Rating/Category: Gen, Sheppard and McKay friendship

Spoilers: None, unless you are totally oblivious to what happened after mid-season 3.

Summary: This was written for the SheppardHC Secret Santa at LJ. My recipient, Pegasus01, requested: "Gen teamfic with Rodney-John friendship focus or McShep preferred. Sheppard gets sick during a mission. Pneumonia, appendicitis, common cold, anaphylactic shock, whatever, and has to be helped through it. Team can be stuck on another planet for indefinite amount of time or can manage to get back to Atlantis where Sheppard will have to suffer voodoos (which is also happiness in h/c world)." I didn't manage the entire team, but there is Sheppard and McKay and sickness and Christmas. Ho, ho, ho...

Family Traditions

In his youth the holidays were a signal for sickness to come visit his home. Starting in October with Thanksgiving and carrying on through to the New Year someone in the McKay household was ill to one degree or another. Sniffles. Sore Throats. Flu. There was the time Jeanie's appendix ruptured and the whole family ate Christmas dinner in the hospital cantina. And who could forget the year when his mother rebelled against cooking and they all ended up with food poisoning after eating the Thanksgiving buffet at a local hotel.

Some people thought he was a hypochondriac, but given his family's holiday history, McKay felt justified in being hyperaware around people carrying disease-ridden microbes or supposedly mild and harmless viral infections. He knew that once those innocent, little rhinovirus bugs set up shop in his body that they would mutate rapidly into some kind of incurable, ebola-like horror and then the universe would be short one Dr. Rodney McKay.

That was why he wished that the tarpaulin they had brought along to drag the Douglas fir (or the Pegasus galaxy's version) back to the stargate were a bit longer. Say, forty or fifty feet. Make that meters. Even though he had his back to Sheppard, the current passenger of the travois he had fashioned from the tarp, he knew – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that whatever alien bug was currently infesting the other man was just waiting for McKay to get close enough before it pounced.

It wasn't that he didn't love the man like a brother, but he really felt that sharing the plague was pushing the bounds of friendship.

OOoOOoOOoOO

Earlier that day…

"McKay!"

Startled, he stood up from the console where he and Zelenka had been arguing and looked around. One of the techs pointed helpfully toward the balcony railing. He hurried over and looked down at an impatient Sheppard glaring up at him.

"Anytime now, McKay."

Shooting a quick glance at his watch, he grimaced. "Sorry. I'll be right down."

He signaled for the 'gate tech to dial the address he had pulled up before he had been side-tracked by Zelenka - at whom he shot a death-glare, a promise of retribution for bringing the wrath of Sheppard down on him – grabbed his tac vest and P-90, and trotted down the stairs to the 'gate room.

"Sorry, again. Zelenka had noticed a fluctuation in the 'gates power draw and wanted my help with – "

"Let's just get this over with," Sheppard said impatiently, bouncing on the balls of his feet to settle the pack on his back. An axe and a saw were strapped to the top.

"Well, bah humbug to you," McKay snapped. "I could've done this myself. You volunteered. You can head on back to… to whatever the hell it is you do when you're not doing your best to kill the holiday spirit. I'll cut down the damn tree myself."

Sheppard snorted. "Yeah. Like I'm going to let you go off-world by yourself." He grimaced and held up a hand to stop the tirade that was about to erupt. "I'm sorry. You're right. I am being a Scrooge. It's just this damned headache."

McKay, righteous anger draining out of him, watched in concern as Sheppard rubbed his forehead.

"It still hurts? I thought you were going to the infirmary after breakfast?"

"I had a couple ibuprofen leftover from when I pulled that muscle last month," Sheppard said as the stargate activated.

McKay was going to suggest the colonel stay in Atlantis or that they reschedule the trip – although Katie would be very disappointed – but Sheppard was already stepping into the wormhole, so he hurried to catch up.

Sheppard stopped as soon as he emerged from the wormhole, throwing one hand up to shade his eyes and fumbling his sunglasses out of his vest with the other. "Damn, it's bright today."

