Recipient: bluflamingo, who wanted to know how John and Cam celebrate Christmas while in different galaxies, and who also said she likes angst.
Word Count: ~6100
Summary: The party had a surreal feel to it, the cheerful celebration clashing badly with his own internal state of anxiety. He checked his watch, wondering how much longer he had to stay for, then realized that if he left, he'd be alone in his room again. He couldn't decide which was worse.
"That's really...impressive," Carter said, gazing up in awe at the almost-pine tree. "And they do this every year?"
"Yeah," John said. "But I think they may have set a new record here." He craned his neck, trying to see to the top. It looked like the uppermost branches were actually brushing against the ceiling, two storeys up.
"How'd they get it through the gate?"
"I'm not sure. Lorne handled the request." He tilted his head, considering the massive base of the tree. "I think they may have just strapped it on top of a jumper and skipped the gate altogether."
Carter smiled. "Knowing the marines, they probably built a spacesuit for it," she said dryly.
"Wouldn't put it past them," he agreed, still staring. It really was an impressive tree, even by marine standards. "They got a tree for the mess hall, too."
"Not quite this big, I hope."
He shook his head. "The marines know better than to take up valuable table space with a tree."
Carter turned her head to look at John. "We have thirty-two countries represented here. Isn't this a little...?"
"The marines usually hang a few menorahs on the tree and call it multiculturalism."
"Officially," he added, "the policy has been to recognize all religious and cultural holidays equally. Every group is encouraged to decorate the mess hall and the lounge appropriately, and put in whatever food requests they think the kitchen can reasonably manage."
"I suppose that explains the midnight feasts a couple of months ago," Carter said. She looked up at the tree again. The marines, having apparently stabilized the tree to their satisfaction, were now pulling out long strings of lights from one of the many boxes stacked neatly against the wall. "How do they decorate the top?"
John shrugged. "I let the engineers worry about that."
He left Carter waiting to see how they got the star on top of the tree, and did a quick sweep of the control room (tastefully decorated, but tree-free), the engineering labs (the source of some of the more elaborate decorations), and the infirmary (which was deserted apart from one bored nurse) before heading back to his office. Halfway through his rounds, he realized he was whistling. He stopped immediately, but couldn't quite keep the smile off his face. Christmas had lost most of its lustre for him after his mother died, and years of celebrating on military bases, not infrequently in the middle of a war or near-war, hadn't done much to restore the Christmas spirit for him. On Atlantis, however, holidays meant something. Each Christmas and New Year marked another year of survival (no small feat out here), and served to reconnect people to an Earth that often felt very far away. Consequently, they tended to be celebrated with vigorous enthusiasm. If John couldn't spend the holidays curled up with Cam in Colorado Springs--or in Kansas, since Cam kept threatening to take John home for Christmas on the farm--well, a city-wide party wasn't a bad way to mark the occasion.
Lorne was waiting for him in his office.
"The marines seem to have the decorations well in-hand," John said, leaning back against his desk. "How are the rest of the party preparations going?"
"We're pretty much ready, sir," Lorne replied. "Gunny Hanson's been baking up a storm, Stiller and Khan are off hunting down Christmas dinner now, and I've arranged the duty shifts so that everyone who put in a request gets time off on either tonight or tomorrow." He leaned in and added confidentially, "I've also heard that the cooks have managed to develop the Pegasus version of eggnog."
John made a face. "Is this something I want to try?"
Lorne looked thoughtful. "I haven't tasted it myself, sir, but I've heard rumours that Barnett and Suarez smuggled some rum with them when they came back from leave, and they plan on producing it tonight at the party. If you add enough of that, it'll probably be palatable."
John raised a surprised eyebrow. It was a given that the marines would try to sneak something into the party, but rum was a big step above their usual moonshine. "Very generous of them to share," he said dryly. "Make sure they consume it discreetly. If any of us see it, it's going to have to go, and I'd hate to take away their Christmas cheer. "
"I think they know, sir."
"Great. Next, we..."
Outside his office, the gate alarm began to sound.
"We expecting anyone?" John asked, already knowing the answer. Lorne shook his head, the two of them already half-jogging out of John's office and up toward the control room. They ran into Carter in the corridor, and followed her into the control room.
