"It's clear!" Nick called in an over-loud whisper, gesturing for Daniel to follow him. "They're in the living room."
He nodded, racing through the slick yard and up the back steps. He didn't dare stop to even wipe his feet before hurrying across the kitchen. Even with Nick to run interference, he wasn't sure that he was going to make it up the hall to his office until the door had clicked safely shut behind him. Vala would know they were home, though, and it wouldn't take her long to figure out where he'd gone. He hurriedly stowed the gifts behind ceremonial shield that had been waiting to be hung on the east wall for a month, then slid out into the hall again, locking the door behind him.
As casually as he could, he made his way back out to the living room, where his jaw dropped at the sight of his wife. Vala was perched on Mitchell's shoulders, humming under her breath as she arranged a string of Christmas lights. Cam's hands braced her knees, and his eyes were squeezed shut with the effort of holding her steady.
Daniel shot a questioning glance at Nick, who was watching the scene in silent amazement, and received only a shrug in response.
"Uh…honey, what are you doing?" he asked finally.
"Hanging lights, darling, what does it look like?" she replied with a gleeful grin. Her hand drifted downward and she wiggled her fingers expectantly. "Cam, I need a tack."
"Vala, you're gonna hurt yourself," Daniel began. "Mitchell, put her down!"
"She's gonna get hurt?!" Cam exclaimed as he fished another tack out of his pocket and set it in her palm.
"I don't weigh that much," Vala grumbled down at him, then busied herself with the lights again.
"You know, Vala, this is very reminiscent of the way we met," Daniel remarked with a sudden smirk. "Except I was in Mitchell's position and you were trying to beat the daylights out of me."
"As I recall, I did beat the daylights out of you," Vala replied, casually resting her arm across Cam's head as she turned to regard her husband with a raised eyebrow.
"That's not how I remember it," Daniel frowned.
"Of course not, darling, you just like to remember our first kiss and block out all the violent bits," Vala nodded.
"But the kiss was violent! You head-butted me right afterwards!"
Daniel exclaimed, eyes widening.
"If memory serves, you quite liked it." Vala said with smug certainty.
"I liked having the crap beaten outta me? Are you insane? " Daniel shot back.
"No, I meant you liked the kiss," Vala shook her head. "You really got into it. But then you called me a fruitcake, so of course I had to get in the last word. "
"Yeah, well in the end, I did get in the last word. I zatted you," Daniel reminded her with another smirk.
"Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about that. That wasn't very nice, you know!" Vala said sharply.
Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, Cam cleared his throat.
"Um, hey guys, I hate to interrupt this lively little walk down memory lane, but could we please move it along? She's getting heavy! OOF! Vala, watch the foot!"
"Oh, sorry, Cam, it slipped," Vala replied with a little shrug.
"Uh-huh. Riiiiight," Cam rolled his eyes.
"Anyway, why didn't you just use the ladder?" Daniel asked with a sudden frown.
"YOU HAVE A LADDER?" Cam roared.
"We have a ladder?" Vala's eyes widened.
"Oy," Daniel gave his forehead a smack in exasperation. "I'll go get it," he said, turning back toward the hall.
"I don't know what he gets so upset about," Vala remarked as he went, her tone quite obviously meant to be overheard. "Everything that happened aboard the Prometheus was nothing but foreplay, and he knows it."
"Getting the crap beaten out of me is a form of foreplay?" Daniel spun around again.
"Guys…?" Cam attempted.
"Of course it is, darling. Don't pretend you didn't know," Vala tilted her head coyly.
"Hey, I thought we wanted to get these lights up before the kids got back from Sam's," Cam reminded the pair hopefully.
"Oh wait," Daniel frowned, ignoring him. "Maybe that's why all the women who chase me are always trying to kill me--or poison me--or get me addicted to a sarcophagus... "
He trailed off, barely managing to conceal a grin at the murderous look that Vala shot him when he mentioned being pursued by other women. "Really, Daniel, you--" she began, but broke off with a shriek as Cam suddenly bent to dump her on the ground.
