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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2005-07-05 11:39 am
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Angles Thus And So 2/4

Rodney is really not very good at all at this emotions stuff. Elizabeth's much better. Unfortunately Elizabeth doesn't have anyone to be Elizabeth for her, except for him, so he does the best he can. Because in his own way he is fond of Elizabeth despite her not perhaps being the most rational thinker in the world.

She's crying. Sitting with him on his sofa in his quarters and crying. He really -- Elizabeth Weir is crying, and he doesn't know why.

This is not a What Would Sheppard Do situation.

There must be a decent human being inside Rodney somewhere, because he managed to conjure Samantha Carter up when he was, oh, dying underwater a few weeks ago, and she seemed pretty decent. And since she was him, rationally, psychologically, this is a What Would McKay's Subconscious Do situation.

Talk?

Talking seems rational enough.

He lifts one knee, enough to raise Elizabeth's head a little in his lap, and props his foot on the coffee table. She adjusts, turning up to face him, and wipes her eyes, swipes across her nose with the back of her hand.

"So," he says, and talking -- that comes naturally. It's just a matter of downshifting from you're all fucking idiots, why do I bother. "We seem to be taking turns at the whole nervous breakdown thing."

She laughs a little, around a sob.

"Which is fine, but I have dibs on the next one. I promise to make it really interesting," he continues. "I mean, you know me, never a dull or quiet moment."

He rests one hand on her stomach, thumb rubbing the fabric lightly. This, he's also getting better at. Slowly.

"But I was thinking, maybe neither of us would break down so often if -- life-threatening things aside, being shot offworld and all the demons of my nightmares bearing down on Atlantis with two thirds of a ZPM and most of our actual interfaces jury-rigged with modded ethernet cables -- "

"Rodney," she says softly.

"Right," he agrees. "Sorry. What I mean is, maybe we should try this before it reaches event-horizon stage."

She rubs her eyes again. "What did you have in mind?"

"I don't know. Some kind of regularity. Not a schedule, okay, even I'm not that pathetic, just -- how does a week from today sound?"

An eyebrow arches. Hallelujah, she's stopped crying.

"Are you suggesting a date?"

"Nononono, no-no, not a date," he says hastily, and again there's that relief in her face which would be a little more flattering if he weren't seeing it while they were talking about sex. "More like an appointment."

"An appointment."

"Do they teach you that in Diplomat School, the whole repeating-stuff-back-to-me thing?"

She blinks, and he realises they probably did, and it's even possible he's the first to call her on it.

"I'm just saying, a regular appointment for fantastic sex might act like a release valve."

"Such an engineer," she says almost affectionately. "Appointments sound a little...Doctor Heightmeyer -- " she pauses, because she hears something, and narrows her eyes. "Are you -- "

He lifts his own eyebrows.

"Are you humming Sexual Healing?" she asks, incredulous.

"I work with what I have," he says stiffly. She laughs and turns her face into his stomach, letting his hand slide up to her hip.

"You are completely classless," she says, into his shirt.

"I'm sorry I missed out on charm school but I was kind of in the middle of revolutionising astrophysics," he retorts, and reminds himself to downshift, but she doesn't seem to notice and hey, when did all his emotional commands turn into some kind of jumper-pilot metaphor, anyway? Fucking Sheppard.

"Are you thinking every...Thursday or something?" she asks, sitting up slowly. He cups her shoulder, and no gentleman would refuse help to a woman attempting to straddle his lap.

"Thursday, Sunday afternoon, whatever," he says loftily, when she's done kissing him. "Rescheduling for minor disasters, infirmary stays, and-or Wraith attacks, of course."

She leans back and looks at him. "Why suggest this now?"

Honesty seems best.

"Because I haven't the faintest clue why you're crying," he replies. "I mean, nobody's been blown up recently and it's been a while since either of us have almost died and nothing's fallen apart in the past few days, so this is kind of confusing, you know?"

She rests her head against his shoulder. "The words you want are, do you want to talk about it?, I think."

"I was getting there," he says defensively.

"It was just a really long day," she says, not moving her forehead from his shoulder. "And I figured out I can actually find someone who won't get upset that the head of the mission has long days. So, you know. Buildup. It won't happen again."

"Hey -- it's okay, I'm not pissed off," he tells her. "Science is all about inquiry."

She sighs. "I'm not an experiment."

"No. You're the fixed point. No need to poke at a fixed point. Just letting it be what it is," he says.

Apparently math is the right method here, because she kisses him and there isn't any more crying or talking, just them.

***

"All right," Sheppard says, to the crowd of new Marines, fresh off the Daedalus and looking somewhat browbeaten already. "This concludes your official introductory mission briefing. That wasn't so bad, was it?"

There's a murmur of assent from the knot of soldiers, and Elizabeth, looking down on them from a balcony, smiles a little. This is her city. She finds it good.

"We do have a few unofficial words, however," and this time the noise is more of a stifled groan. "It'll be fast, I promise. I just want you to remember that your duties here are not direct offensive combat. Your job is to defend the city, and also to protect the civilians. The scientists are your concern, and if one of them is hurt, you're responsible."

This is the part she loves.

"With a short presentation on that, let me introduce to you our Chief Science Officer, Dr. Rodney McKay."

McKay, who had apparently been doing some diagnostic work on his tablet in a corner of the room, steps forward, looks up at the ceiling thoughtfully, and with a tap of his finger douses the lights to almost nothing. The tablet illuminates him and Sheppard, but only barely.

"Hi," he says. The soldiers shift uneasily. "I'm Dr. McKay. I helped raise Atlantis when most of you were still trying to figure out which end of a P-90 is supposed to be pointed at the bad guys. I wrote most of the code that allows our computers to interact with Ancient technology, and I am the executive sysadmin for the Earth-technology communications servers. In other words, I talk to the city."

She's aware of Zelenka next to her; he hasn't seen this before, and when she glances at him he's looking curious.

"With this little device," a wave of the tablet, "I can control when the lights come on in your quarters, what the temperature of the water is in your showers, what doors open for you, which of your intranet emails get through. With that little device," and he jerks his head at Sheppard, "I control what duty shifts you work, whether you go offworld, and who gets to spend their entire tour on Atlantis in the kitchens."

Sheppard shoots him an annoyed I'm not a device and who are you calling little? look.

"So. Don't bother my scientists, don't harass my scientists, don't get in their way, don't be rude to them. That's my job. Don't question them unless they're in imminent danger of death. Because I will know, and I will tell the city all about you."

He taps the tablet again, and the lights come up. "Understood?"

There's a swell of yessir scored for a chorus of thirty-four anxious Marines.

"Dismissed," Sheppard says, and they obey with alacrity.

"I wouldn't have pegged you for much of a public speaker," Elizabeth calls down to McKay, who's already working on the tablet again.

