They destroyed the city when they left it.

Elizabeth was the only one on the bridge who cried. She was silent, standing with her arms folded, hands tight around her elbows, staring out the bridge viewport. The tears slid down her face as the planet that had been their home for four years receded in space. Sheppard stood at attention beside her, dry-eyed and stoic. He flinched, once, when Brandt triggered the destruct. Brandt, in the captain's chair, gave a grunt of satisfaction that obscured any sound Sheppard made as he inhaled. The simultaneous explosions were large enough to be seen from space, the viewport polarizing black for an instant, then they could all see a white flare spreading high into the atmosphere, the brilliant light reflected in Sheppard's unblinking gaze. Wind-whipped clouds tore over the face of the ocean, until any detail was lost in the distance.

Rodney kept his eyes down after that, on his screens, at the engineering console he'd appropriated from one of the crew through sheer fury. He was bitter enough to resent Elizabeth's display and Sheppard's stoicism. Sensors showed him more than bare eyes could anyway. Just nothing he wanted to see. He concentrated on the numbers, letting them numb him. The energy bloom of a dozen deliberately overloaded naquadah generators held a certain mathematical beauty.

The planet dwindled to a blue-white marble against the darkness before the Chiron jumped into hyperspace.


He got drunk with Sheppard after the last round of debriefing.

They were acting like nothing had changed. But that was the point. Neither of them was going to acknowledge anything had happened. If nothing had happened between them, then it was perfectly natural for them to have a beer together. For Rodney to offer Sheppard a place to crash overnight. They weren't going to talk. They hadn't talked on the Chiron, and they weren't going to talk now. Or ever. Just as well. Rodney didn't want to know that Sheppard was as full of festering fury and pain as he was.

Worse would be to know Sheppard wasn't.

Sheppard sprawled on Rodney's brown leather couch, legs stretched out straight, one hand curled around the neck of the sweating beer bottle, staring at the TV. It was playing local news or possibly an infomercial. Rodney didn't know and didn't care. He doubted Sheppard did either.

Rodney stared at him. Sheppard wouldn't meet his eyes. He had succumbed and submitted to a regulation hair cut. It made him look paradoxically both younger and harder, reminding Rodney that Sheppard was still in the USAF despite the jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt he wore rather than a uniform. There were still rules. They'd lived by them for four years and broken them only once.

"They promoted you," he said.

Sheppard emptied the beer bottle with one long swallow. His throat worked. He even closed his eyes. The beer wasn't that good, but Rodney knew him well enough to recognize the difference between savoring and evading. "Yeah," he said afterward, turning and turning the empty bottle. "SG-2 CO. I've got two weeks' leave before I'm supposed to report for duty."

Rodney put his own bottle to his mouth so that he wouldn't say anything. It was surprisingly hard to swallow, and not because the beer had gone warm. Sheppard hadn't asked for him to join his team this time.

"Fighting the Ori."

Sheppard shrugged. "Looking for more ZPMs." Sheppard's shoulders always looked narrow in the black shirts he favored. It made Rodney want to span them with his hands—work out the tension he could see present in the way they were set.

"Hunh," Rodney remarked. Everything was about fighting the Ori War at the SGC now. Of course they wanted more ZPMs. And no one would be better at hunting them than Sheppard. Besides, what else could they do with him? It wasn't like they'd been recalled because of anything they had done in Pegasus. Sheppard hadn't fucked up—this time he'd obeyed orders: boarded the ship, blown the city, brought back the ZPM. A curl of anger threaded through Rodney. The brass probably thought Sheppard had finally learned his lesson. It pissed him off, again, thinking maybe Sheppard had. His hands twitched at his sides.

"Got any more of these?" Sheppard asked, holding up the empty bottle.

"In the fridge."

Sheppard brought back a full bottle for himself and another for Rodney. He flipped the cap onto a dusty pile of out-of-date physics journals on the TV, then picked up the remote, surfing through the channels until he found a football game. "Pre-season," he muttered. Sheppard's elbows rested on his knees, the thin cotton of his shirt stretching taut over the curve of his back. Rodney could count the knobs of his spine. His hands twitched again and he occupied them, picking at the label on the beer bottle, drawing off a strip of damp paper with his thumbnail.

"Is that like pre-school?" Rodney asked.

"Yeah, the coaches want to see if the new guys play well with others," Sheppard replied with a snort.

"Like you," Rodney said, bitterness leaching into his voice. He wondered what it would take to push John into a fight. He felt like finding out. He was sick of pretending everything wasn't fucked, sick of the professional politeness they'd practiced during the two weeks they'd been stuck aboard the Chiron, sick of acting—

"Not really. I'm just good at faking it."

"Right. Well. You know I'm not."

Sick of trying, most of all, he decided. Getting Sheppard angry wouldn't be worth the effort.

"You've gotten better at it."

"Yes, yes, I have," Rodney agreed sardonically.

Sheppard set the remote on the coffee table and bowed his head before taking a deep breath, the sort that went with bracing yourself. He turned and looked at Rodney, his face a careful blank. "Two weeks. I'm supposed to 'decompress'. I should probably find some place to live, too. Can't stay in the BOQ forever. Unless I can stay here?" His voice was as empty as his expression. Maybe he was trying to tell Rodney something, offer something, but Rodney had never been adept at parsing secret messages from the words they were couched in. He wasn't even in the mood to try tonight.

He wasn't in the mood for a lot of things, but after tomorrow he wouldn't have to think about it. He wouldn't have to even look at Sheppard again.

He opened his beer and watched two lines of overly large men in tights and pads smack into each other like dueling Bighorn sheep. Some of those guys were bigger than Ronon. He concentrated on the beer in his mouth. Too bitter.

"I'm going to Antarctica with the ZPM."


"Tomorrow," he said.

"Damn," Sheppard said. He said it staring at the TV screen, as the team with the Broncos on their helmets lost the ball, not looking at Rodney any more. Really, it was better that way. He didn't want to see the way the hazel in Sheppard's eyes flared green and remember the way they seemed to darken when his eyelids fluttered half-shut. He didn't want his heartbeat to pick up speed. He didn't want to want.

They finished the six-pack in near silence, watching the football game until the bitter end and a reality show with idiots eating bugs for money afterward, before Rodney staggered back to the bedroom, leaving Sheppard sleeping on his couch. He collapsed onto his bed and watched reflected light from car headlights wash back and forth over his ceiling. He'd left the TV droning in the living room, knowing turning it off would snap Sheppard awake. He could still hear it, though he'd closed his door. The walls were thin. He thought about rules and breaking them and why Sheppard hadn't asked him to join SG-2. His eyes burned from being awake too long and the bed seemed to spin, an effect of not having anything more than beer.

Everything in the apartment had a layer of dust. He could taste it in the back of his mouth. Even the spiderweb high in the corner of the ceiling had dust.

Arthropods. Sucked the life out of their prey. He vowed to buy insect killer and spray the entire apartment.

People sucked the life out of you too, he decided, if you let them too close. Who said it was the Iratus bugs that made the Wraith predators? Maybe it was their human DNA. Certainly that's where their ability to lie and manipulate and double-cross came from. Too bad Beckett's retrovirus hadn't been a success. They'd all have gotten along so well.

God, he was drunk. He only ever got philosophical when he was drunk or sleep-deprived. Two-beer queer, but three made him a coward again. Four years in Pegasus had seriously lowered his alcohol tolerance, even if Atlantis hadn't been completely dry.

He slept, finally, and dreamed the corridors of Atlantis were lined with Wraith cocoons. He could see the faces of the expedition members behind the webbing. Others, too: Athosians, Hoffans, Tarani, even Genii. He couldn't find his team, and when he looked up the Wraith were in the corridor with him, reaching into the cocoons and feeding. One of the Wraith nodded to him and he realized that they weren't Wraith at all, but people he recognized from the SGC.

Sheppard was still asleep when he left. Some inane woman talked about the weather on the TV. Rodney shoved the note he had written under the remote, figuring Sheppard would find it and the key when he woke and turned it off. He'd always been able to hold a grudge, though he'd never wasted his time and energy hating anyone before. Leaving without speaking again was easier than figuring out how he felt, beyond anger, if it was hate or cowardice, betrayal or loyalty that made it necessary to go.

It was your turn, he wanted to yell at him. You were supposed to save Atlantis.


Bryce and Simpson showed up in his labs three months later. Rodney treated both women exactly the way he treated everyone working with him: with the contempt their stupid mistakes deserved, demands that they actually do the work they said they were qualified to do and a grudging 'not bad' when they exceeded his expectations.

Simpson began sleeping her way through everyone in Terra Atlantica. It didn't matter until one of the electrophysics specialists asked Bryce if Simpson had always been a slut.

Bryce broke his wrist with a move learned from a Pegasus Marine. By the time Rodney heard about it, the base doctor already had a cast on the man's wrist. Officially, he had to lecture Bryce about assaulting fellow scientists. Unofficially, he ripped into the electrophysicist with a venom that surprised himself. Then he did what he really didn't want to and told Simpson to see start seeing a psychologist, because she hadn't behaved like that in Atlantis and was obviously having some sort of difficulty dealing with what had happened. It was hideously awkward for both of them and ultimately didn't work.

Simpson left Antarctica and eventually the SGC anyway.

Bryce followed her two months later.

"There's not a program on the planet where you won't be wasted!" Rodney ranted at her as she packed.

"You're right," she told him. She pushed a strand of dark hair off her face.

"Then stay," he said.

The blue light from the walls reflected off her glasses.

"I'm going to the Alpha Colony."

"Simpson?" he asked, because he wasn't blind, he knew that Bryce was still in touch with her.

Bryce scooped a picture showing both women off her desk and dropped it into her duffel. She zipped it with an air of finality. "She couldn't pass the physical."

Rodney blinked, opened his mouth to ask if it was really the physical Simpson failed or the psychological evaluations that the SGC put all its scientists through before they went offworld, then pulled his fleece jacket tighter around his shoulders and walked out. He didn't want to know.


He got the email from Elizabeth first, and deleted it without replying. He received the hand-written letter and invitation from her three months later, along with the rest of his redirected mail. He dropped that in the trash. He had no desire to attend the black-tie reception celebrating Elizabeth Weir's posting as governor of the newly recognized Alpha Colony on P4X-650, even if he could have left Antarctica in the middle of winter. Even if the invitation hadn't arrived months too late.

He didn't let himself wonder if Sheppard had been there, or worse, about any of the number of disastrous reasons the commander of a gate team wouldn't have been able to attend. Colonel John Sheppard wasn't his problem anymore. He had to bury the urge to write him. It would have been easy enough to contact him through the SGC. It would have, but he didn't, reminding himself that Sheppard hadn't tried to talk to him, either.

Instead he re-authorized his bank to go on making an automatic deduction and payment to keep his apartment in Colorado Springs. He'd kept it the entire time he'd been in Pegasus; no use giving it up now. He might conceivably find himself called to work under the Mountain again. After a moment of thought, he wrote a note and a check to his neighbor, asking her to go on taking care of Cat. It would take a couple of months to reach her, but if she'd kept Cat this long it wouldn't make much difference.

Sheppard's incredulous voice echoed in his head. You named your cat Cat?

Despite making it clear he had no interest in anything except discoveries that impinged on his own work, he did still get some of the SGC gossip, and so he'd heard about SG-1 running into a new and violently xenophobic species called the Demlar. He even heard about the ambitious Goa'uld the SGC had a skirmish with between engagements with the Priors. Mostly, he heard about new technology brought back in the hopes of stalling the Ori's advance through the Milky Way. He heard about that, though, because he was head of the main team working on anything even thought to be Ancient, unlike the rest of the gossip. He was, of course, accomplishing a great deal, integrating technology from different eras of the Ancients' time in the Milky Way, which sometimes resembled hooking a supercomputer into a manually-operated telephone switchboard. After a while, he even got used to not wearing a sidearm, not going through the stargate, and not being in imminent danger every day, though he kept a nine-millimeter Beretta in his lab desk and another in his room.

He spent three months sleeping with a tall, blonde materials engineer named Vigdis right after he arrived in Antarctica. She was there studying the alloys the Ancients used. He only waved distractedly when she told him she was flying back to Reykjavik and didn't think about her again until Fentriss—one of the linguists who kept trying to be Rodney's friend—asked if he would be joining her during his mandatory two-week vacation.

"No," he snapped. He was irritated over the interruption to his work that would result from the vacation, and even more so over being denied his laptop. Too much classified data on it to take out of a secure environment, Major Delahaye had told him. He hadn't thought of Vigdis in months until Fentriss brought her up. That last night on Atlantis, the one he carefully didn't think about, was what replayed in his dreams, so that he woke gasping, aching and wishing for something he couldn't articulate even now.

"What? Did you think we had some kind of star-crossed romance? Please. Dr. Svensdottir is a passable scientist within her specialty, and didn't actually make me want to use an icepick on my own eardrums when she talked, but we were not –" he held up his hands, making air-quotes, "– soul mates."

"So, are you going to look up any old friends?" Fentriss asked. Rodney narrowed his eyes and looked at him. He'd already sat through dozens of debriefings and a mandatory psychological evaluation by the base psychologist, providing noncommittal answers to anything that didn't involve facts and numbers, and he'd begun to suspect Fentriss of being a plant, a psychologist sent in by the SGC or the IOA under cover to evaluate him and the rest of the science staff for stability. Or was that reliability? With a moue of distaste, Rodney walked away from him.

