The mall looks like it’s been thrown up on by tinsel. That’s the first thing that Rodney notices, his jaw clenching as he drives past a copse of sad looking grey trees, their bare, spindly branches draped artfully in neon-blue lights and glitter string.
The lights are so bright that he has to blink several times in rapid succession just to be sure that they aren’t some kind of horrible hallucination brought about by an accidental swig of not-coffee in the labs. It wouldn’t be the first time that Zelenka had left something strange in the coffee mugs.
Charlie is squirming in the backseat, though it’s too early to tell whether it’s from excitement or an urgent need to relieve himself.
“We’re almost there, bud,” he sighs, taking a right past the Macy’s and pulling carefully into the parking garage. God, even the garage is decorated, the columns wrapped in candy-cane paper, each adorned with a giant red bow. It’s hideous.
But, Jeannie had said that it would be good to take the kid to see Santa. And after the disaster that was last year’s Christmas, Rodney’s inclined to listen. Nothing like your kid coming home with big ole crocodile tears streaming down his cheeks to put things into perspective.
Rodney McKay is one-hundred and ten percent not a Christmas person. He hates the lights, the music, the presents, and the general mania that sweeps the nation starting that last week of November. He doesn’t like people much in general, but during Christmas time? They’re all fucking nuts.
But he’s got a kid. A kid who should have the opportunity to believe in something big and stupid and magical like every other damn kid in his class. Just because Rodney hadn’t cared for some stupid fat man in a suit when he was young didn’t mean that Charlie wouldn’t.
That’s what Jeannie told him at least. It had seemed a sound enough argument.
Charlie makes a largely non-verbal bleat, a stifled noise of excitement that has Rodney craning his neck to peer at him through the rear-view mirror. Charlie grins back at him, red-cheeked, the red knit cap that Jeannie had stuffed onto him coming half-off his head.
“Hey buddy,” Rodney says in a bright, cheery voice. He switches off the radio, abruptly cutting off the cheery jingle that’s begun to feature in his nightmares. “You ready to see Santa?”
God help him.
If Rodney had thought that the scene outside the mall had been awful, the inside is even worse. Kids holler loudly, parents shout, teenagers skulk, and above it all, a peppy little cover of Jingle Bells plays - the singer probably some poor Disney castoff.
He clutches Charlie close to him, scowling as the kid in front of them in line screeches and goes tearing off across the food court after his sister. The harried mom shouts after them, and after giving Rodney a quick, apologetic look, goes running off after them. She’s back before Rodney can finish deciding whether or not he wants to take her spot in line.
Dad, Charlie signs happily, beaming and shoving his finger up at the admittedly impressive sleigh that they have suspended above Santa’s head.
Rodney smiles, biting back a curse as the ten year old behind him kicks his heels yet again. He takes a step forward and reminds himself that going nuclear on some kid would only bring the wrath of every mom in the food court down upon them. And then Charlie wouldn’t get to see the damn fat man.
“Now remember,” he says, crouching in front of Charlie and straightening the red scarf around his neck. Between the scarf, the hat, and the puffy white coat, Rodney’s kid looks like a damn peppermint marshmallow. “You’re going to go up there and I will be right there, okay? Daddy has pepper-spray and a very healthy set of vocal cords, so everything will be just fine.”
Charlie makes an excited little noise as the line inches forward, and barely looks at him. Rodney sighs and shuffles forward with the crowd.
A whole ten people ahead of them, one of the elves, a petite girl with long sweeping hair and glitter on her cheeks is ushering Santa up and out of his chair, telling everyone nearby who thinks to complain that Santa needs bathroom breaks too.
When “Santa” comes back from his bathroom break ten minutes later, he is noticeably thinner and his beard isn’t quite so stained with nicotine. Rodney snorts, dutifully shuffling forward when the two kids at the front of the line make a dive for Santa’s knee.
Charlie is quiet at his side now, standing still in a way that makes Rodney’s eyes continuously drift back towards him - he’s gone a bit rigid, his breathing heavier, and Rodney squints at him, concerned, as they shuffle forward again. It’s the excitement, he thinks, noting the faint full-body tremble, how Charlie is clenching and unclenching his fingers inside of his mittens. He’s not about to get upset, he’s just- excited.
They’ve reached the front of the line by now and Rodney watches with apprehension as the little girl ahead of them bursts into tears as she climbs into Santa’s lap. Her mother is making noises, the elf with the camera twinkling merrily at her, trying to distract her from her tears, but it’s the Santa that Rodney is watching. The Santa who is tapping the little girl’s shoulder gently and saying something to her, something that makes her stop crying and go soft, tremulous, as she turns to look at him. Her lip quivers, but the Santa just smiles at her, chucking her on the chin and saying something else that against all odds makes her laugh.
