The Gift

By: sharilyn

EMAIL: sharilyn

No copyright infringement intended.

The field was quiet, the battle done; everywhere the dead lay in ungainly sprawls of lifeless limbs and dulled, forever-staring eyes, their stiffening bodies heedless of the subdued, muted voices of those who had survived the carnage and were even now in the process of convincing themselves and one another that yes, by God, they were alive.

Stunned and shattered, torn and tattered, the unsteady figures of those whose hearts still beat picked uncertain paths among the pitiful corpses of friend and foe alike, searching dazedly for a familiar face or bit of clothing amidst the piles of dead. When a survivor found the body of someone dear to him, a low moan of despair would ascend from his lips into the still, humid air of this godforsaken morning. But there was little energy left within those still on their feet to waste on useless sympathy one for another; everyone on the field had lost one or more people dear to them, and the echoes of insupportable grief that would reverberate from hill to hill throughout the long day ahead would linger in survivors' nightmares for months to come.

This isn't real, Daniel thought dully to himself as he staggered across earth churned and torn and painted red with the blood of innocents and malefactors alike; with the sticky residue of gore adhering to his boots and the charred smell of burnt flesh and released bowels choking and bitter in his nostrils, Daniel Jackson stumbled blindly past huddled groups of sobbing, cursing men and kept his shock-glazed eyes fixed unsteadily on the distant hills. He knew he had to look, knew he had to find Jack, lying here somewhere with all these others; but it was hard, so hard...

He's dead, you know that, the linguist whispered silently to himself; if he was still alive, he would have found you by now. Jack O'Neill would have torn this whole field apart with his bare hands to find you if he was able, bellowing your name in rage and fury the whole time...if he still lived, you would have heard him from miles away, calling you to him, demanding that YOU be alive, too...

But there was only silence here now, a silence of the soul that was undisturbed by the calls and cries of others. The voices Daniel heard so dimly weren't Jack's; their battered, blood-smeared faces didn't send that electric jolt of recognition straight to Daniel's soul when he looked at them--the jolt that would have shouted out a victorious "YES! HE'S ALIVE!" and would have given color and meaning back to the stumbling figure making his laborious way across this field of doom.

", there."

Slowly, vaguely, Daniel became aware of a hand tugging insistently at his sleeve, realized that the words repeating in his ear were for him especially, were trying to deliver a message of supreme importance that he must hear but couldn't bear to take inside himself. Angry with the voice, infuriated by the hand pawing so persistently at his flesh, Daniel gave a low, feral snarl and jerked his arm free from the hold of those maddening fingers. Without his glasses the other's face was merely a filthy blur beside him; but that didn't matter. The rounded oval of the other's mouth opened and closed, opened and closed as words spewed forth, low and exhausted and hopeless.

"You are the offworlder, the visitor; there were two of you, yes? And you wish to find the other? I know where his body lies, I have seen the gray of his hair, recognized the strangeness of his costume...I will take you now, you will see. There, he is just over there..."

Daniel tried sluggishly, reluctantly, to process the words the other was flinging at him, to make sense of the native's rapid patter; it took so much energy to do that, so much concentration, that he had no strength left to fight off the other's insistent tugging on his arm. His feet dragging through mud and blood and the glistening spill of human entrails that were already attracting clouds of biting insects, Daniel let himself be maneuvered past the seemingly endless piles of dead. He seemed unaware of the blood caking the right side of his face, blood that had rushed copiously from a bad head wound he'd received when the unexpected attack had fallen upon them from the hills. The archaeologist's fingers were raw with cuts, his right palm gashed deeply by an attacker's knife; but the dull, steady throb of pain traveling from that deep cut to his brain was merely a minor annoyance now, a trifle not worthy of attention when so much else crowded in to occupy his shell-shocked mind.

"There, he is there."

Dimly Daniel realized that they were no longer walking, his unwelcome companion and himself; his numbed brain registered the fact that he was standing still now, swaying weakly against the side of this unknown man who had brought him to this spot on the battlefield.

"You look now; you will see him," the native spoke, a note of reluctant sympathy entering his weary voice. "You must take his body and go now, go quickly if you are to have a hope of returning to your world before the next wave of berserkers comes. Go, now; quickly!"

