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The Spirit Of Christmas Yet To Come

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“Why don’t you go home, Detective?” Captain Weir appeared beside his desk, looking rather seasonally festive in a red shirt over black pants and boots. Like a thin, pretty Santa. Minus the beard, that is.

“I’m not sick,” Rodney said repressively, and then ruined the effect by snorting back snot in a long, gurgle of sound.

“Of course not.” Weir’s voice was dry and ever so slightly mocking. Rodney wondered sometimes how a woman as delicate-looking as Weir had come to be captain over their precinct. He’d learned over the years of working with her, however, there was a tough core of steel underlying her ethereal exterior. She might look like she should be behind the counter at a health food store, but she was a good captain. She knew when to let her detectives follow their hunches and when to rein them in. “I merely think that since we have the shifts covered, you should take advantage of it and go home. Enjoy the holiday for a change.”

Rodney snorted again, the action resorting in his having to clear his throat afterward. “I’m fine. Let Emmagan go, if she wants. I think she has a hot date.” He focused on the computer screen in front of him. God, he hated writing up reports, but if he had to be at the station anyway, he might as well clear his desk of backed-up files. Better to already be downtown and ready to take the inevitable call—there was always a call on the Christmas shift—than to have to leave the comfort of his apartment when it felt like he’d settled in for the night. Nothing like the holidays to bring out the worst in people. The family that plays together slays together.

“You’d get better faster if you went home and got some rest,” Weir persisted. Her hand hovered near his shoulder as though she’d thought about giving him a pat like he was some elderly retriever, but then changed her mind.

“I’d rather be here, if you don’t mind. I’ve got some work to catch up on anyway.” His fingers flew over the keyboard, rattling away the standard phrases of his report. One down, fifteen more to go. There were days when the amount of notices in his inbox made him slightly panicky as he divided them into categories of ‘catastrophic’, ‘urgent’, ‘ASAP’, and ‘don’t waste my time.’ Totals over twenty made him sit down and work through them until the number felt manageable again. Or until they were an even number. Odd numbers in his do-to list made him nuts. He stopped typing long enough to wipe his nose with one of the crumpled tissues on his desk.

Weir looked at it with some distaste. “If you start to feel worse, call Novak in. Or Kavanaugh. We don’t need someone out there without a clear head.”

“Then you should give Kavanaugh a permanent desk job.” The rest of his diatribe was interrupted by a short but violent burst of sneezing.

“Be nice, McKay. It’s Christmas, after all.” She moved off before he could reply with a suitably Scrooge-like rejoinder.

His cold was definitely worse than it had been that morning. He’d felt the slight burning tickle in the back of his throat the night before and had cursed Sheppard roundly. Of course, it was Sheppard’s fault—the man had talked him into getting a flu shot last week. “You work with the public, out in all kinds of weather and under stressful conditions. Seriously, just stop into a drug store—in and out in fifteen minutes and you’re set.”

He’d given Rodney that quirky little half-smile, the one that made him look ridiculously charming and yet somehow dangerously seductive all at the same time, and it had occurred to Rodney (not for the first time) that Sheppard was used to getting his way. For some inexplicable reason, he’d given in. And now, one week later, he was sick. It was so Sheppard’s fault.

“Are you not planning to visit your family over the holidays, McKay?” Teyla’s voice made him look up suddenly. One of the newest and youngest detectives on the force, she had an odd, exotic way of speaking, no doubt from her mother’s background as a native of Tanzania. She’d apparently traveled with her parents a lot as a child, in and out of hot zones all over the world. When she’d first started in the precinct, she’d spoken very formally to everyone, and her innate-yet-foreign loveliness had made her a magnet for all kinds of attention from her co-workers, both good and bad. It had taken a smiling demonstration of her incredible martial arts skills to grant her the respect she deserved. No one messed around with Teyla more than once. Rodney had asked her once where she’d learned to fight the way she did, an odd combination of tae kwon do and some stick fighting bad-assery that looked like it came straight out of Xena: Warrior Princess. She’d merely responded with “refugee camp” and had left it at that.

“I’m sick,” Rodney answered, intentionally sounding more nasal and congested. He faked a small cough into his hand. Besides, he really didn’t want to go all the way to Toronto just for the holidays. Even if he could fly right now, which was obviously out of the question.

“So I see.” Emmagan had a way of smiling at you that wasn’t completely annoying for some reason. “Too sick to visit your family, but not so sick that you can stay home from work?”

Rodney shrugged. Christmas wasn’t the same without Jeannie, and Kaleb had decided that New York was too dangerous after her murder, taking their young daughter with him when he moved back home to Canada. “Who flies all the way to Toronto for tofurkey?” he grumbled. “As if I could fly with this cold anyway.”

“Madison is going to forget what her uncle looks like.”

“I’ll send a picture.” It was only then that he noticed she was standing in front of him holding a cardboard cup that was steaming slightly.
“What’s that?” Past experience had made him wary of Teyla’s patented home remedies, which no doubt, this was.

He wasn’t wrong.

“Licorice root tea,” she said. “It will shorten the duration of your cold symptoms and ease the congestion in your chest. Then perhaps you will feel more like seeing your family after all?” She held out the cup.

Rodney took it as though it contained nitro glycerin. He eyed it with reservation; the stuff smelled vile, even through his stopped-up nose. “Um, thanks.” He set it down on the corner of his desk. “It looks a bit hot right now; I’ll just let it cool.”

“It would be better if you drink it hot,” she said gently. “It will open up your nasal passages.” She rotated and lifted one hand in a graceful motion from her belly to the top of her head, much like a dancer.

“I’ll keep that in mind. I’ve been taking zinc with vitamin C,” he added, as though that was penance enough.

“Good,” she said, returning to her seat and scooting the wheeled chair closer to her desk.

It was weird, but her approval mattered somehow. “Where are we on the follow up to the Davis case?”

“The D.A. made the offer to Chenning and he took it, just like Sheppard said he would, ‘like a fish leaping to the bait.’” Teyla smiled, obviously quoting there. “He rolled on Pritchard, and that was enough for the warrant. Zelenka and Stackhouse are sifting through the records now, but it is just a matter of time before we tie him into the Davis girl’s murder.”

“Good.” Rodney went back to his open file, realized he’d typed “Sheppard” instead of the name he’d meant to type, and backspaced to erase it.

“That was clever on Sheppard’s part,” Teyla continued conversationally, as she reached for her own stack of paperwork. “To realize that Chenning could be manipulated like that.”

Rodney grunted, which turned into a cough.

“Where is Sheppard anyway? I would have thought he’d want to be here for the closing of the case.”

Rodney leaned back in his chair, the back of which gave a little with his movement. “Well, now,” he said, picking up the cup of tea. “What can you expect? All the fun stuff’s been done, according to our resident writer. Nothing left but the paperwork, so of course, he’s off doing some Christmas shopping.” He sniffed the tea cautiously and set it back down in a hurry.

“Last time I checked, it was legal.” Teyla’s voice was mild. She spoke with only half her attention on Rodney, already deep into her reports.

“Yeah, well, seems to me if he really wanted to get a feel for what life as a homicide detective was like, he’d be here filling out forms with the rest of us.” His nose was running again, and with a sigh, he snatched up a tissue to wipe it. Goddamn it, it felt like he was developing a fever as well. So, definitely not the mere cold he was hoping for, but the flu like he’d suspected all along.

“I doubt that would make for very interesting reading,” Teyla said. “There is such a thing as too much reality for the purposes of entertainment. Besides, I am sure Sheppard has plans to go visit his family for the holidays. I am surprised he stayed in town as long as he has.”

Rodney was startled into looking up, but Teyla’s head was bent over her computer keyboard and she didn’t appear to notice. Sheppard didn’t talk much about his family, but Rodney was sure she was right. It was odd that he hadn’t done his shopping weeks in advance. Or maybe Sheppard was simply one of those lackadaisical shoppers that waited until the last minute and then had everything shipped overnight at exorbitant fees. That was probably it. He could afford to buy whatever he wanted. Take that crazy cappuccino machine in the break room. Granted, the coffee at the precinct had been disgusting before, but that was kind of the point, one of the hallmarks of duty, as it were. Not that Rodney was complaining about the upgrade. It had taken him a while before he would openly use the new coffee maker, but after the first Nirvana-inducing sip, there really was no going back. Despite Sheppard’s devilish little smirk-face when he’d realized Rodney had given in.

Well, what did it matter to him, anyway? If Sheppard wanted to run off and be the playboy writer, that is. He was probably getting bored anyway; wasn’t that why Sheppard was a writer in the first place? Because no job could hold his attention very long. The injustice of his thoughts reminded him that Sheppard was both a decorated and disgraced military veteran, and that he could have lived off the family money had he chosen to do so, but his monkey-like curiosity and need to touch things and find out why they worked had somehow led him to writing, and writing successful mysteries at that. Now that he’d finished up his novel, the whole reason he’d been hanging around in the first place, his interests had probably moved on to the next source of inspiration. Which was fine by Rodney.

Maybe things would get back to normal around here. Finally.

The phone on his desk rang. Here we go, he thought as he answered it. “McKay.” He was abrupt. Anyone who had this extension knew they were calling him.

It was Chuck, the officer at the front desk. “Hey, Detective. I got this guy here asking for Sheppard. You know where he is?”

“No clue.” Rodney glanced at his watch, and then at the clock on his computer. The damn watch continued to lose time, despite having sent it out for repairs. “Probably out at some Christmas party-slash-book signing.”

“Right. Mind coming down here and telling him that yourself?” Chuck sounded oddly hesitant, and a red warning light clicked on in Rodney’s mind.

“I’ll be right there.” He hung up the receiver and automatically checked his holstered gun.

Teyla looked up alertly. “Problems?”

“Not sure,” Rodney said slowly. “Someone’s downstairs asking for Sheppard. Chuck seems to think I should see him in person.”

Teyla stood up in a fluid movement. “I will come with you. I need to stretch my legs.”

“More like you’re as bored with paperwork as I am,” he said as the two of them headed for the elevator.

“Have you given further thought to my proposal?” She asked once the elevator doors had closed behind them.

“That we let Zelenka transfer to Cyber Crimes? That would leave us short-handed in homicide, unless you have another partner tucked up your sleeve somewhere.”

“No, I don’t.” Her voice sounded sorrowful, and for a moment, Rodney pictured Ford’s enthusiastic young face before he ruthlessly shut it away in the box of other lost things. “But I think of it less as losing a partner than gaining someone in Cyber to assist us when needed. You know Zelenka is not good with blood.”

Rodney sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “True, but he’s fantastic at crime scenes. Once he can get past the fact that it is a crime scene. And don’t tell him I said that. His head can barely fit through the door as it is now.”

Teyla’s smile had that little superior edge to it that said he wasn’t fooling her but that they both would pretend that he did.

The numbers of each floor lit up with an aqua light above the elevator doors as they descended down eight floors to the lobby. When the doors opened, it was into the well-lit receiving area of the precinct, full of bustle and noise. Their shoes clicked on the marble floors as they made their way to the main desk, where Chuck was seated behind a console of monitors. As they approached, a large man rose from a chair alongside the wall, looking much like a giant dog coming to the full length of his chain. Shit. No wonder Chuck thought he should come down.

“I’m Detective McKay,” Rodney said, holding out his hand. The big man looked at it as though he didn’t know what the gesture meant, and Rodney let his hand fall back to rest on his waist, flicking his jacket back so that his badge and cuffs were clearly visible. “This is Detective Emmagan. What can we do for you?”

“I’m looking for Sheppard.” The man was tall, though not really that much taller than anyone else in the room. Rodney had gotten used to the fact that Sheppard had a few inches on him, but this guy had to be half a foot taller again. Or maybe he just had a presence that made it seem like he was a giant, an ogre, somehow stuffed into the same space as ordinary people. Maybe it was the heavy mass of dreads tied back off his face, or the thick leather longcoat that came down past his knees, or the warrior-king type beard and mustache. Maybe it was the fact that there was no doubt he was a dangerous creature; a tiger in a room full of tabbies.

Rodney glanced to each side as though Sheppard might magically appear, negligently leaning against some wall as though waiting for a cue to enter stage right. “Look around, pal.” Rodney indicated the room, including the Christmas tree in the corner, where someone had hung a Santa with a little tiny hangman’s noose. “It’s the holiday. Sheppard’s gone home to see his family. Like all normal people.” He could feel Teyla’s sharp gaze upon him, and knew she would be wondering why he was lying. He didn’t know himself really, just some gut reaction.

“What is your business with John Sheppard?” Teyla spoke with quiet authority, and Miracle on 34th Street, the giant didn’t instantly dismiss her. Instead, he looked at her with something like keen assessment, then reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a card.

“Sheppard told me to look him up.” He held out the battered business card, white lettering on a black background with the word SHEPPARD in bold print. A stylus speared the letters of his name and ended in what looked like a pool of blood leaking from the tip. Typical. Rodney sniffed and reached for the card.

