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HopeLights

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HopeLights

 

So, this is late. I intended to have it finished to post before Christmas, but life got in the way. Still, it’s a fluffery-guttery different take on a Christmas story.

I hope you all enjoy!

 

 

He was in Hell. 

Again. 

He'd been there and back several times in his life, but lately, bits and pieces of his existence had started looking up. While things certainly hadn't been ideal, neither were they crapping all over him. There had been a few notable successes mixed in with the horrific failures. He'd felt a little less hopeless about life. A little more in control. 

Just not right now. 

"So, how exactly did this happen, Sir?" 

Jack frowned, squinching his eyes closed as tightly as he could. The only alternative was to open them, and at the moment, that would be highly inadvisable. There were - things - in his direct line of sight that he wasn't supposed to acknowledge. Things that might result in his death or dismemberment were he to ogle.

He was sitting on the edge of a large boulder, his chin tucked down towards his chest. Carter hovered over him, standing between his wide-spread knees, her body mere inches from his. If he opened his eyes right now, he'd be looking directly at things he shouldn't be looking at, even if he had no other choice - no matter how much he liked the view. To make matters worse, the get-up that the natives had foisted upon her left very little to the imagination. 

He squirmed a little, shifting on his cold perch. His butt hurt nearly as much as his noggin, which somehow made the entire situation even more maddening. He made a mental note to ask Hammond why they had been sent on this mission in the first place. They had whole teams whose jobs it was to do the meet and greets and cultural assessments. SG-1 had no business being here in the first place. And if they'd never been sent to PB4 - whatever, then he wouldn't be sitting on this freaking rock being coddled like a freaking child all while squeezing his eyes shut so hard that it felt like his freaking eyeballs were going to explode. 

All while trying desperately NOT to look at Carter's boobs. 

In his defense, they were kind of - burgeoning. The locals had provided ceremonial garb for them to wear during their time in the village. Daniel, Jack, and Teal'c had been given soft, full-sleeved shirts and linen trousers with drawstrings at the waist. He hadn't expected to like the get-up, but it was unexpectedly comfortable - right down to the leather moccasin-style shoes on his feet. 

The Major, on the other hand. . . 

He'd seen the entire ensemble, but was hard pressed to remember anything about it other than the corseted top. It was blue - the exact same blue of her eyes - and it cinched things. Upwards. 

Damn it.

"Sir?" She dabbed at his scalp with the tissue she'd pulled out of the pocket of the apron at her waist. "How did you hurt yourself?" 

"I've already told you, Carter. I don't remember." 

"Did you lose consciousness?" 

"No." He sighed, knowing that she wouldn't believe him. After a moment, he repented. "Maybe. A little."

"Well, how much of a 'little'? Five minutes? Ten?"

"It was approximately twenty minutes." Naturally, Teal'c had timed the whole stupid thing. Trust the Jaffa to be exacting about protocol. "During which time I moved Colonel O'Neill from the path of foot traffic and elevated his head and shoulders. I then sought out Daniel Jackson, who, in turn, located your whereabouts, Major Carter." 

"Well, it's a good thing that you did, Teal'c." Carter poked around a little more at her patient, tsking as she went. "This is quite the injury." 

"It's a bump." 

"It's a gash, Sir." Her fingers paused in their ministrations. "You probably need stitches." 

"I've had worse." 

"I know you have, Sir. But that doesn't mitigate the severity of this particular wound." 

"Just patch it up Carter, and we can get back out there to do - " he stalled for a moment, trying to remember exactly why they'd come to this particular village on this particular planet. Nothing was immediately forthcoming. Maybe he'd actually done some damage this time. "Whatever it is that we're supposed to be doing." 

"The Festival of Light." Teal'c actually sounded intrigued, the words rolling forth in his distinctive baritone. "Thus far it has been a most extraordinary experience." 

"It's been long." Tilting his head, O'Neill squinted sideways at his teammate. "Too long." 

"Sir, please hold still." Carter leaned a little closer, bracing his head with her fingertips, forcing him to revert to his previous position. When he had, she started her work again, her fingers fiddling gently through his hair. "I'm still trying to figure out where all this blood is coming from." 

"Veins." Jack growled a little, not that it was going to help. "It's coming from my veins. Perhaps a capillary or two." 

"Colonel." It wasn't possible to interpret that tone. It was either patient annoyance or mulled amusement. Usually, Carter's responses carried a decent mixture of the two. "If you'd cooperate, we could get this done sooner." 

"If Daniel would hurry, we could get this done sooner."

"It's over a klick to the 'Gate and back, Sir." Carter leaned back, fixing a look at O'Neill. "And the delay isn't Daniel's fault. I was the idiot who left the medic kit on the MALP. If you want to blame anyone, blame me." 

