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Quicksilver in the Hand

Chapter Text

This is definitely not the type of fieldwork Brendan had in mind. He isn't sure what he had in mind exactly, but when Rodney offered him a trip to the Lagrange Point satellite, Brendan couldn't say no. He rolled his eyes when Rodney intimated that Dr. Weir had suggested him for the mission, but Brendan knows better. Even Rodney, who can be terminally oblivious about his own career, wouldn't take over someone else's discovery, especially when everyone knows how much Brendan wants to get out in the field. Lying on the floor of a derelict hive ship and struggling to breathe, Brendan wonders if Rodney regrets the decision now.

"Anything?" Brendan says.

"No," Rodney says. "Hopefully there was just the one." He sets the scanner aside and starts unrolling bandages.

"You're not going to let me die out here, are you?"

"No. Don't be ridiculous."

"You know, because people would talk." Andrew, for one, and that wouldn't be pretty. Their third night on Atlantis, Andrew had tried to get into Brendan's pants by applying liberal amounts of vodka, and instead he'd gotten the whole sad story of Rodney and Brendan’s breakup. Rodney would hit the roof if he discovered that someone knew they'd had a relationship, so Brendan wracks his tired brain for a way to backtrack.

"Why would they do that?" Rodney's distracted, mopping away the blood from Brendan's chest.

"It's obvious. You're afraid I'll outshine you. My mind, my youth," Brendan jokes. Rodney had been afraid of just that when they first met and Brendan had usurped Rodney's position as the youngest person ever hired on at AeroTech. Or at least, that was how Brendan had interpreted the sour looks Rodney aimed in his direction when he introduced himself at the airport. Brendan smiles, more at the ancient memory than the lame joke, but the expression slips off his face when he sees Rodney grimace. "How much of my life did he take?"

"You look fine," Rodney says quietly, and if anything should set off alarm bells, it's Rodney and quiet. Brendan feels his heartbeat speed up again like when the Wraith was feeding on him, and his breath starts coming in short, unfulfilling bursts.

"That's what they do, isn't it? They take years off your life. I look old, don't I?"

Rodney glances at him out of the corner of his eye, but he looks away again before he answers. Brendan knows he doesn't want to hear this. "You look older, yes."

"Show me."

Rodney sits back on his heels. "There's no point in doing this. You-"

"Rodney," Brendan says firmly, "show me." It only takes a second for Rodney to unstrap the mirror from his tac vest. "Oh my God!" Brendan says. He looks worse than his grandfather did at the end, and he'd been on a transplant list for almost a year before he finally died.

Rodney joins him in panicking now; he's talking so fast Brendan has trouble concentrating on the words. "I don't know how it works, Brendan. I don't think anyone does. Maybe you haven't really aged. Maybe it doesn't work that way. Look, it's possible that in time you could get better. I mean, the important thing is that you're still alive. Can you move yet?"

Brendan takes two deep breaths before he answers. "I think I'm starting to get some feeling back in my extremities."

"Well, there's something."

Brendan just glares at him. "Oh, yeah," he thinks, "very impressive. Maybe someday if I survive, I'll be out of the adult diapers."

"What? I'm just trying to help here." Rodney starts bandaging Brendan's wound and mutters, "You're the one that had to find the stupid satellite."

Brendan has to laugh—only Rodney, Jesus—but it pulls the skin on his chest uncomfortably tight. "Ah! Don't make me laugh."

Rodney glances up at him and winces. "Yeah. You shouldn't laugh because that's... not so good."

Just as Rodney's finishing bandaging Brendan up (he's too tired to mention that maybe the bandage should've gone under his shirt), the radio chirps with an update from Major Sheppard, and Rodney steps away. The echo in the chamber distorts Rodney's end of the conversation, but Brendan's pretty sure he hears him call Sheppard "Captain Kirk." The two of them argue back and forth, but the major seems to have no intention of coming back for them.

Brendan loses some time then, Rodney’s voice fading far into the background. Rodney is hunkered down next to Brendan when he wakes and kneading the muscles of his hand. Of all the bizarre things Brendan never expected from this mission, getting a massage of any kind from Rodney ranks pretty close to the Wraith themselves. Yet, here they are, Rodney's thumbs digging into Brendan’s palm. Brendan flexes his fingers, and Rodney's face lights up.

"Yeah, what did I tell you, huh?" Rodney presses down with renewed enthusiasm, as if he really thinks a massage will make a difference, but his tone of voice is all wrong. Brendan knows manic when he hears it, and maybe Rodney thinks he can fool them both, but the spreading warmth in Brendan's fingertips and the knowledge that he could move his digits if he wanted to aren't lending him any extra energy.

"Rodney," he says calmly. "It's okay." He hopes Rodney knows what he means.

Rodney ignores him. He drops Brendan's hand and pulls his canteen out of his vest. "Water. You probably need some water."

Rodney holds the canteen up to Brendan's lips and, yeah, maybe he has a point because the water tastes way better than it should. Then the radio comes to life, and Rodney's hand jerks, spilling liquid down Brendan's chin and onto his shirt.

"Major," Rodney says. "What's happening?"

The conversation that follows is disjointed, but just hearing Rodney's end is enough for Brendan to know that they're screwed. The major is injured, and he's barely managed to put a dent in the Wraith for reasons Rodney apparently feels compelled to point out while Brendan's sitting right there watching him.

"Dr. Beckett has theorized that the Wraith's ability to heal itself is directly proportional to how recently the Wraith has fed. And he's... fed pretty recently." Rodney glances down at Brendan, who would happily smack him in the face right now if he could move his arm yet.

Sheppard signs off, and Rodney twists his lips into a bitter smile. "That's comforting, huh?" he says, mainly to himself.

"Yeah," Brendan thinks, rolling his eyes. "Very."

Rodney says, "Right—water," and gives Brendan another drink.

Brendan gulps it down, and then he hears a rumbling sound from outside. Rodney springs to his feet and keys his radio. "Major! What the hell was that?" He flinches at the reply. "What?"

Brendan's afraid to ask; there's no way it can be anything good.

"Right," Rodney says briskly, turning his attention back to Brendan. "He's busy." Rodney stands there with his hands clasped, but he's shifting from foot to foot, shaky with adrenaline.

"You want to get out there and help him, don't you?" Brendan says incredulously.

"What? Me go up against a Wraith? Are you kidding?" Rodney never could lie worth a damn, not that Brendan has had all that much opportunity to witness Rodney being untruthful. Even though the biggest obstacle between them was always the truth, Brendan can thankfully say that Rodney never lied to him. Not really.

"You do. I can tell. You've changed. You really want to get out there."

"Shut up!" Rodney snaps, and right there Brendan knows he's winning; Rodney never uses such pedestrian come backs unless he's desperate.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm impressed. You want in the fight. The Rodney McKay I knew would never..."

Rodney cuts him off, patently disinterested in discussing the Rodney McKay Brendan once knew. "You heard the man. We're staying right here." He kneels in front of Brendan and presses a gun into his hand. "Take this, but don't shoot at anything until I tell you to, okay?"

"Okay." They're in a bizarro world now where Rodney actually looks like he knows what he's doing with a firearm, but one of them needs to, so Brendan’s okay with that.

"You're right. I should go out there."

"I didn't say you should. I said you wanted to." Brendan's breathing hard now and becoming more exhausted by the minute.

"Because I should."

"No, you shouldn't. But don't let me stop you. If you really think that you can help the major by going out—”

"I can't leave you here."

Strangely, that makes Brendan smile. "Yes, you can. What difference does it make? You and I both know I'm not going to make it."

"Stop being so dramatic. You're getting stronger by the minute."

"I've never felt so weak."

"Then stop talking."

"I'm dying, Rodney," Brendan says. "I can feel it." And he can. It's an itch in his veins, as if the blood is falling asleep. "I'm not getting better. I'm getting worse. He left me with just enough life so you'd have to watch me die."

When Rodney bailed on him, Brendan hadn’t cared whether they’d ever see each other again for quite a long time, but now Rodney's here, all but holding his hand, and Brendan has the urge to laugh. Maybe he's dead already, and they're stuck in purgatory together. Rodney Fucking McKay. Fucking Rodney McKay. That's something Brendan will never do again even if he gets out of this. There's too much history weighing them down, and the man Rodney's becoming doesn't like reminders. In fact, if he knows Rodney at all, Brendan suspects that before long Major Sheppard will figure prominently in any permutation of fucking Rodney McKay. Brendan's eyes are getting heavy, so he lets them drift shut, and Rodney's voice washes over him.

"All you need is a good meal, a pot of tea, and to stop talking and..." Rodney stops short. There's a rustle and...

"Brendan!" Rodney's voice sounds desperate in his ear, and when Brendan snaps open his eyes, Rodney's face is inches away. "I'm sorry," Rodney says. His eyes are suspiciously shiny.
"You told me to stop talking."

"I'm sorry. I thought you'd—"

“Left me,” Brendan finishes mentally, but that had always been Rodney's thing—walking away, shutting down. Brendan doesn’t blame him anymore; he’s not sure what he would have done if he had been in Rodney’s position all those years ago. He’s pretty sure he would have fought much harder to make things work than Rodney did, but who knows? Brendan’s had years to make peace with what happened between him and Rodney, and he’s grown enough that he can accept his own part in what happened.

"Apologies. As you were."

Then something makes Rodney twitch, and he rushes over to the chamber's entrance, gun raised. "You hear that?"

"No." Brendan's focusing most of his energy on keeping his fingers curled around the gun Rodney gave him.

"I thought I heard something. Maybe there's another one hibernating."

"No," Brendan says. If there was another Wraith, they'd be dead by now.

"It's been too long. I think the major is in trouble, and if he's in trouble, we're in trouble."

"Then go."

Rodney turns back to Brendan, his face absurdly hopeful. "Think you can move?"

Brendan huffs out a short laugh at that. Fine time for Rodney to discover an optimistic streak. Brendan's tongue feels heavy, and he has to force it to work around polysyllables because Rodney McKay cannot die here, too; it makes no sense that Rodney even wants to. "Not a chance. I'm not going anywhere." Rodney has to know that, but for some reason (and after all these years), he seems to have misplaced his relentless focus on personal safety.

Rodney turns back to guard the entrance. "Okay. That's okay."

It's not. They both know it. "Go, Rodney. Just go. Save the day." He listens to Rodney babble about tactics and thinks, "The man in front of me is not the Rodney McKay I knew." Brendan had fallen in love with the old Rodney for all that he was a difficult bastard, "But," he thinks, "this version might have loved me enough to stay." And Brendan pulls the trigger.

Chapter Text

Rodney is annoyed with Brendan Gall before he even meets the man. Gall is too young and too inexperienced, and his letters of reference all praise his creativity and networking skills, which Rodney reads as, "propensity to brown-nose his way to the top." The last thing Rodney needs is another glory hound like Malcolm Tunney on a mission to usurp his position; not to mention, he's had enough trouble at AeroTech with junior staff riding on his coattails already.

Smithka has threatened to move Rodney's lab time to the midnight rotation if he can't make nice with the new hire, and corporate indicated in the most direct communication Rodney's ever received from an employer that no amount of genius will secure him a promotion if he can't bring himself to behave more civilly to his colleagues.

This is why Rodney's sitting in the Atlanta Airport waiting for Gall's flight to arrive.

Naturally, Gall's flight is delayed. Smithka calls just as the plane is taxiing down the runway to tell Rodney not to bother bringing Gall by headquarters because the Big Three have gone home for the day already. She suggests he take Gall to dinner instead before dropping him off at his new house.

"Somewhere nice, McKay."

Rodney bites the inside of his cheek until it nearly bleeds, and then he puts on his best faux-conciliatory voice. "Sure. Why not? It's the company dime."

Smithka laughs. "I'd give my left tit to know what Harrison said to you, McKay. You're acting almost human."

Rodney hangs up on her.

By the time Gall drags his jetlagged ass down to the baggage claim, Rodney is angry and tired and, if he's honest with himself, anxious. He's 99.9% sure that the board intends to replace him with Gall, and Rodney is tired of this game. He does genius work—always, every time, without fail—and he's never understood what pretending to give a damn about Dr. Diploma Mill's personal life has to do with his job performance.

Rodney flatly refused to make a sign of any sort, but he did print out Gall's driver's license picture so he would have some idea of who he's looking for. Rodney spots him hefting a battered Samsonite off the carousel. Gall must have done his homework as well because the first thing he says to Rodney is, "Brendan Gall," and sticks out a hand for Rodney to shake.

"Rodney McKay. Charmed. Let's eat." Rodney shakes Gall’s hand, turns on his heel, and heads for the parking lot, Gall trailing behind.

"I should warn you," Gall says. "I tend to get motion sickness."

Rodney closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "Great."

"Look on the bright side. I ate so much Dramamine on the flight over that I don't think it's possible for a ride in the car to affect me."

Rodney is not reassured.

Gall then proceeds to make irritating small talk about the local weather patterns, but he doesn't seem in any danger of losing his lunch, so Rodney just grits his teeth. They arrive at the restaurant in record time.

~~~

Rodney isn't certain that Six Feet Under qualifies as nice according to Smithka's definition, but the food is delicious, and he and Gall can drop enough cash there to satisfy corporate. The waitress seats them in a booth on the far side of the bar; the view of Grant Park through the windows is lovely if a little morbid. Rodney has never understood the Southern fascination with death and all its attendant rituals. Only in the South is a restaurant's popularity directly related to its proximity to a major cemetery.

"What's good here?" Gall says, nose buried in his menu.

"Shrimp n' Grits, the oysters Rockerfeller. Everything really."

Rodney's club soda is garnished with lime when it arrives even though he mentioned his citrus allergy to the server at least twice. "I need an entirely new glass," Rodney says. "Don't just take that one and fish the lime out. That's the kind of stupid that could kill me."

Gall looks on, open-mouthed, in what Rodney supposes is horror, but Rodney doesn't care.

"I read your latest paper in The Canadian Journal of Physics," Gall says after a beat. "Those are some elegant equations, Rodney. May I call you Rodney?"

Rodney waves his hand magnanimously.

"My numbers wear combat boots, but yours?" Gall shakes his head. "Glass slippers, man."

It's one of the strangest compliments Rodney has ever received, and he doesn't really know what Gall means, but Rodney is gratified all the same. He relaxes marginally.

The appetizers arrive—fried calamari bites and lump crab cakes—and Rodney forces himself to make conversation instead of burning his tongue on the seafood he's piled onto his plate.

"So," Rodney says, "how did AeroTech tempt you to the Deep South? I imagine you were on the fast track to promotion in California. AT must have made you a spectacular offer." Rodney knows this sort of fishing is rude and unprofessional, but he has to know what Gall's expectations are for his new position.

Gall laughs. "They threw some money at me, yeah. I wouldn't exactly say I was on the fast track, though." He munches idly on a ring of squid. "I don't want to be in charge, Rodney. I just want to do what I love and get paid and maybe make a difference somewhere."

Rodney narrows his eyes suspiciously. Gall seems so earnest, as if he truly doesn't care about prestige and power, and Rodney can't help but wonder if it's all an act.

"Look, Rodney, we're a socially maladjusted bunch, scientists. We're better with numbers and machines than we are with people. We're insecure and defensive and more than a little convinced of our intellectual superiority. I'd rather get a root canal than be responsible for placating the neuroses of a division of physicists."

"Huh," Rodney says. "I hadn't thought about it like that." And he hasn't. Rodney cares about the money, sure. Who wouldn't care about the money? And he cares about the work for the work's sake, the sheer pleasure of pushing himself to the outer edges of human achievement. But Rodney wants to be in charge. He always has, and his definition of authority has never included bolstering the fragile self-esteem of underlings. Rodney is uncomfortably reminded of his earlier phone conversation with Smiktha. Whether he wants it or not, Gall may well be more suited for leadership than Rodney because Gall at least understands that mollycoddling is necessary to lead. At any rate, it's food for thought, so Rodney sets himself the task of grilling Gall about his previous work. Gall seems to thrive under the attention, and Rodney can't help but get caught up in his enthusiasm. By the time they finish dessert, Rodney's only about 60% sure that Gall's been sent to replace him.

"Come on," Rodney says, pushing back from the table. "Before I order more chocolate mousse."

