Title
The Water Grinds the Stone
Prompt
Big Bang 2008.   Stargate program: Declassification.
Summary
When the Stargate Program goes public, old loyalties are set against new ambitions for the Atlantis team, but a deal with the devil to save McKay's life will bring everything full circle and leave Sheppard in need of saving too, when Earth finds itself in contention with the people of the Pegasus Galaxy.
Pairing
McKay/Sheppard
Rating
NC-17
Word Count
242740 words
Notes
May contain explicit sex, graphic imagery and violence.
Companion Artwork
  • The Water Grinds The Stone by gblvr

2009
his hands keep turning into birds

11 October 2009
Pegasus
M4T-455 Elbix

John squinted at the pale blue sky, watching a distant bird wheel and soar and vaguely aware of the sweat running down his back under the layers of tee shirt, uniform shirt, and tac vest. The dip and rise of Rodney's voice filled the quiet meadow holding the stargate, familiar and necessary as the air and sunshine. Somewhere something like a dog barked, but neither Teyla or Ronon so much as twitched from where they were sitting a few yards away. They looked bored out of their minds.

Just the way John liked his missions to go.

"I could train monkeys to do this. I could even train marines to – Ow!"

John glanced down. Rodney remained on his knees before the DHD console, but he'd backed out and was clutching the top of his head.

"Maybe you should watch your head in there," John suggested, perfectly aware he was about thirty seconds too late.

Rodney twisted to glare at him. "I would never have thought of that, Colonel."

John folded his arms over the stock of his P90 and gave him a bland smile. "Glad to help."

The smile only earned him a huff of exasperation. Rodney turned back to the DHD, then pawed through his portable toolkit, before diving back in.

"How much longer?" Ronon called out, sounding lazy as a lion in the sun.

"As long as it takes," Rodney replied. "What, does he think he could do this faster?" He hummed and wriggled in deeper, resting his weight on his elbows and pulling his pants taut over a tempting target for John's boot.

John resisted. Ronon and Teyla would make him suffer if they ended up stuck here because he made Rodney jiggle the wrong part in the DHD.

Rodney reached back with one hand and groped through his toolkit, muttering in annoyance when what he wanted didn't magically leap into his fingers. John crouched between the kit and the gleaming bronze case of the sealed TID. "Which one?" he asked. The sooner Rodney finished, the sooner they could activate the TID, dial Atlantis and go home. These installation missions were becoming a bore.

"The Number Four Engler."

John stared into the kit at the assortment of tools, meters, sensors, and crystals. Some of them had come straight from Earth – he thought he recognized a Torx wrench and needle nosed pliers – and others had been appropriated from Atlantis' own stores. Still more had been hand tooled in the machine shop Sergeant Portilla had set up, where he and two other marines worked to the exacting design specifications provided by Zelenka and the other engineers. He didn't see a Number Four Engler, probably because he hadn't a clue what it was.

Rodney snapped his fingers.

"Oh, for the love of – orange rubberized handle, octagonal crystal at the point. It telescopes – "

John found it and slapped into Rodney's palm. "You could have just said."

"I did."

Rodney's hand and the Number Four Engler disappeared into the guts of the DHD. John sighed. Suhash Pratap had charge of the kitchen according to the schedule emailed out every week, which meant dinner would be curried something Pegasus, mulligan stew, plenty of fruit and breads, that vegetable thing with the pepper sauce that made his nose run, and a choice of fruit cobbler or brownies for dessert. No one would say boo if he took one of both.

"If you get us out of here in the next hour, I'll give you my brownie at dinner," he offered.

"What'll you give me if I get us out of here in half an hour?" Rodney asked in a low voice.

John lightly brushed his hand over the sun-warmed fabric stretched over Rodney's back. "Find out."

"Don't distract me," Rodney complained. He twisted to the side, muscles rippling in his back. "Move, you stubborn piece of – gotcha!" He handed out the Number Four Engler. John put it back in the kit. Rodney twisted even further to the side and rose up enough John heard his head thunk inside the DHD again. He muttered unintelligibly and turned enough to present both hands. "Give me the TID. Narrow S-curve oriented upward."

John picked up the Telepathic Interference Device gingerly. The necessity of fitting it inside the already crowded interior of a DHD console so that it could leach power from the stargate had resulted in an awkwardly contorted piece of equipment. Portilla's skills and one of the anthropologists with an artistic bent had created something that looked Ancient, angled and asymmetric yet balanced. Turquoise crystal interfaces on several facets were the only interruption in the Ancient alloy forming the case. As it did each time he handled one, the weight impressed him, as did the way Rodney took it without a bobble and proceeded to thread it into place.

"Done yet?" Ronon asked, a looming black silhouette between John and the sun, outlined in light. John jumped in surprise, then cast a dirty look up at him. Sneaky bastard loved doing that.

"Almost," Rodney answered, muffled voice high with normal annoyance. "I don't see why Zelenka can't go on some of these missions. He's...stunted. It's that bad Communist diet he grew up with, it's a miracle he has a brain at all, but the point is, he can squinch himself into a pretzel and not – ow – smash his fingers."

"Dr. Zelenka does not like going offworld," Teyla observed as she joined them.

"Well, this sucks."

"Buck up," John advised. "You could be installing it on an orbital gate."

"No doubt I will be sooner or later."

Rodney grunted, pushed at something, and finally backed out of the DHD again. His face and neck were red and shining with perspiration; his hair matted down and dark with it too. He blew out a loud breath. "Did someone ever say I did?" he demanded of Teyla. He swiped at the sweat on his upper lip. "Because not so much. It's like an oven in that thing."

Teyla smiled down at him and handed over her water bottle. Rodney took it, gulped down a swallow and poured the rest over his head. Droplets glittered on his eyelashes. John stared, then ostentatiously checked his watch, making sure Rodney saw.

"No one's shooting at you," John pointed out.

"Yes, I will admit, that is a major improvement in our missions of late."

"Are you done now?" Ronon asked.

"Yes," Rodney snapped back.

"You sure?" John asked. "'Cause I don't feel anything."

The field the TID generated made John itchy. He hated admitting it, but it made him cranky too, like someone was hissing in the back of his brain. It gave Teyla a piercing headache and bothered more than a few other members of the expedition too, though not nearly to the extent it affected the Wraith. Given an opportunity, Wraith would do anything to get out of range of the field. If they couldn't, they seemed to go insane or catatonic. Any of which worked to protect a planetary populace from them. So far it had worked on every planet they'd equipped with a TID.

"I've told you before, that's all in your head."

"Right," John drawled. He got to his feet, pleased his knees hadn't creaked as he did. "So turn it on and we can head home."

Rodney closed up his toolkit before he rose with a groan and a hand clutching at the small of his back. That meant he'd want the brownie and a back rub later.

Teyla touched John's arm. "Do you not think we should try to explain what we have done to the Elbixi again?"

John shrugged. "Well, you know, we already tried twice. Do you think the third time'd be the charm?"

She gave him a wry smile.

"It doesn't actually need them to know what it is for it to work," Rodney asked, "so why does it matter?"

"He's got a point," Ronon agreed.

Teyla sighed and gave in.

Rodney began entering the symbols for Atlantis into the DHD. The stargate activated with its normal half mechanical, half electrical noise. At the same time, the hairs on John's arms stood up like he had a swarm of bugs running all over him. Teyla sucked in a deep breath, her brow pleating in pain. John rubbed at his arms and glared at Ronon, who was watching him and Teyla.

"Guess it's working," Ronon commented.

"Of course it is." Rodney didn't bother turning around.

The wormhole splashed open, bright even in the daylight. Rodney sent through his IDC and John activated his radio to give the word of the day. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard. Everything is copacetic. Is it still raining there?

A faint crackle of static accompanied Chuck Campbell's familiar voice replying the counter-sign.

"AR-1, this is Atlantis. Everything is here is tickyboo too and, yeah, it's coming down in buckets."

'Tickyboo,' Rodney mouthed and John grinned. Every day a randomly chosen expedition member provided the signs and counter-signs for radio communication in the form of four innocuous words that had to be included in any wormhole contact, two for all okay, two for something wrong.

"Really?" John asked.

"No sir. Shield's down."

John waved the team forward and they stepped through the event horizon together into Atlantis. Rodney turned to him and snapped his fingers imperiously. "Under half an hour. Pay up."

John gave him a slow smile and a look. "Right here in the gate room?"

Rodney gulped and then sneered. "Fine. Later. Don't think I'm forgetting about the brownie, either."

5 December
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Ronon slapped Rodney's back as they exited the jumper, nearly sending him to his knees.

"I can't believe it was that easy," John repeated for the third time.

"Stop saying that, you'll jinx the next mission," Rodney told him, but he grinned with the same glee bubbling through the rest of the team.

They handed their weapons and the remaining explosives off to Corporals Mullen and Parker for return to the armory on the way to medical, received Keller's all clear, and reported to Woolsey to debrief. He was waiting for them, arms crossed over his chest, wearing the same expressive mixture of emotions he did at every debriefing: disapproval, apprehension, fascination and concern.

"I see you've all survived unscathed once more," he commented. "Did it work?"

"Did it work?" Rodney repeated. He glanced at John, who was grinning, to Ronon, who smirked and  to Teyla, who also had a wide smile. Rodney ducked his head, an answering smile spreading over his own face.

"Yes, did it work?" Woolsey demanded.

John strolled over to the conference table and perched on it. "Waltz in the park."

"Candy from a baby," Rodney said.

"Beating up Sheppard."

Sheppard slanted Ronon a sour look, then laughed anyway.

The conference room oriented to the west and morning briefings saw it always still on the shadowed side and requiring lights, but  by afternoon light reflected from the reddish walls and gave the entire room a warm cast. It gleamed off Woolsey's skull, too.

"Perhaps you might supply a little more detail than that?"

"The Wraith had no idea we were even there until it was too late," Rodney said. "With the jumper cloaked, we landed in one of the dart bays and simply waited for half an hour after activating the TID."

"It all went exactly according to our plan," Teyla finished. "Though I admit to a certain amount of relief that it is over. Being too near the device is quite...unpleasant."

"Were there other humans on the ship?" Woolsey asked

Some of the euphoria drained away.

"We didn't check the cocoon holds," John said. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Not that we could have done anything for anyone there if we had. The jumper will only hold so many people and we really didn't know how long the TID would affect the Wraith...We didn't see any worshippers wondering around, though. That hive might not have had any."

"I don't think we need to worry much about what happens to Wraith worshippers," Rodney said.

"They are human, Rodney," Teyla said.

Ronon scowled at her. "Not to me."

"Quite understandable," Woolsey said. He straightened his shoulders. "Well. I'll begin my own report for the IOA. I'll expect your reports by tomorrow afternoon." He made a shooing gesture toward all four of them.

"No problem," John told him. He slid off of the table and headed for the door, snagging Rodney's tac vest in one hand. "Let's get some dinner. I wouldn't want to pass out from low blood sugar, after all."

Rodney trotted after him. "Oooh. Lasagna tonight."

"That's right."

Teyla laughed behind them.

8 December 2009
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Rodney walked back from disposing of the clean towel in the washroom. John had come out of his post-sex coma and taken it upon himself to change the sheets. Which meant John wouldn't be dressing and heading back to his own quarters yet.

Rodney smiled and rejoined him, tucking in a sheet corner, only to have John redo it to his exacting standards.

John insisted on hospital corners. John also hated the wet spot, which meant Rodney's bed often received this treatment, since they usually had sex in his quarters. It made sense; bigger, better bed and even the marines had grown used to John's nocturnal rambling through the city, so seeing him in a corridor outside, even at the earliest hours, raised no eyebrows. A few people knew about them, but they'd remained discreet as possible over the years.

He stepped back and let John finish, admiring the play of bare skin and muscle, then slid into the crisp sheets and patted the spot next to him. He was already thinking of how messy they could get this set of sheets in the morning. They'd both have to have a shower anyway before heading out.

John got into the bed and after a moment of hesitation – he always hesitated and Rodney always wondered – squirmed closer and wrapped an arm around Rodney's middle. They'd wriggle apart some nights, when one or the other of them dreamed, but just as often Rodney woke to this same tickle of warm breath against his neck, John pressed close, whether Rodney was on his stomach or facing up the way he was now.

He could tell when John was awake by that breath and when he slept by the slowed rhythm and faint snuffle on each inhale, the weight of him against Rodney's side, slack with sleep. He'd learned so much about John in the years they'd slept together, since the first nights on Nsheen and since, much more than just his secrets. He knew for instance that John didn't talk often in bed, but he didn't mind if Rodney did.

The small lights along the floor and next to the door dimmed to their lowest setting automatically without any movement in the room to keep them on.

Rodney relaxed and let his thoughts roam and tumble out while looking up at the dark ceiling.

"You know that this proves that the Ancients weren't all that bright," he said.

"Ung?" John mumbled.

Rodney shifted and got his arm around John's shoulders, where he could pet his back.

"Yes. At least the ones who were trying to fight the Wraith. Maybe they suffered some sort of brain drain. They were certainly past their prime. I mean, you don't really think those ascension-obsessed egomaniacs could have built Atlantis, do you?"

"Hmm."

He took that as agreement. In reward, he stroked his fingers over John's nape.

John hummed contentedly and murmured, "Go on."

"I mean, the TID isn't that complicated. But no, the Ancients thought they'd fight the Wraith with sentient robots or nanites or exploding freaking tumors. When they ran into a disease, they fled to another galaxy and when they ran into the Wraith they ran away again and even when they ascended, they were pretty much all useless."

"What about, um, whatsername, Ganos Lal?"

"Pretending to be a hologram?" Rodney snorted his derision. "Very classy. Very useful. Only not."

"Give them a break, they were just afraid of dying," John said. "Just like everyone else."

"I don't think so," Rodney replied, feeling stubborn and slightly arbitrary enough to continue arguing his point, despite his body's desire to slide into sleep now that it was warm and sated. "The two best minds they had, Janus and Merlin, had to go behind their backs to accomplish anything. What does that tell you?"

"That they didn't want them exploding any solar systems?" John replied, sounding snippy and more awake.

"Maybe," Rodney conceded.

John nosed against his jaw. "Can we go to sleep now?"

Rodney hmphed and turned enough to pull John tighter to him. "If we must."

"I must. I've got a five o'clock run with Ronon." John settled closer and sighed with what sounded like contentment. "Maybe they never thought of it because they were trying to kill the Wraith, not save people."

Rodney frowned at the ceiling, parsing that out. Did John mean that philosophically, as in the Ancients had been a selfish bunch who didn't really care about the human population the Wraith would prey on when they gave up? Or had he been referring to specifics, to the Athosians and Michael's other victims, the ones the TID had been developed to free from his influence? Which reminded him...He needed Captain Hailey assigned to the science department permanently. Her work on powering the TIDs had been impressive. Plenty of the marines could fly jumpers and all of them could shoot, but how many of them were world class astrophysicists who had been mentored into the Stargate Program by Sam? Hailey was being wasted in the Air Force. Something he meant to change.

"John?"

John made a grumbling sound.

Rodney decided to let it go. After all, they had Teyla and her son back, safe and sane, though some of Michael's other victims would never be the same or, like Kanaan, had not survived at all. He could talk to John about Jennifer Hailey at morning staff.

He listened to John's steady breathing and let it lull him into sleep too.

15 December 2009
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Rodney actually waited until Teyla had finished telling them what was known about the Zidari.

"McKay?"

He concentrated on Hailey's work. If an error slipped through the simulations, into the testing phase, the best they could hope for was large scale destruction, with casualties minimized only because Rodney had every intention of evacuating anyone not critical to the first test charge.

"McKay." Significantly more emphasis and annoyance colored John's voice.

Enough to make Rodney look up. "What?"

"You with us?"

"Actually, no," Rodney said. He ignored John's frown. "This is completely beneath my skills, not to mention a criminal waste of my time. Someone else can do it."

"You're part of the team," John replied, definitely sounding annoyed.

"Yes, whatever," Rodney said. "Look, I know I can do the job twice as fast as anyone else, but Bryce is willing to go – I talked to her – and she's not incompetent." He didn't look up from his screen, scrolling through line after line of symbols, following the logic of the attributes they described, looking for flaws. "Zelenka and Hailey and I are incredibly close..." His voice trailed away as he frowned at the laptop. His hands paused over the keyboard, hovered, then he blew out a breath, muttering, "Still smarter than you, Hailey. We have to account for the..." and tuned out everything else, forgetting where he was entirely.

He heard John tell Woolsey. "It really is routine at this point. We can take Dr. Bryce. It looks like Rodney's pretty busy."

"You won't be sorry," Rodney muttered as everyone else gathered their tablets, clothes rustling as they rose. Hailey hadn't made an error, but she'd jumped five steps without supporting her methodology.

"I'll leave that up to you, Colonel Sheppard," Woolsey said.

Rodney blinked tiredly. If he hadn't been up until three in the morning, it might have been different. He might have found the prospect of getting into the field for a few hours a pleasant break. He couldn't turn his brain off though. He kept circling the concept. It wasn't radical, not by the standards of science as practiced in Atlantis, but he felt sure that it went a different direction entirely than what the Ancients had done. However they had actually manufactured ZPMs, they hadn't intended to recharge them or there would have been some facility or reference to it in the database.

This, what he and Radek were pioneering along with Hailey, was something new.

Last night the three of them and Mundy, the expedition's best pure mathematician, had gone over every calculation. Rodney had looked up finally when a rattling snore startled him out of his own daze and found Hailey asleep on the lab floor. Radek had the lab cot, proving that tired scientists were seldom gentlemen, and Mundy had been sitting upright on a stool. Rodney had considered waking him for a half second, then shrugged. Sooner or later, Mundy would fall over and wake himself.

He'd staggered back to his own quarters and faceplanted on the bed, not even kicking off his boots.

Four hours sleep weren't enough to operate on offworld. They'd once traded with a people who considered yawning a deadly insult. Ronon had been the one to get them chased off that planet.

"Dr. McKay?"

"Eh?"

"I have more reports to write for the IOA. Though, admittedly, the successes we've had lately have made for a nice change in writing them. I'll leave you to your own work."

Rodney nodded absently.

If all the math checked out, they would begin running a simulation the next day. He knew if he went down to the lab now, Hailey would want to start the simulations. If he waited until after lunch though, she could be threatened with sitting up to wait through the night for any results.

Woolsey walked out.

Rodney went on working until he heard the stargate cycle, then shot up out of his seat and out of the conference room. He might not be going with them, but he'd see his team off.

Ronon was carrying the TID and Bryce had on more gear than Rodney usually carried. He watched her balk for a second at the event horizon and sighed. She'd said she wanted more offworld experience. Ronon gave her a little push and she went through.

John turned and looked back and up, his face creasing into a smile when he caught sight of Rodney. Teyla turned and smiled too before walking after Ronon and Bryce.

John waved.

Rodney gave him a thumbs up and grimaced the instant John disappeared into the gate. His stomach protested and he remembered that he hated it when his team went anywhere without him. He walked back to the conference room with the full intention of finishing his review before lunch. They would begin the simulations and Hailey could stay up all night monitoring them. The next mission the team went on he would be with them.

2010
the whirlwind is in the thorntree

18 January 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Rodney corralled Hermiod and Novak the instant the Daedalus arrived in beaming range. Something about stressed quantum particles and Asgard shielding. John had been chewing his breakfast muffin and wondering if he'd have to limp down to the infirmary and have Keller look at his knee or could get away with liniment and an Ace bandage. It might have been stressed shielding and Asgard particles. He'd been distracted. His knee had twinged every time he bent it and he'd had to work at not letting it show. He hated the way everything that had always been unthinking and easy about his body had become an effort when he ticked over forty.

Maybe he hadn't done quite as good a job as he'd thought, because Rodney found him in his office, plowing through the paperwork that went with inventory and new personnel long past when he normally quit. Rodney set down a bottle of aspirin, a Powerbar and a bottle of water. "I asked at the mess hall if you'd made it in for lunch."

"Didn't figure you'd finish in the lab before midnight," John replied. He pushed his laptop away and picked up the still sealed bottle of aspirin. "Keller know you have this?"

"Novak brought it and a couple of other things," Rodney said. He dropped into the single chair on the opposite side of John's desk. There hadn't even been that chair until Lorne brought it in. Which was only fair, considering the amount of time Lorne spent in John's office. "Besides, what Keller doesn't know won't hurt either one of us. To wit, whatever the hell you did to your knee running with Ronon this morning."

"Sparring," John corrected him.

He got the cellophane off, popped the cap and tore open the foil seal. The aspirin threatened to jump out and he wondered when drug companies stopped using cotton balls to cushion pills.

"Whatever. He's over ten years younger than you. Take the aspirin." Rodney sniffed the air. "Well, at least you had sense enough to put liniment on it. Of course, now you smell like a stable."

He didn't mind smelling like a stable. The smell of horse liniment brought back some of the pleasanter memories of childhood. The horses had been an escape in themselves beyond the promises of speed and riding away someday, warmth and strength without pretense. Not that he'd ever explain that, even to Rodney, unless something forced it out of him. But he'd never object to the reminder or the scent of stables, unless Rodney was referring to manure.

"Not quite."

"Better than Aqua Velva, anyway."

He opened the bottle of water and downed the aspirin with a swallow, then tore open the Powerbar. John peered at it. Rodney had brought him his favorite flavor. "Thanks."

"So, Novak brought some interesting news," Rodney told John while John chewed his way through the Powerbar.

John swallowed. "And?" He looked inquiringly at Rodney. "You had to rush right over and clue me in. Thanks for thinking of me, walled away here with nothing to do but count ammo and make sure we got all the MREs we requisitioned before I sign for them."

He did have paperwork to finish, some of it electronic and some still on actual paper, before the Daedalus left for Earth again. With his knee still hurting enough he didn't want to limp around on it more than necessary, John had taken over the worst part of the job and sent Lorne to physically inspect each crate beamed down to make sure the contents matched the bill of lading. Boring, tiring work either way, but no matter how lackadaisical he was about the pissant parts of the military, John made sure every cartridge and sock was accounted for in and out of Atlantis.

"Hmn, no. Teyla stole Hermiod right out the lab. I didn't know she'd ever even talked to him before."

John nodded, only half listening.

He'd been lucky to have Bates that first year when things got lean and luckier with Lorne now, but he did his share of the work. Entirely too much of it had to be handled by the commander of the base and couldn't be foisted off on any of his subordinates.

"The SGC has started turning over the technology they promised to the other Gate Alliance Treaty signatories and they've declassified an entire category of scientific papers that have been on the Wait List," Rodney said. He leaned forward, excitement lighting up his face. "Anything derived from but not specifically referencing as evidence the Program or offworld data."

John raised an eyebrow and took a another bite of Powerbar. Rodney nearly bounced in his seat.

"This is huge, Sheppard. Some of these papers have been written and archived for years. People have been waiting to publish all that time. Some of them since the Stargate was opened. Jackson must have ten books worth of comparative archaeolinguistic analysis. The math, the physics, and even the engineering work on improved materials created from alloys we've learned about from the Goa'uld and the Ancients are going to revolutionize..." He frowned at John. "Why aren't you excited?"

John finished chewing while pointing at his laptop and the work still on it.

Rodney hmphed and sat back in his chair. "Fine. But dozens of us who have been working unacknowledged are about to be vindicated. No more going to conferences on our area of study and being asked what happened and why we haven't done any new work. Telling everyone your work is classified sounds great the first fifty times, but then people start thinking it's an excuse. They point and say, there's McKay. Brilliant start, but no one's seen anything from him since he worked on the Canadian Arm."

"Sorry, buddy."

"Sure you are."

John shrugged.

"And it's not like I'd trade what I've been doing for all the accolades – "

John muffled a snort that made Rodney frown at him.

"Fine, yes, but fame gets you tenure and grants and the best equipment and people to work with, you know."

Worry replaced the excitement and annoyance on Rodney's face. His knee jiggled.

"What?" John demanded.

"Look, this is - this is important, you have to understand. This is the first step to disclosure. It's going to change everything."

John went back to his inventory check, comparing the manifest for P90 ammunition with what they'd requisitioned and what Lorne reported had been delivered. According to the paperwork, the SGC had sent it all. According to the Daedalus's records, they'd loaded it all. According to Lorne's count, they were missing five crates. Crap. If someone had skimmed five crates of ammo, there was going to be a mess that would end in an investigation. He didn't want to find out someone in the expedition was blackmarketing their equipment. They had enough enemies in this galaxy and some of them had got their hands on lost or cached material, which John hated. Bad enough to be shot at without supplying the ammo and guns to do it.

Maybe it had been misdirected. To save time, they had specific supplies beamed straight to relevant storage areas. He opened a window with the food supply delivery checklist.

He touched his radio, opening the channel he used to communicate with his officers. "Major Lorne, this is Sheppard. Send Lt. McCready down to Mess Hall Supply Room Four. They have five extra crates listed. Looks like someone on the Daedalus figures we eat bullets for breakfast."

"A natural enough mistake, sir. I'll have the lieutenant confirm that's our missing ammunition and send a squad to remove it to the armory. Lorne out."

"Are you even listening to me?" Rodney demanded.

"No."

"If the Stargate Program is declassified, they may reveal the existence of Atlantis too. Zelenka thinks they won't, but you know it will come out. Or what if they don't? You don't think that's going to affect us? Budgets! Someone has to pay for the bullets."

"Rodney..." John looked up at him. "Exactly what am I supposed to do about it? Either way?"

Rodney slumped. "I don't know."

"Look, I'll be there when they hand you your Nobel."

"Promise."

"Pinky swear."

"Good, good." Rodney bounced to his feet. "I'm going back to the lab. Hermiod had the most ridiculous suggestion about modulating the subspace stream using..." John lost the gist of it at that point, other than that Rodney was going to prove Hermiod wrong, wrong, so wrong and incidentally, he would be winning the Nobel for this work.

"That's what you said last week."

"It's still true. So stay off that knee. I don't want a gimp showing up at Stockholm," Rodney told him on the way through the door.

30 January
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Rodney kept worrying at it, the prospect of disclosure and what it would mean. He paced back and forth and around John's bed, going over the pros and cons. Several of Teyla's candles burned in place of brighter lights, their flames swaying whenever he passed, sending shadows chasing over Johnny Cash's poster. John sat back and watched, periodically making little encouraging sounds.

"Pro, Nobel. There's absolutely no way they could ignore what I've accomplished, even before the work I've done in Atlantis," Rodney said. "Con, of course, I'll be expected to defend and explain it all, since most people really aren't up to grasping even the basic concepts."

"Mmhm."

John had his boots and socks off. He stretched and wiggled his toes in cat-like ecstasy, derailing Rodney's train of thought. John had long feet and long toes. Dark hair dusted the joints. He practically melted when given a foot rub, but other than in the infirmary, Rodney didn't think he'd ever seen John go barefoot around anyone but him.

Rodney coughed and shifted his gaze to the side table with its picture of tiny John ad Evil Knievel and John's latest Russian novel. He'd asked about John's penchant for Russian fiction once and received only a drawled, "I like it." Months later, waiting while Teyla hammered out a deal for gredel berries and falk seed, John had offered up a tiny clue. In a pause between Rodney complaining about the snow, the distance from the stargate on foot, and the resemblance of the local militia to Cossacks, and while John might like Doctor Zhivago, he, Rodney, could do without the replay of his time in Siberia, John had said, "My mother loved Doctor Zhivago."

It looked like John had started on Solzhenitsyn since then.

"Pro, publishing," Rodney made himself go on. He watched John slide down on the bed, the way he stretched and squirmed, getting comfortable, all the while watching Rodney through a veil of half-lowered eyelashes. "Con, Atlantis is so isolated, any number of people will publish before I can. Which is doubly unfair – "

"Rodney," John said. He placed his hands on the first button of his BDUs. "Do we really need to talk about this?" He flicked the button open. "Now?"

The familiar, sweet tightening in his groin convinced Rodney that John had a point. He toed off his shoes while starting on his own belt and walking toward the bed, a feat of coordination he thought would be amazing in other circumstances.

John finished unbuttoning, lifted his hips and pushed the BDUs down, then kicked them off. They landed in a heap beyond the foot of the bed. Rodney stepped over them, shed his own pants, and crawled onto the bed to kneel between John's bare legs. He let his hand rest on the knee still wrapped in an Ace bandage.

"Go easy on me," John told him seriously. "I'm fragile." The tip of his tongue peeked between his lips.

Rodney slid his hand up the smooth inside of John's thigh, letting his fingers stir the hair on the top. John caught his breath and shifted artlessly. The bulge in his boxers grew.

"Mmm, yes, I can see that."

He paused at the hem of John's boxers, just tucking the tips of his fingers underneath. Heat rose up through John's skin and Rodney broke into a light sweat himself. He held himself to moving his thumb in small circles, watching as John's cock got harder and harder, tenting his boxers impressively.

"Not that easy, you bastard," John finally panted, curling up and reaching for Rodney's hand, and then guiding it under his waistband to his cock.

The weight of John's cock in his hand, hot, taut flesh, the way he flexed his hips to fuck into Rodney's fist made Rodney groan. His own erection poked insistently at the front his boxers, a damp spot forming over the head.

He worked his way further up the bed, straddling John without letting go, and kissed him.

They managed to lose both pairs of boxers after that, but never got to their shirts, hands and mouths everywhere, touching and licking and sucking, everything easy and urgent all at once. They ended up in a debauched tangle afterward, Rodney's shirt rucked up to his armpits, sweat and come drying on his belly and the black cotton of John's tee. When Rodney could breathe steadily again without actively thinking about it, he staggered into the bathroom to clean up before dressing.

John couldn't afford to have Rodney walk out of his quarters reeking of sex. He couldn't afford to have Rodney stay the night either, so Rodney put his clothes back on post clean up, then sat on the foot of the bed to don his shoes.

"Blow out the candles?" John asked lazily. He had barely moved, except to finally strip off his tee shirt, which was typical of John, who truly did have a lazy streak or at least a fondness for wallowing in the afterglow.

Rodney put on his second shoe and stood. He walked around the room putting out the candles, pausing at the last one. He looked at John by its light, a naked chiaroscuro of golden skin and shadow, long curves and lean lines. John's eyes glittered.

"Hey," he said and held out his hand.

Rodney walked back to the bed and let himself be pulled down into a long, sleepy kiss. When he finally stepped back, John smiled at him.

"When you finish recharging the ZPMs, we won't have to ration power consumption. You'll be able to keep up with whatever's being published back on Earth."

16 February 2010
Pegasus
PY4-44D

John turned in a circle, studying the village, not liking what he saw. It had never been a rich place, just wattle-and-daub huts, surrounded by checkerboard fields of mixed crops, all of them wilted and untended. It had a distinct sense of decay and abandonment, too. That might not have been surprising if it had been culled, but they'd glimpsed people moving around before they approached the outskirts. Smoke rose from fires inside most of the huts. The populace had disappeared though, the instant they glimpsed the team. The only things left moving were some almost goats wandering loose between the huts. More of them were out in the fields, something he'd bet no farmer would allow given a choice.

He wanted to scratch his head. It didn't make sense.

The villagers hadn't acted frightened of them, hadn't screamed or run; indeed, it had been more of a fast and lurching shuffle on several peoples' part.

Now they were standing in the middle of the it, next to the well, and John thought they were being watched, but no one would come out. Maybe they were all taking a siesta. The heat here was breathtaking.

"We're friendly," he called out. "Just here to do a little work on the stargate. When we're through the Wraith won't bother you again."

He wrinkled his nose as the wind shifted and the stench of an open latrine hit.

"God, what's that reek?" Rodney exclaimed. He clamped his hands over his nose and mouth.

Ronon sniffed the air. "Sickness," he declared.

"Sickness?" Rodney bleated. "I knew I should have sent Bryce again. Can we get out of here? The last thing I need is to catch whatever mutant death flu is brewing in this – this – backwards, backwoods sty." He'd already gone pink and sweat-stained from the heat. Everyone who knew him long found out Rodney despised extreme temperatures of hot or cold. He liked being near any illness even less than either.

"Calm down, Rodney," John told him. He turned on his heel, looking for any sign of anyone willing to come out and talk to them. "We'll head back to the stargate in a few."

Teyla studied the huts and the pieces of daily life that had been abandoned near the well. A basket of laundry spilled in the dirt and a handful of fruit had been left out; the fruit looked soft and rotten, left in the sun too long, and a line of ant-like insects had found it.

"They know we are here," she said.

"Yep."

Sadness creased her features. "Perhaps it would be best if we respected their obvious wishes."

"What she said." Rodney had pulled open one of the pockets on his tac vest, found a paper face mask, and was in the process of hooking it over his nose and mouth. John snatched it away. "What?"

"Do you think you could be any more insulting?" he asked.

Rodney glared back at him. "Let me try. And give that back."

"No." John stuffed the mask into his own pocket.

"We should go," Ronon said.

One of the almost goats wandered over to him fearlessly, then butted its head against his leg. It had a single, blunt nose horn and coarse black and white hair. If it had come past half way up Ronon's calf and had a little more force and a point, it might have hurt.

"Looks like you've made a friend," John observed.

Ronon looked down at it. It had begun mouthing his trousers. John hid a grin as Ronon shook his leg to make the almost goat leave. It blew out a snotty breath with a loud bleat and trotted away.

"Okay, that was disgusting," Rodney said, eyeing the dark stain left on Ronon's leg, half some kind of phlegm and speckled with well chewed green stuff.

Ronon wiped the worst of the slime off with his hand, looking less than pleased, then crossed his arms over his chest. "Let's go," he said.

"Okey dokey," John said. Teyla was right. No use pushing their presence on these people. Not like this village had anything to offer in trade anyway. He shrugged enough to resettle his tac vest and took a step back toward the gate.

A rock hit the earth a yard away, accompanied by a wordless yell from its thrower. John spun toward the noise while Ronon had his gun out and aimed.

Another yell and another rock followed. The man doing both staggered and nearly fell, but the rock didn't come near any of them. He braced his hand against the side of a hut and gabbled something else at them, shaking his other hand at them wildly.

The whine of Ronon's gun powering up sounded loud in the quiet following the outburst.

"Ronon, stop," Teyla said. She moved ahead of John and him and held her hands out in the open, showing they were empty. "We mean you no harm."

The man stooped awkwardly, scrabbled in the dirt and found another rock. This time it almost reached his target, kicking up dust onto Teyla's boots. She hesitated and he yelled something so slurred John couldn't guess if it was a language they hadn't heard before or just incoherent. A wet stain appeared at his crotch and he stumbled back into his hut.

"He's drunk," Rodney said in disgust.

"Maybe, probably," John replied. He felt uneasy. Maybe the whole village was recovering from week long bender, but why would they all hide? "I think we've worn out our welcome anyway."

"I'm not going to argue."

That rated a smile. "There's a first."

"I believe you and Ronon are right," Teyla said. "We should go."

"Hey, what about me? I wanted to get out of here before the rocks started flying, you know."

Teyla patted Rodney's arm in passing, as she headed out of the village with her easy stride. "I know, Rodney."

"Well. Just so you know," he said, uncertainly, then hurried after her.

John hesitated, glancing around a last time.

"Sheppard," Ronon growled.

"Come on."

Ronon kept an eye on the village as they left, but no one stirred from the huts and no one followed them back to the stargate. The TID installation began the way a hundred others had: Rodney on his hands and knees, head in the DHD, complaining about the heat, cursing the Ancients, and worrying the Wraith would show up before he had it running. Ronon stayed a little more alert, looking back toward the village and prowling an invisible perimeter. Teyla sat down next to John.

One thing Rodney had right; the heat made mirages shimmer in the middle distance. She shone with perspiration, as did Ronon. John just felt sweaty.

Rodney backed out the DHD and knelt with his hands braced on his thighs, head hanging. He was alarmingly red.

"You okay, buddy?" John asked.

"Yeah, I just need to wipe my hands down and maybe dive in a freezing cold river," Rodney panted.

Ronon wandered back and crouched next to Rodney, tailor-fashion. "You need to drink something."

That made Rodney sneer, though the wet sheen of sweat on his face and the way he almost glowed with heat took the edge off his scorn. "Really? You're just a font of homespun wisdom, aren't you?"

Ronon fished Rodney's canteen from the pile of equipment set next to the DHD and handed it to him. Then he clapped Rodney on the forearm, before rising and striding away. "I'm going to check the tree line."

Rodney stared at his forearm and scrubbed futilely at it. "God, tell me you washed your hands sometime since using them to wipe goat-thing snot from your pants!"  He wiped his hand on his own pants, leaving a dark smear of sweat. "Yuuch!"

"How much longer?" John asked before he could begin the hygiene rant.

Rodney paused between opening his canteen and drinking from it. "Two hours, maybe a little more."

A frown creased John's forehead. "McKay? McCready's team has a better time than that."

"Well, McCready's team isn't dealing with DHD that's already been modified by some ham-fisted cretin. If the Ancients hadn't been obsessed with multiple redundancies – which I highly approve of when it comes to reconstituting my atoms in the right order – this thing wouldn't have even dialed in. It won't dial out again until I finish fixing it."

"Christ."

John glanced at Teyla. She sighed and wiped her forehead. She hadn't known anything about this planet; it had been on a list Halling had from his father, who got it from another trader, but none of the Athosians had ever used the gate address. Or if someone had, maybe they'd ended up stuck on this side of the stargate. One of these days, the scientists needed to rig a MALP with some way to test whether the gate could be dialed successfully from the other side. John had been on a few too many trips that would have been one way without Rodney along.

"You think maybe the villagers just hadn't seen anyone new in a long time?"

She shook her head. "If they were truly isolated, I think they would have been more curious."

He turned back to Rodney. "You can fix it, though?"

"Yes, of course, I've fixed worse. I'll install the TID when I've finished replacing the KR3 crystal so that we can dial out." Rodney sighed and pulled his toolkit closer. He began going through it. "Luckily, I always carry one."

"Sure," John agreed. This was why Rodney was always a good guy to have on your team. He got up and stretched. "I'm going catch up with Ronon." Maybe hang out in the shade for a few minutes.

"I will stay with Rodney," Teyla said.

"Good, good," Rodney muttered. He opened a small case of crystals and plucked one out. "Teyla has better hands than you for small work."

"Thank you," she said.

"Use the radio if something comes up," John told her and strolled away.

21 February 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Two falls into their sparring session, Teyla hit John with a move that didn't stop when it should have. John went down a third time, wondering if she hadn't just broken one of his ribs and only vaguely heard her bantos sticks hit the mat. He knelt and tried to breathe through clenched teeth.

"John, should I call for a doctor?"

He shook his head. He'd had beatings and walked away from several crashes that had banged him up worse. He just hadn't expected it. If Teyla wasn't going to pull her blows, she told him up front. That had been an awkward, unrestrained move, so out of character John had left himself wide open.

"John?"

Teyla's voice held a tremble that made him look up.

Her hands were shaking, held out before her, and she was staring at them, her dark eyes wide with alarm.

By the time they made it to one of the transporters, Teyla's hands were okay again, though she folded them into tight fists, held her arms close to her body and walked carefully. John knew she hadn't broken his rib, but he expected a hell of a bruise, and knew Keller would insist on a scan to make sure it hadn't cracked. He touched the destination screen for the infirmary and tried to ignore the tingling sensation that had started in his heels several days before. It had spread up to his calves the night before, then disappeared when he woke up.

It came back during breakfast, after his run with Ronon, but he'd ignored it in favor of teasing Rodney over his phantom pains, until Rodney developed a twitch and left the mess hall without finishing the contents of his tray.

The tingling had been there through the whole sparring session, distracting and slowing John down, and felt even stronger when he stood still. He shifted uneasily. Rodney could have been feeling much the same thing. Rodney didn't pride himself on toughing anything out; not when it could be treated, unlike Ronon, who preferred to ignore anything that didn't prostrate him. Rodney worried over every freckle and bruise and yes, he was a hypochondriac when he had too much time on his hands to obsess over the myriad potential betrayals of the body, but maybe he hadn't been imagining those pains he had described.

It suddenly didn't seem so funny.

Funny pretty much disappeared from the picture entirely by the end of the day.

Keller had John in one bed, with Teyla and Rodney in the next ones. Her mouth drew tighter and tighter as the tests came in, but she didn't tell them anything when Teyla asked.

"I can't make a diagnosis yet," she explained.

"But there's something wrong," Rodney groaned. "I knew it! If you'd listened to me yesterday – "

"Rodney, let her do her job," Teyla said from her bed. She'd hidden her hands under the sheet.

John drew his legs up and then had to bite back a moan at the pain from his side. He ground the heels of his feet into the bed, trying to alleviate the tingling. It had become more a kind of annoying slow burn as the day progressed. He thought from the way Keller had kept asking, "Do you feel this? This? Now?" and frowning, that he'd lost some sensation in his feet, too.

He still didn't think it was what Rodney was feeling, but Rodney was feeling something and Teyla's hands kept shaking. That was three of them with screwy symptoms. Keller's secretiveness telegraphed that whatever she'd found was serious enough to worry her. That didn't reassure John and wouldn't make Rodney or Teyla feel any better either.

He tried to be upbeat anyway. "We'll all be fine."

Rodney gave him a patently disbelieving look.

"She'll fix us up," John added, more for Teyla's benefit than Rodney's. Platitudes just weren't ever going to placate Rodney, but Teyla sometimes accepted words in the sense they were meant. Worrying themselves sick wouldn't help them. Keller was good and generally saved her indecisiveness and second thoughts for after emergencies. They could count on her; she'd proved herself under literal fire before.

This time, though, Teyla looked away.

"Teyla?" Rodney questioned, proving once and for all that he did pay attention to nonverbal cues from people.

"I miss Tanaan," she murmured, "but I find myself relieved he is with Halling at the settlement."

"Yeah," John agreed, his voice gone rough. He knew she missed Tanaan, but Atlantis didn't have schools or daycare, and the kid needed to be with other kids. "Yeah, that's, that's probably a good thing."

Rodney always had to state the obvious. "You wouldn't want him to catch whatever it is we've got, would you?" John knew that Teyla realized he only meant it as a comfort or he would have thrown the water cup on the beside table at him.

The infirmary doors slid open admitting Ronon. Blood trickled from a cut in his lip and he staggered, clutching at the edge of the door to stay on his feet.

John sat up so fast he caught the line of the IV Keller had insisted on, causing a nasty spike of pain that reminded him he had to stay in the bed and let someone else rush to his friend's side.

Keller and an orderly moved to do just that, but Ronon held up his hand and John noticed the energy pistol in it for the first time.

"Stay back," Ronon slurred. "You don't want to catch it."

His gaze roved over the infirmary, locking onto John and the rest of their teammates. Pain crumpled his features. The muzzle of his gun moved toward them and John tensed, ready to dive off the bed.

"Ronon," Teyla called, "you must be calm. What ever has happened – "

The trickle of blood reached Ronon's chin and fell to the floor. John saw it hit and the infirmary floor flared red.

"What in hell?" the orderly exclaimed. He stared down in shock. Floors didn't often light up back on Earth.

The frightening blare of the quarantine alarm accompanied the pulsing lights. The door behind Ronon slammed shut, nearly taking his braced hand with it. Ronon let his gun fall from slack fingers and dropped down to his hands and knees, head bowed and hanging.

"Oh, shit," the orderly exclaimed. He wasn't new, but he hadn't been through any real lockdowns before and he looked around, half panicked, white showing all around his eyes.

"Someone get me a laptop, right now!" Rodney ordered. He was sitting up, halfway out of bed.

"Forget that," Keller snapped. She pointed at the orderly. "Henson. Hazmat suits."

Her glance strayed to where Ronon's blood stained the floor.

"Whatever this is, it's contagious through body fluids."

Ronon lifted his head. His voice was hoarse and he had to raise it to be heard. "I should have figured it out before. Didn't until I fell on my face."

Rodney hesitated at the edge of his bed. He drew back. His eyes were wide with real fear.

John curled his hand into the sheet on his own bed. He forced himself to breathe in shallow pants in deference to his sore side. He stayed in place because the last thing he needed to do was spook Ronon into going postal with an energy pistol in the locked down confines of the infirmary. He had a bad feeling any help he could offer would be useless anyway.

Keller stayed at a distance from Ronon, but eyed him critically. "What is it?"

"Belar's Shake."

The sound Teyla made then, half sob and half scream, scared John more than kneeling before a Wraith Queen.

The alarm went on wailing.

26 February 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

"We're incredibly lucky you aren't a touchy-feely bunch," Keller joked when she came in the fifth day.

"Funny how I don't feel lucky," Rodney replied. He had a laptop and could continue with at least some of his work. John had noticed that his typing had steadily slowed down in the last day, however, and Rodney kept frowning at the screen, blinking rapidly and repositioning the laptop.

John didn't feel lucky either. He had a laptop too and had been plowing through some of the paperwork he always put off; the less than urgent things that generally ended up waiting until they suddenly became urgent. He'd managed to finish the quarterly personnel evaluations during the first three days. It made him feel wistful for Elizabeth. She'd always had her own sea of paperwork, but she'd made time to go through the parts of his that would affect more than the military in the city, talking out the ramifications of every decision in a way that had made him a better military officer oddly enough.

She would have done better locked up in the isolation ward than John. Or maybe she would have been as restless as he felt.

Keller had moved the four of them to an isolation room immediately, then began quizzing Teyla and Ronon about Belar's Shake. Ronon, mostly, since Teyla curled onto her side and answered in monosyllables. That and the the sniffs they could hear from her periodically freaked John out more than the way Ronon looked at them like they were already dead. After all, he didn't feel that bad.

He started feeling bad about the time Keller explained she'd diagnosed seven more people infected before Atlantis' sensors were tripped. The infected could harbor the virus for several days before it registered outside their cells. It had taken Ronon's blood on the significantly more sensitive infirmary floor to trigger an alarm. They hadn't known the infirmary had enhanced sensors, though it made sense. Too bad they hadn't been sensitive enough to pick up on the contagion before it spread beyond the team.

Two nurses and a doctor who had checked the team when they returned from the last mission tested positive within a day of John's diagnosis. Corporal Anderson, who regularly sparred with Ronon, showed up hours later complaining of the same shooting pains Rodney had. Keller figured out that the virus didn't aerosolize, but it had an equally frightening ability to burrow right through the skin. The enhanced electron scan of a sample showed a virus unlike anything on Earth, a pointed protein trailing a spiral tail that flexed and screwed itself forward to drive between dead cells until it found a living target. A little spit or sweat on bare skin was sufficient to pass the infection on. Once established it replicated slowly without destroying the cells it co-opted at first. Keller hadn't been positive what it did do the last time she'd come in and had been called away before she could explain what she did know. Two of Rodney's scientists had followed Anderson in and finally Lt. Vega, the new marine pilot John had tutored in flying the jumpers.

Lorne radioed John with the news about Vega.

He'd shaken her hand.

"Should just shoot us and burn everything we've touched," Ronon said. He'd wedged himself in a corner and glared at Keller. His frustration steamed off him, given away by jerky movements and a back-off snarl when John had tried to talk with him.

"Don't you think that would be jumping the gun a little?"

John could see Keller force a smile, despite the heavy Plexiglas shield of the hazmat suit's headgear.

"Is it?" he asked.

So far he just had the tingling and some numb patches, mostly on his feet, but one of his fingers had stopped bending the day before, and he couldn't walk across the room without losing his balance. He'd fallen twice, until Rodney's white-faced leap to follow him back and forth each time he tried pacing had driven him back to his bed.

It had been just as well. John thought his pacing had made Ronon's mood worse, since the sudden jerks of his constantly trembling legs and arms made it impossible for Ronon to move without infinite care.

"Going to die anyway," Ronon declared.

John looked at Keller.

"It is hopeless," Teyla said, startling them all. She been stubbornly silent and then thrown her dinner tray on the floor the night before. Another symptom, John realized, but the loss of her equilibrium still hurt them all. "There is no cure for Shake. Ronon's right."

"I'm not about to kill you," Keller insisted. "We can beat this." She bit her lip. "And if we run out of time, you can go into stasis."

"Right, because that's working out so well for Carson's clone," Rodney said bitterly. Months and then a year had passed and Medical was no closer to stabilizing the deterioration that would kill the clone if they brought him out of stasis. Atlantis kept the stasis room cool and the clone stood in his pod like a changeling sleeping in ice.

Thinking about Carson only served to remind John of another stay in isolation with his team, when it had been Ford going stir crazy, and they'd been facing a death sentence at the end of their stay. They'd been luckier than they had any right to be back then; they'd come out the other side alive and sane, if lonelier than ever before. Luck ran out, though. It ran out for Ford and then in an ironic twist, turned on Carson and Elizabeth, costing them their lives within Atlantis' confines. It didn't matter that Carson's clone now occupied a stasis pod. Carson was dead and Elizabeth's life had ended before Keller and Rodney tried that last gambit with the nanites.

"Just be straight with us," Rodney requested.

For the first time John heard his words slur. He whipped his gaze to the side, staring at Rodney. Rodney worked his mouth soundlessly, then looked down at his hands. He didn't say anything more.

John thought of the list of symptoms Ronon had recited for Keller. Blurred vision, slurred speech, balance problems, loss of coordination, spasmodic movement and twitches, trembling and shaking that progressed into helpless immobility. Victims who didn't kill themselves and had someone to care for them – and inevitably become infected doing so – starved to death, unable to chew and eventually to even swallow fluids. Most didn't last that long; if someone didn't kill them, the mood swings, insomnia and anxiety escalated into depression and suicide. The longest anyone lived with the Shake had been a couple months. No one in Pegasus knew much more than that: the disease would flare into being in one village and spread from gate to gate until someone recognized it early enough to kill the victims and burn everything associated with them.

"Everybody is working on this," Keller told them. She sat down the tray she'd brought in with her. "I need to do another blood draw. Once I've analyzed that, I'll be back with some medication that will help with the mood swings."

Rodney held out his arm for her. "You know it's not a mood swing to feel like shit when your body feels like shit because you are dying of some alien plague that will eventually turn you into a crazy, stupid, helpless blob."

Keller's gloved hands paused on Rodney's arm and John knew she'd heard the slur this time too.

"No one's saying you're crazy," she said.

"Not yet," Rodney concluded. He looked away as she drew out two vials of his blood.

Keller continued, taking samples from Teyla, then Ronon, before finishing with John.

"Any idea how we got it? I mean, we didn't touch anything in that village and the stone throwing guy was never even close," John asked.

Keller handed him a cotton ball and he pressed it into the crook of his arm. She worked carefully, affixing the vials into a rack after dropping each used needle into the hazardous waste bin. Everything would go through decontamination when she exited the isolation room.

"I've been thinking about that and the way the disease flares up out of nowhere," she said. "Ronon?"

"Yeah?"

"The animals you mentioned were loose in the village? Are they common?"

"Kutra. Yeah."

Keller nodded. "I think the virus might be hitching a ride in them between outbreaks. Director Woolsey has authorized a medical investigation team to go back to the planet and take some samples for testing. There may be some survivors and victims still there in need of help, too."

"You think it's the kutra?" Ronon demanded. He let out a ragged laugh.

"Well, it might be. It might be more than one species, too," Keller said, only slightly defensive. "It's just a theory at this point."

"One of them sneezed all over him," Rodney muttered to John. "Remember?"

He did. He remembered Ronon's careless touch to Rodney's arm at the DHD afterward. Ronon had pushed John through the gate later with one big hand on the back of his neck.

He sighed and replied quietly, "No," because Ronon didn't need to carry that extra weight of guilt over an innocent moment of contact. He checked the puncture in his arm and since it had stopped bleeding, tossed the cotton into the waste bin.

Ronon had probably touched Teyla too, then or later. Of the four of them, Ronon was the most physically demonstrative and then there was the fact that John thought Ronon and Teyla were sleeping together sometimes. No one said and he didn't ask because it didn't matter; the four of them were already as close as they could be; a little physical pleasure and comfort wouldn't change what they already felt.

John squeezed his eyes shut for a breath, hoping Rodney would get it.

In one of those moments that mimicked telepathy, Rodney did. "Could've been anything," he mumbled. "Pollen. Bugs. You probably touched something."

"Maybe you got it from the DHD," John teased.

"I put nothing past this galaxy."

John watched Keller leave with her blood samples and a promise lunch would be delivered before she came back with new meds and news from the planet of almost-goats. Kutra. Whatever.

He couldn't face writing another evaluation, so he clicked on his video golf icon.

"You want to play too?" he asked Rodney.

"Why not? I'm not accomplishing anything else here."

John started to get out of the bed and felt the room swing and whirl around him. He fumbled the laptop to the side and clung to the edge of the bed.

"No, no, you stay there," Rodney exclaimed.

John didn't have much choice unless he wanted to hit the floor again.

"You're going to crack your head open if you keep falling over," Rodney told him. He seated himself on the bed next to John and locked a steadying hand on John's arm, but didn't try to move him.

When John could move without wanting to throw up, he shifted himself until they could both use his laptop. Pretending that hadn't happened seemed like the best way to go.

"So, golf? " he asked.

"I'm going to kick your ass this time."

"Sure you are."

28 February 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Rodney imagined he could feel his brain flaking away, cell by cell, and wanted more than anything to find some way of fighting it. The hideous and eventually humiliating physical impairment made him angry, but the loss of his ability to think and learn wounded him too deeply to articulate.

Words were his enemy now. No, not words, but his inability to form them, to make himself understood; an old, dull frustration known since childhood honed to a sharp new edge. Every slur and gabbled, wrong word gave away how much he was losing to the virus's effects each day. John tried to talk to him, but the sound of his own thick words, the stiffness of his lips and tongue refusing to work naturally horrified Rodney and he answered with grunts and silence until John gave up.

Before he'd recognized the stutter in his thoughts, Rodney had secretly wondered at the near intelligent malevolence of the virus. Out of an array of symptoms, it seemed to strike each of them where it would hurt the most, ripping away Teyla's emotional poise, destroying Ronon's physical prowess, trapping Sheppard in a bed. The irony hadn't escaped him when he found himself rereading a simple equation three times, unable to follow the math to its logical conclusion.

Irony offered little in the way of comfort.

He shut down his laptop then and hadn't opened it since.

John quit playing on his laptop not long after. Even video golf paled with time, but Rodney had noticed his and John's scores falling before he withdrew to his own bed and silence.

He thought he might go raving mad eventually. He'd stared at the walls until he could trace the outlines of the Ancient embellishments with his eyes closed. The calm colors of the panels and the floor, earthen and bronze-brown, were inescapable. They made him long for an hour out on a balcony, the salt wind and the blues, greens, and grays of the ocean and the sky.

If he was going stir crazy in the isolation room's confines, it had to be worse for John and Ronon, who were both always moving and doing.

The lights dimmed finally at the end of the day. Rodney turned on to his side, so that he didn't have to look up at the glass windows of the observation level.  If he didn't look, he could pretend there weren't watchers and cameras recording everything in the room.

He listened as Teyla began whispering an Athosian prayer, a plea to the Ancestors, interspersed with Tanaan's name and muffled sobs that made his eyes prickle in sympathy.

"Teyla," John called to her. "Teyla. Talk to us."

Rodney kept his eyes squeezed shut, but couldn't help hearing Ronon leave his bed and lurch toward Teyla's. He felt his bed jostle as Ronon clutched at the foot of it to steady himself before staggering on to John's. He listened as Ronon reached Teyla's side and spoke.

His eyes snapped open as he heard a fist impact flesh. For one instant he imagined Ronon attempting to finish what he already saw as ended. The lights remained dimmed, but he could see Ronon sprawled on the floor, one hand clapped over an eye. Teyla sat up in her bed, her face still glistening from her crying jag, and glared furiously down at him. Her hands were both in fists and Rodney realized that she'd punched Ronon.

John had rolled onto his side. All Rodney could see from where he sat was his back.

"Jesus, Teyla," John murmured.

"This is unbearable," she declared. When she uncurled her fingers, the tremors ran from them up her arms and made her voice quaver.

Ronon scrabbled back, staying on the floor, his hands and legs jerking worse than the day before. Rodney wondered sickly if Ronon could even coordinate himself back onto his feet.

"Better dead," Ronon said.

Rodney stared at John's back. Teyla lay down again, curling into a fetal ball, drawing the sheet and thin blanket high over her shoulders. After a minute, John rolled onto his back. His fingers closed on the blanket, clutching at it and Rodney deduced he was suffering through another bout of vertigo brought on by even that small movement.

Too late now, he thought of telling Ronon.

If he'd had a clue to what would happen, he would have asked Ronon to pull the trigger when he walked into the infirmary. Ronon didn't have his gun now. Someone had confiscated it while they were being transferred into the isolation ward.

"Yeah, buddy, I'm starting to get that idea," John said after a while. "But, you know, there's still a chance Keller will beat this thing."

Rodney stared at the ceiling and bit his lip.

Ronon eventually made it back into his bed.

None of them slept. Rodney knew the sound of that. The noises he heard were to rough, too quick and too uneven to even mimic sleep. The dim light offered the closest approximation of privacy they had, though, and he lied to himself that they weren't awake, so he finally spoke.

The sound of his voice made him wince. He kept himself simple words and forced them out, dropping like pebbles into the pond of silence surrounding him.

"Cure. Doesn't. Fix."

He heard John's violent exhale.

"Living. Worse. Like. This."

Ronon grunted.

"Okay," John whispered. "Okay. Not like this."

Rodney figured it was a promise. He knew it would kill John to do it, too, but John would.

Teyla said it for him.

"Thank you, John."

"Don't thank me," John replied.

1 March 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Keller had portable screens two orderlies brought in to provide a modicum of privacy while she did her examinations. Seeing them meant another set of blood draws and batteries of tests.

"Breakfast afterward," she told them.

John hated the false cheer in her voice, but didn't call her on it. Keller didn't really think they bought it. She did it for herself and so he extended her courtesy of ignoring the effort.

Rodney let out a wordless, irritated huff. John had no trouble understanding that.

"Rodney, you'll be getting a protein shake."

John let his head sag back against his pillow. So Keller had noticed Rodney picking at his food the last day or so, leaving behind anything that required much chewing. He'd meant to mention it if she hadn't.

"Colonel, we'll start with you today," Keller said.

"Good idea," he agreed.

At least he wouldn't lose his breakfast that way. The vertigo that had replaced his vanished sense of balance meant every change of position came with a surge of nausea. The movement inherent in Keller's exams would leave him dry heaving for what felt like an eternity each time.

The orderlies set up the screens and retired back to the doors.

"Sorry about this," she told him as she worked and he gagged. She kept her touch professional but gentle and didn't force him into any swift movements that would exacerbate the nausea. The rubbery cool feel of the hazmat suit's gloves made his skin goose pimple up.

"Not your fault," he panted.

He wanted to close his eyes but didn't dare. Darkness made the spinning sensations much worse. He focused on the weave of the pale yellow scrubs he had on. The color made even Teyla look bad and he hadn't known that was possible. The weave was tight, but the fabric was thin as paper. It crumpled into wrinkles that threatened to tear apart when he closed a fist around a handful of it.

"I'd like to get you under the Ancient scanner again, but I don't want to trigger another lockdown and I'm afraid of what would happen if you were in a hazmat suit," Keller said.

"Knock me out," John suggested.

He found it hard to read Keller's expressions and movements through the hazmat suit and hood. Reflections on the face plate kept obscuring her face. He could see she was sweating inside the suit. Her hair was matted down, a lock stuck to her cheek. Her breath misted the inside of the faceplate when she sighed.

"You know we have audio surveillance turned on at night?" she asked.

John waited.

"You shouldn't give up so easily."

"There's nothing easy about this," he replied. "If you can't fix this – It's just torture."

Keller looked down and fiddled with one of her instruments. "I thought you'd do anything for your team."

He had understood Rodney clearly. The disease was dismantling Rodney's cognitive abilities, his capacity to learn and think in new directions, and leaving him horribly aware of it. John couldn't think of a worse torture for a man like Rodney. Nothing else, not Teyla's tears or Ronon's fury, could have wrested that promise from him. He'd pulled the trigger for a man he'd only known a few weeks. He would do no less for his team, especially Rodney, than he'd done for Colonel Sumner, if it came to that.

"Even that," John said.

Keller lifted her gaze. She studied him. "You can't even sit up."

"Then you better fix us quick."

She set the instrument back on the tray. "You don't have to worry, Colonel," Keller promised in a low voice. She set her gloved hand on his hand for an instant. "I won't let it come to that for you." She offered him a sad smile. "I'll take care of all of you."

7 March 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

"Feeding time at the zoo again already?"

John's voice, following the shuff of negative pressure from the airlocked doors, broke Rodney out of the half-doze he'd been in. John hadn't moved, something Rodney knew because he'd rolled onto this side to watch John earlier. Couldn't lie down with him, couldn't hold or touch him, because they were in the fishbowl of the isolation room. He given up the game of counting who came to literally 'look in' on them days back. Lost count and interest. They were probably gloating, some of them, happy to see the great Rodney McKay brought low.

John's mood had darkened to match Teyla and Ronon's in the last week.

Keller's light voice wasn't accompanied by the rattle of a cart carrying food. Rodney wondered if it was time for another meal. He'd lost track of time. The unchanging lights gave no sense of the day passing and the nights were long and endless, stretched beyond the normal quota of hours.

"Major Lorne and Dr. Abiki's medical team brought back samples from the kutra on PL4-44D."

"It doesn't matter," Teyla said.

Rodney agreed with her.

"We've isolated the virus from the blood samples."

So they had found their vector. Medical would be happy. It still didn't do the team any good.

Keller moved closer, probably out of courtesy to John, so that he could see her without shifting. The red hazmat suit squeaked with her movements. Rodney could hear the Darth Vader hiss of the air supply though, when she remained still. It reminded him again they weren't just sick, they were infectious.

"How're the others?" John asked.

"Progressing at the same rate."

"So, not so good."

"No," Keller admitted. "But I have some better news."

John's eyelids drooped half closed while he studied Keller. Rodney couldn't see her face from his angle, so he watched John's expression instead.

"What?" Ronon demanded.

"Dr. Zelenka and Captain Hailey are ready to test the ZPM charger."

Rodney sat up with a jerk. Had it been that long? They'd been running simulations every day, improving the design before they manufactured the actual parts, before he'd stopped reading Zelenka's emails. He needed to go over the work before they tested. There were safety precautions. He'd meant to do it in one of the hazardous process labs on the far end of a pier. He –

He slumped back onto the bed. He couldn't do anything. Couldn't make himself understood without slowing work to a crawl. Couldn't concentrate enough to find an error if it was underlined and in red. He couldn't even chew his damn food any more. He'd choked on a piece of fruit the night before.

He groaned out loud. Useless. He was useless now.

"They've been working night and day to finish it," Keller said.

She didn't have to say the rest. If it wasn't finished soon, Rodney wouldn't be around to see. He might still be breathing, though he honestly hoped not, but he wouldn't be himself enough to understand the achievement. It made him want to shoot himself right then and there.

"Rodney," John said, low and worried.

He gave out a grunt and waved his hand where John could see it.

"They knew you'd want to see, so we're going to rig a feed that you can all watch," Keller went on. "And, Rodney, I know you don't believe finding the virus in the kutras means anything for all of you, but it provides another key to narrow the database search we're doing."

He glanced at John again, seeing the pained set to his mouth, the bruised, pale look he took on when he couldn't rest.

"Was that all?" Teyla asked. "I want to be alone as much as I can in this cage you're keeping us in."

"I thought you would be more interested," Keller said.

"Not really," Ronon told her.

Rodney closed his eyes and kept them that way while technicians in hazmat suits came in and nervously set up a group of monitors. He kept them that way until he heard Zelenka's voice through a speaker.

"I know you are not asleep, Rodney. So open your eyes and stop sulking like child."

He slitted one eye open and found an image of Zelenka peering into the camera on one monitor. His designated scientific heir apparent had apparently decided razors and combs were implements for lesser beings. The second monitor showed a selection of graphs, the numbers in repose, blue lines on black, that would display the progress of the charging process. The third showed the ZPM, hooked up to their equipment.

It looked dulled, a soapy orange color. He knew it would be cool to the touch. The cases were miracles of shielding, holding vast amounts of energy within so efficiently none bled through. Any flare of light or radiant heat was a product of the less efficient equipment drawing energy from a ZPM. Fully charged it wouldn't look any different to the human eye.

They'd worked long and hard on heat and radiation shielding because of the leakage factor. He hoped Zelenka had made the necessary safety precautions a priority. Rodney had been working on a variation of the city shield as a containment field that would absorb any energy and heat and convert it back into energy it would use to power itself.

He couldn't help sitting up and studying everything he could see. Was that a blue shimmer surrounding the ZPM?

"We were able to shield the entire charging assembly and ZPM the way you had theorized," Zelenka said. He stepped back and the camera showed a control room clearly built by Earth humans and not Ancients, but something in the design still reflected their surroundings. It didn't look like a control room on Earth.

Captain Hailey sat before one control console. She flicked a glance toward the camera, then nervously smoothed her hand over her hair, though not a strand had dared come loose from its smooth blond bun.

Rodney made a humming, inquiring sound and Zelenka detailed each step they'd taken.

"We will begin now," Zelenka declared. He joined Hailey at the controls, peered past her shoulder, then nodded. "Please leave now," he told her.

"But – " She frowned ferociously at Zelenka. Rodney had always found her a little pouty and there it was: Hailey pushed her lip out as Zelenka interrupted her.

"You will have to find our mistake if something goes wrong," Zelenka said.

Rodney's breath caught in his throat.

It wouldn't be him. It wouldn't be him anyway, because if he could, he'd be down there, throwing Zelenka out for his own good. It still cut him painfully, that all he could do was watch.

"Now go and cry crocodile tears over my vaporized corpse later while stealing all of my and Rodney's research and blaming us for your mistakes."

Hailey looked indignant before stomping away. She was biting her lip as she went.

In the next bed, John snorted out a short laugh. "He's not up to your standard yet, Rodney. He forgot the vow of vengeance from beyond the grave if she got him killed."

"Engaging the Mark Vs," Zelenka stated.

The power spiked up on the screen recording the naquadah generator output, then settled into a steady rise to maximum generation, coming to a stop and hovering just below the overload red line.

"Initializing  primary containment field."

Rodney watched as the blue shimmer he'd only imagined before formed around the ZPM and its attachments. The shimmer resolved into a brilliant azure glow without obscuring what lay within it. He caught his breath, impressed despite himself. The shield didn't generate any visible color or light without a tweak that had been his own suggestion. The ability to immediately visually check for its presence had been worth the headache.

Plus it looked cool as hell.

"Testing field integrity," Zelenka said. He typed a command into the keyboard before him.

Ronon and Teyla were watching now too, as riveted as Rodney and John. John had gritted his teeth and wiggled up in his bed enough to prop his head where he could see too.

The containment field pulsed, deepening to royal blue for an instant. The power consumption figures on the other monitor reflected the response with barely a flicker, consumption actually dropping to thirty percent from thirty-one. They stabilized there. So it worked. The field converted heat and  radiation into energy to maintain itself. Too bad the effect couldn't be reversed to create a shield that became stronger under bombardment. Rodney had meant to work on that and now knew he likely never would. It had never been an urgent project, just something to fiddle with when he was too tired to rest but too fried to do anything concrete.

Zelenka nodded to himself. His hands sped over the keyboard and he hummed something unidentifiable.

"Initializing secondary containment field," he said. "ZPM connection is on and stable. This is a small precaution I developed, Rodney. If the Mark Vs overload, the secondary field should absorb most any explosion without using a prohibitive amount of power."

Zelenka had always been cautious. Belt and suspenders and clean underwear, all just in case. Rodney grunted. Considering the power they'd be pumping into the ZPM, he approved.

"Rodney says good job," John called out.

Rodney glared at him. He most certainly did not. Zelenka didn't need his ego stroked.

"I'm sure he has said no such thing, Colonel," Zelenka replied with disgusting good cheer. "None the less, I know he approves." He typed in another command. On the second monitor, a schematic of Atlantis showed a series of bulkheads locking closed between the highlighted lab on the 2W pier and the center of the city, as well as on levels below it.

"Blast doors closed."

Zelenka activated his radio. "Major Lorne, this is Doctor Zelenka. I am preparing to test the ZPM charge."

"Thanks, Doc. We'll brace for it."

"There should be nothing to brace for, Major," Zelenka said in a prim voice.

"Just in case, Doc."

It should have been Rodney radioing Elizabeth and John. Or at least John, since Woolsey preferred a less direct contact than a radio headset filling his ear with the constant chatter that meant Atlantis was operating in the green. Lorne would inform him of the test.

The all-city comm activated as if to confirm Rodney's musings.

"This is Director Woolsey. The Science Department will be conducting a ZPM charge test. Anyone not directly involved in this should evacuate the 2W pier as a matter of precaution. Please be aware that there is no reason to expect problems, but remain calm and obey the emergency protocols if necessary." A small cough. I know you'll join me in wishing them complete success."

The bleat of the alert echoed through the city following the announcement. It wasn't as familiar as the emergency alarm or as Rodney had always thought of it, the 'bend over and kiss you ass goodbye' warning. Normally, Atlantis didn't have time to alert its inhabitants to get ready for an emergency. The alert sounded for ten minutes, allowing time to shut down computers and secure experiments, then shut off.

Ronon laughed. "That'll keep 'em calm."

Teyla joined in the laughter, clapping her hands over her face.

Zelenka glanced back at the camera. "I am ready." He squared his shoulders and began typing. "Initiating subspace tap."

The power readings shivered then spiked out of the sensor range. The city shuddered for an instant.

Rodney stared as a sphere that was really a hole tore open inside the charging chamber. He couldn't imagine what it really looked like. Wouldn't have been able to know even if he'd been standing in the chamber with it. Subspace, like hyperspace, couldn't be seen by human eyes evolved to interpret a specific spectrum of light. The eyes saw only the incidental photons excited by the exotic radiation and the brain made whatever sense of the information it could.

The camera in the chamber fared little better than his own eyes would have. The sphere showed as black and white static in a two dimensional circle.

It still made Rodney catch his breath in wonder.

They'd tapped subspace and they'd done it with their equipment and ideas, not the Ancients' abandoned toys. Even if they were about to use it to recharge one of those toys. Back on Earth, there were so many, many scientists still dreaming of finding the key to the first step and here in Atlantis, humanity already had the stargates, FTL ships that crossed the intergalactic gulfs in months, and now they were turning the key that would unlock unfathomable power.

The Ancients had achieved so much. Rodney couldn't and didn't want to deny that. But they hadn't reached the limits of what could be achieved. Humanity could take what they'd done and use it to go farther and become more than the Ancients had. They'd begin standing on the shoulders of giants. How much higher then could they reach?

He held his breath as energy lashed from the subspace tap to the receptors, writhing tendrils hotter and with more power than solar plasma. First one, then more, until a dozen blazes of lightning brightness crawled everywhere within the containment field, turning it black wherever they touched.

The energy began pouring into the ZPM. At the same time the internal heat sensors showed a gradual rise in the temperature of the receptors. The charge in the ZPM rose from .000005 percent to .00009 then jumped to 1 and 2. The hairs on Rodney's arms rose. The blue containment field darkened to indigo streaked with white where the brilliance blazed through. It wasn't going to hold much longer. Rodney checked the heat index. It was climbing too, along with the ZPM's charge.

Five percent.

Rodney imagined he could smell overheating crystals and metal.

Seven percent.

The containment field became a solid black sphere on the screen.

"Radek," he tried to say and bit his tongue.

John spoke for him. "Zelenka. Rodney's – "

"I am shutting down, Colonel," Zelenka answered, his voice shaking with excitement.

His hand hovered over the kill button.

The heat index held just below destructive levels.

Ten percent.

Eleven.

Twelve.

The containment field pulsed white. The heat index jumped. The overload alarm on the Mark Vs screamed from the speakers in the test lab.

Thirteen percent.

"Zelenka!" John shouted. He struggled upright and gagged. Rodney knew he wanted to get to his feet and run to the test lab before success flipped over into disaster.

Fourteen percent.

Zelenka hit the button.

The shudder running through the city that Rodney had barely been aware of cut out. The containment field faded back to its original azure hue, the entire picture a little faded, as though the camera's optics had been slightly fried. Like Rodney's nerves had been. His hands were curled into fists pressing down on his thighs.

One of the receptors had melted. The ZPM appeared in perfect condition however and the eerie hole in reality had disappeared.

"Subspace tap terminated," Zelenka whispered.

"Cutting it a little close there, Doc," John said.

Rodney checked the readouts. Two minutes thirty seconds had passed.

On the screen, the ZPM registered a fifteen percent charge.

"We did it," Zelenka said. He was still staring at the screen in front of him, his back to the camera. Then he stepped back, turned and pumped his fist in the air. "We have done it, Rodney!"

You did it, he wanted to say. Instead, he closed his eyes and wept.

8 March 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Rodney heard Ronon and Teyla give in to sleep, their breath smoothing into a resting rhythm, but he waited past that, waited until the clock on the laptop open next to his bed registered night ticking over into another day.

Just as he knew two of his teammates were sleeping, he knew John wasn't.

He moved with a drunkard's care as he got out of his bed and crossed the space between it and John's, then crawled in beside him with even more care not to jostle. Part of him considered the risk of discovery, but another part had already given up on any future in which it mattered.

"Hey," John whispered.

Rodney curled around him, so close his lips brushed the scratchy beard John hadn't bothered to shave in the last few days, whether out of apathy or because his hands had begun to shake like Teyla's.

"Heh," he whispered back.

John turned his head carefully. His nose slid against Rodney's and Rodney rubbed back. John's lips curled into a smile Rodney could feel pressed against his.

"Eskimo kisses."

"Primate behavior," Rodney corrected. He could barely understand his own words, but John seemed to have some Rodney translator that functioned anyway.

"Are you calling me a chimp?" he asked, his voice pitched only for Rodney's ears.

Rodney stroked his hand down the center of John's chest, then rubbed a circle over his belly. He shook his head, letting John feel the movement. "Do you miss Ford?"

John's surprise tensed his body next to Rodney's for an instant. "What? Now, here?"

Rodney nodded, then shook his head. John chuckled quietly, relaxing again.

"Well, that's clear." He paused, then answered, "Not as often as I think I should. I miss the idea of who he could have become, I guess. Rationally, I know he's dead, but..."

Rodney got it. He did. For John, believing Ford was dead, without a body, without answers to give his family back on Earth, would be abandoning him.

"Were you thinking of the mushroom planet?"

Rodney nodded.

"Yeah," John murmured. "Me too." His lips, chapped and warm, brushed against Rodney's mouth, a touch delicate as dandelion fluff on the wind. "And Nsheen."

Rodney kissed him back, dry and tender and achingly slow, a kiss that didn't go anywhere, content to stay where they were, connected to each other by its touch. Nothing more, nothing but the chaste press of mouth to mouth, because he feared even teeth and tongue would betray him now.

Nsheen. He knew John didn't mean the end of that mission, but the first and second nights they spent together.

When they let their mouths part, he rested his forehead against John's and matched his breath to the body next to him, letting it mingle with John's. He had a question he had to ask.

"Regret?"

"No," John answered immediately. "No."

John placed a hand on Rodney's where it rested on his stomach.

"You?" he asked.

"No," Rodney managed to enunciate clearly. He squeezed John's hand.

"Really?"

Rodney shook his head.

"Really no, or no you do have or no you don't want to answer?"

Rodney kissed the corner of John's mouth and John stopped talking. He squeezed John's hand again. John sighed when Rodney finally let go and got out of the bed and back into his.

16 March 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

The second trip to PL4-44D had provided some answers about the virus after all.

The virus the Ancients had engineered.

They had buried the data on yet another failed experiment in the weapons directory of the database, along with a cryptic warning to their own personnel to avoid the kutra in the spring. A change in the hormonal balance of kutra after they gave birth to their young triggered the usually harmless virus to replicate itself with a single different protein. It made no difference to the kutra, but that tiny difference meant Shake easily jumped from kutra to human.

Sputum, blood, even the kutra's milk were saturated with the virus after it switched proteins.

At least kutra milk wasn't popular in Pegasus and farmers seldom butchered does with young. Cross infection probably only happened when farmers tried to help out a doe having trouble giving birth.

Small mercy.

"Why weapons?" John had asked. He'd been staring at the ceiling, which he had memorized. He could tell exactly where someone stood in the room by the fall of their shadow on it. Keller's shadow shifted. A suspicion bloomed in him. He chuckled and voiced it. "They made it, didn't they?"

"They did," Keller confirmed.

"Another case of remove the food supply?"

"In this case, no," she said. "It was engineered to infect the Wraith, but it mutated. The Wraith immune system resists viruses very successfully, as we've learned through our own experiences. The protein shift made humans a much more vulnerable host for the virus."

She went on, explaining everything that had been in the single uncensored report that had been wrested from the database, likely only left intact through some bureaucrat's insistence on redundancy. The Ancients hadn't kept their history intact, preferring to erase the evidence of the work that went into their achievements and especially their failures. John thought that lack of history had been the fault underneath their overweening arrogance. When the Shake moved into the humans of Pegasus, the Ancients had been spooked. They'd already fled a plague in one galaxy. They locked worlds where the Shake appeared out of the gate network only to have it appear on others, spread by the Wraith themselves during cullings. The Wraith had quickly become immune to the Shake, though they didn't carry it the way the kutra did.

A vaccine had finally been created and the Ancients had inoculated their population against the Shake. They hadn't found a cure and they hadn't bothered sharing the prophylactic vaccine with the rest of Pegasus.

No surprise there.

Dr. Abiki had found the vaccine itself in the medical database; one of an array of inoculations the Ancients gave every child. Shake was just another disease no one suffered in Atlantis. Abiki had been able to synthesize the vaccine using samples from John's team and the rest of the infected. No one else in the expedition would catch it. They'd begin offering the vaccine with the rest of the medical package that formed Atlantis' commonest trade good. Lagniappe. Maybe it would garner them a little extra good will.

So something good would come of this, but John hadn't heard anything that meant good news for his people, for Lieutenant Vega or the two scientists, the doctor and nurses, or Corporal Anderson. Nothing that would help Rodney, Ronon or Teyla. Nothing that would have him on his feet again.

"I've gone over the treatments the Ancients used against viruses," Keller said. "They were partially successful against the Shake and I ..." She paused, then rushed the rest of the words out, less assured than was reassuring under the circumstances, "I believe I've come up with an improved treatment."

"You can cure the Shake?" Ronon asked.

John didn't blame him for the disbelief. The Shake had been killing people in Pegasus for over ten thousand years. Maybe it wasn't as visible an enemy as the Wraith, but the virus occupied the same niche in the pantheon of this galaxy's horrors. Ronon had told some of the stories in a burst of words in their third week in isolation.

All John could think was of Rodney's fear.

A cure wouldn't undo the damage done to the neurons in their brains by the mHtt cytoplasmic protein the virus forced their own cells to manufacture. Keller's lecture on apoptosis, mediation of endocytosis, brain-derived neurotrophic factors, and neuron starvation in the striatum had stopped being interesting when John remembered brain cell loss wasn't replaced.

Keller could kill the virus, but the neurological loss would remain. All those medium spiny neurons were gone.

Keller nodded. "I – Yes. It's a immuno-accelerant treatment. We've already infected lab mice and seen the complete destruction of the virus after giving them the treatment. Zero viral load in three days."

"Sounds impressive," John said. "When are you going to try it on us?"

"Today," she answered. "If you agree. It is an experimental treatment. Normally, something like this would go through years of clinical trails and monitoring for long term side effects, but if you agree to it, well, I can fudge and call it a prototype introductory compassionate program."

John suppressed a snort. Carson had never fussed so much. But Carson had been used to being the king of his particular hill, the final medical authority in Atlantis, and hadn't had the IOA hanging over his shoulder. Keller clearly worried about losing her license someday.

"Rodney?" he asked.

Rodney made an affirmative grunt.

"We're in. Teyla? Ronon?"

"Will it mean we won't be held in isolation?" Teyla asked.

"Once you are free of the virus," Keller confirmed.

"And we won't get any worse," John clarified. "Or any better."

Ronon snapped, "What?"

"Stopping the virus won't undo the effect it has already had on your neurological processes," Keller admitted.

John closed his eyes. He honestly didn't know what would happen to Teyla and Ronon, but the SGC wouldn't leave a man who couldn't move out of bed without puking in charge of Atlantis' military or a scientist who couldn't talk as CSO. Rodney and he would be warehoused into some care facility.

The thought of that life made him sick and reminded him of the understanding he'd thought he had with Keller.

"Not good enough," he rasped out.

"There is one more possible option," Keller said.

John waited along with the others for her to go on.

"I've been studying the changes Carson made to the ascension machine to restore Rodney's DNA."

The silence stretched into a painful space. John didn't know what that meant.

"There might be a way to use it to overwrite your DNA. The changes it made would include the damaged areas of your brains." Keller's voice betrayed her, betrayed the nervous habit she had of biting her lip. "It's possible."

"Didn't Carson use a sample of Rodney's DNA as a template? Why not use – "

"Yes and, no, that won't work," Keller interrupted. "Using your own DNA template wouldn't result in any change. The original purpose was to encourage rapid physical evolution that allowed the Ancients to achieve ascension more easily. Carson reprogrammed it to change Rodney from the state his body had reached to another one. In that case, his original DNA template."

"Huh."

"I've, I've found a DNA template for the Ancients, the base they wanted to evolve beyond," Keller went on. "It's different enough I think it might work. The Ancients' brains were more active in certain areas and I think the difference would result in the regrowth of the lost neurons."

"Sounds pretty bastardized," John ventured.

He wasn't sure about getting his DNA changed into something more Ancient.

He heard Keller's smile this time.

"Very."

"Guys?" John asked finally.

"Yes," Teyla said.

"Ronon?"

"You have to ask?"

"I thought it would be polite," John insisted.

Keller smothered a laugh.

"Rodney?"

John rolled to the side, swallowing bile as his bed seemed to spin and fall beneath him, and watched Rodney nod emphatically.

"We're in," he said though he knew Keller could see that.

"We'll begin with the immuno-accelerant today." She sounded decisive now. "Once your systems are clear of the virus, we'll take the second step."

"Looking forward to it," John said. "Woolsey know about this?"

"I thought I'd wait to explain the details," Keller said on her way out.

The first real hope curled open inside John's chest. Nothing could keep the smile that went with it inside. Keller had a lot in common with Rodney, down to the last minute, impossible saves. She wouldn't let anything get in the way of helping her patients, not Woolsey or anyone back on Earth. He had done her a disservice, thinking she cared about that.

Rodney twisted his head to the side and met John's gaze. He'd lost a lot of the expressiveness that once marked his face. It looked like a slack mask. But John thought he saw the same hope he felt in Rodney's eyes.

21 March 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

John eyed the ascension machine skeptically.

Despite all his kidding, he had never actually wanted to try it out. Aside from preferring to avoid ending up as a puddle of protoplasm or dead, a brief bout of superpowers hadn't seemed worthwhile if he had to ascend at the end of it.

The room it occupied had been locked up on Elizabeth's orders after Rodney's encounter with it. Zelenka must have gotten Keller past the locks to work on it; no one else except Rodney could have managed it and not tripped an alarm in the control room.

The gurney ride had passed in blur of vertigo for John, but he barely gagged. Apparently a month was enough to get used to the sensation. He'd skipped breakfast and lunch anyway, anticipating it. He'd still fall over just trying to sit up, so one of the nurses had strapped him into the gurney like a Wraith cocooning its prey.

No one had routed more than the minimum power to the area. Other than the columns of half-lit emergency lights, the corridors leading down to it and inside were all dark. No one had cleaned up the tossed about pieces of Ancient furniture and junk that still littered some of the wider corridors. There had just never been time; a little over four hundred people lived in Atlantis at present, all busy with their own duties. None of them, scientist or soldier, had the temperament to volunteer for garbage duty for the entire city. Most sections were still off limits anyway.

Possibly the power remained dialed down to avoid drawing attention from the control room. John suspected Keller still hadn't briefed Woolsey on her plan. Zelenka and Lorne were along, though. No surprise. Since Woolsey assumed the mantle of Director of the Atlantis Expedition, they'd all learned to go ahead and do what needed to be done, then present him with the accomplished deed. It was just easier and probably saved Woolsey more than one panic attack.

"All right," Keller said. "Is it ready?"

Zelenka checked a last read-out on his tablet and unplugged it from the console. He moved nervously and stayed off the dais that the console actually stood on.

"It is as ready as I can make it," Zelenka said.

Keller turned back to them and smiled. A lock of her hair had slipped free of the ponytail and she flicked back from her face. The low light tinged her skin blue, giving her a pale cast.

"Who wants to go first?"

"I will," Ronon said before John could say anything.

"Okay."

Keller signaled to two of the marines who had helped wheel their four gurneys down from the infirmary. They scooped Ronon off his and walked him over to the dais, then gently laid him down on the reddish-bronze pattern that echoed the emitter in the ceiling.

This was it. This was the last ditch, Hail Mary chance at repairing the damage the virus had left behind. Keller had even explained why a Goa'uld sarcophagus, if they'd had one, would have been useless. The sarcophagus wouldn't repair what had already healed. It wouldn't take away scars, regrow limbs, or replace lost neurons. Neither would a handheld healing device or they would have requested one of SG-1 take a trip to Atlantis. No, this had been the only answer Keller could find.

That didn't ease his nervousness.

John wasn't afraid the machine would fail, he realized. He was afraid it would force them to ascend. Chaya and Teer had both taken him closer to that step than he'd ever wanted to go. He'd seen Rodney hover at the edge of death or ascension. The thought of losing any of his teammates to either scared the hell out of him.

"Major Lorne," Keller said. "Would you touch the second yellow touch pad? The device requires an ATA positive to initiate."

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne said. He kept his feet on the floor and stretched, bracing one hand on the console edge. The yellow, green and amber display in front flashed on as he came in contact with the console. Lorne pressed the touch pad and pulled away fast as a blue light lit the room, illuminating up the dais where Ronon half sat, braced against the side of the console, one leg jerking spastically.

Keller and the marines inched back in reaction as well.

A deep hum filled the room, familiar from the last time they'd been there. Brilliant light snaked down and around Ronon, spiraling down and then up in a double helix. Then it disappeared, leaving them all blinking away afterimages.

Ronon slowly got to his feet, stretching his arms out, rolling his shoulders, and then stamping bare feet against the dais floor.

"Did it work?" Lorne asked.

Ronon's eyebrows went up.

"Feels like it." He stretched again. "Kind of tired though."

"That's because you haven't been eating well and the process burned a lot of calories," Keller said. She hurried to Ronon's side and tugged him off the dais. "I want you to lie down. We'll scan you once we're back in the infirmary – "

Zelenka coughed.

"We should continue, before anyone in the control room reports the power spikes," Zelenka said.

"They'd just call you anyway, Doc," Lorne said.

"That is true."

Ronon sat on his gurney rather than lie down. John studied him. He looked exactly the same. Whatever Frankensteinian patchwork Keller had made up of Ancient and human DNA hadn't had an obvious effect. She'd said their DNA would be slightly altered and John had wondered.

"Hey, you really okay, buddy?" he called softly.

Keller and Lorne were helping Teyla onto the dais. Ronon was watching. He turned and grinned at John. "Yeah."

The light engulfed Teyla and by the time John had finished blinking, she had already stepped off the dais. "I am tired, but I feel well," she declared. She set her hands on Keller's shoulders and pulled her into the forehead touch. "Thank you, Jennifer."

Keller gave out a hiccupy, almost sob and hugged Teyla. "I'm so glad," she said.

Lorne started over to John's gurney, but John redirected him. "Rodney next."

Lorne didn't need to activate the console for Rodney. As soon as he stood swaying in front of the console, the light flooded down. As it faded, Rodney patted at his chest, looked down and wiggled his bare toes and then looked straight at John, his face lit up by a smile of pure joy.

"I am back," he declared. Then he turned on Zelenka. "What in hell were you thinking during that test!? You should have shut down at ten percent. Were you trying to blow the 2W pier and destroy my work?"

"Your work!?" Zelenka snapped back. "You have been lazing around in bed for weeks – "

"You should try it sometime, but wait, no, you never got sick because you never go offworld unless someone drags you by the hair," Rodney volleyed back and they were off. Everyone in the room grinned at the sound of Rodney's abrasive words.

John had been so intent on him, he hadn't noticed Lorne's approach along with Ronon.

"You next, sir," Lorne said. His fingers were busy unbuckling the straps holding John onto the gurney.

Between them, Ronon and Lorne slung John between them and walked him to the console dais. His head was spinning, the display a blur of green, amber, and yellow streaks and he hadn't been upright in weeks. Even if he'd had his balance the headrush would have left him woozy. He grabbed onto the edge of the console and held on, telling his knees to lock.

The light swept around him and into him. The sensation resembled nothing he could describe, not even the retroviral effect that had nearly transformed him into a proto-Wraith. A thrill ran through his limbs and into his head and left him shivering but steady, the humming feel of Atlantis he'd always been aware of clearer than ever before.

"Wow," he said as he stepped down. He imagined flying a jumper or the city with a sharper, faster interface between him and the equipment and grinned.

"How do you feel, Colonel?" Keller asked him.

"Good," he said. "You do good work."

She smiled at him, then hurried to the gurney holding her colleague, Dr. Lofgren.

"You're next, Sven."

John joined Ronon and Teyla on a gurney and listened to Rodney continue to berate Zelenka. He felt fizzy and light, yet tired at the same time, but the good tired that came after an evening run with Ronon, and overlying it all a giddy sense of relief.

21 March 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Alantis

Keller kept them in the infirmary for twenty-four hours, monitoring them as a precaution. Woolsey even stopped in, awkwardly expressing his relief and congratulations.

Rodney opened his laptop for the first time in weeks, put on a radio headset, and mainlined everything he'd missed while they were isolated, viciously taking apart the work of more than one of the scientists who had slacked off in his absence.

Teyla and Keller sat together, heads bent toward each other, quietly planning a trip to the Athosians' latest settlement. She wanted Tanaan inoculated as soon as possible. Keller smiled and nodded. "We set up a lab devoted to manufacturing it. The first batch went to everyone here in Atlantis, with samples sent back to the SGC. The second lot will be ready by tomorrow. We can leave the next day if Mr. Woolsey and Colonel Sheppard give the okay."

"Hey, as long as I get to come along, it's a go," John said.

"Me too," Ronon added.

"Ah, don't forget to include me," Rodney said. "I'll have my department back up to proper speed by then."

"Longing for some fresh air?" John kidded him.

"Well...I rather miss Tanaan."

Teyla's brilliant smile flashed. "I am sure he has missed you as well."

John took advantage of his returned mobility and used the infirmary shower to get luxuriously clean, then dressed in his own uniform again. Then he commandeered one of the nurse's desks and read through Lorne's report on the trip to PL4-44D, along with three TID missions. He ate a cheeseburger for lunch with purple fries, took a nap, and then had a snack along with all the recoverees. Ronon slept, Teyla stretched and meditated, and Rodney relaxed in his own special way, writing up a report of his own on the ZPM Charge Project.

"Too much energy loss to heating," he explained. "The specifications on the parts will have be much stricter, but even so we only lost one receptor. Seriously, if we had to rebuild everything each time for a fifteen percent charge, it would still be cost effective."

"I guess so," John said, deliberately doubtful.

Rodney refused to be baited, though, just smiling. "You know, I can feel the difference. This must be what it's like for you. I can't wait to get in a jumper."

"Yeah, me too."

Keller wandered over to where they were sitting and cocked her head. "I wondered if you would feel a difference. The tests indicate you now possess ninety percent of the ATA complex as expressed by the Ancients. That's on par with the figures for General O'Neill, if you're interested."

"Better than Carson had?" Rodney asked.

She nodded.

"Better than Sheppard?" he asked with a sly look at John.

Keller laughed and glanced at John, a question in her expression. He nodded to her that she could answer. "Afraid not. Colonel Sheppard tested at ninety-two percent."

"Oh."

Rodney's glum response made John laugh with Keller. "Before," he added wickedly, while reaching over and cuffing Rodney's shoulder.

"It actually dropped to ninety percent after the retrovirus incident, but he tests at ninety-eight point five percent now. He's practically an Ancient."

John grimaced because that wasn't something he thought anyone should want to brag about.

"Don't make that awful face around me," Rodney said. He turned back to Keller. "What about Ronon and Teyla?"

"Interestingly, considering they hadn't had the gene therapy before, they both have a mild expression of the ATA gene now."

"That's it?" Rodney asked. "That's the only difference? We're not going to suddenly feel compelled to wear white and ecru or start meditating?"

Keller reached over and gently closed his laptop. "Not because of your genetics, at least. The only other difference that may result might be a slightly extended life span. The Ancients had an average life span of two hundred years, but whether that was genetic or a result of superior medical care isn't clear."

"Two hundred years?" Rodney squeaked.

"We'll have to wait and see," Keller said. "Now, it's time for you to get some rest. Your bodies need it."

"But, I – "

"Be good and I'll let you out of here in the morning."

Rodney looked mutinous for a moment, then gave in with a slump. "All right." He headed for the bed he'd been assigned to for the night. Teyla and Ronon were already in theirs.

Keller turned her gaze on John. "You, too, Colonel."

"I'm kind of still enjoying being able to stay upright."

"Now."

He got up, glorying in that simple movement, the steadiness of his feet under him and the way the room didn't spin no matter how fast he turned his head. "Okay, fine. But I'm holding you to the same deal as Rodney."

One step toward the bed and he paused and looked back. "Two hundred years?"

"Maybe," she replied. "Now go."

He went.

22 March 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Ronon and Teyla disappeared as soon as Keller gave the okay. Rodney and John weren't so lucky. The instant they settled their headsets in place, they were summoned to Woolsey's office along with Keller, then trapped in a staff meeting that stretched through the morning. Woolsey was finally placated by the prospect of presenting the IOA with Keller's immuno-accelerant treatment, with its potential to wipe out half the viral scourges on Earth and news of the successful test charge on the depleted ZPM. Both were the kind of solid discoveries that would benefit Earth and so far more impressive back there than the TID's unexpected success against the Wraith.

Rodney had to admit, even he had been impressed when Keller shyly told them the immuno-accelerant held the potential to cure a round dozen chronic viral and parasitic diseases, from HIV to malaria.

"It's wiped out everything we've given the lab mice so far," she'd said and her voice had quivered.

Lorne ambushed John on the way out of the control room. Rodney knew John would be buried in catching up on his own duties for the rest of the day by the way he slumped faintly and accepted the tablet Lorne waved at him.

"Going to get something to eat," Rodney told him and nodded to Lorne as he sidled around them.

"That's right, save yourself," John replied. He'd already bent his neck, bowed to duty, and begun reading. "I should have known you'd all abandon me."

"Every man for himself, Sheppard."

Lorne chuckled and started to edge away.

John's free hand shot out and clamped onto Lorne's collar. "Not you, Major. You get to stay and suffer with me."

Rodney stepped into the transporter, turned and waved at John before the doors closed. John let go of Lorne long enough to flip him off.

The mess hall never closed, but all the morning goodies were long gone, cold or stale by the time Rodney reached it. He snagged himself a cup of coffee though and a plate full of the fresh fruit, none of it from Earth, that the kitchen staff kept available at all times. He took a seat at a table with a view of the sea birds turning and wheeling over the glistening sea and enjoyed the quiet.

He spent the rest of the day with Zelenka and Hailey. They'd dismantled the Charge device and begun analyzing the stress damage to all of the parts. They needed to rethink the materials used in the receptors. He had an idea involving that rare element from PR6-749.

Zelenka disagreed, insisting that tighter production specifications could resolve any difficulties with heat damage to the receptors. Hailey had sided with Zelenka and argued vehemently that they should continue working with materials available on Earth. Rodney thought it likely she'd return to Earth as soon as she could, no matter how exciting the work in Atlantis was. Some people just didn't adapt to living offworld, no matter how comfortable they were with stargate travel.

They tabled the argument eventually. Rodney would request a second mission to PR6-749's second continent in a jumper. The geologists would extract a decent amount of the element and they would experiment with it back in Metallurgy. If alloys including it genuinely conducted power the way the database implied, they would experiment with receptors made from it.

His thoughts were still on material half lives as he entered his quarters.

They stuttered to a halt and evaporated as John caught his wrist, pulled him inside and palmed the control that closed and locked his door in one smooth motion. Rodney's breath caught as John pressed closer, turning them both until John had his back to the wall.

"God, yes," John groaned as Rodney leaned into him, pinning him back against the wall. A leg shoved between his made John buck and grab onto Rodney's shoulders. "I've been waiting for you."

Rodney shoved his hands between them and feverishly fumbled at belts and buttons, biting his lip in an effort to hold onto some control. "You," was all he could say. "You just make me – " Jesus. If he'd known John was here, like this, he would have agreed with Zelenka just to get out of the lab sooner.

John ducked his head and began sucking at Rodney's throat, hot and wet, then pulled back and licked at the abruptly tender skin. He bit at the soft flesh under Rodney's chin, moaning and grinding against Rodney in a way that made Rodney's cock jerk and jump in his pants. He was already leaking and ready and his fingers wouldn't cooperate, the sensation of his own hand through the layers of pants and boxers almost too much when he wanted so much more.

The pressure of John's hands on his shoulders was going to leave red marks that would still be there in the morning. He rubbed himself against Rodney's thigh and panted. One leg came up and hooked around Rodney's hip, changing the angle, and Rodney gave up on his own buttons. He hadn't touched himself to do more than piss in a month, hadn't even thought about it, but he had to come now and John seemed in the same state.

He turned his head and caught John's mouth against his. This kiss was the antithesis of the only one they'd shared while in isolation. Rodney pushed his tongue deep into John's mouth and tried to taste and breathe the same air. His head buzzed with the need for oxygen, but he didn't ease back. John's moans vibrated into his mouth, almost a word, but Rodney kept kissing him.

John's body tensed against Rodney's, his movements becoming more frantic. Rodney shoved his hand inside John's pants, wrapped his fingers around John's cock and then pressed his thumb just under the head. John's hips jerked, he whimpered into Rodney's mouth, and came.

Rodney couldn't move his hand, but he squeezed gently, drawing out John's shuddering climax, pressing his aching cock against the back of his wrist because he needed just a little more. Just a little. He rocked his hips forward, the drag of his boxers over his erection a painful tease.

John went limp in the aftermath and Rodney finally parted their mouths so that he could breathe. The dazed, half-lidded look he gave Rodney threatened to make him come in his pants, as did the way he slid down and plucked the rest of the buttons open on Rodney's BDUs.

He had to brace both hands against the wall and squeeze his eyes closed when John nosed against the cotton covering his straining erection, then blew on the already damp fabric. A shudder ran through him. "John," he rasped.

"I've got you," John croaked in a voice already destroyed by sex, the sound shivering through Rodney, his imagination supplying how much hoarser John would be after he'd taken Rodney deep.

He peeled Rodney's pants and boxes down to his thighs and then wrapped his lips around Rodney's cock, hands locked around the back of Rodney's thighs. The sensation of John's lips sliding over the head of his cock, the hot smooth wet feel of his mouth made Rodney snap his eyes open. John's eyelashes were lowered, his cheeks hollowed as he began to suck, and Rodney's knees trembled as the feeling in his chest rose up and filled him. He had to reach down and stroke his hand through John's hair.

He cradled his palm against the back of John's skull and gasped as his orgasm washed through him. His elbow buckled and he bent over John with a second, harsher gasp. John swallowed all but a trickle, his throat working, tongue pressing against the underside of Rodney's cock, teasing out exquisite aftershocks, even after Rodney felt himself softening. He let Rodney's cock slip out of his mouth finally and rested his forehead against Rodney's hip, the gust of his breath on wet, still oversensitized flesh making Rodney twitch and shiver.

He petted John's head, felt John press his lips against the crease between his groin and thigh, and finally pushed away from the wall.

John sat back on his heels and reached for his hair. "Tell me you didn't stick the hand you had my come on in my hair."

Rodney glanced at the wet smear on the wall where his hand had been braced. "Uh... No. Would I do that?"

John looked at him suspiciously while finger combing his hopelessly mussed hair. It needed cutting and the cowlicks were out of control. His expression cleared finally.

Rodney extended his dry, clean hand and pulled John to his feet. "Come on. Clean up. Then bed for a while."

John plucked at his BDUs, pulling them away from his crotch, as he ambled toward the bathroom. He grinned foolishly. "Jesus, Rodney, you think next time you could get me out of my pants?"

"Not my fault that you still come like a teenager," Rodney replied with a shrug and a smug grin.

John paused in the doorway. He didn't turn around. "You know... Well, you know," he said.

Which translated into just with you, Rodney knew.

He yanked up his pants enough to hobble to his bed, sat and began taking off his boots, smiling to himself.

19 May 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Not many people knew it, but Rodney liked parties. Not kiss-up academic receptions, but gatherings of people he liked or didn't actively despise, celebrations, having a reason to celebrate, he liked. Plus large quantities of free food and larger quantities of free booze were always good things. The first had supplemented his grad school diet of peanut butter, ramen and take-out, the second had contributed significantly to how often he got laid.

He should have enjoyed this one more.

Parties in Atlantis, rare though they were, were superior in that he never had to worry about citrus. The food included many Pegasus delicacies along with familiar ones imported from Earth. This party offered more than had been set out in Atlantis in Rodney's memory and he had every intention of taking full advantage. He made his way straight to the buffet and filled a plate.

Eating gave him an excuse to fade back and watch John dance with Teyla, then flirt with Esposito, before spinning Bryce out onto the dance floor. When Sally Roche made John laugh, he could blame the sour taste in his mouth on overcooked gredel berries.

It would be petty to wish John wouldn't have a good time.

The irony, of course, lay in the truth. John, unlike Rodney, really didn't like parties. Too many formal command performances putting on his best face as part of his family's wealthy social scene had taught him how to fake it perfectly, though. He smiled and flirted and mingled and would be miserable by the end of the evening.

It might have been different if John had been able to be himself. At least, if they hadn't been hiding their relationship, Rodney could have run interference and warned off the woman currently trailing her fingers over the back of John's neck while they danced.

"You are frowning, Rodney," Zelenka said from beside him.

"Don't eat the gredel cakes. The berries are sour."

