Merry Christmas, MidwifeOnBoard!
From your Secret Santa.
"Hey, have you seen Sam?"
Jack chewed and swallowed before answering. "You mean recently?"
"No, last year." Glare from the commissary's fluorescent lighting flashed off Daniel's lenses. "Of course I mean recently."
Frowning, O'Neill stared down at his lunch. Noodles. Noodles and sauce and some mystery cheese that tasted like shoes. But he was hungry, not to mention frustrated and bored, so he'd attended to the only malady that he'd been allowed to at that particular moment in time. Food. Or what approximated for food on base. But it was better than the slop he'd consumed at various times throughout his career—most recently during the time in the mines underneath the domed city. That crap hadn't tasted like footwear—that crap hadn't tasted like anything at all.
How any of the slaves down there had survived on that swill was beyond him—although his team had seemed to escape their captivity relatively unscathed. Fraiser had given all of them a clean bill of health, as a matter of fact, but that didn't necessarily mean that everything was okay. There was always something left over, some scar, some residue of trauma. They'd all had a time of it lately. And slowly, they were all remembering it.
Which sucked, really. If those mind-stamping morons were going to futz with peoples' brains, the least they could have done is make sure it was permanent. But over the course of the past few months, the stamp—whatever that meant—had mostly worn off, and the team's own memories had unfurled again, mixing with the false ones. Jack neither needed nor wanted a clear idea of precisely how the whole process was transpiring. All he knew is that the fantasy lives supplied by his captors had gradually given way to the reality of the SGC, leaving behind the memories of a real—but at the same time false—life that he truly hadn't hated.
He could pinpoint the moment when the reversal had felt the cruelest. He could still see it in her huge, blue eyes as she'd spoken her simple, "Sir."
Images. Convoluted. Vague. In the beginning, it had all mixed together. After his return to the SGC, he'd leave a room expecting to encounter dark corridors punctuated with fires burning hot and red in metallic drums. Sweat and work. People trapped between the infernos of the mines and the white-cold fear of the ice overhead. He'd have to remind himself that he was home. That he wasn't Jonah—that the relationships he'd forged there weren't—and couldn't be—real. That nobody waited for him in the alcove hidden behind a furnace on the third level.
That place, he remembered well. He frowned down at his plate, trying to expunge from his traitorous mind the vision of her waiting for him, there amongst the machinery.
"So, Jack?" Daniel intruded again. "Have you seen her?"
He looked up, blandly. "Nope. Not since yesterday when we did that thing."
"The physical assessment." Daniel nodded. "Right. I talked to her on the phone last night, but haven't heard from her or seen her since then."
"I'm sure she's around." The Colonel lowered his fork to twiddle in the mess of pasta on his plate. "She's probably found some broken thingamajigger somewhere and has adopted it as a new pet."
"Yeah. Maybe." Daniel bracketed his hands at his waist, his brows falling low behind the frames of his glasses. "But I don't think so."
O'Neill didn't have to ask. He merely raised a brow and waited.
"You know—because she promised to go tonight. To that thing."
The other brow joined its twin. His lip might have twitched, but it also might have been an allergic reaction to the Fromage a la Loafer. Something deep within him reveled in making Daniel explain things multiple times. Immature? Sure. Funny? Damn straight.
"With Teal'c." Daniel's sigh reeked of longsuffering. "You know, Jack. We talked about it a few weeks ago. Teal'c wanted to go to a service."
Giving in, the Colonel scrunched up his lips and reached for a napkin. "The Christmas Eve thing. At that church."
"Are you sure she still wants to go with you? Maybe she changed her mind."
Considering this, Daniel pulled a chair out and plunked himself down. Leaning forward, he rested his weight on his elbows. "I don't think so. She doesn't usually renege on plans."
"Yeah—you're right. Especially where Teal'c's involved." Extending a hand, O'Neill caught a hold of his coffee cup and raised it to his lips. "It's all part of her quest to make him a 'real boy'."
