Category: Atlantis, Sheppard/Weir UST
Spoilers: None. Set in season one.
Summary: It's never to late to start.
Author's Notes: I wrote this one for Christmas 2004, but it failed beta (*snuggles besyd*) and I didn't get around to fixing it until last month when I started digging through the archives. It hasn't been re-betaed, but I'm setting it free anyway. I love the first season forever and ever, and Christmas stories are always appropriate on Canada Day. :)
According to his watch, Elizabeth had been on the balcony for at least half an hour.
It hadn't really been in John's game plan for the evening to keep an eye on her. He had no real reason to. She had seemed happier than most at the beginning of the Christmas party they'd cobbled together (the "Christmas decorations" of stale popcorn strung on bailing wire and paper-chains made from old MRE bags were particularly depressing, and he wasn't sure he wanted to address Grodin's idea of pasting a star at the top of one of the dead Ancient potted twigs and calling it a Christmas tree). Elizabeth had cheerfully proposed an eloquent toast and had even joined in on the first few times through "Deck the Halls."
After making the rounds with him for a while, wishing merry at everyone they came across, she had slipped out to be alone. He'd been tempted to follow her right away, but held himself back. Everyone had been a little more homesick than usual, lately. He'd never thought that a lack of holiday muzak piped through mall speakers would create a void in his life.
Half an hour, though, was excessive. Even if she wanted to spend the evening brooding alone, he wasn't going to let her. There was no way he was going to deal with Ford and Grodin trying to remember all the verses to the Twelve Days of Christmas by himself.
It really was a lot quieter out here, he realized as the doors swished closed. Perhaps Elizabeth had the right idea. Muffled through whatever the Ancients had used to build walls around here, even Zelenka sounded less off-key.
"Hey," he said when she didn't turn around, so he didn't feel like he was sneaking up on her. "Avoiding the party?"
"What?" Elizabeth started. She didn't look like she was brooding too much. She even quirked a bit of a smile at him, the half-smirk that seemed to turn up on her face whenver nothing terrible was happening. "Have I been out here long?"
He could have told her exactly how many minutes, but that seemed... creepy. "We can't last long without you," he offered instead with a smirk of his own. "Are you doing okay?"
She nodded. "Just got lost for a bit there. Thinking."
"About?" He was pretty sure he could guess the answer, given where almost everyone's thoughts had been as the holidays grew closer. "Home?"
"Santa Claus." She tilted her head toward him in acknowledgement of his guess. "And home."
"Santa Claus?" John could only imagine this was going to be good, and joined her leaning against the railing looking out at the ocean and stars, close enough to feel warmth radiating from the bare skin of Elizabeth's arms. December on the Earth calendar seemed to fall a few months into what appeared to be the long, hot Atlantis summer, warm even at night. Though he tended to prefer the cold himself -- had, even, before a long tour in Antarctica -- he had to admit, with a guilty glance at Elizabeth's low-cut collar, that there was something to be said for this weather.
"There was something of a Santa Claus revival in my house when I was thirteen," she explained with a nostalgic smile, an expression he hadn't seen on her before. Not that he made special effort to catalogue his boss' smiles... but they tended to be memorable. "My little brother had figured out the big Santa Claus secret a few years earlier, and we all decided that Christmas was... emptier without it. So we started playing along again. I think my parents thought we were insane."
"They probably thought it was cute," he argued, trying to picture a teenaged Elizabeth Weir. Gangly, maybe, not having quite grown into herself yet. Way too smart for her own good. Probably still the wet dream of most of the thirteen-year-old boys in her neighborhood. He could imagine that she kept her father awake at night worrying, though he didn't yet know her well enough to say if Mr. Weir would've been worrying for good reason or not.
"Maybe they did. We still put out milk and cookies every year." She shrugged her shoulders minutely, still staring out at the alien ocean. "Well, I guess they do."
He wanted to take her hand, suddenly, to make her feel less alone or to share in her warm holiday family memories, he wasn't sure. Christmas with the Sheppards (or the Bakers, once his mother had taken back her name) wasn't really something he missed.