O'Neill rolled his eyes behind his still closed eyelids. He did blame Carter. Kind of. At the very least, she figured heavily into how he'd managed to conk himself on the noggin. But he wouldn't admit that in public - or out loud - for the world. So, he lied. "It's not your fault, Major. Chill." 

"How could you have known that Colonel O'Neill was going to injure himself?" Teal'c had started taking Carter's side more and more lately. "The festivities of tonight were in no way expected to cause anyone harm." 

"And yet, here I am. Harmed." 

"Only you can't remember how you got hurt." Stepping backwards, Carter reached for the rag that she'd found on a nearby clothesline. Dipping a corner of it into the bucket of water on the ground next to her, she took her time wringing the excess moisture out. "That seems odd, Colonel." 

"What seems odd is this entire situation." Cautiously, he edged an eyelid open - just enough to ascertain whether or not it was safe to look. It was. She'd moved far enough away that her bosom wasn't blocking his view of everything else. 

"What do you mean?" 

"Well, they obviously aren't remnants of a Goa'uld slavery operation. This village appears to be right out of Shakespeare's time. The clothes, the music, their language - the fact that they're Christian - it's weird." 

"We've run into Christian civilizations before." Her eyes wavered over towards Teal'c. That mission hadn't gone well for their Jaffa friend. Being chained up and chucked into a lake tended to cast a pall on 'Gate Travel. "Not many, but some." 

"How many have we run into who don't know what a Jaffa is? Who weren't kidnapped by snake-headed megalomaniacal dillweeds?" 

Sam had to concede on that one. "None." 

"Well, then, how did they get here?" 

"Perhaps they were preserved for some reason by the Asgard." 

"Why?" Carter shook her head, drawing Jack's attention to her hair. She had flowers in it. Not just a daisy tucked behind her ear, but a wreathy kind of thing that sat on top of her head. There were ribbons, too, threaded through the flowers and then trailing off the back of the headpiece to tumble down her back. 

Somehow, that made the corset even hotter. The fact that she was, indeed, a girl was being made entirely too evident on this planet, what with skirts and bustiers and flower tiaras. And the dancing. Oh, yes. The dancing. Quickly, he looked off into the direction of the 'Gate, pretending to look for Daniel through the dense darkness of the forest. 

"I mean, the Asgard don't seem to interfere unless it benefits them somehow." She prodded the grass with the toe of her delicate shoe. "It doesn't make sense." 

"Leave that figuring out stuff to Daniel, Carter." Jack closed his eyes again. All this talking was starting to make his head hurt again. "That's why we keep him around." 

"Are you feeling okay?" Concern colored her tone. "Do we need to get you home?" 

"No." O'Neill attempted a smile. "I'm good." 

"Daniel should be back at any moment." She moved closer, lifting the rag she'd dampened. "Let me check - " 

"I'm fine, Carter." O'Neill stopped her with his raised palm. "I'll be fine."

"Is your wound bleeding again?" 

"I don't know. I can't see the top of my head." 

"At least let me - " 

"Damn it, Carter." 

She stopped, frowning so slightly that the expression was nearly imperceptible. With a tiny sigh, she draped the rag over the edge of the water bucket and straightened, taking another step backwards. "Yes, Sir." 

Footsteps crunched through the dead grass in the clearing behind them, and Daniel appeared through an opening in the ring of trees surrounding the group. Breathing heavily, he hefted the metal medical kit in his hand before setting it down next to Jack on the rock. "Got it."

"It's about time, Daniel." 

"Thank you, Daniel."

Sam's voice had been louder, effectively canceling out the Colonel's. It had most certainly been on purpose. As she bustled herself over to open the case, she threw her CO a look that reminded him of the looks his mother used to give him. He felt a little chagrined. He was being an ass. Granted - he had a bit of an excuse, what with the throbbing headache and all, but still. Ducking his chin to his chest, he muttered something that might have been gratitude. 

"You're welcome." Daniel swiped his handkerchief across his face and forehead. "Have we figured out what happened to Jack?" 

"No." Sam withdrew a small flashlight and clicked it on. Handing it to Teal'c, she found gauze and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and set about preparing a more thorough cleaning. "Sir, this is going to sting a little." 

"I figured." He closed his eyes again, and allowed her to adjust the angle of his head exactly how she needed. "Just get on with it." 

"Wow." This from Daniel. "Are we sure he doesn't need stitches? 

Sighing, Carter pressed the soaked gauze against the mess on O'Neill's head. "I'm not really qualified for that kind of thing, so let's hope not." 

"You'd probably have to take him back to the SGC." 

"Janet would do a better job than I would." She lifted the padding and reached out to adjust the light that Teal'c held. "But luckily, I think that it's going to stop bleeding pretty quickly." 

