He was pissed, magnificently so and his snippy retorts and body language conveyed it in all its glory. If he'd been back at the SGC he could have expected a CO who would have been unexpectedly caught up in meetings which prevented their own discussions; Teal'c would give him a steady look which, while being courteous,would still convey that he was being a total ass while Daniel would stare at him in exasperation wanting to know what his problem was, knowing it would be something he had no power over but which simply in the sharing might release the pent-up anger within his friend. But it would be Carter who could deflate his seething umbrage like no other. It might simply be a raised eyebrow or the quirk of her soft lips, but she, more than any other since his mother, could diffuse a smouldering Jack O'Neill.
It had started that very morning when Little Step had, to his pleased surprise, allowed him to accompany her to the river. He'd been inordinately happy at this simple opportunity to escape the confines of the lodge until, that is, she'd urged him out of his clothes, other than the loincloth, into some shallow, freezing water and proceeded to scour his skin with a brush that would have done justice to a drover's skinning knife. Only the areas of his wounds escaped her diligent ministrations together with his reproductive organs which he'd guarded vigilantly throughout his ordeal, threatening her with a severe dunking if she so much as ventured close. And when he eventually escaped from the torture he was literally pink from being abraded, testimony to the force Little Step had expended on him when he should, in all truth, have been blue from the bitter ice of the river.
And returning to the lodge, he had reached for his clothes only to have his wrist smacked sharply. This wasn't the first time it had happened and he was about to vent his ire in splendid fashion when the complaint was squashed before it was uttered. Almost shyly now, Little Step moved closer and handed a shirt and trousers of the softest doeskin to Jack, intricate beadwork expertly sewn into the front of the shirt so that Jack's annoyance was instantly replaced by unconcealed surprise.
He held the clothes carefully, not taking his eyes off them as he asked softly,
/What is this? Why do you give me such a gift?/
Scowling to hide her pleasure at Jack's open appreciation, Little Step muttered,
/Am I not permitted to give my son a gift?/
/I don't understand./
/What is there to understand? A mother gives her son a gift of clothes; is it not a normal thing to do in the lands from where you come?/
It was the first time Little Step had alluded to his past life and Jack couldn't hide his surprise. There was something going on, he could feel it in his bones, but it was clear that the old woman wasn't going to say anything more.
So with only the slightest hesitation he ducked his head and mumbled his thanks, but there was also some uneasiness made clear by the words he now murmured.
/I have no gift for you./
Her eyes bright with satisfaction, Little Step's weathered hand patted him lightly on his cheek.
/You are my gift. I have need of no other./
And turning away, she stooped to push open the flap and left Jack to finish dressing.
The sun was quite high in the pale blue sky by the time he reappeared and instantly children ran up to him and began to admire his new clothing, oohing and aahing. Suddenly feeling more conspicuous than he preferred, he reached for the bucket, a chore he hadn't carried out for some time, only to come face to face with a scowling Little Step.
/What are you doing?/
/Standing facing you...Ouch!/
It seemed that Little Step had acquired an understanding of Jack O'Neill sarcasm and appreciated it as little as his birth mother had.
The smaller children giggled thinking it was a game, but Jack's grieved look told the matriarch that her hand had made adequate and healthy contact with his knuckles holding the bucket handle. The shadow of a smile touched her lips and she nodded in satisfaction while taking charge of the container.
With a stifled sigh, Jack accompanied her to the water's edge acknowledging the various greetings that came his way until, looking up at the grey stone mountains across the river, a glint of something caught his eye, but it was too far for him to see and his eyes returned to Little Step.
He was aware without understanding why that the atmosphere around him was different in a way he could not fathom. It put him on edge.
His eyes panned to the riders on guard, constantly alert, ready for anything that might be thrown at them. They looked as relaxed as they ever would when 'on duty', but he did catch the odd one raise his eyes to the mountains and follow what he could not. At his feet Rat Face whined softly, picking up the hint of anxiety and responding.
Jack's eyes dropped to the dog and his eyes softened.
"You sense something too, huh?"
Yellow tail and rear end began to wag enthusiastically as the cur sensed the full attention of the man at his side and he pawed at the man's leg in the hope of getting his neck scratched.
Carefully, well aware that any number of his wounds might put up a protest, Jack bent to oblige, noting the withering look Little Step gave him.
/Heh, you like him almost as much as I do./
Not deigning to reply, the old woman hefted up her bucket and began to return to her lodge. Jack bent to take part hold of the handle, allowing the woman to retain her own hold.
When he received a warning look, he shrugged.
