John tossed his keys on the dining table, set down the laptop case with a fraction more care, and then stood staring at the blank wall of the efficiency apartment. A gurgle from his coffee-abused stomach snapped him out of the fugue and he tossed his wallet and the secure encryption SGC cellphone on the table before stripping off his uniform jacket and hanging it up in the closet. His tie came off next. The single light from the tiny hallway cast long shadows across the room as he walked back through the main room to the cramped kitchen. He'd kept the curtains closed since taking up residence. The view of another DC apartment building did nothing for him.

He opened the refrigerator and surveyed its contents. Three beers were left from the six-pack he'd bought two days ago.  A slice of five-day-old pizza and the last of the fried rice and sweet-and-sour pork he'd had delivered the night before were his only food choices. He settled on the beer and rice.

Ten minutes to ten according to the clock on the microwave. Three hours earlier on the west coast, so Rodney might be just leaving the Atlantis labs to find dinner. He'd have one laptop with him. If John emailed him they could have a long distance dinner together.

He wouldn't, because even in an email he couldn't find the right words. Rodney wouldn't care that the latest American president had kept a campaign promise.

Angry at himself for wanting Rodney to realize it was important to him, John opened the cabinet next to the stove and pulled out the bottle of Scotch Lorne had sent with the note saying he'd need it sooner or later working directly for O'Neill, even if itt was only a temporary duty assignment until the IOA freed up Atlantis to return home.

TDY or not, it kept John working late at the Pentagon every evening.

Lorne, damn his eyes, got to go back to Pegasus with a squadron of 302s and an Army battalion (the Corps was too small to disappear an entire battalion without raising questions no one wanted to answer) on the Daedalus. The SGC had tasked him with setting up a base at the Alpha Site and maintaining treaty obligations while Atlantis remained in the Milky Way. Ronon and Teyla had returned, so had Beckett. Even Todd had been sent back to be released, since no one else was volunteering to meet his 'dietary requirements'.

John wished he'd been able to go with them. Lorne had surely known he would; thus, the Scotch.

The apartment had no whiskey glasses, but a coffee mug worked just as well. John poured the mug full.

He let the first swallow burn down his throat, then sipped while leaning against the kitchen counter in the almost-dark. Maybe tonight was the night he'd get drunk. Men and women in the US armed forces all over the world would be doing so even if the official announcement wouldn't reach the media until morning.

DADT was gone with one swoop of the President's pen. John took another sip and muttered, "Christ," once he'd swallowed. The Scotch tasted like peat and fog; Lorne had bought him the good stuff. The bitterness was all John.

He could go to a club, hit on a guy, get laid and it wouldn't matter. The USMJ no longer prohibited homosexuals from serving. An indiscretion or a malicious accusation would no longer end anyone's career.

John had ended up working late. He always did; as aide-de-camp to a two-star general running a Special Access Program he stayed busy – busy enough that he didn't have time to miss Atlantis and his team until he came back to the apartment at night. John figured that kindness was a side effect of of O'Neill's plan to rehabilitate John's reputation with the brass: when John had the minimum time-in-grade, O'Neill meant to finesse a promotion board.

"You'll need the rank," O'Neill had told him, "not that you don't deserve it too." He'd stared past John then, and maybe past the walls of his Pentagon office. "According to Carter."

O'Neill meant for Carter to take over from Landry eventually. Everyone at the SGC knew it, except maybe Carter herself. Officers like John, if they had enough rank, were going to be her back-up.

John swayed and realized he was too tired to go out; the Scotch on an empty stomach – he'd skipped lunch – was going to his head. He retrieved the fried rice, still sort of warm from the microwave, a bottle of beer, and made his way to the table.

He ate while checking his voice mail, then got the laptop out. This was the best part of his day. Rodney became increasingly irate when John didn't answer his emails the same day and when he did, he became funny. John thought so, at least. Usually they were full of complaints over the incredible stupidity of scientists the SGC kept inflicting on him now that they were on Earth – They wouldn't last two minutes in Pegasus! – the cloak's ridiculously wasteful drain on their ZPM, or how unfair it was that Jennifer had taken a temporary position at the Mountain heading the SGC's infirmary while Dr. Lam studied medical techniques off-world. He hadn't mentioned missing going off-world. Maybe he wasn't as bored as John.

It had only been three months. O'Neill predicted the IOA would keep Atlantis on Earth at least a year. There were rumors someone was making book on it back at the Mountain.

Surprisingly, there was just one email from Rodney. He'd attached something. John decided to read it last.

There were several from Woolsey and one from Captain Dorsey, the officer overseeing security and the minimal military currently stationed on Atlantis while John and Lorne were both on TDY. Atlantis had been reduced to what the military called caretaker status; one step away from being mothballed.

Two marines had failed to return after their leaves. John sent Dorsey an email telling him to sit tight since occasionally returning to Atlantis or even contacting it without violating security protocols could be problematic. Both marines were officially serving outside the continental US, so reporting them AWOL to the MPs could open a big can of worms. They were probably in a San Francisco drunk tank.

John went back to the kitchen to dump the remnants of the fried rice in the garbage and retrieve another beer. He flipped on a light on his way back.

Woolsey was worried about their proximity to San Francisco Bay and proposed they shift the city to Antarctic waters. John wrote back that unless he missed his guess, the SGC wanted to keep Atlantis within the twelve-mile limit rather than place it in international waters, and that taking up an Antarctic station would necessitate using the shield to protect the city from icebergs, though Woolsey would need to consult Rodney and Zelenka on the latter. The weather difficulties would make bringing in supplies harder too, unless they used the jumpers.

The second to last email asked how Woolsey could keep Rodney from killing one of the new scientists.

The last one asked if John had any advice on how to dispose of Dr. Rush. John wasn't sure if Woolsey meant removing Rush from Atlantis or hiding his body, so he fired off an email advising Woolsey to conduct an inventory of the zats in the armory. Woolsey could make of that whatever he wished.

The second beer was half empty when he opened Rodney's email.

John finished it in one long gulp after seeing the .jpg. The faintly fuzzy quality and off-centeredness were a dead giveaway: Rodney had taken the picture himself. Which meant he was already in possession of the ring. White flared off one of the prongs holding the more than respectable-sized diamond. Maybe he'd recruited Jeannie to help him pick it out. Unless Jennifer herself had herded Rodney into a jewelry store and showed him which ring she'd want out of self-preservation. This one would look good on one of her small, feminine hands.

Jennifer took care of her hands. Said she'd learned to do that while in medical school. Hands that had saved John's life more than once.

God, Rodney had bought her a ring.

He went back to the kitchen for the Scotch, not bothering with the last beer.

He read the email carefully, three times, before tapping out a laconic reply.

Looks good, buddy. This time try actually proposing instead of letting her find it in your pocket and don't expect me to organize the bachelor party. Then he deleted everything but the first sentence and added, She'll say yes.

The fried rice sat like a lump of lead in his stomach.

John clicked send and closed the laptop. The Scotch went with him to the couch. Eventually John stopped tasting it, but he kept drinking until he passed out.


Rodney didn't mention the ring or any proposal in his email the next day or any after that. John ignored the subject, along with all the other things he carefully didn't think about. If Rodney didn't say anything, John sure as hell wouldn't be the one to mention it. He knew that Rodney was likely waiting because he and Jennifer weren't even in the same state. Sooner or later a crisis would have Rodney called to the Mountain or Jennifer returning to Atlantis and when it was over, Rodney would bring out the ring.

Meanwhile, Rodney kept emailing him every day and John would read and answer whenever he found himself at loose ends. Neither of them could to talk on the phone and John wondered sometimes if Rodney deleted as many unsent emails and confidences as John did. He missed their radios, he even missed phone calls, but the cloak scrambled cell transmissions.

Reading between the lines of what Rodney did write, John recognized Rodney was miserable and lonely too.

Am at the mess, Rodney wrote. Cannot understand why food is still awful. We're on Earth, how hard can it be to fix mashed potatoes and gravy? I've eaten food that was orange and purple that didn't taste this bad. Do you think the cooks are trying to kill everyone left in Atlantis or just me? Potatoes shouldn't be gray and gluey.

John smiled to himself. Rodney would be sitting at the table toward the back of the mess hall, where the light from the balcony wouldn't glare off his laptop screen. His big shoulders would be hunched over, even though Ronon wasn't around to snag anything off his tray. He'd be typing with one hand and eating with the other. Maybe in this case he'd just be letting the gloppy gray goo drip off a spoon back to the tray. It still would be better than eating a vending machine ham sandwich at his desk like John. He missed Athosian food and even the mystery meatloaf the marines had cooked once a week.

Food at the SGC mess isn't this bad... Rush just came in. Of all the so-called scientists the IOA has foisted on Atlantis since we arrived, he's the absolute worst. He's insane. If I continue grinding my teeth around him at this rate, I'll need complete dentures within a month. Of course, within a month I'm sure he'll have managed to destroy the city and possibly the entire hemisphere (he's too incompetent to destroy the planet). You think I'm exaggerating but Woolsey and what's-his-name, the jarhead you and Lorne left in command, hate him too. He's a menace. A platoon of lobotomized monkeys would have more original ideas. I think fondly of Kavanagh every time he steps into the labs... He's coming over here. Nooooo. I'll have to fake a meeting to get away. I'll finish this later.

John imagined the annoyed glare Rodney would have cast Rush's way. Dorsey had emailed him asking for advice on handling the new scientist too. It seemed Rodney really wasn't alone in despising Rush.

Rodney hadn't signed the email, just hit send.

The next day, John read:

What do I buy for Madison's birthday? I've checked all the toy store websites for age appropriate items, but they're all far, far too infantile for a McKay. Jeannie won't tell me what she wants, before you suggest asking her, because I did. I even emailed the English Major, but he spinelessly told me Jeannie had ordered him not to tell, that that would be cheating. Cheating! It would serve her right if I bought Madison a Barbie Mansion or some pink Hannah Fontana crap monstrosity. It's spite, you know, just spite. No doubt Madison wants something Jeannie thinks is too expensive and she doesn't want to be shown up by Uncle Rodney's presents.

It's just

Thirty-six hours later, John opened the next one as soon as his laptop pinged.

I will kill him, I swear. Rush. There are sharks in the Pacific. It's a cruel use to put to any animal, but I believe their sacrifice would save me from gibbering insanity. That menace loaded a search program without vetting it  and triggered the emergency data purge we installed after the last time the NID tried to hack the system. We could have lost the entire Ancient database! I've already barred him from the labs, but there must be some way to get rid of him entirely.

Even unlimited coffee rations are not enough to make putting up with this sort of carelessness worthwhile.

John quirked his mouth up, but didn't laugh out loud. O'Neill would appear at his shoulder if he did, demanding to know what was so amusing.

Remember, my uncivilized country still has the death penalty in some states, he taunted, before returning to the endless paperwork that sometimes convinced him this TDY was punishment as much as rehabilitation.

Woolsey knew how to make the bureaucracy play his tune and John had learned more from him than anyone realized, including himself. A year of working with Richard Woolsey and his anal-retentive insistence on dotting every i and crossing every t – in the correct order – had gifted John with the skills to keep up even at the Pentagon. O'Neill didn't seem to notice, but John knew the rest of the General's staff, especially Senior Master Sergeant Archie Mehtivar, were surprised. Days when he ached for Atlantis' cool halls and shining spires, that spark of contrary satisfaction eased him through until another email arrived at his inbox.

Rodney fired back, of course.

Are you insinuating that I might commit murder? Because, if I were going to kill someone for stupidity, gross and offensive stupidity granted, I would have started long ago. Beginning with my undergraduate thesis adviser. Now there was a waste of oxygen. My niece had a better grasp of String Theory the first time she tied her shoes.

Good to know.

You're such an idiot.

"Shut that thing off," O'Neill said as he used the adjoining door to enter John's office. "We're due at the White House."

"Yes, sir."

O'Neill considered John critically as he shut down the computer.  John had on his service blues rather than his dress uniform since he hadn't known about any appointments at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but knew he looked acceptable.

"Anything you need me to do, sir?" he asked.

"Grab that shaver I know you keep in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and mow down that five o'clock shadow, Colonel," O'Neill said. "I suspect there will be an official photograph taken."


"You're getting your eagles." O'Neill smirked at John's dumbfounded gape. "Don't let it go to your head; there's no new posting to go with it. You're still going to be my dog's body until the IOA gets its collective head out of its enormous ass."

"Sir," John repeated. He'd only been a lieutenant colonel four years. He wasn't eligible yet. He suppressed the urge to rub at the back of his neck and gave O'Neill a confused look.

O'Neill dusted his hands together. "We're at war, Sheppard, officially or no. Officers get promoted, including you. Too bad Hank Landry holds such a a grudge or I'd stash you at the Mountain instead of here in DC."

John grimaced at the reminder. While he hadn't faced a court martial for the unauthorized rescue op that saved O'Neill and Woolsey, since it won them Atlantis back from the Asurans, he had also well and truly pissed off General Landry. John had cut him off in mid-order as they passed through Midway Station; he hated to think what his fitness report would have looked like if Landry had been writing it.

He certainly wouldn't be receiving a pair of silver eagles from the President's hands.

"Yes, sir," he said.

"Well? Come on," O'Neill said. "Shave in the car."

The promotion ceremony passed in a blur. Besides the President and O'Neill, Colonel Davis, the Secretary of Defense, Colonel Carter and newly promoted Lieutenant General Caldwell were present. John was still a little dazed because his shiny new wings weren't shiny or new and he knew that O'Neill had to have given his old insignia to Carter on her promotion. John fingered the wings after the President pinned them in place. Caldwell was watching; John raised his eyebrows and Caldwell nodded – the insignia had come from him. It meant more to John than just a tradition upheld; Caldwell stood for the Air Force in a way neither O'Neill or the President could. Handing over his old wings was an endorsement of John as an officer outside of the political machinations that made the promotion happen.

John managed to offer his own congratulations to Caldwell before they were ushered out of the Oval Office.

"The Daedalus leaves for Pegasus next week with supplies and more personnel," Caldwell said. Like John, his promotion hadn't changed his current assignment. "Any messages for Ms. Emmagan or Specialist Dex?"

John shrugged, reminded how much he missed them, and said, "I'll see them as soon as possible."

Caldwell nodded.

"Thank you, General," John added, making Caldwell smile.

John emailed Rodney the news once he made it back to his apartment, even before he read Rodney's latest, still smiling to himself.

Full bird Colonel.

It would have been better if the team had been there, but it still felt good.

Jeannie invited Jennifer to Christmas, Rodney wrote.

John's smile faded to nothing. Last year, though they'd been in Pegasus, there had been an invitation for him. There would be no room for John in Jeannie and Kaleb's small house now that Rodney had Jennifer.

Would it be crass of me to ask her to marry me on Christmas Eve?

John squeezed the bridge of his nose against the headache building behind his eyes.

Better coordinate that with your sister.

His good mood was officially history. He wanted it back, damn it. He should be celebrating and that meant going out. He needed to get laid and forget about Rodney McKay. That ship had sailed – it was time to move on.


"You look like crap," O'Neill commented two weeks later. "Also, make McKay stop emailing me."

John flinched, but not because he felt like hell, because that was his own fault. He'd been ignoring most of Rodney's emails and it hadn't occurred to him that Rodney would pester O'Neill directly, though it should have.

"Yes sir."

"Too much late-night partying, Colonel?"

John ignored the arch question. He didn't know how much longer he could keep going like this, but couldn't see any end either. He'd gone dancing at a gay club again the night before, been picked up by and fucked someone whose name he'd forgotten already. He'd crawled into his own bed past oh four hundred. The only other solution to the insomnia plaguing him was drinking himself unconscious. Coming to work tired and fucked out seemed preferable to hungover or still fucked up.

He shuffled a couple of papers and said, "You've got a call to Schriever AFB's CO at oh nine ten, sir, and the DISUM from the SGC is on your desk, along with the quarterly budgets for Terra Atlantica Base and Area 51." The President received a Daily Intelligence Summary (DISUM) too, but it didn't include anything from Homeworld or the SGC; O'Neill delivered all their bad news to the Oval Office in person.

"What am I calling Schiever about?"

John resisted the urge to roll his eyes. O'Neill played the fool the way John played slacker.

"The liaison officer there's peeved because he doesn't know what's really going in regard to the covers for airmen 'assigned' to Schriever and working at the Mountain," John reeled off obediently. "To be fair, that cover's thin enough anyone could poke a hole through it."

"I don't know what's so hard about just saying they're busy," O'Neill complained before continuing into his own office.

John stayed in and answered Rodney's multiple, pissed emails that night, telling him to lay off bugging O'Neill, that all new responsibilities came with John's promotion and were keeping him busy. Rodney's only response to John's news had been relief he didn't need to memorize a new rank to call him by, which had stung. John felt the slight justified using his promotion as an excuse to ignore Rodney in retaliation.

Better that than admitting he was devoting his off-duty hours to one-night stands. The Kirk accusations would start again.

Sooner or later, Rodney would flick him on the raw once too often and John would snap back with the truth about who he fucked.

The last few weeks were the closest John had ever come to being Kirk. He'd wanted men, but only occasionally risked having sex with them.

Furtive blowjobs and anonymous, back alley handjobs were dissatisfying even when fear had made them his only option, but John couldn't shake the habit now. He still couldn't justify starting a relationship. He didn't have to hide being gay any longer, but he couldn't share what he really did with someone lacking clearance, couldn't even promise to be around six months from now, and frankly didn't have the energy or interest to commit to caring about anyone new. So he stuck with casual sex with strangers, made sure he got his partner off, and most nights never even made it out of his clothes.

Rodney was offline when John finally finished the email that said a lot and gave nothing away. John was grateful.

Sleep played keep-away for hours as he thrashed in the weirdly wide bed, tangling the sheet and leaving him exhausted as the gray light of morning dissolved the bedroom shadows. He had to force himself to shower, shave and dress. He must have looked bad; Mehtivar set a cup of coffee and a donut in front of him as soon as John sat down at his desk.

John pushed the donut aside and busied himself reading the Daily Intelligence Summary from the SGC. He highlighted everything O'Neill would need to know in case the President wanted answers from the head of Homeworld Security and made notes on what he knew O'Neill would want him to handle. He couldn't believe Landry still had Wallace on a gate team. O'Neill didn't need to know how Wallace had lost all of his body hair to a mild allergic reaction to the soup of PX4-081, but it made John chuckle. He included the report in those that went on O'Neill's desk and moved on to the slim Atlantis DISUM. He only glanced up when O'Neill strolled into his office.

O'Neill gave him a sharp look. Age and time out of the field were softening O'Neill's body but not his brain. "Pack your bags, Colonel, and get some sleep on the plane ride," he said. "And make sure Senior Master Sergeant Mehtivar has my schedule."

"Where to?" John asked.

"We're flying into Peterson, then you'll be joining SG-1 on a mission," O'Neill told John. "That ought perk you up."

"What's the mission?"

O'Neill made a face. "It's one of Daniel's look-at-rocks missions."

"And they need me?" John asked.

"Mitchell sprained his ankle. Besides, you have experience with Ancient equipment and commanding an all-civilian team in the field." O'Neill slapped John's shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll sweet talk Hank into thinking this was his idea."

John only spent ten minutes with Mehtivar. Master Sergeant Mehtivar had a better handle on O'Neill's schedule than he did anyway. Non-commissioned officers usually did; officers gave orders, but NCOs made them happen. Mehtivar could have made John's temporary duty assignment miserable with little effort, instead he'd made it easier.

"Going back into the field, sir?" Mehtivar asked.

"So I'm told," John replied. "Be nice to whoever they get in to cover for me."

"As you say, sir."

The mission turned out more like looks-at-mud, because the rainy season on PYJ-834 arrived ahead of xeno-meteorology's best prediction (that same prediction had been the reason Jackson hadn't been willing to wait for Mitchell to return to duty). John found working with Jackson frustrating. The guy had been going through the stargate over a decade; it made trying to command him  ridiculous, while all his attempts at the sort of easy banter he had with Rodney fell flat.

He didn't even try to order either Teal'c or Vala to do anything. Teal'c did what was necessary with a dignified head nod and Vala, well. John recognized a survivor when he met one. The flirting and innuendo were at once genuine – if someone took her up on the blatant invitations, she'd follow through on them – and protective coloration, like brightly colored plumage mimicking something more deadly. John didn't need to know what Vala had to protect, but it didn't matter; he needed only to respect her defenses. It made working with her easy and let him relax and enjoy her company.

It took all three of them to fish Jackson out of the water when the flash flood hit. The water washed across the flood plain faster than any of them could run – not that Jackson ran when John yelled run. They perched on the crumbling Ancient ruins for thirty-six hours in the company of entirely too many displaced insects and rodents. It amused John to discover that while Jackson had lost his glasses, his sidearm, and one boot, he had held onto his notebook in its waterproof case. John had seen Rodney hold onto a laptop the same way: like a pit bull with its jaws locked. The notebook's survival meant they wouldn't need to come back and visit Planet Mud and its creepy mud eels. Even Teal'c was relieved.