Daniel actually snorted. "Funny."
Tilting his head to one side, the Colonel allowed the corner of his mouth to tip upward a dram. "Well, I don't know where she is. Sorry, buddy."
Another sigh, another look around the commissary. Daniel shook his head and furrowed his eyebrows. "I just don't get it. It's not like her to just disappear."
"Maybe she's been eaten by Rudolph and his evil friends." Jack pointed at the wall next to him, where somebody had taped a large cardboard cut-out of the infamous Rangifer Tarandus. He was wearing a Santa hat and had a red fuzzy thing on his nose. He was also smiling like a lobotomized chipmunk. Creepy.
Daniel rolled his eyes. "I know. If possible, the decorations this year are even more gaudy than last year."
"I didn't think anything could be more freakishly terrifying than the life-sized Styrofoam snowmen of Nineteen Ninety-Nine." Jack made a pained scan of the commissary. "I was wrong."
"Regardless, it doesn't help me find Sam." Daniel pulled out the chair he'd been leaning on and sat down. "It's like she's hiding somewhere."
O'Neill blinked, and caught a fleeting image of Carter—no—Thera—sitting next to the wall in the alcove. It was where he—Jonah—had first encountered her, where they'd first spoken. She'd been frustrated, as had he. Feeling that there was something more that she was supposed to be doing. They'd talked and commiserated, placating each other and themselves with words that had felt right at the time.
"It feels so useless. What's the point of all of this if we're going to just die anyway?"
"And die alone." As she'd spoken, Thera studied her fingertips, blackened with oil residue and worn raw from work. "Because we're all alone down here."
"How do you mean?" He'd frowned, glancing down at his feet with a little shake of his head. The toe of his left shoe was giving out, but he knew he wasn't in line for a new pair for another month. "There are hundreds of people down here."
"Come on, Jonah, from school. Remember? The Agreements." Her focus turned from her fingers to his face. "The Agreements that limit physical relationships. Our predecessors agreed to them when the ice trapped them below. They wanted to curtail procreation, so they agreed not to do—"
"That." He'd snuck a look at her. Beautiful. Fresh. She'd seemed like a cool breeze in Hell. And despite the voice in his brain that warned him not to notice, he couldn't help but respond to her. It had felt as natural as breath to want her.
She'd seemed to sense his train of thought. Her response had been quieter. Sadder. "At least, not without special permission."
"And who can get that?"
"No one. So we're denied all contact. Something that could bring comfort, or release." She'd shrugged, although the gesture had been far from nonchalant. "And as a result, we lose out on more than just the pleasure part of it. We lose more of our humanity. Close relationships. Family."
"Family?" The word had seemed foreign. Unnatural on his tongue, and in his brain.
"Yeah." She'd shrugged, then tipped her face up to his. "Mother. Father. Children. You know?"
It was a testament to the power of the mind stamp that he hadn't questioned certain aspects of his life. Facets such as where they'd all come from hadn't even occurred to him. In his mind, his life had started in a mine somewhere. He'd never once considered who had given birth to him. "I think I was hatched out from under a rock."
"But who laid the egg?" She'd leaned into him a bit, bumping his shoulder with her own.
He'd actually thought about that for a while before answering. "I don't know."
"See?" Her generous lips had curved. "No family. Aren't we supposed to want to be part of something bigger? To be more than just workers? So that there's something to work for."
"I guess." Idealistic—wasn't that the word? Were they allowed to be that? He hadn't cared. It had looked good on her, made her eyes brilliant in the firelight, put color other than gray grime in her cheeks. Still, he'd heard his mouth pay homage to their situation, muttering the words he'd heard repeated over and over throughout his service underground. "Although, we are working for our survival and the survival of our people. It's our honor to serve the greater good."
