In a galaxy not their own, on a planet with so little axial tilt that "winter" and "summer" had no meaning, the staff of Atlantis still clung to the calendar of Earth. It was one small way of maintaining a connection with a homeworld that they might never see again.
There were those among them, like Rodney or Sheppard, who had never really cared what day it was back on Earth, let alone in a new galaxy. Rodney wouldn't have minded if the Gregorian calendar had been replaced by a new calendar based on seconds counted forward from the Big Bang -- in fact, he would probably have appreciated its mathematical simplicity, had he even noticed the change. Others, like Elizabeth and Ford, held to the calendar with a fierce, almost religious fixation, marking off a square each night. To Elizabeth, knowing that it was Monday the 10th or Tuesday the 4th really mattered -- in no small part because it was also Monday the 10th for Simon; and on a different world, under a different sun, he would be marking his calendar too.
And the Atlanteans still kept to their holidays, although with so many different countries and customs represented on the station, it was rare for everyone to celebrate something together. As time went on, though, Elizabeth noticed a slow bleed-over between the holiday celebrations of different national groups, as people began to join their coworkers for holidays not their own. On the American Thanksgiving, for example, the cafeteria staff -- most of whom were not actually American -- turned out a respectable feast, featuring roasted, vaguely birdlike creatures and something which almost bore a passing resemblance to mashed potatoes ... and the entire staff, aside from the vegetarians, turned up to join in.
Teyla even introduced them to an Athosian holiday called Mehalia, which had taken place every full moon on Athos -- about every 45 days. It involved dancing, storytelling and little puppet-like decorations that reminded Elizabeth of the Kachina dolls from the American southwest. As the months went by, it became common to see Mehalia dolls used as everything from desktop ornaments to the puddlejumper equivalent of fuzzy dice.
By the time Christmas rolled around, Elizabeth was entirely unsurprised by the flurry of preparations leading up to the holiday. People were sneaking around whispering and hiding packages behind their coworkers' backs. She'd authorized an ever-increasing number of trading expeditions through the gate on paper-thin pretexts. She caught the gateroom staff cutting snowflakes on duty, and the Marines' quarters had a life-size Santa Claus, in fatigues, posted on mock guard duty outside. Grodin and Zelenka had figured out how to make the citywide speakers play Christmas carols.
It was all obviously driving Rodney crazy.
The science labs were the one place on Atlantis where Christmas had not managed to penetrate, at least not very much. Rodney tended to turn a blind eye to the way that his scientists conducted their lives, on or off duty, as long as they also managed to accomplish unreasonable quantities of work without blowing anything up. You could paint yourself purple and use your lab computer to send obscene emails, as long as you got your work done. On the other hand, he would also mercilessly mock anything that turned up on people's desks which he found silly, peculiar or -- the bane of his existence -- cute. He didn't tell anyone to put away their Hello Kitty memorabilia or their "12 Months of Puppies" calendar ... he just mocked them until it was usually easier to keep an austere workstation than to deal with him.
As Christmas grew nearer, a few paper candy canes and an odd wreath or two had crept their way onto the desks of particularly stubborn, thick-skinned scientists, but most people didn't see any point in adding to their already full load of stress. It had been the same way with Halloween, except for the candy ... and they'd ended up hiding that in order to keep Rodney from wandering by each candy-stocked workstation every five minutes to grab another piece. The last thing anyone wanted was to encourage Rodney to stand over you while you were working.
It wasn't that Rodney hated Christmas, it was simply that he despised the glitter and kitsch and the way that it kept people from working. Sheppard wasn't much of a Christmas person either, but he'd quickly discovered that for sheer Rodney-annoying potential, nothing could beat humming Christmas carols -- or, better yet, the "You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch" song from the Dr. Seuss holiday special. The only part of the song that he could remember was that one line, but repeating it ad infinitum worked like a charm. It got to the point where as soon as he turned up in the lab, Rodney would grab the nearest hand-sized, non-explosive object and throw it at him.
Elizabeth had to order him to stop it during meetings. As entertaining as it was to watch Rodney turn six shades of purple, the song was starting to annoy everyone else, too.
In addition to being used as a pretext for pestering coworkers, Christmas was also the perfect opportunity for a holiday party. They hadn't held a real, base-wide party since the initial "Hey, we're not dead!" celebration when they'd first arrived, and Elizabeth thought that her personnel could really use it. They'd all been strained to the limit for months -- as if the constant threat of the Wraith wasn't bad enough, there were also the shortages of just about everything, the stress of being separated from home and family, the nonstop personality conflicts and, of course, the near-constant crises to deal with. Not only would the holiday party be a nice opportunity for everyone to relax and forget their problems for a while, but Elizabeth intended to get as many people as possible involved with the preparation. Kate kept talking to her about the importance of team-building exercises. As far as Elizabeth was concerned, every day in the Pegasus Galaxy was a team-building exercise, but this might be a good opportunity to try it and see how it worked.
In retrospect, it was probably a mistake. No, check that: definitely a mistake. But hindsight, they say, is 20-20.
Dr. Simpson's innocent and not very prudent question to Rodney got a long, level stare in return. After a moment, he responded, "Simpson, I'll make a note to put you down for an appointment with Heightmeyer after your shift."
"Dr. Heightmeyer's the one who wanted me to ask you."
It was a trick question; it had to be. "Elf" probably meant that you harbored a secret desire for your mother; "candy cane" meant that you were dealing with repressed memories of having been molested by the mailman at the age of five. Was it any wonder he hated psychiatrists? "Neither," he snapped.
Simpson consulted the clipboard tucked under her arm. "Well, you can't be a snowman; we already have enough of those. We're still looking for reindeer, but I didn't really think you'd want to do that. Although if you really want to --"
Horrific visions of second-grade Christmas pageants danced through his head. "Go ask Kavanagh; I'm sure he'd love to be a candy cane."
She checked her clipboard again. "He's already an elf."
This entirely unwanted visual was the last straw. "Get back to work, dammit!"
After that he managed to work in peace for a whole half hour, until Sheppard approached him stealthily from behind, leaned over his shoulder and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I'm a candy cane."
Rodney stiffened, carefully laid down his tools and squared them up on his desktop, and said calmly, "And I'm a little teapot. Don't you have someone else to annoy?"
Sheppard rocked back on his heels with a grin. "You don't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
"Simpson was in here earlier, babbling about elves and reindeer. I blamed it on the contagion of general holiday mania that's been infecting everyone around here. At least the nanovirus just killed people rather than turning them into drooling idiots draped in holly."
"They're Heightmeyer's cutesy names for the teams who're putting the holiday party together." At Rodney's blank look, he said, "You know, the one next Friday? Er, or maybe it's a Tuesday ... anyway, Christmas Eve."
"I figured there'd be something along those lines. It's kind of inevitable. I'm just still trying to wrap my brain around the idea that you're on a decorating committee. Do they make gingham aprons in your size, Major?"
