The flames leapt higher and the dry wood and leaves crackled as they burned. Unable to resist fidgeting, Colonel Jack O'Neill prodded the fire with one of the remaining sticks they'd collected to burn.
Another mission, another night.
Jack sighed noisily, dramatically, throwing the stick on the fire as he rested his head on his hands with expression that could only be described as boredom arranging his features. He wasn't surprised he was bored. Hammond had purposely assigned SG-1 to the planet because it was quiet, hoping it would give the four of them a chance to relax and recuperate after a stressful few months.
Watching him out of the corner of her eye, Major Samantha Carter fought the urge to ask him what was wrong. A few months ago, she would have thought nothing of it, of showing some concern for her friend, her CO. Now, though.. There was the risk it would be construed as more, even when only Daniel and Teal'c where there to overhear. Besides, she wasn't entirely sure her concern was *just* the concern of a subordinate and friend.
He sighed again, heavily and obviously out to attract attention. Doctor Daniel Jackson released a sigh of his own, one that was distinctly quieter, and looked up from the tin cup he was drinking from. "Okay, I'll bite." Draining the cup of its contents, he set it down beside him. "What's up, Jack?"
"Nothin'." Pouting, the Colonel crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against his log.
Rolling his eyes in disbelief, Daniel stared at him. "You're not still annoyed because we forgot to bring the marshmallows, are you?"
Scowling, Jack threw a glare in the archaeologist's direction. He didn't like being made fun of, especially not by the person who'd learnt how to use sarcasm from him. "No." There was a pause. Silence fell over them but it didn't last long. "I'm bored," Jack complained, almost whining.
"Bored, O'Neill?" Teal'c joined in, cocking his head to one side.
"Yeah, Teal'c. *Bored*." He put extra emphasis on the word, gesturing wildly with his hands. "This place is *boring*. There's no life here, no wildlife that we've seen, nothing *interesting*. Just *trees*. Damn boring trees. It's like a fricking ghost planet, for crying out loud!"
If he'd been looking at Daniel, he would have seen the mischievous sparkle that appeared in his eyes. But instead the Colonel glanced to his Second-in-Command, waiting to see her reaction to his rant, pleased when he saw her duck her head in an attempt at hiding a smile.
At least one good thing had come out of this mission: he'd made Carter smile. She'd stopped doing that since being kidnapped by the NID guys, and he'd noticed.
"Okay." Daniel grinned, breaking the silence as he witnessed Jack glance at Sam. "Why don't we tell ghost stories? If you're still bored afterwards, then I give up."
"Ghost stories?" Even Teal'c looked doubtful as Jack repeated the suggestion sceptically.
"Sure!" Daniel nodded enthusiastically and looked to Sam for support. "You think it's a good idea, Sam?"
Realising this was her chance to be a *friend* instead of an officer.. or more.. Sam nodded in return. "Yeah." She smiled impishly. "Unless the Colonel's scared he'll have nightmares.."
A teasing smile from Sam, and Jack was won over. Smothering his own smile, Daniel watched them with interest, seeing *something* pass between them that had been missing for quite a while.
"Knock yourself out, Daniel." Crossing his hands behind his head, Jack lay back and got comfortable, taking his eyes from his Major to rest on the younger man. "And make it a good one, okay? Carter claims she hasn't been afraid of the dark since she was three.. Time to put that to the test."
Surprised he'd remembered, she merely raised an eyebrow in response and curled up on her side of the fire, in between both Daniel and Jack but with an equal amount of space on each side.
"Everybody sitting comfortably?" Shuffling in his place to get comfy, Daniel grinned wickedly. "Okay. Then I'll start." He paused dramatically, looking from one face to the other, trying to hide his delight. They had set up camp in the heart of the forest, a perfect place for a ghost story.. Especially the one he had planned..
"In 1989, four friends were camping in the heart of Nottingham Forest in England. There were three men and one woman, the sister of one of the others. Her name was.. S.. Sophia. She didn't want to be there but she had no choice; her parents had asked her to go along with her brother and his friends to make sure they didn't get into trouble. Her brother, David, didn't mind her being there. Neither did Tommy, one of his friends. James, however, the other one, didn't want her there.."
"Why not?" Jack interrupted, bored already. "Camping out's always more fun when there's someone of the opposite sex there.." He waggled his eyebrows, grinning as Sam shot him a withering look.
Ignoring him, Daniel continued. "James didn't want Sophia there because she was a woman " A small indignant noise came from Sam's direction so he hurried on. "And because he liked her a lot. He *cared* about her.. *A lot* more than anyone knew.."