With dexterity unexpected in hands so large, the stranger folded the card into his palm and pocketed it again.

“You can get those anywhere,” Rodney said. “You probably picked them up at a book signing.”

“I’m surprised you think I can read.” The big man flashed startlingly white teeth in a sort of feral smile and Rodney grimaced a fake smile back at him.

“We do not expect John Sheppard back before the New Year,” Teyla said smoothly, and Rodney had to control the flinch that would have given her blatant lie away. “However, if you would like to leave your name and number, I am sure he would be most happy to contact you.”

Golden brown eyes shifted from her face to Rodney’s and back again. “Tell him Dex came by. He’ll know who I am.” He strode off toward the exit, the panels of his coat swirling in his wake as he moved out through the heavy glass doors and was swallowed up by the sleet-filled night.

“Interesting.” Teyla seemed thoughtful.

“Probably a contact for a book. Research.” Rodney sniffed again, and this time, it wasn’t just about the cold. “He’s going to get himself in trouble one of these days, chatting up the wrong person.”

“And yet, how often it seems that even the most dangerous of people cannot resist talking about themselves.” Teyla acknowledged Chuck’s worried expression with a briefly raised hand. She went with Rodney back to the elevator. “Sheppard has a way of taking care of himself.”

Rodney merely harrumphed. “You’re saying that famous Sheppard charm is like some sort of personal shield? A force field that will protect him from all harm?” He tapped a toe impatiently as they waited for the elevator to return to the lobby floor.

“Fools rush in,” Teyla agreed with a smile. The doors opened, and they stepped in. She pressed the button for the eighth floor, and the doors slid smoothly shut. “That man was a Runner.”

“A what?” Rodney frowned, unfamiliar with the term. He leaned on his hands at the back of the elevator, watching the dial light up with the passing of each floor.

“A Runner. The Wraith tag people of rival gangs and hunt them down like animals. Anyone and everyone is fair game when the Wraith are on the hunt. There is no rest for the runners themselves, and everyone around them is at risk as well. Somehow that man not only survived being a Runner, but he’s made his share of kills. Did you notice the tatts on his arms?”

Rodney nodded. “Underneath his coat, when he pushed back the sleeves, yes.”

“Well, they indicate kills. Lots of kills. So what’s a man like that doing looking for Sheppard?”

“Probably has a story to tell.” Rodney’s cell phone rang. He pulled it out, glanced at the name, and flipped it open. “Carson. Tell me you have antibiotics for me.”

“Now Rodney,” Carson’s familiar Scottish accent almost made him smile. “How often have I told you that antibiotics don’t work on viruses?”

“But I’m sick,” he whined, sticking his tongue out at Teyla when she smiled.

“I’m not that kind of doctor and you know it. I only work on the dead. Besides, I told you before, there’s no way you got the flu from the flu shot. It’s a killed vaccine, not a modified live. There’s no way it can give you the flu.”

“I was fine until I got vaccinated.” Rodney knew he sounded petulant and he didn’t care.

“Then you waited too late to get the shot. You should have gotten vaccinated last month, like I suggested. At least Sheppard managed to talk some sense into you.”

“I can’t hear you, Dr. Beckett,” Rodney said, rubbing his cell phone across his sleeve and making fake crackling static noises for good measure. “You’re breaking up.”

“Then I’ll be brief. Happy Christmas, Rodney. I’m off with Laura to meet her family. Biro’s got the morgue this weekend.”

“Are you kidding me? Seriously?” Rodney stopped playing with the phone and held it to his ear again. “Let’s hope it’s a quiet weekend, then. Biro’s just a little too happy to use that bone saw of hers.”

“Be nice, Rodney,” Carson said, and Rodney really wished people would stop telling him this. “You should appreciate professional enthusiasm when you see it. I’ll leave you with a bit of friendly medical advice, though. Go home. You sound dreadful.”

“Thanks for your concern. Save it for yourself though, you’re going to need it if you’re meeting Cadman’s parents.” His cough caught him off guard, and he had to pull the phone away to cover his mouth as it continued uncontrollably, a hard, dry exercise that hurt both chest and throat.

“Seriously, man. Go home. Doctor’s orders.”

“Fine talk for a M.E.”

“I have lots of experience with the dead. If you don’t want to join them, take some time off.”

He rang off, pocketing the phone and then touching one cheek with the back of his hand. Yep, there was no doubt about it; he was running a fever.

“I think Beckett is right,” Teyla said as the elevator let them out on the eighth floor again. “You sound terrible. You should go home and get some rest.”

Rodney fished in his pocket for his roll of cough lozenges and took one out, peeling off the paper and popping it into his mouth, making a face at the eucalyptus flavor. He shot the balled up paper covering at a nearby trash can and then sighed when it missed. Walking over to pick it up, he dropped it in the can and straightened. “I’ll hang around and see if Zelenka and Stackhouse come up with anything. It’d make my Christmas if we could tell the Davis family that we’d caught their daughter’s killer.”

Teyla gave him an odd look, but he scarcely noticed as his attention was drawn to a man in uniform seated at the chair beside his desk. He exchanged a sharp glance with Teyla, who merely raised her eyebrows.

Great, he thought. Now what?

The military man rose when Rodney and Teyla approached the desk.

“Detective McKay?” the man inquired, tucking his hat under one arm to extend a hand. Rodney shook it with bemusement. “I’m Major Evan Lorne.”

He nodded at Teyla in acknowledgment, but his eyes, his very blue eyes, were on Rodney. He was wearing a visitor’s pass around his neck.
Damn if that didn’t set off his uniform kink. The one he didn’t really even know he had until he’d come across those photographs of Sheppard in dress blues. Sheppard had also risen to the rank of major in the Air Force, only there was some mysterious ‘black mark’ hinted at in his career, and though he’d been honorably discharged, Rodney (and the media) had always had the impression it was under duress. Once in an unguarded moment when Rodney had asked Sheppard what he do if he wasn’t a writer, Sheppard had answered ‘fly’ without hesitation. Rodney had pointed out that Sheppard had a pilot’s license (in fact, Sheppard’s weird jack-of-all-trades skill set had gotten them out of hot water more than once—how many average people in New York could fly a helicopter, for crying out loud?), and Sheppard had quickly agreed that was so. Too quickly. Rodney had gone poking around in Sheppard’s service record after that, but it was sealed.

He felt as though he should offer the major some hand sanitizer, certain that when he spoke, a noxious cloud of eucalyptus vapor would waft in the officer’s direction. That didn’t stop him from appreciating the way the uniform accentuated the set of the man’s shoulders, or the trimness of his physique. It reminded him of the photos of Sheppard he’d seen, and how damn fine the man had looked. Sure, most days Sheppard wore a custom tailored suit, but somehow he always seemed slightly rumpled and a little rough around the edges, as though he’d just rolled out of bed. Though that look seemed to work for him as well. Rodney felt himself flushing and blamed it on the fever.

“I’m Rodney McKay,” he said. He indicated Teyla with one hand. “Detective Emmagan. May we help you?”

“Yes, well, I’m looking for John Sheppard. I was told he could be found here.” Major Lorne gave an impossibly boyish smile for an officer, and Rodney felt an irrational surge of anger. Of course, he was looking for Sheppard. Wasn’t everyone?

“You were told wrong. Have you tried his apartment? Perhaps he’s out of the city at the moment. It is almost Christmas, you know.”

Lorne looked briefly crestfallen. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think. What with the release of Heat Wave and all, the way the media talked about your working relationship, I just assumed...Would you tell him I stopped by?” He extracted a card from his wallet and handed it over. “If you see him, would you tell him I would very much like to get in touch with him before I head back to Afghanistan? I’m shipping out right after the first of the year.” He suddenly looked much older than he had before, and Rodney felt ashamed of his earlier fit of jealousy, even as it grumbled and threatened to grow stronger.

“I am sure that Sheppard would not want to miss you,” Teyla interjected when Rodney stared at the card in front of him a little too long. “We will be sure to pass on the message as soon as we see him next.”

“Thank you,” Lorne said, smiling once more. “We were part of the same unit at one time. He made an extremely generous donation to one of the funds set up to help out families when one of our own has been disabled in service. I wanted to thank him personally, among other things.”

Rodney tucked the card into his pocket. It was the ‘other things’ part that made him a bit short with the major. “Right. Well, we’ll pass the message on when we see him. If we see him, that is.”

Both Lorne and Teyla fixed him with questioning looks.

“Well, he’s finished Heat Wave. He really has no reason to stay on here, does he now? He’ll be moving on, the way he always does.”

“I don’t know about that,” Lorne said unexpectedly. “I get the impression he’s really happy here. That he’s doing some good work again. You don’t know—” he broke off suddenly.

“I don’t know what?” Rodney couldn’t help it; his interrogation voice came though. Teyla elbowed him with her eyes, but since she couldn’t actually jab him in the stomach, he ignored her.

Lorne shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him. It’s not my story to tell. All I can say is, this work here, this work with you, has given him purpose again. John Sheppard needs a purpose in order to stay out of trouble.”

“Somehow I don’t have a hard time believing that,” Rodney groused, and was surprised by Lorne’s laugh.

“May I say what an honor it is meeting Nicholas Heat in person? I have to tell you, that was a bold move on Sheppard’s part, creating a gay protagonist in a mainstream mystery series that wasn’t a caricature or a political statement, but just a fact of life.”

“It’s fiction,” Rodney ground out through his teeth, and then spoiled the effect by sneezing. He’d been livid when Sheppard had revealed this little fact about Nicholas Heat. He could clearly recall the eyebrow lift and sardonic smile when Sheppard had patted him on the shoulder and said, “Relax, everyone knows I just make up stuff as I go along, right?”

An awkward silence fell.

“Um, right you are,” Lorne said, sounding unaccountably British. “Well, I’d best be pushing off. Do tell Sheppard I stopped by.”

Rodney waved him off, throwing himself heavily into his chair as Teyla escorted Lorne into the corridor. He rested his heated forehead on his folded arms across his desk and wished that he didn’t feel like crap. Despite chugging fluids all afternoon, his lips felt chapped and his skin taut and dry, like tanned leather pulled over his bones.

His cell phone chirped. Tugging it free from his pocket, he saw that he had a text from Sheppard.

You still at the precinct? If so, I’ll stop by.

He sat staring at the words for a long moment. Who knew what Sheppard meant by ‘I’ll stop by’ anyway? It could be in twenty minutes or in two hours. The temptation was to say no, that he’d gone home, and he knew deep down he should go home. Things were starting to get a little fuzzy and he couldn’t remember with clarity what day of the week it was. His throat was burning and his chest felt like a boa constrictor was coiled around him and starting to slowly squeeze down. He longed for the comfort of crawling under the covers and not coming out for the next few days. He recognized too, that a perverse little part of him wanted to tell Sheppard no just to mess with whatever plans he had up his sleeve, but the sick part of him, the part that wanted someone to make him chicken soup, place a blanket around his shoulders, and bring him ginger ale with a large glass of chipped ice, knew that he wanted to see Sheppard. If only to give him a heads up about the various people looking for him.
He typed his response with his head still down on his desk, holding the phone in one hand as he slowly keyed in the response.

I’m here. Don’t know how much longer though. You better not be bringing me a gift. We said no gifts.

His thumb hovered over the send button before he finally clicked it.

Who said anything about presents?

Rodney could hear the smirk in the return text.

“Detective McKay?” A timid sounding female voice made him groan.

“Now what?” he said, not caring if he sounded pissed. He lifted his head.

The woman in front of him looked scared. She was a mousey type, with lank blonde hair that would have looked better with a shorter cut, and clutching a large purse by its shoulder strap, as though it was a shield. Zelenka was with her.

“She’s looking for Sheppard. I thought certain he would be here.” Zelenka pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he surveyed the Sheppardless room.

“You and everyone else,” Rodney said with venom. “Look, Miss, uh…”

“It’s Mrs. Holland. Mrs. Amy Holland.”

“Yes, well, Mrs. Holland, as you can see, we’re a homicide division, not John Sheppard’s personal secretarial bureau.”

“I really need to speak with Mr. Sheppard. You see, he knew my husband. They were in the service together. I recently found something among my husband’s things that I think John would want to see.”

She said something else, but all he heard was ‘blah-blah-blah’ as though he was a dog in a Gary Larson cartoon. If only she’d shut up. He let her run on for a while, not hearing anything but the grating of her voice in his ear and finally he interrupted when he could take it no longer. “If you want to see him, he should be stopping by later in the evening. You’re free to wait in the break room. Zelenka will show you the way.”

“Come with me, Mrs. Holland,” Zelenka said, guiding her by the arm and briefly scowling at Rodney over his shoulder. “We have a very lovely cappuccino machine right this way.”