Sheppard snorted. "I'm playing airline pilot, mostly. I'll be ferrying Athosians from the mainland for the party ... any of them who want to come, that is, and I guess most of them do. I'm about to head out there to collect evergreen branches. Dropped by to see if you want to come."
"Why, in this galaxy or any other, Major, would I want to come?"
Sheppard leaned forward and folded his arms on the desktop. "Look, Rodney, just between you and me, I know this whole thing is idiotic, frivolous and pointless. But it's also kind of fun. I've been talking to Elizabeth about it, and she's right -- we're all at our breaking points, and it's nice for everybody just to have something to take their mind off the Wraith. The idea is just to spend a few days goofing off, eating good food and generally enjoying ourselves. So come on out to the mainland with me and Ford. You can bring your laptop and hang out in the shade, just help us carry branches every once in a while."
It was insanely tempting. But he just had too much to do, and it wasn't as if he didn't spend every waking minute with Sheppard and Ford on missions anyhow. "Major, I'm sorry, but swatting bugs and getting poked with sticks isn't exactly my idea of a good time. I get plenty of that on the other side of the Stargate. When I'm back here, I'd really rather have a nice comfortable chair and indoor bathrooms."
"You know, they're starting to call you 'Scrooge' around the labs."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I've been called far worse things. You know, Major, the biggest problem that I have with Christmas is the idea that there's something wrong with you if you don't spend every waking minute humming stupid songs and hanging mistletoe around your desk. And before you ask, because Heightmeyer has asked, I didn't have some kind of horrific Santa-related trauma as a child. I admit that my holidays weren't exactly the stuff of which Normal Rockwell paintings are made, but I have yet to meet a person who did have that kind of childhood unless they're lying. Anyway, the point is--"
"You wouldn't mind Christmas so much if it wasn't so ... involuntary."
Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed at Sheppard. "Exactly, Major. I knew you'd understand."
"I'm still a candy cane, though, Rodney."
"That's your problem, not mine." Rodney leaned forward, squinting at the little piece of paper pinned to Sheppard's black shirt. "Dear God, is that what I think it is?"
Sheppard glanced down at it, and self-consciously covered it with his arm. "Er, yes, it's a candy cane. Heightmeyer drew them. All the committees -- er, teams, groups, squads identify themselves with --"
"I don't want to hear it. Go and deck the damn halls; just leave me out of it."
It might be winter back at home -- at least in his part of the world -- but the Atlantean mainland was, as always, lush and green. Aerial reconnaissance had turned up vast bands of pinelike trees on the low mountains crisscrossing the continent's interior. The two puddlejumpers on E.P., a.k.a. evergreen patrol -- one piloted by Sheppard, the other by Markham -- set down in an alpine meadow and Sheppard dispatched his small detachment of Marines to branch-cutting duty.
It was lovely. Although the coast was hot and humid at this time of year, the air in the mountains hovered at about seventy degrees, and a light breeze blew away the clouds of gossamer-blue biting insects that the Athosians called ascara after an insect on their homeworld. (Ford called them bluesquitoes; Sheppard, in deference to the holiday season, refrained from comment.) Sheppard had told Elizabeth that it was hard work and they'd probably be gone all day; with a conspiratorial grin, she'd just said to be back by dark. So they had brought a sack lunch and, after the half hour or so that it took to stuff both puddlejumpers with greenery, they scattered into the woods. "Stay in radio contact and have fun" was Sheppard's only order. According to the Athosians, the mainland was largely harmless. There were some predators, but it was no more dangerous than, say, hiking in the Maine woods.
Sheppard and Ford climbed a crag behind the meadow where they'd parked the puddlejumpers. From the top, the land spread out below them in a quilt of green and misty blue. "You know, sir, and not to give the wrong impression, but it's kind of nice to be able to do something like this without, er ..."
"Babysitting scientists," Sheppard said, grinning.
Ford grinned back. "Yes, sir."
"Point taken, Lieutenant." And it was definitely refreshing to be out in the woods with a group of people who could all handle themselves and weren't likely to fall off a cliff while staring at a scanner. In all honestly, Sheppard was impressed by how the scientists, particularly Rodney, were learning to handle themselves in the field. But there was still a definite tension involved with herding around a group of civilians. It was a nice change of pace to just relax, enjoy the day and figure on getting back to Atlantis with nobody suffering from anything worse than a mild case of sunburn.
"So what now?" Ford wondered.
There was something a little odd about having a whole afternoon with nothing scheduled, nothing planned, nothing to do. Sheppard scanned the panorama beneath them, and his eyes fixed on a beautiful little lake, gleaming like a jewel among the trees. "Do you swim, Lieutenant?"
"Love to, sir."
"Call the men and let them know where we're going. See if anyone wants to come." Sheppard turned around, took five steps towards the path, and, still talking to Ford, fell down a hole.
"Doc, can't he leave?" Sheppard demanded between clenched teeth. Rodney had pulled up a chair next to the cot on which Beckett was currently examining the Major's ankle, and he positively quivered with badly suppressed amusement. Most of the other cots in the infirmary were also occupied with various Marines being fussed over by medical personnel.
"The way I heard it," Elizabeth said, also looking vastly entertained, "John fell down a forty-foot vertical shaft in the limestone that was covered with vegetation. Luckily he hung up halfway down."
"Luckily," Sheppard grumbled. "Tell that to my skinned elbows. Good thing we had rope in the puddlejumpers."
Rodney leaned forward attentively. "If you hung up halfway down, then how'd you manage to hurt your ankle?"
"That happened later, when I was trying to rescue Ford from the quicksand."
"And Ford was in quicksand because ...?"
"Escaping from the wolves," Ford said from the next bed over.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "I didn't even know there were wolves on the mainland."
"Imagine our surprise," Sheppard said.
Rodney's smile had reached terminal levels of smugness. "Yes, and imagine my surprise to be passing through the control room, en route to Elizabeth's office, only to hear that there was some kind of massive rescue operation on the mainland involving most of the Marines, initially trying to save you people and, subsequently, each other."
"The coastal mainland is very safe." Teyla looked concerned and somewhat guilty. "Apparently the interior is less safe."
Sheppard winced as Beckett wrapped his twisted ankle. "Yes, what tipped you off? Was it the killer bees, or maybe the jumping snakes that can spit poison up to, what was it, Stackhouse, forty feet away?"
"More like fifty, I'd say, sir." One side of the soldier's face was swathed in bandages.
"And let this be a lesson to you people," Rodney informed them. "Christmas kills. Did you know more people die during the holidays than at any other time of year?"
Sheppard accepted an ice pack from Beckett. "Somehow I don't think they're normally eaten by wolves, Rodney."
Beckett had moved on to another patient, and they could overhear part of the conversation: "And the cracked ribs happened when you were swept over the waterfall, son?"
"No, sir, we went over the waterfall to get away from the bees. The ribs happened in the avalanche."
