John's hands are cool and dry in his, although maybe they just feel that way in contrast to his own sweaty palms. Shellah - the village elder or shaman or something - says words Rodney doesn't hear, then places her hands over the joining of theirs. "Do you consent to the joining of your lives?" she asks them.
John quirks an eyebrow at Rodney. The expression on his face clearly says it's not possible for their lives to be any more joined than they already are. "Sure," he says, and Rodney follows with his, "Yeah. Yes."
Shellah pulls their hands apart. Rodney feels strangely cold. She fills their cupped palms with handfuls of dried plants, probably herbs: mostly leaves with some flowers mixed in. They follow her to the embers banked low nearby and drop the plants in when she gestures toward it. The smoke that rises up is pungent but not unpleasant.
She positions them one on each side of the glowing embers. Ronon and Teyla have joined them, and now Ronon stands behind Rodney and Teyla behind John. Ronon's hands are solid on Rodney's shoulders, grounding him against whatever weird properties the burning herbs have. He can see John leaning back into Teyla's hands, almost too subtly to be noticed. Something in Rodney's chest pangs, just once.
At Shellah's gesture, Ronon and Teyla push slightly forward. Rodney leans out over the embers to meet John, who's smiling hugely but dropping his gaze, almost shy. It must be the smoke from the burning herbs that has him thinking it would be okay to kiss John. There are plenty of cultures that see a kiss as a gesture of friendship, though.
John's lips are dry, and the way his eyelashes flutter closed has Rodney mesmerized for one long, long second. They pull back to their sides of the embers and hear the woman say, "Now although you are two persons there is only one life laid before you. You shall know no loneliness, no cold, no want for–"
Something shifts among the embers and sends up a cloud of sparks and ashes. Rodney inhales, shocked, and gets a mouthful of particulates. He's coughing, sputtering, and John's concerned hand cups the side of his face–
Rodney woke up to the taste of ashes. "Huh? What?" His phone was ringing. "Uh, what, hello?"
"Ah, the acuity of one of the world's most brilliant minds," answered the voice on the other end of the phone. "Did you just wake up, McKay?"
"Sam Carter! Finally. I'm so glad you called me back. I thought I was going to be consigned to flunkies forever. I knew you were important these days, but I didn't know you were too important to talk to old," he hesitated for just a moment, "friends." Rodney winced at his own awkwardness and bit his tongue to keep from babbling.
Sam was obviously smiling - he could hear it in her voice. "Rodney. We are friends. Now, what can I do for you?"
"Well, ah, Jen and I are getting married." Rodney knew he sounded a bit smug when he said that, but everyone seemed inexplicably willing to overlook it when his impending marriage was the cause. "And–"
"Hey, congratulations!" Sam broke in. "That's wonderful news."
"Thank you. She wants to live here - and by 'here' I mean 'Minnesota.' Which is perfectly understandable, since she has a good job with Mayo and it's close to her father in Wisconsin. So I need your help with some of the paperwork. I know it's not an official part of the process, but I think your involvement will smooth the way." Rodney paused and heard Sam make an affirmative noise. "Excellent. So some sort of recommendation letter about my invaluable contributions to the success and safety of the US, blah blah, many years of service with the Stargate program, or whatever code name it has now, and so forth would be perfect."
Sam had been speaking while Rodney had, and upon replaying their conversation he was surprised to discover that they hadn't been saying the same things. "Wait, what did you think I meant?" he asked.
"I thought you meant you needed to take care of that thing from MLA-P03." She took an audible breath, then continued, "And you do need to take care of it. I don't know how the SGC bureaucrats translate those things into terms the rest of the government can understand, but they do."
"What thing?" Rodney snapped. "What thing happened in Pegasus that I need to take care of? Can't someone else do it?"
Sam sighed. "Yes, Rodney, someone else will have to be involved in taking care of it. But you're an integral part of it." She waited.
Rodney waved an impatient hand in the air, then remembered that Sam couldn't see it. "You'll have to be more specific," he admitted. "I don't remember which thing you mean."
"I mean the thing where you can't get married to Jennifer yet because you're already married. And the official position of the Stargate program is that, in light of the proto-treaties Dr. Weir formed with a number of Pegasus societies, if it's official there it's translated to a legal status here." Somehow, Rodney could picture the way Sam was rubbing her temples. "Do you remember now?"
Rodney tried twice before he managed to get the words out. "Oh God. I'm still married to Sheppard."
Rodney had never been entirely forthcoming with Jennifer about his relationship with Sheppard, probably because he didn't understand it himself. They were - they had been best friends, with a frisson of something else. That had gone away when he and Jen got together, and eventually the rest had gone away as well. Rodney had been sad, certainly, when Sheppard took the city back to Pegasus, but he'd been sad to say goodbye to Teyla and Ronon as well. It had felt so permanent. And then he'd gone on with things, missing them all but determined to make a life with Jennifer, trying to decide between staying with the military and fighting to get enough of his work declassified to earn him a future of tenured professorship. It was sort of a shame that his hypothetical grad students probably wouldn't shriek like Miko did, but Rodney knew that relationships took sacrifices and compromises to be successful.
