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To Drive Away the Winter Cold

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Nearly every day he was here in Atlantis, John Sheppard discovered some new issue he hadn't considered before stepping through the Stargate. Like everyone else, he'd thought about the 'what do you do when you're cut off from Earth in another galaxy and you run out of (insert necessity of the moment)' kind of question. Unlike everyone else, the 'what if I never see (insert person of choice) again' question hadn't been relevant. The words 'terminally unattached' could have been invented for him. Once a man's family turned their backs on him, his career dropped into the virtual toilet, and he was exiled to someplace like Antarctica, even old friends started evading calls, so missing people wasn't really an issue for him either. No, it was the unexpected things that kept throwing him.

Like setting foot in a fantasy city he'd never seen before, and somehow feeling like he'd come home for the first time in his life. Or being personally responsible for waking up a species of monsters that was currently destroying whole human civilizations. Or learning that he was capable of killing more than 70 people in under four hours. These were the sort of things that threw him lately.

Today he'd been blindsided by another of those unanticipated issues. Fortunately, this one wasn't as serious as waking up the Wraith or topping the notches on Bruce Willis' gun belt in a Die Hard movie. But despite its lack of lethal potential, this new concern was proving surprisingly difficult to handle.

It was December 24th. This was their first Christmas here on Atlantis. Normally, John hardly noticed the holiday as anything more than an excuse to take leave to hit the beach and spend a week or so surfing. He didn't think about the past and what used to be. The past was as dead as his mother. Sometimes, his father or older brothers might cross his mind, but John had found if he laid off the hard stuff, he could exorcise those memories as well. Devoting oneself to having fun was the best escape mechanism he'd found.

For years, John had paid little mind to the Christmas festivities, keeping his concentration on having fun. But there was a difference between ignoring something by choice and being cut off from it completely. He was startled by how . . . dispossessed he was suddenly feeling. The absence of seasonal decorations, hokey music on the radio, red-suited, white bearded fat men collecting for charities at every strip mall, and other Christmas mania was hitting him hard. Hell, it was hitting them all hard.

The people who actually had families and friends back on Earth were feeling it the worst. When John had stopped by the infirmary this morning to fetch Beckett to fly him to the mainland, the man's eyes had been red from more than lack of sleep. John knew Beckett had an elderly mother back home. Ford had been unnaturally subdued for the last week. Elizabeth was fingering her locket more than usual and staring off into space when she wasn't focused on a problem. Half John's men were depressed, and the other half quarrelling. All in all, the holiday was proving pretty rough.

It didn't help that the weather had finally changed. Winter had set in on both the mainland and Atlantis' ocean site, so it was actually feeling more like what people north of Earth's equator traditionally equated with Christmas. There were three inches of snow out on the decks, so most everyone was trapped within the city proper, and that city seemed to be getting colder by the minute. With their remaining ZPM's energy fading fast, minimum power was being diverted to climate control. There was heat, but not a lot of it. Everyone was layered in sweaters and doing whatever they could to keep warm without wasting precious power. Which left them with a city full of cold, grumpy, homesick people.

Elizabeth and he were doing their best to keep morale up. Last week they'd held a Chanukah feast that the entire base had attended. For Christmas, they'd arranged a Secret Santa gift exchange to ensure that everyone received at least one present. It probably wouldn't have gone over this big on an Earth base, but the entire expedition had ended up taking part in the Kris Kringle exchange, regardless of their religious denomination. It wasn't like anyone had anything else to do in their off duty time, John reflected.

The gifts were due today, at what they'd decided to call the Solstice-Chanukah-Kwanzaa-Ramadan-Christmas Party. Only a skeleton crew was working tonight and tomorrow in two-hour shifts to cover the most sensitive stations. Everyone else had the days off. John had volunteered to take the first shift in command center, so the party was already in full swing when he stepped into the mess hall once Grodin came to relieve him.

John's steps faltered as he looked around the crowded room. The lights were dimmed, with only emergency lighting illuminating the place – to show off the shining miracle against the far wall.

Totally shocked, he stared at the Christmas tree that was set up against the side wall. It was a native conifer tree that resembled a fat blue spruce. The tree was resplendent with blinking, colored lights. They weren't cylindrical like the normal, store-bought Christmas lights, but they looked damn pretty. Each of the bushy boughs was laden with homemade decorations and what looked like Ancient data storage crystals.

And there were presents under the tree. Most were wrapped in red or green tee shirts. Anything colorful that could be spared for a while.

John was beginning to feel like he'd walked into the Twilight Zone Christmas episode where the drunkard, dime store Santa found himself invested with the magical powers of the real Santa. The changes that had come over the place since lunch were that incredible.

Gone were the subdued, grumpy people who'd been feeling sorry for themselves for the last two weeks. The mess was filled with laughing party animals who were obviously enjoying themselves.

There was Christmas music being piped in over the speakers. Apparently, someone must have brought a Karaoke program on their computer. Jingle Bells was playing when John stepped in. Lt. Markhem, Dr. Simmons, and Dr. Biro were serenading the party with a fairly decent rendition.

John was so startled by it all that he just stood there in the doorway and stared, his mouth slipping into an unconscious grin. Elizabeth had managed to surprise even him.

"He's here," Lt. Ford's voice sounded over the music.

A moment later, Ford and Teyla were rushing over to him. Both held cafeteria cups that appeared to be filled with what was probably Athosian moonshine.

"Merry Christmas, Major!" Ford said, his grin seeming to stretch from one ear to the other. He was wearing a non-regulation, bright red vest over his uniform. Looking at the wooden buttons and hanging fringes that adorned the garment, John thought that it was probably Athosian. It was the kind of thing that no grown man would have worn out in public back on Earth, but here in Atlantis where fashion was limited to regulation issue, the vest was like an Armani original.

"Love the vest," John said with a sardonic lift of his brow.

"Teyla was my Secret Santa. It's great, isn't it?" Ford missed the brow or chose to ignore it, for his grin only got wider, which John wouldn't have thought possible.

"My Secret Santa was Dr. Beckett," Teyla said. "He gave me this pendant."

With her free hand, she held out the necklace that had slipped under the collar of her brown tunic. The 'pendant' appeared to be a shiny British half-pound coin with a hole drilled in it that was strung on a black leather string.

"Very nice," John admired, wondering if Beckett had told Teyla what it was.

"Dr. Beckett said that his people use this coin for barter," Teyla said, answering his mental question. "This Earth custom of giving gifts at the solstice is a fun one."

"Yes, I guess it is," John answered. Now that the event was over and the pressure was off, he could agree. When he'd been scouring the Athosian village searching for something to give a nurse he barely knew, it hadn't seemed quite so fun. Glancing over at the tree, he asked, "Where'd the lights and decorations come from?"

The decorations were really quite lovely. Ever the diplomat, Elizabeth had done a kick ass job. All of the flags of Earth's nations were represented, as well as something to commemorate every conceivable religion. He was startled to note that there were even a broom and pentagram on the tree.

"Dr. Weir commissioned several of our artisans to make the decorations," Teyla said.

"She asked Dr. McKay to make the lights," Ford said. "He added the dead crystals, too."

"I can't believe McKay kept quiet about this," John said. Despite his best intentions, he found his gaze scanning the room for McKay. At least he had an excuse for doing so tonight. The number of times he found himself looking around for Rodney with no excuse each day was becoming somewhat embarrassing.

"Me, either," Ford agreed, before reaching into an inner pocket on the bulky red vest to draw out a square object that was wrapped with what looked like regular white printer paper. "This was under the tree for you."

John accepted the offered gift. A little self-conscious, he asked Ford, "Were you my . . . ?"

"No. It was just under the tree and I figured I'd see you before you saw it. I had Kavanagh," Ford answered. His tone relayed all that needed to be said on his feelings on that.

"My condolences," John offered.

Ford and Teyla both broke into laughter.

"Aren't you going to open your present, sir?" Ford asked. "The paper's really neat."

John looked down at the gift in his hands. What he'd thought was plain white paper from a distance turned out to have little figures printed on it. Staring down, John grinned as he saw the little snowmen. But they weren't traditional snowmen. Each tiny figure had a P-90s slung across its chest instead of the usual scarf. Looking closer still, he saw that the buttons on the front of the snowmen's chests weren't buttons, either. They were replicas of the badges from the uniforms of the original Star Trek characters.

"Who's it from?" Ford questioned.

John peered down at the gift label. It said only 'To Major Sheppard from Santa.' "It doesn't say. Just Santa."

"We were allowed to reveal our identities, weren't we?" Teyla asked uneasily.

"Yeah," Ford said. "Most everyone signed theirs. If only to get the shirts they wrapped the gifts in back. You going to open it?"

"You're like a kid, you know that, right?" John said to Ford.

"Whatever works, sir. You use charm. I use beguiling innocence," Ford said, batting his eyelashes outrageously, causing John to wonder how much moonshine the younger man had imbibed.

"You mean childish whining, don't you?" John joked.

"That would be McKay, not me," Ford answered, causing all of them to chuckle. "So, open it already, sir."

John carefully peeled back the tape securing the wrapping paper. The opening revealed a dozen or so jewel boxes. Truly curious now, John peered at the discs inside. They were homemade DVDs with . . . .

His breath literally stopped in his chest as he leafed through the jewel boxes. The discs had what looked to be the entire original Star Trek series burned on them, were the neat, vaguely familiar printing on them anything to go by.

"There are so many!" Teyla said, her voice filled with wonder.

"Those are DVDs, aren't they?" Ford excitedly said. "What's on them?"

"Star Trek. The entire original series," John answered in an unconsciously hushed tone. He wondered if the show had even been out on DVD before they'd come to Atlantis. Back when he'd had a VCR, he'd never been able to afford to buy the entire series in tapes. He couldn't remember the last time he'd received something he'd wanted this much. To just have it handed to him like this, anonymously, was inconceivable.

Beyond how personally appropriate the gift was, it was also extravagantly generous. Entertainment was at a crisis level in the city. These discs were literally worth their weight in gold, chocolate, or coffee – none of which were available anymore either.

"Someone gave you twelve DVDs?" Ford asked in the tone a person might use to question someone receiving a Ferrari as a present. "And didn't sign the card?"

"Looks like," John replied, weirded out, but in a good way.

"Hot damn, someone really likes you, sir. I've watched the three movies I smuggled in about a dozen times each already. Can't think of what I wouldn't do for a new DVD," Ford exclaimed.

"Bunk in with Kavanagh?" John suggested, conscious that, as Ford's superior officer, the 'sleep with Kavanagh' comment he would have made were it McKay he was talking with was inappropriate.

"Well, okay, maybe there's one or two things I wouldn't do. But seriously, who do you think gave them to you?" Ford asked, his dark eyes scanning the groups of scientists, soldiers, medical personnel, and the occasional Athosian. "I mean, there's twelve there. The barter potential of those discs is . . . ."

Astronomical. It really was the Atlantis version of a Porsche.

"Who'd just give something like that away? And, even more important, who could keep their mouth shut about having a stash like that?" Ford marveled.

"Don't know," John answered, wondering the same thing himself. There weren't many people who knew him well enough to even know that he liked science fiction. Actually, there were only four - his team and possibly Elizabeth. If Elizabeth had had access to the show, she might have given him the DVDs, but she would never have thought of the Rambo snowmen. Ford had already said he hadn't done it. Teyla had neither the technological skills nor the cultural background. Besides, there was only one person who had that kind of humor. Rodney McKay.

It made sense. If anyone could have figured out a way to get past SGC's one personal item rule, it was Rodney. The guy had a stash of MREs in his quarters that would feed the base for a week. John knew he'd been hoarding both chocolate and coffee, back when they had them. So, he could see Rodney having something like this and keeping it to himself. Only, why would Rodney suddenly share it with him – especially for something like a Secret Santa?

John didn't have an answer for that question, but at least he had an idea as to who had given him the extravagant gift. John's stomach fluttered at the thought of Rodney giving him something like this. He tried to tell himself that it couldn't be McKay, but who else was there?

No, it had to be Rodney.

The mystery solved to his satisfaction, John carefully folded the wrapping paper around the jewel cases and slipped them into his jacket pocket.

"You're going to let us watch them with you, right?" Ford asked, doing his big-eyed kid imitation again.

John gave Ford a look and then said in a low voice that would travel no further than where the three of them stood beside the door, "Only if you bunk in with Kavanagh."

Ford, who'd been in the process of sipping his drink, spewed it all over the place.

John and Teyla both hastily stepped back, Teyla laughing, John grinning.

"How 'bout I kill him instead?" Ford bargained.

John nodded. "That might work. I've got the morning watch in the control room tomorrow. If the two of you come by after lunch, we can watch one of the DVDs on my laptop. But you've got to keep your mouths shut. I don't want everyone in the city at my door."

"I don't know, Major. A thing like that could really jumpstart a guy's love life," Ford said in a serious whisper.

John shook his head. "I'm deep. I want to be loved for my body, not my DVDs. Keep it quiet, for a while at least?"

"Sure thing," Ford said with a nod.

Relieved that he wouldn't be swarmed with visitors over the next few days, John's gaze strayed to the groups of people enjoying themselves. As head of Atlantis' military, he had certain social commitments to execute. "Come on, let's make the rounds."

Pasting a friendly grin on his face, John guided Ford and Teyla to the nearest table where a group of Marines were laughing with the high volume of the slightly inebriated. A few minutes later, he lost Ford at the table with the pretty blonde doctor Ford had been spending time with lately, and Teyla at Sgt. Stackhouse's table.

When more than an hour had passed, John's face was starting to hurt from all the smiling. He was beginning to question his sanity. Everywhere he went, he seemed to smell coffee, but they'd run out of that more than two months ago.

It was strange, but he never felt lonelier than at times like this, when duty demanded that he put on a bright face and pretend to be enjoying himself for his men's sake. Though it pleased him that his people seemed to be legitimately enjoying themselves, John felt very much an outsider, and not just because of the distance his rank put between them.

No matter how hard John tried, the familiar songs playing over the speakers brought back too many sad memories. He couldn't help but remember all the times he'd hear those songs on the radio when young, while sitting in a dark, undecorated living room, missing his mom and remembering what a big deal she used to make of Christmas. John tried to keep the memories at bay, to focus only on how happy everyone around him was, but that only seemed to accentuate his sorrow.

After having circled the entire room, he made his weary way back to his team. Teyla was now at the blonde doctor's table with Ford, Nurse Michaels, the blonde doctor, Dr. Marcia Holt, Carson, and Bates.

"Hi, ya, Major," Bates greeted, their normal animosity seeming to have been cast aside for the holiday. "Merry Christmas."

Beckett and the other medical staff present offered their best wishes as well.

Having returned that salutation nearly two hundred times in the last hour of mingling, John did his best to offer it with sincerity, "Merry Christmas, guys."

"We were just discussing what we missed most about Christmas back home, aside from the people," Ford explained. "I miss my Grandma's homemade apple pie. I used to help her chop the apples up for it when I was little."

"I miss the holly my mum would hang around the mantle," Carson said.

"I miss singing carols with the choir in church at midnight mass," Nurse Michaels said.

"For me, it was the turkey dinner," Bates said.

"What about you, Major?" Teyla asked. "Everyone's been explaining the rituals surrounding this event. They sound very interesting."

Put on the spot, John thought about the joyless, undecorated places he'd lived with his father after his mother's death. His eyes catching sight of the gleaming lights on the tree on the far side of the room, he dredged up memories so old he could barely recall them. "I guess it would be the lights on the Christmas trees that I was missing most before tonight." That was stereotypical enough to avoid question. Wanting to change the topic entirely, he commented, "That tree over there is really amazing. I can't believe Elizabeth kept it secret."