Rodney looked vindicated, and even more insufferably smug than before. "Well, if you want me, I'll be in my lab, where Christmas isn't trying to kill me." He left, still grinning.
Elizabeth sat down on the edge of Sheppard's bed. "He hasn't looked that cheerful in days."
"Just wait. I finally got Zelenka to tell me how to turn on the Muzak in the labs. Rodney won't know what hit him."
"Please try not to drive him over the edge, John. I need my head scientist sane ... or at least as sane as he ever is." She gestured at the bandaged ankle. "How's it feeling?"
He shrugged, adjusting the ice pack. "Took a couple Tylenol. It's fine. I'm supposed to stay off it, but that's just doc-talk for 'don't run a marathon'."
"No, Major, it means 'stay off the ankle or I'll have you confined to quarters'," Beckett told him in passing. "The halls of Atlantis will be decked in good order without you."
"I don't care about the halls, I just want to make sure nobody scratches the puddlejumpers while unloading evergreen boughs," Sheppard retorted.
Elizabeth patted him on the leg. "Surprise -- they're already unloaded. The scientists did it, and without a scratch, I'm told. The halls are being decked even as we speak. And, in fact, I should probably go up to the gateroom to make sure none of the exits are being blocked with boughs of holly ... or the local equivalent. Have you noticed what an odd smell it has?"
"I flew back here in a jumper full of it ... sort of hard to miss. Reminds me a little bit of skunks."
"It makes me think of gooseberries," Elizabeth said. "We used to pick them when I was a kid. The bushes smelled like that. That was a pleasant smell, though; this is much less so. I hope the smell fades as they dry, because it could get to be a bit much over time."
"It means the Reindeer group did this corridor," Kate explained. "I thought that an informal contest might be fun for them -- friendly competition helps bond groups of people together."
"Or cause hurt feelings. I want this to stay fun, Kate."
Heightmeyer raised her hands. "It's all strictly in the spirit of fun. Simpson suggested it, actually, and I thought it was a wonderful idea. We can have a vote at the party, or put up a ballot box -- just something to give everyone a little incentive to get involved. Contests are often used at company retreats to get people involved with their coworkers. It's really excellent for team-building; I've seen it work wonders."
The mood in the cafeteria was high-energy, with groups clustered at each table, cutting out snowflakes and twisting wreaths while they ate. Kate waved a hand around, as if to say, See? And she was right, Elizabeth thought, taking her place in the mess line. They really did need something like this. Maybe it was silly to waste their time vying to see who could build the biggest wreath, with the threat of space vampires hanging over their heads, but people didn't do well under constant stress. Everyone needed to blow off steam sometimes.
Elizabeth had to duck under a massive garland to get to the dessert table, and she noticed in passing that the garland was tagged with a tiny little piece of paper, with a candy cane penciled crudely in the corner. So the "candy canes" had done this one. She wondered if Sheppard was involved. Looking around, she noticed the Major at a table in the corner, with McKay and Teyla. Kate had gone to join a couple of her friends at another table, so Elizabeth made her way over to Sheppard's team. "Mind if I join you?"
"As long as you, unlike some people, can manage to avoid off-key attempts to imitate Bing Crosby," Rodney said with a pointed look at Sheppard, who was quietly humming White Christmas while sticking little bitty candy canes along the edge of the table.
Teyla spoke up eagerly. "Dr. Weir, you had promised to teach me some of your Christmas festival songs. Dr. McKay says I should not learn from the Major because his renditions are not correct."
"Tin ear," Rodney muttered.
That's right ... Teyla had expressed interest in learning Christmas carols. Ignoring the look of despair on Rodney's face, Elizabeth said, "Come by my office later today, Teyla. I'm sorry; I'd forgotten."
"You're just trying to make my life difficult, aren't you, Elizabeth?"
"It's not a conspiracy, Rodney. Besides, it'll all be over in a couple of days."
Rodney opened his mouth to answer her and then squealed, "Major!" as Sheppard stuck a little candy cane on his arm. "Quit that!" he snapped, crumpling it and throwing it across the table. It bounced off Ford's forehead and fell into his coffee. "Er, sorry." Glowering at Sheppard, who continued to single-mindedly stick the crudely drawn candy canes along the edge of the table, he demanded, "Must you do that?"
"Yep." Sheppard grinned. "I'm the head of Candy Cane Squad. I have to set an example for the men."
"I'm not sure whether to be amused or horrified that you're so enthusiastic about this," Rodney grumbled. "No, wait, it's not really a question at all, is it? Horror appears to be the order of the day." He rose, grabbing his tray, and stalked out.
Ford frowned after the physicist's retreating back, and then at his CO decorating the table. "I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'll be glad when Christmas is over and everything goes back to normal. Well, as normal as it gets around here, anyway."
Sheppard slapped a candy cane on Ford's arm. "Come on, Lieutenant; we have decorating exercises at 0900 in the gateroom -- let's get a move on." He got up, immediately forgot about his injured ankle and nearly took a header in Teyla's lap.
Elizabeth wordlessly thrust his crutches at him.
"I really don't need these things," Sheppard muttered, the fact that he was hanging onto the edge of the table notwithstanding.
Elizabeth just raised an eyebrow at him. "Carson says you'll be off them in a couple of days, if you actually use them. Otherwise, you may need surgery. Which would you prefer, Major?"
Sheppard groaned and grabbed the crutches from her. Ford stood up and balanced both his CO's tray and his own. "You coming, Teyla?" Sheppard asked her.
"I am not a candy cane," Teyla said primly. "I am a reindeer, and we are decorating the infirmary in half an hour."
"Hey, we already did the infirmary," Ford protested.
A little smile curved Teyla's lips. "But we shall do it better," she said, and with apologetic nods to the others at the table, she excused herself and strode purposefully out of the mess.
Elizabeth wondered whether all of this should be worrying her.
The halls were now decked to within an inch of their lives. The greenery that the Marines had obtained -- at great personal cost -- was draped across every surface with garlands and swags, wreaths and sprigs. Occasionally she'd catch a glimpse of industrious decorators scampering about, stapling up wreaths and draping garlands and -- wait, had that been Dr. Biro ripping a garland off the wall? By the time she got there, the stocky figure had vanished down the hall, and a wreath with a bow made of surgical rubber tubing was hanging in place of the offending garland. Stopping to peer at the little chalk mark that identified the decorating team, Elizabeth raised her eyebrows when she saw a little candy cane crossed out and replaced by a stick-figure reindeer, which in turn had been scribbled over and replaced with a large elf ear drawn in a different color of chalk.
The decorations in the cafeteria, too, were quite different than this morning -- the garlands were located in different places, and there were now paper chains everywhere. Elizabeth sighed; they really didn't have enough paper to be doing this with it.
