Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
In the aftermath of the Dorandan mission, Rodney thinks things can't get any worse. Not only has he lost his faith in his abilities and his science, but he has also alienated the people who mean the most to him. With his confidence and his relationships lying in tatters, the news that the SGC is sending an independent reviewer to assess his performance comes as a final blow - surely it is only a matter of time before he will be forced to return to Earth. But things in Pegasus are not always what they seem and soon it becomes clear that Rodney must learn to trust himself again and work with John and the rest of the team before it's too late - not just for Atlantis, but quite possibly for the entire universe.
Word Count
61930 words
I am fortunate enough to have had the help and support of three wonderful friends during the writing of this story. My grateful thanks to Bluespirit, Madison and Zinnith for everything. Many thank also to the members of team_bigbang for their very helpful comments on my original story ideas.
Companion Artwork
  • Genesis Cover by winter-elf
  • Kiss Interrupted by winter-elf

The equations danced before Rodney's eyes, their symbols spinning almost dizzyingly as his mind fought hard to understand and master them. He bit back a groan of frustration and willed himself to try even harder, to work even faster. He needed to do this - John needed him to do this. After all, this could be it: their one chance to rid Pegasus of the Wraith forever. He simply could not fail.

"This place isn't gonna be safe for very much longer!" John shouted above the eerie whine of the weapon - its energy level's continuing to increase steadily and, more worryingly still, inexplicably.

"I can bring it back under control," Rodney replied, desperately hoping that his words were true as his fingers flew over the keyboard of the computer terminal. He was so close, he was sure of it - he just had to get to grips with regulating the energy surge. "Just give me a second!" he shouted, his mind whirring as he worked - reviewing his calculations, double checking his algebra, just in case he couldn't… No, he thought, it wouldn't come to that - he was right, it would work… It had to work. So many people were depending on him.

Behind him, he heard John abandon his terminal and approach, reaching out to pull Rodney bodily away from his work station. "No, Rodney, you can't!" John said, his expression brooking no argument as he started to pull Rodney towards the exit. "We need to leave, now!"

"I can," Rodney insisted. "John, please," he begged, pulling himself free and turning back to the terminal. "I can do this. Just give me one second!"

"I've seen this before, Rodney," John said, his tone beyond urgent now. "Pilots who wouldn't eject when something went wrong — trying to fix their planes right until they hit the ground." He brought his hand down hard against the desk as he made his point, the anger in his gesture making Rodney jump.

For a moment, Rodney could do no more than stare back at John wordlessly while, all around them, the energy continued to build. He could feel that the entire base was shaking with the force of build-up, shuddering under the enormous pressure of untold amounts of energy surging though it.

"Okay," he said, still staring into John's eyes, realising that it was too late and silently begging John to forgive him this failure. "Okay, you're right… We need to leave now. I've… I've waited too long." The words tasted bitter on his tongue and he hated to see the anger and disappointment which was clearly visible in John's gaze. He'd failed miserably and now the only thing they could do was run.

But it was too late. Beneath their feet the floor heaved and buckled, sending them both sprawling. The hideous sound of tearing metal shrieked through the room as the ceiling started to come down on top of them. Rodney watched in horror as one of the thick metal beams struck John across the back, pinning him to the floor with blood pooling ominously from a jagged cut in his head. He scrambled towards John, screaming his name, but then pain exploded through his body and everything went black…

Rodney bolted upright in bed, panting hard with the scream of John's name still on his lips. He could feel his heart racing in his chest, like it was trying to burst right through his ribs, and felt the sweat breaking out all over his body. As reality slowly returned, his eyes took in the familiar surroundings – bed, desk, window. It was okay, he chanted to himself under his breath, he was okay. He was in Atlantis, he was home and safe.

But was it really okay?

Rodney let himself sink back down into his pillows with a groan, bringing up a still trembling hand to wipe across his sweaty brow as he tried to calm his breathing. Although it was true that, unlike his nightmare, he and John had made it off the base before the Arcturus weapon had overloaded, it didn't alter the fact that he had still failed. Not only had he not been able to make the weapon work, his mistake had also cost him more than he could ever have imagined.

Knowing that he would be unable to get back to sleep any time soon, Rodney rolled himself out of bed, his legs still shaking slightly as he made his way over to the bathroom. In the decidedly unflattering glow of the overhead lights, he looked pale and exhausted – his eyes hollow and bloodshot with large bags under them and his skin pale and clammy. He'd initially intended to just wash his face, but now he realised that wouldn't be sufficient. Stripping out of his sweaty t-shirt and kicking off his boxers, Rodney started the shower, pushing the temperature gauge up as far as it would go so that steam filled the room, thankfully blocking his reflection from view.

With the remnants of his nightmare slowly dissipating, Rodney had to admit that it was somewhat ironic that, as terrifying as the nightmare had been, his subconscious hadn't taken its inspiration from what had been by far the worst aspect of the day. Not by a long shot. Although the loss of the weapon, the destruction of the solar system, his failure as a scientist, and the realisation that his arrogance had nearly led to both his and John's deaths was certainly all the stuff of nightmares, none of them had been as bad as what had happened in the aftermath of the mission. Even the disappointment and censure in Elizabeth's eyes as she'd chewed him out hadn't measured up to what had happened next. He had known that things would be bad between him and John, but it wasn't until John had smiled that fake smile, his eyes cold as ice, and told Rodney in no uncertain terms that their friendship was over that he'd realised just how badly he'd screwed things up.

Before he could stop it, his mind flashed back to that afternoon. How nervous he'd been, desperately telling himself that this couldn't be the end of it all – that John would forgive him, would be able to see the pressures he'd been under and would be able to understand what had driven him to such extremes.

"I would hate to think that recent events might have permanently dimmed your faith in my abilities, or your trust. At the very least, I hope I can earn that back," he had said, his stomach twisting into knots as he tried to see something of John in Colonel Sheppard's eyes.

"That may take a while," John had replied, his tone distant and his expression mocking.

"Yes, I know I screwed up but-"

"But, I'm sure you can do it…" John had continued, as if Rodney hadn't even spoken. "If you really wanna try."

"John, please…" he'd begged, unashamed of the depths to which he had sunk.

"Just… don't McKay, okay?" John cut him off, his eyes like ice. "Just leave it."

"But I—"

"I said leave it!" John had thundered, his expression hard as stone. "Try listening to someone else for once instead of only paying attention to yourself!"

That final insult had left Rodney breathless as he'd watched the lift doors slide shut on John's blank face – the expression he reserved for the most trying of diplomatic negotiations and irritating SGC bureaucrats - and Rodney had felt the last remnants of his hope crumble into dust. It was over, he had realised as he'd forced himself to take a shaky breath. Doranda might have cost the group of Ancient scientists their lives, but what it had done to Rodney was arguably far worse - it had stripped him of his respect, his confidence, his science… and John.

Rodney wasn't under any illusions as to how many of the expedition members viewed him – most of them thought of him as arrogant, egotistical and rude. To be fair, he hadn't done an awful lot to dispel such beliefs and he had to admit that his behaviour to people in general was what had fostered them in the first place. Truth be told, Rodney had stopped caring about what people thought of him decades before he'd ever stepped foot on Atlantis. His intelligence had singled him out at an early age and, lacking his sister's amiability and patience, he had spent much of his childhood alone. Even when he was making his mark in academia, he'd found that his inability to put up with other people's foolishness made him an outcast once again. Yet his discoveries couldn't be denied and he'd caught the attention of the US Military not long after his first post-doctoral fellowship. Area 51 had been a revelation to Rodney – a place where he'd finally felt at home, where his math had made sense in a real context as he led up a research team working with alien technology at the very edges of human understanding. And at long last, the degree to which he actively felt his loneliness had faded into insignificance in the face of the mysteries he and his team were uncovering. It had set the standard for the rest of his career – he could put up with the loneliness and the obvious dislike of his colleagues because he received all the validation he could ever want from his work. Sure, at times it would be nice to be liked, but, for the most part, Rodney couldn't see that it was really worth the time and effort it would take to make and keep up a friendship with someone. Not when he could be spending his time in the lab making breakthroughs.

As he dialled the temperature of the shower back to a bearable level and stepped into the spray, Rodney wondered just when it had all gone wrong. He supposed it had first started when he was asked to provide high-level scientific consultation services to a top secret military project – the Stargate programme. Naturally he'd been familiar with Samantha Carter's work and reputation before he'd arrived at Cheyenne Mountain and he had looked forward to working with her. Even in the upper scientific echelons of the Area 51, her work had been admired and her name revered.

Meeting her in person had proved to be no disappointment. Not only was she sparklingly intelligent, she was also beautiful, poised, and had a wicked sense of humour. For the first time in a long time, Rodney had found himself tempering his behaviour and watching his tongue – doing his best to win her regard.

Of course, he couldn't compete, Rodney thought with a snort as he started to soap himself, could never measure up to her instinctive understanding of what really was her stargate – a piece of technology she had not only studied in abstract, but had actually worked with, day in and day out, for years. No amount of theoretical insight or painstaking study could compare to that – no matter how many years he slaved away in his lab over in Area 51, Rodney realised with a dawning horror that he could never catch up. His math had been right – down to the last integer – but her gut instinct had won the day. And her team mate had lived.

He'd been glad of that, of course - he would never wish to be right if it meant costing a man his life – but he'd also been deeply confused. In the aftermath of that disaster he'd been exiled to the empty expanse of the Russian steppes, but somehow even that hadn't fazed him. He had never before been faced with a situation in which he had been so catastrophically wrong. It was a blow to his confidence and his self-respect, as well as to his ego, to realise that the one thing on which he had always counted – his intelligence – had failed him. The entire incident was something he had spent years trying to overcome – pushing himself further, triple checking his work, doing everything in his power to get as much practical experience as he could.

All of which had led him to earning his place on the Atlantis expedition – his chance to finally combine his theoretical expertise and his in-depth knowledge of Ancient technology with real experience in the field.

From the moment Daniel Jackson had cracked the code of the eighth chevron, Rodney had known that he simply had to be a part of the mission. It was a feeling that had only been reinforced when Carson's jerky command of the outpost's Chair had been replaced by John's, who had then effortlessly brought the outpost to life and showed Rodney the majesty of their galaxy. It was that drive which had given him the courage to push for a place on John's off-world team, despite his own reservations about his physical ability, and it was that same drive which had made Rodney truly connect with his fellow expedition members – the first time he had attempted to do so in longer than he could remember.

Of course, he hadn't been very good at it – his social skills having never been particularly advanced at the best of times. But being stranded in a hostile galaxy thousands of light years from home took its toll and the expedition had pulled closely together. John had not only taken Rodney up on his offer to join his team, but he had also become Rodney's friend. Soon Rodney had found himself making tentative friendship with other expedition members – Carson, Radek, Elizabeth, Teyla and even Ford. It was this new dimension to his life – one he had never fully experienced before – that gave his work an added boost. Not only could he see and experience first-hand the results of his science, but he'd also come to understand the impact it had upon these people – his friends, his family. So he drove himself even harder, desperate not to fail his new-found friends – leading the shadow creature into the stargate despite the very real chance of his own death, facing down the super-Wraith with only his handgun, working late into each night to keep their city functioning.

And it was this… this connection that had driven him to succeed with the Arcturus weapon. He'd been completely consumed by the technology, entirely enthralled with the belief that this could be the answer to the expedition's – hell, the galaxy's – prayers: an end to the Wraith once and for all. The scope of the project had captured his imagination and he'd become fascinated with the elegance of the mathematics involved, the utter perfection of the energy creation. That he'd allowed himself to become seduced both by it and his own arrogant assumption that he was the one who would set things right. Even after the death of Collins – another loss that would forever haunt Rodney's conscience - when Radek's belief in Rodney's work had begun to wane, Rodney had still remained stubbornly convinced.

Working on the calculations had been a heady experience, but what had been even more addictive was John's unreserved support. Rodney had revelled in the obvious belief John had in his ability – the tangible proof of his regard that Rodney had never expected to be acknowledged in so public a forum. To have John take his side in face of Elizabeth, Caldwell and Radek's reservations was something Rodney had treasured.

It didn't last; Rodney had failed, the weapon had gone out of control, a solar system had been decimated, and John's friendship - and whatever else they may have been to each other - had been lost to him, quite possibly forever.

Despite the warmth of the shower, Rodney found himself shivering. Moving quickly, he scrubbed the last of the soap bubbles from his skin and turned the water off. Once he was bundled into his towel and bathrobe, he vacillated for a moment – torn between pulling on his uniform versus something less formal. Part of him wanted to continue to hide away, to lick his wounds in private and work out how he was ever going to face anyone ever again, but that part of him warred with the part of him that knew he still had a duty to the city – grievous mistake or not, he was still Atlantis' CSO.

Well, bravery may not be his strong suit, but Rodney was damned if he was going to hide from his science forever. Mind made up, he dressed in his uniform, grabbed his laptop and headed off to the lab.

John was pissed. It wasn't your average crappy-day kind of pissed, but more like a deep and gut-wrenching anger, so much so that he felt like he could rip the entire city apart and still not have expended the force of his rage. He dropped his head and pushed himself harder, lengthening his stride and willing his body to keep up with the punishing pace he was setting himself. As long as he kept moving, he could keep his thoughts at bay. For now, running was all he had – the monotonous motion of his body and the steady sound of his footfalls lulling him into a false sense of… well, if not peace, at least a kind of blank thoughtlessness.

The night sky was dark all around him and at his back the city glowed golden with the power of its ZPM. On either side of the pier on which he ran lay the ocean, the crests of the lapping waves top-lit by the moon which was nearing its peak in front of him. It was late, or rather very early, but after hours of tossing and turning in his bed, John had finally given up on the idea of sleep. His mind kept flashing back to the events of the day and his anger had threatened to reach boiling point. He'd known that if he'd continued to lie there, he'd go mad, so he had fallen back on his tried and tested method of stress-release – running until he simply couldn't run any more.

Not that it felt like that was going to happen any time soon – not with his anger still rolling restlessly through his mind. John berated himself; he couldn't believe how utterly stupid he had been – how reckless and self-centred. After all, he was a seasoned commander – regardless of the time he'd spent as a glorified taxi driver in McMurdo – he had led men in war zones across the globe, and now beyond it. He should have known better than to allow himself to be influenced like he had on Doranda. But somehow Rodney had managed to slip past his training and his years of experience, not to mention his personal boundaries, and end up far closer than John had even realised. And, as a result, mistakes had been made, promises broken, judgements affected and entire solar systems destroyed. Not to mention the wreckage that was now all that was left of his relationship with Rodney.

So, John was angry – furious even – with Rodney, with the whole fucked-up, Wraith-infested, doom-laden mess of a situation, but most of all with himself.

He continued to run, feeling the burn intensify as he channelled his anger into his sprint. The air was just beginning to really tear at his lungs as he breathed when he spotted the far end of the pier ahead of him. He put on a final burst of speed, determined to make it to the edge of the pier before he would allow himself time to get his breath back. He only pulled back on his pace mere yards from the railing, having to put his hands out in front of him to take the impact of his body weight as he came crashing to a stop. He stood for long minutes looking out at the ocean, the only sounds the gentle washing of the waves and his own rasping gasps for breath.

When his breathing finally slowed, he turned around and leant back on the railing, looking back at Atlantis. The city itself looked majestic and mysterious with its golden towers of light rising elegantly from the dark ocean. Seeing Atlantis in this manner, it was clear to see how vitally important the city was. John could easily envision the scores of people working and sleeping inside her walls, depending on her for every aspect of their survival. He also knew how big an effect Atlantis had on countless others whom the expedition had helped during its time in Pegasus. He felt the waves of guilt crashing in, as he always did and suspected always would, when he thought of the reason why this galaxy and its inhabitants were in such grave danger. He was ashamed about the starring role he had played in the re-awakening of the Wraith, but now that only served to reaffirm his commitment to Atlantis, Pegasus and all who resided here.

And, of course, that had been part of the problem today - he cared too much, was too close and too personally involved with this mission and its people. In the past, it had never really been an issue - he'd always been able to separate the importance of the mission from that of the people involved. The one time when he had become confused – a time which had still ended in the deaths of his friends and led directly to his exile to McMurdo – John had vowed to himself that he would learn from the experience: no one would ever get that close to him again. But here, on Atlantis, they had and John was still at a loss to explain quite why.

He knew he'd been lost and lacking in direction. Then had come that fateful day when he'd been scheduled to fly some General to an apparently random set of ice-bound co-ordinates and, somehow, while he was flying for his life to evade some sort of glowing, squid-like missile, he had found his direction once more. From the moment that he'd followed O'Neill into the Ancient outpost, John had felt a sense of connection stronger than anything he'd ever before experienced. He could recall clearly the deep breath of awe he'd taken as they'd entered the high-vaulted rooms of the outpost and the slight smile on O'Neill's face when he'd said, 'It's quite something, isn't it?'

It had been an odd mix of feelings - a sense of profound familiarity meshed with a sense of wonder coupled with the over-arching knowledge that he had never seen anything even remotely like it in his life. Things had, if possible, become even stranger from there. When O'Neill had disappeared with a excited-looking man wearing glasses, John had found himself wandering aimlessly through the outpost – feeling the sense of belonging intensify with each step he took. It wasn't until he'd entered a circular room at what seemed to be the very centre of the facility that he'd realised that he'd been following some sort of subliminal summoning – that something had been drawing him to his place. It was a feeling which had been further magnified when he'd sat down in the throne-like chair in the room's centre. The chair had come to life at his touch and suddenly John had found himself connected to the entire outpost at a very basic level. It had been as though the very life of the entire facility was pulsing under his fingertips – power flow, energy levels, sensors, weapons, everything was suddenly at his disposal. He'd been caught somewhere between exhilaration and terror when an excited voice had broken across consciousness – 'Think about where we are in the galaxy' – and his vision had suddenly exploded into a swirling mass of stars, planets, and interstellar gas.

After that, John had been hooked. The only thing that had held him back from accepting O'Neill's offer of a place on the expedition on the spot had been his usual instincts which were screaming at him of the danger of being too close, of being too happy. Such things weren't meant for people like him - even flying, the closest thing to perfection he had ever come across, came with the heavy sacrifice of a large part of himself as he worked to fit himself into the military model of what was acceptable sexuality.

Yet, hours later when he'd found himself pondering his choices, John had thought back to his experience of the Ancient outpost – at the wonder and excitement he'd felt. He'd felt a sudden flash of anger as he'd rolled the quarter through his fingers. Why couldn't he have this? Why should he always have to sacrifice something in order to have even the most basic happiness? As he'd sent the coin flying into the air in a spinning silver arc, he'd already made his decision.

As John pushed himself away from the railing and started a light jog back towards the city, he knew he'd made the right choice. Despite the Wraith, the Genii and the countless others who no doubt wanted them all dead and even despite the loss of Sumner, Ford, and far too many of his men, John couldn't regret his decision. After all, the expedition had made a difference in Pegasus – a positive one that had led to many lives being saved. The fact that half his off-world team consisted of Pegasus natives was testament to the fact that the expedition as a whole had made this new galaxy their home.

So, no, coming to Pegasus hadn't been John's mistake and, even now, John couldn't find himself regretting the friendships he'd forged here. But still, today something drastic had gone wrong.

John's pace sped up as he tried to keep the memories at bay, moving from a jog back into a run. He hated dwelling on emotions, but he knew that tonight he didn't really have a choice. The destruction of the Dorandan solar system had been a catastrophe, and a preventable one at that. John should have recognised the signs that Rodney was no longer in control of the weapon; should have known when Rodney was fooling even himself with his belief that he could make it work when a team of Ancient scientists had failed. But John had been entirely too caught up in Rodney's excitement and enthusiasm; had believed him unreservedly when he'd told John, his eyes alight with discovery, that he could make the weapon work and give them an advantage in the war against the Wraith.

It was a mistake John was not going to be making again. Although it had hurt to dismiss Rodney's apologies and effectively end both their relationship and their friendship, John knew that it was something he'd had no choice but to do. His friendship with Dex and Mitch had almost cost him his career, but his… well, relationship, for want of a better word, with Rodney had cost Pegasus a galaxy and nearly cost both him and Rodney their lives. And all because John had let himself get too close. It was, quite simply, unacceptable.

As his feet gradually led him back into the centre of the city, John reflected that at least it was done. He had ended things with Rodney – the hardest part, surely, was over.

Unsurprisingly the main science lab was deserted when Rodney entered. He paused for a moment by the door, his eyes going unerringly to his workstation, the surface of which was still covered with various tablets and notepads detailing his re-working of the Arcturus weapon. He swallowed thickly and forced himself into motion once more, determined not to allow himself to be intimidated by the science over which he had always claimed a mastery. As much as he wanted to simply clear his desk, tossing the useless pads and paper into the bin, Rodney knew he couldn't do that. Instead, he took a deep breath, fixed himself a strong mug of coffee, and started to work through his equations, determined to see where it was that he had gone wrong.

It didn't take long for Rodney to become engrossed, the memories of the day fading away as his mind engaged with the math and disengaged almost completely with his surroundings. Even his mug of coffee stood abandoned and grew cold as the first rays of dawn started to creep into the room. It wasn't until the first scientist arrived for the day that Rodney realised just how long he'd been working.

"Rodney?" a voice said, breaking his concentration. "Are you alright?"

Rodney pushed away from his work station and blinked blearily up at Radek, who now stood next to his desk.

"You have been here all night, yes?" Radek said, shaking his head. "It is not good for you, you know."

Part of Rodney wanted to snap at the man to mind his own business, but he found, given the appalling manner with which he had treated Radek over the past few days, that he couldn't. "Yes, I know," he said instead, reaching up a hand to rub over his face, trying to wipe the tiredness out of his eyes. "I just needed to," he paused, sweeping his hand over the work spread out before him, "you know, look through all this - try to understand how I could have been so utterly wrong."

Radek snorted softly at that. "You weren't wrong, Rodney, just misguided," he said, continuing on quickly when Rodney would have interrupted. "No, let me say this: you saw a potential in the project – something that I could never have seen – and it captured your imagination, yes? You believed you could fix the theory behind the experiment and so give us a weapon to defeat the Wraith."

"Yes," Rodney said heavily. "But that still doesn't change the fact that I was wrong – catastrophically so."

"This is true," Radek admitted. "You were arrogant and you would not listen – but Rodney, this is not unusual for you. What is unusual is that, in this instance, you were wrong. Perhaps it is on this character flaw that you should be working, rather than the mathematics, hmm? After all, no amount of work is ever going to allow you to predict the behaviour of so chaotic a system."

Rodney watched closely as Radek spoke, noting the sincerity of his words. "You don't… you don't blame me?" he asked. "For what I did?"

Radek's brow creased in a small frown as he answered. "I blame you for not listening to me," he admitted. "After all, we have worked closely together for years now – you should know that you can trust me. But, for the destruction of the Dorandan system? No, I do not blame you for that. We are at war, after all, and that makes us do crazy things – things that we really ought to know better than to even try."

Rodney looked back down at his desk, stunned by Radek's absolution, despite how horrendously Rodney had treated him. Radek was right – Rodney should have trusted him. He'd known Radek long enough – first via his research papers and conference presentations and then through their time on Atlantis – and genuinely respected his talent and expertise. Radek was much more of an experimental physicist than Rodney, his background in both physics and engineering lending him a practical insight which was invaluable. His abilities perfectly complemented Rodney's more theoretical skills and where Rodney often had the vision and the mathematical insight for their endeavours, it was Radek's technical ability that brought them to life.

"No," he said. "There's no excuse. I was desperate, yes, for the weapon to work, but I should have listened to you and Elizabeth and John. I just…" he trailed off, unable to put into words the madness that had overtaken him.

Radek smiled, "Ah well, perhaps you will listen more closely next time, yes? So not all is lost from this experience. Besides, it is about time you realised that your equations, while undoubtedly brilliant, do not always react as they should in practical situations."

On any normal day, Rodney would have shot back some remark about the clear superiority of solid theoretical proof over chaotic experimental results, but not today. "Yes, fine, you've made your point," he said instead, with perhaps less grace than he should. "So, you want to show me how exactly you came up with the numbers to show that I was wrong?"

Radek was, thankfully, able to recognise the sincerity of Rodney's words and pulled up a chair at once. "Of course, Rodney," he said without censure, reaching out for the datapad Rodney was holding out to him. "Here, let me show you…."

As if the reality of standing right slap bang on top of a weapon on the brink of explosion hadn't been bad enough, John realised that the paperwork involved in reporting the disaster to the SGC could quite possibly kill him. It was, to John's great regret, not something which he could foist on Lorne and it also required a certain amount of tact – after all, he didn't write reports detailing the destruction of a solar system at the hands of a man notionally under his command every day. After what seemed like several days spent staring at his computer screen, John finally gave up. Copying what he had so far onto a pad, he headed up to the Control Room, set on getting some help from someone who was much better with words.

"Come in, John," Elizabeth said with a slightly strained smile when he arrived at her office door. "What can I do for you?"

In response, John hefted his pad in his hand and took a seat in one of the comfortable chairs in front of her desk.

Elizabeth raised a wry eyebrow. "Ah, yes," she said, eyeing the pad before indicating towards her own screen with a tilt of her head. "Our reports about yesterday's debacle to the SGC."

"Got it in one," John replied with a smile. "So, you got any ideas? Cause all I'm doing is writing myself in circles here."

Elizabeth sighed and sat back in her chair, shaking her head. "It's a tricky one," she admitted. "All I can say, John, is that we need to keep in mind that the main objective and motivation behind the mission was a good one – we all believed we had a real chance in developing something which could help us remove the threat of the Wraith."

"I know," John said. "And that's what I've been trying to get across but, the bottom line is that we failed – no, I failed. I could see that McKay was pushing things too far and still I just stood there and let him continue."

"You got through to him in the end, John," Elizabeth said, her expression sympathetic. "That's what's important."

John shook his head in denial. "But that's not what's important," he protested. "What's important is that, right up until practically the last minute, I was right there with him! I was just as convinced as he was that he could pull it off – come up with some miraculous solution that the Ancients hadn't been able to figure out."

Elizabeth sighed wearily. "I think perhaps we all expect him to be able to pull off anything," she said. "But we have to realise that he can't and that he is arrogant and has a tendency to ignore people when they're trying to tell him that he's wrong." She paused for a moment, seemingly lost in thought, before continuing, "Although I don't think that's a mistake he'll be making again anytime soon."

John could only nod in agreement, remembering of the snippets of conversation he'd overheard the previous day between Rodney and Elizabeth and recalling too the look in Rodney's eyes when he had effectively shut down Rodney's apology to him. "None of that changes the fact it was my responsibility in the end," he said at last.

"Well actually, it was mine," Elizabeth countered. "I approved the mission and, at the end of the day, it was my call to give Rodney his head."

"That's ridiculous, Elizabeth," John argued back, even though he knew that, to some degree, she was right – as expedition leader, the ultimate responsibility for what went on, especially when it involved civilians, did rest on her shoulders. "I was the one out there with him, he's a member of my team and, moreover, I know what he's like! If I hadn't been so damn-" he cut himself off abruptly.

"So what?" Elizabeth asked, a confused crease appearing in the middle of her forehead.

John sighed and rubbed a hand down the back of his neck in his discomfort. "Nothing," he said, inwardly aghast at what he'd almost said. "I just… I just should have been thinking clearly enough to stop him sooner."

"Look, there's no use dwelling on it now," Elizabeth said practically. "I made certain that Rodney understood the implications of his actions yesterday and I am sure he will be more careful in future." She gave a tired sigh and rubbed her forehead, wincing a little as if she had a headache. "And we'll all know now to be more cautious in future when Rodney goes off on one of his crusades again against the advice of other scientists."

"And the SGC?" John queried.

A small smile quirked Elizabeth's lips. "We do what we usually do," she said. "Keep it to the basics - what they really need to know."

"They're not gonna like it," John warned. "I mean, even with the basics they're gonna know McKay couldn't pull it off and that an entire Ancient base, not to mention the majority of a solar system, was destroyed."

"No," Elizabeth agreed. "But it's the best we can do."

John nodded, knowing she was right, and started to leave. The prospect of completing his report no more appealing, but at least he was reassured that his impulse to gloss over as much as possible was a view shared by Elizabeth.

"And John," Elizabeth called out as he reached the door, causing him to turn back to her. "Don't be too hard on Rodney. He knows he screwed up, so let's give him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes."

John looked back at Elizabeth for long seconds, taking in the well-meaning expression of compassion on her face. He had seen her shortly after her interview with Rodney, her face white and her lips tight with tension. He was pretty sure that Rodney had gone back to see her later that night to apologise, just as he had come to John, and John could only guess that Elizabeth had been a hell of a lot more forgiving than he'd been. Unlike Elizabeth, however, John's situation and his relationship with Rodney was somewhat more complicated…

Realising that Elizabeth was waiting for an answer, John nodded slowly. "Will do," he said as he turned to leave the office, his voice steady despite his emotional upheaval.

By the end of the day, John was feeling both exhausted and restless. With his report completed and no mission scheduled for the next few days, his time seemed to stretch out endlessly before him. Not so long ago he'd grown to anticipate such quiet times – taking the opportunity to go on longer runs with Ronon, have more regular bantos sessions with Teyla and enjoy coming up with various methods of ousting Rodney from his lab. But now, none of those usual activities held much appeal – both Ronon and Teyla had seemed abnormally quiet and withdrawn after their mission to Belka to trade for a stronger strain of the flaxi crop the Athosians harvested and he hadn't seen hide nor hair of Rodney since yesterday – and wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to.

Reluctant to spend another night tossing and turning for hours before giving up on sleep entirely, John decided to head to the gym. With any luck there might be someone there who could give him a decent sparring match and, better yet, it was also a place where he had almost a zero possibility of running into Rodney. Despite his reassurances to Elizabeth, John knew he was nowhere near ready to face Rodney with any degree of civility: he was still far too angry, both at Rodney and at himself. He'd purposefully avoided the commissary all day, preferring instead to grab a couple of MREs rather than run the risk of an encounter for which he was unprepared.

He made it back to his quarters for a change of clothes and then down to the gym with its adjacent dojo without coming across any of his team mates. When he entered the gym, he found a couple of marines using the free weights and one of the scientists on the cross-trainer. Nodding to them briefly he made his way across the room and into the sprung-floored dojo beyond. As he had hoped, the room did indeed hold a single occupant.

"Good evening, John," Teyla greeted him without pausing in her routine, her supple body moving with a dancer's grace as she completed a series of complex moves. As he always did, John had to pause to admire her seemingly effortless grace, the way she handled the bantos sticks as if they were an extension of her own body.

"Hey," John replied as Teyla came to the end of the series of forms she'd been doing, a faint sheen of sweat on her brow and her chest heaving slightly with her exertions. "It's a little late for you tonight."

A fleeting look of anger passed over Teyla's face as she smoothly launched into another set of forms. "I found myself unusually restless this evening," she explained as she moved. "It has been a trying few days."

John snorted, "Tell me about it," he said.

Something in his tone must have caught Teyla's attention because she stopped abruptly in her routine and turned to face him. "Is everything alright, John?"

"Well, apart from a dead scientist, a destroyed solar system and a CSO I can't trust, everything's just peachy," he drawled, unable to keep his anger bottled up any more. "You?"

Teyla's eyes widened momentarily in surprise at his outburst. "Yes, I have heard a lot about your mission to the Dorandan system," she said slowly, her eyes tracking up and down John's body, no doubt taking in the tension in his stance. "In fact," she continued, "I find myself similarly unsettled by occurrences during the mission Ronon and I recently went on to Belka."

"Oh?" John asked, raising an eyebrow, intrigued as to what could have occurred to get to the usually unflappable Teyla.

Teyla looked at him for a moment before surging back into her routine of forms. "I do not believe I wish to speak about it, John," she said, and John was surprised to see the anger once again flash briefly across her face before the rhythm of her movements appeared to calm her.

"O-kay," John said slowly. "That's good, actually, 'cause I'm not really up for talking either." He entered the room fully and picked up a pair of bantos sticks from the rack. "So, we gonna do this?" he asked, starting to twirl the sticks in his hands as he took up a position across from Teyla.

Teyla's lips curled into a true smile as her eyes met John's. "By all means," she said as she immediately took the offensive and advanced upon John, her sticks a blur and her eyes alight with the prospect of the challenge.

It was late when Rodney looked up from his computer screen and realised he'd been in the lab far longer than was healthy, even from the point of view of his own workaholic tendencies. He and Radek had spent most of the morning going through each line of Rodney's calculations – re-examining the assumptions Rodney had made and critiquing them with the benefit of hindsight. Although they had not been able to reproduce the catastrophe itself, Rodney could now see the small signs where he'd simply pushed brute force-like through the math in order to get a set of parameters which would modulate the energy build-up in the weapon in a way that simply hadn't happened in reality. He'd also gained a greater appreciation for Radek's sense of the rightness of certain equations.

The appreciation of the beauty inherent in physical systems was something Rodney had always possessed – the instinct for when he was on the right track even though he was screeds of calculations away from an actual proof. He'd always considered it a benefit – something that, along with his intelligence, gave him an advantage over his colleagues. However, he was now beginning to understand that it could also be a weakness – something that could prompt him to push forward and ignore or even miss the signs that indicated that his proof wasn't, in fact, working. The fact that Radek too appeared to have an equally sensitive instinct, which apparently worked in parallel to Rodney's, was an advantage that Rodney promised himself to take advantage of in the future. He was determined to learn from his mistakes and become a better scientist as a result of what had happened on Doranda. He would be worthy of his position in the expedition and he would regain the trust of John, Elizabeth, Radek and everybody else.

When Radek had moved back to his own workstation, Rodney had absent-mindedly inhaled a couple of power bars and turned his attention to his next, arguably even more unpleasant, task: his mission report for the SGC. After much soul-searching, Rodney had decided that straight-forward honesty was the only way to approach his report. So he'd spent several seemingly endless hours writing and re-writing his account of what had happened, trying his best to own up to his mistakes as well as to explain his motivations for pursuing the test run of the weapon in the first place. It was a painful process and, when it was complete, Rodney had realised that he was completely exhausted. He attached his report to an email and sent it to Elizabeth and John for inclusion with the next data stream they sent off to the SGC, closing his eyes as he'd hit the send button so he wouldn't lose his nerve at the last minute.

Despite his nightmare-wracked sleep and his current state of near-collapse, Rodney had known that he wasn't done for the day. Were he to have left then, he'd have slept only to live the nightmares all over again. So, instead of the much-needed rest, he'd opened up his current projects file and started to scroll through the folders, intent of finding something in which to immerse himself. He'd finally decided to pull out the very dusty project on the possible antecedents of ZPM technology – one he spent time toying with every few months or so before hitting a brick wall and remembering why he'd mothballed the project so many times in the past.