In this case, Rodney decided to sacrifice the comfort of griping to his fianceé and instead tell her only that he had some urgent business to attend to. "Something Sam says I need to attend to personally. Nothing dangerous, don't worry. It's not like Pegasus is much of a risk now, with the Wraith back in hibernation. In fact, I can finally pick Radek's brain and find out how they accomplished that." He couldn't put his finger on it, but something about planning to go back to Atlantis had him feeling off. Nauseated, maybe.
Jennifer shook her head. "Okay, just don't get sucked back into that life. You've gotten so much declassified, and you've made such progress in the academic world. I really think you'll be happy at the university. I mean, you'll get to share some of your work and you've made so much progress establishing an academic reputation." She leaned forward to hug him. "I love you, Rodney. I want us to have a normal life together. I want us to have everything we're supposed to have - marriage, work, family. And my dad can see his grandkids grow up, and we'll take them to visit their Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Kaleb and–"
"Yes, yes, I know." Rodney hugged her back, sure that the unease he felt was nothing more than nerves at the thought of children. Everyone was nervous at the idea of having kids - those helpless little beings depending on you, turning into people whose neuroses and phobias and therapy bills would be your fault. "I'll come back, I promise. And when I'm tenure-tracked we can get a puppy. A dog to, to practice on. Maybe someone will bring us one as a wedding present."
Jennifer smiled at Rodney. "I'm pretty sure they frown on the idea of live animals as gifts. Something about people needing to make informed decisions about pet ownership. But yeah, I'd like a dog." She kissed him, closed-lipped and still smiling. "For practice. And hey, while you're there maybe you can let everyone know about our wedding plans. I don't know if Teyla and Ronon and everyone would be able to get here, but it would be nice to have them come when we get married."
Rodney pictured his team in formal wear in a Minnesota church and smiled. "That might be nice. Teyla and Ronon and Sheppard and Radek and, and everyone, really." Jennifer seemed to frown a bit when he mentioned Sheppard; Rodney couldn't think of any reason why she would have, though, so he concluded that he must have imagined it. He reached over and took her hand. "I'll be back soon," he promised Jennifer again, and he went off to pack.
His old boots were easy enough to locate, but the challenge of picking out durable clothing stymied him. Somehow, instead of evaluating which jeans were most likely to stand up to Pegasus Rodney found himself staring at his bootlaces, thinking of how Sheppard had so often left his untied.
When he finally got in bed that evening, Jennifer was already asleep, her face crinkled into an expression of concern.
The weird part about stepping through the event horizon of the stargate was how completely normal it felt. Rodney hadn't exactly thought that he'd be going through gates all that often, but he certainly hadn't considered never going through them at all. Even if he did succeed in becoming a tenured professor, he hadn't closed the door on doing consultant work for the SGC .
Rodney hummed a little to himself with pleasure, envisioning a future in which Big 10 universities and the SGC competed for his valuable time. Perhaps that was why Sam had insisted on him dealing with his marriage problem, rather than just handling it herself. Sending him through the gate to Pegasus was her sneaky way to keep him in the game, keep his options open. It made him think about using his sabbatical terms for the off-world jobs they wouldn't be able to handle without him, just like she probably wanted. Maybe if they wanted him badly enough he could get his old team, or at least Sheppard, assigned to work with him.
"Evening, Dr. McKay!" called the gate tech; Rodney was pretty sure her name was Amelia.
Rodney waved. "Hello! Is it evening local time? And do you happen to know where my old team is?"
"Yes sir, 20:00 hours. Colonel Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon are on New Athos." When Rodney opened his mouth to ask for more details, Amelia added, "At the main encampment. I just came back from visiting Ronon." She smiled. "He'll be pleased to see you. I'll let Mr. Woolsey know that you've passed through, if you'd like to continue on."
The polite thing to do would be to stop in Woolsey's office, just for a moment, but the efficient thing would be to continue on immediately now that he knew where everyone was. "Yes, send me on."
Amelia looked down to dial; Rodney waited and caught her eye as the wormhole opened again. "Thanks!" he called as he stepped through. It was amazing how much easier it was to travel through Pegasus in peacetime.
The Athosian encampment wasn't far from the gate. Rodney was surprised to find himself disappointed when the short walk was over; he never thought he'd come to miss hiking through the temperate forests that grew on so many Pegasus planets. Maybe he and Jen could hike through Minnesota's forests sometime. It wouldn't be the same, but it would be something.