"I taught graduate studies lectures for six years," he calls back, not looking up.

"Graduate students couldn't kill you with their bare hands."

"Obviously you haven't met many graduate students. Colonel, come and look at this," he says, and they bend their heads over the tablet together, conferring quietly.

"Next time, I bring popcorn," Zelenka tells her, grinning, as she smiles down on her boys.

***

There is one thing Sheppard has never told anyone vis a vis this whole "Ferris Wheel Complex" he supposedly has.

When he was a kid his dad had taken him to Chicago, the birthplace of the Ferris wheel, to ride the big wheel at the lakeshore. That had been great, of course it had been great, but the ride itself never stays in the mind very long. What he remembered most vividly was that as they were walking away, towards downtown and dinner, he'd turned around and looked back at the wheel. He thought about airplanes, fighters, bombers -- this was not an uncommon thing to rest on John's mind -- and thought about the Ferris wheel, and how it would fall over if a fighter clipped it.

He'd actually started to tilt his head, lost in the majesty of the imaginary crash, when his father gave his sleeve a tug and they wandered away. The image stayed with him for years. It wasn't frightening, because it was just something he'd imagined. It was bigger than frightening. It was...epic.

John begins to dream at night that he is standing on an outlying pier promontory, looking back at the city, when there is a direct hit to the base of the tower. The tower itself seems to collapse sideways, splitting at the midpoint so that the highest observation deck comes crashing deep into its heart. The outlying towers bow inwards and break, tumbling after.

He watches this and slowly, as it collapses, he tilts his head.

John wakes in a cold sweat from the dream, often enough that he begins to consider ways to exorcise it. He checks the shields religiously and explores the giant fortifying legs at the base of the tower, looking for imperfections, thinking that if he can assure himself the city is safe he'll sleep better at night.

He resorts next to sleeping pills, or would have if he could have actually gotten the words out, but he's not big on doctors in general and he and Carson see a little bit too much of each other for his comfort. He never manages to actually ask.

Finally, one morning, he sits down at the laptop on his desk and pokes around the public server until he finds a CAD program. The digital model of the city is already there, probably built by one of McKay's underlings as a basis for their tracking diagrams. He studies the architecture for a while and then begins the process of slowly, pixel by pixel, destroying the city. He justifies to himself that he's in charge of city defence, and running sims to better identify evacuation areas is only common sense.

And this is how he knows he's in trouble, when he shows his work to McKay, the loop of the little cadded city collapsing over and over again. He just wants his views as a physicist, or at least that's what he tells him.

McKay watches the loop for about five minutes, silently, concentrating.

"It's wrong, isn't it," Sheppard asks.

"Clearly you slept your way to that A you got in Physics For Poets at college," McKay says. "I mean I'll help you fix it, Mr. The Laws Of Gravity Don't Work On The West Side Of The City -- "

"That's Colonel The Laws Of Gravity Don't Work On The West Side Of The City."

" -- but it's going to take time," McKay finishes, rolling his eyes at him. And he sets to work. Not, This is really very creepy, Sheppard or Do I need to check your rooms for bomb-building equipment, Colonel?, just unquestioning faith that Sheppard has a Plan. Interest in the challenge. Love of a good game of Let's Destroy The City.

Figures -- he bares his soul, not that McKay knew that, and in turn McKay decides to do the math. He's not sure where that analogy's going, but it can't end well.

John Sheppard decides he kind of might be screwed.

***

Rodney will never ever admit to anyone what he felt when he saw Weir and Sheppard in a passionate kiss, that one time they were possessed by evil aliens. Never mind that two minutes later they were trying to kill each other and everyone around them. The kiss was objectively pretty hot. Beckett agrees with him, though they both have to drink a lot before they can talk about it.

Part of it is that he isn't certain what he felt. A jolt like he sometimes gets when he fits data crystals into the Ancient consoles; a sense of mathematical rightness, a single line AB (RodneyElizabeth) becoming angle ABC (RodneyElizabethJohn). Inevitability; at some point, A and C will connect (RodneyJohn, and oh how that frightens him) to form a triangle. Equilateral, with any luck.

The thing is that he can't explain any of it, because by all rights he should be smitten with Elizabeth (but isn't) and by all rights Sheppard should hardly have the patience to give him the time of day (but does). The point, he supposes, is that he's not angry that the woman he's sleeping with kissed his friend. And it would be utterly idiotic to be angry that his friend kissed the woman he's sleeping with.

So he classifies it all as spiritualistic nonsense and ignores it to the best of his ability, which seems to make both Elizabeth and the Colonel happy.

***

McKay's hands are shaking as he picks up the mug of stew and holds it to his lips, blowing to cool and then sipping the thick broth. It's MRE stew, so the carrots are technically actually carrots and the potatoes are probably real potatoes and the meat is actual cow, butchered in another galaxy, somewhere in the American midwest on Earth.

The hastily renamed Orion is an Ancient warship, but even the Ancients had to eat. Once they were in orbit, safely away from the magma-covered planet beneath them, the first thing that Sheppard did was send out exploration teams to find the kitchens and crew quarters. Now he sits across from McKay at a mess table in a room below the command deck and watches him slowly fall apart.

McKay speaks often and loudly of his own genius, but he's always half-startled when his more brilliant plans actually work. Before they got the ship up and running he was in constant motion, but as soon as he was no longer needed he locked up in fear. Sheppard can't have that. McKay's still got a lot of work ahead of him. The Orion wants to fly.

"You all right?" he asks, as McKay spoons a chunk of potato into his mouth. Blue eyes flick up to meet his; there's a half-nod, and he continues eating. "The Daedalus is taking some of the refugees off our hands, they're bound for Atlantis within the hour."

"Should we bother?" McKay asks, around a mouthful of stew. "If the Wraith are bearing down, it might be just as safe to keep them here."

"Well, better to make one strong stand at Atlantis than split our troops."

"Presuming we're planning on making a stand."

"What else can we do?" Sheppard asks, and this is familiar; there have been too many times in the past two years where he and Rodney have sat together and wondered what options remained, turning it over in their heads silently, trying to find another way out of whatever it is they're in. And at the end of this silence, they have always stood up and strapped it all on and gone to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy, side by side. Which is a lot to say about a man, that he can stand beside John Sheppard in defence of Atlantis. Sheppard doesn't cater to his own ego, but he is after all a soldier and a combat veteran, and McKay isn't. Well -- didn't used to be.

Sheppard is actually often baffled by the fact that McKay seems to tolerate him, given everything, and puts it down to his penchant for not talking, which means statistically he says fewer things that McKay thinks are stupid than everyone else does. Or perhaps it's necessity borne of ownership -- Beckett and Teyla might attend the senior staff meetings, but Rodney talks to the city and John protects the city and Elizabeth commands the city, so it's theirs, and that forms a tight, thick-knotted bond between the three of them.

