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Team Bonding

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“Remind me again why we’re doing this, sir?” Evan asked.

“Team bonding while we’re on leave,” Sheppard said.

Evan glanced at the others who were standing with him. Major Toriel - Isaac - was a natural Gene carrier, had served five years at the Alpha Site, and was by all accounts a stand-up officer. Major Kevin Dorsey was also a fine officer, if his SRB was to be trusted, but he’d come from Big Air Force straight to Atlantis and was still awed by the thought-controlled laundry machines. Dr. Zelenka, unlike Toriel and Dorsey, was not a Gene carrier, and had spent half of his career at Area 51 before volunteering for the original Expedition team.

Evan hitched his pack higher on his shoulders. They’d left the minivan behind half an hour ago. But for the little rock piles - cairns - along the path and for the compass in his pocket, Evan would have no idea where they were.

“I thought the whole point of leave was that we would, well, leave, sir.”

Sheppard kept marching resolutely ahead. He was dressed like a walking LL Bean catalog, in top-of-the-line back country hiking gear. Toriel and Dorsey were using their standard-issue field gear. Zelenka looked like the kid who was borrowing bits and pieces of everyone else’s gear for his first ever scout campout. (Evan had been that kid precisely one time in his life.) Evan had cobbled together the gear he’d used on his summer backpacking trip through Europe right before college - and his sister had mocked him before, for never getting rid of anything.

“We have left our posting,” Sheppard said.

Toriel, who had red hair, blue eyes and a thoroughly inexplicable tan, cast Dorsey an apologetic look. “But I also thought we would, you know, leave each other.”

Sheppard shook his head. “Nope. Team building. Do you have any objections, Dorsey?”

Because Dorsey was new to both the SGC and Atlantis, he was still starry-eyed about General O’Neill, Colonel Carter, Colonel Mitchell, and Sheppard. “Oh no, sir. This is just like marching offworld.”

“If we’re on leave, should they have to keep calling you ‘sir’?” Zelenka asked.

“Yes,” Evan and Sheppard said at the same time.

“You’re right,” Toriel said, with much less enthusiasm than Dorsey. “This is just like marching offworld.”

Dorsey caught his tone, looked wounded. “I don’t mind marching offworld. Do you, Doc?”

“I rarely get to go offworld,” Zelenka said cheerily. “And when I do go, there is rarely any marching involved.”

“What about you, Major Lorne? Do you like marching offworld?”

Evan gritted his teeth. “Please let us keep repeating the word ‘offworld’ for any number of random civilians to hear.”

“Word?” Dorsey echoed. “I thought it was a phrase. In all the AAR’s I’d read before I joined this command it always appeared as two words that were hyphenated.”

“Bet you never read any of my AARs,” Toriel said.

“Actually,” Evan said, “auto-correct on the SGC word processors hyphenates it for us these days.”

Sheppard huffed. “Are we really discussing the grammar of classified lingo?”

“We’re bonding, sir,” Evan said. “In an unexpected way.”

Dorsey nodded earnestly when Sheppard turned to glare at Evan.

Evan tried to look at least nominally repentant. “Why Canyonlands, sir?”

“Because it’s a national park. It’ll help us remember what we’re fighting for. The beauty of Earth.” Sheppard gestured grandly with one hand.

“I think it looks like Mars.” Dorsey smiled at a formation of red fins in the distance. He nudged Toriel. “Do you think it looks like Mars?”

“Dunno. Never been.” Toriel shrugged.

When Dorsey widened his eyes like that, he looked like a little kid. The fact that his blue eyes were huge and he had the kind of blond hair Evan hadn’t had since first grade didn’t help that impression. “Really?”

Toriel said, “Never been to the Moon either.”

Dorsey glanced at Evan. “Have you ever -?”

“Also no.” Evan kept on marching.

Toriel sipped from his water canteen. “You know, I read a book once. A fantasy novel. Really long. Set in an alternate universe. In it, there was a place called The Shattered Plains. I bet it would’ve looked like this.”

Zelenka lit up. “I read those books as well.” He shaded his eyes, looked out over the valley. “I can see it now - bridge crews running from mushroom to mushroom, yes?”

They climbed some pale yellow slickrock and followed a patronizingly obvious line of cairns to a lookout point. Evan headed out as close to the edge as he dared. He’d brought his nicest camera with him but hadn’t bothered with the tripod. “Dorsey, come over here.”

Even though Evan and Dorsey were the same rank, Evan was Sheppard’s 2IC, and after him Teldy was in command on base (she was running the show now), so Dorsey acted like a captain still. He had only been a major for a few months. Evan would forgive him.

“What’s up?” Dorsey trotted over with an enthusiasm that would fast wane in this desert heat.

Evan didn’t know much about Sheppard, but anyone who chose this climate at this time of year had to be a bit of a sadist.

“I need you to be my tripod,” Evan said.

Dorsey blinked. “You want me to kneel down so you can put your camera on my head?”

“Naw, just let me stabilize on you while I take this shot. C’mere.” Evan beckoned Dorsey close, arranged him so Evan could rest both arms on his shoulders. Then he snapped away.

“That could be taken the wrong way,” Toriel said.

Dorsey flinched, ruined the shot.

“Hold still.” Evan rolled his eyes. “We’re bonding, remember?”

“Pretty sure that’s not what Sheppard meant.” Toriel looked amused.

“It’s the photography equivalent of using a buddy to brace so you can make a long distance shot,” Evan said.

“Have you done that before?” Dorsey asked.

“No, but I’ve been a human tripod for a teammate before. I was deaf in one ear for three days after.” Evan snapped a few more shots of the Needles and then zeroed in on a little arch.

Sheppard was helping Zelenka carefully pick his way along the edge of the slickrock to a nice vantage point overlooking a red and black canyon.

Evan shouldered his camera and clapped Dorsey on the arm. “Thanks for the assist.”

Dorsey nodded. “Any time.”

Evan started picking his way across the slickrock, wary of the potholes, toward Sheppard and Zelenka.

“Seems unnatural,” Sheppard was saying. “The way the colors shift in perfectly straight lines.”

“Not at all, sir,” Evan said. “The stratas are pretty typical for sedimentary rock. Some of the sand you see came from as far away as the Colorado Rockies and the ancient Appalachians. Granted, back then everything was underwater and all this rock was mud at the bottom of a shallow ocean that stretched as far as California.”

Sheppard stared at him. “Did you memorize the entire guidebook or something? Colonel Edwards said you’re always very - prepared.”

Evan wasn’t surprised Sheppard had talked to his old CO. After all, Evan had read all of AR-1’s AARS and listened to on-base talk about Sheppard and bribed one of the SGC’s hackers to get a look at the man’s SRB before committing to being his 2IC. But he still needed to get to know Sheppard in person, learn his command style and the other, smaller details that would enable Evan to serve him better. Already he knew how Sheppard took his coffee.

“Ah no, sir. I received my masters in geophysics. That was why I spent so long on a geological surveying team.”

“Right,” Sheppard drawled. Either he’d not bothered to read Evan’s SRB or he couldn’t remember it. Or, like O’Neill, he was playing dumb.

“The colours,” Zelenka said eagerly. “Iron and manganese, yes?”

Evan nodded. “Yes. Oxidized iron for red, oxidized manganese for black.”

Sheppard whistled shrilly, and Dorsey and Toriel answered the summons.

“Ready to move on?” Evan asked.

Sheppard nodded. “Yeah. Did you know Lorne’s a geophysicist?” He clapped Evan on the shoulder. “Tell us, how are the layers formed?”

Evan wasn’t sure whether Sheppard was a sadist or a genius - he could very well be both - but the group stuck together pretty close so they could hear Evan’s explanation of the park’s geological history.

Despite Toriel’s grousing that the hike was just like an offworld march, once they settled into a pace they could all maintain, it really was a leisurely hike. Sheppard insisted on stopping at every overlook and viewpoint. Evan answered questions about geological formations. Everyone, including Sheppard, took turns as Evan’s human tripod.

While they walked, Evan learned about the others. Zelenka trained racing pigeons, had a brother and a sister, a handful of nieces and nephews, and grown up very poor. Toriel was the only boy out of thirteen siblings, the only one unmarried, and had cheated his way through Hebrew school. Dorsey was the youngest of three siblings, all boys, and had been raised by his grandmother and several aunts after both of his parents died in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Sheppard liked college football, Ferris wheels and anything that went over two hundred miles per hour. He was cagey, and Evan would have to keep an eye on that. Granted, he had had some warning about it, but it could prove frustrating. Evan didn’t like challenges, but he did like overcoming them. Sheppard ate completely citrus-free because Rodney McKay had a citrus allergy.

“McKay is not here,” Zelenka said. and perhaps he was a little too pleased about that.

Sheppard shrugged. “Habit at this point.”

“Wasn’t McKay supposed to come with us?” Dorsey asked.

Zelenka nodded. “Yes, but he had to stay behind to monitor a very delicate experiment.”

“Couldn’t he have had someone else watch it?” Toriel asked.

Zelenka shrugged. “He could have. But he is Rodney, so.”

At noon they sat in the shade and ate the little lunches they’d packed - that Evan had packed. While they were on Earth, Evan refused to eat a single MRE, so he’d made homemade trail mix, handheld meat pies, and an assortment of other foods that traveled easy, stored easy, and could be eaten cold. He’d endure a thousand insults about being the camp wife if it meant eating real food.

Dorsey scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I think I need more sunscreen.”

“I didn’t bring any with me,” Toriel said. “I just put it on really heavy at the van.”

Evan reached into his pack for sunscreen, handed over a little purple jar with a screw-on lid. “Here. SPF 100.”

Dorsey blinked. “A hundred?”

Evan nodded. “Yeah. Rodney gave it to me.”

Sheppard’s eyes narrowed. “Since when is he Rodney?”

Evan panicked internally. He’d always made sure to refer to his soulmate as McKayaround Sheppard. He tried for a nonchalant shrug. “Since he gave me this tub of sunblock and said I should call him Rodney. I suspect he wanted me to mother-hen you into using it, sir.”

Sheppard made a face. “The simulated tropical aroma of cocoa butter?”

So he remembered that detail. Interesting. Evan shrugged. “You’ll still tan even if you use sunscreen. Or so the scientists tell me. Right, Zelenka?”

Zelenka shrugged but accepted the jar from Dorsey. “I wouldn’t know. I’m not a medical doctor or a dermatologist.”

“It’s true,” Toriel said. “That’s why I have a tan.”

“I didn’t realize gingers tanned,” Sheppard drawled. “I thought you turned into one giant freckle.”

“Nope. Tan,” Toriel said proudly.

“Right.” Sheppard balled up the wax paper his food had been wrapped in and stuffed it into his pack. “Let’s move out!”