Zelenka gave him a shrewd look, then followed Rodney's gaze to the dance floor. John waltzed well, there had been dance lessons for a shy and awkward youth apparently so that he wouldn't embarrass anyone, and he glided over the floor with the blond chemist making it look effortless. Blond, Rodney thought grimly. Of course she was blond, her hair was even long and loose. Pretty too, and glowing at John when he said something to her.

Rodney could dance too, but the only time he and John had ever danced together had been as part of a country dance on Brana, after half of Atlantis helped bring in the hay ahead of a building storm. They'd danced in the middle of a barn all night afterward, celebrating beating the weather and a record crop. The Branans' music, drums and a fiddle crossed with a lyre, had mingled with the sound of rain drumming on the roof over the loft. The dancers had kicked confetti bright chaff into the air that caught the lantern light and the air inside the barn had smelled of alfalfa and apple blossoms. John's hand had been a scrape of callus and fleeting warmth as their palms slid together, there and gone again, as they spun and released, moving to their next partner with a jump and side kick.

"Hmm."

He glanced at Zelenka, then looked away from the knowing expression. Of course, Zelenka knew, one of the very few. Bates and Ford were gone. They'd never told Carson or Elizabeth. Keller probably suspected and whatever Lorne knew, he kept to himself. Except for Ronon and Teyla, there was no one else. Sometimes it made Rodney ache. He put it down to an incipient stress ulcer and not his heart.

"I get tired of it sometimes," Rodney said out of the blue. Zelenka would know what he meant.

"Then I will accept Nobel instead of you," Zelenka replied, compassionately refusing to address what Rodney had really meant.

"Dream on," Rodney told him. He stuffed a piece of candied seaweed from Beeln into his mouth and went on, "That Nobel is mine as soon as the program is declassified."

Zelenka winced and Rodney realized he'd been talking with his mouth full again. He swallowed. "Sorry."

Zelenka waved it off. "Do you think Teyla would dance with me?"

"It's Teyla, of course she would. Besides, she likes you."

Zelenka straightened his glasses. "I am most likeable."

A burst of laughter from the unofficial but well-stocked bar drifted over the music. Atlantis wasn't totally dry any longer. Carter had changed that. Not that there hadn't been alcohol before that, but now it wasn't a matter of smuggling it in or the chemists' efforts at bootlegging. It still wasn't common enough for anyone to have a head for it, though. Keller was laughing, red-faced and wobbly.

Rodney sighed. He should be as happy as Keller.

The city was operating at full power, with three fully charged ZPMs, for the first time since they took it back from the Asuran Replicators. The McKay Theorem had proved itself, had translated itself into the reality of the subspace energy recharging mechanism. A month of work had resulted in an improved version that had required only a single precautionary shut down. The depleted ZPMs that had originally powered Atlantis had been recharged. The ZPM Rodney had drained sending Rod back to his own universe sat in a specially shielded storage locker with a one hundred percent charge. The empty ZPM the Genii had once used as bait sat next to it, gleaming with the same promise, along with two salvaged from the Lord Protector's city. The third had been charged and switched with the ZPM that shielded M7G-677. That one, now also at one hundred percent, completed the Atlantis collection.

He caught Woolsey watching him from the other side of the room. Woolsey toasted him and Rodney rolled his eyes and lifted his own drink. He didn't drink much, though. A hangover would be bad enough, but if he got blasted and gave something away, it would be John who paid the price.

Two beers and he'd switch to the punch the Athosians had taught them to make, the stuff Ford had called super sarsaparilla. Mixed with tonic water, it didn't taste too bad. Thinking of Ford made him wince, however. He'd find some coffee instead.

Rodney went back the buffet, deliberately pretending he hadn't seen John's head turn toward him. He felt raw somehow, alone, despite the party being in his and Keller's honor. Looking into John's eyes and pretending he didn't feel more than friendship would just be too hard suddenly.

He was debating between the miniature sausages wrapped in cheese and pastry or the crab stuffed mushrooms when Ronon snatched his plate and set it down, then dragged Rodney onto the dance floor to join Teyla, John, Lorne and Keller. The music changed to a pounding rhythm laced with sharp toned strings that had never been heard on Earth. Rodney recognized the recording one of Lorne's team had brought back from a trading mission. Ronon had identified it as a traditional Satedan piece though not performed with instruments he knew.

"Come on," Ronon ordered, shoving Rodney into place behind Teyla. He fetched Zelenka next and then took his own place. "Do what I do," he told them.

"This isn't going to be like the one where you hop on one foot and beat me up, is it?" John asked.

"Just do it."

"God, now I'm trapped in a Nike commercial," Rodney muttered.

He slapped his hands against his thighs when Ronon did and did his best to follow the rest of the moves, which grew wilder and faster and more athletic, until the only one not sweating and panting and dragging behind the beat was Teyla. They were all laughing by then, though, and finished to a round of applause from everyone else.

Eyes shining and a real grin gracing his face for the first time that night, John cuffed Ronon lightly. "No offense, but I'll stick to ballroom."

"Wuss," Lorne declared. He grinned too as he wiped sweat from his forehead discreetly.

"Lieutenant Colonel Wuss to you," John replied.

"I'm going to go have my heart attack now," Rodney said.

Panting, Zelenka agreed. "I think I will go with you."

John trailed them out onto the balcony, where the sea breeze cooled Rodney's heated cheeks. John walked to the rails and leaned over enough to spot the second moon rising from the horizon.

"It doesn't get any better than this," he said.

"I find myself in need of a drink," Zelenka murmured to Rodney and slipped back inside.

Rodney reminded himself – again – to credit Zelenka in his Nobel acceptance speech. Even though he expected Zelenka would be there, receiving one himself.

He let his feet take him across the short space to stand next to John.

"The Wraith in retreat, enough ZPMs to do almost anything, Keller's cure, and all of us..." John's voice trailed away.

Rodney knew that look. Knew John's thoughts were on Elizabeth and Ford, Carson, Kate, even Carson's clone. He had his own contingent of ghosts, Dumais and Abrams, Brendan Gall, Griffin, Collins and Peter Grodin. Just as Teyla and Ronon had their roster of the lost and regretted. Every one of them would have been happy to see Atlantis sparkling against the night sky, still whole and triumphant.

"Yes," he said simply. "It really can't get any better than this."

He smiled at John as he spoke and neither of them mentioned any of the things they wished for that would have made the moment better.

John stirred eventually and spoke quietly. "One of us should head back inside, before someone starts wondering what we're doing out here."

Rodney just nodded and told him, "I'll go first," and didn't point out that they hadn't been doing anything. It was all about appearances, after all. "I think I'll call it quits for the night."

The doors had already shushed open when John murmured, "Good night, Rodney."

Rodney kept going.

"Good night, John."

He hated that it sounded so much like goodbye.

4 June 2010
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

John grinned when Rodney set his tray down next to John's and opposite Teyla's. This forced Ronon to reach across the table and over Teyla's tray to steal from Rodney, he'd confided to John. Teyla could be counted on to whack a fork or spoon down hard over Ronon's knuckles these days; she didn't want Tanaan growing up with bad manners he'd picked up from the team.

Zelenka hovered beside the table and asked, "May I join you?"

Rodney rolled his eyes and said, "What? Of course, are you brain damaged? We said lunch together," before stuffing half a muffin into his mouth.

"I was not addressing you," Zelenka said.

John waved a lazy hand. "Sure, Radek. Sit. This place is packed."

The new, daily databurst had included a shocker that had spread through the Atlantis grapevine faster than light. The mess hall held a real crowd. Everyone had taken lunch off to talk about it.

Rodney scarfed down the second half of his muffin and snagged Zelenka's while Zelenka was pulling up another chair. "You snooze, you lose," he said.

"You are a thief, Rodney," Zelenka replied grumpily. He pulled his tray closer to himself and the edge of the table.

"I do not approve of such behavior," Teyla said. "Do not indulge in it before Tanaan."

Rodney blinked at her. "I know. Tell Uncle Ronon, there."

"I know where your quarters are," Ronon told Rodney.

"I know how to lock you in the gym."

Zelenka looked glum. "He does." He picked up his sandwich and peeled the bread back to peer at its contents. "Why must they always try to make mayonnaise? It does not taste right."

Rodney picked his own sandwich up and took a bite out of it. "'s okay," he mumbled as he chewed.

John closed his eyes.

"Please refrain from speaking with your mouth full, Rodney," Teyla said.

Zelenka began on his own sandwich with a small shrug.

Rodney swallowed and spoke, obviously continuing a conversation with Zelenka from earlier.

"They announced right before the G8 Summit. Can you believe that?" He almost glowed with excitement. "Press conference, international television coverage, press hand out  and – "

"G8+5," Zelenka corrected him. He stabbed a fork into his salad. A piece of lettuce flipped away onto the table.

Teyla sighed.

"Whatever," Rodney dismissed the details. "You know what this means."

Zelenka chewed his bite of salad and nodded, light reflecting from his glasses. He swallowed and replied, "Yes. This means you will be even more annoying and bad tempered when you don't win a Nobel Prize." He held up a finger. "Or, you will be even more annoying and smug than usual, if you do."

Rodney mouth opened and closed, then he was off and running, "No, you petty, petty, small, sorry, little man. It means we can publish. Everything. You are looking at a superstar, no, a supernova, in the scientific firmament. Of course, my brilliance will overshadow yours, but you can publish too. I'm sure you have work that has been waiting for years."

"Of course I do."

"Supernova?" John repeated, chuckling. He sat back and nudged his boot against Rodney's. Rodney kicked him in return. John just grinned.

"Try to keep up, Colonel."

"So why do you think they finally cracked?" he asked.

Rodney shared a glance with Zelenka.

"It could be the ZPMs," Zelenka offered. "Clean power." He moved on to his fruit cup, spooning up peaches that had come all the way from Earth.

"Yes, yes, we all watched the press conference download," Rodney said impatiently. "Clean power, cure for AIDS, Hermiod the Last Asgard, triumph of the spirit of humanity, we are not alone." He rolled his eyes. "If you buy that, I have a nice vacation condo in a Wraith hive you'll want to buy."

"So?" John prompted him. He kind of agreed; the various governments that knew about the Stargate Program had all been perfectly happy to keep their citizens in the dark.

Rodney tapped his index finger against the yellow melamine tray, squinting a little, thinking it out.

"I think someone somewhere must have been close to breaking the story anyway. You remember Colson? He almost managed it, would have if the Trust hadn't set him up. Too many people have been involved with the SGC for the secret to hold much longer. Half the astronomers working have had the Air Force show up and confiscate their film or readings off their sensors because someone was playing with their space ships in orbit again."

"I thought Colson did a Vesco after the SEC came down on his company?" John said. He frowned. He'd been overseas at the time and tried to steer clear of the sort of business and industry news that might slap him in the face with a mention of Sheppard Industries anyway, but there had been the whole Roswell aliens gimmick. Hunh. Looking back now, he realized that had been an Asgard or a pretty good mock up of one.

"Cover story to debunk his reputation. He's working research out of the Beta site," Rodney said.

"Hunh."

Rodney nodded with satisfaction. "That's going to bite someone in the ass when some smart reporter that hasn't been bribed or scared off puts it together and starts asking what really happened to him."

John could see that.

"It is still a momentous thing," Zelenka declared.

Ronon and Teyla glanced at each other, obviously not getting it. John just shrugged. He'd try to explain a little more later.

Rodney nodded. "Historic. June first. You know they're going to call it Disclosure Day."

2011
not the doorways we had hoped for

3 January 2011
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

Cheyenne Mountain would never feel like home, too gray and concrete, but John joked to Teyla as they walked down the ramp in its gate room, at least the only torture they'd face there would be endless bureaucratic meetings. Rodney muttered something at that and Ronon growled.

It had been late afternoon in Atlantis when they stepped through the gate, but the SGC was in the middle of a bustling morning. They were hustled out of the gate room, passing a geared-up team on their way to gating out and John reflected that the SGC needed to revamp its infectious security. Incoming groups needed to use different, sealed corridors that could be sterilized between incoming teams, separate from the outgoing teams. SG-14 could have easily picked up something from them in passing and spread it beyond Earth into the Milky Way.

He went through the routine medical examination and tests patiently, thinking about the changes he'd make if anyone gave him the chance. The forty-eight hour quarantine keeping them inside the mountain was a bad joke, considering they were shoved into debriefings with SGC personnel who would leave the Mountain to go home that evening as soon as Lam's people released them.

The four of them were irritable and suffering from gate lag by the time the military and IOA representatives released them.

Ronon's stomach growled audibly as they trooped into the SGC mess hall and even Teyla looked frazzled. Not all the coffee on Earth could improve Rodney's mood either.

"How many times do I have to explain that the McKay Theorem is so far beyond their puny brains that they couldn't grasp it if they spent the next ten years studying physics?" he griped. "Can't they be satisfied with it's brilliant and it works?"

"I don't know, buddy," John told him wearily. "You'd think the brass would be happy we found a cheap way to repel the Wraith too, but they kept bugging me for enemy casualty counts. Like anyone can do body counts on blown up hive ships." He propped his chin on one hand and closed his eyes. "What time is it on Atlantis?"

"Morning," Ronon grunted. "Need to run. This place is too small."

"I need sleep," Rodney moaned. "Rest is intrinsic to good health. I'm losing valuable brain cells because of these jack – " He glanced at Teyla and amended that to, "nincompoops. There. See? I'm trying to be better even when I'm not around Tanaan."

"Thank you, Rodney," she told him.

"What about you two?" John asked Ronon and Teyla. "What did they go after you on?"

Ronon shrugged.

Teyla pursed her lips. "Mr. Coolidge and a Ms. Shen? Wished to inquire whether I felt any resentment toward Atlantis and Earth over the impending defeat of the Wraith." Her eyes narrowed. "Considering my genetic ties to them."

"Ow," John said.

Rodney peered at her over his coffee cup. "You didn't kill them did you?"

"No, I did not. It was difficult. Mr. Coolidge continues to address me as honey."

"Probably wise," John said. "The not killing them thing, not the calling you honey."

"Don't pay attention to them," Ronon added. "They're just stupid."

"Truer words, my friend, truer words," Rodney agreed.

They picked at the food they'd taken and talked desultorily over the possibilities of getting out of the Mountain and away from the SGC sometime in the next week.

"Going to see your brother?" Ronon asked.

John shrugged uncomfortably. "Ah, probably not."

Ronon stared at him.

"Look, you saw, I'm just not – I never did fit," John mumbled.

Teyla looked disapproving and Ronon lifted an eyebrow, but John could live with that. It wouldn't do any good to explain how different family ties could be on a world swollen to the billions, where school and career and duty could separate families by generations and years. Pegasus ties were tighter; they lost too much to the Wraith to give up anyone to apathy or misunderstandings and quarrels. It was what he liked about them; he knew Teyla and Ronon would never let him drift out of their orbit.

"You might be wrong," Rodney commented, but thankfully let it go. He understood. "So, ah, what hell do you have scheduled for tomorrow?"

"Full debrief on the Pegasus Situation, threat analysis and thumbscrews," John said. "Then an interview with General Landry. Followed by something called a Current Events Orientation, which I gather will be a little more in depth than which celebrity got picked up for DUI last week."

"Hunh. I've got more IOA briefings. Then Landry and the other thing."

"Anthropology and Linguistics have scheduled interviews with Ronon and I all through tomorrow, but we are also to attend a meeting with General Landry and this Current Events Orientation," Teyla said.

John noticed the three people headed for their table a minute before they arrived, he nodded just enough to let them know they were welcome.

"Well, would you look at what the cat dragged in," Cam Mitchell exclaimed with a broad grin. "All the way from the Pegasus Galaxy."

Teal'c and Vala Mal Doran were with him. Teal'c inclined his head to Ronon. "Ronon Dex."

Ronon leaned back in his chair, making it groan. "Teal'c."

"Teyla Emmagan."

She smiled at him, then at Vala and finally Mitchell, saying, "Please join us, Colonel Mitchell."

"Don't mind if I do," Mitchell said. He snagged a chair from another table and dragged it over, sitting down on it backwards, with his forearms folded over the seat back.

Teal'c and Vala seated themselves as well. Vala took a chair next to John. She leaned close enough he caught the scent of a very expensive perfume, mixed with the spice and dust of another world, an exotic and entrancing mixture. Teyla often smelled of her incense. He wondered if she wouldn't enjoy perfume.

When he felt Vala's hand on his thigh, he just said, "I don't have my wallet on me."

"Wise," Teal'c said.

Vala only leaned closer and snatched a chip from his tray. "The food on that last planet was terrible."

John shifted his tray beyond her reach. Vala turned her gaze on Rodney, making big eyes at him.

Rodney inched his chair away from her, which made Vala pout. "Don't you like me, Dr. McKay?"

"I like you fine when we're in separate galaxies," he replied. "You're an agent of chaos and I get enough of that in my life anyway."

"An agent of chaos," Vala repeated and slowly smiled. "I like that."

"You would," Mitchell told her fondly.

"So," John said after a minute. He pointed at one of the God-awful motivational posters on the mess walls. "Who the hell is responsible for that?"

Mitchell winced. "They had some quack in, babbling about lack of windows and telling General Landry we were all about to turn psycho from the pressure and the next day those appeared. He said if anything happened to them, the next time it would be pictures of the presidents. Now, I'm as patriotic and true red white and blue as a boy can get, but I can't say I want to have Henry Hayes watching me while I eat my Cheerios. Might give me a complex."

"Atlantis has windows," Rodney offered around a mouthful of Salisbury steak.

"And yet, you're all still crazy," Mitchell replied.

John shrugged. "Works for us."

"And that, boys and girls, is all that matters."

Ronon, Teal'c and Teyla were bent over the table, Teal'c sketching something with his finger they both appeared to find fascinating. "Say something Goa'uld," Ronon requested.

Teal'c said something that made no sense to John and obviously bewildered Ronon and Teyla.

"You have no Ring-Tongue?" Teyla asked.

"Everybody that goes through the Ring comes out speaking it," Ronon explained.

"We have no such common language, though the Jaffa and all Goa'uld occupied planets learned their language," Teal'c explained.

"You know," Mitchell murmured, "that drives Jackson batshit whenever he reads any of the Atlantis reports. Stargates in the good old Milky Way don't stick automatic translators in our heads."

"Yeah, but first contact's still a bitch," John replied.

"It's the stargates," Rodney said. "The ones in the Milky Way are older versions. The stargates in Pegasus seem to have been an improved version with some extra bells and whistles."

"Oh, I think our stargates work just fine," Mitchell told him.

"Of course they do, the Ancients, though they apparently had as much sense as a potato, did build to last." Rodney paused before adding, "No planned obsolescence for them."

Mitchell's grin faded into seriousness. "Any of you been outside the Mountain yet?"

"Just got in," John checked his watch and reminded himself to reset it to Earth, Mountain time, "seventeen hours ago. Forty-eight hours wait until we're loose, even though Midway's gone."

"Yeah, doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?" Mitchell nodded his agreement. "Okay, kids, here's the skinny. The brass had SG-1 on the publicity carousel for months after Disclosure Day. They're going to throw you to the wolves next, because the media are still slavering after everything they can get on the Program and everyone in it. Atlantis is the next big thing. You and your team are going to be the next bone that gets thrown out."

"Vultures," Rodney muttered.

"Pretty much."

"They are most persistent and unpleasant," Teal'c said.

"I thought it was fun," Vala disagreed, smiling brightly. She walked her fingers up John's thigh. "I think they're going to eat up Colonel Sheppard with a spoon." He caught her hand, gave a warning squeeze and set it back on her own knee, all without shifting his attention from his coffee cup.

Mitchell grinned, either at Vala's opinion or the byplay between her and John. Maybe both. "Takes a while to get used to seeing your face plastered all over magazines and tabloids, but sooner or later it will all die down."

"It's about time the world acknowledged my brilliance," Rodney said, perking up at the thought.

It sounded like a circus to John. Nothing he looked forward to, but Mitchell was probably right. The SGC would parade them around and then their fifteen minutes would be up and the media machine would grind on to the next scandal or celebrity wedding. With any luck at all, they'd be sent back to Atlantis before Rodney said something unforgivable on camera. He wasn't worried about Teyla and Ronon; they would treat it all like an extended mission to another planet with crazy customs. Which wouldn't be far off at all, he conceded.

"Well," Mitchell said. "I've got a report to finish and an archaeologist to pry out of his office, so I'll leave you kids to your dinner."

"See ya," John said.

Vala popped to her feet and trailed after Mitchell with a flirty wave for John and Rodney. Teal'c stayed, quietly arranging a time to spar with either Teyla or Ronon early in the morning before the day's meetings began. Rodney finished his dinner and went back in search of a dessert that wouldn't put him into shock.

John sat back and tried to figure out exactly what the SGC would have in store for them after they testified before Congress. The Pegasus Situation was as stable as it had ever been since Atlantis rose. Better than it had been in thousands of years, with the Wraith on the run, their numbers thinned so far in just a few months that John had begun to wonder if they might be looking at eventual extinction. He had no idea how many queens were necessary to maintain a viable Wraith gene pool, but they had to be skating close to the limit. Out of sixty identified hive ships, forty-three had been destroyed either by in-fighting, the Asurans, Atlantis' and Earth's efforts, or from the effects of the TIDs. No one knew how many cruisers were still out there, of course, or how many of them were commanded by younger queens, but the Wraith had taken a greater beating in the last few years than the Ancients had handed out during their long war.

He didn't know what that would mean for Atlantis. More scientists? A cut back in the military contingent? As long as Chuck wasn't right and they didn't start sending through tourist groups, they'd probably survive.

Maybe Landry would tell them the next day.

Rodney plopped a plate with ice cream and a brownie down before him. "Here. The cogs in your brain are starting to lock up."

John dug his fork into the brownie. "Thanks."

Rodney shoveled in a spoonful of ice cream and shrugged. "Feed one desire since I can't have another," he said in a low voice. His gaze flicked toward Teal'c and he added, "Colonel Carter still doesn't see what an excellent couple we'd make."

Teal'c raised an eyebrow but didn't comment.

John kicked him under the table.

Rodney ate the rest of his ice cream.

8 January 2011
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

"And this is Margo Langtry, assistant publicity director for the SGC," Landry said.

The sour look on his face might have been for the model thin woman in the purple power suit or for AR-1. Rodney couldn't tell. He didn't actually care, either. Margo Langtry swept her eyes over the four of them like they were sides of beef, before nodding abruptly. "Yes, they'll do nicely." She aimed a smile at John that put Rodney's hackles up. "Very photogenic and I imagine they can be coached."

"Coached?" John asked her. He smiled at her all loose-limbed and friendly in a way Rodney was all too familiar with from missions.

Rodney shared a look with Ronon and Teyla, who both looked stoic.

Missions. Rodney reminded himself to treat this stay on Earth like a mission. Don't piss off the natives and don't get separated. He wished for a headset and resolved that the first thing he would do would be buying encrypted cells for the team to carry to supplement the cheap low bid ones the SGC supplied.

"Don't worry about it," Margo told John.

The way she looked at John was all too familiar as well. Margo Langtry looked hungry and not in the anorexic/bulimic way that got her into that size zero outfit. At least she wasn't blond, Rodney thought. It must have taken a bottle of shellac to set her asymmetric black bob into utter immobility, though.

Margo glanced at Landry. "They're even better than the pictures, the three of them."

"Three?" Landry's bushy eyebrows went up his forehead.

Margo waved at Rodney. "Really, it's better Dr. McKay isn't handsome – "

"Hey! I am too handsome," Rodney interrupted in annoyance. "Okay, maybe I'm not 'in Sheppard's league' to quote my sister, but I'm not going to break the cameras."

Margo pursed her lips and shrugged a bony shoulder. "I was going to say the public doesn't expect scientists to even be attractive."

"Hmph."

She turned back to Landry. "Really, thank heavens none of them are ugly, it's half the battle to spin the Atlantis Expedition into good publicity."

"Publicity," Rodney snorted. "We don't need publicity, our work speaks for itself."

"Well, Dr. McKay, the SGC does need good publicity," Landry told him. "Since Disclosure, the SGC has been under a microscope, with every decision made in the last thirteen years brought into question. The recent successes in Pegasus are what we need to remind the public that we're heroes."

Rodney caught John's gaze. John mouthed, 'Heroes?'

Rodney mouthed back, 'We're?' When the hell was the last time Landry went out into the field to do more birdwatch?

"We'll begin with Inside Access, of course," Margo declared. "Julia Donovan has an introductory piece ready to air tomorrow. She'll want to follow up with a group interview." She frowned at Teyla and Ronon. "My God, they do speak English, don't they?"

John's easy smile congealed. "As insulting as that was, you'd be luckier if they didn't," he said.

"We speak English," Teyla added.

"What a relief," Margo swept on. "Thank God, you aren't some kind of giantess. With that skin tone we'll need to go in a different direction than we used with Colonel Carter and Mal Doran. But we definitely have to get you out of the cavewoman Xena look. We'll need a day to outfit you all, those clothes are completely unacceptable. We'll fly into New York tomorrow. I know a tailor who will do the work overnight."

"Fine, fine, that's your responsibility, Ms. Langtry," Landry said. "Now, if you'll excuse us, I need to speak with them privately about some matters above your classification."

Margo's red-painted mouth gave away her unhappiness at that, but she stalked toward the office door, heels clacking, and said, "I'll need an outside line to begin making arrangements."

"Of course. Sergeant Grimes will take care of that for you," Landry told her.

Margo slowed. "And someone needs to remind Col. Carter that she can't blow off the Sightline interview with Evelyn Waller again."

"Colonel Carter is currently offworld," Landry explained.

"Then get her back," Margo snapped. "You can't imagine the favors I pulled in to arrange that interview." She stalked out of Landry's sanctum and snapped her fingers at the airman sitting at the desk in the outer office. "You! Phone."

Landry closed the door behind her.

"Now," he said, "before Ms. Langtry delivers you to the media in New York, there are a number of incidents that you are not to discuss. Preferably guide any questioning away from the subjects, but if you are asked straight out, answer only with no comment and that you aren't at liberty to reply regarding still classified information. Beginning with the Henry Wallace fiasco."

17 January 2011
Milky Way
Earth, New York

Gray light resolved vague forms into furniture, dim blue and unfamiliar. Shadows caught in the sheets rucked down to Rodney's waist. John rolled onto his side and watched Rodney sleep. The bedroom of the hotel suite felt cooler than quarters in Atlantis, but Rodney always slept hot. He'd kicked the sheet off his feet too and sprawled face down on the wide bed.

Noise drifted up from the street, the endless cacophony of people that made up New York, even before dawn.

John knew why he'd woken: habit of years to rise before the sun on any night he risked staying with Rodney at all, to get up and get out before anyone else stirred to see. He stretched and settled a little more into the bed, then gave in to impulse and ran the sole of one foot up from Rodney's ankle to his calf.

Rodney snuffled into his pillow. The milky sweep of his naked back rose and fell with each slow, sleeping breath, smooth and tempting as the light warmed, as if marble flushed into living flesh with the sunrise.

John gave in again and rolled close to Rodney's side. He kissed the round curve of a bicep, then the slope of a heavy shoulder, then Rodney's shoulder blade, warm skin smooth beneath his lips. He reached up and laced his longer fingers between Rodney's on the pillow.

On the street in front of the hotel, a car horn honked, long and furious. It might even have been the limo scheduled to pick him up soon. Rodney had made the arrangements with the hotel service the night before, muttering about stalkerazzi while John sprawled on the bed and laughed.

Thoughts of limos and photographers on the hunt dissolved as John kissed his way from Rodney's nape down to the hollow at the base of his back, feeling muscle shift and tense and relax as Rodney woke up.

"Hnnn," Rodney muttered. He smacked his lips twice and snuggled deeper, clutching the pillow close.

Fingers trailed over Rodney's sides, almost tickling, made him squirm. John played with the tuft of brown hair in one armpit, entranced by the softness there, and when he bent closer and kissed where arm met torso, by the scent of sleep-warmed skin. He nudged Rodney's arm away from the pillow and urged him to roll onto his back.

The sheets tangled tighter around their legs. He kicked them off entirely after an instant's indecision. They slid of the end of the bed to the rug with a soft rustle.

John sat up and then knelt, one bent knee in contact with Rodney's hip. He let his hands rest loose on his thighs and watched Rodney slowly blink his way into wakefulness.

"Hey," he said, strangely hoarse from the warm feeling that spread all through him, as Rodney's eyelids slitted open.

"Guh?"

A silly grin took over John's face at the barely aware sound. Everything took an extra couple of seconds for Rodney to process before he got his caffeine fix and put his walls in place for the day. No one else saw him quite like this, softened and sweetly vulnerable, still sleep crumpled.

"Good morning to you too, sunshine."

Rodney wrinkled his nose and blinked at him, then wiped the sleep gunk from his eyes, before looking around and finding the room's clock. "Aren't you supposed to go to some interview thing?" he grumbled.

"Yeah," John admitted.

Margo had shuffled them through airports to New York, overseen new wardrobes that wouldn't look screwy on camera, had a coach drill them on how to look into the camera and a dozen other tricks. She'd pushed and snapped and literally caught Rodney's sleeve and dragged him at one point through a week of press conferences, interviews with reporters and on camera. They'd been in New York, then DC, back to Colorado and now New York again. She constantly had her cellphone in one hand and a PDA in the other and never once looked less then perfectly made up. She chivvied them like a razor-tongued sheepdog, drank more coffee than Rodney, and had started seating herself next to John when they were on planes after Julia Donovan asked if John wasn't the brother of David Sheppard, CEO and majority stockholder of Sheppard Industries.

John figured out how to deal with the society husband hunters before his eighteenth birthday, though. It was even easier now. "Yeah," he told her. "Dad left everything to Dave." Not true in fact. Dave got eighty-five percent and firm control, but John's fifteen translated into obscene wealth in addition to his mother's trust fund. Sooner or later, some reporter would ferret out that truth, he only hoped he was back in Atlantis by then.

He hated the spotlight. The Julia Donovan interview had just been the beginning. The media seemed to have chosen John as their darling, probably because he could crack a joke, didn't come with the freight of a wiped out world, the subtly alien cadence of Teyla's English or Rodney's too erudite and arrogant lectures.

He knew Ronon loathed the make-up, the hot lights and the inane questions. Teyla missed Tanaan, who they had left back on Atlantis. Rodney wouldn't say it, but he resented the attention being poured on John and why shouldn't he? John won the genetic lottery and knew how to shoot things; for every time John had saved Rodney, Rodney had saved Atlantis, worlds, maybe even a galaxy. It didn't seem fair. Rodney should have been the one on the front of magazines captioned Hero of Pegasus.

At the very least, Hero of Atlantis.

"So?" Rodney said.

"So?" John replied quizzically.

"Shouldn't you be vaulting out of this bed, getting back to your bedroom and getting ready?"

"Hmm," John said. He knee-walked up the bed far enough to lean over Rodney and kiss him, stale morning breath equal between them, slow and deep, heat stirring in his belly. He tugged on Rodney's lower lip finally, then kissed each corner of his mouth and then his nose. "Yeah. I should really do that."

He glanced down Rodney's body, finding a half hard cock and feeling his own stir in response.

"But you know? Don't care."

"Margo's going to throw a hissy fit."

John smiled at Rodney. "I'm not scared of her."

"Oooooh, brave words."

Rodney's cock rose, filling as John squirmed back down the bed and bent over it.

"Well, I am a hero."

"In your own mind."

"According to Time magazine," John murmured as he bent closer, inhaling the scent of arousal and musk rising from Rodney's body. He stroked his hand down over Rodney's hip, wondering as always at the heat Rodney's skin radiated. He blew a stream of air over the tip of Rodney's erection and grinned as it twitched.

"Would you quit teasing and blow me?" Rodney complained.

"I'm not teasing, I'm taking my time."

It was a hell of a lot better than faking a smile for the camera and the studio audience of Rise and Smile, New York, he reflected as he went down on Rodney. He'd really got into it, rubbing his own cock against the rumpled bedding, listening to Rodney pant and whisper half words that ended in harsh, hungry moans, because God, that never stopped turning him stupid with want, the sound of Rodney coming apart, when an already annoyingly familiar ring tone sounded.

"Uh, that's yours," Rodney half moaned. He batted a hand toward the nightstand, with its pretty lamp and two cellphones set down on the shining wood surface. He missed, maybe because he screwed his eyes shut when John's hand cupped his balls and then rolled them at the same time he sucked Rodney even deeper.

John kept his eyes closed and concentrated on opening his throat, taking Rodney all the way down and then swallowing. That always made Rodney babble. His jaw ached a little and moisture seeped from the corners of his eyes in response to the ache in his lungs. He needed to breathe, but held on, intent on the feel and weight of Rodney filling his mouth so deep. He swallowed again and knew his throat would be raw and scratchy all the rest of the day.

It would be worth it.

"God, like that," Rodney groaned, and, "John. John. John."

He propped one arm over Rodney's hips as they began arching, holding him down, still alternating using his other hand on Rodney's balls and his perineum, rubbing and pressing and making Rodney whine high in his throat. The cellphone went on ringing and Rodney fisted his hands in the bottom sheet. John rocked his hips into the mattress and tried fluttering his tongue a little, lost in the act, the sunlight coming through the curtains in a line that warmed his back.

So good and yes and always flickered through his thoughts, froth on the wave of pleasure cresting through him, matching the way Rodney curled up despite the weight of John's arm, his body tensing, hands in John's hair, a sound like pain tearing from him finally as he came, nearly choking John. He only let go when John had to pull away or pass out, a last dribble of come smearing from the tip of his cock over John's lips. His hands stayed on John's head, but slack, while John gasped for breath, thoughts scattered, rubbing frantically against the bed.

John pushed one hand down under him, wrapped it around his cock and gave two pulls, the head just dragging over the sheet where he'd already leaked a wet spot, friction and slip wet perfect pressure. Rodney's smell and taste filled him up, and the weight of his hand connected John, held him together as he jerked his hips a last time and spurted onto himself and the bed with a helpless cry.

He sucked in as much air as he could afterward, eyes closed, riding out the aftermath in a happy haze, sprawled against Rodney. Rodney ran his fingers through John's hair. Eventually it registered that both cellphones were ringing now.

A thump on the bedroom door made John lift his head finally.

"Sheppard!" Ronon shouted through the door. "That woman was yelling on my phone."

John rolled onto his back and raised his voice, still breathless, enough to be heard. "Tell her you couldn't find me!" He'd been right. He sounded like he'd scoured his throat with sandpaper. He wiggled his jaw, trying to work some of the ache out.

"Already did, but she's going to come up here so if you don't want her finding you two, you better do something."

"Shit," Rodney commented.

"It'll be okay."

"Sure it will," Rodney snapped. "That witch wants in your pants or your bank account. You think she wouldn't use it if she walked in here and found you giving me head?"

John forced himself to sit up. "That's what locks are for."

"Two words: Asgard beam."

John shuddered at the alternatives that sprang to mind: Margo appearing in the bedroom or having him beamed buck naked to the Apollo or which ever ship was in orbit currently. "Fine," he said, feeling grumpy when he should have been basking in a nice afterglow and maybe falling back asleep for another hour. "Nice as this suite is," and it was nice, Rodney had taken one look at the accommodations the SGC had provided and moved them to the St. Regis on his own dime, "I'll be damned glad to get back to Atlantis. At least the interruptions there are emergencies."

He left the bed, pulled on the pants he'd left crumpled on the floor the night before, grabbed his cellphone, and started for the door. He needed a shower and the dress uniform which Margo insisted he wear for on camera spots was waiting in the closet of the suite's second bedroom. He glanced back at Rodney, still occupying the unmade bed, pale thighs splayed open and absently scratching his balls. Rodney's hair, cut even shorter than usual, couldn't really stand up, but it looked ruffled. He needed a shave almost as much as John did. The crooked smile he gave John made John hesitate and grope for words.

"We'll be fine, you know," he said.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Get out of here."

"Wow, the gratitude runs out fast."

"What gratitude?"

"I nearly sucked your brains out," he pointed out.

"I should thank you for doing something you like?"

"Well..."

"Fine. Thank you for the stellar blowjob."

John grinned and opened the door.

Ronon and Teyla were lounging in the suite's living room. They were both already dressed in their Margo-approved clothes: a suit for Ronon and an airy sun dress for Teyla which showed off her shoulders and arms. Ronon scowled at him, but Teyla smiled.

"I don't like that woman," Ronon declared.

"I get that," John said. He headed for his own bedroom.

"There is coffee in the dining room," Teyla said.

She and Ronon had mastered the concept of twenty-four hour room service without difficulty.

"That'll make Rodney happy." He paused at his door and smiled back at her. "I'll get some once I'm dressed. If Margo calls again, tell her I'm in the shower." Which he would be. "You want to take the limo after it drops me off? Driver's on retainer. You could sight see."

Ronon rolled his shoulder. "Better than sitting around here." His expression conveyed his discomfort with the delicate, French-influenced furnishings, the gilding and moldings and marble that were a universe away from either Atlantis' angles and stained glass or the average farming village built of wood or daub back in Pegasus. Sateda had been high tech, close to Earth's current level, but its architecture and decor had displayed a more nineteen-fifties' industrial aesthetic.

"I have the credit card you arranged for me," Teyla said.

"Ronon, buddy, I think you may wish you'd stayed home," John remarked and ducked into his room before either of his friends could reply.

Rodney was dressed and waiting as well, sucking down what was probably his third cup of coffee, when John exited.

"Did you leave any for me?" he asked.

He ran his hand over his chin and jaw, double checking he hadn't missed any spots shaving, enjoying the way Rodney's cup stalled on its way to his lips and his eyes focused on him.

"There might be a cup left," Rodney finally said.

"Thanks, buddy," John replied.

The staccato rap of a fist against the suite's door had him detouring to open it. "Morning, Margo," he said as soon as he opened it.

She marched in, already frowning, eyes darting from John to everyone else, then back to him. "Thank God, you're dressed. I thought we'd have to do it in the limo. We have to go now," she said immediately.

So much for coffee.

"Who died and made you God?" Rodney muttered, before slurping down the last of his coffee and rising.

"General Landry," Margo snapped.

"Oh, if only," Rodney said in an undertone.

"I don't see why you're coming with us anyway," she went on.

"Because I asked him," John told her. He smiled at her. "Ease off, Margo. Try relaxing a little. We're looking at this as kind of a vacation."

"Well, your vacation is my job and my reputation," she replied. "I'm not about to let your friends or your slacking ruin either."

"Fine, let's go, before the world ends on the tragic note of you losing one of the most meaningless and parasitic jobs in the universe," Rodney said and strode out the door.

Teyla and Ronon followed him, so John gestured Margo to precede him, made sure he had his cell, wallet and key card and stepped into the corridor after her.

17 January 2011
Milky Way
Earth, New York

"How does it feel to be an intergalactic hero?"

"I'll let you know when I get there," John replied, grinning, because he might know he wasn't, but that didn't mean hearing himself described as one didn't feel good. He'd been called a fuck-up often enough. Might as well enjoy the fame while it lasted. "I'm just a guy."

Lisa Henson smiled at him. "Well, a lot of us here think you're a hero." She recrossed her legs, showing them off.

"Why go on what might be a one-way mission?"

He shrugged, remembering O'Neill nearly daring him to say no. It had been more than that, of course. His career in the Air Force had been effectively over post Afghanistan and he hadn't cared for any of the options waiting in the civilian world.

"Who wouldn't want to explore a whole new galaxy? I'd've had to be whacked to say no."

"See, that's what makes you so much braver than me. I'd like to stay here on Earth where it's safe," she replied.

"You could be carjacked or mugged or trip on a crack in the sidewalk and break your leg right here on Earth."

"Fair enough," she said with a flirty laugh. Turning a more serious look on him, she asked, "What did you think when you first reached Atlantis?"

John leaned back a little and acted like he was replaying the moment. He'd been somewhere between pissed at Ford for telling him going through the stargate would hurt like hell and working on not bending over and barfing all over the floor. Then he'd been trying to figure if he was the only one with that buzzing not-sound pushing at his nerves. It had been the weirdest feeling, until he realized it felt like sitting in that chair in Antarctica, strange but right and he'd relaxed. As if he could breathe without constriction for the first time in his life.

He didn't think the viewing public wanted to hear that stepping into Atlantis had untied a knot he'd never known was inside him.

"Wow. Even in the dark, you could see Atlantis was something else," he told Hensen instead. "Well, and then, who's turning the lights on?"

"And that was you?"

"Me and the other ATA positives."

Inside, where he'd never said it to anyone else, John still felt like Atlantis had woken up for him. All the other positives had come through the wormhole after him.

Hensen nodded. Her gaze flicked to one of the people behind the cameras and she turned slightly away from John to face the camera directly. The guy held up his hand and counted down the seconds. "We have to go to a commercial now, but we'll be back with more with Colonel John Sheppard of the SGC."

Hensen slumped back a little and flicked her hair back over her shoulders. "And we're off." She fussed with the microphone pinned to her blouse. "You could give me a little more than just the party line, you know."

John glanced past her to the wings of the stage, where Rodney was watching. Or had been. He'd retreated and bent over his laptop. Which made it look like he was working, but John knew neither of them had taken anything classified out of the Mountain. The laptop was one Rodney had picked up the day before and he was probably hunting for Easter Eggs in the latest Tiger Woods golf game. Looking busy kept anyone from talking to him, though.

"I'm being straight with you," he told Hensen. He was. No need to lie, when a light and joking answer and some subtle evasions would do the same job without ever coming back to bite him on the ass. It had held true since he was a kid being polite to his father's fellow business men, been a pretty good defense mechanism in the service, and worked better in first contact than telling people they were crazier than a bedbug on LSD, no matter what he privately thought sometimes.

"Okay, I get it," she said.

A make-up person darted out onto the stage and touched up Hensen's powder, then dusted John's face, which made him wrinkle his nose, trying not to sneeze. The damned lights were enough to make anyone sweat.

"We're back on in thirty!" someone yelled. Make-up girl scurried off the set, one of the big cameras shifted, and the cue card guy straightened up.

Hensen turned back to him. "Ready?"

"Sure."

"Five, four, three, two, and you're on."

"So, Colonel Sheppard, what is it like being commanding officer of a base in another galaxy?"

"Best job I've ever had," John answered, meaning it. "I," he coughed and ducked his head, "developed a lot more respect for my former commanding officers. I don't know how they put up with me."

"It doesn't frighten you?"

"I'd have to be crazy not to be afraid of messing up. It's up to me to keep my people alive, keep Atlantis safe, and that's humbling, I guess. I don't take it lightly."

"You've done a magnificent job."

"I've scraped by, but I didn't do it alone."

"Hear that, audience, not only handsome and brave, but modest too," Hensen addressed the camera and studio audience with another practiced smile.

She shifted her attention back to John. "Obviously, the world was shocked on Disclosure Day, but you were already in the Pegasus Galaxy then. What did you think when you learned about the Stargate, the Program, and aliens?"

John laughed. "That maybe I'd crashed my helo and was hallucinating or really doped up."

Hensen laughed with him.

"I'd been flying supplies and people in and out of the Antarctic base for about a year by then, so I was curious as hell. I've got to say, everyone there was so blasé, that I just went with it. Aliens? Sure, why not? The US military sure never developed a missile that looked like a squid." John shook his head. "It didn't really sink in until the first time I saw the Stargate." He grinned. "And then I just thought, cool."

"What about when you found out you had the ATA gene complex?"

"I didn't really get what that would mean until later. I did start worrying I'd run out of blood before the docs stopped taking samples."

"And when people say that having the ATA means you aren't human?" Hensen asked. Her gaze was intent. "What do you say to them?"

That hadn't been on the list of pre-approved questions Margo had shown him in the limo.  John didn't mind, though. He figured he knew what to say without pissing off Margo or Stargate Command.

"They should check out the pictures of Goa'uld outside a host and the other nonhumanoid aliens the SGC has encountered and recorded that are on the Program's website. There's years of study and information there that's been declassified."

"That's at Stargate Science dot edu dot net?"

"Yeah."

"If you missed that, we'll have the information at the end of the program or you can find it at our own website," Hensen said to the camera.

She wasn't ready to let the original question go, though. "How does it make you feel though, knowing that some people think the ATA makes you an alien?"

John frowned.

"It's bull. Like saying anyone with red hair or who is under four feet tall or has a birthmark isn't human. My mother and father were human, no matter what I thought as a teenager, and so am I. So is anyone with ATA, latent or active."

"I can see you have strong feelings about that." Hensen sat back. "Okay, a different tack. What does your family think about what you do?"

"They approve," John said, thinking of Rodney, of Teyla and Ronon. They were his family and he knew they believed in what they were doing in Atlantis and Pegasus.

"Do you miss your family?"

He knew she meant Dave, his father while he'd been alive, and he hadn't. They'd been too far apart even before he went to Pegasus. They hadn't been a family for years before then.

The weeks on Earth after the Ancients exiled them from Atlantis, though, he'd been hollowed out, missing Rodney's voice and company, worrying for Ronon and Teyla.

"Yes," he said. "I miss them like hell when we're separated."

"How about this, because a lot of us wonder about it; how did you feel when you met your first aliens?"

"Depends on what you think is an alien, I guess." John shifted a little uncomfortably. "Humans on other planets don't count as aliens, so I guess the first ones I encountered were the Wraith. Or part of one. The marines shot a dart down and there was this hand crawling out of the burning wreckage."

Hensen and the audience all gasped and it occurred to John that sounded rather gruesome.

"Yeah, I kind of thought when's Boris Karloff going to show up? I already knew by then I wasn't going to like them."

John wanted to rub his neck and look away, but Margo had been insistent that he not look like he was evading anything – even if he very much was. "Don't look away," she'd told them. "The audience will think you're hiding something."

He reached for the mug of water he'd been given, understanding why everyone on a talk show always got one now: the hot lights and talking left him dehydrated and dry-mouthed. He swallowed a mouthful before going on.

"If you meant the Athosians, though: I liked them. They're just people who happen to live somewhere I hadn't been before. But Athos wasn't as strange as Shanghai or Antarctica, to tell the truth," he said.

"Fair enough. Colonel, you mention the Wraith, so I have to ask, how scary are they?"

"Pretty damn scary."

"And what do the Queens look like?"

John quirked an eyebrow at her. "Pretty damn ugly."

Laughter filled the studio.

Hensen leaned forward.

"Colonel, do you think the Stargate Program has benefited Earth?"

John sat back, but answered immediately. "Absolutely."

"How?"

"Knowledge. Defense." He held up his hands. "Hope."

"How do you mean?"

"Don't you like knowing there are other worlds with people out there? That we really aren't alone?"

"I find it a little disturbing, actually," Hensen replied. "It's so big, the idea of so many worlds out there is daunting. The Goa'uld, the Wraith, the Ori, they're so powerful and frightening."

John leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and caught her gaze, saying seriously, "They're all already spacefaring too. They'd still be out there without the Program and they'd have ways to get here, while we had nothing. Without the Stargate Program, we wouldn't have hyperdrive starships to protect Earth. We just wouldn't be ready for them when they came." That was the party line Landry had told them to sell. John didn't even mind. He figured Earth would have got there eventually without the Stargate, but it was a hell of a leg up and what if the Goa'uld had found them before then? They'd have been screwed royally without the Asgard on their side.

A murmur of approval came from the audience.

"I hadn't thought of it like that."

"Someone once said you can judge a person by his enemies. I think Earth looks pretty good if you look at our enemies."

"We're running out of time, but the audience has submitted some questions," Hensen said. "Are you game, Colonel?"

"Sure."

"Favorite movie?"

"Back to the Future," John answered immediately. He knew it annoyed Rodney. His actual favorite, non comedy, was Gallipoli. He doubted many people remembered it and didn't want to reveal that much about himself anyway. Back to the Future was the easy answer.

"What's your favorite food?"

"Pizza."

"What's the wormhole feel like?"

"Riding the biggest, baddest roller coaster in the universe in less than an eye blink."

"Is Rodney McKay really as cranky as he seems?"

John burst out laughing. "Worse."

"What's the scariest thing you have ever seen?"

"McKay without coffee after a three-day emergency."

Hensen laughed with him. Rodney would make him pay later, but John wanted to keep it light. No one wanted to hear about villages that had been culled, the baby in a crib he'd once found, a wizened husk left behind by the Wraith, being fed on or an Iratus bug nest.

"What kind of car do you drive?"

"None. Sold my last one before I deployed and haven't been back in the States long enough since to buy anything else."

Hensen gave him the flirty smile again. "Two more."

"Okay."

"How do you date in Atlantis?"

"Who has time?" John replied, still smiling back.

"Last question. What are you going to do next?"

"Get a pizza and rescue Ronon. Teyla headed out this morning armed with credit cards and he went with her."

The audience laughed again, as did Hensen. "Well, thank you for stopping by, Colonel Sheppard. Come back next time you're in New York and good luck in Atlantis."

"Thanks, Lisa."

The audience applauded on cue, surprisingly enthusiastic.

"And we're off," the director called out.

Hensen touched John's arm. "You're a natural."

"You made it easy."

Rodney was glaring from the wings. The make-up girl swept out again, while Margo and one of the assistants waved John off stage.

"Nice meeting you," John told Hensen and gave a wave to the audience.

"Never mind the pizza," Margo said as they head for the green room. "Emmett Bregman wants a one on one interview for his Atlantis documentary. We need to get across town in the next half hour."

17 January 2011
Milky Way
Earth, New York

Anger propelled John out onto the sidewalk in front of Bregman's studio. He didn't know where it was in relation to the hotel and right then he didn't care, even if he ended up soaked by the threatening rain. He needed to get away from Bregman's questions and Margo and most of all Rodney.

"John!"

Rodney had followed him out, past the building lobby, into the drizzling gray afternoon.

"Damn it, John!"

John hesitated a moment, half turning back toward Rodney. He fisted his hands at his sides.

"Could you slow down for a minute?" Rodney wasn't out of breath, but John had been moving fast when he walked away. Rodney dodged around a woman with a poodle and a giant shopping bag, busily talking into her cellphone, trying to catch up.

"No," he said, staring at Rodney, "I can't." He spun on his heel and walked away, past poodle woman and two businessmen, dodged between a woman in a dress and sweater who was glaring at the sky and a mail carrier.

"John!"

He ignored Rodney's shout the way Rodney had ignored him earlier, lengthening his stride and losing himself in the crowd moving steadily up and down the sidewalk.

I can't. He didn't mean he couldn't slow down, thought he meant he couldn't look at Rodney, or talk to him, but it felt like I can't do this. What ever this was. His chest hurt and he felt stupid. He knew how Rodney was, the things he said usually rolled off John's Teflon temperament. This should have been no different.

It shouldn't have happened. It wouldn't have, if Bregman hadn't spotted Rodney with him and insisted on setting up the interview with both of them. Rodney had immediately been enthusiastic. Bregman's interest had been a balm on his ego, easing the resentment left by Lisa Hensen ignoring him earlier. Bregman took advantage, catering to Rodney's sense of importance with every word. Any reluctance Rodney felt had disappeared the instant Bregman said the documentary would be a historical record and they needed Rodney's input.

For accuracy.

John had chuckled at the time. He'd seen the documentary Bregman had done at the SGC and been impressed despite himself. Getting Jackson to talk wasn't hard, but getting him to open up had been impressive. Considering the events of the time, including the death of someone who had obviously been well liked and part of the SGC for so long, Bregman had done an outstanding and sympathetic job.

Bregman had been impeccably polite to Margo. Someone had hammered manners into the man in his childhood that no amount of time, cynicism or rude women could erode away.

Margo had tried to nix the double interview, but Bregman obviously had experience with getting past watchdogs as well as sweet talking reluctant and awkward interviewees. One of his assistants had cannily separated Margo from them with a promise of coffee before she could finish objecting. John had watched with amusement.

The interview hadn't been bad at first. Bregman reminded John a little of Rodney, intelligent, impatient, unimpressed. Looks hadn't gotten Bregman to the top of the heap, certainly.

He started out with an easy one.

"Why the Air Force?"

"I wanted to fly," John answered. The same answer he always gave.

"With the money your family has, you could have done that without joining the military," Bregman responded. "Doesn't Sheppard Industries own several private jets?"

John found himself nodding, because he'd realized that he could be a pilot the day his father's pilot had let him sit in the co-pilot's seat of the Sheppard Industries Gates Lear and told him what each of the instruments did and what that translated to in the air. It had been all he could talk about for three days afterward, until his father declared that 'pilots work for other people, they're just chauffeurs'. He'd shut up but he hadn't forgotten.

"Civilian jets are okay," he said, "but they don't compare to the high performance aircraft the Air Force has." His father would have never let John fly anything he owned, anyway. "Test pilots in the private sector are mostly retired military, too."

"You were never part of the F302 program, though, were you?" Bregman asked shrewdly.

He shrugged.

"No, by then I was flying helos in the Mid East. I guess I didn't have the right profile."

God, he would have loved flying the F302s back then, but he already had a reputation as a maverick. He got along with the ground crews better than his fellow officers. Not the guy the Air Force wanted to trust with multimillion dollar superclassified alien-derived extra-atmosphere craft. There were always more pilots than places to drive jets; once you lost your place you didn't get it back, someone else moved up the list. The other thing was he was too damn good with the helos. Then came the incident with Holland.

"You mean you weren't enough of a kiss ass," Rodney said.

John glanced at him. Bregman had seated John and Rodney on a couple of stools side by side, angled to face a Bregman on a third stool. The studio was an echoing loft refitted with wooden floors, lights and equipment. Bregman kept his crew to a minimum: camera man, sound man, and a third guy handling the lights and anything else. Margo and the assistants had been exiled to the far end of the room, beyond a glass wall that insulated them from any stray noise. Now and then traffic noise or the building's heating system reached them. John figured that would be edited out later.

"No, I meant what I said," John corrected. "Besides, odds are if I'd been with the Snakeskinners, I wouldn't be here now."

Rodney looked stricken. "Not you."

"Thanks, but even the hottest pilots were shot down over Antarctica."

"Like Lt. Colonel Mitchell," Bregman said. "He was in command of the 1st. SFW during the Anubis incursion, right?"

John nodded. "Is that what it's being called now? An incursion?" Surviving being shot down over the Ice, finding a way to walk again, and buying SG-1 the time they'd needed had bought Cam his ticket into the SGC and a merit promotion. "He was a major back then, though."

"You mention serving in the Middle East," Bregman said. "You were in Desert Storm and flew in Afghanistan. How does serving in the SGC differ from regular Air Force operations?"

"I don't know, maybe it's the fact that he's fighting vicious aliens?" Rodney snapped.

"Rodney..."

"What? It's a stupid question!"

John sighed.

"He's kind of right," he told Bregman. "I feel better about what I do for the SGC. I think everyone does." He elbowed Rodney. "Even McGrumpy here."

"So, if you were reassigned to fly bombing missions over New Congo, what would you do?" Bregman asked.

"I wasn't aware we were bombing New Congo," John said cautiously.

"Hypothetically."

John thought about it. He didn't know if he could do it any more. Atlantis and Pegasus had changed him. "I can't answer," he said. "You're asking something too general. I can say I don't like the idea of wasting human lives."

"But I can safely assume you wouldn't agree with the decision?"

"The Joint Chiefs don't consult me for my opinion," John said.

"Not about New Congo, but you're here on Earth to testify before the Senate Committee," Bregman pointed out.

"About Pegasus, not Africa," Rodney interrupted. He rolled his eyes at Bregman. "We have more important things to worry about than which warlord is working on dictator status. Though, seriously, with the Asurans wiped out and the Wraith on the run, probably the biggest worry in Pegasus is which dictator will take control of the Genii if something happens to Ladon Radim."

"Rodney," John drawled.

"I'd like to talk about that, Dr. McKay," Bregman said, smoothly switching his attention from John to Rodney. "Stargate Command and the IOA considered the Asuran Replicators a serious enough threat they sent the Apollo to Pegasus with express orders to wipe out their ship building facilities. You worked on the naquadah-enhanced warheads that were used."

"Zelenka and I did," Rodney said. He squirmed a little. "It was a moronic plan, but nothing we did or said was going to stop Ellis, who is exactly the sort who reminds me why I mostly despise the military, by the way – "

"Rodney," John repeated, tensing up a little.

People were going to see and hear this. It really didn't matter if Rodney told the world he thought Colonel Ellis was a tool, but the dig against the military would stick in the brass's memory. Sooner or later, when Atlantis desperately needed something from Earth, someone would remember and refuse it, just to stick it to that prick McKay. Damn it, if keeping that sort of thing in mind made him a kiss up, John didn't care. He'd spent years bucking the system in his own way, until Elizabeth taught him the fine art of maneuvering.

"We did contemplate sabotaging the bombs," Rodney went on, ignoring him.

"You what?" John demanded.

Rodney had the grace to look faintly embarrassed. "We didn't. Obviously." His chin came up. "Though in retrospect, I wish we had. The Asurans attacked Atlantis because of the Apollo's attack. Elizabeth...Elizabeth might not be dead."

"Jesus, Rodney," John whispered. He stared at Rodney's intransigent, angry expression and couldn't believe he'd never said any of this before. He'd always known Rodney blamed himself for the nanites, for what the Asuran Replicators had done after he changed their base code. He hadn't known Rodney blamed the SGC too. Blamed him for following the orders.

He was only peripherally aware of Bregman staring at them or the camera recording everything.

"What do you think we should have done? Refused to do the work on the Apollo's bombs?" John demanded. "You know they still would have gone on to attack M7R-227, so maybe you think we should have sabotaged the ship. Maybe hijacked it? What?"

"Something that didn't involve dropping bombs," Rodney snapped. "That's your answer to everything." He switched his attention back to Bregman and said, "You know, I can answer the question you asked him. He'd bomb New Congo or anywhere else if they gave the order."

"You really think that?" John asked.

Rodney looked away.

"I think if you had backed Elizabeth instead of listening to Ellis tell you Atlantis should have been under your command, we could have found a better answer."

"Shit." John waved at the camera man. "Shut it off – "

Bregman shook his head.

John stood up and took a step back. "Fine." He turned toward Rodney. "How can you even be in the same room if you think I backstabbed Elizabeth over Ellis's bullshit?" He gritted his teeth. "You were the one who thought he'd be put in charge of the expedition after we lost her."

"I'm not the one who said no to the nanite treatment," Rodney shouted.

John recoiled. Rodney froze as if he'd only heard himself after the words were out.

"John – "

He held up his hands. "Enough, okay? You go ahead and tell it your way. I'm done."

He walked out.

17 January 2011
Milky Way
Earth, New York

It began to rain.

Rodney stayed put.

Umbrellas opened, upside down colorful flowers brought out by the weather instead of the sun. People flowed around Rodney like a river around a boulder. Like a river, the current tugged at him, tumbling him forward a few steps, before his own weight brought him to a stop again. He stared, but Sheppard's dark head had been swept onward and he'd lost sight of him in the sea of umbrellas bobbing along the sidewalks.

The rain soaked into Rodney's shoulders. It chilled his bare head and slid under his collar. Droplets fell from his fingertips to the darkened sidewalk. He had to blink them out of his eyes.

He felt dazed. Elbows no longer dug into his sides and the crowd began skirting wider around him, because rudeness called up rudeness in response but crazy always made people flinch away. Standing in the rain, hair plastered to your head, whispering I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, qualified for crazy, even in New York.

He couldn't believe he'd said any of it. The words had just been there, hanging in the air, like someone else had spewed them out and John's face had assumed that terrible blankness that Rodney hated because it scared him.

He knew he needed to go back inside and try to undo some of the damage he had just done, but he couldn't make himself move. How had everything gone to hell so fast?

Of course, his ego had done it to him again.

"You," Margo hissed, making Rodney jump as she materialized out of the crowd. She'd imbued the single word with the sort of venom he associated with Wraith Queens. The glare she gave him would have shriveled him if he hadn't been busy berating himself already.

"What?" he asked. He knew he should be wary, but in a way she had every right to be furious with him.

"You are coming back inside, finishing the interview and answering all of Bregman's questions," Margo told him. "Politely."

He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.

"Are you listening to me, McKay?" she went on. One hand closed around his wrist and she dug her long nails into the soft flesh of his wrist. "You're lucky this wasn't live, because nothing I could have done would have cleaned that mess up. I just bullied, blackmailed and outright bribed that man and the technicians into erasing the last five minutes of that interview. I had to swear I'd get Colonel Sheppard back here, along with you, and all of SG-1 too for his follow up documentary. I had to offer to let Bregman go to Atlantis and film. Exclusively."

The rain had begun darkening the shoulders of her gray suit. A curl of black hair had come loose from her bob and hung over one baleful eye.

"Let go."

She tightened her grip instead. "Shut up. After this, you are never, ever going on camera again."

"Fine, whatever," Rodney snapped back at her. He jerked his arm free and pushed his way back to the lobby doors. He spent the next three hours answering Bregman's questions, sitting in his shirt sleeves, because a towel could dry his hair but not his jacket. Bregman didn't ask the puff piece questions either.

What do you say to comments that venturing into another galaxy whilst there are so many problems in our own smacks of imperialism? Earth already has major problems with refugees in Africa and now India fleeing starvation and drought. Can we afford to get involved in a situation that creates refugees from other planets? Should countries not part of the IOA have reason to fear the growth of weapons far beyond the capability of nuclear weapons? What do you say to charges that the SGC and Atlantis expedition has been engaged in genocidal activities?

Rodney winced and struggled to answer both honestly and politically, reining in his normal sarcasm and explaining that Pegasus refugees wouldn't be coming to Earth or even the Milky Way, that the expedition was first proposed as scientific in aim and they weren't colonizing planets, certainly not planets with populations. He did slip and point out that Bregman should have said specicide if he was referring to the Wraith and that in fact the Replicators were the ones who had used that as a tactic in their war not Atlantis.

"What about current worries that the introduction of the zero point modules will upset the energy economy of Earth, leaving many people without jobs?"

That made Rodney snap.

"Maybe you'd rather go back to torches and hunting with rocks," he suggested. "Of course, you would be out of a job too then. But if that's what you like, I know five different planets where using a stick to dig for grubs is the height of technological advancement. Change is inevitable and it is the very depths of stupidity to wish to go backwards."

Bregman sat back and smiled, obviously pleased he'd finally prodded Rodney into speaking honestly.

The questions went on.

The rain sheeted down outside the studio and he wondered where John was.

He waited until the camera had been turned off and the the technicians were breaking their equipment down.

"Mr. Bregman."

His voice sounded stiff.

Bregman stopped and looked at him. The man had a shrewd mind, Rodney had realized as the interview had gone on and on.

"Yes?"

"Whatever you may think of me, Colonel Sheppard didn't deserve what I said earlier. I often..." Rodney paused and marshaled his determination. "I often let my emotions run away with my mouth and say the most hurtful thing possible, whether I believe it or not. I realize that Margo believes she has you convinced, for whatever reasons, to not use that part of the interview. I'm asking you to not use it. What I said was neither fair nor correct, but it's all anyone would remember if they saw it."

"I didn't believe you would bring it up," Bregman said.

"I'm not asking for myself."

"Ms. Langtry has promised me a full access tour of Atlantis."

"You'll get it," Rodney promised. He didn't have the clout to push it through, but he could convince Sam to persuade Landry. "I swear."

"And cooperation from anyone I want to interview there?"

Rodney swallowed and nodded, then had to amend it, "I can't speak for Sheppard's soldiers. Or, or Director Woolsey. Or the Athosians. And if you want to interview any of the Genii, well, that's just insane."

Bregman chuckled. "I won't expect the impossible."

"Good...good. Ah. Thank you," Rodney told him. "I'm going to, I'm leaving now. Thank you."

Margo spent the taxi ride back to the St. Regis on her phone. Rodney stared out the rain streaked windows at all the people. New York had a population larger than many planets in Pegasus. The crowds made Rodney nervous. The city itself bothered him. Atlantis had never seemed as empty as it did in comparison with Manhattan; it boggled his mind to imagine his city as filled with people.

He swiped at the fogging glass of the window with the side of his hand as the taxi slowed to a halt in traffic. Their driver hit his horn, inched the vehicle forward, cursed and then offered them a casual apology. A sting in his wrist made Rodney turn his hand and notice the blood dotted marks left by Margo's vicious nails. Fingernails. It made him shudder. He'd have to disinfect the scratches. Human nails were nasty and he'd likely end up with an infection. Blood poisoning would follow as he turned septic. He'd die in his hotel room, no doubt alone, since he'd managed to alienate John.

The taxi jolted forward as the driver wove it into gap in the traffic. Rodney curled his hand into a fist. If John had been with them, he would have complained about the man's driving. He couldn't bring himself to speak to Margo.

"Tell Colonel Sheppard you are both scheduled to fly to DC for the hearings three days from now," Margo stated as the cab came to stop in front of the hotel. "I've canceled everything after today."

"You can message him – "

"He's already ignoring all my messages, but since you and the rest of your team are sharing the suite, you should see him."

"I'll tell him if I see him," Rodney acceded. He left the cab without caring that he was sticking her with the fare. She'd charge it to the SGC anyway.

When the concierge raised an eyebrow at Rodney's waterlogged jacket and still damp shoes, he snarled back silently.

Ronon and Teyla were in the living room along with more shopping bags than Rodney wanted to count. He hadn't known it was possible for Ronon to look both exhausted and shellshocked, but Teyla looked pleased until she caught sight of Rodney.

"Where's Sheppard?" Ronon asked as Rodney walked past him.

"You'd have to ask him," Rodney replied. He shut his bedroom door behind him before either Teyla or Ronon could ask anything else.

He dropped the laptop he'd had with him on the room's desk and began shedding his damp clothes. One hot shower later, dressed in comfortable clothes rather than the things Margo had picked out, he slunk out of the bedroom to wait for a room service order of pizza and beer.

"What'd you do?" Ronon demanded.

"Ronon," Teyla said, before Ronon could ask anything else. She looked at Rodney, but he mulishly ignored both of them.

He'd begun getting angry again. Fine. He'd said something awful. Did John have to take off like some sulky brat? He could have stayed and fought it out with Rodney. They'd done it before...Not in front of cameras, admittedly, but the principle remained. He would never had said what he had if they'd ever actually talked out what happened during and after the Asuran attack on Atlantis. But that wasn't John's way. John preferred to stuff everything away and act like everything was all right, until eventually life settled back into some normal rhythm, or some new disaster pushed the last one out of their thoughts. John didn't deal with emotions very well. He had them, but talking about them seemed almost impossible for him.

Only sheer desperation ever pulled words about his feelings from John and then they were incomplete and nearly incoherent.

It could, at times, infuriate Rodney.

He wondered when the master of avoidance would finally come back to the hotel suite. John would come back though, if only for Teyla and Ronon, however angry Rodney had made him.

The pizza arrived with china plates, which vaguely disturbed Rodney. Tradition demanded cardboard, he felt, at least while they were on Earth. Atlantis' pizza was always served onto a tray like everything else in the mess and often included toppings for which there were no words. He tried to explain this to Teyla as she neatly cut away pieces of the extra mushroom, extra cheese, all meat extravaganza. The extra mushroom was for Teyla, who really liked them.

"But isn't this more pleasant to the eye?" she asked.

Rodney gave up.

They easily consumed the entire pizza between the three of them. Ronon had no problems with eating it the proper way with his hands, either.

Ronon didn't believe in stopping to talk while eating either, so that provided Rodney a small reprieve from any questions about John. It lasted through a second beer.

The weight of Teyla's expectant, compassionate gaze got to him of course. Then Ronon swiped Rodney's third slice off his plate – the last slice – and ate it in five bites. "You were letting it get cold," he said afterward.

Rodney broke under their combined interrogation technique.

"I may have said something injudicious," he said. 

"To John," Teyla clarified.

He picked at bit of melted cheese stuck to his otherwise empty plate.

"On camera."

"I see," Teyla said.

Rodney shook his head.

"I didn't mean it."

"Then John will understand."

"I sort of accused of him of, uh..." Rodney swallowed and told himself the burning sensation in his chest was indigestion. "I made it sound like he wanted Elizabeth to die," he blurted out fast. He jerked his chair back, anticipating Ronon making a grab for him.

Ronon just stared at him.

"I didn't mean it!"

"Oh, Rodney," Teyla said.

Rodney slumped down. "I was angry." He frowned at his beer bottle, turning the neck between his fingers nervously. "I don't even know why I was angry, but it just spilled out." He resisted the urge to fling the bottle at the suite's dining room's wall. "It's all Bregman's fault."

Ronon grunted, took another beer, and walked back to the living room. Teyla just looked at Rodney sadly until he wanted to squirm. He couldn't hold her gaze and stared at his empty plate instead. "One good thing, though. No more interviews for me, ever, according to Margo."

Teyla slid her chair back and stood. She walked around the table and then set her hand gently upon the crown of Rodney's head for a beat. She'd begun doing things like that after giving birth to Tanaan. Then she left him and joined Ronon in the living room.

Rodney finished his beer. A glance into the living room showed him Ronon on the cellphone Rodney had bought for him and since Ronon didn't exactly know a lot of people on Earth, Rodney assumed he was checking in with John. It made him feel better, enough that he realized he'd been suppressing a twinge of sick worry just because John was separated from the rest of the team on a strange planet. He watched Ronon finish the call and fold the cellphone closed. Ronon looked satisfied, which translated to John being fine.

Rodney ducked away and headed for his bedroom. The sooner he went to sleep, the sooner this horrible day would be in the past.

The bed was twice as big as his prescription mattress back in Atlantis, bigger than the bed he had in his Colorado Springs apartment, covered in huge, wonderful pillows made to be curled around, topped with a duvet as light and airy as the proverbial cloud. The sheets were smooth, fresh and no doubt sinfully expensive; Rodney fully intended on finding out what they were and taking some back to Atlantis.

After he brushed his teeth, Rodney stripped down to his boxers and got in the too big, too empty, too cold bed and shivered.

Eventually, he did drowse off, though, jolting awake periodically as some foreign sound of the city reached the room and, finally, well past midnight, to the settling of a weight on the edge of the bed.

He waited for John to pull away the blankets and get in bed beside him, but John only sat motionless.

Rodney rolled onto his side, toward John, and tried to make out more than a silhouette in the dark room. John's back was a long curve as he rested his forearms on his knees, with his neck bent and head sagging down under some invisible weight. Gravity tugged him toward John but it was his own choice to tentatively reach for him. John's back was warm through his shirt. He tensed beneath Rodney's open palm.

"I didn't mean it," Rodney told him, voice hoarse and low.

"Yeah," John said. A weary acceptance sounded in the word. Rodney wanted to insist, but he knew John well enough now to understand it would make no difference.

"Where'd you go?" he asked instead.

"Bar."

"Well, that was an innovative choice," Rodney said before he could think.

John chuffed out a laugh. "Imaginative, that's me." He sounded sad.

"Hmm."

He sniffed and caught a hint of beer and cigarettes, the scents no doubt caught in John's hair along with some awful perfume. The tension beneath his hand eased. Rodney began rubbing circles over the small of John's back, not pressing, just rhythmic, a settling touch.

"You don't sound drunk," he said.

"I'm not." John bent and took off his shoes, then pulled away and stood. He stretched. "I need a shower."

He padded toward the in-suite bathroom.

Flicking on the light made Rodney groan and bury his face in a pillow. Too bright and John hadn't closed the door behind him until afterward. John did things like that deliberately. He could be damned passive-aggressive. Rodney waited until he heard the door close before opening his eyes again and sitting up.

Keeping his eyes slitted, he flipped on the bedside light and waited through the sounds of John undressing, one surprising exclamation of shit and then the noise of the shower. The air in the bedroom felt cool on his bare chest and he shivered once. He wondered if they were going to have to talk about all the things they normally shoved aside or just left unspoken to make what he'd said right.

If so, he thought they might need to raid the in-suite bar. Rodney could never say the right thing and John was so inarticulate about feelings as to be able say nothing. It would require alcohol to loosen themselves up enough to have any kind of heart to heart.

The thought made Rodney wish for a world threatening emergency.

He even checked his SGC issued cellphone, hoping for a recall message.

Then he checked the clock. John didn't normally take long showers.

The door opened, releasing a wave of steam and the scent of soap and shampoo. Rodney squinted at John as he came out, towel wrapped low around his hips, water still beaded in his chest hair, hair spiky and still wet, jaw unshaved and dark. John fumbled for the switch and turned off the bathroom light, but not before Rodney spotted several shadows that had to be bruises.

Rodney opened his mouth to demand John tell him what he had done, then closed it. John wandered over to the other side of the bed and peeled back the sheets and blankets. He tossed the towel over a chair and crawled into the bed. The bedside lamp provided more than enough illumination to show the bruise turning purple under his right eye.

Rodney reached over and traced his hand in the air over the bruise.

"Ow."

"Caught me by surprise."

"Ronon's going to laugh at you."

The tightened lines at the corners of John's eyes and around his mouth gave away a headache and weariness. He looked at Rodney warily, then moved a little closer and leaned his head against Rodney's side. "Yeah," he breathed against Rodney's skin, make it prickle and warm.

"Are you okay?"

"Sure," came the laconic reply.

"Does the other guy look worse?"

"Nah, I got him in a headlock and marched him out the doors."

"So no police."

"No police."

Rodney chanced stroking his hand over John's shoulder. When John relaxed, he knew they were all right. John never lied in bed, gave up everything with his body that he could never speak in words.

"Ronon's the bar fight type, not you," he commented, implying the question rather than asking it, in case John didn't want to explain.

"Guy got bent out of shape when his girlfriend started hitting on me," John said, but he tensed again. Something more there, Rodney thought, and wondered if he'd ever know what.

"Hunh."

"Get the light?" John asked.

Rodney smoothed his hand over John's silky damp hair. The warm light of the bedside lamp made it shine and turned John's skin golden.

"Rodney," he whined.

"Fine."

He reached over, turned off the light, and wiggled back down into the bed, tugging the blankets up over John's shoulder.

John slung an arm over Rodney's waist and relaxed a little more.

Rodney thought that might be it, that they'd both go to sleep, but John surprised him.

"The guy."

John didn't say any more and Rodney considered prompting him, but sometimes John would, if let alone, come around and say something important. Rodney wasn't good at the patience thing, but he'd figured out he could fake it with silence sometimes. He rubbed John's shoulder to let him know he hadn't fallen asleep.

"Did you ever think I wasn't human?" John asked.

"Did I – what? You mean like when Lorne dreamed you were a replicator?" Rodney hummed to himself. "Actually, you – well, not you-you, but a duplicate you I suppose you could say, have been a replicator." He knew John hadn't meant that, of course. "I've often thought you're an idiot, but that's definitely a human trait."

"Because of the ATA."

Rodney frowned. "You don't – "

"No, not really," John replied hurriedly, "but the guy in the bar was bothered because of that more than the flirting."

Not really meant John had, at least briefly. Rodney pulled John closer.

He supposed that if they'd thought about it, they should have recognized that some percentage of the population would freak out over the possibility of having alien ancestors. Ancients in the woodpile. Ethnicity and skin color still formed the basis of prejudice, how much worse to really know aliens had mixed their blood with human for the fanatics out there. Thinking about it now, he knew it could potentially become very bad. So many human beings were absolute morons.

"Crap."

"Margo's going to shit a brick when she sees the shiner, isn't she?" John murmured.

"Don't worry about it," Rodney told him. "She's so pissed already, she canceled anything until after we testify. We've got a week at least."

"Good."

John tangled his feet between Rodney's and went nearly limp, falling asleep between one breath and the next. He had that knack, probably learned in the military, of dropping off when he could.

Rodney watched shadows dash and dart over the ceiling long afterward, already too rested to fall back asleep easily, turning over Bregman's questions and his own feelings, along with all the possibilities for good and bad that were opening up in the wake of disclosure. He listened to John breathe and hoped he was right, that they'd get back to Atlantis and everything would be all right again.

He wanted everything to be the way it was before. John would act like nothing had been said, of course, but the words would still be there in both their memories.

"I am sorry," he said into the darkness. "I'll – I'll do better. I promise."

20 May 2011
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Richard Woolsey died in March and Rodney found himself back at the SGC in May. John stayed in Atlantis. One of them had to. Ronon and Teyla remained behind as well.

The banality of Woolsey's death from a stroke, without warning or reason, haunted Rodney afterward. Keller swore the man had been as healthy as anyone in Atlantis.

Rodney took over the civilian aspects that Woolsey had handled and shared command with John. They'd done it before and fell back into the routine they'd established between losing Elizabeth and Carter's appointment. The IOA, fracturing under pressure from countries now aware of the program and Atlantis, couldn't settle on a new director and insisted on an in-person briefing on the state of Atlantis from Rodney.

He hadn't been offworld since coming back from Earth, swamped in paperwork, and regarded the blue ripple of the wormhole with a jaundiced eye. Bureaucracy had never been his strongest point. But it would be a break from doing Woolsey's job and continuing as head of science. The only break he or John had had in the period following that had been Bregman's arrival with his film crew.

John had convinced Ronon and Teyla to do interviews. Rodney had taken Bregman around the city himself.

"Take care of my city," Rodney told John as they headed down the gate room stairs.

"No blowing up anything without you," John promised with that lazy grin and a thumbs up.

Rodney huffed and then addressed Teyla. "Keep him out of trouble."

"Of course," Teyla replied.

She stepped forward and grasped Rodney's shoulders. He dipped his head to touch foreheads with her and held until she let go. "Want anything from Earth when I come back?"

"Just you, buddy," John murmured low enough no one but the three of them would hear.

"You don't need to worry, even if they do come up with a new director, I'll still be coming back."

"Well, in that case, make sure you get me a case of the good golf balls."

"Of course, I should have thought of that myself," Rodney muttered. He looked around. "Where's Ronon?"

"Here," Ronon declared, entering the gate room from the transporter on the level below the control room. He dropped Rodney's duffle on the floor. "What did you pack in there anyway?"

"Nothing breakable, I hope," John murmured.

Rodney sniffed. "Several ingots of the element from P– "

"Never mind," John said with a wave of his hand. "Go on, go show Earth we're still here."

"Right. Well. I will see you when I'm done. I'm not sure how long that will be. I might go see Jeannie if there's time," Rodney said. He hefted the duffle and started toward the wormhole. "I'll send updates with the regular databursts."

"Go on," John said. He clapped his hand on Rodney's shoulder and squeezed briefly, the most he could do in public.

"See ya," Ronon said and gave Rodney a light push, sending him through the event horizon before he could reply.

He stepped out onto the metal ramp up to the stargate in the SGC gate room. The SFs on watch nodded to him as the gate closed with a squelch. He looked up to the control room window and caught Harriman and Landry both watching. "Medical, I suppose?" he called out.

"Dr. Lam is waiting," Landry said over the intercom.

Rodney sighed and headed for his exam and forty-eight hours of wasted time. At least he'd have Internet access while he waited it out. He'd take the chance to work on the ZPM equations that had been bothering him since they succeeded in recharging. Zero point might be a misnomer, the assumption leading them in the wrong developmental direction.

He hoped Sam was on Earth. If not, he'd run the math by Jeannie.

They gave him a VIP room, which he found only right, though surprising. Sam and Mitchell stopped by, Mitchell grinning like a buffoon and hefting a stack of what Rodney thought were newspapers at first, but turned out to be tabloids.

"They'll either make you laugh or make you stroke out," Mitchell said.

"Cam," Sam remonstrated.

"Oh. Right. Whoops. Sorry about Woolsey."

Rodney grunted and flipped through the stack, noticing some were glossy mags and some were still printed on newspaper. Star, Grit, National Enquirer, People, Us, Globe, Weekly World News, Sun, Entertainment Weekly, Astrology Digest, Psychology Today, We.

Mitchell snatched one out and stuffed it into Rodney's hands, still grinning. The picture on the front showed SG-1 in sleeveless black tee shirts, glowering at the camera against a white background, the caption Masters of the Universe. "Cover of Rolling Stone," Mitchell declared gleefully.

"But you still can't play guitar," Rodney said with a snort, thinking of John's guitar, neglected until the strings had dust on them, even in Atlantis, where almost all dust and dirt was disposed of by the city's built-in cleaning equipment and programs. They'd learned to shut those off in the kitchens after the cleaning system sucked up all the flour and sugar more than once, in the second year, when they'd started running some tertiary systems.

He frowned at captions declaring The Ancient Conspiracy: They're Here, Asgard Relationship Tips: How to Stay in Love Without Sex, Samantha Carter's Secret Heartbreak, Goa'uld Larva Found in New York Sewers, Rodney McKay's Love Child Tells All.

"What!?" he squawked. "Love Child? I'll sue."

"That's not even the worst," Mitchell commented. "I'm apparently married to fourteen different women and I'm not talking about offworld ceremonies."

"This is insane," Rodney muttered as he flipped through more. The headlines, accompanied by terrible photos of Batheaded Boys and plastic children's' toys photoshopped into pictures with no regard to proportion or believability, had a hideous fascination.

Man Gives Birth to Iratus in Rio, How He Walked Again: Colonel Cameron Mitchell's Inspirational Story, Tattoo Monthly Features Ronon Dex, John Sheppard: Sexiest Man Alive, Chicago Parish Priest Ascends!, Playboy Flyboy Pwnz Pegasus Princess! He wondered if that one meant Mara, then saw the smaller picture of Teyla inset in the corner. Rodney snorted and set that one aside. He wanted to watch when Teyla kicked John's ass over it.

Lost Leader: The Elizabeth Weir Tragedy, SGC Black Widow Dates Mick Jagger, How to Lose Fifteen Pounds in Five Days: The Jaffa Diet, HIV History? Roche-Beyer Begins Clinical Trials of the Keller Cure, Is Nessie Really a Furling, Entire Town Disappears in Arizona – Aliens Did It, Walk Like An Egyptian – Dr. Jones Meet Dr. Jackson, Winter Fashion: Paris Goes Tok'Ra, Twenty-Seven Recipes to Make Your Meals Out of This World, George Clooney, Jessica Alba and Gene Hackman Signed For Wormhole Extreme Movie.

"God, these are ridiculous."

Mitchell nodded in agreement. "And those are just the ones at the supermarket checkouts. Wait until you see what's on the Internet."

"Or catch the nightly Alien Watch on TV," Sam added gloomily. "Everyone said it would peter out and they'd find someone else to follow around." She pointed at The Star. "Try getting a date when you're the 'Black Widow' of the SGC. I've never even heard of half the guys they say have dated me and died."

Rodney pushed the tabloids away and opened his laptop. "Never mind that crap. I need you to look at this."

Sam peered over his shoulder. "Oh. That's interesting. You think we should – "

"Yes. We've been hobbling ourselves trying to recreate everything the Ancients did the way they did it," Rodney said, feeling excited because she'd seen the same implication he had. "All we need to know is that they did it. If it's possible, we can do it too, and maybe do it better anyway."

"I can see you two are going to be busy, so I think I'll find Vala and get some supper," Mitchell said.

Sam waved him away. "Not now, Cam."

Rodney began typing. "See? Here. If we stop assuming that the only way is – "

"Then we have to – "

"Right. I want to get Jeannie in on this, too."

"Look, I think if we combine this with the Asgard equations on vacuum resonance then we're looking at an entirely different material specification." Sam sat down on the bed next to Rodney. The tabloids slid to the floor. "Not crystals."

"Not crystals," Rodney agreed. "Possibly a biological."

"Wow." Sam pushed a strand of hair back behind her ear and then pointed at a line of numbers. "That can't be right, though."

"Radek thinks so."

"No...Well, here, give me the laptop. It should be..."

Mitchell grabbed an apple out of the fruit basket near the door and headed out.

They made enough progress in the next twelve hours for Rodney to feel confident that the new angle of attack would yield a satisfactory method of building ZPM casings. Biologicals weren't reliable enough, too much variation, but neutered nanites could 'grow' casings molecule by molecule. Current math didn't encompass the complexities of a physical atomic structure that would achieve the level of energy containment they needed, but he could see the directions he needed to go.

He had to abandon any more work on the project once Medical cleared him for travel. The IOA was meeting in The Hague, which meant an interminable cross-Atlantic flight, security issues, and leaving all of his classified research locked up in an SGC lab. Three days of briefings left him convinced afterward that he'd be returning to Atlantis as unofficial interim director, since the US and China were at each other's throats again.

Rodney figured even the paperwork he'd still be stuck with would be better than if they sent Coolidge. He suspected Teyla or Ronon would arrange for Coolidge to be standing on the wrong side of the stargate when it opened if he ever came to Atlantis.

He thought the European media might be a little saner, but one glimpse of a magazine kiosk in the airport proved him wrong. The photoshopped picture of O'Neill kissing Teal'c was an offense to the eye and good taste. Rodney grimaced and kept moving, managing to catch his flight to Vancouver after assuring at least one customs agent that he hadn't brought any alien food stuffs from another galaxy and if he had it would never have made it out of the Mountain, much less to the Netherlands.

The food in first class made the mess hall offerings in Atlantis a fond memory. At least some of that was supposed to be purple. Rodney didn't want to think about what had to be done to Earth food to achieve that shade in anything that wasn't a beet.

Jeannie picked him up at the airport. She didn't say much until they were in the Prius, which Rodney put together with the tight set to her mouth to mean he'd pissed her off again.

He slumped down in the passenger seat as they made their way toward the suburbs, trying to calculate what time it would be in Atlantis and what John would be doing. The silence got to him though, niggling through his nearly paralyzing case of gate and jet lag, as they drove through streets lined by houses with neat yards filled with trees, lawns and flowers. Jeannie's hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel.

"Did you change your hair?" Rodney ventured. It seemed like a safe subject. The last time he'd seen Jeannie, her hair had been all curls not a harsh bun.

"I almost dyed it brown," she snapped. "And I'm wearing sunglasses.

Rodney blinked at her, feeling more confused than before. He hadn't really registered the large, dark sunglasses she'd had on, even in the airport.

"Why?"

"So no one would take a picture of me with you!"

Jeannie turned a glare at him.

"Keep your eyes on the road!" Rodney yelped, clutching at his seat belt. "This thing doesn't have an autopilot. My God, why don't cars have autopilots and anticollision shields yet?"

"Get a grip, Meredith," Jeannie said, but she relaxed a little, while turning her gaze back to the road.

"Why would you dye your hair?" Rodney asked.

Jeannie steered the car onto the street where she lived, then turned into the driveway of the Miller house.

"Because I don't want reporters following me or Madison or Kaleb around just because we happen to be related to you," she explained.

She put the Prius into park, switched off the key and turned to look at Rodney again. "I'm just glad I started using Kaleb's name when we got married, otherwise we would have had to change it."

Rodney stared at her.

"Why?"

"Because, according to Joseph Barnes, you're a race traitor," Jeannie said. "I should say, the Reverend Marshal Joseph Barnes, head of the Defenders of a Pure Humanity."

"I – What? Who? Is the world insane?" Rodney got out of the Prius, retrieved his bag, and followed Jeannie up the steps to her door. "What am I saying, of course, the world is crazy, but race traitor? What the, uh, heck, does that mean?" He peered around for the blond guided missile that masqueraded as his niece. "Where's Madison?"

"Piano lessons," Jeannie said.

She paused in the entry hall and took down her hair, shaking it loose.

"Piano," Rodney repeated. "Is she any good?"

"Mer, she's just starting. Kaleb and I have agreed it doesn't matter if Madison is good or not, as long as she's enjoying the learning process."

"Hmph. Have you checked out her teacher? Background checks are important. What qualifications does this person have? And equipment...Madison's hands are still small. She needs a keyboard sized for – "

"Meredith!"

Jeannie checked her watch. "I have to go pick her up. I didn't want to take you by the school, in case anyone recognized you."

"So now I'm something to be ashamed of?"

Jeannie opened and closed her mouth twice, then grabbed Rodney and squeezed him into a painful hug. "No, you idiot. I just don't want strangers bothering us while you're here."

He relaxed and hugged her back.

Jeannie pulled away and then thumped Rodney's arm with a fist. "You're such a jerk."

"I am not!"

"I have to go. Don't sic any private investigators on my child's piano teacher."

Rodney sniffed. "I'd get the NID to do it," he muttered.

"Well, don't," Jeannie said. "Or it will be tofu and bean curd and nothing else while you're here."

"Why did I want to visit you again?"

"Just take your stuff up to the guest room and relax."

"If I relax I'm going to go to sleep," Rodney muttered after she slipped back out the front door.

He took his bag up to the guest room that doubled as his when he visited, then washed up, before wandering back downstairs with his traveling laptop. None of his work was on it, but he used it to Google the Defenders of Pure Humanity.

A few minutes reading and Rodney began to wish he'd never heard of Joseph Barnes or the Pure.

According to the first article, while the world's religions had been dealing with the implications of Goa'uld masquerading as gods and debating whether aliens had souls since Disclosure Day, a significant portion of people had declared that inheriting the ATA meant alien ancestry and anyone with it wasn't human. Joseph Barnes, who had worked in a DNA lab as a technician, had led the movement, which continued gathering proponents. As far as Rodney could tell, Barnes' believers weren't restricted to the US, either.

Barnes wanted everyone in the US and then the world tested for the ATA. That wouldn't be easy, but didn't differ too much from what half the IOA had been talking about at The Hague. The IOA wanted to make the gene therapy mandatory for everyone at the SGC. China was already administering it to all of their military.

No one at the IOA had been talking about writing laws that made it illegal for anyone with the ATA to marry and have children with someone who didn't. Joseph Barnes was and making it sound...plausible.

Joseph Barnes had been born in Oklahoma City, son of a surgical nurse and the owner of a John Deere tractor sales lot. He'd served in the Army, married his high school sweetheart and been divorced three years later with no children, gone to community college, and went duck hunting every year. He was forty-seven years old, six-foot tall, and had a thatch of graying blond hair. He looked a little like a young Burt Lancaster and had a voice deeper than James Earl Jones. According to every article, Barnes was smart but unmotivated before Disclosure.

He used that, used it all, to present himself as rational, giving persuasive interviews rather than ranting, and people flocked to hear him speak.

Barnes had charisma.

Rodney had to turn off a clip of Barnes speaking at a Pure rally in Des Moines. He closed the laptop and bent over with his face in his hands, just breathing and trying to quiet his mind. The Defenders of Pure Humanity hadn't popped up overnight. But almost a year after disclosure, ten thousand people had attended one of their gatherings. Yet nothing about it had been in any of the databursts from the SGC.

The Defenders of Pure Humanity were raising money to develop a fast and dirty blood test for the ATA. In the US, they were lobbying for laws to restrict which jobs an ATA positive could hold. The news articles laughed at their aims, but Rodney couldn't get away from the realization that there were people who felt like that, who thought Carson Beckett was a monster for creating the gene therapy. Who were using science the way generation after generation of fanatics and zealots had used religion.

The only people the Pure disliked more than those born with the ATA were people who had taken the gene therapy. So that was what Jeannie had meant by 'race traitor'. Rodney wondered what they'd think if they knew a chunk of his DNA had been replaced with an Ancient version.

Nothing pleasant.

At least none of the SGC personnels' medical histories had been made available. Military or civilian. It looked like the Pure hated O'Neill and John about equally, but if it became public that John had traces of Iratus DNA still or Teyla's genetic heritage...The Pure would have a field day.

No wonder Jeannie didn't want anyone knowing her name, where she lived, or connecting her with Rodney or the Stargate Program. The odds were good she carried the same latent ATA complex that had allowed Carson's therapy to succeed with Rodney. Equally good that Madison was also a latent carrier or even an ATA positive if Kaleb possessed it.

The Pure hadn't resorted to violence yet, but that didn't reassure Rodney. He doubted it reassured Kaleb or Jeannie either.

Rodney rubbed his eyes. They were burning and achy after hours spent in the dry, pressurized air of an Airbus and an insistent headache throbbed at the back of his skull, product of the multitudes of pollen and chemicals his body was no longer used to being exposed to after years living in Atlantis' clean environment.

What else hadn't been making it to Atlantis that they needed to know about? He didn't even know who he could approach. Sam wasn't spending much time on Earth, Lee was a blithering idiot outside the lab, Mitchell might have some insight into the military, but once again spent his time focused on offworld missions, Landry was a bad joke, and that left...Jackson. Jackson's second specialty was anthropology; he'd probably been keeping track of what was going on and he still had an in with O'Neill at Homeworld. If anyone knew the real situation, it would be Jackson, and he'd be willing to talk to Rodney, too.

He still scanned everything he could, gathering a picture of the Pure and half dozen other movements that had sprung into life after Disclosure and were still growing. Mostly the religious right, dominated by the Fundamentalists who had united Judaism, Islam and Christianity in the face of revelations of Jackson and others' ascensions, but there were others. The ExoEco movement made Rodney choke and laugh. There weren't a half dozen races in the galaxy, aside from the Nox and the Salish, who gave even a tiny damn about what they did to the ecologies of the worlds they occupied. As for Pegasus, well...he'd like to introduce them to the Genii. Originists at least weren't actually worshipping the Ori, but trying to use the Path of Origin to achieve ascension. They seemed pretty harmless, as did the fringe groups idolizing the Ancients, the Asgard cultists, and the tinhats who swore Disclosure had been a giant hoax.

It was the Danielites, though, that made him laugh until his gut ached and he couldn't breathe. He couldn't wait to tell John. Jackson had his own religion. Oh, that was rich! He'd have to ask Jackson if coffee was the sacrament.

He was searching for the best piano he could buy for Madison when Jeannie arrived back with her, though, having decided he wouldn't bring anything up unless Jeannie or Kaleb did.

He set the laptop aside just in time catch Madison as she leaped into his lap. "What'd you bring me, Uncle Mer?" were her first words. Rodney pulled a toy from his coat and handed it over. He'd found it at the airport, but Madison didn't need to know that. She squealed over it, at least.

"You shouldn't have," Jeannie told him. "It only encourages her."

"I want her to like me," Rodney said. "I'm not above bribery, so...this seemed like the easiest way."

Jeannie gave him a jaundiced look. Rodney returned it.

"Besides," he told her, "this is my way of getting back at you for telling her to call me Uncle Mer."

"Meredith's your name," Jeannie replied.

"Jeannetta Stephanie."

She grimaced.

"So how was piano practice?" Rodney asked Madison.

"Great! I can show you," she replied. She caught Rodney's hand and tugged at it. "Come on. My keyboard's in my room."

Half way there, she proved she'd been listening before. "Is Mum's name really Jeanetta Stephanie?"

"Yes," Rodney told her. "It's actually Jeanetta Stephanie Ingram McKay...Miller. But you should probably only mention the first two."

"Okay."

Madison played for him, her lips pursed in concentration, blowing blond hair out of her eyes but never stumbling once and Rodney found himself holding his breath. Definitely a piano, he decided. She needed a real instrument that she could feel rather than the electronic keyboard. But even with it, her talent came through and something he realized he had had himself once, too: feeling. His teacher had been an idiot; he'd have to make sure whoever Jeannie had teaching Madison didn't stifle her. The piece she used wasn't complicated, but it didn't matter.

"Mum says you used to play."

Rodney flexed his fingers, wishing for a moment to retrieve when they'd moved over ivory keys with the certainty he reserved for a different keyboard now. "A long time ago," he told Madison. "You're going to be better than I ever could have been."

Dinner was easier without needing to talk around what he did and where and Kaleb managed to even ask questions that weren't completely stupid. Certainly no worse than the IOA had asked. Rodney talked a lot about John and Ronon and Teyla. Kaleb told him about the professor who had been forced out, despite tenure, when he wouldn't amend his syllabus to include the new science available since Disclosure.

"Insisted wormholes were an impossibility. The students started calling him Professor Flat Earth," Kaleb said.

"That wasn't Cranston, was it?" Rodney asked idly.

Kaleb nodded.

"His syllabus was out of date twenty years ago," Rodney said.

But Cranston wasn't the only one out of a job because of the changes brought on by Disclosure. Three ZPMs were lighting up most of North America. Seven different nuclear power plants had been shut down. Cheap, clean power apparently came with a price.

He stayed a week and ordered the piano on the last day, to be delivered after he left for Colorado, after spending a day determining which would be best for Madison and actually fit in the Miller house. He wasn't foolish enough to present them with a grand piano, though he imagined the day Madison would play one would come.

It turned out there were benefits to being the least attractive member of his team and Margo's cutting him off from on-camera interviews before. Very few people recognized him, not even in the supermarket when he stocked up on Doritos and bean dip and found himself staring in horror at a copy of the National Enquirer that had a picture of him kissing what was supposed, he thought, to be a whale, captioned Forbidden Desires of the Stargate.

"That's just wrong," he muttered to himself and was glad John wasn't there to laugh at it and him.

He doubted even John would have laughed at the insanity  that over took Denver International Airport on the day Rodney flew into Concourse A. He disliked DIA anyway; the ridiculous white tension fabric roof with its tented peaks reminded him of whipped meringue and the murals were freaky.

A special variety of loony had congregated at the airport this time, drawn by conspiracy theories that the world was ending in 2012, or something like that, Rodney couldn't make sense of the shouting, but they believed a secret base was built under the airport and were demanding entrance. He caught sight of a banner proclaiming Escape the Fifth Sun and realized he did not want anyone to recognize him and gave up on catching a connecting flight to Colorado Springs. Getting out of the Great Hall, the airport and Denver became his only goal.

The twenty-five mile drive into Denver left him sweating and swearing. Either side of the road held crowds of Fundamentalists demonstrating against Danielites, who were gathered under the impression Jackson would be arriving sometime that day. They mostly shouted and shook their signs at each other, but at one point the Fundies poured across the pavement in a tide of bodies, attacking the Danielites in a riot that swept up cars trying to drive through and left them toppled and or nose down in the ditches, and in one case, burning. Helicopters swarmed overhead, loudspeakers blaring, and Rodney wondered what would happen if someone saw his face and knew it. When the worst of the violence had drifted off the road he inched his rented hybrid forward until clear tarmac let him hit the gas.

"Never again," he swore to himself as he came up on a road block. "Never. This is what transport beams are for. I've saved the damned planet at least once."

Twenty-minutes later, he handed over his ID to an officer. By then he'd already sketched out a global satellite array that would coordinate beaming from set locations and spot transports using transmitter/credit cards that could be carried in a wallet. Beaming from country to country could be handled with customs hubs.

The police officer looked at the SGC identification and then at Rodney. "You headed for Alien Row?"

"I'm headed for Colorado Springs," Rodney replied. "What the hell is Alien Row?"

"They're setting up embassies for the aliens here," the cop said. He handed the ID back. "I figured if you worked at the Mountain..."

"Perfect," Rodney muttered as he shoved his wallet back into his jacket. "I work in another galaxy. No one mentioned Earth had gone insane while I was gone."

The cop smiled cynically. "Seems about the same as always to me, sir."

Rodney snorted. "Sadly, I believe you're right."

He didn't forget the global transport idea though. It would require a ZPM to run efficiently, but it could be done with a network of Mark VII naquadria generators. He'd seen the specs in the last databurst. If the SGC would share profits, enough venture capitol could be brought in to build it without any government funds involved. He even knew the people to contact.

He spent the night at his apartment, sniffing at musty sheets and checking the use by dates on the canned goods still in his cupboards. Chef Boyardee out of can seemed preferable to dragging himself out to a restaurant or even a fast food drive through.

The Mountain waited the next morning. Sam was offworld again. Rodney spent twenty minutes getting cleared to go down to the lab level, retrieved his laptop with his real work on it from the safe, then had to lock it up again before going to the mess hall on Level 22 to buy coffee and pastries. Running his credit card through the reader, he felt peeved all over again. The SGC made all civilians pay for any meals they took in the mess halls. He didn't understand exactly how it worked for the military, only that as an officer, John paid and received some kind of meal allotment in his pay, while the enlisted people operated on another format. Rodney didn't actually care, he just felt he shouldn't have to pay for the food since working in the Mountain meant he couldn't go get something and security discouraged routinely bringing foodstuffs in or much of anything else.

He supposed they were afraid someone would smuggle in a bomb disguised as a corned beef on rye.

Kavanagh was in the lab when Rodney arrived back, defiantly carrying two muffins and a ham sandwich with him. He manfully resisted the urge to ask if Kavanagh had self-destructed any more multi-billion dollar installations lately, retrieved his laptop again feeling relieved that it hadn't been out where Kavanagh could try to sneak a look at Rodney's work, and began accessing the portions of the Asgard database that might be useful. Kavanagh glared at him and muttered, but stayed on the other side of the lab. Rodney considered that the next thing to a best case scenario.

The itchy feeling of being stared at finally became too much, though.

"What?" Rodney snapped at him. "Why are you even still employed by the SGC, anyway?"

Kavanagh looked sickeningly smug. "They're afraid I'll sue. Even if I lost, the publicity would hurt their precious noble alien allies spin, not to mention all the other dirt I have on the Atlantis expedition."

Rodney gazed at him until Kavanagh blinked first.

"The phrase sour grapes springs to mind," he said at last.

"Well, I wouldn't want to be you," Kavanagh taunted.

"If you weren't too lazy to use the brain you have, you might actually approach Lee's level. Not mine or Sam's or Zelenka's, but still, you could have an impressive body of work," Rodney told him. "If you'd actually work, instead of complaining about the people that do." 

He bent back over his laptop ostentatiously.

"No, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes, or even Carter's," Kavanagh said. Then, sounding much more serious, he added, "You should see this."

"See what?" Rodney asked. Irritated, he left his lab bench and stalked over to Kavanagh's. He bent and read the screen Kavanagh had on display. "Pure People dot com? What the..."

The screen held two lists, with several familiar names topping them. Under Impure the site listed General Jonathan O'Neill and Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, followed by others who had become known to the press as ATA positives. Lorne's name was there, along with Carson's. Next to the impure, a second column listed more names: the Tainted. At the very top, Dr. M. Rodney McKay, the recipient of the ATA gene therapy.

Some of the names had addresses appended to them.

Not his, he noted gratefully.

"Where the hell do they get this information?" Rodney demanded.

Kavanagh shrugged. "You'd be surprised how many Pure sympathizers there are in the government. Even the SGC." He smirked at Rodney. "Of course, some of them just don't like Sheppard."

"Well thanks so much for the completely useless heads up," Rodney told him and went back to his own side of the lab.

Deprived of whatever scene he'd hoped to provoke, Kavanagh futzed over his own work for half an hour, then left. Rodney kept working, only vaguely noting the shiver through the concrete that heralded an incoming wormhole. No klaxons or lights cycling red accompanied it, so he assumed it was a scheduled return or check in.

