Secret Santa

I know this is late as a Christmas Fic—sorry about that. But I finally got a moment and wanted to finish it. Better late than never, right? Hope so.

Angsty Fluff—Flangst. Whatever you want to call it—that's what this is. Set in Season 8.

He'd had a plan, crapnabbit.

And it had been a pretty good plan, too.

Not that he'd really meant to sign up for this stupid thing in the first place. That had been Walter's doing. The sneaky little bugger had hidden the sign-up sheet in with other forms that had needed the General's John Hancock on them. O'Neill had signed up without having any idea that he was signing up, which totally sucked. He could have been volunteering for a frontal lobotomy, for all he knew, which—while it might have cramped his style some—might have been a good thing in light of his current predicament.

Because he sincerely doubted that a guy with only half a brain would have been allowed to participate in the base's Secret Santa game; even if that half-brained man was the Commander of said base. Of course, half-brained Generals were a dime a dozen, these days. To this, O'Neill could attest personally. After all, he'd spent some time in DC lately, hobnobbing with the higher muckity-mucks in the Capitol. Yeesh.

But right now, sitting in a folding chair in the commissary, he longingly wished to join their ranks—just so that he could get out of this latest fiasco. Secret Santa. Who, in this day and age of hyper-sensitive political correctness, still did Secret Santa?

Wait—that didn't sound right. Did Santa actually get did?

Of course, that sort of aberrant behavior for the Jolly Old Elf was not totally outside the realm of possibility. The guy was human, after all. Surely there existed, in the great scheme of all things Christmas, a Mrs. Claus—it was all but settled in the system of popular belief that the Big Man wasn't a bachelor. And even if he was, surely he could have chatted up an attractive elf in the North Pole bar, right? But he digressed.

"Who did you have, Jack?"

O'Neill looked sideways at his friend, fighting the urge to scowl. "What?"

"For the game." The archaeologist's eyebrows had risen above the rims of his glasses. "Whose name did you get?"

Stalling, Jack passed an assessing look around the commissary. It had been decorated for the occasion—and even though he'd balked in the beginning at signing off on the festive décor, he had to admit that it didn't look half bad. Miniature trees adorned the centers of the tables, surrounded by a colorful length of garland. In one corner, a full-sized tree held court, decorated with an odd, yet appealing conglomeration of hand-made ornaments and sparkling glass spheres. Some intrepid soul had taken it upon himself to hang mistletoe from a light fixture hanging over the coffee machine. "For what?"

"The Secret Santa. Who did you get a gift for?"

Stall. O'Neill raised a single brow at his friend. "Excuse me?"

"Geez Louise, Jack. Really?"

"Hey—I didn't make the rules."

"Then who did?"

"The Gods of Grammar, Daniel." The General skidded his foot on the concrete floor. "And they don't like being ignored."

Daniel sighed—an exaggerated, theatrical thing—and then held up a single finger. Incredibly, it wasn't the rude one. "Okay, then. For whom did you get a gift?"

Jack rubbed his cheek with his palm. "Um—some woman. An officer."

"Anyone I know?"

There was no point in lying. Daniel could ferret out any tiny tidbit of information—it came with the younger man's bespectacled charm. Still—didn't want to give anything up too easily. Jack pretended to think about it for a moment before answering. "Yeah."

"Lieutenant Osborne?"

"No."

"Captain Kelleher?"

"Uh-uh."

Daniel paused, squinting around the room at any other likely candidates. "I know it's not Major Graff, because Sam got her."

"Oh?" O'Neill tried to sound casual about it, but figured he'd failed. "Who did you get?"

"Oh—uh—a civilian." Daniel motioned to the gift he'd balanced on his thigh. "Karen Brechler. She works in accounting."

"Is she the one that has the hots for you?"

Instant silence. Daniel swallowed heavily. "Has the whats for who?"

"The hots for you. She thinks you're cute." The General looked with emphasis over to where the subject of their conversation stood near the refreshment table, setting out snacks. "It's been years, now. She hasn't even been subtle about it. Don't tell me that you didn't know."