"Mmm." Daniel plunked himself down on the boulder next to the Colonel. "And have we learned anymore about how these people got here?" 

"Major Carter believes that they may have been brought here by the Asgard." 

Sam gently dabbed at the dried blood in the Colonel's hair. "It's just a theory." 

"Well, I figured out what the festival is for." Daniel sounded somewhat triumphant. 

"Oh?"

"It's Christmas." 

"Christmas?" 

"Mikael told me that they've been keeping track of the passage of time of Earth since their ancestors were brought here, and that they do this whole she-bang each Earth-date December 25th. The festival is their way of celebrating Christmas. They do it all. Watching for the star, giving gifts – right down to reenacting the Nativity.” 

"They're off by a couple of months." Jack frowned. "It's currently September on Earth. Are we going to tell them that?"

"There's no point." Daniel had moved away from the rock, his leather shoes soft in the grass. "Why ruin their fun?" 

"This civilization has survived peacefully for many generations." Teal'c said. "It would seem unnecessary to correct such a trivial mistake." 

"General Hammond said the craziest thing to me after the briefing yesterday." Sam muttered as she worked. "When I asked him why we were being sent here rather than SG-5 or -14, he just said that we needed it more than they did." 

"Well, hell." Daniel grinned. "Hammond thought we'd have fun here. Maybe make up for the last few months which, admittedly, have been remarkably crappy." 

"And General Hammond is indeed correct. This place does seem to soothe one's spirit." 

"You're really taken with these people, aren't you, Teal'c?" O'Neill winced a bit when Carter's fingers tugged at a stubborn spot. 

"They are a joyous group. And this festival is unlike anything I have ever before seen." 

The Colonel had to admit that Teal'c was right on that front. The entire village had been transformed since SG-5's first visit a few weeks before. Where the other team had described a basic town, now, the entire place was festooned with garlands of flowers and sprays of ferns and leaves. Ribbons curled from the lintels and eaves, and swaths of embroidered cloth draped between lampposts and sign poles. The town square had been filled with tables loaded down with food and drink, and everywhere were revelers dressed in their finest clothes, laughing and singing together. 

The party had gone on all day, pausing only as evening fell, when they'd moved from the town square towards the woods near the edge of the village, where the town's simple chapel presided over a large open field. Early in the day, O'Neill had fallen in with some of the village elders, while Daniel had found himself surrounded by the scholars and deacons. Teal'c had become a favorite amongst the children, and had spent the majority of the afternoon presiding over various contests and races that appeared to be part of the whole celebration. 

Carter, however, had immediately been whisked away by the womenfolk. Jack had only seen her sporadically as she'd placed yet more food on the common tables, or helped with arranging more decorations. He'd been afraid that she would have resented being resigned to doing the 'women's work', but she really hadn't seemed to mind. She'd looked happy. 

And Carter rarely looked happy these days. Ever since leaving certain things in certain rooms and resigning herself to solitude. Ever since the moment in the mines when they'd both realized who - and what - they were. Ever since he'd arrived in a seedy hospital room with barely a moment to spare. 

Jack knew exactly what she was going through. He'd been feeling the same way for the past year or so. Angry, and frustrated, and a little bitter. Truth be told, he'd been lonely - although he hadn't been able to put it into words until just now. 

Near nightfall, the party had transitioned from the Square to the clearing, and O'Neill had made his way around the edge of the crowd, into the woods bordering the meadow's edge. He'd leaned against a young maple, simply watching the throng. Poles had been plunged into the ground and lit - they'd reminded him of tiki torches - and a group of musicians had arranged themselves on the wide front stoop of the church. As soon as the music started, a cheer had erupted from the crowd, and they'd whirled to life. The dances were complex and intricate, obviously learned by the villagers since childhood. Teal'c had declined to join in, but Daniel had been game, although he'd dropped out after accidentally knocking over a woman who had looked to be in her seventies. Jack had lost him for a while, noticing later that he'd ended up on the opposite side of the meadow, conversing with the village priest. 

But Sam had figured out the patterns more quickly, and she'd had no dearth of willing partners. Every time one dance ended, another villager had claimed her for the next. She'd spun and twirled with the best of them, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright, her skirts swirling about her calves. And she'd laughed - truly laughed - for the first time in what seemed like ages, her face transforming from brooding seriousness to joy. 

It had been beautiful.

"Sir?" Carter's fingers paused in their work. "Are you okay?" 

Startled, Jack shook himself back to awareness. "Yeah." 

"I kind of lost you for a moment." 

"I must have zoned out." 

"Must have." She made a last few swipes with her gauze and then stepped backwards. "You went pretty quiet." 