Daniel felt the hard shove the other gave him, tried awkwardly to adjust his balance to compensate but managed nothing more than a wild pinwheeling of his arms before he crashed ignominiously, face first, onto the polluted ground at his feet. He wanted to call out to the native who had dragged him here, wanted to demand his assistance in getting back to his feet and away from here; but the other's footsteps were already dying away, and from his prone position on the bleeding earth, Daniel saw what the native had brought him here to see.

Jack lay so gracefully, his silvered head resting almost gently against the darker ground beneath him; he had fallen, alone and isolated, his body resting in its own solitary dignity rather than being jumbled in a tangle of limp arms and legs amidst the other fallen dead. He looks as if he's only sleeping, Daniel thought numbly to himself as he lay frozen on his belly, incredulous grief holding him in momentary stasis. His face is almost unmarked. Stretched out on the ground, Daniel found himself straining to study Jack's face without benefit of his glasses, searching every familiar line of Jack O'Neill's weathered visage for even the faintest sign of life or breath.

Daniel knew he must move, knew he had to pull himself up and erase these final four feet of space separating him from the one he had come to find; the ominous words of the native who had led him here rang hollow in his head, and he knew that he had to get Jack's body back to earth, get him safely away from any further desecration at the hand of these savages. But it was difficult; as long as he just lay here, observing his best friend's peaceful stillness, the linguist could almost convince himself that it wasn't over, that Jack wasn't truly gone. Just look at the almost relaxed position of his body, Daniel thought, Jack curled gently on his right side, one quiet hand resting, palm up and vulnerable, against the blood- soaked earth. His silver hair was free of blood, shining with deceptive life and health in the blazing sun of midmorning; and unless one looked right at the Colonel's blood-soaked chest, one could almost fool himself that Jack O'Neill was merely unconscious.

"Jack." Daniel heard the word slide from his lips, felt the unbearable pain of its release as the single syllable wafted away to mingle with the airless stench of death hanging like a suffocating blanket over all the world. It was monstrous, giving his friend's sacred name up to the horrors of this place. But Daniel couldn't help himself; again his lips parted, breathing a helpless puff of air against the soil beneath him, his body shuddering as the other's name spilled once more into the terribly reality surrounding them.


Louder this time, so much louder; and so loaded with grief and fear and longing...The pain of it catapulted Daniel to his feet, sent him reeling and falling back again to his knees to retch in abject misery under the broiling rays of this world's sun.

Jack. Slowly Daniel made it to his feet once more, managed to swallow down another rush of sour bile and force his legs to move. Slowly he approached the still, silent body of his friend, shuffling along until he stood over the form that had become so suddenly and heartbreakingly beautiful to him. As the empty shell of what had once been a man of uncommon valor leaked its blood into the unappreciative sod beneath it, Daniel noted how his own standing figure cast a dark, mournful shadow over the face of Jack O'Neill; and the wrongness of it hit him like a thousand arrows lodging in his chest, stealing his breath and plunging him, lost and broken, to his knees at the side of his fallen commander.

"I have to take you home now, Jack," Daniel heard a voice murmur dazedly, sadly; it didn't matter that it was his own voice, his own lips uttering the words. All that mattered was the hesitant, devastated outreach of his trembling hand as it moved to cup Jack's cheek, his thumb stroking a helpless caress of grief and useless denial over the rough stubble of the Colonel's jaw. Beneath his touch he felt nothing, not even the faintest tremor of a pulse along Jack's throat.

"I'm sorry I wasn't here when it started," Daniel continued quietly, heedless of the hot tears gathering in his eyes. "I took too long back at the site, translating that rune stone; by the time the watchers came to warn us, the rest of you had already gone out to fight. They--they made me stay behind to guard the women and children, wouldn't let me out past the gates to find you, to fight at your side..."

As two large teardrops fell from Daniel's eyes, plopping wetly onto Jack's forehead, Daniel bit back an insane howl of rage and grief and hugged himself tightly, so tightly, instead; rocking back and forth, back and forth, he shivered and shook and chewed at his bottom lip until the metallic taste of blood erupted into his mouth in a warm, salty rush.

"I'm sorry; I'm just so sorry, Jack," Daniel whispered, digging his nails into the flesh of his own upper arms till he drew blood there, too. "I'm sorry..."

