Tidings of Comfort and Joy
by
Tira Nog


A/N: Written for Tarlanx in the 2006 SGA Secret Santa.

Special thanks to my incredible beta, Silver_Cyanne, who dropped everything to get this turned around in time to make the deadline. Thanks so much, angel! You're as good an editor as you are a friend, and that's saying a hell of a lot.

***

"And so this fat man breaks into everyone's homes through this chimney thing?" Ronon Dex asked from the other side of the table, his face charmingly confused.

Around them, the Christmas party was going strong. The live tree Elizabeth had brought in on the Daedalus seemed to shine through the entire mess hall; it was so brilliantly decorated. Carols were being piped in over the room's audio system. There was eggnog, hot spiced cider, turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, veggies, all the fixings, Christmas cookies, and more desserts than John Sheppard could count.

The noise level of the laughing celebrants was phenomenal, but he figured after the last three years they'd put in, the Atlantis crew had a right to party hard.

"Santa doesn't 'break in'," John patiently corrected. "He uses the chimney to surprise people. He visits everyone to leave presents."

"But the dwelling I was in when we shared that false reality on M5S-224 didn't have a hearth or chimney," Teyla pointed out.

At Teyla's comment Elizabeth, Laura Cadman, and Carson all broke into hysterical laughter at the other end of their usual table.

This wasn't going at all as John had hoped; although, it never did when he tried to explain Earth culture to his non-Earthborn friends. At least everyone was wearing the Santa caps he'd had shipped in on the Daedalus' last run. The seams of Ronon's were looking a bit stressed with all those dreadlocks bulging out of the white trim, but he was wearing it.

Taking a deep breath, John made another valiant effort to explain Santa Claus. "That's not the point. Santa's not really a physical person. He's more a cultural icon."

"Icon? Like the pictures on the computer screen?" Ronon questioned in utter, confused sincerity.

Even Teyla lost it this time.

John glanced over to Elizabeth, who was decked out in a red and white sweater with a sprig of holly at the neck, and pleaded, "Help me out here, will you?"

Elizabeth appeared to be laughing too hard to respond for a moment. Finally, she gasped out, "But you're doing so well," which only set off Laura and Carson's gales of laughter again.

John found himself grinning back. His whole life, he'd never had this kind of acceptance. For all that he'd had a family growing up, he'd never felt a part of one until he'd traveled to another galaxy. Taking a sip of his eggnog, he stared around at the happy people wearing the silly seasonal hats he'd given them, an alien warmth suffusing him. He didn't think he'd ever loved anything the way he did these people and this city. They were his in a way nothing on Earth had ever been, not even the people who'd borne him.

His grin faded as it settled on the empty seat beside him. The chair to his right was glaringly empty. Rodney's Santa hat sat on top of a pile of presents. So far, I-don't-do-Christmas McKay had been a no show. But that was hardly uncommon. Thinking back, John realized that Rodney hadn't made an appearance at Atlantis' other two Christmas parties, either.

He didn't know why he let McKay's avoidance of the season festivities upset him so. He knew it was nothing personal. McKay held all religions in contempt, and it wasn't as if he himself were a particularly religious man, it just seemed that with the kind of year they'd put in, they should embrace any excuse to celebrate life. But not McKay. He was alone over there in his lab, slaving away instead of having fun with his team.

John realized that that was what bothered him so much. For all that McKay was probably the most annoying man in two galaxies, he was an integral part of his team, and when Rodney wasn't here during the good times, it felt like there was a hole in the team.

He couldn't help but think back to McKay's alternate dimension twin who'd visited them in September. Rod had understood about team bonding and friendship. John knew it was wrong to compare the two McKays, for they were products of completely different realities, but he couldn't help but wish that his Rodney might buy a clue about the friendship thing.

He started from his reverie when someone touched his arm. He looked down to see Teyla's small, brown hand resting on the sleeve of his black hooded jacket. The Santa cap, when combined with her usual, low-cut, Athosian bodice made her look like something from a porn film.

"It is not his way," Teyla said in a soft voice, as if she'd been privy to his thoughts.

Wondering when he'd become so damn transparent, John met her eyes. The understanding he found there was something he didn't think he could ever bear to lose.

"I know," he answered in the same low voice as the others continued to joke around them while Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer blared over the speakers for the fourth time this hour.. "It's just . . . ."

Just what?

Some things he couldn't talk about, even with his team – especially with his team.

Rodney was a no show now when it was simply the emotional landscape of a holiday party he'd have to navigate. John didn't want to think about how far McKay would run if he ever found out how he felt about him. The one thing three years of close contact had honed in was that McKay was straight. And even if McKay weren't, John knew better than to take that type of chance with someone on his team. These kinds of feelings had cost him his world once already. He wasn't about to lose another family because of this insane infatuation.

"I know," Teyla said in that same soft tone, giving his arm a squeeze. The compassion in those bright, dark eyes of hers seemed to say that she really did understand.

He knew that was impossible. Decades of dealing with his nature had taught him how to stay in deep cover. He knew he hadn't slipped up. There was no way Teyla could suspect how he felt about Rodney, and, yet, her gaze seemed to say she did.

Gulping back his panic, John scrambled for a way out. This was worse than when he'd tried to talk to her about his feelings for the team that time Ronan had given himself to the Wraith to save their lives.

But she circumvented his fear with her usual grace and poise. Giving his arm another squeeze, she said, "You did say this was a season of miracles, did you not? Look," and gestured with her chin towards the mess room door to their left.

John was startled to see Rodney striding over to where they all sat. McKay was wearing his usual gray and blue science uniform, clear indication that he hadn't left his lab all day. Most of the other scientists in the room had stopped to change into their civvies like Elizabeth and he had. Rodney looked the same as he did every single day, but for some reason, John's stomach lurched the way it would when he put a jet plane into a steep, sudden descent. It was always like that for him with Rodney, that sense that he could crash and burn if he didn't pay close attention.

McKay's eyes seemed to take in the rambunctious party with a glance, dismissing it as unworthy of his interest just as quickly.

John wished that just once Rodney would let loose and allow himself to have some fun, but the tight expression on McKay's face told him that whatever had brought Rodney here, it wasn't the party.

"Merry Christmas," John greeted as Rodney stopped beside their table. Elizabeth, Teyla, Laura, and Carson all immediately echoed the sentiment, with Ronon's deep, less certain voice chiming in last.

McKay seemed almost taken aback. He blinked, his gaze seeming to jump from one Santa cap to the next, as if he'd genuinely forgotten it was Christmas Eve. After a momentary pause, Rodney seemed to rally with, "Ah, yes. Merry Christmas to you, too."

"Sit down, McKay," Ronon said.

"Yes," Teyla added. "There are presents and a new hat for you."

"Er, I don't – " McKay began.

Before Rodney could embarrass himself or put a damper on the party spirit, John quickly intervened. "It won't compromise your principles if you spend a few minutes with the team, will it?"

He tried out the pleading look that he usually got over with Elizabeth by using. He didn't expect to have much luck. McKay had seemed inured to his charm from the start.

From the other end of the table, Laura's inimitable New York accented voice all but ordered, "Rodney, it's Christmas. Sit down with your friends."

John often wondered what she'd learned of Rodney while sharing his mind. Since that incident, Laura almost seemed to have taken a sisterly attitude towards McKay, while Rodney just seemed freaked out whenever she was around.

"I didn't think this was your holiday," McKay all but sneered at Laura.

The smile left Carson's lips and his expression darkened as he gave a warning, "Rodney, don't be rude."

Laura wasn't even thrown by McKay's less than pleasant response. Holding his gaze, she answered from beneath the bobbing white ball of her Santa cap, "It isn't, but it's important to Carson and my friends. Besides which, it's fun. So sit down and play nice for a few minutes."

McKay looked as if he might respond with another of his usual snide remarks, but his gaze swept over everyone at the table and he made a visible effort to control himself before silently taking his usual seat at John's side.

"Open your presents, Rodney," Elizabeth instructed.

An almost stricken expression flashed across Rodney's face as he said, "I didn't get anyone anything."

"No one was expecting you to," John quickly reassured him.

The next few minutes passed with them watching a visibly self-conscious McKay unwrap the small pile of gifts they'd left on the table in front of his seat for him. Rodney seemed genuinely pleased by the Wormhole Extreme complete series that Elizabeth, Carson, and he had all gone in on.

"Thank you. This will be really warm," Rodney politely remarked when he opened the Athosian wooly vest Teyla had given him.

John tried to conceal his grin when Rodney unwrapped the final present, which was Ronan's. Teyla had obviously explained the Earth gift-giving tradition, for when they'd come to the table, there had been an identical, small, flat, package approximately the size of a computer disc in front of everyone's seat from Ronon, wrapped in a strange blue cloth.

Rodney's face puckered up in a wholly adorable – to John – frown of confusion as he unveiled the odd silver discus Ronon had given them all. "Er . . . what is it?"

"I can show you how to use it," Ronon offered.

"It's a little crowded in here now," John said and turned to Rodney to say, "Look over at the plant beside us and think ninja Shuriken."

Rodney's gaze turned to the leafy, small tree that now had three of Ronon's discs imbedded in its slender trunk. "Oh, wow, way cool." Rodney turned to Ronon and asked, "What did you get?"

Everyone other than Ronon grinned, for, after Rodney, Ronon had been the most difficult person to find a gift for.

Looking genuinely pleased, Ronon reached under the table and brought forth his booty, which consisted of five deadly looking, long-bladed knives.

"We all shopped in the same store," Elizabeth said with a laugh.

"Yeah, Ronon's keeping Death is Us in business this year," John added, setting most of the table off again. It still surprised him when people would laugh at his jokes.

"Is there really a store named Death is Us?" Ronon asked.

"No," John said.

Rodney surprised him by joining in the conversation with, "I don't know. Some of the survivalist shops near Area 51 could easily have fit the name."

"What were you doing in a survivalist store?" John asked, intrigued. When Rodney had joined their team, he'd barely known which side was the business end of a gun. In truth, he still wasn't what anyone would term skillful when it came to weapons. Ask McKay to build an atom bomb out of Tonka toys and he'd have no problem; but there was just something about primitive weapons that their resident genius didn't get.

"I wasn't actually in one. I had to pass one in town on the way to the Dairy Queen," Rodney explained, laying John's confusion to rest, even as Ronon chimed in with, "What's a 'survivalist' and a 'dairy queen'?"

"Oh, god, don't answer that, John, please," Elizabeth begged. "If I laugh any harder, Carson's going to have to hospitalize me."

His bewildered "Huh?" left everyone gasping for air.

When they calmed a bit, Laura competently explained survivalists and Dairy Queens to Ronon.

While she was speaking, Rodney leaned in close to John's ear and whispered, "Too bad. I always enjoy your explanations. You give such a surreal slant to the commonplace that it makes me wonder if we were raised on the same planet."

Rodney's words weren't exactly a compliment, but the warm brush of his breath against John's sensitive ear was so distracting that he couldn't rally his wits enough to object. He didn't let it happen often, but his guards were down this evening, dangerously so.

He took a deep breath as Rodney leaned back into his own seat, trying to convince a certain part of his body that the reaction it was having was inappropriate to both this time and place. He was grateful he was sitting.

The conversation flowed around him as Laura explained Chanukah to Ronon and Teyla. Finally, the tightness let up and John felt like he could walk again without embarrassing himself if he had to.

"This is all a lot of fun," Rodney cut into a lull in the conversation, "but I actually had an important reason for coming here."

"Rodney, we discussed this hours ago," Elizabeth said in her warning, almost maternal tone. "It's Christmas."

"But you said we could go," Rodney protested, sounding like a whiney four-year-old.

That same sense of dread shivering through him that he felt every time McKay became excited about some alien discovery, John asked, "Go where?"

Elizabeth was still focused on Rodney. "I said you could go when you asked me at six a.m. this morning, not in the middle of the Christmas party, and that permission was totally dependent upon the rest of the team's willingness. This isn't the right time for this, Rodney."

"But it took me this long to ensure it was safe," Rodney protested.

John tried again. "What are we talking about here?"

"We picked up a distress beacon around midnight last night, an Atlantean distress beacon," Rodney said, practically vibrating with excitement.

The sense of dread kicking into hyper drive, John said, "Might I remind you that the last time we responded to an Atlantean distress signal, we damn near lost Atlantis."

"I know," Rodney said. "But this isn't like that."

Whenever he got into these types of discussions with Rodney, John really questioned his own sanity. McKay was without doubt the most aggravating person he'd ever met, and yet, this was the guy he burned for. He couldn't fall for someone easy like Ronon, who, while undoubtedly intimidating, was someone he knew he'd get along with. No, he had to fixate on the person he was most likely to shoot.

"How is it different?" John demanded.

"To begin with, it's not a spaceship we're getting the signal from. It's an outpost on a planet on the far fringe of the Pegasus galaxy," Rodney said.

"Does it matter whether it's a ship or a planet? If there are Ancients there, they're going to want to reclaim Atlantis," John said. "I, for one, don't want to go through that again."

There were sounds of assent from everyone at the table. Their enthusiasm for meeting a living Ancient had been dimmed by that incident. Nobody who'd made Atlantis their home had yet to get over the trauma of having to leave her when her creators reclaimed her in October. The eviction had lasted six weeks before the people at this table had taken it into their own hands to get her back. They'd been back longer than they'd been away now – seven whole weeks – but everyone still remembered how horrible that enforced exile had been.

Rodney's face pinked in a flush as it always did whenever he became excited over something. "As far as we can tell, there aren't any Ancients there. There aren't any life signs at all on the planet."

"Then why are we going?" Ronon asked.

"There could be ZedPMs, along with other unknown devices. I sent a UAV through to investigate earlier today. Well, three, actually. The wind kept knocking them out of the air, but I finally got the data I needed. There's an outpost there. While the architecture is most definitely of Atlantean design, it's not like anything we've encountered before," Rodney said.

The reason John hated having these kinds of discussions with Rodney was because, more often than not, Rodney convinced him to go against his better judgment. He could feel his resolve weakening already. For all that they had radically different approaches to everything, McKay and he did share the almost unquenchable thirst to explore the unknown. Everyone sitting at this table did.

"Tell him the rest," Elizabeth ordered.

"The rest?" John echoed.

"The reason for the distress signal," Elizabeth clarified.

Appearing uncomfortable, McKay answered with visible reluctance, "Er, the DHD device appears to be malfunctioning. They couldn't dial out."

"But we can dial in?" John questioned.

"Yes. The power to form the wormhole is generated on the dialing side," Rodney answered.

"So we won't be able to dial home if we go?" Teyla questioned. She was always the most practical member of his team.

"Well, not using their DHD, but the DHD on the jumper should work fine," Rodney said.

"Is that an assumption or a fact?" John challenged. The last time he'd backed one of McKay's assumptions concerning Ancient artifacts, he'd been stranded for six months.

"Their DHD looks like it was overloaded. The crystal on top is black and charred. I can't see any reason why the jumper's controls wouldn't operate the gate," Rodney said.

John nodded, seeing Rodney's point. If the problem were a broken DHD, that shouldn't prevent the jumper from opening a wormhole back to Atlantis.

"What do you think broke the DHD?" Laura asked from the other side of the table.

Ronon followed her question up with one of his own. "And why didn't they fix it? The Ancestors built the gates. It doesn't make sense that they wouldn't be able to repair a broken DHD."

"What I want to know is why Atlantis didn't come to their aid," John said. "I mean, when we've lost contact with Earth for even short periods, SGC always investigates. Why wouldn't the Ancients have helped their own?"

"We don't know that they didn't," Rodney said. "There are no life signs. Atlantis could have evacuated the outpost."

Sensing something off in Rodney's tone, John said, "But you don't think they did."

"No. I think if the Ancients had rescued the people on the outpost, that they would have turned off the distress signal. The device has been broadcasting for millennia. The signal just reached Atlantis this morning," Rodney explained.

John digested that in silence for a moment before asking, "So why do you think Atlantis didn't send help when they lost contact with the outpost? They must have had some kind of scheduled contact with the outpost."

"My guess is that whatever happened to the outpost coincided with the siege of Atlantis. The timing would have been right for the signal to travel that long and far. The Ancients were pretty focused on survival then. They wouldn't have known anything was wrong at the outpost. From what the other Elizabeth said, the Ancients left in a hurry."

"But do you really think they'd forget about one of their own outposts?" Carson questioned.

"They left so fast that they never knew the other Elizabeth remained in the city. We've been able to monitor life signs throughout Atlantis since our first week here. The fact that they didn't bother to perform that kind of simple scan seems to show they left in a rush," Rodney said. "My guess is that they might have thought the outpost had already fallen to the Wraith. All of the other settled worlds had been attacked."

"But it didn't?" Teyla asked, understandably confused. Every record of the time of the evacuation of Atlantis seemed to indicate that the entire galaxy had fallen prey to the Wraith.

"There's no indication of a culling," Rodney said. "All the structures were intact. My guess is that the Wraith never knew that there were people on that planet. Aside from the Ancient outpost, there's no indication of civilization on that world. It's, um, pretty inhospitable."

"How inhospitable?" Ronon asked.

"The temperature is around -30 Celsius," Rodney said.

"That's cold?" Ronon questioned.

"That's way cold," John said.

"But not undoable," Rodney argued, his attention focusing on John. "It's not nearly as bad as Antarctica, which has recorded temperatures as low as -89 Celsius, and you lived there for more than a year. We have arctic survival gear."

"Okay, it's doable," John reluctantly agreed.

"So we can go?" Rodney had that excited four-year-old quality in his voice again. It wasn't a whine this time, but a hopeful excitement that John found unbearably attractive.

John glanced at Elizabeth.

"It's your call," she said.

"All right. We'll go," John said.

"Great. I'll go get ready," Rodney said, practically jumping to his feet in his eagerness.

"I didn't mean right now," John said.

"What? Why not now?" Rodney demanded.

"Rodney, it's Christmas Eve," John reminded.

"You already opened your presents," Rodney argued. "You're just sitting here. This is important."

Elizabeth, Carson, and John all seemed to vent identical sighs at the same moment.

"People want to enjoy their time off. It isn't fair of you to ask them to give that up," Laura valiantly tried to explain to the clueless McKay.

"This will only take a couple of hours. We'll go, check the outpost out, collect any spare ZedPMs lying around, and be back in no time," Rodney said. "You've got all day tomorrow to lie around in your underwear watching football games. We have a chance to do something significant here."

"Rodney," John began.

"Come on, please? How often do I ask you for anything?" Rodney pleaded.

At that moment, it felt like it was just Rodney and him in the room, with those big blue eyes begging for his indulgence.

Despite his best intentions, John found himself faltering. It was a damn good thing he wasn't sleeping with Rodney, he realized. The guy could already make him jump through hoops without that added incentive. He didn't want to think about how more susceptible he'd be to this kind of manipulation if they were actively involved.

Ronon's sarcastic, "Every time we encounter some new Ancient device," seemed to break the tension of the moment.

"Are you telling me you'd rather sit here wearing some stupid hat than go check out an Ancient outpost?" Rodney demanded of Ronon.

"I like the hat," Ronon denied, but John could see the interest in his face.

John looked to Teyla. The Santa cap looked especially delightful above her impish features.

As usual, she seemed to read his mind, for she shrugged and said, "It will only take a few hours. He will be unbearable if we do not agree."

"Hey," Rodney protested. "I'm still standing here."

"You really want us to go on a mission – right now in the middle of the Christmas party?" John asked.

Anyone else's conscience, if not social skills, would have forced them to concede to courtesy and wait until after the holiday, but Rodney just insisted, "You're not doing anything now that you can't do later, are you?"

"John, you don't have to do this now. It can wait until the day after tomorrow," Elizabeth said.

Rodney's eyes bugged out like she'd said the mission could wait a century.

"He'll be bouncing off the walls by morning," John said. "Look how he is now. Do you want to put up with how he'll be by tomorrow?"

"I could sedate him," Carson offered helpfully.

"What kind of doctor are you? What grounds are you going to sedate me on?" Rodney demanded.

"How about on the grounds of the rest of us wanting some peace and quiet on Christmas?" Carson returned. "This is very selfish of you."

"I'm being selfish?" Rodney appeared outraged. "They're the ones who want to laze around stuffing their faces instead of furthering science and human knowledge!"

"A man with cranberry stains on the front of his uniform should think twice about throwing around accusations of people 'stuffing their faces'," Carson pointed out.

It was only then that John noticed the big red stain on the gray part of Rodney's uniform top.

"Oh, for – " Rodney appeared nearly apoplectic. "You've already eaten. You've opened your gifts. This will only take a few hours. Two, three hours, tops, and then you can go back to bewildering Ronon with your Rod Sterling Earth travelogue. Come on. This is important!" Rodney cajoled.

"I could order him to go to his room," Elizabeth suggested in that half-joking way she had when Rodney pushed her to her limits.

"Go to my – " Rodney stammered.

Before McKay could say anything further and get himself confined to quarters, John said, "No. It'll just be easier all around if we humor him. You guys okay with this?" He checked with Teyla and Ronon, just to be sure.

"Anything to shut him up," Ronon said, while Teyla gave a polite nod.

"Thanks, guys!" Rodney said, seeming oblivious to the six glares directed his way. "You won't regret it!"

"I'm already regretting it," John groused. "Be geared up and in the jumper bay in twenty minutes. If you're one second late, the mission is scrubbed till the day after tomorrow."

"I'm already there," Rodney promised. After picking up his presents, he turned away and rushed out of the mess hall.

"Are you sure you want to do this now?" Elizabeth asked John as he slugged down the rest of his eggnog.

"I sure don't want to listen to him whine for the next two days," John said. "Like he said, it'll only be a couple of hours. Save us some of those gingerbread cookies."

"You got it," Elizabeth agreed.

"Can I wear the hat?" Ronon asked as they rose from the table.

John watched in fascination as Ronon effortlessly secured his five new knives on his person. Like all the others he wore concealed in his clothes and hair, they seemed to disappear immediately. John knew if he tried to carry even one knife down his sleeve the way Ronon did, he'd sever his hand the first time he tried to use it.

"Sure, why not," John said.

*~*~*

Fifteen minutes later, Rodney McKay stood in front of Jumper Three with three bags of tools and equipment piled at his feet. He'd had no idea what sort of equipment he might need, so he'd taken everything. Fussing with the zipper on the bag holding his survival gear, the fourth bag on the floor in front of him, he impatiently checked the time.

He was still smarting over some of the comments his supposed friends had made in the mess hall. He didn't understand why people had to be so difficult. It wasn't like he'd robbed them of their silly Christmas celebration. He'd waited until the team had finished eating and had completed exchanging gifts.

He seemed to be the only one who cared about their mission. They were here to explore the Pegasus galaxy, not waste time gabbing over dessert.

An unfamiliar wave of uneasiness stabbed through him that he reluctantly identified as a burst of conscience. He knew his teammates weren't slackers. More than that, he'd known he was being completely unreasonable before when he'd pulled them out of the party. He just . . . .

Truth was; he felt more comfortable interacting with them on missions. He knew his role in the team when they went through that gate. When they were sitting around in the mess hall . . . he never felt like he truly fit in. Sheppard had his charm to fall back on. Teyla and Ronon had exotic, warrior confidence down to an art. While he . . . he felt like he was back in high school. Only, instead of shunning him, the cool kids tolerated his presence because he was useful.

Rodney gave himself a mental shake. Damn, what the hell was he doing? They were about to travel to an alien world where people who were light-years beyond their technical ability had lived. He couldn't walk into that kind of situation battling these insecurities. He had to be centered and confident, for, when the shit hit the fan, as it inevitably did on their missions, it was going to be his brain that would pull them out of danger.

He was grateful when the opening jumper bay doors drew his attention from his internal dialogue.

Carrying their survival gear bags and their usual armory, Teyla and Ronon entered. They looked as savage and gorgeous as ever. Well, except for the incongruous Santa Cap Ronon was sporting. That threw off his whole Conon the Barbarian image.

"What's with the hat?" Rodney asked when the two stopped beside him.

"You said the planet was uninhabited. Sheppard said I could wear it," Ronon said.

"But why would you want to?" Rodney questioned, totally confused. He barely understood why John, who was raised in that culture, would voluntarily wear this kind of ridiculous hat. That Ronon, who had no childhood programming concerning the Santa cap to fall back on, would wear it, was utterly incomprehensible to him.

"Sheppard bought these and had them shipped in from another galaxy for us to wear," Ronon said. "They must be important to him. And I like it."

"Do they not wear these hats where you come from?" Teyla asked him. "Colonel Sheppard indicated that they were common on Earth this time of year."

"Some wear them," Rodney conceded.

"But not you?" Ronon asked.

Rodney shook his head 'no'. "I don't celebrate Christmas."

"Do you celebrate Chanukah like Lt. Cadman?" Teyla asked.

Not understanding why he suddenly felt so cornered, Rodney gave another negative shake of his head. Normally, he had no problem telling people to mind their own business when they harassed him about this kind of thing, but Teyla and Ronon were just trying to understand the culture of the people they were living with.