~~~

Corporate housing is spread all over Atlanta. AeroTech snatches up properties when the price is right whether the homes are grouped together or not. Rodney is infinitely grateful for this practice. He can't imagine the horror of Smithka fetching the morning paper in her bathrobe or Wheeler mowing his lawn shirtless. Gall's house is in Decatur, making his commute shorter than Rodney's. Rodney tries not to hold that against him.

The time difference is clearly catching up with Gall because he nearly falls asleep on the way to his new place. Rodney pokes him in the arm when they pull into the drive. Gall grins at him and stretches, and Rodney catches himself staring at Gall's slow flex of muscle. Rodney shakes his head to clear it and climbs out of the car. "Smithka will get you a key tomorrow at orientation," he says over his shoulder. "We can go in through the garage."

"You know the code?"

"We're not working for terribly original people, Gall. You can change the code later."

"This is it," Rodney says, punching the first four numbers of pi into the keypad. "Home, sweet home."

The house is small but seems larger because of the open floor plan in the living room and kitchen area. AeroTech appears to have splurged on the furniture; Rodney recalls that Harrison's sister works in some capacity for Ikea. Unfortunately, good taste doesn't extend to the window treatments. Gall's curtains are a floral spew—pink and green with a cloying periwinkle accent. The carpet matches, naturally. Rodney doesn't want to envision the atrocity that is likely Gall's bedspread.

Gall follows him inside and props his suitcase against the back of the couch. "This is really nice," he says, looking around. He's sincere.

"This job will eat him alive," Rodney thinks.

Someone has arranged an overflowing gift basket on the coffee table—peaches and pecans and several bottles of wine, a stack of brochures for local attractions fanned out in front. Gall immediately crosses over to the gift basket and starts fiddling with the cellophane.

"Would you like to have a drink?" he asks over his shoulder.

Rodney says, "I shouldn't." And he shouldn't, for any number of reasons including the computer simulations he's scheduled to run in the morning. But Rodney can't quite bring himself to leave. "And you shouldn't either. Tomorrow's a big day for you, Gall, and I doubt a hangover will make the best impression."

"Oh, but you forget, Rodney. AT has hired a brilliant man," Gall deadpans, and Rodney fights down a smile.

"It's only a matter of time until they start taking your brilliance for granted."

Gall smirks. "Well, until then I'm going to bask in the glory. Come on, you're not going to make me drink alone, are you? It wouldn't look good on your report card."

"Screw it," Rodney thinks. "I can call a cab." He shrugs out of his jacket and tosses it over a chair, earning him a bright smile.

"That's more like it." Gall tears open the gift basket and pulls out two bottles. "What do you think, Rodney? White or red?"

"Red," Rodney says firmly. "Whites have an unfortunate tendency towards citrus notes."

Gall rolls his eyes, but he obligingly cracks the seal on the red and hunts around for a corkscrew.

The setting feels strangely intimate to Rodney—the two of them drinking wine on Gall's couch, focused only on each other's words, no television or background music to distract them. Rodney starts paying attention to Gall, really paying attention, to the way he shrugs his shoulders when he's being self-deprecating, to the way his eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles, to the way his voice deepens when he speaks with conviction. A drink becomes a whole bottle, and they're still going strong. Gall gets up to move the suitcase into the bedroom, and Rodney catches himself staring after him. Not—absolutely not—checking out his ass. They open the snacks and a second bottle of wine. Rodney suspects his judgment has flown out the window; it's late, and he really should go, but somehow Rodney thinks he won't make it home tonight.

"Really?" Rodney says as Gall pours the last of the second bottle into his glass. "You really have no interest in quantum theory?"

Gall shakes his head. "I'd rather end up working on something that has actual applications in the real world."

Rodney almost chokes on his wine. "I'm at the cutting edge of theoretical physics."

"Sure, but don't you ever want to get your hands dirty?"

"I can think of better things to do with my hands."

Of course, Gall takes that the wrong way—or the right way; later, Rodney's not sure. Gall's eyes go wide and dark, and the world gets very strange because Rodney can't think of anything beyond, "I did that." It stirs a warmth in his belly, familiar and intense.

Gall sets down his glass and flicks a glance at Rodney's mouth. "Like what?"

Rodney licks his lips reflexively and takes a shaky breath. His hand is resting loosely on his knee, so sliding it across to Gall's thigh takes minimal effort.

Rodney's pretty sure this isn't what Smithka means by making nice with the new hire, but really they should be thanking him for his initiative. Gall moves closer and presses clumsy, eager kisses into his neck, and when Rodney shifts his hand up to cup him through his pants, Gall gasps.

"Oh, fuck."

Gall's hands slide up into Rodney’s hair and yank him down into a kiss, and Rodney finds himself smiling. Maybe this year will turn out to be more interesting than he'd thought.

The bedspread, remarkably, is actually worse than Rodney imagined. He certainly doesn't want to look at it tomorrow with the hangover he knows is coming. Thankfully, it's a warm night, so they pull it off the bed and toss it on top of Gall's suitcase.

Gall has Rodney naked almost before Rodney realizes it, those clever, clever hands peeling off his trousers and his boxers and his button down shirt. He imagines Gall's nimble fingers piecing together delicate machinery and trembles. Rodney wants to slow things down, to make things last, but Gall is like some sort of unstoppable erotic force, and before Rodney knows it, he's face-down on the mattress moaning as Gall rolls on a condom and pushes inside. When he comes, Rodney whites out—everything irising down to the fierce clench of pleasure low in his gut and Gall's mouth moving wetly on his shoulders.

~~~

Rodney wakes up at 2am and tries to sit up. Nope, still drunk. He crashes back onto the bed, jarring Gall awake, and before Rodney can blink, they're kissing again and groping blindly. One of the benefits of sleeping with an almost-25 year old is making its presence felt, and in a gratifyingly short time, Rodney has Gall shaking and moaning. Despite the theatrics, though, Gall takes long enough to come that Rodney's wrist starts to ache. He wipes his hand clean on a corner of the sheet and crashes back into sleep, lazily satisfied.

They wake again a few hours later when Rodney's watch starts beeping insistently. Gall gets up to look through the kitchen for coffee and asks Rodney how he wants his. Rodney's half-asleep and hungover, so he answers automatically, and then it hits him: he doesn't even know this guy. He had sex with someone he's known for a little over 12 hours, someone he now has to work with every day. What if Gall turns out to be some kind of stalker? Before Rodney can spin that thought to its obvious and horrifying conclusion, Gall reappears with two mugs of coffee. It smells like heaven, and Rodney inhales most of his mug in the thirty seconds Gall takes to slide back under the covers. Rodney sets down his mug and draws himself up into his well-practiced I Am The Boss Here pose. "We shouldn't do that again."

"Probably not." But Gall gives him a wicked grin, and they end up wasting 15 minutes making out before Rodney untangles himself and forces Gall to get dressed. By the time they make a detour to Rodney's for a quick change of clothes, they're an hour and a half late, and Rodney has fielded two calls from Smithka.

"You didn't leave him at the airport, did you?" she says, and Rodney can't help but laugh. There's a stunned silence at the other end of the phone, and then Smithka says, "Are you all right, McKay?"

That only makes him crack up harder because, yes, he's great actually.

~~~

Gall adjusts to life at AeroTech quickly. People like him. He's a likeable guy. Who likes Rodney. They have dinner together a couple of times a week during which Gall laughs freely at Rodney's jokes and matches him ego for ego when Rodney tells horror stories about the imbeciles inflicted on him during undergrad.

And the sex, contrary to Rodney's previous experiences, just gets better and better. One particularly memorable Friday night rolls on smoothly into an entire weekend, and for some reason, Rodney can't make himself regret his resulting lost productivity in anything more than a distant, abstract way. Rodney finds himself forgetting his "date" behavior, which is about the time most people kick him out of their apartments, but Gall just laughs or rolls his eyes. Sometimes both.

He keeps waiting for Gall to change his mind, to tell Rodney he works too much, yells too much, whines too much, but he never does. After awhile, Rodney stops waiting for the other shoe to drop. They don't move in together or anything quite so dramatic, but Rodney gets used to waking up in the middle of the night with the cold arch of Gall's foot pressed against his calf. Of course, Rodney will never get used to startling awake just as he's beginning to drift off as Gall scrambles out of bed for pen and paper. There are days when the man is a worse workaholic than Rodney, and no amount of complaining will convince him that his "revolutionary" solution to the power distribution problem or whatever the monster of the week is will wait until morning. Gall's only saving grace after such an affront is that he tends to come back to bed giddy with the rush of discovery. He gives truly spectacular blowjobs when he's worked up.

Because Gall is assigned to a different project, they manage to maintain a professional distance at work, or so Rodney thinks until Smithka corners him in the elevator.

"You and Brendan seem to be getting along well," she says, peering up at Rodney over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses.

"Yes, I suppose so."

Smithka says, "Very well, McKay," and waggles her eyebrows at him.

"I don't...What... Not that it's any of your business," Rodney stammers. "This is highly unprofessional."

Smithka just grins before the doors open on her floor. "Wheeler owes me ten bucks."

Rodney tries to be angry. "Juvenile gossip mongers, the whole lot of them," he thinks. But he can't help the warmth in his belly and the delicious thrill now that he's been found out, now that they are known, now that he and Gall belong together in their colleagues' imaginations.

~~~

Two weeks later, Rodney's not feeling quite so magnanimous when he overhears Gall and Keppler, or maybe it's Kennedy, talking about their relationship in the cafeteria. Talking about Rodney.

"I wouldn't have picked you for a masochist," Kendall says around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

Gall laughs. "Don't knock it until you've tried it."

Rodney presses his lips together in a thin line and decides he isn't that hungry after all.

Naturally, Smithka decides at that moment that Rodney's team should collaborate with Gall's on the latest project "for the sake of efficiency." Rodney can almost feel the eyes of upper management on the back of his neck, and he's never been more aware of the precarious nature of his position. Which is how Rodney finds himself forced to spend the entire afternoon locked in a lab with the very person he'd so like to avoid.

"No, no, no, no," Rodney says when Gall adds a line of code to the program. "Do you want the entire complex to explode?"

And, "Give me that," Rodney says, snatching the remote for the external power source from Gall. "This is delicate work."

And, "If you don't have anything constructive to add, keep your mouth shut, Gall."

Everyone else in the lab has gone totally silent, their eyes flitting back and forth between the two of them. A couple are smirking openly, but most of Rodney's colleagues seem strangely concerned, as if the tension between Rodney and Gall somehow bothers them.

Gall has the audacity to appear hurt and bewildered. "Can it, Rodney," he hisses under his breath. "Whatever your fucking problem is, can it until we get out of here."

Rodney says, "Fine," and doesn't speak to Gall again until he closes the door of his house behind them several hours later. Then Rodney says, "I overheard you at lunch, talking to Kellerman or whatever the hell his name is," and he waits for Gall to look ashamed of himself or apologize profusely, but Gall continues to look merely puzzled and pissed off. Rodney tries again. "You were talking about me behind my back to the douchebag who included a five paragraph addendum to his annual self-evaluation that said he would perform his duties much more efficiently if I were thrown into the Ocmulgee wearing concrete boots."

Gall rolls his eyes. "We were just talking, Rodney."

"You were gossiping about our sex life!" Rodney snaps. "It's not enough that half of them think I'm a pervert for sleeping with a 25 year old, now you're going around telling people I'm a... a dominatrix!"

Gall cracks up laughing. "I'm sure no one thinks you're a woman, Rodney."

"This is what you wanted all along, isn't it? To destroy my reputation and bogart my funding."

"Come on. You're not really that paranoid."

Rodney folds his arms and glares at him, and Gall's smile fades.

"Wow. Okay, I think I need a drink." Gall crosses over to the kitchen and pours himself a glass of wine, but then he just stands there toying with the stem. Finally, he says, "Someone really did a number on you." He lifts his drink and knocks back half of it in one swallow. He chokes a little and sets the glass down on the counter. "I mean, did you even hear yourself?"

"Did I even hear myself?" Rodney sputters. "All I heard was you." He squares his shoulders and looks Gall straight in the eye. "Although I suppose it's better that I find out now what you really think of me, before..."

"Jesus Christ, Rodney. I think I'm going to beat you." Gall throws his hands up in the air. "We've been over this. I don't want your fucking job. So why don't you tell me what really crawled up your ass."

"You mean other than the fact that we have to walk in there tomorrow and everyone's going to be talking about this? They're going to get weeks of entertainment out of me. Maybe if I was Mr. Popularity, I wouldn't care."

"Rodney..."

"But I'm not. You, you swan around, being everyone's best buddy, and no matter what you do, you'll never be the bad guy. Whatever happens between us, it'll be my fault, and I..." The rage dissipates suddenly, and Rodney is just so damn tired. "I need a drink."

Gall tops up his glass and moves into the living room to give Rodney some space. Rodney's hands are a little shaky, so he spills some of the wine on the kitchen counter, and he's in the middle of wiping it up when Gall speaks.

"Okay."

Rodney looks up and narrows his eyes, unsure what the sudden capitulation actually means. "What?"

"I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable."

"Well, you should be," Rodney says automatically and almost flinches. He sounds just like his father.

Gall sets his glass down on the coffee table. "I should go."

"No," Rodney blurts out. "I mean, you've been drinking. Stay. For dinner."

Gall looks torn, and Rodney feels a nauseating cramp of fear. If Gall leaves now, they're through; Rodney can sense that, and, God help him, he doesn't want to be alone again.

"Look," Rodney says, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean, or rather, I did mean, but..."

Gall interrupts. "I like you, Rodney. I really do. Otherwise, I wouldn't stick around for this shit. You have got to trust me at least a little, or this is never going to work. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, I truly am, but please get your head out of your ass for once." He opens the cupboard and takes down Rodney's grocery bag from its hook. "I'm walking down to the corner store. When I come back, we are making dinner, and we are eating it, and we are both going to act like grownups."

"Okay," Rodney says and spends several nerve-wracking minutes trying to decide how to set the table while Gall's gone. Too fancy and it'll look like Rodney's groveling, but he doesn't want it to look like he doesn't care at all. He almost calls Jeannie before he comes to his senses.

When Gall gets back, they stir fry chicken in soy sauce, and they drink some more wine, and before dinner is over, Gall is smiling hesitantly at Rodney's jokes.

~~~

Rodney treads very carefully for awhile after that. He watches his tongue (and the effort is nearly overwhelming) and just rolls his eyes at Kermit's lame attempts to wind him up. Gall walks on eggshells, too, but by the time Christmas rolls around, they're both comfortable enough to stop censoring themselves.

Rodney doesn't make a big deal of the holidays, and neither does Gall. They exchange gifts, naturally, but Rodney plays things very low key—he's scared off more than one girlfriend or boyfriend with extravagant gifts and heartfelt declarations that invariably turn awkward and weird on him—and when Gall leaves for his parents' with a smile on his face, Rodney sighs in relief.