"Yeah. I guess." Her eyes had dimmed a bit. "Don't you ever just want to break out of here? Just to see something else?" She'd turned to him, her expression becoming something—else. Something hopeful, or hopeless, or angry, or—human. Something he'd spent what he knew of his life repressing. It was want. Desire. Need. A burning within her that he'd suspected couldn't ever be quenched. Not by work, or duty, or even by the miles and miles of snow above the heated burrows of the mine. "I've heard about the snow up there—but sometimes I just want to see it. To see what has sentenced us to live like this. To sacrifice so much. And then to beat it."
Suddenly, she'd leaned into him and fitted her lips to his. Hard—her kiss was anything but gentle. He'd opened his mouth at the first touch of her tongue, found himself completely subject to her will as she'd tasted him, breathed him. Possessed him. Her hand had rasped along his jawline, her body pressing flush against his—thigh to thigh, chest to chest. He'd barely had time to wrap his arm around her back before she'd pulled away.
Touching her fingertips to his lips, she'd smiled. "That felt alive, didn't it?"
"I haven't felt alive in a long time."
For a moment, there hadn't been much else to say, and then she'd pushed away from the wall, standing with an abruptness that he would eventually become accustomed to.
"I'd better go."
"See you around?" Jonah had watched her progress towards the boilers that sat in the entrance with barely veiled interest. He'd sat forward, resting one elbow on his bent knee, his body still thrumming with whatever it was that just happened—an awareness he hadn't possessed before.
She'd turned, fixing him with a challenging look. "See you here?"
"Whenever." She'd smiled, a slow, sweet thing, then she'd slipped between two of the huge machines, careful not to touch their heated exteriors.
"What?" Lifting his head, O'Neill glared up at his friend. At Daniel's frown, he tried again. "I'm sorry—what were you saying?"
"Nothing—I kinda lost you there for a while." He lifted a hand to adjust the temple of his glasses. "You just seemed to check out."
"Sorry—I was thinking about something else."
"Yeah." Returning his attention to his meal, Jack set his fork across the plate. "Kind of."
For a moment, Daniel said nothing, and then he scooted his chair out a little and bent forward, bracing himself on his forearms. Leaning closer, he caught Jack's gaze. "About Thera?"
The Colonel didn't need to answer. Daniel could see right through him, sometimes—part of that whole 'good friend' thing, he guessed. There wasn't need to elaborate, so he shrugged. "Whatever."
"Well." Daniel's eyes flared. "That's not very helpful."
"I know. I'm sorry." Jack swiped a hand across his face, ending with a furious scratch at a point behind his left ear. "But the upshot is that I don't know where she is."
"Okay." Daniel tilted his wrist to peer at his watch. "We've still got a few hours—if you hear from her, tell her that Teal'c and I will be at the church at ten or so."
"Oh—wait. Make that twenty-two hundred hours." Pointing at the clock on the wall, Daniel pushed a brow upward. "For the midnight service."
"Ah." Jack stood, pushing himself away from the table. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Or she could call me if she wants to ride with us." With a vague expression, Daniel rose from his seat. "Were you thinking about coming?"
"I don't know." Shoving his hands deep into his pockets, the Colonel mulled it over. "I'll call you if I do."
"Okay." But he hadn't sounded convinced.
Somehow, it didn't seem right. Christmas alone. He'd given up on the whole damned holiday after Charlie. After the divorce. After losing everything that had made the thing seem worthwhile. He'd left his share of the ornaments and lights with Sara when he'd moved out. It had seemed like the right thing to do.
Because celebration just tasted wrong at that point. Like apple pie topped with fat-free frozen yogurt. You just couldn't do Christmas when your kid was in the ground. He'd left his cheer at the cemetery gates, but had wondered recently if it had felt better at the time to blame his lack of enthusiasm on tragedy rather than melancholy. Or indecision. He honestly couldn't find a reason to celebrate, these days.
It wasn't as if he weren't religious. O'Neill believed in something greater than himself—something larger than this world. Even if there wasn't a word for it, or a specific theology, he figured that not everything could have been an accident. Not everything happened just by random chance.
