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Seachange by alyse [PG-13]
[ - ]

Summary: Atlantis is always cold.

Hints of McKay/Sheppard/Weir

Categories: General, Threesomes and Moresomes > All Varieties
Characters: Elizabeth Weir, John Sheppard, Rodney McKay
Genres: Angst, Challenge, Character Study, Episode Related, Friendship, Hurt Comfort
Warnings: None
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: None

Word count: 6842; Completed: Yes
Updated: 05 Jan 2006; Published: 05 Jan 2006

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Spoilers: The Storm/The Eye and vague ones for Hot Zone.

Notes: Written for eretria for the sga_santa. Thanks to Cedara for the encouragement when it seemed insurmountable.

~*~

They left Colorado in July, in a rush of boxes and bags and carts piled high until she thought they'd topple over. And wouldn't that be a kicker, she thought, as she wove her way through the corridors within corridors the piled high boxes made. To miss the flight out because the straps on a suitcase had come undone?

The noise became too much for her until she had to find a place to be that was 'elsewhere', somewhere away from the barely organised chaos. Somewhere she could oversee it all and yet not have to actually see it for a minute or two, if only for the sake of her sanity. Just a few stolen minutes of silence to get her head together, and it was bliss not be pushed and pulled and dragged to one side by people who spoke a babble of a dozen tongues and had a million different demands and questions.

She knew most of them of course - the people weaving their way through the chaos out there and the tongues they spoke both. She'd pored over files and carefully selected each and every one of them back when this whole trip had been nothing but hope and smoky pipedreams, a 'maybe' and a 'one day' rather than a reality. She understood them on some level, scientists and military both - their hopes, their dreams, their skills - even if she'd only exchanged minimal pleasantries with them face to face, letting the papers she'd worked through doing all of their talking for them instead.

That was her forte after all - reading people and reading between the lines - and her skills had served her well. They would continue to serve her well in future. She had no doubts. No room for them.

She had her skills and her skills had landed her command of this mission. It was simple enough.

She understood them all, the men and women out there. Understood that they were afraid and exhilarated and, frankly, higher than children on a diet of candy and funfairs all at once. She could feel it deep in the fibres of her being, the same way that she felt the tension in the air before a thunderstorm. They were all dancing to the same beat, the beat she felt pounding deep in her chest, a heavy rhythm that shook her bones and thrummed through her veins; excitement, fear and something close to awe.

It might be July outside, where the sun would be shining and the air pleasantly warm, but she couldn't feel it in this far underground. The air down here had that brittle, dry taste from being sucked down and recycled. But she took it on trust that outside it would be calm and still and peaceful, as it had been when she'd last passed through the checkpoints almost a week ago. The roiling summer storms were still a month or so off and the bitter winter cold had been left behind.

There was nothing special about July in Colorado. Nothing remarkable or memorable. It could be anywhere with low humidity and low rainfall. Nothing that could hold a candle to the wonders where they were going. Surely.

She'd miss the Fall, though. Miss the colours of red and gold and brown that marked her favourite season, and miss scrunching through piles of leaves with Jessie trotting alongside, tongue lolling out of her mouth and ears pricked.

It had always been her favourite season, the Fall; the crisp snap to the air, and the way that twilight came early and seemed to linger on and on.

She'd miss Simon too, walking by her side and kicking the leaves up into little flurries that danced in the breeze and sent Jessie into a frenzy of barking and jerking at the leash. The sight always sent her into an equal frenzy of laughter while the chill wind nipped at her cheeks, flushing them as red as the leaves.

The thought - the memories - hurt more than she expected, for all she'd believed she was braced for it. Next year. She'd do it again. She would. A pleasure - a need - postponed, not forgone, that was all.

She forced her mind back on track and focused on wondering instead what it would be like on Atlantis. Would it be like Antarctica - all crisp, clean ice, curved by the wind into lines that made her think of the flow of Ancient tech? Or barren like Abydos, with the dust and wind and sand she'd read about in more than one report?

