Their house usually smelled like nothing in particular. Maybe there was a hint of furniture polish or diluted bleach if one of them had just done some cleaning, and occasionally there was vanilla from the plug-in air freshener that she liked, but not enough to consistently remember to replace the little packet of scented oil. But this winter afternoon, two weeks before Christmas, Samantha Carter could definitely smell pine needles. Lots of them.
Her husband was leading her slowly down the stairs from the bedroom, one arm around her waist and the other hand covering her eyes. Sam let out a huff of breath. "Jack," she complained. "Can I see now?"
"Nope," he replied, deliberately oblivious to her annoyance. "Just a little bit more."
Sam rolled her eyes underneath his palm, certain to make enough of a gesture for him to feel it. She heard him stifle a chuckle, and she forced herself not to grin.
They reached the bottom step of the staircase, and Jack stopped, pulling her closer. "Okay. You can open your eyes now," he said. She felt him lift his hand away from her face.
When she opened her eyes, Sam was greeted with what had to be the biggest, bushiest Christmas tree she'd ever seen in her life. When they'd bought this house almost six months ago, one of the things they'd liked was the high ceilings on the first floor. This tree was practically scraping against the plaster. Even Jack, who wasn't exactly short, would have to stand on a chair to put anything on the uppermost branches.
Sam sucked in a breath, then released it as an awed, "Wow."
"You like it?"
Sam tilted her head up to look at her husband. "Jack, it's wonderful. Do we even have enough ornaments to cover it?"
"You do remember hauling all those boxes up to the attic, don't you?"
Sam giggled. Jack had grumbled ceaselessly about her being some form of crazed Christmas elf as they'd lugged cardboard boxes marked "Xmas" up two flights of stairs for what had seemed like days. "Yeah, yeah." She stepped out of his one-armed embrace and down the last stairstep to the floor, then crossed the room to the tree, still marveling at its size. She inhaled another breath of the fresh pine scent. "This really is amazing. What possessed you to get such a huge tree?"
"Remember last year around this time?"
Sam remembered. They'd been stuck on a desolate mudball of a planet for treaty negotiations which had run way, way over. Yeah, they'd gotten some naquadah out of it, but somehow that didn't quite make up for spending Christmas--and the two weeks before and after--on a planet where the inhabitants were completely anti-holiday and anti-fun.
"I remember you were really upset about missing Christmas with your brother. So I thought I'd try to help make it up for you this year." He gave her that cute, hesitant smile she loved so much, and she practically ran back over to the stairs to pull him into her arms. If this had been last year, she would have had to limit herself to giving him one of the special smiles she reserved only for him, and maybe--if by some miracle no one was paying them any attention--a brief, loose hug, hoping he knew how much she loved him.
However, it wasn't last year, and they didn't have any regulations looming over them, so Sam Carter took advantage of that fact to kiss her husband thoroughly.
When they finally came up for air, Jack said, "I so need to do this kind of thing more often."
Sam merely smiled indulgently at him and started up the stairs. "Maybe you should. Let's get started on decorating this thing."
* * *
"Oof!" The last box of ornaments nearly slipped out of Sam's arms before she lowered it to the living room floor. There was a disconcerting rattle from inside the cardboard, but she was fairly certain that nothing had broken. "We are so finding another place to store these that doesn't require stairs."
"Ya think?" Jack made sure that his stack of boxes wouldn't topple over anytime soon and then made his way through the maze of cardboard they'd created to pull his wife to his chest. They surveyed the living room. "Where do you want to start?"
"The lights, of course," she answered readily. "I think we should have just enough if we don't put them as thickly on the back."
"This is gonna require untangling them, isn't it?"
They stood together for a few more moments before Jack let Sam go. They started hunting among the boxes for the ones containing the lights each of them had owned previously, hoping against hope that entropy had been a little lighter than usual this year.
An hour later, they'd found the lights, untangled them, and figured out how to connect them and get them all to light up. Jack was simply glad that Sam was good with electrical things. After the lights were figured out, they'd started unpacking the ornaments.
She turned around, curious as to what could put that disbelieving tone in his voice. "What?"
Jack held up his find slowly, barely able to keep from bursting into laughter. "Care to explain this one?"