Jeannie flies in the same day Gall leaves, so Rodney spends one hellacious day at the airport. Jeannie is great, though; her cutting commentary on the Atlanta traffic and the professors in her division keep Rodney in stitches through dinner and clean-up, right up until she mentions that her friend Kelly has recently moved to Atlanta and would make Rodney a good match.

"I can manage my own love life, thank you."

Jeannie folds her arms. "Really. When was the last time you went on a date?"

Rodney tilts his head, pretending to think about it. "Hmm, let me see, it was... last week."

Jeannie snorts. "Right."

"Actually, I've been seeing someone for a while."

"OK, I'll bite. Who is she?"

Rodney presses his lips into a thin line and turns to the sink.

"What? What did I say? Mer-"

"Just drop it," he says tightly, fishing a plate out of the water and scrubbing it viciously.

Jeannie's hand closes over his shoulder. "Mer, talk to me."

Rodney drops everything back into the sink, dries his hands, and turns to look her in the eye. "His name is Brendan. We work together."

Jeannie blinks rapidly. "How long?"

"Three months, give or take. Or did you mean more generally?"

Jeannie shakes her head, and her curls bounce against her shoulders. "No, that's none of my business."

Rodney snorts. "Please. As if that ever stopped you before."

Jeannie clears her throat. "So. Three months, huh?"

Rodney folds his arms over his chest again. "Give or take."

"I can't believe you didn't tell me."

"Okay, first of all, this is me telling you," Rodney says, flapping a hand between them. "Second of all, it hasn't actually been all that long. I'm thirty, not fifteen."

Jeannie laughs. "For you, three months is practically married. When do I get to meet him?"

Rodney grimaces. "Preferably never."

"Hey!" Jeannie steps forward and smacks him on the arm with the back of her hand. "I'm happy for you, idiot."

Rodney pushes the sense of relief deep down where he can mull it over later. "Be that as it may, he's gone home for the holidays. You'll have to postpone the ritual humiliation."

Once Jeannie is in the air, Rodney can turn his attention to other matters. Something she said at dinner one night about wormholes and the enormous power that would theoretically be required to generate one has him thinking, and Rodney's itching to pull out the dry erase markers and test his theory. He spends the rest of the break in his boxers in front of a white board muttering, "Eat your heart out, Bill Nye."

~~~

Gall is gone for every single day they're allotted for Christmas leave, and Rodney picks him up from the airport on the Sunday afternoon before they go back to work. Gall is tired and queasy, and he falls asleep on the drive back to Rodney's place with his face mashed into his duffel bag. Rodney smiles to himself and wakes him carefully. Gall still looks dangerously green, so Rodney settles him on the couch with some of Jeannie's peppermint tea. He piles a plate with leftovers and cracks open his new Babylon 5 box set (he keeps telling Jeannie VHS is all but obsolete, but it's the thought that counts). Gall gets drowsy again after two episodes, so Rodney drops him home.

Monday, Rodney wanders into the engineering lab on his lunch break. He rarely has any reason to visit this wing of AeroTech, but (and he'd never admit this to anyone) he missed Gall over the holidays. Rather more than he'd been expecting, actually, and there's no law that says he can't do what he wants with his lunch hour. Gall is alone in the lab, hunched over a computer screen and eating cookies from a Tupperware bowl marked The Baby Jesus says have a cookie.

"Hey," Rodney says.

Gall jumps, but when he sees Rodney, he grins that blinding grin of his, the one that Rodney thinks is sweet and sexy and ridiculous all at the same time. "Hey."

Rodney wants to say, "I missed you," or "Last night wasn't enough," or "I wish I had asked you to stay with me," or maybe even, "I finally came out to my baby sister," but none of those are topics he wants to broach at work, so he snatches the bowl of cookies from Gall and takes a huge bite of one.

"Don't!" Gall protests, grabbing what's left of the cookie from Rodney. "I think there's lemon peel in those."

Rodney spits the few remaining crumbs left in his mouth into his hand and narrows his eyes. "If that was a joke it's in poor taste."

"It's not a joke."

Without another word, Rodney starts for the door. He hasn't left anything volatile unattended in the lab, and he can get his things tomorrow. If anybody really wants to steal his Got Physics? mug, they're welcome to it. "Tell Smithka I'm going home early."

"Rodney!"

Rodney flips him the bird over his shoulder and slams out of the lab.

He makes it home, barely.

By the time the doorbell rings at 7 o'clock, Rodney's done with puking. His stomach is empty and roiling, but he no longer wants to curl up on the bathroom floor and die. He shuffles over to the door, cracking it open as far as the chain will allow, and finds himself peering at Gall.

"Jesus, Rodney, you look like shit."

Rodney scowls. "Thank you for the newsflash. Did you drive all the way here just to say that?"

"Actually, I was planning on stealing your books. But since you're not dead, you want to let me in?"

Rodney opens the door grudgingly and closes it behind Gall with just a little more force than is necessary.

"What the hell happened today?" Gall says.

Rodney crosses his arms. "I was poisoned. That's what happened."

Gall pinches the bridge of his nose, hard, and breathes deeply for a full ten count. "Okay," he says. "Come in the kitchen, and sit down. You look like you're about to keel over anyway."

Rodney lets Gall lead him to the kitchen table where they sit in silence that grows awkward long before Gall decides to break it. "Rodney, you didn't miss the part of the 'poisoning' where I tried to stop you, right?"

"You wouldn't be the first person to think I was exaggerating my allergies." Rodney looks at the table.

"I don't think that. Okay, I will admit that I have at times thought you were being a little, um, overzealous. But I would never test that theory." Gall falls silent again for a moment, letting it sink in, and then says sharply, "Hey! Look at me."

Rodney takes a deep breath, bracing himself, and lifts his head.

"I don't have orange juice in my refrigerator anymore, Rodney. I don't buy cut flowers every Saturday like I used to."

"I didn't notice that." Rodney wants to look away again, but Gall won't let him.

"I know. But that's not what I want to talk about. Why did you run away from me? Why wouldn't you let me help you?"

Rodney leans back in his chair. "When I was working on my dissertation, the first one, someone squeezed lime juice into my coffee. It tasted off when I drank it, but all the coffee we made in that pot tasted off, and I didn't think anything of it until I was covered in hives and vomiting uncontrollably all over the Bunsen burners." Gall makes a sympathetic noise. "Non-lethal doesn't mean non-existent. I was hospitalized for dehydration twice in as many weeks when I was supposed to be preparing for my Defense, and people still thought it was funny, so excuse me for being cautious."

"Rodney," Gall says. "I don't think it's funny when you're hurting." He reaches out across the table and laces their fingers together. "I want to be there for you when you're covered with hives and when you're puking your guts out. Don't bail on me like that."

Rodney grimaces. "Do we really need the Hallmark moment?"

Gall laughs. "I'm done, I swear. You want dinner?"

While Rodney's in the shower making himself feel human again, Gall heats up some soup, and then they settle on the couch for a Next Gen marathon. Rodney thinks it's a little counter-intuitive that arguing with Gall has made him feel more secure in their relationship, but what can he say? He's a man of contradictions.

~~~

A few weeks later, an engineering firm based in Phoenix begins aggressively headhunting Gall. They email him. They call. They invite him to interview and even parade season tickets to the Suns as one of the perks of the job.

"This is a fairly good offer," Rodney says, paging through the PDF that Gall printed out. "It's more money than AT's paying you."

Gall scoots a little closer to Rodney on the couch and slides a hand up his shirt. "I think I'll pass. I've been here less than six months. I want to see how far I can go at AT. What about you?" he says, leaning his head against Rodney's shoulder but still managing to be thoroughly distracting with his hands. "Would you take the job?"

Rodney drops the stack of papers on the floor. "The second something better comes along, I'm out of here. AeroTech can kiss my ass goodbye."

"I can think of a couple of reasons to stay," Gall says and drags down the zipper on Rodney's jeans.

"Not happening," Rodney says and laughs. "Not even for that amazing thing you do with your tongue. You know, the swirly thing."

Gall says, "You mean this?" and swallows down Rodney's cock, his tongue curling around the head on each upstroke.

"God, yes." Rodney's breath catches in his throat. "Not even for that."

Gall grins around Rodney's cock and pinches Rodney's nipple hard enough to bruise, but Rodney's not really complaining.

The complaints start when they're getting ready for bed, and Rodney realizes he left his copy of Wheeler's proposal on the night stand back at his house. He and Gall spend more nights together than not now, and Rodney's starting to resent the small annoyances—the gas he wastes traveling between two houses, the lost shoes he spent an hour searching for before realizing they were all the way back at his place tucked neatly under the bed. And his overnight bag is getting ridiculously heavy. Rodney thinks that maybe, if things keep going the way they have been, he'll ask Gall to move in with him in the fall. Really, it'd be so much more convenient if they had a place together. Maybe somewhere a little bigger. In Gall's area, of course. Rodney's no fool. Gall's commute is sweet.

~~~

The weather turns warmer, and all the azaleas start to flower. They're hell on Rodney's sinuses, naturally, but incredibly beautiful nonetheless. The day Rodney’s latest article hits print, Gall's front yard is awash in pink and magenta blooms. Almost immediately, Rodney gets a call from a government funded research facility in Nevada—Air Force Flight Test Center Detachment 3, or Area 51. He didn't think the opportunity to get the hell out of AeroTech would present itself so soon, but apparently wormhole dynamics is the new black.

He doesn't mention the job offer to Gall at first. It seems ludicrous—Rodney McKay in the desert. He'd grow a melanoma in less than a week. Ridiculous. Not to mention, they want him to submit to the indignity of an interview process. Do they want him or not? So Rodney says nothing until the salary they offer him exceeds the upper threshold of what he'd thought possible at this juncture in his career.

"Nevada?" Gall says and turns down the sheets on his side of the bed. "There's not enough sunscreen in all the world, Rodney."

"Oh, ha. See how funny you think it is when I still look thirty five, and you get mistaken for an octogenarian."

Gall crosses to Rodney's side of the bed and sets the alarm, hunkering down over the clock and scrolling slowly through the hours. "What could possibly entice Rodney McKay to the land of sun and sand?" His voice sounds strange to Rodney, but when Gall turns around, he's grinning, and Rodney pushes away the thought.

"They're very interested in my work. Unlike some people I could name," Rodney says, poking him in the ribs.

Gall raises an eyebrow. "Hey, if I thought you could stand the competition—"

Rodney gives him a hard shove, and Gall falls back onto the bed with an audible huff. Rodney climbs on top of him. "You'll have to live without me for a week," he says, leaning down and kissing him. Gall wraps an arm around Rodney's shoulders and pulls him close.

When they stop for breath, Gall gasps, "Want to make up for it in advance?"

~~~

Rodney's trip to Nevada is like something out of a surrealist nightmare. And, yes, he does know what surrealism is. Just because he happens to believe the liberal arts are by and large a waste of time doesn't mean that he didn't study his ass off in the twentieth century lit class he was forced to take as an undergraduate. So, surrealist nightmare.

Rodney hasn't seen this many guns since storm troopers broke down his parents' door and dragged him to the police station after the sixth grade science fair. There's a lot of brass walking around the facility, too. Lots of colonels and majors and even a general. Rodney doesn't know what's going on, but it's clearly big. He has to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they even let him out of the car. Apparently, he is not to divulge the contents of the parking lot or corridors under pain of law.

For such a secretive place, the reception area is perversely light and airy. Like all government buildings, the facility’s layout is labyrinthine; somewhat atypically, there are blast doors at almost every turn. The man the government sends to meet him at the airport, a Major Davis, is cordial—friendly even—but he's clearly just biding his time until he can hand Rodney off to whoever will make the decisions. Davis starts rattling off a list of their departments as he walks—geology and metallurgy, medical and biological research, mechanical engineering and, of course, quantum physics. That nearly stops Rodney in his tracks because, seriously, who has an entire department just for quantum physics? Rodney starts to feel a thrill of excitement, but the area Davis shepherds him into is just a series of offices no different from the hundreds of others he's been in. The carpet is gray and functional, the walls boring and featureless.

Davis introduces Rodney to a colonel named Simmons and a Bill Lee and three other people whose names he promptly forgets. They interrogate Rodney about his paper so intensely it's like another dissertation defense, but eventually they seem satisfied he came up with the article's premise independently. Simmons dismisses the remainder of the interview committee, and then the questions turn personal. Some anonymous They have been watching Rodney for a while, and They know all about his relationship with Gall. Rodney has no idea which answer is the correct one, so he tells the truth: he doesn't give a rat's ass who knows about his personal life, and Gall knows nothing about this work; he's just an engineer.

"Just an engineer?" Simmons says and raises an eyebrow.

Rodney can feel the heat radiating down his collar, and he squirms in his seat. He's not going to dignify that with a response.

When Simmons has finally decided that Rodney keeps no skeletons in his closet and that he has never consorted with terrorists or belonged to a cult (And really, Rodney has no idea what could have prompted half of the questions he's been asked. Has he ever hallucinated anyone with glowing eyes? Please.), the Colonel gets to the good part. "Naturally, we can't expect you to accept a position here without a full understanding of the nature of the work we do in the Stargate program. The name of this project is classified as well, by the way, and is covered in the non-disclosure agreement you already signed. What you are about to learn, however, requires a more substantive confidentiality agreement."

Rodney raises his eyebrows.

"I know this must seem paranoid in the extreme to you now, Dr. McKay, but I promise you that in thirty minutes you'll understand more fully the need for such measures."

Simmons hefts the mother of all NDAs onto the table, and Rodney starts signing. He didn't sit through hours of grueling interrogation only to leave at the finish line. He stops short at page 14 where the dotted line entices him to sign over any and all personal correspondence. "What," he sneers at Simmons, "you're going to black out my letters? Do I go on some watch list even if I reject your offer?"

"It shouldn't come to that, Doctor," Simmons says smoothly, but Rodney keeps reading, and there it is, nestled between "reserve the right to terminate the contract without notice" and "revealing any such knowledge will be considered an act of treason." Neither of these surprises him that much; Rodney learned about the reach of the United States government the hard way back in sixth grade. He grits his teeth and keeps going, hoping this mess will be worth everything he's potentially signing away

By the time he finishes signing over his life, Rodney's past being pissed; this has to be something monumental, and it's definitely something exclusive.

Then Simmons begins the job description with a declaration that aliens are real, and Rodney realizes abruptly how pathetically small his world view has been.

~~~

The flight back to Atlanta is long and boring, and Rodney is left with more than enough time to think about the radical shift to the left his life has taken. "The coolest thing that's ever happened to me," he thinks, "and I can't even tell anybody."

Gall is waiting at the airport, and Rodney is hit with a wave of déjà vu, one of those strange moments where everything seems to come around full circle.

"We have to stop meeting like this," Gall says and slings Rodney's duffel over his shoulder. "How was Nevada?"

"Good," Rodney says. "Really good."

"You can tell me about it over dinner."

Rodney has no idea how he's going to explain Area 51 to Gall without violating his contract. With all the sensitive material deleted, his tour of the place sounds incredibly dull. None of the projects the Stargate program is working on there is declassified; AeroTech appears to be financing more interesting work. The notion of lying to Gall turns Rodney's stomach, but Rodney's afraid that Gall won't understand why he's taken the position otherwise.

"I can't tell you anything about the job," Rodney says through a mouthful of Chinese takeout. "You know how your government is. I had to sign a stack of NDAs as thick as the Manhattan phonebook." Rodney sets down his chopsticks. "I can tell you this is big, though. Huge. History book huge. Maybe the most important scientific work since, well, ever."

Gall methodically closes up the tiny boxes of rice and sweet and sour pork and teriyaki mushrooms. "Wow," he says. "That's . . . wow. I don't know what to say."

Rodney feels a tendril of icy fear coil deep in his belly. "Believe me," he says, "I know how much this sucks. I want to tell you more than anything, but I can't. These people are serious about keeping secrets. You do understand that, right?"

Gall sighs. "I get it, Rodney. You're leaving, aren't you?"

Rodney crosses his arms and looks down at the table. "Well, yes. Opportunity of a lifetime, cutting edge technology, practically a guaranteed Nobel. I think I have to."

Gall is quiet for a long time. "I'm happy for you, Rodney," he says eventually, but if he is, Rodney can't see it anywhere in his face.

That night when they make love, Gall holds Rodney so tightly his thumbs leave bruises on Rodney's hips. Gall doesn't close his eyes even once, which Rodney thinks is a little odd, but mostly incredibly hot. Gall watches Rodney intently as they move against each other—Rodney's hand fisted in the bed sheets, the flush Rodney knows is spreading across his chest, Rodney's shoulders slicked over with sweat. "Brendan," he says when he comes. "Brendan." Gall closes his eyes then and comes, too, his body trembling everywhere it touches Rodney's.