Rodney hunched down in his jacket as he watched them walk away, wondering why the murder room had to be so goddamn cold. Shivering, he jerked open the bottom drawer of his desk, hoping beyond hope that he would find something for his misery. Some aspirin. Some Mucinex. Something.

What he found was a bottle of Nyquil. He started at the discovery as though spotting a snake. Glancing guiltily around, he reached down and carefully lifted it out of the drawer. He set it on the corner of his desk like it was a bottle of fine whiskey. One little shot. That’s all. He’d take one little shot and lie down for a power nap until it kicked in. Then his head would be clear and he could function again. He ignored the fact that Nyquil knocked him on his ass for at least twelve hours and that he usually only took it at home when he was off duty. He’d forgotten that he’d picked up a bottle at the drugstore earlier that day, which just went to prove how sick he was. He needed this. He measured out the metered dose in the little plastic cap and sucked it down, licking the syrupy liquid out of the cap and replacing both hastily before anyone noticed. The sofa in the interview lounge would be empty; he’d just lie down for a little while there.

He almost whimpered with relief when he found the ugly crocheted blanket that Cadman had donated to the precinct—who knew that Cadman had a freaky domestic streak? It didn’t matter that the colors looked like someone had thrown up at a crime scene, the cotton was surprisingly soft. Rodney kicked off his shoes, propped a sofa cushion under his head so he could breathe, and wrapped the blanket around him, shivering again. He took off his badge and cuffs, laying them along with his gun on the end table. This sucked big time. Being sick. Working while sick. Working while everyone else made plans for a fun and festive holiday. Well, that was par for the course, right? That’s what McKays did for the holidays.

He felt a cough coming on and tried to will it into submission. It would only hurt and be as non-productive as the ones before. The overhead light seemed too bright and yet he hardly had the energy to get up and turn it off. The cough broke through, despite his efforts. Might as well get up since he was coughing now. He turned off the harsh fluorescent light and crawled back under the blanket, shivering as he did so.

***

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep when a small sound woke him. Groaning, he opened his eyes and saw Ford sitting in the chair opposite the couch, the soft glow of the lamp on the end table illuminating his face slightly. Only it couldn’t be Ford. Aiden had been killed in the line of duty shortly after Sheppard had begun shadowing the team.

And yet, there he was. Smiling with that wide, engaging grin that he’d always had.

They’d been investigating a series of murders tied into a local Russian mobster named Kolya, the one who was behind one of the rival gangs to the Wraith. It was hard to argue with anyone who had the balls to take on the Wraith the way Kolya and his Genii had done, but unfortunately, they didn’t seem to care who got in their way, either.

Ford had been one of the causalities in Kolya’s little war.

He and Sheppard would have been among the dead as well, only Sheppard had morphed inexplicably from pretty, pretty playboy into trained killer in the blink of an eye, and not only had he solved the puzzle that freed them from the chamber in which Kolya had imprisoned them, but he’d put three rounds into the mobster just as he was getting ready to shoot Rodney. It had been a surreal situation in many ways, and one that Rodney could not help but relieve in those moments between sleep and wakefulness.

But Ford was dead.

“Hey, McKay,” Ford said in that easy way of his. Ford had been excited to have Sheppard following them, had taken Weir’s line that the publicity would be good for the department, had been delighted with the way Sheppard needled Rodney and had laughed at his outrageous theories. The Wraith are really an alien species from another planet. Kolya is looking for magic artifacts with which to defeat them. The Genii are building nuclear weapons in their basements. The Captain and Tennille are getting back together.

“Just wanted to give you a little heads up. You’re going to be visited by three spirits tonight. You know the drill. Just thought you might want to know.”

“No, wait!” Rodney sat up hurriedly to find himself tangled in the cotton blanket in a darkened room. He cursed heartily, feeling his pulse pound erratically and knowing that it was only partly due to being ill. Goddamn Nyquil. This was why he only took it at home. He pressed the dial that illuminated the watch face. Nearly ten pm, if he could go by the inaccurate timepiece. He should just go home. Sheppard wasn’t coming this late anyway. He thought about having to find his shoes and collect his coat, and the long, cold trip home, and decided crashing on the couch wasn’t so bad after all. He was asleep in under a minute of his head touching the cushion again.

***

The light came up in the room slowly, and that fact registered with approval. It was like natural light—or one of those light clocks he’d read about and thought about getting. A gentle impingement on his subconscious until he woke on his own—though that would probably never work for a homicide detective. Too often the call to another crime scene was his alarm. Still, it was nice for once to waken slowly. It reminded him of holidays as a child, when he’d been allowed to sleep until he was ready to get up.

“Wake up poopy-head.”

Or until his sister got him up. Rodney opened an eye, just in time to get hit with a pillow. “Go away,” he groaned. “I’b thick.” He exaggerated any sign of illness he might have to the fullest effect. Oddly, however, he no longer seemed to be sick at all.

A giggle made him jerk to complete wakefulness. No. It couldn’t be…
He pulled the pillow down from his face and found himself lying in the small, cramped bed of his youth; his feet dangling off the end. To his left, beyond the window, the sun sparkled with brilliance on the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He was in their vacation home on Prince Edward Island. God, it had killed him when his parents had sold the property as part of their divorce. But he was somehow here now, and if he was here, then…

He turned to the source of the giggle and saw Jeannie looking at him with that expectant look she’d always had when she knew something he didn’t and she was pretty sure he wasn’t going to like it. She was dressed in a thin, cotton nightgown, with a wreath of grapevine around her tangled curls and her bare toes peeping out from the hem of her gown. She didn’t seem cold in the slightest. She also didn’t look a day over eight.

“Let me guess,” he said dryly. “The Ghost of Christmas Past?”

“Got it in one, Mr. Clever Pants. But then you always were the smart one, weren’t you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rodney asked, and immediately was aware of two things. He no longer had a cold, and he was arguing with the eight-year old version of his deceased sister. Thank goodness he wasn’t as correspondingly young. In fact, he was still himself, and still wearing his clothes from the night before. He made a grab at his waist, but the gun and badge were gone, and he remembered taking them off and laying them aside. Well, crap. Surely he wouldn’t need them here, right?

“Only that no one asked you to give up all your dreams to become a Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist and go haring off into the police academy to find my killer. I’ll thank you to stop blaming me for that.”

“Wait, what? I don’t blame—I want to find your killer. I happen to be a damn good homicide detective, thank you very much, and probably contribute a lot more on a daily basis than by dinking around with some esoteric theories about space and time. I’m a good cop.” He rolled upright, placing his sock feet on the cold wooden floor. “I don’t resent the fact that I became a cop because of you. I resent—”

He broke off suddenly at her sharp, bird-like assessment.

“Yes?” She prompted. When he didn’t answer, she asked, “What happened to your hair?”

Involuntarily, he reached for his head. “Lots of people go darker when they get older. And lose those baby curls too.”

“And go bald as well,” Jeannie said with ruthless glee. “I just thought you’d have more hair, you know? You had so much when we were growing up together.”

“I have plenty of hair,” Rodney said, and immediately thought of Sheppard’s springy mass of bad-boy hair that stood up in all directions in what was no doubt a combination of an artful cut and a generous use of hair gel. Okay, no one had hair like that, at least, not pushing forty. It wasn’t fair.

Downstairs, the sound of raised voices and the sudden smash of broken crockery caught Rodney’s attention. He glanced guiltily at Jeannie, who looked thoughtfully sad.

“I thought it came later. The fighting, I mean.”

“We remember what we want to remember,” Jeannie said quietly, and held out her hand. “Come, let’s take a walk on the beach.”

No sooner had he taken hold of her hand than they were outside on the windswept dunes. He let go of her hand to pull the lapels of his jacket up around his neck, feet slipping in his dress shoes that he hadn’t remembered putting back on, slogging in the heavy sand. He staggered along in Jeannie’s wake as she twirled like a ballerina in front of him until they both reached the hard packed sand of the outgoing tide and it was easier to walk. He’d missed the sea. He hadn’t been back as an adult, not since he’d moved to New York. It was odd to think of it now, but he’d become a city rat, as comfortable in the Big Apple as if he’d grown up there his whole life. New York had a personality. She was almost a living thing, as much a character in his investigations and his daily life as much as if she was a real person.

He paused to look out over the sea, clouds rolling in and turning the sky and ocean alike into a pewter-gray color. Among the salt, he smelled sleet, and something else. That indefinable something that meant a storm was coming. “We’ll have snow later,” he said, but Jeannie was gone.

“Jeannie!” He raised his voice to call her name, but the wind laughingly snatched it away. The beach was empty; there was no sign of the footprints they’d left in the sand to reach the shore. A sense of panic washed over him, bubbling up with the cold froth of the sea, and he began to run back the way they’d come. He had to find her. He had to tell her how sorry he was, how he never should have talked her into coming to New York to study there, that it was his fault they’d always fought like cats and dogs, and his fault that he’d never found her killer. His fault too, that he’d let Kaleb and Madison exit his life without a backward glance, unable to bear the very sight of them. The way Madison looked so much like her, and already showed so much of Jeannie’s bright promise. The look of blame in Kaleb’s eyes that he couldn’t excuse because he saw it starring back at him every time he looked in the mirror. It made no fucking sense. It never had. A seemingly random stabbing in an alley where Jeannie shouldn’t have been. And it was one puzzle Rodney had never been able to solve. The most important puzzle of them all.

He’d almost been content to leave it alone, to put it behind him as something that was unsolvable, except for Sheppard and his damned notion that there was always a story. Somewhere along the way, he’d missed Jeannie’s story and now he would never know what it was.

The difficulty of running on the hard sand and the lack of a definable goal made him slow to a stumbling halt, and he leaned over with both hands on his knees, taking in huge gulping gasps of air cold enough to make his lungs burn. When he looked up, there was a tumbledown shack on the beach up ahead that he hadn’t seen before, the color of driftwood and blending into the dunes under the overcast skies. Right. New destination then.

The warped boards of the stairs creaked under his shoes as he climbed up onto the porch. Through chinks in the walls, he could see light, and impossibly, heard the sound of Bing Crosby crooning about how it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. He was just reaching for the doorknob when the door flew open and Madison rushed out, clasping him just above his knees.

“Uncle Mer!” she trilled. “Mommy, Uncle Mer is here!” In a voice slightly lower than shrieking, she added, “Did you bring them like you promised? The sausage balls?”

What could he do but allow himself to be pulled inside? Into what appeared to be Jeannie’s old apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. Instead of sand, he stomped slush off his shoes at the door, and discovered as Maddy dragged him inside that he did indeed have several bags and parcels with him.

“Yes, I think I brought them,” he said to his niece, “but remember what we said? We’re to call them cheese balls.”

“Right, because it’s not like Kaleb and I won’t know the difference.” Jeannie stood in the doorway to the kitchen, mixing bowl tucked in close under one arm as she stirred vigorously with a wooden spoon. “Come on in. Kaleb had to run out for more cinnamon. Or vanilla. I forget which.” She had a smudge of flour over one cheekbone and her hair was curling out of its simple ponytail to trail along the sides of her face. She was heart-stoppingly beautiful and it killed Rodney that he’d never told her that. Because to him she’d just been Jeannie. His sometimes brilliant, but mostly pain-in-the-ass sister.

Instead of telling her so now, he felt inexplicably compelled to stick to the script. “What are you making? Besides a flour bomb?”

Jeannie made a face and turned back into the kitchen. Rodney followed as best he could with Maddy clinging to him like a limpet.

“Pie,” she said, pausing in her stirring to peer anxiously at the open cookbook and then hastily turn a page that had obviously flipped in her absence.

“With vodka?” Rodney couldn’t help but question the newly opened bottle on the counter.

“I have it on the best authority, no really, I do, that adding some chilled vodka makes for the best pie crust. One of my friends used to be a pastry chef and she says it evaporates off and leaves the crust all flaky.”

“Why can’t we have a store-bought pie like we always do?” He set the bags down on the table, unwinding the scarf from around his neck. “And I think you’re supposed to put the vodka in the crust, not the chef.”

The look that Jeannie gave him would have withered anyone other than a McKay. “You didn’t really bring sausage balls, did you? You know we’re vegetarians.”

“No one’s really a vegetarian on Christmas,” Rodney countered.

“Come see the tree!” Maddy took him by the hand, and with supernatural strength, hauled him into the other room. “Wait!” she exclaimed, and then ran over to the light switch. The room plunged into darkness, save for the lit Christmas tree, sparkling in the window, reflected back against the glass.

“Pretty,” Rodney said, walking over to the window and looking out onto the Hudson, the lights of ships on the water in keeping with the season.

“So what have you been up to?” Jeannie asked from the kitchen door, bowl still in hand. Rodney turned and followed her back into the kitchen, and they began to talk shop.