Or would it be like the jungles she'd trekked through in South America after the conclusion of one diplomatic talk or another, all lush greenery and humidity and overgrown ruins? The idea sent another one of those percussion-like shivers through her, the memory of vast monuments emerging out of greenery surfacing and almost taking her under again. She remembered too much, remembered staring up at walls that seemed to go on forever and swamping her with the weight of too much time.

They wouldn't even have been built when the Ancients last walked the Earth.

She wouldn't be swamped again. Wouldn't drown under the weight of history. There were things to do and people to see to so she braced her shoulders, took a deep breath and threw herself back into the dance, this time moving with the rhythm and not against it.

When she stepped through the gate for the first time, she didn't look back.

She might miss the Fall but she had faith they'd be home for Christmas.

~*~

Sometimes she dreamt that Atlantis was sinking.

Not every night - not even every week - but frequently enough to taint those last few moments spent on the cusp of wakefulness before she slid under with the mingled taste of dread and anticipation.

She didn't share the dreams with Kate at their weekly sessions, the sessions she attended religiously in order to encourage her senior staff to do the same. They seemed too... private, somehow. Something best kept between her and the ocean that spread around and under them. And anyway, she thought she already knew the answers Kate would give and the explanations she would provide. They were almost text book after all - the weight of command, the responsibility for so many lives.

The guilt at the loss of those lives pulling her under.

Textbook.

But the dreams weren't always the same. Sometimes it was a long-forgotten sea monster, rising up from the deep with merciless tentacles to drag them all under. Even though the monster wasn't the same in every dream, it always bore a startling resemblance to the reproductions of historic wood carvings in the books she'd read as a child, thrilling herself by torchlight beneath the covers to tales of the deep.

Sometimes Atlantis simply dropped like a stone, bubbles rising all around the city as the water gave way beneath them. On those occasions, when she woke shivering in sheets that were damp with the memory of it, she rationalised it away as vague memories of other things she'd read about over the years, a gathering of vaguely scientific explanations touted for the Bermuda Triangle, from talk of sink holes and freshwater currents that changed the density of saltwater, to deep underwater reservoirs of gas that were released in a cataclysmic burst of pressure.

Ancient mysteries had always thrilled her; she collected facts like trophies and there was always a rational explanation for everything. Wasn't there?

Sometimes Atlantis simply broke apart, lashed by storms fiercer than those she'd ever known, with sheets of lightening that were several orders of magnitude removed from those she'd watched in Colorado in August. Broke apart and slid beneath the waves leaving nothing, not even debris in its wake.

That last dream was almost peaceful in a way, like being in the middle of an old black and white movie, watching as shards of light leapt across the sky above her head and the water rose around her feet.

All of the dreams were eerily silent; no thunder, no screams. No creaking of metal under strain as beams millennia old finally twisted and snapped like strings. And in all of them the last image before she woke was the same.

Her hands, trailing greenish light above her and wavering in the current as she drifted down, down, down...

~*~

When the Genii had finally gone, she stood for a long time watching the Gate, half expecting that watery event horizon to appear again and Kolya walk back through with a knife in his hand, a smile on his face and death in his eyes. She didn't notice she was shivering until she felt the weight of Sheppard's jacket drop heavily over her shoulders.

It startled her, setting her heart racing again. All that blood racing around her system should have warmed her, but it only made her feel more chilled. Shock, she supposed, although she had nothing to be shocked about. Not really.

It was Kolya's blood on her soaked jacket, not hers. Not Rodney's, whose blood had soaked into his own sleeve, which was now redder than her undershirt. Not Carson's, which had trickled down from his scalp to his collar.

There was no blood on Sheppard's jacket that she could see, and she dimly realised how much trouble she was in when she caught herself looking for it.

"Sorry." His voice didn't startle her as much as the weight of his jacket had. "You looked cold."