"Do you think you can get her battle-ready?" he asks.

"How many miracles do you want from me?" McKay replies, but it's lacking its usual edge; it's weary and sad, and it sounds like he's feeling the Orion the way Sheppard feels Atlantis. The Orion is a tired soldier.

Sheppard prays that McKay isn't burning out. In terms of service to the city they could replace McKay if they had to, though they'd probably have to hire a team of three to do it; in terms of friendship, which is a word Sheppard doesn't use very often but has to now lest he use something a lot more dangerous, losing McKay would hurt like a fucking bitch.

"As many as you can manage," Sheppard answers, and offers McKay the brownie from his MRE.

"Well, since it's you," McKay says, his tone a trifle lighter, and accepts the food as his due.

***

Their first night back after what Rodney mentally terms The Big Space Adventure (because "We blew up a lot of stuff and got taken captive and hijacked a Wraith hive" was too long to say) everyone who had been onboard slept like the dead. The tightly-wound community of crewmen and scientists, a hundred and eighty-three all told, dispersed and found quarters and nothingness for a few hours, and it was good.

Rodney still remembers the throat-closing claustrophobia of the Daedalus as it lost oxygen. Even the air on the Wraith ship had been tainted with some smell that he could swear was the embodiment of hunger and desperation. Home in Atlantis the air still seems too thick inside, so he moves his bed out onto the small balcony and, heedless of allergens and bugs in the air, curls up to sleep in the ocean breeze.

He is surprised to find he misses Elizabeth, who is a long way away, just a handful of steps by Stargate but weeks by hyperdrive even if she left immediately after the news of the Wraith defeat -- which, he finds out in a briefing the next day, she didn't. And by the way, who put Teyla in charge of Atlantis while Elizabeth was gone?

That evening he still feels restless, charged up with energy, unable to eat much at a time or sit still without fidgeting. Zelenka manages it somehow, moving smoothly through the labs as he works with steady hands and in so doing wins Rodney's Person I Dislike The Most award for the day (even Radek Zelenka can't triumph all the time).

He wanders the halls for a while, just for something to do, relearning the Ancient architecture after days aboard the Hive ship. There's something missing, something he hasn't done, but the diagnostics are all fine and there can't be anything else demanding his attention yet. He wishes for Elizabeth to help make it quiet, and because Atlantis is different without her presence, and a little bit because somehow Earth seems much more dangerous these days than the Pegasus Galaxy.

So he keeps wandering until he finds himself in the jumper bay, normally quiet and dark this time of night --

Except, and he isn't as surprised as he thought he'd be, there's Sheppard, elbows-deep in Jumper Two.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he demands, standing on the rear hatch.

"Sewing a pinafore, what does it look like?" Sheppard answers, without looking up. "Glad you're here, toss me the corkscrewy thing. The three-quarters one."

Rodney crosses his arms.

"These are delicate, sensitive machines and -- "

"Rodney, give me the fucking corkscrewy thing, or I'll snap a crystal."

Rodney picks up the tool with a sigh and hands it over. "They have names, you know -- "

"And if I asked someone to pass me the Khathsaa Dethur, they'd look at me like I was nuts. Thank you," Sheppard finishes, wedging it into place for a moment. It lights up, whirring softly. "Besides, you know what Khathsaa means in Ancient? Corkscrewy thing. Why are you here, anyway?"

Rodney is implacable and annoyed. He watches Sheppard remove the corkscrewy thing and replace the housing over the starboard rear crystals.

"Couldn't sleep either, huh?" Sheppard says conversationally.

"I definitely can't now that I know you're rummaging around in the jumper like it's a '57 Mustang," Rodney answers.

"She just wanted a little love." Sheppard pats the housing obscenely. Rodney prepares to pour forth on the sexualisation of inanimate objects when Sheppard finally glances up and tips him a grin.

"You are a sick man," he says instead.

"Probably. Hey, you have movies on your server space, yeah?"

"What?"

"Want to help me with something?"

Twenty minutes, some hasty rewiring, one minor electrical burn and a quickly negotiated flight-plan later, Jumper Two is cleared for departure. Rodney keeps up a steady stream of questions and self-aggrandising statements, mainly for Sheppard's benefit, until they are airborne. Until, in fact, they are in orbit.

"Now." Sheppard leans back and props his boots on the console, "Hook up that magic tablet of yours."

Rodney scowls as he plugs the tablet into the wires emerging from the central island. Sheppard glances at it, then at the screen, and nods sharply.

The navigational modules blink out one by one, and a frame of light appears in its place, projected against the blackness of their solar system. Rodney watches, startled, as Sheppard calls up his server folder on this large screen and flicks through the files.

"Buster Keaton," he murmurs, sounding amused. The files-list disappears and the opening strains of silent-film organ music fills the cockpit, and that is when the penny drops (way later than it should have, really).

"Oh my god," he says, leaning back and mirroring Sheppard's posture, boots propped on the console. "You're a genius, Sheppard."

Grainy black-and-white film footage appears on the nav-screen, bigger than any Earth-made monitor anywhere in Atlantis. They are in geosynchronous orbit with a planet in another galaxy and they suddenly have their own private cinema, projected onto the stars.

"I know," Sheppard says smugly, the light from the film washing his face in pale sepia.

"We gotta find a way to take popcorn next time."

"Shhh. Watch the movie."

"It's a silent -- "

"McKay, I swear to god..."

"Seriously, can I talk over the silent movie?"

"What could you possibly have to say?"

"Oh, have you ever known me to not have something to say?"

"Is this a trick question?"

They bicker their way through One Week and The Electric House, tipped back comfortably in their chairs, before Sheppard reluctantly switches the screen off and turns the jumper towards Atlantis.

It isn't Elizabeth and talking and sex, but Elizabeth will be back soon, and he can wait. This is good; this is something deserved.

Sheppard's grin as they go their separate ways is suspiciously large, and normally Rodney would suspect him of planning something, but he can differentiate "planning" from "planned". He wonders how long Sheppard's been working on the film interface -- it would take programming and some physical work, so it had to have been at least a few weeks before the Big Space Adventure -- and if this is his version of what Rodney and Elizabeth have. Which is either really great or really depressing, depending on how you look at it.

***

Rodney sees Elizabeth briefly when she returns from Earth, disembarking from the Asgard ship that transported her (it doesn't linger, thankfully). He sees her a little less briefly in the staff meeting. And then suddenly he's in another part of the galaxy in a Hive ship, being fired on.

How do these things happen? Honestly.

But he takes pride in the fact that he is not the most incompetent code-talker known to man. Because in the briefing, when Sheppard was scrambling to save Elizabeth from having to actually say how glad she was to see them, Teyla piped up with We feel the same way you do.