~~~

The next day, Rodney puts in his notice at AeroTech.

"And we only just got him, McKay," Smithka says, shaking her head. "You could at least have done us the courtesy of waiting a full year before you drag Brendan halfway across the country."

Rodney's mouth opens and closes a few times before he finds his voice. "He isn't . . . I mean, I don't think," Rodney stammers. "We haven't discussed that," he finishes stiffly.

Smithka pulls off her glasses and glares at him with her dark, beady eyes. "I never thought that I would give one good goddamn about anything in your personal life, McKay, but Brendan has turned you into something halfway human, so here's a little advice. Don't screw up the one good thing that's ever happened to you." She folds his resignation letter into crisp thirds. "And I swear to you, if you hurt him, you'll need half the country between us."

Rodney turns on his heel and leaves her office. He hasn't been this angry in a very long time, and he needs time to cool down before he says something he'll regret. Naturally, he bumps into Gall almost immediately.

"What's wrong?" Gall says, taking Rodney’s arm and pulling him into an empty conference room.

"Nothing," Rodney says. "Long day."

"It's 8:15."

"Have I mentioned how much I hate this job?"

Gall frowns. "Only on a daily basis."

Rodney paces the width of the room. "I knew they were out to get me."

"Whoa, Rodney, back it up a little."

"I just had a friendly chat with Smithka. She accused me of poaching you."

Gall's frown deepens. "I didn't know that was on the table."

"It's not."

Gall breathes in sharply and says, "Well, okay then," in this strange, half-choked voice that sends chills up Rodney's spine.

Rodney immediately starts backpedaling. "You said you wanted to stay at AeroTech, see how far you could go here."

Gall flops down in a chair. He looks more tired than Rodney has ever seen him. "That was weeks ago, Rodney. Weeks. And things are different now."

"Well, you didn't say . . ."

"It's been a day!" Gall interrupts, his voice breaking on the last word. "A little less than twenty four hours. I've barely had to time to process that you're leaving much less find a way to keep this relationship going. Which, by the way, it would be nice if you seemed as concerned about us as you are about advancing your goddamned career."

Rodney panics. The Stargate program is serious business; Gall simply cannot start nosing around Area 51 looking for a job. They might think Rodney has violated his confidentiality agreement, and Rodney can't even imagine the ensuing unpleasantness. "I can't ask the people running the single greatest human endeavor to find a spot for my boyfriend. This isn't Glee Club."

Gall stands up again, his face white, the chair careening out from under him and bouncing against the back wall of the conference room. "Do you know how far Phoenix is from Las Vegas?" He grips the edge of the table, his arms shaking with what Rodney recognizes as an effort to maintain control. "Six, maybe seven hours with traffic. Your coattails are safe and sound, Rodney."

Rodney throws his hands up in the air. "Oh, thanks for that. Very mature, Gall."

Rodney realizes a second too late that he has irrevocably crossed some arbitrary line that Gall has drawn in the sand with that last comment. Gall stands up perfectly straight, and he doesn't look sad anymore or wistful or tired or anything other than livid. Rodney thinks in a very detached way that he looks exactly like someone who is kicking his boyfriend to the curb.

"Gall?" he says. "Are you fucking kidding me?"

"I—" Rodney starts, but he doesn't get any further before he's interrupted.

"I have worked my ass off to keep this thing going, but I've had enough of your bullshit."

"My bullshit?" Rodney sputters, unable to shut up.

"You're arrogant, Rodney!" Gall yells. "Petty, arrogant, and...and... bad with people!"

"Oh, well, lucky for me I have Saint Brendan to show me the error of my ways." Rodney can't help himself. It's as if someone else is saying the words.

Gall doesn't respond. He just walks away. Rodney thinks he might be crying.

~~~

Rodney's broken up with plenty of people before; this part of a relationship is no mystery to him—the stares in the halls, the whispers, the circuitous route he takes through the building to avoid any area that Gall might possibly visit. Rodney thinks he might feel better, or at least more clear headed, once he gets home, but Gall's deodorant is in his medicine cabinet, and his vitamins are in the cupboard, and three of his white T-shirts are wrapped in Rodney's towels in the dryer. Everywhere he looks, all he sees is Gall.

Maybe he should be glad they had a clear end-point instead of living in a running battle. Rodney doesn't have the stomach for drawn-out conflicts; that was one of the many reasons he'd been happy to put himself forward for accelerated entry into college and to support Jeannie’s application to residential high schools for the gifted. Let his parents be miserable together on their own.

But looking around at his empty house, glad isn't the feeling that comes to mind.

The next two weeks are a kind of torture that Rodney could never have imagined one year ago. The entire company seems to be angry with him, and that registers in a variety of ways: the deluge of spam in his inbox, the endless exit paperwork that he has to refile because of "errors," the subtle sabotage of his most important project. Rodney thinks it very strange that he never realized how fully his colleagues had accepted him into their community until they began shunning him again.

Gall moves on Rodney's periphery like a ghost—the sound of his voice through an open lab door, a sad smile at someone else in the crowded cafeteria, his handwriting on the whiteboards in Rodney's labs. Rodney doesn't know what to do, how to fix this—any of it—and so he works. He completes more projects for AeroTech in the last two weeks of his employment than in the previous two months. Sometimes late at night in the lab, Rodney feels like someone is watching him, and every time he thinks, "Maybe," and, "Please," and every single time he turns around to an empty room.

Rodney skips out on his final day at AeroTech and drives to Gall's place. All Rodney's things are in two cardboard boxes behind the couch in the living room. Rodney puts the bag full of the odds and ends Gall had left at his house next to the boxes and stares for a moment. "So that's it," he says aloud. "The whole thing reduced to two boxes and a trash bag." Rodney tamps down a hysterical laugh.

He spends an hour trying to write one stupid note, but nothing comes out right. In the end, he leaves his key and his new address on the middle of Gall's kitchen table and manages not to lose it until he's stuck in traffic on 75.

~~~

Area 51—and isn't that a mind trip in itself— is a treasure trove of scavenged tech from something like half a dozen "superior" alien cultures, all of it painstakingly cataloged under the supervision of one Major Doctor Samantha Carter. Carter has the jump on Rodney by six whole years, and she's had the dubious honor of playing incubator to one of those snake things, so most of the notes on the Goa'uld tech are authorized by her painfully neat signature. None of it so much as blinks when Rodney picks it up because he has no naquadah in his blood. He is really going to hate this job if ultimately it requires possession by an alien entity for technical proficiency.

Gall never writes. Not that Rodney has time to care; he has simulations to run and stacks of reading to do. He starts to think maybe he's been spending too much time at work when just glancing at one of Carter's labels makes him want to grind his teeth, but unfortunately he doesn't have many other options. They won't let him take any reports out of the facility, and he's so far behind it's not even funny. Not just with Carter's stuff, either; Rodney missed the twenty fucking years of trial and error where they fabricated a dialing device from scratch. It's the kind of feat of engineering Gall would have wet dreams over. If Rodney could tell him, that is. If—but that’s not worth thinking about. What's done is done, and if Gall couldn't see how important this is to Rodney—hell, to the whole galaxy—then screw him. This job will be worth whatever Rodney's lost and then some; it has to be.

Rodney's been at Area 51 for about six months when he discovers the report on the quantum mirror SG-1 found almost three years back. Rodney brushes aside his horror at the idea that the world could have ended and he'd never have known why and focuses on the important part. He almost wants to sit down and weep because they have proof of quantum theory, and the bastards have been hoarding it. He takes several deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart, but his chest tightens uncomfortably. Rodney wonders how many times he and Gall stay together and how many other Rodneys across the multi-verse wake up in the middle of the night with one arm flung across an empty bed.

~~~

Migraines are the norm for Rodney now. Terrific headache, general nausea, the occasional visual aura. His hands shake when he takes them off the keyboard, and so Rodney stuffs them in his pockets where no one will see. He thinks he's flying under the radar until one morning when Bill Lee glances up at him and does a spittake on a pile of schematics.

"You," Lee says. "Infirmary. Now."

The base psychologist diagnoses him with an anxiety disorder exacerbated by too much work, too little sleep, a poor diet and "acute stress." When Rodney scoffs at her suggestion of alternative relaxation techniques, she retaliates by putting him on leave for two weeks.

He's bored within twelve hours. It's the longest Rodney's spent in his apartment since he moved to the desert. In hindsight, he admits that's probably not a good sign. When he calls for takeout, he can't help but notice how his voice echoes off the walls, and he's suddenly aware of how long it's been since he had real company. Rodney lives with that realization for three solid days, and then he makes a decision.

"The only reason I'm doing this," Rodney says aloud to his steering wheel, "is to get in Dr. Freud's good graces and maybe back in the lab before Felger blows it up." He pulls into the parking lot of an animal shelter in the Las Vegas suburbs. "Only reason at all."

Experience has taught him that dogs are too emotionally demanding, so he picks out the most independent looking tabby cat he can find. Rodney peers into the cage. "You don't look like a Harold." The cat narrows its eyes and stares back at him, as if to say, "Tell me about it," and then turns away and starts licking its tail.

Rodney goes back to the base two days early with cat hair dusting the collar of his shirt, and Ms. Jung (Dr. Heightmeyer, Rodney corrects himself mentally; it wouldn't do to slip up and call her that out loud.)— Dr. Heightmeyer is so impressed that she agrees to allow Rodney to resume active duty. He neglects to mention that he falls asleep every night now with Harold curled up in the crook of his knees; she doesn't need to know that. Besides, Rodney is reducing his risk of heart disease by petting an animal daily, nothing more. There's quantifiable, scientific evidence concerning the ameliorative effects of animals on heart health—well, as scientific as evidence in that discipline can ever be.

~~~

Time passes in that maddening way that feels as slow as molasses in the moment but stacks up awfully quick in retrospect. Rodney engrosses himself in his work and his cat, and he manages to stay out of the shrink's office. Colonel Simmons' office, however, is another matter altogether.

"Look, Colonel, maybe you've forgotten, but I don't take orders from you."

Simmons leans forward on his forearms. "Rest assured, this matter has been decided at the highest level. I don't have to tell you, Dr. McKay, that military applications for this technology are the number one priority for the Pentagon. We need a way to defend ourselves when the Goa'uld show up on our doorstep unannounced."

Rodney has no qualms. Many of the scientists Rodney has worked with refuse to work for the government, any government, because they want to keep their consciences clear. As long as they're publishing into the ether and not designing weapons themselves, they can buy themselves a measure of plausible deniability. Not Rodney. He's no fool; he knows that some of what he has created has and will be used for nefarious purposes by, for lack of a better term, evil people. Power can always be misused, but he'd like not to end his days as a galactic smear on the Milky Way, thank you very much, so he'll give the US government anything it wants to keep the alien overlords at bay. Sometimes, though, when he's hunched over Carter's notes on the first-generation naquadah bomb, Rodney wonders what Gall would say about this particular project.

He's not even halfway done on the second-generation mock up when the entire project is pulled out from under him and shipped off to Major Barbie. That's the last Rodney hears of it for days and days until they "invite" him to speculate on its explosive yield. Rodney has decidedly mixed feelings about not being included at the initial test: it is his prototype, but he doesn't need to see it work to know that it will. He manages to forget about it almost entirely until Felger gets word from Colorado.

"Thank god the Gate shut down," Felger says, "or the whole facility would've been toast."

Rodney thinks he might vomit. Those numbers checked out; he ran them over and over and over again until every potential problem was accounted for. The offworld Gate should've been destroyed. It was a freaking nuclear explosion. This should not have happened.

"Excuse me," Rodney says and goes back to his office to sit with his head between his knees for half an hour.

When he finally decides to call it a day, he encounters a Scotsman in the parking garage. Rodney can tell the man is Scottish because he's kicking the rear tire of what Rodney presumes is his Corolla and yelling, "Bloody hell," and something else that sounds like haggis. Rodney's seen the guy around; his name is Bocker or Bucket or something like that. He's a doctor of medicine, modern man's equivalent of the shaman, and normally Rodney would just walk away, get in his car and leave the strange little man cursing his flat tire. But then the guy stops kicking, and he leans against the rear passenger door, and he says, so quietly that Rodney almost doesn't hear him, "It should have worked. The damn thing should have worked."

This is how Rodney ends up in a bar called Nick's playing pool with Dr. Carson Beckett, M.D. Rodney likes pool; the game's all angles.

"So what you're telling me," Rodney says, lowering his voice as he lines up a shot to the corner pocket, "is that you can give me the ability to operate Ancient Technology?"

Carson sighs and confirms that no one in the mostly empty bar is within hearing range before answering. "Theoretically. Right now, I can't get the blasted gene therapy to take in a single subject, and I don't know why. The science is good; I should be able to introduce the ATA gene to a subject's genetic code. We must be missing something, but I've no clue what that is."

"If you ever figure it out," Rodney says, "sign me up. I haven't really delved too deeply into Ancient technology—well, other than what the Go'auld bastardized for the Gate system—because I don't think I could stand working on one more gizmo that I can't even turn on and off." Sometimes in his more maudlin moments, Rodney imagines himself with his nose pressed to the glass of a huge department store window, all these beautiful, beautiful things lining the shelves, and he can't even get the goddamned door to open.

Carson's eyes light up, and he taps his fingers on his pool cue speculatively. "You know, I could always use another subject in the test pool, Rodney."

"Oh, hell no. I am not available for medical supposition."

Carson laughs and claps him on the back, and Rodney's eyes sting when he realizes that Carson is the first person who's touched him with affection since he last saw Gall.

"Rodney, lad, are you all right?"

Rodney sniffs. "What? Yes, yes. I'm fine. It's just," Rodney pauses for a second, wondering why he feels compelled to open up to this stranger, and then throws caution to the wind. "I wish I hadn't taken this job. I wish I'd never left Atlanta, never left—" Rodney breaks off again.

Carson takes the pool cue from his hand and leans it against the wall with all the others. "Left a girlfriend behind, did you? Come on, then. I know what's good for what ails you."

Rodney doesn't contradict Carson's mistake, but he does drink the scotch he buys, and after a few more drinks under his belt, Rodney's left maudlin far behind. The two of them spend the rest of the evening trading stupid colleague stories, and when Rodney face plants into his bed at well after midnight, he feels better than he has in weeks.

