midst of her musing, and she felt herself flush guiltily. "I'm nearly done," she said hurriedly, forcing such confusing thoughts from her mind.
"Okay," Janet replied, but there was a note of tension in her voice that was disturbing. Sam frowned and Fraiser said, "We need to have a chat when you're done, Sam."
A chat? That sounded ominous. Her hand lightly touched her sore chest again, and she swallowed the unease rising in her throat. Something wasn't right, and she didn't like it. Not one bit.
Jack was torn between anger and concern as he stormed along the corridors towards the infirmary, scattering personnel in his path; they all knew *that* look. Carter hadn't been at the debrief. Fraiser had phoned Hammond and told him she was keeping her in the infirmary for tests. Tests! For what? It was a goddamn nudge in the ribs, for crying out loud. A young lieutenant hovered near the infirmary door, until Jack's scowl sent her scurrying out of his way. He slowed, but he didn't pause as he pushed open the door to Janet's office and strode inside. "Doctor," he snapped, demanding her immediate attention.
Fraiser was at her desk and glanced up at his abrupt entrance, before returning her attention to the x-rays she was studying. Before Jack could continue she said, "Come in, Colonel. You've saved me a trip."
He blinked in angry surprise. "I have?" Behind him he heard the door click shut.
Turning away from the x-rays, Fraiser looked at him with a frown on her face. "You've come to check on Major Carter?" she guessed.
"Wondering why the hell she wasn't in the debrief," he corrected sharply, fixing her with a pointed look.
But the doctor's frown only deepened and she pressed a hand momentarily to her forehead. "Take a seat, Colonel."
He was suddenly struck by the tension in Fraiser's face. She was usually coolness personified, but today she appeared to be on edge, testy. Anxious.
His anger started to dissipate. "What's going on?" he asked, her unease infecting him with a nervousness of his own as he slowly lowered himself into the chair opposite her.
With a sigh, she sat back in her seat; settling in for the long-haul he realized, and a pulse of fear fluttered in his stomach. After a moment she spoke, her voice quiet and measured. "Major Carter told me that you poked her in the chest...."
"Hey!" he objected immediately, half-rising to his feet. "I hardly touched her!"
Janet held up a hand to forestall his argument. "I know," she assured him, her quiet voice carrying over his protests. "Nonetheless, she has a fracture of her rib, right here." She pointed to the x-rays on her desk, but Jack paid no attention.
No way! He shook his head in stubborn disbelief. "Did she put you up to this?" he asked, anger returning as his confusion mixed uneasily with a deep foreboding. "Is this some kind of goddamn joke? Because I can tell you *right* now that...."
"It's no joke," Fraiser snapped, eyes blazing fiercely. "And frankly, I resent the implication. Sir."
Her rebuke deflated him, and he hung his head a little. "Sorry," he muttered, leaning forward, arms resting on his knees and hands clasped. Glancing up at her from beneath his eyebrows he said, "But I'm telling you, it was just a nudge. I hardly touched her. I swear."
Fraiser's anger faded as fast as his own, and she just nodded slightly at his words and said, "You wouldn't have had to, Colonel."
He frowned, not fully understanding her words. "Meaning?"
With a sigh, the doctor sat forward as she obviously searched for layman's language. "In addition to the rib fracture," she began, "the x-rays revealed an alarming degree of bone demineralization."
Jack scrubbed a worried hand through his hair. "Bone what?"
"Demineralization. They've lost a lot of calcium," she explained. "Sam's bones have become extremely brittle."
"Brittle?" he asked, still struggling with what she was telling her. He'd only seen Sam a couple of hours ago, and she'd been fine. A little tired. A little pissed off. But...demineralized? "Are you telling me," he said slowly, gathering his thoughts, "that I broke her rib?"
Fraiser nodded. "Yes, you did, but it's something called a pathologic fracture. Her bones have become so fragile that almost anything could have caused it. But..."
"Oh God," he groaned, dropping his head into his hands. In his mind's eye he saw her pale face as she struggled uncomplaining to meet his punishing pace, and wondered how he'd missed the genuine pain in her eyes. "Daniel's right, I *am* an ass," he mumbled through his fingers. "Carter must hate me."
"I doubt that," the doctor said quietly, in a tone that provoked a flutter of hope amid his remorse. But her gaze slipped away from his when he glanced up and in a louder voice she said, "But, with respect sir, a little rib fracture is the least of the Major's problems."
He felt a sudden chill wash through him. "It is?"
"We need to find out what's causing the demineralization in the first place."
Jack nodded, his mind whirling. "Best guess?" he asked, hoping it wouldn't be anything too bad. Maybe she hadn't been eating right? Maybe some calcium pills...?
But Fraiser was already shaking her head. "I don't have a best guess at this point, Colonel."
"Really?" he asked, frowning.
"I need to discuss the situation with Major Carter first," she added in a softer tone. "I'm doing some blood work - we should know more tomorrow."
"I understand," he sighed. "But," he fixed her with a steady look that demanded the truth, "could it be...bad?"
She was silent for a moment, her gaze turning to the x-rays on her desk. "It's really too early to tell, sir," she said slowly, obviously reluctant to answer.
"But?" he pressed. "Potentially...?"
Fraiser sighed. "Potentially, sir, it could be bad."
He shook his head in an attempt to deny her words and stared down at his clenched fingers, slowly turning white in his lap. "Does she know?"
"You can't get a lot past Sam."
"No," he agreed. "No, you can't." He said nothing more, his thoughts turning painfully back to the way he'd treated her all day; dismissing her pain, ignoring her obvious fatigue, deliberately forcing the pace because he was angry, and confused, and hurt. He'd acted like the worst sort of parade-ground bully and he was ashamed of himself. Letting out a long, slow sigh as he looked up at her again he muttered, "I acted like a jerk today. I owe her an apology." Fraiser made no reply, but he could see agreement in her dark eyes and knew that Sam must have told her something, if not all the details. He flinched away from her gaze and quietly asked, "Can I see her?"
The doctor shook her head. "She's resting right now, Colonel."
"I won't stay long," he promised. "I just want to...."
"She's asleep," she told him firmly. "She was exhausted when she came in - had a hard day, apparently."
He winced at her tone, wondering exactly what Carter had said. Nothing that wasn't true, he was sure. Nothing that he didn't deserve. "Janet?" he pleaded quietly, dispensing with rank and hoping to appeal to her as a friend. "Please? Just five minutes?"
For an instant she wavered and he thought she might succumb. But her weakness was only momentary. "I think it would be better if you came back in the morning," she decided, her tone final. "Major Carter needs her rest, and I might have some more information about her condition by then."
Recognizing the stubborn set of her jaw, Jack knew that arguing was a waste of breath. Reluctantly he got to his feet, but couldn't resist glancing into the infirmary in the hope of catching a glimpse of Sam. He was out of luck. With a sigh he turned to leave, but at the last moment he stopped with his hand on the door. "Doc?" he asked quietly. "Will you tell her something from me?"
"Tell her...," he began, considering his words carefully. "Tell her that I owe her a beer," he said at last, unwilling to tread any closer to his true feelings. "Probably a lot more than one."
Behind him, Janet chuckled softly. "I'll let her know," she promised.
With a silent nod of thanks Jack left, stepping out into the corridor beyond as if it were an alien planet. The people around him seemed unreal, mere images with plastic smiles; they meant nothing to him. All he could think about was Carter. Guilt, not an unfamiliar emotion to Jack O'Neill, needled him like a thousand tiny knife wounds as he walked, unseeing through the corridors. In fact, the only thing that could distract him from his remorse was the nameless dread of what the morning might bring.
Tomorrow. He sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets and turning slowly towards his quarters. Tomorrow felt like an eternity away, and he was facing a long, dark night before the dawn.
As Sam opened bleary eyes she glared at the medical staff whose noisy chatter at the far end of the room had woken her. Morning had come and yet she felt as if she'd only just sunk into sleep; after crashing out exhausted from the day's trek, Sam's fears had surfaced in the night and pulled her tired body into a restless wakefulness. Despite the fatigue that dragged at her, sleep had proven elusive and she'd spent the night drifting from one bad dream to another. Feeling exhausted and irritable, Sam rolled over and away from the chatting medics. Big mistake! Her weary eyes flashed open at the sharp pain in her side and she sucked in a breath. Damn, that hurt! And with the pain came the memories with which she'd spent the night wrestling; the rain, the mud, Jack's angry face. The concern in Janet's dark eyes as she told her of her mysterious condition.
A pulse of dread fluttered in Sam's stomach as she remembered that there was something wrong with her; bones didn't just turn to glass in your body. And although she wasn't a doctor, she hadn't needed the worry on Janet's face to tell her that the symptom was indicative of something serious.
With a sigh she sat up and glanced around the infirmary. Aside from the staff it was empty, so she swung her legs out of bed and headed off in search of the bathroom. By the time she returned, Janet was busy with a rather ominous tray of instruments by her bedside. She looked up as Sam approached and smiled, "Good morning. How did you sleep?"
"Not great," Sam admitted, eyeing the various tubes on the tray. "More tests?" she asked.
Janet nodded. "Just a couple more."
With a sigh, Sam climbed back into bed and offered her arm to Janet. Maybe to distract her from what she was doing, or maybe just to pass the time, Janet started chatting. "You had a couple of visitors last night," she said, her eyes fixed on the needle as it slid into Sam's arm.
She nodded. "Daniel stopped by with Teal'c - told me to say 'hi'." She paused as she watched the slowly filling test tube. "Colonel O'Neill was here too."
Sam smiled. "Did you tell him?" she asked. "About my rib?"
"Yeah," Janet said, glancing up at her momentarily.
"And he asked me to tell you he owes you a couple of beers."
"A couple of beers?!" she laughed. "And then some!"
A slight frown touched Janet's face as she swapped the full test tube for an empty one. "I have to say," she said slowly, "I don't think I've ever seen the Colonel looking quite so...ashamed of himself."
Sam's smile broadened. "Well *that's* something I'd like to see!"
"Yeah," Janet agreed, "it's a rare one!" Pulling the syringe slowly from Sam's arm, she smiled. "You hungry for breakfast?"
"A little," Sam shrugged. "But I can easily go to the cafeteria...."
Janet shook her head. "You're not escaping that easily, Major! I'll send in a tray."
"Janet?" Sam called as her friend turned away.
"Have you had any results yet?" she asked, her voice sounding rather small despite her best efforts at bravery.
But Janet shook her head, "Not yet," she said. "Have something to eat first, then we'll talk."
With a sigh Sam nodded, her feeling of unease only heightened by Janet's reserve.
Jack had given up on sleep at about five o'clock that morning. He'd felt hot and sticky, and his sheets had been twisted from hours of tossing and turning as he tried to get his mind to shut down for the night. But it had refused, and sleep had eluded him. All he could think of as he lay in the dark was that Carter was sick, and that he hadn't noticed. He claimed to be her friend, to care about her - whatever the hell *that* meant - but when she'd needed him he'd turned her away. Afraid of feeling too much, he'd acted like an unfeeling bastard and treated her injury as some kind of goddamn personal insult! The guilt had refused to give him a moment's peace until he'd angrily flicked on the light and spent the rest of the night glaring at the ceiling.
He sat now in the locker room, staring through the steam that had built up while he'd stood for a long time under the pummeling water, hoping to wash his fatigue away. But his eyes were still full of sand, and the faint nausea of sleep deprivation rose in his throat. Reaching for his watch, Jack sighed; six-fifteen. Still too early to go see Carter. Although, as impatient as he was to see her, he had no idea what to say. That had been another thing whirring through his mind all night; how to apologize. Sorry seemed inadequate - sorry that I broke your rib, sorry that I didn't believe you, sorry that you're sick, sorry that I care about you too much...? Where the hell was he supposed to start?
"Coffee," he decided, speaking the word aloud to the empty room. It was as good a place as any.
Leaving Janet's office, Daniel immediately spotted Sam in the infirmary. She was sitting up in bed, legs crossed, nibbling disconsolately at piece of limp toast before she gave up and pushed the full breakfast tray away. As the door to the infirmary creaked shut behind him, she glanced up and smiled. "Daniel! Hi!"
"How are you?" he asked, walking towards her. She looked pale and tired to his eyes, but he did his best to hide his concern. "You look...a little better," he said, offering her a small lie.
She smiled. "I feel fine," she lied back.
"Um, Janet said she's running some tests," he said then, nodding over his shoulder towards the doctor's office.
"Yeah," she said. "I'm sure it'll be fine."
"Me too," he agreed awkwardly. And then frowned. "How's the rib?"
"Sore," she confessed, touching it gingerly. "But Janet's keeping me dosed up with painkillers - it's okay."
Glancing at her over the top of his glasses, Daniel said, "You should have told us, you know."
She raised an eyebrow. "Didn't I?"
"You know what I mean," he said, pulling a chair up to the side of her bed and sitting down. "You should have insisted Jack ease up on you."
Sam's eyes dropped to her hands resting in her lap. "I didn't want to make a fuss."
"He was acting like a jerk, Sam," Daniel told her quietly. "You should have called him on it."
She shook her head. "I was okay," she protested, still not looking at him. Daniel frowned. He had the distinct impression that there was more to it than that; Sam wasn't one to take that sort of behavior lying down.
His frown deepened as he decided to get to the bottom of the problem. But before he could speak he was interrupted by a voice from the doorway. "He's right," it said, "I *was* acting like a jerk, and you should have called me on it."
Daniel turned to see Jack standing just inside the door, watching Sam with hesitant eyes. A slight, crooked smile touched his lips as she looked up, and he shrugged helplessly.
Shaking her head in exasperation, Sam failed to hide her answering smile. "Colonel."
Daniel stood up slowly, his eyes darting from Sam to Jack and back again. The tension was palpable, confusing in its nature, but definitely palpable. "Um, perhaps I'll just...?" he muttered as he backed away slowly.
"Good idea," Jack agreed, not moving from where he stood by the door.
"Feel better," Daniel told Sam, touching her lightly on the shoulder and wishing her luck with a smile. Jack seemed at his mercurial best, and Sam would need all the luck she could get.
Rolling her eyes in agreement with his unspoken thoughts, Sam just nodded and said, "Thanks, Daniel."
Standing by the door, Jack watched as Daniel gave Sam a slight squeeze on the shoulder before turning and walking away. He slowed slightly as he approached, and said, "Jack," by way of a greeting.
"Daniel," Jack nodded, his eyes still fixed on Sam.
Then the door swung shut, the room fell into silence, and they were alone. But still Jack didn't move. Sam was watching him, her eyes bright in her pale face and touched with accusation. No more than he deserved. She held her silence, watching him expectantly and he could tell she was determined not to make the first move. Well, she was right; this was his mess to fix. Running a hand through his hair, he decided to start at a tangent. "Did Fraiser tell you I owe you a beer?" he asked her.
Sam's eyes widened, apparently surprised at his words. And then she smiled again, shaking her head slightly, and said, "More than one."
"Yeah," he agreed. "Maybe a whole keg."
He smiled, dropping her gaze at last and stuffing his hands into his pockets. "So," he said after a moment, "how's the...rib?" He couldn't help cringing at the question; the rib he'd broken, the rib he'd refused to believe was damaged.
But Sam was gracious. "Better," she told him, without a hint of triumph.
He nodded, looking up at her again. He didn't deserve her to be so...forgiving. He needed a little anger to help assuage his guilt. "You know, Carter," he said awkwardly, "I feel terrible about the whole thing - I was totally out of line. Daniel was right; I'm a jerk."
"Maybe sometimes," she agreed, an undertone of anger surfacing in her voice. He glanced up and she added a belated, "Sir," which just made him smile.
"Maybe most of the time," he corrected her quietly, shaking his head. "Carter, if I'd known...."
"I *did* tell you," she pointed out.
Jack winced as her anger rose more forcefully. "Yeah," he agreed softly. "I just..." He let out a long, slow breath and looked straight into her eyes. "I was wrong, Carter. And I'm sorry."
After a pause, she said, "I know." Her anger, such as it had been, seemed to dissipate in the face of his genuine contrition and after a moment she added, "It really wasn't your fault, sir. My bones are...."
"Demineralized. I know."
She blinked in surprise. "You do?"
"Fraiser told me."
"Oh." She frowned, her lips pressed together in sudden concern. "Did she tell you anything else?" Jack looked away as she spoke, unable to meet the honest question in her eyes. "Oh God," she breathed when he made no reply, "what did she say?"
"Nothing," he assured her hurriedly, crossing the room in a couple of strides. "She didn't tell me anything. Swear to God, Carter."
As if ashamed of her sudden panic she turned away, but he refused to let her go and drew her back to him with a hesitant touch on her arm. His dark eyes fixed her with a serious look and in that instant the months of tension between them dissolved; he knew that powerful emotions burned behind his eyes and she met the look with an expression equally open. "I hate being sick," she admitted quietly, and he tightened his hold on her arm.
"Everything's going to be fine," he assured her, meaning every word. "*You're* going to be fine."
But she shook her head. "You can't make that promise, sir."
"Sure I can," he said brightly. "And I *never* break promises, Carter. That's a promise."
Sam smiled slightly and let out a sigh as she pulled her knees up under her chin. "Janet's worried," she confessed, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. "She thinks it's serious."
She was watching him, trying to read the truth in his face as he considered his answer. In the end he just said, "Yeah, she does."
She looked away as he spoke, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. When they opened again, she forced a smile and said, "Thanks, sir."
"The truth," she said simply. And then she laughed, a dark laugh. "Daniel tried to tell me I looked better this morning!"
That made him smile, but all he said was, "You sure he didn't say you *have* looked better?"
Sam shook her head and chuckled. "Daniel's a diplomat, remember?"
"Ah," Jack nodded. "Well, I guess diplomacy never was my strong point."
"No," she agreed, meeting his eyes with a serious look. "But I've always preferred straight talking, Colonel."
He smiled at the veiled compliment, and remembered Teal'c's words during their last night on P7D-783 - 'sometimes it is the duty of a friend to speak difficult words'. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and said, "Talking - straight or otherwise - isn't something we've done a lot of, is it, Carter?"
"No," she agreed, clearly astonished that he would stray so close to the forbidden subject that lay between them. But after a moment she calmly followed his lead. "We probably should have though."
"Yeah," he nodded, somewhat encouraged. "Maybe we could....?"
"Colonel?" Janet's voice interrupted, and Jack hastily turned around.
"Doc," he said, feeling flustered. "'Morning." He ran nervous fingers through his hair, but Janet seemed oblivious to his discomfort. She was clasping a file to her chest as she walked towards them, her face set and her jaw tense.
"General Hammond would like to see you in his office right away, sir," she said, with unusual brusqueness.
Jack raised an eyebrow, surprised by the request. "Right away?"
With a roll of his eyes he turned to Sam. "I'll stop by later, Carter," he said, his hand brushing lightly against her arm again. "You take it easy."
But Sam didn't return his smile; her eyes were fixed anxiously on Janet and the file she was gripping so tightly.
The air in Hammond's office was thick with unanswered questions and the silence was tense. Daniel sat nervously in a low chair, his fingers fidgeting with the slightly frayed hem of his shirt as he waited. Next to him sat Teal'c, the large man's face impassive although the set of his jaw revealed that he was not immune from concern. Across from them both, General Hammond sat with fingers steepled, his eyes lost in thought and a slight frown creasing his wide forehead. As the silence lengthened Daniel was on the point of speaking when a sharp rap on the door made him jump.
Hammond blinked and his lips tightened. "Come in."
The door opened and Jack's head poked around it. "Sir? You asked to... Oh." He raised a surprised eyebrow upon seeing Teal'c and Daniel. But surprise soon turned to suspicion as he stepped into the room and frowned. "What's going on?"
"Take a seat, son," Hammond suggested, waving at one of the vacant chairs.
Still suspicious Jack dropped down into the chair. "What's this about?" he pressed.
Hammond frowned, tapping a finger against his desk. "Doctor Fraiser wants to talk to us," he said quietly. "About Major Carter's condition."
Jack froze, just for an instant. But Daniel saw the moment of panic that struck him, he saw the fear that flashed in his eyes before the military mask had time to fall. "I just saw her," he said in a tight, controlled voice.
Jack shook his head slightly. "Carter." He paused before he added, "Fraiser hasn't told her anything."
Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Hammond ran a worried hand across his balding head. "She's talking to her now," he said.
"What's she telling her?" Jack asked, the belligerent note in his voice doing nothing to hide his anxiety.
But Hammond had no answer for him. Shaking his head he sighed. "I don't know, Colonel," he said quietly. "Doctor Fraiser wouldn't tell me until she'd spoken to Major Carter."
Jack nodded, but his eyes closed as if he were in pain and his fingers pinched at the bridge of his nose. Daniel could almost see the tension seeping into every limb as the man turned slowly to stone. When he spoke again, his voice was small and constrained. "Doesn't look good, does it?"
"Let's wait for the Doctor," Hammond suggested, but from the bleak look on his face, Daniel suspected that he agreed with Jack's assessment.
The hands on the clock moved interminably slowly as they waited. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty minutes. Thirty. And with each minute that passed the mood in the room sank lower and lower. Daniel's nervous picking at his shirt had all but undone the hem, while Jack fidgeted constantly, glancing between his watch and the clock and the door, then getting up and pacing, before throwing himself back down into the chair and glaring at his watch again. "What's taking her so long?" he muttered under his breath and he slumped back in the chair, the foot that rested on his knee twitching nervously.
"She must have much to discuss with Major Carter," Teal'c observed, his words doing nothing to calm anyone.
Jack scowled. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Guess so."
At last footsteps could be heard approaching the office door. Hammond looked up, Daniel sat forward and Jack was on his feet by the time the quiet knock came.
"Come," Hammond replied immediately, and Janet opened the door. Her face was grim and pale as she regarded the four sets of anxious eyes that greeted her.
"Sir," she said, nodding towards the General.
"Come in, Doctor," he replied, his eyes kindly as he rose to his feet and came around his desk. "Take a seat."
Sitting down, Janet sighed, resting the file she carried on her knees. She looked drained, and Daniel felt his heart sink at the sight. There was no doubting that whatever she had to tell them, the news was not good. She wasted no time in getting to the point. With her hands clasped tightly together on her lap, she spoke quietly, her voice husky with controlled emotion. "I'm afraid that Major Carter's test results are quite disturbing," she said immediately, her eyes turning to Jack. He just watched her with a blank face, his lips compressed into a hard line. She continued. "The blood tests showed an abnormally high level of protein in Sam's blood. She's also somewhat anemic."
Daniel frowned. That didn't sound too bad. Glancing over at Jack, he saw his friend relax slightly. "Anemia?" O'Neill asked. "Doesn't sound too scary."
But Janet frowned. "It's more serious than that, sir. When I took a close look at the additional proteins in Sam's blood, it became clear that they weren't human."
"Not human?" Hammond broke in. "Then what the hell are they?"
"I believe," Janet said slowly, "that they are Goa'uld."
"Goa'uld?" Daniel repeated. "How on earth...?"
Janet started speaking before he could finish the question. "I don't know for sure, Dr. Jackson," she said, "I need to do some more tests. But my suspicion is that she's producing them herself."
"Why?" Jack asked. "How?"
The doctor shook her head. "I don't know, yet. But I'm guessing it might have something to do with hosting Jolinar - a kind of long-term side effect."
Jack scowled down at his fingers, tapping anxiously against his knee. "What tests?" he asked after a moment.
"I need to determine where the protein is coming from," she explained. "I'm going to do some scans that check liver and kidney function, as well as some additional blood tests. I'm thinking of doing a bone marrow biopsy as well, because of the anemia." And then, obviously seeing the incomprehension in Jack's face, she added, "I'll take a small sample of bone marrow from her hip to analyze."