As she picked out a muffin and a roll, she heard the clunking of a rubber crutch tip behind her, and looked over her shoulder to see that Sheppard had graduated to just one crutch rather than two. "As you can see, Kavanagh's minions have taken the canteen," he said, grabbing a roll himself, and then perked up. "But I'm getting the men together tonight, and we'll regain all the territory we've lost."
"It's not a war exercise, John."
"Oh, c'mon, everyone's having fun," Sheppard said, just as a loud clamor broke out on the far side of the cafeteria.
Sheppard abandoned his crutch and made a limping beeline for the commotion, with Elizabeth on his heels. By the time they got there, an actual, honest-to-goodness brawl was in progress -- or, rather, a combination brawl and food-fight, involving an ever-expanding circle of Atlantis personnel as noncombatants reacted to having misdirected muffins bounce off their heads or coworkers landing in the middle of their Chef's Surprise.
Before Elizabeth realized what he was doing, Sheppard had already drawn his 9-mil and fired it twice into the ceiling. Everyone froze in position, fists in the air, one scientist brandishing a chair over a female Marine. The Ancient equivalent of plaster dust sifted down lightly from the bullet holes.
"You're fixing that," Elizabeth said out of the corner of her mouth to a smug-looking Sheppard, and then raised her voice to carry. "Who wants to tell me what happened here?"
As near as they could determine, one of the Snowmen had been caught in the act of stripping one of the cafeteria walls of the Elves' decorations. The Elves had retaliated by dunking his head in the cafeteria pudding vat. Things had deteriorated from there.
Sheppard gave the offending Marines a good dressing-down, while Elizabeth did the same to the guilty civilians, and then the two of them left the culprits cleaning up the mess while they went back to resume their interrupted meal. Sheppard was limping heavily now, and picked up his crutch without complaint; Elizabeth bit back on the temptation to mention it, knowing that if she really wanted him to use the crutch, the absolute last thing she wanted to do was nag him about it.
"Just good clean fun," she said, pouring herself a cup of the Athosian tea that many of the expedition members had begun to appreciate.
"All right, so they're maybe taking it a little seriously."
"C'mon, Elizabeth, cut 'em some slack. We've been living in a combat zone for months; everyone's in a ... what would the psychobabble be ... heightened state of combat readiness, or something." Sheppard snagged himself a couple of cookies, looked at the pudding for a minute and then gave it a pass. "Besides, the party's in, what, twenty-four hours? I don't think they have time to go completely insane."
Elizabeth sighed as she sat down. "I really wish you hadn't said that."
"I'm not superstitious," Sheppard retorted, popping half a cookie in his mouth. Seeing Elizabeth rub her temples, he asked, "Are you all right?"
"Headache," she sighed. "It's been a long day, and it's not over yet."
"Just had one in the infirmary, in fact. Two of Carson's nurses. They were both trying to decorate the same patch of wall. At least they were handy to the first-aid supplies ... and the big needles."
Elizabeth's head sank down into her hands; she ran her fingers through her hair. "Is it too much to ask that we could get through the holidays without anyone on this station being maimed or, God forbid, killed?"
"Too late for the maiming part." Sheppard pointed to his ankle. "Also, the doc wants to see you, when you have a minute."
Her head snapped up. "Why?" Then her eyes narrowed. "You mentioned the headache, didn't you?"
"Just because I was down there anyway." The dancing mischief faded from Sheppard's eyes. "Apparently, you're not the only one -- by a long shot. Beckett told me he's had a steady stream of people coming into the infirmary with headaches, and a few people down with crippling migraines."
Her heart leaped into her throat. "It couldn't be another nanovirus --"
"Doc says no; besides, Atlantis would've locked down again, if we had anything like that running around. Could just be stress. But he wants to see you anyway."
For Elizabeth's part, she still wanted to grab John and shake some sense into him. She had a lot of work to do tonight, and discussing her medical problems with Carson was not part of that. But exhaustion managed to push aside frustration, and she shoved back her chair. "Fine. I could use a walk anyway. But the next time I tell you something about my health, for God's sake keep it in confidence; do you think you can manage that?"
Sheppard drew back in surprise at the vehemence of her response. "Sorry. I didn't realize it was in confidence."
"No, no ..." Elizabeth rubbed at the bridge of her nose. "I didn't mean to snap at you. Just a very, very long day."
There was a sharp tap at her office door and Bates stuck his head inside. "Sorry to interrupt, sir, but we're having some problems with the bast-- I mean, some of the men down in the barracks wing." His uniform was slightly askew, and the reindeer pinned to the shoulder showed signs of having been crumpled and flattened out.
Sheppard sighed, and exchanged a look with Elizabeth. She saw some of her own worry reflected there; stress was one thing, but this was really starting to get out of control. Sheppard clumped out after Bates, and Elizabeth thought about sitting back down at her chair, just to be stubborn. She hated having people tell her what to do, and the fact that Sheppard thought he could waltz down to the infirmary and rat her out to Beckett ... For an instant she just wanted to do something to get even with him. Maybe she could order Rodney to sabotage one of the puddlejumpers. That ought to fix his little red wagon...
Now, wait a minute. Elizabeth frowned thoughtfully at her reflection in the glass walls of her office. She figured that she had a perfect right to be a little annoyed with John, but not to the point of plotting revenge.
Maybe she ought to see Carson after all.
On her walk to the infirmary, she noticed a palpable air of tension in the corridors. Many of the people who passed her had their heads down and were ignoring everyone around them. Some of them rubbed at their foreheads as if they, too, were experiencing headaches.
There is definitely something going on here.
"Elizabeth! Just the person I've been looking for!" Rodney's strident voice sent a sharp spike of pain through her skull.
"What?" she snapped.
He recoiled at her reaction, but rallied quickly. "My plan for increasing the power output of the ZPMs, of course." At her blank look, he sighed impatiently. "Haven't you read any of my emails? I've been sending them to you all day. I think I can boost the power output by as much as five percent. And I know that doesn't sound like much, but if it means the difference between being able to have hot water in the whole city or only half the city --"
"Rodney, I've had other things on my mind today, such as planning a holiday party for the entire city."
"Oh, that." He waved a dismissive hand. "In one day, Elizabeth, the gift wrap will be in shreds, the plum cake, or whatever the cafeteria's planning on churning out, won't be anything more than crumbs, and all that's left is finding some poor shmoe to clean the tinsel off the balconies. The important thing here is our power consumption --"
"Rodney." She stopped him, and spoke clearly and emphatically. "Not. Now."
"Okay, fine, if you insist. By the way, have you noticed how grouchy everyone is today?"
Considering how Rodney had been acting for the last couple of weeks, she thought he hardly had the moral high ground there. "Other than you, you mean?" She quickly clamped her lips together; she really hadn't meant to stay it out loud.
Rodney gave her a peculiar look. "Are you okay? You keep rubbing your head."
"No, I'm not okay. I think I'm getting a migraine, at the worst possible time." Lowering her hand from her temple, she frowned at him. "How are you feeling?"