Shifting uncomfortably, Jack cleared his throat and gave Teal'c an accusing glare, just in case it was more than just a coincidence Daniel had used those words, just in case the Jaffa had told their fourth teammate about certain confessions it was best if he didn't think about..
"Anyway, James was concerned for Sophia, even though he knew she could look after herself." Daniel added with a smile at Sam. "Everything was fine during the day. The four of them explored the forest, playing pranks on each other until it was time to set up camp. Sophia, however, started feeling uncomfortable as soon as the tents were up and the night set in." Lowering his voice to make the others lean closer, Daniel kept his face neutral. "She felt someone.. or some*thing* watching her constantly, stalking her.. No matter what she did, it always felt like she was under observation. She stayed close to her brother and friends but they didn't comment on it. No one else seemed to feel anything odd but Sophia started to feel like she was caught up in a game. She felt like she was prey to something else's hunter.. But she couldn't say anything about it. She didn't want to look childish, no matter how unease she felt as the night went on."
The hairs on the back of Sam's neck stood up on end as she sank down into her seat, unconsciously pulling her collar up around her neck. Was it her imagination or was it getting colder? It was certainly colder now than it had been when Daniel had started his story. She could feel her skin tingle, almost as if set on fire by someone's gaze but when she looked quickly at the faces of her team, she found none of them were looking back.
"They settled down for the night around the fire, spread out like we are, and started telling ghost stories to keep themselves occupied. David and Tommy took turns in telling a story about a pair of young lovers who met their untimely end in the forest.. They the lovers were playing hide and seek when all of a sudden, a scream cut through the night. The guy searched for his lover but he couldn't find her. It was like she'd never even been there with him.. Eventually, he had to stop and rest.. but that was the worst mistake he could've made. Seconds after he closed his eyes, a second scream pierced the silence of the forest. Neither of the lovers were found, despite dozens of searches." He grinned as he watched his teammates shuffle nervously, even Teal'c appeared unnerved. They all kept glancing around them, the forest eerily quiet. Even the few birds they'd heard for a short while during the day had fallen silent.
"Sophia and James were.. unnerved by the story, although they pretended not to be. When Tommy suggested they play hide and seek to *prove* they weren't afraid, the two reluctantly agreed. Neither one wanted to back out, knowing how much teasing they'd have to endure if they did." A sad, ghostly smile spread across his face as the others stared at him, hanging perilously on his every word. "Mistake number one was being too afraid to speak up. I suppose, in a way, it was as good thing they didn't have much time to regret the decision."
Despite being so close to the fire, the air around them grew colder, biting at them. The wind picked up and the trees swayed a little more violently, branches cracking off each other as leaves rustled and fell. The light from the two moons cast an eerie haze over the trees and the shadows created by the fire danced, darkness hiding any number of unimaginable horrors.
"Tommy and David hid deep in the forest, staying together, laughing as they exchanged impressions of James and Sophia's reactions to their story. To them, it was just a game. A harmless prank. But everyone knows all good ghost stories hold at least one small element of truth. Mistake number two was not believing in it."
"Sophia, meanwhile, had tried to stay relatively close to the camp ground. She weaved her way in and out of the trees, keeping an eye on the light of the fire in the centre of the circle she was making. She didn't know she wasn't alone. She felt the same sensation as before, the feeling of being watch, but she brushed it aside."
Curling up even tighter, Sam tried to ignore the wind howling through the trees. She tried to repress the shiver working its way down her spine and unconsciously edged a little closer to the Colonel, some deep-rooted, repressed instinct driving her to find some element of safely, something familiar, in such foreign surroundings.
"A stick snapped behind her and Sophia turned to face whoever had been spying on her but there was no one there. She turned back to look at the fire, planning to make her way towards it instead of around it, but the flames had been extinguished. All she could see were trees and darkness."
"Alone, scared and lost, Sophia wandered around, trying to find her way back to camp. She stopped when she heard some sort of movement in the bushes to her side. Trying to be brave, she called out, telling herself it was her brother playing a stupid trick on her. Mistake number three was letting her guard down."
Feeling cold, Sam shuffled a little closer to Jack. Unbeknownst to her, he also moved a little closer to her, wiping his clammy hands on the trousers of his BDUs. His rational mind told him he was being stupid. His rational mind, however, was not in control of his racing heart, the blood pounding through his veins as he used his vivid imagination to picture the scene Daniel was setting.
Imaging it wasn't hard to do. Particularly not since they were sitting in the heart of an alien forest with God-knows-what for company.