"I thought you military guys aren't allowed to self-medicate? And shouldn't it have started working by now?" McKay asked in concern. There was a heavy cloud cover locally, plus it was afternoon on this planet and the sun was behind them. If Sheppard was that sensitive to the light, the headache must be pretty bad.

"We aren't, but we do. And I didn't take them immediately after breakfast. Where did Katie say these trees are?"

"She said to follow the path until a stream crosses it. Then we turn north and follow the stream until it widens out into a pool, maybe five kilometers total. She says there's a stand there that should have a decent selection. When did you take them?"

"All right," Sheppard grunted and hitched up the pack again, "let's get this over with."

"Oh no, no, no," McKay barked immediately, stubbornly standing still with his arms folded across his chest. "When did you take the pills?"

"Christ, Rodney, you pick the oddest times to turn mother hen," Sheppard sighed and turned back toward the scientist. He immediately winced and held a shading hand over his eyes. "I'm not sure when I took them, okay? It's been a couple hours at least. Can we go cut down a Christmas tree now?"

"If it's been that long and the headache hasn't eased, then we should go back to Atlantis and let Keller look at you."

"If we hoof it, we can get there, pick out the perfect tree for you to impress Katie with, cut it down and drag it back here within two-and-a-half, three hours. My headache will be long gone by then."

McKay hesitated, staring at the other man uncertainly. Katie was in charge of the holiday decorations this year and had been looking forward to having a 'real' Christmas tree, but if Sheppard was ill… "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm good," Sheppard assured him with a quick grin.

He wasn't convinced, but he said nothing more about it, hoping the other man really did know his limits.

"It's been years since I've done this," McKay offered to fill in the silence. "Since I left for college, actually."

"We never cut down our own tree," Sheppard said, skirting a fallen log. "About a week or so before Christmas, Dad would show up with a tree he had bought on the way home from the base, usually from some guy who had set up shop in a filling station parking lot."

"It was the one thing we did as a family every year. Dad would load us into the car, throw an axe and a saw in the trunk with some rope to tie it to the roof. Then we drove forty miles to a Christmas tree farm, spent a couple hours finding the perfect tree – always a Douglas fir – and then Dad would cut it down while we drank hot chocolate from a thermos."

"We had a different kind of tree every year. Mom would sigh and say we'd have to make do." He was silent for a few moments. "She always thought they were beautiful, once they were decorated."

"Our trees always looked a shambles. Mom would use any decoration that Jeanie made: dough ornaments, paper chains, whatever. She also used every glass ball she could fit on it. And tinsel. Lots and lots of tinsel."

They both fell silent, contemplating Christmas trees past.

Finally McKay, uncomfortable with the unadulterated sounds of nature, asked, "Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning?"

"What?"

"For opening gifts. Eve or Morning?"

"Oh. One on Christmas Eve after church, the rest on Christmas Morning. Did you go to church on Christmas Eve?"

"Every year. The caroling was the best part, especially the year I got paired up with Melissa Marsters. Perky little blonde." He sighed in reminiscence. "Fruit cake?"

"Door stop."

"Yeah. Turkey or goose?"

"Roast beef, a standing rib roast. Dad didn't like turkey."

"Really? And you love it."

"Go figure."

"Sweet Potatoes?

"Of course.

"Marshmallows?"

"No. Brown sugar and pecans."

"Wow. You think the Marines can cook that without burning it?"

"I wouldn't count on it. They're marshmallow men, anyway."

"But you're their boss. You can insist on it."

Sheppard gave a derisive snort. "I can insist. And it'd be burned for sure."

"Oh."

After a little over an hour of walking they found the promised stand of trees. Katie had been right, they did look like Douglas firs even if the needles shaded more toward red than to green, but it would look festive when decorated. They even had an almost-piney smell.

Sheppard had grown steadily quieter as they walked, until he was answering McKay's queries with grunts or silence. From the way he kept his head tilted down to spare his eyes, McKay knew the headache wasn't abating. But he practically bit McKay's head off for asking about it.