O'Neill was watching from the control room when SG-1 gated back from PYJ-834 and he gave them all a demented grin and wave as they tromped down the ramp shedding plops of stinking mud. Mud which immediately began drying to cement-hardness in the air-conditioned, dry atmosphere inside the Mountain. Landry stood next to O'Neill and his bushy eyebrows jumped at the sight of them, but he didn't comment, just shook his head. John didn't care. He grinned back at O'Neill, because O'Neill had been right.

Going on a mission had felt better than anything had in months and if he couldn't have his team, then Vala, Teal'c and even Jackson were pretty damn good substitutes.


No surprise, Mitchell was gimping around the infirmary when they reported for the post-mission exams. SG-1 was Mitchell's team and being benched while they missed a check-in had to have driven him half-crazy.

"They're all safe and sound," John told him as he followed Jennifer behind the privacy curtain.

The curtain shook, dimpling as Mitchell poked at it with the end of a crutch. "Dirty! You got them dirty, Sheppard. Don't think you're getting your cleaning deposit back."

"At least I still have my pants," John kidded.

"And now you can take them off," Jennifer told him. She set a folded set scrubs on the end of the exam table. John eyed her, but Jennifer had mastered the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth innocent look and worked it. Only someone familiar with her from previous examinations would spot the wicked gleam in her eyes.

Mitchell's sound of outrage made John and Jennifer wordlessly agree to tease him a little, the way they often did Rodney. Mitchell wouldn't squawk the way Rodney did, but he did sound funny. John  missed the awkward little family the command staff in Atlantis made, the familiarity and the teasing. Jennifer was part of Atlantis for him, one of his people, and it felt right to unite with her against anyone who wasn't part of it. They weren't all that close in Atlantis, true, but in the Mountain they were outsiders together. It was natural to lean on each other, natural to look out for each other, and they could have a little fun with Mitchell.

Mud flaked off John as he stripped down to his boxers. He hopped onto the table and more mud showered off him. It had gone right through his clothes and was in his chest hair and more uncomfortable, personal places too.

"Wow," Jennifer commented. "You've got it everywhere."

"What are you doing back there?" Mitchell demanded.

Jennifer laughed and mischievously answered, "Colonel Sheppard's a dirty, dirty man."

"I mean it," Mitchell said. "You better not be getting up to any hanky-panky."

John chuckled and told Jennifer quietly as she began her examination, "Good thing you're not my type." John trusted her too; she'd never been interested in him. He knew she wouldn't come on to him the way some friends' wives and girlfriends had.

She began the examination by palpating the back of John's neck. It was just a preliminary check. An MRI would confirm he was Goa'uld free before he left the infirmary; all the doctors at the SGC did a check by hand anyway. John no longer considered it creepy, any more than having one of the nurses comb through his hair for alien parasites would be before he was handed a bottle of insecticidal shampoo and sent off to the showers.

"What is your type?" Jennifer asked lightly.

"Unattached," John said instead of all the things he wouldn't say. Men. Brains. Bravery. Wide shoulders, broad back, blue eyes, sarcasm, big hands that could hold a city together. His best friend.

Her boyfriend.

John had never and could never reveal that.

Jennifer's delicate fingers stilled briefly. Maybe she'd read his mind. "Of course," she replied. Her voice sounded a little tight, but she was standing behind him and whatever expression went with her reaction was hidden. "By the way, Rodney is fit to be tied. I mentioned you were on a mission with SG-1, something you apparently thought he wouldn't hear about?"

John stiffened reflexively, then forced his muscles to relax. "Didn't want to worry him."

"Well, you better let him know you've returned or he's going start emailing General Landry next."

Ouch, John thought and flinched: Landry would not react as good-naturedly to Rodney's diatribes as O'Neill did.

Jennifer raised an eyebrow at him and he shook his head. That stethoscope was cold and it could have been the reason he flinched. He'd stick to that as his story.

"Cough, please."

John coughed. It just wasn't as much fun with a girl, no matter how pretty.

Mitchell's voice carried from elsewhere in the infirmary. He was talking with Teal'c while they waited, complaining about being stuck doing paperwork for a mission he hadn't even been on. Teal'c's deep voice conveyed ironic amusement. "Unfortunate." Jackson and Vala were with the other two on-call doctors. If John listened he could catch their voices if not the words.

"Anything out of the ordinary?" Jennifer quizzed.

"The mud itches like crazy."

"I'm not seeing any sign of a reaction."

"Naw, it's just drawing up as it dries." Kind of like water-based lube, John reflected, and didn't quite suppress an amused sound.

Jennifer wrinkled her nose. "Considering the smell, somehow I don't think it will be a hit as a skin treatment. What's so funny?"

"I've gotten used to it," he lied.

Mitchell poked his head around the curtain. "Believe me, the rest of us haven't."

"Get out of here, you menace," Jennifer scolded. "And stay off the ankle if you want to be cleared on schedule."

Mitchell grinned, arched his brows at John, and withdrew. "Just checking, kids," he called. "Promise I'll be a good boy." Mitchell thumped along fast for a guy on crutches; clearly he had experience.

Jennifer ducked her head, but was smiling as she continued the exam.

John remembered why he liked her, despite everything, when she caught up with him at the infirmary's doors on his way to the preliminary debrief. He had on a clean uniform and had shaved while taking his time in the shower. She followed him into the corridor and touched his arm, where his sleeve covered the blue scar that remained as an ugly reminder of Carson's retrovirus. "I hope you're being... careful now that DADT's gone," Jennifer murmured.

John froze, then gave her a tight smile. He hadn't realized she'd guessed.. He wondered whether something in his exam had given away his recent activities – though it had been at least a week since he'd been fucked – or if he'd given himself away in some other fashion. "I'm still playing it safe," he said. He couldn't afford to do anything less. A failed physical might keep him from going home to Atlantis, with Atlantis.

"I'm glad." Her smile was sincere, concerned, genuinely sweet. It said she was glad for John, glad he didn't have hide that part of himself any longer, and not just that he was careful who he screwed. It made it hard to resent her. He wondered if she saw how he felt about Rodney too and was deliberately ignoring it.

He almost asked. The words were there, on his tongue.

"Not interrupting anything, am I?" Mitchell called as he swung down the corridor in the direction of the elevators. "The Generals are waiting." He slowed down, but ignored John in favor of smiling at Jennifer. "Lunch?"

"I need to check your ankle again."


"If nothing comes up," Jennifer acceded.

"It's a date, pretty lady!"

John caught the way Jennifer's gaze followed him. Her cheeks might have looked pink, but the crappy fluorescent lights made it hard to judge. He squinted, but couldn't be sure.

"Thanks," he told her before striding after Mitchell, who was already in one of the elevators and had one crutch tip holding the door open, waiting for John. Mitchell left his crutch in place until Jennifer disappeared back into the infirmary. "Debriefing?" John prompted him.

"Right," Mitchell drawled. He pulled back his crutch and let the doors close. "Going down."

John grunted.

The elevator started down. Mitchell shifted uncomfortably on the crutches. "Hey, you aren't – "

John glanced at him and Mitchell flushed.

"What?" John asked. More like what the hell? God, he didn't want to hear whatever Mitchell was about to say. Maybe he could take a page out of O'Neill's book and play dumb.

"You don't have a thing with her, do you?"

"With who, Vala?" Exactly when Mitchell might think they could have been together stumped John. Besides, John knew the signs of unrequited love from his mirror. She had it bad for Jackson and Mitchell had to know it too. The dumb act was harder than it looked.

"Dr. Keller," Mitchell mumbled as the elevator doors slid open. He made his way out in a hurry while John stared.


The pieces snapped into place, giving John a clear picture of impending catastrophe. The doors on the elevator had started to close again before he pulled himself together and caught them. 

The debriefing didn't require anything except confirming Jackson's report, promising to fill out the paperwork on the equipment lost to the flash flood and agreeing to stick around the Mountain. Mitchell would likely be back by the next mission, but the gene therapy hadn't taken for him and while Jackson could operate most Ancient tech thanks to having been Ascended, he couldn't initialize it sometimes. Jackson was convinced the information he'd found would lead them to another, possibly intact Ancient facility, where they might need someone with an ATA gene.

"You might need him and he's available, Hank," O'Neill pointed out gleefully.

Landry looked like he'd bit into a grapefruit.

John barely noticed the back-and-forth between the two generals. His brain seemed caught, all his thoughts chasing themselves over a Möbius strip. Rodney was his friend. Rodney was with Jennifer. So he should warn Mitchell off Jennifer. Except he wanted Rodney and if Jennifer left Rodney for Mitchell, maybe John would have a chance. So he should encourage Mitchell. But a friend wouldn't do that and he was Rodney's friend. A headache throbbed behind his eyes.

Everyone else had left the conference room while John stared at the seal on the wall and went around in circles in his head. He had a tiny room in the bachelor officer's quarters where he'd dropped off his go-bag before gearing up for the mission and he needed some privacy, so he headed there.

Mitchell waylaid him at the elevators.

"So, I just want to be sure," he asked John. "You wouldn't object if I asked Jen–Dr. Keller out?"

He could tell Mitchell to go for it as a joke. It would be amusing when Jennifer shot him down with the revelation she was with Rodney. John would make sure to get all the details from her and tell Rodney. Well, maybe he wouldn't after all; besting Mitchell romantically would make him unbearable for months.


It made him a shitty friend and he knew it no matter what he told himself, but John answered Mitchell honestly.

"Not in the least."


When he answered Rodney's slew of furious emails, John carefully didn't mention Jennifer or Mitchell. He described the mission, the mud eels, the picking bugs off Vala's hair while perched like a pair of marooned monkeys on the top of a wall that no longer supported a roof. He taunted Rodney with going off-world and the prospect of accompanying SG-1 on its next mission too.

He expected Mitchell to mope around when he discovered Jennifer wasn't available and steadily felt sicker and sicker as he saw no sign she had said anything. The suspicion he'd screwed up grew each day, but he couldn't bring himself to ask.

He refrained from mentioning that Mitchell had shown up at the mess and joined John and Jennifer at lunch every time he had a chance or that Mitchell found an excuse to hobble down to the infirmary even after he got off the crutches.

He sure as hell didn't mention the last conversation he'd had with her, hiding away in Lam's borrowed office.

"You know, sometimes I think all Rodney sees is that I'm pretty and smart," Jennifer had complained.

"The smart part is important to him," John agreed from his perch on the corner of the desk. He had fifty-five minutes before they dialed out. His pack was in the gear room. He snagged one of the lollipops Jennifer kept here the same way she had back in Atlantis. He picked one of the orange ones that would have made Rodney go wide eyed before he began screeching if he'd been there, despite Jennifer swearing none of the candy had real citrus in it.

"Yes, but... " Jennifer sighed and rocked back in her desk chair. "I don't even know what I'm complaining about."

John twirled the little white lollipop stick between his fingers.

"He takes you for granted?" he asked. "Because, you had to know that's Rodney. It's – " John shrugged. "No one's going to be his only focus."

"He loves Atlantis and his discoveries more."

"He loves them too," John contradicted. He peeled the clear cellophane off the sucker, wadded it up and flicked it toward the trash can.  "Would you want him to not love Jeannie?"

"No, of course not!"

John licked both sides of the lollipop. He had a routine. Alternating sides, then along the rounded edge, then sides again, until the edges got sharp. By then the sucker was small enough to hold in his cheek or crack off the stick. Now, if it was a ball-shaped sucker, then he got a little more pornographic. At least so people had told him, including Rodney on several occasions.

"I wonder sometimes if we even like any of the same things," Jennifer said. "Rodney's idea of fun is a scientific conference with a free buffet and bar." She snagged one of the red cherry lollipops and unwrapped it. "And I hate it when he insists on putting everyone around him down. It's mean. There was medical student in my first year who was just like Rodney. I always wanted to tell him to stop it, but I never had the guts."

"Rodney's not mean," John offered. "It's bluster. He's nice guy once you figure him out."

"He can be so sweet sometimes," Jennifer agreed.

"When he's not being a horse's ass." Reminding her couldn't hurt; after all, John was just telling the truth. Rodney could be a prick sometimes, but John liked that since he was dick himself more than occasionally.

"John," Jennifer said. "You know Rodney. I need to talk to you about something."

"What?" John slanted a nervous glance at her. She sounded the way Nancy had, when she wanted 'talk' about their marriage. It abruptly hit him that the whole sic Mitchell on Jennifer joke was about to blow up in his face. She was going to dump Rodney and John would have to pick up the pieces while knowing he was responsible. He'd told himself nothing would happen, but at the same time he'd been doing his best to make sure it did.

"Cameron asked me to go out with him."

The sweet candy threatened to choke him; John crunched it into powder anyway and tried to think of a way out.

"Uh," he swallowed and asked, "You said no, right?"

"It's just going to a Christmas thing," Jennifer said. "He's volunteering at a charity for kids and he thought I could come along and help. It's nice... and it's not something Rodney would ever want to do."

"He does hate kids, mostly," John agreed cautiously. "Says they're leaky."

Jennifer nodded and sucked on her lollipop.

"Do you think Rodney and I are right for each other?" she asked abruptly.

"I really, really can't answer that," John blurted. A glance at his watch provided him with an excuse to escape. He was due in the gate room. Freaking out over what he'd done would have to wait for after the mission. He jumped to his feet and headed for the door. "I've got to gear up."


PXR-444 yielded the Ancient outpost Jackson had predicted they'd find.

Desert had swallowed PXR-444 since the Ancients left. Red dust sifted over the team as they followed the remnants of a road from the stargate. Jackson was oblivious to everything but finding the outpost, Teal'c ignored the dust, and Mitchell pretended to ignore it, but Vala produced a long white scarf from her pack and wrapped it over her head and face. John put on the sunglasses he always carried and tied his camo-patterned bandana over his nose and mouth outlaw-style. Heat wasn't a problem, but the glare from the sand got old. He missed Pegasus and its cool, green worlds.

A town had accreted around the outpost, only to succumb to time and the creeping desert. Broken walls poking from drifts, five scraggly, water-starved palms and the distinct shape of Ancient architecture half buried in sand were all age had left. Distant birds surfed the thermals or John might have thought the world void of animal life.

"What a depressing hole," Vala commented.

"It is desolate," Teal'c admitted.

Jackson ignored them all in favor of circling the outpost to find its entrance.

Mitchell looked around and grinned. "Looks sort of peaceful to me. No natives to get pissy at least."

"No flood plain," John agreed and coughed on his next breath, uncomfortable with Mitchell thanks to Jennifer's confidences. He turned away and found a freestanding wall to study while he leaned against it. The stone was grainy but every edge had been sanded into a smooth and sinuous curve by the wind-born sand. He figured Jackson would find something before he got hot enough to move to the shade of the palm trees.

He was right: within a minute Jackson called, "Colonel Sheppard, could you come over here?"  from the other side of the outpost building.

John ambled around, but despite his most winsome entreaty, the entrance and controls Jackson had uncovered wouldn't respond.

"'Open sesame' not working for you, Sheppard?" Mitchell kidded.

"No power."

Four hours of frustrated poking later, Jackson gave in to John's suggestion that they check-in through the stargate and requisition a naquadah generator and someone competent to hook it up the the outpost. Landry agreed to the request, likely because Mitchell did the talking. SG-1 sat around the stargate waiting for three hours until the gate activated again. There were tiny red bugs in the sand that crawled up their boots and pants, prompting John to empty a can of OFF onto his BDUs, much to Mitchell's amusement.

"You won't be laughing when you turn into a giant bug," John warned.

Landry sent through Dr. Lee rather than Rodney to John's disappointment. It would have taken more time to scramble a flight and bring Rodney from the West Coast, but John had hoped. If Rodney were at the Mountain, Jennifer might not be tempted to spend as much time with Mitchell and John would be relieved of the problem of what he should do about the growing thing between the two of them, without having to say anything to Rodney.

If that made him a coward, so be it. Keeping Rodney's girlfriend faithful seemed to be beyond John's capabilities.

"You think she could fall for a guy like me?" Mitchell asked John while they waited.


"Jen—Doctor Keller. Because I really like her."

"She's likable," John agreed helplessly. "But really young. You know, never really dated or anything because she was going through medical school so young."

"I think my folks would like her too," Mitchell said.

Every instinct told John to warn Mitchell off right then and there. Rodney might not have thought to ask John to look out for his girl, but it was what a friend would do anyway.

"I'm taking it slow," Mitchell went on. "Don't want to scare her off, but I think she might be it."

John opened his mouth, then closed it. Before he said anything to Mitchell, he'd talk to Jennifer again. The news she wasn't available would be better coming from her than John, especially after Mitchell had just bared his feelings.

If Jennifer decided she was more interested in Mitchell than Rodney? John could say something; DADT wasn't a barrier any longer.

John shuddered.

"Hey, you okay?" Mitchell asked.

"Just too much sun," John muttered.

"Better get in the shade," Mitchell told him.

Once Lee had power to the installation, John laid his hands on the Ancient equipment angrily told it to open. He stomped off to the perimeter to escape the rush of foul air that resulted and watched the sand turn honey and crimson and mauve as the sun slowly retreated before the dusk. He hated himself for the things he was thinking. Distant scarlet veils of dust turned the sunset spectacular and when John turned back, painted the ruins in black and gold.

The sky deepened to starshot indigo, Lee was escorted back to the stargate and Jackson set up portable lights inside the outpost. Mitchell and Vala pitched tents as the last light bled away, while Teal'c stood watch. John had nothing to do except watch, a reminder that he had no real place with this team.

John noticed the camouflage lizards the next morning. They covered the walls exposed to the south and east, sluggishly changing color in response to the rising sun.

He didn't think any more of them until late in the afternoon. He was inside with Jackson, helping him download whatever data was left in the long corrupted archives of the outpost and avoiding Mitchell.

Vala screamed and the rattle of P90 fire followed. Jackson was only a half step behind John as they sprinted outside.

Teal'c and Vala stood over Mitchell's disturbingly still body. Waves of the camouflage lizards poured toward them, giving the impression the ground and walls were rippling. Blood and flesh exploded, interrupting the illusion, as P90 fire poured into the mass. John fired on the lizards too, followed an instant later by Jackson.

The lizards kept trying to get to Mitchell until one turned on another gore-splashed individual lizard and attacked. Another followed and the feeding frenzy spread with piranha ferocity. With the onslaught diverted into cannibalism, Teal'c picked up Mitchell's limp form and sprinted clear of ground zero.

"What happened?" Jackson demanded. His clip ran dry and he switched it out while covering Teal'c and then Vala's retreat. John fired into the bulk of the maddened lizards and and waited to begin backing up until Vala reached him.

"One of them bit him," Vala shouted. She kept firing on the lizards, providing them with further casualties to consume. "He sat on it. Then he just keeled over."

"The rest came forth after Colonel Mitchell's collapse," Teal'c added.

They were all moving now, out of the ruins and away, John hoped, from any more lizards.

"Is he still breathing?" John asked. He had an epi-pen as part of his regular off-world gear. If Mitchell was having a reaction to the lizard's venom, it might help him.

"Yes." Teal'c hefted Mitchell over his shoulders as though he weighed no more than a child. "I will carry Colonel Mitchell to the stargate."

John dug one handed into his thigh pocket and brought out the epi-pen. "In case we can't keep up." He tucked it in Teal'c's vest. "It's for allergic reactions. Try it if he stops breathing." He glanced at Vala and Jackson, then added, "Let's hope the little bastards can't follow a scent."

"The information... " Jackson started to protest.

"Isn't going anywhere," Vala pointed out.

"We'll send someone back," John said. After dark, when the lizards were stupid and slow with cold.

Nothing attacked them on the run back to the gate. Mitchell was awake and aware as Jackson dialed Earth though still unable to move much more than his eyelids.
The lizards weren't as bad as Iratus bugs, but John's skin still crawled for hours afterward, despite being safe on the other side of the stargate.

Mitchell's paralysis wore off over the next six hours. He was slurring out words by the time John, Vala and Jackson checked in after their post-mission exams. Jennifer was talking to him lightly, keeping him distracted. John figured being paralyzed would be among Mitchell's top ten nightmares, the way Iratus bugs and Second Childhood parasites could still make John wake sweating and sick. SG-1 took over teasing and distraction duty while John headed out to give Landry a preliminary debrief on the mission.

He came back to the infirmary several hours later to find Jennifer and talk to her about what Mitchell had said.

John walked through the infirmary quietly out of consideration for the other patients there and came to stop when he recognized her petite form next to Mitchell's bed. Jennifer had every right to be there, of course, but not to bend gracefully close and brush her lips against Mitchell's mouth.

John didn't move or even breathe – he didn't want to see this – but Jennifer realized he was there anyway. Her face lost all color and then she went pink and panicky.

Mitchell was asleep, so John backed out of the room; he kept walking fast and ignored Jennifer's attempt to call him back and the sound of her steps hurrying after him.