It wasn't paranoia. Stargate Command didn't trust him; he knew that. Not that they'd liked or trusted him before; Atlantis had been a one-way ticket originally and the expedition had been comprised of the brightest minds Earth could spare. Atlantis had always been expendable to Earth. That didn't bother him. Fuck them. They might not like him, but he was still too important to their war effort to be replaced.

It was the lack of trust in anyone that disturbed him. Security that was really surveillance. Next they would be assigning political officers to the base. The change had begun too far back for him to pinpoint: back before the IOA was formed, before Kinsey, maybe while Rodney was still at Area 51, and into the fabric of the SGC like a slow poison. No one else saw it because they'd changed with the years too, but he was out of synch; his changes had been geared to surviving Pegasus, not politics and budgets and backward social conventions. It was fear, he thought. They'd begun to fear the universe, anything new, everything that was different, everyone.

Fuck them.

He didn't bother leaving the Southern Hemisphere for his vacation. No one knew him in New Zealand and that was the way he wanted it.

"So how was Wellington?" Fentriss asked the day after Rodney returned.

Rodney slapped his cafeteria tray down, slopping runny rehydrated potatoes into his fluorescent green peas. He glared. "Does it look like I enjoyed myself?" he asked, pointing to his sunburned nose. He narrowed his eyes at Fentriss. "How do you know I went to Wellington anyway?"

"Major Delahaye may have mentioned it."

Rodney left his tray and hunted down the base head of security. He slammed into Delahaye's office without knocking, pointing a finger at the startled officer. "I do not appreciate being spied on, but if you're going to do it, try not to chatter about my private life to idiots like Fentriss."

"Doctor McKay."

"Another thing. Do you really believe I would do anything while on my so-called vacation to lose my security clearance? Anything you would actually catch me at? I am a genius, that's why I'm here, trying to come up with some way to save your ass along with the rest of your military, and, oh, hey, the rest of the planet. "

Delahaye held up his hand, palm outward. "Doctor McKay! The security was for your protection. You weren't even aware of them."

Rodney snorted in disgust. "You have no idea what I was aware of, Major. I'm more than able to take care of myself and have done so on other planets."

"I know that, Doctor McKay," Delahaye said. He shrugged. "I suspect you could take down most people with nothing but some sarcasm, but in case you ran into a Goa'uld or a Trust operative, I prefer to have someone keeping an eye on you."

"There are no Goa'uld on Earth."

"That we know of."

"You remind me of a man named Bates," Rodney grumbled before he thought about it. He grimaced. The last he'd heard, Sergeant Bates had been invalided out of the Marine Corps. Partial paralysis. A hand that no longer worked, a limp, a slur in his speech: that was Bates' legacy from the City of the Ancestors. For what? Rodney thought, furious all over again. Bates probably didn't even know what had happened. No one would have told him. He pulled in a harsh breath and turned for the door. "Do whatever the hell you want. You will anyway."

He concentrated on his work after that, putting in crushing hours for the next five months that kept him from even pretending to have a social life. He slept in the labs as often as he slept in his quarters, and dreamed of typing and equations, saw black energy beings and screens full of data cascading over each other when he closed his eyes and even when he was awake, until he walked up to the door of his lab one morning and found it locked.

"What the hell?"

"You're locked out, McKay."

Rodney spun around and had to brace one hand against cold wall when his balance didn't keep up with him. The base doctor, Harry Birmingham, and Major Delahaye were standing there. Delahaye looked unhappy, but Birmingham just looked determined.

"You did this?" Rodney demanded.

"We did," Delahaye said. "Dr. Birmingham says you're going to collapse if you don't take a break."

"I'll take a break when I've finished my work, which will be a hell of a lot sooner if I can get in my lab!" Rodney shouted. He really wanted push his face into Birmingham's and force him to back down, but Birmingham was also a Marine, built like a fireplug, and took no shit from anyone. Rodney had already discovered that.

"You're scheduled to fly out on today's helicopter... There's a seat on the next flight out of McMurdo to Christchurch," Major Delahaye told him. "You've got two weeks. Medical leave. Enjoy it, for Christ's sake, McKay. Most people would pay to get out of here every six months."

"Well, I'm not most people, am I?" Rodney snapped. "I don't enjoy wasting my time doing—doing vacation stuff!"

"You're certainly like no one I've ever had the misfortune to encounter," Birmingham muttered.

"I heard that!"

"Doctor McKay, just take the damn vacation," Delahaye said. He scrubbed at his face. "You won't even have any security with you. You can relax. Do whatever or whoever you want. Go surfing. Parasailing. Something. Have some fun."

Rodney stared at him. Whoever he wanted? What did Delahaye mean by that? "I want to work on the newest theory I have on how the Ancients charged ZPMs. I can hardly do that from Christchurch or some beach. And surfing? Are you insane? Parasailing? Do I look like I'm insane?"

"You don't want me answering that one," Birmingham told him. "Go. Pout in a hotel room for two weeks for all I care. And you'll be doing the same every six months. Otherwise you're going to burn out. I've been watching you. You haven't got any friends here. You don't have contact with any friends anywhere. You're obsessed with your work, and it isn't healthy. You haven't even been laid since Svensdottir left."

"I resent that," Rodney said automatically, though it was true.

Major Delahaye took Rodney's arm and guided him away from the labs. "Your bag's already on the helicopter, Doctor. Let's go."

"It's this or tranquilizers, McKay," Birmingham added.

"Fine, fine, I'll go. But I won't have fun." Rodney gritted his teeth and followed, knowing all too well there was no way to refuse.

New Zealand hadn't been bad the first time, in spring, so he didn't go any farther despite it being winter there this time. Let someone else court skin cancer in Tahiti. Beaches just reminded him of Sheppard and his damn surfboard. "No surfing," he muttered as he booked two weeks at a ski resort.

Fentriss disappeared and was replaced by a tall blonde, supposedly an expert in chemistry. He didn't even bother remembering her name. He didn't sleep with her, much less confide in her, and she was gone when he came back from his next vacation six months later. She was useless, but they also brought in a new man, Halstead, who could do his job. Unfortunately, Rodney's stomach dropped into his shoes the first time he glimpsed him from the back. Halstead was tall, the color of a Hershey bar, and his long, tightly corn-rowed hair moved like dreadlocks. Just for a second, Rodney saw Ronon. He was vicious toward Halstead as a consequence. What could have been a decent, if distant, working relationship degenerated into a cold war that never warmed. It never recovered from Rodney's first words to him: "They gave you a degree so you'd play basketball for them, didn't they?"

"I could squash you like a bug," Halstead would threaten.

"Please, as if," Rodney snapped back. "I can see the cogs turning—very slowly, may I add—behind your eyes. By the time you actually moved I'd have you tripped and tied up and shipped to some maximum security nuthatch."

Except for the feud with Halstead, which he secretly enjoyed, he kept his head down and worked. Another six months passed, and he realized he had been in Antarctica for two years. He began to feel like time was running out, while he was running in place, years passing in a numbing blur of work. Everyone who had been in Antarctica when he arrived was gone, moved on, reassigned or retired. Instead, he had Mudaliar, Chen Po, and Birkens. None of them had ever stepped through the stargate. He wasn't sure any of them had even heard of the Atlantis Expedition or the Pegasus Galaxy. The Lost City had become a myth again. He began to think about leaving Terra Atlantica eventually. On his next leave, he bought a house just to have some place to go. New Zealand seemed like as good a place as any to retire.

On the plane back to McMurdo, property deed shoved deep in his bags, sitting jammed between a French geologist and two Brazilian climatologists chattering animatedly about their work in broken but enthusiastic English, he realized he didn't believe in his own work anymore. Once, he'd thought he'd figure out the universe. After being recruited by the US government and going to Area 51, then seeing the stargate, he'd dreamed of discovering everything the Ancients had known. He'd known he was the only man smart enough to understand it all. He hadn't, of course, but he'd come closer than anyone else, even Sam Carter, and he'd had Atlantis. He'd learned other things there: loyalty and courage and commitment to something more than pure science. But now, he spent his days turning everything he knew into weapons the SGC could use against the Priors or the Ori themselves. It left a sour taste in his mouth and made him wonder how much longer he could go on doing it.

The Ori were stalemated, but in time some way would be found to turn them back entirely.

That was why he'd bought the house, he realized. He'd get another cat, if Dina didn't want to give up Cat, and write mocking letters cutting apart the articles published in the physics journals. He'd stare out at the sea. He'd count himself lucky; remembering others, like Gall and Abrams, who hadn't had the same chance, and ignore that he was alone.

He wasn't done, but now he realized that the day was approaching when he would be. But not yet. There were still the new shield specs to work on. If it worked—and it would—the Ori and the Ascended would be barred from Earth. Of course, that wasn't good enough. Rodney had tried to explain in one memo, referencing the way the Wraith had used asteroids as kinetic weapons and taken out Everett's net of defensive nukes during the Siege of Atlantis without ever risking their ships. Protecting the planets wasn't enough, when there was a system full of potential weaponry available. They needed to find a way to safeguard Sol itself, too. Carter once opened a black hole inside a star; did anyone think the Ori wouldn't resort to such a tactic? They needed a localized fleet of ships to protect Earth from corporeal threats like the Goa'uld, the Demlar, and the worst of the lawless Jaffa factions.
He wrote another memo and emailed it to the SGC, outlining the problems that a shield wouldn't solve, knowing they were going to ignore him. He just wanted to be on record when the shit hit the fan. One thing he'd learned was that it would, sooner or later.

Halstead headed for the lab coffee pot.

"If you empty that pot, you'd better start another one," Rodney said.

"Do it yourself."

"I would if I hadn't already. Pretend to keep up, Shaq." Rodney chortled, knowing Halstead was grinding his teeth. The basketball taunts never got old.

Halstead peered over his shoulder at his laptop's screen. "They'll never pay any attention to that."

"Of course not," Rodney agreed, "but that's not the point."

It wasn't that he didn't believe the Ori/Ascended shield wasn't worthwhile... more that he knew he was right, and so did the smarter people at the SGC. Although having it pointed out repeatedly irritated them, irritating the SGC and its masters was something of a hobby by that point. And he could get away with it, because he was irreplaceable. They needed him. It wasn't like Hammond exiling him to Siberia for pointing out some uncomfortable realities all those years ago. After all, what were they going to do? Send him to Antarctica with the rest of the misfits and troublemakers?

There were other ways to annoy the brass, too, and he gained a measure of spiteful satisfaction from doing them. He had published two articles containing minor discoveries derived from but not dependent on the Ancient data he'd studied in Atlantis and was working on a third. Nothing that anyone on Earth couldn't have discovered—if they were as smart as Rodney—nothing that violated the letter of the secrecy agreements he'd signed when he joined the SGC. Just enough to piss the higher-ups off. The papers had caused a lot of raised eyebrows, and every time the mail was flown in it left him with a box full of letters offering him various posts and grants in academia. Which was pleasant, too: it let him remind them he didn't need them as much as the SGC needed him.


He finished the shield by working directly with Sam Carter―reminding him what a good brain she had―and using an application of the technology the Ancients had used to trap and contain the black energy creature in Atlantis: an application that was either inspired, or perverted. The only problem left was power. The shield ate it like candy in every simulation they ran.

Carter actually joined Rodney for the last weeks of their work, rather than exchanging data electronically, since they were modifying several pieces of equipment to operate through the control chair. By the end of three weeks, she looked tired and older and neither of them bothered with the old insults. "Crap," she said finally, staring at the final simulation results. Her shoulders slumped when she ran out of ideas; Rodney didn't need to see her to know she was drooping.

Halstead had stuck it out longer than any of the other scientists, but even he had finally given in and left the lab. No one was left but the two of them.

Rodney didn't bother looking up from his own computer. He'd already predicted the outcome, loudly, a week past. Carter had insisted they could adapt the way the stargates powered themselves.

"The power drain is too continuous," she went on. "The shield fails spontaneously within forty-eight hours of powering up."

"Yes, I told you," Rodney snapped. Zelenka would have understood. He'd always been able to follow Rodney's lead and come up with original ideas almost as fast as Rodney, even if he hadn't been as brilliant as Carter. He wondered about Zelenka sometimes, the way he wondered about everyone they'd left behind in Pegasus. Rodney shut that line of thought down hard. He didn't let himself think about the past much, unless he was very, very tired. But the coffee had stopped working a day ago, and Birmingham wasn't as easily browbeaten as Carson had been. Officially, Radek Zelenka was among those on the list of Pegasus casualties. He and Sheppard had written up their reports in the last days before the evacuation of the city: a moment of inattention and Zelenka had died in a tragic accident. No one had contradicted them.

'We need another ZPM."

"And those are so easy to find," he said bitterly.

"Daniel thinks he has a lead on possible location." Carter raked her hands through her hair. The blond looked darker, not as sunbleached as when he'd first met her. She didn't get outside her labs under the Mountain very often, he supposed. She angled a look at Rodney, one he noticed from the corner of his eye, that made him turn toward her. "Once Colonel Sheppard's cleared for field duty again, General Landry's going to send SG-2 to check it out."

