"What is it with you and fishing, Sir?" Carter gestured towards him with her fork. "Do you really just like trout or something?"
Where the question had come from was no mystery. Jonas, in his never ending quest to learn everything about Earth culture, had been peppering O'Neill with questions about fly fishing lately. And while Jack preferred his own method—sitting on his little Minnesota pier with a bucket of beer and neither hook nor bait—he'd had enough experience with the real thing to make a dent in Quinn's learning curve.
It wasn't as if the mission was going anywhere, anyway. SG-14 had indicated that some carvings on a cliff face appeared to have been made by the Ancients. After 'Gating through to P3H-whatever earlier this morning, O'Neill and Teal'c had rappelled down the side of the mountain only to find that the markings were a natural phenomenon—eerily similar in appearance to Ancient script, but probably the result of erosion. Apparently, a waterfall appeared at that exact spot each year during the summer rainy season.
By the time they'd confirmed their suspicions with the village elders, the sun had dropped low in the sky. Rather than trek back to the 'Gate in the dark, they'd opted to set up camp and wait until morning.
The upshot? This mission was a bust. Son of a bitch.
"It's not the fish, Major." Jack closed the lid of his canteen before looking over at her. The flames of their campfire cast a hazy glow over her features and danced in the tawny mess of her hair. Just another reason to hate being stuck here overnight. The temptation. "It's the act of fishing that I like."
They'd set up camp quickly, having had difficulty finding an easily defensible spot. The inhabitants of the village seemed friendly, but their propensity to follow Carter around had been problematic. She'd been patient with them—standing still as they'd crowded around her and reached up to touch her. The adults' curiosity had been assuaged rather quickly—but the children had charmed her into sitting in the grass with them. Jack had stood for what had seemed like hours a few yards away from his second in command, preparing his gear as he'd watch every kid on the planet run their little fingers through her hair, or gently touch her eyebrows. He'd been half-on-edge the entire time. Poised to step in if anyone crossed a line.
In the end, his vigil had been for nothing. She'd seemed to enjoy the attention—especially from the littlest of the kids as they'd shared giggles and whispered secrets. Apparently, blondes were a rare commodity on this planet. Especially beautiful blondes with eyes the color of a clear summer day and a smile that could cure all that which ailed you.
But he digressed.
Fishing. Isn't that what she'd asked about?
"And?" Obviously, she hadn't found his answer satisfactory—a fact evidenced by her continued questioning. "It's just throwing some bait into the water to see what you catch, isn't it?"
She had that look on her face. The curious one that she wore when she was figuring out a new piece of tech or puzzling over some alien conundrum. Bright eyes, slightly lowered brows, and that endearing little crinkle above her nose. And boy howdy—that smile. The one he saw far too frequently in his dreams. That wry, crooked little half-grin that engaged a single dimple in the smooth perfection of her right cheek. Too sexy by half. A fact about which she was blissfully unaware, which made it even sexier.
Throwing bait? Well, hell.
"Not even remotely, Carter." Leaning forward, he deposited his canteen on the ground. "It's that age-old battle between a hunter and his prey. It's choosing the right location, setting the mood. Somewhere where it's quiet, and warm, and serene. Blue skies overhead—with maybe a few clouds. Temperate. Clear."
"Like it was here today."
"Yeah." Nodding, Jack leaned forwards, resting his elbows on his knees. "Once you've chosen your target, you make your plan. Choose your rod and your reel. Find the right line, the right lures. You know your prey. You know what you want. Your job is to figure out the best way to bring her in."
"Just an expression, Carter."
"Okay." She shrugged in blithe acceptance, tapping on the MRE packet with the tines of her fork. "Like I said before, though, it's just tossing out some bait and seeing what bites."
"There's much more to it than that." He glanced down at his boots, letting his eyelids close as he considered the best way to explain. "You start slow. You choose your bait—like I said, you know your target. Once you've got the hook loaded, you reel out just enough that your line barely touches the water. Kisses it. Not too much—maybe feather it a little until you're just flirting with the water with the line. See if you get a response."