He nodded slowly, lifting serious eyes to her face. "Analyze for what?"
"We'll know the results by the end of the day," Janet said, avoiding the question.
From the darkening expression on Jack's face, Daniel knew he was about to press the point and so jumped in to forestall a confrontation. "How's Sam doing?" he asked.
Janet smiled slightly. "You know Sam," she said. "Always puts on a brave face."
"Yeah," he agreed. "But is she...well? I mean, this protein in her blood, does it make her sick?"
"She's tired," Janet said. "She's never very forthcoming about herself, but I gather she's been feeling under the weather for a couple of months now. She put it down to stress after Martouf's death and the Za'tarc testing crisis." As she spoke, her eyes flickered towards Jack, who dropped his gaze back to his hands with an oddly tight expression on his face that Daniel didn't understand. "She's not eating well either," Janet added. "But other than that, she's okay at the moment."
"Doctor Fraiser?" Teal'c said quietly, managing to startle Daniel with his unexpected words. "Is there anything we can do to assist your diagnosis? Contact the Tok'ra perhaps?"
Janet smiled her thanks, but said, "Hold off for now. I really don't know what we're dealing with yet. I just wanted to keep you updated."
"Thank you, Doctor," Hammond said then, sitting forward at his desk. But there was a frown creasing his brow and he looked uncomfortable as he stared down at the pen he held between his fingers. After a moment he said, "I'm sorry that I have to ask this, but... Does Major Carter pose a risk to base security?"
Jack's head snapped up and there was thunder in his eyes. Hammond saw and matched the look, a restraining hand raised as he waited for the doctor's answer.
"No." The word fell like cool water on a smoldering fire.
"Hell no," Jack muttered.
General Hammond just nodded. "Good," he said. "And you'll keep us apprised of your progress, doctor?"
"Of course, sir," she replied, standing to leave.
Jack rose too, and with a glance asked Hammond if he too was dismissed. The General's brief nod was all the answer he needed and he left on Janet's heels, heading, no doubt, back to the infirmary. Turning to Teal'c with a sigh on his lips, Daniel was surprised to see his friend's eyes fixed on the open door, an expression of ineffable sadness etched into his features. Daniel pulled his glasses off and rubbed at the bridge of his nose; he suddenly had the distinct impression that he was out of the loop.
Multiple myeloma. Cancer of the plasma cells, buried deep in the bone marrow and screwing you up from the inside out.
Janet sighed and closed her eyes against the truth that was glaring at her through the lens of her microscope. There was no doubting it. However many times she looked, the answer was the same. Abnormal plasma cells multiplying like rats in Sam's bones, pushing out what she needed to live to make room for more of their own kind. But this was no ordinary multiple myeloma, for her cells had been somehow corrupted to produce Goa'uld proteins that were slowly killing her.
The diagnosis was made. She should feel quite proud of herself for making it so quickly. Not every doctor would have done the biopsy so soon; bone demineralization and anemia could mean many things. She deserved a pat on the back for being a damn diagnostic genius. Yeah right, sure she did. She'd gotten to the bleak truth in record time, Sam *would* be pleased.
"Damn it," she sighed, slumping back in her seat and letting her gaze drift down the infirmary to where Sam sat in bed. The Colonel was at her side, where he'd been, on and off, for most of the day. So close, and yet so far apart. He sat forward in his chair, talking about something that was making Sam smile and shake her head. But even from this distance Janet could sense the tension between them; the nervous play of Jack's fingers as he talked made it look as if he was constantly stopping himself from reaching out to touch her. Maybe he was, Janet thought. She knew how he felt about her and she hadn't needed his embarrassed confession in front of the Tok'ra woman to tell her.
But it pained her to see it now, knowing what she knew. Multiple myeloma. Nasty. Difficult to treat even in its ordinary form, but an alien cancer...? How the hell did she even start?
"At the beginning," she told herself quietly, forcing herself to keep her professional focus. And the beginning meant telling the patient. She swallowed the dread that rose in her throat at the thought. This wasn't the first time she'd broken bad news, but it was the first time she'd had to tell a friend. "Why me?" she asked herself quietly. Shaking her head against her own self-pity she reflected that perhaps a better question would be 'Why Sam?' Why would the capricious gods choose to strike down someone so young, brilliant and vibrant as Sam Carter? Janet's eyes moved back to O'Neill and she sighed again; someone so essential as Sam Carter.
Gathering her papers and her thoughts, Janet rose reluctantly to her feet. O'Neill noticed her immediately, and his anxious gaze flitted between herself and Sam. Janet's heart sank; she knew the Colonel's psychological history and found herself worrying about how he'd deal with this new loss. She stopped herself. Potential loss. Where there was life there was hope, and she knew no one as full of life and hope as Sam.
Walking slowly along the infirmary, Janet felt as if she were approaching her own execution. Her fingers were cold and there was a snake writhing in the pit of her belly. Absently she noticed a box of Kleenex on the table at Sam's bedside and thought 'Good'. Someone would probably need them.
Jack rose slowly to his feet as she drew closer, taking a step towards Sam. He was close enough to touch her now but still he resisted, although Janet noted his protective stance and knew that he wouldn't leave until he had heard all she had to say. "Doc," he said quietly, watching her with naked unease. Sam's face was calm, but pale and worried. She glanced up at the Colonel and as their eyes met his hand moved to her shoulder and stayed there. "What's the news?" he asked then, his gaze leaving Sam's face to meet hers with a silent demand for the truth.
Janet swallowed and sat down. There was never any point in beating about the bush. She fixed her eyes on Sam's face and began. "The biopsy showed that the Goa'uld proteins are being produced by abnormal plasma cells in your bone marrow," she said. "Plasma cells normally produce immunoglobulins that help defend your body against infection and disease, but in your case the plasma cells are producing Goa'uld proteins instead. Your condition is very similar to something called multiple myeloma; cancer of the plasma cells."
As soon as the 'C' word was out she saw understanding dawn in Sam's pale face. On her shoulder Jack's hand tightened, but he said nothing and Janet had no attention to spare him. Sam swallowed and asked the question Janet was expecting. "Can you treat it?"
"We can try standard multiple myeloma chemotherapy," she said slowly, "but there's no way to know if it will be effective against a cancer with a Goa'uld origin."
Sam nodded dumbly. "If it doesn't work," she asked then, her brilliant mind struggling to come to terms with what she was being told, "will I...? I mean, is it...?"
The cold fear, denial and shock in Sam's wide eyes were almost too much for Janet to bear. But she forced herself not to look away; Sam deserved more. "Multiple myeloma is a terminal condition," she said quietly.
Sam's wide eyes blinked. "How long?" she asked in a husky whisper.
"The normal progression of the untreated disease is between three and seven months." Answers. That's what she needed right now, Janet reminded herself. There were no words of sympathy that wouldn't be an insult. Answers. Straight and to the point.
A strangled sound from deep in his throat was the only thing that reminded Janet of O'Neill's presence. She glanced up and was shocked to see how pale he'd grown. Afraid that he might fall she got to her feet and pushed her chair towards him. "Sit down, Colonel," she said gently. He moved woodenly, his hand sliding from Sam's shoulder to her hand. And then their eyes met - shock and disbelief on his side were mirrored by fear and anguish on hers. The moment was poignant and private and Janet averted her eyes, finding the scene too painful to witness and afraid that her professional detachment was in danger of crumbling.
After an agonizing silence, Jack spoke in a harsh voice that laid bare his grief. "It's not gonna happen Carter."
"But...," she began.
"No," he snapped. "Everything's gonna be fine. I swear to God, Carter. This isn't how it ends."
The empty canteen echoed with the clangs of an institutional kitchen, accentuating the absence of the cheerful chatter that usually filled the room. Daniel headed for the counter and perused the soggy sandwiches that were left over from lunch. None of them seemed appealing, so he opted for a Snickers and a bag of Doritos instead, grabbed a soda and headed back to his lab. But before he reached the door he noticed Jack sitting alone in the back corner of the room, head in hands and staring unseeing at a mug of coffee on the table in front of him. Daniel hesitated before he approached - Jack had 'leave me alone' written all over him. He drew closer cautiously, but Jack didn't move and Daniel doubted he even realized he was standing there. "Jack?" he called. "You okay?"
He stirred, a slight shifting of his hands before they fell away from his face and he glanced up. Their eyes met and Daniel shivered - Jack's face was desolate. "No," he said in a broken voice, "not really."
"What happened?" Daniel asked, lowering himself slowly into a chair opposite him; he'd never seen the man so shaken. "Is it Sam?"
Jack swallowed, pursed his lips and dropped his eyes back to his coffee. After a long silence he reluctantly nodded. "Yeah," he whispered.
Daniel's heart lurched. "What?" he asked, unable to force more words through the lump in his throat.
"She, um," Jack began, clearly finding it hard to articulate the words, "she's...." He stopped and closed his eyes for a moment. "Fraiser says she's got cancer."
Daniel felt as if a bowling ball had hit him in his stomach and his heart ground to a halt in shock. "Cancer?" he repeated numbly. The word sounded like a death-knell.
"Apparently," Jack replied flatly. "It's some kind of Goa'uld thing."
"Can she treat it?"
Jack shook his head. "Chemotherapy," he said. Cancer, chemotherapy; they were words from a nightmare. "She's not sure it'll work."
Daniel swallowed. "Does that mean...?" he began. But Jack cut him off.
"Yeah," he said. "That's what it means."
"I can't believe it," Daniel whispered, staring blankly at his uneaten lunch; his stomach turned at the sight. "I thought she'd seemed a little tired recently, but...." He trailed to a halt, seeing O'Neill stiffen at his words. He said nothing, but his face darkened and Daniel realized his mistake; Jack hadn't noticed. "Sam didn't say anything," he said quietly.
"No," he agreed. "She didn't. Which is why I should've...." He stopped and clamped his lips together. His head sank and he said in a quieter voice, "I should've noticed, Daniel. I should've noticed she was sick."
"You can't blame yourself," Daniel told him automatically, but the trite response only elicited an angry glare.
"Why the hell not?"
"Teal'c and I didn't notice either," he pointed out. "Neither did Janet."
"But I...," he started angrily, but cut himself short. He continued more quietly, "I'm her CO," he said tensely. "I should have noticed; she's my responsibility."
Daniel said nothing more, knowing it was hopeless to argue against Jack's guilt. Instead he said, "There must be something we can do."
Jack's head shot up and he nodded, a flash of light in his eyes. "Yeah," he agreed. "That's what I think. Someone out there has to be able to help."
"The Tok'ra?" Daniel suggested
Jack's eyes narrowed. "Well, they *are* the ones who got her into this," he muttered, taking a sip of his coffee and grimacing. "Not that 'helping' us is ever on their agenda."
"It's a start."
Jack nodded, pushing his mug of cold coffee away and leaning back in his chair. "Yeah," he agreed. And then he smiled slightly, an expression of thanks Daniel realized; even the stoic Jack O'Neill needed a friend from time to time.
Getting to his feet, Daniel said, "We should go see General Hammond."
They spent the rest of the day sending messages to their allies and waiting for replies. Jack wasn't the most patient of men at the best of times, but today he felt as if every nerve in his body was ordering him to *act*, to do something to help Carter. Sitting around in the control room, waiting for the Tok'ra or the Tollan to deign to send a reply to their urgent appeals for assistance, was almost too much to bear. Apparently, in the end, *he* was too much for General Hammond to bear, because after the last time Jack had started hurling imprecations through the dormant Stargate the General had ordered him out of the control room and back to his quarters to get some sleep.
So it was that Jack found himself traipsing along the quiet corridors of the SGC, heading for his bed. But despite his sleep-deprived exhaustion, his feet still took him via the infirmary. He glanced at his watch and frowned; it was closer to one than twelve. Sam would be sleeping.
Jack hesitated on the threshold, knowing how his appearance at this time of night would appear. But the thought was fleeting - what the hell did it matter now? Why had it ever mattered? Pushing the door quietly open, he noticed that the light was still on in Janet's office. He crept passed silently, pausing only to nod towards the night nurse who frowned curiously at the late-night visitor. But she made no move to stop him, and he walked quietly to the far end of the infirmary where Sam lay under rumpled blankets. She was curled up tightly on her side, facing away from him. Reluctant to wake her, he paused. But he wanted to see her face, just for a moment, and so he started to move around the bed. He'd only taken a couple of quiet steps when he noticed that her shoulders were shaking. Jack strained to listen, and to his dismay he heard her quiet, choking sobs muffled into her pillow. He was at her bedside in a heartbeat, but once there he was paralyzed with indecision. Maybe he should leave her alone? Carter never cried, and he didn't want to embarrass her. But how could he leave her like this, weeping alone in the darkness?
Reaching out a tentative hand he laid it on her shoulder and whispered, "Carter?" She froze at his touch; he could feel her muscles tensing under his fingers as she held her breath and pretended to be asleep. "Hey," he said quietly, gently rubbing her shoulder, "I know you're awake."
She started breathing again, and he could feel her shoulders rise and fall in a slow rhythm. But she was silent for a long time, her breath shaking with tears as she struggled to calm herself. Jack just watched her, soothing her as he stroked her shoulders, his fingers occasionally smoothing the hair from her neck. At last she spoke, though she didn't turn towards him. "I'm scared," she whispered, her small frightened voice wrenching his heart.
"I know," he replied, easing himself onto the bed next to her, needing to be close.
But she still didn't move, and her rigid muscles felt like steel beneath his hand. "I don't want to die," she said, sucking in a deep shuddering breath. "Not like this - it's not fair!"
"You're not gonna die," he assured her.
But she shook her head, burying her face deeper into her pillow. "Stop saying that!"
"No," he replied. "I won't, because I won't give up. We're gonna beat this, Carter."
"How can we?"
He didn't have an answer, not yet. All he had was his absolute determination that he wasn't going to let some Goa'uld disease steal her from him. "We've performed miracles before," he pointed out, and then added, "Daniel's contacting the Tok'ra. They probably have a pill for it, or something."
She didn't smile at his words, but he felt a little of the tension ease from her body and she shifted under his hand and rolled onto her back. He could see her face at last, her tear-swollen eyes and nose making her look uncharacteristically vulnerable. She looked like she'd been crying for hours, and he could see the stark fear behind her eyes as she whispered, "I feel so alone. Everyone's being very kind, but at the end of the day there's nothing they can do. I'm the one with this...*disease*. I'm the one who's going to die...." Tears threatened again, and she clamped her mouth shut to try and stem the flood. But her eyes pooled and the tears ran unbidden down the side of her face. "I'm sorry," she whispered, trying vainly to brush them away.
Jack's hand was still on her shoulder, but it felt like such a superficial contact. She was crying in the darkness, afraid and alone; how could he hold back what small comfort he could offer? How could he think about rules and regulations? How could he care about them? He couldn't, it was impossible. She needed someone, and there was no one else. The effort of restraining his own emotions cracked his voice, but didn't deter him. "Sam," he murmured quietly, reaching out for her. She offered no resistance as he slipped his arms around her and pulled her into his embrace, holding her close. "You're *not* alone," he whispered, cradling her head against his shoulder and stroking her hair. "I'm right here."
She was shaking in his arms and he heard her stifled sobs again as she buried her face against his neck. But he said no more, just held her and rocked her gently until the storm had passed.
Teal'c paused outside O'Neill's quarters for a moment before he lifted his hand and rapped sharply on the door. The sound of something thudding to the floor came from within, followed by a muffled curse, before the door was flung open and the Colonel stood before him, still half dressed and squinting against the bright light.
"Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c said, "we have just received word from the Tok'ra. They are sending an envoy."
"Yes!" Despite his sleep-disheveled state O'Neill grinned fiercely. "I'll be right there," he promised, turning around and hunting for the rest of his clothes.
Teal'c waited as the Colonel pulled on a shirt and his boots. "I can find my own way," O'Neill said as he sat down on the bed to tie his laces, casting Teal'c a curious glance.
"I am aware of that," Teal'c assured him, making no move to leave.
O'Neill shrugged and said no more, and soon they were striding together through the quiet nighttime corridors of the SGC. Now, Teal'c decided, it was time to speak. "I did not think it appropriate to inform Major Carter," he said first, hoping that the Colonel would approve of his decision.
"No," O'Neill agreed, "we should hear what they can offer first."
Teal'c nodded and after a moment of silence added, "Have you considered what the Tok'ra might offer, O'Neill?"
The Colonel shrugged. "Some kick-ass technology, I hope."
The silence that followed this comment was enough, Teal'c hoped, to demonstrate his doubt. When he did speak he kept his voice low. "It is more likely," he said, "that they will offer the same solution as that given to Jacob Carter."
O'Neill's reaction was exactly as Teal'c had predicted. He stopped dead in the middle of the corridor and said, "No."
Teal'c raised an eyebrow. "The decision is not yours, O'Neill."
"Carter would never agree to having a snake in her head," he shot back.
"She would be with her father," Teal'c pointed out.
O'Neill scowled as he started walking again, and Teal'c fell in silently at his side. "You're warning me, aren't you?" the Colonel said, giving him a sideways glance.
Teal'c kept his expression impassive. "We felt you should consider the option before meeting with the Tok'ra."
"Daniel Jackson and I," he clarified.
Further discussion was cut short by their arrival at the gate-room. Stepping inside, they were greeted by the usual contingent of SFs, plus Daniel. The archeologist raised an eyebrow at Teal'c as they entered, and Teal'c replied with a slight nod; a question asked and answered.
"Don't worry," O'Neill muttered, noticing the exchange. "I won't cause an *incident*."
Daniel's eyes widened in feigned innocence. "What?"
"Oh, please," O'Neill sighed. "Let's just hear what the Tok'ra have to offer - there'll be time enough for banging heads together later. Right?"
An alarmed look flashed across Daniel's face, although Teal'c suspected that O'Neill was being deliberately provocative. Nonetheless, they had cause to be concerned; Colonel O'Neill was not a man of great patience. And the Tok'ra, in particular, tried that patience to the limit.
As the gate began to spin, O'Neill smiled grimly. "You know, Daniel," he said conversationally, "if the Tok'ra don't come up with a better option than giving Carter a damn snake in her head, then they can take their goddamn treaty and shove it up their proverbial asses!"
Daniel's eyes rolled, and Teal'c felt his heart sink towards his toes.
"A *book*?" Jack exclaimed, pacing around the briefing room like a stalking tiger. "That's *it*?"
Daniel winced at his tone, and cast an apologetic smile at Anise who sat impassively before them.
"As I explained, Colonel," she replied, "the Tok'ra healing technology does not recognize the Goa'uld protein in Major Carter as anything abnormal, and so is ineffective against her sickness." She paused and continued in a softer tone. "And we have never before encountered a situation where a host has outlived her symbiote. The Tok'ra bond with their host is for life - Jolinar was exceptional in sacrificing herself to save that of her host."
"Yeah," Jack growled, "she was a real hero."
"Ah, maybe we should...," Daniel interrupted, before the whole situation fell apart, "...return to the book?"
"Why?" Jack snapped. "What's the use of some old book no one understands? We need answers, not a goddamn history project!"
"Colonel O'Neill!" Hammond barked, his pale eyes flashing with irritation. "Take a seat."
Jack's face was storm-dark as he slumped angrily into his chair, glaring at Anise over the table. Daniel saw her wince a little under the weight of his glare, and almost felt sorry for the woman. "Anise," he said, quietly, "tell me again what the book is meant to contain?"
With obvious relief, Anise withdrew her eyes from Jack and said, "The book speaks of the Elkaran, a name that is almost myth among the Tok'ra; it means the Cleansed. We are told that many hundreds of years ago the Elkaran developed a biological pathogen that killed the Goa'uld, while leaving the host unharmed."
"Bedtime stories," Jack muttered.
Anise flicked a glance in his direction, but continued despite his interruption. "It is said that after the cleansing many of the Elkaran fell sick and died until new Gods visited the people and gave them a gift; a magical chamber that restored the people to health."
"A sarcophagus?" Daniel asked.
"It is unlikely," Anise replied. "The Goa'uld are the only race who use them, and they would not have returned to heal their former hosts."
"So you think this, ah, 'magic chamber' could help Sam?"
Anise nodded. "It is our hope."
"And the book contains the location of the Elkaran planet?" Daniel asked, smoothing his hands over the large tome that lay before him.
"We have not translated the text," Anise replied. "It is an ancient dialect, and since the Elkaran have a hatred for all Goa'uld the Tok'ra have never sought to find them."
Jack shifted angrily in his chair, leaning forward across the table. "Myths and magic chambers?" he asked. "Am I the only one here who thinks this is bullshit?"
"Colonel..." Hammond warned again.
"Sir!" he protested, waving at Anise and the book. "Come on...! After everything we've done for the Tok'ra, *this* is all they can come up with? Carter's *dying* because of one of them, and all they give us is some damn fairy tale book that no one understands anyway!"
Hammond turned to Anise. "He has a point," he said quietly.
"I am sorry," Anise replied, her brow creasing slightly. "Unlike the Goa'uld we do not consider ourselves omnipotent; we cannot help you further. It is beyond our power to do so."
Pulling his glasses from his nose, Daniel tapped them slowly against the book. "Nearly all legends have some basis in reality, Jack," he said. "We don't know that this won't work."
Jack scowled at him. "Sure," he replied, "and why don't we go find the Holy Grail at the same time - give Carter a taste of the fountain of eternal youth!"
"I too have heard of the Cleansed," Teal'c said then. "The Goa'uld use the words as a curse."
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Confirmation from two separate sources," he pointed out.
"The Goa'uld and the Tok'ra? Oh, yeah, *they're* separate!"
Daniel glared at him, and Jack glared back. "What?"
"Do you have to be so...rude?" He knew he sounded waspish, but Jack's bull-in-a-china-shop routine was really beginning to grate; he wasn't the only one worried about Sam.
"Please do not concern yourself," Anise interrupted. She smiled slightly. "I know that Colonel O'Neill is loyal to Samantha Carter. I understand his concern."
Her words didn't seem to soothe Jack, but they did silence him and he stared down at the table top with an uncomfortable expression on his face. Daniel wasn't sure he understood his reaction, but was just pleased that the man was silent. "Thank you, Anise," he said. "For the book."
She inclined her head, "I am only sorry we could do no more. Samantha has proven herself to be a true friend of the Tok'ra."
"Yeah," Daniel agreed softly. Sam was everyone's friend; a woman too full of life to die like this.
A solemn silence descended over the room. Jack still stared at the table with a frown drawing his brow low over his eyes as he toyed with the pen in his hands. At his side, Teal'c sat motionless, his dark eyes lost in thought. Perhaps because she was less familiar with the nuances of human behavior, Anise broke the silence. "General Hammond," she said quietly, "we all hope that Major Carter will recover, but...." Jack's head jerked up at her words, his hands lying still at last; Daniel knew it was a bad sign. Anise, however, appeared oblivious. "If no cure is found," she continued, "I have been authorized to offer her the opportunity to become a host to another Tok'ra."
Daniel held his breath and waited for the fireworks. None came. Jack's jaw clenched, his lips tightened, but he held his silence. Instead, it was General Hammond that spoke. "I think we all hope that it won't come to that," he said.
"As do we," Anise replied. "But should it be necessary, I hope you will allow me to discuss the option with Major Carter."
Hammond frowned, but nodded. "If it comes to that."
With a slight inclination of her head, Anise rose elegantly to her feet. "With your permission, General, I will return to my people. But if you require any further assistance...?"
"We know how to contact you," Hammond nodded, also standing.