"James heard a blood-curdling scream from where he was on the opposite side of the camp. He knew it was Sophia, he could hear the genuine terror in her voice as she screamed. With his heart thudding in his chest, his throat tightening, James ran. He searched the ground all around the camp, looking for Sophia. He called out her name, hoping against hope she'd answer and reveal the terror he'd heard was caused by an irrational fear of spiders or snakes or the night in general. He couldn't find her to get those reassurances, though. He gave up calling her name and started calling for Tommy and David. They either didn't hear him or they didn't get there in time."
"James heard what he thought was Sophia's voice and headed in that direction. He looked around but couldn't find anything. Just as he was about to give up, he saw a patch of material clinging to a thorn of a bush. He recognised it as being the same material from the shirt Sophia had been wearing."
By this point, even Teal'c was uncomfortable. He cocked his head to one side and listened intently. His eyebrow twitched. That noise.. the rustling.. that was just the wind in the surrounding plant life, right? His fingers unconsciously tightened on his staff weapon as he surveyed the darkness through narrowed eyes.
He saw nothing but darkness and the occasional even darker patch, which was where the night crossed paths with a shadow.
Nothing threatening, nothing harmful.
But that was usually when predators attacked. When a false sense of security had developed.. When their guards had been dropped.
"He picked it up and felt it was damp. He dropped it but it left a sticky, warm moisture clinging to his fingers. Red moisture. Sophia's blood. Feeling sick and dizzy, James fell to his knees. He knew then in his heart, without a doubt, that she was gone. He closed his eyes and sat there on the cold, damp ground, reeling, cursing himself for not having told her how much he really cared about her. He regretted not doing something about it."
"Distracted by his grief, James didn't hear anything. David and Tommy had started back for camp on hearing Sophia's scream. They heard an animalistic howl of pain and ran faster. When they made it back to the camp, there was no sign of either James or Sophia, just the extinguished fire. Scared and now alone, Tommy and David secluded themselves in one of the tents, too frightened to sleep, and that was where their parents and the authorities found them in the morning."
"What of Sophia and James, Daniel Jackson? Were their bodies recovered?"
Daniel smiled, his eyes dark and his face mostly in shadows. "Their bodies were never found. They were listed as missing for years and years... until eventually, everyone who knew of their disappearance either died or forgot."
Silence followed the ominous end to his story. Teal'c was enraptured, staring at the archaeologist as Daniel tried not to laugh at their reactions. Sam and Jack realised with a start just how close they had become, hurriedly putting distance between them, hoping the darkness would conceal their blushes.
"That wasn't a ghost story, Daniel!" Jack complained to cover his embarrassment at having been so caught up in it, and at having moved nearer to his Major. "That was a horror story... and a love story... and a lousy one at that!"
Chuckling, Daniel nodded, playing into his friend's delusions. "Whatever you say, Jack. Whatever you say."
"Okay, Campers." Jack cleared his throat and stood up, stretching languidly. "Danny, Teal'c, try get some sleep. Carter, you're on first watch with me."
"First watch? Do we need to be on watch?" Daniel, too, stood and shrugged the tension from his shoulders. "There's no indigenous people or wildlife we should worry about.. and the parameter's set.."
"Better safe than sorry, Daniel." The pointed look that accompanied the words was enough to sway Daniel and the others from putting up an argument.
Swiftly, the campsite was cleared of cups and backpacks. Even Teal'c entered the tent, leaving Sam and Jack alone by the dwindling fire.
Sam made no effort to move so Jack took the initiative and sat down beside her, pulling his sleeping bag around his shoulders just as she had done. They didn't speak at first, they didn't really need to.
"That was an attempt at starting a conversation, Carter. You were supposed to say something more useful than *so*."
Smothering a smile with her hand, Sam glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "So. Having a joint first watch.. Did you need someone to hold your hand, Colonel?"
He didn't know what had possessed her to say it, no more than she did, but he was thankful to whatever had. It was a first step, a baby step, one that almost took them back to the familiar ground that was flirting.
Half grinning, half-leering, he looked at her full on. "If you're offering, I wouldn't say no.."
She smiled but remained silent, moving her eyes back to the fire burning before them. Copying her, Jack leaned forward to add a few more sticks to the fire and sat back beside her, only a little closer than before, close enough for their shoulders to touch.
In silence, they sat side-by-side, indulging in a familiar pastime that had been absent of late: merely taking comfort in the other's presence and enjoying each other's company.
As the night wore on, exhaustion caught up with them and they soon fell asleep, instinctively seeking a more comfortable position in slumber, with Sam's head resting on his shoulder, their fingers somehow becoming entwined.
Witnessed by the spirits who lived in darkness, in the shadows banished by daylight.
Watched by unseen eyes.
Feedback welcome if you're so inclined: Joey@Ram32.freeserve.co.uk
Even if you're not: Happy Halloween.