And the words just tumbled out. "Huh, she feels hungry too?" he said, and then he realised he just made a double-entendre that only Elizabeth would get, and she smiled at him.

So, you know. If he doesn't get sucked into the vacuum of space as the Hive ship destroys them all, he's fairly confident he'll get lucky in the near future.

***

During the relative quiet that follows the destruction of the Wraith-Human colony, one of the offworld missions encounters the Nomads for the first time.

According to some translations Weir's been working on, the planet has a reasonable expectation of harbouring Ancient ruins and potentially a ZPM, though probably depleted. Instead, when they pass through the Stargate they find themselves in the middle of a noisy, chaotic encampment filled with children.

"Nomads," Teyla breathes.

The Nomads are legendary among the settled people of the Pegasus Galaxy, or so Teyla tells them; traders with no home, who travel from Gate to Gate as the safest way of avoiding cullings, never staying longer than a few days in one place. Having touched nearly every civilised planet at some point or other, they have left behind goods, stories, and children -- new blood being a scarce commodity in small communities. They are boisterous, good-spirited, and somewhat ruthless: their method of travel is to send a volunteer through the gate and close it, and hope that the address they entered at random was not a dangerous one. If it is, of course, the scout simply doesn't return; if it is safe, the scout redials the last planet, returns, and leads the Nomads through into a new world. They lose some this way, but not as many as they would to the Wraith.

There are two scientists on Atlantis who took double-degrees in ethnology and anthropology respectively, and they salivate at the prospect of speaking to the Nomads, particularly their storytellers. In return, the matriarch asks to seed most of the children and many of the adults on the relatively safe, agriculturally prosperous continent that the Athosians have settled. It seems a fair bargain, and the Athosians welcome the newcomers with open arms.

Transporting the crowds, with their carts and belongings, is an all-day task and every Jumper pilot with any skill is pressed into service, especially when McKay picks up a Hive ship bearing down on their current planet. A hundred and twelve people are hustled through the gate, then loaded into the jumpers and flown to the continent.

By the end of the day Sheppard's eyes are itchy-dry and his head is pounding from the repeated shuttle trips to the continent, along with the heavy work of helping disassemble the carts and haul the huge collections of junk (well, he thinks it's junk) into and out of the Jumpers. He's glad to send the rest of the crew back to Atlantis, parking the Jumper and wondering if Teyla would mind awfully if he collapsed somewhere and didn't move for about two days.

Instead he finds that the Athosians, who even now don't have all that much to spare, have thrown a goddamn party.

A handful of his people have stayed on the continent, agreeing to rendesvous with him and fly out together -- McKay fascinated by Ancient tech he's ferreted out of the debris, Weir to speak with the Athosians about settlement issues, two or three Marines because you just can't be too careful, and both of the drooling ethno-anthro-whatevers.

One of the men brings him a bowl of food and he eats with his back against a tree, hardly conscious. He can see McKay deep in conversation with one of the newcomers, sipping thin Athosian beer, and Elizabeth nearby, speaking earnestly with some of the older women. He thinks perhaps he can sleep in the jumper for a while, since it looks like it's going to be a long night, and as soon as he's done eating he slinks back and stretches out on the floor, closing his eyes wearily.

When he wakes from half-drifting sleep there are voices: Elizabeth, too quiet to be understood, and then McKay, only slightly louder.

"Three new books," McKay is saying softly, urgently, happily and not entirely coherently, as if he's had a little too much fun at the bonfire. "How fast can you translate them?"

"We'll have to find out," Elizabeth answers, sounding much more coherent but also strangely breathless.

"Books by the Ancients," McKay repeats, slurring a little, and Sheppard grins. "Clues. Like a trail, leading us on. And five new devices to test out..."

Elizabeth laughs low. Sheppard frowns; it's not a sound he's heard often from her, and the silence following is unlike McKay at all. He pushes himself to his elbows and then his feet, silently, and makes his way down the rear hatch, hand resting on the rim as he looks for them.

He stops, hardly breathing, when he finally sees them; every muscle stills with the instinct not to be discovered.

McKay and Elizabeth are kissing, deep and long, with an ease of familiarity that says this is not some jubilant drunken indiscretion. In the dim light he can see the fall of Elizabeth's dark hair, one of McKay's hands threaded in it, the other possessive on the small of her back, both her hands on his shoulders. They're kissing pretty intently, hands tightening sometimes, McKay's mouth dipping to her throat and the soft place just below her ear. There's no chance she'll see him, turned as she is, but even as he thinks he should probably be disappearing McKay looks up long enough to catch his silhouette.

Blue eyes skate over his face, identify him, analyse him; and then McKay tips his head slightly and continues kissing their boss, Jesus, Elizabeth Weir, of all the fucking unlikely people --

Sheppard realises he's been quietly warned and then he does fade away, back inside the Jumper. McKay's privacy aside, Sheppard has to work with Elizabeth and this could get really awkward really fast.

He decides to stomp up and down on the metal grating a few times, cough, grunt, and generally make as much noise as possible before emerging again.

"Hey, McKay, is that you?" he calls, and when he puts his head around the side they are standing a decent distance apart, Elizabeth doing that thing with her hands she does, steepling them in front of her and flexing her elbows. "Hey."

"John," Elizabeth says. "We were just coming to see if you were ready to fly back."

"I'm in no condition," McKay adds, then bites his lip.

"Yep," Sheppard says briefly. "Everyone else rounded up?"

"Just us, they're staying," McKay blurts.

"All right then. Let's go," Sheppard replies easily, and steels himself for one more flight before he can go to his quarters and digest this and sleep, sweet sleep.

But all of a sudden, in his tired brain, things click into place -- that one time he met Elizabeth coming out of McKay's quarters, which she brushed off as an early-morning meeting. The fact that she touches McKay a lot and McKay tolerates it, which Sheppard always thought was pretty weird. The fact that McKay is unusually civil to her, because it's not like he's respected any other authority figure he's ever encountered.

Jesus, they must have been together for months. He thought McKay would tell him shit like this. McKay's not supposed to be good at keeping secrets or lying, and also, hello, teammates. He invented a whole new way of viewing movies, in orbit, just to show it to McKay. They're supposed to be friends.

He casts a sidelong look at McKay, in the copilot's chair, and then over his shoulder where Elizabeth is seated at one of the rear stations. Glances back at McKay, who cuts his eyes to the side and looks deeply unsettled.

"Not to harsh your buzz or anything," Sheppard drawls slowly, "but I've got some data from the Travellers that we should go over tomorrow. Ancient tech stuff," he adds, as Elizabeth opens her mouth. "You want dibs, McKay?"

