It has been such a thoroughly enjoyable journey sharing this story with you. I think Nell, my amazingly gifted beta, will be relieved in many ways as it has tried her skills to the limit, but, as always, she has come through with flying colours to ensure this reaches you in a well-polished manner. Thanks for your unceasing support and constant good spirits, Nell

Indian Interlude Chapter 10

(Earlier)

When Colored Sky and Little Step had appeared, he'd wanted them to leave him as Teomyn continued to sleep on so peacefully, but the two women would not listen to his reasoning, Little Step insisting that he had to eat and attend the ceremony.

His protests were ignored and once Teomyn had awakened she seemed as eager as the others to join the celebrations. The tantalizing aroma of cooked meat drifted in the cool, night air and Jack had to admit, if only to himself, that he would benefit from some nourishment. As Teomyn insisted on leading him through the seated crowd to a place of honor close to Swooping Eagle, he chose to ignore what was happening and concentrated his sole attention on the little girl at his side. His thigh was still stiff from his long nap and he resisted the temptation to knead it with his hands. If Little Step caught sight of his weakness, she would no doubt insist he consume copious amounts of one or more of the foul-tasting medicines she was so fond of.

Bending his ear closer to Teomyn, he tried to translate the words she was chattering to him, twelve to the dozen, aware that she was getting more and more excited. He wondered if his newly acquired language skills weren't as good as Colored Sky had led him to believe because what he was hearing was some weird and wonderful story about strange people who had come from a land far removed. His arm was shaken as his attention appeared to waver and he tried once again to make sense of the information spouting from the little girl's lips. He could tell she was losing her patience with his poor language skills and in the end she resorted to pointing with her arm to the people sitting across from them.

And at long last, Teomyn was satisfied when she saw Jack's reaction.

He stiffened as a word she did not know passed like a whisper from his lips. Then more words, equally unknown came forth. She felt the trembling of his body begin and raised confused eyes to his. She had expected him to be overjoyed and yet, it was more as if he was afraid. Searching for the reassuring eyes of her mother and finding them, she relaxed though her concern for her charge did not lesson wholly. The little girl simply couldn't understand why he wasn't leaping up and racing over. Surely these were his people that the legend spoke of who had come in search of her friend. If it had been her, she'd have been shrieking with joy, especially if she'd been separated from her best friend, Smiling Sun. But adults were strange creatures at the best of times, and this one stranger than them all. But he was a much loved friend and so she knew beyond her years that she should put up with such peculiarities.

Slowly, on wavering legs, he stood, the movement reciprocated as if a reflection by the three opposite. He tried to move, but realized that the trembling was so great that his legs wouldn't support him. Stand, yes. Move, no. It was all too much. But as if sensing the difficulty he was facing, the three members of SG-1 suddenly surged forward and the crowd parted as naturally as the Red Sea for Moses.

Daniel reached Jack first then came to a halt and almost tentatively he put his arms around his friend as if he was the most fragile artefact in his collection, then bringing him close enveloped him in an embrace, whispering his name over and over as he attempted to persuade his brain that what he had was real. The linguist had to swiftly brush away the tears in his eyes which threatened to spill down his cheeks as he stepped away giving room for Sam to take his place. But she seemed to hesitate, indicating that Teal'c should make his own form of greeting. And in no way was she surprised when the huge Jaffa bowed his head and then took the Colonel in his huge arms and brought him to his chest, seeming to give him absolution in the moving greeting.

It was her turn. Their eyes met and she smiled a short tentative facial movement. Her hand came up as if to touch him, but hesitated and returned to her side. Yet Sam's eyes had a life of their own and seemed to dance in the light of the fire and the two were held in a moment of intensity so moving that no one could look away.

"It's good to see you,... Sir."

She whispered almost breathless from the intensity of their reunion.

The words were inane, though within them was conveyed a myriad of words and feelings that made Jack shiver. His mouth quirked at one side as he muttered her name under his breath and his hands twitched, but like Sam's moved no more.

