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Hanging from the beam above his head, the bell was swaying back and forth, the clapper not quite connecting, but only by a breath. Jack listened to the slap and plunk of the water against the hull and watched the bell, willing it not to sound. Daniel snored softly, almost inaudibly, his lashes fluttering as his eyes followed something in a dream. Squeezed in between Jack and the hull, he'd fallen asleep with one arm folded under his head, the other curled close to his chest, fist under his chin; he was wrapped tight to save space. His breath was hot against the side of Jack's arm, but not as hot as the air that spilled languidly in through the porthole and settled around them like the uncoiling fall of wet silk. Wiping the sweat off his lip on the back of his wrist, Jack reached up and wrapped his hand around the bell, just as the clapper tapped the greened brass. The sound went into his bones instead of the air. Daniel kept snoring.

At their feet, Teal'c sat upright, his hands resting, palms up, on his raised knees. There wasn't enough room for his usual lotus. As the boat rocked on the waves and the lantern followed just a little belatedly, the shadows on Teal'c's face seemed to ebb and flow. Jack watched the cheekbone under Teal'c's left eye, his chin, the outline of his tatoo brighten and fade, brighten and fade, until it seemed like it was the face itself that was flowing, instead of the light. Squeezing his own eyes shut for a moment, Jack looked away, catching Daniel's exhalation, the taste of salted fish, brandy, peppermint. A few scant feet above the crates that served as their bunk, Carter paced the deck, the dull rhythm of her steps on the uneven planks advancing and retreating, measured, unhurried.

Jack allowed himself to breathe in just a little more of Daniel before shifting carefully onto his side-- away from the circle of black in the porthole, away from Daniel's closed eyes--and willing himself to sleep.

Above his head, the bell swayed back and forth, the clapper not quite connecting with the brass.


When he rolled over again, it was Carter who was curled up, her back against him, her knees against the hull, her tank top clinging and stained dark down the spine. Her shoulder gleamed in the yellow glow of the lamp, sheened and smooth except where the sweat beaded and distilled the light, gathered it into scattered pearls of brightness. Breathing shallowly, she whispered something Jack couldn't catch and gooseflesh prickled along her arm.

"What's that, Carter?" Jack asked, not really expecting a reply.

"I believe Major Carter is dreaming," Teal'c answered. His eyes were dark pools pricked with light at their centres. "She has been restless." As if to illustrate, Carter's booted foot jerked out against Teal'c's thigh, not for the first time, Jack guessed. Unfolding from his cramped position, Teal'c slid down from the crate into the narrow aisle, bending low to avoid the crossbeam. "The rain has ended. I believe I will go onto the deck."

Jack remembered rain. It had hissed through his half-dream like a curtain drawn across the ocean and then was gone, billowing over the horizon on a single exhalation of tropical wind. "You sure you don't want my place?" he offered, half hoping and fully expecting his generosity to be rejected.

"It is almost my watch," Teal'c demurred, the smile that wouldn't surface on his face nevertheless curling through his whisper as he climbed the ladder. "I will leave you to deal with Major Carter's dreams."

Again on cue, Carter tensed and pushed away from the wall. Jack braced an extended arm against the crate across the aisle and pushed back before she could topple him out into the bilge.

"Oh, I don't think so," Carter said distinctly as the fight went out of her and she went limp.

Jack kept the arm braced, just in case, until her breathing was deep and even and his elbow was starting to cramp. Nudging her over with his hip, he managed to coax a few more inches of crate for himself, which left him still at least half a foot shy of barely enough.

In the open eye of the porthole, a single star rose and fell, rose and fell. Daniel's low chuckle tumbled across the deck above, muted by the heavy air and punctuated by the bell which rang once, tentatively, before Jack caught its thrumming in his hand. A shudder passing through her--Jack felt it from his shoulder to his thigh--Carter sighed.


In the moonlight, the world was etched, if anything, more clearly than in the lamplight below decks, but Jack had to pause anyway to let his eyes adjust, more to the shift of mood from warm orange to icy blue than to new darkness. Snapping the P90 to its strap, he turned in a slow circle, getting his bearings. Not that there were much in the way of bearings to get: there was no land to be seen at all, and the constellations wheeling slowly in the bowl of the sky were as unreadable to him as hieroglyphs. No North Star or Southern Cross to pin him to the world. No "You Are Here." He should've been used to this kind of free-floating by now, but he wasn't. By reflex his eye started to pick out its own meaningful patterns in the sky, connecting the dots. But there were an awful lot of dots.

