By the following morning, Christmas Eve, things were pretty close to normal, including a near-total absence of decorations in the city.
Her headache gone except for a lingering tightness behind her eyes, Elizabeth presided over a gathering of embarrassed and slightly hungover-looking Atlanteans. Rodney was conspicuously absent, but almost everyone else had turned up to her announcement over the citywide PA. "All right people, listen up. In just about" -- she checked her watch -- "fourteen hours, we'll be having a holiday party, and by God, it's going to be the best holiday party this galaxy's ever seen. See Kate for your team assignments, and the most important thing? Have fun!"
And astonishingly, for the most part, now that no one was high on alien spores ... they did. There were the usual minor kerfluffles and mishaps, such as Markham misunderstanding Sheppard's directions and depositing a jumperload of Athosians on the wrong pier, or the cafeteria staff somehow losing an entire shipment of fresh fruit (which turned up, a month later, rotting in one of the labs), or Ford and Kavanagh getting into a gigantic argument over the best way to construct a paper chain from the minimum amount of paper.
Teyla turned out to have extensive experience at planning for Athosian harvest festivals, so she took on the majority of the delegating from Elizabeth. As darkness fell across the water, Elizabeth strolled out onto the balcony where they had held their first party on Atlantis, all those months ago. Turning back, with a warm breeze ruffling her hair, she called out to Radek, "Hit it!"
Somewhere in the control room, a button was pushed, and suddenly Atlantis's external lights went dark, and then blinked on again ... white and blue. As Elizabeth watched, they shifted slowly to red and green, and then again to gold and red. Radek and Grodin had been working for weeks on finding and reconfiguring the controls for the lights.
The strains of Christmas carols began to swell, sounding ethereal and odd through the Ancient PA. Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment, drifting on the music back to her own childhood -- remembering snowball fights and organ music in church and the smell of cinnamon in the kitchen. Then she opened her eyes and looked at the assembled people in front of her -- those who had crossed the gulf between galaxies to get here, and those who had reached across the equally great divide between cultures to welcome them.
She'd prepared a speech for this occasion. It had touched upon Christmas and new beginnings, on Athosian traditions and absent loved ones, on the world they'd left behind and on her hopes for the future. She'd spent hours on it. But looking at their faces, she realized that there was no point. They already knew it, every word.
"Merry Christmas," she said. "Let's eat."
And, as parties do, the formal gathering began breaking up into a sea of little conversation groupings. People drifted towards their particular group of friends and coworkers. Some went off for quiet religious observances; others found partners and danced in the middle of the floor. Elizabeth herself made a point of circulating from group to group, as the evening wore on, trying to say a word or two to each and every person.
It warmed her to see that everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and no one was playing the part of the wallflower; everyone, even the social misfits like Kavanagh, had settled happily into a group. Unsurprisingly, she noticed that many of them seemed to have brought their work with them; she saw Radek at the center of a group of engineers, arguing loudly about jumper systems, and Ford was discussing the finer details of Wraith-fighting strategy with a bunch of Marines. But others were just hanging out; Grodin had kicked back with some of the other gateroom staff and a couple of Marines to play poker on a big table in a corner, and even shy Miko was giggling like a schoolgirl as she talked about guys with some of the female botanists.
She still wished that she'd been able to get Rodney to attend, but he seemed entirely adamant about boycotting this whole Christmas business. Her day had been so busy that she'd only managed one visit to the labs, where Rodney had firmly but (for him) politely showed her the door.
She also noticed that Sheppard, like herself, hadn't settled down into a group. Still limping, but now entirely sans crutches, he was making his rounds as well -- playing his lazy, cheerful flyboy persona to the hilt. He had a smile for everyone, and everyone had a smile for him. He flirted shamelessly with the Athosian women, talked weapons with the Marines, and even chatted easily with the scientists. He seemed perfectly happy, and Elizabeth wondered if it was just her own big-sister nature that wanted to make a big deal out of the fact that he never settled down for a long conversation. He came close a few times, with Beckett or Teyla or Ford. But then he'd wander off again. The only time that Elizabeth actually saw him sit down was once when the randomly shuffling conversational groupings had brought the team together for a few minutes -- Sheppard, Teyla and Ford, plus Beckett, sitting on a little cluster of chairs in a corner.