Rodney jumped as a hand squeezed his shoulder from behind. He'd been so caught up in the conversation that he hadn't even heard the bay doors open.

"Remember when I was explaining about all the different religions on Earth?" Sheppard's voice asked as he stepped into their circle. He, too, was still wearing the silly Santa cap. From the expressions on Teyla and Ronon's faces, it was clear that Sheppard had been as incomprehensible as ever in his attempt to acquaint them with Earth culture, but they both gave ready nods. "Rodney's religion is science."

"It's not a religion," Rodney quickly protested. "Science is based on fact, not faith. Can we go now?"

Rodney tried to inure himself to the hurt that flashed across Sheppard's face. He knew the Colonel had only been trying to help him out. He didn't understand why he always felt so threatened when he was asked to explain why he didn't buy into the illogical beliefs most religions seemed based upon.

Sheppard gave a tight nod and they entered the craft. After securing their gear, they took their usual seats, Sheppard and he in the pilot and co-pilot positions, Teyla and Ronon directly behind them.

The Canadian sergeant whose name Rodney could never remember cleared them for takeoff, and in moments they were hurtling through the gate. The sheer exhilaration of leaving a planet behind and actually going into the stargate never dimmed for him. Feeling his entire outlook lightening, Rodney turned to smile at Sheppard.

His smile faltered as he took in Sheppard's somber expression. Beneath the silly Santa cap, Sheppard's handsome face seemed strangely sad.

There was that weird moment of non-being as the stargate dematerialized them and then restructured them in less time than it took for a single heartbeat.

"Okay," Sheppard said as soon as they cleared the gate, "let's see if we're going to be calling this place home for the rest of our lives."

Rodney could almost feel his three companions holding their breath as Sheppard punched Atlantis' gate address into the jumper's DHD. To everyone's visible relief, the circle they'd just cleared filled with the familiar, water-like event horizon.

Elizabeth's relieved tone filled the jumper's speakers, "Jumper Three, we're reading your IDC signal."

"Looks like we're going home, folks," John said with a laugh. Speaking towards the intercom, he said, "We're good on this end, Elizabeth. We'll be back for turkey dinner in a couple of hours."

"Be careful, all of you," she counseled, and then the signal cut off as the event horizon closed down.

"That's a relief," Ronon said.

"Yeah," Rodney agreed.

The jumper circled the gate on M3T-940. Rodney found himself watching Sheppard as he worked the controls. The man still looked subdued as hell. Finally, he felt compelled to ask, "Are you all right?"

"Huh?" Sheppard questioned as he adjusted a control.

The world outside the jumper was blanketed in white, with windblown snow hitting them horizontally. The jumper shook under the force of the gale. Rodney watched Sheppard make another adjustment, and the turbulence receded to a manageable level.

"Did you mind coming on the mission?" Rodney belatedly realized that his pulling Sheppard away from the party might have been the cause of the colonel's unusually subdued mood.

"It's a hell of a time to ask that question, McKay," Sheppard said, his mouth twisting into its usual carefree smile. "How far to the outpost?"

Rodney looked out the windshield at the alien landscape below. The stargate was up on a hill, its dead DHD directly to the left of the gate, covered in snow. Only the blackened side of the crystal showed beneath the snow piled on top and around it.

Around the stargate, a seemingly endless conifer forest stretched to the horizon. Though the pine-like trees looked hardy, the amount of deadfall visible in the snowbound forest spoke of the severity of the winds, as if those shaking the ship around weren't indication enough. He realized that the trees themselves had to have some unusual protection against the cold. On Earth, nothing grew like this in the Arctic Circle.

"It's about fifteen miles south," Rodney said. Just so John wouldn't get them totally lost in the forest primeval below, he pointed to the right and said, "That way."

Sheppard nodded in response, and the jumper made a smooth turn in the indicated direction. Usually, as soon as the jumper turned in the correct direction, whatever city they were headed towards would come into view, but with the falling snow, the visibility was so poor that they could barely see a hundred yards in front of the craft.

As Sheppard's face settled back into that subdued set that Rodney didn't like, his conscience sent another of those inconvenient bursts of uneasiness stabbing through him. Their lives were too dependent upon each other to allow unneeded resentment to foster. They still weren't back to where they'd been before the Duranda debacle. He didn't want to add any more tension to their relationship.

Taking a deep breath, Rodney tried to do some damage control. He was as bad at that as he was at socializing, but he hoped Sheppard would appreciate the effort he was making enough to forgive him. "I, er, probably should have waited to make us go on this mission, huh?" It wasn't exactly an apology, but it was as close as he could get. "I mean, it is Christmas."

Sheppard took his eyes off the screen to meet his gaze. Those hazel eyes seemed as turbulent as the weather outside, and for a moment, Rodney was sure Sheppard was going to tell him just how selfish he'd been in insisting that they go on the mission right then instead of waiting until after the holiday.

But, to his surprise, Sheppard's features gentled and he smiled again. "It's okay. At least this way the team will be together for part of the holiday."

"But, you were with the team before I pulled you out of the party," Rodney found himself saying, confused by what felt like Sheppard's genuine sincerity. As much as he respected the man, he'd watched Sheppard manipulate people with his charm for far too long to allow himself to fall under its spell. He knew how good this man was at playing people. But for once, John's earnestness seemed real.

Sheppard vented another one of those sighs that he seemed to give around him a lot before saying, "There are four people on our team. Only three of them were at the Christmas party."

Rodney wasn't sure what he felt as he unraveled Sheppard's words. A good deal of it was shock, flavored with something like guilt, but beneath it all, was a jolt of sheer warmth at the idea that he'd been missed.

The conversation suddenly felt as alien as the snow-covered world passing below them. Rallying himself, Rodney tried to explain, "I, er, didn't think anyone would – " the 'care' he'd been about to say felt wrong, so he substituted, "notice."

"We noticed, Rodney. We always notice," Sheppard answered.

The words weren't quite an accusation, but Rodney was abruptly conscious of all the times Sheppard would tell him that the team was meeting in the mess hall after a mission and he'd forego the get-together to work in his lab. Or all the times they'd tell him they were going to the gym or to visit the Athosian settlement and he'd bow out because his work seemed more important.

He wished he could blame it all on his dedication to science. Granted, he'd rather tinker around with Ancient artifacts than do just about anything, but absenting himself wasn't just dedication to his work; experience had taught him that most people didn't want him around. But . . . Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon weren't most people. It suddenly occurred to him that he was the one who'd been doing the shunning here, not the other way around. He was the one who would pick and choose which team events were worthy of his participation. Until this very moment, it had never occurred to him that his absence from the team get-togethers would hurt their feelings.

"I'm, er, not good with people," Rodney tried to explain. The excuse sounded inadequate to even his own ears.

Rodney was intensely aware of Teyla and Ronon sitting behind them, listening to every word they said. He had the feeling that John was acting as the spokesman for the entire team at the moment, though why he would think that, he couldn't say.

"Our team isn't people," Sheppard gently corrected. "Our team is family."

That cornered feeling back again, Rodney heard himself saying, "You can't have helped but notice when Jeannie was on Atlantis that I'm not exactly good with family, either."

The silence that fell after his words felt heavy enough to crush him.

Rodney could almost feel Sheppard picking and choosing his words. When Sheppard finally spoke, there was an unexpected, and certainly undeserved, kindness in his approach, "You don't have to be good with this family, Rodney. You just have to be there."

Rodney swallowed around a lump that felt as big as the silly red hat John was wearing as he promised, "I'll try to do better."

To his shock, Sheppard let him off the hook with an easy-going, "That's all anyone can ask."

For a minute or two, Rodney stared out at the white snow pummeling the windshield, feeling intensely uncomfortable. No matter what he did, when it came to people, he always seemed to make the wrong choice.

But, for once, he was being given a second chance. Realizing that he should try to make some kind of effort, Rodney self-consciously asked, "This Christmas thing. Are you guys doing a team thing tomorrow?"

He could almost touch the surprise that filled the jumper.

Teyla answered from behind him, "Colonel Sheppard has several DVDs that we are going to watch."

"You're not going to make them watch football again, are you?" Rodney asked.

Sheppard gave a negative shake of his head. "No. I was going to show them some seasonal stuff."

"What kind of stuff?" Rodney suspiciously asked, wondering if the Superbowl counted as a seasonal presentation.

"I ordered Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer; Frosty, the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, A Miracle on 34th Street, and Scrooge. We're going to have a marathon tomorrow. My place, at noon."

Rodney hadn't seen most of them. He wasn't sure he wanted to. Even as a small boy, he'd scorned the sentimental fairytales that most of his classmates had loved. And, he'd never been good at hiding his skepticism. He still cringed every time he remembered how his parents had reacted when he'd explained to the four-year-old Jeannie why Santa couldn't possibly be real. Dreading a similar experience with the team, he warned Sheppard. "I never did well with Christmas stuff."

He really expected Sheppard to lose patience with him, but instead of ordering him to buck up and think of someone other than himself, Sheppard softly asked, "What do you mean by not doing well?"

Rodney shrugged. "You know me. I never did know when to keep my mouth shut. I'd mock the stuff that didn't make sense. Jeannie would get upset, and my parents would go ballistic."

Rodney snapped his mouth shut, wondering if he'd said too much.

After a long pause, Sheppard said, "I don't think anyone in this group is going to go ballistic if you make fun of Rudolph. Just lay off the Island of Lost Toys, okay?"

For a minute, he thought Sheppard was serious, then he saw how that slender mouth was twitching, and he realized John was joking with him.

His throat tightening up again, Rodney muttered, "Okay."

This time the silence wasn't uncomfortable.

Teyla broke it a few minutes later by asking, "Everyone back in Atlantis spoke fondly of these winter celebrations. Did you never enjoy a single one, Rodney?"

She sounded like she was really interested.

Always susceptible to her kindness and beauty, Rodney found himself answering, "There was one Christmas when Jeannie was really little that was almost fun. The entire family watched that Scrooge movie together and there was no fighting. That Christmas was okay."

"You liked Scrooge?" Sheppard eagerly enquired. Whatever was in Rodney's expression seemed to make him add, "Don't worry. You won't lose your Rationalist Society membership card if you tell us the truth. We'll keep your secret."

It was a stupid thing to feel self-conscious about, Rodney realized. It was just a movie, like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, and, yet, it still made him feel like he was going back on his principles to admit to having enjoyed it. After a long pause, he said, "If you can turn your brain off and ignore how completely unbelievable the story line is, it wasn't so bad."

"What part was unbelievable?" Sheppard asked.

Something in his tone put Rodney on guard. Unable to find any obvious traps, he finally answered, "Well, the three ghosts showing up was pretty implausible."

"As implausible as monsters that suck your lifeforce out with their hands?" Sheppard challenged. "Or glowy beings that float through walls like ghosts? Or cities that can fly between galaxies? Most people on Earth would find all that stuff equally unbelievable."

"You're not trying to say that you believe any of that Ghost of Christmas Past stuff, are you?" Rodney asked, genuinely worried, because he never could understand what made Sheppard tick. For all he knew, Sheppard might still believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and all that other nonsense.

"Well, maybe old Ebenezer just didn't understand what was going on. It happened before the scientific revolution, didn't it? Maybe ghosts were the only way he could explain what happened to him."

Finally seeing the laughter in Sheppard's eyes, Rodney relaxed. "Yes, I'm sure you're right. Three Ancients were probably hanging around and decided to pay a call on the guy because he was so mean to his subordinates."

"In that case, you better hope it was fantasy," Sheppard said.

"Huh?" Rodney asked.

"I heard you bawling out Dr. Lazlo last week," Sheppard said. "Dickens would have killed for your vocabulary."

"Thanks, I think," Rodney said, not knowing why he suddenly felt better. But Sheppard was grinning now instead of looking all sad and moody, and, even if the conversation had been painful and hit a little closer to home than Rodney would have liked, he really felt that at least Sheppard understood his reactions now. He didn't understand why he craved Sheppard's approval the way he did, he just knew he felt better when John wasn't upset with him. Which was damn weird, because most of the time, he couldn't give a damn whether people liked him or not.

"Is that it?" Ronon called all their attention to the windscreen, beyond which the nebulous outline of a small grouping of buildings could be seen forming through the moving white veil.

When they got close enough to see through the snow, they were able to make out five slender towers that were similar, but not identical, in design to those in Atlantis. They surrounded a squat, rounded complex that was unfamiliar. Sitting on the snowy plain, with the winds blowing the falling snow through them, the Ancient architecture seemed even more alien, like something frozen in time.

Catching discrepancies in the jumper's probes, Rodney switched to the hand held unit. "That's weird."

"What's weird?" Sheppard asked.

"There's no shield around the outpost," Rodney said.

"Well, that's good for us, isn't it?" Sheppard said.

"Yes, but it doesn't make sense," Rodney muttered, taking a different set of readings, and coming up with the same illogical findings.

"Why doesn't it make sense?" Teyla asked.

"The winds out there are as strong as those that blasted Atlantis during that monster storm during our first year there. The only thing that kept the city standing was the shield. These winds should have snapped those towers in half millennia ago, but they're in perfect condition," Rodney explained.

"That is weird," Sheppard agreed. After a minute or so of frantic-looking manipulation of the controls, he said, "I'm going to have to put her down on the edge of the woods. The winds are too strong to risk bringing the jumper in closer to the towers. So, suit up."

Although the winds had to be giving him a devil of a time, Sheppard landed the ship as gently as if they were setting down in the jumper bay. Pocketing the hand scanner, Rodney followed his teammates to the cargo section to gear up.

The heavy-duty insulation on the pants, boots, gloves, face shield, ski-goggles, and survival parka had Rodney feeling like the Michelin Man in minutes. Because they had no way of judging how deep the snow was, they had to wear snow shoes. Rodney felt like he might topple over any second and they weren't even outside yet.

"You need a hand with that?" Ronon asked when Rodney was struggling to manage the three bags he'd packed his equipment into. Ronon had the Santa cap on under his parka. Rodney was relieved to see that John had taken his off.

Rodney nodded, and before he knew it, the two heaviest bags were hanging comfortably off Ronon's wide shoulders.

"Thanks," Rodney acknowledged, shouldering the lightest.

"Between the wind and snow out there, I think we should tether ourselves together so no one gets lost," Sheppard suggested, thrusting a thick red rope their way.

"Good idea. Do you want me to take point?" Ronon asked. At Sheppard's nod, he tied the end of the rope around his waist and passed the rolled up bulk to Teyla, who followed suit, leaving about six feet of rope between them.

Rodney struggled to get his gloves off when the rope was offered to him.

"I got it," Sheppard said, stepping forward to secure the rope around Rodney's waist faster than Rodney was able to remove one glove. Part of him felt he should be insulted that Sheppard might think him incapable of properly tying himself in, but the part of him that had fumbled every single sports event in school was grateful that Sheppard had spared him the embarrassment of doing it wrong or having to ask for assistance.

"You all ready?" Sheppard asked after he'd tied himself in, his hand paused over the back hatch release.

"Melting, here," Rodney groused.

Sheppard grinned and threw the release, and a cold as chilling as that of deep space blasted Rodney and the rest of them as the wind swept a wall of white into the jumper.

They all staggered down the ramp, and Sheppard used the remote to close the hatch behind them. For a minute or two, they stood there in the snow, shivering with cold, trying to get their bearings in the moving whiteness and stay vertical against the force of the pounding winds.

Sheppard had put the jumper down on the fringe of the woods. It was the only place with anything that passed for shelter in these winds, Rodney realized, as he brushed snow off his goggles and stared at the huge pine trees around them.

His face and chin were so cold that they felt like they'd shatter like glass if he smiled or sneezed. His nose was already starting to drip from the cold. He could feel the liquid freezing against his skin as soon as it seeped out. He had to keep brushing it clear of his nostrils to keep the passages open.

The snow underfoot crunched with every movement. It was hard to stand in it, let alone walk. Rodney found himself clinging to the red tether just to keep his footing under the force of the winds.

The wind was howling like a banshee out of the north, but in between the bursts of screeching air, the woods were eerily silent and lifeless. Not that any self-respecting bird would have been stirring in this kind of weather, but the utter lack of sound was unnerving.

Still, the snow-covered pine forest was beautiful in a winter wonderland kind of way. It was a little too savage and wild for a Christmas card, not to mention downright hostile, but there was a compelling beauty to it all the same.

With the wind, there was movement everywhere. The point of Ronon's pistol kept jumping from one tree to another as the swaying branches caught his Runner-trained reflexes.

Sheppard and Teyla seemed to be having equal trouble with the shifting branches around them. Rodney knew he had the battle instincts of a sponge. He didn't find the movement distracting. He was too cold to worry about it. Wondering if he could possibly be getting frostbite in his toes already, he shifted his feet and banged his thick-gloved hands together.

Blinking through the yellow tinted ski-goggles, he tried to focus on a nearby tree. There was no hint of the Ancient outpost due to the blinding snow. The area was just too uniformly white. All that snow left a person feeling strangely disconnected and disoriented. White above, white below, white in front.

Rodney's gaze moved over the line of pines, glad to be looking at something with contrast. Their dark-needles and dead branches had fallen onto the snow beneath them to make a blotchy looking pattern that stretched deep into the forest. Nothing but trees as far as he could see . . . .

Rodney's moving gaze froze as it picked out an anomaly. It jumped back to the tree in question.

All the other trees had been green at the top, with their brownish-black trunks below. This one was an almost moss green at the bottom, not the darker green of the pine needles. Instead of the unbroken bluish white of the snow that was topping all the other trees, this one was fringed in black-speckled white. And, it had a face, a distinctly human face, male with a long brown beard and winsome smile.

Rodney hissed in a breath as he interpreted what his eyes were showing him. It wasn't a pine tree. It was a man, a giant of a man, dressed in a long green velvet robe that was trimmed with the black-speckled white fur that fringed all the kings' capes in movies. When his shocked gaze focused on the red-berried holly wreath crowning the giant's long, brown, curl-covered head, Rodney knew he couldn't be seeing what he was seeing.

For all intents and purposes, he was looking at the Ghost of Christmas Present.

"Hey, do you guys – " Rodney shut his mouth. What was he going to ask? Did they see the Ghost of Christmas Present? He might as well ask if they could see Santa Claus standing there.

All three of his teammates' visored faces turned his way.

"What?" Sheppard asked, raising his voice to be heard over the incessant howling of the wind.

Rodney stared at the giant a moment longer to make sure it was really there. His team was facing away from where it stood in the shadows.

"Do you see anything over there?" Rodney shouted over the wind, pointing to the giant.

The instant Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon turned that way, exactly what Rodney had been dreading happened. The giant blinked out of existence as if he'd never been there.

"Just trees," Ronon said.

"What are we looking for?" Sheppard asked.

Somehow, he wasn't quite prepared to tell his mission leader that he'd just seen Father Christmas grinning at him like the Cheshire cat. Trying to bank down his panic, because he knew hallucinations were a bad sign mental heath wise, he took a deep breath of the frigid air and shouted over the wind, "Nothing. Just the wind playing tricks on me, I guess."

Sheppard didn't press him for further information. Nodding, he yelled back, "Let's head into the city and see if we can find some shelter."

Everyone nodded.

Ronon cut a slow path through the unbroken snow, the rest of them staggering behind him. Rodney had never been so grateful for anything as he was for the rope tethering them together. He couldn't count how many times it kept him from falling face first into the snow, or veering off in the wrong direction.

Of course, the fact that he couldn't stop thinking about the impossibility he'd seen in the woods behind them wasn't helping his concentration any. Time and again, Sheppard would shout at him from behind to pay attention when Rodney would find himself twisting around to see if he could see the giant in the snow-blasted wilderness.

The border of the forest was only about a quarter of a mile from the outpost, but it seemed to take forever to reach the structures. Rodney realized that his estimation of the trip taking only a few hours was grossly exaggerated. At this rate, they'd be lucky to reach the buildings in an hour.

He didn't know how Ronon was guiding them. He couldn't see a thing in front of them but the wind-driven snow. He knew he'd have been lost in seconds if he'd tried to walk from the woods to the outpost alone. But it was weird having to follow on blind faith, not knowing if they were even headed in the right direction. He felt like one of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings when they were ascending Mt. Caradhras, completely out of his element and having to rely on the strengths of others for his very survival. It wasn't a feeling he liked.

Finally, the ground beneath their feet changed from deep snow to metal plates that were similar in construction to those on the balconies in Atlantis.

"There's no snow accumulated here," Teyla said what they all were no doubt thinking.

Rodney already had his scanner out and was taking readings, manipulating it as best he could with his clumsy gloves. "There's a small current keeping the snow clear."

"Are you picking up any ZPMs?" Sheppard asked the question that had brought them here.

"No, but the place could have the kind of shielding around it that blocked sensors the way the Aurora's life-pods did," Rodney said.

They were close enough to see the buildings now. When you looked at Atlantis' towers, they were smooth and shining like jewels rising out of the ocean. These buildings had a similar form, but their surface wasn't sleek like Atlantis' buildings. These were honeycombed with a web of uniform depressions or holes that had obviously been built into the structures.

"Wow," Rodney said as he interpreted the data his scanner was giving him.

"What?" Sheppard asked.

"You see the honeycombs in the surface of the buildings?" Rodney shouted over the gales so those up front could hear him. "They're absorbing the wind, rather than deflecting it. That's why the buildings are still standing. I think they're pulling energy from the wind to power this place. They're at least powering the shield that's keeping the snow from burying the outpost."

"Which building should we start with?" Sheppard asked, his visored gaze moving among the five towers.

Rodney scanned the region, and then pointed to the round, squat building in the center of all those tapering spires. "That one has the strongest readings."

"Okay. Head over there, Ronon," Sheppard called.

The going was much easier now that they didn't have to slug through a couple of feet of snow. They reached the squat silver building in several minutes.

The temperatures on the planet precluded there being any stained glass on the door, but the portal was shaped the same as those on Atlantis. It liked Sheppard's gene as much as Atlantis did. The door opened the instant Sheppard stepped onto the stairs in front of it.

Likewise, the moment Sheppard entered the complex, the lights powered up and they found themselves staring down eerily familiar corridors, replete with ten thousand year old, dead potted plants.

One worry was immediately dispelled. It appeared life support was still working. Rodney felt the temperature heating up as the outer door closed behind them and the building responded to their presence.

The corridor they found themselves in was huge, with that same cathedral-like feel of antiquity and reverence that Atlantis had whenever the rooms were empty. After nearly three years of living in Atlantis, Rodney knew he shouldn't be cowed by the ancient presence that seemed to breathe through the place, but, when a person stepped into a building that was this far beyond their technology, it was hard not to feel small in its shadow.

The hallway was lined with doors, each bearing the familiar-patterned stained glass like Atlantis.

They all quickly undid the rope tying them together and started peeling off their survival gear. They'd only been inside for under a minute, but already they'd gone from freezing to overheated.

Rodney had his snow shoes off and was pulling down his snow pants when his gaze shifted to his left.

Standing there in the doorway to the nearest room, looking as real as John Sheppard beside him, stood the green-robed, holly-crowned giant he'd seen outside. Now that he beheld the giant in better light, Rodney could see the icicles that were dangling from the holly wreath around his head. The man seemed to glow with a golden light, like the figures in those old religious paintings Jeannie used to drag him to museums to see when she was on her art kick.

Rodney didn't know what kind of sound he made, but all three of his half-undressed teammates' P-90s were up and scanning in all directions.

His snow pants down around his knees and his parka hanging off his left shoulder, Sheppard's weapon was focused directly at where the giant was standing, but he wasn't reacting to the thing. It almost looked like he was trailing Rodney's own gaze, but Sheppard's gun moved on as if there were nothing worth seeing there as he asked Rodney, "What? What did you see?"

The giant winked at Rodney and then blinked out of existence again.

"Oh, no," Rodney whispered. Feeling Teyla and Ronon's dark gazes settle on him, he began to shake. "I, er, I think I'm going to have to report myself unfit for duty. Is that how you say it in the military?" He knew he was babbling, but he felt like he was seconds away from a breakdown.

"What do you mean 'unfit for duty'?" John asked, real concern in his face. "What's wrong?"

"I'm . . . I'm having hallucinations," Rodney reluctantly confided.

"What kind of hallucinations?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney gulped. "When we stepped out of the jumper, I thought I saw something that couldn't possibly be there standing in the forest. I just saw it again in that doorway." Rodney pointed to the door before them on the left.

His teammates looked from the door back to him, everyone's face lined with nervous tension. Even the silly Santa cap on Ronon's head couldn't mask his uneasiness.

"What kind of something?" Sheppard questioned.

"What did you see?" Teyla asked.

Rodney looked at Sheppard. "You – you won't believe me. It's . . . crazy."

"Just tell us what you saw, McKay," Sheppard snapped.

Rodney took a deep breath. "I saw . . . a giant. He was twice as big as Ronon. He was wearing a long green velvet robe with a wreath of holly on his head . . . just like the Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooge."

