Rodney slapped his palm to his face and groaned. Nothing good could come of this, and he'd agreed to spend at least four hours here, making small talk with the yokels. The fact that they were on Earth rather than Atlantis didn't mean the yokels were any less yokel-y.
"Elizabeth can have the bet," he said to John. "This place stinks of the NID and other weirdos."
"Think positive, Rodney." John adjusted the cuff on his dress uniform jacket. "Maybe there's someone here you can dress down for incompetent science."
"I wish. I'm under a gag order not to talk about anything that might be tied back to Atlantis. And this place is a hellhole of influence peddlers instead of scientists anyway. The best thing we can hope for is a kidnapping, rather than being bored to death."
Rodney had to admit that the lobbyist who had supplied the money for this party had done a decent job. Fake Christmas trees decorated with tasteful silver and gold balls loomed up to the top of the grand stairway entrance, and smaller, dark green trees studded with tiny colored lights created interesting nooks throughout the room. There was a real misstep with some disco trees lining the area near the buffet, cordoning off the dance floor, though. Two bars were set up, one on each side of the entrance, and Rodney could hear a real band warming up to play.
Everyone was dressed to the nines; Rodney's tux pulled at him awkwardly around the arms, and the whole place made him feel uncomfortable, like he had no right to be here. It should have been spectacular, but lately spectacle was another name for bad luck on Atlantis.
John, though. John looked spectacular in his dress uniform, every hair in place. Rodney had no idea that John's backbone could ever be that straight. He ran a hand over his mouth checking for drool.
"Easy, Rodney." John pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, do you remember our first Holiday party on Atlantis?"
Of course he did. They shared an awkward, drunken kiss that night, before their reconnection with Earth. "The one right after we figured out we were in the middle of Atlantean winter, rather than the one where we celebrated surviving the Wraith?"
"That's the one. It started off badly, but it got better."
If by better, you meant "never speaking of this again." Which, he had to say, did have some merit. "Despite its faults — limited food, terrible music, and a torrential rainstorm with massive swells on a regular basis — I will admit we had fun."
"That's the spirit." John smiled at him, and Rodney's heart sped up. Damnit, he never had been able to set his crush completely aside — and one of these days, John was going to find out.
Looking at the studied, artificial décor around him, Rodney was able to get himself to quiet down, and he shook his head as a woman in a floor-length evening gown swirled by. "You're wrong, Sheppard. There is no fun to be had here."
"We made fireworks and set them off on the pier that night. I'm sure we can make our own fun here." John bumped his shoulder against Rodney's. "Come on. I'm sure that there's something you can eat down there. Not everything has lemon in it."
"Look at the water table." Rodney gestured down the grand entrance to where the servers were staging fake crystal water jugs and trays of canapes. "Those jugs are filled with lemon slices. I won't be able to drink a thing tonight."
"You can always get water out of the restroom tap."
Rodney rolled his eyes. Like he was willing to do that. "Not unless I can check out their air filtration system first. The sink is bound to be too close to the urinals."
"Yeah, I guess." John lifted his eyebrow and tilted his head slightly, before scanning the room again. "At least the Atlantis buffet was a hearty one."
"That was the beautiful thing about it. Jorgensen was amazing with dried egg and canned meat." Rodney gazed forlornly at the table laden with salad, fruit, cheese, and other light appetizers, all of them small, bite sized. "What I wouldn't give for some of those sausages and weird egg-wrapper things about now."
"Come on," John said, nodding his head toward a third bar almost hidden near a smaller, undecorated tree at the back of the room. "I'll get you a drink. And it won't be lemon water."
Threading his way through the crowd, Rodney tried to be the PR juggernaut that Elizabeth wanted him to be. It was why they were here, to propose next year's budget and answer questions about the project. Rodney could not wait until he got back on Atlantis.
Rodney froze, scrunching his face to keep from yelling. Four hours. He only had to do four hours.
John looked from him to someplace behind him. "Small guy, black hair, pinstripe bow tie," he whispered.
"As if I would have a clue from that." Rodney took a deep breath and turned around, determined to be pleasant.
Oh. Henry Fleming. He really should have guessed it from John's description. "Dr. Fleming."