"What kind of stuff?" McKay asks, and he sure is slow on the uptake for someone who just forced Sheppard to do some very ingenious subterfuge.

"I said, tech stuff, how much of that beer did you have? Listen, sleep it off, I'll see you in the mess. Oh nine hundred? I can brief you then."

"Oh -- oh right. Of course." McKay replies, catching on. "Oh nine hundred."

Sheppard wishes he was the kind of guy who would vengefully knock everyone around during landing, but he isn't, so he puts the Jumper down perfectly and lets McKay stagger off to bed (god, bed, probably with Elizabeth, what the hell) while he goes over the post-flight checklist. By the time he hits his own quarters he's weaving a little himself and even with the confused, injured feeling in his mind, it isn't long before he's asleep.

***

The Author now presents a scene, with translations.

There are pancakes for breakfast, a rare treat, and Sheppard picks at his while Rodney cuts his into bite-sizes and makes little sandwiches with the pancakes and the rubbery sausage patties the mess is serving. Neither of them talk, Sheppard because he's trying to figure out what to say and McKay because he hasn't finished his coffee yet.

There's nothing like the direct approach, really, so Sheppard waits until McKay's mouth is full and then says, "So. Elizabeth."

See, I'm not an idiot, and after last night I'm pretty much not going to be able to cope with this without a little more information. So please clue me in, because I'm kind of confused over how I should feel that you're in a relationship with our boss.

McKay chews, pauses, looks around.

"Sex," he says, succinctly.

It's this thing we started, when either of us feels like we can't really deal, or we're excited, or we need someone to tell us that we're not complete freaks, or when one or both of us have almost died. But I don't think she's really interested in a relationship and I know I'm not, and she's smart but in a totally different way from me and possibly not really on the same plane as me, so conversation is hard a lot of the time. I'm pretty sure we're still not dating. Or at least as much as we've said, we're not dating. It's not a big deal.

(Rodney McKay can fit a lot of meaning into two consonants and a vowel.)

"Sex?" Sheppard asks.

Oh, well. Okay, that's a relief, that's just fuckbuddies, I can deal with that. Actually, that's kind of awesome and I am jealous, because my social skills are not as great as you think they are and women who've known me for more than six hours tend to see that. Also, it's really hard to start anything with any of the guys on Atlantis, I don't know if you've noticed.

"That's pretty much it, yup." McKay shovels another huge bite into his mouth.

It's good, but I have this deep down feeling that it's also really messed up.

"And the Jumper thing, last night."

You could have warned me. Also, you could have told me when it started, like people are supposed to tell their friends, especially their friends who are also their colleagues under the boss you're sleeping with.

"Yeah, that's...not something that happens all the time."

It's not a big deal, really. I mean if it were I would have told you. Sorry about that.

"So...?"

Are you pissed that I found out? Because it's pretty much your fault, but if you were pissed that I found out I could make some kind of apologetic gesture so that things don't change, because I suck at this whole making friends thing.

"Yeah, whatever."

We're cool.

***

He tries to stop thinking about it, because McKay has said in no uncertain terms that it's not a big deal. Still, it's hard; he thinks about whether he could do that with someone, the casual thing, but he never had much luck being casual about sex. Either he gets too intense or they do or (once, memorably) he gets accused of being a sociopathic closet case.

He thinks about what McKay must have felt seeing Elizabeth on the scanner table, body infected by nanites and slowly shutting down. He thinks about McKay's half-swallowed protest when Elizabeth voluntarily let a Replicator touch her. He thinks about how many morning briefings they've held, where McKay and Elizabeth must have just come from the same bed. He thinks about trying to kill off the brain cells that are making him think about this.

He's not jealous. He has no desire to sleep with Elizabeth and as far as he had known, until a few days ago, he and McKay had shared the same respectful disaffect concerning her. That's out the window now, but...

Well, the way he sees it is, Rodney is his responsibility -- one of many, but his -- and clearly if missions where they don't get tied up (and sometimes do) and video games and films in their offtime and meals together aren't enough, then Rodney should definitely be doing what he needs to do in order not to become a high-strung reclusive neurotic lunatic. If Weir can give him some...thing he needs, then it's none of John's business.

But do they really have to have sex?

Because if that's all Rodney needs, John Sheppard is never unobliging.

Salvation comes in the unlikely form of Carson Beckett, who slumps down on the bench across from him in the mess late one evening, looking tired and gulping juice. John eyeballs him for a while, then realises he should probably say something polite.

"Long day?"

"You wouldn't believe," Carson answers, poking at his food investigatively before taking a bite. "I don't mind the patch-up jobs or having to hybridise Ancient medical technology just to be able to comprehend the readouts. It's the bloody secret-keeping."

"Oh, that thing. You mean confidentiality?" he asks.

"Do you know what I've been told under seal of that word?" Carson replies. "Of course you don't, because I can't tell you. And let me say that if I had wanted to hear confession and never get shagged I would have been a priest."

"I thought you and Cadman..."

"Well, it's not so easy, is it? We're on the outs right now, because I was too busy putting pressure-bandages on Ronon to pay sufficient attention, and also even when we're not, we're never off-shift at the same time."

"Huh," John considers. "She's one of mine. I could fix that for you."

"Isn't that favouritism?"

"Yup," John replies, taking a bite. Carson looks pathetically grateful. "Hey, here's a question."

"Oh god..."

"So, if I told you something...biological, about someone who wasn't me, is that still covered? Confidentially?"

The other man frowns, and then looks him in the eye. "Colonel Sheppard, do you have gossip?"

"That's just it -- it isn't gossip. It's confidential."

"You are aware that right now you are a thirteen-year-old girl inhabiting the body of an Air Force officer." Carson lets him twist for a few seconds, then grins. "Listen, even if it weren't, do you think I can't keep a secret? I keep more secrets than anyone on Atlantis. Believe me, I could be making millions in blackmail."

"Guess who's sleeping with who."

"Whom," Carson corrects absently. "Is this going to be a tale of your sexual exploits?"

"It's not about me. I don't have exploits!"

"Mm-hm." Carson gestures with his fork. "Tell on, then."

"It's about McKay."

"Oh really now," Carson leans in close. "I cannot confirm or deny such things, Colonel."

"You don't have to confirm or deny, I know he's sleeping with someone. And I know who."

"Is it that Katie girl? I wouldn't have thought -- "

"No." John adopts an air of smug, knowledgeable superiority. His expression doesn't actually change, but he's good at auras.

"All right, okay, secret kept forever. Who?"

"Elizabeth."

Carson's jaw drops. "You're joking. You're not joking. Are you joking? Him? And her? For -- Jesus, McKay and Elizabeth?"

It's so good to have the weight of that secret off his shoulders that he magnanimously ignores Carson's continued implications that McKay could never get anyone that hot in a million years.