"The tree isn't the only secret Dr. Weir guarded," Teyla said with an enigmatic smile. "Aiden, we failed to tell him about the surprise."

"Huh?" John asked.

"You got here late, sir. But there's coffee, hot chocolate, and Christmas cookies," Ford informed.

"What?" John had thought he'd smelt coffee at some of the tables, but he'd thought he was losing it.

"Come on," Ford said. "Let's get your dinner."

With a parting wave to the others, John followed Ford and Teyla over to the end of the food line. Now that he was closer to where the food was being prepared, he could clearly smell the coffee. The scent of the stew had masked it till now.

What he'd been smelling before was probably the dregs in the empty cups at the tables he'd visited.

"How?" John asked as he took his place at the end of the food line. There were about a dozen people in line ahead of him as he picked up a tray.

There was ongoing commotion at the end of the line, where the mess hall manager seemed to be standing guard with a datapad in hand checking off names. The beefy redhead appeared to be turning most of the people in front of John away.

"When she saw that our stores were running out, Dr. Weir took enough coffee and hot chocolate mix so that everyone could have a cup of each on the holiday," Ford said.

"And the cookies?" John questioned.

"She took the flour and sugar at the same time," Ford answered.

John was more than impressed. He never would have thought of that. "Where'd she hide it?"

"In a locked storage bin under my bed," Elizabeth's familiar voice supplied from behind him. "Merry Christmas, John."

"Merry Christmas, Elizabeth," John answered, turning to smile at her. He'd seen her from across the room in the course of his mingling, but they'd always managed to be at opposite ends of the mess hall as they circulated.

Elizabeth had her usual red turtleneck on with a heavy red, black, and white fleece on top of it that John suspected was unintentionally seasonal. Her smile was wide and she looked happy for once.

"This is great," John said. "I can't believe you managed all this."

Elizabeth beamed with pleasure, looking almost as pleased with herself as Rodney after a compliment. "It turned out well, didn't it? After all they've given, our crew deserve so much more, but . . . this is the best we could manage this year. I don't know what we'll do next year."

The uncertainty of their future remained unspoken. No one knew better than the four of them how unlikely their survival even this long had been.

John gave her a smile and the most confident tone he could manage as he assured, "Something will turn up. You did a great job, Elizabeth. I can't believe you actually managed a Christmas tree."

"Well, the decorations were easy enough. It was the lights that were the problem until I thought to ask Rodney," Elizabeth said.

"I know he's a genius, but how did he manage Christmas lights?" John asked.

"He said it would be better for my peace of mind if he didn't answer that question," Elizabeth said with a laugh. "The fact that he insisted that he'll need every single strand of lights and all of the bulbs back is alarming, but I'm trying hard not to think about it."

"Yeah, maybe it's better not knowing some things," John agreed and then asked, "Where is he?" It was only now that he realized that he hadn't seen Rodney at any of the tables.

"I don't know," Elizabeth answered. "I haven't seen him since he dropped off the lights this afternoon."

"Merry Christmas, Major Sheppard," Chief Kinney, the redheaded manager of the mess section, greeted with a cheerful smile as John finally reached the end of the line. "That just leaves McKay. Then we can start doling out the extras."

"There's coffee involved and McKay hasn't been here to swill down his share yet?" John
asked, really starting to worry.

"He didn't know about the coffee," Elizabeth said. "I wanted to surprise him."

"Dr. McKay is probably in his lab," Teyla offered.

"Yeah, you know he's got no sense of time," Ford agreed.

Thinking that this was a good excuse to thank Rodney for the incredible present, as well as make his exit from the party that kept raising memories he'd rather not think about, John offered, "I'll take his dinner and the goodies over to him and see if I can pry him out of his kingdom for a while." Turning back to Kinney, he added, "Check Dr. McKay off your list. I'll take his stuff up to him."

Kinney's round, ruddy face wrinkled in a frown. "Dr. Weir said that everyone should pick up their own."

"I think you can trust the major with Dr. McKay's food, Tim," Elizabeth said from beside John.

"Yes, of course, ma'm," Kinney answered, making another notation on his datapad before turning to shout over to the cooks who were doling out the regular food, as well as the coffee and hot chocolate that were now rare delicacies. "Give Major Sheppard two of everything!"

"I'll see you later, John," Elizabeth said as two chemists from the science staff approached her to discuss something.

"Bye," John replied, turning his concentration on securing dinner. Before he accepted the second bowl of Athosian beef-like stew from the first cook in line, John asked, "Has it got any citrus in it?"

"In the stew?" the dark skinned cook gaped at him.

"Yeah. I just need to know that there aren't any citrus products in it," John persevered, feeling stupid, but aware that Rodney wouldn't touch a bite until he knew for certain it was safe.

"Is that for Dr. McKay?" the skinny cook asked with sudden understanding. Clearly, Rodney was legend among the cafeteria staff.

John gave a nod.

"He's got you well trained, sir," the cook said with a grin. "Just for the record – there aren't any citric products in the cookies or any of the other desserts, either. Contrary to what Dr. McKay might believe, we're really not out to kill him. At least, not on Christmas. Merry Christmas, Major."

"Merry Christmas," John chuckled, moving on to the next person dispensing food. When he reached the end of the line, his tray was nearly unmanageable with its two bowls of stew, four twelve-ounce lidded cups, paper plates of cookies, and other more common treats.

Carefully balancing the heavy tray, he called out to Teyla and Ford, "See you later, guys," and made his cautious way out of the crowded place.

The corridor felt freezing after the warmth of the packed mess hall. John moved quickly to the transporter, shuffled his tray around enough to press the science section destination on the wall map, and then crossed the equally deserted corridors to Rodney's lab.

John couldn't figure out what Rodney was still doing working. He knew Rodney lost track of time whenever he got involved in a project, but, after having delivered the tree lights to Elizabeth this afternoon, even Rodney should have remembered the party.

The lab doors whooshed open at his approach. Most of the lights were out, giving the large, empty room an eerie feel. The shelves of Ancient devices and empty workstations were somehow ominous when it was empty like this. The place seemed utterly deserted, but John could hear the clicking sound of someone typing rapidly on a laptop keyboard. He followed the noise to Rodney's workstation in the back.

Rodney was there, huddled over his laptop in the isolated pool of a desktop lamp. His shoulders seemed more slumped than usual. He was wearing the orange and black fleece he'd had on the first day John had met him. There was a naquadah generator in pieces beside him and a several small Ancient devices that John had never seen before.

It was rare to see Rodney silent and so still. John stood for a minute or so just watching the other man work. Rodney looked subdued, possibly even depressed. Like himself, Rodney never mentioned his family much. John wondered if he were missing someone back on Earth.

The light picked out bronze highlights in Rodney's baby fine, sandy brown hair. Sympathy surged through John as he once again noticed how Rodney was combing it forward these days to try to de-emphasize his receding hairline.

John knew that his own hair was his one real vanity. He couldn't imagine what it must feel like to have it just go away like Rodney's was doing.

He knew it was strange how he noticed these kinds of things about Rodney. With any other guy, John might recognize that something about their appearance had changed, but he didn't . . . study anyone else the way he did Rodney McKay. It had gotten so that he could interpret what the quicksilver flashes of emotion across those expressive features meant: the smug smile that made you just want to pop him one; the widening of the eyes and indrawn breath that came before a panic attack or melt down; the frown lines around the eyes and mouth that accompanied a small anomaly; the tightening of those lips into a harsh line that was the precursor to utter disaster; the fiery flush that would turn Rodney's cheeks livid with anger, brightening his eyes to an incandescent blue; the amused light that would spill across his features before Rodney gave one of the rare genuine smiles that transformed his entire face . . . John knew them all now.

The only thing John didn't know was what he was going to do with this familiarity. He hadn't asked for it. God knew, acting upon it would complicate an already difficult situation. But the pull was there, and it was getting harder to deny each day.

Realizing that the stew and drinks would be ice cold if he didn't announce his presence soon, John gave a low-voiced, "Hey," so as not to startle Rodney.

Rodney looked over at him, his mind clearly still focused on the stream of numbers John could see dancing across the laptop screen. Before Rodney's controls could assert themselves, his gaze made an unconscious sweep of John's form. The lapse didn't last longer than a heartbeat. It never did. The instant Rodney's mind caught up with reality, the raw hunger was gone as though it had never existed, but that second or so before control asserted itself told John everything he needed to know. It had from their first week here.

"Hi," Rodney greeted, seeming a little confused. "What are you . . . ." The words cut off. Rodney's nose gave an actual twitch like a rabbit's as he sat up straight in his chair and asked in a stunned, reverent tone, "Is that coffee and . . . " the nose twitched again, ". . . chocolate?"

Grinning, because John could see that he'd just brought Rodney's equivalent of the Star Trek DVDs, he moved over to the nearest flat worktable that had enough open space on it and set down his tray. "Yes to both."

"Oh, my god! Where did you get it?" Rodney was at the worktable immediately, taking deep whiffs of the coffee-scented air like the true hedonist he was beneath all that intellectual superiority.

"In the mess hall. Elizabeth saved it as a special holiday treat," John explained. "They were rationing it out, so I figured I'd bring yours down to you before someone got creative and liberated it."

"Coffee . . . ." Rodney muttered, still wearing that astonished expression.

"And a guaranteed citrus-free dinner. Dig in," John invited. Grabbing a chair, he appropriated one of the stew dishes and hot chocolates and then sat down.

Rodney was too busy reaching for the coffee to worry about sitting.

John avidly watched Rodney's expression as he peeled the lid off one of the coffees, took hold of a handful of sugars, dumped five packets into the steaming black brew, and stirred it with a plastic spoon. John gulped at the pleasure that washed over Rodney's open face at that first sip. It was nearly erotic.

Shifting uncomfortably at the sigh Rodney released, John took his first spoonful of stew and averted his gaze.

"Thanks," Rodney said in a hushed tone that drew John's eyes back to his serious face. "I don't think there's anything I miss more than coffee. Well, maybe my cat."

John watched his friend inhale half of the cup. It was almost cruel, he realized, to give an addict like Rodney just enough to get him hooked all over again.

He took a sip of his own hot chocolate, watching while Rodney savored his coffee for the short life expectancy it had had once it entered the lab. John didn't drink hot chocolate enough to have the same kind of reaction to it that Rodney was experiencing with the coffee, but the warm, sweet drink still tasted like heaven.

"Damn, that was good," Rodney said, tipping the now-empty cup way back to catch the last few drops. John tried not to watch how Rodney's Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed, but it was a lost cause. If he had to, he could probably give an accurate count of the number of tiny dark hairs that made up the stubble on Rodney's chin.

A strange wave of affection flowed through him as he watched Rodney. The man might be the most difficult, annoying person in two galaxies, but John genuinely liked him. There were never any hidden agendas with Rodney – well, except for the wanting him thing, but that wasn't really an agenda.

Rodney turned to pull his chair up to the workstation. Taking a seat next to John, Rodney checked as he reached for the other stew bowl, "No citrus? You asked?"

"Yes, everything on the tray's a guaranteed citrus-free zone," John assured.

Nodding, Rodney took a bite of the stew. "Even though it looks exactly like the real thing, it never tastes like what you expect it to."

"Yeah," John agreed. "It's still good, though." After a moment of contented chewing, he said, "Elizabeth said you made the lights on the Christmas tree. Where'd you get them from? They looked great."

"I MacGyvered them together from the monitor lights of various pieces of scientific and medical equipment that we've replaced with Ancient technology."

"Oh, that's why you want them back," John said.

"Yeah, Carson will kill me if he sees what I did to the equipment he put in storage," Rodney admitted. "The lights turned out all right, then?"

"They were really great. You didn't see them?" John asked, confused. Rodney loved compliments almost as much as coffee. Supplying those Christmas lights would have made McKay the man of the hour. John couldn't see Rodney passing up the chance to reap all that praise.

"Not on the tree," Rodney answered, seeming to find the stew in his bowl surprisingly absorbing.

"You didn't go to the party at all?" John softly questioned.

Rodney gave a negative shake of his head, his lips tightening in a manner John couldn't translate.

When it became clear Rodney wasn't going to say anything, John tentatively questioned, "It's none of my business, but can I ask why not?"

The sigh Rodney released now was not one of pleasure. "I guess I just don't do well with religion."

John had seen enough examples of that in their off-world interaction with aliens to know that Rodney was less than diplomatic when it came to religious beliefs. Rodney's scorn towards the subject had created many an uncomfortable moment for them all.

"It's not just a religious observance, Rodney. Half the people at the party were atheists, agnostics, or people of non-Christian faiths. For most, it's just a time to connect with the people they care about," John said.

Rodney snorted at that. His gaze darted to John's face. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but people skills aren't exactly my strong suit, either. Believe me, it's better for everyone if I skip the Christmas party. It's not like anyone would even notice I wasn't there."

In a way, John was nearly relieved by Rodney's words. Rodney was so focused on his work and all the extraordinary discoveries they'd made here in Atlantis that he often seemed unaffected by the emotional difficulties everyone had experienced since being cut off from Earth. That line about missing his cat which Rodney had given him tonight was probably the first admission of that kind Rodney had made since they'd gotten here beyond the daily griping about the food items they'd run out of, which wasn't really the same thing. In a way it was reassuring to discover that Rodney was having problems just like the rest of them, even if his problems were of a different nature.

"Rodney?"

After a moment, Rodney met his gaze again. The tense expression on his face made John think that Rodney was regretting his candor.

"I noticed," John softly pointed out.

He could tell his quiet words threw Rodney. Rodney blinked, a totally this-does-not-compute blankness sweeping over his features before something utterly vulnerable flashed through his eyes fast as a lightning strike.

John wasn't used to thinking of his egotistical friend as being emotionally vulnerable – physically vulnerable, perhaps, but not emotionally so. The man was prickly as a cactus most days. It was only as he saw that emotion flicker in Rodney's eyes that John remembered that the cactus had those needles for protection because it was so soft inside.

Rodney's gulp was audible across the table. "So you did. Er . . . thanks."

"I wasn't the only one. Elizabeth, Teyla, and Ford were all asking where you were. Lots of people were."

"Really?" Rodney asked, his uncertainty an almost tangible presence.

"Really," John assured. He'd suspected there was a world of insecurity beneath Rodney's normal arrogance. He'd just never seen it this openly before. "They'd all be happy to see you at the party."

John had had his fill of seasonal celebrations and hadn't been planning on returning to the party, but if Rodney wanted to go, he'd accompany him.

"I'm really not in the party mood," Rodney said in a low tone, his gaze shying away from John's once again.

"Yeah, I can see that," John said. As he put his hot chocolate back on the tray, John stared at the other Styrofoam coffee cup. "Hey."

"Hmm?" Rodney looked up from his rapidly vanishing stew.

"Do you want the other coffee?" John asked.

"What? That's yours," Rodney said, but despite the polite disclaimer, his blue eyes were filled with excitement.

John couldn't help but speculate about what the guy would be like in bed if he got this excited over a cup of coffee. Breaking off the dangerous thought, he insisted, "I don't care for coffee that much. I actually like the Athosian tea ."

"You liked Antarctica," Rodney pointed out. With McKay, tone was everything. Rodney could imply more about a person's intellect, or lack thereof, with three words than most people could with three dozen.

"It makes life easier if you learn to enjoy the things other people find challenging," John answered in a melodic, unperturbed tone.