"Yes." One word. She groped for more, something tangible and concrete and calm to say. "But I'm always cold on Atlantis."

Sheppard chuckled, moving to stand alongside her as she turned her attention back to the Gate. It seemed safer to stare at it than to look at him. "Yeah. You'd think that a race as technologically advanced as the Ancients would have invented central heating." His sideways look at her invited her to join in the joke, but her smile was an automatic twitch of the lips and nothing more. However it looked, it had him turning to face her. "Are you all right?"

His mouth was gentle, curled into a not quite smile, but his eyes were dark, as though what she was thinking, what she'd been looking for on his jacket and the reason she was watching the 'Gate were clearly written on her face.

The smile she pasted on was wider this time but felt even more awkward and she let it slip away again. "Fine," she said, before catching herself in the lie. "No. Not really. Not 'fine'. But I will be." The next smile she tried didn't feel any more real, but it seemed to satisfy. He nodded.

"Yeah." His hand rose briefly, as though to touch her shoulder and she couldn't bear it suddenly, knew she wouldn't be able to bear the weight of it, the warmth of it. Some of that may have shown on her face, or maybe it was simply that he felt awkward touching her, someone who was nominally his commanding officer. Whatever the reason, his hand dropped and hung by his side, fingers lightly curled.

When she found herself watching those fingers instead of his face, looking for red, she found herself shivering anew.

"Sorry." She made herself meet his eyes, and the smile felt more professional this time, more 'real' even if it was a practiced sort of 'real' and real was the last thing she felt. "You're right. I'm cold."

"I'm not surprised." She didn't think that she was imagining the relief in his eyes. "You're soaked to the skin. Look... I'll see if I can rustle something up, some blankets or something..."

"You can't go back into the corridors, John. Not yet."

His name simply slipped out but if he noticed, he gave no sign, just smiled that crooked smile of his. "Yeah. After today's events I don't feel like ending up fricasseed. But there may be some jackets or something in the control room. Maybe the jumper bay. I think Zelenka keeps some old blankets in there, or something. So they don't have to kneel on the floor when they crawl under the jumpers."

She couldn't help wrinkling her nose at that, but it simply meant that his smile was more genuine this time.

"Well, I suppose the floors are a little hard," she admitted, trying for bracing and probably missing it by a mile or so.

"And cold."

Yes. And cold. Like the rest of Atlantis.

Like her.

"Look." The concern was back on his face and it was too much. She had to force herself to hold his gaze, not close her eyes or look away or simply topple forward and bury her face in the warmth of his black shirt and let him bear the weight of it all for a while. This time his hand did come up, resting on her arm and it was dizzying, the need to lean into that touch. "You're wet and half-frozen, Elizabeth, and I don't think Rodney is much better. It's been a rough day."

A rough day. She wondered how many he'd killed. Sixty? More?

She wondered that she didn't care.

"Why don't I go see what I can dig out from the 'jumpers. Or maybe better, maybe you should go and get some sleep in one of them." His hand squeezed her arm gently, cutting off the words she didn't want to say but felt she had to. His face was closer to her now, his voice low so that the others couldn't hear him and she was grateful for his consideration even as she tried to focus on what he was saying.

So many colours in his eyes and yet, at the end of the day, was he any different from Kolya when it came to killing? Was she, who'd cheered him on every step of the way, even if she'd done so quietly, afraid of the repercussions if she hadn't been?

"We're not sinking."

He misunderstood her meaning. Or maybe, at the heart of it, he hadn't. "No." That same gentle curve to his mouth that wasn't quite a smile. "McKay is keeping us afloat. For now. And now I think it's time for all tired leaders to go to bed. McKay too," he added as an afterthought.

She snorted. As undignified as the sound was, she couldn't help it. Bad enough that he was trying to send her to bed but to try and send Rodney too, Rodney who was still gripping his wounded arm in one hand even as he bent over the console and watched the figures on it flicker, telling a story only he could read.