Tired of getting snapped at for expressing his concern, McKay left Sheppard to get the tools out of their cases and went to scout out the trees. He quickly settled on a ten-footer (not too big for them to haul back to the 'gate and substantial enough to not be dwarfed by the tall ceilings of the City) and headed back.

Sheppard hadn't moved and the pack was still on his back, the axe and saw in their cases. He appeared to be staring into the distance.

"Colonel?"

He started, jerking his head around. A pained grimace crossed his face and a hand came up to rub the back of his neck. He raised his head carefully. "Did you find what you were looking for?"

McKay nodded, watching Sheppard worriedly. "Yes, it's a ten-footer. Katie said not to get anything under eight and I think ten is just the right size for the two of us to carry."

"You found a ten-foot tall ZPM?" Sheppard asked, confused and still rubbing his neck.

"No." Seriously concerned now, he shrugged out of his pack as he hurried forward. "No, not a ZPM. What do you think we're doing here?"

"What we're always doing: looking for more power for Atlantis. Where's Teyla and Ronon?"

Alarm replaced the confusion as McKay rushed toward him. He tried to back away but staggered and ended up sitting on the ground, slowly slumping to the side. McKay crouched down and reached out to help him sit up, then jerked back in surprise at the heat radiating from the other man.

"Oh, God, what have you done to yourself now?" he muttered. He placed a hand on Sheppard's forehead only to have it slapped aside.

"What the hell are you doing?" Sheppard muttered, struggling to stand up. His sunglasses had fallen off in the tumble and McKay was shocked at the glassy look in his eyes. He made it to his feet, only to stagger and fall back to his knees. "God, I feel sick," he gasped.

McKay stared in dismay as he began to retch.

OOoOOoOOoOO

Currently…

The mumbling that had been going on behind his back suddenly escalated to a hoarse shout. Sheppard sat up and then rolled off the travois. He was struggling to get to his feet by the time McKay reached his side and pressed him back onto the tarp.

"Where's my damn gun?" he growled, patting his thigh in confusion. "I have to kill him. This can't continue."

McKay thanked God he had had the foresight to strip Sheppard of all weapons. At least all of them that he could find; some of Ronon's habits had obviously rubbed off, if the number of knives he found was any indication.

"You already killed Kolya," he said as he got his patient settled again, having no doubt as to which villain Sheppard's fever had conjured. "Marshall Dillon would have been proud, too. You must be thirsty. Here," he held his canteen for the other to drink, then dampened a bandana and laid it on Sheppard's forehead. He watched as his friend moved restlessly, muttering agitatedly. He was becoming alarmed by the continuing fever, wishing there was something he could do to bring it down. He had stopped at the creek at one point and tried to soak Sheppard in it, but it was shallow – maybe a half dozen centimeters deep – and warm in the afternoon sun. And it hadn't looked very clean; there had been leaves and bugs and at least one dead fish. Sheppard didn't need the extra germs.

He started to stand, but his wrist was grabbed in a surprisingly painful hold. The sick man looked up at him, ignoring the water dripping from the improvised compress back into the dark hair.

"McKay, what's going on? Where are we?"

Wincing, he reached over and tried to prise the fingers open; this was going to leave a bruise for sure. "You're sick. I'm trying to get you home, so that Keller can take care of you." He gave up trying to free his wrist, settling for patting the hand and waiting for the fever to distract Sheppard again.

His own anxiety level was rising. He had seen the other man sick before, even near death, but it had always been from an injury, alien attack, or that one memorable time with the Wraith retro-virus. There had been fevers from infections, but never to the point of hallucination.

"My head hurts."

"I know. I'm sorry." The raspy complaint tore at him. The vise-like grip dropped but before McKay could climb to his feet Sheppard starting gagging and he had to help the man roll to the side of the travois. The small amount of water that had been consumed reappeared.

