Title: Before Midnight
Summary: Christmas Eve here, there, then, and now in the Stargate Program. Characters and settings from both SG-1 and Atlantis.
Disclaimer: Not mine. Only playing.
Characters: George Hammond, Elizabeth Weir, Hank Landry, Samantha Carter, Jack O'Neill
Pairings: Not ship-centric, but there's Sam/Jack ship context to the last couple of bits of this, so reader be warned
A/N: Religious themes affirmed, rejected, secularized, militarized, and probably generally mangled herein. My own opinions may or may not be represented here; this is in the spirit of thematic and character exploration.
Cheyenne Mountain, 1998
It took a great deal less time, Major General George Hammond reflected, to get outside by going off-world than it did to make it topside from deep within the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain. Nevertheless, he'd made the long journey up from his office, through a myriad of security checkpoints and other procedures, because he really wanted to see the sky right now.
There were churches of all kinds, and this would have to do for his tonight. After a brief but fierce afternoon storm that had painted the landscape white, the night skies had cleared completely. Moonlight reflected off of the new snow, and it was almost like daylight in spite of the lateness of the hour.
Earlier in the day, Hammond had called his daughter, telling her with regret that he would be unable to leave work to join her and her family for the Christmas Eve church service they attended each year. He couldn't explain that some of his people were missing, that a mission had gone terribly wrong, and she knew better than to ask. While he regretted the necessity, his place right now was here, standing vigil, waiting and hoping for some word from his lost team.
Four days ago, SG-11 had failed to make a scheduled report. After a suitably alarming period of time elapsed, and no new information was gained through the MALP on the other side of the gate, new teams were sent to investigate. What they found was a complete absence of any information whatsoever. The entirety of SG-11 seemed to have disappeared without a trace. No one at the SGC had any idea where to start looking for them.
Hammond's hat and gloves were in his coat pockets; for the moment, he did not take them out. The cold air, well below freezing, stung his fingers and head, but the discomfort gave him something new to focus on, a way to break his mind, temporarily, out of the never-ending circular path it had trod the last few days.
It was the waiting that formed the most difficult part of his job. Crises that required action passed with relative ease compared to those which required patience. Faith, he had found, was far easier when it involved work than when it involved stillness; but his people looked to him for strength, for inspiration, for the power of belief, and even in these times when it seemed impossible, it was his duty to them to find that faith somewhere inside of himself.
That was why he found himself standing here, staring upwards, allowing freezing temperatures to shock him out of his doubts. He breathed deeply, trying not to think, seeking his way back to a position at center. Eventually, Hammond realized that his hands were turning numb. With a sigh, he turned back to the hidden but nevertheless imposing fortress that was more his home than the place he usually slept. As he made his way back through the security procedures, he stopped to speak to those on duty, asking after their families and wishing them well on the holiday.
Following an impulse, he asked the sergeant at the innermost security checkpoint whether any of the members of SG-1 had left the base. Hammond was not surprised to find they had not. They'd returned the previous day from off-world and, on being informed of SG-11's disappearance, had predictably requested to join the search immediately. Hammond had firmly told them that they'd be on forty-eight hours downtime, after which they'd receive their new orders.
After considering for only a moment where they might most likely be found, Hammond headed for Captain Carter's lab. As he approached, he heard voices carrying down the hallway, and smiled slightly to find his intuition had been correct.
On reaching the room, he hesitated in the doorway for a moment, studying the four individuals. Captain Carter was still doggedly working on some experiment, but he suspected that her determination wouldn't hold out much longer. She was smiling surreptitiously as she listened to Dr. Jackson and Colonel O'Neill talking over each other while trying to explain something – Hammond couldn't actually decipher what – to Teal'c. Teal'c, for his part, was looking from one to the other, hands clasped behind his back.
Captain Carter looked up and opened her mouth as though to interject something into the incomprehensible babble coming from the two men; on spying Hammond, however, she dropped the instrument in her hand on the table and stood to. "General Hammond, sir," she said, causing the others to look around.
Hammond waved at her and Colonel O'Neill, who had stood a little straighter, in some approximation of attention. "At ease, Captain, Colonel," he said.
