Please see first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.

Part 3/3

Author's Note: Many, many, MANY most humble apologies for this final installment of "Christmas Snapshots" being almost a month late! Not only did my own family holiday celebrations claim a large chunk of time, but I transferred to a new, fulltime position with the Census Bureau after the first of the year; I joined the Sparky Army; and I'm also ferrying Lynn (oops! fyd818!) back and forth to her classes. Throw in Grandma's doctor's appointments, and I find myself with limited time to write. Again, please of your kindness, forgive the lateness, and enjoy this belated Christmas present!

-Part 3-

"Some Assembly Required"

He could do this. He was going to do this, even if it killed him. Rodney settled into an awkward-feeling half-crouch, his arms spread to either side, and glared at Sheppard. For his part, the colonel looked entirely too comfortable as he casually bounced the basketball back and forth, left hand to right. Back and forth, back and forth, bounce, bounce, bounce—

Suddenly, between one blink and the next, Sheppard was no longer in front of him, but blowing past as his dribbling took on a hard, purposeful rhythm. Lost and stunned by the abruptness of the motion, Rodney spun one hundred eighty degrees, just in time to see his team leader stretch up to put the ball into Maddie's reaching little hands. His niece rode high on Ronon's broad shoulders, the big man's left arm holding her legs firmly clamped to his chest. The Satedan backed half a step, using his muscular body to bump Caleb out of the way; pivoted with catlike grace on one foot; and Maddie, shrieking with delighted laughter, neatly dropped the ball into the basket. Immediately Ronon took her for a victory jog around the widely-grinning colonel, who held his hands up to receive her enthusiastic if misaimed high fives.

Okay, so maybe death would be preferable to this repeated humiliation. Rodney caught a glimpse of the kitchen windows filled with watching feminine faces – Katie, Jeannie, Elizabeth, and Teyla – but glanced away quickly, pretending not to see them.

Stupid game.

Caleb signaled "time out" as a light rain began to fall. "You win," he said. "We need to go in anyway. It's almost Maddie's nap time."

The little girl bounced on Ronon's shoulders and clapped. "We won! We won!" she sang. "Do I hafta take a nap, Daddy?"

Caleb smiled up at his little daughter as they all moved toward the house. "Well, that depends on whether you want to stay up and help decorate the tree this evening. And after they came all this way to be with us for Christmas, I think your uncles and aunts would be sad if you fell asleep before we got it done, don't you?"

A hand gripped Rodney's shoulder, holding him back. He jerked his head around sharply. Oh, yeah, Colonel Athletic, time for you to gloat? Before the bitter words could force their way past his lips, though, Sheppard leaned toward him and murmured, "Rodney, want to go to the mall with Ronon and me? I checked online – there's supposed to be a really, really good steakhouse inside."

"Steak? You did just say 'steak'?" Rodney whispered back, his gloomy mood lightening ever so slightly at the blessed word. "Oh, I am almost ready to kill for some red meat. I mean, I know it's great of Jeannie and Caleb to take us all in for the holidays, but the whole vegetarian thing is—" He broke off, shuddering.

"Yeah," Sheppard agreed. "Nice people, but if we are having tofu 'turkey' tomorrow, then we need to fortify ourselves now. C'mon, let's head for the van. Ronon will meet us there – after he explains that he hasn't had a chance to sit on Santa's lap yet, and he's running out of time."

A bizarre image flashed across Rodney's mind, prompting a near-smile. "That's a sight I'd like to see," he muttered. "Though at this point, I'd be willing to sit on Santa's lap if it got me steak."

As he climbed into the driver's seat, Sheppard threw him a lopsided grin. "That's a sight I'd like to see."

"So," Rodney pulled his shoulder harness across and clicked it, "what did you tell Caleb about where we're going?"

The colonel gave him his phony innocent look. "I told you. Ronon hasn't sat on Santa's lap yet, and it's Christmas Eve--"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. Really, what did you tell him?"

Sheppard just grinned even more broadly and turned the key in the ignition. "Here comes Ronon. Steaks, ho!"