Chuck looked up as the three of them entered, dark eyes serious. "It's a transmission from Earth," he said. "For Colonel Carter."
John looked at the still-open wormhole, and thought about how much energy was required to keep it that way. "Didn't we just hear from them two days ago?" he asked lightly, pushing down the tension that had begun slowly twisting his stomach into knots.
Carter nodded and walked around to the small console screen. "Put it up," she said. Chuck complied.
John couldn't see the screen, but he recognized Landry's voice.
"General. We weren't expecting to hear from you until next week. Is something wrong, sir?"
"I'm afraid so. SG-1 went out on a first-contact mission three days ago. We expected them back yesterday morning. When we didn't hear from them, we sent in SG-12. They returned with Dr. Jackson and Vala this morning."
John stiffened, then caught himself. He looked at Lorne out of the corner of his eye, but the other officer seemed focused on Carter. John drew in a slow breath, forcing himself to relax, and listened.
"Are they okay?" Carter was saying.
"A bit bruised, but they'll be fine," Landry said. "Apparently the planet used to belong to Ba'al, and the people on it are still loyal to him. Worse, they somehow heard about his execution, and they know that SG-1 was involved. Dr. Jackson reports that they captured Teal'c and Colonel Mitchell. He also says that Colonel Mitchell was injured. He's not sure how seriously, but said it looked like Mitchell was shot during his capture. And well, when SG-12 went back to the scene...there was a lot of blood, Sam."
John's stomach dropped. He swallowed hard, and focused on keeping his expression neutral.
"Do they know where Cam and Teal'c were taken?" she asked.
"No," Landry said grimly. "But we're looking for them. I've got half-a-dozen teams scouring the planet. We'll find them, Colonel."
"I know, sir," Carter said.
"Anyway, I thought you'd want to know. We'll update you if we find anything."
"Thank you, sir."
The wormhole dropped, leaving the ring empty once more. Carter leaned forward, resting her palms on the panels in front of her, and bowed her head. A moment later she straightened up. She looked pale, but otherwise composed. John hoped that he looked at least as good.
"I'll be in my office if you need anything," she said quietly. He could see Lorne nodding beside him. He wanted to say something, to ask if she was okay, but he didn't trust his voice not to shake, so he just nodded too, and waited for her to leave.
John escaped from Lorne as quickly as he could, grateful that there wasn't much that required his attention, and headed back to his quarters. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, closing his eyes against the exquisitely detailed visions floating in front of him. Cam injured. Cam scared. Cam suffering. Cam dead. For one wild moment he wished he'd never come back to Atlantis--that he were still on Earth, still at the SGC, so that he could join in the search.
Cam injured. Cam scared. Cam suffering. Cam dead.
John realized abruptly that he was shivering. He walked over to the bed, sat down on the edge, and gathered the blanket around his shoulders. On his desk, he spotted the small, brightly wrapped box that he'd pulled out that morning: the Christmas gift Cam had handed him last summer while he was on Earth, after extracting strict promise that John wouldn't open it until Christmas Day.
"I'd send it on the Daedalus," Cam had said with a wink, "but people might start talking."
John thought of his own gifts to Cam, twelve of them in total, for the twelve days of Christmas. Some of them were jokes, some things he knew Cam wanted, and one...well, he wasn't sure he could have given it if he knew he was going to be there to see Cam's expression when he opened it.
The first gift--a watch he'd ordered months ago-- was probably sitting in Cam's mailbox now, waiting for his return.
If he returned.
He wondered briefly what Cam's parents would think of it--and of the inscription on the back--if they were forced to clean out Cam's apartment. He pushed the thought away. Cam was strong, and his team determined. They'd find him. He'd come home.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting there when he heard his door chime sound. He sat staring at the gift for a moment longer, then stood up, dropped it in a drawer and went to answer the door.
"Hey," Rodney said, stepping inside. He paused, and looked at him curiously. "Is that what you're wearing to the party?"
"Party," John repeated, heart sinking. Of course, the party. And he had to put in an appearance, especially now, with Carter shaken herself and probably not in a festive mood.
"Yes, the party. In honor of Christmas Eve, which...well, I can't say much for the holiday, but the food is...and we really need to get there early, since I've heard Hanson ran out of cocoa and only made a couple of batches of those chocolate crinkle...."