Amused skepticism. The dimple deepened as she tossed him a saucy shrug. "Okay."
"But when you do, you go in. You're not blind casting anymore—you know she's there. You start shallow, with the water lapping at your feet, your ankles, gently moving past you and around you and on you—and when you're ready, you venture deeper. You reel in the line and then cast again, let the lure sink a little. Jig it a bit, just enough to get her attention."
Carter dipped her fork into the MRE, stirring it around in an absent sort of way. Her gaze was tight on him, intent—her lips still curved in a smile, but it was a new one—one he'd never seen before. One that O'Neill had no idea how to interpret.
Without breaking eye contact, he sucked in a deep breath. "You unfurl your line, carefully releasing the pressure with your fingers, working at the reel and the rod with your hands. Your fingers are firm around the butt, working at where the reel sits on its seat. You don't yank things around—you need to move slowly—massage things. Caress them so that they flow smoothly. Light, deliberate movements of your thumbs and fingertips."
His fingers curled around an invisible rod, and he found himself moving ever so slightly as he spoke. Demonstrating, perhaps, or recalling accurate muscle movements. "Back and forth, back and forth—-as the water rushes around your calves. It's pushing at you, so you need to be rock hard on your spot. She's right there—you can see her—shimmering just beneath the surface. Sleek and quick and lithe."
Jack glanced over at Carter, watching as she shifted on her rocky perch, her MRE seemingly forgotten in her fingers. Her expression had shifted—becoming something altogether different. Intense. Enrapt. As if she were feeling his words. Living them, somehow, as he spoke.
And her gaze—so, so blue—steady on him—even through the gentle, undulating fireglow. It was as if she'd followed him into the water, as if she could feel the rod and reel in her own hands, the pull of the line, the breeze in her hair. As if she could feel the current coursing past her—wild and rough and raw.
He blinked slowly, pressing his lips together briefly before continuing. "You go in further. And then further—until you're knee-deep, and you've run the line as far as you can and still be somewhat in control. And you can see her, but she's unsure. You have to coax her towards you. So you reel in and let the line out again—in and out—over and over—like a dance. Jigging a little here and there. Gentle, and focused. Bringing her closer, and closer, and closer until you can see her—until she's right there. So close that you can practically taste her. But you still can't rush things because you know she's still not ready."
Carter shook her head, her top lip caught between her teeth. Her knuckles shone white in the light of the fire.
"So, you have to finesse her. The tension is building inside both of you. You're shaking, but you can't lose focus. One wrong move and she's gone—you've lost your chance. So you keep teasing her closer. Increasing the pressure incrementally. Bit by bit. Touch by touch. Under the sun, in the breeze, as you go hip-deep in the soft, warm, rushing water."
Her breaths came in tight little gusts, now, her eyes wide and deep and profound. She'd dropped her fork—but her fingers seemed frozen in place—positioned as if the utensil were still there. And still, her attention on him never wavered.
"You can feel her—see her—just out of reach. You increase the motion of your hands, your body is firm, even as it's buffeted back and forth by the movement of the water, the push and pull of the dance. It's like a seduction, now. You're pounding the line, making it throb in the water—moving it just enough to reel her in. You're asking her to come to you. You're asking her to surrender. To give herself to you."
She squeaked. Major Doctor Samantha Carter—scientist, pilot, Air Force officer— the most intelligent, determined, beautiful bad-ass in several galaxies, actually squeaked.
O'Neill paused, his pulse surging within his veins. He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears, feel the pounding of it in his chest. When had this stopped being about fishing? When had this become something so—so far afield? Still, he couldn't stop himself from continuing. Not with her full attention on him, her lips open, her tongue teasing at the corner of her mouth.