Since they were all together, Elizabeth thought that this might be a good time to quietly spring her surprise on them. She made a quick dash for the private cache under one of the tables, hoping that they wouldn't wander off while she got her goodies. But they were all still there when she slipped quietly in their direction, carrying a heavy bag.
As she came closer, she heard Sheppard speaking in a shy, somewhat halting tone that she'd never heard him use before -- for a minute, she barely recognized his voice. "It's not much -- I mean, I wasn't sure what any of you might -- I honestly don't have a whole lot of experience at --"
"Major, it is beautiful." Teyla was holding up a gorgeously carved wooden case; the polished wood seemed to glow in the lights of the room.
Sheppard perked up a little, looking less like a hopeful puppy and more like the irritatingly confident man that Elizabeth thought of as her right hand. "It's for your sticks, see. Keep 'em safe for traveling or ... whatever."
"It is very wonderful and thoughtful." She reached across the space between them to grip his shoulders briefly. Like the wooden case, Teyla herself seemed to glow tonight, surrounded by the people of her birth, as well as those she had adopted. Elizabeth thought she'd never seen the Athosian woman look happier.
"You really didn't have to get me anything, sir," Ford said, looking uncomfortable as he turned a package over in his hands. "I mean, I didn't get you anything. I've never gotten a gift from a senior officer before."
Sheppard snorted. "We're in another galaxy, Lieutenant. Forget the rules. And no, I don't care if you didn't get me anything; I didn't expect any of you to. Open it."
Elizabeth couldn't quite see; Beckett's head was in her way. As she shifted her position slightly to see around him, she knew that she should speak -- she felt like a voyeur, trespassing on their intimate moments. But she didn't want to shatter the moment, and she couldn't tear herself away.
"Oh my gosh, sir," Ford breathed. "That's ... wow."
It was a knife, and though Elizabeth didn't have much appreciation for knives, especially after the incident with Kolya, even she privately agreed that it was beautiful. The handle was ornately carved, while delicate patterns chased the gleaming steel edge of the blade.
Sheppard shifted uncomfortably. "Saw you admiring them on, which world was it, M48-KL7, I think ..."
"Kyaria," Teyla supplied. "Yes, the Kyarians are well known for their skilled metalwork. It is an excellent gift, Major."
"Thank you, sir." Ford reverently slid the knife back into its sheath. "Look, next year -- I'm going all out. Seriously. I have all year to figure it out, and you're getting the best present ever." He blushed a little. "Because, you know, you're the best CO I've had ... ever. Sir."
Elizabeth couldn't see Sheppard's face from where she stood, but she saw that the back of his neck was flushed. Beckett, noticing the Major's discomfort, cleared his throat. "My turn now?"
Sheppard waved a hand.
Beckett's gift was soft, and wrapped in cloth. He unwrapped it, and frowned. Then he looked at it closer, and gave a quiet gasp. Elizabeth leaned a little closer, and when she saw what it was -- and the stunned look on Carson's face -- she smiled.
Like most of the expedition members, Beckett had played fast-and-loose with the "one personal item" rule, but his official item had been a stuffed toy mouse with a tiny little stethoscope. When Elizabeth had asked him about it, he'd told her that his brothers and sisters had given it to him, en masse, as a graduation present when he'd gotten his medical degree. It was signed with all their names. He'd confessed to her, late one night, that the toy had, in some ways, come to represent his family to him. He'd taken it with him through all his moves, from one continent to another, and finally to another galaxy.
And then it had been destroyed, entirely by accident, when the Genii were searching the Atlantis infirmary for drugs. They'd impatiently scraped off several shelves' worth of useless (to them) items, trampling some things underfoot and throwing others into the incinerators. The mouse was one of the casualties. Carson had never said anything about it, at least not that Elizabeth was aware of, but after that, she had sometimes noticed that the distant, lonely look on his face, when he thought no one was looking, had become a little more distant ... a little more lonely.