Sam found him still bent over his equations late in the evening. He'd found a stash of granola bars in someone's desk and the lab coffee maker. With those, he'd been able to forgo leaving for any meals. If he was going to be stuck at the Mountain for another three days, he saw no reason not to take advantage. It really would have made more sense to copy the Asgard datacore to Atlantis, but the SGC still didn't have anything efficient enough to contain everything Thor had left for the Tau'ri before the Asgard succumbed.

"McKay," she said.

"What?"

"You need to go home and get some sleep."

He snorted. "I've only been here since six. You know I've worked much longer than that."

"When you had to," Sam pointed out. "This isn't an emergency."

"There's nothing else for me to do here," he complained. "I don't understand why I haven't been sent back to Atlantis by now. You know how many things can go wrong in three days?"

"Rodney."

He looked up at the stern tone of her voice. She had been his boss for some time, after all. "What?" He narrowed his eyes at her amused expression.

"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard and your team are coming back from Atlantis tomorrow."

"What? What's wrong? What's going on?" Rodney demanded.

"Nothing's wrong," Sam told him. "The Air Force is promoting John to full colonel."

Rodney slumped down in his chair in relief. Then he frowned. "Doesn't he need to be, I don't know," he waved his hand loosely, "a not full colonel for more years or something? Time in grade? He told me once, but I wasn't listening."

"Yes, but he has the minimum twenty years of service," Sam agreed, "and the President is awarding him a medal. And you too."

"Really?"

"You're not supposed to know, so act surprised when Landry calls you in tomorrow," Sam said. "The Air Force has decided to bend the rules to please the President in the hopes they'll retain control of the program and promoting John to colonel is an easy concession, since he's already doing the duties of one."

"I suppose I'll have to wear a suit again," Rodney muttered.

"It might be a good idea." Sam patted his shoulder. "The Prometheus III is going to beam us all to the White House for the ceremony, three days from now."

"Thank God for that," he said. "I'm never stepping foot in another airport so long as I live. Which reminds me. I want you to look at this proposal I've worked out. I think we're all going to be very rich."

2012
the man comes round

1 June 2012
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

John tugged the herringbone tie currently strangling him loose. He preferred it to the bow tie of the mess dress uniform, but only just. God, what a surreal day it had turned out to be. Though he had to give the IOA and the SGC credit for a canny plan, choosing the first anniversary of Disclosure Day to make their announcements and distracting the media with award and promotion ceremonies.

The morning databurst from Earth three days before had included a video feed from the SGC: Landry frowning at John and telling him that he, Ronon and Teyla were to report to the SGC immediately after the end of their transmission. "You'll be briefed after you arrive."

All John could think was that something had happened to Rodney. Landry terminated the connection before he could ask, though.

Forty-eight hours of quarantine later, he still hadn't had a clue what the SGC had brought them to Earth for, though he did at least know Rodney was all right and possibly plotting the economic takeover of the planet along with Carter. There had been a confusing conversation over the intercom involving the Asgard and Rodney declaring, "You have money. I need it. I'm going to put the airlines out of business," making John wonder if Rodney had been reading Spider Robinson again.

He took advantage of the break from Atlantis and slept a lot.

Margo had arrived that morning, along with an assistant, a tailor and a seamstress to put the finishing touches on the outfits she also brought: dress uniform for John, Vera Wang for Teyla, an Italian suit for Ronon. She handed John the credit card he'd left with her during the previous Earthside visit.

"Armani?" John asked her with a nod toward Ronon.

Margo smiled with a touch of real humor. "You have the money and they have the looks. Why not?"

"Mmm. McKay?" he asked. Margo and McKay were white phosphorus and oxygen. He imagined she might have dressed him in a clown suit.

"I made the same arrangements for him. He won't embarrass you."

John opened his mouth to deny that Rodney would ever embarrass him, but couldn't. Rodney had, sometimes still did, and probably always would on occasion. It didn't matter, because he was worth it.

Margo opened her bag and brought out a set of keys and small folder.

"You'll want to change the alarm code, but everything's there: electricity, Internet, security, furniture," she said. "The SUV's in the garage, the keys are in it. You'll have to find a cleaning service, but the kitchen's stocked."

John hefted the keys. "Where is it?" He hadn't thought much about asking Margo to arrange a place for him to live that had room to put up the rest of the team if they were on Earth after heading back to Atlantis. Apparently, she had done it, though.

"The address is in there with the paperwork. It's one of the better neighborhoods."

John flipped open the folder and lifted both eyebrows at the address. Better neighborhoods translated as most expensive in Margo speak. She was right though, he could afford it and he preferred a place that hadn't been arranged through or paid for by the SGC.

"Okay, thanks."

Margo reached up and straightened his tie, tightening it as Rodney barged into the VIP suite. John saw him come to a stop from the corner of one eye.

"Are you ready?" was all Rodney asked, though.

John stepped away from Margo, Margo checked her watch, and the moment faded. "I deeply dislike these shoes," Teyla complained as they joined SG-1, all also in dress uniform or the civilian equivalent. Teal'c cut quite a figure in a suit; someone had spent more than the minimum for both him and Vala.

"They're good for driving into feet," Vala commented.

"They are meant to cripple anyone wearing them," Teyla replied.

General Landry was in dress uniform too as his aide waved them into the office.

"Ladies, gentlemen," he said. "In case you hadn't noticed, today is the first anniversary of Disclosure Day. To celebrate that and honor your service, you are to attend an award ceremony at the White House. Several important announcements will be made regarding the future of the Stargate Program, after which the President herself will present each of you with a token of our country's esteem." He smiled. "I could tell you what that will be, but I believe the President wishes to surprise you."

"Today, sir?" Mitchell asked. "We're kind of in the wrong spot – "

An Asgard beam swept over them in a flare of white that resolved everyone in the office, including Margo and Landry's aide, onto a dais in the White House Rose Garden.

" – or not," Mitchell finished.

John recognized the General of the Air Force, along with the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Speaker of the House, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a half dozen others including Coolidge from the IOA, and finally General O'Neill. O'Neill's vaguely sour expression might have related to his relegation to the brass side of the divide or just dislike of ceremony entirely. Then he and the others were directed to join O'Neill and the day went from mysterious and worrisome to surreal.

Cameras recorded the entire thing and he knew he would have to watch it one day, since his own memory was a blur. He would always remember the slight but straight figure of President Abigail Farnham placing her hands on Teyla's shoulders and bowing her head to meet Teyla's or the way Teal'c bowed deeply to let the President place the ribbon holding the US's highest honor around his neck. He didn't remember what he said to the President, only her amused advice as she patted his medals. "Don't faint, Colonel," she said as she unpinned his silver oak leaves and replaced them with silver eagles.

He caught a glimpse of Rodney and Carter smirking at each other.

O'Neill received a third star.

The President addressed the press corps afterward. "Today is the anniversary of a momentous day for our planet. It seemed most proper to honor these men and women who have safeguarded not just the people of the United States, but the population of the entire globe, today with these tokens of the gratitude of our nation. In a few moments, they will leave here to attend several more ceremonies around the globe. I believe Dr. McKay's nation wishes to honor him in particular." She smiled and Rodney straightened up, eyes going round. "And that is proper too, as the United States has not operated the Stargate Program alone and only the contributions of many others have made our successes possible."

Abigail Farnham straightened.

"Today is also the proper day to tell you all that a new organization will assume control of the Stargate Program in the next year. The United Nations of Earth Council will operate all stargate and space force missions, supported and funded by the nations of the globe, drawing its personnel as well from all over the world. It will act as a diplomatic entity in the Milky Way and Pegasus Galaxies and anywhere else the Tau'ri venture, speaking for all of Earth."

"Oh, boy," John heard Mitchell mutter under his breath and agreed as the press exploded into questions.

An hour later, the Governor General of Canada made Rodney a Companion of the Order of Canada, followed by awards to Teyla, Teal'c, Ronon and Vala, and a fulsome speech acknowledging John and the other US military.

John had never seen Rodney rendered speechless by something other than terror.

Jeannie and Kaleb were there for the Canadian ceremony. John managed a moment alone with them. Or rather, Jeannie managed one with him, leaning close and hissing, "Tell my brother that if he ever has a piano delivered to my house again I will strangle him with its wire."

John managed a confused and less than intelligent, "Uh. Sure."

Jeannie laughed at him.

"He gave Madison a piano."

From Canada, they were beamed to Japan, then China, Russia, and west to France and the UK. John lost track of the time, the awards, and everything but his teammates, blinded by camera lights and only half listening to the translators as they stood on podium after podium. There were parties filled with people who wanted to congratulate him, question him, sparkling crystal, bubbling champagne, plates of canapés that would be too expensive even on a planet where more and more people weren't starving to death, women in glittering jewels and formal dresses, a whirl of dances to the tinkle of classical music the same no matter which country they were in, speeches, speeches, speeches. Then a flash of white and they would be beamed to the next reception, crisscrossing the globe, until the voices and faces and places blurred into a bright kaleidoscope.

The final ceremonies were held in Egypt, fireworks bright in the night sky above Giza, and Jackson addressed the crowd in their own language, translators murmuring a beat after his words in English and French.

"If Greece is the birthplace of modern democracy, then here where our ancestors rose up against the Goa'uld and drove Ra from our planet is where we were all freed..."

According to his watch, it was three am in Mountain time, though, when John found Margo and asked, "When can we get the hell out of here?" He was tired of fielding questions about the UNE, the Wraith, Pegasus, and from one Indonesian businessman how much he'd paid for Teyla.

Margo checked her watch, then opened her cellphone and spoke to someone. "Anything else? No? Good, my charges are starting to look a little frazzled."

John figured that meant him. He'd ducked into a washroom at one point with an electric shaver provided by Margo and done something about his five o'clock shadow, but his uniform was losing some of the crispness necessary to present a proper Air Force appearance.

"Where do you want to go?" Margo asked. "I believe you have some kind of three day leave coming."

"Back to the Springs," John said. "I'll get Teyla and Ronon and Rodney."

The Prometheus III beamed them from Egypt to Rodney's apartment in Colorado Springs. The sudden darkness of the closed apartment and its near silence left all four of them blinking, until Rodney clapped his hands, turning on a light next to his sofa.

John suppressed a grin. Of course, Rodney had a clapper.

Ronon grunted and began taking off the ribbons and medals around his neck. He was grumbling in Satedan, a sure sign he disliked something that he knew John wouldn't agree on.

Teyla dropped onto the sofa as ungracefully as John had ever witnessed her. She reached down and took off first one and then the other shoe, then held them up by the backs before her critical gaze, pinched between finger and thumb the way she would have held something disgusting.

Rodney was fingering his award, still looking dazed and amazed.

Teyla dropped the shoes with sharp thump. "I will destroy them in the morning," she announced. She hiked up her skirt enough to free her thighs, then bent one leg and examined her heel. "I have blisters."

"What?" Rodney exclaimed. Teyla extended and rotated her leg, allowing Rodney to examine the blister at the back of her heel. "Ow. I have a first aid kit in the bathroom. Just stay there." He hurried out to fetch what was no doubt the granddaddy of all first aid kits.

John looked at Teyla's heel and winced. "Ouch."

"Stupid," Ronon said.

Teyla pulled off the earrings Margo had provided and massaged her earlobes. John peered at her. "Did you get your ears pierced?" he asked, a little puzzled.

"No," Teyla replied.

She held up one of the earrings and he saw that it had a screw thing on the back that looked like a torture implement. The earring and its mate was dropped rather emphatically onto a pile of physics journals on the side table.

"Horrible things."

Rodney came back with a first aid kit the size of a trunk. "Let me – "

"I can do it myself, Rodney," Teyla told him.

With a sigh, Rodney opened the kit and backed off. Ronon headed into the kitchen. He flicked on a light. John heard him opening cupboards and then water running into a glass at the sink.

He took a deep breath, realized his tie was still snugged to his collar and pulled it loose.

Ronon wandered back out into the living room, carrying a tall glass of water. "Where're we going to sleep?"

Rodney blinked at him. "My bed isn't big enough for all of us," he said.

John felt a stab of disappointment. If they took Ronon and Teyla back to the Mountain, he'd have to go too. It would look too questionable if he stayed with Rodney without them.

Ronon glanced at him and laughed. "Just kidding. I'll sleep on the floor. Teyla can have the couch."

John relaxed a little. "You sure?"

"It's a good couch," Rodney assured Teyla. "I've fallen asleep on it plenty of times...Ah, you might want to check for a corn chip bag under the cushions, though."

Ronon gave John's shoulder a push toward the hallway back to the bedroom. "Go," he said. "I want waffles in the morning, though, if you two get loud."

Rodney flushed bright red, his gaze flickering to John's face and away, and John felt the tips of his own ears heat. They never fooled around on offworld missions and Atlantis had excellent sound proofing, so Ronon had no way of knowing whether he and Rodney were usually loud or not. He was just kidding. It still made John squirm inside a little that he and Teyla knew what he and Rodney did together. The sense of shame over what he wanted still lingered sometimes, something he could not rid himself of no matter what he consciously believed.

Hiding it didn't help, either.

Ronon pushed his shoulder again and John stumbled forward a step, then straightened and made himself walk forward without hesitation.

"C'mon, Rodney," he said and his voice didn't crack.

"Good night, John," Teyla called. "Good night, Rodney."

"G'night," Rodney mumbled.

John felt the heat from Rodney's body just a step behind him as he reached the hallway and suddenly his body filled with anticipation, warmth gathering in his belly, his fingers tingling with the prospect of undressing Rodney and relearning his skin. He lengthened his stride and pulled the bedroom door open.

"C'mon, c'mon," he muttered, reaching back for Rodney's wrist and pulling him inside. "I want you right now."

Rodney might have said good, but John couldn't tell, busy kissing him and pushing him back to his bed with the prescription orthopedic mattress and unmade sheets.

2 June 2012
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

John took them by his new condo after the requisite stop at International House of Pancakes to pay Ronon back for a night spent on Rodney's floor, which still beat out a cave in Pegasus Rodney pointed out. None of them managed to enjoy their food. After the waitress recognized them, half the patrons of the IHOP wanted autographs and even the cook came out, insisting on shaking their hands. The manager showed up about the time John was paying for their meal, half-eaten and gone cold, and insisted it was on the house. Annoyed, John didn't bother arguing.

By that time, people were arriving just to gawk, called by customers already inside.

They made their escape through the back door.

The condo either reflected Margo's taste or what she thought would make John look good. Black leather, track lighting, stainless steel, and shining hardwood floors, with every technological gadget available, including a HD plasma screen that took up an entire wall.

Rodney sniggered. "It's the bachelor's pad to out do every other one in the history of single colonels," he crowed.

Ronon headed for the kitchen and opened the stainless steel refrigerator. "You've got food. And beer."

"We should order pizza," Rodney declared.

Teyla kicked off her shoes again and wandered through the rooms. When she'd finished her inspection, she returned to the living room and raised her eyebrows at John.

"What?" he said defensively.

"It resembles the hallucination you shared with me on M5S-224," she told him with a wicked smile.

John narrowed his eyes at her. "You didn't complain about the high heels then, I remember."

Teyla cocked her head in consideration. "I believe that is because neither you nor the mist people were aware of their discomfort. It was your hallucination, after all."

His hallucination, complete with dead comrades, old school teachers, and girls who wouldn't date him. John resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He had to admit the aliens had pulled the idea of it from his memories, but that hadn't meant he'd ever lived some place like that.

Rodney already had his phone out and was calling in a pizza order.

"We've got three days until Margo shoves us out onto the interview tour according to Sam," he said. He caught John's hand and they ended up on one of the massive couches, John leaning into Rodney, Teyla tucked against his side with her legs stretched out, and Ronon sprawling all over the other couch.

"It's good," Ronon declared. The couch extended a foot beyond his feet.

They ate pizza, drank beer, and watched movies Rodney downloaded. John carefully didn't ask whether they were legal downloads or not. He just sat back, thankful for anything that let them ignore the blitz of news channels and infotainment shows focusing on their team and SG-1.

"You should bring Tanaan here," John said.

He waved toward the four bedrooms. "There's room for him."

Teyla looked thoughtful.

"Perhaps, if we are to remain here for some time," she ventured. "I do miss him and though Atlantis is lovely, Earth is remarkable as well. There is nowhere in Pegasus where he could encounter a world so filled with people and technology both."

"You'll probably want to send him to school here," Rodney said.

Teyla gave him a very neutral look, the one John knew meant she was not saying something.

"Perhaps."

"Worlds are going to start building up again with the Wraith gone," Ronon remarked.

Rodney wiggled deeper into the cushiony couch, causing John to slide down too, so that he ended with his head resting on Rodney's chest. Touching Rodney in front of Teyla and Ronon, showing this part of themselves to them, had made him stiffen up for the first half hour, but then it had suddenly become wonderfully easy. Easy enough a little part of him ached that they wouldn't be able to do the same anywhere else, not even Atlantis. He listened to Rodney's heartbeat beneath his ear and decided to take what he could get.

"It'll be fast too," Rodney agreed. "No one will have to waste time convincing others something is even possible. They'll just go to work and build it."

John smiled at the way Rodney's words rumbled in his chest when he spoke.

"Of course, that's true here now too," Rodney went on. "The possibilities are amazing." He patted John's head. "Did you know I'm going to make you all rich?"

"I consider myself rich already," Teyla said. "I have my life, my child, my family and friends. I have seen the defeat of the Wraith. It is much, much more than I once imagined."

Rodney remained quiet for a long moment. "I know."

John patted his knee. "Money's nice too."

"Things," Ronon dismissed.

"Like that custom couch you're almost making love to," Rodney pointed out.

John turned his head and caught Ronon snatching his hand away from where he'd obviously been petting the leather. "Some good things," Ronon admitted, sheepishly, and Teyla laughed long and delightedly, Rodney and John joining her.

Day two of leave, John and Rodney went back to Rodney's apartment and left Teyla and Ronon at the condo. Despite the size of the king bed in the master bedroom, Rodney preferred his cramped and ratty apartment.

"I know where everything is there, like the lube and condoms, which this place distinctly lacks," he insisted. "Besides, I keep imagining Margo popping in."

"You think everybody wants in my pants," John pointed out, leaning back against the black marble counter in the kitchen.

Rodney eyed him, but said, "Actually, I'm pretty sure she wants in your bank account."

"Is that all?"

"You know she decorated it to compliment her looks."

"You're actually wasting brain cells on my condo's decor?" John asked in amusement.

Rodney looked shifty. "I don't feel comfortable here."

"It's just new," John said. The condo was cold, but it hadn't been lived in. Besides, it wasn't Atlantis. Nothing was going to feel completely right after Atlantis. "Fine, we'll go to your place."

"Good. I want you to fuck me."

John sucked in a harsh breath, his whole body tightening with want. "Christ, Rodney," he rasped out. They almost never did that in Atlantis. Condoms and lube were hard to get and the medical exams before and after each mission were unpleasantly thorough. Enemas tended to make John cramp and Rodney couldn't get past the eww factor so there had to be condoms, but even then, John didn't enjoy the soreness the next day, because he wasn't about to ask Ronon or Teyla to go easy on him because his ass hurt. And Rodney just didn't do anything that John wasn't willing to reciprocate. They got along pretty well without anal sex, but once in a while...He wanted inside Rodney so bad his breath sawed out in a wheeze. "Jesus. Let's go."

Rodney had the gall to laugh at him.

They headed for the door. John yelled, "Hey, we're going back to Rodney's for the rest of the day. Just hang out here, unless you want to head back to the Mountain. Call if you're going to do that."

He did his best to fuck Rodney right through his damned prescription mattress.

Day three, Margo did pop in, though she called first. She had wardrobes for all of them and an itinerary that made John wince.

"I'd leave you out of it if only I could," Margo told Rodney.

"I'd leave you outside an airlock if only I could," Rodney replied.

Teyla looked at the shoes Margo had brought for her. "No."

"What do you mean, no?" Margo demanded.

"No," Teyla replied. "As Rodney could explain, it is a simple negative conveying my refusal to torture my feet again. I will not wear these or the ear jewelry."

"You have to – "

Teyla looked at Margo. "I do not."

Margo swallowed. "Oh, fine. We'll have to find something that doesn't make the outfits look ridiculous. Thank God, most of the interviews will have the cameras focused on your face. Well? Come on, we have to shop." She glanced at her watch. "I don't know why you have be so uncooperative. Mal Doran doesn't give Harry this much trouble."

Teyla smiled a tight, unfriendly smile at her. "No doubt."

"Ronon, you want to go with them?" John asked.

Ronon lifted an eyebrow at him. "No."

"Ronon," Teyla said.

"I remember New York," he said simply.

"You're getting soft, Ronon Dex," Teyla told him and left with Margo.

"You know what's frightening?" Rodney remarked after they'd gone.

John retrieved the remote from Ronon and found a college football game. "No, what?"

"What if those two ever join forces?"

"Never happen," John said, but he shuddered at the potential for evil embodied by an alliance between Margo and Teyla.

6 June 2012
Milky Way
Earth, Los Angeles

Vala adored LA. No surprise there for anyone who knew her. In contrast, Teyla took one look at the city's smog tainted expanse and declared it, "Obscene." No amount of subtle or even blatant questioning elicited why New York was acceptable and Los Angeles was not.

SG-1 were more familiar with the publicity round than John's team. The SGC trotted them out like any other dog-and-pony show between offworld missions, with the exception of O'Neill, who even without the third star, had been too high ranking to be pushed into anything he didn't want. Everyone agreed he was too cranky and sarcastic to make a good impression on the public at large anyway.

John took one look at the set up for the combined team interview they were to do with a gathering of journalists and groaned.

"It looks like a presidential debate," Mitchell commented.

"Or one of those town hall meetings," John agreed.

Daniel began telling them the history of town hall meetings, but even he fell silent when the make-up people arrived. Then they were ushered out onto the stage and the blond they'd first met months ago was addressing the camera's red light. "Hello, I'm Julia Donovan of Inside Access and I'll be moderating tonight. You all know the members of SG-1 and AR-1 by now, at least on the surface. I hope before we're done here, we'll all know them a little better."

They were all seated in extra high director's chairs. Vala, who was wearing high boots and a much shorter than regulation skirt, was swinging her legs and looking around, obviously bored already. Ronon looked ready to go to sleep, an illusion John knew could dissolve in a whirlwind of action in the face of any threat.

Teyla had succeeded against Margo. No surprise there. She sat next to John in a pants suit and low-heeled boots, leaning slightly to the side to speak past Mitchell in a low voice to Teal'c. Rodney was scowling because he hadn't been allowed to bring even a tablet out onto the stage with him. John caught his gaze and mouthed Try to be polite.

Rodney hitched his chin up.

The questions came fast, but Donovan kept moving from reporter to reporter, moving the focus from one of them to the next smoothly, so that no one was hammered for too long. John almost relaxed.

One of the network reporters asked, "No one's told us much about the UNE. How will it affect you and the Stargate Program?"

"Ooh, good one," Vala exclaimed. She grinned at John, Carter and Mitchell. "No one tells me anything either."

"That's because we don't want to ruin the surprise," Mitchell told her.

Vala pouted.

John looked at Carter. Carter pursed her lips. Mitchell gave out a dramatic sigh. "Fine, I'll field this one."

"You are in charge, " Carter told him sweetly.

Mitchell smiled at the reporter and the camera equally, all corn-fed Kansas earnestness. "The truth is, we really don't know much more than you what the UNE will do. Keep running the Stargate Program, but maybe restructure it. The Air Force and the Marines have supplied personnel and equipment since the beginning, including the base where the Stargate is secured. Maybe that'll change. Most I can say is I'm going to be part of it as long as I can. Ain't nothing that beats going through the stargate."

He glanced at John. "Unless you're Sheppard over there and get to pilot a city through hyperspace."

Donovan turned to John. "What is that like, Colonel Sheppard?"

John grinned at Mitchell. "Amazing. Exhausting." He added a smirk meant for Rodney and Carter. "Landing's the hard part."

The guy from CNN, John had already forgotten his name, asked, "My question is for Mr. Dex and Ms. Emmagan. Will you continue consulting with the Program if Colonel Sheppard is reassigned as a product of the UNE's changes?"

John sat up straight and saw Rodney lean forward, both of them intent.

Teyla answered first. "I believe I would continue consulting, but not as a member of a field team." She smiled beautifully. "I am spoilt, you see, by working with John and Rodney. Atlantis has become my home, as well, so I would wish to continue working there."

"Mr. Dex?"

Ronon's shoulders rolled in a heavy shrug. "I could work with Lorne, if I had to." He glanced at John. "I wouldn't walk out on Atlantis if Sheppard got killed. There'd still be the rest of the team." John read the quiet message in Ronon's eyes, though: Ronon could work with Lorne, but he wouldn't for long and only for Rodney and Teyla's sakes. "Wouldn't like it much, though."

"It's hard integrating into a new team after years of working together," Carter commented. "We've all been on missions with other teams or as supernumeraries where one of us had a specific skill necessary while the rest of our team stayed behind, though. We're all pretty adaptable at the SGC."

Another reporter stood up.

"Norton Glenn here, World Watch Weekly." He had a tape recorder in one hand, an eroding hairline, and something fervent in his expression and tone. "Ms. Emmagan mentions Atlantis as her home. But she's actually from Athos, isn't it?"

"Yes," Teyla replied.

"Where the people had been reduced to a primitive, nomadic way of life before the arrival of the Atlantis Expedition in Pegasus."

"My people are traders," Teyla said.

"Mr. Glenn, if you could get to your point?" Donovan prompted him.

Glenn smiled and said, "Of course, of course," in an oily voice. He faced Teyla again. "My question is: do you deny you slept with then Major Sheppard in order to live in Atlantis and that your son, one Kanaan Emmagan, is actually the Colonel's bastard?"

Ronon glared at Glenn, but kept his temper better than Mitchell, who came out of his seat, fists clenched and furious. "You don't talk to a lady like that," he snapped.

John just leaned back, shaking his head, confident that Teyla could handle herself. Rodney had turned to Donovan and asked loudly, "Didn't you screen for crazies?"

"Mr. Glenn, that question is inappropriate," Donovan snapped.

"Colonel Mitchell," Teyla said. She reached forward and caught his arm, drawing him back to his seat next to her. "Thank you, Ms. Donovan, but I have no objection to answering Mr. Glenn's question." She leveled her gaze at the reporter. "My son's name is Tanaan Emmagan. He is not a bastard. He is Athosian, as his father was. His father was Kanaan, who was taken, experimented on by a renegade Wraith, and died as a result." Her voice grew harder as she continued. "I have never been intimate with Colonel Sheppard. Are you satisfied?"

"You know," Rodney said, in his best bright and sarcastic tones, "I'm kind of insulted you didn't ask if Teyla had slept with me. I'm just as important in Atlantis as Sheppard is. Or, hey, why not ask if Ronon slept with someone so he could come live in the City of the Ancestors? Or maybe Teal'c seduced General O'Neill. Love at first sight. Or is that lust?" He snapped his fingers and then pointed at Carter. "Or Sam here. It's an open secret she had a torrid affair with Thor."

"Rodney!" Carter exclaimed, choking and laughing at the same time.

Several of the reporters had begun to titter at Glenn's suddenly red face.

"No, really," Rodney went on, "It's time the truth came out. The world needs to know about the giant orgy we have in front of the Stargate every Wednesday. Opening wormholes between planets doesn't actually cost that much, most of the budget actually goes to buying condoms and lube."

John began snickering helplessly. The rest of the reporters were laughing now too.

Jackson gave Carter a soulful look. "Sam! You never told me. You and Thor. Wow. I don't know how I missed that."

Vala bounced a little in her seat and spoke up. "It's true, of course. Why, the first time I saw Daniel, I – "

"Vala!" Daniel interrupted.

She batted her eyelashes. "Oh, Daniel, don't worry. My heart belongs to Sergeant Harriman now. Why, the way he makes my chevrons light up...and Dr. Lam..." She gave the reporters a coy look. "Do you know the things she can do with her hands are illegal in five different star systems?"

"Vala," Mitchell hissed at her.

She raised her eyebrows at him. "Of course, there's always one spoil sport. Some people, despite their predilections to losing their pants, are terrible disappointments."

Mitchell went red and began to sputter, just as Teal'c weighed in, inclining his head and declaring, "Indeed," the curve of his mouth betraying his own amusement.

John laughed so hard he thought he would cry and even Ronon burst out laughing.

"In the gate room?" Ronon demanded of Rodney.

"Oh, hell, yes, haven't you seen the tabloids?"

Ronon looked at John. "Can we go to work at the SGC instead of Atlantis?"

Glenn stomped out of the studio in a fury.

The next question returned to the subject of the UNE and what would come next for all of them, then a woman reporter in the back asked, "Tell us about Elizabeth Weir."

John had to shut his eyes for a moment, then he met Rodney's gaze and nodded. "Rodney knew her first, so he should begin."

Rodney nodded back.

"I wrote a book about her once..."

17 June 2012
Milky Way
Earth, Los Angeles and Colorado Springs

A week and a half into the goddamned publicity tour Landry had stuck them with as part of some sadistic power trip, Teyla called it quits. She'd had enough of city after city, cameras, too many people, the constant presence of Homeworld Security agents 'guarding' them, and the endless innuendos as more reporters picked up Glenn's stupid rumor.

"Tanaan's birthday is in a week," she told John as she packed a bag.

"We could all go back to Atlantis," he offered.

Teyla paused with several folded blouses in her hands and stared at him. "How will you do that, John? Will you ask General Landry to cancel Margo's plans for you and the others so that you can return to Atlantis to celebrate a three year old's birthday? That will certainly convince everyone you are not his father."

"I don't care what idiots think," he insisted.

She set the blouses in her case. "I resent the slight to Kanaan, frankly."

John sucked in a breath. He hadn't thought of it that way, too focused on the insult to Teyla.

"He was a good man," she said. She closed her eyes and breathed in, then out, holding still as she gathered calm around her. When her eyes opened again, Teyla smiled at him. "Not that you aren't a good man, John."

"Thanks." Next to Rodney, Teyla knew him better than anyone alive. Her approval eased insecurities he'd never been aware of even having before they'd met.

"But you are not mine."

"No."

Afternoon sun splashed through the hotel room window, bright over a white duvet on the bed. It sparked red and gold highlights in her bronze hair, where it had pulled loose from the ponytail she preferred over other hair styles.

"So, you're going back to Atlantis?" he asked. "You could stay at my place..."

Teyla sighed. "John..."

"Send for Tanaan. We – I could at least get time off to fly back for his birthday."

"I will speak with General Landry," she said at last. She didn't sound hopeful. Landry's subtly patronizing attitude toward women had been the subject of a lively gripe fest between Vala, Teyla and Sam that John suspected he hadn't been meant to overhear.

She closed the suitcase. "I will stay if Tanaan may come here, but if not...I have been away from him for too long, too often."

John nodded, his throat too tight to force out any words.

Ronon went with Teyla and Teal'c left as well, summoned back to Chulak, where the Jaffa were rebuilding. Rodney prevailed on Margo to release him from the rounds, as well, and disappeared into the labs beneath the Mountain.

John tried to convince Landry he and Rodney were needed back in Atlantis, but failed. The Asurans were gone, the Genii quiet, and no Wraith had been tracked near an inhabited planet in months. Lorne, Keller and Zelenka appeared to have everything under control. The good publicity John, Cam, Sam, Vala and Daniel were garnering for the Air Force and the Program was too valuable in the face of the latest political rumblings: Neo-Isolationists who wanted the Program scrapped.

"It isn't going to happen," Landry said over the video phone connection. "But the less political capitol President Farnham has to spend fighting them, the more she has to push through acceptance of the United Nations of Earth Council charter without too much crap attached."

"Yes sir," John replied.

"Anything else, Colonel?" Landry asked impatiently.

"Yes sir. If you could approve Tanaan coming here?"

He watched Landry's image frown and knew the answer would be no. Even when there was no reason to refuse, Landry would.

"I'd like to be able to tell the next interviewer that asks where Teyla is that she's spending time with her son and not that red tape made her miss his birthday," John said.

"Some day, Colonel Sheppard, you will go too far," Landry said.

"Probably, sir," John agreed.

Landry cut the connection, but John felt satisfied Tanaan would spend his third birthday on Earth.

"You're going to give the General an ulcer," Cam observed from behind and a little to the side of John.

They were sharing a hotel room thanks to SGC budget cuts. John wasn't as comfortable waving money around as Rodney, because it often translated into someone thinking he would do the same with Sheppard Industries clout, back when his father had been alive. Besides, Cam wasn't a bad roommate. Sam and Vala were sharing too, though in their case it was to keep a closer eye on Vala.

Daniel was the only one who had a private room.

John just shrugged.

"Want to come get some dinner with the rest of us?" Cam asked. He fished through the closet and pulled out a beat-up leather jacket and a hat.

John checked his messages and shook his head. He wanted to call Rodney and tell him to go by the condo and check on Teyla and Ronon.

"Okay, don't say you weren't invited," Cam said on his way out.

John sat down on his bed and hit Rodney's number on speed-dial, waiting for his call to go through. He waved as Cam went out the door. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he called.

"That doesn't contraindicate a major number of actions," Rodney said waspishly from his phone.

"Hey, good, I got a hold of you," John said, letting himself smile as he laid back on the bed and listened to Rodney complain.

1 July 2012
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

Rodney didn't know how John got Landry to okay Tanaan coming to Earth. Whatever it had been it wouldn't have been enough to change how things turned out the week after they celebrated Tanaan's birthday.

At first, they'd figured to just get a cake and the four of them would give Tanaan gifts and that would be it. Athosians didn't make a big ceremony over birthdays. Then apparently Cameron Mitchell heard John talking about it on the phone with Rodney and it ballooned from there. A surprising number of people knew Teyla at the SGC by now and a lot of them wanted to meet her son. Tanaan's birthday had morphed into a SGC party held at John's condo.

Before Rodney could point out the carved wooden rocking horse Mitchell brought was second hand, Teyla had been cooing over it, drawing Mitchell into admitting it had been carved by his great great granddaddy and passed down. Despite the paint half worn away on its red saddle and white mane, it did add something to the condo's decor. So did the balls, pictures done with finger paints, and the other toys, including the souped up baby's first computer Rodney bought for Tanaan. It paid to watch where you were walking however.

Teal'c brought a handmade puzzle from Chulak, a traditional toy given to young Jaffa.

Vala's present made everyone who had ever been on a gate team laugh: she presented Teyla with set of ceramic lock picks in a diaper.

"Not that I've ever borrowed a baby or anything," she said blithely, "but no matter how thoroughly the guards may search you? They never check in a diaper."

"Tanaan's already potty trained," Rodney had pointed out. He thought Tanaan was anyway. He tried to stay as far away from the whole diaper changing business as possible. He was easily nauseated and had a very sympathetic vomit reflex. His grasp of what a three year old should be achieving was slightly slippery too. In any case, he felt sure any child of Teyla's would be ahead of the curve anyway.

Vala grinned. "Then it's time to teach him to use them himself!"

The memory of the party segued into the days afterward as he drove down the Mountain to the Colorado Springs Police Department headquarters, forcing himself to slow down every time he realized he was exceeding the speed limit again.

Teyla and Ronon had agreed to stay at John's condo afterward, with the promise that Rodney would go by every day, even if he stayed at his own apartment. The SGC had swept John and most of SG-1 back onto the road. He had thought everything was fine until the evening before.

Ronon hadn't had any problem mastering cooking in an Earth kitchen, though some of the ingredients he mixed were bizarre. Teyla stayed out of the kitchen and played with Tanaan. Rodney had eaten at the SGC mess, so he stopped in late. He peered into the room Teyla had taken as her own and smiled at Tanaan, who was asleep in his own bed set up next to hers, then wandered out again. Teyla was tidying and looked tired. Ronon was washing dishes, so eerily domestic Rodney had to start a pot of coffee just to normalize his world. If John had been there, life would have been as perfect as it could be outside Atlantis.

Teyla came into the kitchen as Rodney poured his first cup.

"Rodney," she said as she brushed light fingers over his shoulders in a tactile greeting, "should you be drinking coffee so late?"

"God, tell me you haven't been watching TV and picking up all that crap about caffeine being bad for people?" he responded.

"No, she's just used to you," Ronon commented. He had a dish cloth in hand, carefully drying and polishing a stainless steel pot.

Teyla sighed.

Rodney peered at her, at the tight lines at the corners of her eyes and the hint of frown drawing her brows together.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Nothing."

Ronon muttered something in Satedan, then, "Just tell us." He hung the pot up and folded the dish towel.

Teyla sighed again. "Norton Glenn attempted to interview me today."

"Who?" Rodney asked, confused.

"When?" Ronon demanded. "Where?"

"Norton Glenn, the reporter," Teyla reminded Rodney. "The one who wanted to know if Tanaan is John's – "

"Oh."

Ronon glared at her. "What'd he do?"

"He approached me when I took Tanaan to the park. He followed me and yelled questions, which I did not answer, until I chose to bring Tanaan back here."

"Did he follow you here?" Rodney asked.

She shook her head. "I do not believe he did."

Rodney made a note to himself to find out more about Norton Glenn. He didn't worry too much. This was Earth and Teyla could handle herself against a reporter.

"I'll go with you tomorrow, in case he shows up again," Ronon said.

Like an ostrich with its head firmly in the sand, Rodney thought that would solve any problems.

The phone call that had been relayed to his lab at the SGC had blown that idea into orbit.

Teyla's voice had been tight and flat with worry and other pent-in emotions.

"Rodney, I cannot reach John and Ronon has been arrested."

"He – what?" Rodney sat up and waved two scientists away from him. Without thinking about it, he began shutting down his work. The laptop would go straight to the safe. "What happened? Did he kill someone?"

"No," Teyla said. Her voice dropped in volume and he realized she was talking to someone else. "No, that is not necessary. Yes. It is a scrape, I have endured much worse. Yes. Please, yes, I am trying to explain the situation to my contact now. If you could tell me what the charges are?  –Rodney, Ronon has been charged with assault. He broke Norton Glenn's arm, his nose, and cracked two of his ribs."

"Wh–Okay, what did Glenn do?" He closed the laptop and went to the safe, entering his code, then pressing his thumb to the print reader.

"We went to the park with Tanaan. I was with Tanaan at the swings and Ronon was watching some boys play basketball. Glenn showed up again with several others. They were...unpleasant."

Teyla believed in understatement. Rodney knew that meant the scene had probably been very ugly.

"I do not believe they realized Ronon was there."

He shoved the laptop inside, slammed the safe shut, and headed for the door.

"Where are you now?"

"We are all at the police department," Teyla told him. "I am to give a statement."

"Okay, uhm, did they read you your rights?" He didn't actually have any experience with being arrested, damn it. Not that he wanted to have a record, just this was nearly as alien to him as it would be to Teyla and Ronon, and my God, he thought, Tanaan was there. He needed John. They needed John. A ember of anger lit inside him that John was off being the star of the SGC or whatever the hell he was doing instead of being with his team.

"I believe they read Ronon his rights," Teyla said.

"Good, good, then – crap, have you been able to talk to him? If you can talk to him tell him to just not say anything, okay? Not until he has a lawyer. We'll get him a lawyer," Rodney said. He walked out of the lab and past Lee in the corridor, following the green line heading for the elevators. "I'm on my way – "

"Oh, Dr. McKay," Lee greeted him with a smile. "I wanted to discuss the the subspace resonance factor in your calculations for – "

Rodney walked past him. "Not now," he snapped.

He reached the elevator bank and shoved in the key card necessary to call on elevator on Level 19, slapped the up button, then jittered in place, telling Teyla, "The SGC has lawyers. They'll know what to do. I'll call them as soon as you've told me the rest." He still had on a lab coat and patted its pockets only to find nothing. Feeling panicky, he checked his pockets and cursed. No, there, he had the SGC cellphone and his car keys.

The first elevator car only took him as far as Level 11, where everyone had to change cars to proceed upward. Rodney glared at the doors until they opened. He shouldered his way in next to a marine major and two airmen. "God, this is a nightmare," he muttered. The major glared at him and Rodney tried to kill him with his brain and the power of his hate. It didn't completely work but the major did step back far enough for Rodney to slap the button for Level One.

"We going to Accounting on Three – " one of the airmen started.

"I don't care."

He turned his back to them and addressed the cellphone again.

"Teyla? How unpleasant? Was anyone else hurt? Were you – I heard you, a scrape? Is that all? What happened?"

"Tanaan is with me. He is well." He heard Teyla's voice catch and went cold. Had that been a sob?

He braced his free hand against the elevator wall as it rose, nerves shrieking with impatience at the incredible slowness of it compared to an Atlantis transporter. C'mon, faster, faster, damn it! The eternal pessimist inside insisted this would be the moment the entire base went on lockdown if he didn't get to the security checkpoint and out immediately.

"Teyla?"

"Glenn and his fellows attempted restrain me," Teyla said. "I do not know if they meant to harm me there or to remove me from the park. They were not clear." He heard her breathe in deeply, the sound remarkably harsh through the cellphone's speaker. "Tanaan was frightened. I freed myself, of course, but he had run away. I think to find Ronon."

Oh God. A three year old, any three year old, but one with no experience of Earth and its dangers, lost and alone...Rodney's stomach threatened to revolt. There were predators on Earth as horrific in their fashion as the Wraith. Rodney squeezed his eyes shut. Not Tanaan. They'd gone through so much to find Teyla and save Tanaan from Michael's plans.

"Is he okay?" he asked and heard his voice crack. The two airmen exchanged looks and the major frowned. The SGC was a small community, really, and by now they'd recognized Rodney and had to guess something was wrong. "Teyla, tell me he's okay?"

"Yes," she said.

Rodney slumped and forgot to move even as the elevator doors opened.

"He ran into the road – "

"He doesn't know about cars." Atlantis didn't have cars. Neither did New Athos or any of the planets they traded with in Pegasus. Hell, most of those worlds didn't have roads. The first thing kids in Pegasus learned was to stay out of the stargate splash zone when the chevrons lit up. Tanaan knew that. He didn't know about staying out of the road.

"He is all right. Even if I had not reached him," Rodney could hear the horror in her words, "the driver of the car saw him and stopped. Neither of us are hurt. By the time I turned back to the park, Ronon had caught Mr. Glenn."

"And beat the snot out of him," Rodney finished, imagining Ronon's fury. "So, Ronon's okay. He didn't resist arrest and get beaten down or anything?" Stupid question. Teyla would have said, but Ronon was intimidating enough to push some dumb cop into shooting him.

"We are all well."

"I'm calling Lt. Colonel Davis," he said. "He'll know how to handle this. And I'll be there as soon as I can. It'll be okay. You should just keep Ronon calm and keep trying to get through to Sheppard. He's got enough money to bail out anyone."

The major had preceded Rodney out of the elevator and was at the checkpoint, telling the guards there to process Rodney through ASAP. He was already hitting the speed dial to connect to Paul Davis.

"Good luck, sir," one of the airman called as Rodney trotted away.

He gritted his teeth through the whole drive to Colorado Springs.

It didn't matter how much money Sheppard had.

"A flight risk!" Rodney yelled at his cellphone from the police station hours later.

He'd been on the phone all day, finding a lawyer willing to represent a literal alien, browbeating the cops into letting him into a holding cell to talk to Ronon and advise him to stay calm while Rodney and the SGC got him out, and trying futilely to reach John. He'd nearly been arrested himself after Ronon was arraigned and denied bail. He knew beyond any doubt that arraignment had been rushed through faster than would have happened for any normal assault case. It all stank of a set up.

Browbeating did finally get him into see Ronon face to face. Since the officers unlocking the holding cell weren't vibrating with hostility or pissing their pants, he knew Ronon hadn't fought them. Teyla had to have told him to cooperate or he would have.

Once inside, the lock clicked closed behind him, Rodney shivered. The cell was little more than a concrete room with a heavy, orange painted door, no windows, just a ventilation grill in the ceiling between two recessed fluorescent lights that flickered and made everything look sick. A toilet sat in one corner opposite a concrete slab that acted as bench and bed. No bedding. The floor sloped down to a drain in the center of the room and a security/surveillance camera panned back and forth from the upper corner opposite the door.

Ronon had been stripped down to jeans and a thin undershirt. Socks, no shoes, no belt, no knives hidden in the dreadlocks he'd cut off a year or two back.

He crouched tailor fashion on the balls of his feet, arms crossed, back to the wall where he could watch the camera and the door.

"Ronon," Rodney said, though he knew Ronon had seen and recognized him instantly.

Ronon looked at him from beneath his eyebrows, head still tipped down. He didn't move.

"You here to get me out or yell at me?"

Surprised, Rodney asked, "Have I ever yelled at you?"

Ronon snorted.

Rodney coughed, "Okay, fair enough." He glanced around the cell in distaste and then shuffled his feet. Maybe Ronon had chosen his position because he didn't want to touch anything. Minimal contact. Rodney certainly didn't wish to touch anything. He tucked his hands inside his pants pockets just to be sure.

"I can't get you out yet," he said. "I'm working on it."

Ronon's lip curled into a sneer.

"You're being remarkably calm," Rodney said in surprise. He'd expected Ronon to be roaring and slamming his fists against the walls, out of control or already planning his violent escape. "Just don't do anything to add to the charges. No dramatic prison breaks. You'll be out. Soon. I swear." He sucked in a breath and shuffled his feet again. "There's always bail, Sheppard will pay it or I will, you know, and good job, not killing Gleen."

"Glenn."

"Glenn, Flem, who cares," Rodney snapped.

Ronon growled under his breath. "I do."

Rodney twitched, remembering Glenn had surely taken part in the plan to snatch or hurt Teyla. He curled his hands closed and shoved them deeper in his pockets. Anger boiled up behind his clenched teeth and was held tight in his fists; when he swallowed he could taste it, burning metal at the back of his tongue, bile bitter. He flexed his fingers and reminded himself Glenn was in the hospital and hadn't escaped the way the rest of the attackers had.

"Where's Sheppard?"

Ronon managed to sound calmer than Rodney felt.

"I. Don't. Know," Rodney enunciated slowly. "Not answering his cell."

Ronon rolled his shoulders restlessly. The cell smelled like chlorine, layered over fecal matter and vomit.

"Get Teyla and Tanaan out of here," Ronon said. "Take them some place safe."

"This is a police station," Rodney replied. "That's as safe as it gets."

Ronon shook his head. "Somewhere not here." He glared at Rodney until Rodney put it together, letting some of the seething rage locked down inside show through for Rodney to see.

It matched Rodney's.

"They were after her, McKay. It was an ambush. I heard one of them call her a dirty alien whore before he ran."

Rodney nodded grimly. "Purists. John ran into one in New York."

"Think something's happened to him?" Ronon asked. He stood at last and Rodney understood why he'd been so still before. He was too big for the cell, filling it, making it smaller with every choked back movement. The limits shrunk down. Ronon could take only three steps before he reached a wall to reinforce that he was in a cage.

Worry stabbed at Rodney, but he dismissed it for Ronon's sake. "He probably tripped and fell into some wannabe starlet's bed and forgot to turn his phone on," he said.

"Get me out of here, McKay," Ronon rumbled

"I will," he promised. He knocked on the door and listened as the officer who had been waiting outside unlocked it, keys clinking, the clunk of the lock's tumblers releasing. "I will."

"I don't like your world," Ronon told him as he stepped out of the cell.

Rodney went back to arguing with anyone he could find, getting louder and angrier with every stumbling block that he ran up against.

The only thing that had stopped him from completely losing it had been Teyla's presence. She was calm, despite everything, and moreover she needed Rodney to keep it together too.

On the other end, Davis coughed and replied, "The DA is arguing that Ronon has no ties to the community."

A uniformed officer detoured around Rodney on the way to the front desk. Rodney ignored his glare, the way he ignored the sad, middle-aged couple waiting on the other side of the room and the lawyer in a suit arguing onto his cellphone. His nose wrinkled and his throat wanted to close up every time he drew in a deep breath and smelled the lemon scent of whatever disinfectant the police department used. Whoever used it didn't use enough; his shoes wanted to stick to the floor.

"Where the hell is he going to go? He doesn't know the planet."

"They're worried the SGC will send him through the stargate," Davis replied. "Look, Dr. McKay, I'm working on it. This incident has everyone upset. If something had happened to Teyla's son, the political repercussions of such a tragedy would have – "

"Fuck the repercussions," Rodney said. "Tanaan's three years old. If anything had happened to him I would find the bastards and kill them slowly myself. Not to mention it would have apparently been all right if they'd beaten the crap out of Teyla or kidnapped her or whatever those lunatics had planned! What's going to happen to Glenn? Why hasn't he been charged with something?"

Teyla had Tanaan in her arms, resting against her hip. She stood up from the plastic scoop chair she'd been using and plucked the phone from Rodney's fingers.

"Lt. Colonel Davis? I too wish to know if Mr. Glenn orchestrated the attack on me and why?"

Rodney leaned close to hear the answer.

"Homeworld Security is working on it, Ms. Emmagan."

Teyla handed the cellphone back to him.

"That doesn't exactly impress me," Rodney snapped at it.

"Just don't make the situation any worse, McKay," Davis told him. "We are working on it. I expect to have Mr. Dex freed by tomorrow morning at the latest."

"And then?"

He heard Davis sigh. "Then he will likely be escorted to the stargate and sent back to Atlantis."

Rodney wanted to growl. "He's going to be PNGed?"

Teyla frowned at him, one strong hand cradling the back of Tanaan's head and it flitted through Rodney's mind that Teyla wouldn't be able to carry Tanaan around much longer, he was just getting too big, she'd ruin her back. Jeannie complained about Madison getting too big to carry too. It looked like Tanaan would probably be as tall as Kanaan had been; he was already tall for a three year old.

"It's more complicated than that," Davis said. "He isn't actually part of a diplomatic party and doesn't have immunity, but no one really wants to put him on trial. The DA will probably be willing to make a deal if he's deported."

"More like deplaneted," Rodney muttered. "This is ridiculous and you know it."

"Yes, but there's only so much I can do until the UNE takes over offworld interactions from the State Department," Davis replied. "This was obviously orchestrated, though rather badly on the ground. The best we can do is keep it all quiet. Just take Ms. Emmagan and her son back to the Mountain and wait until I call you. I swear nothing will happen to Mr. Dex overnight."

"It better not."

He snapped the phone closed and met Teyla's gaze. Tanaan whined into her shoulder, high and unhappy. She patted his back.

"Go home!" Tanaan cried.

"We will, jesha, soon. Just be good a little longer," Teyla told him.

Tanaan kicked his feet a little, but settled against her. "I'm hungry."

"Soon, jesha."

"Davis swears he'll have Ronon out tomorrow," Rodney said. "They'll send him back to Atlantis."

Teyla hefted Tanaan higher and started for the doors. "Then I shall return as well."

Rodney hurried after her. "Teyla..." He didn't know what to say. Should he argue with her to stay? Right this minute he disliked Earth nearly as much as she must. They proceeded out the front door and Rodney began shivering immediately. Life in Atlantis had made it easy to forget how fast the weather could change in Colorado even in July. He'd left his coat back at the Mountain. "Teyla."

"No, Rodney," she said. The old-fashioned street lamps provided a white light that washed the natural color from her skin. She looked weary to the bone and, worse than that, sad. "I wish to go home."

"At least talk to Sheppard first."

She glanced at the cellphone still in his hand. "We have both tried."

He didn't get through to John for another three days. He blamed the SGC and Margo and mostly John, whether he'd forgotten or lost his cell or was just avoiding talking to Rodney. If so, it was a hell of time for John to have one of his freak-out withdrawals, especially when Rodney hadn't done anything to trigger one.

"Off having fun," Ronon commented the next day, when they moved him to the SGC, calm and maddeningly matter-of-fact though he'd been placed in Room 16K7-23 on Level 16, another 'secure' holding cell, as if Ronon were a Goa'uld. Good faith, Paul Davis told them. Landry posted guards outside the cell to Rodney's never ending disgust.

By the time John finally answered a call, Ronon, Teyla and Tanaan were long gone.

Gone back to Atlantis, to Pegasus and their worlds, their lives, and Rodney couldn't help feeling he'd lost something, that he'd blinked and shifted a quantum step from where they had all been, with no chance to return. He'd kissed Tanaan good-bye and rested his forehead against Teyla's, while four SFs stood guard around Ronon, as if he needed an escort through the stargate. The three of them looked like a family as they walked up the ramp to the SGC's stargate and disappeared into the event horizon.

Rodney left the gate room alone.

John hadn't been there and he really thought he would never forgive him for that.

21 July 2012
Milky Way
Earth, San Francisco

"Hey," Cam had said as he packed his duffle, "I love my team too, but sometimes, God love 'em, you just want to shoot them all."

John glanced at him sidelong, then reluctantly chuckled.

"And McKay..." Cam shook his head. "Wonder how you do it, man."

"Rodney's an acquired taste," John said carefully. He always had to be careful. Rodney never called him on the chickenshit, but John made himself sick sometimes. He sat back and had even taken part as others had teased and belittled Rodney more than once, just because of that. Coming to Rodney's defense would be too easy and give too much away.

"So, we've got two days free thanks to this scheduling snafu," Cam went on. "I say we get away from everything. I've got a buddy in Fairbanks who'll loan me his float plane and a hunting cabin where the SGC would have to beam us out to bother us."

Two days he could spend in Colorado Springs with Rodney. Only Rodney wouldn't be free, he'd be busy on Level 19 or putting together his Global Transporter System Satellite Array proposal.

He'd been about to dig his cellphone out of the bottom of the suitcase where everything heavier than a cotton ball always ended up and call Rodney but then second thoughts crept in.

Cam had made the offer casually in the wake of Margo marching in and declaring they had two days off thanks to some rock star coming out of rehab and hitting the talk show circuit, bumping everybody and screwing her schedule to hell and gone.

He weighed the offer against returning to Colorado Springs.

He and Cam got along, even shared hotel rooms without problem. They shared the same habits mostly, instilled by the Air Force and gate team experience. They hadn't served together before, but they'd both been in the Middle East, Bosnia and various black projects, just at different times. John didn't know what the hell he'd do in a cabin in Alaska, but no newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, Internet or telephones, cell or landline, and no groupies showing up in the hotel bedroom with a purloined key card sounded appealing.

"A real getaway," Cam wheedled and John figured he just didn't want to go by himself. Sam had already bolted, with a determined set to her shoulders, to San Diego. "Her brother," Cam said. It meant nothing to John, but considering his own family history, he'd guess they didn't get along. Vala and Daniel had also disappeared on them, no idea where. Cam was as at loose ends as John on the surface. "Get in some fishing."

"I don't fish," John told him.

The idea did appeal to him. He would do anything for Tanaan or any of his team. Still, sharing the condo with them left him hungry for real solitude sometimes. He could duck out and hole up at Rodney's apartment, but they'd know. Besides, it was Rodney's apartment and there were always the questions to worry about, the damned questions.

He might not even get a night with Rodney out of it if Rodney was too involved in his work at the Mountain.

"So? No one says you have to fish," Cam said. "Finish that book you've been toting around." He paused. "Though who the hell reads Solzhenitsyn voluntarily..."

"Right, because you're completely illiterate."

"Naw, Faulkner's more my speed."

It was tempting, damn it.

Not to mention good cover. John tried to mask the time he spent with Rodney as time spent with the team, though that had its drawbacks too. By the standards of any military organization except the SGC, the team was too close. The SGC seemed to take a different tack, keeping teams that worked well together as long as possible, looking the other way as the fraternization regs ended up bent and mutilated. Atlantis was the exception to most rules anyway; the small population created a fishbowl where fraternization became nearly inevitable. In Atlantis, no one thought it strange John hung out with Rodney and the team; he couldn't spend his off time with the marines and airmen he commanded and he didn't have any officers of equivalent rank to associate with off duty.

Some days, using Teyla and Ronon as cover made him angry too, because their tacit permission came with such disdain for the cultural rules he had to maneuver within and around. He knew the damn rules were stupid, that's why he was breaking them, but they didn't know Earth or the society that had shaped him or Rodney. They never really could, any more than he could ever grasp the deep down fatalism every Pegasan grew up learning.

He'd been in Pegasus long enough the sheer number of people in Earth's cities was getting to him, though. Two days. What the hell would it hurt? Margo had told them to get out of town.

"Yeah, okay, sure," he said. "Hey, what kind of plane is it?" He'd landed with skids in the snow, but never with a float plane.

"Then let's go, before the Wicked Witch of the West changes her mind and locks us up," Cam said.

John grabbed his dopp kit out of the bathroom, shoved a couple of things into his duffle and followed Cam out. He'd forgotten both his SGC issued phone and the other cell.

Not completely accidentally, though he didn't think it out.

Alaskan mosquitoes preferred his blood to Cam's, he discovered, and Cam couldn't be trusted to light a Coleman lantern. He'd loused up every mantle they had with them. The escape from the publicity roundabout came as a relief anyway; the locals at the float plane dock and where they picked up their supplies hadn't given a damn who they were. The float plane's fuel pump started acting up halfway back to Fairbanks though and cost them an extra day.  They didn't walk back into the hotel room until three days later.

Cam charged in ahead of him. "Dibs on the shower.

John was pleasantly tired and mostly past any irritation with Cam. He also wanted a shower and fresh clothes, but shrugged and stood back as Cam went straight for the hot water.

Instead he dug around and found the cellphone he'd left behind and speed dialed Rodney's number without checking for messages.

Rodney's first words were flat and without preface. "Where the fuck have you been?"

John sat down on the edge of the second bed. "Alaska," he replied.

"Alaska doesn't have phones?" Rodney asked, still so toneless John twitched. He'd rarely heard or seen Rodney reach the level of fury where his ranting and tangents and raised voice gave way to quiet.

"What's happened?"

"It's a little too late, you sonovabitch."

"How bad is it?" he asked.

"Oh, suddenly you care?"

John leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. He had on a pair of hiking boots. Alaskan mud still clung to the seams in spots, dried dark and brown. It flaked off onto the blue carpet when he shifted his foot. He heard the shower start in the bathroom.

"I hope you had a good time, while I dealt with the mess and the SGC and the stupid, stupid morons andLandry," Rodney went on. "This time you aren't going to be able to swan in and fix everything after I've done all the real work, because I'm not the only one you screwed over."

The sarcasm was normal Rodney, but the real hostility behind it sounded different than he'd ever heard aimed at him. It scared him enough he began to get angry. Enough being jerked around. Rodney could just say it.

"McKay!" he barked. "Just tell me."

He could hear Rodney's breathing, long breaths drawn in through his nostrils and blown out like a spouting whale. He could picture the way Rodney's face went white instead of red, even the set of his mouth, lips pressed together into a hard line.

"Ronon and Teyla are gone," Rodney spat out.

Every muscle in his body seemed to lock up, the air in his lungs caught, his ears buzzing with the words he'd just heard. Then John surged to his feet. "What!?" He had to move and did, pacing to the window and back, staring at the door and calculating how fast he could get back to Colorado Springs. Four in the afternoon Pacific Time; he checked his watch. Later in Colorado. The closest airport was San Francisco International. He could cut through some of the security wait if he flashed his Air Force ID. Faster to buy a ticket on a carrier or charter a flight?

Dirt stains ground into the carpet under his boots each time he spun on his heel.

A glance out the window made him nod to himself. Still plenty of daylight left and no fog to ground any flights in the middle of July.

"I tried to call you," Rodney told him, vicious and angry, "Teyla tried to call you, even Ronon did after they moved him from the jail to, oh,anotherjail cell in the Mountain. You selfish sonovabitch, you couldn't leave a message to even let us know you were all right."

"Jail," John repeated, catching at the information mixed in with the accusation, flinching because that part was true. His voice caught and scratched. "What do you mean, gone? Where are they?" Another tumbler clicked into place in his thoughts. "Tanaan?"

"Let's not forget Tanaan," Rodney replied. "Who almost died."

John stopped and swayed in place, then stumbled over and dropped onto the end of Cam's bed. "No."

Rodney's voice softened a fraction. "He's okay."

"Would you tell me what the hell is going on?" John ventured.

That set Rodney right off again.

"That reporter, Glenn, turned out to be a Purist, one of those lunatics that think you're a freak that needs to fixed so you don't spawn, found Teyla and Tanaan in the park. The one down the road from your condo. Tanaan likes the swings, did you know that? No, you didn't because you're never actually here." Rodney stopped, then finished harshly, "Ronon put Glenn in the hospital and was arrested."

"Where was Teyla?"

"Tanaan nearly got run down in the street. She was a little busy saving her son. She pulled Ronon off him as soon as she could. Before you start demanding where I was, I was working. You're the one who pulled the disappearing act."

"I'm not a deadbeat dad, for Christ's sake," John said, feeling stung. "I have duties too." It would have sounded better if he had been on duty, instead of trying out Cam's buddy's float plane.

"You're right, you could never make that much of a commitment."

The way Rodney said that, so off hand and as though it was obvious, hit John hard. Rodney and Teyla both knew him and if Rodney thought that, it might be – he closed his eyes – it probably was true.

"Do you think you could be any more paranoid?" John asked. "I didn't – I wasn't avoiding you on purpose."

"Don't talk to me about paranoid, James T.Jerk! What hell were you doing in – in Alaska? Don't tell me the Bitch Queen had you doing interviews with the goddamn caribou, because I know you weren't. They wouldn't set bail for Ronon and I couldn't get him out and I couldn't find you and I had visions of CPS swooping down and snatching Tanaan or some KKK reject taking Ronon out back to teach the 'boy' manners and having to start World War Three to get them back and you weren't here!"

"I – "

"Alaska!" Rodney snapped.

"Never mind that, where is Ronon?" John yelled back. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he noted the shower going off, but it was irrelevant.

"Atlantis. Theydeportedhim as an 'alien undesirable' or some crap Landry was spouting. Teyla left too. I just wish I could – " Rodney's voice had risen to painful levels and John jerked the phone away from his ear, still hearing, " – and you werenowhere!We thought – I thought –- Ronon even thought – something had happened to you, but no one would tell me anything, not the hotel, not Landry, not thatbitch.  I calledO'Neilland was put on hold –hold!–  then some patronizing little piece of crap calling himself O'Neill's assistant tells me he's out but that the matter is being handled by the State Department.

"They put Ronon in shackles, damn it! He needed you. We needed you. I mean have you ever stuck with anything?" Rodney went on. "The Air Force, but I'm talking about people. No one gets too close, do they, and when it starts to take some effort, with you the effort just isn't there. Not even for your family. When was the last time you talked to your brother? Oh, right, at your father's funeral. Years ago. No wonder your marriage fell apart."

It felt like a vise squeezing his chest. Rodney knew where to hit to hurt.

"Sorry I don't lay out everything for everyone in the universe to know about like you," he forced out.

"Oh, do not make this about me! Or, you know, let's do. What is it? Are you ashamed of being with me or being gay? You can barely stand that Teyla and Ronon know; you'd cut out your tongue before you told anyone else. Is it so important that everyone think you're untouchable and utterly separate and acceptably heterosexual? Is that what you were doing? Screwing some nubile groupie to prove you can still get it up for tits?"

"I wasn't screwing anyone!" John shouted. "I'm not ashamed. I'm not ashamed of you, damn it. Jesus, Rodney, you know what happens if someone figures out you and me are together."

"I know," Rodney snarled back, "but as far as I can tell, we aren't."

He hung up.

John stared at the cell's screen as it blinked to screensaver, then a noise behind him made him look up.

Cam looked at him from the doorway of the bathroom, water still dripping from his hair, wrapped in a towel and nothing else. John couldn't read his non-expression. He replayed what Cam might have overheard since walking through the bathroom door. It was a little like being in freefall; the last time he'd felt so helpless, Rodney had been dying courtesy of the Ancients' ascension obsession.

"Fuck."

After the long silence that followed, Cam hitched his towel a little higher with one hand and said, "Well, this is kind of awkward."

John flipped the phone onto his bed, collapsed onto his back and stared at the ceiling.

"You do know you're on my bed?"

John studied the faint blue-gray shadows on white-painted plaster and considered the events of the last three days.

Cam padded around the bed, opened his suit case and fished out a change of clothes. He dressed silently.

The events he'd missed and the coincidence that he had missed them tumbled around and around until they all slotted into place forming a picture. Scheduling snafu, conveniently completely out of touch, everything already over and done by the time John even heard about it. John turned his head enough to look at Cam again, narrow eyed, rocked between anger and fear. "The fucking fuel pump," he said.

Cam pulled a gray tee shirt over his head, then tugged it down to meet the faded waist of his jeans. He ducked his head. "Yeah, about that. General Landry called. Told me to keep you out of touch until he let me know. I had to improvise."

The engine had choked out over a convenient lake and Cam had brought them down with a feather light touch. Losing power in winged aircraft didn't spell disaster the way it did in helicopters or jumpers. They'd glided down to the glittering blue water, skipped over the surface and come to a stop easily short of the graveled shore, floating as serenely as a the geese in the reeds. The cool silence afterward had soaked into John's bones, broken only by the honking call of the birds. They'd spent the rest of the day hunting down the problem. Cam had sworn it had to be a fouled line and only conceded John was right about the fuel pump as the sun lowered behind the mountains, leaving them in darkness with no lights to work by.

The fuel pump had been fixed within two hours the next morning.

"Smooth," he commented.

"Yeah," Cam said. "Sorry."

John sat up and headed for the bathroom.

"Landry didn't actually tell me why." Cam screwed up his face. "I should've warned you, should've figured he was pulling something again."

John paused at the doorway, one hand on the door jamb. "Purists attacked Teyla and Tanaan. Ronon beat the crap out of one of them. Cops arrested him. The SGC shipped him back to Atlantis. I don't know anymore. Rodney was too pissed to offer details and I wasn't around to do anything about it."

Immediately, he wished he hadn't mentioned Rodney. That could only remind Cam of the rest of the call and what he'd heard.

John swallowed another curse. The damp smell of soap and steam still lingered in the bathroom, distinctly different from the dry air of the air-conditioned hotel room.

"I'll be out of here as soon as I've had a shower."

"Hey, no, Sheppard..." Cam blurted.

John twisted around, hand still braced against the doorway, and looked at him curiously.

Cam held up both hands. "I didn't know about Ronon. That sucks." He met John's eyes and added, quietly, "I got no idea what else you and McKay were talking about. None of my business either."

Some of the tension flowed out of John's shoulders. He'd been looking at losing it all: Teyla, Tanaan, Ronon, Atlantis, Rodney, and his career. Looking at it, but very carefully not letting himself think about all the consequences. Absently, he rubbed his hand over the jamb, feeling the faintest raised grain of the wood beneath the smooth thickness of the layers of enamel paint.

"I still need to get back to the Springs," John made himself say.

"Sure, I get it. Listen, I'll make some calls, find you the earliest flight while you clean up," Cam offered.

"Why?"

"What Landry and Margo pulled stinks. I figure I owe you for my part. I'll even tell McKay, if you need me too."

A rusty, creaking laugh escaped John. "No. Thanks. No."

Cam relaxed. "Good, that's not something I'd look forward too. I'd rather buy you a beer sometime." He gave John an incredulous look. "Sheppard. McKay? Not that I'm asking."

"Get me a flight," John said and didn't answer that he didn't know if there was much left to ask about.

The hot water felt good, but couldn't wash away how John felt, or the adrenaline crash that followed the news he'd just lost two teammates and only avoided losing his career because Cam Mitchell was a decent human being who was willing to turn a deaf ear to what he'd heard and could assume. The hot water felt good, but that was about all that did.

4 February 2012
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

John returned to Atlantis in August, mending what fences he could, catching up on what he'd missed and spending a solid two weeks finishing paperwork Lorne hadn't been able to sign off on. Lorne, long suffering and deserving, took an Earthside leave once he had John up to speed again.

Ronon dismissed it, Teyla greeted him with her usual grace, and Rodney accepted John's explanation eventually. None of those were actual forgiveness. No one forgot and if they had, John wouldn't have let himself. He felt the difference like the wrong note in the harmonic scream of a jet engine, a subtle shudder in the airframe even as it continued to perform according to spec, leaving him always on edge, waiting for it to blow up in his face.

An engine only required a mechanic to tear it apart and rebuild it with new parts. John didn't know how to fix the team or if there was anything to fix. Things were different, not necessarily wrong. Atlantis itself was changing and he felt out of step when he returned along with an influx of new personnel. For the first time, families were being assigned to the city. Some with children.

The first Earth School began operating in the fall of 2012, not long before Rodney returned too. Teyla enrolled Tanaan.

Rodney stomped through the wormhole at the end of October, shortly after the announcement of the 2012 Nobel Laureates, which included Sam Carter and Daniel Jackson, but didn't include his name. He spent the next month reorganizing the labs, shouted at Zelenka a total of five times in public and grimly requalified for field duties without verbal protest.

He walked into John's quarters the first night he was back and declared, "I haven't been laid in months, so if we're still doing this, now's the time to get naked."

John had wondered, too.

Even the sex felt out of tune, their hands no longer familiar, the touches no longer expected. They didn't say much. Move your elbow and I'm not Gumby and Fuck, there, harder mixed with groans and panted breaths. The sticky end arrived quickly, leaving them silent and sweaty, the room filled with the scent of sex. Rodney cleaned up and dressed wordlessly. John forced himself to his feet and decided to change the sheets entirely. He didn't want to sleep in a bed that smelled like them.

Every other month, John or Rodney or both of them went through the wormhole to Earth to present situation and progress reports and receive updated briefings on the progress of the UNE set up and change over to its authority. Teyla and Ronon stayed behind. John and Rodney left Teyla in charge when they both left; Lorne and Zelenka had no problems listening to her and what the IOA didn't know didn't hurt anyone. Apparently, the US was fighting doggedly to retain de facto control of the new governmental entity using money as its lever. Another faction wanted to link patents and licensing of technology developed via the Program and fund it in that manner. John didn't know enough economics to guess if it would work, but those were the people pushing for Rodney's Global Transport System.

Sometimes, he let Cam buy him a beer if they were both at the Mountain at the same time and had a break. It was something to do, a way to unwind after dealing with the bureaucrats and Landry, and kept him from feeling too lonely in the echoing condo. If Cam was Earthside, Carter generally was too, which meant Rodney would disappear into Level 19 and not reappear until they headed back to Atlantis.

Cam never brought up what he'd heard.

They'd all settled into a precarious routine until SG-22 checked in from PY6-409. John was justifying requisitions for school supplies to a stiff-necked major and a GAO accountant on Level 3 at the time. An airman knocked and then poked his head in half an hour after the incoming wormhole klaxon had sounded. On the hour, so everyone had relaxed, recognizing a check-in.

"Sirs, General Landry requests Colonel Sheppard join him in Conference Room One."

John nodded to the airman. "Thank you." He glanced back at the major and the accountant. "Sorry, gentleman, but we'll need to continue this at a later date."

He headed for Level 27 with a feeling of relief mixing with anticipation.

Landry wasn't there when John arrived, but Sergeant Harriman already had a briefing book set out for him, along with a pen, a pencil and yellow legal pad. A pitcher of water and tall glasses had been left at the center of the polished table and a coffee machine gurgled fresh caffeine into the carafe on a small table near the door. Harriman whisked out of the room as John arrived, with a murmured, "General Landry will be here in a moment."

John contemplated asking Harriman if he had any O'Reilly ancestors, then decided it would be better to stay on the man's good side. That joke had probably been tired before Harriman even started work at the SGC. John preferred silent insubordination toward superior officers to pissing off enlisted men anyway. He found nothing pleasurable in making anyone fake a smile and answer yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. So, instead, he nodded and said, "Thank you."

He sat down, poured a glass of water and pulled the briefing book closer. The brown folder had a colorful version of the SGC seal on its cover. That amused John as he opened it. Somewhere in the Mountain, the Air Force had its own print shop or a contractor had been sworn to secrecy after eight or nine months of background investigations just so the company could print that folder and others, back when even the Stargate Program's name had been classified. At least that SAP had been dialed back thanks to disclosure.

PY6-409.

He flipped open the cover and began reading a mission proposal authored by Dr. Hazelhurst of the Archaeo-Linguistics Department.  Her direct supervisor and Dr. Jackson had signed off on it. A partially destroyed inscription found during a third survey of Vis Uban had Dr. Hazelhurst in a swivet, though Jackson's cover note was considerably less enthusiastic.

John raised his eyebrows when he checked the date. The proposal was over four years old.

The background on PY6-409 finally offered some indication why the mission had been backburnered. The planet, colloquially known as Akanital, had been one of Ba'al's worlds, taken over after Anubis' defeat. No indication that Ba'al had ever had any major installations there, but that still made it marginally more interesting, since Anubis had been highly invested in collecting anything the Ancients had left behind.

Apparently the Goa'uld had been as frustrated by the gene lock as the Wraith were, though they'd had been more successful in reverse engineering the tech. Possibly because instead of eating anyone with the gene, they'd taken them as hosts.

Landry and an aide appeared as John finished the last pages. John got to his feet and came to attention.

"At ease, Colonel," Landry said as he bustled in.

The aide poured a cup of coffee and sat it in front of Landry at the head of the table before fading back.

"PY6-409," Landry said with a gesture to the briefing book John had just closed. "Caught up yet?"

"Yes sir."

"Good. SG-22 checked in from PY6-409 less than an hour ago. It appears Dr. Hazelhurst may have been correct. They believe they have found an Ancient installation and according to her, it strongly resembles the description Dr. Jackson, Dr. Littlefield and General O'Neill provided of the facility they dubbed Heliopolis. Whether it is a second Heliopolis as Dr. Hazelhurst avers is still up in the air. SG-22 haven't been able to enter it yet. You'll remember Lt. Cadman from her service in Atlantis; she's currently serving with SG-22. The lieutenant suggested it may be necessary to possess the ATA gene to gain entry and re-initialize  the facility."

"Sir," John said. He knew if he said he'd be willing to lead a team to PY6-409, Landry would slap him down and insinuate that hadn't been what he'd been called in to do, even though it clearly was.

Landry smiled at him, a fake smile, tight and hiding real dislike. "Since you're here on Earth and the next thing to an Ancient these days, I thought you might be interested in accompanying SG-14 and laying on the hands, so to speak."

Christ, there it was. Landry had had no love for John from the beginning. Elizabeth's political string pulling when they re-established contact with Earth had made sure of that, well before John had stolen a jumper and cut off Landry's transmission at Midway on the way to taking back Atlantis. Landry's opinion of him had never been high, but this felt different and John got it for the first time: it was the difference Keller's treatment to save him had made. Landry looked at him like John made his skin crawl. John wondered how the man could stand to work with Teal'c and Vala or Jackson. Maybe the xenophobia was a reaction to repeated exposure to the weird and alien; maybe Landry hadn't been like this when he was handpicked to takeover the SGC.

It explained the way Landry had orchestrated the fiasco with Ronon, though, if the man simply disliked and distrusted anyone he considered alien. At ninety-nine percent match to Alteran DNA, John supposed Landry considered him alien too, even if John's own heritage proved Alteran and humans could intermix.

It creeped him out, realizing how Landry saw him.

"Yes sir," he said, because all he wanted was to get away from Landry, before he opened his mouth and let out something stupid, like, I'm as human as you are, you prejudiced prick.

"Good," Landry declared. "They're gearing up now. Mission embarkation at 0400."

Fifteen minutes. John would have just enough time to get to the BOQ, pick up his own gear – and lucky he always brought it with him to the SGC – and get back to the gate room.

"Excuse me then, sir, and I'll gear up myself."

The conference room door opened.

"General Landry," Jackson said, already stepping inside. John glimpsed Vala beyond his shoulder. Landry couldn't see her from his angle. She waved and grinned. Both she and Jackson were geared up. "I need to be on this mission."

"Dr. Jackson," Landry started to object.

Jackson held up a hand. "Hazelhurst is an excellent archaeologist, but I have experience translating both Ancient and Asgard. I'm much more likely to accurately evaluate any Rosetta stone giving the key to Nox and Furling." Jackson almost shone with excitement. "Furling! We know less about them than the Nox. We really can't pass up any chance learn more."

Landry gave him a jaundiced look. "Very well, Dr. Jackson, as I see you've already prepared yourself. The rest of SG-1 is on stand down while Colonel Carter finishes her work with Dr. McKay."

"Yes, exactly," Jackson said. He finally noticed John. "Colonel Sheppard's coming with us?"

"Us?" Landry repeated.

Vala peered around the doorway. "I'm bored," she declared.

John thought he saw Landry shift back in his chair. "You have my permission," he said. He glanced back at John, expression still sour. "You're dismissed, Colonel."

"Thank you, sir."

John got to his feet and headed for the door.

"Meet you at the gate room," Jackson said as he passed.

He introduced John to SG-14 fifteen minutes later as they waited for the chevrons to cycle. John noticed Vala's pack was larger and heavier than Jackson's or the four members of SG-14. "Nice to meet you, Colonel," Major Pierson, 14's commander officer said. John replied in kind.

The gate opened with a whoosh that seemed louder in the tight concrete confines of the SGC's gate room.

John looked back just before stepping into the event horizon and noted Landry watching from the glassed in control deck. With a fuck-you shrug and smirk, John raised a hand and waved before following Vala through.

4 February
Milky Way
PY6-409 Akanital

Five minutes after the stargate shut down, while SG-14 fanned out to do a perimeter check, Vala and Jackson were bickering about something, heads bent together. John leaned against the DHD and surveyed their surroundings.

The briefing book had had a page of MALP readings, so he'd known the temperature would be high and the surroundings rock and sand, sans any significant vegetation. A blurry picture from the MALP camera hadn't conveyed how bright Akanital would be, though. The sun high in the nearly white sky glittered off specks of silica and quartz in the rock matrix. The stargate stood in a natural bowl slowly filling with dun-colored sand. The sand spilled in through cracks and low places in a rough wall of ocher and orange rocks, a natural clock counting down grain by grain until the day the desert swallowed the stargate entirely.

SG-14 started up the rocky climb to the top edge of the bowl in single file. Major Pierson reached the top first and stood there, shading his eyes with one hand as he turned. The sergeant whose name John hadn't caught joined him and pulled binoculars from his vest.

John fished his sunglasses out of his vest and donned them against the glare. The bowl acted like a reflector to heat the air to oven-like temperatures. Sweat ran down his back and dust caught in his throat. He resisted the urge to drink from his canteen. Pegasus didn't have many desert worlds with stargates; he was out of practice, but he remembered the Middle East. It was necessary to stay hydrated, but using up your water before you knew where the next canteen would be coming from was stupid.

He tried and failed not to raise his eyebrows as Vala opened her pack, pulled out a roll of leather and silk, then stripped down to bra, panties and socks before redressing. Jackson ostentatiously turned his back. John didn't. He had to admit, the skin tight black leather pants and dull gold silk tunic did a lot more for her than the baggy pants and uniform blouse. She shoved the BDUs and blouse into the pack and straightened, looking straight back at him.

"It's safe to look now, Daniel," she announced. "Isn't it, Colonel Sheppard?"

"You could say so," he agreed.

Vala wrapped her arms around Jackson once he turned around and kissed his cheek, then tripped back to the DHD where John stood. A blinding smile stretched across her face.

She reached up and patted his cheek. "Out of the way, handsome," she said. John shifted enough that she could begin a dialing sequence.

"Going some place?" he asked.

"Always," she replied, stilling smiling and batting her lashes at him.

Jackson joined them. "Vala gathers a lot of intelligence for us. We haven't been offworld in three weeks, though. Normally, Cam goes with her while Sam and Teal'c and I cover the mission."

Vala set her hand on the central crystal and the gate began to move. John noted the chevrons as they engaged. Memorized the address just in case. Vala hefted her heavy pack higher on her shoulders and started toward the gate. "Watch out for Daniel, handsome. I'll be back the day after tomorrow."

"Watch out for yourself," Jackson told her.

Vala blew them both kisses.

"Landry doesn't know," Jackson said after the stargate shut down the second time.

He and John started up the rocky trail SG-14 had taken. In places it was more climb than trail. John couldn't think of a comment that didn't say more than he wanted to commit to, so he kept his mouth shut.

"Pierson and his team will keep their mouths shut." Daniel reached for a handhold and boosted himself up to a ledge. "So will SG-22 and Abby Hazelhurst."

John scrambled after him.

"It's not really my mission," he said once they reached the top. Red, gritty dust coated his palms and under his fingernails. "I'm just here to play light switch."

"You do outrank Pierson and Wade," Jackson pointed out.

John dusted his hands against his pants and tried to figure out which way they'd be walking. He thought he glimpsed something but couldn't be sure; the horizon shimmered, layers of heat mirage blurring real and unreal. With the sun directly overhead he couldn't even pick out an arbitrary east and west. A compass wouldn't be much use so close to the stargate; the naquadah threw off the magnetic field compasses used.

"You should put on some head protection," Jackson said.

John nodded. "You've been at this longer than anyone," he replied, letting that be his answer to Jackson's unspoken request.

"Sirs," Major Pierson called. "This way." He pointed in the direction John had thought he saw something. A scuffed path marked the rocks, then disappeared into the rippling sea of sand.

John grimaced at it, pulled a bandanna out of his tac vest and wished he'd had a chance to pick up desert camo instead of his normal blacks. He hated walking in sand, too.

They were all coated in the flour pale dust that lifted from the sand with each step after two hours walking. The treacherous sand shifted without warning beneath their feet, subsiding and slipping, so that all six of them had fallen at least once. Sergeant Bessemer limped painfully, one hand braced on Lt. Gale's shoulder as a crutch.

Spotting the tower came as a relief to everyone.

Its silhouette gave away its Ancient origins, angular and contemptuous of gravity. A step closer and its truth got lost in the sepia and umber stone added later, obscuring it with Goa'uld decoration on top of even older markings. The desert was deep and old on Akanital. Somewhere at the bed of the ocean of sand there might have been much more than the surreal shapes of a garden of wind-carved stones that still remained above the sand line, entire cities and civilizations built in this place, swallowed back, eroded and eaten away in the belly of time.

White tents were pitched at the tower's base. Someone saw them and gave a yell, but no one left the paltry shade provided by canvas. John didn't blame them. The heat sucked every ounce of energy from the body. The air felt thin. Low on oxygen according to the MALP readings, though not much worse than Denver in fact except they were near or below Akanital's sea level.

Dr. Hazelhurst, tanned nut brown and leathery, a frizzy halo of hair escaped from her braid to surround her round face, met them with a bright smile. "Dr. Jackson! Look at it!"

Jackson gave her a tired nod in return. "Abby. Good find."

John studied the tower, trying to feel any interface with the Ancient tech they thought was there. He spotted places where the stone facing had fallen away from the underlying structure, revealing silver and bronze, familiar Ancient alloys, still smooth and sound after millenia. The first Ancients, the ones who came to the Milky Way and Pegasus and built the stargates, Atlantis and her sister cities, built to last. They'd only grown careless at the end, when their whole existence had turned toward achieving ascension.

The builders he might have liked, the ones who explored the galaxies when they were new. John didn't have any time for the Alterans who ran though, first to Pegasus, then back to the Milky Way, and finally to another plane of existence.

He hadn't mentioned it to anyone, not even Rodney, but he did feel a difference; interfacing and using the gene activated equipment seemed even easier since Keller's treatment. Atlantis responded faster to him and offered up options it hadn't before, the same way it had for Helia and the other Ancients from the Tria. He tried not to think about that much, though, or he ended up worried the Purists were right and he wasn't human any more.

"Colonel Sheppard?" Jackson asked.

John blinked and looked down. He shrugged. He'd have to get closer. Even the Ancients needed to be in contact to operate some of their technology. "No magic answers, sorry."

Jackson accepted the answer without any visible disappointment.

"You should all rest," Hazelhurst said. "We usually work in the mornings, take a siesta, then do our reports, before doing the camp chores and dinner in the evening. We have a well, though it's nearly dry. If we keep it covered during the day, there's usually enough water to wash with by evening." She led them toward the largest tent. "The days are long."

"Thirty-three hours, right?" Jackson asked.

"Yes."

They stepped into the shade of the tent. The white canvas seemed to glow, light seeping through it, but the air in the tent felt cooler. Tables had been set up and were covered with papers and laptops, familiar gear whether in Pegasus or the Milky Way. The four members of SG-22 were already inside, one occupying a cot, Cadman on a camp stool, two of them perched on conveniently located rocks. John took off his sunglasses as his eyes adapted.

Hazelhurst waved at the two groups. "You all know each other, except, this is Co – "

Cadman bounded to her feet. "Colonel Sheppard!"

"Lieutenant," he greeted her. She should have made captain by now and he wondered what had happened. Landry or her own sometimes reckless judgment?

Cadman was a good marine, smart, fast on her feet, a little too casual by most military standards. He'd never been sure how much she'd figured out while occupying Rodney's head and Rodney had never been comfortable with her. She had an instinct for weak spots and took gleeful pleasure in hitting them. She'd picked at Rodney and John hadn't been able to run interference beyond assigning her duties that kept them mostly separate. John had sent her back to Earth the last time without much regret.

"That's right, Cadman, you did a stretch in Atlantis, didn't you?" the captain who had been sitting beside her said.

"You make it sound like she got sent up to the big house, Menard," Major Wade commented. He nodded to John. "Hello, sir."

Wade and John had met before at the SGC. He didn't spring to attention; though they hadn't gotten to know each other beyond a few casual exchanges at the Level 22 officer's mess, Wade had picked up that John didn't stand on formality. They were in the field anyway, where salutes only identified officers to the enemy.

"Major Wade."

He folded his sunglasses.

"Aren't you in the wrong galaxy?" Balinsky, SG-22's anthropologist, asked with a wicked grin and raised eyebrows. His freckled fair skin was pink and peeling over his nose and cheekbones.

John frowned and looked around. "I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque." He tucked the sunglasses away, then pulled off the bandanna he'd used to give his head some cover.

Balinsky and Pierson laughed.

John found a decent spot to sit down and waved at Gale to guide Bessemer over.

"It's just turned," Bessemer protested.

"Let Inoue decide that," Pierson told him. He nodded at their fourth, Sergeant Billy Inoue, who pulled a first aid kit from his pack and told Bessemer, "Get that boot off now. You probably wrenched it."

John wended his way over to where Wade had another camp stool and sat down. "So, I hear you need someone with the gene."

"It looks like it, according to Dr. Hazelhurst and Balinsky," Wade replied. "How'd you end up here?"

"I was handy, I guess."

Wade snorted. "Like swatting a fly with a nuke, isn't it?"

John stretched out his legs and wiggled his toes. He had sand down his socks. "It's better than explaining why Atlantis needs shipments of water colors and building blocks."

Pierson joined them, chuckling as he overheard. "What do you need them for, sir?" he asked.

"I tell them it's for the marines," John replied, with a pointed look at Pierson.

Jackson wandered over. "Abby's ready and raring to see if you can get us inside. Up for a little more walking?"

"Yeah, why not?" John replied with a sigh. He'd get the sand out of socks later.

He donned his sunglasses again as they left the tent. Cadman stayed behind with Bessemer. Wade led the rest of the two teams toward the tower, then inside a stone arch. John noted the unweathered edges of the opening and a pile of rubble piled to the side. "What'd you do, blow open the door?"

"Cadman got a little impatient," Captain Menard answered.

The walls had torch sconces. Balinsky cracked chemical lights that shone green and placed them in the sconces, so that their movements chased eerie shadows through the dark corridor as it descended and descended in a spiral grade that John realized wound round the original Ancient tower's circumference, down far below the sand line.

At least the temperature became cooler, dropping the deeper they went. Jackson kept stopping to trace his flashlight over inscriptions carved into the stone walls. "God, what a find," he commented once, probably more to himself than any of them. John was reminded of Rodney in pursuit of an energy reading.

"So, sir, have you heard any news about what the UNE will do with the Stargate Program?" Menard asked.

John shrugged. The UNE had officially begun its life on the first of the year. He'd given his latest in person briefing to a mixed group: Landry, O'Neill, two IOA reps, and two UNE liaisons. Then he'd attended a briefing, laying out the first changes the UNE meant to make in the SGC. The full reorganization would follow in the next few months, but from what he'd heard, it would take a year or more to straighten out the chaos that would inevitably follow.

They were going to lose a lot of SGC personnel, people who had been with the Program for a decade, right off the bat. Not so many in Atlantis, but Atlantis had a far lower percentage of Americans. Though presuming the people from other countries would be any more likely to give up their citizenships was a fallacy.

He thought about it and there was really no reason not to answer. The UNE's plan couldn't be considered classified, it just hadn't been disseminated yet.

"Reorganize after everyone switches citizenship," he answered.

"What?" Menard stumbled, trying to turn around and stare at John. "Sir?"

"Everyone working in the Program, going off world, will have to be UNE citizens," John explained. "Kind of citizens of the world. Sounded like they mean to translate rank, but if you stick, you'll have to swear an oath to Earth instead of the US. Or wherever you come from; it's going to be same thing for all the scientists working in Atlantis, who are from all over the world, if that makes you feel any better, Captain."

"Homeworld Security will be doing the same thing," Jackson mentioned.

"We're almost there," Hazelhurst told them from up ahead.

"Sir," Menard murmured, his voice lowered so it wouldn't carry, though John knew Jackson at least would hear too, "are you – ?"

John hesitated, not because he hadn't decided as easily as he decided to take a breath and let his heart beat, but because he didn't know if he should say, because it wasn't the same for a young officer like Menard. John was at the end of his Air Force career. He had twenty years in and all the rank he could imagine getting; wouldn't want more if it meant leaving Atlantis. He had the example of O'Neill as proof that promotion could take you beyond where you wanted to be as well as beyond your competency level.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that," Menard added as the silence stretched.

Their boots sounded quietly, a shush of sand tracked even so deep, between stone and sole, grinding away at the dry-fitted stones.

"Captain Menard," Jackson said just as quietly, "I think Col. Sheppard has his answer, but he considers giving it to you too likely to influence your own decision. He thinks that you're young, though you've been with the SGC longer than he has. You were with Col. Edwards' team before this, weren't you?"

"Yes sir," Menard replied. "SG-11."

"The real question for you, Captain, is if you mean to stick with the Stargate Program or progress your career with the marines," Jackson went on softly. "Because, no matter what the UNE or anyone else says, after you've finished ten years or twenty in service with the UNE, you can go back to being a citizen of the US if you want, but you won't have a place in Marine Corps. Others will have risen through the ranks, paid their dues, and you'll still be a Captain, unless the Corps agrees to honor promotions within the UNE forces."

"Oh."

John leveled a glance at Jackson. "What about you?"

Jackson shrugged. "I've considered myself a citizen of Earth for years now. I can't really imagine leaving the SGC."

John nodded to him. Not that he considered himself a citizen of Earth. But he couldn't imagine giving up Atlantis. There were other things he couldn't imagine. The new military code had no prohibition against homosexuality. He thought that would be harder to deal with than anyone anticipated. Changing a law didn't change a prejudice. Some people were still going to get hurt when they came out.

He wasn't going to be one of them.

"I don't know if I'm ready for that," Menard said.

That didn't surprise John. He thought officer and enlisted would both be mostly like Menard, not like him or Jackson or Rodney, who had given their loyalties to ideals that were abstracted from any one place. Standing guard, searching out, learning more. It was too bad, because most of them had already expanded their world view to encompass protecting the entire world and everyone on it, but they wouldn't want to give up who they were.

Before John felt compelled to say more, their party reached the bottom. The ramp leveled out into a isosceles trapezoidal room that channeled toward a familiar looking doorway.

"This is it," Balinsky said. He raised the battery lantern in his hand higher, throwing more light on the angled interlock of two red-bronze doors. Unlit columns of horizontal light units, ubiquitous throughout Atlantis, bracketed the doorway. A darkened crystal sensor barred the center of the door, enough like the ones back home that John felt a thrum of familiarity.

He and Jackson both walked forward. Hazelhurst and Balinsky shifted to the side to give them room. Hazelhurst watched with bright eyes. She might have been holding her breath.

Jackson ran his fingers over the raised decorations, frowning, the dim light reflecting off his glasses. "I've seen this before."

John cocked his head and studied the shapes. Not writing, but he'd gradually come to realize that much of the decoration in Atlantis meant something more than adornment. When they'd all begun paying attention to that, useful finds had doubled

"Knowledge," he said in a moment of recognition.

Jackson twisted to look back at John.

"We see that design in a lot of places in Atlantis, linked to some kind of data storage usually."

Jackson appeared to want more from John.

"Like, I don't know, a stylized wave painted on a marina sign."

Jackson traced the repeated design again. "Thematic, not symbolic."

"Can you open it?" Wade asked John.

John joined Jackson in front of the door. The smooth surface of the dull white crystal warmed under his palm. It lit, dim and reluctant, a slow, grinding vibration spreading from the lock to the doors and into the rock.

"The Ancients didn't go in for booby traps, did they?" Lt. Gale asked, half nervous and half facetious. "This is definitely where there are booby traps in the movie."

"They liked riddles," Jackson said.

"They liked jerking around anyone not big enough to slap them down," John muttered. He pushed at the door with his will, commanding it to open. With a screech and a puff of sand, the door parted and slid open, stale air rolling out as it did.

Everyone coughed and Dr. Hazelhurst gagged a little. John's eyes watered.

The light columns on each side of the door flickered, the units lighting one after the other, but only for a second, then all but the last, floor level unit dulled again.

"Power's nearly gone," John said.

He walked inside. As he did, the lights inside came up, while those behind him faded out. Menard's voice carried perhaps more than he'd meant, "I guess that's what Cadman meant."

"Inoue," Pierson said. "Stay outside. If something happens, you get back to camp, brief Cadman and Bessemer, then report through the stargate."

"Yes sir."

The rest of them followed John inside the base of the tower. Stifling darkness filled the interior just beyond the paltry light of Balinsky's lantern and the emergency lights that flickered and threatened to fail. It felt material, as though darkness could settle dense and touchable, thicker and heavier with each century, millenia condensed from emptiness and silence, into the spaces left behind.

John flipped on the light mounted on his P90 and edged forward. He missed Rodney's presence behind him, the certainty of Teyla and Ronon beside him.

"I think we'll have to go up," Jackson said.

Menard groaned and Gale laughed. "Come on, Menard, you're a marine. Suck it up."

"We just came all the way down."

John played his light over another set of doors and kept his mouth shut. He'd bet a chocolate bar, two unreleased DVDs, and a basket of gredel berries that those doors hid a transporter, but considering the tower could barely bring up the lights, he wasn't risking his molecules in its transporter. Using the similarity to Atlantis again, he turned to the right, went down three steps and around a corner. A set of stairs went up just where he'd thought they'd be.

They climbed all the way to the top, to a single polygonal room. Four walls of stained glass dominated, alternated with four walls of writing, brilliantly coloring the room and the ceiling that arched far overhead. John recognized only the Ancient writing on one wall. The other three sets of inscriptions were a beautiful mystery. A pedestal resembling a DHD drew the eye to the center of the room. A single ruby red crystal at its top appeared to be the only control, lines of silvery text in the four different alphabets encircling it.

Jackson and Hazelhurst approached it as acolytes to an altar. John hung back with the rest of the military. Balinsky sat his lantern down, drew a video camera from his pack and started recording the walls.

"It's not the same as Heliopolis," Jackson murmured, "It's older." He looked around. "It may have never been meant for anyone but the Ancients, unlike Heliopolis."

Hazelhurst bent close to the pedestal, peering at an inscription. "Daniel, I'm reading this line as Find truth to seek knowledge," she murmured. She took off her pack, knelt on the floor and brought out a sketch pad and pencil. Next came a digital camera that she handed up to Jackson.

Jackson snapped off a dozen pictures from different angles, circling the pedestal, then bent and peered at the same inscription. "It could be a reference to finding a single point of agreement between all the languages. Heliopolis began everything with a visual representation of the elements."

He straightened and stepped back, considering the entire room.

"Abby, you're our best artist, so I want you to sketch everything," Jackson directed. "Cam, finish videoing the walls, then do a three-sixty on the pedestal. Menard, you can draw up a floor plan for this room."

John coughed as Jackson paused. "You should probably record the windows too. In Atlantis, we've started figuring out that some of the stained glass patterns relate to the purpose of the rooms."

Jackson nodded. "Of course, and even if they merely decorative," he smiled there, the inflection ironic, "they're still worth recording, aren't they?"

John and the others sank down and waited patiently while the scientists did their thing. Pierson seemed the most restless; John pegged him as the least experienced working with scientists. The marines were generally dispatched on more 'active' missions at the SGC. John leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, feeling tired and strained, unsure if it was himself or the tower. It had slept so long, it would have slipped into its final end unaware if they hadn't come.

It grumbled to itself like Rodney, complaining about the weather and the lack of coffee and exhaustion.

"Colonel, are you asleep?" a soft, feminine voice asked.

John opened one eye. "Not really." The light through the glass had changed, thickened into honey and gold dust, peridot, ruby, aquamarine, citrine, tangerine. A splash of glowing violet started on Hazelhurst's shoulder, colored her hair and streaked over her cheek. It competed with the smear of dust on her nose. He checked his watch. Three hours had passed. He hadn't been quite asleep, part of him had been listening to the low voices of the others, their movements, alert for any change from a threat, but he'd been in a near meditative state.

Not that he meant to ever tell Teyla that.

Or Rodney either.

"We've finished the preliminary survey," Hazelhurst told him.

She moved back as John got to his feet and stretched.

Jackson stood in front of the pedestal. "If this is a second Library of the Four Races, when I activate this, it will display the first page of shared knowledge. The elements that compose the universe as we know it," he lectured them all.

The crystal remained dark and lifeless under Jackson's hand. He pressed down. Still nothing happened. Even pressing with two hands invoked no response.

"Colonel," Jackson called, sounding and looking annoyed, "maybe you can try it?"

John walked over. He had a feeling. The library tower felt the way Atlantis had, 48,000 years in the future, with only a trickle of power remaining, lost and forgotten on a dead planet circling a dying sun.

Jackson moved aside and John placed his hand on the crystal. The heat he felt could have been left behind by Jackson's touch. The hum that ran through his nerves, aching and slow, came from the technology. John nudged it gently, more of a try than a command of on.

The crystal lit faintly. Shutters older than civilization on Earth closed over the windows, darkening the room they stood in.

"Oh my God," Balinsky whispered.

Above them, a hologram shimmered into existence, orange, amber, yellow, red, neutron, proton, electron, shot through with brilliant green and blue, revolving in the great vault, building into the familiar constant: hydrogen. The beautiful display trembled and faded though and blinked out as John lifted his hand away.

"Wait, turn it back on!" Jackson ordered him.

In the stifling darkness that followed, John knew no one saw him shake his head or stroke the crystal with his hand, half sorry to turn it off, regretting that he had activated it at all. He felt like he'd killed something. Gale cursed and someone tripped, then Major Wade had Balinsky's lantern on again, providing them with its harsh white light.

"It's dead," John said. "That pulled up the last bit of power it had."

"Oh." Abby Hazelhurst sounded like she might be in tears.

"This always happens, I swear," Jackson muttered. "It's like a universal game of bait-and-switch."

John ignored him and followed the starburst of lines on the floor to their center, situated beneath the window opposite the door. He knelt on one knee, ran his fingers over the lines, feeling for the difference, unable to see it in the dim light. His calluses caught at last on a faint depression. He found the other four easily after that, fitted his hand to them, pressed, and rotated his wrist. Clockwise, clockwise, counterclockwise, counter, counter, and clockwise again. With a sigh, a hidden compartment opened and released a ZPM. A dulled, depleted ZPM, but John smiled at it anyway, gathering it up.

"Don't give up so quick," he told Jackson. "Rodney and Radek can recharge this. At least there will be something to show for the mission." He took the ZPM back to his pack where he'd left it by the door, wrapped it in the spare tee shirt he always carried, and tucked it away. He shouldered the pack and looked around. "Not much else to do here, we may as well head back, don't you think?"

Jackson kept looking at him like he'd kicked his puppy off the top of Mt. Everest or something, but followed along. The climb down the stairs seemed to take even longer than up, but they were all tired and disappointed. John felt grateful the camp had been set up right at the tower, even if he considered it a mistake tactically. They should have set up camp far enough away from the tower anyone else coming to it would miss them, then set up a sentry to watch it. But, hell, he wasn't in charge of the mission and Akanital had no population.

Wade planned to post a watch overnight at least. They sat down and ate the MREs they'd brought first though. No campfire to warm the night as it chilled down either; Akanital had nothing to burn, just stubborn, spiky plants that clung to the shadowed crevices in the rocks.

"Make sure you shake out your boots in the morning," Balinsky said. "There's a little six-legged lizard here." He held up his hand, thumb and first finger bent to show its length. "Bright yellow with black spots. Loses its tail to distract predators, but it's the claws you've got to watch out for, they're more like a snake fang and inject a neurotoxin."

"Fatal?" John asked. He hadn't seen anything about lethal lizards in the briefing book.

Wade made a face. "Maybe, if you got enough. Bad enough to make you wish you were dead for a couple hours," he said. "Hurt like a mother."

Balinsky nodded toward Major Wade. "That's how we found out. They're drawn to body heat during the night. Just give everything a good shake, they aren't aggressive."

"Okay," John drawled.

Couldn't be worse the the Iratus bugs and some of the other fauna they'd run into in Pegasus. The mission where they'd waded across a waist high swamp and ended up burning two-headed mutant leeches off their privates had made it to the 'never to be mentioned again' list. He still puckered up when he remembered where a couple of the slick, scarlet, bloodbloated things had been attached. They'd had to wade back through again, strip and de-leech a second time so they could get Teyla back to the infirmary. Not a story he was ever going to tell anyone, even on another gate team.

He abandoned his MRE. Any reminder of the planet of vampire slugs was a guaranteed appetite killer, even years later.

"Mind if I finish that, sir?" Cadman asked, grinning cheekily as if she knew what John was thinking.

He handed the lemon pound cake over. "I'll take first watch, unless someone else wants it," he said.

"Fine by me," Pierson said.

"Cadman, relieve the Colonel at local midnight," Wade directed.

"Bessemer can take third watch," Pierson said. He grinned at the Sergeant. "Since he's been doing nothing but sit around all afternoon."