"No, I didn't know." Daniel sat up, his spine suddenly ram-rod straight. "Are you sure?"

Jack gave a solemn nod. "So, I hope that you haven't given her anything too personal. If you have, you might have yourself a new girlfriend, Tiger."

"I don't want a new girlfriend."

"Yes, well, when has that ever stopped you?" Extending a hand, he poked Daniel in the shoulder. "You've always been the one who got all the ladies."

Behind his glasses, Daniel's eyes rolled so far back into his head that for a moment, Jack was afraid they'd come back around—like rollers on a slot machine. But his eyelids fluttered, and his baby blues returned to normal before the archaeologist glared pointedly across the way. "Two words for you, Jack."

"Just two?"

"Kynthia."

Quelling the urge to wince, the General couldn't stop his eyes from narrowing. He wasn't certain he really wanted to hear the second word—that first one had kind of stung.

"Are you ready for the other one?"

"Bring it."

Who knew that Daniel could look so mean? The other man dragged out his revelation, such satisfaction unfurling across his face that Jack wondered how he kept from exploding from the overwhelming influx of 'smug'. Leaning close, he cocked a brow at the General. "Freya."

Ouch. "That was in the vault, bub."

"You started it."

From some point in the commissary, Brenda Lee started warbling something about Christmas Trees and rocks, and Jack remembered where he was. Settling himself back against his chair, he frowned. "I just thought that it was a guy code. You know—between guys. You don't leak stuff out of the vault. That's what chicks do. Are you a chick, Daniel?"

"Tell me, Jack." Daniel didn't look over again, focusing instead on the garland framing the doorway. "When you make out with a Tok'ra, which tongue does she use?"

More Brenda Lee. And it had suddenly grown hot. And, had someone turned the volume up? Jack turned around to glare at the person responsible for the music, but couldn't see past the crowd at the drink table. Heaving a sigh, he swiveled back around to cast a careful look at Daniel. Petty. He hated feeling petty. He pressed his lips together. "Look—I—"

"I know." Daniel shook his head. "I guess I'm a little touchy about that right now."

"Been a stretch?"

Daniel's brows rising was always a good sign. "The Sahara's not as dry."

O'Neill made a noise that could either have been commiseration or condolence—at this point, it didn't really matter. Indicating the party with a twirl of his finger, he sighed. "I just really hate these things, you know?"

"Then why did you sign up?"

"Funny story." Jack scrubbed the toe of his boot along the concrete floor of the mess. "I didn't sign up. Walter did. And then they gave me someone who's impossible to shop for."

The subtle light of realization dawned on Daniel's face. "They didn't."

"Oh yes." He nodded. "They did."

"They assigned you Sam?"

O'Neill's lack of response was his answer. Dead silence. He leaned back in his chair and tried not to look as uncomfortable as he felt—a feat which was, naturally, impossible. But appearing completely out of place seemed to be the natural way for him, lately. Something about being The Man, he supposed.

He was dressed in BDUs, for one thing, where most of the other revelers were attired with holiday aplomb. Several of the participants had donned festive headgear—Santa hats, stuffed reindeer antlers, even an angel halo or two. As Master of Ceremonies, Walter had squeezed himself into a sweater that looked like it was both two sizes too large and a generation behind the times. It had Rudolph knitted onto the front, complete with a nose that lit up. Jack frowned as he wondered how that was possible—and to what his assistant had attached the wires that had to be lurking under the wool in order for the reindeer's beak to blink.

Blessedly, Daniel leaned over again, drawing Jack's thoughts away from the unpleasant contemplation of the placement of Walter's battery pack.

"What did you get her?"

"Oh." Jack pooched his lips out, tilting his head first one way, and then the other. "This and that."

"I'm surprised that you didn't ask for help." Daniel had lifted and hand and was inspecting his nails. "Although—out of all of us—you know her best. I mean—except for Pete, of course."

Of course. And really, that was the problem, wasn't it? Or—'he' was the problem. Pete was a 'he', not a 'that'. Although from time to time, Jack had considered the cop to be a 'what the hell?' But he couldn't really say that out loud, could he?