Carter had told him a few weeks ago that there was no such thing as 'random order'. She'd been in his kitchen, making pizza on one of those build-it-yourself crusts, having spread out a precise half cup of sauce and sprinkled the cheese to a depth of exactly half an inch. He'd been helping her put the pepperoni on top, flinging meaty discs onto his half with reckless abandon, watching as she'd laid hers out in precise half-circles.
He'd even called her on it.
"Just do it randomly."
"But then every piece won't have meat on it."
"Sure it will. Just make sure it's even."
"But then it isn't random, is it?" She'd looked up at him from under her bangs. "If you're laying it out with a goal to make sure it's even, then you defeat the purpose of randomness. And besides—nothing is ever truly random. Things usually occur as a result of something else happening. It's physics."
She'd nodded, returning her attention to the pizza.
"So, you're saying that you believe everything happens with a purpose?"
She'd lifted a shoulder, catching her top lip between her teeth. He counted as she placed three, four, then five more pieces of pepperoni. "Yes. I do."
"Even the really crappy stuff?"
Her fingers had stilled, and she'd taken a long breath, glancing past him into the living room, where Daniel and Teal'c sat on the couch. Eventually, she'd looked up at him. "Especially the really crappy stuff."
O'Neill hadn't had an answer for that. To this day, he wasn't exactly sure what she'd meant.
He'd done a half-hearted search for her on base, cruising from the commissary where he'd spoken with Daniel down to the Briefing Room, which had been devoid of life. From there, he'd been responsible and hiked the stairs up to her lab—thank you, second piece of pie—but it, too, had been dark, and quiet. He'd wandered from there. Armory. 'Gateroom. Control Room. Doctor Fraiser hadn't seen her in the infirmary. Siler suggested that he look in her on-base quarters.
More darkness. Darkness and quiet and empty. She shared the quarters with Fraiser, when need be, but neither bunk in the tight space had been slept in recently. He could have bounced the proverbial quarter off the blankets. So, he'd made his way back towards the locker room. He'd showered, then changed into his civvies, combed his hair rather than just shaking the water out, and shaved. Standing outside the door, he shoved his hands into the pockets of his civilian pants and perused the hallway.
Empty. Well, it was Christmas Eve. Hammond hadn't sent a team out in the past week, wanting to give everyone the holiday at home. A skeleton crew patrolled the base, kept basic operations up and running, but other that that—the SGC seemed empty.
He pulled one hand from his pocket and twisted his wrist to peer at his watch. Twenty-one hundred hours. Looking down, he scowled. Button-down shirt, V-neck sweater and pants that weren't jeans. Shoes that weren't didn't have steel in the toes. He felt like Daniel.
Speaking of whom—
"Hey—I didn't think you'd want to come with us."
Jack looked up to see the archaeologist and Teal'c walking down the hall towards him. Teal'c was dressed in a dark suit, with a dark purple shirt and a black tie. He'd pulled a black fedora down over his tattoo—managing not to look weird. Daniel had on khaki pants and a crisp tan Oxford shirt. He'd dispensed with a tie, but had a brown tweed jacket folded over his arm.
"I figured that if Sam wasn't coming—"
"That you would? Yeah." Daniel threw a look at Teal'c before answering. "We haven't found her, either."
"Perhaps she was feeling ill and returned to her home."
"Could be." Shaking his head, Daniel brushed something off his jacket. "Although Janet did tell us that Sam hadn't been herself today."
The Colonel gestured with an open hand. "Fraiser told me that Carter hadn't been in the infirmary."
"No—not in there. She said that she saw Sam in the breakroom. They were both getting coffee."
Teal'c lifted a brow, inclining his head just a tad. "Major Carter mentioned to Doctor Fraiser that she was having what she referred to as a 'Thera day'."
The archaeologist frowned. "A what?"
"I believe she was referring to our time on P3R-118." The Jaffa intoned. "When her mind was stamped with the alternate personality of 'Thera'."