"General," Colonel O'Neill said with a half-smile. "We were just trying to explain Santa to Teal'c here. Care to take a stab at it? Daniel was, as usual, over-complicating things."
"You know, I'm pretty sure I told you people to go home and rest."
"Actually, sir, you just told us not to work. So the only one with a problem is Carter, here, who can't seem to stop."
"Don't any of you have –" and suddenly, he paused, looking around at the people in the room with him and kicking himself for the distraction that led to his near-gaffe. Aside from Captain Carter, who had a father who was God-knew-where in the galaxy and a brother from whom Hammond knew she was estranged, they really didn't have any family to see. "Don't you people have houses?" It was a poor recovery, but it would have to do. "You could at least leave the base for a few hours. It's Christmas Eve."
He watched the exchange of looks among the four of them, wordless communication rapidly becoming art after their time together in the field. "Respectfully, sir," Jack said, "There are some folks missing out there, and I think I speak for all of us when I say we'd rather be here."
Hammond nodded. It was the way this place had to operate. No one could do this job without the belief that every man or woman on the base would drop everything, at any time, at a moment's notice, for anyone else here.
It could be this time, this team, for which the miracle that they waited on failed to happen. One of these times, one of these missing or endangered teams would not return home safely. Hammond was aware that the others in this room knew that, too, but not one of them would ever say it. What mattered right now was that everyone at Stargate Command knew that General Hammond, that the members of SG-1 were here, waiting, even on Christmas. Waiting to mount that rescue op at the littlest shred of evidence that SG-11 was alive anywhere in the galaxy.
There wasn't anything else to be said, really. He headed for the door, pausing on his way out of the room.
"Merry Christmas, people."
The persistent gusts of wind pushing against Dr. Elizabeth Weir as she stood on the balcony were warm in spite of the late hour. Gazing out at the partially-lit city that she'd so recently come to call home, Elizabeth found herself reflecting on the oddity of the season. They told her that there would eventually be a winter here, but she wondered if they'd notice, beyond a chilling of the nighttime breezes, sitting out in the middle of the ocean as they were.
It seemed stranger than it should, to have it be summer today, Christmas Eve. She'd studied and worked all over the globe, on both sides of the equator. She'd even celebrated Christmas in Australia once, though that trip was just for fun. Time zones, international boundaries, latitudes and longitudes, these things had long since ceased to have any meaning for her. Atlantis was so far out of context, it should have even less significance; yet somehow, it had more.
Elizabeth turned away from the view of city and ocean, passing through the door back into the labyrinthine hallways of the city. A restless spirit seemed to have invaded her tonight. It was, she thought, most likely due to the passing of an event of such cultural significance with so little ceremony to mark it. She knew that a few members of the expedition had arranged a small religious service earlier in the evening. She'd briefly considered attending it herself, and still wondered if she should have, as a gesture of support. But she considered herself a member of the church of intellect, the church of humanism. She found no comfort or solace for herself in religion, and had ultimately decided that it would be more disrespectful to attend in her non-belief than to be absent.
For some reason, though, she wanted company now, but she didn't know who would be awake at this hour other than the night shift in the control room. Rodney, she reasoned, was always puttering with something these days; perhaps he would be awake in the lab. She began to make her way there, heading for one of the transportation stations.
When she approached the open door to the lab, she heard voices, and, not wishing to interrupt, she stopped for a moment to listen.
"You believe in God." Rodney sounded incredulous.
"It isn't the most unusual thing in the world, McKay." That was Radek Zelenka, the Czech, as Rodney frequently called him when he remembered to mention him at all.
"You're a scientist," Rodney said. "And you're actually intelligent, unlike half the lunks we work with here. Surely you know that doesn't make any sense."
Elizabeth wondered why she was still standing here, but she couldn't seem to make up her mind whether to proceed into the room or to turn and walk away. "McKay," Zelenka responded, "I'll be the first to say it doesn't make any sense. But that's the point. It doesn't have to make sense. We don't have to be able to understand, to prove everything for it to be real. Sometimes we don't have the tools yet. Sometimes it's impossible. Surely you see that science teaches us that, too."