"It's not exactly the same, obviously," Sheppard explained, the flush climbing higher up his neck as Beckett stared at the toy. "This Athosian old-lady friend of Teyla's -- I think her name is Charin? -- she made it, and I had trouble describing to her exactly how mice are supposed to look. And the color's not quite right, and of course it's not signed by your family."
Beckett's throat worked as he swallowed a few times. When he finally had his voice back, he said gruffly, "We can fix that. Anybody got a marker?"
"I do," Ford offered.
Wordlessly, Carson held out the mouse and the marker to Sheppard. He just stared at it for a moment, with the same sort of wordless shock as Beckett had earlier, and then took it, and signed his name across the underside. Teyla added her own precise, angular Athosian script, and then Ford wrote his own name in a loose, quick hand.
Carson cleared his throat and brushed the back of his hand swiftly across his eyes. "Much better," he said, and set it down on the table between them.
"You must open my gift now," Teyla told Sheppard eagerly.
Sheppard seemed even more flustered as she pressed it into his hands. "Teyla, I told you, it isn't necess --"
"Oh, bollocks, don't listen to him, lass." Beckett thrust a package in Sheppard's direction. "And when you're done with hers ..."
Teyla's gift was a set of beautifully carved Athosian fighting sticks -- "so that you will cease damaging mine" -- and Beckett had somehow, possibly through blackmail, gotten his hands on a complete set of Star Wars DVDs.
Elizabeth sensed that the group was about to break up and drift off again, so she cleared her throat and tried to look as if she'd just sauntered up. "Merry Christmas, all of you." She tapped her watch. "Midnight. It really is Christmas."
"Great party, ma'am," Ford told her.
"It's the company that makes it so." Elizabeth smiled, and smiled wider when Carson handed her the mouse and marker. She signed her name next to Sheppard's bold script, and then opened the bag she carried. "Don't any of you want to see your presents?"
All but Teyla looked curious, then amazed as she handed around angular brown bottles with red bows on their necks. Teyla, of course, had been instrumental in helping Elizabeth to acquire the contraband. "Athosian moonshine! This stuff's impossible to get!" Sheppard crowed.
"It is a traditional wine, not 'moonshine'," Teyla said primly.
"Stuff's still about a hundred proof." Ford tilted his bottle appreciatively.
"I think in this case, 'traditional' means 'cut with rubbing alcohol." Sheppard smirked, and then ducked a playful swat from Teyla. "I mean, thanks, Elizabeth."
"And for you ..." Elizabeth passed a package across to Teyla. The Athosian woman oohed and ahhed at the shimmering scarf contained within. Now it was Sheppard's turn to look smug, because he'd been the one to sneak Elizabeth offworld for a quiet Christmas shopping trip a couple of weeks earlier. Then he tossed a box into Elizabeth's lap. Hesitantly, she opened it, and then her eyes widened. "Oh my God, John! Where did you get this?"
The others craned curiously to look. Elizabeth held up a handful of candy bars. "Snickers, Three Musketeers ... I thought all of these were gone months ago!"
"Some of us have channels," Sheppard smirked.
"You didn't steal these from Rodney, did you? Because I wouldn't put it past him to have booby-trapped it with laxatives."
"Nope. Perfectly safe and guaranteed laxative-free."
The reminder of Rodney depressed Elizabeth just a bit; she hoped that he was happy enough in his lab, and that he wasn't down there because he thought he wouldn't be welcome up here. Seeing the thoughtful looks on the others' faces, she suspected that she wasn't the only one having similar thoughts. "I'm not the only person here who tried to get Rodney to come to the party, am I?"
Beckett sighed. "Repeatedly."
Sheppard shrugged. "He's celebrating Christmas how he wants to. Not everybody's a party person. You can't make McKay do something he doesn't want to do."
Elizabeth nodded, but she made a mental note to be sure and swing past the labs on her way back to her room after the party. She did, after all, have one final bottle of Athosian wine to deliver.