/It's good to share the load./
There was no argument and they continued on together with the dog sniffing the ground at their heels. The smell of cooking fires was more pronounced than ever and Jack again found himself surveying the village, trying to put his finger on what was different.
The women were working at their various chores, the men reflecting a similar industry which lay more in areas of animals and weapons. Children, warned to give their favorite friend some recovery time, were playing their own games. Nothing amiss there, so why his extra sense honing in on something which completely mystified him?
He caught sight of Teomyn poking at the ground with a stick outside her own lodge. She looked up and met his eyes and he waved to let her know he'd seen her. She looked sharply away.
Allowing Little Step to pour the water into a large cooking vessel placed on a tripod over a blazing fire, Jack frowned.
He was certain she'd seen him. So why the cold shoulder? He moved towards the little girl, but Little Step's tug on his shirt halted him.
/You must eat./
He sighed. /I will./
The tug was harder, the glare more pronounced. /Now./
He looked towards the little toddler, and noticed the slump in her usually energetic bearing. Something was definitely up.
/I just want to-./
Little Step's eyes narrowed.
Jack stilled. He might have made to argue, but Colored Sky he saw had appeared before Teomyn, knelt and after a few words enveloped the little one in a full body hug, rocking her comfortingly. Jack watched as the little one looked at him once more, and then shook her head vehemently over something said to her. Jack scowled. Something was going on and if he wasn't mistaken it involved him.
Turning back to Little Step he gave her a full blast don't-mess-with-me glare and demanded,
/What do you know that I don't?/
Little Step rolled her eyes in a way that had Jack feeling he was nothing but an annoying brat. She was, he reluctantly admitted, so much better at making him squirm than the severest of commanding officers and he wondered if he ought to take lessons from her. They just might come in handy when dealing with an argumentative archaeologist with blinkered vision.
/If you had a few moons to spare I could touch on this subject/
She answered smugly, but wasted no time in further elucidation as she gave her full attention to what Jack could only surmise was some kind of buffalo stew. He was hoping that this might make up his breakfast and he wasn't disappointed when she served him an ample bowl a moment later. At least, he hadn't been subjected to the awful paste-like substance that had been forced on to him day in and day out since he'd been wounded.
They were given painted ponies to ride, and though Daniel was a little hesitant, he soon settled into the saddle saying it was a sight more comfortable than being on the camels he'd grown used to as a child when in Egypt.
When he'd tried to communicate with the native Indian, he'd been greeted with a puzzled manner though it was obvious they were more than welcome, and as they entered the labyrinth of tunnels more riders appeared to lead them on their journey. Not once did they sense any danger though Teal'c kept his staff at the ready, forever the consummate warrior.
More at home in the saddle than her two companions, Sam was able to give further attention to her surroundings and had to admire the complexity of the tunnel system they travelled through. It would, she admitted ruefully, have taken an army of men to even attempt to find their way through the warren and even then it was questionable that they would have achieved their goal within any limited time frame.
Hours later, once they passed out of the tunnel into sunlight, Sam's breath was caught as she realized just how incredibly high up they were on the side of the mountain. Beneath her stretched a vista that seemed to go on for mile after undulating mile of plains that disappeared into a haze in the far distance, with what looked to be a tiny village at the base of the peaks, situated next to a winding river. From her position the view looked idyllic and she couldn't help but sigh in admiration, her senses on high alert as she envisaged the end of this tortuous time of loss.
Carefully, their animals stepped forward ever downward on the narrow, stony path that twisted and turned. With no possibility of riding side by side, communication was minimal and Sam allowed herself to consider the moment when she would meet her CO, because any thought of disappointment could not, would not be tolerated. Her keen blue eyes were fixed on the village below and she could, with the aid of her binoculars, just about make out the movement of people though it was still impossible to put features to any person. Still, she couldn't help wondering if one of those in her view was Jack.
He'd been told there was to be a ceremony, one of the religious ones that he'd attended before his injury. He knew this because of the spare ground in front of the chief's lodge which had been cleared of hanging frames and prepared for the seating of many, and drums had been brought out in vast numbers. This was, he believed, going to be a major ceremony. But as the morning hours passed and he saw more frenetic work being carried out, he found himself more and more in the way.
He wasn't allowed to fish, wasn't allowed to watch the boys at their war games, and wasn't even allowed to sit with the women. It was as if he'd been banished from any and every activity no matter how mundane and nonphysical and the idleness irritated him. But no matter how much he implored or moaned, he was denied any part in the preparations and in the end he'd stomped as much as his thigh would allow back to the entrance to Little Step's lodge where a thick pile of furs had been placed at the entrance for him to lie on in the sun. Sulking moodily, he threw himself down, wincing at the protest of his still healing wounds, mightily put out that almost everyone appeared to be, if not exactly ignoring him, wishing he were somewhere else.