As she turned towards the door, Daniel noticed Anise's eyes resting momentarily on Jack. She seemed about to speak, when he raised his eyes to her and said, "Have you told Jacob?"
Another frown touched Anise's face. "Of course."
"Is he coming?"
She shook her head. "It is impossible," she said quietly. "His current mission...."
Jack interrupted her, pushing his chair back noisily and climbing to his feet. "Yeah, right," he muttered angrily. "Important Tok'ra business."
"It was Selmac who remembered the book," Anise offered.
"The book?" Jack nodded. "Oh well, in that case...."
Anise took a deep breath, her calm cracking a little. "When his mission is complete, Jacob will return," she said. "As a soldier, Colonel, I thought you would have understood that duty comes first."
Anger flashed in his eyes, cold and harsh. "As a *father*," he said darkly, "I know that's a pile of bull...."
"Thank you," Hammond broke in. "That's enough, Colonel. You're dismissed."
Jack's gaze flicked between Hammond and Anise, before he nodded. But when he spoke his words were directed towards the Tok'ra. "I'll tell Carter her Dad's on his way," he told her as he headed for the door. Then he paused, "Make sure he is."
The tension eased a little after Jack had left, and Daniel found himself letting out a long breath as he too stood up. "You'll have to excuse Jack," he said, forcing a smile. "We're all very concerned about Major Carter."
"There is nothing to forgive," Anise said quietly. "I understand the Colonel's feelings." She paused for a moment, and then added, "But I hope he will not let his attachment to Major Carter blind him to the possibility of saving her. Becoming a Tok'ra host is a fulfilling experience - do not look upon it as a fate worse than death." She smiled slightly at her word-play, and Daniel imitated her weakly.
"We'll try to keep an open mind," he assured her.
"The Tauri have a strong sense of individuality," Teal'c said then. "The concept of symbiosis is difficult for them to comprehend."
"Oh," Daniel objected, "I think we comprehend it. We just don't...like it a whole lot."
Anise raised a delicate eyebrow. "Then, for Major Carter's sake, I hope you are able to overcome your prejudice."
"Prejudice...?" Daniel began, rapidly trying to back-peddle. Hammond came to his rescue.
"Please convey our thanks to the High Council," he said, moving around the table towards Anise and gently corralling her towards the door. "As soon as we have any information, we'll be sure to pass it on so that you can keep General Carter informed...." He opened the door and shepherded her out, his words cut off by the closing door, leaving Daniel and Teal'c alone.
After a moment Daniel said, "Well, that went...okay. I guess."
"O'Neill did not cause an 'incident'," Teal'c concurred. "However..." His eyes came to rest on the large book that lay on the briefing room table.
Daniel nodded. "It's not much," he agreed.
"I believe Colonel O'Neill was hoping for more."
Picking up the heavy book, Daniel tucked it under his arm and moved towards the door. "Jack often has unrealistic expectations," he pointed out. "We tried to warn him...."
Teal'c followed Daniel out of the room, his looming presence clearing a smooth path through the busy corridor. "Colonel O'Neill is a man of action," Teal'c said. "It is difficult for him to accept that there is nothing he can do to assist Major Carter."
"I guess so," Daniel agreed.
"Her fate," Teal'c continued, "lies in your hands alone."
His words were startling in their directness, but voiced nothing that Daniel didn't already know in his heart. He clutched the Tok'ra book closer as he headed for his lab, his shoulders sagging a little under the weight he carried; Sam's life, it seemed, now rested on nothing more than his mind and a dusty book.
Sam awoke raw and drained, but calmer. The demons of the night had receded, taking with them the fear that had ambushed her as she lay alone in the dark. But they hadn't disappeared and she could sense them still, waiting to attack her once more. She rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling.
She felt weak, not physically but mentally. And it wasn't like her. She'd always been strong, she'd prided herself on it from the day she'd lost her mother; Sam Carter was strong, she could handle anything. She never cried. Well, hardly ever.
But last night the world had crashed down around her ears, taking with it every shred of hope. All she'd been able to think about was everything that cruel fate was denying her - she'd never witness the defeat of the Goa'uld, never again step forth from the Stargate onto an alien world, never make it past Major! She smiled grimly at her vaulting ambition, before her thoughts took a more personal turn. Never know what it was to love and be loved, never marry, never have kids, never have....
"'Morning, Sam." Janet's gentle voice at her bedside startled her.
"Janet!" she replied, offering a thin smile. "I was miles away."
Janet just nodded. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
Pushing herself upright in bed, Sam considered the question. "Okay," she said at last. "I guess."
Janet pulled up a chair and sat down at her bedside. "I want to start you on chemotherapy in a couple of days," she said. "But until then, I'm going to discharge you to your quarters." Sam brightened at the news, but Janet's face was serious. "The chemo will make you feel pretty rough for a while," she warned her. "You probably want to get a few things sorted out while you're still feeling up to it."
It sounded so final, so frightening in its certainty. You will be sick. You are going to die. She shivered and drew her knees up under her chin. Janet's hand was on her arm. "It's not too bad," she assured her. "I just thought you might have some paper work to get out of the way first."
Sam nodded. "You mean, like my will?"
Janet's eyes were saucers and her jaw dropped. "No!" she protested instantly. "Sam, I meant reports and things - whatever you do in that lab of yours! Once we start the treatments you probably won't feel up to working for some time."
Janet's outraged expression made Sam smile, and she felt a knot of tension in her chest start to loosen a little. She could still smile! And it felt damn good. "Sorry, Janet," she chuckled. "I guess I've been getting a little maudlin."
"Positive thinking, Sam," Janet advised, more seriously. "It works miracles, I swear."
"Well," Sam said, taking a deep - positive - breath. "Getting out of here for a couple of days is a definite plus."
"I want you to take it easy," Janet warned, climbing to her feet. "You're still on sick leave."
Swinging her legs out of bed, Sam waved away the doctor's concern. "It's me you're talking to, Janet," she reminded her. "Not Colonel O'Neill. I always follow the doctor's orders."
Janet raised a skeptical eyebrow, but all she said was, "You'd better, Major, or you'll be back in here faster than you can say naquada reactor!"
As she entered the cafeteria Sam immediately spotted the Colonel, Daniel and Teal'c in a huddle around one of the tables, deep in discussion. No, scratch that, deep in argument. Daniel was waving his glasses around, which was always a sure sign of disagreement, and Jack had a scowl on his face cold enough to freeze a penguin. Meanwhile Teal'c looked on with a mild aura of disapproval, like a parent overseeing scrapping toddlers.
Deciding to get some breakfast before she joined the fray, she grabbed a tray and idled along the counter deciding what to eat. Usually she went for something healthy - cereal, low-fat milk, fruit. She smiled at the irony and deliberately chose the largest, stickiest donut she could find. Not that she was hungry, but there was a principle at stake. She was just trying to decide between coffee and hot-chocolate when she heard a familiar, and exasperated, "Oh, for crying out loud!" echo loudly across the room. She didn't turn, but couldn't help smiling as she heard the loud scrape of a chair being pushed backward. "Carter!"
"Hot-chocolate with extra whipped cream please," she said as she listened to his footsteps behind her.
"Carter, what the hell are you doing?"
Sam turned. "Morning, sir."
He reached out and took the tray from her hands. "Does Fraiser know you're here?" he demanded.
"Yes sir. She's discharged me to my quarters for a couple of days."
He frowned. "Oh. Really?"
"Until I start the chemo."
His apparent irritation returned to its true form - desperate concern. "Right," he said awkwardly.
"Your hot chocolate, Ma'am?"
Taking the mug from the server, Sam placed it on her tray. "May I have that back now, sir?" she asked, smiling at him.
"No," he replied, falling in at her side. "I got it."
"That's really not necessary, sir. I'm quite capable of...."
"I got it!" he exclaimed.
She let it go, and dug around in her pocket for some money as she waited in line to pay. The Colonel was standing close, close enough for his arm to brush against hers. The accidental contact drew her eyes to his face and she found him watching her. "So," he said quietly, as they shuffled forward a couple of paces, "you okay?"
Self-conscious, she dropped her eyes to the floor and nodded. "Things always look better in the daylight." And then she glanced up at the artificial lighting and smiled, "So to speak."
"It's always worst at night," he agreed. And from the weight in his voice, she knew that he was talking from experience - Jack had battled his fair share of demons. She said nothing for a moment, feeling awkward. Of all the people to walk in and find her sobbing like a child, it had to be him; the man she'd spent the best part of four years trying to impress with her courage and capability. And yet, who else would have come checking up on her in the middle of the night? No one.
She looked up and found him watching her again, concern and affection mingling in his eyes. Sam smiled. "Thanks," she said. "For last night."
"Any time, Carter," he told her, fixing her with a steady look. "I mean that. Any time, just come find me."
She nodded, drawing strength from his sincerity. "Thanks, sir. I appreciate that."
"Buck fifty," said the clerk, interrupting them. He didn't look like he was having a good day, and glared at the note Sam handed him as if it were a personal insult.
Ignoring the charming service, Sam waited patiently while he rummaged in the till for her change. "So," she said, as she waited, "what were you guys arguing about?"
Jack's mouth twitched into a grimace. "The usual."
Sam raised an eyebrow. "Which usual would that be, sir?"
He smiled. "The Tok'ra."
The clerk deposited a few crumpled notes and a couple of coins into her hands with bad grace and no smile. "Thank you," Sam said with pointed politeness, and dropped her change into her pocket while Jack set off through the tables towards Daniel and Teal'c. "What have they done this time?" she asked as she followed him.
"Too damn little," he muttered tautly.
She made no reply, but understood his words. They'd asked for help and the Tok'ra had none to offer; it wasn't really a surprise. But it still knocked another strut or two from the crumbling foundations of her hope.
Daniel's eyes were aching, his neck was stiff and his head seemed to resound with a permanent headache as he poured over the texts in the Tok'ra book. It had already been over three weeks since Anise had laid it on the table, and his progress had been laborious and slow. The language was convoluted, made up of over one hundred characters, and written in such a confusion of tenses that it was often impossible to know whether it referred to now, then or some time in the future.
Leaning back in his chair, he rubbed at his neck and sighed. Three weeks, and all he'd managed to translate was the first ten pages. "Let it be known," he spoke aloud, "that the Sky Lords no longer hold dominion over our people. They have been thrown down and we have been cleansed of their taint forever...." The words were as familiar to him now as his own name, so long had he gazed at them and searched for similar words in the piles of books that scattered his desk and the floor of his office. The Sky Lords. They were the Goa'uld. So far so good, but after the optimistic opening the text descended into a morass of hyperbole about the joys of freedom and the heroism of the Elkaran people. And, as yet, there was no mention of any sickness or the miracle cure they so desperately needed.
Daniel yawned, and stretched. Of course, he'd have probably made more progress over the past couple of weeks were it not for Jack's 'assistance'. To be fair, he really had tried, he'd spent hours glowering at the books as if he could force his mind to work along the unfamiliar paths just by the strength of his will. But Jack was no more a linguist than Daniel was a tactician, and usually Jack's visits ended with him pacing around Daniel's office looking as if the sky were going to fall. If Daniel heard the words, "Found anything yet?" once more he thought he'd probably scream.
Not that he didn't have sympathy for his friend. Behind his sardonic exterior, Jack was a man who felt things deeply, and Daniel knew that Sam's illness had cut him to the core. Sometimes he'd caught him drifting, his eyes sad as his mind wandered from the book he was studying. But those unguarded moments were rare, and for the most part Jack wore his anger like armor - keeping the sympathetic at bay and his own emotions locked within. But whatever else Jack was, he was a man of action. He needed to *do* something, and sitting around with dusty books just didn't cut it. And after probably the hundredth time he'd asked, "Found anything yet?" Daniel went to Hammond and begged him to send O'Neill off-world.
"The Tollan?" he'd suggested hopefully.
Hammond had agreed, and Jack had followed orders, making Daniel feel more than a little guilty at his obvious reluctance at leaving Sam just when she was starting her second round of chemo.
His thoughts of Jack drew his eyes to his watch, and he realized that O'Neill and Teal'c had been due back almost half an hour ago. Keen to hear the result of their mission, he headed for the control room. When he arrived, he was surprised to hear that Jack and Teal'c had returned over an hour earlier. Guessing they were with Sam, he made his way to the infirmary in search of them. Yet when he peered through the door he saw that Sam was alone, curled onto her side with a book drooping in her hands as sleep crept up on her. Leaving her to rest he headed towards the locker room instead, poking his head around the door to Jack's empty office on his way, just to make sure.
The locker room was quiet when he stepped inside, and he almost didn't notice Jack at first. He sat on the bench holding his head in his hands, damp from the shower but only half dressed. He didn't stir as Daniel approached, lost deep in thought. Daniel cleared his throat, "Jack?"
Glancing up he nodded a brief greeting. "Found anything yet?" he asked.
"No," Daniel replied, smothering his frustration. "Nothing. You?"
Jack's tight lipped expression spoke volumes. "About as much help as a match in Hell! They're as bad as the damn Tok'ra." He paused, obviously swallowing his anger. "How's Carter?"
"You haven't been to see her?" Daniel asked in surprise.
He shook his head and blew out a long sigh. "I don't know what to tell her," he said quietly. "How can I tell her we've still got nothing?"
"She'll handle it," Daniel assured him, taking a seat at his side. "She's Sam. Tough as nails."
Jack gave him an odd look then, as if he were privilege to some secret that he wasn't willing to share. But all he said was, "I guess." His head sank back into his hands as he stared at the floor for a long moment. At last he said, "You didn't answer my question - how is she?"
Daniel hesitated on the verge of a white lie, but figured Jack would find out soon enough. "Rough," he said honestly. "The second bout of chemo wasn't too good."
Jack shook his head as he sat up, leaning back against the lockers and closing his eyes. "I shouldn't have gone," he muttered. "Total waste of goddamn time - I should have stayed with her."
"*I* stayed with her," Daniel assured his friend. "The treatment made her nauseous and tired. But she's still Sam - she's still smiling."
A flash of pain crossed Jack's face. "That's what she'd like you to think," he said quietly, turning shadowed eyes on Daniel.
"Yeah," he agreed. Jack was right; what Sam said and what Sam felt were two totally different things. She was almost as guarded as Jack; must be a military thing he decided. Watching the distress on his friend's face he said, "You should go see her. She was awake when I passed by just now."
Reluctance twitched Jack's eyebrows low over his eyes. "I should," he said, leaving his reservation hanging.
"But..."? Daniel supplied.
Shaking his head a little, Jack turned towards him. "It's so hard to see her like this," he explained. "Carter's always so full of life, so eager. I can't stand to watch her just lying there."
"This is so wrong," Jack sighed. "I keep waiting to wake up and find that she's okay and this is just another nightmare...."
Daniel knew the feeling. Some nights he still woke with the overwhelming sense of relief that Sha're was still at his side, only to remember that the nightmare had become reality long ago. He must have been staring, because Jack glanced back at him. "What?" he asked.
Daniel shook his head. "Nothing." He got to his feet. "I need to get back to work," he said. "Tell Sam 'hi' from me?"
"Sure," Jack nodded. However hard he might find it, Daniel knew that Jack would go and sit with her, laugh and joke with her. Even if it killed him.
As he stepped into the infirmary, Jack's eyes immediately fell on Sam. She lay propped up on a couple of pillows, the book in her hands resting idly on her chest and her eyes closed in sleep. Pausing, he watched her chest rise and fall in a slow, even rhythm, finding some comfort in her steady breathing. But that was all that gave him solace; her hollow cheeks were milky white and the fingers that rested on her book seemed too thin and delicate to belong to her. His stomach twisted at the sight adding a painful beat to the dull ache in his heart; he felt as though Sam were being stolen from him piece by piece, day by day.
"Colonel?" The quiet voice at his side belonged to Janet.
He glanced down at her and forced a smile. "Hey Doc, how's she doing?"
Fraiser grimaced slightly, her arms holding the file she carried close to her chest. "The chemo is making her miserable," she told him. "But otherwise, she's okay."
Jack frowned. This was okay?! "She looks pale," he said.
"Yeah," Janet nodded. "She's anemic. I need to transfuse her but the lab's being slow with the type and cross."
"Transfuse?" he asked. "As in blood?"
Janet's eyes moved back to him. "That's right," she said. "Another side-effect of the chemotherapy, I'm afraid."
"Sounds like the cure's making her sicker than the disease," he growled.
"It's pretty nasty," she agreed. "But it has to be to do its job."
Jack nodded slowly, wondering if he dared ask the next question. But in the end his need to know overcame his fear of finding out. His voice dropped to a murmur as he said, "Is it working?"
Janet's face tightened. "I don't know," she told him. "I'll need to do another bone marrow biopsy in a couple of days to see if the cancer cells have been affected."
"I see," he replied. No news. No news was good news, right? He sucked in a deep breath and held it, using it to steady himself.
"No luck with the Tollan I take it?" Fraiser said then, a resigned smile touching her lips.
Letting out his breath in a long, controlled sigh, Jack said, "Not a bean."
"Then I guess it's up to us," she said. Jack could hear the uncertainty in her voice, and felt another flutter of fear; they were running out of options and all that seemed to be left were noxious chemicals and Daniel's book of fairy tales. But instead of allowing his fear to show, he patted Fraiser on the shoulder and said, "I have faith in you, Doc."
"Thanks, Colonel," she replied, obviously not entirely convinced.
Giving her a tight smile he said, "I think I'll go sit with her for a while."
"Good idea, sir. She missed you."
"She told you that?"
Janet smiled. "Not in so many words."
Frowning, and uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, he simply nodded a farewell to Fraiser and headed towards Sam's bed. She was motionless but for the rise and fall of her chest, and he sat down slowly on the plastic chair at her side. This close, he could see the dark rings beneath her eyes and the IV that was slowly dripping into a tube that disappeared under her gown.
Her skin had taken on an almost translucent quality and the veins in her arms stood out blue against the pallor of her complexion. His hands itched to touch her, to reassure himself that the blood flowing through her veins was warm and life-giving. So still and so pale, she could have been a corpse. The idea appalled him and overrode his self-discipline; he reached out he closed his fingers around her wrist. She was warm, quite warm in fact, but her wrist felt too slender under his touch and he let go hurriedly, afraid of damaging her brittle bones.
But the brief contact had roused her and she turned her head towards him and opened her eyes. "Colonel?" she said, smiling. "You're back."
"Yeah," he replied, forcing a grin past the knot in his throat. "Miss me?"
Her own smile broadened. "Actually sir, I did."
Their gaze locked for a long moment and he saw the truth of her words reflecting in her eyes. "I missed you too," he added quietly. "A hell of a lot."
Sam continued to hold his gaze until a flash of resignation crossed her face and her eyes fluttered closed. Shifting her head, when she opened her eyes again she was staring at the ceiling. "I guess you didn't have much luck with the Tollans," she said, changing the subject.
"Not much," he agreed, watching the subtle deepening of the lines creasing her brow as she absorbed his meaning. No help, no miracle cure. Hoping to ease her through the moment he added, "Schroedinger says 'hi'."
Sam smiled. "He speaks now?"
"I'm translating." She smiled again, but said no more. Casting around for something else to say, Jack noticed the book that lay discarded on the bed and picked it up. "'The Case For Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must Go.'" He raised a curious eyebrow, "Planning a trip, Major?"
She turned towards him and said, "It's just a light read, sir. I'm getting so bored, but I can't seem to concentrate on anything serious for more than five minutes." She frowned. "I can't even read *that* without dozing off!"
Jack flicked through the book and raised an eyebrow. Not exactly *my* idea of a light read, he thought. He was about to say as much when he caught the dispirited look on Sam's face and changed his mind. Instead he said, "You want me to read some to you?"
The smile that flashed over her face tripped up his heart, it looked so much like the old Sam. "You don't have to do that, sir," she said, although he could tell from the smile still lurking in her eyes that the idea appealed.
"You just lay back and listen," he suggested, settling himself as comfortably as possible in the plastic chair. "And if I'm going too fast and there's something you don't understand, be sure to tell me, all right?"
"Sure, sir," she agreed, rolling onto her side and watching him with sleepy eyes as he began to read.
"'During the day the electron density reaches a peak concentration of about 200,000/cm3 at an altitude of about 135 kilometers. During the night, this density falls off to a peak value of 5,000/cm3....'"
And so it went on, and on. Jack glanced up from time to time as he was reading, and each time he saw Sam's eyes drooping further and further towards sleep until it overtook her at last. Slowing, and eventually stopping reading, Jack just sat and watched her for a while, taking an illicit pleasure in being able to gaze at her unabashedly. Sam Carter. He traced with his eyes what protocol forbade him to touch - her brow, strong and smooth, her straight nose and large eyes fringed by delicate lashes. And her mouth, slightly parted in sleep and curved into a fragile smile that touched his heart. "Goodnight, Sam," he whispered to her, rising carefully to his feet and pulling the blanket up over her shoulders. And then, because no one was looking and because he may not get another chance, he leaned closer and placed a feather-light kiss on her temple. "Sleep well," he murmured and turned to leave, taking with him the memory of her skin touching his lips, so warm it almost burned.
Janet sat in her lab, head in hands, as she tried to will the results that lay on the desk before her to change. A week after Sam's second round of chemo, and she should be seeing some improvement. There should be *some* change.
Sitting up, she rubbed a weary hand over her eyes and looked once more at the lab results. But despite her wishes, the writing remained the same and the simple figures read like the compassionless words of a hanging judge. The bone marrow biopsy she'd done the previous day showed that, far from decreasing, the Goa'uld corrupted cells in Sam's bone marrow were actually multiplying faster. Her disease was progressing quickly, and nothing Janet had done over the past month had made a damn bit of difference. Her friend was dying and she didn't know how to help her.
With a sigh she glanced through the window of her office to Sam's empty bed, wondering how the hell she'd tell her that all she'd suffered for the last four weeks had been for nothing. And worse, that the disease was developing so fast that Sam's life was probably counted in weeks now, not months. Deep down she felt a swell of grief start bubbling thickly to the surface, sticking in her throat. Janet pushed herself hurriedly to her feet, swallowing and biting down hard on the emotions that were threatening to get the better of her. 'Not now,' she admonished herself quietly, 'not yet.'
O'Neill's voice from the door startled her, and she wasn't quite composed when she spun hurriedly to face him. "Yes?"
He nodded towards Sam's bed. "Where's Carter?"
"With Daniel, I think," she replied, smoothing her hands over her skirt in an attempt to regain control.
The Colonel frowned. "Doing what?"
"He wanted some help with something in the translation," she said slowly, watching the way O'Neill's face darkened. "Since she was feeling better and bored out of her mind, I said she could go help him in his lab for a few hours."
"Is that wise?"
She smiled sadly at his concern. "It'll do her good to have something else to think about for a while," she told him.
He paused, considered and nodded. And then his eyes were fixed on her and all of a sudden she felt as if she were under a microscope. "Are you okay?" he asked, still pinning her with an intense look.
"Fine," she lied.
"You look sad," he told her, his eyes roving to her desk and then back to her face again. "What's up?"
There was a sharp intelligence beneath his sardonic exterior that didn't let anything slip past his notice. She smiled again - woe betide anyone who ever mistook Jack O'Neill for a fool. But she wasn't about to discuss Sam's results with him before she'd had time to talk to Sam. So, with a small shrug she said, "It's nothing I can discuss, sir."
From the way his fingers tightened around the door frame, she knew he'd guessed something of her anxiety. His lips compressed into a thin line and he said, "Bad news, huh?" He was fishing.
Janet kept her face deliberately blank. "As I said, sir, I can't discuss it right now."