They marched on for several miles, and when it was pretty clear that they wouldn’t be encountering anyone else soon, talk turned to military service, and their respective educations - Evan and Dorsey had gone to the Academy; Toriel had gone to college in Hawaii and started at Hickham; Sheppard had gone to Stanford; Zelenka had gone to Masaryk for undergrad and Cambridge for grad school - and Atlantis.

When Sheppard found their campsite and called for a halt, Dorsey was very alarmed.

“Wait, we’re camping overnight?”

Sheppard fixed him with an unimpressed look. “Yes, which is why we’re hiking with so much gear.”

Dorsey cast a mournful look over his shoulder in the direction they’d come. “I shouldn’t have left my sunscreen in the van after all.”

At that, Sheppard cast Evan a look he couldn’t read. “Good thing Lorne brought enough to share, isn’t it?” He shrugged off his pack. “Let’s do this.”

If marching through Canyonlands was like hiking offworld, setting up camp was pretty much the same as bunking offworld. Sheppard moved to help Zelenka before putting up his own tent. Toriel and Evan managed to get their little tents and bedrolls set up quickly. Toriel went to help Dorsey, who had apparently never camped offworld before and his last camping experience had been in basic, under very different conditions. Evan would have helped Sheppard, but the man was quick and efficient.

There was no way they were going to start a fire given the fire hazard warning, but Sheppard divvied up camp chores anyway. Of course Evan was in charge of the food. Toriel and Dorsey marked a quick perimeter while Sheppard plotted the next leg of their hike with his map and compass, and then it was time for food.

They assembled in the space between their respective tents, and Evan distributed the food - more handheld pastry pockets full of meat and vegetables.

“So, bonding,” Dorsey said into the awkward silence that followed. “Should we, I don’t know, play some getting-to-know-you games?”

“This isn’t summer camp.” Toriel rolled his eyes.

“You know what we should do?” Zelenka said. “An experiment.”

“This isn’t science class either,” Dorsey said, casting Toriel a hurt look.

“No, not hard science.” Zelenka reached into his pocket and drew out a notebook. “A social experiment.”

“There’s four of us,” Sheppard said dubiously. “Not exactly a society, now are we?”

“We can do this with four of us,” Zelenka said. “Have you heard of the Thirty-Six Questions?”

“Is this going to be like an interrogation exercise?” Dorsey perked up.

“No,” Zelenka said. “Well, the theory is that asking and answering these thirty-six questions, plus four minutes of sustained eye contact, can cause two complete strangers to fall in love. Or for people in love for their love to grow. Even if we are not looking for romance, surely this will strengthen our bond, no? And if not, we will have experimented. For science.”

“Social science is a soft science. Don’t let Rodney catch you,” Sheppard drawled.

Evan glanced at Dorsey, who looked discomfited as soon as Zelenka said love, but Toriel looked amused. Of course. He’d had so many older sisters.

“All right,” Toriel said. “Let’s do this. But we have to lay down some ground rules.”

Sheppard raised his eyebrows.

Because Evan was feeling daring, he said, “Team bonding, sir.”

“Right.” Sheppard nodded at Toriel. “Ground rules?”

“We have to be honest, and not too silly. And if any of us disagree on how a question should be interpreted, we can take a vote,” Toriel said. “Fair?” He glanced around at all the others, and they nodded.

“All right, Doc.” Evan nudged Zelenka. “Hit it.”

Zelenka cleared his throat. “Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest, and why?”

“Are we restricted to just this world?” Toriel asked.

“Do they have to be living?” Sheppard added.

“It says in the world, so that implies living,” Dorsey said. “And it says the world, so it’s this world.”

“That’s because the person who wrote the question assumes there’s only one populated world,” Evan pointed out, because he was only human and needling Dorsey was just too easy sometimes. “Given who we are and the unique conditions of our team framework, I think we should be able to choose people from other worlds.”

Dorsey actually pouted. How had he survived having multiple older brothers?

“Let’s take a vote on the issue of other worlds being open for consideration in the answering of this question. All in favor, say ‘aye’,” Toriel said.

Evan, Sheppard, and Zelenka said aye.

“And on the issue of the living or the dead?” Dorsey asked.

“People dead in one reality or dimension may be alive in another one,” Zelenka pointed out.

Dorsey shook his head. “No. Let’s keep it to our dimension and people who are living.”

“Vote on it?” Toriel asked.

And so they voted.

“Well, this isn’t very romantic at all,” Sheppard drawled. “And I’d pick Doug Flutie, because I’d want to know how it felt, when he made that Hail Mary pass. We could talk about it over food.”

“Who is Doug Flutie?” Zelenka asked, and Sheppard launched into an enthusiastic description of the man’s college and pro football career.

Dorsey said he’d want to have General O’Neill at dinner, because he wanted to pick the man’s brain about being a gate team leader. Evan resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but Toriel did not.

“Really? That’s the best you can do? You could have at least said you’d want O’Neill over for dinner because he grills a mean steak.”

“You’ve had grilled steak with O’Neill before?” Dorsey asked with wide eyes.

“Annual SGC officers’ barbecue,” Toriel said. He shook himself out. “Me, if I could have anyone in the world - or any world - at dinner, I’d want…” He hummed thoughtfully. “One of those Hak’tyl ladies.”

Evan raised his eyebrows. “The lady Jaffa?”

Toriel nodded dreamily. “Yeah. They’re so fine. What about you, Zelenka?”

“Stephen Hawking,” Zelenka said fervently. “There is so much I could learn from him, in even one conversation.”

“Surprised you didn’t say Einstein,” Toriel said.

Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, Einstein is deceased, and per the rules we voted on -”

“Fine.” Toriel flapped a hand at him. “What about you, Lorne? Who would you have at dinner?”

Evan stared down at his canteen. “His name is Chaka. He’s an Unas. I’d want to talk to him, get to know him a bit better. Thank him, for saving our asses on P3X-403. Apologize, for getting some of his people killed.”

Toriel said nothing.

Zelenka blinked. “Oh. That is - oh.”

“Way to be a Debbie Downer,” Sheppard said.

Dorsey said, “What’s an Unas?”

“Did they not cover that in briefings? All the alien races you could encounter?” Evan frowned.

“No,” Dorsey said in a small voice, casting Sheppard an anxious look.

“I bet I have a picture of one somewhere. Hang on.” Evan heaved himself up, went to his tent to his pack, found his sketchbook. He returned to the group and sat back down, flipped through it till he found a sketch of an Unas. He turned the book around, held it out to Dorsey. “Here. See? They were the original hosts of the Goa’uld, before they decided humans were better.”

“Oh, wow. Can they talk?” Dorsey cradled the sketchbook carefully.

“They have their own language,” Evan said. “I learned phrases here and there.”

“Hey, am I in there?” Toriel poked at the sketchbook.

“Maybe. Pretty sure I’ve drawn everyone on Atlantis at least once, by this point.” Evan shrugged, and Dorsey surrendered the sketchbook to Toriel.

And that was how everyone, including Sheppard, ended up crowded around the sketchbook, poking through it, asking questions about what he’d drawn and who and when and how, why. Evan hadn’t drawn anything he was ashamed of. Some sketches were better than others, sure, but it wasn’t like the book had anything embarrassing in it.

Although he had drawn Rodney more of late.

“Why McKay?” Toriel asked. “He’s not good-looking.”

“He’s not bad-looking,” Evan said, trying not to sound too defensive. “And besides, it’s not about conventional beauty. Give me a compass and a ruler and I could draw you a beautiful face -”

“Phi,” Sheppard said wisely.

Zelenka looked surprised, but Evan nodded.

“Right. The golden ratio. McKay’s face is interesting, though. And a challenge to really capture. The guy never holds still.” And then Evan flipped a page. “Kind of like you, Colonel.”

Toriel, Dorsey, and Zelenka peered closer. In addition to Rodney, Evan had made extensive studies of AR-1. Ronon’s tattoos, the texture of his hair. Sheppard’s hair, his ears, and his complicated smile. Teyla’s serenity, and her physical grace. Capturing the sense of her motion was hard in something as static as a drawing. Evan’s older sketchbooks were full of sketches of SG-1 and some of the other more prominent gate teams, as well as notable Tok’ra and Goa’uld.

“How long do you have to look at someone, or something? To get it right,” Sheppard said.

Evan shrugged. “Depends. I have a pretty good memory, so if I know someone or something well, I can draw it without a reference. Something unfamiliar, or something I want to capture in really exact detail, then I’d need to study it in person or from reference photos.”

“You’re really good,” Dorsey said.

“Thanks. Lots of practice, I guess. My mom’s an art teacher, so.” Evan accepted his sketchbook from Toriel, closed it.

“Well, Zelenka, I think your experiment might have been a bust.” Sheppard glanced at his watch. “I’m turning in. Early start tomorrow, boys.”

“Good night, sir,” Dorsey said.

And like that, everyone retreated to their tents.

Evan tucked his sketchbook back into his pack and fished around for his toothbrush and toothpaste. He’d just about found his toothpaste when he felt a familiar whisper along his forearm. He sighed, sat back, and rolled up his sleeve.

How is it?

Rodney’s familiar scrawl danced across his skin.

Evan fished in his pack for a marker and some alcohol wipes.

We’re fine. We’re safe. Getting along. Evan wrote his reply, waited for Rodney’s.

John OK?

Yes.

Did you give him some sunblock?

Been sharing it. Not quite the answer that Rodney was looking for, but Evan was good at prevaricating, and Rodney was less good at catching it when they weren’t face-to-face.

Radek surviving?

We’re watching out for him. Evan rolled his eyes. He’d said in his first message that they were fine and safe, but of course Rodney wanted specifics.

Experiment going well. Tell him.

Bad idea.

Right. Are you OK ?

Fine, promise. By this point Evan’s entire forearm was covered and he had moved on to his upper arm. They wrote in shorthand because writing surface was at a premium, but Rodney had big, heavy scrawl compared to Evan’s carefully cultivated draftsman’s print.

Take care of yourself. And John.

I will, Evan wrote. He paused, then added, Take care too.

Always do.

That was a lie. Don’t forget to eat. And sleep. Drink less coffee.

Yes, mother.

Evan paused, waited a beat, but there was no further response from Rodney. So he wrote, Good night, and then capped the pen, tucked it into his pocket. He reached for the alcohol wipes to clean off the ink.

And then Sheppard stuck his head into Evan’s tent. “Hey, Lorne, about tomorrow, do you think Zelenka can -”

Evan went to tug down his sleeve, but it was too late. Sheppard struck, quick as a snake, and caught his wrist, pushed his sleeve back.

“That’s Rodney’s handwriting.”

“It is,” Evan said, because it was pointless to lie. It said something about Sheppard and Rodney, though, that Sheppard recognized Rodney’s handwriting. Almost all communication on Atlantis was electronic, was digital.

“Why do you have Rodney’s handwriting tattooed on your arm?”

“It’s not a tattoo.” Evan tried to tug free, but Sheppard’s grip was steel.

“Then did you let him write on you?”