"Just fine, but you don't look so good. Maybe you should see Carson."
"That's where I'm going, if someone would stop pestering me with ZPM problems."
Now he looked even more worried. "Okay, you definitely need to see Carson."
The infirmary was alarmingly full. At the sight of Elizabeth, Beckett groaned. "Oh no, not you too."
"She's got a headache," Rodney said, nudging Elizabeth in front of him.
"I know she does, Rodney. Half the people in the bloody city have headaches."
Rodney's eyes widened. "Well, if there's some sort of contagion going around, then count me out." He started backing towards the door. "I have way too much work to die of the Pegasus Plague today, thanks."
"Get back here, Rodney, you great coward." Beckett helped Elizabeth to sit down on the edge of a bed, his gentle hands at odds with the sharpness of his tone of voice towards Rodney. "I need a blood sample from both of you."
"Why?" Rodney demanded, clapping a hand over his arm protectively.
"Because I'm working on a theory." He tapped his radio. "Major Sheppard?"
He was using the main command channel, so Elizabeth heard both sides of the conversation. Sheppard sounded strained. "Doc, can this wait? I've got a few problems here."
"I just need to ask you about some of your men. And get a blood sample, if you have half a minute."
"Kinda busy right now, Doc." In the background, Elizabeth heard someone yell, "Sir, the Elves have taken the control room, and the Reindeers are gaining territory in the corridors outside!"
Headache momentarily forgotten, she touched her radio. "John, what's going on?"
"I'll explain in a minute -- hey, Bates, we need more stunners from the -- Bates, don't! Stop! That's an order, dammit!"
"Oh dear," Beckett muttered, and into the radio: "Major, if you can still hear me, don't rely on any of your people who don't have the gene, all right? Natural or artificial, doesn't seem to matter. Oh, and the Athosians seem to be all right, too."
"Yeah, Teyla's here. What's going on, Doc? Besides the fact that Atlantis seems to be involved in a turf war between rival gangs of decorators."
"If I only knew. All I can tell at this point is that something is causing everyone without the gene to become violent and irrational."
There was a crash over the radio. "I hope you're working on a cure, Doc, because things are getting a bit crazy up here!"
"Quick as I can, Major, quick as I can." During all of this, Rodney had been slinking towards the door, but one of the nurses caught him. "Thanks, lass," Carson murmured. "Hold still, I just need some of your blood."
"So ATA carriers are immune to this ... whatever it is?" Rodney asked, watching as his own blood was drawn. "Are you absolutely sure about that? It's not another nanovirus, is it?"
"Rodney, I don't know what it is. All I know is that increasing numbers of people in the city are showing elevated, and rising, levels of various hormones associated with emotion and aggression."
"PMS," Elizabeth said suddenly. When the men looked at her, startled, she explained, "It feels like I have a bad case of PMS."
"That would be about consistent with what I'm seeing. Kate's -- ahem -- otherwise sensible idea about the decorating contest is simply giving them an outlet for their aggression. The trouble is, I can't find any sort of toxin, biological agent or anything else that might account for --"
"The trees," Rodney interrupted. He was staring at a nearby wreath with a sort of wide-eyed horror that seemed more appropriate for watching Grandma fall into a river full of piranhas. Cheerfully wrapped in a red bow, the wreath had a small snowman dangling from the bottom. It looked innocent and festive.
Elizabeth stared, too. Come to think of it, the whole infirmary -- the whole city -- was full of the stuff. The skunklike odor was so pervasive that she had stopped noticing it. But now that she thought about it, the smell was making her slightly nauseous. If anything, it had only intensified as the branches dried.
"It almost has to be," Beckett said softly. "It's the only thing in the city that's changed in the last few days." He slapped his radio. "Major! We think it's the evergreen. Start tearing it down and getting rid of it."
Sheppard relayed this order to his remaining men. Elizabeth heard someone protest, "But sir, that really makes them mad!"
"I'll see if I can get the city's life support systems to open up the vents and dump in as much fresh air as possible." Rodney went for the nearest laptop, adding over his shoulder, "Now do you people believe that Christmas is dangerous?"
Carson was muttering to himself as he started ripping down garlands: "Can't believe I didn't think of it before, bloody stupid, bringing alien plants into the city without even doing allergen tests, damn lucky no one died ..."
Her headache gone except for a lingering tightness behind her eyes, Elizabeth presided over a gathering of embarrassed and slightly hungover-looking Atlanteans. Rodney was conspicuously absent, but almost everyone else had turned up to her announcement over the citywide PA. "All right people, listen up. In just about" -- she checked her watch -- "fourteen hours, we'll be having a holiday party, and by God, it's going to be the best holiday party this galaxy's ever seen. See Kate for your team assignments, and the most important thing? Have fun!"
And astonishingly, for the most part, now that no one was high on alien spores ... they did. There were the usual minor kerfluffles and mishaps, such as Markham misunderstanding Sheppard's directions and depositing a jumperload of Athosians on the wrong pier, or the cafeteria staff somehow losing an entire shipment of fresh fruit (which turned up, a month later, rotting in one of the labs), or Ford and Kavanagh getting into a gigantic argument over the best way to construct a paper chain from the minimum amount of paper.
Teyla turned out to have extensive experience at planning for Athosian harvest festivals, so she took on the majority of the delegating from Elizabeth. As darkness fell across the water, Elizabeth strolled out onto the balcony where they had held their first party on Atlantis, all those months ago. Turning back, with a warm breeze ruffling her hair, she called out to Radek, "Hit it!"
Somewhere in the control room, a button was pushed, and suddenly Atlantis's external lights went dark, and then blinked on again ... white and blue. As Elizabeth watched, they shifted slowly to red and green, and then again to gold and red. Radek and Grodin had been working for weeks on finding and reconfiguring the controls for the lights.
The strains of Christmas carols began to swell, sounding ethereal and odd through the Ancient PA. Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment, drifting on the music back to her own childhood -- remembering snowball fights and organ music in church and the smell of cinnamon in the kitchen. Then she opened her eyes and looked at the assembled people in front of her -- those who had crossed the gulf between galaxies to get here, and those who had reached across the equally great divide between cultures to welcome them.
She'd prepared a speech for this occasion. It had touched upon Christmas and new beginnings, on Athosian traditions and absent loved ones, on the world they'd left behind and on her hopes for the future. She'd spent hours on it. But looking at their faces, she realized that there was no point. They already knew it, every word.
"Merry Christmas," she said. "Let's eat."
And, as parties do, the formal gathering began breaking up into a sea of little conversation groupings. People drifted towards their particular group of friends and coworkers. Some went off for quiet religious observances; others found partners and danced in the middle of the floor. Elizabeth herself made a point of circulating from group to group, as the evening wore on, trying to say a word or two to each and every person.