And, now, some four hours later, Rodney emerged from the haze of algebra to realise that the lab was once again empty and that his stomach was growling. Debating the various merits of simply returning to his quarters to raid his stock of MREs versus braving the commissary, Rodney realised that he couldn't hide forever.

The corridors were fairly empty as he made his way and the commissary itself held only a handful of soldiers and scientists. It was late enough that the kitchens were closed, but the remains of dinner was still set out under warming lights along with a stack of plates and carafes of tea and coffee. Rodney grabbed a tray and started peeking under the chrome lids covering the various dishes suspiciously, trying to work out what dinner was supposed to have been. Having decided he was hungry enough to brave pretty much anything, he helped himself to a generous portion of some form of meat casserole, a spoonful of alarmingly yellow bean-like things and a roll. He then grabbed a mug and one of the coffee jugs and headed over to one of the tables at the far end of the room which overlooked the ocean. As he approached one of the tables, he heard a voice call his name and turned to spot Ronon sitting alone at a table not far from the one for which he'd been aiming. Changing trajectory, Rodney sat himself down across from Ronon, nodding to him in greeting.

For several minutes, both of them were content to eat in silence, for which Rodney was grateful. Even though both Ronon and Teyla had been off-world on a trading mission while he and John had been on Doranda, Rodney was sure that both of them would have heard about what had happened by now. He knew there was a conversation looming about the events – particularly if Teyla had anything to do with it. He was unsure as to how things would play out between him and John now – hell, was he even still part of John's off-world team? - and Teyla wasn't one to put up with anything that might hamper their ability to act together as one in the field. No, she would corner him, get him to talk about what had happened and bestow upon him some form of wisdom which he was supposedly to make sense of in order to be able to work with John once more, even if John didn't 'trust' him anymore.

He shook his head, trying to clear out his discordant thoughts and concentrate on his meal alone. The casserole was actually quite good – the meat tasted rich and gamey, probably one of those deer-like creatures SGA-8 had been trading for in exchange for medical supplies.

"It's dacarin," Ronon said, in between hearty mouthfuls. "Pretty good, huh?"

"Not bad at all," Rodney replied. "Makes a change from all that fish we were getting last month." He shuddered at the thought of the various fish fillets, pies and salads they'd all been subjected to during the fishing season on Ataria, one of their main trading partners. It had got so bad he'd found himself dreaming of juicy rare steaks pretty much every night and he was certain his iron levels had yet to properly recover, despite what Carson might say.

Ronon snorted at that. "Damn straight," he said. "We need to keep up good relations with these traders – it's been a while since I've been on a decent hunt."

That sentiment had Rodney shuddering yet again. "Yes, well, I'll leave the hunting up to you, I think," he replied. "Although I'm more than happy to keep your energy pistol fully charged in exchange of a share in the bounty."

Ronon grinned. "Deal," he said and they both lapsed back into silence for a few mouthfuls.

"So," Ronon said after awhile. "Sheppard's avoiding you, huh?" he asked, stuffing a forkful of meat into his mouth.

Rodney sighed and supposed that having Ronon not bring that particular subject up had been too much to hope.

"I mean," Ronon continued, seemingly oblivious to Rodney's discomfort, "you're both usually in here for dinner together a lot earlier."

"Yes, well," Rodney replied, deciding there was no point in avoiding the issue, "be that as it may, the whole avoidance thing is actually sort of mutual now."

"Hmm," Ronon grunted, but instead of making some remark about Rodney's mistake, Ronon shot him a sympathetic look. "I think Teyla's doing the same to me," he confessed baldly.

"Oh, really?" Rodney asked, his curiosity piqued. He'd hardly had time since returning from Doranda to deal with the fall out of that mission, let alone get up to speed on the outcome of his team mates "How come?"

Ronon shrugged dismissively, "We had a disagreement about tactics," was all the explanation he'd give. "We both agreed with the end result, but she didn't like how I brought it about."

Rodney snorted a little at that, thinking the situation wasn't all that different from his own with John. "Yes, well, I know how that feels," he said. "Although in my situation it wouldn't have mattered to anyone how I'd succeeded if only I had. But I didn't, so here I am," he trailed off with a shrug, taking another mouth full of casserole.

"And Sheppard?" Ronon asked.

Rodney felt his face pull into a grimace.

"That bad, huh?" Ronon observed. "I wouldn't fret it, McKay," he said, looking surprisingly sure of himself. "Just give him some time to come 'round and then go hunt him down – he won't avoid you forever."

"You sure about that?" Rodney said, the disbelief clearly audible in his voice. "This is John Sheppard we're talking about here – avoidance is something of a speciality of his."

"True, but then you're you," Ronon replied, pointing at Rodney with his knife in a manner which was mildly disturbing. "And I don't think Sheppard's gonna ignore you forever."

"I wish I had your confidence," Rodney said, his unhappiness and fatigue making it easier to confess his worries to Ronon. "But you weren't there and you didn't see how… how… well, how totally and utterly livid he was."

"That's my point," Ronon said, using his fork for emphasis this time. "Sheppard doesn't usually do emotion – even when he's mad. I've fought with him long enough to know that. But with you," Ronon eyed Rodney as he spoke. "With you it's different. He'll come 'round."

He said the last with such utter confidence that even Rodney found himself starting to believe him. "Yes, well, I hope so," he said. "So, what about you and Teyla?"

Ronon shrugged. "She'll come 'round eventually as well." He then smirked at Rodney for a moment, "She can't stand anything hanging between any us, you know that. She'll be on your and John's case before too long as well."

"Yeah, I know," Rodney said, sopping up the last of the casserole gravy from his plate with his roll. "Thanks, though," he said, feeling a little unnerved at saying so to Ronon, but appreciating his words nevertheless. "For… uh… the advice."

"Don't sweat it," Ronon replied as he stood up and collected his tray. "I'll see you later."

"Good night," Rodney said to Ronon's retreating back.

Rodney finished off the last of his roll with the dregs of his coffee as the waves of exhaustion started to threaten to swamp him. To his surprise, he realised that his conversation with Ronon had actually made him feel better. Rodney had yet to figure out how to act around the intimidating Satedan – his overwhelming physicality initially causing Rodney to consign him to the 'brawn rather than brains' category and consequently to either ignore him or hide behind him depending on the situation. However, he knew how much John valued Ronon's presence on their team and he'd found himself reassessing his own opinion after having been on several missions with Ronon. Although military tactics, fighting and defence were Ronon's speciality, he was also incredibly ingenious when it came to reacting to situations in the field and his rare comments on the more scientific aspects of their missions were usually thoughtful and showed surprising insight. Insight Ronon had shown again tonight in his analysis of the situation between John and Rodney. Sensing the rather maudlin directions of his thoughts, Rodney collected his tray and then headed back to his quarters, hearing the call of his bed more loudly with every step.

The dream was different this time – not the all-encompassing nightmare of the night before, even though it did cause a similarly visceral reaction in Rodney. However, the emotions, although just as strong, were overwhelmingly ones of pleasure rather than pain and Rodney wanted to wrap himself up in them, to lose himself completely in them, and never awaken again.

The dream was based on a memory – one that, although it had started in anger, had quickly become one of the most scorchingly hot encounters of his life. It was what had prompted him to think that he and John might actually stand a chance – that they might just have a future together.

"'So long, Rodney' – is that all I get? A 'so long, Rodney'?! After everything that we've been through together?" Rodney's voice was sharp as he berated John, his hands flying though the air in his anger. Didn't John realise what that had done to Rodney? What it had felt like to be left like that – without a proper good-bye, without anything? After all they'd lived through; after all he'd thought they'd become?

"Rodney," John started to say. "It wasn't like I—"

"No," Rodney said, whirling around on John, a hand slashing through the air in a final and near-violent gesture to silence him. "You had your say – your 'so long' – and now I'm going to have mine!"

John seemed momentarily shocked at the depth of feeling Rodney was displaying and fell silent. Rodney took full advantage of it.

"You have absolutely no idea, do you? Not a clue what that did to me – to realise that you were off on that jumper with a nuclear bomb – a nuclear bomb I built – strapped to its belly. I thought you were dead, John!" he shouted, knowing he was losing his admittedly tenuous grip on his emotions, but past the point of caring. "I thought you were dead!"

A series of expressions flickered nearly instantaneously across John's face – surprise, astonishment, regret, understanding, and finally something which looked an awful lot like hope – before his face became unreadable once more. "I had no choice," he said softly. "We were facing total annihilation and this was the one thing that I could do to prevent that."

Rodney felt his eyes slowly close at the finality of John's words. He knew that John was right – had known it at the time even – but that didn't make it any easier to accept John's actions. The mere thought of continuing with his life on Atlantis without John was… well, unthinkable. But Rodney knew who John was – knew that he would sacrifice anything to keep Atlantis and his people safe, even his own life. "I know," he said at last. "I just…" he shook his head, grasping at words, all far too inadequate, in an attempt to tell John how he'd felt in those endless minutes he'd thought John dead and gone. "I just don't know if I could do this withou-"

John never let him finish the sentence as he strode forward in two quick steps to catch hold of Rodney's shoulders and pull Rodney bodily to him. Rodney stumbled forward gratefully into John's embrace – he realised that he didn't want to talk about anything anymore: they'd fought and they'd survived and that was all that mattered. He brought his mouth up with a groan, blindly seeking for John's lips as John continued to move forward, manoeuvring Rodney's body with ease as he pressed Rodney backwards until Rodney felt the thud of the solid wall behind him. It wasn't until John had Rodney braced hard against the wall and bracketed tightly with his own body that John finally kissed him.

It was hot and rough, the prickle of John's stubble scraping almost painfully against Rodney's skin and the insistent thrust of John's tongue causing Rodney to open his mouth wider to John's assault. Neither of them were gentle – they were both too far gone for that – and Rodney felt his cock grow hard and aching in the confines of his pants. He fisted his hands in the material at John's back and held on tight, determined to never let go, needing to simply hold John to him for as long as was possible. John seemed equally frantic – his chest pressing hard against Rodney's as their kiss intensified yet further, their teeth clashing and their bodies straining as they both fought for an even deeper connection.

Suddenly John's thigh thrust itself between Rodney's legs, the pressure so utterly perfect against Rodney's cock that he could only moan his helpless approval into John's mouth. He parted his thighs even more, his hands unclenching their hold on John just enough to enable him to slide them down John's back and reattach themselves to John's ass. John made a deep sound of approval and thrust his tongue even deeper into Rodney's mouth, licking at Rodney's palate as he started to grind himself into Rodney's now open body.

Rodney let his head fall back as the sensations rolled through him. John's mouth was now moving down his neck, placing sucking kisses and gentle nips on his sensitive skin. His cock felt like it was going to explode, pressed tightly against the front of his pants as his hips surged rhythmically forward in answer to the steady thrust of John's. He could feel John's cock, as hard as his own, pushing into him with each movement of their bodies, the thick ridge of flesh sliding with delicious friction against him and bringing his orgasm closer with each slide.

It wasn't the most comfortable of positions; Rodney was vaguely aware of the hard, cold, wall against his already aching back and the pull of now damp material against his sensitive cock head was only just on the right side of painful, but somehow this all added to the experience. This was more than just a quick fuck between buddies – it was a celebration of survival. John had almost died and now, here he was, alive and hot and pulsing in Rodney's arms.

Rodney's arms tightened even more around John, pulling at John's ass and bringing their erections clashing together with even more force. John let out a guttural cry, the speed of his hips speeding up as he started slamming himself into Rodney, his panting mouth hot and wet against Rodney's neck. It was utterly perfect and Rodney didn't think he would be able to stand much more of the amazing sensations. As if on cue, John thrust himself forward twice more and then shuddered, his head thrown back as he lost himself in his climax. At the sight, Rodney felt his own climax begin, pushing his hips forward into John's body once more as his own orgasm overtook him…

He woke up panting, dripping in sweat and uncomfortably aware, one, that he'd just come in his boxers and, two, of just how much he had lost.

Rodney had never before thought that a man like John would be even remotely interested in him as, on the surface at any rate, they were a different as two people could be: the carefree flyboy and the anal academic. But first impressions were often deceiving and, as time wore on and he and John found themselves thrown together with increasing regularity due to both their expedition positions and their off-world team membership, the apparent barriers between them slowly crumbling into nothing. They were first colleagues, then companions, then friends, and then… Well, this was a point on which Rodney was still unclear. He'd supposed they'd been something more than mere fuck-buddies but less than true lovers.

Not that they were either anymore. Rodney's actions on Doranda had seen to that.

John was in no better mood the following day. He'd got marginally more sleep, which he supposed was a good thing, and his early morning run with Ronon had successfully managed to clear out the remaining cobwebs, but he still felt generally angry and ill at ease. He'd been half-bracing himself for Ronon to make some comment about Rodney during their run, but Ronon had seemed likewise distracted. Recalling Teyla's vague hints during their session, John had figured that Ronon had his own problems to deal with and found he could only really be thankful that this took the pressure off of him. Talking about anything even remotely personal had never been John's strong suit, particularly when the personal issue involved concerned himself.

Opening up his email, he noticed the data stream from the SGC had come in. He felt a twist of something unpleasant deep in his stomach as he realised that this indicated that their reports of the Doranda mission had been sent and received. He'd found he'd had to force himself to read both Elizabeth's or Rodney's reports – skimming each in turn as quickly as he could and seeing his failure play out again in his mind's eye as he did so. John couldn't quite bring himself to be impressed with Rodney's stark honesty, he was still far too angry with him for that, but he did note that Rodney made no indications of just how much the military commander of Atlantis had supported him. Rather, he took the blame for pushing the issue and for the destruction of both the weapon and the solar system entirely on his own head. John's own report had not been so generous – not to himself or to Rodney.

A red-flagged priority email from Elizabeth caught his eye, requesting he join her in her office as soon as possible. As he headed up to the command centre, John he wondered why she'd chosen that method of communication rather than the radios all the expedition members tended to prefer and the unpleasant felling in his belly grew.

The usual suspects were milling around the gate room – technicians, the marine guard, and the odd scientist – and John mentally reviewed the off-world mission roster to determine there weren't any teams due to depart or arrive until that afternoon. SGA-1 itself wasn't due off-world until the day after next when they had a mission to a planet designated as a potential Ancient outpost, discovered from Elizabeth's combing of the Ancient database.

When he entered Elizabeth's office this time, he was surprised to find her looking even more tense than he had when he'd come to her to discuss their reports on the Doranda debacle. The crease running down the centre of her forehead and between her eyes was as pronounced as he'd ever seen it and her lips were curved downwards and tight with stress. She also appeared to be engrossed in whatever was on her screen as she didn't even look up as John came in.

"You wanted to see me?" John asked, coming to sit down in front of her desk.

Elizabeth looked up at him with a distracted air, her hands coming up to rub at her temples. "Ah, yes, John," she said, visibly attempting to collect her thoughts. "Thank you for coming so quickly. I'm expecting Rodney to join us in a few minutes, but I wanted to talk to you first."

At the mention of Rodney's name, John felt himself start to freeze. He made a concerted effort to relax, blanking out his expression and slouching down in his chair. "What's up?" he asked with as much nonchalance as he could muster.

Elizabeth sighed and cast another quick glance at her screen before turning her attention back to John. "I received a communiqué from the SGC with the data stream this morning," she began, nodding her head towards her computer. "Its contents were… disturbing, to say the least."

John felt the unpleasantness in his belly grow, but maintained his relaxed facade and responded with no more than an eyebrow quirked in curiosity.

"Well, it seems that the SGC are very unhappy with the events on Doranda," Elizabeth explained, looking increasingly angry with each word she spoke.

"How unhappy?" John found himself asking sharply.

"Unhappy enough to put a serious question mark above Rodney's position as Chief Scientific Officer on this mission."

"Shit," John cursed under his breath.

"Exactly," Elizabeth agreed. "Apparently there was an incident that occurred at the SGC some years ago in which Rodney was involved. Apparently he made some grievous errors with his calculations then too and almost cost a man his life. It seems that had it not been for the actions of Major Samantha Carter, he would have died."

"Yes," John said, thinking back to one the more personal conversations he and Rodney had shared. "Yes, I know about that."

"He told you?" Elizabeth asked, looking surprised. "Well," she continued at John's nod, "it was as a direct result of that mistake that Rodney was 'posted' to Siberia."

John nodded slowly, intimately familiar with the means by which the US Military punished its own – be they civilian or solider. "What have they decided to do?" he asked a little hoarsely.

"Thankfully nothing permanent as yet," Elizabeth replied. "It seems that the fact that both of us stated in our reports that we approved of the actual test of the weapon has helped mitigate some of the fallout." She paused then, but something about her face told John she hadn't finished yet.

"Mitigate some?" he queried.

Elizabeth shot him a wry smile. "Yes, exactly, some," she said, as if to say John knew her too well. "But not all," she paused again. "Look John, there's no easy way to say this and I'm going to need your support - well, to put it more accurately, Rodney is going to need your support – which is why I wanted to talk to you first before speaking to him."

"I thought you said the SGC wasn't going to do anything permanent," John said, feeling his anger building at the thought the SGC would meddle in this way. No matter what Rodney may or may not have done, he strongly believed his behaviour – anyone's behaviour – should be dealt with within the expedition. John believed they'd all earned that right, having survived their first year in Pegasus completely without SGC support.

"No, not yet," Elizabeth corrected. "But I'm afraid it might come to that. They're sending through an independent reviewer – one of their own astrophysicists." She consulted her screen once more, "A Dr. Nathan Lambert," she read. "Whose purported objective is to examine Rodney's actions during the course of the expedition, focusing on Doranda in particular, but expanding to cover all his work." She lifted her eyes back to John, "He'll then report back to the SGC on Rodney's capability of remaining in post."

This time John didn't even attempt to muffle his curse. "Fuck; that's just gonna kill Rodney. Who is this guy anyway? What do we know about him?"

Elizabeth shrugged helplessly. "Not a lot," she admitted, "beyond the fact that he's the SGC's choice. I assume he's been with the programme at least as long as Rodney, but I don't know if they've met before."

"When's he due?" John asked tightly, his anger at the situation merging with the anger he already felt.

"This afternoon," Elizabeth said, her mouth pulling down in a moue of displeasure.

It looked like she was going to say something more, but her door chime sounded and, at her word, Rodney entered. He looked pale and haggard, his face drawn and his eyes slightly bloodshot as if he hadn't been getting enough sleep. John felt a pang of empathy for Rodney before he ruthlessly quashed the emotion – he couldn't allow himself to slip. Certainly not now when there was so much at stake.

Rodney's eyes flew to John as he approached Elizabeth's desk and, for the briefest of moments, a flash of real fear crossed his face. But then he took a deep breath and his expression smoothed out into one of depressed resignation.

"Elizabeth. Colonel," he greeted them as he took his seat. "You… uh… wanted to see me?"

Rodney sat staring listlessly into space, caught up in his thoughts with his emotions torn between surprise, anger and, perhaps most worrying of all, despair. He'd left Elizabeth's office in a state of shock, ignoring both the pity in Elizabeth's eyes and John's half-hearted call of his name. He hadn't really been aware of where he was going, but his feet seemed to know and he'd wound up back in his lab, seated at his desk and surrounded by the trappings of his career – his passion – that now seemed to be turning against him.

He couldn't believe the SGC were sending out some jumped up lackey to monitor and report on him. How dare they? After all he'd done for them – after his years of painstaking work in Area 51, his breakthroughs with data compression algorithms and the naquadah generator technology in Siberia, his ceaseless struggle to keep the Atlantis expedition safe - this was how they repaid him? Putting him on trial for his professional career for committing a single mistake on a project of unimaginable difficulty? A project for which, had he been successful, he would have been lauded by his accusers as a hero. It was beyond belief.

But, then again, he should have expected it. He knew, after all, how petty the SGC could be at times, especially when it came to people who did not number amongst their chosen few – and Rodney was certainly not one of those. No doubt they'd been waiting for such an opportunity; he could well recall the look of dislike of General Hammond's face when he'd been recalled from Siberia and reassigned to the Ancient outpost at Antarctica. No, he'd been no one's favourite at the SGC.

But still, was this all his career was worth? All his breakthroughs and flashes of inspiration which had helped innumerable times in the fight against the Goa'uld and the Wraith, were they all so easily forgotten in the dust and ashes of one mistake? Okay, so maybe he had to acknowledge that Doranda was a touch bigger than a mere 'mistake', but this? To be observed and reported on like some wet-behind-the-ears undergraduate? It was patently ridiculous.

And yet, here he was, awaiting just such a judgement. He shook his head, still unable to quite grasp the situation. Dr Nathan Lambert – what did he even know about the man? He knew the name, of course – PhD at Cornell and a postdoctoral fellowship at Berkley before being recruited, much like Rodney himself, into the murkier world of scientific military consultancy. Rodney was also somewhat familiar with his work – mostly in particle theory pertaining to weapons' development. It was… well, coherent enough, he supposed. Nothing earth-shattering to it, but consistent and usually well-presented, but hardly the stuff which would lead to active involvement with any of the SGC's front-line projects. As far as Rodney knew, Lambert spent most of his time at the Los Alamos National Lab, rather than Area 51. Therefore, Rodney had never actually met the man in person or worked with him on any of his various projects.

But things had obviously changed, most likely during the year when the Atlantis expedition was cut off from Earth and when the war against the Ori had started in earnest. Whatever had happened to bring Lambert to such prominence in the SGC, Rodney could only guess, but it didn't alter the main fact of the matter – Lambert would be here soon, in Rodney's department, critiquing Rodney's work, questioning Rodney's staff and judging Rodney's ability to be Atlantis' CSO.

"Rodney?" Radek's voice interrupted Rodney's brooding. "You remember the staff meeting, yes? We are due to start."

Rodney sighed and forced himself to his feet. "Yes, okay, fine," he said, picking up his mug and crossing the room to fill it from lab's constantly brewing communal pot. "I need to talk to everyone any way." He took a deep breath and forced himself to continue, wishing now that he'd thought to seek out Radek and talk to him beforehand. "It seems that… um… the SGC are putting me under review. For the Doranda failure, that is. They're sending one of their own to investigate my actions. I imagine the department will be somewhat… affected, at least in the short-term."

A gasp from Radek's direction had him turning his gaze from his mug to meet Radek's eye. Radek looked about as shell-shocked as Rodney felt. "They are doing what?" he asked in disbelief.

Rodney closed his eyes and shook his head. "Lambert," he said. "They're sending Nathan Lambert – that particle guy from LANL – to do it." Suddenly Rodney knew he just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with. "Look, we need to get to the meeting," he said as he moved towards the lab's big meeting room, leaving Radek, still looking rather dazed and mumbling to himself in Czech, in his wake.

The shock and confusion on Radek's face was soon clearly visible on those of most of the science team. Rodney had to admit that he was somewhat surprised at the degree of support his staff was showing him. He knew he wasn't the most likeable of supervisors, and certainly not the easiest of people to work with, but most of the scientists seemed outraged at the prospect outside scrutiny.

"But that doesn't really make sense," a young mathematician called Raztan, was saying. "I mean, we were all involved in the Arcturus calculations to some degree. What are they going to do? Replace the entire scientific staff?"

"And why now?" another voice chimed in, one of the engineers. "God knows there have been plenty of slip-ups over the years."

As a concerned murmur settled over the assembled crowd, Rodney felt the tension between his shoulder blades increase. This much upset early on wouldn't do any good at all.

"Look," he said at last, his voice carrying over the group. "There's no need to panic – after all, we've dealt successfully with far worse than one SGC lackey. And no one's job is on the line – I want to make that clear. This is just a review, one independent of the Atlantis expedition, centring on my handling of the Dorandan mission, okay? So no one needs to worry."

The blank faces that stared back at him almost had Rodney rolling his eyes as he realised that they'd need something more to convince them that everything would indeed be alright. "Oh, come on," he said, trying to put some of his old arrogance into his words. "Like they're going to find anyone better than me to lead this department. Left to your own devices, you'd all be dead within the week!"

That seemed to do the trick as the tension eased from the group as a whole and Rodney found himself almost believing his own boasting. Then a slight stirring of people near the doorway caught his attention and he realised with a start that John had entered the room at sometime during his talk. As John caught Rodney's eye, he tilted his head back towards the door, indicating that Rodney should follow.

Rodney took a deep, sobering breath – this was it – and then forced his feet into motion. Catching a glimpse Radek's concerned look as he made to follow John, he nodded once, intending to convey the fact that he was really okay. Radek nodded in reply and then clapped his hands together briskly to bring the attention of the room to him.

"Right people," Rodney heard him shout as he left the room. "You all heard what Rodney said – let's get back to work."

John could tell that Rodney was following him as he made his way down the corridor towards the transporter. The anger he'd been fighting for what felt like forever was still bubbling too close to the surface for his liking and he just wanted this whole day – hell, make that the whole damn week - to be over and done with and for things to get back to normal. Or as normal as they could.

At his approach, the doors to the transporter slid open silently and John stood to one side to usher the Rodney in ahead of him. He knew that had they done this a mere 72 hours ago Rodney would have made some snarky comment about his gene and Atlantis' reaction to it, but now Rodney remained silent and John felt a twinge of sadness at the thought. Still, John held his tongue, selecting the button that would take them up to the command centre and watching Rodney fidget uncomfortably out of the corner of his eye.

"So, he's arriving now, huh?" Rodney ventured at last, the look on his face part nervousness and part indignation.

"Yup," John replied shortly.

"Right," Rodney said, looking down at the floor, his tone subdued. "Do we know how long he's staying?"

"He'll stay 'til he's done," John said, keeping his tone as impersonal as he could, despite his own feelings on the subject. It was one thing for the SGC to have overall control on the expedition's remit and mandate, but it was quite another for them to actively intervene in personnel issues, regardless of their motivation.

"Oh, right," Rodney said softly, returning his gaze to the floor.

The uncomfortable silence held until the transporter slid to a stop on the command deck. As they exited, John could see Elizabeth standing below, just beyond the stargate's event horizon, with Ronon and Teyla at her side. Together he and Rodney made their way down towards them, John feeling some of his apprehension diminish at the prospect of meeting the SGC's interloper together like this, as a united front. Although there may be some unresolved issues between them, it felt wrong to turn to someone outside – someone who wasn't one of them, who didn't understand Pegasus and the pressures of surviving here like they did. That didn't mean John was ready to forgive either Rodney or himself for the mistakes they had both made, but it did mean he wished they'd had the time to work things out between themselves.

"I am sorry you are being put through this, Rodney," Teyla said in an undertone as Rodney took his place beside her. John could hear the compassion in her voice and picture the empathy in her eyes even though he was standing a few paces in front of them, next to Elizabeth.

"Thank you," came Rodney's slightly awkward response. "I… I'm sure it'll be fine."

"As am I," Teyla replied, her tone much more assured than Rodney's, just as the gate started to spin and the first chevron engaged. For a moment, John allowed himself to feel a pang of regret that he could no longer reassure Rodney before quashing it again and turning his attention firmly to the stargate.

"Incoming wormhole," was Chuck's report from the control centre as the chevrons continued to lock. All around them, John was pleased to see his marines ready themselves for any potential threat and then the gate swooshed into life. "Receiving message from the SGC; Dr Lambert is requesting permission to come across."

"Permission granted," Elizabeth said, the remaining tension on her face smoothing away as her professionalism came to the fore. "Tell him to come through."

The man who stepped through the gate was remarkably unremarkable. Like Rodney, Radek and the other scientists when they first arrived, he radiated a scientist's demeanour – looking around him with avid curiosity as he entered Atlantis proper, displaying none of the hard-earned caution or risk assessment behaviours that all expedition members, both civilian and military, now showed whenever entering a new situation. He was about the same height as Rodney, but reed thin with thinning pale brown hair and neat wire glasses. John felt himself stiffen slightly as he noticed that the man was wearing standard issue Atlantis science BDUs and carrying a familiar looking laptop case, recognised the uncompromising hand of the SGC commanders at work.

"Dr Lambert, I presume," Elizabeth said, smiling slightly in greeting as she stepped forward, hand outstretched. "I'm Elizabeth Weir; welcome to Atlantis."

"Dr Weir, yes, of course," Lambert replied, giving himself a shake and smiling back at Elizabeth. "Thank you." He swung a large bag he had slung over his shoulder down onto the floor and placed his laptop bag carefully beside it before stepping up to shake Elizabeth's hand. "It is truly remarkable to be here."

"May I introduce Colonel John Sheppard, our Chief Military Officer," Elizabeth said, turning towards John. She then stepped slightly to one side to include Rodney, Ronon and Teyla in the group."And Dr Rodney McKay, our Chief Scientist, Miss Teyla Emmagen and Specialist Ronon Dex – all members of my senior staff and our premier off-world team."

"Colonel Sheppard, Dr McKay, Ms Emmagen and Specialist Dex," Lambert said, reaching out to shake hands with each of them in turn. "A pleasure." John noted that his eyes narrowed slightly as he shook Rodney's hand and then widened in shock as he met Ronon's firm grip.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Rodney muttered sarcastically in an undertone as Elizabeth continued to familiarise Lambert with the gate room and the general structure of Atlantis.

John smothered his grin and tried to pay attention to what Elizabeth was telling Lambert – soon he would no doubt be taking over the position of tour guide until Lambert was settled in. He had to admire Elizabeth's diplomatic panache – effortlessly welcoming Lambert to Atlantis while at the same time establishing in no uncertain terms the identities of her senior staff, with Rodney McKay amongst them.

Seeing that Elizabeth was starting to guide Lambert towards her office, John signalled a marine over to take his bags. At Lambert's wide-eyed look, John smiled a little and said, "They'll be in your quarters when you get there."

"Shall we?" John asked, indicating with a sweep of his hand for Lambert to precede him in following Elizabeth up the stairs to her office.

As he made to follow them, he noted that Rodney was still standing back with Teyla and Ronon, as if unsure as to whether or not he was to be included. John looked at Rodney's expression, completely stripped of his normal shield of arrogance and determination now that Lambert was no longer in view, and knew he couldn't simply leave Rodney there like that.

With a jerk of his head he indicated towards the staircase. "Come on, McKay," he said, grasping onto Rodney's surname as a means of maintaining at least some emotional distance. "You heard Elizabeth – CSO, remember?"

At John's words, something in Rodney's spine stiffened and his eyes held a light John hadn't seen in them at all over the past couple of days. "Yes, of course, you're right," he said, nodding once and then heading towards the stairs. As he passed John, Rodney shot him a grateful look. "Thank you… um… Colonel."

"You guys want to come along?" John asked Ronon and Teyla.

"Fuck, no," Ronon said with feeling. "I'm sure you've got this one covered, Sheppard."

Teyla cast Ronon a look, shaking her head in resignation, before turning back to John. "We will leave the situation in your hands, John," she said. "I am sure Dr Lambert will feel better if only SGC personnel are involved in this first meeting."

John nodded and started to make his way up to Elizabeth's office when Teyla stopped him with a gently hand on his arm. "I know this is difficult for you," she said softly, her eyes clearly conveying her concern. "But I do hope you will find it in yourself to support Rodney, regardless of your personal conflicts."

John swallowed thickly, wanting nothing more than to pull away from her far too seeing eyes, and forced himself to nod curtly before turning at making his way up to where Elizabeth, Lambert and Rodney were waiting for him.

"I am given to understand your principle purpose here is to assess the recent practices of our Science department," Elizabeth said, gazing calmly at Lambert from across her desk.

"Yes," Lambert replied, licking his lips in a slightly nervous manner. "Centring primarily on the work with which Dr McKay is directly involved."

John could hear Rodney make a small noise from where he was sitting to John's right, his finger's tapping out an erratic rhythm on his thigh, but he otherwise remained silent. John wondered how long that would last.

"I understand the concerns of the SGC over the outcome of the mission to Doranda and I share them," Elizabeth replied. "However, I have to say that I am not entirely happy with the way they have chosen to pursue this concern."

"Ah," Lambert said, his mouth twisting into a slight smile as if he'd been expecting such a turn in the conversation. "With me, you mean, Dr Weir."

"With your presence and your remit on Atlantis, yes," Elizabeth clarified. "I can assure you, as I have already assured the SGC, that I am more than capable than dealing with this situation. Rodney is already well aware of my displeasure with the destruction of the Dorandan solar system and he shares this view. What you need to understand, Dr Lambert, is that we are on the front-line of a war here – we don't have the luxury of time. When an opportunity like the Arcturus weapon presents itself to us, we have no choice but to take it – to not do so has a very real chance of ending in significant loss of life."

"Forgive me," Lambert interjected. "But I belief a life was indeed lost in this endeavour."

Ah, there are his teeth, John thought, and decided it was about time he interceded. "This is Pegasus – life is lost on a regular basis here," he drawled. "The SGC know this or, at least, they should."

"Quite," Elizabeth agreed. "Every member of this expedition not only knows the risks, but the vast majority of them have lived with them for well over a year now – most of which was entirely unsupported."

"Be that as it may," Lambert responded, sitting up straighter in his chair. "It doesn't excuse the reckless actions taken by Dr McKay – ones, might I add, to which he freely admits."

"I do admit them," Rodney said somewhat hotly, speaking out for the first time. "And I can see now that I made many mistakes, but there were extenuating circumstances. I had good reason to believe that my revised formulas would solve the energy cascade problems encountered by Arcturus' Ancient designers."

"And he had the backing of both myself and Colonel Sheppard to pursue his ideas and conduct test of the weapon," Elizabeth added.

"Yes," Lambert said, eyeing both John and Elizabeth narrowly. "I am aware of both of your involvement. However, this issue isn't whether or not either of you lacked judgement when approving Dr McKay's plans, it was whether Dr McKay did indeed have sufficient reason to carry them out. And, if he did not, whether his position as CSO continues to be… appropriate."

"What you seem not to understand," John said tightly. "Is that had Rodney been right, as he has been numerous times in the past, we would have a weapon that would essentially end the war with the Wraith."

"But he was wrong," Lambert countered smugly. "And by no means for the first time." He gestured towards the laptop case sitting on the floor by his chair. "I have documentation of numerous occasions where Dr McKay's actions have led to disastrous consequences. Doranda is just one more in a long line – hence the concern of the SGC."

"Oh, for goodness sake," Rodney said, his face turning red in outrage. "This is ridiculous! We're not conducting some safe, little lab experiment here, complete with risk assessment forms and ethical approval – this is real life! There often simply isn't time to check and double check each and every variable; every minute I delay in acting in a crisis is a minute more the Wraith, or the Genii, or whoever else it might be, has to attack!"

"Rodney," Elizabeth said softly, her gentle interjection effectively bringing Rodney's outburst to an end. "Dr Lambert," she continued. "There have been innumerable occasions where Rodney McKay, often single-handedly, has been the reason for this expedition's continued survival. I can honestly say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we would not be here today were it not for him. Now, the same can also be said about many other members of this expedition," she nodded towards John as she spoke, "but this does not diminish Rodney's contribution. He has made mistakes – he admits that freely, as do I – but so have we all. As Rodney says, these are hardly perfect conditions and none of us could possibly have anticipated what we found out here."