“You’re not supposed to ask, and I’m not supposed to tell,” Evan said, and he was being sarcastic, but he saw something fracture in Sheppard’s gaze. Sheppard let him go.

Evan finished scrubbing off the ink - his ink; Rodney’s disappeared on its own when Rodney wiped it off (and Rodney was always very punctilious about wiping away their conversations) - and packed away the rest of the alcohol wipes.

“Sir,” he said, “I was kidding. Rodney and I aren’t -”

“You call him Rodney.”

“Yeah. Kind of hard not to, given things.” Evan shrugged, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

“Things?” Sheppard asked.

Evan felt another whisper across his forearm again, glanced down.

Rodney was writing, Lunchtime here. Good night.

Sheppard stared at Evan’s skin. “You and Rodney are soulbonded.”

“No, sir.”

“There’s an exception for that. In the regs. If you’re soulbonded.”

Evan sighed. “I know, sir, but it’s not necessary.” Damn Hollywood and its stupid romantic notions about soulbonds. Not everyone who was soulbonded was in love. Soulbonds were about connection and some level of compatibility, but not necessarily love. In fact, few people who were soulbonded were in love, because there were things even lovers shouldn’t know about each other that soulbonded knew.

Except Rodney and Evan had never completed their soulbond. They were still just soulmates.

“His writing is on your skin.”

Under both their gazes, the writing faded away as Rodney wiped it off.

“Yes, we can communicate instantaneously, but - we’re not soulbonded. Just soulmates.”

“I’ll pretend I never saw this,” Sheppard said, and drew back, vanished into the shadows.

Evan scrambled for his marker. Sheppard knows.

*

Rodney found out he had a soulmate - and therefore the potential for a soulbond - when he was fourteen and a rainbow peace sign appeared on his left upper arm. Rodney, who’d been working diligently on a new application for LASERs, felt something itching on his arm. He pushed up his sleeve and watched, in horror, as the rainbow peace sign appeared.

His soulmate was a damn long-haired hippy.

She didn’t stop at the peace sign, oh no. She got a henna tattoo in addition the peace sign, a massive, ornate thing that looked like lace. It started below the peace sign and went further down, all the way to Rodney’s wrist. It was well-done. His soulmate had a steady hand.

No. Oh no. A soulmate. No no no no no no. Rodney couldn’t dare let anyone know. Jeannie had so many stupid romantic notions of soulmates and soulbonds.

Rodney tugged on a long-sleeved shirt and kept on working. He felt tingling, later, when the peace sign was washed off. The henna took weeks to fade.

It only took days for Jeannie to find out about it, though. She burst into the bathroom when Rodney was in there - he was shirtless and brushing his teeth, having just gotten out of the shower - and she was babbling at a mile a minute about Maxwell’s Demon, and she came up short.

“Mer? Did you get a tattoo?”

“No,” Rodney said, and reached for his t-shirt, clutched it to his chest, affronted.

Jeannie grabbed his arm and prodded his skin. “Did you draw on yourself? No, what am I saying - you’re terrible at drawing.” She frowned, peered closer, and she was invading his personal space terribly.

Rodney tried to squirm free, but Jeannie was much stronger. She’d hit her growth spurt first. And she played volleyball on the school team.

“Is this henna? Meredith, have you been hanging around Sarita?”

Rodney blinked. “Who’s that? Let me go! It’s my turn in the bathroom. Give me some privacy.”

“Well, that answers that,” Jeannie muttered. She prodded Rodney’s skin some more.

And then, on the back of Rodney’s hand, more words appeared in very girly cursive.

Milk. Eggs. Cadmium yellow. Cobalt blue. Viridian. #5 Fan brush.

Jeannie squealed at a note Rodney was sure half the dogs in the neighborhood heard. “Mer! You have a soulmate!

Rodney succeeded in pulling himself free of Jeannie’s claw-like grasp. “So what if I do?”

“You knew? And you didn’t tell me? We have to tell Mom and Dad. You can find your soulmate and create a soulbond and think of all the things you can do!”

“Of course I didn’t tell you,” Rodney snapped. He tugged his shirt on over his head, but the sleeves weren’t nearly long enough. He’d taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts no matter the weather. “It’s none of your business. And none of our parents’ business either.”

“Don’t you want to know who it is?”

“No.” Rodney knew all he needed to know about his soulmate. She was some hippy-dippy free-wheeling artist who probably cared nothing for science. She was probably paired with him because she would balance him out, or something. Art to his science. Softness and slowness to his drive and ambition. He didn’t need that. He didn’t need someone holding him back. He needed to go far - so far he could get away from his parents and their incessant criticism and nagging. Jeannie didn’t know it yet, but that was his plan. Get a scholarship to MIT. Move to America, take Jeannie with him. His parents would never be bothered to follow.

“But Mer -”

I said no.”

Jeannie’s eyes went wide, and she went pale, and she backed away, and Rodney felt awful, because he’d sounded just like his father. He started to apologize, but Jeannie fled, and Rodney was left standing in the bathroom, staring at his reflection and hating himself.

And his damn soulmate. She wasn’t even there and Rodney didn’t even know who she was, and already she was ruining his life.

Things didn’t get better with Jeannie over the weeks that passed. She tried to broach the subject of Rodney’s having a soulmate with their parents just once over dinner, but Rodney cut her off sharply, and she subsided into wounded silence.

Rodney continued working on his LASER theories, and he kept wearing long-sleeved shirts everywhere, no matter the weather or the occasion. His soulmate, whoever she was, continued to get peace signs and henna tattoos and rainbows and doves and flowers and other ridiculous things drawn and painted on her harm. When Rodney watched the evening news, he saw American hippies - hippies were still a thing? - protesting Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. He peered at them and wondered if his soulmate was among them. If she was, not only was she a crazy hippy, she was an American to boot.

He should have known that Jeannie wouldn’t give up on his having a soulmate so easily. After all, she was working on her own competing theories about intergalactic near-instantaneous communication via LASERs as well, and she wasn’t above doing that just to spite him.

As it turned out, however, Jeannie’s research into how soulmates and soulbonds worked was inferior to Rodney’s, because he woke in the middle of the night one night, weeks after his discovery of his soulmate, to Jeannie kneeling beside his bed and writing on his arm.

Hello, soulmate. My name is Rodney. What’s yours?

At least she’d used his preferred name instead of his first name.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Rodney said, sleepy and peevish.

Jeannie yelped and fell back.

“Only something voluntarily written on my skin is communicated across the bond.” Rodney sat up and squinted at his arm. “That way if one of us is injured or otherwise unintentionally marked, it’s not passed along. Now, I said I don’t want to pursue the matter of my soulmate, and that still stands. Can you please respect that?”

“You’re crazy, Mer. People would kill to have a soulmate. I’d kill to have a soulmate.”

“I’m not one of those people,” Rodney said. “I have better things to do with my time.”

“Than be loved?”

Rodney sighed and flopped back on his bed. “Read the literature, Jeannie. Soulmates and soulbonds rarely result in a romantic connection. The kind of connection shared is too intimate even for that.”

“How is anything too intimate for love?”

“You think Brian Parkinson at school is attractive, right?”

Jeannie nodded.

“Well, imagine being hyperaware of his existence every second of every day. Of knowing when he was hungry and tired and cranky. When he was sick. When he farted.” That wasn’t entirely accurate, as partners could learn to control the flow of energy and information across the bond, but still.

Jeannie made a face and swatted him on the shoulder. “Mer!”

“See? Too much. I don’t want that. Now go to bed.”

Jeannie sighed and pulled herself up to her feet, dusted off her nightgown. “Fine. I get it. Good night, Mer.”

“And stay out of my room!”

Because Jeannie was at least as good a scientist as Rodney, she did read the literature, and so she stopped hounding him about finding out who his soulmate was, telling their parents about it. But she was curious, sometimes, about who his soulmate was.

In addition to peace signs and henna tattoos - which were really quite lovely and intricate - Rodney’s soulmate used her own skin for all kinds of small reminders. Shopping lists (food and art supplies and little else). And then Rodney discovered - his soulmate was a lesbian. Because she kept getting names and phone numbers from girls. Late at night, like at parties.

She washed them off pretty quickly, but Rodney was kind of appalled all the same. Was she going to parties every night? She was going to drink and smoke herself out of brain cells before she was twenty!

Rodney pushed it out of his mind, studied hard, worked harder, and he did it, earned a scholarship into MIT. When he wasn’t working off-campus or in the labs, he was studying, and by the time he was a junior, he’d earned enough for an apartment of his own off-campus, for Jeannie to move in with him.

When she arrived a week after her graduation, she was pale around the edges, frayed and tired, and reported simply that their parents were displeased by Jeannie running away to America with her ungrateful brother. Rodney could read between the lines, was sure that there had been screaming and shouting, insults and accusations.

It was around the time that Jeannie arrived that Rodney started getting boys’ names and numbers on his hand and arm. Was his soulmate a lesbian? Or was his soulmate straight after all? Maybe she was bisexual. She’d be pretty understanding, then, that Rodney was bisexual himself.

Which was something Rodney would never tell Jeannie. Or anyone, for that matter. Certainly not Tunney or the other nosey students in the lab, who were always out drinking and partying and looking for new ways to get laid, and who were always looking to be noticed by the professors. Rodney tried to go on a few dates, but they rarely worked out.

Jeannie recommended Rodney try dating men just once, but like the suggestion of him finding his soulmate, he shut her down.

He wasn’t going to talk about that then. Maybe later.

But later never came, because when Rodney moved on to grad school - at Harvard, so he could stay close by and take care of Jeannie - Jeannie started dating Kaleb Miller, an English major (also from Canada), and when she graduated, she didn’t continue her education. She settled down to be a wife and a mother.

And Rodney - he was left to go on alone.

So he never told her about who he was, and he moved on, found the first job that would take him. The American government, ironically, given his NSA and CIA shakedown in grade six after the non-working nuclear warhead science project disaster. Tunney, who’d blatantly stolen one of Rodney’s ideas, picked up a fancy corporate gig, and Rodney was shuttled off to a cement bunker in the Nevada desert.

As it turned out, working for the government was light years better than working for ridiculous amounts of money and prestige, because what the government had going on in Area 51 was literally out of this world.

Through it all, Rodney’s soulmate was quiet. Apart from the occasional shopping list, she stopped with the names and the numbers. The few times she got names - always female, these days - she washed them away quickly. She never got henna tattoos anymore, and she stopped getting peace signs and rainbows. She’d finally grown up, then.

Rodney could be alone at Area 51. He didn’t need friends. His colleagues were all idiots. He knew he was succeeding, that he was a good scientist, and when he was invited to Stargate Command in Colorado to work with Major Samantha Carter herself, his spirits lifted. Carter was beautiful, and Rodney knew he could impress her, knew he could have the chance to work alongside her and change the world.

But he screwed up, and he was banished.

To Siberia.

Rodney stood in his empty quarters, all his personal possessions boxed up around him, and was terrified.