***

In the entire time that McKay's sister is on board, Elizabeth only has one conversation with her that isn't about the project. It's a shame; she suspects she'd like Jeannie, but time and responsibility conspire against her. When they do encounter each other, it's Jeannie's last morning on Atlantis before the Daedalus departs.

"You're awake early," Jeannie says, pouring herself a cup of coffee -- not like Rodney takes his, black and preferably industrial-strength, but with cream and sugar. "These last few days...made me wonder if anyone ever sleeps around here."

"Short bursts, and only between major catastrophes," Elizabeth answers with a smile. "Ready for your return trip?"

"Yeah. Um. Sorry about killing your ZPM, by the way," Jeannie says hesitantly. ZPM, not ZedPM; she doesn't have Rodney's ostentatious adherence to cultural quirks, and maybe Elizabeth should stop comparing Jeannie and her brother now.

"The project was approved by command, and you did what you had to. Sit with me?" Elizabeth invites, seating herself at one of the smaller mess tables and gesturing to the other chair.

"Rodney said you weren't very happy about it." Jeannie sits hesitantly, staring at her coffee cup.

"It's my job to shout him into submission sometimes," she answers with a grin. "He gets over it quickly. You and he spoke, then?"

"We sorted some things out."

"That's good." Elizabeth sips her coffee, trying to think what else she can possibly say to the incredibly bright, incredibly nervous young woman sitting across from her. Any advice she could give about Rodney, Jeannie undoubtedly already knows, and now she's going back to a normal life on Earth so there's not much to say about Atlantis, really.

"Can I ask you something?" Jeannie says suddenly. "About my brother. Free pass to not answer if you like."

"Certainly," Elizabeth replies.

"He just seems...he's different. I mean, yeah, four years, changes people, but...I never saw him this happy, before, and it's not like he's even been all that happy since I've been here. People like him here," she adds conspiratorially, as if this is the shock of the century. "His team likes him. I'm used to people giving me pitying looks when they find out I'm his sister, and kicking him under the table a lot."

"And you don't understand why?"

"No, I understand that, I guess, this place is...wow. You know? But..." she describes a shape in the air, hands moving like Rodney's would, sketching a figure only she knows the meaning of. "He also seems really lonely. I just...does he...have someone here?"

Which is the question, isn't it.

"He has friends," Elizabeth says slowly. "But that's not what you're asking."

"No. I just thought maybe...him and Colonel Sheppard? I know, I know, US military, don't ask, blah blah, but they seem...close."

Elizabeth blinks.

"No, I don't think so," she says, considering it. "John is a good friend, he'd die for Rodney and I think Rodney would die for him, but...Rodney gets by as best he can out here. We all do. Sometimes that means paying loneliness in return for the rest. We think it's worth it. I know he does."

Jeannie nods in that half-sideways way she has, without looking up.

"Thank you for letting me see all this, Dr. Weir," she says. "The Daedalus will be leaving soon, I'd better go."

"It was a pleasure having you here," Elizabeth says, and means it. "You even got Rodney to keep his mouth shut for minutes at a time."

She laughs, and that's how Elizabeth remembers her when she thinks about Jeannie's visit; eyes like Rodney's, a laugh thrown over her shoulder as she leaves, a shy grin on her face.

Elizabeth can't help the comparisons, but Jeannie is certainly her own woman. Then again, she's come to expect nothing less from a McKay.

That night Rodney shows up at her door, all but pleading for someone to show him he's still him, that there is something that is entirely his and not his sister's or his double's. And, being almost certain that she would not touch his alternate with a ten foot pole (there's something inherently untrustworthy about his charismatic self-assurance), she kisses him and takes him to bed to prove it to him.

"I did warn you when it was my turn to have a breakdown it'd be spectacular," he says against her skin, kissing up along the side of her throat as they lie together afterwards. "How many other men in this galaxy do you think have had identity crises over meeting themeselves in the hallway?"

She laughs and tugs on his short, sleek hair. "Not many."

***

Time passes. There is a quiet period, at least for Elizabeth, though McKay regularly comes back from missions with scrapes and stunner burns and other traumas that accompany offworld travel. She negotiates a handful of trade agreements and even mediates a treaty between two feuding planets, who have been using each others' Stargates to raid villages in the decades since the last Wraith cullings. Now there's a treaty and an exchange of goods as a peace-making gesture. It's good to be making peace again, instead of scrambling for survival and fighting a war.

She returns, flush with success, and though there were already toasts and lauds back on-planet there are also toasts in Atlantis -- Sheppard produces a bottle of highly-prized champagne and they celebrate in the gateroom, in front of the silent, watchful Stargate.

"Elizabeth Weir," Beckett says, as McKay pours the champagne into plastic cups (wine glasses are still a little hard to come by out here).

"Doctor Elizabeth Weir," Sheppard corrects, lifting his cup to touch it to Teyla's.

"To a little peace in a big galaxy," Elizabeth says, and they drink. McKay tips her a wink over the edge of his cup. "All right, enough celebrating my genius," she adds, when the cups are drained. "Back to work. I have a mission report to write, and I'll want the senior staff in the conference room for evening debriefing."

"Already?" McKay asks, tilting his head. She's reminded starkly of Jeannie for a second.

"Well, I might take a hot shower first," she admits.

Ten minutes later, McKay's head is resting on her thigh, lips grazing the sensitive skin, and she's breathless and writhing and god, he talks enough that of course he's good at this but honestly.

He lifts himself up a little, presses his face to her stomach, huffs warm air over her skin.

"Hot shower, hm?" he asks, kissing just below her ribcage as one of his hands undoes the trousers he's still wearing, shoves them down. He's talented that way.

"Hey, you came here," she laughs, then gasps as he laps across one nipple.

"I was worried about you," he mumbles into her skin.

"Worried, Rodney?"

"You were offworld. I was stuck here. Worried," he elaborates, one hand hitching her thigh over his hip.

"Mmm, so that's why you're -- " his other hand slides inside her, moving deftly, almost clinically, as if he were writing code or riding the power mix on the generators.

"No," he says, angling his hips against hers, his erection a hot hard pulse on her skin. His hand drops away and he nips her collarbone, pulling her up so that they fit, so that he's inside her, and pleasure barely flickers across his face. He's watching her as if she's something wonderful.

"Why?" she asks, trying to keep to the slow rhythm he's setting, so unlike McKay.

"You were pleased," he says. He kisses her, a small moan in her mouth. "I was pleased for you. Proud -- mmm -- proud of you."

Reality tips sideways for a minute, because they are here together and for once it's not the adrenaline-fueled result of nearly dying or the desperation of loneliness and command. He's celebrating with her, she realises, their entire -- arrangement, relationship, whatever this is -- turning itself over in an instant. Not because they lived, but because they made something new. She made something new.