John left them to it and wandered out of camp. Twilight dyed the desert red, purple, then suddenly indigo and gray as the night spilled down, filling the sky with stars as the sun drowned beneath the horizon. He checked the perimeter out of habit, feeling the lack of Ronon and Teyla distinctly, missing Rodney's grumbling through the radio earpiece he wasn't wearing, feeling out of sorts and out of step, glad to get away from the others for a while. They were good enough people, but they weren't his team, weren't even his people the way Lorne and the scientists and marines of Atlantis were.

He grunted to himself as he climbed to the top of a massive stone twisted into a Dali-esque tree, wider above than below. He scrambled to the flattened top and perched there, where he could see across the desert in every direction. He was the outsider, the Lantean stuck in the wrong galaxy. The fading heat and last light made it possible to see a line of mountains another half day's trek beyond the tower. Whatever water fed the well SG-22 had been using probably came from there. He made himself comfortable and let his thoughts drift while he watched.

The well meant there had been people on Akanital sometime after the Ancients and whatever civilization had come and gone after them. Long gone though. Akanital wouldn't support anything much bigger than the lizards now.

A half moon larger and closer than Luna had glided a third of the way across the night sky when Cadman scrambled up the rocks to relieve him. The sands stretched like a silver sea beneath its light, the shadows it threw sharp and impenetrably dark. The library tower shadow cast across the desert like a razor cut shape taken from a two dimensional photo.

"Cadman," he murmured.

She hunkered down next to him, looking in the same direction. He felt her stiffen beside him as she spotted what had him so interested. A tiny figure crossing the sand from the direction of the stargate, moving at a determined, hurried pace.

Cadman fumbled a set of binoculars from her tac vest. John plucked them away before she could use them and found the figure again with them, dialing it into focus.

Vala.

He watched her crossing the sand for another five minutes, growing more and more uneasy. Day after tomorrow, she'd said. Even presuming a shorter day wherever the hell she'd gone to pick up information, this was far enough ahead of schedule to ring John's alarms. She moved at a running walk, covering ground as fast as she could push without hurting or exhausting herself, and no one set that pace without a reason. He had hightailed it for a stargate enough times to know.

"Keep an eye on her," he directed Cadman. "Look for anyone behind her."

"Who is it?"

"Vala Mal Doran," he said and then dropped off the rocks and headed for the tents to wake Wade and Pierson. The moonlight provided enough light, even inside the tents, to pick out individuals in their sleeping bags. Jackson snapped awake too, the instant John stopped beside Wade and shook his shoulder. Somewhere in his unconscious, Jackson's instincts recognized the difference between a shift change and a problem.

"What is it?" Jackson asked groggily. He groped in the pocket of the shirt he'd worn to sleep in, found his glasses and put them on.

"Vala's coming in," John said.

"Too early," Jackson said immediately.

"That's what I thought."

Jackson looked thoughtfully around the tent they were in. "Let's get the laptops and papers packed up," he said.

Wade and Pierson were already on their feet, waking everyone else.

"Let Abby sleep," Jackson told them.

The laptops weren't much of a problem. SG-22 had carried one each coming in and modified their packs to carry them. The papers were more difficult and John knew Hazelhurst would be ticked if it turned out they hadn't needed to gather them up after all. They ended up stuffed in a sixth pack and shoved into any nook or cranny in SG-14's packs.

"Canteens filled?" John checked with Wade. He knew Wade was technically in charge of the mission, but he couldn't help it, he had to be sure.

"Every night," Wade confirmed.

"Make sure Vala fills hers."

"Yes sir."

He ducked back out of the tent and whistled as he saw Vala reach the first of the contorted rocks littering the ground near the tower. Jackson slipped out of the tent behind him, smothering a yawn with one hand, then rubbing his chin, still drowsy despite whatever shot of adrenaline had accompanied waking.

"Daniel, Colonel," she greeted them as soon as she was in speaking distance. The shit-eating grin was distinctly missing. "We have to get out here."

"Vala – " Jackson started.

"What is it?" John interrupted.

"A Lucian raiding party is on its way," Vala said. "They may already be through the gate, I was only an hour or two ahead of them."

"Why are they coming here?" Daniel demanded.

John didn't waste time asking. He opened the tent flap and told Wade and Pierson. "Lucian Alliance on the way. Break everything down, we have to get out of here." He saw Wade open his mouth and then shut it. Good. John had rank and command experience. He'd been willing to go along before, but not when the chips were down.

"I don't know," Vala answered, tired and annoyed. "They must have received intel there was something interesting to the SGC here."

"How, damn it?"

John thought that was pretty obvious.

"Did you tell someone?" Daniel demanded of her.

John gave him an incredulous look. "Jackson, if she sold us out, she wouldn't be here. Not to mention it takes longer than a half day to put together a raiding party. You were the one who said SG-1 hadn't been off world in three weeks." He dropped his voice. "It's a hell of lot more likely someone in SG-22 is the leak. We should keep that in mind."

Pierson slipped out of the tent and joined them. John nodded. Expressions were iffy to read by moonlight, but the young major looked bothered.

"Let's walk," John suggested.

"You don't really think someone on SG-22 sold information to the Lucian Alliance?" Jackson asked. He kept his voice down too.

"It's a possibility we have to consider, especially if they're guarding our backs." John shrugged and added, "I'd trust Menard and I know Cadman, but nothing's sure."

Vala stayed silent, but she nodded in a way that meant she had the same experience.

"I know Cam Balinsky and Abby Hazelhurst," Jackson insisted. "They'd never – "

"Sir," Pierson interrupted. "Major Wade made the check-in on his own. Bessemer got that from Menard earlier."

"Sonovabitch," John muttered. Wade? He tried to formulate a plan that took into account Major Wade being unreliable. "Okay, we need to get back to the gate before the Lucians – "

A skitter of small rocks interrupted him. Cadman scrambled down from her sentry post. She landed on her feet, slightly breathless, and said, "Sir. A large party is on its way here."

"How many?" John asked.

"I counted forty-five."

He slapped his thigh in frustration. Fuck. They could try an ambush, but even counting Wade, that would be over four to one odds. The Lucians could reinforce through the stargate and it would become a siege situation, until the ammo ran out. The SGC would dial in if they missed more than one check-in, but once more, if the Lucians held the gate any rescue would walk out into the sand bowl onto a perfect killing ground.

"We have to retreat. Try to make it look like we've been and gone," John decided. "Circle around, hope they haven't left more than a few guards at the gate. If they have, we'll have to make for the hills and out wait them. Stay off the radios until the SGC dials in." He looked at Cadman and could make out only the pale curve of a cheekbone and forehead by moonlight. Her eyes were only a wet glint in shadow. "Is there water in the hills?"

"If you know where to look and get lucky, sir."

"Good."

He and Vala both turned, cued by the same sound of footsteps approaching.

"Major Wade,"' John greeted the other man. "We're just putting together a plan. Lt. Cadman spotted a forty-five strong force on its way."

"Damn," Wade said. He sounded sincere. "Hazelhurst's throwing a fit."

"Crap," Jackson muttered. "Abby's only been to secured digs before this." He pulled in a deep breath. "I'll handle her."

"Cameron's explaining, but you might help," Wade agreed.

Pierson spoke. "Sir, I have standing orders from the SGC to destroy any potentially useful tech if we have to abandon in place during a mission."

John squinted at him. "So? We've got the laptops, any papers. I don't think leaving some canvas tents behind or a folding table is going to give the Lucians a leg up in the arms race."

"I meant the library tower, sir."

"No!" Jackson hissed. "No, no, no. You can't."

"How would you do it?" John asked. He watched Wade while he spoke, wondering if Wade really could have sold out to the Lucians at some point. If he had, then he'd surely object to destroying the very technology he'd offered the Lucians.

"C4."

John shook his head. "Major, that's an Ancient building under the rocks and I can tell you from experience, it would take a naquadah bomb to bring it down completely. I've seen the kind of hits Ancient architecture can take and stay standing and functional."

"Then, sir, we can't abandon the tower," Pierson insisted.

"I have a simpler solution," John told him. "Without the ZPM, the tower is useless to anyone. If we blow the doorway, the corridor down to the tower's door will fill with rock. I don't think the Lucians will bother trying to excavate. If they do, it still will take them weeks. We can get off this rock and the SGC or the UNE can decide whether its worthwhile to send an expedition to get inside and reactivate the library later, even if they have to throw the Lucians off the planet first." He looked at Jackson. "Fair enough?"

"Yes," Jackson replied. "Thank you."

John nodded to him. "Okay, Major Wade, I'll need Cadman to help set the charges." He headed for the tent again. "Everyone carries their packs with them from now until we evac." He ducked inside and scooped up his own, shouldering it. A small chemical light had been cracked to offer a little more light in the tent and everyone else, even Hazelhurst, was breaking down the interior. "Water, food, and ammo are our first priorities, people," John told them. "Cadman. C4. You're with me. We're blowing the tower entrance."

"I've got timers, radio detonators, and I can rig up both motion and weight sensors," Cadman said. "I could set up some booby traps too."

"First the tower," John decided.

He caught Vala's elbow as he went out. "Fill your canteen. Make sure everyone else checks theirs." Wade had indicated the job was done, but he couldn't trust that now. That thought in mind, he shook his own canteen, listening to the reassuring slosh, then opened it and sniffed.

Vala's eyes narrowed, but she just nodded.

"Inoue," Pierson called. "Get up on one of the rocks, keep an eye on the Lucians, we want to get out before they're too close."

They moved out just under forty-five minutes later, at the same running walk Vala had used, the charges set to collapse the entire stone corridor that ramped down from the surface to the tower's base. John had levered the tower doors closed and watched the lock engage mechanically. It would require someone with Rodney's expertise to hook it up to a power source to open again. The timers were set for two hours, with a motion sensor spitefully hooked into the detonators halfway down the long ramp to bring it down on the Lucians' heads if possible. Cadman's suggestion, but John had no objection to thinning the odds against them.

They circled northward, toward the hills on the horizon, taking advantage of the cool of the night to move fast. The moonlight made for both a blessing and curse. It let them see, but it meant that anyone with sufficient elevation could see them too.

Menard and Cadman took point. Pierson assigned Gale to walk drag. Balinsky walked beside Hazelhurst, then Inoue and Bessemer just ahead of them, then Wade and Pierson, John, Jackson, and Vala. John wanted Wade where he could watch him.

The sand slipped under their boots and Bessemer was still limping, but they set a hard pace and stayed with it, only faltering when the C4 went off, the roar echoing across the desert, the ground shivering under their feet.

"Keep moving," John snapped at everyone.

According to his watch, they had at least four more hours before dawn. They could either try to push through to the stargate and face retreating back across the desert in broad daylight or hole up in the hills through the day and try an approach after night fell again.

Slowing his pace so that he fell back from the two majors, John asked Jackson, "Has this been happening often?"

"You mean raiders showing up?" Jackson asked. "The last gamma site was wiped out, everything looted. Four personnel are still unaccounted for."

"That didn't make it to the databurst," John said.

Jackson sneered. "Landry. I don't think it made it to the IOA, either. The equipment losses are buried in paperwork, the people are listed as MIA. It's what we wanted Vala to get a line on."

Vala slipped in close between John and Jackson, so she could speak as softly as possible. "I went to Bem'rar," she murmured. "Tau'ri equipment is showing up in the markets in the Hole. My contact told me three Tau'ri engineers had been for sale, but they died in the slave barracks before auction."

"No IDs?" Jackson asked.

"I'm sorry, but that's all my contact had, except for the news that Kefflin was dispatching a strike force to take a Ancient site in Ba'al's old territories. Someone talked when they were buying supplies."

"If you hadn't warned us, we might all be prisoners of the Lucians," John told her.

Vala gave a little shudder. "I have no desire to visit the Hole as a slave."

"PY4-33K," Jackson said. "You can't reach it by stargate. There are two blackholes near the system. The gravity tides between the system and the two blackholes tear apart Goa'uld and Asgard hyperdrives and anything we've got too. It takes at least a week to pilot a ship from the boundary to the planet using sublights."

"How do you know about it?"

"Vala told us."

"The route changes constantly," Vala added. "It's the galactic safe haven for pirates, slavers, smugglers and black marketeers. You can buy anything there if you can pay for it. The local government takes a cut of every transaction and the cream of any technology. They enforce neutrality within the system. Not even the System Lords could take it." Vala's voice held a wealth of spiteful amusement. "Though many tried."

"What about ships being ambushed when they leave the system?" John asked. It sounded pretty wild even to him. "Don't rivals just sit outside the boundary like a cat at a mouse hole?"

Vala patted his arm. "They would, but there's no way to predict where the route out to the boundary will be for any given ship."

"Gotcha."

The sand under their feet firmed and gave way to gritty earth and rocks. They'd reached the edge of the hills. John scanned the dark outlines. There was cover at least, though it would still be an oven when the sun came up and the heat reflected off every rock face.

"If we get up high enough, we should be able to see the stargate," he said.

The two teams hunkered down at the base of a particularly tall spire. John caught Jackson's attention and flicked his gaze toward Wade, wanting someone to keep an eye on him. Jackson nodded.

John climbed the spire after Cadman, who went up it fast as a monkey. The top yielded a ledge with enough room for John. Cadman perched above him, one arm wrapped around the rock to hold herself in place. They surveyed for pursuit first, but found none, just the distant pale cloud of dust from the explosion over the dark horizon, still settling.

"We got some of them, sir," Cadman said. "The timers still had fifteen minutes."

"Good," John said. "They won't know when we left. The traps could have been left days ago."

They'd swept the sand behind them for the first half hour and trusted the ceaseless shift to obscure their tracks after that. Not to say a good tracker couldn't have followed them, but the Lucians weren't exactly disciplined from what he'd read. John doubted they had many men as talented as Ronon or disciplined as Teal'c. Though there were rumors some Jaffa were working for them. The Jaffa Nation was not a monolith. Some Jaffa still served Goa'uld by choice too, though the System Lords' power had been thoroughly broken. If the raiding party had Jaffa, then nothing they did to cover their tracks would have been enough.

He settled his weight on one knee and pulled out his own binoculars, training them in the direction of the stargate.

No one appeared on the upper edges of the bowl, but he spotted movement near the DHD. "I count one," he said. "Lieutenant?"

"Wait, sir," she murmured.

John scanned the area, using the highest magnification he could get. The moonlight created too many shadows where a still sentry couldn't be seen. Human beings, though, weren't that good at being still. John let his eyes unfocus slightly and waited for any movement.

"Two, sir," Cadman said.

He caught the movement an instant afterward. A man, crouched just under the lip of the rocks, stretched prone. "Got him." John watched, calculating where the sentry's field of vision would be blocked, where he was watching. The sentry was focused in the direction of the tower. A high section in the natural rock wall at his seven o'clock formed a natural blindspot. If they came at the stargate at that angle, they could make a close approach before they were spotted. Maybe even take the sentries out before they were seen, but if not, John considered eleven to two odds – he didn't count Hazelhurst in the equation – acceptable.

Improving them wouldn't hurt though. Cadman had left a few other surprises buried around the abandoned camp.

"Can you detonate those special packages from here or from the stargate position?" he asked her.

"No problem, sir."

"Good."

A few booms from the direction of the tower would guarantee the sentries looking in that direction.

"We'll stay here throughout the day," he said when they were down again.

Hazelhurst let out a sigh of relief. Exhaustion and fright were taking their toll on her, though she'd kept up without complaint to this point. He could see her drooping now.

"The SGC will be expecting a check-in before then," Wade pointed out. "They'll dial in when we don't. We can radio for back up."

"We'll observe radio silence until we're ready to go through the gate," John told him. "The Lucians are most likely aware of our radios. Using them will only alert them that we're still out here, if they're listening." He gave Wade a wolfish grin. "I would be."

"The Colonel's right," Pierson said before Wade could say anything else.

"Menard," John said. "You're on watch. Everybody else, get some rest. That means you, Cadman," he finished before she could protest. "Inoue takes over after Menard." He picked his way through rubble of smaller rocks and found a decent place to settle himself, where the shade would get deeper during the afternoon. He dropped his pack down and stretched out with his head propped against it.

He woke long enough to eat an MRE and drink some water midmorning, wandered off into the rocks and took a leak, then came back, stretched out again and closed his eyes, listening to the others as they snorted, snored, farted, and coughed. One by one, people woke and ate their own meals, took their own trips in search of a few minutes privacy, and meandered back. He watched through his eyelashes as Dr. Hazelhurst produced a candy bar, half melted and smushed, from the bottom of her pack and shared it with Wade, as Jackson poured instant coffee grounds into a cup of water and drank it lukewarm, as Vala returned from a potty break dressed once more in BDUs and a thin, ribbed, black tank top. She plopped herself down next him without a hint of self consciousness and used his stomach as a pillow. John twitched and froze for an instant, then drew in a slow breath, hyper aware of the weight and warmth of her head through the cotton of his tee shirt. He could smell a hint of perfume still caught in the heavy silk of her hair: sandalwood and roses.

Morning stretched into afternoon, the long day heated and far too bright beyond the shade they'd found. Inoue climbed the rock spire and replaced Menard.

"All quiet, sir," Menard told Wade, then laid down and dropped off to sleep.

Bessemer pulled his boot off and rewrapped his ankle, grimacing in discomfort as he rocked the foot back and forth, checking his range of motion.

Wade got to his feet and picked up his pack. "Damn chili and macaroni does a number on my gut, every time. This could take a while."

"Trade next time, sir," Cadman said. "I've got an iron stomach."

"See if I don't," Wade told her and made his way out of sight.

Pierson pointed at Gale, who rose from where he'd been playing solitaire with a beat up deck of cards and ghosted after Wade.

Cadman opened her mouth.

"Shut it, Lieutenant," John told her, keeping it low, but using his command voice. Lucky Cadman was used to obeying him. She snapped her teeth together and made a face at him.

Less than ten minutes later, an outraged yell brought them all to their feet. Wade re-entered the shaded crevice they were using, hands locked on the crown of his head. Gale walked back behind him, one hand holding a zat aimed at Wade, the other clutching a communications device with a distinctly Goa'uld look.

"You were right, sir," Gale said. "He was about to use this." He held up the device.

Menard and Balinsky were both gaping, the shock clear in their expressions. Cadman looked furious; her fingers opening and closing.

"Not exactly SGC issue, Major," John said to Wade. "I hear the Lucian Alliance uses a lot of scavenged Goa'uld tech."

Wade had gone gray-faced. His gaze darted around, then settled on Vala, as he began cursing.

John circled Wade and accepted the device from Gale. "I'm guessing you figured to retire offworld."

"No choice," Wade snapped. "The UNE is going to take everyone's oaths using a zat'arc detector. I'd never have been able to fool that."

"How much did the Lucians pay you for the gamma site?" Jackson demanded. "How much was it worth? Six people dead, four others missing, likely sold to slavers. Did the Lucian Alliance pay well for that?"

Wade spat at him. "Fucking Saint Jackson."

The spittle fell short, landing in the dirt near Jackson's boot.

"Why?" Menard asked.

Wade laughed, shook his head and said nothing.

"Make sure he's disarmed and tie him up," John ordered, too disgusted to say anything more. He checked his watch. Six hours until dusk. They wouldn't move until then. "Gale, when that's done, go back and get his pack. We need to make sure he doesn't have anything else useful with him." He worried about a tracking device like Teyla's necklace.

Wade tried to struggle once, while Pierson was patting him down. Cadman pulled her sidearm and aimed at Wade. Her expression stilled him faster than John would have believed possible. After Pierson worked a garrote out of the seam of Wade's shirt collar, he gave up. "Screw this. Strip, you sonovabitch."

They forced Wade to take off everything but an undershirt and his boxers, then secured his hands and ankles with zip ties.

"Maybe we'll give you your boots back when we head out," Pierson told him.

Bessemer stood guard through the rest of the day.

Vala sat down next to John again just before dusk, while they were all working their way through their MREs. She stole his cookie and then leaned her head against his shoulder. "Thanks, handsome," she said and patted his arm.

John pretended she'd meant thanks for the cookie and chuckled. "I'm used to it. McKay usually steals half my meals."

"Well," Vala said quietly, "thanks for the cookie too."

"You're welcome."

He'd never forgotten Bates' suspicion of Teyla and how unwarranted it had been. He figured after as long as she'd been with SG-1, Vala deserved a little trust. Besides, he liked her and he trusted his own instincts.

They waited until the sun set, then set out, staying in the rocks at the foot of the hills and paralleling the desert until they had to cut across the sand to work their way back to the stargate. Wade got his boots back, but only to keep from slowing them down.

John's plan almost worked. Cadman triggered the explosives still left at the tower camp, but one sentry was waiting for them, and it became a race to reach the edge of the rock bowl. Gale went down, hit by a staff blast, giving out a choked scream. John cursed, realizing there was a Jaffa with the Lucians. Maybe he'd been there and John and Cadman had missed him. Maybe he'd arrived via the stargate sometime during the day.

Bessemer scooped up Gale and threw him over his shoulder, running in a stagger and firing his P90 with one hand.

"Abby, get down!" Jackson yelled at Hazelhurst. "Vala, take care of her!"

Wade tackled Inoue, trying for his gun.

"Spread out and get to the gate!" John shouted and fired back where he thought the staff blast had come from. He gambled Inoue could handle Wade. "Move!"

John and the rest ran forward, firing cover for each other, trying to keep the Jaffa's head down so he couldn't aim. The muzzle flashes from their P90s wrecked night vision. John sprayed the area in the rocks where the staff blast had come from and then dived to the side. Muzzle flash also made a beautiful target in the dark and a staff blast sizzled into the sand where he'd been an instant before. He reminded himself a staff blast would do a lot more damage than just knocking him out and leaving him paralyzed for a few hours like a Wraith stunner.

On the other hand, he didn't think the Jaffa would eat him.

He emptied his clip at the Jaffa and rolled, barely moving in time. The arm of his shirt burned and he bit back a yell as the pain hit.

Inoue had clubbed Wade over the head and left him lying in the sand. He was prone behind Wade's body and firing blindly from that tiny bit of cover, P90 held above his head.

Menard and Cadman were working in tandem, leapfrogging each other, firing cover.

Jackson dropped to the sand beside John. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," John snapped. He cleared his empty clip and loaded another, hands moving without conscious direction.

"Good. I'm afraid of McKay."

"Cover me."

Jackson began sprayed bullets toward the enemy.

John rolled up onto his knees, nestled the stock of the P90 to his shoulder and against his cheek, waited, saw the staff blast sizzle out toward Pierson and Balinsky, picked out the Jaffa's silhouette, set the sight on his head, and squeezed the trigger. He held the trigger down and emptied his clip as the figure jerked and flailed, then fell.

He pulled Jackson to his feet and they sprinted forward. John let the P90 drop, caught by the sling clipped to his tac vest, and drew his Beretta as he scrambled up and over the edge, dropping in a half controlled run and fall toward the bowl. He heard and felt Jackson beside him, stones and sand cascading out from beneath their boots, and then he was on the still body of the Jaffa, facing another enemy, moving on automatic. 

The sharp sound of another nine-millimeter firing just to the side of him nearly deafened John. He saw the Lucian sentry lose his grip on his own weapon as the bullets hit. Then the man was down and Jackson was moving forward, kicking the zat away from him, watching him scrabble bloody hands over his gut for a few breathless seconds before he went still.

John lifted his finger off the trigger of his pistol and laid it along the side, ready but safe.

The last clatter of fire from a P90 rang against the rocks and faded into an echo across the desert. The rest of the Lucian party would know something had happened at the stargate.

"Everything okay down there?" Pierson yelled.

"Clear!" John shouted back.

He glimpsed a head pop over the edge, silhouetted against the star spattered sky. Then Pierson and Balinsky came over the edge and made their way down. Inoue and Menard followed, dragging Wade. They pushed and pulled Wade down to the floor of the sand bowl, then Menard went back up to help Bessemer and Cadman with Gale. Abby Hazelhurst hesitantly came down last, steadied by Vala.

Inoue began working on Gale, cursing quietly.

John sucked in a harsh breath, suddenly painfully aware of the burn on his arm. Six inches the other way and he'd be in the same shape as Gale.

Rodney was going to kill him and when he got back to Atlantis, Teyla and Ronon were both going guilt trip him, while Lorne would just sigh and tut-tut. At least Menard hadn't been hurt or been the sell-out. Telling Lorne that about an old teammate would have sucked worse than getting grazed by a staff blast.

He rolled his shoulder and swallowed a groan at the stab of bruising pain in his back. He had had his pack on when he rolled, twice, and the depleted ZPM still inside had jammed into a shoulder blade both times.

At least he still had it. Maybe it would be enough to distract Rodney a little.

Inoue's voice rose, urgent and frightened, yelling for his medical kit.

John headed for the DHD and began dialing Earth.

7 February 2012
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

Rodney didn't know John had gone offworld until SG-22 and SG-14 failed to check in. He still had no clue when Sam patted his shoulder and told him not to worry. Of course, those words made him worry, as they would any sane person, and he looked up from his laptop, something in his neck creaking after too many hours hunched over the keyboard. Demanding an explanation proved that he did in fact need to worry: Sam had heard from Mitchell, who had begun haunting the control room, that Landry had sent John, Vala, and Daniel to some planet with a possible Ancient library.

Without the rest of SG-1, without the rest of John's team, and most importantly, without Rodney.

"I'll kill him," he muttered to himself at the time, startling a laugh out of Sam. He didn't know if he meant Landry for sending John off or John himself. Landry mostly, since colonels didn't say no to generals without paying a price.

There was no way to casually lurk in the SGC's gate room or control room, so Rodney did a quick and dirty hack, programming his laptop to alert him whenever the stargate dialed in and giving him the closed circuit camera coverage of the gate room.

Thanks to that, he got to watch as two men were carried out of the wormhole, one burnt and bleeding, one in his skivvies, then the rest of the two SG teams  including his little marine nemesis, Cadman, Daniel and some other archaeologist, then Vala, followed last by John, filthy with sand and red dust, blood running down one arm, but plainly whole.

Rodney canceled the feed with a peevishly emphatic twitch of one finger and went back to his work, pretending he didn't want to rush to the infirmary to shout at John, because he knew he couldn't do it without touching him.

He went home at his regular time, ordered two pizzas and left one for John, then sat on the couch with the TV tuned to one of the sports channels Rodney had added to his cable package just for John. He couldn't muster any interest in NASCAR racing – too easily imagining John behind the wheel, slewing side to side, hitting a wall, flipping, burning – and started composing an email to Jeannie on his laptop instead. John showed up well past midnight, letting himself in with the key Rodney had given him – John had after all given keys to his condo to everyone on the team – and met Rodney's gaze with a small wince. He hung up his leather jacket silently, then walked over to the couch where Rodney had stationed himself in one corner.

"There's pizza," Rodney told him.

John studied him without speaking and Rodney resisted the urge to yell. The TV's light flickered blue over them both, the muted voices of the announcers competing with the hum of the refrigerator's compressor kicking on in the kitchen. Rodney looked up and examined John, taking note of the white gauze taped around his biceps below the short sleeve of his black tee shirt, the scruff of beard he hadn't shaved, and the hint of reddish sunburn on his nose and cheeks.

"Hey," John said.

"Don't tell me," Rodney replied. "Something went wrong."

John chuckled. "You could say that. But I brought back an empty ZPM for you to charge."

"Mmm." Rodney set his laptop to the side on the end table, then leaned forward and hooked his fingers through the belt loop of John's jeans. He tugged him closer, to stand between Rodney's legs. John came willingly. His eyelids half lowered and he licked his lower lip.

Rodney tugged the tee shirt free of John's jeans, then slipped his hand under it, flattening his palm over the warm skin of John's belly where silky dark hair trailed downward. The muscles under the skin jumped and John leaned into the touch, but then his stomach grumbled loudly, shocking a laugh out of both of them.

"Food," John said.

"Yes, go eat," Rodney told him. He pulled his hand away reluctantly and let John go, sitting back and listening as John clattered around his kitchen, the microwave's hum and ding, the sound of the refrigerator door and clink of glass. He finally came back with a plate piled with four slices of pizza and bottles of Rodney's precious Phillips Blue Truck ale for both of them.

He sat next to Rodney on the couch and scarfed down two slices hurriedly, then lingered over the third, extending the plate still holding the fourth to Rodney.

Pizza gone, they both lingered over the ale, while brightly colored cars zoomed in circles on the TV screen. John listed to the side until his shoulder rested against Rodney's and his eyelids fluttered down, until his eyelashes were spiky shadows over his cheekbones. He smelled of the soap from the SGC's showers and a whiff of antibiotic from the infirmary.

Rodney reached to the side and finished shutting down his laptop, then plucked the bottle from John's fingers, setting it with his empty and the plate with its smear of grease and tomato sauce.

"Upsy daisy," he told John as he tugged him to his feet.

"I'm not five," John grumbled.

"No kidding."

Rodney smoothed the outer edge of one of John's eyebrows with the pad of his thumb.

John stumbled after Rodney into the bedroom, then the bathroom and accepted the toothbrush Rodney handed him and brushed. They undressed without any more conversation and crawled into bed together. "I missed you," John mumbled into the crook of Rodney's neck, whiskers rasping against his skin afterward as John rubbed his cheek against Rodney.

"Of course you did, I'm surprised you could even find the stargate without me along."

"Mmph."

He thought John was asleep, was warm and comfortable and wrapped in long John arms and John legs, warm damp breath against his throat when John mumbled, "Do you think Vala can feel the stargate?"

Rodney would have been disturbed if he hadn't been used to the way John's mind wandered into tangents and non sequiturs when he hovered at the edge of sleep. He'd once, after three days awake, seriously asked if Rodney knew how many seeds the average pumpkin had, blinking dazedly over a cup of coffee that obviously hadn't had a chance of keeping him awake much longer.

It was an interesting question this time. Rodney considered it, though he was no expert on the subject. "Apparently Goa'uld and Tok'ra can sense each other and ex-hosts," he fished out of memory. Sam could sense Goa'uld from the naquadah in their blood. "You know, she probably can."

"Cool. Human stargate compass," John mumbled and dropped off with his next breath, satisfied.

Four days later, they opened the stargate to Atlantis and sent the empty ZPM through along with several pallets of school supplies. John had been called to DC to meet with O'Neill and Homeworld Security over something that happened with one of the marines on Akanital. Rodney didn't know what; John had been very tight-lipped over it, but there had been a shouting match in Landry's office that included John, Mitchell, and Vala Mal Doran, as well as that Major from SG-14, the day after the mission.

John had been shaking with rage at the end of that day.

Rodney couldn't wait to get back to Atlantis, where their worst enemies were the enemy.

He took advantage of the thirty-eight minute window to video conference with Zelenka, both of them carefully talking around the fact that Teyla was giving the orders. Zelenka mostly wanted gossip from Earth and promises that John and Rodney would return soon.

"Teyla has been visiting New Athos regularly," Zelenka said. Nothing in his words gave anything away, but the intent way he stared at the web cam clued Rodney into realizing he meant something more.

"How are the Athosians?"

"Very well, according to Teyla, though their numbers make it difficult, I think," Zelenka replied carefully. "They are re-establishing their trade networks. I believe Teyla is helping them with this. Much is happening on the worlds where they know the Wraith will not return, you see."

Rodney nodded. If he read between the lines, Zelenka meant Teyla was gating to New Athos and from there to other worlds without anyone from Atlantis with her. He didn't think the Athosians had enough to do much trading at this point, so she was conducting some other sort of business. He tapped his fingers nervously against the desk next to his laptop, thinking about it.

"Any news of when we will have a new, official expedition director?" Zelenka asked. He pushed his glasses back up his nose, then half turned, listening to someone off camera. "No, no, we will schedule the charge for two, three days from now. We must inspect the ZPM first, make sure it has not been tampered with," he told the person, then waved them away impatiently. "I no longer wonder at your bad temper, Rodney. Foolishness. So much foolishness from people I expect to do their work."

Rodney muffled a snort. "Now you know."

"And the paperwork..." Zelenka threw up his hands in mock despair. "Come home soon. We will throw a party and lock you in your office with cake and paperwork."

"What kind of cake?" Rodney asked.

"Gredel," Zelenka replied promptly.

"I can have chocolate here."

"You are selfish, selfish man."

Rodney nodded and told him, "I don't think we can expect a new director until the UNE finishes restructuring the SGC. It's out of the IOA's hands at this point. Whoever it is, will have to be confirmed before the UNE council, pass the background checks and be willing to take the new UNE oath."

"Ah, that."

"That. They're holding John and me here an extra week to get it out of the way for us." Rodney paused. "I hope you won't be among those refusing."

He hadn't even considered refusing himself. He hadn't lived in Canada in decades and felt comfortable that his work in Atlantis and for the SGC had always served not just his country but the entire world – even the galaxy itself – better than any petty territorial loyalties could have. He could always get his Canadian citizenship back if he decided to leave Atlantis and the Stargate Program. With his qualifications, he didn't doubt any country on Earth would happily make him welcome.

Zelenka waved his hand loosely. "No, I will swear whatever. This UNE citizenship, it will let me return to Brno or Prague if I want."

"Anywhere on Earth," Rodney confirmed.

"Mmph."

"Have you made any more progress on the casings?"

Zelenka shoved his glasses up his nose again and sighed. "Very little. I am working from what you sent through with the last databurst, Colonel Carter's suggestions, but it is slow, yes? Hailey runs simulations, but they fail each time."

"Damn it."

"This would go faster with you here, Rodney," Zelenka said.

"I know."  Rodney growled to himself. "Send me everything you've done so far, I'll go over it with Sam. We have to be missing something obvious."

Even buried in the Level 19 labs, Rodney heard of the next big shake up. Gossip spread faster than light in the Mountain and the fall of a general, especially their commanding officer, rivaled wormhole travel in how fast the knowledge bubble expanded. Rodney heard about it from Munoz, who overheard Sodowsky and Sherman. Where they got it was anyone's guess, but the gist seemed accurate enough.

Landry was out. He had declined to part ways with the US Air Force or give a new oath to the United Nations of Earth, not even to retain his command of the SGC. Colonel Griffin, his second in command, had sworn his loyalty while monitored by a zat'arc detector and was unofficially in charge until the Council appointed someone new.

Landry had already left the Mountain before anyone outside the UNE Council knew what had happened.

A surprising number of people, given the opportunity, would have been happy to hold the door if it got him out faster.

In the next three days, three different generals were nominated to head the SGC by members of the UNE. Both Chinese failed the zat'arc test. The Russian, who had some gate experience thanks to their program, passed the zat'arc, but failed his background check – his sister-in-law held a GRU rank of colonel and had too many ties to the Trust.

Rodney relayed the juiciest bits of gossip to Zelenka in an email, realizing it might be longer before he got back to Atlantis than he'd anticipated. Radek, he wrote, don't get your heart set on a new boss. I foresee a revolving door here until someone gets their head out of their ass. Predictably, the people who were most qualified were automatically disqualified when they didn't suck up enough or were simply too smart to want the headache.

He missed Hammond, even if the man had colluded with Sam to send him to Siberia.

The best news he heard was that the Council had asked Hammond to sit in on the reorganization committee and offer his suggestions.

Margo swept John off to another set of publicity interviews, hawking the UNE to the masses since he remained the media's favorite.

"Same as the old boss," John muttered as he packed.

Whatever chance at John Margo had had – minuscule as it might have been, even in her own mind – had been wiped out. While John didn't refer to her the way Rodney did, as 'the bitch', he gave her the blank-faced, frozen courtesy that had chilled more than one offworld contact threatening to go bad.

His sour mood only grew worse. Televising their taking the UNE oath left Rodney with a bad taste in his mouth and a telephone message from Jeannie telling him he looked fat on TV. John looked incredible in the charcoal gray and dark green uniform of the UNE Forces. Rodney thought Jeannie was right and he looked like an overfed boa constrictor.

The switchover involved Rodney's bane: paperwork. UNE citizens didn't pay taxes. Unless they were banking their pay in US based banks, owned property or businesses. Most cops and customs agents still didn't recognize a UNE passport or ID, which required an electronic customs stamp, only that equipment hadn't been distributed worldwide yet. No one could agree whether the UNE or the various countries should pay for the equipment. Rodney spent far more time than he wanted to designing the system and the technology so that it would with a judicious upgrade or two be compatible with the Global Transport System when it went on line.

One thing he couldn't convince the higher ups to scrap were the color coded IDs. The cards were blank until the holder pressed a thumb to the center and activated it. The card then displayed a hologram of the holder and could be slipped through a reader, providing whatever information the reader was authorized to access. Different readers accessed more or less from different cards, depending on their capabilities and the security level of the card.

Civilian UNE citizens received blue cards, any family members who chose UNE citizenship but weren't employed by it, such as children, partners or parents, were issued green cards. Diplomats and bureaucrats carried white cards, medics yellow, military and security were issued black with a gray stripe. The darker the card, the higher up the food chain the carrier was.

A red card trumped everything and everyone in and out of the UNE. The council members, whoever would head the SGC and Atlantis, along with Homeworld Security, would all be issued red cards.

Stealing them would be useless. Rodney used a variant of the ATA technology to link each card to the genetic print of a single person. Only they could activate it and if it was separated from them for over twenty-four hours it would go dead.

His card when he received it was a deep blue, nearly black. He and John compared their cards in the SGC mess hall the day after receiving them. John's was black with a narrow charcoal gray stripe.

"Cool," John decided, sliding his thumb over the internal sensor and activating the hologram of his face and a hovering green display with his name and rank, visible from any angle.

"It isn't completely secure," Rodney pointed out in a low voice. "If it's stolen, it's useless, but you and I both know people can be compelled to cooperate."

John deactivated the display and tucked his card into his wallet. "Griffin asked me to take out SG-6. Apparently, Major Mears has declined to take the oath and transferred back to the Air Force."

Rodney put his own ID away. He had a chocolate pudding left on his lunch tray. After a moment, he peeled the seal off it and began spooning it up.

"Rodney?" John asked.

Rodney scraped out another spoonful. "I already know you said yes."

"Okay," John drawled. He sprawled back in his chair and went on, almost chatty, while keeping a wary eye on Rodney. "Just thought I'd let you know. We gate out at 1100 tomorrow morning. Twelve hours on planet, preliminary survey for minerals and anything else interesting within a half day's walk of the stargate."

Rodney finished his pudding cup.

"Looks like a cake walk."

"Whatever."

Rodney pushed his chair back, rose, then scooped up his tray and walked away. He felt John's gaze against his back, but didn't turn.

John's cakewalk turned out for once to be just that. He returned from PX6-966, relaxed and smiling, arriving in the labs after the regular debriefing to tease Rodney that he had to get out and enjoy being on Earth for the evening, since their orders were in and they were headed back to Atlantis the next day.

"Last chance to buy chocolate for Keller."

"I already bought a case of Green & Blacks to bribe her with," Rodney told him. "You, however, may need to lay in something to get back on Lorne's good side again."

"Got that covered," John replied. "Come on. Mitchell's declared it 'We're All Nationless' Day and he's buying. Swears on this Italian place. The deal is, if a plate of lasagna at this place isn't enough to fill Teal'c, Mitchell has to pay for everybody. Vala and Daniel are coming too."

"Sam?" Rodney asked.

"I think he's rounding her up." John leaned a hip against the lab table and grinned lazily at Rodney. "Are you in?"

Rodney eyed him and then shrugged. "Why not?" He pointed at John and spoke for the surveillance bugs and cameras. "But if you get drunk and I have to drive, you're stuck with my couch for the night. I'm not driving across town so you can sleep it off at your condo."

John's grin widened and he nodded, his voice going a little rough, saying, "You've got a deal."

They'd get the night spent in Rodney's bed and no one would raise any eyebrows if they drove in together the next morning after closing up their respective places.

Teal'c ordered a plate of spaghetti and meatballs after the lasagna.

John pretended to drink half a bottle of red, while Sam did, and if Cam or Vala noticed the difference, neither of them would ever say anything.

Rodney drove them to his apartment after the unofficial party broke up. Inside, John pushed him back against the closed door and kissed him until they were both breathless, mouths bruised and wet, hands tangled in each other's clothes. They left pieces of clothing in the hall, on the back of the couch, jackets on the floor, shoes kicked off half way to the bedroom, shirts lost, and dropped on the bed to shove off their pants, so eager for touch they couldn't pause to undress separately.

"Rodney," John gasped against Rodney's neck, hands moving over his shoulders and arms, urgent and paradoxically careful, "Rodney." He rocked his erection against Rodney's thigh and gasped, wet and hot, against Rodney's collarbone.

"Like that," Rodney muttered. He twisted them onto their sides, wrapped his hand around John's cock and began a slide and twist stroke that had him panting, pawing uncoordinatedly at Rodney's upper arm, then finally finding Rodney's cock and matching the rhythm, breathing, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," under each breath, thumb rubbing just over the head, slipping with pre-come, until Rodney came.

John was rutting into his loose grip when Rodney gathered his wits and began jerking him off in earnest. He curled forward, forehead against Rodney's shoulder, breath whistling in then hitching, when he came too.

Rodney fell asleep before he could summon the will to move and clean up, his hand still clasped around John's softened cock, the numbers on the clock on the beside table ticking over to midnight plus ten.

2013
swallow my heart

17 January 2013
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

In Atlantis, events on Earth were distant and curious, barely impacting them, it seemed. The expedition as a whole, and Rodney and John in particular, found it easy to ignore what happened there. The UNE seemed in no hurry to bring in a new director; they had a system that served Atlantis between them and breathing space for the first time in years. Without the need to search constantly for energy sources and weapons, they scaled back the mission schedules and the science department finally began operating in the manner they'd all dreamed about before they stepped through the stargate to Atlantis the first time.

Rodney completed several projects that had been on hold for years and submitted papers to publication back on Earth, but one continued to stymie him: a stable ZPM casing remained out of reach, each experiment and theory failing in simulations. Frustration still drove him in the labs, but outside them, he was happy.

They didn't need a new expedition director, he decided. As Lorne put it, between Rodney and John, Atlantis had Mom and Dad, who mostly agreed with each other about priorities now that the pressure had eased off. As demanding as Rodney could be in the labs, he had the same laissez-faire attitude toward what their personnel did off duty as John.

It seemed more important to open a new tower with larger quarters for the families, to hold an informal housewarming for Chuck and Onda (Halling's second cousin), who officially moved in together, to debate whether Teyla had completely lost her mind after she invited Ladon Radim and his sister to Tanaan's fourth birthday party, to argue over which were better ammo in food fights: peas or gredel berries, to listen to the recording Jeannie sent of Madison playing the piano and have John agree that she was, indeed, another McKay genius. To go by the infirmary and pretend it wasn't to admire Yan and Maxim's new baby, while declaring that there would be no diaper changing stations in any of the labs, before telling Yan her place would be waiting for her when she wanted it. To hire Anaraya Ven away from the Two Sheaves Inn on Balkan to run the Atlantis kitchens and flirt with Ronon in some Satedan dialect even Teyla couldn't make out her accent was so thick, and watch her make Ronon snort milk from his nose with her hideously awful jokes.

Far more important than the news of anti-Unification riots in Houston and Beijing and Paris, a bombing campaign in Mexico City, a woman with a UNE green card beaten and chased through the streets in Singapore.

Far less depressing than reports that the introduction of ZPM energy really had devastated several industries in both the First and Third Worlds, putting people out of jobs with no good options in exchange.

A UNE base had been established on Akanital, to secure and oversee the dig at the Ancient library tower with Dr. Hazelhurst back and overseeing it, according to an email from Daniel to John. He was working on convincing the Council to return the recharged ZPM so that they could access the library's contents. Vala was continuing her work. John wouldn't tell him what that meant, just grinned and told Rodney to ask her next time they saw SG-1.

With no power worries, they actually saw less of the Daedalus or any other ships from Earth. Supplies were sent through the wormhole once a month. The personnel roster continued to expand and they opened up new labs to handle new projects and still didn't have enough people, until Rodney finally decided Teyla's suggestion of bringing in temporary workers from the higher tech Pegasus worlds, as well as more Athosians who were willing, was the only solution.

Kleipner found the blueprints for manufacturing drones in the database while trying to research their child care system, hoping to find some place in Atlantis they could use for a daycare center and relocate the Earth School from what turned out to be another high energy physics lab space.

Lorne's team variously encountered a matriarchy on M6G-450, an Iratus breeding swarm on P0G-823, vintner monks of both sexes on P3C-195, the non-humanoid sentients of Ux!cie'din who wanted to trade refined trinium for iodine and the poisonous seed pods of the brnko tree, and a partially destroyed Ancient shipyard on M9R-568. AR-1 checked the last out on a follow up mission, climbing out of the rubble that had covered the stargate for several thousands of years before eroding enough to allow passage again, then standing at the lip of a valley filled with tree and weed choked craters, water glittering at their bottoms, staring at the wreckage of another Aurora class ship, half built and abandoned after what appeared to have been an orbital bombardment.

Rodney's assessment: they'd have to be a lot more desperate than they were to try and rebuild the installation. Earth had its own shipyards now, busily producing the B306s that were the direct follow ons from the B303s and 304s and didn't demand the crew possess that pesky ATA gene.

Teyla looked thoughtful and remarked it might still prove useful to some other civilization in Pegasus.

"Maybe the Genii," Ronon remarked.

"Just what we need," Rodney replied, "Genii with starships," and promptly forgot the exchange even before he wrote his report on the site.

The year passed so peacefully that they lost some of the constant readiness for disaster that might have alerted them of change in the air.

Teyla had gone offworld, with Ronon along, while John and Rodney killed time in the director's office, waiting for them to get back and lackadaisically consulting on the annual personnel evaluations.

"Evans," John said.

"The marine or the linguist?" Rodney asked, rocking back in his chair a little further, feet propped on the desk next to John's elbow. They'd long since dragged a second desk chair behind the desk rather than spin the laptop to face the other side periodically. "Though, really, I can't say either of them has distinguished themselves. Isn't Evans the one who sprained his ankle doing PT?"

John snorted in amusement. "Yeah."

"Evans the linguist is allergic to tava. Everything tava. Everything that has touched tava. He gets hives if he stops by the mess hall on days when they cook tava, just from breathing the same air."

"Send them back?"

Rodney looked out the office into the control room. Chuck was drinking coffee at his console again. His shirt had a suspicious litter of crumbs on the front, indicating he'd been eating forbidden cookies too. As if feeling Rodney's glare, Chuck looked around furtively, then brushed off his chest. "I'm going to tell Onda to cut him off if I have to work on that console again," he commented.

John glanced up. "Who, Chuck?"

"No, the Michelin Man."

"Sure. So, Evans?"

"Evans the linguist should go back to Earth," Rodney decided. "He spends more time in his quarters or the infirmary than he does translating and we can't put in him the field, he has anxiety attacks, which I completely sympathize with, only I don't because if I can deal with having potentially lethal allergies, he could handle getting hives periodically."

"You're a fountain of sympathy."

"I am."

"I'll keep Evans the marine. I don't think he'll sprain his ankle twice."

Chuck sat up straight half a second before Rodney caught the sound of the stargate chevrons cycling. "Incoming wormhole," Chuck announced over the intercom.

John checked his watch and cocked an eyebrow. "Teyla and Ronon?"

Rodney frowned. "They aren't due back until later, are they?"

"That's what I thought," John confirmed. He got to his feet and headed out of the office.

Rodney swung his boots off the desk and followed.

"It's the SGC," Chuck said as they arrived at this console. "IDC confirmed."

"Acknowledge and lower the shield," Rodney said.

John walked down the stairs to the gate room floor as an officer wearing colonel's eagles and UNE gray and blacks exited the wormhole, accompanied by the typical sucking slurp. He pulled a luggage rack behind him and held a file folder in his other hand. Like everyone arriving in Atlantis for the first time, his steps slowed and he gazed around the atrium with its steps rising to the first of many stained glass windows and the soaring ceiling that drew back to admit the jumpers from their bay. Releasing the luggage as the wormhole collapsed behind him, he saluted John with a faint smile.

John's return salute was matched with a quizzical look.

"Colonel Martin Reynolds," the newcomer introduced himself. He extended his hand and John shook it, while Rodney waited a step or two behind him, still on the main stairs. "I'm here to relieve you."

"To what?" Rodney squawked.

Reynolds looked part John and nodded to him. "Dr. McKay."

"New orders?" John asked. Rodney knew Reynolds wouldn't catch the hollowness in his words. No way to step forward and squeeze John's shoulder in reassurance that whatever was going on they'd get through it. Not with Reynolds right in front of them, the regular marine guards at the other gate room exits, Chuck and the control staff all watching from the observation level of the control room above them.

Reynolds extended the file. "From the UNEC, Colonel. As of my arrival in Atlantis, I am the new military commander of this base."

"Give me that," Rodney snapped and snatched the file away from John, flipping it open to read the orders inside. "What the hell is this? What idiot thought this was a good idea?"

John quirked a sardonic smile at Reynolds. "Don't take it personally. McKay pretty much talks about everyone that way," he said, casual and unconcerned as if he hadn't just been blindsided and gutted by the blockheads back on Earth.

"I'll get used to it," Reynolds replied. He faced Rodney and added, "I'm looking forward to working with you."

Rodney opened his mouth to say something as cutting as possible and...stopped. John's tiny headshake stopped him. He let John reclaim the file and read through it and clasped his hands behind him. "I can't say I have been," he told Reynolds, watching John from the corner of his eyes, "but then I didn't know about it. Is the UNEC sending a new expedition director too?"

"Not for the moment," Reynolds answered. "They're satisfied with the job you and Colonel Sheppard have been doing."

"Then why send you?" Rodney demanded bluntly.

Reynolds' eyebrows went up. He slanted a glance at John. "I believe it was a favor General Landry asked for before he resigned command." His gaze switched from John to Rodney and back.

John's bland expression gave absolutely nothing away. Reynolds couldn't see the stiff line of his spine.

"He mentioned that you were refraining from asking for a transfer, despite wanting one," Reynolds said. "All off the record."

"Did he?" John murmured.

Rodney sucked in a breath, wanting to curse that petty, vindictive shit.

"I'm getting the feeling that maybe that isn't the case," Reynold remarked.

"You think?" Rodney said, loosing all his anger in one sarcastic question.

"Come on," John said. "I'll show you the office you'll be using, introduce you to Major Lorne. You'll probably want to pick out a different set of quarters, mine are kind of cramped, but the city has full power now so there's no reason not to choose something a little farther out from the control tower. In the meantime, the guest quarters are set up and close by, if you don't mind a suggestion."

"Not at all."

He waved one of the marines on guard over. "Symons. Get someone up here for the Colonel's gear and have it taken to the guest quarters." He glanced at Reynolds with a tight smile. "A few last orders."

Rodney trailed after the two of them, silent and unhappy. A hundred plans to undo this travesty raced through his brain, but none of them would work. His stomach churned. The utter calm John showed only made it worse.

John showed Reynolds the transporters, provided tips on how to keep from getting lost, showed him the CMO's office, introduced him to Lorne, then in the mess hall, to Zelenka and Keller and half a dozen others, who gaped in shock and muttered awkward hellos that left Reynolds' looking more and more tense. The man obviously hadn't anticipated the absolute lack of welcome facing him.

John excused himself after lunch, smiling self-deprecatingly, murmuring something about packing up a few personal items from the CMO's office, and promising to find Reynolds later and go over everything he'd be turning over to him.

Reynolds was still scarfing up the exquisite pastry Anaraya had made and barely noticed. Rodney made a note to himself to speak to Anaraya about burning all of Reynolds' meals. They'd look into sprinkling brnko seeds in his food later. He knew Anaraya would understand that they couldn't be nice to the interloper, once he explained.

Possibly, he'd need to have Ronon explain.

Ronon and Teyla.

Rodney almost groaned. John had talked about dialing Earth and leaving the next day. What if they weren't back in Atlantis by then? They had to return before John left. Rodney needed them to convince John to stay, even if it meant disobeying orders again.

Even the city itself gave Reynolds the cold shoulder. Reynolds had received the gene therapy successfully, but everything from the doors to the transporters responded a beat slower to him than anyone else.

"I thought the city had full power with three ZPMs?" Reynolds asked when the lights that normally lit in response to movement failed to keep up with them.

"It does," Rodney told him. "It's also over ten thousand years old and has been subject to Wraith bombardment, super hurricanes, Replicator invasions and asteroid damage." He eyed Reynolds meanly. "No matter what anyone told you, it hasn't suddenly become safe as a backyard barbecue. If the UNEC didn't have you sign a hazard waiver, you shouldn't even be here."

Probably pointless to hope Reynolds would lose his nerve and insist on returning to Earth. The man was military and an SGC veteran. But Rodney didn't see any point to making his takeover any more comfortable.

"I guess this turned out to be a real surprise," Reynolds said.

"That's the only way it could have happened," Rodney said before he thought.

"Look, Dr. McKay, obviously you aren't happy, but the fact of the matter is that there's nothing you can do. I do hope we can have a decent, professional working relationship, if not a friendly one, but make no mistake, I am here and here to stay," Reynolds told him.

Rodney nodded stiffly. He'd see about that.

But he didn't, because John walked into his quarters without knocking or ringing. Rodney had been pacing back and forth, waiting for him, and looked up as soon as the sound of the doors breaking their vacuum seal told him John had arrived.

John's blank expression didn't break until the doors were closed behind him. "It's no good," he said before Rodney could even open his mouth. "You can't do anything about this." His face had gone gray.

"What do you mean?" Rodney demanded. He stalked toward John and when they were close enough, he latched onto John's shoulders, shaking him, as always surprised that he could shift John at all.

John shook his head, eyes lowered and not meeting Rodney's.

"If I fight this, I'm not going to stay in Atlantis," he said, dull and unhappy, "I'm just going to get kicked out. No stargate, no clearance." He laughed, a rough sound without humor, and then stopped, pulling away from Rodney and turning his back to him, going to the window and looking out to where the second moon was rising over the water. "Nothing. The Air Force wouldn't have me back."

Rodney saw a shudder run through him.

"I'm not even...We took the UNE oath so casually, but I don't even know what would happen if they canceled a UNE citizenship. I wouldn't belong anywhere."

"John..."

John leaned his head against the glass. Rodney closed the physical distance between them again and wrapped his arms around John from behind. The tension binding John in knots didn't undo itself the way it usually did.

"You know, this is kind of a test. To see if I'll obey orders I don't like," John said. "The UNEC has my records, they know my history, and they've got to wonder."

"Short sighted morons and bureaucrats," Rodney condemned them all. He pressed his forehead against the nape of John's neck, felt him shiver and then John pulled Rodney's arms closer around him.

"Christ," John murmured raggedly.

Rodney pulled him away from the window, back over to his bed, and then tugged John down until they were lying together on their sides, John's back to Rodney chest, and they stayed there, holding on, as long as either of them could bear, their only movements John compulsively twining his fingers with Rodney's over and over. Pulling their hands loose, then immediately coming back. It felt right that Rodney couldn't see his face; he knew how much John hated letting anyone, even Rodney, see him when all the masks fell away, when he was broken open and hurting.

The second moon had risen fully, throwing its silvery-blue light into Rodney's quarters and over the foot of the bed before John finally relaxed and his breathing evened out. Rodney told him, "We won't lose each other. I'll find a way to get you back and I'll come back to Earth. We'll see each other. Every month. The UNEC wants reports, I'll give them reports. In person. Besides, I need to come back and over see the GTS project."

"Sure," John agreed quietly.

Rodney closed his eyes.

Nine years together, most of them sleeping together, on and off. Mostly on, except during that bad time after Earth re-established contact and Rodney's ill-fated stab at a 'normal' relationship with Katie Brown. Even then, he'd spent more time with John than with her. He still wondered why John had tolerated what for lack of better description had been an affair, but that was John's way; John didn't clutch and try to hold on to things, no matter how important they were to him.

He wasn't going to fight the transfer, Rodney knew. He'd known it before John offered his reasons.

John hadn't asked him to give up Atlantis and come back with him, either. Rodney didn't know if he could, but it had never occurred to John to even ask. It made Rodney want to cuff him upside the head. He could have asked. Ass. Did John really think him that selfish?

No.

John just didn't want Rodney to make a choice that would cost him either way.

Nine years. Rodney knew of plenty of marriages that hadn't lasted as long, hadn't mattered as much to the people in them. John's marriage hadn't come close. He pulled John closer, reduced to wordlessness.

He knew nine years was a long time for anyone in the military to be stationed anywhere, but it wasn't enough. This was Atlantis. John wasn't supposed to ever leave. People died. They weren't supposed to leave. Not John, not any of them who came and belonged to Atlantis.

A shudder ran through John's frame and he wriggled closer into Rodney's embrace. His hand found Rodney's at his waist and pulled it down to press against his groin. He wasn't hard. Rodney wasn't either. Rodney squeezed his eyes shut and molded his hand to John's cock through the layers of BDUs and boxers, holding him intimately. He didn't want sex. Anything they did now would be sad or angry or both. John seemed to feel the same way. Both of them just holding on for a little while longer.

Much later, Rodney turned the lights on because he wanted to see. They stripped and touched, skin to skin, face to face, kissing endlessly, John's hands on his ass, Rodney's running up and down John's chest and then his long, smooth back. John's thigh pushed between Rodney's, pressing his knobby knee up behind Rodney's balls. He thought he touched every inch of John's skin. He tasted the back of his knee, pressed his thumb into an armpit, breathed in the smell of John there, licked at silky tufts of dark hair and absorbed the smell of a day's sweat, the scent earthy strong, fingers slipping through the new sweat slicking their skin. John's noises when he tickled the tender skin inside his arm spurred Rodney on, intent on driving John crazy, until John twisted and writhed free, rolled Rodney onto his stomach and straddled him. Then he cursed and growled while John held him down, arms stretched across the rumpled bed, hands locked with Rodney's, and sucked a hickey into the skin at the small of his back.

They teased and trembled and backed off until they could begin again and again, always coming back to each others' mouths. Rodney scraped his fingernails lightly over John's balls, the way that made him toss his head back and keen, sending a pillow off the bed to the floor. John rubbed his stubbled cheeks along the sensitive skin of Rodney's inner thighs, rough enough it burned, making Rodney's cock jerk and leak. They rubbed cock against cock, pre-come slipping between them, and kissed; gasping and breathless, sloppy and wet, just each other. Sweet slick warm mouths and tongues, hungry and comforting and slow so they could both remember. Rodney filing away the way John liked to nip at the tip of his tongue, though he rarely got playful with his teeth otherwise, and sucking on John's lower lip until he whimpered and twined his arms around Rodney's neck and head, hips rocking, eyes wide open and pupils blown, drunk on sensation.

When they finally came, they went on kissing languidly afterward, gentling each other with tender caresses, eyes open and watching each other.

He brushed the pad of his thumb over the soft, faintly swollen curve of John's lower lip.

"You should go now," he croaked, his voice as wrecked as he felt. He didn't know the exact time, but it was late. Or very early, depending on your definition, he acknowledged.

John licked his lips, tongue grazing over Rodney's thumb, and nodded. He rolled away from Rodney, sat on the edge of the bed, the bow of his back bare and heartbreaking, then got up. He fished up his clothes and walked into the bathroom. Rodney sat up, grimaced and moved away from the wet spot, then groped around and found his radio headset on the floor under the pillow.

He switched to the control room channel. "This is McKay. Have Ronon and Teyla returned yet?"

Jimenez answered, sounding twitchy. "Not yet, sir."

Rodney rubbed his face.

"Tell them to get to Sheppard's quarters as soon as they've cleared medical. First thing they come through the stargate. And buzz me."

"Will do, Dr. McKay." The hiss of the carrier signal told Rodney Jimenez hadn't switched off his mic. "This sucks."

Rodney switched off his radio, afraid he would agree with Jimenez and knowing if he did it would be all over Atlantis in the next hour.

He felt wrung out, sticky, weary, though his body still hummed with the aftermath of really stellar sex. He wanted to go to sleep, wished he could, but didn't want to waste what time was left.

Unlike any other night, John hung around, waiting for Rodney to shower and dress, waiting for Rodney to follow him out into the corridor and back to his own quarters. They quietly began packing John's things.

John placed his picture of himself with Evil Knievel into his duffle and added a handful of flash drives from a small box next to it on the nightstand. "Pictures."

Rodney started to say security wouldn't let John take them outside the Mountain and remembered: the world knew about Atlantis.

"Not much chance I'll be doing any surfing in Colorado," John said. "I figure Ronon can have my board."

"Good, he can break his neck instead of you."

"Tanaan can have the guitar. Every time he's in here, he's playing with it," John went on.

This was like portioning out the belongings of the dead during their first year. Rodney sat down at the foot of John's bed. "Right. That leaves Johnny Cash and a box of candles for Teyla and me."

John looked around the room theatrically, then faked a smile. "I don't see Teyla, so you get first dibs."

"Cash then," Rodney told him.

John took down the poster of the Man in Black and rolled it into a tube. He'd just extended it to Rodney when their radios chirped.

"Incoming wormhole. IDC confirmed. Shield down."

"Must be Teyla and Ronon."

No one else had been out.

Rodney's radio activated again. "Message delivered, Dr. McKay."

Neither of them hurried, since they were waiting for their teammates, but they didn't talk much either, as John finished his task. Rodney wanted to say leave everything. Reynolds wouldn't want John's cramped quarters, chosen for their proximity to the gate room, the transporter, and the original armory when they'd been running the city on naquadah generators and spit. It constantly amazed Rodney, how little John possessed in the way of personal items. He took traveling light to new lengths.

The only things left were the DVDs and books John had accumulated.

"Add them to the rec room library," he decided, looking at them.

The door chimed sounded.

John ambled over and swiped his hand over the sensor that would open it.

Teyla and Ronon stalked in, their shoulders and body posture giving away the anger that didn't make it to Teyla's face, at least.

"John," she said, a wealth of emotion, sorrow and frustration and apprehension, in that single pronoun. She caught his arm in both her hands, hands that were small and sure and strong and that John didn't shrug off. Her beautiful brown skin made John's tanned, hair dusted arm look pale in comparison, and his skin went white where her fingers dug in too tight. "Dr. Keller told us of Col. Reynolds arrival while we were receiving our medical checks. Is there no way to undo this?"

"You can't go," Ronon declared.

John's head bowed and he set his hand over Teyla's.

"Not a lot of choice," he said.

Ronon stalked across the room, his glare moving from John to Rodney to the perfectly innocent wall where John's poster had been. "Sucks," he grumbled.

"Tell us something we don't know," Rodney snapped at him.

"Stop," Teyla told them.

Hands still pressed together, she guided John over to the bed and sat so that he sank down next her. "First," she stated, "you cannot leave without bidding Tanaan good-bye."

John's head jerked up. "I wouldn't do that."

Teyla smiled at him. "I know you would not." She turned to Rodney. "With the ZPMs, is there any reason John cannot come to Atlantis to visit his godson?"

"No," Rodney said.

"Nothing except the fact the stargate program isn't being run to foster my social life," John pointed out.

Rodney snapped his fingers. "Ninety-nine point whatever percent. We'll no doubt need your super genes. They'll have to send you back."

"They aren't going to screw over Reynolds like that, Rodney," John said.

Ronon grunted, a sour sound that echoed Rodney's own feelings. He knew John, knew John would never go along with anything that he thought unfairly punished Reynolds just to get John what he wanted. It wasn't the brass who wouldn't screw over Reynolds.

"John," Teyla said. "If this cannot be changed, then I must tell you of the work Ronon and I have been performing, before you go."

Rodney leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. "Oh? Now? You've been disappearing off for the last year, but now you're going to tell us?"

Ronon winced faintly. "You could have asked."

"We decided to wait," John said.

Teyla inclined her head. "I know. You have both been patient with us. We would have told you soon."

"Told us what?" Rodney prompted impatiently. The minutes of the time John had left on Atlantis were ticking away. The gray no light of the hours before dawn had given away to pale rose light that warmed the blues and bronze-grays of the room. It lit the curve of Teyla's smooth cheek, turned Ronon's eyes wolf gold, faded the olive green of John's duffle to khaki, and crossed Rodney's own bare forearms like a warm hand. He found it nearly unbearable that the sun touched all three of them, touched that stupid duffle, but left John in shadow.

She drew in a quiet breath and appeared to center herself.

"We have been working with the leaders of several worlds, including the Genii, to create an alliance among all our peoples now that the Wraith have been driven back. To find ways to unite our efforts to rebuild our worlds now that we can."

"The Genii," John repeated.

Teyla sighed and nodded. "It would not be possibly to create what I envision without them."

"Leave them out and they're going to be your rivals."

She nodded.

"There is something else," she added.

"Teyla...," Ronon reproached.

"Do you not trust John?" Teyla asked.

"I trust him. I just don't trust the ones he answers to."

"Look if it's that – "

"Have you lost your minds?" Rodney interrupted, overwhelming John's words. As angry and betrayed as he'd felt when John hadn't been there to stand up for Ronon, he'd never once believed John had been party to whatever maneuvering Landry and the SGC had indulged in to save their public image. John would turn himself inside out to keep from betraying his people.

"Don't want to put him on the spot," Ronon said.

John held up his hands, spread wide, "Okay, okay, I get it. But unless you tell me you're going around, taking down the TIDs on planets that don't go along with your plans – "

"We would never – "

"I know," he said. "There really isn't anything else that I'd feel I had to report to anyone." He let his hands fall to his thighs and then stray to the duffle bag, plucking at the zipper. "Whatever you're up to, it's Reynolds' problem now anyway."

"John, we could use your help," Teyla said.

"I don't know what you mean." He gave her a quizzical look to go with the words.

"Atlantis."

Rodney pushed away from the wall, figuring out maybe a picosecond before John.

"Your Alliance is going to want Atlantis," he said.

"Yes," Teyla confirmed. She faced John, who looked gobsmacked.

"Teyla?"

"This galaxy, that you call Pegasus, is not your peoples' for the taking," Teyla said. "Iirijjin owes you so very much for fighting the Wraith, for showing us that we can fight, that they can be beaten. You have given us hope and a future. That future will include Atlantis. The City of the Ancestors will naturally become the heart of our alliance."

"Uh, Teyla, the UNEC isn't going to like that much," John pointed out.

Understatement of the decade, Rodney thought. The IOA had insisted on vetting every single non Tau'ri before clearing them to continue living in Atlantis. They'd interrogated Ronon and Teyla. The name might have changed, but the entitlement every politician on Earth felt when it came to worlds beyond the stargate hadn't. He could not imagine any scenario in which the UNEC turned over control to a Pegasus native government willingly.

"We know."

It didn't do to forget Teyla had experienced the IOA's attitudes as well as hundreds of Pegasus worlds. Iirijjin worlds, he corrected himself. Teyla had never mentioned to them once that the people had their own name for their galaxy. Though why wouldn't they? The Wraith had kept them from developing technology, not from knowing the truth of the stargates and the past. Iirijjin had never needed a Disclosure Day.

"Well." John rubbed the back of his neck, then smiled his reckless, dive into trouble smile. "You should probably not tell anyone about that plan until you've got some leverage."

Ronon stirred. "We're not ready yet."

"But we will be, eventually," Teyla added. "You could – "

John shook his head. "No, I couldn't. And if I did, it would just draw attention you don't need yet."

The truth of that silenced them all. The last thing Teyla's movement needed was attention from Earth. If John went AWOL or resigned, either way, the UNEC would look to where he went. They'd want him back on Earth and want to know why he would stay in Pegasus, even if he left Atlantis for another world like New Athos. It just wouldn't work.

And John wouldn't do it, anyway.

"Look, this isn't going to happen any time soon, is it?"

"No," Teyla said.

"It might be better if you didn't share any details with me or Rodney until after the fact."

Teyla considered this before answering, "Yes. It is all just speculation for now. If anyone were to ask you."

John's watch beeped, marking the hour he usually rose and ran with Ronon. He glanced to the window and the sun already high over the ocean. "Time for some breakfast, guys? Then I'd better say good-bye to Tanaan."

"That soon?" Teyla protested.

"Reynolds has the dial-up scheduled for nine o'clock," John confirmed. He rose and started for the door. "I can pick up this stuff after."

"In a hurry," Rodney muttered.

"So, you guys, you've gotta promise me one thing," John said.

"We will," Teyla said as Ronon nodded.

"Look out for Rodney," John asked.

Rodney started to protest he didn't need them babysitting him, but stopped himself. That wasn't what it was about anyway. John kept looking at him, seeming to wait, and he finally got it: that was as close to declaration as he'd ever get from John.

"Don't let him drive everyone away or make Reynolds into the enemy, you know?"

Rodney rolled his eyes, but vowed to try to not alienate the new military commander. It would be better if he didn't, if only for Teyla and Ronon's sakes.

Ronon stalked over to John, who extended his hand to shake, saying, "It's been – " John yelped in surprise as Ronon hugged him, lifting John right off his feet, squeezing hard enough that  John thumped his shoulder with a closed fist.

"He's starting to turn blue," Rodney observed sardonically.

Ronon set John down and hugged him a little more, not as tightly, then jerked away and headed for the door. "Don't be stupid without us," he said.

"Good advice," Rodney said.

He saved his hug for the gate room, grabbing John for once before everyone and hugging him awkwardly. "Really, don't get yourself killed without us," he said, before stepping back.

"Do my best." John sounded a little unsteady. He turned to Teyla last.

"Goodbye is not forever," she said. She reached up and rested her hands on John's shoulders, then waited until he curled his hands over hers. They bent at the same breath, foreheads resting together, dark head and bright bronze shining under the colors from Atlantis' windows.

Finally, they stepped back from each other, hands falling away. Ronon handed John his dufflebag. Rodney picked up his other case and turned it over.

"We will see each other again," Teyla declared.

John looked at the three of them for another breath, stepped back from them, and again, before turning away.

"Bye, guys," he said, then walked out of Atlantis.

2014
love too, will ruin us

14 March 2014
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

In a fit of something resembling good sense, the UNEC finally settled on Samantha Carter to head the SGC. They had to promote her to General, but one of the differences between UNEC forces and the old US military was the acknowledgment that attrition in the ranks of those serving offworld made a faster promotion process necessary. No more mandatory time in grade.

Carter got to wear a golden Earth chevron over a platinum starburst in a blue naquadah circle as pins on her collar points, on epaulets, or as a patch on her jacket shoulder. All other generals, if there ever were others, would wear the same pin in either all gold or all silver. Some day, the UNE's forces might develop a formal ceremony to go with receiving the rank, but Carter probably pinned her insignia on herself in the morning before she showed up for her first day as commander of the Mountain.

The SGC made its own traditions, however. John was among the officers and enlisted, the scientists and assorted civilians, who all lined the halls to greet and salute her when she arrived that morning.

She deserved it.

At least he still got to be called colonel, he joked in an email to Rodney that accompanied the new rank and insignia directives going out to Atlantis following the reorganization that split the SGC in two: Stargate Operations Command and Space Force Operations Command. Gate circle and starburst, respectively, less officially among those choosing which branch to stick with: gate apes and spacers.

Less than an hour after General Carter arrived on base wearing the new insignia, John had turned in his silver USAF eagles for a simpler version of the SGC pin too: a gold chevron over a blue circle. Carter pinned it on him with a wry smile after doing the same for Colonel Griffin. Cam got the gold chevron superimposed on a silver starburst.

It felt far more real than the paperwork that had officially separated him from the USAF.

Maybe it surprised some people that he stayed with the gate side of the SGC, but John didn't find the space force side of things satisfying. Captaining a tincan wasn't flying, no matter what Cam insisted. If anything, the SFOC was more like a navy than an air force.

The UNE continued forcing through changes on Earth too as John's first year back on Earth passed. Nations kept their own systems but now had to accept the global monetary unit everywhere as well. The UNE ID card functioned as a credit card for those with one. Just as Rodney had predicted, some of the diplomats used it as a Get Out of Jail Free card, too.

Nothing like the new world order answer to diplomatic immunity to endear it to the locals. The strangest part though were the encounters with people who had stayed with the Air Force and were working out of the Academy. John inevitably felt uncomfortable, reminded that he wasn't an American anymore. It made him realize that however much he had identified as a Lantean, he'd never quite let go of the part of his identity formed by where he came from.

He kind of missed being an American. It sounded better than being a Unnie.

The first time he sounded out the shortened version of United Nations of Earth citizen, John became very grateful UNEC as an acronym had already been taken by the Council. Much better being called an Unnie than a Unec.

Much, much better.

Rodney wrote dozens of emails per day to him, sent in batches via the daily databurst, and John replied as well as sending gifts for Tanaan he picked up on Earth or offworld when he remembered, which meant writing notes for Teyla and video messages for Tanaan, but his friendship with Ronon had never been based on words. He let contact with everyone else steadily lapse, let the distance between his old and new life become more than galactic. He didn't want to know what Reynolds was doing with his command. He had his own problems; Atlantis wasn't his any longer.

The Office of Offworld Affairs was created to oversee diplomatic contact between the Tau'ri and the rest of the universe with the SGC answering to its Secretary. A long running fight began in the UNEC over who to even nominate as Secretary of Offworld Affairs, one John didn't see coming to any conclusion soon. It let General Carter and her staff set things up without outside interference, however, something that let everyone in the two SGC branches breath a little easier.

They needed the time. They had recruits; special forces types from all over the world were ready to give up their old loyalties to defend Earth and use their skills against someone besides each other, but the SGC had nearly bled out when it came to veterans. Attrition and classification had always meant there weren't enough personnel to fill more than twenty-five gate teams. But of the ones the SGC had, too many had decided that the time had come to call it quits rather than make the big change to the UNE run SGC. From the first of the year, the new SGOC command had been scrambling to certify people for offworld activity and integrate them into the holes in the established teams, while making plans for expanding the roster of teams as well.

Sometimes John dreamed about HSA background check reports and personnel files printed in everything from Cyrillic to Kanji. He had a sergeant on his staff now just to translate. His top fantasy consisted of Bill Lee managing to get the Milky Way gates to do the thing the Pegasus versions did with the automatic trade language download. It wouldn't help them talk to people on the other side of the gate, but at least the teams would be able to understand each other.

His other fantasy involved doing unspeakable things to Homeworld Security's thugs. He knew they were following him around and had been forced to begin sweeping his condo, vehicle and office for bugs three to five times a week.

It remained only a fantasy, of course.

Homeworld Security had became an department of the UNE. It absorbed the NID first and then several agencies that had operated under the IOA's aegis. They were still all dicks as far John was concerned though, excluding only Barrett and O'Neill.

O'Neill retired from the US Air Force one more time and took the UNE oath, remaining in charge of Homeworld Security. No guessing how bad they would have been without him. Probably why O'Neill had stayed on when it had to be a shit job after leading SG-1 all those years.

HSA built its new headquarters in Denver, of course: a monolithic white concrete cube meant to intimidate. If the diplomats misused their UNE privileges, HSA used and abused them to the point even other Unnies were already learning to despise them.

The Cube wasn't the only construction triggered by the UNE.

With the decision to make Denver the physical locus of the UNE, much like Vatican City within Rome, the building industry boomed there and in Colorado Springs. Expanded SGC operations meant more personnel and more support. The US government sold Peterson AFB, along with Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB to the SFOC and the sight of B304s and B306s lowering through the atmosphere to land there became common. The space shuttles and most other orbital delivery projects were mothballed, relegated to history books and museums. Sixty-eight percent of NASA's personnel applied for UNE citizenship and jobs within its burgeoning industries.

Denver International Airport broke ground on a new Interstellar Concourse with Customs and Quarantine Facilities.

On Alien Row, the Tok'ra grew a crystal skyscraper, prompting protests from several unions and questions whether OSHA regulations applied to alien constructs. Most of the protests were forgotten though, in the outcry over the Jaffa Nation's massive pyramid and the architectural design chosen for the UNEC Tower, which used trinium and Ancient alloys to spear higher than any other building in the city. The materials were beamed from retrofitted smelters in China and Russia refining ore delivered from the holds of tel'tacs.

The UNE had to have the highest skyscraper in the world.

Floor after bronze-green floor climbed into the sky, polygonal facets rotating in a complex system that never allowed any two to line up at the same time. Ring transports replaced elevators, powered by three separate naquadah generators. A hollow shaft pierced the interior down to the ground floor, but only the insane or desperate would ever attempt to climb the stairway that spiraled up the shaft. The top floors required air seals and a pressurized environmental system. At its topmost, the UNE Tower froze every night and the stars were visible against the dark sky even at noon.

Among the Tower's other accouterments, it boasted a starship quality shield and computer core running its internal systems.

John didn't commute there often unless he accompanied Carter, which meant beaming in to the unshield beam point and back without glimpsing it from the ground, but it floored him every time he did see it. If Denver hadn't been declared a no-fly zone, pilots would have had to navigate around it.

He ran into Steven Caldwell, in SFOC uniform, outside the OOA offices a few months after the UNE moved into the Tower. They compared the differences between the SGOC and SFOC with the Air Force and Caldwell mentioned that the Tower could be seen from space with a view port and a bare eye.

"We use it for a target during attack sims."

There were always demonstrators gathered at ground level. John thought of them and grimaced. Most of them weren't satisfied with simulated attacks and that didn't include the people who had been evicted from their homes to clear space in the heart of Denver for the Tower and Alien Row. UNE compensation had been only about half what the property had been valued at. Locals hated the Tower.

"Don't let the dips hear you say that."

John asked Caldwell what brought him to the Office of Offworld Affairs. He knew why he'd come along: in the already Machiavellian power structure of the UNE, Carter needed her courtiers. John's reputation and public popularity, along with his loyalty to her, made him a valuable playing piece, one she sometimes needed to remind the other players she held. He'd faded back when she gave him the signal and was killing time until she needed him again.

"The Daedalus is being refitted as diplomatic boat. Better shields, minimal weapons," Caldwell answered. "She's old and slow compared to the B306s." He added sourly, "VIP quarters instead of cargo space. Minimal crew."

John shook his head. It was a shitty way for a gallant ship to go, but better than the breakers.

"An interstellar limousine."

"You aren't going to be – "

"Stuck playing chauffeur?" Caldwell shook his head. "I'm slated for the Thor when it comes out of the BC shipyards."

One of the newest, most powerful B306s being produced, in other words. Caldwell could thank Carter for that. She had been fighting for the SFOC's ship building budget all morning.

"I'm just here to tell the dips that pulling the hyperdrives to put in a spa isn't going to fly," Caldwell finished.

John cell chirped and he checked it. Carter wanted him back in the meeting when it started again. "Yeah, good luck with that," he said, "I've got to go," then added a casual wish that they might run into each other again and headed for the rings, swiping his ID card through the reader before entering his destination floor.

Sometimes, as the weeks slipped into months and then over a year out of Atlantis, when John read the daily briefs, it seemed impossible that he lived on the same planet he'd been born on. Or even the same Earth he'd known before Disclosure. The days he visited the Tower only heightened that sense of alienation. Earth seemed to have – mostly – entered into a gleeful race to absorb and integrate the technology and knowledge the stargate had provided, whether it originated with the Goa'uld, Ancients, Asgard or even in a few cases Wraith.

He watched two troopers kiss in public, unworried under the new rules, and felt a stab of guilt. Once Rodney knew about them – it might be a while before Rodney bothered reading the new military code – he'd want to bring their relationship into the open.

John just didn't want to do that.

He knew that he wasn't going to be fair to Rodney. He just couldn't do it. He had a raft of arguments already marshaled for the day Rodney confronted him.

Maybe he was borrowing trouble. Rodney hadn't said anything yet. Maybe Rodney wouldn't want to be out, either.

John hoped Rodney would listen to him or at least just go along with him. Of course, he knew Rodney and how unlikely that would be.

About as likely as all the demonstrators giving up and going home.

Daily demonstrations and attempted sabotage had resulted in zat equipped HSA security guarding the UNE Tower construction site before it was finished. Guards were still stationed at its ground level entrances. That seemed unfortunately familiar. Crops still failed as arable land disappeared in sub-Saharan and Central Africa, fanatics still ranted that the end times were upon them, evoking every variety of hate the human race had ever invented, and John still sometimes felt like he was going into withdrawal for the jumpers or Atlantis and the life he'd had there. He'd never been homesick before, but he supposed that was what he was experiencing. Earth felt like the foreign posting.

In ironic twist most Tau'ri never appreciated, the Tok'ra Embassy hired Jaffa as their security.

John found himself with a large office next to Colonel Griffin's. Griffin went on acting as Carter's Earthside second in command, while John unofficially slid into a position as her left hand man, rotating through most of the SG teams, vetting all the new personnel coming in from all over the world, leading them offworld and reporting back off the record who could cut it and who couldn't. When he wasn't off planet, Carter kept him in front of the cameras.

"They like you," she told him when John objected.

"They like you and Mitchell too," he pointed out.

"Well, yes, but generals get to tell colonels to do the dirty work," Carter said. She smiled at his obvious disgust. "It's good to be the big boss."

"I think you're taking advantage of your position."

Carter leaned back in her chair. They were in her office, the one that Landry, O'Neill and Hammond had occupied before her. Instead of the US seal on the wall behind her, the UNE's blue and green Earth with the Earth chevron superimposed decorated the wall, though.

"And it's great," she declared.

"For you." He knew sounded sulky and rubbed his face, realizing that he needed another shave, which was another strike against the new posting. Worrying about five o'clock shadow had never been at the top or even on the list of musts in Atlantis. Carter didn't need shit from him, though; he knew that. Great or not, John knew she worked eighteen hour days, holding the line between the bureaucrats and politicians and the people actually affected by their directives. "Sorry."

Carter looked at him sympathetically. "I know this isn't where you wanted to be, John, but right now, you're doing more good for the SGC and Atlantis here than there. We always thought Daniel would be the voice of the SGC, but with the way he's either been sanctified or demonized by most religions, we need someone else. Someone the public admires and empathizes with and that, like it or not, has turned out to be you."

"Just don't take me off the mission roster or eventually I'll lose it when someone asks me what I think about who really killed Anna Nicole and blame the Nox."

"You're behind the times, John. They convicted one of her doctors years ago," Carter replied with a laugh. "I forget how Atlantis gets the big news, but not the rest of it."

"And most people there don't give a damn."

"I understand." Carter steepled her fingers and gave him a speculative and amused look over them. "In case you're wondering, the scandal du jour is Polly Hastings under age nudity in Tear Down the Pyramids."

"To quote Rodney, the power of my disinterest, if translated into energy, could dial every stargate from here to Pegasus. Do not make me play social butterfly more than you have to."

"Cross my heart," Carter told him and kept her word.

He spent more nights off Earth than he had off Atlantis and more nights sacked out on his office couch than in his Colorado Springs condo.

He did get around to checking out Tear Down the Pyramids. As a dramatization of the rebellion against Ra, it failed. As a star vehicle for Polly Hastings move from teen tartlet to movie actress, it wasn't too bad. He added it to the list of movies to send to Atlantis.

On or off Earth, he missed the friends who were closer to family than Dave or Nancy had ever been.

That only changed when Rodney stepped through the stargate every month to brief Carter and the Council on Atlantis' status. He didn't leave with Rodney, they weren't that obvious, but he'd be at a restaurant or even a theater, somewhere other than the condo, when his private cellphone rang. Just once, to let him know Rodney was at his apartment, or twice to indicate he'd gone to the condo. Then John would join him.

The question of civilian consultants working within the SGC became the next subject of debate in the UNEC. Expanding operations couldn't just be military, the greatest returns on the program came from scientific discoveries, research and development. Civilians were needed to run the mining operations on worlds where Earth had found trinium and naquadah deposits worth exploiting as well. Uninhabited worlds where they didn't need to sign treaties and negotiate trade agreements in exchange were what the UNEC wanted, but then they couldn't rely on indigenous people for labor and the contractors didn't want to operate under military authority.

For that matter, the SGC didn't want to waste manpower working as miners and lab techs, either.

Atlantis presented another face of the problem. It had always been under civilian authority. Without an official director since Woolsey's death, it had functioned efficiently with command shared between John and Rodney, but that partnership hadn't continued under Reynolds' tenure. He and Rodney were in a constant war that had Reynolds posting protests in the databursts and reprimands even to his own people on a weekly basis.

John saw a lot of Rodney after the UNEC signed off on a fourth major department: the Interstellar Civilian Gate Agency. It never made it to the media, but within the community of stargate veterans, everyone knew the ICGA was Daniel Jackson's baby, planned from well before Disclosure. Despite that, Jackson didn't get the appointment to head it. That bone went to the Chinese when the UNEC confirmed Shen Bao, formerly the Chinese representative to the IOA, as ICGA Director.

As a sop, Shen offered Jackson six months in Atlantis once he finished the Akanital dig.

That seemed to exhaust the UNEC's powers of agreement. Atlantis continued without a director, though now the science contingent answered to the ICGA instead of the SGOC.

The constant undeclared warfare between Reynolds and Rodney took its toll. John saw it most when Rodney relaxed enough to rant to him after another debriefing, but it was there all the time, hardening Rodney's expression, coiling the muscles of his neck and shoulders tight, sharpening his tongue and costing him the concentration he needed to push forward his own work on the still elusive ZPM casings.

Rodney held it together through the reception in the ballroom at the top of the Tower in which Shen was introduced as the new ICGA Director, though; faking sips from the same champagne flute all evening and reining in the worst of his sarcasm with obvious effort. There were plenty of people eager to fawn over to Rodney anyway, hoping for some crumb of the wealth the Global Transport System would generate when it went live the next year. None of it, not the sycophants or the growing fame, made Rodney any happier and his expression went from sour to bitter as the evening progressed.

John watched him from the other side of the room, between dances with Vala and Dr. Lam. He even waltzed once, decorously, with Shen, exchanging stiff small talk and wishing for a bottle or two of Ruus wine. Only a mission scheduled for the next afternoon gave him an excuse to escape early. He'd driven to Denver and had to drive back to the Mountain.

He found Rodney destroying a server's will to live by interrogating her about the caterer's use of citrus, gave her a charming smile and asked casually, "Aren't you gating back to Atlantis in the morning?"

"Yes, thank God," Rodney snapped.

John glanced at his watch. "I've a got a mission myself, so I'm making an early night of it. I'll drive you back to the Springs if you like."

"Yes, I want," Rodney told him and whatever anyone else heard, John knew exactly what Rodney meant when he eyed John for a breathtaking instant.

He winked at the server as he guided Rodney away and she smiled gratefully in return.

"Shen!" Rodney shouted once they were in John's SUV. "They couldn't find anyone more self-serving, paranoid, xenophobic and narrow-minded!?"

"You're still all part of the SGC," John pointed out.

Rodney collapsed back against the seat. "It's getting worse, though," he said. "I hoped whoever they got in would have the clout and the will to back me."

"Reynolds still giving you trouble?"

Rodney was quiet for a while, then answered, "You could say that."

John glanced at him, but couldn't make out his expression in the dim glow of the dash instrumentation.

"I'm okay, really, and the science department...He can't really do much to us. "

John made himself concentrate on the highway before him. He didn't know if Rodney didn't want to worry him by saying more or was censoring himself out of awareness the vehicle could have been bugged while it sat in the UNE Tower's parking structure. John had swept it for bombs and bugs before remote starting the engine, then swept it a second time for any surveillance tech that ran off the SUV's own power, but portable sweepers couldn't be relied on completely.

Rodney didn't really need to say anything more, though. John could put the story together from what and who he hadn't mentioned.

"How are Teyla and Ronon? Did Tanaan like that puzzle I sent with you last time?"

"Yeah, he liked it," Rodney answered.

The night they spent together felt bittersweet, half reacquainting themselves, half memorizing what they'd give up in the morning, each of them achingly careful to leave no marks to show in John's pre and post mission exams. John left before dawn but didn't arrive at the SGC until after Rodney and made a point of staying away from the control room when they dialed Atlantis. Watching Rodney walk away without him only made things worse. They said their good-byes by lamplight, before John slipped out of Rodney's apartment. He spent his morning briefing SG-12 and the probationary team of ex-Australian SAS slated to become SG-41 if they worked out.

His own gate team fell together as a result of his work with the others.

Middle of the night, he got a call from Griffin's protégé, Major Kelly. Griffin had broken his ankle slipping on the control room stairs the day before. Now the SGOC needed someone with rank to get down the CSPD and bail out a gaggle of personnel picked up for drunk and disorderly.

John obediently dressed in uniform and drove over. Kelly didn't have the whole story. The cops had broken up a bar fight.

"You're kidding me," John declared when he heard exactly what the fight had been about. "Fruit flies? What kind of moron calls the Snakeskinners that?"

A sergeant with two shiners raised his hand. "That'd be me, sir."

"And you are?"

"Sergeant Roberto Garcia."

John looked at the red hair in a marine buzz cut and didn't ask. He turned his gaze on the five 302 pilots who had objected to Garcia's new nickname for them. "You've heard of the idea that officers are supposed to behave in a manner befitting their ranks?" he asked them.

All of them appeared abashed. A chorus of yes sirs followed.

John folded his arms.

"I'm tempted to leave your asses here all night, but making the CSPD put up with your hungover stupidity in the morning would be punishing them."

John pulled the UNE card for the first time that night, freeing all nine participants. UNE personnel, especially the military branches, weren't under local jurisdiction, no matter what country they were in. He didn't think the CSPD liked him much after that.

John's work at the Mountain kept him preoccupied to the point that  he didn't have time to miss not having much of a life outside it. He'd been in the military most of his adult life, he knew how to adapt to leaving one place for a new posting. He segregated all the things – people – he missed into a space he closed away while he worked. It helped that he'd always been good at lying to himself; given the necessity, he told himself he was fine with the situation.

He'd always done what he had to do.

The SGOC needed a team out there doing what SG-1 had done. There wasn't an SG-1 anymore though. It remained in the books, but would never go on a mission again. John wondered if Reynolds had retired the AR-1 designation on Atlantis and somehow doubted it. Rodney would have mentioned it.

Rodney, who no longer worked in the field without John there.

Teyla and Ronon consulted, he knew from their infrequent video conferences and letters, but they weren't officially part of any teams any longer.

John had been filling out holes in the rest of the gate teams decimated after the UNE changeover, integrating newbies into existing teams with open slots when he could, sending all new teams out paired with veteran teams when he had no choice. Now he had to put together one of his own to do SG-1's job, even if it would be without its name.

Cam had his hands full with the SFOC, Daniel was finishing the Akanital dig, and Teal'c had too many responsibilities on Chulak to serve on a first contact team any longer. Carter was obviously out. That left Vala, who John would have had on his team in a minute, but she had signed a contract with the ICGA and had a new job building an official espionage agency.

SG-2 would have to make a name for itself.

He remembered Red Garcia when he began going through files after Carter ordered him to put together his own team. Hard not to, the Fruit Fly moniker had stuck to the SFOC 302 pilots within the Mountain. Garcia had been with the SGC for seven years, part of an all Marine insertion team, but the other three had declined to leave the Corps, leaving Garcia as a floater. Just the sort of guy John wanted.

"You have any stupid nicknames for me, Garcia, you keep them behind your teeth," John told him.

Garcia gave him a shit eating grin. John figured he'd hear what they were calling him from Vala sooner or later. Her intelligence network within the Mountain rivaled the one she had threaded through the Milky Way and included all the gossip, which she happily relayed to him in exchange for Victoria's Secret gift cards. She always insisted on modeling whatever she bought with them for him, so he considered that a win-win situation.

John ran his hand through his hair. "Consider yourself on SG-2," he said to Garcia.

He'd need every trick he could think of to ride herd on Garcia. Seeming to know all would be a good start. He predicted more lingerie in Vala's future.

With a few judicious slips, everyone in the Mountain would hear about Vala's latest shopping splurge, which would feed the on-going gossip about both of them.

She squealed when he slipped her the gift cards in the mess and announced that she already knew exactly what she'd buy.

Everyone knew about Vala and Victoria's Secret. It kept anyone from uncovering John's.

He'd buy her a real present too, because he knew well it took more subtlety than anyone could guess to appear as obvious as she did.

He hijacked Major Kelly from Colonel Griffin next. At least, he let her think that. Griffin had suggested Jean Kelly to John a few weeks after he got off his crutches.

"That's what you get for waking me up at three in the morning," he told her as they went through the stargate with SG-5 and two probationary gate apes and two new ICGA eggheads going offworld for the first time. He could almost smell the nervousness coming off them, mingling with the ozone and electricity that filled the Earth gate room every time they dialed the stargate.

John had been through stargates in other enclosed rooms, including Atlantis, but no other had that same scent and feel. It came from the difference between Earth's gate, hooked up to non-Ancient power sources and being operated by the SGC's computerized dialing mechanism rather than a DHD.

Kelly muttered something in Goa'uld John was more than happy not to understand, since Kelly's language skills were among the qualifications that had persuaded him to pick her.

The team didn't pick up a fourth for several months and he had Rodney to thank for the suggestion when they did.

Rodney recommended Albert Weisser out of a group of ICGA hires. Weisser had apparently passed when the SGC tried to recruit him for Atlantis, unwilling to sign nondisclosure agreements without some idea of what he'd be getting in return, but Rodney admitted he would have been a natural for the expedition.

Garcia immediately dubbed Weisser 'Bud' and empty cans appeared in Weisser's office, locker, and even his apartment. John let Garcia handle the green scientist, recognizing that Bud had an ego that might have daunted anyone else. Of course, he'd worked with Rodney, so he didn't have any problems. Kelly watched Garcia though and developed her own methods to deal with Bud. It took her a little longer, but eventually the team gelled nicely.

John knew they'd have his back the way he'd have theirs in the field.

He liked all three of them, even Bud, who had an acerbic wit and personal style more like Zelenka than Rodney after he settled in and realized he just wasn't going to impress his teammates with his towering intellect. They all got along well. Missions together were considerably less fraught than AR-1's had been, if John was honest.

He tried his best to make sure they never realized that he still looked for his old team when they assembled before the stargate before each mission.

Garcia likely knew.

That was all right, though, because Garcia had people he looked for too.

When he couldn't have lunch with Vala, John liked hanging out with Daniel. Not blowing up the library tower had slotted John into Daniel's good guys column. They'd reached a first name basis when John delivered the charged ZPM to Akanital.

Daniel sometimes proved as entertaining as Rodney at his ranting best, if John caught him in a pissy mood. Mentioning whatever Shen Bao had decreed for the ICGA lately usually would set him off and John could lean back and listen.

He got the 'Vala is a menace' lecture already in progress to Carter when he sat down to lunch with them in the officers' mess on the fourteenth, however. Not to be trusted, mercenary, unreliable, selfish, careless, Daniel had plenty of adjectives and used most of them, before moving on to condemn Shen Bao for creating a department in the ICGA devoted to intelligence gathering.

Carter must have caught first explosion on that subject already. She went on eating her meal without comment.

"Spies," Daniel spat out.

"SGOC has some, but we're out there in uniform," John said. "Shen might be right. You're the ones who have had Vala running a network for years."

"Yes, but that wasn't official," Daniel sputtered. "It wasn't institutionalized."

"Yeah, and if she got in trouble she had no backup, no one to rely on but herself, same for anyone working with her."

Daniel jabbed his fork into his salad. A mouthful of lettuce precluded him answering. John thought fondly that that wouldn't have stopped Rodney.

"Admit it, Daniel," Carter said. "You're just peeved because Cam and Vala won't be around to see you off."

Carter finished her brownie neatly and sat back, contemplating Daniel over her coffee cup. The amused smile on her lips mixed with the sort of fondness John missed seeing from Teyla. The way that made him ache still took him by surprise, long months after leaving Atlantis behind. Some day, he hoped, maybe he'd stop comparing even good things with what he didn't have any longer. He forced himself to focus on the here and now and swallowed back his own envy where it wouldn't show.

It only helped a little that Rodney would be taking advantage of Daniel's stint as interim expedition director to spend six months on Earth, overseeing the critical work on the satellite array that would make the Global Transport System a reality. John was looking forward to stealing as much time as possible for themselves. He'd already scheduled leave in for somewhere around the three month mark. Subject to world ending threats or getting marooned offworld, of course.

Daniel glanced up at Carter and chewed faster, finally forcing his food down before answering.

"I am not. I just don't find the idea of Vala with her own ship reassuring."

"It's just a souped up al'kesh."

"It's the principle," Daniel insisted. "Also, can't you do something about the name? The Mata Hara?"

Ship registry had apparently believed Mata Hara to be a Goa'uld name and not Vala's flaky and misspelled stab at Mata Hari. No one in the SGC was going to tell them to change it. Not after hearing that the dips at OOA were under the same misapprehension. The joke was too sweet.

"Daniel."

He set his fork down  "All right, fine. I thought she might come with me."

"Well, you don't have to go if you really don't want to," Carter teased.

Up came the fork, stabbed in Carter's direction. "Don't even joke about it!" Daniel hissed at her. He leaned across the table. "Seriously, Sam, do not start acting like Jack. The database cataloging project is too important."

"If you say so, Daniel."

John suppressed his smile. The library at Akanital had begun yielding its secrets, enough to prove what everyone in Atlantis had always known: its database was a disaster with no interlacing architecture. The Ancients had loaded it with everything they knew, millenia of knowledge and art, but they'd done it in a hurry, terrified of the plague they couldn't cure. The only thing they'd cared about had been failing to bring the data with them. For whatever reasons, they'd never bothered to clean up the mess they'd made and organize it after reaching Pegasus.

Carter raised her eyebrows at John.

"How much trouble do you think it will be to pry him out of there when the six months are up?" she asked.

"You could send me. I'd get the job done," John replied, not really kidding. He'd take almost any posting back to Atlantis. If it was commander. He couldn't imagine playing second in command to Reynolds. Or he could, but he didn't want Atlantis that bad.

"Don't make me send in the big guns, Daniel," she said. John knew she wouldn't. She wouldn't yank Daniel if he really had a chance at making sense of the Atlantis database and needed more time and she wouldn't send John while Reynolds held command. It wouldn't be fair to anyone, when the entire SGC knew Cam, John, and Griffin were the ones with Carter's ear. John might not have more official rank than Reynolds, but in practice he had a hell of lot more pull than Reynolds did.

"Right, I know, if I don't come back on my own you'll send Teal'c to get me."

John sat back and thought hard about what he'd just realized, tuning Carter and Daniel's mock argument out.

No matter how bitterly he'd privately resented the transfer back to Earth or how much he missed the life he'd had in Atlantis, his life hadn't screeched to a halt as a result. He hadn't let himself pine. Something he doubted he'd ever tell Rodney, but still true: he liked his job. He had organized the new SGOC under Carter's hands off command style. He effectively had authority over forty-nine gate teams. He still went through the stargate and handled first contacts and science missions. He kept his flight rating up to date flying 302s out of Peterson once a month. He lived on a world where he had the luxury of never worrying where his next meal would come from, where he'd sleep or who would try to kill him while he slept.

Hell, he'd probably enjoyed ogling Polly Hasting's underage breasts, dyed black hair and brown contacts, up on the theater screen in super hi def more than a man his age should, months before Tear Down the Pyramids reached Atlantis. If he wanted a steak, he went out and ordered one and got real beef cooked the way he liked it. He was famous and, yeah, being seen as a hero by a lot of people was a rush.

In effect, Colonel John Sheppard of the SGC outranked every general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The SGC answered only to the OOA and the UNE. John deferred to Col. Griffin while on base, but only because Griffin did the dirty work of keeping Cheyenne Mountain running smoothly. John's only military superior was Carter. That would change when the UNEC confirmed official commanders for the SGOC and SFOC, of course, but still. John had a lot of power and he had to admit it was good.

Teyla and Ronon and Tanaan, he missed more than once each day. He never signed a piece of paperwork without wishing he still had Lorne around and would never be as comfortable undergoing a post mission exam with Lam as he'd been with Carson and later Keller. Yet, when he missed Rodney, it was when he was alone, wanting company and the comfort of being known, being John, not Colonel Sheppard or the two dimensional idea of him most people on Earth had. The rest of the time, in the field, he had SG-2 and had grown used to them, from Weisser's left handedness to the way Major Kelly sang under her breath on the way back to the stargate and Red's habit of sucking on peppermints though he sneezed exactly three times for each candy.

He was mostly content.

If they offered him the SGOC officially, the way he knew they were going to give the SFOC to Cam, he wanted it. He'd got a taste for command in Atlantis. More than that, he knew he would be better at the job than most of the alternatives.

"Colonel Sheppard?" he heard Daniel say.

John blinked at him. "Yeah?"

"Leave the stove on this morning or something?" Daniel asked. "You're kind of quiet today."

John shook his head. "Just realizing something."

"You were smiling," Carter commented.

He had been. John slouched lower in his seat. "Maybe I've got a date this weekend," he offered, hoping to fake Carter out. She gave him an 'oh really?' face.

Daniel arched his brows and then shook his head.

"Nooo," Daniel said. "This weekend McKay will no doubt drag you off to his evil lair to go over his latest plot to kidnap and take you back to Atlantis."

John's smile faded away.

Rodney.

He could never tell Rodney he was happy with things as they were. Rodney still thought that some how, some day, he'd find a way to get John back in Atlantis. John had stopped telling him how unlikely that would be, but telling Rodney he was committing to staying Earthside could only seem like a betrayal.

"Yeah," he said to Daniel, "that's probably how it'll go."

20 March 2014
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

Pegasus was not inherently more deadly than the Milky Way. In fact, aside from Ancient bio-weapons, the populaces of Pegasus were far healthier than those in the Milky Way. Ten thousand years without advanced medicine had made for hearty immune systems at least. The forty-eight hour quarantine required when he traveled back to Earth infuriated Rodney.

Every month, he lost an average of seven days to travel back and forth between galaxies. Not the actual travel, though. No. The time was spent locked in the Level 25 VIP quarters of Cheyenne Mountain, while SG teams swanned back from other Milky Way planets that were just as assuredly swimming in alien germs and vicious viruses as any Pegasus world, only to go through a half-assed medical check up and go home at the end of their work day.

Just because he spent the two days on uninterrupted work on theories he never had the time to explore while running his department, keeping Atlantis functional and consulting with Reynolds, or polishing papers for publication, didn't keep Rodney from resenting the loss of freedom. It seemed like a twisted joke that he spent at least one night every month on Earth and yet couldn't spend it with John.

