Spoilers: References to Before I Sleep, Intruder, Echoes, The Game.

When General O'Neill had first mentioned the idea to Cameron, the colonel thought it was absurd. The Atlantis Expedition had been in the Pegasus Galaxy for four years and, aside from their first trip home after the Wraith siege, had never been called back en masse for a simple meeting. The whole concept seemed a little off. Why bring them all to Earth? Why not conference through the Stargate?

It's only now, as he sits across the booth from a clearly buzzed Major Lorne, that he begins to understand.

The bell above the front door jingles when Elizabeth enters, eyes bright and her cheeks flushed from the cold. She smiles and shakes her head, causing snowflakes to drift lightly to the floor. Colonel Sheppard is close behind her, stomping his boots to knock loose the collected snow. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" floats tinnily from the speakers in the corner and blends with the din of patrons' conversations, but Cameron can still clearly hear Sheppard's laugh as he runs his fingers through his hair and removes his scarf, then reaches to help Elizabeth out of her jacket and hang it on the stand beside them. He turns back to her then and brushes his thumb across her cheek to remove an errant snowflake. She smiles, bringing her own hand up to her face, unconsciously lingering where Sheppard had touched her.

Cameron smiles to himself and lets his gaze sweep further across the room. He sees Sam propped against the red and silver tinsel-lined bar, her chin resting on her hand and her body language projecting a curious combination of boredom laced with annoyance. Beside her a slightly balding man is perched on a barstool, eyes glassy and his puffy cheeks pink from alcohol as he leans into her space to speak in animated tones about something that requires excessive gesticulation. The bartender appears and Sam's shoulders slump in relief when he hands her a drink, upon receipt of which she makes her escape, pivoting to fall into step with Elizabeth as she approaches their booth. Elizabeth stops at the adjacent table, her smile wide as she exchanges pleasantries with someone who must be an old acquaintance.

"Thanks for the heroic rescue, Cam," Sam drawls sarcastically as she slips in next to him.

He waives her off. "Like you couldn't kick his middle-aged ass to next Tuesday."

"Wednesday. But I wouldn't." She takes a deliberate sip of beer. "I'm a lady."

"Only in the loosest sense of the word," he returns easily, earning a slap on the arm.

"So," Elizabeth asks when she finally reaches their table, "is this a Christmas Eve tradition for you?" She scans her surroundings as she slides into the booth beside Lorne. "Endless rounds of beer in a somewhat shady bar?"

"I've only had two." Cameron lifts his bottle and swirls the dregs of his second. "That hardly qualifies as 'endless.'"

"The night is still young," Sheppard supplies as he approaches, a pint in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. He deposits the wine in front of Elizabeth before dragging a chair from a nearby table and pulling it up to the end of their booth.

"John, I didn't –" she protests.

"You wanted to," he counters.

She smiles and allows herself to be convinced. "I guess I did."

"If you're going to spend Christmas Eve in a bar, you're going to drink," Lorne points out. "In fact, considering that this means our social lives are even more pathetic than McKay's – you're not going to stop at mere drinking. You're pretty much obligated to get drunk."

"Here, here." Sam lifts her glass and clinks it against Lorne's.

Cameron rolls his eyes and heaves a giant sigh. "Jesus would be so proud."

Lorne shrugs. "What he doesn't know won't hurt him."

"That's a good motto, Major," Sheppard says between sips. "I'm thinking you should get that tattooed somewhere on your person."

Lorne looks at his commanding officer hopefully. "Really?"

Elizabeth shoots Sheppard a warning glare before turning to Lorne with a disapproving frown. "Perhaps you should embroider it on a pillow instead."

Cameron laughs at the trio before shifting his gaze from one to the other. "So, what do you miss most?"

The question is aimed at all three expedition members, but Sheppard is the first to answer. "Beer," he states without hesitation. "And football."

"That's it?" Elizabeth asks in mock-surprise. "Not your Lazyboy and pork rinds too?"

"Oh and I suppose you miss something grand like, hmm," he places a hand on her shoulder and closes his eyes as if drawing the information from her, "your monthly volunteer sessions at the Humane Society."

She bats at his hand and scowls threateningly.

"Watching Oprah?" Lorne guesses.

"Chocolate and shopping," Cameron declares with conviction, but Elizabeth only rolls her eyes. He tries again. "Starbucks?"

"Wait," Sam holds up a hand and leans forward, "they don't have a Starbucks there?"

The table erupts in to laughter and Lorne shakes his head. "Not yet, but I'm sure they have plans."

It's only a few minutes later, when Elizabeth begins to hum softly, that Cameron realizes the music has changed.