"I knew that." Daniel rocked back and then forward in his shiny designer shoes. "I just don't know what she meant by it."
A Thera day. But why would she want that? Why would she want to lose who she was behind the false memories of being someone else? Jack hid a smile, looking down at his shoes. "I know where she is."
"I know where she is." The Colonel raised his face towards his team, trying to hide the smile that tickled at the corner of his mouth. "You guys go ahead. I'll go and talk to her."
"You sure?" Daniel leaned forward. "I could go, if you want."
"No. Go to the service." O'Neill tilted his head towards the elevators at the end of the hallway. "I'll bring her along."
For a long beat, Daniel merely looked at him. Finally, Teal'c made the decision, clamping a hand on Daniel's shoulder and propelling him forwards, steering him around the Colonel.
Jack pivoted on his shiny heel, watching as Daniel attempted to look backwards. "Go on, Daniel. I'll bring her."
It hadn't snowed, yet. But that wasn't unusual for the Springs. The winter hadn't been terribly pretty so far this year. Unrepentant gray. Dingy skies and dead undergrowth in the forests. They'd had some kind of beetle in the woods that had killed off a bunch of pines, so even the evergreens weren't green. It had been frigid cold—more so than usual, and although the humidity was high, so far the clouds hadn't dumped anything more than a few minutes of sleet the day before.
Trudging up the mountain, Jack rounded the upper perimeter gates, aiming himself for a point at the summit. He hiked through a small copse of yearling trees, past a haggard monster of a log, and then further up, towards a large clearing, and a huge metal hole in the ground.
At least, a large metal cover to that hole. He'd been right. She was standing near the cover facing away from him—Westward, to where the sun had long since set behind the Rockies, and voluminous black clouds shuttered the stars. A misty spot in the clouds was letting through moonlight, so much so that he could see her breath when she breathed.
A skirt. She was wearing some kind of straight skirt. And a sweater and a scarf that was—he looked harder—pink, of all colors. At least she'd had the good sense to put on a pair of boots. And from the fact that she was in civvies—and nice ones, at that—he knew that Carter had at one point intended to accompany Teal'c to the service that evening. So that was something.
She turned and watched as he made his way up the last incline. O'Neill stopped within a few feet of her, and he could practically feel her shivering in the night air.
Her eyes were a little bleary, so he asked again. "Are you cold?"
It took some mustering for her to answer. Finally, she nodded. "A little."
"You could have come back into the mountain." He shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to her, and found himself ridiculously glad when she accepted it. "They have these nifty things called 'heaters' in there."
"I know." The Major didn't look at him as she pulled the sleeves of the jacket over her arms. "I guess you're here to tell me that I'm an idiot."
For a moment, he just watched her. Made sure she'd gotten the coat on right, observed her pull her scarf out and wrap it around her neck and shoulders, notice how she sighed as her hands slid into his pockets—still warm from his own hands. "Why would I think that?"
"For sitting up here in the cold."
"It depends on why you're sitting up here in the cold, doesn't it?"
She smiled—a bit sheepishly. "I'm waiting for it to snow."
To which Jack nodded. "I figured."
"Thera day." He practically whispered the words. "Daniel said that Fraiser said that you were having a Thera day. Thera had this thing for snow."
As cryptic as it was, his explanation seemed to satisfy her. She tugged back her sleeve to look at her watch. "They probably left without me."
"That, they did." The Colonel craned his head to look at the mountain's entrance below, and the emptied parking lot illuminated so cruelly by the ugly tall lights. A car was making its way past the entrance gates and down the mountain road. Too big for Daniel's—yet smaller than his own truck—he didn't recognize it. He looked back around at Carter. "They wondered what happened to you."
She turned back towards the metal lid, leaning back against it. "I don't know. I just get—weird at this time of year."
Carter raised her chin and looked at him. "Just-I don't know-delusional. Like I expect something special from it."
"And you never get it?
"Yeah." She extracted a hand from her pocket and ran her fingers through the pastel fringe at the end of her scarf. "I probably sound like a crazy person."