Sam found herself staring at an ornament consisting of white plastic bubble letters, outlined in black, which spelled out "E=MC^2."
"What?" Sam attempted to fake innocence. It didn't work.
"Tell me this was a gift. If you actually paid money for this, I'm going to have to question your sanity."
Sam giggled. "Actually, my roommate from freshman year of college gave it to me for Christmas. We had absolutely nothing in common, but she thought that since I was 'one of those science people,' I'd get a kick out of it." She reached over and took the ornament from Jack's hand.
"Of course, that was nothing compared to next year. One of my best friends tried to pretend he hadn't forgotten my birthday by saying that according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, my gift could be anywhere in the universe at that point, and since we couldn't measure where it was without disturbing it, we'd just have to keep wondering. And then I asked him if he'd gotten me a subatomic particle for my birthday." Sam could barely control the giggle fit she had at her own story. Her husband merely stared at her with an expression that indicated both that he was utterly confused and that he thought she was completely around the bend.
When Sam had quieted, Jack said, "Sam, honey, I think we're going to have to have a talk about what constitutes humor and what doesn't. That definitely doesn't."
"Maybe not to you." Sam paused to let the last remnant of her giggles escape. "Tell me, O Enlightened One, what do you consider more humorous than that?"
Jack touched his chin thoughtfully. "Oh, I dunno...maybe THIS!" He finished the sentence by lunging and tackling her, his momentum, bulk, and the surprise of his attack carrying her to the carpet. He began to tickle her mercilessly.
Sam was good at fighting off attackers, but none were so insidious as Jack O'Neill's fingers, which ranged all over her belly as she laughed helplessly. She tried to gain the upper hand, but found it hopeless. Eventually she cried, "Uncle, uncle!"
Jack immediately let up, though he still kept her lightly pinned to the floor. "Now admit that that was funnier than the Heidelburger Unsanitary Principle, or whatever it was."
"Only if you admit something else is even funnier."
"Like what?" Jack went off his guard a moment too long, and that was all Sam needed to reverse their positions and start her own tickle assault on him.
Jack writhed underneath her for a few moments before realizing that it was futile. "Augh! Sam! Stop!"
Sam paused, her fingers inches above his chest. "Still think you're funny?" She attempted to appear threatening, but the grin on her face ruined the effect.
"I'm gonna say the correct answer is 'no,'" Jack said, trying not to grin back and failing miserably.
"You'd be right." Sam's smile softened and a glow that Jack had come to know very well in the past year came into her eyes. She leaned down until she covered his body with hers, and then touched her lips to his. The tickle fest was forgotten as they kissed each other soundly.
* * *
Two hours later, they were perhaps three-quarters done with the tree. Not only was the task huge, the fact that they kept stopping to question each other about particular ornaments--and, more often than not, ended up making out for several minutes--didn't help their time. They'd gone through almost three of the Christmas CDs Sam had burned from files downloaded off of the base's network. ("God, Sam, you really *are* a Christmas elf!" Jack had exclaimed when she'd brought them out.) It was getting on in the afternoon, and the sunlight through the windows was just starting to fade toward the close of the short winter day.
Sam was hanging three of "The Twelve Trout of Christmas" and insulting them as she did so. "I still can't believe anyone would make something like this."
"Sure you can't, Einstein girl."
"That's not even in the same league, Jack." Sam finished hanging the last trout--"Twelve Trouts A-Drumming," good lord--and waited for a reply which didn't come.
"Jack?" Sam turned to find her husband kneeling on the floor, staring into a tiny, beat-up cardboard box that contained some of the ornaments which had originally been his. If she remembered correctly, she had brought it down herself. Growing concerned by his lack of response, she crossed the space between them and placed a hand on his shoulder, then looked into the box.
Sam sucked in a breath. There were only a few ornaments down in the bottom, but she recognized immediately what they were. There were two snowflakes made of string and macaroni, crudely painted in red and green with silver glitter sprinkled on them. There were four baked dough ornaments, cut out with cookie cutters, painted in the same style. And finally, there was a golden metal ring, the kind with which one would seal a Mason jar. It contained a white circle of paper, on which was a child's thumbprint. Someone had drawn eyes, a mouth, and a lion's mane on it. Underneath, in childish print, were red block letters spelling out "Charlie."