He kept his hands to himself. She never seemed to mind casual contact, but out here, alone on the balcony. as she told him stories about her childhood (and he'd never heard her tell anyone anything personal before), a squeeze of her hand might be taken as something a lot less casual. And she'd shown no indications of wanting that.
Or, not enough indications. There were moments when he could swear she was flirting with him, that she was giving him an opening, but he hadn't quite sorted out how to explore it. He was usually a lot better at this, but then, he usually knew exactly what he wanted from women.
From this one, he couldn't figure it out.
"That sounds nice," he said, picturing a greeting-card family setting out freshly-baked cookies on a plate next to a row of stockings.
Apparently done revealing things about herself, Elizabeth turned the tables. "What about you?" She grinned, the impish one that wrinkled her nose just slightly. "I'll bet you laid an elaborate trap for Santa Claus and figured it all out by the age of four."
That did, indeed, sound like something he would do, but... "I don't remember ever believing in Santa Claus."
"Really? That's awful!" She was the one to touch him, just a nudge from her arm, but the heat from her bare skin shot right to his stomach. "It's never too late to start, you know."
He had to laugh at her. A terminal optimist and she believed in Santa Claus. "Maybe."
"It's your loss, Major," she chided and pushed herself away from the balcony to standing. "Should we rejoin the party?"
They should, but he didn't really want to. "Do you remember what happened on the tenth day of Christmas? They're probably still stuck on that."
Her eyes went skyward for a moment and he could almost hear her humming in her head. "Lords. A-leaping."
"It's a gift."
He mirrored her smile without thinking about it, and wished there was a way to get rid of the last of the sad longing still in her eyes. "Merry Christmas, Elizabeth." They'd both said it to dozens of other people at the party, but he'd yet to say it to her.
She paused a moment before replying. "Merry Christmas."
It had been a long, long week.
By New Year's on the Earth-adjusted calendar, their first Christmas season was officially over. The paper chains had all been torn down, the "it-kind-of-looks-like-eggnog"-induced hangovers had passed, and people had stopped arguing about which day the drummers had drummed. Grodin's sad little tree was still up, shoved in a corner and looking somehow even more bedraggled, but that was just because no one had taken the time to dispose of it as business returned to its normal, harried pace.
John's team had returned unharmed from their mission through the Stargate, but Sergeant Bates and his team had gotten themselves involved in a drawn-out hostage situation on a hostile world that had delayed them by almost three days.
Her teams were all home now, finally, and blessedly unharmed.
Elizabeth Weir was exhausted.
After a brief detour by the infirmary to get Carson's expert reassurance that everyone was fine and to make sure Bates had nothing pressing to report that couldn't wait until the morning debriefing, she made it to her quarters. The automatic doors slid shut behind her, and she couldn't help but let out an audible sigh.
Finally. She didn't even know how long it had been since she'd slept properly in her own bed. 2005 was looking to be just as crazy as 2004, and that had been the year that had taken her from not-quite-mild-mannered diplomat and visiting university professor to intergalactic traveler. It was hard to imagine this new year could top that, but then, a year ago her imagination could never have conjured up an alien city in a galaxy full of life-sucking villains, and now here she was in 2005.
At least, she thought it was 2005 already; with a pencil and scratch paper she was usually able to adjust for Atlantis' nearly 28-hour day, but at the moment she was too worn out for math.
She was just about to strip her clothes off and fall into bed when she realized something was amiss. The hair on the back of her neck pricked with the instinctive knowledge that someone else had been in her room. A quick glance around the small space revealed that the intruder was no longer there, but there was something unexpected on her nightstand.
Instantly, all thoughts of the day were pushed aside to make room for the childish curiosity and excitement that made her step closer.
What she was calling wrapping looked like scrap cloth from the pile of torn garments they were collecting in one of the storage rooms in case of future textile desperation. The fabric was gathered around a small object and was held together with a rope knotted into a bow. It was heavy in her hand, like a stone, and she could feel an odd shape of lines and curves through the cloth.
With one last check over her shoulder to make sure she wasn't being watched, Elizabeth tugged on one end of the rope and unwrapped her surprise gift.