He didn’t dare call Jeannie, after all the things he’d said to her when she’d refused to continue her education, and he wouldn’t call his parents.

And then he reached into his satchel, found one of his precious whiteboard markers, and pushed back his sleeve, wrote on his bare forearm.

Hello, soulmate. My name is Rodney. What’s yours?

There was no response.

Rodney pushed his sleeve back down, gathered up his things, and headed for the door. An Air Force transport would take him to Siberia. He was crammed into the back of a noisy plane with soldiers and boxes and crates. The soldiers didn’t look at him, talked and joked with each other about working with the Ruskies, seeing the Russian stargate.

Rodney sighed and wished he had thought to bring something to read or do. One by one, the soldiers nodded off, with that uncanny skill they had of sleeping any time, anywhere. Rodney started to drift off, too.

He was awakened by a familiar tingling sensation on his arm. He shoved his sleeve back and stared at the message in disbelief.

Is this a prank?

Rodney fished a pen out of his pocket. No! He underlined it three times.

Soulmates happen at puberty. Way past that point.

Rodney hadn’t realized how much his soulmate’s handwriting had changed over the years. No longer was it girly cursive but perfectly neat print, the kind of print Rodney saw on computer-printed labels rather than from a human hand.

First knew about you at 14. Henna tattoo & peace sign.

There was no response for a long time, and then, Why now?

Rodney darted a glance at the other soldiers, but they were still sleeping.

He wrote back, Going far away. Scared. Lonely.

Where?

Siberia.

Where are you from?

Canada.

There was another long pause, during which Rodney got a little anxious, but then his soulmate wrote,

My name is Evan.

*

Evan was up all night, trading increasingly panicked messages with Rodney, who was very pissed off at Evan for spilling the beans about their being soulmates, and also demanding that Evan go bursting into Sheppard’s tent and let Rodney have a conversation with him using Evan’s arm, which was also not an option unless Rodney wanted the entire camp to find out about them after Sheppard tried to shoot Evan for waking him up.

Finally Evan managed to convince Rodney to let him handle things with Sheppard. They could have a calm conversation about how being soulmates was not the same as being soulbonded, and the condition wasn’t automatically romantic or sexual. But if Evan wanted to handle that conversation well, he needed to be well-rested, so Rodney needed to stop writing messages so Evan could sleep.

Evan had barely closed his eyes before Sheppard was barking out wake-up orders, sounding worse than Evan’s drill sergeant from basic.

He scrambled into clean clothes - really only a clean t-shirt, underwear, and socks - and doled out breakfast to everyone else, then hurried to help break camp.

Evan barely had his gear assembled back into his pack and onto his shoulders before Sheppard ordered everyone to start marching. Poor Zelenka was still fighting to get his tent disassembled.

“Is it just me, or did Colonel Sheppard wake up on the wrong side of his bedroll?” Toriel whispered.

“Not just you,” Evan murmured.

Toriel huffed. “So much for bonding.”

Evan nodded at Dorsey. “Go, keep up with Sheppard. We’ll get Zelenka together and catch up.”

Dorsey was rolling Zelenka’s bedroll. “But -”

“Go,” Evan said.

As if on cue, Sheppard’s angry bellow echoed back at them. “Dorsey, Toriel, Lorne, Zelenka, I said march!

Dorsey scrambled after Sheppard, flashing Zelenka an apologetic, tight-lipped smile as he went.

“You know,” Toriel said, “it’s not too late to turn back. I have the keys to the minivan.”

Zelenka lit up. “Really?”

Sheppard’s voice cracked like a whip. “Major Lorne!

“You’d better go.” Toriel’s tone was only half sympathetic.

Evan finished rolling Zelenka’s bedroll, secured it with a length of paracord and a couple of well-chosen knots, and went to catch up with Sheppard and Dorsey.

“Dorsey,” Sheppard said, without looking back at Evan, “where are Toriel and Zelenka?”

Dorsey cast Evan a confused look. “I don’t know, sir.”

“Maybe you should ask Major Lorne.”

Dorsey looked even more confused, but Evan gestured for him to continue.

“Um, Lorne, where are Toriel and Zelenka?”

“They’ll be along soon,” Evan said, doing his best to sound calm and even. “Zelenka was having some trouble getting his gear together. Toriel is giving him a hand.”

Dorsey cast Sheppard a hopeful look, because Sheppard could obviously hear Evan, but Sheppard said, “Well, Dorsey?”

Dorsey carefully recited what Evan had said, word for word, which said something good about his memory skills, but he was wide-eyed and afraid, like a child caught between his parents while they fought. Evan felt bad for him.

Evan wasn’t sure what to feel about Sheppard. Sheppard was Rodney’s best friend, and Rodney was more than a little in love with the guy, but given Sheppard’s position in the expedition - and as an American military serviceman - Rodney hadn’t dared tell Sheppard how he felt. Rodney also hadn’t dared tell Sheppard that he had a soulmate, because he wasn’t sure how Sheppard would handle it.

The answer was pretty badly.

Evan was getting pretty irritated. It wasn’t like it was his fault that the universe had decided he and Rodney were compatible with each other. It also wasn’t his fault that the media seemed hell-bent on perpetuating erroneous notions about how soulmates and soulbonds worked.

For the entire morning, during which the sun climbed higher and higher, Dorsey, Toriel, and Evan took turns carrying bits of Zelenka’s gear to relieve him of the weight. Sheppard marched resolutely at the head of them, barely pausing. Evan ended up slathering Dorsey, Toriel, and Zelenka in some of Rodney’s sunscreen like a mother hen as they walked, because none of them had had a chance to put any on.

Sheppard didn’t talk to Evan once, pretended he wasn’t there, or used poor Dorsey as a go-between even when they were pretty obviously all in earshot of each other.

When they broke for lunch, they sat in a circle, which was just awkward. While they were marching, whichever two people were in the rear could hold a conversation, albeit a soft one, and Evan learned more about Zelenka’s racing pigeons (prize-winning, three years in a row before Atlantis) and Toriel’s sisters (a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, an architect, an engineer, a fashion designer, a movie director, a symphony conductor, a CEO at a Fortune 500 company, a biochemist, a novelist, and a ballerina). Dorsey stayed doggedly on Sheppard’s heels, and he took both the brunt of Sheppard’s silence and passive aggression and acted as a buffer zone for the tension radiating off of Sheppard in waves.

Sitting in a circle, however, seemed to amplify Sheppard’s angry silence, so they all ate their food and avoided making eye contact.

Until finally it was Dorsey who said, “Sir, is everything all right?”

Sheppard glanced at him briefly. “Everything’s fine.”

“You just seem a bit - tense, sir.” Dorsey was tactful enough to not mention that Sheppard seemed mostly angry at Evan.

Evan dared to chance a glance at Sheppard, who caught his gaze. For one moment Sheppard looked utterly furious, and Evan flinched. Sheppard’s expression immediately turned rueful.

“Yeah. Just - didn’t sleep well.” Sheppard scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck, and magically, the tension evaporated.

Evan would have to adjust his judgment of Dorsey as the Air Force equivalent of Elle Woods.

And then Sheppard said, “Hey, Zelenka, what do you know about soulmates?”

Zelenka immediately looked grim. “In my country, before the Prague Spring, soulmate pairs were rounded up, forced to bond, and put to work in special government projects. Having a soulmate was an unfortunate circumstance. I was fortunate not to have one. My second sister, not so much.”

Earlier, Zelenka had only mentioned the one.

Dorsey said, “At least she got to be with her soulmate, right? At least she had someone who loved her.”

“I wouldn’t know. No one ever saw her again,” Zelenka said quietly.

Sheppard nudged Toriel with the toe of his boot. “What about you? Any soulmates in your family?”

“Just one pair. My sister Goldie and her husband Sam.”

“Goldie’s the...fashion designer?” Dorsey asked.

“Biochemist.” Toriel finished his meat pie in quick order and dusted the crumbs off his hands. “Any in your family, sir?”

“Not that I know of,” Sheppard said, tone perfectly casual, and like that, Evan knew.

He’d been maneuvered into a corner. Damn, but Sheppard was good. And smart. Rodney was always complaining about how stupid and rash Sheppard was, but - just damn.

Sheppard fixed Evan with a knowing look. “What about you, Lorne? Any soulmates in your family?”

“Just me,” Evan said.

Dorsey’s eyes went wide. “Really? What’s her name? What is she like?”

“Meredith,” Evan said, and Sheppard’s eyebrows went up, but Evan was telling the truth. “And Meredith is - a handful, to say the least.”

“Are you soulbonded?” Dorsey asked. “Having a soulmate must be awesome.”

“That’s a very personal question,” Toriel said gently, and Dorsey ducked his head, sheepish.

“Sorry, Lorne.”

“We’re bonding, aren’t we? We’re supposed to learn more about each other.” Sheppard sat back, the picture of triumph.

Zelenka said, “Many soulmates do not complete the bond. It can be dangerous. In America, you think soulmates and soulbonds are so romantic. But tying two lives together is - incredibly selfish.”

“Why?” Sheppard asked.

Zelenka was surprised. “Do they not teach these things in school in America?”

“They don’t even teach kids about sex in every school, Doc,” Toriel said.

Sheppard sat up straighter. “Why do you think it’s selfish, Radek?”

Everyone was startled by Sheppard’s use of Zelenka’s first name, even Zelenka himself.

“Because,” Zelenka said, “if one dies, they both die.”

Just like that, the fury was back in Sheppard’s eyes. He stabbed a finger at Evan. “Don’t you dare.”

For all that Evan was a military officer, he didn’t like being told what to do, not when it came to parts of his life completely unrelated to the military. “That’s not your decision to make, sir. If and when we decide to complete our soulbond, that will be between us.” That wasn’t strictly true. If Rodney ever manned up and told Sheppard how he felt, then yes, Evan would take Sheppard’s opinion into consideration, assuming Sheppard reciprocated Rodney’s feelings, but -

Sheppard swung at him.

Evan dodged enough that all Sheppard got was a glancing blow. Toriel and Dorsey dove between them. Zelenka threw himself backward and out of the fray.

“Sir!” Toriel cried. He and Dorsey were hanging onto Sheppard with all their might. “Sir, whatever’s going on between you, you can’t do that.”

Evan pressed a hand to his jaw, but there was no pain. “I told you last night,” he said, “we’re just soulmates, not soulbonded.”

Sheppard strained against Toriel and Dorsey. “If you hurt him -”

“If we’d been soulbonded and your punch had connected, the person who’d have hurt him is you,” Evan said flatly.

Zelenka scrambled to his feet. “Your soulmate is Rodney?”

“McKay?” Toriel and Dorsey echoed.

Sheppard slewed Zelenka a look. “How did you know that?” He stepped back from Toriel and Dorsey, hands raised in surrender.

“I have read Rodney’s CV. His first name is Meredith,” Zelenka said.