Rodney slowly curled one hand into a first. He wouldn't ask. He wouldn't."I gather the Colonel got lucky again," he sneered.

Carter cocked her head. "He got snaked."

Rodney jerked and caught his laptop with his elbow, sending it crashing to the floor. "Ow, damn it, damn it, damn it," he yelled and clutched at his elbow, concentrating on the sharp white stab of sensation running through the bone. "I think I cracked something."

"They got it out of him," Carter said.

Rodney glared at her, before bending to pick up his laptop. It wasn't field issue, but the case hadn't cracked. "He wouldn't be cleared for duty if they hadn't," he muttered. He shut down the laptop, then went back to compulsively rubbing his elbow, though the pain was already fading.

"So should I tell him you were worried?"

He ignored her and put the laptop, the discs and flash drives they'd been using, and all his paper notes in the lab safe, following Major Delahaye's security procedures. "Why would you do that? I could hardly worry about him when I wasn't aware anything had happened, provided that you accept the assumption I would worry about the man in the first place, which is ridiculous. I haven't seen him in years."

"I'd heard you were close," Carter said. "You were on the Atlantis first contact team with him, weren't you?"

"Yes, yes, but that hardly makes us bosom comrades," he snapped testily. "There's nothing more we can accomplish without a ZPM, so I'm going to bed."

"McKay –"

He deliberately turned his back on her.


"Leave it alone, Carter."

She pitched her voice low enough no one would hear, though he'd opened the lab door and stood ready to walk into the corridor, watching the two marine guards who stood outside. "The man spends most of his time offworld."

"Yes, well, that's his job, isn't it?" Carter's silence pulled the words out of him, despite himself. "It's not the same without Teyla and Ronon." Anything else would reveal too much and he was always aware of the unblinking surveillance cameras that were everywhere, as well as the audio bugs he'd located within hours of their installation in the lab. He couldn't say Sheppard probably didn't like Earth much anymore. He didn't: sometimes it still made him stop, so that he had to brace himself and breathe through it like it was a physical pain, realizing all over again that they had done it. They had destroyed Atlantis, sent whatever pieces remained to the bottom of the ocean, never to rise again. For Earth, except most of Earth had no clue. And his vocal objections had most assuredly been documented by Brandt, marking him a troublemaker, a potential security risk, since he had been ready and eager to disobey the SGC's orders to destroy Atlantis. Someone was always keeping an eye on him and in turn he held his tongue.

"They were both offered the chance to return with you as expedition dependents," Carter said. Her voice didn't hold any conviction.

Rodney turned his head far enough to look back at her, still sitting slumped with her elbows on the desk, shoulders hunched in dejection over the failed simulations. The icy-blue light that reflected from the walls made her eyes brighter and colder than they really were. Her posture and the long-sleeved black shirt she wore made her shoulders look narrow, and reminded him of Sheppard. It was enough to stop the cutting remark he meant to make. Destroying Atlantis and abandoning their allies hadn't been Sam Carter's idea, he knew that.

"So they were," he said instead. "Lock up when you leave."


Lorne arrived a month later, after Carter had returned to the SGC, with an armored case containing a ZPM.

"They sent me in case you needed someone else with the gene to use the chair during installation," Lorne said before Rodney tore the ZPM case out of his grip, heading for the power and control center they'd established in an emptied-out lab one corridor away from the chair room. He trotted after Rodney. "I figure they thought you might actually talk to me—"

"Yes, whatever, shut up now, I'm busy," Rodney told him. "You're only here because you're a natural and I can't actually operate the chair and work on this at the same time, though if anyone could, it would be me."

"Yeah, good to see you too, Doc." Lorne kept up with him and Rodney imagined he could hear the twist of a sour smile in his voice. He didn't bother to check, just brushed past two Marine guards and stuck his head inside the main lab.

"Birkens! Halstead! With me, now!"

Birkens shot up from his seat and scurried toward Rodney. He'd been cowed from the first, out of his depth and well aware of it, but useful enough in a “hand me that tool” way. Rodney tolerated him because he at least had the sense not to fool with things he didn't understand.

Halstead was a different matter. He simply turned his head and looked at Rodney. "I'm in the middle of something."

"Ah, something much more important than saving the entire planet?" Rodney asked, dripping sarcasm. The problem with Halstead was that he was—marginally—competent. Otherwise Rodney would have gotten rid of him. Halstead just didn't yet believe that he couldn't intimidate Rodney by looming over him. Rodney had been loomed over and even menaced by scarier people than Antoine Halstead; he'd been threatened with knives, spears, guns and feeding hands. "Snap, snap, Kareem Abdul, your little experiment can wait while I make sure you and everyone else stay alive."

"McKay, one of these days..." Halstead did get up, however.

Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Quit trying to threaten me. If I thought for one moment you'd actually hurt me I'd borrow Major Lorne—"

"It's Lieutenant Colonel now," Lorne said helpfully, standing at Rodney's shoulder.

"Yes, congratulations—Lieutenant Colonel Lorne's sidearm and shoot you," Rodney finished. He hefted the case with the ZPM higher. "Can we get to work now?"

"I don't believe you could hit the broad side of a barn." Halstead followed them into the corridor and then strode past, silently protesting any waste of his time. Birkens scuttled behind them.

"Since you're broader than a barn, that wouldn't be a problem."

Lorne chuckled quietly. It was a familiar sound and made Rodney drop back a step to appraise him. Lorne had an offworld tan, the sort that left a man with crow’s' feet graven around his eyes from too much squinting, the wrinkles so deep that if his face ever relaxed completely there would be white lines where the sun never touched.

"I've actually missed hearing you, Doc," he said.

Rodney snorted.

"Working at the SGC isn't exactly like Atlantis," Lorne added wistfully.

"Nothing is," Rodney snapped and lengthened his stride enough to overtake Halstead. He had no time to waste on pointless nostalgia. There was a ZPM to install and a shield to initialize. Then there would be something else to do. Simulations to run. Equipment and data to analyze. All of it took time and he would fall onto his narrow bed and pass out before his whirling thoughts could stray to what-had-beens. "Don't you have something better to do, Colonel?"


"Well, go do it somewhere else. We are about to engage in a delicate and more than somewhat dangerous procedure that will not require or be in any way aided by a military presence." And Rodney wouldn't be tempted to ask if it had been Sheppard's team that recovered the ZPM, if Lorne had seen him, if he'd finally gotten involved with someone, if he was all right. Distance and time had finally let Rodney stop thinking about Sheppard and Atlantis every day, but anything could still remind him of them both. They were tangled together in his mind, until he didn't know which one he missed most. Asking would be admitting, if only to himself, that he gave a damn. He refused to do that. It might get back to Sheppard, who apparently could care less if he ever saw Rodney again, if his absolute silence was any indicator.

They actually did put Lorne in the chair for about ten minutes, long enough for Rodney to snap, "No, no, think about where you are—" stop, glare at the brilliantly blue-lit dais the chair occupied and start over, "Picture the solar system, Colonel..."


"This should be easy."

"I'm not Colonel Sheppard."

Rodney ignored the memory of his first glimpse of Sheppard, in that self-same control chair, all bemused cool. "Concentrate. This isn't even as difficult as flying a puddlejumper!"

"Then why don't you do it?" Lorne asked.

"Because you're a natural and I'm an artificial and I could never pilot a jumper worth shit anyway, remember?" Rodney said. The memory of Sheppard, affectionate and exasperated, mocking and teaching him to fly at the same time was clear and immediate. He wanted Lorne gone. He made Rodney remember too much, threatened his careful detachment. It made him angry with himself and with Lorne, too.

Lorne snorted. "You did all right when it mattered, Doc."

Halstead looked up from the laptop where he was monitoring ZPM usage. Rodney glared at him.

"Just imagine Earth and the sun."

Lorne closed his eyes and squinched his brows together. The familiar hologram of Sol and the planets appeared above them.

"Now, activate the shield."

"Got it," Lorne said.

The hologram of Earth turned green.

Rodney checked Halstead's calculations, watched the power fluctuations for a moment, and nodded. "That's it," he declared.

"You done with me?" Lorne asked. The chair had reverted to upright and gone dark and Lorne had his elbows on his knees.

Rodney glanced at him. "Yes, you can go," he dismissed.

Lorne waited a beat.

"Go," Rodney snapped.

"Right, I'm out of here," Lorne replied and got to his feet. "I'd say you haven't changed, McKay, but I think you're even worse."

"Luckily neither your opinion nor my personality are relevant," Rodney told him, and walked out.


The new shield meant Earth was safe from the Ori, but it was the last thing that went right for a long time.

Even buried at the bottom of the world, the science contingent heard things. Reports that the first Icarus had been seen. Chulak burned to a cinder after the Jaffa rebelled against the Ori. Refugees moving through the gate system in large numbers. Demlar ships moving toward the galactic core. The Land of Light as abandoned as the Marie Celeste. Dozens of worlds converting to the Ori's Path of Origin. SG-14 and SG-5 lost. One survivor of SG-12 had retrieved a Prior's staff for analysis—the rest of his team had been burned alive as heretics. Ugly rumors that some refugees from worlds where the Prior plagues and locusts had been loosed were being used as labor in trinium and naquadah mines. Aschen-style biowarfare weapons being tested on Ori-converted planets.

Just rumors, but Rodney believed them. Atlantis had taught him well how far even good people would go, how quickly morals eroded under the threat of destruction.

Despite everything, the Ori War was coming to a close. The Priors were still formidable, but no one really doubted they'd find a way to turn them back. And if they didn't, what did Earth really care? The Ori couldn't touch them now they had the shield, and the rest of the galaxy wasn't all that important. That meant people like Rodney, who were brilliant and useful when everyone had their back to the wall, suddenly weren't so valuable. They didn't have to be tolerated. He had a reputation for being difficult. He was difficult, he admitted to himself, and often deliberately obnoxious, bad-tempered and tactless much of the rest of the time. The sarcasm kept people at a distance. The way he liked it. What he didn't like was not being as important as he'd been, losing the position of power he'd enjoyed and the protection being irreplaceable offered.

Any ability he had to protect his people was steadily eroding.

Delahaye was transferred, posted to the Aeneas, and a spit-and-polish marine martinet with a mousy face and the eyes of a dead rat replaced him as base security officer. Morrison reminded Rodney of Kolya, radiated the same focused fanaticism, and it was just as frightening in someone who was supposedly on the same side as it had been in an enemy. Morrison was the sort of man who had no stops because he was convinced of his righteousness. Birmingham was arrested and flown out to face court-martial and Leavenworth before the end of the week. He'd known Roe v. Wade had been struck down, Colonel Morrison told Rodney. Abortionists were worse than having women in the military, though not quite as bad as faggots and lesbians. He would be submitting a report to the SGC, recommending the termination of the contract employing the scientist who had had the procedure, too. "One thing those Ori have got right. It's in the Bible."

"'Dr. Mudaliar does her job," Rodney snapped. "Why should I give a damn about her religion or her sex life? Why should you?"

"Abortion's an abomination," Morrison said. "But they let people practice it where you come from, don't they?"

Rodney sneered back, because he'd learned how to hide being scared somewhere along the way. "Amazing, isn't it, there's a civilized country right next door to yours." He shoved his chair back and rose, abandoning his breakfast of powdered eggs and canned ham, feeling sick. He felt Morrison's eyes on his back until he was out of the cafeteria.

He hacked Morrison's computer that night and read all his files, the same way he had Delahaye's, because knowledge was power, something he'd understood well before Sheppard explained that knowing what the enemy thought and meant to do was the best way to win any battle. He doubled the encryption on his laptop and all the networks, expecting Morrison or one of his minions to take a crack at it sooner or later. Every head of security did. Trying to have Morrison removed would have been a hopeless effort—it was clear from Morrison's reports he'd been placed by the SGC to monitor Rodney as much as anyone else. Christ, they'd even stuck an informant in his lab—that didn't surprise him, only that it was Birkens. No wonder he'd seemed so useless: his degrees probably only existed as part of a cover. He was probably quite smart. Smart enough to play his part well enough that Rodney and the other scientists despised him rather than disbelieving him.

"Out," he told Birkens the next day. "Out of my lab." He glared until Birkens left. "And don't come back!"

Morrison barged in an hour later. "I know you got into my files, Doctor McKay."

"Prove it," Rodney said. He squinted at a series of formulae on the whiteboard, wiped the last portion off, and wrote it in again, the marker squeaking. The ink scent was almost dizzying.

"Birkens was doing his job."

"And I am attempting, despite distractions and idiots, to do mine. Go away."

Morrison did. Halstead drifted over from where he had been silently observing them. "What did Birkens do?"

"He was a plant. Security's own snitch."

"Jesus," Halstead said.

Morrison really didn't like Rodney, but had nothing to use against him and just enough ethics to not manufacture anything. That was good. He had it in for Mudaliar and Halstead and Chen Po, though, and anyone else who wasn't walking Morrison's version of the straight and narrow.