"I think you'll be lucky."

"Yeah." Another one of those sideways looks. "But you've got my back when I go in, right?"

That finally got a genuine smile out of her, weak though it was. "Of course."

Of course she had his back. He'd had hers.

No. Kolya had been at her back, but John... John had seen to that too.

At least being cold and wet gave her a reason to shudder.

"McKay." How John could still have a bounce in his step was beyond her. "How's the shield holding up?"

"Fine, fine." Rodney's voice was as distracted as it always was when he was buried in equations. "It should get us through the rest of the storm with no problems. Assuming of course that it blows itself out when we expect it to and doesn't, I don't know, decide to do something weird and throw a little hurricane party and invite all its hurricane friends."

John just looked at him, eyebrow quirked, and it was so normal, so totally normal for them that she had to reach out and grip the console with one hand as reality rolled beneath her feet.

"Will there be any more problems?" The words sounded hollow to her ears, as hollow as she felt, but they didn't seem to notice.

"No... no, there shouldn't be. It's fairly standard. The shield is, after all, a fairly basic and core system, so is largely automated, and, well, it did run without interference for ten thousand years. And we've stored up enough energy to ride the storm out, with any luck, and even if we haven't, as it passes overhead the incidence of lightning strikes will drop but so will the power consumption levels, so we're good, I expect."

"Expect?"

"How long?" John's voice overrode hers.

Rodney blinked at him. "How long will the storm last?"

"How long will the power last?"

"Oh. At these rates of consumption, at least fourteen hours. The storm should be over by then. Of course, it is a freakishly alien storm, but even so, the worst of it should be over by then. Yes. Definitely over."

"And it's automated?"

It was probably an indication of how exhausted Rodney was that he didn't pick up on the look John slid her, or the fake 'little boy interested' tone in his voice.

"Yes. Automated. As I said. Did you get water in your ears, Major?"

"So, you can go get some sleep?"

"What... no. I mean, sleep?"

"Sleep, Rodney. It's that thing most people who have been up for twenty seven hours straight figuring things out need."

There was something slightly off in Rodney's expression, something more than just cold and exhaustion. It took her a moment, as sluggish as she felt, to recognise her own feelings reflected back at her.

"I..." Rodney's eyes slid away from them, and his fingers clutched more tightly around the crimson patch on his arm. "I should stay here. Monitor these readings."

"You said it was automated."

There was a touch of asperity in John's voice and for a brief, flaringly bright moment she came close to hating him for it.

"Yes... but..."

Another one of those nervous clutches and Rodney was licking his lips, his eyes still darting around the room.

"I'll watch it." John's gaze was steady now; too steady, his eyes never leaving Rodney's face. "Show me what to watch out for. If there's a problem - if there's even a hint of a problem - we'll wake you."

There was another hesitation on Rodney's part, and she could see him already start to marshal his arguments. They'd be variations on a theme she'd heard a thousand times before - he was needed, he was the only one who could do it...

He was the only one he trusted to do it.

After everything. He was the only one he trusted to do it.

It hurt, in a stupid and pointless way that annoyed her even as it hurt. She was tired and cold and worn out and had been more afraid than she had ever been in her life. She didn't have time for his bullshit. She didn't have the energy for it - not now, not when all she wanted to do was crawl into sleep and hope that Kolya didn't crawl in after her.

The words caught on her tongue, bitten back only by dint of long practice, but when she finally looked at him - when she finally saw him - she was glad of it. It seemed as though Rodney had the same hopes and fears she did - that when he finally fell asleep, his sleep wouldn't be deep and dreamless.

"Rodney -"

"We will watch the monitors." Teyla's voice was calm and even and brooked no argument. "Lieutenant Ford and I are more rested, Major, than any of you, since we spent so much time waiting in the eye of the storm. We will watch the panel, and we will watch Doctor Beckett, and we will wake you if there is anything that you need to be concerned about."