Toriel snickered. “Wait, McKay’s real name is Meredith?”

“Yes, Meredith Rodney McKay,” Zelenka said.

Dorsey snickered too.

Sheppard cast both of them dirty looks, and they wiped the smirks off their faces.

Evan sighed. “The name Meredith was originally a surname, and when it first became a given name, it was a boy’s name. It’s Welsh for lord of the sea.”

“Oh.” Dorsey blinked. “That would be a pretty stupid name for a girl.”

Toriel nodded his agreement.

Sheppard’s gaze turned distant. “Rodney never told me his real name.”

Evan gestured at Toriel and Dorsey. “Can you blame him?”

“I would never -” Sheppard began, but he paused.

“I rest my case.” Evan crossed his arms over his chest.

Sheppard turned away, scooped up his pack. “Move out.” And he started marching.

“Toriel, go after him, stay with him,” Evan said. “I’ll handle clean-up here.”

Toriel nodded, scooped up his pack, and trotted after John.

“You are really Rodney’s soulmate?” Zelenka let Dorsey and Evan help him get his pack up and on his shoulders.

“Yep.”

“That is why you always bring him coffee and food.”

“Yep.”

“But you are not -”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, Doc, but no. We’re still new at this. Learning how to be friends.”

Zelenka pushed his glasses higher up his nose. “I am glad Rodney has someone. Colonel Sheppard and his team - they protect Rodney, when he is off-world. But it is good, that he has someone besides his team.”

Evan shrugged. “We are what we are, and we make the best of it. Dorsey, make sure we’re not leaving any trash. We need to catch up to Colonel Sheppard and Major Toriel.”

“Yes, Major,” Dorsey said meekly.

Evan shouldered his pack, took a deep breath. Time to face the music.

*

Rodney and Evan conversed every day while Rodney was in Siberia. Sometimes there were lengthy gaps between replies - Evan was back in America, and also he had a bit of an irregular work schedule. But Evan’s words were what kept Rodney sane. Every day he put in his ten hours at the lab - suffering frosty silence from his coworkers - and then he retreated to his quarters, which were barely more hospitable than a jail cell, and he wrote to Evan.

It took only a few conversations before Rodney learned to shorten down his verbose tendencies, and also to use whiteboard markers instead of permanent markers, and also to keep something on hand to wipe the ink away so he had room to keep writing.

The difficult thing about writing was, well, Rodney couldn’t tell what Evan was thinking, had no tone of voice or body language to gauge how Evan took Rodney’s words.

The earliest of which were pretty thoughtless.

I thought you were a girl at first.

A girl????

Because of your handwriting.

What about my handwriting?

It was cursive. Girly.

You some kind of doctor, then?

Rodney’s handwriting wasn’t the neatest, it was true. No. Medical doctors are quacks. I’m a physicist. And an engineer.

Good for you.

And then there was no response for hours.

Rodney lay awake on his hard, uncomfortable mattress and stared at those neatly-printed words on his forearm, and he wondered if Evan was mad at him, would never speak to him again. Being soulmates wasn’t a guarantee of compatibility. It was a question of genetic compatibility. Certain combinations of genes and phenotype expressions complemented each other such that two people could combine their life forces and become something better than what they were. It was the whole ox and yoke thing.

There was some old wives’ tale about how an individual ox could pull seven times its own body weight but, when teamed with another ox, the two of them could pull seventeen times their own body weight. As a physicist, Rodney seriously the doubted the merit of such claims.

But he had researched enough about soulmates and soulbonds to know that two human life forces shared across a bond were greater than two individual life forces unconnected. He wondered who Evan was, what he was doing with his life, that the universe and biology and whatever else had decided that he and Rodney would be great if paired together.

And then a thought struck him, so he wrote back.

Why did you think this was a prank?

Evan answered the next day, while Rodney was in the lab running yet another fruitless simulation on an energy source from a captured staff weapon.

Some of the tech I work around can mimic some seemingly supernatural effects, and some of the Marines I work with are immature.

Tech. Marines. Was Evan a Marine? Or was he like Rodney, a brilliant mind hobbled by military restrictions?

Rodney had to wait till he was back in his quarters before he could reply. What kind of tech?

That’s classified, was the immediate response.

What do you do?

I’m an Air Force Officer.

Rodney couldn’t help but think of Samantha Carter. Are you also a scientist?

Getting my masters in geophysics, but no. Surveyor.

So that was why the peace signs and henna tattoos had gone away. Evan had ceased with his hippy ways, grown up and matured. And he was something of a scientist, like Rodney. So they were compatible after all.

Minored in chemistry. Am the team metallurgist.

What was the Air Force doing, that it needed geophysicists and metallurgists? Any number of things, Rodney knew. Samantha had done impressive things at the Pentagon before joining the SGC. Evan could be anywhere, doing anything. Although he had said he was stationed in America.

Maybe they could be friends.

I thought you were an artist.

You thought I was a girl artist.

Sorry. Rodney winced. Your handwriting’s different.

Took some drafting classes in college. For surveying.

What was up with the paint names and henna tattoos?

Sister’s a tattoo artist. Mom’s an art teacher. Learned a bit of both.

Rodney hoped Evan wasn’t offended. He offered, The henna tattoos were really pretty. Your sister’s work?

Some of my own.

My sister thought they were pretty.

Even though they were continents apart and only knew each other’s first names, Rodney felt safe, telling Evan about Jeannie. In exchange, Evan told Rodney about his sister Natalia, his mother, and his grandmother. Evan didn’t mention his father, and he didn’t ask Rodney about his parents, and Rodney was stupidly relieved at that. So Evan was good at picking up subtle cues, even just from writing.

Rodney told Evan about playing the piano growing up, and doing drama, and the time he built a non-working nuclear warhead for his grade six science fair project, and the girls he tried and failed to date.

Evan told Rodney about growing up on a hippy commune, about going to the Academy and learning to fly planes. He talked about baking, and how he liked cooking, and he missed his mom’s good home cooking (this when he was on some kind of extended campout with nothing but MREs).

Rodney asked about all the names and numbers Evan would get, boys and girls.

Evan swore Rodney to secrecy, that he was bisexual. Rodney went off on a scribbled tirade about how backward Evan’s country was. Evan’s response was that he loved flying and being part of the Air Force and the sacrifice was worth it. Rodney responded that nothing was worth that sacrifice.

Says the guy who’s in Siberia instead of quitting.

Point well-made. Perhaps Evan knew Rodney better than Rodney realized.

He treasured his friendship with Evan, though they both agreed they weren’t currently looking for romance, and getting together would be difficult given their very divergent career paths (and the regulations of the United States Air Force), but if Rodney got back Stateside - or Evan somehow ended up in Siberia - they’d meet face-to-face and talk about the possibility of a soulbond.

Rodney hadn’t even let Evan know he existed before Siberia. Rodney hadn’t really thought about what would happen with Evan after Sibera. Of course, Rodney had thought about there being something after Siberia. Back to Area 51, maybe. Or, better yet, the SGC itself.

And then the Ancient outpost in Antarctica was discovered, and Rodney was transferred to McMurdo to work there, because he’d studied the Stargate extensively, and stargates were Ancient technology, and there was so much more Ancient technology to be studied there.

Rodney spent the entire flight home writing back and forth to Evan, who was celebrating having attained his master’s degree, and also being promoted to major. In addition to making major, he was being assigned as second-in-command on an extended surveying gig overseas, and his hours would be a little weird.

Lucky us, right? You coming back stateside right as I ship out.

The universe hates us.

It loves us. We have each other.

Rodney hadn’t imagined that any red-blooded American male, let alone one who called himself a soldier (Airman, Evan always insisted, Army guys are soldiers, Navy guys are sailors, Marines are just Marines) could be so sentimental. Granted, Rodney had a tendency to overshare, even with Evan. And Evan had been raised by a lot of women. So Rodney would forgive Evan any undue sentimentality, because Rodney appreciated having him.

Each other.

As it turned out, McMurdo was like Siberia. Cold, lonely, long hours, and not that many people who spoke English. Rodney happened to be back in Canada on leave the few times Samantha Carter and SG-1 even came to McMurdo.

Rodney was flying back to McMurdo when he received word from Evan, in shaky penmanship, about an emergency at his outpost. Failed to follow science protocol, prioritized military protocol, encountered previously unknown hostile locals. Injuries and death.

Sorry if I don’t come home from this. All my fault.

Ordinarily, Rodney would have ranted and raved about meat-headed soldiers and their disregard for science, but this was Evan. And Rodney worried about him. Didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, snapped at British Guy and Eastern European Guy and Japanese Girl and Scottish Guy at the lab. Waited and waited and waited to hear word.

Alive. Pro negotiator saved us. Going on leave while the brass review the case. Sun, sand, umbrella drinks. Will drink one for you.

Evan even drew a little margarita glass with a paper umbrella stuck in it. Sometimes he’d do that, draw little pictures for Rodney, of cool flowers he’d seen on a march, or the planes he’d flown, or other small things.

If Evan had time to draw, he was past the worst of the danger.

Rodney smiled in spite of himself.

No citrus. Wear sunblock.

Evan was okay. Rodney would be okay. He was pretty sure he didn’t dare soulbond himself to a soldier who could die at any second. Granted, Rodney was surrounded by incompetence and copious amounts of naquadah, not to mention the hypothermia-inducing conditions outside the research outpost. He, too, could die at any second.

Then Daniel Jackson found it. Atlantis. Lost city of the Ancients. Rodney had to go. After Samantha Carter, he was the SGC’s foremost expert on Ancient tech. Elizabeth Weir made him the chief science officer, which was only right. Rodney was thrilled, was elated. So many things he would see, learn, know, understand.

And none of it anything he could tell Evan. He explained he’d been given a promotion an an amazing career opportunity, but it would be far away, very remote, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to communicate often, if at all. As if the soulmate connection would last across galaxies.

It felt like saying goodbye.

Evan, because he was a nice person, congratulated Rodney and wished him the best.

Rodney did say goodbye. Wrote it on his arm before he went to stand beside Elizabeth in the control room and oversee the dialing of the gate to Atlantis. The second eight-chevron address ever attempted in SGC history.

Elizabeth thought Rodney was calm about this event because he was cool and unflappable. She didn’t know him very well.

No, Rodney was calm because this event was bittersweet. One of the greatest endeavours of human history. A possible one-way trip. Possibly an irrevocable farewell to his soulmate. There was too much weight in his soul for him to be like Ford, whooping and throwing himself headlong into danger.

Rodney stepped through the gate, and there was wonder. Awe. Then panic. Chaos. ZPMs almost empty. Fleeing to a new planet. Wraith. Colonel Sumner, dead. And that messy-haired chopper pilot (that beautiful, infuriating chopper pilot) the new ranking military officer in Atlantis.

Rodney tumbled onto his bed (a cot with a bedroll on it in a randomly-chosen room) at the end of that first nightmare terrifying day, exhausted but elated. They’d survived.

