“Christmas really isn’t my thing.”
“It doesn’t have to be your thing, it’s just a party,” Rodney replied impatiently. “Jennifer’s making me go, so you should have to go too. All for one, right?”
“We’re not the Musketeers, McKay.” John was half-tempted to go to the annual Christmas Eve party just to wind Rodney up, but then he’d be forced to watch Rodney make goo-goo eyes at Keller all night and the thought of that turned his stomach. “I’m on the duty roster anyway.”
“Again?” Rodney’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How is it you’re always scheduled to work during Christmas?”
John shrugged. “Someone has to.”
He wasn’t lying. He really didn’t care much for Christmas or any of the trappings of it. Everyone was nice to everyone else for thirty-one days and then it was back to business as usual. What was the point?
“I’m not saving you any cookies,” Rodney said before stalking off.
“You won’t have to!” John called after him. “Lorne already gave me some!”
Rodney flipped him off without turning around. John felt unreasonably angry about the man’s whole attitude. It wasn’t as if Rodney would spend any time with him even if he did go. He’d be dancing with Keller and bringing her cups of Radek’s paint-thinner punch and kissing her like some kind of horny teenage boy and…John shook his head and continued on his way to his office.
In addition to the cookies, Lorne had also thoughtfully left John a lengthy to-do list, which included getting started on end-of-year staff evaluations. Before he opened up the personnel app on his computer, John pulled up his email. There’d been an extra databurst from the SGC that week so that holiday messages could come through.
Eileen and I hope you can make it for Christmas this year, Dave had written. The girls are working on something special for you.
He’d included a copy of their family Christmas card, all four of them in red sweaters and blue jeans with a festive snowy backdrop. John had declined, as he did every year. It wasn’t like he and Dave had anything in common anymore. Spending the holidays with him and his family would just be awkward, and John thought it best to save everyone the trouble.
That didn’t stop him from feeling a little pang of regret when he looked at the grinning faces of his nieces, Erin and Caitlin, both of them the spitting image of their mother with their auburn hair and freckled cheeks. John had met them briefly at his father’s funeral.
He closed the email and got to work on the evaluations, starting with his own 2IC. Once he got into a rhythm with it, John was able to make good headway. It was mostly a question of ticking the right boxes and writing comments commending good work or offering suggestions for improvement. He didn’t realize how late it was until Rodney burst into his office looking disheveled and stinking like moonshine.
“Missed a good party, Colonel,” Rodney said, dropping into the chair on the other side of John’s desk. He had crumbs on his shirt and lipstick on his cheek. John resolutely kept his eyes on the computer screen.
“Did you go swimming in the punch?”
Rodney blew out a breath that made John’s eyes water. Why the hell had Keller let him drink so much?
“I’ll have you know I’m perfectly fine. McKays can hold their liquor.” Rodney leaned forward and almost fell out of the chair. “Anyway. Came to say we didn’t miss you at all. Had a great time.”
“Thanks for sharing.” John wished he’d go, although it was probably a lost cause for the evaluations now that he’d gotten out of the groove. He made sure to save the one he was working on. “I was kind of in the middle of something here, McKay.”
“Why do you hate Christmas?”
“I’ll answer that question if you go and brush your teeth. You’re gonna curl my hair.”
Rodney broke down laughing at that, actual tears rolling down his cheeks, and John had to fight the intense feeling of affection that bubbled through him. He reminded himself again that Rodney was with Keller.
“I can take a hint,” Rodney said when he’d gotten himself under control. Yeah, right, John thought to himself. “Anyway, I came to tell you something important.”
“So tell me. And then go sleep it off.”
“I think Jenn and I are ready for the next step. Right? Don’t you think so?”
John’s hands curled into fists under the desk. “What step?”
“Living together, obviously. Unless…unless you think it’s a bad idea?” Rodney’s expression was wide open, and so trusting, and John wished for a handy beam of light to pull him out of there. Even if it was into a Wraith Dart.
“No, because if you think we’re moving too fast, I won’t ask her. Is there any reason – any reason, Sheppard – that I shouldn’t?”
There were a thousand reasons why Rodney shouldn’t – the age difference, the way Keller was always trying to soften him, the fact that no-one cared about Rodney as much as John did – but John couldn’t voice them. What did he have to offer Rodney, or anyone else for that matter? It had only taken Nancy a year to realize that being married to him was a bad idea. And there was always a chance Keller might be good for Rodney. He’d be well looked after medically, if nothing else.