Taking one—two—steps closer, he halted just beyond her reach. "Maybe if you explained it better."
"Mark and his family went to Whistler." She pursed her lips tightly, looking around him—not at him. "With my sister-in-law's parents. They have a condo near a ski resort there. I wasn't invited."
"Are you ever invited?"
"No." Moonlight frosted her hair as she shook her head. "I don't expect it anymore. But it would be nice, just once."
"To spend the holidays with family?" Jack's eyes widened. "Sure—that's what it's all about, isn't it?"
"I thought so." She tilted her face up to look at him. "But you don't, do you? And Daniel doesn't. Teal'c usually goes back to Chulak or somewhere else when we've got holiday leave. And my dad is out being a Tok'ra, so I never see him. So, I've spent Christmas alone for years, now, at least for most of my adult life. And even though I'm not sure about the whole religion part of it, I do know that I'm missing something else—something important."
"The family part."
Carter nodded. "We're not supposed to live this life alone."
He reflected on that, only to realize that she was right. "No, we're not."
"This year—I don't know what I was expecting—but it wasn't more of the same. And tonight—going to that service and sitting there alone while everyone else was surrounded by family and loved ones—" Her voice trailed off into a hoarse whisper. "I don't think I could have done it."
Her fingers had tangled themselves in the yarn of her scarf. O'Neill watched as she worked them back out. "I should have thought about that—organized something. We've had a tough year. Gone through some stuff."
"Some really crappy stuff."
"Yes." Jack nodded once. Decisively. "Some of it. But some of it was pretty good, right?"
"I guess so, sir."
His laugh sounded rough, even to him. "Sir."
For a minute, the only sound was the wind brushing through the trees around them. Sam looked up and captured his gaze, her hand making a fist around the softness of the scarf. O'Neill knew her body, by now, how it betrayed her every thought. She was preparing herself to say something. Working up courage. And he knew when she'd found it by how her shoulders squared up—even under the bulk of his coat.
"Do you ever think about it, sir? About being back there?"
Jack didn't need to have any clarification. He knew exactly to what Carter was referring. He took another step towards her, so that his shoes were mere inches from the suede toes of her boots. "Yeah. Sometimes."
"Sometimes I forget still—that I'm home. I'll turn a corner and all I can think about is getting off my shift so that I can find you." Her tone was rushed—breathy—as if she was afraid that if she stopped, she couldn't say what she wanted to. "I liked being there. Being her. Being with you."
"And I feel that I never got the chance to say goodbye to him. To you. Whatever." She frowned. "We just got ripped out of there, and went back to business as usual. But it can't ever be just normal again, can it? Because now we know."
But it was as if now that she'd started, she couldn't stop. "Now we know what it's like, right? To be—with each other."
"But we never-"
"What?" She stood, moving close, sharing the heat that always seemed to radiate off of him when she was near him. "Had sex?"
"Yes. That." Jack furrowed his brows and raised a hand to scratch at his ear. "I mean. No. We didn't."
"Does it matter?" Hesitant, she reached out a hand and touched the front of his sweater, the neat, fine rows of knitting. "That's just positioning, isn't it? What we had was—more. It was real—it was intimate. They didn't input that memory for us. It was something that happened because deep down, the real you and I wanted it. But the real us can't act on those feelings." Carter's fingers flattened on his chest. "And we want to, but we won't, because we know it's wrong. But that doesn't mean that the want just goes away."
Jack looked down at her hand, at her elegant fingers with their short, sensible nails, and there was nothing more he needed in that moment than to feel that hand against his skin. "No, it doesn't go away."
"So it wasn't so bad being there, right? Because under their names—under the pretense of being two strangers, we finally figured out what we could become."
"Wouldn't it have been better not to know?"
"No." Her eyes narrowed as she looked up at him, as she withdrew her hand from his chest and used it to tuck her hair back behind her ear. "I don't think so. Would it?"