It warmed her to see that everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and no one was playing the part of the wallflower; everyone, even the social misfits like Kavanagh, had settled happily into a group. Unsurprisingly, she noticed that many of them seemed to have brought their work with them; she saw Radek at the center of a group of engineers, arguing loudly about jumper systems, and Ford was discussing the finer details of Wraith-fighting strategy with a bunch of Marines. But others were just hanging out; Grodin had kicked back with some of the other gateroom staff and a couple of Marines to play poker on a big table in a corner, and even shy Miko was giggling like a schoolgirl as she talked about guys with some of the female botanists.
She still wished that she'd been able to get Rodney to attend, but he seemed entirely adamant about boycotting this whole Christmas business. Her day had been so busy that she'd only managed one visit to the labs, where Rodney had firmly but (for him) politely showed her the door.
She also noticed that Sheppard, like herself, hadn't settled down into a group. Still limping, but now entirely sans crutches, he was making his rounds as well -- playing his lazy, cheerful flyboy persona to the hilt. He had a smile for everyone, and everyone had a smile for him. He flirted shamelessly with the Athosian women, talked weapons with the Marines, and even chatted easily with the scientists. He seemed perfectly happy, and Elizabeth wondered if it was just her own big-sister nature that wanted to make a big deal out of the fact that he never settled down for a long conversation. He came close a few times, with Beckett or Teyla or Ford. But then he'd wander off again. The only time that Elizabeth actually saw him sit down was once when the randomly shuffling conversational groupings had brought the team together for a few minutes -- Sheppard, Teyla and Ford, plus Beckett, sitting on a little cluster of chairs in a corner.
Since they were all together, Elizabeth thought that this might be a good time to quietly spring her surprise on them. She made a quick dash for the private cache under one of the tables, hoping that they wouldn't wander off while she got her goodies. But they were all still there when she slipped quietly in their direction, carrying a heavy bag.
As she came closer, she heard Sheppard speaking in a shy, somewhat halting tone that she'd never heard him use before -- for a minute, she barely recognized his voice. "It's not much -- I mean, I wasn't sure what any of you might -- I honestly don't have a whole lot of experience at --"
"Major, it is beautiful." Teyla was holding up a gorgeously carved wooden case; the polished wood seemed to glow in the lights of the room.
Sheppard perked up a little, looking less like a hopeful puppy and more like the irritatingly confident man that Elizabeth thought of as her right hand. "It's for your sticks, see. Keep 'em safe for traveling or ... whatever."
"It is very wonderful and thoughtful." She reached across the space between them to grip his shoulders briefly. Like the wooden case, Teyla herself seemed to glow tonight, surrounded by the people of her birth, as well as those she had adopted. Elizabeth thought she'd never seen the Athosian woman look happier.
"You really didn't have to get me anything, sir," Ford said, looking uncomfortable as he turned a package over in his hands. "I mean, I didn't get you anything. I've never gotten a gift from a senior officer before."
Sheppard snorted. "We're in another galaxy, Lieutenant. Forget the rules. And no, I don't care if you didn't get me anything; I didn't expect any of you to. Open it."
Elizabeth couldn't quite see; Beckett's head was in her way. As she shifted her position slightly to see around him, she knew that she should speak -- she felt like a voyeur, trespassing on their intimate moments. But she didn't want to shatter the moment, and she couldn't tear herself away.
"Oh my gosh, sir," Ford breathed. "That's ... wow."
It was a knife, and though Elizabeth didn't have much appreciation for knives, especially after the incident with Kolya, even she privately agreed that it was beautiful. The handle was ornately carved, while delicate patterns chased the gleaming steel edge of the blade.
Sheppard shifted uncomfortably. "Saw you admiring them on, which world was it, M48-KL7, I think ..."
"Kyaria," Teyla supplied. "Yes, the Kyarians are well known for their skilled metalwork. It is an excellent gift, Major."
"Thank you, sir." Ford reverently slid the knife back into its sheath. "Look, next year -- I'm going all out. Seriously. I have all year to figure it out, and you're getting the best present ever." He blushed a little. "Because, you know, you're the best CO I've had ... ever. Sir."
Elizabeth couldn't see Sheppard's face from where she stood, but she saw that the back of his neck was flushed. Beckett, noticing the Major's discomfort, cleared his throat. "My turn now?"
Sheppard waved a hand.
Beckett's gift was soft, and wrapped in cloth. He unwrapped it, and frowned. Then he looked at it closer, and gave a quiet gasp. Elizabeth leaned a little closer, and when she saw what it was -- and the stunned look on Carson's face -- she smiled.
Like most of the expedition members, Beckett had played fast-and-loose with the "one personal item" rule, but his official item had been a stuffed toy mouse with a tiny little stethoscope. When Elizabeth had asked him about it, he'd told her that his brothers and sisters had given it to him, en masse, as a graduation present when he'd gotten his medical degree. It was signed with all their names. He'd confessed to her, late one night, that the toy had, in some ways, come to represent his family to him. He'd taken it with him through all his moves, from one continent to another, and finally to another galaxy.
And then it had been destroyed, entirely by accident, when the Genii were searching the Atlantis infirmary for drugs. They'd impatiently scraped off several shelves' worth of useless (to them) items, trampling some things underfoot and throwing others into the incinerators. The mouse was one of the casualties. Carson had never said anything about it, at least not that Elizabeth was aware of, but after that, she had sometimes noticed that the distant, lonely look on his face, when he thought no one was looking, had become a little more distant ... a little more lonely.
"It's not exactly the same, obviously," Sheppard explained, the flush climbing higher up his neck as Beckett stared at the toy. "This Athosian old-lady friend of Teyla's -- I think her name is Charin? -- she made it, and I had trouble describing to her exactly how mice are supposed to look. And the color's not quite right, and of course it's not signed by your family."
Beckett's throat worked as he swallowed a few times. When he finally had his voice back, he said gruffly, "We can fix that. Anybody got a marker?"
"I do," Ford offered.
Wordlessly, Carson held out the mouse and the marker to Sheppard. He just stared at it for a moment, with the same sort of wordless shock as Beckett had earlier, and then took it, and signed his name across the underside. Teyla added her own precise, angular Athosian script, and then Ford wrote his own name in a loose, quick hand.
Carson cleared his throat and brushed the back of his hand swiftly across his eyes. "Much better," he said, and set it down on the table between them.
"You must open my gift now," Teyla told Sheppard eagerly.
Sheppard seemed even more flustered as she pressed it into his hands. "Teyla, I told you, it isn't necess --"
"Oh, bollocks, don't listen to him, lass." Beckett thrust a package in Sheppard's direction. "And when you're done with hers ..."
Teyla's gift was a set of beautifully carved Athosian fighting sticks -- "so that you will cease damaging mine" -- and Beckett had somehow, possibly through blackmail, gotten his hands on a complete set of Star Wars DVDs.
Elizabeth sensed that the group was about to break up and drift off again, so she cleared her throat and tried to look as if she'd just sauntered up. "Merry Christmas, all of you." She tapped her watch. "Midnight. It really is Christmas."