“If you feel ready you should go for it,” John said, his throat so tight he almost couldn’t get the words out.
Rodney sighed, and his expression shuttered. “Right. I’m gonna go.”
“Drink some water before you go to bed,” John suggested, because he couldn’t help himself. “You’ll thank me later.”
Rodney stumbled out of the office, and John resisted the urge to throw something against the wall. It would all be over if Rodney and Keller started cohabitating. She’d probably insist he get off John’s team, that it was too dangerous. John would see less and less of him. Maybe that was for the best.
“Fucking Christmas,” he grumbled.
He was exhausted, but he knew sleep wouldn’t be quick coming. John didn’t even have to wave his hand over the door sensor, it just slid silently open to let him in. He patted the wall affectionately as he stepped inside.
There was someone on his bed.
John pulled his sidearm, even as he struggled to make sense of what he was seeing.
“Are you kidding me with this room, Shep?”
“Who are you?” John snapped, wishing he didn’t sound so rattled.
“Really? That’s how you want to play this?” The specter on John’s bed hopped nimbly to his feet and snapped to attention. “Captain Lyle Holland, USAF. Reporting for duty, sir!”
John’s grip on the gun tightened. “He’s dead.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” The thing that looked like John’s dead friend gestured at himself. He was wearing the same desert flight suit he’d been wearing when John last saw him, stained with blood. There was more blood around his nose and his left eye was nearly swollen shut. It was impossible that John was seeing what he was seeing.
“I’ll ask again. Who are you?”
“As much fun as this is, I don’t actually have all night. You want to shoot me? Go ahead. I’m already dead, dipshit, so you’ll just be wasting ammo.”
John’s trigger finger twitched, but he didn’t fire. It sounded like Holland, just as much as it looked like him. Doppelganger or not, he couldn’t shoot. He lowered the gun but didn’t holster it.
“If you’re really Dutch, why are you here?”
“Same thing I was always doing. Trying to save you from yourself.” Holland – his ghost? – wandered around the room. “Why are you living like a monk in here? There’s no way you fit in that tiny-ass bed.”
“It’s just a room,” John said. “I only sleep here.”
“That’s the saddest thing I ever heard.” Holland plucked at the curtains. “Glittery. Interesting choice.”
John flushed. “They were a gift.”
“So am I, if you can believe it. I’m here to help you get your head out of your ass.”
John holstered his weapon and crossed his arms defensively over his chest. “I’m doing fine. I’m a Colonel now.”
“And Spaceman finally made it to space,” Holland commented, holding the curtains aside to look out the window. The lights of Atlantis glittered in the dark. “And who do you have sharing your tiny-ass bed?”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell.” John didn’t know why Holland was haunting him, but he didn’t care for how defensive the questions made him feel. His life was going along just fine, all things considered.
“I may be dead, but I’m up on current events,” Holland said dryly. He turned from the window. “You still hating on Christmas?”
“It’s not my thing.”
“Same old tune. Look, Shep. You need to get right with yourself. You’re missing out on a lot of good shit.”
John scowled. “You came back from the dead to tell me to celebrate Christmas? Seems like a poor use of resources.”
Holland grinned, the one that had always meant he was about to pull John into something he was going to hate. “I’m just here to let you know that you’ve got a lot of work to do. But I won’t be the one helping you do it. There’ll be three other ghosts paying you visits tonight.”
John crossed his arms more tightly, so that he was almost hugging himself. He didn’t want any other ghostly visitors. Especially if there were more like Holland. Would Mitch and Dex be next? Other friends he’d tried to save and failed? It wasn’t like they didn’t already pay him visits in the dark watches of the night.
“No choice, pal. The duty roster has already been finalized. I’ll just leave you to it.”
Holland started to fade away right in front of John, who put his hands up. “No! Wait! Dutch, I –”
“You did everything you could, Spaceman. You gotta let that shit go.”
He was gone between one blink and the next, and John was left standing there staring at empty space. He could almost convince himself it hadn’t happened. Maybe Lorne had spiked the cookies with something.
Another Christmas for the record books.
“Jesus, kid! You nearly gave me a heart attack!”
John didn’t have a response for that. He just stared across his bed at the old lady that was inexplicably standing there, smoking a cigarette. She wore a purple jogging suit draped over her thin, bony frame; it looked like someone had taken a bedazzler to the outfit. Her hair was bright red, almost orange, and there was a good inch of gray roots showing. Glasses were hanging around her neck on a chain.
“Who are you?”