"The Ghost of . . . ." Sheppard echoed. His face tightening with anger, he continued, "McKay, if that's your idea of humor – "

"Humor?" Rodney heard himself yell. "Do I look like I'm joking here? Why do you think I didn't want to tell you? I knew you'd never believe me. I know how crazy it sounds, but that's what I saw. I swear."

Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon's gazes all dug into his face.

Rodney didn't really expect to be believed. After all, he'd seen the thing and couldn't believe it. How could he expect them to believe him?

But after a moment, the anger faded from Sheppard's features and he asked in a gentler tone. "You seriously saw . . . ?"

"The Ghost of Christmas Present," Rodney said, holding that hazel gaze.

"What is this Ghost of Christmas Present?" Ronon questioned in that rough tone he got whenever he was trying to hide his fear.

Before Sheppard could plunge them into some phantasmagoric explanation of the Dickens story, Rodney quickly explained, "It's a character from a popular Christmas Tale. It's a being that comes to this mean-spirited miser to make him see the error of his ways." His gaze jumped back to Sheppard, "And if you were about to suggest any similarity in personalities there, just don't. I'm freaked out enough as it is without you making fun of me."

To his credit, Sheppard didn't even crack a smile. "I wasn't going to say a word on that line."

Reading only worry in Sheppard's handsome face, Rodney couldn't help but ask, "You really believe me?"

"Do I believe you saw the Ghost of Christmas Present? No. Do I believe you saw something that looked like it – yes," Sheppard said. "What does your scanner say?"

Rodney felt his face warm as he realized that he'd been so thrown by the giant that he hadn't even checked his scanner. "I, um . . . ." Quickly withdrawing the scanner from his pocket, he recalibrated and double-checked his readings. "There's nothing showing up here but us."

"Could it have been a holograph?" Teyla suggested.

Rodney shook his head. "It looked solid, and, well, if it were a holograph, how come no one but me could see it? Colonel Sheppard looked directly at where it was standing before and didn't react to it."

"That is strange," Teyla agreed.

"Okay, people, let's stay on guard," Sheppard said. "I guess we'd better check that room out first," Sheppard said, pointing at the door where Rodney had seen the giant.

The doors slid open as they approached and the lights came on in what turned out to be an empty conference room that looked identical to the one they used for their mission briefings.

The next dozen or so rooms proved equally uninspiring.

"I'm getting a power reading from inside this one," Rodney reported as they neared the latest in an endless seeming stream of doors.

The door dilated open and they stepped into a room lined with oddly familiar niches. The room was huge, and there were hundreds of shelves.

"It's like the Aurora," Sheppard said as he recognized row upon row of gleaming life pods.

"I'm not reading any life signs, but I didn't on the Aurora>, either," Rodney said. "They're no doubt shielded."

"Which is probably why the Wraith never culled here," Teyla said.

They each headed for a different bank of pods.

Rodney reached his first. Staring through the smoky glass, he was relieved that the view wasn't any clearer. The figure lying inside might just as well have been fed on by a Wraith, it was desiccated and long dead. Long white hair fell halfway down the being's chest. It was only the lack of beard that made Rodney think the body was female. The skin was so deeply lined and deteriorated that he couldn't even distinguish features anymore.

"This one's dead," Rodney reported.

"I've got four over here," Ronon called. "All dead."

"Four here," Sheppard reported. "Dead, too."

"These are deceased, as well," Teyla called.

Rodney moved to a control panel like those he'd used to access the Aurora's pods. Calling up a diagnostic screen, he did some quick reading.

"What do you think happened here?" Sheppard asked as the other three joined Rodney at the control panel. "Did the pods fail?"

Rechecking his findings one last time, Rodney shook his head 'no'. "The pods are still functional. I can't be sure until Carson's people perform an autopsy, but from these readings, I'd say they died of old age."

"But the pods prolong life, don't they?" Sheppard asked in a hushed voice.

A shiver running through him, Rodney nodded. "Yes, they do. I think these people were here for longer than the Aurora's crew was in stasis."

"Do you need to take any more readings here?" Sheppard asked, his gaze moving nervously among the life support units that had turned into caskets for their occupants.

"No, I'm done," Rodney said, wanting to get away from these tombs as much as the others clearly wanted to.

They all seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as they stepped out into the Atlantis-like corridor that had those familiar banks of bubbling blue liquid lining it.

Teyla and Ronon started to move down the corridor in the direction they'd been searching. Rodney stopped as Sheppard paused beside him.

"How are you doing?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney wasn't used to anyone voicing concern for him, not unless he had an arrow sticking out of his butt, and sometimes not even then. "Okay, I guess. This isn't turning out at all as I'd hoped."

"Giant ghosts and rooms full of corpses," Sheppard said with one of his grins. "Can't say it's on my list of holiday hot spots, either."

"I'm sorry now I didn't wait till after Christmas," Rodney said.

Sheppard reached out and gave his arm a friendly pat. "It's okay. We'll check the rest of the place out and head home. By the time we get back, we'll all be ready for more turkey. This time you're eating with us, right?"

Rodney's stomach fluttered at the expression in Sheppard's eyes. It happened like this sometimes when they were alone and not sniping at each other. For no apparent reason, Rodney would feel as if the ground had fallen out from beneath him.

Taking a deep breath, he nodded. "Yes. I'm, er, sorry I ruined your Christmas."

"You didn't ruin it," Sheppard didn't sound as if he were lying. "Come on, let's check the next room out."

Rodney forced his gaze away from Sheppard's. The second he did; he was able to breathe easier.

They hastened their pace to rejoin Teyla and Ronon, who were waiting outside the next room in the corridor.

There was a familiar octagonal shaped control box on the outside wall of this room that made Rodney's heart skip a beat.

"What is it?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney opened the panel just to be certain. "This is just like the power junction panel back on Atlantis outside the ZedPM generator room." Seeing the excitement in everyone's face, he reminded, "Remember, I didn't detect any ZedPMs when I scanned for them."

"You didn't detect any life pods, either," Sheppard countered. "The room could be shielded."

Rodney nodded. As one, the four of them stepped up to the door.

"Oh, no," Teyla gasped as the lights came on and revealed the interior.

For once, Rodney couldn't even take any joy in being proven right. The long, vaguely fleur-de-lis shaped device was definitely a ZPM generator. There were even ZPMs in it, or, rather, the remains of Zero Point Modules. These ZPMs were in about the same shape as the outpost's inhabitants. Broken crystal and glass in the familiar orange color surrounded the holes where the ZPMs had once stood.

Rodney bit his lip as yet another hope bit the dust. No matter how hard they tried, they never seemed to get a break when it came to these elusive power sources.

"What happened here?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney was already scanning. "They all shattered at once. It looks like they exploded from an overload."

"Is that even possible?" Sheppard, who understood far more about quantum physics than any military man had a right to, questioned.

"I'd have said no before seeing this," Rodney said. "The subspace field the ZedPMs create to generate power should have buffered the crystal. If anything happened at all, the field should have simply collapsed, not . . . blown up the ZedPMs. This is really weird."

"Everything here is really weird," Sheppard agreed. "In fact, this place is giving me the creeps."

"Yeah," Ronon said from the other side of the broken generator.

"I, too, find this place unnerving," Teyla admitted.

"Let's hurry up and get through with this, okay? Is there anything more you need to see here?" Sheppard asked him.

"Not in this room. In the few places we've found generator units like this – Atlantis, the outpost in Antarctica, and that city the Asuran Replicators built, there was usually a lab located nearby. I'd like to check the Ancient computers in there to see if I can figure out what caused this."

Sheppard nodded. "Okay."

Rodney was relieved when the next room in the corridor revealed the same kind of control panels and computer banks that Atlantis' labs all had.

Rodney moved to the main unit and activated it. There was always a daunting amount of information in these Ancient databases. It was no different here. It took almost a half hour of searching, while Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon became increasingly twitchier while they waited, before Rodney discovered what he was looking for.

"Oh, wow, this is tragic," Rodney said, rereading to make sure he was translating right.

"What happened?" Teyla asked.

"This complex was originally a lab researching Ascension. When the Wraith started overwhelming the human worlds, the Ancients abandoned their Ascension research here. The experiment that destroyed the ZedPMs was another version of the Arcturus Project. The Ancients were trying to generate vacuum energy from our own dimension. Their experiment didn't simply enhance the power of their ZedPMs like they'd hoped; it destroyed the ZedPMs they were working on, as well as every other ZedPM on the planet. The crystal that powers the DHD device is based on a similar technology, so their experiment blew that out, too. They were virtually left without power and no way to dial home."

"But there is power here," Teyla said.

Rodney nodded. "The wind generators gave them enough energy to keep the life support, lights, and other low-energy technology working, but weren't nearly powerful enough to operate the gate. When the food started to run out, they set the subspace distress signal and placed themselves in the stasis pods in the hopes that they'd survive until the Atlanteans either picked up their signal or opened the gate to find out why there hadn't been any contact. They waited here in stasis for millennia for a rescue that never happened," Rodney explained, his heart aching for these long dead scientists.

He knew what it felt like to destroy the ZPM that was sustaining power in their city. He knew what it felt like when an experiment went wrong and people died. God, did he know what that felt like.

"That is sad," Teyla said, sounding as upset by those ancient mishaps as Rodney felt.

"So there's really nothing we can learn here?" Sheppard said after a long silence.

"I'd like to upload the data on their experiment," Rodney said. "It might prevent us from duplicating their mistakes. It will take about twenty minutes to collect the information."

"Okay," Sheppard agreed. "There's only one more room in this corridor. We'll check it out while you're working. Will you be okay alone here?"

"You mean am I afraid of the Ghost of Christmas Present?" Rodney forced himself to joke. Truth was; he was terrified. "No. It's the Ghost of Christmas Past that has reign here. I'll just upload their sad history and we can get home to that turkey dinner you were talking about."

"Sounds like a plan. We'll have our radios on. Call if you need us," Sheppard instructed.

Telling himself that the dread curling through his gut as he watched his teammates leave the room was completely childish, Rodney forced his attention onto the Ancient computer.

The interface took longer than he anticipated. The outpost's crystals were of an older design than those of Atlantis and it took him a while to find the correct frequency to get the outpost computer to talk to his laptop.

It was only as his stomach growled and he glanced down at the chronometer at the bottom of his laptop screen that he realized he'd been at this for three whole hours. He hated when he lost track of time like this. The others were going to kill him . . . .

His already stressed out brain froze as he thought of his team. Neither Sheppard nor Ronon were long on patience. Experience had shown Rodney that if he told that pair something would take twenty minutes to complete, they'd be hounding him after five minutes demanding when it would be done. But not a one of his teammates had stuck their head in here to ask what was taking so long or even tried to contact him over the open radio channel.

Rodney's hand jumped to the transmit switch on his headset. "Sheppard? You still out there?"

The receiver in his ear crackled, like it were picking up an open channel, but no sound emerged. "Sheppard?" he repeated, then called in a far more frantic tone, "Teyla? Ronon? Come on, guys. This isn't funny."

All he got was static. He didn't even think about closing down his laptop. Before his last word had stopped echoing through the eerily empty computer room, he was rushing for the door.

Sheppard had said they were checking out the last room on this floor, which was at the end of the hall. Rodney ran for the door, skidding to a halt as he noticed an unfamiliar device on the wall beside the banks of bubbling liquid. After three years of repairing and jury-rigging Ancient machinery, he was familiar with every crystal and control panel. He'd never seen this before. It looked almost like some kind of rack. It was holding small, wire devices in neat rows.

His heart skipped a beat as he noticed the plaque above the rack. Translating as well as he could without his laptop Ancient dictionary to consult, he read the message. As best as he could tell, it read: Do not enter the room of thought-test-experiment without proper protection.

Rodney took protection to mean the wire devices stacked below the sign.

He wondered if his team had touched or noticed the rack, but decided it was unlikely. They'd been focused on searching the room. None of them dealt with peripheral Ancient equipment enough to know what was and wasn't standard issue, and only Teyla could read Ancient.

The plaque blended into the wall so well that the only way it would be noticed was if someone were staring straight at the rack. Fat lot of good an invisible warning would do people, Rodney thought, wondering why the Ancients hadn't posted clearer hazard signs or instructions on dangerous technology. Although, upon reflection, Rodney realized that a primitive human might find modern Earth homes equally perilous.

As usual, there was nothing like an instruction manual anywhere near the rack. Taking down one of the tiny wire devices, he studied it, trying to determine how it functioned.

It started to glow in his hand, so he figured it must have been activated by his ATA gene. So, theoretically, the protection was working – if this was even what the sign had been referring to.

Well, there was nothing for it. Protected or unprotected, he had to rescue his team. Almost frantic when he realized how much time his friends had been in there, he turned to hurry for the door. His friends were in there unprotected. God knew what was happening to them.

Rodney's rush halted as a cheerful voice boomed out behind him.

"I wouldn't go in there just yet if I were you."

Rodney turned, his blood literally running cold when he saw the green-robed giant standing behind him. The being seemed to fill the corridor; he was so huge.

His heart started to race. Every instinct he owned was screaming that he turn and run. Except, the giant was blocking his way to the door to the outside. The only thing behind him was the door to the last room they hadn't investigated yet.

And, even if the being weren't blocking his escape; he couldn't just run off and leave the others.

For once, when he reached for his sidearm, it slid smoothly into his palm. The clip didn't even fall out this time. Thumbing off the safety, he forced his shaking hand to still as he demanded with as much threat as he could manage, which he knew wasn't very much, "What have you done to my friends?"

"I have done nothing to them," the giant responded.

Staring up at those strong, character-filled features, Rodney thought that the giant really did bear an uncanny resemblance to the actor who had played the Ghost of Christmas Present in Albert Finney's Scrooge. There was a kindness in those rugged features that made you want to trust him.

"Please put your weapon away. I mean you no harm," the giant continued.

"Not until you tell me what happened to my friends," Rodney insisted, keeping the gun focused on where he thought the giant's heart might be. The trembling in his hand was starting to take his whole body. For all the times he'd fired his 9 mil, he'd never actually shot anyone before, certainly not face to face like this. Ronon, Teyla, and Sheppard could intimidate as effortlessly as they drew breath. Rodney knew that he himself was simply not cut out for menacing people.

To his relief, the giant answered immediately. "As you guessed, they are in the room behind you."

"Why aren't they answering their radios?" Rodney asked, relaxing a little at how quickly the giant answered his question. The cynic in him reminded him that the alien could be lying. He had no way of knowing what the strange creature's motives might be. But, Rodney still couldn't help but feel better at the easy way the alien answered him.

"They entered the Room of Reflection unprotected. They are caught in webs of their minds' creation now," the giant said.

"They're what?" Rodney asked, trying to make sense of the creature's words. It didn't sound like his team was dead, but whatever had happened didn't sound pleasant. Realizing that the giant had prevented him from waltzing in and getting caught in whatever was waiting in there as well, Rodney slowly lowered his gun. "What's a Room of Reflection?"

"Long ago, my people were researching a means to move to a higher plane of being here. That room helped us attain that goal," the giant said.

"You're . . . you're an Ancient," Rodney said. Reading confusion on the giant's brown-bearded face, he quickly explained, "Your people built Atlantis and the stargates."

"You know of Atlantis?" the giant asked.

"It's our home now. My people came through the stargate from a planet called Earth in the Milky Way galaxy. We found the city deserted. It was resting on the ocean floor when we arrived," Rodney said.

"Atlantis was deserted?" the giant questioned.

"There was a great war with creatures called Wraith," Rodney began to explain.

"Yes. We were forced to stop our research on Ascension to work on a means to offer more power to defeat the enemy," the giant said.

The being's words confirmed everything he'd read in the outpost data banks. They went a long way in reassuring Rodney that he was dealing with a real Ancient here. Though, why the creature would take on this particular form was puzzling. He'd seen enough Ancients and representations of them to know that they didn't normally dress this dramatically.

"I'm sorry, but your people were never able to defeat the Wraith. The Pegasus galaxy was overwhelmed by them. Atlantis was the only stronghold the Wraith didn't breach. It was held under siege for years before your people decided to sink the city and escape through the stargate," Rodney said, hoping his words wouldn't anger the creature. He didn't know if he were dealing with an ascended Ancient here or the last survivor of the outpost. In either case, he didn't want to antagonize it. Chaya's destruction of the Wraith ships had shown him what ascended Ancients were capable of and his daily contact with Atlantis' technology had shown him what the un-ascended Ancients could do. He didn't want to make an enemy of either.

"That is why they never answered our signal," the Ancient said, his face reflecting his sorrow.

"Your signal only reached us this morning. We, uh, came to help," Rodney said.

The giant nodded. "That is most kind of you."

"That isn't your original form, is it?" Rodney's curiosity finally forced him to ask.

The giant gave a negative shake of his head. "I don't remember my original form. I drew this image from your mind and that of the Lantean in your group."

Rodney knew he should be angry at the intrusion, but there was something about the Ancient that made him feel that his secrets were safe. So, instead of reacting to the violation of his privacy, he echoed, "The Lantean?"

"The dark haired one you call Sheppard," the giant said.

"He's not Lantean. He's from Earth," Rodney protested.

"He is of my people. His genetic markers are pure Lantean," the giant said. "Your genetic markers have been manipulated to mimic those of my people, but his are pure."

Rodney sighed. No matter where they went, Sheppard had the magic touch. Not wanting to get into a discussion of how his artificial ATA gene was second-rate with this Ancient, he changed the subject with, "Getting back to our original topic, why did you choose that form in particular? There must have been thousands in our minds to choose from."

"So there were," the giant agreed. "This one most closely represents what I am. I have become one with this world now. This figure seemed to represent a benevolent winter spirit in both your minds. It seemed the most fitting choice."

Rodney remembered reading an SG1 report about an ascended Ancient who'd become an earth spirit. Oma De Sala, his brain finally remembered the name. She, too, had become one with the planet she was dwelling on and manifested herself as a force of nature.

Thinking of Oma Da Sala, he realized that he didn't know this Ancient's name. Feeling strange conversing with the Ancient without knowing what to call him, Rodney introduced himself, "Since you've read my mind, you probably know this already. I'm Dr. Rodney McKay. Do you have a name I can call you?"

"I was known to my people as Robur," the Ancient replied.

"Pleased to meet you, Robur," Rodney said with a touch of irony. Getting serious again, he asked, "Why was I the only one who could see you before?"

"I did not intend to reveal myself to any of you. When you first left your ship, I did not realize that you carried the Asuran mind weapon in your blood," Robur answered.

"The what?" Rodney asked, trying to hold down his panic. Was this Ancient warning him that the Replicators had infected him the same way they had Elizabeth when they'd been captured on Asura?

"The weapons were microscopic devices that attacked and destroyed the brains of non-Lantean humans," Robur explained.

"You're talking about nanites," Rodney realized at last.

"Yes."

"Are you saying I was infected again on Asura?" Rodney tried to hold back his fear, but even he could hear it in his voice. Waiting for his brain to explode was an event he never wanted to repeat.

A warmth seemed to pass through his thoughts, calming him. It took him a moment to realize that the Ancient was reading his mind.

"No. These are remnants of your original exposure on Atlantis," Robur said at last.

"Hey, you just . . . I'd appreciate it if you didn't go reading my mind without permission," Rodney tried to make it a request, rather than a demand. He was painfully aware that there was nothing he could do to prevent an ascended Ancient from doing anything it wanted with him.

"As you wish," the Ancient bowed his holly-wreathed head in acknowledgement.

"So how do these nanites let me see you?" Rodney's scientific curiosity forced him to ask. "I mean, they've been deactivated . . . haven't they?"

"They're no longer functional, but they ran their course before your people deactivated them. Your brain was affected. None of the others in your group seem to have been exposed to the Asuran mind weapon, so they could not see me," the giant said.

"What do you mean 'my brain was affected'? Are you saying these things caused some kind of brain damage?" Carson had given him a CAT scan and MRI after the nanite incident to reassure him that he was perfectly healthy, but Rodney knew there were a million things those microscopic time bombs could have done to him that Earth medicine didn't have the technology to diagnose.

"Not brain damage, per se. Because of the directive written into the Asuran base code programming, they could do nothing to harm anyone bearing the Lantean gene. To fulfill this programming, they had to design their weapon so that it had a positive effect on the Lanteans who might fall prey to it. Rather than destroying your brain, the Asuran mind weapon activated an area of your mind that most un-ascended humans rarely use. The changes are nothing you would notice in your daily activities."

"What type of changes are we talking about here?" Rodney demanded, still panicking.

"Activation of that area of your brain would make you less susceptible to mental manipulation. You would be less prone to hallucinations or other visual aberrations than Lanteans and humans who had not suffered the Asuran weapon's effects," Robur said.

"That can't be right," Rodney said. "I had a hell of an hallucination when I was trapped in a jumper at the bottom of the ocean last year."

Rodney found that he was almost disappointed to find Robur proven wrong. He was all for augmenting his mental facilities any way possible. It was petty as hell, but for a moment there, it was sounding like he had some special ability that even Sheppard with his magic gene didn't have.

"You refer to that incident where a colleague from your homeworld appeared to you to help you in a time of great need?" Robur asked.

"Hey, I thought we agreed you weren't going to read my thoughts," Rodney reminded.

"I did not read them now. I detected this memory when I scanned you earlier," Robur said.

"Oh," Rodney said, slightly mollified.

"Is that the incident to which you refer?" Robur questioned. At Rodney's nod of assent, the Ancient continued, "You were not hallucinating in that event."

"Well, Sam Carter sure as hell didn't teleport herself to the Pegasus galaxy to save me. When I mentioned it to her, she had no idea what I was talking about," Rodney said, remembering that embarrassing conversation.

"Nevertheless, you were not hallucinating. Rather, you experienced an encounter very similar to the one you are experiencing at this moment," Robur said.

"An encounter?" Rodney questioned, having no clue as to what the Ancient could be referring. "Are you saying an Ancient . . . ?" Abruptly, he remembered that Morgan Le Fay had been hiding out in Atlantis as a holographic interface for who knew how long. "Morgan Le Fay was hiding on Atlantis. Are you saying she helped me?"

"No. It wasn't an ascended Lantean. The creature you called a whale that kept circling your wrecked ship was a member of a sentient race aligned to my people. It saw your plight and did what it could to assist you," Robur said.

"You're saying that was real? That I wasn't hallucinating?" Rodney asked. The whale had been intelligent . . . and it had helped him? That was more than could be said for most of the ascended Ancients they'd met. Aside from Chaya, who hadn't been too good at the neutrality thing, most of the ascended Ancients were frighteningly cold-blooded when it came to honoring their non-intervention directives.

"Did it feel like an hallucination?" Robur asked.

"No, it felt as real as you do," Rodney said.

"Then why do you doubt it?"

"I don't know. I guess it just never occurred to me that the whale was intelligent."

"There are many things you do not know about the Pegasus galaxy," Robur replied, with that know-it-all air the Ancients had.

"Yeah, well, that's what we're here for – to explore and learn," Rodney said and then tried to return the conversation to its original course, "So the Asuran device really did augment my brain?" At the giant's nod, Rodney said, "That's why I wasn't as affected as Sheppard and Ronon on M1B129 when that Wraith device was messing with everyone's' heads."

"Yes."

The mention of his teammates reminded him as to why he was here talking to this ascended Ancient. "Oh, my god. I got so caught up talking to you that I forgot about my team." Remembering what Robur had said to him, he asked, "Why did you warn me not to go into that room?"

"When your companions entered, the Lantean's genes activated the machine in there. They were not wearing protection and were trapped in its field," Robur answered, gesturing towards the rack of wire-like devices by the door.

"What's it doing to them?" Rodney asked. Even he could hear the note of fear in his voice.

"It was originally designed as an aid to Ascension. It helps searchers identify what areas they need to work on to reach the next plane of being. When your companions walked in there, they found themselves confronted by their deepest fear."

"So I just have to use this protective device and go in there and turn the machine off?" Rodney asked, holding up the wire device.

"I'm afraid it is not that easy. Were you to turn the machine off while they were trapped in it, their minds would be irreparably damaged. The Room of Reflection was designed as an instruction tool. Each searcher had a mentor who would oversee their explorations. When the searcher encountered the kind of difficulties your companions are presently experiencing, the mentor would enter the reality created by the machine to guide them through the trial. If you wish to save your companions, you will have to act as mentor to them."

Rodney ran a nervous hand over his face. He'd never had the patience for mentoring anybody. His few attempts at tutoring had been complete disasters. His team's lives were at stake here. This was too important to chance to his personality faults. "I'm not what you'd call mentoring material. I know you Ascended Ancients have all kinds of amazing abilities. Couldn't you just . . . you know, teleport them out of there or something?"

"I regret that is not possible. That would be direct interference," Robur said.

"Well, what do you call what you're doing now? You stopped me from going in there. You told me what's happened to my friends. How is that not interfering?" Rodney demanded, beginning to understand the frustrations Daniel Jackson had spoken about concerning his dealings with ascended Ancients the few times they'd discussed the subject.