She actually gasped. The crystal figurine inside was beautiful. The part of her brain that was steeped in the alien mythologies of the Pegasus galaxy recognized the style from artifacts found among some local human cultures, but she couldn't think about that for long. The subjective loveliness of the small statue easily overrode any potential academic conclusions. The crystal itself was a deep purple, flecked with other colours -- gold and black and blue, just at first glance -- that seemed to dance and change with the light. The figure was meant to be an Ancient, probably, and definitely female. The crystal woman was holding up the world.
Elizabeth picked it up to get a closer look, and that's when she saw the note, wrapped up along with the statue and penned in familiar, distinctive handwriting:
Sorry it's late. The reindeer had to stop and rest between galaxies.
Her heart pounded and she was suddenly choked with an emotion she couldn't name, something between gratitude and wonder and hope.
A few minutes ago she had been dead on her feet and headed directly to sleep, but her thanks for this couldn't wait until morning. Holding the crystal woman and the note close to her chest, Elizabeth took off in search of John Sheppard.
He wasn't in his quarters -- where she would have expected to find him at this hour -- but a hunch told her to swing by the mess hall on her way to check the control room. This late at night and between shift changes, the mess was usually empty, but John and Rodney were sitting at a table in the corner picking at mostly-empty trays.
"Elizabeth!" Rodney was the one who noticed her entrance. "Weren't you going to bed?"
"I was," she acknowledged. "Weren't you?" After seeing that John wasn't alone, she had slipped the gift to one hand and was holding it almost behind her back. It wasn't that it was anything inappropriate, but for some reason she suspected that John wouldn't want it broadcast through the city that he'd been moonlighting as her Santa Claus. He'd left it for her in her quarters, after all, when it would have been easier to give it to her in her office or a public space. Rodney was on his team, and had no doubt been with him on the planet where he'd somehow procured it, but she suspected that John would have managed to conduct the transaction under the radar if he really didn't want anyone else to know.
Rodney was shaking his head as he chewed and swallowed a last mouthful of whatever had been on their limited menu that evening and washed it down with a swig of coffee. "I had this idea about that foreign interface we found in section 8 last week. Remember how we couldn't get any power to the terminal because the conductive pathways were so corroded, and we didn't have anything compatible to replace them with?"
"I thought you'd abandoned that project." She let her glance slide over to John, who looked back up at her with a shrug that suggested both that Rodney had been going on about this for quite a while, and that it wasn't particularly interesting. Though that was his typical reaction when faced with concentrated doses of McKay in pure-science mode, and he wasn't consciously giving anything away, she noticed something excited and curious in his expression. He studied her face just a little too long, probably wondering if she'd been back to her quarters yet or not. Her fingers tightened around the cool crystal in her hand and she tried to smother her reflexive smile.
"And that's when it hit me!" Rodney was still talking, and with a guilty start Elizabeth realized she had missed most of his explanation. "Magnetic fields! Of course you see what this means."
"Not... completely," she admitted, and caught John smirking out of the corner of her eye. "But give me a report whenever you have something more concrete."
"Should have it for you tomorrow. Or... well, definitely by the day after."
"I'm sure she'll be counting down the hours," John chimed in.
"Oh, yes, and I'm sure she just can't sleep until she receives the latest grenade inventory."
"Sorry, Elizabeth." Rodney drained the last of his coffee as he stood up. His "goodnight" was pointedly addressed to her alone.
"Goodnight, Rodney." When he was almost to the door she remembered, and added, "Happy New Year."
"Oh. Is it?" Rodney paused in his stride for a moment and then shrugged. "Huh. Happy New Year, then." The door swished closed behind him, leaving her and John alone in the mess hall.
"Doctor," he finally acknowledged her. "Couldn't sleep?" He was deliberately playing it cool, but she recognized anticipation in him. Either she was getting to know him a lot better, or he wasn't hiding it well.
"Well, something interesting happened." She set the figure on the table. "I got a late Christmas gift from Santa Claus."
"Really?" She thought she saw a hint of color in his cheeks, but John didn't blush as easily as she did, so she might have been imagining it. "He didn't bring me anything," he deadpanned, "but then, I'm not as nice as you."
