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Within These City Walls

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The Pacific Ocean, he mused, was damned big. Chris stood quietly beneath Point Bonita Lighthouse and stared out across the deep blue water to the far distant horizon. Somewhere out there was an Ancient city the size of Manhattan, invisible to the naked eye and cloaked from detection by alien technology, but its presence had been felt the moment it landed. Fortunately that same alien technology had dampened the worst effects of that splashdown or the whole of the Californian coastline would have been swamped. The spaceship city was far enough out to avoid the main shipping lanes, floating in a military no-fly/no-sail zone, but Chris wondered how they managed to keep the birds from flying into it. He voiced his query and heard Buck snort beside him.

"It's a cloak not a force field. The schematics have the cloak starting just beyond the boundary of the city so birds would fly right on through and, hopefully, detect the structure long before they end up...splat...against the side of a tower." He grinned shamelessly.

Chris squinted and gazed sideways at Buck. "You been talking to Carter again?"

"Hell, Chris, surprised you ain't. She is one beautiful woman."

Chris rolled his eyes as Buck carried on with the merits of one Colonel Samantha Carter, illustrating her feminine curves with his hands and expounding on her equally amazing brain. She was once a member of the elite team, SG-1, but had stepped down a while back, even taking over as head of Atlantis for a while though that hadn't pleased the International Oversight Advisory committee. They hadn't liked someone from the US military in charge of what they considered an international scientific and mostly civilian expedition. It didn't matter that the expedition had found an enemy in Pegasus that was more than a match for the Ori or that they relied upon the US military to protect them for the most part. Still, Atlantis was here now, having turned up just in time to fight off a Wraith supercruiser before it could start culling Earth.

That had been some battle, and Chris could still recall the alarm that had blared through Cheyenne Mountain calling everyone to stations. All the major international players had mobilized their armies, only putting it down to a multi-national wargaming exercise after Atlantis showed up and resolved the problem. He had to put it to the spin-doctors who managed to sweep the whole incident under the proverbial carpet, amazed that it hadn't ended with full disclosure of the Stargate program but then it wasn't the first time the planet had been attacked.

Chris figured that the vast majority of people only believed what they wanted to believe, and the thought of aliens actually being real, and the world under threat of alien invaders, was just a little too much science fiction for them to accept. Of course the conspiracy theorists tried to get the truth out there but no one was listening. If the Wraith had won then it would have been a far different story.

Soon, he and the rest of SG-7 would be heading to Atlantis. He guessed it was easier to send in replacements and reinforcements now while they didn't have to rely on runs from the Daedalus, and Chris had to admit that he hadn't been looking forward to almost three-weeks cooped up on the ship. He just hoped he got to keep his gate team once they were on Atlantis rather than have them split up and a new gate team foisted upon him, especially as most teams consisted of only four personnel. SG-7 was different in that it rotated through seven members. The core unit consisted of him as team leader, Tanner, Wilmington and Standish but they also called upon three additional scientists from time to time--Jackson, Sanchez and Dunne. Fortunately, General O'Neill had decided not to split the Seven when he had SG-7 reassigned to Atlantis.

"Time to go, Cowboy."

Chris glanced across to where Vin was leaning on the rail, looking out across the ocean with all the intensity of someone trying to see through the cloak to the hidden city. If anyone could see through the deception with their naked eyes then Chris would bet that man would be Vin Tanner. He had a knack for seeing things hidden in plain sight--an inscription on a slime-covered rock, or a trail that hadn't been used in hundreds of years, obvious to Vin by a few broken stones sticking through the centuries of dirt. Vin had a knack for understanding people too, making the first move to bring them together as more than just friends and team mates.

When they reached the embarkation zone, Chris was surprised to see one of the cylindrical Ancient ships waiting for them. Puddlejumpers. Rumor had it that Colonel Sheppard had given them that nickname, and it had stuck. Usually, he hated whimsical names, and wondered what was wrong with simply calling it a Gateship. After all, it was a ship that went through the gate. Chris smiled wryly. He had to admit that Puddlejumper had a nice ring to it though. As long as Sheppard wasn't too heavy handed with the whimsical names then Chris had a feeling he was going to like the newly-promoted, full-bird Colonel.

He stopped at the foot of the ramp, gazing into the interior, with the rest of his team ranged behind him, and frowned as he watched a marine carelessly drop a crate onto the ones already piled inside. Chris recognized McKay from the few times he had worked at the SGC, and wasn't surprised by the outburst from the irascible scientist.

"What are you doing? When I said place these crates containing highly sensitive and fragile equipment carefully into the back I obviously meant throw them in... because I like watching my staff cry when they unpack the broken contents at the other end."

Sarcasm dripped from the words but the second marine assigned to loading the puddlejumper merely raised an insolent eyebrow and dropped the box he was carrying onto the floor of the puddlejumper without any care at all. Chris heard something shift within the box. Under any other circumstances, he might have found it amusing but Chris had read the reports from that first year when the Atlantis expedition had been cut off from Earth. All the equipment they had was what they had taken through the gate with them during that thirty-eight minute window--and most of it had been irreplaceable, in particular the specialized scientific equipment. He knew how many people the expedition had lost during that first year and in the four-day siege before the arrival of the Daedalus. He knew what ordnance had been exhausted, and how many rounds had been fired to protect the people and the city during that siege. Originally, Atlantis had faced that threat alone, before McKay figured out a way to send a compressed data burst to the SGC, wanting to give his people a chance to say goodbye to loved ones, and to issue a warning to Earth. They had never expected to be saved.

Even now, with the Daedalus making round trips between the Milky Way and Pegasus, every ounce had to count so wasting valuable weight and space on broken equipment mattered. That didn't change just because the city was now on Earth and they could run down to the nearest Defense Depot or order a replacement for immediate delivery. Atlantis would be returning to Pegasus within a few weeks, and the loss of a single piece of equipment due to careless handling could very well be the thin line between life and death in that Wraith-infested galaxy. Chris was taking his team out there, people he cared about, and they would all be relying upon that equipment for their survival.

But it was not just equipment. He knew how much the expedition had relied upon its people for its very survival, with just as many scientists losing their lives as the soldiers brought along to protect them. Though no one would say it out loud for fear of inflating McKay's massive ego even further, Chris knew that the survival of Atlantis had often balanced on McKay's broad shoulders, and now the entire planet owed Atlantis a debt of gratitude following this most recent attack by the Wraith...and it was McKay's algorithms that had made that possible. McKay might be an ass on occasion, with an ego the size of a small planet, but the man had earned everyone's respect since those early days in the program when he had annoyed Hammond and Carter by writing-off Teal'c. Carter had saved her trapped teammate that day, and McKay had been exiled to the Russians in exchange for the loss of the Russian DHD. But that was in the early days when McKay was just another faceless geek. Chris doubted the SGC would hand McKay over to another foreign power so easily if something similar happened again.

The marines turned to leave the puddlejumper and froze when they saw Chris, quickly snapping to attention and saluting.

"And who are you?" McKay was pissed, and as lacking in social skills as ever, but Chris had never been one to stand on ceremony either, unless equally pissed.

The marines stood rigid, obviously uncomfortable beneath Chris's gaze, and they almost slumped in relief when he dismissed them and turned to McKay.

"Major Larabee and SG-7."

McKay looked at him in confusion but the moment was broken by a yell from the cockpit. "McKay? Stop annoying the marines and get your ass back up here."

McKay cast an irritated glance through the puddlejumper. "Major Laramie and his team are here."

"Larabee," came the voice before Chris could correct McKay.

"What?"

"Major Larabee." The voice came closer and Chris shot to attention the moment the owner of the voice appeared, with Buck and the marines on loading duty saluting too. "At ease."

Colonel Sheppard stopped at the top of the ramp leading into the puddlejumper. "If Doctor McKay has finished chewing out the marines then maybe we can get everything else loaded up and get back to Atlantis while she's still out there."

McKay snapped his fingers at the marine who'd acted so insolent moments earlier and this time the man jumped into action. It was instantly apparent that the marines hadn't known Sheppard was on-board because they worked with meticulous precision and care under his watchful gaze, with shoulders tense and eyes lowered to avoid making eye contact. Chris wondered if the Colonel had not made his presence known until now on purpose, noticing the way he seemed to be making mental notes. He had a feeling at least one of those marines had blown his chance of ever being assigned to Atlantis while Sheppard was in command.

Once the last of the crates was loaded, Sheppard smiled. "Permission to come aboard, Major." He turned away before Chris could answer, grabbing McKay by the front of his shirt and dragging him off towards the cockpit.

Chris nodded to the others to start boarding, carrying only their basic kit as the rest had gone in an earlier shipment.

"Got two seats left up front if anyone wants them," Sheppard called out over his shoulder, and Chris nodded to Josiah and Nathan. The Puddlejumpers came with inertial dampeners so there was no need to strap in. Unable to resist, Chris and Vin hovered by the doorway separating the cockpit from the rear compartment.