He couldn't ignore her when she ran up behind him and squeezed into the elevator before it closed.

"John – "

"Don't," he told her.

"Please," she said, and John looked at her despite himself.

Jennifer looked so sad. Guilty too, but mostly sad. She wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, face half-turned away from John, not trying for sympathy. He felt it anyway. She was so damned young, of course she would make a mess of this.

Helplessly, he said, "Rodney loves you."

A jerky nod acknowledged that. "I know," she whispered.

John knew what had encouraged to his failure to act, but, "What were you thinking?" he demanded.

Twisting the knife just made her cry harder. John felt like a monster. He awkwardly patted her shoulder and Jennifer leaned into him without hesitation. John found himself hugging her while wondering how it had happened. He just wanted her to stop crying.

The elevator stopped and two airmen started to step inside. John gave them a look and they backed away.

"Oh damn, now the whole Mountain will know I was crying," Jennifer said.

"They'll blame me," John told her. Everyone at the SGC thought Jennifer was cute as a bug. They'd have it in for him for upsetting her. "Don't worry about that."


The elevator lurched into movement again. They had only a minute before its doors opened again.

"Please don't tell him," Jennifer pleaded. "John, please. I don't know why I kissed Cameron. If you tell Rodney, he'll never understand."

John closed his eyes. This wasn't just a suspicion any longer. Not something he might be making up in his own mind to justify holding on to pointless hope. He didn't want to keep this secret, damn it. Not telling Rodney now meant lying to him.

"It will hurt him," Jennifer whispered. "You know it will."

"He's my friend."

"I know," Jennifer said. She straightened her shoulders. "I'm sorry. You shouldn't be... stuck in this." Jennifer mustered a watery smile. "I should tell him. I will tell him."

The elevator stopped on the next level and, to John's relief, opened onto an empty corridor. Neither of them moved to leave.

"I didn't mean to mess everything up," Jennifer said.

John swallowed a bitter laugh. He knew what she meant. He hadn't meant to louse up Rodney's life either.

"It just – he's – please, believe me, my feelings for Rodney were – are – real, but what I feel for Cameron is – it means something too."

Wouldn't that make Rodney feel better. Except, of course, that it wouldn't make anyone feel better, never mind Rodney and his rejection issues. John scrubbed his hands over his face, then rolled his shoulders, trying to loosen the taut muscles in his neck and back. What a mess. The elevator doors closed and it started rise again.


"Don't wait until – " John bit back the words. Rodney wouldn't appreciate Jennifer knowing he'd intended to propose, that he'd already bought the ring. It would just intensify his humiliation. Not telling her was about the only thing John could do to protect Rodney's feelings at this point.

"As soon as I see him again," Jennifer promised. "Believe me, I don't want to hurt Rodney. He's such a good man – you know that. You've seen that."

John watched her, wondering again if she knew what he felt for Rodney. The elevator stopped once more, this time at John's destination, the BOQ level. He did his best to hide his relief.

"John?" Jennifer asked uncertainly.

"Okay," John agreed. "But you have to tell him. Soon."

"I will," she promised.

John didn't hold out any real hope. Jennifer would try to tell Rodney, but she'd try to be gentle. Rodney would steamroller over anything she said except a blunt declaration. The situation would continue until until it blew up in everyone's' faces, unless Jennifer called it off with Mitchell or Mitchell stopped it.

He didn't call her on it, instead thinking, Sonovabitch, Mitchell... as he quietly demanded, "Does Mitchell know about you and Rodney?"

Jennifer's wide eyes gave away the answer as the elevator doors slid closed. John slapped them with the flat of his hand.

Cameron Mitchell was a gentleman. He'd asked John if John would care if he dated Jennifer on the off chance John had a thing for her. Mitchell didn't poach. Fuck. Of course, Mitchell didn't know about Rodney. John hadn't told him. He'd thought it would funny to watch him get shot down. Now Jennifer was in a mess, John was complicit, and they were all going to end up hurting.

"God damn it!"

A tiny, shameful part of him kept gleefully insisting that without Jennifer in the picture, he could finally take his shot at Rodney.


Rodney kept trying long after John would have given up.

What the fuck is wrong with you? You won't answer my calls. You ignore all my emails. I had to hack O'Neill's email to send this, so you better finish reading it and answer me or I will do something impossible and crazy like fly to Colorado and kidnap you.

John read each email. Over and over. At first he meant to reply, but anything he wrote seemed like a lie and his words drained away like water into sand. After a week he quit pretending that he would answer.

Seriously. What the hell have I done? Just tell me. It can't be because I got Rush kicked off Atlantis, because he did it to himself. I made a reasoned argument and Woolsey endorsed the decision. All that Ninth Chevron crap. It's not like Jackson, who at least reads Ancient and understands the risks. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were missing off-world and no one was telling me. I hacked your bank records, by the way, to make sure that wasn't what was happening. How many times can you eat at The Stick? It's a grimy testament to the lack of taste of the average grunt and probably only survives because its the first bar on the highway between the Mountain and Colorado Springs.

John wondered if Rodney had any real idea what went on at The Stick. Going there left him feeling dirty and guilty each time, but he kept going back. Half the SGC knew about what went on there and the rest didn't want to know; sometimes a knock on the wall of the bathroom stall and a hand or mouth were what a keyed-up, post-mission soldier needed. No names and no one cared if you exited into the graveled parking lot by the back door afterward.

Ironically, the place served a decent hamburger any hour of the day and Mavis, the sixty-year-old waitress, would fill a thermos with coffee half-price for anyone with dogtags.

Is something happening at the Mountain I don't know about? Jennifer's emails are weird lately. I'm worried about you both. I don't know why you're angry with me, but this cold shoulder treatment really sucks.

Punishing himself by choking off his friendship with Rodney seemed somehow fitting. He deserved it for the glee that had been his first reaction to knowing Jennifer and Mitchell meant the end of Jennifer and Rodney. He sure as hell couldn't explain that to Rodney.

You're just being childish now. This is ridiculous.

Rodney managed a whole day without emailing him after that.

Crap. Talk to me. Tell me what to do to make it up to you.


Fine. Fuck you, Colonel. Be that way.

Another email arrived only five minutes later, making John feel even lower.

I'm sorry. There. You know how much I hate to apologize. I'm sure I wasn't really wrong, but I still would do anything to undo whatever it is. You're not even reading these, are you? I don't know why I'm still doing this. I keep hoping. I even asked Jennifer to tell you to reply. Did she? Now you have me doubting my girlfriend. I hope you're happy. Would you just answer me?

I would never deliberately hurt you or damage our friendship. I think you know that. I hope you do.

Rodney stopped after that.

John saved them all to a flashdrive, but he couldn't make himself answer.

He couldn't make himself hang out with Jennifer or Mitchell any longer either. Mitchell might not have noticed, but Jennifer certainly did. The wounded looks made John retreat further into himself. The situation threatened the brittle equilibrium John had found after realizing Rodney loved Jennifer. He rented a truck rather than use anything from the car pool and drove down to the Stick from the Mountain every night he could. He couldn't afford to get passing-out drunk while on the mission roster, but there were The Stick's other options and John availed himself, telling himself at least he wasn't cheating on anyone.

Mitchell was a good team leader and he considered John one of his own while John was attached to SG-1. He picked up on John's activities and cornered him in the gym working out with Teal'c. Teal'c could beat John down with one hand and a blindfold, but he was silent and restfully incurious. The wordless communication between veteran team members meant Mitchell needed only a look to signal Teal'c he wanted to talk to John alone and he left with a nod to John.

John rolled off the gym mat and to his feet. He'd stashed an extra towel in his gym bag and used it to blot away the sweat. Another plus to working out with Teal'c: like Teyla, Teal'c never drew blood unless he intended it. That meant no trips to the infirmary for band-aids or stitches. John wanted to stay as far from the infirmary as possible.

"Something bothering you, Sheppard?" Mitchell asked bluntly.

The towel hid John's face until he had his expression under control.

"Can't say there is."

Mitchell cocked his head, indicating he hadn't bought John's answer.

"Funny. You been takin' off out of here like a dog with his tail on fire lately."

John flipped the sweaty towel into his bag. "I don't like being buried under ground." He picked up the bag and headed for the door. "Do you mind? I need a shower."

"Hell, I need a shower and some disinfectant from just thinking 'bout going into The Stick," Mitchell said. "I know Colorado Springs isn't as... sophisticated as DC or San Francisco, but there's better places than The Stick. I asked around – "

John's stride hitched but he didn't stop.

"It isn't any of your business," he snapped. He wasn't used to being this exposed, of people knowing what he did, and he hated the idea of Mitchell quizzing people to find out the names of gay hang-outs just to help him out.

He spent the night in his quarters instead of leaving the Mountain; uncomfortable knowing Mitchell knew where he'd head if he did leave. Not that he cared what Mitchell thought, but they had a mission the next day. John needed to be sharp for it.

The mission went almost suspiciously well, yielding the information they'd gone looking for without a single hostile encounter with either flora, fauna, natives or weather. Jackson translated the final lead on the Icarus Gate, the mysterious 'first gate' that might be the only gate in the galaxy capable of dialing a nine chevron address. They only had one nine-chevron address, the one they'd found in the Atlantis database that obsessed Rodney's nemesis Rush, but everyone wanted to know where it went.

The only problem with the Icarus Gate was that they couldn't dial into it.

With the Hammond on its shakedown cruise, Jackson was hoping to convince Landry to allow SG-1 to gate to a rendezvous with the Daedalus as it returned to the Milky Way, then divert course to the planet where they calculated the Icarus Gate must be.

The gate address, translated into galactic coordinates, turned out to be Gliese 581 C, just 20.5 light years from Sol, a planet circling its M class red dwarf primary every thirteen days and lying within the habitable zone, maybe even possessing liquid H2O.

"If I'm right, sir," Jackson told Landry, "then the answer to why the Alterrans chose Earth as their first homeworld in the Milky Way is relatively simple: they arrived on Gliese 581 C, didn't like it, and moved to the nearest system with a planet they did like."

"Earth," Landry said.


"And we should send a mission to this planet because...?"

"Because later Ancients went to considerable trouble to erase signs of their presence on Earth, but they may have left a great deal behind there," Jackson explained.

Landry would discount anything John said, so he kept his mouth shut and didn't mention the Ancients' habit of leaving half-finished experiments, weapons, and everything else except instruction manuals and ZPMs behind. Of course, those had been the Ancients who retreated to Pegasus, obsessed with finding a cure for the Milky Way plague, ascending, or, eventually, just escaping the Wraith, not the Alterrans who crossed the intergalactic void from the Ori Galaxy and built Atlantis.

"Imagine it," Jackson said. "The very first stargate. There may be equipment there they couldn't relocate. Maybe even the answers to how they built the entire stargate network."

Landry tented his fingers together then nodded.

"You and SG-1 have a go."

"Thank you, sir," Jackson said. "I'll need Colonel Sheppard along."

Landry nodded,  then smirked. "The IOA has lobbied to include their own consultant in any missions regarding the Ninth Chevron address, so Colonel Sheppard won't be the only supernumerary included on this mission. Dr. Nicolas Rush will be going with you, and a expert on wormhole mechanics."

"But Sam–Colonel Carter and the Hammond aren't due back for another three weeks," Jackson said.

"Actually, Dr. McKay has more experience with Ancient technology," Landry replied, appearing amused by the way everyone but Teal'c visibly winced. "You should all be pleased."

"Sir?" Mitchell spoke up. "Dr. Lam returned to duty yesterday so I'd like to request Dr. Keller accompany us."

"Good idea," Landry agreed. "She can evaluate the Daedalus' medical preparedness and turn in a report when you return."

John tried to keep his face blank, but Vala noticed something; she had an instinct for weaknesses. He faked a smile for her benefit. At the same time, he kept thinking he couldn't do it. He would be trapped on-board ship with Rodney, Mitchell and Jennifer. It could only end in disaster.

John licked his lips and asked, "Do you really need me on this, sir? Daedalus has a couple of ATA positive crew."

"You've got something better to do, Colonel?" Landry asked. "Longing for the bright lights of DC?"

John shook his head miserably.

"Good. We might get the idea you don't like us here."

Crap, crap, crap.


John already knew he was in the shit, but he hadn't let himself imagine the depths of it until Rodney arrived at the gate room and didn't acknowledge him. He caught Vala looking back and forth between them, but she maintained her silence. He vowed to buy her something shiny as soon as possible.

Rodney came a stop standing next to Nicholas Rush. They didn't look at each other. Jennifer arrived late, looking awkward in generic desert camo instead of the fitted Atlantis uniforms. Her oversized pack threatened to overbalance her, but at least she'd secured her sidearm properly. She positioned herself equally far from Rodney and Mitchell, who stood with the rest of SG-1, which meant standing next to John.

He caught her eye. Jennifer gave a tiny shake to her head.

God damn it.. Not that John couldn't have guessed she'd said nothing to Rodney, since Rodney's shoulders weren't hunched over' his telltale body language always gave away Rodney's wounds, physical or not. Right then, Rodney was scowling, radiating offended anger, arms folded over his chest.

John shifted his gaze to the stargate, standing at ease with his hands folded over the butt of his P90. He pretended he wasn't worried about anything, was content to wait while airmen moved in plastic-sealed pallets of supplies destined to follow them through to Thera Base on PGS-877. Time equaled energy equaled money, so the forklifts would roll right through and return with the next dial up of Earth. Vala wrinkled her nose as the heavy ventilation fans kicked in to deal with the exhaust fumes.

Getting the cold shoulder from Rodney came as a relief for the moment. John's plan was to go on avoiding Rodney as long as he could and when he couldn't, they'd talk some place private, not the damn gate room of the SGC.

"How long can we expect to be on this ship before we reach the planet?" Rush demanded abruptly as Jackson wandered over to Rodney and him. His sallow features were twisted into a set, sour expression and framed by long, greasy hair. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the forklift engines.

"At normal speed, the Daedalus could make it from PGS-877 to Gliese 581 in about thirty-six hours," Jackson replied, " Long enough to get a good night's sleep before we arrive."

"I'll be in the engine rooms," Rodney snapped. He glared at Rush. "Doing something useful. By the way, you'll be locked out of the ship's operating systems." His gaze settled on Jennifer. Confusion and embarrassment chased over his face when she stared at the stargate and didn't acknowledge him. He looked from her to John and flinched.

John cursed Jennifer in his head for being as much a coward as he was. He knew what conclusions Rodney was drawing from their silence.

An airman ducked his head inside the open blast doors and gestured. The rest of the forklifts and pallets were ready and waiting.

"All right, people," Mitchell called. "Everything's ready to go. Somebody dial it up." He glanced up to the control room window. "Sir?"

"SG-1, Colonel Sheppard, Doctors, you are cleared to Thera Base," Landry said, his voice carried into the gate room on speakers. "Good luck and relay my regards to Colonel Young and General Caldwell."

"Will do, sir," Mitchell replied.

The heavy ring moved ponderously from chevron to chevron as the Earth gate dialed, so different from the blue flash of Atlantis' stationary ring. The iris was already retracted. The memory of his first trip through the stargate washed over John; he hadn't really believed it was happening, despite all the briefings, papers, and non-disclosure forms. The whoosh of excess energy subsided into the placid ripple of an established wormhole with the same familiar sound, leaving the air in the gate room charged the same way it did in Atlantis. No matter how crappy his life was currently, that still gave John a thrill.

"Let's go," Mitchell ordered. Teal'c and Vala started up the ramp to the event horizon with him and passed through. Mitchell waited at the edge. The noise in the gate room doubled as the forklift operators shifted into gear.

John shrugged and gestured to Jennifer to precede him. He stopped beside Mitchell, unwilling to let Jennifer linger alone with him where Rodney might see and guess something.

"Hey, you've done this before," Mitchell told her when she hesitated. Watery reflections ran over her face, reminding John of her tears in the elevator. She hadn't told Rodney about Mitchell yet; he wondered if she'd told Mitchell about Rodney. Odds were no, since Mitchell looked too cheerful.

"Not that often," Jennifer said. She blew out a breath audibly.

"We'll be right behind you." Mitchell grinned, then placed a hand on her pack and gave her a push. "Best ride in the universe."

Jennifer stumbled forward into the wormhole as Jackson, Rush and Rodney arrived at the top of the ramp.

"Time's a-wasting," Mitchell told them.

"Asshole," Rodney muttered as he strode through. It slurped around him and then Rush.

"Do you have to do that?" Jackson asked in passing.

"What? What'd I say?" Mitchell asked.

John gave him a dead-eyed look and stepped into the event horizon.

On the other side, a master sergeant shouted, "Clear the splash zone, more coming through, make a hole."

John hurried forward with Jackson. The rest of their group was already striding toward a group of officers that included Thera Base's CO, Colonel Young. Mitchell caught up and walked by Jackson's side.

"Hey," Mitchell muttered.

Behind them, the forklifts rolled through with their resupply pallets. The sergeant directed them toward a camo-painted prefab hangar at the top of his lungs, punctuating each direction with a creative obscenity. John might have paused to listen with admiration in other circumstances.

"You been acting like I got a case of the crawlin' cooties the last week," Mitchell said. "I guess I kinda pissed in your Wheaties, sticking my nose in where it wasn't welcome. Sorry about that."

"Fuck," John blurted softly. He kept walking. "I'm staying out of the fall-out zone."

"What?" Mitchell caught his arm. "You want to explain that?"

"Not in particular," John said. He pulled free.

"Well you're going to anyway," Mitchell muttered, but they were exchanging greetings with Colonel Young and he couldn't say anything else to John. Young confirmed the Daedalus had left hyperspace and had been in communication. Caldwell expected to take up orbit in under forty-five minutes.

John hung out with Teal'c and Vala, not talking, while Mitchell and Young traded SGC gossip. Jennifer talked with the pretty blonde medic who had to handled everything on base and the three scientists argued furiously while passing a laptop back and forth until the Daedalus radioed they were ready to beam them all aboard.

Caldwell had them beamed right onto the bridge, probably because it was SG-1, though to be fair he usually had John and his team beamed to the bridge too. The real surprise was Ronon, who grabbed John in a bone-cracking hug, then snagged McKay with one long arm and held onto the both of them for a long, breathless instant.

"Good God," Rodney exclaimed while John was still trying to re-expand his lungs, "you chopped off the mane."

"Looks good, buddy," John croaked, taking in Ronon's newly-shorn locks. He still had the goatee, so he didn't look completely unrecognizable.

"Figured I wouldn't see you until we got to Earth," Ronon said. "What's up?" He nodded to Keller and then, solemnly, to Teal'c.

Caldwell stepped forward – he'd obviously been waiting for the team reunion to finish – and addressed Mitchell. "What exactly are we looking for? Colonel Young didn't offer many details."

"I think I'll let Dr. Jackson explain," Mitchell said.

Rodney's gaze flickered over Jennifer and then between Ronon and John. He waved a hand toward them and muttered, "So, I'll just let you two catch up." He backed away before John or Ronon could answer, leaving them in favor of joining Rush at one of the navigation consoles.

Ronon raised an eyebrow at John.

"What's going on?"


John sat opposite Ronon in the mess hall, absently turning a coffee mug around and around, while trying to explain to Ronon why Rodney wasn't speaking to him, without mentioning the reason he'd stopped communicating with Rodney or why he was avoiding talking to Mitchell. Four 302 mechanics were wolfing down sandwiches at the table nearest the door, obviously in a hurry to get back to the fighters. Other than them, John and Ronon were the only others using the mess.

He kept his eyes on his coffee. The portholes were probably necessary to keep the crew from going crazier than rats in a can, but John hated looking out them at hyperspace. His eyes couldn't focus on it and while his brain tried to tell him it was blue, if it were really blue, it would reflect the same. In fact, it didn't cause any reflection. Had Rodney been sitting opposite him rather than Ronon, John would have made a quip about mirrors and vampire space. Instead he sipped the rapidly cooling coffee, despite the tightness in his throat.

"You're being stupid," Ronon told him. He squinted at John. "There's more."

John nodded gloomy agreement. He should have known he couldn't fool Ronon. He just hoped that didn't mean Ronon would stop talking to him too. That would leave Teyla as the only member of the team willing to put up with him and she was in Pegasus.

"McKay will tell me."

"McKay doesn't know yet," John muttered.

Mitchell strolled in with Teal'c. They took seats at a table far enough away to allow everyone privacy if they kept their voices down.

John sighed.

"Then you better fix whatever's wrong," Ronon told him.

He'd told Mitchell he wanted to avoid the fall-out, but the instant Rodney barreled into the mess, John realized avoidance would be impossible: he was at ground zero. He shoved his chair back but wasn't fast enough to intercept Rodney. Rodney crossed the mess hall like a laser-guided missile and his fist hit Mitchell's face before anyone could stop him.

Mitchell and his chair went over with a clatter and both hit the deck. The gobsmacked look of disbelief on his face would have been funny under other circumstances.