He nodded slowly, his eyes closing for a fraction longer than necessary as he dealt with his own fears. "I think I'll go find Sam," he said quietly. "See how she's doing."
"Good idea," she replied softly.
He glanced up at her then, his dark eyes unusually open and for a brief moment she saw something of the pain he was carrying. But it was gone almost immediately and he turned away. Just before he left the room he said, "Do you want me to send her along to see you?"
"No," Janet sighed, "it can wait."
As soon as she saw his back stiffen she realized her mistake. Her words had confirmed his suspicions, and she suspected that he'd asked the question for that very purpose. Well, now he knew. Or at least had a good idea, for all the good it would do him. Or anyone else.
It felt good to be out of bed and doing something, Sam thought, as she sat back in one of the deep chairs in Daniel's office and ran her eyes over the characters he'd transcribed. One finger rubbed at the dull ache that had started in the back of her neck, but she chose to ignore it as she pondered the problem in front of her. "And you say they're totally different from any of the other characters in the book?" she asked, clarifying the situation in her mind.
Daniel nodded, watching her intently over the tops of his glasses. "Contextually, I think they have to be numbers. I'm guessing coordinates."
"For the Elkaran planet?"
He nodded. "It's possible they're encrypted," he added. "The Elkaran were terrified that the Goa'uld would return and wanted to keep the location of their planet a secret."
Sam let out a slow sigh and rested a hand on her forehead for a moment. It was beginning to ache as she concentrated, but she ignored the discomfort. "Cracking an encrypted number sequence isn't going to be easy," she sighed. "And if the Elkaran were that afraid of the Goa'uld there's a chance they would have destroyed the Stargate itself."
Daniel nodded again, slowly. "I've considered that," he told her. "But the same could be said of us - we're afraid of the Goa'uld, but recognize the necessity of the Stargate in fighting them. It's a double edged sword. The Elkaran might see it the same way."
"I guess there's only one way to find out," she replied, giving him a small smile. "So, where do we start?"
"We could try with this," he said, pushing a large volume across his desk towards her.
She stood to pick up the book from his desk, but the world started to spin with the sudden movement and she had to sit right back down. She dropped her head into her hands in an effort to stop the spinning, and cursed silently. 'Now what?'
"Sam?" Daniel was at her elbow, crouched down in concern. "What is it?"
Raising her head she smiled weakly. "I must've stood up too fast," she told him. "I don't know. I feel a bit off - kind of achy."
"Is it the chemo?" he asked
She shook her head, her smile strengthening. "Oh, no. That's much worse!"
"Still...," Daniel frowned "perhaps you should...?"
"Yeah," she nodded, pushing herself to her feet and blinking away the flash of dizziness. "I'll go see Janet."
Daniel stood up. "I'll come with you," he offered.
"No, I'm fine," she assured him, "just a little dizzy."
"Right," he agreed. "And Jack would probably zat me if I let you pass out in the hall!"
She smiled at his words. "I'm not going to pass out," she assured him. "You should keep working."
"Sure?" he asked her, obviously not convinced.
"I can walk down the hall, Daniel!" she replied, and the exasperation in her tone was enough to silence him.
He frowned and returned to his desk. "If you're sure."
"I'll see you later," she assured him firmly, tucking her copy of the mysterious characters into her pocket and heading out of the door.
By the time she reached the infirmary, she was feeling decidedly woozy. Janet was in her office, so she rapped lightly on the window to attract her attention. Glancing up, Janet took one look at Sam's face and came hurrying out. "Sam?" she asked, taking her arm and guiding her towards her bed. "What's the matter?"
"I'm not feeling too good," Sam confessed as she sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Tell me," Janet said at once, resting a cool hand on Sam's forehead. She frowned.
"Dizzy," Sam said. "A little nauseous, slightly achy - like I'm coming down with something."
Janet nodded, and reached for the thermometer. "Lie down," she told her and slipped the thermometer into her ear. "How long have you been feeling like this?" she asked.
Sam raised an eyebrow. "Not long...."
After a couple of seconds the thermometer beeped and Janet removed it from Sam's ear, frowning at what she saw. "You have a fever," she said.
"It's most likely an infection," Janet told her. She smiled, but Sam could see the undertone of concern in her eyes and didn't like it at all.
"What does that mean?"
Janet's smile grew even more strained before it cracked and disappeared completely. She sighed, and perched on the edge of Sam's bed. "Your cancer and the chemo makes you particularly vulnerable to infection right now, Sam. I'm going to start you on some strong antibiotics and keep you in the infirmary for observation."
Janet stood up and pulled the curtains around Sam's bed. "Why don't you change back into your gown?" she suggested. "I'll get the antibiotics started and we'll see how things go from there."
"Sure," Sam replied quietly. She was afraid; she saw the look in Janet's eyes and knew that this wasn't a happy development. But she'd be damned if she was going to give in to some wretched little microbe! Whatever the Goa'uld had done to her body, she was still Sam Carter and she was going to fight this tooth and nail. 'Bring it on,' she thought angrily as she started to strip off, 'I'm ready and I'm not going down without a fight.'
Daniel was working, oblivious to the clock. The hour was late but he didn't care. He'd made a breakthrough and nothing was going to stop him - not the slow ache forming along the line of his brow, or the dryness in his eyes that made him screw them shut from time to time. The words were coming easily now, and his fingers were aching with the speed he was taking notes. The book, it turned out, was a history of the Elkaran people and their struggle against the Goa'uld. And just as he'd been about to close the book for the night his eyes had come across the first mention of the sickness, and he'd been working ever since.
And so it was that he was awake to hear the commotion at the end of the hall, the hurried footfalls and banging doors. Still reluctant to leave his work, the commotion at this time of night piqued his curiosity and he stuck his head out of the lab in time to see Janet rushing past the end of the corridor. His heart missed a beat and he frowned. Probably just one of the teams returning with a few walking wounded, he told himself.
"Daniel Jackson." The deep voice startled him and he turned to see Teal'c walking rapidly down the corridor.
"Teal'c!" he nodded. "You're up late."
"As are you."
Daniel nodded absently. "You know what's going on?"
"I do not," came the reply, accompanied by the faintest of frowns. "However, I intend to find out."
"Yeah," Daniel agreed, stepping into the hall and allowing his office door to close behind him. "Me too."
As they approached the infirmary, Daniel's hopes of finding a slightly injured SG team milling around faded. There was no one in there but Janet, some anxious looking nurses, and Sam. Janet was at her bedside talking in a firm, controlled voice to one of the nurses about drugs with names even Daniel had a hard time understanding. Sam looked as pale as before despite the feverish flush to her cheeks. But she was awake and her glazed eyes came to rest on Daniel, although he wasn't quite sure she recognized him.
"Doctor Fraiser?" he asked quietly, and she turned mid-sentence.
"Don't you guys ever sleep?"
Daniel gave a weak smile. "What's going on?"
Janet's brow creased. "Sam's developed an infection."
"Oh," Daniel said, glancing at Teal'c who just raised a curious eyebrow. "Is that bad?"
Janet smoothed a hand over Sam's forehead and nodded. "We'll see," she said. And then, turning back towards them she added, "There's nothing you can do here. Sam needs to rest. And so should you."
"But," Daniel pressed, "is she going to be okay?"
A flash of anger lit the doctor's eyes. "I said I don't know," she replied tensely. "I'm doing what I can."
Daniel swallowed hard at the obvious anxiety in Janet's face. He licked his dry lips. "Should I...?" He hesitated, "Should I go get Jack?"
"No." Janet's response was immediate. "The last thing I need is Colonel O'Neill breathing down my neck all night!"
Daniel almost smiled at the vehemence in her voice, and Janet caught the expression, relaxing slightly. She sighed. "Like I said, there's nothing any of you can do. I'll let you know if there's any change before morning."
"Major Carter is in safe hands," Teal'c said then, placing a hand on Janet's shoulder. "We entrust her to your care, Doctor Fraiser."
Janet's eyebrows rose. "Ah, thanks," she nodded. "I appreciate that, Teal'c."
Teal'c nodded gravely, before he turned to Daniel. "We should leave now."
With a final glance at Sam's sick and fevered face, Daniel sighed. "Keep fighting, Sam," he said quietly. "We're going to find what you need, I promise." Teal'c's large hand on his shoulder started to guide him towards the door, "Good luck," he said to Janet.
"Thanks," she replied, sounding too much as though she meant it.
He sighed again and forced his mind back to his work. There was no way he was sleeping tonight - how could he, when Sam was so sick and he alone held the key to the only chance of a cure?
The night was long, and by its end Janet had nothing positive to report. Sam's decline had been steep and swift as the infection took hold. She'd lapsed into a fitful, delirious sleep a couple of hours ago and lay now tossing and turning in fever-soaked dreams.
Janet watched the slow drip of the IV sending antibiotics into her weakened body, hoping that Sam had enough resources to rally. She tossed fitfully where she lay, her dreams obviously disturbed. "Shhh," Janet murmured as she rested a cool hand on Sam's burning head and smoothed back her hair. "It's okay, Sam. It's okay."
But in truth it wasn't okay. It was bad and getting worse. Her weary eyes drifted to her wristwatch and her heart sank a little as she saw the hands edge towards six-thirty. Soon she'd need to deal with the anxious visitors, and have to break the news that Sam's decline was more than dangerous; it was on the point of being hopeless.
Right on cue, the infirmary door opened and Daniel's head popped around it. One look at his pale face and dark-ringed eyes told her that he'd been up all night, and she sighed. A lot of good that was going to do Sam. "How's she doing?" Daniel asked as soon as he stepped through the door.
Janet braced herself, withdrew her hand from Sam's forehead and stood up. "Not good," she said bluntly. "She's not responding to the antibiotics, her blood pressure's falling...."
If it was possible, Daniel's face paled further. "Isn't there anything else you can do?" he asked as he slowly approached Sam's bed and sat down at her side.
"Not really," Janet told him quietly. "I can only try and support her through this." She sighed and glanced down at her friend. "The problem is, her body has to fight off the infection itself, but her immune system has been so severely weakened that it can't right now."
She saw Daniel process the bleak information, blinking rapidly behind his glasses. "We should contact the Tok'ra," he said. And then his eyes closed and he pulled his glasses off, rubbing his eyes with one hand. "And I should fetch Jack."
Janet swallowed hard. "He'll be along soon," she told him. "He always comes in before...."
"Daniel?" Janet smiled grimly - that was military precision for you. "What's going on?"
Turning around she saw O'Neill loitering worriedly in the doorway, watching Daniel's pale face as he sat at Sam's bedside. The Colonel's dark eyes turned to her, "Doc?" he asked, daring her to give him bad news.
"I'm afraid Sam's taken a turn for the worse," she said.
His face froze. "Meaning?"
Janet took a deep breath and forced the words out. "She's developed an infection which has rapidly progressed to septic shock. Unless she starts responding to the treatments we're giving, I don't think she's going to make it."
"Not going to make it?" Jack repeated, not moving, just staring at her.
Janet winced. She'd forgotten one of the cardinal rules about breaking bad news - never use euphemisms. "She'll die, Jack," she clarified gently. "I'm very sorry."
The only spot of color in his face was his eyes, dark to the point of blackness. After a long, painful silence he swallowed hard and whispered, "She'll make it."
Daniel looked up at that and rose wearily to his feet. "I'm going to contact the Tok'ra," he said quietly, but Jack didn't respond. As he passed his friend Daniel reached out to touch him, but at the last moment dropped his hand. Janet didn't blame him; O'Neill had the look of a man held together by nothing more than willpower, and a single act of sympathy could shatter the brittle threads that kept him in one piece.
"I'll be in my office," she murmured as she retreated, Daniel on her heels.
Jack said nothing, and as she turned away she saw him start to move slowly towards Sam's bed. But then he stopped and turned sharply towards Daniel. "The Tok'ra?" he asked, his voice slicing the silence like steel.
Daniel turned back to face him, an expression of weary sadness on his face. "We have to consider their offer," he said quietly.
"No," Jack said. "Not that."
Janet frowned. "What offer?" she asked, knowing she sounded peevish and not caring. She hated being out of the loop.
Jack made no response, his dark eyes fixed on Daniel with a dangerous intensity. Daniel was unfazed, and ran a hand through his hair as he turned to face her. "The Tok'ra have suggested that Sam become a host."
The thought made her sick and for a moment her instinctive reaction mirrored the Colonel's. No. Not that, not for Sam. She remembered the aftermath of Jolinar and couldn't imagine her friend going through that again. But then her eyes drifted to the fever-flushed face of her patient, the dark circled eyes and the labored rise and fall of her chest. If death was the only alternative? It was too soon to deprive the world of the brilliant woman who lay before her.
"There has to be another way," Jack insisted. "We can't let her down like this!"
Daniel shook his head. "If we had more time," he said quietly, "perhaps I could find the Elkaran, but Jack, you heard what Janet said.... We may only have a few hours!"
Jack shook his head. "She'd rather die."
The look Daniel flung at him was needle sharp. "She deserves the right to choose."
Jack couldn't answer that, and his lips tightened into a thin line. "There has to be another way," he repeated quietly.
Taking a deep breath, Janet was about to suggest that they continue the discussion in her office when one of the nurses interrupted her.
"Excuse me, Doctor," she said quietly, handing her a slip of paper. "The results of the blood gas."
"Thank you," Janet replied, quickly scanning the numbers. She cursed at what she saw. "Damn it."
"Doc?" O'Neill asked, his voice brittle. "What is it?"
Janet took a deep breath as she moved quickly to Sam's bedside. "There's too much carbon dioxide in Sam's blood," she explained, keeping her tone deliberately calm. "It's an early sign of respiratory failure. The infection has weakened her to the point where she's having trouble breathing, so I'm going to have to put her on a ventilator."
As she spoke she quickly gathered together the equipment necessary to intubate Sam, and flung a quick glance at the Colonel. He was watching with stony impassivity, but she had no time to dwell on his state of mind and turned silently back to Sam.
She was still drifting in a fever-induced stupor, and Janet doubted that she was aware of what was happening. Nonetheless, she took her hand and spoke quietly. "Sam," she said softly, "I need to put you on a ventilator. I'm going to put a tube down your throat, to help you to breath." There was no response, so giving Sam's hand a gentle squeeze she lay it back on the bed and got to work.
With practiced ease, Janet slipped the laryngoscope into Sam's mouth and deftly slid the endotracheal tube down and into place. "Done," she muttered, and glanced over at Phillips who had already wheeled in the ventilator. As she worked, Janet spared a glance for her audience. They obviously weren't enjoying the show and they watched Sam with a grim fascination showing on their pasty faces. She knew she had to get rid of them. "Daniel," she said quietly, as she taped the tube to Sam's face and connected it to the ventilator with a length of corrugated blue tubing, "now would be a good time to contact the Tok'ra."
He nodded slowly, his eyes not moving. "Yeah," he breathed.
Janet half expected a protest from O'Neill, but he said nothing as he watched her work. And then, abruptly, he turned on his heel. "Let's go," he said gruffly, one hand on Daniel's shoulder pushing him towards the door.
Turning back to the machines at Sam's bedside, Janet sighed and clamped down on her own fears as she concentrated on doing everything she could to keep Sam alive. But her heart ached with grief - for Sam, and for them all.
As the wormhole flared out towards him, Jack could hardly believe what he was contemplating. Putting a goddamn snake into Carter. He still remembered the anguish in her voice when she'd been possessed by Jolinar; "Oh God, Jack, don't leave me like this!" He shivered at the memory, and doubts clouded his mind. 'Don't leave me like this.' He still wasn't sure if the words had been hers or the Tok'ra's, but the voice had been Carter's and he could hear it now, echoing in his mind as he watched the shimmering surface of the Stargate. He heard her voice, but in his mind's eye he saw her white, lifeless face as Fraiser stuck a tube down her throat and hooked her up to a machine to breathe for her.
Death was close, he could feel its cold breath in the air, and suddenly the thought of Sam as a Tok'ra was a whole lot less terrifying than the sight of her face without the spark of life. He couldn't let her die, and if the only way she could live was as a Tok'ra then so be it. 'Oh God, Jack, don't leave me like this!' The words rang in his mind again, but he ignored them. "I can't let you go, Carter," he murmured back. "I'm sorry."
Daniel's voice at his side startled him out of his thoughts, and he frowned. "Nothing," he muttered, embarrassed that he'd spoken aloud. Attempting to cover his discomfort, he glared at the Stargate. "Where the hell are they?"
"Apparently the transportation of a symbiote outside a host is quite delicate," Daniel told him. "They can't rush."
Jack's grumbling reply was forestalled by the appearance of a figure emerging from the shimmering blue. Anise. Freya. Whoever. She was followed by two men, who carried between them a small and yet apparently heavy container. Just the sight of it sent a shiver of revulsion along Jack's spine.
Stepping forward, Daniel said, "Anise - thank you for coming."
"The pleasure is ours," the Tok'ra replied with a polite bow. "May I introduce Petar and Halgen? They will assist with the transfer of Nyneva into Samantha Carter."
No! The word howled around Jack's mind, but he refused to let it out. He had no choice, it was either this or lose her completely. Better to have some of her than none, right? Better to give her this chance at life than let death steal her from him - from them all? Taking a deep breath he clamped his jaw shut against his doubts and fixed his eyes on Anise as she walked slowly down the ramp towards him. Stopping in front of him, she appraised him with a shrewd gaze that was all Tok'ra, but when she spoke it was with Freya's quiet voice. "You need not fear, Colonel O'Neill," she assured him. "Everything that is Samantha Carter will remain: her thoughts, her knowledge - her feelings. She will be more than she was, that is all."
Jack dropped his eyes, wishing the woman would shut up about Sam's feelings. She knew too much about it and didn't know when to keep her damn mouth shut. Even now, when his stony silence would have driven anyone else away, she stood expectantly before him, waiting for an answer. He glanced up. "We like her the way she is," he muttered.
The Tok'ra smiled sadly. "She is dying the way she is, Colonel. When she has been blended with Nyneva she will be strong and healthy again. Your friend will be restored to you."
But he shook his head. "The moment that snake enters her head everything changes. We both know that, so why don't you quit pretending? She'll be one of you."
Anise raised an elegant eyebrow. "She will be alive."
"Yeah," he nodded, giving nothing away. "She will."
Daniel touched Anise lightly on the arm. "We should go to the infirmary now," he said quietly and she nodded, her eyes not leaving Jack.
"Samantha Carter will live an incredible life among the Tok'ra," she assured him. "Her courage, strength and intelligence will be an asset to our struggle against the Goa'uld."
"They already are," Jack reminded her. "She's already saved your snaky asses too many times." He paused. "Shame you can't return the favor."
Anise shook her head. "That is just what we are doing, Colonel," she told him gently, "and one day Samantha will explain the truth of what I say."
With that she turned and followed Daniel down the ramp, the two men carrying the symbiote close on her heels. Jack watched them go in silence, trying not to imagine Sam's face when she woke up to find that she wasn't alone in her own mind. The thought turned him cold; how could he do this to her? He shook his head, remembering the icy hand of death upon her shoulder; how could he not?
The Tok'ra worked rapidly and silently in the infirmary, preparing the symbiote for the transfer. Daniel watched the proceedings with a peculiar detachment, his mind almost numbed by the persistent beep of the machines that surrounded Sam. Jack sat at her side, talking quietly to her. But Daniel doubted that she could hear him; she'd lost consciousness almost an hour ago.
Janet hovered nearby, her face tight with anger and displeasure as she watched Anise work. There was no love lost between them, he knew, but somehow the fact that the Tok'ra were the ones who could save Sam when she had failed had cut Janet to the quick. She glared at them even as she studied the readouts of the machines surrounding Sam, as if waiting for some sign that Sam was going to win the fight and that this drastic solution wouldn't be necessary after all. But nothing she saw gave her comfort, and her lips tightened further as she looked over at the Tok'ra once more.
At his side, Daniel sensed Teal'c shift slightly where he stood observing the scene. He flicked a glance towards him, and saw that the Jaffa's eyes were fixed on O'Neill.
"We are losing much today," he said quietly.
Daniel nodded slowly. "But not everything. At least this way she'll survive."
"Samantha Carter will survive," he said after a moment, placing a peculiar emphasis on her name.
Frowning, Daniel followed his friend's gaze towards Jack. His impenetrable expression gave little away, but Daniel recognized the mask that had fallen. He'd seen it before, many years ago. Swallowing hard he said, "We'll all get through this. Together."
Teal'c inclined his head. "I hope you are correct, Daniel Jackson."
Daniel's eyes were still fixed on Jack when Anise said, "We are ready." And so he saw the way O'Neill's jaw tightened and the brief fluttering of his eyes closing. As he rose slowly to his feet, Jack's lips moved slightly and Daniel thought he heard him murmur, "I'm so sorry, Sam," before he stepped away from the bed.
Janet was hovering protectively next to Sam as Anise approached. "You must remove that tube," the Tok'ra said, pointing to the endotracheal tube taped firmly to Sam's face.
Shaking her head, Janet frowned. "She's too weak to breathe without it."
"As soon as Nyneva enters her body, the healing will begin," Anise assured her. "Please trust us."
Something that was almost a growl came from Janet's throat as she glared at the woman. "The last time we trusted you, SG-1 almost wound up dead," she pointed out. "Why should...?"
"Doctor," Jack interrupted, "do as she says." His voice was quiet, but it held a deliberate thread of authority.
"If we're gonna do it," he said, "let's just do it."
Janet threw him a glance, hesitated, but backed down. "I hope you know what the hell you're doing," she muttered to Anise as she started untaping the endotracheal tube from Sam's face. Gently tipping her head back, she quickly pulled the tube free. "Hang on, Sam," she whispered quietly as she grabbed an oxygen bag and mask from a nearby stand and slipped it over Sam's mouth. Her eyes were fixed on Sam's face she began squeezing the bag, forcing the life- giving oxygen into her lungs.
Daniel watched with a sickening fascination as Anise retrieved the symbiote from the container held by one of the Tok'ra men. He couldn't repress a shiver of disgust at the sight, and saw a similar look on Janet's face as, with obvious reluctance, she removed the mask from Sam's mouth and stepped aside. The other Tok'ra took her place at Sam's side and pulled open Sam's jaw as Anise began to lower the writhing creature into her mouth.
"Oh, Jesus!" The strangled words were Jack's and Daniel saw him turn away, his eyes screwed shut and one hand over his mouth.
As the symbiote slowly worked its way into Sam, Daniel too looked away. The sight was grotesque and his empty stomach churned in protest. He felt nausea rise in his throat, and swallowed hard. Then a warm, heavy hand fell on his shoulder. "All will be well," Teal'c said slowly. "Samantha Carter will be well."
Suddenly a high-pitched squeal filled the room. Distressed and angry, it drew all eyes back to the bed on which Sam lay. The Tok'ra symbiote was wriggling wildly, half in and half out of Sam's mouth, and blood was spattering all over Sam's face as the creature writhed.
"What's happening?" Jack snapped, taking half a step closer. His face was white, but he was still in control.
"I don't know!" Anise replied in obvious concern as another piercing shriek filled the room. "The joining isn't working - Nyneva is in distress...."
"Sam's not breathing," Janet snapped. Daniel could see the blue tint coloring her lips, contrasting grimly with the red blood on her face and the white sheets, splattered by the wriggling symbiote.
"Get it out," Jack said immediately. "Get it out of her - now!"
Anise nodded. "I am attempting to," she said, her voice deep with the resonance of her own symbiote. "But I cannot risk injuring Nyneva."
"I don't give a shit about the damn snake!" Jack exploded, coming to stand at Sam's side in two swift strides. "Get it out or I'll yank the damn thing out myself!"