Apparently, being intelligent made him and all of the other scientists security risks, at least in Morrison's tiny mind. He hadn't missed that Halstead had witnessed Rodney's first, if not last, confrontation with him. That marked Halstead, the way Mudaliar's abortion marked her, and Chen Po's epicanthic folds did him. Rodney didn't sleep much after that, even less than he had in Atlantis. Terra Atlantica felt more and more like Siberia; even the paranoids running Area 51 hadn't been as reactionary and conservative as the men that controlled the SGC now.

Maybe he could have stalled the campaign to drive out Mudaliar—he did still have some pull—but aside from monitoring the amount of harassment she endured until Morrison succeeded in getting her fired, he didn’t try. Antarctica wasn't safe anymore; she was better off gone. Halstead followed not long after, quitting and leaving all of his research unfinished. "It's not worth it," Halstead claimed after finding his quarters tossed by security for the fourth time. He was holding a shattered picture frame holding a picture of a group Rodney presumed were his family.

He warned Halstead not to give the SGC an excuse to hold him. "Don't try to take anything with you," he had snapped at Halstead, in seeming and real irritation. "Remember the secrecy agreements you signed? None of your research is yours. They'll lock you up if you try it." At least Halstead had listened.

Morrison had Halstead strip-searched to make sure nothing was leaving the base with him. Two marines and the base doctor were present while even his body cavities were probed and then x-rayed, while Morrison and Rodney waited. Rodney was reminded of Siberia again. Halstead was escorted by security to the surface afterward. Rodney trailed along, all the way up to the weather shack, and had to hide a smile at Morrison's constipated expression.

"Why the hell do you stay here?"Halstead asked as they waited for the helicopter that would take him away.

Rodney saw Morrison's interest quicken and nearly didn't answer. He waited until Halstead opened the door into the swirl of snow stirred by the helicopter's rotors. "Memories," he answered finally, but Halstead gave no sign he had heard over the roar from the waiting machine.


Morrison stopped and sat down across from him at dinner a week later. "Heard the news, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney was typing with one hand and eating with the other. "What?" he asked, without stopping to swallow. Morrison's little flinch of distaste pleased him. It was a small thing, but worthwhile, and tasted better than the food itself did. Nothing had ever tasted quite the same after he came back to Earth, but that might just be the quality—or lack thereof—of the food in Antarctica. He couldn't actually remember eating anything or what it tasted like in the first weeks after they'd debarked from the Chiron.

Morrison gave him a searching look, then seemed satisfied. "I heard a lot of ex-Atlantis personnel went to the Alpha Colony after Elizabeth Weir took over as governor there."

"Yes, so what?" Rodney said. He kept his hand moving over the keyboard. He was working on a portable gate shield generator that would mimic the one they'd used in Atlantis. If a gate team could “lock the door” behind them after coming through they could halve the dangers. The problem lay in setting up a remote release so Earth could dial in and drop the shield if a team didn't return on time. He frowned at the schematic he'd drawn up.

Morrison coughed. "It's gone."

"What's gone?" Rodney asked, then looked up as Morrison's bleak tone penetrated. He swallowed. "The Colony?"

For once, Morrison didn't look pleased with himself.


"W-what happened?" He heard himself stutter and didn't care. Bryce had been there. Kusanagi, he'd heard from her in a letter he hadn't answered, and Beckett, because Beckett followed Weir wherever she went. Jesus. "The Ori?"

Morrison shook his head. "Not unless they've changed their MO."

Rodney frowned at him. "What happened?"

"SG-10 gated in and everyone was gone. There were signs of fighting, but everyone was gone. No bodies. Nothing."

Rodney closed the program on his laptop abruptly. Gone. "Hunh."

"Just thought you'd want to know."

"Yes, well, I've always relished hearing about any disaster that didn't affect me, so I suppose I should thank you," he muttered.

Morrison sneered and left him staring at his plate of Salisbury steak. Rodney pushed the tray away and tried to go back to work. His hands stilled on the laptop's keyboard, though, and he stopped seeing the screen, seeing instead everyone he knew who would have been there. Dead now. Or not, he knew, and made himself breathe. Disappeared didn't always mean dead. Like that was a good thing. Sometimes disappeared meant worse than dead.

The entire Alpha Colony population could have been taken by a renegade Goa'uld as slaves. The System Lords were finished, but there were plenty of ambitious Goa'uld still out there. Even now, Elizabeth could be hosting a snake.

He supposed he could ask Sheppard what that was like, if he ever saw him again.

After Carter mentioned that Sheppard had been taken as a host he'd made a point of hacking into the SGC's records to find out everything, from the mission debriefing to the medical scans to the report Sheppard wrote himself after he was brought back from Cimmeria. He didn't know why Sheppard hadn't taken a post on the Alpha Colony, unless he'd felt the way Rodney did about it. But Sheppard would be blaming himself for not being there to stop whatever had happened now. Of course, it had been years; he realized. Sheppard could have changed.

Through the haze of grief dropping over him, Rodney realized something else: he was sickeningly glad that Sheppard hadn't been posted to Alpha Colony. The impulse to jump up and do whatever it took to find him, talk to him, see him again rose up and swamped him. Even if Sheppard told him to fuck off for being a judgmental ass. Even if Sheppard was a bastard, even if Rodney was still bitter, he wanted to know Sheppard was still alive. Still all right.

Silverware clattered and he blinked, looking up and  noticing two of Morrison's marines seating themselves at a table with their dinners.

It seemed bizarre that he was still sitting at the cafeteria table, staring at the screensaver on his laptop. The screensaver, with the little stickmen building Rube Goldberg contraptions only to tear them down again, had cycled into the third iteration, proving just how long he'd been there. There was nothing more he could do from Antarctica. The gate shield could be developed from anywhere. No one was left here that he trusted or was willing to work with. Chen Po had been the last non-American besides himself and he'd been re-assigned the week before.

There was always the house in New Zealand and the box of invitations from a dozen excellent universities to teach or research or merely grace them with the illumination of his presence.

He wasn't quite ready for that.

Instead, stomach roiling, he opened up his email and wrote Samantha Carter. If you want me to work on analyzing the Prior's staff, get me the hell out of here. McKay.


They beamed him up to the Boudicca, which was in-system, and down to the SGC gateroom rather than try to fly through an Antarctic storm. Carter grabbed his arm and dragged him behind her to the lab where they had the Prior's staff.

"It looks a lot like the technology you were working with in Atlantis, but just when we think we have a clear correlation it goes sideways," she said.

He dropped his duffel, stenciled on the sides with MCKAY, MR, by the door of the lab and was immediately engrossed in their completely wrong-headed interpretation of the work he'd done in Atlantis.

Six hours later he was still ranting at Bill Lee over a table in the SGC mess, waving a fork full of chicken nugget, while Carter slurped up red Jello morosely and muttered to Jackson, "I can't believe I went along with having him brought back here."

Jackson just hummed something non-committal and continued scribbling notes without looking up from his book.
Rodney stopped in mid-rant and looked at Carter. "Do you think this is fun for me?" He was tired of it all. He'd managed to fool himself into thinking working back at the Mountain would be better than Antarctica, and Bill Lee and Carter were smart enough to keep up with him—barely—but it was the same damn thing. Is it a weapon? How can we make a weapon out of it?

Carter pinched the bridge of her nose. "No?"

Rodney nodded vehemently, then shoved the chicken nugget in his mouth and chewed, before his dissatisfaction with the SGC and all the bitterness he'd carried since coming back to Earth, came spewing out.

Instinct, drilled into him by Sheppard and then Ronon and mostly experience, had made him sit so he could face the mess hall's doors. Or maybe it was the stargate, its power thrumming through the mountain and into his bones, reminding him of those old lessons. He noted the two airmen who walked in, looking freshly showered and exhausted, and distantly thought they must be off a gate team just back in after decontamination and debriefing, but nothing more. His attention was already turning back to Carter and Lee when a third man followed them in.

Rodney choked and had to spit a partial mouthful of chicken onto his plate, then gulped water from Carter's glass desperately, still watching as Sheppard strolled to the serving line and picked up a tray. Trying to catalogue any differences, any damage, and any changes that were showing.

"Nice, McKay. Try chewing, swallowing and then talking next time," Carter said.

Jackson made a muffled sort of snort and groped blindly for his coffee cup, still without looking up.

Sheppard was still lean, dark hair shaggier than regulation, still moving with that misleading amble. He was wearing the old expedition uniform jacket. The black and gray-blue was faded and stained. An SG-2 patch showed below the Atlantis Pegasus. He swallowed again, hard, because Sheppard looked so damn familiar it hurt and because that jacket stood for everything he'd thought Sheppard had given up on. Rodney ignored Lee's gabble about crystal circuitry and watched as Sheppard snagged a salad and a piece of pie, finally adding a cup of coffee to his tray before turning to face the room.

The mess was surprisingly full. Sheppard had to scan the room to find a place and Rodney waited until his gaze reached their table. He was the only one who saw Sheppard's eyes widen in shock for a fraction of a second. Rodney didn't nod or gesture for him to join them, just lifted his chin a micro-millimeter in acknowledgment and waited, afraid: afraid Sheppard would turn away, afraid he wouldn't. He hadn't considered that he might see Sheppard so soon, even meet him in the halls of the SGC, when he asked for the transfer.

He hadn't let himself think of what it would feel like. The air stopped in his lungs, the mad mixture of relief and apprehension and pleasure just looking at Sheppard gave him. Heat flashed through him, his skin felt tight and his head light and empty, everything edging gray except Sheppard, whose gaze flickered, briefly dark, then open, while his mouth fixed into a bright, empty smile. So good, and so painful at the same time... God, he'd missed him and hadn't let himself acknowledge it until now, as though he'd tied a tourniquet tight over the wound left by Atlantis. Seeing Sheppard released it, letting the blood rush back in, and it hurt because he'd almost left it for too long. He covered his sudden panic by gulping down another swallow of water, ignoring the trickle out of the corner of his mouth. Sheppard was crossing the room to them, his gaze never leaving Rodney as he wove through the crowded tables.

Rodney's hand almost trembled when he wiped at the moisture mechanically.

"McKay?" Carter said from a thousand miles away. "Are you all right?"

Sheppard reached them and settled his tray on the table across from Rodney. His eyes were still amber-flecked green, surprisingly translucent when the light was right, and dark as jade at the rim. His smile looked a little grim at the edges.

"Rodney," he drawled, drawing out the syllables obnoxiously, "Long time, no see."

Rodney nodded, his throat too dry and tight to speak. He coughed again and rasped out, "Colonel."

"Colonel Sheppard," Carter greeted him. Jackson looked up and smiled distractedly and Lee nodded at him.

Sheppard grinned at all of them. "No one told me McKay was visiting. I'd've baked a cake." His gaze snapped back to Rodney.

"We're all grateful you didn't," Rodney said.

Sheppard grinned wider, all sharp edges, and his narrowed eyes betrayed the anger underneath. "I'm wounded, Rodney, really wounded."

"I can tell." He said it and then dropped his gaze. The words tasted like dust in his mouth and Sheppard's fingers were still locked tight, knuckles pale with tension, on his tray. Rodney had always liked Sheppard's hands. They were lightly tanned, deft and no nonsense, the nails clipped back brutally short, gun-callused, nicked but strong. He'd never waved them around the way Rodney did his, never touched people much. Sheppard had always had a facility for sliding out of reach without obviously avoiding people, distracting them with a dopey smile and some casual remark, but Rodney had watched the way he did touch things: the control stick on a puddlejumper, the trigger guard on his P90, anything and everything in Atlantis. Sheppard's hands would give him away, if you knew to look. Those hands were thinner now, the knuckles and tendons more prominent.

On impulse, he reached over the table and plucked a fold of Sheppard's jacket between thumb and forefinger. The heavy fabric felt stiff to the touch as he rubbed his thumb over it. "You kept this."

Sheppard had gone utterly still. "Yes." He didn't twitch his arm away, though, Rodney noticed; in fact, he was looking down at Rodney's hand on his arm and his expression was softening.

He exhaled, suddenly relieved.

"McKay's back for good, actually," Carter said.

"Is that so?" Sheppard asked.

"That's right," Rodney said. "Back. Me. You look..." Like a knife worn to a sharp, brittle edge. One of Sheppard's eyebrows went up. "Just as cocky as ever."

"Why, thank you, Rodney." He drawled out Rodney's name again, amusement warming his tone and relaxing some of Rodney's tension, then let go of the tray and began eating.

"How did the mission go?" Carter asked.

Sheppard swallowed. "P3X-D49?" His fork clinked against the tray. "Not good."

Rodney suddenly noticed a raw scrape along the heel of Sheppard's hand, as though he'd fallen and caught himself. His stomach did a slow, unpleasant roll as it became real: Sheppard could have died. He really could have died on a mission and Rodney wouldn't have known, not until the rumor mill worked its way to Terra Atlantica. All because he'd held onto an unjustified grudge for years. He really was petty and arrogant enough to think Sheppard should have chosen Atlantis over Earth, Rodney over duty.

Shame crept through him at the realization. There had never been a moment when he wouldn't have chosen Atlantis over Sheppard, but he'd felt betrayed when Sheppard chose Earth and the good of the expedition's personnel over him. Sheppard at least had chosen lives over a thing of glass and steel. No matter how old or beautiful it had been, the city had still been a thing.