Daniel darted forward to catch her, and her arms wound tightly around his neck, but neither missed a beat in the argument. Cam listened to their continued bickering for a moment, then stalked off toward the kitchen.
"Hey, where are you going?" Vala wanted to know.
"If all you two are gonna do is fight, then I'm going to get a sandwich. Holler when you're ready to get back to hangin' the lights. Or better yet, use the ladder next time…"
"That's the one Mommy wants, Auntie Sam!" Nicky exclaimed, pointing eagerly at the most expensive crystal vase in the jeweler's display window. He ran over, gesturing wildly for Sam and Manda to follow.
"Nicky, we don't have enough for that," Manda sighed.
The five year old pouted up at his sister in so perfect an imitation of Daniel that Sam had to hide a laugh behind her hand. This would be Nicky's first time participating in the annual gift buying frenzy, and his enthusiasm was entirely too comical to resist, even for the weary adults in the party.
"But, it's what she wants!" he insisted.
"Maybe Santa will bring it, Nick," Sam suggested.
"Yeah, Santa Dad," Manda rolled her eyes.
"What do you mean?" asked Sam with honest disbelief. She'd been told, of course, about the boy in Manda's second grade class who claimed that Santa didn't exist, but this was the first thing she'd heard to indicate that Daniel and Vala's daughter had started to subscribe to that theory.
"C'mon, Auntie Sam, if Mom gets that vase from anyone but Dad she'll rub it in his face until next Christmas," Manda replied.
Sam's eyebrows rose. "I didn't know Vala wanted a vase at all," she said.
"They were fighting a couple of weeks ago," explained Nicky. "Dad brought her roses but she was mad he didn't bring them in a vase. So, then he brought her more and she was still mad."
"The vase wasn't expensive enough," nodded Manda. "So, they brought us down here a few days later to get the Christmas card pictures taken, and we passed this one, and Mom goes, 'Now that's the kind of vase a man gives his wife!' Then they started fighting about the vase."
Sam raised her eyes to the ceiling and shook her head. "Come on," she laughed, resting a hand on each of their shoulders. "I have to go in here anyway and pick up General Hammond's watch."
The kids were happy enough to stare at the jewelry in the display cases for the first few minutes, but the line was long. They started to fidget as Sam reached the half-way point, and an argument broke out just as she reached the counter. As near as she could tell, it concerned whether or not the Santa they were going to visit here was, in fact, the real one. The debate degenerated rather quickly into name-calling and poking, though, so she couldn't be sure.
By the time she had the watch, she had no idea what they were arguing about anymore, but halted the fight with a sharp threat to cut the trip short without seeing Santa. They continued silently glaring at one another, but trotted out of the store after her. Whatever they were bickering over was entirely forgotten once they reached the mall's North Pole display, where her son Carter was already in line and Jack stood leaning tiredly on a giant candy cane.
"Hi, Mom!" Carter called, looking up from his Gameboy as Nicky and Manda ran up to him.
Sam shifted the bags she was carrying and freed a hand to wave, then trudged over to drop them beside Jack. His arm automatically slid around her waist, and she lowered her forehead to his shoulder. "Did you get it?" she whispered.
"No, it was sold out," he sighed in response.
"Already?" Sam's eyes widened. She straightened and pressed a hand to the back of her neck. "What are we gonna do? That game is the only thing he put on his list."
"Christmas is still a couple weeks away," Jack said, though a shake of his head said he wasn't sure they'd find it either. "If I gotta, I'll camp out at the toy store. Bring T with me to fight off the old ladies and housewives."
"Well, hopefully, it won't come to that," Sam laughed.
"Did you get the watch?" Jack asked.
"Mmm-hmm. The engraving is perfect, too," she nodded.
"Great. Now all we gotta do is sneak it into Hammond's house on Christmas Eve," Jack said.
"Why don't we just give it to him at the Christmas party?" Sam suggested.
"Where's the fun in that?"