The restaurant more than lived up to its billing. Rodney concentrated on devouring the largest steak offered on the menu, which allowed him to be merely mildly amused instead of irritated by all the waitresses, not just their own, repeatedly detouring by their table so they could surreptitiously ogle Ronon. Probably fascinated by the exotic hair, he decided. But it made things really convenient: None of them ever had to wait for refills on their drinks, and the basket of rolls was kept perpetually replenished. Altogether, Rodney felt more relaxed than he had since arriving in Vancouver. When Ronon commented, "I like this whole Christmas tradition thing," he was even able to respond, "Yeah, maybe we just started one of our own. Same time and place next year, guys?"

He, Sheppard, and Ronon were lazily debating whether or not dessert would fall under the heading of "overkill" when the hostess seated a family two tables down from theirs. Ordinarily he would never have noticed, except for a habitual peripheral check for the presence of small children. However, this family included a little girl who reminded him powerfully of Maddie – and, like Maddie, she couldn't seem to take her eyes off Ronon.

Rodney snuck a quick glance sideways, to see if the big man had even noticed, just in time to see him grin and wink at her. All his earlier depression came crashing back. Next year, he instantly decided – next year he'd find a good excuse to keep his butt in Atlantis. He was willing to bet he wouldn't even be missed here. And on the subject of being missed, he couldn't believe he hadn't received at least one panicked demand that he return to the city immediately to prevent some catastrophe or other.

Evidently, they were quite capable of doing without his presence there, as well.

He ate the dessert he'd ordered – something massive and deeply chocolate – without really tasting it. And when Sheppard suggested, on leaving the restaurant, that they should take Ronon on a quick tour of the rest of the mall, he said gruffly, "You go ahead, I'm going back to the van. Keys?" He held out a demanding hand.

Ronon startled him, however, by grabbing his elbow after a quick glance around, and all but dragging him over to an unpopulated sitting area not far from the steakhouse's entrance. Once there, the Satedan dropped his hold, but two things kept Rodney from instantly turning and stalking off: the knowledge he could never elude the ex-Runner, and the presence of Colonel Sheppard standing very close to his right shoulder.

Before he could protest such cavalier treatment, Ronon said bluntly, "Look, McKay, deep down, do you really want Maddie to be afraid of me? 'Cause that's not the message I got from you a couple of nights ago."

"Of course I don't want you frightening my niece," Rodney snapped back, glaring up at the other man. "I wouldn't be much of an uncle if—" All his outrage abruptly evaporated. He half turned away and sat down heavily on a bench. Shoulders slumping, he looked down at his feet. "Not that I'm much of one anyway," he muttered. "You act more like her uncle than I do. I – I just, you know, really suck at the whole family relationships thing. I always have," his lips twisted, "and I'm not getting any better with age."

"You're here, aren't you?" Ronon continued to stand, his expression still intent and serious. "It wasn't that long ago you and Jeannie weren't even speaking. And you hadn't met Caleb or Maddie at all."

"At least you have a family to relate to," Sheppard commented pointedly. Rodney winced slightly. "And seriously, it's not like anyone expects you to be the uncle out of a Hallmark ad. Give it some time, and don't give up trying even if Maddie seems to relate better to other people than she does to you. Just work at being the best uncle you can be."

Oh, that left the colonel so open for getting his Army/Air Force taglines tangled. But Rodney somehow found himself incapable of saying the words; especially when Ronon added, "There's a pretty decent guy hidden somewhere inside you, McKay. You didn't have to heal the scars on my back, but you did anyway – because you knew what they represented to me. Just try to let that guy out with Maddie and Jeannie and Caleb." His eyebrows arched and smoothed out again. "Since I joined the team, Teyla has done a lot to help me learn to be a member of Atlantis's family. From what I saw in the kitchen yesterday, I get the feeling Dr. Brown would be more than glad to help you learn to be a member of yours."

Rodney felt a hopeful kind of warmth take root in his chest. "She does get on well with them, doesn't she? If I could just watch her and -- and figure out how she does what she does--"

Sheppard gusted a loud sigh, even as his hazel eyes met Rodney's in an open, earnest look. "Getting along with your family is not an equation you can solve, Rodney. Watch Katie, yes, but then -- follow her lead. Like Ronon does with Teyla. Like I do with Elizabeth."