Rodney stared at him a moment, seeming troubled by something before he asked in a tentative voice, "Does that attitude pertain to more than just food and military assignments?"

"Huh?"

"Some people, well, most people actually," Rodney corrected himself with his usual honesty, "find me challenging. But you never seem to . . . well, I was just wondering why?"

Rodney's question seemed to be heading into dangerous territory they both usually avoided. His heart speeding up, John questioned, "Why do you ask?"

Those shadowed eyes pinned him. "I was just wondering if you were here out of duty . . . or something else."

"Duty?" John repeated, knowing he sounded as clueless as he felt.

"You're my away team leader," Rodney reminded. "Did you come here to give me a pep talk or – "

"I'm here because I missed you at the party," John clarified in a no-nonsense tone. "That's it. Well, that and to thank you."

"Thank me?" Rodney repeated.

"For the DVDs," John explained.

"The . . . what are you talking about?" Rodney couldn't lie convincingly when their lives depended upon it. If nothing else, his tension confirmed John's suspicions.

"The DVDs my Kris Kringle gave me. That was you, wasn't it?" John asked. He heard the loud swallow Rodney gave from two feet away.

Rodney made a vain attempt to stick to his guns. "I didn't sign the present I gave to the person assigned to me. There's no way that . . . that person could know who the gift came from."

John grinned when he saw the color staining Rodney's cheeks. "If you want to remain anonymous, you need to be less brilliant."

"Huh?" Rodney blinked in confusion.

"The Rambo snowmen on the wrapping paper were a dead giveaway. Who else but you has that kind of sense of humor? And even the gift itself . . . the only people who know me well enough to know I like Star Trek are my team." John conveniently forgot to mention Elizabeth.

"Your Secret Santa gave you Star Trek DVDs?" Rodney asked in a totally unconvincing tone. It was a good thing Rodney wasn't a poker player. He'd have lost his shirt; he was so bad at bluffing.

John knew if Rodney really hadn't been responsible for the DVDs, that he'd be bouncing around in excitement about now at the prospect of watching them instead of looking all defensive.

"You know I did," John answered, holding Rodney's gaze. "You're the only person who knows me well enough and had the skills to do this."

"What skills? All it takes to make DVDs is a computer and a burner," Rodney said.

"They'd have to know I liked Star Trek," John reminded. "It's just you, Teyla, and Ford who know that."

"Do you think that your Secret Santa wouldn't ask the people who know you best what you like?" Rodney challenged. "And you've mentioned Star Trek in front of Carson. It could be him."

John felt his grin broaden. "Carson was Teyla's Secret Santa."

Truly enjoying Rodney's irritation, John watched the man scramble for a retort.

Finally, Rodney offered a totally pathetic, "There are at least a dozen scientists who could be your Secret Santa."

"Maybe, but which one of them knows or likes me well enough to give me a dozen DVDs? A single one of those discs would have made any casual acquaintance ecstatic. They were fantastic," John said, wanting Rodney to know that he appreciated what he'd done.

Rodney didn't seem to hear what he was attempting to tell him, however, for he answered in a totally pissy tone, "The entire female population and probably half the men on Atlantis would give you a major organ if you turned that come hither smile on them, so people liking you isn't a valid argument. It could be anyone."

"It could be, but it wasn't. It was you, wasn't it?" John asked in a gentle tone, gambling that Rodney's innate honesty wouldn't allow him to deny a direct question.

Rodney gulped and stared off into the shadowed corner of the empty lab. "Why is it so important that you know?"

"Because those discs were the best Christmas gift I've gotten since I found the Lost In Space robot under the tree when I was six," John said, meaning it.

His words had the unexpected effect of completely diverting Rodney, for Rodney turned back to him and asked in an envious tone, "You got the Lost In Space robot?"

John didn't usually talk about his past, but for some reason, he wanted to give Rodney more than he gave most people, so he cautiously offered, "Yeah. It was the last Christmas my mother was . . . well."

Rodney's gaze locked with his own. The open surprise on Rodney's face told him that Rodney knew how rare that kind of confidence was from him. After a silent moment, Rodney tentatively questioned, "Your mother became ill?"

John swallowed hard. "Not exactly. She, um, started drinking pretty hard after that. I was just a kid, so I never understood what was going on back then, but . . . I think my father was unfaithful to her. Things were never the same after that Christmas. Eventually, she . . . um, drank herself to death. That was the last normal Christmas."

Just getting the words out was nearly impossible. When he was done speaking, John felt utterly naked, unsure why he'd opened up to Rodney this way. He knew that hiding was the only way to survive, but there was a part of him that wanted someone to know him. It had been forever since he'd been able to drop his shields with anyone.

To his eternal relief, Rodney didn't offer any empty platitudes. He just nodded like he understood. After a quiet moment, Rodney offered, as if in exchange, "My parents were atheists. It was probably the only thing that I think they were right about. We never did Christmas."

John took a chance and voiced his reaction to that, "Even if you agreed with them, that must have been hard when you were little and all your friends got presents."

"You're making a major assumption there," Rodney said in a strange tone.

"Huh?"

"When I was eight I was transferred to a special school where everyone was years beyond their peer groups, so I had friends there. But before that I was three to four years younger than my classmates. When I was really little, they used to tell me that the reason I didn't get Christmas presents wasn't because of my parents' beliefs, but because I was such a snotty little know it all that Santa couldn't stand me either." Rodney gave his lips a nervous lick and lifted his empty coffee cup to his mouth before he seemed to realize it was empty and put it back down.

"That sucks," John said, startled by the anger that rushed through him on Rodney's behalf. He knew that Rodney wasn't exactly gracious about his superior intellect, and suspected that he must have been truly obnoxious when younger, but . . . no one deserved that kind of crap. Rodney could no more help being smarter than everyone around him than John could help having brown hair. It wasn't something a person chose; it was something they were born with.

Not knowing what else to say or do that wouldn't be patronizing, John passed over his coffee. "Here. I really don't want it."

"You sure?" Rodney checked.

"Positive."

"Thanks," Rodney said. "Do you want the other hot chocolate?"

Recalling how Rodney's face had lit up at the scents of coffee and chocolate, he shook his head. "No. I'll be bouncing off the walls with a sugar rush after this one and the cookies."

"Okay. If you're sure."

Knowing how much the coffee and hot chocolate meant to Rodney, John answered, "Totally. Go on. Drink it."

John smiled as he watched Rodney eagerly add five sugars to the cooling coffee. Talk about sugar rushes; Rodney must live on a perpetual one.

"You never did answer my question about whether you were my Kris Kringle," John pointed out once Rodney had taken a few sips and eaten two cookies.

"I was hoping you wouldn't notice," Rodney admitted with a small smile.

"That was a hell of an evasion tactic," John said, shocked that revealing his painful childhood would be preferable to Rodney than admitting he was his Secret Santa.

"Not really. I doubt if I told you anything you didn't already know," Rodney said, looking much more his usual self as he munched on a reindeer shaped cookie.

"What do you mean?" John asked, not following.

"A man with your mathematical gifts doesn't hide his intelligence without good reason. I figure you know firsthand what it's like to be smarter than everyone around you," Rodney replied.

John shifted in his seat, not caring for the direction the conversation had taken.

"Hey, relax. Your secret's safe with me. Besides, do you think anyone would believe me if I tried to tell them Action Jackson Sheppard is really a nerd in deep cover?" Rodney joked.

"It's not like I'm in a protected witness program, you know," John denied. Rodney gave him a raised eyebrow that spoke volumes, and he amended with a grin, "Okay, maybe it is a little like that. It's just . . . ."

"Not cool to be a nerd. Believe me, I know. At least you're PFN enough to fake it. Most of us never get the chance," Rodney said.

"PFN," John repeated. The way Rodney said it made it sound self-explanatory. Despite his curiosity, John wasn't certain that he really wanted to know what the acronym stood for. His brain was coming up with possibilities like 'pretty fucking nerdly' or 'pathetically freakish Neanderthal', both of which he could envision Rodney dubbing him.

It was like Rodney read his mind. Or perhaps Rodney was getting as good at reading his expressions as he was McKay's, for Rodney snorted and gave an amused explanation of, "PFN – pass for normal. Most of us would kill to be able to blend into the crowd the way you do. Well, not that anyone with that hair could really blend into anything!"

"Lay off the hair," John growled, doing everything he could to keep a straight face.

If he'd taken that tone with a stranger in a bar, all but the most aggressive would have let the subject drop and gone back to their drinks. True nerds would have scurried off in terror. Even John's own men paid attention to the warning in that tone.

But Rodney McKay just gave an amused huff and challenged, "What, the hair's like sacred or something? Or maybe I missed the PFN memo equating the size of a man's vertical hair with that of his – "

"Gun?" John suggested with raised eyebrows before Rodney could say something he couldn't ignore.

Rodney grinned. "So, I did miss the memo, then?"

"Yeah, Elizabeth sent it out last week," John deadpanned. "It said that from now on, it's SOP in Atlantis that the length of a man's upright hair should be in direct proportion to the size of his . . .gun. And I've got a very big . . . gun."

It was only after he finished speaking that John realized what he'd just bragged about. Sometimes he got so caught up in bantering with Rodney that his brain lost track of what he was saying. This was definitely one of those occasions.

Rodney's eyes bulged so large that they looked like they might actually pop, his face filling with color.

John was about to apologize for going too far when Rodney's face lit up like a jack-o-lantern and he burst into laughter that seemed to shake his entire body. "Jeez, forget what I said before. There's nothing remotely normal about you. I can't believe we're sitting here talking about the size of your . . . gun."

Relieved that he hadn't offended Rodney, John took a deep breath and reached for a cookie on the tray between them, aware that if he didn't claim at least a couple of them now, the vacuum that was Rodney McKay would have scarfed all the cookies up by the time he was done with his meal.

Rodney was seemingly still convulsed with laughter and not paying much attention to what he was doing, for Rodney reached for the same Christmas tree shaped cookie and their knuckles collided.

John felt like he'd just stuck his hand into an extremely powerful EM field.

Rodney snatched his hand back as if that field had actually burned him, all traces of laughter dying from his face.

Hating the guarded expression that replaced Rodney's glowing amusement, John said into the suddenly tense silence, "We could talk about it, you know."

"Talk about what?" Rodney questioned in the same strained tone he'd used to ask if John had received Star Trek DVDs from his Secret Santa.

"This," John answered, reaching out to purposely lay his hand on top of the fist Rodney had clenched on the table between them. He heard the ragged breath Rodney hissed in and did his best to control his own.

Rodney had that stillness about him that would overcome his usual hyper-activity whenever he'd find himself at the wrong end of a gun. His eyelashes were dark fans as they flicked downwards when Rodney's gaze dropped to their joined hands. The lashes were so long that they seemed to actually brush the purple-veined skin beneath his eyes. John hadn't realized before now just how much time he spent looking at those eyelashes.

John's heart was pounding against his chest at his own temerity. He couldn't believe that he was pushing the issue, that he'd be the one to finally bring out into the open this thing that had been pulling at them both since they'd stepped through the Stargate. But he really wanted to know Rodney better.

Rodney stared down at their joined hands like they were a mutant bee about to sting him. After a moment, Rodney gave a soft, "Not a good idea."

"Why not?" John demanded, sick of denying reality, even if he hadn't consciously planned on addressing this issue – ever.

"That question seriously challenges your undercover nerd status, Major," the emphasis Rodney put on his military title spoke volumes.

Was that why Rodney had backed off on this all this time – to protect him? Surprised, John admitted, "I never thought self-restraint was your style."

"Maybe not, but self-protection is," Rodney replied, sliding his hand out from under his.

"What's that supposed to mean?" John asked. He was the one who could lose his job if . . . when it all hit the fan, not Rodney, who was basically a government contract employee.

"I'm a realist, Major." There was that inflection again, an emphasis that was just shy of an insult.

"Huh?" came John's hardly brilliant riposte, but he truly had no idea what Rodney was talking about.

Rodney's voice was bitter as he spoke into the tense silence. "Guys like you don't bother with guys like me, not without a damn good reason. And that reason is never desire."

Desire. The word shivered through him. John was surprised that Rodney had the nerve to give voice to what they were actually discussing, but Rodney's courage often manifested at the oddest moments. But what Rodney had said before that 'desire' word short-circuited John's thinking hadn't been exactly flattering.

"Guys like me?" John repeated, clamping down on his anger, although the resolute hardening of Rodney's features told him that Rodney had picked up on his warning tone.

"You want me to spell it out?" Rodney seemed mad himself now, his blazing eyes locking with John's.

"Yeah, why don't you? Let's cover all the bases. You've already aced insulting and patronizing," John drawled back, one breath away from totally losing his temper. "Let's go for broke. Guys like me . . . ?"

"Good-looking, popular," Rodney nearly spat the words out.

"And just to get the complete picture. Guys like you would be . . . ?" John prompted, tense with fury. Good-looking and popular weren't exactly putdowns in anyone's universe, but Rodney hadn't meant the words as compliments.

He waited for the 'genius' response that was sure to come. Was Rodney trying to tell him that he found him too stupid to sleep with? But, no, Rodney had said that guys like him never bothered with guys like Rodney, so whatever the problem was, Rodney seemed to think it was something to do with himself.

"Un-cool dorks," Rodney answered with nearly as little hesitation as inflection.

The pain and embarrassment in Rodney's eyes as he voiced those two words killed John's ire as fast as Rodney's previous words had raised it.

Taking a deep breath in an attempt to uncoil tensed muscles that were still in fight mode, John softly commented, "You're wrong, you know."

"About?" Rodney bristled.

"Everything, but especially that last part." As those uneasy, blue eyes met his own, John firmly stated, "You can call yourself a nerd or a geek, if you really must, but you don't get to use the word 'dork'."

"I don't?" Rodney questioned, an uncharacteristic, brittle vulnerability about him.

"Kavanagh's a dork. You're not. You're . . . ."

"Yes?" Rodney still appeared braced for the worst.

"You're the guy who came on like Bruce Willis and took on a Wraith single-handedly to save my ass. That moves you out of the nerd category and into whatever one Spock and Scully occupy; only they don't have your passion."

"You think I have passion?" Rodney sounded genuinely startled.

"You're passionate about everything that you come in contact with, one way or the other. Do you think this thing would be here between us if you weren't?" John asked in a soft voice.

Rodney's gaze dropped. "I don't even understand what 'this' is. You're not . . . . " Rodney seemed to stop himself, rethink his words, and then offer in a slower, more careful tone, "I've watched you. You don't look at other guys. Even the good-looking ones like Stackhouse or Markhem. But you look at me . . . and that . . . confuses me."

"Maybe they don't interest me the way you do," John answered, deciding to try a little honesty himself. His reply drew Rodney's reluctant gaze back to his face.

"Young, hot, and good-looking don't attract you?" Rodney asked in a tone that seemed to be questioning John's sanity as well as his tastes.

"Initially, they do. I'm as human as the next guy, but there has to be something more to make it worth doing something about," John attempted to explain.

"Something more?" Rodney still seemed bewildered.

"Don't get me wrong. Stackhouse and Markhem are great. But once you . . . hit the sheets with someone like that, you usually know all there is to know." John tried to be both discreet and honest. "They're not worth taking the risk over just to get laid."

John realized his mistake the moment he stopped speaking. His breath catching, he waited for Rodney to ask him how he'd come by his information. His status as nerd wasn't the only thing that had him in deep cover.