"I suppose some chieftain's daughter decided her prince had finally come when she spotted you?" Rodney asked, not as snidely as he might have. He was still dealing with the realization that he'd faced and failed the same dilemma Sheppard had: he'd let the system roll over Simpson and Bryce and Mudaliar. Halstead and Chen Po. He'd chosen not to fight, not to throw his career and his work away on a battle he knew he would lose. He wasn't Superman, nor had he ever really thought he was, contrary to what people might say about his ego.

Sheppard wasn't Superman either. The irony was, Rodney had blamed him for that.

There really hadn't been anything Sheppard could do.

Sheppard let out a snort of laughter, drawing Rodney's attention back to the table. "Nope, but the chieftain's son decided Captain Tennant was his princess. She had to conk him over the head with a pot and we all decamped in the night. There was some running involved after the natives found Prince Charming knocked out in the tent of love." He glanced at Rodney, his whole face alight with amusement.

Without thinking about it, Rodney commented, "Sounds suspiciously like that time on Gableras. Remember Teyla's expression—"

Sheppard laughed, garnering looks from around the room, expressions so startled in some cases, Rodney wondered how often Sheppard laughed anymore. Or didn't. "She told that guy she didn't want his hand in marriage, but if he touched her again, he was going to lose it for good."

Rodney smiled back at him, remembering it well. They'd ended up running for the gate that time too, breathless with laughter after Teyla knocked out her behemoth suitor and tied him to the bed. It had been Ronon's idea to paint his face with the cosmetics Teyla had been expected to wear. Rodney and Sheppard decided—after several shots of the local liquor, admittedly—that lover boy would look good in the filmy wedding skirt and bikini top. They'd all fallen through the gate in a giggling, whooping heap that time.

Sheppard's laughter faded and met Rodney's gaze steadily. "You were right," he said.

"I'm always right," Rodney replied, his voice gone tight. It was the only apology Sheppard was going to offer, he knew, for not fighting for Atlantis harder. "Except when I'm not."

Apology accepted.

Abruptly, Sheppard pushed his tray away. He looked at Rodney's half-finished meal. "You done here?"


"I'll give you a ride down the mountain," Sheppard said.

He opened his mouth automatically to protest and realized he really didn't want to. All the resentment he'd hoarded to himself for three years seemed stupid when faced with Sheppard's faintly quizzical expression.

"Oh," Carter murmured. "McKay, have you got some place to stay?"

"He's got an apartment in Colorado Springs," Sheppard answered. He cocked his head and added, "I've still got your key."

"Really?" Rodney heard himself ask. He felt a little shocky. What were he and Sheppard going to talk about? Did it mean something that Sheppard still had his key, considering Sheppard hadn't known Rodney was back at the SGC? He didn't know and it made him uncertain and uncharacteristically quiet.


"And you remember where the apartment is?"

"As a matter of fact," Sheppard drawled. He smiled again, clearly amused by something he knew that Rodney didn't.

"Then let's go," Rodney told him.

"I guess I'll see you tomorrow, in the lab?" Carter asked.

Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "Yes, then, whatever." He was still looking at Sheppard, who had risen to his feet and grabbed both trays.

"Just give me five minutes to change into my civvies," Sheppard told him before disposing of the trays and the remnants on them. "Well? C'mon, Rodney. Get a move on."

"Don't get your panties in a twist, Colonel," Rodney snapped, but followed him out with little more than a nod toward Dr. Lee and Jackson.


Sheppard surprised him by driving a neutral blue Jeep, rather than a sports car. The engine turned over as soon as he had the key in the ignition, though, purring with power. The radio came on too, playing some country station, an old, old song petering away and the DJ saying, "That was Patsy Cline, singing 'You're Stronger Than Me'."

Sheppard snapped the radio off with a grimace.

"Somehow, I imagined you driving something racy and black," Rodney said into the stillness that followed, as Sheppard maneuvered them out of the secured parking level, through the gates, and down the highway. He'd moved through so many time zones so fast and spent so many hours deep underground that he was surprised to see the sun sinking beneath the sharp outlines of the Rockies.

"Black and racy doesn't get you through the snow and sometimes I can't take another minute buried alive under the Mountain," Sheppard replied quietly.


He felt tingly and there was an ache in his chest. He had to curl his fingers into fists to keep from reaching out. It scared him, a little, because he didn't know how Sheppard would react to that. He seemed at ease with Rodney, as if there wasn't a three-year chasm between them, seemed ready to pick their friendship back up like nothing had changed. Rodney didn't want to mess that up by upsetting the balance between them. He wondered if he hadn't been buried all this time, under the snow and ice, too numb to feel anything. Part of him had to have known just seeing Sheppard would start the thaw.

It was easy to sink back in his seat and watched the landscape roll by outside his window. Winter had lingered late in the mountains and pockets of snow remained in every shady hollow or ditch. The white seemed to glow as the headlights hit it, then dissolved like an afterimage of a flash as the Jeep passed by. The dusk faded from blue into darkness, until everything beyond the highway before them was a mystery wrapped in darkness. Rodney closed his eyes briefly. He was half-asleep, almost startling when they reached the outskirts of Colorado Springs, blinking against the glare of lights from oncoming traffic.

He realized he should feel grateful to Sheppard for driving. It had been years, years even before Atlantis, stationed in Siberia and Antarctica, since Rodney had lived anywhere with real traffic. He didn't even have a license anymore. He'd probably do better in a puddlejumper. Not a lot of traffic in orbit, and the bright lights were stars. He sighed. No puddlejumpers anymore. It didn't hurt as much as it had, he realized, but he'd never loved them the way Sheppard did. He wondered if Sheppard missed flying or managed to get in some time in an F-302.

"You never wrote," Sheppard said as they coasted to a stop at a red light.

"I must not have had time, what with reading everything you sent."

Sheppard lifted his hand from the gear shift and rubbed the back of his neck for a moment. "Yeah. Okay. Fair enough."


A horn beeped behind them and Sheppard shifted the Jeep into gear. Ten minutes later, still silent, they were parked in the assigned space for Rodney's apartment. Sheppard pulled the key from the ignition. Which reminded Rodney...

"It's a good thing you still have my spare key. I don't even know where mine is," he said nervously. They'd barely talked at all.

Sheppard's hand was on the Jeep's door, pushing it open. He went still, then gave Rodney an unreadable look before saying, "Is that duffel in the back all you brought back with you?"

"Yes. Not a lot of things to accumulate in Antarctica. And anything I have picked up, I've sent to the house in New Zealand," he explained as he got out himself.

"New Zealand?"

"Yes, I bought a house. I figure I'll retire there."

Sheppard slammed the Jeep's door viciously. "So you weren't really planning on coming back, were you?" he rasped. He opened the back of the Jeep, jerked out Rodney's duffel, and slung it over his shoulder.


Sheppard stared at him, eyes dark and face blank by the halogen light of a street lamp, then shook his head. "Forget it, McKay. Just forget it." He started up the sidewalk to the doors into the foyer.

"Hey, what the hell is your problem?" Rodney called out, trotting to catch up with him. His breath caught and he coughed. He wasn't used to racing after Sheppard anymore and his heart and lungs hadn't adapted to the altitude yet. "And can you slow down, damn it?"

Sheppard stopped half way up the steps and waited. Rodney caught up, but didn't reach out for Sheppard's arm the way he wanted to. The rigid set of Sheppard's shoulders shouted Don't Touch.

They walked inside side by side, but the connection between them felt broken, snapped and sparking aimlessly, like a downed power line. Too much electricity with nowhere to go.

The hallway outside the apartment door had been painted, but the carpet looked exactly the same as the day Rodney first moved in. Sheppard shoved the strap of Rodney's duffel higher on his shoulder, then fished a set of keys out of his pocket, finding the one for the door with the ease of practice. The lock opened smoothly and the door swung open.

Rodney hesitated for an instant before stepping inside. Sheppard would hand him his duffel now and leave.

He frowned as he looked around. None of his stuff was gone, but the apartment didn't have the stuffy, unlived-in feel he'd expected. The lights were on, for one thing. There was an afghan tossed over the back of his couch and a newspaper spread over his coffee table, weighed down by two empty beer bottles and a crumpled black tee shirt. A cat—his cat, grown fat and lazy enough to merely open yellow eyes and blink at him before yawning, all pink tongue and long white fangs—occupied the best chair. It didn't take any longer for him to process it all. He spun and stared at Sheppard, who had followed him inside and was setting the duffel down.

"You're living here."

Sheppard let the strap run between his fingers. The duffel hit the floor with a slight thud neither of them paid any attention to. Rodney stared at him, trying to understand, not really believing it despite the evidence. Sheppard straightened up, almost coming to attention, except his hands were loose beside him and he looked to the side of Rodney. His throat worked, Adam's apple sliding up and down as he swallowed once.

"I was waiting for you to come back."


A shrug. "She's yours."

Rodney licked his lips. "John."

Sheppard lifted his head.

It only took two steps to stand in front of John and stretch his arm past him, shoving the door shut, before reaching out and settling his hands on John's shoulders, on the cool leather of the jacket he wore over a gray sweater that let Rodney see the flutter of his pulse at the base of his neck. "John," he said again and leaned in, tipping his head down until they rested forehead to forehead. John's hands lifted and then rested on Rodney's hips. Their breath mingled, warm and softly unsteady.

He let his hand move finally, raising it to curve against the side of John's neck, feeling John's breath hitch, breathless himself as he slid his fingers higher, rasping over the hint of beard coming in along John's jaw to the fine-skinned hollow just behind his earlobe, and into the silk of John's hair. He could feel himself melting and coming back to life as John ran his hands up from his hips and along his sides, pushing back and under Rodney's coat to splay against his back and pull him closer. It was all worth it, he thought dizzily, closing the last distance between them with one more step so that they were pressed together, thigh to hip to chest, the zipper of John's jacket pushing into his collarbone, and John's hands moving up and down his back.

"God," he groaned and felt John's quiet laughter against his skin, recognized the relief that matched his, before pulling back just enough to find the right angle and John's mouth. The part of his brain  that couldn't shut down catalogued everything: John's lips were gentle against his, dry and a little chapped. They'd never once done this, never kissed, never been gentle, even the last night on Atlantis. It was new and careful, the way they paused at just that, taking it so slowly, even while three years of need rose up through him and seemed to vibrate out of John. Rodney didn't know if this was going to be the only time or the first time, but he wasn't about to waste it, to rush and miss anything, not after so long.

He thought they'd had to stay away from each other, had to be angry, or they would have done this over and over again. He couldn't be near John and not want him. He could never have denied himself if he'd been close enough to touch, any more than he could pull away now.

"You were here," he whispered against John's mouth. "You were here and I didn't know, I didn't know, I didn't know." He hadn't let himself know; if he'd seen John, if he'd even heard his voice, he wouldn't have had the strength to stay away. Part of him had known it, had recognized that the feelings were too strong, and latched onto an excuse to run. He'd slept with Vigdis, worked himself until he dropped and still woke aching and wanting John too on many nights.

"It doesn't matter," John murmured back, moist breath on Rodney's lips and then his tongue tracing the corner of his mouth. Rodney's brain finally just shut down and let him feel, let him taste, let John's tongue stroke into his mouth and learn everything, even the place at the back of his palate that tickled. He was pushing and pulling at John's jacket, hands on automatic, and John was grinding his hips into Rodney's, his hip bones sharp even through the layers of their pants, and all he could feel was the sweet pressure at his own groin. John was just as hard, rocking his erection against him, while he went on kissing Rodney with a tenderness, a reined-in need, that contrasted painfully with their only other encounter.

They stumbled, unwilling to release each other or even stop kissing, toward the couch. He managed to turn at the last second, pushing John down, and stared. John looked back with eyes dilated dark, his chest moving up and down as he sucked in deep breaths. He licked his lips and shifted restlessly, spreading his legs wider, and moaned softly. Rodney stopped breathing entirely as John pressed the heel of one hand against the faded denim stretched over his cock. He shuddered and thought he'd come right then, watching John's eyes flutter closed, the line of his throat bare when he pressed his head back against the arm of the couch, the way his mouth fell open and he groaned.

He squeezed his eyes closed and pictured the ice, frozen blue, and the wind that never stopped, until he'd backed off from the edge enough to speak. "Everything off," he managed to say hoarsely. He shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it, then set his fingers to his belt. He was so turned on he had to look down to guide his shaking hands as he worked the buckle open.

His belt buckle parted and he got the button and the zip on his pants open. A harsh, indrawn breath made him look up. John was still on the couch, his hand pressed to his groin, his gaze locked on Rodney. John looking that hungry made him shake, but John still clothed when he wanted him naked was irritating. That could be remedied, though. "Undress. Now," he snapped. "What are you waiting for?"

John dropped his head back. "Nothing," he said with another soft laugh and began awkwardly squirming out of his clothes, all abandon and speed, without even getting up. He threw his jacket toward the door and kicked his boots off in a feat of coordination Rodney couldn't match even when he wasn't too turned on to think. "Nothing," John repeated. He skinned off his sweater, ruffling his hair worse than ever and revealing his chest, his hollow belly and the rise of his ribs, shifting with each breath, flat pecs, small nipples, and the line of dark hair tracing a line down to his navel that Rodney remembered. He'd told himself over and over they were bad memories, but they weren't; told himself they were punishing each other that night, but he thought now they'd been trying to save each other, trying to tell the truth with their bodies when they'd run out of words.