Rodney can’t see much about the man inside of the Santa costume from where he’s standing, the wig and beard hides what the suit doesn’t, but there’s something in his mannerisms that makes Rodney feel a spark of familiarity.
He swallows and is still trying to puzzle it out when the Santa finishes with the little girl and turns their way.
John Sheppard looks back out at Rodney from behind a fuzzy white Santa beard, his eyes widening almost imperceptibly as they shift from Rodney to Charlie and then back again.
Jesus - fucking - Christ.
“Next,” the little elf-girl calls, and Rodney is still standing half-frozen, one foot on the first marble step. The rug under them is a bright, berry-colored red, streaks of gold stretching out along the sides. There’s a fallen french fry at his feet.
Charlie tugs at his sleeve and Rodney takes a deep breath.
With a trepidation that he’s hoping doesn’t show, Rodney mounts the steps, towing Charlie up with him and depositing him carefully on John’s lap. He licks his lips and looks everywhere but at John. He looks at the camera in the girl’s hands, the cheap Christmas boxes scattered at the base of the gaudy tree, John’s boots on the rug.
“This is Charlie,” he tells John, still not looking.
“Charlie, huh?” John says, and Rodney draws in a quick breath, shaken. John’s voice - for some reason - was one of the last things that he ever would have thought to miss. He’d forgotten the slow, lazy way that John spoke, like he was just along for the ride and didn’t much care where he ended up. “How old are you Charlie?”
Charlie makes a delighted noise and holds up four fingers. His cheeks dimple.
“Four?!” John crows with a short whistle. “Wowee, you’re practically fully grown!”
Charlie giggles, and behind him, Rodney’s vaguely aware of the elf-girl cooing something to one of the other older, surlier looking elves.
“He, um,” Rodney starts, biting down hard on his lower lip and sneaking John a glance from under his lashes. “He doesn’t really talk much. Yet, exactly- there’s been- issues. But uh, he has a list.”
Rodney steels himself and then stoops down next to them, until his shoulders are level with John’s, Charlie the only thing he can focus on. Charlie, who is warm and happy, and who definitely won’t come home from school crying because some kid said that since he didn’t see Santa Claus, he wouldn’t be getting any presents.
He’s focusing on Charlie, and not John, whose breath Rodney certainly cannot feel against the side of his neck. He takes the list from Charlie, who settles into John’s lap happily and looks to Rodney to begin listing off the toys written there.
Charlie, whose speech therapist says that it might be a few more years before they start seeing real signs of improvement, likes dinosaurs and boats right now. He’s also asked for a pair of ugly alien pajamas that glow in the dark and a book on sign language that his friend Emily has.
By the end of the list, Charlie is squirming again, working his jaw like he wants to say something. Rodney obligingly stops and waits for him. It takes him a minute, and by the time he opens his mouth to actually get the words out, he’s looking a bit frustrated, but John patiently waits, smiling placidly.
“Thanks, Santa,” Charlie says, the words only slightly mangled around the edges and looks so proud of himself that for a moment, Rodney thinks that he might cry, in front of his ex and an entire food court full of soccer moms.
“Picture?” the elf-girl says perkily, holding the camera up. Rodney nods shakily, and feeling John’s eyes on him the whole time, reaches across to poke Charlie until he laughs loudly. Then he turns to smile at the camera himself.
“That’ll be $9.50 for the picture,” elf-girl says, holding the polaroid out to him. Rodney takes it without looking, shoving the money in her direction, his entire body aware of his kid still in John’s arms behind him.
When he turns back around, picture safely stowed away, John is talking quietly to Charlie, his head ducked in towards him. Rodney steps towards them, unwilling to break up the moment, his heart snagging on the sight of those two heads bent close together.
“Ready to go, kiddo?” he asks, already thinking about the traffic leaving the mall and whether or not he’s going to have time to start something good for dinner before he has to take that conference call in his study. He helps Charlie down, trying not to notice the sliver of tanned wrist peeking out past that stupid Santa suit, trying not to remember the way John’s hands felt on him.
He’s turning to go when John catches his wrist, the leathery feel of the gloves strange. They’re too plush, padded with cotton to give them their fat and jolly appearance. It’s weird.
Rodney turns to look at him.
“Rodney-” John starts, and there’s an entire world of expression there on his face. Rodney doesn’t know what to do with it. Doesn’t know what to do about the fact that this guy- this guy- left Rodney years and years ago, went and enlisted to get himself shot at, and then just never came back.
It’s not like Rodney had put his life on hold for John. He’d gone and gotten his degree, gotten a job he’d wanted, had a kid, and throughout all of that, he’d what? Expected John to come waltzing back into his life?
No. Rodney had stopped expecting news of John, dead or otherwise, years ago.
It doesn’t mean that it isn’t hard to see him here like this.