"Dr Weir, your defence of your colleague is commendable," Lambert replied. "But my orders are clear: I'm to review Dr McKay's work and actions regarding the Arcturus weapon and any of his other work that merits my attention. Upon completion, I am to report back to the SGC on Dr McKay's performance as CSO of the Atlantis expedition and on his suitability to continue in this role in the future. I believe the SGC furnished you with a copy of these orders in the latest data stream."

Elizabeth managed to hold on to her composure, but John could see that she was fraying a little at the edges. "Yes, they did," she agreed. "Well then, Dr Lambert, you are free to carry out your mission. However," she added just as Lambert was about to stand, her determination clearly visible in her eyes. "I do have some requirements, as leader of the Atlantis expedition you understand."

"Of course," Lambert agreed.

"Good; I wish to be kept informed of your plans and your progress on a weekly basis – we will arrange a regular meeting to this end," Elizabeth said. "Furthermore, in terms of your access here, you are, of course, able to move freely about the city. However, you will need to liaise with either Dr McKay or Dr Zelenka with regards to the scientific data you need and with Colonel Sheppard for the details of any off-world missions. Is this acceptable?" Her tone clearly indicating that it had better be.

"Perfectly, Dr Weir," Lambert replied, getting to his feet with a slight bow. "Perhaps I could be shown to my quarters now? I would like some time to assemble my equipment."

"Of course," Elizabeth replied. "Colonel Sheppard will escort you. Then perhaps you would like a tour of the city. I imagine you'll want to talk things through with Dr McKay? May I suggest you do that tomorrow morning, SGA-1 are scheduled for an off-world mission in the afternoon, so he will not be available then."

"That sounds fine," Lambert agreed, turning towards Rodney. "Would 9am suit you, Dr McKay? In the Science department, perhaps?"

"Yes," Rodney replied resignedly. "Fine."

"Excellent," Lambert said. "That is all sorted then. Dr Weir, thank you for your time. Colonel Sheppard?"

"This way," John said, casting a quick glance at both Elizabeth and Rodney as he left the room with Lambert in tow, wondering just how Rodney – or himself, for that matter - was going to make it through the next few days.

Rodney was astoundingly unproductive for the remainder of the day following Lambert's arrival. In a rather uncharacteristic fit of nerves, he'd downloaded his complete set of mission reports, CSO updates, and personal lab book for every off-world mission, staff meeting, and project he'd been involved in since his arrival on Atlantis. It had taken almost three hours to collect all the necessary files and the contents, even with a compression algorithm, filled the memories of almost six datapads. When he was done, he sat looking at the sad little pile, wondering how it had come to pass that his life was reduced to this – a bunch of noughts and ones crowded onto a handful of memory chips – and that on this alone he was to be judged.

Radek had finally had enough of his moping and evicted him from the lab. "You are scaring the others," he'd berated in an undertone as he had unceremoniously packed up Rodney, datapads, random powerbars, personal laptop and all, and deposited him outside of the door with the instruction to, "Go away and forget about things for awhile."

Rodney decided that it was a sad reflection on his life that he hadn't even been able to do that. With a start he'd realised that science was what he did to 'forget about things'. After a particularly stressful mission, he'd usually find his way to the lab to fiddle about with one project or another until he was finally able to relax enough to get some rest. Well, he amended as he wandered the corridors restlessly, science and John. Each were equally distracting in their own way - both an endlessly fascinating challenge that Rodney was convinced he could study and experiment on for thousands of lifetimes and yet of which he could never tire. But both his passions were lost to him now – one had become the scaffold on which he was to hung and the other had slipped from him without warning, now surely never to return.

His wandering feet eventually led him to the commissary, his nose and grumbling stomach hastening his entry as they reminded him that he'd not eaten since breakfast – an almost unprecedented event when the city was not on the verge of destruction. The queue at the hot buffet was short and Rodney was grateful that he knew no one in it particularly well. Grabbing a tray, he started to make his way through the options – the remains of yesterday's dacarin casserole, some lentil-like dish with a spice Rodney recognised but couldn't name, a eye-watering mound of bright purple tormack mash, and, beyond that, a choice of rolls, a range of fresh salads, fruit, and a selection of pudding cups.

Some martyr-complex prompted Rodney to take a bowlful of the lentil dish rather than opting for the red meat again, but he couldn't resist putting a large dollop of sour cream on the top of it from the small bowl at the dish's side. As he was moving down past the salads and towards the desserts, he spotted Teyla enter the room and start to come towards the food, her eyes lighting when she spotted him.

"Rodney," she greeted with a smile as she collected her own tray. "How are you doing?"

Rodney shrugged and reached out to nab a chocolate cup. "As well as can be expected, I suppose," he replied.

Teyla shot him a sympathetic look as she helped herself to a bowl of the lentils and a plateful of salad, eschewing, Rodney noticed, the sour cream. "It will all work out in the end," she said as she slid her tray down towards where Rodney was contemplating a second pudding. "You'll see,"

He grunted, unable to share her optimism, and was just about to reach out for a second dessert when Teyla placed an apple on his tray instead. Smiling innocently at him, she picked up her tray and stood waiting for him to do the same. Rodney, knowing when he was beaten, rolled his eyes and did likewise, following Teyla's gently swaying gait towards their usual table.

As he deposited his tray on the table at the seat opposite Teyla, he swung his bag off his shoulder and, rummaging through the contents, let the six pads spill out from his hands onto the clear surface between them.

"What is all this?" Teyla asked, eyeing the datapads before raising her eyes to Rodney in question.

"This," Rodney spat sourly as he took his seat, scowling darkly at the pads, "is the sum of my work for the past year and a half."

Teyla frowned in confusion and motioned for Rodney to continue.

"It's everything," Rodney said. "All my work, all my ideas, all my calculations – everything I've done while on Atlantis, good and bad."

"Ah," Teyla said, her expression clearing as she lifted up her spoon and took a mouthful of lentils. "This is for Dr Lambert then."

Rodney snorted. "Yeah, something like that," he replied as he took a taste of his own meal, ensuring that a healthy portion of sour cream was on his spoon along with the lentils.

"He asked you to prepare all this?" Teyla asked.

Rodney shrugged, "Not explicitly, but I'm sure it's coming. I mean, how else is he going to do his 'review'?"

At Rodney's words, Teyla's frown returned. "I would think he would do more than simply read reports," she said, sounding affronted on Rodney's behalf. "After all, were that all he was required to do, why would he come all this way? No," she continued firmly, "there must be more to his investigation than this."

Now it was Rodney's turn to frown. "How so?"

Teyla smiled at his confusion and reached out to place a hand on his arm. "Because you are more than this," she said, giving his arm a gentle squeeze as she gestured to the pads with her spoon. "What you have done here – what you have done for us – is more than just words and calculations, it is our very lives."

"Oh," Rodney said, dropping his head in embarrassment at her comments.

"It is true, Rodney," Teyla insisted, her tone firm. "None of us would be here if it weren't for your work and your actions. Look around at the people here – that is what Dr Lambert should be considering, not just words on a screen."

Rodney felt a small smile spread over his face at the strength of conviction in Teyla's words. "Thank you," he said, finally raising his gaze to hers. "I've been… second guessing myself a lot in the past few days and…" he paused, trying to sum up his feelings, "and it's been difficult, reconciling my mistakes with my successes."

"You cannot have one without the other," Teyla said. "I've seen many failures over the years – our crops do not grow, our animals do not reproduce, we are not fast enough to avoid the culling beams – but, Rodney, we are still here. Despite these failures, my people have survived because our strengths are even more numerous. As are yours."

"Yes, but Doranda was a pretty big mistake – god, an Ancient base destroyed, an entire solar system decimated, not to mention Collins' death." Rodney shook his head in dismay, starting to swirl his sour cream into his lentils to give his restless hands something to do. "I don't know how I can possibly make up for it," he admitted softly. "Oh, not to Lambert or the SGC – but to Elizabeth and… and to John. How I can possibly rebuild their trust in me?"

Teyla reached out again, her light touch stilling Rodney's hands. "You will," she said. "Elizabeth has already proved to be your staunchest defender – you need only have patience and continue to do your duty. As for John…" she trailed off with a sigh. "Well, with him it is always more complicated. I have found that often the emotions that he chooses to show to us are often merely a decoy for what he truly feels."

Rodney lifted his eyes to Teyla's. "His anger sure didn't feel like a decoy to me."

"No, but perhaps it is the direction of his anger that is misleading," Teyla countered. "He is angry with himself, Rodney."

"No, I'm pretty sure that he's angry with me," Rodney replied.

Teyla shrugged as she started to eat her salad. "Perhaps," she said at last. "But I believe his anger is mostly directed at himself."

"You don't understand," Rodney countered, some part of him determined not to be so easily forgiven by Teyla. "You don't understand just how badly I let him down. I mean…" He trailed off with a groan of frustration as he realised that he couldn't go into just how close he and John had been and how badly John had reacted to his breach of John's trust.

"Rodney, it is the nature of close relationships for there to be rough patches." Teyla's gaze turned inwards for a moment, as if she was recalling something personal. Rodney was suddenly reminded of Ronon's oblique comments the day before and it made him wonder what exactly had happened on Belka to have angered someone as serene as Teyla. "But," Teyla continued, looking up again with a smile, "it is those times that ultimately bring us closer as we learn to understand one another more. You, John, Ronon and I – we are a very close team. It is the nature of our relationship that we will sometimes find ourselves at odds with one another, but instead of dwelling on these differences, we should take the opportunity to learn from one another so that we may strengthen our bond."

"So you and Ronon?" Rodney ventured carefully, his curiosity finally getting the better of him.

"Will be fine," Teyla replied. "Our latest mission just pushed our individual boundaries a little and we are having to adapt to the differences between us."

"What happened?" Rodney couldn't help but ask.

"Nothing of import," Teyla replied, waving away the question with a flick of her salad fork. "What is important is that I have come to understand what drives Ronon much better and so will be able to work with him more effectively in the future."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that, but all John has learned about me is that he can't trust me," Rodney admitted sadly. "And I can't really say I blame him."

"He will come around," Teyla assured Rodney, the confidence in her tone once more reminiscent of Ronon's. "Your relationship is too important to him – to both of you – for this mistrust and anger to remain between you for long."

"As much as I'd like to believe that, I don't see it happening," Rodney confessed. "Especially as it now seems like my days on Atlantis are numbered. God, it's like Cheyenne Mountain all over again – Siberia, here I come."

"Nonsense," Teyla countered. "Even if Dr Lambert were to find some evidence of misconduct in the way in which you have performed your duty here – which he will not, for it does not exist - there is no way that either John or Elizabeth will let you go. Of that I am certain."

As Teyla smiled over at him, Rodney couldn't help but feel buoyed by her obvious belief in him. "Now," she continued. "Let us finish our dinner and talk of more pleasant things."

The next morning came all too quickly for Rodney's liking. After their heart-to-heart, the remainder of his dinner with Teyla had been extremely pleasant and Rodney had left the commissary in a considerably lighter mood than when he had arrived. Determined not to worry about his meeting with Lambert – because, seriously, when had Rodney last worried about meeting with a colleague who was so obviously his inferior, despite his position – Rodney had resolved to return his datapads to the lab untouched and focus instead on his usual routine, getting a good night's rest in preparation for the off-world mission they had scheduled for the following afternoon.

But his dreams had had other ideas and his sleep was haunted with nightmares, each one more terrifying than the rest – the catastrophic explosion of Doranda that had killed him and John along with destroying the solar system; the dark energy creature slowly sucking the life out of each person on Atlantis, one by one, while Rodney cowered, to petrified to do anything; the super-Wraith advancing on John while Rodney stood by, watching in horror as John's life was stripped away, year by year; the Wraith armada descending on the city like marauding hordes and killing or culling everyone in their path.

He woke up as he had the two nights previously, sweating and shaking with his heart trying to pound its way out of his chest. In another repeat of the night before, he got cleaned up, dressed, and made his way down to the lab just as the first light of day was making its way across the horizon. As if his exceedingly early morning wasn't bad enough already, he found himself greeted by the decidedly unpleasant stack of datapads still where he'd dumped them on his desk before heading to his quarters. He wondered briefly about whether he should start reviewing each of his reports with a view to preparing himself for his meeting with Lambert, but then, recalling Teyla's words and his own resolutions, swept the entire mass of them into the abyss of his desk's bottom drawer and promptly slammed it firmly closed again.

"Dr McKay?" the quiet voice behind him made Rodney jump slightly as he swung around in his chair.

"Miko?" he said in surprise. "What are you doing here so early?"

Miko smiled shyly and ducked her head, her heavy glasses slipping down her nose as she did so. "I am waiting for the simulation on the scanning protocols for the sensor grid adaptations to finish running. Dr Zelenka has us running an around the clock team on this project so we can have it out there as soon as it's ready."

"Ah…" Rodney said. "Well, good… carry on."

"Of course, Dr McKay," Miko replied, but as Rodney turned back to his desk and wondered what he was going to work on for the next couple of hours before the commissary opened for breakfast, he could still feel her eyes on him.

"What?" he snapped spinning back around in irritation, only to be confronted with a startled looking Miko holding a fresh cup of coffee out to him. She squeaked in surprise and Rodney found himself moving forward quickly to steady her arm so she wouldn't splash the hot liquid all over herself.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Dr McKay!" she exclaimed, a red flush staining her cheeks.

"No, no," Rodney said, taking the cup from her still-shaking hands and trying to keep his tone level. "It's my fault for startling you," he continued awkwardly, never knowing how exactly to deal with Miko's levels of emotion.

"Please, it is for you, Dr McKay," Miko protested as Rodney tried to hand the steaming mug back to her.

"Oh, well, thank you," Rodney said and, at a loss of what else to do, took a sip.

"You're welcome," Miko said, both smiling and blushing now, as she turned to go back to her workstation on the other side of the lab.

Rodney shook his head at her departing back and took another sip of his coffee – it really was very good; hot and strong, just as he liked it. He felt the warmth bloom in his chest as he continued to drink, thinking of Miko's kind gesture along with Ronon and Teyla's reassurance. Maybe things would turn out okay after all.

The time to meet Lambert came all too soon for Rodney. He hadn't made it to breakfast in the end, but instead had drunk more coffee and eaten the muffin which had somehow appeared at his side at some point during the morning. While researching the planet to which SGA-1 were due to go that afternoon, he'd become totally engrossed. Although the specific records on the planet in the Ancient database seemed unremarkable, Rodney noticed that there appeared to be an additional file linked to the original one that appeared to be partially corrupted. He did a quick clean up on it and was surprised to find that the records seemed to suggest that there might have been an Ancient research facility somewhere on the surface at one time. Rodney had carefully picked through as much of the information as he could, but the level of corruption was still too bad to get any more detail. Smiling to himself at the prospect of a new challenge, Rodney had begun work on tweaking one of his data retrieval programs, one which would hopefully be able to recover the remainder of the entry.

"Ah, there you are, Dr McKay," came Lambert's voice, startling Rodney out of his line of code.

"Lambert," Rodney greeted shortly, glancing up briefly before returning his attention to his screen. After all, the man was here to take his job away from him; he didn't really see the point in helping speed up the process.

"So," Lambert continued, apparently unaffected by Rodney's less than helpful attitude, "Is there somewhere more private we can talk?"

Rodney rolled his eyes to himself as he put the finishing touches on the retrieval program. "Yes, of course there is," he replied as he set up the program to run on P19-J10's entry. Once it was running he got to his feet and made his way through the lab towards the smaller testing suites on the far side. Realising that Lambert wasn't with him, Rodney turned around to snap, "Well, come on then," at him before continuing.

The testing suites were used mostly by the engineers when working on prototypes and by Rodney and Radek when they were doing the preliminary checks on the smaller pieces of Ancient technology recovered by teams while off-world. However, early on in the expedition, Rodney had commandeered the last one as his own private office. He didn't use it all that often, preferring usually to work at his desk in the main lab with his colleagues, but he had found it useful at certain points in his role as CSO, particularly around the dreaded time of staff evaluations.

He opened the door and ushered Lambert in ahead of him, eager now to get this interview over and done with so he could get back to his preparations for the mission.

"Well?" Rodney asked as he took his seat behind the desk he'd had placed in the room. Besides the desk, two chairs and a mostly empty filing cabinet, the room was bare, its simple Ancient design the only thing that made it seem exotic as opposed to any other small office found in every university on Earth.

"Right," Lambert said, an expression of nervousness flashing briefly across his features before his determination of their previous encounter reasserted itself. "I take it you understand my purpose here."

"Yes, you made that abundantly clear yesterday," Rodney replied tightly.

"Yes, well, I've brought you a copy of my orders as well," Lambert continued, sliding a flash drive over to Rodney. "And I want to reassure you that I have no personal agenda here – everything that goes into my report will be included for the sole purpose of enlightening the SGC on the occurrences here on Atlantis and my actions during the course of my investigation will be motivated only by what is best for the SGC and for Earth."

Rodney couldn't withhold his snort at that. "Of course they will," he countered sarcastically. "And I'm sure that your name isn't on the top of the replacement list were you to find me unfit for my position here."

As he watched Lambert squirm in response to his jibe, Rodney felt his heart sink. So it was a foregone conclusion after all - he was looking at his replacement.

"I would never let such a thing influence my-"

"Oh, drop the act, Lambert," Rodney snapped, tired of the charade. "Just get on with it and conduct your little 'investigation'. Pry into my private files, question my staff, tear apart my reports, do whatever sordid little things you want to, just don't pretend that you're here for anybody's benefit but your own."

"I can assure you, Dr McKay," Lambert replied, his voice has hard as steel all of a sudden. "That I and those I work for only have the best interests of Earth in mind. You have proven yourself to be a liability in the past and have been promoted regardless. If circumstances have finally caught up with you, you have no one to blame but yourself."

Rodney had to work hard to hold on to his temper, doing so by the skin of his teeth. "Fine," he gritted. He reached into his pocket and slid a datapad over to Lambert. "Here are the codes which will give you access to Atlantis' computer. All of the more sensitive data is encrypted, so you'll need to speak to myself, Elizabeth or Radek if you need access. Apart from that, I suggest we stay out of each other's way." As Lambert picked up the pad, Rodney got to his feet. "Are we done?"

"I believe so," Lambert replied, hefting the pad in his hands as he smirked at Rodney. "I take it I can use this office as my base of operations?"

"Whatever," Rodney snapped as he made his way to the door. He left the office as quickly as he could, only just resisting the temptation to punch Lambert in the face.

As John made his way towards the gateroom for the afternoon's mission, he took a deep breath and deliberately relaxed his gait and blanked out his expression. This was to be SGA-1's first off-world mission since Doranda and he needed to maintain his emotional distance. He'd barely spoken two words to Rodney since their encounter at the transporter when Rodney had tried to apologise and the tension that had sprung up between Ronon and Teyla during their mission to Belka still seemed to be there – last night it had been Ronon's bantos sticks John'd had to fight hard to avoid.

To make matters worse, all morning he'd been picking up bits and pieces from various scientists about Nathan Lambert – none of it favourable. When he'd stopped by at the commissary to pick up a banana and some coffee around mid-morning, he'd overheard a horrified looking Miko describing to a group of physicists how Lambert had taken over Rodney's office and was going through all of his reports and files. Later on, at lunch, it had been a table full of engineers who had been talking – all agreeing what a colossal waste of time the interviews Lambert was setting up with every member of the Science department were going to be. They all seemed to be of the opinion that although Rodney was usually a pain in the ass, he was a downright brilliant pain in the ass who could be counted on to keep all of their asses alive.

Part of John was heartened to hear the scientists' staunch support of Rodney and his position as CSO, but at the same time he couldn't help but feel a twist of guilt that he was unable to support Rodney in the same way. Oh, he'd reported the mission as well as he could, but he simply couldn't risk going back on his decision to distance himself from Rodney. It was weakness like the emotional attachment he'd stupidly allow himself to form that had led to Doranda in the first place. No, John was far better off just being Rodney's team leader – someone who had the ability to see clearly when Rodney was getting in over his head and not be swayed by his enthusiasm and assurances that he could, in fact, do the impossible. Anything more, well, it simply wasn't worth the risk. After all, he told himself firmly, all they'd really shared were a few mutual masturbation sessions. So what if he had to go back to nothing more than the comfort of his right hand?

Forcibly turning his mind away from Rodney, John mentally started reviewing what he knew about their scheduled mission. To be honest, he wasn't really expecting all that much from P19-J10, which probably meant it would be a good first mission for his somewhat fractured team. It would most likely be a standard re-con mission, one of the thousands they'd been on since the start of the expedition. Usually John found such missions too dull – nothing but endless stretches of forest, or desert, or meadow over which he'd fly, with none of them picking up anything of interest. That said, you could never tell, not with Pegasus, and the whole team were always on their guard for the squeal of an arriving dart or the tell-tale signs of human habitation. Sometimes they were lucky – stumbling across some potentially useful pieces of Ancient technology or, arguably better, a group of people with whom they could trade and form an alliance against the Wraith. However, from the sketchy information available on P19-J10 from the Ancient database, it seemed like the planet had been uninhabited and only briefly mentioned as a possible site for a research station. Still, it was next on the list of planets with gates to be explored, so explore it they would.

John entered the jumper bay to find Teyla and Ronon already waiting, as was usual, beside the open hatch of Jumper One, both of them looking well-prepared for whatever they might find on the other side of the gate. However, what was unusual was the slight air of tension between them. John heaved an internal sigh.

"You guys alright?" he asked casually as he approached them, his banality earning him a non-committal grunt from Ronon and a raised eyebrow from Teyla. This time he sighed out loud. "Look," he said, steeling himself to actually talk to his team. "I don't know what happened between you two on Belka, but I need to know that you're going to be okay out there."

"We'll be fine," Ronon replied, turning to Teyla and nudging her slightly. "Won't we?"

Teyla looked back at Ronon, her eyebrow rising once more.

"No more surprises," Ronon continued. "You have my word."

Teyla studied Ronon for a few beats more before nodding slowly and then turning back to John. "You need not worry about us," she reassured him. "We will be fine." A frown then furrowed her brow as she looked at John even more closely. "Can the same be said for yourself and Rodney?" she asked.

John blinked, wondering for a moment if something in his expression had given him away. Then he realised that this was Teyla – she just seemed to absorb stuff like that through the ether. "Well," he drawled, attempting to regain his poise, "we'll be fine too."

"Rodney will not be fine," Teyla replied, a spark of anger flaring in her eyes. "Not unless he has the support of his friends – all their support."

"We need to get rid of Lambert," Ronon added. "Can't we just send him back to Earth?"

John reached a hand up to rub the back of his neck. "I'm afraid it doesn't work like that," he replied. "Much as I wish it did. What have you heard?"

"Nothing good," Ronon replied. "Miko's upset."

"Oh," was all John could think of to say in response to that. "Well, we'll just have to keep an eye on him, then. All of us," he finished for Teyla's benefit.

Teyla smiled serenely at him. "That is all I ask," she replied with a satisfied nod.

Just then the jumper bay doors slid open and Rodney scuttled in, looking somewhat harassed as he stuffed a bunch of technical equipment into his rucksack and muttered what sounded like obscenities under his breath.

"Well, are we ready to go?" he snapped as he looked up from his rucksack and started heading towards the jumper. "I'm more than ready to be out of the city for a while."

"Are things not going well with Dr Lambert?" Teyla asked, her expression kind as she followed Rodney up the jumper ramp.

"To put it mildly - no," Rodney replied. "The man's a sycophantic, SGC-ass kissing, imbecilic…" he trailed off and took a deep breath. "Look, just don't get me started. I just want to forget all about it for awhile, okay?"

Teyla patted Rodney on the arm as she moved past him to take her usual seat in the second row of the jumper. "I'm sure things will improve," she said as she sat down. "Just remember what we talked about."

"Hmm," Rodney snorted, looking sceptical.

"It'll be fine, McKay," Ronon said, thumping Rodney once on the back as he took his seat beside Teyla and finished menacingly, "One way or another."

"Yes, well, thanks," Rodney said, staggering slightly under Ronon's enthusiasm. He suddenly seemed to realise that the only seat open to him was the co-pilot seat where he normally sat and looked between it and John nervously for a moment, as if unsure what to do.

"Come on then, McKay," John forced himself to say, trying to keep his voice light but also professional. "Let's get going."

Rodney nodded once, still looking slightly unsure, and then scrambled into his usual seat while John took his own and powered up the jumper. The start up routine was so deeply ingrained in John's mind that he could do it in his sleep, his intimate connection with both Atlantis' and the jumper's systems meaning that he barely had to form a thought, let alone press a key, before his flight panel was already reacting to his request. As he contacted the control room and initiated the automatic processes which would take the jumper up to the gate, he tried to ignore how unusually quiet this particular mission launch was – under any other circumstances all his flight preparations would have been accompanied by Rodney's constant chatter about their mission, or the planet they were due to visit, or the stupidity of his scientists, or the quality of the food served in the commissary that day. Today, however, under the shadow of Lambert and Doranda, the jumper was uncomfortably silent. John could feel Teyla's gaze on him through the back of his chair.

"So," he said as the jumper entered the Atlantis gate's event horizon. "What are we expecting from this one? Not much according to the database, I guess." He shot a quick glance over to Rodney as he spoke.

Rodney, usually the first one answer, immediately opened his mouth but then quickly snapped it closed again in favour of rooting around in his rucksack.

"Some dacarin herds, if we're lucky," came Ronon's rumble from the rear.

John looked over towards Rodney again, certain that Ronon's comment should prompt something from him – either a quip about Ronon's caveman-like love of hunting or possibly an agreement that the commissary could do with another source of red meat. Rodney, however, remained silent, his eyes firmly focussed on his datapad as if totally oblivious to the conversation going on around him.

"Unfortunately, I do not believe that will be the case," Teyla replied. "None of my people were aware of this world, nor were any of our usual trading partners who hunt the dacarin. Maybe we will find a good crop of flaxi grain instead," she continued, her smile evident in her voice as she mentioned the oaty grain for which neither Ronon nor most of the expedition members had ever acquired a taste.

"Well, there had to be a reason for it having a stargate," John said as he piloted the jumper out of the gate in orbit around P19-J10. "Even if it was just as a food source."

"I think it's a research base." Rodney's words were so quiet that he hardly sounded like himself. "At least that's what the database seems to indicate."

"A research base?" John asked sharply before he could stop himself, looking over and pinning Rodney with a hard look. "Like…?"

"Yes," Rodney replied ducking his head closer to his datapad, his tone even softer as he answered John's unasked question. "Like Doranda." And, with his words, the uncomfortable silence descended once more as John steered the jumper into a standard orbit around the planet.

After a few tense moments, Teyla's voice came from the back. "I did not see anything about a research facility in the database," she said.

"Ah, no, you wouldn't have," Rodney answered, turning back to look at her and wave his datapad. "I discovered a linked entry to the main one that had been almost totally corrupted. I'm not surprised you didn't notice the link and, even if you had, the level of degradation the file had undergone would mean you wouldn't have been able to read it anyway."

"But you managed to," John said flatly, unsure of how exactly he felt about Rodney discovering another Ancient research facility and not telling anyone about it.

"Eventually, yes," Rodney admitted. "However before you say anything else, I didn't get the full decryption of the corrupted file until just before we were due to set off," he continued, a touch of his usual energy levels in his voice this time as he defended himself against John's unspoken censure. "In case you haven't heard, there's been quite an uproar in the Science department today."

"So what have you found out?" John prompted, unwilling to dwell on Lambert's presence while on a mission.

Rodney heaved a sigh and turned his head back down to the pad. "Well, even with the decryption algorithm, there's not much here," he said. "It's almost as if the file was corrupted on purpose."

"For what reason?" Teyla asked. "Surely the Ancients could have simply deleted the file had they wished to do so."

"Yes," Rodney agreed. "It is strange and the only reason I can think that someone would attempt to corrupt a file in this way was that if they wanted to destroy the information in it and yet make it seem like an accident rather than a actual deletion, which would indicate forethought."

"So what am I looking for?" John asked as he started to scan the planet below. "Simply any indicators of Ancient technology or can you give me something more specific?"

Rodney shot John one last worried look before turning to his jumper control console and tapping out a series of commands. "Just continue to orbit the planet," he said. "I'll take care of the scans. I'm not exactly sure what we're looking for to be honest. I mean, if the database entry was purposefully corrupted, there's every reason to think the base itself may no longer exist."

John nodded and held his course. It made sense, he supposed, although they didn't know that much about the generations of Ancients who had lived on Atlantis and throughout the Pegasus galaxy, it was reasonable to assume that, during the centuries of colonisation and the subsequent war, that bases had come and gone and ideas and weapons had been forged only later to be discarded or destroyed. The existence of the failed Arcturus weapon was just one example of that – there had to be others.

"Do you think it's another weapon?" John asked, unable to keep the question to himself regardless of the tension asking it was likely to create.

Rodney, engrossed as he was in his scans, replied easily enough, as if forgetting for the moment his nervousness. "Well, it's entirely likely. After all, I'd be surprised if Arcturus was the only prototype weapon the Ancients developed during their war with the Wraith," he said in an uncanny echoing of John's own thoughts. "Although, with practically no information to go on, it could be anything – a weapon, something to do with ascension, even another city." He paused to punch a few keys on his console before continuing. "Alternatively, whatever it was may be long gone. Hmm, can you alter your orbit by 45 degrees? I'm not picking up anything of interest here."

John steered the jumper into a new orbit pattern and ran his eyes over his own console's readouts of the planet's surface. Rodney was right; it did look like there was a whole lot of nothing down there. P19-J10 was the planet in the furthest orbit away from the system's central star and, correspondingly, the temperature even at the equator was barely above freezing. The surface seemed desolate – minimal vegetation coverage as far as the jumper's sensors could see and there were some fairly sizeable mountain ranges covering the majority of the largest continent. John was grateful that Jumper One came stocked with both cold weather gear and some basic climbing equipment – he wouldn't put it past the Ancients to build their research base in the most inhospitable region of the planet.

"I'm afraid you're out of luck, Ronon," John said. "It looks barren down there."

"As well as anything even remotely resembling an artificial energy reading," Rodney muttered to himself. "Hmm, I wonder whether this could be it…"

"What?" John asked as Rodney trailed off, his eyes flicking rapidly between the readings on his console and his datapad.

"I'm not sure – on the face of it, it looks like some naturally occurring geothermal activity," Rodney replied, still staring intently at his various screens. "But the levels… well, they're very high for a planet of this size, especially one not under the gravitational forces of a larger body."

"Well, unless you've got something else for us to check out, let's go have a look," John said as he scoped out the area Rodney had indicated and selected the best landing area before guiding the jumper down.

As he made his way through the thick snow drifts towards the faint energy signature his scanner had detected, Rodney was beginning to wonder if the mission was any better than staying on Atlantis and being subjected to Lambert's snide remarks and incessant poking into his personal project files. The sub-zero temperature was made to feel even colder by the icy wind and his thick protective gear was bulky and made it awkward to walk. Added to that was the fact that the snow reached to mid-calf level and his legs were already starting to ache from the effort required to drag himself through it. Up ahead of him, Rodney could see Ronon bull-dozing his way easily through the snow while John and Teyla also seemed to be handling the terrain with minimum fuss, each of them stepping through the drifts with graceful steps that made Rodney feel even more ungainly. He'd wasn't even sure any of them had noticed that he'd been left behind.

John had managed to land the jumper just a few hundred meters from the largest geothermal energy emission Rodney had been able to locate from orbit, despite the less than ideal weather conditions. Although the signal had been easy enough to detect from space, now that they were on the ground, Rodney was finding it increasingly difficult to pin-point the exact location of the signature's source. In fact, Rodney had an odd feeling about the mission altogether – the icy conditions on the planet numbing his extremities even through his thick gloves and boots even as the circumstances surrounding their mission numbed his mind.

To his horror, Rodney realised that part of him didn't really want to find the base – rather, it wanted this to be just a standard boring mission, one in which he would do very little save complain about the freezing temperatures and unpleasant conditions. The prospect of another mission so similar to the one to Doranda, right down to the mysterious Ancient research facility, was something with which he felt ill-prepared to cope at the moment. The realisation made Rodney stop dead in his tracks in shock, aghast that such a thing should have happened. He was a scientist, for Christ's sake – discovering things was his life, it was what he had always wanted to do, what he had sacrificed almost everything for, and was how he now defined himself. If he was no longer excited by his science, then what? What did that make him now?

"I've found something!" Ronon's shout from up ahead pulled Rodney's mind briskly back to the present and set his feet moving once more.

Rodney battled his way up to Ronon's side, squeezing in between him and Teyla to inspect a large snow-covered mound, the top of which Ronon had cleared to reveal a hatch. Running his scanner around the edges he saw the energy levels surge – whatever was inside the hatch was producing a hell of a lot more heat than the planet's distant sun. A small measure of relief surged through him – they'd found the source, he hadn't fallen at the first hurdle.

"Well?" John asked, his tone clipped.

"This looks like it," Rodney replied, lifting his head to look across the mound at John who still managed to look ridiculously attractive despite the bulky cold weather gear. "Give me a few minutes and I'll see if I can access the locking mechanism. Umm… that's if you want us to go inside?" he asked, suddenly unsure if he was over-stepping his bounds by suggesting they enter.

"Of course we're going inside, McKay," John replied, sounding slightly frustrated. "Why else would we be here?"

"Okay, I just thought that I'd, you know, check to see if-"

"Just get on with it," John ordered.

Rodney nodded sharply and then bent back over his scanner, trying to see if he could detect a network signal through the hatch. As the scan cycled through various Ancient frequencies, Rodney tried to steel himself for whatever they would find once inside the base. He had to show John that he could be trusted and the only way he could do that was by performing his job as quickly and efficiently as he knew how. To that end, he'd get them into the base, see if he could determine its primary purpose and then make his unbiased recommendations. Most important of all, he would leave the final decisions completely in John and Elizabeth's hands and keep his own excitement and ambitions to himself. He would prove to John that he was worthy of his trust.

A beep of his scanner told him that a network had been detected and Rodney was relieved to see the familiar pattern of an Ancient signal appear on the screen. It was a slightly different version than the one used on Atlantis, but was clearly recognisable nevertheless.

"I'm in," he said as he made the connection and then tried to see if any of the Atlantean command codes would gain them entry. When one particular code, the most recent one they'd uncovered in Atlantis' database, did the trick, Rodney let out a breath of relief.

"Okay," he said, gesturing for them all to step back away from the hatch. "I think I've got it." Once everyone was safely out of way, and Ronon had his blaster at the ready, Rodney activated the unlocking mechanism.