“Your buddy said I’d be coming, right? That hot number in the flight suit? Never had to make such a long trip, not in all my years.”
Three ghosts. John had assumed he’d be haunted by people he knew, but this woman was a complete stranger.
“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past. My friends call me Roz.”
John relaxed his posture, because he wasn’t going to fight someone’s grandma. “Past? Like, historical? Long past?”
“Your past.” Roz gave him a once over. “You might want to put some clothes on first, not that I’m complaining. I wouldn’t kick you out of my bed for eating crackers, if you know what I mean.”
John flushed. He was wearing boxer briefs and a tank, but he suddenly felt completely naked. His black BDUs were close at hand, so he pulled them on. As an afterthought he shoved his bare feet into his unlaced boots.
“How does this work? Cause if we have to talk about things, I’d rather not.”
Roz blew a cloud of smoke in his direction. The cigarette looked normal, but it somehow smelled of cinnamon and rum punch. “Oh, believe me. I know you macho men don’t talk about your feelings. That’s okay. This is more of a multimedia thing. Just take my hand.”
She held out one liver-spotted hand, fingernails painted red, and waited patiently for John to take hold. Her grip was tight as a vice, even though her skin felt dry and delicate as tissue paper.
The room swirled around them for one long, nauseating moment, and when it settled it was an entirely different room. John’s breath caught in his throat.
“You didn’t always hate Christmas,” Roz said. She let go of his hand. “Seems to me you’re enjoying this one.”
They were in the living room of his childhood home, which had been decked out for Christmas: greenery draped along the fireplace mantle, six-foot tree covered in tinsel and glass balls and blinking lights, handmade paper snowflakes hanging in the windows, piles and piles of brightly wrapped presents. But it was the people John couldn’t stop staring at. His father, banging away at Jingle Bell Rock on the piano. His mother, tall and graceful and alive, dancing around with John’s younger self and his little brother.
“Unless my eyes deceive me,” Roz said, slipping on the glasses and squinting, “you’re about ten years old.”
John nodded, his throat tight. He’d forgotten how beautiful his mother was, how full of life. He’d forgotten the sound of her laugh, unexpectedly deep and throaty. He knew there were old video tapes somewhere, or had been at one time, but he hadn’t seen them in longer than he could remember.
“You get your looks from her,” Roz observed.
“One for each of them, she used to say,” John whispered. Dave had always favored Patrick Sheppard physically. They barely looked like brothers.
“It was.” John dragged his eyes off his mother to look at his father. The stern, unforgiving patriarch of the family was grinning and shooting frequent looks over his shoulder as he played the piano. He was a completely different person. John had forgotten that, too.
John’s mother collapsed back on the sofa, dragging the boys with her. “It’s almost time for bed, my sweethearts. Santa will be coming soon.”
“Did you still believe in Santa at ten?” Roz asked.
“No. But I pretended. For Dave.”
“Daddy has to read the poem!” Dave said plaintively. “Right, Daddy?”
“That’s right, sport.” Patrick abandoned the piano and picked a book off the coffee table. The Night Before Christmas. He joined the others on the sofa, pulling Dave on his lap while John cuddled close to his mother. “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
John watched his mother run her hand through his hair, saw the happy glow on his own face as he listened to his father recite the poem. He’d forgotten how it felt, to be so loved, and tears burned at the corners of his eyes.
“It was different the following year,” Roz said. “Sorry about this, kiddo.”
She latched on to his wrist and the room swirled again. The same room, except the only concession that had been made to the holiday was a sad-looking tree only partially decorated. The room was empty save for eleven-year-old John, who sat on the sofa with his arms around his knees.
“It was a drunk driver,” Roz said.
“I know how she died,” John snapped. That he would never forget. In the blink of an eye she’d been gone, her bright light extinguished just three days after Thanksgiving.
“Where’s your dad?”
“Working. That’s all he did, after.” John was still overwhelmingly bitter about it. He hadn’t lost one parent when his mother died. He’d lost both.
“Hard, I guess,” Roz said. “Carrying on when the love of your life is gone.”
“Don’t make excuses for him! He had a responsibility to me and my brother. And he let us down.”
Roz tsked at him. “You were all hurting, kid. You all lashed out. Look.”
Dave creeped into the room. “Johnny?”
“Go away,” John’s younger self muttered.
“There’s not going to be any stupid story,” younger John yelled, and older John cringed when he saw Dave’s shoulders come up and his eyes start to water. “There’s no Santa, and there won’t be any Christmas, so stop being a baby and just go away!”