It was funny, thinking of it now, the cramped apartment and the tight finances. He’d mentioned he was studying zero point energy and Jeannie had gotten that far away look she got sometimes, rattling off questions that Rodney had only just thought of himself. Then Kaleb came in and the conversation turned to Maddy’s school, and life at the university, and it was one of the last times Rodney remembered being uncomplicatedly happy in the company of family. There came a moment in which it occurred to him to say something; to warn them all of the disaster to come, and yet what could he say? He even opened his mouth once to say, “I’m from the future and we’re sitting in a shack on the beach,” and yet instinctively, he knew that no matter what he said or did, they wouldn’t believe him. If he opened the door to show them the ocean, they’d see the hallway of Jeannie’s apartment building instead.

They talked him into staying the night, and he’d gotten the pullout sofa bed, which no doubt would wreak havoc with his back, but after everyone went to bed, he laid in the darkness and watched the lights on the tree twinkle on, twinkle off, long after everyone else was asleep.

***

“Wake up,” Sheppard said, “The game’s afoot.”

“What?” Rodney opened one bleary eye and looked at his nemesis. John Sheppard. Handsome in a rakish, devil-may-care kind of way. He was wearing one of his many and varied looks, but the one Rodney secretly liked the best. The one where he looked as though he might have just walked off a three day bender in Vegas or the set of Miami Vice. The crumpled linen suit. The two days worth of stubble. The sunglasses that he didn’t need here inside the precinct at night. “What game? Do we have a case?”

“Not really,” Sheppard smiled. It was that secret smile, the one just between friends. The one he probably shared with his lovers, too. “I’ve just always wanted to say that.”

“That would make you Holmes and me Watson. Um, no.”

“No? Why not? Aren’t I the brilliant, unstable one?” His grin was like quicksilver, there and gone in a flash.

“I’m the genius detective,” Rodney said, sitting up and tossing back the crocheted blanket. “You’re the Boswellian sidekick. That should be obvious.”

“Point taken,” Sheppard said, leaning back in his chair, one ankle resting negligently across his knee. “Are you finished power napping now? Because we’ve got places to go.”

“Don’t tell me,” Rodney groaned, placing his head in his hands briefly before looking up again. “You’re the Ghost of Christmas Present?”

“Well, of course, I am,” Sheppard grinned, and he was now wearing a Santa hat at a jaunty angle.

“I always thought those looked like elf ears,” Rodney said, reaching down for his shoes.

Sheppard fingered one of his ears with a frown.

“So what will it be?” Rodney asked with a sigh as he heaved himself to his feet. “You’re going to take me all around the city in a fancy red car and show me what I’m missing?”

“Too mundane. Not enough drama for this particular story. No, this time, we fly.” He was on his feet in one fluid motion, taking Rodney by the arm. There was a brief instant, in which Sheppard pulled him in close, where Rodney could smell the expensively subtle cologne (it had to be cologne, the man hadn’t shaved in days, Rodney would swear to that) and then they were gone in a rush of cold air and dizzying turns, swooping and sailing and riding invisible currents of air that spiraled until it spat them out on the ground in Central Park.

Rodney took several stumbling steps before he came to a halt, shivering. “Crap, it’s cold,” he grumbled. It seemed colder than he could account for simply by being outside in merely a sports coat on a December evening in New York. Like the trip itself had been through a frozen void. “What are we doing here?”

He looked around but the park seemed empty and desolate, bare-limbed trees swaying stiffly in the night air, as though they were clawing at the sky. The grass was brittle with the earlier sleet, and crunched underfoot as they walked. Sheppard didn’t seem to notice the cold, which was how Rodney knew this wasn’t real because Sheppard was always cold. It could be forty degrees out and he’d still be wearing a heavy parka. Rodney grew up in Canada. These native New Yorkers didn’t know cold like he did.

The flying thing with Sheppard had been downright frigid. And exhilarating. And he wanted to do it again. Oh right, this was dream Sheppard. There was bound to be a metaphor in that somewhere.

“Hey!” Rodney called out to Sheppard’s retreating back, which had no right looking so damn good in a thin suit like that. Rodney had gone undercover with Sheppard once to some fancy soiree and had discovered just how fine the man looked in a tux when he bothered to clean up. And man, did he clean up nice. The dichotomy of suave Sheppard and scruffy Sheppard was one that needed repeated examination so that Rodney could decide which one he liked best. Because just about the time that scruffy Sheppard would reach the point of becoming Sasquatch, smooth Sheppard would appear again, and that was fine by Rodney.

Sheppard kept walking like he knew where he was going, which he obviously didn’t; it was why Rodney never let him drive in the city. He took a few running steps to catch up, his breath trailing vapor behind him as he moved.

They reached an underpass, where several people were huddled around a burn barrel. Rodney felt for his gun, and cursed the fact that he must have left it back at the precinct, along with his badge. “Maybe we shouldn’t—” he began, but Sheppard placed a finger against his lips.

“Shhh. You’re safe with me.” He had the audacity to wink.

Rodney opened his mouth to say something suitably brusque about how he could take care of himself and he didn’t need anyone looking out for him, but he closed it instead. It had felt good on those times when Sheppard had his back and he’d gotten used to working with the man. Now that he knew Sheppard was scarily good with a gun as well, he worried a lot less about the foolishness of letting a mere writer tag along on his investigations.

Sometimes it just felt good to know you were covered.

They approached the burn barrel, but no one seemed to notice their arrival on the scene. Rodney hung back at first, but when it was apparent no one could see them, he edged closer into the fire. Pity, the fire gave off no heat that he could feel. Stamping his feet and rubbing his hands together, he turned to Sheppard.

“Right, right, visiting scenes of Christmas happening right now but we can’t take part in them. So how come, if we’re not ‘really’ here,” Rodney complained, making the appropriate finger quotes when he could get his hands out from his armpits, “is it so fucking cold?”

The night air was so frigid that it had that breathless quality to it, as though by sucking it in, he had to let it melt in his chest before he could use it. Up north, the sky would have been brilliant with stars, as though some giant had crushed them up in his fist and scattered them by the bucketful, but here the ambient light drowned them out, muting all save the very brightest.

“I dunno,” Sheppard shrugged. “Maybe because you’ve got a fever?”

It was as good an answer as any.

 

After watched the ragged cluster of people around the barrel a bit longer, Rodney spoke again. “I get it, starving homeless people in the park. Look, it’s not like I think there should be workhouses and such. I do my bit. I try to make these streets as safe as possible.”

“Did you think this was some Scrooge thing? Hell, McKay. You do your bit for society. You do more than your bit. Certainly more than some mystery novelist. You’re the real deal.”

Rodney shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure I agree with you on the ‘more’ part. I mean, in relation to what you do. The writing.”

Sheppard pulled down his sunglasses to look over the brim at Rodney. He made a sad, ‘tsking’ noise. “You must be really sick. A novelist is as meaningful to society, is as necessary to the world, as a homicide detective? It’s not even in the same ball park.”

“Give me those,” Rodney said, snagging the sunglasses from Sheppard’s hand. He stuffed them in the pocket of his jacket. “You look ridiculous, wearing shades at night. Who do you think you are?” He paused, trying to remember the name of the artist who’d sung about that, and snapped his fingers when he did. “Corey Hart.”

Sheppard said the name with him at the same time. “Jinx,” he added.

“Seriously? We are not doing the jinx thing right now.”

“He chose to keep talking,” Sheppard said in a sing-song voice, as though to himself. The implication being that what happened from here on out was Rodney’s fault.

Rodney ignored this juvenile behavior for what it was—a means of distraction. “As I was saying,” he continued with emphasis, “what you do has more merit than you think. Why do you think people buy your stories in the first place, huh?”

“Boredom?” Sheppard offered, most likely naming his biggest personal problem. “Marketing? Because I really am ruggedly handsome?”

Rodney punched him in the shoulder. He mock-winced and rubbed his arm as Rodney rolled his eyes. “No, doofus. Because for the most part, life sucks. And at the end of the day, most of us would like to step outside ourselves, our lives, for just a little bit. To be someone else, somewhere else, doing something different than what we do every day.” He would never admit it, but there was a time in his life when the only thing Rodney could read were cheesy romances and cozy mysteries. He’d consumed them like crack because they’d numbed his pain.

“Isn’t reading mysteries a bit of a busman’s honeymoon for you?” Sheppard asked, a smirk lurking in his voice again.

“The fact that I know the significance of your deliberate misuse of the phrase merely proves my point,” Rodney said loftily. “Dorothy Sayers was a genius. The best mysteries can be read again and again because they aren’t about the murder—they’re about the people dealing with it.”

“Still a bit of a busman’s holiday, if you ask me,” Sheppard said, and this time his voice was gentle. Before Rodney could take him up on that, however, he turned his attention to the people gathered at the barrel.

“Do you think he’ll come?” the old woman at the barrel asked, a tremor in her voice.

“He usually does this time of night.” The thin man standing next to her coughed, and then spat.

“I hope he brings meat. Oh, I can taste it now, can’t you?” she crooned. “Fresh meat. Bloody meat, fat sizzling into the fire.”

“Shut up, you old bag.” A red-cheeked man, whose bulbous nose spoke of a lifetime of too much alcohol, snarled as he pulled the collar of his coat up tighter around his chin.

“I’m not too proud to eat rat,” the old woman sniffed. “But a nice, fat rabbit would be good.”

“I just hope he doesn’t bring us anything too nice.” The young woman with stringy hair sounded as though the weight of the world had crushed her a long time ago. “People always take the nice things from you.”

There was a general murmuring of consensus, and then something moved in the shadows beyond. Something big. Sheppard gripped Rodney’s arm, and Rodney found himself holding his breath and leaning in toward Sheppard as they watched the giant shadow approach. The flickering flames leaping up from the barrel made him seem ten feet tall, and something about his form made him misshapen. For a frightening instant, Rodney thought he was kind of hunchback, until he realized the approaching figure carried a large sack on one shoulder. The people at the barrel separated to let him through, and then gathered around like children at some weird Christmas party.

The way Sheppard relaxed his grip on Rodney’s arm made him suspect that he’d known all along who to expect and that he’d just been winding Rodney up with fake tension.

It was the man from the lobby, the one that Chuck had wanted him to meet.
“Who is this guy?” Rodney whispered, as the large man began doling out things from his bag.

“Ronon Dex,” Sheppard said. “They can’t hear us. Why are you whispering?”

The man named Ronon looked up sharply, and for a moment, Rodney was sure he had heard them. Then he ducked his head and went back to handing out his items.

“Um, no reason,” Rodney said quietly. From what he could see, it looked as though Dex was handing out coats and sleeping bags. The real prize, however, was the bucket of fried chicken he pulled out last. The people at the barrel pushed and shoved to grab several pieces at once, tearing at the crispy skin, pulling the meat off the bones without finesse, as only the starving can. “So why are we here? If not to mock me for not doing more to help the homeless?”

“I wanted you to see him.” Sheppard nodded to Dex.

The young girl stroked the sleeping bag with greasy fingers. “I can’t take this,” she said. “Someone would kill for it.”

“No one dies tonight,” Dex rumbled. “You sleep. I’ll watch. In the morning, you hide your stuff or go to a shelter.”

The fire crackled and hissed as several of the people nodded slowly.
“Here,” Dex said, his teeth gleaming whitely in the darkness of the night. “There’s a little more chicken left.” He held up a second bucket.

Sheppard led Rodney away from the fire. “Ready for your next stop?”

Rodney looked back over his shoulder at the ring of faces surrounding the fire, in some small way immeasurably happier than they’d been just moments before. It wasn’t enough—Dex’s efforts were pitiful compared to what they really needed, and yet Rodney had no idea how he could realistically do any more to help, working the hours that he did. Vague guilt settled uneasily over him as he went with Sheppard. “Yeah,” he said uncertainly, taking Sheppard’s hand.

It was surprisingly warm, and taking it just felt right.

They walked along the glittering grass until they picked out a running trail winding its way through the trees.

“Not that I’m complaining, McKay,” Sheppard said in a voice tinged with amusement, “but why are we holding hands?”

Rodney snatched his hand back as rapidly as though he’d reached into a drawer and discovered a spider. “I thought we were going to the next place. You know, the sliding, flying thing.”

Sheppard snorted and recaptured his hand. “We are, we are. I’m just picking on you. Man, you are so easy.”

Rodney was about to retort when he heard a slight sound off the path beside them. He came to a dead halt, straining to listen. “Did you hear that?” he asked?

“Hear what?” For some reason, Sheppard seemed suddenly remote, as though he was deliberately pretending that he hadn’t heard it too.

“That.” Rodney snapped his fingers. “Something’s crying… over here!”
He pushed his way through the undergrowth until he found the source of the noise, a young black dog tied with a chain leash to a tree. The pup had obviously been there a while, judging from the stamped down vegetation around it. He’d made himself a sort of nest out of the blanket that had been left with him, but it was frozen stiff with sleet in places. The pup was sitting upright, and as Sheppard joined Rodney in looking down at it, the puppy lifted his muzzle and howled mournfully.