Jack slept on, the warm sherry-brown of his eyes hidden coquettishly behind closed lids, the strong, restless energy of his blunt fingers unnaturally stilled. The blood was so dark on his chest, some of it already drying and clotting in stiff, sticky smears across the drab green of his BDU shirt. Daniel's hands moved unconsciously to clutch at his own chest, his heart thudding dulled beats of sympathetic agony to every cell of his body as he tried to envision just how it had happened, just how Jack had taken that last, fatal blow and had fallen here, so lonely and so quiet.

"I'll take you home now," Daniel murmured, reaching at last to lay a hand over Jack's unbeating heart, to drag his finger through the thick smears of black blood that had pumped so quickly from the ruined center of the Colonel's chest. Still...he was just so still, Daniel marveled in awed silence; never, never had Jack O'Neill been this still. It was a dismal wonder to behold, a terrible abomination against God and nature, the utter inertness of this body lying in the dirt before him.

"Oh, God," Daniel moaned, feeling sick again. "Oh, God..." But there was no one here to help, no one who could take this all away; there was only him now, only Daniel Jackson to carry Jack's body back through the stargate to earth, where Sam and Teal'c and all the rest were busily preparing for Christmas Eve dinner at the base...No one knew there yet, he thought dully as he leaned over to slide one arm under Jack's head; no one knew that the 'cake walk' mission he and Jack had taken as a last-minute favor to Hammond and the Talethian people would end up like this.

"Let's go, Jack," he muttered now, tears falling again as he lifted Jack's head and cradled it against his chest. Absently he smoothed his friend's hair with his uninjured palm, noting how the seemingly coarse silver strands were in actuality amazingly soft and silky to the touch. Grunting a bit, Daniel elevated Jack's body to a semi-sitting position, arranging the Colonel's flopping arms at his sides before squatting to hoist Jack's limp, bloody form over his right shoulder.

Jack was incredibly heavy, now that all signs of life and vitality had left him; Daniel almost fell over before he could compensate for the other's literally dead weight and stagger shakily to his feet, his thigh muscles bunching and twitching uncontrollably as he blew out several big breaths of air and settled his friend's body more securely across his shoulder.

"It''s about three miles to the gate, Jack," Daniel huffed, his face turning red with effort as he began trudging slowly, so slowly, across the destroyed field. Only yesterday the children of Talethea had played here, he mused vaguely, recalling how Jack had been right in the middle of them, swinging the little boys high in the air as they shrieked in delight and giving the little girls piggyback rides while an excited mob of little ones clung to his legs, clamoring hopefully for a turn next.

Oh, God, oh, God...I can't do this, this is too hard...Daniel stumbed drunkenly beneath Jack's weight, eyes glued to the ground just before him to avoid stepping on any dead bodies. Three miles, three hellish's Christmas Eve at home, Jack, Christmas-freaking-Eve--! And I have to carry you throught the stargate, right into the waiting arms of Sam and Teal'c and all the frivolity and joy and silliness...Don't make me do this, Jack; don't make me take your dead body back to the base, not on Christmas Eve. Damn you, Jack; damn you.

"Maester Jackson of Earth..."

The voice intruded on Daniel's consciousness, pulled him reluctantly from the path of hopeless grief he now trod and drew him to a stop. Balancing Jack's body as if it were a large sack of grain, Daniel turned and found himself staring into the eyes of Barrister Morrolan, council leader of Talethea.

" lived," Daniel said softly, the words both affirmation and accusation at once. "You survived."

"Yes..." The Barrister had the grace to look ashamed, sliding a quick, sorrowful glance at Jack's still form before lifting genuinely anguished eyes to Daniel's empty blue stare. "Believe me, Maester Jackson; if we had had ANY inkling that this might happen, that the raveners might return again from beyond the hills...We would never have invited you here, into the mouth of danger. Our deepest sorrow and condolences go with you now, kind sir; Leader Jack O'Neill was a courageous warrior, a man among men. We will erect a memorial in his honor, we will offer reparations--"

"I have to go home now," Daniel replied curtly, turning away from the Barrister's beseeching form and struggling on across the field. His steps were slow but determined, the rigid set of his shoulders beneath his silent load a clear warning that the Barrister would do well not to follow. Sighing in resignation, the devastated man watched the human go, his very sincere grief over the passing of O'Neill giving way to concerns for his own uncounted dead. This had been a day of horror the likes of which his people had not seen in many years; it was just sheer bad luck that two of their new earth allies had arrived right before the massacre began. This could prove disastrous for future relations with the earth humans, Morollan mused absently as he turned to offer comfort to an approaching group of survivors; but that was a matter to be dealt with later. Today his people must bury their dead, just as the earth people must do with Jack O'Neill.