Rodney returned Sheppard's gaze for a long moment. Shifting his gaze a little to the left and upward, he saw a nearly identical expression in Ronon's. "Okay," he said slowly. "Thanks, guys. I mean it. You've given me a lot to think about-- And I mean that in a totally good way," he hastily added, which drew small matching grins from his teammates.

Sheppard stepped back out of Rodney's personal space. "In the meantime, we still need to walk off some of that meal by checking out the last-minute shopping frenzy."

"Oh, please, Colonel, we're in Canada in case you've forgotten. We're much more restrained and civilized about such things here." Rodney stood, trying to match the lighter note in the other man's tone.

"I smell a bet," Ronon said. "Loser pays for next year's steak dinner?"

oO0Oo

A chorus of feminine laughter from the living room met them as soon as they entered the front door. Rodney threw a nervous look in that direction. "So, before we go in there, what's our real cover story?" he asked urgently in a half-whisper.

Sheppard just grinned in his usual annoying fashion and went on ahead. Ronon looked down at him, his expression totally blank as he said, "You don't remember, McKay? I mean, I would've thought the sight of me sitting on -- what was his name? -- oh, yeah, Santa Claus's lap--"

Rodney snorted in disgust. "You've been hanging out with Sheppard too long," he muttered. "All right, I'll brazen it out somehow." Inhaling deeply, he squared his shoulders and entered the room. After a quick glance around, his eyes settled on Katie. The sweetness and warmth in her welcoming smile made his lips automatically want to curve up in response as he crossed to take a seat next to her on the couch. Putting his right arm along the back behind her and crossing his left ankle over his right knee, he said with forced brightness, "So, hi, everyone, did you, um, miss us? Maddie still sleeping?"

"No, she and Caleb are delivering cookies to some of our neighbors at the old house," Jeannie replied. She lifted a mug from the table next to her armchair and blew gently on its contents before taking a sip.

"Oh, ah, it's good that you're staying in touch with them-- What's that you're drinking?"

"It is a lovely herbal tea." This time Teyla answered him. She was sitting on a large cushion in front of the as yet unlit fireplace, and also holding a mug cradled in her hands. As Ronon settled into a cross-legged position on the floor beside her, she sent him a small, sideways smile before continuing, "I find it quite refreshing."

"We would offer you some," Elizabeth, comfortably curled up at one end of the loveseat opposite the couch with Sheppard lounging next to her, added, "but after that enormous steak dinner, I'm sure none of you gentlemen would have room." She arched an eyebrow at him over the rim of her own mug.

All Rodney's breath whooshed out of his lungs. "Enormous--? Steak--?" He patted the fingertips of his left hand rapidly over his lips, half-expecting them to encounter some telltale blob of steak sauce. Or maybe he had a shred of meat caught between his teeth! He ran his tongue surreptitiously across them. Without daring to look towards his sister, he went on weakly, "What makes you think--"

All four women, plus Sheppard and Ronon -- the finks! -- burst out laughing. Instantly he felt himself stiffening in humiliation, his face going hot. Evidently Katie sensed his tension. Looking up at him with a very kind expression in her light brown eyes, she reached to put a reassuring hand on his left ankle. Even though she continued to smile, she stopped laughing as she said softly, "It's okay, Rodney. It's just a joke. Nobody's upset with you, or John, or Ronon because you took some 'guy' time. Really."

"Mer, oh Mer!" Jeannie's voice still quivered with amusement as she brushed a strand of honey blonde hair from her tear-wet cheeks. "Katie's right, we're not going to throw you out of the house just for going to Abilene's. Caleb and I even had a bet on whether you'd last through a vegetarian holiday. --I won," she added smugly.

Embarrassment scalded Rodney's emotional nerve endings, and he could feel his usual defensive mechanisms gearing up to kick in: the bitter anger, the acid sarcasm, all the other ways he'd developed over the years to compensate for the hurt--

Sheppard shifted his weight on the loveseat oh so slightly. . .but it was enough to jerk Rodney's eyes in that direction. The corners of the colonel's mouth remained quirked upwards; but the look in his narrowed eyes was intense, cautionary. Ronon chose the very next moment to lean his left elbow on the hearth behind him. The seemingly casual movement brought him a little closer to Teyla, their shoulders now nearly touching. He also watched Rodney very closely without appearing to.