"I heard you had joined the deep space telemetry project, McKey —"
"Right, McKay. I really thought you would have done more with yourself by now. Have you published anything in the last five years?"
Fleming was just the first. By the time he got to the bar, Rodney had been polite to so many stupid people and sycophants that his head was pounding. "They are such idiots," he groused to John. "If Elizabeth hadn't bet me I couldn't make it through the evening without insulting someone, I would have taken them down already — and without any reference to home base."
John ran his hand through his hair, leaving it sticking up in a more familiar look; Rodney couldn't help brightening a bit now that John looked like John. "It hasn't been a picnic for me either. I think I'm still being scrutinized for potential insubordination." John gestured at a darkened alcove behind one of the smaller Christmas trees. "That looks like a quiet spot. I'll meet you there with the drinks."
It felt more like being in a hedge maze than a ballroom, with conversational tables and chair groupings popping up at random, and waiters carrying lemon water poison and skimpy appetizer trays circulating among them. He was considering how to make it all into a video game when he literally bumped into someone hidden by the decorative tree.
"The hell...?" Rodney said as he stared at Lorne. "I thought you were off duty tonight?"
"I'm honestly not sure." Lorne sipped his glass of wine. "I promised Beckett that I'd escort Cadman to this little bash for him. For once he was upset about not being called up with the rest of us."
"Where is she?" John asked, handing Rodney a small glass with some sort of amber beverage in it. "Isn't she getting an award tonight?"
"Yeah, for her courage rescuing some international delegate from the last alien invasion, though no one says that. Personally, I still think the bravest thing she did was sharing a body with McKay."
"Watch it," Rodney growled. "I can still reset your thermostat when we get back to Atlantis."
Lorne held up his hands at the mock threat. Rodney had never carried through on his threats against anyone he actually cared about.
"Anyway, she had to use the ladies' room." Lorne shook his head. "Damn, I didn't think there would be so many people here when I said I'd go with her. There's got to be more than three times the entire population of Atlantis."
Rodney did some quick mental calculation. "Three times the original expedition." He sniffed the glass John had given him, and was immediately transported to thoughts of Deremha's Straw Island. He and John had shared a bungalow there, relaxing while Elizabeth and Teyla negotiated for grain. He arched an eyebrow at John, then looked down at the glass; John smiled one of his stupid, quirky smiles.
"I feel really out of place," Lorne muttered, and eased himself into one of the alcove's few chairs.
John twisted a straight-backed, wooden chair around, straddling it. "You don't look it."
While they talked, Rodney took another sniff of his drink — yes, this smelled like the stuff made on Straw Island. He took a sip and, instead of the mellow sweetness he remembered, it tasted more like peat. He savored the flavor, letting it drip down the back of his throat. Oh, it had been a while since he'd had something this nice. He took another sip, letting the hints of oak roll around on his tongue. This was even better than the Straw Island stuff.
"Knew you were a bourbon man," John said, his eyes alight. "What do you think?
"I think you're giving me this because you can't drink it." John was still on antibiotics from their last mission together. Some hokey spiritual leader had tried to use a knife on John when they escaped the temple, and Rodney had deflected it with his laptop; unfortunately, the laptop shattered and the wound got infected and, well, all things considered, it was good they were here.
John grimaced and Rodney saw him slide a hand over his rib and away; he must have been thinking about their last mission as well. He shot a 'look, I'm really okay' smile in Rodney's direction, then took a sip of his sparkling water. "Okay, team. Let's get this over with. Rendezvous back here in an hour."
Lorne stood up with a groan. "Okay, okay. I'll grab Cadman and go socialize."
The crowd was even larger than the first time they'd swung through it. Rodney looked around for a likely target, someone who would be interested in the amazing yet declassified information he felt could be talked about publicly.
It was apparent that he wasn't the only one who thought the current party sucked, despite the amount of money that had been spent. If they'd been back in the Pegasus galaxy, Rodney still would have been looking for the exits. Ronon would have classified this as 'secretly hostile.' Even the people not originally from Atlantis were holding themselves in tight.