"Yeah," John interrupted. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Listen, I need a few more minutes to get ready. Why don't you go down and I'll meet you there?"
Rodney studied him for a moment, looking concerned. "Are you okay?" He scanned the room, eyes going to the rumpled bed and the blanket piled carelessly on top. "Did you fall asleep?" His tone was puzzled. John wasn't known for taking naps in the middle of the day.
For a moment, John was tempted to say something, to confide in someone. Rodney, he knew, wouldn't tell. Would never deliberately betray him. Then reason and twenty years of habit reasserted themselves. Talking might make him feel better--assuming he could bring himself to say it out loud--but it wasn't fair to Rodney to put him in a position where he might have to lie for John, and it definitely wasn’t fair to out Cam without his permission. "I'm fine," John said. "Just lost track of time. I'll be down soon."
Rodney looked like he was going to say something else, then shrugged. "Don't forget you promised to read to the Athosian kids. Teyla's down there with them now."
"Right," John said. Teyla's request. Cultural exchange. "Tell her I'll be there soon."
He took at deep breath after Rodney left, and rubbed his face, then began trying to figure out how to prepare for the party. The mirror revealed that he didn’t look too bad, all things considered. He splashed cold water on his face, ran his fingers through his hair to bring it into as much order as he ever managed, and began looking through his closet for something appropriately festive to wear. He reached for a long-sleeved black shirt and then hesitated, thinking about the symbolism. Feeling foolish, he put it back and pulled out a blue shirt instead. Foolish or not, he wasn't going to jinx Cam's return.
The party was in full swing when he arrived. The music coming out of the upper lounge--classic jazz--competed with the strains of Christmas carols floating from the mess hall. Even the boardroom had been decked out with garlands and cookies. With a determined expression, he plunged into the crowd, exchanging nods and holiday greetings, a smile plastered determinedly on his face. He avoided the glass of (virgin) eggnog one of the marines tried to press on him, and scanned the crowd for Teyla. He finally found her in the lower lounge, surrounded by Athosian children. Ronon was with her, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. A small boy stood on either side of him, imitating his posture.
"And here he is," she said. She looked up at him with a smile. "They are very excited."
"Great!" he said, trying to fake an enthusiasm he didn't feel.
"Rodney said that you would be explaining the meaning of Christmas to them," she added with an expectant smile.
"Did he now?" John said. He tried to inject his usual annoyance into his voice, but it came out sounding flat to his ears.
"They have prepared a special chair for you," Teyla said. She nodded toward an office chair that the children had apparently stolen from somewhere and decorated with a colorful assortment of ribbons, bows, and greenery.
"Great!" John repeated, forcing a wide smile. "That's perfect. And I think the book is..." He looked around helplessly, realizing that he'd forgotten to pick up the book.
"I'll get it," Ronon offered. "Saw it in your office earlier." He strode toward the door.
"Thanks," John called. He looked at the waiting crowd of children, at the chair, then at Teyla, whose pregnancy was starting to show. "Are you sure you don't want to...?" He gestured toward the chair.
"They prepared it for you," she said firmly.
"Right," he said. He sank down into the chair while the children watched eagerly. "It's a wonderful chair," he told them. The arms of the chair crinkled when he rested his hands on them. He looked down, and saw that they'd been covered in mismatched wrapping paper. He stared at it for a moment, wondering where they'd found it. When he lifted his head, he saw Teyla looking at him with a worried expression. He cleared his throat.
"So are you, uh, enjoying the party?"
"I have not seen much of it yet," Teyla replied seriously, "but it seems like a very nice party. The parties your people hold at this time of year usually are."
"Pretty different from our first Christmas here," John said. That had been three years ago. Before he and Cam has resumed their relationship. When he still thought he might be spending the rest of his life in Atlantis, and the idea of an inter-galactic relationship would never have occurred to him.
"There are certainly more people here now," Teyla agreed. "And more elaborate decorations."
"More of everything," John said. "More gifts, more decorations, more food from Earth. Less food borrowed and bought from your people. You know, that first Christmas was really kind of like Thanksgiving, with everything your people gave us." He was babbling, he realized. He wasn’t usually a babbler; maybe he’d caught it from Rodney. He wondered if that was less suspicious than silence.
"It was a good chance for our peoples to bond," Teyla said, as Ronon returned with the book.