“Oh no,” Rodney said.

“Yeah.” Sheppard didn’t sound happy, either, but it wasn’t until Rodney knelt to unfasten the leash that he realized why Sheppard had made no move to help him. Normally Sheppard made a fuss over every dog they saw on the streets—Rodney would have expected nothing less here.
His hand passed right through the chain when he tried to unsnap it.

“No! No, no, no.” Rodney stood up again and looked at Sheppard helplessly. The look on Sheppard’s face nearly killed him. The devil-may-care mask he normally wore bled through with a mix of compassion and sorrow.

“There’s nothing we can do.”

“Who would do such a thing?” Rodney raged as he followed in Sheppard’s wake, pointing back at the abandoned puppy and yelling as though Sheppard had been the one to leave it there. “On a night like this?”

“It was probably daylight when they left him here. Maybe it was someone who couldn’t keep him anymore and thought someone would have found him by now. Maybe it was someone who intended to come back but something prevented them from doing so. I don’t know.” Anger edged his voice now and he hunched his shoulders against Rodney’s questions as he continued to walk away.

“Well, this sucks!” Rodney shouted at him. He stopped in his tracks, refusing to go any further. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Sheppard turned on his heel, walking back toward Rodney with an angry determination that he’d seldom seen before. It occurred to him that, like the cool-headed sharpshooter that had appeared the night Koyla had tried to kill them, this Sheppard, this tightly controlled man, was probably a more accurate picture of the real John Sheppard than the drawling, laughing personality that had made its presence felt in the ward room these last months.

“Who are you?” Rodney blurted out, when Sheppard fisted his jacket and pulled Rodney into his chest.

He was prepared for Sheppard to haul off and hit him, only something about his question tickled Sheppard’s weird sense of humor and he laughed instead, breathlessly, inches away from Rodney’s face. For one single instant, Rodney thought Sheppard might kiss him.

Instead, Sheppard said, “Come with me and find out.”

They rushed through time and space again, swooping through the atmosphere in a manner that was every bit as exhilarating as the first time they’d done it, but Rodney felt a sort of sick disappointment. How idiotic could he be? Expecting—wanting—someone like Sheppard to kiss him. It wasn’t so much a question of his sexuality—anyone who’d written the kind of scenes he’d created in Heat Wave had to have had some personal experience along those lines or else he had one helluva good source. Not to mention making Nicolas Heat gay in the first place. As Lorne had said; a pretty ballsy move. Nor was it really about whether or not Sheppard realized how close to home he’d come in modeling Heat on Rodney. It was the yin and yang of them. How had he put it? Starsky and Hutch? Turner and Hooch?

It was the rich kid and the college dropout. Catered book release parties versus stale doughnuts during the booking of a suspect. Caviar versus pastrami on rye. Though he’d seen Sheppard eat pastrami with obvious enjoyment, that didn’t mean he wanted it every day. He didn’t want to be something else Sheppard got tired of having.

The icy rollercoaster ride dropped Rodney out in a stumbling half run to stagger to a halt in the corridor of a high rise apartment building. It took him a moment to realize that he was in the plush surroundings of Sheppard’s building, and a second longer to realize he was alone.
Cursing under his breath, he walked down the deep-piled carpet to Sheppard’s door, intending to thump his fist against its surface. When he tried to knock on the door, however, like the chain leash in the park, his hand went right through it. Shrugging, he walked through it.

At first, he thought no one was home. A small light over the stove illuminated the open kitchen, which was visible from the entranceway. The rest of the apartment was dark, save for the undersized Christmas tree lit in one corner of the room. Somehow, he’d expected to Sheppard to have a massive ten foot fir—he certainly had the ceiling space for it—but instead, the tree was almost modest. It was tastefully decorated with shiny garlands and colored glass balls, and the tiny white lights twinkled among the branches. There seemed to be an inordinate number of packages under the tree, and Rodney wondered who they were all for, as Sheppard lived alone. He realized, as he walked into the room to get a closer look, that they probably represented gifts from his many fans and business contacts: publishers, fellow authors, and whatnot. The gifts looked impeccably wrapped in the manner of a professional service, and it struck Rodney as a little sad somehow.

It was then he saw the thin wreath of cigar smoke trailing upward from the big chair in the study where Sheppard normally worked. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, Rodney could make out Sheppard sitting behind his desk, a tumbler by his hand and a bottle of Scotch beside it. The end of the cigar glowed red as Sheppard drew on it, and loathsome as Rodney found smoking to be, he had to admit to himself right here that sometimes it was hard to beat the smell of a good cigar. The smoke wreathed around the familiar silhouette of Sheppard’s hair as he exhaled and Rodney wished he could smell it.

But what was Sheppard doing sitting in the dark?

Sheppard’s cell phone buzzed, vibrating on the surface of the desk. It buzzed again, and then the theme song for Hawaii 5-0 could be heard faintly in the room. Rodney heard Sheppard sigh before he leaned forward for the phone. When he answered it, his face was briefly illuminated in the screen before he placed the phone up to his ear. He took another long drag on the cigar before he spoke. “Dave,” he said, slowly releasing the smoke. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Rodney heard the answer in his ear as clearly as if he was holding the phone himself. “It’s Christmas, John. It’s kind of the expected thing to do.”

“Well, don’t feel obligated on my account.”

“Damn it, John, that’s not what I meant and you know it. If you didn’t act as though my calling you was tantamount to Arafat calling Rabin just to chat, maybe I’d do it more often.”

“More like Netanyahu and Abbas. You’re about twenty years behind the times. You should try watching something other than FOX News.” The sneering bite in Sheppard’s voice was unlike him, and if Rodney hadn’t been looking right at him, he’d have sworn it was someone else speaking.

“Look,” Dave sounded weary. “I’m not here to argue politics with you or play verbal handball. Not when you have such a stinging return. I’m calling because Dad wants to know if you’re coming for Christmas or not.”
“Dad wants to know.” Sheppard let the sentence lay heavy between them, and Rodney winced.

“Of course, I want to know too. Try not to be such an ass, John.”

“Dad wants to know but can’t call me himself?” Sheppard’s voice was sharper now.

“John. He’s seventy-seven. He’s not going to change. Are you coming or not?”

“Suppose I said yes? Suppose I said I was bringing someone with me?” The chair creaked as Sheppard leaned back in it, and Rodney recognized this posture and tone now. This was Sheppard’s plotting mode, the musing way he got when he began to toss around various potential theories about a case. It had none of his usual drawling overtones, however. It felt as though he was baiting his brother.

Dave apparently thought so too. He sounded wary when he replied. “Well, we get to see you so rarely, John, we had no idea there was someone that special in your life these days. Is it serious? Are you thinking about marrying again?”

The word jolted though Rodney as though he’d had a bucket of ice water tossed in his face. He stood gaping, trying not to sputter. Sheppard… was getting married?

“Who said anything about marrying? Or even that I was dating. I might be talking about a co-worker.” There was that edge in his voice that dared Dave to make something of it.

There was a long silence before Dave spoke again. “You’re an author. What kind of co-worker are we talking about here? You mean a publishing assistant? You’re that friendly with one of your co-workers that you’d invite them down for Christmas? Isn’t that kind of—” he broke off suddenly.

“Kind of what, Dave?” Rodney could imagine Sheppard’s eyes narrowing, just as they had before he’d shot Koyla.

“Look, we both know what this is about, John.” Dave was pissed now. “Nothing on that front has changed. As long as you keep bringing… unsuitable… partners home for Dad to meet, he’s going to continue to shut you out. But I guess maybe you like playing the role of the Black Sheep so much you can’t play nice for one fucking day out of the year.”

“It’s not a role, Dave.” Sheppard spoke quietly, obviously resigned. “That’s who I am. I played a role my entire life when I tried to be something I wasn’t for Dad’s sake. If he can’t accept that, well, I don’t really need to come down, do I?”

“There’s a difference between pretending you’re something you’re not and not flaunting what you are, for god’s sake.” A pleading note entered Dave’s voice. “You don’t have to bring a blond bombshell to gain his approval—just don’t bring the hunky cop.”

Both Rodney and Sheppard stiffened at that one.

“I never, I didn’t—” Sheppard sputtered.

“You didn’t have to,” There was a hint of a smile in Dave’s voice now. “We’ve all seen the magazine profile of you and your latest inspiration. Becky reads all your books, and she said that this newest one… well, let’s just say she said certain scenes could use a fire extinguisher, they were so, um, hot.”

“Really?” Sheppard preened a little, in the way all writers do when someone praises their work. Rodney wanted to flick him in the forehead with his thumb and middle finger. Repeatedly.

“Yeah. She also said,” Dave paused to cough, “that this one felt more real than all the others.”

“Yeah, well, I had some pretty good inspiration.” Sheppard puffed on the cigar again, reaching forward to tap the ash in a tray on the desk.

“Yeah, well she said that one of the most powerful scenes in the whole thing dealt with that quote on love.”

Sheppard was silent for a moment and then he said, “The one by Brian Andreas. Yeah.” His voiced lifted, somehow deeper and richer as he began to quote. “‘I read once that the ancient Egyptians had fifty words for sand, and the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow. I wish I had a thousand words for love, but all that comes to mind is the way you move against me while you sleep, and there are no words for that.’”

“Yeah, that one.” Dave sounded bemused. “She said that one scene was one of the hottest scenes she’d ever read, but from what I gather, there wasn’t any sex in it. Go figure. Not that I want to know about that!” he added hastily. “Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Look, I can understand if you aren’t going to come down this year, but you need to come sometime, and soon. Dad’s not always going to be here, you know.”

Sheppard sighed and damped out the cigar. “Maybe after the New Year, okay? I’ve got some people I need to see here right now.”

“Okay,” Dave said, a warning as well as a concession in his voice. “But don’t wait too long.”

Sheppard ended the call and turned on the lamp on the desk. A soft pool of light fell around him. He opened a drawer, taking out several wrapped packages and laying them on the desktop. Reaching under the desk, he pulled out a festive holiday bag and loaded the gifts within. As he stood up, Rodney felt the room retreat away from him, only he realized that it was him that was being pulled away instead.

***

He was standing in a cemetery in the cold, thin light of dawn. A light rain fell, turning the previous ice to slush.

Great.

Here was the part where The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come met him and showed him his fate. Showed him his name on a tombstone while he cowered and begged to be shown how to avoid his future.

Fuck that shit.

Rodney scanned his surroundings and headed in the most logical direction of an exit.

Ronon Dex stepped out from behind a monument into his path. His dreads were hanging loose now, shrouding his face. His greatcoat swirled theatrically around him. Rodney pulled up to an abrupt halt.

“Let me guess.” His voice was brittle with frost. “The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come? This is the part where you wordlessly cart me around the city, showing me horrible things that will happen if I don’t somehow embrace the Christmas Spirit with all my Grinchlike heart. I’ve seen the movie in all its various forms. Let’s just take that as a given, shall we? I don’t suppose you could be bribed into pretending we did this already and let me get back to my real work, could you?” Rodney started to edge past him.

“Who said anything about not speaking?” Dex raised an eyebrow at him that was beaded with icy droplets.

That pulled Rodney up short. “Oh. I just thought. You know, sticking to the pattern and all. That you’d be like the Grim Reaper, all unnerving silence and solemn dread. Commanding me to look or listen with an unspeaking pointing of your long, bony finger. I have no intention of looking at a tombstone with my name on it, by the way. I’m going to be cremated anyway, and my ashes scattered into the Hudson, so there wouldn’t be a gravesite for me here.” Rodney lifted his chin defiantly. At least this time, he wasn’t freezing. He didn’t feel the rain at all.

Dex gave an indifferent shrug. “It’s your funeral.” His smile appeared when Rodney began to sputter.

“No, it isn’t. That’s my point here, Conan the Barbarian. It’s not my funeral!”

“No, it’s not. It’s mine.” Dex pointed at a placard on the ground, and Rodney whipped his head around to look at it.

Half-buried in the autumn deadfall, Rodney almost didn’t see it at first. Sparing Dex a sharp glance, he dropped to one knee and peeled back the icy matting of dead leaves.

Ronon Dex
August 1, 1979 – Dec 24, 2012

“Hey!” Rodney exclaimed. “That’s today!”

When he looked up, Dex was walking away. Rodney scrabbled to his feet and trotted off after him. “Wait up—is this Christmas present or future? Are you my case for the day? Damn it, I knew I was going to get a call today!” Rodney scrunched up his face and shook his head at how impossibly stupid this whole scenario was—who argued with the murder victim, for fuck’s sake? He hurried after Dex.