"And when she finally gives in? There's nothing more satisfying than that moment. Nothing better than feeling her weight on your line, her frantic, quick little movements as she surrenders. As she writhes for a moment before falling still." He felt the corner of his lip lift. Not a smile, but close to it. "And you're both tired. Exhausted. You look at her, and she's sleek and wet and beautiful. And you respect her so damned much for her fight, for her spirit. So, you reach down and catch her, gently—soothing—and release her from the line. Then, you set her free so that you can both return another day and experience the whole dance all over again."
Overhead the moon glistened down through the clouds wisping through the sky, its beams touching here and there on rocks and branches. The breeze rustled through the canopy of trees overhead, almost music-like as it shushed through branches and leaves. The fire had dwindled, having consumed the easy fuel and settling in to feed on the larger logs and work on reducing them to embers.
O'Neill reached down for his canteen again, taking his time unscrewing the lid before hazarding a look back over at where Carter sat on her rock. She'd given up on her meal, scrunching the MRE packet in her fingers as her shoulders rose and fell with each breath. Color crept up on her throat, staining her cheeks with more than just the glow from the fire. She'd looked away from him, focusing on the fire, where the flames were licking at the largest of the logs, sparks flying wantonly up into the air as the branches broke under the pressure.
His voice felt and tasted like gravel. "Did that answer your question?"
She shook her head, glancing at him from beneath lowered lashes, one eyebrow quirking upwards in a wry, self-effacing kind of expression. "Sir—I—"
Footsteps in the dry needles just outside the firelight yanked them both out of the moment. Looking up, Jack watched as the other two members of SG-1 made their way into camp. Jonas clutched a selection of canteens, while Teal'c carried a bundle of what looked like firewood.
"The perimeter has been secured, O'Neill." Teal'c bent down, depositing the sizeable bundle of dried branches on the ground a few feet away from the fire. "I shall take first watch, although I do not believe that the people of this planet pose a threat."
O'Neill nodded. "Thanks, T."
Jonas came to a stop between where Sam and Jack sat, splitting his attention between them. His keen blue eyes made quick work of assessing the situation. "So—this looks—intense. What have you guys been talking about?"
"Nothing in particular."
Words spoken over each other. Both lies, really, when it all came down to it. Lies within the truth. Like so much else in their lives.
With a rapid glance in Jack's direction, Sam pressed her lips tightly together. When it became apparent that O'Neill wasn't going to expound on anything, she forced a smile up at Quinn. "The Colonel was telling me more about fly fishing."
"Ah." The Kelownan grinned. "I hope I didn't miss anything interesting."
"Nope." O'Neill stood. Taking a few steps from the rock, he bent and reached for his pack. It was time to arrange his bedroll. "You didn't miss anything at all."
Jack hadn't been able to sleep. He was probably getting too old for these off-world overnight camping excursions. His oft-broken-oft-healed body wasn't suited for sleeping on the ground anymore. Even with his jacket and an extra t-shirt piled beneath his head for a make-shift pillow, he hadn't been able to find a comfortable position.
Even worse, the advent of night hadn't cooled things off. The weather was far warmer than they'd anticipated—and Jack had never slept well when he was hot. In a vain attempt at getting some shuteye, he'd shucked off his overblouse, then pulled his t-shirt free of his trousers. After another hour of tossing and turning, he'd finally given up and kicked free of his sleeping bag, stretching one long leg out on top of his bedroll, his other knee cocked upwards with his heel planted firmly. Toeing his socks off, he'd wriggled his toes in the fabric of his bedding. It hadn't helped.
Ultimately, he'd cursed his aching bones and the ridiculous heat, and his own traitorous brain. Lying on his back, he'd crossed his hands behind his head and stared up at the sky. He'd watched, sullen, for the next few hours as the alien stars swirled in the sky overhead—tracked the path of the moon as it moved past its zenith and towards the opposite horizon. It was beautiful—he could acknowledge that fact even through his malaise—what with the clouds wafting softly across the sky, morphing from one shape to another as stars blinked out from around them. As the moonlight limned the leaves and branches overhead with silver fire.
And then, he'd heard her.