After that night, he and Carson are fast friends. This is weird for Rodney. It's not as if he's spent his entire life friendless; Rodney's not that pathetic, not by any means. But Carson is the first close friend he's had as an adult, and that takes some getting used to. They're in completely different fields, so professional jealousy and one-up-manship are out of the question for them both; Carson is also incredibly friendly and easy to talk to, and he never calls Rodney a hypochondriac when his allergies act up or he develops strange symptoms. He even tries to drag Rodney off to Scotland when Jeannie elects to spend Christmas with her new boyfriend, Callum or Corky or something. Carson doesn't make up for losing Brendan, not by a long shot, but he numbs the ache. Rodney is grateful.

~~~

Rodney passes his nine-month evaluation with flying colors, and life settles into a rhythm of work, work, more work and the occasional hangover thanks to Carson's affinity for scotch. Before he knows it, he's been at Area 51 for eighteen months with no further mental breakdowns. To celebrate, he's invited to Washington to present his long-overdue annual report directly to the brass. Rodney would have preferred a gift card, but naturally, no one asked. Poor Harold is stuck in the kennel because Carson's allergies rival Rodney's own, and there's no way he could cat sit for him. Rodney tries not to think about Harold's little face mashed up against the bars of a cage.

Thrilled as he is to escape the hellish Nevada summer, Washington is exactly like Rodney thought it would be—simultaneously boring and nerve-wracking with enough doublespeak to last him for a lifetime. At least the little sandwiches in all the conference rooms are delicious.

Then everything goes to hell. Teal'c, a member of SG-1, has become somehow trapped in the Gate, and Major Carter can't retrieve him. This is how Rodney finds himself underneath three metric tons of mountain in the hall outside General Hammond's office.

"Colonel Simmons," the general says, coming up behind them.

"Hello, General," Simmons responds with typically false cheerfulness. "I was just introducing Major Carter and Doctor McKay. The doctor has been studying the Stargate program out at Area 51 for over a year now."

Carter turns to Rodney. "Without access to a working Gate?" she says, frowning slightly. It's a good look on her.

"I had a virtual computer model that was built when the second Gate was there," he replies and smiles at her. Carter smiles back. Rodney thinks maybe they're having a Moment, but then the General interrupts.

"Well, I'm sure it's a thrill to be here to see the real thing."

Rodney almost snorts out loud— yes, because they're really going to let him run the kinds of experiments he's been planning on the real thing—and rocks back on his heels. "Not really."

"The Pentagon feels that Dr. McKay has become the world's foremost expert on the Gate," Simmons says.

Hammond, obviously playing favorites already, corrects him. "Next to Major Carter."

"Well, with all due respect, Major," Rodney says, tipping his head to her in a brief nod, "you spend most of your time in the field."

She watches him for a moment and then flinches back, almost snarling. Rodney starts to wonder if waiting for Simmons to do the introductions was a good idea.

"Major Carter spent two years working on the Gate prior to her five years of service at the SGC. She's the one who made this program viable," Hammond says, nostrils flaring.

Rodney can't let such a blatant fallacy stand any longer. "Actually, the interface she designed is full of flaws."

Carter smiles again, but her lips are pulled tight; it's almost a grimace. Obviously, she's at least partly aware of her shortcomings. "Well, I admit it's not perfect, but it's certainly—"

"It has caused numerous unnecessary situations, any number of which could have ended in catastrophe." Rodney can't believe she's arguing the point after nearly wiping out an entire planet six months ago just by stepping through the Gate.

"And we certainly don't want that to happen," Simmons adds. "That's why the Doctor is here to help."

Rodney drops his gaze to the floor, wishing the man would just stop talking already.

"Good," Hammond replies crisply. "He can report to Major Carter."

Rodney bites his lip and peers sideways at her. It's starting to feel uncomfortably like they're caught in the middle of a pissing match, and Rodney's fighting the urge to fidget with his name tag or scuff his shoes. Carter looks cool and collected, damn it.

"And the two of them might be able to work together to solve this problem and get Teal'c back in one piece," Simmons counters, "in the time allotted."

Carter whips her head around to face him. "Excuse me? In the time allotted?"

"Forty-eight hours."

"Sir!" Carter protests, scowling.

Hammond's face is stormy, too, and he glares at Simmons. "Come with me, Colonel."

The two men step through into the adjacent office, and Rodney breathes a sigh of relief. For several uncomfortable minutes, they watch through the thick glass as Hammond and Simmons argue. Finally, they come back out into the corridor, and Carter is dismissed. Hammond assigns one of his goons to give Rodney a brief tour of the base—mess hall, bathroom, sleeping quarters. He drops off his duffel bag and asks for an escort to Carter's lab.

She's working steadily; most likely she has been since they parted company. It's the sort of work ethic Rodney can appreciate, so he steps forward and says, "I guess we got off on the wrong foot."

Carter keeps typing, probably finishing her train of thought. "What probability factor did you use figuring that out?"

Right. Hostile, defensive. Rodney can work with that. "For the record, I don't work for Colonel Simmons."

"What difference does that make?" she says, glancing briefly at him.

Rodney decides to count that as a win. "Well, I sensed a little tension there. I'm on the Air Force payroll. I report directly to the Chief of Staff."

"Ah, well, that changes everything."

Rodney shakes his head. "I just wanted to give you my honest analysis, Major. It is a waste of time to assume that you're right about everything. I just thought we'd get past that." Out of habit, he makes a zooming motion with his hands. Rodney would be embarrassed if Carter was actually looking at him.

"Leaving more time to devote to your fan club," she says snidely. She continues staring straight ahead at the computer screen, occasionally tapping out a command.

As lovely as it is getting an uninterrupted view of her profile, Rodney can’t tell if any of his points are sinking in, so he tries spelling things out plainly. "The Gate wasn't meant to be used without a dialing device. Your computer ignores 220 of the 400 feedback signals the Gate can emit during any given dialing sequence. It is a fluke that you picked up the buffer warning. For that matter, I'm surprised that you even bothered aborting the dialing sequence despite the error."

Finally, Carter turns to face him, her eyes bright with anger. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Rodney takes a deep breath before answering. "I've read the reports, Major. You've ignored error data and bypassed dialing protocols on several occasions to get a lock."

Carter stares him down, unapologetic. "My job is to present the risks, not to decide whether or not to take them."

Rodney looks away and bites his tongue, unwilling to piss her off any further but sorely tempted to ask who he should really be talking to if she's not in charge of her own work.

"Now, if you have something positive to add, do it," Carter continues. "Otherwise, get out of my lab."

"Well—"

Just then the phone rings, and Carter reaches across her desk to answer it. Rodney tries not to eavesdrop, he really does, but she isn't exactly keeping her voice down. The gist of it is that Rodney was right; Carter's interface caused the problem. Unfortunately, that means groveling to the Russians for their DHD, and negotiations aren't exactly going well.

On the bright side, Carter seems to have refocused while she was on the phone. They spend the next several hours spinning theories, and Rodney outlines some of the experimental data he's gathered from his simulator. Carter is skeptical until he moves on to the real-world experiments he's done, testing the physical tolerance of the crystals that make up the backbone of Ancient technology. They're remarkably resistant to power surges, actually, and Rodney has determined that without a significant boost—say, a naquadah-enhanced system—it would be nearly impossible to reach the failure point.

A grunt brings them sandwiches and coffee at some point. Rodney sets down the dry-erase marker and quickly gulps his food down; Carter just stares at his diagrams, and then her eyes light up. "What if..." She doesn't bother finishing the thought, just gets up and starts making notations on Rodney's work.

"Look, I know what I'm doing," he snaps. "I made a naquadah bomb without your supervision. I think I can draw a damn crystal."

Carter turns back to him and stares. "That was you? You could've destroyed the entire facility!"

Rodney smirks. "Yes, well, I'm sure I'd be crying myself to sleep over my failings if this little critique wasn't coming from the woman who almost destroyed an entire planet."

Carter's eyes turn even colder, and the completely irrational part of Rodney's brain that refuses to shut down for any reason thinks she looks even lovelier than she did before. There's an uneasy silence as they get back to the matter at hand.

The next time Rodney checks his watch, he realizes they've been sitting there for eighteen hours straight. He gets up, stretches his aching back, and suggests they get some real food. Carter blinks at him, checks her own watch, and grimaces.

"Fine."

On the way, they get into a discussion about memory storage. Rodney's still outlining his results as they get in line at the mess. "... no switch. The crystals were wiped clean by an unstable vortex of a forming wormhole. Do you have any idea how much excess energy one of those blasts gives off?" It's supposed to be a rhetorical question, but Carter jumps right in.

"As a matter of fact, I do. Now, what we need to do is find a way to establish an event horizon without the vortex."

"It's impossible," Rodney says, eyes fixed on what's being piled onto Carter's plate. The food looks good, and it's been almost a full day since he stopped to eat a proper meal.

"I've seen it done before."

"By magical fairy beings." Rodney waggles his fingers for emphasis and then turns to the server. "Is there lemon in that?"

"It's lemon chicken," the man says drily.

Fuck. "So it is. I'm mortally allergic to citrus. One drop of lemon, and I could die. I'll have whatever that is," he says, pointing at the other tray, and then realizes Carter is staring at him. "I have to be very careful," he says quietly, feeling like an idiot.

They find a table, and Rodney tucks in straight away. "So," he says through his first mouthful, "what would this fictional event horizon be connected to?" He looks up and finds Carter still staring.

"Hungry?"

"Starving," Rodney replies. "Shockingly, this is even worse than it looks, but it beats a hypoglycemic reaction."

Carter smiles tightly and then gets back on track. "The event horizon is what dematerializes you and sends you into the wormhole. Now, maybe we don't need to connect to a wormhole in order to form an event horizon."

Rodney smirks. "Maybe, somehow, some way."

"All we need to do is get the rematerialization process to work." How Carter manages to say something so naive with a straight face is a mystery.

"Major, even if you manage to create a viable event horizon without connecting to a wormhole you'd never get the Gate to reintegrate Teal'c."

"Why not?"

Okay, so he's going to have to break it down for her. "The crystals that retain the energy pattern before reintegration, they're not like magnetic hard drives."

Carter widens her eyes like a kewpie doll. "I know. They're crystals."

Rodney shakes his head and smiles. "You can't just ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Entropy dictates that the crystals won't retain their energy pattern permanently. I've measured it. It's what's called quantitative evidence." He knows this is a life and death situation, but still he can't help enjoying the banter. It's not as if debate with Felger is ever anything but a waste of time, and Rodney's really interested to see what he and Carter can come up with together if they push themselves, push each other. He suspects Carter is on the same wavelength.

"I think the energy itself is unimportant past its initial imprint on the crystals."

"And this fantasy is based on...?" Rodney holds out his hands, waiting for an answer, and Carter pauses for a beat. He's got her on the ropes now.

"I suspect the Gate is storing its ones and zeroes on a subatomic level within the structure of the crystals. So even though the energy is dissipating, the most recent pattern still exists."

"You suspect?" Rodney scoops up another forkful of Chicken Surprise and tries not to laugh in her face.

"We're dealing with a level of quantum physics here that is way beyond us."

"More than a third of the energy pattern the Gate requires to reintegrate Teal'c? It's already gone," Rodney counters, stabbing the air with his fork for emphasis.

"I don't think so," Carter says, infuriatingly vague.

Rodney scoffs at her. "You're guessing wildly like you always do." Carter does a double take, and it occurs to Rodney that that quite possibly makes him sound like a creepy stalker, but he's been sifting through her notes since he got to Area 51, and he feels like he knows her intimately.

"Maybe you could find a way to fool the Gate into reintegrating whatever it has stored in memory, but I say you won't like what comes out."

"Well, we'll see." Carter starts eating, as if that's the end of the conversation. As if that's a winning gambit. Please!

"Major, Teal'c is dead. And this argument is a waste of time because the Pentagon is going to order Hammond to resume operations in, what, 16 hours?"

She's military. They make decisions like this every day, so Rodney is expecting her to just nod. Instead she stares at him for a moment, and then her eyes darken, and she glowers. That expression on her face sends a shiver up Rodney's spine.

"That's how they came up with the 48 hour deadline, isn't it? You told them Teal'c would already be dead."

"That's why they call it a deadline," Rodney snaps back automatically.

Carter tilts her head back, practically snarling at him, and pushes back from the table. "God, you're a jerk."

There's real venom in her voice, which is hardly fair. She doesn't even know him. Carter turns to leave, and Rodney finds himself saying the least appropriate thing he could manage given the circumstances.

"I wish I didn't find you so attractive."

And, boy, is that an understatement. She's the first person he's met since Gall that Rodney could see himself falling for. And it's not just her looks although she's an insanely beautiful woman. Carter is truly brilliant, albeit in an off-the-wall kind of way, and Rodney has always been drawn to genius. Sometimes he wonders how Gall would describe Carter’s numbers, but he never lets his thoughts linger too long in that direction.

Carter turns back to face him, and Rodney snorts out a laugh at the look of shock on her face. Their conversation is by this point so ridiculous that he figures a little levity will not go amiss.

"I always had a real weakness for dumb blondes."

"Go suck a lemon," she spits and turns on her heel. Rodney stares at her ass as she stalks out and then turns back to his food.

"Very sexy. Very, very sexy."

~~~

After that, everything happens so fast it's like a blur. Simmons is arrested for blackmail, O'Neill tracks down a solution (although the fact that they're taking advice from a captive Goa'uld is a sure sign of desperation), and Rodney is all but bundled out the door. He has an hour to gather himself before they expect him to be on a plane to Russia. He makes a frantic call to Carson, who promises to call the kennel and pack up his apartment, and then the SFs escort him to the nearest airstrip. Because he's carrying classified material, Rodney gets to experience the joy of military transport. When his plane touches down on Russian soil, he half expects to hear that Stargate Command has been turned into a smoking crater, but by some stroke of luck, the Goa'uld was telling the truth. The DHD was destroyed, but the power surge was much less catastrophic than Rodney had predicted. And okay, he's glad to be wrong this time—it's not like he wanted Teal'c or anyone else to die—but Rodney has the sinking feeling it'll be a long time before he sees Jeannie again.

His first meeting with his new shrink, Dr. Bakhtin, is, well, frankly, odd. Rodney checks his file immediately afterward and finds an angry letter from Heightmeyer addressed to their superiors. Apparently she doesn't take too kindly to having her patients whipped out from under her care without good cause. Rodney gets a vicarious sense of glee picturing the look on Hammond's face as she tore him a new one, and it's almost enough to make up for the hole in his pocket from that damn price-gouging kennel and the empty spot in his life.

Rodney spends his days either in meetings or lecturing morons about the technologies they've encountered over the past five years and his nights coming up with personnel lists (top priority is a lab manager so Rodney doesn't have to wrangle the idiots himself), equipment and tech lists, budgets, a timeline for expenditure and, as if that wasn't enough, poring over maps and blueprints to find suitable premises. Fun, fun, fun.

Dr. Markov's team is the worst. They've been itching to study something for the last year, but the blockhead Americans decided it was a good idea to stonewall them, so now Rodney has to deal with cranky, frustrated Russians. They don't even know anything about the underlying principles—such as the reactive properties of naquadah—so Rodney pulls together a reading list and tells them not to bother him with stupid questions until they've finished it all.

By the time Rodney catches his breath long enough to let Jeannie know that he's been exiled to Siberia, he's starting to get used to the cold. It's not like Rodney's a stranger to snow and ice, but something about the cold in Russia settles down into his bones and aches in a way he's never encountered. It's disconcerting, and Rodney spent the first few weeks certain he was moments away from losing an extremity to frost bite at all times. He's chilled out a little now, if he can forgive himself the pun, and a little grateful that Jeannie doesn't freeze him out as well when he finally gets around to placing a very expensive international call.

"Oh, Mer," she says. "What did you do this time?"

"What did I do?" And then Rodney sighs and tells her it's classified and changes the subject to the grad student in English Jeannie persists in seeing despite his obvious unsuitability. She cracks a joke about Rodney working for Q Division, and he's almost glad to be missing Christmas again if the boyfriend is a James Bond fan into the bargain.