He needn’t have worried. Dex was waiting for him in front of a mausoleum. When Rodney joined him, he pointed at the entrance, a dark, slotted opening in the black marble building. It looked like the gaping maw of some monster out of a fifties sci-fi movie. Rodney glanced at the doorway and folded his arms across his chest. “Not so fast. I have some questions for you.”

Dex smiled, and pointed at the doorway again.

“Oh, now you decide to be the Silent Spirit? Sorry, but that’s not good enough. I’m getting tired of this whole silly charade.”

Dex took him by the shoulders, spun him around, and shoved him through the door. Rodney was still protesting when he burst into the precinct from the interview room.

Oh, thank god. A dream after all.

He rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand, yawning as he made his way into the break room. Surprisingly, no one had made coffee yet this morning, and as he reached for a cup, it finally dawned on him that the ward room was both unusually full and solemnly quiet. He returned to the door of the break room, frowning as he glanced out over the floor. Was there some sort of crisis going on in the city? Had he missed some sort of alarm?

He crossed over to where Teyla was sitting at her desk, looking down at folded hands in her lap. With a start, he realized that her hair was in bun and she was wearing her dress uniform as well. “Teyla?” he asked. Like someone walking after dark who hears a noise behind him, Rodney’s pulse suddenly bounded through his veins. His heartbeat felt so loud surely Teyla must be able to hear it too.

He didn’t know if he wanted her to hear him or not. Because if she couldn’t hear him, then this still wasn’t real. And he knew with utter certainty that he didn’t what this—whatever it was—to be real.

“Teyla,” another voice behind him said, and Rodney glanced sharply over his shoulder even as Teyla looked up.

It was Captain Weir. She, too, was in dress uniform, and the tight confinement of her hair made her somehow look thinner and more frail than ever. To Rodney’s utter astonishment, her eyes were red and brimming with tears. Elizabeth Weir never cried. The fear that had his heart pounding closed its fist in a brutal grip and Rodney felt as though he couldn’t breathe.

Teyla gave Weir a watery smile. “It was a good service. I only wish…” She trailed off, unconsciously looking over at Rodney’s desk.

Weir stepped forward, passing through Rodney as though he was a ghost, to lay her hand on Teyla’s shoulder. “I know. Me too. Have you heard from—?” She broke off, shrugging her thin shoulders. “I guess he couldn’t bring himself to come to the ceremony. I’m surprised though, I would have thought he would have wanted to pay his last respects.”

“He is taking this loss very hard,” Teyla said.

“We all are,” Weir’s voice was Sahara-dry again. “And yet practically the whole city turned out.” She caught her breath as though she would have said something else, but changed her mind. She gave a little shrug. “I’ll be in my office.”

Teyla watched her go.

“Well, is anyone going to do any work around here today?” Kavanaugh’s voice grated sharply and Rodney turned with Teyla to look at him. Rodney found himself irritated once by the affectation of the small ponytail, and he wished Weir would make him get a haircut. Unlike everyone else in the room, who spoke quietly among themselves, Kavanaugh seemed almost belligerently loud. He thumped down a cardboard box and some files on Rodney’s desk. Zelenka left the small group of detectives he’d been conversing with and came to stand beside Teyla. With his fuzzy hair and wire-framed glasses, Zelenka frequently had a sort of startled, puzzled look about him. This time, it seemed warranted.

“What are you doing?” Teyla asked, a tiny furrow marring the perfection of her brow.

“Oh, come on, we can all see the writing on the wall. Or maybe not. I am a better detective than most of you give me credit for. Either way, prime real estate doesn’t stay vacant for very long in New York.” Kavanaugh gave Teyla his version of a smile as he took a stapler out of his pocket and stacked it on top of the other items on Rodney’s desk. “Life goes on, you know.”

Teyla slowly stood up. If she’d been a cat, the very stillness of her posture when she got to her feet should have been a dead giveaway to Kavanaugh that he was in dangerous territory here.

“You need to be somewhere else now.” Her words were quiet, but filled with a thrumming intensity. Rodney could almost envision a lashing tail.

Kavanaugh merely looked smug. “Nope, I don’t think so. Look,” he said when it began to dimly dawn on him that Teyla might be a tad upset. “It’s a great loss to the community and all that, but we’ve all got jobs to do. The sooner we get back to them, the better for everyone.”

Teyla rose to the balls of her feet, her fists clenched, but Zelenka cut in front of her and took Kavanaugh by the arm.

“When she said you needed to be somewhere else, it was not a suggestion.” Zelenka frog-marched Kavanaugh away. “Kreténe,” he muttered as he roughly propelled Kavanaugh into safer waters.

A sinking feeling overtook Rodney’s gut. Kavanaugh poaching on his territory? Teyla and Weir in dress uniform, the solemn and funeral air about the ward room? Rodney breathed hard through his nose. I must be dead. This has to be the future that Dex was supposed to show me. What happened? And when?

The elevator doors opened and Rodney watched himself walk onto the floor. Heads turned to follow his progress down the corridor between cubicles of glass and wood, past the desks where detectives clustered, and toward Weir’s office. Some mouths dropped open; other people exchanged grim glances as Rodney McKay walked past everyone without speaking. A few hardy souls followed him halfway into the hallway to see where he was going.

He looked terrible. He wasn’t in uniform. He was wearing a crumpled blue oxford under his old navy pea coat, and jeans with his scuffed and battered boots. He hadn’t shaved in days, and dark sunglasses shielded his eyes. He walked with a gritty purpose that defied anyone to speak to him, and no one did. No one except Teyla, that is.

“Rodney,” she said, moving to intercept him.

He halted, but said nothing.

“This was not your fault.”

Rodney watched Teyla’s tiny reflection move in duplicate in the mirrored shades as Rodney McKay turned to look at her. “Not even your ruthless optimism can spin me out of this one, Teyla. It is my fault. How did I fuck up? Let me count the ways… if you’ll excuse me, I need to see Weir.”

Teyla reached for his arm but he ducked out of her touch, as though the very contact was painful to him.

No, no, no. Rodney began to hyperventilate as he followed himself into Weir’s office. His future self shut the door in his face, but it was of no matter, he moved through the closed door as though it wasn’t there.

Detective Rodney McKay walked up to Weir’s desk and placed his shield and cuffs on its surface. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said, in a voice of someone who had lost everything in battle and no longer saw the need in continuing the war.

Weir had risen from her seat when he’d entered, and she stood with her fingertips on the edge of the desk. She glanced briefly at the items he’d deposited, and nodded as though she’d been expecting them. She suddenly tucked her hands into folded arms, her expression pinched and cold, her skin pale even for her. “I don’t suppose I can talk you out of this? It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

“I was right there,” McKay said to her, and his tone could have flayed skin. “I know exactly what went down and how much I’m to blame.”

“There were extenuating circumstances; you can’t hold yourself responsible for that.”

“Oh, can’t I?” McKay’s sarcasm was so cutting that Rodney winced. “I didn’t properly assess the situation. He wouldn’t have even been there if it wasn’t for me. You were right all along. I should have gone home and gone to bed.”

“No one blames you.”

“Tell that to Internal Affairs.” McKay raised his hands and backed up even though Weir had made no move to approach him. “It doesn’t matter, they’re not going to let me keep the job anyway and I can’t do it anymore, regardless. Not after this.” His smile was bleak and without hope, facial muscles going through the movements on autopilot.

“Stay on the force,” Weir said quietly. “At least until IA finishes its investigation. Take advantage of the counseling services available to you—”

McKay cut her off. “Counseling isn’t going to make a rat’s ass difference in the long run. This is something I learn to live with—or not. I’m sorry, Elizabeth. I can’t stay on.” He pushed the badge and cuffs closer. “The gun you already have,” he said with a painful grimace of a smile.

She nodded sharply and reached out for his things. McKay spun on his heel without another word. Rodney stood blinking as he watched Weir pick up the items from her desk and examine them thoughtfully.

Then he turned and bolted from the room after McKay.

He was back in the cemetery again. This time, a sharp wind scuttled dead leaves across his path. The sky was leaden and dull, the light stalled out somewhere between late afternoon and twilight. The graveyard was empty, save for a figure in a black raincoat standing in front of a small tombstone several hundred yards away. Rodney began walking toward it, certain what he would find.

McKay was standing in front of the tombstone. At its base, several items had been placed with care. Rodney noted a bottle of Glenfiddich and a stainless steel cigar case. Which was just stupid, because a) there was no one there to appreciate them and b) someone would be bound to steal them as soon as McKay left.

“Brought you some things,” McKay spoke to the tombstone, and a chill went through Rodney on hearing it. He sounded so dead. Mortally wounded and condemned to keep walking. “Only it’s kind of pointless to leave them here for you because if I know you, you’re out doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, you know? I imagine if you ended up in hell, you’ve have frustrated Satan by now and he’d have booted you out because you couldn’t abide by the rules. And knowing you, you climbed over the Gate into heaven and are frustrating the heck out of St. Peter too.” McKay picked up the bottle of Glenfiddich and cracked the seal, pouring a small amount into a shot glass and drinking it down with the quick movement of someone anesthetizing themselves. He carefully poured out another shot and set it down on the ground with a hand that shook slightly. “Too good for hell and too bad for heaven. That would seem to leave you in limbo, only that’s where I am and you’re nowhere in sight.”

McKay tucked the bottle under one arm. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. Sorry that I couldn’t stop this. Sorry that I never said anything.” He paused, looking up at the surrounding landscape. He seemed to look right at Rodney, who automatically ducked behind a headstone, only McKay was oblivious to his presence. “It’s just not the same without you.” McKay set the bottle of single malt on the top of the tombstone and walked away into the gray rain.

Rodney stepped out from behind his hiding place and forced himself to walk up to the gravesite. He knew what he was going to find, it was almost anti-climatic when he read the words.

John Sheppard
Beloved son of Patrick Sheppard

He couldn’t look beyond that—he pressed his lips together and turned his face into the wind. No way Sheppard wrote the words on that tombstone. He’d probably written his own epitaph years ago, ready to go at a moment’s notice. It would have been irreverent and funny and devastatingly honest. He’d made more of himself in life than to be remembered merely as Patrick Sheppard’s son, and the knowledge that his father had overridden his son’s wishes to put up a tablet such as this enraged Rodney.

No more. He could take no more of this. He moved forward blindly, closing his eyes against the tear-inducing wind. The ground was suddenly no longer beneath his feet and he opened his eyes as he was falling into an open grave. He landed hard on his hands and knees, breath knocked out of him. Something hit him in the back and he looked in time to see Dex shoveling soil in on top of him.

“Stop!” he shouted, spitting dirt out of his mouth as he did so. “I’m still alive!”

“No, you’re not, McKay,” Dex said with an evil smile. “You’re just going through the motions.” Dex lifted the shovel as though it was a baseball bat and brought it down hard, the metal bowl blotting out the anemic sun as it came crashing down on him.

****

Rodney woke with a start in the semi-darkened room. Some light from the corridor bled through the closed blinds and he realized he wasn’t alone. “Who’s there?” he demanded, his heart revving in his chest like a Formula One racer. He sat up, fumbled for the lamp on the table, and switched it on.

A vaguely familiar-looking woman wearing a visitor’s pass stood clutching her handbag near the entrance of the interview room. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice breathless with her own surprise. “I thought this room was empty. Detective Zelenka said I could wait here.”

Rodney waved her to a chair when she would have scurried out of the room. “I was just catching a nap. No, you don’t have to leave—I need to get up anyway.” He tossed back Cadman’s afghan and got to his feet, yawning as he did so. He still felt terrible. The nap had left him groggy and stupid, but he didn’t feel feverish at the moment, which was a good thing. He checked his watch, but the damn thing had finally stopped altogether. Slipping his feet into his shoes, he was just glancing around for the rest of his things when a familiar voice coming from the other room caught his attention.

“Wait here,” he said imperiously. Leaving the woman behind, he poked his head out into the hallway, scanning the ward room before him.

The room was nearly empty; most everyone had gone home for the night. Sheppard, however, was holding court at Teyla’s desk, one hip hitched on the end of it as he laughed with Zelenka and Stackhouse. Teyla was smiling up at him from her chair—all of them held wrapped presents. Sheppard was wearing a goofy Santa hat at a rakish angle, and Rodney frowned at the gift bag he was holding. He’d seen that before—earlier tonight, at Sheppard’s place. Which was impossible. Rodney could count the times he’d been to Sheppard’s apartment on one hand, and today wasn’t one of them.

Still frowning, Rodney joined the group.

“There he is, Mr. Grinch himself!” Sheppard seemed overly bright, as though he was working it just a bit too hard.

“Am I asleep or awake?” Rodney asked. His voice was thick with congestion, which seemed to answer his question for him. He hadn’t been sick in his dream worlds. “Because enough is enough.”

“Whoa, McKay, you sound terrible.” Sheppard oozed off the desk to face him. “Why didn’t you tell me you were so sick? I hope you weren’t hanging around here waiting for me to come. Hell, Rodney, you could have just said you were going home.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I needed to finish up some reports.”