With a soft grunt of defeat, he turned to the near-at-hand. This domain was pretty easy to survey, since the felucca was only forty feet from bow to stern and barely fifteen feet across at its widest point. Rising up from its two-part articulated mast in the middle of the deck, the boat's vast triangular sail cupped the wind, efficiently taut even with only this faint breath to drive them all forward to "the other side of the world," as the steerman had called it, pointing to the empty horizon with a bony finger. A moon twice the size of Earth's hung behind the sail now, illuminating it so that the seams of each narrow strip of cloth stood out dark like the intricate veining of a leaf. At the edge of the sail's shadow, tucked into the narrow bow between the ubiquitous crates, the steerman slept wrapped in his cloak despite the heat, his pointed cap pulled down over his eyes. Around him, the deck was quicksilvered with moonlight on rainwater so that he looked like he was floating on the sea itself. At the stern, on the other edge of the shadow, Teal'c sat cross-legged on a crate, unmoving himself but swaying across the starfield like the pointer on a metronome as the felucca rode the swells.

Catching a movement in the corner of his eye, Jack snapped the P90 up to chest level. Then, lowering it with a silent snort, he whispered, "Oh, it's only you."

The chimpish actually looked more like a half-sized spider monkey than a chimp, but "spider monkeyish" just didn't roll off the tongue. Hanging by its ratlike tail from the boom, he managed to twist his neck so that his head was upright, his face mostly all round, black, watery eyes watching Jack curiously. He sniffed the air in Jack's direction a few times and then covered his face with both hands. Somehow the eyes looked offended when they peered from between his long fingers.

"Hey, it's not my fault there's no shower facilities on this bucket," Jack objected.

Chimpish made a little chattering noise between bared, blunt teeth.

"Yeah, well you're no bouquet of roses."

With a final, clearly derisive clucking of the tongue, chimpish ducked under the sail, skittered along the boom, his shadow rippling grotesquely, and leapt from the end of it directly into the steerman's lap. The steerman's skeletal hand emerged from within the folds of his cloak and scratched the animal behind the ears while he circled a few times and finally settled down with his tail wrapped around his head.

Below Jack's feet, the bell chimed once, paused while the ship slid down a deep trough, and rang again as they topped the crest of the next swell.

***

Jack wasn't startled by the touch of fingers that trailed down the back of his neck; he recognized Daniel's step, the shape of the shadow that preceded him to the felucca's rail where Jack was leaning. He kept his eyes on the water while Daniel stepped up and leaned next to him. Below them, something vast rose up to show the gleam of its back and then sank away again. Jack imagined the whale going down and down and down, making depth as it went, and he was small, the felucca a tiny, bobbing cork. Suddenly he had a visceral understanding of "unfathomable."

"Wow." Daniel said.

"Yeah." The silence hung around them, broken by the creak of a pulley and the muffled ringing of the bell. Jack said, "Carter, huh?"

Daniel nodded, a blur of motion in Jack's peripheral vision, a faint glow of skin moving against dark. "She's like some kind of spring on a hair-trigger. I couldn't take the suspense."

Jack smiled. "Still, you should try to get some sleep." He waved a hand toward the land that was now looming into sight, a low, blue-black shadow against the opalescent paling of the horizon. "You've got a big day today."

"I'm ready."

"I know."

"I'm not tired."

"Yes you are."

"No I'm not."

"Are."

Turning to lean his back on the rail, Daniel asked, "How do you know, hmm?"

"Because I pay attention," Jack answered as though he were pointing out that white was white and black was black. "It's my job to know things like that."

Leaning back so he could see Daniel's face, Jack cocked his head appraisingly. Daniel was indistinct in the gloaming, but Jack could feel him breathing, steady under scrutiny. He could feel him taking up space, his shoulders slightly hunched with fatigue, his feet braced wide against the rocking of the deck, his hands on the railing calloused and grimy under the fingernails. He smelled of salt and sweat. It made Jack thirsty. Behind him, the sea was steel grey motion. Daniel was stillness, waiting.

Jack started to move, but caught himself, turning away to watch the water surge past as the boat fell into the valley between waves. So, Daniel leaned forward himself, his lips just barely touching the skin below Jack's ear. "Soon," he murmured. The sound went into Jack's bones instead of the air.


THE END


Notes:  I saw Jack's hand closing around a swingng bell... and then this story happened. For all my LJ friends, who rock in technicolour.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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