At least he shouldn't suffer alone. "Do you see Sam Carter here? Elizabeth said SG-1 was invited."
John shook his head. "Why? So you could bug her about some super-secret project that you aren't supposed to know about that you just happened to get specifications on yesterday?"
"I always enjoy our little tête-à-têtes, yes. I'm sure she'd be thrilled to have my input."
"Is that what they're calling it these days." John rolled his eyes. "Nope. I don't see O'Neill, Jackson, or Teal'c either. They must have gotten out of it." He smiled ironically. "Probably saving the world."
Rodney's heart sank as he realized he wouldn't even have Sam Carter to look forward to. It wasn't fair that he had to be here. These narcissistic idiots wouldn't know proper science if someone demonstrated a Tesla coil in front of them.
A black-clad sever passed him with a tray of figs stuffed with goat cheese, so he plucked several from it. They weren't bad, in a basic flavored-cheese-on-something way, and there was no visible lemon anywhere near them.
"Teyla would love this," John said as he scanned the room.
"Yeah, she always likes a good harvest festival." John elbowed him in the ribs. "What?"
"It's not a harvest festival if no one is shooting at us."
"The night is young. You know, you should really try some of these fig things. They're pretty good."
By the time they got back from "socialization duty," most of the Atlantis contingent was attempting to squeeze into the alcove, and not doing a very good job. Lorne and Cadman had been left at the outside.
"Hey, you look hot," Rodney said, looking her up and down. Her hair was up in a French braid, and her dress uniform looked tidy, a far cry from the rubble- and sweat-stained T-shirt he'd seen her in last. "I didn't think you'd clean up this nice."
She thumped him hard enough in the arm to make it hurt. "You always say that, Rodney."
"Well…. It's a surprise each time."
Rodney looked at John for help, but John stood there with his arms crossed and shook his head. Okay, fine. Rodney could do this. He'd been working on polite things to say in formal situations.
He looked at Lorne, and Lorne held up his hand, backing as far away as he could without upsetting the Christmas tree. "Hey, it's between you and your body twin. No way am I getting in the middle of you two. "
Cadman stood there, arms straight at her sides, looking at Rodney expectantly.
"Uh. Looking good, Cadman." He rubbed his aching arm.
"Thanks. You look good too, I guess." She tilted her head to the side. "If I squint a bit, I can even say attractive in this light."
Both Lorne and John chuckled at that, and Rodney found he was able to relax in a way he hadn't been all evening. John was pressed to his side, the tight quarters not allowing anyone much movement. It felt almost normal, seeing only people from Atlantis around him. No one wanted to be pushed out into the main hall, and John was practically smashed up against Rodney's back. A warm sensation kindled itself in Rodney's belly as John's breath pooled around his neck, making him shiver in unintentional, erotic delight.
"You cold?" John's arm threaded around him pulling him in tight, the action hidden by the wall of people around him. "I'm roasting."
Oh, now this was torture. Rodney couldn't move, but then, he didn't really want to move either; he'd be content to be pressed against John like this all night.
"How long until we can go?" John whispered. "I don't think they need us to do much socializing anymore."
"Hey can you scoot over," Cadman said to the two of them. "It looks like Elizabeth and Radek want to join us."
Embarrassment crept up under Rodney's collar. He did not want to risk exposing his hard-on to anyone. "Not without elbowing someone in the stomach, I can't." Rodney said. "If I get any closer to Lorne, I'm going to end up in his lap."
"Gotcha," Cadman said. She then proceeded to do some sort of complicated dance involving eyebrows and hand gestures that apparently translated as 'we're out of chairs' while Rodney's blood returned to its proper location. Bringing chairs with them, Elizabeth and Radek added themselves to the crowd a few minutes later. Rodney found himself separated from John and pushed to the back of the group as they tried to arrange the chairs.
"How much longer?" Radek glanced at Rodney as he sat the wooden chair down. "This monkey suit is killing me."
Rodney darted a glance across the group at John. "Two hours to go."
"Thank you, Rodney," Elizabeth said as she sank into her chair. "This is so insane. I'm sorry I talked you all into doing it."
"That's okay," Lorne said, setting his empty glass on the floor. "I don't really have a life outside of Atlantis anyway."