“Ones that began with the letter ‘z’,” Stackhouse said with a grin, before miming a snore.

At the end of the corridor, the elevator opened. A phone rang on Stackhouse’s desk and with an eyeroll, he flopped down in a chair and wheeled himself off to answer it, dragging himself along with his heels until he grabbed his desk and swung himself around.

“I got you a little something.” Sheppard handed Rodney a gift, meticulously wrapped in shiny silver paper and decorated with a lacey red ribbon.

“I thought we said no gifts,” Rodney complained, even as he automatically took the package from Sheppard.

You said no gifts. Nothing was said about me not giving any.” Sheppard smirked.

Rodney fingered the ribbon. “Should I open it now? I feel bad; I didn’t get you anything.”

Rodney watched in fascination as Sheppard flushed—not something he typically did. “It’s not quite Christmas yet. You can’t open your presents until Christmas.”

“Then you don’t get the fun of seeing my expression when I do,” Rodney said, and for a moment, Sheppard locked gazes with him. Rodney was the first to break eye contact. The gift was slightly too big to easily fit in his jacket pocket and he forced the square box within to the tiny accompaniment of tearing threads.

“I see Ronon Dex has returned.” Teyla’s observation directed everyone’s attention to the man coming down the hallway toward them.

“Ah, Dex! You’ve met him already? What did you think?”

“That the circus had come to town early. What do you want with a man like Dex?” Rodney knew he sounded sharp. Interestingly, Sheppard seemed disappointed in his reaction.

“Oh, different things, you know.” Sheppard was vague and non-committal. He lifted a hand in greeting as Dex spied them and made his way toward them.

“There was someone else here to see you earlier as well,” Teyla said. “A Major Evan Lorne.”

Sheppard’s face lit up with his dork-smile, his genuine full-on smile that made him look like a twelve year old boy on discovering a secret cache of comic books. “Lorne was here? Did he say where I could reach him?”

Teyla was searching for Lorne’s card when a soft voice behind Rodney made him jump slightly.

“John Sheppard?”

Everyone turned to face the woman from the interview room. She fingered the catch on her bag nervously at the attention.

“Amy.” Sheppard stood staring in disbelief before his natural charm kicked in. “Amy, it’s so good to see you.” He set the bag of gifts beside Teyla’s desk and straightened.

Amy Holland glanced pointedly at the others before speaking. “I found some old letters of Lyle’s. Letters intended for you. Is there somewhere we could go and talk?”

Zelenka coughed. “I think I left my cup of coffee in the break room.” He pointed needlessly over his shoulder and scurried off in that direction.

“I think I would like a cup of hot tea myself,” Teyla said, smoothly following him.

Rodney waited until Sheppard asked him with his eyes to leave. It was hard to take anyone seriously while wearing a Santa hat, and Sheppard suddenly seemed to be aware of this fact as well. He whipped off the hat and tossed it onto Rodney’s desk, leaving his hair sticking up in all directions. On anyone else, it would have looked dorky. On Sheppard it was simply hot.

“I’ll keep Dex busy until you’re ready to see him.” Rodney moved off without waiting to see what Sheppard did next. He didn’t want to know what had brought Amy Holland to the precinct on Christmas Eve. He didn’t want to know what kinds of letters someone named Lyle might be writing to Sheppard. It wasn’t any of his concern. The cop in him, the part of him that wanted to know the answers to all the questions of the universe, didn’t persist. He’d been in this job too long. There were some secrets better left uncovered.

Feeling rather like he was stuffed with cotton and the batting was starting to come out; Rodney was overtaken by a wave of weariness as he moved to intercept Ronon. Time slowed and distorted, as though he’d passed into a wormhole. The mathematics of such physics swirled around his head, floating on a musical score that bent and warped around him. His focus sharpened and honed in when Dex suddenly alerted like a predator on seeing movement in the brush. Though it had to be happening in the merest flash of time, it felt like it was in slow motion as Rodney saw Dex reach behind his waistband for the weapon Rodney somehow knew he carried there. Never mind how he’d gotten it in past security. It was within Rodney’s power to stop him. He was between Dex and Sheppard. He could rush Dex. He could shout, “Gun!” The other detectives and officers on duty had weapons of their own. If Rodney could delay him, they could shoot Dex down before he could get off his shot. Rodney could pull out his own gun…

I wanted you to see him.

Sheppard’s words from the park came back to him and for reasons he couldn’t explain, Rodney knew with awful, instinctive clarity that he shouldn’t do any of these things. Instead, he stepped to one side, pulling his hands out of the way as he arched his back and gave Dex a clear line of fire, letting Dex bring his weapon to bear on Sheppard.

And Amy Holland. Who stood holding a police special pointed directly at Sheppard. Rodney’s police special, the one he’d left in the interview room during his nap.

“Drop it,” Dex barked.

Amy didn’t even look at Dex. She clasped the heavy gun with both hands, shaking a little as she tried to hold it steady. “You could have had anyone,” she said to Sheppard. “Why couldn’t you leave Lyle alone?”

Sheppard had his hands up in a placating manner. “Amy, it wasn’t, we didn’t—shit.” Rodney knew that expression from old, the one that said ‘I didn’t see this one coming.’ For a man who was nothing short of a tactical genius when it came to telling stories, Sheppard was astonishingly short-sighted in his personal life.

Stackhouse spoke quietly into the phone he’d been holding before slowly laying down the receiver. From his movements under the desk, Rodney knew he was getting out his gun. Teyla and Zelenka were standing in the corridor by the break room door—Teyla in a crouch with her weapon drawn, Zelenka with his back pressed against the wall as he peered around the edge of the partition. Rodney made eye contact with Teyla, and indicated with a slight wiggle of one finger that Amy Holland was the real threat, not Dex.

He wanted to sigh with relief when she acknowledged his message and trained her focus on the Holland woman again but he couldn’t. Not as long as Sheppard was in jeopardy.

“Put the gun down.” Dex bit off each word sharply, and this time, his words seemed to register. Amy turned her head to look briefly in Dex’s direction before facing Sheppard squarely again.

Rodney was closer. As long as he didn’t get into Dex’s line of fire…
“You’ve got to believe me, Amy. I don’t know what Lyle wrote in those letters, but there was nothing between us. Not like that. He was my friend. I’d have done anything for him.”

“You got him killed.” Amy snarled her words like a hissing cat about to strike.

“Oh for pity’s sake,” Rodney blustered, moving toward Amy and Sheppard. “No one’s getting shot here tonight. Give me the gun.”

Amy abruptly brought the gun around to bear on Rodney, and he had to admit, it was a weird feeling staring at the business end of his own weapon. “Stand back,” she warned. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will.”

“No!” Sheppard moved slightly toward her, and Amy whipped her attention (and the gun) back in his direction. “I’m the one you want. I’m the one you’re mad with. Leave McKay out of this.”

“Shut up, Sheppard,” Rodney snarled, only to break into a hoarse cough. “You’re not helping matters any.”

“No, you shut up, McKay! This is between Amy and me. No one else has to get hurt here.”

“No one’s getting hurt!”

“Will you two both shut up?” Amy winced and put one hand up to an ear. Her gun hand wavered. She didn’t seem to know which target to focus on.

“Oh, for crying out loud.” Irrational anger boiled up and over like a kettle left on the burner too long; this whole situation was utterly ridiculous. It probably wasn’t even happening anyway. Rodney was probably at home in bed and suffering a case of Nyquil-induced nightmares. “Mrs. Holland,” he snapped. “It’s Christmas, I’m sick, and I sure as hell don’t want to spend the evening writing up an incident report. Give me the goddamned gun before someone gets hurt here.”

He held out his hand.

Tears tracked silently down Amy Holland’s face. Her whole body seemed to wilt as she let the gun dangle from its grip in her hand. Rodney stalked over to her and relieved her of the weapon, checking that the safety was indeed still on before holstering it. He motioned to Teyla to come bring him some cuffs, which she did, holstering her own weapon as she did so.

It was only then that he realized that he really was awake, sick, and had just disarmed a deranged woman in his own precinct. The leftover adrenaline drained away, leaving him feeling shaky and nauseous. He had to swallow bile as he read Amy Holland her rights and cuffed her. Teyla and Stackhouse escorted her down to Booking, as Dex and Zelenka gathered beside Rodney and Sheppard.

“That poor woman,” Zelenka murmured.

Sheppard turned an interesting shade of red, the flush starting at his cheekbones and extending out to his ear tips. His gaze locked with Rodney’s and he cleared his throat. “Um, thanks.”

“The safety was on,” Rodney said dismissively, as though it was no big deal.

“You couldn’t have known that at the time,” Sheppard said. He raised an eyebrow in Rodney’s direction, and though this whole mess was Rodney’s fault in the first place, he couldn’t help but bask a little in the warmth of Sheppard’s smile.

“Thanks for not getting me shot, McKay,” Dex said. His leather coat was open now, and the police identification badge was clearly visible around his neck. “How’d you know you could trust me?”

Rodney shrugged. No one would believe him anyway. “Instinct. Sheer intellectual genius,” he said, his ego making a feeble attempt at his usual self-confidence. A recollection struck him and he added, “I thought you were keeping watch over the homeless down in the park tonight?”

Dex narrowed his eyes. “I got someone to cover for me. How’d you know about that?”

Rodney thought for a moment. There was really no other answer, when it came down to it. “Nyquil-induced transcendental meditation. I take it you’re a cop?”

“Narcotics,” Sheppard volunteered. “Deep undercover. He’s been working the Wraith territories and breaking some of their drug trafficking networks, but a guy can only do that kind of work but so long, right, Ronon?” Sheppard shot him an easy grin before he turned in all seriousness to Rodney. “He wants out. I told him he should come and see you. About transferring to homicide.” Sheppard looked as though he’d handed Rodney another Christmas gift.

Rodney snorted back snot as a way of response. “It’s not me he needs to see, but Weir. Still, he’s not completely incompetent, unlike some people I could think of around here.”

“Hey, not completely incompetent, that’s like a letter of recommendation coming from you, McKay.” Sheppard punched him in the shoulder.

Rodney harrumphed like Scrooge at the beginning of every version of the Christmas Carol that Rodney had ever seen and then suddenly snapped his fingers. “We’ve got to go!” he said, grabbing Sheppard by the coat sleeve and dragging him along in his wake. He called out over his shoulder. “Dex! You want to be part of the team? You and Zelenka write up the incident report! Cover for us. Sheppard and I will be back ASAP!”

The sight of Zelenka, dwarfed by Dex and with his mouth open in a little round ‘o’ of surprise, made Rodney snigger as he dragged Sheppard into the elevator.

The lift seemed to take forever to get them to the lobby. Sheppard cleared his throat when the descent began. “There was nothing between Lyle and me. Nothing, that is, that I was aware of. I mean, that we, ah, you know, acted on.”

Rodney studiously watched the aqua lights of the floors light up, each one in passing. “You don’t owe me an explanation.”

“I know.” Sheppard seemed at a loss for words and then suddenly stepped forward and hit the ‘stop’ button. When the elevator came to a halt, he retreated to the corner, bracing his hands against the inner walls in a posture that looked relaxed but that Rodney recognized as defensive.“Captain Holland and I were in the same unit in Afghanistan. His plane went down behind enemy lines and I disobeyed orders to try and save him.”

“Ah, hence the hints of black marks and threats of dishonorable discharge. You tried to save him?” Rodney added gently.

“Tried.” Sheppard’s expression was closed, and Rodney knew there was a story there, one that Sheppard wasn’t ready to tell. “We were close, but not the way—not like Amy thought we were.”

“Maybe Holland wanted more?”

Sheppard ran a hand through his hair and down the back of his neck, rubbing it with an uncomfortable expression on his face. “I dunno, maybe. He never said. We never said. It was Afghanistan, for fuck’s sake.”

Rodney seemed to be able to hear mortar fire and feel the ground shocks of explosions around him. He could only imagine how the need to find some sort of release could be overwhelming, and likewise how such actions were not only frowned upon by the military they both served, but were most likely a death sentence in the country in which they were stationed. And yet Holland wrote letters, full of love and yearning no doubt, voicing in death what he couldn’t have said in life.

Rodney wondered who was stupider, Holland or him?

A small piping sound was suddenly audible in the elevator. Sheppard pulled out his phone and turned off the alarm.

“Open your present.” Sheppard was smiling now, subject suddenly and effectively changed.

“What?” It took Rodney a second to make the leap with him.

“It’s after midnight. I want to see your face when you open it.”

With a much put-upon sigh, Rodney worked the package out of his pocket and started meticulously undoing the wrapping paper.

“What are you doing?” Sheppard asked.

“What does it look like?” Rodney said. “Unwrapping your present, like you asked.”