Ronon and Teal'c were moving by then; Ronon to restrain Rodney and Teal'c to check on Mitchell.

John turned to the four shocked mechanics.

"Get out."

They fled the scene as Jennifer ran in, her face blotchy with tears, a royal blue velvet box clutched in one hand.

Fucking perfect, he thought.

"What the hell!?" Mitchell exclaimed, feeling his cheekbone. "What was that for!?" He surged up to his feet and lunged toward Rodney. "Sonovabitch!"

Teal'c caught Mitchell's shoulders before he could retaliate. "Colonel Mitchell," he said. "Further violence will not be of use in this circumstance."

"It's gonna make me feel a hell of lot better!"

John shifted to stand between them. Whatever else happened now, he wasn't about to let Mitchell attack Rodney. Enough damage had already been done.

Rodney stumbled back, cradling his fist in his other hand and glaring at Mitchell.

"Bastard," Rodney spat at Mitchell.

Ronon let Rodney pull free once it was clear he didn't mean to rush Mitchell again.

Rodney turned and glared at John. "You knew, didn't you? Was it funny? Is that why? Did you think talking to me would give away the joke? Hey, let's watch the pretty girl drop the geek for the jock flyboy, right?"

No. God, no. Of course, Rodney would see it like that. John didn't move and couldn't find the words to protest. His particular road to hell appeared to be a four lane interstate with no speed limit.

He'd forgotten Jennifer was in the mess hall too, until she slipped between them.

"Rodney," Jennifer said, "please, this wasn't – I'm sorry."

"That counts for exactly nothing," Rodney replied. The fury that had carried him to the mess hall was collapsing under the weight of his hurt; anyone could see it as he turned away from Jennifer, avoiding the hand she stretched out to him.

Mitchell looked back and forth from Rodney to Jennifer. His gaze settled on the ring box in her hand and he paled. To his credit, he didn't assume Rodney had made up a relationship with Jennifer. "What – God damn it. McKay, I didn't know – Jenny, why didn't you tell me?"

"He didn't know," Jennifer whispered. "Rodney, I wanted to tell you first, but it was never the right time."

Rodney dismissed Mitchell and Jennifer. "Somehow that doesn't make it any better." He was still looking at John, who had said nothing, stunned by all the pain open on Rodney face.

"I really thought we were friends," Rodney said.

John looked down and didn't raise his gaze until he heard Rodney walk away and the airlock door swish shut behind him.

Jennifer went to Mitchell's side and began checking his eye.

"It's fine," Mitchell insisted. "I didn't think McKay could punch like that."

"I taught him," Ronon said.

Mitchell nodded, but his attention was all on John.

Ronon headed for the doors. He didn't need to say anything; John knew he meant to go after Rodney.

"I asked you," Mitchell said. Like a slow fuse burning down, Mitchell was getting justifiably angry – with John. Eventually, that anger would encompass Jennifer too, but John was the easier, less painful target for the moment.

John nodded wearily.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

There were too many answers and every single one would sound like an excuse. What could he say? I thought Jennifer would tell you? That didn't absolve him of his part, nothing would.

"Fuck you and your joke, Sheppard," Mitchell said. "This isn't funny."

John accepted Mitchell's anger the way he'd accepted Rodney's fury and betrayal, because he deserved it, and answered the only way he could, having finally found his voice again. "Do I look like I'm laughing?"

Did any of them? Mitchell switched his attention to Jennifer and looked as hurt as Rodney had. "Why'd you lie to me?" he demanded of her. "Hell, why'd you lie to McKay?"

"Don't blame Colonel Sheppard, Cam," Jennifer insisted. "I asked him to let me tell you."

She looked to John for some help or support, but Mitchell snapped, "I asked you, Jenny, not him."

Teal'c moved smoothly around Mitchell and Jennifer. "I believe we should leave now, Colonel Sheppard."

"Just tell me why you'd do this!" Mitchell demanded.

John was desperate to get out before Jennifer descended into tears again and didn't protest as Teal'c 'escorted' him out the mess hall doors.


The Daedalus didn't boast accommodations for many passengers, but the designers had sacrificed space to provide privacy, so at least John had his own quarters. There was an upper bunk in each cabin, but he had his to himself on this trip. He didn't want a roommate and was grateful the Daedalus ran light enough no one had to even contemplate to Navy-style hot-bunking. He was reading reports on the ship's activities in Pegasus – they'd seeded sensor platforms through the Alpha Site system and left a comm satellite in orbit – when Ronon knocked on the door.

Once inside, Ronon took up an uncomfortable amount of the cramped space just leaning against the edge of the built-in desk that, in addition to a locker, took up the other side of the room. John laid down on his bunk to make a little more room. The gray underside of the upper bunk didn't offer any answers, so he slung his arm over his eyes and said nothing.

Eventually, Ronon began talking about developments in Pegasus. Lorne had taken his temporary command and run with it; he'd assigned portions of the battalion to respond to several Coalition requests. Thanks to his work, Atlantis was in better shape diplomatically than before they city left Pegasus. The Coalition had been impressed that the SGC had fulfilled its obligation with the city gone, and intimidated by the military strength and technology to do so without it.

John listened because he'd need to know all this. Lorne's reports would give him the facts, but Ronon's wry observations picked out the important stuff and placed it in context. Alpha Site Base was its own command and Lorne should keep it; he deserved a promotion anyway.

Refugees were joining the remaining Athosians and building a city – Lantathos – across the river from the expanded Alpha Site base with aid from the army engineers. The first project had been a wide bridge that offered the burgeoning city free access to the stargate and the second would be the Coalition consulate.

"Down river, there's a bay deep enough to land Atlantis," Ronon said.

"No news from Todd?" Caldwell's report had been succinct to the point of nonexistence. Released Wraith prisoner on uninhabited planet with stargate.


"I guess that's no real surprise," John commented. Todd could take care of himself.

"Wraith have been quiet. Things are good."

John didn't know whether to be impressed or depressed. It didn't sound like he was needed at the Alpha Site. He acknowledged Ronon's unofficial briefing with a soft grunt and let the quiet take over again. The air recyclers whispered on and off.

It was a measure of how much had changed that Ronon broke the silence first.

"Torren's talking," Ronon told him.



John pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. Another milestone he'd missed. Torren was probably the closest he would ever come to having a kid and he couldn't even be around for the really big stuff.

He'd always known Teyla was braver than him; he'd rather storm a hive naked than be a parent.

"Is Teyla happy?" he asked. "With Kanaan?"


John rolled his head to the side and studied Ronon.

"What about you?"

Ronon considered him for a long minute.


John felt uncomfortable pushing for more, but he asked, "What about Amelia?" They'd still been seeing each other when Ronon left for Pegasus. "You miss her or anything?"

Ronon shrugged easily.

"We're fine."

John went back to staring at the gray ceiling. Despite all the shit he'd endured, Ronon still had more faith in people than John did.

They stopped talking after that. Ronon ran a sharpening stone along the edge of one his knives and John tensely counted the bolts holding the upper bunks together. The light never changed inside the ship, but their internal clocks were still on planetary times and insisted the hour was late. Ronon's stomach grumbled and he put away the stone and the knife, rose and stretched his hands to brush the low ceiling.

"You messed up," he said.

John didn't move. "I know." He'd known all along.

John curled onto his side once the door shut behind Ronon. They were still eighteen hours out from their destination. He closed his eyes with a quiet groan. Maybe he could sleep through most of them.


Caldwell raised his eyebrows at the sight of Mitchell's black eye, but didn't comment. John wondered if someone had given him the low down and he just didn't want to get involved in a personal matter. He was grateful to let Novak transport them down to Gliese 581 C, which scans confirmed had a breathable atmosphere, a stargate, and  a huge energy signature.

"When you say huge, Doctor," Caldwell asked, "are you comparing it to a stargate's normal signature?"

"No, no, though of course the average stargate and DHD assembly possess a tremendous energy reserve," Rodney replied, lecturing at top speed. "The gate at Cheyenne Mountain originally required a significant portion of the entire western United State's energy grid. Dialing browned out most of Colorado before the introduction of naquadah generators to power it. No, this energy signature is in the realms of a ZedPM, maybe even several."

"Then I shouldn't delay you any longer," Caldwell said. "Novak, please initiate transport."

The white glare of an Asgard beam deposited their group on the ground in front of the stargate.

"That's different," Mitchell opined as he squinted at the massive ring.

"Big," Ronon said.

The Daedalus would fit through the ring, maybe even one of the Ancients' Aurora class warships. It didn't appear to be stone, the way other gates in the Milky Way did, nor the metallic-blue of the more advanced Pegasus gates. Instead, the bronze-brown alloy resembled the same building material that formed Atlantis itself. The arc of the stargate crossed so high all detail at its apex was lost in the glare of the midday sun.

Ronon and Teal'c reached some silent agreement that set them walking a widening perimeter from the stargate.

Jackson, Rush and Rodney hurried over to the DHD. They bent over it and argued before Jackson pulled out a video recorder and started circling around it. The three scientists wouldn't welcome any interruptions; the argument started up again as Rodney knelt and removed one of the panels supporting the DHD so that he could connect his laptop; it looked to be Rush contending  with Jackson.

Mitchell remained where he'd beamed down. In the locker room, before gear up, he'd reiterated to John that he would be in charge, expected John to obey orders and to otherwise stay the hell away from him. John had been so wrapped up in his tangled attempts to juggle his friendship with Jennifer and his painful desire for Rodney that he had failed to realize he was betraying another friend in the shape of Mitchell.

Vala sidled over to him and threaded her arm through John's.

"Hey," John said.

She leaned close and murmured, low enough even no one else' ears would catch it, "Cameron doesn't understand why you let him 'court' Dr. Keller since you knew she was seeing McKay."


He'd wondered if Vala would follow Mitchell's example and give him the cold shoulder. He should have known better. Vala was as loyal to her team as Teal'c, but she followed her own judgment. She'd demand to know everything before deciding to condemn anyone.

She gave John's arm a little rub as if to console him. "It's McKay, isn't it?"

John glanced down and immediately regretted it, because Vala somehow saw everything, exactly the way Teyla did. What was it with him and the brilliant, beautiful alien women? They all saw right through him.

"Yeah," John said hoarsely, his throat closing up too tight to admit anything more.

Vala nestled closer to him. "I wonder if he'll forgive you? Do you think so? You know him, after all."

So she wasn't so much sympathizing with him as taking the opportunity to twist the knife deeper. Shame wormed through him, because he did know and Rodney would forgive him. John could win his trust again, because Rodney wanted to trust him. Rodney would do most of the job for John, rationalizing until he convinced himself John had done him a favor.

She patted his arm and tugged him toward the DHD.

"It's a supergate," she called to the three scientists.

Jackson lowered the recorder and Rush and Rodney both looked up. Even Mitchell turned toward them. Vala smiled, wide and delighted with herself to have beaten them all to the punch.

"Doesn't look like the supergates the Ori built," Mitchell said.

Rodney pounced on that with more than his usual delight in contradicting half-wits and idiots.

"Hah! You are so wrong," he crowed. "A Model T doesn't look like a Maserati either, but they perform the same actions in essence."

"Of course, you know a lot more about it than me," Mitchell deferred. Rodney eyed him suspiciously, but accepted the recognition of his expertise with a tiny huff when it appeared Mitchell was sincere.

"I think Vala's right," Jackson added. "Look at the decorations. They're less distinct, less developed than the Ancient work on the stargates we're familiar with, far less refined than anything we've seen before. Look at these loops, how organic they are compared to the angular aesthetic displayed in Atlantis. I think this may be one of the earliest gates built in the Milky Way."

Rodney snapped his fingers.

"Of course it is. That's why we can't dial into it from any of our gates. They don't have sufficient reserves to power the greater circumference of the wormhole into this gate. It would take a ZPM or a black hole, something vastly more powerful than the energy reserve in the average DHD. Whatever it uses, that's what the Daedalus' sensors registered."

Mitchell frowned and asked, "Yeah, but why'd they need a supergate?"

"Because they were traveling from another galaxy," John said. The Ancients built a supergate big enough to bring through a ship so that they could do just that. He thought it was obvious. "You don't open an intergalactic wormhole just to go back for something you forgot to bring with you."

He smirked at Mitchell. Mitchell scowled then turned his back to John, ignoring him.

They'd brought everything they'd thought they'd need with them to Atlantis. Anything they hadn't, they'd lived without. "Speaking from experience."

Everyone but Rodney looked at him in confusion and Rodney wouldn't look at him at all, though he wasn't arguing how wrong John was.

John waved at the supergate. "They used it to bring through their ships. There was nothing here, they had to bring it all with them. Ships. Big equipment. Whatever."  Rodney had hammered the lesson home to everyone on Atlantis that first year, when they were running the stargate off a naquadah generator. Keeping a gate open ate energy; the faster they closed it, the less power it used. "It's faster to load supplies into a jumper and send it through the gate in a second than to push all the crates through individually, right?"

"The Goa'uld used ha'taks to move their armies," Teal'c said, startling everyone. He nodded to John, neither friendly nor unfriendly, merely acknowledging John had made a valid point while adding his own. "It is not practical the move entire armies through a chappa'ai; it is an obvious choke point, vulnerable to ambush. For an army or a colony, to come through one by one is too slow."

"That too," John agreed. He'd never heard Teal'c say so much at once before.

"According to what we've pieced together, after the schism that separated our Ancients from the Ori, they packed up and brought everything here to the Milky Way," Jackson finished, "They weren't ascended, so they must have used ships or a gate once it was in place."

Rodney knelt and peered inside at the crystals.

"Yeah, so how did this gate get here?" Mitchell demanded.

"I don't know. An automated probe designed to build a supergate on the first habitable planet it found after reaching this galaxy?" Jackson suggested. "It could have dialed back to the Ori galaxy once the gate was constructed and transmitted the address."

Rush added, "From what I understand, the Ancients didn't possess ships capable of intergalactic speeds when they came to the Milky Way. They developed the stardrives later."

"When they built Atlantis," Jackson said. "And the Ori never developed them at all. That's why they needed the supergates to send their fleet through – their faster than light drives weren't fast enough to cross intergalactic distances."

Rodney straightened up and said, "Like the – "

"Wraith hives," John finished with him. The superhive Atlantis had returned to defend Earth against had been grown using ZPMs; regular hives were slower than Ancient ships or the Asgard drives Tau'ri ships used.

Rodney glared.
"I wonder where that first colony ship is now," Jackson mumbled. He looked around as if it might be present and he'd just missed it. "Or the gate builder."

Rodney eyed the DHD he'd opened up. "There are two extra crystals. I'd bet we can dial out to anywhere."

"So there's a ZPM here?" Vala asked.

"The energy reading we registered from the Daedalus must be from whatever they used to power the gate," Rodney speculated. His expression brightened and he pulled out his laptop . "I'd recognize a ZedPM's signature. It's something else. Rush," he said, "go away and do something useful. Check the markings on the gate itself. See if there's anything there we haven't seen before."

Rush opened his mouth, obviously intending to protest, but Rodney was busy typing and didn't notice.

"Of course, of course, the numbers add up," Rodney muttered to himself and went on typing. Everyone watched him until the combined pressure of all that attention made him looked up.

"So?" John drawled.

"Intergalactic gate," Rodney pronounced, forgetting to ignore him. "The energy reserve here tallies exactly against the recorded drain on our ZPM when Atlantis dials Earth from Pegasus." He grinned at John, then scowled quickly. "We could dial Pegasus from here or the Ori Galaxy if we wanted to."

"Or some other galaxy, if the Ancients seeded others with stargates," Rush said.

"What? Oh, I suppose, yes. There's no reason to think they wouldn't. Especially if they had an automated probe to do it for them. Why not? There's no real reason to assume they originated in the Ori Galaxy because they came here from there," Rodney agreed.

"And the ninth chevron address in the Atlantis database?" Jackson speculated. "What would that be? Not the first gate as we'd theorized... "

Rush's frown suddenly cleared into the same 'Eureka' look Rodney and Zelenka both had when they solved a problem.

"What?" he demanded.

"The probe ship," Rush said.

Jackson blinked at him and agreed quietly, "I think... I think you must be right."

"The nine chevron address must go to a gate aboard the probe ship," Rush said. "When it stops, it dials back to the gate network and updates its new coordinates."

Rodney seemed to more cautious. "Maybe. There's no evidence so far, but there might be logs of any changes in the Atlantis database. It's a decent theory at least."

Rush acted deaf to Rodney's words as he ran a shaking hand over the top of the DHD. "We could dial it," he said. "Right now.

"Are you an idiot?" Rodney snapped. "No."

"But – "

"We have no way of knowing if this probe ship exists," Rodney said, "and if it does, whether it is still working. If it's real, it predates the stargate network here. We're talking millions of years. Hello, if it's automated it might not even have life support! I am not about to risk my very valuable brain walking into the unknown without even a ZPM to get me home – "

"You walked into Atlantis," John pointed out to be contrary.

"With plans and marines and equipment and food!"

Mitchell snorted at that.

"I've got a suggestion," Mitchell said. "Why don't we try dialing Earth and see if this big ol' ring still works the way Dr. McKay figures?"

Rodney frowned but didn't object. Rush looked put out, while Jackson stepped back and gestured Mitchell to the DHD. "Go ahead, do the honors," he said.

Mitchell studied the DHD for a minute. He pressed one chevron and then another, working his way through the seven chevrons. The gate spun with a ponderous groan and lightning sparks chased from the inner to the outer ring. Ice formed on the metal, fumed off in foggy clouds, and the air filled with the bright zing of ozone. "Everyone might want to get out of the way, I've got a feeling this might have a hell of a whoosh."

Considering where the DHD was placed – to the side and much farther away than any others they'd seen – John figured Mitchell had a point. He and Vala and he joined the others at the DHD. Ronon appeared at John's side on ghost-quiet feet and cocked an eyebrow impatiently as if Mitchell hadn't been waiting on him.

Mitchell pressed down on the central ruby control.

The kawoosh of excess energy as the wormhole formed shook the ground under them. Rodney lost his balance and fumbled his laptop. John grabbed Rodney's elbow to steady him and Rodney jerked his arm away.

The blue ripple of the event horizon lit everyone's face as Mitchell raised his hand and activated his GDO.

The radio in John's ear crackled as Caldwell demanded, "This is theDaedalus. We just registered a major energy discharge. What's going on down there?"

John activated his mike.

"It's a supergate, sir, and we just dialed it."

"A supergate." Caldwell sounded skeptical.

"You could fly the ship through it, sir," John told him while Mitchell briefed with the SGC on another channel, "if the gate on the other end was big enough."


"McKay thinks we could dial Pegasus from here, which could be useful," John said.

"But no one can dial in to it?"

"No, sir. The Wraith can't use it to duplicate the Midway incursion."

"The SGC will be relieved."

"Yes, sir."

The beep in his ear told John he was receiving a signal on another frequency. "SGC is on the other channel, sir," John said. "Over."

"Thank you, Colonel. My compliments to General Landry. The Daedalus will remain on stand-by until you have further orders. Caldwell, out."

John opened the SGC channel and heard O'Neill's distinct voice.

"That's real interesting, Mitchell. You and Daniel can figure it out. Right now, we need the Atlantis people back here ASAP."

"General O'Neill? What's the situation?" John transmitted. He wondered what had happened that they were suddenly needed on Earth and could only guess it pertained to Atlantis. He hoped no one had managed to hijack the city while it was on virtual stand-down.

"Ah, Sheppard, good. Get McKay and your doctor and come through the gate. The IOA wants Atlantis out of here ASAP, so we need you back right now."


Mitchell separated Rodney from everyone else during the wait for Jennifer and talked to him in a low voice. From the  earnest set to Mitchell's features, an apology had been rendered. Rodney hissed something back and stalked away, so if he'd accepted it, it had been with typical bad grace.

Once Caldwell beamed Jennifer and their gear down, they walked straight through to the SGC, leaving the Icarus Gate and its mysteries to SG-1 and Rush. She tried to speak with Mitchell, but he gave her a stony look that boded badly for their romance, at least in the short term.

They went straight from the mandatory medical exam with Lam to the main briefing room, where O'Neill, Landry, and an IOA representative were waiting.

"Colonel, Doctors, Specialist Dex," Landry said. "Allow me to introduce Ms. Camille Wray of the IOA."

She nodded to them, her look unimpressed and cool.

"I understand General O'Neill already informed you the IOA has reached a decision in regard to the disposition of Atlantis," Wray began without waiting for anyone to be seated.

"So what happened and who screwed up?" Rodney demanded. "There's no way you're sending Atlantis back now without a reason."

Good point – something must have scared the IOA if they were suddenly set on getting rid of an asset like Atlantis. They weren't interested in doing anything because it was the right choice, only in covering their asses and looking good. He had the self-preservation to not say that out loud. Rodney's wormhole drive still confounded even Carter, however, so until the IOA had that in their hot little hands, Rodney was in the driver's seat. He could say what most people thought with near-impunity.