Teyla's eyes were kind and any knowing in them was easy to bear simply because it was Teyla, Teyla who had grown up under a blanket of fear and never let it bow her. Teyla, who even now, might be slightly battered and bloody but never bowed.

"Thank you." She spoke from the heart and caught the answering warmth and respect in Teyla's gaze.

"Look, Teyla -"

"I believe that it is our watch, Major. Mine and Lieutenant Ford's."

"It's fine, sir." Ford's voice was far too bright for someone who'd just killed. "We can handle it, like Teyla said."

It was the perfect thing to say - as Teyla so often said the perfect thing - and Ford's cheerful support silenced John and Rodney both. Elizabeth was already silent, wrung out of things to say.

"Please explain what we should watch for, Doctor McKay. We are... all ears."

Rodney didn't respond to that, just stared blankly at Teyla for a long moment until even Teyla's calm smile faltered.

"What... oh?" Rodney was too pale and winced as he reached out to point at the lines crossing the screen. "These readings, they need to stay within these parameters - those other lines, see?"

Ford was crowding her, still respectful but leaning over the console now with puppy-like enthusiasm, watching where Rodney's hand pointed. She understood the need he had to feel useful, especially after being unable to help for so long, but it didn't make it any easier to bear when the rough fabric of his uniform brushed past her hand when his enthusiasm brought him too close to her and she remembered far too much.

"Perfectly." Teyla's face was solemn, a striking contrast to Ford's grin.

"Well, if they get above those lines, then you wake me. It's still within an acceptable margin of error, and it probably won't go above that anyway, but it's probably best to wake me even if - "

Teyla's hand on his arm - his uninjured arm - stopped him in full flow. "You can trust us, Doctor. We will watch for you."

She had to turn away. So stupid, so damned stupid, to come close to undone by that simple statement and the look on Rodney's face. Stress. It was simply stress at the end of a long and horrific day and she was too tired and cold to deal with it right now.

"Doctor." Teyla's head inclined graciously in her direction and then Elizabeth was moving past her, her eyes focused directly ahead and John's hand warm in the small of her back.

"Rodney." There was a snap in John's voice and she wanted to call him on it, tell him how brave Rodney had been, how Rodney...

How Rodney looked so lost when she turned towards him and how he stumbled along beside them.

She didn't need to. John's hand reached out and steadied him, resting on his shoulder and guiding him as he guided her. Shepherding them.

She had to bite back the urge to laugh in case it became hysterical and hysteria she could not afford, not in front of these men. Not ever.

John's hand was still warm, and it slipped around her waist when she stumbled herself. It was steadying, not intrusive, and again she had to resist the urge to just lean in and breathe in his scent - the smell she was coming to associate with safety. Gun oil and carbide and the slight tang of sweat. She probably smelled no better - of salt and sweat and fear. At least her clothes wouldn't hold the metallic scent that Rodney's did.

Reaching the 'jumpers was a relief, if only because it provided some distraction from her thoughts, which swirled around in her head, a maelstrom to match the one outside, and gave her no peace.

John was hesitant now, which was both like and unlike him. But then fools rushed in and John, for all his headstrong nature, was no fool. She doubted that had ever been an angel either.

"Look, why don't you just - "

Rodney was already stretching out on one of the benches, his face hidden in shadows.

"- lie down and... Okay. I'll go dig up some blankets then."

Another slight hesitation and he was gone, his footsteps echoing hollowly down the ramp and leaving them alone. Just the two of them.

Just the two.

The floor was ice underneath her behind and it did nothing to ease the shivers coursing through her. She placed her feet flat on the floor, wrapped her arms around her knees and felt five again.

"You can't..." Rodney was struggling to sit up, his face, now that she could see it again clearly, drawn and his mouth curling down. "You can't sit on the floor, Elizabeth. Be sensible. The seats..."

He gestured.