“That’s not unwrapping,” Sheppard protested. “You’re supposed to tear into it. Not find the seams and carefully undo the tape.”

“Someone did a nice job with it. It’s good paper. It could be re-used.”

Sheppard reached for the gift as though to unwrap it for Rodney and then pulled back at the last second. “Rip it, McKay. Come on, you know you want to.”

His voice was curiously seductive, and Rodney found himself abandoning his former plan. The paper ripped with pleasing satisfaction and he found himself staring at a plain white box.

“Go on,” Sheppard encouraged, eyes bright with expectant glee. “Open it.”

It was a watch. A very nice watch. Considerably more than he could afford. One he probably shouldn’t even consider wearing on a daily basis, but how was he supposed to tell Sheppard that? Sheppard’s enjoyment in giving him the gift was obvious—to turn it down would be churlish.

“There’s an inscription.”

Rodney turned the watch over and tilted it toward the light. “Time flies…?” He read the inscription with a questioning inflection.

“When you’re having fun,” Sheppard prompted. He looked at Rodney, waiting for him to get it.

Rodney flicked his gaze up from the watch to Sheppard’s face. “Is that how you feel?”

“When I’m working cases with you, yes.” Sheppard leaned forward and pressed the start button on the elevator again, crossing his arms and glancing at Rodney with a sidelong expression of smug satisfaction.

Rodney remembered that Sheppard’s greatest wish was to fly. If he hadn’t been so sick, he’d have pinned Sheppard to the wall of the elevator by now. Instead, he slipped his old watch into his pocket and placed the new one on his wrist, surprised at the heavy weight of it. The oval blue face seemed to shimmer in the overhead light, rippling like sunlight on the surface of a small pond. It was a beautiful timepiece. Rodney didn’t care if it was appropriate or not, there was something immensely satisfying in looking down at in on his wrist.

“Hey,” Sheppard asked, “Where are we going anyway?”

“You’ll see,” Rodney said, as the elevator doors opened into the lobby. He dropped the wrapping paper in the trash can beside the tree as they headed for the main doors.

****

“Stop here!” Rodney ordered the cabbie. They could have taken his own car, but parking would have been an issue and every second mattered here. Rodney leaned forward and shoved bills at the cabbie through the little window in the taxi. “Here. There’s an extra twenty in it for you if you circle the block and pick us up in a few minutes.”

“You got it, buddy,” the cab driver said, as Rodney and Sheppard climbed out onto the sidewalk.

“Hurry!” Rodney urged, taking off at a jog into the park.

“McKay!” Sheppard called after him and then closed the distance between them with the ease of a habitual runner. At one point, Rodney slipped on the slick pavement, but Sheppard was there at his elbow to catch and support him. At any other time, it would have given him an elicit thrill, but he was too focused on his mission at hand just now.

“Just up ahead,” he said, spying a familiar landmark. He only hoped they were in time.

“Here!” he announced, leaving the sidewalk to plunge into the brush alongside. He thought they were too late when he spied the small black form curled into a tiny ball, a fine layer of sleet layered on the dark fur coat. The pup stirred when he reached down to unhook the chain shank, however, and weakly lifted its head.

“Give him to me,” Sheppard demanded, and Rodney watched as Sheppard tucked the nearly-frozen puppy into his down parka and zipped it up. “How’d you know he was here?” Sheppard asked as they walked back to the park entrance, and Rodney could hear the accusatory note in his voice.

“Would you believe me if I said I dreamt it?” Rodney asked. To his relief, Sheppard laughed.

“I’m a writer, McKay. I believe half a dozen impossible things before breakfast every day.”

As they reached the street, the taxi veered out of the stream of traffic and pulled into the curb. They piled inside and Rodney gave the address for the precinct.

Sheppard vetoed that. “You’re sick and this pup’s a block of ice. I’m taking you both back to my apartment.”

“How is he?” Rodney asked, conscious of the fact that he had no idea what the gender of the pup might actually be, and worried that there was heartbreak in store for all of them.

“I think he’s asleep,” Sheppard said, reaching into his jacket and feeling around. “He’s still pretty cold. Starting to warm up a bit though. Ouch!” His hand jerked but he didn’t pull it out of his jacket. “His teeth work just fine. I suspect he’s going to be hungry when he warms up a bit more.”

“Is he going to make it? Should we take him to a vet?”

“We’d have to take him to an emergency clinic now—everything’s closed for the holiday. Let’s get him back to my place where we can look him over in the light and go from there. He couldn’t have been out there too long or he’d have frozen by now. We don’t want to warm him up too fast—right now body heat is the answer.”

“Lucky dog,” Rodney muttered.

“What did you say?” Sheppard’s voice raised in pitch. The pink halogen glow from a passing streetlight briefly illuminated his face, lighting the curve of his cheekbone and highlighting the faint stubble on his jaw line. For an instant, the image of his raised eyebrow imprinted on Rodney’s retinas, and then the car moved on into the darkness again.

“I was merely noting that the puppy was lucky we found him when we did,” Rodney said, infusing his words with dignity the best he could with his stopped up nose. The relief he felt at knowing the puppy was alive and acting normally was overwhelming. “Consider him a Christmas present. You always wanted a dog, right?”

“Right.” Sheppard’s voice was soft, and for a moment, Rodney was envious of the ear-stroking the puppy was probably receiving within Sheppard’s coat.

With the heater going full blast, the motion of the car proved soporific. The next thing Rodney knew, Sheppard was shaking him gently. “We’re here,” Sheppard said, shifting Rodney off his shoulder so he could lean forward to pay the taxi driver.

Rodney blinked several times, trying to clear his head. Right. Sheppard. Taxi. Puppy. Near-shooting. “I have to go back to the precinct.”

“No, you don’t. You’re coming up. I already phoned Teyla. She’s got everything covered. Come on.” Sheppard got out of the cab and then reached back in to help Rodney out. Together they walked toward the entrance of his building, Sheppard with one hand on Rodney’s sleeve and the other supporting the weight of the puppy within his parka.

Rodney shuffled along beside Sheppard, feeling too miserable to care that Sheppard was herding him into his apartment and straight into his bedroom. Sheppard disappeared briefly, but when he returned, it was sans puppy and coat. He steered Rodney in the direction of the bed and guided him into a sitting position on the edge. Rodney made a token protest when Sheppard knelt to take off his shoes.

“Shut up,” Sheppard said mildly, taking a blanket out of the closet and tucking it around Rodney. “Get some sleep. When you wake up, I’ll treat you to my famous chicken soup.”

“You don’t know how to cook,” Rodney said, words slurring as sleep pussyfooted into the room.

“Yeah, but I know all the best takeout places.” John’s voice was warm, almost in his ear. It made Rodney smile. Eyelids that felt as though they were weighted with pennies suddenly flew open when he felt Sheppard’s lips brush his forehead.

“You can’t kiss me,” he said. “I’m contagious!”

Sheppard gave him a smug glance. “I’ve had my flu shot.”

“The lights on the water can be seen from outer space,” Rodney said, just before sleep overtook him.

****

Someone was kissing him enthusiastically. Rodney was all for kissing, but this was a bit much, even more so because he still felt pretty much like crap. He opened one eye to frown at the persistent offender, only to receive a nip on his nose. Yelping, he rolled onto his back.

Delighted in getting a response, the puppy crawled up his chest, tail wagging furiously, as he licked Rodney’s chin. Rodney feebly attempted to push him away, but it was like trying to hold back the tide. “Desist, mongrel,” Rodney ordered sternly, but his voice came out in a croak. The pup sat back on his haunches at the sound and tipped his head sideways. One ear lay folded neatly against his dark head. The other sat halfway erect, folding over partway up. It gave the dog a slightly quizzical air, and Rodney couldn’t help laughing. That triggered a bout of coughing, and Sheppard appeared in the doorway.

Damn, he looked good enough to eat. He was wearing a white cotton shirt, well-worn and untucked at the waist. His jeans looked as though he’d been poured into them, and Rodney could only wonder how much they must have cost. He was barefoot, and his hair sleep-tousled. Last night’s stubble was this morning’s hint at a beard. And his smile seemed as though it was just for Rodney.

“Hey,” Sheppard said. “You’re awake at last. Hopefully, you’ll make more sense today than you did last night. I came close to taking you to the hospital—you had a bit of a fever. I see you’ve met the dog.”

Rodney pushed the puppy out of his face again and sat up, leaning back against the headrest. He was still wearing the same clothes from the night before, and he felt impossibly grotty next to Sheppard. “You mean Christmas? Yes, I see he recovered from his stint in the cold.”

“We’re not naming the puppy Christmas, McKay,” Sheppard said, before he leaned into the doorframe with his arms crossed, hips canted to one side and legs crossed at the ankle, like he’d done a thousand times before.

“Puppy. Near-death experience. Christmas Eve. What else can you name him? It begs for a Christmassy theme.”

“His name is Buddy. It’s a good thing I’m the writer because you’re not allowed to name things from now on.”

“Buddy?” Rodney protested. “What kind of name is that?”

“A proper dog name,” Sheppard rejoined. He took pity on Rodney though, and picked the pup up off the bed, where he was gnawing on Rodney’s feet under the blanket. “He wants to call you Christmas,” Sheppard crooned to the puppy as he carried him out of the room. “What kind of dumbass dog name is that?”

Rodney glanced around the room curiously. He’d never seen Sheppard’s bedroom before. It was astonishingly bare of decoration. There was a framed photograph of Sheppard as a small boy standing next to Evel Knievel. Rodney knew that the famed stunt man was one of Sheppard’s heroes, but he hadn’t realized they’d met. Tilting his head back, he saw there was a lithograph over the bed. He twisted to look up at a black and white photo of Johnny Cash in a black trenchcoat, holding a guitar case. Huh Who’d have thought?

The lyrics of Johnny Cash’s song “Hurt” suddenly came to mind, and Rodney realized that a Cash poster on the wall made more sense than he’d thought.

Sheppard re-appeared in the doorway, saw that Rodney hadn’t moved from the bed, and came into the room with an expression that suggested all his Christmas wishes had come true. Before Rodney could get up, Sheppard sat on the edge of the bed and placed one hand on the other side of Rodney’s hip, effectively blocking him in. The smile he gave Rodney was intimate and warm, and Rodney found himself wondering exactly what he said before he fell asleep the night before.

“You shouldn’t get so close,” Rodney said, drawing the blanket up toward his chest. “Seriously, I feel like crap. You don’t want to catch this.”

“I’m not worried,” Sheppard said, and indeed, he seemed to care less.

“I should go,” Rodney said, making no effort to move.

“Well, you could,” Sheppard drawled. “After all, it is Christmas. You could drag yourself out of my bed and take a cab back to your cold apartment. Or you could stay here and have some chicken soup. I got you some ginger ale with ice chips, too. We could watch the Muppets Christmas Carol on the big screen in front of the gas logs. Or you could go home, your choice.”

Something about the way Sheppard said ‘my bed’ sent a little shiver through Rodney that had nothing to do with having a fever. And even though part of him really would prefer not to be disgustingly ill in front of Sheppard, a bigger part of him wanted to be taken care of by John.

Remembering the night before, he groaned. “I’ve got to go in and write up that incident report. Hell, we had a near shooting in the precinct because I was careless with my gun. IA is going to eat my ass, and I don’t mean in a fun way.” Rodney let his head thud gently on the headboard behind him.

Sheppard coughed. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Between Zelenka, Teyla, and Ronon, let’s just say there’s been a little creative reporting in the Spirit of Christmas.”

Rodney narrowed his eyes. “The most creative report-writer I know is standing right here in front of me.”

“They might have had a little help.” Sheppard did his best to look innocent but no one who looked like him could possibly look anything other than wicked through and through.

Rodney thought for a moment.

“I suppose that if I go home, you’ll be spending Christmas alone,” he said, as though making a big concession. “If you really must have company for the holiday, I’ll do my part, but I don’t want to hear any whining when you get the flu.” He thought perhaps he’d had enough of Christmas Carol stories, but he wasn’t about to tell Sheppard that. Besides, he was looking forward to hearing Rizzo say, “Light the lamp, not the rat! Light the lamp, not the rat!” It was his favorite part of the movie. Somehow it wasn’t Christmas without seeing that.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Sheppard said. The teasing light in his eyes said Rodney wasn’t fooling anyone with his fake altruism.

“Though I do think this story is sadly lacking in sex,” Rodney added, his heart pounding with the daring in his statement.

To his utter relief, Sheppard’s smile curved into a knowing, wicked line, something that seemed to come naturally to his lips. “This is a Christmas story,” he said, leaning in to brush Rodney’s forehead with a kiss. “The kind of story you’re talking about takes place after New Year.”

“Well, thank god for that,” Rodney said, thinking a week was plenty of time to get over the flu. “Merry Christmas, then.”

“It is now,” Sheppard agreed.

~fin