He thought she'd been sleeping. But then, he hadn't allowed himself to look at her long enough to make certain. Not with whatever had happened between them still fresh in the air. Not with that sound she'd made—something so visceral and sweet that he'd think about it for the rest of his days—still echoing in his head. Just the knowledge that she slept within an arm's distance of him—the ground cover of her bedroll even overlapping his by a few inches—seemed too much for his senses. He'd had to assiduously avoid looking her way—or even thinking about her—until he'd heard her deep, even breathing drifting through the night.
Her voice had been the last thing he'd expected to hear.
Turning his head, he found her in the darkness. The fire had long-since died—only a few persistent embers glowed at the bottom of the pit. The only real light came from the firmament above, casting her features in a blue-gray shadow.
She lay on her side, facing him. She'd thrown her own sleeping bag wide in the warm night, also using extra clothing as a pillow. One of her hands lay under her cheek, the other splayed on the bedroll between them.
"Yes." Her words soothed between them—only loud enough for him to hear. Low, and sweet, and intimate. "The answer is 'yes'."
Turning, he mimicked her pose, on his side, one hand extended. "What was the question?"
"The way you described it, Sir." Her teeth flashed in a brief—heart-rending—smile. "It sounds like something amazing."
"What are you talking about?"
Fishing. Jack rubbed his face against the rough fabric of his jacket. Just something uncomfortably jarring with which to ground himself. "Oh?"
"Well, you've invited me to go fishing with you several times now, and I've always turned you down."
He narrowed his eyes at her, running his tongue along the inside crease of his lips. "Yes. Yes you have."
"But now that you've explained it better, I think that I've chosen poorly."
Wider, now, her smile bright in the darkness. That damned dimple creasing that damned perfect cheek, sending his damned senses reeling. He felt a jolt deep, deep in his gut, where he was fairly certain nothing should be jolting. Especially not here, on an alien planet, with only the two of them awake—both of them lying hot and wanting beneath a sky so beautiful that it took his breath away.
"And now? Yes." Her fingers clenched in the fabric beneath them, tangling in flannel and nylon and whatever stuffing they used to make the bedroll even moderately comfortable. She worried at her bottom lip with her neat, perfect top teeth, her nose wrinkling just enough to cause that endearing crinkle to form between her eyebrows.
"Yes." He most certainly sounded like an idiot.
She didn't seem to care. Shifting, she moved closer, until her hand was only a few inches from his, her elegant fingers spread on the ground covering, now, and not on her bedroll. "The next time you invite me to go fishing with you, Sir, the answer is yes."
"It is, is it?"
"Good to know."
"I just wanted to tell you that."
Okay. Jack allowed himself the luxury of looking at her—of studying her. So, so beautiful with her eyes nearly black in the darkness, and her skin glowing in the moonlight. And her hair—such a fascination to the locals—a golden, glorious, messy halo around her face.
"Get some sleep, Carter."
"Yes, Sir." She pulled her fingers back, tucking her elbow into her body. After a last, brief, beautiful smile, she allowed her eyelids to close, settling deep into the haphazard pile beneath her head. She sighed—a sound nearly as enthralling as that little squeak from earlier. "Goodnight, Sir."
Jack watched her until her breathing had eased again. Until she'd appeared to have fallen asleep—for real, this time. Still smiling, her generous mouth curved upwards even in slumber. Good lord, she was beautiful. Intriguing—good—kind—she was everything. Furthermore, for some insane reason, she seemed to like him. And for a man like Jack O'Neill, she was balm for a fairly damaged soul.
Rolling onto his back, Jack scanned the heavens. A pinkish glow sheened deep on the eastern horizon, making its stubborn way between the trees of the forest. It would be morning soon, and he still hadn't slept. He was still hot, and the ground was still hard, and the markings on the cliff face had most decidedly not been related to the Ancients. He'd have to return to the SGC with precisely nothing—report that they'd found Jack-squat.
But there she was—beside him. Smiling in her sleep, with her hand curled under her cheek. And she wanted to go fishing with him.
And maybe—just maybe—this mission wasn't a total bust after all.