He accepted it with a tiny bit more grace than usual after leaving Daniel in Atlantis. Part of it lay in the knowledge that Daniel would drive Reynolds crazier than Rodney ever could, since he knew Daniel's sense of self preservation to be far more impaired than even John's. Rodney, being the very epitome of good sense (and brilliance!), had to rely on the soft science departments like the anthropologists to come up with the ideas that made the corner of Reynolds' left eye twitch at staff meetings. Daniel had managed the same effect in less than half a day after arriving.

One of Rodney's tiny, petty pleasures in Atlantis was pushing Reynolds' buttons. After all, if he couldn't get rid of Reynolds – and he knew he couldn't though he hadn't admitted the knowing part to John yet – well, then, Reynolds couldn't get rid of Rodney either.

Reynolds wasn't even the worst commander the SGC could have sent to takeover for John. He had years of stargate experience and got along with Pegasus natives.

Iirijjinii, Rodney corrected himself. It sounded fluid and beautiful when Teyla or Ronon pronounced. Rodney stumbled each time, forgot the lilt, missed the slur, used the name anyway. It pleased Teyla when he did. It also embarrassed the anthropologists. Two for one.

This quarantine wouldn't end in a six hour meeting with the bureaucrats and a turnaround trip through the stargate back to Atlantis. Six months on Earth would follow. Rodney had every intention of fitting in a trip to see Jeannie's family. He'd miss Tanaan's fifth birthday back in Atlantis, but he would see Madison's eleventh. He'd figured out those two were as close to having children as he would come in this life.

Madison would be the only prodigy with McKay genes. He'd leave his mark on history on Earth and back home, but it would be with his accomplishments alone. Between radiation exposure and last ditch medical treatments, his genes were probably too scrambled to offer fair legacy to any child. Besides, it still took two and he'd given up that pursuit years before, even if John would have forgiven him a second time.

The other element easing his temper over the quarantine for once was John, of course. Six months on Earth meant time spent with John, nights together, days with shared experiences instead of emails and anecdotes.

He spent the quarantine days double checking every aspect of the Global Transport System, examining the blueprints and specs on the satellites that would be beamed into geosynchronous orbit, the plans for the international customs hub, and the programs that would handle the traffic. The system would go live with fixed platforms and expand to for-fee point to point transports once people paid for and received their transmitters. Once that happened, the change would be on the level of the introduction of the internal combustion engine.

Meals were delivered from the officers' mess and he scowled at each tray of nutritionally balanced, healthy food before eating it, stung by Lam's declaration that he'd gained five pounds since the last time she'd examined him and if he didn't drop some weight, he'd lose his mission certification. Admittedly, he wasn't running his ass off in the field offworld any longer, but he was hardly a blimp. He was exactly the same weight he'd been when he joined the Atlantis Expedition.

Heavier than he had been while on AR-1, but Rodney would point out to anyone who mentioned it that the first year they'd been on starvation rations. By starvation, he meant three meals a day and nothing more, but that part could be left out of the argument. Other than that, he looked damn good for forty-seven years old and had for the last five years. Since Keller's treatment of the damages of the Shake, in fact.

Hacking his medical records out of sheer boredom during one quarantine had turned up an interesting thing or two. Interesting enough to justify violating John's privacy and checking out his too. What the SGC had on them didn't quite match what Keller had told them back in Atlantis. Nothing about the whole Ancient anti-aging package that came with their cure. Lam thought they were both in remarkably good health for men of their ages and even suspected something close to the truth: she wanted to do studies on how those with the ATA aged compared to people without it. Keller's encrypted, private notes – hacked the next time he got back to Atlantis – said she thought the treatment had left them physiologically about five years younger than they'd been. They weren't aging much either, certainly slower than Earth human norm.

Rodney had actually begun eating more after that. It made him feel twitchy and reminded him of John's question about being human. Besides, a little body fat could disguise that he wasn't getting older as fast as everyone else. Every instinct he'd developed over his many years dealing with governments in Pegasus and on Earth warned him that it wasn't a development he or John would benefit from others learning.

So Lam could force him to eat diet food while she had him trapped in the Mountain, but Rodney had no intention of paying any attention to her recommendations once he got out. He didn't go on field missions any longer, anyway; he could afford to lose his certification. He could get it back or get it waived if it ever became necessary.

In the meantime, he would enjoy himself while he was on Earth. One thing on the planet that hadn't changed through the years were the fast food chains. French fries were still the same.

He wouldn't get his French fries any time soon, though.

Release from quarantine only meant he'd be trapped in conference rooms instead. From a debriefing with Colonel Griffin to a talk with Carter that actually focused on Asgard tech, to the endless afternoon spent at the UNE Tower, Rodney talked until his throat felt raw and his voice began to fade out. The command performance for the UNE Council was the most painful. Explaining scientific developments and the physical – this is the way the universe as we know it works – impossibility of some of the things the politicians wanted always exhausted him.

Besides, he hated the Tower. Overwrought, ostentatious thumb in the eye of the rest of the world; the ham-handed use of the tech and materials that made Atlantis a thing of beauty offended Rodney's soul. It had all the style of a Goa'uld whorehouse, which fitted because he considered most of the politicians who had had it built shared the most telling hallmarks of the Goa'uld.

Entitlement and greed.

At its most basic level, in the UNE, it was you pay, you say. There were ten current Council members, but only three that really mattered: the Chinese, the Russian, and the American. They were still the nations contributing the majority of the UNE budget, because money translated into voting percentages. The Americans were paying the most, but it would be hard to forget them anyway. Abigail Farnham had moved smoothly from her term as President of the United States into position as the First Councilor of the UNE. Maybe she might even be remembered as more of a statesman than a politician someday. Rodney didn't know. He knew Farnham had had her hands on every part of the formation and shape of the UNE from before Disclosure Day and he knew the Earth had needed something like it.

He didn't like the UNE, he hadn't liked the IOA, but he wouldn't have liked any oversight organization.

Finishing the last meeting with them always came as a relief. He swiped his card through the reader and programmed the rings to take him to the ground floor foyer.

A driver was waiting with a car. The earpiece and mic, black sunglasses and the bulge of a zat under his jacket made him as security. The little pin on the lapel of his gray suit, black shield balanced on point over a blue globe, marked him as HSA.

He pulled out a black card and activated the hologram, identifying himself. "Agent Smith."

Rodney gave him a jaundiced look. The face was definitely too wide and the short cut blond hair didn't fit either. "Funny, you don't look like Hugo Weaving."

"What?"

No one in the HSA had a sense of humor or any knowledge of modern cinema. Rodney waved his hand at him tiredly and got into the waiting car.

"Just take me back to Colorado Springs."

"Yes sir."

The armored, black hybrid Mercedes SUV with its privacy polarized, bulletproof glass hummed quietly down the restricted use lane of the highway, whipping past older cars in the local lanes, and thankfully Smith didn't try to talk to him. Rodney leaned back in the rear seat. Dirty piles of snow filled the culverts next to the road, but green growth showed through the bare patches here and there. Spring didn't really reach Colorado this early though unless the climate change had accelerated again. The mountain shadows darkened everything on the ground, but the air at sunset reminded him of red honey, thick and glowing, until the sun slipped all the way down and the color went out of the world like a switch had been flipped.

The window sank down into the door silently when he pushed a button at least and he inhaled the mingled scents of moist earth and cold air. No petroleum combustion exhaust and engine growls, just the hiss of tires on pavement and the vibration of an electric motor. Better than the over filtered and conditioned air under the Mountain and inside the Tower. Rodney let his fingers rest on the lip of the door, enjoying the rush of air over them.

"Please don't do that, sir," Smith said. "It isn't secure."

He pulled his hand inside and the window hummed upward, sealing the SUV up again.

Dusk concealed the landscape by then, so Rodney pulled out his cellphone and checked his messages.

One from Sam, two from names he didn't recognize, two from the satellite project manager, one from Jeannie. John must have told her Rodney was back.

Nothing from John, but Rodney didn't know if he was even Earthside.

If John didn't show at the apartment by midnight, Rodney would assume he wasn't and leave a note detailing his itinerary for the next week. He needed to inspect the factory where they were growing the crystals for the array. After that, he would be touring the proposed sites for the fixed platforms. If he couldn't persuade someone to beam him between destinations and had to fly, he'd be away for days.

His stomach grumbled and he remembered he'd passed on the breakfast that had been delivered to the VIP quarters before his release that morning.

A snap of his fingers made Anderson look in the rear view mirror. "Yes sir?"

"Find a drive-thru when we get to the Springs. Jack-in-a-Box, McDonald's, better yet some place local. I skipped lunch."

He didn't know what, if anything, John had arranged to have at hand at Rodney's apartment. Canned or frozen goods that wouldn't go bad. Maybe fresh if John had had a chance to shop while Rodney was in quarantine. Maybe nothing because John wouldn't have stocked up without knowing one of them could get rid of anything going bad. John still went offworld and couldn't count on getting back before fresh goods spoiled.

"Yes sir."

Rodney dropped his head back against the leather headrest.

John wasn't in the apartment. Rodney ate cold French fries and a tofu burger with everything, cursing the craze for health food. He didn't spend money at a restaurant to get something good for him. That's what hospital cafeterias were for, but he'd been too tired to insist Smith find some other, non-vegetarian drive-thru. After stuffing the paper bag, wrappings and napkins in the recycling bin for paper products, he opened his computer case and pulled out the scanner/jammer he'd built and kept hidden inside.

Sweeping the apartment for surveillance had become just another routine. Nothing new, just the one on his phone line, the one in the living room and the one someone had literally plastered inside his wall in the bedroom. That one dated back to NID days. He'd made a game of finding and destroying their bugs, until they'd rented the condo above his, flooded the floors, and then come inside his under the guise of a construction crew doing repairs and installed their surveillance where Rodney would have to tear out a wall and half the ceiling to get at it.

Letting them think they'd won worked better than playing find the bug. These days he just jammed it or overrode the signal with an assortment of Rodney-at-home recordings or let them tape him snoring. He still got rid of the other bugs, so they thought he didn't know about the bedroom one and that its habit of fading out had resulted from being buried behind the plaster or the building's older wiring.

He didn't see John for another week and then it was in Carter's office, going over Reynolds' list of complaints about the civilians in Atlantis. She had John in there to act as her own lie detector, confirming or denying Rodney's assertions with a nod or a headshake. He looked good; looked so much like the man who went through the stargate the first time to Atlantis it made Rodney hurt inside. Years of playing the game of don't ask, don't tell, don't let anyone see, let him ignore the little stutter in his chest just seeing John always caused when he walked in. The irritation of having to justify the way he ran his department to the military, even if it was Sam and John, helped. He had a frown on his face even as he dropped without invitation into the second visitors chair opposite Sam's desk.

"Well?" he said. "Let's get on with this."

"Look what the cat dragged in," John remarked.

"Did you get all the make up off after the last sound bite on Inside Access?" Rodney shot back. He peered at John then glanced back at Sam. "Are we sure the hair gel isn't causing permanent brain damage?"

"McKay." The amusement lurking at the corners of his eyes and mouth gave John away, despite the remonstrating tone.

Sam glanced at the computer in front of her and said, "Since you've told us all how valuable your time is, more than once, let's get this over with," and began quizzing him.

"Did you really shut down the marine barracks and trap half of them inside for forty-eight hours?" Sam asked finally, at the end of the list.

"Of course not," Rodney snapped. He leaned forward. "Is Reynolds trying to blame me for that? It was one of his brain dead, no, brain-less jarheads. The idiot smuggled in a bootleg game on an infected disc, loaded it into the Atlantis mainframe, and would have crashed the entire city if I hadn't had Simpson put in those security partitions. It took us a week to clean the virus out and I consider it a sign of how dedicated my department is that we got the barrack doors open as fast as possible. Anyway, are you telling me the poor things were afraid of the dark? It isn't like they didn't have air and MREs."

"Add in indoor plumbing and it must have been just like a vacation," John commented. He glanced at Sam. "Is there a reprimand for the marine who smuggled the game in?"

Sam clicked a few keys. "Yes. Marine Corporal Benedict Jensen." She smiled. "It looks like Col. Reynolds assigned him KP and maintenance from now until forever."

"See?" Rodney crowed.

Sam sat back. "You could have been nicer about the whole thing, Rodney."

"Nicer!? That idiot might have corrupted the entire Atlantis operating system. We wouldn't have had electronics, we wouldn't have had the stargate, we wouldn't have had a shield, we wouldn't even have had drinking water once the tanks of desalinated water were drained and we don't keep too many filled because the weight makes Atlantis sink. New Lantea's sea is considerably less salty than Lantea's or Earth's you know."

"Well, I know now," Sam replied.

Rodney pointed at her. "Reynolds needs to keep his people under better control. I'd give him some leadership pointers, but the man is clearly unappreciative of my skills and experience."

"Leadership. Pointers," John breathed in wide-eyed, sardonic awe.

"Oh, shut up, Colonel. At least when you were in charge, the point-and-shoot crowd knew to listen when their betters spoke."

"Yes, I remember telling them to listen to Teyla and Ronon," John agreed.

Rodney really wanted to kick him right then, but John had his chair placed out of kicking range. Clearly, his grasp of tactics had improved in the last year.

"All right," Sam said, drawing their attention back her. She had her hand over her mouth, and might have been hiding a giggle, but she smoothed her features into a professional expression as she lowered  her hand. "I think we've covered everything."

"Everything but my request to have Colonel Sheppard reinstated as Atlantis' military commander," Rodney said.

He felt John go still in the chair catercorner to his. Sam's features creased into regret. "Rodney..."

"Fine, I know, but I'm going to keep at it until someone listens to me." He slumped back in his seat. "Is that all?"

"Pretty much," Sam said.

"I've got to be in London next week and straighten out the contractors working on the fixed platform. Apparently they use some other notation than Arabic numerals in their math, because the video I was sent of the site is a travesty," he declared. He glanced at John. "I'm going up to see Jeannie first. Madison has a recital. She asked about 'Uncle' John. Think you can tear yourself away from the babe of the week and listen to my niece play?"

"I don't know, Rodney," John drawled. "Will I have to admit I'm with you?"

"Just because I informed Madison's last teacher that he was stifling her natural talent – "

"At the school reception hall in front of all the other parents."

" – by making her play in the company of the rest of the class, which she is years ahead of in skill," Rodney went on, "is no reason to pretend to not know me. Besides, I remember you laughing like an inebriated hyena when Kaleb told everyone I'd gone off my medication again."

John grinned at him unrepentantly. "If you could have seen your face. And you actually stopped talking." He glanced at Sam. "He really did. He was speechless."

Rodney gathered his dignity around him and stood. "I can't believe I wanted you back in Atlantis."

"Aw, Rodney."

"No, really. Sam, I take it back. Keep him here. There's such a thing as too much of a bad thing."

"But you want me to come with you to see Madison play."

"Jeannie wants you to come," Rodney said.

"John. Rodney." Sam gestured to the door. "I have work to do."

John finally uncoiled from his boneless slouch in the other chair and got up. "Ma'am," he said with a respectful dip of his head.

"Get out of here," she said. "And John?"

"Yeah?"

"You have three days leave. Go play 'Uncle' John."

"Will do." John threw her a sloppy salute and ambled out the door.

Rodney lingered.

"Something else?" Sam asked.

He shrugged awkwardly. "No. Just, uh, thank you. Madison really likes him, you know. Well, most girls, women too, really, do. Not that he's interested in them. I mean little girls, not," he sawed his hands through the hair, shaping an hourglass, "ah, women. John likes women." He snapped his mouth shut. "I'm going to go now."

"That's probably a good idea," Sam said kindly.

"Yes. Going. But, also, thank you."

The night was spent at John's condo. No misleading recordings overriding transmissions there: John swept and fried anything put in place obsessively, the same way he checked under his vehicle for bombs even in the SGC parking level. John didn't even bring anything classified out of the Mountain and he wasn't the only one taking precautions. It was a level of paranoia new to Rodney, or rather new to John in his experience. Rodney had always been paranoid himself, working at Area 51 and then Siberia had made sure of that, but the John in his memory didn't bother with that sort of thing.

"Just like running a MALP through the gate the day before a mission," was John's only advice, "so get in the habit while you're here."

"I'll do that," Rodney murmured.

It brought it home to him, that while they were separate they weren't in stasis. Each of them kept changing day by day, their shared experiences receding into the past they shared. Eventually, there would be more time between the separation and the now than there had been spent together. Distance would make them strangers. Even memories lied after a while. The mind reshaped people and events. The present overpowered the past and though it never went away, it gave way to the urgency of the day.

Love might not die, but it let go.

He didn't want to let go.

For the first time, he considered giving up Atlantis.

The next day they took a flight to Canada. Security waved them through when John flashed their UNE IDs. It was casual; John had obviously done it before. John peeled away at the airport, another fake smile on his face, charming a gaggle of school girls who had recognized him. "Go on," he told Rodney. "See your sister. I'll get a hotel room."

Rodney watched for a minute, then left, taking a taxi to Jeannie's despite the cost. John still hadn't showed by dinner time.

Jeannie asked if John would be coming and he could only shrug. "Probably." He summoned a smile and nodded toward the living room that held the piano he'd bought for Madison. "He'll be there for the recital." John wouldn't miss that. He went on setting plates on her table, automatically laying one for John too. When he realized, he started to pick it back up. Jeannie's hand on his wrist stopped him.

"He'll be here," Jeannie said.

The food wasn't quite ready for the table when John tapped at the door. Kaleb answered and brought him in. John slanted a Rodney a wry, apologetic glance before presenting Jeannie with two bottles of probably expensive wine, a third of some non-alcoholic sparkly stuff Madison would be allowed to drink, a bouquet of flowers, and a wrapped present for her as well. "Sorry, I got held up," he explained.

Madison hugged 'Uncle' John tighter and longer than she had Rodney, even when he gave her the present he'd brought from Atlantis. It sunk in after a while that she'd seen more of John in the last year than she had seen of Rodney period. Seeing her had stunned him, too. She looked like Jeannie, narrow and thin and frighteningly bright, and there were already flashes of the woman she'd become peeking through the little girl's features.

"Can I open my present?" she asked.

"After dinner. Go wash your hands," Jeannie told her.

"My hands aren't dirty," Madison whined, but gave in when Kaleb pointed toward the washroom.

John held up his own hands. "Mind if I – "

"Go ahead," Kaleb told him.

John loped up the stairs to use the guest bath.

"Told you," Jeannie said.

"I didn't realize he'd been visiting," Rodney said.

"He was here for Madison's last birthday."

The accusation that Rodney wasn't, once again, was implicit in every word. No one did guilt and disappointment like Jeannie did. She'd learned it at their mother's knee.

"I sent a gift."

"I know. John delivered it."

Despite the tasty smell of Jeannie's food, any appetite he had seemed to be disappearing. He'd missed Madison's birthday. She'd turned eleven. Rodney had been in Atlantis, dealing with a corrosive mold that one of the botany teams had brought back on their boots from PX4-331. There had been a ten day period when he'd crashed once and slept six hours before persuading Keller to provide enough speed to keep going until they found a way to kill the stuff before it ate enough holes in Atlantis to sink it. Teyla had suggested finding out how the natives kept the mold from destroying their metal tools, which meant long arguments with Reynolds about who needed to be on the mission team, than an analysis of the plant they found and synthesizing enough an agent with the same chemical to disperse through the environmental system. He'd been unconscious in the infirmary from exhaustion and a heart arrhythmia for three days after that.

Maybe he'd been trying to make up for that by being at Tanaan's birthday a couple of months later. Maybe he'd been trying to make up for John's absence. Tanaan hadn't seemed to miss John. He'd asked for him all the time the first two months after John left, then stopped. Teyla said children adapted and forgot easier than adults. He'd been pleased with the presents from Earth, but Rodney doubted he'd distinguished the ones John had sent from the ones he bought on Rodney's instructions.

Dinner passed politely, mostly because Kaleb and John talked, while Rodney made stilted remarks and Jeannie sniped at him, but subtly, not quite cutting enough to alert Madison, though Kaleb aimed a frown her way several times.

"What did I do to you?" Rodney demanded after dessert had been served and consumed, following Jeannie into the kitchen with empty plates and coffee cups.

"Nothing," she said. She rinsed off the china with jerky movements, then stacked the pieces in the dishwasher.

"You're as shitty a liar as I am."

Jeannie closed the dishwasher with a jerk and turned to face him. She folded her arms over her stomach and leaned back against the counter while glaring.

"Fine. You. Aren't. Around. You're off in Atlantis, playing with your toys."

Rodney blinked at her. "Atlantis is my home."

Jeannie's expression crumbled. "What about your family? I understand why you broke up with Katie, but you're going to end up old and lonely this way."

"No, I'm not," he snapped, then blurted, "You do?"

She shifted her gaze toward the living room, where John's voice mingled with Kaleb's and Madison's, and nodded. Rodney backed away, suddenly rocked, and found his back pressed to the cool enamel door of the refrigerator. Its support came as a relief. Jeannie knew. He wondered crazily if John had told her, then dismissed the thought. John would never tell anyone. John didn't want anyone to know who he'd taken for a lover.

"Yes," Jeannie hissed at him, so obviously forcing her voice low when she wanted to yell that Rodney winced anyway. "Why not come back to Earth? You could work here too. You could be with your family. You could be with John."

"I have family on Atlantis too," Rodney protested.

Up went Jeannie's chin, the same tilt and scorn Rodney used, the same one their father had, the same stubborn lift he'd seen on Madison earlier. "Did you get married without telling anyone? Suddenly you have family there?" she demanded. "Who?"

"Teyla. Tanaan. Ronon."

Jennifer, Radek, Lorne, Miko. Jeannie didn't get it. She'd been to Atlantis but she'd never been of it. She hadn't bled for it, hadn't watched the bodies consigned to the stargate. It wasn't her home.

"So they're more important than your real family? Than John?"

"You want me to choose?" Rodney asked, getting angry, mostly because he'd begun contemplating it.

"Choose what?" John asked from the kitchen doorway, making Rodney and Jeannie snap their heads toward him. Kaleb stood just behind him. He watched them warily. One hand braced against the door jamb, subtly blocking Kaleb from continuing into the kitchen.

"Family or his job," Jeannie said.

"Earth or Atlantis," Rodney corrected.

You, he didn't say, or home.

John's gaze flickered, rested on Jeannie briefly, on Rodney, and then his expression hardened.

"Don't pull this shit," he told Jeannie. He stalked into the kitchen and stationed himself next to Rodney. "You made your choices and insisted Rodney honor them. It goes both ways."

"I just want him to be happy."

John folded his arms, mirroring Jeannie's posture. "On your terms," he said. "Believe me, I've heard that before. It doesn't work."

"Oh, don't tell me you're happy with this arrangement," Jeannie argued. "You on Earth, him in Atlantis."

John's expression smoothed away into a perfect blank. "What?"

"Thanks a lot, Jeannie," Rodney told her.

"Jean," Kaleb said. He unfolded her arms and pulled her into a loose hug. "You aren't helping."

John looked at Rodney, still expressionless, and asked in a toneless voice, "They know?"

"I didn't tell them."

The bump surprised Rodney. Then John's arm pressed against his, from shoulder to elbow, very deliberately, and stayed. "Breathe," John said softly. His arm remained there, John right next to him, in contact with Rodney, and it was a huge thing, something John had never done in front of anyone except Ronon and Teyla. Rodney sucked in a breath and leaned into it. His attention narrowed to the contact between them, John's warmth through his dress shirt and Rodney's long-sleeved tee shirt. It felt as intimate as a kiss.

"I just want you to be happy, Mer."

Her voice startled him, reminded him Jeannie and Kaleb were still in the kitchen too.

"He's not giving up Atlantis," John stated.

"I might," Rodney heard himself say.

John went still beside him, tense as a bow string. He turned and asked, "What? Why?"

"Well, sooner or later, I will finish the work on the ZPM casings," Rodney blurted out. "And I'd like to work on some of my own theories eventually, not as unofficial head of maintenance, weapons development and all around city savior. It's exhausting. Also, the library at Akanital is yielding vast amounts of information too. I could work with that from Earth."

John studied him so intently Rodney started to squirm in place.

"What?"

"I don't want you to make that choice," John answered.

He knew, because he'd never wanted John to be forced to choose between Atlantis and him. They'd both decided to safeguard John's career, even as they broke its rules, and now that career had taken John away despite their care, but without any bitter taint between them.

"I might not have any choice," Rodney decided to point out. "Sooner or later, the ICGA will choose a permanent expedition director. I'm not sure I can face answering to someone else at this point, even if it would mean halving my paperwork."

"You love Atlantis," John replied.

"So do you."

Kaleb coughed, reminding them that they weren't alone, and Rodney realized how close he'd leaned in toward John, how near their faces had been, closer than friends came, in the shared space of lovers.

"I know you have a hotel room," Jeannie said, "but you're welcome to stay overnight here."

One guest room.

Rodney wondered if John would be able to tolerate any more revelation today.

"Thanks, that would be great," John said, flashing his most charming smile at Jeannie.

Rodney caught Jeannie's gaze and nodded. Among McKays apologies were made with goods, hurt feelings soothed with material things, because the words had always been forced, empty and seldom sincerely meant. Jeannie and Kaleb were offering them a safe place where they didn't have to hide.

Much safer than whichever hotel John had checked into even if he had paid some ridiculous amount for security and privacy options.

The sound of the dishwasher starting the rinse cycle made them all jump and laugh. Madison poked her head into the kitchen, frowning at them. "What are you talking about?"

"Gypsies," Kaleb said promptly. "Your Uncle Rodney suggested we might sell you to the space gypsies."

"You would not," Madison declared.

"Well, they probably wouldn't pay much for you anyway," John remarked. "You're kind of scrawny."

"I am not!" Madison glared up at John indignantly. "I'm just going to be tall like Dad."

It did look like she'd inherited Kaleb's height.

"If you say so, squirt."

Fists on her hips, Madison tried to outstare John. He gave in and pushed away from the refrigerator and Rodney. Rodney's shoulder immediately felt cold. John scooped up Madison and said, "Let's go see what I brought you."

"Come on!" Madison called out as John carried her away. Rodney dutifully followed, trailed by Jeannie and Kaleb, all arguments tabled for the moment.

12 April 2014
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

There probably weren't five people on Earth or Atlantis who knew that Rodney McKay could cook. John was among them. He'd learned to be wary of the occasions Rodney did it, however. Not wary of the food, because Rodney combined a scientist's logical approach to using a recipe with a gourmand's flair for the food itself, but of the reason Rodney had decided to cook.

The scent of pot roast in the air when Rodney let him in the apartment made John's mouth water, while his mind winced away from explaining why there was nothing for him to celebrate.

Rodney padded back out of the hall, socked feet silent on the hardwood flooring.

Coat on the coat tree, along with the long, red and white Who scarf Madison had given him for Christmas, gloves in the pockets, keys on the side table, and John reflected that he had a routine now, when he came to Rodney's. The apartment felt lusciously warm. He wanted to sprawl on the couch, drink a beer, watch a game, then eat Rodney's pot roast, then doze through an hour or two of Rodney working on his laptop, before hauling him back to the bedroom for some lazy sex. Somehow, he didn't think the evening would go that way.

He unlaced his boots far enough to kick them off and left them sitting next to Rodney's shoes on the rug beside the coat tree.

How the hell had Rodney heard, but not heard what had actually gone down.

A glance toward the unlit living room showed a dark TV. Rodney's open laptop sat on the coffee table, the screensaver running. The announcement had probably made the news, but Rodney could have missed it.

For that matter, if Rodney thought he had something to celebrate, he'd have said something, wouldn't he? The silence bugged John as he headed for the apartment kitchen.

Maybe Rodney had heard the news and cooked so they could commiserate over what miserable sonovabitches the UNEC were.

"Hey," he said when he reached the doorway into the kitchen. The roast and accompanying vegetables smelled even better there. John sniffed. "Smells great."

Rodney gave him an unreadable look and continued stirring a sauce.

"Beer in the fridge," he said.

John obeyed the implied direction ad helped himself to a Blue Truck ale. Snapped the cap off and tossed it, then sipped enough to taste, enough to slide cool down the back of his throat. Not playing games or making a show of it. Street lights were already on outside and sometime after he came in it had finally began to rain; the light scattered through the water running down the window pane in front of the sink, sparkling white on the otherwise dark, mirroring glass.

He couldn't hear the rain, though, just the gas flame hiss and the bubbling sauce. The glass bottle was cool in his hand. The neck slowly warmed to body temperature as he turned it between thumb and forefinger.

Rodney whisked the sauce methodically. Tight muscle bunched in his back, under his blue shirt, warning John away from the impulse to wrap an arm around his waist from behind and hook his chin over Rodney's shoulder.

"So," he said, "is this where I say, 'sorry I'm late, honey,' or did I forget some anniversary?"

Not that they had ever done anniversaries. The silence twanged his nerves, though. Rodney silent, like Rodney cooking, merited caution if not outright alarm.

Rodney turned off the gas burner and shifted the saucepan off it. The whisk went into one side of the sink. "No," he said. He set a lid on the saucepan. His back remained to John. Someone better talented than a marine with a set of clippers had cut Rodney's hair when he arrived back on Earth, but it needed a trim again. He'd taken to wearing it combed forward the way he had when John first met him. It reminded John of Julius Caesar from some coin or history book.

The kitchen overhead light was an old-fashioned incandescent bulb; its light warm and familiar as childhood. It tinted Rodney's hair russet brown as he leaned against the counter, in profile to John, arms folded, watching the oven timer tick down.

John looked away, uncomfortably reminded of bombs by the numbers dropping on the readout.

He wondered when the explosion would come.

"You could set the table," Rodney said.

Not yet, then.

He set the bottle to the side, washed his hands in the free side of the kitchen sink and then laid out the china and flatware. Rodney didn't have napkins. Paper towels would do. He paused in front of the cabinet holding Rodney's eclectic collection of glassware.

"I'll have a beer too," Rodney told him.

John shrugged and brought two tall glasses fit for beer to the table. He tipped the rest of his ale into one and went back for two more bottles, setting them beside the glasses, while Rodney pulled the roast from the oven and did whatever else went into his masterpiece. Apprehension made John's stomach twist painfully and he became aware of a headache behind his eyes, reminding him it had been a shitty day already, without whatever seemed about to come down on him.

It didn't do much for a man's appetite, but he ate the food Rodney served automatically. Rodney ate with single-minded intensity, the third red flag of the evening. Rodney never let a full mouth stop his words, unless he didn't want to talk.

The dishes were rinsed and in the washer, leftovers shoved into the refrigerator wherever they'd fit, when apprehension finally transformed into impatience. He thought about a third beer and decided it wouldn't be smart to show up at the Mountain in the morning hungover. That left getting into a fight and since Rodney didn't seem ready to start it, John would have to take the lead. He went for sarcasm.

"So, how was your day, dear?" John asked.

Rodney turned on him, finally, eyes bright with something John interpreted as anger. Later, he'd think it was something else, hope maybe, but he had always been for shit at relationships and reading people when it mattered.

"I did some reading."

John raised his eyebrows. "Did you?" he drawled. He wanted the fight now. Wanted to yell and get angry with Rodney, because he was so damned mad at himself for thinking he had it in the bag. He couldn't beam into the Tower and tell off the fucking UNEC, so it was himself or Rodney and Rodney'd been freaking him out all evening.

"Yes," Rodney snapped. His expression softened immediately after, though. "I did. The UNE Military Code of Justice. And then the Revised Fraternization Guidelines."

John stared. "What the fuck for?"

"Let's say I was curious."

"Curious," he echoed.

"Have you actually read them?" Rodney asked, staring at him intently.

Heat prickled and flushed over John's skin. His breath caught. Fight or flight sang through his system, muscle music played by a chemical orchestra, panic pulse accompanying it to a heartbeat tympani.

"Yeah," he said carefully.

"Of course you have," Rodney said and whatever had been burning in him moments before was snuffed out, dull and numbed as his voice, so that John shivered.

"I – "

"You read it, so you know, there's no provision in it against homosexuality." Rodney paused then added, "Nor against any other arrangement of consenting adults as far as I could tell. I wonder exactly who drafted it; not an American." He sneered at John at that, then brushed past him, out of the kitchen. John followed helplessly.

The living room was completely dark except for the blue flicker from Rodney's laptop. The rain tapped against the windows on that side of the building. The cold, uneven rhythm made John shiver hard enough to wonder if he was getting sick; he had gone hot and been chilled in just minutes.

Rodney sat down on the couch and picked up the laptop.

John hesitated in the doorway, then went in. He seated himself in the big club chair catercornered to the couch and stared at Rodney, at the way screens of text reflected light on his features, the light from beneath his face throwing uneven, unexpected shadows over his features.

"I – "

Rodney glanced up, skewering John with darkened eyes. John coughed, cleared his throat, and tried again.

"I know."

Rodney's gaze dropped to the screen again, dismissing John, which made him clench his fists and press them down on his thighs until the muscles protested.

"Funny you hadn't mentioned it."

Clickety-clack-clack-clack, Rodney's fingers drummed on the keys, his own special way of communicating boredom, impatience, and disinterest where another man would drum his fingers on a nearby surface. The fact that he could multi-task and actually accomplish something while ignoring or taunting someone made it more infuriating.

"Yeah, I didn't," John admitted.

"I always knew it freaked you, but I never realized you would want to stay a closet case when it didn't matter any more."

But it did matter.

"It's not that easy," John told him.

"Looks that way to me."

"Look again."

Rodney's hands stilled.

John concentrated on breathing evenly. His hands were in fists; he unclenched them and spread them over his thighs, sweat dampening the denim under his fingers. Shit. He hadn't wanted to do this. Not tonight, not any night, not with Rodney, who was so blindingly brilliant he'd always transcended the rules, written and unwritten. Which had cost Rodney, true, but nothing that mattered to Rodney ultimately. Not the way John had always had to weigh his wants with which rule he could bend, which law he would break, and what he had been willing to give up to keep what he needed.

Rodney's fingers snapped.

"Explain."

"There are rules," John started.

"Yes, yes, I just told you. I read them."

A muscle ticked in John's jaw.

"There are rules that aren't written down."

Rodney frowned at him. John leaned forward.

"I know you've never given a damn about social interaction, but this stuff matters in the military," he said. "No matter what the Military Code says, the UNE military is still modeled on the US and still populated by a lot of ex-US soldiers. Who know I was Air Force. Whatever the law is now, they'll know I was breaking it before."

"There's nothing they can do to you."

John slumped back in his chair. "You aren't stupid, Rodney."

"No one's going to harass you," Rodney insisted. "Sam wouldn't let them and she's your only superior officer – "

The laughter spilled out before John could stop. "Not as of today."

That made Rodney frown at him, derailed and confused.

"What?"

He tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling. The soft sounds of Rodney breathing and shifting restlessly on the couch underlined the quiet of a rainy night. A click and soft scrape accompanied the laptop being relegated to the coffee table again.

"As of this afternoon, General Sergei Alexeivich Alyanov is in charge of Stargate Operations Command. The UNEC confirmed him in the morning session. My new commanding officer."

"Alyanov...I don't even know who he is," Rodney said, slow and careful. The frown still creased his brow. He kept his gaze on John.

"He inherited command of the Russian gate team, then went back to the Federation after being promoted," John told him. "With Carter in charge and Cam getting Space Force, plus O'Neill at HSA, the other UNE members decided the whole thing was a little top heavy with Americans. Ex-Americans. Same difference. The Chinese have Shen in ICGA, which gives them a second Council seat, so the Russians wanted one of their people in charge of gate operations."

"SGOC doesn't have a council seat."

"No, but Stargate Command does and if something happens to Carter, SGOCOM is next in line."

"So, should Sam look in to getting that food taster?"

John huffed out a sound that was almost laughter. "Alyanov's okay. Not political, anyway. I'll still be running everything offworld."

"So it could be worse."

"Yeah, it could," John admitted. That didn't really make him feel much better, though. Carter had called him into her office and told him before the base wide announcement, but there hadn't been any other warning the UNEC had come to a decision.

'I'm sorry, John. Farnham tried an end run and it was vote for Alyanov or end up with Michaelson. In a year, Alyanov will retire and when I put your name forward, even Farnham will vote to confirm.' Carter had enough political connections John believed her. Merit only took an officer so far in any organization, after that it became politics. Michaelson had some tie to Farnham, but she didn't have SGC experience. In a year, she would, but John would have seniority, more experience, and if he read Carter right, the backing of the rest of the Council. Farnham wouldn't waste her vote in a losing fight for a candidate the rest of the UNEC wouldn't confirm. Patience would be rewarded as long as John didn't rock the boat.

Coming out, whether the rules precluded it or not, would be enough of a scandal, considering his public persona as the face of the SGC, to put the unspoken promise in jeopardy.

It wasn't even that John liked dick, though plenty of people would be outraged by just that. It would be all the questions about him and Rodney. Every decision he'd made while in Atlantis with Rodney on AR-1 would come into question. John doubted all of them could stand up to hostile scrutiny.

Michaelson or somebody would be proposed as a better choice than a man with a history of decisions colored by personal feelings. What if it came out to the media? It would become a public firestorm. Joseph Barnes on his soapbox preaching, 'Do you want a cocksucker defending the Earth?'

Everything in John cringed away from the prospect.

Explaining that to Rodney meant Rodney would draw the corollary conclusion, though: John no longer meant to return to Atlantis. It didn't work that way. If he waited his year and got SGOCOM, he wouldn't be back. Atlantis would be a demotion.

"So, is the ambition a new thing or did I just miss it when you were in Atlantis?" Rodney asked, proving he could put together the pieces whether John said anything or not.

"It's a different world."

Rodney shook his head.

"Not different enough, apparently."

Wormholes and hyperdrives could cheat relativity, but no one could out run where they came from.

Rodney picked up the TV remote and switched it on. "Did they announce it to the public?"

"Yeah, I think so," John answered.

The screen flared alive and then flickered as Rodney skimmed past a dozen stations to find CNN. They waited through the news of another earthquake in Kazakhstan, two Louisiana schools closed due to toxic mold in the walls after four children collapsed, paired stories on the upcoming Kentucky Derby in May and the sale of draft horses to offworld low tech societies. John realized he'd never seen a horse offworld. Oxen, goats, chicken, pigs, and sheep, but no horses. Either the Goa'uld hadn't bothered transplanting them or they hadn't adapted off Earth. PETA and Green Galaxy had filed suit to stop the sale on grounds that there were no vets on the worlds the animals would go to and that they were fertile and might multiply and upset the exoplanetary ecologies.

"People are astoundingly stupid," Rodney commented.

'Stargate Command announced today that the UNEC had confirmed the appointment of former Russian Federation Red Army General Sergei Alexeivich Alyanov to command of Stargate Operations in a surprise move. Insiders had mentioned Colonel John A. Sheppard and Colonel Gretchen Parks Michaelson as strong possibilities to receive the post. The unexpected appointment of General Alyanov may signal a shift in direction within the UNEC.

'General Alyanov, a veteran gate team leader and decorated officer, was born in the Vladivostok in 1960 and served in Afghanistan between 1981 and 1986 and on the Russian gate team in the US run Stargate Program from 2002 to 2009.'

After the talking head moved on to Baker-Loache, a large pharmaceutical manufacturer filing for bankruptcy in the wake of drastically falling sales of their most profitable patented medication, John glanced at Rodney.

"I think we've covered everything," Rodney said. "It really wouldn't serve any purpose if I resigned my post in Atlantis, would it?"

John slid down in the chair and closed his eyes. The TV's light shifted, penetrating through his eyelids. Rodney's delicious meal rolled around his stomach uncomfortably.

"Not really."

"Well, it's not like you asked me to, is it?"

God, Rodney.

John opened his eyes and tried to read Rodney's expression.

Rodney nodded at the TV. "Keller's Cure is going to put a lot of companies out of business. If the pharmaceutical industry has hit lists, she's at the top of all of them."

John hadn't thought of it that way before.

'The SGOC B304 Hospital shipJanet Fraiserhas been detailed to coordinate rescue, treatment, and salvage efforts in Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula following the super hurricane that devastated the southern tip of Mexico three days ago.'

Rodney picked up his laptop and began typing. John waited for the adrenaline from the fight that hadn't really happened – only it had, but without shouting, which made it worse – to dissipate. He felt wrung out and small. No amount of rationalization changed that he wanted Rodney to go on being his dirty little secret.

"Don't worry about it," Rodney said. "No one needs to know."

Being shamed into facing himself didn't endear Rodney to him at the moment either.

"I'm not."

He trusted Rodney, which only made him feel worse.

"I didn't really want to work on a weather control machine anyway." Rodney grimaced and waved at the TV screen, still showing video of the storm devastation. "Though someone needs to. The storms are getting worse every year."

The picture switched to a triage station. Aid workers and soldiers wearing SFOC and SGOC shoulder flashes moved through a makeshift ward. Periodically, one of the wounded would have a transmitter stuck to their hand and disappear in a flash of transporter light, deemed by some arcane standard capable of benefiting from treatment aboard the Janet Fraiser. The voice over began quoting casualty figures, followed by estimated monetary damages.

John let it flow by, only snapping to attention when the news reader's voice changed.

'The Church of the One True God issued an announcement today declaring that recent disasters related to accelerating climate change were in fact signs of the end times and that all idolaters and heretics worshipping the 'False God of Science' would be punished or the entire world would suffer the wrath of the One True God. The Church's list of offenders began with Dr. Daniel Jackson, the sixteen members of the UNE Council, and – '

"Turn it off," John begged.

Rodney barely stopped typing to do so, but the TV screen went black a breath later. Outside the rain came down in sheets, fierce and rattling at the windows, threatening flash floods in the southwest. Rodney finished whatever had consumed his interest and closed the laptop, leaving the living room lightless.

Darkness made the space smaller. John listened to Rodney rise and start toward the doorway. He got to his own feet uncertainly. It was probably time to put his boots on and get out before Rodney told him to get out. It wasn't the storm outside that made John reluctant to go, though.

"Well?" Rodney suddenly demanded. He stood silhouetted in the doorway into the hall. "What are you waiting for?"

You to tell me what to do. If he couldn't give Rodney what he wanted, then John meant to at least give him what he wanted tonight.

"Look, I asked, you answered. Or at least made it clear what your answer is," Rodney said. "I'm not going to punish you for spite. I'm a big boy, I can handle the truth even when I don't like it."

John started toward him, slowed by the darkness despite his intimate familiarity with Rodney's apartment. "Okay," he murmured when he reached Rodney.

"It's not like I expected anything more," Rodney added.

John made himself continue reaching out, letting his arms settle around Rodney and leaning in. "Ow," he whispered against Rodney's lips. He ignored the way that made him feel and kissed Rodney. Their mouths were awkward together for a breath, then years of reflex caught them up and the kiss turned passionate.

Parting just enough to speak, John offered, "What do you want?"

"Is this you making it up to me?" Rodney demanded.

John nipped at Rodney's earlobe and felt him shudder.

"Something like that."

"Fine. I want to fuck you tonight."

Rodney seemed to wait for John to refuse, but a twist of arousal and relief tightened in John's belly. Not their usual thing, but he knew it would be good. In the back of his head, he calculated that he had to be in to the Mountain in the morning, but didn't have an offworld mission scheduled until the next week. Any sign would be gone before the next pre-mission exam.

He rocked his hips into Rodney and rubbed his erection against him, telling him with his body as well as his words, "Okay."

22 June 2014
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

Zelenka sent email in each databurst, along with the science department reports. Rodney saved the emails to read on Sunday. One of the more pleasant aspects of spending a few months back on Earth had to be the Sundays. Atlantis had mandatory rest days, but they always interrupted important work and were just as often rescheduled due to impending doom. They weren't the same as an Earth Sunday, which could be looked forward to all week.

Sundays on Earth had already developed their own rhythm. Rodney slept in, paying down the credit balance of his cumulative sleep deprivation. Then he indulged in a large breakfast, leaving the dirty dishes until after lunch, and read physics journals and sipped his good coffee while sitting in the club chair that put his feet in the morning sun from the living room window, with jazz or classical played on his music system. If he'd had a cat to drape on his lap, those mornings would have been nearly perfect. Sundays when John hadn't gone offworld, he showed up with fresh donuts, a DVD, and did double duty in place of a cat, pestering Rodney into moving to the couch, then stretching out with his head on Rodney's thigh, napping to the sounds of some moronic sports event playing on the plasma screen, while Rodney read Zelenka's emails.

Zelenka's emails were mostly gossip, which Rodney would have mocked him over, if it hadn't been quite so welcome. Reading them reminded him of home and that he would get back there in a few months.

At first, he read the emails to John, thinking to share both the news and the pleasant ache of homesickness they evoked. John never objected or fell asleep while Rodney read them aloud with accompanying commentary. Rodney stopped when it finally occurred to him that John's homesickness couldn't be pleasant, because he wasn't coming back at the end of September. Rodney read the emails silently after that and let John take possession of the remote, tuning the TV to golf or the Red Bull Air Races. John seemed satisfied with that arrangement too, stretching and rubbing his cheek against Rodney's thigh while Rodney scritched his fingers through John's hair.

The subject of coming out hadn't been broached between them again, but Rodney had faced up to everything John hadn't said the night it had. No use reproaching John for being who he was. The emotional reticence and surface charm were as much part of him as Rodney's lack of tact and insecurities. The insecurities were what insisted John was ashamed of being with Rodney, while the truth probably lay with John's reluctance to let anyone see inside. Revealing who he cared for went against John's natural instinct.

A little checking had revealed the political machinations behind Alyanov's appointment. Sam confirmed if John kept his nose clean he would receive command of the SGOC.

Accepting that John wanted the command had taken Rodney a few days. He'd needed to rearrange his image of John in his mind, but why shouldn't John want it? Rodney had his very important, very satisfying work. Did he want John to be stuck and unhappy?

Maybe part of him had, but Rodney faced up to it and dismissed the petty desire.

He began talking about what Zelenka wrote again after that, because he didn't want John to slip completely free of Atlantis. It had brought them together after all.

"Ronon's started schooling kids," he said on the morning of the twenty-second.

"He's what?"

"Teaching kids Satedan fighting techniques. Tanaan's his first pupil."

John rolled his head to look up at Rodney. His brows squinched together.

"On Atlantis?"

"No, in Oz." Rodney flicked his finger against John's forehead. "Where do you think?"

"I'm just trying to imagine Ronon showing a bunch of little kids throws or knife sharpening," John complained.

"Well, it is Pegasus. They're going to learn knife sharpening anyway."

"Guess so."

"We need to buy Tanaan something." Rodney paused. It occurred to him that he would miss Tanaan's fifth birthday. He'd never missed any of Tanaan's birthday's before, not even the year they brought him to Earth. Teyla wouldn't bring him back again, though. Not when Ronon couldn't join them. "Think Sam would authorize you spending leave in Atlantis for a couple of days in July?"

"I've got a full mission schedule through July." John turned his head to face the TV screen again. Rodney's traced his ear, making John twitch and swat at his hand. "Stop it." Rodney didn't and John's hand closed on his, pulling it away and keeping hold afterward, fingers laced together. "Show the flag at Coura, Akanital, P5R-382, P31-GR6, M97-574."

Rodney tightened his hand against John's and thought that maybe going back for only a day would be harder on him than staying away entirely. Like one cigarette, one drink, one hit that would just remind him of what he had distanced himself from enough that he'd begun to forget a little the ache for it.

It made John's sudden ambition make much more sense.

"Sorry."

"It's okay," Rodney lied. "I really should check out the new Piccadilly Circus platform. I had to redesign it from scratch and it's time I made an on-site inspection again."

"Don't trust them to do it right without you there?"

"I work with idiots day in and day out. Supposedly, these are the best and brightest the planet has to offer. You think I trust some yobbo being paid the English equivalent of minimum wage?"

"Point."

Rodney opened the last of Zelenka's emails and snorted as he read. He'd already read the dry AAR filed by Lorne with the appended documents generated by Jackson, Keller and Reynolds and the other expedition members who had been part of the mission. None of them had quite conveyed things the way Zelenka did.

"Did you read the AAR on the lab the Belkens found on P79-992?"

"No one flagged it."

"Oh, they should have," Rodney told John happily.

"Why?"

"Jackson got himself cloned."

John seemed to think about that for a while. Then he chuckled. "What'd he touch?"

Rodney wiggled back into the corner of the couch, getting comfortable, and told him.

Apparently, the Belkens had found a lab that had belonged to Michael, mothballed years before, and sent a few people poking around inside before becoming frightened it might be booby-trapped. They'd requested a team from Atlantis come in and decommission it. Jackson had accompanied Lorne's team to translate, since he'd picked up written Wraith without difficulty, and he had, as John surmised, touched the wrong thing. The lab turned out to be a prototype cloning facility, maybe even the one where Carson's clone had been created. Captain Hailey had been dispatched from Atlantis to aid Lorne's team in removing Daniel from the pod that had snapped closed around him.

Daniel had been removed successfully and without any lasting damage. Ten minutes later they found the pod where his clone had been grown. Its development had been accelerated, but the process hadn't been quite finished when Hailey interrupted it. Keller had been brought in to determine if the clone was viable and declared it to be. They'd pulled him out and discovered they had a twenty-year old genius Daniel clone, with most of Daniel's knowledge but only spotty bits of his memories. Keller thought she had the key to keeping the clone from falling apart the way Carson's had, though. Her report had held real excitement.

"She thinks she can use the technique she used on us, with the ascension machine," Rodney said.

He didn't know quite how he felt about Carson's clone. In a sense it was Carson, with Carson's memories, but not all of them. Rodney had grieved for Carson and accepted his friend's death. Having the clone come back threatened to disturb the peace he'd finally found.

"And Daniel's clone?"

"Well, he isn't really Daniel the way Carson's clone is...thought he was, Carson."

"Because he knows."

"He doesn't have all the memories either."

"Might be like getting a second chance," John speculated. "A fresh start."

Rodney finished reading the email. "Reynolds is ready to have kittens."

"Why?"

"Daniel's started the paperwork to adopt the clone, get him UNE citizenship and an official identity."

"Doesn't seem like that bad a solution."

Rodney considered it and agreed. One of the Asgard had cloned O'Neill and then the SGC had shuffled the fifteen year old body with all of O'Neill's memories off into witness protection or something. Rodney had heard about it through the Area 51 grapevine. He hadn't thought about it much at the time, other than wondering why anyone would want two O'Neills, but now he wondered how hellish life must have been for the copy. Daniel's choice seemed more humane than exiling him to live a lie, out of step and alone.

No matter how conflicted they'd been when they brought Carson's clone back, none of them had considered doing such a thing to him.

Did anyone even remember O'Neill's clone or know where he was now?

"They going to bring Danny Jr. back to Earth?"

"Zelenka doesn't know."

"I thought Zelenka knew everything," John remarked.

Rodney jiggled his leg, realizing it was going to sleep under the weight of John's head.

"Hey!"

"Get your lazy head off me, it's cutting off my blood supply."

John slithered and twisted, abandoning Rodney's thigh in favor of propping his head on Rodney's shoulder instead.

"What am I, your personal pillow?" Rodney demanded.

"Yes," John declared. "A really, really cranky pillow that gives blowjobs."

"Reciprocates them, I think you mean," Rodney corrected. He shifted, spreading his legs a little, as the thought restored the blood supply to other parts of his anatomy too.

Sundays were also good days to have long, slow sex. He liked laying John out in the golden afternoon light and taking his time. John liked fast, on the edge of rough, but if Rodney went slow enough, he came to pieces so beautifully it almost hurt to see. No one else got to see John melt and mewl with pleasure, open and utterly undone. He gave John something he needed and it felt good, better than Rodney had known anything could be.

John's hands found their way to Rodney's lap and teased over the bulge growing under his fly. "That can be arranged," he said, his voice a low, lewd purr that made Rodney shudder in arousal.

He got rid of the laptop just in time as John swung himself onto Rodney's lap, straddling him, knees bent, thighs bracketing Rodney's hips, groin to groin. John placed his hands on Rodney's shoulders and then began rocking against him, the friction from two layers of boxers and denim almost painful but perfect. Rodney sank back and let John do the work, remarking, "I thought there were going to be blowjobs."

The tip of John's tongue peeked between his lips, caught under his teeth, and he looked up through his eyelashes, eyes already blown dark with hunger. He lifted out of contact with Rodney and held in place, kneeling, which was insanely hot somehow.

"You want me to stop?" he growled.

"No, no, this is good. Please, proceed."

John leaned in and kissed Rodney, sloppy and wicked, all tongue and heat. His fingers tightened on Rodney's shoulders, but those fingers, his mouth, and his legs on either side of Rodney's were the only points of contact. Rodney arched up, trying to remedy that.

John pulled away from his mouth, drawing a sound of protest from Rodney. His tongue swiped over lips that already looked bruised.

"I think I will," he said, lowering himself finally to grind against Rodney.

Rodney rocked back against him, gasping,  "Oh, yes, good idea, very, very, good idea. Just, yeah, do that," as John swiveled his hips. He settled his hands on John's ass and urged him closer, watching as John's head sank back, exposing the bare and beautiful line of his throat.

Slow could be good, but fast had its rewards as well. Rodney followed John's lead and tried to keep his eyes open, shaking through his orgasm with a shout and then tightening his hands on John's ass, urging him on, feeling the muscle under his fingers seize as he came with a choked whine.

John collapsed forward, resting his sweaty forehead against Rodney's clavicle, breathing gustily. Rodney petted the back of his neck and rubbed one hand up and down the knobby length of his spine. It took a while for pleasure zapped brain cells to come back on line, body still buzzing, vision blurred. If the sex got any better, he feared he might lose molecular coherence, pleasure shaking him apart.

He was fine with that; however, soaked boxers were gross and clammy after a while. They untangled from each other in order to clean up and change pants.

Rinsing soap from his skin, Rodney briefly regretted that they weren't at John's condo, where the master bath had a shower more than large enough for two men to share and the hot water didn't run out at unexpected and unpleasant moments.

They lazed through the rest of the afternoon, John reading one of his Russian novels, while Rodney watched M*A*S*H reruns. Chinese food was ordered from the place that never forgot to hold everything citrus. By then conversation drifted back to the stargate. John wanted to know if someone in Atlantis – Zelenka – or Rodney could reverse engineer the Wraith culling beam and build a portable version they could use to transport materials.

"Like what?"

John shrugged.

"Like fresh produce. Food."

"Oh, you mean like the Wraith did," Rodney said.

John squinched his face up. "Rodney," he whined.

"What? It's true."

John's grimace turned into a thoughtful frown. "Hey, you think it could transport live animals?"

"I don't know why not," Rodney replied through a mouthful of spring roll. "Why?"

"Well, it would be a lot neater than carrying them all in the hold of ship, wouldn't it?" John shrugged. "You wouldn't have to feed them or clean up after them."

Rodney stabbed a chopstick at him. "It could work. But you just don't want horse shit in the gate room."

John looked at him. "Remember those goat-things the Athosians kept?"

Rodney remembered.

"Did you actually burn your shoes?" he asked.

"No, of course not," John replied. "That would have triggered the fire protocols. I dropped them off the east pier."

Suddenly they were both laughing, remembering the awful smell the goat-things had left behind in the gate room and the jumpers. Teyla had wisely stayed in Atlantis, letting the big strong men do the animal wrangling. That had been their first introduction to Teyla's evil side. She hadn't warned them the damned goat things could projectile shit, just smiled and dispatched them to their doom. Ford had taken a hit to the center of his chest, then ended up with it even in his hair. Rodney hadn't escaped, he'd had it on his knees and seat. John had avoided it all until they were headed home, then stepped in a steaming pile. Rodney had stripped down to his boxers and John had flown them home from the mainland in his socked feet.

They'd locked Ford in the back.

"I miss going through the gate with you," Rodney confessed.

"Me too, buddy," John answered.

"We worry about you."

"I've got a good team."

"Not the point," Rodney said. "Though Weisser's the best of the lot."

John gave him a lopsided smile. "He is. He's just not Rodney McKay."

"Well, of course not."

Dinner finished and disposed of, John tugged Rodney back to the bedroom. "Come on. I have to sit in on the budget meetings with Alyanov tomorrow. I need something to think about besides the price of the toilet paper for twenty eight levels worth of rest rooms."

Rodney went, and made John lie back while he went, so very, very slow, wishing that he could make it last forever.

12 August 2014
Milky Way
PX4-291 Vednes

"Why are we here?" Bud demanded. He could have been addressing the stone walls of their cell. They were no more or less likely to reply than the rest of the team. He turned and glared at them, though, so their incarceration probably hadn't snapped his mind yet and he didn't expect the rocks to talk back. Hands on his hips, he rocked back and forth on his sock-clad heels, waiting for some kind of answer.

John had to accord a certain amount of morose respect to people who remembered to take everyones' boots. In his case, the respect mixed with annoyance. The cell's only window faced local north and stone stayed cold. His feet missed his boots.

The Vedneans had left them their tac vests, at least.

"Could someone explain?" Bud prompted. He wouldn't quit until someone responded. They'd discovered this aspect of his personality on other missions. It no doubt made him a better scientist; he'd never give up until he figured a problem out.

It could be very annoying while locked up in a fifteen by ten foot prison cell with him.

Red had one of his socks off and his tiny sewing kit out. He went on sewing up a hole in the toe of the sock as he spoke. "Major, you want to explain this time?"

Kelly had claimed the single straw-covered pallet. That let her sit off the stone floor and lean her head back against the wall. Other than opening her eyes, she didn't move. "Why me?" she asked.

Red tore off the thread with his teeth.

"Because the colonel's about ready to take Bud's head off."

John slouched against the rough wall under the window. It provided a good vantage on the heavy door and the rest of his team. He raised his eyebrows at Kelly when she gave him a careful look, pretty sure his annoyance over the situation hadn't been showing.

"What? I didn't do anything!" Bud exclaimed.

"Yep," Red said, "it's pretty irritating, the way we can't blame you this time."

"This time," Bud repeated in outrage.

Red tucked his sewing kit back into one the many pockets he kept filled with a variety of useful items and nodded. His scalp showed pale through his recently shorn hair. Red stuck with the marine buzz cut, though UNE regs had far more latitude: anything went, as long as a soldier's appearance and or adornments did not 'interfere in a physical fashion with performance of their duties' and they retained a 'neat and professional demeanor reflecting the standards of the SGC'. One less thing to worry about and as Vala had observed, out in the wider galaxy the shorn hair made most peoples suspicious, since it was equated with punishment and prisoners.

John narrowed his eyes at Red. Maybe that was why the Vedneans had taken one look at the team and locked them up.

"So, what's got ants in your pants, Colonel?" Red asked after he'd pulled his sock back on.

"Is that any of your business, Garcia?" Kelly asked. She sat forward, legs folded Indian-style, and let her arms rest of them.

"Just askin'." Red grinned at her. "After all, the Colonel's the big hero babe magnet of our team. He might have something interesting planned for the weekend."

Bud and Kelly both looked at John.

"Jesus, you three haven't got anything better to do than speculate about my weekend plans?" he asked. He pushed away from the wall and paced over to the door.

They looked at each other then back to him.

"Nope," they chorused.

The cell door appeared to be made from a single slab of hardwood, at least three inches thick. John tried to imagine what a door like that would cost on Earth and choked. Solid hardwood? A small fortune. Earth didn't have have old giants like the one that had been made into that door. The hinges were black iron and they couldn't pick the lock because it was a padlock on the other side of the door.

"Hell, sir, the only other thing we've got to do is decide whether Feehey or Cini is the most annoying male nurse in medical." Red sounded guileless, which meant he was likely up to something.

"Feehey," Bud declared.

"Really?" Kelly asked. "I'd have said Cini."

"No, Feehey. He takes my clothes away every time."

"Maybe he's got the hots for your bod, Bud," Red suggested.

"Cini," Kelly insisted. "Garlic breath and he doesn't take away my clothes, but he goes through them."

Red frowned and John made a note to speak to someone in medical before Red took it on himself to 'speak' to Cini.

"What about you, Colonel?" Bud asked.

John studied Kelly another moment, looking for any sign Cini had really got to her, before answering.

"What about me?" he asked absently.

"Plans for the weekend?" Red asked.

"Yes, I had plans," John answered.

"Give."

"Give, Sergeant?" John asked sardonically. "My phone number? At the office? Up?"

"Her name, sir, her name," Red said, almost reverently. "Tell me it's Polly Hastings. I heard she was all over you when the General had you give her that tour of the Mountain. Or Major Tolinev. Or Mal Doran. Is it Mal Doran?"

"Garcia!" Kelly snapped.

"None of the above. Polly Hastings isn't my style, Major Tolinev is a subordinate, and Vala's a friend."

"So who is it?"

John slipped down the wall and sat. "No one, Sergeant. I said I had plans, not that they involved a woman." His plans had involved three days' leave, a cabin six hours drive away from the Mountain, and Rodney. He'd meant to make Rodney take a hike with him even, since they never went through the gate together any longer. Rodney needed to exercise and John had almost looked forward to the litany of complaints that would have accompanied any encounters with nature. Now all he could look forward to was a lost deposit, more paperwork, and another debriefing with the OOA, explaining that, big surprise, the Vedneans had decided they'd rather raise kasa for the Lucian Alliance and not get shot than make nice with the Tau'ri.

It didn't seem like such a difficult concept to grasp to John, even if he didn't care much for the result.

The damned stone floor threatened to put his ass to sleep. Plus it was cold. John added it to the list of things that he disliked about Vednes. Aside from the Vedneans whole 'sell the Tau'ri to the Lucian Alliance' plan. That sucked too.

"Well, don't worry about it, sir. Once we get out of here, I'm sure you can hit one of the bars on Friday and pick up someone to fix that."

Bud seemed to be studying John a little more closely than made him comfortable, but didn't comment.

"And that, Sergeant, is why you've been divorced three times," Kelly told Garcia.

"You know, no one has answered my question yet," Bud said.

"We're here because the Vedneans are scared and greedy," John told him wearily.

"And sneaky," Red added. "The whole, sit down, have a feast, bring the guards with the crossbows in and point them at our heads bit was very sneaky."

"And sneaky," John agreed. If they'd been in Pegasus, he'd have been on alert to that sort of double cross, but he'd been relying on the Tau'ri reputation in the Milky Way. Apparently, taking down the System Lords and the Ori didn't mean much weighed against Lucian threats. Everyone knew the Tau'ri wouldn't retaliate with excessive force. Unlike the warlords of the Lucian Alliance, who had garnered their power doing just that, well schooled in the tactics the Goa'uld had used to rule for so long.

So much for peace in the galaxy, he reflected. The Lucian Alliance seemed to have it in for the Tau'ri, too.

"You know, if we were to escape, you might still get back in time for your weekend," Red remarked.

John stretched out his legs. "Sergeant, if you see a way out of here before someone unlocks that door," he said, "please, feel free to point it out. I'm sure none of us is looking forward to spending however long it takes the Lucians to show in here."

He figured two days for word from Vednes to reach whoever had a bounty on them and another before the Lucians sent a pick up team through the stargate. Longer if they sent a ship. Even hyperdrives took some time. The cell had a bucket in one corner. They were all going to be sick of the stink by the time they got out, one way or another. At least he had a roll of toilet paper smashed into one of his tac vest pockets. Good odds the other three did too, even Bud.

As annoyed as he was at the Vedneans, John didn't really want to kill them. They were just trying to get by. He figured it would be easier to wait to make a break until they were out of the cell and on the way to the stargate. He didn't have any similar compunctions about mercenaries, drug dealers and slavers. If they killed a few of them while escaping, John wouldn't lose any sleep over it. That sort were no better than Wraith worshippers, preying on their own kind.

Red eyed the window, but it was too far up to reach and too narrow for even Kelly to wriggle through anyway.

"Maybe the Major could use her womanly charms on the guards when they bring us a meal?"

"Who says they're going to bring us a meal?" Bud said morosely.

"And why does it have to be me?" Kelly added. She sneered at Red. "Why not you?"

"Well, I am a fine specimen," Red replied, "but if the guards swing that way, I'm thinking the Colonel has got me and Bud beat pants down."

John thunked his head against the wall.

"Pants down?" he repeated.

Utterly unrepentant, Red grinned.

"My bad."

"I'm sure I could speak to Dr. Lam about making sure Feehey is always your personal nurse, Garcia," John said.

"Now, that's just low, sir."

"We'll save the strip show until it looks like there's no other way out of here," John declared. "I'd like to let Mitchell keep the award for losing his pants on a mission most often, if you don't mind."

"Yes sir." Red rustled around, going through his pockets. "Anyone up for poker? I've got my lucky deck of cards."

"What're we betting?" Bud asked.

"I've got a Snickers bar."

"Bag of peppermints," Kelly chimed in.

Bug pulled a ziplock out of his vest. "Trail mix with M&Ms."

"Colonel?"

John sighed and brought out his own stash. "Two Powerbars. One Hershey's with almonds."

Rodney despised Hersheys, but John bought them at the convenience store where he got his morning coffee before finishing the drive the Mountain. Rodney was in New York when he left, so he wouldn't hear that the team was overdue until he got back. He would hear though, because he'd promised to be home by Wednesday. Part of John wished he hadn't been quite so nice and had shot some Vedneans instead of surrendering their weapons.

"All right," Red declared, "One square of chocolate equals three M&Ms, equals one bite of Snickers, equals two peppermints." He shuffled the deck and the team shifted to sit in a circle where the sun reached the floor. The cards zipped back and forth between Red's hands.

"Prepare to leave the table hungry, friends."

14 August 2014
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs and Denver

Chirp, chirp, chirp, ring, bang, ring, bang, ring, bang, chirp, chirp, chirp, ring, bang, ring, bang, ring, bang,

Rodney flailed out of a nightmare of demented songbirds building a railroad reaching automatically for his radio headset. His hand found his cellphone instead. He twisted far enough in the tangled sheets to blink blearily at the bedside clock that read two minutes past four in the morning.

The landline in the kitchen was ringing too, adding its note to the disastrous symphony, stopping at five rings when it hit the answering machine message, then starting up again.

"Crap."

He grabbed the cellphone, checked the incoming call and didn't recognize the number. Not the SGC, then, so possibly not the imminent doom of the planet, and not Jeannie's number, so not requiring he answer before he shoved the sheets and blankets off and found a pair of pants without even switching on a lamp.

Bang, bang, bang.

Long practice let Rodney pull a long-sleeved tee shirt on next, then grab up the cellphone and and shove his feet into his shoes at the same time. He answered the cell in his hand at the same time he unbolted his door.

"McKay."

Two men stood outside the door, one in the midst of knocking again, the other with a cellphone to his ear. Dark suits, light shirts, radio plugs in their left ears, looking a little crumpled at the edges, like they'd been yanked out of bed too, maybe. Knocker needed a shave, Rodney noted as he dropped his hand.

Knocker said, "Dr. Rodney McKay?"

Phone guy closed his cell and the call on Rodney's cell terminated.

"Obviously. There better be a Wraith fleet inbound past Neptune's orbit or blackhole opening in the Earth's core," Rodney told him. "Who the hell are you?"

They were both square-jawed and grim-faced. Cellphone man looked past Rodney's shoulder into the dark apartment. "Are you alone?"

That made him think of John.

John's team hadn't checked in on time as of five in the evening the day before, putting them twenty-four hours overdue. Rodney tasted bile briefly, before realizing that no one would come to inform him in the middle of the night if John had died. He'd hear it at the Mountain. Any calls or condolence visits would go to Dave.

It made Rodney more irritable even than usual. He snapped his fingers under Knocker's nose.

"You haven't answered my question."

They both pulled out UNE cards. Black HSA issue cards, activating as they pressed their thumbs across the sensor.

Agents Rankin and Hanes of Homeworld Security.

"What do you want?"

If it wasn't news about John, then Rodney felt grateful John wasn't in the apartment. It would be hard to draw anything but the right conclusion if he had been.

"We have orders to take you to Denver Headquarters," Rankin said. He inspected Rodney's tee shirt, wrinkled pants and unlaced boots.

"Why?"

"I'm afraid we can't discuss that, sir. Please come with us."

Rankin had hold of Rodney's arm and had pulled him into the hall before he could formulate his next objection. Hanes checked ahead of them in a way that made Rodney snap his mouth shut. He let them hustle him out and into an armored SUV.

Colorado Springs appeared whole and undisturbed through the windows as they sped onto the freeway. Rodney angled his head and checked in the direction of the Mountain. No mushroom clouds, no sign of attack, and the stargate would still be among the first targets, so he figured the SGC hadn't been taken out. He shifted onto his hip and dug out his cellphone. If the SGC was still intact, he could call and find out what the hell was going on.

"Please put the cellphone away, Dr. McKay," Rankin said. "Security."

The SUV rocked as it accelerated up an on-ramp. Rodney's elbow clipped the door and he cursed. Did they really think someone might be tracking his damn cellphone? What was going on? He closed the cellphone and slid it inside his pants again, wondering what would happen if he ignored Rankin and called out. Would Hanes reach around and try to take it away?

It occurred to him that no one knew where he was except these two HS agents.

This was how people disappeared.

Rodney wracked his brain for anything he'd done or said in the last months that would have tripped HSA's alarms. Nothing, damn it. That didn't preclude someone masquerading as him having committed some crime, of course.

He tried one more time. "Can you tell me why you're taking me to Headquarters?"

"Sorry, sir. We aren't authorized," Rankin said.

"Wonderful," Rodney grumbled

Arrest? Not quite, he decided. Rankin kept calling him sir. He doubted HSA were that polite to suspects or perps or whatever they called people they were arresting. War? He supposed it was possible. Too many years offworld had him out of step with the politics of Earth of the national level. He worried about aliens intent on enslaving or destroying the planet; everything else seemed too petty to follow. He wondered if anyone would be stupid enough to target Colorado Springs or Denver as a move against the US, considering the UNE would move to defend both thanks to their associations with the stargate and the Stargate Program.

There might be a foothold situation at the Mountain, though. Or Wildfire. The Ori Plague wasn't the only one out there. The Shake had proved that. Nature brewed her own dangers even without laboratories and lunatics. He looked eastward, finding the pale line of the horizon and fought down his worries. His hands were sweating. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from demanding that they tell him why they were taking him to the Cube.

Jesus, the Cube. Just the name made him nervous. It already had a reputation. People went into the Cube and didn't come out, rumor said. Would John know to come looking for him? He swallowed hard. Teyla and Ronon weren't around to rescue him.

Hanes and Rankin didn't talk to Rodney or each other. Hanes phoned in and reported that they'd picked up Package Three and were inbound, giving an ETA that meant Rankin would be exceeding the speed limit all the way to Denver.

As they approached the city, Rodney caught sight of the Tower. It was lit, as always, but a blue-white shimmer engulfed it that he immediately recognized.

The Tower was running its shield.

Security at the HSA Cube had been tightened so far, they barely got in. Rankin and Hanes took him deep inside, through a warren of corridors and offices walled in black-smoked glass. He never saw a single window. They left him in a fluorescent-lit conference room set in a cubicle farm that had to take up most of one floor. Or possibly it was an interrogation cell. Rodney had never considered the similarity between the two before, but debriefings usually occurred in conference rooms and they were just nicer versions, weren't they?

What did they want from him? His mind raced through the possibilities. HSA had absorbed NID and NID had incubated the Trust inside itself like a Goa'uld parasite. Oh, God, what if the Goa'uld had taken over HSA?

He glanced up at the security camera in the corner and began pacing fast around the table and chairs, peering out through the glass at the rest of the cubicles and offices that he could glimpse. Too much activity for a normal morning, he realized. He started to check his watch to see exactly what time it was and realized he hadn't had it on when he was dragged out of his apartment.

HSA wasn't federal, it was global, but it operated along the same hours and the agents rushing around through the Cube were there far too early. Rodney couldn't use the cell to find out anything, much to his frustration. The Cube was shielded and jammed his cell's signal. Trying to call out was just a waste of his battery.

Did they mean to threaten him into cracking the SGC's security for them? Or maybe they meant for him to build a nanite weapon. The IOA had been crazy enough to think they could reprogram and use Replicators as a weapon against the Ori. HSA could think something similar and someone might know about FRAN. FRAN had actually done what she – it – had been made to do. Rodney felt lightheaded just contemplating it. Were they insane?

Wait, no one had actually told him what they wanted yet.

He was going to go insane from the waiting.

No, he wasn't. He handled himself better now than before. He dealt with the military every day. He wouldn't let them see how intimidated he was, whoever they were. Rodney stopped pacing and held still, regulating his breathing.

A grumble from his stomach reminded him he hadn't ate since dinner the night before and he needed coffee. Coffee and breakfast. He ran his tongue over his teeth and added a toothbrush to the list. Another circuit around the empty table and his bladder reminded him of another need. Coffee, a toothbrush, and a visit to the men's room.

"The hell with this," he declared.

He went to the door and tried it. It opened. His secondary plan had been to smash the surveillance camera with a chair. Damage to UNE property and all that, he expected it would have had someone in to do something about that damned fast.

A young agent on guard outside jerked to attention. "Sir, you can't – "

"I can," Rodney told him, "and I'm going to, unless you shoot me. Or do you want me pissing in the corner?"

That nonplussed the agent. Rodney strode past him and began seriously looking for a men's room. The agent trailed after him.  "Sir – "

"Look, I realize making people piss their pants is a time honored humiliation technique," Rodney said, "but believe me, it isn't going to work on me. I've dropped trou and unloaded on other planets, in the bushes, in palaces, and in buckets. I've watered the walls of Wraith hives. If I have to do it right here in your hall, I will, and someone else will have to mop it up."

He was blowing smoke, of course. He'd wait until his teeth were floating and he had to do the little hold-it dance before he gave them the satisfaction.

As for pissing in a hive ship, that happened to anyone who took a stunner hit. That little tidbit never made it into the After Action Reports, of course.

"Uh, the rest rooms are this way, sir," the agent blurted and pointed in the opposite direction to which Rodney had been heading.

"Well, why didn't you say so?" Rodney snapped, reversing course.

After washing his hands, Rodney peered at himself in the mirror and grimaced. Tufts of hair stuck up in more directions than John's did. A day's growth of beard graced his jaw and the tee shirt he'd pulled on in the dark had a bit of dried egg on it. He looked like he'd crawled out of the gutter following a three day bender. He tried scrubbing at his teeth with a finger and then straightening his hair with water. That left him with wet spots on the tee shirt.

A new agent was waiting in the conference room when Rodney let his minder take him back there. This one had shaved, unlike Hanes and Rankin. He also had a carafe of coffee, cups and a box of donuts. His gray eyes were blood shot though and his suit crumpled and obviously worn straight through since the day before. Not slept in, but only because this man hadn't had any sleep. Limp, light brown hair clung to his narrow skull and framed a slightly horsey face.

"Agent Allen Kippfer," he introduced himself. He held his hand out.

Rodney helped himself to coffee and a donut.

Kippfer withdrew his hand, looking slightly amused.

"I imagine you have some questions." He had one of those drawling accents, but not molasses thick. Rodney couldn't keep all the American states straight, so he just identified it as Southern and hoped the man thought faster than he talked.

"Wimiere," Rodney agreed with his mouth full of chocolate sprinkle.

Kippfer's forehead wrinkled.

Rodney rolled his eyes and swallowed.

"Why am I here?" he repeated. He gulped down more coffee and topped up his cup. He eyed the donut with the yellow icing suspiciously and settled on the cheese danish. The maple bar tempted him, but no one ever used real maple in the frosting on those. Cheese could be considered breakfast food. Cheese was always good. Lemon and cheese were seldom mixed. Concentrating on the food let him keep up a calm front. Emptying his bladder had helped too. One less humiliation to worry about.

Kippfer took out the maple bar and tore a piece of the bready part off the corner. He didn't eat it though, just rolled it between his fingers.

"At five oh three am. Eastern Standard Time, a bomb was detonated in the apartment of Cassandra Fraiser. Eleanor Janson, Miss Fraiser's next door neighbor, was killed in the blast."

Rodney swallowed his mouthful of danish and waited.

"A man with another bomb was arrested trying to break into the home of General George Hammond three days ago. He has been identified as a member of the Defenders of Pure Humanity splinter group the Pure," Kippfer said. He grimaced. "Local police recovered a laptop, but it had been equipped with an acid booby trap that melted down the hard drive and motherboard when they tried to access it."

"Crap."

Kippfer grunted.

"What we have got is the Pure's hit list of known and associated Stargate personnel. Your name is at the top of the list, Dr. McKay. After this morning's bombing, the Director ordered teams to pick up the first fifty people named on their website and take them into protective custody until we can sweep for bombs. We have a team at your apartment right now."

"No one could tell me any of this before?"

"The local agents were told to find you and bring you here," Kippfer said. "They weren't told why."

"And you've got people in my apartment right now without informing me of that either?"

"Yes."

Rodney stared at the highly polished surface of the table. He tapped his index finger against it. If HSA searched his apartment, what would they find? Nothing too damning. Lube and condoms in the bedroom, not a crime. John had a gym bag with a change of clothes in the guest bedroom closet. Rodney kept other junk in there too, though, including sweats in Teyla's size dating back to the last time she'd been on Earth. His laptop, but it had the best security he could design on it. Finding the bug jammer would require taking the laptop apart and he could build another better one in a few hours at the SGC lab.

He ate the rest of the danish and finished his coffee, while Kippfer nibbled the maple bar. Rodney thought the man was hiding out in the conference room, using the excuse of briefing Rodney to get away from the rest of the office for a while.

"Fine," Rodney declared as he poured himself a third cup. "I want a ride back to my apartment once it's cleared."

"We'd like you to stay until our people have installed a security system."

"Believe me, I can design a better security system than your goons have ever dreamed of," Rodney said absently. There were several methods that could be used to detect explosives and set off an alarm, aside from securing the apartment against invaders. Of course, that wouldn't block a transport, but at the moment only the SFOC ships had rings or transporters. That would change once GTS went live, however.

Rodney frowned. Something had to be done to block every Tom, Dick, and Harry beaming into private spaces. No charge, no work on the part of the average person. It had been part of his original proposal, though he'd handed off the job of writing that part of the code. The GTS would have to have private space blocks programmed into it and point to point transports would require pass codes for non public spaces. He needed to make sure the programmers had instituted a protocol handling the potential problems.

"I'm sure you can, Dr. McKay," Kippfer said. His cell trilled and he answered, angling his chair slightly away from Rodney. "Kippfer, here." He listened wordlessly before closing the phone abruptly. His gaze targeted Rodney.

"There was a bomb in your car."

"My car?" Rodney echoed.

"A motion-detector triggered bomb blew it up. One agent received second degree burns and broken ribs from the blast."

A bomb had been in his car?

Rodney gagged silently, the donut wanting to come back up. John checked his vehicle religiously, but Rodney couldn't be bothered.

He could have been blown up.

Rodney's thoughts skittered to the bomb that had gone off in New York. He didn't want to think about how close he'd been to the one in his car.

Eastern standard time, Kippfer had said. DC? New York? Maybe Boston. He didn't know anything about Cassandra Frasier, beyond that she originally came from Hanka and had been adopted by Dr. Fraiser. He had the impression SG-1 had stayed close to her. According to the classified report on their inadvertent trip to the future while attempting to return to the present from 1969, she'd been waiting for them and possibly part of that timeline's SGC. No wonder the HSA was taking this seriously, though, with the personal tie to its director. O'Neill would be demanding results.

Actually, Kippfer hadn't said anything about Cassie Fraiser, just that her neighbor had been killed. That meant a powerful bomb unless the woman had been particularly unlucky.

Rodney winced at the thought. The woman had been killed. Bad luck didn't come any worse than that.

"Yes," Kippfer said into his phone. "What else have you found? And Maryland...I want surveillance on Colonel Sheppard's family connections too." He paused. "How the fuck did they find where we had Littlefield and Langford!?" A muscle in his cheek flexed. Rodney flinched. Did they really think these whack jobs would try to kill anyone related to their targets?

Of course they did. They hated John for his Ancient genes and that meant anyone related to him might have the ATA, so they would be legitimate targets in the eyes of the Pure. He kept thinking about Cassie Fraiser's neighbor. Had she been an ATA positive? She probably hadn't worked for the SGC in any fashion. Cassie Fraiser didn't. That made her nothing but collateral damage.

The bastards just hadn't cared.

"Relocate them and add a second security detail. Screw the budget. O'Neill will sign off on it. I want all of them brought to Denver. Get hold of Meier. He's in charge of Tower security. Tell him to clear a floor of suites and put them all up. At least they'll be secure there."

Kippfer ended the call and slapped the cell down on the table hard enough it should have cracked the casing. He closed his eyes and rubbed them with is thumb and forefinger.

"What happened to Cassie Fraiser?" Rodney asked.

Kippfer snapped his eyes open.

"What?"

"You said a neighbor was killed."

Kippfer grunted. "Okay. Miss Fraiser and her boyfriend both got lucky last night. She stayed the night at his place and left a message on Janson's machine, asking her to use the spare key she had and take Fraiser's dog out for walk in the morning. Apparently, they had an arrangement to look out for each other's pets."

"I wondered about the size of the bomb, if it killed the neighbor too."

"No, not that big a bomb, just really shitty luck. The bomb was wired to Fraiser's door. Janson opened it. The blast killed her and her dog. Forensic is going through what's left of the apartment. They found Fraiser's dog. They'll do a necropsy on it."

Rodney nodded.

"Is anyone checking on my sister's family?"

Kippfer looked at him kindly. "Yes."

"Good."

"The Pure aren't targeting the families of people who have had the gene therapy," Kippfer added.

"So far," Rodney commented.

"So far."

Kippfer sighed and got to his feet. "Sorry for the inconvenience, Doctor. A team will take you over to a set of temporary quarters in The Tower. You'll be able to commute by ship transport to the SGC from there, I believe. We're also assigning you a permanent security team. The Pure really hate you."

"That's not necessary."

"They already found a bomb wired to your car, Doctor. You'll get used to them," Kippfer said. "They'll let you know once your apartment has been secured. I'd ask that you stay at The Tower quarters and stay out of public places until then. Anything you need, one of your team can pick up."

Rodney nodded weakly. Crap, crap, crap. There went any privacy he'd had. HSA would know if he went to John's place or John showed up at his and how long either of them stayed. They'd know anywhere Rodney went unless he deliberately slipped him

He wanted to go back to Atlantis.

15 August 2014
Milky Way
PX4-291 Vednes

The Lucians must have used the stargate; they showed up a day ahead of John's best estimate.

It came as a relief, because the Vedneans weren't wasting food or water on prisoners. The candy they'd been playing poker with had been consumed. So had the MREs they carried with them. Their canteens were empty.

If the Vedneans meant to starve the team so they'd be weak and easier to handle, it would have started working soon.

The Vedneans marched his team out of the cell to the central town square. Unlike with food and water, they weren't stingy with the guards. John counted three for each of his team. Two with crossbows aimed at each of them, and a third who bound their wrists together behind their backs with a scratchy, strong twine.

John immediately started working his hands loose, or trying, and predicted that he wouldn't have any skin left on his wrists long before the twine broke.

He hated it when captors knew what they were doing.

Couldn't check his watch with his hands behind his back, but John tipped his face up to the overcast sky and guessed it was about midmorning, Vednes time. The gray clouds scudding overhead promised rain in the not too distant future. At the other side of the town square, people were busily taking everything inside that they could.

Red was grumbling about his circulation and Bud was mumbling about his delicate feet, shifting from one to the other, and actually mincing over the cobblestones. John wondered if he realized just how much worse it would be when they were walking down the damned ox-track that led from the stargate to the Vednean town. Kelly, of course, stood straight and had a faint smile on her face. She also managed to look the least rumpled of the four of them, no doubt because she didn't have an itching scruff of unshaven beard on her face. Even her long, black braid was neat; she'd combed out her hair with her fingers and redone it earlier.

The Lucians were waiting a little to the side of the town well. John vaguely wondered if all the tailors in both galaxies secretly got together and agreed on how the bad guys' uniforms would look every year. They'd got a little creative with the Wraith and the Goa'uld, but he'd swear the Lucians and the Genii could have raided each others' closets.

A crossbow bolt prodded him forward.

John counted five Lucians, four soldiers and a blond guy who had to be in charge, the way he was looming over the Vedneans' mayor. The mayor glanced up and seemed to slump in relief on seeing his guards approaching with John's team.

"The Tau'ri, good Ser Dollan," the mayor said.

Ser Dollan turned and inspected the four of them with a sneer.

John smiled at him. "Howdy," he said.

Dollan had one of those chiseled faces topped with flowing blond locks that John just hated. He could easily have won a modeling contract at any New York agency. Blue eyes, too, that moved over John and dismissed him, then Bud and Red too. Dollan's gaze lingered on Kelly, though.

"This is not SG-1," Dollan said.

"Did someone tell you we were?" John asked. "By the way, I'm Colonel John Sheppard. Commander of SG-2."

Dollan didn't acknowledge him. "I won't pay the full bounty for these."

"You know, now my feelings are hurt," John said to Red. "Back in Pegasus, I always had the highest bounty on my head. Well, me and McKay."

"It's sad how far you've fallen in the world, Colonel, sir," Red replied.

"Silence!" one of the Lucian mercenaries shouted at them.

John smirked at Red. Thugs had such limited vocabularies. Red gave him a smug look in exchange because John now owed him five bucks. The bet had been that someone would order them to be silent before they made it back to the Mountain. John had put his money on kree.

Dollan curled his lip and commented, "Tau'ri are always so disappointing."

"Yeah, funny how we broke the System Lords backs while the rest of the galaxy was busy bowing and scraping," Red muttered.

One of the Vedneans hit him in the back of the head. John glimpsed blood trickling from a cut in Red's pale scalp afterward, but Red barely rocked on his feet. His hands curled into fists, though.

"Enough," Dollan said. He stared at Bud. "This one is a scientist, yes?"

"Unh. Yes?" Bud replied.

Dollan nodded. "Soft, but Tau'ri scientists sell well at the Hole."

"The Hole," Bud repeated.

Great, John thought, not just mercenaries and drug dealers, but slavers. He'd half expected it, but still had to hide a shudder. Slavery seemed to be a disease that had spread beyond the Goa'uld in the Milky Way. It made him miss Pegasus fiercely. Even the Wraith had never claimed to own people or spent much time rationalizing what they did.

Another gust from the rising wind whooshed through the square. Smoke from the round chimneys with the cone-shaped little hats on top swirled into the darkening clouds and down into the open area. Eyes watering, John shifted, looking away from Dollan and checking out his four guards. They had zats and knives and he had already noted Dollan had one of the Goa'uld pain sticks on his belt. He'd bet Dollan meant to have some fun with it too.

Happy happy joy joy.

John didn't see any sign of the weapons they'd surrendered. He assumed the Vedneans were keeping those for themselves.

Dollan frowned at them as the first rain drops splashed down. His gaze flicked to the clouds and the frown deepened.

"We will return for the kasa crop in three moons," he snapped at the mayor. It must be ready for transport to the stargate then or you will suffer."

"We understand, Ser Dollan," the mayor replied. His shoulders hunched a little, but the look in his face when Dollan couldn't see telegraphed hate.

John made note of that. The Vedneans might be cowed but they weren't content with the circumstance. If the SGC came back with some way of keeping the Lucians off their backs, they might still be useful contacts.

"Do you wish our guards to go with you to the chappa'ai?" the major asked.

Dollan laughed. "Farmers with arrows? Only the Tau'ri would let you fools catch them. Go plow your fields."

Dollan's men laughed at the Vedneans and pulled their zats. They aimed them at John and the rest of the team. John thought it might have been smarter to aim at the Vedneans. There were a lot of them and they had a lot of crossbow bolts. The Lucians didn't have Jaffa armor or Goa'uld shields; they weren't immune to getting hurt. Stupid. The only thing stopping the Vedneans was the fear of whoever would takeover for these Lucians if they didn't make it back to the stargate. When you were the mouse, there was always another cat outside your hole.

John wished he'd had a chance to suggest to the Vedneans that they could kill Dollan and his men and blame it on his team if anyone showed up asking for them. They might have gone for it. Of course, they might have decided that the best way to keep that secret was to kill SG-2 as well. Dead Tau'ri told no tales and all that. Probably just as well no one had had that idea after all.

"Move," Dollan ordered.

John nodded to the other three and they began walking out of the town, past the whitewashed buildings with their thatched roofs, out between the heavy wooden gates, and through the fields of what looked like potatoes. Possibly not potatoes, but some sort of tuber. The leafy foliage bent and fluttered in the rising wind.

Wherever the Vedneans were growing the kasa, it wasn't easily seen by the casual trader coming from the stargate. If John had spotted kasa fields, he would never have sat down to eat with the Vedneans, because where kasa grew, the Lucian Alliance pulled the strings.

"Ouch, ouch, ouch," Bud complained as they started down the rutted ox-track. The soil had a high iron content, giving the dust that soon coated their feet and ankles a red-rust tint. Bud had his head down, trying to avoid stepping on any sharp rocks.

John caught Red's gaze. He gave a tiny nod. They keep an eye out for any opportunity and he knew Kelly would as well.

Another spatter of rain hit them, droplets darkening their new design, green-tan-gray SGOC cammies. Not yet noon, but the day had gone twilight dim and colorless. The air held the ozone and dust mixed with moisture scent of impending rain.

"Faster," grunted one of the Lucians. He prodded his zat into Kelly's back, then grinned and used it to work her tee shirt up out of her pants, revealing a strip of olive-toned, smooth skin.

Kelly glared back over her shoulder but said nothing. The wind teased a strand of black hair loose so that it crossed her face. The Lucian mercenary prodded her forward. She met John's gaze for a second as she turned back and he knew she was ready for any chance too.

They picked up the pace, painful as it was to their feet, but couldn't outrun the storm. The crack of thunder that accompanied rain pouring from the sky like a waterfall made even the Lucians jump and wince. Dollan cursed the weather, the planet, the Vedneans and John's team equally in a stream of Goa'uld and something with too many consonants. They were all soaked in an instant.

An actinic flash of lightning lit the world violet-blue, followed by the roll of deafening thunder close on its heels.

John's cammies clung and pulled with every move and he noticed the Lucians plucking at their woolen uniforms with their free hands.

The ox-track turned into mud soup; water drained into the ruts and rushed down them fast enough to tug at feet and ankles. Thunder bombarded them, the noise overwhelming, and everyone hunched their shoulders, trying to move as fast as they could, every instinct demanding they make for shelter. Lightning flickered and slashed through the storm darkness, leaving fluorescent afterimages on John's retinas. Cold water ran down John's face and dripped off his chin. The coarse twine around his wrists soaked it up and swelled, cutting into his flesh.

He stumbled, swayed, and kept moving.

The rain sluiced down hard enough John could barely make out Bud and the Lucian guarding him up ahead of Kelly. He saw the movement first, a flash lit still frame swallowed by darkness; Bud slipping, curses lost in an explosive crack of sound like a bomb going off directly overhead. Bud fell backward right into the Lucian mercenary, taking them both down into the mud, sending brown geysers of it to spatter over Kelly and the second man.

Kelly tried to dodge and went down too, sloshing up more mud. Curses from all three people on the ground sizzled through the air.

Bud thrashed, caught under the guard he'd tripped, spitting mud and kicking. Kelly rolled on to the downed men and a high, pained yell followed.

Dollan grabbed John's biceps and stopped him. "Get them up," he yelled at the shorter man who had been following John.

Slick brown-red mud covered Bud, Kelly and the writhing mercenary, all splashing and wriggling in the deep left side wheel rut. From the way the poor bastard was clutching at his groin, John figured Kelly had kneed him in the balls.

Slippery as everything was, it might even have been accidental.

"You," Dollan said to John and Red. "Stay still. Molkuns, don't take you eyes off that one." He nodded at Red. Red blinked at him as if he had never had a hostile thought pass through his head in his life. "Polus, Famar, get Nobe up."

Nobe whimpered and curled into a fetal ball, still trying to protect himself from the damage already done, and then choking as his face ended up in the water. Kelly slithered off him, using her legs to propel her and sliding on her ass.  The set of her shoulders and upper arms alerted John. She had something in her hands, hidden from the Lucians.

Bud kicked and cursed and splashed, tangling his legs in Nobe's and threatening to bring down Polus and Famar when they approached, blindly spitting muddy water and shaking his head, flinging more of it at them. Bud didn't have great hand-to-hand skills, but he could and did know how to distract people. So far no one had noticed that Nobe had lost his zat into the gutter rush of run off. John tried to keep his gaze away from where it had fallen, while still marking it in his mind's eye.

He shifted his own feet, mud squelching up between his toes, fighting not to start shivering, careful not to try to pull away from Dollan's grip. He wanted the man close enough he could knock his feet out from under him.

"Get your ass up, Weisser!" Red griped. "You want a mud bath, pay for it at a spa. The rest of us want to get in out of the fucking rain." He turned toward Molkuns. "You really think anyone is going to pay for him? The stupid pain in ass can't even walk in a straight line."

"Shut up!" Dollan ordered.

"It's not like we're having a great day here, either," John told him.

Kelly had her hands free, a knife she must have got off Nobe when they fell together flashing. Blood ran down her wrists. John twisted and put himself between her and Dollan.

Polus and Famar kicked Bud away from Nobe. Their attention was on their confederate as they bent to pull him out of the rut turned streamlet before he drowned.

Dollan didn't like any sort of defiance, something John had guessed. He backhanded John. John let himself fall, kicking his feet into Dollan's knees as he went. It's wasn't much of a kick, but the slick, water soaked earth under Dollan's boots caved and he went down too.

John rolled onto his knees, got a mouth full of mud, and threw himself at Dollan, trying to keep him down. He bit one of Dollan's fingers as he tried to hit John again, making him howl.

The sound and flare of zat fire mingled with another lightning strike. Red gave out a hair raising war cry.

John headbutted Dollan's chin. The bastard had a hard jaw. It felt like John was going to have a concussion from that. He heard Dollan's teeth snap together though. He hoped Dollan had bitten his own tongue in two.

"Sonova – "

Dollan's hands closed on John's throat. John thrashed and tried to headbutt again, but couldn't. His shoulders strained desperately, trying to get his hands free to defend himself. Dollan tightened his grip and rolled John onto his back, pinning his hands under their combined weights. All he could see was Dollan's face, snarling, blood dripping from his mouth. The air in John's lungs ran out and he kicked and bucked frantically, vision graying out at the edges, throat and chest burning and aching.

Everything blurred, rain running into his eyes, and John tried his best to spit before he lost consciousness.

Dollan howled as something bright sliced across this face. His hands loosened and John gasped for breath, blinking and trying to see what was happening.

Dollan reared off him, swiping at the bright thing. Blood flew in an arc and this time John could see Red had a knife in one hand. Dollan had a slice across his face that included one eye, blinding him on one side. He flailed at Red, who whipped the knife's edge across Dollan's fingers, half-severing two.

John heaved in another breath and struggled onto his side, taking his weight off his crushed hands.

Dollan screamed.

Red kept playing with him and John knew he should command him to stop, but he couldn't get the words out. His throat still felt squeezed closed.

He pushed himself onto one shoulder, then got his knees under him enough to kneel.

Kelly was on her feet and holding a zat, covering Dollan with it. Molkuns was down. So were Polus and Famar, fallen over Nobe. John drew in another sawing lungful of oxygen and found Bud struggling to his feet beyond the three man pile.

Thunder shook them, the wind blasting now, and something hit John's cheek. A pellet slapped into his shoulder and another stung the tip of his ear. He squinted as the white stuff hit his mud-coated knees and immediately melted. More hit the grass next to the ox-track and John finally identified it.

The rain had turned to hail.

More hit him and he just blinked at it, thinking, You've got to be kidding me.

Dollan was roaring, rushing at Red, clutching his wounded hand to his chest, and in another second he was going to remember he was armed and go for the zat still stuck in his belt. Knife-fighter or not, Red couldn't win against that.

"Major," John croaked, his voice like sandpapered ash. "Zat him."

Kelly aimed and Red danced back, sure footed despite the muck. She fired and Dollan went down.

John groaned and tried to get to his feet. Everything protested and he started to go down, twisting in the hope he wouldn't break his damned nose.

Red caught his arm before he hit the ground. It registered that Red had his hands free. John wondered how he'd done that and decided he didn't care.

"Here, sir," Red was saying, "let me cut you loose."

"Thanks," John rasped.

"Don't talk, sir," Kelly said as she approached.

"Get Bud free too."

"On it in a sec, Colonel," Red told him. The knife sliced through the twine finally. Red took hold of John's elbow and finally got him to his feet. "You look like shit. You okay?"

"I'm okay."

John brought his hands around, gasping at the ache in his shoulders, and began picking the cut bits of twine out of his skin where it had sunk in and stuck. The hail had already begun to ease off and he thought the lightning and thunder were both moving away. It remained too dark and wet to see well though and his muddy fingers slipped more than once.

Red gave him a pat on the back and headed for Bud, knife still in hand.

John looked at Kelly. "Good job, Major."

"Couldn't have done it without Bud," she replied. "You and Sergeant Garcia kept Molkuns and Dollan distracted too."

John started to chuckle and ended up coughing out, "I think Red did a little better than I did, there."

"I zatted Molkuns first, sir," she replied. "Then I got the others. I couldn't get Dollan without knocking you out too, though."

"Hunh."

John fingered his throat. He wasn't sure he wouldn't rather have been unconscious.

Bud and Red limped over and joined them.

"I can't believe that worked," Bud commented. He peered at John. "Can you breathe all right?"

John coughed and nodded.

"We ought to zat them again," Red stated pragmatically. "Otherwise, one of these days we'll run into them again."

John shook his head. He couldn't authorize cold blooded murder, even if Red had a point.

"Get their weapons, then find something and tie them up," he whispered.

"Really, you need to stop talking now," Bud insisted. He sidled closer to John and reached for his throat, obviously trying to see the damage better.

John shied away, shaking his head, then wincing at the creak in his neck and the protest from his shoulder and back muscles.

Kelly gave him a jaundiced look, then handed him the zat. "Here, sir. Keep this. Red and I will get the rest," she said.

John wanted to ask who exactly gave the orders on this team, but his throat hurt like hell and he didn't know if the words would come out intelligible or not. He winced and nodded instead.

"Bud, stay with the Colonel," Kelly added.

Bud nodded and began trying to wipe the mask of mud off his face with his fingers without much success. Not a millimeter of him had escaped being coated, not that John and Kelly were much better off. Red was the cleanest of them all and that only because he didn't have enough hair to hold as much mud.

They ended up stealing the Lucians' boots too, before leaving them trussed up and still knocked out.

The rest of the trip to the stargate didn't get any better. John had blisters to add to his misery before they reached it and then Bud reminded them that activating the gate in a storm was a no-no. The lightning had eased off, but there was something about a DHD and the naquadah in the gates that would draw a bolt if they initiated a wormhole.

That left them sitting, miserable, muddy and cold until the clouds tore apart and Bud gave the go ahead.

Of course, the Vedneans had relieved them of their GDOs along with their weapons and radios, so they had to remember the emergency rendezvous planet of the week and dial it instead of Earth. They walked through the wormhole into a hell-hot day on MB4-439 and a squad of SGOC soldiers with their weapons aimed and waiting for anything coming through the stargate.

Especially, as Captain Mendoza put it, "Mud monsters."

John just coughed and flipped him the bird, before sinking down on the stone steps of the stargate. He could feel the mud drying everywhere already. He wanted a hot shower. He wanted clean clothes and a warm bed. He wanted to go home, but he'd settle for his condo.

Mendoza peered at him. "You okay, sir?"

John nodded wearily.

"Bailey's a medic. Let's have him look at you," Mendoza said.

John pushed himself up and went along, even though he knew Lam would have him in the infirmary for a longer than usual exam. He needed to get out of the stargate's splash zone so they could dial Earth anyway.

16 August 2014
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain and Colorado Springs

Technically, Bill Lee held the position of chief scientist at the SGC, but no one tried to tell Rodney what to do. He had taken over Lab 19-15A and its associated office as his own. It held everything he needed, but was small enough no one else tried to work there as well.

John called it the lair of the murderous McKay and swore there were already legends of unfortunate lab technicians who stumbled in and were never seen again.

HSA finished with his apartment Thursday afternoon and released Rodney into the care of Agents Mullowny and Vitt, who were part of his new, very much unwanted security detail. HSA didn't call them bodyguards and Rodney didn't call them minders. Rodney reminded himself constantly to hold his tongue while in custody, all too aware of the fine, fine line between protective custody and captivity.

Vitt and Mullowny drove him back to Colorado Springs and his trashed apartment, then insisted on coming in and searching it for intruders, too. Rodney folded his arms and glared them out finally, before finding his laptop on the coffee table under one of the couch cushions. He inspected it carefully, retrieved a case of tools from his kitchen, and opened up the back, taking out the bug jammer. He doubled checked it was working and then vindictively fried every bug, old and new, in the apartment. The jammer went back in the laptop.

At least no one had trashed his clothes, beyond dropping everything off the hangars in the closets. Rodney showered and changed, picked up his laptop and marched out, leaving the door unlocked. HSA was in charge of making sure no one got in there from now on.

Vitt and Mullowny were waiting at street level.

"Where to, Dr. McKay?" Vitt asked.

"Cheyenne Mountain," Rodney told him.

"Kind of late, isn't it?" Mullowny commented.

"Did I ask you?"

Mullowny opened his mouth, but Rodney breezed past him to the HSA vehicle that would be replacing his car. Apparently, it had been blown up. The blackened circle on the street where it had been parked the night before slowed Rodney's steps, making him shiver, but he made himself keep moving.

He didn't speak to either agent again until they stopped outside the third security post. "Go back to your pods or whatever you do," he told them. "And make sure someone cleans up the mess you made in my apartment when your replace the bugs."

"Dr. McKay – "

"I've got the number and the drill. I'll call before I'm ready to leave. Don't expect it to be any time soon," Rodney snapped and headed for the elevators.

He holed up there Thursday night and all through Friday, mainlining coffee, avoiding everyone who wanted to talk about the Pure bombings, and waiting for the subtle vibration of the stargate activating to shiver through the installation. Even seven floors above the gate room, he could feel it. When it did, he'd tap a single key on his laptop and watch the hacked closed circuit feed from the gate room. Three times already, teams had come through. None of them had been SG-2. Each time, Rodney shut down the feed and went back to working on the GTS automatic lock-outs.

It helped him not think about other things. He had already arranged three days free without meetings at John's request, so he had nothing to cancel. He just hadn't realized he'd spend the time waiting to find out if John was alive instead of with John.