Nothing happened.

"Anytime you're ready, McKay," John drawled.

"Hmm," Rodney said, surprised as he studied his scanner readouts. "It's not just a coded lock – odd, we've not come across this level of security before." At his words, John drew his own weapon. "No, don't do that," Rodney said, motioning forward a confused looking John. "I mean, you're going to have to open the door manually at same time as I input the unlocking code electronically – whatever is in there requires us to have both an up-to-date Ancient command code and the ATA gene as well."

"Oh," John said as he re-holstered his weapon, casting a look over his shoulder to Ronon and Teyla, both of whom had their weapons at the ready in his stead. Looking back to Rodney he said, "Right, on three – one, two, three."

As Rodney activated the code, John did his super-gene thing and hefted open the hatch, the metal groaning eerily as it gave way, obviously having spent countless centuries untouched. Rodney and John both backed away as Ronon and Teyla came forward, each of them surveying the entry cautiously with their weapons at the ready.

"It appears to be clear," Teyla said as she peered down the narrow hole. "But this does not look like the main entrance."

"No, I doubt that it is," Rodney agreed, coming up to peak down into the hatch beside her. It appeared to be nothing more than a deep vertical tunnel disappearing into complete darkness, a narrow line of ladder rungs the only thing visible on the otherwise smooth surface. "This is just an outlet by which some of the geo-thermal energy, which is what this research base appears to use as an energy source, escapes. That's why I was able to locate it – the abnormal heat levels. I'm sure there is a main entrance elsewhere, but without knowing where exactly it's located, it would be almost impossible to find." He turned back to his scanner and attempted to get some further information from his connection with the base's computer. "Ah, as I suspected, this forms part of a network of maintenance tunnels which service the base's ventilation systems. We should be able to access the main portion of the facility through here."

"You getting signals that anyone else is down there, McKay?" John asked.

Double-checking his scanner, just to be on the safe side, Rodney shook his head. "No, it's just us here."

"Right then," John said as he approached the hatch. "Let's go down and take a look – I'll take point, then Rodney and Teyla with Ronon on our six."

Rodney backed away from the hole so he could secure his pack and then tucked his scanner into his jacket pocket, zipping it closed so it wouldn't fall out as they climbed down the narrow ladder, but making sure that should he have to get to it when they were half way down, he could. Not that the prospect of dangling one-handed from a thousand year old ladder quite possibly thousands of feet from solid ground held any appeal at all, but he supposed that needs must.

As John knelt down on the edge of the hatch and proceeded to swing himself gracefully onto the ladder, Rodney wiped his damp palms against his pants and tried to steady his racing heart. He wasn't overly fond of heights at the best of times and encountering them while on a mission was almost always a recipe for disaster. Still, he had to prove he was trustworthy and that included being able to follow orders on a mission with minimal fuss. As John descended smoothly, quickly disappearing from view, Rodney forced his feet into motion and he approached the edge of the tunnel trying to replicate John's easy swagger, uncomfortably aware that he was failing miserably. He hunched down awkwardly and then sat heavily in the snow, letting his feet dangle over the edge of the tunnel. He felt the fear well up inside even more as he inched himself forward, trying to gain a secure foot hold on one of the narrow ladder rungs with boots that were wet and slippery with snow. He was just about on the brink of backing away and saying he couldn't do this after all, at least not without some form of encouragement, when his gaze met John's, staring up at him for several meters below. The look on John's face was one Rodney had only seen a handful of times before – there was an openness and an uncertainty in his expression that he hardly ever let slip under normal circumstances. It was a look Rodney himself had only ever been privileged to see when he and John were entirely alone. That John would use it now, when things were in such tatters between them, confused Rodney no end.

"Come on, Rodney," John said, his voice pitched for Rodney's ears only. "Just think of all the new Ancient gizmos to be discovered down there."

Despite himself, Rodney felt his breath catch at the warmth in John's tone. On the odd occasions that he'd even encountered John over the past few days, John had been distant and dismissive of Rodney – his anger still so palpable just below the surface that Rodney had resigned himself to never hearing John say his first name again. But now, it was as if Doranda had never happened and John was cajoling Rodney like he would on any other mission.

"Yes, yes, alright," Rodney replied, allowing himself to fall easily back to their old routine. "Just don't blame me if we all fall to our deaths and are left here to mummify."

John snorted at that, a smiling pulling at his lips. "Just get in here, Rodney," he drawled.

Rodney grinned in reply, finding he now had the boost he needed to push himself away from the safety of solid ground and onto the ladder. Peering down through the rungs he saw John's grin as he started his descent once more. Releasing a deep breath, Rodney did likewise, glancing up briefly to see Teyla and then Ronon follow him down. As he started to climb, the thought did occur to him that perhaps John's behaviour towards him was nothing but a ploy to get Rodney moving and the stab of pain to his chest which accompanied that thought momentarily stole his breath. Shaking his head in an attempt to dislodge it, Rodney forced himself to keep moving. Such self-defeating ideas were not Rodney's style and he refused to give into such a way of thinking. No, he would take John's encouragement at face value and continue to do his best to behave as John would want.

The tunnel itself was cold and dark, but it turned out to be a manageable climb with the insulation of their cold weather gear and the lights from their wide-beam flashlights. Rodney quickly found that the ladder rungs had a slightly rough surface which was easy to grip with his hands and from which his feet didn't slip once. Below him, John continued to climb at an easy pace, most likely for Rodney's benefit, and Rodney was easily able to keep up.

It didn't take them anywhere near as long as Rodney had originally feared for them to reach the bottom of the ladder and they couldn't have been climbing downwards for much more than a few minutes when John called out that he could see a solid floor below. That said, Rodney was very glad to have his feet on the ground once more and he huffed out in relief as he caught his breath. The beams from their flashlights illuminated a long familiar-looking corridor and Rodney spotted a convenient control panel just a few meters down from where the ladder had ended. Having got his bearings and watched Ronon and John get started with their usual threat-assessment routine, Rodney pulled out his scanner and headed over to it, Teyla at his heels. While Teyla held up her flashlight so Rodney could see what he was doing, Rodney used the same Ancient code as he had to open the tunnel's hatch and his own ATA gene to successfully access the base's power grid.

"Hmm," he hummed to himself as he looked over the structure and settings of the system, familiarising himself with the set-up of the base. "It looks like whoever was here abandoned this place in something of a hurry – the base is powered by a self-regulating capacitor that collects geothermal energy and it's been left still connected to the main power grid."

"What does that mean?" Ronon asked as he joined Teyla in peering over Rodney's shoulder, having just completed a sweep of the corridor up ahead.

"It means," Rodney said as he connected hooked up his scanner directly to the control panel, "that I can do… this." And, with the press of a button, the corridor filled with light.

"Good work, McKay," John said, switching off his flashlight as he approached them from his own sweep of the corridor in the opposite direction. "Can you give us an idea of the layout of this place or what it was used for?"

Rodney mourned the loss of his first name, but figured that he'd just done some good trust-earning with the lights and so refused to be discouraged. "I should be able to," he replied, "just give me a minute…" He trailed off as he started searching through the complex directory of the base's central computer.

"It looks very much like Atlantis," Teyla observed as Rodney worked.

"Sure doesn't feel like it, though," John replied, the tone of his voice immediately catching Rodney's attention.

"Oh?" Rodney asked, his curiosity piqued. "How so?"

John shrugged and looked faintly embarrassed. "I'm not sure – it's kinda hard to explain. It just doesn't – I don't know – feel the same."

"Feel the same?" Rodney pressed, all thoughts of finding a map of the base temporarily gone. "What do you mean 'feel the same' – is this one of your mutant gene things?"

"Hey, if anyone's got a mutant gene, it's you," John replied. "At least mine is natural. And, yeah, maybe. You know that I have a strong connection with Atlantis – hell, I was the one who turned the lights on, remember? And I've noticed the same thing with pretty much any sophisticated piece of Ancient tech we come across – the jumpers, the control chair, the City itself – only I don't seem to have that here; at least, not in the same way."

Rodney frowned. "Do you mean that you don't have a connection with the technology here or that you do but it's different?"

John tilted his head to one side as he considered the options. "I do, but it's different," he concluded at last. "I could feel something when we opened the hatch on the surface, and again when you turned on the lights, but it just seems…" he trailed off, as struggling for the right worked, "muted."

"Muted," Rodney mused. "Odd. My first guess would be that maybe it's because the base has been abandoned for so long, but that doesn't make any sense because Atlantis had been abandoned for just as long."

"Maybe they left this place long before Atlantis," Ronon suggested. "It's not like there's anything here – even the stargate is in orbit."

"Yes, I was wondering about the stargate too," Rodney said, his surprise at Ronon's perception colouring his voice. "I mean, who builds a research base and then essentially cuts it off from everywhere else like this?" He shook his head, unable to think of a sensible reason for why the Ancients would make the only way one could leave this base was by jumper. "But we do have evidence that the Ancients were using this place not long before they abandoned Atlantis - the codes this system uses are among the most recent we've ever encountered."

"We need more info," John concluded. "How's that map coming?"

Rolling his eyes, but keeping his comments to himself, Rodney turned back to his scanner.

Rodney had found a map of the complex easily enough, but any information which could have given them a clue as to the purpose of the base remained stubbornly locked inside the computer. The base was built on fifteen levels, with the very top one still a good twenty meters below the surface of the planet and Rodney was wracking his brain in an effort to figure out whether its location, so far from the surface, was something integral to its purpose or whether it was merely in deference to the less than ideal surface conditions. However, no clear idea presented itself and Rodney knew he'd need something more to go on. It was relatively easy to identify what was clearly the base's command centre and so the team had made their way through a bewildering network of corridors to find it.

Rodney found travelling through the abandoned base fairly disquieting. It looked so much like the corridors of Atlantis that it was downright unnerving to sense none of the hustle and bustle that now filled their city. Their footfalls seemed to echo loudly as they walked through the empty corridors and the lack of large windows looking out onto a sparkling ocean made Rodney feel distinctly claustrophobic. At least, now that he had reactivated the hibernating power grid, their route was fully lit and the doors and transporters slid open automatically at their touch. Still, Rodney was beginning to see what John meant by saying that it didn't feel like Atlantis. In fact, it felt very different indeed – colder, less welcoming, more secretive.

Emotive reactions aside, the secrecy and level of security around the base was preying heavily on Rodney's mind. All the other Ancient ruins they'd encountered – from Doranda to Atlantis herself – had all been relatively easy to access, even for non-ATA carriers. It was only when they'd come across specific and potentially dangerous devices - like the control chair and the jumpers - that the ATA gene became a necessity. The fact that they'd needed it just to gain entry to this base was ominous, to say the least.

"Right, just up ahead should be the control room," Rodney said as they reached the end of yet another long corridor.

John nodded and lengthened his stride as he turned the corner, his hand reaching automatically for his weapon as he approached the door at the far end.

"I'm still not detecting any life-signs," Rodney said. "Not from my scanner nor through the base's own security network."

"Doesn't hurt to be careful," John replied, motioning for them to take up positions either side of the door.

Rodney shrugged, exchanged his scanner for his handgun and pressed himself up against the wall next to Teyla, inwardly berating himself for his mistake – he needed to think less like a scientist and more like a soldier.

John sent them all a look of warning and then swiped his hand over the control crystal to open the door. Once again, nothing happened. John looked over at Rodney, who quickly exchanged handgun for scanner and investigated the door's locking mechanism.

"It's like the hatch," he said. "It requires both ATA-activation and a specific command code."

John tilted his head, as if to say 'well, go on then,' so Rodney sent through the command code that had granted them access to everything so far. John once again swiped his hand over the control crystal and the doors slowly slid open to reveal the room beyond.

They entered the room cautiously, John and Teyla taking the lead as Ronon and Rodney followed behind. Like so much else on the base, the room looked familiar and alien at one and the same time – its layout was spookily reminiscent of Atlantis, but as opposed to lighting in welcome as they entered, it remained dark and silent. While the rest of the team fanned out across the room, Rodney quickly made his way over to one of the computer stations. He managed to get the lights working fairly quickly and then set about activating various terminal screens in an effort to figure out what operations were conducted from the room. As he made his way down one bank of terminals and then over to the other, he called out the various systems to which each was calibrated specifically.

"Weapons, sensors and internal security, air, water and life-support, the power grid and geothermal capacitor, the orbital gate." It wasn't until he reached final terminal, one that was tucked away in the far corner of the room, that he came across a system he couldn't immediately recognise. "Huh," he said, leaning closer to the terminal and trying to make out the various readings it displayed upon activation.

"You got something there?" John asked from the other side of the room.

"Yes, maybe," Rodney answered in a distracted manner. "It's nothing I'm immediately familiar with, so I'm going to need some time."

"Okay then," John said. "Ronon, I want you to stay here with McKay while he does his thing. Teyla and I'll do a quick scout around the rest of the base in the meantime.

Rodney's head came up at the unusual arrangement – typically it was he and John who were paired together and, despite everything, he had still expected John to be the one to stay with him, even if he was just there to make sure Rodney could be 'trusted'. Then he suddenly remembered what was odd about this particular research base – the need for the gene – and John's orders made sense.

Ronon grunted his agreement and crossed over to Rodney, hefting himself up so that he was sitting on the terminal next to Rodney's. Rodney glared at him briefly, but otherwise remained silent.

"Right then," John said. "Stay in regular contact – we'll check in every 20 minutes and aim to be back here within an hour."

As John and Teyla left the room, Rodney flashed Ronon a quick glance before turning back to his screen. As he called up its directory, he was surprised to see that the terminal appeared to be connected to several of the base's other systems – the power grid, the weapons array and the orbital gate in particular. The first connection wasn't all that unusual, but Rodney was confused as to what would necessitate such direct connections with both the base's weapons system and its stargate, especially as the main terminals for each were only a few steps away. As he probed yet deeper, he next uncovered a vast database – one so big it rivalled the size of the database on Atlantis. Yet, instead of the largest files holding detailed information concerning each of the planets with a stargate in Pegasus, this database contained a whole host of other information. There were thousands schematics of the stargate, all showing slightly different configurations, hundreds of blueprints of a ZPM, which, interestingly, the base did not have, as well as many of what must be the base's own geothermal capacitor, reams of astronomical observations and details about P19-J10's solar system, and finally the most detailed plot Rodney had ever seen of the Pegasus galaxy. As a whole, the database was utterly amazing and Rodney had absolutely no idea what it could possibly all be for.

Engrossed as he was, the time seemed to fly and it came as quite a shock to Rodney to hear John's voice once more.

"Well, there's not much else out there apart from about a million science labs and some living quarters," John reported as he and Teyla entered the room. "We did manage to uncover the armoury, but it was pretty much depleted."

"Well, that's probably partially down to the war with the Wraith," Rodney replied. "And also the fact that there appears to be a weapons platform somewhere in orbit." He gestured towards the appropriate terminal, "I'm not yet sure why they would use an orbital launch pad as opposed to the ground-based Chair and drone set-up we've seen everywhere else, but that does seem to be the way the Ancients chose to defend this base."

"Odd," John said. "We'll have to see if we can locate it when we leave, see if there's anything salvageable left. The only other thing of interest we found was the power generator – located in a room very much like the ZPM room in Atlantis."

Rodney nodded. "Yes, that makes sense. Again, I'm not sure quite why this base doesn't have a ZPM, but it appears as through the geothermal energy from the planet's core provides the power for the base and whatever it was the Ancients did here."

At Rodney's words, John frowned. "So how's it coming here?" he asked.

Rodney shook his head slowly. "Not all that well I'm afraid," he admitted softly. He looked back down at the huge amount of information still scrolling over the terminal's screens and sighed. "There's just an absolutely incredible amount of data held on this terminal, as well as connections to many of the other main systems of the base – the stargate and power generator included." Looking back up towards John, Rodney steeled himself for the look of utter disappointment he was sure he'd see on John's face. On the one hand he was certain that whatever this terminal did, that was the purpose for the base, but on the other hand, he still had no idea what exactly that was.

"So, you don't know what this base's original purpose was?" John asked, his expression worryingly blank.

"No," Rodney agreed, forcing himself to be brutally honest and resisting the urge to add on some sort of reassurance as to how he was certain he'd be able to figure it out. "I mean, I'm fairly sure this terminal holds the key – it has access to an amazing amount of data and a bizarre selection of the base's other systems but so far there's been no clear reason as to why."

"Do you need more time?" came John's response, as if expecting Rodney's usual request when he was unable to come up with an answer right away.

Rodney glanced back at the terminal and tried to work out what would be the best thing to do. What he wanted to do, of course, was spend some more time here completing his assessment of the terminals content and then trying to decipher its actual function. However, he was no longer sure that he should express his opinion. To earn back John's trust, he needed to think of the bigger picture – to assess whether or not staying and continuing to work would really be the best use of the whole team's time. After all, he couldn't be certain that he'd be able to work out what the terminal did… Rodney suppressed a sigh and rubbed at the ache that was starting to form between his eyes – he couldn't work by second guessing himself either. Radek's advice came back to him – you were arrogant and you would not listen. Perhaps it is on this character flaw that you should be working.

"I need more time and another pair of eyes," he said, studying the terminal with an assessing eye.

"McKay, if you need more time here, you can just say so," John said, looking a little exasperated.

"No, no, I don't think I do," Rodney replied, his mind whirring now with possibilities. "Actually, I think I can probably pull the hard drive and a few other things from this terminal and take it all back to Atlantis with me. As long as I have a detailed overview of the terminal's various connections, I could even recreate this set-up back in my lab if needs be – after all, we have pretty much the same set-up on Atlantis."

John was still looking at him sceptically, but Rodney held his gaze, determined to show John that he could both do his job fully and think strategically in the field on behalf of the team as a whole.

"Okay," John agreed at last. "Take what you need and let's get out of here."

By the time SGA-1 finally returned to Atlantis, after Rodney had seemingly completely disassembled the terminal he'd been working on and once John had located the shielded orbital weapons array, which had proven to be disappointingly, but not unsurprisingly, depleted of drones, John was feeling decidedly off-kilter. It wasn't that the mission hadn't gone well – the fact that they had got off the planet without any incident whatsoever was enough to make it a success in John's mind – but rather that the whole thing had… well, it had just felt wrong somehow.

John pondered his reaction as the team made their way up to the conference room to de-brief with Elizabeth, trying to decide if his misgivings were concrete enough to voice in his official capacity. Now that he thought about it, from the moment he had climbed inside the tunnel leading down to the facility his gut had told him that something was off. As he considered this realisation, the thought did flash through his mind that the whole 'off' feeling had really started in the jumper bay with Ronon and Teyla's concerns and Rodney's muted arrival, but John was determined not to dwell on that. No, his feelings once they were inside the base were definitely unconnected to Rodney. Definitely.

Yet, despite this, John found his gaze finding its way over to Rodney more often than was strictly necessary over the course of the debriefing. Rodney still seemed subdued and out-of-sorts, not at all as John would have expected him to be with the prospect of a lab full of Ancient gadgets just waiting to be investigated once the de-brief was finished. He answered all of Elizabeth's questions, but without showing any of his usual enthusiasm nor did he press for any particular course of action. Rather, he politely asked whether Elizabeth would like for him and Radek to proceed with their investigation of the terminal and, when she agreed, merely nodded once and settled back into his chair with the promise of delivering daily progress reports. All in all, it was most unsettling and, as the team filed out of the conference room at the end of the meeting, John lingered, knowing that Elizabeth would probably want a word with him.

As he'd expected, once the door had slid closed behind Ronon, Elizabeth sighed and turned to John, an eyebrow arched in inquiry.

John shrugged in response and lounged back further into his chair. "McKay?" he asked and, at Elizabeth's nod, continued, "What can I say? He was like that all through the mission."

Elizabeth's look turned even more disbelieving and she shook her head. "We need to keep an eye on him, John," she said. "Particularly now – I've been hearing disturbing things from the scientists all day about the… thoroughness of Dr Lambert's investigation."

"Oh?" John said, sitting a little straighter in his chair. "What exactly? I mean, I caught a few things before we left, but Rodney didn't talk about it during the mission at all."

"Well, he was probably glad to get away," Elizabeth replied. "What I've heard – and none of this is official, by the way, just the odd comment I've come across here and there – is that Lambert has pulled the files of every project Rodney has led on since we arrived and is going through them with a fine-toothed comb. He's also put together an interview schedule for all scientific staff and requested that they submit written reports on their experiences of working under Rodney's leadership prior to their allotted interview time."

"God, Lambert and the SGC are really going all out over this," John said, shocked at the length at which the SGC seemed determined to go to investigate Rodney. "You think they're really trying to oust him?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I don't know for sure, but this does have all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt," she said, the line between her eyebrows deepening as she spoke. "I wouldn't be surprised if he moves on to requesting Rodney's mission reports next. And I'm sure your team will be getting interview times as well."

"To hell with that," John muttered under his breath. "I'm going to go talk to him," he decided quickly, idly wondering whether Ronon would be interested in accompanying him. "Lambert, I mean," he clarified at Elizabeth's questioning look. "See if I can get him to pull back on some of his tactics – we don't need this kind of thing disrupting the expedition, not so soon after facing off against that Wraith armada."

"I agree with you completely John, but do please be careful," Elizabeth cautioned, the tension on her face dissipating only slightly. "The last thing I need is to have both of my senior officers under investigation. I can't afford to lose Rodney, let alone lose you both."

"Don't worry," John said, his tone firm. "You won't be losing either of us. I promise."

As John left the conference room with Elizabeth, he noticed that Ronon and Teyla were still in the command centre, standing close together and talking in quiet undertones. It was good to see them together in such a natural way after their rather uncomfortable interaction in the jumper bay that morning, but he'd known even then that he could count on Teyla to get things sorted out. Unsurprisingly, Rodney had already disappeared - most likely to his lab John figured, only to realise with a slight pang that perhaps Rodney's lab was no longer the sanctuary it had been in the past. Yeah, he definitely needed to pay Lambert a visit.

As he made his way down the stairs towards the transporters, Teyla met John's eye and tilted her head in a manner which indicated that John should join them. As he approached, Ronon leant over and said something to Teyla, who promptly elbowed him sharply in the ribs as John came within ear-shot.

"Glad to see you guys seem to be getting along better," John said by way of opening, hoping to put off whatever the two of them had planned - John didn't quite trust the glint in Teyla's eyes or Ronon's smirk.

"Of course, John," Teyla replied with a smile. "Having disharmony between friends is always counter-productive," she continued with an innocent expression.

Yeah, definitely not to be trusted. "Well, I'm glad to hear it," John replied, edging towards the transporters and safety.

"In fact, Ronon and I were just going to head to the commissary for some tea before returning to our quarters. Perhaps you would care to join us?" Teyla asked. Although her tone was exceedingly amiable, there was no doubting the fact that John had very little choice in the matter.

"Sure, why not," John agreed easily, motioning for Teyla to enter the transporter ahead of him.

"Good choice, Sheppard," Ronon muttered to him as they both turned to follow. "You can only hold out for so long against her." It sounded like he was talking from bitter experience.

"Figured that one out already, have you?" John asked with an amused smile. A grunt was Ronon's only reply.

The commissary was fairly empty when they arrived - it was as yet too early for dinner, yet too late for the usual mid-afternoon break. John spotted a couple of marines who'd just been off-world with SGA-4 and, surprisingly enough, there were also a few scientists, sitting deep in conversation at a far table over three large pots of coffee. John knew it was unusual to see members of the Science department in the commissary at this time, most of them either preferring to work through the day or to take their breaks in the department itself, where Rodney had somehow managed to ensure that the coffee was of a far better quality than could be found anywhere else in the city. With an internal sigh, John supposed that time would tell how worrying a sign their presence here was.

"Why don't you and Ronon have a seat while I get the tea," Teyla suggested as she moved across the room towards the kitchens. "I believe there is a particular blend Sergeant Morris has set aside for me to try."

"O-kay," John replied, eyeing her suspiciously for a moment before following Ronon over to their usual table by the window. When Ronon shot him a surprisingly nervous-looking glance over his shoulder, John suddenly realised what was going on. "So you got the short straw," he said as he took the seat opposite Ronon.

"Don't know what you're talking about, Sheppard," Ronon replied with a shrug, but the odd look was still there.

"Of course you don't," John said sarcastically, slouching down in his chair and wondering just what kind of 'talk' Teyla had blackmailed Ronon into giving. As far as he'd been able to make out, Ronon was as loathe as he was to discuss personal matters – he certainly didn't look particularly eager to start up a conversation at the moment - so John decided to simply sit back and wait Ronon out. After all, he was sure there was only so long that Teyla could dither about making tea.

For a few minutes, neither of them said a word. Ronon sat in silence, glaring down at the table top, and John found that he was quite happy for the silence to continue. However, after a while Ronon heaved a sigh and looked up at John, practically pinning John to the seat with the weight of his gaze.

"So, what are you going to do about things?" Ronon asked directly.

John cocked his head to one side as he debated how to play this one. "What things would those be exactly?" he asked at last, unable to keep the slight edge from his voice.

"Don't play dumb with me, Sheppard," Ronon replied, matching John's tone edge for edge. "You know what I'm talking about."

"No, I really don't," John snapped back, a little surprised by the vehemence in his tone. From Ronon's raised eyebrow, John's tone hadn't gone unnoticed by him either.

John closed his eyes briefly, trying to reign in his temper. Why was it that whenever he thought about the situation with Rodney – for there was no doubt that that was the topic of Ronon and Teyla's little 'intervention' – he felt like he couldn't keep a lid on his anger? Calling on his well-honed instincts, John carefully separated his emotional reactions from the conversation and opened his eyes again, looking back at Ronon with what he hoped was a neutral expression.

"Look," he said, trying to explain the situation as simply as he could. "You're talking about this thing with Rodney." Ronon opened his mouth to say something, but John ploughed on, determined to have his say. "I know there's a problem there - I was on that mission too, but there's really not a lot I can do about it."

Ronon crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow at John as if to say 'Oh, really?'.

"So he's being a bit more cautious about things? Well, maybe he needs to be. What happened on Doranda was a fucking nightmare and now we've got the SGC breathing down our necks and thinking that we can't do our jobs – we simply can't afford to have something like that happen again."

Ronon slowly uncrossed his arms, shaking his head as he leant forward over the table towards John, his expression intent. "How can you still not get it, Sheppard? After all your time here?" he asked, his tone coloured with disbelief. "You've seen what the Wraith have done to this galaxy – millions killed, billions homeless – how can the destruction of a dead solar system possibly measure up to even the smallest chance that we could finally beat them? That we could finally be safe and our children allowed to live without fear?"

John stared back at Ronon in complete shock, taken aback at the raw honesty on Ronon's face and in his voice. Ronon hardly ever talked about Sateda, but John had no doubt who and what he was picturing as he spoke. And he was right, of course. John had known it all along – it was why he had backed Rodney all the way. Because he had seen what the Wraith were capable of– had watched as a vital young man was turned into a hollow husk before his eyes, his life worth nothing more to the Wraith than a quick meal, had seen the haunted look in a mother's eyes as she stared at the spot where her daughter had stood only seconds before she'd been taken in the burst of light of a culling beam, had ushered the homeless through a stargate in their thousands as they'd tried to find a new place to call home. And he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, where the war would lead them – more armadas turning up on their doorstep, more last-ditch attempts to save the city, more suicide missions. And, finally, the day would come when their luck would run out and they'd be unable to hold back the attacking hives. Atlantis would fall and, in her wake, so too would Earth.

"You're right," John replied hoarsely, once he could find his voice. "I know you're right, but that's not all there is. He… well, he and I…" he shook his head, at a loss of how to explain without giving too much away. "It's complicated, that's all."

"What? Because you're fucking him?" Ronon asked bluntly, making a dismissive gesture with his hand.

The shock of Ronon's words hit John like a tidal wave and the force of it had him rocking back in his seat. For a moment his brain froze – he didn't think anyone had known – and he could nothing more than stare back at Ronon in abject horror. He glanced quickly around the commissary in something akin to panic, part of him assessing how likely it would be he could make it to the door before Ronon caught up with him and part of him taking note of the fact they were almost entirely alone. Suddenly he realised that Ronon had continued to speak.

"I don't think that's got anything to do with it," Ronon was saying, acting as if he hadn't just pulled the ground out from under John's feet. "You did what you always do – you trusted him to do his best, just as you trust me to do mine." There Ronon paused again, the brief interlude allowing John to attempt to regain his bearings. "But we're all human, Sheppard, – you, me, McKay, even Teyla – and we sometimes get things wrong."

Even through the cloud of shock still surrounding him, John realised that Ronon was referring to something wider here than just Rodney's actions on Doranda. Feeling another set of eyes upon him, he turned his head to meet Teyla's kind gaze. She carefully placed the tray she was carrying onto the table, pressing a warm cup of tea into John's hand as she took her seat.

"Rodney will learn from his mistake," she said softly, her gaze flicking briefly to Ronon before turning back to John. "Just as we all have learned from ours, but we can't let one mistake take everything away from us."

And, suddenly, what they were both trying to say got through to John. It didn't matter what he and Rodney were or were not doing with each other, what mattered is whether, at the time, their decisions in connection to their mission had been the correct ones. If the Arcturus project had lived up to its claims, then their problem with the Wraith would have been well and truly over. And, if John had to pick the one person he thought best able to pull off completing the project, then it would have been Rodney McKay. Things had spiralled out of control, there was no doubting that, and he still believed that Rodney had deserved the dressing down he'd received from Elizabeth, as expedition leader, and from himself, as team leader. But did he deserve more than that? Did he deserve Lambert's arrival under the auspices of the SGC to pour over his work and pick holes in his every decision? Like he was some kind of criminal?

They'd all made mistakes… "I woke up the Wraith," John said, his voice little more than a whisper as he considered how he would feel had the SGC been able to wade in at that point and meddle with the expedition. He would have lost not only his career once and for all but, with it, Atlantis.

"No, you didn't," Teyla countered at once just as Ronon said, "From what I hear, you were doing your job, looking out for your men. It's what you do."

John sighed and rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling his conscience prickle along the skin there. Because wasn't that what he and Rodney had both been doing on Doranda? Their jobs? Trying their best to find something that would make the expedition and, with it, the whole galaxy safer? Yes, things had got out of hand and yes, Rodney did need to learn the merits of listening to other people, but was that kind of mistake something over which he should lose his career and Atlantis their CSO?

"And now the SGC are gunning for McKay's head," Ronon said, his voice breaking into John's train of thought. John looked up to see Ronon staring back at him with expectation and anticipation in his eyes. "So, what are we going to do about that?" he asked.

John nodded slowly in agreement with Ronon's suggestion that something needed to be done. "We're going to go get cleaned up and then we're going to go pay Lambert a little visit," he replied, his voice steady. "That's what we're going to do."

To his intense annoyance, Rodney felt his stomach twist in unease as he made his way down to the Science lab after the de-briefing, something for which he berated himself. He was Atlantis' CSO, not Lambert, and as long as that remained the case, he refused to be intimidated in his own domain. He quashed the little voice that whispered that the time he held the CSO position may well be nearly over and instead he tried to dredge up at least a little of his old confidence and bravado. Sadly, it was not all that forthcoming, the loss of faith of both John and Elizabeth had hit him hard and with the whole Lambert thing on top of that, Rodney was finding it harder and harder to play his usual role of arrogant genius.

In fact, he hadn't realised how much of a role it actually was until the whole Arcturus mess had blown up in his face, literally. Of course, he'd known most of his bluster stemmed from his inherent character traits, his natural intelligence, and the fact that he was usually miles ahead of his colleagues in terms of basic physical understanding, but with his ability to actually understand physics under question from both within and outside Atlantis, he found himself on decidedly shaky ground. Never before had there really been the any need for him to truly question how he approached his work. Even after he'd been up-staged by Samantha Carter at Cheyenne Mountain, he'd still been able to hold on to his belief that he was the better scientist because, when it came down to the basic science, he had been right. A situation which was demonstrably not the case with Doranda.

And now he was faced with another Ancient base and another mystery Ancient device and, this time, he had to deal with it not only in the shadow of Doranda, but also when surrounded by people who no longer trusted him. He'd dealt with disbelief before, and from far more illustrious scientists than Lambert, but it had never truly mattered because he'd known that he was right and that they were wrong. This time, he no longer had that certainty to sustain him and, perhaps more importantly, this time he actually cared what the people around him thought. Oh, not Lambert or any of the other idiots that the SGC laughingly called scientists, but Elizabeth… and John. The loss of their trust cut him to the quick; he felt ashamed, humiliated and intensely guilty for letting them down.

All of which explained his behaviour on the mission and during the de-briefing. He hadn't missed the weight of John's gaze on him during the meeting nor the questioning look Elizabeth had sent to him and then John upon the its conclusion, but he just couldn't bring himself to actually explain out loud what he was trying to do. At first, he had thought that it would be hard to reign in his tongue and let the others, all of whom were far less qualified than he, to make the decisions concerning the device, but it had actually proven to be easy. All Rodney'd had to do was think about the cold look in John's eyes as he told Rodney that he would have to earn back his trust and whatever pointed remark that had been on the tip of Rodney's tongue had disappeared. That, combined with his new concerns over whether or not he was as brilliant as he had always believed himself to be, had led to his new behaviour – a behaviour through which he hoped he could earn back the regard of the people most important to him. So, he would work with Radek and the other scientists and listen to their views so that he could provide Elizabeth and John with all the facts, un-coloured by his own prejudices or unproven beliefs, and he would abide by their decisions.

As he approached the lab doors, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, determined not to give any ground to Lambert despite his new resolve to work in a more trustworthy manner. As the door slid open and he entered, he was struck by the atmosphere in the lab. It was the time of the day when people were starting to wrap up their projects and the place was usually buzzing with quiet conversation, only occasionally broken by the odd expletive, as people exchanged ideas and discussed their progress. Today, however, there was almost complete silence and Rodney's entrance was met only by a few wide-eyed stares.

Rodney looked around with a frown, trying to locate Radek, but his desk was unusually empty.

"Dr McKay," a voice called, and Rodney turned to meet Miko's tremulous gaze.

"Yes?" Rodney asked. "What's going on in here? Where's Radek and why is everyone looking so spooked?"

Miko blinked, her eyes looking distinctly watery magnified as they were by the thick lenses of her glasses. Rodney resisted the urge to back up a pace and willed her silently not to burst into tears. To his intense relief, she seemed to get herself under control as she replied. "Dr Zelenka is with… Dr Lambert," she said, stumbling a little over the name and casting a nervous glance towards the room Lambert had co-opted as his office. "The rest of us, we are waiting to be called in to speak to him - to Dr Lambert - probably tomorrow," she finished, glancing at her watch.

"Oh," was all that Rodney could say as he tried to that information. He hadn't realised that Lambert would move on to questioning his people quite so soon. It was… disturbing.