Wray's face looked ill and angry in addition. The unpleasant mixture guaranteed Rodney hadn't made himself a new friend.

"There was a Goa'uld infiltration," she admitted.

"Your guy Dorsey's dead, along with five other marines," O'Neill added.

"And Director Woolsey?" John asked, going tense with alarm. "Dr. Zelenka?"

"Both alive," Wray said.

Rodney sighed with the same relief John felt.

"Wounded?" Jennifer asked. "Dr. Cole was in charge – "

"The wounded were evacuated," Wray said, "but the assault proves retaining Atlantis on Earth or anywhere in this galaxy is too great a risk. We cannot afford to have it fall into the hands of Earth's enemies or – " she paused and closed her eyes briefly before finishing, " – initiate its self-destruct while on this planet."

They'd always known the former. The city had a self-destruct for a reason. One that would wreak havoc on Earth's ecology, John realized. It would result in destruction on the same level as a major asteroid impact, maybe even act as an extinction level event. Rodney and Zelenka had modeled what overloading a ZPM would do after Earth delivered the one that saved the city from the Wraith siege. They'd been worried about the Athosians on the Lantean mainland at the time; the number of people who would die on Earth under the same circumstances was unthinkable.

The IOA were right to be afraid.

Wray sighed and spoke again. "The rest of your personnel have already been recalled. Every one of them must be screened again, of course. Also, all civilian personnel are being offered the choice to resign from the mission without penalty."

Jennifer made a small sound. John saw Rodney's head jerk toward her and he flinched inside.

"I wish I could offer the military members of the expedition the same choice," Wray addressed John. He wondered if she really meant it. Maybe this was the prelude to pulling him from command? He risked a glance O'Neill's way. Would they have ordered him back if he wasn't going with Atlantis? O'Neill's expression gave nothing away.

He braced himself for the blow, but it didn't come.

Wray eyed all four of them. "I have an office here. I'll be coordinating the civilian portions of the ramp up to departure. My specialty is human resources. If you find there is anything the IOA can do to expedite your preparations, please feel free to contact me." She gave them a very human smile then, a rueful acknowledgment that they weren't likely to ask anything of the IOA out of fear of what it might cost them eventually. "I'll leave you to it then. Good day."

John decided Wray might not be all bad even if she did work for the IOA. It wasn't impossible. Woolsey had worked out, after all.

"Do we know which Goa'uld was after Atlantis?" John asked after Wray had exited.

"Unfortunately," Landry said.

John waited.

"Ba'al," O'Neill stated, voice as sour as his face..

"I thought the Tok'ra removed the snake from its host," John said. He'd read the reports forwarded to Atlantis.

"I was there," O'Neill said. "Must have been another clone. The sonovabitch's like a cockroach. There's always another one."

Landry pointed to three heavy folders arranged on the conference table. "Your briefing books. I suggest you read them. Dr. McKay, the Apollo will transport you to Atlantis in the morning. Dr. Keller, you will stay here until the incoming personnel are medically cleared for transport. Colonel Sheppard, you're scheduled to fly out of Peterson to Travis in two weeks. You'll fly a Pave Hawk from there to Atlantis; it's been tasked to the Alpha Site Base as a back up in the event Atlantis can't offer the jumpers as air support. Senior Master Sergeant Harriman will set all of you up in overnight quarters unless you wish to make your own arrangements."

Rodney shrugged and said, "Good. My things are all in Atlantis already."

"I'll need to close up my DC apartment," John mentioned.

"Couldn't Mehtivar assign someone to do that?" O'Neill suggested.

John shrugged. That would work. He'd call Mehtivar and tell him where the spare key was. Everything he cared about he kept with him or had in his quarters in Atlantis, so it didn't matter if the rest didn't reach Atlantis before they left.

Lorne, John, Woolsey and Rodney had made a list of everything they wanted and needed for Atlantis before it left Earth before John and Lorne went TDY. Like he'd told Mitchell, it made more sense to load a ship – flying city-ship in this case – than to send back for something through a wormhole. Woolsey had no doubt already made arrangements for delivery of most of those items.

He made a note to make sure they took along fuel and ammunition for the Pave Hawk's machine guns. He'd need to talk to whoever had been in charge of the bird. Odds were Travis would try to foist a hangar queen on him, not that he blamed them. It wouldn't look too good if their Pave Hawk was always down for repairs however, not when the only real reason John could figure to send it was to impress on the Coalition that Earth had more to offer than just scavenged Ancestor tech.

"Specialist Dex," Landry asked, "any urgent news from Pegasus? If not, you can stay here or return to Atlantis."

"Nothing new." Ronon gave John a look that said he'd take care of Rodney. "I can do more on Atlantis."

"You can transport there with Dr. McKay then," Landry said.

Jennifer made that sound again, then blurted, "Pardon me, sirs. I have to talk to Ms. Wray," and bolted out of the conference room.

O'Neill watched the door swing shut behind her. "Crap. I think you're going to be looking for a new CMO." He caught John's eye. "Colonel, could you join me for a moment?" He flashed a smile Landry's way. "Don't worry, Hank, I just want to know where he stashed my other yo-yo."

"I've got the rest of this base to run," Landry replied dourly. "It is my base now, remember." Maybe he thought O'Neill was interfering with that or had been. John couldn't quite read the two generals' interactions.

O'Neill just smirked and said lightly, "Ouch," after Landry left the room. "Someone forgot their happy pill today." He made a sweeping gesture as he opened the door and John followed him out into the corridor.

"Sir?" he asked.

O'Neill pulled a gray oblong stone-looking thing out of his jacket and turned it so John could see a green light at its center glowing steadily.

"Asgard surveillance jammer. Audio only. Try to look like I'm chewing you out for the cameras."

John chose silence and waited.

"This isn't an order."

John nodded.

"You get that city back to Pegasus," O'Neill said.

He nodded again.

"And keep it there."

O'Neill squeezed the device again and pocketed it. "Well, Colonel? Get back to work," he said while scowling at John.

"Yes, sir," John replied. He came to attention and saluted, which just made O'Neill roll his eyes, though he casually returned the salute.

"Now I've got to find another damn aide," he grumbled as he walked away.


If nothing went wrong, he'd sit down in the Atlantis command chair and pilot the city into orbit in two weeks. Somewhere in that time, he'd come face to face with Rodney and John didn't know what either of them would do. He was tired enough not to care.

He sat on his bed and rested his elbows on his knees, hands dangling.

Another minute and he'd force himself into movement, unlace his boots, strip and take a shower.

The knock on his door put paid to that plan.

John set his hands against his knees and let them slide up as he stood.

"Yeah?" he said as he opened the door and blinked in shock. "Rodney."

Rodney froze with his hand raised to knock again. Either that or he meant to punch John the way he had Mitchell, but John thought that initial wave of anger had drained away by now. If not...  Rodney could take his best shot. John looked at Rodney and waited for whatever came next.

"So." Rodney lowered his hand and searched John's face. "I thought we'd better talk now."

Abruptly afraid, John swallowed hard enough Rodney probably heard it. He stepped back and pulled the door farther open.


Rodney walked in slowly. He glanced around. "I wonder who decorates these," he remarked.

John had never thought about it. He closed the door and absently locked it, an old habit that had reasserted itself quickly once they were on Earth again.

Rodney stood still, which was all wrong.

Rodney was frenetic energy and constant movement, hands orchestrating his words, expressions shifting as quick as his thoughts moved, his mouth never stopping. How many times had he come to John's quarters and paced back and forth while John slouched on the bed, pretending at  disinterest while listening intently to whatever Rodney had come to rant about? They'd never been this silent before, silence was what he shared with Ronon. His friendship with Rodney had been almost the opposite, all the unsaid things outlined in sarcastic remarks, silly games, and a sense of recognition that had no explanation. Precious in itself, no matter how much he'd wanted more. He hated knowing he'd ruined it.

Rodney had to have come to set their professional relationship straight and it occurred to John that Rodney might take up Wray's no-fault refusal and remain on Earth. Either that or ask John to step down as military CO.

He didn't know if he could make himself do that, if he could face giving up both Atlantis and Rodney. The shame of that weakness made his face go hot.

"Rodney," he made himself say. His voice cracked on the first syllable.

Rodney turned slowly and studied him until John had to move or start talking. He crossed his arms, then uncrossed them and rolled his shoulders to loosen the tight muscles, all while Rodney still watched.

"Okay, here's the thing," Rodney said. With every word he spoke, he sped up, until they were tumbling over each other in a breathless rush. "I think I know what's going on with you, but if I'm mistaken, you may punch me, which would suck, but either way you're still an asshole and I'm still the wronged party."

He stopped and looked at John, blue eyes wide with apprehension, anger and hurt. John blinked at him while he untangled what Rodney had said.

"I thought you might punch me," he eventually said.

"What? No. Ronon's not here to protect me," Rodney scoffed and John had to smile, because only Rodney would have factored in Ronon's presence before he socked Mitchell.

"You don't... " think I would really punch you? John started to say, but declared instead, "I wouldn't."

Rodney rubbed his hands together and took a step closer. Close enough John could see his long, sandy eyelashes, almost close enough to count the whiskers of the end-of-day beard shading his jaw. John sucked in a deep breath, carrying the scent of Rodney's sweat deep into his lungs. His pulse began thumping in his ears and without thinking about it, he laced his hands together behind his back and stood at parade rest. It hid the way his fingers wanted to tremble. He'd let himself shift close to Rodney sometimes, but he'd always forced himself to move before his body could give him away.

"Why wouldn't you tell Mitchell to stay away from Jennifer?" Rodney murmured. "You're a prick sometimes, but not the kind who sets people up to be hurt. The only conclusion that fits the facts points to you wanting Jennifer and I to break up. Obviously you weren't interested in her or you wouldn't have encouraged Mitchell – "

"I didn't encourage him," John muttered. He just hadn't discouraged him. Anticipation and apprehension blended into an ache in his chest that made his breath come too fast and felt like the instant before falling.

"Sins of omission," Rodney dismissed. He took another, deliberate, step closer. John fought himself and the need to look away, to move, to hide. "So if not Jennifer, that only leaves me."

Rodney set his hands on John's shoulders, just where Teyla did as the prelude to an Athosian greeting or farewell. John swayed closer unconsciously and Rodney nodded to himself in satisfaction.

"I'd say that proves my theory," Rodney declared.

"What theory?" John asked in a dulled tone.

"The Kirk thing, all the alien women, that was all a cover, wasn't it?" Rodney mused. He sounded almost clinical, although he didn't meet John's gaze and instead looked just to the side of him as he tapped his lips. "Yes, of course, because you didn't have to fake it long with them, did you? Keep it off world and you don't have to – "

"If you say keep it up, I am going to hit you," John told him, despite promising only moment before that he wouldn't. Discomfort was fast transforming into annoyance. What the hell had that been? A test? Some kind of real world proof of a theory? Oh, Christ, it had. Now Rodney knew.

John waited for the next blow. He'd screwed up and now he'd pay. He didn't know what it would cost him, since he'd already trashed his friendship with Rodney, but there would be a price. There always was.

"So now you know," John said. He walked past Rodney just to move. "Now what?"

"I don't know," Rodney answered, sounding as pained as John felt. "You wrecked my relationship with Jennifer, or at least helped, and I don't know how to deal with that. I was happy. Now I'm not and... and you... You're my friend and you're supposed to be there for me and I can't even look at you without wondering how many times when you 'helped' me, you were lying."

"I – " Allina and Norina both came unpleasantly to mind. When he hadn't actually interfered, he'd said nothing instead of helping. "I didn't lie."

"I don't know," Rodney replied with a shake of his head, anger twisting through his words. "You say that, but how do I really know? I assumed we were on the same page and now... " He flailed his hand. "It wasn't bad enough to lose the woman I was in love with, but I lost my friend, too."

"There's always Carson," John heard himself say, because he hadn't humiliated himself enough already.

"Oh my God," Rodney exclaimed, "you were jealous of that too!"

"Why did you come here?" John asked.

Watching Rodney's expression crumple into misery gutted him.

"To see if I could stand to work with you," Rodney said in a stiff, tight voice.

This would be the cost, John thought, detached from the conviction that he had just been gutted and he was suspended in that instant before the agony made itself known. Rodney seemed to be waiting for some reaction from him, but John had to concentrate just to breathe.

"Apparently, I'm even more professional than I'd believed," Rodney concluded. He nodded to himself.

"Rodney... " John's mouth was too dry to go on.

"If you'll excuse me, Colonel," Rodney went on, "I've got things to do. Anything we need to discuss in regard to Atlantis can be done via email." He hesitated and added, "Provided you respond promptly. I'm sure we can continue as colleagues once we're back in Pegasus, our working relationship has always been sound."

He walked around John, keeping his distance, to the door.

"Good night, Colonel."


Personal problems had to go on the back burner. Video conferences meant John saw Rodney daily on-screen and they exchanged formal emails, but most of those were filtered through Woolsey and the expanding Atlantis Administration Department. John found it a relief since he had to get the Atlantis military contingent ready for Pegasus ahead of the scheduled ramp-up. Some of the military details needed to be handled from an acknowledged Air Force base – they were using Peterson per usual – which meant staying at the Mountain through the first half of their two week window. He couldn't deal with anything else at the same time.

Jennifer remained at the Mountain too, working in the infirmary with the medical staff to give physicals and MRIs to everyone whether they were newly assigned or returning Pegasus veterans. It meant extra work and extra hours for everyone, but the possibility of a Wraith queen being possessed by a snake made it necessary. No one wanted a renegade Goa'uld hitching a ride to Pegasus.

SG-1 were still off-world, making it impossible for John to apologize to Mitchell face-to-face. He might not have managed it anyway. He wrote a formal apology instead and asked Harriman to deliver it when Mitchell returned.

Jennifer wasn't going back to Pegasus, but John didn't take the opportunity to speak with her until his last day at the Mountain, when he brought her lunch and they ate in Lam's office.

She looked tired and accepted the dry sandwich and brown-spotted banana John offered gratefully. "I keep getting sidetracked instead of getting to the mess hall." She grimaced at the sandwich and began eating it without enthusiasm, adding between bites, "Another week of this is going to drive me crazy."

"I'm leaving for the city tomorrow," John said. 

Jennifer nodded without any surprise while she chewed.

Awkwardly, he asked, "So, you'll be okay?"

Jennifer nodded again, swallowed, and said, "You know Dr. Lam's agreed to take over for me?"


Science, Medical, Military, Support and Administration were cross-checking all the new personnel for potential problems, so John knew about the new CMO. Lam would do a good job; she had experience handling gate teams, military and civilians.

"I'm going to work here for a while," Jennifer said. She began peeling the banana. "I've got to talk to Cameron and see if I can work out... something." Her face scrunched up as she contemplated that confrontation.

"He feels like he got played," John said.

"I really screwed up, but maybe he'll forgive me. I hope so."

"And Rodney?" John asked. He wondered if Rodney had contacted Jennifer. "Have you talked with him?"

"Ow," she said softly. "Not really. I think he hates me. Not like I don't deserve it, but I'm sorry I dragged you into this mess with me."

John shrugged with one shoulder, because he doubted that Rodney hated Jennifer. Rodney was bigger than that. Loud as he was about his dislikes, he failed at true hate. He'd blame himself once he was through blaming John – which would be around the time of the heat death of the universe judging by his initial reaction.

At least John still had his job. Jennifer was losing her post as Chief Medical Officer too.

"You, uh," John fumbled for a way to say what he meant, "know you don't have to give up Atlantis?"

Jennifer smiled at him and patted his hand in a 'you're-so-sweet' way. "I kind of do. Atlantis isn't my dream and even if this – If working here is unbearable, I can leave," she explained. "I don't think I could face Rodney every day and know neither of us could get away."

"Yeah," he said, despite knowing he couldn't make the same decision with half her equanimity.

"Hey," Jennifer said, "I've got a slate of MRIs scheduled, but after that I am done. Let me take you out to a movie or something tonight. Real food at a nice restaurant. Last chance. What do you say?"

He'd planned to work late himself, but John shrugged and agreed. He'd finish reading the files on the non-US military going with them tomorrow. Getting away from the smothering atmosphere of the Mountain and reminding himself there was more to Earth than the SGC while he still had the chance was a good idea.


John set the Pave Hawk down on one of Atlantis' piers. He still had a smooth touch with the collective, but he could feel how out of practice he was compared to when he'd flown helicopters every day. The Pave Hawk had to be secured in its new hangar and the crew assigned to it were all waiting as its rotors drooped into stillness, but John let himself take a moment as he ran the shutdown checklist. The helicopter around him muted it, but he could feel Atlantis.

He took a deep breath and put on his 'amiable officer' face before climbing out and handing over his flight helmet to the nearest airman. He resisted the urge to crouch and lay his hand flat on the pier deck.

Lt. Crown was waiting with two airmen who were detailed to take John's duffel bag and his footlocker to his quarters. Everything from the DC apartment and his storage facility was scheduled to arrive at the Mountain shipping point for direct transport to Atlantis in the next two days. A majority of personal goods for other expedition members would be arriving in the same fashion.

"Sir," Crown said, "good to have you back."  She handed him a clipboard and electronic pad. John grimaced and flipped through the clipboard's contents. Without Lorne's support, he had no filter between himself and the mountains of paperwork that went with any deployment, never mind one moved up by six months.

Crown had been doing yeoman's service, but she faced senior officers intent on throwing their weight around just to prove they could and she didn't have the rank or experience to get around them.

What John wouldn't have given for a good senior master sergeant. He needed a dog robber to finesse the system. Of course, no one wanted to give up their guy. O'Neill had Mehtivar now, but there were rumors about a small feud between O'Neill and Landry over who got possession of Harriman that only ended in a byzantine joint custody agreement.

"Where are the readiness reports?" he asked as they walked to the transporter.

"Your office, sir," Crown told him. Her hand moved to the radio earpiece she wore; John would have to get used to always having one on again. "Sir, Director Woolsey requests you meet with him in the control tower conference room."

"Right. Please tell him I've got to pick up my own radio and then I'll be on my way, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir."

John flipped back to a previous page and scowled. Cycling everyone through the Mountain for an MRI, even if they were only returning from a twenty-four hour leave, had slowed everything down, but there was no reason the supplies couldn't have been transported into the designated warehousing on a better schedule. He thought he'd pounded this through the quartermaster's head back at the Mountain.

A headache began throbbing at his temples and he was reminded he'd meant to lay in his own personal supply of over-the-counter meds rather than subject himself to the infirmary and citywide speculation every time he had a blister or a bruise.

Rodney was already in the conference room and Lam, radiating harried impatience, arrived just behind John. Everyone wanted to finish fast and return to their own work, so they stuck to Woolsey's agenda without any chat.

"I'll need a report on the infirmary as soon as possible," Woolsey told Lam. "I know you aren't familiar with some of the Ancient equipment we have here, so the day after tomorrow will be acceptable. I'd like to remind you that what isn't in the city when we lift-off we will not have without considerable energy expenditures. Opening the stargate between galaxies is not the same as between Earth and the Alpha Site."

"I've got that," Lam said in a not quite sarcastic tone. Going to another galaxy didn't intimidate her and neither did being in charge of her department.

Woolsey nodded and glanced at John and Rodney, lifting his eyebrows as he asked, "Gentlemen? Anything else to add?"

John shook his head and Rodney was already gathering up his laptop and headed out.

Woolsey raised his voice. "We'll meet again tomorrow at seventeen hundred."

Three more officers, one of them a marine, arrived with the morning transport. John assigned them all to work immediately, relieving Crown of  commanding the new marines while fighting with the Quartermaster corps too. He took over the latter himself. He went through the armory and storage, comparing the inventory before signing off on it, then returned to his office and spent the rest of the day on the computer and the phone expediting the requisitions that hadn't shipped yet.

"No, Captain, you need to understand, if these supplies are not in place at roll out and one of my people loses so much as a hangnail because we didn't have them," John found himself silkily threatening one recalcitrant officer, "I will personally end your career and the people I know in the civilian sector will make sure you never get a better job than cleaning out the grease traps at McDonald's." He listened to the excuses for the next ten seconds before interrupting. "Get it to the shipping point by tomorrow. All of it."

He ate a sandwich Captain Aulenrick handed him during Woolsey's evening meeting and made notes with his other hand. Lam had her assessment of the infirmary ready, printed and on disc, much to Woolsey's pleasure. She'd probably worked through the night.

"I've scheduled myself to receive the ATA gene therapy tomorrow morning," Lam said. "The worst side effects have been headaches and muscle soreness among rejectees and I can work through it. It would be best to know if I'll be able to use some of the Ancient diagnostics before departure, since it didn't take for Doctors Cole, Biro and Bayanai."

"Carson's on Lantathos," Rodney said.

Lam nodded and acknowledged, "It would be better if we had at least two doctors who can initialize equipment. I understand that Dr. Beckett may not be available, since he has undertaken a humanitarian mission for the Coalition and is establishing medical clinics on member planets."