The last notes of "Away in a Manger" faded away, and Sam realized she could hear both her own breathing and Jack's soft, ragged breaths in the silence that enveloped the room. She didn't know for how long they had been there, staring into this window to the past.
Eventually, Sam stepped around the box and knelt down in front of Jack. She touched his chin, forcing him to look up at her. She could see a watery sheen over his eyes, but she didn't comment on it. Instead, she whispered, "They're beautiful."
Jack glanced down again into the box, then back to her. "Yeah," he rasped out. "Yeah."
"Do you want to stop for now?"
He looked once more at the ornaments. "No. I wanna finish this." He took a deep breath and plunged a hand into the box, fingers closing around the thumbprint ornament and bringing it out. He let it slide through his hand until he was holding it by the loop of red ribbon that served as a hook, then stood up, Sam following him. Jack waded through the masses of tissue paper on the floor--they'd tried to keep them in piles, but it hadn't really worked--until he reached the tree. There he stopped, staring up at the green giant, as if he were unsure of where to place the ornament.
Sam came up behind him. "I think it should go in the front."
Jack nodded. Moving slowly, he selected a likely branch where a seven-year-old's eye level would be and softly, reverently hung the ornament. He stepped back, and they both watched as it swung gently on the branch for a moment, slowed, and then came to rest, the white lights glinting off of the gold-painted metal rim. Still looking at the tree, Jack found his wife's hand and squeezed it hard. Sam saw his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed, then turned to her. "It looks good."
"It does," she agreed.
After a long pause, Jack said, "Well. If we're gonna get this finished by dinnertime, we'd better get a move on."
Sam let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. "Yep. We should." She smiled at him again and waited for an answering, though still subdued, turn of his lips before taking her hand out of his grasp and heading back to the box she had been working on before.
* * *
It was almost six o'clock and completely dark outside when they finished hanging all the ornaments on the tree. All that remained was what would go on top. Sam opened the last box and carefully pulled out the glass star she had inherited from her grandmother. It was only through a strict practice of never letting anyone under fifteen touch it that the star had managed to stay unbroken for so many years. The glass sparkled in even the faintest light, and had tiny etchings that accentuated the curving light. Putting it on the tree had always been Sam's favorite part of Christmastime.
"You wanna get a chair and put this up?" Sam asked.
"I got a better idea." Jack motioned that she should come over to him. When she did, he stepped behind her and placed his hands on her waist. Sam barely had time to clutch the star closer to her chest before Jack lifted her into the air.
Sam took a moment to settle into his arms, then pressed the spiral of wire holding up the star onto the topmost branch of the tree as fast as she could, conscious that Jack's knee wouldn't let him hold her up for long. "All right," she said as soon as she was sure the star would stay upright.
Jack set her down gently and muttered something about Sam carrying bricks in her pants. She slapped his arm playfully, then stepped back to take the entire Christmas tree into her field of vision. Jack flipped off the overhead light, leaving the room dimly lit by the glow of one lamp in a far corner and the white twinkle lights on the tree itself.
Sam drew a deep, appreciative breath as she gazed at the product of their afternoon's work. All among the branches, light glinted off of polished surfaces, illuminating and then throwing ornaments into shadow. She found that even "The Twelve Trout of Christmas" and her speed of light equation made sense in among the intertwined tangle of ornaments that were beginning to cease being "his" and "hers" and instead become "theirs."
She felt Jack's arms close around her, and she leaned into his embrace. He brushed his hand lightly over her hair, occasionally twining his fingers among the strands as they stared in silence at the tree.
Finally, he placed his hand on her neck and softly encouraged her to turn and face him. "I love you," he murmured before tilting his head to kiss her for what must have been the hundredth time that day.
"Love you too," Sam replied when their lips reluctantly slipped apart. "You want help with dinner?"
"Of course," he replied, slowly releasing her from his arms, but keeping her hand clasped in his.
With a last look at the tree, they left the room, debating what to have for their evening meal. By the window, the tree glittered on, shadow and light exchanging places as the ornaments settled on their branches, a fine layer of Christmas magic covering them all.