Being on Earth while John went through the gate would swiftly drive him insane. In Atlantis, he had the necessary distance to keep from worrying neurotically all day. He had work and he only learned what John had been up to from briefings after the fact and John's emails, when any danger had already passed.

Rodney hissed under his breath. Nothing in his nature cut him out to play the whaler's widow.

He pushed the thought away and concentrated on the new problem with the GTS.

Public space, private space, secured space, exceptions and overrides. He'd thought it would be a quick fix when he realized the problem, but it was proving more complicated than designing and manufacturing the actual equipment. He could see they would need an order greater amount of processing power, just to handle determining whether a point-to-point private transport didn't arrive in a destination where people had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Individuals had to be able to set up lists of people they would authorize to transport in no matter what. There had to be measures that would allow emergency services to transport directly into homes and out.

Would companies want their workers transporting straight from wherever to their offices? They'd have to decide policies and then those would have to incorporated in the GTS programs.

Warrants, search and seizure. Rodney stared at the screen and decided the lawyers would have to deal with that aspect. As far as he was concerned, the cops could transport to outside and go in through a door the way they did now.

One of the marketing people had suggested a curfew program. Parents could chip their kids, set a curfew and when the clock reached the set time, the kids would be transported home automatically from wherever they were. GTS could charge for the service package. Rodney couldn't decide if he was horrified or thought the plan genius.

How many more uses and abuses would the people of the most populated planet in two galaxies come up with that Rodney and the other programmers hadn't anticipated? He needed to get the names of some other soft science experts from Daniel and have them figure out at least the obvious ones.

The floor shivered. Rodney looked up and then checked the gate room feed. Incoming wormhole. The grainy CCTV feed showed the chevrons cycling and lighting, then the wormhole splash. John and his team stumbled through onto the metal ramp. Pale, drying mud flaked off them as they limped down it to the blast doors. John's narrow shoulders were slumped in what looked like exhaustion.

Rodney stared at the blue-tinted picture on the screen long after the wormhole collapsed and the gate room emptied. The tightness that had knotted under his breast bone since John missed his second twenty-four hour check-in on Wednesday finally eased away, leaving behind only the churning acid of too much coffee and apprehension in his stomach.

He resisted the impulse to hack the infirmary feed. He didn't need to see that. No one really had any expectation of privacy inside the Mountain, but still they deserved it. Besides, John had been walking under his own power. There wouldn't be that much to see that he couldn't find out later.

Rodney closed the CCTV window and rubbed his fingers over his closed eyes. He hadn't slept since Wednesday night. His eyes were burning, his back ached, and his hands had developed a fine shake. He'd made a trip to the cafeteria at one point and ate something, but he couldn't remember it now, just the taste like cardboard and vinegar.

It would be a minimum of six hours before Lam and her minions released SG-2 to leave the base. Two hours before they could dream of escaping the infirmary itself. That providing none of them had taken more damage than the usual mission-gone-sour dings and scratches. Preliminary debriefing would follow on as soon as they'd cleaned up and then, because they had been offworld and overdue, there would be a mandatory psych appointment, per the new SGOC and ICGA regulations. After they were finished with the shrinks, SG-2 would hit the situation room and sit in on the constantly cycling briefing on what had and was happening on Earth in order to catch up with what they'd missed while offworld. Normally that wouldn't be much, but the Pure bombing campaign and HSA's response made it more important than usual that all personnel know what they might be facing when they left the Mountain.

By that point, the six hour hold would be up. Unless the prelim debriefing had indicated their data was time critical, Alyanov wouldn't expect the AARs until the next day, so SG-2 would likely head home at that point.

John would remain in the Mountain, though. Copies of his report would be waiting for Alyanov and Carter in the morning when they came in.

Even then, John's day wouldn't be finished. He'd sit down and go over all the SG team reports that had come in while he was offworld.

It had never seemed so time consuming back in Atlantis. John and Lorne had made it look easy; much easier than it seemed to be for Reynolds. The expedition had grown since John left, though. Atlantis' population had soared since they'd had enough power and driven back the Wraith. Reynolds wasn't fielding fifty offworld teams, though.

Rodney blinked his eyes open and went back to work. He'd finish the code on the GTS back door and then hit the mess hall. Considering how much mud they'd tracked in, there was probably a good story about what had happened to hold up John's team offworld and it would be making the rounds by then.

As an experiment, Rodney designated his apartment and John's condo as secure/private zones not subject to any overrides except his, then wrote a program that would enable either of them to point transport there. He added refinements allowing either of them to designate temporary authorizations by date or person or point of departure, then added an alert system that would provide him with a log of who attempted to transport into either domicile and from where.

The code started to blur and dance by the end and he had to get up and walk around the lab several times before he could force his mind and eyes to focus enough to finish.

The ding of his email notifier made him stumble and bark his shin against a stool. He swayed and clutched at the edge of lab table. When the bone in his leg stopped with the electric buzz of pain, Rodney gimped back to his laptop.

According to the time read-out, it was 23:43 hundred hours, Mountain Time, and he had one email from Colonel John Sheppard.

Rodney opened it.

John's words were typically innocuous. Despite the best encryption Rodney could install on his laptop, John never committed anything to text that he didn't assume he might be faced with in the hands of someone else sooner or later. Rodney alternated between annoyance and pride in the paranoia he'd instilled.

Where are you? Tried to call. Heard about your car. Sorry. JS.

Hardly a declaration of undying true love, but John had sent it, which amounted to a major gesture from him.

Rodney fumbled over the keyboard in exhaustion, then typed out his reply.

I'm in my lab here. The shielding interferes with commercial cell transmissions. If you don't want me to tell Teyla and Ronon you got yourself kidnapped again, you'll get down here and tell me what really happened. McKay.

John showed up almost ten minutes later, moving slower than normal, less amble, more exhaustion, and gave Rodney a little hand wave from where he propped himself against the doorway. The lab's lights were turned down or off, only a desk lamp or two throwing circles of white here and there, but the corridor lights silhouetted the long line of John's body, the lean more about support than cool for once.

Rodney clutched at the armrest of his specially designed, ergonomic desk chair to keep himself from surging up and across the lab. Ugly purple-red bruises covered John's throat. It took the self-control he'd learned the hard way after years in Pegasus to stay seated. He managed, because John didn't come any closer, just leaned there, under the CCTV camera mounted over the lab door.

He traced the brutal marks on John's neck with his gaze instead. Two thumb prints pressed above and below John's Adam's apple. They had to hurt, but Rodney couldn't give in to the need to touch and ask while the camera's eye rested on them.

"Looks like someone finally tried to snap  your head off your neck," he gibed to hide the worry and need. The lab was sound jammed, but he watched his words anyway. Some people could read lips and he'd left the camera live.

John nodded, then winced, his hand rising to his neck then stopping short.

Rodney raised his eyebrows. "Don't tell me. You can't talk."

John held up a finger.

"You aren't supposed to talk."

Another pained nod, this time with the attendant face of woe and frustration. John pushed away from the doorway. He settled onto one of the lab stools a moment later. Rodney let himself leave his chair, but stayed on the far side of the lab table.

"Lam's orders?" he asked.

John waved his hand again, obviously holding his head still as possible. His throat worked as he swallowed and the flicker of pain that crossed his face told Rodney how tired he actually was.

Rodney crossed his arms and studied John, cocking his head a little as he did so.

"This could be amusing."

John glared.

"I mean, how often have you told me to shut up? Threatened to gag me? Or there was that time on PX1-995 when I lost my voice." He pointed. "You and Ronon laughed. I was afraid I'd stop breathing and you two were giggling like schoolboys." He nodded to himself. "Yes, I believe I'm going to enjoy this."

John let out a little, breathless grunt. "Rod – "

"Stop that," Rodney snapped. "Do you want to do permanent damage to your throat and vocal cords?"

John rolled his eyes.

"Did Lam give you anything for the pain?"

A small prescription bottle appeared in John's hand. Before John could pocket it again, Rodney snatched it away and began reading the label. "Oh, this stuff," he said. He eyed John. "Well, you obviously haven't taken any yet."

Headshake.

"John Sheppard, stoic," Rodney sneered. He put the pills in his own pocket, ignoring John's protesting grab. "I'll assume you've finished your report and aren't actually confined to base or even – " he raised his voice to overwhelm the argument John couldn't currently make, then lowered it, slightly embarrassed,  " – expected back until the debriefing tomorrow."

John held up two fingers.

Rodney frowned.

"Day after tomorrow?"

John nodded.

Alyanov really wasn't too bad a commander.

"HSA has assigned me a security detail. With a car." Rodney paused. "Actually, all they drive are SUVs. They look a great deal like that monster of yours, in fact." He wandered over the side of the lab where he kept the coffee maker and the half sized refrigerator, retrieving a bottle of water from it. Back to the lab table and he set the bottle in front of John, then pulled out the pill bottle and shook out the required dose, setting the pills beside it. "Here, be a good boy and take your medicine."

Narrow-eyed, John shook his head.

"Oh, for – quit being an idiot. I'm telling you, that while my car has been reduced to tiny bits of scrap metal, I have a driver assigned to me for the foreseeable future. You can't drive while you're on medication. So you'll ride with me."

Rodney felt actually proud of himself. Instead of hiding John coming to his apartment, he'd have HSA deliver him and with an ironclad excuse.

"It's probably a good idea if you stay with me anyway," he went on blithely. "You shouldn't be alone and also, my security detail will be able to look out for you too, which is a very good idea, since if there's anyone the Pure hate more than me it's you and O'Neill."

He'd begun to come around to the idea of the security detail. He was, after all, the most intelligent man in two galaxies. His brain certainly deserved to be guarded. It just showed that people were finally, finally realizing the importance of Dr. M. Rodney McKay.

John looked stubborn and worried.

"Trust me," Rodney said. He'd scan for bugs again when they got back to the apartment. They needed to talk about what the new security measures meant to continuing together and if they could hide it for long. He figured that once the first GTS satellite went live in a month for testing and debugging, they could use the point-to-point to transport into each other's places unseen and untracked, but he needed to explain that to John.

Rodney wasn't ready to give up. Not yet. But he knew that they were steadily approaching the point where John would either ask him to make a choice or make one himself and he couldn't see it ending well no matter what they decided. Neither of them would do well if they gave up what gave their lives meaning and purpose. It would be too easy to begin hating each other if they did. But for now, he'd keep trying to find ways for them to work.

And John...

John hadn't left yet.

Rodney thought he wouldn't and somehow that hurt too, knowing that he'd be the one who went home to Atlantis. The one going.

He leaned over and caught John's hand, turning it over and setting the pills in his palm.

"Just take the damn pills, John," he said quietly.

John's hand felt dry and rough. He pulled away, but closed his fingers over the pills. He opened the water bottle and tossed the medication back. His throat worked and his eyes squeezed shut. Obviously, even swallowing caused some discomfort.

Maybe the water felt good though, because John sipped it as Rodney wandered around the lab, shutting down everything, turning off the last of the lights, setting his own security measures running and then calling the number Vitt had given him.

When Rodney brushed past him, John sniffed and made a face.

"Shut up, I've been here since Thursday night," Rodney snapped.

John held up his hands, then gestured to himself, before 'zipping' his lips. The smile lifting the corners of his mouth made Rodney's own exhaustion and need for a shower worthwhile.

"Our chariot will be awaiting us up top," Rodney said. "We'll have to make do with whatever is in my apartment though. There won't be any place decent still open that does take out."

John shrugged and followed him out of the lab, waiting patiently while Rodney ran his key card through and activated the locks against everyone except Sam and Bill Lee's overrides.

They walked side by side to the elevators, properly far apart, no elbow bumping, and Rodney adjusted his pace to John's. He could see the pain medication hitting John by the time they switched elevators at Level 15 and hoped he wouldn't be asleep before they reached the SUV.

He wasn't, but it was close run. John climbed into the back seat, fumbled on his seatbelt, and slumped against the window, eyes closed immediately.

Mullowny even offered to help get him up to Rodney apartment, but John woke enough to walk under his own power and Rodney's watchful gaze. Once inside he headed straight for the guest room.

Rodney waited while Mullowny and Vitt finished checking the apartment, which had not only been set to rights during the interim, but vigorously cleaned.

"Call if you have to go out or have anything delivered," Vitt instructed as they left.

"Of course," Rodney lied.

He'd already begun mapping exits that would let him leave and return unobserved. If he could avoid HSA's surveillance, he felt pretty confident none of the Pure would be able to spot him either.

It was just until HSA rounded up the rest of the cells that were part of the bombing plan.

Things would go back to normal after that.

31 December 2014
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs and Cheyenne Mountain

Lam put John on light duty for seven days, until he could swallow something other than broth, Jello, or ice cream, and talk in more than a whisper. He slept through most of Sunday, wrote out his replies during the Monday debriefing because his voice had completely gone by then, and caught up on a lot paperwork and some of the UNE gossip.

There were groups lobbying to set up colonies on other worlds and a new ICGA department would be created to oversee the process if and when. He began framing the proposal for more offworld trained personnel that weren't the typical four to six person teams. Any colonies would require some sort of military presence in addition to the colonists' own forces – if they had any. He didn't want to have to scramble for people to post when the UNE authorized the first colony.

Daniel was due back from Atlantis in September. Fifteen days until Rodney went home. Rumor had it Shen Bao wasn't happy, which probably meant something good for Daniel.

John didn't manage to reschedule his leave. Rodney disappeared into his labs and then transported up to the Bra'tac to oversee the final launch of the primary GTS satellite into orbit. After that, he was in meetings every day with Carter, Shen Bao, the rest of the private investors and the UNEC. He took one day to visit Jeannie's family before he left. Neither of them could think of any excuse for John to go too.

With the damned security detail, John didn't even have an excuse to drive Rodney to the Mountain the morning he left. He was in a meeting with Carter, Alyanov, Griffin, Navat and Michaelson when Rodney walked back through the gate to Atlantis. He heard it, though, and Carter had to prompt him back to what they were talking about.

A month after Lam cleared John to go offworld again, Cam showed up at his office and took him out for a drink, raving over the newest modifications on the B306s coming out of the Vancouver shipyard. The Colonel Paul Emerson was the first, just back from its first shakedown cruise with Cam aboard, destined to become the flagship of Earth's First Fleet. His enthusiasm was infectious and John agreed to transport up and get the two-bit tour while Cam had the ship in orbit.

"Everything still cool with you?" Cam asked after ordering a third beer, when their food had been reduced to a few sprigs of parsley and a stray, overcooked French fry left in a pool of salt and ketchup on his plate.

John shrugged then surprised himself by saying, "I'm thinking of quitting."

Cam set his beer down without drinking again and stared. "What? Why? Look, Alyanov isn't that bad, is he? You just need to hold out through the next year and the SGOC is yours, Sheppard."

"Just thinking."

"It's not against the regs anymore. Not our regs." Cam wasn't talking about thinking, but discretion was so ingrained he couldn't say the words either.

John sipped his own beer and then said, "It is if I want command."

"Yeah, but, you quit, you're still screwed, unless McKay does too." Cam hesitated. "Or would he be willing to quit Atlantis?"

"I'm not going to ask him."

"Sorry," Cam told him.

John slumped down in the booth and spun his beer bottle. "I don't think I can give it up. I just...What the hell else would I do? If I don't stick with the SGOC, then I've got nothing."

ICGA wouldn't hire him as a civilian contractor; he didn't have any skills outside the military that they needed in Atlantis. He could not see going back in any other role than military commander in any case. He couldn't fit into the old subordinate slot anymore. Answering to General Alyanov only worked because Alyanov spent more time at the Tower than at Cheyenne Mountain, playing the political game for the SGOC while John handled the day to day and offworld missions.

The only answer John could see was to keep moving forward and not look back. But he kept coming back to the night Rodney asked him about the new regs for the UNE forces. That ambition put Rodney in a shitty place, hiding and lying, alone more than not. It left John alone, but he'd never expected he'd end up any other way.

If and when he got the appointment to SGOCOM, even if he eventually had Carter's job as head of the SGC, it still wouldn't compare to what he'd had in Atlantis. He wondered if it would be worth it.

"Things'll get better," Cam promised.

"There's a good way to jinx me," John joked. He decided to change the subject. "So, when can I get that tour?"

"Up to taking a 302 out of Peterson tomorrow?" Cam asked, gracefully acceding to the switch. "I got two delayed delivery replacements to bring aboard the Emerson, thought I'd get some flight time in myself."

John grinned at him. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."

Cam seemed to make a point of dragging John out and forcing him to have some fun after that, enlisting Vala to take up the slack when he was offworld. John enjoyed it all despite himself. Between times, his team entertained him when they were on missions and his job filled the rest of the empty spaces. He missed Atlantis, but it wasn't a gaping hole inside him any longer.

He missed Rodney, Ronon, Teyla and Tanaan. That didn't change. But he had a life on Earth that no longer included them and it wasn't bad. Only when he thought about it and felt guilty.

The Christmas season took him by surprise. He had ignored the decoration and hype that began in October, gone on a mission that kept him offworld over Thanksgiving, Canadian and American, and found the invitation to attend a Christmas dinner with his brother's family in Maryland sitting in his mail box a shock.

No, he thought. There had never been an invitation before. Not until he'd become somebody more than just another Air Force officer. Now, Dave suddenly remembered John. Oh, hell, no. He could predict exactly what sort of Christmas Dave's family would celebrate anyway and he'd rather gnaw off his own fingers.

Refusing the next invitation came harder. Part of John wanted to accept it. Jeannie emailed and then called, intent on John coming, but he couldn't face the family togetherness of a Miller Christmas without Rodney's acerbic companionship.

Rodney stayed in Atlantis, tied up with responsibilities there, and maybe not wanting to leave home over the holiday anyway.

After that came the flood of party invitations as the UNE, the SGC, and a hundred others held receptions, balls, dinners, and parties. Some of them, John had to attend: General Carter's party, the OOA reception after they announced Daniel's appointment as Secretary of Offworld Affairs, Abigail Farnham's 'get-together', and O'Neill's thing. A few he could pass on attending. The country club where he golfed, most of the local politicians, Governor's Ball, anything in DC, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Ottawa, New York or Los Angeles.

He got to Vala and claimed her as his date for the mandatory appearances, laughing when Cam gave him a sour face over beating him to it. It was all political posturing anyway. John put on his stiff new SGC dress uniform, carried a champagne flute around at each function, danced and played the good officer. Vala indulged her taste for designer creations on John's dime and talked enough for both of them, hanging on his arm.

"I love your holidays on this planet," she told him as they entered the ballroom at the top of the Tower to attend the Homeworld Security function the night before Christmas Eve. The rubies hanging from her ears matched her dress. It amused John to blow the money he'd inherited from his father on an alien con artist. He couldn't spend much of it on Rodney and could only send so many gifts through the stargate for Tanaan and Teyla and Ronon. Vala had gone with him when he shopped for them and the Millers and he'd seen her trying to figure out how to lift the earrings while he bought a locket for Madison.

"Glad someone does," John replied.

He'd given her the wrapped package when he picked her up at the Mountain. As he'd known she would, Vala had opened the present, unable to wait. More grist for the gossip mill. The way she had carefully undone the wrapping and slowly opened the box and then the case inside it had struck John as sad; as if no one had ever bothered to give Vala anything for herself without strings. In that, she reminded him of Rodney.

In other circumstances, he could have fallen in love with her.

She had her hand on his arm and gave it a comforting rub. "Look, there's Teal'c," she said and pointed, then bounced and waved. Once she had Teal'c's attention, she steered John over to the gathering of perplexed and bored Jaffa and Tok'ra.

"Vala Mal Doran," Teal'c greeted her. The Jaffa regalia made him seem smaller. Maybe it choked Teal'c as much as the dress uniform did John. "Colonel Sheppard."

"Muscles!" Vala replied gleefully and hugged Teal'c without regard for the sort of propriety John was used to at official gatherings. Teal'c hugged her back with obvious care. He'd shaved his head again and it gleamed along with his forehead tattoo.

O'Neill corralled John later.

"Sorry about this," he declared with a wince and gesture that encompassed the ballroom and the party and that John had been forced to attend. "Staff insists it's necessary. Always hated these dog-and-pony shows when I was in uniform."

O'Neill wasn't in uniform any longer. As a civilian, he'd been forced to wear a tuxedo. The black contrasted with his hair, which had been mostly gray when John first met him, and had gone completely white in the intervening years. Age and a desk job had softened his body, but not the sharp brown eyes that inspected John then and at present.

John eyed him back with an agreeable smile, remarking, "I'm just glad the Jaffa and Tok'ra aren't Christian. No embassy parties on top of the rest, at least."

"They'll pick up the idea," O'Neill said. "Sooner or later. Politicians love these things and they're all politicians now."

John agreed.

"What can I do for you, sir?" he asked. "Or HSA?"

"Keep your nose clean and out of trouble."

John looked at him curiously. "Why would you care?"

O'Neill shifted faintly and nodded toward the crowd. Councilor Farnham was charming the Tok'ra representatives. "Abby Farnham over there."

John gave him the raised eyebrow look. "The former President?" he asked, though he had a good clue to what O'Neill meant now.

O'Neill sipped his champagne and made a face. "Swill."

John followed a flash of red across the room; Vala had Daniel on the dance floor. Whether she'd given up on him or not, John couldn't tell. She'd keep torturing him even if she had. Maybe especially if she had.

"You should get married," O'Neill said out of the blue.

"Did that once for the Air Force, sir," John replied. "Not again."

Once more that sharp, measuring gaze settled on him. "That's right," O'Neill remarked.

John kept his face an empty, polite mask.

"Politics."

John waited for O'Neill to expand on that.

"Farnham supported Daniel for SECOA. She'll expect something in return. If you aren't the next SGOCOM, it'll be her candidate. So don't screw anything up for the next year."

The tension in John's shoulders doubled.

O'Neill shook his head. "The UNE hasn't been established long enough to stay stable if it starts awarding commands based on nepotism."

"Colonel Michaelson is a good officer," John said diplomatically. He didn't like her, but personal feelings aside, he couldn't point to anything that made her less than fit to serve.

"She's not stargate material," O'Neill stated.

The blanket condemnation startled John. He wondered how much O'Neill had already had to drink. O'Neill grimaced. "I'm not drunk. I am tired. I wanted to retire years ago, but I can't. Not yet. Neither can you, Sheppard. The bastards that bombed Cassie's apartment and killed that poor woman are still out there."

"I thought HSA had made arrests."

"One cell, maybe two." O'Neill sneered. "They aren't the ones that are the real danger. It's the sympathizers that are already in the governments, hell, even the UNE: they're the ones we need to worry about. The xenophobes."

John watched Daniel swaying with Vala. Her head rested on his shoulder. Daniel's mouth was moving. Vala's fingers tightened on Daniel's shoulder and she shifted subtly, allowing space between their bodies and lifting her head away from him. She looked aside, away from Daniel's face, her bare neck one long line of tension. The grace of her movements stiffened into formality.

Daniel's mouth kept moving. John wished he read lips. He watched Vala stumble and began to worry.

"Sheppard," O'Neill prompted him.

"Is Colonel Michaelson one of them?" John asked.

"Well, that's the question," O'Neill answered. "Someone sure as hell coached her on how to pass the SGC psych evaluation. The one the marines gave her ten years ago belongs to some other woman."

His gaze followed the line of John's to the dancing couple.

"Damned politics."

"Sir," John drawled.

O'Neill poured the last of his champagne into a potted plant. "'Scuse me, got to go walk the dog," he said and left John to his thoughts.

When they turned too dark, he cut in between Vala and Daniel. Daniel bowed out with a murmured, "You should dance with the person who brought you," to Vala.

"John is a better dancer than you anyway," Vala declared, extending her hand to him, turning her back to Daniel.

Her eyes were wide and blinking swiftly, the glitter of the chandeliers reflecting too brightly from them, as John whirled her through a waltz. John glimpsed Daniel joining a group that included Carter and Teal'c and then on the next pass around the floor, that O'Neill had joined them.

Vala smiled at him as they danced and said, "I changed my mind. I don't like this holiday at all."

Maybe she hadn't given up on Daniel before, but something had happened between them on the dance floor.

"Let's get out of here," John said and she didn't protest the way she had at every other party they'd attended through the season.

"You want to go back to the Mountain?" he asked on the drive back, when Vala had been quiet for too long.

"No. I want to go home with you."

John didn't think about it. He had guest rooms. Vala probably didn't mean to use one, but either way, he figured she would be better off with him than alone in the windowless depths of Cheyenne Mountain's Level 25.

"Yeah, okay," he said.

The silky tickle of Vala's hair under his nose and the warmth of her breasts pressed against his side were the first things John noticed in the morning, along with the steady thump of a fist against his front door. Her hair smelled of his shampoo and strands were caught in his morning stubble. He peeled one eye open and then sighed in relief. They were in his bed, in his bedroom, but Vala had on a pair of his boxers and one of Rodney's tee shirts. He had on sweat pants.

He felt pretty virtuous.

He also had his hand on her ass, so he removed it.

The door thumping went on.

It occurred to him that fate was bitch enough that Rodney might have finagled a trip back to Earth for Christmas after all, just in time to find John in bed with a beautiful woman and morning wood. The jolt of terrified adrenaline that sent through his system woke him the rest of the way and he realized that Rodney had a key and wouldn't be knocking.

With a heartfelt sigh of relief, John set out extricating himself. Vala stirred and he felt her wake, the subtle tightening of muscle that had been pliant next to him.

"Darling, you were wonderful last night," she murmured throatily.

John laughed.

"We didn't do anything."

Vala relaxed a fraction, then raised her head. Dark hair fell over her forehead and eyes as she gazed at him. "Well, don't blame me. I offered," she said.

John smoothed the hair away from her face. She looked vulnerable without a hint of make up, pale and dark-eyed and softer. She hadn't spoken of what Daniel had said or done, but she'd slipped into bed with him after three. She'd cried without any sound, just the hot tears that slipped from her cheeks to his skin.

John had done some shitty things in his history of relationships. He'd neglected his marriage until Nancy left for her own sake. He'd demanded without ever talking about it that Rodney hide that they were together and accept the things John did to keep anyone from suspecting and go on doing that even when the rules changed. He wasn't proud of any of it. He still thought he might deck Daniel some day. Someone needed to be on Vala's side.

The knocking at the door sped up and Cam's voice drifted to them. "I know you're in there, Sheppard! Let me in."

John smiled at her.

"This should be interesting."

Vala leaned closer and brushed her lips chastely against his. "Yes, it should," she declared in the next instant, rolling away from John and off the bed.

He blinked at her for a second then realized she was going to open the door for Cam.

With a sigh, he got out of bed and found a tee shirt to pull on before following her.

Cam was already in the living room by the time John got there. Teal'c was with him, dressed in a blue suit and a pink and tangerine paisley shirt that made John's eyes hurt. Teal'c nodded to him. "Good morning, Colonel Sheppard."

"Teal'c," John replied. He waved to the couch and chairs. "Make yourself at home."

Cam's gaze moved from John to Vala and back again and then he ducked his head, not quite able to hide a smile.

There were four cups of coffee in the cardboard carrier he'd brought with him, John noticed, so he knew Vala's presence hadn't been a surprise.

Vala curled up on John's leather couch, tucking her long pale legs beneath her and sipping her coffee.

"Have some coffee," Cam told John, "and then get ready. Vala, Sam already packed a bag for you." He pushed a suitcase toward her with his foot.

"Where are we going?" Vala asked.

John crossed his arms over his chest and raised his eyebrows at Cam, inquiring the same thing silently.

"Home with me, of course. I already told Mama and Daddy I'd be bringing Vala and Teal'c's coming too," Cam declared.

"Mitchell..." John shook his head. "I don't want to impose on your parents."

"I could bring half the Emerson's crew and they'd still get lost in the pack of cousins and kin that show up for Christmas every year," Cam said, dismissing him with a smile. "Mama and Daddy already know Vala. Sam, too, but she's getting together with her brother this year."

"Will there be pie?" Vala asked.

"Enough to feed everybody," Cam confirmed.

She swooped off the couch, grabbed the suitcase and headed for the guest bath. She raised her eyebrows at John as she passed, because he hadn't moved. "What are you waiting for? Cameron's mother makes the most incredible pies."

"This is a fact which I will attest to," Teal'c added. "I shared the pie Cameron Mitchell's mother sent to Vala Mal Doran. It was far superior to anything served in the SGC mess or any diner I have been to in the company of O'Neill or Daniel Jackson."

"Pie," John echoed. He rubbed the back of his neck.

Cam was watching him.

"Should I tell Mama you and her only need one room?"

John shook his head.

"Look, are you sure – " He couldn't imagine ever bringing anyone home for Christmas to the house he'd grown up in. Cam's family must be different if they didn't blink at him dragging along orphans and aliens.

"If I don't bring you along, Mama'll be on the phone telling you to come along herself." Cam smiled. "There's always room for one more at the Mitchell table. You just scramble the eggs and water the soup."

"Isn't your family in Kansas?" John asked. "That's kind of a long drive."

Cam waved his hand. "I'm head of the SFOC, Sheppard. I get to pull rank and have the Emerson beam us there."

John gave in and accepted the coffee.

Christmas in Kansas had to be better than moping around the condo for two days.

"You haven't lived until you taste my Mama's roast turkey and stuffing," Cam wheedled. "And you'll wreck it for Vala if you don't come. She'll worry about you."

John glanced toward the bedrooms. He could hear the shower running. "Do you know what happened with her and Daniel?" John asked.

"Nothing but Sam calling me this morning, saying I'd better check on her, maybe keep her distracted until she gets her balance back. Kinda worried for a bit when she wasn't in her quarters." Cam gave him a steady look. "She say much to you?"

John shook his head.

"I believe Daniel Jackson conveyed his preference that Vala refrain from pursuing a relationship in any form with him," Teal'c said. No opinion colored his words and his calm expression offered no clues to what he thought of that. "Perhaps he believes that her more flamboyant displays might interfere with his ability to perform his new duties as Secretary of Offworld Affairs."

John thought Daniel had left making up his mind about Vala damned late. The parallels to his own choices only served to bother him more. He nodded to Teal'c.

"Okay," he said, resolutely determined to not think about it any longer.

"All right then." Cam rubbed his hands together. "Get moving. We're going to spend two days eating ourselves into a coma."

2015
we are the crossroads

17 February 2015
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

The sound of Radek reaming one of the new scientists wouldn't normally have stopped Rodney in his tracks. He was tired though and just didn't want to deal with whatever idiocy had set Radek off. He hesitated just outside the main lab, considering whether to go back to his office, walk through into the lab or detour through the secondary exit. Only the last held any appeal. The first two choices made it too likely he'd be called on to mediate when he knew Radek would be in the right.

So he stood and listened much longer than he would have otherwise.

He had enough mediation keeping Reynolds' soldiers and his scientists from doing stupid things to each other. Lorne made sure the enlisted wouldn't ever take any confrontations too far, but Rodney had to make sure the civilian portion of the expedition knew the limits too. The easy camaraderie that had marked relations between soldier and scientist before Reynolds took over had been eroded in the last two years. The gate teams were no longer mixes. Instead there were scientific teams and military escort teams and it took twice as many missions to accomplish anything and Rodney lived with the constant conviction that the exploration and contact teams were missing vital information because they knew how to disassemble a P90 and clean it blindfolded, but couldn't tell the difference between the energy signature of a Genii weapons lab and a dying ZPM.

That didn't even touch on the difference in the attitude of Reynolds' men toward the Pegasus natives.

He had been forced to learn patience and self-control without John and Elizabeth or even Sam to buffer his interactions. Teyla would have done more, but Reynolds didn't listen to her unless circumstances and Rodney forced it. He didn't blame her for staying away more and more.

She was busy building something important. He hoped the history texts and political science books John had sent through the stargate as 'presents' for Tanaan had helped Teyla and her budding galactic government shape something better than had come before.

When he'd arrived back in Atlantis after Daniel Jackson left, Teyla had had a list of books, reports and analyses she wanted him to obtain for her from the SGC's archives. Apparently, she'd pumped Daniel for every scrap of information he had on how the System Lords had governed multiple planets and how the Lucian Alliance was doing it now. Daniel loved to talk; Rodney wondered if he'd even realized Teyla had more than a polite interest.

"This does not belong in a lab," Radek snapped at his target.

"It's just a magazine."

"It is tripe."

"No one asked you to read it," came the sullen response from Gustavus. Rodney recognized the accent the second time he spoke. So far Gustavus had not impressed him. No concentration. Rodney wasn't surprised to find out he was reading magazines in the lab instead of doing any real work.

"No, you left it on my lab table next to my laptop because you are too lazy to even put it away." Radek's voice turned silky and snide. "I am left to wonder what else you are to lazy to do. Check your equations? Shut down equipment?" The sound of paper pages flapping meant Radek was shaking the offending magazine in Gustavus' face. "Wipe your ass? Which is all this trash is good for."

"I don't have to put up with this from you," Gustavus protested.

"Is true," Radek agreed. "You can go back to Earth. Please do."

"You're harassing me. I can go to Dr. McKay and lodge a complaint – "

Laughter from more than Radek greeted that before Gustavus could finish. Rodney decided he'd have to put the idiot out of Radek's misery and stomped into the lab.

Gustavus stood six foot three and towered over Radek. Rodney took in the way he was trying to loom over Radek and snorted. Gustavus just didn't have whatever it took to intimidate. Of course, Radek was jaded.

"Working hard, I see," Rodney commented.

His gaze flickered to the magazine, Star Life, which had been dropped face up on the lab table as he came in. Slick paper, color pictures, tabloid stories filled with sleazy speculation and prurient rumors, it was one of the worst available in the US. The faces under the screaming headline were familiar, of course. The headline shouted in red with green bows: X-Rated X-Mas! and below, Did Sheppard and Mal Doran Wed in Secret Kansas Christmas Getaway?

Rodney picked it up. "New text book, Gutbust?"

On the far side of the lab Simpson covered her mouth and Bryce bent over her keyboard, Hailey leaning in next to her, shoulders jigging and the sound of choked laughter drifting from all three of them. Gustavus' face went red.

"Let's see..."

He leafed through it. Publishing date on New Year's, so it was two months old. The ads were all for Christmas presents and booze. The pictures were mostly color, but seldom close ups unless a telephoto lens had been involved. Most of them were grainy, ill-framed shots from phone cameras, sold by private individuals. The photogenic darlings of the SGC were in most of the good photos, taken as they arrived or left parties and restaurants.

John and Vala were in a lot of them. Together. They looked good together, Rodney decided. He flipped over a page and studied the blown up picture for a long moment. A night time shot of John and Vala, with his arm around her waist, her head against his shoulder, going into his condo together. A stock photo of Elizabeth had been inset at one corner. Next to it, the article read in bold, Is John Sheppard finally over the tragic death of Elizabeth Weir? Larger text captioned the main picture. It looks like Val Mal has this handsome colonel's attention these days.

He snapped the magazine closed, rolled it into a cylinder and smacked the lab table with it, before extending it to Gustavus. "I'm terribly sorry to tell you this, Gussaby," he said, "but we already looked into the possibility of Colonel Sheppard's hair gel containing the secret ingredient to manufacturing ZPM cases."

Gustavus frowned.

"Take it out of here," Rodney instructed him.

He addressed the rest of the lab. "I have no objection to anyone following the news from Earth. I know many of you were frightened by the attempted assassination of Director O'Neill and the shipyard bombings in Vancouver and want to know what else is going on. Try to confine yourselves to some more reputable sources than Star Life and concentrate on the work you are here to do during working hours. If you can't, there's a wormhole waiting to take you back to Earth. ICGA spends a lot of money to keep us here and they expect a useful return."

Gustavus slunk out of the lab. Rodney retrieved a mug and poured himself a cup of coffee from the still quarter full pot they kept in the lab. He walked over to Radek's favorite table and looked at the equations on the screen of his laptop. "Any progress?"

Radek flipped his hand loosely. "If you count discovering seven new alloys that won't work." He eyed Rodney sidelong. "Is just a rag."

Rodney sipped his coffee. "I know," he replied quietly. "You warned me. I remember."

"Ah. That." Radek nodded, causing his glasses to slip down his nose. He pushed them up irritably, a habit he'd developed after replacing his old prescription. The new glasses were heavier and he had to wear them more often, something that Rodney knew annoyed him. "I am sorry. Rules change, people not so much."

Rodney's radio chirped and he sighed. That was Chuck's reminder for him. He checked his watch. "Sorry, I've got another meeting with Reynolds on the subject of bringing in Pegasus natives to work in Atlantis. Keller asked me to come by the infirmary to talk about something. I'm hoping I can fit that in before I pick up Tanaan from school."

Radek shuddered and Rodney chuckled. They'd all thought it was exaggeration, but not even for Teyla's son did Radek Zelenka change his opinion of children.

"Don't worry, I'll leave him with Anaraya if I come back down to the labs later," he assured Radek.

"How long until Teyla is back?"

"Two more days."

Radek glanced up. "Colonel Reynolds still does not ask what she and Ronon do?"

Rodney finished his coffee and snorted. "As far as Reynolds is concerned, Teyla's just another primitive with a pretty face. I've got no idea what he thinks she and Ronon are doing." He set the mug down. "Radio me if any of the next iteration of formulas looks promising."

Two hours arguing with Reynolds made Rodney late to pick up Tanaan, earning him a lecture from the teacher that had been sent from Earth, Penny Morris – Hallinggan Rodney reminded himself – and resulting only in Reynolds' grudging agreement to hiring more Athosians, when Rodney wanted either Genii or refugees from Hoff or Sateda, since they already had a grasp of technology – they didn't think it was all Ancestors' magic at least. Given that, they could be trained. Jinto was there, though, teaching Tanaan some complicated Athosian memory game while he waited for Penny, so it could have been worse. Teyla wanted Tanaan to grow up as an Athosian as well as a Lantean.

"You do know who I am, right?" Rodney asked Penny.

Tanaan smiled Teyla's gorgeous smile at him, but kept playing, pointing at pebbles in an order Rodney could only guess at.

"Tanaan's primary care giver when his mother and Ronon are both out of the city, which means you have a responsibility – "

"My responsibilities extend a little beyond one five year old boy." Much as he loved him.

"Six this year, Uncle Rodney!" Tanaan insisted. "I'm going to be six."

"In July, jesha, not yet," Rodney replied without looking away from Penny. He folded his arms over his chest and glared. "As I was saying, I have responsibilities beyond Tanaan. Like making sure the military morons don't utterly takeover and my idiots don't do something that literally blows us all up." With fools like Gustavus arriving from Earth, it kept him up at night worrying. They had no conception of how alien Atlantis actually was. The city wasn't just another research base on Earth. "Your job, in contrast, is, in fact, to take care of the children here and teach them. Here's a suggestion. Teach them about priorities."

Jinto glanced up. "Pen, Dr. McKay does a lot."

Penny looked mutinous but said nothing. Rodney was used to that sort of reaction and counted it a win.

"Ready to go get dinner, Tanaan?" he called.

Tanaan pointed to one last pebble. Jinto turned it over, showing a small mark incised on one face. Oh, so those weren't pebbles at all, but multifaceted dice. Tanaan crowed with delight. He'd won. He bounced to his feet and barreled over to Rodney, taking his hand unselfconsciously. Rodney missed when he'd hold out his arms to be picked up and hugged.

"Okay, Uncle Rodney, we can go now," Tanaan declared.

Jinto swept the dice into a cloth bag and got to his feet. He towered, just like his father. He wore his black hair in a single long braid down his back, unlike Halling, though. "Nice to see you, Dr. McKay," he said.

"You too, Jinto," Rodney said.

"We brought in a cart full of gredel berries for the mess," Jinto added.

Rodney grinned. "Really? I thought it was too early in the year?"

"Early summer on Demeskar. Looks like an extra large crop this year if their water source doesn't go dry before fall."

"Hmn. We could look into sending an engineering team to build a reservoir..." Rodney pulled his PDA out and made a note. Reynolds wouldn't like it, of course.

Tanaan tugged his other hand. "I'm hungry."

"Well, let's go before all the gredel are gone," Rodney replied. He tucked the PDA away and started to lead Tanaan away. The doors to the school room slid open and they stepped through.

"Bye, Miz Penny," Tanaan called. "Bye-bye, Uncle Jinto." He giggled.

Rodney glanced back.

Jinto and Penny were locked in a clench, sharing what looked like a very long, very lush kiss. Penny had one hand wrapped around Jinto's braid, pulling him down to her height.

Rodney shook his head and told Tanaan, "That's going to do terrible things to his back some day."

Realizing that Jinto had grown up and married made Rodney twitch inside. If everyone was growing up then hewas growing old. The gray in Radek's hair didn't just come from too much stress. The days were sliding into years whenever Rodney looked away and the only ones who didn't change were John and Atlantis itself.

Once he'd had dinner with Tanaan and quizzed him over what Penny was teaching him at the Earth School – shockingly little, but Teyla had already gently ordered Rodney to not interfere – and the kitchen staff third shift had taken over, he turned Tanaan over to Ronon's Amazonian girlfriend. He went along with them to the quarters Ronon shared with Anaraya and accepted the cookies she always had on hand, helping Tanaan get ready for the next day of school before putting him to bed with Anaraya's help.

Tanaan settled into sleep without protest, happy with a kiss to the forehead from Rodney. Teyla had been leaving him for a day here and a day there all Tanaan's life. There were new people on Atlantis who didn't really know who Tanaan was, but Atlantis was his home and he felt safe there among the little unofficial family of the team, Anaraya, and various Athosians who had never left for New Athos after their rescue from Michael years before.

Tanaan didn't wake from nightmares of his mother being culled just because she wasn't there. Rodney was proud of that. They'd done that. Because of Atlantis, the Wraith were no more than bogeymen and monsters under the bed to Tanaan's generation.

After tucking Tanaan in, Rodney finally searched out Jennifer. She'd already left the infirmary for the evening, but he knew where to find her. He went to the stasis pod chamber when he wanted to think sometimes and had often found her there.

Keller sat cross-legged on the floor, her head bent over her tablet. She'd taken to wearing her hair in a smooth chignon the last few years, but strands had fallen loose, so that despite her white lab coat, she still didn't look old enough to be a doctor, much less the Chief of Medicine for an entire base.

Rodney sat down next to her and looked at the stasis pod still holding Carson's clone. The stasis field distorted light, slowing it like everything else inside, so he appeared to be suspended in a transparent, thick gel. Rodney knew it was an optical illusion, but it still disturbed him, the way it smeared and blurred Carson's face.

Carson's clone's face.

"Meeting with Reynolds again," he offered as an explanation for not showing up earlier.

Keller looked up, her gaze still somewhere else, lips pursed. "What? Oh, it doesn't matter, I had work to do." She went back to the data on her tablet.

Rodney watched her and wondered what she would do, what John would think, what it would feel like to ask her out to dinner. Another him in another timeline had once fallen in love with her, after all. When they'd lost everything and everyone else, though, when John had been lost and not just receding out of reach.

He shook his head at himself only to find Keller had finished and was studying him. "Mind wandering," Rodney said.

She tipped her head and smiled. "I really need to do another scan of you, Rodney, and of Colonel Sheppard, but I'd settle for his most recent exam records from the SGOC."

"Why?"

"I want to compare them to the ones I have from before you had the Shake and the ones I ran after treating you for the nervous system and brain damage."

"I can probably get John's records next month," Rodney said.

He'd be on Earth for two weeks, to oversee the commercial opening of the GTS in all its glory. The satellites were in place, the programming had been completed. Reports from Earth had included logs of the last debugging and trial runs. John and Sam and a couple of other superusers were already doing point-to-point transports regularly, but GTS was Rodney's brainchild and he wanted to be there at the formal opening ceremony in Denver.

He could hack the SGOC records and get what Keller wanted while he was there, easily.

"Anything we should be worrying about?"

Keller shook her head. "No, no, everyone is fine. I just...I think I have a way to use the same method on Carson. Not the exact same method, but something close."

"You're going to get him out of there?" Rodney waved at the stasis pod.

She smiled at him.

"I think so."

Without thinking about it, Rodney leaned over and hugged her tightly.

7 March 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

One fluffy ball of orange marmalade fur curled upon John's tee shirt clad chest couldn't save Rodney's bad day. The sight of them, stretched out on his couch, catching the morning sun, only made Rodney's mouth tighten into a thin line. ESPN murmured from the plasma screen. John's hands were resting on his belly, just below the kitten. One tiny ear rotated when Rodney stopped just inside the living room, but it didn't untuck its nose.

Rodney stared, then bent over the remote on the coffee table and shut off the TV.

John snuffled, that not-quite snore Rodney had first heard stuck in the same infirmary as him years before. He squeezed the bridge of his nose, torn between fondness and a headache-induced wish that the apartment had been empty on his return.

He backed out of the living room silently, picked up his suit case and took it into the bedroom, then washed the grime of Moscow and Beijing off, before heading for the kitchen.

Obviously John had returned from Vishar, been released by Lam, and made his way to Rodney's. By way of a grocery store if the fresh supplies in the refrigerator were an indication. There were breakfast dishes in the sink. It must have been a hard mission, John hadn't stirred from the couch when Rodney peered in again.

The kitten explained the saucer on the floor, but nothing explained the kitten itself.

Rodney sat down at the table and leaned his head into his hands.

He'd given up his last cat before he left for Atlantis. John knew that, the bastard. Did he think they could just leave the kitten alone in the apartment when Rodney went home and John got stuck offworld for weeks again? Pets were like kids, except they never asked stupid questions or grew up enough to take care of themselves.

"Hey," John said from behind him. His voice was raspy with sleep.

"Hey, yourself," Rodney replied without lifting his head.

"You turned off the TV."

Rodney didn't answer.

"Something go wrong with the ceremony thing?"

A chair scraped back and John settled into it across the table from Rodney. Rodney dropped his hands to the table and looked at him. He hadn't shaved and his face looked puffy. He had the kitten in his hands. It was buzzing in feline ecstasy as he stroked between its ears with his index finger.

"Christ," Rodney snapped, "what is it with you?"

John jolted back, staring at him in surprise.

"What?"

"You. That!" Rodney waved at the kitten. "You shit."

"Fuck you, McKay," John snapped back. The kitten squeaked. "There was a kid giving them away outside the damn supermarket, okay? It was me or the pound."

"And where do you think it's going to end up when I go home?" Rodney demanded. He jumped to his feet, the chair shoved back, and leaned over the table toward John. "Thanks ever so much for something else I'll have to leave behind."

"I get lonely too, you know," John said.

"Right, and you decided you'd fix that by getting a cat." The incredulity dripped from Rodney's words. "Apparently I need to remind you you're on a gate team. You're offworld twice a week when things go right. You can't even keep the milk in your refrigerator from going sour half the time."

John stood up. The kitten didn't like that and sunk all its claws into his tee shirt and the skin underneath. John winced and mumbled, "Fine. I'll get rid of him," as he tried to detach the claws.

"Crap," Rodney muttered. He slumped for a second, then came around the table and helped. "Do you want to hear the advertising copy for GTS? It's great stuff. There's always a party somewhere. You can get there. Now. We've revolutionized travel and Madison Avenue reduces it to a city-hopping non-stop rave."

He stroked the kitten's side after he unhooked it. It blinked at him from green eyes, then yawned, all tiny white fangs and curling pink rasp tongue.

"Think Jeannie and Kaleb would let me give him to Madison?" John asked.

"No, she's allergic to the dander," Rodney answered.

He cradled the warm ball of kitten with one hand and rested his other on John's chest where he'd taken the kitten off. He rubbed his fingers over the soft cotton of his shirt, absently, half aware of the shift of chest hair beneath. He could feel John's chest rise and fall as he breathed. He could feel the steady thump of his heartbeat.

Rodney removed his hand.

"Keller wants your medical records from the SGC. She's going to fix Carson's clone."

John didn't move.

"Okay, no problem," he said.

Rodney kept petting the kitten.

"You want some lunch?" John asked. "I bought...stuff."

"Yes." Anything John cooked would be safe. It might not be great, but John wasn't some snooty French chef who insisted his precious creation could not be served without chile-lime-cilantro sauce. Rodney didn't care what anyone said, he didn't like Paris. Was he supposed to be impressed after Atlantis?

He sat back down and watched as John washed his hands, then pulled a package of bacon from the refrigerator and held it up. "BLT or PB&J?"

"BLT."

John leaned against the counter while the bacon sizzled in the pan. He had his back to Rodney.

"So, did HSA see you come in here?"

He watched the back of John's neck and he shook his head. "Nope. Point transit." He half turned, enough to look at Rodney. "Hey, how much extra am I paying for that?"

"Nothing. Initial investor privilege."

John raised an eyebrow.

"You and Sam and me, along with a couple others, get unlimited transits." Rodney smirked. "I wrote the code and buried it. Give me a cellphone and I can go anywhere on the planet that isn't shielded against a transport."

"Yeah?"

"Yes," Rodney stated. He sighed. "The reactors in the transporter arrays are low in power compared to the ones on the ships. It's more cost efficient and will keep the average hacker from bypassing the security protocols."

John eyed the pan, then nudged the spatula in his hand under the bacon and flipped it. Of course, he'd bought the stupid stripy American stuff. Rodney would have complained but he'd grown used to it. It smelled fantastic. The kitten thought so too, its little pink nose flaring open and mews of excitement or hunger coming from it.

"Fine, I'll give you some too," Rodney told the kitten.

Satisfied with the arrangement in the pan, John drifted around the kitchen, getting out the bread, then the lettuce, and eventually slicing a tomato.

"You're talking to the cat," John observed.

"It's a pleasant step up after the last four days."

The kitten clawed its way up Rodney's arm to his shoulder, still crying.

"Should I give it some more milk or something?" John asked.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Did it even occur to you to pick up some kitten food? Cat box? Cat litter?" He plucked the kitten off his shoulder and turned it over, checking its cream-furred belly. "That it might have fleas?"

"Ah.... no?"

"And they let you out without a keeper."

John started assembling Rodney's sandwich and one for himself.

Rodney didn't see any signs of fleas on the kitten at least. He set it on the floor and dodged around John so that he could wash his hands.

The BLT tasted fantastic. Rodney ate fast, as usual, and found a can of tuna for the kitten afterward. It dove in as soon as he set the saucer with the fish on the floor, growling and slapping at his hand.

"Wow, it has your table manners," John observed.

"You're still an asshole," Rodney replied, still crouched next to kitten, watching it eat. "He."

John took his empty plate to the sink and rinsed it. He turned the faucet off and spoke with his back to Rodney again.

"You know, they lifted the ban on exporting all Earth animals to other worlds. There's a long quarantine, but Atlantis is a sealed system anyway."

Rodney reached for the kitten and received a long scratch down his finger for his trouble. "Oh."

"Draft horses, remember?"

"Oh," Rodney repeated.

"I figured that was a good enough precedent. Besides, they're talking about colonies now and they'll want to take animals with them."

Rodney watched a bubble of blood form at the end of the scratch. He'd forgotten how much a scratch could sting. The kitten kept up its furious growl, even as it bolted down more tuna.

"Jesus, Rodney, it thinks you're going to take away its food," John said.

Rodney's knees creaked as he stood.

"Peebles," he said.

John cocked his head. "Hate to break it to you, Rodney, but Pebbles was a girl."

"Peebles, you nitwit, not some character from The Flintstones," Rodney told him.

"Uh huh. What about Rover?"

"Aside from the fact that it's a dog name, it's also over used and unimaginative. Not that I'd expect better from you."

"Ripley?"

"He's a he," Rodney pointed out.

"What?" John said innocently. "Ripley had balls."

Rodney opened and closed his mouth. John snickered. Finally, Rodney pointed at him. "You are going to buy cat litter and everything else."

John smiled and ducked his head.

"Okay."

"I'm still mad at you," Rodney said, rather weakly. He wasn't, especially when the kitten, still without an official name, curled next to his neck and purred him back to sleep the next morning, while John dressed and transited to his condo before dawn.

15 April 2015
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Reynolds wasn't stupid. They didn't tell him that it was Tanaan's birthday. Instead, Teyla mentioned an 'important ceremony' that Tanaan, as an Athosian, and Rodney, as his family if anything happened to Teyla and Ronon, should attend.

"Do you need an escort?" Reynolds asked Rodney.

Rodney smirked and waved at Ronon.

"Take Lorne," Reynolds grunted.

They stepped through to New Athos an hour later. Halling and a group of Athosians were already gathered at the New Athos' gate DHD, dressed in their most formal gear.

Teyla led Tanaan over to the group and Ronon ushered Rodney and Lorne out of the splash zone. That done, Halling began pressing the sigils for another world.

"Thought this was some kind of Athosian thing," Lorne said aside to Rodney.

"It's a little bigger than that," Rodney replied. "We're just here for Teyla."

Lorne looked thoughtful, but followed everyone else through the stargate to the next world, and the one after that, and the next, onward as Belkans and Olesian refugees joined them, Manarans, Demeskari, pale Shomar tribeswomen and their silent, spear-wielding guards, Tish fisherfolk dressed in seaweed silk and shells, Keras and four others from the kids' world, people Rodney knew, people Atlantis had never encountered. With each world dialed, another group joined them, sometimes more than one group. Sometimes they were waiting, sometimes they were late, once they found a banner draped over the DHD and Halling nodded, saying the Prenhetar had gone ahead.

People chattered to each other in languages Rodney didn't know and would never learn, along with the more common trade tongue, debased Ancient dialects and Athosian.

"I'm feeling a little underdressed here, Doc," Lorne commented when the Hosh Grie joined them, glittering in jewel embroidered velvets and satin shoulder gloves in shades of saffron and tangerine.

"Colonel Reynolds might have wondered if we'd got you in a dress uniform."

"Yeah. About that? This some kind of pilgrimage?"

"You'll see," Ronon said from beside them.

Lorne tensed when they reached Genea and the Genii joined them, dressed in their formal uniforms. Ladon Radim touched foreheads with Teyla familiarly.

"Last stop," Rodney told him.

One more world was dialed, then dialed again after the thirty-eight minute window closed the stargate before everyone could pass through.

They exited onto a stone promenade at the very top of a vast stone coliseum, under a sky so blue it hurt. Steps led down from the stargate to the central stage. The location itself had to date back to before the Wraith. The cameras and mics and loudspeakers had been added within the last week.

The groups from the various worlds filtered down, taking seats at random. At intervals three paddles were laid out, one white, one green, one red. Groups took them up. Rodney called on his rusty memory of the color codes common to Pegasus and identified them. White for death and rejection, red for life and acceptance, green for the grass that cares not and symbolized neutrality.

Teyla and Halling led their group down the stairs from the nosebleed seats to the very bottom, so close to the proscenium they wouldn't need any sound system to hear the speakers. Ronon guided Rodney and Lorne to seats with no paddles and planted Tanaan between them.

"Listen and remember, little man," he told Tanaan. "This is an important day."

Teyla, Ladon Radim, and a solemn-faced priestess from Del-shinzhir in heavy, smoky gray robes, took the stage. Ronon climbed onto the stage and took a place behind a meter wide, intricately decorated bronze drum. A pulley system hoisted a heavy striker above it, all gilded bronze gears and chains. Ronon set his hand on the single, polished wooden handle that would bring it down and up. The coliseum echoed with thousands of voices, talking and some singing, others clapping, striking zills between their fingers and thumbs like the Tona'ga or hand drumming. Excitement shivered through the air and into the worn stones until Rodney thought even the stargate had to be vibrating with it.

When he looked around, tier after tier of the coliseum had been filled, a blaze of color and life that hadn't been gathered together in Pegasus for ten thousand years.

"You know what's going on, Doc?" Lorne asked.

Before Rodney could answer, Ronon struck the great bronze drum, sending the booming sound out through the sound system the Genii had installed, a rolling, thunderous report that stilled and silenced the entire gathering.

Teyla stepped forward.

"Welcome to the first Conclave of the Iirijjinii. Today we are triumphant. Today we are gathered together. Today we stand as one to create a new voice for our galaxy and all our worlds, freed of the Wraith."

A roar of approval burst from the throng.

Tanaan grabbed onto Rodney's hand, startled by the noise.

Teyla seemed to look at every single representative gathered together, her face determined but alight with the same excitement that thrummed through all of them.

"How say you?" Teyla called out, holding her arms up and open.

Thousands of voices thundered their reply. A forest of red paddles were raised high over peoples' heads, waved back and forth, pumped up and down, in a fury of enthusiasm.

Lorne turned wide eyes to Rodney. His mouth moved, but his words were lost, even as the volume of crowd eased a little. Finally, Rodney made out what he'd said as he repeated it.

"Holy shit!"

Rodney sat back, catching Ronon's eye and nodding. He pulled Tanaan onto his lap and whispered into his ear, "Your mama just did good."

15 May 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Denver

May brought good and bad for John.

The good:

News of the Iirijjinii Concord reached Earth and the UNEC immediately recalled Rodney and Lorne to brief them on the Conclave since they had both been there as observers. John enjoyed seeing Lorne again and being with Rodney unexpectedly. He hadn't expected to see Rodney again for many months. They even squeezed a day off for both of them and transited to Vancouver for Madison's twelfth birthday. Jeannie hugged John and scolded him for staying away at Christmas.

The bad:

Testifying before the Council, who wanted to know what John had known about the Conclave. Short answer, nothing. He reminded them he hadn't been in the Pegasus Galaxy in two years. The UNEC wasn't best pleased by the idea of a unified Pegasus Galaxy government, one bent on building up their technological base, and not ready to turn over anything Atlantis found and wanted from their planets. Even reminders that the new Voice of the Iirijjin had been an ally and friend to the Tau'ri since the first day of the expedition in Pegasus didn't make them any happier.

Possibly because Teyla had done an end run to end all others, presenting Atlantis and Earth with a fait accompli.

John couldn't have been prouder if it had been his own plan.

None of Teyla or Ronon's communications had offered even a clue, though the information she'd asked for – never anything classified, never anything anyone couldn't have retrieved from a public library – had given him more than an inkling. He thought he detected Elizabeth's hand and teaching in many of the Iirijjinii Articles of Concord, a legacy which would have provided her with a deep joy, he believed.

In the end, there was nothing the UNEC could do to or about the Iirijjinii Concord. It was too far away and already too large. Earth didn't possess enough ships to orbit every Concord planet, nor enough troops to occupy even those with high technology, nor the popular support from the people to do so.

Disclosure hadn't really changed the life of the average Tau'ri that much. Most of them were far too preoccupied with their own lives to care about what happened in the Milky Way. They were hardly likely to care about Pegasus unless it became a threat.

The UNEC reluctantly recognized the Concord and invited them to send an ambassador to Earth and build an embassy in Denver.

The Concord sent Teyla Emmagan and Minister of Balance Ronon Dex and paid their way with Shomar jewels and Ancient tech salvaged from sites Atlantis had never discovered.

John had the pleasure at least of greeting them as they stepped through the stargate. Teyla meticulously greeted Daniel first, then Carter and Shen Bao, then Cam and Alyanov. But she greeted John Athosian fashion, her hands on his shoulders and his on hers in the posture of those who are intimate, part of an Athosian's closest family.

Then Ronon, who had actually put on muscle since the last time John saw him, swept John into a bone-cracking hug.

"Thought you'd never come back here?" John gasped when he had his breath.

Ronon's bright, predatory grin reminded John of Vala's.

"Diplomatic immunity," Ronon said.

John eyed him and smiled. So, basically, a big 'fuck you' to everyone who had sent Ronon back to Atlantis like a dangerous, wild animal.

"You got a place to stay – "

"It would be best if we made our own arrangements," Teyla interrupted John's offer gently. "We are here in an official capacity and not as your guests." Her smile was a gentle reminder of how much had changed while John had been gone.

Any chance for a more private talk was lost in the tide of official greetings after that.

Ambassador Emmagan – Tau'ri still didn't seem to get that Voice of the Concord carried a lot more weight than any Ambassador ever did –- charmed the media and refused to give an inch to the UNEC. A consulate was established in Atlantis and a Concord liaison mandated to accompany all missions to Concord worlds. The ICGA was allowed to contract Iirijjinii citizens to work in Atlantis, though, which pleased Shen, Rodney and Jackson.

John didn't have time to do more than listen to Rodney tell him why that was such a good thing, because there were still more than enough dangers to worry about in the Milky Way. He fell asleep while the spaghetti was cooking the one night Rodney managed to get Teyla and Ronon to come to dinner too.

The next morning SG-2 went offworld again, because May was also the month the SGOC lost two gate teams, SFOC lost an al'kesh, and the Lucian Alliance razed every village on Vednes, taking any villager between ten and sixty as slave workers. An old woman and a little boy were the only ones left in the village where SG-2 had been held. They used the GDOs that the Vedneans had taken from the team to signal the SGC and beg for their help.

Once they were certain it wasn't a trap, the SGOC spent the next week finding survivors, mostly children, and moving them off planet to another world willing to offer them refuge in exchange for Tau'ri technology.

"Interstellar fucking foster care," Red called it.

The Goa'uld were broken, true, but the Asgard were gone. There were no more treaties, no more protected planets. When Vala's networks uncovered where the Vedneans had been taken, Cam took the Emerson and three other ships into the Galtid system under cloak. John geared up on Earth and led the first brigade of UNE assault troops through the stargate into a second one installed in the Emerson's hold.

While the SFOC cracked the Lucians' old Goa'uld motherships like rotten eggs, the gaters beamed downside and fought room to room through a crumbling Goa'uld stronghold. They finally took its gate room as the last survivors fled through the wormhole, leaving behind only a naquadah-enhanced nuke meant to overload and blow the stargate itself.

Along with half the continent and thousands of people taken from other worlds to mine naquadah there.

Bud went to work on the bomb immediately, while John paced back and forth along the length of what had been great hall, its walls carved with hieroglyphs devoted to the Goa'uld that first had it constructed around the stargate.

"How close are you?" he demanded.

"Close," Bud muttered.

"Close enough?"

"I don't think so."

Bud remained bent over the innards of the bomb, computer hooked up to it, typing steadily as he tried to break the codes that would let him override the countdown. He was calm and steady and didn't shriek that they were all going to die, but he just couldn't pull out the moments of panicked inspiration that Rodney had. He could do it, but he couldn't do it fast enough.

John clenched his fists. They couldn't move even a fraction of the slaves through the stargate even if they could dial it. They could never get that many into the holds of three warships, even with Asgard transporters.

He tapped his radio. "Emerson, this is Colonel Sheppard. Begin beaming up all of our people ASAP the moment their transmitters go live. Over."

"Sheppard, this Mitchell. You want to tell me what's going on? Over."

"Got a little bomb problem down here," John told him calmly. He pointed to Kelly. "Major, activate your transmitter."

"How little? Over."

"You might want to move into a higher orbit. Over."

"Anything else I can do for you? Over," came Cam's tinny voice after a long pause. He sounded concerned but calm.

John thought about it.

"You know I've been taking care of Rodney's cat?"

"I've got that," Cam said. John knew he'd tell Rodney what had happened. "What's its name again?"

"Doesn't have one yet," John replied. Which wasn't quite true. He and Rodney had gone round and round. Rodney insisted if it was his cat, he got to name it. John had argued naming any cat for an physicist, even a Canadian one, was lame.

He'd suggested Tiger.

"For the Siberian Tiger?"

"Woods. Or Tony."

"Never," Rodney had hissed at him. Actually hissed.

Not that it mattered. As far as John could tell, cats didn't answer to names anyway.

He checked the numbers on Bud's computer screen. They were cascading down too fast. Thinking about Rodney's cat seemed far better, along with the way Rodney had glared at him after the kitten walked through the pool of ketchup John always left on his plate when eating French fries.

"It likes ketchup, though," he told Cam.

"Ketchup."

"Yeah."

"Let me beam you guys out."

"Tell him I've almost got it," Bud insisted, still working, and John knew he wasn't any closer than he been the last time John had asked him, he just wouldn't give up.

"Go ahead and get the rest of our people out. Over."

Shimmering white light engulfed groups of soldiers waiting in the great hall, emptying it out.

"Sir – " Kelly started.

"Get out of here, Major," John told her. "Red, you too."

"Colonel," Red said, before tapping the transmitter strapped to his wrist. The Asgard beam dissolved him and Kelly in the next moment, leaving just John, Bud, and several of the slaves who had picked up makeshift or dropped Lucian weapons and joined the fight.

"I'm sorry," Bud said. "I'm just, the code's in Goa'uld and I just can't – I was never a hacker or a programmer." He lifted his hands away from the keyboard.

"Go," John told him.

Bud looked past him to the ex-slaves and his face crumpled, but he reached for the transmitter on his wrist.

"Wait!" John yelled.

How could he have been so stupid? John wondered.

"What?"

"Stick the transmitter on the damn bomb," John told him and tapped open the command channel to the Emerson.

"This is Sheppard. We're going to activate a transmitter now. Beam it and the object it's attached to as far out of orbit and away from our ships as you can," John said. "Over."

Bud tore off the transmitter and buckled the strap around part of the bomb. He hit he activation button and danced back.

"Emerson, do you read? Over," John yelled.

"We read, Colonel," someone replied as the Asgard beam lit up the bomb and then it disappeared.

John held his breath, but there was no way to make it outside fast enough to see any flare in the sky. There was nothing to hear. Sound didn't propagate through vacuum. The bomb would explode in a flare of silent light in space.

"Got it," Cam's voice reached him.

John gave Bud a thumb's up. Bud wiped his hands on his cammie pants and then stumbled over to the stone steps up to the stargate, sitting down abruptly.

"Sheppard?"

"Still here, Cam," John said. He walked over and sat down next to Bud, fumbled his canteen loose and took a drink of lukewarm water. His mouth still felt dry so he guzzled the rest of it, before he said anything more. "You took your time."

"Vandemire here isn't quite as quick as Lindsay Novak," Cam said immediately, "but she got the beam recalibrated to move a non-organic plenty fast."

"My compliments to her," John replied. "It was very much appreciated. Over."

Cam laughed.

"Yeah, well, thanks for hanging around. I hate cats."

2 June 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

Rodney opened the door after the first knock. Vitt had called to tell him he had a visitor coming up, but not mentioned who. He wished she had, he might not have gaped like a stunned fish with some warning.

"Carson?"

He heard his voice scale up and winced, but seeing the face of his friend came as a shock. The last time he'd seen the clone had been in Atlantis, still suspended in stasis.

Carson's clone blinked at him, then his face crumpled into an image of sheer misery. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy, he needed a shave and his whiskers were graying. He stood in the doorway dressed in a rumpled suit several years out of fashion. Rodney gaped at him, trying to process what mechanism could have brought the clone to Earth and his door at twelve after one in the morning. The way Carson's chin quivered, Rodney felt terribly afraid the clone was about to burst into messy tears.

That knocked him into motion. He tightened his grip on the door knob and pulled it farther open. "Well, you're here, come in then. I'll make some coffee." Coffee would be good. Maybe it would wake him up.

"I'd take a wee dram of Scotch if you had it," Carson said as he stumbled inside.

"Uh...sure. I've got some somewhere."

It might even be a bottle Carson had given him. Rodney didn't like Scotch that much and had only ever shared it with his friend.

"Aye, I know where it is," Carson said. Carson's clone, Rodney reminded himself uneasily as he followed him through the apartment. The clone went unerringly to where Rodney had kept his liquor until two years back.

He watched the clone open the cabinet and freeze, finding stacks of DVDs instead of bottles. A soft, rattling breath shook the clone.

"I can't get used to it, you see."

"Used to what?" Rodney asked.

If it had been Carson, really Carson, not this worn and not quite a match clone, he would have gone over and awkwardly patted his back.

"Not being me." The clone scrubbed his hands over his face. "Him. I can't...I'm just an out of date copy."

"You're you," Rodney said, feeling helpless. "You're, ah, real. Look, the Scotch is in the kitchen and I really need some coffee to deal with, well, philosophical questions of identity." Rodney cringed. This sort of thing needed a shrink. Even Kaleb the English major would be better equipped to debate it than him.

"How did you get here?" he asked after he'd set the Scotch on the kitchen table and started his coffeemaker.

"How d'you mean?" Carson asked. He poured himself a tumbler and tossed back an eye-watering gulp.

"I've been in Johannesburg. No one mentioned you were cured – you are cured?"

"Aye, Dr. Keller is a remarkable woman. I should live out a normal lifespan now, no medication needed."

Carson didn't sound as overjoyed by that as he ought to have. He'd never been one to let others' achievements bother him, so it had to be something that had happened.

Rodney snatched the pot out of the maker and poured himself an emergency cup before it finished its cycle. Several drops sizzled down onto the plate before he got the carafe back in place. He sat down with the cup in hand.

"So, Jennifer said she was close."

That had been in February, before the Conclave, and Rodney had been so busy dealing with the UNEC since that he hadn't thought of it again. He'd become used to the idea of Carson's clone in stasis and the questions his existence raised had been pushed aside in favor of more urgent problems. He would have known if he had been in Atlantis, but once the UNEC had Rodney on Earth, he'd been stuck again, swept up by more work on the expanding GTS network. They were constructing a second tier of permanent platforms beginning with Johannesburg, Canberra and Rio de Janeiro, to be followed by Vancouver, Mexico City, and Lima. He'd been busy and darkly confident that someone would brief him if any disasters loomed, provided they didn't happen so fast he couldn't have done anything anyway.

He hoped Carson's clone didn't fall into the latter category.

Carson – Rodney just couldn't go on calling him 'the clone', even in his thoughts – swallowed another sip of Scotch and set the tumbler down with a small clunk. "What happened, Rodney? Elizabeth is dead, I knew that, but now..." He shook his head. "I don't know what this Concord is, but you've got Teyla and her babe back, only Colonel Sheppard is gone and you're here on Earth – "

"Not permanently," Rodney interrupted. "Me, I mean. Sheppard's with the SGOC here." He shrugged. "Things changed after we figured out how to beat back the Wraith. Someone must have told you about Disclosure."

"Yes, but I'm still half confused. The SGOC? That's not the same as the SGC, but there's still a Stargate Command? And the UNE?" Carson dug a passport out of his jacket and gave it a perplexed look. UNE black with the blue and gold globe centered on it.

Rodney plucked it from his hands and looked inside.

Joseph Carson?

He looked up.

Carson folded his hands together and bowed his head. "I wanted to go home, to see my mother and my family," he explained. "Colonel Reynolds sent me straight through the stargate once Dr. Keller cleared me. One of the lads at the Mountain arranged to have a ship beam me straight to Scotland."

"They didn't make you clear Medical?" Rodney demanded.

"Oh, aye, they did that days ago," Carson replied.

Rodney felt cold. He asked, "What happened?" What idiot had let Carson outside the Mountain? The real – no, the first – Carson had been dead and buried for years. Letting his clone go to Scotland had been an act of such careless cruelty to everyone involved that it took his breath away.

"I didn't think...You'd told me I died, but it dinna seem real and true, until my – his brother told me to get out and stay gone, that he'd not have some ghostie alien thing scaring his mam into a grave," Carson said. He finished the Scotch. "That was when I figured it out, you see. That man, that man I was, he's dead. I dinna have a pound to my name, nor any name, no country, no family, you see. I ended up sitting in a park two days, until the police took me away."

"Why didn't you call me? Or someone?"

"Who?" Carson asked. "Everyone I could think of was Carson Beckett's friend. Do you know, I can't even get a job? I have no education. That was my original's too."

He pulled the passport back.

"The police eventually turned me over to, what do you call them, the Homeworld Security Agency, and one of them called someone. Eventually a man came and gave me that, made me swear an oath to your United Nations of Earth, so I'd be a real person again. But they wanted me out of Scotland and I had no idea where to go or what I'll do. They offered to take me back to the Mountain." Carson heaved an unsteady breath. "I'll be going there soon enough, but I'd hoped...You were a good friend, even after the Colonel brought me back from Michael's base."

"You can stay here," Rodney said automatically. "You're still my friend. You know that."

Carson poured himself more Scotch.

"I dinna know anything any longer."

Rodney scrubbed his hands through his hair. John would call the whole thing a clusterfuck. If Rodney had been in Atlantis or at the Mountain, if John hadn't been offworld, if Sam and Daniel and every other old hand weren't tied up in Denver trying to convince the Council that, no, they didn't get to dictate whether the Pegasus Galaxy united or not, then someone would have saved Carson from going to Scotland. Someone would have taken care of him, because he deserved that, whether Carson the first or Carson the second.

He spared a instant to be half grateful John hadn't been on Earth. He would likely have been in bed with Rodney if he had; they still took every chance they could to be together. They'd never told Carson the first they were together. How this Carson would have reacted, set adrift, experiencing so much dissonance between what his own memories insisted and the present reality, really couldn't be predicted. He might have interpreted it as a betrayal or a sign he'd found himself in a quantum parallel universe.

"We'll figure something out, Carson," Rodney said. "I swear, we will." He finished his cup of coffee, then gently removed the empty tumbler from Carson's clutches. He'd call Daniel himself. If anyone would be sympathetic to Carson version two's predicament, it would be Daniel, who was still dealing with the fall out of adopting Daniel, Jr.

"Now?" Carson asked.

Rodney squeezed his shoulder.

"In the morning."

"If you say so."

Carson obviously didn't believe him, but Rodney meant it.

4 June 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

John transited to his condo, slept for four wonderful hours, showered, put on his uniform and transited straight back to the Mountain within twenty-four hours of returning from the latest offworld clusterfuck. The Henry Hayes was in orbit when he left, convincing their so-called allies that the Tau'ri had sincerely different ideas of what comprised 'taking care' of the kids.

Food would have been nice, but he headed straight for his office.

Master Sergeant Addison flagged him to a halt just outside. Addison never bothered him for small shit. Addison kept John's office from collapsing under the avalanche of paperwork that went with John's job. He hadn't been able to steal Harriman from Carter, so John had done the next best thing: he'd asked Harriman to find him someone to do the same job for him. The next morning, Addison, six-six of Mexican-American-Samoan former member of the US Army Corps of Engineers, had been in charge of the office outside John's.

Whether Addison respected John or not, John couldn't say, but John respected the Master Sergeant.

"Sir."

There were four days of gate team reports to catch up with waiting for John, a roster for the next week's missions to approve, and a fifteen hundred hour video meeting between himself, Alyanov, Mitchell and Griffin to fight over who got how much of the SGC budget for this quarter. John and Griffin wanted to rebuild the gate room entry and exit to meet better quarantine standards, but he knew Cam would be fighting for more ships, crew, and shake down cruises. He didn't know if Alyanov would back him or not.

"Dr. McKay called." Addison checked his watch. "Four minutes ago."

John would have been in the elevators by then, making his way down to command level. No point-to-point transits into the Mountain, even for him or Rodney, the Asgard shielding that had been put in place during the last decade blocked the low power GTS. It wouldn't have stopped an Asgard ship or even any of their B306s, but John didn't mind. Records got too screwy if you didn't sign in and out, anyway.

"Did he say why?"

"Yes sir."

"And?" John cocked an eyebrow at Addison.

"Dr. McKay instructed me to tell you that he had Carson Beckett's clone occupying the guest room and required your help figuring out what do with him."

The clone?

"Master Sergeant, would you please check the gate logs for – "

"I took the liberty of obtaining the logs in question, sir," Addison told him before John had even finished. "Dr. Beckett's clone arrived four days ago, during a scheduled Atlantis contact. After quarantine, Dr. Beckett's clone was released and beamed to Scotland due to a paperwork error identifying him as Dr. Beckett." Addison's shoulders rolled in a shrug that said it wasn't that unusual to have previously presumed dead people return at the SGC. "There was an altercation of some sort in Scotland, the authorities contacted HSA and HSA contacted the SGC. Undersecretary of Offworld Affairs Davis arranged an UNE identification and passport for the clone and transported him back to Colorado, where he went to Dr. McKay's apartment late last night."

"I see," John said faintly. He could also foresee Rodney demanding he do something about or for the clone. The Carson-not-Carson who had apparently been cured. John cringed inside. Rodney had dealt with him well enough, but the clone had given John the willies.

Addison extended a flashdrive. "All the reports are on here, sir."

"Thank you, Master Sergeant."

"Dr. McKay expects you to call back."

"Oh, I know he does," John said and made his way forward into his own office. He held up the flashdrive. "I'll read these first, I think."

After that, maybe he'd have an idea of the problem and what he could do about it to make Rodney happy.

He already had one; he just didn't like it. Being in debt for a favor to Shen Bao was never a good idea.

An hour later, he knew that not only would it be a bad idea, it would be impossible. 'Joseph Carson' had no skills, education or accreditation, no employment history, no address, or bank account. Everything he knew or could do, officially belonged to and died with Carson Beckett.

John shoved his hands through his hair. Even if he promised her complete support for the next damn year and beyond, Shen Bao couldn't jerk around ICGA's own rules enough to contract Joseph Carson for anything. Not that she wouldn't try, because Alyanov was announcing his retirement officially in the next month and John had the job as SGOCOM sewn up if he wanted it. She'd love to have something on him if she could.

Fine, he thought, while squinting at the computer screen. ICGA was out and Carson had no chance of getting into the military branches, but no one would argue that the situation wouldn't be better if he was in Atlantis, where the media couldn't make much of the story even if they had hold of it. He just had to find the right loophole and work the system.

He picked up the phone.

"Master Sergeant, put a call through to the Iirijjinii Embassy and ask for Ambassador Emmagan."

John sat back.

He knew some people who cared more for ability than diplomas and had a soft spot for the clone's progenitor. He thought they'd be pretty interested in hiring the man who invented the ATA gene therapy too.

He opened the first of the AARs he needed to read and began skimming while he direct dialed Rodney.

"McKay."

"Ask him if he wants to go back to Pegasus and work for Teyla's people," John said.

"I already did. The answer's yes."

"Okay, I'll get back to you when I know more. I've to get back to work," John said and cut the connection before Rodney could say anything else or invite John over to have dinner with the clone.

He was going to take care of the guy, but the whole cloning thing with the clone not knowing just freaked him out. How could you ever know you were really you, the original, and did that even matter?

23 July 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Vancouver

It would take more than a month, but they began the long process of changing 'Joseph Carson' from provisional UNE citizen to Iirijjinii. Officially, he would become Genii. Thanks to all the Genii who hadn't died of radiation sickness, they were eager to take him in and provide him with a research lab.

No one mentioned that he would no doubt begin by giving the Concord the formula for the ATA gene therapy. The Ancestor's Gift or descent from them still carried a huge cachet in Pegasus. Teyla and Ronon's newly developed ability to activate Ancestor technology thanks to Keller's cure certainly hadn't hurt them in pulling together the Conclave or winning their positions as Voice and Minister, either.

As Voice, Teyla had the authority to confer citizenship on Carson, but pushing it through the bureaucracy of the UNE took much longer. A legal argument had to be presented that Carson the clone was already a native of Pegasus and thus an Iirijjinii citizen since he had been 'born' there.

The High Court agreed, though, and Rodney went along with Carson to have a celebratory dinner with Teyla, Ronon and John.

John made faces at Rodney whenever Carson wasn't looking and Rodney understood. He wanted to gag him too. Carson wouldn't shut up about how much Earth had changed and how different they'd all become and how they must miss being a team, though of course, they'd all done so well for themselves. Carson kept going on and on and, all right, yes, it had been nearly a decade, but at least two people at the table were aliens and couldn't see the differences, while Rodney and John had seen it all happening. None of them needed a reminder that AR-1 had been split up and in different galaxies for years. When Carson began talking about Tanaan, who he had met after Keller got him out of the stasis pod, and how could Teyla bear to spend so much time away from her bairn, Rodney could see it wearing even on her good temper.

If he hadn't been spending most of his time debugging the new platforms in South America, Rodney doubted he could have stayed as patient as he had so far. Carson was still staying with him at the apartment, which meant John wasn't there. Ever. Wasn't even showing up to watch golf on Rodney's TV and lie on the couch with him.

Carson might be his friend and Rodney sincerely wanted the best for him, but he found himself wanting to toss him out into the street at least twice a week. So far, Carson had reorganized his kitchen and his living room, attempted to put him on a healthier diet, and lectured him on his lack of social life. Rodney was waiting for the day he returned to the apartment and found Carson had rearranged the clothes in his closet and dresser to blow up, though. Carson didn't have anything to do while they waited for the paperwork to come through; it had to be driving him crazy.

He didn't need to date anyone, he had John, but John made it wordlessly clear through his absence that he didn't want Carson knowing that. He had had John, when he was on Earth at least, until Carson showed up. The interruption of their routine left Rodney bitter. John's determined avoidance of Carson left a bad taste in his mouth too. He didn't know who he was angrier with though: Carson or John.

Carson spent entirely too much time entertaining himself with the gossip rags.

"This Vala, she's on SG-1, I remember," he said, leaning over the table and addressing John.

"She was."

"Well, then, is it serious or not, is what I want to know," Carson asked.

The lazy smile John gave Carson was so fake Teyla and Ronon both winced.

"As serious as we want it to be," John said.

Rodney stabbed a cherry tomato in his salad. The fork's blunt tines slid right off the tough skin of the less than ripe tomato and sent it flying across the table and into Teyla's lap. She fished it off with a quirky smile and left it on her bread plate.

"You're not getting any younger, Colonel," Carson declared. "Family is important." He blinked and busied himself with his own salad, obviously having reminded himself of the family that had rejected him.

"He's not getting any older either," Ronon observed. "Or McKay." Ronon might look as fit and dangerous as he ever had, but time had touched him, the same way it had once transformed Rodney from gangling to broad or John from pretty boy to handsome man.

"Good genes," Rodney said. "Thanks to Jennifer."

Carson would enjoy the same effect, though the aging he'd experienced before Keller's treatment wouldn't be reversed.

"Well, what about you and Anaraya?" Carson asked Ronon.

Ronon's eyebrows went up. "Her call. She likes things the way they are." He sat back. "Be good to get home and see her again."

"And Tanaan," Teyla agreed. She added to Rodney, "He misses you. And you, John."

"He barely knows me anymore," John said.

"Perhaps next year, if I am here on Earth, I will bring him instead of sending him to Halling."

The flicker in John's eyes told Rodney that he realized that a birthday wouldn't be enough to get to know Tanaan again.

The sigh Carson gave out conveyed his dissatisfaction with their combined stubbornness and he finally dropped the subject of mating them all up. Teyla laughed gently at him and touched his hand.

John told a couple of funny stories about SG-2, which left Rodney cold. He could see Teyla and Ronon trying to connect with John too, but it wasn't easy anymore. They didn't know the same people, didn't do the same things, or even have the same goals, and the distance had never seemed greater. When they talked about the Conclave, they had to stop and explain who was there, who those people were, because John hadn't been with them to half those planets. Rodney's stories about the labs or even the military weren't much better. Except for Zelenka and Chuck, John didn't know most of the scientists or the soldiers in Atlantis any longer. They were all as out of sync with each other as Carson was with Earth.

It made the dinner subtly dissonant, with a fading taste of melancholy that lingered after they all parted again, John to his condo and Teyla and Ronon back to the Iirijjinii Embassy.

Rodney wanted to get back to Atlantis, but the clock ticking down to September still seemed to move too fast. He finished most of the work on the GTS and took two weeks off. There would be more meetings with the ICGA before he went and he needed the break. He left Carson in the apartment and transited to Vancouver to see Jeannie and Kaleb.

John showed up on the fourth day. Jeannie kindly left them together in the living room, promising John coffee, while he stood very still and watched Rodney the way he would an unstable explosive device. Rodney realized he'd told Carson where he was going, but hadn't spoken to John since the dinner with Teyla and Ronon and not only because he'd been offworld part of the time. It had just been easier to not try.

John had on civvies, cargo pants and a dark green, long-sleeved tee shirt. He'd shaved recently, but his hair needed cutting. It nearly fell in his eyes, making him look younger than usual. He was tense though and pale under his offworld tan.

"You could have said something," he said in the emptiness that followed Jeannie's exit.

Rodney knew his mouth had lowered on one side, had seen it in the mirror when he felt like this.

"You could have come by."

John dipped his head. "Sorry, I just can't – he weirds me out, okay?" He rolled his shoulders loose and peered at Rodney. "He's always there, too, and you're going back with him."

There had been some kind of hold up, actually, involving a new contract with ICGA. The previous agreement Rodney had been working under had been made with Stargate Command before disclosure and the terms needed to be readjusted. Rodney figured they'd straighten it out when he met with Shen Bao in two weeks.

He decided to take what he could get. He asked, "So how long are you here?"

John took it for the concession it was and crossed the room to him, coming close enough Rodney could feel the heat from his body, the scents of laundry soap, aftershave and John, the soft rush of air as John exhaled in something like relief. Rodney kept his hands by his sides, determined to force the first move out of John. It wasn't submission Rodney wanted, but the admission that John wanted and needed him.

"Seven day leave," John said. His pupils dilated as he took the final step that brought them into contact, sliding his arm around Rodney's waist, leaning in close.

Rodney hugged him back, splaying one hand over the small of John's back and the other on the back of his neck to pull him closer. They leaned together until they had both relaxed. John pulled away before Rodney was ready to let go, but he did anyway. He made an interested noise as John extracted something from his pants' pocket.

Tickets, he realized.

"Your family is great," John said, "but I thought we could spend some time together." He handed over the tickets.

"Tahiti?" Rodney asked, looking at the destination. "You know I sunburn."

Disappointment chased itself over John's face. "Yeah, sorry, I just wanted to get as far away from Colorado as possible and this place is really secure and private. No one would bother us." He reached for the tickets. "I'll cancel the reservation."

Rodney jerked them away. "Don't be more stupid than you have to be," he said. "It has beds and running water and Internet, right?" All the food would no doubt be drowned in citrus, but Rodney wasn't even sure he was still allergic. He always meant to ask Jennifer, but ended up distracted, and he wasn't foolish enough to experiment to find out, though he had accidentally drank a glass of water in Rio that definitely had been in contact with a lemon wedge. "We'll spend another day here and then go."

"Go where?" Jeannie asked. She had a cup of coffee for John and handed it over. She caught sight of the tickets. "Oh. Have fun. Madison's going to be sorry to see you guys leave, though."

"I'll visit," John promised, "even when he's not here."

Jeannie poked him in the arm. "You'd better."

He felt John's gaze on him through the rest of the day, while they entertained Madison, then listened to her play, and talked with Kaleb and Jeannie, and guessed more than a desire to see Rodney away from Carson had brought him to Vancouver. He pushed everything aside until later, though.

"So," he said, once they were lying together in the guest room bed that night. A single bedside lamp lit the room. Outside the window, unseasonable rain rattled against the glass, making Tahiti more attractive by the moment. They were stripped down to boxers, but there were two critical inches between them. No contact. Rodney sat with his back to the headboard. John lay on his back, his limbs arranged neat and straight as a corpse in a coffin. Rodney winced at the image that provided him. "What's really going on?"

John tensed beside him. "Do we have to do this?"

"I'll presume you mean talking and not sex, because otherwise you wouldn't be here at all," Rodney snapped.

"Jesus, McKay," John complained.

Rodney looked at him, but John stared straight ahead, as if the ceiling had become fascinating.

"Hey, remember me, Rodney McKay? PhD, PhD? Which means not stupid."

"Too bad it doesn't mean not an asshole," John muttered.

Rodney sucked in a breath to start yelling, remembered Kaleb and Jeannie and Madison all down the hall, and kept his voice low. "I'm sure Vala Mal Doran is more understanding of your pathological inability to talk about anything except football and golf."

"Vala has nothing to do with this," John said. He finally turned his head enough to glare at Rodney. "Are you jealous?"

"You'd like that too much."

John sat up and turned enough to face Rodney. His knee bumped Rodney's thigh and half the bedding tangled and twisted around him, pulled loose.

"Alyanov announces his retirement in November."

Rodney stared at him.

John looked back. "So, barring fuck ups between now and then, the post is mine."

"Am I supposed to shout hurrah here?" Rodney asked. "Because I really don't see where it impacts me very much. Or are you saying that once you're SGOCOM, you'll be ready to come out?"

John made a face.

"I didn't think so."

John would never be ready to come out. Rodney had finally figured it out. There would always be another reason to keep them a secret.

"Look, I won't – It just wouldn't be a good idea. Maybe after a little while, you know. When everyone is used to me being in charge, then we'll go public together," John said. "If I were still in Atlantis..."

Rodney laughed at him. "Sure. Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today. You're lying, John. Maybe you're lying to yourself, too, but you're never going to admit being gay or gay with me. You're like a married man stringing along his mistress. There's always going to be another excuse."

He squeezed his eyes shut against the look on John's face. The silence stretched until Rodney wondered if John wouldn't get dressed and leave and if that wouldn't be better.

"This isn't working any more, is it?" John said at last, his voice toneless and low.

"Are you breaking up with me?" Rodney asked. He opened his eyes and peered at John.

John had his no-expression face in place. "I'm not the one who called it off before."

Not the one who had dated Katie, John didn't add. But this didn't feel like Rodney's last jab at heterosexuality, a 'normal' life, or the paranoia that had overtaken him after they resumed contact with Earth the first year. So many years ago now, he could barely remember the man he'd been then, the things he had thought and how he'd made his decisions.

That was the other side of it, of course. John would never come out and he would never call it quits. He didn't abandon his commitments, even when ordered to do so. He'd committed to Rodney. He'd tear himself to pieces between Rodney and trying to fulfill his concept of duty.

Unfair, unfair, that he looked so beautiful in the dim, warm-tinted light, with the white sheet pooled at his waist and contrasting with his skin and dark hair. Triply unfair that Rodney knew how pain looked on him and could read it in the angle of his shoulder, the fingers tightening on the sheet, and the movement of John's Adam's apple when he swallowed.

Rodney had never been able to deal with John in pain. He had only two coping mechanisms: avoidance or trying to ease it. He couldn't jump up and leave the bed, so he reached for John instead and held his palm against John's cheek. John closed his eyes, lashes dark and spiky over his cheekbones, and sighed the sound of an ache.

"We can talk about it later," Rodney offered.

They wouldn't.

He flipped the light off and let John lean in and kiss him, slow and hungry and careful as if Rodney might break under his touch, that touch light but not teasing, gently pressing Rodney down into the bed, until they were pressed chest to chest, their bodies working together, heat like the sun soaking through them, building not burning, wordless with want.

Without sight, Rodney traced all the scars that John had had, that were gone now, and learned all the new ones, everything that made him shudder, every place that made him flinch. John nipped the hinge of Rodney's jaw, then soothed it with his tongue, until Rodney found his lips again and licked them smooth and swollen, until with a tiny moan John opened his mouth and let Rodney in, the way he always let Rodney in; he let him have all that he wanted in just this one way, so that Rodney had to kiss and taste more than John's mouth, had to map all of him, and John's skin tasted of the sun, salt like the sea, copper and iron and wind.

John's hands drifted over him to the rhythm of his heartbeat, lingering at nipple and navel, at the crease of his armpit, the softness under Rodney's jaw, stroking along the indent of his flank, the flare of a shoulder blade, to the tender and damp nape of his neck. Rodney pressed tiny kisses anywhere he could reach, thighs spread wide so that they fit together as he rocked up into him over and over, both of them hardening against each other.

Once, John smoothed his palms against the grain of Rodney's legs, sliding his hands up Rodney's shins, hairs catching against his calluses, then down until his thumbs circled over the hard jut of Rodney' ankle bones. Rodney shivered at the way the sensation went straight to his cock and made him twitch and streak wetness from his tip against John.

He'd half forgotten the silky tickle of John's hair against his throat and jaw or the feel when John sucked on one of his nipples or the tightening heat in his belly that went with the hitch of hip and cock against each other. Rodney ran his fingers down to the tail of John's spine and pressed the smooth thumb's breadth of skin where his cheeks parted. He bent his knees, curled his toes and dug his heels into John's ass to draw him closer, the only sound between them harsh, uneven gasps and the slide and sigh of skin. The muscles inside his thighs twitched when John licked his way lower and tongued his balls until they drew up tight and hard. He could come from just that but he wanted everything, the tight suction John's mouth around his cock, everything.

Rodney caught John's face between his hands and guided him up to where he was leaking against his own belly. Then he arched back, head thumping against the head board, as John took him in, the pleasure stronger in the dark, every sensation magnified so that he felt the steady movement of John's shoulder against the inside of his thigh, almost coming just from the realization John was masturbating himself as he worked Rodney's cock in his mouth.

Coming pushed everything else out of his thoughts, orgasm a series of deep, wracking pulses that made him curl up and clutch at John – fingertips printing their whorls into his skin, bruises he wished he could tattoo there forever – and gasp for breath in the aftermath, shudders running through him.

John's head shifted against his hip, even his breath almost too much on over-sensitized flesh. The shaky, slow in and exhale told Rodney John had finished himself. He dropped one hand onto the back of John's head and left it there, benediction and period to sex and their earlier argument.

Tahiti gave them four days of sun and shade, fine, hot sand and a blue horizon as endless seeming as Lantea's had been. The beach near their high tech resort bungalow stayed deserted as far as they could see. That privacy probably cost more than the plane tickets and everything else did put together. He watched John swim naked though, and lie in the sun, and relax, while he drank ridiculously fruity drinks that were made up and waiting in the freezer and were all completely citrus free – another clue John had planned the whole thing far ahead. No one bothered them, no one cared that they were two men staying together, and the supplies in the bedside stands were replenished when the sheets were changed.

They didn't talk about anything real in Tahiti. No past and no future.

He fucked John on the beach, the towel under them sliding under John shoulders with each thrust, his back hot under the sun, biting his lip while John keened under his breath, surprising them both the way he opened to it. Sand caked John's forearms and his shoulders, coated the bare soles of his feet, and caught in his chest hair. Sweat glistened along the cords of his throat when John thrashed his head from side to side. He held his breath and opened his eyes wide when he came. Rodney stared into them, green and gold and sunblinded, as come streaked over his chest and belly.

Hands braced and elbows locked to keep some of his weight off John, Rodney pushed in and in until he came too.

"Christ," John gasped eventually.

Rodney's arms and thighs felt weak and watery, but he managed to withdraw and flop over onto his back next to John. He ended up in the sand. The beach towel was worked into a wad mostly under John's shoulders and neck. John  had covered his eyes against the overhead sun with his arm, but didn't move otherwise.

"I'm going to have sand in places I don't want to think about," Rodney complained weakly between heaving breaths of his own. Sex that good might be worth it. Sore ass or not, why didn't they do it that way more often? That had been utterly fantastic.

Unless John really hadn't liked it as much as Rodney had, but that didn't seem too likely, considered he'd come without either of them even touching his cock.

Rodney chuckled. Maybe it was some Southern Hemisphere thing. Maybe they still had things to learn about each other and themselves. He liked that thought. It meant they might find a way to make things work.

"You're going to have a sunburn places you don't want if we don't move soon," John commented.

Rodney squinted one eye open as he heard John move. John looked wrecked. He had come and sand and salt from the ocean caked on him, his lips were bruised, and his breath hitched when he moved wrong. His eyelids half-lowered when he did though, like a cat about to begin purring.

He knelt and offered his hand to Rodney. "Let's go back inside." He grinned. "We could shower and fool around."

"I may never get it up again," Rodney muttered as he took John's hand. Sand rasped between their palms, making him shiver in reaction.

"Fooling around's an end in and of itself, Rodney," John told him.

"If you say so."

They staggered to their feet. John bent and picked up the beach towel and the bottle of lube that had fallen over and leaked half its contents into the sand. Rodney stared at his ass, then dusted sand from the bared globes, making John jump and laugh. His stomach grumbled unhappily.

"Okay, we'll shower and eat and then fool around some more," John declared.

They walked back to the bungalow bumping shoulders and patting sand off each other and laughing, until they stepped inside.

John's SGC cell was ringing steadily and jittering across the table where he'd left it.

"Crap."

John reached for it, then hesitated and looked sidelong at Rodney.

"Go on," Rodney told him.

"You aren't going to say ignore it?"

"I'm not your ex-wife." Rodney folded his arms and glared. "Would you tell me to do that?"

John's smile was blinding as he picked up the phone. "Hell, no. Someone might need you to save the world."

"So answer the call."

John held the phone to his ear. "Sheppard here," he said. "Yeah. Okay. How many? Any idea what it is? Because we might want to get Dr. McKay in if it takes more than just turning it off."

Rodney went inside the bathroom and started the shower.

He'd already rinsed off and donned a set of shorts and a shirt when John finished his call.

"I've got to get back to the SGOC," John told him on the way through the bedroom into the bath. "SG-36 has been surveying PXG-554 and they found something that popped some kind of shield or force field up around them. They can't get out, but their radios were still working and they've got oxygen. No food though and they've been there twenty-eight hours so far. Wallis from Anthro thinks it's Ancient from the pics a second MALP sent back."

Rodney opened the closet and set out the clothes John had traveled in as the most acceptable to beam back to Cheyenne Mountain. "All the bills are already taken care of!" John yelled over the sound of the shower. "You don't have to worry about anything if you want to stay or leave."

John came out of the shower with his hair still dripping and dressed fast, then kissed Rodney intensely. "I don't want to go, you know," he said. He held on for one heartbeat, his breath gusting hot and damp over Rodney's lips, then brushed his lips over Rodney's almost chastely. "I've got to."

"I know," Rodney told him.

John stepped back, strapped on his watch and activated the transmitter built into it. A second later he disappeared in a familiar flare of light, beamed away.

Rodney sat down on the edge of the bed. There was a little trail of sand on the floor and foot prints left by John's feet. He stared at them until dusk darkened the bungalow and he couldn't make them out any longer. Then he made himself a sandwich in the tiny kitchen, before packing and calling the resort's office to arrange check-out and a flight to Canberra, where he could transit back to Denver.

He wondered if John felt as bruised as he did.

5 August 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Denver

"It's over," O'Neill told him.

The door into his office had barely closed behind Rodney. O'Neill watched as he stood there, trying to process. He didn't say anything more. Rodney hadn't known what to think about the command performance appointment with O'Neill. He'd gone along, had followed Vitt and Mullowny into the Cube again because he couldn't think of a reason to refuse, but it felt like a bad first contact mission. They'd used a set of rings to get to the Director's outer office, which other than the entrance to the inner office didn't appear have any other doors.

He looked back at O'Neill and frowned.

"What?"

O'Neill tapped the hard copy file on his otherwise bare and shining desk top. That desktop didn't really go with the image Rodney had of him, but maybe O'Neill worried about security. Maybe he had changed while running Homeworld Security. People did; power did that. The HSA seal behind O'Neill emphasized that power. The excellent Degas on the next wall, a racing scene, did as well. The question of how it ended up in the Cube, if it was real, wasn't one Rodney lingered on.

"You and Sheppard."

O'Neill's office didn't have any windows. Of course, none of the offices, labs, and other spaces at the Mountain did either, but it seemed sinister that the Director of Homeworld Security didn't have any view outside. Rodney had no way of knowing after using the rings, but it felt like they were at the very center of the Cube.

Rodney didn't waste time wondering how O'Neill knew. They were careful and discreet and he doubted Vitt and Mullowny knew from anything John or he did, but if the HSA had started looking, they'd have found something. It could have been as simple as watching what supplies he or John bought, who they were with and who they obviously weren't. It might have been as sickening as bugging Jeannie's guest room. He didn't know. He didn't need to know.

Need to know.

Of course.

Daniel had offered him the ICGA contract as official Civilian Director of the Atlantis Expedition the day before. HSA did the background checks. They must have run a new one on him before making the job offer. The UNE did a lot of things the way the US had. He'd been subjected to a Single Scope Background Investigation before he received his Top Secret Clearance years ago, before he'd ever heard of the Stargate Program. If Rodney remembered accurately, his clearance had taken six months. It had been shortened by the fact that the CIA had had an eye on him since he built his first bomb. The Stargate Program had been a Special Access Program; he'd endured a second investigation to learn about it.

The clearance investigation had to be why they'd been delaying sending Rodney back to Atlantis again.

Rodney curled his hands into fists. His fingernails were always trimmed short, but they still bit into the fleshy part of his palms.

"Excuse me?" he forced out.

"Whatever you call the thing you have with him." O'Neill didn't give away much. He'd never had any respect for Rodney, mostly just dismissing anything he said even when he was in the same room. Rodney had returned his vague contempt. Now he wished he understood the man a little better. "Time to call it quits, McKay."

"Not that it is any business of yours, but why?" Rodney asked.

O'Neill rocked back in his chair and nodded as if Rodney had done exactly as he'd expected.

"You know what I like about you, McKay?"

Rodney didn't dignify that with a headshake.

O'Neill smiled. Not a pleasant smile, a thin one, the sort that went with being Director of Homeworld Security and reading reports about who was fucking who.

"You're smart enough you aren't even asking how we know. Or denying it. Refreshing."

"There's no DADT in the UNE."

O'Neill chuckled. "You don't believe that. If you did, you and Sheppard wouldn't still be acting so careful," he said.

Rodney folded his arms. "Do you like playing games?"

O'Neill leaned back in his chair. "Not really, so let's just get down to the brass tacks."

"Yeah, so, just to be clear, are you threatening me or John?"

"I'm not threatening either of you," O'Neill stated. He waved at the visitor's chair. "Siddown. You're giving me a kink in my neck."

Rodney seated himself and glared.

"Though, ya know, head of Homeworld Security and all, got the ear of the General in charge of the SGC and the Secretary of Offworld Affairs," O'Neill went on. "I could make your lives a living hell." He leaned forward again, suddenly all sincerity. "But I don't want to do that."

"I'm turning cartwheels on the inside," Rodney said.

"Look, McKay, Daniel called me last night. He offered you Atlantis and you said you'd think about it."

He had. He'd been doing the job since Woolsey died. It would be nice to have the authority to back his decisions. It would make handling Reynolds a hell of a lot easier, which would give him more time to work with Zelenka. He should have jumped at it; he wanted to go home.

Only he wanted to go home with John, too.

"You have to go back to Atlantis, McKay," O'Neill said. The sarcasm was gone. "It's twice as important now that your friends in Pegasus have put together their own government. Atlantis needs you in charge, because you're the one the rest of them know and respect."

"You're still not convincing me of why I have to break up with Sheppard."

Exasperation and sorrow warred on O'Neill's face. Everything sagged and Rodney realized just how old and tired O'Neill was.