John opened a file on his laptop and checked his personnel roster. "I've got two marine medics and an Air Force dental technician who are ATA positive. I'll lend them to Medical, barring needing the marines for search-and-rescue ops."

Lam raised an eyebrow, then nodded. "Thank you."

"It's win-win," John said. "The marines get better care in the infirmary and in the field, the medics get extra training, and you get extra hands with the magic touch."

Rodney snorted and muttered, "Magic touch, hah."

Woolsey waited a beat for John to respond to the sour comment, then continued the meeting when John didn't. He showed up at John's quarters very late that evening with Scotch and cigars: the Woolsey prescription for all things good and bad. He let John keep the conversation casual until they'd each finished their drink, then remarked, "You and Dr. McKay seem uncharacteristically... quiet."

"That's one way to put it." The insane work load kept John from obsessing over his mistakes when he quit each day and he slept without dreaming, but he felt the lack of what they'd had before every time he stopped long enough to notice. He only saw Rodney at the meetings and he missed him, though keeping to business came as a relief in many ways.

"Should I be concerned?"

"We can still work together," John assured him.

"And the problem?" Woolsey asked.

"It's personal."

"Ah. I am perhaps not the best person to mediate, but the offer is open."

"Not a good idea," John said but he appreciated the effort from Woolsey, who looked deeply uncomfortable at the prospect. "I think we'd better just stick to what's working."

Woolsey checked his watch before picking up the Scotch; John had half-hoped he'd leave the bottle. "I should let you get some rest, Colonel, but let me know if there is anything I can do."

"Sure," John promised.

He spent the next day fighting to get all of the drones from Antarctica sent to Atlantis. He ended up on video conference with O'Neill, Coolidge, Landry, and Woolsey.

"Sir, you no longer have a command chair," John argued. "The drones are useless without it."

"We might find one," Landry said.

John might sprout wings too.

Woolsey's arguments were more polished, but in the end, this was one John had expected to lose. O'Neill made faces, but eventually agreed with Coolidge and Landry.

"Lee swears they can rig up a control interface platform that will let us use the drones," Landry said and that was it.

After the video cut off, John slapped the conference table. "God damn it."

"We had to try, but realistically..." Woolsey said.

"I know," John said. He groaned under his breath. "God, I have to straighten out a mess with the equipment that arrived this morning. Aulenrick says they had all kinds of problems with this manufacturer while he was at Incirlik. Someone's trying to stick us with the crap no one else will take."

"Go," Woolsey said wearily.

John slept at his desk and ended up borrowing a electric shaver from Comandante García y Lopez, the Spanish Legion veteran who had arrived and taken over John's outer office as part of the IOA multi-force merge. Bemused, John only wondered how Lorne would react to losing what had been his office and some of his duties if he returned as XO. He was going to take advantage of O'Neill's guilt over the drones and try to push through another below the zone promotion for Lorne along with official command of the permanent Alpha Site base.

He buried himself in the work to an extent he might not have if he could have relaxed with Rodney or his team. García y Lopez couldn't do all of Lorne's work without experience in Pegasus and that left John picking up the slack. It kept him from thinking of Rodney outside of those occasions that forced him to consult the science department. Each time he invariably found himself talking with Zelenka rather than Rodney and the same when Science needed something from the military.

John eventually broke and asked, "Where's McKay?"

"Rodney is working on the stardrive," Zelenka told him over the radio on the fifth day. "The equipment we need is currently in warehousing. If you would inform the marines there to release it, prosím?"

John just nodded tiredly. Unless he missed his guess, Rodney was probably sleeping in the drive chambers, since Lam wasn't the sort to hand out uppers like candy.

"Okay," he said. "I'll get you some muscle to move the new equipment into the labs too."

"Thank you, Colonel," Zelenka said and cut the radio connection.

"García," John called.

"Sí, mi coronel?"

"Get a squad of marines down to Level Six, Grid Two, the Science tower. Dr. Zelenka will tell them what to do." John tapped his pen on his desk and added, "Make sure you don't send any of the newbies, I want them to listen to him. Actually, send Crown down with them."



Day six, García y Lopez handed him a pile of forms to sign before heading off to dinner and John realized they had, despite impossible odds, prepared Atlantis to leave Earth just before dawn the next morning. John skimmed and signed and muffled a yawn.

Rodney's appearance at his office door startled him into dropping the pen he was using to initial supply inventories.

The first thing that spilled out of John's mouth was, "What's wrong?"

Rodney had shaved and was wearing civilian clothes – a nice blue suit – but nothing could hide the bruised exhaustion around his eyes. John knew he didn't look any better. Maybe worse. He hadn't shaved since the morning before.

"I need you to fly me to San Francisco," Rodney said.

"We're going on lockdown. No one in or out in the last six hours before lift-off," John said. "You don't have time to go and get back. Sorry." He dropped his gaze down to his desk, shuffled some of the papers and pretended he wasn't petrified Rodney had decided not to stay with Atlantis. There would be no time to change Rodney's mind, the window to lift-off while the Apollo jammed satellite observation just before dawn had been scheduled down to the last nanoseconds.

"Let me rephrase that, Colonel. You're going to fly me to San Francisco."

"Don't quit," John blurted. "I'll resign. Atlantis needs you more than me. You need Atlantis more than – "

"No one needs Atlantis more than you do, Sheppard," Rodney interrupted.

John choked off the rest of his words. At least Rodney had used his name and not his rank this time.

"Well?" Rodney looked at him expectantly, then snapped his fingers. "Sometime this century? Jeannie flew down to say good-bye. And go shave, you look like a marmot crawled onto your face and died."

The inventories could wait; John knew what was on them, he'd checked everything as it arrived on Atlantis to make sure they weren't shorted. The lockdown was to make sure no one picked up a snake post-MRI. He checked the time. "Okay. We have to be back before eleven or neither one of us will be going anywhere tomorrow."

"Fine, fine, it's not like Jeannie will want me to stay up all night doing her nails and braiding her hair."

Just weeks ago, John would have quipped that Rodney didn't have enough hair to braid, so it would have to be Jeannie's.

"I'll meet you in the jumper bay in twenty minutes." He'd need to put on some civvies. He liked Jeannie; maybe he'd say hello and then wait with the jumper.

Flying cloaked over the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk as San Francisco lit up diamond-bright was almost as pretty as Atlantis by night. John dawdled a little, quartering the sky, memorizing this last look at Earth. They wouldn't see anything like it in Pegasus. He kept a close eye on the HUD; San Francisco air space was busy and none of the traffic could track the jumper. With the cloak engaged, they didn't have the shield to protect them from a mid-air collision, either.

"Ready?" he asked as he turned the jumper south.

Rodney scowled at him. "You're the one wasting my valuable time."

John avoided the helicopter landing pad on the hotel's roof, since he did not want to see what happened when someone tried to land with the jumper in the way. He found a good spot beyond the HVAC assembly and feathered the jumper to an imperceptible landing. He triggered the rear hatch to open. "We're here."

"Thank you, Colonel Obvious."

Rodney stood and started out.

"This pumpkin heads home at ten-thirty, Cinderella," John reminded him.

"Just make sure you're here when I get back, Colonel, or I might leave without you," Rodney snapped back.

"Thought I'd stay here."

Rodney snagged the hatch remote and kept walking. John closed the hatch to keep out the chill, then stretched out on one of the benches. The marines were right about sleeping when you had the opportunity. He'd dropped into a half doze just when the hatch opened.

"Come on," Rodney said.

Bleary and confused, John glanced at his watch and asked, "You're done already?" Rodney had him fly to San Francisco to talk to Jeannie for twenty minutes?

"No," Rodney said irritably. "Jeannie wants to talk to you."

"Yeah, I don't think so," John muttered and settled back on the bench.

"She'll come up and drag you down by your ear if you don't come now," Rodney threatened.

She probably would according to what John had seen of her. She might go by Mrs. Miller, but she was a McKay through and through.

He thought they might remain silent until they reached Jeannie's room, but Rodney surprised him in elevator. "So why didn't you tell me?"

"That I was gay?"

That got him a dirty look.

"That you wanted me."

Because at first it had been merely want and he'd already lost a marriage and nearly ended his career for sex. John had learned to keep his mouth shut. When it became more, he'd just had more to lose.

"Oh, that." John slouched against the glass wall with his hands in his pockets. He shrugged and looked down at the atrium far below. "It wasn't going to happen."

"You're a real bastard," Rodney said and added softly, "And a coward, too."

"Probably why I get all the suicide missions."

The look Rodney gave John – weary and too-knowing – made him want to throw himself out of the elevator. He never let himself matter to anyone enough to fail them. Never let anyone close enough to reject him. Trust issues, abandonment issues, authority issues, mother dead, distant father; he had the whole nine yards. John was the sort of guy the military liked to use until they used him up; he'd rebel but he'd never refuse. His psych profile probably laid it all out; the same psych profile Rodney had hacked along with the rest of John's records the first two weeks of the expedition.

"Yeah, it is." Rodney's expression said he knew it all, so did his voice, defeated and disgusted.

With a melodious chime, the elevator stopped and opened its doors on an empty hall.

John rested his forehead against the cool, saffron-tinted glass, hot inside with discomfort at the idea of Rodney reading his psych evaluations and fitness reports. He'd known Elizabeth and Carter both had, but he hadn't let himself think about Rodney seeing any of it.

The doors slid shut and they started down again.

"Do you have to lean on the glass?" Rodney complained. "You don't know the tensile strength of the design and who knows what kind of shoddy, lowest-bidder workmanship went into installing it. It would be just like you to fall out of an elevator and die. You'd do it just to spite me."

John took his weight off the glass and straightened up. "There. Better?"

"Yes." Rodney still scowled at him. "I wasn't worth it, is that what you're saying?"

The elevator stopped and a couple stepped inside. The man pressed the button for the ground floor.

Too aware of the couple, who had picked up on the tension between Rodney and him and were pretending they weren't there, John didn't answer.

Rodney opened his mouth twice to speak, but snapped it closed with a glare for the couple. The elevator stopped at Jeannie's  floor and John sidled around the woman to step out.

"No, that's not what I was saying," John answered in the corridor.

He could see Rodney didn't believe him.

"I couldn't do anything," John said, "so why complicate our lives by telling you?"

"We're not done talking about this," Rodney snapped at him as they reached Jeannie's room.

Jeannie opened the door on the first knock. She surveyed John wordlessly as he trailed Rodney inside. The door closed with a click and Jeannie crossed her arms, contemplating John with a less than friendly expression.

Rodney began fidgeting when the silence stretched too long.

"Sorry I can't let Rodney stick around longer," John said to break the stifling atmosphere.

"He's sorry for that," Rodney remarked with an short, ugly laugh.

"What did you tell her?" John asked.

"I didn't tell her you're gay."

John jerked around to gape at Rodney. "What the hell, McKay?"

"You won't lose your job. DADT's gone, remember?"

It still wasn't something John wanted to announce to Rodney's sister.

John glanced cautiously at Jeannie. She narrowed her eyes at him. Click. He could see her put it together exactly the way Rodney had, but faster. Two strides and she slapped John hard enough his face snapped to the side.

"Hey!" Rodney protested.

Jeannie glared at John and fisted her hands at her sides.

John moved his jaw from side to side. He'd underestimated Jeannie's reaction. Nothing felt loose; Jeannie hadn't hit him that hard. Just hard enough to get her message across. So much for Canadian tolerance. He met Rodney's gaze and said in a dead voice, "You wanted to know why I didn't say anything? I'll wait in the jumper."

"John Sheppard, you stop right there," Jeannie commanded. "That was for keeping secrets."

John stopped with his hand on the door knob. He didn't know what she meant, whether she meant not telling anyone he was gay or letting Jennifer persuade him to say nothing.

"That's why he wasn't answering my emails," Rodney told Jeannie. "You see? He was being all stoic because I was going to propose to Jennifer. I think I can be excused for not figuring it out sooner."

John checked and Rodney's unhappy expression contradicted his mocking words.

Jeannie looked thoughtful, but slowly her expression softened. "We're going to dinner, where we will eat something delicious and act like civilized adults. I know even Meredith can fake it for an hour or two," she said. Rodney received a meaningful look that meant he'd better. "You're leaving and I want spend this time with you." She sighed. "Both of you."

In case it was the last time, she didn't say, but anyone could hear it.

John didn't want her to slap him or grab one of his ears and drag him, so he acquiesced without protest. Jeannie picked up her purse. "We can eat downstairs. The restaurant's supposed to be very good."

John couldn't say if the food was good or not, he was too tense to taste anything. He ordered and ate and after some prodding talked about the ramp-up to their departure without saying anything too specific. After Rodney had polished off two beers, he traded barbs with Jeannie, laughed a few times and even sniped at John.

"One of the marines told Radek that he," he said, head leaning in John's direction, "sent two marines to buy every headache remedy available and horse liniment."

"Hey, it works better than any of the crap from the infirmary," John protested. The smell made him think of stables and better times, too.

"You should just admit you're too old to keep up with Ronon."

"I'm not old."

"Old enough to know better," Rodney said.

Jeannie grinned and swatted Rodney's arm. "You don't get to talk, Mer. Remember I'm the one who went and bought those RC cars for you guys. You're both like a pair of big kids."

Rodney never could hold his alcohol and after the third beer went down fast, he excused himself and left for the restroom.

"I feel like I should have figured it out," Jeannie commented as they watched Rodney weave through the tables.

John eyed her sidelong, braced for whatever she might say next. 'Get out of my brother's life and don't you dare try to turn him into a fag' featured prominently in his expectations.

His expression must have given away his apprehension. Jeannie picked up on it and sat back in her chair in shock. "God, John, did you think I would care?" Jeannie exclaimed. "Or Rodney would?"

"It's happened before," he admitted. He'd lost more than he'd gained whenever he'd told the truth.

"Then you had lousy taste in friends before."

"My wife." Nancy and then his father after the divorce. They'd never spoken again.

Jeannie reached across the table and closed her hand tight around John's wrist. He stifled the reflex to jerk himself free. "Did you love her or did you marry her to hide?"

"You really think I'm scum, don't you?" John murmured. He abandoned his fork and any further attempt at eating.

"You loved her." Jeannie skewered him with a stare. "Do you love my brother?"

His face hot, John swallowed and nodded.

"Say it," she demanded.

"I – Yeah. I love him."

Was that his voice? John hadn't realized he could sound that hoarse or that a shake could sound in the single syllable of 'love'. He'd never said the words before. His ears were warm and he wanted to bolt. He couldn't read what Jeannie thought now, only that she wasn't thrilled.

"You're all he wanted when everything else was gone," Jeannie said. "Damn it." She reached for her wine and downed most of it.

John flinched at the reminder of losing Rodney to a damned parasite, watching Rodney lose his intellect and his memories. Holding Rodney's head while Jennifer performed brain surgery with a cordless drill still had a place in the pantheon of John's nightmares.

"John, I'm angry with you because you hurt my brother," Jeannie explained not unkindly. "I'm angry with you because you hurt yourself. I'm angry because, damn it, it's a crappy world that made you hide and lie and I think you need at least a decade of therapy, not that you'll get it."

She squeezed his wrist again. He felt light; a weight he had made part of himself long ago had abruptly been lifted away and he didn't know what to say. Jeannie likely didn't know how much what she'd said meant. He turned his wrist and clasped her hand in his in the sort of warm touch he'd denied himself for years.

Jeannie looked at their hands together and didn't pull away. Instead she searched John's face for his reaction and seemed satisfied when he quirked a faint smile at her and let her hand go.

She took a deep breath and said, "I'm angry with Jennifer too, you know."

"You mean you don't think I screwed things up all by myself?" John asked sardonically.

"Not by yourself." Jeannie punctuated that with a sharp McKay-style huff at John's apparent stupidity. "Listen to me, now, because I'm not just angry. I'm worried about you and Mer."

He could understand her concern for Rodney, but John was fine. Okay, not fine; he could imagine the eye-roll saying that would trigger, but he'd get through this. Rodney was the one who needed someone to give a damn how he felt.

"Mer is going to forgive you," Jeannie said. She glanced in the direction of the washrooms, looking for Rodney and hurrying her words. "He cares for you. Not that many people will even put up with Mer, he can't just cut you out of his life. He'll get over Jennifer, but he'll still be lonely and you'll be there."

That had been John's fantasy, but in reality he couldn't take advantage of Rodney that way. It wasn't a harmless fantasy any longer and from the look in Jeannie's eyes she was about to crush it.

"I'm not going to make him gay," John told her tiredly. "It really doesn't work like that."

"Don't make me slap you again," she warned. She pointed at him in mother-of-a-misbehaving-child fashion. "If I didn't want Mer to be gay, it would be because I don't want him to be hurt the way you've been."

It surprised John that he believed her. Jeannie believed he'd been hurt and cared about that in addition to worrying about Rodney. That made what she said next hurt all the more.

"When Mer starts thinking about it, he's going to turn to you, because you're there and he knows how you feel," Jeannie said.

Like gravity, reality always reasserted itself. The elation of Jeannie accepting him drained away as John took in her tense shoulders and stiff back. Everything about her telegraphed that he wouldn't like whatever she said next.

"He does love you, but he won't be in-love with you."

John pushed down the mulish desire to tell Jeannie that he knew her brother better than she did. She'd seen her brother three times in five years and been estranged from him for almost a decade before that. Knowing embarrassing stories about his childhood didn't mean she knew the Rodney John did.

"I know he experimented with guys years ago... " Jeannie seemed to expect John to react to that, but he'd known. Rodney confided all sorts of things when he was drunk. She raised her chin and went on, " ...but he wants the whole dream: wife, children, awards, acclaim. Maybe he can give up parts of that dream, but what if he can't? John, I don't want both of you to hurt each other more than you already have."

All John could hear was 'don't take that away from Rodney'. He almost accepted it because Rodney was wending his way through the linen-draped tables back to them, but he had to call Jeannie on her assumptions.

He leaned forward and spoke in a quiet, intense tone. "That's crap and you know it."

Jeannie flinched back, her eyes widening.

"He'll get the awards and acclaim no matter who he sleeps with," John said. "There are sperm banks if it's about passing on his genes, which it probably is, because Rodney doesn't actually like kids. If he does want them, there are surrogates, not to mention Pegasus is overflowing with orphans he could adopt."

"Adopting can be difficult for gay couples," Jeannie objected.

John sat back and laughed from his belly.

"Not in Pegasus." Every culture in Pegasus would approve, even the ones that didn't like gays. Taking in the children left behind in cullings was the one universal ethic among the multitude of cultures the stargate network spanned. Adopting would cement the Lanteans position with the Coalition too, meaning Woolsey would fight for them with the IOA if they objected.

"John – "

"Hey," Rodney said. He appeared a little steadier on his feet, though his face was still flushed. Dampness glistened at his temples.

John stared Jeannie down and checked his watch. "We have to get out of here, lockdown commences in forty minutes," he reminded Rodney. Jeannie had had her say and John had said all he found necessary.

Rodney insisted on paying. "What am I going to do with money where we're going anyway?" He  told Jeannie she'd be receiving papers giving her access to all of his accounts and power of attorney as they went upstairs again.

"Just another minute," Jeannie said. "I brought cookies." She opened her room door and walked over the suitcase sitting on her bed. Several wrapped packages were wedged inside over her clothes. She handed two of them to Rodney, then brought another pair over to John.

"I was going to trust Mer to hand them over on Christmas, but this works just as well," she said.

John looked down at the boxes in their shiny holiday paper. Jeannie pushed them into his hands.

"I hope you like maple pecan oatmeal."

He accepted the boxes tentatively. "Yeah, uh, I, uh, thanks," he mumbled.

Jeannie eyed him.

"Is this where you tell me you'll make my life hell if I hurt him?" John asked in strained voice.

"You already did that."

She still hugged him and then Rodney before letting them go. John didn't know what to make of that. She hadn't had time to poison the cookies.

"Take care of each other," Jeannie called down the hall as they reached the elevator. She was still watching as the doors closed and took them away.


John arrived at the chair room an hour early. Zelenka and Rodney were already there, heads bent over their laptops, in a tangled knot of leads snaking from the laptops to the surrounding consoles. They both gave him jaundiced looks when John appeared, from which he surmised they'd been there most of the night.

"Everything ready?" he asked.

Zelenka muttered something foul and Rodney grunted as he waved John toward the chair. Zelenka went on muttering under his breath, dividing his invective evenly between his laptop, Rodney and John.

John raised his eyebrows and took the seat. The thrill of linking into Atlantis control sent a shiver through him as always, this time augmented by the Asuran ZPM that had been powering Terra Atlantica in addition to the city's own ZPM. Once they were in Pegasus again, the Terra Atlantica ZPM would be returned to Earth on the Daedalus, but for the moment, Atlantis had more power than any other time John had flown her.