Sheppard notices as well. Bing Crosby's voice almost drowns out Elizabeth's own low melody, but Sheppard is watching her so intently that Cameron imagines he doesn't even hear the old crooner. Curiosity pinching the corners of John's eyes, he says softly, "Elizabeth, I don't know that I've ever heard you hum before."

She flashes a him smile, almost shy but at the same time not at all. "Sometimes I can't help it." She shrugs and drops her head to lean back against the wooden booth. "I like this song."

"I know." His smile is slow and warm. "That's why I put it on."

She can't hide her surprise. "You remembered?"

His tone is the equivalent of a bashful shrug. "It was a quarter well spent if it got you humming." He scoots his chair back and rises, holding out his hand, palm up. "Dance with me?"

Her smile grows into a wide grin and she drops her hand into his, allowing him to pull her to her feet. He doesn't release his hold as he leads her to a clearing between some empty tables. Sheppard says something Cameron can't hear and Elizabeth laughs as he pulls her close, dropping his free hand to her waist.

"How long have they been together?" Cameron asks the major, shifting his attention back to the table.

"The colonel and Dr. Weir?" Lorne shakes his head. "They're not."

Cameron looks again to the makeshift dance floor and sees that Elizabeth's head has come to rest on Sheppard's shoulder, his hands clasped loosely together on the small of her back. "Seriously?"

Lorne nods.

Sam reaches for a pretzel and breaks it in half. "I give it three months," she says before popping the larger piece in her mouth.

"Until they start dating?" Cameron clarifies and Sam nods. "I give it three hours. Look at him. He's like a smitten puppy."

Sam tosses her remaining pretzel at him and Lorne laughs outright before leaning into the table conspiratorially. "You haven't seen anything," he confides.

Cameron feels as though that's up for dispute. He'd definitely argue that he's seeing something right now. "What, you mean it gets worse?"

Lorne takes another pull of his beer. "Much. Let's see," he begins to tick points off with his fingers, "Sheppard brings her tea in the middle of the day, picks up artisan crafts for her when he's off world, pretends not to like his dessert so she can have two – but only when it's her favorite..." He releases a heavy sigh and drums his fingers on the table thoughtfully. "Actually it would all be very endearing if I wasn't forced to listen to an hour long speech every time I'm her escort for negotiations. I mean, I get it... don't let anything happen her."

"So why the hell doesn't he make a move?"

"My best guess? He doesn't know that he's already head over heels for her. Poor sap."

Cameron mulls that over for a moment. Something could probably be done to remedy the situation, assuming that it's handled by one skilled in the devious art of manipulation. He grins to himself. He didn't get either of them a Christmas present, so really, this would be the least he could do. "So our boy needs an epiphany, huh?"

Lorne smiles, the gleam in his eye matching Cameron's. "Yes, sir."

The song ends and a new one begins. Sheppard releases Elizabeth reluctantly, nodding as she makes her way to the back of the bar, and returns to the booth by himself. "Elizabeth had to make a phone call," he explains as he drops into his seat.

It's almost too easy. "Boyfriend?" Cameron guesses in a deceptively bland tone – just to gauge his reaction.

Sheppard's response is immediate, his face flashing from surprise to concern. "No," he answers quickly. "No I don't think so."

"Really," Cameron runs his finger over his chin thoughtfully, "you'd think someone as beautiful as Dr. Weir would be taken."

"It's not for lack of options," Lorne supplies helpfully. "There are plenty of men on Atlantis who are very much interested in the good doctor."

Sheppard's fingers clench around the base of his beer and Cameron bites back a grin. "Like who?"

Lorne shrugs casually. "It'd be easier to ask who wasn't." Cameron makes a mental note to include the major's name on the Christmas card. With a show this well oiled, maybe they could go into business.

"An entire expedition pining over one woman and not a single one has the guts to make a move?" Sam scrunches her face in disapproval. "That's pathetic."

Cameron leans forward on his elbows, ignoring Sheppard completely. "What about you, Lorne? You seem like a guy who gets what he wants. Afraid of a little rejection?"

The major smiles devilishly. "No, sir," he answers, sliding out of the booth just as Elizabeth returns to the table.

"Going somewhere, Major?" she asks.

"Well, that all depends on you, ma'am," Lorne lays on the charm. At Elizabeth's questioning eyebrow he continues, "May I have this dance?"

She answers in the affirmative and allows Lorne to escort her across the bar, his hand dropping to the small of her back as he guides her between tables.

Cameron watches Sheppard as his eyes follow the pair. When he cranes his neck around to get a better look, Cameron has to smother his grin.