O'Neill forced a smile. "I guess."

"Okay, people!" The music had been blessedly muted, and Walter now stood at the front of the room, the nose of his knit Rudolph blinking spastically. It resembled a pulsating diseased extra nipple. "We had a slight change of plans, and I hope that's all right. Since more than half of the people participating this year are heading out of the Springs for the holidays, we decided that we'd all get together and get the gifts exchanged in one fell swoop so that everyone would know who their Secret Santas were all at once. So, without further ado, let's get this show on the road."

They'd cleared out the tables for the affair, and everyone had situated themselves on chairs laid out in a wide, lazy circle around the room. Jack and Daniel had claimed seats near the door, while Teal'c had taken up residence near the back of the room, where a long table bowed under the weight of the pot-lucked food. Carter sat a few chairs away from him, alongside Felger, who was deep in conversation with that cute little blonde from his lab—Connie, or Coleen, or Clovis, or something. Everyone was holding gift bags or wrapped gifts in all shapes and sizes.

"All right." Walter consulted a list that he'd attached to a clipboard. "First up—in alphabetical order—is Joe Aaronson."

A young civilian from the accounting department made his way across the room and handed Joe a gift bag, from which he extracted a toy basketball hoop that could be attached to the back of a door with suction cups. Apparently, Joe liked it—he smiled and gave the accountant a bump of his fist that reminded O'Neill of the Wonder Twins.

The crowd applauded.

Walter looked down at his list. "Henry Adley."

Henry received a gift card to a local movie theater.

More applause.

"Bryson Barney."

Within the box bearing Bryson's name was a sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the Denver Broncos.

Applause.

"Karen Brechler."

Retrieving the small box from his leg, Daniel stood and made his way towards the back of the room, where Karen waited near the punchbowl. With a huge grin, she made short work of the wrapping paper and reached into the box to lift out an elegant picture frame.

Applause, during which Daniel received a quick hug and kiss on the cheek, which seemed a bit excessive, although the kiss-ee wasn't complaining. In fact, Daniel blushed and gave the kiss-er a little extra squeeze before turning and heading back towards his chair. Of course Daniel would choose the perfect gift for his Secret Santa. Jack closed his eyes, willing the floor to open him up and drag him down to—well—anywhere. Anywhere but here.

"Landon Cabe."

Landon opened his gift bag to find a new pair of gloves and a bottle of salted nuts.

Applause.

"Colonel Carter."

At first, he didn't hear it. Daniel had to reach between them and poke him in the shoulder. "Jack—you're up."

"What?"

"It's Sam. Walter just called Sam's name."

He'd had a plan, crapnabbit. A good plan.

He'd actually bought a gift for her—a gift which now lay as dead weight in the bottom of his desk drawer. Because once he'd realized that the presents were to be given in public, the present had seemed to be overwhelmingly wrong for the occasion. Too much—too personal. Jack had shoved it next to the files in that drawer and gone shopping in the base storage lockers.

Oh, the agony. He reached beneath his chair and pulled out the gift bag by one of its string handles. It was heavy, and it kind of squeaked a little as it was dragged on the concrete—Jack grimaced as he realized from where the sound was originating. Gritting his teeth, he gripped both string handles and lifted the bag off the ground as he stood.

The commissary suddenly seemed huge—and it seemed like everyone in the galaxy had suddenly scrunched themselves into the room. And they all had abnormally huge eyes. And those eyes were all on Jack.

Carter sat in her chair, watching him with an expression plastered on her face that he couldn't quite place. Something between amusement and alarm, only less welcoming. Her hands, folded tightly in her lap, sported whitened knuckles.

O'Neill reached out and held out the bag, supporting the bottom with his other hand. "It's heavy."

"I can tell, sir."

"So—here." He plunked it down on her lap, eliciting a swallowed grunt from her.

"Thank you."

Walter's voice rose behind him. "Let's see what it is, Colonel."

"Okay." Tweaking a brow upward, Sam looked up at the General. She gently eased the multitudinous crumpled pieces of tissue paper out of the top of the bag, then reached in and pulled out the first item.