When Sheppard touched the controls, they lit up beneath his fingertips. The HUD appeared and Chris watched McKay's fingers dance across the copilot's controls with equal grace.

"Do you have the gene, Major?"

"Yes, sir."

Sheppard grinned over his shoulder. "Then I'll put your name down for pilot lessons."

"Cloak activated," McKay stated.

"Then let's go home," Sheppard replied, and the Chris was impressed as Sheppard guided them out of the tight warehouse opening, banking once they cleared the dock before heading out into San Francisco Bay. He shook his head when he realized Sheppard was either showing off or deliberately lengthening the flight time by swinging under the Golden Gate Bridge; the more direct route was heading overland and crossing into the Pacific at Muir Beach. Still, it was an interesting sight, especially as no one could see the cloaked ship.

Only a few minutes later, Chris blinked in surprise when the empty sky disappeared, leaving them weaving through the majestic towers of Atlantis. He had seen images, sent back by the Atlantis expedition, but none of those images did justice to the true magnificence of the city.

"Sure is a pretty sight," Vin murmured from just behind Chris, leaning in close enough that Chris could feel Vin's warm breath against his neck.

In the copilot's seat, McKay hummed contentedly, and even Sheppard's lips broadened into a proud smile. Chris could understand that pride because these two men had fought against immeasurable odds to preserve the city, and not just from the Wraith. When the chance came for reassignment to Atlantis, Chris had read every report he could locate with his security level clearance, and a few that rated higher, courtesy of Ezra's hidden computer skills.

The puddlejumper hovered above the central tower for a moment before descending, slowly revealing the intricate architecture within the city and eventually settling into a disembarkation point on the jumper bay floor. After the hatch lowered, Chris led his team down the ramp, waiting at the bottom for Sheppard, but raising an eyebrow in surprise when McKay bounced down first and practically pushed him aside before yelling orders. Chris noticed how quickly everyone jumped, mostly with a small eyeball roll and a resigned look but their expressions held affectionate acceptance rather than malice. His sixth sense kicked in and Chris knew without turning that Sheppard was standing right at his shoulder, watching his reaction to McKay. Sheppard gave the tiniest nod of approval and smiled, and Chris knew he had passed some hidden test.

"Major, let's get your team settled in. Military report to Colonel Lorne, scientists and support staff to Doctor Zelenka. You'll find them both in the gate room, through those doors, hang a left then down the stairs."

"Yes, sir." Chris saluted once more and gained a perfunctory salute in response that fitted with Sheppard's reputation for not being a stickler for protocol.

Sheppard turned when he reached the bay door, smiling. "And Major... Welcome to Atlantis."

Chris nodded his head politely in acknowledgment. His sixth sense about people was rarely wrong when he cared to take notice of it, and everything he sensed said he was going to like Sheppard...and Atlantis.

Vin bumped shoulders with Chris and winked before heading off in the direction given by Sheppard. Hell, Chris knew all about the protective streak between military and their scientists so he had a feeling he was going to like McKay too--despite the reports on McKay's acerbic personality--just because Sheppard liked and trusted the chief scientist.

****

John looked up when his door opened and Rodney dived in, face red from running hard and eyes wide in panic.

"Someone's trying to kill me!"

"Yeah, and that'll be me if you don't learn to knock."

"What?" Rodney shook his head. "No. Seriously. Someone's trying to kill me."

John narrowed his eyes and took a closer look at Rodney, seeing the very real panic and fear in Rodney's expressive eyes. He pushed to his feet and moved to the door, picking up his handgun on the way. The door slid open and John poked his head out and looked quickly first one way and then the other but there was no one in the corridor outside. He let the door slide shut and turned back to Rodney, who had slumped onto the bed with his head buried in his hands.

"What happened?" he asked sharply.

"I had to check out a problem in the lower levels beneath the south pier. When I entered the room, the doors sealed behind me."

"Really?"

"It was dark...and small...and did I mention dark? What if I hadn't been able to use the battery in my data pad to power the lock and open the door? I could have been trapped in there...forever."

John shuddered internally at the thought, now fully understanding the claustrophobic fear that had brought Rodney running to his door. He remembered the last time that had happened, when Rodney was slowly losing his mind to the parasite in his brain, and had come running to him in terror. Rodney looked up at him with the same wide, scared and yet hope-filled blue eyes that John recalled from that day, and once more it melted something inside of him. He hated that. He hated how just a look from Rodney could crash through all the carefully erected barriers that were meant to keep their friendship on the purely platonic level rather than allowing him to indulge in dreams and fantasies of more. John turned away. After five years he thought he ought to have a stronger grip on his emotions around Rodney but, if anything, time was eroding the walls. Instead of finding familiarity breeding contempt, the more he saw of Rodney--the good and the bad--the more he wanted him. And now with the announcement made by the President some months back, bringing an end to DADT, even that meager barrier to having what he wanted had disintegrated. All that was left was the very real fear of losing his friendship with Rodney if the very straight scientist ever realized that he was the one driving John's erotic fantasies--and had done so for the past five years--rather than the Ancient priestesses and alien princesses that Rodney accused him of lusting after.

"John?"

John relaxed a little, forcing his errant thoughts back under control. There was a simple explanation for the door sealing that didn't include assassination attempts on the Chief Science Officer of Atlantis. "Ten thousand years, Rodney. It wouldn't be the first time the city broke."

Rodney jumped to his feet and stabbed a finger at his chest; it hurt and John batted the hand away as Rodney carried on his tirade. "No? Then how would you explain the compartment that happened to open right above my head the day before?"

John winced. If Lorne hadn't been there at the time, shoving Rodney aside when he realized what was happening, then the heavy contents of that compartment would have landed right on Rodney's head--and probably killed him. Most likely, it was still nothing more than pure coincidence--or a string of bad luck brought on by the bumpy ride from Pegasus, the battle with the Wraith superhive, the less than controlled descent through Earth's atmosphere and the landing. Any one of those could have shaken loose a few of the more fragile areas in Atlantis, and none of that took into account the sheer age of the city. After all, the Ancients had left the city ten thousand years ago, leaving Atlantis to the mercy of the ocean as the shield eventually began to shrink and collapse. There were a lot of areas they had yet to explore due to the damage sustained both during the initial arrival of the expedition, the massive storm that had hit them in that first year, and the later Wraith attack.

Rodney paced a few steps back and forward before stopping in front of John again. "Look, I know you think I'm being a little...paranoid...but--"

"Well, maybe just a little." John interrupted.

"--that healthy paranoia has kept me alive."

John noticed how Rodney stressed the word healthy but Rodney was paranoid about a lot of things, from upping his lifetime exposure to radiation to accidentally ingesting citrus. There were occasions when that paranoia had been justified but in the majority of cases, it really was just an irrational fear.

"Okay," he drawled. "Hypothetically. Suppose someone has got it in for you. What do you need me to do?"

"I... Well..." Rodney seemed at a loss.

Although part of him knew he shouldn't give in to Rodney's irrational fears, another part whispered that he needed to be absolutely certain. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if anything happened to Rodney, especially something that he could have prevented. Tapping his radio, John opened a channel.

"Lorne, can you locate and send Major Larabee to my quarters, please."

He heard the acknowledgment and turned back to find Rodney still watching him with those big, pleading eyes but he could see them clouding with confusion now, and decided a quick explanation was in order.

"Major Larabee was a trained investigator before joining the Stargate program."

"Investigating what?"

John waved a hand nonchalantly. "Missing dogs, cheating husbands. That kind of thing." He hid a grin as Rodney reacted exactly the way he expected, with fear swept away by increased confusion and disbelief. Getting a rise out of McKay was just so easy, even after all these years.

"You are appointing a dog catcher to investigate a serious threat to my life?"

John shrugged. "I wouldn't mention the dog catching. He lost one a few years back. Never recovered from seeing the owner's grief when he handed them their dead poodle's collar."

Rodney gaped at him in horror as John maneuvered him to edge of his bed and forced him to sit down, but startled when the chime sounded a few seconds later. When the door opened at John's command, John saw Larabee's eyes flick straight over his shoulder to where Rodney was sitting before coming back to rest on John. It occurred to John that maybe he should have arranged to meet Larabee in his office, just in case the major got the wrong impression.

"Sir?"

"Major Larabee. Come in. I believe you've met our chief scientist, Doctor Rodney McKay." He waited for Larabee's acknowledgment even though he knew Larabee would not have forgotten Rodney from earlier. Rodney had a way of becoming memorable, usually for the wrong reason. "Well, Doctor McKay believes that someone is trying to kill him, and I want you to investigate and make sure no one succeeds."

Larabee stared at him for a moment longer than was necessary before saluting, obviously wondering if it was just a joke because most people wanted to kill Rodney. The problem was, most people didn't actually plan to go through with it.

"Yes, sir."