"I don't know. You tell me." Impossibly blue—even in the half-light of the moon, and the darkness around them, he could still be overcome by her complicated eyes. Her entire body held a query, now, but when she opened her lips to voice it, he stopped her. "You told me a few weeks ago that you believed that everything happens for a reason. That you don't believe that anything is truly random."
"So why did all that happen?"
"I don't know." So simple. She lifted her face to the sky, where the dark clouds had finally closed up over the moon. "Maybe to give us an idea of what was possible."
"Only to take it away?"
"I don't know." She ducked her chin down to her chest. "I don't know anything, anymore."
She leaned, and then sat again, on the escape shaft's coverlid, crossing her arms across her midsection. Even with the moon hidden behind the clouds, he could see her jaw working, and the tension rife in her shoulders and throat.
He understood that last part, at least. He'd thought he'd known what he was—who he was. He'd signed onto the Stargate program secure in the knowledge that his life was over—that he couldn't possibly feel anything worse than the pain he already felt. Death had seemed to be an inevitable ending—and nothing would have been more welcome. But something had happened in the past four years—he didn't even know what he'd call it other than something schmaltzy and new-age like 'rebirth'. Like he'd been dead with his son in the grave and a greater power than he had yanked him back out and sent him back on his way.
What was it—divine intervention? He didn't know. Healing, certainly, and time. Perspective. And no matter what, he still had that headstone to visit, but now there were people above-ground who needed him, too. Other humans sharing in this experience with him who knew him in the now, and were part of him. And whatever the connotation of that, it also meant that he couldn't just give up on himself, because to do so would have been harming them, too.
And he knew who he was. Unlike Jonah, Jack O'Neill filled a specific place in the universe. "You talked about family. Or—Thera did."
The woman sitting on the metal hatch looked up at him, a silver sheen tracing the delicate line of her cheek.
"You talked about how it wasn't right. That the workers weren't allowed to forge family relationships." Jack looked up at the glowering clouds, thick and black, that obscured the sky. "That humans shouldn't be expected to live alone."
"We're not. And yet we do."
"Then maybe that's what this is all about." He paused, reached out to touch the edge of her scarf. "This whole season. To remind us that we should want more."
"Kind of mean, if you ask me."
"Maybe." He lifted a shoulder, tweaked a brow. "And maybe it's just that if we weren't reminded of it, we'd all be comfortable in our little places in the world and not wish for anything better. "
For a long, long beat, Carter didn't answer him. She sat quietly, fingering the buttons on his coat, the short strands of her hair lifting and fluttering in the wind. Finally, she looked up at him, offering a wry smile. "Talk about your lump of coal."
Jack grinned. "Yeah, Santa's a mean old geezer."
"Not to mention those frickin' elves."
"The little bastards."
She snorted out a giggle. "Don't say that to Teal'c. He thinks they're cute."
"He's an alien. What does he know?"
A car backfired far below them, and Jack looked over and down, into the night, where the lights of the car were wending their way down the mountainside. He felt a brush at his arm and glanced over to see the Major had stood up, that she'd moved close. She had her hands in the pockets of his coat, and her face turned away from him, the curve of her jaw clean and perfect above the soft rose-colored wool of her scarf.
She tugged on her top lip with her teeth for a minute before looking down at where her boots were dark splotches in the brown, dead grass beneath. "Thank you, sir."
His sigh was lost in the wind. "No 'sir', Carter. You're having a 'Thera' moment, remember?"
She nodded, angling her face towards him, looking up at him through her eyelashes. "Really?"
"Yeah. Sure." As O'Neill turned towards her, he bumped her with his elbow. "Why not? It's Christmas."
He could feel her smiling, feel her body ease as she stood beside him. Then she'd shifted, standing directly in front of him, so close that her scarf was pressed between them, and her eyes had focused on his mouth. "So, does that mean you're having a 'Jonah' moment?"