"Yes, well, I generally like my hypotheses to have even a shred of evidence to support them before I just accept them as true."
"There is value in faith, McKay. And I challenge you to disprove the hypothesis. Generally it is easier to disprove something than to prove it, no?" Zelenka did not sound annoyed, or hostile, but rather at ease, as though he'd had this conversation many times, with many different people.
"Why don't we just take it as given that you're an idiot and get back to work, shall we?" Elizabeth smiled. She could just picture Rodney rolling his eyes as he spoke.
"Whatever you say. But I will take tomorrow off."
Feeling as though some binding had released, Elizabeth moved again, turning around and heading away from the lab and the two scientists. There was no point in disrupting work that had both men out of bed this late.
She headed for the commissary, where perhaps, she thought, she might find people more at their ease. As she walked up the steps, she spotted Teyla sitting with Lieutenant Ford and Major Sheppard at a table on the far side of the room, and she moved in their direction.
"Really, it's all about the food," she heard Ford saying as she approached. He noticed her approach. "Dr. Weir," he said, starting to stand.
"No, don't get up," she responded. She gestured at a vacant chair. "May I?"
"Of course," John said. "Teyla was just asking about the meaning of Christmas. The lieutenant here was commenting on the gluttonous part of the holiday."
"It is a festival, yes?" Teyla asked.
"For some people," John said.
"Not for you?"
"My family wasn't really happy enough for festivals," he said. After the words were out of his mouth, he looked perplexed, as though unable to believe he'd actually spoken them aloud.
There was silence around the table for a moment. It was finally broken by Teyla.
"I really do not know very much about your people, your traditions, your faith," she said. "I would like to learn more."
"Our world has many different peoples who follow many different faiths. Some follow none at all. In the part of our world that we come from," and Elizabeth gestured at herself and the two men, "the most common religious faith is the one that celebrates this particular holiday."
"And is that the faith you practice?" Teyla asked, looking around at the three of them.
When the two men remained silent, Elizabeth spoke. "I personally don't follow any God or religion. I believe man is capable of great things, so I guess you could say I've spent my faith on that."
"And you, Major?" Teyla asked, looking at John.
He shrugged. "My mom took me to church once in a while when I was growing up," he said. "But it all seems pretty irrelevant now. I mean, think about where we are, what we've seen. We're out here in the middle of nowhere fighting a race of aliens that eats you alive. What's that got to do with church?"
"'The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost,'" quoted Ford, suddenly serious. When the others all stared at him, he held up his hands. "What? I grew up Baptist, okay? You're supposed to be able to, like, recite the Bible by the time you're four or something."
"Perhaps," Teyla said, "that is still something worth hoping for, no matter what you believe about gods." She paused, looking around the table. "May there always be someone to come for those who are lost."
"Hear, hear," said Elizabeth softly.
Cheyenne Mountain, 2005
Major General Hank Landry stood still in the doorway, watching his daughter moving about her lab, still unaware of his presence. She was, for him, the embodiment of one of life's greatest mysteries. How was it fair that the best things one produced, he wondered, could be so equally composed of one's triumphs and one's failures? His only child was hard, he thought, with a distinct edge, and he knew he'd been the one to give that to her; but she was beautiful, and brilliant, and the knife's blade was what made her able to survive in this place, where she was so badly needed.
He spoke at last, quietly, so as not to startle her. "Carolyn."
She did not turn away from the microscope she was bending over when she responded. "Hi, Dad."
He laughed softly, surprised. "Dad? You must be tired."
Now she straightened, making a notation on the lab book next to her before she looked up at him and spoke. "Just glad you're here, maybe. And it is Christmas Eve."
"Yes, it is. That's why I'm here, in fact. You've barely left this lab, let alone the base, in two weeks, Carolyn. You cancelled your plans to visit your mother for Christmas."
"That plague was the worst thing I've ever seen, Dad. I know we think the vaccine will protect us in the future, but what if there's something we've missed? I just want to be sure we've looked at everything."
"It'll still be here tomorrow."
"So will I."
"I'm going to a Christmas Eve service, Carolyn. It's in an hour. I'd like it if you'd come."