When Colored Sky passed by, her arms full of wood collected for the huge fire that would later be lit to keep them all warm once the sun had gone down, he pretended he hadn't noticed her smile and childishly closed his eyes as if he were going to sleep. He'd show them that more than one side could play the pretend-you-aren't-there game.
But what had been intended as pretence turned quickly to reality. So that when the group of riders entered the camp, Jack was fast asleep with Rat Face at his side, unaware of the proximity of the rest of SG-1.
The tickling of his nose woke him. And though his hand brushed the offending annoyance away, it swiftly returned, making his nose itch with a vengeance.
Even as his hand rose up to swat away the irritant, he was aware that someone had covered him with more furs as he was snugly warm even though he could sense the last weak rays of an afternoon sun that would soon fall behind the mountain peaks. His hand contacted hair, lots of hair and he opened his eyes in surprise, only to find Teomyn had inveigled her way under the furs and had positioned her round, little form in the crook of Jack's body. She was fast asleep and Jack's heart swelled with the force of his affection, memories painful yet enticingly sweet of similar times in his past bombarding his senses. He scrutinized her button nose and closed lids, marvelling at the length of her dark, velvet lashes that seemed to float over her chubby cheeks. She had a firm grip on his dog tags and he knew he wouldn't be able to move without waking her. He settled back down, content to bide his time; there was no hurry. When you'd been to one festival, you'd been to them all as far as he was concerned. Far more fascinating was this small, perfect form asleep in his arms; she'd obviously forgiven him whatever transgression he'd committed earlier and he was happy. What had started out a crappy day in his estimation was ending quite the opposite. After all he had, he believed, one of the two most beautiful women he knew lying in his arms. What more could he ask?
Daniel was fidgeting and it took all of Sam's military restraint and more to physically prevent her from smacking him...hard.
She soothed her frayed nerves by promising herself that if he asked one more time why they hadn't seen Jack yet, she was going to give in to her strong impulse and bestow pain on the archaeologist.
She had smiled herself silly until the muscles in her cheeks had stiffened painfully, had permitted her hair and skin to be touched until she felt like an exhibit in a sensorial display and had nodded positively anytime any words were spoken to her.
"What if they're asking if we're murderers?" Daniel demanded aggravatingly.
Sam gritted her teeth and Teal'c at last felt it necessary to intervene.
"Daniel Jackson, I do not believe these people would have welcomed us into their midst had they thought we were in any way detrimental to their wellbeing. The fact that they allow their children to approach should be assurance enough that we are considered harmless."
Daniel scowled, his patience having dried up a long, long time ago. He had not weathered the loss of his closest friend well; none of them had, but he had resorted to sullen, withdrawn spells only broken when Sam or Teal'c intruded forcefully on his morose solitude.
With the impetus of finding Jack alive, the two other members of SG-1 had hoped he would resort to his former genial self. It was not to be; moreover it seemed the closer they got to the possibility of being reunited with the head of SG-1 the more exasperating he became. It was wearing on Sam's nerves; she was holding herself together with difficulty and Daniel was not helping.
The archaeologist continued his pacing within the lodge they had been ushered into, four steps one way, four steps back; four steps one way, four steps back; four steps one-.
She hoped the one word would be enough.
It seemed it wouldn't.
Sam's eyes rested on him and suddenly softened as her own irritation seemed to drain away. She smiled in apology.
"I'm sure we'll learn something soon. You know better than any of us how some cultures have their special way of doing things. Maybe-."
Any remaining words were swallowed as the entrance skins were thrown back and two women, one old, the other young, entered and stood before them.
The older one stared at them long and hard; she didn't look like someone who should be messed with. Sam stared back with equanimity unsure what this meant, but willing to be patient if it meant...
Daniel pushed himself to the front to glower over the two women. Neither one backed away in the face of his presence; rather the elder began to rattle off words that were a complete mystery until the younger woman began to speak shyly and hesitantly.
She smiled shyly, a little unsure of her words but proud all the same that she could communicate with these new arrivals.
"You speak English?"
Daniel's arms would have reached out to grab the woman had it not been for Little Step who pushed the girl behind her as if to protect her from anything the archaeologist might attempt.
Colored Sky pointed to her companion and spoke her name and did the same for herself. She had practiced this ritual and was not about to be put off by some unexpected interruption.
Little Step had been about to raise her hand to wallop the impertinent man who had dared to cut short her well prepared salutation, until she looked into strange blue eyes which held an ocean of pain so deep she felt she might drown in their very depths. His weariness and hurt were so visible that she stilled her twitching hand.