Daniel could go no further; with only a mile to go, his legs had given out completely, and he had no choice but to stretch Jack's body out upon the ground, his own exhausted weight flopping bonelessly to rest beside his friend. His black t-shirt--filthy, bloody, and now soaked with sweat-- clung to him like a second skin, and irritably Daniel pulled the offensive material away from his body, shaking it in a vain attempt to circulate nonexistent air under the stifling black material to cool his overheated skin. His eyes were bloodshot and swollen, ringed by dark circles of grief and shock, and his hair was plastered to his head in damp, bloody strings. His head was pounding, each dull throb reminding him that he had come just that close to having his skull competely bashed in by one of the ravener's formidable clubs; he felt dizzy and sick, as well, but none of that mattered.

He couldn't bear it, having Jack lie there so still; it just wasn't right, it just couldn't be. With every grueling step back toward the gate, Daniel had hoped beyond hope that somehow, some way, Jack would start to breathe again. He'd listened intently for any sound from his lifeless friend, had prayed beyond all reason that the constant jarring motion of his unsteady progress might somehow revive his friend from a state so near to death that Daniel just hadn't been able to tell the difference.

But there was no miracle here, no sudden resurrection of the body lying in its stiff covering of dried blood, unmoving beside him. Jack's face was absolutely gray now, his hands as cold as ice; and when Daniel reached hesitantly to curl his fingers around the other man's, Jack's fingers already felt stiff and unyielding. Oh, my God, this is really happening, Daniel moaned to himself, burying his face in his hands. He's gone, he's really gone. They killed him, those bastards killed him; and I don't want to go back through the gate, don't want to face the others...

But it was hard, doing this alone; some desolate part of him wanted only to share this overwhelming pain, to carry Jack through to the others and lay his burden at their feet before falling, spent and empty, into their waiting arms. He needed Sam's cleansing tears falling onto him, needed the stoic strength and sorrow of Teal'c's dark gaze sending him a silent message of support and understanding. He needed to forget this day, to sleep and sleep and make it all go away...

"Maester Jack hurt bad?"

The small, childish voice jerked Daniel abruptly from his grief into the heat of this world's midday, pulling his body upright and sending spurts of nervous adrenaline into his already traumatized system.

"How did you get here?" Daniel asked the little boy standing in the short, dry grass before him. "I--I didn't even hear you. Where did you come from?" Trying to keep his voice calm and level, Daniel rose shakily to his feet and reached out a cautious hand in the child's direction, his eyes taking in the boy's bare, scuffed feet and the tattered, bloody rags of what had once been a shirt hanging on the young one's scrawny frame.

"Many die," the child stated with grave composure, his brown eyes studying Daniel's exhausted face. "The raveners come, they kill...many gone. Jack gone, too?"

"Um...yes. I--I'm afraid he is." Daniel found himself kneeling down before the child, who couldn't have been more than seven or eight and who looked distractingly familiar to the devastated archaeologist.

" need to go back home, to find your parents and stay safe, okay?" Daniel urged softly, reaching to brush a fleck of dried blood off the little boy's cheek. "Are you hurt anywhere? What's your name?"

"Me Sojun; Jack my friend, sure," the small boy said, his gaze going pensively to Jack's body lying a mere three feet away. "Jack play fly- high, me fly highest and highest---la! So tall, sure." A brief grin of remembered joy chased across the boy's face, and suddenly Daniel recognized him.

"Oh, yes! Sojun; Jack gave you a super ball, didn't he?" Daniel murmured, remembering the unbridled exhilaration that had erupted from the little boy before him when the Colonel had presented him with the small rubber ball yesterday morning.