"I'd probably roll off, the way that today has been going." The small smile she gave him felt genuine - was genuine - and he huffed in annoyance, scrubbing his good hand through his hair. His other was cradled to his chest.

"We should probably do something about that," she said, gesturing to it.

He pulled back, his mouth curling back down again and she regretted saying anything. "It's fine." His mouth twisted and his eyes wouldn't meet hers. "It's nothing."

"It's not nothing, Rodney."

In spite of the gentleness of her voice, when he finally looked at her his eyes were full of anger, at her or himself she wouldn't have dared to guess. "It'll keep."

That was so unlike him that it silenced her. She wanted to tell him how brave he'd been, how scared she'd been and how grateful she was to him for saving her life - for standing between her and a loaded gun.

For her.

The words wouldn't come. Maybe if she'd been Teyla they would have done - the right words for every occasion, even one as messed up as this one. But then, she may have negotiated a hundred different treaties, in a dozen, nasty little wars over the years, but she'd never had to negotiate in a situation where she'd nearly been listed as a casualty.

In the end, all that she could say was, "Thank you."

In the end, that was all that was needed.

He looked away, but not before she'd seen the gratitude in his eyes, and it pushed her close to tears again; Elizabeth Weir, who hadn't cried in years.

"The seats..." He was holding himself stiffly, but she suspected that was more Rodney's discomfort with emotion than anything else. "They pull out. We could..."

He demonstrated rather than complete the sentence, tugging on something until the cushions came free and he could ease them out, rather awkwardly and one handed. She helped as best she could, but she'd stiffened up from the cold and managed to skin the side of one hand before they'd finished.

It was the only injury she'd suffered today, and such a weak and pathetic thing at that - more pale, golden plasma than actual blood. She was ashamed at the way her eyes prickled because of it.

Such a stupid, small thing.

Rodney was already stretched out on the cushions again, his back turned towards her and his body language stiff. She wiped her hand on her pants, ignoring the sting, and settled down beside him, not close enough to touch any part of their bodies but enough to feel the heat radiating off him. Rodney always gave off a lot of heat, and now she was grateful for it.

"It's December third."

The non-sequitur startled her and she raised her head, staring at the dark hair on the back of his.

"I... we were never much for Christmas, you know? My family, I mean. But..."

His voice trailed off and she watched him for a few moments, waiting for him to continue. When he didn't, she said, softly, "I thought we'd be home for Christmas. When we left the SGC, I remember thinking... we'll be home for Christmas."

He rolled over onto his back, and twisted his neck to peer up at her. His smile was tremulous in the low light of the 'jumper and it twisted her heart too. "Yeah. I thought we'd waltz in, pick up some ZPMs and... not go home, not when there's still so much... God, but... at least be able to get back home. You know?"

She knew. She knew it just like she knew they probably wouldn't talk of this again. Talk like this again.

"Rodney..."

The scuff of John's boots on the ramp again interrupted her flow, and it was just as well - she had no words to make it better. For such a renowned diplomat, her command of language had certainly sucked today.

Rodney subsided, lying back and crossing his hands over his middle, staring at the ceiling. When she turned her head away from contemplating Rodney's profile towards the doorway, John was watching them, a little uncertainly, silvery blankets clutched in his hands. "Couldn't find Zelenka's stash," he explained, gesturing slightly with them so that they rustled in his grip, "but I tracked down some of the emergency thermal blankets. Figured they'd help."

"Thank you, John."

The fabric felt cold beneath her fingers when she reached out to take one and while she knew enough of physics to know why they were silver, she still thought the colour of them - the colour of snow and ice - didn't help. It made her fingers feel clumsy and awkward.

"Here." His voice was too gentle and she came close to hating him again for the tears that hovered, just below the surface. His hands were equally gentle as he took the blanket from her and wrapped it around her.

Was it telling of their lives so far that being tucked in by the Head of Military Operations didn't even register on her own personal barometer of weird anymore?

"Rodney."

"I don't need tucking in, thank you, Major."

