Second Christmas Since...
Long fingers stroked through the stiff fur of the soulful-eyed bear. An unconscious act, as distracted eyes were fixed on the unseen landscape beyond the large truck's broad windscreen. He was mired in the memories of a past lost to him, a past he'd give almost anything to reclaim.
With a sigh of regret, he relived a remembered moment.
His young son's eyes shone as brightly as the stuffed animal he held in a suffocating grip to his little heaving chest. All excitement and wiggling glee at the gift he'd just received. A floppy, brown bear with the boy's eyes, like his own; both brown with no depth in sight, sparking amber at the happiness they both shared at the presence of the treasured toy. In a flash the boy shouted, "Mom!" and about-faced, his sleeper covered feet slapping the tiled floor with that almost-clawing sound of safety grips. A grin that would warm the heart of anyone spread across his face as the youngster galloped away; and he chuckled at the sight. A fierce love burned inside him, pride and love warred for dominance there -- love prevailed.
Sharp raps on the truck window and "Colonel?" shattered the warm bittersweet memory.
His eyes dropped and focused on the sad eyes of the teddy bear he clenched in a death grip. His heart fell forever as he forced a smile onto his face and turned to greet the man there.
"Sgt. Hernandez," spilled across the void he struggled to cross from forbidden memory to reality. Some part of him saw and reported the neutral face of the Marine standing outside, he'd seen. Damn it.
"You made it, Sir. "Hernandez smiled, a smile perhaps as false as his own, perhaps not.
"Yes. Where do you want me?" He forced the words into a kind of eager helpfulness, but not too much. He'd been cajoled into this mission, one he'd have avoided at all costs this time of year. Too many memories and too much pain lurked in the kind acts of others.
"Here is fine. Do you have time to help carry some in?"
Outmaneuvered by a wet-behind-the ears Marine, not even old enough to shave, but with a wisdom beyond his years; and wielding words that seemed crafted to force a hardened veteran back into the world of the fully living. They both knew what was going on, but both were too polite to argue.
Colonel Jack O'Neill reached for the door handle as the sergeant backed out of the way. There was no winner here, only resignation on his part.
Both men bent to the task at hand, each ignoring the awkwardness that had sprung up between them. The truck's bed was filled with carefully wedged and shopping bag-protected parcels. Precious cargo.
With arms full they wove in and out of the early arrivals to enter the Colorado Springs South Side Community Center. All activity was aimed at the arrival of one man and the sleigh bells that would announce his approach long before he could be seen.
Jack followed Hernandez's lead, pulling out the gaily wrapped gifts donated by the members of his base, placing them under the truly huge decorated tree that made the large hall small by its size. He lingered over one present; remembering the laugh of a certain shorthaired blond he'd watched with rapt attention as she had chattered about her holiday plans, all the while her slender, perfect fingers deftly folded the paper with scientific precision. Putting to shame his own clumsy attempt to provide the necessary mystery this season called for.
It was amazing to think that almost two years ago death had been his only thought, his only ambition. The smiling man across from him had changed that, pointed out the waste he selfishly wanted to create as a monument to his grief and guilt. He'd stopped himself short of killing someone else's children. The shame still ate at him with the memory.
Daniel had suffered his early attempts, a year later, to crawl out of the shell he'd expected to end his days encased in. All of his team had. Even the men and woman of the base he half-heartedly ruled as Hammond's new second-in-command had shown an embarrassing amount of patience with his attempts to become something less than a spit-and-polish harbinger of death, bereft of even a modicum of compassion.
The pop of a glass ornament broken against the floor snapped him back from his ruminations, back to his private hell, full of loving parents and excited children. He so wished to be free of this place. Shrill voices and fond rebukes washed over his head, drowning him in self-hate, taunting him with his loss. He needed to be free of this place before he did something unforgivable.
He knew fleeing was beyond him. That was something he could not do. Duty so deeply ingrained would not allow. So with a single-mindedness he'd used before, he tunnel vision-ed to get the job done, denying the sights and sounds that raked like claws across his heart. He thought to do what was expected and then get the hell out -- just another distasteful mission.
The relief of finding himself standing outside, as the first flakes of dry snow drifted on chilly currents of the night brought him back to a broader reality. Somehow the parking lot was jammed, getting out was impossible. He was well and truly trapped. Directly across the front of his means of escape sat a horse-drawn sleigh, bright red and trimmed in white, the glare of large bells ran along the tough leather straps that held the huffing draft horses to the stays, an obstacle he could not surmount. In shock he watched its owner leap lightly up into it, dressed much as the sleigh was. A crowd of children and adults, like a snow choked tidal pool at ebb appeared beyond.
Uneasily Jack shifted his booted feet in the packed snow of the parking lot, he wanted to run, to hide, to be elsewhere. Not here. He didn't deserve to be here. With a slap crack, Santa and sleigh moved into the thickening snow to disappear to who knows where. Stunned he just stood there, afraid that if he moved the world would shatter and him with it.
"Colonel, thank goodness you're still here. We're missing a gift, a teddy bear. Didn't you have one in you hands when you arrived?"
"A teddy bear, didn't you have one up front with you?"
He imagined he heard a crack, prelude to the shattering; and knew he was helpless.
"Ah... yeah, I did. We couldn't figure out how to wrap it. Carter thought it'd be safer up front with me." Suspicion born of years of skating the edge of man's inhumanity to man gave him the idea that he may have just been well and truly had.
"That's a relief, Charli here would have been heartbroken."
Against his will, Jack's eyes fell to the vision of snow-proofed child. A little girl's face smiled up at him from the white faux-fur trimmed hood, one red-gloved hand stretched out and made grabbing motions at him.
"Let me unlock the door, he's right inside." Cold numbed fingers made fitting the key to lock take an eternity, his turned back his only protection from the child and what she represented to his injured heart - pain. Did they have even the faintest idea of just what this would do to him? No, no, they couldn't. He knew that Daniel would chop off an arm before contemplating this torture.
He snatched up the brown bear, not at all like his Charlie's he realized. Something nudged him to look closer at it; the soulful eyes cast out amber sparks. He blinked in confusion as deep endless brown eyes resolved into black button-like ones. He shivered as something warm touched his leg, and then leaned into it, before gripping his thigh tightly. His eyes snapped down into the bluest eyes he seen since Carter's, brown curls struggled to escape the child's headgear. In the span of a blink he was on his knees in the snow before her.
Then it happened. The crust of ice around his heart cracked and the warmth of the child's smile forced itself through. He smiled, completely devoid of his now habitual falseness. He offered the bear and she launched herself at him and it, and hugged for all she was worth, almost knocking him on his backside in the snow. He wrapped an arm around the wiggling girl and carefully hugged back. It felt so... right.
For just a moment he enjoyed the self-forbidden fruit of parental joy, but... just for a moment. Charli wiggled free, swung around, and shouted, "Mom!" And was gone.
He expected the cold to crash in on him, the pain, the grief and the shame. To have them pour in and fill that all too brief moment of warmth. It didn't. His heart took it in and held the soft glow ofthe small girl's joy. And banked it for the long cold nights he knew he must endure in this season.
He felt a thief. Yet, he would die to keep this gift that was far more wondrous than any fuzzy teddy bear. He's just discovered that a child's love could still exist in the blackened ruin of his heart. Perhaps, just perhaps, he might survive the un-survivable.
Not the END, but a beginning.
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Title: Second Christmas Since...