Rodney's boots slowed him down, but his pants and boxers slid off fast. John's jeans were still tangled around one ankle along with a sock when Rodney settled between his legs and stretched over him. Skin, so much skin, and he could touch it all, taste it, make John twist and murmur, and then his cock was sliding against John's, wet with pre-come, and exquisite pleasure streaked through him. He braced himself over John and rolled his hips forward, dragging their erections against each other. John bucked under him, fingers clamped tight around his biceps. He lost track of anything but friction and John's glazed look, moving against each other, grazing his teeth against John's collarbone, as it got better and better, until John shuddered, his eyes squeezing shut, and came against his belly in warm pulses. He pushed himself tighter, slid through the wet mess spread between them and lost it, everything whiting out around him.

John was wiping them both down with the T-shirt from the coffee table when he came back to himself, still pressed so close he could feel the tickle and pull of John's chest hair tangling with his own. He blinked and caught the soft cotton in one hand, finishing the clean up himself, because he was still too sensitive to tolerate anyone else's touch. John hooked an arm around his neck and pulled him back into a lazy, languid kiss, then rolled them both onto their sides. They teetered on the edge of the couch for a second, but John wiggled back and Rodney followed him. He insinuated one leg between John's thighs and John hooked an ankle behind his. Rodney managed to toss the stained T-shirt and reach up, pulling the afghan off the back of the couch and over them. John's hands were drifting over him and Rodney never wanted to move again.

The bed in Atlantis had been too narrow, too, he remembered, but it hadn't mattered, because they hadn't stayed in it. John had pushed himself away, dressed and left without fighting, and Rodney had let him go.

He rested his cheek against John's shoulder and breathed in the scent of him, sweat and sex and whatever soap they used at the SGC, something faintly antiseptic, but under it the scent that was purely John. "You were here," he said quietly.

"And you weren't," John agreed, but he sounded at ease, as though he thought that was just the way it had needed to be.

He shut his eyes and let himself doze, warm and suddenly too exhausted to analyze anything, and dreamed of the end.

Part Two: After This Our Exile

"Elizabeth, you can't be serious—"

The captain of the Chiron, Brandt, stood at parade rest as Elizabeth briefed the command staff. They'd known something had changed when the Chiron arrived instead of the Daedalus, off-schedule and weeks ahead of their bimonthly use of the stargate to send a databurst to the SGC. Brandt obviously had no conception of what the orders he'd brought from Stargate Command and the IOA meant. The wonders that would be lost to humanity, not just Earth, forever. Rodney wanted to punch him. He wanted to shoot him.

Thinking of shooting made him turn to look at Sheppard.

Sheppard's arms were folded over one of his black tee shirts. Rodney couldn't tell if he was even listening. He'd never seen Sheppard's face so perfectly blank. Not neutral: wiped clean.

Rodney swallowed hard.

"Earth needs the ZPM and the drones we've recovered here to power the defenses at the Terra Atlantica base," Elizabeth said.

"So we abandon Atlantis?" he snapped.

"My orders are to see the city destroyed," Brandt said.

"I wasn't talking to you." Rodney never looked away from Elizabeth's set face. "You can't seriously mean to do this. Why? Has everyone on Earth gone insane?"

"I'll expect you and Dr. Zelenka to work out a plan."

"Are you on drugs?" He knew his voice was rising and didn't care. How could she be so calm? "We've held Atlantis against the Wraith and the Genii and every other threat for four years and now we're supposed to give it up?" He folded his arms and narrowed his eyes. "I won't do it. No one in the science department will do it. Not if I have any say about it."

"You don't," Brandt said.

'You! You shut up," Rodney snarled at him. He took a step closer to Elizabeth. "Find another way."

"There is no other way, Rodney," she said. "I'm sorry."

"You're sorry?" he repeated in disbelief. He looked at Sheppard, standing so close to attention it made him sick to see it. "Tell her she's insane. Tell her we're not doing this, Colonel."

He sucked in a harsh breath when Sheppard didn't answer.


Sheppard ignored him and said, "If we're evacuating the city, we need to make provisions for the Athosians living on the mainland."

"I have no authorization to deal with the indigenes," Brandt stated.

"There's a big surprise," Rodney muttered angrily. He started for the doors of the conference room.

"Rodney, where are you going?" Elizabeth called.

"The labs, to brief my people." To figure out a plan, but not one for destroying the city; no, there simply had to be another way. There was always a solution. He'd done it before. He'd be better off working on that than arguing with Elizabeth.

Who knew him all too well.

"Don't make me restrict your access."

Why aren't you fighting this? he wanted to ask her. Not in front of Brandt, though, because if she did have some plan, that might give it away. He wasn't known for his poker face, after all. Elizabeth and John probably already had a plan and they only left him out so that he'd put on a good show for Brandt.

He kept walking, but slowed down, hoping Sheppard would lope up behind him, catch his arm, lean close and explain everything. It didn't happen, and a sinking feeling in his gut told him it wasn't going to. They were serious. He wondered if Elizabeth really would restrict his access. The only way to do that would be to transport him to the brig on the Chiron.

He had all of Atlantis' command codes and passwords memorized, including Elizabeth and Sheppard's. He had the ATA gene thanks to Beckett. No one, not even Zelenka, understood the city better than he did. He could lock Elizabeth out, lock the entire city down, engage the shield and tell the Chiron to piss off.

And then what? he asked himself. Barricade yourself in the control room, try to turn Atlantis' security protocols against Sheppard? He couldn't do it, not alone, not even with the other scientists backing him. He wasn't that ruthless, never had been, no matter what he said.

He stepped into a transporter, past two marines he didn't know wearing Chiron shoulder patches and cold expressions, and rested his head against the doors once they closed.


Later, he said, "I won't. I won't help do this."

They were at the doors of the armory, where Rodney had caught up with Sheppard, Lorne, and Sheppard's new shadow, a captain from the Chiron who seemed to follow him everywhere. Caught up with the Colonel, because it couldn't be John Sheppard planning exactly where to set the charges, where the Chiron's guns should target for maximum destruction, how to kill Atlantis. That was the Colonel in professional mode.

Sheppard waved Lorne and the captain into the armory ahead of them. The doors slid shut just as the captain swung around.

"You will," Sheppard said. "Or Brandt will."

Rodney folded his arms and glared. "No. This is insane. The greatest discovery in the history of mankind, not to mention our obligation to the Athosians and the rest of the people of this galaxy—this galaxy, not the Milky Way—and we're expected to destroy it because the idiots back on Earth went and started another war with another enemy? Let them take care of themselves."

"It doesn't work that way." Sheppard's gaze flickered to the closed door. "There are other...factors at work. They'll force us if we don't cooperate."

Factors like Elizabeth's argument when Rodney confronted her in her quarters the night before: "Over six billion people on Earth, Rodney, and all the others throughout the Milky Way."

"Oh, don't tell me this is about the rest of the humans in the Milky Way," he'd snapped back and Elizabeth had the honesty to nod.

"They can have the damned ZPM. We'll find another. But we can't—"

"We have to." Sheppard looked so weary Rodney's words just faded away. He looked defeated. He looked like a man riding a nuke into a hive ship. "We have to," he repeated. He closed his eyes briefly, then met Rodney's gaze. "I have to."

Despite himself, he caught Sheppard's arm and held him in place. "I have all the command codes."

"Don't tell me this, Rodney," Sheppard whispered. "Don't ask me. Please."

"Why? Why not? We put up the shield," Rodney snapped. "What could they do?""

Sheppard slowly reached up and took Rodney's hand, lifting it away from his other arm. His fingers tightened painfully around Rodney's and didn't let go.

"You can't shield the mainland too."

Rodney swallowed hard. "W-what? They wouldn't—"

Sheppard's fingers tightened on his. He said hoarsely, "I don't know what Brandt would do, okay? I don't want to find out at the cost of the Athosians and the other refugees."

A picture of what the Chiron's weapons could do to the low-tech villages that dotted the mainland, mostly populated by Athosians, but with liberal numbers of people from other culled worlds, formed in Rodney's mind. Nothing would be left but smoking holes in the ground.

"We could stop him," he said. "You could. The city could use the drones." They could destroy the Chiron. They would, to protect the people on the mainland.

"We'd kill everyone on the ship," Sheppard replied. A muscle ticked along his jaw and he shook his head. "Have you listened to our people, McKay? They aren't happy, but they don't want to be stuck here the rest of their lives. Most of them signed on for a tour of duty, not a permanent exile. Earth is home and they want to go back some day. I don't think we could do it. I think someone would stop us. Unless you were willing to kill anyone who stood up to you."

"You thought about it."

"Of course I thought about it," Sheppard hissed. "I've disobeyed orders before, but that isn't the same as breaking my oath as an officer. ‘That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter,’" he recited. Rodney blinked and realized the words were from the military oath of office. When he'd been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Sheppard had repeated it as part of the ceremony. That was where Rodney had heard it. "I don't have the right to decide for the rest of the expedition, but I have the obligation to safeguard everyone. Everyone, McKay. When the Chiron leaves, that's it. It isn't just you and me."

Rodney pulled his hand away.

"What we want has never counted, has it? You make honor into something I could hate."

Sheppard's hand brushed over the armory's door sensor. It slid open. Captain No Name was right there. "Sir."

Rodney stepped back.


The captain of the Chiron was there for most of the meetings—Rodney hated the man too much to remember his name, except he did, he did, would always—listening with a curl to his lip that reminded Rodney of every NID agent he'd met at Area 51. The thought that all this could be another Trust plot tugged at his mind, but the security codes and authorizations were all correct, the political exigencies all too believable.

Everyone shouted at Elizabeth at some point after the first shell-shocked days. Even Sheppard raised his voice, something he really rarely did. "We don't abandon our people," Sheppard had said, meaning the Athosians. That was the only objection Rodney heard him make out loud to Elizabeth. "Our people are on Earth," Brandt had commented, drawing glares from all of them. Your people, Rodney thought and didn't say, because he did know how to keep his mouth shut sometimes.

That meeting had devolved into Zelenka cursing in Czech, Beckett fretting, and Sheppard standing at parade rest, his expression cold and his eyes focused somewhere beyond the room they were in, while Elizabeth slumped in her chair. When it was clear nothing was going to be accomplished, Rodney simply walked out.

The Chiron had brought information storage media, obviously with the intention of downloading as much as they could, if not all, of Atlantis' database. Her holds were empty, instead of loaded with supplies to support the expedition for another three months. Everything they could remove was being loaded aboard her to take back to Earth.

The Chiron had brought marines, too. Rodney kept seeing them stationed at key points through out the city. Brandt had used the Asgard transports to put them in place before informing anyone of his orders.

Brandt said they were there to facilitate the evacuation of the city. Sheppard had blinked slowly, his expression so carefully neutral, along with the way Elizabeth pressed her lips together, that Rodney would have known it was a lie, even if he hadn't already guessed.

"Look," Rodney argued finally, "take the ZPM, take everybody that wants to go back, and let the rest of us stay. We can trigger a self-destruct if the Wraith come before we find another way to protect the city—"

"My orders are to return all expedition personnel and dependents," Brandt said. "No exceptions. You and Doctor Weir and Colonel Sheppard were specifically...mentioned when I was briefed."

"You have a certain reputation at the SGC," Brandt added. "Brilliant but in need of guidance. You're much too valuable to simply leave behind, Doctor McKay. And Colonel Sheppard still has the strongest natural expression of the ATA gene ever documented, which makes him useful, even if he is something of a maverick."

"I'm not sure whether I feel complimented or insulted," Rodney said. "What about you, Colonel?" Someone at the SGC had predicted every move they might make to get around the orders. That was why the new marines, why Captain No Name trailed Sheppard—more like had him under surveillance—why they'd already pulled the ZPM and transferred it to the Chiron.

Sheppard allowed a thin smile to curl his lips. "Oh, complimented, McKay. You know how the military values mavericks."

For the first time, Rodney realized Sheppard might not be able to do anything. They'd been checkmated before they knew there was a game.

He glanced at Elizabeth. This was her venue. She shut her eyes for a breath, then smiled at Brandt. "You're right, of course, Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard have been priceless assets to this expedition. The SGC will be lucky to have them back on Earth."

"And you, Doctor Weir," Brandt said. "I imagine you'll all enjoy finally going home."

If we were, Rodney didn't say.

"Many of our people will be very relieved," Elizabeth replied.


Ronon walked away first.

Teyla offered him a place with her people, but he shook his head. A week later, he dialed a gate address no one recognized, some place he'd passed through as a Runner. He shouldered a pack, nodded at Campbell, and headed down to the gateroom floor as the wormhole splashed open and settled.

Ronon looked faintly different and Rodney finally figured it out: he'd shaved off the beard.

Teyla followed Ronon down, dodging people going each way. The morning sun washed stained glass color over the steps. The colors ran over Ronon's dreadlocks and across his shoulders, until he reached the base of the steps and the more diffuse blue light there. Teyla walked through the same light: green over a cheekbone, rose over her hair, amber along a bare, toned arm; Rodney followed her, like immersing himself in rainbow water.