He’s bright-eyed, smiling at the kids, still warm and yes, behind the stupid beard, still pretty, but Rodney can’t help look at him and wonder if there’s that much of a difference between John and the Santa who’d reeked of nicotine, the vet with the prosthetic who held signs on street corners.
“Yes?” he asks, and John blinks at him.
“I’m uh,” John starts, then stops, a sheepish look crossing his face as he realizes there’s no way to ask Rodney what he wants as fucking Santa Claus. He clears his throat and says in a stifled, hurried sort of voice, “My shift is up at seven. If you’re uh, around. We could talk?”
Rodney looks at him evenly, Charlie a warm weight against his side.
He thinks about it- about getting home and setting up something in the crockpot for dinner, taking the conference call while Charlie watches television, then dinner around seven. There’s no room in his schedule for a random meetup at a bar, no quick and sloppy hookup with a man he thought he’d lost, but something stops him from saying no outright. Maybe it’s the easy way that John had spoken to Charlie, how he’d looked at him and smiled and-
Rodney clears his throat.
“Dinner should be ready around then,” he says with a shrug, and realizes with an abrupt, sinking sensation that Charlie is going to think that he’s inviting Santa Claus to dinner with them. “I’m uh, shit, here.”
His cheeks go ruddy with embarrassment as he rummages through his bag and comes up with an uncapped green pen and a pad of crinkled yellow paper. He quickly scrawls their address across it before tearing it off the pad and shoving it John’s way. Jesus fucking Christ, the entire food court just watched him set up a date with Santa.
“I, um,” Rodney says, becoming increasingly aware of the surge of noise coming from the disgruntled soccer moms waiting in line. He cringes, dragging Charlie down a few steps. “I’ll just see you later. Maybe.”
He trips on the rug once he reaches the landing, but catches himself on a reindeer before he can go sprawling into the nearby fountain. His face is on fire, but when he looks back up, John Sheppard is smiling down at him, fond and horribly, achingly familiar.
He makes stroganoff, and because - if Charlie’s grumblings are to be believed - he clearly hates his kid, adds a salad to go with it.
And then he paces.
Back and forth.
He does a load of laundry.
He folds a load of laundry.
When it comes time for his conference call, he’s such a back-and-forth mess that Zelenka makes some excuses for him and effectively boots him from the channel. Rodney scowls at the phone for a while, taps despondently at his laptop, and then goes to watch a disney movie with his kid.
He’d explained to Charlie in that awkward way that was surely natural to all parents that it turned out that Santa knew an old friend of his and that that friend would be joining them for dinner. Charlie, who was cleverer than anyone ever expected him to be, but maybe not in all the same ways, had assumed - rightfully, of course - that this was a cover up, and had clumsily signed to Rodney that he thought it was okay if his dad dated Santa. But only if he got extra presents.
By the time seven o’clock rolls around, Rodney is a nervous, jittery wreck. He’s watched Moana twice through and spent a good thirty minutes pretending to be a brain-damaged chicken as Charlie navigated the treacherous waters of their carpet aboard his trusty couch-boat. Rodney doesn’t drink. Not often, not since Charlie was born, but by the time the doorbell rings, he has a glass of red in hand that he thinks he might have gotten from a colleague a few Christmas’ ago. He takes a gulp of it as Charlie pelts towards the door at full tilt, nearly going head over heels as he skids to a stop on the mat.
He flings the door open and stares up at John.
Accusingly, Charlie turns to look back at Rodney and signs, Beard?!
He frowns at John, and John cocks his head, perplexed. He looks at Rodney, and there’s a bit of relief to know that there isn’t any awkwardness when John tilts his head, how even after all these years Rodney can still clearly read his unspoken question.
Rodney shrugs, and says as he’s signing back, “He shaved.”
When John passes close enough Rodney tugs him close, swallowing past the gut punch of memories that is John’s smell, the heat of him, the sight of him, a little bit rumpled, his hair damp and sweaty from the wig, the hat, or both, and whispers, “He might think that you’re Santa Claus.”
John stares at him, his face entirely blank before he smiles, slow and syrupy sweet. Rodney’s heart scoots across his chest. He looks at Charlie, who’s gazing up at them, still half-accusingly, and winks.
Charlie wrinkles his nose up and stomps away to the dinner table.
Dinner is quiet, mostly. The stroganoff is good, even if he did cheat and use the crockpot. The salad isn’t eaten by any of them, except for a single red cherry tomato, which John had popped into his mouth before he’d gotten distracted by beef and noodles.
Throughout the meal, Charlie had kept giving them suspicious little glances, but he’d eaten quietly, and afterwards, when John had offered to do the dishes for them, he had allowed himself to be taken upstairs for bed without fuss.