But Rodney did what Rodney always did, and took another course from the one John expected him to. Rodney stared at him a moment before saying, "I wouldn't know. People like that never give guys like me the time of day."

And Rodney had him pigeonholed in that same category, John realized. "You keep saying that, but there aren't any guys like you. You're unique, Rodney; that's why I watch you. You come on like Dr. Smith from Lost in Space one minute, all Cowardly Lion complaints, and then the next, you turn around and pull some stunt that Captain Kirk wouldn't have had the balls to do. People don't surprise me often, but you do it on a regular basis, and that . . . intrigues me."

Rodney licked his dry looking lips before his gaze flickered away again. "It's still a bad idea."

"Why?" John asked, keeping things calm and easy.

"Aside from the fact that you're military and that your superiors would hang you out to dry if they got wind of it?" Rodney reminded him.

"They're a galaxy away, and even if they weren't . . . maybe you're worth the risk." Maybe he hadn't come here with this in mind, but now that the idea was on the table, John's whole being ached for it. He just wanted to wrap himself around Rodney and forget the world existed for a few hours. Was it really that much to ask?

John heard the shuddery breath Rodney released.

"Maybe I'm not willing to jeopardize our working relationship just to get laid, as you put it," Rodney said at last, going on with a nervous warning of, "These kinds of things never end well for me."

John could see the truth of that in Rodney's haunted face. And even if he couldn't, he'd observed Rodney on the rare occasions when the potential for sex entered situations. That physicist with the great sense of humor – what was her name? . . . Dumais or Dumas? – was always coming on to Rodney, and he was utterly clueless about her interest. It was the same when they went off-world. In every single instance where sex was a possibility, John had seen Rodney's nervousness ruin the moment or else Rodney missed the signals completely.

Except with him. John was startled to realize that he was really the only one with whom Rodney comfortably flirted.

"These kinds of things?" John gently questioned, wanting to understand what was going on in Rodney's brain at the moment.

"One night stands."

"Who said anything about . . . Rodney, you're not some stranger I picked up in a bar. You're my friend. If this was just about getting laid, there are a lot less complicated places I could do that," John said, holding Rodney's gaze. Deciding to lay it on the line, he quietly admitted, "It's Christmas. I'm feeling a little . . . lonely. You seemed a little down, too. I just thought that maybe we could . . . help each other get through the cold night. But I'm not going to try to make you, not if you really don't want to."

"If I don't, you'll go someplace less complicated?" Rodney seemed to be checking his facts. John could almost touch the other man's suspicion.

John might be persistent when it came to getting what he wanted, but he didn't need a house to fall on him. There was cautious reluctance, and then there was . . . whatever the hell it was that was keeping Rodney from reaching out for what they both wanted. For all he knew, maybe Rodney placed him in the same kind of category in which he filed the marines he commanded – good to look at, but not substantial enough to risk getting involved with.

John knew he could probably change Rodney's mind with a few touches, but . . . who wanted to coerce someone into their bed? Maybe that worked for some guys, but John needed his partners to want to be there, and, for whatever reason, Rodney clearly didn't want to be in his bed.

That was the really ironic part about the whole thing. He'd spent years refusing to allow himself to need anyone. But Rodney had gotten through every one of his shields and tonight John had really needed to touch someone who mattered to him. Most times he was able to go it alone just fine, or when back on Earth, find release with a convenient stranger. Tonight, though, he could have really used some comfort.

Recognizing the mistake he'd made, John released a slow, disappointed breath. "No. I won't be going anywhere else. That wasn't what this was about. I'm going to go back to my quarters now. It'd probably be best if we tried to forget we ever had this conversation. And . . . " Wishing things could have gone differently, John settled on a soft, ". . . and thanks again for the DVDs."

Ignoring the shock on Rodney's face, John got to his feet and left the lab. Rodney's confused, "Major . . . John?" was ringing through the silent room as the doors whooshed closed behind him.

John was shaking like he'd just come out of a firefight by the time he reached his quarters. His room was exactly as he'd left it, neat as a pin and just about as welcoming. A Johnny Cash poster and a Russian novel. They weren't much to come home to. The poster was the only touch of individuality to the place. Despite the bubbling banks of liquid on the walls and subdued alien lighting, when you ignored the differences due to Ancient technology, the chamber looked like the dozen or so other cold and sterile rooms he'd spent most of his adult life inhabiting. There was nothing of John Sheppard here. There never was.

Normally, that didn't bother him. The less stuff a man had; the less there was to slow him down when it came time to be moving along.

He dreamed of having a hip bachelor pad someday with all the frills. Maybe buy a guitar. Find a permanent corner for his surfboard. But he knew it was just a dream. He was really more comfortable knowing he could pack his duffle and be gone in an hour. No strings, no complications.

Back on Earth, this would definitely have been moving along time. He'd have put in his transfer request first thing in the morning, and been gone as soon as his commanding officer could find someone on which to unload him. That wasn't an option here. He'd really screwed up.

Rejection sucked big time. In all honesty, he wasn't used to it anymore. Normally, he didn't make a move until he was sure of success, and he'd been so damn certain Rodney wanted him. Christ, why the hell had he opened his mouth? People start singing a few hokey tunes, hang some life support machine lights on a stunted tree, and his common sense flies totally out the window?

He took his jacket off, catching the half-wrapped DVDs as they made a suicide leap for the floor. He stared at the heavy package in his hand for a long moment, wishing he had a better understanding of the man who'd given it to him.

Rodney didn't celebrate Christmas himself, and yet he'd given him this incredibly thoughtful, time-consuming gift. Even the paper declared the care that had gone into the preparation of this present. So, obviously, he meant something to Rodney.

He meant more than something. Rodney wanted him the same way he wanted Rodney. It was there in Rodney's face every time his conscious controls slipped. Yet, when John finally made his move, Rodney turned him down. What kind of sense did that make? Had he imagined the whole wanting him thing? Projected his own feelings onto Rodney? And if he was doing some major projecting here, why would it be someone as irritating as Rodney? Couldn't his subconscious have chosen someone easy like Elizabeth or Teyla or even Ford, for that matter.

No. John was pretty damn certain that the desire had been mutual. Hell, Rodney hadn't tried to deny it once. All he'd given him was a lot of babble about self-protection and guys like him not bothering with –

"Major?" Rodney's strained voice rang in his ear over John's headset as a knock sounded simultaneously on the cloudy stained glass of John's door.

John could see Rodney's bulky silhouette through the smoky glass. His ego still smarting from the rejection, John switched on his headset. Conscious that the radio signal wasn't exactly private, he restrained his response to a tight, "I'm not really in the mood for company right now."

"It's important. Please?" Rodney asked in an equally tense tone.

He was an adult. Adults dealt with these kinds of awkward situations. They didn't run from them. John sighed in resignation, acknowledging that he was going to have to let Rodney in.

As with everything else in his life, reality bore very little resemblance to the way John longed for it to be. For all the times he'd fantasized about Rodney being here with him in his quarters, these awkwardly painful circumstances had never entered the picture.

Not wanting to be found standing there mooning over his Secret Santa present like a lovesick teenager, John hastily placed the discs on his desk, slipped his jacket onto the back of the chair, and then crossed to sit on the edge of his bed. Only when he was settled and as calm as he was likely to be after tonight's stinging rejection did John think the door open.

The parting doors revealed a white-faced Rodney on his threshold. His friend looked about as eager to have this discussion as John was himself. But Rodney stepped into the room with a determined set to his shoulders, and froze within the doorway as the glass doors slid shut behind him.

"I'm sorry about before. Really sorry," Rodney seemed to force himself to say.

His mouth running dry, John swallowed hard and answered as smoothly as he could, "Nothing to be sorry about. You were just being honest."

Rodney gave a negative shake of his head, his cheeks filling with color. "No. I was experiencing one of those Dr. Smith – Cowardly Lion moments you mentioned earlier. Not that this is exactly a Kirk moment, but . . . ." Rodney seemed to stop babbling with a conscious effort. "I just wanted to say that . . . it wasn't you – "

"I was the only other person there, Rodney," John reminded, unable to hold back his bitterness.

"Yes. I realize that, of course, but . . . I wasn't expecting it, and, well, I just wanted to say that I'm sorry I insulted you. After you left, I thought about some of the things you said, and the things I said, and, well . . . you didn't deserve to be lumped into a stereotype that way. You can't help being good-looking. I just wanted to say that . . . I'm the one with the problem, not you. Anyone in their right mind would – "

"If you say the words 'be flattered', you won't make it out of this room," John warned, wondering what the hell Rodney was really trying to say to him. He got the apology part, but there was more to it than that.

Rodney's mouth stopped moving. The frantic light in his eyes seemed to recede, leaving only open remorse. "No. That wasn't what I was going to say. For what it's worth, I was going to say that only an idiot would turn you down."

John blinked in surprise. He tried to hear what Rodney was trying to say to him, without filtering it through his hurt feelings over the rejection, but aside from the repeated apologies and the fact that Rodney was taking responsibility for whatever had gone wrong, he wasn't getting anything clear.

After a moment of staring into those lost looking eyes, John gently offered, "That isn't a word I'd normally use to describe you."

"Maybe not, but it would fit in this case. I just – "

Reading Rodney's genuine distress, John wrestled his smarting pride into submission before saying, "I was totally out of line before. I never should have said anything. I'm sorry, too."

Rodney drew in a shaky breath and bit his lower lip. After some more silent staring, he said, "Don't be. The fact that you found me . . . that you really wanted to . . . . That meant the world to me."

"But not enough to act on it," John said, his hurt seeping back into him.

Everything about Rodney seemed to freeze at those words. Rodney stood there staring at him, looking as though someone had pulled his power plug out of the socket. The stillness was utterly unnatural. Finally, Rodney released a shaky breath and said, "That's not it. I, ah, I don't know how to do casual sex."

Rodney said it as though it made complete sense.

John gaped at the man a moment before, asking, "Huh?"

Rodney took a deep breath. "Things are different here in Atlantis. I don't know if it's because the people here are different or if I changed, but . . . ."

When Rodney seemed to falter, John softly invited, "Why don't you sit down. This sounds like it might take a while to sort out."

Rodney shot him a grateful look, nodded, and nearly stumbled over to John's desk chair. He sank down, his back stiff and straight, his hands balled in fists in his lap.

When it seemed as if Rodney had relaxed a little, John asked, "What's being here or changing got to do with our former topic?"

John did not say the 'not wanting me' that was screaming through him.

"I, ah, don't know where to start," Rodney said, running a hand through his hair.

"We don't have to talk about this at all," John offered. "We can just pretend tonight never happened."

"No, you deserve an explanation, and . . . you know things will only get worse if we try to ignore what happened," Rodney surprised him by answering.

These hidden depths were one of the things that attracted him most to Rodney.

John held that nervous blue gaze and answered as calmly as he could, "In that case, the beginning's usually a good place to start."

Rodney nodded. "The beginning. Right. My parents fought all the time. Shouting is the first thing I remember. They hated each other and held me responsible. They never laid a hand on me, but there was no . . . affection, no . . . nurturing. I had to ask for everything I ever needed. I grew up thinking that sarcasm and putdowns were the only way people communicated and that kindness was a weakness to be exploited."

When he'd said start at the beginning, John hadn't meant this far back. But he listened attentively to every word Rodney said. Everything about Rodney's personality had made John suspect that he'd had a difficult childhood – how could anyone as smart as Rodney not have? He'd expected the earlier school-related problems, but this part about his parents made John angry. If his own folks weren't behind him, who would a kid like Rodney have had in his corner? Suddenly, Rodney's almost desperate need for attention and validation made perfect sense.

John spoke into the silence when Rodney paused, "That sounds awful."

"I thought it was normal. That that was how people treated each other. My parents taught me to be polite with strangers, because that was a reflection on their parenting skills, but . . . I never learned how to . . . connect with kids my own age on an emotional level. I'd watch TV shows like Star Trek where people cared about each other and treated each other with respect and kindness, and, well, that behavior seemed as much a fantasy as the science fiction parts. When I entered kindergarten, I knew how to read and write. I was already at a fourth grade intelligence level. The kids my age seemed . . . brain damaged, and, I, er, let them know it."

John had no trouble picturing Rodney at that age. "Bet that went over well."

Rodney snorted. He seemed to reflect on his words for a moment before saying, "All this is my way of trying to explain that I was . . . really poorly socialized. Once I got to the school for gifted kids, I made some friends, but . . . even there I had trouble fitting in. It wasn't until after I got myself exiled to Siberia that I finally went into counseling to work some of this stuff out."

"Wait. What do you mean 'exiled to Siberia'?" John questioned.

"I mean I mouthed off to a general and found myself on the next flight to Tolmachevo Airport," Rodney answered.

"God, Rodney," John shook his head, picturing it all too easily.

"Pretty bad, huh?" Rodney managed a forced smile.

"Well, someone who got himself exiled to Antarctica is hardly in any position to throw stones," John replied.

"But at least you were banished for doing something heroic like saving lives," Rodney countered.

John should have been surprised that Rodney had checked into his record before leaving Earth, but he wasn't.

John considered leaving it at that, but Rodney was being so incredibly honest about the difficult parts of his past that he didn't really feel it was fair to allow that half-truth to ride unchallenged. It had been so long since he'd had anyone that he could talk to like this, that he could risk being honest with, that the trust felt like a gift in itself. But it was still hard to open up after years of hiding.

"There were other factors involved." John finally managed. When Rodney raised a questioning brow, John added, "My superiors didn't ask, and I wasn't telling. There wasn't enough evidence for them to try to officially discharge me, but . . . they didn't need any evidence to transfer me into oblivion the first chance they got."

John braced himself for an uncomfortable inquisition, but Rodney did exactly what he'd done before and simply nodded his acceptance.

The silence stretched between them.

Wanting to rein the conversation back to its original topic, John said, "I'm still not seeing what this has to do with what happened before. Unless you're trying to tell me that you've never had sex?"

John hadn't considered that, that Rodney might not have had sex at all. It was possible.

To his relief, Rodney's cheeks turned a livid scarlet and he gave a totally pissy, "Of course, I've had sex. It's just that it was always this . . . huge issue. It was always with a stranger or someone I hardly knew, and when the sex was over, the relationship was usually pretty much over."

"That's where that one night stand bit was coming from?" John asked.

Rodney nodded, held his gaze, and gave him the most brutally self-honest line John had ever heard, "Even after all that counseling, people who know me don't usually want to sleep with me."

John couldn't imagine how much it had taken for his often-arrogant friend to admit that kind of thing out loud. Rodney was holding his gaze, but John could see it was by the sheer force of his considerable will. He could read both the pain and humiliation in those bright eyes. Touched by the scathing self-honesty and seeing how Rodney was hurting because of it, John searched for something to say that would be equally honest and yet comforting. Finally, he found a truth that would work.

"Maybe that's because you don't let them see the real you," John said gently, holding Rodney's eyes.

"The real me?" Rodney questioned, looking like those words had hurt him more than the putdown he'd obviously been anticipating. Or perhaps he was just scared again. John couldn't tell. The real me was something John did his very best to disguise, so he could get behind Rodney being uncomfortable with the topic.

"The guy who walked into that shadow monster to save us all our first week here. The guy who follows me down Amish secret hatches and right onto hive ships, the one who took on a Wraith to save my ass," John named just a few of the incidents that had made him see Rodney as more than the constantly complaining hypochondriac that most people saw.

"You think that's the real me?" Rodney sounded stunned.