Cadman smacked him lightly on the shoulder before turning to Elizabeth. "No problem, ma'am. Happy to do what I can for the expedition."
Rodney lost the thread of Elizabeth's response as Lorne's words bounced around in his brain. Yes. He felt that way himself. Maybe the reason he was having a terrible time was that this place wasn't Atlantis.
His stomach did a slow roll, the whiskey and the appetizers mixing in an unsettling way as he thought about the prospect of never going back.
He must've looked terrible, because John shoved a couple of people out of the way to reach him. He looked worried, and it was clear he thought he had stepped over a line when he'd pressed himself against Rodney's back. "You okay?"
"Absolutely." Rodney ran his hand down John's arm, and gave it a reassuring squeeze as he tilted his head toward the hallways. "I think — I think I need to get some air."
Strolling out into the cold night and away from the sounds of forced holiday merriment, Rodney could feel himself relax. "I should be good at this," he said, rubbing a hand over his face. "I deal with people all the time on Atlantis."
John shrugged. "Yeah, but you know how it is on Atlantis. Having a lot of strangers usually means something bad's happening — like an emergency evacuation. As you said, there's more people in that ballroom than there is on Atlantis. It's insane."
"You think that's all it is?" Rodney stretched his shoulders back until he could hear a small 'pop.' "It's been like that everywhere I've been this past week — the grocery store, the movie theaters, every restaurant and conference room I've been forced to be in. There are just too many people on Earth."
"I felt the same way coming back from McMurdo. Isolation...isn't always a bad thing."
Rodney looked over at him and couldn't help rolling his eyes. "You really would be happier if you never had to deal with people, right?"
"Takes one to know one." John looked up at the sky, and while the light pollution made it hard to see many stars, it was a beautiful, crisp night. "Anything else you need to tell me about?"
Rodney could see his own breath. "I wanted to do a lot more than stand there waiting for time to pass, if that's what you wanted to know. If we had been on Atlantis, I'm sure that moment would have ended a lot differently than it did."
"Okay then." John smiled broadly. "Guess I'm not making it back to my place tonight."
"No, you are not. I thought that was obvious. You ready to go inside now?" Rodney hitched his thumb toward the main building. "My ass is freezing."
John brayed out a laugh as they headed inside.
"You are just fucking lucky that I find your laughter endearing."
Finally, the clock struck midnight and Rodney's watch went off.
"Thank God," John muttered, his head sinking back against the wall. "Okay, Cinderellas. We are done with this ball."
"Cadman and I will stop at the take 'n' bake, grab some pizzas and some beer," Lorne said as he grabbed up his coat. "I'm assuming we're meeting at McKay's place? Hey, Zelenka. Party at McKay's place?"
"Yes, good. As soon as I can drag Elizabeth away." He shook his head. "For some reason, she likes these type of things."
Rodney shot a panicked look at John, who shrugged.
His call then. If he wanted to tell everyone to go back to their own places, he could. But just like Lorne had said, Atlantis was home. "Fine," Rodney growled. "But get some good beer."
This trip hadn't been the triumphant success that Rodney had hoped for, but it hadn't been a dismal failure either. John had fallen asleep with his head in Rodney's lap within five minutes of finishing his pizza, more exhausted than he'd let on, while Radek told a story about something he and Lorne had done during one of their many internal city explorations.
Only Lorne couldn't remember which one. "I think you've got it confused with that big pool thing," Lorne insisted.
"No, see, that's the one where the, uhm, plant things turned out to have rudimentary sentience...."
Stroking John's hair, Rodney tuned them out, as a sense of contentment settled around him. Elizabeth and Radek, Lorne and his weird sister-at-arms Cadman, all of them curled around each other, happy and comfortable, just like he and John were. A pile of shoes sat at his front door, with a layer of coats, ties, and sweaters piled on the table by the door — Radek's suit coat covered Elizabeth, who like John, had nearly fallen asleep while standing.
This. This is what he had been missing this whole trip. Not just John and what they meant to each other, but the whole team being together. He tucked his arm around John and stretched his legs out, smiling to himself.
He finally felt like he was home.