The wad of cookie dough was out of her hand before Vala even saw Daniel step into the kitchen doorway. Manda let out a giggling shriek and ducked, allowing the goop to smack her father squarely in the face. Both kids' eyes darted toward Vala, and their mother gulped fearfully as Daniel reached to wipe the gunk off his face.
"Uh oh…" Nicky whispered, dropping the half empty bag of flour he'd been wielding and scurrying down off the table to stand beside Vala.
"H-hi, Daddy…?" Manda squeaked as she leaped off the counter.
Daniel said nothing for a long moment, then licked his lips and nodded to himself. "Tasty," he said, continuing on his way to the refrigerator. The kids watched him stand there for a while, then turned questioning eyes back on Vala, who's mouth was hanging open in amazement.
She shrugged, mouthing a silent, "I don't know," and then bit her lip as Daniel turned back to them with a bottle of coke dangling lightly between his fingers. He still said nothing, crossed back to her, and then smiled as he reached with his free hand to brush the flour from her cheek.
There were still a few lingering bits of dough on his lips, and she grinned as she leaned forward to kiss them away. "You missed a spot, darling."
Daniel stuffed the half-wrapped vase back into the shopping bag as soon as he heard the doorknob rattle, but the bag itself toppled forward, landing behind his desk with a crash. Vala's eyes widened at the noise, but he casually kicked the bag further under the desk and smiled up at her.
"Working hard?" she smiled as she slid past the door with a mug in each hand.
"Mm," he said, feigning disinterest. He turned to the book he'd left open in front of him, and she sauntered across the room to slide onto the edge of the desk.
"Brought you some Christmas cheer," she winked, offering him a mug of eggnog.
"Thanks," Daniel said, frowning in a show of concentration over the book. Vala set the mug down and leaned forward to peer under the desk, and he jerked upright. Planting an elbow on the desk, he shifted to the side and rested his chin on his fist, effectively blocking her view.
"The kids are asleep," she remarked just as nonchalantly.
"So soon?" Daniel asked, eyes widening slightly.
"I think seeing Santa wore them out today," Vala nodded.
"Wouldn't have had anything to do with the food fight their mother initiated after dinner, would it?" Daniel's eyebrows rose.
"Me? Hey, that was all their idea," Vala insisted.
"Of course it was," Daniel gave his head a fond shake.
"So. Miracle on 34th Street is coming on," she grinned.
"Vala, we've seen that a hundred times," Daniel reminded her with a sigh.
"So?" she challenged. "Come on, darling, it's snowing out, both the kids are sound asleep. It's the perfect night to cuddle under the covers and watch Christmas movies."
"I don't…like Christmas movies…" Daniel said lamely. The truth was he would much rather have been upstairs watching the movie with Vala, but her gifts had to be wrapped and driven to Cam and Teal'c's for safekeeping. She knew that, of course, but neither of them would let on.
"You know you want to," she said mischievously.
"No…no, I don't," Daniel lied, waving a hand at the book in front of him. "I need to finish these translations."
"Daniel," Vala said, her tone becoming suddenly dangerous as she leaned closer. She stopped within an inch of his lips, and he could feel the warmth of her breath as she continued, "If you don't come watch this movie with me tonight, I just won't give you your Christmas present."
"You…what?" Daniel's eyes widened.
"You heard me," Vala smirked, leaving a light, teasing kiss on his lips.
A pleasant shiver passed through him, and he wet his lips, leaning forward for more, but she pointedly turned her head to the side. Slipping off the desk, she started for the door, throwing over her shoulder, "The movie starts in ten minutes, darling."
"All right, all right," he rolled his eyes. "I'll be up in a minute."
She'd reached the door by then and paused, giving him a long look. "You promise?"
"Yes, Vala. I promise," Daniel smirked.
He waited until the door had clicked shut and her footsteps faded up the hall, then dove under the desk to retrieve the shopping bag. Inside, he found a long, cracked line running down one side of the vase, and the neck shattered completely off. He closed his eyes and let out a heavy breath, running a hand over his face.
"Now what am I gonna give her?" he muttered.