"I know it is," John said. "I've been in the Air Force since I was seventeen, in battle situations since I was twenty. After a while, you get a feel for people. You'll get some jarhead who comes on all hard ass machismo all the time, but will freeze up and shatter the first time he sees real fire. Then there'll be some guy like you, who whines and complains every step of the mission, but is the one who ends up saving the entire team when the chips are down."

"Ah . . . thanks. But . . . that Dr. Smith-Cowardly Lion part you were talking about before – that's really me, too," Rodney said, with that total honesty that John envied.

"I know," John answered in a mild tone. Then, because he knew he'd be wondering what a prospective lover thought of those traits if he'd just voiced a line like that, he added, "Most of the time, I think that guy's funny."

"You really do genuinely . . . like me." That astonished tone that he'd had when he'd smelled the coffee was back in Rodney's voice.

John considered asking Rodney what he thought all that mutual watching was about if he hadn't liked him, but then decided to go with a more honest, "Yes, I genuinely like you. A lot."

Rodney blushed, looked down for a moment, and then seemed to force himself to meet his gaze again. "Back in the lab, you . . . startled me, and I . . . panicked. I'm sorry. What you said about being lonely – that never even registered until after you'd left. It honestly never occurred to me that you have emotional needs, too, and that . . . there might be more to it than boredom or curiosity." Rodney voiced those last two words as though they were the only reasons he could imagine anyone wanting to sleep with him.

Rather than making a huge deal of it and adding to Rodney's obvious embarrassment, John simply confirmed, "No, it wasn't about that, either."

"I . . . see that now." Rodney fell quiet for a time before perking up with, "So, I, uh, hope that this hasn't damaged our . . . working relationship, because I would truly regret that."

John scoured those earnest features. He hadn't missed where Rodney had faltered. The man wasn't even confident enough of their relationship to call it a friendship. "Is that the only thing you regret?"

"What?" That confused, cornered expression was back in Rodney's eyes.

"We're a bit more than co-workers, Rodney," John said.

Even from across the room, John could hear the gulp Rodney gave. But his friend's courage shone through. Rodney held his gaze and answered, "So we are. I believe the thing I regret most is hurting you. That was unforgivable."

That wasn't what John had been leading up to, but Rodney's sincerity moved him. "No, it wasn't."

"Wasn't what?" Rodney asked, looking confused again.

"Unforgivable. We're cool," John said, giving the tense and worried man before him a smile.

"Really?" Rodney sounded like no one had ever forgiven him in his entire life.

"Yeah."

"Thank you," Rodney said, his relief so palpable that John could almost touch it.

"No, thank you," John corrected in the melodic, playful tone he often used when observing formalities, adding a more serious, "You didn't have to come here to explain."

"Yes, I did. I, ah, don't want to insult people I . . . respect, at least not unintentionally." Flushing a little, regret touching his expressive features, Rodney continued, "You're the first person who really knew me and still wanted to . . . well . . . ."

Rodney's hands made a vague sweep in the direction of John and the bed.

"Rodney?" Impulse had gotten him into trouble once already tonight, but something in John just couldn't leave it alone. He knew that he should play it safe now, and let Rodney walk out of here with both of them feeling secure that nothing had been destroyed tonight. But after seeing that flash of regret, he simply couldn't let it go.

They weren't that unalike, not where it mattered. They were both fucked up. John knew his own inability to share who he really was with the people who mattered was fully as crippling as Rodney's poor social skills. But he was honest enough not to want Rodney to walk out of here feeling like he'd failed in yet another sexual situation, not over him.

Rodney's embarrassed gaze met his. "Yes?"

"That hasn't changed." His mouth running dry at the chance he was taking, John continued with, "Any time you're ready; it's an open invitation."

It was a good thing Rodney was still sitting down. His shocked expression seemed to suggest he would have fallen down otherwise. "What?"

Hoping that he wasn't about to send Rodney spiraling into another panicked retreat, John softly answered, "No pressure, just . . . keep it in mind, okay?"

His face seeming very white in contrast with his orange fleece, Rodney's wide eyes locked with his own. "You still want to . . . even after I screwed everything up?"

Feeling a bit too vulnerable, John nodded and forced his dry mouth to form words. "You didn't screw anything up. We're good."

To his intense relief, Rodney didn't seem either suspicious or frightened. He just looked overwhelmed. John could appreciate the feeling.

John could almost sense the amazing brain behind those startled eyes spinning into hyper drive as Rodney watched him from across the room. After what felt like an eternity, Rodney seemed to brace himself before tentatively asking, "After what happened in the lab, I suppose tonight is out of the question?"

It would be if he had any sense or an iota of those self-preservation instincts that Rodney had been talking about before, John thought, but the shiver that frissoned through him went straight to his groin.

Once again, Rodney managed to surprise him.

John could see that Rodney was braced for a refusal. John knew that the wisest thing he could do would be to suggest that they wait for another night when they weren't so wound up, but . . . when had he ever been wise? And, with the kind of life they led here in Atlantis, there were no guarantees that they'd survive long enough for that night to happen.

Bottom line was he still wanted Rodney as much as he had before, maybe even more. The things Rodney had told him about his past had only increased his respect for his friend. He didn't know one man in a thousand who'd had that kind of lack of nurturing in his upbringing who could have made the kind of success of his professional life that Rodney had. And now Rodney was attempting to make his personal life work out for him the same way he had his career.

No way was John going to throw a monkey wrench into that. He could see how hard it had been for Rodney to make that offer after his earlier blunder. Rodney looked as though he expected to be told to go to hell, despite John's encouragement.

That he was important enough to Rodney for him to take this kind of risk was mind-blowing.

John took a deep gulp of the cold air and rose to his feet.

Rodney watched his approach. All his uncertainties and doubts were visible in his eyes, but he didn't flinch back when John stopped before him. Rodney sat there staring up at his black-clad figure, seeming willing to accept whatever reaction he dished out to him.

John reached out his right hand, held it out to Rodney, palm up.

Rodney stared at his empty palm a moment, gulped, and placed his own right hand in it.

Once again, skin to skin hit him like an electrical charge. John sucked in a startled breath and closed his fingers around the wide, clammy palm. When Rodney didn't pull his hand back or bolt, John shifted to twine his fingers with Rodney's shorter ones and guide the other man up out of his chair.

Moving things to a physical level after so long an acquaintance might work in theory, but on a practical level there was a degree of awkwardness that was nearly unbearable. Once on his feet, Rodney looked like he didn't have a clue as to what to do, and John wasn't sure what he should do after Rodney's earlier hesitation.

They both stared down at their clasped hands as though neither one of them knew how they'd gotten to this place.

Finally, John released his hold on Rodney's hand, slipped his arms around Rodney's neck, and drew him in close.

Rodney shuffled clumsily into his personal space, his stiff movement reminding John of the Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots he'd had when young. After another awkward pause, Rodney's hands settled tentatively on John's back and he leaned into the embrace.

This was obviously as odd for Rodney as it was for him, but John had to admire how Rodney didn't bail, despite his blatant misgivings.

When it became clear that Rodney wasn't going to freak out on him, John began to notice the physical aspects of their embrace.

Like the rest of the winter-locked city, John's room was uncomfortably cold. On a sheer physical level, it felt amazing to touch something so warm. For someone who was always complaining about the cold, Rodney put off heat like a furnace.

Up close like this, John realized how big Rodney was. Though an inch or so shorter than him, Rodney had a good thirty to forty pounds on him. It was quite a change from the skinny beach boys he'd known in his youth and the hard muscled men he'd been drawn to as an adult.

John had never had a lover who was as heavy and bulky as Rodney. But that solidity was somehow comforting. He loved how sturdy Rodney felt in his arms. That solid, living warmth seemed to confirm on a physical level what he already knew on a mental one, that he could rely on Rodney's strength when his own wasn't sufficient to carry him through.

The skin at the back of Rodney's neck was soft and vulnerable, eminently touchable. As John ran his fingertips over the area beneath the neat line of Rodney's haircut and the collar of the orange fleece, Rodney released a sigh and slowly rested his cheek against his shoulder, his arms tightening around him.

It wasn't exactly hot or erotic, but the hug seemed to be exactly what they both needed. John couldn't even remember the last time he'd had anyone to simply hold like this.

Hell, who was he kidding? He'd never had anyone he could simply hug like this, not in a lifetime of fast and furtive sex. Recently, he hadn't even had anyone he could touch. His entire sex life had been put on hold since his transfer to Antarctica. He'd known his superiors were watching him, waiting for him to screw up, and getting laid just hadn't been worth losing the ability to fly. So, just having someone to touch like this felt like sheer heaven after more than two years' abstinence.

They stood locked together in that simple embrace for a long time, their bodies slowly acclimating to the feel and scent of each other.

Rodney smelt like the sugar cookies he'd eaten and a pine-like scent that might have been his shampoo, which made no sense at all, because John knew for a fact that the commissary had run out of real shampoo months ago. Beneath those was Rodney's own scent – clean, fresh, and male. John was familiar with that heady bouquet from the numerous times they ended up in each other's personal space while on duty or missions. It had always been a distraction before, but in this context John found it incredibly arousing.

"This is . . . you feel so good," Rodney sounded completely stunned and more than a little breathless.

Recalling what Rodney had said about his past, John figured that his one-night-stands probably hadn't wasted too much time on cuddling. It wasn't something John had ever been prone to himself before Antarctica, but somehow it felt right with Rodney.

"So do you," John whispered into Rodney's ear, feeling the resulting shudder as he nosed through Rodney's baby-fine, soft brown hair. The smell was definitely pine, and definitely coming from Rodney's hair. John resolved to ask him about it afterwards. For all he knew, Rodney might have a cache of shampoo hidden away as well, though John seriously doubted if his friend would have any of the styling gel that he was about to run out of.

Rodney lifted his face to meet his gaze.

John took in Rodney's flushed cheeks and the heat in his eyes. Rodney didn't have the classically handsome features so many of his former lovers had, but it was the kind of face you could look at for a long time without getting bored, the kind of face that circumvented every defense and found its way to your heart.

John's gaze homed in on those chapped lips and didn't look away. He didn't know why he was so fascinated with Rodney's mouth. It wasn't like those lips were exactly large or sensual. Most times, they were pursed in either a thin, irritated line or twisted in a smug smile, neither of which had ever done anything for John before. But on Rodney, they were hot as hell.

John lifted his right hand from the nape of Rodney's neck, cupped his cheek, and leaned in to sample those lips. The stubble on their chins rubbed noisily together as he made his move. As their bodies pressed closer, John became even more aware of Rodney's formidable chest against his own. They were so close now that he could feel Rodney's heart hammering against his right side fast as a captured dove's wings.

For a second or two, Rodney seemed frozen by the shock of the sensation, but then he flung himself into the mix with his usual frenetic energy. Rodney kissed the way he did everything – with overwhelming intensity. That articulate mouth opened to him, John's tongue slipped in, and John got his first taste of the man. Coffee. Dark sweet coffee. He'd never cared for the flavor, but on Rodney, it was incredibly hot. Under it was Rodney's own lush taste.

Two hands came up to frame John's head, fingers digging deep into his hair, and then Rodney was kissing him with a near desperate passion, pressing his entire front up against him, making hot, little noises of pleasure. John loved the passion, but that desperate edge had to go. Rodney was holding him like he feared John would be ripped away from him or maybe try to escape.

John ran his palm over the soft orange fleece on Rodney's wide back, accepting the wild ferocity of the mouth that was devouring him, using his own lips to tamp down the frantic need. He let his body melt against Rodney's comforting bulk, let Rodney feel his total acceptance, trying to tell him without words that everything was okay. Hell, it was already better than okay, better than good, even. This kiss felt like the first time John took a plane up and knew what he'd been born to do.

It must have been reassuring to Rodney as well, because Rodney's mouth slowly gentled. When some of the wildness faded away, John brushed his groin up against Rodney's, letting his new lover feel how hard he was. They were only an inch or so apart in height, so their erections actually met. He liked thinking of Rodney as his lover, liked tasting his mouth and breathing his air.

They both gasped into the kiss when their cocks rubbed. Rodney was already hard as a rock. John moved his hips again, reeling under the sensations that blasted through him. Rodney's fingers tightened painfully in his hair, as if he were undergoing a similar sensual barrage.

Damn, it was really good. Way better than it should be. First kisses were supposed to be awkward and fumbling, but this was sublime.

When they finally parted for air, Rodney's eyes were glittering bright as sapphires. They sobered as they looked at him, that familiar worried pucker appearing between Rodney's brows.

John wasn't sure what was going on. It didn't look like panic or distaste, but it did look serious. Running a thumb over the blue stubble on Rodney's chin, he gently checked, "Everything all right?"

Normally, any invitation for Rodney to voice his opinion resulted in at least ten minutes of non-stop sound. But tonight Rodney simply stared at him.

Really alarmed now, John called, "Rodney?"

Rodney seemed to shake himself out of his daze. "Yes. Everything's . . . fine. I'm . . . . " Whatever he was, it appeared to be beyond Rodney's ability to relate. "Can we continue? I didn't mean to interrupt . . . . "

"How about if we get more comfortable?" John suggested. "Maybe move to the bed?"

"The bed. Yes. Right." Rodney's voice had that same clipped tone it often took when he was distracted, but he followed John over to his skinny bunk without hesitation.

Stepping back, John shrugged out of his black fleece, and immediately started shivering. "Christ, it's freezing."

It got even colder when he pulled his long-sleeved shirt over his head.

John dropped it to the floor. Naked from the waist up, he looked over to see what progress his friend had made.

Rodney had removed his bulky orange fleece, but stood holding it in his hands like he wasn't sure what to do with it. When he saw John drop his shirt to the floor, Rodney let the fleece fall to his feet.

John stared at Rodney's light blue, long-sleeved science shirt. The regulation issue shirt suited Rodney. Its coloring enhanced his eyes, making them seem even bluer, and it also seemed to accentuate the breadth of his chest, which was surprisingly well defined for a man whose idea of working out was walking to the transporter. Rodney's erect nipples were two buds poking their way up under the blue material. They were often hard like that under Rodney's shirts.

John ran his gaze down Rodney's body, taking him in with a lover's interest, liking what he saw.

Rodney flushed and muttered something that sounded like, "Too many chocolate bars."

"What?" John questioned.

In answer, Rodney's hand patted the stomach that was bulging out over the waistband of his pants. "I've never been able to stick to an exercise regimen and – "

"It's just more of a good thing," John cut him off, something in him tightening as he remembered Rodney's earlier assertion that good-looking guys didn't go for guys like Rodney. He realized that undressing together like this had to be nerve-wracking for his friend.

Rodney bristled. "You don't have to – "

"I was just going to tell you how sexy those nipples of yours are," John said in a low voice. "They distract me all the time."

His words and tone seemed to derail Rodney. "They do?"

John didn't need Rodney to tell him that he'd never gotten any real compliments at this stage of the proceedings. The truth was there in his expressive eyes.

His throat tightening up at the emotion in Rodney's face, John nodded. When he could talk without betraying his feelings, he added, "Yeah. They're almost as hot as your hands."

"My hands?" Rodney sounded bewildered now.

"You use them to talk all the time." John stepped forward and took hold of Rodney's wrists and raised them to his face one at a time to place a kiss in the center of the sweaty palms, before continuing, "They're as passionate and expressive as your eyes."

Every time those hands had touched him tonight, Rodney's palms had been slick with perspiration. John wondered if his friend were still nervous about being with him, but when he noticed the beads of sweat dewing Rodney's brow, he realized that Rodney just sweated a lot when he was aroused. It was a definite turn on seeing the man practically melt before his eyes in response to what he was doing.