Afraid that he might do just that, Daniel tried to pull him back, but he shook his hand away angrily. "Get the hell off me!" he growled.
But Teal'c's strong hands were harder to resist. "We must allow Anise space to work," Teal'c said firmly, pulling O'Neill a step or two backward.
"Petar!" Anise called. "Prepare the chamber."
One of the Tok'ra retrieved the container that had held the symbiote, his fingers rapidly flying over the small control panel on its side. "It is ready," he said at last.
"I have her," Anise said then, at last lifting the wriggling creature free of Sam and depositing it back in the chamber.
Janet all but pushed the Tok'ra woman out of the way as she rushed to Sam's side. She quickly suctioned the blood out of her mouth and reinserted the endotracheal tube. Jack stood staring, his arms now limp in Teal'c's firm grip. "She's okay," Janet said after a moment. "For now."
Jack wiped a hand hurriedly across his eyes, before he turned on Anise. Anger replaced every other emotion as he glared at her, and Teal'c wisely retained a restraining hand on Jack's arm. "You gonna tell us what the hell happened there?" he snarled.
Anise blanched, but held her ground. When she spoke, the voice was Freya's once more. "I believe the Goa'uld proteins in Major Carter's blood made the joining impossible. I am sorry, Colonel, but she cannot become a host while they are present." Daniel would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so desperate; Sam couldn't become a host because of the disease, but if it wasn't for the disease she wouldn't need to become a host.
The expression on Jack's face was almost relieved, although the darkness in his eyes spoke of immense loss. "Then that's it," he said softly, turning back to Sam. "It's over."
Janet was gently wiping the blood away from Sam's mouth and she looked up as their eyes fell on her. "There's still a chance she'll beat the infection," she told them quietly. "It's slim, but it's a chance. All we can do is wait."
Despite her concern for Sam, and despite the fact that she'd only snatched a couple of hours sleep over the past two days, Janet had work to do. SG-3 returned on schedule with the usual number of cuts and bruises, a fractured wrist, and all the normal gripes about post- mission physicals.
Sam's bed was curtained off at the end of the infirmary, and the boisterous marines seemed to take the hint and keep their jibes more moderate than usual. Daniel and Teal'c came and went a couple of times while Janet dealt with SG-3, but spared no more than a nod for their colleagues; O'Neill didn't moved from Sam's side.
"How's Major Carter doing?" Captain Shepard asked, as his eyes followed Daniel emerging from behind the curtains and heading towards the door.
"Not so good," Janet told him quietly, holding his head still while she peered into his eyes with her penlight.
Shepard sighed. "That sucks," he said, "after everything she's been through; to have it end like this...."
Forcing a smile that was almost a grimace, Janet said, "It's not over yet, Captain."
"No," he agreed hurriedly, "I just meant...."
"I know," she told him, unwilling to prolong the conversation. "That's you done, Captain. Send in...."
"Doc!" The agitated call was O'Neill's and it sent Janet's heart plummeting; this was it. She turned around slowly, unwilling to face what was to come, and saw the Colonel beckoning to her. "Get over here," he urged.
With a brief nod of dismissal to Shepard, Janet snapped into motion and hurried towards Sam's bed. "What's happened?" she asked immediately, pulling back the curtain and stepping inside.
As she spoke she glanced at O'Neill, but instead of the devastation she expected to see in his eyes, she saw a flicker of hope. "I think she feels cooler," he said hopefully, reaching out and laying his hand on her forehead. "Yeah."
Not yet daring to hope, Janet quickly took Sam's temperature; the result let loose a wave of relief. "You're right," she told him, smiling a little. "Her temperature is lower."
"That's good," he said, his fingers lingering nervously next to Sam's hand. "Right?"
Janet nodded. "It's a good sign," she agreed slowly, not wanting to raise false hopes.
"But?" he asked, the hope she'd seen in his eyes starting to dim.
She met his gaze firmly and said, "But even if she beats the infection, Colonel, it's going to leave her very weak. She'll be highly susceptible to further infections, and to the effects of the cancer itself."
"So, what you're saying is...?"
"What I'm saying," she told him, "is that this is good news, but only in the short-term. The long-term prognosis is still grave."
O'Neill nodded slightly, his face giving little away. "How long?"
Shaking her head, Janet said, "There's no way to tell, sir."
"Try," he snapped angrily.
Gritting her teeth against the impossibility of his command, she gave him the unvarnished truth. "It could be a couple of hours, a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, sir. That's the best I can do."
Anger flared in his eyes, but was quickly extinguished, and he rubbed a weary hand over his eyes. "Sorry," he muttered, the apology halfhearted.
"It's okay," she assured him, taking a step closer and placing a hand on his arm. The muscles beneath his shirt were rigid with the tension he was wearing like armor. "You should get some fresh air, Colonel," she told him. "Take a walk and clear your head."
"I'm okay," he replied, sitting back down in the chair next to Sam's bed and dropping his head into his hands. Janet said nothing, just watched him, the words from his psych report ringing loudly in her mind: 'after the death of his son, Colonel O'Neill became severely depressed, to the extent that he exhibited suicidal tendencies'. She swallowed the knot of concern the words provoked, and turned her attention back to Sam; she *was* doing a little better. And that meant there was hope. And where there was hope there was life, right? Well, something like that, anyway.
Sam's mind swam with images. Words and faces ran like liquid through her mind, amorphous and difficult to hold onto. She saw Daniel's face, gazing at her over the top of his glasses and his lips moved in silent words she couldn't understand. A number flashed into her head: fourteen.
And then she saw Teal'c running, the explosions of staff weapons all around him as he turned around mid-stride. "This way!" he called to her, beckoning her towards him. "Hurry!" She felt herself start to run, although she made no progress. "No dawdling, Major!" The angry voice was O'Neill's and she spun around to see him glaring at her. Behind him stood fourteen tall trees, separated into two groups of seven.
"You're letting us down," he snapped, and then scowling down at her feet he said, "You'll never get anywhere without your boots, Carter." Confused, she looked down to see that she was standing barefoot in shallow water. Her feet were cold and turning blue, but to her horror she saw that each foot had seven toes. With a start she jerked her head up...and opened her eyes.
Blinking and disoriented she stared up at a bright white ceiling. Her limbs felt heavy, as if they were unused to movement, and her head ached dully. Heavy with sleep, her eyes drifted shut again but not before a familiar face loomed into view.
"Hey," said Janet's quiet voice. "You're awake."
Words formed in Sam's mind, but when she tried to speak she realized that something was in her mouth. A wave of panic rippled through her and she lifted a shaky hand to her face. Janet stopped her. "Don't try to talk. You have a tube in your throat," she explained. "You needed it to help you breathe."
Yeah, she remembered now. The swift decline into aching fever, the dreams and then nothing. Vague memories of people around her, of something terrible that had almost happened, and then a poignant silence that had lulled her back into her dreams.
"I'm going to take the tube out now," Janet said, still talking in that soothing, quiet tone of hers. "I want you to take a deep breath and blow it out when I say so. Okay?"
Sam gave a weak nod and did as she was told. The gagging sensation was distinctly unpleasant, and she coughed painfully as the tube left her throat. "What...?" she whispered hoarsely, clutching at her throat. "Hurts," she said, gazing up at Janet in confusion.
A look of dark regret spread over her friend's face. "We almost lost you, Sam," she said quietly. "The Tok'ra tried to...save you."
'Save me?' For a moment she didn't understand, but the bleak expression on Janet's face coupled with the pain in her throat told her the rest. They'd tried to make her a host. God! "Why...?" she began, but Janet misinterpreted the question and jumped in before she could finish.
"You almost died," she said, obviously unhappy with what had happened. "Colonel O'Neill thought it would be better...." She looked away for a moment, before she returned her uncomfortable gaze to Sam. "None of us wanted to lose you, Sam."
Shaking her head, Sam asked the question she'd been intending. "Why didn't it work?"
Janet's eyebrows shot up, as if surprised. "Because of the Goa'uld proteins in your blood - they rejected the Tok'ra symbiote."
The news fell hard upon her and she closed her eyes. "That was my last hope," she whispered quietly. The idea had been lurking, unvoiced in the back of her mind almost from the moment Janet had told her of the cancer; if her Dad could do it, why not her? Well, apparently life wasn't going to be that simple. Her last chance at survival had been ripped away, and now all she could expect was death. Unless... Daniel's face flashed in front of her closed eyes, bringing with it memories of her dreams. Seven trees, seven toes. Seven. Fourteen!
Sam's eyes sprung open and she grabbed for Janet's arm. "I have to see him," she croaked through her damaged throat.
"Colonel O'Neill?" Janet guessed.
"No," she replied, her hand tight on Janet's arm. "Daniel."
A slight frown touched the doctor's brow. "It's the middle of the night, Sam," she began gently. "You should sleep now. Your fever's only just broken and...."
Ignoring her, Sam forced her voice to speak at a normal level. "Now. It's very important. Please, Janet."
With an indulgent shrug, Janet rose to her feet and called to one of her nurses. "Could you call Doctor Jackson in his quarters?" she asked. "Tell him Major Carter needs to see him, urgently."
Jack hadn't even tried to sleep and lay on his bed, fully clothed, staring unseeing at the ceiling. Fraiser had chased him out of the infirmary when Sam had started to show signs of improvement and ordered him to rest. He'd resisted, of course, but she could be damn persuasive when she chose. And so he'd skulked away, too tense to sleep, yet fully aware that his body needed rest. But this was all it was going to get; laying motionless while he staring at the ceiling and tried not to think about the dark chasm that had opened under his feet during those awful few hours when they'd thought that Sam was going to die.
Of all the horrors he'd seen, felt and - occasionally - committed, in his life, the pit of black despair he'd fallen into after Charlie's death had been the most terrifying. When the enemy was locked inside your own head, there was no hope of rescue, no safe haven and no inner sanctum. The battle was constant and unrelenting. It wore you down, battered at all your defenses until you had nothing left. It isolated you, crushed your relationships and dragged you down further with each passing day, deep into the pitch darkness. And there was no easy escape.
His thoughts paused for a moment before taking a darker turn. Escape. Well, there *was* an escape. And he'd nearly taken it, a couple of times. So nearly. Just remembering the way his mind had run in ever decreasing circles sickened him, the same thoughts and images battering relentlessly at him as he'd sat staring at the gun in his hands. He remembered the utter hopelessness that had all but stripped him of his reason and had convinced him that oblivion was his only path to peace. And despite the years of slow healing that had followed, he knew that the pit was still there, right beneath him. Sure, it was boarded up, covered over with unexpected joys and triumphs, with unimagined friendships and feelings he'd thought forever lost. But the fix was just temporary, and when he'd seen Sam lying so close to death he'd felt the whole fragile structure start to crack beneath his feet. He'd told Anise that he'd rather die than lose her, but the truth was that if he lost her, he'd die anyway. Not right away, perhaps, but in the end he knew he'd fall back down into the pit and that nothing would drag him out. Nothing but a bullet.
A thumping at his door startled him out of his dismal thoughts, and he was on his feet in a second. When he flung the door open he was surprised to see Daniel standing before him. "It's Sam," Daniel began.
The floor beneath his feet started to sag. "Sam?" his voice was harsher than he'd intended.
"She's awake!" Daniel explained hurriedly. "I just got a call - she wants to see me about something." He paused, frowned as he gazed into Jack's face, and said more quietly, "I thought you'd want to know."
Awake! His heart restarted itself and the darkness receded a little. "Thanks," he mumbled, pulling the door closed behind him. "Fraiser should have called me." Daniel made an odd, non- committal noise that Jack recognized as obfuscation. He allowed himself a shallow smile; obviously Janet wanted to keep him out of her hair for a while. Couldn't blame her. He was a terrible patient, and a worse.... What? Concerned CO? Concerned friend? He sighed. Janet knew exactly what he was; it was an implicit, unspoken knowledge.
"Apparently Sam just woke up about ten minutes ago," Daniel said as they hurried together towards the elevators. "But she was quite insistent that she talked to me."
"Insistent?" Jack smiled. "Carter? Get out of here!"
Daniel smiled back. "I'm hoping it's a good sign."
"Yeah," Jack replied, more quietly. "Me too."
By the time they arrived in the infirmary, Sam was propped up on a couple of pillows. The tube was no longer in her mouth, and she watched them enter with bleary, tired eyes. Her face was still deathly pale, but she managed a smile that sent Jack's heart soaring. His instinct was to rush to her side, but he repressed it, hanging back and letting Daniel's natural enthusiasm carry him forward instead.
"Sam!" Daniel said warmly. He took her hand as he sat down at her side. "It's good to see you awake."
She just nodded and smiled. "Thanks."
Her voice hit Jack almost as powerfully as her smile, and he realized that he'd never expected to hear it again. His throat tightened painfully at the thought, and unfortunately she chose that moment to look over at him. "Hi," she said. An innocent word, but the warmth in her voice pulled him helplessly to her side.
Swallowing unruly emotions, his words came out gruffly. "You gave us quite a fright there, Carter."
"Sorry, sir," she whispered.
Walking around to the other side of her bed, he forced a frown onto his face and muttered, "Just don't do it again, Major. That's an order." And then, unable to stop himself, he reached down and lightly brushed her fingers with his own. "Understood?" Well, if Daniel could sit there and hold her hand, this was okay? Right?
She smiled at him again, and weakly said, "Understood." Then she pulled her hand away and turned back to Daniel. Tired as she was, he could see the sudden burst of excitement in her face, "I think I've cracked it."
Daniel blinked. "Cracked what?"
"The Elkaran coordinates."
Jack couldn't help himself. "In a coma? I mean, I know you're smart, Carter, but this is miraculous even for you!"
She flashed him a slightly irritated glance. "I wasn't in a coma," she murmured.
"Whatever. You weren't exactly on top form."
She opened her mouth to protest further, when Daniel said, "Jack, just let her finish!"
With a roll of his eyes he conceded, and Sam started to talk. Her voice was rough and husky, and he grimaced at the thought of the damage the Tok'ra had done to her throat. But any discomfort she might feel, was lost beneath her enthusiasm. "I guess my mind was toying with the problem even when it was unconscious," she said. "I had all these weird dreams, but the number fourteen kept coming up in lots of them. Fourteen trees, fourteen toes..."
Sam ignored Jack's interruption, and Daniel just glared at him. "When I woke up it just hit me," she continued. "Base fourteen!"
Daniel stared at her, glanced over at Jack, and back at Sam. "Oh," he said, nodded and then frowned.
Jack smiled and took a seat, stretching out his legs and grinning. "I think what he's trying to say, Carter, is what the hell are you talking about?"
"Base fourteen? Really big baseball field?"
It was Sam's turn to stare. "Didn't you study math in High School, sir?"
"Base fourteen is a method of counting that uses fourteen as a unit instead of ten," Daniel explained, and Jack couldn't help but notice the look of smug triumph in his eyes. "What I don't get is how this helps us."
Sam closed her eyes, swallowed and grimaced in obvious pain. "Okay," she said, "get me the characters you were having trouble translating. We think they're numbers - an equation, probably - but the Elkaran use base fourteen instead of base ten, which is why it didn't make any sense when you tried to translate it numerically. All I need to do is...."
The soft click of a closing door drew all their eyes to the far side of the room. Janet walked towards them, looking tired but determined. She took in the scene with one swift glance and folded her arms. "All you need to do," she said, "is rest. All of you."
Jack rose slowly to his feet. "That include you too, Doc?"
"Do I have to make that an order, sir?" she asked, neatly avoiding the question. "You wouldn't want to be declared unfit for duty, would you?"
Jack favored her with one of his lopsided grins. "You wouldn't dare."
"Sleep, Colonel," she told him firmly. And then a devious look came into her eyes and she hit him where she knew he was vulnerable, "Major Carter needs to rest. She's still very weak."
He admitted defeat instantly. "Okay, we're going." He turned back to Sam. "We'll come back first thing in the morning."
"Not too early," Fraiser warned as she took his place at Sam's side. "The infirmary is off-limits until oh-nine-hundred. Understood?"
Jack's reluctant nod was only half-hearted. He was exhausted, Carter was exhausted, Daniel was exhausted and Janet looked as if she was about to drop where she stood. "Oh-nine-hundred," he agreed, casting Sam a parting glance. "Sleep well," he told her. And then, with a brusque nod to Daniel to follow, he left. Just the sound of Sam's voice had pushed the darkness back a little, and he thought that the memory of her smile might just ease him into the sleep he so desperately needed.
To Sam's surprise, her first visitor the next morning was Teal'c. He entered the room quietly, glanced once at Janet's office, and approached her bed. She smiled a greeting and he said, "Major Carter, it is a pleasure to see you so improved."
"Thanks," she nodded.
"We were most concerned yesterday," he continued.
"I heard," she replied, touching her still sore throat. "Guess the whole Tok'ra thing was a little unpleasant?"
He inclined his head slightly and said, "More so for Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson."
"I am more used to the idea of symbiosis," he reminded her.
Sam nodded, her eyes drifting to the clock. It was still only eight- thirty, which meant that she couldn't expect Daniel or the Colonel for another half hour. She was itching to take a second look at the Elkaran coordinates and test her theory. If she was right, it could mean.... She sighed, not daring to raise her hopes. If she was right, there'd be time enough to speculate. She was about to ask Teal'c to take a seat, when a voice from the doorway drew her attention.
"Psst! Carter!" O'Neill's head popped around the door. "Where's Fraiser?" he asked.
She grinned. "Not here," she assured him.
"Good." With that Jack, closely followed by Daniel, slipped into the room. "How're you feeling, this morning?" he asked.
His eyes narrowed. "Truth, Carter?"
She shrugged a little. "Well, pathetically weak if you must know." Not wanting to dwell on it, she turned immediately to Daniel and said, "Did you bring the coordinates?"
He frowned, and pushed at his glasses as they started to slide down his nose. "Are you sure you're up to this, Sam?"
"I'm sure," she told him, trying to push herself upright. But the effort was too much, and she sank back into the pillows in frustration.
"Maybe we should wait until Janet's checked you over?" he hesitated, casting an uncertain glance at Jack.
"Daniel!" she protested, holding out a trembling hand. "Please!"
"Just give her the coordinates," Jack muttered as he dropped into the chair next to her bed. "If Carter can do math while she's unconscious, this should be a piece of cake!"
She smiled to herself as she took the paper from Daniel's hand, and started studying the strange-looking characters. "I need a pen," she murmured, letting her mind roam free, taking in all the subtle logic evident in the patterns before her. But even as she studied the paper she held, the effort of holding it up so she could read it set her hand shaking so badly that she hand to drop it back to her chest. "Damn it," she breathed, squeezing her eyes shut against tears of frustration.
"Here," Jack said quietly, "let's sit you up a little. Then you won't need to hold it." Between them, Jack and Daniel helped her upright, plumped the pillows behind her and rested her gently back against them. "Okay?" he asked, with a smile she knew was forced; she could see the dismay behind his eyes.
"Okay," she replied, endeavoring to return the smile.
"I, um, have a pen," Daniel said then, pulling it and a notebook from his pocket. "You do the math, and I'll write," he suggested, pulling his chair up closer to her bed. "Deal?"
Sam's smile broadened. "Deal," she told him, returning her eyes to the coordinates.
After a moment, she heard Jack shift a little by her bed. "Well, while you guys are figuring this stuff out, I guess Teal'c and I will just...?" he began, clearly looking for some way to help.
"Get us some breakfast?" Daniel suggested, glancing at his friend over the tops of his glasses.
Jack rolled his eyes. "Well, as long as it's something *important*," he muttered. Then, glancing at Sam his expression softened, "You want anything?"
The thought of food repulsed her, but she tried to keep the emotion from her face as she just shook her head. "Maybe later," she said quietly.
"Yeah," he murmured, not believing her for a moment. And then with a curt nod to Teal'c he said, "Let's hit the cafeteria and leave these kids to work in peace."
Sam smiled. "Thanks," she whispered, fighting the urge to close her eyes and drift back into the warm arms of sleep. She wouldn't give in. She *would* solve this; her life depended on it.
Teal'c sat waiting in the briefing room when General Hammond arrived, closely followed by O'Neill and Daniel Jackson.
The Colonel's face was more animated than he had seen it in many weeks, and Teal'c interpreted that as a positive sign. Rising politely to his feet as the General entered, he noted the contrast between the excitement on O'Neill's face and the uncertainty that appeared to haunt Doctor Jackson.
"Teal'c," the General nodded at him, as he took his customary seat at the head of the table. Daniel Jackson slowly sank into a chair at Teal'c's side, pushing the large Tok'ra book onto the table in front of him. O'Neill, however, just stood with his hands nervously fingering the back of a chair.
"General," he began, not waiting for an invitation to speak, "we have the coordinates, I say we go!"
Teal'c raised an eyebrow, and cast a questioning glance at Daniel. His friend shrugged and said, "Sam figured it out."
"We are fortunate," he observed, "that it is her body and not her mind afflicted by this sickness."
"Yeah," Daniel muttered, appearing oddly disgruntled as he poked disconsolately at the Tok'ra book.
"Take a seat, Colonel," Hammond said then, and Teal'c could see by the set of his face that he had some reservations. Wise, he thought approvingly. "Doctor Jackson," the General said then, "what can you tell us about these Elkaran people?"
Sitting forward, Daniel nodded as he readjusted his glasses. "Nothing for certain," he began. "All the information in this book is hundreds of years old."
"General...?" O'Neill interrupted, clearly impatient.
Hammond just raised a hand and said, "Carry on Doctor."
"Ah, right," Daniel nodded, casting a wary glance at O'Neill before continuing. "It seems as though the Elkaran developed some kind of virus that attacked the symbiote while leaving the host intact. They used this to rid themselves of Goa'uld occupation, however some years later the survivors started to get sick. Nothing they tried could cure them until the 'Deus' appeared and gave them the magic cure, so to speak." The General's eyes had narrowed slightly, and Daniel hurriedly switched track. "So, in short," he said, "I think we can expect a technologically advanced people. The book doesn't tell us much about the structure of their society, although I can deduce from the syntax that it's likely to be patriarchal and..."
"General!" O'Neill protested again.
Hammond flung him a warning glance, and said, "Is there anything else pertinent to a mission, Doctor Jackson?"
"Actually," Daniel replied, a hint of triumph in his voice, "there is." He paused, frowned and said, "They hate the Goa'uld with a passion that borders on obsession."
"I like these guys already," the Colonel replied. "So when do we go?"
"Wait," Daniel said, "you don't understand, Jack. I mean they *hate* the Goa'uld. All Goa'uld." Daniel's eyes flickered towards Teal'c. "I don't think Teal'c should come with us."
O'Neill raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
General Hammond nodded slowly. "Thank you, Doctor," he said thoughtfully. Then, turning to Colonel O'Neill he said, "I don't need to ask what your recommendation is, Jack."
"This is Carter's last chance, sir," he said simply.
Hammond nodded again, his brow contracted low over his eyes as he considered. But Teal'c was never in any doubt of his decision. "Once we have the data from the MALP, you're authorized to go, Colonel. I'll send a couple of SF's with you since Teal'c will have to sit this one out."
"Yes sir," O'Neill agreed immediately. "Thank you, sir,"
"I just hope you find what we need, son," he said more quietly. "There's a hell of a lot at stake here."
O'Neill said nothing, but Teal'c knew he needed no reminder of the importance of the mission. As the heavy silence lingered, the Colonel shook himself slightly and said, "With your permission, sir, I'll go get the MALP on its way...?"
"Do it," Hammond told him, rising to his feet, "and good luck."