He sat with his head in his hands for several minutes, then looked up with a start as he remembered the necklace. It was an Egyptian ceremonial piece that had been part of Catherine Langford's collection, and Vala had had her eye on it for years. The first time she'd seen it had been during the kor'mac affair, and she'd told him impishly that it would look wonderful with her pretty Goa'uld bracelet. He'd had it in his office then, but moved it as soon as he could in order to avoid a permanent disappearance. Since then, the hiding place had shifted several times, thanks to his wife's propensity for sniffing out valuables, but it was currently residing his desk drawer.
Daniel let out a gusty sigh. The heavy, jewel encrusted artifact was worth a small fortune, and it wasn't as if she could wear it publicly. Although, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that she would probably wear it around the house, just to remind him that she owned it. That, of course, would be if it didn't end up traded on some interplanetary black market. Hopefully, though, the fact that he'd given it to her for Christmas would prevent that. Vala got surprisingly sentimental about things like that, and her enjoyment of this particular Tau'ri holiday was almost as fun to watch as their children's.
Smiling to himself, he got up and pulled the desk chair into the center of the room, then stepped up onto it to remove the key to his desk which was hidden behind the loose panel in the ceiling. He cast a nervous look at the door as he walked back to the desk, certain that Vala would be back in soon to see what he was doing. When he still didn't hear her footsteps approaching, he unlocked the drawer and carefully set the relic on the desk.
"Daniel?" Vala called from the hallway.
His mouth popped open and he sprinted across the room as the door opened. Carefully positioning himself in the doorway, he smiled and said, "I'm--just finishing up, I think I'm really on to something here."
"Come on, darling, the movie's starting," she pleaded, taking his hand.
"I'll be up in a minute…don't--don't look at me like that, Vala, I will," he promised, attempting to slip back and pull the door shut with him. Vala deftly slid in with him, though, and produced a red Christmas bow from behind her back.
"You know," she smiled, coiling her other arm over his shoulder to cup his neck in her hand. "If you really don't want to watch the movie, you could always unwrap me."
"Wha…?" Daniel gaped as she planted the bow on her head.
Vala's smile became distinctly predatory, and she pushed him back, guiding him unerringly toward the desk. "You could start with the bow. Then just work your way down."
"Sounds like fun," he admitted, smiling a little.
"Does it?" she asked as the backs of his legs touched the desk. She gave his chest a playful shove, and he sat back, pulling her with him.
Their lips were about to meet when a loud and unmistakable crunch told him exactly what he'd just sat on. He winced painfully, and Vala pulled back in surprise, then tried to peer around him. "What was that?" she asked.
"Uh…what was what?" Daniel asked.
"Something just crunched," she replied.
"Oh…um…" Daniel shrugged, pulling her down into a kiss.
"Mmmm," Vala's arms slipped around his neck again, and he pushed himself to his feet, now backing her toward the door. She resisted briefly, still not having forgotten the noise, then decided to concentrate on him instead…
They never did watch Miracle on 34th Street that night, but it snowed again on December 23rd, and Vala insisted that Daniel rent the movie and watch it with her. Before they could do that, though, Vala had to test her Santa trap, which required that Daniel willingly stand under a net at the kitchen table and pick up a cookie, knowing that as soon as he did so, the reduction in weight on the plate would cause the net to drop on top of him. She insisted to the kids that this year the trap would work, and Daniel wasn't sure whether they were more excited by the prospect of waking up on Christmas Morning to find Santa Claus in their kitchen or by the sheer humor of watching the net drop onto their father. It was almost eleven by the time they were able to induce Nicky and Manda to sleep afterward, and Nick had to resort to threats of stockings filled with coal to do it. Then, they had to re-rig the net, which took another thirty minutes, so it was with a grateful sigh that Daniel finally dropped into bed.