"Because Alyanov is retiring. Because Earth needs Sheppard here. Because he still has enemies here and they'll use anything to to block his confirmation. Because we both know he won't do it," O'Neill said.

It sounded so much like what John had told him, except for the last part, that Rodney wondered for a second if John hadn't somehow persuaded O'Neill to make this argument for him. O'Neill shook his head like he could read Rodney's mind.

"You and him should've both been left in Atlantis," he said. "But it's too late for that now and I'm damned if the best officer for the job ends up wasted when he's right here."

"I'll think about it," Rodney said. He stood.

O'Neill got to his feet too. He looked tired. "I don't enjoy this, McKay."

He didn't hold his hand out to shake. Rodney wouldn't have taken it.

"The Lucian Alliance is getting stronger. The SGOC needs Sheppard."

More than you do.

Rodney glanced around the office again. Only the Degas offered even a hint of personality. He remembered O'Neill as the kind of guy who played with a yellow plastic yo-yo while figuring out how to save the planet. Also the kind of guy who would pilot an experimental X302 with a hyperdrive that didn't work right and would probably kill him to save a lot of other people. The guy who had led SG-1 for years.

There wasn't a single memento in the office of those days.

Rodney would have expected to see at least a picture.

"End it," O'Neill stressed.

O'Neill was telling him to give up John, the way he had given up his team.

"What if I think you're wrong?" Rodney asked. "What if I think we can make it work? What about John? Doesn't he get a say in his own life for once?"

"Earth can't afford for you to be wrong, McKay."

10 August 2015
Milky Way
Earth, California

The meeting with O'Neill soured Rodney through the entire weekend on the coast that John arranged. He knew it was meant to make up for taking off from Tahiti and to give him a break from Carson's clinging, but Rodney kept starting to tell John and then stopping. He thought he knew John well enough to predict his first, impulsive reaction.

If dictated to, John would rebel. He'd resign before either of them could consider all the ramifications.

Rodney had a sinking feeling it would be a disaster. Not only would O'Neill find some way to punish them both, but he might be right. Without a doubt, John was the right man to take over the SGOC.

John wanted to walk on the beach. Rodney went with him, but thought only of the eyes that might be on them, cameras, parabolic microphones, and kept an arm's length between them, walking over the wet gray sand. Despite the season, a heavy fog rolled in and stayed, chilling the air until late morning and thinning the sunshine into something seen but not felt. 

John kept sneaking looks at him, worried looks accompanied by attempts to ask that either trailed away or Rodney dismissed abruptly, even unkindly.

Silence settled between them, thick as the fog that smothered the horizon come evening.

Rodney pulled on a jacket and still shivered.

He watched John pick at his food over dinner, trying to memorize the lie of the dark hair on the back of his hands, the shape of his fingernails, the tiny details that blurred in memory once you blinked or looked away. Too many years together as friends, then lovers, then whatever they'd progressed to since, separate but bound, always curving back to each other, comets on long, elliptical orbits, gave him away; John knew something was wrong, only he still thought it was Tahiti.

No use trying to explain it wasn't, without bringing up the real problem.

Rodney ordered Death by Chocolate for dessert and pretended to be enraptured with it, closing his eyes and humming over each bite.

While John showered later, he pulled the curtains and locked the hotel room door, then used the bug jammer in his laptop case. He hadn't done that in Tahiti. It bothered him that there might be pictures out there of him and John having sex. It wasn't shame, but that was theirs, the only part of John that was always and wholly his. What John's reaction might be was a mystery; he might as easily dismiss it as meaningless as find it an intolerable invasion of their privacy. John didn't give a damn about what most people thought, but he hated revealing himself. It could go either way. Rodney couldn't predict. Easier to just safeguard them without John knowing.

John walked out of the bathroom hair still wet and wary-eyed, but Rodney began stripping and he smiled, bright and relieved

"So, am I forgiven?" he asked.

Rodney smiled at him.

"Come on," he said, and guided John to the bed. "I'm not angry."

"Yes, you are," John insisted.

The back of his knees hit the bed and he sank down, tugging Rodney down with him.

"All right, I am, but not at you," Rodney admitted.

He stroked the long curve of John's side, then skated his hand over John's waist to circle his navel with the pad of his thumb. John's breath hitched and he squirmed, the muscles in his abdomen contracting. John's fingers moved restlessly through Rodney's hair, across his temples, over his cheekbones and ghost soft over his lips. The light of the lamp burning beside the bed caught every fleck of amber and gold in his eyes. Rodney kept his own eyes open, cataloging every sigh and caress.

John left before dawn Monday morning.

Rodney waited until the stores were open, paid for another day in the hotel, then went and bought himself a bottle of vodka. He hadn't said anything to John about Daniel's offer or O'Neill's...whatever that had been. Suggestion, order, or warning. All of the above.

He spent most of the day getting drunk and weighing pros and cons. Atlantis or John. The SGOC or him. Sneaking around or coming out; well, that one had already been decided by John, hadn't it, and not in Rodney's favor. John still swanned around with Vala and played the cock of the walk for the media; he and Rodney would always be a secret if John had his way. That deserved another swig of vodka. Rodney hissed after it went down, as cheap and harsh as any Siberian swill, with an aftertaste like gas exhaust.

Pros and cons, pros and cons, he thought blearily. Pro, he and John had been together for years even if they never said the stupid words. Or was that a con? It hurt sometimes, left him lonely and cold in his bed in Atlantis and nauseated with anxiety because he didn't know what would happen to John without him there.

If he refused Daniel's offer, what then?

Stay on Earth, work from Earth, work with whatever bits and pieces were relayed from Atlantis while Radek took over as chief of science. He could do that, of course. It would be like crippling himself deliberately. The thought of not going back made him reach for the vodka again.

What would he get out of it if he didn't go?

Not much, not as much as he had now, not if John took the SGOC post. He'd be busier than ever, plus they'd have to be even more discreet. There was no guarantee Rodney would even be allowed to continue his work, either. If he didn't take the ICGA contract, they might not offer another one, not if O'Neill pulled strings with Jackson. They'd sent him to Siberia once. Rodney knew how they worked, how the punishments were called reassignments.

John wanted SGOCOM.

Rodney drank a toast to that. John deserved it too and the promotion that would go with it. John loved going through the stargate even more than flying, but more than that, John needed to have a job that meant something. John couldn't stand aside and watch someone else take over. No matter what anyone had ever thought about John not being command material, he was made for it, made to lead and protect.

He walked carefully over the chair in front of the hotel room window, taking the vodka bottle with him, and sat down. He couldn't see the beach from the room, but he had a nice sight line on one of the flight lanes, and watched an Airbus descend through the rain clouds turning the day dark through the silvery tracks on the window glass. Typical California construction, the window had only a single pane of uninsulated glass, and the atypical weather meant Rodney could feel the cold leach through it.

Not like Atlantis at all.

He used the remote sitting on the table next to the chair to switch on the TV, drowning out the sound of traffic and rain.

Weather channel, movie, rerun, sports, game shows. Rodney held the channel button down and surfed. Pay for porn. He glanced at the menu options and moved on; he could download better from the Internet. His dick had a vodka problem anyway.

News channel. More Pure demonstrations. Joseph Barnes preaching to the converted, standing up with a bunch of Fundamentalist high mucky-mucks, and wasn't that another bad, bad joke? All it took to unite Muslim, Christian and Jew was someone new to hate.

"God gave us, true humans, this world to make in our image, not that of aliens!"

Barnes never named names, but there were plenty of Internet sites now to do that for him, and he never flat out told his followers to attack anyone with the ATA gene.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Rodney staggered up and made it to the bathroom in time to puke. God damn O'Neill for being right. God damn him for knowing that wasn't why he was going to give in to him.

Because as much as John wanted SGOCOM, Rodney still wanted Atlantis. He wanted the Directorship, the authority to get his work done and keep Atlantis safe from outside threats and the fools in the UNE too.

Wanted to build a ZPM and win his Nobel and have his place in history. More than he wanted what was left between him and John.

John would be better off anyway, he told himself, the lie tasting worse than either the vodka or the vomit.

He made it back into the room and collapsed on the bed, leaving the TV playing, passing out gratefully.

Through the haze of a hangover the next morning, he faced up to the decision and decided he would have to tell John it was finished alone. Not at the Mountain, not at his apartment, not with Carson still there, and he had enough pity in him to know telling John at his home would be an unkindness best reserved for someone he hated. He needed to do it somewhere John would never have to be again.

Avoiding John over the next week was easy. Booking a rental cabin a day's drive away from the Mountain and then leaving John a message to show up wasn't much harder; Rodney did everything by computer. Breaking up would have been easier if he could have done that by computer too, but he knew John wouldn't accept that.

It would have to be face to face.

22 August 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado

A sick, yellow sky shocked John as he left the Mountain. The wildfires that had been burning from Idaho and Montana down through Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico before his last mission had grown worse. He switched on the radio and found a station reporting on the situation as he navigated through Colorado Springs and turned northwest toward the Green Mountain Resort Lodge.

The eastern horizon was lost to the haze of smoke lying over the whole state; to the north, it piled high into the sky, thick and gray, no doubt visible from orbit.

He'd left the Mountain late and kept his foot on the accelerator, trying to make up some time, up 24 past Green Mountain Falls. Rodney would probably already be there. What had prompted Rodney, lover of everything civilized, to rent a hunting cabin in the mountains anyway? A creeping feeling of something wrong had been itching at John's nerves since he received the email invitation. Since before that, since California, in fact. He pulled over once and tried to phone him, but Rodney's cell was either off or in a dead zone.

The radio broadcast a litany of disaster and pain. Three years of climate change drought in the West had culminated in a spark somewhere, more than one somewhere. Broken bottle, spent cigarette, crappy muffler or catalytic converter, lightning storm, dumb ass with a lawnmower and rock, maybe even an arsonist; it didn't matter so much how it started: wildfires were burning through the Rockies, blackening thousands of acres of already dying forest along the eastern side of the continental divide from Canada to Mexico.

Only one decent route to the Lodge and from there it looked like there would be a gravel road to the cabin according to the map John had. He'd have transited instead, but while he had a latitude and longitude for the Lodge, he'd still need to get to the cabin and he'd had enough hiking in the last week.

The fires were forcing evacuations in Wyoming. Two towns wiped out, another under threat. There was no use praying for rain in August and with all their new technology they still couldn't do much more than drop precious water on the fires and clear fire breaks. Firefighters from Australia as well as the East Coast and South had been called in and were trying to give the overworked crews a break after two weeks of day and night efforts.

He slotted into line behind a convoy of fire engines with Vermont plates and a group of semis pulling lowboys loaded with bulldozers, all headed for the fire lines. Older equipment, all of it, the engines and semis all still belching black diesel exhaust three years after sales of strictly combustion engine vehicles were cut off. The Hybrid Electric Utility Vehicle John drove cost a stiff luxury tax to license, but it wouldn't die on him if he ended up somewhere without a parking charger either, so he chose to pay the extra amount meant to discourage most people.

Afternoon slid toward evening, the light warped and ominous. The sun, glimpsed above pines and sharp edged mountains, showed as a swollen red disc. The scent of smoke on the air found its way inside the HEUV, even with the windows rolled up tight and the air conditioner chilling the interior.

He took a right onto a side road eventually, while the little convoy stayed on the highway. He had to ease off his speed; the curves were tight and six deer crashed across the pavement ahead of him once. He flicked the headlights on as a precaution and watched for the Green Mountain road sign.

Each time he came around another curve, the setting sun stabbed through the black silhouetted trees and blinded him for an instant. John fumbled for and found his sunglasses, distracted just enough he only saw the sign at the last second, nearly unreadable, scarlet light flaring around its outline and reflecting off the polished hood of the HEUV. He hit the brakes, cursing because he'd already missed the turn, and lost the sunglasses onto the passenger side floorboards.

"Shit," he mumbled as he checked rear view, then put the HEUV in reverse. He braced one hand on the other seat back and twisted around to steer backwards through the last curve in the two-lane road. His foot tapped the gas. A flash of light, maybe a reflection, came and went in the tree line opposite the turn off.

He didn't have time to consciously think sniper.

John hit the accelerator, jolting the HEUV backward.

The glass on the driver's side shattered, then the windshield in front of him, along a trajectory that would have included his head a second before. Two more shots followed, hitting the side of the HEUV. The rifle cracks followed, echoing off the mountains. John ducked and shoved the gear shift into first. Automatic fire strafed the vehicle from another weapon.

Another rifle round punched through the HEUV and into John's side. He jerked the steering wheel to the side as it hit, while his foot slipped and the HEUV plowed forward. It crashed through the safety fence along the edge of the road curve, slewed, and then tore its way over and down, tossing John against the seatbelt, the seat and the door in kaleidoscope roll of crimson light, shadow, pain and shrieking metal, before the airbags deployed.

It came to stop, rocking onto its side, front end smashed into the side of an ancient, twisted pine anchored to the side of the mountain.

John's ears were ringing, noise dopplering in and away.

Radio, he identified, a song shading into static, reception flickering like his brain.

He tried to shift and froze, agony flaring bright-hot through his side and his arm, overwhelming consciousness for an endless stretch, leaving him panting and breathless, afraid to move again, helplessly trying to understand what had happened. The paradoxical scents of dirt and pine mixed with blood. He couldn't move without hurting.

Hot metal ticked, contracting as it cooled. One of the airbags had deflated, leaving him hanging in his seatbelt harness. There were pine needles stuck to his face, glued by the blood trickling from a dozen glass cuts. Breathing hurt. He kept his respiration shallow and tried to catalog the rest of his damage.

Arm, broken or shot, he couldn't see with it pinned between his body and the side airbag. Concussion, maybe. He couldn't make his eyes focus. He tried to feel along his side with his good arm and hand. Found hot wetness spreading across his side and soaking into the waist of his jeans. He probed with a finger, trying to find the wound and brushed torn flesh. Pain. John squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered through it. GSW, probably fractured ribs, continuing blood loss. He was in bad shape, he thought blurrily, really bad.

The radio hissed, a faint hint of music murmuring through the white noise. John couldn't catch what it was.

This wasn't how he'd thought he'd die.

Not here.

He groped for the cellphone, but it wasn't in the charger. Knocked loose during the crash. He turned his head, trying to see where it might have gone. Never mind there probably was no coverage anyway. He moved too much though and his entire side lit on fire, screaming pain that whited everything else out.

No getting himself out of this.

The voices came and went through the roaring in his ears.

"Easy as pie, just like you said."

He tried to make sense of them and frowned. Instinct whispered to keep quiet and stay still.

" – looks dead to me."

"Just shoot the gas tank, Neilson. If he isn't dead, the fire will get him – "

The HEUV rocked and the scarlet-hot pain drowned them out.

" – not an arsonist – "

" – only works in movies anyway – "

" –- just get out of – "

John gritted his teeth against the urge to yell. Those weren't the voices of friends. He wouldn't receive any rescue from them. Bile burned at the back of his tongue.

"We should disable the goddamn GPS tracker on it at least. It's probably sending out an accident signal right now."

"Let them find the faggot. He's dead anyway. You see the way that thing is balanced? You try to get in there, it's going to come down on you."

Two voices. There had been two guns, one rifle, one automatic, maybe an after market modified M16. Two shooters.

"It's almost dark, we should just get."

Three.

Laughter.

"Looks like you're worth keeping around a little longer, Neilson. It's like having that Godless sonovabitch O'Neill on our side."

"I can't wait until we take him down."

"You are one sick sonovabitch, is all I can say."

The first voice, with a faint Minnesota lilt, said, "Just call me Big Foot."

John listened as the other two laughed, but the pain kept swamping him, and he didn't know when the voices went away. Darkness slipped in and he began to shiver. 

The faint tune of the radio eventually faded away too.

22 August 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado

Sitting and waiting had never been Rodney's forte. The prospect of facing John and calling it quits made him twitch and pace over the bare wood floor of the cabin. He couldn't believe he'd picked such a barren and uninviting place, stuck in the middle of a forest during the worst fire season in modern history, as the place to do it either. John could kill and bury him out here and who would know? Not that John would, but Rodney couldn't keep from playing out worst case scenarios. He knew very well that flimsy door wouldn't stop a bear or an ax murderer, for instance, and he kept wondering what happened to swarms of wild bees when a wild fire swept over their hives. With his luck, they'd head straight for this stupid cabin.

His palms were sweating, his heartbeat had sped to an unhealthy rate when he took his pulse, and he hated to even think what his blood pressure was. Standing in front of a firing squad couldn't have been worse.

The longer he waited, the clearer it became that his plan had been completely and utterly wrong.

Rodney checked the road again. Nothing. If he listened, the only noise he heard came from the not so distant helicopters and water tankers crisscrossing the sky. He stared for a while, monitoring the heaving plumes of black smoke and the occasional clouds of white that followed a tanker drop.

He went back inside and turned the ancient radio to a weather station murmuring a constant update of road closures, evacuation decrees and shifting fire lines. The cabin lacked WiFi or even TV; boasting only a bed, dresser, table and two chairs, along with a bathroom that dated back to the nineteen sixties and a kitchen out of the forties. The stove and refrigerator ran off propane.

He had a laptop with him, but couldn't concentrate on any work.

Instead, he rehearsed what he would tell John. It was quite simple and logical really. They were no longer making each other happy. Long distance relationships had a statistically higher failure rate, so they had nothing to be ashamed of compared to anyone else and that was without factoring in the stresses of a gay relationship. Really, their careers were much more important than the occasional sexual liaison they'd been reduced to along with periodic dirty weekends. After all, they were both capable of finding that sort of companionship elsewhere. Discretion, of course, wouldn't be a problem if they chose heterosexual partners; that would be a definite improvement in the quality of their mental well-being as well. The facts were obvious, given any other circumstances than the hothouse atmosphere of Atlantis and working on the same gate team, they would never have been interested in each other; with those factors removed they'd only continued the relationship out of inertia and, well, they were both deeply stubborn. But they were both adults as well and had to make the proper choices for their futures. He hoped that John would understand and accept this and that they could maintain a cordial professional relationship in regards to ICGA and SGOC interactions, though with Rodney in Atlantis and John on Earth they wouldn't necessarily have to work with each other often.

He also hoped that John wouldn't ask Ronon and or Teyla to beat the crap out of him, since he couldn't avoid them nearly as easily while living in the same city. They were his friends too...frankly, he was closer to them now than John. Tanaan barely knew John and it would be cruel to try to drive a wedge between them all, because it could only hurt Tanaan, without...God, he was babbling before John had even arrived.

He stopped and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to shut out the imagined expression on John's face.

John would never accept that. Not because it wasn't all true in a fashion, but because Rodney couldn't lie for shit. John would see through him and want to know his real reasons.

More pacing. He checked his watch. Past five already. Maybe he should just leave. Let John arrive, if he did, to find Rodney gone. He could leave a note. A note would be...

Horrible.

But no more horrible than trying to lie to John's face, which he had to do, because no matter how much John wanted command, how good he'd be, and how right O'Neill was about keeping the right people in charge until the aftershocks of Disclosure really dissipated, if he thought Rodney and he were being manipulated or forced into a choice, John would balk. He would do something stupid and angry. Rodney knew him well enough to predict John's reaction would be either to resign or come out.

That wasn't acceptable, because Rodney knew John didn't want either of those things.

He went through the kitchenette's cupboards, searching for any paper, and found nothing but a coloring book and crayons, a citronella candle, two cans of pork & beans with dust felt thick on their tops, and half a box of shotgun shells that looked older than the cans. He had a pen in his laptop case, so he tore a page out of the coloring book and started to write.

The growl of an engine made Rodney look up and realize the sun had nearly set while he agonized over what to say. Red stained light slanted through the western facing windows. He swallowed hard and went to the door.

Not John, he realized immediately, recognizing the faded blue pick-up that belonged to the resort's owner. Rodney had transited in to the main lodge and the owner had driven him up to the cabin.

The pick-up coasted to a stop in front of the cabin and the owner leaned out the open driver's window. "Fire's predicted to come this way before morning. They're telling everyone to get out. I figured I'd better check on you, make sure you had a way off the mountain."

Rodney hesitated, then walked out. "My friend hasn't arrived yet."

"Don't reckon he will. Road's are being closed." He eyed Rodney. "You better come on down to the office, at least. Give your friend a call."

"I – " Rodney glanced back at the cabin, then the rapidly disappearing sun. The cabin had a generator, but he hadn't gotten around to even checking it. He'd anticipated wanting to leave once he'd broken up with John. He hadn't even considered how he would do that if John didn't offer him a ride. He laughed bitterly now. "Yes. I think I'd better. Let me get my laptop."

The nearly antique gasoline powered pick-up jolted down the rutted road at what Rodney thought was an insane speed, but he only clutched the 'oh shit' handle and stayed quiet, hoping the door latched with baling wire wouldn't fly open. The duct tape patched bench seat didn't even have seat belts.

"You want a refund on that rental?

He blinked and glanced over, realizing that they'd come to a stop in front of the resort's office.

"What?"

"Didn't even get to stay overnight."

"Oh." Rodney frowned. "No. It doesn't – I did some thinking up there." The wall of smoke on the horizon threatened the destruction and end of the resort anyway. "Keep it as thanks for the ride."

He opened his cell and checked he had a signal, then called in his transit coordinates.

"Good luck," he said awkwardly, before the beam took him away and deposited him in his own apartment.

Carson leaped off the couch with a squawk. "Rodney! Some warning would be appropriate."

Rodney dismissed him with a roll of his eyes. "It's my apartment."

"Yes, well, you did say you would be gone for a wee bit, though."

"I don't even want to contemplate what you were going to do while I was gone," Rodney told him and headed for his bedroom. He'd begin everything as soon as he called Daniel and accepted the contract. He expected there would be a mountain of paperwork to take the damned cat with him too, but he was going to do it.

He considered calling the SGOC duty officer and asking if John had been called back or never left, then decided silence was the better part of cowardice. He didn't want to talk to John if John was there and the call was put through to him. He wanted to get the hell off Earth without seeing or speaking to him at all. Make the cut clean.

The next wormhole to Atlantis was scheduled in nine days. Carson's papers were now in order. Rodney would go through with him and the new military commander. He just had to avoid John for that long. Since John would be offworld at least twice during that period, it wouldn't be that hard.

He made a note to himself to remove John's authorization to transit into the apartment and his own override that let him into John's condo. He'd leave the keys with Sam. He'd have to talk to her before he left anyway.

Rodney sat down on the edge of his bed. The cat, which would probably never have a name now, jumped up beside him and insinuated its way onto his lap, wafting its tail into his face and kneading his thighs with all four paws.

Rodney sniffed.

It was just the damn hair getting up his nose and eye irritation from the smoke he'd been breathing for the last week.

He stroked his hand over the cat's spine, feeling it purr more than hearing it, and made the call on his cell with his other hand.

It would be the beginning of a new era on Atlantis. The McKay Era. Great things would happen. He would finally finish the work that would win him the Nobel.

He wouldn't have time to second guess himself and that, Rodney knew, would be what saved him.

A fumbling knock at his door made him look up and demand, "What?" His voice cracked and he coughed to cover it. The cat leaped away.

Carson opened the door and peered in. "Are you all right? It was just I'll never get used to that appearing and disappearing like ghosties. You surprised me."

Rodney forced himself to nod and answer.

"I was nearly roasted alive. I'm not all right. I probably lost precious brain cells to smoke inhalation, not to mention the mental trauma of riding as a passenger in that rattletrap excuse for a vehicle. Of course, if I had been dying, you would have been too busy fussing over a completely safe and revolutionary method of transportation to do anything for me. I suppose you'd want an ambulance drawn by donkeys, too!"

The phone chirped and he heard, "Office of Offworld Affairs, Secretary Jackson's office, Cindy Parsons speaking. How may I help you?"

He waved Carson away. "Tell Jackson Dr. Rodney McKay is calling about the job."

"Ah, Rodney," Carson replied. "Don't ever change."

It was far too late for that.

9 September 2015
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

Rescue wasn't even a blur. ICU was bright lights and confusion. John didn't find out the details until days later, when he was in a hospital room with two Homeworld agents and two SGOC soldiers standing guard outside the door, the sun bright on the waffle weave blanket covering him.

His doctor cheerfully told him how lucky he had been.

"Two years ago, you would never have made it back to the hospital. GTS is the best thing to happen to emergency responders since helicopters."

Luck came in strange forms. If a state trooper hadn't been driving to the Green Mountain Resort Lodge to check that everyone had been evacuated because of the wildfire, no one would have found John before he bled out. If he hadn't had a crash alert transponder in his HEUV for the trooper to check out, he might never have been found after the fires swept through that area. If he hadn't missed the turn he'd have taken a headshot no one could recover from. Walk through a quantum mirror and all those things happened in some other universe.

He did feel lucky at first, before the flipside revealed itself. He always had been.

Broken arm and ribs, blood loss, internal injuries to his liver and one kidney, concussion, but all of it would heal, he was assured. In fact, his doctor was amazed by how fast John recovered and began consulting with Lam on whether it could be a facet of the ATA. John always had healed fast, of course.

Pain could be strange too. He didn't begin to really hurt until after Vala treated him with the Goa'uld healing device, knitting together tissue  and bone, kissing his forehead and promising to bring back Cam with her on her next visit. Carter came by and Alyanov made an awkward, but well met appearance, followed by O'Neill wanting to debrief him. One of the nurses asked if he wanted someone to notify his family, meaning Dave, who probably already knew because the attempt had made the news by then, in between the continuing fire coverage. John said no; Dave didn't call, but Jeannie did.

The hospital room filled with flower arrangements sent from the SGOC, from the UNE, from Margo Lantry and Lisa Hensen, from the Jaffa Embassy, from people John didn't know or remember meeting, reminding him that he was a near celebrity. Polly Hastings – or her people – sent a dozen yellow roses. The nurses giggled over that when they handed him the card. John had them redistribute them all to other people.

He'd been at the University of Colorado Hospital for five days by then, though the first three were fuzzy. The anesthesia and then the pain management kept him mostly out of it.

John talked to Jeannie, tired enough that he mostly listened to her, and began to hurt in places the morphine drip couldn't touch. He didn't actually notice when the phone went away.

He'd figured hospital rules had kept Rodney out of ICU. Or there had been another crisis that had preoccupied Rodney so that he couldn't get away. He told himself he had only himself to blame if Rodney was being discreet and not hanging over his sickbed in traditional significant other fashion. Of course, team did that too, but they hadn't been on the same team in two years.

His current team visited on the sixth and seventh days after his shooting. Bud brought a book of math games. Red smuggled in a zat and the latest Penthouse. Kelly, damn her eyes, brought him a laptop and paperwork, and had the gall to grin at him before she left.

Margo stopped in and gave him the gist of what he should say if asked about the attack. Random hate crime or possibly even a hunting accident, not an attack by Pure extremists on the second most public figure with the ATA and certainly not a terrorist action against the UNE. John pretended to go to sleep half way through her visit. She surprised him before she left; he heard her tell the security to keep any reporters away even if they were cleared through the SGC Public Liaison Department. That was about as kind as Margo ever got.

He tried to make himself ask about Rodney, but the words dried up in his throat each time, too revealing, too needy. He was SG-2's commanding officer. Better they never saw through that to the John Sheppard part of him, the guy who pathetically wanted to wake up with someone sitting beside the bed, maybe snoring, twisted in an awful position by the plastic chairs the hospital provided, hair standing up in tufts...He could imagine Rodney there, even to the way the fluorescent overhead lights would gleam off his forehead, and opening his eyes to find no one there made him ache.

He didn't understand why Rodney hadn't visited at all. He even asked Lashonda, the night nurse, and his favorite, if maybe he'd had a visitor while he was asleep sometime. She patted his shoulder and told him no. Everyone who visited him had to be logged in and out because of security.

John memorized the ceiling staring at it through the night, unable to sleep. He was afraid to ask anyone now, afraid of the possible answer, that maybe Rodney hadn't come because he couldn't. Knowing that worry didn't make sense, because Jeannie would have said something, given something away when they talked, wouldn't she? He wasn't that hurt that anyone would keep the truth from him. So where was Rodney? Why hadn't he heard from him, if only to gripe about John not showing up as planned? It wasn't the first time John had failed to show or had to cut out ahead of schedule.

Thinking that made him wince.

"I can get you a sleeping pill," Lashonda told him the next night.

"Can you get me my phone?"

"It's late..."

John tried a smile on her. "I just need to check on someone. Please?"

Lashonda gave him a doubtful look and left. He figured she'd gone back to her other duties, but maybe twenty minutes later she returned with a phone and a line to plug into a wall jack. "No cellphones allowed in the hospital," she explained. She set the phone on wheeled tray table next to the bed and arranged it within arm's reach for John. "Do you want me to make the call for you?"

"Thanks, but no."

"All right, I'll be back later."

He dialed Rodney's number and waited while it rang ten times before going to the answering machine. His mouth felt dry and he had to cough and lick his lips before he could speak. "Hey, it's me. I – Could you call me? I don't actually know where my cell is, but I'm at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver," he said and gave his room number. "I just – I kind of thought you might visit me. But maybe, I don't – Call me, okay?"

The next day dragged unmercifully. No one came by except Gorman, the Homeworld agent in charge of investigating the attempt on John's life and his doctor, who hummed over the difference the healing device had made and quizzed John on how soon they'd be on the market, something John had no clue about. He figured Area 51 would have to reverse engineer one and then design a version that didn't require the user to be or have been a Goa'uld host.

Not any time soon, in other words. It didn't seem to surprise his doctor.

"Your system seems exhausted."

"Yeah, I guess that's a side effect."

"The energy to heal the damage must come from somewhere." His doctor looked John over. "You're anemic and run down. I'm going to keep you here another day. I'd like to see some improvement there."

John shrugged as if he didn't care. If he felt too tired to get out of bed, that meant the doc was right. His attitude must have caught the doctor's attention though.

"Depression is a common after effect of serious trauma – "

John waved his hand. "I've been shot before."

"And worse. I've read your medical file. But that doesn't preclude this affecting you. The circumstances were different, less expected."

"I'll handle it," John assured him.

Everyone in Atlantis had had PTSD after the first year. They learned to live and deal with it. Kate had been good at helping, mostly because she'd been as screwed up as the rest of them. After she died, most of the first wave had given up on talking with the psychiatrist the SGC sent to replace her. They'd talked to each other if they had to or gone down to the range and shot targets – even the scientists. Some people got drunk on whatever booze had been smuggled in from offworld or done some of the drugs chemistry mixed up on the sly. Sex had easily been the most popular outlet, though. The only rule to coping on Atlantis had been that it didn't interfere with or endanger anyone else.

"Just don't beat yourself up if you find you need help, Colonel. Get it."

"Sure," John lied with an earnest expression.

John had grown used to having Rodney and his team. The four of them had always taken care of each other. He hadn't had to handle anything by himself in too long.

He would if he had to, though.

He went back to waiting for the phone to ring. It didn't. By nine in the evening he couldn't wait any longer and dialed Rodney's number again.

A wash of relief left him lightheaded when the phone was picked up.

"McKay's number," Carson said, reminding John the clone was still staying there. Maybe something had happened to the agreement to let him go back to Pegasus and Rodney had been tied up, he thought.

"Carson," John said.

"Oh, Colonel, are you all right then?" Carson blurted. Muffled, as though by a hand, his voice carried through the phone line. "It's the Colonel."

"I'm okay," John said. "Could I talk to Rodney?"

He heard, tinny and distant, "I'm busy. Tell him I'm not here."

"I'm afraid Rodney isn't here," Carson said, the words stiff and awkward. Carson had an even harder time lying than Rodney and the discomfort rang in every word.

Anger began to heat John. He'd been worrying about Rodney for nothing apparently. "Then who were you just talking to?" he demanded.

"Oh. Oh, ah, that, I wasna – "

John could hear Rodney in the background, voice spiking high with a mixture of panic, anger and disdain. "For God's sake. Tell him you're talking to my neighbor or the pizza delivery boy or your big toe!"

Carson tried. "That was Mr. Betal from the, ah, the Iirijjinii Embassy, Colonel. And, of course, he's heard of you and is interested, so..."

"You can stop," John told him. "I know Rodney's there. I heard him. Tell him he's a coward."

He hung up.

He tried to figure it out, blinking up at the blue shadowed ceiling. Why wouldn't Rodney talk to him? He thought, from the way Carson spoke, that they knew John had been hurt. Plus he'd left the message he was in the hospital. What had he done? He fell asleep still trying to understand, baffled and sick.

Cam arrived the next day with a grin, clothes, and Vala in tow, to get John out. The cellphone ban in the hospital meant John had to ride in a wheelchair with his laptop and bag of meds balanced on his lap until they were outside, then Cam called for a point-to-point transit to John's condo.

"Saves money on a security convoy," he commented.

John set the laptop and the bag from the hospital pharmacy on the bare coffee table where there were usually a few books and pieces of things Rodney had taken apart and slumped down on his couch, already tired though his doctor and Lam had both declared him healed to a miraculous extent. His hand drifted to his side, where the bullet's exit wound had been. There was just smooth, slightly tender new skin there. Vala's facility with the healing device hadn't even left him with a scar. He was looking at only a week more of medical leave, then only a couple more of light duty before Lam cleared him to go offworld.

He really needed to thank Vala.

Vala had seated herself next to him. She kicked off her shoes immediately and had her feet up on the leather, as was her habit since she'd started dropping in whenever she was onworld.

"You want something to drink?" Cam asked, before John could say anything to her about the couch or healing him.

"Yeah," John said. "Beer."

Cam raised his eyebrows. "You sure you're supposed to have alcohol?"

"I'm not on any pain killers."

"Okay. Vala?"

"Please, thank you," she said.

Once Cam had disappeared into John's kitchen, she leaned forward and smiled at John. "Going to show me your scar?"

"There isn't one."

"Then show me what a good job I did," she teased.

John ignored her and glanced around the living room. It felt different than the last time he'd been home. Something subtle had shifted in the atmosphere. Maybe HSA had searched the condo. He didn't know why they would, but security agencies tended to search first and think of reasons second, if at all.

Vala reached over and peeled his tee shirt enough to study his side. She skimmed her fingers over the pink skin, making him shift and squirm. "You're ticklish!" she exclaimed.

John grabbed her hand and lifted it away. "I am not," he lied.

"You are," she insisted, but sat back away from his sensitive side.

John tugged his tee shirt down as Cam came back from the kitchen with three bottles of Alexander Keiths.

"Something wrong?"

"No." John accepted a bottle of beer. "Just feeling a little off."

"Yeah, getting out of the hospital does that to you," Cam agreed. He handed a bottle to Vala and dropped into one of the stainless steel and black leather chairs John hated but had never bothered to get rid of. "So...?"

"So," John repeated. He opened his bottle and toasted it toward Vala. "Thanks for fixing me up."

She smiled back at him. "It was my pleasure. I took the opportunity to see what was under your hospital gown after you went to sleep."

Cam choked and glared at her.

Vala looked back at him innocently. "What? A girl has to get her thrills where she can and you Tau'ri are so prudish. It isn't like I groped him while he was unconscious."

"You didn't," John said. He leaned back, trying to let his stiff muscles relax. He'd been tense the entire time he'd been in the hospital.

"Of course I did." Vala gave him that happy, predatory grin of hers. "And I was quite impressed, considering the circumstances – "

"Wow, who's in the mood for Chinese?" Cam interrupted desperately.

"Me," John said. His face had gone hot all the way to the tips of his ears.

He called Rodney again after they left. The condo still felt emptier than usual and he couldn't pin down why. Rodney's phone rang and rang without ever switching to the answering machine. He tried Rodney's SGC cell but it just went to a recording repeating that the number had been discontinued and to contact the ICGA for further information.

John paced around the condo, stopping in front of the big window that showed him the city lit up at night, and tried Rodney's apartment again. The phone there rang, but no one picked up. He wondered if Rodney had turned the ringer off. Still carrying the phone, he walked into the bathroom, meaning to brush his teeth.

The first cold hint of what he'd been sensing revealed itself there.

Rodney's toothbrush was gone, along with the half squeezed tube of his special toothpaste for sensitive teeth and gums. Still holding the phone to one ear, John opened the cupboard over the sink and went through the contents. Rodney's hair brush had gone too, along with his hypoallergenic lotion, his special moisturizer, shaving cream and his razor. The cinnamon flavored, organic mouthwash he insisted John use because he disliked mint had gone, along with the little kit with tweezers, clippers, and nail files. Breathing hard, John went to the shower and checked the shelf where Rodney had installed his pH balanced body wash and prescription shampoo next John's products. They were gone. So was the loofah thing Rodney had brought back from New Athos.

The half used container of cocoa butter Rodney used because he claimed John always gave him beard burn was still in one drawer, but John remembered buying that himself.

Rodney's dental floss and dental pick had been removed. So had every prescription bottle bearing his name. His anti-fungal foot powder, his commercial and homemade sunscreens, the unscented anti-perspirant and deodorant, the sterile eyewash and drops, every single item that belonged solely to Rodney had been taken out of the bathroom.

John turned in a circle, looking for any sign of Rodney, the phone ringing forlornly in his ear.

Even the disdained science magazines Rodney left stacked on the toilet tank had been removed.

The only imprint left by Rodney was the emergency medical kit sitting under the bathroom sink next to the combination lockbox holding John's backup piece and ammo. Rodney's version would have been at home in an ambulance. John swore you could remove someone's appendix with the contents of that emergency kit. Rodney kept an identical one in his apartment and had another one in his car before it was blown up.

Looking again, John wandered through the condo, and everywhere he looked something that Rodney had brought and left behind had disappeared. His tee shirts and underwear and socks and spare clothes were gone from the lower drawers of the second dresser along with all the pocket odds and ends he'd always dumped in the top drawer. The pile of books he never had time to read no longer teetered from the floor to the top of the bedside table. The other, better journals that Rodney did read and then carelessly stuff under the bed had been cleaned out.

"Fuck," John whispered.

He'd never realized how careless they'd become. All of it had marked the condo as as much Rodney's as his for anyone looking closely.

He left the phone on the granite kitchen counter and searched cupboards and closets. The coffeemaker was there and the coffee beans sealed in their air-proof container and the grinder, but those had been gifts. Rodney was petty, but not in that way. John couldn't find the bottle with Rodney's vitamins or his extra sized mug that said I'm smarter than you in my sleep, imagine how dumb you are when I'm caffeinated.

Everything.

Gone.

As if every mark he'd made on John's life could be erased.

The final confirmation revealed itself in the third guest room, the one that never had been used, since Rodney always stayed in John's bed with him. Five cardboard boxes sat on the bed. John pulled them open, finding folded clothes, knickknacks, his ragged pair of running shoes. All the detritus of sharing his life with Rodney that had migrated to Rodney's apartment packed up and returned. Even the extra towels John had added to Rodney's linen closet without mentioning it were there, laundered and folded.

The third box had a folded piece of paper and his house keys on top of every else. He prodded the paper into unfolding with one finger, unwilling to pick it up. He recognized Rodney's surprisingly legible scrawl from whiteboards and post-its and notes passed back and forth during boring staff meetings.

The words were his own.

So long, John.

His mind went blank for a long time as he tried to process why Rodney had done this.

He still didn't know what he'd done.

John's hands shook when he picked up the phone again, ended the futile call and used it to access the GTS and enter a transit code, the one that would take him to Rodney's apartment. He didn't care if Carson was there.

The Private Domicile, Access Denied message GTS fed back to him didn't make any sense. He thought he'd punched in the wrong number.

John tried again.

He would have tried a third time, but he'd figured out that Rodney had locked him out.

It felt worse than when Nancy divorced him, worse than the final frozen parting with his father, worse than Holland dying, Dex, Mitch. It felt like being exiled from Atlantis all over again. It left him shaking and weak, hollowed out and as afraid as he'd been while Michael had Teyla, lost as he'd been after Ford deserted them.

The bedroom offered no comfort. Nowhere did. He huddled into one corner of the couch and stared at nothing, trying to make sense of what he'd lost. He didn't know what he'd done, but he'd undo it. He wanted Rodney back, wanted it as fiercely as he'd ever wanted anything, even his mother when she'd died.

Just before dawn, he gave up on sleep and called again, hoping he'd wake Rodney up, but when he tried Rodney's number, he got a recording instead of a ring. The number had been disconnected.

He couldn't face the coffee maker. John drank a glass of water standing in front of the kitchen sink and watched the gray light steadily strengthen, like a black and white picture developing on a sheet of paper, two dimensional and unreal. Throwing things, punching things, yelling, none of that ever made him feel any better. When he'd finished he set the glass down with a faint click. It skidded across the counter top and he just caught it before it tipped off to the floor. His side twinged, a reminder he wasn't one hundred percent. He set the glass down more carefully the second time, aware of the weakness in the arm that had broken.

His doctor had instructed him to eat regularly and take the prescribed supplements, but it seemed pointless. He'd always been eager to get out of the hospital or infirmary before, but this time he hadn't cared and now he understood why. It didn't matter. The condo wasn't a home. He didn't have anyone waiting for him here or anywhere.

All he had was a job.

He felt too wrung out to do more than walk back out of the kitchen and retrieve his laptop.

If he hadn't been so off balance, he would have checked it first. If Rodney had left him a message it would be in an email.

John found himself staring at the date, though, once he had the laptop open before him.

September 1, 2015.

The stargate had been opened to Atlantis the day before, sending through a new military commander, Henri Navat, new personnel, equipment, and 'Joseph Carson'.

He picked up the phone and dialed his own office.

"SGOC, Colonel Sheppard's office, Master Sergeant Addison speaking," Addison answered. "The Colonel is currently unavailable."

"This is Sheppard," John said.

"Excuse me, sir, but aren't you on medical leave?" Addison replied. "And may I add that the entire SGOC is relieved that you're recovering?"

"Thanks, Master Sergeant." John pulled in a deep but soundless breath. "Just set my mind to rest. Did Dr. Beckett's clone and Dr. McKay leave for Atlantis yesterday as planned?"

"Yes sir. UNEC confirmed Dr. McKay as the new Expedition Director for ICGA, I believe, the day before yesterday, as well."

John tapped a key or two on his laptop and checked the subject lines on his email. There was the announcement. He didn't open it, just looked at the screen. Nowhere did he see anything from Rodney.

No message. Of course no message. Rodney knew how paranoid John was about someone reading his email. He hated the thought of private correspondence splashed all over the media. Love letters or sex tapes, what was private should stay that way, and John had never trusted the security of the SGC servers. Nothing committed to writing could ever be relied on to stay secret; words themselves were the antithesis of secrecy, meant to convey knowledge after all.

"Sir? Is that all?"

He realized he'd spaced out on Addison.

"Sorry, Master Sergeant. Yes, thank you. Feel free to drop all of my paper work on Major Kelly or send it over to Colonel Griffin if it's anything outside your own vast expertise. I'll see you in about a week."

"Yes sir. I'll do that."

John scrolled through the rest of his emails. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

So long, John.

He tried to sound normal.

"I may have left half a sandwich in the top drawer of my desk too."

"Yes sir. Already taken care of."

"Good job. I'll just let you go back to whatever it is you do when I'm not around to interfere."

"Good bye, sir."

John ended the call. The cursor on his laptop screen blinked benignly, resting over an email from Captain Benetti in Supply. He clicked it and read the report attached without registering any of the contents.

Rodney was gone.

Back to Atlantis.

He blindly clicked another email report on the effect of the pollen on PX4-9A3 on the cammies SGOC wore. There had been a catalytic reaction with laundry soap residue in the fibers, leading to everyone on the team suffering a purple rash, but no serious harm. Recommendation: all teams visiting PX4-9A3 in its spring wear triple rinsed clothing with all natural fibers.

Rodney had gone back to Atlantis before, but this was different.

John restlessly went to the window and stared out. The view was lost on him, though. He wondered if Rodney had even been at the cabin on the twenty-second. Wouldn't that have been ironic?

What the hell had happened? What had he done? The weirdness had started before that. Before the weekend in California, even, now that he thought about it. Why hadn't Rodney talked to him or said something?

"Bastard," he said. Bastard goddamned sonovabitch. Coward. Fucker.

It didn't help.

Why hadn't he realized something was wrong?

The glass in front of him felt cool under his palm when John pressed his hand flat against it. He leaned into the window and rested his forehead against it. He squeezed his eyes shut.

How stupid was he?

He never saw it coming.

So long, John.

He got the message now. Rodney had gone to Atlantis. He hadn't just left Earth, though, this time.

Rodney had left John.

2016
resign myself to silence

6 February 2016
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Rodney very deliberately didn't let himself think about John for the first weeks after getting back to Atlantis. He had to turn Carson over to Teyla and Ronon's care and then watch his friend leave through the stargate for Genea. The labs were in the sort of disarray that required shouting, glaring, and punishment in the form of scutwork assignments. At least one person had to be shipped back to Earth – no one could work with him. Radek had a new theory that deserved serious consideration and analysis.

Hailey and Lorne were at each other's throats. Rodney suppressed the urge to tell them that they should just get a room instead of sniping at each other all the time. That was something John would have quipped.

A shipment of dehydrated potato flakes from Earth had been contaminated and now the supply rooms had to be fumigated along with the kitchens for fear the persistent spores might spread beyond Atlantis.

He kept busy enough that he dropped off to sleep as soon as his body became horizontal on his bed.

Establishing himself as Director and making sure Colonel Navat knew who had the upper hand made it easier than it should have been, too. He'd been more used to Reynolds' old school SGC ways than he'd realized. Navat came to the UNE from France and there were problems with the still mostly ex-Marine force stationed in Atlantis.

There were staff meetings with Radek and Jennifer every morning. The week after he arrived back, Jennifer straightened her tablet before her and said, "Dr. Lam requested I do a study on everyone I treated for the Shake."

"Is there a problem?" Radek asked after a quick, searching glance at Rodney.

Rodney knew he looked like crap, but it had nothing to do with his health.

"No. She and Colonel Sheppard's other doctor noticed that he seemed to heal faster than normal and she thinks it might be a result of the treatment I used. She wants to compare the results with something mentioned in the Akanital archive."

Rodney looked at her and wondered curiously why she hadn't gone back to Earth in years. She had stayed in Atlantis even when the rest of the command staff had gone for the Disclosure Day festivities. It seemed strange. He added a note to himself to make sure Jennifer took a vacation soon. She looked tired enough that she needed it.

"Something happened to Colonel Sheppard?" Radek asked.

"Shot," Rodney snapped. "Two weeks ago."

Radek stared at him. "And you are here?"

Rodney shrugged and mumbled, "I'm needed here, not there."

Radek's mouth opened. Rodney glared at him. He closed it, blinked at the screen of his laptop, and then said, "We're ready to begin Simulation Series 438 Beta and Gamma in Materials Lab A12 this week." He avoided the subject of John Sheppard and anything that had happened after that, to Rodney's great relief.

Teyla only mentioned John to him once, relaying that he had recovered completely following the shooting after the next databurst. Which meant they were in touch. She watched Rodney afterward. He ignored the way her eyes went sad.

Ronon never said anything and Rodney desperately wanted to ask him why, but talked himself out of it each time. Knowing Ronon despised him for leaving John the way Rodney had wouldn't help him.

Not that he had time to hang out with anyone for recreation anyway, but Ronon and Teyla reminded him of when they were all a team and he didn't want that.

They were just as busy as him anyway. Movie nights and PT and missions were all artifacts of the past. None of the three of them patronized the officers' club, the enlisteds' club was in a sense off limits to command staff and diplomats, and the civilian version didn't appeal. Rodney could get drunk in his quarters without adding a noise headache to his incipient hangover, after all. Ronon had Anaraya and Teyla had to be fighting for every spare minute she could spend with Tanaan.

Teyla gated between Genea, New Athos, P2G-334 – a previously culled world the Concord had chosen as its capitol – and Earth twice a week. When Ronon wasn't with her, he was still unofficially training SGOC personnel and teaching. They all saw each other at meetings, at lunches taken in the mess hall, when Anaraya held dinners that included Rodney on the guest list or when Rodney visited Tanaan, but Rodney saw the distance growing between his old teammates and himself and did nothing to stop it.

In the bitterest, loneliest hours of the night, Rodney thought that before he'd come back as Director – before he'd left John – Teyla would have tried harder to hold them together. Rationally, in the daylight, he acknowledged that Voice Emmagan had already detached herself from the Tau'ri before that.

He still hated O'Neill, but he understood him so much better now.

Rodney couldn't persuade Jennifer to take any time off, so he began spending his free time with her. They'd always liked each other and she didn't look at him with silent questions the way his other friends did.

Every time the stargate opened and they received a databurst from the SGC, Rodney braced himself, but there was never a personal email from John. He didn't expect a hard copy letter, either, not from John. He'd done a fine job of making sure John couldn't talk to him about anything personal and a better job, thanks to the way he'd left while John was still in the hospital, of making sure he wouldn't want to talk anyway. It became clear when John took over the SGOC and put Colonel Michaelson in charge of liaising with Atlantis that there would be no contact at all.

Rodney just had to live with it.

He'd gone through his apartment and returned anything of John's left there before gating to Atlantis, only to face all the bits and pieces he'd kept there, even hoarded, of John from before John was reassigned. He couldn't send those back to John after more than two years. It didn't take much rationalizing to persuade himself that John would never know Rodney still kept those reminders in his quarters. If John ever returned to Atlantis, it surely wouldn't be to Rodney's quarters.

The announcement of John's confirmation as SGOCOM arrived just before Christmas, along with news of his promotion to general and the regular SGC gossip. The rumors about John and Vala picked up again after New Year's, too, and then that he had been seen with Polly Hastings or that he'd begun dating his way through the female half of the ICGA. Rodney tried to ignore all of it.

Atlantis now had a Personal Package Post Officer. Rodney let him make sure the packages shipped in for Tanaan and various other friends from John were distributed. He received nothing.

Making Rodney deal with Michaelson had to be John's most passive-aggressive punishment. Rodney couldn't stand her. Navat and he clashed every time Navat stepped into Rodney's office, but off-duty Henri was courteous and even charming. He dealt well with the civilian contingent and the Iirijjinii.

Michaelson still called Ronon and Teyla natives.

The video conferences were the absolute worst. The way she pursed her lips before her stupidest, most infuriating statements fascinated and repelled Rodney. He finally instructed Chuck to 'accidentally' lose the connection if Rodney ever couldn't take it any more and gave the emergency signal.

He knew damn well John was avoiding those conferences. Each time he and sometimes even Navat would have to fight with Michaelson over every item on the agenda. She refused things, it seemed, on the principle that they thought they were good ideas. Then in the next databurst, they would be approved under General Sheppard's signature, proving at least John didn't extend his resentment of Rodney to the welfare of Atlantis.

"Absolutely unacceptable," Michaelson declared when Rodney mentioned the Iirijjinii Consulate within Atlantis needed to bring in more people and have access to the stargate. Navat wasn't thrilled with Pegasus people in the control room either, but held his tongue.

Rodney had to force the issue through to the OOA on the grounds it wasn't a security issue but a diplomatic one. Jackson backed him eventually.

New directives from the SGOC arrived one databurst later, along with a message from John to Navat that Navat showed him: Do what you need to so that this works. Listen to McKay and Lorne. JS. It actually felt worse realizing John still trusted Rodney to do the right thing for Atlantis after the way Rodney had left him, without knowing all the reasons why Rodney had done it.

He could sense the state of the city now, clearer than he had after the gene therapy, a steady feeling of efficient operation, the hum of a well-tuned engine or maybe the purr of a cat.

The cat spent most of its time in Rodney's quarters, but he took a sort of glee in bringing it to his office. Not the labs, because hair did not go with delicate equipment and experiments, but sitting in his desk chair in the office that now officially belonged to him, and holding it in his arms let him channel more than one movie villain. It threw Navat every time, though not the Iirijjinii. They didn't have the pop culture context to find it disturbing.

Rodney especially loved to hold Cat and stroke him while on video conference with Michaelson.

Chuck started calling him Director Evil.

He took his wins where he could find them.

18 March 2016
Milky Way
Earth, Denver

Cam looked down at the stargate from the Cheyenne Mountain control room and shook his head. Construction had completely shut down gate use. Gate missions were being run through the gate in the Emerson's cargo hold while it orbited Earth.

"What a mess," he commented.

John leaned back against a gutted computer console, his arms folded, and nodded his agreement. Every single construction worker had to be cleared by HSA. It had slowed everything from the bids on the contract work to the continuing remodeling. He still thought the improvements would be worth it.

The revamped gate room included improved dialing computers with the full safety back-ups a DHD provided and a shield modeled on Atlantis', along with the trinium iris that would automatically close if the system lost power.

The gate opened into a massive, circular white tunnel designed to handle a jumper or one of the fold-wing 302s. Four lines of blue lights ran along its length, lighting up in directional sequence matching incoming or outgoing gate activation. At the far end from the stargate, the tunnel curled upward to overhead doors that would open to allow either a 302 or a jumper to exit through the original missile shaft to hangars on another level. Tunnel and shaft would be equipped with a variety of defensive weaponry and quarantine measures.

Those quarantine measures would duplicate the extensive ones built into the tunnel, already nicknamed the Pipe.

After each incoming gate activation, the gate would be dialed out to to an orbital destination – a gate repositioned for that purpose outside any star system – and the atmosphere in the Pipe vented to vacuum. Following that, the Pipe would be completely sterilized with a mixture of short-lived radiation, a contained EMP, electrical and anti-replicator charges, chemical baths, and blast furnace heat. If necessary, temperatures inside the quarantine zone could be dropped to near absolute zero.

Still being installed was the security station adjunct to the control room to monitor a bank of camera feeds from the quarantine zone, watching through the human visual spectrum, infra-red, ultraviolet, and transphase frequencies, along with radiation detectors, energy sensors, and a series of laser net motion sensors.

Outgoing teams entered from one-way blast doors, complete with airlock, on the right when facing toward the gate.

Teams returning on foot from offworld would proceed up the Pipe and through a set of blast doors on the left, where they went through to decontamination showers and then into Medical One. Medical One would operate separately from the regular base infirmary and labs and under biohazard protocols at all times. Automated bioscanners also modeled off the Ancients' equipment in Atlantis were being installed to examine everyone arriving via the stargate. Teams returning from previously unsurveyed addresses would be quarantined in isolation rooms equipped with computers and cameras for preliminary debriefings.

"Anyone ever tell you you were paranoid?" Cam asked.

"The SGC used up all its luck already," John replied. He'd been blasé about the possible threat of contamination and infection the program had run since the beginning, until he read the Biothreat Assessments generated by ICGA's xenobiologists.

"Yeah, well, I'm telling you, I've seen morgues that were more welcoming."

John agreed, but that was the point. The Pipe and the SGOC wouldn't welcome any threats to Earth coming in through the stargate.

They wouldn't be spreading contamination from Earth to other worlds accidentally now either; something the UNEC could put out in their next press release.

It probably wouldn't quiet the Green Galaxy demonstrations in Denver and outside Cheyenne Mountain, but the rest of the world might stop listening to their propaganda. The Exo Ecos had been throwing fits since they used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the original proposals the SGC's scientists had put together for the Environmental Preserve Worlds.

Talking heads were on the screen every night, debating whether Earth had the right to export its endangered species to populate other worlds. The UNE had already begun the program though and John didn't see it stopping.

Personally, he didn't see the problem. P4D-R44 had an eco system designed by the Ancients to support Earth species. They weren't supplanting a unique xenosystem there.

He'd even accompanied a mission to R44 after being cleared by Lam. The zoologists had been introducing pairs of cheetahs to thin the growing herds. He'd sat on the tailgate of a naquadah generator-powered, converted APC, and watched two of the cats cautiously pad out of the chain link enclosure where they'd been rematerialized out of a modified Wraith storage device. They had moved into the long, amber grass of a plain that hadn't seen humans since the Ancients abandoned it.

The sunset had been beautiful, the sky washed in crimson and yellow, the light heavy as honey. The cheetahs had loped out onto the plain, silhouetted black against the golden disc of the sun.

The biologists and vets had broken out beer and wine afterward to celebrate reaching the third stage of the overall plan. SGC teams had begun it long before disclosure, when they had seeded R44 with grasses over a decade before. Some of the crew on R44 were people who had been with the program when the reality they were shaping now had been conceived. Some of them had joined the ICGA just to take part in it. All of them were happier than John had seen anyone in years, filled with the same excitement that had hummed through the Atlantis Expedition the day they stepped into the Pegasus Galaxy.

He'd pushed that thought away, though.

SGOC and ICGA had mingled together among the base camp tents, torches had been lit and placed on poles, and a guitar was passed around until it reached someone who could actually play.

John danced with one of the big cat specialists, ate barbecue, and forgot about Rodney for at least an hour when Sophia took him back to her tent.

He woke up feeling like an adulterer.

He hadn't gone back to R44 since, instead throwing himself into the job as SGOCOM.

The renovations were due to be finished in a month. He wouldn't need to beam up to the Emerson every day after that. He thought Carter would stick with her new suite of offices in the UNE Tower, though. More and more, the SGC needed to stay within the loop of the UNEC's dealings.

SGOCOM satisfied John. He was happy to leave the political side to Carter, Jackson, and O'Neill.

He'd rebelled against authority often enough it felt strange to be in charge, but it felt good to accomplish things. He understood why Rodney had taken the position as Director of the Atlantis Expedition.

He didn't understand why Rodney had done it they way he had, but John had gotten the message. He kept it professional and let Michaelson burn off her resentment of his elevation to general by being a bitch to Navat and Rodney.

Rodney wasn't the only one who could be petty and after he'd numbed to the hurt, John had been angry. He still was.

Besides, he didn't like Michaelson and thought she deserved to have to deal with Rodney.

The arrangement was win-win as far as he was concerned and let him avoid thinking about Atlantis unless it was absolutely necessary.

John found he was happiest when he didn't think about Atlantis.

22 April 2016
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

"Jennifer," Radek called out from where they were sitting in the mess, well before Rodney could swallow and do the same, "come over here. Join us."

Afternoon light filled the mess hall through the sparkling clean windows, shining white off every smooth surface. Summer on New Lantea came earlier and lasted longer than on Earth or Old Lantea. Outside, on the balconies, several scientists had stripped down to shorts and tee shirts to sun themselves while they ate their lunches. Inside, Rodney still had carrot sticks and a square of a traditional Satedan baked good – Lanteans had dubbed it carmy for its likeness to caramel and brownies – as well as the other other half of his sandwich on his bright yellow tray.

Rodney chewed his mouthful of roast beast sandwich doggedly and raised his hand in a come hither gesture, backing up Radek's invitation. Lorne, ever the gentleman, rose to his feet and pulled out a chair for her.

Jennifer wended her way through the less than overflowing collection of tables to theirs. She smiled at them all, slightly distracted, and set down her tray with its salad. She'd pushed her hair behind her ears. "Hey," she murmured.

Lorne sat back down. "Doctor."

Radek's attention switched back to Rodney. "I believe we will find out answer in the 500 series."

Rodney shook his head, swallowed finally without choking, and told him, "Wrong, wrong, wrong. There is no way the 500 series will give us any more than the 300 series did. 700. That's where we'll see the difference."

"You are too pessimistic, Rodney."

"When did you start believing in magic?"

"I do not believe in magic," Radek insisted. "If you would consider the alloy properties of Elements 43 and 87 when catalyzed by 25 under five gravities' pressure – "

Rodney waved a carrot stick at him. "I have considered it. It's stable until you have a temperature drop of four degrees Kelvin or more per minute and then BLOOEY! I think you will agree with me that ZPM casings do not go blooey if expelled into vacuum unexpectedly, so we can logically deduce that they are not made with Elements 43, 87, and 25 at any pressure."

"Not made of," Radek agreed reluctantly, "but possibly made with. We have not finished the process."

"You know I'm right."

Radek rolled his eyes. "You may be, but you have not proved it."

"Series 700, Radek, when we introduce Element 132 – "

"You do not even know what Element is 132, unless you have hacked random identification code key."

Rodney stuffed his carmy in his mouth.

Radek threw up his hands and muttered in a mixture of Czech, Athosian and Russian. "Why do we even pretend this is a blind simulation?"

"So we don't have recreate the entire experiment for documentation when I'm proved right and we submit our work before receiving our very well deserved Nobel Prizes," Rodney said through a mouthful of dessert.

Lorne winced and looked toward Jennifer. She had begun picking at her salad. "Everything okay with you, Doc?"

She sighed. "The last databurst from Earth included the answer to my proposal we bring groups with neurological damage here for treatment." She gave them all a weak smile. "The UNE refused. Not cost effective. Apparently a lot of people have objections to major DNA changes as well."

"The Pure," Rodney said. "They'd object to anyone receiving a therapy that introduced Ancient DNA." He awkwardly patted Jennifer's arm.

She nibbled her salad without losing her glum expression.

"Nasty," Lorne commented.

"You haven't been back lately, have you?" Rodney grimaced and set his half-eaten carmy down. "You can't believe how popular they are in the US."

"Stronger than the Neo-Isolationists?" Lorne asked.

"Much."

"They're the ones who shot Col – General Sheppard last August."

He didn't like thinking about it. All his doomsday scenarios and he'd never truly considered the possibility of John bleeding out alone and trapped in a crashed HEUV while Rodney calmly sorted their things apart and boxed up John's. He didn't let himself sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time between the time he heard John had been shot to when he reached his quarters, his empty, sound-proofed quarters, in Atlantis. He dreamed he signed his farewell note in John's heart's blood and shouted himself awake for months.

No wonder John had never sent a single word, any more than Rodney had.

Rodney had definitely lost his appetite. "HSA hasn't confirmed it, but probably. They hate him and O'Neill. According the Reverend Marshal Barnes, they're the vanguard of an alien invasion bent on subverting humanity into nothing more than breeding stock." He stared at the carmy. If Ronon had been sitting with them, he would have snatched it up and eaten it, never mind Rodney's toothmarks. After all, they'd bled and sweated and wept on each other. What was a little spit after that?

Ronon was on P2G-334, doing something ministerial, though. Teyla was on Earth for the next week, in talks with the UNE again. Rodney didn't pretend to understand Concord politics; he barely understood the UNE's. He kept up as best he could, though, and Teyla told him things on the sly that never made it to the UNE.

The Concord wanted equal control of Atlantis. The City of the Ancestors resided in their galaxy. They considered it as much their inheritance as the Tau'ri's.

Rodney didn't need to be a politician to know the UNE wouldn't give up an iota of control except under duress.

He hoped Teyla wouldn't let it come to that.

Lorne shook his head. "It didn't seem that bad last time I was on leave."

"Your name is on their list," Rodney told him.

He decided he'd had enough lunch. Radek would be back in the labs overseeing the simulations on potential ZPM casings, while Rodney spent another chunk of his valuable time reading reports and writing them. He had to get himself a trustworthy administrative assistant, someone who wouldn't be a spy for HSA or Shen or any of the other wolves slavering at his door. Military was completely out, of course.

It would need to be someone already on Atlantis. He had no intention of returning to Earth to interview applicants and wouldn't accept anyone assigned to him by the ICGA. Doing the latter would be the same as requisitioning a spy.

He needed someone neutral.

Someone without Tau'ri loyalties.

Rodney snapped his fingers.

"What is it?" Radek asked, excitement sparking in his eyes.

"What?" Rodney stared at him.

"You have had an epiphany?"

"Yes, yes, I'm going to hire Onda as my admin."

Lorne chuckled as Radek subsided in his chair. "Bureaucracy getting to you?"

"You cannot even imagine, Major," Rodney replied, "and I say that with the realization that you did all of Sheppard's paperwork previous to the last two military regimes."

"Colonel Navat's not bad," Lorne protested.

Navat was easier to get along with than Reynolds had been now that he'd settled in. He listened to Rodney and didn't look at him with that veiled 'you would have killed Teal'c' contempt Reynolds had.

"That's a marvelous idea," Jennifer commented. She smiled at Rodney. "I know she's complained of being bored lately and Chuck's taught her all our operating systems."

"When did you see her?"

"Her annual check up. We were talking afterward."

Rodney was already planning how to pay her without funds from the ICGA. It would have to be a sub rosa appointment. Any official job would require someone doing a background investigation and clearances. Rodney didn't want HSA agents in Atlantis, though he found the idea of them trying to research Onda's background among the Athosians almost amusing.

Almost.

Rodney didn't mention any of that. He'd wait until he had his ducks in a row and he'd go over it with Chuck first too. Chuck had a surprisingly sly mind and after so many years ruled the control room as an absolute yet subtle tyrant.

Rodney admired that.

He bussed his tray absently and headed for his office.

Lorne caught up to him at the transporter. They stepped inside together.

"Major?"

Lorne touched a destination hub that would make them walk for about five minutes to reach the control room and Rodney's office.

"Sir, on our last mission, Jinto had us take a side trip," Lorne said quietly as the doors slid shut.

When they opened, Rodney didn't step out.

"That didn't make any report."

"No sir. It was just to drop off a book he'd picked up at the bazaar on 613 for his father. No reason to clog up the AAR."

They started walking, taking the route that bypassed the armory and other military domains. It also avoided most internal city surveillance. Without any indication it was deliberate, Lorne's face always faced away from any camera pick-ups as he spoke.

"I sincerely doubt anyone at the SGC is interested in how Jinto Hallinggan is getting along with his father," Rodney agreed. He gestured to one of the balconies. "That sandwich must have been made out of lead. I need some fresh air."

Lorne followed him out, where no sound pick-ups could record their words over the wind that always blew at the higher levels of the city's towers.

"Where did you go, if it wasn't New Athos or the Capitol?" Rodney asked. "I assume it wasn't. You wouldn't be so paranoid if it had been."

"M9R-568."

Rodney didn't have an eidetic memory, but he retained anything that interested him in the slightest, synthesizing the vast array of knowledge in ways other specialists never managed. He remembered the designation, the way he remembered every mission AR-1 had ever been on, though there had been no shooting.

"Sir, the Travellers were there, as well as the Concord," Lorne said.

"They're restoring the shipyard."

The Ancient shipyard Rodney had dismissed as not worth the effort. But it would be worth the effort for the fledgling Concord. They didn't have access to Tau'ri ships.

"Sir, it looked like they'd have that Aurora-class ready in another year."

Rodney hmmed. "Thank you, Major."

Lorne nodded.

"I don't think we need to bother Colonel Navat with this. The Concord is our ally after all."

Jinto hadn't taken Lorne and his team there carelessly, Rodney knew. It had probably been arranged by Halling, who held some kind of post just under Ladon Radim in the Concord. Not chance that it had been Lorne and his team of old hands who could be counted on to bring the news to Rodney first.

"So you think the Travellers have joined the Concord?" he asked.

"I think so."

"Forewarned is forearmed, they say," Rodney muttered. He would send an encrypted heads up to Jackson. The ICGA had its own intelligence arm, but most intelligence gathering in Pegasus was done through the SGOC teams that came and went, using the ad hoc network John and Teyla and Ronon and Lorne had built from scratch. This would be better kept out of official channels.

The UNE hadn't liked the thought of the Concord. They'd hate the idea of the Concord with its own interstellar capable starships.

"I've heard that, sir," Lorne commented.

Rodney frowned at the distant white caps. "How are they going to deal with needing the ATA?"

"Dr. Beckett, I mean, Joseph Carson was there," Lorne answered.

Of course.

Rodney decided he'd leave that out of even his unofficial report to Jackson.

30 May 2016
Milky Way
Earth, Denver

Jeannie couldn't guilt John into anything if he didn't talk to her, but John couldn't refuse a call from Madison – even if Master Sergeant Addison would have allowed it – and one, "Please come to my party, Uncle John," accompanied by a sad sniff, and he folded.

"I'll be there, squirt," he assured her.

Madison squealed high enough it hurt his ear even through the phone. "Yes!"

John winced.

"I'm going to be thirteen," Madison told him seriously. "I'm not a squirt anymore, Uncle John."

"Then what are you?" he asked, fond and indulgent, leaning back in his desk chair. He was the general now. No one would say anything if he spent his day taking a personal phone call. Listening to Madison certainly beat reading memos from Michaelson. Not as good as leading a mission offworld, but he didn't get to do that nearly as often as he'd like any longer and had begun a social life outside the SGC for the first time as a consequence.

"Daddy says I'm a 'young lady' now," Madison confided. He could hear the eye roll even through the phone. "I've got my period and everything."

John shuddered and nearly dropped the receiver. Jesus, he thought, he didn't need to know that.

"Way TMI, Mads," he groaned.

She giggled.

"The teacher in Health class said it's an important part of developing into a responsible and happy adult and that there was nothing my body did to be ashamed of," Madison recited. "It's natural."

"There isn't," John offered. He gulped and floundered on. "I mean, it is. Natural. For girls." He wondered if Jeannie had any idea what Madison was telling him and if she did, did she realize how completely out of his depth he was?

"It's gross," Madison said. "And I get cramps."

"I'm sorry?"

This was hell. Obviously, Jeannie had coached Madison on the subject just to torture John for dodging her phone calls. He recognized McKay style revenge when it hit him.

"So you promise you'll come to my birthday?"

"Pinky swear," John said, deeply relieved that she'd dropped the last subject.

"Good. You can meet my boyfriend."

"You're too – " He swallowed the rest of his words, – young to have a boyfriend, and substituted, " – kind."

He cleared his schedule for the day in question, checked Madison's online wishlist at the stores Jeannie had pre-approved and bought her a set of age appropriate earrings and a pair of knee high boots in purple leather he guessed she'd never have persuaded Jeannie or Kaleb to buy. Wrapped presents in hand, he transited from the Springs to Vancouver and took an electric taxi from the public GTS station to the Millers' house.

Jeannie opened the door when he knocked and inspected him with a less than friendly look. It appeared he was still in the doghouse with her.

John opened his mouth to ask if Rodney had told her why and snapped it shut again. More than six months had passed since Rodney disappeared from his life. He had to get over it.

"Hey, Jeannie," he greeted her, instead.

"You're not a liar, so I figured you'd be here after promising Madison," Jeannie said.

John hefted the presents higher with his left arm. "Yeah."

"Don't think it means I'm forgiving you for not taking my calls," she finished, before she stepped aside so that he could walk into the house.

"I've been busy," John excused himself, even knowing how lame that sounded.

It took an instant for John's eyes to adapt to the dark hallway. He followed Jeannie through the familiar house and ignored the pictures mounted on the walls. Pictures of Madison and Kaleb and Jeannie and Rodney. The impulse to pause and search for any new ones had to be ruthlessly suppressed.

He studied Jeannie instead. Almost a year had passed since he'd seen her last. July. Things had already begun to go bad between him and Rodney then in hindsight.

Jeannie still looked good. She stayed fit and wore her light sweater and jeans with the comfort of a woman who knew it. Age wanted to soften Rodney, but Jeannie seemed to go in the other direction, so that she had hardened at the mental and physical edges. Her new chin-length hair cut, a cloud of corkscrew curls, seemed aimed at balancing that out. He knew she and Kaleb had wanted and planned for another child but it hadn't happened. She didn't consult with the ICGA either. Giving up her Canadian citizenship for a UNE one had been something Jeannie refused to do. She presented the appearance of perfect contentment and happiness, but John caught a hint of dissatisfaction from her.

That might have just been dissatisfaction with him, though.

She paused at the doorway into the living room. Her shoulders and spine were still stiff with McKay-ian outrage. John waited for whatever else she had to say. He could hear Madison's voice rising over several others and realized the party must be in the backyard.

"Thank you for coming," she said with angry care.

"Madison invited me," he replied.

Jeannie looked over her shoulder at him. John had to fight not to look away. Not from her, but from the way he kept tracing Rodney's face and expressions over hers.

"You didn't want to."

No, he hadn't. He didn't like to clutch after something that had already gone. Reminders weren't good. They made ignoring how he felt harder, made it take even longer to cover over what had been in the soft dust of day to day life.

"Well, come on," Jeannie said and gestured. "Madison's in the back yard."

Next year he'd send Madison a gift and make sure he was offworld. He was the general now. Power had its perks, corruption and all.

14 July 2016
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

He took Jennifer offworld to New Athos with him and wrote it up as a diplomatic dinner with the Voice of the Concord and not a raucous and happy day long celebration of Tanaan's seventh year that knocked the hell out of Atlantis' Disclosure Day festivities.

Rodney found himself paired with Haizu Ninga, one of the shinzhir Dels, in a traditional Athosian dance. Once the priestess shed her heavy gray silk outer robe to reveal a simple sleeveless shirt and leather pants, they didn't do so badly. Neither of them knew the steps or had much in the way of natural grace, but two or three mugs of beer just made it that much more fun.

When they were both too breathless to stay in the circle of more athletic Athosians, there was more beer, and Rodney watched Ronon dance with Teyla and Jennifer and Anaraya, followed by Penny and Onda. Rodney was a sweaty mess after one dance; Ronon didn't even breathe hard until Anaraya put him through his paces.

Tanaan and the other Athosian kids darted through the crowd of adults. He stopped once to solemnly thank Rodney for the presents from Earth, including the one shipped in from John, then ran off to play Wraithkiller, with the mock power gun Ladon Radim had given him.

Rodney felt pretty sure the play pistol had been modeled on Ronon's. The other Athosian kids had carved wooden P90s, stunners, and models of Genii arms. They all also had real knives that they likely knew how to use in a fight thanks to Ronon's schooling.

Haizu let Halling drag her back into the dance.

Tanaan and his cohorts were quarreling over who would have to wear the drone masks and the wigs of long, white yarn. Tanaan seemed to be winning. There was some pushing and shoving going on though.

Teyla materialized at Rodney's side.

"As a child on Athos," she said, "we fought over who would be the Wraith when we played Wraith and Runner."

"So nothing much has changed."

She slanted him an enigmatic smile.

"What?"

"We fought to play the Wraith, because the Wraith could not be defeated."

Rodney blinked. "Oh."

She rested her hand on his arm, her touch light as the brush of a butterfly's wing. "Nothing is forever," she told him, as if in some mysterious fashion he should take that not as the prospect of the eventual heat death of their universe but as a promise.

The mouthwatering scent of smoke and meat caught Rodney's attention. He lifted his head and sniffed. "Are they digging out the roast beast now?"

"Yes."

Rodney's mouth began to water. "Let's go, I want some of that."

He pried Jennifer away from two Athosians he remembered as being younger to eat with him. They sat together at one of the many tables the Athosians had sat out and ate by flicker of torchlight under the scintillant arc of the Pegasus stars seen from edge on.

"Aren't you glad you came?" he asked.

Jennifer smiled and nodded. "I'm even gladder no one served landsquid."

Athosian beer and pit-roasted beast and sweet honey cakes fried on flat round stones set into the glowing bed of coals left after cooking the meat were as familiar to his palate now as any holiday foods on Earth. He had to work at it, but Rodney did the diplomatic round among the Concord members who were attending out of honor for Teyla after they ate. Jennifer gracefully slipped away to rejoin the dancers. The beer went to everyone's heads and most tongues loosened. Rodney listened.

Lorne had been right: the Travellers had officially taken a place in the Concord. Effectively, the Concord had just bought itself an interstellar fleet.

He ran into Carson on his way to the serving tables for seconds, well after most people had headed back through the stargate to their own home planets, warm beds, and hangover preventatives.

There was a bottle of Demeskari brandy involved after that. Rodney's memories blurred. There had been singing, though, while they sat at a table that soon emptied of everyone else. Then Carson had teared up and Rodney had been drunk enough to try to explain why he'd had to leave John.

"I had to, you see," Rodney told him. "Damn O'Neill. I was happier when I was selfish, you know."

Carson kept nodding until he keeled over onto Rodney's shoulder, nearly knocking him to the ground. Rodney tried to push him off, but he couldn't let go of his mug and ended sloshing brandy onto Carson's arm. That was all right, though, because Carson was getting Rodney's shoulder all wet and snotty.

"It was for the good of two galaxies," he mumbled into his mug.

"I miss Scotland," Carson blubbered into Rodney's shirt.

"I miss Scotland, too," Rodney told him.

Carson raised his head enough to peer at Rodney. His breath made Rodney blink. One spark and the fumes would probably light. "You should stay away from the torches."

"I didn't know you missed Scotland," Carson slurred. "You should miss," he paused to belch and poke Rodney's collarbone with one finger, "you should miss Canada!"

"I can miss Scotland if I want to," Rodney argued contrarily.

"Why?"

"Are you saying there's nothing to miss about Scotland?"

"There's everything to miss about Scotland," Carson declared, affronted and swaying where he sat.

"That's why I miss him – it," Rodney blurted.

"Oh." Carson belched again. "You do?"

"All the time," Rodney confirmed. He gulped down the last of his brandy. "Stupid hair and all."

"I want to go home," Carson said.

Rodney fumbled around and found the bottle.

"Teyla says nothing's forever," he confided. He emptied the brandy into their mugs equally then shook the empty bottle. It looked like she'd been right about the brandy. Rodney sighed. He was going to regret this in the morning. "Have another drink while you can."

Jennifer steered him home and through Atlantis' corridors after that. She left him water and aspirin next to his bed and turned the comm to his quarters off, so the incoming wormhole alert didn't send him bolting to his feet in the morning, for which mercy Rodney believed she deserved to be sainted.

That she still spoke to him after his drunken invitation to sleep with him just before he passed out confirmed it.

18 September 2016
Milky Way
Earth, Paris and Denver

John used point-to-point transits constantly, permanently pissing off his security team.

"You're the assholes who told me predictability is death," he told the HS agent in charge of his detail when they complained. "If you don't know where I'm going, no one else can either."

"We're in charge off protecting you while you're on Earth," the agent protested. "We can't do that if we can't find you."

John smirked at him.

"Hey, ever find the leak in the agency?" he asked and went on doing as he pleased.

Teyla disliked the security details too. They skipped out on hers by transiting directly from the Iirijjinii Embassy to the street outside John's favorite restaurant. Sunday afternoon in Denver became Sunday evening in Paris, with black pavement and white reflections in the puddles, and they fled inside from the rain-washed street, laughing, beads of water glittering in their hair.

They were taken straight to John's favorite table, where no one would bother them. The candles on it flickered with their words; the beeswax melting its scent into the air, and the flames were a reminder of old missions and different worlds. Their light gilded Teyla, turned her copper and bronze, like a dark-eyed, solemn Byzantine icon.

"I bring Vala here," he said. "She shops."

"It is rather late here for that," Teyla replied.

John shrugged. "We stay overnight."

"I see."

The waiter approached at John's subtle cue, letting him evade any efforts to probe his private life. Teyla looked at him sometimes like she knew it all anyway. He'd canceled with his latest not quite girlfriend, to spend his afternoon with Teyla. Silvia hadn't been thrilled – she'd told him to run back to his alien girlfriends – but there had been no question in John's mind. A chance to spend time with Teyla trumped keeping any of his line of casual bed partners. He imagined he'd find someone else soon enough.

If he didn't, he didn't care much anyway. Sex was good, sex was healthy, and he'd decided to have has much as he could once he stopped feeling like a cheater. He slept around like an alley cat these days according to Cam, but it was just distraction; he didn't let anything ever become serious.

If Silvia had thought she was the one to change that, she'd seriously miscalculated. He wouldn't even miss her and he didn't care what that made him. He'd been honest with her up front.

They ordered without fuss: wine and fish, bread, a meal not unlike many they'd shared elsewhere. Midnight in Paris with a beautiful woman might have been more romantic if she didn't know him inside and out. Years had complicated and changed them from who they had been when they'd shared that short-lived telepathic bond along with Rodney and Aiden, but Teyla still knew him better than his wife or any other woman had. He loved her, but he'd never been in love with her and she knew why, though it had never been spoken out loud.

"So," he said, "the Travellers."

"Yes," she replied.

"Is that what you're going to talk to the Council about tomorrow?"

Teyla paused with her fork on her plate. "No." She delicately separated a portion of fish and lifted it to her mouth.

John waited before asking, "Anything I should know about?"

"As a friend of Pegasus or as General of the SGOC?"

"Either?" He raised his eyebrows, feeling intrigued.

"I will begin negotiating for a greater Concord presence and share of authority in Atlantis tomorrow."

He held his glass up and admired the color of the wine with the candlelight through it, then sipped, thinking about intergalactic politics.

"They won't go for it."

"It does not seem likely," Teyla answered placidly. "I am patient and determined, however."

"So this will be just the opening salvo."

She smiled again. "To use your metaphor, we are prepared to lay a very long siege."

"Just as a metaphor?"

"The fish is very good," Teyla remarked, closing the subject without answering, which was answer enough.

John could draw his own conclusions, but that didn't carry the weight that knowing would. He could remain silent in good conscience so long as he had no actual facts, just speculation as to what the Concord would eventually do.

"I thought you'd like it."

"Like the pocha from Tish."

John remembered Tish. He'd lured Rodney down to the black sand beach while three moons chased each other overhead and they'd made out until the incoming tide soaked their bare feet. The ache behind his breastbone that he successfully ignored ninety-nine percent of the time expanded with the unexpected memory.

"Yeah, I guess it is."

He would never order this dish here again.

"How's Tanaan?" he asked.

"Good. Tall like his father, already." Teyla looked wistful as she referred to Kanaan. "I left him with Ronon and Anaraya."

"They're still together?"

He'd always kind of thought Teyla and Ronon would end up together, but Ronon once confided after too much Ruus wine that he'd thought John and Teyla were together when he came to Atlantis and never quite got over the idea any interest would have been misplaced. Not that he had been interested, those first years after he stopped running and could finally mourn Sateda and his dead.

"Did you think they wouldn't be?"

John shook his head. "No idea. I'm out of the loop."

"You do not stay in touch."

"Kind of hard, under the circumstances."

Teyla pressed her lips together but nodded.

She was never bringing Tanaan back to Earth, John figured, no matter what she'd once said or genuinely intended. Not after her brush with Norton Glenn and Tau'ri politics. He couldn't actually disagree with her decision. Tanaan would make too good a hostage. Teyla was too smart to take such a chance with her only child. Before she had been part of AR-1, now she spoke for another galaxy.

"Maybe you could let Lorne take some pictures and send me them," he suggested.

"Rodney does not – "

"Or maybe Zelenka." John wiped his mouth with his napkin, folded it and set it beside his plate, uninterested in the half eaten meal still left. "Unofficially. Colonel Michaelson is the SGOC official liaison with Colonel Navat and the Expedition Director." He tried to never even say Rodney's name if he didn't have to. Even McKay sounded as intimate, as freighted with memory, as 'Rodney' did. Director could be anyone, had been others, would be again someday. "She's not that interested in family pics."

"No, nor is she very popular in Atlantis," Teyla said. "I believe Ladon's sister recorded Tanaan's birthday party. I will ask for a copy. I'm sure Major Lorne will arrange for you to receive it."

"Never going to get used to you and the Genii being buddy buddy."

"Ladon has proved himself to be an able statesman. The Concord would not have the strength it does without him."

John watched her finish her meal and told funny stories about some of the crazier SGOC missions. They passed on dessert and took a walk instead. The rain had passed while they were inside, leaving behind only slick streets and damp.

"It's not really too smart," John admitted. He watched the shadows and alleys cautiously. He had a zat, a knife, and a backup piece – transiting without messing with customs made transporting weapons across borders frighteningly easy, however only four people that John knew of had that sort of override access – but he preferred to avoid trouble if possible. He waved his hand to the street and themselves. "Wandering around like this. I just get sick of the constant eyes. But you shouldn't do this by yourself here."

"I have been taking care of myself since before the Tau'ri came to Athos," Teyla pointed out, sounding amused, as she always had been, by his concern for her.

John looked to the side at her. "The Tok'ra have been taking care of themselves a lot longer than any of us and the Fundies got to one of them."

"These Fundamentalists and Neo-Isolationists," Teyla murmured. "I confess, I do not understand their desire to turn their backs on the universe or reality."

"Really?" John asked. "All those cultures that worship the Ancestors and didn't want to take a chance on even trying to fight the Wraith didn't strike you as the same sort of mind set?"

She stayed silent as they wandered down a set of steps toward a quiet stretch where they could see the Seine as they strolled.

"Perhaps it is the same," she murmured. She linked her arm with John's as they continued, neither of them comfortable standing in one place too long. "The Tok'ra I have met here on Earth have all been most learned and courteous, yet I do find them...disquieting."

"Yeah, good snakes or not," John agreed, "they're still people with snakes that can control them in their heads."

"The Tok'ra that was taken, what happened to him?" Teyla asked.

John's amusement dissolved.

"Her. Rentash."

"Rentash," Teyla repeated. "Her host was Misel."

"You met her."

"Yes."

John took Teyla's hand in his. "Rentash is dead."

The HSA briefing had included pictures of the sealed box that had been anonymously delivered to the Tower and its contents. The symbiote had been sealed inside a jar of formaldehyde like a scientific specimen from a high school lab. Only Rentash had been a sentient being before the Fundies had forced her to abandon her host and ruthlessly chopped her head from her body. The bleached pale pieces of Rentash's body had floated in the murky formaldehyde in the pictures, alien, disturbing and pathetic all at once.

"Misel was found in a ditch in Indiana."

She'd been closer to dead than not, her body a record of torture so extreme even a symbiote couldn't heal her. She had died at a hospital in Indianapolis, before authorities had even known what or who she had been. The Fundie fanatics had been proud enough to leave a disc on her body chronicling their exorcism of the alien 'demon'. The Tok'ra who watched the recording theorized Rentash had left Misel finally in the hope that their captors would stop Misel's torture at least. They had, but it had been too late for her host, left broken and in shock next to a frozen cornfield.

Quite likely Misel would have died if she had been delivered straight to the SGC's infirmary immediately, but she hadn't been found until dawn. The pictures the Indiana cops had taken before HSA took over the investigation showed  hoar frost on the blackened stalks of torched GE corn and drag marks where Misel had crawled to the ditch, trying to reach the road.

He glanced at Teyla.

"She died too."

The lights of Paris seemed dimmer when he thought about it.

The Tok'ra were talking about withdrawing their embassy from Earth. The Jaffa were taking a neutral stand over the atrocity, in line with their animosity toward the Tok'ra and their own history of rogues.

"Perhaps it is time we returned home," Teyla said.

John checked his watch. Past two in Paris translated to just past six in the afternoon in Colorado. He could go in to the Mountain and tackle some paperwork. There were always reports to read and SG-37 hadn't checked in before he left. Their mission had been to a planet rumored to have a kasa connection if not actual trade with the Lucian Alliance, a place where they'd hoped to pick up information if not allies.

"Okay," he said. "We'll have to transit to outside the embassy."

"That is fine," Teyla said.

He keyed the destination into his cell and made the call.

They flashed back into existence in front of the Iirijjinii Embassy gates. A dozen flashbulbs exploded as photographers took advantage of their appearance. He heard reporters shouting, "General Sheppard! General Sheppard! Are you dating Ambassador Emmagan? What about Vala Mal Doran? Have you broken up?"

Others were crowding in close, bombarding Teyla with questions as she keyed in the security codes to open the gates. Guards double timed out from the embassy itself and glowered, keeping the paparazzi from following the two of them onto embassy grounds.

One of them, speaking with a noticeable Genii accent, told John, "Welcome to the Concord, General."

John grinned at him, amused.

"That is annoying," Teyla said as they went up the steps and inside.

"They'll have the pictures on the Internet in five minutes," John agreed. He was inured after years of being their target, though it was something he'd never imagined as part of his life. He had plenty of techniques for avoiding the cameras when he needed privacy. Ditching his security detail always came first, of course.

"How can you bear it?"

"There are worse fates."

Teyla led him into her private office. "I have some pictures of Tanaan here, if you would like to see them."

"Oh, hey, yeah, that'd be great," John agreed.

Teyla's office held little reminders of Athos and Atlantis and other Pegasus worlds. A single sheet of mirror polished Ancient alloy the color of bronze but thousands of years older than the oldest casting on Earth covered one wall, inscribed with the graceful script of the Athosians.

"It was salvaged from the great city on Athos two years ago," Teyla said, noting John's interest.

She crossed the room and handed him a framed picture. John looked down and stilled.

The picture showed Tanaan, of course. It also showed showed Rodney leaning over his shoulder, pointing at something in Tanaan's arms. It took John a moment to look away from the image of Rodney and realize it was a very fat, orange tabby.

He shoved the picture back into Teyla's hands and walked to the window that opened onto the embassy's gardens. He heard her set the picture down. Then she joined him. He schooled his face into an amiable blank.

"John."

Don't do this to me, he thought and said, "Teyla. Please."

"Can you not even look at him? Have you spoken even once since – "

"No," he told her. He held up his hand, but she caught it in hers and held on.

"Rodney will not speak of your parting either," she said. "He said only that what you had was over. I do not want to hurt either of you, and I fear that I will continue doing so, because I do not understand."

"His choice." John stiffened his shoulders and stared out. "Just like last time."

"Last time?" Teyla prompted him.

He slanted a glance her way. "He dumped me once before. Right before we returned to Earth the first time."

"Do you know why?"

Out beyond the embassy gardens, the city lights were sparking into life, though the sun hadn't set yet. The Tower glimmered, always lit, spearing into the sky.

Teyla tightened her hands on John's when he tried to pull away.

"John," she insisted.

He answered without facing her.

"Earth."

Teyla's hands left his, but her fingers brushed gently over his cheek in silent apology.

2017
only made of shadows

4 September 2017
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

Where was a handy Wraith or Replicator attack when you needed one?

Rodney knew his eyes had glazed over at least ten minutes back. Michaelson was going to keep himself and Navat on the hook through the entire thirty-eight minute window. He'd never been more grateful for the limiting factor on normal stargate operations. Even Michaelson wouldn't have the gall to dial Atlantis twice in one day.

For the moment, though, they were pinned beneath the camera's eye in the control room, enduring another of her interminable lectures. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to serve under Colonel Michaelson. The third or fourth level of hell unless she was significantly different toward those she commanded. He did have the feeling his and Navat's independence peeved her more than anything; she didn't have any real authority over the Atlantis Expedition as liaison officer.

Her voice, with its tight New England inflections, penetrated his haze. "Am I boring you, Director?"

Yes, sprang immediately to his tongue. Rodney pinched his lips together instead. "I'm listening."

His mind wandered to whether Hailey's latest bright idea would work. Souping up the jumpers with hyperdrives only worked on the most limited basis; they just didn't have enough power and burned out the drives, ended up drifting halfway to nowhere, or blew up entirely. Hailey thought she had a solution, a sort of poor man's ZPM, only charged off one rather than using actual zero point energy.

It left the problem of ZPMs unsolved of course. She was theorizing on the assumption they would have ZPMs other than the ones they'd inherited from the Ancients and the Asurans and were recharging.

Maybe he could get Onda to bring him a sandwich, work through the urgent paperwork and sneak four uninterrupted hours in the lab with a whiteboard afterward.

His stomach grumbled at the prospect.

Going by the infirmary and telling Jennifer he needed some company while he ate sounded like a more attractive option. They weren't calling what they were doing dating, but objectively Rodney had to admit it certainly looked the same. He even knew why she avoided going back to Earth. Her father had died  before disclosure. News that she had taken the gene treatment before coming to Atlantis in the second wave hadn't been accepted by the rest of her family. Rodney hadn't asked if they were actually Purists or just asses.

"It's not like we were close or anything," Jennifer had confided. "Just some cousins and an aunt who never liked me anyway."

"...last month's shipment of kitchen supplies included two crates of sponges. This is not acceptable rate of usage, Colonel Navat," Michaelson was going on. God, sponges. This couldn't have been handled in a memo from the SGOC quartermaster's office to Navat's supply officer?

Chuck, stationed beyond the camera's range, wagged his eyebrows and mimed cutting his throat. Rodney suppressed the urge to nod emphatically. He'd really cut his throat if he had to listen to this much longer, but thought it still might be better to save cutting the connection for a real emergency.

"Sponges," he snapped instead, interrupting Michaelson. "You're wasting good energy to lecture us on sponges. You've lowered bureaucratic stupidity to new levels of cretinism, Colonel. And, may I point out again, for the one hundred thirty-seventh time, that we could trade for the Pegasus equivalents far cheaper than they can be bought and shipped here from Earth?"

"Our people are not going to be subjected to substandard native goods," Michaelson hissed at him, "while I have any say."

"Substandard native goods," he repeated. "It must kill you to use a zat or step through the stargate."

"SGC Service Contract Section 217.B.28c," Michaelson recited, "guarantees that all UNE personnel, including OOA, HSA, and ICGA, as well as serving members of the SGOC and SFOC, hereafter referred to as SGC personnel, while serving offworld, will be provided with materials and equipment adequate to perform their employment or duties as agreed upon under UNE General Employment Guidelines or the Military Oath of Service. Such materials and equipment will be inspected and conform to UNE quality and safety standards as described in Subsection 301.4 of the UNE Safety Standards Board Operations Code."

"Did you memorize that or have a flunky look it up for you?" Rodney blurted. He hadn't memorized his own contract, never mind anyone else's, and had no idea if what she'd just quoted applied or not.

"Native goods are not authorized under the UNE safety standards."

"Neither is Atlantis," he pointed out.

Before Michaelson could move from red with embarrassment to white with anger, Radek rushed into the control room. He had a tablet in one hand, waving it manically, an expression of such excitement on his face that Rodney froze.

"Rodney!" Radek shouted. "We have it! We have it!"

He shoved the tablet into Rodney's hands, then stabbed a finger at the display, too excited to remember to not touch the screen.

Rodney read the simulation result for Series 1052, sucked in a harsh breath, and read them over again. Without looking up, he said, "Colonels, you'll have to settle this between yourselves," and headed for the stairs to transporter.

"We can begin the materials testing process by the end of the week if this is right," he told Radek.

"Yes, yes," Radek babbled. "Rodney, we've done it. You were right about Element 132 and the temperature variations."

"I'd begun to think the original ZPM casings must have been assembled by nanites," Rodney admitted as they stepped into the transporter.

Radek sent them to the lab levels.

"Yes, I had begun to fear the same, but it doesn't even require zero gravity assemblage, just a vacuum environment," Radek crowed.

Jennifer didn't mind Rodney missing dinner with her for the next two weeks and Onda brought him the most important paperwork for his digital or real signature in the labs. Rodney only left the lab to shower and change. He slept on a cot shoved in one corner, alternating it with Radek and Hailey and Mundy.

Fabricating the manufacturing equipment took another two weeks. Rodney and Radek worked non-stop after taking over the material processes lab. Everything else they pushed aside. Only Hailey and Mundy were allowed to take over any of the work; they both deemed the specifications too exacting for anyone unfamiliar with it to handle.

When they emerged a month later, Radek's glasses were taped together after being broken twice – once when he sat on them and once when he threw them at Hailey – and he was speaking entirely in Czech. Hailey had dropped six pounds and begun stuttering. Mundy had gone into the washroom on the third week and shaved his head – and his entire body for all Rodney knew; he didn't inquire. Rodney had a beard and had nearly lost his voice; he kept forgetting and trying to talk though he could barely whisper.

They were all grinning like maniacs, however, and Rodney held in his hand a piece of soapy slick, amber crystalloid that except for an unfortunate brittleness when subjected to sudden impacts – exactly like an Ancient ZPM – could shrug off any amount of heat or energy, including exotic particles and zero point energy.

They had produced and shaped it into a dozen forms besides the prototype ZPM, testing its limits, including a decanter and many, many glasses. They might have been a little punchy when Hailey suggested they form a glass for everyone on Atlantis to toast them with, but it seemed like a great idea. There was also a set of bracelets and a necklace Rodney meant to present to Teyla.

He'd made a ring, too, though he didn't know if he'd ever feel strongly enough to give it to Jennifer. Maybe she wouldn't want it; she could find someone else that cared for her first and foremost. But if she were willing to settle...he thought they could be content together. She didn't mind his awkwardness or his obsession with his work and understood his love for Atlantis.

Rodney began corralling people in the hall outside the materials processes lab. He'd hand them a box full of crystal ware and push them toward the nearest transporter. "Take this to the mess hall and don't drop it!"

The rest of the science department emptied out of their labs and followed the four of them into the mess hall, filling it to near standing room as more and more of the military arrived in response to the news running through the city that they had done it.

Mundy began handing out glasses.

Rodney radioed Jennifer. "Bring that bottle of Ruus wine Ronon gave us to the mess hall." He ducked into the kitchens and said, "Bring out the drinks. Everything you've got squirreled away. And then grab a glass."

The cooks responded with bottles of champagne and Ruus wine, Athosian beer and even that evil, evil Demeskari brandy, as well as non-alcoholic offerings.

Navat and Lorne sidled into the room a few minutes before Jennifer arrived, carrying the bottle he'd asked for in one hand.

The crowd of people parted for her and she reached Rodney and handed it over with a smile.

"Thanks."

"Rodney, stop talking," she told him. "You sound awful."

He grinned at her. "In a minute."

The bottle was opened with some fumbling, but he poured a glass for Jennifer, himself, Radek, Hailey and Mundy, then, ceremoniously, the last of it into one more glass that he handed to Jennifer to hold for him. While Rodney did that, the other drinks were being passed through the crowd; everyone getting something they could drink at least.

Rodney stepped onto a chair and then onto one of the mess tables. He was Director, he could get away with it, and someone else would disinfect the top later.

He held up his glass and turned it. Radek had designed a very simple goblet, faceted from a mold rather than cut, but it still glowed like something rich and rare. Which it was, rare and magnificent.

"This – " Rodney coughed and swallowed, trying to soothe his throat and be heard. The crowd quieted and everyone looked at him. He gestured with the glass, nearly sloshing his wine out. "This is what we're going to make ZPMs with, people. Starting tomorrow."

The cheer made the mess hall windows shake.

Rodney waited until everyone had settled down again.

"Keep your glasses after this. They're yours to remember today. They belong to you for being here today, for being part of Atlantis." He coughed again. "So, drink up."

Rodney paused and gave them his best Director Evil glare.

"One drink. Then you all go back to work. I can't do everything here by myself."

He toasted them and chug-a-lugged everything in his goblet.

"Such a speech, no one will ever forget," Radek muttered at him as Rodney scrambled down off the table.

"I never said I was a public speaker," Rodney tried to protest. His voice disappeared in places. It didn't matter what he'd said. History was going to remember September 4, 2017 anyway, along with McKay, Zelenka, Hailey and Mundy. They had all they needed to make their own ZPMs now, theory and reality, and if the Ancestors had proved it could be done, they had still done it themselves.

He noticed Hailey had seated herself at one of the tables and fallen asleep with her head pillowed on one arm. Her hand was still curled around the stem of her goblet possessively and he grinned. Let her sleep. They still had a lot of work ahead of them. It would take close to a year before they were ready to crank out more than an experimental, test ZPM.

"We all knew you could do it," Jennifer told him.

"Him?" Radek squeaked. "Him! As if he did it all by himself! I am insulted."

Jennifer leaned close and kissed Radek's cheek with a mischievous smile, ignoring the graying stubble and leaving a lipstick print.

"You too, Radek."

Mollified, Radek went pink with pleasure. "Well. Thank you."

Jennifer smiled and sipped her wine. She extended her hand with the other cup to Rodney.

He took it and held it in both his hands, looking down into the rich red wine, then started toward the balcony doors.

Jennifer and Radek followed him and Lorne joined them. Chuck and Onda were there a moment later, then Miko appeared and Simpson. Navat waited just inside the doors, as if sensing he would be out of place. Rodney wished Teyla and Ronon weren't away again.

No one planned it, but the goblet of wine was handed from Rodney to Radek to Miko, then to Chuck and Simpson, and then the few others still in Atlantis from the first expedition and back. Rodney tried to speak, but his throat had closed up too much.

Radek took the goblet, held it over the railing and upended it.

"For everyone that isn't here anymore." Radek said as the wind took the wine.

2018
live through this

15 January 2018
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

Sam opened the meeting.

"They've done it."

John sat back in his chair and played with the stylus to his new and improved tablet. He missed pens and paper pads. You couldn't fold airplanes from tablet screens or pass notes underneath the conference table. Not that he'd had anyone to do that with for years, but he maintained the principle of needing the ability if there had been.

"A triumph for the ICGA," Shen Bao declared.

Cam coughed. John kept his face blank, imagining Rodney's outrage if he'd heard Shen taking credit for his and Radek's work. All that work and heartbreak, Rodney would eviscerate her. He'd gotten better at thinking about Rodney. He could think of Rodney in Atlantis, where he belonged, without wanting to dial the gate, find him and hurt him.

It had taken a while to admit just how angry he was to himself. When he finally had, he dialed back his dating and put Michaelson in charge of another project.

He could even feel proud and happy for Rodney and Radek and Atlantis.

"Of course, they haven't worked out all the production details," Daniel said.

"Charging a ZPM isn't the safest trick out there," John added. Atlantis had shivered through that first test.

Daniel nodded agreement. "Right now, the UNEC is looking at a proposal to build a manufacturing and charging facility on Mars."

Sam's mouth curved up and she remarked, "The moon's a little close."

"So, when you say 'they've done it,' you mean what exactly?" Cam asked. He leaned forward. "I mean, they reported they had the formula for the casing material months ago."

"Yesterday's wormhole contact included Rodney's report on the final tests to the first fully functional, fully charged Tau'ri made ZPM," Sam answered. Suppressed excitement lit her up. "Six months ahead of schedule."

"Nice," Cam said. "We need ZPMs for the B306s. The Lucians are improving on the Goa'uld designs."

"I thought you told me the 306s could go head to head with a mothership and not break a sweat?" John asked.

"A Goa'uld mothership, but these guys aren't satisfied with scavenging tech the snakes scavenged from the Ancients, they're developing new stuff and they've picked up a couple of the Ori ships and started reverse engineering them."

"They still can't handle the Asgard-derived technology though?" Sam frowned. "Have we looked into anything the Wraith had?"

John gave her shrug. "Don't ask me."

She looked at Daniel.

"Well, according to the reports from Atlantis, the Concord tracked down and salvaged the last recorded Wraith hive ship several months ago, but they aren't sharing," he said.

Shen looked sour, but didn't speak. She scrawled a note to herself on her tablet, though. "What can we offer them to provide data from the hiveship?" she asked when she'd finished.

"The UNEC will have to handle that," Daniel told her.

"Can we move on to any of the subjects we can make some progress on?" John asked. With GTS, he figured he could make it to Seattle on time even if the meeting ran long, but he didn't enjoy these things and didn't want to linger if he didn't need to.