****

Vin sank down on a chair set around the table in one of the smaller conference rooms, still feeling a little in awe of the amazing city and the way it reacted to his, admittedly, fake version of the ATA gene. With around fifty-fifty odds on the gene therapy taking, he had been both pleased and excited when the safe object that Doctor Beckett handed over to him had lit up in a deep, azure blue several hours after being given the shot; however, the therapy hadn't taken with Buck and JD. Chris, Nathan and Ezra had the gene naturally, though on a scale of one to ten with Sheppard and O'Neill at ten and Doctor Johansson at one, they had made a respectable eight for Nathan and seven for Chris and Ezra. On the same scale, his mutant gene put him at a six; with Josiah at level five alongside most of the others who had taken the gene therapy successfully. McKay was a notable exception, ranking at an eight despite his artificial gene, but records showed that he'd been only a five before using the ascension device that almost cost him his life. McKay might have lost all of the increased intelligence but his body had retained a higher ATA level following the incident.

And that brought his thoughts full circle back to the reason why the team was in the conference room: Rodney McKay.

Vin wasn't sure what to make of McKay. On one hand he respected the man's dedication to both science and to keeping the expedition safe but McKay's arrogance and inability to filter his inner dialog before it reached his mouth had not made him popular on many levels. He was well known for reducing grown men and women to tears--or incoherent rage--so if there was somebody trying to kill him then the suspect list could easily include the majority of people currently with access to Atlantis. Narrowing it down was not going to be easy, and with that in mind, Vin spoke up.

"No point trying to narrow down the suspects on paper. Reckon McKay's pissed off most everybody he ever met."

Chris gave an amused snort. "Then I guess we'd better see who had access to those areas, and the skill needed to rig an accident."

Nathan leaned in. "Then I take it we're going to go on the assumption it was a murder attempt...rather than coincidence."

Chris smiled slightly. "With Sheppard breathing down my neck, I want to be thorough on this one. Best way of doing that is to take it seriously. If someone is out to get McKay, then I plan to catch him before he succeeds...or her." He seemed to add as an afterthought, addressing the last bit towards Buck, but they were all aware that Buck had a weakness for the ladies that made him overlook the obvious on occasion.

Vin didn't have that problem. He'd figured out that he had no real interest in women the first time he dated Charlotte out of curiosity and discovered a lack of interest in the feminine curves beneath her clothing. Breasts did nothing for him, whereas a man's hard body and rock hard penis left him all hot and bothered. Thankfully, he'd learned that before he made the mistake of signing his life away to the army. Instead, he gained a scholarship and his eventual doctorate by other means. He had Daniel Jackson to thank for bringing him into the Stargate program after Jackson expressed an interest in Vin's thesis regarding the origin of the Norse Gods. Vin had proposed that they were aliens, much to the mocking of his peers, but he was the one laughing now that he had learned of the Asgard and their influence upon this second generation of humanity...the first being the Ancients. Since then, Vin had extended his study to the Goa'uld, and then to the Ancients and the Ori, seeing a reflection of their struggle in the Bible's account of angels and fallen angels. Being here in Atlantis was a dream come true, giving him a chance to interrogate the Ancient database first hand to see if he could support his theories and discover the origin behind some of the myths and legends that had come down in the oral history of the Native American people. Josiah had been his colleague for the last two years, with his formidable knowledge of Ancient languages and customs giving Vin some invaluable insight even though Josiah considered those linguistic and theology skills a hobby. The formal skills that had brought Josiah into the SGC were psychology and behavioral analysis, and his official assignment was as Kate Heightmeyer's replacement on Atlantis.

Meeting up with Chris Larabee had come only a few years back when Larabee and his team had escorted Vin off-world to investigate the ruins on M75-OPX while Major Cocoran's team escorted a team of doctors to the local village. Vin had persuaded Josiah to join him, and the unexpected arrival of an Ori Prior had left them fighting their way back to the gate. Only seven of them had made it back, and those three days of life and death decisions and relying upon each other to survive had made them a team forged in fire. They'd earned the nickname The Magnificent Seven, or more formally, SG-7.

The range of skills each brought to the team had made them the best second contact team at the SGC, moving in once the first contact teams had opened the door to formal negotiations. Vin was glad their unofficial team of seven had not split up when the chance came to serve on Atlantis, though he had never expected their first assignment would involve an investigation into a possible attempted murder.

Chris outlined the two incidents that McKay claimed were murder attempts, and then gave out assignments.

"Ezra, I want you and Vin to investigate the mechanics. If these accidents were rigged then I want to know how, and I want to know who had sufficient knowledge to make it happen. Nathan? You, JD and Josiah can check the profiles of everyone currently serving on Atlantis; see if you can narrow down that list of suspects from just about everyone in the city. And, JD, you might want to look into introducing a new reporting system for the scientists, so no one can end up permanently lost in the city just because no one knew where they had headed last."

"What do you want me to do, Chris?" Buck asked.

"What you do best, Buck. Charm the ladies into revealing all those dirty, little secrets." Buck stroked his mustache, definitely liking any plan that gave him a reason to chat up the ladies. "Just don't forget the assignment."

Everyone except Chris started to move out but Vin hovered, nodding to Ezra to go ahead without him. After the door closed behind Ezra, Vin leaned against the wall and stared at the blond head bowed low over the laptop. He waited until Chris sighed and raised his head, seeing pleasure spark in the green eyes.

"Heard you got the gene," Chris stated softly.

"Yeah. Shame about Buck and JD."

Chris nodded. "I hear Beckett's still working on it."

Vin smiled wryly. "Guess if it was that easy then the Wraith would have figured it out thousands of years ago." Vin moved closer and sank into the seat beside Chris, studying the handsome face that he had come to know so well since they became partners--then lovers.

Chris tilted his head, questioningly. "You think McKay and Sheppard...?"

"Nah. Though I figure Sheppard would like to." Vin licked his lips. "You think Sheppard knows about you and me?"

"Yeah, he knows. We got assigned joint quarters."

"That's good 'cause I ain't planned to hide us any longer."

Chris grinned and pushed up to his feet. Using the arms of Vin's chair for support, he leaned over and kissed him, starting slow and soft, letting the kiss deepen until Vin was kissing back just as hard and both of them were moaning. Eventually, Chris pulled back and Vin stared up at reddened, kiss-swollen lips, not needing to imagine what it was like to have those lips wrapped around his cock.

"Damn, Chris. Now I'm gonna be walking funny for the rest of the day."

"Me too, Pard. Me too."

With reluctance, Chris gathered up his laptop. "Let's go catch ourselves a rattlesnake before he bites again."

****

With less than a month to go before Atlantis returned to Pegasus, Rodney felt more exhausted than ever. Radek had taken two weeks to visit his family in Eastern Europe, and that left Rodney overloaded with paperwork as well as real work. He had just finished recalibrating the power to the hyperdrive less than an hour ago but instead of heading straight to bed, he pulled up the personnel files on his laptop and stared blearily at the screen.

Earlier today, another of his people had turned down the chance to head to Pegasus with Atlantis. In itself that wasn't a problem because--unlike the military who went where they were ordered--the civilians could choose their assignments, or resign if they didn't like what they were offered, with no questions asked. Of course that wouldn't stop Rodney from sending in Radek or Simpson to talk with them, to see if they could be persuaded to change their minds yet again, just as he had changed his mind.

Rodney shook his head in tiredness and confusion. Originally, he had planned to leave Atlantis after she returned to Earth, preparing to give up all the amazing research in the Ancient city for a small town life teaching college-level physics. But just the thought of never walking these corridors again, or seeing the majestic towers, had filled him with a dread so deep that it seemed almost unnatural, as if his fear of leaving Atlantis was a surrogate for some other reason. Not that he wouldn't have been a great teacher, as long as his students weren't complete idiots. As it was, it took him a while to realize that he simply didn't love Jennifer enough to give up Atlantis for a quiet life in Chippewa Falls. Except, he wasn't so certain it was Atlantis that he was afraid to give up, and the more he poked at that theory, the more concerned he became. If Kate Heightmeyer had still been alive then he might have been tempted to make an appointment to see her because, sometimes, her psychobabble had actually made some sense. He wasn't so sure about the new guy, who'd only arrived with the new Major the day before.

His decision to end his relationship with Jennifer and stay on Atlantis should have quelled all those bad feelings but, instead, he felt more unsettled than ever. If life was a puzzle then Rodney knew he was missing a big piece that would explain why all his relationships had failed, whether from aiming for someone unobtainable, who couldn't love him back--like Sam--or simply sabotaging the relationship himself as he had with both Katie and Jennifer.

Perhaps he ought to make that appointment after all. Even if the grizzled looking, older psychologist didn't have anything to offer other than psychobabble, at least Rodney would have a chance to sound out his problem aloud. He might be able to answer his own questions then. Except he already knew the answer was John Sheppard--another unobtainable desire among a lifetime of questing after the unobtainable. Despite the hair and the way he flounced occasionally, which pinged on Rodney's admittedly poor gaydar, John's track record was exclusively female. He'd even been married once, according to Ronon--though Rodney could hardly hold that up as proof when he had come close to getting married to someone of the opposite gender on two occasions in recent years. Both times he had sabotaged that marriage possibility, and both times it was because he realized--just in time--that he simply didn't love them enough, and definitely nowhere near as much as he lo...cared for John.