After a little more small talk, the group broke up, Ford drifting back to the Marines and Teyla circulating among the Athosians. Elizabeth resumed her rounds, and it took her some time to notice that John had vanished.
Sheppard found the halls of Atlantis dim and quiet, seeming to echo with emptiness after the noise and glitter of the party. He saw no one else on the walk to his quarters. He dropped off most of his booty, but kept hold of Elizabeth's bottle of wine -- although he did pause to snip off the incriminating bow and drop it in his wastebasket. Then he set out on a mission. His first guess, the labs, turned out to be right: poking his head in the door, he found the room mostly dark with a certain cranky genius sitting in a pool of light, completely engrossed in poking at a piece of Ancient technology.
"Merry Christmas, Rodney."
Rodney flinched and fumbled his tools. "Blast it, Sheppard, warn a person!"
"I thought that's what I just did." He pulled up a lab stool, while Rodney eyed him suspiciously.
"If you're here for a last rousing chorus of 'Jingle Bells', Major, you can toddle right on back upstairs."
"That's no way to talk to somebody who comes bearing booze, Rodney."
Rodney's eyes went to the brown glass bottle in Sheppard's hand as the Major plunked it down on the lab countertop between them. "Where in the world did that come from?"
Sheppard grinned. "Elizabeth."
"No, entirely serious. She was handing them around like party favors. You should've dropped by the party, Rodney; they really pulled out all the stops."
"And yet, I notice you're here." Rodney's body language grew defensive. "If this is based in some sort of misguided pity, Sheppard, I hope you know I'm working because I want to be, not --"
"Settle down, Rodney, it's not pity." Sheppard raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Just between you and me, the party was kinda dull. You've seen one drunken scientist doing a table dance wearing glittery antlers, you've seen 'em all."
"Which sci -- wait, you're messing with me, aren't you?"
"You wouldn't know; you weren't there." Sheppard nudged the wine bottle across the counter towards him. "No, seriously, it's a holiday office party, Rodney. Better than some, but after awhile, it wears kind of thin. You got a corkscrew?"
Rodney stared at him for a moment, still looking suspicious, then shook his head as if he'd given up on ever trying to figure out Sheppard. "For your information, Major, I've got something better than a corkscrew." He rummaged among the clutter on the lab benches for a minute, then surfaced with something that resembled a short ballpoint pen or laser pointer -- just a simple metal stick, tapered slightly toward the ends. "Watch this," he said, and lightly tapped the cork. There was a small blue flash of light and the cork had utterly vanished.
Rodney handed the device to him and Sheppard took it, feeling a slight warmth against his palm. "That could be quite a potent weapon, you know."
The scientist shook his head. "Not really. It's extremely low-powered and only works on non-living objects, doesn't affect living tissue at all. We think it may have been ... heh ... the Ancient equivalent of a dentist's drill. Possibly some sort of engine cleaning tool. Anyway, I think I have glasses here somewhere ..."
He didn't, but he did turn up a couple of coffee mugs, one stamped with PROPERTY OF KAVANAGH - DO NOT TOUCH and the other bearing the inscription ACTUALLY, I AM A ROCKET SCIENTIST. Sheppard filled both and handed Rodney the rocket scientist cup. Then he raised his own.
"To holidays," he said.
Rodney winced. "I'd really rather not." He tipped his mug towards Sheppard's without quite meeting the other man's eyes. "To ... the infinite fallibility of Sartre."
Sheppard's eyebrows went up. "Er, the what?"
"Oh, come on, Major; I know you're not as dense as you claim. You know who Sartre is, right?"
"Come on. Jean-Paul Sartre? French philosopher? Wrote incredibly boring plays?"
"I'll take your word for it."
Rodney rolled his eyes in elaborate exasperation. "Oh, come on, it's entirely pointless if I have to explain -- Very well, fine. He was best known for the quote, 'Hell is other people.' I assume you've heard that?"
"It sounds vaguely familiar."
"Yes, well, the point is that Sartre's wrong. Sometimes."