"I merely called you. I did not physically stop you. You could have kept going and entered the Room of Reflection. I did not tell you anything you would not have learned from the outpost's computers," Robur said.

"That sounds a hell of a lot like a qualification," Rodney said.

"Perhaps," Robur agreed.

Belatedly realizing that he still needed this creature's help, Rodney tried to soften his tone as he asked, "So, uh, how do I help them?"

"Before entering, you must place the unit on your ear." Robur explained. "It will prevent you from being drawn into your own test. To act as mentor to your companions, you need merely touch them while wearing that unit. It will bring you into whatever reality they are experiencing. Once you help them defeat whatever challenge they are facing, you will both be returned to your bodies."

"What kind of challenges are we talking about here?" Rodney asked, feeling a little like he was preparing for a Dungeons and Dragons game. Robur certainly fit the role of Dungeon Master better than any of the pimple-faced high school and college kids Rodney had played with. He couldn't help but wonder what kind of experience points his three years on Atlantis would earn him.

"That depends on what your companions fear most," Robur said.

"What happens if I can't guide them out of their challenge?"

"That would be most unfortunate. The only way for the searcher to escape is to conquer the challenge. Should they fail, they will remain locked in whatever reality their minds have created until their bodies succumb to starvation," Robur explained.

"What kind of sense is that?" Rodney demanded. "What is wrong with you people? Who makes a machine like that?"

"The Room of Reflection was not to be entered lightly. It was the final step on a difficult journey. Only those who were willing to risk their lives entered the room as a searcher."

"Did you?" Rodney questioned.

Robur nodded. "Long ago."

Realizing that there was one issue he hadn't addressed, Rodney asked, "Er, what happens to the mentor if the searcher fails his challenge?"

"Nothing. As long as you wear the protective unit, you can extract yourself from the challenge any time you choose," Robur said. "But be warned. These events are real to your companions. What befalls them there, could very well influence them for the rest of their lives."

"However short those lives might be," Rodney muttered. "Okay. I need to get started. How do I . . . ?"

His robes rustling around him, Robur walked to the rack on the wall beside the door and extracted one of the wire devices. Once again, Rodney was struck by how much Robur resembled the Dickens character. Watching this fairytale character move, he wondered what he'd see if those flowing, green robes should part. Would the two starving children from the Dickens story be hiding beneath them? Was the verisimilitude that exact?

As Robur stood in front of the rack, Rodney couldn't help but notice that the Ancient glowed so bright that he turned the wall a warm, golden yellow when he stood close to it.

"Place this over your ear, like so." Moving his long, dark curls and holly wreath aside, Robur demonstrated how the wire hooked around the ear. "The Lantean gene you carry will activate it. To mentor a challenge, just touch whichever of your companions you choose to help first. To withdraw, concentrate on extracting yourself."

"If I'm able to help them, what happens then?" Rodney asked.

"Your companions will return to their bodies unharmed, or ascend to the next level if they are ready," Robur said.

Like that was really going to happen with this group, Rodney thought.

"Okay, I'm going in," Rodney announced once he had the protective device resting around his ear. Remembering his manners, he added, "Er, thanks for your help, Robur."

"May you help your friends find their paths," Robur offered in the tone of a benediction.

"I just want to get them out," Rodney said. Giving the Ancient a nod, he hurried into the room.

The Room of Reflection's doors parted as accommodatingly as those of his quarters back on Atlantis.

Rodney's hurried steps stumbled to a halt as he took in the scenario before him. The room lacked the Ancient's normal lighting. But it was hardly dark. Rainbows of shifting lights, bright as lasers, filled the place.

He'd felt like this the one time he'd visited a disco in the eighties. The room was that disorienting. Most of it was cloaked in shadows, except for the brilliant device pulsing in the center of the chamber. He saw his team as soon as he stepped through the door.

Ronon, Teyla and Sheppard were standing a few feet apart from each other. Their eyes were wide open as they stared unblinkingly at the machine in the center of the room. The shifting, colored lights reflected off their eerily vacant features. The Santa cap Ronon was wearing looked particularly incongruous, almost sinister in this alien setting.

Rodney couldn't help but think that his teammates looked like they'd been frozen in time by some kind of enchantment; they were that still.

Even if they hadn't been under the machine's influence, Rodney wouldn't have blamed them for staring at it. The Ancient device was magnificent. It rose about four feet from the floor in the familiar, vaguely cylindrical console pattern common to Ancient technology. But there was nothing common about the device's effect. The light show it was emitting was so incredibly compelling, it was almost hypnotic.

Considering its effects on his team, there was really no questioning its properties. The device clearly was hypnotic. He wondered how the wire on his ear was blocking its signal.

Looking at the unit, Rodney remembered an old SG1 mission report that had mentioned a similar machine. The one on the Go'ould world had been purely for recreational purposes and had snared the entire SG1 team with its addictive spell before they'd realized what was going on.

Not that the Go'ould had created the device. They were scavengers of technology, rather than inventors. No doubt, it was an Ancient machine the Go'ould had stumbled upon and converted to their own uses. Rodney couldn't help but wonder if that machine on the Go'ould world P4X-347 had been the precursor of this one or vice versa. The only thing he did know for certain was that the Go'ould hadn't been using it for purposes of spiritual enlightenment.

Like what was happening to his friends was enlightenment, Rodney's mind sneered as he took in his frozen teammates.

The whole idea of this Room of Reflection was bewildering. Enlightenment that captured and threatened the lives of unsuspecting intergalactic explorers just seemed wrong to him. He didn't get spiritual enlightenment that killed if the person wasn't ready for advancement. But, then, he didn't get the concept of religion to start with.

As with most everything else that had happened since he'd first stepped through the stargate, this situation wasn't going to give him the luxury of waiting until he understood it. Just like always, he was going to have to fix some impossible problem with lives hanging in the balance. That it was the lives of his team depending on his ability to accomplish the impossible only made the pressure worse.

Knowing he had to get started, he took a deep breath and approached the person nearest him. That was Ronon. The lights were still tinting Ronon's bearded face a spectrum of colors and playing over that stupid cap in an unnerving manner.

Rodney reached out to lay his palm on the tunic covering Ronon's elbow . . . and the world seemed to blink out of being around him for a moment. When reality reformed around him, the Room of Reflection was gone.

Rodney shivered as he recognized the shadowed, blue-lighted room around him as the cocoon room on a Wraith hive. It was like that crashed supply ship they'd found that time they were investigating Gaul's Ancient satellite. Red support struts, purple walls, webs everywhere. All of the humans wrapped in the cocoons were long dead, nothing but dried out husks.

As usual, the webbing in the cocoons, the organic, honeycomb-like structure of the walls, the organic foundation of the Wraith ship, and the web-like dividers shielding the doors gave the place a creepy, inimical, insectoid feel. As if the dead bodies decorating the chamber weren't enough to freak anyone out in themselves, Rodney thought.

A crash sounded behind him, and he turned to see Ronon battling that huge monster of a Wraith that had fought Ronon on Sateda. The thing was just as ugly now as then, and just as unstoppable.

From the blood and sweat sheathing Ronon, it was clear he'd been fighting for some time.

Rodney gasped at the ease with which the Wraith tossed Ronon against the nearest cocoon. Ronon went down like a rock. The husk of the body in the catacomb Ronon crashed into fell to the floor with him.

The contents of Rodney's stomach lurched upwards as he watched Ronon struggle to free himself from the body on top of him. The corpse had been dead so long that its limbs detached from its torso when Ronon shoved at it. That had to be as terrifying as having the Wraith come at you, Rodney thought. Or maybe not. The corpse wasn't going to suck the life out of Ronon the way the approaching Wraith would.

For a moment, Rodney stood frozen in place, shocked and staring at what was happening. As the Wraith towering over his teammate reached down towards Ronon's chest, Rodney came to his senses.

Instinct had him reaching for his sidearm. His fingers found nothing but his uniform there. His gun and his holster were missing. In retrospect, he realized that it made sense. Spiritual enlightenment through firepower was something Sheppard would endorse; it wasn't a particularly Ancienty approach. Of course, the machine wouldn't allow him to bring a weapon through, which left him here facing a Wraith with nothing but the clothes on his back.

He abruptly realized that he'd never asked what would happen if the mentor were killed by a figment of the searcher's imagination during the test. Knowing how they'd built their damn machines, Rodney figured that both mentor and searcher would probably buy it if the mentor couldn't master the challenge. But how in the hell was he supposed to help Ronon through this?

Rodney had no delusions about his physical abilities. He was worse at hand to hand than he was at shooting.

Every self-preservation impulse he had was screaming for him to extract himself from this nightmare. If someone like Ronon couldn't take the Wraith, what was a braincase like him going to do to stop it?

Brain . . . he needed to use his brain. Rodney's eyes desperately searched the cocoon room for anything he could convert into a weapon, but these chambers had been designed as holding areas. There weren't any consoles or conduits for him to tinker with, nothing but line upon line of dead bodies. And even if there had been some kind of machine here, there simply wasn't time. The Wraith was about to feed on Ronon.

"This time you're mine," the Wraith taunted Ronon in a triumphant tone, his foot planted in the center of Ronon's wide chest, holding him down on the floor as Ronon struggled to free himself. All Wraith were scary looking, but some of the breeding males had an elegant sleekness to their deadly visages that the warrior drones lacked. Steve and Michael had been almost handsome in a life-sucking way. But not this one. This one was big, ugly, and mean-looking, everything a monster should be. "I have fed on all of those from your homeworld. You are the last. No one is coming to save you this time. The last of your pathetic line will die here, and no one will know or care."

This was what Ronon feared most, Rodney realized. It only made sense. After all those years as a Runner, fighting every single day simply to survive, Ronon's greatest fear would have to be falling prey to the bastards hunting him.

The Wraith's last words, 'no one will know or care' seemed to echo through the gruesome chamber for a long time.

Something snapped inside Rodney at that. He didn't know what he could do against a demon like the Wraith unarmed as he was, but Ronon was sure as hell not going to die believing that no one cared.

Not allowing himself time to think and panic, Rodney charged the Wraith in a full body tackle like one of the guys in Sheppard's stupid football tapes. It felt like he ran straight into a stone wall. He was sure he felt an arm break. But, to his utter shock, he also felt the Wraith go down beneath him.

Rodney knew he probably would never have been able to budge the Wraith if it had been standing with both feet planted firmly on the floor. He'd seen how effortlessly this Wraith had deflected Ronon's flying attack on Sateda. But the monster was already unbalanced, standing as he was with his foot on Ronon's chest. When Rodney hit him, the Wraith went down like a ton of bricks.

The Wraith recovered with frightening speed. Rodney was still dazed from the collision when he felt hands as strong as iron grip his arms. Next thing he knew, he was flat on his back on the floor. The Wraith was above him, that deadly hand rushing towards his chest.

Rodney was too terrified to even voice the scream inside him. He was pinned down, helpless. He was going to die here and . . . .

An outraged, primal roar filled the chamber.

Rodney opened his eyes, just in time to see a pair of blood-smeared hands grip either side of the Wraith's head and give a powerful twist. There was the sickening sound of bone snapping. Absolute shock filled the Wraith's face in the second Rodney had to absorb its expression, then the Wraith's head was spinning like Linda Blair's in the Exorcist as Ronon killed the monster.

The Wraith started to fall forward on top of Rodney, but Ronon pushed the body to the side and it toppled to the floor beside Rodney instead of crushing him.

Shaking all over, Rodney forced himself to sit up.

For once, Ronon looked as freaked out as Rodney himself felt. His teammate was just kneeling there, covered in dirt and blood, panting to catch his breath, staring at Rodney with an expression that seemed to suggest that Ronon couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"You came," Ronon said at last in that deep growling voice of his that used to scare the hell out of Rodney when Ronon had first joined the team.

"Sorry it took so long," Rodney apologized, Ronon's bruises and cuts telling him just how long and hard the fight had been.

"How did we get here?" Ronon asked. "The last thing I remember, we were checking out an Ancient lab. Next thing I know, I'm here on a hiveship fighting for my life."

"This isn't real," Rodney explained. "It's a virtual environment created by the Ancient device in the last room you were exploring. You and the others got trapped. I came to help."

"It's not real?" Ronon asked.

Rodney couldn't blame him for doubting. The hiveship around them was a perfect replica.

"No, it's just a very clever virtual creation."

"Virtual or not . . . ." Ronon's gaze moved to the dead Wraith. "Thank you. I . . . ."

Reading how shaken Ronon still was from the emotion in his usually stoic face, Rodney quickly said, "It's okay."

"You took on a Wraith to help me," Ronon sounded shocked.

"I can't believe I did it myself," Rodney admitted, staring at the monster the pair of them had managed to kill together.

"That was . . . ." Words seemed to fail Ronon for a moment. "You could have been killed."

Supremely self-conscious, Rodney tried to shrug off what he'd done. "I knew you'd save me."

He'd known nothing of the kind, but Ronon didn't have to know that.

"How do we get out of here?" Ronon asked, sinking down to sit beside Rodney and the dead Wraith.

"I'm not sure," Rodney said.

The fact that they were still here in the hiveship instead of back in the Room of Reflection was troubling Rodney. As he'd understood it, the machine was supposed to return them to their bodies as soon as they passed the challenge. Only, maybe they hadn't passed the challenge. Robur had said that the machine was intended to help a person master the fears that were holding them back from Ascension. Killing a Wraith didn't necessarily kill the fear of the Wraith.

"Why would the Ancients build a machine to bring people to a hiveship?" Ronon questioned after a long silence.

"The machine was used as a tool in Ascension. It helped a person confront and conquer their deepest fear," Rodney said.

After a long pause, Ronon gave a self-conscious, "Oh. So, you're saying I . . . ."

"Yeah," Rodney tried to make it sound like it were no big deal. Even in the weird blue light, he could see how Ronon's cheeks were warming with embarrassment beneath the blood and grime on them.

Rodney could sympathize. He knew how he'd be feeling if Ronon were sitting here witnessing the thing he feared most. Of course, in his case, there were so many things he feared that Rodney wasn't sure what the scenario would be. All he knew was that it would be embarrassing for someone to witness it and know that was what he feared most.

A tense silence fell between them. Ronon sat there still breathing heavy from the exertion of his battle, while Rodney was just glad to be breathing.

When some time had passed and the hiveship showed no sign of dematerializing around them, Rodney realized that they were going to have to do something to get themselves out.

"Should we try to steal a dart?" Ronon suggested at the same moment Rodney had opened his mouth to say something on the subject of getting out of the VE.

"And go where? This is a virtual environment," Rodney snapped.

"So how do we get out of it?" Ronon demanded, impatience and exasperation clear in his tone and face.

Rodney sighed. He remembered Robur telling him that he would have to mentor his teammates through whatever they were facing. Apparently, killing the grand-daddy of all Wraith wasn't enough to impress those damn Ancients. To get out of here, Ronon and he were going to have to tackle something even scarier – talking about feelings, or, in this case, fears.

Ronon's main fear was obviously dying at the Wraith's hands, with no one knowing or caring. Considering what the guy had gone through as a Runner, it made perfect sense. Rodney wondered where that left him mentor-wise. How was a mentor supposed to help someone conquer a fear that was based in reality? As much as the other expedition members often behaved as if they believed he could accomplish anything, Rodney knew he wasn't omnipotent. How could he possibly convince Ronon that the Wraith would never get him? There were days Rodney couldn't even convince himself of that fact.

He couldn't promise Ronon that the Wraith would never kill him. No one could make that kind of promise. So, where did that leave them – stuck here in the hivehship for the rest of eternity? What kind of sense was that?

Rodney picked at the problem mentally, taking it apart the way he would a difficult math equation. Okay, the main fear couldn't be conquered. But what about the dependent clauses, the dying alone and no one caring? Maybe those could be helped.

He wished Sheppard were here. Sheppard would know exactly what to say to help Ronon, and Ronon would believe him, the way everyone believed Sheppard. Or Teyla, whose tranquil presence inspired trust and confidence. Both of them would know what to say to make this right. Rodney hadn't a clue. But he was the only one here, so it was up to him to do what he could.

Strangely enough, even though he knew he could extract himself from the scene any time he wanted, leaving Ronon alone wasn't a viable option.

Taking a deep breath, Rodney plunged ahead. He didn't know how to lead up to what he wanted to say, so he just said it with his usual blunt forwardness. "Whatever happens, you won't be alone."

"What?" Ronon said, focusing on him through swollen eyes. The other man seemed to tense up at Rodney's words.

"There's no way anyone can promise that the Wraith won't kill you," Rodney said in a self-conscious rush. "It would be a lie if I even tried to say that. But I can promise you that whatever happens, we'll be right there with you. If the Wraith steal you again, we'll find you just like we did before. And, if we all get taken, which, seriously, is the far more likely scenario, then we'll die with you. But whatever happens, I promise you, you won't be facing it alone."

Feeling completely awkward, because he knew he sucked at this kind of thing, Rodney reached out to lay his hand on the torn tunic covering Ronon's arm.

As soon as he touched Ronon, the hiveship around them wavered. Instead of the frightening blue Wraith light, they found themselves in a chamber filled with a rainbow of color.

"What . . . ?" Ronon gasped beside him.

Ronon was wearing that goofy Santa cap again. Rodney had never been so happy to see one of the stupid things in his life. Ronon's bruises were gone and his clothes were intact.

Rodney nearly collapsed with relief as he realized he'd done it. They were back in the Room of Reflection.

"We did it!" Rodney all but crowed with glee. "We're back in the Ancient outpost!"

Ronon's grin faded as his gaze moved around the room. "What's wrong with Teyla and Sheppard?"

Rodney turned towards their other two teammates, who were still frozen like statues. "They're still trapped in the machine."

"How do we get them out?" Ronon asked.

"The same way I got you out," Rodney answered.

"Oh. What can I do?" Ronon was still looking a little pale from his own ordeal, but he was obviously willing to do whatever he had to to help their friends.

Rodney considered the idea of telling him to go outside and put on one of the protective devices to help the others, but then he realized that it wouldn't be fair to Ronon. The man had just faced down his own demons. He didn't need to face someone else's right away.

"Guard the door?" Rodney suggested, knowing that there was no way Ronon would accept the idea of resting while Teyla and Sheppard were still in danger.

"All right," Ronon agreed. "Will you be okay?"

Rodney wasn't sure. What just happened might have been virtual, but he still felt as if he'd almost been fed upon by a Wraith. All he wanted to do was crawl up in a ball for a while. But Teyla and John were still trapped, and there was no way he could leave them facing the kind of situation he'd just pulled Ronon out of. Somehow, he forced a smile and lied, "I'll be fine."

"Don’t worry about the ghost," Ronon said, withdrawing his pistol and thumbing it to the kill setting. "I'll keep watch."

About to explain Robur, Rodney shut his mouth. It would take too long, and, well, even if Ronon saw Robur, there was very little chance that he'd be able to harm an ascended Ancient. "Thanks."

His face going strangely gentle, Ronon said, "No. Thank you. What you did was very brave."

Rodney snorted. "What I did was very stupid, but you're welcome."

With a nod, Ronon walked to the door to keep guard.

Rodney collected himself as best as he could, and then moved to Teyla, who was closest. He reached out and laid his hand on her arm, and, once again, reality wavered around him. The Room of Reflection winked out of being. In its place stood a primitive village. It was night and the village was in flames.

Rodney instantly recognized the huge white tents as those of the Athosians on the mainland. Most of them were burning or collapsed.

There were Wraith darts whining overhead, and off in the other end of the village, Rodney could hear the shrieks of the dying.

He ducked under a nearby tree so he wouldn't be visible from above.

As he moved in his blind panic, he stumbled over something. Looking down, his gut clenched up tight when he saw the corpse of a man whose height and hair style matched Halling's. His face, though, was decades older. In the flickering, hellish light of the fires consuming the tents, Rodney could see Halling's face all too clearly. The grimace frozen on his prematurely aged features showed that the man had died in agony. His right hand was extended on the ground beside him, as if he'd been reaching for something even as he died.

That something turned out to be another body.

Rodney's throat tightened up when he saw the smaller remains of what had once been an adolescent boy lying on the dirt beside Halling. It could only be Jinto. He, too, had been fed upon by the Wraith.

Rodney was staring down in shock at the corpses when he heard the distinctive sound of the Wraith dematerialization beam. Then six darts flew by overhead. He watched them disappear behind the forest tree line.

There was no more screaming from the other end of the village. The only sound in the sudden silence was the roar of the burning tents and wood and other substances popping and collapsing as they were consumed in the flames.

Scared out of his mind, Rodney started walking through the burning village of corpses, searching for Teyla.

Something seemed to break inside him as he stared down at a tiny form on the ground outside the smoking remains of a collapsed tent. A rag doll lay on the dirt beside the small body. The child was as dead as the others. The kid didn't look older than three. As prematurely aged as the child was, he couldn't even tell if it had been a boy or girl. But, its long blond hair brought Madison to mind.

Rage like he'd rarely known filled him. What kind of monster killed parent and offspring? If they didn't leave the young to develop, how did the Wraith expect to survive? What would they feed on when the humans were gone?

Up until now, he'd feared the Wraith. But this . . . this excess made him hate them. This went beyond mere feeding. This was true evil. He felt a resolve he'd never known before harden inside him. No matter what, they had to destroy the monsters that had done this.

Rodney had never been witness to an actual culling. He'd seen the aftermath, of course, but the Wraith were usually days, weeks, or months gone by the time they got to the world. Sheppard had told him what it had been like when the Athosian village had been attacked the first day they'd been in the Pegasus galaxy, but hearing about a horror and seeing it enacted around you were two different things. Rodney felt numb as he passed corpse after corpse.

Would he find Teyla lying in front of one of those tents? Or had she been taken by one of the darts? Was he going to have to figure out a way to find the hive that had abducted her?

Although, from the number of bodies he was seeing in front of the tents, it didn't look as if these Wraith had culled anyone. Clearly, they'd been too hungry or angry to wait to feed. The entire village seemed to have been fed on by the raiding party. Rodney suspected that the dematerialization beams he'd heard were being used to transport the Wraith ground attack force back onto the ships.

The breath whooshed out of him as he beheld a familiar figure standing at the end of the village. Teyla was silhouetted against the burning tent behind her. Her P-90 hung limp from her hand as she stared at the devastation around her.

"Rodney," she said when he came to a stop beside her.

Made uncomfortable by the tears streaming down her face, Rodney nodded and turned with her to stare out over the remains of her village.

There was nothing but death around them. The air was beginning to smell like a charnel house as the raging flames took some of the corpses.

Rodney stood beside his grief-stricken teammate, not knowing what he could possibly do to guide her through this. Not that Ronon's test had been particularly easy, but there was no Wraith to kill here. He couldn't turn back time or raise the dead. This was a done deal, and there wasn't a god damned thing either Teyla or he could do to undo this horror.

"These were my people," Teyla said, a catch in her voice. "I wasn't here to prevent their deaths. I am their leader. I should have been here with them."

He'd wondered what Teyla's greatest fear would be. She was so damn impressive and intimidating that it was hard to imagine this warrior being afraid of anything. But this, he could understand. It hadn't been easy for Teyla to join their team and put aside her duties as the leader of the Athosians. Clearly, her deepest fear was that her people would perish while she was off safe with the team.

Once again, Rodney hadn't any idea how he could reassure her this wouldn't happen. Teyla had lived a culling away from this reality every day of her life.

Finally, Rodney said, "None of this is real. We were investigating an Ancient outpost and you became trapped in a machine that draws people into a virtual environment. It shows us what we are most afraid of. This isn't real, Teyla."

Her eyes were still swimming in tears as she looked up at him. "It will happen one day. I will be off world and my people will be alone when the Wraith come."

"Do you think you could have prevented this if you'd been here?" Rodney challenged. "Look around. A battalion of marines couldn't have stopped the Wraith. You would just have died, too."

"Maybe, but I would have been with them. They wouldn't have been alone."

"What kind of sense is that?" Rodney asked.

"I am their leader. I am responsible for them," Teyla said.

"I know how you feel," Rodney said softly, "but your being here wouldn't have made a difference."

"If you really knew how I feel, you wouldn't say something like that," Teyla said.

"Do you think I don't feel responsible for people?" Rodney asked. "You've seen how often I have to figure out a problem or the team or even the entire city will die. There isn't a night that goes by that I don't wake up in a cold sweat dreaming that I've failed and everyone died because I couldn't think fast enough on my feet. Believe me, Teyla. I understand about responsibility."

"Forgive me," Teyla softly said. "It's just . . . they died alone. I wasn't there with them."

Struck by the similar motif in both these artificial realities, Rodney thought he saw a way out of this test. He quickly assured, "Your people won't be alone. My people will make sure they're safe if the Wraith come, the same way we always have."

"But your people will not always be here," Teyla said. "When the Ancestors returned, your people went back to their own world and left us behind."