"All right," John said. "Why don't you all come sit down?" The children obediently sat down on the floor around him. He opened the book. "'Twas the night before Christmas...."
He hung out with the children as long as he could, telling stories and playing games, not feeling ready to face the adults outside. But eventually, their parents returned en masse, decreeing that it was time for bed. Teyla and Ronon escorted the Athosians down to the rooms that had been set aside for their visit, and John, after spending a few minutes more in his decorated seat, plastered a smile on his face and ventured into the party.
He started in the mess hall, mostly because he knew it was the primary gathering spot for the marines, which meant he wouldn’t run into Rodney there. He circulated around the room, playing the role of commanding officer, and trying not to think about Cam. Right after he finished his first pass through the room, word spread that the Athosian children were safely in bed and out of earshot, which prompted a rapid shift in activity. The taped Christmas music was turned off, an electric keyboard was produced from somewhere, and soon the sound of enthusiastic singing filled the room, voices raised in versions of carols never heard in any church. John lingered for a moment, listening to a particularly creative rendition of “Good King Wenceslas,” then left and began wandering through the rest of the party. He spotted Carter in the upper lounge. Parrish was standing beside her, talking animatedly. Carter wore a polite smile, but John didn't think she was more than half-listening. He was ready to go rescue her when Lorne stepped in, gently detaching Parrish and pulling him away into a new conversation. Carter smiled at him in gratitude, then caught sight of John and nodded at him. He nodded back, and continued on.
The party had a surreal feel to it, the cheerful celebration clashing badly with his own internal state of anxiety. He checked his watch, wondering how much longer he had to stay for, then realized that if he left, he'd alone in his room again. He couldn't decide which was worse.
He spotted his team in the lower lounge, where Rodney and Radek had set up some sort of contest involving ramps and balls. John ducked out before they could see him. Teyla and Rodney were already worried, and he didn't want to give their suspicions any more fuel. He made his way back to the mess hall, deciding that there were worse ways to spend the evening than listening to marines sing.
He gave it another hour, smiling at the various marines as they came up to wish him a merry Christmas between songs, then decided he'd been there long enough. He slipped out and began heading down the corridor toward the living quarters. As he passed the upper lounge, he heard a voice calling his name.
John stopped and turned around. It was one of the new engineers...Whitman, he thought. The guy's name was Whitman. "Yeah?" John asked.
"Colonel, we need you to settle a debate."
John sighed. "What kind of debate?"
Whitman gestured for him to come with him, then turned around and re-entered the lounge. Reluctantly, John followed him. There was a crowd standing around a table, a mix of engineers and marines.
"He's challenging the Gunny's cookies, sir," said Corporal Taylor dangerously. From the red flush spreading across the man's skin, John suspected that he'd consumed more than a little of the contraband rum. And possibly some of the local moonshine too.
"I said that baking is a science that is better left to chemists and engineers--to scientists--than to a bunch of leathernecks," Whitman said. "And I've got the cookies to prove it." He gestured proudly towards a plate stacked high with chocolate crinkles.
Another marine--Kimball--snorted loudly. "And how often do the chemists and the engineers cook around here? We do all the work, and we know how the kitchen runs, and there is no way that some fucking scientist is going to do a better job baking than the Gunny." He managed to insert an impressive amount of venom into the word scientist.
John groaned. "Is this actually what you want to fight about at Christmas? Who makes the better cookies?" he asked disbelievingly.
"It's an insult to the Gunny's honor, sir," Kimball insisted.
"And where is Gunny Hanson?" John inquired.
"Over in the mess hall, sir. Simpson went to get him."
"Of course he did," John sighed. "Listen to me carefully. You are all going to find a reasonable way to settle this. One that does not involve violence or the destruction of property or the creation of an ongoing feud."
"Yes, sir," said Taylor. "That's why we called you in here, sir."
"And what do you want me to do?" John asked cautiously.
"We need a judge, sir. To do a taste test."
"I still don't think Colonel Sheppard is the best choice," one of the other scientists said sulkily. "He's obviously going to be biased."
"Arsenault went to get Dr. McKay and Ronon as well," Taylor said. "Three judges: one military, one science, and one local. Then it's fair."