"Sure," Sojun grinned, and rummaged busily in his pants pocket till his rather dirty fist reappeared clutching the prized ball. "Good trick, this. High fly like Jack do Sojun, eh?"

"Yeah; Jack always was Air Force all the way," Daniel murmured sadly, turning to cast a grief-stricken glance at his best friend's body. "He loved to fly, Sojun; that he did. But he's...gone now, he can't high-fly you anymore. And you need to get back home, as quick as you can; it isn't safe out here, Sojun. Please...go back now. Go home. Jack would want you to do that now."

"Is mistake," Sojun said suddenly, a stubborn cast settling onto his childish features. "Jack no mean to go; is mistake."

"I'm sure he didn't mean to; you're right," Daniel replied gently, feeling an inexplicable surge of emotion rise up in him as the little boy reached out to lay one dirty palm against his cheek in wordless comfort. "He would have stayed with us if he just didn't work out that way."

"You take him away now, back to Urt?" Sojun asked seriously, and Daniel nodded.

"Yes; it's time for me to take him home. Just as it's time for you to go home. I wish I could walk you back myself, Sojun, but I need to get moving, I have to go--"

"Sojun going home, sure," the small boy agreed, nodding his head almost cheerfully. "No talk-talk back on that, Maester. But first, is fix mistake...first, is Maester Jack."

Giving Daniel's mystified face a final, affectionate pat, Sojun brushed nimbly past the exhausted linguist and dropped to his knees at Jack's side. Before Daniel could do or say anything, the little boy was taking Jack's big, rough hand gently between both of his much smaller ones, his features twisting into an expression of intense concentration.

"Sojun--" Daniel began, but the young boy shook his head quite vehemently, sending the other an emphatic message to be quiet. Feeling a surge of almost superstitious uneasiness coiling up from his gut, Daniel moved over to kneel on the other side of Jack's body, his eyes fastening on Sojun with blank incomprehension.

"Is mistake," Sojun repeated yet again, lifting dark brown eyes to Daniel's anguished blue ones. "Must not be, is wrong. I come...I fix. So--la, like easy, sure!"

"I know you would like to bring Jack back to us, Sojun," Daniel murmured sorrowfully, his expression tender as he smiled at the boy. "I thank you for that, for wishing so hard to help him. But there's nothing you can do now; you have to go home, back to your own people."

"Maester Jack say you very stubborn; he say you got head like rock," Sojun nodded cheerfully, his eyes flashing a brief glint of humor in Daniel's direction. "I fix, then I go. Hokay-dokay, sure?"

"Jack is dead, Sojun," Daniel said firmly, reaching with quiet regret to peel the little boy's fingers away from Jack's limp hand. "There IS no fix. Just...let me take him home now. Please?"

"Sure, take home. AFTER I fix," Sojun agreed, a definite hint of impatience entering his voice. Sighing deeply, Daniel merely nodded and slumped back on his heels, realizing that he wouldn't be able to talk the child out of trying to bring Jack back. Sometimes life's lessons were just so goddamned hard, he thought sourly to himself as he watched the little Talethean boy lift Jack's cold hand to his lips and press a kiss into the Colonel's palm. What a bitch that an innocent child should have to learn about death's finality so close up and personal.

"You help," Sojun ordered Daniel now, gesturing for Daniel to take Jack's other hand. "You his fel'char, his pal, sure? You hold, here, so he stay put when I call back him from the Gone Beyond. You not let go, sure? Make vow, true, no let go, never! Vow me now, say true!" The child's words were so intense, his belief so palpable, that Daniel could do nothing but nod and take Jack's other hand, cradling the cold flesh between his warm palms and closing his eyes in silent misery.

Just let this be over soon, he prayed to whatever deities that might be listening. Haven't you done enough, taken enough souls, for one day? Just stop torturing this little boy; make him see that he can't 'fix' this, that he needs to go home.

Feeling sick and dizzy, Daniel cracked one eye open and observed Sojun sitting still as stone next to Jack's body, his small hands wrapped protectively around Jack's blood-streaked fingers. The boy's eyes were closed, an expression of sublime concentration on his face; without moving he ordered Daniel, "Psst! Close eyes, you!" in a no-nonsense tone that had Daniel dutifully closing his eyes again.