And then they were seated again, opposite each other as Jack was pulled back down to his seat and the team were encouraged to retake their places. More food was served and somewhat amused, Sam watched Little Step appear and proffer some morsel to her CO. His eyes, which had stayed fixed on his team, reluctantly left hers and he looked as if he was refusing what was offered until a firm hold was taken of his left ear. Sam's eyes widened in surprise. She could see his mouth move in protest and grimaced in sympathy. That had got to hurt and yet, she felt the old woman's methods were done more from caring than anything else, and she relaxed in her seat, pleased when the food was taken, though the look on her CO's face told her more than the words she could not hear being spoken, that he wasn't impressed by Little Steps methods of persuasion.

The playing of the drums followed, a spectacular event accompanied by the dancing of two groups of men playing out a battle that held all enthralled. Yells of approval met the finale and feet stamped the ground to endorse their appreciation.

Sam had so desperately wanted to touch Jack; she silently and fiercely berated herself for failing to hold him as her two colleagues had done, to show him how much his reappearance in her life meant to her. But her restraint had been more for Jack than herself because she knew without a doubt that if she had taken him in her arms it would have been an embarrassingly long time before she would have let him go. And so strong were her feelings that illogically she began to resent the little girl who sat next to him, and even knowing how juvenile her thoughts were, she could not contain them.

She wondered that she had felt so short with Daniel because now she was worse than him a thousand-fold. And as her eyes glazed at the prospect of more of these proceedings, she noted Little Step return to Jack's side and encourage him to his feet. She stilled as she watched him sway, but hands reached out and gave him support until his balance was more assured. He sent her a sheepish look as if embarrassed by his obvious weakness and then he was moving, Colored Sky and Little Step on either side, his personal sentinels.

This time they wouldn't let him out of their sight, and rising, Sam, Daniel and Teal'c nodded to Swooping Eagle and followed in the wake of their team leader.

As they approached the lodge into which they had seen Jack enter, the ugliest dog known to man jumped up, clearly guarding the entrance of the lodge, its large, yellow fangs bared ferociously, and the low growl warning enough without the show of canines. From within, Jack's voice, weaker than they were used to hearing, called out and the dog instantly dropped onto its stomach and began to wag its tail ecstatically. Cautious still, they stooped to pass within the lodge, to find Jack seated on furs, his back supported by some kind of wooden frame.

He grinned sheepishly.

"I'm told you've already met my two guardian angels, but just so that you aren't too surprised, the short one has adopted me. Can't imagine why, but she's seems well taken and who am I to resist the advances of a beautiful woman?"

As if understanding she was being talked about, Little Step scowled suspiciously until Jack spoke in her language and then her stance softened and a hand reached out and touched his shoulder reassuringly as she spoke words that encompassed the whole group.

"Hey guys, it seems my mom has offered her home to you for tonight." Jack's eyes glanced around and his eyes fell on the various skins that littered the floor. "Looks like we get to have a sleep-over."

--

They talked well into the night and even when Little Step returned and threatened dire punishment should Jack not rest, still he would not be silent. He had a story to tell and questions to answer and others of his own to ask and like an oil well gushing forth its first production, he would not be silenced.

And when Little Step accepted that none of her warnings would be heeded she simply ensured Jack was warm and comfortable and left him, in some inexplicable way satisfied that he was in good hands. And it was only in the small hours of the morning that Sam coaxed him to rest. Daniel had already fallen asleep as if all the hours of nervous energy expended in the frenetic search for his friend had finally caught up to him and though Teal'c could have stayed awake all night, he sensed the need for these two remaining ones to have some time of their own and retreated to the archaeologist's side to settle into meditation and sleep.

Yet again she felt pensive eyes resting on her. "Glad to see you've looked after the team, Carter."

She smiled at the praise but had to admit to certain failings.

"Daniel has had his moments, Sir, but we've...managed."

It was a classic understatement, the sort she was renowned for.

"You've done well, Sam."

Her eyes widened at his use of her first name, so rare and so precious because of it.

Feeling the flood of emotion so close to the surface which threatened an out of control torrent, she dropped her gaze, willing herself to hold on, to not allow the outburst which was demanding release.

A hesitant smile tugged at her lips.

"It was just a matter of time, Colonel. I...we... knew we'd get you back."

"I admire your conviction." He scowled. "It's more than I had at times."

"Colonel?"

She could sense his restlessness and tensed with unease, but he held a hand up as if to calm her.

"No sweat, Carter."

He looked at some spare furs to the side.

"Look, we'd better get some sleep before mom comes and spanks the two of us."