"Hot date?" Cam needled him.

"I've got tickets to a concert, in fact," John answered.

Madison was playing her first public appearance. The venue was small, but John wanted to be there. He'd already arranged to have flowers delivered, but being there would mean more to her. He could make small talk with Jeannie and Kaleb if he had to in order to give Madison his support.

"I had a point originally," Sam said. She angled a quelling look at John. "As Director Shen might be aware, since her agency will be shouldering at least fifty percent of the responsibility – " John wanted to groan, guessing who would be catching the other fifty just from Sam's prim little smile at him, " – for the surveys, with the impending availability of ZPMs, the UNEC has voted to open the program to private colonization ventures."

Crap. He'd known it was coming, but hoped it would be a long time yet.

"The Lucians are still out there," John said, "and they really don't like us."

"Oh boy," Cam muttered.

"We know that, but the average group wanting to start a colony doesn't have that firm a grasp of the galactic situation," Sam replied.

"Are we just going to let a bunch of people tromp through the gate to the first suitable gate address?" he asked.

"No," Shen replied. She had a sharkish smile. "The UNE will require any colony venture to place sufficient funds in escrow to purchase a scouted gate address as well as pay for ICGA and SGOC surveys and security. They will be required to prove they have purchased the equipment and supplies necessary to survive three years without support, have a five year plan and a viable group, physically and psychologically."

"You're going to make them pay through the nose," Cam commented.

"We are," Sam said. "Especially those who want to buy a ZPM."

"They're still going to need protection from the Lucian Alliance and someone will have to make sure they don't hare through the stargate and throw a wrench into Earth's relationships with other worlds," John pointed out.

It was a legitimate worry, he thought. They didn't want their nice, new, shiny charged ZPMs dropping into the Lucians' hot little hands. The prospect made him twitch, when he considered the hell Atlantis had gone through to just get hold of even one at times. He should have realized it would have occurred to Daniel and Sam too.

Daniel spoke. He didn't sound thrilled with what he had to say, though.

"They won't have other gate addresses except Earth and the Alpha Site." He drummed his fingers on the conference table and grimaced. "It's essentially the same way the Goa'uld kept human populations from fleeing the planets where they established them. You don't need guards when there's no place to go."

"That's cold," Cam said.

"Some of them will dial cold and take a chance," John pointed out. "And some of them will buy gate addresses from greedy people who will access to the SGC's computers. Some people," he stared at Daniel, "are even smart enough to put the answers together from what's already been published and posted."

"Yes," Daniel said, "but I'm hoping if they're that smart, they won't do anything too disastrous."

"Can you afford to be an optimist under these circumstances?" Shen asked. "General Sheppard is correct."

Sam tapped the table top and they looked at her.

"It's possible to build a DHD lock and install it."

"You've still got ships and visitors through the stargate," Cam said. "Who may be pissed if they end up in the Tau'ri equivalent of a roach hotel."

Shen looked confused and insulted.

Cam waggled his fingers. "You know, roaches check in, but they don't check out?"

"How likely is it that Lucian Alliance ships will investigate a colony planet?" Daniel asked.

"ZPMs have a big, bright power signature when they're charged," John said.

"Any ship catching it on their sensors is going to take a sniff around," Cam confirmed. "I mean, I would."

"You're curious as a cat." Sam smiled at him, then nodded. "But I agree. Any captain would check out a ZPM signature."

"There will have to be a security outpost devoted to securing the ZPM in the event of an attack on every colony with one," John said. "The SGOC doesn't have that kind of numbers right now. I submitted an expansion proposal over a year ago addressing just this problem."

"I'll put it before the Council when they meet," Sam promised him.

"Hey, I need more people too," Cam said.

"You have crew for every ship you have and the ones still in the shipyards," she corrected him.

"Well, can't blame a guy for trying."

"Yes, I can."

Shen went over the personnel being assigned to work with SGOC teams and aboard the SFOC ships and promised copies of the rosters of scientists posting to Terra Atlantica and the outpost to continue studying there. ICGA was also expanding the permanent expedition to Akanital. John made notes, since his people were responsible for security offworld and had a presence at the Antarctic base.

"Baldwin, Eggars, Feinstein, Gillespie, Harper, Meyer, Silverman, Sloane, Tan, Varada, Yun," Shen recited.

"HSA cleared?" John asked.

Shen didn't face him directly when she spoke, but she nodded. "Of course."

"Just checking." He thought one of the names was familiar. "Gillespie's been running the labs here under Lee or is this a different guy?"

"Dr. Ian Gillespie," Daniel said. "I think we wanted him to go to Atlantis; he's ATA positive, but he has family here and didn't want to leave them behind."

"Antarctica isn't that far anymore, I guess," Cam said, "with the GTS."

"Right."

"I suppose," John murmured, "if his family wasn't willing to relocate to Atlantis."

They were assigning people with families to Atlantis now that there was a school and childcare facilities, though both parents had to be cleared and employable in some fashion.

Any hope John had of the meeting doing anything but going long dissolved as Sam started in the SGOC budget and the construction overruns. He slid deeper into his seat and thanked God for Master Sergeant Addison, who had loaded his tablet with every bit of information he needed, including the late penalties that were written into all the contracts for the SGC work, as they went over every item.

"So, with the penalties for the time overruns on the Pipe," he concluded, "we're actually just under budget."

It was about 15,000 MUs out of a several billion MU project, but it still felt good to say. He highlighted the pertinent numbers and subsection of the contracts on his tablet and then pushed it down the table so Sam could look at them.

"I can have Addison send you copies."

"Thank you," Sam said and returned his tablet. She turned on Cam. "What about the delays on the fold-wing 302s?"

"Personnel problems at the Duluth factory," Cam said. "HSA isn't clearing workers fast enough to keep up with how many they need on the assembly lines and the people who they do have don't want to live there."

O'Neill had rescheduled to arrive late for the meeting. Sam made a note and John figured she'd light a fire with her old commander when he did arrive. He did and she did; afterward O'Neill copied them the latest HSA sitrep, addressing the newer threats.

The Fundamentalists and the Neo-Isolationists were so interwoven it had become hard to determine which groups were responsible for which actions; most of their active members were both and acted as mindless tools for either set of leaders.

They were networking with the Pure. HSA had only confirmed two actions where they worked together so far, but the connection had been established for much longer. The Pure were smarter about operational security than the Fundies and Neos, since they didn't scorn technology.

"Natural allies, anyway, though," O'Neill commented sourly. "Barnes' fanatics treat DNA like holy text."

"Any chance you found out how they targeted me last year?" John asked.

O'Neill frowned at him. "Nothing confirmed."

John smiled back at him, toothy and sardonic. He didn't know why, but O'Neill set all of his internal alerts ringing these days. There was no reason he could fathom, but he'd found his hand groping for his sidearm unconsciously just listening to him on speakerphone once. It made no damn sense, but he couldn't quell the reaction. He'd even asked Sam once, very tentatively, if she'd noticed anything different about O'Neill in the last couple of years. Her reply, 'No, he's always been like that,' hadn't helped.

He kept his reaction under control though or channeled it into sarcasm. "Oh, come on, you must have some rumors."

"Rumor is the Pure got their information from the Fundies," O'Neill said finally. "Which doesn't make any sense. The Pure hate you down to your tainted DNA, but the Fundies have got nothing against you." He paused. "That I know of."

"Haven't done anything to piss off the God squad that I know of," John confirmed. He glanced at his watch again. Two hours to curtain time.

Shen started grilling O'Neill on the need to speed background checks on prospective ICGA hires.

They wound it up forty minutes from curtain time. John headed for the door.

"She must be good looking," Cam called to him.

John waved to him. "Gorgeous," he said.

O'Neill caught up with him in the corridor. "You're doing a good job."

John slanted an incredulous look at him. He didn't actually need validation from Jack O'Neill, not at this point in his life. He didn't want O'Neill at his back, either; in fact, it made his skin crawl, so he waited for O'Neill to broach whatever off the record poke at him had prompted this ambush, even though he didn't want to stop and chat. He needed to get to his office, change, and get up top so he could transit to Seattle and get a taxi to the hall where Madison was playing.

"Well, that really makes my day, coming from you," he replied, not even trying to hide how he really felt, but slowing his steps so he could keep O'Neill in his peripheral vision.

"You ever remember any more about the shooters that took you down?"

"No." John stopped in the middle of the corridor, trying to read what the hell O'Neill had meant. The other man walked two more steps, stopped and frowned back at John. "Why?"

O'Neill's expression flickered, then he waved his hand. "Don't mind me, Sheppard. I must be getting senile. Just some rumors out of one of the Fundie networks."

"Sorry, the local loonies are all your problem," John said. "The Lucians are enough to deal with for me."

"This remodeling job because of them?"

"Not particularly. I just didn't want a replay of the Prior Plague or something worse."

O'Neill gave him a sharp look, as if he thought John was criticizing the way the SGC had been run before John came back to Earth and took over.

"So that was all you? Not McKay?"

"Not McKay," John snapped.

"Okay, okay." O'Neill held up his hands. "I get it. McKay didn't have anything to do with rebuilding the SGC. I mean the SGOC. That was all you and Sam and Lam." He snorted. "Sam and Lam and Cam. Damn. Ought to be a rule against promoting people with names that rhyme."

"I'll keep that in mind the next time I sit down on the promotions board," he said. "Excuse me, but I've got to go."

O'Neill waved his hand again. "Go, go, go."

John started to, then the question popped out his mouth without prior thought. "Do you know anyone related to you named Neilson?"

O'Neill's face shut down.

"No."

John knew when he was being lied to, but he was also going to be late. He decided to let it go. He didn't even know where he'd heard that name, though it made him jumpy enough he'd be taking his sidearm with him to the concert. Whatever O'Neill knew that John didn't, it was moot. O'Neill wasn't sharing.

14 February 2018
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

A reception to celebrate the first made from scratch, working ZPM, along with Valentine's Day, with dignitaries invited from the Concord had seemed like a good idea. OOA had been all for it when Rodney floated the idea. Daniel had even gated to Atlantis to attend and complimented Rodney for thinking of it.

Rodney decided not to mention that it had been Onda's idea. He still hadn't officially hired her, though she handled more of the administration than he did and he knew he'd be in a nasty fix without her.

She was dancing with Chuck, he noticed, while he made small talk with one of the Genii.

Moyra Batim hadn't been among the Genii pioneering their nuclear program. No radiation exposure  and sickness for her. During their conversation, Rodney eventually realized that she had gone from school to heading their program in the time he had been in Pegasus.

To her, he was a figure of legend and a source of unparalleled knowledge, which fed his ego, but also disturbed him, especially when he realized she was genuinely making a play for him.

"I'm sorry," he told her, "but I'm not free."

He disengaged himself from the conversation, reflecting on just how true those words were; yet he didn't really mean the mild attachment he and Jennifer had, though he wouldn't cheat on her. If he ever felt drawn to someone else enough to consider it, he would let Jennifer know and end their relationship. They'd discussed it and set out ground rules after they slept together the first time.

"I can't believe that girl tried to seduce me," Rodney complained to Teyla when they were dancing.

"You are figure of great importance in the Concord."

"I know, but she's – I could have a daughter her age. You know, if I'd had children. Which I should have, to pass on my genes, though thankfully there's Madison." Rodney turned Teyla enough that she could see Senior Scientist Batim. "Look at her."

"Ladon says she is easily the most brilliant mind on Genea."

"Well, of course, she would be attracted to my intelligence, but doesn't she realize how old I am in comparison to her? I'm forty-nine. She's, what? Twenty-five?"

"Age is venerated here, Rodney," Teyla reminded him.

He didn't think of himself as aged, Rodney wanted to protest, though he supposed his age could be considered so among people who had usually been culled every thirty to fifty years even during the Wraith hibernation periods.

That might change as the Pegasus worlds' populations exploded. The end of the Wraith threat had triggered a baby boom across most of the galaxy very different than the grim drive to replace their losses that had characterized conception and birth for most people before. The changes wouldn't really show for another generation, though.

Teyla hummed, drawing Rodney's attention back to her. The bracelet on her wrist glowed with amber light and Rodney felt a warm burst of pleasure that she'd worn it.

"You do not appear so very old, either," she said.

"Neither do you," he told her.

Teyla smiled impishly.

"Even though I am considered nearly an Elder?"

"That's just..." Rodney shook his head. Teyla in her forties appeared unchanged to him from when they'd first met except for a few laugh lines and even greater inner strength. "You're ageless."

"You've become a diplomat," she teased.

"Now you're just being insulting."

The Tau'ri waltz ended and a Tona'ga drum dance began. Rodney and Teyla retired from the dance floor. He saw Anaraya drag Ronon out to take part in the fast moving, traditional warriors' celebration.

He parted with Teyla and found his way to the buffet, loaded a plate and wandered through the crowd until he found Jennifer. She was chatting with Carson, Sven Lofgren and Tom Minor. Carson's eyes rounded when Rodney let her steal several cheese puffs from his plate.

They were talking about gene splicing and the ascension machine's ability to recreate the DNA in every living cell in the body, which avoided potentially disastrous rejection issues and immune system responses. Rodney sort of zoned out. Lofgren didn't, though it wasn't his area of expertise, but then Lofgren had the same reasons to be interested that Rodney did. If Rodney had been interested; he was satisfied with the results of Jennifer's cure.

"I have a paper I've written up to submit for publication," Jennifer told Carson. "I can print you a copy."

"I'd like that," Carson said, looking excited at the prospect.

"Let's go down to the medical lab. I can access my computer from there without disturbing anyone in the main ward," Jennifer offered.

"Do you mind if I come along?" Lofgren asked.

"Thinking of changing your specialty, Sven?" Jennifer kidded him.

"Just curious."

"Rodney, do you mind?" Carson asked. "You could come with us?"

"Absolutely," Minor piped up.

Rodney gave him a scornful look. Minor was a lab tech. He didn't get to tell Rodney what was or wasn't okay in Atlantis. He was there to do scutwork for Jennifer. Maybe the message penetrated Minor's thick skin. He stepped back.

"Uhm. Excuse me, I'm going to head back to my quarters," Minor said.

"Good night, Tom," Jennifer murmured as he sidled away.

"I'll stay here, thank you," Rodney informed Carson.

Jennifer leaned in and kissed his cheek. "I'll see you later," she promised. She snatched a last stuffed mushroom cap and led the other two away.

Rodney went back to circulating, accepting congratulations and repressing the desire to crow over what they had achieved. It wasn't the best night of his life, but it was a good party all told.

The explosion that rocked the main tower an hour later brought the party to a crashing halt and Rodney's measure of happiness with it.

16 February 2018
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

The radio earpiece Rodney had consigned to his jacket pocket went on before the last rumble of the explosion faded, just ahead of the first scream from someone in the crowd. He snapped his gaze around the reception hall, found nothing visible wrong, and dismissed everyone there from his thoughts.

"Control, report," he snapped into the tiny microphone.

"We're trying to pin down the location of the explosion, Dr. McKay," the duty officer reported, nerves clear in her voice.

Rodney waved at Chuck to join him. He wanted their best running the control room as soon as possible.

Onda came with Chuck, which worked out well.

"Look, I want you to handle the guests. Keep them here unless you receive direction to move them, keep them calm, tell them we're handling it," Rodney told her. He was walking fast toward the nearest transporter, Chuck and Onda pacing him on his left.

"Yes, Director," she said.

"Good," he said and belatedly, "Thank you."

Navat was on the far side of the room and also angling for the transporter. Rodney found Lorne half-turned away in one of the alcoves, radio headset in place. A tap to his radio gave Rodney the military channel feed and Lorne's voice calmly giving orders to the military to secure the gate room, jumper bay, chair and ZPM power rooms

Control overrode the military channel. Dr. McKay, the explosion happened on Medical Lab Seven. Atlantis registers one lifesign." The duty officer sucked in a breath Rodney could hear. Her voice wobbled when she went on. "We have transmissions from two subcutaneous transmitters from the blast zone."

"IDs?" Rodney demanded.

Teyla joined him at the transporter.

"Not yet, sir."

"Dispatch an emergency medical response team to the site. Major Lorne is coordinating security."

"Rodney," Teyla said. She took his hands and Rodney realized they were shaking. He'd never been slow; he'd already located Medical Lab Seven on the map of Atlantis in his head.

"Teyla," he said on automatic. "Can you deal with the Concord people?"

"Someone else can do that," Teyla said.

Onda nodded and turned back to the reception room. Teyla kept her grip on Rodney's hands. He held on.

"Okay," he said. "Okay. You should - should come with me."

They crowded into the transporter with Chuck.

Just before the doors closed and the light flared as they were taken to the control room level, Rodney blurted, "It's Jennifer and Carson."

Teyla's face crumpled for an instant. "Rodney, no – "

"She took him and Lofgren to the lab where she's been working," he said. "Seven."

They walked into the control room, where Chuck immediately slid into his regular seat. The duty officer moved to another console. Teyla stayed by Rodney's side as he found a console and began bringing up the city's internal sensor logs, checking for structural integrity first. If there had been damage the response teams could be in danger from secondary collapses.

"I want someone to get me a report on what was being worked on in Medical Lab Seven," he directed. "I need to know if the explosion is related to anything Dr. Keller was working on there and if there are any bio or chemical hazards."

Navat arrived and raised an eyebrow at Teyla's presence, but said nothing. She kept her hand on Rodney's shoulder, moving with him from console to console.

Lorne's voice crackled through Rodney's earpiece. "Damage control Team Four is approaching the Lab Seven. We're in the corridor outside. The blast doors are jammed and we've got no lights or power."

"Put it on speaker," Rodney said as he began working on the power problem. There were limits to what he could do from control, but everything he did would save time for the people working on site.

"We're going to need an engineering team to get these doors open. ERT has arrived. We could really use a heads up on what was in there."

"We're working on it," Rodney transmitted.

"Yes sir."

"Ambassador Emmagan," Navat murmured, "it might be best if your joined your people in the consulate's quarter."

"Shut up," Rodney snapped at him. "One of the people in that lab is Carson, who is a Concord citizen, and one of them is dead. She stays."

"How do you know?" Navat asked.

"Two transmitters, one lifesign," Rodney answered.

"Then it isn't your doctor." Navat addressed Teyla. "None of your people have subcutaneous transmitters, do they?"

"No," Teyla replied. "In fact, Dr. Carson was kind enough to remove mine and Ronon's from when we were SGC consultants."

"He went down there with Jennifer and Dr. Lofgren," Rodney said. He tensed himself against the pained hope the lifesign on the sensor was Jennifer and the absent ones were Lofgren and Carson. "There's no reason to believe he wasn't still with them. Since he doesn't have a transmitter, we won't know until we recover the bodies." He sucked in a deep breath. "The city sensors don't register the dead."

Navat accepted that without arguing, instead turning to Teyla again. "My apologies, Voice Emmagan, and my sympathies if you have lost a countryman."

Teyla just nodded and stayed close to Rodney, offering him her silent support.

The duty officer Chuck had supplanted spoke. "Sir? Dr. Adebouye says that Med Lab Seven was being used for computer simulations. No bio or chemical hazards should have been present."

"Good," Rodney muttered.

Lorne's voice snapped everyone's attention back to the medical lab. "Control, Dr. Zelenka is here with an engineering team. They're beginning work on the blast doors."

"Radek?" Rodney asked.

"Yes, Rodney?"

"I've rerouted power through the secondary conduits from the next level up. You should have lights. Use standard precautions, but according to reports there should be no dangerous biologicals or chemicals present."

"Yes, Rodney," Radek answered. "The remaining lights are on. We're still setting up a generator and portables."

"You should be able to – is the sensor panel still intact?"

"Yes. I am opening it now.

"You should be able to short a circuit with a cross conducting crystal – "

"Yes, yes, I am doing so now, Rodney," Radek snapped at him. "That will burn out all the sensor crystals. The doors will then be locked open."

"I'm coming down there," Rodney declared.

"If you must, then bring a set of replacements."

"Chuck," Rodney said, "relay anything through C channel. I'll be monitoring."

Navat didn't bother objecting when Teyla followed Rodney to the transporter. Rodney detoured long enough to pick up the replacement crystals and a lifesign detector. Lorne's security nodded them through a cordon at the transporter before they walked down a corridor that appeared normal until they turned a turned corner. Sudden darkness confronted them, broken by circles of yellow light thrown by portable lamps. A Mark V.3 naquadah generator had been set up on a gurney for quicker movement.

The response teams were squeezing one by one through a single open door; the other had warped too much to slide into the wall housing.

Everyone but Lorne and Zelenka had yellow hard hats and white paper air masks on. Zelenka had the hard hat on, but his mask dangled around his neck. Lorne simply hadn't bothered with either.

Lorne looked like he wanted to object to Rodney and Teyla showing up, but swallowed it back and nodded to them. One of his soldiers handed them both masks and hats. Since Rodney had approved the mandatory safety regulations himself, he didn't argue.

Zelenka pointed at the doors. "We will have to cut it away. Major Lorne has asked me to wait until they've checked for any other explosives first."

Rodney's gaze flickered over the scene, spotting Zelenka's engineers waiting in a clump with cutting torches and other equipment. His nose twitched, smoke and the smell of fire retardant making him want to cough or sneeze. He could smell chemicals in the air too and turned back to Lorne.

"Everyone going in there should be dressed in a clean suit, otherwise you'll contaminate the scene along with tromping all over it."

"Doc, we've got a life sign in there, we have to get to whoever it is as fast as possible and then stabilize the interior, check for further threats," Lorne said.

"I know that," Rodney replied. "But get the suits down here and have your people put them on before any more squeeze through there." He didn't like it either, but he had to start thinking about the inevitable investigation that would follow this.

Lorne nodded and made the radio call for the clean suits.

"You want to wait for them?" he asked Rodney, lifting his finger away from his radio.

Rodney knew better than to bull forward...but Jennifer and Carson were in there. He wouldn't make the same mistake he'd made with the first Carson. He wouldn't waste his chances. He jerked his head in a no and appropriated a flashlight from the nearest soldier.

"Okay," Lorne said in a sad tone and walked him over to the opening they had. They both squeezed through into the dark and the reek of chemicals and burnt plastics that thickened to choking levels. Rodney suppressed a spasmodic cough and blinked, trying to pick out any familiar shapes. There were lights and moving forms working at the farthest end of the room. Lorne played the beam from a flashlight around the wrecked interior of the blackened lab.

He used the flashlight beam as pointer. It picked out shattered electronics and pieces of tables, desks, computers, chairs and cabinets, tossed into chaotic piles and festooned by fluttering, burnt pieces of paper and something like black spiderwebs. "Our people are trying to get to the second set of doors, into the offices. That's where the life sign is."

Rodney's breathing picked up. Please, he thought, please, let it be her. Just once let the universe show some mercy. She was a good person. Jennifer was kind, she helped people, and she knew how to be happy. Rodney had learned to appreciate that last most of all; she showed him the way. If he had to choose – and there were no choices worse than those between two friends, two people he'd learned to love – he'd choose Jennifer. He was a selfish man, still, but Jennifer was a better person than Rodney and she was a better person than Carson, first and second. Let her be the one alive.

Lorne hesitated, then said, "One of the transmitters is back there too, the other is in here somewhere."

Here was the center of the blast; even an amateur could mark the expansion pattern and the pit blown out of the floor ahead of them. No one had survived close to that.

Rodney didn't touch the fragile looking lace of black residue, but he pointed with his own flashlight. "Plastique?" He didn't want to think about a body or bodies somewhere under the debris.

"Semtex or C4," Lorne said. Black shadowed hollows and the flashlight's beam produced the illusion of his face as a skull. "We'll be inventorying every explosive on Atlantis."

Chemistry would be able to identify the polymer tags used in all SGC explosives. Rodney worried more that there wouldn't be any tags in the residue. Then they'd have to look at the possibility someone in Atlantis had made the explosive or brought it in from a Pegasus world. He could feel his blood pressure sky-rocketing already.

He traced his flashlight beam up the walls, looking for structural damage that might bring down another level, but found only scoring. Atlantis had been built to endure and did. Rodney felt a spurt of pride at the city's indomitability. His light settled on a chunk of ceiling that had been torn away and fallen into the room. Indomitable but not invulnerable or eternal, after all, and never constructed to withstand destruction from within, any more than bodies were. Part of him was waiting for the moment when his flashlight found a broken body. Rodney peered up at the area surrounding the worst damage, because what hurt the city hurt him, but it could be repaired. They'd want to shore it up as soon as possible, in case the supporting walls did fail after all. He couldn't do anything for Jennifer or Carson or Lofgren; they were the doctors.

"Doc," Lorne said, "maybe we should get out of here. You don't need to – "

A cry of triumph pulled Rodney and Lorne to the action. They picked their way along the same path through the debris that had already been used and lent their weight to the pry bars being used on the doors into the office section. With a screech of abused metal the doors broke open, giving the rescuers access.

They followed the rescue team in, adding their lights to the search.

"Got someone!" one of the soldiers yelled. His light rested on a hand and the rest of the body appeared as everyone concentrated their lights. A scramble to reach the unconscious figure pinned beneath a desk followed. Rodney noted the male hand and the blue cuff of a sleeve above the wrist.

Carson had been wearing something native the color of brick. Until he saw that sleeve, Rodney couldn't have remembered that if he'd tried. And Jennifer...Jennifer had been wearing a dress, a pretty dress that Rodney had forgotten to compliment her on, the way he always missed saying the things he should have.

"Lofgren," he said.

One of the medics dropped down and began checking for a pulse. Rodney blinked rapidly, clearing his eyes, hating himself for hoping...

"He's alive," the medic reported.

...Not that.

John had taught Rodney all about compartmentalizing. He pushed the babbling and anger into a tight ball and ignored it.

Lorne radioed the identification to Medical. They'd have Lofgren's records on hand before he arrived. Control would know too and inform the rest of the searchers arriving of the identities of who they were looking for in the wreckage.

Rodney and Lorne stayed out of the way as Lofgren was checked and then freed of the desk and secured to a backboard and litter. He began coming around as the litter was hoisted. Rodney found himself carrying an IV bag beside him as the litter was maneuvered through the doors and out to the main lab. Debris shifted under their feet as the group scrambled awkwardly over the still unsettled pieces. More lights had already been brought in while they were working on Lofgren and the people combing through the wreckage were all wearing baggy white clean suits, gloves and eye protection. They flickered from light to darkness like clumsy ghosts.

Lofgren groaned and gasped, ignoring the running litany of comfort coming from the medic carrying the foot of the litter.

"No, no, no," Lofgren gasped. "Find Jenn, gotta...and Carson, get'em, get'em, no..."

"We're working on it, buddy," the medic told him.

"Were they with you?" Rodney asked. He ignored the sharp look the medic gave him. Lofgren was going to relive this anyway; it might has well serve a purpose. Besides, Lofgren was alive. What did he have to complain about?

Lofgren whimpered when he tried to roll his head toward Rodney's voice. The cervical collar on his neck stopped him. Rodney shuffled closer, leaning in so that Lofgren could see him.

"M'kay," Lofgren mumbled.

"Yeah."

"S'ry."

"Where were they?" Rodney asked.

"Lab." Tears leaked out the corners of Lofgren's eyes, cutting pale tracks through blackened dust and blood. "S'ry. Went to the head."

"It's okay, man, it's okay," the medic murmured.

"Noooo...," Lofgren moaned. "Minor. Was coming back. Saw Minor run out."

"We'll find him," Rodney promised.

Lofgren moaned again and repeated, "Minor."

"Got it," Rodney told him in a tight voice. "Good job."

Rodney handed the IV bag to someone on the far side of the blast doors and the medics twisted the litter on its side to slip Lofgren through the narrow opening. He scrambled out behind them and turned to Lorne while the EMTs situated Lofgren on a gurney and rushed him away.

"Find Tom Minor," he said.

Lorne met his eyes and Rodney knew he'd already drawn the same conclusions Rodney had, and if he'd done it a half beat behind Rodney, well, he hadn't had his car blown up by Pure fanatics.

"We'll want his file," Lorne said.

"You'll have it." He'd copy Minor's personnel file to Lorne immediately. After that, Rodney meant to open a wormhole to Earth and demand HSA check Minor's background again. After that...if Tom Minor had had any part in this, he was going to crucify him in front of the stargate and dial out.

They needed to question and release the guests at the reception. At least none of them could disappear until the gate room was opened to traffic again, but they were mostly diplomats and would need to be coddled.

He looked around for Teyla, realizing she hadn't followed him into the lab, and found her with Radek.

Both of them gave him sympathetic looks as Rodney approached.

"Dr. Lofgren was the survivor?" Radek murmured.

"Yes."

He was still operating in shock. It had been years since any attack had been leveled at Atlantis and Rodney realized he'd become complacent. He didn't remember being this detached before, but then he'd shared the responsibility with John before. John had given him the gift of venting his panic, then drawn him up when it became necessary. Rodney couldn't do that now. He couldn't come unglued, because he didn't have anyone who could put him back together and still believe in him.

Not even Teyla and Ronon, not because they wouldn't, but because they were just as caught by their own responsibilities.

"Teyla," he said, "we're going to want everyone to stay until we know what kind of device exploded and that there are no others in the city. Can you go back to the reception hall and let them know we're asking them to stay for their own safety?" He stopped and rethought that. Damn it. "No, let's move everyone to the Seashell Tower auditorium." He wanted to have a bomb sniffer taken through the reception hall as well as the control and gate rooms, then the consulate quarter, because if this was Tau'ri related, those were all first tier targets. "We're looking for bombs."

Teyla glanced at the warped door still half jammed in place.

"Yes," she said. "I'll coordinate with whoever Colonel Navat assigns as security."

"We'll sweep the consulate first, then you can take everyone there. I'm going to order all of the expedition members to their quarters if they aren't on duty."

"I will return to the reception hall and explain."

"Radek, I want you with me," Rodney said.

Teyla caught Rodney's hand before he could turn away. She squeezed it tightly, then pulled him closer. Rodney bent his head and their hard hats bumped together. Under other circumstances, it might have been funny. As it was, Rodney wanted to jerk off the offending hat and throw it at the floor.

"Teyla, I've got to go."

Radek followed him away. Lorne went with Teyla.

Thirty-one hours later, Rodney sat at the head of the control level conference room table, flanked by Colonel Navat, Lorne, and a visibly red-eyed Alice Biro, with a security detail stationed at the doors and the balcony, facing a handcuffed and self-satisfied Thomas Minor. Rodney had HSA's in-depth background check on the technician printed out and open before him. Minor was in Atlantis on an ICGA contract after a normal background check and psych evaluation, both performed on Earth. Nothing in the file marked him as anything but a slightly above average type with a taste for adventure. A majority of the population lacked even the latent portion of the ATA complex and had no reason to take the gene therapy; Minor's job hadn't required an ATA positive. That he wasn't hadn't rung any danger bells.

The most disturbing aspect of the report was that nothing in it connected Thomas Minor to the Purists or any of Earth's other terrorists.

There were two explanations for that.

"Are you actually Thomas Minor?" Rodney asked.

If the Pure had replaced Thomas Minor with one of their own, then HSA had made a blunder, but their investigation of Minor had found nothing because the real man didn't have any ties to the fanatics beyond an appearance and profession the Pure impostor could duplicate or fake.

Minor smirked at him.

The second possibility bothered Rodney much more.

If this was Thomas Minor then more than one person within HSA had collaborated in concealing his real convictions and dedication to the Pure.

Preliminary testing had already determined that the bomb set off in Med Lab Seven had been made from C4, but not any from the SGOC's Atlantis armory. It had been tagged, though, and traced back to manufacture on Earth within the last five years. Rodney was grateful for that; it cleared the Genii and the rest of the Concord.

It also meant Minor had either brought the C4 to Atlantis with him or another conspirator had. They would have to tighten incoming security from Earth no matter which it had been.

Rodney hoped it was all Minor acting alone. He hated the thought of other infiltrators, other traitors, in Atlantis. He hated even more the thought that while the Pure wouldn't go so far, there were several other groups who would have their agents take the gene therapy to further their ends. He knew very well the Genii had no lock on fanaticism.

"Well?" he demanded.

"My name is Thomas Minor of the United States of America."

"Funny," Rodney said. He slapped his hand onto the file. It slid an inch over the table top. His damp fingerprints darkened the manila when he lifted his hand away. "This says you swore an oath of citizenship to the United Nations of Earth."

Minor glared at him.

"My name is Thomas Minor of the United States of America," Minor repeated.

"This is a waste of time," Navat said, playing his part. "He's not going to answer us until he's forced to."

Minor sneered at Navat. "You won't torture me. McKay won't let you."

Rodney forced himself to stay still and breathe steadily. He hadn't slept since the bomb went off. Neither had anyone else sitting at the table, except Minor. Surveillance video had shown him napping without difficulty in the brig all day. "You realize there are two bodies in the morgue because of you? Two friends of mine?" He would mourn Jennifer and Carson later, when there was time, when he wasn't preoccupied with hunting down any other killers before others suffered the way they had.

He slipped his left hand into his pocket and fingered the crystal ring he'd never showed Jennifer. It felt soapy and slick and always cool and was too small to fit even over his pinky. When he laid his hand back on the table it didn't shake.

He'd always had steady hands.

He'd never stroke Jennifer's hair with them again.

Minor jerked his attention back to the conference room.

"I only wish you had been with them and that stupid Lofgren had died too."

Lofgren was still in their ICU, unconscious and unstable. The doctors had amputated his left foot and were talking about blast lung and concussive brain trauma. Atlantis hadn't been kind to him.

"You admit your guilt?" Lorne asked.

"I am guilty of nothing," Minor declared. "I removed an abomination and a tool of the alien oppression from your ranks. I am a soldier of pure humanity."

"You're a murdering piece of shit," Lorne snapped.

"Major," Navat reproved.

Lorne clenched his jaw. A muscle in his cheek twitched.

"You are aware that this meeting is being recorded in audio and video?" Rodney asked.

Minor turned toward the camera and grinned. "Yeah."

"And you admit you placed a bomb intended to kill Dr. Jennifer Keller, Joseph Carson, an Iirijjinii citizen, and Dr. Sven Lofgren in Medical Lab Seven at approximately 23:40 hours on February fourteenth, 2018?" Rodney asked. "Which bomb exploded at 23:44 hours, wounded Dr. Lofgren and killed Dr. Keller and Mr. Carson?"

"Yes, I did," Minor confirmed. He sat back with a small clink from his handcuffs. His posture seemed to dare them to do anything about his admission.

Rodney straightened in his seat.

His lips peeled back into a smile that would give even Ronon pause. Biro flinched away from him; her chair squeaked over the floor. The sound seemed larger and more meaningful than it should have. Lorne and Navat nodded in approval. This was exactly what they had all discussed after Lorne's men took Minor into custody. They'd gone over the regulations and the Charter line by line.

Keeping it legal still mattered and they were, oh, they were, because the law was still about protecting the innocent and not the guilty. Minor thought they were stupid; he thought their hands were tied. Minor was wrong.

"Then pursuant to UNE law and the contract between the International Civilian Gate Agency and the undersigned Thomas Naylor Minor, I am turning you over to the custody of Colonel Navat of the SGOC, who is authorized to conduct an interrogation of Thomas Naylor Minor using either or both chemical and technological means to ascertain the details of your crime and any other threats or co-conspirators in said crime," Rodney read from the printed sheet of paper he'd placed inside the Minor file.

Minor's color and smirk fled.

"That can't be right. You can't do that. I've got rights!"

Rodney stared at him and then indicated the file again. "Not according to UNE law in regards to UNE citizens who have signed a contract with the ICGA or the Revised Atlantis Expedition Charter. Unless you're saying you aren't Thomas Naylor Minor after all?"

Minor licked his lips.

Rodney thought he should have felt much worse, but he and Navat had discussed the matter. They were not going to torture Minor. But they were going to extract some answers. Neither of them trusted HSA to get to the bottom of who Minor was or who he really worked for, not after reviewing the background investigation that showed nothing. Navat had agreed to use sodium pentathol and a zat'arc detector on Minor. When they were finished, Minor would be sent back to Earth and the waiting arms of the HSA. Rodney doubted they'd be as careful as Navat and his people would.

"Take him back to the brig," Navat ordered.

Minor started fighting when two SGOC soldiers picked him up out of his chair and kept fighting, spitting and cursing Rodney and Lorne and a litany of others, until he was wrestled out the door.

"He ought to be grateful we're operating under the Revised Charter," Rodney said. He'd been one of those along with John who had wanted what they could and couldn't do set down in writing when the UNE took over and they'd got it. They hadn't wanted another episode where they asked Ronon to use a knife on someone for answers.

Even though Rodney thought Ronon would be happy to volunteer again this time.

Maybe the Concord would want Minor to pay for Carson's death. If so, it would be another wedge between them and Earth, because Minor was going back to the Milky Way. The UNE wouldn't extradite him back to Pegasus. They wouldn't want to give the Pure a martyr for one thing. Handing over a Tau'ri citizen, UNE or American, to 'aliens' for punishment would stir up a shit storm no one would weather well.

"I'll be in my office until we dial the SGC," he told Navat.

He glanced at Alice Biro, who hadn't spoken once through the confrontation. "Is there anything Medical needs?"

She blinked and shook her head. "No, but I should get back."

Rodney started to reach for her and stopped himself. "I want to see her."

They'd brought the two bodies out two hours after Lofgren. Carson's had been released to Teyla, who took him back to Genea, to receive their funeral arrangements. Only Jennifer was in the city morgue.

"Doc – "

Biro shook her head. "No, Rodney. That's not her."

Whatever half-baked notions he'd harbored of romantic gestures, of tender kisses pressed to clay cold lips, died inside him hearing Biro's words.

Lorne rose and said, "I'll go with you, ma'am. We'll need a doctor to monitor the interrogation."

Biro shuddered but didn't protest.

"Colonel," Rodney said.

"Director," Navat acknowledged.

"Just make sure he's the only one." Rodney paused and found some principles that weren't drowning in his anger and grief. "Without lowering yourselves to his level, please. For all our sakes."

He didn't want to make the old mistakes, not when he knew they were still making new ones every day. He had a condolence letter to write to Jennifer's next of kin. The next of kin who had rejected her for her work.

Halfway across the control room he broke and headed for the transporter, taking it to the far edge of an empty landing pier. The morning sun reflected off the bronzed metal plates, bouncing the heat back just the way they were designed to do, and the glare off the ocean bleached the heated air. Rodney stopped before he'd ventured more than a few steps across the expanse where the Daedalus and Apollo could both land without crowding each other.

M35-117's fierce sun sparked off Atlantis' towers, hotter and harsher than Rodney remembered Lantea's. He squeezed his eyes shut and lifted his face to the baking heat. Jennifer would have scolded him for standing out there, letting his skin burn, and called him a ninny when he complained he was going die of skin cancer. She would have teased him about getting all his Vitamin D in one day.

She'd never said anything when he woke in her bed and looked at her like she was the wrong person. She'd never made him feel ashamed.

He felt ashamed now; for not being with her, not saving her, not loving her first.

He couldn't see through the blobs of color floating before his eyes when he stumbled back into the cool darkness of the nearest building. His face heated. He blinked, trying to make the black shadow in the doorway dissolve. Instead it moved and he was pulled all the way in, held in a backbreaking hug. He squeaked when his burning cheek pressed against a leather vest.

"Thought you'd stay out there forever," Ronon grumbled.

"Ow, ow, ow," Rodney whimpered. He felt tears squeezing out of his eyes and he still couldn't see. They felt like acid on his cheeks. "Why didn't you come get me?"

Ronon splayed one hand over the top of Rodney's head the same way he'd cradled Tanaan as a baby.

"Figured you knew what you needed to do."

He pulled Rodney in tighter and it hurt, it hurt so damn much, Rodney wondered how he could breathe; he wondered how Ronon had lived through this after Melena, how Teyla had held on after Kanaan, how anyone could bear to lose like this. He thumped his fist against Ronon's chest, but Ronon just held on, swaying faintly from side to side.

"Go ahead," he said. "Go ahead."

Rodney didn't know what Ronon meant, but he leaned against him until the pain in his face was worse than inside.

22 May 2018
Milky Way
Earth, Dalhart, Texas

It said something about George Hammond that, along with a Tok'ra ambassador and Teal'c in full Jaffa regalia, along with former Presidents Henry Hayes and Abby Farnham, along with all the dignitaries from a dozen different nations and militaries, there were men like Sergeant Siler and Master Sergeant Harriman at his funeral. John thought everyone in Dalhart, Texas had shown up for the church service as well.

One bomb and an ambitious terrorist could take out the best part of the UNE and the stargate programs, though. Security was a nightmare. The HS agents stationed everywhere were rigid with tension.

Shen Bao was there, Daniel Jackson, Sam, Cameron, and most of the UNE Council. John was there and he'd never actually met Hammond, despite one alien inspired hallucination. Hammond had already moved on to Homeworld Security when O'Neill snatched John from Antarctic exile to flip the lights on in Atlantis and had retired from that post by the time John, Elizabeth, Rodney and Carson were being debriefed a year later after Earth re-established contact with the city.

The one face that didn't show was Gen. Hank Landry. John considered that just as well. He might have decked him. Though it might have been more satisfying to thank him and watch him choke.

One more person had come from offworld to George Hammond's funeral. John didn't actually see him, but he saw the log of everyone who came in through the stargate; he knew Rodney was somewhere in the crush of people.

He told himself he wasn't looking for him.

Standing on the steps outside as the endless funeral train moved out to the cemetery where Hammond would be settled into a plot next to his wife, John slipped his aviator glasses on against the morning glare, and watched Hammond's two pretty granddaughters embrace Jack O'Neill and pull him in to share the limousine taking them to the grave side.

Too many people, all wearing black or some gray variant, except the occasional woman wearing a brighter colored dress, obscured who was who. John glimpsed broad shoulders and thin brown hair but never the familiar form of Rodney McKay.

He was clogging the exiting crowd. With a sigh, he started to move and nearly tripped avoiding a woman who cut impatiently before him and down the steps. A hand caught his arm and steadied him. His helper moved on down the steps after the woman and a gap opened between the funeral goers. It revealed Rodney, standing at the other end of the church steps, arms crossed over his chest, watching John with a deep frown.

John shivered and stared back until he was jostled again and had to move. No matter how many times he glanced back, he couldn't find Rodney again.

He didn't know what he would have done if he had.

Yes, he did. If he'd been within arm's reach, he would have touched Rodney and tried to smooth away the headache-induced frown lies between his brows. If Rodney had held still for it, John would have fumbled and stumbled and muttered a half incoherent plea to just talk to him. It would have been pathetic. John felt himself blushing hot with humiliation just imagining it.

The sun reflected off the pavement and the black paint of the vehicles carrying the dignitaries away. Sweat beaded at the back of John's neck and down his spine, gluing his undershirt to his skin. His security team had a car and there would be air conditioning and privacy in it, but he couldn't wait for it, he had to move. They'd have to catch up with him.

John kept walking until he'd cleared most of the crowd, not caring exactly where he ended up. His dress shoes pinched and scuffed over the faded gray concrete of the sidewalk.

Rodney had looked exhausted and sour and, Jesus, he didn't want to think about him anymore. He'd always been fine with letting go. This was no different and he needed to stop torturing himself. Just because Rodney had been looking at him and John had seen him meant nothing. The last he'd heard, in a chatty email from Lorne, Rodney had been seeing Jenn Keller, and it had only been three months since her death. If Rodney had looked hurt, it was because he was grieving.

John made himself stop in the shade of a tree, realizing if he walked in faster he would break into a run. Rodney was probably already at the grave side. If John left now, he could find him.

He shook his head.

What in hell was he thinking? That he would find Rodney at the grave side of a great man, tell him, 'Hey, heard about your girlfriend, too bad, want to fuck for old time's sake?' The only thing worse would be begging for another chance.

John knew when to retreat. He had his cellphone in his pocket. He called his security team out of belated courtesy, warned them of his destination and then transited back to Colorado Springs.

If Rodney wanted to see or talk to John, he knew where to find him.

2019
running up that hill

3 January 2019
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

The going-away party had been smaller than the promotion party held the month before, but the attendees had included the entire command staff, and the city seemed hushed when morning came. Not everyone had a hangover, of course, but they were all walking carefully around the sufferers.

Rodney's headache had nothing to do with the Ruus wine, but he despised the bright sunshine pouring into the gate room anyway.

Chuck looked heavy-eyed and tired, but smiled when Onda slipped him a cookie on her way to get Rodney's third coffee. The rest of the control room staff bent over their consoles, either working or pretending to work, as though they felt Rodney's gaze on them through the glass walls of his office.

He watched Lorne come through and stop for a moment to speak with Chuck, before continuing toward Rodney's door and knocking lightly. He looked happy.

"Yes, what is it?" Rodney asked. There was little use in starting to be nice to Lorne now and if Rodney hadn't told Lorne he would miss him and his staggering competence while he was drunk, he certainly wasn't going to do so sober.

"Thought I'd say good-bye before dial up," Lorne said. He walked into the office and straightened. "In case you had any last things to say."

"No, no last words, Ma – Lieutenant Colonel."

Lorne's grin at Rodney's stumble and the reminder drew an answering smile from him. He remembered the way John had corrected him each time Rodney forgot his promotion and the secret smile that had gone with John correcting him. Lorne's promotion was expected, of course, if overdue, even if the surprise had been the lateral transfer from SGOC to the Space Force so that he could have a command, since Navat had the Atlantis slot and whoever took over after him would be a matter of UNE politics.

"I'm going to miss Atlantis," Lorne said.

Atlantis would miss him too, Rodney thought privately. Major Blanchard would be taking over Lorne's duties. Rodney would miss having an ally within the military contingent. Blanchard followed the rules. Lorne had too, but he'd also known when to look the other way.

Lorne checked his watch. "Five minutes."

"Don't break your ship when you get it," Rodney told him.

That amused Lorne.

"Well, I'm hoping it'll be in a bit better shape than the Orion was, Doc, since they're giving me one of the new B306s." He glanced over his shoulder into the control room. Rodney's gaze followed his. Onda was leaning over Chuck's shoulder, talking to him. Rodney's delinquent coffee was sitting on the edge of the console, which was strictly against regs. "If I run some scientists' names by you in an email, will you vet them for me?"

ICGA had people on most of the Space Force ships, mostly working in Engineering, but also Life Support and on the datacores, since the Asgard-derived technology was fussier than the tech they'd taken off the Goa'uld – no doubt because most Goa'uld tech had been simplified versions of things they'd scavenged.

"Keep your thieving hands away from my science staff."

"I already tried to steal Dr. Z."

"I'll ask Sam for the name of the best and let you know," Rodney promised.

Without Hermiod, Sam herself, or Lindsay Novak, it would be third best, actually. Well, fifth, since Rodney and Radek weren't going to leave Atlantis. Hailey wasn't even in the running; her specialty was all theory and she had no knack for actually working with physical machines and equipment. Weisser was tied up on SG-2. Offhand, Rodney couldn't think of anyone good enough to work for Lorne who was with the programs and the few not with the SGC didn't know Asgard tech and probably weren't up to field work. Rodney had been on the Daedalus through enough battles to count crewing a Space Force ship as 'in the field'.

Rodney got to his feet and came around his desk, offering Lorne his hand. They shook without ceremony or display.

"Anything I can carry back to Earth for you?" Lorne asked as they walked out of the office.

"No – Wait, yes. " Rodney went back into the office, opened a drawer, and brought out a palm-sized, polished wooden box. He brought it back and handed it to Lorne. The wood had a beautiful zebra pattern of dark and light grain, cut and fitted together in a key pattern and was a piece of art in its own right. "If you could mail this to my niece, since I won't be making it to her birthday this year? Madison Miller. I'll email you the address."

"No problem," Lorne said. He glanced at the box. "You mind if I – ?"

Rodney snorted. "I'd consider you an idiot if you didn't check to see what you're about to take back into the Pipe."

Lorne opened the box after a second of looking for the catch and examined the earrings inside nestled on a bed of blue silk: hammered silver and mother-of-pearl from Tish surrounding two of the seafoam green singing pearls from there. One hummed a pure note when Lorne brushed his fingertip over it. "I didn't know they let these offworld."

"I played a disc of Madison playing for the Eldress Nananna'aki'ti when she visited and she sent these to me for her through Teyla."

"She must be good. How old is she?"

Rodney straightened up and declared, "She's fifteen. Sixteen this year. And she's not just good, she's brilliant. A prodigy in fact and if you have an opportunity, get a ticket to her next performance."

"I'll do that, sir," Lorne promised. He tucked the earring box into his pocket. "And I'll get this to her for you."

Onda stepped away from Chuck as they approached and scooped up the coffee mug, which she offered to Rodney.

"You know what the rules are about liquids and the consoles," Rodney said, but he sipped the coffee anyway.

"Ready to dial up Earth, sir?" Chuck asked Lorne.

"Do it," Rodney told Chuck.

He walked with Lorne to the top of the steps that led down to the gate room level and stopped in front of the restored stained glass window before the landing. Lorne's bags were sitting on the red patterned floor just out of the splash zone. Rodney sipped his coffee again and watched along with Lorne as the stargate lit up, lights racing around the ring, leaving each chevron of the Earth address lit up behind them. Atlantis first, originating world, and then the rest.

"Anything else, Doc?" Lorne asked. "Any messages for anyone? I figure I'll stop in and say hi to General Sheppard before heading for Peterson Spaceport."

John hadn't been able to get away from Rodney fast enough when they glimpsed each other at Hammond's funeral; he hadn't even attended the grave side portion of the ceremony.

Six chevrons, seven, and then eight, the Earth sigil, just the way it appeared on the SGOC insignia, finished dialing in. The wormhole formed, energy backsplashing past the event horizon for a breathless instant, and then settling into familiar blue-white ripple. Chuck's voice carried as he initiated radio contact and day codes and authentications were exchanged.

"No," Rodney answered Lorne's question belatedly.

"Sure?"

The stargate still fascinated him and he'd been staring at it, calculating how many years before they were building their own supergate between Pegasus and the Milky Way or even the Ori and Ida Galaxies, distracting himself automatically. They knew there were planets full of people in the Ori galaxy and the Asgard home worlds were likely not the only livable ones in Ida, which might be rich with left behind Asgard technology. He blinked and reminded himself where he was.

"Lieutenant Colonel Lorne, you're cleared through to Stargate Operations Command," Chuck announced over the comm. "Good luck, sir."

"No messages for anyone else," Rodney clarified and added, "Bring the Hammond to Atlantis on your shakedown cruise."

"Kind of a tough trip for a first time," Lorne said. "I'll think about it, if General Mitchell doesn't have other plans for us."

Lorne pulled in a deep breath and headed down the last set of stairs.

Rodney watched him scoop up his bags and stride up to the event horizon, where he stopped, turned and looked around one final time, and then nodded to Rodney, before he turned and walked through with an audible squelch.

Rodney touched his radio earpiece. "Chuck, go ahead and send through the regular databurst and get their acknowledgment and anything else from the SGC before you shut down the gate."

"Yes sir."

Life in Atlantis went on. He finished the coffee, which was almost cold, and headed back to his office.

2020
to converse with broken things

26 April 2020
Milky Way
Earth, Manhattan, Seventh Avenue and 57th Street

One hundred five steps to the fifth tier might have exhausted another man of his age, but not John. He still felt like he had over a decade before. He still looked essentially the same too, though the offworld tan had faded some thanks to spending more and more time chained to his desk under the Mountain. Another ten years and they were going to start checking his attic for portraits or his head for a snake.

John settled in to his red, plush upholstered seat just five minutes before Madison Miller, sixteen years old and suddenly world famous, walked out onto the pale floored stage of the Stern Hall at Carnegie to play her own work there for the first time. John leaned forward when she stopped in front of the piano and seemed to search the auditorium, so tiny from where he sat, though he knew she couldn't make out anything through the glare of lights centered on her.

He wondered if she was nervous, then realized she wasn't. Madison, even years before when he'd seen her in person the last time and not just on stage, had all the McKay confidence in her own talent.

She finished her walk around the piano, seated herself and arranged the skirt of her dark blue dress to her satisfaction, smoothed her blond hair back and poised her hands over the ivory keys. He wondered if she was wearing the earrings he'd seen in the publicity photos; the Tish pearls that could only have come from Rodney. He couldn't tell from so far up, since it hadn't occurred to him to bring field glasses.

Then he forgot everything but the music.

Madison played Pegasus Compositions.

Her performance was sublime. Perfectly accomplished and assured and inspired as never before when John had heard her play at other, less venerated venues. He stayed still, didn't tap his fingers or twitch a muscle. The music flooded through him like water, into the deep, dry places inside, and buoyed John up, refreshed him with yearning and joy, until it soared and opened him. Opened and carried him flying through memories, through blue waters and indigo skies, gifted with wings to circle silver spires and distant stars, until the notes came to their conclusion in the still velvet black of night and space.

He opened his eyes in the weighted moment between the conclusion of the last note, that last low reverberation hanging in the silence, and the ovation that followed and realized he'd been smiling.

John clapped along with the rest of the crowd, who had been as carried away as he had been. Madison stood on the stage and grinned at their response, a hint of less than decorous glee peeking through as the applause went on far longer than usual.

He walked through the gold and white lobby afterward, still half smiling, still transported and filled with Atlantis, the blues and greens and silvers behind his eyes so real that it seemed right to see Rodney. Then reality crashed through John, as if the sound of the chattering crowd became audible, crashing into the silent peace Madison's playing had left inside him.

Rodney belonged with the angles and strangely dissonant symmetries of Atlantis, not the crimson and gold touched Italian Renaissance interior of Carnegie Hall.

This time Rodney wasn't looking at him, in fact didn't see or know John was there. He stood at an angle to John, head bent, listening to Jeannie. John took two steps toward them without thinking, still filled with the mixture of melancholy and joy Madison had played, but he stopped himself. Instead, he watched, letting the crowd flow around him.

He hadn't known Rodney was on Earth. The Dakara Summit, with Tau'ri, Jaffa and Tok'ra gathered in the ruins left there by the Ori, had been called to debate what to do about the rising power of the Lucian Alliance and had taken up his days for the last week. When he gated back to Earth, he usually sacked out during the six hours in quarantine, and it was the only sleep he got. He'd skipped reading the gate logs and any mission reports Addison hadn't flagged for him and obviously missed Rodney's arrival, otherwise seeing him wouldn't have been such a hollow shock.

Rodney still emphasized everything with his hands as he talked. Jeannie looked mulish and argued back.

John tried to make himself walk over. If it had just been Jeannie or Jeannie and Kaleb, he could have done it, and offered his congratulations to be relayed to Madison. But not with Rodney there, animated and smiling; John didn't want to see Rodney's face frown or go blank when confronted with him.

The magic of the evening drained out him, the little bubbles of happiness popping until he felt flat as unshared champagne. Or was that sour grapes?

He realized his stillness had drawn Jeannie's gaze. Recognition flowed over her face. Before she could acknowledge him though, John shook his head twice, and melted back into the crowd. He exited onto the street and let his feet take him toward Central Park. His shoulders were tense as he waited for a clatter behind him or Jeannie's voice raised to halt him.

Or Rodney's.

Neither came and he breathed out, feeling too many things at once, relief and regret and the low, quiet ache that was always there, though he'd learned to pretend it had faded. No, it was there, the feel of something broken and grating inside whenever he tried to really move on. He didn't know what to do about it, he'd never known what to do with it, where to put all the love he'd never been able to shape into words.

Playing it over in his mind, New York once before. 'John! Damn it, John! Could you slow down for a minute?' He'd been trying to get away from Rodney, but he'd known all he had to do was turn around, because Rodney was there, Rodney wouldn't give up or let John give up on them. God damn it. He looked up, but there was nothing to see, no stars, no moon, just haze of the city lights contaminating the night.

No rain. No one behind him. No one calling his name.

26 April 2020
Milky Way
Earth, Colorado Springs

The condo always felt cold; maybe it was the still silence, only broken by empty sounds of the thermostat ticking and the refrigerator kicking on. Each time he came back, it felt uninhabited and stayed that way, whether he stayed alone or brought someone back with him. John didn't spend enough time there to make it anything more than the place he went when he wasn't somewhere else. Home had been Rodney's apartment before. The condo hadn't replaced it.

He didn't bother with the lights. The power telltales from the various electronics provided all the navigational aids he needed to avoid walking into anything. Leaving the lights down concealed some of the bareness.

Off came the jacket and he left it folded over the back of his couch. The leather upholstery felt cool under his fingers.

In the kitchen, he stripped off his tie and left it crumpled on the counter next to the shining coffeemaker. He never touched most of the appliances and pots in the kitchen. He seldom shopped either. The refrigerator yielded little when he opened it and blinked against the sudden light. He studied the meager contents. Sour milk, wilted lettuce, withered grapes, a shrunken tomato with wrinkled skin, bottles of ketchup and pickles, and three beers left from the day Cam came by and brought lunch fixings from a deli, were all that occupied the white interior.

The only other thing was a half empty carton of eggs. John guessed what he'd find before he opened it; the refrigerator always ran too cold when the condo's heat was down and the eggs had frozen and cracked in the carton, gluing the shells to the cardboard.

John tossed them and snagged a beer. Enough beer and he'd stop thinking. That would be an improvement; his current thoughts were no good and centered on finding out where Rodney was and calling him.

He checked the freezer and found only an ice pack, half of Cam's rye loaf, and two quarts of Vala's strawberry ice cream. He gently shut both doors and stood afterward in the dark. His fingers curled around the neck of the beer bottle. The cold glass made him shiver a little.

He gave up on the idea of food and took the beer back to living room with him. He detoured around the chair that half faced toward the kitchen, narrowly avoided the sharp corner of the glass coffee table and sank down in the center of the couch. The leather creaked a stiff protest under his weight and only slowly warmed to his body heat. He let his head drop back against the cushioning and rubbed the pad of his thumb against the sharp metal fluting of the beer bottle's cap.

The emptiness of the condo disturbed him. This was his life and it didn't impress him. He couldn't sustain a relationship for more than a month, all his friends were from work, his only family was permanently estranged and the people he cared for most were in another galaxy.

"Fuck it," he murmured. He didn't even have a pet.

Popping the cap of the bottle, John toasted his self-pity. It was award-winning.

He could call someone. He should, because drinking and feeling sorry for himself wasn't smart under any circumstances.

Cam was onworld. Like John, he had to commute through the stargate to Dakara each day to backup Sam and Daniel and hopefully pick up some useful information. Cam would be willing to talk; hell, he'd jump in his antique of a truck and drive over if John hinted at the way he felt. The Jaffa Nation had chosen to rebuild their capitol on Dakara despite its devastation. Admirable, but the place was depressing as hell to someone who had seen it before. Cam would watch ESPN with him or Die Hard and they wouldn't talk about anything, but he'd head home in time, because he had to be at the Summit the next day too, and the condo would be as barren as before.

His last date had been with Hester, a translator with the OOA he'd met at the Tower, but that had been a month ago. He didn't think she'd welcome him calling her in the middle of the evening without warning. John couldn't remember her number anyway; even her face was a blur, mostly he remembered long dark hair and a faint British accent.

He toasted himself again. Award-winning self pity. He had only himself to blame.

He wanted to call Vala, but she wasn't onworld. She was due at Dakara tomorrow if nothing had gone wrong. She'd been going to the Hole to gather more intel and no one could predict how long navigating out to where the Mata Hara could make a hyperspace jump would take on any specific occasion.

After a third sip of beer, he leaned forward and found the TV remote, switching on CNN for the noise. He needed to catch up anyway, he told himself.

The litany of human unhappiness didn't help his mood, though. The announcer's bland face and voice accompanied digital coverage uplinked from Africa at the head of the news hour. No reporters were allowed in; the coverage came from people already trapped within the quarantine zones. The disease itself had broken out in Bumba and then in villages along the Zaire River. Rioting had begun in Kinshasa and spread to Pointe-Noire and Kisangani in response to the medical quarantine the UNE enacted along with the latest Ebola iteration; madness and desperation bleeding from victims and the uninfected equally. The GTS platforms and point-to-point were locked out for the entire continent, no one in or out, by HSA fiat. UF troopers were patrolling the quarantine zones. Unmentioned by CNN, maybe unknown to them, the UNE military were using heavy duty life sign sensors tuned to track anyone trying to break quarantine. No one would want to talk about what they did when they caught someone, anyway.

Ebola maria bumba burned slower than its older cousins, taking the time to spread its infection before taking down its victims. No one was going to chance it making a global breakthrough. Jennifer Keller's immuno-accelerant might have helped, but there wasn't enough of it on the planet to treat one town's worth of people.

Millions spent on the Pipe and Earth popped up its own plague.

The pictures of hospitals awash in hemorrhaged blood switched to an endless expanse of cracked ground and a white-hot sky. Another talking head began reciting the effects of the fourth year of record drought in Australia and the continuing damages to worldwide agriculture of accelerating climate change. The report segued to blackened fields in the US Midwest, where Fundies had burned more genetically engineered (GE) corn crops.

John drank his beer and went back to the kitchen for a second, reminded of the pictures of the field where Misel had been dumped.

The last time he'd been to a Council session, they'd been debating licensing corporations to run farming operations on uninhabited worlds and import the product by cargo ship.

He leaned against the kitchen doorway and caught the last part of a commercial for the One Child, One World campaign. Polly Hastings in white linen and khaki standing in the middle of a Rio favela, children gathered around her and staring at the camera, earnestly exhorting everyone to give just one dollar a day. Her publicity machine had probably done all the work, but Polly had good intentions.

"One dollar, one MU, one frank or lire or yen," Polly said. "These children don't know you, but you can change their world. You can change our world for the better. Isn't that worth it?"

The SGC had its own publicity machine and General Sheppard had to do his part. He'd be expected at the annual charity fund raiser. Margo sent the itinerary of mandatory appearances to Master Sergeant Addison six months ahead of time.

The beer didn't have enough punch to excuse the impulse John suddenly had to ring Margo and tell her how much he hated this place and always had. He thought about doing it anyway.

"National headlines continue to be dominated by the indictment for double murder, kidnapping, and false imprisonment of Patrick and Ellen Ann Willis."

John tightened his hand on the bottle.

"Prosecutors in Burton, Ohio formally charged Patrick and Ellen Ann Willis in the shocking case, alleging that the couple, both self-proclaimed Purists, imprisoned their own seventeen-year-old daughter after a pre-natal test revealed she was carrying an ATA positive child. The Willis' daughter claims to have been kept chained in their basement and beaten throughout her pregnancy, as well as forced to give up the name of the baby's father, Darren Charles Chester. The Willises told neighbors and friends that their daughter had 'run off' when her disappearance was first noted.

"After giving birth to her child while still held in the basement, after which she claims her parents smothered the baby, Delia Willis escaped and went to Burton police with her story." The news reader looked more disturbed than avid, John noticed. Maybe some things were still bad enough to get to even a reporter.

"The corpse of a newborn child was exhumed from a grave dug beneath the porch of the Willis home after police searched it. Yesterday, the district attorney also charged the Willises with the murder of the baby's father.

"Darren Charles Chester was shot twice in the head at his own back door four months ago. Police had already considered the Willis couple 'persons of interest', but declined to arrest them without more evidence or motive at the time of his murder."

The plasma screen flashed to a headshot of Joseph Barnes and then digital of the man and his retinue, apparently on the white marble steps of a court house, plowing through a mob of journalists. John reined in the urge to throw his bottle at the screen.

"Reverend Marshal Joseph Barnes of the Defenders of Pure Humanity declined to comment when asked about the Willis case. A spokesman for DPH decried unfair publicity and rumors that federal prosecutors were looking in to charging the DPH under the 2016 Federal Anti-Hate Crime Law if the Willises were convicted."

"I bet," John muttered. He sucked in a hard breath and forced himself to loosen his hold on the bottle finger by finger without actually dropping it.

"The US National Unemployment rate rose again for the third year in a row..."

He finished the beer and left the TV running, while he walked back to the bedroom, finished undressing and stood under the hottest shower he could bear, until his head went light and his knees wobbly.

The sheets smelled like laundry soap and nothing else. The bed was cold. John sprawled across it and shuddered, his skin prickling with goose bumps. He spread his arms as wide as he could, lying flat, and breathed in and out as slowly as possible.

He wondered if Rodney was at his apartment or Jeannie's.

He didn't let himself call.

10 October 2020
Pegasus
M35-117 Atlantis

He'd always known it would happen some day. He'd just been afraid Pegasus would kill him before he received his just due.

The lieutenant Sam had sent through the gate shifted nervously, trying to stand at attention and look around the office and out its glass walls at the same time.

Rodney glanced up from the papers before him. There would be more in the databurst, including the press announcement made on the seventh in the news feed they received every Friday. The lieutenant had come through immediately once Earth had dialed in and the shield dropped. He'd been carrying the sealed message bag and delivered it into Rodney's hands before the databurst had even been completed. Fast work on the young man's part and a very large databurst. Rodney hoped it wasn't mostly junk and reports on the summit at the Tok'ra's capital that had followed the one on Dakara. Atlantis' servers were going to slow down more than usual when the databurst was released no matter what, though.

"Sir?"

Sam had included a note along with the official papers.

Don't tell me Radek won't come back to Earth for this! See you in December. Congratulations, Sam.

"Sir?"

Rodney snapped his attention back the freckle-faced annoyance. "What?"

"Is there – Do you have anything for me to do?"

"Do I look like your commanding officer?" Rodney waited for the head shake. "Do I look like an officer at all? Am I wearing one of your oh so nifty uniforms? Didn't anyone tell you what you were supposed to do once you handed me this?"

"Ah, no, sir?"

Rodney flapped his hand toward the door. "Go, get out, there's a UF duty officer sitting in the control room dedicatedly keeping a seat warm. You'll recognize him by the uniform. He'll fix you up with temporary quarters until we dial Earth next week and send you back."

He waited for the lieutenant to leave, then watched him hesitantly approach the duty officer. Captain Pagletti might be dying of curiosity, but he hid it behind a laptop and was pretending to work – Rodney was convinced that ninety-eight percent of the time all people were only pretending to work. Ninety-seven percent if they were under his personal supervision. Once he was convinced Pagletti wouldn't let the newbie lieutenant wander off and explode something, Rodney tapped his radio on and commed the tertiary physics lab that they'd relocated to a building at the far end of one of the piers for safety.

"Radek."

"What?" Radek snapped.

"Databurst from Earth."

"Then it is still there and I do not care. I am busy, the primary extruder in our mold is clogging again."

"Tetchy," Rodney said with a smile, prompting an explosive curse in response. He glanced down at the papers again. "I need you to come to my office."

"Rodney..."

"Have you checked the pressure regulators?" he asked, unable to ignore the subject of the ZPM casings they were forming out there in the tertiary lab.

"No, Rodney, I would never think of such a thing." Radek's patient sarcasm came through clearly.

"Check the sensor gages and the connections. We've been through the calculations a hundred times. It has to be a hardware problem."

"Yes, I know."

"Well, then get one of the monkeys to check them again and threaten to drop them off the control tower unless they find the problem," Rodney said. "I need to show you something before I release the databurst to server distribution and the slavering hordes want their personal emails."

"Oh, very well," Radek sighed, much put upon, "I will be there as soon as I can."

"Sooner," Rodney told him and cut the connection.

He may have fondled the letter a little while he waited for Radek to show up. There was no one in the office to know if he did, though.

Radek tromped in wearing a look of great annoyance. His hair wasn't white yet, though there was plenty of gray and his last prescription had left him with heavier lenses in his glasses again, but the hair flew up with every step he took like a crazed dandelion puff. A thinning dandelion puff, Rodney noted with deep satisfaction.

"What is it?" Radek demanded.

"Sam sent a courier through with this."

Rodney handed him the second envelope, the one addressed to Dr. Radek Zelenka. Radek accepted it with a confused frown. "What – ?"

Rodney waved the cover letter from his own. "I opened mine."

Radek was looking at the return address on the heavy envelope. His mouth fell open in an unattractive way. His fingers moved over the expensive paper, paused on the old fashioned stamps, traced the post mark. He blinked rapidly. "Is this – I had actually forgotten the date this year."

Rodney nodded.

"I had not – You, yes, but – but it has been years, though they are very slow to acknowledge some work of great note – Though I dared hope, still – " Radek turned the envelope over and over as he stopped and started, looking amazed, before trying to pry open the sealed flap with a cracked fingernail. He stopped. "I do not want to tear it."

Ronon had given Rodney a stiletto one Christmas. Rodney used it for a letter opener and sometimes considered cutting his throat with it when the paperwork threatened his sanity. He'd thought Ronon wouldn't approve of the use he put it to, but Ronon just nodded and seemed pleased that Rodney kept a weapon on hand even in his office.

He offered it to Radek hilt first. Like all of Ronon's knives, it didn't have jewels or much in the way of decoration, just a wicked edge and perfect balance, but the hilt had been wrapped in intricately braided, scarlet leather to provide a better grip. Like most things made well to a single purpose, the stiletto had its own intrinsic beauty.

Radek accepted it and slit open the envelope with delicate care not to tear the heavy rag paper or prick his fingers. Just because they'd both sweated blood on the ZPMs didn't mean he wanted his own on his copy of the letter telling him that he and Rodney had both won the Nobel Prize for their work, Rodney knew. Finally. He set the stiletto onto Rodney's desk absently before drawing out the letter and reading it.

"You're not going to cry are you?" Rodney really hoped Radek wouldn't do the emotional East European thing; it always made him uncomfortable.

Radek looked up over his glasses and glared. "No." He pressed his lips together tightly, but the giddy smile Rodney had on his own face slipped free after a second. His fingers trembled a little as he tucked the letter carefully back into the envelope.

"You'll need a new suit," Rodney said.

"What?"

"For Stockholm," Rodney said. "I'm not accepting my Nobel next to someone who is dressed like a refugee from the twenty-oughts."

He sat back and dreamily imagined it. After so many years...He didn't even mind sharing the Nobel with Radek, after all there had been occasions when Radek had been notably not-stupid and also saved Rodney's brilliant life. Jeannie and Kaleb and Madison would be there, of course. Sam, too, and yes, she had already won a Nobel, but then she also was not-stupid; Rodney was a big enough man to admit that. Besides, she'd had a hand in saving Earth more than once, was blond and beautiful, and Nobel Committees were human too, after all. Sam would be in the audience when he accepted his Nobel medal. It wouldn't be half as satisfying if she wasn't. Plus all of his moronic colleagues, not that he hadn't already published and utterly destroyed their wrongheaded theories.

"I would like to have my sister and nephews there," Radek said.

"You hate kids. Especially your sister's kids. Why would you want them there?" Rodney asked without thinking.

Radek gave him a scornful look. "They are not children any longer, Rodney. Some of us, most of us, are growing older."

Rodney sniffed. "Don't blame me for your sub par genetics."

The picture of himself sipping champagne while all his rivals all lined up to congratulate him and fawn didn't seem as satisfying as it should have. He tried to picture himself sniping about them to Radek, but it didn't work. Radek would be kissing his sister's cheeks and busy accepting his own congratulations, no doubt, somewhere else in the Hall.

Rodney frowned.

"Rodney?" Radek asked.

"I'm sure the ICGA will be happy to arrange for your sister and nephews to attend the award ceremony," Rodney said. He would make sure they were and if he had to, he'd pay their way himself. He'd pay them if that was what it took. He really didn't have that many friends and almost none who had been around as long as Radek. A Physics Nobel was every physicist's dream, after all. Radek deserved to enjoy it as much as possible. Even if he would be selfishly leaving Rodney with no one to talk to at the reception.

Rodney blinked back to reality and his office.

"Rodney," Radek repeated and this time he just sounded exasperated. "I can make any arrangements necessary."

"Of course,  of course, I just – " Rodney flailed his hand. "It should be perfect."

"Then you will make sure that Teyla and Ronon are both there too," Radek said.

That hadn't occurred to Rodney. Of course his imagined scenario had seemed not quite...right. Teyla and Ronon hadn't been in the picture, but he wanted them there. "Yes, you're right." He smiled at Radek in approval. "You're absolutely right." He pointed at Radek. "That's why you're getting a Nobel Prize."

They both grinned fatuously at each other.

"And the General?" Radek asked after a moment.

"What?" Rodney blinked at him. He picked up Sam's note and waved it. "She'll be there." He handed it over. "See? I wonder if I could persuade her to come as my date..."

"Yes, General Carter, that is very pleasing," Radek said, reading the note. He glanced up as he handed it back. "I meant General Sheppard."

Rodney stared at him, feeling wounded that Radek had dared mentioning John in this happy moment.

"Rodney, it is not good to be so alone. A cat is not enough and you are both  – "

"Like you have a leg to stand on," Rodney snapped. "I don't see you dating anyone. I tried, okay? Jennifer and I were, we were..." He clenched his hands. "It's not...That was enough. I can't go back to before. It didn't work. You know it didn't and he can't stand to be in the same room as me anyway." He pushed his seat back from his desk. He couldn't talk about this. Jennifer was dead and he missed her, but as much as he wished he'd had a chance to save her, he didn't blame himself over what had happened to her. He ached when he thought of her, but it wasn't the pain of a still open wound and an irretrievable choice.

He still reached for John during the night.

"Not that it was ever any of your damned business and I'll thank you to stay out of mine from now on."

He stalked over to the glass and glared out at the control room, where Chuck and Onda and Pagletti were all staring at them. After a moment, he steadied his breathing, but he kept his back to Radek.

He wanted John to be there. He hated Radek a little for making him realize that.

"I wanted you to get that before I release the databurst. The rest of Atlantis will hear about it from the news feeds, I'm sure, so be prepared."

Radek waited until Rodney had finished speaking. "I am going back to the lab. If it is the hardware connection, we can fix it and resume production by tomorrow." His words were even and controlled enough that Rodney realized he had, perhaps, hurt Radek with his own words.

"I'll come with you," Rodney told him, apologizing as best he could. "I feel like getting my hands dirty."

Radek sniffed. "It is a clean room environment."

"It's a metaphor."

"You will just yell at my minions."

"They're my minions."

"I am a Nobel Prize winner. I should have minions of my own," Radek complained.

"Yes, yes, and I should have worshippers. We live in a sad universe that seldom recognizes our virtues. Except today."

"Actually, the announcement was made two days ago," Radek pointed out pedantically.

Rodney relaxed. If Radek had reverted to correcting him, however erroneously, than he was forgiven. "And people say I'm petty. Are you done nitpicking?"

Radek sighed as they walked out of the office together. Rodney noticed he was still clutching the letter from the Nobel Committee to his chest.

"Yes, I suppose I am."

"Good." Rodney pointed at Onda and Chuck. "Go ahead and release the databurst to base wide distribution." He smiled at them. "By the way, you're looking at the 2020 Winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics."

5 December 2020
Milky Way
Earth, Los Angeles

The run-up to the Christmas party season began with the One Child benefit in Los Angeles. Polly Hastings hosted it and pulled the rich and famous from the globe to look good and feel good about themselves while they did.

John attended without a date, despite the invitation for General Sheppard and guest. Usually, he brought Vala to the Hollywood things; she liked the shiny and outrageous, but she was offworld again.

He came in black tie instead of his uniform, but there were still people who inevitably recognized him. John made polite small talk when he had to and wandered away as fast as possible. Parties full of people he didn't know bored him. If he did run into someone interesting, they couldn't talk about anything substantive in public anyway. The sycophants that wanted to get closer to the man who ran Cheyenne Mountain freaked him out as well.

A giggly blond followed him around the perimeter of the party. Stubborn or stupid, she didn't pay any attention to John's brush offs. If she'd told him her name, he hadn't noticed; he thought maybe he was supposed to know who she was anyway.

A cynic might have spent some time calculating the percentage of men and women at the party who would sleep with him because he was a general, because the press called him a hero, or because he wore a tailored tuxedo that made him look good. John did and then averaged the numbers. Seventy-four percent, he decided, and higher if he put an effort into a seduction.

Not that he could be bothered; he couldn't muster the effort to go across the room to the bar and get a drink. He wanted to walk outside, out onto the pink stone veranda of Polly Hastings' mansion, into the night and down the steps and paths into the Italianate garden she'd spent millions to own, but it was raining and he didn't want to get mud on his shoes. He'd go out anyway, but the stars were all hiding behind the clouds overhead and the rain didn't make the glitter city illusion anything better than refraction.

Polly, sheathed in silver lamé, her hair long and black and glossy after two years as a blond, slid through the crowd and latched onto John's arm with a possessive smile that sent the girl on her way finally. She handed him a tall drink. "John, darling, try this. The bartender swears it will make even an anhedonist smile."

He took the glass automatically and tolerated the brush of her lips to his cheek.

"Thank you for coming."

"I always do," he said.

She kept her voice down. "Because you always follow orders."

"Not really." John tried the drink and shook his head at the taste. "What the hell is this?"

Polly shrugged and her dress slipped and shifted enticingly, a display she'd no doubt paid top dollar to get from her designer. The silver made her tan look even darker. Another calculated effect.  "Who knows? I told Gilbert to make something to cheer you up."

The drink was rum and fruit, mostly rum. "Did he think I was a pirate?"

"It's alcoholic, right?"

"Oh yeah." Someone might be wondering where the rum had gone. Into his drink was the answer.

"I saw Linette after you."

"Linette," John repeated.

"Linette Hunter?"

The name meant nothing to him.

Polly hooked her arm through his and drew him back through the crowd. "She was in last summer's biggest movie," she explained. "You didn't see it?"

"No."

Last summer had been filled with funerals for teams that ran into the Lucian Alliance, reports and missions, and the endless minutiae of keeping the Mountain running. He'd given up on dating after the last woman, the translator, he didn't remember her name any longer, and slipping his security escort to see a movie alone pushed the limits of his sense of the ridiculous.

Cam said John was depressed. He couldn't argue; when he tried to pick out a memory there were just the two, seeing Rodney, and everything else blurred together, static and an endless feedback loop of his days.

"Rumor is she likes older men," Polly whispered.

"Maybe I should take her up on the offer," he said without thinking. Maybe that was what he needed, to just get laid again. That would be Vala's advice, though somehow they'd never gone to bed together.

"She's too young for you."

John smirked at her. "They all are. You still are. I'm an old man."

She mock glared at him. "If I ever find out how you still look this good – "

"It's all clean living and virtue," John told her to make her laugh and she did.

"I can almost believe it," she replied. "You're a nice man. Remember when we first met?"

"You do?" He'd admit to feeling a little complimented.

"My heart was absolutely shattered when you turned me down."

"You were jailbait," he said. He'd been giving her the ten cent tour of the Mountain as part of a publicity op promoting the sequel to Tear Down the Pyramids.

"Not many men said no when I jumped their bones back then."

He'd wanted to keep his career. Besides, he'd had someone, even if Rodney hadn't been right there right then. He gulped down more of the fruit and rum drink. He pretended to leer at her. "Not many say no now either."

"Except you," Polly murmured. "Just like you'll say no to Linette if she comes back around."

John shrugged lazily and lied. "Probably."

"You should mingle a little more," she said. "There are some interesting people here besides the pretty faces and the hangers on. I snagged two Pulitzer winners, a Poet Laureate, and that fellow that won the Nobel Prize." She leaned closer. "Can I count on your usual obscenely large donation this year or did someone else get to you first?"

"Which fellow?" John asked.

"Elsevray, I think," Polly answered.

Two men were approaching with bright eyes. All the attention was on Polly, at least. John felt thankfully invisible next to her.

"The chemist," he said and relaxed.

"I think so. I admit I told Jill to invite all of them, but I know he's here."

"Okay – "

"Polly!" the older man exclaimed. "I've been trying to find you all night. You may be breaking some law about how many people are here. I want you to meet Tony. Tony, Polly."

"Dennis," Polly replied and air kissed him on both cheeks.

"I'll leave the check with Jill," John murmured and backed off.

Dennis and Tony were agent and director, he gathered, and Tony wanted Polly in his next production, wanted her production company really, and was talking a lot and very fast about the possibility of holoshows, 3D projections and new technology. John thought every hologram, even the ones the Ancients and Asgard made, looked creepy and ghost-like. He really didn't see how interactive they could be either, since a crowd ambling through a show would be kind of distracting. Not that anyone was asking him.

He listened for a little while and then drifted away, leaving Polly talking business with Dennis.

The crowd might include some interesting people, but the conversations John caught were all about who was sleeping with who, who wasn't any longer, who was in, who was out, gone into rehab, got out, fallen off the wagon, or couldn't get a job because no one would insure a project including them, and the rain. Two weeks straight of rain, not even really seasonable for Southern California, December or not, and the ground had begun to slither out from under roads and foundations, while in Vegas book was made on how much would be left of Malibu once the mud began sliding.

Someone was already drunk and mumbling 'Rain, rain, go away'. John smiled to himself. Someone was bound to decide they were Gene Kelly before the end of the night too.

He just ditched the rum concoction in favor of a good beer when Linette found him again. Her little, light laugh made John tense before he even turned.

"Oh, hey, General Sheppard," she greeted him with a bright smile. "You should meet – " She turned to the man already turning away and caught his arm. "I told you I knew someone here who would understand what you were talking about!"

She flashed a coy smile at John. "This is General Sheppard. He knows all about stargates and zero thingies. He saved the world from aliens, even."

John coughed, caught in a sort of horrified amusement, as he met Rodney's gaze. Polly had said she invited all the Nobel Prize winners. He'd just never imagined Rodney at this kind of party. He'd made a point of being in the control room on Monday when Rodney and Radek arrived and watched him through the Pipe's cameras, wanting to see the bright bounce of a vindicated Rodney McKay for old time's sake.

Rodney plucked Linette's red fingernails off the arm of his coat.

"John."

"Rodney," John replied cautiously, with a small nod to go with it. "The bar has Keith's. No Blue Truck."

Linette glanced back and forth between them. "Oh, do you know each other?"

Rodney rolled his eyes.

"I think we've met before," John told her.

"Yes, we have," Rodney elaborated. "Sheppard was on the first Atlantis expedition. With me. We were on the same gate team."

"Oh." Linette looked confused. "You were on SG-1?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, go away and don't come back until you've absorbed enough modern history to navigate out of a paper bag," Rodney snapped at her.

"I think you have me confused with Cam Mitchell," John said.

Rodney reached over and plucked John's beer from his hand. "I need this. You know stupidity gives me heartburn," he said as he gulped down a swallow.

"Did you just call me stupid?" Linette asked.

"What, you mean you noticed? Maybe there's hope for you yet. In case you aren't sure, though? Yes, I called you stupid and criminally ignorant and I want you to leave us alone now. Is that clear enough?"

Linette looked at John, appealing to him to defend her from Rodney's behavior, but John shook his head, unable to fight back a faint smile. He'd always known that if you baited the bear, you should be prepared to take some swipes, and Rodney appeared to be in fine form tonight.

With a stamp of her high heel, Linette stalked away, wobbling slightly when the abused footwear nearly heeled over like a sinking ship.

John turned back to the bar and obtained another beer.

He leaned back against the bar, sipped it, and studied Rodney. He looked good. A little heavier than when they'd been going through the gate together with Teyla and Ronon, but John wasn't as lean as he'd once been either. Rodney's hair had been cut recently, so that it clung to his skull, almost too short to do more than rub. He'd missed the same spot shaving that he always had. His mouth tipped down on one side and his sandy brown eyelashes dipped over his eyes as he looked back at John.

That look made John's skin prickle everywhere and his breath catch.

"We're alone now," he said.

Rodney crinkled his brow. "What?"

"Just you and me," John clarified.

"Plus several hundred other people."

"Who aren't paying us any attention."

Rodney glanced around. "I suppose."

Christ, this was awkward. John felt tense enough to crack and Rodney clearly wasn't comfortable, but he couldn't bring himself to let him go. "How are things, back in Atlantis?"

"You get the reports."

John nodded. He'd written enough of them to know how much never made it into them, too. "I was talking about the stuff between the lines."

"Oh." Rodney sipped his beer. "Teyla could tell you. She's here. We came together."

"She's your date?" John asked. That hurt, a stab of betrayal from a quarter he'd never expected.

"Well, we came together," Rodney prevaricated. "You could call it a date."

"Oh."

He felt like an idiot. Teyla would never hurt him that way. If she had a romantic interest in Rodney, ever, she would tell John. He knew that. He knew she loved Rodney, but it was the way John loved her. She'd give Rodney anything he needed, but Rodney had always needed a friend more than a lover in Teyla's case.

"So, ah, anything new," Rodney waved, the hand gesture that encompassed an entire galaxy, "with anything?" He made a face. "We get the reports, of course. I guess the Lucian Alliance is starting to push pretty hard."

"It's starting to get ugly," John said. He really didn't want to go into too much detail. Troop and ship movements, casualty numbers, that sort of thing stayed classified. Planets were choosing up allegiances through the Milky Way. So many that had been used to Goa'uld or bowed to the Ori were turning to the Lucian Alliance, because they understood its brutality as strength. It was familiar.

John couldn't even blame them. Thousands of years under the Goa'ulds' thumb hadn't shaped societies full of adventurers.

"Mmm," Rodney agreed.

"The ZPMs give us a nice technological edge though."

"Yes, yes, they do." Rodney smiled, pleased.

"Congratulations, by the way," John added. "You always said you'd get a Nobel." He lifted his beer in a casual toast. "You and Radek deserved it. More than once."

Rodney seemed to examine that for any hint of mockery, but John had been serious.

"Well, thank you." He lifted his chin. "We did."

"So is he here?"

"What? No." Rodney obviously found that funny. "He's in Prague. Or maybe Paris. There were complaints about his sister insisting he buy her an acceptable dress." He snorted. "Or he may have gone for that quicky hair replacement treatment."

"He – what?" John blinked at him. Behind him, someone pushed in to the bar and he shuffled a step closer to Rodney.

Rodney patted his head. "His is thinning faster than mine is receding." He let out a pleased little huff.

"It looks the same," John said, without any thought. "I mean...shorter, but..."

"Jennifer was right," Rodney said.

"I've noticed." He paused. "I'm sorry. I know...you were close."

Rodney's face never hid anything. It tightened and shifted and John's stomach fell as he realized Rodney really had loved her. The grief in his eyes gave it away. He regretted mentioning it and reminding Rodney. Regretted the proof Rodney really had moved on; a small part of him had wanted Rodney to be as lonely as he was, even though he hadn't realized just how lonely that was most of the time.

"Yes, well," Rodney muttered.

He looked down much to John's relief. It made it a little easier to not reach out and squeeze his arm in an attempt at comfort. He couldn't believe he wanted to comfort Rodney, but he did. Misery on Rodney had always made John want to do something to fix it. He was jostled again and his elbow brushed Rodney's, shocking him with a realization of how close they'd drawn. He didn't let anyone into his space like that anymore, not without choosing to consciously.

"I expect people to become bitter about the slow aging thing in another decade or two."

That hadn't occurred to John.

"You've thought about it."

"Of course I have. Thinking is what I do."

John made himself step back. The spot of heat where he'd touched Rodney remained, distracting him. He wanted to touch his fingers to his arm just there. His mouth had gone dry. He groped rather desperately for something else to talk about, some way to keep Rodney with him a little longer, without giving away just how much he wanted that.

"How's Navat working out?"

"You're asking now?" Rodney rightly sounded incredulous. It had been years. "He's fine. Better than Reynolds, actually, which is good now that Lorne's not there any more."

John smiled because he'd had the full tour of the Hammond from Lorne. He wished he could have held onto him in the SGOC, but Lorne deserved his own command and Space Force gave him that. He would have liked to have promised Lorne Atlantis once Navat rotated out, but politics made it all too likely he'd be sending Michaelson there, no matter how much more fit Lorne would have been.

He soothed himself with the reflection that she wouldn't have anywhere to move up after that and the UNEC had set the policy of limiting military command in Atlantis to five year stints. They didn't want anyone turning warlord or going native. As long as Rodney was running the civilian side, he figured Atlantis would survive one bad commander. Then he'd be rid of Michaelson: she'd never take demotion in her next post; she'd retire.

"Enjoy it while you can, then," he said.

"What?"

"Never mind."

No one could accuse Rodney of not making the connections if you gave him the facts or even alluded to them. "Oh, God, you're sticking me with Colonel Michaelson. What did I ever do to you – " He snapped his mouth shut.

"No, Jesus, I'm not. She has connections," John said. "I was warning you, not...getting even." He cursed himself. "Speaking of warnings, you should watch out for the Green Galaxy types. They've got it in for a lot of scientists. O'Neill upped the threat level from them to high last month. They're real fanatics."

"ZPMs are clean energy," Rodney said, dismissing any threat. "They don't have any reason to hate me."

He wanted to ask why Rodney had ended it. The words were there, ready to spill out, but Rodney just stood there as if braced for them to come, his shoulders stiff and his gaze shifted just to the side of John's face. John couldn't make himself push. It didn't matter any longer, anyway, did it?

"So how's Tanaan?" he asked instead.

Rodney latched onto the changed subject and started talking. John slouched a little and listened, almost content. Then he ruined it. He plucked the sloshing glass of beer from Rodney's hand when he began gesturing with both hands. His fingers slid over Rodney's for an instant and they both froze.

"Hey," John explained, "you're going to pour that down someone's back in a second."

Rodney drew back.

"I should find Teyla."

"I'm sure she'll find us if she's looking," John said.

The moment and the camaraderie were gone though, evaporated into an uncomfortable awareness that nothing was the same after all. John knew the signs; Rodney just wanted to get away from him now. He stood a little straighter and scanned to crowd for Teyla. Found her near the patio doors, watching them while chatting with several men. When she saw that he'd seen her, she shed her coterie with practiced ease and began making her way through the partiers.

"Here she comes," he reassured Rodney. He glanced at his watch. "And it's two hours later for me, so I should go anyway."

"I'm still on Atlantis time," Rodney said.

"So. Congratulations again."

Teyla arrived as John set down his empty beer glass. "John, I'm glad to see you," she murmured. She caught his wrists in a firm grip and pulled him close enough to dip his head and meet her.

John held still for a peaceful moment with his forehead resting against hers, the scent of her hair surrounding him, her hands steadying him, but then he stepped back.

"I've got to go. Sorry. Rodney, good to see you. Teyla, call me. Master Sergeant Addison knows to always put you through."

Teyla let him go. He ignored the sad look.

"I will see you in Stockholm?" she asked. "Ronon will be there as well."

John stole a glance at Rodney's face but couldn't decipher his expression. "I – "

"You should come," Rodney said, sounding stiff and reluctant. "You can keep Ronon from getting too bored."

"Can't let that happen," John replied. "I guess I'll be there." Then, though he knew it was a mistake, he added, "I did promise once, didn't I?"

He didn't know why he'd said it. The way Rodney went white, like he'd been slapped, didn't make him feel any better. John made himself leave, before he could do anything else stupid.

He forgot to leave a check with Polly's assistant and had to walk back inside when he remembered. It was still raining outside and he was already wet enough to drip on the desk and floor as he wrote the draft out. The plat plat could barely be heard in the foyer, but a droplet fell on the check, wicking a wash of ink through the droplet before it sank into the paper.

The whole ritual of writing a check seemed nearly medieval. No doubt Rodney kept all his transactions electronic. The handwritten slips of paper were part of the society affectations of Polly's guest list. John didn't even try to understand the psychology of it; he just remembered to bring his antiquated checkbook with him.

John tore up the illegible check and wrote another one, careful not to drip on it, handed it over, and got the hell out.

8 December 2020
Milky Way
Earth, Stockholm

Tradition dictated that the Nobel Laureates would all stay at the Grand Hôtel. Rodney would even admit his suite at the front of the hotel had a nice view of the water and the Royal Palace, though nothing could compare with Atlantis. That didn't change that the Laureate for Literature received the Nobel Suite, which Rodney considered a travesty. He really didn't care how harrowing Joseph Olitembe's memoir of the last Ebola outbreak had been; it didn't compare in importance to what he (and Radek) had accomplished. That was tradition, too, however.

Olitembe, a painfully shy Congolese, wasn't giving many interviews about Marie's Red Boots in his suite, though the need to accommodate reporters was the reason offered for assigning the Literature Laureate the larger rooms.

Radek calmly pointed out that it made more sense to give the single suite to the single man, because how would they choose between Rodney and himself to honor with it? Rodney hmphed and privately admitted Radek had a point. The Physics prize was different, of course; Radek had done some of the work and certainly helped Rodney make his breakthroughs. Besides, it was Radek, who deserved it more than most of the morons the prize had been awarded to in the last quarter century. Rodney didn't even mind splitting the monetary award with him; sharing a hotel room with him, though, that would be another story.

In the end, Rodney didn't care, and dutifully did his share of interviews without complaining about the accommodations. So did Radek, who arrived on the sixth and attended the get together at the Bolinder Palace with Rodney and the other Laureates to watch the Nobel Foundation's film orientation and learn the procedure they'd follow during the Concert Hall awards ceremony and afterward at the official banquet in the City Hall.

Radek took his sister and nephews sightseeing.

Rodney went to a luncheon and then met Teyla and Ronon. He'd been avoiding her since they'd seen John in Los Angeles. He knew she wanted to talk to him, to urge him to talk to John, who would be at the banquet on the tenth. Now she had Ronon with her as reinforcement. Rodney didn't know how to tell her no, especially when part of him wanted to follow her advice.

Salvaging a friendship with John would mean as much as the Nobel.

Ronon gave him a silent nod with a hint of commiseration. Rodney knew better than to think Ronon would take his side, though. Teyla greeted him and began her argument immediately.

"Rodney," Teyla said. "John would not be coming here if it were not for you. Don't waste this chance to mend things."

He didn't want to get into this in the lobby.

"Fine, come up to my room, if we have to talk," he told her. He gestured to Ronon to come along too. "I will explain why it just won't work." He waved off his security; they were well acquainted with Teyla and Ronon by this point and coordinated with their security retinue when they were out together. The Grand Hôtel had been cleared anyway. They could relax until Rodney left again for dinner.

Teyla and Ronon followed him to the elevator and to the doors of his room.

"You should listen to Teyla," Ronon told Rodney as he stepped inside.

He'd have sworn he left the curtains open – Rodney's eyes adapted and he froze two steps into the suite.

Three men in suits and rubber Halloween masks of SG-1 were standing in his suite, facing the door. Fake Sam and fake Teal'c had handguns they aimed at Rodney. Fake O'Neill had a zat. Rodney had time to wonder how in hell they'd got a zat before Ronon was pushing him down and to the side. He heard the sizzle of the zat and Ronon's limp body came down on him, driving all the air out of Rodney's lungs and forcing him face down into the carpet.

He tried to struggle free, rolling to the side enough to breathe, and glimpsed two more people shoving into the room. These two had masks of Daniel and Cam on.

Fake Cam was clutching his belly and gasping curses aimed at Teyla.

Fake Daniel had one hand in Teyla's hair, jerking her head back and his other kept his gun muzzle snug against the base of her skull as he walked her forward.

"Try anything again and I will blow your brains out," Fake Daniel hissed at Teyla.

Rodney blurted, "Let her go – "

"Shut up," Fake Jack snapped at him.

Fake Teal'c, who wasn't nearly as big as Teal'c, sidled around them and secured the door.

Rodney opened his mouth again, but a tiny widening of her eyes from Teyla stopped him. He snapped his mouth shut instead and glared venomously at the Fake Daniel, who pulled her head back brutally.

"Looks like you really are smart," Fake Jack said to Rodney. "Stay smart and we won't have to kill Ambassador Emmagan and her friend here." He pointed the zat at Ronon.

"Rodney, don't – "

Fake Cam backhanded Teyla. She rocked back and Rodney held his breath, afraid Fake Daniel would pull the trigger. Teyla just licked her split lip and went very still. A bright bead of scarlet welled up at the corner of her mouth.

"Tie her up," Fake Jack said. "She's dangerous."

Damn it. They weren't writing Teyla off as a small, unarmed woman and thus harmless. Sometimes gender equality sucked.

Deprived of protesting her treatment verbally, and switching his attention back and forth from Teyla and Fake Daniel to Fake Jack and the zat still aimed at Ronon – thinking a second hit so close after the first would kill him – Rodney squirmed from beneath his friend's weight. He tried to feel around for any weapons, but had to stay circumspect and move slow. Spooking these people into shooting didn't bear contemplation. Rodney rolled Ronon off his legs and onto his back once he had his arms free.

"Good," Fake Jack said. He seemed to be in charge. "Get up."

Rodney wondered if the choice of masks had been coincidental in an attempt to stave off panic. He wanted to ask how they'd got inside the hotel room. He worried how they planned to get out; if they thought they could take him or Teyla past the security at every exit. Did that mean security was in on it? Had they killed someone already? Would they kill someone? He thought the answer to the latter was yes.

He got to his feet slowly, keeping his hands away from his body and open. See? No threat. Don't shoot my friends.

"This is the way this works, McKay," Fake Jack said. "We know you have a GTS override that lets you transit from anywhere to anywhere you want without being tracked. Before you protest, let me tell you we have friends who have been most informative about you and your work."

Crap, crap, crap. How in hell could they know that? Rodney tried not to hyperventilate. It hadn't taken any special contacts to know he'd be staying at the Grand Hôtel this week, but they had to have contacts in the HSA or the SGC to find out about the GTS back door and get a zat.

"You'll transit all of us except your sleepy friend there to a location I'll enter in your phone." He stared at Rodney through the eyeholes of the mask. His eyes were murky and dark, shaded by the rubber mask; Rodney couldn't say what color they were. In the dim, curtained room detail got lost. He had on blue latex gloves – so did all the others too. His voice could have come from anywhere in America; he sounded like every network news announcer, enunciating clearly and without an accent.

"Try to pull any tricks and the Ambassador gets shot. Understood?"

"Okay," Rodney said. "But you don't need to take Teyla. I mean, if you want money or information, I'm your guy. She's from another galaxy – "

"She's a collaborator. She's also your surety, McKay. Now shut up or I'll kill Dex."

Sweat ran down Rodney's back and stung his eyes. Little bits of lint from the carpet were stuck to his cheek. He tried to catch Teyla's eyes.

"Look at me, McKay!" Fake Jack snapped.

"Okay, okay, I've got to – my phone's in my pocket, so I need to put my hands down."

Fake Jack nodded to Fake Sam, who was not even female, Rodney noticed, which he found hysterical, to get Rodney's phone from his jacket.

"Tell him the override code," Fake Jack instructed. "No tricks."

The zat powered up, a very distinct sound in the hotel room, much louder than the heartbeat thundering in Rodney's ears.

"No tricks," he said weakly and gave up the override.

8 December 2020
Milky Way
Earth, Cheyenne Mountain

Addison interrupted the morning meeting with Colonel Griffin.

"Sir."

John set his coffee aside. Addison never interrupted John's meetings. He said it was too hard getting him to sit through them. He didn't want to set a bad precedent. Addison hadn't interrupted his budget meeting when Councilor Farnham had called to ask how Colonel Michaelson was 'fitting in'.

Griffin stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence.

"What is it, Master Sergeant?" John made himself ask with seeming calm. A parade of potential disasters and threats flitted through his thoughts.

Addison had a laptop in one big hand. He gestured with it. "If I may, sir?"

John nodded. He crossed several potential threats off his list, because he didn't think Addison would inform him via laptop if the Lucian Alliance had dropped a fleet out of hyperspace on Earth's doorstep.

"Colonel Griffin," he said, "I think we'll have to take this up again later."

"Yes sir," Griffin said.

John wondered again why Griffin had stayed a colonel. Maybe he didn't want the headache that went with the next promotion. There wasn't any place for him to move up in the SGOC anyway. They were lucky to have him where he was: his office kept everything working between the Space Force and the Stargate side of the SGC.

Addison set the laptop down before John, opened it and typed in a command. The screen went from the UNE seal to a streaming video feed. The camera jerked and wobbled, blobs of darkness resolving into bodies as they stepped away and into focus.

A man in a rubber Jack O'Neill mask addressed the camera.

"Green Galaxy has spoken, but no one has listened. No one has stopped the United Nations of Earth and their lackey creatures in the so-called Stargate Command from continuing their trespass, destruction and plundering of worlds. The time has arrived to punish those who have abused and raped the innocent other worlds of our universe."

So Green Galaxy didn't like the SGC. No surprise there. O'Neill had mentioned the group. John didn't think a video diatribe had been what O'Neill had meant when he warned that GG was about to become more active. It wouldn't have spooked Addison either.

He slouched down and waited for whatever came next.

"Three hours ago, we apprehended an eco-criminal and one of the misled people of the Pegasus Galaxy."

John sat up. Pegasus. Jesus. There weren't many Iirijjinii wandering around Earth, just Teyla and Ronon. His gaze flicked to the URL at the top of the window. "Master Sergeant – "

"We're already trying to track the original location but they've bounced it off a dozen sats, including two of GTS's, sir," Addison said.

"Keep working on it."

"While the world may think Rodney McKay has given them cheap, clean energy..."

The words fuzzed out as the man in the mask stepped to the side, revealing Rodney and Teyla, bound and gagged and on their knees. John looked for any clue to where they were, but they were kneeling on a cheap, bright blue plastic tarp. Another one hung on the wall behind them, throwing glaring reflections from the camera light back. The tarps covered up everything else and were useless; they were for sale in every hardware store, Wal-Mart, Target, camping outlet and even supermarkets across the US.

Where was Ronon?

John searched their images. Rodney looked mulish and scared. Teyla looked furious behind her usual serene facade. The gag looked like a cheap red bandanna, knotted and pushed into her mouth, then pulled back and ties behind her head. It cut into the flesh at the corners of her mouth and her cheeks.

"I want everything the SGOC has, everyone we have, on finding where they are and getting them back," John snapped.

He winced as Rodney was hit, knocking him onto his side, and flinched again when he was kicked. Then Rodney was dragged to his feet.

"In the next days, we will show you the truth and extract a confession from this man of all his crimes, including the destruction of an entire solar system. When we have, the world will see justice done."

The screen went black.

8 December 2020
Milky Way
Earth, Location Unknown

The zats were a honking big clue they were in deep trouble.

The way their kidnappers had obviously had their plan in place for some time didn't make Rodney feel any better.

The web cam and subsequent 'hit the man and kick him while he's down' demonstration scared him, but not as much as the revelation that they knew about Doranda. No one should have known about Doranda; everything about the failed Arcturus Project remained classified.

Gasping for breath through the pain of p