Opening his eyes, he blinked until things merged into focus. "Just thinking." 

"Okay." Sam glanced down at the little pile of gauze that had collected at her feet. She'd obviously been dropping the soiled wipes before grabbing new ones out of the kit. Bending, she gathered them up and deposited them on the rock next to the still-open medical kit. "Well, it looks like you might avoid stitches. Although I should probably put a bandage on the wound. I'm just not sure how that will work unless I shave part of your head - and I don't want to do that - " 

The copse seemed more intimate than before. "Carter?" 

"Yes, Sir?" 

"Where did Teal'c and Daniel go?" 

"Um." Biting her lip, she turned towards the meadow. "They left. Daniel said something about talking with the priest. He wanted to try to figure out who had brought their ancestors here from Earth. Teal'c has been asked to help with the pageant." 

"The pageant?" 

"You know." She looked at him, her eyes wide. "Mary, Joseph, the baby. They reenact it, apparently. The village children were so taken with Teal'c that they decided to make him a Wise Man." 

"Teal'c as a Wise Man." Jack's lip turned upwards. "That actually kind of works for me." 

"It does, doesn't it?" Stepping towards the medical kit, she fished the flashlight out of the pocket of her apron and clicked it on. It only took her a few seconds to find what she needed, a tiny white packet that she raised for him to see. "I've got some of these little ones. Do you want me to stick one on? I'm afraid that the wound will re-open." 

"I'm sure it'll be fine, Carter." 

Her nose wrinkled as she considered. "I'm going to put it on anyway." 

Jack sighed as she neared, squeezing his eyes closed again. Somehow, her attentions felt different without their audience. But if was really honest with himself, things always felt different when it was just the two of them. More - more. It wasn't as if they tried to make things that way. It was just how it was. Still, he attempted to steel himself. He tried not to feel how light and careful her fingertips felt in his hair, how warm her body was against his, how he could hear her heart beat in the scarce distance between them. "Just get on with it, Major." 

She pressed gently at the adhesive on either side of his wound, ruffling his hair around a bit to try to disguise where the bandage was. "Well, that's probably the best I can do." 

"It's all right, Major." He made the mistake of looking up, then. Of catching her eye while she still stood between his wide-spread knees, her skirt bundled up against his thighs. Swallowing hard, he dragged his gaze away. "Good as new." 

"I should probably encourage you to head back to the SGC."

"What - and miss all this fun?" He managed to sound only moderately petulant. 

"I just can't imagine that's going to stay closed." 

"I'm sure it'll be fine." Lifting a hand, he poked gingerly at his scalp. 

"Careful." She grabbed his hand and dragged it back down before he could probe too far. "You don't want to get rough with it. It's only just stopped bleeding." 

Jack couldn't help it. He looked down towards their joined hands, feeling her calloused palm in his own. Her fingers were strong, and cool, and capable. One of the things that he'd always admired about Sam Carter was that she was able and willing to do what needed to be done. She was a constant ball of potential energy - from her incredible brain all the way down to her agile feet. She never wasted a move, or wasn't prepared for whatever might come. And while she doubted everything she did, she was always willing to try. 

She was perfect. And try as he might, he couldn't stop noticing. He also couldn't seem to let go of her fingers. His thumb traced a leisurely arc against the heel of her palm before giving her fingers a little squeeze. O'Neill fully expected her to back away, but was ridiculously gratified when she didn't. 

"Sir?" 

He raised a brow in answer. 

"Can I ask you a question?"

"You just did, didn't you?" 

Her lips twitched upwards in a fleeting smile. "I'm serious." 

Jack re-situated himself on his rock throne. Purposefully, he gentled his tone. "Sure." 

"How did you really get hurt?" 

The question had cost her. Stick Carter in a situation where she's required to revert to either military or scientific training, and she'll mow everything down without a second thought. But place her in a dark secluded glade with a man she's admitted to loving - well, she looked a little lost and uncertain. 

"I'm not - " 

"Because I'm fairly sure that you do remember." Her eyes were intent upon him. "Right?" 

He could lie. He could look her straight in the face and tell her that he didn't have a clue how the hell he came to be splayed out in the damp grass and undergrowth. He could tell her he'd come to with Teal'c's ugly mug in his face without a lick of memory as to how it had happened. He could certainly lie. 

But she'd know. Because she knew him. And then she'd wonder where she'd gone wrong when he didn't trust her enough to confide in her. Damn it. 

Jack sighed, tucking his chin towards his chest. "Yeah. I remember." 

"So?" 

"There was a branch. I walked into it." 

"You must have been traveling pretty quickly to get that kind of wound from whacking your head on a branch." 

"The branch might have been moving when it hit me." 

"Moving how? There's not much wind tonight." 