Rodney tried to swallow around a suddenly dry mouth. Leaving the friends they'd made behind had been the hardest part of that incident. It had hurt worse than giving up Atlantis. Rodney didn't fancy himself a sentimental man, but the idea of never seeing Ronon or Teyla again had wrenched the heart right out of his chest. Then when Sheppard and he had been reassigned to areas a thousand miles apart, it had felt like his whole world had ended.

"Look, I can't undo what happened before," Rodney began.

"It will happen again. If the Ancients return or the Wraith overwhelm us, your people will leave – "

"No," Rodney cut in. "It won't happen again. We're not giving up Atlantis a second time."

"You can't promise that. If your generals decide that this effort is costing too many lives, they will demand your return," Teyla said. "I have seen the way your Earth government operates."

"Maybe so, but . . . that doesn't mean we have to leave," Rodney said. "Elizabeth, Carson, Sheppard, and I . . . when we were recalled to Earth in November, we just . . . didn't fit in there anymore. I don't think we can go back to stay, not now."

"What do you mean?" Teyla asked.

"Here, we are all doing something vital together. Earth doesn't really understand how important our presence is here, how much of a difference we can make in this galaxy. When we went back, it was . . . like none of this ever happened or like it was meaningless. They locked me away in a lab where I wasn't doing anything significant. They wasted Sheppard on some minor league away team. They didn't understand that after everything we'd been through, that we couldn't go back to being cogs in the wheel anymore, that we couldn't just forget about the friends and commitments we'd made here."

"What are you saying?" Teyla questioned. "How does this affect my people?"

"I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but if Earth tries to pull us out again, I'm not leaving."

"You would do that?"

Rodney gave a slow nod. "I know I'm only one man, but . . . I'm pretty smart. You've seen how often I've had to think us out of the problems we get into. I can't promise that this will never happen," he gestured at the devastation around them, "but I give you my word that I won't run out on your people again."

"Earth will not let you stay, Rodney," Teyla said softly, but her expression wasn't as bleak. "If you try to stay on Atlantis against orders, they will make you go back."

"They'll try, but Atlantis isn't the only possibility. It's a big galaxy. There are other Ancient outposts we can inhabit if we have to abandon the city. The entire Atlantis staff and all your people could live in the outpost we're exploring now, if it comes to it," Rodney realized, considering the possibility. "It's big enough. I think Sheppard and Elizabeth would stay, too, maybe even Carson."

"You would really disobey orders and remain?" Teyla asked.

"What I do here matters. The people matter. This is not happening, not if I can prevent it," Rodney swore, moving his chin in the direction of the nearest burning tent. "I don't know if that helps any, but – "

"Thank you, Rodney," Teyla said, reaching out to touch his arm. "It means a great deal."

Just as before, the environment around them wavered. The burning tents and Athosian corpses around them winked out of being. Only, they didn't return to the Room of Reflection. Instead, they found themselves standing in a glowing gold place that had neither floors, walls, nor ceilings. The light was like that which Robur had emitted. It was like being in a sun; the golden light was so bright.

A deep voice boomed out of the goldness, "Searcher, you have conquered your last impediment. Congratulations, you may now join those who have moved to a higher plane."

Teyla and he looked at each other.

"What is happening?" Teyla whispered.

This was a possibility Rodney hadn't considered, but, if anyone he knew were a candidate for ascension, it was certainly Teyla.

"The machine we're in is a tool the Ancients used to help them with ascension. I, er, think you passed their test."

Her eyes widened in shock.

The voice continued, "To join those who have gone before you, you need only think about leaving your body behind. The machine will do the rest."

"I don't have to go, do I?" Teyla whispered again, her face lined with tension.

"I . . . I don't know. I wouldn't think so, but . . . ." How would he stop the machine from taking Teyla if it wanted to? He had no control over anything in these virtual environments.

"Thank you for the offer, but I will not leave my people," Teyla said, looking around at the golden light they were in.

"It is a great honor to be found worthy to advance to the next level of being," the non-corporeal voice said.

"Then I am honored," Teyla replied, continuing in a voice like iron, "But I am not going."

"You are the first searcher to refuse advancement. Why would you refuse if you were found worthy?" the voice questioned.

Teyla was quiet for a moment before answering with her usual forthright honesty. "Because I do not find those ascended beings I have met worthy of imitation. I honor the memory of the Ancestors. They fought a great war to rid our galaxy of the Wraith and many of them lost their lives in the defense of others. But these ascended beings, they think only of themselves. They leave millions of people to die at the hands of the Wraith when they are fully capable of stopping the cullings. I will not join such selfish company. Please return us to our bodies now. We wish to leave this place."

The contempt in her voice was as fierce as the light around them.

Rodney stared at her in absolute astonishment. She'd basically told the machine to stuff the thing most sacred to the Ancients. He didn't know if he'd have had the strength of character to turn down ascension if it had been offered to him, but, then, it would never have been offered to someone like him.

As the golden light flickered around them and the by now familiar, shifting chiaroscuro of the Room of Reflection reformed around them, Rodney was in awe of her.

They both emitted a shocked gasp as they returned to themselves.

"You . . . you just turned down ascension," Rodney stuttered, still unable to believe what he'd just witnessed.

"Yes," Teyla nodded. "Please do not look at me like that. Would you want to be with beings that would ask you to abandon your friends and people to the Wraith?"

"No, but . . . you just turned down ascension." He didn't seem to be able to get past that point.

"I would ask you not to speak of this to anyone," Teyla said, seeming worried.

She'd had the chance to become a being that could blast the Wraith out of the sky with a thought, and she was worried about something he might say or do? "Why?"

Rodney knew himself well enough to know that if he'd refused ascension on moral ground like Teyla just had, he'd be bragging about it to anyone who would listen.

"I already have trouble feeling a part of your people. If this were to be known . . . ." Teyla's worry was almost palpable.

Understanding at last, Rodney gave a quick nod. "Okay. I won't tell anyone. Does that include Sheppard and Ronon?"

Teyla nodded. "There is no need for anyone to know, is there?"

"No. I guess not." Seeing that the concern still hadn't left her features, he added, "Don't worry. I can keep a secret. You didn't tell anyone when you saw me coming out of Dr. Heightmeyer's office. I won't tell anyone about this."

"Thank you, Rodney, for everything," she said. Stepping close to him, she raised her forehead towards him in the familiar Athosian gesture that he'd witnessed dozens of times, but had never experienced firsthand. Feeling as honored as if ascension had been offered to him, he pressed his forehead to hers. Finally, she stepped back and asked, "What of Colonel Sheppard?"

They both looked to where their team leader stood imitating still life. Sheppard was so motionless; it barely looked as if he were breathing. He certainly wasn't blinking.

"He's next," Rodney said, forcing confidence into his tone as he went on, "I'm on a roll here. Two down, one to go."

"May I help?" Teyla asked.

Wanting nothing more than to just turn the whole problem over to someone else, Rodney reluctantly gave a negative shake of his head. It would be no fairer to dump this on Teyla's shoulders after what she'd just been through than it would have been to ask Ronon to handle the problem. "Maybe you could let Ronon know that we're almost ready to leave? He's guarding the door. I know he's got to be worried."

"What you're doing here is very brave," Teyla said.

"Well, I'm the one who got you all into this mess. You'd still be at the party if I hadn't dragged you all off on this mission," he said with unusual modesty. Normally, he would have preened at receiving a compliment like that from so beautiful a woman, but he didn't feel brave and he wasn't going to lie to her, not after what they'd just been through together.

"I am very proud of you," Teyla said, her eyes glowing so bright it made him wonder if maybe the ascension thing had happened, after all. "Go help John, and then we will leave this place behind us."

He watched her walk towards the door. With the Ancient machine casting its disco ball rainbow throughout the room, it was hard to say, but Rodney really thought she had a golden glow around her as she left the Room of Reflection.

Like he'd said; two down, one to go. After his last two experiences, he thought he should be feeling more confident about his ability to face these trials. For all his handicaps when it came to social interaction, he'd somehow managed to pull it together enough to help Ronon and Teyla. Both of those scenarios had been downright terrifying, but they'd gotten through them.

The only thing was; he wasn't sure he was ready to face the deepest fear of a man who had the courage to fly a nuclear bomb into a hiveship to protect his people. John Sheppard had repeatedly faced certain, horrible death for their sakes. Christ, Rodney had watched Sheppard have the life sucked out of him in stages when Kolya had turned that Wraith loose on him, and John hadn't begged them for help once during the entire agonizing process. What would a man like that fear most?

Well, there was only one way to answer that question.

Taking a deep breath, Rodney crossed the few feet to where Sheppard stood like one of Madame Tussaud's more handsome creations and laid his hand on Sheppard's arm. Rodney held his breath, expecting something worse than a hiveship or culled village. He knew John had been in battle, knew he had some kind of dark past concerning it. God knew what he'd seen.

The image that formed around him was shocking only in its benign normality. Instead of some Dantesque version of hell, Rodney found himself standing in Atlantis' mess hall. In fact, he was standing, well, sitting, there twice, for there at a table with Teyla, Ronon, Elizabeth, and Carson, he could see himself.

Rodney stared around the place, confused. There were no Wraith sucking the lives out of the crew. All the tables were filled with laughing, happy-looking Atlantis staff. The air wasn't being sucked out of the room. The city wasn't sinking or under attack. Everything looked perfectly normal. The Christmas tree and other decorations were still up. In fact, the place looked better than normal, because too many times the Atlantis crew found themselves waiting to die. But this obviously wasn't one of those days.

As Rodney watched, the mess hall doors opened and John Sheppard walked in. Rodney looked closely at him, making sure he wasn't dying of cancer or some other horrible disease, that being the only thing he could think would fit this harmless scenario into the Ancient test category. But Sheppard looked perfectly healthy, if a little tense.

Rodney immediately understood the tension, for, as soon as Sheppard entered the room, all conversation stopped at once. Rodney watched as the dozens of people assembled in the room glared at Sheppard.

What the hell?

John's back seemed to straighten, and he walked to collect his food from the line up front. The cooks seemed to plop the food onto Sheppard's plate with obvious contempt, looking like they were holding themselves back from spitting in the food or on Sheppard.

Rodney cringed for John. He didn't know what was going on here, but he hated the scenario already.

Sheppard ignored the looks. His plate finally full, he turned to find a seat. Rodney watched him pause, as if considering, before walking towards the table where his team, Elizabeth, and Carson sat.

Every one of their faces hardened with disgust and hate as John stopped before them.

"Look, this is my last day here," Sheppard said. "Can't we have one last meal together for old time's sake?"

"We don't eat with the likes of you," Carson said, his normally endearing brogue making the words seem all the harsher. "Bugger off."

"Yeah, get out of here," Rodney heard the version of himself at the table sneer.

"Please leave. You are ruining our meal," Teyla's sweet voice said.

John's face turned beet red, but instead of giving them what for, he turned and walked stiffly away, heading towards the part of the mess hall where there were the most empty tables.

As Sheppard walked away, Rodney heard Ronon's voice clearly say, "Fucking faggot."

He'd never heard Ronon use either of those words before. And . . . why would he be using that last word in reference to Sheppard?

"Oh, my god," Rodney whispered as the only possible answer presented itself. He watched as John took a seat at an empty table on the far end of the hall. He could hear Sheppard's name being mentioned in many of the conversations that started up.

Suddenly, Sheppard's refusal to talk about his past or himself made perfect sense. John wasn't trying to be mysterious and cool as Rodney had often suspected. He was trying to cover a secret that could cost him his job.

Sheppard was gay? Rodney couldn't believe it. But why else would this be here as Sheppard's worst fear?

Of course, it might be a metaphor, Rodney thought. John's mind could have presented this as an example of ostracism, rather than a real cause for it. Rodney had seen how uptight most military men were about homosexuality. The most insulting curse you could use against that kind of man was to question his sexuality by calling him gay. Only, John Sheppard had never struck him as that kind of bigot.

Knowing that there was only one way to find his answers, Rodney approached Sheppard's table. For some reason, this was harder than working up the nerve to tackle the Wraith that had been about to kill Ronon.

When he realized that someone was coming towards him, Sheppard's gaze moved from his food to Rodney. There was no welcome at all in those changeable hazel eyes. In fact, John's expression hardened to titanium as Rodney asked, "May I join you?"

"What, wasn't it enough that you outted me to the entire base?" Sheppard hissed, pure hate in his eyes.

"W-what?" Rodney stammered, feeling like he'd just stepped into a Twilight Zone episode, which, in a way, he had.

Hurt replaced the hate in John's eyes, and, somehow, that was even worse. "I told you I was sorry I kissed you. I didn't mean to. It just happened. I swore it would never happen again. Did you have to ruin me for one moment of weakness?"

Rodney felt the blood drain from his face. Sheppard had kissed him?

His head spinning, he hardly knew what to say. He could feel people's gazes on him. He waited for someone to remark upon the duplicate McKay in the room, but no one seemed to notice that he was standing here beside Sheppard at the same time another him was laughing across the room at something Carson said.

Taking a deep breath, Rodney asked, "Can I please sit down? We need to talk."

"What's there to talk about?" Sheppard challenged. "I'll be gone as soon as the Daedalus gets here. There isn't much more you can do to me. You could shoot me, of course, but that would sort of ruin the whole dishonorable discharge thing, don't you think?"

The breath caught in his chest as he noticed that John's rank was missing from his jacket. Just the empty Velcro remained where the insignia would normally show when they were on base like this. Had they stripped him of his rank? And something he had done had caused this to happen to Sheppard?

Thinking that he might actually vomit if this went on any longer, Rodney practically begged, "Please, can I just talk to you for one minute? It's important. Please?"

"Guess it must be if you're willing to associate with me," Sheppard said. His face becoming guarded, he said, "Suit yourself."

Rodney sank into the chair mere seconds before his legs turned to rubber. He could feel his heart pounding against his ribs as his mind circled back again and again to the idea that John Sheppard had kissed him in this alternate reality.

Realizing that that really wasn't the pertinent issue here, Rodney did what he could to push the thought from his mind. What he had to focus on here was helping John through this test. The fact that his pulse was racing like he'd just gotten a love letter from Sam Carter was irrelevant.

"So what's so important?" Sheppard asked, watching him as if he expected him to stand up and scream "Rape!" at any moment.

"This isn't real," Rodney said. "Don’t you remember? We were investigating that Ancient outpost with all the exploded ZedPMs – "

"And then I kissed you when we were watching those stupid Christmas vids in my room afterward. I remember. How could I forget?" John said, his expression seeming to suggest that he'd been kicking himself over the incident ever since.

"Look, could we just forget about the kissing part for the moment?" Rodney pleaded as his entire being rocked under the sheerest, sensual rush as he pictured that mouth covering his own.

"You couldn't forget about it when I asked you to," John said, sounding like a truculent child.

"You never asked me to. None of this is real. We're stuck in a chamber in that Ancient outpost. This is a virtual environment, sort of like what happened to us with the fog people on M5S-224. That seemed real at the time, too, remember?" Rodney said.

"What are you playing at, McKay?"

Rodney sucked in some air and tried to think about something other than the fact that it was apparently kissing him that had gotten Sheppard into this mess. His gaze focusing on the other him at the table on their left, Rodney said, "Take a look over at where the others are sitting. I'm there with them. How could I be in two places at once if this were real?"

Sheppard's suspicious gaze turned to look towards his left. Even in a VE, Sheppard had no sense of direction. He quickly looked in the other direction and his jaw dropped as he took in the second McKay in the room.

Pouncing on the reaction, Rodney said, "This isn't real. The machine in the outpost picks up a person's deepest fear and presents it to them as some kind of challenge to attain ascendance. None of this is happening."

"If it's not real, then what are you doing here?" Sheppard asked. He sounded confused rather than suspicious.

"You're trapped in the machine. I've come to get you out," Rodney explained.

"It's . . . it's really not real?" Sheppard asked, sounding strangely vulnerable. "I'm not going to be court-martialed?"

Rodney shook his head no.

"I never kissed you?" Sheppard seemed totally confused now.

Wishing that John would quit mentioning that, Rodney gave another negative shake of his head. Forcing himself to answer, Rodney spoke around a throat thick with emotion. "And even if you had kissed me, nothing like this would be happening. I would never do anything to cause you . . . this kind of pain." He couldn't help it; he had to ask, "Do you really think that poorly of me? I know I'm hard to get along with, but . . . we've managed okay so far, haven't we? Do you really think I could do something this reprehensible to someone who's saved my life more times than I can count?"

"I couldn't believe it when it was happening, but it happened," Sheppard said in an equally stressed sounding tone.

"No, it didn't. It would never happen, not this way. Think about it. You know the Athosians don't have our sexual hang-ups. Would Teyla turn her back on a friend because he kissed someone narrow-minded people consider inappropriate? Teyla and Ronon would die for you. They would never behave this way. And Elizabeth . . . she's the most open-minded person I've ever met. She would never judge you this way. And Carson would never, ever say something like he just said. You've got to know this isn't real."

"I want to believe you. It's just . . . ."

"Just what?" Rodney prompted. "How could you think that the people who care so deeply about you would turn their backs on you this way?"

"It's happened before," Sheppard muttered.

To Rodney's confusion, the mess hall shifted around them, but they didn't return to the Room of Reflection. As much as Rodney longed to be out of this scenario, he knew it was far from over.

Almost frightened of what he might see, he watched as their surroundings solidified around them. They were in a bedroom. There was an LP album cover with Johnny Cash silhouetted in blue standing on the dresser. A Star Trek poster jockeyed for space with a Dallas Cowboy poster on the nearest wall. The other walls were all plastered with pictures and posters of jets and other aircraft.

Rodney took it all in in a single glance, because the minute he looked at the bed, his gaze was frozen by the action there. Embarrassment and a voyeuristic excitement vying for dominance, he stared at the two young men making out on the narrow twin bed. One of them was John Sheppard. He looked like he was about fifteen. Even back then he'd had bed hair; only, in this instance it made sense his hair would look like that since the other young man was messing it up so much. The other boy was blond and as handsome as John, but in a beefier way. They were going at it hot and heavy. There were a pair of tee shirts on the floor near the bed, and it looked like John's companion had just eased John's pants off his hips.

Rodney really didn't want to watch this, but he couldn't seem to force himself to look away.

All three of them jumped as the door banged open. A tall, dark haired man in an Army general's uniform with a face shaped like John's, but much harder looking, stormed in and grabbed hold of John and flung him across the room, as easily as that Wraith had tossed Ronon.

"Get out of here," the man, who could only be John's father, hissed at the half-naked blond boy. "If I ever see you again, I'll put a bullet in your faggot ass." The elder Sheppard turned to his son as the other boy scurried out of the room. "Get dressed and be in my office in three minutes."

The scene changed, and Rodney saw the young John standing before his white-lipped father's desk in a room that was obviously the senior Sheppard's home office. There was a picture of the hard faced man with a lovely, green eyed brunette and three young dark-haired boys on the bookshelf beside where John was standing.

"You are no longer my son," Sheppard's father said, the contempt in his eyes as he looked at John making even Rodney, who was nothing but an observer, physically ill. "Because it would cause too many questions to do otherwise, you may continue to live in this house. But if you ever disgrace your mother and me like you did this afternoon with your unnatural fornication, I will bury you. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," John said in a low voice, his eyes on the floor.

Rodney had never wanted to hurt anyone the way he wanted to hurt this man who was being so cruel to a hormonal kid.

The surroundings shifted again. Rodney experienced a montage of scenes, mostly around the dinner table. There was the pretty woman who had John's eyes from the photo; she had to be his mother and two older boys who looked more like the pretty mother than the mean father. In every scene that flashed by, not a one of the four other people in the room spoke to John or even indicated he was there, although the older boys seemed to make comments every now and then that made John's eyes flash and his jaw harden with anger. It was clear that John had spent the remainder of his teenage years as persona non grata in his own family.

When the montage finally stopped, Rodney found himself back in the spurious Atlantis mess hall. After what he'd seen, he was almost glad to be back there.

John was staring down at the cold food on his plate, looking like he would never raise his eyes up again.

He knew Sheppard hadn't wanted him to see any of that, that it was all part of his deepest fear coming to life. For a man as private as John, what had just happened had to be worse than being fed on by a Wraith.

Rodney wished Teyla was here. She'd know exactly what to say to comfort John. He was completely out of his depth here. He felt as mortified as John obviously was.

But he was the only one here to help, and he had to say something. Finally, Rodney settled on, "Okay, it happened before. I don't know how people that stupid and ignorant could produce a son as brave and honorable as you are, but they somehow managed it. I'm sorry they did that to you. It was wrong and evil and cruel, but it is never going to happen again."

Sheppard's gaze had jumped to his face when he'd said the 'brave and honorable' part, like he thought Rodney was mocking him, but his expression slowly changed to shocked belief as Rodney continued speaking.

"I don't know what I can say to make you believe that we'd never do that to you," Rodney said. "All I can say is that you have our respect and that there isn't a one of your friends who wouldn't follow you to their deaths."

Sheppard seemed to be battling some strong emotion. When he spoke, he sounded confused, "Did you miss the part where I said I kissed you?"

"How could I miss it when you keep bringing it up?" Rodney tried to joke, though under his false braggadocio, he felt scared to death. He had no idea what John might say or ask of him next.

His attitude seemed to relax John. Still seeming confused, Sheppard remarked, "Most straight men would freak out over that. It would be a normal reaction."

"Since when do you consider me normal?" Rodney bluffed. He had no idea how to handle this. He didn't even know how he really felt about the idea. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer, but he wasn't sure what it meant. All he knew was he couldn't screw this up. "Of course you'd want to kiss me. A man as handsome and intelligent as me – who wouldn't want to? It just confirms your intelligence."

It took every ounce of courage Rodney had to pull that off.

If things had been normal between them, Sheppard would have made some crack about everyone in the universe not wanting to kiss him or some put down of the sort, but, instead, he just looked at Rodney and gave a slightly hysterical sounding chuckle.

Needing the release, Rodney joined in.

"You're something else, McKay," Sheppard said. It sort of sounded like a compliment.

"So are you," Rodney replied.

When the laughter died, they were left staring at each other.

"You're really okay with all this?" Sheppard asked at last.

"We're okay. Nothing like this will ever happen," Rodney gestured at the horrible reality around them, "I promise."

"What would happen if I kissed you back home?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney gulped. It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room and the heaters had been turned up full blast. Holding it together, because no way was he going to ruin it now, he gave a cranky, "How should I know? What do I look like? Answer Man?"

"Actually, yes, you do," Sheppard said as the mess hall started to waver around them.

The next thing Rodney knew, they were standing in the Room of Reflection with those freaky lights playing over them. Unlike his other two teammates, the lights seemed to agree with Sheppard, enhancing his good looks.

"Oh, thank God," Rodney breathed a relieved sigh as he realized their ordeal was finally over.

Sheppard's oddly inflected voice said, "No, thank you. What you did in there, what you said was . . . ."

"The truth," Rodney finished when words seemed to fail John. "Nothing but the truth."

Looking uncomfortable, Sheppard hesitantly asked, "You won't . . . ?"

Knowing what Sheppard couldn't bring himself to ask, Rodney offered, "Hard as it is to believe, I can keep a secret. I won't breathe a word to anyone."

Sheppard nodded, his expression seeming to tell Rodney that he'd wait to believe that. Considering what he'd seen of John's past, Rodney couldn't blame him.

After a minute of uncomfortable staring at each other, Sheppard asked, "Are you ready to clear out of here?"

"Yeah. I have to get my laptop out of the computer room."

The instant the Room of Reflection's doors parted, Ronon's happy voice greeted, "Sheppard," Teyla's echoing the sentiment with, "It's good to see you back, John."

As the others fussed over Sheppard, Rodney moved down the hall to where he'd abandoned his laptop, his team trailing slowly behind him.

The others must have paused outside the computer room's doors, for they didn't close behind Rodney.

Rodney heard Ronon saying, "I was trapped on a hiveship. That Wraith Dr. Beckett killed was about to feed on me when McKay attacked it unarmed. I didn't think he had it in him."

"I think McKay surprises even himself at times," Sheppard said, the fondness in his tone audible even where Rodney was in the other room.

His gear finally packed up, Rodney rejoined his team. The light in Ronon and Teyla's eyes when they looked at him made him feel really good about himself. John seemed nervous around him, although he was covering it well. Rodney couldn't really blame him.

They made their way back to where they had left their arctic survival suits by the main entrance. Rodney kept looking around as they donned the snow gear, hoping to catch sight of Robur lurking in the shadows, but the Ancient was nowhere to be seen.

Ronon took point with the tether rope once more, Teyla tying herself in next. Once again, Sheppard stepped forward when it came Rodney's turn to tie himself in line.

Rodney swore he could feel John's body heat as he stepped close to tie the rope around his waist. As he met those guarded hazel eyes, the breath seemed to whoosh out of his body and he felt a flush heat his skin – all over.