The gateroom hummed with voices and the occasional curse and crash, but the overall atmosphere was subdued.

Sheppard was already down there, frowning at the rippling blue event horizon. Ronon just gave him a nod. Sheppard's mouth did something that was supposed to be a smile; it probably fooled some people, but not the team.

Teyla stopped a few steps away, out of the way of the marines and scientists moving dismantled and packed equipment into place to be beamed aboard the Chiron, far enough back to give the two men some privacy. Rodney didn't. He stepped close enough to overhear; he hated goodbyes and Ronon wasn't much for words, so this was going to be fast. There was no time left to waste on manners.

Ronon looked at Sheppard, dark and solemn and still. Sheppard was tense as a bow- string, the air quivering around him, and he broke first. Rodney could almost hear the twang.

"Watch your back," Sheppard told him.

"You'd better watch yours, Sheppard," Ronon replied, voice a low rumble. He cocked his head and slid his gaze upward, indicating the ship in orbit over the planet and the foreign Marines stationed around the gateroom.

"McKay'll do that."

Ronon looked at Rodney. He nodded. "If you let him."

That was the last thing Ronon said. He set one hand on Sheppard's shoulder, squeezed, then turned and walked away in a swirl of his long coat. He strode through the stargate and Sheppard didn't follow, instead turning his head to the side and looking down to where Teyla had silently approached and locked one hand on his arm, to Rodney standing silent at her side.

"I shouldn't have let him go alone," Sheppard said.

Rodney wanted to yell at him that Ronon was a grown man. What was Sheppard going to do? Take Ronon back to Earth like a pet? It wouldn't work. He couldn't fit in with the Athosians. There was no place for him at the SGC and no way they'd ever let him out. Rodney knew it, Teyla knew it, and Sheppard did, too.

Before any stupid words could burst out, Elizabeth appeared at the balcony. The movement caught Rodney's eye and he had to look up. Her hands were white-knuckled on the railing. She looked bad, stick-thin and red-eyed, staring at the empty ring after the wormhole blinked out.

He wanted to yell at her, too, for giving in and giving up, because it was all politics and that was supposed to be her specialty. Negotiations. So why the hell couldn't she negotiate them some way to stay? But she was here, on Atlantis, when the decisions were being made in rooms with blue carpets and seals on the floor, with views and flags and Secret Service agents at the doors.

Part of him would always blame her, the way he would blame himself, he knew. If they had never come to Atlantis, it would still be sleeping beneath the ocean.


Brandt didn't like it. Rodney would have loved Sheppard's plan just for that.

"My orders—"

"Are to destroy Atlantis. Yes. We grasp that," Rodney snapped. "Nothing in those orders says we have to destroy the stargate as well as a large chunk of the planet." He lifted the crystal he'd taken from the gateroom DHD under the watchful gaze of John, Elizabeth, Zelenka and a contingent of the Chiron's marines. The presence of the marines made Rodney especially bitter. The SGC hadn't trusted Atlantis'—Colonel Sheppard's—John's—marines, and dispatched their own goons. "Without this, no one can dial Earth or any other gate address outside this galaxy. We can safely move the stargate to the mainland and at the very least not leave our friends marooned on a planet that is entirely too well known to the Wraith."

A muscle twitched in Brandt's cheek. "Very well."

"I wasn't asking your permission," Rodney hissed under his breath. Sheppard moved a step closer to him. A step between Rodney and the Chiron's marines. He almost thought... but no. Sheppard might break the letter of the law, but never the spirit.

Sheppard wouldn't ask his people to do anything he wasn't willing to do; too often he wouldn't even order them to do things he would risk himself. He wouldn't order them to fight other marines, to break their oaths, to exile themselves forever. Rodney couldn't argue with that, no matter how much he hated it. There was no guarantee the marines would follow Sheppard's orders if he did rebel, when they'd know he was disobeying the SGC's: three years of regular contact with Earth meant the members of the original contingent, men like Bates and Stackhouse and Markham, who had come to Atlantis on a one-way ticket, were in the minority.

There would be no mutiny, no secession, no declaration of independence, not for Rodney, not even for Atlantis.

No last-minute save.

Not unless...If he provoked Brandt, pushed one of the trigger-happy SGC marines, Sheppard would step in and then there would be a domino effect. If he acted, they'd try to stop him and Sheppard wouldn't let them. All he had to do was push it that one step too far.

Elizabeth's hand on his shoulder tightened, and he read it in her eyes. She knew. She'd thought the same thing.

She wouldn't do it.

And Rodney couldn't.

Couldn't break Sheppard's trust again.

Couldn't break John.

He handed over the crystal to Elizabeth.

"I have things to do," he said, his voice harsh even to his own ears. "Zelenka. Now. I want it on record that I still vehemently disagree with this course of action."

He walked away to a transporter, and then stopped, because it wasn't working. The crystals and transmission systems had been removed to the Chiron's holds. Salvage was Elizabeth's word. Looting seemed more apt. Only basic functions were running off the remaining naquadah generators. The ZPM was already aboard the Chiron. Zelenka trotted after him, not speaking, as they headed for the stairs instead.

Rodney made the mistake of looking back.

Brandt was already walking away with Elizabeth, still accompanied by his marines.

Sheppard stood still before the gutted DHD console. His eyes were closed.

Zelenka touched his shoulder. "Rodney."

"What?" he snapped.

"You must not blame—"

"Don't tell me who to blame." He slapped his hand against the stair rail, hard enough that it stung and he snatched it back. "Ow. Shit. I don't understand why they insist on destroying the city."

Zelenka looked at him sorrowfully. "You wouldn't."

"What, are you saying I'm not smart enough to get it?" Rodney demanded.

"No, not selfish enough," Zelenka replied. "The people who give these orders have power, and they wish to have more, and they are afraid that someone else will take it instead."

"I understand being afraid of the Wraith, but—"

"I think they are afraid of anyone else having Atlantis." Zelenka paused. "You would not want to leave her to the Genii, for example."

Rodney shook his head. "I—Better them, better anyone, better than destroying the entire city."

Zelenka started down the stairs. "Not selfish enough," he said again.


Brandt wouldn't bring the Chiron out of orbit to help, so Sheppard and Lorne airlifted the stargate slung between two jumpers. Rodney flew a third behind them, relaying a video feed forward, since it hung in the jumpers' blind spot.

The geologists picked where the stargate should go, a geologically stable point on the continent, four hours' hiking from the Athosians' colony.

Rodney and Zelenka set up the DHD themselves.

Sheppard and every other jumper-rated pilot flew back and forth for a week straight, emptying the city of anything they thought the Athosians could use or keep safe: equipment, supplies, batteries, generators, the contents of the armory, laptops loaded with every bit of useful information anyone could think of from medicine to manufacturing ammunition to Rodney's own manual on stargate repair. Rodney and Zelenka spent every day working on the gate, setting up a DHD and a shield generator.

It wasn't enough. It could never be.

They dialed up the alpha site as a test. The wormhole opened with the same blue-white whoosh it always had. As both Athosians and Atlanteans looked on, a sense of relief ran through the crowd, but there was no real enthusiasm, no celebration.

Rodney looked up from closing the DHD access panel and spotted Sheppard with Teyla. He paused, still crouching, one hand braced against the housing, and watched them.

Sheppard had a tac vest on over his tee shirt. He looked uncomfortable and vulnerable without the P90 hanging on a sling in front of him to fold his hands over. He never shoved his hands in his pockets—bad form—and the hand Rodney could see flexed with nervous frustration against Sheppard's thigh.

Teyla had reverted to all Athosian gear. No more BDUs, expedition jackets or tac vests. She looked calm, the calm of exhaustion and emptiness, of increasingly familiar sorrow.

He didn't mean to overhear; he'd meant to speak to her later.

"Teyla," Sheppard said. I'm sorry filled the syllables of her name.

Teyla's gaze, dark and grave, strayed beyond Sheppard to where Rodney stood.

"Yes," she said.

"I'd stay—"

"They won't let him," Rodney interrupted.

Sheppard jerked. His mouth thinned to hard line, pressed closed over angry words. The hand at his side closed into a fist, then carefully opened. Teyla simply nodded. Betrayal wasn't a new story in Pegasus. The Wraith had trained all the people of this galaxy to think only in the short term, to think selfishly only of themselves, and now the people from Earth were proving that they were no different. The Athosians would be on their own again. They'd been wise not to grow reliant on Atlantis as an ally, after all.

"McKay," Sheppard rasped.

"Yes, I know. Shut up." Rodney waggled his hand at Teyla. "Just. You should know. He would." A breath. "I would."


"I know, Rodney," she said.

"Okay. Well. Good. I'll just—I'll be waiting at the jumper." He hesitated. "Goodbye, Teyla."

This was the last time he would see her. Goodbye wasn't enough. He wasn't good at demonstrating affection, or any emotions except fear and annoyance, but Teyla deserved more than a casual farewell from him. She'd saved his life more than once, accepted him as he was, and taught him more about grace of spirit than anyone in his life. He started to take her hands in his, then thought to hell with it and hugged her. It was awkward and it struck him all over again that she was tiny. He could feel how surprised she was, but she hugged him back, the strength in her embrace belying her size.

"I'll miss you," he whispered against her temple. Teyla patted his shoulder, then pulled back far enough to look him in the eye.

"I will miss you as well, Rodney," she said simply.

He managed the forehead touch without knocking into her and held there, until the radio earpiece buzzed with static and Brandt's impatient voice, demanding to know if they were finished.

"Rodney?" Sheppard asked.

He let go of Teyla's shoulders and exhaled. "Yes. Tell him we're finished," he said.

"We're just cleaning up," Sheppard radioed. "Sir." He slapped the toggle to his radio irritably and turned back to them.

Rodney hesitated before leaving and watched as Teyla set her hands on Sheppard's shoulders. He bent and touched his forehead to hers, moving with the rigidity of the wounded. Her hand cupped Sheppard's cheek, sienna on chalk, and drew him to her. When Sheppard's hand slid up into her hair and their lips touched, Rodney turned away and glared at anyone with the gall to keep watching.

He joined Zelenka at the puddlejumper. His friend was intently putting tools away in a case. A heavy pack sat on the bent-over grass next to the hatch-ramp. Sandy hair flipped over Zelenka's—Radek's—glasses.

"What are you—"

Rodney stopped. He went into the jumper and began pulling out the emergency kits. The case with extra handguns and ammunition. The medical kit. A handheld Ancient scanner that would be useless, because the gene therapy never took for Radek. He barely stopped himself tearing the cushions off the bench seats and tossing them out, too.

Radek caught his arm. "Rodney...don't."


They looked at each other helplessly. Neither of them went in for hugging or crushing manly handshakes.

"Watch out for kids with fingerpaints."

"I will," Radek said solemnly.

Rodney helped him shoulder the heavy pack, then handed him the cases. Zelenka's narrow shoulders didn't bow. He headed away; up the faint trail the Athosians had already begun trampling through the long grass. Teyla joined him where the new path curved round a stand of trees, their figures soon lost to the distance.

Sheppard walked past Rodney into the puddlejumper without looking that way once.

"Let's go, people."

Rodney followed him up the ramp.

"Sir, Doctor Zelenka isn't—" one of the marines said.

"Dr. Zelenka is right here, Private," Sheppard stated in a tight, hard voice that dared anyone to call him a liar.

The puddlejumper skimmed low over the grassland, following a course that almost took them to the Athosian encampment, before curving back to the sea and the city.

From the co-pilot's seat Rodney saw two dots moving away from the gate. They paused, and he imagined them looking up.

The puddlejumper shuddered from side to side. Rodney darted a glimpse at Sheppard's still face. That was as close to wing-waggle as even Sheppard could coax from a puddlejumper, he realized. Neither of them said anything.

The sky was unfairly blue, with the sun shining off the city's spires as they approached.

"Damn it," Sheppard muttered as he circled the city a final time.

"I'll fake a report," Rodney said. "Something to explain Zelenka. An engineering accident, a burned body, something. You'll need to sign off on it."

Sheppard's knuckles were white. "I will," he promised.

It would never work for either of them; Brandt and Elizabeth would never believe they were dead if they just disappeared, and the Athosian settlement would be torn apart by the marines. But they could cover for Zelenka. It was all they could do.

"I've got a bottle of that stuff the Tarani gave us," Rodney said as Sheppard brought the jumper down into the bay. "I'll bring it and the report around tonight, so you can go over it."


They broke that night, angry and mourning at the same time, as though they were trying to make sure there would be nothing left for either of them to put together afterward. Sheppard came to him and they didn't bother with Tarani wine or falsified reports. Instead, they used hands and mouths on each other, etching the Braille of desire onto bare, hot skin, finding the smooth punctuation of scars, pressing fingers bruise-hard into muscle and bone, reading need in the tense quiver of a thigh under a palm and the dig of a thumb into the crease between leg and groin. "We could have had this," Rodney gasped against Sheppard's collarbone, finally tasting what he'd only seen and fantasized about before. "We could have done this, all this time."

"Not and had Atlantis," Sheppard said, his voice gone hoarse and breathless. "Someone would have found out." He twisted and pinned Rodney beneath him. "I'm not that good a liar."