He groaned a little. "It was a person. Someone moved the branch." 

"Someone did this to you?" 

"It was inadvertent."

"Who? A villager?' 

"I was heading through the woods around to the opposite side of the clearing, and I got - distracted." 

"Distracted." 

"It happens." He glowered down at his homespun linen trousers before tilting back up to look at her. "Sometimes things just catch your eye. You lose your focus." 

"Okay." But she didn't sound convinced. Not a bit. 

She wasn't going to be satisfied until she'd heard the whole sordid story. Sighing, Jack rolled his eyes. "So, I was just walking. Just minding my own business when this couple of kids comes running through the woods towards me. They're young - a girl and a guy, probably teenagers. I'm pretty sure that they were trying to get somewhere more private, if you catch my drift." 

"I do." 

"So, I stepped aside to let them through. They were pretty involved with each other, though, so I'm sure they had no idea I was even there. And then the guy reaches up and grabs this branch and pushes it out of the way so that she doesn't have to duck under the leaves, and as soon as they get past it, he lets go." 

Naturally, she'd pieced the rest of the event together. "And it whipped back and hit you in the head." 

"I should have been watching out for it. I could have guessed that something like that might happen." 

"You mentioned a distraction." 

Her hand was still in his, the space between their bodies had grown even closer, somehow. He looked down at their joined fingers, at the apron bunched up against his legs, at the curve of her hip beneath the sharp edge of the corset. "I was watching the dancing." 

"Oh?" 

It took him forever to gather up the gumption to tell her the truth. "And, it's just that I haven't seen you like that for a while." 

She didn't say anything. After what seemed like forever, he hazarded a look up at her to discover that she was smiling down at him. Damn, but she was beautiful, especially with the hinted dimple in her cheek, and her eyes partially obscured by her lashes, and the pink that had crept up her throat. A ribbon had fallen over her shoulder, and tumbled down to curl over the swell above her corset. He couldn't decide if it needed to be corrected, or if it was perfect the way it was. 

"Like what?" Barely a whisper, when it finally came. "Haven't seen me like what?" 

"Like you were happy." 

"I am happy, Sir." 

"Right." He hated it when she tried to lie. Looking down, he noticed that the apron she wore was embroidered with tiny white flowers. With his free hand, he touched the starched edge of its pocket, running his finger across the knife-edge crease. "So am I. Thrilled with my life." 

"Good. So, we're both good." 

"Exactly." Jack moved to finger the fabric of her skirt, testing to see if it was as soft as it had looked. It was. "We're perfect. If we weren't so damned miserable all the time." 

Sam's smile faded slightly, and she dragged her gaze away from him, staring off into the darkened woods, instead. "I wouldn't say that I'm miserable. The situation isn't ideal, but - I'm not miserable." 

"You just haven't seemed like yourself lately." 

"I'm good, Sir." But she tugged her fingers out of his, stepping backwards until she'd put an arm's length between them. "There are just moments." 

"Moments?" 

"Moments." She busied herself with tidying up the contents of the medic's kit, snapping the interior containers closed. Her answer nearly got lost in the 'clicks'. "Where I wish things were different." 

"Different how?" 

Her hands stilled, then secured the final clasps with deliberate care. When she straightened, she didn't look at him. "Are you going to make me say it?" 

"No." He stood, slowly. He'd had concussions before. He knew the routine. Taking a cautious step, he moved away from the boulder, allowing her space. "Of course not." 

"But you know what I mean." 

"C'mon, Sam." 

And there it was. The closest thing to true intimacy that he could offer. Her name. Even in the moonlight filtering through the trees, he could see her expression change - soften a little, perhaps. She turned to face him, her fingertips still skimming the lid of the medical kit as if the contact would keep her grounded in reality. "Sir, I - " 

"It's been a tough few years." Jack's voice was quiet, yet insistent. "Hell - it's been a tough few weeks. You've had an especially difficult time of it, haven't you?" 

Sam's expression turned contemplative. "I heard about what you did. With the whole Adrian Conrad thing."

Flashes of the gray, bare walls of the abandoned hospital ran through his mind. And the cold, dead feeling that had permeated his soul. He'd been well and truly terrified. "I did what I had to do, Carter." 

"Daniel told me everything that you didn't. He told me that you recruited Colonel Maybourne. That you were the one that asked him to help." 

The leaves were soft under his feet - evidence of rainfall in the not-too-distant past. He'd only taken a step closer to her, but it put her within arm's reach again, close enough that he could see how her eyes had darkened with the memories of the incident. "I did." 

"I almost didn't believe him, when he told me." She studied his expression, met his gaze straight on. "You and Maybourne aren't exactly friendly." 