But his straying thoughts concerning his own predicament didn't help with the personnel problem currently filling his laptop screen. If his first choice for the physicist post didn't change his mind then Rodney needed to pick a replacement, preferably by tomorrow as Woolsey was expecting a report on his desk first thing. Checking through the current list of additional support personnel on Atlantis, Rodney could see that he already had two candidates who fit within his requirements, and as both were currently assigned to Atlantis, that meant they had already gained their security clearance, which made Rodney's life that much easier.

He read each of their resumes. On paper they held equal qualifications but after spending a year cut off from Earth, Rodney had learned to look beyond certificates and academic commendations. He needed people who could do as well as think. Doctor Harding had some barely tolerable theories regarding anti-matter and the creation of the universe, but Doctor Jacobson had similar though slightly less inane theories plus he had put himself through college while working part-time as a mechanic for an auto repair shop, a skill he had not only retained but improved upon when he helped Radek with mechanical repairs to Jumper One last week. Perhaps he would never reach Radek's level of competency but some additional practical skill was better than no skill whatsoever, which was the case with Harding.

Rodney glanced from the desk towards the clock on his bedside table and sighed. It was already two in the morning and Woolsey was expecting a name in his inbox. Making a decision, Rodney sent his recommendation for Jacobson. He closed his eyes and let his head sink down onto his arms on the desktop. The door chime made him jump, and he pushed up wearily.

"Yes, yes. I'm coming."

The door slid open and Rodney sighed when he found Standpipe standing in the corridor beyond. One of the new guys who was supposed to be investigating the murder attempts that, admittedly on reflection, may have been simple coincidence.

"My sincerest apologies, Doctor McKay, but you didn't answer your radio."

"I was trying to sleep," he snapped back.

"There appears to be an emergency with the power module on the shield emitter."

Rodney rubbed a hand across his tired face and nodded. If the shield emitter failed then the whole world would be able to see Atlantis sitting several miles off the San Francisco shoreline. It was a risk that they couldn't afford to take according to the IOA, who feared mass panic if the presence of aliens was sprung on them without sufficient preparation. Rodney just hoped they figured out how to let the world in on the big secret before the next attack on Earth, as by the law of averages, they might not be able to easily explain away the fireworks in the sky next time around.

He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'll go fetch my..." Rodney didn't bother to finish the sentence. He took a moment to gather up all his equipment, including his data pad, before leaving his quarters. As he walked along the corridor, he noticed Standpipe keeping in step with him. "Why are you following me?"

The man smiled, light glinting off a gold tooth. "I'll be assisting you, Doctor."

Rodney hummed in a lack of appreciation, trying to recall exactly what this man's specialty was beyond investigating possible murder attempts. He only recognized the man's face because he had seen him three times over the past day or so, mostly in the company of Major Laramee--or was that Larabee? They stepped into a transporter and exited seconds later in a deeper part of the city.

"Why are we--?" Rodney turned on the data pad, waiting to see the results before he decided if Standpipe was really worth having as an assistant. "Aah! Fluctuations are emanating in the capacitors and not the emitters."

"Exactly."

Before Rodney could turn away, he caught the man tapping his radio. "Mr. Tanner, proceeding to capacitor power room on level 4 with BM." He must have received a response because he smiled broadly before signing off with his name, "Standish out."

Huh, he thought. He was so positive the man's name was Ezekiel Standpipe... Wait! "You're recording my movements?"

"Just a precaution, Doctor McKay."

"What's BM?"

The man smiled again, "Best Measure."

"That doesn't make any sense." The man shrugged and Rodney dismissed it from his mind as they entered the power room; he had more important things to think about now. It took a few moments to realize that it was a hardware problem, possibly a loose connection or a cracked crystal. With annoyance, he dropped to his knees in front of the main console and reached for the cover plate, only to pull back sharply.

"Doctor McKay?"

"Somebody's touched this."

Standish dropped down beside Rodney and began to examine the edge of the cover very carefully by sight alone, eventually confirming Rodney's fear.

"It's booby-trapped. Might I suggest we adjourn to the other side of the door while I call for assistance?"

The words quickly sank in and Rodney mumbled his agreement even though he knew that, eventually, he would have to be the one to disarm whatever mechanism was in place, as he could trust no one else with the delicate Ancient technology--except for Radek, and Radek was still in Europe. Still, he would need specialized equipment and protective gear before making the attempt otherwise they could lose more than just the cloak and shield. Standish pulled Rodney to his feet and they both retreated to the corridor where Rodney pulled out his data pad once more and began reviewing the internal configuration of the power control console.

The sound of booted foot echoed through the corridor and Rodney looked up in time to see Ronon turn the corner ahead of several scientists and marines--and John.

"What happened?" John demanded, grabbing Rodney's biceps.

"Someone booby-trapped the casing." It was only then that the enormity of it crashed down upon him. "If I hadn't noticed...I'd be dead!"

John threw a hard look over his shoulder at Major Larabee, but Rodney was still reeling from his third near-death experience in less than a week to feel sorry for Major Larabee.

"Major, I think we can officially raise this to a threat situation," John stated and Rodney saw Larabee and his team straighten.

"Yes, sir."

It took Rodney almost twenty minutes to disarm the trap, and a further fifteen minutes to fix the fluctuation problem, which had obviously been tampered with purely to get Rodney down to the power room. Ten minutes after that, he was standing in John's quarters, tired and confused. In fact he was too tired to resist when John made him sit on the bed and began removing Rodney's shoes. He did semi-object when John started on his pants but then his head touched the pillow and his eyes closed automatically. John's scent was surrounding him, making him feel safe and secure, and he breathed it in as he pushed deeper into the pillow, quickly falling into the oblivion of sleep.

When he awoke, he looked around in confusion, only realizing whose room he was in when he looked up and saw Johnny Cash staring down at him. A sound in the bathroom had him looking in that direction when John appeared on the threshold. The amazing thing was that he had slept soundly, without the accompaniment of his usual cycle of nightmares that mostly ended when he was eaten by a whale.

"Hey, you're awake."

"Obviously."

"But still grumpy."

Rodney didn't bother to answer that, pushing up to a sitting position instead. John's bed had been surprisingly big and comfortable but then the arrival on Earth had made it far easier to bring in replacement furniture, including a decent mattress for his own bed. Which was probably a good thing as Rodney was convinced John had been sleeping on a kid's bed for the past five years, judging by the way John's feet had always hung off the end. This bed was wider and longer, and Rodney wondered why he hadn't noticed when he came running in the other night, but then he'd been too caught up in believing someone was out to kill him at the time to notice such inconsequential matters. Except that was no longer just a belief as someone really was out to kill him.

"Someone tried to kill me!"

John winced and sank down on the chair placed closed to the bed. Rodney couldn't recall a chair being that close before, otherwise he was sure he would have made use of it instead of pacing John's quarters or sitting on the edge of his bed. Why was the chair there now?

"Why is there a chair by your bed?" he blurted out.

"Because I slept in it last night."

"Okay. But why is it...there?"

John flushed. "Because it is."

Rodney could only just recall the last time he had seen a chair drawn so close to where he was sleeping, and that was while he was slowly losing his mind. He would wake up in the middle of the night and find someone...mainly John...asleep in that chair, watching over him--or at least making an attempt to watch over him. It had made him feel so safe during those frightening days when everything he knew seemed to be slipping away, but even now he recalled holding onto his memories of John and Jeannie the longest. Jeannie he could understand as he had known her from the day she was born, recalling her wrinkled face wrapped in a pink shawl in the maternity ward at the local hospital. But why John? He knew the reasons for holding onto the memory of John had to hold some significance.

"You okay?" John asked softly.

Rodney blinked rapidly. "Um." He gathered his thoughts. "As well as anyone can be when someone is out to kill them!"

John winced. "Yeah. About that. I'm sorry I didn't believe you before. It just seemed like a coincidence."

Rodney was confused. "But you ordered Major Lacrame--"

"Larabee."

"Yes, yes, Larabee...to investigate?"

"And he is investigating."

"Why?"

"Why...what?"

"Why did you ask him to investigate if you didn't believe me?"

"Because..." John shifted uncomfortably. "Because...you're a member of my team and important to Atlantis."

It was true, yet Rodney knew it was an automatic response from John that didn't fully answer his question, but he also knew that John was not good at handling anything that touched on the personal level. As his own social and relationship skills were equally lacking, Rodney sighed and accepted John's words at face value.

Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Rodney pushed up to standing. "I'd best..." he hooked his thumb towards the door leading out of John's quarters.

"Not without an escort."

This time it was Rodney who winced but he could hardly object when he was the one who had gone running to John while fearing for his life. Rodney sighed in dismay when he opened the door to find one of John's marines waiting just beyond. He gave John a half-hearted wave before leaving, intending to freshen up in his quarters before starting on his list of jobs for the day.