She held the box out. "Ammunition?"

"Forty cal." Jack pointed at the lid of the box. "You can't ever have enough."

Her hand made another foray into the bag. "Camouflage face paints?"

"Always come in handy."

Felger obligingly held out his hands for the bounty as Sam reached in for another item. "Pens."

Jack plastered a grin on his face. Could someone be lobotomized without actually having had the surgery? Because he kind of felt like he'd lost some cells up there. Maybe it was only a stroke. Or an aneurysm. But still, he heard himself say, "Fine-tipped ballpoint. Your favorite."

Carter's smile was equally creepy. "Well, thank you, sir."

And still, his traitorous mouth kept talking. "There's more in there."

"I know, sir."

"You going to take it out?"

The resultant pause seemed endless. O'Neill was acutely aware of things around him—of feet shuffling on the floor, of chairs creaking, of clothes rustling. He could even hear people staring at him—was that even possible? Could eyeballs yell?

The Colonel's jaw worked once—then twice—before she looked back down into the bag. Hesitating only a moment, she reached in and pulled out a paper-wrapped cube. "C-4."

"You know—because you like blowing stuff up."

"Well. How very generous of you." Her words seemed grateful, but the sentence had ended on a question. At his silence, Carter placed the explosives back in the gift bag, her face a reflection of pained discomfort. "Thanks, General O'Neill."

Someone—was it Walter? Or maybe Siler—started clapping, but Jack stood stock-still where he was—wishing—

He'd had a plan. He'd had a gift. But sometimes—Aw, hell. Sometimes stuff just didn't work out how it was supposed to.

Flickering a look around the room, Colonel Carter bracketed her hands around the gift bag, her fingers digging a little into the paper sides. She looked pale—pale and uncomfortable and awkward and intensely aware of the fact that he felt the same way. Felger muttered something next to her, and she reached out towards him to retrieve the box of ammunition, adjusting her other hand on the bag.

A glimmer drew his attention downward, to where her fingers clutched at bag and tissue paper and brown-wrapped package. The glitter of diamond and gold seemed gaudy and unnatural there, sparkling around the C-4.

What a freaking disaster. Jack frowned. "Well. There you go. Merry Christmas. Or whatever."

"Thank you." Again, her words louder this time, her eyes reflected something else, as well. There was no point in trying to figure out what it was.

He knew that somewhere in the room, there was a person—civilian, probably—with a gift for him, but quite frankly, he didn't care. All he wanted was to get away—to get as far away from her—from here—as possible. With a single last look at the ring on her hand, he turned on his heel and strode for the door.

-OOOOOOO-

He could take it back, he supposed. Somewhere, he still had the receipt—in his wallet, or maybe on the ceramic dish on his dresser where he kept his keys. It wasn't too late to just get rid of the damned thing. Or he could just throw it away—it was, after all—useless.

Around his office, the rest of the base lay quiet. Only a token crew remained—those airmen without the seniority to not be there, mostly. He knew they were out there—knew they milled about doing their jobs—but he found that the 'whos' and 'whats' of the scheduling didn't really matter. Plus, he didn't want to go home—it was too quiet there. No matter how high he turned up the volume on whichever device, he'd still be thinking. Wishing longingly for that lobotomy.

O'Neill sat back in his chair, his fingers threaded behind his head. He needed to paint his office. Maybe he'd go a shade lighter, or darker. Maybe change out the carpet. Maybe a new desk. A new chair? Something different. He frowned upwards at the ceiling. It was definitely time for a change. His life—his existence—needed something else.

"Sir?"

How had he missed her knock? The General looked over towards the door, where a familiar blond head peeped around the jamb.

It took a herculean effort not to sigh. "What do you need, Carter?"

She pushed the door open further, stepping halfway through the gap before stopping. "I just—wanted to make sure you were okay."

Leaning forward, O'Neill rested his wrists on the edge of his desk. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Her expression was a perfect mixture of condolence and question. "You just seemed a little—odd—earlier."

There was no point in denying it. His eyes flared in recognition. "I know. It's been a day."