"We're not." His lips thinned. "He's a son of a bitch and I'd happily put a bullet through his smarmy keister." 

One tawny brow rose slightly. "Yet, you went to him for help."

"I had something to lose, Carter." Jack extended a hand and ran a single finger along the edge of the medical case. The metal was cool beneath his skin. "Someone to lose." 

She looked down, towards where the line between their bodies was indistinct. "All I could think about was figuring out a way to get back to you. I didn't want to die without having said - things. And miraculously, you were the one that came through that door and there wasn't an opportunity for talking. But then, you were shot, and by the time we got you back to the SGC, the moment had passed." 

"I'd never been more relieved in my life." O'Neill inched closer. The music coming from the church's front porch had grown louder, and he didn't want to have to yell over it. "When I saw that you were still alive - that you were unharmed - it was like I could finally breathe again." 

"How come you didn't say anything?" 

"How?" Jack's voice was quiet, yet insistent. "When? With Daniel and Teal'c sitting in the transport with us? While Janet pulled the bullet out of my arm? While we were being debriefed by Hammond?"

A light seemed to dawn in her eyes. Understanding, or realization. "I thought it was because you didn't have anything to say."

"No." He couldn't not touch her any longer. Capturing her hand in his again, he tugged gently, until her body had met with his. Until they shared space, and air, and heat. "No. It wasn't anything like that." 

"So, yeah." Her voice was a near-whisper. "I guess you can say that I've been kind of miserable." 

"I know." Nodding, he reached up to carefully pluck the errant ribbon curl off her shoulder. He tested it between the pads of his fingers before letting it tumble down her back. "And I'm sorry." 

For the longest time, she merely studied his face, her eyes the color of a storm. When she finally spoke, she seemed stronger. "It's not your fault." 

"You're right. But it's not yours, either." 

"Maybe it's time to just give it up." 

A chill passed through his core at that. "Give what up?" 

"Give up fighting." 

"The Goa'uld?" 

"We keep up this struggle to save the world by defeating the Goa'uld." Her fingers tightened in his. "But by doing so, we're losing ourselves, aren't we?" 

"It's our job."

"Yes." Allowing a weak smile, Carter canted her head to one side. "And it's a valuable, necessary thing we're doing." 

"It is." 

"But it just seems unwinnable, doesn't it? Now that we've even got the NID working against us." 

"We can make a dent, at least." 

"But at what cost?" 

Ah, the rub. Everything. They could both lose everything. Jack's mind hurtled back to the moment when he'd found her in that hospital only a few weeks before. When he'd been able to assure himself that she hadn't been harmed - that she was still alive and intact. He'd wanted nothing more than to cut off her restraints and gather her close. He'd needed to hold her, to hear her heart beat in tandem with his, and feel her breath against his skin. 

But Maybourne had been there, watching with his wickedly keen eyes, and there had been the issue of the newly snake-headed millionaire's escape, and the trail of bodies he'd left behind. Everywhere, there had been SWAT teams and cops and news people. Even amidst the overwhelming relief he'd felt at find Sam unharmed, there hadn't been time to relish the moment. After Dr. Fraiser had fixed him up, he'd expected Carter to drop by. After the third day in the infirmary, he'd stopped watching for her. As soon as his stitches had been pulled, he'd been sent off to deal with the emerging Marty situation. He and Carter had barely spoken in the interim. 

He'd thought that she'd been disinterested. 

Apparently, he'd been wrong.

"Come here." He'd barely said it before he found himself pulling her closer. She came instantly, leaning into him, pressing her body flush against his. Threading her hand up around his neck, she rested her cheek against his collarbone, her sigh warm and heavy against his chest and neck. It was automatic - their bodies melding together as naturally as if it were the norm rather than the aberration - and Jack couldn't help but remember other times when they'd fit together so perfectly. After Daniel had died the first time, after he'd shoved Hathor into the pit, holding Carter close as he'd hovered near death on the icy floor of a cave in Antarctica. And then there had been the time under the city that they'd spent not as themselves, yet they'd still been drawn towards each other like magnets. Only then, their stolen moments had been behind furnaces and in darkened corridors, where their hands could wander and explore and learn. It was then that he'd fallen completely. That he'd found his future. 

But they'd been dragged apart again by memory, and duty, and honor.

O'Neill bent his head, feeling the silk of her hair against his temple, the tickle of the flowered wreath against his ear. Beneath his hands, the soft curves of her body were accentuated by the sharp edge of her bodice and the fullness of her skirt, and his fingers couldn't resist tangling in the fabric, pressing her even closer even as he felt her face turn upwards towards his. 