****

Chris swore softly as he went through the list of people who had both the skill and the means to rig three attempts on McKay's life. The problem with being in an important scientific outpost like Atlantis was the sheer number of people who had the intelligence and a motive due to McKay's less than stellar personality. To be honest, if Radek Zelenka had been on Atlantis during those incidents then he'd likely be heading the list of suspects judging by the competitiveness between the chief science officer and his deputy, and yet Chris knew intuitively that all the threats and arguments between the two men were simply a sign of their passion for science and discovery with no true animosity. All scientists argued passionately but McKay was so far ahead of most of his peers that he was usually right. He left so many disgruntled scientists in his tracks--and even military--and yet the majority of those questioned about heated arguments captured on the security cameras turned on Chris and his team the moment it was implied that they could be the one responsible for trying to kill McKay. With few exceptions, everyone respected McKay--and most actually liked him, though not necessarily all of the time.

Chris came to the conclusion that the perpetrator was either someone with a long-standing grudge--someone whose work had been denigrated, or who had lost a friend or loved one in Pegasus and blamed McKay--or a newcomer who didn't understand the dynamic between McKay and his so-called minions, seeing only the petty, arrogant scientist that belittled his peers, demanding the best from them, rather than the man who had stepped in front of a loaded gun to save a colleague.

"Josiah?"

"It'll take me weeks to speak to every person on Atlantis."

Buck leaned in. "Gonna have to flush whoever it is out into the open."

Nathan shook his head. "I'm no profiler, and no psychologist like Josiah. If it's plant drugs you want to know about... someone getting poisoned... then I can help," he paused. "But I don't need to be those things to know it's not gonna be easy finding one man when we don't have a motive."

Vin shook his head. "More like we have too many motives."

"I believe I have it!" Everyone turned to Ezra. "Professional jealousy."

Chris frowned because that summed up the majority of the scientists. "Going to have to give us more than that, Ezra."

"What has everyone here got in common?" Ezra looked around the table. "A desire to work in the lost city of Atlantis." He held up two lists, one in each hand; he shook the right hand list. "On the right we have all those who requested to stay with Atlantis on her return to Pegasus. On the left, those whose services were declined...by Doctor McKay."

JD took the right hand list and scanned the names. "Wait. This isn't right. Doctor Xiuang pulled out of the Pegasus assignment yesterday."

"Any particular reason?" Buck asked.

"Something about family commitments," JD replied. JD must have noticed the weird looks. "I'm a virologist... and virologists like to talk."

"Soft sciences," murmured Ezra, and Chris held up a hand before the discussion dissolved into the familiar soft versus hard science, scientists versus military. Ezra and JD were different sides of the same coin as far as Chris was concerned, both dealing with microscopic entities, except one kind was living and the other man-made.

Vin caught Chris's eye, and Chris watched as Vin began to rapidly key into his laptop. He turned the screen so the rest could see. "Recognized the name. Figured our perp might have started off small so I checked back through the accident logs...and found this." He hit play and they watched a crystal panel crackle and then explode, sending shards flying towards Xiuang, who raised his arms to protect his face. "Wasn't a big explosion and Xiuang had just a few cuts, but it wasn't the first time Xiuang caused an accident. McKay bawled him out, and less than a week later he's requesting a new assignment."

Chris pursed his lips. "A physicist. He's got the skill profile."

Josiah picked it up. "Atlantis is a glorious opportunity for a scientist, so if McKay gave him the leave or be pushed speech then he might be a man looking for vengeance."

"According to his paperwork, Carson has him scheduled for a final medical tomorrow." Nathan had pulled up the medical records.

Buck stated out loud what each of them was probably thinking. "Then he's not got a whole lot of time left if he wants McKay dead."

"And neither have we if we want to stop him," Ezra added.

"Ezra, I want you to keep a watch on Xiuang. If he so much as twitches then I want to know about it. Vin, I need you and the others to check out the rest of the names on the decline list just in case Xiuang's not our man." Chris gave out the rest of the assignments and watched them all leave until only Vin remained.

"Not told us what you'll be doing."

"I'm going to be McKay's shadow."

Sheppard had assigned a permanent marine guard for McKay and Chris had already changed the roster with Lorne's permission. Vin didn't look particularly happy with the idea because anyone in the zone with McKay was likely to end up just as much of a target, but Chris had already seen Ezra endangered purely by being near McKay. He couldn't give this assignment to anyone else.

"Still using the same call sign?" Buck asked mischievously.

"BM. Big Mac," Chris replied, smiling at Ezra's disdainful look and Nathan's head shake.

"Let's hope Doctor McKay doesn't work that one out," Nathan sighed.

Vin grinned and moved into Chris's personal space; his expression turning serious as his hands framed Chris's face. "Watch your back, cowboy," he murmured before kissing him. Chris wasn't given a chance to respond before Vin was walking away but he smiled when Vin paused on the threshold and winked at him over his shoulder. "Don't make any plans for tonight."

****

John was working his way through a seemingly endless pile of reports, wishing he could pass all of them over to Lorne even knowing that these were eyes only to him, when a call came through on the emergency channel. He was already halfway to his feet by the time he had tapped his radio, feeling a little guilty at the same time for having wished for a way to dodge these reports for a few more hours.

"Sheppard here."

"Sir, we have an incident in the observation room beneath the north pier."

By now he was through the door and part way along the corridor, heading for the closest transporter. "What happened, Lorne?"

"A minor explosion has compromised the structural integrity of the observation room. The bulkhead doors have sealed, trapping Doctors McKay, Xiuang and Jacobson and Major Larabee. Comms are down."

John sent the transporter to the north pier, tapping his radio to use a private channel. "McKay! Come on, answer me."

Nothing. He tried again but gained no response; he felt his uncertainty climb with every passing second of silence, already starting to fear the worst. By now he was in the corridor just along from the observation room, and he could see a knot of people at the junction ahead.

"Lorne."

Lorne turned and grimaced. "We've tried tapping out Morse Code on the door, in case Major Larabee or McKay can respond." John didn't need to ask if he had met with any success. He could tell the answer by Lorne's grim expression. "Sir, the scanners are not operating in this area. The room may already be flooded."

John refused to accept that. "I'm not making that call until we've seen inside that room, Colonel." There was only one way to make a visual check. "I'm taking out Jumper Seven."

Lorne nodded his head, instantly understanding. Seven was in the underwater bay about a five minute run from their current position. The marine biologists had been making use of it ever since they discovered the Jumpers could also be used as submersibles, and that usage had increased since arriving back on Earth. John had piloted for the biologists on a couple of occasions since returning to Earth but had not yet managed to persuade Rodney to tag along, though John suspected it was fear of being trapped in a small space with a whole bunch of excited biologists rather than Rodney's fear of drowning that kept him refusing. After all, he'd been eager enough to climb on-board when it was just the two of them investigating the Lantean whales.

The memory was good and bad, filled with mixed emotions as he recalled both Rodney's infectious awe and excitement, followed so soon after by fear and pain. Seeing Rodney's distress, with the blood running from his nose and ears, had reminded him uncomfortably of the nanovirus in that first year when they had lost several scientists to aneurysms created by the nanites. On that occasion, Rodney had been spared purely because he had the ATA gene. During the solar flare incident, all John remembered was the gut-wrenching fear of seeing Rodney collapse across the copilot controls, uncertain if he was alive or dead until he could get the Jumper out of the water and away from the reach of the dangerous sub-frequency used by whales. He felt that same fear again now, not knowing if Rodney was still alive or had drowned behind the bulkhead door.

"I'm coming with you."

Ronon had arrived on the tail-end of his discussion with Lorne, and John decided not to bother wasting time arguing with him. He headed off at a fast pace, and when he reached the Jumper, John was not surprised to find Doctor Tanner only a few steps behind him too. Once more he realized the futility of telling the man to stay back. Major Larabee had been one of the first of the military to openly acknowledge having a same-sex partner following the end of DADT, and had made it clear on his Atlantis assignment request that he wanted to share quarters with Tanner--who had already won a coveted place on Atlantis on his own academic merits. Every member of SG-7 had come highly recommended by Carter, and he trusted her opinion implicitly after serving with her on Atlantis.

Tanner took Rodney's seat at the copilot station without a word, while Ronon slid into his usual seat behind Tanner; the back was already closing as one more person slid inside to join them. Standish took the seat behind John, offering a charming smile that barely penetrated John's veil of fear for Rodney as he opened the sea doors and began maneuvering out into the Pacific Ocean beyond.

"You may require the services of an engineer," Standish offered up as an explanation, but John knew Standish was here for Tanner and Larabee, the same way Ronon was here for him and Rodney. They were team. Still, bringing along an engineer was something John should have considered before closing the hatch. He wasn't sure what kind of qualifications Standish held but knew it had something to do with small objects--possibly nanotechnology--but Radek had been pleased to see Standish join the Atlantis engineering department and that was good enough for John.

"How long till we get there?" Ronon asked and Tanner replied on John's behalf, seeming to read the HUD with ease.