John looked at the plates of cookies in front of him and swallowed hard. He hadn't eaten since he'd gotten the news about Cam. The mere idea of it was almost enough to send him running for the toilet, and he wasn't sure he could get down even two cookies. But there was no reasonable way for him to turn down this solution, not if he wanted to keep peace between divisions. He swallowed again, trying to calm his roiling stomach through force of will. Behind him, he heard Rodney and Ronon approaching, talking. He turned around to see Rodney grinning and rubbing his hands.
"I have a particularly refined sense of taste," Rodney said.
"Sure," Ronon said. "That's why you couldn't tell the difference between uma and pak."
"That was in a stew," Rodney said with dignity. "And I wasn't especially familiar with pak. But this," he gestured toward the table, "is food I know."
Ronon grunted skeptically and looked over at John. "You okay, Sheppard? You look kind of green."
"Fine," John said shortly. He'd eaten bugs and worse during his survival training. He could manage a couple of Christmas cookies.
"It has to be a blind taste test," Whitman said. "Just to be sure there's no bias."
"Set it up, then," John said, wishing the whole thing were over. From the surprised look Ronon gave him, he guessed that his impatience had come through in his voice. Great. Now everyone on his team was wondering what was wrong with him.
The marines and the scientists managed to work together to prepare the test plates while John, Ronon, and Rodney kept their backs turned. They turned back to the table a minute later. John looked down at the plates. Only one bite of each, he told himself. That's all you have to do.
Rodney picked up a cookie from the first plate and bit into carefully. "Nice texture," he said appreciatively. "Moist, with just a hint of crunch. And a very deep, fudgy flavour." He set it down and reached for a cookie from the second plate, biting into it equally carefully. "I think this one might have a better chocolate flavour."
John felt his nausea growing. He reached down, grabbed the first cookie, bit and swallowed, then did the same with the second. Both tasted like cardboard to him. "That one," he said, picking a plate at random.
"You barely tasted them!" Rodney protested.
"No, he's right," Ronon said. He'd grabbed a cookie off each plate and was alternating between them, munching thoughtfully. "That one's better."
"That's hardly a logical analysis," Rodney began.
"Doesn't matter," Kimball said. "Two votes are all it takes. The Gunny wins."
The marines let out a loud whoop.
"Congratulations," John said to Hanson. "Enjoy the party." He turned toward the door, wanting desperately to be back in his quarters.
"Where are you going?" Rodney asked.
"To bed," John replied, hoping that Rodney wouldn't ask too many questions.
For a moment he didn't think he'd get away with it, but then Ronon gave him an inscrutable look and began casually insulting Rodney's cookie evaluation technique. John escaped during the ensuing argument. He barely made it back to his quarters before throwing up the two bites of cookie. Afterward, he rinsed his mouth and lay down on his bed. He didn't last more than a couple of hours before he got up again and turned on his laptop. He flipped restlessly through his email, not really reading any of it. He stopped when he saw Cam's name, hesitating a moment before he opened the message.
So the BCS game is the Buckeyes versus the Tigers this year. Should be a good game. I'll send you the tape on the next Daedalus run.
We just got assigned a mission for the 21st, so I won't be heading back to Kansas after all. Looks like a straightforward mission from the specs, but you know how those can go. Hopefully we won't be spending Christmas locked up somewhere. You should try for the same.
I hope you guys appreciate Carter, because SG-1 is not the same without her.
I still think lemonade would have been a good gift for McKay--you did say he's always complaining about the heat. But I guess you need to tread more carefully when you have to work with him. What did you end up getting for Teyla and Ronon? I always have a hell of a time shopping for Teal'c. I can never predict what parts of Earth culture are going to appeal to him. I mean, he went to see The Vagina Monologues and he liked it! Apparently it was "very informative." Who would have guessed? I think I might go with movies this year. He seems to have a thing for Bogart, so maybe The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. I think he already has Casablanca.
Have a good Christmas. We'll grab a beer next time you're home.
John read and reread the message. It said almost nothing, because you never knew when someone was going to start reading your email. Usually he was grateful for the casual tone they were forced to take, happy just to read between the lines and let Cam do the same, but right now it struck him as incredibly stupid that the last time either of them had been able to say anything meaningful to the other was when he'd been on Earth, five months earlier. He couldn't remember if he'd told Cam then that he loved him. Cam tended to say the words to him, usually very quietly just before falling asleep, but John could rarely bring himself to do the same. Cam never complained about his lack of communication, never pushed him, and now John found himself wishing that Cam had been more insistent. At least then he'd know he'd said the words sometime in the past year.