And then he felt on, his arm, the familiar whisper-tingle of Evan’s ghostly pen.

How’s the view from the top?

Rodney smiled down at the words and fished a marker out of his pocket. Amazing.

*

A gunshot rang out.

Sheppard’s voice broke the quiet. “Toriel!

Evan broke into a sprint. He stumbled and scrambled across the uneven surface, heart pounding. More gunshots sounded, and Evan heard the zing! of a bullet ricochet.

Sheppard grunted, and Evan burst onto pale yellow slickrock and potholes. Sheppard was sprawled on the ground, half hanging off the edge. Toriel was nowhere to be seen. Evan flung himself down, flat-crawled across the rock to Sheppard.

“Sir?”

“Toriel’s hit. He’s down there.” Sheppard’s left sleeve was soaked with blood. He was leaning over the edge, one arm outstretched. Toriel was on an outcropping below, pale and worryingly still

“Isaac!” Evan shouted. “Isaac, can you hear me?”

Isaac’s answer was a string of Hebrew or possibly Yiddish and likely all swear words.

Dorsey hissed, “Get down, Zelenka.”

Evan glanced over his shoulder and saw Dorsey and Zelenka slithering across the rock toward them.

A man shouted, “Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing out here?”

Sheppard and Evan popped their heads up, scanned their surroundings. There were some mushrooms nearby. Evan couldn’t jump to them, but he might be able to climb down from this rock and up the other ones.

“My name is John Sheppard, and my men and I are just out here on a team bonding exercise.”

“No one should be out here,” the man said. “Rangers aren’t issuing permits for this part of the park.”

“Permits?” Sheppard echoed.

Evan cast him a look. “Back-country hiking and camping is by permit only, sir.”

“Didn’t you get us permits?” Sheppard asked in a whisper.

“No! I didn’t plan this bonding experience, sir. I planned on going home and seeing my family while I was on leave. If you’d given me advance notice I’d have made sure we had all the appropriate paperwork. Sir, we’re committing a federal crime.”

“Apparently so are they. They shot me and they shot Toriel,” Sheppard hissed. “Can you get to them?”

Evan signaled for Dorsey. Zelenka found a shady spot beneath an outcropping and pressed himself flat. He was shaking and whispering in Czech. Praying.

“Keep him talking,” Evan said. “We’ll find him and if he has any friends.”

“Well, John Sheppard, you better take your men and go,” the man shouted.

“Wish I could,” Sheppard shouted back, “but one of my men is injured, and we need help to get him out of here.”

Evan listened to the man’s voice as he and Sheppard conversed. He and Dorsey split up, scaling down the sides of the rock hopefully out of the stranger’s view. Their destination was a mushroom nearby that had clear line of sight to the clearing where Sheppard and Zelenka were hunkered down.

“That’s too bad, John Sheppard. You might just have to leave your man.”

“No can do, Stranger. Leave no man behind. It’s a rule, and a personal philosophy.”

“You some kinda soldier?”

“Airman, actually.”

“Like in the Air Force?”

“That’s right.”

What are you doing out here?”

“Team bonding exercise. And not at all looking to interfere with whatever you and your friends have going on. Just - looking to bond.”

“What makes you think I have friends?”

“Well, the climate’s a little unfriendly. Best to have friends. Spread the burden of carrying supplies around.”

Evan reached the mushroom first, and he paused, listened to the man’s voice. Then he circled the mushroom, looking for a way up. Free climbing had never really been one of his favorite pastimes, but being posted at the SGC had taught him to do his best to prepare for all manner of emergencies, including climbing-related ones. He spotted a couple of sections that would make for a good foothold and handhold.

“How many friends did you bring?” the man asked.

“Enough,” Sheppard said.

Another shot rang out.

Zelenka yelped.

“I said how many?

“Hey now, no need to get nasty. I brought three. One of my guys is injured. You heard the other guys. Radek’s a little nervous, and Evan is worried about Isaac.”

Evan paused, surprised to hear his first name from his CO.

“Well, sucks for you, because I brought four friends, so don’t try anything funny. You turn around and you leave. Right now.”

“Can’t leave Isaac,” Sheppard said calmly, and of course, he was treating this like a hostage situation, trying to get the man to see them as humans, as not expendable. “He’s got thirteen sisters. I don’t want to see what they’ll do to me if I fail to bring their only brother - their baby brother - home alive. How you doing down there, Isaac?”

“Just fuckin’ peachy!”

“Come again?”

“Just fucking peachy, sir!”

“Where were you hit?”

“Shoulder. In pretty deep. Clavicle’s broken. Nervous about moving. Light-headed. Worried about the sub-clavian artery.”

Evan was halfway up the rock face. He had no idea where Dorsey was, hoped he was a competent climber.

“Of course the one guy with the good medic training is the one who’s injured,” Sheppard said, tone deceptively light. “Look, Stranger, I promise we won’t tell anyone what happened here. Won’t tell anyone about you. Can’t tell anyone about us being here, since I kinda forgot to get us a permit, and us being out here is a federal crime. But if you’d just give me and my guys the chance to get Isaac, everything will be all right. Because - because if he dies, then they’ll find out about you, and us too. And if you kill us all - they’ll find our bodies. Figure out what happened. Listen, my father is a very wealthy man. And - now, this is going to sound a little crazy - and he had me lo-jacked. As a kid. In case I ever got kidnapped. If I don’t report back for duty on time, he will mobilize his considerable resources to find me - or what’s left of me.”

Everyone on the Atlantis Expedition - hell, at the SGC - was fitted with subcutaneous trackers for beaming aboard the Prometheus-class ships. Sheppard’s story did sound crazy, but he also sounded very sincere. Man was a damn good liar.

And good at keeping people distracted, because Evan reached the top of the mushroom. He paused, listened, drew his knife.

“How wealthy?” the man asked. Evan started toward him, picking his way carefully across the slickrock and potholes.

“My father owns over fifty percent of the energy on the Eastern seaboard,” Sheppard said. “You can’t switch on a light from New York City to Miami without the power coming from one of the plants my father owns.”

“How much would he pay for you?”

“When I was ten, some guys kidnapped me. He shelled out fifty grand in a heartbeat to get me back. And had me lojacked.”

Evan kept low, because human eyes tracked vertical movement faster than lateral movement. As long as he stayed below the man’s eyeline - and there was only one of him - he’d be fine.

Dorsey peered up over the edge of the other side of the mushroom. Evan gestured for him to come all the way up but stay silent. Dorsey nodded and he, too, drew his knife.

“How much would he pay now?”

“Half a million, easy. I’ll trade myself for Isaac. You let me get him to safety, get him where the other guys can carry him out of here, and I’ll stay behind with you, help you finish whatever you’re doing and help you escape.” Sheppard sounded so calm and reasonable.

For a guy who’d been about to lose his shit about Evan and Rodney’s nonexistent soulbond, he was keeping it together very well.

“All right. You have one hour to get your friend Isaac away from here. And then you’re coming with me.”

“Thank you,” Sheppard said. “Isaac’s family will be eternally grateful. And I do mean eternally. They’re religious. Believe in an afterlife. What is it I’m going to be helping you with?”

Evan couldn’t believe his eyes. The man - short, definitely shorter than Evan, and thin, with a weatherbeaten face and wild hair that made Zelenka’s look tame - had a pack, a rifle, and an honest-to-goodness treasure map in his hand. What the hell?

Evan caught Dorsey’s eye, signaled. Evan went first.

He dove at the man, tackled him down. First priority - subdue. Second priority - disarm.

The man landed with a grunt. Evan scrambled onto his back, slammed a fist down on the back of his head. He went limp. Evan grabbed his rifle, tossed it to Dorsey. Then Evan checked the man’s pulse. Still alive.

“Hello?” Sheppard asked. “Are you still there?”

“Tango is unconscious and disarmed, sir!” Evan shouted.

“Good. Toriel, how are you doing?”

“Less peachy, sir. I, uh - I can’t feel my legs. Possible spinal injury. You - you can’t move me.”

Evan swore. “What now, sir?” Of course he had ideas, but Sheppard was his CO.

“Lorne, you and Dorsey secure the suspect. Zelenka - get over here. Toriel needs water.”

Lorne had abandoned his pack to climb, and so had Dorsey.

“I have paracord in my pack,” Evan said to Dorsey. “Bring it to me. Have the Colonel or Zelenka throw it down to you.”

Dorsey nodded and headed back to the edge of the mushroom, prepared to lower himself down.

The man stirred. “What the -?”

“My name is Major Evan Lorne, and if you make one wrong move, I will not hesitate to cut you,” Evan said.

The man blinked.

Evan smiled at him. “What’s your name? And where are your friends?” He was still sitting on the man, could sit there forever if needs be.

“Ain’t telling you my name,” the man said.

“I’m sure I’ll found out soon enough.” Evan shaded his eyes, peered across the desert to the other mushroom, where Sheppard and Zelenka were tiny figures.

“Lorne, Toriel’s not responding anymore!” Sheppard shouted. “I have to climb down and check on him.”

“Be careful, sir,” Evan called back.

Zelenka shouted, “We need help, and we need it now.”

The man laughed weakly. “No help out here. Cell phones, radios, none of ’em work. It’s why we buried our loot out here.”

Evan fished in his pocket for his marker. “I’ll get us help.”

“How?” Dorsey asked, his voice muffled from somewhere below.

“Rodney,” Evan said. “I’ll contact Rodney, have him send help.” He uncapped the pen and started dotting his forearm over and over again. For whatever reason, only writing, not sensation transferred across their link. Rodney said it had something to do with quantum entanglement of skin cells on their arms.

“Lorne,” Sheppard began.

“It’s worked before,” Evan said. “In emergencies. Look, obviously our connection works over great distances.”

“Do it,” Sheppard said.

“Already am,” Evan murmured to himself.

A hastily-scrawled What? appeared on his forearm.

Toriel and Sheppard injured. Sheppard stable and responsive. Toriel nonresponsive. Send help immediately.

John? Hurt? Let me talk to him!

Can’t. Am subduing enemy.

Proof of life, DAMMIT!

Evan sighed. “Sir, Rodney wants proof of life for you.”

“Unless you can send him a picture of me -”

“A phrase or something. That I wouldn’t know, but that he’d know is from you.”

There was a pregnant pause, because Evan was asking something deeply personal, and finally, Sheppard said, “Tell him This is why parents get someone else to teach their kids how to drive .”

Evan transcribed the message faithfully, and a moment later, Rodney wrote back. Dialed Earth. Help on the way. See you soon.

“Rodney says he dialed - er, phoned home, and help is on the way, and he’ll see us soon.”

“How soon is soon?” Zelenka asked.

Dorsey reappeared with a bundle of paracord tucked into his back pocket.

“He didn’t say.” Evan moved to help Dorsey secure the man so Evan wouldn’t have to sit on him anymore. “How’s Toriel, sir?”