Vala put in the DVD, then scurried under the covers with him. She shifted and fussed for a few minutes, then settled with her head on his shoulder as the previews ended. Daniel endured her antics with a long-suffering sigh and hid a smile against her hair. The approach of Christmas still brought moments of loneliness for him, but Vala somehow eased them without ever saying a word about his parents. He hadn't really been lying when he'd told her that he didn't like Christmas movies. The sentimentality of them had a way of exacerbating the private doubts and sense of loss that hit him at this time of year. With her arms and the warmth of the covers wrapped around him, though, he had to admit that there was nowhere else he wanted to be.
"I think the trap is just perfect this year," she murmured happily.
"Vala, why do you put so much work into that thing?" he asked. "There's no such thing as Santa Claus."
"Well, I know that and you know that, darling," she smiled, raising her head again to look at him. "But Manda and Nicky don't. And I hope they won't…not for a long time."
"Me too," Daniel smiled, kissing her forehead. She settled her head on his shoulder again and turned her attention to the movie, but it wasn't ten minutes later that a tremendous thud reverberated through the ceiling.
"What was that?" Vala cried, jumping back.
Daniel looked up, then turned to face her. "It…sounded like it was coming from…"
"…the roof?" she gulped.
As he reached the top of the ladder, Daniel's jaw dropped. Vala, already on the roof, reached back to grab his arm to keep him from toppling backward. They stared at each other in the glow of the blinking North Pole they'd erected a few weeks earlier, and Daniel slowly made his way onto the slick surface.
"Ah, Daniel, be careful there!" laughed an unmistakably jolly voice. The red-suited figure leapt down from the sleigh and clomped over to them, absently patting each of his reindeer as he passed.
"Um…S-Santa?" Daniel stammered.
"Of course it's Santa, darling! Who else would it be?" Vala grinned, having recovered from her shock. She peered over their guest's shoulder, and her gaze settled on the equally recognizable red-nosed reindeer leading his team. "Oh, and look! Is that…?"
Santa nodded, giving a hearty ho-ho-ho in response to the half spoken question. Rudolph himself stretched out his neck, edging slightly closer. Vala looked nervously toward Santa, who waved her toward the deer. She grinned again and half-walked, half slid across the roof until she reached the sleigh.
"Oh, he's so adorable!" she squealed, throwing her arms around the deer's soft neck.
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Santa again, then turned to Daniel, who was still hugging himself by the ladder in an effort to keep warm.
"Aren't--aren't you a day early?" Daniel asked dubiously.
"This is just a little practice run," explained Santa. "We make several runs throughout November and December. Helps keep the deer in shape. We've got a lot of ground to cover on Christmas Eve."
"Right…" Daniel eyed him skeptically.
Santa sighed in disappointment. "You still don't believe in me, do you?"
Feeling his face redden, Daniel lowered his gaze. "No…I do…" he said uncomfortably. "It's just that--I--um--"
"It's all right, Daniel," Santa nodded sadly. "Right now, I need you to go down and call Sam."
"Sam?" Daniel looked up in surprise.
"Sam O'Neill?" Santa prompted.
"I know, I meant…why?" asked Daniel, wrinkling his brow.
"I'm having a little problem with the sleigh's guidance system. I tried to make it over to the O'Neills', but I didn't think we were going to get there. I can't take chances this close to Christmas Eve."
"Guidance system?" Daniel echoed.
"Yes," Santa nodded. "We've been fully automated for about thirty years now. Of course, I still hitch up the team. It just wouldn't be Christmas without them."
"Oh. Of course not," Daniel nodded, giving his head a puzzled scratch. "Lemme--lemme go call Sam."
"Who is on your roof?" Sam asked again.
"Santa…?" Daniel repeated.
"Santa Claus?" Sam persisted.
"No, Santa Jones," Jack spoke up beside her.
Sam leaned over to give him an absent swat, then swung her legs onto the cold floor of the bedroom. "And he wants what, Daniel?"
"The, uh, guidance system on his sleigh is malfunctioning," Daniel replied miserably. "He says he needs you to come help him fix it."
"Daniel, where's Vala right now?" Sam asked worriedly.
"She's on the roof," Daniel sighed.
"What's she doing up there?" Sam's eyes widened.