John had kissed him in that other reality, which meant that John probably wanted to kiss him in this one. It wasn't something he'd ever honestly even considered, and just thinking about it now made his skin heat up even more.

The knot finally tied, John stepped back to tie the lead rope around his own waist and Rodney was able to breathe again.

Rodney studied John's face, trying to figure out what he was thinking and feeling, but John was as unreadable as ever. Then they stepped out into that freezing wasteland and all Rodney could concentrate on was keeping warm.

Like before, he followed Ronon and Teyla on blind faith. If John had been up front, they would have been lost forever in the blowing snow, but Ronon led them back to the jumper in record time.

They were paused behind it, with Sheppard pointing the remote at the hatch, when Rodney noticed a familiar, fairytale figure standing under the nearest tree.

Robur smiled when their gazes met.

Once again, none of the others acted as if they could see the green-robed giant standing five feet from them.

"Perhaps you and your friend will guide each other to a higher plane," Robur said, his deep voice carrying over the wind without need of shouting, a completely mischievous and very un-Ancienty twinkle in his eyes.

Somehow Rodney didn't think Robur was talking about ascension. Grinning, because he wasn't going crazy and because this oh-so-intimidating Ancient seemed to approve of whatever was happening between Sheppard and him, Rodney called back, "Maybe we will!"

"Maybe we will what?" Sheppard, who was standing closest to him, shouted.

Trying to see past John's protective visor, Rodney answered as the hatch finally opened and they clumped up the jumper's ramp in their snow shoes, "I guess time will give us the answer to that one."

The conversation died as the hatch closed behind them and they all hurried to remove their arctic gear. The ride back to the stargate was understandably subdued.

"It's good to hear your voice, Colonel," Elizabeth's relieved sounding voice said over the communication module once they'd opened the gate and sent through their IDC.

"It's good to be heard," John answered.

"What did you find?" she asked.

Rodney could almost hear everyone in the Atlantis control room holding their breath for the answer they wanted to hear.

Sheppard sounded almost reluctant as he reported, "Dead ZPMs, dead Ancients, and sad memories."

"I'm sorry to hear that. How's Dr. McKay handling it?" Elizabeth asked.

"I'm right here," Rodney couldn't help but grouse, making everyone in the jumper smile.

"Like a trooper," Sheppard surprised him by saying. "See you in a minute."

The jumper launched into the event horizon, that disconcerting instant of non-being occurred, and then Jumper Three was clearing the gate in Atlantis' control room.

Rodney caught sight of a smiling Elizabeth, still in her Christmas sweater, waving to them as Sheppard guided the jumper up into the jumper bay.

When the jumper landed, a strange silence filled the craft. Normally, everyone would be up the second the ship came to a stop and getting their gear ready to disembark, but no one moved from their seats.

"What are we going to say about the machine in our reports?" Sheppard asked the question that all three of Rodney's teammates were obviously troubled by.

Reading the worry in all their faces, Rodney couldn't blame them. If he'd been trapped in one of those trials, he wouldn't want his deepest fear detailed for posterity in a mission report.

Recognizing that the question was being directed at him, Rodney suggested, "Why don't we tell the truth? That the machine held you three captive in a hypnotic trance and I had to save the day with my stunning and unsurpassed knowledge of Ancient technology."

Teyla and Ronon gave instant grins, Sheppard offering a slower smile and a grateful sounding, "Sounds like a plan."

"It is, after all, the truth," Teyla said.

Feeling connected to these three people as he had no others in his life, Rodney followed them down into the jumper bay.

When they finished giving Elizabeth a quick, abridged pre-debriefing report on the highlights of the trip, Sheppard asked Rodney as the team stepped out of her office, "You didn't think it was worth mentioning the Ascended Ancient you met?"

"Hey," Rodney answered, "I had other things on my mind." Turning his gaze to include all three of his teammates, he asked, "Are we still on for that turkey dinner?"

Unsurprisingly, Sheppard seemed reluctant. "I'm, um, not really hungry anymore."

"I, too, have much to consider," Teyla said.

Disappointed, but trying to hide it, Rodney looked to Ronon.

"I'm starving," Ronon said, smiling.

Relieved to have someone acting normal, Rodney nodded. "Great. Let's hit the mess hall."

As Ronon and he entered Atlantis' mess hall, where the Christmas party was finally beginning to die down, Rodney was abruptly reminded of the trial John had faced in the Room of Reflection. Considering that the bulk of that terrible scene had played out here, it was little wonder that John hadn't wanted to join them. As he made small talk with Ronon, Rodney thought about all that had occurred in that Ancient outpost.

"I like this turkey," Ronon said with unusual animation. Now that Rodney thought about it, he realized that the taciturn Ronon had been carrying the bulk of the conversation. Though he could never be said to be loquacious, for Ronon, this conversation had been almost chattering. Abruptly, Rodney realized how uncomfortable this strong man must be knowing that he had seen his deepest fear – how uncomfortable all his teammates must be with him now.

Sensing Ronon's nervousness, Rodney gave an inane, "It is very good," and tried to act normal. "Did you know that there are two kinds of turkeys on Earth. These are domestic turkeys. They aren't very intelligent. In fact, they'll drown if they're left out in the rain. But the wild turkey is highly intelligent . . . ."

By the time Rodney finished his dissertation on turkeys, he was relieved to see that Ronon seemed relaxed with him again.

As he walked back to his quarters once Ronon and he parted, Rodney wondered if there were some way he could reassure all three of his teammates that their secrets were safe with him, without breaking his word and revealing said secrets. Maybe he was still stuck in mentor mode, but he really wanted to make things better for his friends. He certainly didn't want his entire team to feel self-conscious around him because of what he'd seen.

Basically, all three of them feared the same thing – being alone. Ronon feared dying alone. Teyla feared being the lone survivor of her people. John feared being alone and ostracized.

More than anything, Rodney wished he could take those fears away. He knew he'd helped them confront their fears in the trials they'd faced, but that didn't erase them. If he could give his team something, he'd give them peace of mind.

But he didn't know how to do that. What did he know about feelings?

Hell, he was so out of touch with his own emotions that John's wanting to kiss him felt like it had turned their entire relationship into a landmine. Rodney recognized that he was going to have to deal with that on top of everything else.

Maybe that was his own deepest fear, he realized. He was so damn neurotic that it would be difficult to pinpoint just one fear among the thousands that tortured him, but the idea of having sex with someone he respected and had to work with scared him spitless. And it wasn't simply the fact that John was another guy and he'd never gone that route before that had him so nervous; although, that was a radical difference. No, what was scaring the hell out of him was the fact that each and every time he'd ever screwed up the courage to try to have something with another human being, it had turned into an utter disaster. He knew his track record.

More than that, he'd seen the kind of women Sheppard was attracted to. He couldn't believe that John's taste in men would be so different, that John would really want him. But what else could that whole kissing him motif have been about if not John wanting him?

Recognizing that he was never going to be able to figure out that last question without actually discussing the situation with John, Rodney thrust that part of the equation out of his mind. First, he'd deal with the fear issue, and then he'd handle the landmine. As if anyone could ever really handle a landmine.

Rodney stared at the door to his room. He knew if he went in there in this state of mind, he'd be up all night.

Trying really hard not to panic, he turned from his quarters. He needed to talk to someone who understood feelings.

Teyla came immediately to mind, but since she was involved in this problem, he couldn't really expect her to solve it. There was always Dr. Heightmeyer, but she looked at everything professionally. He didn't want to turn this into some group therapy session. No, what he needed was someone discrete, someone who could keep a secret.

The answer came to him as he was passing Elizabeth's door. He'd never had any sense of time or decorum, so he immediately pressed the buzzer, even though he knew she was probably in bed by now. Jumper Three had been late getting back and Elizabeth's day started hours before dawn.

Elizabeth answered the door in her pajamas with a charmingly sleepy expression on her face. "Rodney? Are you all right?"

"I, er, I wondered if I could talk to you a minute, about something personal?" he asked. It was only after he'd finished speaking that he realized that a woman as lovely as Elizabeth might take his words as a come-on.

But she didn't seem the least bit wary as she said, "Of course. Come in."

Even before they'd reestablished contact with Earth and been able to decorate however they pleased, Elizabeth's quarters had always felt warm and personal. Since they'd gotten back in contact, Elizabeth's place felt almost like he'd stepped into her apartment back on Earth.

"What's wrong, Rodney?"

He tried to figure out how to express what was bothering him. He couldn't mention any one else's fears. He'd have to do it by proxy. "Um, when you were feeling alone, was there ever anything that made you feel better? Something someone said or did?"

Her hand reached towards her throat, where a shining silver pendant had lain for as long as he'd known her. She wore that necklace all the time, Rodney knew. "When I was a teenager, we moved to a new town. I had a lot of trouble adjusting. I was lonely all the time. My father gave me this." She lifted the necklace so that he could see it better. "He said that any time I was feeling lonely, I need only touch it to know that his love was with me. It's helped a lot through the years." After a pause, she asked, "Are you feeling alone, Rodney?"

Inspiration struck like one of the Ancient drones, blasting him right onto another plane.

His mind was so caught in the idea behind the necklace that it took him a moment to realize what she'd asked. "Er, a little, I guess. I just needed to talk to someone for a moment. This has helped enormously. Thanks so much, Elizabeth."

"But I didn't do anything," she protested. "Are you leaving so soon?"

"I'm sorry I bothered you. Thank you for listening," he said, feeling like he was blithering, but burning with the need to get to work on his idea.

"But you didn't say anything," Elizabeth said as Rodney hurried towards the door.

"Thanks again, Elizabeth. Merry Christmas!" he belatedly offered.

"Merry Christmas to you, too," she said, sounding confused.

Consumed with excitement, he hurried towards his lab. Elizabeth's father had been a genius, Rodney thought.

This was going to work. It was almost like all the forces in the universe were coming together to help him out. The fact that tomorrow was Christmas fit right in with his plan.

He always felt bad when his friends gave him gifts even though they knew he didn't do Christmas. Normally, he would never go back on his principles and endorse the mass commercialism by buying gifts, but if he could give his team something that would let them know that they were never alone, then he was all for giving gifts. The whole Christmas tradition would make it easier to give what he had in mind to his team without getting them caught in some horribly, soapy scene.

He knew he couldn't give his team a necklace like Elizabeth's. Well, maybe he could get by giving it to Teyla, but just picturing Ronon and Sheppard's faces as he handed them the dainty object and told them to touch it to keep from feeling lonely was enough to send him into paroxysms of laughter. But maybe he could give his macho teammates something discrete that would convey the same message without his having to say all those embarrassing, sentimental things out loud.

A necklace wouldn't do, of course, but maybe dogtags would. Soldiers wore them. You didn't get more macho than that.

He knew he could get the metal chains for the tags down in supplies. And the tags themselves wouldn't be a big problem. He had thousands of broken Ancient crystal chips that would make very attractive dogtags. But what to engrave on them?

Racking his mind for a safe, uncorny message that could be read in public without embarrassing anyone, Rodney set about creating his Christmas present for his team.

*~*~*

John Sheppard rolled over as the radio on his nightstand beeped and Rodney McKay's unmistakable voice blared through the silent room, "Hey, are you awake yet?"

He'd been awake the entire night. How Rodney could think he'd sleep after that damn machine had ruined his life was a mystery.

Rubbing a hand over his grainy eyelids, John picked up the headset and activated the unit. "Yeah, I'm up."

"Good," McKay answered, sounding almost maniacally cheerful. "Er, Merry Christmas."

That was so un-McKay that it took John a moment to respond, "Yeah, you, too."

Finally, something like self-consciousness entered McKay's voice. "I was just calling to check that we're still on for later."

Grasping the idea of cancelling like a lifeline, John answered, "Um, about that, I was just about to call and – "

"Don't cancel it. Please?" Rodney asked.

"I just need some time to . . . ." To what? Hole himself up in here for the rest of his life? Because, no matter how long he had to process what had happened yesterday, there was no way he was ever going to feel comfortable facing McKay again.

"Look, I know what happened to you yesterday was hard on you. But . . . what happened to Teyla and Ronon was hard, too. They're not bailing. We need to do this," Rodney argued.

That Rodney McKay would be arguing for a team building day made John wonder if he weren't in some alternate reality. But as much as he'd like to encourage McKay with this unusual display of concern for the team, he simply wasn't up to facing him yet. "I'm sorry. I can't . . . not yet."

"We're going to have to deal with it some time," Rodney said in the serious voice John recognized from the dozens of times McKay had presented some doomsday discovery to Elizabeth. "The longer we put it off; the harder it's going to be."

"What is with you?" John demanded. "I know you're not this sophisticated. I know you have to be as freaked out as I am."

A long silence followed before Rodney answered, "I'm . . . not freaking, okay? I don't want you to be freaking, either. What happened . . . look, we can't talk about this over an open channel. That machine put us all through hell yesterday. Can we just do the Christmas thing and talk about the other stuff after Teyla and Ronon leave? If we make this into some big crisis, it could tear us all apart. We need popcorn and beer and TV to make things normal. So . . . are we still on?"

John could hear the fear in Rodney's tone as he voiced that last question. He abruptly realized that this had to be just as bad for Rodney. McKay hadn't asked to be a spectator to the things he'd seen yesterday. McKay had learned things about all of his teammates that they'd rather him not know, and he was doing his damnedest to repair the damage that forced intimacy had caused. That it mattered enough to McKay, who wasn't known for his people skills, to push like this to get things back to normal touched John.

He knew if any of the things he'd feared were going to happen, that it would have been Rodney trying to put the distance between them. But, for some reason, McKay wasn't running. Hard as it was, John's pride wouldn't let him run when McKay had somehow found the courage to stand firm. Finding his voice, he gave a rough, "Yeah, we're still on."

"That's . . . thanks. That's great. I'll see you in an hour," Rodney said and closed the line.

John stared at the headset in his hand for a long moment before hauling himself out of the bed to shower and clean up.

An hour later, the buzzer sounded. All three of his teammates were standing outside the door when John opened it. He couldn't help but wonder if both Teyla and Ronon had received a similar pep talk from Rodney this morning.

Teyla was in her usual provocative, brown, Athosian bodice with a pair of tight black pants and loose, tan flowing vest. Ronon's buckskin tunic complimented Teyla's outfit perfectly.

John tried really hard not to stare, but Rodney was wearing blue jeans. He didn't think he'd ever seen Rodney in jeans before. They weren't tight or anything, but they gripped and accented his ass in a way that uniform pants never did. He had a black turtleneck on under a short sleeved, button-down green and white patterned shirt. Wearing the two shirts together was hardly fashionable in any decade, but somehow the style suited McKay.

"Good afternoon, John," Teyla greeted, Ronon's gruff "Sheppard," and McKay's "Colonel," sounding together.

"Hi. Come on in," John instructed.

He'd pulled the two computer chairs over by his bed and hooked his DVD into the interface Rodney had made to show Earth vids on the Ancient projection screens.

"Popcorn!" Rodney announced, homing in on one of the four big bowls and attacking it as if he hadn't eaten in days. John couldn't help but notice that McKay looked exhausted as well. In fact, they all did.

Rodney was right. They all needed some normalcy.

John tried not to feel relieved when Rodney sat down in one of the chairs at the end of the bed, instead of climbing in for one on the bed. In the nightmare that Ancient machine had put him through yesterday, Rodney had sat beside him on the bed, which was how all the trouble had started.

Ronon took the other side chair and commandeered another popcorn bowl, while Teyla and John exchanged a smile at Ronon and Rodney's very similar priorities.

"Thanks for coming, guys," John said, taking a seat beside Teyla on his bed.

"I am most eager to learn of this holiday," Teyla said.

"Oh, that reminds me," Rodney said. Standing up, he dug into the pocket of his jeans while John did his best to act normal and not gape. "I, um, know we exchanged gifts yesterday. Sorry mine are so late."

With that, Rodney handed out three identical envelopes.

Teyla, Ronon, and John all exchanged looks of varying degrees of surprise and confusion as they accepted their envelopes.

A moment of ripping and crumbling paper sounded as the three of them extracted the gifts inside the envelopes.

"These are what you call dogtags, aren't they?" Teyla asked as she held her gift up to the light.

John stared at the dogtags in his hand as he gave an answering nod. The tag at the end of the metal chain wasn't the normal silverish metal. The ones Rodney had given them were made from the light blue crystal chips the Ancients had used for circuitry. Staring at his, John realized that there was an inscription on it.

"Is that Ancient?" John asked, wondering what Rodney would have written on their tags. He was close enough to see Teyla's, and the writing looked identical to his, so he didn't think Rodney had put their names on them.

Teyla answered in a pleased, if confused voice, "It says 'Sheppard's Family.'"

His throat tightening up, John's gaze shot to Rodney, who looked nervous as hell.

"I, uh, made one for myself, too," Rodney said, pulling a matching chain out from under his turtleneck.

Recognizing the chance Rodney had taken in giving them such a sentimental gift, and appreciating just how much thought Rodney must have given to his choice of inscription, John felt overwhelmed. If anything could have convinced him that Rodney didn't hold yesterday against him, it was this incredibly thoughtful gesture.

McKay looked like he was awaiting judgment as he held his gaze.

Feeling inexplicably shy, John gave a smile. "These are great . . . and true. Thank you."

"Yes, Rodney, thank you very much," Teyla said, seeming genuinely pleased. She put her head through the chain and donned the dogtags, Ronon doing the same.

After a pause, John pulled his own on.

Ronon seemed touched as well in his warrior way. "Thanks, McKay."

Rodney turned a totally delightful pink in response and asked in a rough voice, "So what preposterous vid are we watching first?"

Despite his warnings about not being able to keep his mouth shut during Christmas shows, McKay proved surprisingly restrained through Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

John spent a good deal of time trying to answer Teyla's questions throughout the shows. She was especially puzzled by the animated puppets. Ronon didn't ask near as many questions as usual. John didn't know how much interest these kid shows would hold for a warrior like Ronon, but Ronon seemed content to simply be with them and absorb the vids.

Rodney seemed to be following Ronon's example, remaining quiet even during scenes that John wouldn't have blamed him for mocking. It was only during The Little Drummer Boy when the lamb was struck down by the chariot that Rodney broke his silence with an outraged, "Nobody said anything about animals dying in these things! How could they do something like that in a kids' movie?"

"You never saw Bambi, I take it?" John asked. His reference was totally lost on Teyla and Ronon. He knew if Elizabeth, Carson, and Laura had been here, they'd be in stitches right now.

"You're kidding me, right?" Rodney asked. "Anyway, this is terrible. You're a sadist. How can you make us watch something like this?"

Realizing how upset Rodney was at the lamb's death beneath his bluster, John said, "Sssh, watch the show."

He couldn't help but peek back over at Rodney when the lamb was healed to see how he was doing. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised by how bright and moist McKay's eyes were during that emotional scene, because he knew how high-strung Rodney was, but Rodney's reaction was oddly endearing.

When Rodney caught him watching him, John could see his cheeks turning red. But rather than teasing McKay on his susceptibility, which he would have done before yesterday, John simply offered a smile.

His smile seemed to throw Rodney, who looked braced for ridicule. After a moment, the tension left Rodney's features and he returned his smile.

They took a break for another turkey dinner and then continued their marathon.

Rodney was oddly subdued through most of the films. It was only when the Ghost of Christmas Present showed up in Scrooge that Rodney gave an animated, "Hey, it's Robur!"

"Did that Ancient really look like that?" Ronon asked as he took in the green-garbed, holly-wreathed giant.

"Yes, right down to the icicles dangling from his wreath. I never saw if he had any kids hiding under his robes, though," Rodney said.

Teyla gave a scandalized sounding, "What?"

John tried to explain. The fact that the scene with the concealed children wasn't in this version of A Christmas Carol only made it more difficult. Five minutes into his explanation he had to stop because Rodney was laughing so hard.

When the credits of A Miracle on 34th Street rolled to a close hours later, Ronon was sound asleep in his chair and Teyla was drowsing on the bed beside John.

"I liked that one," Rodney announced, the sudden sound of his voice starting their sleeping teammates awake.

"This was quite educational, Colonel. Thank you very much for showing us these movies," Teyla said.

"Yeah, thanks," Ronon said, rising to his feet. John couldn't tell if he were simply being polite or if he'd really enjoyed himself.

"And thank you, Rodney, for these lovely tags," Teyla said. "They are perfect."

Touching the tags he wore around his neck, Ronon gave Rodney's arm a pat that nearly knocked him out of his chair.

"As your people would say, Merry Christmas," Teyla said as she and Ronon moved towards the door.

"Merry Christmas, guys. Thanks for coming," John said.

"We will see you tomorrow," Teyla said.

The door closed behind Teyla and Ronon, leaving him alone in the room with Rodney, who hadn't moved from his chair.

Suddenly nervous, John looked over at his remaining visitor. Even though he had the green patterned button down shirt on top of it, the black turtleneck gave Rodney an unusually somber air. Or it might have just been his own anxiety bleeding over, because he didn't think that Rodney had ever looked better than he did at that moment, sitting there beside his bed like he belonged here in this room with him.

Rodney met his gaze squarely and said in an understanding tone, "Thanks for not cancelling on us. That wasn't so terrible, was it?"

John gave a negative shake of his head. His hand rising to the new crystal tag dangling beside his the military issue ones under his black tee shirt, he said, "Those tags were the most thoughtful gift anyone has ever given me."

Rodney was blushing again. Ducking his head, he gave an embarrassed sounding, "Yes, well . . . ."

"Thank you – for everything," John said, hoping that Rodney would understand how much his acceptance meant to him.

"You already said that," Rodney said, still seeming uncomfortable with the show of gratitude.

"It's worth saying twice," John said, watching Rodney, trying to judge his mood.

Rodney's head snapped up and his eyes flashed blue as star sapphires. "You can thank me for the gift if you like, but not for anything else. You need to understand how important you are to the people here. What that machine showed you yesterday, that would never, ever happen here."

All choked up, John was beginning to believe that maybe that was true. Maybe he'd finally found a home where it didn't matter what he'd done as a kid, where the black mark and all the other mistakes he'd made were forgiven.

Realizing that it was this special man's integrity that had graced him with this bounty, John said, "I owe you one."

Rodney shook his head. "No." He seemed to debate his words before continuing, "Families look after each other. You don't owe me a thing."

Rodney still seemed nervous of being mocked. Holding those crystal bright eyes, John said, "Yes, they do."

Seeing that Rodney didn't look as if he were leaving any time soon, John moved back to the bed. He took the spot Teyla had been in, the one closer to Rodney's chair.

Rodney turned the computer chair around to face him.

Once again, John was struck by how completely unflustered Rodney was with him. It confused him, because calm really wasn't a quality he associated with Rodney McKay.

Needing to understand, John decided to take a chance and question it. "Are you pretending the rest never happened? Is that how you can be so cool with this? Is that how you want me to play it?"

He heard Rodney swallow loudly. Meeting his eyes, Rodney asked in a low, cautious tone, "You mean the kissing thing?"

To his irritation, John felt his own cheeks warm. "Yeah, that."

"It never did happen, not in this reality," Rodney reminded.

Totally embarrassed, John said, "Oh, yeah. Right. That's why you're not upset, because it wasn't you."

"It was a me," Rodney pointed out. "I guess I'm a little confused as to what that was about."

Wondering if he were being teased, John snapped, "It was a kiss. What is that usually about?"

"We're not kids," Rodney said. "We both know it can be about a lot of different things. I guess what I need to know is if I was in that role because I was the only convenient candidate?"

"Huh?" John wasn't even sure what Rodney was asking him. It seemed pretty clear to him what kissing someone meant.

"The machine was showing you your worst nightmare. Was I there because the idea of doing that with me was so repulsive?" Rodney asked, his hesitation at voicing that last part palpable. He added a brutally honest, "It would be for a lot of people."

John had never even thought about that. To his shame, he actually considered going along with the idea, because it would sure be a lot easier to deal with than the truth. But even if Rodney had never been interested in him, John knew it would hurt him to hear that he was considered so repulsive that he'd be a part of someone's worst fear come true.

Finally, he swallowed around a tight throat and gave Rodney the truth, "No, that wasn't the reason."

"I guess Carson is taken and Ronon would kill you if he objected, so I was a safe choice," Rodney said.

John realized that Rodney had given this a great deal of thought, which was hardly unusual for him. Rodney had clearly thought up every excuse he could come up with to explain what had happened in that virtual reality.

John wasn't sure how to play this. This excuse wouldn't hurt Rodney's feelings, and it would allow the subject to be forgotten and put behind them.

Only, John wasn't certain he wanted to lie to this amazing man who'd pulled him out of hell. This morning, he would have given anything to make yesterday go away, but sitting here with Rodney and talking with him about it, and having Rodney behave like he weren't disgusted by what had happened, it made him long to see how far he could push this acceptance.

He knew Rodney was straight. He knew he would never get what he wanted. But, if he could have one friend he didn't have to hide from, maybe that would be worth the risk he was taking here. And there was a real risk involved. Rodney could be coming up with all these excuses because he needed them to pretend that everything was all right between them.