“Don’t do it,” John whispered. But his younger self got off the sofa and pulled the tree down, delicate glass balls splintering beneath it as it hit the floor. His mother had loved those ornaments.
Dave fled the room in tears.
“I hate Christmas!” younger John shouted. He threw himself on the sofa, sobbing.
“I don’t need to see anymore.” John turned his back. “Every Christmas after was terrible. The year after this one? My old man sent me to boarding school because he said he couldn’t stand the sight of me. I never spent another Christmas in this house.”
“You don’t have to tell me, sweetie, I already know.” Roz took a long drag off her cigarette, which never seemed to burn down. “Families are shitty. You have to work too hard to keep things on an even keel, and disaster is always waiting in the wings. It’s always worse around the holidays.”
John struggled to get his emotions under control. He didn’t like feeling so exposed. He also didn’t like how he’d treated Dave. Things had never been the same between them after that, especially since John was gone most of the year at school. He was the older brother, he should’ve been looking out for Dave. And still he invited John to Christmas every year.
“Tell you what I’m gonna do, since I see you’re feeling pretty low,” Roz said. “I’m gonna show you something I technically shouldn’t. But for you, I’m willing to break a rule here and there.”
The room changed to one John wasn’t familiar with. It was shabbier than John’s childhood living room had been. There was big console TV with a little fake tree on top of it sharing space with a Betamax player. The TV was showing something that looked suspiciously like the Star Wars Holiday Special, which he’d only heard about but had never seen. From elsewhere in the house there was a lot of angry shouting, though John couldn’t make out what was being said.
“Where are we?”
“You’re not the only one who struggled at Christmas,” Roz said.
A little girl with her hair up in curly blonde pigtails came into the room and put a couple poorly-wrapped gifts on top of the TV. She seemed oblivious to the shouting, but when something sounded like it shattered, she winced and bit her lip. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old.
Moments later an older boy came in carrying a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. He was just as blonde as his sister, his features just as delicate, his eyes just as blue. So familiar, but John couldn’t place him.
“Told you I’d get some, Beanie,” the boy said. He had a yellowed bruise on his cheek.
“You sure we won’t get in trouble?”
“Nah. They’ll be at it a while longer, and mom’s already half in the bag. She’ll think she ate ’em.”
The girl kissed the boy on the cheek. “Thanks, Mer.”
They both sat on the floor, sharing the cookies and milk while they watched the movie.
John was aware his mouth was hanging open, but he couldn’t seem to close it. “Rodney? Jeannie?”
“We’ll just keep this between us, okay?” Roz looked down at miniature Rodney with a fond smile. “Your friend here didn’t have it easy either. And despite the aggravating man he’s grown into, his heart is still open.”
“And mine’s not?” John challenged, but he already knew the answer.
Roz raised one penciled eyebrow at him. “Kid, don’t get me started on that heart of yours. What are you saving it for? Don’t you want to love someone? Have them love you back? You want to end up a cranky old bastard like your father?”
John felt as if he’d been slapped. “I’m nothing like my father.”
“You both suffered a big damn loss, and you reacted the same way. You shut yourselves off. Stopped taking chances with your love. It’s not a great way to move through the world, kiddo.”
“Do you think Santa will come?” little Jeannie asked her brother.
“Of course he will! He won’t let those jerks scare him off, trust me.”
Jeannie nodded solemnly, and John wondered if Rodney had presents set aside somewhere. He must have, since his parents didn’t seem all that invested in making sure their kids had a good holiday. He was a much better brother than John had been.
Somewhere a bell rang, long and low, and John found himself back in his quarters in Atlantis.
“Well, that does it for me. I gotta get back to my Canasta game.” Roz took her glasses off and let them hang by the chain again. “Listen up, kid. I showed you all that so you could remember how much your mother loved you. Your father, too. You can’t let the bad things outweigh the good things. You can’t let that pain define the rest of your life.”
“It’s not that easy,” John said.
“Nothing good ever is, pal. See you around.”
Roz blinked out of existence, leaving John alone in his room. He dropped down on the edge of his bed, head in his hands. Over two decades had passed but the loss of his mother felt like a fresh wound.
She’d really loved Christmas.
“You’re cute when you sleep.”
John sat up, facing what he could only assume was the second ghost Holland had promised him. This one was young, a teenager with dark skin and curly dark hair shaved all around the sides and back, but long and blue-streaked on top. They were wearing an oversized red shirt with a green printed bow on the front, and black jeans. John couldn’t tell if they were a boy or a girl.