“Not good. I got some water into him. He’s getting cold, possibly going into shock. He’s not bleeding anywhere besides the bullet wound, and I got that bandaged,” Sheppard said.

“Body heat, sir,” Evan said. “How long do you think he’s got?”

Sheppard made a few grumbling noises and then said, “Not long.”

“What about your injury, sir?”

“Zelenka patched me up.”

“While we’re waiting,” Dorsey said, “we should keep bonding, right?”

“Beating a bad guy is also good bonding, no?” Zelenka asked.

Dorsey nudged the man with his foot. “Yeah. But - I want to know. When did you find out McKay was your soulmate?”

“Team bonding is not me talking about me,” Evan said.

“I’m curious too,” Sheppard said. “And it’ll - take my mind off of things. Zelenka’s too.”

Zelenka snorted but said nothing.

The man, who’d been very quiescent while Evan and Dorsey tied him up, managed a tentative smile. “Soulmates, huh? That’s a big deal. My old man was soulmates with my ma.”

Evan sighed. “Fine. Dorsey, go get me some water. If I have to yell this to the world, I’m not doing it with a dry throat.”

*

Because Evan was bisexual, he was very supportive when Rodney confessed that he’d started to develop feelings for one of his male colleagues, a man who was brave and intelligent, if a little reckless and daring. A man who had saved his life and who Rodney had saved in return.

Evan was hesitant when Rodney finally admitted that the man he was in love with was John, the military commander of Rodney’s research outpost.

Even if he does return your feelings, no way he’ll act on them. Base commander is a lifer; Air Force is his career. Won’t give that up easily.

I am not easy, Rodney wrote back, feeling hurt.

Didn’t say you were. Saying loving him will be hard.

It already was hard, hearing everyone on Atlantis speculate about John and Teyla, seeing how alien women on every planet they went to flirted with him, how other women on base wondered about their chances with him. Rodney knew what people said about him, how he was high strung and demanding and unpleasant.

They were in another galaxy from home with no way to get home or even contact home. Survival was paramount. Mollycoddling other people’s incompetence would not improve their odds of survival. Rodney wouldn’t stoop to it in the very slim chance it would magically make John see him in a new light and like him back.

Here for you, Evan added. Might know how to woo a fellow flyboy.

Not that brave, Rodney said.

Braver than you know.

Pegasus was one near-death experience after another, from killer shadows to killer bugs to killer viruses and killer fake-Amish, not to mention the killer Wraith. Rodney couldn’t tell Evan any of that, didn’t dare let him know.

When he figured out how to send a message back to Earth, how everyone could send messages back to Earth, he wanted to send one to Evan, but he didn’t know Evan’s full name, had never offered his, because Rodney was still afraid, after all these years, that if Evan knew who he really was, he’d turn Rodney away just like everyone else had.

During the Wraith siege of Atlantis, during the chaos and death and destruction, Rodney thought about doing it. A hundred times, a thousand times, he uncapped his pen and pushed back his sleeve and nearly wrote it.

My name is Meredith Rodney McKay. This is goodbye.

But then The Daedalus arrived with reinforcements from Earth, and everything was okay, and they lost Aiden but John was promoted, was made permanent commander of Atlantis, and Elizabeth was still their leader, and they would have support from Earth ongoing. Rodney could go home and visit -

Who? Family? Evan?

Only Evan was shipping out again. Another overseas posting. Longterm. Longer than before. He wasn’t sure how long. And he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to communicate often either. He was being promoted to 2IC of the base at his new posting, would be very busy, even busier than before.

But still they sent messages regularly.

Rodney couldn’t explain the relief he felt, knowing that Atlantis had a way to contact Earth, to get supplies from Earth, to get more personnel and weapons and - everything they needed not just to survive but to live.

He could, however, explain the irritation he felt at the new personnel just arrived from Earth, stupidly gung-ho about the dangers of the Pegasus Galaxy.

Like Ronon, the insane caveman who’d kidnapped John and Teyla and held Teyla and Carson hostage.

New military personnel to break in. Jarheads all, squids and zoomies alike, Rodney wrote when he was finally alone in his quarters.

New scientists to deal with, Evan responded. Loud, irritating, whiny, no regard for their own safety. Get us all killed.

Incompetent scientists and soldiers. How do we survive?

Luck. Lots. Evan drew a little shamrock for emphasis.

Rodney laughed. Good luck with your scientists.

And you with your ‘soldiers’.

Rodney was pretty sure he was breaking the new guys and gals in, that he was getting used to new faces (if not new names), and then Cadman got stuck in his body. All his hard work - down the drain, because he had a woman stuck in his head , and a Marine to boot. He managed to scribble a quick message to Evan - feeling under the weather, going off grid for a couple of days - and of course Evan wrote back just as quickly - get well soon - and that was it. Cadman didn’t know Rodney had a soulmate. They could communicate to each other, but they couldn’t hear each other’s thoughts or read each other’s minds.

Having a soulmate was uncanny enough. Having Cadman - Laura - in his head was much worse.

And then he woke in a bed that wasn’t his, with messages all over his arm that he didn’t remember writing or reading.

Laura’s handwriting wasn’t anything like his, and he was naked, and his entire body ached.

Rodney stood in the middle of Laura’s quarters, staring down at his arm in horror. Laura had been flirting with Evan. Her messages started off with Hey soulmate and progressed to What do you look like? and ended with What are you wearing right now?

Evan’s responses had been Feeling better? and You’ve never asked before and a series of dots peppering the words Wake up! Adverse reaction 2 cold meds! The letters were huge and bold, as if Evan had traced them over and over again, trying to get Rodney to notice.

“Laura, what the hell did you do?”

“Chatted with your soulmate is all. I can’t believe you’ve never tried to find out who she really is. She seems very sweet. Very concerned about you.” Laura sounded downright gleeful.

Rodney threw on some clothes and stormed back to his quarters, found his stash of alcohol wipes, and set to scrubbing. “Under no circumstances are you to communicate with my soulmate, understand? Our work here is classified -”

“Sheesh, lighten up, Rodney. I’m not that dumb. Totally kept it vague.”

Rodney debated whether he should tell her his soulmate was a man, but that didn’t matter, because he had to fix them and fix them now . But then the seizures started happening. Rodney and Laura were dying, because two whole consciousnesses weren’t supposed to be in one body. Laura said she would give up, let go, because it was Rodney’s body, and he was more important.

In a cruelly technical sense, yes, Rodney was more important to the expedition. He wasn’t nearly as replaceable as Laura was. They weren’t in this situation because of either of their faults. Clumsy as his attempts were, Zelenka had tried to save them. That soldier with the shoulder cannon had tried to stop the Wraith dart from scooping them up, had stopped the Wraith pilot from taking Rodney and Laura to a hive ship to become MREs. Laura was a person. Rodney knew that better than anyone. He couldn’t just let her die. Of course she would sacrifice herself. She was a Marine.

Do you have anyone? he asked, inside their head, so no one else could hear.

Just my parents.

No...significant other? No soulmate?

No. Not like you. Let me go, Rodney. You have a soulmate. You have something to live for.

For the longest time, I lived only for the Stargate, for Ancient tech, for...Atlantis.

Live for more, Rodney. You can.

And then Laura said she was going to write a letter home, for her folks, for the next time Rodney was back on Earth, and it hit him, like a lightning bolt. The gate. The answer was in the gate.

Are you sure this will work? Laura asked.

I’m never sure any of my plans will work.

They always have before, haven’t they?

Rodney couldn’t help but think of Teal’c stuck in the gate. Not always.

Rodney and Zelenka worked fast and desperate, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the next seizure to hit.

Just in case this doesn’t work , Laura said, I - will you let me do something?

Do what?

Kiss Carson.

Beckett? Why? I mean - oh, fine. Why not? It would give Rodney a chance to see how John gauged his having an alternate sexuality. Assuming he survived. He grabbed a marker, pushed back his sleeve, and wrote.

About to do something crazy and possibly very final. If I’m wrong, I’m over. It’s been a pleasure. My name is Meredith Rodney McKay, and I’m glad I had you as a soulmate.

Then he pocketed the pen, pushed his sleeve down, and stepped into the beaming area. He let Laura have her kiss, and then he told Zelenka to hit it, because what did he have to lose? Apart from his life, and Laura’s too.

And then he was opening his eyes and Laura was standing beside him, and he felt a familiar whisper on his forearm.

When he finally had a moment alone, after Carson had poked and prodded him beyond imagination, after Teyla and John were ushered out of the infirmary so Rodney could rest, he closed his eyes and counted to a hundred. Laura had fallen asleep half an hour ago, had that uncanny soldier ability to sleep when and where she wanted.

Rodney listened to the nurse draw the privacy curtain around his bed, to her footsteps fade. He counted to thirty again for good measure, then opened his eyes and pushed back his sleeve.

He saw, in girly cursive he hadn’t seen in years, My name is Evan Lorne.

Lorne. That was a Scottish name, like McKay, right? No wonder they were compatible. Probably had a common ancestor, somewhere way back when.

Carson discharged Rodney the next morning, and he went back to his quarters to shower and grab a change of clothes. So much to do - reports to write, projects to check on. Who knew how Zelenka and Kusanagi and the rest had run wild while he was trying to deal with Laura.

Rodney had almost made it back to his quarters when he was approached by none other than Major Sarcastic, who’d been no help when they were confronted with Ronon and Aiden and who’d kind of, sort of saved Rodney and Laura from becoming Wraith food.

“Hey, Rodney,” he said.

Rodney narrowed his eyes at him. “What do you want, Major -?”

“Lorne.”

“Major Lorne,” Rodney said, swiping a hand over his door lock, and then he realized. “Major Lorne - Evan?”

“Yeah.” Evan ducked his head.

“But you - I complained about you. To - you.”

“Well, I complained about you, so I guess we’re even.” Evan looked Rodney up and down. “Chief Science Officer at a remote overseas research outpost, huh?”

Rodney nodded, feeling a little dazed. “You - surveyor? On a mining operation?”

“Naquadah mine on an alien planet,” Evan said.

Rodney looked Evan up and down, really looked at him. He was a handsome man, broad-shouldered and solid where John was slender and wiry. Bright blue eyes, strong jaw.

“So, that was Cadman sending me flirty messages?” Evan jammed his hands into his pockets.

“Yeah. She didn’t realize you weren’t a female. And that we’re not -” Rodney gestured between them vaguely.

“Yeah. So. Colonel Sheppard?”

Rodney groaned. “Yes. John.”

“My commanding officer,” Evan said. “That’s rough. Rougher than when I thought your John was some random light-bird with suicidal tendencies. Think anyone would notice if you took the day off and got a little drunk?”

Evan, Rodney realized, wasn’t wearing his usual soldier uniform, was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt open over a t-shirt.

“Drunk? How? This is a military base.”

“Well,” Evan said, gaze sliding away, and he had dimples when he smirked, “I am the chief logistics officer for this entire base. If an order of rubbing alcohol for the infirmary got mis-coded on the other end as, say, scotch, well, waste not, want not, right?”