"If I wanted safe, I could have chosen that cute Canadian sergeant in the control room. No offense, McKay, but there's nothing safe about you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney demanded.

John had to smile because Rodney sounded as if he didn't know if he'd been insulted or complimented.

"No one with your intelligence could ever be called safe," John explained.

Rodney lit up brighter than that machine in the Room of Reflection or the Christmas tree in the mess hall. "Oh. Thanks." Rodney seemed to do his own considering. After a moment, he said, "So, not part of the nightmare, not just a convenient body to fill the role."

"No," John agreed.

"That, er, only leaves one other possibility," Rodney said, watching him closely.

Still not sure how Rodney felt about any of this, John quietly assured, "You don't have to worry. I'm good at hiding. I won't step out of line or make you uncomfortable."

John swore he could hear Rodney's breath catch in his chest. For what felt like an eternity, Rodney said nothing, and then he finally asked in a nervous voice, "What if I don't want you to hide? Do I get a say in this? I mean, I know it would be wiser to just let the whole thing drop, but . . . ."

John's heart skidded to a stop at what Rodney seemed to be saying. Wondering if he could have read Rodney wrong from the start, he checked, "What are you saying? You're straight, aren't you?"

He knew a lot of their colleagues thought Rodney was gay, but for all John's wishful thinking, Rodney had never struck him as being into guys.

"I thought I was," Rodney admitted. "I'm not so sure now."

The air in the room suddenly felt a lot thinner.

Abruptly on guard, because loyalty, pity, or misplaced gratitude were the only explanations John's mind could come up with for Rodney to have this kind of response, he demanded, "What's that supposed to mean? People don't change their sexual orientation over night."

"I know that," Rodney said, a matching wariness in his attitude.

"I don't need your pity, McKay. It's hard enough dealing with this without you – "

All of the guarded tightness left McKay's face as his eyes sparked fire, "Pity? What are you talking about?"

"You're nearly forty. It's a little late to be having this kind of epiphany, isn't it? I mean, we owe each other our lives a dozen times over. It would be a lot more believable that you'd – "

"That I'd what? Sleep with you out of gratitude?" Rodney appeared appalled. "Are you out of your mind? Do I strike you as being that altruistic? Just for the record, there is nothing pitiable about you. Except for the fact that you just made such an incredibly stupid suggestion. But I'll overlook that, because I wasn't expecting this, either. So I can understand where you'd be confused."

"Expecting what?" John demanded. "How can this be anything but you feeling sorry for me? Unless you get so few offers that even I'd look good to you."

The minute he said that last part, John knew he'd gone too far.

Rodney's cheeks turned scarlet, but this time it wasn't an attractive blush. His eyes were so damn expressive that John could almost touch the hurt he'd intentionally inflicted.

"That was completely uncalled for," Rodney said at last. He looked and sounded as guarded as John felt.

Hating himself for his lack of control, John said. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did," Rodney countered, clearly unprepared to let him off the hook that easy. Holding his gaze, Rodney continued in a strained tone. "I can't even deny it; I don't get that many offers. We both know it's true. That's why I didn't understand any of this. Someone like you looking at someone like me? It made no sense."

Rodney's words only made him feel worse.

"Rodney, I'm truly sorry. It was a shitty thing to say. I felt cornered, and I just struck out. There's no excuse for what I said."

"You felt cornered?" Rodney questioned, his confusion seeming to overwhelm his anger.

Aware that he was in the wrong here and owed Rodney some sort of explanation for that savage remark, he offered, "This is . . . important to me. The idea that you might be humoring me . . . hurt. I know sex comes easy to a lot of people. I don't want to be someone's gay sex experiment or walk on the wild side."

"You aren't an experiment or a walk on the wild side," Rodney said. "And I'm not easy. Well, I would be if I had the opportunity, but . . . that isn't how life played out for me. I know how serious this is. Don't you think I'm scared too?"

"You're scared?" John asked. He knew what Rodney was like when frightened, and this calm man before him bore no resemblance to the usual McKay whirlwind of emotion.

"Of course, I'm scared. I've never done it before with a guy. And if we mess this up, we could ruin our entire friendship and probably won't be able to work together. A lot is on the line here."

"Then why would you even want to? I guess that's what I don't understand," John admitted. "If you're straight, why would you . . . ?"

"I said I wasn't sure about that anymore," Rodney reminded.

"And I don't know what that means," John countered. "Just because you find out I'm . . . interested, you change your entire orientation overnight? I don't get that."

"It's not overnight. Something's been there between us from the start," Rodney insisted.

"What?" John asked, going very still inside. His reaction wasn't quite that clenching up of fear, but there was a sense of anticipation to it that was nearly unbearable.

"I didn't understand it at the time. I mean, it never occurred to me that you could want . . . . But, there'd be times when we'd be alone and talking, and you'd look at me, and . . . ." That charming flush was back in Rodney's cheeks, ". . . and it would feel like the ground dropped out from under me. I didn't understand what was happening. And then yesterday, when you were talking about having kissed me . . . it blew me away. I couldn't think about anything else for most of the night. I think this has been building between us for a while and I just . . . never could figure out what was going on."

Floored, John could only stare at Rodney. Rodney appeared so nervous that John knew he had to be telling the truth, not that Rodney had ever lied to him before. Seeing the growing anxiety in Rodney's eyes, John said, "I'm, ah, experiencing that ground dropping out from under me effect right now. I really didn't see this coming."

"You didn't?" Rodney seemed stricken. "You mean you never felt – "

"I thought it was just me," John clarified, before any misunderstandings could brew.

"Oh." Rodney seemed to consider that for a moment, before offering, "No, I felt it, too."

John was so used to being stuck in unrequited longing mode that he hardly knew how to fit this development into his reality.

"And you really want to . . . ?" For some reason, he still couldn't ask Rodney straight out if he wanted to sleep with him.

Holding his gaze, Rodney gave a simple, "Yes."

Silence fell between them. Stunned, John realized that they were going to do this. Only, he was a nervous wreck about making a move on Rodney. The disaster he'd experienced yesterday in that virtual reality was too close. It was here in this very room that he'd kissed Rodney and had his life fall apart. He knew how wrong this could go.

Even if Rodney didn't freak out and out him like he had in yesterday's scenario, there was always the possibility that his previously heterosexual friend might be turned off by actually touching him. Or Rodney might be unnerved if he made too forward a move. There had been honesty in Rodney's voice when he'd spoken about the reaction he'd had to him, but that didn't necessarily mean he was ready for actual sex.

The pressure was unbelievable. John was used to acting first and thinking later, but for once he couldn't find the courage to jump.

"It's okay," Rodney said in a gruff voice, making John wonder what his face was revealing.

The breath caught in his chest as Rodney scooted his chair closer to the bed until their knees were touching. That chance contact felt almost electric. Rodney's hands settled on his arms, and then Rodney leaned across the foot or so of space separating them and pressed their mouths together in an endearingly awkward manner.

Rodney's scent and warmth were all around him. Rodney's lips were warm and dry against his, an incongruous mixture of strength and softness like the man himself.

The kiss was nearly chaste. John was too shocked to respond to it, and then Rodney sat back in his chair.

Looking scared to death, Rodney said, "This isn't yesterday. We're going to be all right."

Once again, Rodney's courage amazed him. John knew how weird this had to be for his friend. Rodney had told him he'd never been with a guy before. For Rodney to find the nerve to make the first move like that . . . that took a special kind of courage. That Rodney had taken the chance simply for his sake, to prove to him that this wasn't yesterday's doomsday scenario, made it even more special.

John was still buzzing from that kiss, but he could see how unnerved Rodney was. Wanting to dispel the worry in Rodney's face, John said, "You're incredible. You know that, don't you?"

Given his friend's ego, John expected Rodney to light up at the compliment, but instead his features seemed to grow even tighter. "I'm petty, arrogant, and bad with people. You need to know that going in."

Keeping his voice light, John dismissed the words as if they hadn't mattered. It wasn't like Rodney was telling him anything he didn't know. "Well, that, too, but you're incredible, all the same."

Rodney clearly didn't know how to respond to that. John had a feeling that kissing him had taken all Rodney's courage and he didn't have any left to manage the unflappable composure he'd been sporting all day.

After a minute, Rodney said, "I, uh, never had anything serious before. That, um, wasn't my choice."

John nodded. He knew Rodney hadn't had either a happy childhood or adolescence. He knew the kind of emotional scars this brilliant, neurotic man carried.

"Me, neither," John admitted. "Though, that was my choice."

Rodney nodded. After a moment, he asked, "So how does this fit in with that? I'm guessing you wouldn't be risking our entire relationship for a one night stand, but that's about all I'm sure of." That familiar panic took Rodney's face and voice as he continued, "I shouldn't have asked that, right? I know guys don't like to talk about this kind of thing, only . . . . "

Only, Rodney was careful; it was his first time with a guy, and he was clearly out of his element here. Not that John could imagine him being any more collected if Rodney were with a woman. He had a feeling Rodney really wasn't good at this interpersonal stuff. Not that he was much better. But he was the more experienced one, and Rodney had taken a tremendous chance to make him feel better a minute ago with that kiss. He owed the man something more than the usual evasions.

Taking a deep breath, John said, "I need to warn you." John watched Rodney's face tense up even more at those words. Hoping that he wasn't about to lose everything by being too honest here, he continued, "That 'Sheppard's Family' bit earned you some major points. If we do this, I'm going to fall hard."

Fact was; he'd already fallen, maybe years ago. But Rodney didn't need to know that.

He watched as shock blasted the tightness from Rodney's features. His jaw wasn't quite hanging open, but Rodney looked that startled. After a pause, Rodney seemed to force himself to respond with a stunned, "Oh."

"You still want to try?" John didn't intend to hold his breath. His lungs just seemed to stop working after he voiced that question. He knew a line like the last one he'd given Rodney would send most men running for the door.

"I . . . yeah, yes. Yes, I want to," Rodney stammered, then followed it up with a panicked, "You're not hallucinating or something, are you? I mean, you know it's me you're here with, right? Because I can't believe you're saying these things to me."

That was one of the things he loved most about Rodney, his ability to use his insecurities to totally derail his own.

Finally believing that romance might work out for him for the first time ever, John laid his hand on Rodney's nearby knee. From the gasp Rodney gave, he might just as well have placed it on his groin.

"I know who I'm with. Rodney Ingram, formally Meredith, McKay. I know you, Rodney," John answered, barely able to keep from saying something more, something Rodney mightn't be ready to hear this early.

They were sitting so close that John heard the shaky breath Rodney drew.

After a couple more unsteady inhalations, Rodney said, "And I'm finally beginning to feel like I know you. It's good to meet you at last, John, really good."

There was no way John could hold back after those words. Leaning forward, he covered that articulate mouth with his own.

This wasn't like their first, tentative kiss. John packed three years of unrequited longing, and more into the meeting of their lips.

Rodney's mouth felt as incredible against his as it had before. The startled, pleased sound Rodney gave felt better than most of his previous orgasms.

When John slipped his tongue out, Rodney's mouth opened to him immediately. Rodney tasted of popcorn, original Coke, and something organic and so Rodney that it defied definition. All John knew was that it melted him.

This kiss lasted far longer than John expected. When they drew back, they were both breathless.

"Is it always like that with guys?" Rodney babbled, his cheeks wonderfully flushed, his eyes brighter than ever. "I just lit up like a Christmas tree."

Stifling a smile at how unbelievably open Rodney was, John gave a negative shake of his head. Thinking that Rodney deserved a similar honesty, John quietly offered, "No, it's special to you."

To John's intense relief, the sappy comment seemed to please Rodney inordinately.

Rodney matched him and upped him one with, "You kiss really good. I suppose that shouldn't surprise me. I mean, even when I didn't understand what was going on with us, I knew how hot you were."

Rodney didn't sound like he was bullshitting him. John didn't know if Rodney were even capable of that kind of subterfuge. The guy was so up front; it was scary sometimes. But, at least, he always knew where he stood with Rodney.

Not that he wanted to be standing or even sitting at the moment. Hoping that he wasn't moving too fast, John offered in his sexiest voice, "I kiss even better horizontally. You want to try it out for yourself?"

John could see in Rodney's eyes that he understood that lying down would move their encounter to another level.

John knew it was a big step for Rodney. He also suspected that Rodney mightn't be capable of making that huge a leap right now. Not wanting to push, because this was more than he'd thought he'd ever have, John quickly added in a low, unthreatening voice, "Or we can just neck sitting up. Whatever you feel most comfortable with."

He'd never gone slow with another guy before, never courted another man or played the waiting game, but he'd do it if that was what Rodney needed to feel at ease with him.

John could tell that he'd really surprised Rodney. After a moment, Rodney gave a loud gulp and said, "No. Horizontal's good."

Rodney blushed again and then bent to quickly undo the laces on his boots.

Except for their excursion to the mess hall, John had been barefoot all day. He watched as Rodney peeled off his socks and those pale feet were revealed. To his confusion, John felt his pulse beat faster, the way it would when another man took off his pants. He was so gone that he even found Rodney's feet sexy.

When he'd pulled off his second sock, Rodney looked back at John, a strangely self-conscious expression on his face.

Scooting back on the bed, John lay down and held out his hand, hoping to make it easier.

Rodney immediately took hold of the offered hand.

John couldn't help but notice how clammy Rodney's palm felt. He couldn't imagine how nervous Rodney must be at the moment.

The entire feel of this encounter was totally different from yesterday's nightmare virtual reality. In that, Rodney had seemed much more his arrogant self, so the abrupt turn about and freak out had been doubly upsetting. This Rodney, his Rodney, was endearingly tentative. In fact, as Rodney climbed onto the bed beside him, he looked as though he expected John to be the one to change his mind and bolt.

When Rodney had settled flat on the blue comforter beside him, John turned on his side to face him.

Struck by the fact that Rodney was really here in his bed, John reached out to touch Rodney's hair. It was baby-fine and softer than anything he'd ever felt on a man. As his fingers stroked down over Rodney's cheek, he discovered a similar lushness. His chin had the expected rough stubble, but the skin beneath it was like the rest of Rodney's face, incredibly soft.

As John's fingers played down his face, Rodney gave a shocked sounding gasp and quickly said, "Sorry."

"Huh? What for?" John asked, his index finger rubbing back and forth across Rodney's right cheekbone. He couldn't tell for certain, but it almost felt like the warm body beside him was trembling. Abruptly realizing that Rodney could be scared and trying to brave through it, John stopped moving his finger and checked, "Too much reality?"

"W-what?" Rodney seemed confused rather than wary.

"Are things moving too fast?" John asked.

The negative shake of Rodney's head came reassuringly quickly. "No, you just . . . ."

"I just?" John encouraged, doing his best to read all the signals. But he couldn't tell what was wrong. Rodney's cheeks seemed to be flushed with passion. His eyes looked hot and a little unfocused. He looked as if he were liking this – a lot.

"Usually, if things reach this point, it's a frantic scramble. I'm working so hard to figure out what she'll like, and there's so much pressure to do it right and not screw up . . . this is . . . it isn't like that. This is sensual. I've, um, never had that before. You're really good at this."

Once again, Rodney destroyed him with his honesty.

Really good at this? All he'd done was touch Rodney's face.

Here he was worried sick that Rodney was freaking out because he was a guy, while Rodney was just getting off on someone taking the time to touch him. It said a lot about Rodney's past experiences. John realized he shouldn't really be surprised. He'd seen how clumsy Rodney was with women. It would take a woman of extraordinary perception to get past all that surface bumbling.

Why it was different with him, John couldn't figure. He would have thought that being with a man for his first time would have been incredibly traumatizing for Rodney, but maybe the novelty of being with someone who really wanted him, someone he didn't have to work to have sex with, was enough to mitigate the strangeness of the experience. John sure hoped so.

All he knew was that he was incredibly grateful for the development, no matter its cause.

"So are you," John returned the compliment about being good at this.

"You don't have to . . . ." Rodney protested.

John cut the words off with another kiss.

Rodney made this amazing "Mmmmm," sound deep in his throat as the kiss deepened and they opened their mouths to each other.

When they parted this time, Rodney had a glazed look in his eyes.

John smiled. "Like I said, really good."

More kisses and more of those "Mmmmming" sounds followed.

John moved his mouth to that enticing, snow pale neck.

"Oh, god," Rodney gasped out as John's tongue sampled the skin there. He licked and sucked his way down to the black band of the turtleneck, simultaneously easing his hand under the green-patterned outer shirt to rub across Rodney's chest.

Rodney's nipples were clearly highly responsive, for the instant John's fingers glided over the nearest one, both peaked up into firm buds beneath the soft cotton of the black turtleneck. John fingered the closest nipple through the material, eliciting some mighty sexy moans from Rodney.

"Oh . . . you're . . . that's . . . don't stop, please?" Rodney pleaded.

Just to see what would happen, John lowered his head and sucked the nipple through the tight-fitting turtleneck. That seemed to rock Rodney's world were the exclamation he gave anything to go by.

Encouraged, John quickly undid the buttons on the outer shirt and then peeled the turtleneck and crisp white undershirt up from where they were tucked into Rodney's jeans, letting them rest halfway up Rodney's chest. His stomach looked very white in contrast to the rolled up black turtleneck.

"I'm, uh, not in very good shape," Rodney said with palpable self-consciousness when his stomach was bared.

Looking up at that passion-flushed face, John read the uneasiness there. Holding Rodney's gaze, John ran his fingertip up the fine hairs that trailed from that adorably sexy belly button that was peeking out of the jeans' waistband, following the hair up the center of Rodney's chest to where it disappeared under the turtleneck.

"Couldn't prove it by me. I think you're too sexy for this shirt," John said, easing the green-pattered shirt off Rodney.

Rodney got the reference, his laugh coming out in a pleased-sounding huff as he moved obligingly to help with the shirt's removal.

"This one, too," John said. "Definitely, too sexy for this one."

Giggling like a schoolboy, Rodney sat up and shrugged out of his turtleneck and undershirt.

John watched the static electricity fuzz Rodney's hair up from his forehead as he threw the tangled shirts off the side of the bed. Rodney was a lot broader than he was. John stared at that expanse of lightly downed chest, his pulse beating double time as he realized that he was free to touch Rodney there.

"You now," Rodney prompted.

John didn't understand the sudden bashfulness he experienced as he sat up to pull off his tee shirt. He'd never been self-conscious about his ability to please, but, then, he'd never been with a guy who'd only ever been with women before. A part of him feared that Rodney would bolt the instant he got naked with him.

John threw his tee shirt over the side of the bed as Rodney had. As he turned back to face Rodney, the new blue crystal dog tag joined the others in his chest hair. He saw Rodney's eyes trail the movement.

An identical tag was resting against the artfully spaced hair on Rodney's chest.

John sat still, barely even breathing, as those blue eyes played over his chest. He knew Rodney had a thing for Sam Carter. He was so far from that epitome of female perfection that he couldn't imagine someone who wanted that liking him.

They were sitting so close on the narrow bed, and the room was so quiet, that John heard the gulp Rodney gave.

John braced himself, because yesterday that other Rodney had made a similar sound before freaking out on him.

But his Rodney didn't turn all red and self-righteous. To the contrary, his Rodney reached out to tentatively run his index finger over the crystal dogtag, his finger trailing off into the thick chest hair it rested on.

John lost the breath he was holding in a shocked gasp. That finger moving over his chest was making his whole body tingle.

"I guess you hear it a lot, but you really are incredibly beautiful," Rodney shocked him by saying. After a moment's pause in which he seemed to be absorbing whatever tactile information his roving finger was sending, Rodney gave a worried, "Should I say that? I mean, is it okay to talk like that? I know women like to hear that kind of stuff, but I never – "

John placed his own index finger over the fretful mouth. "You can say anything you want to me. Just . . . don't lie to me, okay? If you don't like something or if things are moving too fast for you, you have to let me know."

Rodney nodded. A second later his pink tongue peeked out to rub wetly against John's index finger where it rested across his mouth.

John hissed in a shaky breath as Rodney's mouth absorbed his finger and began to lightly suck on it. Rodney's right hand, which was still resting on John's chest, began to stroke him the way Rodney might pet a cat.

It shouldn't have been, but it felt sexy as hell. The double stimulation sent John rocketing into the stratosphere. His entire body seemed to turn to quivering jello.

Strong hands gripped John's shoulders and guided him back down onto the mattress. John went with it. He was more than a little surprised that Rodney was taking so active a role. He'd figured since it was Rodney's first time with another man, that he would have to do the lion's share of the work until Rodney felt more comfortable with him. But once again, he'd underestimated this amazing man's capabilities.

"This feels so cool," Rodney said as his hands returned to exploring John's chest. "I thought your hair would be wiry, but it's really soft."

Rodney bent his head down, and a second later John's left nipple was sucked into that super-hot mouth. He'd always had sensitive nipples, but the way that small bud of flesh exploded with sensation when Rodney began to suck it made John feel as if he'd never been touched there before.

It was the fact that Rodney wanted to do these things for him that was making it such an intense experience, John realized. He'd been prepared to do all the running this first time. That Rodney would embrace him like this, rather than just accept his attentions, was a gift beyond measure.

"You taste so good," Rodney said when he lifted his head a long time later.

John grabbed hold of Rodney's neck and hauled him down into another deep kiss. He'd kissed a lot of people in his life, but there was something about Rodney's kiss that was different from all the others. There was an enthusiasm here, an intensity that he'd never experienced before. Rodney kissed him as if he were the one who'd wanted this for years.

They fed at each other's mouths for what felt like forever.

During the kiss, Rodney shifted closer. John hooked his arms around him and hauled, and, the next thing he knew, all that deliciously warm and heavy Rodney goodness was covering him.

Rodney was solid, not just broader than John, but denser as well. The weight felt good, for it seemed to emphasize who he was with. This wasn't just another anonymous male body on leave. Rodney wasn't like any of those other guys in appearance, feel, or behavior.

John let his fingers rove over that broad back, loving the feel of the sleek skin there. Their mouths had formed a perfect circuit. They'd both clearly mastered the art of breathing around the kiss. John didn't see any reason for them to break that amazing contact, ever. He'd be content to lie here simply kissing Rodney for the rest of eternity, and how different was that from the usual rush to completion?

His roving hands made contact with the denim waistband of Rodney's jeans. He wasn't sure how Rodney would react, but John couldn't resist cupping those full, fleshy globes and giving the lush handfuls a squeeze.

John tensed as Rodney broke the kiss. Belatedly, he remembered the arrow Rodney had taken back there. That wound still gave him trouble. But rather than telling him to get his hands off his ass, Rodney threw back his head and released a deep groan that sounded like something from a porno flick.

Next thing John knew, they were both fumbling their pants and underwear off.

John had to smile when he caught sight of the colorful boxers Rodney was wearing. At first he thought the yellow circles were smiley faces, which seemed extremely un-Rodneylike, but then he realized that the circles were electrons and protons, which was so Rodney that it made John feel ridiculously mushy inside. He was so taken with this guy; it was scary.

John knew he should be terrified. Romance had never worked out for him, especially with another man. He'd never been able to be what anyone wanted. Whether male or female, his partners always pushed for more information or more intimacy than John was comfortable sharing. Only, so far Rodney hadn't been like that. Beyond assuring himself that he wasn't a one night stand, Rodney seemed willing to take him as he was. How rare was that?

For the first time ever, John had a feeling that things weren't going to fall apart.

Rodney pulled the yellow and black boxers down, and all thought froze in John's brain.

They'd been sharing a tent on away missions for nearly three years now. John had seen Rodney naked any number of times. But always in the past, he only received fleeting glimpses of that pale flesh as Rodney changed or washed up. His reaction to those chance encounters had always made him feel so guilty that he'd look away, but now that he had the freedom to look his full, he was riveted.

On a mental level, he was aware that Rodney wasn't most people's idea of a sex symbol. But John had always found that pale, soft body incredibly attractive.

Naked Rodney was a sight to be admired. That creamy skin made John's fingers ache to touch it. When he looked down to the parts of Rodney he'd never had the opportunity to view closely, a fierce, yearning rush took his whole body. Rodney wasn't quite as long as he was, but he was thick and meaty. His rosy erection was just perfect.

Just like the rest of Rodney. He loved how blue his eyes were, how that expressive face captured and revealed everything he felt. Right now, there was a stunned wonder to it that John found totally engaging.

As their eyes met, Rodney gave him a crooked smile that seemed to rock his world.

John didn't understand why everything inside him clenched up at that smile. It seemed to promise him that things were going to be all right. There was just so much unrepressed joy in it that it took his breath away. It had that same shining purity that Rodney had.

That Rodney could give him a smile like that at a moment when John wouldn't have blamed him if he'd freaked out got behind every one of his defenses, reaffirming as it did just how special this man was.

Their eyes met and Rodney's smile faded into something more serious, but equally as appealing. He heard Rodney gulp.