Her hand ruffled through the short hair at the back of his neck, sending a frisson of sensation down his body. Somehow, it dawned on him that she'd shifted, that she was watching him, her fingers on his skin wandering from his nape to his jaw. That the pad of her thumb had soothed along his lower lip. That her own were parted. Waiting. 

"Jack." It was nearly a plea, the word seeming broken and small in her throat. 

And then it was only the small matter of giving in. Of lowering his head until he'd finally found life in her touch, her embrace, and in her lips. Until he'd recalled her unique taste and feel, and until he remembered how she liked to be touched. 

It wasn't gentle. It had been too long, with too much sublimated and denied. Sam arched upwards against him, both hands framing his face, drawing him deep, relearning his rhythm. The night around them was cool, but the air between them seethed with heat. She was fire, and purpose, and the only thing that he could possibly call home. He angled to delve more deeply, groaning a little when she opened more fully for him. 

His hands slid up her back, and then back down to measure the swell of her hips, gathering in the generous drape of her skirt. He always forgot this - how soft she was. How her body was the perfect mix of strength and femininity. How she packaged herself up in her BDUs and weaponry and denied the woman there. But right now, in this glade, even with the music and the laughter and the melee just beyond the tree line, she was just Sam, and he was just Jack, and their hearts were finding a simultaneous beat as their bodies found comfort in each other. 

They broke apart - both breathing in quick gasps, repositioning hands and shuffling feet before coming back together for more. Not so desperate now - sweeter, slower, and more deliberate. Jack left her lips and explored the delicate skin of her cheek, found the feather-softness of her eyelashes, and nuzzled the sensitive skin beneath her ear before returning to taste her again, taking in the wonder of this woman who somehow wanted him back. 

"I miss you." She whispered it against his mouth, pulling slightly away even as his arms tightened around her. "I miss being the other people we were. We spend nearly every day together, but it feels like we never see each other. Does that make any sense?"

"No." He traced the elegant line of her jaw with his fingertips before touching her lips again with his own. "But I understand you perfectly." 

"Sometimes I hate this job." She sighed against his mouth, her hands splayed against his chest. 

"Me too." Jack wrapped his arms all the way around her, gathering as closely as humanly possible. "But there are some good parts. Like here, and now."

Laughing, she shook her head. "Is the 'good part' the gaping head wound, or the fact that we've been deserted by our team?" 

Jack grinned. "Personally, I'm kind of digging the alone time."

If anything, Sam melted into him more fully. "Yes, well, this still shouldn't have happened." 

Jack closed his eyes, dropping a kiss to her hair, directly in the center of her flower tiara. "Let's give ourselves a break, Carter. It's Christmas." 

“It’s September.” 

“It’s Christmas on this planet, then.” 

"Okay." She breathed deeply, kissing his neck again, the tip of her agile tongue flittering against his pulse point. "We'll go with that." 

Something moved in the trees just beyond the copse, and Jack felt Sam turn towards the sound. From the shadows emerged a girl - probably around twelve. She was wearing a dress similar to Sam's and a nearly identical flower wreath on her head. In her hands, she held what appeared to be a flimsy paper box. 

"I was sent to fetch you by Master Daniel." She looked nervous. "I am sorry to have disturbed your interlude." 

"Alice." Pulling away, Carter stepped towards the newcomer. "Does Daniel need something? Is he okay?" 

"He is well, Mistress." Alice bobbled a quick little curtsy. "It is nearly time for the release of the HopeLights. Master Daniel felt that you would wish to participate. After all, this is the entire reason that we celebrate the Festival."

"HopeLights?" Jack's brows drew close. "What are those?" 

"This is a HopeLight, Master Jack." Alice extended the box. "You inscribe upon it your deepest dreams and wishes and light the wick within. It glows and ascends to Heaven, taking your wish to God."

"It's a lantern." Sam reached out and took the device, lifting it for a quick examination. "They're called Kongming lanterns in Chinese. They harness the power of hot air to create lift." 

"I've seen them before." Jack made his way towards the opening in the trees. "We had to learn how to make them in the Academy. They used them in World War II to drop munitions." 

Alice frowned. "I know nothing of these 'munitions'. Our village uses HopeLights as we use prayer. At Christmas, we celebrate the Star, and the Child, and the Love of God. We recognize His power to bless us by asking in faith. It is our tradition." 

Sam looked back over her shoulder at O'Neill. Lifting a single brow, she indicated the lantern in her hand. "Couldn't hurt, right?" 

Shaking his head, Jack made his way towards the opening in the trees. As Carter fell into step beside him, he looked down at her, his hand finding its way to rest at her waist. "Couldn't hurt at all."