As soon as Jack stepped through the gate he knew that something wasn't right. The MALP was still there, gazing around with its electronic eye, the trees that surrounded the little clearing in which they stood were tall and rustled slightly in the breeze, and a small deer raised its head, took one look at them and scampered away into the trees. Just as it had in the MALP footage. Exactly as it had in the MALP footage.
He glanced at Daniel. "Deja vu?"
"Could be," Daniel replied, looking around nervously.
Jack followed his gaze, taking in the breeze-ruffled trees, the clouds that scooted overhead in the blue sky. Thoughtfully, he licked his finger and held it up in the air. Daniel watched him with some surprise until Jack said, "No breeze."
Nodding towards the rustling trees he said, "No breeze."
Daniel's mouth opened, a response forming on his lips when the world around them flickered, shimmered and disappeared. The blue-sky and lush green forest were replaced by cold, gray steel and stone, and a troop of heavily armed soldiers watching them with weapons raised.
"Just like home," Jack muttered, glancing around quickly, assessing the new situation. They were in some kind of facility, not dissimilar to their own gate-room. Banks of windows lined the large, gray room, dark and impenetrable, while in the far corner the DHD stood shielded behind a large transparent screen. Jack raised a hand to still the nervous shifting of the two SFs behind him. "Easy," he told them.
From the ranks of the troops, one man stepped forward. He walked with a confident swagger that Jack instantly recognized; soldiers were soldiers wherever they lived.
"Who are you?" the man said, his weapon held lightly but with obvious ease. This man knew what he was doing. Jack was wary.
"I'm Colonel Jack O'Neill," he said carefully, deliberately keeping his hands away from the gun slung across his chest. "And this is Doctor Jackson, Sergeant Ellis, and Sergeant Fielding.
"There is nothing here for you to explore," the man replied. "Return to your home world, and we will not harm you."
Jack winced a little, but held his ground. "Ah - afraid we can't do that," he said quietly.
"We came here for a reason," Daniel added then. "To ask for your help."
The soldier blinked, nonplussed. And then he tapped a device on his wrist and said, "Chief Yantov, I think you might want to hear this, ma'am."
Sam's book lay on her chest, unopened. She was too tired to read, and all her aching body really wanted to do was sleep. But she refused to succumb to the need. She refused to let the darkness take her, not yet. There was so much darkness ahead, she wanted to stay in the light for a while, while she could.
And so she fought the fingers of sleep as they reached out and clutched at her, forcing her mind think of the world beyond her sickness. Daniel and the Colonel would have left already, and she envied them the adventure. Each time she stepped through the gate she knew it was a privilege, but she'd never dreamed it would be taken away from her so soon. Not like this. She had rarely thought about dying, but when she had she'd always assumed that it would be in a blaze of gunfire, in the midst of the action, doing something important. Dying for something important. Not just fading into darkness like this, too weak to keep fighting, her body betrayed from within.
"Major Carter?" The voice that roused her from her dark thoughts was Teal'c's, and she turned to him with a surprised smile.
"Hey," she said, pushing herself a little more upright among the pillows. "Have they gone?"
He nodded. "They have."
"Sorry you had to stay here," she told him, smiling dryly. "Guess you and I drew the short straws this time, huh?"
"I do not consider being here with you to be a short straw," he told her, taking a seat at her side.
Sam smiled a broad smile. "Thanks."
He said nothing for a moment, as if weighing a decision. When he did speak, his voice was quieter, more thoughtful. "Before he left, Colonel O'Neill asked me to give you a message."
Teal'c nodded. "I am to tell you that, when you are recovered, the Colonel intends to take you fishing 'whether she likes it or not'."
Shaking her head, Sam couldn't help but smile. "Really?" she nodded. "Fishing, huh?"
A slight frown touched Teal'c's face. "I should warn you," he said, leaning a little closer, "the experience is most unpleasant. There are no fish and many biting insects."
"Oh, I forgot he dragged you up there," Sam said, remembering the occasion a couple of months ago. "What's it like?"
The Jaffa's expression was inscrutable as he said, "There are many trees." Then, catching the expectant look in her eyes, he added, "The cabin is comfortable, and it is very...quiet." He paused for a moment, then fixed her with a steady look as he said, "It is a good place to talk."
His bald statement surprised her, and she looked away, uncomfortable. "It sounds nice."
"Perhaps such a trip would indeed be restorative," he said quietly. "For both you and O'Neill."
"Perhaps," she agreed, without conviction. But in truth she couldn't bring herself to think about fishing, or talking, or anything much beyond the next few of days. Because, as she well knew, without a miracle the next few days may be all she had left.
Daniel looked around him as they were escorted along labyrinthine corridors that gleamed white, bright and sterile. Ellis and Fielding had been left under guard in the gate-room, while he and Jack were being marched along to meet the 'Chief.' Doors opened at intervals along the corridor, but the small rectangular windows in them were too small for him to make out much of what lay beyond.
The soldier who had greeted them at the gate led the way, and Daniel took a moment to assess him. Tall, lean and confident; he guessed he held a position of some authority. He'd treated them with caution since their arrival, but not aggression. He obviously didn't feel under threat, which, Daniel supposed, was a good thing.
"Looks like they have everything locked down nice and tight around here," Jack murmured as he walked along at his side.
Daniel nodded. "They seem to know what they're doing," he agreed. "This place looks a lot like the SGC."
"Only smarter," Jack replied, squinting up at the bright light emanating from the ceiling. Then, with a frown he said, "So what about the whole forest thing?" he asked. "The trees and the grazing deer bit?"
"A projection?" Daniel guessed.
"To make it look like there's no one at home," Jack agreed. "Pretty clever, I guess."
"Although," Daniel mused, "if they wanted to keep people away, why not project a more desolate image? I mean, it didn't stop us coming to call."
Jack's mouth was opening to reply when the man in front of them suddenly halted. "In here," he told them, indicating one of the doors.
"What's in there?" Jack asked, suspicious as always.
The Elkaran soldier smiled slightly. "Nothing that will harm you, Colonel Jack O'Neill."
There was a moment's pause before Jack shrugged and stepped towards the door. It slid open at his approach with a quiet hiss, drawing a small smile. "Cool."
Following him inside, Daniel found himself standing in a large, airy room with windows that looked out over a night-dark cityscape. The room was dominated by a large table, at the head of which sat a woman of middle years, whose dark hair was piled neatly on the top of her head. She rose as they entered, her eyes appraising them in one swift look, before coming to rest on the soldier who stood behind them. "Is the Portal secured, Kalchek?" she asked.
"It is," the man replied.
She nodded once, and turned her attention back to Daniel and Jack. "I am Chief Yantov," she said then, "the commander of this facility."
"Jack O'Neill," Jack said. "Colonel."
"Daniel Jackson," Daniel added.
Yantov raised an eyebrow. "You are soldiers?" she asked.
Jack nodded. "I am," he said. And then with a nod to Daniel he added, "He's an archaeologist."
Yantov's expression remained impassive. "You told Kalchek that you seek our help."
The woman nodded, and slowly sat down. With a wave of her hand, she indicated for them to do the same. Cautiously, aware that the heavily armed Kalchek still stood behind them, Daniel and Jack both sat down at the table. "I have two questions," Yantov said then. "First, what help do you think we can provide? And second, how did you find us?"
They were good questions, and Jack nodded as he leaned forward on the table, hands clasped tightly together. "The help we need," he said quietly, "is for a friend of ours." He paused and frowned, obviously considering how best to formulate the request. "She's sick," he said then. "Very sick, and we think it's because, a couple of years ago, she was taken as a host by a...."
"Goa'uld!" Yantov spat the word, jumping sharply to her feet.
Behind him, Daniel heard the ominous click of a weapon being readied for use. "She's not a Goa'uld!" Daniel assured the woman. "Not any more. It...died. But she lived."
"The Goa'uld sent you here!" Yantov accused them.
"No," Jack barked. "We're at war with the Goa'uld - we *hate* those damn snake-heads as much as you do. Trust me."
"Trust you?" Yantov asked, still standing. "Why should I do that? You come here speaking of the cursed Goa'uld, and ask me to trust you?"
"Yes," Jack snapped, also rising to his feet. Behind them Kalchek shifted, but Yantov raised a hand to still him, and Jack continued. "Our friend is dying. We can't help her - the Goa'uld who took her left *something* in her blood, and it's killing her." His voice cracked a little, and when he spoke again it was in a softer tone. "Please. Please help us."
The fear in the woman's face eased a little as her sharp, intelligent eyes remained locked on Jack's. "How did you find us?" she asked him. "Why do you think we can help you?"
Daniel watched as Jack sat down slowly, and turned towards him, eyebrows raised. "Daniel?" he asked, directing her questions his way.
He winced - how the hell was he supposed to explain the Tok'ra?! "Um," he said, giving himself a moment to formulate an answer, "we found a book. It describes how your people rid themselves of the Goa'uld, and how the survivors became sick and were cured in a, um, 'magical chamber'."
Yantov's expression was unreadable. "And how did you find us?"
"The book," Daniel explained, "held the coordinates of your planet."
The woman nodded, and slowly sat down. "So, tell me, Daniel Jackson," she said. "Do you always believe such children's stories?"
Janet's office was dimly lit, the only light coming from the small lamp on her desk. It was night time, and she didn't want to disturb Sam who was sleeping fitfully in the infirmary beyond. And, if truth be told, the darkness suited her mood as she stared down at the results of the third biopsy. Far from improvement, she knew now that Sam's condition was approaching critical. It wouldn't be long before her body was overwhelmed; her own bone marrow was being crowded out by the Goa'uld cells, and the Goa'uld proteins were already damaging her kidneys. Another infection at this stage would be fatal. The battle was all but over, and defeat tasted so very bitter.
She hadn't heard the door open, but tried to smile as she turned to see Teal'c standing before her. "Hey," she said. "Have you come to see Sam?"
He nodded. "I have, but she is sleeping."
"Yeah," Janet agreed. "She needs to rest."
Teal'c didn't reply at first, but fixed her with a steady look as he said, "On Chulak, it is customary for the comrades of a dying soldier to assist him in his final journey."
Janet raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" If he was talking about 'assisting' with the blast of a staff-weapon, he could forget it!
"To prepare for death," he told her, "it is believed that the burdens of this life must be passed on to another to bear, so that the spirit may be free. In this way, the journey is eased."
"That makes sense," Janet agreed. "Many religions here have similar rituals."
There was a long silence while Teal'c watched her as if he were trying to read her thoughts. "Is it time?" he asked then, quietly and simply. "Is it time for me to ease the journey for Major Carter?"
His words sounded like dismal bells in her mind, ringing out a dark truth she didn't want to hear. But he was right, to ignore it helped no one, least of all Sam. She deserved some time to put her affairs in order and to say goodbye. In a voice on the edge of tears she said, "Yes, Teal'c, I think it is." She swallowed, forcing her professionalism to reassert itself. "We're probably talking about a few days at most, if she doesn't develop any further complications."
"I believe that Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson will be successful," he told her then. "But it is prudent to be prepared for all eventualities."
"Yes," she agreed quietly. "It is. I'm sure Sam would appreciate your...assistance."
"As a comrade in arms, it is my duty," he told her. "And as a friend, I could do no less."
"Children's stories?" Jack repeated the words, half in anger and half in sick dread. "Are you telling us it isn't true? That you don't have this goddamn magic cure?"
"Easy Jack," he heard Daniel mutter as a warning hand came to rest on his arm, but he shook it off and jumped to his feet.
"Damn it!" he fumed, turning sharply away from the table, careless of Kalcheck's wary response. This was it, the last hope. And it was over. Gone. Carter was all but dead and there was nothing he could do to help her. He pressed his hands over his face, forcing his grief under control before he turned back to face the Elkaran woman. "If you can't help us," he said in a hard voice, "then let us go home. We have to see her before...." He swallowed hard against the lump rising in his throat. "We have to see her while we can."
Yantov was watching him as he spoke, and he thought he saw something flash behind her sharp eyes. She was quiet for a long time, and Jack's mind raged in the silence. What if they didn't let them leave? What if he didn't get back in time? He glanced at Kalchek, wondering how easy it would be to wrestle the gun from his hands. Kalchek met his glance with a flat stare that dared him to try. Jack felt his muscles start to bunch, rolling forward onto the balls of his feet, poised to act. And then Yantov spoke. "I did not say we could not help her," she said, her quiet voice shattering the tense silence.
The breath caught in Jack's throat and he was unable to speak for a moment - just long enough for Daniel to jump in. "Then you can?" he asked eagerly. "The book was right?"
Yantov licked her lips slightly, obviously more nervous than her calm demeanor had led them to believe. "The book of which you speak is very old," she said, "it speaks in allegory to explain what was not fully understood." She paused, "The chamber to which it refers is not magical."
"Chief...?" Kalchek asked, concern and warning mingling in his voice.
"It's all right," she assured him. "If they have read the Kaleron, they already know."
"Can you help us?" Jack asked, cutting straight to the point. There was no time for anything else.
"We may be able to help you," Yantov agreed, "although I can guarantee nothing." Pausing, she fixed them both with a shrewd gaze. "The question is, can we trust you?"
"Yes," Daniel and Jack spoke the word in unison.
"We have nothing but your word that you are not in servitude to the Goa'uld."
Jack had no answer to that, and he was wracking his mind for a solution when Daniel chipped in. "Then come with us," he suggested. "Come back to our world - we can show you."
"Yes!" Jack enthused. "Come with us. Right now...."
"I don't think so." The voice was Kalchek's, gravely and unyielding. When Jack turned to face him, he saw the man staring right at his Chief with a stubborn set of his jaw that spoke of intransigence.
Yantov seemed no less yielding when she said, "It may be the only way."
"Maybe," Kalchek nodded. "But *you* are not going."
A flash of irritation passed across Yantov's face, chased by a brief, almost imperceptible smile. She turned to Jack. "What surety do I have that, if I send someone to your world, they will be unharmed?"
The answer was obvious. "I'll stay here," Jack offered. "I'll be your surety. How's that for a guarantee?"
"The Goa'uld are cunning," Kalchek pointed out. "This could be a ruse. You may pose a danger if you remain."
"For crying out loud!" Jack protested, his tenuous grip on patience failing entirely. "You can chain me to the wall naked for all I care! I *just* want you to help Sam!"
Kalchek made no reply, merely raising a curious eyebrow at the suggestion.
"Sam is your friend?" Yantov asked then.
"Yeah," he replied, forcing his temper back under control. "Her name's Major Samantha Carter."
"She must be very important to you, to risk so much to find a cure?" Yantov added, her eyes drifting momentarily towards Kalchek.
Jack sighed and nodded. "She is," he answered her quietly. "She's very important to all of us, and to our war with the Goa'uld."
The woman made no reply, her shrewd eyes fixed on his face before drifting towards Daniel and back to Jack again. "And you would willingly remain here?" she asked. "If I sent one of my people through the Portal with your friends?"
"No problem," Jack assured her.
Cocking her head to one side, she asked, "And how do you know that *you* can trust *us*, Colonel O'Neill?"
It was a good question, and Jack couldn't help the dry smile it provoked. "I don't trust you," he told her. And then he shrugged, "But it's not like I have a choice right now. Apparently, you guys are the only ones who can help Carter, and that's all that matters."
She gave a brief nod, and turned her eyes on the man standing behind Jack. "Kalchek," she said, "secure Colonel O'Neill in one of the holding cells." She paused, and Jack held his breath. "Then prepare to accompany Daniel Jackson through the Portal."
"As you wish."
"Colonel O'Neill," Yantov said then, her attention snapping back to him. "If any harm comes to my Second, I will hold you personally responsible."
"I understand," he said, recognizing in her the concern felt by any CO sending one of their command into harm's way. "But he'll be fine. You have my word."
"With all due respect," Yantov replied, a small smile touching her lips. "Your word means nothing to me."
"Not yet," Jack agreed. "But give it some time. It'll grow on you."
The light knock on the door roused General Hammond from the report that lay, half-read upon his desk. Grateful for the interruption he sat up and stretched a kink out of his back before he called, "Come in."
The door opened, and Doctor Fraiser poked her head inside. "General?" she asked, glancing at the paper-work strewn across his desk. "Do you have a moment, sir?"
"Of course," he told her, waving her inside. He felt a pulse of unease as she stepped into the room, which she acknowledged with a small nod. He supposed she was used to such wary greetings in these circumstances.
"It's about Major Carter," she said immediately.
Letting out a long sigh, he said, "Take a seat, Doctor."
Perching on the edge of the chair, her face solemn, she wasted no time in getting to the point. "I think you should press the Tok'ra to retrieve General Carter, sir," she said. "I'm afraid that Sam doesn't have much time, and she's keen to see her father."
Her request awoke in Hammond bitter memories of his wife, also taken by cancer. The last few days were ones he'd never wish to repeat, but the chance to say goodbye had been important to her. And himself. Giving a stiff nod he said, "I'll do what I can. Jacob deserves the right to see his daughter again."
"Yes, sir," Janet agreed. She frowned then, lowering her eyes to her hands, and Hammond got the distinct impression she was approaching a delicate subject. "Sir," she said quietly, "I think you should contact Colonel O'Neill and Doctor Jackson, for the same reason. They would want to be here."
"Of course," he said, understanding her all too well. "If they haven't returned within twenty-four hours, I'll open the gate and send a message."
Janet's lips tightened. "Sam's condition is critical, sir," she said quietly. "It could go either way at this point, but I have to tell you that she might not survive another twenty-four hours."
"I understand," he told her. And he did, only too painfully. "Twelve hours and we'll bring them home." He sighed. "But I hope to God they've found what she needs, Doctor. I can't begin to imagine how we'll cope without Major Carter."
"No," Janet agreed softly. "It'll be difficult. For all of us."
Teal'c sat watching as Sam slept fitfully, lost in uneasy, restless dreams. She muttered unintelligible words, her thin face pale and drawn in the dim light of the infirmary. He had seen enough death in his life to recognize its vanguard, and felt great sorrow at the sight of such a woman as Major Carter struggling in its clutches.
Reaching out, he placed a hand on her shoulder to rouse her from her disturbing dreams. Her eyes opened in a flash, but it took a moment for recognition to spark in their depths. And then she gave a weak, confused smile, "Teal'c?"
"It is I," he assured her.
Her tongue ran over her dry lips. "Are they back?" she asked, glancing around the darkened room.
"They are not," he told her. "But your dreams appeared unpleasant."
She blinked at that and turned her head away, gazing up at the ceiling. "I was back in Antarctica," she murmured. "That time the Colonel and I nearly died there." Despite the warmth of the room, she shivered. "It was so cold."
Teal'c nodded. "Colonel O'Neill has spoken of it," he said quietly.
His words seemed to surprise her, because she turned back towards him. "He has?"
"Of the cold," he said. "And of his admiration for your bravery and endurance."
"Bravery?" She smiled a little and shook her head. "He never said anything to me."
"It is not his way," Teal'c reminded her.
"No," she sighed. "It's not."
Silence fell, comfortable and natural, and Teal'c let it come. Unlike the Tau'ri, silence did not disturb him. He had long ago learned that there was nothing more effective in provoking another to speak than silence. And so it proved.
"There's a lot of things the Colonel and I never talked about," she told him quietly, her gaze once more directed at the ceiling. He allowed her the illusion of privacy her averted gaze provided and held his silence. "And I guess now we never will." She sighed. "I suppose it doesn't matter anyway."
"The truth," Teal'c said, "always matters."
But she shook her head. "It's not about truth," she assured him.
Her answer surprised him. "Is it not?"
"No," she glanced at him then, a slight frown on her face. "The truth's not the problem. It's the talking about it."
He considered her words for a moment before he said, "Are there words you wish you had spoken?"
"No," she said again, "I wouldn't do anything different. I just...I hoped that one day we'd be able to talk. About all of it."
"Perhaps, when Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson return...?" he suggested.
She smiled. "I don't think so," she said. "There's really nothing to say at this point." Her eyes grew distant then, as new thoughts carried her away from him for a while. He let her drift until she spoke again, still lost in thought. "Teal'c?"
"If...If I don't have a chance to talk to Colonel O'Neill again, will you tell him something from me?"
She nodded slowly. "Tell him...I have no regrets. That I regret nothing but dying." Teal'c made no reply, but just took her hand, feeling her fingers curl around his as he squeezed gently. "I'm glad you're here, Teal'c," she added quietly.
"As am I, Samantha," he replied. "As am I."
Daniel paced in front of the dormant Stargate, keenly aware of the soldiers who watched him with bright eyes and fingers resting lightly on the triggers of their weapons. He felt as if he'd been waiting for hours, and when he glanced down at his watch he realized that he had. They'd been on Elkara for over thirteen hours. Kalchek, it appeared, was not in a hurry and he'd been closeted in a meeting with Chief Yantov for over two hours now. And despite constant assurances that their departure was imminent, nothing had happened.
He was on the point of demanding, for at least the forth time, that one of the soldiers go and find out what was going on, when the large doors near the side of the Stargate swished open and Yantov entered, followed by Kalchek. To Daniel's great relief, the soldier was dressed in what looked like field gear. Swallowing his irritation, Daniel forced a smile and said, "Ready to go?"
Yantov said nothing immediately, until she stood directly before him. "I take a great risk today," she said. "I risk the life of one of my own, for the sake of strangers. I hope you will remember that, when you return to your world."
"Of course!" Daniel assured her. "And we're incredibly grateful to you.... No harm will come to your..." he fumbled for the right word, "your friend."
A slight smile touched her lips at his choice of word, but she did not disagree. "And none will come to yours, if you return Kalchek to us unharmed."
Turning to the darkened windows that lined the room she gave a brief nod, and someone moved to the DHD stationed behind its protective screen. As the gate started to spin, Yantov turned to her second-in- command, "Go with honor," she told him. "And return with speed."
"I shall," he nodded, holding her gaze for a brief moment before turning to Daniel. "Enough time has been wasted," he said as the worm-hole splashed into the room, "we must go."
With a final nod of thanks to Yantov, Daniel turned and strode up the steps towards the Stargate, not daring to think about what he might find on the other side. 'I'm coming Sam,' he thought as he took the final step into the shimmering event horizon, 'just hang on.'
The voice was General Hammond's, and Janet looked up from adjusting Sam's meds to smile at him. "Sir," she replied, slightly surprised to see him. He rarely made an appearance in the infirmary.
Approaching the bed, he looked down at Sam as she slept and his lips compressed into a tight, unhappy line. "How's she doing?"
"Not so good," Janet told him quietly. "She's running a low-grade fever again. It's probably the start of another infection."
She shook her head and sucked in a deep breath. "She's hanging in there, sir, but she's very weak now."
He nodded, his eyes still fixed on Sam. "I'm on my way to the control room," he said quietly. "We've still heard nothing from Doctor Jackson or Colonel O'Neill." He paused. "It's been almost twelve hours."
Janet nodded. "You should bring them home now, sir," she told him gently. "She doesn't have long."
"Yes," he agreed, "I will." He glanced at her then, an appeal in his eyes that she had never before seen. He was asking for her help. "Could you could spare a couple of minutes to talk with the Colonel yourself?" he asked her. "If they've been unsuccessful so far, I doubt that Jack would come home unless he understands the seriousness of the situation."
Janet nodded. There were few people more stubborn than Jack O'Neill. "I can talk to him, sir," she said. "Major Carter's sleeping. I can leave for a few minutes."
"Thank you, Doctor," the General said, but his shoulders were slumped as he walked to the door and Janet knew he had little enough to thank her for.
Repressing the feeling of guilt, knowing it would do no one any good, she beckoned over one of the nurses. "I'll be in the control room," she told him. "Call me if there's any change."