She begs a little shamelessly as the realisation washes over her but he holds her head in his hands and kisses her and refuses to move any faster. After a few moments she stops trying to fight it, and something clicks into place and all of a sudden it's slow, slow and langourous, late-afternoon light and pleasure and there's no hurry. It feels like hours are passing, locked up this way, she did this, she stopped people dying, and oh god --

Orgasm takes her completely by surprise, because she thought they had forever and suddenly she's arching and moaning still low and slow and he's with her, following her, drinking her in.

"See?" McKay says smugly, sliding away and propping himself on one elbow, still leaning over to kiss her. "Good, huh?"

"Egotist," she manages, drifting in the afterglow. He tastes like champagne still. This is new and a little frightening, but she'll examine it later if she has to.

"Hot shower," he reminds her, eyes closing, easing down onto the bed. "Dinner and debriefing...h'm..."

They sleep for a little while, or half-sleep anyway, hands interlaced over her hip, and it's good. Life is good.

Which means it can't possibly last.

***

The Ancients come. They take her city from her, ruthlessly, without even the courtesy of speaking to her about it themselves. They take away her city.

Sheppard is assigned to new offworld teams at SGC where Beckett works in the base hospital patching his wounds and McKay ships out to Area 51, and she hides in an apartment nearby and realises that she is spiralling downwards.

McKay calls often, though they begin to taper off after the first two weeks when she doesn't return them. She always means to, his calls and Carson's both. She writes e-mails trying to explain, but never sends them. Often they're jointly addressed to McKay and Sheppard, sometimes just to Sheppard, rarely just to McKay. Sometimes she tries to write to McKay about how it felt to make love slowly in the afternoon sunlight the day she concluded the treaty, but words don't come.

When Carson shows up at her door one day she realises that she's in trouble, that what she's doing is not resting but -- sulking, or perhaps grieving. He tempts her out with the promise of a meal, and better, the promise of Sheppard and McKay as well. McKay gripes about the low level of stress on his job, Carson gripes about being a patch-up boy for broken limbs and scraped elbows. Sheppard doesn't gripe, even about boring offworld missions, just makes that face he makes where he's miserable and trying to hide it.

McKay's eyes track her hands, flick up occasionally to her mouth, and she sees the worry in his face. They never really settled anything, but then there wasn't anything to settle. They don't need each other anymore, not here on safe, boring Earth.

She wishes for Atlantis with all her heart, and when their cellphones ring as she's getting up to leave she wonders if the universe does grant wishes. It extracts a toll, perhaps, but in the cramped Jumper, smelling of sweat and fear and preparing to face down the Replicators with inadequate weaponry, she realises that it's worth it. She'd happily die for Atlantis, and it looks like she might get that wish too.

Adrenaline makes the next hours cloudy but when it clears she realises she hasn't died for Atlantis. She has killed, killed a lot of people (Replicators, anyway), and maybe that'll fit into her life somehow later but for now Atlantis belongs to them again.

The gateroom is trashed, McKay makes good bombs when he puts his mind to it, but the smoke-smudged walls and the broken glass have never looked so good. And there are the boys -- Carson, McKay, Sheppard -- waiting to hear her verdict from O'Neill.

"We're staying," she says, when she reaches the bottom of the steps. "Atlantis is still ours."

Sheppard covers his face with his hands and slides down to the floor, breathing deeply, body relaxing as he sprawls flat on the ground. She's never seen him show more emotion than in that moment. Carson smiles and then bites his lip, looking up and around at the wreckage that belongs to them once more.

McKay heaves one huge breath and steps forward swiftly and kisses her before she can stop him, hands cupping her face, tongue warm against her teeth, and when did she start kissing him back?

There's a cough behind her. She turns to see Carson and Sheppard watching them. Sheppard turns his face back up to stare at the ceiling and gestures weakly with one hand.

"I already knew, keep going if you want," he says.

"Erm. I did too," Carson adds sheepishly. She looks at McKay accusingly, but he's turned to Beckett. "What?" the doctor protests. "Sheppard told me."

"Confidentially!" Sheppard growls.

"I am so going to find some way to kick your ass later," McKay says to Sheppard, and turns back to her and kisses her again, because they can, because this belongs to them. It is one perfect moment, and then he presses his forehead to hers (she can't help thinking of the Athosians) and steps back.

"Well, crap," he announces, looking around and rubbing his hands. "Damage control. Tablet is...great, still functioning. Everything else on this godforsaken floating junk heap is broken." A thought seems to hit him. "Oooh. Three ZedPMs. Sheppard, get off your ass, I'm going to need lightswitch boy for this."

"Go fuck yourself, McKay," Sheppard replies amicably.

"Oh? What are you going to do?"

"Sleep," Sheppard answers, closing his eyes. "Right here. Home," he adds. Carson seats himself on the stairs.

"Can I have two minutes to stop from stroking out?" he asks plaintively. McKay makes a show of setting his watch.

"Go," Elizabeth says, rubbing his arm. "Start fixing what you can."

McKay wanders off, muttering to himself about ungrateful Air Force Colonels and already at work on the tablet, checking systems, seeing what can be salvaged. She sits next to Carson, leans lightly against his shoulder.

"Hey," Sheppard says sleepily, from the Gateroom floor. "What say we make a deal."

"What kind of deal?" Carson asks.

"Nobody takes our city away from us ever again."

"Deal," Elizabeth says softly.

***

Sheppard sometimes talks to Atlantis. He has not yet realised that Atlantis is listening.

Somewhere in the Ancient database, in the partitioned part set aside for these new residents, there is a file of recordings taken in John Sheppard's quarters, without his permission but with the perfect assurance that he did mean to talk to the city.

One of them reads:

Today: blew up a bunch of machine-people and stole their ZPMs. They stole our city first, so hell with them. Also, experienced momentary urge to kill Elizabeth Weir. Urge passing, decided to sleep in Gateroom. Floor incredibly uncomfortable.

***

Rodney McKay wrote the mathematical formula for Ascention. It's simple and quite beautiful:

S > 95 ^ (0 < H < 0.9) --> A, where:

S := percentage of synaptic connection.
H := Electroencephalogram measurement of Hertz activity in the brain.
A := Ascention.

He's having a few issues explaining this to the Athosians, however.

Teyla talked him into visiting the mainland for dinner and trying to talk to her people, because there are a handful of Athosians who are interested in the study of Ascention (Sheppard calls them the White Light Elks Lodge when Teyla's not listening) and McKay now knows a lot about it.

It's not exactly easy going, though. For one thing, any city visitors are cause for interest and attention from the settlement's children, and apparently they have short memories or they would know better by now than to come within ten feet of him. Sticky, noisy little bastards.