Obviously having picked up on his distress, Miko wrung her hands in dismay, before brightening slightly. "And the equipment you brought back from your mission has arrived," she said, directing Rodney's attention towards the various circuit boards, control panels, crystals and routing devices he'd extracted from the terminal on P19-J10's. "There was something of interest there?"

Rodney latched onto the proffered change of subject like a life-line and determined to get to work at once – it would help him take his mind off about what exactly Lambert was grilling Radek. "Yes, yes, there was." He was just about to brush Miko off, perhaps with a request for a cup of coffee, in order to get to work on reassembling the device, when he remembered his new way of working. So instead he said, "You can come and give me a hand with it, if you've got the time."

As Miko nodded and her face flushed with pleasure at being included in this new project, Rodney glanced around the rest of the lab to see who else was still about and might be of use. "Roberts, Brodski," he called out, motioning the engineer and the IT specialist over, "You don't look like you're doing anything particularly useful, get over here."

By the time the doors to Lambert's 'office' slid opened and Radek emerged, Rodney and his team had managed to get most of the terminal back into working order. They'd managed to rebuild the inner circuitry almost entirely, bar the outer casing of course, and were on the brink of actually attempting to bring the terminal partially online by the use of a small naquadah generator; Rodney had no intention of connecting it to the city's central power grid until he knew the thing was stable.

"Ah, Dr McKay, you have returned from your mission," Lambert commented as he followed Radek out into the main lab.

"Obviously," Rodney retorted. "How very observant of you." He cast Radek a quick glance, but Radek's face was smooth and impassive, giving not clue as to how his 'meeting' with Lambert had gone. "Are you done with grilling my staff for the day?" he asked Lambert.

Lambert smiled back unpleasantly. "For the day, yes," he replied as he moved forward to inspect the terminal, peering over Miko's shoulder at the pad she had connected to one of its control panels. "And what have we here?" he asked.

Miko bit her lip and turned towards Rodney, her eyes imploring him to deal with Lambert's question. Rodney rolled his eyes, but capitulated, not entirely happy with the idea of Lambert bullying his staff, at least not more than he'd done already.

"It's a terminal from the control room of an Ancient research base we discovered on P19-J10," he replied succinctly.

"I see," Lambert replied, slowly circling the device. "And what does it do?"

"We're not sure yet," Rodney said, gesturing towards the various laptops, cables, crystals, datapads, and other assorted tools scattered around the terminal. "That's why we're here."

"I see," Lambert repeated, his tone deceptively mild. "And you felt the need to bring it back to Atlantis for what purpose?"

Rodney felt his patience beginning to crack, but willed himself to stay calm. "To find out what it does, obviously," he replied through gritted teeth.

Lambert raised an eyebrow and pulled out a pad. "Interesting," was all he said as he started tapping away with his stylus.

"Oh, don't get your panties in a twist," Rodney snapped, irritated that the man would think so little of him. "The terminal is as yet unconnected to a power supply and is completely isolated from any of the city's systems." Lambert opened his mouth to say something, but Rodney continued on regardless. "Furthermore, I have the express permission of both Atlantis' commander and chief military officer to pursue this investigation and a highly qualified team of people working on it." He tilted his chin up towards Lambert in challenge. "All in accordance with SGC protocols, I think you'll find."

"Hmph," Lambert huffed, continuing to make a few more annotations on his pad. As he tapped out one final key, Lambert looked up. "Might I have a quick word with you in private, Dr McKay?" he asked, all professional politeness now.

Rodney felt his eyes narrow and had the oddest impulse to reach for his now-discarded handgun. "Of course," he forced himself to reply, starting to get to his feet from where he was sitting in the floor beside the terminal. He looked over the rest of his scientists and then up to Radek. "Get Radek up to speed on what we've been doing," he said, "and then let's call it a night; we'll reconvene tomorrow morning." At the nodding of their heads, Rodney started to follow Lambert towards the office, remembering at the last moment to turn around once more to add, "And thank you… for your help."

Rodney entered what he supposed had become Lambert's office, aware of the bemused looks of his colleagues and Radek's bright-eyed smile. To his surprise, he actually found that he'd enjoyed the time he'd spent working with Miko, Roberts and Brodski. Having a team of people to bounce ideas off of was invigorating, especially when Rodney was actually making an effort to listen to their ideas rather than letting them ramble away while he worked on his own theories as to what the next step should be taken next. Of course, it had taken a while for them all to relax and realise that Rodney was genuinely asking for their opinions and their help, but after that had sunk in, they'd made really promising progress. Huh, Rodney thought to himself, maybe Radek was right and something useful was coming out of Doranda after all.

Or, then again, maybe not he amended sombrely watching Lambert cross over to sit behind what had been Rodney's desk, regardless of the fact that Rodney hardly ever used it, and indicated that Rodney should sit in the chair opposite. Biting his tongue to keep from remarking that he refused to be treated like some errant schoolboy, Rodney sat, crossing his arms over his chest and deploying his best 'And just what do you want, moron?' glare.

To Rodney's intense irritation, Lambert ignored his glare and instead spent several minutes checking through something on his computer screen, a tactic no doubt designed to intimidate Rodney. However, Rodney had more than enough experience of intimidation tactics far worse than merely being ignored, so he sat there in silence idly pondering how Lambert would have fared under the blade of a Genii knife. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant way to pass the time.

"So, Dr McKay," Lambert started at last, sending Rodney a fake and slightly patronising smile as he spoke. "I have spent the day reviewing your official reports as Atlantis' CSO, which of course I had access to prior to my arrival, and comparing them with the lab reports made by you and your colleagues and, I have to say, that these have raised some fairly serious issues."

"Yes, well, life in Pegasus is 'fairly serious'," Rodney replied, refusing to be intimidated by the man. He had nothing to fear, he told himself sternly, sure the lab reports contained substantially more details about each of the projects on which the Science department had worked, but that was only to be expected. It was no different to any other lab anywhere else – where lab books contained the minutia of each experiment and annual progress reports contained the overall results.

"Of course it is," Lambert replied, his tone becoming increasingly patronising. "And yet my concerns pertain not to the nature of your department's work, but rather to your management of it."

He's showing his teeth already then, is he? Rodney thought to himself, a little taken aback to find himself under attack quite so soon. Still, he'd known that this was coming and what was it Teyla had said? That there was more to what he did for Atlantis that could possibly be recorded in data files and mission reports – he had saved lives here, many of them, time and time again. And that was not his arrogance talking, it was simply the truth.

"And what precisely is wrong with my 'management'?" Rodney asked through gritted teeth. "Because, as far as I can tell, my 'management' has been largely responsible for the Science department effectively dealing with any and all threats encountered by our teams and to the city. In fact, we recently played a major role in defeating a Wraith armada that was attacking the city intent on finding a way to Earth – perhaps you came across that particular report prior to your arrival?"

"There is no need to get defensive, Dr McKay," Lambert replied snidely. "I am well aware of your record, but that doesn't change the fact that there are countless examples of where your reckless behaviour and lack of correct scientific understanding has led to catastrophic results. Why, within mere days of your arrival on the city, you were already 'experimenting' – and I use the term loosely here – with pieces of Ancient technology you did knew nothing about! And with the expedition's military commander, no less. There is no possible excuse for such reckless behaviour, regardless of whatever may have occurred afterwards."

Rodney opened his mouth, prepared to argue his case, but then closed it once again. There was no point, he realised. He would never convince Lambert that his choices at the time had been the right ones, no matter which mission or experiment was in question. Lambert had made up his mind about Rodney before he'd even set foot on Atlantis and was now just waiting, in Rodney's office no less, for his chance to take over the rest of the department. A small part of Rodney would have liked to see him try to act as Atlantis' CSO. If Rodney, with his years of detailed research on Ancient technology, had found life in Pegasus a challenge beyond anything he'd as yet experienced, he had no doubt that the realities of life out here would eat Lambert alive, particularly if he kept up with is 'by the book' way of doing things.

"Whatever," he said at last, weary of the argument. "You've already made up your mind and nothing I say is going to make a difference."

"To the contrary," Lambert replied, looking horrified that Rodney would dare suggest such a thing. "My investigation is going to be completely thorough and entirely unbiased: your reports, actions and their consequences speak for themselves, Dr McKay."

God, I do hope so, Rodney thought to himself, but pushed the thought aside: Lambert just didn't understand, it was as simple as that. Instead, he turned his attention to the other issue that was concerning him. "And my staff?" he asked. "When will you be through harassing them?"

"I am not harassing them, I am simply doing my job," Lambert replied with a sniff. "However, I should have completed my interviews of the Science staff in the next couple of days. I'll then start to pull together my final report of your performance."

"Wonderful," Rodney commented sarcastically. "You will keep me informed?"

"After I have collected and reviewed all the evidence, I will interview you before making my final recommendations to the SGC," Lambert replied seriously. "My report is, of course, confidential, but I have no doubt you and Dr Weir will be notified of the SGC's decision in due course."

"I'm sure it will," Rodney muttered in an undertone. "Are we done here? Because I'm sure there are more interesting things I could be wasting my time doing."

By the time John made it down to the Science department, he thought he'd left things too late. As the main doors slid open, it appeared that the entire place was deserted; only the blue tinge of the odd computer screen illuminating the room.

"So where's Lambert?" a deep voice asked from somewhere behind him.

At the sound of the unexpected voice, John whirled around and ducked down on instinct, his hand reaching automatically for his empty holster. "Shit, big guy, a little warning?!" he exclaimed once he spotted Ronon.

Ronon shrugged and entered the room properly. "You're skittish tonight, Sheppard," he commented. "Spoiling for a fight?" This last was asked with a wide toothy grin.

"Something like that," John muttered, turning around once more to make sure that the lab was empty.

"Ah, Colonel Sheppard," a new voice said and Radek's head popped into view from behind what looked like the terminal Rodney had dismantled during their mission. "You are looking for Rodney, yes?"

"Um, yes," John replied, still somewhat taken off guard by Radek's sudden appearance. "Is that the terminal from P19-J10?"

"Yes," Radek replied with a nod, standing up properly and coming out from behind the terminal. "Rodney and a team have been working on it – it is a most fascinating piece of equipment."

"You've got it working, then?" John asked, surprised that Rodney hadn't informed him.

"Ah, no," Radek replied, looking down at the terminal with a small frown. "In fact, it has only just been re-assembled; there is much work to do on it yet before we are ready to attempt an activation."

"So where's McKay?" Ronon asked, obviously bored with the current conversation, which, John had to admit, was going nowhere.

Radek cast a glance towards one of the small testing labs at the back of the room, the one John knew Rodney used as his very occasional office. "He is talking to Lambert," he replied, his expression wrinkling with distaste as he said the man's name. Radek looked over at John, his eyes serious, "It is not right, what Lambert is doing," he continued. "He has already decided that Rodney should go and will not listen to anything I say."

"You've spoken to him?" John asked, his unease building with every second as he realised that Lambert could be saying anything to Rodney in that room.

"Yes, he 'interviewed' me not long ago," Radek replied. "He has gone through Rodney's mission reports and the lab's record books, building a case to show that Rodney is unfit to run this department." Radek took off his glasses and polished the lenses on his shirt as he shook his head. "He does not understand what it is like to work under these conditions – that we usually do not have the time to follows the so-called correct procedures or run the number of simulations that we would do were we working under laboratory conditions. He will make a case for Rodney's dismissal, of that I am sure," he concluded with a sigh, sliding his glasses back up his nose. "And the expedition will suffer for it; Rodney is far from perfect, but he is the best person to run this department – even I, who have seen and worked with Rodney at his very worst, know this to be true."

John nodded, wondering quite why a military organisation like the SGC would choose to send an untried civilian in to assess what was essentially a man working in a combat situation. Although Rodney might be a civilian scientist, he was also a senior officer of an expedition that was at war. A war in which thousands, if not millions, had already fought and died and of which Atlantis was on the front line.

"Yeah, that's pretty much what we've heard," John said, keeping his tone even in an effort to calm Radek.

"Don't worry, we're gonna talk to Lambert," Ronon added.

Just then, the door to the small lab opened and a truly pissed looking Rodney stormed out. His cheeks were flushed red and his mouth was twisted downwards at one end and John had the immediate urge to go up to into the office and beat the holy crap out of Lambert. He took a deep breath and blanked out the emotion. When Rodney spotted them standing by the terminal with Radek, he ground to a halt and his eyes widened in surprise. His gaze flicked from John to Ronon to Radek to the terminal and then back to John again; he heaved a deep sigh, shaking his head as if to say 'what now?'.

"Is there a problem?" he snapped instead.

"No," John replied just as Ronon growled, "Yes."

Rodney blinked and his confusion intensified. "Look," he said, sounding exasperated. "It's late and I've had a god-awful day, so whatever it is, just get on with it."

"Don't sweat, McKay," Ronon said, stepping forward as if to head towards the room Rodney had just left. "It's not your problem, it's Lambert's." He turned his head back to John, "You coming?"

"Yeah, just hang on a minute though," John replied, turning to look at Rodney. "You alright?" he asked, noting again the slight widening in surprise of Rodney's eyes in response to his query, but needing to know the answer all the same – he was Rodney's team leader, after all, and part of that involved looking out for his team's well-being.

"Yeah," Rodney said, but his tone was resigned. "It's just… difficult," he said, tilting his head backwards to indicate towards the office where Lambert now sat.

"He giving you grief?" Ronon asked, stepping closer as he heard Rodney's response.

Rodney lifted a hand to rub it across his face, a gesture John recognised as one Rodney only performed during times of acute stress. "No more than I expected… or deserve, I suppose," he replied at last, the resignation in his tone tearing at something fragile inside John. "He was just informing me of how he intends to pursue his investigation." The last word was spat out in a tone of utter disgust.

"And?" John prompted when Rodney didn't continue.

"And what?" Rodney asked, his anger and frustration evident. "And he's going to go through every mission, experiment and report, just looking for errors! And he's going to interview all the Science staff, trying his best to stir up trouble! And, at the end of it all, I'm going to end up back where I started – all but abandoned in Siberia with nothing by a few nuts and bolts to play with. If I'm lucky, that is."

"Rodney, it's not going to come to that," John tried to reassure him, shocked at the vehemence in Rodney's tone and the horrified at the realisation that what Elizabeth had feared might well come to pass. 'Not if I have anything to do with it,' he added silently. "We need you here."

"Hmm," Rodney snorted. "Well, I wish I shared your confidence, but it isn't your decision."

"He is a very unpleasant man," Radek said suddenly, shaking his head and looking as angry as John thought he'd ever seen him. "And his physics? Bah, it is very ordinary – not at all what we would want for our lab."

Rodney let out a snort of laughter at Radek's comment. "Oh, I agree completely," he said, his mouth twisting upwards for just a second before falling once more. "But, again, not your decision either. The powers that be reside at the SGC, I'm afraid, no matter what any of us may think."

"The SGC aren't here," Ronon said, entering the conversation properly for the first time. "We are." He thumped Rodney on the back once and turned towards John, raising an eyebrow.

"We're going to have a word with Lambert," John said. "I want to hear firsthand what he's got planned."

Rodney tilted his head to one side, as if considering this, looking somewhat unsure for reasons John couldn't design. Then he shrugged resignedly. "Go right ahead," was all he said.

"Right then," John said, nodding to Rodney before passing by Ronon and heading to the office Lambert had co-opted. He paused at the threshold for a moment before opening the door, turning to glance back at the tableau behind him – Rodney staring sightlessly at the reconstructed Ancient terminal with Radek looking on, an expression of sad helplessness on his face.

Deciding to play things courteously to begin with, John overrode his initial impulse just to use his gene to open the door without permission and instead swiped his hand over the door chime. Lambert's voice barked a sharp command to enter and John looked back at Ronon and raised an eyebrow at the tone. "A bit full of himself, isn't he," he said and watched Ronon's mouth widen into an evil grin.

"I had thought we were done for the evening, Dr- Oh," Lambert said, breaking off in surprise when he looked up to see John and Ronon lounging carelessly on either side of the doorjamb. "Colonel Sheppard and…"

"Specialist Dex," John filled in for him, pushing himself away from the frame to amble into the office. He took the seat opposite Lambert and turned his head to watch in amusement as Ronon entered the room just enough to allow the door to slide closed behind him before taking up a position directly in front of it with his arms crossed over his chest and his stance wide. John turned back to Lambert, who was looking decidedly nervous and started to think that this might be quite a bit of fun.

"Specialist Dex, of course," Lambert repeated, nodding to each of them. "What… ah… What can I do for you?"

"We won't take up too much of your time," John said, slouching back and regarding Lambert with a cool gaze. "We're just here to see how things are… progressing with your investigation. From a military standpoint, of course," he added with what he hoped came across as a polite smile.

"Oh, well," Lambert said, glancing down at his laptop for a moment before looking back up at Ronon and John. "It is going well, although I have only just begun, Colonel," he continued, some of the confidence he'd displayed in Elizabeth's office coming back into his voice and expression as he talked. "And I can assure you that I will be keeping Dr Weir fully informed of my progress."

"I'm sure you will," John replied easily, leaning forward slightly in his chair to look Lambert straight in the eye. "But I expect you to keep me informed as well."

"This is not a military matter, Colonel," Lambert said firmly. "Rodney McKay is a civilian contractor and, as such, his case does not concern you in the slightest."

"Dr McKay," John replied, emphasising Rodney's title as he spoke and calling upon every ounce of his admittedly short reserve of diplomatic skills, "is Atlantis' CSO and, as such, he, his work and his department directly interface with the military operations of the expedition. Furthermore, he is a member of my off-world team – our premier off-world team. Both of these things make 'his case' very much my concern."

Lambert's eyes narrowed slightly as he regarded John with undisguised interest. "Is that so?" Lambert said.

John had a brief flash of worry that maybe he'd gone too far in stressing his interest in Rodney's case, but he quickly quashed it. "Yes, it is," he gritted, holding his ground, refusing to be intimidated by some upstart scientist who wouldn't have the first clue with how to deal with the things Rodney faced on a daily basis.

"I see," Lambert said, leaning back in his chair and tilting his head back. "And what is Specialist Dex's role here?"

John heard Ronon take a step forward in response to Lambert's question and internally willed him not to over-react. "He's on my team," Ronon replied, his voice low and a touch menacing. "He's saved my life many times over and I am in his debt."

John had to suppress a grin at the flash of fear that crossed Lambert's face as Ronon's words. "I… ah… I see," he stuttered. "Um… Well, I…"

"Your investigation," John prompted.

"Ah, yes, that," Lambert said, quickly dropping his gaze to study his screen with apparent intensity. "Well, as I've already informed Dr McKay, my investigation will consist of reviewing his lab reports, mission logs, and interviews with his staff-"

"And his team," John interjected.


"His team – us," Ronon clarified as John nodded in agreement.

"Yeah," John said, reaching out to tap his finger against Lambert's screen. "We're probably the people who work with Rodney the most and, of course, you'll want our views on his performance as well."

"Ah, well, you see," Lambert prevaricated. "My investigation is concentrating more on Dr McKay's scientific-"

"Exactly," John said with a nod. "Precisely his role on SGA-1 – a role, might I add, that he performs admirably. I'm sure I speak for both myself and Dr Weir when I say that having a CSO who is adept at off-world missions is vital to our expedition."

"Yes, well, I know I speak for the SGC when I say that a CSO who destroys entire solar systems, along with a priceless Ancient research base is certainly not considered to be vital to anything." Lambert replied back, his cheeks flushing with anger.

John realised that the time for playing nice was over - Radek was right, Lambert, and quite possibly the SGC as well, had already made up their minds about Rodney's fate - it was time to show that he too meant business. He leant forward, slowly and deliberately, bracing his forearms on the desktop as he looked Lambert straight in the eye, knowing that all pretence of amiability was now stripped from his face. "Rodney McKay was acting in the best interests of this expedition when he conducted his work on Doranda," he said, "And he had the full support of both myself and Dr Weir. There's one thing you just don't understand here, Lambert, and that is that we are at war. Even the slightest chance that the Arcturus weapon could be made functional was worth taking." John watched in satisfaction as Lambert's eyes widened in fear and he sat further back in his seat as though trying to escape John's penetrating stare. "At war with an enemy you and the SGC can't even begin to imagine. You think that the Goa'uld are bad? That the Ori pose a threat? Well, think again - the Wraith won't just stop at domination and enslavement - they won't stop until we are extinct." John shook his head in disgust and motioned towards Lambert's computer. "Your investigation," he continued, "is a waste of time and effort because there is nothing here worthy of investigation."

Lambert appeared at a loss for words as John finished speaking, his expression both shocked and intimidated - just the reaction John had been looking for. John nodded to himself and then slowly got to his feet. "We'll leave you to think that over," he said, turning and starting for the door, catching Ronon's eye as he passed.

"Colonel," Lambert's voice halted John at the threshold and he turned back to see what Lambert could possibly have to say for himself. "You and Rodney McKay are close, are you not?" Lambert asked lightly and John felt a twist of unease at the calculating gleam in his eyes. "Have you stopped to consider that perhaps you are letting your… friendship cloud your judgement? After all, from what I have seen of your record, it wouldn't be the first time you allowed you emotions to overrule your training or your orders, now would it?"

At Lambert's words, John's mind clouded over with rage - the type of which had led to the death of over 60 Genii soldiers. In fact, it was only Ronon's firm grip on his arm that stopped John going back into the room and beating Lambert into a bloody pulp. As it was, he was forcibly held in place and it was Ronon who turned back to Lambert to reply.

"You have no idea what you're talking about," Ronon said, his anger evident in his tone. "Go back to Earth and your precious SGC - you don't have what it takes to survive out here and you certainly have no right to judge those of us who do what we must so that we can."

"You alright, Sheppard?"

Ronon's voice startled John out of his thoughts. After their conversation with Lambert, and Ronon's parting shot, John had left the Science lab in a semi-daze. He'd entered into the conversation with the intention of getting Lambert to back off and give Rodney and his people a bit of breathing room, but had left it with the distinct impression that he was the one being suffocated.

At first it had been Lambert's insinuation that there was more between him and Rodney than was appropriate for either a working relationship or a friendship which had disturbed John. After all, Ronon – and therefore, by extension, Teyla – had worked out that there was something going on between them. But then he'd come to his senses and realised that there was no way Lambert could possibly have come to that conclusion. No, that wasn't what was really bothering him – it was more subtle than that…

How the hell had Lambert gotten hold of his record?

That was the right question, and it had been running in a continuous cycle ever since his mind had it upon it. His military record was confidential – as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Stargate Program, it should only be open to the highest ranking officials in either the US Military or the IOA. There was just no way that a civilian scientist like Lambert should have access to it, no matter what the true extent of his SGC-commissioned investigation.

John looked up from where he'd been staring vacantly out into the ocean. Ronon was standing at the balcony entrance, regarding John with a thoughtful look on his face.

John turned and rubbed at the back of his neck with his hand, wondering whether his suspicions were substantial enough to share. "Something's off with Lambert," he said at last.

"Yeah," Ronon agreed, coming to stand beside John. "He's way too confident."

John nodded, relieved that Ronon had picked up on that too. "Too confident and he knows too much as well. This is looking more and more like something the SGC have had planned for some time."

"So what do we do?" Ronon asked.

And that was precisely the question with which John had been wrestling. "Unfortunately there's not a lot we can do for now," he admitted reluctantly. "We need to keep an eye on him, that's for sure. I'll speak to Radek; see if we can get some feedback from people after he's interviewed them. Maybe get copies of whatever files he's accessed as well. Maybe we can put together some kind of defence for whatever crap he'll end up putting in his report to the SGC."

Ronon nodded and for a moment both of them remained silent, lost in thought. This was the kind of mission neither of them usually had the patience for – both infinitely preferring a quick strike during the heart of battle as opposed to this creeping around in the background while someone else was in the firing line. John's stomach clenched at just the thought of having to hold back and not act as Lambert continued to build a case against one of his own… against Rodney in particular.

"And what about McKay?" Ronon asked suddenly, looking over at John with a sly grin as if he'd been reading John's thoughts.

John's eyes narrowed as he wondered whether Ronon had been getting lessons from Teyla. He should have seen this coming, he realised, ever since Ronon's 'fucking' comment in the commissary. Wondering whether he could put Ronon off, he shrugged nonchalantly. "What about him?" he asked.

Ronon's bark of laughter was unexpected. "You're a real piece of work, Sheppard," Ronon said once his laughter had abated. "You don't want to face things with McKay, then fine. Just don't be surprised when they come back to bite you on the ass later."

John shook his head, looking over at Ronon, knowing that his confusion must be showing in his face.

"He needs you," Ronon said. "Especially now. I get that you think there's some kind of problem with you fucking each other, but that-"

"I don't think there's a problem with it," John cut in angrily, furious that Ronon was sticking his nose into something he couldn't possibly understand. "I know there's a problem with it. I fucked up, Ronon – can't you see that? I fucked up badly precisely because I was fucking him! I let him have his way when I should have held him back because I was too damn stupid to see that I had got too close. And that's what's landed him in this mess with Lambert and the SGC!"

"That's utter crap, Sheppard," Ronon replied. "You supported him because you believed in him and there's nothing wrong with that – it's what you have to do when you've been fighting at someone's side for so long."

John made a sound of frustration and shoved a hand through his hair. "But how do I know that for sure?" he asked. "And how is that any better? Yes, I trusted him, yes, I believed him when he said he could make the weapon work, but he couldn't," he continued urgently, willing Ronon to understand his turmoil and his guilt. "And I didn't see that until it was almost too late. Don't you get it? I didn't see it! It's my job to look out for him – for all of you – and I failed!"

"No, you didn't," Ronon answered calmly. "You did your job – you trusted him when you should and you stopped him when you needed to. And you both got out – that sounds like a win to me."

John shook his head, understanding Ronon's words but still unable to square them with the emotions he could feel roiling inside him.

"You need to talk to him, Sheppard," Ronon said quietly after awhile. "It's the only way you're ever going to get any peace."

John heard him leave then and turned back towards the ocean, staring out into the night and wondering, for probably the millionth time, just how things could go all to hell so damn quickly.

Rodney spent another night tossing and turning in his bed, his dreams alternating between weird Siberian-esque landscapes through which he tried to run, feeling utterly alone and abandoned, and horrific Atlantean disaster situations, in which the terminal he'd brought back to the city and reactivated turned out to be some insidious Wraith plot to gain access to the city. He woke up with a start, his heart pounding and with his sheets twisted uncomfortably around his middle and restraining his legs – which probably explained why the last image he could recall from his dream was hanging helpless in a Wraith cocoon as a feeding hand descended.

As he sat up in bed, battling his way out from the entangling sheets and trying to scrub the last vestiges of his nightmares out of his eyes, Rodney realised that his real life at the moment held just as many threats - the biggest of which was some arrogant know-it-all from the SGC who seemed intent on taking his job and the loss of… Rodney pushed himself out of bed with a groan. No, he wouldn't allow himself to think of John – not now, when he was still so shaken. As he washed and dressed, Rodney tried to separate all thoughts of John and Lambert from his conscious mind and instead concentrate on the intriguing terminal that was waiting for him in his lab.

They had really made good progress – him, Miko, Brodski and Roberts - the evening before and, with Radek on board as well, Rodney fully expected them to have the terminal up and running before the end of the day. However, as this thought crossed Rodney's mind, he paused for a moment to examine it, wondering if he was perhaps being too hasty in his assumptions. After all, a hasty set of calculations and too much enthusiasm on his part was what had landed him in this mess to start with…

The sound of his door chime jerked Rodney out of his spiralling thoughts and he frowned as he looked at the time. It was only a little past 6am and he was surprised that anyone would come to find him at such an early hour. It obviously wasn't an emergency – his radio would have gone off long before had that been the case – but he also wasn't generally known as someone who would be awake at this time… at least, not if he wasn't in the lab.

"Teyla?" he said in surprise as his door slid open.

"Good morning, Rodney," Teyla greeted him, her smile bright but her eyes concerned as she looked him over.

Rodney winced, knowing exactly how sleep-deprived he looked, and waved her into the room. "Come in," he said, turning away to pour himself a cup of coffee and gesturing with his mug to ask Teyla if she would like one. "Is anything wrong?"

Teyla shook her head to the coffee and then said, "No, nothing is wrong, I was just concerned about you." She came over to stand beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "You do not look well, Rodney."

"Yeah, I know," he said with a sigh, taking a big mouthful of coffee, willing the caffeine to enter his bloodstream as fast as possible. "I haven't been sleeping very well."

Teyla nodded sympathetically. "It is a difficult time," she said. "How is the situation with Dr Lambert?"

"Not good, to put it mildly," Rodney admitted, pulling a face as he sank down into one of his chairs and gestured towards the other. "He's interviewing the rest of the Science staff today, he did Radek last night." The very thought of Lambert questioning his people, and actively seeking out things that would lead to his dismissal, made his blood boil.

"Ah, but this is good news, Rodney," Teyla said with a smile as she took the seat opposite him, her words so diametrically opposite to his own thoughts that they made Rodney blink. "You have done wonderful work with the Science department," she continued, "and I know that many of them speak highly of you."

Rodney frowned and thought about that as he took another sip of coffee. "Well, some of them do," he said at last, thinking back to Miko's actions of the day before. "But others…" he shrugged as he trailed off, his mind automatically recalling the scene of Collins' horrific death with a pang of guilt, not to mention the deaths of Gaul and Abrams – all of which had occurred on his watch. Then there was his sparkling personality to consider… "Yeah, well, let's just say I'm not really anyone's idea of the perfect boss," he concluded with a sigh.

"But they have worked with you for over a year now, Rodney," Teyla argued. "They trust you and your ability as a scientist."

Although he knew that Teyla's words were meant to be encouraging, Rodney felt an abject sense of failure well up inside him. His 'ability as a scientist'… yeah, right…

"Rodney," Teyla's voice interrupted his downward spiral. "Rodney, enough," she said firmly and Rodney realised that she must have been calling his name for some time. "This is also the reason I am here – you must not allow your negative thoughts to distress you so much."

Rodney snorted. "Easy for you to say – your job isn't on the line and your best friend is still talking to you." The last slipped out before he could stop it.

"Oh, Rodney," Teyla replied, her eyes clouding over with sadness. "Yes, there is also your relationship with John."

"What relationship?" Rodney snapped, suddenly angered by his inability to keep anything to himself. "He's hardly speaking to me."

Teyla tilted her head to one side as she considered that. "He was speaking to you during the mission yesterday," she said slowly. "And he was speaking of you last night at dinner – he is very concerned about Dr Lambert's investigation."

"I'm sure he is," Rodney replied bitterly. "And with good reason – he's about to lose an at least somewhat competent CSO – the destruction of the solar systems aside – and get that… that… idiot in return." He sighed and shook his head. "As much as I'd like to believe that John is acting on my behalf, I can't continue to fool myself about what he wants - he's looking out for the expedition, just like he always does, that's all."

"Rodney, you are too harsh on him… and yourself," Teyla said, shaking her head. "As I said before, he will come around – I am sure if it. Now, there was a reason I came here this morning."

"Oh?" Rodney asked, still sceptical of Teyla's words but intrigued now as to why she would come by his quarters so very early in the morning. That and he was also keen to steer the conversation away from the painful topic of John Sheppard.

"Yes," she said, standing up and motioning for him to do likewise. "I think it is time for a… what was it Kate calls it? Ah, yes, an intervention."

"A what?" Rodney said, taking a step back.

"I think you are in need of some support and I am here to provide it," Teyla replied with what Rodney could only assume was supposed to be a reassuring smile. "I have found that, in times of intense difficulties, many of my people have sought peace in karyi."

"Kar-what?" he asked, wondering whether Teyla would let him get away with backing away from her.

"Karyi," Teyla repeated patiently. "It is a simple form of meditation, one often used by soldiers before going into battle, for it calms and focuses both the body and the spirit."

"I see," Rodney said slowly, only then taking in Teyla's outfit – a pair of long loose fitting trousers and a floating tunic top. "And you want me to…"

"I believe it will help you greatly, Rodney," Teyla said. "And I would be honoured if you would agree to be my partner for the next few weeks. I usually meditate with Kate, but she is currently on leave back on Earth so…"

Ah, of course, Rodney thought to himself, Kate Heightmeyer – that explained where Teyla was getting all the 'negative thoughts' and 'intervention' mumbo-jumbo. "Well, I…" he prevaricated, not particularly keen on mediation, but equally unwilling to say so to Teyla. "Alright," he conceded at last when no handy excuse came readily to mind. "Where do we do this kary thing then anyway?"

To Rodney's complete surprise, he left the gym an hour later feeling more awake than he had in days. In addition to guiding him through the first few stages of the karyi meditation process, Teyla had also helped him do some light stretching to ease the ache in his lower back that always seemed to intensify during times of stress. As a result, Rodney felt refreshed, relaxed and just better pretty much all round.

He made his way down to the lab with a slight spring to his step, something that had not been there for days. It was as if the meditation and stretching had allowed him to clear his mind of all the negative thoughts that had been clouding his every waking, and sleeping, hour and that now he could again see the positive. Yes, Doranda had been a disaster, but it was one amongst many the expedition as a whole had both suffered and, more importantly, survived since coming to Pegasus. He just needed to take what lessons could be learned from it and move on. And, if certain other people were unable to do the same, well, that was just their problem.

As things stood, he was still Atlantis' CSO and was, surely, still the most qualified person for the job – apart, maybe, from Sam Carter, but somehow he couldn't see her upping sticks and moving to Pegasus. Lambert was a mediocre scientist and a SGC pencil-pusher who, quite frankly, wasn't worth his time. Rodney had no doubt that he could run rings around Lambert, both mentally and physically.

As he turned the final corner towards the main lab, he heard footsteps behind him and turned to find Radek heading in the same direction.

"Good morning, Rodney," Radek greeted him, quickening his pace to reach Rodney's side. "You are looking better this morning."

"Hmm," Rodney agreed with a nod. "And you?"

"I am not so bad either," Radek replied with a smile as they entered the lab together. "I spent some time with the terminal after you left last night."

"And?" Rodney asked, curious to know what Radek thought so they could compare ideas.

"And it is quite astounding – so much information." Radek shook his head in amazement, his expression echoing exactly what Rodney had felt when he'd first realised the sheer amount of data the terminal stored. "It is a lot of crystals, no?"

Rodney grinned and nodded – there had been a lot, far more than in any other single piece of Ancient equipment he'd encountered and it was exhilarating to just think about the wealth of knowledge stored on each one, let alone on the combined bunch.

"Did you notice how they're all interfaced?" Rodney asked, feeling his excitement rise as he crossed over to the terminal and hunched down so he could peer into its interior. "Each one perfectly aligned with the others to increase their processing power exponentially." He turned back to smirk at Radek, "Brodski was speechless."