"Are you sure there's nothing more to it?" She leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. "I mean—besides the whole commanding officer thing—I'd like to think that we're still friends, right?"

Friends. He tore his gaze away from her, focusing instead on his bottom desk drawer. Friends.

It only took a moment for him to reach down, to open the drawer and pull out the gift. It had been neatly wrapped in paper that had snowmen on it—with a blue bow that he'd chosen from a rack at the store. Slamming the drawer shut, he placed the box in the center of the desk. "I'd really bought you something else. The bag of—stuff—from before wasn't your real present."

Her smile was lovely—familiar, and knowing. "I kind of figured."

"But this is—isn't—wasn't—appropriate for up there." His fingers framed the box.

"And Walter changed the plans at the last minute." Somehow, she'd always understood him.

He didn't need to answer, just watched as she stepped forward, easing the door shut behind her. She approached the desk slowly, deliberately, until she stood directly in front of him, her eyes flickering between his face and the neatly wrapped cube in front of him.

"So, do I get to open it?"

"Do you still want it?"

"It depends on what it is." She extended a hand and ruffled the bow. "Is it more ordinance?"

He could smile at that. "No." He took a breath and reached across the desktop, pushing the box at her.

Raising a brow, a dimple teasing at her right cheek, she picked up the gift, tugging at the ribbon until it came free. Slipping a finger under a seam in the paper, she tore it open, then crumpled it up and set it into O'Neill's already outstretched hand. As he threw it into the garbage, Carter appraised the plain brown box. "What is it?"

He raised a brow by way of answer.

The box had a little flap on the front that folded inwards, which the Colonel popped out with her fingernail. Lifting the lid, she studied the Styrofoam pellets within for a moment before setting the box down and reaching a tentative hand in to fish around. Her brows furrowed for a moment as her fingertips found the object within and pulled it free.

She knew. She got it—recognition blazing in her expressive eyes. Lifting the object higher, a private smile curving her lips, she tilted her head to one side, her stance softening. The glass sphere, which had seemed so fragile in O'Neill's own large hands, appeared almost magical in hers.

"I used to love these things." She held the base in one hand, and the globe with the other, balancing it and giving it a firm shake. Watching as the white flakes of snow drifted downward within the liquid filling the globe, she gave a tiny sigh. "They're so gentle."

He indulged himself in watching her—it was a luxury he hadn't had much of, lately, what with being stuck on base while she went off-world with the remnant of his team. Regardless, the General knew exactly what she meant. Snow globes were gentle—even though this one was symbolic of something that wasn't. But he knew she'd understand, even seven years after the fact.

"It's the cavern. In the glacier." An odd little smile crept into her eyes. "In Antarctica."

"Yeah."

"Where did you find it in a snow globe?"

"This store I go to sometimes also sells film memorabilia."

She held it out and stared at it before frowning. "I don't recognize it—"

"It's from Star Wars. One of them at least." Jack lifted a shoulder—affected nonchalance. "Teal'c could tell you which one. Apparently there's some monster that captures that whiny kid and tries to eat him."

She thought about it for a moment. "Right—'Empire Strikes Back'. And I still can't believe you've never seen the rest of the Star Wars movies."

"Not really my thing." O'Neill blew out a heavy breath. The kid behind the counter had prattled on about the movies—calling them 'films' and speaking of them as high art, but Jack hadn't cared enough to listen. He'd tossed his money on the counter and waited for his receipt before snagging his bag and walking out of the store. It hadn't been cheap—the snow globe was signed, apparently, and came with some sort of certificate, as if that made it more special. Jack's problem hadn't been in the price—it had been in the memories the purchase had stirred. Looking at it, he'd been taken back to the glacier, lying on the ice with the then Captain Carter curled up next to him giggling about his sidearm. Whenever he thought of that botched mission, his memories were filled with her. Apologizing while setting his leg, muttering while working with the DHD, or cursing at the 'Gate. Climbing towards the surface. Keeping him alive. Giving him permission to die.