Sheppard couldn't help laughing. "McKay, that's the most pointlessly complicated way of saying 'Here's to friends' that I've ever heard."
"Yeah, well, I'm a complicated guy." A smile lurked somewhere around the crooked mouth.
Sheppard raised his cup. "To friends. And to Sartre being wrong."
The glass clinked; they drank. The wine was sharp and dark, with a smoky aftertaste.
"You know, I'm not a wine connoisseur, but that isn't bad."
"Reminds me of my grandfather's currant wine," Sheppard said. "He had a farm ... hundred and sixty acres, mostly gone to weeds since the land hadn't really been worked since the Depression, but it was full of currant and blackberry bushes. He used to bottle it up and send it to us at the holidays. I remember it was the one time us kids were allowed to drink alcohol ... even when we were pretty young, we were allowed to have one small glass at Christmas."
"Can we avoid the warm fuzzy holiday memories, please?"
Sheppard laughed. "Point taken. From now on, this lab is declared a holly-free zone. Rather like the rest of Atlantis, but in a metaphorical, more than literal sense."
"No jingle bells, no mistletoe, and God forbid, no Santas," Rodney agreed. "No gifts, either. Er, you'd better not have gotten me anything, Sheppard."
"You'll be happy to know I didn't." Sheppard looked slightly guilty. "I honestly couldn't think of anything. I'm really not used to coming up with gift ideas, frankly."
"Well, if you had, I'd have to throw you out for holly zone violations, so just thank your stars that you haven't got the imagination of a lamppost."
Sheppard snorted and topped off their mugs. "You'll never guess what Beckett found, by the way."
"Star Wars, on DVD."
"On a station full of nerds?" Rodney snorted. "Hardly a difficult thing to find. Original or new trilogy?"
"Original, of course."
"...Shoots first, Rodney, everyone knows that."
They were deep in an argument about the relative assets of Carrie Fisher in the first movie ("You know the hard-to-get, Catholic schoolgirl thing is sexy, Major; admit it! Besides, in 1977 she didn't look like she'd been doing hard drugs for ten years!") versus the third ("Come on, Rodney! Two words! Slave girl!") when there was a light tap at the door and Elizabeth stuck her head in. "Evening, boys."
Sheppard waved at her and topped off his mug again. It was a little alarming how quickly he was getting buzzed. At one time, he'd had a tolerance for alcohol that honestly frightened him just a little -- but hootch was hard to come by on Atlantis, and even when he could get it, he felt guilty about just letting go and getting smashed. This was probably the most he'd had to drink in the entire time he'd been in the Pegasus Galaxy.
"Merry Christmas, Rodney," Elizabeth said, setting down a ribbon-bedecked bottle of wine in front of him. She looked a bit taken aback at the dark look he sent her.
"You're violating the holly-free zone," Sheppard said, the edges of his mouth quirking in a barely-suppressed grin.
Elizabeth's eyebrow raised. "The what?"
"This lab is officially Christmas-free," Rodney explained. "Note the absence of annoying decorations, off-key singing, sappy reminiscences guaranteed to send all listeners into diabetic comas, and other things of that nature."
Elizabeth appeared to be valiantly fighting down laughter. "Well, in that case, I appear to have inadvertently purchased one too many bottles of Athosian wine and thought I might leave one here in case anyone in the lab wants it."
"In that case, you're perfectly welcome to do so." Rodney hooked an arm around the wine bottle and dragged it over to his side of the lab counter. "I do think you should have a talk with your Athosian trading partners about putting bows on their trade goods, though," he added, picking off the bright red bow and dropping it in the trash.
She seemed to be losing her struggle not to laugh. "I'll remember that," she managed in a choked voice.
"Rodney, you'd better be planning on sharing that wine."
"She said she was giving it to the lab, Sheppard, and last I looked, you didn't work in the lab."
"I'm in it at the moment," Sheppard pointed out.
Rodney just snorted and leaned around behind him, unearthing another mug from the lab detritus. This one said MY OTHER CAR IS A SPACESHIP, with a picture of the Enterprise. Sheppard upended the open wine bottle into it and passed it to Elizabeth.