And seeing Sam's amused disbelief, he decided it might be better for his image if she was under the impression he was exaggerating.

--

She thought at first it was her imagination, but as her senses stilled to pick up the least noise, Sam heard the muted sound buried beneath blankets and knew she had not been mistaken. Rising silently, her heartbeat now drowning out all other sounds, she padded barefoot to where she knew her team leader lay and kneeling by his side she uncertainly laid a hand on the furs covering his trembling form.

He froze and for a blind moment of panic she feared he would ignore her, try to hide his raw vulnerability, until, after a moment's stilled breath, his furs were pushed aside and she was invited in.

"I thought I'd lost you,"

she whispered through the choking lump in her own throat. Then gently, afraid that she might hurt him, she settled down beside him burrowing her head into the crook of his neck all the more to breathe in the essence of him while her hands settled on his chest feeling the pounding beat of his heart.

"I...I thought...I..." He inhaled deeply as if struggling to breathe then continued, "I thought I'd never see you again."

Still he remained rigid until her hands framed his face and she whispered,

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

And as her soft breath caressed his skin he felt something swell within him and as if she'd given him permission to let his guard down, he crumpled in her arms, his body wracked by shudders, and wept a river of anguished, silent tears as she held him, whispering compelling words that conveyed all that she needed to say and all he needed to hear.

--

It was in the early hours of dawn that they had chosen to depart and so it was that Teomyn was crying loudly, fat crystal tears falling in relays down her heartbroken cheeks as Jack made his farewells. She had refused to accept his hugs and had closed her ears with the flat of her hands to show what she thought of his actions, but finally, realizing that his leaving could not be prevented, she threw herself against him, wrapping her arms tightly round his neck and sobbing out her heart and her love and in the end he had bestowed on her his two prized possessions which went a little way to appease her sorrow.

/You'll look after him, won't you, because he's told me he's going to look after you real well?/ he demanded, watching her replace him with Rat Face which she now hugged with equal intensity.

Thankfully the cur looked as if he were enjoying the attention. And as Jack turned to the group of riders awaiting his final farewells, he decided that his dog tags, clasped firmly in Teomyn's fat little fists, had been put to the best use possible under the circumstances.

He had already said his goodbyes to Swooping Eagle and the medicine man, but as he approached Little Step and Colored Sky he faltered in his stride.

But it seemed no words were needed, for the old woman stepped firmly forward placing her hand first over Jack's heart then putting the same hand to her own breast. Then reaching up she placed both hands on the side of Jack's face, searching earnestly. As if finding what she had sought, she nodded firmly and stepped away, entering her lodge without another backward glance.

Puzzled, Jack turned to Colored Sky for explanation.

The younger woman explained in a soft voice,

/Your heart, her heart, they are one. Wherever you go, she goes too, and wherever she stays, you stay with her too. This is how it should be. There is no sadness in her heart. Why should there be when you are each with the other?/

Jack stared deep into her bottomless eyes, seeing more than he'd ever ventured to see before. Did she, he briefly wondered, really speak for Little Step or was she speaking of herself? But even as he thought this his mind veered away and he buried the idea immediately. He was going home.

He turned to look towards his team for the reassurance that they were still there and to steel his resolve to go with them. But still, he hesitated in joining them and turned back to Colored Sky. He asked the question that long had been on his mind.

/Why was I brought here?/

For a moment, a soft sigh of regret whispered through her lips then, just as softly, Colored Sky continued,

/When the land was new and the sky freshly born, it was spoken that one would come from lands far beyond the distance of our domain, marked with a lash and with hair the color of the mountains. He would be a warrior above all warriors and would save the tribe from its enemies. Because of him our people would thrive and travel the lands of our forefathers, blessed among all./

Jack was shaking his head as she explained, unable to comprehend the depth of her words, unable to accept what she stated.

/Why do you think Little Step does not weep? Because she knew of this story when she was a child of Teomyn's age. She did not know she would be blessed until the marks were revealed, and even then she doubted the signs until.../

Her words trailed away; she had no need to say more.

/The time has come for you to return to your people as it was foretold, so we do not grieve for the loss of one of our sons./

Staring up at him, her dark eyes twinkling with a radiant light, she added,

/Perhaps one day he will return again when the times are as now, and we will await this time and welcome him with open arms./

He wondered how he could long for something with such raw intensity and at the same time regret it was happening?