"Looks like Elizabeth found an admirer," Cameron's voice is mild as he nods across the bar, but he cuts a knowing look at the man beside him. "So, why'd you let him do it?"

Sheppard barely manages to tear his eyes away and has trouble focusing on the question. "What?"

Cameron inclines his head toward the dance floor where Elizabeth is dropping her hand into Lorne's. "Why'd you let him snag your girl?" he repeats.

"She's not my girl."

Sam 1snorts an eloquent opinion on that sentiment.

"What? She's not," he protests quickly. "We're just friends."

"And I'm a four-star general."

Elizabeth's laughter cuts through the music and when Sheppard's eyes dart to her Cameron stomps on his foot. "Don't look," he admonishes. "Play it a little closer to the vest, man. You can let 'em sweat it out a little. No wonder you're having trouble keeping her interested."

"What? I'm not having trouble..." Suddenly realizing that he's only digging himself a hole from which there is no safe escape, he squirms and executes a strategic retreat. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You really shouldn't listen to Cam," Sam advises as she eyes him pointedly. "He doesn't have the best track record."

Cameron doesn't bother denying it – it wouldn't be worth the effort. "But the best way to learn is from mistakes, right?" He points to himself. "I'm your man."

Sheppard 1sneaks an inscrutable glimpse at Cameron before letting his gaze wander back to the dance floor where Lorne is lifting Elizabeth's hands to set them behind his neck.

"Shep," Cameron clucks his tongue and pinches him to get his attention.

"Hey!"

"Lesson number one: don't stare."

"It's kind of cute," Sam argues with a wistful sigh. "Flattering, anyway. He can't take his eyes off of her."

Cameron gives her an arch look. "He's staring at her like she's a shot of whiskey in an AA meeting. She knows she's got him in the palm of her hand." He turns to Sheppard. "Which is where you very well may be, but you don't want her to know that," he explains with exaggerated patience, "which is lesson B. Don't let her know you're interested."

Sheppard scoffs and focuses intently on his beer. "I don't stare at her. Elizabeth and I are just friends. So, while appreciate your general concern for my welfare, I don't need a crash course in relationships." He indicates the dancing pair with a tilt of his head. "I'm sure she and Lorne will be very happy together."

Cameron leans back against the booth with an indulgent sigh and takes another pull from his beer. "Okay, I see. Friends. So you'd be fine with her dating someone else," Cameron expands, his laughing eyes suggesting that he knows the answer. "You won't mind that you won't be the one that takes her coat, brings her tea – the one she tells about her favorite songs or future aspirations..."

"Sappy," Sam mutters under her breath.

"Hey," Cameron defends, "I'm trying to make a point here."

"And what point would that be? That you're as much of a hopeless romantic as Sheppard is but you just don't have a woman?"

"Very funny," he deadpans. "The point being that even if Shep has deluded himself to the point where he truly believes that this is all in the name of friendship, his carefully forged fiction will come crashing down the minute he sees her with someone else."

Sheppard grunts. "Who are you? Doctor Ruth?"

Cameron folds his arms across his chest and a wicked gleam appears in his eyes. "All right, fine. Let's put it to a test. When Elizabeth gets back try and interact with her as if your relationship is completely platonic. No touching, staring, mooning or flirting. If you last more than ten minutes, the next round is on me – if you break, the round is on you."

"So, either way I get a free beer," Sam points out as she scoots her empty glass to the middle of the table. She grins. "I like this plan."

"I do not moon."

Cameron laughs. "We'll see."

Elizabeth and Lorne return to their seats a moment later and Sheppard makes a concerted effort to look anywhere but at her, instead grabbing the bowl of pretzels and pulling it toward him, hunching over it and digging in with a zeal rarely afforded a mere snack food.

Curious at his odd behavior, Elizabeth watches him for a moment. "You're not going to share those with the rest of the table?" she asks, causing Sheppard's hand to freeze mid-fistful. He doesn't answer, instead shaking his head jerkily before dropping the remaining pretzels back into the dish and shoving it across the table toward her.

"...Thanks." She looks a little quizzically at Sam who only shrugs in response.

"He's such a gentleman," Cameron comments guilelessly.

Sheppard's head shoots up and he directs a piercing gaze at Cameron, his eyes obviously trying to spell out shut the hell up.

"He really is," Lorne insists, turning to Elizabeth. "Remember that time you collapsed and he carried you all the way to the infirmary?"

"Carried?" Cameron echoes, grinning smugly.

Sheppard gives his collar a tug and shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "She passed out," he protests defensively. "It could have been anybody." He affects an exaggerated casualness. "Hell, I would have carried Zelenka."