The conversation is nearly over when Rodney realizes Jeannie hasn’t asked him where Gall is and what he’s doing, hasn’t asked about him, in fact, since before they split up. Rodney doesn’t know whether to be grateful that he doesn’t have to talk about Gall, hurt that his sister seems so indifferent, or angry that she apparently made up her mind a long time ago about Rodney’s ability to maintain a relationship. When Jeannie finally says goodbye, Rodney has convinced himself he’s glad she never asked.

~~~

Rodney has been in Russia for a little more than three months when yet another clusterfuck goes down at Stargate Command, and the Pentagon calls him back to help. This time, though, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance if they can't figure out a way to counteract Anubis' energy weapon. Not that that makes Carter any more inclined to listen to him this time. She brushes Rodney off and hightails it to Area 51 in a pointless attempt to launch their new fighter through a hyperspace window and contact the Asgard. Dr. Murphy, who's been leading the X-302 project, might as well have gotten his engineering degree out of a Cracker Jacks box. The man just incorporates an unstable isotope of naquadah (apparently they're calling it naquadria; who names these things?) into one of the engines without any understanding of the ramifications.

When Rodney says as much to General Hammond, he gets more of the "come up with an alternative or quit your whining" bullshit that Carter pulled last time. The only one to back him up is the new guy, Jonas Quinn. Of course, Quinn’s the only other person who actually understands how the naquadria reacts, as separate from naquadah, since Carter's brain seems to have taken a vacation. She and O'Neill are lucky not to end up as pancakes when the hyperspace window fails, just like Rodney and the weird little alien guy had predicted.

Once Carter gets back to Colorado, they gather together in the conference room overlooking the Gate. A pair of scientists, whom Rodney has privately dubbed Tweedledum and Tweedledumber, start bickering about shaped charges which gives Rodney his first viable idea in 36 hours. On Rodney's suggestion, they set up an EMP generator in the Gate room. There’s a chance the pulse will travel through the wormhole and knock out the weapon. Carter disagrees, of course, but this time Rodney’s the only one who has an actionable plan, so Hammond sides with him. They retreat to the control room, put down the blast shield, and lower the iris. If this works, Rodney is at least going to make Carter buy him a drink. The pulse knocks out their video feed, and not much else happens. Energy transfer through the Stargate keeps rising, and they're back to square one. Except that now they only have one day to come up with a plan instead of two.

Then, to add injury to insult, the generator overloads, and Carter is electrocuted. She hits the floor like a dead weight, and once Rodney confirms she's still breathing, he rushes out of the room to go throw up. The world is going to be destroyed. Everyone he's ever cared about is going to be incinerated, and there's nothing left for him to do. He tries to call Jeannie after he's cleaned himself up, but it's the middle of the day, and she's probably busy TAing. Rodney’s fingers itch, and he almost gives in to the urge to call Gall, to apologize and tell him, well, everything. But it's two years too late for that, and Rodney knows it.

He wanders around the facility like a zombie and finally ends up at the infirmary. Carter is awake, sitting on the edge of a gurney, and she looks worse than he feels.

"Hi."

Carter drops her gaze to the floor. "Oh, man, I was just starting to feel better."

Rodney ignores the dig and sits down opposite her. "Are you going to be okay?"

She shrugs. "At least until the Gate explodes, yeah."

That's supposed to be his line. If Little Miss Sunshine thinks they're screwed, well. Rodney can hardly look at her right now. "Look, I... I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt. Much less you."

"It's okay. We had to try something."

She still looks so lost that he has to snap her out of it or else they're all toast. "I always wanted to be a pianist," he blurts out.

"Excuse me?"

"A concert pianist? You know, the guy who plays piano for lots of people?"

Carter ducks her head again and laughs. "Right."

"What did you think I said?" Rodney asks, frowning.

She just shakes her head and looks at her hands. "Never mind."

Rodney takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. It's easier to say this when she isn't looking anyway. "I had a not-so-comfortable childhood. My parents hated each other, blamed me. Music was my salvation. It had this perfect order for me."

"That's... nice." Carter looks up at him and smiles tightly.

"I was twelve when my teacher told me to quit. A fine clinical player, he said, but no sense of the art whatsoever."

"Why are you telling me this?"

Realizing he's crashing and burning, Rodney decides to try and lighten the mood. "I'm just trying to bond."

"Why?"

"Hospital gowns turn me on." He snorts a little at his own joke, but Carter doesn't even crack a smile. Oh, this is awkward. Rodney clears his throat and carries on. "I turned to science because I thought it would be different than music, but it isn't. It's just as much of an art as anything else."

Carter frowns. She'd probably fold her arms if one of her hands wasn't bandaged up to the wrist. "Look, it's not your fault the EM pulse didn't work."

"You're an artist, Major," Rodney interrupts. "Maybe the best I've ever seen." She doesn't look any happier, so Rodney channels his high school guidance counselor. "I'm just critical because I'm jealous."

"I'm touched. Really," she says bitterly. "Wish I had a brilliant plan to draw for you."

Rodney forces a smile. "And you're funny, too. Me, I've got nothing."

Carter shakes her head again. "You're creeping me out, McKay."

"It's just self-preservation. See, I'm beginning to realize that I'm not going to solve this and that one of your typically insane ideas is probably our best chance." That part, at least, is true. Rodney is fresh out of ideas and about thirty seconds from a panic attack if Carter doesn't snap out of it sometime soon. She doesn't seem to notice how Rodney’s voice is shaking or how his hand grips the edge of the gurney.

"How much time until detonation?"

Rodney sighs. "You were right. We cut it almost in half."

"25 hours."

Rodney nods shortly. "What now?"

"Well, first I thought I'd get dressed," she says snidely, sounding more like her old self.

"Right."

"Leave."

"Right." Rodney hops down from the gurney, but he can't resist one last parting shot. "You want me to hold anything?"

Carter goes to smack him with her good hand, and Rodney dances out of the way. He almost thinks he can hear her laughing as he leaves. He really doesn't want to get into the habit of delivering pep talks, especially not excruciatingly embarrassing ones like the one he just gave, but if it works, then the whole awkward experience was worth it. And if it doesn't work, Rodney won't be alive to care.

About half an hour later, Carter tracks him down in the control room where he's been trying (unsuccessfully) to hide from Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. Just when Rodney's contemplating smacking his head against the plate glass window, she pulls another insane idea out of thin air. They end up spending what could be the last 24 hours of life as they know it strapping the Gate to their prototype X-302 fighter and launching it into the atmosphere. O'Neill manages to eject just before the plane enters the hyperspace window, and the Gate explodes potentially millions of miles from Earth. They live to fight aliens another day, but saving the world turns out to be somewhat anticlimactic. With no means of launching a direct assault on Anubis' weapon, the facility in Colorado is being shut down and everyone is being reassigned; for Rodney it'll be back to the grind in Siberia. Carter kisses him goodbye (on the cheek, but it's a start) and disappears back into her lab, the masochist.

None of them have slept properly in three days, so Rodney tries to crash in one of the guest quarters, but his traitorous mind is still working a mile a minute. He lies there in the dark for two hours before giving in and firing up his laptop to book his flight. Since Rodney's not carrying sensitive documents, this time they expect him to fly commercial, and he ends up with several hours to kill. He takes a shower, grabs some lunch, and out of sheer boredom, decides to see what Gall's been up to. Unsurprisingly he's moved on from AeroTech. In point of fact, he's been based in Phoenix for the last two years. Two whole years where Rodney sweltered in Nevada just a few hours away. Rodney breathes in and out very carefully, chalks the queasy feeling in his stomach up to military "cuisine," and closes the laptop.

But Rodney can’t get his past off his mind, and to his horror, he finds himself fighting back tears during the long flight. It’s stupid; Atlanta or Phoenix shouldn’t make a difference. Obviously, Gall had other motives than Rodney for taking the job and ample reason not to call. Gall certainly didn’t owe him anything, not after the way they’d left it. So stupid. Rodney hunches down under his jacket and turns his face towards the window, trying to sniff as quietly as he can.

"You look like shit," Markov says to Rodney when he stumbles into the lab after what seems like a three-day flight. "Saving the world not enough for you Americans?"

Rodney snorts. "I am not American." He boots up his laptop and promptly falls asleep with his face on the keyboard. Rodney doesn't know how long he sleeps, but when he wakes up, it's to the delicious smell of coffee and bread. He wipes the drool from the corner of his mouth and desperately hopes the number pad still works.

"Eat," Markov says, and Rodney does. He feels human enough to actually do some work after that.

~~~

Slowly, word filters through that Stargate Command is back in business. Apparently Teal'c, who was trapped off-world during the crisis, has managed to find and destroy Anubis' weapon, and the Russians have generously offered up their Gate for lease. Now that it's installed, operations will resume as if they had not been interrupted.

There's no question that the mining projects will be first on the list, so Rodney fires off an email reminding the Powers That Be to keep back some naquadah for his generators. Without his not-so-gentle reminder they'd probably allocate it all to building spaceships, and trying to re-purpose it after the fact is a headache he doesn't need. He CCs Markov in on the conversation—they’ll be less likely to get snippy with him if they know another pair of eyes will see the answer.

"You take this posting seriously," she says, looking up from her screen. She stares at Rodney like he's suddenly grown a third head.

"Of course, I take it seriously. Did you think I'd just sit around here twiddling my thumbs while there's work to be done?" Markov shrugs, and the other shoe drops for Rodney. "You did! Well, make no mistake, the SGC sent me here as punishment, but I'll be damned if I give them the satisfaction of wasting my time. When I'm done with this department, we'll be giving Sam Carter a run for her money."

Markov grins.

Later, Rodney will pinpoint this moment as the beginning of what Markov calls a "mutually beneficial agreement." Rodney likes the elegance of that label; it's less crude than what he might have called their relationship himself yet manages to be just as unromantic. Rodney is a little irritated that it took exile to the frozen wasteland to finally get the hang of fuck buddies, but he’s not complaining.

Getting laid regularly helps Rodney think better, too. Two weeks in, Markov has just closed the door to her quarters behind them when suddenly he hits upon the perfect side-project to keep the theoreticians busy while the engineers study the prototype generator that's finally arrived: naquadria research.

"They're completely relying on the scribbles in Jonas Quinn's notebook with no attempt at independent verification," Rodney says while unbuttoning his shirt. "And from what I've seen of the Kelownans' methodology, it's a miracle any of them survived, let alone produced any useful results. We can easily get several papers out of this."

"Then I am sold," Markov says. "Now shut up." She slings a leg over his hip and makes him forget about work for a while.

It takes a month of browbeating to get their hands on a tiny amount of naquadria and some creative bargaining (Rodney refuses to call it blackmail) to get a copy of Jonas' notes, but finally the real research gets underway. It's slow going, and his minions grumble about the repetitiveness of the experiments, but they clam up when they see the variability of the results and start to focus their efforts on number-crunching.

~~~

Time passes strangely in Siberia. Sometimes Rodney feels as if he's been here forever, chipping away at an immovable glacier with nothing substantial to show for all his work. Other times, he looks up from his computer to find that whole days have passed without his notice, and when the calendar reaches the midyear mark, Rodney is quietly astonished. One night, Markov writes the most beautiful equation Rodney has seen in years, and they fuck on the floor of the lab with their coats on. Rodney tells her she looks a little like Deanna Troi, and she laughs and swivels her hips wickedly.

"Are you feeling a presence, Rodney?" she asks, and Rodney laughs too, and when he gets back to his quarters, he feels so damn pleased with the world that he calls Jeannie. They haven't talked in awhile.

"Mer?" Jeannie says. "Is everything alright?"

"Of course. Why do you always assume something is wrong when I call you?"

Rodney can just see the smirk on his baby sister's face. "Because it usually is."

"Fair enough. But everything's fine. In fact," Rodney says, thinking he'll try his hand at this old song and dance again, "I wanted to talk to you about something."

"I've got some news too, but you go first."

Rodney says, "I want you to come work with me," and waits for Jeannie to squeal or gasp. He hears dead silence for so long he would be afraid the connection has been cut if he didn't hear Jeannie breathing. "You know I can't explain what we're doing exactly, but I promise you that this is the cutting edge of science, of, of everything."

"I'm pregnant," Jeannie says.

"Oh," Rodney replies. "Oh. Well, that's not a problem. Excellent health care benefits and what not." Rodney winces. He sounds ridiculous even to himself, but he hardly knows what to say. Caleb had been annoying when Rodney thought he was a minor dalliance; now he's the father of Jeannie's child, and Rodney doesn't know how Jeannie will ever get her life back on track.

Jeannie laughs, this small and brittle sound.

Rodney says, "You have no idea of the kind of ground-breaking work you could accomplish with us."

"Who the hell is 'us'? You've never answered that to my satisfaction," Jeannie says, and Rodney can picture her face. She's washing dishes; he can hear the water running periodically and dishes clinking together in the sink. Her hair is probably curled in little wisps around her face, and she'll be making that crooked frown that gets him mistakenly pegged as little brother every time. "Who the hell is 'us'?" she says again.

He can't tell her that, and she knows it. "Jeannie..."

"And what good is doing 'ground-breaking' work if no one gets to hear about it?" she continues. Rodney can hear the air quotes in the snap of her voice. "You haven't published one single thing since you left Atlanta."

"Yes, I have, just not for public consumption."

"That's my point. Give me one good reason why I should hand these people my career on a silver platter, and maybe I'll consider it."

Rodney is grasping for straws at this point, and he knows it. "Because Dad always wanted us to work together."

"Dad spent his whole life in the lab until he worked himself to death. We don't owe him anything." Jeannie sighs. "I'm pregnant, Mer. I'm nesting. I'm buying these ridiculously small garments with feet sewn into them. Yesterday, Caleb and I painted a jungle full of monkeys on the nursery wall. Freehand. No stencils." She's quiet for awhile after that. All Rodney can hear is the soft and steady sound of her breath and the splash of water. "I can't just run halfway across the world on zero details. Why would you even want me to?"

"Because this is important!" Rodney says, gesturing wildly with his free hand even though Jeannie can't see him.

"And my baby isn't?"

"Not like this."

Jeannie falls silent again, but he can still hear her sniffling and gasping for breath.

"Jeannie?"

"You're unbelievable," she chokes out and hangs up on him.

Rodney tries to dial her back straight away, but she won't pick up. Rodney may have a slight panic attack after that; he calls Dr. Bakhtin to set up an emergency appointment. He can hardly breathe.

Bakhtin calms Rodney down and gives him a handful of sleeping pills to last the week. Rodney takes one more than is strictly necessary, and waking the next morning is like pushing through wet cotton. Last night’s conversation with Jeannie seems more like a dream than anything else through the lingering haze of Nytol. Rodney’s grateful. He pushes the guilt and the worry to the back of his mind and does what he does best. Rodney goes back to work.

Rodney and Markov end up publishing two papers back-to-back in the SGC's journal: one imaginatively titled "A comparative analysis of the reactive properties of naquadah and naquadria" and the other a methods paper for the equations and statistical analyses the team generated. Apparently doing such a stellar job of caring and sharing with the Russians has somebody convinced that Rodney gives a shit about diplomatic relations because The Powers That Be invite Rodney back Stateside to present his findings to a group of multinational delegates (which Rodney reads as "placate the people we've been lying to for years by blinding them with science"). October finds Rodney back in his old stomping grounds: Area 51.

Rodney wishes that he and Carter got along as well in person as they do in his imagination. She’s proprietary over the Prometheus and just as unwilling to listen to Rodney’s well-intentioned criticism as she has been since he met her. During the tour of the ship, Rodney bites his tongue so frequently that he imagines drinking coffee later will be a painful exercise; when Rodney can’t keep his comments to himself any longer, Carter lets him know in no uncertain terms exactly how welcome his opinions are. The whole team seems to agree with her, so Rodney keeps his mouth shut for the rest of the tour.

When Rodney tells Carson the story that night over drinks, he winces. “You’re lucky not to be on the next flight out, Rodney. Again.”

And okay, maybe Carson’s right, as much as Rodney doesn’t want to admit it. Carter doesn't seem to have softened all that much towards him despite their previous, and mostly amicable, encounter.

“Oh, come on,” Rodney says. “I helped save the world from Anubis! That should earn me some points. Right?” Rodney downs the last of the scotch in his glass. “Admittedly, in hindsight, bringing up the problems I noticed in front of the international reps may have been somewhat . . . impolitic, but I’d never seen the damn thing before in all its half-baked glory. A man’s entitled to get a little carried away.” Carson just pats his arm, orders another round, and asks him when he's leaving again. Rodney feels well within his rights to slap Carson about the head.