Despite the temptation to immediately sink back into the chair and the interface, John kept his hands off the gel pads on the arms and his boots flat on the floor. The panels in the floor still lit up, recognizing him as the chair initialized.

Rodney studied something on his laptop then glanced at John.

"Since you're here, go ahead and activate the primary interface."

John placed his hands on the arms and sat back. He closed his eyes as the chair shifted into the reclining position that helped keep its user from falling out while mentally deep in Atlantis' operating interface. The blue light flared brighter, not just from the floor, but from the chair and the consoles lining the chamber's walls.

The Atlantis interface wasn't like operating a computer or experiencing a virtual world or sharing thoughts with another mind. John had done all those things; he could say so. The closest he'd come to describing it had been waking up, taking stock of the state of his body, and then moving.

In this case, he relaxed and contemplated what he would do next, running over the steps to fire the stardrive, maintain the cloak, and lift off. The city would rise in a long arc across the night dark South Pacific. Shortly before the atmosphere thinned into vacuum, the Apollo would jam all satellite observers and Atlantis would switch from cloak to shield as it left Earth once more.

They would activate the stardrive and open a hyperspace window beyond the dark side of the moon. Once they were in hyperspace, John would leave Atlantis on autopilot.

The primary interface felt like readiness and John waited, poised along with Atlantis to do anything.

"Stop holding your breath," Rodney snapped at John.

John half-opened his eyes, floating somewhere between being a body in a chair and being Atlantis. He'd never understand why this scared Carson and so many others. As a pilot he'd always been striving to become his plane or chopper, to close the gap between thought, intention and action.

"She's ready," he said. The consoles Rodney and Zelenka were monitoring said the same thing in Ancient and a constant cascade of numbers.

"Light the drives at oh four-eighteen," Rodney told him, "and hold at neutral lift."

The laptops and servers interwoven into Atlantis' systems now translated Earth chronology to Alterran; in the interface John sensed no difference and had no need to consult the watch on his wrist. He hummed under his breath with satisfaction as the last second ticked away. Atlantis shivered as he initiated the flood of power from the primary ZPM to the stardrive and kicked them into operation.

"Neutral lift," he made himself say out loud.

The city hovered on the water, no longer dependent on its buoyancy. Its sensors traced over the land-bound city to the east, downward to the sea bottom, and outward to where John fingered communications satellites. He knocked on the Apollo's door and the city systems finally shook hands and synched with the orbiting ship.

"Linked up to the Apollo." His voice sounded rusty heard through the microphone pickups on the laptops and his own radio headset then fed back through the interface.

"I see that," Rodney said. "Jumping the gun much, Colonel?"

"Second ZPM makes it all like breathing."

"Well, just keep breathing and don't start anything else until I say."

Eyes still closed, John smiled and watched through internal sensors. Rodney ran a degree hotter than Zelenka and his heat signature moved around the room more, making it easy to track him. Instructions to run a series of self-tests injected themselves into the system as both scientists typed them in. It tickled until John complied.

The comm system from the control room activated. Woolsey was there, along with the main shift control crew and signatures the city identified as Campbell, Banks, Ronon and Comandante García y Lopez.

"Dr. McKay, Dr. Zelenka, Colonel Sheppard, this is Woolsey. Are we ready to depart?"

Zelenka lifted his hands away from his keyboard and nodded to Rodney.


Rodney raised his hand to his earpiece.

"We're ready. It's up to Colonel Sheppard now."

"Colonel?" Woolsey sounded eager.

John smiled. "Ready, sir."

"Then you have a go, Colonel."

John stretched and Atlantis leaped, rising from the waters. Ice crystals sparkled high over the Pacific as her ballast tanks emptied and the water froze briefly before turning to rain.

"Passing the stratopause," Zelenka announced.

"Switching from cloak to shield on my mark," Rodney said. "Initiate satellite jamming now."

The cloak disappeared as John engaged the shield. For an instant, he saw Atlantis through the linked cameras aboard the Apollo, appearing out of the rippling heat surrounding the shield, its towers and spires still diamond-frosted, glittering rose as the dawn's speeding edge caught up to its arc. The jammers rasped against his sensors until Atlantis moved beyond Earth's exosphere and even Luna's endless orbit. He caught his breath and opened a hyperspace window on the course Rodney had calculated to take them home.

"Apollo, this is Atlantis, leaving Sol System," Woolsey said over the radio. "Thank you for your able assistance."

"Glad to help, Atlantis. Good luck and Godspeed."

"Now, John," Rodney said and rested his hand on John's shoulder and John hurled Atlantis into hyperspace, finally outrunning light.


They landed Atlantis on its new planet, the proposed capitol of the Coalition, on schedule. The city settled in the salty water delicately as a snowflake floating down into an open palm.

"Like a leaf kissing the sea," John said when he opened his eyes and exited the control interface.

The command chair returned to upright, but he sat until he thought his wobbly legs would support him. Long periods deep in the interface always took it out of him.

He felt Rodney's eyes on him and looked up. "Right?"

"It was a definite improvement on every previous landing," Rodney agreed. Worry darkened his eyes, unless  it was just exhaustion, the bad lighting in the chair room, and John was seeing what he wanted to see. "Everyone still has their fillings."

"Guess I'd better get up to control room," John said.

Rodney dug a slightly smashed Powerbar out of his thigh pocket. "Here," he muttered, "you look like you might fall over."

The Powerbar still felt warm as John wrapped his fingers around it.

"Don't just look at it," Rodney snapped.

"Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, if you join us in the control room? We're opening a transmission between the city and the Alpha Site base," Woolsey said through their radios.

"On our way," John acknowledged.

He ate the Powerbar on the way to the transporter. Rodney came with him but didn't say anything more.

If John had thought that Rodney's offering or being back in Pegasus would heal the wounds between them – and part of him had – he'd been wrong. Once their work no longer put them in the same room, Rodney studiously avoided him and John was too busy himself balancing the new Atlantis military contingent and the army brigade that had been in place on the planet for the last five months. His first glimpse of the base had convinced John to leave the army in place.

He'd expected it, but still been loathe to admit he'd have to give up Lorne. He brought a bottle of Scotch and handed it over in Lorne's office when he broke the news to him.

"Enjoying command here?" John asked.

"Looking forward to getting back to Atlantis," Lorne had replied.

"That's too bad, Lieutenant Colonel," John told him.


John handed over the promotion papers. In the rush to get Atlantis off Earth, he'd managed to pull a few strings of his own. It would have been harder if Lorne hadn't merited the new rank.

"You heard me," John said. He pulled his own silver oak leaves out of his pocket. "Here. Put these on."

Lorne took the insignia and stared, then blurted, "I need that drink."

"Welcome to command." Lorne's horror amused John.

Lorne, at least, seemed oblivious to the chill between John and Rodney, but they were seldom at the Alpha Base at the same time. Ronon had briefed Teyla, so while she greeted John warmly, forehead to forehead, she also gave him the Look.

"Apologize to Rodney," she ordered.

John wished it were that easy.

Teyla didn't speak of it again, yet John felt the weight of disappointing her too every time he was in her company. The answer seemed to be to avoid Teyla with the same dedication Rodney showed to never being in the same room with John outside of senior staff meetings. The ease with which John withdrew from Teyla left him further disgusted with himself. That Teyla let him just left him sad, but six months apart had weakened the old habits keeping the team together.

He had a whole new set habits.

Bad ones.

He'd gotten used to having sex again. Now he missed it, went to bed restless and half-aroused, and woke up the same way. He took to running a double circuit, mornings and evenings. Alone, since Ronon was spending his mornings with Amelia. Probably having athletic, mindblowing sex, John thought peevishly. He hadn't known he could be depressed and horny at the same time; previous painful periods in his life had shut down his libido thoroughly. He started using his left hand in the shower just to give his other wrist a rest.

He kept noticing people, despite not meaning to, noticing that it wouldn't take more than a smile to have some of them fall into bed with him. He still wanted Rodney, but if he couldn't have him, he wanted his blinders back.

John had turning down offers to a smooth science, but now they were tempting, and he considered saying yes to one handsome young member from the Coalition consulate. He thought about some of the dark rooms in unused sections of Atlantis where people had been going for anonymous sex as long as the expedition had occupied the city. He'd never let himself go there even walked down the closest corridor one night. He passed the bubbling ballast columns, restless and angry with himself, only to finally turn back with the knowledge he had to change something.

Rodney mentioned uploading a new macro to keep the Atlantis gate from overriding the one at Lantathos on dial-in at the next staff meeting. When Rodney told Woolsey he had it ready, John made his move and took over from the jumper pilot scheduled to take Rodney and three other scientists to Lantathos.

Rodney gave him a suspicious look but said nothing. John didn't speak until they were alone in the jumper on the trip back.

"It becomes part of you."

Rodney didn't look up from his laptop.

John glanced at him, then focused on the horizon again and went on uncomfortably, "Not saying anything. Knowing if I trusted someone and was wrong it could cost me the Air Force and a court-martial, maybe even jail time... It makes you doubt your instincts." It had chipped away at his sense of self, keeping so much of himself secret, until the shame became part of him too. He could barely articulate it  and didn't know if Rodney would understand. "I tried not to lie, so I stayed quiet. Even when I should have said something."

"So you're saying you're screwed up," Rodney said as they approached Atlantis.

The controls didn't merit the level of attention John gave them and neither did landing a jumper. Once they were over the jumper bay, autopilot took over.

"Yes," he made himself say.

"That's not an excuse," Rodney said. "Not for what you did to me."

John knew it, but his throat threatened to close up and he had to cough to clear it. "Just listen... "

The laptop no longer held Rodney's attention. He closed it, but stayed in the co-pilot's seat.

"I sort of lost it when DADT went away," John blurted. He didn't say he was still struggling with what that freedom meant for him, though he hoped Rodney got that part anyway.

"You mean you went insane?" Rodney appeared to consider this. "I almost believe that."

"Not insane, but... "


It had been an anchor, weighing John down every day of his life. He'd had to fight it to just not drown, but when it was gone, he'd been left thrashing wildly, making a mess of his life and everyone around him. He hadn't known what he was doing, only what he wanted.

"No excuse," John said. "I was wrong. I knew it would hurt you, but I let the idea of – it was a fantasy. I should have stuck to what I knew and quit fucking up other people's lives."

"Well, you should quit fucking up other people's lives," Rodney agreed. He stuffed the laptop away and stood. "Teyla said if I'd been paying attention, I would have known."

"About me?"

"That you were unhappy," Rodney said. "Teyla says unhappy people make bad decisions."

"I wasn't unhappy when I was around you."

"Neither was I," Rodney replied. John caught his arm – carefully – before he could leave the jumper.

"Rodney, wait," he said and hesitated, biting his lip. Rodney raised his eyebrows and mimed impatience. "I am sorry and I apologize for... " John squared his shoulders and forced out the rest, " ...betraying your trust."

"I accept your apology." Rodney gave him a tight-lipped, tense nod that left John feeling hollow and unsure if that meant Rodney had forgiven him or not.

They stopped avoiding each other, though Rodney didn't say anything more about John's feelings. It seemed like Jeannie had been wrong about that. Rodney wasn't going to turn to John, even on the rebound.

They ate breakfast and lunch together the next day without discussing it. Rodney simply sat down at the same table with John. The next day John grabbed an extra cupcake at lunch. He sat down and radioed Rodney.

"Chocolate cupcakes."

"I'm on my way. If they're all gone when I get there, you will pay," Rodney radioed back.

John pushed the extra cupcake across the table when Rodney settled his tray down on the table with a huff.

Ronon sat down with them on the next day with a grunt that conveyed that he was still annoyed with both of them but approved of the new détente. There was a small fork war between Rodney and Ronon over the butterscotch upside down cake which Ronon won. Rodney promptly appropriated John's.

Teyla joined them after that, staying the week in Atlantis and returning to Lantathos, Kanaan and Torren on the weekends. She warned John that sometimes it would be the other way around. He was grateful to have her there and no longer angry with him.

If John had had the guts to suggest movie night again, they would have almost been back to the pre-Earth status quo.

If that was as good as he could get, John felt content. He stopped by Woolsey's office and handed him a proposed mission roster with their team scheduled to go through the gate at the end of the week.


Rodney resumed barging into John's quarters to complain about his scientists at any hour. Forgiveness came in strange forms.

The door opened for Rodney without a chime; John had programmed it to admit his team even when otherwise locked years before.

John marked his page and put down the book he'd been reading. "Hey," he said. "Problem?"

"Just you," Rodney snapped. He paced across the room, then back toward the door, detouring around John's new, adult-sized bed. It was only a double, but his feet didn't hang off the end any longer. Rodney hadn't noticed; too caught up in whatever brought him to John's room to register the subtle changes. The familiarity of his actions made something nameless and tight inside John release.

"I keep thinking about you and Jennifer."

"There was no me and Jennifer," John snapped. They were friends. He'd never crossed that line.

"I don't mean like that," Rodney said, complete with hand gesture and rolled eyes.

John thought he could be forgiven for demanding, "Then what?"

"The way I felt about her. The way I felt about you. Feel. I went back and looked through all those emails I sent you and you answered. When you were still answering them."

Lying down felt wrong, so John sat up and swung his legs over the side of his bed. "Yeah, you know, I just couldn't – "

"Do you know I sent you an email every day?" Rodney looked at John expectantly.


After all, he'd saved every one of them. They weren't love letters, but he could reread them and hear Rodney ranting. He didn't, but he liked thinking that he could.

Rodney nodded decisively.

"I didn't email Jennifer every day."

Getting to his feet reminded John they were bare. The chill of the floor made him shiver and cross his arms close to his chest.

"John," Rodney said and the rare use of his first name made John look up despite himself. Rodney had the damned ring box in his hand. "She gave it back. Technically, she never accepted it, I just left it behind when she said she was in love with that corn-fed musclehead... "

That was a hell of a thing to call Cam and John couldn't fight down an amused chuckle.

"No doubt she'll marry Mitchell when he proposes. I can only hope Fate will have severed all contact between Earth and Atlantis by then, so that I don't have to buy them a wedding present."

If Jennifer had any brains, whoever she married, she'd have the bomb squad open any wedding presents from Rodney McKay.

Rodney scowled and added with bemused annoyance, "They'll probably have two point five perfect golden retrievers and a kid that's homecoming queen and wins at sports."

John stared at him, then laughed despite everything, because, "Two point five golden retrievers?"

Rodney flapped his hand at John. "Whatever."

"I'm still not getting why you came here tonight," John said.

"What? Don't tell me we aren't on the same page now."

"I—what?" he asked. He didn't think they were even reading from the same book.

Rodney stopped his pacing and stared at John. John's pulse thudded in his ears as he stared back. Did Rodney really mean...?

"Don't tell me you're that stupid?" Rodney let out a little huff of disbelief. "Emails? Every day? Come on. Wasn't that part of why you thought making Jennifer go away would give you a chance?"

"I really didn't think it out," John croaked. He opened and closed his hands, then clutched his elbows. "No nefarious plan."

"No plan sounds like you," Rodney agreed.

He closed the distance between them, but stopped short of John's personal space. Close enough to touch if one of them reached out. It felt like Rodney was offering what John wanted, only he was still scared it was just a way to get back at Jennifer. Resigning his commission and never seeing Atlantis or Rodney again would have been better if it came down to that. John looked away, down to the floor and flexed his toes.

"Rodney, what are you here for?" he asked without looking up.

"Really?" Rodney asked in disbelief. "You're really asking me that?" He took a single step closer . "Now?" He brushed careful fingers through the hair at John's temples. "Fine. I want to have sex. Clear enough?"

John swallowed hard, the sound loud in his own head. He felt hyperaware of his Adam's apple moving up and down. Sweat gathered at his temples and Rodney thumbed it away. It shouldn't have been arousing but it was, maybe precisely because it wasn't a sexual gesture.

"Contrary to what my sister thinks," Rodney murmured, "I'm not that inept. I can get laid. Besides, Lantathos already has two brothels – did you know that?"

John shook his head and the movement slid his cheek against the heel of Rodney's hand. Lorne should have mentioned it in one of the status reports. The thought of Rodney going to one of those brothels made him feel hot and sick at the same time. His cock was half hard from the want that flashed through his body. It should be him for Rodney, not some stranger capitalizing on loneliness.

God, this was what Jeannie had warned him about. "If you're lonely – "

"I never thought I'd say this to anyone," Rodney muttered, "but stop thinking."

Rodney pushed deliberately into John's space again and John tried to back up, but Rodney followed him. He slid his hand under the back of John's shirt, warm and sure the way John needed. When he inhaled he could smell Rodney and he smiled because Rodney had showered . This wasn't an impulse; John should have known. Rodney hummed against his jaw  and then kissed him. Rodney's mouth tasted like spearmint gum, the kind John liked more than peppermint. This kiss was hot, almost nasty, and Rodney did something amazing and lewd with his tongue that had John humping his thigh mindlessly. He wasn't aware of moving or that Rodney had been maneuvering them until his calves hit the edge of the bed and Rodney pushed him down.

John opened his legs and groaned as Rodney's welcome weight settled between them. He laughed when Rodney grumbled and twisted, half rolling John's upper body to the side to free his arm, and gasped when Rodney traced a finger along the rim of one of his ears. Of course they weren't smooth or suave. That wasn't them. His feet were still flat on the floor, so John used the leverage to roll his hips forward and up, making Rodney curse in response, then crawl up over John on hands and knees.

He wasn't going to think about Jeannie's warnings or his own doubts when he had Rodney touching him and he could touch back. Maybe Jeannie was wrong and if not, John didn't care. Now was all that mattered and he felt too good, too right, to stop.

There was no thought involved in running his hand up Rodney's thighs and appreciating the muscle hidden under his pants, nor to framing Rodney's hips with his palms before sliding up them to his waist. Rodney panted and stared down at John with dilated eyes. His hard-on strained at the front of his fly and John wanted to see it, to touch and hold and, oh, to taste. He thumbed open the button at Rodney's waist, then the next, and the next, where Rodney's cock pushed forward eagerly. Just that drag and pull of fabric over the head made Rodney drop his head and moan.

Saliva pooled on John's tongue in anticipation. His fingers fumbled as he hurried to finish freeing Rodney from his pants and underwear.

"John," Rodney moaned.

John curled up from the waist and took the head in, slipping his lips over it, tight and wet, the salt-musk flavor exploding on his tongue so that his own cock jumped in his track pants, because this was Rodney and so much more than he'd allowed himself. Hadn't let himself even picture this with Rodney when he was alone in his bed with just his hands. He'd wanted... he wanted just this, so good, so perfect, just Rodney for John to give himself to completely.

Elbows propping him up, John gave himself up to sucking Rodney, swirling his tongue, hollowing his cheeks, swallowing as he took Rodney's cock as deep as he could, while Rodney babbled obscenities above him. A tremble that ran through Rodney from head to toe and a series of tiny, aborted thrusts were the only warning before Rodney came in long spurts. John slipped his hand inside his pants and jerked himself desperately until he came in a burst of pleasure that erased everything else.

John kept his mouth on Rodney, held him warm and safe as he softened. A trickle of semen he hadn't managed to swallow escaped the corner of his mouth. His crotch was warm and sticky-wet.

Rodney remained braced over him, head hanging and eyes squeezed shut. His arms shook and his breath sounded like a wheezing bellows.

"Stop," Rodney croaked. "Sensitive. Let go."

Regretfully, John released him and fell back onto the bed, boneless and floating on a post-orgasm high. He'd come in his pants and it had been the best orgasm he'd experienced in a decade. Aimless, he rested his fingers on Rodney's knee, then shifted them to his arm.

"Mrrmph," Rodney mumbled. He twisted himself to the side and sprawled next to John. He didn't offer to reciprocate or check that John had come.

Not inept, but not exactly considerate either. Of course, that was Rodney.

Cool goosebumps rose on John's shoulders and arms, but he went on petting Rodney's arm, reflecting that, after all, he had come and Rodney must have known.

He'd wished Rodney and Jennifer would end it. He'd wished Rodney would turn to him. He'd got both. He should have wished Rodney would love him, but he'd always been good at making do with what he got.

With a sigh, John forced himself up and off the bed. Rodney had fallen asleep with his softened cock hanging out of his open pants. He looked ridiculous and vulnerable and as relaxed as John had ever seen him. John leaned over and gently tucked him back inside his boxers, then re-buttoned his pants. An almost unbearable tenderness filled him, but he didn't lean closer to kiss Rodney's slack lips. Instead, he tugged Rodney up and along the length of the bed, took off his boots, and wrapped the coverlet around him.

After he'd showered and brushed his teeth, John came back into the bedroom in boxers and T-shirt. Rodney was still sleeping, snoring softly, and hadn't moved. John crawled into the other side of the bed. He hadn't missed being married, hadn't really missed Nancy, but he'd missed having someone to sleep beside, the weight of another body balancing the mattress, the steady rhythm of another person breathing in the same room, holding the loneliness at bay.

He fell asleep between one snore and the next only to wake when Rodney left the bed. Rodney left the lights off, and settled the sheet and blanket over John, but he didn't say anything.