Time seemed to stop as they sat there, the archaeologist and the boy child; as the sun grew hotter and the smell of Jack's dried blood rose on the still air--threatening to gag Daniel with its heavy, sickly-sweet odor--he forced himself to keep still nonetheless, to keep his eyes securely closed as Sojun's small, strong presence fairly vibrated strange energy on the other side of Jack's silent form. Daniel was tired, so tired, and there was some part of him that needed this, that needed just to sit with Jack's hand in his and to be with his friend's body, honoring all that Jack had been and done and given him in their time together as friends and team mates.

But as the minutes passed--as Daniel sat in mute lamentation beside Jack's broken, bloodied corpse--a strange thing began to happen. More and more, Daniel thought he sensed another energy surrounding them here; more and more strongly he felt the faint stirring of something familiar, something unspeakably precious and beloved, rippling like the warm breath of spring through every pore of his body.

He wanted to open his eyes, wanted desperately to look around him for the source of this unbelievable feeling; but he was afraid. Afraid to give up the sweet, sweet illusion that had almost taken root in his soul, the illusion that Sojun really could bring Jack back from the Gone Beyond. It was so nice just to sit here, squeezing Jack's hand and pretending that he could feel Jack's energy, Jack's unique spirit, gathering strength and weight and form around him. Soon enough he would have to face reality again; soon enough he would have to confront a kind-hearted little boy with the irrefutable fact that Jack was dead and wouldn't be coming back...

"See? We fix, me-you; you hold now, he here, he lost but finding way, he almost back..." Sojun's voice penetrated Daniel's dreamlike lethargy, jerked him back to himself and had him opening his eyes in dazed disbelief as he swore he felt Jack's hand quiver infinitesimally in his.

"Sure, you no let go, sure you hold now, be pals!" Sojun's voice ordered loudly, excitedly; and as Daniel squeezed his eyes shut again and crushed Jack's hand between his own, he actually FELT the electric sizzle of ENERGY leaping into Jack's lifeless body. A gasp escaped him as Jack's hand jerked spastically in his, and bursts of heated power sputtered into Daniel's fingers and tingled up his arm all the way to his heart. It was like sticking his finger into a light socket, and his eyes flew open to catch Sojun laughing delightedly across Jack's body.

"Is fixed, mistake; home now for Sojun, sure," the little boy grinned. "Maester Jack be weak, me no fix all--too much. But he be hokay- dokay, you see. Sure! I say message now from the Gone Beyond--gift for you, Maester Jackson. Message say, 'Merry Christmas'--Gone Beyond folk say you know this meaning in your head, sure?"

"Yes...yes, I know its meaning," Daniel whispered, his eyes filling with helpless tears as he felt Jack's fingers go warm, so warm and full of life, where they rested against his palm. "Tell the folk, Sojun, Merry Christmas back for me. And thank you...oh, God, thank you!"

And the overwhelmed archaeologist looked up just in time to see the smiling Talethean child fade away like a wisp of smoke on the wind, his shining eyes gleaming one last glint of boyish mischief and delight before he was gone. Just...gone.

I've lost my mind, Daniel thought dazedly, shaking his head in disbelief. This has all been too much, and I've just lost my mind. But as he felt the first, tentative brushing of Jack's fingers against his palm, heard the first rattling, labored breaths from his best friend's lungs-- followed by a very real groan of pain--Daniel opened his eyes wide and knew that all of it was real.

"Jack...oh, Jack," he murmured, freeing one hand to reach up and stroke his fingers across the other's pale brow. "I hope we did the right thing, Sojun and me; I hope this was what you really wanted." And as Jack O'Neill's sherry-brown eyes slid hazily open, searching out Daniel's face with an expression of bewildered pain and wonder in his gaze, Daniel bowed his head and sobbed like a child, clutching Jack's fingers as though he would never, ever let go.

"Well, Colonel, you very nearly ruined Christmas this year," Janet Fraiser's voice murmured scoldingly as she closed Jack's chart and hung it back on its hook at the foot of the commander's hospital bed. "When Daniel staggered through the stargate with you draped across his back and bleeding all over the ramp...well, we thought we were going to have to take down all the mistletoe and decorations and put up funeral wreaths instead."

"And you call this a positive bedside manner?" Jack retorted grumpily, raising one graying eyebrow as the doctor merely gave him a cheeky grin in return.