He could tell she was startled. He hadn't seen her at Christmas since she was old enough to make her own decisions about where to spend the holiday. "The world must be ending," she said, sounding suspicious.
"I am the harbinger of doom. Carolyn, it might surprise you, but I actually do attend church when I can."
She looked at him stonily. "I don't."
"I know that. But it's Christmas, and since you're here, I'd like to spend it with you."
She sighed. "Okay. Fine. Just give me a few minutes to wrap up."
He nodded, settling on a stool to wait. Once she'd finished, they headed for the surface. When they were finally outside, Landry looked up, considering the low-hanging clouds. "It's going to snow soon."
"You know, I spend so much time inside that mountain and … other places, I sometimes forget that I'm living someplace that has a real winter."
"Definitely not in Atlanta anymore. You miss it?"
"Honestly, what I miss most often is being ignorant about all of this."
"Yeah, I'm not sure Jack O'Neill did either of us any favors on this one," Hank said, and was rewarded with a small chuckle from his daughter.
As they drove into town, he observed Carolyn closely. He was always aware of her reactions. He'd never really figured out how to be the kind of father some other men learned how to be; he'd never managed to put aside the military mantle and show affection openly. But he had always watched her. He'd learned her like he'd learned tactics and strategy, like he'd learned to read the men and women who served under him.
She was looking for something, as if she were holding her breath. Waiting, waiting for some event that would coalesce her thoughts, he suspected, thoughts that sometimes spun out of control for her as they did for everyone who was serving in the SGC, fighting this looming, ferocious, incomprehensible enemy.
Entering the church building did nothing to relieve the tension he felt in her; in fact, it seemed to increase through several prayers and hymns, and Landry began to regret asking her to come with him. He hadn't intended to make it harder for her to bear her burdens; he'd just wanted, selfishly, to have some time with his strange and fascinating child.
It was in the middle of a scripture reading that he sensed his daughter had found some resolution. "'And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,'" the reader proclaimed from the lectern, "'And the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and the were sore afraid.'" He saw her lower her head, biting her lip in a mannerism he remembered from her childhood. When she looked up again, the tension was gone; she seemed calmer, but also more resolute.
Landry wasn't naïve enough to think Carolyn had suddenly found her faith in the middle of a Christmas Eve service that was, for her, a break from a rather serious reality. He wondered what epiphany it was that she'd had, but he suspected he'd never know. His daughter was no better at sharing with him than he was at sharing with her.
When they left the church, it was in silence that continued as they drove back toward the base. By the time they parked at the top of the mountain, the snow had finally begun to fall, coming down more heavily by the moment. As they left the car and began the walk across the parking lot, Landry glanced sideways at his daughter. "If you want to go home, you should probably do it now. I think this is going to be a bad one."
She shook her head. "I'll stay here. I really did have some things I wanted to finish earlier."
He grunted in response.
When she spoke again, her voice was calm, in a strange counterpoint to her words. "Dad, I'm scared. I don't see how this ends well."
He sighed. "I know, Carolyn. Sometimes I'm scared, too."
She stopped, turning to face him. "That should make me feel worse. Why does it make me feel better?"
"Because we're not alone." He reached out to take her gloved hand in his own, holding it until she nodded in response. Then he turned away, and they walked on together through the falling snow.
Several weeks ago one of Colonel Samantha Carter's dutiful administrative staffers had informed her of the exact local date on which Christmas would fall. Sam had smiled and thanked the man. She had not yet had the heart to tell him that she could track all of the clocks and calendars in her head. At any given moment she knew the day, date, and time in Atlantis, on all of Earth's major off-world bases, in Colorado Springs, in Washington, D.C., in San Diego, and in a large number of additional Earth cities. This faithful attendant, however, had obviously performed an important function for Dr. Weir, and Sam just hadn't been able to say the words 'I really don't need you to do this.'
Right now, it was approximately 1515 hours in Washington, D.C., and therefore about 1315 at the SGC. But in Atlantis, it was already a few hours after sunset, and so this was the time they'd scheduled an ecumenical Christmas Eve service for those members of the expedition who wished to attend.