Rodney offered his hand. “Evan, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Evan shook his hand. “Not a beginning. Just a continuation, don’t you think? So...I’ll let you get cleaned up. Meet you on level twenty-seven, balcony five.”

“Meet you there.”

*

“So let me get this straight,” Mikey said. Mikey was the man who’d shot Toriel and Sheppard. “You didn’t find out you had a soulmate until you were thirty-two?”

Evan nodded. “Yeah. Rodney didn’t bother to tell me till then. He found out when he was fourteen - I was twelve - and he was careful never to write on his hand or arm.”

“And you didn’t find out exactly who he was for three whole years.” Dorsey looked downright confused.

“Yep. We’d worked for the same program for years, and we never knew it. Might even have crossed paths at the base stateside a few times.” Evan had been careful to not mention names, to leave things vague.

“He only told you his name because he was almost going to die.” Mikey shook his head. “That’s so sad.”

“I don’t get what was so special about that time,” Sheppard hollered across the divide.

Evan had left out any mention of Rodney’s being in love with him.

“We almost die all the time,” Sheppard said.

Evan shrugged. “You’d have to ask him why that time and not some time before.”

“Well,” Toriel said, “I’m glad you’re soulmates, because hell if I’m gonna die out here.”

“Isaac!” Dorsey cried, scrambling to the edge of the mushroom.

“See? I didn’t kill him,” Mikey said.

“Shut up,” Evan said easily. “Glad you’re still alive, Toriel. Now, let’s get you out of here.”

“How’s that?” Toriel asked.

Sheppard said, “I hear a chopper.”

Dorsey perked up. Were he a dog, his ears would have been pricked. “Where?”

“I don’t hear anything,” Zelenka said.

“I’m a chopper pilot. I know the sound of one of my birds when I hear it,” Sheppard said.

Sure enough, Evan heard the blessedly familiar sound of a helicopter rotor.

A voice over a bullhorn sounded over the rotor and motors.

“This is search and rescue. We’re coming down. Injured first, then the suspect.”

Sheppard started shouting. “Here! We’re down here!”

Evan shaded his eyes and peered upward, saw uniformed figures descending from the chopper on ropes.

Another voice came over the bullhorn. Rodney. Evan had never been so glad to hear his voice.

“This is what happens when you go without me!”

And Sheppard - Sheppard laughed.

Toriel was taken up first, strapped to some kind of body-board. Sheppard was taken second despite his protests that he was fine, it was just a scratch. Mikey was taken third. Dorsey and Evan both agreed Zelenka should go fourth. Evan was content to go last. Once Mikey was taken, he scrambled back over to the other rock to gather up everyone’s packs and lash them together so they could be lifted out as well.

When Evan made it into the chopper and strapped himself in, Rodney was patting Sheppard down and demanding to know what he’d been thinking, tussling with a criminal. Sheppard, the bastard, pointed out that he hadn’t tussled with anyone, just had the misfortune of getting shot, and Evan was the one who’d free-climbed slickrock and tackled Mikey, and then Rodney was on Evan, patting him down and asking if he was all right.

“I’m fine,” Evan said, stilling his hands. “And hey, none of us are sunburned.”

Rodney bared his teeth at Mikey.

“Hey, I’m just one guy,” Mikey protested. He was handcuffed and restrained in a corner.

“What about your four friends?” Dorsey asked.

Mikey shrugged. “Might have exaggerated a hair.”

Rodney’s mouth pulled into a familiar crooked frown. “Well, apart from this yokel shooting two of you, it was a good bonding experience?” He cast Evan an anxious look.

Evan opened his mouth to tell Rodney that he’d smoothed things over with Sheppard about the whole soulmate issue, but Dorsey, bless his earnest little heart, said,

“The first day it was. Today the Colonel was a little - out of sorts. He doesn’t much like that you and Lorne are soulmates. He tried to punch Lorne.”

Rodney’s eyes went wide. “John?” he asked in a small voice. “Look, Evan and I - it’s not romantic. We’re just friends. Very good friends. Not quite best friends - you’re my best friend.”

“Thanks,” Evan muttered.

Rodney patted his arm blindly. “You’re my soulmate. Not the same thing.” He swallowed hard. “Look, I’m still your friend. I can have friends beyond my soulmate.”

Sheppard looked deeply uncomfortable. “Rodney, I - we are friends. Good friends.”

Rodney’s shoulders tightened, and Evan felt bad for him.

Sheppard cleared his throat. “And if you and Lorne are soulmates, there’s nothing I or you or he can do about that.”

“Then why did you punch him?”

“He didn’t actually get me. I can dodge, you know.” Evan put a hand on Rodney’s arm. “He was just being protective of you. Was worried about what would happen to you if we got soulbonded and I got hurt or killed - combat and all.”

“But I go into combat just as much as you do,” Rodney said. “It cuts both ways.”

Evan squeezed Rodney’s wrist gently. “It’s fine. It’ll all be fine. Maybe we can talk about this later?”

Rodney darted a glance around. Dorsey and Mikey were watching him with wide eyes. Toriel was half-asleep under the ministrations of the paramedics.

“Yeah,” Rodney said. “Later.”

When the chopper landed at the hospital in Moab, staff were waiting with gurneys to take Sheppard, Mikey, and Toriel. More staff checked over Evan, Zelenka, and Dorsey. They were all fine, just a little dehydrated. They were given bottles of gatorade and shuffled off to the waiting room where Rodney was pacing a groove in the floor.

“Evan!” Rodney threw his arms around Evan so tight Evan couldn’t breathe for a moment.

“Hey, Rodney. We’re fine. Any news on Sheppard and Toriel?”

“Major Toriel’s in surgery. No one will tell me anything about John.” Rodney stepped back. “Hey, Radek. Major, um -”

“Dorsey,” he said helpfully. “Kevin Dorsey.”

“Glad you’re all okay, too,” Rodney said.

“Hey.”

At Sheppard’s voice, everyone turned. He stood in the doorway with his arm in a sling, his hair even crazier than usual.

“Sir.” Dorsey snapped to attention with his entire body short of a salute.

“At ease, Major.” Sheppard looked - tired. “Can we talk?”

Rodney started toward him immediately.

“You too, Lorne.”

“Yes, sir. Dorsey, stay here and watch Zelenka.”

“I can watch myself,” Zelenka protested.

Evan clapped him on the shoulder. “Yeah, Doc. I know. Just - Dorsey needs someone to look out for him, too.” He caught Dorsey’s gaze, and Dorsey nodded.

“C’mon, Doc.” Dorsey beckoned to Zelenka, sank down in one of the waiting room chairs. “I got my masters in engineering. Let’s see who can make a better paper airplane.”

Zelenka scooped up a magazine, tore a page out. “You’re on.”

Sheppard led Rodney and Evan down a hallway away from the waiting room. They stood in a huddle, shoulders hunched against passers-by.

“John,” Rodney said, “I cannot believe you tried to hurt Evan because he’s my soulmate. He’s my soulmate. He’s mine!

“Ease up there a little on the possessiveness. I’m right here,” Evan said.

Rodney closed his hand around Evan’s wrist, and it was kind of stupid, how that immediately made him feel better. “Of course Evan made excuses for you - he’s a loyal airman. But if you really did care anything about me, you’d know I care about Evan.”

“How would I?” John asked. “You never even told me you had a soulmate. You never even told me your real name!”

Rodney slewed a glance at Evan. “You told him that?”

“Dorsey asked who my soulmate was. I told him your name. Figured the fewer people in our business, the better.” Evan shrugged helplessly.

“Is it that you’re homophobic?” Rodney demanded of John. “Because in addition to having a man as my platonic soulmate, I’m bisexual.”

Sheppard cast Evan a betrayed look.

Evan raised one hand in surrender. “Hey, I’m assuming you’re not asking anything, and I’m not telling you anything. All I want is for my soulmate to be happy. We both know Rodney - he likes having answers. So give him answers and we can all calm down.”

Rodney dropped Evan’s wrist, crossed his arms over his chest defensively. “Is that it, then? The end of our friendship now that you know about my admittedly insignificant sexuality?”

“I don’t think it’s insignificant,” Sheppard said, and hurt bloomed in Rodney’s eyes. “I’m rather the - opposite of homophobic, if you know what I mean. It was why my marriage failed.”

The hurt in Rodney’s eyes turned to realization. “Oh. Oh!”

“I just - I thought, if you were going to have a soulmate, and it was going to be a man and an Air Force officer and a pilot, why not...me?”

“John...why didn’t you tell me?”

“Regs,” Sheppard said flatly. “Besides, you never told me about your soulmate. Or your real name.”

Rodney straightened up, shook out his shoulders. “Well, now we know things about each other we didn’t know before.”

“You should tell him about your sister,” Evan said. “In fact, while we’re local, you should go see her, finally. Introduce us both.”

“Sister?” Sheppard echoed.

“Not helping, Evan,” Rodney said between gritted teeth.

Sheppard said, “Older or younger? I have a younger brother.”

“Really?” Rodney’s gaze lit up.

Evan clapped both men on the shoulder. “And I think that’s my cue to leave. Maybe you two should take it somewhere more discreet.”

Rodney nodded without looking away from Sheppard. Sheppard didn’t look away from Rodney either when he said,

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the issue of your soulbond.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir. Send me a message when it’s time.” Evan waved and headed back to the waiting room, where Dorsey and Zelenka had recruited two teams of children and were showing them how to make - and race - their paper airplanes.

“Major Lorne!” Zelenka lit up. “See, boys and girls, Major Lorne is also an Air Force pilot. Come, Major, pick your own team, and see how well you can fly paper!”

Evan let out a little cry of alarm when a handful of kindergarteners almost took him out at the knees, but then he crouched down so he was eye-level with them. “You want to win the paper airplane race?”

The children cheered. Evan ruffled one little girl’s hair, then stood up. “Hand me some paper, Doc. Let me show you how it’s really done.”

Truth was, Evan had no chance against two engineers, one with his masters, the other with his doctorate, but he did have years and years of origami experience and experience with little kids, and he could make paper airplanes with guns.

The paper airplane contest was interrupted by a surgeon coming to tell them that Toriel had pulled through surgery just fine and was in recovery if they wanted to see him. One at a time, though.

Evan let Dorsey go first, because the kid was a big ball of anxiety. He let Zelenka go second, because Zelenka had been up close and personal with Toriel while they were waiting for rescue. Evan went last, promised to stick by Toriel’s side and protect him when his thirteen sisters descended. And descend they did, in a flurry of loud voices, hands waving, and endless red curls. Evan let himself be shuffled off into a corner, watched Toriel sulkily submit to his sisters’ fussing.

And he felt a familiar whisper on his skin.

He pushed back his sleeve, glanced down. Saw familiar handwriting that wasn’t Rodney’s.

Thanks.