Rodney suspected that he thought he’d get more presents if he behaved too, but wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
John’s sitting in an armchair near the Christmas tree when Rodney returns, the light from the bulbs casting a warm, sleepy glow over him. For the first time, Rodney allows himself to really look at him, his eyes dragging up John’s skinny frame - the worn boots, the fitted jeans, the soft-looking sweater he’d been hiding behind the leather jacket that even Rodney had recognized as the same one he'd sported in junior high. He’s got a bit of scruff on his face, but his hair has been cut recently and is about as neat as it’s going to get.
He looks good. Fit. Healthy. Not like someone holding up signs on street corners, thank god.
John blinks a bit when Rodney enters the room, and sets down the picture frame that he’d been inspecting. He gestures with a wine glass, a sardonic little smirk crossing his face as he takes a sip.
“Sorry,” John says, in the tones of someone who isn’t sorry at all. “I helped myself to your wine.”
Rodney shrugs, snagging his own glass from the kitchen and crossing to sit on the sofa across from John.
“It’s fine,” he says. “I really don’t drink it much.”
They descend into a slightly uncomfortable silence, the quiet and dimness of the room wrapping around them. The lights on the tree twinkle, the lamplight soft and warm.
“So,” Rodney says after a minute, drawing out the sound of the vowel. He quirks an eyebrow. “Santa?”
John winces, taking another healthy swallow of wine. “Favor to my sister-in-law. She does this kind of stuff a lot. I help out mostly with the children’s hospital visits, but they were short at the mall today.”
“Shame,” Rodney says, his mouth quirking up at one corner. “It looked good on you.”
John barks out a laugh, and it’s that laugh, the one that Rodney remembers, and before he knows it, he’s laughing too.
He tries to keep quiet, shushing John urgently between little gasping hitches of laughter, but there are tears at the corners of his eyes and wine in his belly and the lights from the tree make John look like a good dream.
“Why didn’t you come back?” Rodney asks when he’s regained enough breath to speak, still thumbing tears of laughter from his eyes. The question should be enough to drop a rock straight through the mood, but oddly, Rodney finds himself calm. Content, even.
John, who seems to share this sentiment, gives a brief twitch of his shoulders. “Honestly? Didn’t know anyone was waiting for me.”
Rodney raises an eyebrow. “You-”
“No, I mean.” John takes a deep breath, swishing his wine in the glass. His lips twist strangely. Melancholy, almost. “I know, I knew. Sort of. That somewhere out there you’d be getting your degree and living your life and just- I don’t know. I wasn’t sure that I would fit in it anymore.”
“So you just didn’t say anything?” The anger somehow still isn’t there, but there’s something in Rodney’s gut now, twisting things around like noodles. “You just lost my number? My email? I know I wrote to you for a while before I gave up.”
John shrugs again. “Things weren’t good for me for awhile. They got better, but things just. I didn’t want to put all that on you.”
Rodney sniffs and sets his glass down on the coffee table. For a moment he thinks about pretending to be a functional adult and getting a coaster, but decides that he doesn’t give a shit. Not now. Not tonight.
“You could have.”
John shifts. “I know.”
Rodney licks his lips. It’s been years since he’s seen John, but it hasn’t been that long since he’s thought about him. John was - everything. Every relationship before and after him had paled in comparison, even Charlie’s mom. There had always been something unfinished there, some brief spark that never quite felt snuffed out.
Having John here with him, in his house, with his kid. It’s intoxicating. A bad idea? A good idea? Does John even-
“You still could,” he says carefully. John glances up at him, surprised. “If you wanted.”
John leans forward in his seat, setting his wine glass aside so quickly that Rodney winces. John’s eyes are wide, bright, disbelieving. “You mean...?”
Rodney chews on his lip and thinks about John with his kid, how they’d looked together today, bent together over a stupid Christmas list. How John had watched them sign to each other through dinner, and never once acted like he felt left out or excluded. How he paid attention, like he was looking to commit it to memory. Like he wanted to learn.
“I’ve got a kid now,” Rodney warns, watching warily as John pushes up out of the armchair and crosses the room towards him. John lowers himself down onto the couch next to him, the heat of him so close. “I- Charlie’s pretty much it for me. I’ve got my work, but this isn’t-”
Rodney takes a breath when John’s hand comes down on his knee. John is looking at him, so softly, with so much hope, his hand coming up to cup Rodney’s face. Rodney presses into the touch helplessly, something like a sob caught in the back of his throat.
“This isn’t something-”
Rodney swallows raggedly. “John, you can’t walk away again.”
“Hey,” John says, pulling him in close, arms tugging him in. His body is as warm as a blanket, a comfort that Rodney had forgotten over the years, his arms caging Rodney in warmly. He’s smiling still, gentle as he strokes Rodney’s cheek. There’s something so tender, so disbelieving about his expression as he says, again, “I know.”