Atlantis's contingent of personnel now included a number of officiants of various faiths, including the Air Force chaplain currently presiding over this service. Sam sat, along with the others present, in a small amphitheater near the center of the city. She wondered what the room had originally been used for. Theater, perhaps, or chamber music? The Lanteans, the Ancients, the Ancestors – whatever name you used for them, they had been almost incomprehensibly advanced; they must have had art, literature, and music that could astound the mind as much as did their scientific advances. Those, however, were the parts of the city and the database that they raced by without even examining, since such creations weren't particularly useful when confronted by replicators or by soul-sucking aliens and their space armadas.
Daniel would be appalled, but then again, Sam had to admit that Colonel Carter, commander of Atlantis, was mostly glad Daniel wasn't around right now. She was never completely sure what the true mission was here; whether it was to save the Pegasus Galaxy from the threats they had unleashed upon it, or to learn as much as they could about the Ancients and their technology, or to keep a foot in Pegasus so as to know whether the Wraith or the Asurans ever became a true threat to the Milky Way and Earth. That was the problem with reporting to a committee. Had her chain of command belonged strictly to the USAF, her mission and priorities would have been clearly spelled out. But in her reality, nebulous and ever-changing as it was, Daniel, for all she loved him as a brother, would have been a constant thorn in her side.
When she wasn't being Colonel Carter, though, Sam thought that she'd be willing to put up with the trouble just to have one face that was a little more familiar around. Sitting here, she felt, perhaps for the first time in the last ten years, like she was a soldier fighting in a much more typical war; deployed away from home, she was spending the holiday separated from family and loved ones, together instead with people she barely knew but had to trust with her life nonetheless.
With the intergalactic bridge in place, it was possible for some members of the expedition to spend the holiday at home with their families. Privileges and responsibilities of leadership being what they were, however, Sam had been adamant that she, as well as her senior staff, would be among those who stayed.
For herself, Sam felt only that it was time she paid those dues. Over the last decade, she'd been privileged to spend days like these with the people she was closest to. Sometimes it had been on downtime, and other times in frank mortal peril, but regardless, alone was something she'd only been when she'd chosen to be so. And she felt no guilt for asking her staff to stay as well, because she knew that most of them were bound up in the same kind of web here that she'd been part of at Stargate Command. Those who were not, she knew, must learn to be.
She glanced next to her at Jennifer Keller, who was clearly lost in the moment. Sam was certain, absolutely certain that she herself had never been that young. Dr. Keller was still finding her way here, and Sam wondered who this not-quite-child would find herself to be when she was broken, because eventually they were all broken and had to find themselves remade.
Across the room Sam could see Rodney, sitting with Katie Brown on one side and Radek Zelenka on the other. Rodney looked profoundly uncomfortable. Sam attributed his presence wholly to Dr. Brown's influence. Dr. Zelenka, on the other hand, looked intent, as though this was something he took very seriously. In Sam's experience, people immersed in science lived religious faith at one pole or the other; either they rejected it utterly and completely as scientifically unsound, or they cleaved to the mystery with all of their being. She suspected Radek fell into the second camp.
Turning her head slightly, Sam directed her eyes to the people she knew were standing in the back corner of the room. John Sheppard, his arms crossed, almost, in fact, wrapped around himself protectively. Teyla, inscrutable as always. Ronon, his head cocked to the side, looking rather perplexed and, if she read him right, a little surprised at finding himself here.
Truthfully, Sam was more than a little surprised to find them here herself. Sheppard was perhaps the most irreverent man she'd ever known, and the incongruity of Atlantis's two most prominent Pegasus-galaxy citizens attending a celebration of one of Earth's religious holidays needed no explanation. Were they seeking a balm for their grief, or perhaps some expiation for their own perceived sins? She'd felt that herself more than once over the years, living with the knowledge that decisions she had made with the best of intentions had led to unforeseen and devastating consequences.
She thought of the words Jack had said to her, the night before she'd left for Atlantis. She'd been assailed, beset, beleaguered by doubts; doubt both in her decision and in her own capabilities. She'd asked him how he had ever thought she could do this. His answer had been simple.
"You make good choices." When she'd stared at him, incredulous, he'd tried to elaborate. "You know what right feels like, Sam. I trust you. Trust yourself."