Sheppard fell back on the travois, clearly exhausted. McKay watched as he fell asleep, to be chased through his dreams by old enemies and ones created by the fever's imagination. McKay hurried to pick up the travois' poles. A tree – two, actually – had been cut down after all, then stripped of the branches that might have held Christmas angels. The palms of his hands were full of splinters. If he had not been so concerned about the man behind him he would have worried himself sick about possible gangrene from infection and the subsequent loss of both arms to amputation.

But he was concerned, so he started walking, pulling the travois and keeping an ear open for whatever his patient might do next. The stargate was less than a kilometer away. He was hoping to make it in under half an hour. But there is a difference between walking unencumbered – except for a laptop strapped to your back – and walking while dragging a two hundred pound (at least) burden. It had taken him almost four hours to get Sheppard this far. His shoulders and back burned under the strain, but he plodded on grimly, the disjointed rambling behind him an excellent incentive.

He had to stop twice more to sooth an agitated Sheppard into lying quietly on the travois, but he was finally able to lay the poles on the ground next the stargate. A quick check of his patient and then he hurried to the DHD. He dialed the most familiar 'gate address he knew and as he depressed the seventh symbol he reached automatically for his GDO. His hands froze and he gaped in disbelief when the hum of the stargate died and the lighted symbols on the DHD faded.

"No. Oh, no, no, no."

He dialed again. And then a third time. The wormhole failed to appear.

Muttering imprecations featuring Zelenka's ancestry, he dialed the Alpha site and didn't know whether to be relieved or not when it immediately engaged. It was the winter season on the Alpha site's planet, and only a single platoon of Marines was there to maintain it. Lieutenant Kagan reported they had had no trouble reaching Atlantis during their daily check-in. And, no, there was no "real" medical personnel (to McKay's way of thinking), only a single corpsman. Because they did not know if Sheppard was contagious or not (McKay was slightly embarrassed by the frisson of fear that caused), and having no quarantine facilities at the site, they agreed that he and Sheppard should stay where they were. The lieutenant promised that Chief Petty Officer Horner would be there within ten minutes.

The wormhole disengaged and he was left to his multitude of fears.

He hurried over to check on Sheppard. The muttering and restless movement had stopped to be replaced by eerie stillness and raspy breathing. He remoistened the compress and fussed with the jackets he had used in lieu of a blanket. When he found himself wondering if he should take off Sheppard's boots to make him more comfortable McKay muttered a curse and stomped back to the DHD. Life had been so much easier to handle when he didn't have friends.

His sixth attempt to dial the Atlantis 'gate had just failed when the stargate hummed to life and a wormhole kawhooshed into existence. The sight of a huge figure clad in a glaring orange hazmat suit emerging from the 'gate caused a momentary flood of relief.

Horner acknowledged his presence with a brief nod and, "Doctor," before hauling two large duffle-bags and an oxygen tank to Sheppard's side. He found himself standing to one side, answering questions that were fired at him through the muffling hazmat helmet.

How long had Sheppard been down?

What symptoms had he presented?

Did McKay know if the colonel was taking any drugs?

He bristled at that last, ready to protect Sheppard's reputation, until Horner explained he wanted to know if his patient was under a doctor's care for anything.

Horner finally sat back on his heels, rolling up the blood pressure cuff and stuffing it back in the case. "Doc, his temperature's almost one-oh-six. I'm going to do my best to bring it down. Do you know how to put up a tent?"

McKay blinked at this apparent non sequitur.

"I want to get him out of the direct sun, into some shelter," the corpsman prompted.

McKay could feel his ears turning red. God, he was feeling dense. He nodded dumbly and then grabbed the tightly packed tent from the duffle Horner pointed at. He may have never been a Boy Scout, but he had had plenty of practice putting up tents in the last few years. The four-man tent was erected in record time and he turned to find that Sheppard had been stripped down to t-shirt and boxers. An IV had been started, an oxygen mask covered his nose and mouth and ice packs had been placed in his groin, armpits and behind his neck.