For another, the Athosians aren't grasping the concepts he's laying down. It's not that they're not smart people, just that it's hard to explain biochemistry to someone who doesn't know what electricity is.

He really is trying to be patient. He's putting effort into not snapping or snarling or being mean, but as a test of his newly-established self-control it's difficult and exhausting. Sheppard, meanwhile, is not doing anything to help; instead he's encouraging the children to surround them, because he's sitting at the far end of the table and engaging in what he calls Civilian Outreach. In reality this involves distributing gum, sweets, and cheap trinkets to the kids, and charming lazy smiles to their mothers. Whenever McKay sees him giving out sticks of gum he can't help but think of footage from Afghanistan and Iraq, of soldiers there doing the same.

After two hours of laborious explanation of the way a brain actually functions on a cellular, chemical level, one of the Athosians remarks that it seems very clinical, considering how the Ancients pursued enlightenment, and Rodney gives up for the night. He manages to say "Okay, that's enough, I'll try again later" instead of "You are all hopeless idiots and deserve to die horribly", which he counts a significant moral victory. He's congratulating himself as Sheppard sends the mob of children off somewhere and drifts over to him.

"So, how'd it go?" he asks, knowing full well how it went.

"Any time you want to Ascend and leave behind your existence of tormenting me, go right ahead," McKay answers. Sheppard bumps his shoulder, grinning.

"Hey, Altantis wasn't built in a day. Without machines, this whole process takes a little longer."

"A lot longer, and I'm not sure why I'm catering to the whims of idiots who think Ascention's so great in the first place."

"Favour to Teyla."

"Right. Favour to Teyla." McKay sighs. "I miss being super-evolved, though."

"You were kind of a dick about it."

"I know that."

"Though if we could get you up to about eighty-eight percent and keep you there, you were all right at eighty-eight percent."

McKay turns his head to look at him, surprised. "Yeah?"

"Yeah, you were all...friendly and insightful and stuff. Actually it was really creepy," Sheppard amends thoughtfully. "But, you know. If you had to be super-evolved, the least you could do was be polite about it."

"I'm positive all this character growth can't be good for me."

Sheppard chuckles, a rare sound. "Probably not. You ready to head back?"

They walk back to the Jumper, Sheppard waving to various people with that odd mixture of distant friendliness and total confusion that he so often shows when people appear to like him. McKay knows, like he knows his formulas were important though now he can't understand them, that he tried to get a read on Sheppard the minute he found he could hear thoughts. He thinks at some point he must have picked something up, but when he spools his mind back it comes out blurred, like the formulas. All he remembers are the early attempts, which always yielded the same results:

Sheppard, John. Lieutenant Colonel, US Air Force. 31-415-926.

Name, rank, and serial number. And since Sheppard is not exactly the kind to be obsessed by his own military status, that means he was trying not to think of something else.

McKay wonders why.

***

Another entry in Sheppard's unconsciously-kept diary of the city reads:

Today: Carson died. We're going back to Earth with the body.

Fuck.


***

John's read in some journal somewhere that funerals make people want to have sex to affirm that they're still alive. This, like most psychiatry, is: woolly thinking in the extreme and also: Bullshit. He's never felt less like having anything approaching sex in his entire life.

They're all suffering delayed-reactions on Earth, because it doesn't seem real -- Earth, that is. John walks through the streets and looks up at planes flying overhead and can't shake the feeling that nothing outside of Atlantis really exists anymore. He can't feel the pavement under his feet thrumming to him, can't open doors by thinking about it, can't talk to any of the buildings the way he talks to Atlantis, has no interest in flying anything that doesn't respond to the touch of his mind. And the food is all wrong.

If it weren't for McKay and Carson last time, calling to bitch and grabbing meals with him and distracting him, he probably would have spent his days on Earth during the Ancient Occupation drifting, the way Elizabeth had.

Carson is dead.

When they return to Atlantis he thinks maybe he can start to process Carson's death if he wants, but he doesn't. In the gateroom they're met with respectful silence and McKay practically bolts away -- away from him, away from them, away from everyone. John has nothing better to do, and many worse things he doesn't want to do; he follows McKay on the sensors, watching the little blue dot as it goes further and further out, apparently heading down one of the piers, towards the Daedalus' landing pad.

John falls asleep sitting up for a little while, watching the sensors, and nobody in the Gateroom wakes him. The constant time-zone hopping has exhausted the pallbearers as much as the effort of keeping it together for Beckett's family, and everyone understands.

When he wakes again, there's a lifesign in McKay's quarters. He leaves before the second one appears, and by the time he's down in the Staff Quarters he isn't even thinking, just blindly seeking.

So when the door opens without his consciously willing it open, he walks in; past the sparse living room (that rarely is lived in, McKay's messes are all down in the labs) and up to the open bedroom door. Long habit makes him stealthy; he puts his head in and sees McKay asleep on his bed, propped against the glass wall at the head. Elizabeth is curled on her side, head on his chest, both of them still in uniform, still wearing their shoes.

He wants, hungrily, he wants to be a part of that comfort. And as if this hunger is a loud physical thing, McKay stirs, opens his eyes.

They stare at each other for a while before McKay jerks his head slightly, an invitation. John seats himself on the edge of the bed, leaning away from them, not touching either of them, not even Elizabeth's boots.

"She was tired," McKay says softly.

"We all are."

"Yeah." A long silence. "Sheppard."

John looks up at him and McKay gestures with the hand not crooked around Elizabeth's shoulders, a flick of fingers opening wide this thing to him. He takes half the invitation, leaning back, lying across the foot of the bed, feet still on the floor. One of McKay's boots toes his shoulder in a silent chide -- not there, come here -- but John can't quite take that much. He'll only be here for a minute or two, anyway; he has work to do.

"Mm. Have it your way," McKay says, and drifts off again.

***

When Elizabeth wakes, she finds herself all but buried in McKay's side, her knees tucked up against his hip, fingers twined in his shirt. There's something heavy on her legs, as well, which turns out to be John Sheppard's arm.

He's curled into an almost impossibly tight ball, sleeping at their feet like some kind of oversized dog. One arm is thrown over her legs and his cheek is pressed into McKay's trousers just below the knee. She wouldn't have imagined you could fit three people on this bed, especially when the other two are McKay and Sheppard.

She worries sometimes that they draw in on themselves too much, the three of them. Her own fault probably, for allowing this thing with McKay to continue, because whether terrifying things like love are a factor it does bond you tightly to someone. But it's hard, very hard, not to reach out to those who understand best.

The city needs her, she thinks, and so she pulls gently out from under Sheppard's arm (he must be exhausted if he doesn't even stir) and puts on her uniform jacket and leaves them there. They'll look after each other.

It's what they do.

Link to Chapter 3