"And the connections with other systems," Radek said, nodding eagerly as he came to stand by Rodney's side. "Power systems, weapons, even the stargate - truly amazing." Radek's awe coloured his tone. "And yet its purpose is still unclear."

"For now," Rodney agreed. "But that will change," he concluded with a sudden burst of confidence. He stood back up again, noticing with pleasure that his back didn't protest his action nearly as much as usual, and started doing a slow circuit around the terminal, inspecting the progress they'd made in reconstructing it. "Hmm, well we've still got a fair bit of work to do before it's in anywhere near working order," he concluded at last. "But it should be do-able by…" he paused briefly to check his watch, pleased to note that it had only just gone 7.30, "by lunchtime if we're lucky."

"Yes," Radek agreed. "So where do you want me to begin?"

"Well," Rodney considered. "I think I'll go back to working on the data crystal matrix and, when they arrive, Roberts and Brodski can continue looking at the system interfaces. I think I'm going to get Miko to run some preliminary simulations as to how we'd work at actually integrating the terminal with the city and then start with the system modelling, so-"

"So I will work on the power modules, yes?" Radek concluded, his eyes sparkling.

"Exactly," Rodney said. "Let's get to work."

By the time Rodney's stomach started to complain that it had had nothing since a hastily eaten powerbar on the way down to the lab, they'd made even better progress than Rodney had hoped. From her desk next to the terminal, Miko was making encouraging sounding noises about the compatibility of the terminal with Atlantis' systems and Roberts and Brodski had just finished their final test of the terminal's network which would allow it to interface with the external systems it apparently needed to be fully functional. Rodney glanced over to where Radek was hunched over one of the portable power modules to see that he was in the final stages of reconfiguring it to interface with the terminal. Rodney's own work on the crystal matrix was complete and a green light was now blinking on his datapad indicating the structure and its interfaces were secure.

Leaving the others to finish off the final parts of their jobs, Rodney got to his feet and moved over to the coffee pot. His stomach rumbled again and a glance at his watch told him it was indeed lunchtime. As he gazed around the rest of the lab, he saw that the rest of his staff was hard at work. The sensor algorithm project that Radek had been leading, with Miko's assistance, had now been passed over to the software engineers for application and there were a cluster of them gathered around one of the access points to the CPU. A couple of desks were empty where scientists attached to teams were currently off-world and in one of the small testing labs, Rodney could see Morris and Kavanagh working on a number of the Ancient devices SGA-6's archaeologists had brought from a mission the week before.

Of course, now that his gaze was on the row of testing labs, it was drawn, entirely without his volition, to the room where Lambert now sat, questioning Rodney's people. The combination of Teyla's early morning meditation and stretching routine and the work on the terminal had been successful in distracting Rodney's attention from Lambert's activity thus far. He'd been vaguely aware when Lambert had entered the lab, mostly because of the marked drop in the ambient noise level, but then a particularly complicated set of crystals had recaptured his attention. Now, however, even his hot cup of freshly brewed coffee wasn't enough to distract him from the knowledge of what Lambert was doing – slowly but surely destroying Rodney's career and, with it, taking away his home.

It was then that the reality of the situation truly hit Rodney – it was a real possibility that he could lose all of this. The thought was unimaginable – to leave here, to leave his city and its people would be… well, beyond anything. With a start, Rodney realised that he'd never truly cared before where he'd been based – he'd happily moved from Northwestern to Area 51 to Cheyenne Mountain without hardly a thought; it had all been part and parcel of his job and he'd never understood why some of his colleagues resented the constant changes and lack of permanence. Even the move to Siberia hadn't had that great an impact on him – if anything, it had been his professional pride that had suffered as opposed to any real attachment he'd formed to the SGC or the people he'd met there.

Atlantis, however, would be a different matter. Just the thought of never waking up here again, of never again being able to look out onto the Lantean ocean and walk through rooms that responded to his mere presence, was almost painful. And even worse was the prospect of never being able to work here again. Although Rodney still felt deeply affected by what had happened with the Arcturus weapon, his work on the terminal with his team at his side had re-invigorated his passion. This was what he loved to do. Being Atlantis' CSO, running the Science department, overseeing his people's work at the same time as driving his own projects, going on off-world missions and playing a major role in the most basic survival of the expedition and the people of Pegasus had become his passion and his drive - the perfect role for his genius, his determination and his commitment.

And then there were the people here; from the most casual of acquaintances he shared with some of his colleagues to the deep friendships he'd formed with the likes of Teyla, Radek, Carson and Elizabeth, the whole experience had come as a complete surprise to Rodney, and it had proven to be by no means an unpleasant one. Quite the opposite in fact. So leaving them… well, it would be hard.

Rodney took another sip of coffee, all too aware of where his mind was going to go next: John. Now, things with him were rather more complicated. They were friends, yes, and as such Rodney would miss him, more keenly than even Carson and Radek, but they were something more than that too. Or had been. They'd never talked about their relationship, not that that was surprising given John's marked avoidance of anything even nearly bordering on personal and Rodney's general ineptitude in that area, but even when their pursuits had grown from chess and films to encompass blow-jobs and other things of that nature, neither of them had remarked on it. Rodney because he was too afraid of saying something stupid which would end things between them and John because… well, because he was John.

Of course, Rodney had been happy with the change, deliriously so – John was everything he could ever want, handsome, charming, and not entirely stupid – but a part of him had always wondered what John had seen in him. He knew he wasn't entirely unattractive, but his belly was softer than he would have liked and anything physical had never been his strong suit. He also knew that his intelligence was a point in his favour, but he'd found that in the past, his somewhat abrasive personality had driven away more potential partners than it had attracted. However, none of that had seemed to matter to John. In fact, he'd delighted in Rodney's sharp tongue and enjoyed getting a rise out of him almost as much as Rodney enjoyed putting John in his place whenever he took things too far.

At least, none of it had mattered until Doranda and then, suddenly, everything that had all previously been a very visible part of Rodney – his intelligence, his arrogance, his enthusiasm and belief in himself and his abilities – all of which John knew and which, despite all the odds, he also seemed to find attractive - had ultimately become what had driven him away. Rodney wondered that whether, were he to leave Atlantis for good, leaving John now would be harder than it would be to remain here and see John everyday knowing exactly what he had lost.

It wasn't a question to which Rodney wanted the answer. When it came down to it, he loved Atlantis and everything about the city – its people as well as its promise for scientific discovery – and suddenly he knew that he was going to fight to stay here. If Lambert really wanted Rodney gone, he'd soon discover that he was going to have a hell of a fight on his hands because there was no way Rodney was going to go easily.

Mind made up, Rodney nodded firmly to himself and then started back over to the terminal. He wasn't going to let what had happened on Doranda hold him back; instead, he was going to do as Radek had suggested and learn from the mistakes he had made. Looking down at the team working on the terminal, he realised he'd already made that all important first step.

"There," Roberts said, sitting back from where he'd been wedged partially inside the terminal with a sigh. "I think we're done."

Next to him, Brodski checked his pad one last time before offering it up to Rodney. "Yup, all the connections are looking good. Do you want to take a look?" he asked.

Part of Rodney wanted to reach out and take the pad and then check the matrixes they'd been working on himself, but he managed to stop himself in time. "No," he said shaking his head. "You're both happy with them?" he asked and both men nodded. "And you've run all the appropriate tests?" Again there were two nods in response. "Then you're done – we'll see when we do our first power-up whether or not that is really the case."

"I am also done, Dr McKay," Miko said, looking up from her computer screen and pushing her large glasses back up her nose with a forefinger. "The changes I've implemented will allow us to fully integrate the terminal with Atlantis' CPU and so give it access to the other systems it is designed to work with. I've also completed the designs of the weapons and stargate system simulations so that we can test the terminal fully without having to integrate it those systems quite yet."

"Excellent," Rodney replied. He turned to look at Radek to find him grinning back at him with an approving twinkle in his eye, his tools neatly put away and one of his power modules already hooked up to the terminal. Rodney rolled his eyes, which only prompted more twinkling, and shook his head in exasperation. Instead of even attempting to engage in whatever Radek was thinking, Rodney decided it was time to listen to his stomach. "Right," he said to the group as a whole, "Lunch."

When John entered the commissary that lunchtime, he did so without the trepidation from which he'd suffered for the past few days. His conversation with Ronon the night before had raised some serious issues – ones that John had been hoping he would never have to address. Ronon's apparent insistence that he talk things through with Rodney, a view he was certain was shared by, if indeed it had not originated with, Teyla, was certainly something he didn't want to do. God, he and Rodney hadn't talked about things like that even when everything had been going well, so there was no way he was going to do so now that they weren't.

To his chagrin, John's thoughts reminded him of just how well things had been going with Rodney for awhile – the easy conversations, the lack of pressure to do any of the sorts of relationship-y type stuff that had always made him so uncomfortable in the past, the sex… Yes, the sex – that was definitely something he was missing. It was hard to go back to just the comfort of his hand when not long ago he'd been able to indulge himself in much more satisfying bodily pursuits. But as much as he missed Rodney's hot kisses, eager mouth and welcoming body, he was finding he was missing Rodney as a whole even more – his presence, his personality, and his friendship. Their relationship, John had come to realise, had never been about just the sex or even just the friendship, it had been a package deal. And that was, perhaps, the most disturbing thing about it.

John shook his head as he joined to queue and picked up a sandwich, some chips and a bottle of water. A quick glance around the room showed that he could easily have found someone to sit with while he ate – the popular tables on the balcony and along the windows were, as usual, busy. However, he ended up wandering to a table to one side of the food line instead, where he could sit on his own. He'd spent the morning surrounded by people – first in a meeting with Lorne and the other SGA team leaders going over mission protocols and other primarily military matters and then in a training session with the marines – and now felt the need for a bit of solitude. As he sat down and picked up his sandwich, he wondered just how he was going to get out of this mess of personal issues in which he seemed to have become embroiled.

As he took a bite and chewed carefully, he started to debate his options. That he wanted to get his friendship with Rodney back was not in question. Although he still believed, despite whatever Ronon might say, that his judgement had been compromised by pursuing an intimate relationship with Rodney, the stark truth was that he missed Rodney – as a friend and not just as a fuck-buddy – and that he wanted that friendship back. But did he really need to actually talk to Rodney about his feelings in order to do so? John shuddered at the thought and crushed a potato chip into his plate with his finger and a satisfying crunch. What he wanted was for things to just snap back into place – for him to be able to be friends with Rodney without having to go through the painful process of actually explaining his motivations. The more John thought about that idea, the more it appealed. After all, it wasn't like Rodney was the most emotionally open of people either – sure, he showed his emotions more than John did and it was always ridiculously easy to tell from his face exactly what he was thinking, but in terms of actively dealing with his emotions? No; in that Rodney was no different from John.

So maybe that was the answer – that they simply not talk about it. Rodney had seemed okay enough when John had interacted with him on the mission; he had seemed surprised, but in that slightly shocked yet still delighted way he had. Now that he thought about it, it was the look that he'd had the first time that John had kissed him - the one that had always made John want to… John broke that thought off abruptly – those kind of thoughts were definitely a no go area, regardless of what might happen to their friendship.

The sounds of a loud group of people entering the commissary drew John's attention away from his thoughts and over to the door as he watched the object of his focus enter. Rodney was walking backwards into the room, his attention directed towards the group of people following him as he talked loudly and animatedly about something, his hands waving in the air in counterpoint to his words.

"No, no, that's a ridiculous idea," Rodney was saying to a tall thin man who John thought was one of the engineers. "I mean, you just need to look at the internal structure of the data crystals alone to know that that can't possibly be its purpose."

Ah, thought John, so they were discussing the terminal – this would be interesting. John rarely had the opportunity to really observe Rodney interacting with the other scientists – Rodney would usually chase John out the lab whenever he was working with a team and they were in the middle of a project and, during a crisis situation, it was Radek with whom Rodney primarily worked, with Radek then liaising with the rest of the Science staff while Rodney kept the senior staff up-to-date with his department's progress. Picking up the second half of his sandwich, John continued eating while both listening in on the conversation and keeping track of the action out of the corner of his eye.

"Yes," Radek was agreeing, nodding vigorously as the group made their way over to the food. "I am afraid I have to side with Rodney on this one, George."

"Then what do the rest of you think?" George asked, picking up a tray and joining the line of people helping themselves to dinner.

"It's a memory core," Miko said. "It must be – all that information, being connected to all those systems, what else could it be?"

"No, definitely not," said the one man who'd not yet spoken – someone John didn't recognise, but who he assumed was another one of Rodney' scientists. "The configuration of the whole terminal is just plain wrong if all it's supposed to do is act as a data repository."

"Hmm," Rodney said, hefting his tray of food as he looked back at Miko and the other man. "You know, I actually find myself agreeing with both you and Miko," he replied, a grin pulling at the corner of his mouth which John recognised as the grin Rodney got when he'd figured out something exceedingly cunning. "It is a memory core, but that's not all it is." And with that, Rodney turned to look out over the room, no doubt searching for a table.

John looked up at Rodney properly as he scanned the room, knowing that there were only a matter of seconds before he spotted John. When he did so, John could see his quick intake of breath and the slight widening of his eyes and felt something in his own chest react. Just seeing Rodney like this, looking relaxed and in his element, excited by his science with his brain working at least ten time faster than that of those around him, reminded John almost painfully of everything that had attracted him to Rodney in the first place – his passion, his spark.

"Hey, Rodney," he said, leaning back in his chair in an effort to project an air of nonchalance he didn't quite feel.

"Oh, Colonel, hello," Rodney replied, looking slightly nervous all of a sudden.

John marked the use of his rank, but didn't comment on it. "I'm just about done with this table, if you guys wanna join me," he said, nodding towards the empty chairs that surrounded him.

"Oh, well, that's okay, I mean, there are plenty of other-"

"Thank you very much, Colonel, very kind of you," Radek interjected quickly, interrupting Rodney's refusal and taking a seat at John's table. "In fact, we have some interesting news for you."

"So I gather," John said, grinning at Radek and then looking back up at Rodney, who was still standing by the table as if unsure about his welcome, despite John's invitation. "Something about the terminal? You guys figured it out yet?"

"We have it ready to activate," Radek said. "And while I am still unsure of its exact purpose, Rodney on the other hand…" Radek trailed off, looking over at Rodney as he took the seat Radek had left vacant across from John.

"Well, yes," he said, avoiding John's eye in favour of looking down at his food instead. "I do have a theory on that."

"Well?" John asked, noting that his question was echoed in the eyes of the Miko and the other two scientists as they took their seats around the table. "Hey," he greeted them, smiling at Miko and nodding at the other two men.

"Oh, yes," Rodney said. "Um, Miko you know, but this is George Roberts and Eric Brodski," he said, pointing to each man in turn. "You guys know Colonel Sheppard, right?" he asked them, earning a nod from each man.

"So if it's a memory core as well as something else, what else is it?" Brodski asked, looking back to Rodney as he dug into his sandwich.

"Well, I have a couple of ideas," Rodney replied, all traces of nerves now gone from his face as started his exposition. "Just from the sheer volume of information contained within the crystal matrix, it would be…"

John let the conversation flow around him as he finished his meal, listening with half an ear as Rodney and the others tossed ideas back and forth. From what he could gather, Rodney seemed to think the terminal was the hub of a large-scale device which involved the interaction of the various systems that were hooked up to it in association with the information stored in the terminal's own data crystals. The others all seemed to be coming around to Rodney's way of thinking and John could tell there was going to be a briefing about this with Elizabeth in the very near future.

They were still discussing the necessary requirements for implementing a test run activation of the terminal when John finished his last mouth full of apple.

"So what do you think?" Rodney asked suddenly, turning to look directly at John, his blue eyes wide with both excitement and entreaty.

"Um…" John stalled; not only had he not really been following the main thrust of the conversation, but, for the moment, his body seemed to be entirely caught up with enjoying being the focus of Rodney's not inconsiderable attention.

"About speaking to Elizabeth," Rodney continued, and John was immediately grateful for his lack of patience. "We can do that this afternoon, can't we? I mean, I should probably go see her anyway about… well, about other stuff," he gaze dropped for a moment as the enthusiasm drained out of his entire body and John realised immediately that his thoughts had turned momentarily to Lambert.

"Yeah," John agreed quickly, eager to return Rodney to his previous state of excitement. "Of course we can go see Elizabeth – do you want to go do it now?"

Rodney looked up immediately at John's words, his face lighting once again as he realised that he had John's support. "Really?" he asked, his gaze both hopeful and a touch unsure.

This was it, John realised, his opportunity to get his relationship with Rodney back on track without them ever having to actually talk about the fallout from Doranda or their heated argument afterwards. "Well, you guys have done all the groundwork and it sounds like you're on top of things, so, yeah."

Rodney's smile was incandescent.

They were on their way up to Elizabeth's office not long afterwards, Rodney having bolted down the last of his lunch before leaving Radek and the rest of the scientists with a bunch of orders to do the final prep on the terminal in order to ready it for activation. He was now practically bouncing down the corridor at John's side, talking twenty to the dozen.

"It's the only thing it can be," Rodney was saying, his hands waving in the air in front of him to emphasise his point. "I mean, think about it: a huge database of information, and not just any information, but specific information about this galaxy and its underlying structure as well as reams of information about various elementary particles, a complex network of data crystals and co-ordination software, and a intricate connection with the stargate, the weapons platform, and the huge wealth of planetary geothermal energy – it's simply has to do something with all that."

"Yes, but what?" John asked.

"Ah, well, that's what we need to find out," Rodney said with a grin. "My first guess would usually have been a weapon of sorts – especially given the age of the base, it would have been built at the height of the Ancient's war with the Wraith - but then why all the detailed records and the connection to the orbital stargate? Then my next thought was perhaps it really is just a research base – something like CERN or SLAC."

"So like a particle accelerator?" John asked with a frown, considering the terminal and not even beginning to see the likeness between it and something like CERN.

"Well, obviously not exactly like a particle accelerator," Rodney said, casting John a look which said he should know better. "But something along those lines. Some kind of large-scale experiment into, well, the very building blocks of the universe - something done purely for the pursuit of knowledge rather than for a military purpose."

"Oh," John said, considering the possibility before shaking his head. "I just don't buy that," he said at last. "It doesn't really gel with what we know of the Ancients at that time. Think about it -Arcturus, the orbital defence platform, hell even Atlantis – they're all basically weapons to help the Ancients defeat the Wraith."

"Yes, you're right," Rodney agreed. "But we're not actually going to be able to tell what the terminal is until we activate it. It's obviously something the Ancient's valued, so who knows? Plus, there's still the issue of why the references to the research base were wiped from the database here…" Rodney trailed off, frowning in thought. That was obviously an issue which was still bothering him.

As they entered the corridor which would take them to the control room and, through it, to Elizabeth's office, Rodney suddenly reached out a hand and placed it on John's arm. John stopped at once, turning to find Rodney looking at him with such an expression of open uncertainty that it momentarily rendered him speechless.

"John," Rodney said softly, the warmth of his hand still burning into John's forearm through his shirt. "You… you're really with me on this? I mean, you trust my judgement here."

The word 'trust' hung heavily in the air between them as John tried to formulate his response. Yet, to his surprise, he found that the words came quite easily. "Yes," he replied with a hardly a moment of hesitation. "Rodney, you've done the leg-work on this one and it sounds like you've taken precautions to isolate the terminal from the city. You've also got a good team of people working with you all of whom trust your judgement too. That's enough for me and it will be enough for Elizabeth too."

To Rodney's great relief, John's words had proven to be correct. After he had carefully explained to Elizabeth the work of his team on the terminal, she'd nodded and given him permission to go ahead with the test run. He'd been surprised and gratified to see that she seemed to harbour no reservations about his ability to do his job, despite what had happened with the Arcturus weapon. In fact, sitting in her office, explaining the details of the project to her with John sitting quietly by his side in support went along way to exorcising some of the demons which had haunted him since Doranda. Not the biggest one, of course, but still, it was something.

As he and John were just about to leave, Rodney had gathered his courage and asked Elizabeth outright about Lambert. Her eyes had clouded over momentarily and Rodney had felt his heart sink, but then she'd smiled at him and told him not to worry.

"I have spoken to the SGC and let them know how unhappy I am at their interference with the internal operations of the expedition," she'd said. "And they've assured me that we will be made fully aware of the contents of Lambert's report and recommendations and that we will have a right to appeal any… permanent decisions which may arise as a result of it."

"Permanent decisions," Rodney had repeated numbly as he'd felt his transient relief wither and die. "God…" He'd known without looking that John had gone rigid at his side.

"Now don't go jumping to conclusions, Rodney," Elizabeth had said. "Or you either, John. Just carry on with things as normal and let me deal with Lambert and the SGC. Okay?"

Rodney had only nodded, still partially in shock, knowing that what Elizabeth had said was true – nothing he could do was going to make a blind bit of difference at this point.

"Rodney, I mean it," Elizabeth had pressed, her tone determined. "We need you here and I'm not going to let you go without a fight." As he'd raised his gaze to meet hers, Rodney had felt some of his agitation fade away at the steely conviction in her eyes - if there was one thing he knew with absolute certainty when it came to Elizabeth, it was that she would fight to the bitter end for her people. "And the best thing you can do for now," she'd continued, "is to do your job with the same dedication you always have."

Even now, several hours later, her words still echoed in Rodney's ears, along with the ones John had spoken just before they'd gone to speak to Elizabeth. He knew that things were far from resolved, but at last he was feeling as if some progress had been made – and it was progress that he had instigated: taking things more slowly, thinking beyond his own personal conviction and listening to the thoughts of those around him.

"No, no, no! What are you trying to do, you idiot? Kill us all?!"

Not that any of that meant that he had to follow the suggestions of those around him, of course.

Brodski looked up in surprise at Rodney's shouted words.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "We're connected to the naquadah generators, not the city's ZPM," he explained with exaggerated patience. "If you insist on running all of those live systems through the terminal, then all you're going to accomplish is blowing the lab to kingdom come."

"Oh, right, sorry," Brodski replied, flushing slightly. "Which ones should I connect then? I mean, the terminal is supposed to run with inputs from all these systems."

"The database and the simulation stargate protocols, I think," Radek replied, casting a quick look at Rodney as he did so.

"Yes," Rodney agreed. "From those we should be able to run a full activation procedure without frying the matrix. We'll use Miko's simulations of the weapons and stargate systems in lieu of the live ones."

"I am close to having the simulation of Atlantis' weapons systems completed," Miko volunteered.

"Right then," Rodney said, rubbing his hands together in excitement. "First we'll see how it goes with the database and the mock 'gate and then, provided everything's running smoothly, we'll hook up another generator and add the weapons and links to the engineering labs."

"Did I hear that correctly – weapons, Dr McKay?" Lambert's voice smoothly cut into the conversation. "What are you up to now?"

"What we are up to," Rodney replied tightly, "is conducting a perfectly controlled study of the terminal recovered from an Ancient research base on P19-J10."

Lambert raised an eyebrow at Rodney and then frowned down at the terminal with its collection of generators and associated cables. "Is that so?" he asked, looking back up at Rodney with a disapproving look in his eye. "Under whose authority?"

"Mine as CSO," Rodney snapped, mere seconds away from clocking the guy. "Along with Colonel Sheppard as military commander and Dr Weir as expedition leader."

"Forgive me, Dr McKay, if that does not entirely inspire confidence," Lambert replied.

Suddenly, Rodney was livid – it was one thing for Lambert to call into question his authority – that was the whole point of him being here – but to extend that to Elizabeth and John? In front of Rodney's staff? Unbelievable.

"I need a word, Lambert," he said through gritted teeth. "My office, now," and with that he strode past the spluttering Lambert towards what was really his office.

He took a few deep calming breaths once he was inside, before turning to face Lambert, who stood in the doorway.

"Dr McKay, was it really necess-"

"You will not question my authority in front of my staff," Rodney said as evenly as he could, cutting Lambert off and holding on to his temper by the skin of his teeth. "And you will certainly not question the authority of Dr Weir or Colonel Sheppard within my, or anyone else's, hearing ever again. Do I make myself clear?"

Lambert's mouth hung open in shock for a few satisfy moments before he snapped it closed, a heated flush coming over his face.

"Good," Rodney said as he strode back past Lambert and out into the lab.

"This discussion is not over, Dr McKay," Lambert called after him.

"Oh yes it is," Rodney replied. "Some of us have actual work to do."

Lambert disappeared in a huff shortly after their run-in and Rodney was more than happy to see him go. He was no doubt off to write a damning entry into his report about Rodney's outburst, but Rodney couldn't bring himself to regret his words. After all, John and Elizabeth were putting their reputations on the line for him, it was the least he could do to return the favour, the only thing he that he did regret was that his reputation was now a sullied one.

"We're ready, Rodney," Radek's softly spoken words drew Rodney out of his reverie.

"Right then," Rodney said, feeling his anger give way to excitement. "Let's see what this thing does."

As he activated the terminal, he was aware of the rest of his team leaning watching procedures just as avidly as he. This was what it was all about, he thought to himself as the device powered up, this shared path of discovery that was always exhilarating beyond belief. "Okay," he said, studying the power readings carefully. "Everything looks stable and the power matrix is holding up so far. Miko – activate the other systems and let's see what happens."

Nodding eagerly, Miko punched in a few keys on her laptop and the terminal immediately lit up as the input from Miko's mock stargate and weapons systems aligned themselves with it.

"Looking good," Rodney said, nodding to himself as he glanced first at the still-stable power matrix trace before directing his gaze to the terminal's main display screen. This time, unlike when he'd activated the terminal on P19-J10, the display was much more informative. Previously all it had been able to access was its own database which, although impressive, was obviously not all it needed to function correctly. Now, he could see clearly that the separate displays for the gate and the weapons systems were feeding into the central display – whatever the terminal did, it needed all its associated systems to be online in order do it.

Out of curiosity, Rodney attempted to access the terminal's own activity report, wondering if it still contained some data about the last time it had been switched on and used, but the report was disappointingly blank. "Almost totally wiped," Rodney realised with a start, just like the record of it in Atlantis' database. Not only was that odd, but it also meant they were no closer to discovering the terminal's purpose.

Rodney became aware that Radek was peering at the display screen over his shoulder. "I'll hook up the other generators," he said at Rodney's pointed look. "We will need them, yes? To allow us to connect the final systems correctly to the terminal."

"Yes," Rodney answered, shifting his gaze to Roberts. "You ready with our database and tech lab computers?"

"Yup," came the reply. "I've also got an isolated section of the CPU ready to link as well," Roberts continued. "The terminal needs the extra processing power," he explained at Rodney's questioning look.

Nodding abstractly to Roberts, Rodney turned his attention back to the terminal to see the power levels increase exponentially as Radek activated the network of parallel naquadah generators he'd set-up. The network would provide nowhere near the amount of power that the geothermal capacitor drawing heat from P19-J10 core would have, but Rodney was pretty sure the levels achieved would be enough to activate the terminal completely – especially as the systems hooked up to the terminal were either Miko and Brodski's cleverly designed simulations or were being powered by Atlantis' ZPM.

Deciding that it was now or never, Rodney flipped back to the terminal's main screen. "Okay, connect up the rest of the systems," he ordered, "and let's see what we've got."

With a whir of power, the terminal came fully to life – drawing on the greatly increased power supplies as well as dipping into the actual systems, live or simulated, to which it was connected. As Rodney watched, it ran through what must have been a pre-programmed set-up procedure – calibrating its own information systems with those of Atlantis and then writing a completely new set of codes directly to the isolated section of Atlantis' CPU.

"Wow," Rodney breathed, amazed at the complexity of the terminal's automated activity. Scrambling for his laptop, he moved quickly into that section of the CPU to see if he could discern the purpose of the new code.

"Wait - it's not done," Roberts said. "Look."

He was right; having created new coding guidelines from whatever it had drawn from the two databases, the terminal then went on to access the gate and weapon systems in turn, creating a volume of new command codes the likes of which Rodney had only ever seen once before – in the Dorandan research base.

"What is it all for?" Miko breathed, the wonder evident in her voice.

Rodney shook his head, the files coming too quickly now for him to keep up with. Suddenly a red light started flashing ominously on the main body of the terminal and Rodney flew into action. He knew that Radek was standing by ready to pull the power, but as his hands flew over the terminals keypads, Rodney realised that such action wasn't going to be necessary. A flash of Ancient text scrolled in large characters across the screen and then everything went black.

"It ran out of power," Rodney reported with a snort at the drama with which everything had happened.

"Ó, můj bože," Radek muttered under his breath. "It has drained all of the generators," he said aloud, his eyes wide in shock. "In less than… 12 minutes."

But Rodney's attention was elsewhere. He was scrolling through the reams of new command codes and trying to understand for what they could possibly be used. There seemed to be a whole mess of different things – protocols for the stargate, a new dialling sequence, something that appeared to re-programme the weapon targeting system and another set for re-wiring a drone, a sensor package for detecting a particular set of quarks and leptons… the baffling list went on and on.

When realisation suddenly dawned, Rodney was entirely unprepared. Nothing he had seen so far in Pegasus could possibly have prepared him for what it looked like the Ancients had been trying to do. "I don't believe it," he said, unable to believe what he was seeing or the conclusions his brain was drawing. "It's simply not possible; it can't be…"

"What is not possible?" Radek asked.

Rodney looked up at Radek, well aware that his eyes were wide and that his face must hold an expression of pure shock. "We need to call a senior staff meeting," he said a little shakily. "I know what the terminal does and why the Ancients went to such lengths to destroy all mention of it."

"It's a what?" Elizabeth asked, her disbelief mirroring exactly what Rodney had felt not ten minutes before.

"It's a big bang device," Rodney replied, still surprising himself as he said the words.

"A big bang device," Elizabeth repeated, shaking her head.


"As in…"

"Yes, as in the big bang," Rodney replied.

"So it's an enormous weapon?" Ronon asked, his eyes lighting up at the prospect.

"No, of course not," Rodney snapped, looking at Ronon sharply before he realised the reason for his misinterpretation. "Oh, yes, well, I can see why you'd think that, but no. The device is not actually about destruction at all, it's about creation – the ultimate creation really: the genesis of our universe."

"Hold on a sec," John said. "You mean the terminal can create an entire universe? That's what it's for?"

"Ridiculous," Lambert snorted. "How can it possibly do that and why would the Ancients be interested in such a thing?"

"Oh, I don't know," Rodney retorted angrily. "Maybe because the creation of the universe is one of the greatest unanswered questions of our, or indeed any, age?" Rodney was still furious at Lambert for his comments back in the lab and the fact that he'd also barged his way into the briefing was doing little to calm Rodney.

"Rodney," Elizabeth said, a slight warning in her voice, "perhaps you could explain a little more about how you and your team came to this conclusion."

Rodney took a deep breath and nodded, glancing briefly to Radek and the other scientists who he'd insisted should attend the briefing as well - after all, they had far more right to be there than Lambert. "Okay," he said. "So, as you know, the terminal was recovered from the Ancient research base on P19-J10 – a planet about which there seemed to be very little in the database. However, I was able to recover several highly corrupted files which indicated that there was something that the Ancient's valued on the planet but that, for some reason we can now hazard a guess at, the information had been destroyed."

"You believe the records were purposefully deleted because of the device?" Teyla asked, her brow creased in confusion.

"Yes," Rodney replied. "Deleted and corrupted – whoever did that was determined to make it virtually impossible to recover the files."

"But why do that if it's not even a weapon?" Ronon asked.

"Exactly," Lambert agreed, earning him a dark scowl from Ronon. "The very fact that the Ancients went so far to hide the base's existence is proof that it was something they wished to hide from the Wraith. Dr Weir, I think you should let me review Dr McKay's notes and draw my own conclusions – it is obvious that Dr McKay has become confused again as to Ancient technology."

Rodney felt his face flush red with anger and it was only the sudden calming presence of John's hand on his forearm that stopped him from leaping out of his chair in indignation.

"On the contrary, Dr Lambert," Elizabeth replied coolly. "I believe we should hear Rodney out – he is the foremost expert on Ancient technology, not to mention my CSO." Turning to look at Rodney, Elizabeth smiled encouragingly. "Please continue, Rodney."

"The reasons for the deletion and corruption of the files will become clear in a moment," he said, determined to ignore Lambert in favour of doing his job. Although John was now no longer touching him, Rodney could still feel the warmth of where his hand had rested and recognised the trust and belief inherent in both John's gesture and Elizabeth's words.

Opening his laptop, Rodney spun it around to show the basic schematics of the terminal. "You see, the terminal is really an operational hub," he explained. "It co-ordinates the various systems, as well as containing the vital information needed to create the starting conditions for the genesis of a new universe." He turned to look at John, pleased by the open curiosity in his eyes. "You see, I was right," he said. "This did start as an experiment – without doubt the most ambitious one the Ancients ever conceived."

John looked up at Rodney words and for a moment their eyes caught and held. "So what happened?" John asked at last.

Rodney shrugged sadly. "The Wraith happened," he replied. "What else? And suddenly military priorities took precedence over purely scientific advancements."

Realising that he should probably start at the beginning, Rodney started to explain. "You see what we call the 'big bang' is really a model of how the universe began and how it continues to evolve," he said, looking towards Ronon and Teyla. "There is strong evidence, both from theory and observation, that the very early stage of our universe involved a singularity of infinite mass and temperature expanding outwards very rapidly and cooling as it did so – essentially a 'big bang' – a process which is still happening today and which will probably continue to do so for the entire lifetime of his universe."

"And this terminal has the power to create this initial singularity?" Teyla asked.

"Well, it's not quite as simple as that, but in theory, yes - it could provide the necessary starting conditions to create it," Rodney replied.

"In theory?" Elizabeth queried, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes," Rodney said, nodding. "You see, the Ancients never actually ran the experiment."

"And you can be sure of this?" Lambert scoffed. "From less than a day's work – ridiculous! Dr Weir, please, this entire discussion is preposterous! I really must insist tha-"

"Rodney, please carry on," Elizabeth said, her voice cutting strongly over Lambert's protests.

"They never ran the experiment because they couldn't," Rodney said, glaring at Lambert.

"We would not be here if they had," Radek said, his eyes lighting with understanding as he caught up with Rodney.

"Exactly," Rodney replied, grinning at him. "You can't have two universes existing simultaneously in the same space."

John let out a snort of laughter at that. "That really would have been a hell of a big bang," he said.

"And then some," Rodney replied, turning his grin toward John. "But, seriously, the terminal is an amazing piece of technology – the sheer amount of data they gathered about the initial conditions of the singularity, the detail with which they scanned this galaxy, assessing what they would need to actually bring the theory to life, the calculations they performed to create such a thing – using a modified drone, the alterations to the stargate's wormhole, the geothermal energy of an entire planet…" he shook his head in amazement as he trailed off, momentarily lost for words. "It's just… stunning."