When she glanced to her left, Rodney's mouth was set in a mutinous line that was strangely encouraging, as was the acidic tone to his voice.

"Are you sure, McKay? I could get you some hot milk if you'd like?"

Rodney actually raised one hand and flipped John off, that expression of defiance on his face strangely familiar, although this time not tinged with fear.

She stifled the urge to laugh, stupid though they were being. It... it was probably exhaustion and shock and not at all because their juvenile antics were funny. Relief that they could still joke and she could still laugh. Alive and, if not quite unbroken or unbowed, then at least good enough.

John shot her another smile, and turned on his heel. She called after him before she could think.

He hesitated, silhouetted in the light from beyond the 'jumper doorway. "I'm just going to walk perimeter."

"I think you've walked perimeter enough today."

She didn't need to see his face to know that it would be set in the same stubborn lines she'd glimpsed on Rodney's face only moments before. They were too alike in some ways, and the line of his body in the doorway told her everything she needed to know.

She wasn't too tired to fight him on this one, even if she could hear the silent 'Yes, mom' he was just too damned smart to voice.

"Besides, the corridors are still electrified, Major." Rodney's voice was a drawl and his hand gestured vaguely at the ceiling. "I thought that you didn't want to become fricassee."

"Fricassee would be bad." The tension in John's body eased, and he swayed slightly closer, lines of exhaustion suddenly appearing on his face as he let the mask slip just a fraction. "Fricassee would be very bad."

"There wouldn't be a noticeable effect on the hair, though."

John's hand reached up to pat his head as he shot Rodney a wounded look. She knew what they were doing and part of her appreciated it. A very small part of her. Although judging by the way the tension eased slightly from Rodney's body, lying next to hers, perhaps it wasn't all for her benefit.

"I think we could all use some sleep, John. And Ford and Teyla are probably walking the perimeter already."

Perhaps her skills hadn't abandoned her entirely, as it seemed to be the right thing to say.

"Well, I hope that one of them's at least watching the console," Rodney grumped, shifting around on the cushions and bumping his hip against her.

She didn't bother to reply, closing her eyes and shifting minutely closer to him until the heat he threw off started to have an effect.

"It's the third of December." The words came unbidden, and she felt John pause in the act of removing his shoes beside her. There was something watchful in his silence.

"I already said that."

"Yes, Rodney. Yes, you did."

"We should..." Her eyes were already drifting shut and she felt Rodney's hand wave, a slight breeze stirring the wisps of hair by her ear, rather than saw it. "I don't know... have a party or something."

"A 'thank God we're alive' party?" John's voice was dry, and she shifted slightly, burrowing more deeply into the strange, space age blanket.

"A Christmas party. As it's slightly too late for Thanksgiving and slightly too early for the Fourth of July, both of which are American traditions anyway, Major, whereas Christmas, Hanukah etcetera etcetera are far more universal. Many faiths and nationalities have a mid-winter festival, after all, as it's more closely related to the shortest day of the year than anything else."

She knew them too well. Knew them well enough to be able to picture exactly the look that would be on John's face as he peered over her at Rodney - a mixture of amusement and exasperation.

"Since when have you listened to the anthropologists, McKay?"

"Mince pies. Egg nog. Roast beast..."

"You're a mean one, Mr Grinch," John sang under his breath. She smiled as she felt Rodney's huff of irritation stir her hair again. She shifted closer until her hand rested against his side.

He stiffened for a moment, then his hand moved and covered hers, warm and safe.

"I happen to take a great interest in Christmas."

"No bah humbug?"

"Christmas dinner."

"Christmas party," John retorted. "Egg nog, mistletoe -"

"Oh, of course. We have to have mistletoe, am I right, Major? Tell me, are you deliberately trying to impersonate Kirk or does it just come naturally?"

"Hey!"

There was no heat in the exchange but it warmed her anyway.

"Trying to sleep."