She'd just found a seat when Teyla and Beckett poked their heads into the lab. "Thought we might find all of you down here," Carson said.
"Is there even anyone left upstairs?" Rodney demanded.
"Haven't had much of a tolerance for partying since my school days." Carson dragged up another stool. "No offense, Elizabeth, love."
"No, no," she said, her eyes bright with suppressed amusement. "I understand completely.
Teyla, beaming, handed Rodney a brightly wrapped package. "Dr. McKay, I have brought your gift."
Rodney accepted it with the expression of a man who had just been handed a dead rodent. Teyla looked confused.
"Rodney's not exactly partial to the holidays," Sheppard explained as he used Rodney's zapper device on the cork in the new bottle of wine. "Oh my God that's cool. I want one of these."
"Merry Christmas, it's yours," Rodney said absently.
"Damn it Rodney, I thought we weren't exchanging gifts."
"We have a whole box of these things! Use them for swizzle sticks if you want. Zap mosquitoes on alien swamp planets -- I don't care. You can give me a spark plug or something; it's about that rare and unusual around here."
Teyla's confusion had given way to a crestfallen look. "I am so sorry. I am still learning your customs. I did not mean to violate --"
He held up a hand. "No, no, it's all right. No worries. Other people are equally guilty," with a dark look at Elizabeth. "You want me to open it now?"
"However it is normally done," Teyla offered.
Rodney looked around at the others, obviously embarrassed, then ripped the paper off, revealing a bundle of softly shimmering cloth. He unfolded it and held it up: a shirt, cut in the flowing Athosian style with wide, flared sleeves. It was a dusty blue, similar to the colored panels on his uniform jacket, but shot through with glittering hints of purple and red.
Sheppard choked with laughter. "Oh Rodney, it's so you! Now if the whole scientist thing falls through, you can have a thriving career as a porn star!"
Rodney looked torn between pure humiliation, and annoyance with Sheppard. Teyla just smiled at him cautiously. "I saw it in a marketplace on my last trading mission, and I thought it would match your eyes," she said. This last bit sent Sheppard off into new paroxysms of laughter, and Teyla frowned at him, confused.
Elizabeth carefully got her face and voice under control before speaking. "Teyla, he doesn't mean to be rude," she said with a sharp look at Sheppard. "It's just that ... on our world, this would be more similar to the clothing styles worn by women."
Sheppard got enough breath back to say, "Don't worry, Teyla. There are men on Earth who dress that way. Of course, most of them are male prostitutes ..." And he was off again.
"I am so very, very sorry!" Teyla made a grab for the shirt; to her obvious surprise, Rodney pulled it out of her reach. "I am still learning these things about your people, and it had always seemed to me that your men and women dress very similarly. I will take it back and trade for something more suitable."
"Teyla, it's fine," Rodney said, a bit gruffly. "Don't take it back. I'm keeping it."
Slightly out of breath, and with a suspicious hitch in his voice, Sheppard suggested, "Try it on, Rodney."
"Drop dead, Major."
"You do not have to keep it," Teyla said.
"I want to." He folded it and placed it carefully, almost reverently, atop the wrapping paper.
"Teyla, would you like some wine?" Elizabeth asked, breaking the awkwardness of the moment.
"I would love some wine," she said gratefully.
There were no more mugs handy, but Rodney found clean beakers for the two new arrivals. "By the way, Carson, if you have a Christmas present for me, I'm going to have to stab you with the nearest pipette."
Beckett raised his hands in mock surrender. "No need for violence, Rodney. I didn't get you anything."
"Thank you, Carson. I knew I could count on you." Rodney glanced around at all of them, and then gave his mug a brief lift. "Sartre," he said shortly, and drank.
"I take it that means something." Elizabeth gave Sheppard a bewildered look.
John just smiled over the top of his own mug. "Like everything else with McKay, Elizabeth, you have to take it in the spirit with which it's offered." And he drank the smoky Athosian wine, long and deep.
Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.