"Well, when I left, she was hugging Rudolph," Daniel replied.
"She was what?" exclaimed Sam.
"Look, Sam, why don't you and Jack just come over here? You--you can see for yourselves," Daniel pleaded.
"All right, Daniel, we'll be over as soon as we can get Teal'c and Cam over here to watch Carter," Sam agreed. "Just stay off the roof until we get there, okay?"
"Oh, don't worry," he promised as he hung up. "I won't do anything…crazy…"
"You really think something's on his roof?" Jack asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I don't know," Sam replied honestly. "But whatever's going on over there, it sounds like Vala and the kids are going to need some help."
Once Sam had gotten over her initial shock at the sight of Santa Claus, fixing the sleigh required more light than the decorative Christmas bulbs could provide. Fortunately, with the approach of the holiday, most stores were open 24 hours, so Daniel and Jack were elected to drive to Lowes to pick up high powered flashlights and batteries. The wind and snow had also begun to chill Vala, who was dressed in a housecoat and slippers. Santa gallantly shucked off his coat and wrapped it around her, eliciting another squeal of delight in response.
"Aren't you a gentleman," she smiled, leaning forward to kiss him for his trouble. "Oh! Sam, his beard tickles!"
Sam stood with eyes bulging, opened and closed her mouth twice, and then finally gave up. Santa turned to her with a knowing smile. "Something wrong, Samantha?" he asked.
"No," she shook her head quickly, then glanced down at the ground.
"I do have a spare coat in the sleigh if you'd like," offered Santa.
"Oh--no--that's okay," Sam coughed uncomfortably.
"No?" Santa asked in surprise. "How about my hat?"
Before Sam could protest, Santa had plucked the cap off his head and set it on her, pulling it snuggly down around her ears to keep them warm. She felt herself grinning stupidly and tried to stop, but Santa gave a wink and turned back toward the sleigh.
"Do you have any idea how long it'll take to get her up and running?" he asked.
"Not without knowing what's wrong, sorry," Sam shook her head. "Does your on board computer have a diagnostic function?"
"Mmm," nodded Santa. "I can call up a diagnostic report now, if you like."
"That'll be a start, yeah," Sam replied with a nod of her own. She followed Santa back to the sleigh and peered at the monitor for a few minutes, but Vala began to get antsy with nothing to do.
Santa sighed, turning to look at Sam with a knowing expression, and then called, "Well, there's not much we can really do here until the boys get back with those lights. Why don't we go inside and find some cookies?"
"Ooh, good idea," Vala grinned, her eyes drifting hopefully toward the chimney. "Could we…?"
"Ho, ho, ho!" bellowed Santa happily. "Why not?"
"Um," frowned Sam, following him and Vala over to the chimney. "How exactly do you…well…"
"Fit?" Santa laughed, pulling a small velvet pouch from his belt. He held it up and said, "Christmas magic!"
"Magic," she repeated.
"You're as bad as Daniel," Santa sighed as he opened the pouch and sprinkled a small amount of dust on his palm. He looked up again and blew softly, causing the dust to billow out in a glowing swirl of gold and silver around the girls.
"Hey, what--?" Sam cried.
"Think small!" Santa laughed, then leapt into the air and disappeared down the chimney.
It was several minutes before Vala could coax Sam to take the leap, despite the fact that Sam traveled across the galaxy through a wormhole almost every day. Even after she did, Sam got stuck, and Vala had to tug on her foot to pull her out into the fireplace.
"Someone needs to lay off the Christmas cookies," she remarked as they dusted one another off.
"Very funny," Sam replied, adjusting Santa's cap on her head again.
Vala, however, turned suddenly pale and exclaimed, "Cookies!"
"What?" frowned Sam.
"The cookies!" Vala repeated, peering frantically around. "Where's Santa?"
"I dunno, in the kitchen, I guess. Why?" asked Sam.
"Santa!" Vala called, pushing past Sam to race into the kitchen. "Don't touch the…"
"…cookies," finished Vala with a wince.