“Let me guess,” John said, running a hand over his face. “Ghost of Christmas Present?”
“Cute and smart. Sweet. This’ll be easy.” The ghost had yet to look up from the smartphone in their hands. “Let me just send this Tweet and we can go.”
“You have a name?”
“You can call me Rae. I’m nonbinary, so I prefer the pronouns they, their, and them.” Rae’s thumbs picked out words at a machine-gun pace. “Okay, let’s do this. I’ve got a hook-up I don’t want to be late for.”
John wasn’t sure he was ready to see what else the Christmas spirits had in store for him. He already felt emotionally compromised. But then the flash on the phone went off, momentarily blinding him, and when he could see again he was in another unfamiliar room decked out for the holidays.
“Aww, this is nice. Hashtag old-fashioned Christmas.” Rae took a picture of the tree, decorated with an assortment of handmade ornaments, bows, and garland. There were more presents under it than John could count.
“Where are we?”
“If you ever accepted his invite, you’d know. Dick move by the way.”
John’s hands curled into fists. He was wondering how he could get Roz back when two little girls came into the room carrying a box between them, wrapped in bright red paper that was covered with tape.
“Erin. Caitlin.” His nieces, in fancy red and white dresses with bows in their hair.
“Be careful,” Erin advised her younger sister. “This one is special. It’s for Uncle John.”
“Unca John coming?”
“Daddy doesn’t think so, but I wrote Santa. He’ll make sure Uncle John comes this year.”
John was pretty sure he’d never felt as guilty and ashamed of himself as he did in that moment. He thought he was saving everyone from an awkward time by turning down Dave’s invitations. He had no idea his nieces wanted to see him so badly, considering they didn’t even know him.
“Wanna know what it is?” Rae asked. They snapped a picture of the present and held the phone out for John to see.
The gift showed up like an x-ray. They’d made him a model of a jet, clearly with adult supervision because it didn’t look too badly put together.
“You’re kind of a jerk for not going to see them.”
“Yeah, I’m getting the picture,” John snapped. “They’re young. They don’t understand the family dynamics.”
Dave walked in, looking so much like their father. He was wearing a garishly patterned Christmas sweater vest and a pair of felt reindeer horns.
“You girls ready to go to Grandma’s?”
Caitlin immediately ran over and held her arms out, and Dave picked her up, settling her on his hip. He was a natural father.
“Daddy? Why doesn’t Uncle John come for Christmas?” Erin asked.
“Uncle John doesn’t like Christmas very much, sweet pea.”
“Remember how I told you about Grandma Sheppard? Well, Uncle John loved her very much and when she died, a lot of his happiness died too.”
John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d have expected Dave to be angry or dismissive, not so…caring. Understanding. Insightful.
“Did your happiness die, Daddy?”
Dave squatted down and pulled Erin into a hug. “A little bit. But Grandma Sheppard wouldn’t have wanted me to be sad. Christmas was her favorite holiday. And you girls give me all the happiness my heart can stand.”
A Sheppard man, being so open about his feelings? John’s father must’ve been spinning in his grave.
“Your bro seems pretty in touch with himself. He’s a pretty good dude, you know. He gives to charity and volunteers at a soup kitchen and gives all his employees nice holiday bonuses.” Rae scrolled through something that looked an awful lot like Wikipedia on her phone. “He’s braver than you, too.”
“You do know I’m constantly fighting space vampires, right?”
Rae snorted. “Braver where it counts. He never gave up on love, like you. And look what he has now: a family that loves him. Even if he lost every last cent he had, he’d still be happy because his family would stick by him. Hashtag blessed.”
The camera flash was so bright John had to close his eyes. When he opened them he was back home. In the middle of the Christmas party he worked so hard to avoid.
“Do we have to be here?”
“Let me check GPS.” Rae turned in a slow circle, eyes never off the phone. “Over here.”
Tucked away in a corner of the Mess was a table covered in empty plates and cookie crumbs. Rodney and Laura Cadman were sitting there, Rodney nursing a cup of Radek’s killer punch.
“So are you gonna ask him?” Laura was slurring just a little, obviously having indulged as well.
“Maybe. What if he says no?”
“We’ve all seen the way he acts around you. He’ll man up and do the right thing.”
Rodney shrugged. “Could all be baseless speculation. He didn’t say anything when I started dating Jenn.”
John looked at Rae, confused. “Are they talking about me?”
“Of course they are, dummy. Pay attention. This is important.”