"But why destroy the information about it?" Elizabeth asked.

"Well, by the time this all happened, the Ancients were clearly losing the fight against the Wraith," Rodney said. "And a device with this kind of power – the power to essentially both destroy and create a universe – is not something you want falling into your enemy's hands."

"With that kind of power…" Lambert's eyes narrowed as he started at Rodney's laptop screen. "We should investigate this further," he said. "I am sure my superiors at the SGC would be extremely interested in this device and its potential uses."

"What potential uses?" Rodney retorted scathingly. "It has no potential uses – at least not beyond being of great theoretical interest."

"Nonsense," Lambert replied. "It is clearly a powerful piece of technology that I am sure could be adapted into something the SGC could use against the Wraith and the Ori."

Rodney shook his head in amazement at the man's stupidity. "Are you really that mentally deficient?" he asked. "The Ancient terminal is a highly specialised piece of equipment, designed for a specific purpose – one that we cannot carry out. How can you possibly believe it can be something the SGC can use as a weapon?" He turned to Elizabeth, "This is precisely why the records about the research base were deleted – because fools like him thought they could use it as a weapon."

"I think, Dr McKay," Lambert replied heatedly, "that the very fact that you can ask such a question just goes to show how unfit fo-"

"Gentlemen, enough!" Elizabeth interrupted, her eyes flashing, obviously reaching the end of her tether. "This is a pointless argument. Rodney, I take it that you and your team would like the opportunity to investigate the terminal further?"

"Yes, but-"

"Right," Elizabeth continued, cutting Rodney off before he could get into a rant about Lambert's stupidity. "Then you may continue to do so, provided you carry on as you have been doing, keeping the terminal separate from Atlantis' systems."


"And you, Dr Lambert," Elizabeth said, once again overriding Rodney's comments. "You also wish to further study the terminal?"

"Absolutely! I believe the best course of action is to-"

"Then, I think you should all work together to learn what you can," Elizabeth concluded smoothly. "But," she warned with narrowed eyes. "I do not want to hear of any violence in the lab nor do I want you to do anything that might put this city at risk. I trust that I make myself clear."

As they filed out of the briefing room, John watched as Rodney and his team headed off towards the transporters, Lambert hard on their heels. Part of him wanted to follow them, but another part – the one that spoke of self-preservation – urged him to keep his distance. His feelings for Rodney had become even more confused – his relief at having regained at least some of their friendship merging with the strong sense of protectiveness he felt when Lambert had threatened Rodney to become something far stronger… Something he was afraid to examine too closely. So, instead, John held back, watching as Rodney disappeared back down to the lab and wondering just how he was going to get all these unwanted emotions back under his control once more.

"It is difficult, is it not, John?" Teyla's voice pulled John out of his thoughts – the aptness of her comment making him wonder whether she'd added mind-reading to her not inconsiderable list of talents.

"Huh?" he asked, turning to find her smiling up at him with empathy shining from her eyes. "What is?"

Teyla gestured towards the transporters. "Rodney's situation," she clarified, "but at least he has our support."

"Yes, of course," John said, frowning slightly and wondering just what Teyla's point was – Teyla always had a point.

But instead of making some gentle suggestion that would, nevertheless, be more like a command, Teyla merely tilted her head to one side and regarded John for a long moment.

"What?" John asked, starting to feel a little uncomfortable at the weight of Teyla's gaze.

A glowing smile suddenly spread across Teyla's face and she reached forward to squeeze John's arm affectionately. "Nothing, John," she said. "I am just pleased that you seem to have resolved your difficulties." And, with that, she brushed past him and made her way towards the transporters that would take her down to the living quarters.

"But I… I haven't…" John called after her, but she had already disappeared. Shaking his head and wondering if he would ever understand Teyla, John started to walk towards the transporters himself. Perhaps he'd head down to the labs after all – he needed to talk to Rodney anyway about how he planned to test the big bang device.

"Right, so that's sorted." John heard Rodney's voice the moment he entered the lab. Rodney was standing by the large white board at one end of the lab, the one where he kept track of the various projects on which the science department was working, addressing the room full of scientists.

"Miko, Roberts and Brodski – you'll all continue working on the big bang terminal under my supervision," Rodney said. However, a cough interrupted his flow and with a dark glare in Lambert's direction, Rodney rolled his eyes and amended his order. "Under my supervision in conjunction with Dr Lambert. Kavanagh and Cartwright – you've still got a lot of work left to do on re-calibrating the life support systems and, Harper and Cummins – I take it you're both still working on that library catalogue thing from P7T-Y97? Right, then carry on with that. So that just leaves…" Rodney turned to consult the whiteboard, "Ah, Tollins and Gregory, to work with Radek on completing the final implementation of the re-configured sensor grid." Rodney nodded to himself in apparent satisfaction before turning back to the room at large. "Everyone else already has work assigned or is due off-world." When the scientists present continued to sit and watch Rodney, Rodney frowned and waved them off with impatient flicks of his hands. "Well, what are you all waiting for? Get on with it – there's still a good couple of hours left in the day!"

As the scientists scattered, John saw Lambert head towards Rodney, a decidedly unpleasant look on his face. Deciding that Rodney had put up with more than enough of Lambert's shit for one day, John stepped forward to intervene.

"Dr McKay, I think we should decide on our priorities in terms of the testing of the terminal," Lambert began.

"Forgive me, Dr Lambert," John interrupted, stepping up beside Rodney and turning to face Lambert. "But I need to have a quick word with Dr McKay – city business you'll understand. I'm sure you have more than enough to do on your report for the SGC to keep you busy for the rest of the day." Without waiting for Lambert to respond, John turned to Rodney and, with a tilt of his head to indicate that Rodney should follow him, he turned on his heel and made his way out of the lab.

"Thanks," Rodney said as he fell into step beside John in the corridor.

"No problem," John replied with a grin. "I thought you could use a break."

"Like you wouldn't believe," Rodney said with a sigh. "I've come this close," he narrowed his thumb and forefinger together until there was barely any space between them, "to clocking that bastard on numerous occasions."

John laughed, enjoying the mental image of Rodney knocking Lambert out clean with a single swipe. "I know that feeling well, buddy," he said. "And I've not spent half the time with him that you have."

"So what did you want to see me about?" Rodney asked as they entered the transporters.

Startled by the questions, John paused with his hand hovering over the transporter's buttons. What did he want to see Rodney about? For some reason, he was no longer sure – it had just seemed like the thing to do after the briefing and then, in the lab, he'd acted instinctively on auto-pilot to get Rodney out of yet another unpleasant conversation with Lambert. "Oh, nothing major," he prevaricated, making a snap decision to head out to the east pier where they could talk in peace. "I just wanted to go through a few things with you."

"Oh?" Rodney questioned as the transporter took them down to the city's main level.

"Yeah," John said. "There's been a lot happening lately and I know that we haven't touched base for a while."

"Oh… yes… well," Rodney stuttered, suddenly looking nervous. "About that… I… ah… I wanted to talk to you about a few things too."

"Well, then," John replied, with what he hoped was a friendly yet merely reassuring smile, "Good."

As they made their way down to the edge of the pier from the transporter point, it suddenly struck John that he had just agreed to talk to Rodney about… well… about things. The realisation almost made him stumble and he suddenly had a very vivid mental image of a smiling Teyla – he shook his head immediately in an attempt to clear it. They weren't talking talking, he tried to reassure himself, just… well… ordinary talking. Yeah, that was all.

It was coming on for late afternoon and the sun was just starting to sink down towards the horizon. As they reached their usual place on the very edge of the pier, Rodney sank down to sit, dangling his legs out over the ocean and letting out a world-weary sigh. John hesitated for a moment, but then decided that it was probably just about late enough – not to mention the fact that they'd probably need something if they were going to talk. He walked over to one of the nearby power conduits and opened the service hatch, reaching in to pull open the lid of the small cooler that Rodney had rigged up inside. Grabbing a couple of bottles of beer with one hand, he closed the hatch and walked back over to where Rodney was sitting, holding out one of the cold bottles as he did so.

"Oh, it's going to be one of those talks," Rodney said, his mouth quirking up as he took the proffered bottle and twisted the top off.

"Nah," John said, dropping down to sit beside Rodney and opening his own bottle. "Just thought we both deserved a break."

"Well, I'll drink to that," Rodney said as he proceeded to take a healthy swig.

John grinned and did likewise and, for a few moments, they both sat there in comfortable silence.

"So," Rodney said after a while. "Should I be worried? I mean, this is you actively volunteering to talk… or are we going to sit here and drink beer instead?"

John quirked an eyebrow at Rodney. "Well, I can't say that option two doesn't have its appeal, but I do have a couple of questions for you."

Rodney nodded and took what looked to be a fortifying drink. "Well, go on then," he said, some of his earlier nervousness making a reappearance.

As he took a fortifying swig from his own bottle, John tried to put his thoughts in some semblance of a coherent order. "Well, first off, I know the situation with Lambert and the SGC is tough – but I do hope you know that Elizabeth and I are behind you one hundred percent."

"You are?" Rodney said, sounding surprised. "I mean, I know you've said you are, but that's always been in front of Lambert and I… well, I do know that I screwed up big time over the Arcturus weapon."

John took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah, you did," he said slowly. "But you also recognised that and are doing your best to make sure you'd don't make such a big mistake again." He turned to look at Rodney, meeting Rodney's wary blue gaze and allowing the sincerity of his words to show clearly on his face. "The way you're handling the study of the big bang device, especially with Lambert breathing down your neck, it's good, Rodney."

Rodney's eyes widened for a moment, no doubt surprised at John's unusual display of openness. "Does this mean that you… that you trust me again?"

Trust – the word echoed in John's mind and he could still vividly recall just how angry and betrayed he'd felt after their mission to Doranda. But his anger hadn't just been directed at Rodney - even though that was the only side of his anger he'd let Rodney see – if he was being honest with himself, the larger portion of that anger had been aimed squarely at himself.

He took another long sip of beer, letting the cool liquid slide slowly down his throat as he thought about his response. The truth was that he did trust Rodney and, even more than that alone, John realised that he always had. Even after Doranda, when he'd been gripped with a fury he'd only ever felt on two other occasions, he still had trusted Rodney. His anger and his distrust had never been about Rodney – not then and not during those two other times – it had always been about himself. His failure to rescue Dex and Mitch, his mistakes which led to Elizabeth and Rodney being held captive by the Genii, his fault for getting too wrapped up in his relationship with Rodney to see when things had got out of hand.

"Yeah," he said thickly. "I trust you, Rodney. Always have."

"Always?" Rodney asked, his tone shocked. "But what about… I mean… I fucked up, John."

"Perhaps," John said. "But I fucked up even more."

"What?" Rodney asked in surprise. "Oh," he then said in a knowing tone. "I see what you're doing here and I categorically refuse to let you do it, John." Rodney turned in place, pulling up one of his legs so that he was sitting facing John and reaching out to place a hand on his arm. "Listen to me - you didn't fuck up, I did. That was totally my fuck-up. Absolutely, completely, without a doubt, mine!"

John just shook his head and pushed himself to his feet, needing to get away from the earnest look in Rodney's eyes and the heat of Rodney's hand on his arm. John found himself pacing back and forth along the edge of the pier, ignoring Rodney as he too rose to his feet and tried to stop John's movements.

"Listen to me, John," Rodney began. "It really was my fault. I should have known my calculations were faulty, I should have listen to Rad-"

"No!" John almost shouted over Rodney's words, coming to an abrupt halt and whipping around to face Rodney, standing a mere few feet from him. "I'm not talking about the science, I'm talking about the situation! I'm talking about us; about you and me and about how I didn't realise that I needed to pull you back until it was almost too late!"

Rodney stood blinking at John in shock, his mouth partially open and his face blank with surprise.

"I got too close," John said, feeling the emotions whirl within him and clenching his hands into fists. "I got too close and things got lost – important things, things that it's my duty to keep in check."

Rodney started to slowly shake his head at John's words and taking a step closer to him. He was so close now that John could almost feel the heat emanating from Rodney's body.

"Dammit, Rodney," John cursed, willing himself to take a step back but somehow on succeeding in swaying forward slightly. "Don't you get it? I let you get too close and I… I don't know what…" John trailed off, at a loss for words and completely conflicted as to what it was he truly wanted.

As if sensing his dilemma, Rodney took the decision out of his hands and took another step closer him, pressing their bodies together as desire started to pool, thick and sweet, in John's belly.

"John," Rodney said softly, the whisper of John's name wafting hotly over John's mouth. "John, please…"

John suddenly realised that at some point during the conversation his arms had come up and he now had his hands wrapped around Rodney's broad shoulders. He could feel the heat of Rodney's skin through the fabric of his shirt and the bulge of Rodney's shoulder muscles flex beneath his fingers. Looking into Rodney's face, John found himself captivated by his eyes – wide and startlingly blue. He was no longer sure whether he'd grabbed a hold of Rodney to push him away or to pull him closer. His gaze fell to Rodney's mouth and, before he knew it, he was leaning forward and brushing his lips softly over the inviting bow of Rodney's mouth.

Rodney let out a small moan and his mouth parted at the first touch of John's. John deepened the kiss, thrusting his tongue deep inside and hauling Rodney even closer. Rodney was kissing him back eagerly – his arms wrapped tightly about John's waist as John's hands retained their tight grip on Rodney's shoulders. It had been so long – too long – and John was soon drowning in sensation and desire. He wanted – needed – more.

His heart was pounding heavily in his chest and in his pants his cock was pulsing with the same intoxicating rhythm. The ache in his body was too strong to ignore and he quickly pushed his thigh between Rodney's legs, moaning as he felt the hot bar of Rodney's erection press against his hip. Unable to resist, he started grinding himself into Rodney's body, thrusting his cock against Rodney and encouraging Rodney to move as well by rubbing his thigh against Rodney's dick and by running his hands down Rodney's back to cup his ass.

The chirrup of a radio brought reality crashing back down on him with all the effectiveness of a bucket of cold water. He pulled away from Rodney in an instant, aware that his chest was heaving and with his eyes were fixed on Rodney's mouth, still wet and red from his kiss. Rodney appeared to be breathing hard too and when John raised his gaze to Rodney's eyes, he found them dark with arousal.

The sound of his radio sounding made Rodney blink his eyes rapidly, reason slowly returning, and he raised his hand to his ear, his gaze still locked on John's as he answered. "McKay."

John watched as Rodney listened to the response and saw the flicker behind his eyes when his attention switched sharply from John to whatever it was the person on the other end of the line was saying.

"What?! … Are you sure? … Where's Zelenka? … Well, what does he say? … Okay, okay, don't do anything - I'm on my way."

The last was said was such vehemence that John was able to ignore his discomfort and embarrassment of having just been kissing Rodney when what he'd been hoping to do was distance himself. "Trouble at the lab?" he asked.

"Yes," Rodney replied, frowning as he met John's eye before flushing and quickly turning away, heading back along the pier towards the transporter which would take them directly to the main tower. "I have to get back. You should come too."

"Right," John said, catching up to Rodney's scurrying figure with a light jog. "Lambert? Or something to do with the big bang device?"

"No, no, neither," Rodney replied, but he didn't look relieved by that fact as John would have expected.

"Then what?" John pressed.

Rodney shook his head and walked faster, reaching the transporter at a near run and slamming his hand down on the console to summon it. "It was Gregory," he said. "One of the engineers whose been working with Radek on this long-term project we've been running to upgrade the sensor grid."

"And?" John asked as the transporter arrived and Rodney hurried inside.

"And he says he's just finished the installation of the long-range systems upgrade," Rodney replied, raising worried looking eyes to John's as the transporter delivered them back into the main spire. He exited quickly, urging John to follow him as he made his way towards the lab as fast as he could "And that, during the first test run, he's picked up a signal which he thinks looks like another Wraith armada heading straight for us."

John stood silently in a corner of the lab, watching the unfolding chaos before him and cursing the Wraith in his mind. He'd known they'd be back, of course - an enemy like that wouldn't just give up on the chance of finding Earth, an untapped feeding ground, after the loss of a single hiveship. But he had hoped they'd have more time. As it was, he was feeling an uneasy sense of déjà vu as Rodney and Radek huddled over the long-range sensor terminal in the lab, examining the signal that Gregory had picked up. The rest of the science department was ostensibly carrying out their usual duties, but John could feel the underlying sense of tension in the air and knew that each of them was merely waiting for whatever conclusions Rodney and Radek would reach.

As for himself, John had a sinking feeling in his gut that this probably was the real deal. He'd already contacted Lorne and asked him to prepare the marines for a battle drill, just to be on the safe side. He wondered vaguely how the Wraith had figured out that Atlantis had survived, but after several minutes of pointless musing, decided that it wasn't worth expending mental energy on such an ultimately futile endeavour. No matter how it had happened – whether word had filtered through from one of their supposed allies or whether the Wraith's own technology had seen through their defences – the unavoidable truth was that it had obviously happened, and so they would just have to deal with it.

So, instead, John mentally reviewed their best options for an effective defence – with their new ZPM, the city was at least in a better position than the last time they'd faced the Wraith, but John knew better than to be overly optimistic. After all, the city was supposed to run on three ZPMs, not just one, so even with the new level of power, they were still in a far weaker position than the Ancients had been when Atlantis had been sunk and abandoned. Then there was the question of the size of the Wraith force – after the failure of their last attack, John was certain they'd come with a far larger force this time around. Added to that was the fact that Atlantis, ZPM aside, only had a limited number of drones and puddlejumpers. And, unlike last time, they no longer had the back-up of the Genii nuclear devices, even if deploying them would necessitate a number of suicide runs. Nor the ace in the hole that the Daedalus had turned out to be.

He was pulled out of his musing by the sight of Rodney moving quickly across the lab to his side – whatever it was that Gregory had detected, it obviously was nothing good.

"So?" he asked as Rodney came to a halt beside him.

"Well, it's not the best news," Rodney said, casting a glance around the lab and obviously picking up on the way that everyone was no longer even pretending to concentrate on their work. "Um, perhaps we should discuss this somewhere a little less public."

Yeah, so not good at all, John thought, but, "Sure," was all he said as he led the way back out into the corridor.

"Gregory was right," Rodney said without preamble as he and John made their way along the empty corridor towards the transporters. "It's another armada."

"How many ships?" John asked, feeling his belly tighten in anticipation of the fight to come.

Rodney sighed, "They're still too far off to be sure, but from even this distance we're talking at least thirty hives, possibly more."

"Fuck," John breathed. "That means that multiple hives are working together."

"Yeah," Rodney agreed, one corner of his mouth pulling downwards. "They really mean business this time. Even with the ZPM powering the shields and the Chair room, it's going to be a pretty near impossible fight for us to win."

"Right then," John said, pushing his emotions to one side as his military training came quickly to the fore. "We need to call a briefing and sort out our defence plan ASAP."

There were some days during which Rodney became convinced that he would never get used to life in Pegasus, no matter how many years he managed to survive here. It felt like he'd been through an emotional roller coaster over the past few hours alone – the exhilaration of uncovering what it was the Ancient terminal really did, the anger he'd felt when faced with Lambert's criticisms, the elation of regaining John's trust followed by the heady excitement of being in his arms once more, and now this – the far too familiar feeling of cold, hard dread.

"Well, even with the cloak, we knew they'd be back at some point," Elizabeth said, her face tightly drawn, as it had been ever since he and John had broken the news to her. "We have about fourteen days before they are in range you say, Rodney?" At Rodney's confirming nod, she looked around the conference room, taking the time to take in each person in turn. "So people, what are our options?"

"Well, now that we have a ZPM, we're in a better starting position that we were a few months ago," John began. "And we have made a number of improvements to our battle deployments since that attack so those, combined with the additional defences of the Chair and its drones, mean that we should be able to hold them off for a sustained period while at the same time severely damaging their fleet." He paused and grimaced slightly before continuing, "The main draw-back, of course, being the fact that this armada looks to be far larger than anything we've dealt with before."

"Thirty ships," Ronon said, shaking his head. "Sateda fell to less than half that number."

Knowing that this was primarily a military matter, Rodney remained silent and allowed the discussion to continue around him. He'd already gone through the sensor readings – showing everyone present the Wraith signals that Gregory had detected and then the further scans he and Radek had analysed which showed a large-scale fleet of Wraith hiveships heading in their direction. With both John and Lorne present, he knew that they were in good hands, even if the weapons at the disposal of those hands were not quite as numerous or as powerful as he would have liked.

"What about submerging the city again?" Elizabeth asked. "Or even moving it?"

Hearing his cue, Rodney rejoined the discussion, wishing he had something more helpful to add. "Not with only the one ZPM," he said. "The energy required to power the city's stardrive, especially in the initial burn period, vastly exceeds that of even a fully charged ZPM – that's why Atlantis was designed to run on three. As for submerging," he shrugged, "It comes down to the same problem I'm afraid – we won't be able to power the shield indefinitely with our ZPM and so we'll only be putting off the inevitable for when we're forced to resurface."

If only the Arcturus weapon had worked… The thought assaulted his mind unbidden and he did his best to push it aside. There was no point in dwelling on things that could never be and he knew that his time and energies would be much better focused working on options that actually had some chance of working.

The discussion around the specifics of their weapons systems was no different from the countless other ones they'd had in this very room whilst awaiting the arrival of the Wraith the first time. Rodney and Radek spoke at length about the advantages the ZPM would give them in terms of the strength of their shielding and the use and range of the drones. Sheppard and Lorne walked them all through the battle manoeuvres in which the city's pilots and marines would be taking part to protect the city, both from the ground and from the sky. Finally, Teyla added her thoughts into the aid which the Athosians could provide while Ronon spoke candidly of how Sateda had been attacked and the tactics the Wraith had employed to decimate an entire planet.

As each person voiced their thoughts and offered their professional opinions in their particular area of expertise, a plan gradually came together. It was nothing crazy or out of the ordinary - those kinds of plans usually being created on the fly by either John or Rodney himself when all their careful planning had gone out the window – but rather was a solid merging of tactical planning and advanced weapon and shielding initiatives which, in theory, would provide Atlantis' best hope of withstanding and repelling this latest Wraith attack. In the long term, Rodney knew that they would have to come up with a better solution to keep Atlantis hidden from the Wraith as there was no way they could continue to weather through sieges of this kind, but first they had to deal with this one.

"Well, it sounds like we all have a lot to do," Elizabeth said, no doubt already composing her message to send to Earth. "Let's get started."

"Wait," Lambert interjected suddenly, speaking for the first time since the briefing had began. "There is one thing we are forgetting," he said, casting Rodney a significant glance. "The big bang device."

"What on Earth are you talking about?" Rodney asked in exasperation, his patience with Lambert long expired. There were a million and one things that needed to be done and now this moron was intent on wasting everybody's time. "We've already been through all this – the device is an experiment, not a weapon. What possible use could that be to us against an attack?"

"Ah, well that is where you are mistaken, Dr McKay," Lambert retorted smugly. "While you were off with Colonel Sheppard, I was spending my time far more productively and I have found what I believe to be a record of an Ancient plan to use the terminal as exactly that - a weapon which would rid the universe of the Wraith for good."

"What? Where?" Rodney asked with a frown. He was certain he'd gone through every legible part of the recovered entry concerning P19-J10 and nowhere had it even mentioned the smallest detail about the big bang terminal.

"It was in the data set of the terminal itself," Lambert replied to Rodney before turning his attention back to Elizabeth, clearly indicating that Rodney's input into the discussion was no longer needed. "Dr Weir, I have found details about a group of Ancient scientists who believed that they could use the terminal immediately prior to their evacuation of this galaxy, thereby ensuring that the Wraith could not follow them back to the Milky Way."

Elizabeth, who was already half-way out of her chair, paused and studied Lambert silently for a moment before slowly sinking back down. "I'm confused, Dr Lambert," she said. "From what you and Rodney have told me of the terminal, it is as Rodney describes – an experiment."

"Just so," Lambert agreed. "But an experiment with a very specific purpose – the genesis of a new universe."

"So what?" Rodney prompted. "They were just planning to activate the device, thereby putting into action a cascade of events which would lead to a second big bang, and then escape the inevitable destructive power of such an event by leaving the galaxy through the stargate?! Now that's an idiotic idea if ever I heard one!"

"Not at all," Lambert replied. "That is precisely what they planned to do."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Rodney responded. "Even you can't be that stupid – there is no escape from an explosion like the big bang – the clue's right there in the name."

"On the contrary," Lambert said. "If you had bothered to look at the records, you would see that the Ancients who built the terminal had designed a containment field to be initiated first. It is designed to encompass a pre-defined perimeter – in this case that of the galaxy – and so confine the big bang event within it."

Rodney frowned, not really seeing how the Ancients could possible contain an event that had the power to create an entire universe, but even that was beside the point. "Yes, well, even if they did," he said sceptically. "Which I highly doubt, by the way, that still doesn't negate the fact that by implementing such a plan they were essentially destroying the entire Pegasus galaxy – every star, planet, and living organism would simply be incinerated. Dead. Gone forever. Extinct."

"So what?" Lambert spat. "If it means we prevent the Wraith from getting to Earth."

"Absolutely not!" John thundered at the same time as Elizabeth cut in with, "That is unacceptable, Dr Lambert." Ronon and Teyla both appeared to be in shock.

Now it was Rodney's turn to smirk smugly at Lambert, even though a large part of him marvelled at the nerve of the man to even suggest such a thing.

"Dr Weir," Lambert argued. "You have to understand that the primary role of the SGC is to ensure the protection of Earth regardless of the cost and, as their representative, I really feel that this option should be given due consideration."

Elizabeth looked furious and Rodney was glad he wasn't on the receiving end of her glare. "Alright, Dr Lambert," she said, her anger barely concealed in her voice. "I will give this idea its 'due consideration'. As I understand it, implementing the plan you suggest would result in the loss of life of every single living being – both sentient and non – in this entire galaxy. That, Dr Lambert, is unequivocally unacceptable and I will not waste one more second of my time considering it."

At her words, Lambert flushed red, but remained silent. Rodney silently cheered Elizabeth on and, when he exchanged a glance with John, knew that he was doing the very same.

"Now, as I was saying," Elizabeth continued. "Let's get to work."

For Rodney, the following days blurred into one endless series of equations, simulations and update briefings, interspersed by the odd hour of sleep here and there and bottomless cups of coffee. The entire Science department was working flat out on getting the most out of the city's single ZPM – maximising its potential to power the city's shields, its cloak and its weapons. They also worked on supplementing the power grid with a series of enhanced naquadah generators and on creating more, lower yield explosives from various weapons they had amassed from off-world over the past few months.

From the daily briefings, Rodney knew that the rest of the city was likewise working to capacity, with an increased marine presence throughout the city and intensive pilot training which necessitated him dedicating an entire team of engineers to permanently man the jumper bay. He saw little of John or the rest of his team, only catching glimpses of them during the briefings and on his odd forays to the commissary to stock up on the staples of his mid-crisis diet - powerbars, coffee and chocolate chip muffins. To his relief, he also saw little of Lambert. He had no idea what exactly the man was doing, but so long as doing it kept him out of Rodney's way, Rodney was content. He had far bigger things about which to worry.

As the days slid by, the enhanced sensor readings provided more and more information about the approaching Wraith attack fleet. They now knew for certain that they were headed for Atlantis and that the armada contained a total of forty hiveships, along with dozens of other smaller crafts in convoy. It was an invasion force of unprecedented scale and they would now be within weapons' range in mere hours.

Elizabeth had made the wise decision to refrain from opening more than the single wormhole back to Earth, necessary to inform the SGC of the imminent attack, in order to preserve the power of their one ZPM and so all non-essential personnel had been evacuated to the Pegasus alpha site. Those remaining on Atlantis were all part of the front-line defence of the city – be they scientists or soldiers - and each was prepared to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to prevent the city, and with it Earth, from falling into Wraith hands.

Every now and then Rodney would get odd flashes of the last siege as what could have been John's final words to him echoed through his mind: So long, Rodney. He tried not to dwell on the past for long, but couldn't help but be grateful for the fact that he and John had managed to settle at least some of their differences. Even now his face flushed as he recalled their last encounter on the pier and the overarching rightness of John's embrace. Whatever was to come, at least he'd had that.

It wasn't until Rodney was in the ZPM chamber itself, making the final alterations to the power grid, that he noticed that something didn't look quite right. Frowning at the unfamiliar circuitry which now appeared to be connecting the auxiliary power flow to the main grid, Rodney tapped his radio, annoyed that someone would make such a major change without first running it by him.

"Radek," he called. "Have you been making any last minute changes to the ZPM back-up sub-routines?"

"What? No," came Radek's somewhat distracted response. "Why should I do such a thing when I have plenty of work to do that will be of actual use?"

"Well, I'm sitting here looking at a piece of equipment that someone has embedded in the ZPM auxiliary power flow and…" Rodney's words trailed off as a horrible thought struck him and, for a moment, he could only sit there and stare at the new circuitry as his blood turned to ice. Surely that idiot couldn't possibly have… Rodney cut the thought of abruptly – of course he could. Just then the lights flashed and Rodney's datapad picked up a huge surge of energy coming from the ZPM and being routed via the new circuitry towards the Science lab. The next thing Rodney knew, he was running through the corridors shouting to Radek through his radio to get John and Elizabeth down to the lab immediately, cursing Lambert comprehensively as he ran and hoping against hope that it wasn't already too late.

John was in the briefing room with his jumper pilots, going over their battle formations, when he got Radek's message. Frowning at the interruption, but recognising the urgency in Radek's voice, he handed the briefing over to Lorne and headed down to the labs. After all, this time he hoped to be in the Chair room for most of the battle, using the jumpers would be their last ditch attempt to hold off the hiveships.

An odd scene met his eyes when he arrived at the lab. Rodney was hunched over a computer terminal, typing madly and muttering to himself under his breath. Although, at first sight, there was nothing too out of the ordinary about that, it was the fact that Rodney was working at the terminal from P19-J10, rather than one of the various lab terminals, that caught John's attention. Radek was at Rodney's side, his hands flying over his laptop.

"It's gone too far, Rodney," he said, his voice high and strained. "I can't stop it."

"Okay, okay," Rodney said. "I'll have to see if I can stop it from here. The trouble is now that the system has started, it seems to have gone into complete lock-down."

"What's going on in here?" John asked, aware that he was interrupting, but needing to know the details of the situation.

"A fucking disaster," Rodney spat, his eyes never leaving the terminal, "That's what's going on in here."

Apparently having reached an impasse in his work, Radek put down his laptop and crossed over to John's side. "We are having a problem here, Colonel," he said, running a hand through his hair and making it stick up even more than usual.

"The Wraith?" John asked. Surely they still a good few hours yet?

"No, not the Wraith – at least not yet," Rodney replied, the anger evident in his voice. "Unfortunately we still have that catastrophe to deal with. This is a whole new catastrophe. Although, on the upside," he continued, letting out a bark of humourless laughter, "if we can't deal with this one, at least we'll all be too busy dying to worry about the Wraith."

Realising that he wasn't going to get any sense out of Rodney while he was so busy, John turned back Radek. "You need to tell me what's going on."

"It is Lambert," Radek replied, jerking his head towards the small lab Lambert had been using as an office. John noted that the door was now closed with Roberts and Brodski both standing directly outside, looking like they were guarding it. "He has activated the big bang device."

"He what?!" John said, aghast. "When? Why?"

"Because he's a short-sighted, SGC-blinded, mind-enfeebled, cowardly idiot," Rodney spat in disgust. "Seems to think he's going to be some kind of hero when all he's going to end up doing is killing us all!"

"Okay," John said. "I need answers – what does this mean and how do we stop it?"

"It means we're very probably all doomed and that I'm not at all sure that there is a way of stopping it," Rodney replied. "I'm working on it but… Damn…" Rodney trailed off as something on the terminal's main screen started to flash and he dropped to his knees to pull open the hatch to the terminal's control crystals.

"Do we have a problem here?" came Elizabeth's voice as the doors to the lab slid open and she crossed over to where John and Radek were standing.

"Yes," John replied. "I'm just getting the full story myself, but it seems that Lambert has activated the big bang terminal without anyone's authorisation and Rodney isn't sure he can do anything to stop it."

Elizabeth's eyes widened as she turned to look at Rodney, who was now busy wiring up his laptop with the terminal's crystal matrix, still cursing under his breath.

"Radek will fill you in," he called out, sparing a second to glance up at Elizabeth. "I'm a little busy here. Miko, get over here and see if you can disconnect the weapons system while I work on the ZPM." As Miko raced over to Rodney's side, Brodski on her heels, John and Elizabeth both turned to Radek.

"Well," Radek began. "As you know, we have all been working on maximising the power flow from the ZPM to the city's weapons and shields. To do this, we have been doing lots of work on many of the city's systems – taking the non-essential systems off-line, improving the links between the vital ones, and doing work on the auxiliary power grid so that it would be able to take over running the city were we to suffer permanent primary system damage."

John nodded, urging Radek silently to get to the point – they all knew about this work from their daily briefings.

"While this was all going on," Radek continued. "It seems as though Lambert has taken the opportunity to connect the terminal to these primary systems rather than the simulations we had created."

"Meaning?" Elizabeth prompted.

"Meaning that the terminal is now connected to Atlantis' CPU and all of the city's major systems - the stargate, the Chair room, the database, the engineering labs, and the ZPM," Radek replied, his eyes wide and scared.

"So that means that he can activate the device?" Elizabeth asked.

"No," Rodney replied, emerging from the terminal, his own expression equally fearful. "It means he already has." He got to his feet and motioned towards the terminal's main display on which bright red characters were flashing an ominous Ancient countdown.

"I do not think it is possible to disconnect any of the systems without overloading the system," Miko said to Rodney. Brodski was nodding in agreement at her side.

Rodney sighed. "I know – it's part of the terminal's fail-safe procedures, to ensure that the experiment couldn't be tampered with once the final settings had been initiated." Turning to Elizabeth and John, he flapped a hand back towards the terminal. "He's managed to complete the set-up of the terminal, tying it into the city's live systems and set it to activate as soon as the start-up has completed."

"The start-up?" Elizabeth asked as John asked, "How much time do we have?"

Rodney shook his head. "Not long, a couple of hours at most. The start-up has already begun – that's what that energy surge was about half an hour ago."

John nodded, recalling the flickering lights in the briefing room – something that, at the time, he'd put down to just the normal operations of the Science department in preparation for the Wraith attack.

"Like I said when we were first discussing the terminal," Rodney continued. "It doesn't actually create the big bang event itself, rather it sets up the initial conditions."

"Which is what it's doing with the ZPM?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yes," Rodney replied. "All our power, apart from life-support which we'd already isolated and are running on the naquadah generators, is now being diverted to the terminal. It's routing commands via the CPU to various systems throughout the city and, even worse, is completely isolating them as it does so."