"This should be the scary part," Rodney said. "I mean, usually I'm a wreck when I take my clothes off for the first time. But the way you're looking at me. God, John."

John ran his gaze over that incredible body. His eyes stopped at the angry looking rose of pink and red flesh that was Rodney's memento of their trip to M1B129. That was the scar from the bullet John had put in Rodney's body when he'd been locked in that hallucination and sure the Taliban was coming for him. The scar seemed an obscenity against the perfect skin of Rodney's lower belly. That he had put that mark there, that he'd come that close to killing Rodney, was still hard for him to handle.

Most of the time, John dealt with what he'd done on M1B129 the way he did with most things, by consciously refusing to think about it. But being presented with that scar like this, it was pretty hard to pretend the shooting had never happened.

Seeing that scar was sort of like moving the pebble that brought the avalanche down on top of you. Before John was even aware of what was happening, the mountain of regret he carried was burying him. His whole life had been nothing but a series of screw-ups of one kind or another. When he'd first come to Atlantis, it had been Sumner's death that kept him awake at night, that, and the fact that millions of people were dying now because he, John Sheppard, had prematurely woken the Wraith. But lately it had been the memory of the disbelief in Rodney's face as he said, "You shot me!" that had him haunting Atlantis' halls at night. Those and so many similar errors overwhelmed him as he stared at that angry little scar.

"It doesn't hurt anymore," Rodney shocked him by saying. Rodney would usually play a sympathy scene for all it was worth.

Once again, John had to wonder how much his face was revealing, because he wasn't usually this easy to read.

"See," Rodney said, reaching for him.

John tensed as Rodney took hold of his hand and pressed it against the scar, pushing into the soft flesh there to demonstrate the lack of pain.

John knew it was only Teyla's intervention that was responsible for the fact that all that Rodney carried from that insane event was a small round scar. It should have been a kill wound, would have been if Teyla hadn't been there. By rights, Rodney should have been dead there on the ground that day, like Sumner, Mitch, Dex, Holland, and all the other people he'd failed.

Rodney's scent was all around him in the closeness. It was fresh and clean, sweet and natural as cut grass or crushed pine needles. John felt lost as he breathed it in, because, looking at that mark on Rodney, he knew he wasn't worthy of this.

Ambushed by the guilt, he lowered his head.

Rodney didn't pull away. Instead, he shifted closer, until John's face was pressed against his chest. Strong arms banded his back.

John crushed his nose against that soft chest hair, squeezing his eyes shut. He just wanted all the bad stuff he'd done to go away, but no matter what he did, it was always there with him, with more mistakes piling on top of the old ones until he felt the weight would crush him.

"Hey, what's going on?" Rodney asked softly, rubbing his back. "I know I'm no Mr. Universe, but – "

"Don't." John lifted his head up to meet those confused blue eyes. "You're beautiful. Really, really beautiful, and I put that scar on you and – "

John's lack of sleep was catching up with him. He felt like an emotional basket case as he stared into Rodney's eyes. He watched the confusion give way to understanding. The tender expression that took Rodney's features caused John to experience that ground-dropping-out-from-under-him sensation that Rodney had mentioned earlier.

"You didn't mean to," Rodney said, as if it excused the fact that he'd shot him.

"I still did it," John protested. "I never meant to do any of the mistakes that got people killed – "

"Whoa, there," Rodney said. "Look, I don't know the particulars about most of your life, but I do know who and what you are. I'm betting you weren't all that different before Atlantis. You have never left anyone behind that you could have saved, and you've risked your life in the defense of others more times than I can count. Whatever happened, I know it wasn't your fault."

"How can you know that?" John demanded, shaken by Rodney's words, and not quite able to cover it just yet.

"Because I'm here naked in your bed," Rodney answered. "You think I'd feel this way about just any good-looking guy? You're so special; it transcends gender, maybe even species. Though, I'm grateful we won't have to test that."

Reading the truth in Rodney's face, John drew a shaky breath.

Rodney continued, "So don't go feeling all guilty because of a stupid scar, okay? If someone as petty as me can let it go, then it really can't have been your fault, right? Because we both know if it was, I would never let you forget it."

John couldn't help himself. He chuckled.

"That's better," Rodney approved. "Can we get back to the naked part now? Because, I was really liking that part."

Rallying his composure, John tried to get things back on an even keel. But after yesterday's nightmare virtual reality and the anxious night he'd put in, the most he could manage was a shaky, "You were, were you?"

Rodney didn't seem to pick up the lighter tone, or maybe John was just such a mess that he couldn't manage lightening the mood, after all, for Rodney responded with an utterly serious, "Yeah. I wasn't sure how I'd be with your having guy parts instead of girl parts, but . . . your guy parts are really hot."

John found himself chuckling again, that, and blushing. "God, Rodney."

They drew far enough apart from each other to view the naked guy parts Rodney had been talking about. Trying to ignore the bullet wound and all the guilt associated with it, John surveyed Rodney's body as Rodney looked him over.

There had been a time in his life when he wouldn't have looked twice at a guy like Rodney. Rodney had so little in common with the athletic surfers and rock climbers John usually slept with that John didn't really understand how the attraction had happened. All he knew was that one day very soon after they'd come to Atlantis, he'd looked over at Rodney while they were watching one of Ford's movies, and gravity had seemed to reverse itself as he met those blue eyes. The connection had been electric. He hated to be corny, but it really had felt as if Rodney's spirit had reached out to embrace his, and John had found his reality changed. From that day on, his definition of what was sexy went from long, hard bodies to plump softness. It didn't matter that Rodney whined, was a raging hypochondriac, was allergic to nearly everything in two galaxies, and had the social skills of a maladjusted five year old. Somehow, all those personality quirks were endearing on Rodney. At least, John thought so. He knew that view wasn't shared by many.

But then, he'd always marched to his own drum, and the music he'd found here tonight with Rodney McKay was something so special that John knew those rhythms would be influencing him for the rest of his life.

Rodney looked so beautiful sitting there naked on the bed beside him. He was all pale, soft padded flesh, bright eyes, and quivering excitement. For all that this was the first time they'd been naked together with intent and he now had the right to look at other, more tantalizing places, John could barely take his eyes from that expressive face. He loved how changeable it was, how Rodney could make someone cringe with the contempt contained in the arch of an eyebrow or melt from that adorable glow Rodney got when happy.

John finally forced his gaze away from the familiar terrain of Rodney's face, letting it drop to unexplored territory. He'd charted that artistically downed chest with both gaze and fingers so well in the last half hour that John thought he knew it by heart now. But the area below that was virgin territory to him. Brief glimpses in their tent or in the men's room in no way prepared John. His pulse pounded faster as he took in the rosy flesh of that erect cock. Rising from its bed of neat brown pubic curls and those heavy pink balls, Rodney's shaft was beautifully formed, thick and meaty, but not too big with it.

Rodney shifted under his gaze and asked, "What happens now?"

Remembering that this was Rodney's first time with a guy, John assured in a soft tone, "That's all up to you. What do you normally do at this point?"

Rodney gave a self-conscious smile and a wry, "Freak out."

Appreciating how honest Rodney was being with him, John asked in a light voice, "Let's skip that part, okay?"

"Sounds like a plan. You, ah, must have had some idea what you wanted to do when we got to this portion of the proceedings," Rodney said.

Rodney was handling this great, but John knew there had to be things he wasn't exactly sanguine about yet. "I'll do anything you're okay with. It's all good to me."

He heard Rodney gulp. "I, um, don't know what I'm doing here yet. I'm probably not going to be too good at it. You've, uh, probably been with some pretty good-looking guys."

Realizing what was called for, John softly offered, "Yeah, but they all pale in comparison. None of them had that McKay style or your peaches and cream skin. They certainly didn't have those crystal blue eyes of yours or that sexy mouth."

All of those seemed like non-threatening compliments. John could have said more, because he'd spent more time admiring Rodney's ass than he cared to admit, but he didn't want to come on too strong, not when Rodney was doing so well handling the guy-parts difference.

"You sound like you mean that," Rodney sounded stunned.

Recognizing that Rodney wasn't used to someone actively wanting him, John reminded, "I've wanted to kiss you for forever. How could I not mean it?"

"Kiss me now?" Rodney almost pleaded.

John was only too happy to oblige him. He was so grateful for the gracious way Rodney had dismissed that whole shooting him issue and his subsequent loss of control that he just wanted to melt into Rodney

John leaned forward and took Rodney into his arms again. Then he took Rodney's mouth in one of those long, deep, open-mouthed kisses that felt so right between them. He tried to put everything he felt for Rodney into that kiss, tried to let Rodney know how important he was to him.

When they parted a long, breathless time later, Rodney still looked as if he couldn't believe what was happening between them. Wanting to ease any lingering worries, John softly commented, "Nice, very nice."

It was almost sad how pleased the throw-away compliment made Rodney. All the tension left his face and he relaxed back against the pillows. "I, um, was afraid you might be disappointed. I'm not what you'd call leading man material. I can always tell in their eyes when, you know."

John got the gist of it.

"You're never going to see that in my eyes," John promised. "You've been the leading man in every dream in this bed for the last three years."

John wasn't sure if Rodney would want to hear something like that. It wasn't exactly polite or proper to admit that he'd fantasized about him. But Rodney lit up with almost childlike pleasure.

"Really?"

His throat tightening up on him, John nodded. When he found his voice, he offered a soft, "Just having you here like this is some major wish fulfillment."

Rodney's expression became strangely serious. "You know you're killing me here, don't you?"

John froze, not sure how Rodney meant the words. Maybe he'd come on too strong. "I , ah, I'm sorry. I – "

"No," Rodney said, sliding closer and laying a hand on his shoulder, "Don't apologize. I've been with maybe a dozen women in my life. It was never . . . I never meant anything to them. The way you look at me, the way you touch me, you make me feel special. I never felt that way before."

John couldn't have held back from the ensuing kiss if his life had been at stake. He drew Rodney on top of him.

The feel of that hard cock settling carefully against his own nearly sent him spiraling into orgasm. All that bare, warm flesh pressing down on him as they kissed was the most perfect sensation John could remember experiencing. As he lost himself in the kiss and the glide of that sleek skin under his roving palms, John determined that he'd make sure Rodney knew just how special he was to him.

When he'd charted every bit of Rodney's mouth, he kissed his way over Rodney's dimpled chin, over his neck, to the hollow of his throat. He sampled the salty sweat pooled there before moving down to those enticing pink nubs of nipple that were peeking up through Rodney's sparse, light brown chest hair.

Rodney seemed to liquefy under those attentions. He responded so strongly that John suspected none of his former partners had sucked his nipples before. It was possible. A lot of women didn't think men were responsive there and concentrated their attentions further south.

When he was done with the first nipple, John kissed his way across Rodney's chest to its mate, pausing where Rodney's new crystal dogtag rested to outline the slender blue crystal chip with his tongue. Rodney panted like he was outlining his cock.

When he'd teased that second nipple to its full, John followed that thin line of hair down the center of Rodney's chest. He spent a satisfying time exploring the shallow recess of Rodney's belly button before picking up that hair trail again and tracking it to its source.

Both of them seemed to freeze when John reached Rodney's groin. John was already buzzed from all that tactile exploration. The scent of Rodney's sweet musk just about undid him.

If John had any doubts about whether Rodney was into what they were doing, Rodney's erection would have been more than enough to dispel them. Rodney's cock was already full, rising like some kind of archetype of male sexuality above the fleshy whiteness of his lower abdomen. He was beautiful, and entirely hot.

John breathed him in deeply, and saw Rodney shiver as he realized what he was doing. John tensed, waiting for the comment most people would have made at that point on his weird behavior, but Rodney just reached out to stroke his hair and trace the pointed tip of his right ear as though nothing untoward had occurred.

Relaxing, John reached out to collect that sexy prize into his hand. He knew one cock wasn't very different from another when it came to feel, but Rodney's shaft seemed to fit perfectly into his fist.

There was still some part of him that feared Rodney would react badly to this. But the whimper Rodney gave when John finally touched him was the hottest thing ever.

John gave that beautiful cock in his hand a careful tug, his other hand moving to explore the velvety softness of those heavy pink balls. Looking up at his lover's face, John thought that Rodney looked as if he were totally blown away by even this simple exploration.

Wanting Rodney to know true pleasure, John lowered his head. If there was one thing he was skilled at in this world, it was this. He knew he could make Rodney feel good.

That moist cock fit into his mouth as perfectly as it had his hand. Its salty flavor exploded through him. Rolling those wonderfully soft balls, John began to suck.

He'd never made anyone actually writhe with pleasure before, but there was no other definition for the tossing Rodney was doing as John deep-throated that magnificent cock and made it his. Rodney was making these incoherent, pleased sounding whimper-moans that made John feel like a god.

He used his tongue tip to outline the head of Rodney's cock and trace delicate patterns across its spongy tip. He didn't neglect that sensitive spot on the underside of the shaft, either. His tongue dallied there, driving Rodney wild were the sounds he was making anything to go by, before he settled down to some major league sucking. Rodney's fingers dug into John's hair, clenching it in his fists as if he were holding on for dear life as John's head bobbed up and down in eager service.

A couple of minutes later, John was rewarded with an eruption of thick, bitter seed. Spurt after powerful spurt bathed the back of his throat as Rodney's body shuddered in climax.

John swallowed him down, loving every minute of it. Glancing up at Rodney's face, he could see that Rodney was enjoying it just as much as he was. In fact, there was a stunned quality to Rodney's flushed features that seemed to indicate he couldn't believe what was happening.

As the last shudder faded and Rodney opened his eyes and focused, their gazes met and held.

It was like looking into Rodney's soul, the man was that open. What John read there rocked him to his core.

John had hoped that this would be good enough to make Rodney want more. He'd endeavored to please and maybe whet Rodney's appetite. But it wasn't simple pleasure or even gratitude in Rodney's eyes. Rodney was looking at him with something like awe, regarding him as though John were that god Rodney had made him feel like a few minutes ago.

John didn't know if he'd ever seen Rodney truly struck speechless before.

Their eyes seemed to be saying things to each other that John's heart liked, even if his brain couldn't interpret what was going on. After an eternity of that silent communication, Rodney surprised him by reaching out to gather him into his arms.

Rodney lay flat on his back and drew John on top of him. That felt even better than having Rodney's weight on top of him.

His about-to-explode cock pressed against Rodney's deflated shaft in mindless need. Even that small liberty felt like heaven to him.

Rodney took his mouth in one of those mind-altering kisses. John moaned into it as those wide, square hands took possession of his butt. They felt so good on him, so strong and powerful. When they squeezed his buttocks together, his whole body blazed with pleasure.

Helpless, John humped against that wonderful warmth beneath him, throwing everything he was into the kiss. It felt like Rodney was in perfect sync with him Those gripping hands on his butt encouraged his thrusts while Rodney's tongue engaged his own in an intimate, wet dance.

John had experienced dozens of really hot, first-time, well, only-time encounters, but not a one of them had been like this. Every cell in his body felt like it were reaching out to embrace Rodney. What's more, he imagined he felt Rodney doing the same with him.

Then his body reached critical mass and he was coming all over Rodney's groin, belly and thighs. The feeling of blending with Rodney seemed to get even stronger then. John felt like he was literally melting into the man.

That seemed to be more than okay with Rodney if the way his arms rose from John's butt to hold him tight were any indication.

They lay basking in that lambent afterglow for an eternity, kissing and breathing in each other's scent and the smell of sex all around them.

Finally, Rodney stirred to lean up to kiss his forehead in an oddly reverent gesture. While there, he whispered against John's skin, "You didn't warn me you were addictive."

It was like this guy knew him inside out. Rodney's words were perfect and they completed what the sex had started. As Rodney leaned back to meet his eyes, John really felt as if a part of himself were buried somewhere deep inside that pale, handsome chest.

"You know those points you earned with that Sheppard's Family gesture?" John asked. At Rodney's nod, he continued, "Well, you're off the scoreboard now, you're so high."

"Can we do that again?" Rodney asked. "Like now?"

John chuckled. He'd come like a freight train. He suspected it was the same for Rodney. "You really up to it?"

"Well, not at this moment, but give me ten minutes and . . . ."

"You'll be sound asleep, just like me," John said with a laugh. Already, that lovely post-sex lethargy was making its way through his system.

Rodney settled his head onto the pillow beside him, turning to face him. John followed suit.

After a moment of just staring, Rodney reached out to rub the skin on John's shoulder. A trace of that awe John had seen was back in his expression as Rodney said, "I, uh, wasn't expecting it to be like that."

For once, John didn't feel the need to tense up. Stroking Rodney's back, he gave a contented, "Like what?"

"You know how it felt the first time we took a jumper into space – that feeling that you'd never done something before, but that it was what you were born to do?" Rodney asked.

John wondered if Rodney had any idea what he'd just said. His throat tightening up, John nodded and waited.

"It was like that," Rodney continued. "I thought the guy parts would make it all awkward and weird, but . . . . My whole life, sex always felt good, but it was never easy. There was always more stress than fun. This wasn't like that. It wasn't scary, either. I thought it would be scary, but you didn't . . . I guess I'm just trying to say . . . ."

He didn't know how Rodney managed it, but the guy had a knack for making him feel good. Yesterday's nightmare in the virtual reality machine had shown him how easily this could go bad. That Rodney could give him the whole world while babbling away like this was a gift beyond measure. Feeling like it wouldn't take much to turn him into an embarrassing puddle of mush, John whispered, "Thank you."

Rodney gave him one of those blindingly sweet smiles and said, "Yeah, that was what I was trying to say."

"No," John said. "I was thanking you."

"For what?"

Stunned, John realized that Rodney was serious. He honestly didn't seem to get what he'd done for him here tonight. Needing Rodney to know, John said, "For taking a totally humiliating situation and turning it into a dream come true. This could have been an instant replay of yesterday . . . well, without the outing me part, but . . . you . . . ."

"I – what?" Rodney questioned, a strange expression on his face. "Let you give me the best sex ever? Do you even have a clue how amazing you are?"

That tightness in his throat had turned into a full fledged lump.

"Seriously, you're . . . it was all good," Rodney said.

The feelings were too much for him. Needing more contact, John wrapped an arm around Rodney's waist and rested his right leg across Rodney's hairy calf. Cuddling close, he said, "I know you sure made every one of my wishes come true. It was the best Christmas ever. Thanks to you."

Rodney was quiet for a few seconds before answering in a thoughtful tone, "I don't know if you should be thanking me."

"Huh?" John asked. "Who else?"

"Promise you won't laugh?" Rodney said. At John's nod, Rodney continued, "Well, I've been thinking about that Ancient I met, Robur."

"And?" John knew that what Rodney was saying should make sense, but Rodney's conversations could be hard to follow at the best of times. Since no one could be expected to be too coherent after the kind of mind-blowing climax he'd just had, John hoped that Rodney would cut him some slack and not hold it against him that he was so slow after sex. Content to listen to whatever Rodney might have to say, he lay back and waited. Somehow, he wasn't surprised that Rodney would be talkative after sex.

"Well, when I asked him about the form he'd taken, Robur said he chose that figure because it represented a benevolent winter spirit in our minds. It seemed to make sense at the time, what with the whole winter, well, arctic-wonderland thing that was going on with that planet, only . . . it doesn't make all that much sense now."

"How's that?" John asked, trying to rally his wits because whatever the problem was, it seemed important to Rodney. It was hard to focus, though. He was just enjoying how intimate it felt to be having this kind of conversation with Rodney in his bed after sex.

"Well, Robur told me that he didn't expect anyone to be able to see him and that I was the only one who could because that nanite virus I was exposed to turned on a part of my brain most people don't use," Rodney explained.

"That makes sense," John said.

"Yeah, but . . . if Robur didn't expect or want to be seen, then why did he take on a physical appearance at all? Why didn't he just stay in his energy form?" Rodney asked.

"Ah . . . I don't know. That's a good question," John said around a yawn.

Clearly, this whole issue had been troubling Rodney, for he continued in a tone way too serious for a man who'd just experienced the kind of orgasm he had, "I think he wanted me to see him specifically and that he was very careful about the form he chose."

Trying to follow, John gave a sleepy, "Hmmm?"

"Well, the Ghost of Christmas Present was the least frightening of the three spirits that visited Scrooge. But, it was that spirit that showed Scrooge how he could change his life around by highlighting the important things he was missing in his present. Do you think Robur was doing that for me? Showing me how I could change my present?"

That woke John up. "By taking you on a sight-seeing tour of Teyla, Ronon, and my deepest fears?"

"Um, yeah. I mean, we wouldn't be here now if I hadn't shared that virtual reality with you yesterday," Rodney pointed out.

Seeing how serious and how genuinely troubled Rodney was by the whole idea, John said, "You're not Scrooge, Rodney. You're a good man. There's no reason a spirit would visit you in the night to show you the errors of your ways."

"But I was blind to the important stuff, just like Scrooge," Rodney argued.

"No, you weren't," John denied. "Maybe you were a little near-sighted about some stuff, but when it came to the important things, you were always there for all of us. Just look at yesterday if you have any doubts. That wasn't about teaching you a lesson. That was about rescuing your team. And you did it, just like you always do. So quit trying to add some deeper meaning to that Ancient showing up. It had nothing to do with you."

"So why was I the only one who could see him?" Rodney demanded with the persistence of an overtired child.

John sighed, smiled, and said in a joking voice, "Rodney, the entire universe isn't about you."

"There, see. Even you think my character needs correcting. I mean, if the Ghost of Christmas Present is hanging out on some planet, what's to say the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come isn't lying in wait on some other world, just waiting to bury me in chains?"

John couldn't help it. He laughed. Seeing that Rodney wasn't the least bit amused, he leaned forward and kissed him. It seemed like Rodney fell into the kiss in spite of himself.

When they drew apart a long time later, John gave a sleepy, "Have it your own way, Ebenezer."

"This is serious," Rodney protested in that endearing, fretful tone he had.

"Do you really think Ronon, Teyla, or I are going to let some ghost bury you in chains?" John asked, totally exasperated. Rodney was supposed to be the rational one in his team. He gave the dogtags around Rodney's neck a playful tug and reminded, "Families look after each other, remember?"

That seemed to derail the growing panic attack. John watched with relief as something like calmness returned to Rodney's features.

"I don't know what that encounter with the Ancient was about," John said, drawing Rodney's head onto his shoulder and rubbing his palm over his back. "All I know is it got us here, so it had to be good, right?"

Rodney gave a nod and settled down with a deep sigh half on top of him.

"I really do feel as lucky as Scrooge, though," Rodney whispered after a few sleepy kisses and some major cuddling.

John smiled into the top of Rodney's head and admitted, "Me, too. Let's get under the covers and go to sleep now, okay?"

"You want me to stay the night?" Rodney questioned, obviously in full worry mode. Still appearing fretful, Rodney shifted so that John could pull the comforter out from beneath them and cover them both. "Someone might see me leaving in the morning."

John really hadn't thought about that. In fact, he hadn't considered how they'd handle this at all. The only thing he knew was that he didn't want Rodney sneaking out of his bed like some thief in the night. He knew his whole world could fall apart if their relationship became common knowledge. He also knew without a doubt that his Rodney would be standing right there beside him, should that happen, and somehow that made the possibility less terrifying. Giving Rodney a squeeze, he whispered back, "Then they'll see you leaving. You're not the only one who learned some lessons in that ghostly visitation."

A weighty pause followed before Rodney gave a pleased sounding, "Oh," and finally settled down in his arms.

To John's startled amusement, Rodney was out like a light the instant he decided to turn off his brain. Giving that high forehead one last kiss, John breathed in Rodney's scent and gave himself over to sleep, a golden glow seeming to embrace them both. Maybe he was imagining it, or maybe he'd just left one of the DVDs in the machine and his ATA gene turned it on, but in that moment of half-wakefulness, John really thought he saw a huge bearded, glowing figure in green robes grinning down at him.

His brain catching up with what he'd thought he'd seen, his eyes shot open. A thought brought the lights up, but the room was empty. The only thing on the floor besides the bed was their discarded clothing.

Rodney didn't even stir at the disruption. John thought the lights off and settled back down, curling around Rodney's warmth.

Maybe Rodney hadn't been all wrong about the Ancient's motivations, John thought. Whatever the case, he decided that he would keep what he'd just seen to himself, unless of course the Ancient decided to hang around, in which case, he was going to have to bring the whole thing up to Elizabeth. Grinning as he imagined that particular conversation, John held Rodney closer, gave silent thanks to his other worldly visitor for possibly making this happen, and finally went to sleep.

As he drifted off, he imagined he could hear winds howling and the musical tinkle of icicles. It brought cold visions of swirling snow to his sleeping mind, but John just wrapped himself tighter around Rodney, and everything was all right in his world. It was Christmas and he'd gotten his heart's desire. It didn't get any better than this.

The End.

Author's Notes: As ever, my deepest thanks to my incredible beta, Silver_Cyanne. Your story instincts are so good, they're scary, honey. And many thanks to Teyawulf for inspiration.

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