The control room was crowded and yet unusually hushed as Janet followed the General through the door. "Anything?" he asked Lieutenant Foley.
"No, sir," she replied. "No contact at all."
Hammond came to a halt at the center of the room, hands clasped behind his back and shoulders straight as he gazed out at the dormant Stargate. "Re-establish contact with the Elkaran world," he said then, "and prepare to send a radio transmission."
"Yes, sir," came the sharp response, as Foley's fingers started to fly across the keyboard.
But before she could obey his order a claxon started wailing and another voice called out, "Off-world activation!"
Moving to stand at the General's shoulder, Janet held her breath as Hammond snapped, "Are we receiving a code?"
The silent wait was nerve-twisting. And then, "It's SG-1, sir."
The General's eyes shot to hers, relief and anxiety mixed in their depths. The moment of truth had arrived; kill or cure. "Open the iris," he ordered, before he turned on his heel and rushed out of the room. Janet was close behind him as he strode through the SFs in the gate-room and waited for the rippling surface of the Stargate to stabilize. No sooner had it done so than a figure emerged. It was Daniel, followed by Ellis and Fielding. A moment later another stepped through, a tall, lean dangerous looking stranger. And then the gate closed off and there was no Colonel O'Neill.
"Doctor Jackson," the General said immediately, approaching the foot of the ramp with a cautious eye on the well-armed stranger standing uneasily above him. "Where's Colonel O'Neill?"
"Um," Daniel nodded, "he's okay. He's stayed behind...as a kind of security deposit."
Hammond's eyebrows shot up. "I see." He turned to the stranger then and said, "Who's our guest, Doctor?"
"This is Kalchek," Daniel said, turning towards the man. "He's come here to, um, make sure we're not Goa'uld slaves." He paused, glanced warily around the room, and quietly added, "Um, where's Teal'c?"
Hammond obviously understood immediately. "Topside," he assured him, his eyes still fixed on the stranger. After a moment he spoke, as courteous as always. "You are welcome to Earth," he said. "And I'm sure we can soon prove to you that we are no friends of the Goa'uld."
Kalchek gave a guarded nod, his eyes roaming around the room and drinking in every detail. Janet watched him carefully, hoping that he really was an ally, because such a man would make a formidable enemy. But her thoughts couldn't be long distracted from the urgency of their situation, and before the General had time to ask, she turned to Daniel and said, "Can they help Sam?"
"I think so," Daniel replied, and then frowned slightly. "Well, they said they could try but that there were no guarantees. But," he glanced over at Kalchek again, "they want to make sure we're not a threat before they agree to anything."
"Then, I hope they're quick about it," Janet said quietly, "because I'm afraid that Sam doesn't have long."
The cell in which Jack was being held was small, though not uncomfortable. A narrow bed took up most of one wall, and a small table and chair filled the corner. At first Jack had made use of neither, as he'd paced the small room anxiously waiting for news; three steps left, three steps right. But as the hours had dragged by, he'd retreated to the bed and lay there staring at the ceiling, ignoring the plate of food cooling on the table by his side.
He'd lost track of time, of whether it was day or night on Elkara. Glancing at his watch, he realized it was almost three in the morning on Earth, and wondered what they were all doing. Was Kalchek satisfied with what he saw? The man was a soldier, he looked reasonable and astute - surely he'd be convinced? But he'd been gone over five hours now and they'd heard nothing. Or at least, if the Elkaran had heard anything, they hadn't seen fit to tell Jack. His stomach was tied into a tangled knot, the tension of the past months clenched so tightly that relaxation seemed a forgotten art. Waiting. He felt like he'd been waiting for weeks - for test results, for possible treatments to work, for Sam to pull through. Every muscle in his body was taut as he lay unmoving on the bed, and he began to think that the tension was all that was holding him together anymore. If he let go and gave in to the fear that stalked him he was afraid he'd fall apart entirely. And so he didn't give in to it. He lay on the bed, apparently calm and patient, and waited. What difference would a few more hours make?
"We don't have a few more hours!" Janet insisted, her eyes flashing between General Hammond and the Elkaran man, Kalchek. "I'm sorry to be so blunt, sir," she said, "but if Major Carter's going to survive a trip through the Stargate then she has to go now or the stress of it could kill her." She glared, daring either of them to deny her words.
Hammond looked uncomfortable, his attention divided between Kalchek and Sam, who still lay sleeping at the other end of the infirmary. At last he said, "But you think she's strong enough now?"
"I hope so," Janet sighed. "But I do know that she'll only get weaker. I've never seen anything like this cancer - it's growth rate is exponential." She turned her eyes on Kalchek. "You must know what I mean," she said, "if your people have suffered from this disease."
Kalchek's eyes were touched with sympathy, which sat oddly in his hard face. "It has been many generations since the Elkaran drove the Goa'uld from our world, and many generations since this sickness struck us."
"Generations?" Janet blinked, sharing a worried glance with Daniel who hovered at Kalchek's side. "And you still know how to cure it?"
The soldier cocked his head to one side. "We still posses the technology, although we have no need for its use," he explained. "Our scientists have studied it - I believe it is displayed in the Central Archive."
Daniel's eyebrows shot up. "It's in a museum?"
Kalchek shrugged. "I do not know that word."
"Oh boy," Janet sighed, pressing a weary hand against her eyes. The miracle cure was a museum piece!
"The question is," Daniel said then, steering the subject into a more productive path, "do you trust us enough to agree to help Sam?"
Kalchek did not answer immediately, and Janet could almost see the inner debate glittering beneath the surface of his eyes. He glanced from Daniel to Hammond, and over to the sleeping form of Sam. At last he spoke. "I see no Goa'uld here," he said.
"No!" Daniel confirmed excitedly.
"But I do see a well armed people, technologically equal to ourselves."
"We're no threat to you, son," Hammond insisted. "Our enemy is the Goa'uld."
Kalchek nodded, not disagreeing. "I will permit your Major Carter to return with me," he said. "Daniel Jackson may accompany her, but that is all. Any others attempting to follow will be deemed a threat and dealt with accordingly."
Hammond frowned, but before he could speak Janet jumped in. "I have to go with her too," she said. "Who knows what effects gate travel could have in her condition?"
"We have our own Medics..."
Kalchek began, but she cut him off.
"She's my patient," she told him. "I have to be with her." And then she raised an eyebrow, hands on hips, and stared up at him. "Unless you think I look too dangerous?"
A smile touched the man's face and he shook his head. "I think you could be very dangerous, Doctor Fraiser," he told her, not without humor. "But you may come, nonetheless."
She turned a glance on Hammond, requesting his permission, "Sir?"
"Make whatever preparations you need, Doctor," he told her. "You ship out as soon as you're ready."
Jack hadn't realized he'd fallen asleep until the clank of the opening door jerked him awake.
"Colonel O'Neill," a voice said. "Come this way."
Shaking off the remnants of his light doze, he swung his legs off the bed and glanced up. "Where're we going?" he asked the young soldier who stood before him.
"Chief Yantov requires your presence at the Portal."
Jack was on his feet in an instant. "Are they back?"
The soldier turned away. "Come this way," he repeated, turning and leaving the room. Jack followed, and saw another man fall in behind him to complete the escort.
The sterile corridors twisted and turned in ways that made no sense to Jack, so he had to forgo his instinct to mentally map their path. He dismissed the brief pang of unease that caused, and concentrated instead on not pushing the soldier out of his way and racing ahead to the gate-room.
But at last he found himself standing outside a set of double doors. His young escort tapped a short code into a panel at its side, and the doors swished open. Stepping through, Jack saw Yantov standing stiffly before the gate, her chin slightly raised as she watched it spinning. "The seventh co-ordinate is locked in," a voice announced, and with a splash the worm-hole opened.
"Have you heard from them?" Jack asked as he came to stand at Yantov's side.
"No," she replied shortly. "This is the first activation of the Portal since Kalchek left."
Behind him, Jack was suddenly aware of someone standing a little too close, and he flicked a glance over his shoulder. The soldier who had escorted him from the cell now stood immediately behind him, a small hand weapon raised and aimed directly at Jack's head. He started back at the sight, and felt a firm hand on his arm stopping him from moving further. Whirling around, he saw the second solder watching impassively, a strong hand holding Jack in place. "What the hell's going on?" he barked, glaring between the soldiers and Yantov.
"Just a little precaution," she told him mildly. "If you have been faithless and your people return in hostility, I want them to see you first."
Jack settled slightly at that. "Human shield?" he murmured. "Nice."
"An unpleasant necessity," Yantov replied with perfect equanimity.
The surface of the Stargate had settled now, and Jack's attention returned to what was important. It seemed like an age, but at last the event-horizon shimmered and a figure broke its surface and stepped through.
"Kalchek!" Yantov greeted him immediately, a broad smile creasing her face. "Well met."
He walked slowly down the steps, returning her smile. "Chief Yantov."
"What happened?" Jack asked immediately. "Did they convince you? How's...?"
His stream of questions were cut off as another figure stepped out of the gate. Daniel. He turned as he emerged, stopping on the top step as if waiting for something. After another moment the surface shivered again and Jack's heart gave a peculiar stammer as he saw Sam step through, leaning heavily on Doctor Fraiser. Carter gasped as soon as she stumbled free of the worm-hole and Daniel was there to catch her as her knees gave way.
"Carter!" Jack called, starting towards her. But the Elkaran soldier's grip on his arm was strong and held him back. Angrily, he span around. "Let go of me!" he barked, pulling at the other man's arm. If Yantov hadn't murmured a quiet order to her soldier, things might have turned ugly. As it was, he let go and Jack sprinted the short distance to the gate and bounded up the stairs. "Carter," he said, breathless with relief and adrenaline. "Are you okay?"
"Sir!" She managed a smile, but she was shivering so hard from the momentary iciness of gate-travel that her teeth were almost chattering.
Jack moved to her side as Daniel wordlessly stepped away, and he slipped his arm around her waist to help her stand. "You're gonna be okay," he assured her, disturbed at how slight she felt. Just skin and bone.
"Gate travel is hard on even the fittest body," Fraiser was saying, looking a little green herself. "It's not a surprise that you're having a hard time of it, Sam. Just take some deep breaths."
"I'm okay," she tried to assure them, but Jack could tell that she wasn't. And he could also tell that her weakness was embarrassing her. Ever since the day they'd first met, Carter had been determined to prove her strength and ability. To have it taken from her like this was mortifying for her, and he felt her discomfort as if it were his own.
"What did I tell you about eating a big lunch first?" he chided her, striving to lighten the mood and ease her embarrassment. She smiled at that, but he could see she that was still struggling for breath, her face turning from milk white to a frightening gray. "Fraiser?" he asked, feeling Sam start to slump in his arms.
"Sit her down," the Doctor ordered immediately. "Lean her forward."
With his heart pounding, Jack lowered her gently to the floor. "Deep breaths," he told her, easing her head onto her knees, "just take it easy." And then glancing down at Yantov he called, "We need some help here!"
The woman gave a curt nod towards the darkened windows behind her, and in a moment the doors at the back of the room opened and a team of medics trotted in. An elderly man reached them first, crouching down at Jack's side, a concerned look on his narrow face. "I am Medic Breziv," he said calmly, watching Carter struggle to breathe. He frowned. "It seems the rigors of the journey have been hard on her."
"You think?" Jack growled, one hand resting protectively on Sam's back.
Reaching out, Bresiv touched her forehead and his frown deepened. "Her temperature is raised?" he asked.
"It is," came Janet's brittle reply. "She's been running a low-grade fever for the past seven hours. Probably caused by a new infection, due to the cancer."
Breziv's attention switched from Sam to Fraiser. He took in her standard fatigues and raised a curious eyebrow. "You are a Medic?"
"I guess so," Fraiser replied. "Doctor Janet Fraiser."
He nodded politely. "And you have been treating Major Carter?"
"Then we have much to discuss," he said. Turning around he nodded to one of the other medics, who maneuvered a gurney to the bottom of the steps. Looking back at Jack, Bresiv said, "Can you carry her to the pallet?"
Jack felt Sam stiffen under his hand, her pride touched by the question. Lifting her head, she said, "I can walk down."
Jack's heart swelled. Even now she was fighting, refusing to give in to her weakness.
"Sam..." Janet protested, but she shook her head adamantly.
"I'll help her," Jack offered, slipping his arm around her waist and helping her back to her feet. "Okay?" he asked, once she was upright.
Lacking breath to speak, she simply looked up at him and nodded. Unable to help himself, Jack drew her a little closer as he slowly helped her down the steps, as proud of her courage as he was devastated by her frailty.
The elevator had taken them down, and down, and down. And now they walked at a brisk pace through gray corridors that reminded Janet of the SGC. As she walked, she kept one eye on Sam; her breathlessness had eased, but from the awkward way she was lying Janet suspected that she was in some pain. Goodness only knew what kind of effect gate-travel had had on the cancer cells multiplying in Sam's fragile bones; Janet just hoped she'd avoided any more fractures.
On the other side of the gurney, strode the Medic, Bresiv. His eyes roved from Sam towards the guards that led them along the corridor, and at last came to rest on Janet. His brow furrowed and he said, "Her condition is advanced, is it not?"
Janet nodded. "I think the onset was about three months ago."
"Hmm," he replied, his frown deepening.
"Is that a problem?" she asked, nervously reaching down to rest a reassuring hand on Sam's arm.
But Bresiv shook his head. "It is unlikely to be so," he told her. "But our knowledge of this technology is ancient - no one has been treated in over eight hundred years."
"What?!" The exclamation came, unsurprisingly, from Colonel O'Neill who walked along behind them, Kalchek at his shoulder.
"This was not explained to you?" Bresiv asked Janet, in some surprise.
She nodded slowly. "Kalchek mentioned it," she assured him.
"Not to me, he didn't!" O'Neill muttered.
"This case will be quite fascinating," Bresiv continued, the gleam of discovery shining in his eyes. "The Institute will be awaiting our observations eagerly. In fact...."
"Hey!" This time O'Neill forced his way forward until he was walking alongside the Medic. "This isn't some kind of goddamn science project you know!"
Bresiv's eyes widened. "I am aware of what's at stake, Colonel O'Neill," he assured him.
"I doubt it," the Colonel murmured, glancing down at Sam's pale face.
Ahead of them, the guards were slowing as they came to a set of double doors that swished open at their approach. As she stepped inside, Janet let her eyes wander around the room; it was an odd combination of technology and art.
"Wow!" Sam's eyes were open now, and she was staring up at the high ceiling. Janet followed her gaze, and had to agree with her assessment. Wow, indeed. The ceiling was domed, and covered with the most exquisite paintings Janet had seen outside Florence. It was truly spectacular.
"Um," Daniel's voice cut through the hushed silence, "what is this place?"
The pride in Bresev's voice was obvious as he spoke in quiet reverential tones. "This is the Chapel of Healing. It was here, almost a thousand years ago, that the Deus delivered the technology that saved my people."
"The Deus?" Daniel asked immediately. "The gods?"
Bresiv nodded. "We are still unsure who they were or why they saw fit to aid us," he said. "Contemporary thought is that they were alien beings who, perhaps, were at war with the cursed Goa'uld. Many believe so, although some still cling to the old faith."
"This what they gave you?" Jack asked then, poking at something large and ornate that might almost have been a machine.
In two strides Kalchek was at his side and had grabbed the Colonel's wrist. "Do not touch it," he warned him.
Shaking his arm free, a flash of anger ignited on Jack's face, instantly repressed as he raised his hands in a gesture of compliance. "No offence," he murmured.
"This bears a religious significance to your people?" Daniel guessed then, watching the altercation between the two soldiers.
"To some of us," Bresiv concurred. "To those who still believe, this place is sacred."
Gesturing up at the frescos, Daniel said, "Who painted these? They're spectacular."
Bresiv nodded, and was about to answer when O'Neill cut him off. "I hate to interrupt the art-appreciation class," he said with a biting insincerity, "but don't we have another priority here?"
"Yes of course," Daniel said immediately, managing to look both irritated and contrite. "Sorry, Sam."
For her part, Sam just smiled. "It's okay," she said quietly. "It really is quite amazing."
"The Colonel's right," Janet added then, straightening her shoulders and silently demanding Bresiv's attention. "What do we need to do to help Major Carter?"
The cure, it transpired, wasn't simple, but Bresiv did his best to explain it in language they could understand. And Sam did her best to concentrate, despite the pain growing in her back and limbs since she'd emerged, gasping for air, from the Stargate. It had been her worst trip since the first one, years ago, to Abydos.
She had been transferred to a more comfortable bed now, and lay in the strangely sacred room gazing up at the exquisite ceiling as she listened. Jack and Daniel stood like wary sentries either side of her, while Janet discussed her treatment with the tall, aging Elkaran Medic.
"First," he explained, "Major Carter will drink a...medicine." He frowned, obviously unhappy with his choice of words. "It is a drug," he explained further, "that marks out the alien cells in her body."
Janet nodded. "A chemical marker," she said, obviously understanding the principle. "Then what?"
"Once the alien cells have been identified," Bresiv replied, turning to the gilded machine the Colonel had first noticed, "we can use this."
Sam heard Jack shift irritably at her side. "And what exactly *is* that?"
"The Deus described it as a Purification Chamber," Bresiv explained. "Which, in essence, describes its function."
"Purification?" Sam asked. "It removes the chemically marked cells?"
Bresiv nodded. "Exactly so."
"How?" Despite her exhaustion, Sam's interest was fired. She'd love to take a closer look at the device....
Reaching out to the machine, Bresiv detached a thin metal tube. "This," he told her, "will be entered into a vein in your arm. Through it, very tiny 'machines' ...." He shook his head and frowned, "I am unsure how to explain this. The 'machines' are so small that they cannot be seen with the naked eye, but...."
"Nanites," Sam said immediately, sharing a glance with Janet. "Right?"
Fraiser nodded. "Sounds like it."
"You have encountered such technology before?"
Flicking a glance at O'Neill, Janet nodded. "Yes," she agreed, "we have."
"Good," Bresiv said, replacing the tube. "Then you will understand when I tell you that the 'nanites', as you call them, enter the Major's blood stream and ingest all the previously marked cells. Once all such cells have been removed from her body, the nanites return to the Purification Chamber where they too are purged, ready to be used again."
Sam's eyes met Janet's in a silent question; will it work? Janet just shrugged, unable to give her much reassurance.
"Okay," Jack said then, frowning in concentration, "let me get this straight. Carter drinks some chemical goo and then you inject a bunch on tiny techno-bugs into her arm? And this is meant to make her *better*?!"
"It sounds plausible, sir," Sam told him, drawing his concerned gaze down to where she lay propped up on a couple of pillows. "I mean, theoretically it's possible."
"Theoretically," he pointed out, "a lot of things are possible. Doesn't mean they're gonna work out, does it?"
Frowning down at her hands she said, "What choice do I have?" She was right, of course, and he knew it. After a moment she felt his hand come to rest on her shoulder in mute apology.
"Will it...hurt?" he asked then. Jack's question caught her attention, and she looked up into Bresiv's face to assess his response.
The Elkaran's smile reassured her. "It is unlikely," he said. "None of the records mention that the process was uncomfortable."
She nodded at the answer as the room fell into a hushed silence. Glancing between the anxious faces of her friends and the expectant face of Bresiv, she realized that they were all waiting for her decision. Taking a deep breath, wincing slightly at the pain radiating out from her lower back, she said, "I'd like to try the treatment."
Bresiv's smile flashed across his face, as O'Neill's hand tightened silently on her shoulder. "We shall begin immediately," the Medic told her, and hurried away to prepare the drug she was to drink.
She took the opportunity to sneak a quick glance at Jack, who gave her a tight smile. "Will you stay?" she asked him.
"Wild horses, Major," he promised her, glancing across the bed at Daniel and Janet. "We'll all stay, right?"
"Absolutely," Daniel agreed vehemently.
Janet's eyebrows shot up. "You didn't think I'd be going anywhere, did you?" she asked. "Nanites? Just think of the paper I'll...never be able to publish."
Surrounded by her friends - all but Teal'c - Sam felt a new confidence blossom in her heart. This would work, it *had* to work. And if it didn't? Well, at least she'd go down fighting with her friends at her side. She couldn't ask for more than that.
"Major Carter?" Bresiv had returned, carrying with him a small glass of something white and distinctly unpleasant looking. "The taste is not bad," he assured her as he offered her the glass. "But it will make you very sleepy, very quickly."
Nodding her understanding, she took it from his hands. The substance was thick and goopy, and the thought of it sliding down her throat almost made her gag. She looked away, ruthlessly dismissing her sudden revulsion. With a final glance at her friends, she lifted the glass in salutation, "Cheers!" Sam knocked the slimy substance back without giving herself time to taste it and, returning the glass to Bresiv, said, "Well, that wasn't so ba...." And then the drug hit her like an express train, and everything faded into darkness as she sank back into the pillows.
Sam was barely awake when Daniel returned to the Chamber of Healing, and obviously still groggy. He felt a little haggard himself, after crashing out for a couple of hours in the accommodation the Elkaran had provided for him. He couldn't help feeling a little guilty at having left, after his promise to Sam, but she'd been completely out of it and Jack had practically ordered him to get some sleep.
An order, Daniel suspected as he looked at his weary friend, the Colonel had not obeyed himself. Jack was talking quietly to Sam now, although from her heavy-lidded eyes Daniel doubted she had much to say for herself. On the opposite side of the bed, Bresiv was busy with the nanite machine, Janet peering over his shoulder like a hawk.
"You can use the central line she already has," Janet was telling the man, turning to unbutton Sam's gown to reveal the thin tube protruding from her chest. "I've been using it to treat her at home."
Bresiv nodded. "That appears compatible with our equipment," he replied, taking a quick look at Sam.
Walking across the room, Daniel stopped next to Jack and smiled at Sam. "Hey," he said, "how are you feeling?"
She gave him a sleepy smile, and murmured, "Tired."
"She just woke up a few minutes ago," Jack told him, his eyes still fixed on Sam. "That stuff must have been strong."
Daniel nodded. "Guess it had to be."
Rubbing his hands over his face, Jack glanced up. "Ah, Fraiser was saying how we could maybe use this technology at home," he said, making an obvious attempt to divert his own attention from what was about to happen to Sam. "A cure for cancer might please the boys on the Appropriations Committee."
Smiling slightly, Daniel pulled up a chair and sat down. "Will it work on normal, non-Goa'uld cancers?"
Jack shrugged. "She doesn't know," he said, "but she's gonna discus it with Brezhnev over there."
"Bresiv," Daniel corrected absently.
"Colonel O'Neill?" Janet said then, interrupting their conversation. "We're ready to start now, sir."
He just nodded, his eyes returning to Sam. "Carter," he said quietly, rousing her from the dose she'd fallen into. "Ready for the little techno-bugs?"
Her answering smile was drowsy, "Yes, sir."
Giving Janet a small nod, Jack rose to his feet. "You heard her," he said.
"Sam?" Janet said then, leaning closer as Sam turned her head. "We're going to start the treatment now. You shouldn't feel anything, but if it gets uncomfortable just let me know."
"Okay," she sighed, her wide eyes focused sleepily on the Elkaran machine. "Just do it."
Janet gave Bresiv a slight nod, and he adjusted the controls on the side of the ancient piece of technology. Lights blinked, and something chirped as it hummed into life. Daniel held his breath, his attention divided between Sam, who now lay perfectly still, her eyes closed, and Jack. O'Neill watched her in silence, nothing showing on his stony face, although a deep concern shone in his dark eyes. "Now what?" he said in a voice of controlled calm.