"So we're losing access to vital systems?" John asked. With a Wraith armada only about four hours away from weapons' range, this was not a in which situation they wanted to be.

"In essence, yes," Rodney replied. "You see, in order to… well, spark the big bang event, the terminal gathers together the necessary ingredients, for want of a better word." He looked quickly from Elizabeth to John and then back again. "I don't… well, I still don't understand precisely what it does, but as far as I can tell, it's now making use of our ZPM, weapons systems, control Chair, stargate, in addition to our database and several of the lab computers and engineering stations. Once it has reconfigured everything to its specifications, the terminal will then co-ordinate the creation of a wormhole with our stargate. Part of the terminal command codes have actually reconfigured the way the stargate operates and has removed the fail-safe that usually mean that you can only create a wormhole between two gates. What this means is that a variation of an event horizon will actually open in space itself. The terminal will use our weapons systems to launch a specialised drone – one that's being created automatically by the city's engineering systems as we speak – at this modified event horizon. The detonation of the drone just at the cusp of the horizon will then start the cascade reaction that will lead to another big bang."

John let out a deep breath as Rodney finished his recitation. "Crap," he summed up succinctly. "We're going to be sitting ducks."

Rodney snorted. "It's worse than that – we're all going to be dead. And by all, I do mean all – everyone, Wraith included. It'll start here, but it'll spread throughout this universe destroying everything in its path even as it creates something new in its place."

"And you can't stop it?" John pressed.

Rodney shook his head. "No matter what I do now, it'll lead to the same thing – we can't disconnect the terminal now that it's isolated itself without initiating the reaction itself." He took a deep breath and looked at John. "We can't even evacuate the city – not only do we not have access to the stargate, but it would do no good in the long term. I'm not sure at what rate the newly created universe will expand, but I doubt we get far enough away in the intervening time for it to make much of a difference."

"What about the containment field Lambert was talking about?" Elizabeth asked.

Rodney snorted. "Yeah, I've been looking into that," he replied scathingly. "And, as I suspected, the whole concept is basically a pile of crap. I mean, we're talking about an explosion of such a magnitude that it will create a whole universe – something like that simply cannot be contained." He trailed off for a moment, shaking his head, before continuing. "You know, it's ironic really: this is precisely why the Ancients wiped their records of this terminal in the first place and stripped and abandoned the research facility – it just can't be done."

John looked over at Elizabeth, trying to gauge her reaction. "We need to do something," he said. "Even if it is just a way of keeping people from panicking."

Elizabeth nodded. "I agree," she said. "We'll evacuate the city – take the jumpers, head for the nearest stargate, and try to get as far away as possible."

"The orbital gate around PT5-T7U is closest," John said. "We should be able to get there in just under an hour if we push things."

"Here," Rodney said, reaching out for a datapad and then scrolling through it to find something before thrusting it into John's hands. "Dial this address – it's on the far edges of this galaxy, as far as you'll be able to get using that gate. Of course, the distance won't provide you with any protection in the long-term, but at least it'll give you a bit more time."

"What do you mean 'you'?" John asked sharply. "We're all going."

But Rodney just shook his head. "No," he said. "I'm staying here – it makes no difference ultimately and, as you well know, I do my best work under pressure." He shot John a crooked grin. "Perhaps I'll come up with something at the last minute."

"Yeah, and then be left to face off forty hiveships on your own," John replied. "No way."

"Look, there's no point in arguing about this," Rodney huffed. "If I don't stay, we're all dead anyway, and if I do stay… Well, I guess I'm still dead, but at least the rest of you may not be. So what difference can it possibly make where I am when I die?"

John was momentarily lost for words – he could see Rodney's point, but it did matter. For the simple reason that John wanted Rodney with him – where he belonged.

"Right, then," he said, quickly making up his mind. "I'm staying too."

"What?" Rodney squawked. "No."

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth interrupted firmly. "As touching as this is, we really do need to get going – I'll make the evacuation announcement; John, I want you to start co-ordinating the evacuation itself and start getting people off the city as soon as you can; Rodney, you continue to work on a solution until we're ready to leave." She shot them both a stern look when it looked like they would both continue to argue. "We'll discuss who is staying and who is going then."

Each one of the expedition's members was well-versed on the evacuation procedures, so it was a relatively simple job to get everyone into jumpers and the each jumper launched. With the gate co-ordinates Rodney had given him programmed into the dialling device of every jumper, John watched as each jumper took off in turn, heading away from the Wraith fleet and towards the gate in orbit around PT5-T7U. Now only a single jumper remained in the bay – the one that would carry Elizabeth, Lorne, Ronon, Teyla, Rodney, Radek and himself. John had assigned a couple of marines to Lambert and had placed him in one of the first jumpers to head off the base, totally ignoring the man's rantings about how he'd made the right decision and that it was their responsibility to safeguard Earth no matter what the cost.

The doors to the jumper bay swept open and Elizabeth entered with Lorne at her side. "Are we ready?" she asked.

John looked over to Teyla and Ronon who were standing with him beside the jumper. "Almost," he said. "Only Rodney's left to come." He reached up to his radio, calling out Rodney's name.

"I told you before," came Rodney's reply. "I'm staying here. I'm working on a few ideas and I just can't leave. You should all just go while there's still time."

"No," John replied, shaking his head sharply even though he knew Rodney couldn't seem him. "I'm not leaving you."

"I'm not debating this," Rodney replied sharply before the line went dead. From the click echoing in his ear, John could tell that he'd taken off his radio.

John paused, unsure of what to do. A part of him wanted to race up to the Science lab and drag Rodney bodily into the jumper while another part wanted to go up there and work at Rodney's side until they're time ran out. John knew that what Rodney was saying was right – he did need to stay on Atlantis and continue to work until there simply was no more time left. But John also knew that he couldn't just abandon Rodney here to die alone – he needed to be with him.

Suddenly, he felt the light touch of a hand on his arm and looked over to see Elizabeth watching him with some soft emotion in her eyes. "Stay, John," she said gently. "Lorne can take us. Stay with Rodney." She then stood up on tip-toe and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek before turning around and walking up the ramp into the jumper.

Lorne stepped up to him next, snapping out a smart salute before offering John his hand. John shook hands with him in something of a daze. "Good luck, sir," Lorne said. "If anyone can pull this thing off, it's you and McKay."

Blinking, John pulled himself together to return Lorne's salute. "Good luck to you too, Major," he said as Lorne headed for the jumper.

Turning finally to Ronon and Teyla, John wondered how on Earth he was supposed to say good-bye to them. However, there was a familiar spark of determination in Teyla's eye as he met her gaze and Ronon was standing firm with his arms crossed over his chest.

Letting out a sigh of what could have been relief as he realised that neither of them was going anywhere, John nodded before turning back to the jumper. "Looks like this is going to be a team event after all," he said, feeling the hope bubble up with in his chest unchecked. "Head off now and we'll let you know when it's safe to come home."

Rodney was just as John had left him, still hunched over his laptop next to the terminal, when he, Teyla and Ronon arrived at the lab. He was still in a partial daze from the scene in the jumper bay and had been grateful that Teyla and Ronon had held their silence as they'd made their way down to the lab. However, rather than feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed at his team obviously being aware of his conflicting emotions around Rodney, John found all he could be was grateful that the people who had become closer to him that family were so aware and supportive of his needs.

Rodney startled as they approached him, spinning around in his chair with his eyes widening in shock. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought I told you all to leave."

"No can do, buddy," John replied easily. "We're a team, remember?"

"Absolutely," Teyla agreed. "What can we do to help, Rodney?" she asked as Ronon reached out to tap Rodney companionably on the shoulder.

"Oh," Rodney said, obviously momentarily struck speechless by his team's unreserved show of trust in his abilities. "Well, I… I don't know quite what to say."

Something in John that had been clenched painfully tight ever since Doranda started to release at the look of wonder on Rodney's face and he couldn't help but feel very proud of his whole team. "Just tell us what you need us to do, Rodney," he said.

Rodney blinked once and then seemed to pull himself together. "Right, yes, okay," he said, turning back to stare at his laptop for a moment. "Well, we've got two rather major problems – the imminent big bang explosion and the Wraith fleet that is due to reach weapons range within a couple of hours. If, by some miracle, we manage to shut down the terminal, we're still facing almost certain defeat at the hands of the Wraith – the power levels in the ZPM are already showing signs of serious depletion."

"One at a time, buddy," John cautioned, doing his best to focus Rodney.

"Yes," Rodney said, nodding in agreement. "So, first the terminal – well, like I said earlier, nothing I do seems to be able to either disconnect it from the city nor am I able to shut it down now that it has been activated."

"So what does that leave?" John pressed. "What else can we do?"

Rodney shook his head. "That's what I'm still trying to figure out."

"And you cannot contain it either?" Teyla asked.

"No," Rodney replied flatly. "Which doesn't leave a whole lot of options."

"Can't you just move it?" Ronon asked.

Rodney frowned. "What do you mean 'move it'? Of course I can't just move it." he replied sounding like he was reaching the end of his tether. "It starts here and spreads everywhere else – there is no moving it."

Ronon shrugged. "Okay," he said. "I just figured that having more than one universe was something you people were used to – in that programme Sheppard keeps watching the guy moves between universes all the time."

Rodney looked over at John for help.

"He means Quantum Leap," John replied, feeling slightly sheepish.

"Yes, of course, he does – Quantum Leap," Rodney repeated in a daze. He turned to roll his eyes at Ronon. "John's questionable tastes aside, and despite to all appearances to the contrary, we are not living in some low-budget science fiction programme." He turned back to his laptop, muttering to himself.

John was just about to suggest that perhaps they should leave Rodney to it and head down to the armoury when Rodney suddenly swung back around in his chair, his eyes wide as he pointed at Ronon. "Oh my god!" he exclaimed. "I don't believe it, but you may actually be right."

"I am?" Ronon asked, apparently sufficiently surprised to let some of it show in his voice.

"Yes," Rodney said, shaking his finger at him with increasing excitement. "Theoretically, at any rate. I mean, the idea of parallel universes or dimensions has been around for years and this device is already creating a new universe, so why not just put it somewhere else?"

"Um, how?" John asked, feeling rather like he had just stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone, which for someone who battle daily with life-sucking space vampires was something of a shock.

"Yes, well, that will be the tricky part," Rodney said, swinging back around to his laptop. "But I'm pretty sure I've seen something about this on the Ancient database…" His voice trailed off as he started attacking his keyboard like a man possessed. "Ah, yes, here it is. It's all pretty much just speculation and I have no idea if I'll even be able to get something together in time, but I guess we've not got a lot of choices left."

"What is it?" John asked.

"It's some calculations for reconfiguring the stargate," Rodney said as he studied his screen intently. "Rather like the terminal is doing, but with the intent of using the power that it takes to create a wormhole – something which bends the fabric of space-time in this universe – to bridge the gap between our universe and some other plane."

"Sounds complicated," Ronon commented.

"To put it mildly," Rodney replied. He turned away from the screen abruptly to look at them all, his eyes wide and uncertain. "I'm not sure I can do this," he confessed softly.

"Rodney, if anyone can do it, you can," Teyla assured him, reaching out to place a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Rodney looked up at her, the doubts still clearly visible on his face. "I can't make any promises," he said. "There's hardly any time and not only will I have to write the programme code to make the alterations to the stargate specifications, but I'll also have to find a way to override the terminal's lock on the 'gate in order to input these new commands." He paused to swallow thickly before continuing, his voice dropping to little more than a whisper. "I couldn't get the Arcturus weapon working, even when I was convinced that I could. And this…" he shook his head, "this is going to be a hell of a lot more difficult."

"Rodney," John said, moving over to squat down in front of him and wishing there was a way he could just erase the doubts from Rodney's face. "You can do this: I have faith in you; we all have faith in you." As he spoke he reached out to place his hands on Rodney's thighs, willing Rodney to trust his words. "All you have to do is have faith in yourself."

Rodney blinked in surprise, no doubt shocked at John's very visible show of support and affection, but John found that he no longer cared. Everyone in this room was family to him and they all already knew how he felt about Rodney. Suddenly maintaining his 'distance' no longer seemed to matter.

"Okay – you're right; I can do this," Rodney said. "Or rather, we can do this."

"We?" John echoed, sitting back on his haunches as Rodney got to his feet.

"Yeah - we," Rodney replied, a smile starting to spread across his face as he made his way over to Radek's desk to grab a couple of laptops. He thrust one of the laptops into John's hand while handing the other one over to Teyla. "You're all going to have to help me if we're going to get this done in time. John, I want you to have a look at the terminal's firewall protocols – Radek was working on it just before we ran out of time and had to evacuate. It appears to be using a mathematically based syntax matrix for keeping all the systems the terminal is connected to impenetrable to attack – we're going to need to get through that if we're going to be able to access the stargate and input the new command specifications to create an inter-dimensional event horizon."

John opened his mouth to say that it had been a long time since he'd done any coding, but Rodney overrode his protests. "Don't even start," he snapped. "I know you're still nothing but a math geek underneath all that hair."

Next he turned to Teyla. "I need you to go through this database entry about creating an inter-dimensional wormhole and help me keep track of all the various parameters. We need to make certain that I create a coding protocol for each one if this thing is to have even a slim chance of success."

At Teyla's nod, Rodney turned to Ronon, handing him another laptop from his desk. "Of course, even if we do manage to send the big bang explosion into a different plane, we still have the far from insignificant problem of the Wraith fleet heading in our direction. However, if we manage to time this thing right and open the wormhole at the right point, we may just be able to take care of both problems in one fell swoop. Ronon, I need you to track the fleet's trajectory and identify their position in approximately thirty minutes as precisely as you can."

Ronon nodded and took the laptop, appropriating Miko's desk and swinging her chair around backwards so that he could straddle it as he worked.

"Right, you all know what you're doing," Rodney concluded. "So let's get to work – we've got less than an hour before we're going to have to act."

Rodney stared out of his window into the blackness of the Lantean night and marvelled at how, over the course of just a few hours, life out here could change so dramatically. Of course, during his time on Atlantis he'd faced down certain death more times than he cared to count, but he was still slightly in shock to think that this particular mad-cap scheme had actually worked. Looking back on the actual event itself, he could only shake his head in wonder that they'd been able to pull it off. It had been a team effort all the way and Rodney was surprised to discover that the joy that particular fact gave him rivalled even his joy at having survived. It seemed like the days when he'd craved individual success were well and truly gone: John, Ronon and Teyla, not to mention Radek, Miko, Brodski, Roberts, and the rest of his scientists – working alongside each and every one of them had turned out to be far more satisfying than any of his earlier solo pursuits.

In spite of Rodney's doubts and reservations, they had managed to divert the course of the big bang event – altering the specifications of the wormhole just in time to ensure that an inter-dimensional event horizon was created rather than one in the space-time of this universe. As a result, the genesis of the new universe had occurred in a different plane altogether - the explosion creating its own space as it progressed and sparking the beginnings of a whole new dimension as it did so. It was an utterly awesome concept and Rodney was certain that he would never understand the intricacies involved even were he to devote the rest of his life to their study. Their universe had, therefore, been preserved and, thanks to some spot-on tracking by Ronon, Rodney had been able to initiate the big bang reaction slap bang in the middle of the Wraith fleet, thereby causing them to be sucked into the gravitational field of the inter-dimensional wormhole along with the singularity itself. Looking back on the whole ordeal, Rodney could only be grateful that there had been sufficient information in the Ancient database for him to re-programme the stargate's command codes and that John, Ronon and Teyla had been at his side throughout.

There had been a moment of stunned silence immediately following the disappearance of both the Wraith fleet and the big bang event – none of SGA-1 quite believing that they had done it. Then, as realisation had slowly dawned, Rodney had collapsed back down into his chair with an enormous sigh of relief while Teyla and Ronon had embraced and John had slapped him repeatedly on the back in celebration. Rodney had continued to sit there in a state of semi-shock as John had contacted the Lorne and the rest of the evacuation jumpers and the expedition members had slowly returned home.

That had been over four hours ago now and the intervening time had passed by in something of daze for Rodney. As people had started to filter back into Atlantis, Teyla had dragged Rodney and the rest of the team to the commissary and given them each a bowl of thick soup. The conversation had been somewhat subdued, but this was usual after such close calls – each of them just enjoying the reality of still being alive and surrounded by others. For his part, Rodney certainly had a lot preying on his mind – there was the scientific miracle they'd just somehow managed to pull off, the as yet unresolved situation with Lambert and, finally, the large question mark over what exactly was going on with John.

While he'd eaten his soup, alternating between using his spoon and dunking in hunks of bread, Rodney had pondered each of these issues in turn. The first one had been simple to resolve – he would simply add both the specs of the terminal and the inter-dimensional wormhole to the long list of projects he hoped to have time to work on properly one day. As neither were of immediate use to the Atlantis mission, he suspected it would probably be many years before he could give either of them the attention they deserved, but it was always nice to have a largely theoretical challenge with which to grapple during the odd quiet times.

As for Lambert, Rodney now had a feeling that it wasn't likely that he'd be hearing anything from the man again. He'd been led out of his jumper flanked by two marines and escorted directly to Elizabeth's office. Rodney had no idea what exactly had been said, but from the look on Lambert's face when he'd emerged, he doubted Elizabeth had pulled any of her punches. Part of him wished he could be a fly on the wall when Lambert had his official de-briefing back at the SGC. Even now, Rodney couldn't help but smirk to himself at Lambert's current predicament – he'd brought it entirely on himself and it just went to show that only those with the strongest resolve could make it in Pegasus. No, Rodney was pretty sure that the position of CSO was his for as long as he wanted it.

And that had just left John – not the easiest of riddles at the best of times, let alone at a time when Rodney'd had far too little sleep. John's insistence that he stay with Rodney on Atlantis, despite the consequences, had both pleased Rodney and scared him. Although it warmed him to know that John would stay with him – would die with him – Rodney also knew that he'd already spent far too much of his time in fear for John's life. He didn't want John to have to sacrifice himself – he was far too important to Rodney for that.

And that was really the crux of the matter, wasn't it? That John was important to Rodney – more important than even Rodney's own life. And that was when it had happened; while sitting in the commissary surrounded by his team mates and with a soup spoon half-way to his mouth, Rodney had realised just how much he loved John Sheppard.

He'd left immediately – how could he possibly stay? John had made it crystal clear that although he valued Rodney's friendship and once again trusted his scientific acumen, any chance of an actual relationship between them was impossible. And, if he was being honest with himself, Rodney wasn't altogether certain he could go back to being friends with John as well as fucking him. Sure, it would be fine for as long as it lasted, but one day, some pretty woman (or man) would come along and turn John's head and Rodney would be left with nothing but John's friendship and his own memories. No, it was far better that he make the break now – when he'd already resigned himself to being no more than John's friend.

But what about that kiss?

Rodney sighed, pushed himself away from the window and pulled his curtains closed against the dark, determined not to let his mind wander down dead ends. Despite what had happened out on the pier, it had to be John's actual words that he needed to remember, not his actions – I got too close and things got lost – important things. No, John didn't want a relationship with him, no matter how much Rodney might wish otherwise.

He crossed over to the bed and pulled on the old t-shirt and boxers he wore in lieu of pyjamas. He'd already showered and now wanted nothing more but to fall into bed and forget about everything in at least twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. However, as soon as he fell back onto the pillow and closed his eyes, all he could see was John – John's arms reaching out and holding him tight, John's voice insisting that he wasn't going to leave, the expression on John's face just moments before they kissed…

The sound of the door chime actually came as a welcome diversion and Rodney hauled himself to his feet, switching on his bedside lamp and half-hoping there was some minor emergency occurring that would use up the last of his brain power so he could finally sleep un-tormented by either frivolous dreams or unwanted nightmares.

"John?" he said, surprised to find him standing at his doorway. He'd thought for sure that John would have gone to ground for a while, just to make sure that Rodney hadn't misunderstood what he'd really been saying out there on the pier. "Is something wrong?"

"No," John replied quickly, looking ever so slightly uneasy. "Well, not really, but I… Look, can I come in?"

"Sure," Rodney said, stepping to one side to allow John to enter and seeing him glance quickly towards Rodney's rumpled bed. "I was just about to go to sleep," he explained.

"Oh, yeah – sorry. I should have realised," John apologised. "I guess it's been kinda a long day."

"You could say that," Rodney replied with a tired grin.

"You want me to come back later?" John asked.

"No, it's okay." Rodney said quickly. Whatever it was that had brought John to his door, he wanted to know about it. "What's up?"

"Couple things," John said with a grin, pulling out the chair from Rodney's desk and taking a seat opposite Rodney who sank down to his bed. "First off, Elizabeth's just told me that she's sending Lambert back through the gate first thing tomorrow."

"Thank goodness for that," Rodney said with a sigh of relief. "Let's just hope he doesn't come up with some other way to kill us overnight."

"Well, I've put him under marine guard, so that'd be a bit tricky," John replied. "Seriously though Rodney, I don't think you have to worry about anything he's going to say. Elizabeth spoke directly to General Landry about Lambert's actions here and to say Landry was pissed is putting it mildly."

Rodney snorted. "Nothing like trying to destroy the entire universe to invalidate your credentials. Good thing I could only manage a solar system."

"Hey," John said, the smile of his face giving way to an expression of concern. "You saved the universe today, Rodney, so stop being so hard on yourself."

"We did, you mean," Rodney corrected. "And I hope you realise that you're now on my list of back-up mathematicians should we ever run into trouble in the lab."

Now it was John's turn to snort. "I'm not sure that's the best idea," he said. "I'm good enough with numbers sequences and patterns, but I'm no mathematician."

"Nonsense, you sell yourself short," Rodney countered.

"And so do you," John said, his certainty evident in his voice. "Look, Rodney, you're CSO here because you've earned it and you're on my team because you've earned it. Like you've said all along, we're not exactly living in perfect conditions. We all make mistakes; that's just part of living on the edge out here."

Rodney nodded, knowing that it was true. "I have learned from my mistakes," he felt compelled to say.

"I know you have," John replied.

"And I do want to be trusted again, by everyone," he continued.

"You are," John insisted. "That miracle you pulled off today – one that you masterminded – has proved that to everyone – the SGC included."

"Good. That's… good."

Rodney let his eyes drift closed for a moment, hoping that this would mean the end of his nightmares, at least until the next disaster. When he opened them again, he found John staring at him with the same intent look on his face that he'd had earlier that day when they were out on the pier.

"There was just one more thing," he started to say, his tone cautious once more. "I-"

"Don't," Rodney interrupted him sharply, unwilling to hear another explanation of why he would never be enough for John. "You don't have to say it, okay? I get it. You can't… you know… with me, so let's just leave it there."

John's expression clouded over in confusion. "Rodney, I-"

But Rodney rose quickly to his feet, cutting John off once again and turning away so he wouldn't have to see John leave. "Please, John, just leave it. It's over – I understand."

Suddenly he felt John's hand land softly on his shoulder. "No," John said as he slowly turned Rodney back around to face him. "I don't think you do…" And then John was kissing him.

Rodney started for a moment in shock and John's arms immediately closed tightly about him as John's tongue ran teasingly across the seam of his lips. Rodney opened his mouth on pure instinct and all thoughts of why this wasn't a good idea flew out of his mind as John thrust his tongue in deep.

They stood there and kissed for long moments, breaking apart only long enough to catch a quick breath before losing themselves in each other once more. Rodney felt the desire build within him until he felt like he was about to burst. He couldn't hold John close enough or kiss him deep enough. His cock was growing hard in his boxers and he moaned as John pressed his thigh between Rodney's legs, brushing against his dick and making it jump to full arousal in an instant.

John pulled back slightly and Rodney heard him whisper softly, "You see, it's not over; it's just begun," before pressing his mouth back to Rodney's.

Realising that John obviously did want this – did want him – Rodney allowed himself to let go of the last of his reservations. Sweeping his hands down from where he had them wrapped around John's waist, he cupped John's ass in his palms and pulled him even closer. Now it was John's turn to groan, twisting his hips from side to side as he rubbed himself against Rodney's hip, his own thigh providing a delicious friction to Rodney's cock as he did so.

Rodney forced his eyes to open just enough for him to judge the distance to the bed, and then he manoeuvred them both towards it. It was slow going because not only did John not seem to want to stop kissing Rodney, but he also seemed intent on getting as many of Rodney's clothes off at the same time. Rodney took John's dedication to these tasks as a source of inspiration and set himself to returning the favour. As a result, they landed on the bed in a tangled mess of unzipped pants, un-tucked t-shirts and wayward limbs, with their mouths somehow still sealed together.

They managed to disengage from one another long enough to pull off the rest of their clothes. Rodney sat back on his heels once he'd stripped away John's boxers and just took in the sight of John Sheppard, naked and hard, lying wantonly across his bed. John's chest was heaving slightly and his eyes were nearly black, the desire that was running like molten lava through Rodney's veins clearly affecting him just as much. His cock was lying thick and hard against his stomach, the rounded head flushed red and leaking slightly; it jumped and pulsed under the weight of Rodney's gaze, making John moan and shift his hips restlessly.

"God, Rodney," he gasped, reaching out to pull Rodney down beside him. "Don't just look; touch me."

Rodney felt delight bubble up inside him at John's plea and he leaned over John's body, intent on doing just that. He kissed John deeply on the mouth once more, twining their tongues together as he ran his hand down the centre of John's chest. As he slowly explored the tempting planes and angles of John's torso, he started moving his mouth downwards, pressing hot, sucking kisses to John's jaw-line and down the sensitive curve of his neck. He spent long moments sucking on the soft patch of skin where John's shoulder met his neck, enjoying the noises John was making as well as the writhing of his body.

Moving his mouth downwards still, Rodney swirled his tongue around John's right nipple, his fingers echoing the movement on the left. When he closed his mouth completely over the hard nub and sucked, John groaned and arched his chest upwards, his reaction causing Rodney's cock to pulse in pleasure. Recognising that neither of them was going to be able to withstand much more teasing, Rodney continued his journey, licking his way down the thick line of hair that ran to John's navel. As John obviously recognised where Rodney was headed, he moaned again and thrust his hips upwards, his body practically begging for Rodney's mouth.

Rodney pulled away so that he could reposition himself between John's eagerly spread thighs. For a moment he merely hovered over John's groin, taking in the sight and heady scent of John's arousal before gently reaching out to close his mouth around the head of John's pulsing cock. John's groan of pleasure sparked off a similar noise in Rodney's chest as he slowly sucked John's cock deep into his mouth, trying to relax his throat as best he could and take as much of John as he possibly could.

Rodney noticed that John's hands were fisted tightly in the bed sheets and that he was shaking slightly with the effort it was taking not to start thrusting himself into Rodney's mouth. In response, Rodney closed his hands around John's hips, pinning him to the bed as he moved his mouth up and down John's shaft, enjoying the way it filled his mouth and the bitter taste of the pre-come against his tongue. He lost himself in the sensations, closing his eyes and just letting the waves of desire and need wash over him as he sucked.

"Rodney, you've got to stop," John panted after a while, his hands plucking gently at Rodney's head.

Rodney pulled away from John's cock with a little sigh of disappointment, unable to help himself from running his mouth down John's shaft a final time towards his balls. He felt John shiver beneath him as he gently tongued John's testicles, moving a hand down to cup them before sliding a questioning finger even further back.

John's response was instantaneous; his hips canted forward at once and he spread himself even further apart, welcoming Rodney's touch. With slightly shaking hands, Rodney reached out to his bedside cabinet to grab a bottle of lube, looking up at John with the unspoken question clear on his face. John answered him at once by effortlessly lifting himself up to kiss Rodney deeply before settling back down and spreading his legs wide once more.

Rodney took his time, coating his fingers with plenty of lube and then gently coaxing John's body open. With his fingers buried deep inside John's body, John's moans of pleasure sounding loudly in the air, Rodney felt blown away by the strength of his emotions. He looked up to meet John's smouldering gaze and recognised that he was not alone.

They were both trembling by the time Rodney slicked up his own cock and placed himself against John's entrance. He moved forward slowly, feeling the gradual give of John's body as he gently pressed himself inside. He was momentarily overcome by the sensation of how amazing John felt around his aching flesh and had to stop himself from moving to regain some of his control. John strained against him, pushing upwards so that they could kiss and then lying back down and urging Rodney to move.

Rodney started to thrust, pulling himself out of John's slick body before pushing himself deep back inside. John's hips were moving in counterpoint to his as their pace gradually increased. Rodney kept altering his angle until he heard John cry out in pleasure as Rodney's cock hit his prostate, then he made sure he kept his angle steady as he started to fuck John in earnest. His movements grew increasingly erratic as the pleasure continued to build, distantly aware that he was moaning aloud with every thrust. John seemed equally lost, his groans merging with Rodney's as he thrust his ass up to meet each of Rodney's downward strokes. As Rodney felt his climax approaching, he had just enough presence of mind to reach between their straining bodies and close his hand around John's dick. John cried out long and low as Rodney pumped him, his climax erupting between them and coating them both with hot fluid. John's climax sparked Rodney's own and he thrust himself forward one last time as he spilled himself deep within John's body.

"So, I guess this is the start of… something," Rodney said as he settled back into bed beside John sometime later, having cleaned them both up and lowered the lights.

"Well, it sure felt like it to me," John replied sleepily, his arms closing around Rodney as he pulled him close and pressed a soft kiss to the nape of his neck. "That okay with you?"

Rodney smiled and snuggled down into John's embrace. "Yeah," he replied happily as sleep started to take him. "More than okay."

Epilogue – a month later

Rodney's pencil flew over the page, letters and symbols being formed as quickly as he could make them as his thoughts flew at break-neck speed. He doubted anyone else would even be able to decipher the lines of equations he was creating, but that didn't matter – once he'd managed to get everything down on paper, he would go back and write the work up thoroughly, checking through it as he went. But that was for later, now he just needed to get this set of equations working…

"… and he's been like this for the last hour at least – completely oblivious."

The words broke through Rodney's consciousness just as he scribbled down the last line of his proof. "Yes, what is it?" he snapped, looking up from his pad with a scowl to find Radek and John both grinning down at him.

John raised an eyebrow and then pointedly looked down at his watch. Rodney's eyes flew to the clock in the corner of his computer screen, his eyes widening as he took in how late it was.

"Oh," he said, wincing internally. "I guess I sorta lost track of time."

"Obviously," John said, exchanging a look with Radek and then tilting his head towards the lab doors. "Well, come on then; if we're late, you can bet that Ronon will have eaten all the tormack."

Casting a mock glare in Radek's direction – he wasn't sure he altogether approved of this new friendship between Radek and John, especially when it resulted in the two of them ganging up on him in his own lab – Rodney gathered up his papers and stood. He was pleased to note that, despite having spent far too long hunched over his work, his back hardly twinged at all; the daily karyi sessions with Teyla were obviously paying off. He started to head out of the lab, intent on salvaging at least some of the tormack even if it meant fighting off Ronon, only to realise, as he neared the door way, that John wasn't with him. He turned to find John still standing by his desk, peering down at his notes with a look of intense concentration on his face. "Hey," Rodney complained. "I thought we were going – we're talking tormack and chocolate cake here, so move it, Sheppard."

John looked up at the words and, after sharing another amused look with Radek, turned to follow Rodney out of the lab.

"So whatcha working on?" John asked as they made their way down the corridor towards the transporter. "Looked like something related to fluid dynamics."

Rodney gave John an approving look as he nodded. "It is," he replied. "I've not got anything concrete yet, but I'm thinking that maybe there's some refinements there that we can apply to our life support system. I've just been doing the initial calculations to see if there is something viable before I pass it on to the engineering team to work up some actual simulations."

"Sounds good," John said, ushering Rodney ahead of him into the transporter. "So did you see that the data stream came in this morning?" he asked, something about the studiously casualness of his tone catching Rodney's attention.

"Yes," Rodney answered cautiously. "Why?"

"You obviously didn't read it all, then," John concluded.

"Well, of course not," Rodney replied. "Why would I do something like that? It's mostly just boring admin and military mumbo-jumbo; I limit myself to skimming the science directives."

"Ah," was all John said, a small grin pulling at his mouth as they left the transporter and headed towards the commissary.

"So," Rodney prompted, his impatience growing. "What was in it?"

"Oh, nothing much," John replied as the doors to the commissary slid open at their approach and the mouth-watering aroma of deep fried tormack reached them. "Just the standard stuff – some suggested updates to our SOPs, a few new items available for requisition… and, oh yes, the latest personnel reports from the various SGC outposts."

Rodney frowned, still not seeing the relevance of any of John's words, as they joined the line for food. "O-kay," he said slowly as he picked up a tray and a plate and started helping himself to a large dacarin steak and a pile of seasoned tormack wedges. "As fascinating as that all sounds, I'm still not feeling the urge to go back to the lab and read it from start to finish."

"Read what?" A new voice asked, a hand coming in from one side to swipe a tormack wedge right off Rodney's plate.

"Hey, get your own!" Rodney complained, turning to glare at Ronon who was unrepentantly munching on his wedge.

"Yours taste better, McKay," Ronon replied, reaching out for another one just as Rodney stepped quickly back out of range.

"You know, he may have a point there, buddy," John said, his arm coming around Rodney and heading towards Rodney's plate.

Rodney tilted his head to one side and gave John a look.

"Then again, maybe not," John backtracked quickly, changing the direction of his arm to squeeze Rodney's shoulder lightly instead.

"Hmm, I should think so," Rodney said, feeling slightly mollified when John added a slice of chocolate cake to his tray in apology. A second hand added a small bowl of salad and Rodney looked up to meet Teyla's amused gaze.

"What should McKay be reading then, Sheppard?" Ronon asked again as the team made their way over to their usual table.

"Oh, just the latest data stream from the SGC," John answered casually as he took his seat next to Rodney.

"Oh, yes, of course," Teyla said, sitting down opposite Rodney with a pointed glance towards his salad as his fork hovered over his pile of tormack wedges. "It is good news, is it not?" she continued with a smile.

"For us, at least," Ronon added with something of an evil grin.

"Will one of you please let me in on what exactly you're all talking about that's so amusing," Rodney snapped in exasperation as John, Teyla and Ronon all continued to grin at him.

"Oh, nothing much," John replied, bumping Rodney's shoulder affectionately with his own. "Just the news that one of the scientists being sent to work on the SGCs latest collaboration with the Russians is Lambert."

Rodney's eyes widened at John's words. "Oh, please tell me it's in Siberia," he begged.

"Yup; you got it in one," John replied as he reached out to filch one of Rodney's wedges and proceeded to munch it down with yet another grin.

Rodney shook his head as a similar grin spread across his own face and pushed his entire tray – steak, tormack wedges, chocolate cake and all – towards John. "You know," he said, feeling the final threads of the tension that he'd lived with ever since he'd heard the news of Lambert's arrival on Atlantis finally slip away. "I think you've just made my day."

The End