~~~

The next day, Rodney has the mother of all hangovers. His presentation was the day before, and the rest of this trip is supposed to be useless schmoozing, so he'd let Carson keep him out late just like old times. Naturally, The Sadists That Be decide to call him at eight o'clock in the morning.

They're offering him the chance to come back home to the good old US of A. If he's a "team player" first, helping to get their precious spaceship off the ground, that is. They also dangle the possibility of a transfer to Stargate Command at some point, and Rodney thinks about their offer for a couple of hours before giving them his answer. Returning will be a significant step down in terms of power and responsibility, but he's growing tired of getting information third- or fourth-hand. And maybe he’d be put to better use a little closer to the frontlines anyway.

As for the Idiots in Charge, Rodney considers and discards the possibility that his presentation to the international representatives had been just that good and comes to the conclusion that they must have had an offer in mind before he left Russia. But, of course, they could never have let Rodney know in advance that they want him to move countries again. Such is life, working for the military. Rodney emails Markov and asks her to pack up his quarters, glad that at least this time the task is left to someone he's intimate with; God only knows what Carson found in Rodney's apartment in Nevada when he packed it up.

Markov emails him back almost immediately with confirmation and a brief Do svidaniya— rather an unceremonious end to their "mutually beneficial agreement," but she seems happy for him. It's a novel experience for Rodney, ending a personal relationship without animosity. He’s filled with a burst of optimism that lasts all the way through rescuing Harold from the grasping kennel-owners and settling in to his new apartment, whereupon the feeling abruptly fizzles out. The bare walls and cheap furniture are beyond depressing, and Rodney won’t have any of his home comforts for—probably, knowing Russian mail—at least a couple of weeks. And just to rub salt in the wound, after a full year, Harold doesn't even recognize Rodney anymore. He yowled all the way back to Rodney's place, and the second Rodney opened the little pet carrier door, he bolted out of his cage to hide under the couch. Fantastic.

~~~

Working on the Prometheus project is, frankly, a pain in the ass. Rodney's not suffering under any delusions; nobody brings in a newbie—a relative newbie—this far along in the production schedule unless someone is playing politics. (And okay, to be fair his outburst in front of the international reps probably had something to do with this decision.) But Rodney has no intention of being dead weight. He spends three days poring over schematics and circuit diagrams before he so much as sets foot in engineering.

Healey and Singh's team have made significant progress towards fixing the damage Simmons and the other NID morons did to the ship during their attempted theft, but the work they’re doing now is in a whole new league. The Asgard are installing their most advanced shielding and weaponry, and then it'll be up to Rodney—with the assistance of Dr. Lindstrom and a handful of others—to go through the internal systems with a fine-tooth comb and make sure the integration hasn't caused any feedback loops or cascading errors. From the look on Carter's face, she's itching to take over that project herself, but she still has her hands full with the hyperdrive engines (Rodney tries not to even think about that because the potential for everything to go horribly wrong gives him cold sweats. Once again, he counts his lucky stars that he won't be among the ship's crew).

He and Carson fall into their old routine with minimal effort, but one night Rodney makes the mistake of telling him about the last phone call to Jeannie. After that, Carson gives him shit every single time he sees him, telling him to beg for forgiveness before Jeannie sends him a letter bomb or something (which makes Rodney very glad he hasn’t met any of Carson’s four sisters yet).

After a week solid of being harangued, Rodney gives in and emails Jeannie to let her know that he has returned to the civilized world for the foreseeable future, but he doesn't hold his breath waiting for a reply. He’s been working hard with Dr. Heightmeyer on not building unrealistic expectations.

Eventually Jeannie sends a carefully worded response inviting him to join her and Caleb for Christmas dinner. Rodney can read the tension in the words she doesn't say; the casual insults they usually sling around are so completely absent this time that Rodney almost suspects the email was written by the English major himself. Rodney has a brief flashback to evenings with his parents, but he pushes down his sense of foreboding and hits reply. Come Christmas Eve, he's sitting around a heavily laden table with Caleb, Jeannie, Jeannie's enormously pregnant belly, and the new gold rings on Caleb and Jeannie’s fingers.

Caleb is exactly the kind of milquetoast nothing that Rodney envisioned from the start. He lets Jeannie do most of the talking, thank God, because when Caleb does speak, he invariably alludes to some obscure piece of drivel that Rodney has never and will never care to read. Caleb smacks when he eats, he's clearly forced Jeannie to subsist on tofu and brown rice, and Rodney doesn't like him even one bit.

Jeannie seems better than he'd expected—happy, glowing, as if Caleb actually fulfills her—and that pisses Rodney off more than anything else. While he’d like to think he’s only angry because his precious baby sister is throwing away all her potential to keep house for some cretin who’s beneath her, if Rodney is honest with himself, he knows a great deal of what’s bothering him is that Jeannie is so fulfilled when he’s not. And Rodney knows that’s wrong, knows it’s completely petty to begrudge Jeannie even an iota of happiness, but he can’t help it. He can’t help wondering what his life might have been like if he and Gall had stayed together, what sort of holiday dinners they’d have hosted, whether Gall would have liked Caleb any better than Rodney does, whether Gall and Jeannie would have gotten along. Rodney has some idea that Gall and his sister would have ganged up to make his life a misery, but he doesn’t know for sure. They never even had a chance to meet.

Rodney forces himself to abandon that line of thinking. It won’t change the past, and it certainly won’t make this visit any easier, not when he has an apology to make. Rodney reminds himself of Heightmeyer’s advice and waits until he and Jeannie are alone in the kitchen.

“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Rodney says to Jeannie as he slots forks into their basket in the dishwasher. Some part of him is distantly amused to realize that they always seem to have the conversations that matter over a pile of dirty dishes.

Jeannie sighs. “I know you didn’t, Mer.” And then Caleb brings in the rest of the plates from the table, and they don’t talk about what happened again.

~~~

As Rodney has come to expect from his previous posting, working at Area 51 is a bizarre mixture of the sublime and the supremely irritating. Right now, the dial seems stuck on irritating. The ratio of practical to theoretical scientists is stupidly low, and Rodney finds himself carrying way more of the engineering work load than he should have to. Rodney shudders to think how they’ll cope when he finally heads off to Colorado.

"This is ridiculous!" Rodney says. "Don't get me wrong. I can manage the mechanics if I have to, but I shouldn't have to."

His superiors nod solemnly and scribble on their stupid notepads, and Rodney wants to strangle them all.

When Gall's name appears as a candidate a few weeks later, Rodney almost wishes he'd kept his mouth shut. The recruitment officers call him in to get his opinion, but that amounts to little more than a test of Rodney's professionalism. He's under no illusions that The Powers That Be don't know exactly what he and Gall were to each other, and as always, Gall's references are annoyingly perfect. Rodney keeps his responses short and to the point, staying calm through sheer force of will. The thought of seeing Gall again after all this time makes Rodney want to smash things, so after the meeting he decides that a little strategic drinking with Carson is just what the doctor ordered.

Thankfully, though, Gall's employers kick up a fuss and refuse to let him out of his contract early, so Rodney won't be around anymore when Gall faces his crash course in alien tech at Area 51 with the other newbies. Instead Rodney will be settling into his new position in Colorado, and if Rodney's own experience is anything to extrapolate from, it'll be at least a couple of months before the new hires manage to absorb the sheer scale of what they've stepped into and actually start producing something useful he needs to read about.

Rodney forces himself to stop navel gazing and think instead about the opportunities ahead of him. By the time he arrives at Cheyenne Mountain, Rodney is nearly giddy with the possibilities this posting will afford him. His good mood lasts until he sees the personnel rosters for each available lab. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

"What?" Carter says, her face suspiciously blank.

"Felger? Felger is working at Stargate Command?"

"He's been working on weaponizing..."

"You let him near weapons?" Rodney shrieks.

Carter shrugs and smiles oh so sweetly. "So, I'll just put you down for Bill Lee's lab, then?"

"You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"

"Little bit."

Rodney folds his arms and puts on his best leer, deciding to get a little of his own back. "On the bright side, this means we could have lunch together every day."

"Dreams are free, McKay."

~~~

For awhile, dreams are about all Rodney has to look forward to. Despite his best efforts, he isn’t regarded as highly as he’d like to be by those who matter at the SGC. The people he truly cares about are scattered across the globe—Carson in Nevada, Markov in Russia, Jeannie in Canada, and Gall—well, Gall doesn’t matter. He can’t.

Just to rub salt in the wound, he’s still stuck with more than his fair share of engineering, i.e. disassembling an F-302 for transport through the gate and meticulously cataloguing the whole process so that the fighter can be reassembled on the other side (by people who are not Rodney because he hasn’t completed field training yet). It’s necessary grunt work and it’s very, very boring. Then the naquadria mines on Langara are subsequently destroyed, rendering Rodney and Markov’s meticulous research obsolete, and Rodney wishes mere boredom was still his biggest complaint; being rendered irrelevant is a thousand times worse (and, god, is this how Felger feels all the time?).

A few weeks later Carson joins the club of morose failed researchers – apparently his gene therapy has been failing because his assumptions are based on Colonel O’Neill, and the Asgard have done something funky to the man’s DNA. Rodney sits at home sipping a beer and listening to Carson rant and—eventually—try not to cry. Having decent company in failure makes Rodney feel a little better, and he absently wonders if that makes him a bad person. Probably, so he doesn’t say anything about misery loving company out loud.

~~~

The rest of the year, unsurprisingly, is a series of ups and downs. They discover a massive naquadah mine, and Rodney is excited for all of about five minutes until he remembers that he doesn’t get to play with it anymore. Then Rodney is hospitalized for kidney stones, the pain of which he will not forget any time soon but which fortuitously keep him from having to help fix Felger’s biggest fuck-up to date (Honestly, Felger thought infecting the Gate system with an untested computer virus was a winning plan? How has he not destroyed Cheyenne Mountain yet?).

Month upon month of examining and cataloguing new pieces of alien tech before sending them on to Area 51 pass. Rodney is lonely, and he feels unappreciated, and he has almost convinced himself that going into the private sector again might be more fulfilling when Anubis nearly destroys Earth, and the Antarctic outpost is discovered in the process.

Rodney feels like the last four years of his career have been leading up to this point. He gets to head up research at an Ancient outpost without Sam Carter or anyone else breathing down his neck, and there'll be no idiots like Felger to slow him down because he gets to pick his own team. Okay, China and Russia and all the other IOA signatories want spots, but running through the list of candidates is not exactly a hardship.

Grodin is a must despite the bureaucratic headache of extracting him from the claws of the RAF first; besides, running the political gauntlet will be Elizabeth’s problem anyway, and Rodney is certain she’s up to the task. Dumais, Simpson, and Kusanagi are promising candidates as well. When Rodney gets to Gall's name on the list of Area 51 personnel putting themselves forward for transfer, he prides himself on only hesitating briefly before ranking Gall in the top five available engineers. Water under the bridge and all that.

His altruistic mood lasts exactly one weekend during which Elizabeth reads his shortlist. She calls Rodney into her office first thing Monday morning, which is never, ever a good start to the week.

"Rodney," Elizabeth says and steeples her fingers atop the conference table. "I don't mean to pry, but I know that you and Dr. Gall have a," and here she pauses delicately. "A history."

Rodney is immediately defensive. "Is that a problem?"

Elizabeth sighs. "Well, no. Unless it is." She leans forward across the table and puts her hand on Rodney's arm. "We're going to be living in close conditions for months, Rodney. Studying technology the likes of which the world has never seen. We have to be able to work together, to coexist. I don't care how brilliant Dr. Gall is, and he's clearly brilliant. If he's going to be a distraction, I'm not sure we should include him in the expedition."

Rodney wants to be irritated, truly he does. But something about Elizabeth Weir has gotten to him in an incredibly short amount of time. He trusts her in a way that he rarely allows himself to trust others, and he doesn't think that trust stems merely from her skills as a diplomat although that surely contributes to the ease he feels around her. "What exactly are you suggesting?"

She squeezes his arm slightly, lets go, and sits back in her seat. "Maybe it's time to clear the air between the two of you."

Because he trusts Elizabeth, Rodney thinks about what she's asked. Really thinks. Can he spend months on end cut off from everyone else on the planet except the couple hundred people staffing the outpost? With Brendan Gall?

In the end, the answer he comes up with is yes. Rodney's worked hard to get to the point where he can have his pick of the best people, and if that means he has to suck it up and deal with the fact that one of those people is his ex, then so be it. There'll be plenty of work to keep them both occupied; they probably won't even cross paths that much. And even then, it's not like Rodney ever had trouble actually getting along with Gall. He'll just have to make the extra effort to ensure that things stay strictly professional between them. Elizabeth nods when Rodney says as much to her and pointedly reminds him about the code of conduct she spent a month drafting. When Rodney gets a printout of the flight numbers and estimated arrival times of his motley team, Gall's name is there at the bottom.

~~~

The flight to New Zealand is interminably long, and they step out into a terminal that looks like it took its design aesthetics from the early eighties. Elizabeth and Daniel get straight onto a connecting flight to Christchurch, and Rodney is left to entertain himself until it's time to rejoin them. He’ll be rendezvousing here with all the recruits before they head on to the Ancient outpost. Unfortunately, Rodney has arrived at the tail end of spring; what passes locally for warm is somewhere in the region of 17oC, and Rodney is caught in a sudden downpour when he steps out to get a cab.

The next day is uncomfortably humid, and Rodney's T-shirt clings to his back when he schleps back to the airport to greet the first batch of arrivals. Elizabeth's idea, of course; for all her much-lauded people skills, she doesn't know Rodney all that well yet, and she thinks it's a good idea for him to get in some "face time" with his new multinational team.

The Asian contingent arrives first, shortly before midday, and then it's a two-hour wait for the Europeans; the rest of the North Americans aren't scheduled to arrive until Tuesday local time, and Gall is due all on his lonesome on Wednesday. Apparently his traveling difficulties are legendary, so Weir took the courtesy of booking him a stopover in Honolulu although Rodney doubts Gall will be in any condition to enjoy it.

~~~

Dinner is illuminating.

Rodney is joined by a host of scientists whose names he remembers only because he can read them on the nametags they’re all wearing on their chests and Carson, thank God. Rodney doesn’t know what to say to these people other than welcome to the madness, and he’s prepared to be eternally grateful that Carson picks up the slack.

“To Earth,” says this squirrelly little Czech guy, and all around Rodney glasses clink. The sound is vaguely ominous.

When everyone has finally left, Carson drags Rodney up to his hotel room for a much needed round of drinks.