Perhaps, she mused, it didn't matter why they were here, physically or metaphysically, after all. Clear missions, unambiguous chains of command wouldn't change what they really had to do. They were making light in darkness, tending their little lamp in the great big night of the universe, doing their best to make their choices right, to hold back whatever evil they could.
The service ended, and as she rose, she looked again at the woman next to her. Dr. Keller had unshed tears standing in her eyes, and she looked embarrassed to be caught that way.
"Sorry," she said. "I love Christmas. And I miss my dad. Silly."
"Not really," Sam said, and on impulse, reached out to embrace the younger woman.
Washington, D.C., 2007
It was unusually warm for Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C., the afternoon temperature having reached well into the sixties. Even now, nearly two hours past sunset, the air could barely be considered chilly by denizens of the city who expected temperatures at least fifteen degrees cooler. Tourists and residents alike, caught off guard by the unexpected warm front, were hauling their coats about on their arms instead of wearing them.
Even on Christmas Eve there were tourists in D.C., reflected Major General Jack O'Neill. Tourists and, of course, crazy people, of which the nation's capital had plenty. He knew, though, that he had no room to talk, since he was currently looking down into the World War II Memorial, gazing in abstract fascination at the way the light and the water played together, when he really could or should be anywhere but here.
He'd certainly had invitations to spend the holiday with people he cared about. Daniel, of course, had been the first to ask; he seemed to be planning a get-together for SG-1 and one or two others from the SGC. With the Apollo currently in Earth orbit, Jack could easily have gone to Colorado Springs, and if any emergencies had come up, could just as easily have returned to his post here. And George Hammond had let Jack know that he'd be welcome at Hammond's home here in the suburbs of D.C., where he'd be celebrating with his visiting daughter and her family. There had been a number of others, as well, though none with the same level of temptation and possibility of consolation.
Leaving behind the fountains that had so mesmerized him, Jack set off again, now walking along the reflecting pool toward the Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials. As he walked, he considered the reasons why he found himself here instead of any of those places. He'd almost taken Daniel up on his offer. Daniel, Teal'c, Vala, Mitchell, they'd all be missing Sam, too, and that had almost been enough to sway him. They'd all be missing a friend, a sister, really, and that might have been enough to share. But Jack was missing the wife he'd never really fully been able to call his own, and, somehow, it felt like something he needed to bear alone.
Impulse had taken hold of him as he rode the Metro home from his office in the Pentagon. When he'd first relocated, Hammond had advised Jack to live closer to the center of D.C. than to Arlington, since any middle-of-the-night crisis would be as likely to take him to the White House Situation Room as anywhere else. Tonight, he'd left the train several stops before the Capitol Hill area where his rented brownstone apartment was located. He'd walked up the steps from the station to the National Mall, and turned to head for the brightly lit monuments. If you had to be in D.C., and were feeling a need for philosophy, or at least a need to understand your own insignificance, there was little to rival the monuments at night.
He'd now passed the Vietnam Memorial, and he stopped briefly to chat with the vets currently manning the POW/MIA vigil, wondering idly what they would say if they knew about the men and women he'd lost over the last decade, killed, missing, or otherwise. Jack had spent most of his adult life living in a world hidden from the one he walked through every day, and for the most part, it had long since ceased to bother him. But this night was one of the few when he felt that jarring rift between himself and the real world deep inside what was left of his soul.
Moving on, he headed toward the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as he tried to find the end of the knot of worry inside him so he could unravel why he'd lost his equilibrium. He did not doubt that part it was being so far from Sam, or really, the fact that she was so far from him; and, on reflection, maybe separation and distance were in fact at the core of the problem.
Having climbed approximately half the steps of the memorial, he stopped and sat, looking back toward the Washington Monument and, beyond it, the lit dome of the Capitol building. Separation and distance, yes, were likely the culprits, particularly the fact that every time he turned around, Jack seemed to be farther away from the battles being fought, the wars being waged. Even before the Stargate, most of his service had been spent doing the little things that turned the tide of battles and wars. Now, not only was the work of fighting for the world no longer the work of his hands, but it was mind-bogglingly far away, the operations conducted mostly by people he hadn't even trained himself. While he wouldn't wish the Ori back for anything, at least that war had been here, and he'd known personally most of the men and women who fought it. The only thing he seemed to give to the fight against the Wraith and the Asurans was the one thing he couldn't stand to lose, and while that might be a noble sacrifice, it wasn't the sort of thing that reduced the agitated restlessness he'd been feeling lately.