John leaned in to kiss each eye as Rodney stood there with a blown-away expression on his face. Those long lashes flicked ticklishly against John's mouth. John let his tongue peek out to sample the salty flavor in the corners of Rodney's eyes. The salty-sweet taste blasted through his entire body, spiking his breathing, making him harder.

"Then there's your cute little nose," John murmured against Rodney's closed left eye, moving his lips down over the gentle slope of Rodney's nose. "And your mouth."

John took his time there, letting his tongue slip in and explore every tooth and ridge while Rodney's fingers clung to his shoulders as though his legs had just given out on him. When he finally pulled back for air, John murmured, "And then there's your chin."

"Plural," Rodney corrected, tensing as John's mouth moved to the area in question.

"Hey," John whispered, raising his head far enough to meet Rodney's gaze. "Don't I get to say what I like? I like your chin and I really dig your stomach."

To demonstrate that he meant the words, John slipped his hand under Rodney's shirt and undershirt, laying his palm on the area in question, covering the plump, soft flesh above Rodney's waistband. The shirts hitched up above John's wrist, displaying the unnaturally pale skin. Rodney gave new meaning to the word white.

Rodney sucked in a noisy breath. John couldn't help but notice how the flesh south of where his palm was resting jerked and grew even larger in reaction to his touch.

Pleased with the helpless response, John stroked his hand over Rodney's soft tummy. He wasn't lying. He really enjoyed how silky and soft the white, white flesh felt beneath his calloused hand.

"You're . . . deranged . . . you . . . know . . . that . . . right?" Rodney asked in a breathless whisper.

"Why? Because I'm smart enough to know hot when I see it?" John challenged, keeping his tone soft and silky. Every time he used that particular inflection, a shudder would pass through Rodney's entire body.

It was no different now. Rodney shook against him, those fingers tightening their hold on John's shoulders. Loving how responsive Rodney was, and sensing how much his friend needed to hear these kind of words, John continued, "You're not boring, Rodney. You're not just another fashion victim or pretty face. I love your style and your smile. And I especially love your body. It's you and that makes it sexy by definition. So let's have a moratorium on the putdowns, okay?"

Every muscle in Rodney seemed to turn to ice as he asked in a small, totally vulnerable tone, "You . . . love . . . ."

John froze, only now realizing what he'd said. Rodney was standing there stiff as a corpse in his arms, obviously waiting for him to deny the sentiment. But . . . what the hell? He hadn't been lying. He really did love those things about Rodney. It mightn't be cool to admit that kind of thing their first time together, but John had the feeling that Rodney hadn't had a lot of people feel this way about him in his life.

All John could manage was a breathless, self-conscious, "Yeah, love."

Rodney actually gasped at his response, his stunned eyes filling with disbelief.

When no explosion followed, John softly checked, "Is that okay?"

John could hear the shaky breath Rodney took. Those fingers were digging into his bare shoulders like claws, but that was okay because Rodney wasn't freaking out, bailing, or telling him what a sloppy, sentimental sap he was. Instead, Rodney was staring at him like a white-bearded fellow in a red and white velvet suit and stocking cap had just crawled out of the nearby Ancient wall bank of bubbling blue liquid with a sack full of presents for Rodney, like this was something beyond his ability to fit into his view of reality, but since it was a good thing, he'd go with it.

Rodney gave a noisy swallow. "Yeah. It's . . . thank you."

That lump in John's throat got bigger and tighter at Rodney's hushed response. The front John presented to the rest of the world required that he make some glib comment here to tone down the emotion and underplay what he'd just said, but for once something mattered too much for John to care what it looked or sounded like. He just wanted it to be what it was – something good, wonderful, and rare, so fucking rare that he'd never felt anything like it before.

Unlike Rodney, he hadn't slept only with strangers, but his casual affairs had never had this kind of wrenching emotion. This was like Rodney – intense and unique. As the feelings Rodney's acceptance inspired thundered through him, John finally understood why he'd avoided this scene for so long.

He couldn't fake anything with Rodney. He couldn't be suave and remote, couldn't play the self-protective games he played with everyone else. Rodney was all scathing honesty and intense emotion. Rodney made himself so vulnerable to him that John's conscience simply wouldn't allow him to fuck around. His companion's courage demanded that John meet it with his own. For the first time in . . . well, in fucking forever, John wasn't trying to hide the real him. It didn't get realer than Rodney, and that was as terrifying as it was addictive.

But right now he didn't care about being afraid. All John cared about was getting closer to Rodney.

"Can we get rid of this shirt?" John asked, giving the hem a questioning tug. At Rodney's nod, he pulled the blue shirt up. Another layer was revealed below, a tan tee shirt with some faded writing on it. Curious, John drew the blue shirt up, grinning as he saw the arrow pointing upwards and the faded words 'I'm with Genius'.

"Ah. I, ah, wasn't expecting anyone to be seeing that . . . . " Rodney faltered, revealing his uneasiness.

John met Rodney's eyes. His hand was holding the bunched up blue shirt between their faces at chin level. Rodney looked as though he were thinking of ducking down behind it, like he felt the tee shirt had ruined everything they'd just gained.

"Cool shirt," John said. He really wanted to tell Rodney how adorable he was, but knew that wouldn't go over well. "Are your boxers as interesting?"

Rodney actually blinked at that, a slow smile spreading across his face as he rallied with, "Far be it for me to inhibit the spirit of discovery and scientific investigation by proclaiming that my boxers are always interesting. I'll let you discover that for yourself."

John chuckled. That was the Rodney he knew.

John hooked the fingers of his left hand into the hem of the genius tee shirt and drew it up to meet where he still held the blue long-sleeved shirt clenched in his fist between them. A tug and he pulled them up over Rodney's head, making his hair stick up in about a dozen places, which was also adorable. John knew that Rodney would so not appreciate that adjective, but this geeky, cuteness factor was so much a part of Rodney's appeal that it was hard for John not to think it.

This was one of the major ways that Rodney was so different from the other guys John had been with over the years. To a man, the others had been sleek, lethally attractive, and intensely aware of their physical appeal. Though John had enjoyed their looks, there wasn't a one of them that gave him the warm, squishy feeling inside that Rodney's mussed hair inspired. Most of them had been too cool to allow their moussed hair to be wrecked like this and most certainly didn't have the confidence to wear that kind of humorous tee shirt. Rodney's complete lack of artifice was totally enchanting.

It was so cold in the room that they were both already covered with gooseflesh, but it hardly mattered under that first sight of naked skin.

Dropping the shirts on the growing pile of clothing at their feet, John took in the artistically downed chest. Rodney had a pleasing dusting of chest hair – thick down the center, tapering off to the sides. And those arms! He always found himself fixating on Rodney's arms whenever he wore a short-sleeved shirt, but this was almost hypnotizing. Those pale-skinned, surprisingly developed biceps didn't belong on a lab rat like Rodney.

Recalling Rodney's earlier uneasiness about his appearance, John caught his friend's nervous gaze and offered, "It just keeps getting better."

Rodney puffed out a breath and replied, "You're going to spoil me if you keep that up. I, uh, I'm not used to . . . ." Rodney's expressive hands made a gesture that seemed to encompass them both.

John leaned in and gave Rodney a slow, deep kiss. Their naked chest crushed together, making them both grunt into the wet kiss under the sensation. When John pulled back for air, he answered, "I intend to spoil you every opportunity you give me, so get used to it."

"Oh." For the second time that night, Rodney seemed to be struck speechless.

John couldn't tell if it were a good silence or a bad one. The pure, sensual blast of their bare skin pressing together made it hard to think, but John abruptly realized that Rodney might be searching for a polite way to tell him he wasn't ready for that yet. Wondering if he weren't making some major wrong assumptions here, John softly checked, "Does that work for you?"

Rodney's pleased, shy smile was answer in itself. His hand rose to stroke over John's cheek as he softly said, "I, uh, keep waiting for the alarm to go off and wake me up. Only, my dreams aren't ever this great."

"You dream of me?" John didn't know why that surprised him so, but it did.

Rodney gave a slow nod. His cheeks pinking, he quickly amended, "I'd try not to consciously fantasize about you when I was . . . you know," Rodney's right hand made what was obviously an unconscious, explicit pumping gesture, "because that wouldn't have been appropriate, but when I was asleep sometimes – "

"Rodney," John interrupted the nervous babble. "It's all right. I've thought about you this way, too."

"Oh," Rodney had that same pleased shock about him that he'd displayed every time John complimented him.

John had wondered for months what it would take to shut Rodney up; now he knew.

As if finally relaxing enough to believe that John was genuinely interested in him, Rodney ran his fingers over John's chest, ruffling through his chest hair.

John shivered under the sensual barrage.

"Oh, wow," Rodney breathed the exclamation out as he fingered John's left nipple, blasting it to instant erectness and sending bursts of pleasure straight to John's straining cock. "You're so hot."

"I was just thinking the same thing," John murmured, reaching out to touch where the short curls were thickest down the center of Rodney's chest.

John's kiss swallowed Rodney's gasp. It was as good as the last one, all sweet Rodney taste, twining tongues, and sucking lips.

They grasped onto each other's shoulders as their naked chests touched when the kiss deepened even more. Hair against hair, warmth against warmth, Rodney's chest felt softer than kitten fur under his. Except for where those pert little nipples were poking into him.

John released his hold on Rodney's left shoulder to slip his right hand in between them. Brushing downwards, he fingered the left nipple, giving the warm bud a careful squeeze.

Rodney moaned into the kiss. That was hotter than anything John could remember, so he did it again.

"Oh, god, John . . . John . . ." Rodney panted as John's mouth slipped down to his neck.

John licked over the fleshy area that made up Rodney's double chin. That was another thing none of his other lovers had had, but it was soft and suckable. John loved how his mouth seemed designed for the soft curve behind Rodney's chin. What's more, Rodney seemed to turn to jello when he gave it attention, so he held Rodney up and took his time there.

By the time his sucking kisses reached Rodney's ear, John had harvested enough sound effects for three porno flicks. Rodney was nothing, if not vocal.

Slipping his hands down Rodney's sides till they made contact with the waistband of his pants, John raised his head and attempted to catch his friend's eye. But Rodney's eyelids were closed, his open mouth rounded in a shocked looking "oh".

John figured that passed for permission to move things to the next level.

Firmly laying his hands on Rodney's hips, John backed them towards the bed, stopping a foot or so away. He grasped the waistband on both sides of the button at the top of Rodney's fly, unbuttoned it, and carefully lowered the zipper over that impressive, moving bulge. He could feel the heat of the flesh there beneath his knuckles.

Rodney released a deep breath as the opening of his fly no doubt eased the constriction around his erection.

The pants finally undone, John took hold of the waistband and the elastic band at the top of Rodney's light blue boxers, sliding both down hairy thighs, baring Rodney totally to the light.

His first impression was of skin as white as the snow that was still falling outside. John's cock twitched as he focused on the part of Rodney that he'd only seen in furtive glances when Rodney was relieving himself on missions. Even in that part of his body, Rodney was pale. His circumcised cock was thick and long with a fetching cherry-red tip. The heavy balls below were a lush pink, the curls at the base of the cock a soft-looking light brown.

John swallowed hard. Rodney was beautiful there – beautiful, highly masculine, yet somehow vulnerable at the same time.

"You now," Rodney gasped out, reaching for the button on John's pants.

John stood still while Rodney unbuttoned him and eased his zipper down. He sighed the second the vise-like grip of his BDU's eased up. Rodney followed his lead and pulled his gray boxers down with the pants. John's wine-dark cock bobbed up to immediate attention. Before he could even wonder what Rodney thought, his friend was speaking.

"Jeez, you're . . . beyond incredible," Rodney said in a hushed voice, continuing with his usual babble, "And you really weren't kidding before about having a big . . . gun."

His face warming, John chuckled. Laughter was another thing that hadn't been exactly common in his past encounters.

Rodney took a step forward, reaching for him, but the pants pooled around his knees tripped him up and he stumbled.

John automatically braced him up.

"We better get rid of these pants and boots before we kill ourselves," John suggested, bending to unlace his boots.

Rodney quickly followed suit. In less than a minute, they were both stark naked.

John ran his eyes down that broad, pale body, loving everything he saw. Rodney's skin was so incredibly white that it was nearly translucent in places. John could clearly see the blue veins ribboning his lover's abdomen, thighs, calves, and even the ultra-white tops of Rodney's feet.

Because of his unnatural pallor, Rodney's body hair seemed much more accentuated. The light brown tufts poking out from his underarms, his chest hair, the thin inverted arrow trailing down his fish-white belly to the beautiful patch of curly pubic hair, the spattering of thick hair on Rodney's inner thighs – all of it was a sharp contrast against his milky skin.

Rodney looked at him from the foot or so of space separating them and said, "I'm usually a neurotic wreck at this point, but . . . I like the way you look at me."

John felt his own lips curve into a smile. "That's good, because I really like looking at you."

Rodney closed the distance between them. Clasping his hands behind John's neck, Rodney asked, "Is it always like this . . . with people you know?"

John gave bemused shake of his head, whispered, "No," and leaned in to kiss Rodney again. They both grunted as their bare groins pressed together. Naked chests touching felt great, but naked naked touching was unbelievable. Even the brush of their pubic hair was giving him a charge. When they drew apart for air, John added, "You're special."

"Oh." Rodney seemed to think for a minute before softly admitting, "You know you're like . . . the best thing ever, right? It's probably not cool to admit that, but you ought to know that . . . I'm talking too much. Stopping now."

"No need." John leaned into Rodney's sleek warm skin, delighting in the press of every inch of them together. Running his hands over Rodney's broad, smooth back, he softly said, "I like to listen to you talk."

"Definitely not even remotely normal," Rodney said, but his cheeks were flushed with pleasure. John thought he was actually glowing, and, god, the smile. It made that one Rodney wore that time they were practicing with the Ancient personal shield when Rodney was telling Elizabeth that he was "invincible, invincible" seem glum.

Needing more contact, John shuffled them back to the bed. Their descent to the mattress was less than graceful.

John forgot that his lover's balance wasn't exactly perfect. When he nudged Rodney backwards, his friend didn't so much sink down as drop like a rock. Since Rodney's hands were clutching his shoulders, John found himself pulled down on top of Rodney by the sheer force of their momentum.

Rodney grunted as if shocked to find himself flat on his back with a naked man on top of him. Somehow they managed not to emasculate each other, though it was a close call.

"Sorry," John apologized when he realized he'd knocked the breath out of Rodney. It was hard to concentrate on the amenities with all that silky skin under him. Rodney was really here in his bed. Naked in his bed. Despite all the hungry glances they'd been exchanging, he'd never believed this would happen.

As if by mutual, silent agreement, they shifted around in the narrow bunk until they were positioned down it lengthwise, rather than across its too-small breadth.

"Don't be. This is . . . ." Rodney seemed to be distracted from what he was about to say when he laid his hands flat on John's back.

As those damp palms stroked downwards, leaving a squadron of shivers in their wake, John breathlessly answered, "Yeah, it sure is."

Their eyes met, and then their mouths. John shifted until his cock was nestled up close to Rodney's, absorbing the resulting sigh into the kiss. The feel of their hard shafts touching sent the same kind of electric charge flashing through John that the accidental brush of their hands had earlier. The chemistry working between them was phenomenal.

He let his hungry hands do their own exploring, swallowing each of the pleased sounds Rodney made. Damn, but the man was good for his ego. Rodney acted like every little caress was the best thing he'd felt in his entire life.