"Sorry, Elizabeth." Rodney's stage whisper was no softer than his speaking voice, consisting as it did of all hissing sibilants, but his breath was hot against her cheek and the apology was genuine. She pressed her hand lightly against his side in acceptance and finally let the tension drain out of her as his fingers squeezed hers.

There was a soft rustling behind her, and more warmth against her back.

"I'm not Kirk." John's whisper was quieter, but spoken as it was directly above she caught it anyway. "And, yes, we have to have mistletoe... or whatever whacked out equivalent the Pegasus Galaxy has."

"Still trying to sleep," she murmured. John's warmth against her back was a silent apology, as he eased back beneath the covers. His hand settled again on her waist, strong and sure and safe, and his breath stirred the hairs on the nape of her neck. Rodney's breathing was evening out, his stomach hot beneath her hand and she let it seep into her, let the warmth of both of them ease her down, down, down...

She didn't dream.

~*~

The Pegasus Galaxy didn't have an equivalent of mistletoe. John had asked, much to Teyla's confusion. He'd been forced to explain the tradition to her, assisted or hindered by Rodney's interjections and gesticulations depending on who you asked. She'd watched, quietly, as Ford stepped in with explanations that made more sense and a smile that reflected the warmth of Teyla's.

When the first papier mâché green and white blobs - which resembled nothing so much as large, mutant fruit flies - appeared hanging in the Gateroom, she swallowed a smile and a sigh both. Her people were nothing if not resourceful. And if Ford wasn't currently demonstrating the traditions of mistletoe to Teyla with more practical examples, more fool him.

When John caught her beneath one and kissed her, he pressed his lips to the corner of her mouth, tasting sweetly of guilt and regret for everything that came after. She'd forgiven him by then for his actions during the nanovirus outbreak, although she hadn't yet shared that fact with him. She understood him, the drive to protect in spite of everything, in spite of her orders.

He still needed to understand that she had the same drive too.

Rodney had tasted of the candied sweetmeats the Athosians had baked, in honour of a celebration they didn't share. She suspected Halling, who had presented them to her with his trademark solemnity, had understood though. She thought the Athosians had an exquisite appreciation of the meaning of sacrifice, of laying down your life so that your people could both survive and thrive.

Rodney had pressed his hand against the small of her back and his mouth had been mobile and warm. Underlying the sweetness of candy had been sweetness all of his own - well hidden but there nonetheless, and it was a taste she'd grown to appreciate.

She could almost taste him now as she stood on one of the balconies, listening to the sounds coming from the room inside. Laughter and piped music drifted back out to her - Santa Claus is Coming To Town. Someone had obviously been better planned than she, or perhaps simply had a fondness for all year round festive songs.

The sea beyond the balcony was calm and deep blue, no longer marred by the dark, slick patterns of storm run off and debris, carried to them by ocean currents from land hundreds of miles away. For a few days it had been a constant reminder of the devastation the storm had wrought, even this far from shore, but now that it had settled out there was nothing to remind her, not on this side of the City, away from the flooded lower portions.

Nothing to remind her but the faces missing from the party inside.

Out here, though, it was peaceful, a warm breeze gently blowing. She'd listened with half an ear as the meteorologists told her that summer was on its way, talking about the patterns of ocean currents that were changing and bringing warmer water from the equator, theorising whether this was a regular happening or some change also wrought by the storm. She'd smiled and nodded and filed that fact away along with the many before suggesting they pester Zelenka for access to the Ancient database and the information on weather patterns over millennia it would undoubtedly contain.

Their excitement had been contagious, and remembering it now made her smile.

Behind her the noise rose for a moment ... you'd better watch out... and then dipped again as the glass door to the main room opened and closed. Soft footsteps scuffled against the floor, hesitant at first and then more confident, until she felt the warmth of them, one each side, at her back.

She smiled again, closed her eyes and turned her face to catch the waning evening rays, basking in the warmth of it.

The End