"Great party, ma'am," Ford told her.
"It's the company that makes it so." Elizabeth smiled, and smiled wider when Carson handed her the mouse and marker. She signed her name next to Sheppard's bold script, and then opened the bag she carried. "Don't any of you want to see your presents?"
All but Teyla looked curious, then amazed as she handed around angular brown bottles with red bows on their necks. Teyla, of course, had been instrumental in helping Elizabeth to acquire the contraband. "Athosian moonshine! This stuff's impossible to get!" Sheppard crowed.
"It is a traditional wine, not 'moonshine'," Teyla said primly.
"Stuff's still about a hundred proof." Ford tilted his bottle appreciatively.
"I think in this case, 'traditional' means 'cut with rubbing alcohol." Sheppard smirked, and then ducked a playful swat from Teyla. "I mean, thanks, Elizabeth."
"And for you ..." Elizabeth passed a package across to Teyla. The Athosian woman oohed and ahhed at the shimmering scarf contained within. Now it was Sheppard's turn to look smug, because he'd been the one to sneak Elizabeth offworld for a quiet Christmas shopping trip a couple of weeks earlier. Then he tossed a box into Elizabeth's lap. Hesitantly, she opened it, and then her eyes widened. "Oh my God, John! Where did you get this?"
The others craned curiously to look. Elizabeth held up a handful of candy bars. "Snickers, Three Musketeers ... I thought all of these were gone months ago!"
"Some of us have channels," Sheppard smirked.
"You didn't steal these from Rodney, did you? Because I wouldn't put it past him to have booby-trapped it with laxatives."
"Nope. Perfectly safe and guaranteed laxative-free."
The reminder of Rodney depressed Elizabeth just a bit; she hoped that he was happy enough in his lab, and that he wasn't down there because he thought he wouldn't be welcome up here. Seeing the thoughtful looks on the others' faces, she suspected that she wasn't the only one having similar thoughts. "I'm not the only person here who tried to get Rodney to come to the party, am I?"
Beckett sighed. "Repeatedly."
Sheppard shrugged. "He's celebrating Christmas how he wants to. Not everybody's a party person. You can't make McKay do something he doesn't want to do."
Elizabeth nodded, but she made a mental note to be sure and swing past the labs on her way back to her room after the party. She did, after all, have one final bottle of Athosian wine to deliver.
After a little more small talk, the group broke up, Ford drifting back to the Marines and Teyla circulating among the Athosians. Elizabeth resumed her rounds, and it took her some time to notice that John had vanished.
"Merry Christmas, Rodney."
Rodney flinched and fumbled his tools. "Blast it, Sheppard, warn a person!"
"I thought that's what I just did." He pulled up a lab stool, while Rodney eyed him suspiciously.
"If you're here for a last rousing chorus of 'Jingle Bells', Major, you can toddle right on back upstairs."
"That's no way to talk to somebody who comes bearing booze, Rodney."
Rodney's eyes went to the brown glass bottle in Sheppard's hand as the Major plunked it down on the lab countertop between them. "Where in the world did that come from?"
Sheppard grinned. "Elizabeth."
"No, entirely serious. She was handing them around like party favors. You should've dropped by the party, Rodney; they really pulled out all the stops."
"And yet, I notice you're here." Rodney's body language grew defensive. "If this is based in some sort of misguided pity, Sheppard, I hope you know I'm working because I want to be, not --"
"Settle down, Rodney, it's not pity." Sheppard raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Just between you and me, the party was kinda dull. You've seen one drunken scientist doing a table dance wearing glittery antlers, you've seen 'em all."
"Which sci -- wait, you're messing with me, aren't you?"
"You wouldn't know; you weren't there." Sheppard nudged the wine bottle across the counter towards him. "No, seriously, it's a holiday office party, Rodney. Better than some, but after awhile, it wears kind of thin. You got a corkscrew?"
Rodney stared at him for a moment, still looking suspicious, then shook his head as if he'd given up on ever trying to figure out Sheppard. "For your information, Major, I've got something better than a corkscrew." He rummaged among the clutter on the lab benches for a minute, then surfaced with something that resembled a short ballpoint pen or laser pointer -- just a simple metal stick, tapered slightly toward the ends. "Watch this," he said, and lightly tapped the cork. There was a small blue flash of light and the cork had utterly vanished.
Rodney handed the device to him and Sheppard took it, feeling a slight warmth against his palm. "That could be quite a potent weapon, you know."
The scientist shook his head. "Not really. It's extremely low-powered and only works on non-living objects, doesn't affect living tissue at all. We think it may have been ... heh ... the Ancient equivalent of a dentist's drill. Possibly some sort of engine cleaning tool. Anyway, I think I have glasses here somewhere ..."
He didn't, but he did turn up a couple of coffee mugs, one stamped with PROPERTY OF KAVANAGH - DO NOT TOUCH and the other bearing the inscription ACTUALLY, I AM A ROCKET SCIENTIST. Sheppard filled both and handed Rodney the rocket scientist cup. Then he raised his own.
"To holidays," he said.
Rodney winced. "I'd really rather not." He tipped his mug towards Sheppard's without quite meeting the other man's eyes. "To ... the infinite fallibility of Sartre."
Sheppard's eyebrows went up. "Er, the what?"
"Oh, come on, Major. Use that supposed Mensa brain. You know who Sartre is, right?"
"Come on. Jean-Paul Sartre? French philosopher? Wrote incredibly boring plays?"
"I'll take your word for it."
Rodney rolled his eyes in elaborate exasperation. "Oh, come on, it's entirely pointless if I have to explain -- Very well, fine. He was best known for the quote, 'Hell is other people.' I assume you've heard that?"
"It sounds vaguely familiar."
"Yes, well, the point is that Sartre's wrong. Sometimes."
Sheppard couldn't help laughing. "McKay, that's the most pointlessly complicated way of saying 'Here's to friends' that I've ever heard."
"Yeah, well, I'm a complicated guy." A smile lurked somewhere around the crooked mouth.
Sheppard raised his cup. "To friends. And to Sartre being wrong."
The glass clinked; they drank. The wine was sharp and dark, with a smoky aftertaste.
"You know, I'm not a wine connoisseur, but that isn't bad."
"Reminds me of my grandfather's currant wine," Sheppard said. "He had a farm ... hundred and sixty acres, mostly gone to weeds since the land hadn't really been worked since the Depression, but it was full of currant and blackberry bushes. He used to bottle it up and send it to us at the holidays. I remember it was the one time us kids were allowed to drink alcohol ... even when we were pretty young, we were allowed to have one small glass at Christmas."
"Can we avoid the warm fuzzy holiday memories, please?"
Sheppard laughed. "Point taken. From now on, this lab is declared a holly-free zone. Rather like the rest of Atlantis, but in a metaphorical, more than literal sense."