John could get behind that. He couldn't remember the last time it had been this good with someone – of either sex. Rodney's body was soft and comfortable under him. The fingers stroking his back and flanks were sending John's nervous system into complete revolt with the blasts of sensation that kept flashing through him, and he felt like he might drown in the depths of that sweet mouth.

This was so different from anything he'd known before. In the past, when he'd get horizontal with another guy, at this point in the proceedings they'd be experiencing a silent, awkward, and tense struggle to work out the dynamics of who would be on top and running the show. John preferred to be calling the shots, but sometimes it didn't work out that way, and those nights could be . . . challenging.

But, there wasn't any of that bullshit with Rodney. He didn't seem to mind that John was lying on top of him, orchestrating what they were doing. All Rodney seemed to care about was touching and being touched.

When his senses began to swim, John reluctantly pulled back to breathe. Rodney seemed equally pressed for air, were his instant, noisy gasp any indication. Their gazes met in the breathy silence.

Rodney's hands never stopped moving on him. Those gentle strokes thoroughly explored his shoulders and back, and then Rodney's hands tentatively slipped down to cup John's thin buttocks. Those large, slightly sweaty hands felt almost scaldingly hot after the icy coldness of the room.

Rodney was watching his face, as though waiting for a protest.

Any other time, any other guy, and John would have been scrambling for a distraction. But he held Rodney's gaze as his friend's hands firmed their grip back there.

When Rodney carefully squeezed the cheeks together, John's world exploded with sensation. Most of it was focused in his iron-hard dick, but some of it trickled out to his spine, thighs, and stomach, sparking the nerve endings to life there. John threw back his head and groaned.

That raw, guttural sound continued as Rodney strained up to latch onto his neck. The sucking, kissing nuzzles Rodney left there were completely devastating. Then Rodney's tongue found his right ear, and John was certain his entire body was about to liquefy.

Rodney squeezed his butt again while sucking on what little lobe his left ear had. After more than a two-year abstinence, the joint assault of pleasure was nearly as intense as an orgasm. John knew how to pleasure himself, how to make it last a long time, how to make it good, but you could never lick behind your own ears or breathe down your own neck. Rodney was reminding him of all those little things that another person did that defined the difference between true sex and masturbation.

It wasn't just accidental arousal, either. Rodney seemed to have an instinctive understanding of his most vulnerable hot spots. With no instruction from him, Rodney was finding every place he loved to be licked and sucked. They'd barely started and John felt ready to ignite from what Rodney was doing to him.

John's back was still painfully arched when Rodney's mouth slipped from his throat to travel in a wet, slithery trail down to his right nipple. Rodney latched onto it and started sucking for all he was worth, transforming John's entire reality into sizzling delight.

"Your . . . back . . . okay?" Rodney mumbled against his other nipple some time later; even the breath and sound were translated into sensation.

"Ahh . . . fine." Trying for something like lucidity, John countered, "You?" because somewhere in the muddled puddle of molten gray and pink cells that used to be his brain was the knowledge that Rodney had a bad back.

Rodney chuckled against his nipple, and that deeper, shaking rumble was a whole new kind of delight. "Killing me, but so worth it."

Sanity was a distant memory, but never hurting one's partner was so firmly imprinted on John that he didn't need higher brain functions to make the right call here. "No, it's not. Lie back."

To force the issue, John straightened up from his arch, which forced Rodney to recline back against the mattress or get his nose banged with John's chest.

"No, I want to – " Rodney protested as he was forced to lie back.

"You will," John promised, and then instructed, "Here, shift around a bit."

John slid into the available two inches of free mattress beside Rodney, trying to direct his lover onto his side.

"There isn't enough room. I'm going to –" Rodney's words cut off in an alarmed yelp.

John snagged Rodney when he almost propelled himself backwards off the other side of the bed.

"Thanks," Rodney said, clutching at him.

Carefully maintaining his hold on Rodney, John shifted them again until he was lying flat on his back with Rodney mostly on top of him. This new position was a million times warmer than the last, and the feel of Rodney's weight pressing him down into the ten thousand year old mattress was unexpectedly exciting. John was intensely aware of a particularly interesting press of hard flesh into the seam between his right leg and hip.

"This never happens in the movies," John lamented. "Love scenes are never interrupted by people falling off their mattresses."

"The geek never gets the good looking action hero in the movies, either," Rodney commented in a breathy voice.

"He does in this one," John said. Hooking Rodney's head, he dragged him down into another deep kiss.

They devoured each other, hands and mouths charting territory they'd already begun to explore. When John tried that straining up to reach the nipple move that Rodney had been doing before, he learned firsthand how painful it was on the back and neck, but like Rodney, he deemed it fully worth it. The delighted, shocked cries Rodney released were nearly as big a rush as the touching.

John couldn't get over how good Rodney's skin tasted. Every place he licked or sucked had its own unique flavor, all of it seasoned with the beads of Rodney's salty sweat.

When Rodney bent to explore his chest, John lost access to Rodney's nipples. Leaning back against he pillows, he had to content himself with caressing Rodney's shoulders and back. Not that that was exactly a hardship. There wasn't a single inch of Rodney that wasn't addictively touchable.

Wondering if Rodney shared his own hang-ups, John cautiously moved his hands down to cover Rodney's rounded buttocks. The skin there was the softest yet. John stared down Rodney's back, appreciating the view. Rodney might be a little on the plump side, but he had an amazing ass.

When no objection was voiced, John copied Rodney's earlier action and gave the cheeks a gentle squeeze.

Rodney threw back his head, releasing a prolonged, guttural groan. When whatever sensations that squeeze had inspired passed, Rodney's heated eyes met his own.

"Did you want to . . . you know . . . be inside me?" Rodney asked.

John couldn't tell how Rodney felt about the prospect, but the way he phrased his question – be inside me instead of fuck me – rocked his entire world. It was just so Rodney.

That offer going straight to his cock, John drew in a shaky breath. The only thing in his mind was an image of him sinking between those fleshy cheeks and filling Rodney to the hilt. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't. Do you like doing it that way?"

"I, er, think I'd love anything with you," Rodney answered.

The words almost melted him. It took John a minute to get far enough past the erotic images flooding his mind to realize that Rodney hadn't really answered his question. Running his fingers down the moist cleft between those magnificent globes, John waited until the resulting shudder had worked its way through Rodney before asking the direct question. He didn't think Rodney would offer him that if he didn't know he liked it, but he wasn't taking any chances. "Have you done it that way before?"

The second he saw Rodney's face fill with color, John was glad he'd asked.

After a long pause, Rodney said softly, "Um, er, no."

That quiet answer shouldn't have had the impact it did, but as John comprehended what Rodney was offering him, his stomach dropped like gravity had just been nullified or as if the plane he was flying just took a sudden nosedive.

"Oh," John said, stunned beyond anything more coherent.

"I, uh, I'd like to try it with you. That is, if you were interested," Rodney nervously added.

John moved his right hand from Rodney's bottom to cup his blushing cheek. Rodney seemed to have a gift for destroying him with lines like that last one. John could barely swallow around the lump in his throat, let alone speak. When he felt he could actually get the words out without embarrassing himself, he said in a low voice that was as tender as he could make it, "I'm so interested I can't think straight . . . but if you haven't done that before, I've got to be able to think. Maybe we should wait until we're more comfortable with each other before we try anything that adventurous."

That wasn't what John's body wanted. Everything in him was screaming that he jump on Rodney and take him up on his offer. But Rodney deserved better on his first time than someone with all the finesse of a prisoner who'd been confined to solitary for two years. As much as he ached to sink into Rodney's sweet flesh, he knew he just didn't have the control to do it right tonight.

"Wait?" Rodney sounded like he'd never heard the word before.

"Just until we know each other a little better. It's been a while for me and my control's a little shaky. I don't want to hurt you," John spelt the situation out, before Rodney began thinking he wasn't desirable or something equally preposterous. "That okay?"

"Uh, yes, sure," Rodney said, still seeming bemused. After a second of staring into his eyes, Rodney began in his familiar babbling tone, "There's just never been any getting to know each other better period for me before. This has been so great. I haven't wanted to disappear into the floor once all night, and I just wanted, well, to try everything because I wasn't sure there'd be another night like this ever, and – "

"Rodney," John gently interrupted. When he saw he had his lover's attention, he softly continued, "There are going to be plenty of nights like this, as many as we want."

"Oh." Rodney looked about as shocked as John had felt when his friend had offered him his virginity.

Thinking that they were both shaky and needed it, John drew Rodney down into a kiss. That talented mouth clung to his own, sucking his tongue, and then his upper and lower lip in turn.

John had never been so in sync with anyone. It seemed like he'd just reclaimed his composure, or as much as he could reclaim while in a juicy kiss, than Rodney gave his bottom lip a playful nip before returning his attention to John's neck and parts lower.

"You've got the best chest ever," Rodney complimented a short time later, his eager fingers and tongue sliding all over the dark body hair covering the area in question.

"Too skinny," John denied, totally aware that his slenderness skirted the fine line of being attractive.

"No, really, it's just . . . perfect." Rodney looked and sounded like a kid whose most outrageous Christmas wish had just been granted, like he'd really found that pony every four-year-old asked for under the tree.

Touched by how into him Rodney was, John stroked his fingers through Rodney's soft brown hair, gasping as that silky softness slipped out of his hold and out of reach when Rodney trailed his tongue down the thick swath of hair arrowing down the center of John's belly.

Rodney's fingers slid through the thick dark curls at the base of John's cock, causing him to shiver all over. There seemed to be no part of him that Rodney didn't want to sample.

John's breath literally stopped in his chest when he saw Rodney hunker down over his groin and finally take hold of his straining cock. It had been so long since any hand other than his own had touched him there. That warm, sweaty palm felt like heaven around him. John braced himself for some torturous foreplay, but to his intense shock, he was immediately absorbed into the juicy heat of Rodney's mouth.

"Ahhhhh . . . ." John cried out, his hips instinctively humping up at Rodney, silently begging his friend to take more of him.

Rodney shifted on the bed a little, and then John's wish was granted. It felt like Rodney swallowed him whole; he went down so deep. Then the suction started, and John's brain began to short-circuit again.

His last coherent thought was that he was going to leave Rodney behind if he didn't move fast, so he snagged hold of Rodney's hips with both his hands and tugged. Although seemingly totally absorbed with that heavenly sucking he was doing, Rodney allowed himself to be maneuvered around.

John stayed lucid long enough to ensure that he directed Rodney's body carefully, intensely aware that if Rodney went over the side while he had his cock in his mouth, that he might become far more familiar with Rodney's teeth than he ever wanted and would probably end up having to make some very embarrassing explanations to Carson in the near future.

He shifted Rodney around until his lover's knees were straddling his head and that gorgeous cherry-tipped cock and pink testicles were dangling right above him in a classic 69 position. The humid scent of Rodney's musky arousal was all around him, making him lightheaded.

John wasted no time taking hold of Rodney and guiding that impressive cock into his mouth. At his first touch, Rodney released what sounded like a whimper around John's cock.

Rodney tasted like the sea, salty and a little bitter, but amazing. The flavor raced through John like a potent narcotic.

It had been way too long. That thick shaft nearly didn't fit. John had to stretch his jaw open way wider than he ever remembered doing before, which meant that Rodney was either more well-endowed than any of his former lovers or that it had been so long since John had done this that he'd lost the knack. But Rodney didn't seem to mind that his technique sucked, so to speak. His connection was so solid with Rodney that he could almost feel how much the other man was loving this.

The groan Rodney gave when John absorbed him reverberated through John's shaft, which was deep in Rodney's throat at the moment. The vibration set off a series of pleasure explosions throughout John's body liked timed charges going off.

His own moan appeared to have a similar effect on Rodney were his friend's sudden gasp anything to go by. Clearly, it had been some time for them both since they'd been in someone's mouth.

Once they finally grew accustomed to the feel of each other's mouths, they seemed to fall into a sucking rhythm that felt like coming home to a longtime love instead of first time sex. John laid his fingers on Rodney's lush, velvet skinned buttocks to guide his thrusts. Rodney bobbed his head in perfect time to John's sucks. They were like an Ancient device or maybe some piece of classical music – perfectly in sequence, perfectly attuned to each other.

He'd had many a blowjob in his life, but John couldn't remember ever feeling the kind of delight that was thundering through him. He'd certainly never had this kind of connection to a partner, the sense that he was feeling what was going on beneath the other man's skin, experiencing his lover's pleasure as intensely as his own, but that was what was happening with Rodney. He felt like their nerve endings were connected, so that when his sucking pleased Rodney, John's own body reacted to that delight.

A tingling, sense of aliveness vibrated in every nerve ending. John felt like his body had been dead for years and that Rodney was reawakening it. He'd say reintroducing him to lost or forgotten pleasures, but John knew that nothing in his life had felt like this. It made no sense. Fellatio was wonderful, but hardly earth shattering. Only, it felt like what he was doing with Rodney was redefining his entire reality, like nothing would ever be the same after this.

John's whole body felt like it was on fire. Rodney's wet mouth was igniting it further, feeding the flames that were consuming him whole. He was shaking all over, ready to burst apart from the sensations swirling through him. The exquisite feelings from Rodney sucking his cock blazed through his entire being, turning him into a single pulse of pure pleasure that grew stronger and stronger until it melted him.

John thought he should warn Rodney of how close he was, but he was exploding before he could think to raise his head off Rodney's spectacular shaft far enough to speak. It seemed as if the taste of his semen threw Rodney into climax, for as soon as John spurted into Rodney's mouth, Rodney froze and a second later John's throat was flooded with Rodney's bitter offering. It backed up his throat around the cock in his mouth the way it always did. The taste was what it always was, raw and carnal, something John could barely swallow, but it was pure Rodney and that made him love it. On a vague level, he was aware of Rodney noisily swallowing him down at the same time.

When they were both empty, they reluctantly released their deflated prizes. John gasped at the tender kiss Rodney placed on the crown of his limp dick before releasing it entirely.

Immediately after kissing his cock, Rodney collapsed on top of him like someone had knocked him out.

For what felt like an eternity, they just lay there with their heads cushioned on each other's thighs. Rodney's cheek was on his balls. The tip of John's nose was dipping into Rodney's ticklish pubic hairs. Rodney's scent was all around him, sharp and arousing, for all that John didn't think his dick would ever recover from being blasted apart by that last unbelievable orgasm. This easy intimacy felt nearly as amazing as the sex had.

"I, ah, thought I was telling you the truth before, but, clearly, I lied to you," Rodney said a long, quiet time later.

John could not believe the pleased shudder that the vibrations caused through his balls. Was his body nuts? There wasn't a single nerve ending that hadn't been left a singed mess after that orgasm.

Rallying his wits as best he could, John asked, "How's that?"

With anyone else, that lying line would have brought John to full wariness, ready for almost anything, but with Rodney, he wasn't even worried.

"I thought I'd had sex before, but, obviously, I was mistaken. Nothing ever felt like that, not the first time, not ever," Rodney said, his tone soft and awed.

"I was just thinking that myself," John softly admitted, nearly as bowled over by Rodney's lack of artifice as he was the sex. He knew there wasn't anyone else he'd ever been with who would have confessed something like that to him after sex, even if they'd felt that way. But Rodney didn't care about being cool. All Rodney seemed to care about was him, and, for all that John didn't like making himself vulnerable, there was something in him that simply couldn't shrug off or try to defuse the intense emotions that Rodney's honesty raised between them.