"There's a pretty decent guy hidden somewhere inside you, McKay." Ronon's earlier words seemed to hang in the air between them. And then Sheppard's voice spoke in his memory: "Watch Katie. . .then -- follow her lead."

He could still feel Katie's eyes on his face. Rodney glanced down at her and saw anxiety beginning to shadow their clarity. She would never want to cause him pain or distress; he believed that the way he believed the value of pi was infinitely incalculable. It was, he truly made an effort to comprehend the concept, only a joke. And jokes did not inherently always have to be hurtful. They could, when played amongst very close friends and family, be only -- funny.

Rodney placed his left hand on top of Katie's as he looked over at his sister. "So, Jeannie," he said; and if his voice didn't sound entirely natural, no one chose to comment on it. "How much did you win?"

Laughter broke out again around him; and if it sounded as much relieved as amused, he chose not to comment on it, either. Somewhere in the deepest, most secret part of his being, something relaxed infinitesimally. On one level, that realization frightened him. On another, as he caught Sheppard's almost nonexistent nod of approval and Ronon's barely flickered wink, it also felt very good.

Caleb and Maddie returned shortly after. When his niece made her usual bee-line to Ronon, squirming a place for herself between him and Teyla, it took only a little effort for him not to mind. He even shocked himself by whispering into Katie's ear, "Ronon is so good with Maddie -- he'll make a great dad someday."

Stifling a giggle, Katie whispered back, "Yes. And I can tell Teyla thinks so, too."

As the early winter evening fell softly over the world outside, Caleb lit the fire laid ready in the fireplace, and the tree-trimming commenced. When Maddie, already wearing bright Christmas-themed flannel pajamas and ensconced as usual on Ronon's left hip, insisted on hanging four red ornaments too close to each other, Rodney swallowed back the urge to explain her mistake to her. Nor did he protest as, with a high-pitched giggle, she deliberately dropped a handful of artificial snow on top of his head. Instead, he just smiled, impulsively sprinkled a few flakes over her curls, then Katie's and said, "There, Maddie, now you and Aunt Katie and I all match."

To his inner amazement, she thought that was hilarious.

Later, after the tree was fully decorated, its strands of clear lights plus the flickering firelight providing the room's only illumination, Jeannie said, "Gather around, people, time to sing carols!" as she moved to the upright piano standing against one wall. Awkwardly, hesitantly, Rodney reached to touch her arm as she made to sit on the bench, forestalling her.

"Uh, mind if I do the playing, Jeannie?" he rapidly muttered in a very low voice.

His sister gave him a wide-eyed look, her mouth hanging slightly agape. As if realizing it, she hastily shut it; blinked quickly a few times; and stepped back, the beginnings of a smile lighting her face. "Sure, Mer," she said. "That would be -- very nice."

Half his mouth quirked into a matching smile. "Maybe not," he replied as he slid into place before the instrument. "It's been awhile -- I'm probably rusty."

Jeannie laid a hand on his shoulder. "A few mistakes will be fine, Mer," she whispered. "After all, Teyla and Ronon don't know any of these songs."

"Oh, that's right, they don't!" Rodney actually felt grateful for her gentle reminder. "We'll keep it simple, then. Shall we start off with 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'?"

By this time, everybody had gathered around. Jeannie moved closer to Caleb, allowing Katie to take the spot immediately behind Rodney. Ordinarily, he hated having anyone stand that close to him while he played. He reminded himself that this was Katie, though; and when she placed both hands on his shoulders, he discovered that the warmth of her nearness was both relaxing and reassuring.

It had been years since he'd touched any but computer keyboards, but his hands settled naturally in the old, familiar positions over the keys. Huh, he thought as his fingers stroked a few introductory bars of music, maybe that old adage about bicycles applies to piano-playing, too.

His mind automatically catalogued the others' voices as they joined in: Elizabeth was a nice if unremarkable contralto; Katie and Jeannie had light soprano voices, sweet albeit untrained. Teyla very quickly picked up on the simple melody, humming along strongly and clearly. Caleb and Sheppard were both tenors -- Rodney felt a mild shock to hear the colonel's decent if somewhat country-flavored singing. Ronon provided the biggest surprise, though, as his deep baritone harmonized richly and easily with the others.