 

-------OOOOOOO------

 

They'd missed the pageant. The musicians had vacated the stage at some point, to be replaced by the traditional manger scene. Members of the village posed in a typical tableau - Joseph, Angels, Shepherds, and a bored-looking donkey. A girl who appeared to be slightly older than Alice played Mary, perched on a bale of hay holding a squirming baby. Teal'c looked massive between two teenaged Wise Men, each holding their requisite boxed gift. Except for the fact that they were on another planet, it looked like every living Nativity that Jack had ever seen. 

Here and there in the crowd, men moved amongst the villagers with huge poles, upon which were hung dozens of HopeLights. Each member of the village got one, and then the poles were dispensed with, and the men lit torches to prepare to launch the lanterns. Alice disappeared into the crowd for a moment, and then reappeared holding a lantern of her own, along with a charcoal pencil. 

"You must write your wish, Master Jack." She handed the pencil to O'Neill. "And then you write yours, Mistress Sam. Master Lucas just over there will have the torch. When you are ready, you make your wish and send it to Heaven." 

"Aren't you going to join us, Alice?" 

"No, Mistress. I must return to my mother. I am required to help the little ones with their HopeLights." And with that, the girl sank into another curtsy before scampering away. 

"So." O'Neill held the pencil carefully between two fingers. "A wish." 

"I need a gearbox for a 1961 Volvo P1800." Carter ran her fingers over the heavy paper of the lantern. "That's a wish."

"I'm not sure that's what they're looking for here." 

Her smile was cheeky, to say the least. "Well, they don't know how hard it is to find them." 

"Smart ass." 

"Well? What are you going to write?" 

O'Neill studied her for a moment, then reached out and grabbed the HopeLight, turning it until he'd found the perfect spot. After a moment, he handed it back to her, watching her as she read what he'd written. 

Fishing in a Goa'uld-free Universe.

Her smile was brilliant. "Perfect." 

Up on the Chapel steps, the village vicar had raised his hands, calling out to the crowd. Eventually, the assembly quieted, and the priest began to intone a blessing on the congregation, his voice more song than speech. During his prayer, people began to light and release their lanterns, creating an oddly beautiful glow in the sky. As they rose, they were buffeted back and forth by the gentle breeze, creating a dance of sorts in the air. It was mesmerizing. 

Reaching into his pocket, Jack found the lighter he'd shoved in there when he'd changed clothes earlier that morning. For whatever reason, he didn't want to wait for Master Lucas and his torch. Maybe he wanted to get it over with - or maybe he wanted to get his wish off into the universe as quickly as possible. Regardless, flicking the lid back, he positioned the lighter and turned to Carter. "Ready?" 

The glow from the other rising lanterns glinted off the gold in her hair, making her just a tidge angelic. Nodding, she reached out, tilting the lantern to give him better access to the wick. "I'm ready." 

It only took a moment for the thing to light, gently illuminating both their faces. O'Neill grabbed one side with his fingertips, while Carter took the other. Without speaking, they shoved the HopeLight into the air in unison, then stepped back and watched as it hovered for a moment in the air directly in front of them before starting its slow ascent towards the sky. 

"Think it'll make it?"

When Carter didn't answer, Jack glanced over towards her. She was looking up into the sky with a joyous expression on her face - exactly the same one she'd been wearing as she'd danced earlier with the villagers. O'Neill would like to have thought that her smile was brighter this time though, because he'd had a hand in putting it there. But in reality it was just who she was. Full of wonder, curiosity, and completely capable. Not to mention beautiful - inside and out.

Reaching out, he took her hand, gratified when she squeezed his fingers tightly before leaning into his side. "To heaven? Who knows?"

"I mean, if there is such a thing." Jack's thumb moved up and down on the soft skin on the back of her hand. He suddenly realized that he simply wanted to touch her more. "I'm kind of iffy on the particulars." 

"I think most of us are iffy on the whole Heaven thing." She turned her face, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "But if there is one, I'm choosing to believe that our lantern will make it." 

O'Neill pressed his lips to the top of her head. "Me too." 

There was something pure about the moment. About standing in a crowd of believers, watching as their hopes rose high in the cool night's breeze, soaring over and around the steeple to sail towards the forest beyond. The crowd had grown quiet, except for a few children 'oohing' and 'aahing' at the sight overhead. He could hear the leaves rustling against each other in the trees, and the snapping of the torches as they still burned bright. 

After a while, he could no longer see their lantern. It had been swallowed up within a multitude of others, but he couldn't seem to drag his eyes from the sky. It was the kind of experience that he'd had too few of lately. An innocent moment with good, kind people. With this woman beside him, her body close to his, her cheek on his shoulder, her breath warm on his neck, their fingers so tightly entwined that he couldn't tell which were hers and which were his own. 

Was there a heaven? He truly had no idea. 

But if there were such a place, he figured that it'd be pretty damned close to where he was right now.