Cameron continues to smile unabashedly at him from across the table.

"I never did thank you for that John," Elizabeth says, turning in her seat to face him and dropping a light hand on his forearm. The moment she touches him he jerks away as if burned. A look of hurt flickers across her face as she returns her hand to her lap, clearly confused. Sheppard forces a cough and puts his hand up to his mouth, still stubbornly avoiding her gaze.

Elizabeth gives him one last wary look before shaking it off and turning to Sam. "Did you know that McKay named a whale after you?"

Sam rolls her eyes. "How romantic. I suppose he thinks I look like a whale?"

"Fish," Sheppard corrects and Elizabeth laughs. He tries not to look too relieved, but he's clearly grateful that she is directing them back to safer topics of conversation.

"That's right," she agrees, "it was actually a giant fish."

"One that made our eardrums rupture," Lorne adds. "We really should have named them after McKay. He makes my ears bleed too."

"You're so cruel," Elizabeth chides good-naturedly.

"Oh, right, like he doesn't give you headaches," Sheppard jumps to Lorne's defense. "I know you keep aspirin in that jar I gave you."

"The one you put the ashes in?" Lorne's face turns sour. "I hope you washed it out first."

Elizabeth laughs. "No, not that one, the other one."

"Other one?" Cameron asks with interest. Sheppard narrows his eyes at him but can't prevent the inevitable. "Shep has given you multiple jars?"

"She likes jars," John grumbles, scooting back in his seat and frowning. He allows himself a quick glance at her. "You do like jars, don't you?"

"They're beautiful," she assures him with a smile.

"McKay also designed his fictional country's leader in your image," Lorne explains to Sam, causing her to sigh again.

"Did she look like a whale?" Cameron asks mildly.

"I am so baking him a lemon fruitcake for Christmas," Sam grouses.

Lorne starts laughing and points to Sheppard. "Remember that time you tried to bake Dr. Weir a birthday cake with ingredients from the Athosians? Man, that tasted as bad as it looked."

"You did what?" Elizabeth turns to face him. "You baked a cake?"

Sheppard's face turns bright red and Cameron is almost certain that if Elizabeth wasn't between them he would be kicking Lorne under the table.

Instead he bites back a groan. "I was just... I wanted to..."

"Why didn't I know about this?" she asks again.

"Trust me, ma'am," Lorne says, oblivious to the death rays shooting out of Sheppard's eyes, "you're better off having known nothing about it. It was seriously the worst thing I've ever tasted. And I've had my fair share of disgusting food."

Elizabeth laughs with him and takes the last sip of her wine. The moment her glass hits the table John is on his feet. "I'll get you a..." he trails off awkwardly when he realizes what he's doing. "Damn it," he says under his breath before collecting all of the empty glasses. His voice is tight and controlled. "This is ridiculous. I'm just going to get everyone another round."

Elizabeth frowns pensively at his retreating figure. "What's the matter with John? Why is he so uptight?"

"Oh, I don't know," Cameron replies without missing a beat, "maybe because he's desperately in love with you and living in complete denial?"

He expects her to flush, to evade or deny, but clearly he has underestimated her. Instead, the corner of her mouth quirks up and her head tilts as her gaze finds Sheppard at the bar. She turns back to Cameron and considers him thoughtfully. "You think?"

She doesn't need an answer, so he doesn't provide one.

"Huh." She pulls herself out of the both and tugs at the bottom of her shirt. "Well, we'll have to fix that, won't we?" Her eyes flick back to Cameron and she arches one eyebrow mischievously. "This is the season for miracles, after all."

The three remaining at the table watch unabashedly as she makes her way to the bar and touches Sheppard on the arm. When he turns to her, her hand reaches out and catches his, tugging him lightly into motion. He doesn't resist as she drags him toward the door, coming to a halt just inside the entryway. When she turns to face him she pulls him in by his wrist, her other hand snaking around his neck as she brings her body flush against his and reaches up to press her lips to his. Rigid at first, Sheppard takes only a moment to catch up, his hands coming to rest on her hips as he pulls her into a deep, longing kiss.

It's only just before Cameron turns away that he notices the sprig of mistletoe above their heads.

He has to hand it to General O'Neill. The man certainly knew how to brighten up the holiday season. Though, Cameron muses as he watches the leaders of the Atlantis expedition stare hopefully into each other's eyes, just like Santa – Jack needs a few elves to help get things done.

"So," he turns to Sam with a toothy grin, "how about taking a walk with me? There's something by the door that I'd like you to see."