/Little Step... you'll look out for her?/

/Be assured./

/She's kind of grumpy in the mornings and needs a hot herbal drink. It helps with her aching bones. Yea, and she also likes--./

A gentle finger placed on his lips silenced him and she conveyed a look which told him what he needed to know.

Nodding his acceptance and holding her close to his heart one last time, he breathed in that special fragrance and promised himself that he'd keep this woman in his heart no matter what. He turned to his painted pony and accepted the leg up one of the guides offered. No way was he going to allow his pride to set back his return. And turning his pony around, he gazed over the village that had been his home these past months, seeing it with very different eyes from that time when he'd first been brought here.

Raising his hand as if in benediction, he turned his mount and followed the others as they waded across the river, and as he followed the tortuous route up the mountain he looked back many times watching as people, lodges and river began to grow smaller and smaller.

He shivered when they entered the beginning of the tunnels, but Carter was ready and, dismounting she rummaged around in her pack and approached him with a soft blanket of skins. His head tilted to the side as he watched her and she smiled shyly.

"Your step mom knew you'd be cold."

And reaching up she settled it over his shoulders, allowing her hand to rest on his thigh a moment longer than necessary, just happy to be able to have the contact.

She was back on her pony when the lead rider set off again.

--

They had halted at the base of the mountain to rest the ponies and take a short break and that is when the three members of SG-1 finally knew they had their own Jack O'Neill back.

"No way, and that's final!"

"Sir, Little Step made us promise."

"Tough - she didn't make me."

Daniel, his eyes rolling, spluttered, "Yeah, and we know why."

"It's not gonna happen, so I'd suggest we stop providing this small form of entertainment for the audience and move on."

No one, however, stirred which set Jack's teeth on edge. He glared at his team hardly believing that in the short time they'd been reunited he was having this confrontation with them.

"And in case anyone misunderstood, that was an order from your commanding officer!"

His sharp bark was obviously causing consternation among his Indian guides, but as yet they appeared satisfied merely to watch what was obviously some form of disagreement.

Teal'c moved closer to Jack.

"This solemn promise was also exacted of me, O'Neill."

Jack watched with growing alarm as the Jaffa passed his weapon to Daniel, who was observing him with a 'you're-going- to-get-it-now' smug expression, and before he could voice any protest other than a startled yell of displeasure, he found himself lifted from the back of his mount, placed on the travois and wrapped in the bundle of furs that Little Step had sent for just such a job.

"You are weary. It is clear your wounds are still a discomfort. You will rest."

Jack glowered, yet knew it was next to hopeless to attempt to move unless he was prepared to have the ire of the Jaffa descend on him in a manner he knew would not do his 'I'm the leader here' status much good.

Seeing Daniel grinning at him, he snapped, "And what do you find so funny?"

"I'm happy, Jack. We've got you back and you're just the way I remember - ornery, cantankerous and a general pain in the ass and I've never been so glad to hear you whine."

Tilting his head to the side, Jack was just about to retort that he never, ever whined when he realized that all three of his team colleagues were grinning - well Teal'c was almost there - in the same idiotic manner and he had to wonder what the hell Little Step had put into the gruel they'd eaten.

And then he saw them as they really were, still dog-tired with dark circles under their eyes, skin pale and sallow, their uniforms hanging looser than he remembered on their frames, but offset by a burning joy that almost radiated off their inner beings as their eyes rested on him.

And as he began to understand just a little of what they had been through in reaching this point, his loss of pride seemed of no importance when set against the value of his team being here with him now.

Sighing, he permitted himself the luxury of relaxing. Little Step had made the travois with extra care to ensure that Jack's journey would be in the greatest of comfort. It was yet another show of her love for him, so he accepted that he could put up with the embarrassment. As long as he could walk back through the Stargate he could put up with this a little longer. And putting his hands behind his head, he stretched out and grinned.

"You know guys, I could get used to this."

--

In Little Step's lodge the old woman sat holding a warm herbal drink, content among her furs as she listened to Colored Sky chant a favorite song which foretold the coming of a great warrior who would lead the tribe to future glory and as the young woman crooned the haunting song, her hand strayed to her stomach where she knew a new life stirred within.

THE END