Horner was just finishing disassemblying his hard work on the travois.

"Thanks for getting that up, Doc. Can you give me a hand getting the colonel into it?"

Together they carried the tarpaulin and its passenger into the tent. When Horner went back to get his equipment McKay sat by Sheppard, searching for signs of improvement. Sitting cross-legged with his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist he stared fixedly, trying not to think about how dangerously ill his friend was. People could get brain damage from such high fevers, couldn't they? He scowled and cursed himself for even contemplating that possibility. Nothing like that was going to happen to Sheppard. He sat up and the fingers of his left hand rubbed together nervously. But what could have caused such a high temperature? And the symptoms had escalated so quickly from a simple headache. What if it was contagious? Now he cursed himself for being a self-absorbed jerk. But what if it was?

He groaned in self-disgust and was surprised to see Sheppard respond. The bruised-looking eyelids flickered, then opened. Unfocused eyes traveled around the tent, not settling on any one thing. They finally touched on McKay, moved on, then swung back and stayed.

Sheppard started to speak, then stopped, looking confused. A limp hand rose and tried to move the oxygen mask.

"No, Colonel, you need to leave that alone," McKay said, taking the hand and trying to place it back on the tarp.

Sheppard pulled it back and stared at the IV needle taped to the back of it in puzzlement.

"That's an IV. Horner started it to – ACK!"

The hand, so limp and weak just a moment before, clamped onto his neck with suffocating strength. Fever-glazed eyes burned with hatred and strange words – was that Pashtu? – were snarled at him.

As suddenly as the attack began, it was over. He fell onto his side, gasping like a gaffed fish, and watched as Horner pinned the combative Sheppard to the ground, trying to subdue him.

"Colonel! Colonel Sheppard, listen to me. You're not in Afghanistan. You're not a prisoner. Sir – "

One arm won free of the ex-SEALs grasp and swung at the huge corpsman.

McKay got back to his knees and pushed Horner to the side. He wasn't sure how he managed it, but he blocked the wildly swinging arm. Leaning close, he placed a hand on his friend's shoulder and spoke quietly, "John, it's okay. You're safe. You're with friends. Just sleep. It's okay, John, you're safe."

He wasn't sure how long he repeated those words, but eventually Sheppard quieted, and then slept. Feeling as exhausted as Sheppard looked, McKay sat up with a shaky sigh.

"Good job, Dr. McKay," Horner murmured. He moved in and replaced the oxygen mask. A pressure bandage was applied to the site where the IV had torn loose, before a new one was started. When he was activating a new set of ice packs he glanced over at McKay who was staring fixedly at his patient. "Why don't you go try the 'gate again, Doc?"

McKay didn't look up. He had almost forgotten that there was someone else there. "He didn't want to come help me pick out a Christmas tree. He said he had a headache. But Katie had her heart set on having a real tree this year, and I didn't want to disappoint her. Sheppard wouldn't let me go alone, but why couldn't he assign someone else to go with me? Or why couldn't I have been a little sensitive for once and postponed the trip?"

Horner smiled in understanding. "Sir, I'll call you if he starts getting restless again or if he wakes up. But we need to get him to Atlantis as soon as possible."

"Do you know what's making him sick?"

"I'm only guessing but given the symptoms you mentioned, the headache and stiff neck, the disorientation, and this rash," – McKay stared in shock at the cluster of red spots on Sheppard's neck and arms. How had he missed those? – "I'm thinking he has meningitis. What kind? I have no idea. And I can't be positive. I've given him a broad-spectrum antibiotic we keep at the Alpha site. If it's bacterial we may see an improvement. Don't worry, Dr. Keller will figure it out."

"I see," McKay whispered and bemoaned the fact that he had ever heard of WebMD. There were a host of reasons for meningitis and as many varieties of the disease: viral, bacterial, fungal, and on and on. And several were contagious. And there could be permanent damage. What if Sheppard…? He pushed that thought away. No, Sheppard was the golden boy. If anyone would develope permanent complications, it would be himself. And now he felt like even more of an insensitive ass for worrying about himself.