John closed his laptop and began pacing around his room. Stillness was suddenly intolerable, the walls of his room pressing in on him until he wanted to scream. He pulled on a pair of shoes and went out into the city.
He avoided the recreation areas where he knew the partygoers would still be carrying on, and made his way up to the control room. He exchanged greetings with the technician and two marines on duty, and left the control room and stalked restlessly down the corridor. He didn’t realize why he’d come up here until he spotted the light in Carter’s office.
She answered the door almost immediately.
"John," she said, smiling tiredly. He shifted awkwardly in the doorway.
"I thought I'd check...has there been any news yet?" he asked, knowing he’d been close enough to hear the gate alarm if there had been.
She shook her head. "No. I've been waiting here, in case." She frowned. "You and Cam are friends, aren't you? I remember seeing you together when you were working at the SGC."
"Yeah," John said. "We go way back. Met during my first assignment." He still remembered the shock on Cam’s face when he’d realized the man he’d spent the previous night with was serving on the same base.
Carter stepped aside, and gestured him inside. She offered him a seat, then took the seat across from him, sitting close enough that their knees almost touched.
"It's hard," she said quietly. "They're my team, and they're out there, and I feel like I should be helping, but all I can do is sit here."
"I know," he said, and he did. He’d never been good at sitting on the sidelines either.
"Cam's a really good guy," she said, staring down at her hands. "I didn't want to go back to SG-1; didn't want to go back in the field. I thought the research was more important. But he was so persistent. " She looked up at John. "I've known him a long time too, you know. He was a couple of years behind me at the Academy. We were posted together a few times before I joined the Stargate Program. We were both military brats, so..." Her voice trailed off. "Your family's not military, are they, John?"
"No," he said. "They're in business. Utilities."
"What did they think when you joined up?"
He shrugged uneasily. "Let's just say it wasn't my father's first choice for me."
She nodded. "It was my father's first choice for me. He was so proud when I was accepted into the Academy. Cam's dad, he was proud too, but I think he was worried. Flying didn't work out so well for him."
"Yeah," John said. Cam had told him that story early in their relationship.
"It's good that Teal'c is with him," she said. "If there's anyone you want to be captured with, it's Teal'c."
Carter sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Sorry, I'm sitting here rambling, and you probably want to go to bed."
"It's fine," he said.
"You should go," she said. "At least one of the senior military personnel around here ought to be well-rested. I'll let you know when I hear something."
"All right," John said. He stood up. In the doorway, he paused. "He told me that we'd better appreciate having you here. And we do."
She offered him the ghost of a smile. "Thanks, John. Good night."
"Good night, Colonel."
John left Carter’s office still feeling wired, restless with fear and frustration. He slipped back to his quarters, pulled on his sweats, and began running. When he finally stopped, breathless and hot, he found himself on the east pier. He stood at the edge, staring out over the dark ocean. His earlier visions of Cam being captured swept over him, sliding in through the darkness. He pushed them aside and tried to focus on his memories of the past instead. Cam, very young and obnoxiously cheerful, back when they first stumbled into bed together, and realized the next morning that they were both pilots, and Air Force. Cam in the desert, during one of their early postings, showing off in the air and subtly flirting in the dark. Cam, on his last visit home, the two of them going to an amusement park because John wanted to ride a Ferris wheel. Cam pushing him to call his brother because family was important. John wishes now that he had, because he would have liked to introduce Cam to Dave. Would have liked Cam to see where he came from, even though he left it all behind a long time ago.
He went through the memories one by one, holding onto each one as a talisman against the unthinkable. He didn't notice the passage of time until he saw the first light of the sun brightening the horizon. He glanced down at his watch automatically. It was oh-six-hundred on Earth, he realized. Christmas morning. For him, the meaning of the day was cultural, not spiritual, but he couldn't help looking up toward the now-invisible stars and wishing. Don't let him die today, he pleaded. Don’t do that to his parents. To his friends. He's a good man. Let him come home.
Footsteps sounded behind him, coming out of the transporter. He thought it was probably Lorne, who had an uncanny ability to figure out where John was at any given moment, but when the figure resolved into recognisability, he saw that it was Rodney.