"Should be coming up any moment."

Ahead of him, John could make out the observation window and maneuvered in gently until they were facing the window. A light from the Jumper lit up the dark interior, and John felt the hammering in his heart slow as he saw Rodney's pale and stricken face on the other side, alongside another scientist John didn't recognize--but there were so many new faces on Atlantis these days.

"Oh my," Ezra was peering forward over John's shoulder.

"Window's cracking," Ronon stated ominously, and now John could make out the spidery cracks that were running through the Ancients equivalent of glass.

"It ain't gonna hold much longer," Vin said quietly.

"I've got an idea." John began to turn the Jumper.

Standish got it immediately. "We extend the shield around the whole window to make a seal."

John nodded tightly. "Then Colonel Lorne can find a way to get in and grab our people."

Ronon snorted. "Or I could smash the window and we bring them out this way."

John looked to Standish and saw him grinning.

"Let's do it," he ordered, aware that as the only skilled pilot on-board, he would have to leave the actual rescuing to the others. Quickly, he let Lorne in on the plan, wanting to make sure they stopped whatever recovery operation they had going, as they needed the bulkhead door to remain sealed. John knew they would have to temporarily sacrifice that observation room to the sea in order to rescue Rodney and the others, but it would be worth it. A repair team could replace the window and pump the water back out, though John had no doubt Rodney would complain about that later. The thought almost made him smile.

Last time around, it was Radek working the controls as they went to rescue Rodney from a downed Jumper. This time it was Standish, and John worried on his lower lip, uncertain if Standish had the knowledge he needed to extend the shield. He breathed out in relief as the HUD registered the expanding shield. John lowered the back ramp and spared a glance over his shoulder as Ronon took out his blaster and changed the setting. Interminable minutes passed, presumably while Rodney, Larabee and the others took cover, and then John heard the whine of Ronon's blaster followed by the sound of splintering glass. Silently, he hoped he'd made the right call.

****

"There's someone out there!"

Chris looked across the darkened room when Jacobson called out. He turned back to McKay, who was kneeling on the other side of Doctor Xiuang. McKay had the remnants of his pocket medical kit strewn across the floor, lit only by the light given off by the one datapad that had survived the explosion that had ripped through the room. Chris had his hands full, pressing down on a slow but potentially fatal bleed from where flying debris had struck Xiuang. All of them were sporting cuts to varying degrees though Jacobson had fared the best, having been sheltered behind the others when the explosion occurred.

"You better check it out," Chris said tightly to McKay, aware that he couldn't ease up the pressure or they would lose Xiuang for sure.

McKay nodded and climbed to his feet, breathing in sharply as he pulled on the laceration across his thigh. The sudden flood of light made Chris squint hard, casting McKay into silhouette as he moved carefully towards the window. In the greater light it was easy to make out the spider-cracks running through the observation window and Chris hoped the slightest increase in water pressure from the approaching Jumper did not send the whole thing cracking open, spilling in the sea beyond. McKay seemed just as fearful but his tensed shoulders dropped suddenly.

"It's Sheppard!"

Chris wasn't surprised in the least.

"What is he...? Oh!" McKay took several steps back, pulling Jacobson with him, as the light circled away. "He's going to extend the shield to encompass the window."

The silence lengthened, something Chris had never expected to happen while trapped in a small space with the infamously claustrophobic and talkative Rodney McKay; Chris almost yelled at McKay to tell him what the hell was going on.

"Um. We need to take cover." McKay hurried back but instead of moving as far from the window as possible, he dropped down between Xiuang and the splintering glass, leaning over with the full intention of shielding both Xiuang and Chris with his own body.

The move confused Chris because he was the one who was supposed to be protecting McKay, but he didn't have time to dwell on that thought. The sound of the window shattering forced Chris into ducking low as well; he tensed, too attuned to expecting the worst, but the rush of sea water never came.

"McKay!"

Chris didn't recognize the voice but from the large shadow cast over them, he knew it had to be McKay's teammate, Ronon Dex. However, he did know the second voice--the one that called his name--and he looked up instinctively as Vin dropped to the other side of Xiuang. Sheppard yelled from the cockpit to hurry up, and Chris kept the pressure on as Ronon and Vin lifted Xiuang between them. He could just make out Ezra helping Jacobson and McKay into the Jumper. Climbing through the shattered window was difficult and Chris had no time to look back as they settled Xiuang on the floor and the hatch closed behind them. He felt the small vibration as the Jumper moved off, hearing Sheppard call for medics to the submersible bay. Sheppard was out of his seat the moment the Jumper set down safely, heading straight for McKay. By then the ramp was already lowering and the medics rushed in the moment it was down far enough, taking Xiuang out of Chris's hands. He half-crawled backwards out of their way, stopping when he felt familiar hands fall on his shoulders--Vin's hands.

His attention was torn away to where Sheppard was kneeling in front of a slumped McKay, seeing Sheppard's hands tightly gripping McKay's biceps as if he never intended to let the man go again. Above the sound of the medics working on Xiuang, Chris could barely make out the words as Sheppard talked softly to McKay, asking where he was hurt and being thankful that McKay was alive. He felt almost guilty at eavesdropping on that intimate moment, and turned his attention back to the battle being fought on the floor of the Jumper.

Nathan cast him a concerned look before focusing back on Xiuang, working side-by-side with the newly reinstated CMO, Carson Beckett, as they fought to stabilize their patient. They seemed to be winning and eventually, Beckett told Nathan to check out the others. When Nathan approached him first, crouching down in front of him, Chris quickly brushed him off.

"I'm fine. Just a few cuts. McKay took it worse."

"As long as you ain't being a martyr, Chris. Makes me angry."

"I'm fine," he reiterated, reaching out to clasp Nathan's forearm, expressing reassurance in the only way he could. Nathan nodded slowly and moved over to where McKay was still seated, watching as Sheppard shifted aside with some reluctance. Watching Nathan work always reminded him that, like the military, none of the medical science personnel were just one thing. Beckett was the CMO and a brilliant surgeon, but he was also a geneticist, Nurse Cho was a microbiologist, and Nathan was a pharmaceutical expert who'd also trained and worked as a paramedic.

"Come on, cowboy. Let's get you to the infirmary."

"Wasn't Xiuang," he stated and Vin sighed, understanding.

"Yeah. Already figured that one out."

****

John listened as Rodney bitched, smiling as if it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard, but maybe it was. If Rodney was bitching then it meant he was still wondrously alive.

"OUCH! Carson!"

"Stop your whining, Rodney! And for goodness sake, stop squirming or I'll not be able to apply these stitches."

The curtain moved aside as a nurse entered the cubicle, and through the gap, John saw Vin Tanner gripping Larabee's forearm in a way that was more intimate than any simple hand-holding. He envied them their ease with each other, wishing he could do the same with Rodney, and then thought, to hell with it! He reached out and grabbed at Rodney's waving hand, wrapping his fingers tight around it to still its constant motion. Rodney fell silent, eyes wide and blue as he stared across at John in shock, but he made no attempt to remove his hand.

"Aye, that's better," Carson stated, patting Rodney's uninjured leg before adding another stitch to the gash on Rodney's other thigh.

Rodney remained strangely quiet for the rest of the treatment, his eyes flicking between Carson and the gash occasionally but always returning to John as if trying to decipher the meaning behind this latest crazy move. In truth, John wasn't sure what it meant for them either but when he looked up from Rodney's now-bandaged thigh, he found those eyes watching him curiously. John grimaced.

"We need to talk."

Turning his eyes intentionally towards their joined hands, Rodney looked John straight in the eye. "I should think so. When?"

"Later."

"Later as in today, or later as on the Twelfth of Never?"

John narrowed his eyes in annoyance but he couldn't blame Rodney for wanting to question the timing. "Today, later."

"Good. My quarters after dinner."

"Okay."

Rodney stared harder in disbelief and John squeezed his hand tightly before letting go. "Later," he stated again before walking away, feeling Rodney's laser stare between his shoulder blades until he turned out of the Infirmary.

John let out the breath he was holding and leaned against the corridor wall. What the hell had just happened there? he asked himself, but he knew he'd finally tipped over the edge, no longer able to just stand and look--wanting to touch and hold. It had to be a good sign that Rodney hadn't kicked up a fuss or shaken off his hand... unless he was in shock at the time.

"Damn it!" He smacked his head back against the wall and regretted it instantly. John pushed away as Larabee came out of the Infirmary, trailed by Tanner.

"Sir." He stood to attention and saluted, only relaxing when John saluted back.

"At ease, Major."

John understood Larabee's stiff formality but he couldn't blame Larabee for any of this. He hadn't even truly believed Rodney was in any danger, just playing along as a precautionary measure, but this latest incident had changed everything.

"Sir, I'm sorry to report that--"

"My office in ten minutes, Major," John interrupted. "And bring your team."

"Yes, Sir."

As he walked away, it occurred to John that Larabee might think he and his team were about to get a reprimand for failing to protect Rodney but that wasn't the case, and they'd realize that soon enough. He tapped his radio.