They went through all the old standards, taking turns requesting their favorites. Rodney somehow managed not to cringe when Maddie insisted on singing every verse of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." By the time they got to the end of that one, even Ronon and Teyla were able to sing all the words.

"Just one carol left," Jeannie finally said softly. "It's tradition in the McKay family for everyone singing to join hands for it -- but if you're uncomfortable doing that, you don't have to."

Rodney's throat felt a little tight as he played once through "Silent Night" so his teammates from the Pegasus galaxy could get a feel for the song. From the small shiftings of position and rustlings going on, he guessed no one was opting out of the handholding. Katie lifted one hand from his shoulder, but the other stayed in place, linking him to the semi-circle as well. With his Earth-based and Atlantian families around him, for the first time in his life that old tradition, formerly a painful, hollow travesty, actually meant something positive to him.

It actually felt good to be playing music again. As the others casually drifted away after "Silent Night" had been sung, he let his fingers flow into "O Holy Night." Too technically difficult for a family group-sing, he mused idly, though he suspected Teyla would be up to its demands vocally -- maybe even Ronon, too, from what he'd heard tonight. They had a year until next Christmas Eve; he couldn't remember ever hearing the piece sung as a duet, but surely the sheet music existed out there somewhere. . . And of course he'd have to persuade Elizabeth to requisition a piano -- was that even possible? Well, if not, Sheppard would just have to be strong-armed into providing accompaniment on his guitar. . . He allowed himself to smile at his own whimsy.

Only after he'd segued into "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" did Rodney gradually become aware of a small, warm presence getting closer and closer to his left leg. He flickered a glance downward to see Maddie smiling up at him angelically. As he tentatively smiled back, she wrapped her little arms around his calf, closed her eyes and leaned her head against his knee. Totally amazed but correctly assuming she wanted him to keep playing, he shifted smoothly into the gently melodic first movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" sonata. By the end of it, she'd fallen soundly asleep.

"Wow, Mer, you're amazing." Jeannie's whisper in his ear almost made him jump. Not wanting to wake his sleeping niece, he quickly squashed the impulse. He turned his head to look at his sister as he let his hands slip from the keyboard to rest on his thighs. "Normally she's hard to get to bed after this much excitement, but look at her -- she's totally out of it."

Rodney felt strangely dismayed when Caleb joined them. He quickly whispered back, "But won't she wake up if you try to move her?"

His brother-in-law chuckled. "Not a chance. Once she finally lets go, she's gone for the rest of the night. Here, let's scoot the bench back a little so I can get hold of her."

There seemed to be some kind of lump in Rodney's throat. Whispering past it, he said diffidently, "Could I-- I mean, would you mind if-- I'd like to carry her upstairs, if that's all right with you?"

"Sure, Mer." Caleb instantly stepped back. Reaching down, Rodney carefully untwined the little girl's arms from around his leg. He pushed the bench back to give him enough room to gather his niece's limp body against his chest and shoulder, then eased to his feet. Unfamiliar emotions surged outward from his heart, making him unexpectedly wonder what it would be like to hold his own child cradled in his arms like this. Without consciously willing it, his gaze went straight to Katie. She gave him an answering look that was as warm and sweet as an embrace.

Caleb spoke again in a low voice, calling back his attention. "While you tuck Maddie in, Mer, we'll get things ready down here for Santa's visit tonight."

Santa's what? Rodney's mind came unstuck. Oh, yeah, he remembered now. Even though the tree was decorated and Maddie's stocking hung from the mantle, the presents and all her new toys -- some of which still needed to be put together -- had to be brought out of hiding and put into place under and around the tree. He didn't trust himself to speak, knowing if he tried his voice would undoubtedly crack; so he just nodded in agreement.

As he carried Maddie from the room and upstairs to put her to bed, he fought down the urge to pick apart and analyze these unaccustomed feelings. Instead, remembering Sheppard's advice earlier, he consciously chose just to experience them. Maybe, the thought occurred to him as he laid her on her temporary cot in her parents' room, family relationships were a little like the toys waiting downstairs: some assembly was required. He settled the covers over her and passed a hesitant, gentle hand over her tumbled curls before straightening and returning to the rest of Christmas Eve with his family.

THE END