"You scared ten years off my life, Colonel," she argued spunkily, "so I figure I have some payback to dole out. Next time you decide to go offworld at Christmas time, I would appreciate it if you'd pick a planet where war isn't on the schedule."

"Gee, I'll try to remember that, Doc," Jack replied, and Janet's eyes softened as she stepped up to his bedside and gave his hand a careful squeeze.

"Merry Christmas, a few days late," the doctor murmured, and her eyes widened in disbelief as Jack retrieved a rather wilted sprig of mistletoe from beneath his covers and held it enticingly over his head.

"Doc?" he murmured silkily, and Janet rolled her eyes and gave a defeated sigh. After first casting a furtive glance around the infirmary, she leaned over and planted a kiss on Jack's cheek, laughing softly when he made a disappointed sound and gestured hopefully at his lips.

"Sorry, Colonel; that's all that sorry bit of mistletoe deserves," Fraiser grinned, then began humming cheerfully as she walked away.

"Grinch!" Jack hollered after her, just as Daniel entered in her wake.

"Who, me?" he asked defensively, and Jack shook his head, a wry grin curving the corners of his mouth.

"I used the mistletoe Ferretti smuggled in, but all I got from Janet was a kiss on the cheek," Jack griped, and Daniel smiled, his blue eyes alight with affection and humor.

"Well, just don't ask ME to kiss you, Jack," he quipped easily, moving to snag a chair and plop himself down next to Jack's bed. "I love you, but even I have my limits."

"You know you want me," Jack purred, puckering up his lips, and Daniel snorted and wrestled the mistletoe out of his friend's less-than- strong grip.

"I'll carry you for three miles across a battle zone and hold your hand till the cows come home, Jack; but if I kissed you right now, we'd never live it down," Daniel whispered in reply. "Besides, if I did then ALL the guys would be wanting to kiss you, just to welcome you back, of course...and, well, discipline around this place would collapse completely."

"Very funny," Jack snarked, but a smile lit his eyes as Daniel silently extended his hand, waggling his fingers through the bed rail until Jack reached out and gave his friend's hand a quick, affectionate squeeze.

"You know if anyone comes in here and sees us like this, I'll have to kill you," Jack threatened drily, and Daniel merely shrugged and gazed down at their two joined hands, giving Jack's fingers a final, hearfelt squeeze before he let go. Jack would probably never know just what it meant now to Daniel, feeling the life and vitality in Jack's affectionate grasp; but Daniel knew, and the solid warmth of Jack's fingers touching his was the greatest Christmas gift Daniel could ever have asked for.

"Hey," Jack murmured now, the cheerfulness in his voice fading into somber reflection. "Did you get in contact with Barrister Morollan about Sojun? Did you...find out anything?"

"I did," Daniel replied slowly, his blue eyes rising to hold Jack's in quiet grief. "Sojun was killed, Jack, almost the moment the massacre started. He'd disobeyed his mother yet again, sneaking out past the walls to follow the men; when the attack swept down from the hills, he was struck by an arrow in the neck. They say he died instantly."

"Dammit." Jack's voice was raw with angry grief, his brown eyes dark with emotion; as Daniel settled a quiet hand on his best friend's shoulder, Jack drew in a shaky breath and dredged up a sad half smile. "That kid loved for me to toss him in the sky, above my head," he mumbled haltingly, curling his hands into fists on his chest.

"He really liked that super ball you gave him, too," Daniel added; and as Jack murmured out his anger and pain at the senseless loss of another innocent child's life, Daniel closed his eyes and heard the ghost of Jack's old anguish over Charlie whisper around the room in sync with his grief for Sojun. But even as his heart contracted with empathy for Jack's pain, Daniel remembered how one small Talethean boy's indomitable spirit had returned to set right a terrible mistake; and he felt a welling up of gratitude that caught tightly at his chest.

"Maybe Sojun's death had some purpose, some meaning we don't fully understand," Daniel murmured when Jack paused in his grief; and as the Colonel scowled and muttered that NO child's death would ever have a redeemable purpose in his book, Daniel merely closed his eyes and said a silent thank you to the spirit of a small boy who was most likely even now bouncing a super ball in the great Gone Beyond.