Jack continued to stare out across the reflecting pool at the foot of the steps, his thoughts tumbling a bit, one over the other. There was a tune stuck in his head, he realized, one of those old Christmas carols, and he hummed along for a minute, chasing it. Eventually he determined that he'd picked it up in on the way out of the Metro station, where it had been played by one of those itinerant musicians that seemed to populate such places the world over. It was unsurprising that it had lodged itself in his mind, he decided, having identified it as one of his mother's favorites. Concentrating, he found, brought the long-ago memory of her singing into sharper relief.
"Hi," said a little voice from behind his shoulder, startling him out of his focus. He turned, a bit disturbed by his own inattention, to find a tiny girl, five or six years old, standing immediately behind him. Beyond her, a few steps up, was a group of people he presumed to be her family, clustered around a map.
"Hi, yourself," he said in reply.
"Are you in the Army?" she asked.
"Nope. Air Force," he answered, amused.
"Oh," she said, nodding, as though she understood exactly what he meant. She bounced on her toes. "Do you fly planes?"
Maybe, he thought, she did understand what he was saying. "Used to."
Her next question shocked him, though he supposed it shouldn't have. "Have you ever killed anybody?"
By now a young woman he presumed to be the girl's mother was approaching, and Jack pushed himself up from the ground, standing in some gesture of respect drilled into him in a different lifetime. He looked down at the child seriously. "Only when I absolutely had to. And I never liked it."
"Oh," she said, now looking awed.
"I'm so sorry," her mother said, pulling the girl away and giving her a gentle push back towards the little knot of people she'd originally come from.
"Nothing to be sorry for, ma'am."
"Her father's in Iraq," she said.
It was a common enough leap, and it certainly explained the little girl's incisive questions. If you walked around anywhere, but in this town in particular, wearing the uniform, people either stared, or they stopped to talk about their father, or their daughter, or someone they knew in high school, and how and where they'd served. He didn't mind. "Army?"
She nodded. "He's supposed to be home in six months. So I just … thank you. For serving. Whatever it is you do."
He dipped his head once, in acknowledgment. "Merry Christmas, ma'am."
"Merry Christmas," she replied, and she turned to walk back to her family.
He watched her go, then looked back at the view he'd been studying before the interruption. Separation and distance were relative, Carter would probably tell him right about now. It was only in the context of what you knew that such things could be measured.
The words to that elusive Christmas song had finally begun to cement in his mind. It was, as were all such songs, a message that was simplistic, childlike on its surface. Jack might have issues with God, little faith in a higher power left to be found after a lifetime of blood, but he wasn't so stupid that he'd miss the fact that if you held that message up to the light and shook it around, it wasn't nearly so straightforward.
This song, it spoke about war and the brokenness of the world; about the clamor of battle and the inability to hear or see beyond the struggle to beat back the things that were wrong; about the certainty of a someday world where the fight was over and won. He wasn't sure about the likelihood of the last bit, but he got the connection.
All the fighting in the world, or the universe, didn't matter if there wasn't hope for a different future. And to have hope, somebody had to remember to stop, to listen, to dream something better than now.
Jack started back down the stairs, beginning the process of retracing his steps. He'd go home, spend some time missing Sam, because that was part of the way to remember that it mattered. On his way, though, he'd have a few minutes to kill, so he pulled out his cell and dialed a familiar number in Colorado Springs.
"Hey, Daniel," Jack said when the other man answered.
"Jack," Daniel replied, sounding surprised. "What's up?"
"Just spreading my holiday cheer," Jack said. Daniel was silent, and Jack laughed softly. "Merry Christmas, Daniel."
"Merry Christmas, Jack."
For those who are into such things, Merry Christmas. Otherwise, well, peace and hope, in whatever measure you need.
Also, for completeness sake, the references are Luke 19:10 and Luke 2:9.