He'd barely nodded before she'd lifted herself up against him, fitting one hand to his waist, the other to his shoulder. Soft at first, her lips tentative, she tested him, her eyes open—assessing him—before sliding shut as she deepened the kiss. He should have pulled away, but he didn't—he didn't want to, if truth be known. He told himself that he was only offering support when he wrapped his arm around her back, splaying his hand flat against her spine. She was warm, and supple, and the slight shiver in her body had nothing—nothing—to do with the frigid air whipping around them. And when he framed her face with his other hand, when his thumb swept across the perfection that was her skin, he couldn't stop himself from taking her mouth as she—as Thera—had taken his so many months before.
Demanding. Sweet. Heat and spice. She opened herself to him without condition, without fear as he pressed her closer, relearning what she tasted like, what it felt like to be so close that he lost track of where she ended and he began. His fingers curved around the back of her neck, fanning through the short strands at her nape even as her hand made its way into his own. She nipped at him, delving further, wet and welcome and deep. And even had the world chosen to end in that exact moment, he couldn't have withdrawn, couldn't have let her go.
Because she was his world. If there were no vague, distant promise of this—of her—in his future, then nothing else would matter. She made a sound in the back of her throat; a moan of such exquisite contentment that it sounded more like a purr. Her eyes were cloudy, drowsing half-open as she pulled away from him, her fist clutching a handful of his sweater, her thighs still flush with his, the softness of her body a welcome contrast to the hard planes of his own. "Jack—I—"
He had to remember how to speak. "Jonah."
"No. That was Jack." Her hand rose, flattening on his chest again. "That was you."
"And that's okay?"
Sad joy—her lips curved even though it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Yeah—it's okay."
"Even if—" Suddenly, he couldn't even say it. He faltered halfway through and ended with a lame shake of his head.
"We can't do anything else. Yes." She leaned into him again, pressing her lips to his neck, this time, her breath warm against his skin. "Even if that."
Wind swirled around them, tugging at her skirt, at his hair, the branches crackling and shushing on the trees that surrounded them.
"Your nose is cold."
He could feel her smile, feel her lips move against his throat as she answered. "So is yours."
"We'd better go in."
She took a step backwards, straightening his coat. "Or we could go to the church. The service is probably just starting."
"You want to?"
"Yeah. I do."
"Tell you what." Steering her without touching her, he started them back down the mountain. "We'll be a family tonight. You and me."
"Okay." He nodded, taking a step towards the seedling copse, aiming them both down towards the parking lot. "Teal'c, too."
He placed a careful hand on the small of her back as she stepped over a difficult point in the trail. "Is it necessary?"
"Sir." That tone was definitely a 'Carter' tone.
"Okay." He tried to sound upset, but knew he'd failed. "Daniel, too."
"It's a deal, then." Pausing, she reached out and touched his hand.
He couldn't help but return the touch, thread his fingers between hers, clasping their hands together. Or looking at her—seeing her face open up again, losing some of the hopeless sorrow he'd witnessed higher up. "Whatever you need, Sam. Anything."
She ran her thumb along the side of his hand. "I know."
A flicker of movement caught his attention, and they both lifted their eyes to the heavens, to where tiny flecks of white whirled in the wind. O'Neill felt himself break into a smile. "Well, how about that."
It wasn't going to stick—it was too little, just a token flurry, a fluke. But the snow was there, in the dark and cold, drifting around them, landing on their clothes, and in their hair.
"It's so beautiful." Sam lifted her free hand to try to catch a flake. "Thank you, sir."
And even if he couldn't take credit for the snow, he knew what she was thanking him for. That it was more than just the weather—more than just being company for her on the desolate, dry mountain top. He understood her, her needs. Her honor. He valued them, just as he valued her. "Merry Christmas, Carter."
"Merry Christmas, Sir." Regret? No—longing. It flared through her expression as she regarded him steadily for an intense, endless minute. Finally, she sighed, squeezing his fingers one more time, her grip warm and smooth and knowing, before loosening her hold and letting go.