“What is with you, lad?” Carson shoves a tumbler full of scotch into Rodney’s hand. “You’ve been down at the mouth all evening.”

Rodney isn’t quite sure what to say. Carson doesn’t know about Gall and their disastrous romantic history, and Rodney’s not quite ready to have that conversation yet.

“I’m just nervous, I guess,” Rodney says.

Carson’s eyebrows raise nearly to his hairline. “That’s a rather uncharacteristic remark, Rodney.”

“Did you see that lot?” Rodney says. “I’ll be nervous for the next ten years.”

Carson snorts. “They seemed fine to me, Rodney. You, on the other hand, were a bit subdued.” He pours himself the last finger left in the bottle. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Yes,” Rodney says. “Of course,” and he resolutely does not think about seeing Gall again or working with Gall or living with Gall under a mountain of ice for the foreseeable future.

~~

By the time Gall gets through customs, it's a little after two, and Rodney is thoroughly sick of people. Why the Cheapskates-That-Be couldn't spring for a chauffeur to pick Gall up from the airport when they're already paying for Rodney to stay an extra week at the hotel defies explanation. But then, if Gall is still as terrible at air travel as he used to be, maybe they simply didn't want to have to pay cleaning charges for the car.

Gall looks like shit—tired and ill and every bit of almost five years older—and Rodney is petty enough to be relieved about that. Rodney gets him back to the hotel and checked in without serious incident, and then they go their separate ways again.

But he should've known it wouldn't be that easy. When Rodney uses the hotel's connection to check his email, he finds a message from Elizabeth with a list of recommendations for local restaurants. She's already taken the courtesy of calling in reservations at three of them for various timeslots, and she reiterates her "suggestion" of clearing the air. Rodney recognizes an order when he sees one, which is how he finds himself calling Gall's room at six.

"Hello?" Gall sounds groggy; he was probably sleeping off the Dramamine like a sane person.

"Come on," Rodney says tightly. "We're going to dinner."

"Excuse me?"

"Elizabeth's idea. If you want to work under me at the most isolated outpost on Earth, you and I have to ‘mend fences’ first."

Gall sighs, but he doesn't refuse, and they meet in the lobby fifteen minutes later.

Apparently inefficient city planning isn't limited to the northern hemisphere, and none of the places good enough to make Elizabeth's list are within walking distance of their hotel, so they share a cab. Rodney scowls out the window the whole way. Cin Cin better be as good as Elizabeth promised. Gall looks as uncomfortable as Rodney feels, which should put Rodney at ease but doesn't. Gall looks out of his own window on the ride over and down at his shoes when they exit the cab and at his menu until their waiter leaves. Anywhere but at Rodney. Great.

Gall fidgets with his napkin and then clears his throat. "So, how's Jeannie?"

"Good. Fine as far as I know." Rodney drops his gaze to the tabletop and takes a deep breath before continuing. "Actually, we're not close anymore."

"What did you do?"

Rodney's head snaps up, and he glares across the table at Gall who raises his hands in supplication.

"Sorry. None of my business."

"Oh, no, by all means, pry into my personal life." Rodney folds his arms and leans back in his seat. "I was going to recruit her once she got her doctorate, but she was pregnant at the time, and once she had the baby, she dropped out of academia entirely. Turns out it's exceptionally difficult to convey how important this program is without sounding like a jackass when you can't go into specifics. Particularly from Siberia when your only options are security-filtered email or a four million dollar phone call."

Gall shakes his head. "I can imagine."

"What about you?" Rodney asks before he can stop himself. "Anything inappropriately personal you want to share?"

"I'm skipping out on my anniversary to go work for my ex in Antarctica. I'm pretty sure that means the relationship is already over."

Rodney is stupidly shocked that Gall is seeing someone; of course, he's seeing someone. It's been years since they broke up, and Gall isn't a complete social moron. He's probably had a string of partners since Rodney left for Area 51 and, boy, does that thought hurt more than it has any right to.

"Oh, so now you know what it's like to be me?" Rodney says without thinking.

Gall looks down at the table and sighs. Rodney wishes he'd kept his damn mouth shut.

"Yeah," Gall says. "I guess so."

Even after all these years, Rodney still remembers the sick ache in his gut, the overwhelming sense of waste and loss he felt when he realized that moving forward meant leaving Gall behind. He has the strange sensation that everything in his life has suddenly come full circle—full horrendous circle—and he doesn't quite know what to do with that.

"You can make it work," Rodney says. "I can find him a spot on the team. Elizabeth owes me." Rodney's pretty sure she doesn't, but he also thinks she'll grant him this if he asks her right.

Gall shakes his head. "He's a lawyer, Rodney. Not really Antarctic expedition material."

"A lawyer? So, you're both workaholics?"

Gall snorts and ends up choking on a piece of fettuccine. When he finally gets his breath back, he says, "That's rich coming from you."

The words sting a little, but Gall is smiling, warm and open, so Rodney just throws a bread roll at him.

"Hey!" Gall protests when it bounces off his shoulder and onto the floor. "You're going to get us kicked out."

Rodney shakes his head solemnly. "Never before dessert."

Gall snorts again and then clears his throat. "Look, thanks for the offer, but I think it's for the best. It's been coming for a while."

Rodney does his best to sound no more than politely interested. "Oh?"

"You know how it is. You can't tell them what you're doing or explain why you're always late."

Rodney glances away and grunts in an approximation of agreement. There's no way he can admit that he hasn't seriously dated anyone else without looking pathetic.

"I guess you did me a favor," Gall continues. "Working for this program and doing the long-distance thing wouldn't have worked any better for you and me than it does me and Ben."

Rodney gives him a tight smile. "I have to admit, I barely left the base for the first six months."

Gall laughs. "Same here. All that research..."

"Twenty years of backlog. You hardly know where to start."

Gall's eyes light up. "Rodney McKay at a loss for what to do? Now that would be a sight to see."

"Not when the fate of the world rests on your shoulders," Rodney grumbles.

"How long did it take you to be able to say that with a straight face?"

Rodney bites his lip, trying not to smile. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh. come on!" Gall checks over his shoulder to make sure there are no waiters in earshot and says, "Rodney, we're allied with the Roswell greys. Alien abductions are real. We make spaceships capable of intergalactic travel."

Rodney cracks up. "See, I knew it would be the last part that impressed you. You have no idea how much..." He trails off, and his smile fades. "You have no idea how much I wanted to tell you what I was doing."

"Yes, I do, Rodney." The expression on Gall's face is so goddamn sad that Rodney can barely breathe.

Suddenly, the moment is too intimate—the low lighting, the whisper of piano in the background, Gall's hand on the tablecloth so close that Rodney could reach out and touch it if he wanted to.

"I'd prefer it if you call me Dr. McKay. I think it's best to maintain some professional distance."

Gall rolls his eyes. "Because you've fucked everyone you're on a first name basis with, right? Lighten up, Rodney."

"Oh, excuse me for not wanting to undermine my position with rumors about my personal life. Again."

"No one has to know. And there's not going to be anything for them to know about, anyway. You don't need your dick up my ass to call me by my first name."

Rodney grimaces. "You've always had a way with words." He pauses. "Brendan."

~~~

Rodney wants to blame what happens later on the wine or maybe exhaustion, but he can't. The simple truth is that he sat across a table from Brendan for hours, and they talked, and they laughed, and they teared up a few times, and it felt like the most real thing Rodney's done in years. He just—he didn't want that to end. So when they're finally back at the hotel watching the elevator doors close them in, and Brendan murmurs, "This is probably a bad idea," and then leans in and kisses him, well. How can Rodney say no?

He doesn't say no when Brendan pushes him back against the door of his hotel room, and he doesn't say no when Brendan sticks his hand down the front of his slacks, and he doesn't say no when Brendan rips off the bottom two buttons on his dress shirt in his haste to get them both undressed. In no time, Rodney is flat on his back with Brendan kneeling above him and sliding down onto his cock. Brendan leans back to brace one hand on the bed at the same time that Rodney thrusts up and, oh wow, it's been too long since he had this. Fucked someone like this.

"Fuck," Brendan hisses. "Rodney."

"Sorry."

"No." Brendan shifts his weight and presses his knees right up against Rodney's sides. "More."

It's not perfect, not easy like sex was between them years ago. Rodney struggles to find a rhythm, to match himself to Brendan's pace, and he doesn't quite know what to do with his hands—doesn't know if he should sink his thumbs into Brendan's hips or jerk him off. There's a pull in Rodney’s abs that borders on pain when he thrusts up, lifting his hips against Brendan's weight, and the sensation keeps him back from the edge of orgasm until Brendan calls his name, clenches down on Rodney's cock, and then comes all over Rodney's chest in a hot arc. Rodney doesn't care what he does with his hands at that point; all he can feel is tight heat and intense pleasure.

When he's functional again, Rodney peels off the condom, and then there's the not entirely awkward song and dance of washing up and locating underwear.

"Stay," Brendan says when Rodney picks up his pants. "Just for a minute."

Rodney doesn't mean to, but he falls asleep in Brendan's bed, in Brendan's arms. He slows his breathing until it syncs up with Brendan's, closes his eyes, and drifts off. This, apparently, is something that is as easy as it used to be.

~~~

Rodney wakes up with a crick in his neck. Brendan is sacked out and drooling a little on the pillow, and Rodney wants so badly to reach out and push his hair back from his face, but he doesn't. Somehow it seems presumptuous and more intimate than the fact that they just slept together. Instead he eases out of bed and plugs in the hotel coffee maker. Just as soon as the machine starts percolating, Brendan yawns and opens his eyes.

"You're still here," he says, and Rodney doesn't know if that's a good or a bad thing. "I'm..." Brendan says, and then his phone rings. Brendan's eyes widen comically, and when he answers the phone, he slips out of bed with the sheet wrapped around his waist and escapes into the bathroom. "I missed you too, baby," Rodney hears through the door.

"Right," Rodney thinks. "The lawyer. Ben." And then he wonders why Brendan brought a box of condoms with him all the way to New Zealand, why he agreed to dinner, why he's holed up in the bathroom talking to his ex after what can arguably be described as mindblowing sex.

I'm sorry, Rodney scrawls on the hotel stationery. I think we both know this was a mistake.

Rodney pulls on his shirt and his shoes, and he takes the elevator up to his floor, and he feels every goddamn step like it's costing him something until he's holed up in his own bed with a cup of coffee and watching the morning news.

When he makes it down to breakfast a little over an hour later, Brendan is there looking like he's just gone ten rounds and lost.

"Hey, Rodney," he says, leaning past him to grab a muffin. "Long time, no see."

"What?"

"It's a joke. You remember those, right?" Brendan smiles slightly, but the expression doesn't reach his eyes.

"Right. I..." Rodney clears his throat and tries again. "I left your ticket to Christchurch at the front desk. Your plane leaves at two."

"Great." Brendan grabs some more coffee and shuffles off to the nearest seat without another word.

Rodney piles his plate with pastries he doesn't want to eat. He sits at a table behind Brendan and watches him drink coffee, watches his hands tremble when he butters his muffin. "This is stupid," Rodney thinks. "We can talk about what happened. I should talk to him."

Instead Rodney nurses his coffee until it goes cold, until Brendan buses his table and walks out of the hotel without a backward glance, until it's too late to say anything.

The next time Rodney speaks to Brendan, they're buried under so many meters of ice and up to their elbows in Ancient tech. Rodney stops by to check up on the readings Brendan's been taking from the command chair because, apparently, none of the logarithms currently known to mankind can account for how wildly the output varies when any given gene carrier is in the damn thing. But Brendan refuses to give in and just chalk it up to human frailty. Rodney admires his tenacity, a lot more than is strictly professional, but if jumping him was a bad idea in New Zealand, it'd be a thousand times worse now when they're all sharing close quarters. Rodney just squares his shoulders, tells Brendan to keep up the good work, and beats a hasty retreat.

~~~

The pilot on ferry duty across the ice is handsome in a way that Rodney has always been attracted to but never actually gotten his hands on. His name is Sheppard, and he annoys Rodney for some reason that he can't quite explain. Maybe it's Sheppard's hair or his weird zen even though he's stuck in the ass end of the world, or maybe it's just that the one real topic of conversation they've had has been about is the weather.

Naturally, after one heart stopping moment in which Rodney was absolutely certain that a general was about to die on his watch, Sheppard turns out to have the highest concentration of the ATA gene since Ancients walked the earth. Naturally.

"Quit your bellyaching, Rodney. I, for one, think Major Sheppard will fit in just fine around here," Carson says when Rodney tries to complain to him.

"Oh, please," Rodney says. "You're just glad you don't ever have to sit in the chair again."

"Bloody right. Not to mention the potential progress I can make on the gene therapy."

Rodney rolls his eyes. "And, of course, he has the gene. Of course, because he wasn't irritating enough already. He's just so..." Rodney sits down heavily on the edge of his bed and lets out a defeated sigh. "Hot. Incredibly, improbably hot and, oh yes, fucking untouchable because he's military." Rodney's slept with his share of closet cases, but on a base this small, something is bound to get back to the wrong person. Not that Rodney owes anything to... to anybody; he's a free agent. But, anyway, he's pretty sure that Sheppard is one of those unintentional flirters and not, in point of fact, the least bit interested in jeopardizing his career for a one night stand with Rodney McKay.

He's snapped out of his thoughts when Carson makes a half-strangled noise in the back of his throat. When Rodney turns to look at him, Carson’s eyes are bugged out.

"Uh," Carson says intelligently.

"What?" Rodney snaps. "You think I'm suddenly going to start hitting on you after three years? Please. You're not my type."

"Obviously not," Carson says, a little too quickly. He's blushing bright red, but he hasn't shifted towards the door, so Rodney decides to count that as a win. "Why didn't you tell me before?" he asks, sitting down on Rodney's desk chair.

"Honestly, I didn't think it really mattered. I haven't met anyone I want to be with since Brendan, and... Wait. That came out wrong. I mean—"

Carson cuts him off. "I understand what you mean, Rodney. No offense taken." His eyes suddenly narrow. "Brendan. You don't mean Dr. Gall?"

Rodney shrugs helplessly.

"Oh, Rodney."

"Don't do that," Rodney snaps. "Don't pity me. It was a long time ago."

Carson wrings the whole story out of him, and, frankly, Rodney is relieved to be telling it. Carson makes sympathetic noises in all the right places, and he rolls his eyes at all the points where Rodney knows he was an asshole, and Rodney can’t remember why he didn’t tell him years ago.

~~~

Finally, finally, all the bullshit Rodney has put up with for the last decade of his life starts to count for something. Jackson has the epiphany of the millennium, and suddenly going to Atlantis is on the agenda. Atlantis. The stuff of myth and legend. Atlantis.

Rodney is busier than he’s ever been in his whole life. The planning alone is an utter nightmare. All the expedition members have to decide if they’re willing to go on a potential suicide mission—the great walk into nowhere—and beyond that, they have to allocate resources for a colony potentially forever cut off from Earth. To say that soul searching is foundational to the formation of the Atlantis Expedition is an extreme understatement.

All too soon, they’re standing in the Gateroom, and Elizabeth is delivering one of the most effective farewell speeches Rodney has never heard. Rodney is actually moved. He’d be embarrassed at his reaction if all the others didn’t have stars in their eyes as well.

The Gate whooshes open—a well of brilliant blue water—and one by one, the Atlantis Expedition steps through to whatever lies beyond.

Rodney watches Brendan walk through the Gate—into that corridor between galaxies that they have opened for the first time in thousands of years—and he is suddenly more grateful than he can say that the one person who knows exactly what this adventure means to him is waiting on the other side to share it.