"So, one of us needs to be trying to reach Atlantis, sir," Horner nudged gently.

"Are you sure? Maybe I should…" he trailed off weakly and gestured toward the sleeping man.

"I promise I'll let you know if he needs you. Please, Doc."

He nodded, reaching over to straighten the silvery rescue blanket covering Sheppard while he thought about the problem. Previous missions had been able to dial Atlantis with no problems, and he could connect to other addresses now. The problem had to be on Atlantis' end. He stood abruptly. He was going to boil Zelenka's testicles in WD40 if the Czech had taken the 'gate offline to track down that power fluctuation. "Let me know if he needs me," he ordered as he left the tent, worry and creeping despair battling with his normally arrogant attitude.

The next four hours passed slowly. He dialed Atlantis every ten minutes without success. Out of boredom he opened up the DHD and performed maintenance – mostly removing the desiccated husks of bugs that had managed to crawl into the cramped space. All the crystals inside were pristine, intact and glowing gently with power.

He stuck his head in the tent to check on Sheppard as many times as he dialed the 'gate. The few times he caught Horner not actively ministering to their patient he snapped at the corpsman to stop slacking off and do his job. The violent-orange hazmat helmet would turn in McKay's direction, showing him Horner's patient, sweat-covered face, and the other man would smile in understanding. Sheppard did not regain consciousness again, but did become restless in his dreaming. At those times McKay would sit with him and talk, reminding him of non-threatening times they had shared. He was rather surprised at the number he was able to recall; so often it seemed as if they stumbled from one life-threatening near disaster to another.

Some time into the third hour they contacted the Alpha site again and had them send the rest of the ice packs and another oxygen tank. Sheppard's temperature had dropped by almost a whole degree, but was still dangerously high.

When the ice packs were sent through the 'gate several MREs were included. McKay automatically checked to see what kind they were and gave a weak laugh when he saw they were the turkey and stuffing dinner. He hoped this wasn't a sign they were going to be stuck here through the holiday.

And then he dialed the Atlantis address for what felt like the one hundredth time, shoving back the little devil that was whispering to him that they were never going to get off of this planet and Sheppard was going to die. The last glyph was pressed and he sighed, already prepared to be disappointed. When the electronic hum increased and the wormhole burst into existence he stumbled back a step. He gaped at it in surprise for several seconds before he remembered to key in his ID on the GDO and turn on the mic of his radio. In his peripheral vision he was aware of Horner sticking his head out of the tent briefly, then disappearing back inside.

"Atlantis, this is McKay – "

"Dr. McKay, it's good to hear from you," the voice of the on-duty 'gate technician interrupted. "We apologize for the delay in – "

"We have a medical emergency," he snapped, already moving toward the tent. He felt a lightening in the tension that had gripped him for so many hours and hoped it wasn't in vain. "We need a medical hazmat team in the 'gate room ASAP. Sheppard's ill."

He found Horner zipping up the duffle bags, then pushing them to the side to await later retrieval. The IV bag was tucked under Sheppard's shoulder, the oxygen tank laid across his legs, then they picked up the tarpaulin and headed to the stargate.

OOoOOoOOoOO

Early the next morning…

McKay looked up from his laptop, thinking he had heard Sheppard speak. He climbed out of his bed, grabbed his IV stand and hurried across the aisle to the other bed. But it was another false alarm. Disappointed and tired of having no one but himself for company, he pulled up the visitor's chair and sat, propping his feet on the bed rails.

"Zelenka says he's sorry for breaking the 'gate and keeping us from getting you home sooner. I'll make sure he comes down and apologizes properly, once you wake up and can have visitors." He paused, rubbing his face tiredly. "Keller says you're going to be okay. She did a lumbar puncture and stole a lot of your blood and finally decided that you do indeed have a bacterial form of meningitis, just like that huge corpsman-whose-name-I-can't-remember thought. So you are in isolation for now. I get to share your shunning because you might have shared your germs – thank you so much for that. But I will get out in the morning after I finish absorbing these lovely IV antibiotics and will get to enjoy the lovely Christmas feast, featuring roasted turkey imported all the way from Earth. Hopefully the Marines read my e-mails about basting the birds, and they won't end up like the shoe leather disguised as birds that we had last year.