Just one mission out of—how many—hundreds? All of them filled with her. How much of his life had he spent with her? And how had it come to this—him becoming sedimentary behind a desk and her getting ready to marry someone else? How had it come to him feeling guilty for wanting to keep certain parts of her for himself? Feeling guilty for wanting to give her something to make her remember what once was? And this doohickey—this ball of glass—this dust magnet was expected to tell her all of that?

Hefty work for a piece of pretty kitsch. "You know me, Carter, I'm pretty much hopeless."

"No, sir. You're not." Carter looked down at the globe again, her fingers cupping the glass as if it were precious, her eyes reflecting the gentle fall of the synthetic snow within. "Not anywhere near that."

O'Neill heard an odd sound emerge from the pit of his throat.

Sam offered a little smile as she lifted the heavy object cupped within her palms. "Well, anyway, it looks exactly like our glacier."

Our glacier. Jack reminded himself to look at her left hand, and the ring there. "Whatever. It still didn't seem right to give it to you at Walter's shin-dig."

"I doubt anyone would have guessed what it meant."

"Does it mean anything?"

Carter lowered the globe, cupping it in front of her in both hands, the knuckles on her fingers pale. For a steep moment, she stood silently, looking down at the snow globe, her lowered lashes feathering against her cheeks, her jaw working methodically. Finally—finally—she lifted her gaze to the General. "Of course it does."

He wasn't going to ask what, so Jack settled for another half-hearted shrug. "It's just a stupid snowglobe."

"Not stupid, sir." She spoke softly, her voice steady as she shook her head. "Anything but stupid."

"You could use it as a paperweight."

She gave the teeniest roll of her eyes before reaching forward and grasping the box, fiddling with the pellets inside as she lowered the globe back into its packaging. Closing the lid, she tucked the flap back in before fixing him with a look that reminded him of his seventh grade English teacher. "Really, sir."

"Because I could take it back."

She'd already settled the box into the crook of her arm. "Nope."

He didn't want to ask, but needed to. Bracing himself, Jack rose, shoving his hands into his pockets. "So, you like it?"

On the other side of the desk, Carter nodded slowly—a bit sadly. "Yeah. I do." She ran her fingertip along the top corner of the box. "Because it's ours, you know?"

He did. His hands curled into fists inside his pockets. "I know."

A mixture of emotion ghosted across her fine features before she schooled her expression into something more tractable. Motioning again towards the package she held, Carter offered a careful smile. "Thank you, sir. For this."

"You're welcome." He rocked back onto his heels, pulling one hand out of his pocket to run it through his hair. "And about earlier—"

She waved her free hand. "Don't mention it, sir."

"Oh." He scratched at the back of his neck. "Okay."

"So, I'd better go."

"Right."

She turned towards the door, reaching for the knob as she neared it. Pulling the door wide, she was halfway through before she swiveled again, casting him a heavy kind of look before continuing on through.

She was halfway down the hall before he reached the doorway himself. "Carter!"

She halted, spinning around to look at him. "Yes, General?"

"About earlier."

"I said not to mention it, sir."

"Well, I kind of have to."

She offered him a questioning grin. "Oh?"

"Yeah—about the C-4."

"What about it?"

"You know you can't actually keep it, right?"

The Colonel appeared genuinely upset by this for a second or two before she let loose the full glory of her multi-million megawatt smile. "Damn."

His scowl deepened. "Carter?"

"Well." Adjusting the box she held, she ran the tip of her tongue along her lower lip. "I really needed a new paperweight."

"Funny."

"I'll return it in the morning." She moved back towards the elevator at the end of the hall. "Good night, sir."

How had it come to this? This awkward good bye, when it used to be as natural as breath to accompany her to wherever she wanted to go? He raised his hand in farewell, forcing a semblance of a smile.

He'd had a plan. What had happened to it?

As the elevator signaled its arrival, the General watched as Carter entered the car and pressed the button for the doors to close. And then she was gone. Hidden by ugly metal doors and lifted up and away. Out of the mountain, out of his life.

That was the thing about plans—they didn't always work. Some of them were pure crap for luck, to be honest. Jack sighed, alone in the hallway. And for whatever reason, he had to say it out loud. "Goodbye, Carter."