“The Colonel keeps his distance from everyone,” Laura said. “Except you. That means something. If you tell him about moving in with Jenn, he’ll be jealous. He’ll finally make his move. This kind of thing happens all the time in movies.”
“You’re an idiot. This isn’t a movie, it’s real life. Maybe…maybe he doesn’t want me.”
John was stricken. Of course he wanted Rodney! He remembered the conversation they’d had back in his office, how he’d asked if John had any reasons why he and Keller shouldn’t move in together. He’d been giving John a chance to finally admit his feelings, and he’d let the moment go by. Stupid!
“Are you that afraid of being rejected?” Rae asked, sounding pitying. “You’re not living your best life.”
“He deserves better,” John said, falling back on the old standby.
“Yeah, no. He doesn’t want better. He wants you. What’s the worst that could happen if you said yes to the science nerd?”
“He could leave me.”
“Dude, seriously?” Rae took a pouty-lipped selfie. “You’re missing out on a lot because you’re too afraid of all the mights and maybes. The universe could collapse tomorrow, and none of this will matter. Or you could be, like, a happy guy. Look around.”
John did, seeing Marines and scientists mingling together, dancing and singing and laughing. Chuck was running around with mistletoe. Lorne had more lip prints on his face than he had skin. Teyla was bouncing Torren in time to the music, all smiles. Ronon and Amelia were…arm wrestling, for some reason. Everyone was having a good time, putting aside the trials and tribulations of life in Pegasus for one night of festivity.
For the first time, he kind of wanted to be one of them.
“You know what your peeps have been through. But they’re still here, celebrating life and each other. It’s not too late for you, man.”
Rae moved in front of John and took a picture of the two of them together. “Listen up, flyboy. No-one loves a martyr. Just, like, put yourself out there. People like you. They want you to be happy. But you have to want it for yourself. Hashtag believe.”
That lone bell sounded again, easily audible over the party noises.
“I’m outie,” Rae said. They looked up from the phone for the first time, with eyes that were far older than the rest of them. Wiser. “Don’t fuck it up, okay? It’s important.”
Rae vanished, and so did the entirety of the party, leaving John alone in the darkened Mess hall.
His mother would’ve loved Atlantis. And his team, who had become a second family to him despite how little he shared of himself.
A fog started rolling in, as if someone had turned on a smoke machine. At the same time the lights started to flicker. John automatically reached for his sidearm, but he’d never strapped it on when Roz showed up in his room.
The lights went down completely for one long second, and when they came back up the third ghost was standing in front of John. She was as tall as him, thanks in part to the heels on her black knee-high boots. Her entire outfit was black and skin tight, revealing every curve. Her dark hair was wild, her eyes smudged with black kohl. She was wearing some sort of mask that completely covered the lower half of her face.
“That’s an interesting look,” John said.
The girl fisted her hands and held them out towards John. There were letters tattooed across her fingers: xmas futr.
“You’re not very chatty, are you? You have a name?”
The ghost opened her hands and there were more letters tattooed across her palms.
“Reva. Okay. So…let’s get this over with. Show me what you want to show me.”
Reva raised one arm and the fog swirled up around them. When it settled, they were standing in someone’s kitchen. The island countertop was covered with desserts – pies, cakes, cookies – and there were fancy plates stacked up on the little kitchen table.
“We here for a party?” John asked. Maybe they were back at Dave’s house.
Reva merely pointed to the door, a second before a couple came walking through it. Keller and Rodney, both looking a bit older. Rodney had put on some weight, but he still looked good. Keller was more polished, more mature.
“Try not to talk too much about yourself at dinner,” she said, handing Rodney the stack of plates. “I need to make a good impression on the board of directors.”
“I know how a dinner party works,” Rodney grumbled.
“Don’t be petulant.”
John bristled at the condescending tone in Keller’s voice. How dare she talk to Rodney as if he were stupid!
“Did you have to make lemon bars? I won’t be able to eat any of the desserts now.”
“You don’t need any more desserts,” Keller said, with a pointed look at Rodney’s midsection. “I’ll just check on the caterer.”
She breezed back out and left Rodney in the kitchen, looking tired and defeated. He clearly wasn’t happy. And why should he be? His wife had made a dessert that could kill him, and she had to know he’d be afraid of cross-contamination.
“Bitch,” John muttered.
There was a vibrating noise, and Rodney shifted the plates so he could pull his cell phone out of his pocket.