The younger woman spoke in her own dialect and Little Step replied.
Again the younger woman stepped forward.
"Jack sleeping. Soon you see. Now come."
"Is he ill?" Daniel beat Sam in voicing the question on all their lips. For what other reason would Jack O'Neill be sleeping at this time of day?
"Jack sleeping. He get better."
And then, as if this was considered enough to still their questions, they were led, albeit somewhat shell-shocked now they'd been given verbal if not visual proof of Jack's whereabouts and well-being, to a large open area which had already attracted a number of tribal members who were patiently sitting cross legged on the ground, waiting expectantly. Before them, in fine regalia sat the man they presumed was the chief, surrounded by other finely attired men. He rose to his feet, his solemn eyes warming as they approached. Colored Sky continued as translator, again welcoming them and requesting that they join them in their festivities.
Daniel had intended to make some protest except that Little Step's hand fixed on his jacket and gave it a firm tug. He found himself seated next to her, his wary eyes knowing that if he misbehaved there would be consequences, and seeing the iron glint in her eye he didn't reckon they'd be pleasant ones.
Sam, even in this moment of tumultuous emotion, was able to step outside herself and examine her feelings, wonder how she could be so restrained when she could feel his presence, breathe the very air he was breathing and reach out and touch things that he had most likely touched.
He was sleeping she'd been told and she would have sold her soul at this very moment to be able to go to where he was and look down on him. She wasn't exactly appeased by Colored Sky's explanation - there had to be something amiss that he wasn't here now, greeting them with some laid-back salutation which would, at the same time, be asking why they'd taken so long.
She burned with an intensity of feelings carefully hidden; only her eyes gave her away and these she kept carefully concealed beneath the brim of her Air Force issue cap.
She'd experienced enough of military methods to endure the coming proceedings, sitting next to Teal'c with Daniel on her other side. Even as her every sense was attuned to the proximity of her missing CO, she was still amused to see that the old woman had attached herself to Daniel and was managing, against all the odds and much to her surprise, to keep him in check.
They listened intently though with no understanding to the speeches made, and then food began to be handed out and the members of SG-1 were encouraged to partake of the sustenance.
Darkness began to descend rapidly when they noted Colored Sky and Little Step both rise to their feet and leave and Daniel would have followed except that Sam's hand hooked onto his wrist and held firm.
"Daniel, we need to stay patient. We've waited this long, another half hour or so isn't going to make that much difference."
"What if it isn't Jack?"
She was stunned by the question.
"It's his radio. They know my name. They use the Colonel's name. I don't think they're going to produce a total stranger at this point in the proceedings."
She used a tone normally used on young, recalcitrant children. Feeling her exasperation returning, she wished that the old woman were here to deal with him.
As she cast around in her frazzled mind for something to appease her colleague, the sound of the large fire being lit assaulted her ears and captured her attention. Something combustible must, she assumed, have been put on the wood to make it burn with such immediate intensity and as the huge flames licked at the dark sky, her mind was cast back to the moment that Teal'c had returned to their camp to give them the shattering news that O'Neill was missing. She'd been staring into the flames of the campfire then, and so it was more than appropriate that when she looked up, she should see a silver-haired figure, dressed in local clothes being led by the hand by a tiny girl who came no higher than his thigh. It was as if the flames had brought him back to her.
For a moment Sam's breath caught in her throat as she devoured the sight of him, her nostrils flared, her eyes widened and she sat transfixed. No sound came from her and with shock she realized that her colleagues were both in the same state. Hungrily, she scanned him taking in his thinner frame, the limp to his walk and the careful way he held himself. Something bad had happened; she didn't need to be told that, but the way everyone around her seemed to watch him with open adulation put to rest her speculation that these people might have caused these changes.
They'd waited so long, worked so hard, worried themselves beyond sickness and yet now, when they could end this separation, each for his own reason held back, seemingly satisfied to watch what unfolded before them.
She was sure that a time before this, he would have sensed their watchful eyes, but maybe he'd grown used to being the center of attention. Certainly he didn't seem in any way disturbed that nearly every eye was upon him. Or maybe it was that the little girl had captured his sole interest because he showed no inclination to look anywhere but at his small companion. They were talking, the little one avidly and as he smiled at her the girl suddenly pointed straight at them. Casually, almost she felt reluctantly, he looked up and at first she thought he hadn't seen her. His eyes seemed to pass over her and move around the crowd. It was, after all, now dark so, with a trembling hand, she took off her cap and prayed the glow from the fire would capture its color.