"No jingle bells, no mistletoe, and God forbid, no Santas," Rodney agreed. "No gifts, either. Er, you'd better not have gotten me anything, Sheppard."
"You'll be happy to know I didn't." Sheppard looked slightly guilty. "I honestly couldn't think of anything. I'm really not used to coming up with gift ideas, frankly."
"Well, if you had, I'd have to throw you out for holly zone violations, so just thank your stars that you haven't got the imagination of a lamppost."
Sheppard snorted and topped off their mugs. "You'll never guess what Beckett found, by the way."
"Star Wars, on DVD."
"On a station full of nerds?" Rodney snorted. "Hardly a difficult thing to find. Original or new trilogy?"
"Original, of course."
"...Shoots first, Rodney, everyone knows that."
They were deep in an argument about the relative assets of Carrie Fisher in the first movie ("You know the hard-to-get, Catholic schoolgirl thing is sexy, Major; admit it! Besides, in 1977 she didn't look like she'd been doing hard drugs for ten years!") versus the third ("Come on, Rodney! Two words! Slave girl!") when there was a light tap at the door and Elizabeth stuck her head in. "Evening, boys."
Sheppard waved at her and topped off his mug again. It was a little alarming how quickly he was getting buzzed. At one time, he'd had a tolerance for alcohol that honestly frightened him just a little -- but hootch was hard to come by on Atlantis, and even when he could get it, he felt guilty about just letting go and getting smashed. This was probably the most he'd had to drink in the entire time he'd been in the Pegasus Galaxy.
"Merry Christmas, Rodney," Elizabeth said, setting down a ribbon-bedecked bottle of wine in front of him. She looked a bit taken aback at the dark look he sent her.
"You're violating the holly-free zone," Sheppard said, the edges of his mouth quirking in a barely-suppressed grin.
Elizabeth's eyebrow raised. "The what?"
"This lab is officially Christmas-free," Rodney explained. "Note the absence of annoying decorations, off-key singing, sappy reminiscences guaranteed to send all listeners into diabetic comas, and other things of that nature."
Elizabeth appeared to be valiantly fighting down laughter. "Well, in that case, I appear to have inadvertently purchased one too many bottles of Athosian wine and thought I might leave one here in case anyone in the lab wants it."
"In that case, you're perfectly welcome to do so." Rodney hooked an arm around the wine bottle and dragged it over to his side of the lab counter. "I do think you should have a talk with your Athosian trading partners about putting bows on their trade goods, though," he added, picking off the bright red bow and dropping it in the trash.
She seemed to be losing her struggle not to laugh. "I'll remember that," she managed in a choked voice.
"Rodney, you'd better be planning on sharing that wine."
"She said she was giving it to the lab, Sheppard, and last I looked, you didn't work in the lab."
"I'm in it at the moment," Sheppard pointed out.
Rodney just snorted and leaned around behind him, unearthing another mug from the lab detritus. This one said MY OTHER CAR IS A SPACESHIP, with a picture of the Enterprise. Sheppard upended the open wine bottle into it and passed it to Elizabeth.
She'd just found a seat when Teyla and Beckett poked their heads into the lab. "Thought we might find all of you down here," Carson said.
"Is there even anyone left upstairs?" Rodney demanded.
"Haven't had much of a tolerance for partying since my school days." Carson dragged up another stool. "No offense, Elizabeth, love."
"No, no," she said, her eyes bright with suppressed amusement. "I understand completely.
Teyla, beaming, handed Rodney a brightly wrapped package. "Dr. McKay, I have brought your gift."
Rodney accepted it with the expression of a man who had just been handed a dead rodent. Teyla looked confused.
"Rodney's not exactly partial to the holidays," Sheppard explained as he used Rodney's zapper device on the cork in the new bottle of wine. "Oh my God that's cool. I want one of these."
"Merry Christmas, it's yours," Rodney said absently.
"Damn it Rodney, I thought we weren't exchanging gifts."
"We have a whole box of these things! Use them for swizzle sticks if you want. Zap mosquitoes on alien swamp planets -- I don't care. You can give me a spark plug or something; it's about that rare and unusual around here."
Teyla's confusion had given way to a crestfallen look. "I am so sorry. I am still learning your customs. I did not mean to violate --"
He held up a hand. "No, no, it's all right. No worries. Other people are equally guilty," with a dark look at Elizabeth. "You want me to open it now?"
"However it is normally done," Teyla offered.
Rodney looked around at the others, obviously embarrassed, then ripped the paper off, revealing a bundle of softly shimmering cloth. He unfolded it and held it up: a shirt, cut in the flowing Athosian style with wide, flared sleeves. It was a dusty blue, similar to the colored panels on his uniform jacket, but shot through with glittering hints of purple and red.
Sheppard choked with laughter. "Oh Rodney, it's so you! Now if the whole scientist thing falls through, you can have a thriving career as a porn star!"
Rodney looked torn between pure humiliation, and annoyance with Sheppard. Teyla just smiled at him cautiously. "I saw it in a marketplace on my last trading mission, and I thought it would match your eyes," she said. This last bit sent Sheppard off into new paroxysms of laughter, and Teyla frowned at him, confused.
Elizabeth carefully got her face and voice under control before speaking. "Teyla, he doesn't mean to be rude," she said with a sharp look at Sheppard. "It's just that ... on our world, this would be more similar to the clothing styles worn by women."
Sheppard got enough breath back to say, "Don't worry, Teyla. There are men on Earth who dress that way. Of course, most of them are male prostitutes ..." And he was off again.
"I am so very, very sorry!" Teyla made a grab for the shirt; to her obvious surprise, Rodney pulled it out of her reach. "I am still learning these things about your people, and it had always seemed to me that your men and women dress very similarly. I will take it back and trade for something more suitable."
"Teyla, it's fine," Rodney said, a bit gruffly. "Don't take it back. I'm keeping it."
Slightly out of breath, and with a suspicious hitch in his voice, Sheppard suggested, "Try it on, Rodney."
"Drop dead, Major."
"You do not have to keep it," Teyla said.
"I want to." He folded it and placed it carefully, almost reverently, atop the wrapping paper.
"Teyla, would you like some wine?" Elizabeth asked, breaking the awkwardness of the moment.
"I would love some wine," she said gratefully.
There were no more mugs handy, but Rodney found clean beakers for the two new arrivals. "By the way, Carson, if you have a Christmas present for me, I'm going to have to stab you with the nearest pipette."
Beckett raised his hands in mock surrender. "No need for violence, Rodney. I didn't get you anything."
"Thank you, Carson. I knew I could count on you." Rodney glanced around at all of them, and then gave his mug a brief lift. "Sartre," he said shortly, and drank.
"I take it that means something." Elizabeth gave Sheppard a bewildered look.
John just smiled over the top of his own mug. "Like everything else with McKay, Elizabeth, you have to take it in the spirit with which it's offered." And he drank the smoky Athosian wine, long and deep.