"Colonel Lorne, Ronon, report to my office immediately."

He heard the acknowledgments but never broke step, entering his locked office and moving all the eyes only files into a secure cabinet. The room was nothing like Rodney's office. Strangely, it was more than twice the size, which should have annoyed Rodney, and it led into an even bigger room consisting of a large table that John and Lorne used to plan missions. Lorne's slightly smaller office was on the other side of what John had labeled the War Room. Ronon arrived first, followed soon after by Lorne, Larabee and the rest of SG-7. As the men filed in, John realized he needed more space so he indicated for everyone to follow him into the War Room.

"Take a seat, please," he asked but they all knew it was actually an order.

John remained standing while everyone else pulled out a chair and sat down. He noticed Larabee hesitating for a moment but eventually, the major sank into the seat positioned between Lorne and Tanner. John scanned all the faces, recalling some of them from his brief time at the SGC after Helia and her crew reclaimed the city. For a moment, he remembered the stories told about Larabee; how the man had lost it for a time following the murder of his wife and kid, losing him a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. Larabee had blamed himself for not being there when it happened, and almost lost it again when he found out that the killer was a woman from his past--a woman with a twisted, psychopathic fixation on him.

A Federal Judge with knowledge of the Stargate program, Orin Travis, had exonerated Larabee over the death of Ella Gaines and had pulled a few strings to get Larabee reinstated as leader of an off-world team. John only recalled it so clearly because the reinstatement had happened during those six weeks he had spent trying to break-in his own new team at the SGC. There had been talk of John taking over SG-7, but in hindsight, he was glad that hadn't happened.

John's stare lingered on Larabee. Although Larabee never flinched, John could see self-directed anger lurking behind his eyes, but Larabee had no reason to blame himself for what had happened in the observation room.

"I'll admit that when I handed you this assignment, I wasn't taking any threat to McKay seriously." He leaned forward onto the table and looked every man in the face. "I am now." Straightening, he turned back to Larabee. "So where are we now, Major?"

Larabee straightened. "Nowhere, Sir."

John sank down into his seat. "I guessed as much. McKay is not exactly the most likable person on Atlantis. He can be a real asshole, but he's proved he will work longer and harder than anyone, that he would do everything within his power, even lay down his life if necessary...admittedly with a lot of bitching and whining, but he never joined up to fight. Most people know this, either from being here...or from hearing or reading reports from those who were here."

"Still a long list of suspects," Doctor Sanchez murmured.

"I don't believe so." Standish leaned in. "We thought the perpetrator was Doctor Xiuang. He had accepted a position on Atlantis but asked for reassignment after several accidents brought the wrath of Doctor McKay down upon his head."

"I see where you're going," Lorne interrupted. "What if they weren't accidents? What if someone was trying to get rid of Xiuang?"

"So they could take his place on Atlantis?" Vin asked.

"Hell, why not!" Buck exclaimed.

Nathan leaned in. "So who gets Xiuang's position?"

John straightened and went back into his office to grab his laptop. He booted it and opened the mail program, searching through the hundreds of administration emails that came to him as a matter of courtesy. He tended to shove them all in a folder and ignore them until he had a warning that his mailbox was getting too full. He found the email Rodney sent to Woolsey in the early hours, naming Doctor Jacobson as Xiuang's successor.

"Jacobson. But if it was Jacobson causing the accidents, then why did he put himself in danger once he got what he wanted?" John asked.

"Or put himself in danger at all." Ronon looked around the table but no one argued with his logic.

"Who else was up for that position?" Larabee asked.

John scanned the email, reading through the earlier correspondence that was attached. "Dr. Theodore Harding."

Larabee's soft voice brought John's eyes up from his laptop. "I think we should bring Doctor Harding in for questioning, sir."

"Do it."

****

Chris made certain he had back-up in place when he passed his hand over the chime for Harding's quarters. He was surprised Colonel Sheppard wasn't standing here in his place, convinced from earlier reports that Sheppard was the kind that liked to do everything but the mundane paperwork. Instead, Sheppard had put his trust in Chris, letting him finish the job of finding the person responsible for the attempts on Doctor McKay's life.

He already knew Harding was in there. Everyone on Atlantis had a subcutaneous transmitter implanted into them and JD's new system could use it to track the scientists within Atlantis no matter where they were, so Chris had programmed the hand-held to zone in on Harding's whereabouts. When Harding opened the door, Chris smiled politely.

"Doctor Harding, I'd like you to accompany us--" The door closed fast as Harding jumped backwards but Chris was quicker, overriding the door control with a thought. Harding had backed all the way across the room, pulling a strange looking Ancient device up from the desk and pointing it towards Chris in a threatening manner.

"Put down the object, Doctor Harding."

"No. Step any closer and I'll kill you."

Josiah stepped in from behind Chris, holding his hands out in a non-threatening manner.

"I know about your new wife, son. I know she has a place in the botany department, and you wanted to make sure she didn't leave for Pegasus without you."

"Katie shouldn't have to go out there alone. And not with him."

"Doctor McKay?"

"He might try to seduce her again. Play on her fear of being alone out there." Harding shook his head. "I can't trust him."

"Theo?"

Chris stepped aside as a lovely red-haired woman entered the room behind him, recognizing her from Harding's personnel file as his new wife, Doctor Katherine Brown.

"Katie!"

"Theo. You have to put down the object and go with them. I'll stay with you, I promise. I'll stay with you."

"But it's your dream to go back out there."

"Not without you."

She moved in closer and slowly took the object from his hand. Chris rushed forward immediately and grabbed Harding, forcing his hands behind his back and using a plastic tie to secure his wrists. As Chris marched him towards the corridor, Harding looked over his shoulder beseechingly at his wife, but Chris didn't need to look back to know she was crying.

****

"Harding?"

Rodney seemed confused as he leaned back, shoulder-to-shoulder with John. Despite saying they needed to talk about what happened in the infirmary, Rodney seemed just as reluctant as John now they were alone together. Instead, he had put on a movie that both of them liked.

"Harding was married to Katie?"

"Yeah, it was a recent development." John shrugged.

"Huh! I didn't know."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it takes you months to even remember names so I didn't expect you to know anything personal."

"I know Radek has a nephew...and kept pigeons," Rodney bristled back at John, gaining only a grin.

"Yeah, and you knew him...how long before you found that out?" John took a deep breath and took Rodney's hand in his, aimlessly playing with Rodney's fingers as the movie on Rodney's laptop played on. It really was background noise, something they had both seen a dozen times over the past few years yet John kept his eyes firmly on the screen even though he could feel Rodney's eyes on him. He tried to ignore that piercing stare, seeking to distract Rodney instead. "What I don't get is how Harding made it through the psych evals."

Rodney snorted. "Really?" His blue eyes were dancing with mirth when John flicked a glance towards him, until he realized John wasn't joking. Then he just looked bemused. "Seriously? You don't think someone with an IQ over 160 could waltz through those evaluations?" Rodney squirmed uncomfortably before admitting, "Plus they're not so strict on the scientists anyway."

John turned away from the movie in surprise. "Why not?"

Rodney merely raised both eyebrows. "When you want the best, sometimes you have to overlook a few...eh...quirks?"

John stared at him for a moment longer before conceding Rodney had a point. The Stargate program seemed to be filled with flawed individuals and yet, sometimes, those very flaws made them essential, and other times those flaws were negligible compared to the benefits from that person's knowledge or expertise. He thought of his own past and the black mark that should have seen him finishing out the rest of his military career in the backwaters of Antarctica. He recalled Larabee and O'Neill with the tragic loss of their loved ones playing so heavily on their minds, both of them self-destructive before finding a new family and sense of belonging within the Stargate program. Even Rodney had all his neuroses--and a black mark that had seen him exiled to Siberia for a time before he was brought back to help save the planet. When he thought about it, most of them had their quirks or flaws.

"Uhm. You're...holding my hand again."

"I know."

"Why?"

John licked his lips and tore his eyes away from the movie. "I..."

Rodney rolled his eyes and grinned. "Idiot."

John wasn't quite sure to whom Rodney was referring, but when Rodney leaned in before John could find any more words, and kissed him sweetly, he wondered if the gentle rebuke was for both of them. John stopped Rodney from drawing back, pulling him into another kiss that held far less sweetness--harder and dirtier, wanting to taste and possess the mouth and lips that had both fascinated and inflamed him for so long. His hands had slipped free from Rodney's clasp and were sliding beneath clothing to brush over the soft skin beneath. He felt the vibration as Rodney moaned softly into the kiss, body arching to press more of his upper body against John. John pulled back and stared into a flushed face and wild, lust-darkened eyes.

"I want us naked," John stated simply, and saw Rodney nod in ready agreement, just as eager as John.

They stripped quickly, discarding clothing without caring where it landed, too intent on bringing their mouths and bodies crushing back together again as quickly as possible. It felt good to finally have Rodney's skin pressed against him, and to feel Rodney's rapid heartbeat beneath his hand. He kissed him again, feeling raw from the sheer pleasure of finally having what he had desired for so long, yet annoyed too, for not taking this chance earlier--regulations be damned.