“McKay. Oh, hi. Yes, I…what? How?” All the color drained from Rodney’s face and the fancy plates slipped right out of his arms and shattered on the floor. “No, I understand. Has…has anyone told…right. Of course.”
“Rodney!” Keller came running in, eyes wide when she saw what he’d done. “What are you doing? They’re going to be here in twenty minutes!”
Rodney turned off his phone and just stared at it, not even seeming to take notice of his wife. John’s stomach clenched.
“Is it Jeannie? Did something happen to Jeannie?” he asked. Reva merely stared back at him, unblinking.
“Rodney, are you listening to me?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m going out.”
“Out? You can’t go out!”
John jumped in surprise when Rodney swept all the dessert plates off the counter, the noise momentarily deafening. But not as much as the beat of silence that followed.
“I am a grown man. Not a child. Stop telling me what I can and can’t do!” Rodney’s voice grew steadily more strident as he went along. “You and your board of directors can go to hell!”
He was screaming by the end, and tears were running down his face. Keller didn’t make a move to stop him as he slammed out the back door, but as soon as he was gone she grabbed the cell phone he’d left behind, half-embedded in the remains of a chocolate silk pie. She scraped the chocolate off, looked something up, and made a call.
“This is Keller. What’s happened? Oh.” Her expression hardened, and she looked disgusted. “I should’ve known.”
She hung up the call and let Rodney’s phone drop carelessly back to the floor.
“Fucking Sheppard,” she said, and left the kitchen.
John gleefully flipped her off in return. “Can you believe that? I never knew what Rodney saw in her. She’s such a….wait. Am I the one that’s dead?”
He got the sense Reva was laughing at him, even though she didn’t make a sound and her expression never changed. John didn’t think it was funny. Nothing about Rodney’s emotional pain, or his future life, was funny.
Being dead wasn’t great, of course, but John was sometimes honestly surprised he was still alive after all the near-misses he had. Rodney’s reaction to the news was surprising, though.
“He really cares about me, doesn’t he?”
The white fog was back, swirling around them and changing the scene before John had a chance to process what had happened. He was sure he’d imagined Reva making a heart sign with her hands.
“This isn’t very Christmassy,” John said uneasily when he saw they were standing in a cemetery.
There was a very light dusting of snow on the ground and the sky was steely gray. John would’ve recognized the spot, even if his brother hadn’t been standing there in a long gray overcoat, Eileen by his side. John’s parents were buried there.
“We don’t need to stop here. I’ve seen it.” John tried to turn away, but Reva turned him back around, pointing.
“Fine!” John shrugged her off and walked closer. After the scene with Rodney and Keller, he had a fair idea of what to expect. That didn’t make seeing his own name carved in dark grey granite any less of a shock.
Colonel John Patrick Sheppard
He was made of starstuff.
John swiped at the couple of wayward tears that slipped from his eyes. He looked over at Dave, who studied the headstone with a somber expression before reaching out to touch it with one hand.
“Merry Christmas, John,” he said in a hushed tone. “The girls made you a card.”
Dave pulled an envelope out of the pocket of his coat and set it down in front of the headstone. There was a potted poinsettia on the grave of John’s parents.
“Do you want to be alone?” Eileen asked.
Dave shook his head and put an arm around her, pulling her close. “No. Nothing else to say, really. You know, I always hoped he’d change his mind. I wanted us to be brothers again. Maybe if we’d had more time. If he hadn’t tried to stop that robbery instead of waiting for police.”
“He was very heroic,” Eileen said softly.
“He didn’t care about himself,” Dave corrected. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “He didn’t think anyone would miss him if he was gone.”
“He was wrong.”
“Yeah. He was.” Dave wiped at his face before turning away. “Let’s go home.”
They walked off, leaving John standing beside his own grave, his chest aching with all the things he wanted to say and still couldn’t. He’d lumped his brother and father together, figured they both hated him. And he’d been wrong about that. Really wrong. Dave’s annual invitations had nothing to do with obligation and everything to do with recapturing whatever bond they may have had before their mother died and their father sent John away.
He couldn’t even bear to think of Rodney.
“I can change this, right?” He looked desperately at Reva. “Things could be different?”
And he did want to change. He’d at least try. Rodney was miserable, his brother was full of regret, and John now had an inkling of the life he could have, if only he could summon up his courage.
“Give me a chance to put things right!”
John grabbed hold of Reva’s arm and immediately found himself on his knees, his hand bent back at a painful angle.