"Now we wait," Bresiv replied quietly. "The process does not take long."
Jack nodded, his gaze unwavering. "And then she's cured?"
"Yes," Bresiv replied.
"Ah," Janet interjected at that point, "we won't know that for sure, Colonel."
At last O'Neill's fixed stare on Sam broke. "We won't?"
"Not until we get her home and conduct another biopsy."
"More tests?" he said, voice fading into anguish.
"Just one more," she assured him quietly.
Saying nothing further, Jack sank back into his chair and dropped his head into his hands. Cautiously, Daniel placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, half expecting it to be shaken free. But Jack didn't move, and seemed to accept the gesture of comfort. In an attempt to ease the tension, Daniel turned to Janet. "So," he said, "you think we might be able to use this technology to fight other cancers?"
"I had considered the possibility," she agreed, turning towards Bresiv. "Have you used it to treat other illnesses?"
But Bresiv shook his head. "Over the years," he said quietly, "our scientists have experimented with the technology. But the nanites are programmed only to recognize the Goa'uld cells." He frowned and sighed. "Our attempts at reprogramming resulted in the destruction of one entire Purification Chamber."
"Oh!" Daniel said in surprise. "You have more than one?"
"The Deus endowed our ancestors with four," Bresiv explained. "One is on display in the Central Archive, one is broken beyond repair, and two are here in this facility."
Digesting the information, Daniel saw that Janet had a question on her lips. As the conversation lulled, she gave it voice. "I'm curious about the virus your ancestors used to kill the Goa'uld," she said. "Is it something we could use?"
Beneath his fingers, Daniel felt Jack stir at her words and his head lifted from his hands. "That would be nice," he murmured.
"It is possible," Bresiv said quietly, "but the measure is drastic. Eighty percent of our people were destroyed along with the Goa'ulds who inhabited them."
Daniel's eyes widened. "*Eighty* percent? I guess your people *are* serious about fighting the Goa'uld."
Jack blew out a long breath. "We're talking last resort then," he said.
"Absolutely," Janet agreed. Then, after a thoughtful moment she added, "But if the worst came to the worst...?"
"If there was an invasion," Jack agreed with a slight shrug. "I'll talk to Hammond when we get back."
Daniel shuddered at the moral implications of their discussion, but knew that now was neither the time nor the place to discuss it with Jack. He shook his head, and wondered if he'd ever get used to the ruthless pragmatism of the military.
Just then a quiet beep from the Elkaran device, drew all their attention. "What's that?" Jack asked immediately.
Bresiv studied the machine for a moment, before he gave a satisfied nod and said, "The treatment is complete."
Jack blinked. "That's it?"
Daniel followed Jack's gaze back to Sam, who had drifted once more into sleep. "So now we wait?" he said.
"We wait," Janet agreed as she began to unhook the small tube from Sam's chest. "Once Sam's strong enough, we'll take her back through the gate and I'll do the biopsy."
"You have nothing to fear," Bresiv assured them. "The treatment has been successful."
Janet gave him an apologetic smile and said, "I'm sure you understand that we need to check for ourselves."
"Of course," he agreed, with a slight shrug. "Major Carter will be sleepy for the next few hours," he added. "May I suggest that you all need to rest?"
Glancing at his two friends, Daniel knew he spoke for them all when he said, "Thank you, but we'd rather stay with Sam."
"As you wish," Bresiv said gently, turning and leaving them to their quiet vigil.
Jack paced the break room ignoring the food on the table at the far end. He was in no mood for eating. Daniel lay slumped in one of the deep chairs that dotted the room, his legs stretched out and his eyes staring at the television flickering in the corner. On the small screen some poor schmuck was parading his dirty laundry in exchange for fifteen minutes of fame, but Jack doubted that Daniel was watching. His thoughts, like all of theirs, lay with Sam. They'd just returned from Elkara, only two days after the Elkaran treatment, and now they would find out for sure if it had worked. He tried to persuade himself that Sam already looked better. No less pale, it was true, no less tired, but.... He sighed, knowing he was fooling himself. The truth was she hadn't looked any different; the best that could be said was that she hadn't gotten any worse. As soon as they'd got back Fraiser had performed the biopsy, and the results were immanent. This was the final wait, the final result. It was literally a life or death question, and the tension was almost too much to bear.
"I am sure Major Carter will be well," Teal'c said suddenly, his quiet voice carrying over the low burble of the television. "She will survive this."
"Sure she will," Jack agreed, halting his pacing near the room's small window. Leaning an arm against it, he slumped a little and wished he believed his own words.
"Bresiv seemed pretty confident," Daniel reminded him. "He said the nanites had never failed before."
Jack turned. "They haven't used the damn thing for over eight hundred years!"
"Yeah," Daniel nodded, hanging his head with a sigh. "I know."
Turning back to the window, Jack stared out at the empty corridor beyond. "I just hope he was right," he sighed, feeling the cold weight of dread dragging at his heart as he considered the worst. "If it didn't work...." He closed his eyes against the surprising sting of tears and sucked in a steadying breath; he wasn't about to lose it here, not in front of his team. He stood like that, head bowed and eyes closed for a long, silent moment before he felt a warm hand on his shoulder.
"I know how hard this is for you," Daniel said.
"Do you?" Jack asked, his voice harder than he'd intended. How could Daniel know? How could he understand the slow evolution of his feelings for Sam, when Jack hardly understood it himself? The only thing he knew for sure was that, if she died, she'd take a sizable chunk of himself along with her, maybe even a fatal chunk. 'I'd rather die myself than lose Carter.' He'd meant it then, and he meant it still.
"I think I have some idea," Daniel persisted, sounding a little awkward as he hurried on. "And whatever happens, I want you to know that Teal'c and I...." He slowed to an uncomfortable halt and paused. "Well," he continued, clearing his throat, "what I mean is, we're your friends and we'll always...you know, be there. For you."
Jack opened his eyes with a wan smile. "Is this where we hug?" he asked dryly.
Frowning irritably, Daniel removed his hand from Jack's shoulder and said, "Only if you really want to."
Jack's smile broadened slightly, genuinely touched by Daniel's concern, but no more at ease with accepting his pledge than Daniel had been in offering it. "Let's skip that bit," he suggested.
Turning away from the window, he scrubbed both hands through his hair. He was tired, he couldn't remember the last time he'd slept properly, and he barely knew if it was day or night outside. "God," he complained, staring at the door, "I feel like I've spent the last two months doing nothing but waiting."
"I know what you mean," Daniel sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "But at least this should be the last time...." He trailed off as the meaning of his words hung between them. One way or another, they should know this time - Sam would live or die. End of story.
Jack just nodded, knowing there was nothing else to say, and moved over to one of the chairs and slumped down. Daniel copied him, while Teal'c took up sentry by the door. And they waited together, in silence, for the news they simultaneously craved and dreaded.
As Janet opened the door to the break room, Jack, Daniel and Teal'c were already on their feet. Tension strained all three faces as they stared at the opening door in silence. She said nothing, but she knew she wouldn't need to.
"Sam!" Daniel's cry lit the room as he hurried over towards them.
Leaning heavily on Janet's arm, Sam still managed a smile for her friends. "Hey," she grinned as Daniel approached.
Daniel's eyes were glistening as he searched her face. "Are you okay?"
With a widening smile, Sam nodded. "Looks that way."
"Sam," he breathed, pulling her into a gentle embrace. "Thank God."
"Easy Daniel," Janet warned him, still maintaining a firm grip on Sam's arm. "She's still very weak. She shouldn't even be walking...."
"Janet!" Sam protested as Daniel carefully released her. "I've spent weeks in bed...." She shrugged, flashing a wide grin that Janet couldn't refuse.
As Daniel stepped aside, Janet's eyes came to rest on the Colonel. He hadn't moved and was staring at them both with such burning intensity that Janet had to look away. And then he spoke, his voice gravelly with emotion. "Then you're cured?" he asked Sam, seemingly incapable of more subtlety.
"Yes," she told him, her hand tightening around Janet's arm. "The biopsy was clear."
Jack's attention flicked to Janet then. "Clear?" His voice shook slightly as he spoke, and Janet shivered at the strength of feeling she saw in his dark eyes.
"It's incredible," she told him, matching his intense gaze with one of cast-iron reassurance. "All of the abnormal cells are gone from her bone marrow, the level of the Goa'uld protein in her blood has already decreased, and her body should clear the rest of it out in the next week or so." She smiled, relief and joy tugging the smile into a grin. "Sam's still weak, and it'll take time to regain her strength, but the cancer has gone, Colonel. She'll make a full recovery."
He nodded, but his gaze had returned to Sam who was watching him intently, obviously effected by some strong emotions of her own. Her smile dipped towards something more serious as she said, "You were right, sir."
Jack remained silent.
"When you told me everything would be okay?" she continued, her smile turning shaky. "You were right."
Still Jack didn't move. He was so taut that Janet half expected him to snap. And, in a way, he did. The tension splintered and Jack crossed the room in three swift strides. Wordlessly he pulled Sam into his arms, holding her as lightly as Daniel had done; no more than a brotherly hug for a friend retrieved from the claws of death. Or so he'd have you believe. But Janet could see the way his eyes were screwed shut, and the way his jaw was locked against the potent emotions that raged in his face. Neither was she blind to the way Sam leaned into him, her head resting thankfully against his shoulder as she returned his embrace.
Janet's eyes drifted to Daniel. He was watching the scene with astute curiosity, and raised an inquiring eyebrow. She just gave a little shrug; the confession she'd been privy to would never pass her lips, not even to Daniel.
But, intense as it was, the moment was short lived. Jack stood back, still keeping a supportive hold on Sam until Janet slipped her arm around the woman's waist. Then, reluctantly, he let his arms fall to his sides. "It's good to see you back on your feet, Carter," he told her gruffly.
"Thanks, sir," she replied in a voice equally husky.
"Major Carter." Teal'c approached her then, a rare smile adding warmth to his face. "My heart is glad to know that you will recover. Your loss to this team would have been...grave."
Sam reached out and grasped his arm. "Thank you, Teal'c," she said, her eyes shining. "For everything." And then she glanced around at all of them, blinking through tears of relief and gratitude. "Thank you - all of you. You saved my life."
"Just trying to even the score!" O'Neill assured her with a swift grin, though his own eyes were suspiciously bright. "How many do we owe her now, Daniel?"
"Um," Daniel nodded, smiling too, "at least a dozen more."
Sam laughed, but Janet could feel a tremor run through her still- frail body and decided that enough was enough. "Okay," she said, starting to turn her around. "That's it for one day, Major. You need to rest."
Sam didn't argue, and they turned to leave the room. But before they had taken a couple of steps, O'Neill called out, "Doc?"
She turned. "Sir?"
"You know," he said, eyes twinkling, "we've got a lot of missions building up.... Any idea when we can have Carter back?"
Janet's eyes narrowed. "Think weeks, Colonel," she advised him. "At least."
He just nodded and smiled. "Even for something as simple as, say, a fishing trip?"
At her side, Janet heard Sam give a soft, but amused groan.
"We'll see," was all she said in return.
O'Neill just nodded, still smiling, as they turned and left. But before the door clicked shut, Janet just caught Teal'c's words. "You should know, O'Neill, that I have briefed Major Carter about the lack of fish and abundance of insects."
There was a pause before Jack muttered. "And you call yourself a friend?"
Time passed. Hours turned into days and days into weeks.
Sitting on his back porch, coffee steaming into the chill morning air, Jack thought about the day to come. Today Carter returned to work. Today, SG-1 were back together and operational for the first time in over three months. Things would be back to normal. Well, as normal as they got at the SGC.
He sipped at the last of his coffee and watched the sunrise. He was up early, drawn prematurely from sleep by a strange nervousness about the day ahead. It was as if a circle was completing, drawing to a close the difficult weeks of Sam's sickness, of the desperate search for a cure, and of her slow recovery. That chapter was over at last, and he found himself back at the beginning. Right where he was that day, months ago, on P7D-783 when his friendly nudge in the ribs had shattered more than her fragile bone.
He frowned at the memory of his behavior back then, of his coldness towards her and her distance from him, and vowed that things would never get that bad again. He realized now that her friendship, her respect and her trust were more important to him than anything else. And he wouldn't sacrifice them on the alter of inappropriate sentiment. Never again would he lose sight of the fact that Sam Carter was, above all things, his trusted friend and colleague.
Standing up, he threw the dregs of his coffee over the edge of the porch, and turned back into his house. Today, he swore to himself, he'd set things back on the correct footing. Today was the start of a whole new chapter.
Stepping into the elevator and heading down to the SGC had never felt so good. Sam couldn't help a smile from breaking out on her lips as she felt the swift downward motion that lurched her stomach into her throat; it was good to be back.
She was still a couple of pounds short of Janet's idea of ideal, and her uniform felt a little more roomy than usual. But that aside, she felt fine. Healthy, fit and ready to get back to work. The past few months had been awful, and not just because she'd felt so lousy for most of them. It was the boredom and inactivity as much as anything else that had got to her; inactivity was not in Sam Carter's vocabulary, so being laid out for weeks on end had been beyond frustrating. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, her strength had returned. She'd started eating properly, exercising, and at last Janet had pronounced her fit for duty. Well, fit for *light* duty, anyhow. There would be no gate-travel for a while, but at least she could get back into her lab and start exercising her brain, grown flabby from the months of neglect.
As the elevator doors opened, she stepped out and breathed in the unique scent of cold concrete and steel, laced with the static fizz she always associated with the Stargate. It smelled like home, and her smile broadened.
She'd been discharged from the infirmary a week or so after their return from Elkara and hadn't set foot in the SGC since. Knowing that Janet would want to examine her, she deliberately avoided the infirmary and headed towards her lab, stopping at Daniel's office en route. She knocked a couple of times, before cracking the door open and peering inside. He was hard at work and glanced up absently at the disturbance. "What...?" he mumbled, until, suddenly realizing it was her, his face cracked into a grin. "Sam!" His eyebrows shot up. "You're early."
"No," she assured him. "Oh-nine-hundred."
"Really?" he replied, checking his watch. "Huh. I must've lost track." He smiled up at her again. "Well, it's great to see you back. How are you?"
She waved away his concern. "Fine," she said, glancing at the computer screen he'd been staring at. "What's that?"
"Something SG-2 brought back," he replied, prodding at the notes strewn across his desk. "It's Goa'uld. Some kind of recording device, maybe. I'm not sure yet. They just brought it back last night."
She shrugged. "Well, if you need a hand, you know where to find me!"
"Yeah," Daniel nodded, coming around his desk to stand in front of her. "It really is good to have you back, Sam. It hasn't been the same without you."
"I've missed it," she told him, taking a deep breath. "More than I ever thought I would. This place," she gestured around her, "is so much a part of me now. I can't imagine not being here."
Daniel smiled. "I know what you mean." Then reaching out he squeezed her hand, "We missed you, Sam."
"Thanks," she said, his words warming her return even more.
Clearing his throat, Daniel dropped her hand. "Well, I'll let you get down to work," he said. "It'll probably take at least an hour to dig your desk out from underneath all the paperwork that's landed on it the last three months."
Her eyes rolled. "You're kidding me? No one's been dealing with my in-tray?"
"Ah, I think I'd better, um, get back to this report," he said sheepishly, returning to his chair. "General Hammond said something about needing it by noon...."
Shaking her head, not sure if she was amused or irritated, Sam turned to leave. At the last moment Daniel called her back. "Sam?"
"Take it easy, won't you?" he asked her.
She gave him an arch smile. "That depends on how much digging I need to do to find my desk!"
It was with some trepidation that Sam turned the key and pushed open the door to her lab. She wasn't sure quite what to expect, although after her conversation with Daniel she wouldn't have been surprised to see paperwork dripping into cobweb-covered pools on the floor. As it was, she was somewhat startled to see her desk empty and ordered. Her favorite mug was clean, and up-ended to keep the dust out, her disorganized collection of pens, pencils and other miscellaneous tools were neatly collected into a large cup, and her lab equipment was correctly stowed away. Even her in-tray was more or less empty, only containing two or three recent memos, on top of which sat a bright green post-it note with a short message in Jack's broad handwriting.
"Carter," it read, "Welcome back. Briefing at 1000. Lunch at 1300? O'Neill."
She smiled, the mystery of her super-tidy lab solved. She was impressed by his thoughtfulness though, and wondered if Janet had suggested that someone deal with the paperwork mountain before she returned. Then again, Jack O'Neill wasn't incapable of being thoughtful, when he put his mind to it.
Still smiling, she sat down at her desk and leaned back in the comfortable chair. This was it. She was back where she belonged, at last. Not really having anything to do before the briefing, she picked up the memos from her in-tray and started to read. Donuts; no longer available in the canteen due to their inadequate nutritional value. She raised an eyebrow. Teal'c would be disappointed. Inappropriate behavior in the locker-room. Hmm, her attention was caught!
A sharp rap on the door spoiled her fun. "Come in," she called, reveling in the irrational pleasure at having an office once more.
The door opened, and a head popped inside. "Hey."
"Sir!" She smiled, getting to her feet as O'Neill stepped into the room.
"Carter," he nodded, closing the door behind him. "You look...better."
She smiled. "Thanks. I feel great."
"Glad to hear that," he replied, taking a step closer and glancing around her lab. "So, settling back in okay?"
"It's tidier than I remember," she replied with a smile.
He just nodded, claiming no credit. "Good," he said, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Mind if I sit down?"
Watching him, she couldn't help but notice that he seemed oddly nervous. It wasn't an emotion she'd ever associated with him and it unsettled her a little. "Of course not," she replied, lowering herself slowly into her own chair, his obvious anxiety making her increasingly uneasy.
He sat down too, elbows resting on his knees as his hands fiddled with an elastic band he'd found in his pocket. But he didn't say anything for a while, his gaze fixed on the little piece of rubber in his fingers.
Shifting uncomfortably, Sam said, "Was there something you wanted to discuss, Colonel?"
"Yeah," he agreed. And lapsed back into silence.
After a moment, Sam said, "Do I need to guess what it is, sir?"
"What?" He glanced up. "I mean, no. No." With a sigh, he dropped his eyes back to the twisting elastic band. "Before you got sick, Carter," he said, as if repeating long-rehearsed words, "things between us were getting a little...awkward." She opened her mouth to protest, but he raised a hand to silence her. "I just want you to know," he continued, "that what I said...in front of Anise...will *never* affect my treatment of you again." He glanced up at her. "The way I acted on P7D-783 was unprofessional, and I apologize. It won't happen again."
Sam was dumbfounded. She'd all but forgotten about P7D-783! Thinking back, she frowned a little and said, "Well, I guess we were both feeling the strain, sir. That whole Za'tarc thing was...difficult."
"Yeah," he agreed quietly, but she could sense anger beneath the surface. "You know I would never have said anything about it, if I hadn't been forced to," he told her, and she couldn't repress a rueful smile at the truth of his words.
"I know," she agreed. "I'm sorry you had to."
O'Neill nodded. "And I'm sorry I disappointed you," he added quietly. "I know you think I acted unprofessionally when I couldn't...," his head hung lower, "when I didn't leave you on Apophis's ship. And you have every right to be disappointed, because it was damn unprofessional and I...."
"Colonel!" She couldn't let him carry on. "Wait...."
He glanced up. "Carter..."
Shaking her head, she said, "You didn't disappoint me."
He looked confused. "I didn't?"
"No." She frowned. "Why do you think I was disappointed?"
He dropped his gaze back to his hands, and she had the feeling she was treading close to something painful. "Because you looked disappointed," he said very quietly. "When I told Anise why I couldn't leave you."
Sam's heart tripped over itself in sudden understanding. He'd misunderstood! All she'd felt at that moment was sympathy, knowing how hard such an admission would be for him. Sympathy, tinged with anger at the Tok'ra for putting them both in such an impossible position. "Colonel," she said, trying to put her thoughts as succinctly as possible, "if I was disappointed in you, then I'd have to be disappointed in myself too. And I'm not."
He stopped moving; his fingers fell still and his eyes remained locked on his hands. "You told Anise that you regretted that I stayed because of my feelings for you."
"It was the truth," she told him. "But that doesn't mean that I don't feel the same." She stumbled a little, flushing slightly at the admission. "I mean that, if the situation had been reversed, I would have done the same thing."
Still he didn't move, although his eyebrows were rising slowly in surprise. "I'd have ordered you to leave," he told her.
She smiled. "I know."
"But you didn't tell Anise that you felt...." He frowned, awkward with the question. "You didn't tell her that you'd have done the same thing?"
"No," she agreed. "She didn't ask, and I didn't see the need to parade my feelings in front of her unnecessarily." She paused and softened her voice. "You were the one who had to explain your actions, sir. I just had to tell her how they made me feel. And I regretted that you were going to die. I regretted that a hell of a lot, Colonel."
He was nodding now, a small smile curving his lips. "I guess I'm kinda glad to hear that, Carter."
"It doesn't change anything," she pointed out.
"No," he agreed, glancing up at her with an unusually warm glint in his eyes. "But it's still nice to know."
She smiled and said nothing, letting the moment breath and dissipate of its own accord. When it had passed, she picked up the green post- it on her desk and said, "So...the briefing's at ten?"
O'Neill nodded. "Still remember where the briefing room is, Major?"
"I think I can manage," she assured him. And then a thought occurred. "When does Teal'c get back?"
Jack started at her words, and glanced down at his watch. "Ah. In about one... minute," he told her, rising swiftly to his feet. "I should go meet him."
Sam stood too. "I'll come with you, sir. If that's okay?"
"Sure," he agreed, opening the door and holding it for her as she stepped out into the corridor. "Miss him, huh?"
She grinned. "Well, I thought someone ought to tell him the bad news about the donuts before he reaches the canteen," she explained.
O'Neill chuckled. "Are you volunteering, Major?"
"If you're too chicken, sir."
"Hey!" he objected, as they wound their way towards the gate- room. "I didn't get to be this old and this ugly by being brave, you know!"
Sam just shook her head, unable to reply without saying something that might be deemed inappropriate. But fortunately, at that moment they strode into the gate-room and all other thoughts fled from her mind. There it was! The Stargate. As large and incredible as ever, the inner circle already spinning. She let out a sigh. Wonderful!
"See?" O'Neill said quietly. "We didn't break it while you were gone."
"Hi!" Daniel's voice from behind them drew her eyes momentarily from the spinning gate.
"Well, this is turning into a regular welcoming committee," Jack commented, raising a hand to wave at General Hammond in the control room.
With a familiar whoosh, the gate splashed open and Sam's heart hammered with adrenaline. It had been too long since she'd been here! "Beautiful," she murmured, her eyes fixed on the glistening blue.
"Yeah," O'Neill breathed at her side. "Beautiful."
And then the surface shivered slightly, and Teal'c emerged as tall and imposing as ever. His eyes took in the scene in an instant, and came to rest on Sam with a smile in their depths. Striding down the ramp, he stopped before her and placed a firm hand on her shoulder. "You are back," he said. "I am most glad."
"Me too," she agreed, giving his hand and affectionate squeeze.
"Welcome home, Teal'c," came Hammond's voice over the speaker. "And welcome back, SG-1."
Sam grinned at his words, and flashed a quick glance at O'Neill whose smile mirrored her own. "Oh yeah," he agreed. "We're back. Leaner, meaner, and ready to kick some Goa'uld butt. Right guys?"
Daniel gave a despairing sigh, while Teal'c just raised a curious eyebrow. But Sam smiled and said, "Yes, sir," glad to be among her friends again, glad to be fighting at their side once more, and just plain glad to be alive. Life, she knew, didn't get much better.