John wanted to ask if Rodney would come back the next night, but kept his own silence. He'd get by whether they slept together again or not.


Rodney did come back and they fell into an easy routine over the next month, flawed only by various crises and John's insecurity. Despite himself, John began to relax and on their fourth mission after returning to Pegasus, the team visited Ehare.

The took a jumper, since the Ehari had built the capitol on the far side of a lake from the stargate. Teyla spent the morning with the Ehari, speaking for the Coalition, and John took over after midday. The lack of walking put Rodney in a good mood and the mission proceeded without difficulty.

John half expected something to explode in their faces, but the only problem they faced was staying awake through the formal leave-taking ceremony at the end of the day. He and Rodney had to sit through three hours of speeches from the ministers of trade and agriculture, while Ronon and Teyla escaped down to the street markets. The food they were given through the ceremony almost made up for the length of the ceremony, though Rodney insisted on lamenting sotto voce, "Another three hours of my life down the drain. I can feel my brain atrophying. Actually, my brain cells are killing themselves one by one." He added a tiny sound effect scream. "Much longer and it'll probably be mass suicide."

"Teyla will kill you with her sticks if you blow this alliance for her," John reminded him.

Rodney smiled grimly at the Minister of Agriculture. "I've never heard a more stirring and informative speech on growing hapti grain."

"That's what they made those pastries from," John whispered. He licked his lips, remembering the pastries the Ehari had given them earlier. He hoped they'd manage an agreement to trade for hapti flour and that the mess hall cooks could do something half as good with it as the Ehari.

"Oooh, is that what they made those from?" Rodney exclaimed making everyone look at them.

"Weren't you paying any attention during the talks?" John hissed.

"Of course not. Brain cells, giving up all will to live, remember?"

John shoved his elbow into Rodney's side to shut him up. Even he wanted more of those sweet-frosted pastries. They weren't Christmas cookies, but they cut the treats in almost familiar shapes: pine trees, acorns, seven-pointed stars, diamonds and sickle moons.

Rodney was still waxing lyrical over them when they arrived back at the jumper where Teyla and Ronon were already waiting.

John would swear he saw Rodney's nose twitch before they stepped in the hatch.

"I smell happy cookies!" Rodney exclaimed.

"I purchased several boxes of haamt for Torren," Teyla admitted.

"Haamt? I thought they were happy?"

"Hapti," John corrected.

"Like the name matters," Rodney said, airily dismissing the subject.

The heady scents of butter and spices filled the jumper as John brought the jumper up and flew them over the lake to the stargate.

Rodney swiveled the co-pilot's chair around, taking unfair advantage of John's preoccupation with flying.

"Teyla," he said, "you know you are my favorite team member, right?"

"He's lying," Ronon contradicted. "Sheppard's his favorite."

"No, he's not," John said. "Right now Teyla is his favorite."

"Just one?" Rodney wheedled. "One of the cookie-pastry-candy things?"

"Dial the gate, McKay," John ordered.

Rodney turned back to the controls. "Atlantis direct or Lantathos?"

"Lantathos," John said.

"Dialing," Rodney sing-songed. "Teyla? My sugar's crashing. That last ceremony, the one you didn't have to sit through, was exhausting. Just one?"

The pouting got to Teyla and she handed a box over Rodney's shoulder and into his grabby hands. She handed one to Ronon next and set one in John's lap with a smile. "Did you believe I would let Torren eat all of these?" she asked.

John took the jumper home via the terrestrial gate at Lantathos and radioed Alpha Base and Atlantis that he had a stop to make as he crossed the river to Athosian settlement and found the modest house Teyla and Kanaan shared there.

"Where are we going?" Teyla asked.

"Your place," John said to Teyla as he set the jumper down behind the house on the bare patch of ground in front of the shaded porch. It made a perfect landing pad. Reddish dust puffed up to settle of the small fenced garden as the jumper settled into place. "This way you can let the bigwigs know they've got another member in person."

Kanaan carried Torren onto the back porch and smiled as Torren waved like crazy. John waved back through the front viewport.

"You didn't have to do this," Teyla said as she gathered her pack and the Ehari haamt up.

"It's a good idea," Ronon said. "Makes 'em think they're important, getting the news first." He stood and stretched. The mission hadn't involved near-death or shooting Wraith; boring by Ronon's standards.

Rodney exited the jumper with the rest of the team and smiled as Teyla greeted Torren and Kanaan. Minutes later, Torren spotted him and insisted on showing Rodney the garden while John ambled behind Teyla and Ronon.

"Colonel Sheppard," Kanaan murmured. "Will you and Dr. McKay stay here for the night?" He nodded to Ronon and added, "Ronon, you know where your bed is."

"You are welcome," Teyla added. "Always."

"I've got experiments to monitor, you know," Rodney complained comfortably as he joined them. Torren streaked by them, chubby legs amazingly fast, and into the house.

"Gotta get back and debrief," John said.

"Not me," Ronon declared. "I'm gonna see someone in town. I'll catch the jumper back tomorrow."

John raised his eyebrows. "Sure," he drawled. "Don't ask your team leader or anything."

"John," Teyla reprimanded him.

"He likes to get drunk and fight," Kanaan said.

Teyla shoved an elbow into Kanaan's ribs, but he only winced and rubbed them, insisting, "It's true."

"He'll have a sore head," Teyla admitted.

Tomorrow sounded like a good day to suggest an extra run and a sparring session. He might manage to tag Ronon a couple of times with a hangover slowing him down.

"Stay and eat with us at least?" Teyla asked.

"Can't." John nodded toward Rodney. Sunset stretched their shadows black and long toward the jumper. "He really does have other stuff to do. And Woolsey will want that debriefing."

Teyla looked at Rodney, then John, and smiled. She stepped forward and John automatically  touched his forehead to hers. Kanaan surprised him by following Teyla and offering the Athosian forehead touch as well.

Kanaan retrieved Torren from in the house and held him up so John and then Rodney could say good-bye Athosian-style to him too.

"I'm glad you came back," Kanaan said.

"So am I," John replied, startled and pleased. There had never been time to get to know Kanaan very well and John hadn't been sure whether Kanaan even liked the team or merely put up with them to please Teyla.

In the jumper, on the way home to Atlantis, Rodney tore open his package of haamt and started eating them with muffled, happy sound effects. John watched him surreptitiously, allowing himself a smile as he did.

"Wh–?" Rodney mumbled around a mouthful, catching John looking. Colorful crumbs tumbled onto his T-shirt and jacket. "They're best when they're fresh."

John held out his hand.

Rodney glared at him but set a green-frosted pastry shaped like pine tree in it. "I better get some of yours."

John smiled and resisted the urge to tell Rodney he could have all of John's everything if he asked. "You'll have to make it worth my while," he said.

"Tonight?" Rodney offered.

John grinned. Rodney had come to his room every night and proved damn conclusively that he was anything but inept. "Yeah, tonight."

Neither of them had said anything more but John was determined to be happy with the unspoken arrangement for as long as it lasted.

"Deal," Rodney said as he closed up the box of haamt. "If nothing comes up in the labs." His gaze lifted to the viewscreen and he added thoughtfully, "It's funny, I can live without Jennifer."

The jumper jigged downward along with John's heart. He recovered both and pretended he'd been trying to see one of the giant almost-otters that lived in the river. Rodney didn't notice, caught up in his own thoughts.

"I mean, I knew I could, because I did, really, for six months, because she was in Colorado, and I missed her when I noticed she wasn't around, but I didn't miss her. "


John took the jumper higher for safety.

"I don't miss her," Rodney said. "I should. But I don't. That's sort of sad."

"I guess you're getting over her."

If Jeannie was right, then John's days were numbered. Rodney meant to start looking for someone who could give him the whole dream.

"That's it," Rodney said. "I am, but shouldn't it be harder?" He glanced at John. "It would be harder if it were you."

John sucked in a shocked breath.



Rodney ate the last of his haamt and eyed the one John still held, half-forgotten.

"If you aren't going to eat it – "

John quickly licked the frosting from his pastry. Sweetness flared on his tongue.

Rodney looked horrified and disappointed, then turned thoughtful. "That's not going to work any more, since I had my tongue in your mouth and have already been exposed to all of your Sheppard germs. Though it's still disgusting and childish."

"Yeah," John said in satisfaction, because he liked being childish with Rodney and because Rodney had – almost – said it. Because Rodney was braver than John and more forgiving too. The jumper slid through the shimmer of the city shield and Atlantis stretched high into air before them, its lights twinkling like a fairytale castle against the purpling sky. John piloted the jumper between the spires before bringing it about to settle down into the jumper bay.

Rodney sighed and blurted awkwardly, "I, uh, do, you know, feel that way."

John intently began the post-flight check and kept his eyes on the HUD while listening intently.

"Like a friend," Rodney went on, "but more. Like you do. In case you didn't get it when I came to you." His eyes darted to John and away and the fair skin of his face and neck might have been pinker than normal.

John finished the shutdown while basking in the idea that Rodney loved him.

He dropped the haamt as he leaned over and kissed Rodney. The rest was crushed and lost when he straddled Rodney. A shame, since the Ehari baked a great sweet, but it couldn't compare to Rodney's tongue curling around John's, never mind Rodney's hand opening his BDUs and pushing down inside John's boxers.

Briefly, John considered objecting that Rodney making him come in his pants again was establishing a bad precedent, but Rodney rubbed the pad of his thumb over John's slit and all he could do was groan and shake and arch into the sensation. It was probably better to have to explain crumbs on the console than suspicious stains on the pilot's seat, anyway, he reflected when he could think again.

"My quarters," Rodney said. "As soon as possible." He cleaned his hand on John's belly and shirt. "The bed's better and I want to do this with our clothes off."

"Medical and debriefing," John pointed out, even as he followed Rodney out of the jumper. His knees still wobbled and he caught the edge of the hatch to steady himself. They'd only had sex in John's bed before. He'd let Rodney come to him every time.

Rodney groaned before heading for the locker room just off the jumper bay.

"Shower hand job?" John suggested. He wanted to change his pants before stopping in the infirmary.

"Yes, yes, right now," Rodney agreed and snapped his fingers.

They didn't forget the haamt, because they both knew better than to abandon dessert in Atlantis.

"Aren't you moving kind of fast?"

"Fast?" Rodney muttered. He was walking with a strange stride, probably because of the erection distorting the front of his pants. "Five years is hardly fast, Colonel Turtle."

"Just remember who won that race," John said five minutes later as he pinned Rodney against the shower wall and showed him exactly how fast he could get him off. He kissed the side of Rodney's neck, laughing to himself at the burn of Rodney's beard against his lips, sucking hard enough to start a hickey. Rodney bucked against him and muttered something about teases, so John wrapped his hand around Rodney's hard-on. Rodney was thick and slick and his cock filled John's hand. John set a ruthless pace with a twisting stroke and squeeze that had Rodney gasping and jerking as the hot water streamed over them both.

Rodney came with a yell that bounced off the shower walls and slumped against the wall, his chest brushing against John's as he sucked in a deep breaths. His short hair was plastered down and dark with water, droplets glittered on his eyelashes and his face and chest were both flushed deep pink. John grinned at him and snatched a fast kiss before stepping back and rinsing off.

John dressed in a fresh set of BDUs and a T-shirt from his locker while waiting for Rodney, who tended to become sluggish and obscenely relaxed after a good orgasm. He occupied himself dumping their clothes into the Ancient appliance that cleaned and sterilized clothing and equipment. They ambled into the infirmary ten minutes later.

"Anything out of the ordinary?" Lam asked them.

"Easiest mission ever," John said.

Lam raised her eyebrows at the hickey on Rodney's neck. Rodney batted her hand away when she touched it. "Ow." He turned and glared at John. "What did you do?"

John mimed innocence with a 'who me?' face and held up his hands. "I don't know what you're talking about." He felt giddy, because he hadn't thought before he marked Rodney, but it didn't matter. He didn't have to hide, he'd didn't have to protect his career and Rodney didn't mind anyone knowing.

Neither of them were ashamed.

"Jackass," Rodney muttered at him.

Lam shook her head with a laugh aimed at both of them. "You know where the supply cabinet is," she said, referring to the unlocked cabinet with condoms, lube, and various other items people often needed and were embarrassed to request from the infirmary staff. Lam kept enough other things there, including aspirin and sunscreen, that no one paid any attention to who picked up what.

"Yeah." John grinned at her. "Thanks."

Woolsey let them go after a quick run down and John's assurance that, "You'll love them." Woolsey would; he liked formalities and speeches. John slipped him a haamt from his box and the deal was done.

"Reports in the morning, gentlemen," Woolsey said. "Well done."

"I thought he'd never let us out of there," Rodney snapped. He grabbed the front of John's shirt and pulled him along to the nearest transporter in a move John had patented. He started stripping John as soon as the doors to his quarters closed, his expression so intent John began laughing and batting at his hands.

"I think I can do it faster," he said.

Rodney huffed and backed off. "Fine, fine, just get to it."

John began methodically stripping down, shirt first, folded and set on the desk chair, then his boots and socks, constantly aware of Rodney watching him. No hurry now, he could take his time and it sent a pleasant shiver through him.

He paused with his fingers on his belt buckle. Rodney was still clothed, with his arms crossed over his chest, eyes half-lidded. John admired the way Rodney's T-shirt pulled over his solid shoulders and strained tight over his biceps.

"I thought you said you were faster," Rodney said.

"Not if I'm doing it right," John answered, his voice suddenly hoarse.

He palmed his fly in a teasing motion, enjoying the heavy warmth filling his cock in response to the twin weights of his own hand and Rodney's gaze. Rodney followed his motion and licked his lips.

"What– " Rodney stopped and swallowed. "What would you call doing it right?"

John flicked open the first button at his waist and kept his eyes on Rodney's face. "I want to suck you first," he said, "and then fuck you."

"We can do that," Rodney muttered.

John opened another button and slipped his fingers inside, onto his own hot skin. "You'd have to get naked too."

Rodney pulled his shirt over his head, tossed it on the floor and went to work on his pants. John took the opportunity to study him. There it was, the slow rise of color from Rodney's chest up his neck to his face that meant he was really aroused, as much a telltale as the eager tent at the front of his dark blue boxers. He grinned as Rodney sat on the edge of the bed to get his boots and socks off.

The rest of his own buttons were quick work as Rodney sent his boots tumbling toward the bathroom. John slid the BDUs down his hips and took his own boxers with them, then tried to figure out if Rodney would have his lube and condoms in the stand next to the bed or in the bathroom, but couldn't decide.

"Hey, where do you – "

"Bathroom, first cabinet on the left of the sink," Rodney said.

The boxers were crumpled on the floor beside Rodney's socks when John came back  with the supplies. Rodney sat at the foot of the bed, thighs spread and his big, rosy-red cock poking straight out, wetness already glistening at the tip as he stroked himself.

"Hey," John said. He tossed the condom packet and the lube onto the bed and knelt down between Rodney's legs, then rested his head against one of Rodney's knees and closed his eyes as Rodney combed through his hair. He smiled when after a second, Rodney used his hand to pull John closer, saying, "Someone said something about sucking. Chop, chop."

"Not words I'd use when putting my cock in anyone's mouth," John gibed before swallowing Rodney deep. Rodney's hand tightened convulsively on John's hair as he playfully licked at Rodney  before going down again.

"Like that, yes, like that, keep doing that," Rodney chanted.

John held Rodney's cock at the base as he worked it and lazily stroked himself with his other hand. He wanted to savor the syrup-slow desire building through his body. He blew Rodney with a sort of languorous dedication, intent on driving them both insane as slowly as possible. He felt like he could continue forever and wanted to do just that almost as much as he wanted to fuck Rodney.

The corners of his mouth were stretched painfully and his jaw ached, his throat was raw and even his tongue ached before John pulled off with a wet pop an endless time later. A thin string of pre-come stretched from his cock head to the floor and he had to clutch at Rodney's knee to keep from bringing himself off with just one more touch.

He wiped at the saliva on his chin once he'd recovered precarious control and looked up at Rodney. Rodney's hands were clenched on the wrinkled bed cover, his face and chest were red, and his eyes were all dark pupil. The muscles in his thighs were shivering while his chest heaved.

"John," he whimpered.

"Fuck," John said and his voice cracked.

"Fuck, yes," Rodney gasped. "Me, now."

John curled over, grabbed the base of his cock and squeezed hard, staving off his climax.

"Now," Rodney said. He squirmed back up the bed and splayed himself out. "Do me now, damn it."

John groaned and crawled up after him. The protesting pain from his knees actually helped him and he griped, "Jesus, don't talk like that or I won't have anything left to fuck you with."

Rodney scrabbled the condom packet under his hand and threw it at John. It hit his chest and dropped onto the coverlet between his knees where John grabbed and ripped it open. He smoothed it on his cock rather than let Rodney put it on, slowing down again. The layer of latex between his skin and Rodney's would dull the sensation just enough to let him draw out what otherwise might go too damn fast. John had never liked barebacking anyway, it was just courting a UTI no matter how clean he and Rodney were.

"Take your time," Rodney said waspishly. "It's not like I'm lying here waiting or anything."

John ignored him and found the lube. He squirted it onto his fingers and slid them over Rodney's balls and perineum still cold. Rodney seized up and arched off the bed with a yell. John slithered up closer and blew on the slick trail of lube.

"No rimming," Rodney warned him.

"No problem, you've got the science department to kiss your ass," John said as he worked more lube inside Rodney. "Just lie back and think of Canada."

"Ba–bastard," Rodney stuttered and squirmed, grabbing his own thighs to spread himself wider. His cock bobbed and left wet streaks over his belly. "I'm ready, damn it."

John ignored him and added more slick, two fingers in and curling until he found Rodney's prostate and made him writhe. He finger-fucked Rodney and listened to him curse and threaten to cut John off forever if he didn't get on with it, while his own hard-on never flagged.

"Hands and knees," he ordered and Rodney twisted over eagerly. John pulled Rodney's cheeks open with his thumbs and slid into him from behind, his hips stuttering as he tried to keep it slow and smooth, his mind emptying of everything except tight and hot, too good to be believed.

When he was balls deep, his hipbones snug against the curve of Rodney's ass, John bent and kissed the sweaty skin between Rodney's shoulder blades. "Perfect," he rasped.

"Move," Rodney demanded and arched his back.

John moved, deep in and back, entranced by the ripple of muscle in Rodney's back, the sounds he made, the way they fit and moved together in tandem and in contrast, pleasure tightening like a spring in his gut. "So good," he crooned, "you're so good." His rhythm ran away from him, a runaway fusion reactor, better than flying, and he hammered into Rodney until he overloaded and came.

Rodney was trembling under him and John's bones were melted, but he reached around and pumped Rodney's cock, getting his thumb right on the spot under the head that made Rodney rear back and shout as he came.

They collapsed together, but John retained enough wit to hold onto the base of his condom and slide out of Rodney before the endorphin high dissolved and turned it uncomfortable.

Rodney wriggled off the wet spot he'd made and mumbled into the coverlet, "Wow, it's actually better when you come first."

John flopped onto his back and concentrated on breathing for a while, until the filled condom became too disgusting to ignore any longer. He got rid of it, staggered into the bathroom and cleaned up, then brought a warm, wet cloth out and wiped Rodney down.

"Get in bed," Rodney ordered.

"You want me to stay?" John asked.

"Of course I want you to stay, did you fuck your brains out or what?" Rodney lifted his head and scowled at John.

"Probably," John said. He tossed the wet cloth in the direction of the bathroom and crawled into the bed with Rodney. His eyes closed immediately as he let post-orgasm lassitude claim him again. "This is nice," he muttered.

Rodney rolled into him and snugged his nose against John's neck. "Shut up and be here in the morning," he mumbled.

John turned his head enough to press his lips to Rodney's damp forehead. He could do that for the rest of his life.


  • Summary: John's never been able to ask for what he wants, but sometimes silence itself is the sin.
  • Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
  • Rating: Mature/R
  • Warnings: partner betrayal
  • Other: Written for meansgirl and the 2009 SGA Secret Santa Exchange
  • Author Notes: I have made free with SG-1 and with names from SGU, which I have never seen an episode of, and adapted things I've heard about it to fit my own idea of how the Stargate 'verse should develop. Do not expect this to conform to canon post SGA OR SG-1's final episodes. Set post-SGA Season Five, so everything before that is fair game. Rodney McKay and Jennifer Keller's canon relationship is referenced.
  • Date: 12.10.2009
  • Length: 34417 words
  • Genre: m/m
  • Category: Angst, Drama, DADT-fic, post-Season Five, Character Study
  • Cast: John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, Jennifer Keller, Cameron Mitchell, Vala Mal Doran, Teal'c, Daniel Jackson, Jack O'Neill, Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex, Richard Woolsey
  • Betas: dossier, Kat and kate aka kisahawklin 
  • Disclaimer: Not for profit. Transformative work written for private entertainment.

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