Rodney ran his hand down Sheppard's back. Muscle rippled and he watched Sheppard's eyes dilate further as he dipped his hand down, fingers slipping between the cheeks of his ass.

"You think we haven't been lying?"

"I think," Sheppard wrapped one hand around Rodney's cock and stroked, turning his wrist at the end, his grip just this side of too hard, "I wasn't going to lose Atlantis for sex." Rodney grunted and pushed up into his hand. "Not when I already had the rest of it."

"Bastard." So Sheppard had known, had always known. "Why now?"

Sheppard shook his head.


He tightened his hand on Rodney and didn't answer. It didn't matter. Rodney had figured it out.

Sheppard didn't think he had anything left to lose.

Rodney thought of marking him, something deep and painful enough it would outlast the eighteen-day trip back to Earth and still show for the physical exams that awaited them.

"Just fuck me," Sheppard demanded, tangling them together and twisting until Rodney was on top. "Do it here, McKay. You've always wanted to."

"You think it's an even trade?" Rodney fumbled and found the condom Sheppard had brought with him, along with a tube of lubricant, to Rodney's quarters. He rolled it on.

Sheppard pulled his thighs up and farther apart as Rodney worked his finger inside along with enough lube to keep from tearing him.

"No," Sheppard answered as Rodney pushed inside him.

"I don't either," Rodney said as he rolled his hips back and then shoved himself deeper, making Sheppard groan. He braced himself on his hands and began fucking Sheppard as hard as he could, imagining things fracturing inside him, losing pieces of himself forever, even as he came.

Sheppard didn't and as Rodney pulled out, he wondered if Sheppard had even wanted him after all, but a glance down showed a still hard cock. When he had his breath back, Rodney slid down the bed and sucked him off, holding his hips down, concentrating, making Sheppard twist and dig his fingers through Rodney's hair.

Sheppard came with a sharp grunt, pushing Rodney off before he'd have to swallow.

After the sweat had had time to dry on their bodies, Rodney said, "You should get back to your quarters."

Sheppard rolled out of the bed wordlessly, wiped himself with his boxers, and began to dress. Rodney stared at the ceiling and didn't watch.

"That's it?" Sheppard asked.


He waited for Sheppard to protest. He didn't. Rodney raised his head and looked. Sheppard was standing at the door, one hand braced against it, his head bowed. Finally, he straightened, shoulders squaring. "Okay," he said. "You'll forgive me, some day."

"Don't count on it," Rodney told him, and flopped back down on the bed.

"Then I guess this never happened."

"Right." He didn't look away from the ceiling again until he heard the door open and then close behind Sheppard, until he was gone like he'd never been there at all.

Part Three: The Garden in the Desert

It was easy. That was the part that threw Rodney. Not that resigning from the Stargate program would be quick or friendly―the paperwork alone would take a week to go through―but the rest of it: waking up to an arm gone numb and a wet spot where he'd drooled on John's shoulder, showering and sitting at his kitchen table, watching John flip eggs, the morning sun picking out every detail of the worn sweats hanging off his hips and the many times washed tee shirt he'd pulled on, listening to him curse when the pan spat a sizzle of oil on his hand.

They ate in companionable quiet and it was all new, because they'd never done that in Atlantis, never spent a night together, just fucked once, and pretended it hadn't happened afterward.

"So," John said finally, after taking his plate to the sink and rinsing. He leaned against the edge of the sink, hands braced against the edge. "Antarctica. I didn't know you were going to stay so long."

"Neither did I."

John nodded. "But you're good now."

"I'm good," Rodney said. He smiled. "I'm fine."

John straightened and let go of the counter edge. "Colonel Carter's expecting you in the lab, isn't she?"

"Uhm, I think she said something about that yesterday. I wasn't listening to her," Rodney admitted.

John ducked his head and laughed. "I figure I'll give you a lift to the mountain and start the paperwork."

"What paperwork?" Rodney asked. He followed John into the bedroom and watched appreciatively as he dressed. There were a couple of scars he didn't remember, including the telltale mark of a host
or former hostat the back of his neck.


He said it so casually Rodney didn't get it for a moment, then he went hot and cold with shock. It wasn't that he didn't believe it; John clearly wasn't joking. It was the bitterness and the anger falling away, the last doubts and worry undone. He would have lived with secrets, played out whatever lie was necessary, hit on Sam Carter in the cafeteria every Tuesday, to have John and keep him safe
anything was better than years spent spiting himself along with John for what was already lost. He could have done it. He could have lived a double life, kept everything that mattered carefully hidden, like a spy in hostile territory. But he wouldn't have to.

John was choosing him.

John began buttoning up his shirt, adding, "I've got my twenty in. I haven't flown anything interesting in a couple years." He paused. "I'm not giving up anything but going through the stargate and that...hasn't been much fun for a while now."

"Oh. Oh."

He said it like was easy.

Because it was, Rodney thought, it was easy to let it go. Getting free of the SGC wouldn't be, but the decision was.

Atlantis was gone. It wasn't John's fault. It wasn't his fault. He was still smiling when John asked quietly, "That is okay...Right?"

Rodney bounced a little on his heels. "How would you like to live in New Zealand?"

"What about working with Carter?"

He waved his hand. "Well, obviously, I could contribute a great deal, but Carter will manage without me. Oh, it will take her longer without my lightning-quick wit to guide her in the right direction, but I can't spend the rest of my life propping up the SGC science department."

John had begun laughing halfway through his explanation. He sat down on the edge of the bed and kept laughing, shaking his head, even after Rodney finished.

"There's no one like you, Rodney."

"Exactly." He sat down next to John on the bed, close, and he could feel John's thigh against his, from knee to hip. His elbow bumped John's. They'd always sat too close, right inside each other's space. It was startlingly easy to fall back into the habit, to sit even closer, and he knew John had been right. If they had slept together in Atlantis, someone would have seen and known.

"You're really quitting?" John asked, abruptly serious.

He nudged his shoulder against John's. "You're really leaving the Air Force."

"I really am."

It seemed like the right time to try kissing again. He leaned in and John half-turned, meeting him with a soft, hungry sound when their lips touched. He meant to keep this kiss light, but John melted into him and licked his way into his mouth as though making up for every time they'd looked at each other and looked away because they couldn't allow themselves to have what they wanted. God, yes, yes, this, the sweep of John's tongue over his, he'd always needed this, needed so much more than anger and blame. John's hands holding onto his head, taking control and taking over, and so desperate suddenly Rodney's thoughts were reduced to want, want now. He went with it as John pushed him down on the bed and stretched out over him, rolling his hips against Rodney's and sucking on his lower lip, sending sparks of pleasure rushing through his nerves. He was hard and rubbing himself up against John in what felt like seconds, moaning into the kiss, wanting more and wanting to stay exactly the way they were at the same time. He'd needed, he'd needed some kind of connection, some anchor, and been afraid to reach out for it. This and now were all he could think.

John began sucking harshly at the tendon along his neck, which meant Rodney could talk if he could just think, instead of stroking his fingers over John's temples, lost in a wave of protectiveness when he noticed the speckle of gray hair there. John had told Ronon Rodney would watch his back, but he hadn't; he'd been too selfish to stay when he was hurting. "What about...going into...the SGC?" The scrape of John's teeth along the place he'd just sucked into hypersensitivity made him gasp and push his head back against the bed, wanting more.

"Fuck it," John said. "We're quitting." He pushed himself up and sat, straddling Rodney's hips, pushing him down into the bed. He inched back until he had Rodney's thighs trapped between his knees, every move sending a jolt through Rodney's cock. He grinned and reached for the button on Rodney's pants. "Unless you'd rather we stopped?"

Rodney grabbed his hand and put it on his zipper. "What? Are you crazy?"

John stroked the length of him through the fabric. "Some people think so." The zing of his zipper made him gasp. He closed his hands on the coverlet, because he wanted to grab John and make it fast, fast, fast. John obviously wanted to play a little and teasingly folded the fly of Rodney's pants open, stroking one finger over the damp spot on Rodney's boxers.

Rodney pushed up into his hand, sparks glittering behind his eyes as he squeezed them closed. "Rodney, hey," John murmured. "Rodney. Look at me." He snapped his eyes open, looking straight into John's as he bent forward. Green and gold and dark, John was all the colors of the earth, of life, and his hands rested warm and certain on Rodney's chest now, riding his heartbeat and his breath.

"Don't stop," Rodney whispered. "Don't stop."

"No," John said, making the promise sound in his voice. "No, I'm not going to."


John was waiting, leaning against the hood of the blue Jeep, when Rodney walked out of the security checkpoint, accompanied by a baffled Carter, for the final time. Wearing faded jeans, blue shirt, and that bomber jacket of his despite the spring sunshine, he made a picture Rodney wanted to memorize, because this was John relaxed and free. His retirement had actually been accepted and processed faster than Rodney's resignation. Quite rightly, the SGC was even more reluctant to lose Rodney's brilliance than a rather too independent Air Force colonel. Their loss was Rodney's gain, of course. John was talking with Mitchell, hands moving to describe some aerobatic maneuver, and looked up as the chainlink gate cranked open. Rodney barely knew Mitchell to nod at in the corridor, other than the man threatening him with a lemon once, but he remembered he was Air Force, too, and a pilot. John had probably become best buddies with him.

He wondered what Mitchell would think if he knew why John had retired, then wondered if Mitchell didn't. Mitchell was one of the few people left, like Jackson and Carter, who had come to the SGC when they still went through the stargates to explore and not as a war effort. He honestly hoped Mitchell was one of those who wouldn't care, because John wasn't going to lie about it if anyone asked and Rodney didn't want him losing a friend.

An unpleasant stab of jealousy hit. He didn't want John to lose his friends, but he didn't want to share him, either. The SGC had had John since they came back to Earth. It was Rodney's turn. No more divided loyalties tearing them up. The jealousy faded into satisfaction, though. John had made the choice. They couldn't have him back now.

John's hand moved into a loose wave, gesturing at Rodney to join them.

Rodney nodded at him, then turned back to Sam, who had accompanied him this far. She shook her head. "I still don't get it, McKay."

He lifted his chin. "Get what?" Pressed his lips together on something that was half sneer and half smug smile.

"You leaving the program," she said impatiently. "You were in charge in Antarctica but you asked to come back to the SGC, and then when the transfer comes through you quit. So...I just don't understand."


She held up her hands. "Explain it to me."

He had gone to Antarctica because it was the closest he could be to Atlantis and the farthest he could be from everyone he blamed for its destruction. He'd exiled himself as a punishment for failure. He'd kept working for the SGC because if he didn't, then the sacrifice of everyone who had gone to Atlantis, everyone who died, everyone who was left behind, everyone who made it back, was lessened. He'd kept working for them when every day he believed in them less and less, because that was the price he thought he should pay. He'd finally figured it out, though. He wasn't going to waste anymore time on a debt he'd never really owed.

He nodded toward John, who had stopped talking to Mitchell and was waiting, a hint of uncertainty in his expression. Carter looked, looked back at Rodney, and her mouth shaped into a soft, "Oh."

He held out his hand. "Working with you has been a, well, a pleasure and something of a privilege, though of course there aren't many people who can keep up with my work, and well, you do. Did. Can. Most of the time. Though you are completely and utterly wrong about the limitations of tapping subspace energy." Sam took his hand and shook it.

"Good luck, Rodney," she said, and pecked his cheek; swift, soft lips against his skin, a tickle of blonde hair and the lingering scent of some perfume he'd never smelled on any other woman. Maybe she got it offworld, he speculated irreverently. Maybe it was the naquadah in her blood. It made a silly grin take over his face as he strolled out, passing Mitchell on his way in with an impatient nod.

John had his arms crossed over his chest. "Done?"

He heard the security gate slide shut behind him and the guard, saying, "Hey, Colonel Mitchell." It settled with a clank. He knocked his elbow into John's as he walked by him. John shoved back and grinned, crow's feet crinkling at the corners of his eyes.

Rodney took a deep breath, filling his lungs with air that smelled of the mountains, of snow and damp earth, the leather of John's jacket, and since they were in a parking lot, other less attractive scents: pavement and car exhaust, a faint hint of smoke, petrochemicals and plastics and hot metal. The scents of Earth. He tipped his head back and stared at the sky, pale and dirty compared with the planets he'd known, a contrail fading over the east as a jet made its way toward the Pacific. It wasn't Atlantis. It would never be. But he had John beside him.

John, who reached out and set his hand on Rodney's arm, tugging his attention back to what still mattered. So that he could say:




  • Summary: The SGC recalls the Atlantis Expedition
  • Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
  • Rating: Mature
  • Warnings: 
  • Author Notes: Written for the Duet Press fanzine Surfacing. Now timed out. It feels like I should have more to say than that. I loved writing this story, loved seeing it in actual print next to some of the best writers in the fandom, and I hope it ages well.
  • Date: 9.12.06
  • Length: 21,603 words
  • Genre: m/m
  • Category: Drama, Angst
  • Cast: Rodney McKay, John Sheppard, Sam Carter, Evan Lorne, Teyla Emmagan, Radek Zelenka,
  • Betas: 
  • Disclaimer: Not for profit. Transformative work written for private entertainment.

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