“Okay! I’m sorry! I’m sorry about everything!” Something inside John cracked and it was like a dam broke. He wanted to be with Rodney. Needed him, more than he’d ever be able to express. Maybe…maybe if he had someone on his side, someone who loved him, maybe he could learn to love himself again.
Maybe he was living in a Hallmark movie, he thought a little hysterically. The rush of emotion was making him lightheaded.
Reva released John’s hand and squatted down in front of him. She stared at him for a long moment, then used the heel of her hand to push against his forehead, knocking him over. Only he didn’t fall over, he fell down. And down. And down. Through the mist.
He scrambled out of bed and ran for the door. John wasn’t sure what day it was, or even what year, but hopefully it wasn’t too late to stop Rodney from making a terrible mistake.
His mad dash ended when he reached Rodney’s door. He just stood there, hand poised to knock, as all the old doubts rushed back in. Was it really responsible of him to burden Rodney with his feelings? And what if Rodney reciprocated? John had lost so many people. People he loved.
Don’t fuck it up, okay? It’s important.
John heard Rae’s words in his head like an echo. And they were right. Rodney was important. So was Dave. And John wanted them both in his life. Surely the ghosts wouldn’t have shown him what they did if things didn’t have a chance of working out. Right?
Before he could overthink it more than he already had, John knocked on the door. And kept knocking until it slid open to reveal a disheveled Rodney, still with a sleep crease down one cheek.
“Sheppard? Is there an emergency?”
“Don’t move in with Jennifer,” John said.
Rodney’s eyes widened, and he poked his head out in the hall, looking both ways before dragging John into his room by the front of his shirt. The door slid closed behind them.
“Are you insane?”
“I mean it. She’s not right for you, McKay.”
Rodney put his hands on his hips, his chin coming up in that way it always did when he was ready to have a fight. John tried not to be distracted by Rodney dressed only in boxers and a well-worn tee.
“Yesterday you said to go for it.”
“That was yesterday. Today I’m saying don’t. You won’t be happy.”
“You don’t know that,” Rodney said stubbornly.
“Actually, I kinda do. And I promise I’ll tell you all about it, even though you’ll probably want to lock me up in a padded cell after. Just…don’t. Not with Jennifer.” John could feel his face flushing with embarrassment, but he couldn’t stop now. “I won’t be happy, either.”
Rodney’s eyes narrowed, and he got that look on his face that he always got when he was trying to work out a problem. “What are you saying?”
You can’t let that pain define the rest of your life.
“I’m saying Jennifer will never love you. Not the way I do.”
John was terrified by his own words. He’d never felt so raw, so exposed. He was shaking. Rodney, on the other hand, looked gobsmacked. But only for a moment, and then his expression turned tentatively hopeful.
John nodded, the movement a bit jerky.
“You’re an idiot, you know that, right? Hang on a second.” Rodney went into his bathroom and closed the door.
What the hell was he doing? Taking a pee break? Meanwhile John was fighting the urge to turn and run, because what if Rodney was trying to figure out a way to tell John he wasn’t interested?
Rodney returned in record time, smelling suspiciously minty. “Had to get rid of the morning breath,” he said, right before he pulled John in and kissed him.
There was no time to worry about the state of his own breath, not with Rodney’s tongue licking at John’s lips. John obligingly opened his mouth, the kiss deepened, and every other thought went out of his head. Every worry. Every fear. Everything except the man in his arms. The kiss was everything he’d ever imagined and infinitely more, and yeah, he was an idiot. No question.
“I’ll end it with Jenn,” Rodney said when he pulled back, panting. “Today. Before this goes any further.”
“Okay.” John couldn’t stop staring at Rodney’s mouth, his lips red and moist. “Uh…how do you feel about taking a trip?”
“Trip? What trip?”
John gave Rodney an almost-chaste kiss, unable to keep from smiling as he did so.
“Me too, Uncle John!” Erin insisted.
John lifted her up and gave her a big kiss on the cheek, and she gave him one back. And then Dave was there, giving him a bear hug and smiling just as widely.
“Happy New Year, big brother.”
He felt it, right down to his core. John knew how lucky he was, and he sent a silent thanks to Dutch and the three ghosts. Life wasn’t perfect, not with battles constantly being waged with the Goa’uld and the Wraith and the countless others who viewed Earth as a pawn on a celestial chessboard. But it was a lot easier to face the hardships knowing he had people waiting for him to come home. People who loved him.
Even though it was after midnight, Rodney played Jingle Bell Rock on the piano while John danced with his nieces and Dave recorded the moment on his phone.
Life wasn’t perfect. But it was close enough for John.