He smiled that forced smile he used sometimes, and she wondered now whether it wasn't something he did to cover actual emotion he wasn't as comfortable with. She pulled the chair Rodney had vacated a few inches closer to John and perched on the edge of it to be at his eye level, trying to catch and hold his gaze.
"It's beautiful," she said seriously. "Thank you."
He looked awkward and almost shy for a moment, torn between maintaining the pretense or finding something else to say to her in response. It was possible that she shouldn't think her senior military officer was adorable, but at that moment he looked like nothing so much as a little boy with a handmade present for the girl next door.
If she wasn't so exhausted she probably wouldn't have done it, but as it was she was helpless to stop herself from leaning over and touching a kiss to his cheek.
His breath caught in her ear as she pulled back. His eyes were wide with surprise and with something else she couldn't immediately place.
And then she knew, suddenly, that he wanted to kiss her back. To really kiss her.
And that it wasn't the first time he'd thought about it.
Interesting, she thought, to keep from thinking anything else. She wasn't sure how she'd missed this so far, how her mind hadn't put together all the subtle indications when he was around her lately into something... more. Something neither of them should be contemplating, not when they were so far from Earth and running a city together.
Her heart sped up anyway.
To break the silence and quell the shivers still going up and down her spine from the unexpected warmth of his stubble-rough cheek, she took a deep breath and repeated herself: "Thanks."
John cleared his throat, hand sheepishly touching the spot where she'd kissed him. "I thought that would be for Santa." The cocky edge to his voice was back, but not quite as solidly in place as it usually was.
She had to grin. "You can pass it along to him."
He smirked. His fingers brushed against hers on the table.
She didn't pull away.
"It's... uh, an icon," he said, looking at the figure and then back at her. He leaned back an inch as he spoke, and she was more than a little relieved that he seemed just as surprised and nervous as she felt. "The Corathans. The planet we visited last week. They said that after the Ancients created their world, they left one of their kind behind to keep Corath from falling out of the heavens."
"That's interesting." It was a lame answer, but it was the best she could come up with. It had been a long time, her body was saying. She had never been one to jump into things, not even before she had this responsibility laying across her shoulders like a lead blanket, but if they were on Earth right now, if they...
If there were no complications, it would feel good to kiss him.
John touched the crystal statue with one finger. "It's a good story," he said. "Kinda reminded me of... well, this." He shrugged, somehow encompassing all of Atlantis in the movement.
She was seeing a whole other side of John Sheppard. She had always known intuitively that he was thoughtful, but their conversations had rarely touched on that, like he wanted to keep that part of him to himself. He'd brushed off War and Peace like it was pure coincidence, she remembered.
She'd have to work on that.
She suddenly felt guilty that she hadn't gotten a Christmas present for him. She'd brought electronic versions of her favorite books -- Russian literature included -- on her laptop hard drive. She would make a point of sharing them with him.
She squeezed his hand gently. "I'm not holding up the world by myself," she reminded him.
He shrugged and frowned. "Yeah, but-"
She raised an eyebrow, and he stopped mid-argument.
"Thanks," he said instead, running a hand through his hair.
Without her consent, her mouth cracked a yawn. She smiled sheepishly. "It's been a long week."
"I know the feeling."
Elizabeth pushed her chair back from the table. "And it's not over yet, I'm afraid. I should probably turn in."
"Happy New Year," he offered, handing her the statue.
She thought again about kissing him, about coming up with some excuse to spend more time in his presence and delay the end to the evening, but it was late and still a very bad idea. The long year ahead of them didn't need any extra complications.
Friendship, though. She'd get to know him better this year, she resolved.
"Happy New Year, John."
When she returned to her quarters, she gave the Corathan idol a temporary home on her nightstand and sank into bed. She could find a proper place for it in the morning, she decided, looking its comforting shape in the dim light. It probably belonged in her office with the other Pegasus artifacts that had made their way to her through more official channels, but she wanted to keep this one for herself.
Happy New Year, she thought, reading John's card one more time before turning off the light and falling asleep.
She was no closer to her family Christmas tree, but home no longer felt so far away.