"So this is where you've been hiding," the scientist said, plopping down beside John.
"What are you doing still up?" John asked listlessly.
"The party just ended," Rodney said. "You missed the most exciting part. Anand called Kavanaugh a scientific fraud with the morals of an oyster. Kavanaugh literally jumped on him.”
“Isn’t Anand the one who’s six-four?” John asked, a vague image of the man forming in his head.
“And trains with Ronon regularly,” Rodney agreed. “Apparently Kavanaugh took a couple of lessons from Teyla and figured he could handle him. It took three marines to separate them.”
“Huh,” John said.
“Huh?” Rodney said. “It’s going to be the talk of Atlantis for the next month.”
“So why did you leave so early?” Rodney asked.
“It wasn’t that early.”
“Two hours earlier than I’ve seen you leave any other party,” Rodney said. “You forgot about the party, you forgot you were reading to the kids—which I know you’ve been secretly looking forward to for weeks--you leave early, you say you’re going to bed, and then you spend all night on the pier? What’s going on?”
"I wasn't here all night," John said mildly.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Close enough, according to the logs. And I know avoidance when I see it.”
“I’m fine, Rodney. It’s just been a long month.”
“A long month? That’s your excuse?”
“It’s been a long year too.”
"Teyla and Ronon are worried too," Rodney said.
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
Rodney frowned. "If those nightmares have come back..."
"It's not that," John said.
“Is it Elizabeth? I know it’s our first Christmas here without her....”
“No,” John said, feeling suddenly guilty. Elizabeth hadn’t crossed his mind all day, even when he’d been in her office. Not since he’d gotten the news. He offered her a silent apology for forgetting.
"You aren't going to tell me, are you?" he said at last.
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“I can out-wait you.”
“No you can’t,” John said. “Hunger will drive you away.”
“Hmm, well, you might have a point,” Rodney admitted. “I could, however, arrange for you to be locked out here, and return after I’ve eaten.”
“Sounds kind of extreme,” John said.
“Or,” Rodney continued as if he hadn't spoken, “you could come with me to breakfast so that I can continue to pester you in the comfort of the mess hall.” He levered himself up and then offered a hand to John. "If you’re not going to talk, the least I can do is make sure you’re properly fed.”
John sighed and accepted the hand. Anxiety held him as tightly as ever, but his stomach had settled a little over the night, and he thought he might be able to eat. He suspected he probably needed to if he didn’t want Rodney calling in Keller. He had to start acting normal if he didn't want people to guess what was going on.
"By the way," Rodney added as they began walking toward the transporter, "Carter said to tell you that they found Mitchell and Teal'c. Mitchell was shot in the leg, but it’s not too serious. The doctors say they’ll both be okay."
John stumbled and caught himself on the wall. He closed his eyes, relief rushing through him as he replayed Rodney’s words in his mind. They’ll both be okay.
He realized that Rodney was staring at him.
“Feeling a little lightheaded,” he lied, pushing himself off the way. His voice was shaking, he realized, and he took a breath to steady it before adding, “Breakfast is probably a good idea. I’m glad to hear they’ll be okay. I know Carter was worried.” He could felt a smile spreading across his face, and turned away so that Rodney wouldn't see it. Across the ocean, the sun was peeking up over the horizon. He felt suddenly light, ready to step off the pier and fly into those distant rays.
Rodney took a step forward so that they stood side-by-side. John let the mask slide down, concealing the smile.
"Why didn't you tell me they were missing?" Rodney asked in an odd tone.
"Didn't know you cared," John said.
"Mitchell's not my favourite person in the universe, but it is SG-1,” he said. “Besides, they're important to, uh, Sam."
"Yeah," John said. "Sorry."
“Yeah well, next time you should tell me,” Rodney said. ”And by the way, Merry Christmas.”
"Merry Christmas," John said. He wondered whether he could find a way to have some of Cam's gifts delivered to him in the infirmary. Maybe he’d ask Sam for help, phrase it as a request aimed at cheering up Cam during his recovery. His smile slid into a smirk. He wanted to see the nurses’ expressions when Cam opened the gift he’d bought for the eighth day of Christmas.
"So what's for breakfast?" he asked cheerfully.