Jack scrubs his palms against his eyes and growls, but it sounds more like a strangled whimper. The air is so fucking dry, and all he's had to eat for days is bruised leafy greens that make him feel weird. There's water, but it doesn't do anything to lubricate his parched throat. He's hot, tired, sore, and all kinds of angry. That rat bastard Maybourne did this to him, and he'd done it after he fucking zatted Carter, which would already have been enough to earn a beating, as far as Jack was concerned.

Carter. She'd be busting her ass and her head and her heart to get him home. It both warms his heart and chills his soul to think about her and what she's probably doing right now to find him. He'd heard plenty about her fevered and relentless efforts to get him home from his three month exile on Edora and then, more recently, when he'd been held and tortured by Ba'al, and he suspects this will be no different. He thinks briefly about Daniel's appearance during his most recent imprisonment winces. "Daniel, where the fuck are you now?"

It's not that he doesn't appreciate that his friend is on a different path now as an ascended being, but it absolutely is the case that he doesn't appreciate the unhelpful dropping in of said friend during one of the worst times Jack has ever had-namely repeated violent torture and captivity-and not being helpful. Daniel can be ascended and vague and it's all well and good, but when one is being broken down to a begging death a couple times a day and then forced back to life with little or no hope of rescue, the last thing one wants to imagine is any kind of immortality. It had been so gauche to suggest it, so inconsiderate. Really, what the fuck, Daniel?

Also, where the hell was that asshole now, anyway?

Jack shoves a handful of the leafy greens into his mouth and takes a long swig of water. He hates how the leaves stick to his teeth like spinach, but he's given up on digging them away with his fingers because his nails are so dirty now. He sighs and gives another look around his immediate area; it's vacant, only tall stone ruins in view. Moss and other green things crawl along the ground and up the walls. There's dirt everywhere. He sighs again.

"How many days has it been, Jack?"

His eyes blink violently as he jumps and looks to his left. Major Sam Carter stands beside him, relaxead and clean as morning on the nicest day in spring. Her smile is sweet and kind and understanding, accepting of him as he is. She's fucking glowing. "Carter?" he gasps. "What? Days-uh, I dunno. What?"

Her eyebrows relax and soften as she steps closer and sits next to him on the stone bench. "How many days has it been," she asks again, reaching up to gently brush some of the dirt off his face, "Jack?"

Jack knows she isn't real, if for no other reason than his Sam would never call him Jack. But he feels a warmth on his cheek where her hand had been, and he decides this is better than what he had before, which was nothing. "I dunno, Carter," he says. He's telling the truth. He's lost track at this point, and he feels so lost and so alone.

"Seems like it's been a bit, Sir."

"Please keep saying Jack," he pleads. He can't believe himself, how desperate he sounds as he says it. He's not even confident about why he says it. He doesn't walk it back because this is a time he knows it's okay to be real and raw. "Please, Carter…"

"Okay, Jack." She's smiling even softer now. Her big blue eyes are less like the turbulence of the sea and more like a gentle twilight. "You doing okay?"

He thinks about it. No, he's for sure not. "No, probably not," he says, throwing his hands up, palms raised toward the sky in surrender. "I mean, I'm sitting in these bullshit ruins on this bumfuck planet with this gross lettuce-and by the way I think it's making me see weird shit-talking to a hallucination of you, Carter, so no I think I'm less than okay."

"Jack," she says, reaching for his face to brush more dirt off the stubble on his chin. "I'm sorry. It sounds like a lot."

"It is, Carter." He sighs and leans back against the wall behind him, finally allowing his bones and his muscles to relax for the first time in days, even though he knows she's not real. He feels safe even with fake Carter. What the fuck, why not. He looks over at her and smiles. "You are so beautiful; do you know that, Carter?"

"I know you think so," she says.

"You don't?"

"I think I'm the regular amount of pretty, Jack."

He laughs, and for the first time in a long time, it's a genuine, from the belly kind of laugh. "Are you shitting me, Carter?" His eyes make it back to hers as he settles, and he smiles bravely as he continues, "You are the most stunningly beautiful creature that has ever walked any surface on any body in space in the history of all time, okay?. And that's just the outside. I won't hear anything less."

"That's an awfully high opinion."

"You're an awfully, cosmically beautiful person."

"How many days, Jack?"

"Oh, for cryin' out loud, I already told you I don't know." Jack's sigh crashes hard against him and he cringes against it. He's so tired of feeling, well, tired. When he feels her gentle hands around his shoulders, he can't resist the tug of her elegant fingers and submits himself to lying down with his head against her lap. If it's not real, it certainly feels like it is. His head lies comfortably on her thighs as her hands thread through his hair and tenderly stroke his scalp. "It's maybe been a couple days but it feels like weeks, so I'm not sure."

"I'm sorry, Jack," she murmurs. "It must be difficult for you to not be sure of how long you've been away."

"Pshaw, Carter, not nearly as difficult as spending every day not telling you that I love you and I would die for you and that I think the world is better because you are in it and I want to wake up kissing you and I want to fall asleep kissing you and that I'll never feel whole again until I'm allowed to hug you or touch you even a little in public without worrying about getting arrested," he gasps as he realizes how long he's been running on. He's never said any of it out loud, and now he feels weird that he's sort of run on and on and on with it to a fake version of the love of his life.

"I know, Jack," she says.

"No, you really don't."

She leans down and ghosts her imaginary lips across his. "Yes, I do, Jack." He looks into her eyes again and sees them begin to darken and fade away into the sky. "Yes, she does, Jack. She knows." He's not sure who said it, because she's gone. But he knows he heard it. He falls asleep, mercifully, for just a few minutes, maybe a few hours. He wakes up with his face cold against the stone of the bench, paranoid and hungry again, but decides to move on.

His memory of a glowing Carter he didn't have to lie to gives him the emotional fortitude he needs to survive. He swears it's her image and the memory of her that keeps him alive until the real Carter finds him, but, of course, he can't tell anyone that.

He can't afford to be that honest with anyone yet, not even her. But as she smiles at him across the infirmary, starlight flooding out of both eyes, he has to literally swallow his confession that he loves her and that she's so fucking beautiful and everything else. One more time, he tells himself. He's been telling himself that for six years.