"You, unfortunately, will probably be eating gruel, or some such thing, here in the infirmary." He leaned over and pulled the blanket back up over Sheppard's shoulders. "Don't worry. I'll make you a turkey sandwich and try to sneak it in to you."

There wasn't nearly as much heat emanating from the man as there had been earlier. Keller, or one of her minions, came in and checked Sheppard's vitals every half hour and they said his temperature was steadily dropping. From the responses they got to tests, they didn't think there was any neurological damage. McKay had been surprised at the amount of tension that had drained out of his body when he had been told that Sheppard was responding well to neurological tests.

Now if the man would just wake up so that McKay could lecture him on unnecessarily scaring his friends. And sharing unwanted germs, of course.

"Teyla and Ronon were here earlier. They weren't allowed in, of course, but we talked through the window. Well, Teyla talked. You know how Ronon is. They're worried about you, but Keller has assured them that you're improving. The craving-of-the-week appears to be pudding. Teyla ate two butterscotch cups while we were discussing you. And she was wearing one of those maternity tops that Jeanie sent. Somehow she just doesn't look right in a shirt that says "Baby" with an arrow pointing at her, uh, belly. Don't you dare tell her I looked at her belly. She'll kill me."

He looked expectantly at Sheppard, who slept on. He sighed. A crooked smile touched his lips and disappeared.

"I enjoyed our talk on the way to the trees. I can't believe that we've known each other over three years and didn't know that stuff about each other. For instance: I know you like mayonnaise and lettuce on your turkey sandwiches normally. But how about during the holidays? Do you like cranberry sauce and stuffing on them, too?

"How about weird family holiday traditions? I have a great-aunt Florence who was inordinately fond of a stuffed beaver. She'd dress it up in different outfits for all the holidays. At Christmas it would be a Santa suit and she used it as a tree-topper. It was getting all threadbare and scruffy looking, but she insisted it had to go up there every year." His hands fluttered through the motions of supposedly dressing a stuffed beaver and placing it on a tree. A confused, vaguely amused look appeared on his face. "I wonder why she loved that beaver so much? You know, she got buried with it. Or that's the family rumor. No one's seen it since the funeral."

McKay leaned back with another sigh. This was getting frustrating. Besides Keller or someone was going to be in soon to check vitals again. One last try. "What's the best Christmas gift – "

He stopped, because when he looked up Sheppard was watching him with exhausted eyes, but they were aware.

"When I was ten, I got The Ultimate Book of Paper Airplanes," Sheppard rasped. McKay grabbed the glass from the bedside table and held the straw for him to drink. After a few sips he pulled away, his head dropping back to the pillow. "There wasn't a piece of paper in the house safe from me for the next year. Drove my mom crazy." A tired smile pulled at his lips.

"And my Uncle Max had a stuffed deer that he had shot. He put it out on the front lawn one year and told the neighborhood kids that he'd killed Comet."

McKay stared, disbelief shading into disgust on his face. "Ew."

"Yeah."

A quiet chuckle turned into a gasping cough. McKay helped him sit up then hovered, his hands fluttering while he tried to decide what to do: pat the man on the back or call for help? Before he could make up his mind the coughing fit ended, so he hurried to raise the head of the bed and fluff the pillows before Sheppard lay back down.

He started to sit again but paused when Sheppard reached for his hand. "What? Do you need more water?"

"I'm sorry."

"What for? Your demented uncle? We all have - ?"

Sheppard shook his head. "No. I'm sorry we didn't get the tree for Katie. I hope I didn't spoil you two's Christmas."

"Don't worry about it," McKay said, smiling. "It's a family tradition."

the end