Rodney was as single-minded in this as he was with most everything, focusing all of his attention on John. Agile fingers played over John's skin with an artist's perfection, pressing here and lingering there, firm one moment, softly touching in the next. John felt those clever fingers wrap around his hard cock, thumb teasing the sensitive glans on each upstroke until John was almost sobbing with need. When he spilled into Rodney's hand, he felt as if all of his life had been moving towards this one moment, joined with Rodney. His hand faltered as his climax overtook him but as soon as the euphoria began to fade, John renewed the slide of palm against warm, hard flesh, speeding up as Rodney panted and gasped against John's throat until the heat of Rodney's release splattered over his hand, mingling with his own semen. Sated but tired, with breathing still erratic from the rush of pleasure, they rested against each other, forehead to forehead and yet the contact was far more intimate than any Athosian greeting.

Eventually, John moaned in appreciation, stretching out his limbs and letting his sticky hand slide over Rodney's sweat-slicked and cooling skin. Fingers skimmed the curve of Rodney's ass, and John felt a weak twitch of desire at the thought of possessing more of Rodney, and of being possessed in turn. But neither of them were horny young men anymore so he knew it could be hours before either of them had the stamina for another round. He could barely wait though. After all these years of looking but not touching, the urge to claim Rodney again was all consuming. John flopped onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, almost mesmerized by the blue veins that ran across it in a pattern that wasn't so obvious during natural daylight.

The background noise of the still-playing movie began to intrude upon him just as John's questing fingers found the edge of the bandage on Rodney's thigh, bringing John back to the present and the knowledge that he might have lost Rodney today. With more of the euphoria dispelled, he pushed upright and leaned over to silence the movie, closing the lid to leave the room bathed only in the low blue glow from the walls and ceiling. John laid back with a sigh, and the silence stretched between them as Rodney dozed by his side but John's mind was a-whirl with thoughts and the need to make new decisions based on this change in their relationship. Eventually, he sighed again and nudged Rodney to ensure he was awake.

"Huh?" Rodney asked sleepily.

"I'm breaking up the team, Rodney."

The words finally penetrated.

"What!?"

Rodney started to sit up but John pulled him back down, turning them to face each other just a few inches apart. He could feel the heat still radiating off of Rodney's rapidly cooling skin and John knew he wanted to experience that sensation again...and again.

"I want to keep...this." John waved a sticky hand between them. "But I can't have this and have both of us regularly off-world on a team. You understand?"

Rodney shook his head. "Not really. If this has anything to do with your military's fraternization regulations then--"

"Yes...and no."

Fraternization between military personnel of different ranks within the same command structure was frowned upon for good reason, but the SGC had never adhered too strongly to the same regulations existing between military and civilian personnel, especially those of equal rank or standing outside of the team structure. It was for this reason that John hadn't broken up SG-7 as soon as they set foot on Atlantis, because he knew they were a good team, working exceptionally well together, even though Larabee and Tanner were in a full relationship. Both John and Rodney could monitor the situation and split up SG-7 should anything change...but who would monitor them? Rodney did as John ordered for the most part, deferring to him off-world out of respect, but they'd had a few clashes on Atlantis that had affected the safety of the team, or individual members, off-world. He still recalled how his anger over the Doranda affair had spilled over to the team, with him unintentionally putting Rodney--and Carson--into danger just because he and Rodney were not working well together at the time. With even more responsibility and added stress on Atlantis, further clashes between them were inevitable, and they would have to figure out a way to separate their working and personal relationship. Removing themselves from an off-world team was the first step.

"Rodney, when Atlantis returns to Pegasus, it will carry three times the number of scientists and military personnel. Neither of us can justify going off-world as part of the regular team roster any more, leaving our deputies holding the fort." He held up a hand to forestall Rodney's denial. "No matter how competent Lorne and Zelenka may be." John leaned in closer. "I'm not saying we won't ever go off-world again, together or separately. I'm just saying we have to consider leaving most of that to our subordinates in future. We have a bigger role to play on Atlantis now."

Rodney stared hard but John could see he was weighing up John's words.

"And it wouldn't be fair to ground Teyla and Ronon along with us," Rodney concluded solemnly. "Hence, breaking up the team."

John smiled and kissed him gently. "I knew you'd understand."

Rodney gave him a crooked smile. "Not really but..." Rodney sighed, but then his mouth tightened and eyes narrowed. "One condition. You can explain it to Ronon."

John winced. "Deal. He's due to lead his own team anyway."

They sealed the agreement with another kiss, slow and sensual, putting everything into that kiss as if it could erase all the years that they had wasted when they could have been together. Rodney pulled back, all soft and pliant for a moment, but his familiar crooked smile tightened once more when he wriggled, and his nose wrinkled in disgust. John knew Rodney was experiencing the uncomfortable pull of sticky, spilled semen drying on his skin because he was starting to feel it too--and, worse still, it began to itch.

"Shower. Now."

"Yes, sir."

John gave Rodney a mock salute before jumping up and pulling Rodney to his feet. They stumbled into John's shower cubicle together, cleaning up quickly before drying off, replacing the sheets and tumbling back into a clean bed. Lying side-by-side, without fear of toppling to the floor, John was glad he had swapped out his old bed for this new one, taking advantage of Atlantis being on Earth. Nevertheless, Rodney's head lay on the same pillow as John's and their hands were clasped loosely together as they talked softly into the night about their joint future. Eventually, they fell asleep, and in the morning, they got sticky all over again, much to their mutual pleasure.

****

Epilogue:

Vin leaned back against the pillows and grinned as Chris crawled over him from the bottom of the bed, loving the mischievous look on his partner's face. Chris didn't stop until their lips were sealed together, moaning softly as they slowly devoured each other until, eventually, Chris pulled back.

"Damn, Larabee," Vin whispered hoarsely, loving the feel of Chris's skin brushing over Vin's equally naked flesh. He reached down with both hands and let his palms smooth into the curve of Chris's lower back then down across the firmly muscled ass, bringing their hard erections together.

The room lights dimmed, leaving only the soft blue glow from the wall panel lights to illuminate the lean, pale skin. Vin gasped as Chris moved against him, enjoying the slowly building ache of desire that stripped away all worries of the outside world until it was just him and Chris, moving together almost as one. It was slow and perfect, movements synchronized through years of closeness, attuned to each other in ways that few could imagine. They knew each other; knew where to touch to bring the most pleasure, knew how to touch with soft strokes here and with harder scrapes of nails there. They knew when it was too much and when it was not enough, no longer inhibited while in each other's arms. And yet there was a difference tonight, a renewed sense of belonging, a feeling of coming home that Vin believed was being part of being in Atlantis.

He moved against Chris, bodies slick with sweat, making the sensation of cock dragging over skin all the more pleasurable. All errant thoughts drifted away until all his focus was on Chris and on pleasure, feeling it slowly build between them, expanding within mind and body until they were swept over the edge with warm come splashing between their bodies.

"Damn, Larabee," Vin repeated softly, with his voice as warm and sated as the rest of his body. He let his fingers card through the sweat-soaked strands of hair as Chris lowered his head onto Vin's chest, feeling the puffs of warm breath against cooling skin. It was only their third night on Atlantis and yet Vin felt as if he had always been here, had always belonged within these city walls, with Chris lying by his side.

As the afterglow diminished, his thoughts turned to their first three days, and to the incident that had almost cost him Chris's life. With Harding heading for prison, maybe they would all have a chance to get on with their real work now, though Nathan had to draw up new plans. He had intended to work with Doctor Brown, using her knowledge of Pegasus plant life to create new drugs for healing, but she had decided to stay on Earth with her deranged husband while he underwent psychiatric treatment. Nathan would likely be working with Doctor Parrish instead but he wouldn't know for sure until they were on their way back to Pegasus, and after the problem with the cloak, their departure had been moved up to the end of the week. Only two more days on Earth.

JD's new security system for monitoring the scientists had been accepted, on condition that it was not used for everyday surveillance. No one wanted to feel like they were being constantly monitored, seeing it as a breach of personal liberty. Before the repeal of DADT, Vin could readily agree and understand the high feelings it invoked, aware that his presence in Chris's quarters would have raised too many suspicions, and there were still others who might not wish for the whole of Atlantis to know where they slept at night...or with whom.

McKay had come by earlier, limping slightly, but Vin wondered if that had more to do with the new closeness between him and Sheppard rather than the injury he had sustained in the observation room. Not that Vin wanted to think of Sheppard fucking McKay's ass when he had images of Chris to fill his mind. Still, McKay had made some attempt to say thank you for saving his life and stopping Harding before he succeeded in killing him, but there was one thing in the garbled talk that confused Vin. He nudged Chris with his elbow.

"Got to ask. Why was McKay so sorry about a poodle? There something you've not told me, Cowboy?"

END

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