John felt Rodney's head lift from where it was heavily pillowed on his thigh, so he raised his own to meet his lover's gaze. It pleased him that that was what Rodney was now, his lover. Friend and lover.

Rodney's cheeks were still flushed from his climax, his eyes a bright, brilliant blue. John didn't think he'd ever seen anything as hot or as beautiful. Just looking into Rodney's utterly open face made something clutch up tight inside John.

"You were?" Rodney appeared totally blown away by the idea that he could have had a similar effect on him.

Two years ago, the squishy warmth filling him would have had John running for the door in absolute terror. He'd never wanted complications like this, never wanted attachments. He'd learned the hard way what happened each and every time he allowed himself to trust or depend on someone emotionally.

Only, Rodney wasn't like anyone he'd ever been with. Rodney wasn't into pretense or head games. Rodney wasn't just using him to get his rocks off. This was about so much more than simply getting laid that John could barely comprehend it.

When he touched Rodney, it meant something. John wasn't sure just what it meant, but he knew it wasn't like anything he'd known. That still scared him, but . . . everything inside him hungered for the kind of real feeling Rodney was so openly offering him. Maybe he'd come to a point in his life where he needed meaning. And even if he hadn't, John simply couldn't bear the idea of hurting or disappointing Rodney.

If Rodney had the courage to bare himself to him like he did, then John sure as hell wasn't going to take the coward's path out.

Realizing how long he'd been sitting here musing on his feelings – and how rare was that? – and how long Rodney had been waiting for a reply to his question about John having been similarly affected by what they'd done, John gently offered, "I was. You're not just a genius at physics. You deserve a Nobel Prize for your moves in the bedroom."

John watched Rodney turn to pure light. His face was glowing as bright as a lighthouse.

"Nobody ever said anything like that to me before," Rodney said in a low, shaky voice a moment or so later.

"Then you must have been with nothing but idiots, because what you did to me was fucking sublime," John said.

"Oh . . . that's . . . incredible," Rodney said, releasing a soft sigh that blew its warm moisture over John's nearby genitals.

John shivered as the streams of breath played over his cock, making himself answer, "Yeah, it was."

The shiver didn't stop. As they stared almost awed into each other's eyes, it took John an additional two minutes to figure out that it was no longer passion inciting his shuddering. Rather, it was the sweat of sex drying on his skin. He realized that Rodney had to be a lot colder, since he seemed to perspire more than he did.

John looked at Rodney's nearby thighs, finally noticing the gooseflesh pimpling his skin.

"Hey," John called.

"Mmmm?" Rodney sounded almost drugged.

"We're gonna freeze if we don't get under the covers," John pointed out.

"Oh, yeah, right."

After a few moments of pointless tugging on the bedclothes beneath them, they ended up scrambling quickly out of the bed to peel back the comforter, blanket, and sheet before crawling under them.

John lay down immediately on his side, turning to face Rodney. Confused, he looked up to where his friend was shuddering beside the bed, still holding the corner of the raised blue bedding in his hand. Something had dimmed that glowing joy in the short time it had taken them to get under the blankets. Rodney almost seemed to be waiting for something.

"You okay?" John checked.

Rodney met his gaze. He seemed to be searching his face for something. John didn't know if Rodney found it or not, but Rodney's frown disappeared after a moment and he climbed quickly into the bed beside him.

John wrapped his arms around Rodney and drew him closer. He didn't comment on how uncertain Rodney looked as he hesitantly rested his head on his chest. He didn't have to be a rocket scientist like Rodney to figure out that Rodney's one night stands probably hadn't been any bigger on post-coital cuddling than they'd been on hugging. Instead of making a big deal of it, he rubbed Rodney's broad back in wide, reassuring circles until he felt the tension seep out of him in a tremendous sigh.

"This is the first time I've been truly warm since winter set in," Rodney said at last, his right index finger absently playing with the hair on John's chest.

"Me, too." John yawned. Feeling the pleasing lethargy of afterglow spreading through him, he realized he probably only had a few minutes of consciousness left, and there was something he had to make sure he did before he went under. "I've got the morning shift in the control room. Teyla and Ford are going to drop by here after lunch to watch some of those Star Trek episodes on my laptop. Will you join us? We could spend the afternoon watching TV, well the DVDs, then we could go to dinner, and I thought that after that, maybe we could go back to one of our rooms and . . . um, get together like this again. What do you think?"

John could tell he'd surprised Rodney. The finger curling his chest hair froze for an instant before continuing to riffle through his thick pelt.

Rodney's voice was a little gruff as he answered, "That sounds great."

After a few minutes passed, Rodney asked, "John?"

On the verge of sleep, he forced his eyes back open. "Hmmm?"

"Do you want me to leave now? I'm, uh, going to crash any minute. It probably wouldn't be too smart for me to stay. Someone might see me leaving in the morning."

John considered the issue. What little he had left of his mind kept getting stuck on the way Rodney had phrased the question. Do you want me to leave?, rather than the usual, I'm gonna go now.

He knew Rodney was right, that it would be safer if Rodney left now. But he also knew Rodney. If he let Rodney start worrying about what was smart or safe, Rodney would have talked himself out of this by lunchtime. That was so not happening.

It was hard to be either sensible or objective when he had Rodney's wonderful warmth snuggled against him, hard to see what the right answer was. But . . . nothing had ever felt more right than lying here all tangled up in Rodney.

John didn't want anything to taint the purity of what they'd shared. He'd never had anything this comforting. However, doing this with Rodney was going to require that he be far more open about who he really was than he'd ever been before. It wasn't simply opening up to a steady lover that he was going to have to worry about. If they did this, then others were going to suspect. John knew there was no way to keep something like this a secret in such a small, closed community, and it wasn't like Rodney was especially good at lying.

For a long moment, John thought about the men he commanded, especially Bates' hard eyes. He might be a fool, but he really believed that he'd earned his men's loyalty strongly enough these last nine months for them to accept even this as long as he didn't shove it in their faces too blatantly. Elizabeth was the most unbigoted person he'd ever met, so he didn't think she'd object. He knew Ford and Teyla well enough by now to be confident of their support. Bates would be a problem, but Bates was always a problem.

So, that left only the brass, who were a galaxy away, and his own fears standing between them. John didn't care about the former, not after everything they'd been through out here. As for the latter . . . he wasn't going to let his fears ruin something this amazing. Considering their disparate personalities, it might all go to hell in a hand basket within a few days, but . . . it mightn't. What he'd found with Rodney here tonight wasn't like anything else he'd ever had, so he couldn't really predict how it would work out. The only thing John knew for certain was that he wanted to give this a chance to play out however it would.

His decision made, John tightened his hold on Rodney and said, "Stay."

He could tell by the sudden tension in Rodney's muscles that he hadn't expected that.

"I, uh, don't want to get you into any kind of trouble," Rodney said.

"If we're going to do this, we're going to do this, Rodney," John said in a firm command tone.

"What do you mean?" Rodney questioned, shifting around and raising his head up so that they could see each other's eyes.

John was nearly distracted by how much he liked talking to Rodney in this intimate position.

"This is private, not shameful. I don't want you to be my dirty secret. I'm not saying that we should start making out in dark corridors or in the jumpers, because that's just not me, but I don't want us sneaking around like thieves, either," John explained.

"Even if we're careful, people will probably know. I'm not too good at hiding what I'm feeling," Rodney softly confessed.

"I know. That's why I think we need to be honest about this from the start. If we act like we're ashamed or that we're doing something wrong, that's how people are going to perceive it. We're both consenting adults. If we want to spend some time together, that's nobody's business but our own." John couldn't help but wonder if he was doing some of that reality manipulation that the mist people had said he was so good at two months ago.

"The Air Force isn't going to see it that way, John," Rodney pointed out, but there was a gentleness in his voice and face that belied the pessimistic content of his words.

"I know, but the idiots who made those rules are in another galaxy and even if they weren't . . . how many times have we almost been killed since we got here?" John questioned.

Rodney instantly answered the rhetorical question, "Thirty-seven, actual life-threatened scenarios. Twenty-six additional that could have been viewed that way."

Somehow, it hadn't seemed that many. But he didn't doubt for a moment that Rodney would know. A little weirded out, he said, "I knew it was bad, but . . . thirty-seven definites, and twenty-six possibles . . . in nine months?"

Rodney nodded, the stubble on his chin catching John's chest hairs and tugging them.

"That's including all the system failures and technical problems we've experienced." After a quiet moment, Rodney asked, "What does how many times we've almost died have to do with . . . this?"

"Don't you think with how often we nearly get killed defending Earth and Atlantis, not to mention the rest of the galaxy, that we deserve something good of our own?" John questioned.

Before he could finish his thought, Rodney pointed out, "John, your superiors aren't the only ones who could cause trouble. Your men mightn't . . . ."

"I can handle my men," John cut into the protest. "We deserve to have some happiness."

"What we did made you happy?" Rodney asked with that stunned air he'd worn every time John had complimented him earlier.

"I don't know about you, but that was the best thing that's happened to me in . . . forever," John softly admitted.

"For real?" When John nodded his assent, Rodney quietly offered, "You probably figured it out already, but that . . . you were the best time ever for me."

John lifted his head to place a tender kiss on Rodney's lips. When he pulled back, he said, "I'd hoped that the feeling was mutual."

"Mutual?" That incandescence was taking over Rodney's face again.

"Yeah," John admitted. "I wanted to crawl into your skin and never leave. It's not usually like that for me."

"Oh." Rodney had that robbed speechless look about him again.

"So, are we gonna do this?" John asked, amazed at how afraid he was of Rodney choosing the wiser path. John knew the trouble they were buying into with this. If he knew, then the neurotic genius in his arms had to have considered every possible disaster that could befall them in excruciating detail.

"I'm still . . . nervous about getting you hurt," Rodney said in the tone of a confession. "I mean, my science staff isn't going to care. They're just going to be shocked that I could have attracted someone so hot, but your military guys . . ."

"I'll handle my men. I know there will be some problems at first, but we're worth the risk," John insisted, watching how Rodney's eyes softened when he said we're.

"Something worth dying for?" Rodney questioned, ever the alarmist.

"No, this is something we live for. We die to save our friends or Atlantis or the million other things we put our lives on the line for every day. This is what we think about to get us through it," John said.

"I can't believe that you're saying these things to me," Rodney said, seeming more than a little awed.

John considered what he was about to say, then decided that Rodney deserved some truth. "And I can't believe that you're here for me to say them to. I, ah, never had anything like this, either. I've had affairs that lasted for months or even years, but . . . they weren't like this, with someone I know so well, a friend I see and work with every day. It was usually guys I spent my leaves with, and never saw between furloughs."

"So this is new to you, too?" Rodney questioned, seeming calmed by the thought.

John nodded, adding because he thought Rodney needed to hear these kinds of things to make up for all the one-night stands that had left him doubting himself, "You're new to me. I never met anyone like you. I know it sounds crazy, but . . . before, I really felt like I was so in tune with you that I was feeling what was going on beneath your skin."

That seemed to hit Rodney hard. It took him almost a minute to answer.

"I thought that was just my imagination," Rodney said softly.

John shook his head. He wasn't really comfortable being this open about his feelings, so this whole scene was difficult. After a moment, he swallowed hard and rallied, "That isn't something I want to give up. Not now, maybe not ever. So . . . say you'll stay, please?" John pleaded, holding those stunned eyes.

His lungs froze up like the water coating the balcony railings outside. As he awaited Rodney's response, John couldn't help but remember every other time he'd set himself up for rejection in his life. He could swing both ways, but he preferred men, and men never seemed to want the kind of connection John longed for. His mind shuffled through all the humiliating let downs he'd endured. Greg Miller, the senior football hero who'd flattered him in his junior year and talked him into letting him pop his cherry, only to have Greg disappear from his life and treat him like he was just another groupie the next day. His roommate in the Academy, Billy Jordan, who'd had no problem slipping into his bunk a couple of nights a week the entire time they were there, but who'd married one of the local girls a month before graduation because he'd thought being a responsible family man would give him the inside track to promotion. Then there'd been Alan in Afghanistan. Although their relationship had been a short one, it had been the one that was the closest to what he'd found with Rodney tonight. Alan hadn't shrugged him off the morning after or thrown him over for the respectability a wife would give him. Alan had done the unforgivable and gotten himself blown out of the sky that day they'd violated orders to save those stranded soldiers.

John could hardly count the number of other disappointments he'd endured. After a while, it had just become easier to turn his heart off, to not let himself feel when he became involved with someone. But Rodney hadn't let him do that, and now Rodney was probably going to do the smart thing and bail like every other person John had cared about before him.

John couldn't even really blame Rodney if he did. As head of military here, John's life was on the line a lot more frequently than anyone would want their lover risking himself. There were a million valid reasons why this wasn't a good idea. Rodney probably knew every one of them, plus a billion more. His new lover was nothing if not cautious.

But Rodney wasn't wearing that uncomfortable expression that all John's former exes had as they'd sought for the least embarrassing way to dump him. Rodney looked completely shell shocked. After what felt like an eternity, Rodney gave a quick nod of agreement. "I, uh . . . yes. Just, yes, to, um, everything."

Rodney seemed as scared and overwhelmed as John felt. They stared at each other in what felt like a state of mutual disbelief until John finally rallied enough to slip his hand into the lush hair at the back of Rodney's head and draw his stunned lover down into a kiss.

John put everything he was into that tender sharing. He could almost feel Rodney doing the same thing, trying to say with his body the things neither of them could even formulate in their minds, much less put into words. That kiss felt like a promise or maybe even a vow.

When Rodney raised his head a long time later, John felt a lot less shaky. Rodney still seemed out of his depth, though.

"You want the Dr. Smith-Cowardly Lion guy, too – you're sure of that? Because, he's not going to go away," Rodney babbled in an almost frantic rush, clearly fixating on all the things about himself that he was worried would doom them.

John slowly stroked the pucker between Rodney's eyes with his thumb while his fingers rested in the receding hair on top of that high brow. "Yeah. I want him, too."

"You do?" Rodney was obviously beyond shock.

"I do," John nodded, moving his other hand to stroke Rodney's back, he said, "Now lie back down and get some sleep. I've got to get up early in the morning."

To his surprise, Rodney allowed himself to be guided back to resting his head on John's shoulder. Rodney's arms tightened almost painfully around him before the man in his arms gave a shuddery sigh and relaxed against him.

It had been years since he'd spent the night with someone. It felt strange having another body in his bed, stranger still to be breathing in his lover's sweet scent and feeling Rodney's heart beat, hearing Rodney's breaths as counterpoint to his own. But odd as it was, it was wonderful and comforting on a level John had never even realized he'd needed comforting on. Before he was even aware of it, John felt himself drifting off.

"John?" Rodney whispered when John was nearly asleep.

"Hmmm?"

"Merry Christmas."

His mind rallying enough to pinpoint what wasn't right about that phrase, John sleepily mumbled, "I thought you didn't celebrate Christmas."

"I don't, but seeing as how all my wishes just came true, it seemed the appropriate thing to say," Rodney babbled.

John realized that, one way or another, he was going to be getting a lot less sleep from now on. The thought didn't disturb him as much as it should have, not when he had Rodney snuggled so tight in his arms.

Thinking that there was something to what Rodney had just said, John placed a soft kiss on the top of Rodney's head, mumbled, "Merry Christmas, Rodney," and gave himself over to visions of sugar plums dancing through his head. That they all had Rodney's smiling features superimposed over them didn't seem the least bit peculiar to John as he sank into his long winter's nap.

The End . . . and Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan to all.