"Teyla!" he called from the center of the tent city. "Ronon?!" He waited for someone to respond, looking over each person emerging from a tent and moving past him. It wasn't Teyla or Ronon who found him first - it was Torren, colliding with the back of Rodney's legs as his toddling walk abruptly crashed and burned.
Rodney peered behind him and found Torren gazing at the ground with an expression of dismay. "Hey, kiddo. Walking already, huh?"
"Yes, he is," Teyla answered as she strode over to them. "Faster than I expect, much of the time." She smiled warmly and embraced Rodney. "It's good to see you again."
Kanaan followed her and silently shook Rodney's hand, reserved but welcoming. He asked Teyla a question, pitched too low for Rodney to hear and then, at her nod, picked up Torren and carried him away. Torren waved at Rodney from over Kanaan's shoulder. Rodney sighed to himself, thinking that Teyla's partnership with Kanaan was pretty close to the ideal. The only thing in Rodney's life that compared was his fieldwork, the way he and Sheppard, and sometimes Teyla and Ronon, had meshed. He couldn't imagine how long it would take him and Jennifer to develop that almost intuitive give and take. They'd get there eventually, and that was what mattered.
"Kanaan and Torren have gone to start dinner. We would be happy to have you as our guest tonight." Teyla held both Rodney's hands and inclined her head.
Rodney pressed his forehead to hers, then straightened up. "Wait, dinner? What time is it here?"
Teyla gave him an amused grin. "Not yet dinner time. I believe you would say" - she paused to find the sun in the sky - "16:00 hours."
"I don't know why I even bother wearing a watch," Rodney groused. "Dinner would be great. Before that, where's Sheppard? And Ronon? Amelia said they were here."
"Ronon is in the forest just beyond the village, cutting wood. And John is–" Teyla stopped. "He is unavailable," she finished diplomatically.
Rodney scowled. "Unavailable? What does that mean?"
"Just what it sounds like, Rodney. Come, let's find Ronon." She took him by the hand and led Rodney through the settlement.
Ronon, terrifyingly strong as always, had produced a small mountain of firewood by the time they found him. He dropped his axe and gave Rodney a sweaty hug; for some reason, Rodney didn't mind.
They passed a companionable evening in Teyla and Kanaan's tent. The food tasted better than Rodney had remembered, and Ronon broke out a stash of Athosian ale in its small wooden kegs. Hours later, Torren asleep with his head on Rodney's lap, Rodney leaned forward and asked again about Sheppard.
"He's busy," Ronon shrugged. "He's working on–"
"A project," Teyla broke in, "that mostly involves a great deal of reports. He doesn't talk about it much; it may be something boring but necessary."
Ronon raised his eyebrows.
Kanaan spoke before Ronon could. "Rodney, can you help me lift Torren? It's time he was put to bed." They maneuvered Torren up between them and Kanaan carried him off to the sleeping room behind the partition. Rodney watched them go, and by the time he turned back to Teyla and Ronon he'd forgotten about Ronon's expression.
"I think it's time we all were a-bed," Teyla whispered. "Come, Rodney, I will show you to our guest room." She smiled at her joke and again at Rodney's face when he saw the low tent with its pallet and bedroll.
Rodney shook his head. "Only for you," he told her. "At least I'm not allergic to anything in your forest." He waved good night to Ronon, who headed back to Atlantis and Amelia, and pressed his forehead to Teyla's before crawling into the tent and falling fast asleep.
Rodney blamed gate lag for his failure to get up before lunch the next day - gate lag and the rather sizable amount of ale he'd consumed with Ronon. After a bleary lunch with Teyla, he set off for Sheppard's tent. It was, of course, pitched on top of a hill about a mile from the village. At least it was as large as Teyla's, more like a studio apartment than a tent, and so it was visible from a distance. By the time Rodney got to the top, he'd cleared his head and worked himself into a state of almost genuine irritation.
"Sheppard! Are you in there?" Rodney didn't wait for an answer before sticking his head through the tent flap. "Ah, there you are."
Sheppard raised one eyebrow. "Yeah, here I am. What are you doing here?"
"What, I can't come visit?" Rodney asked, affronted.
"Sure you can. You just never have." Sheppard stood up, folding over the pile of papers on his table. "Hi," he added, holding out a hand.
Rodney shook it, inviting himself the rest of the way in as he did so. "How– How are things? You're living here and not Atlantis?"
"I live in both, really. It's easier to get work done here." Sheppard cleared the table and sat down at one of the wooden benches, gesturing Rodney to the other one. "And it's not like it's hard to gate back to Atlantis whenever."
"What kind of work are you doing? It can't be paperwork. You hate paperwork." Rodney craned his neck, looking for the papers Sheppard had put away.
"You know. This and that." Sheppard shrugged. "What about you? Is life on Earth all you dreamed it would be?"
It was weird how Sheppard talked about Earth, like it was some foreign place he'd only heard about. Rodney shifted on his bench, uncomfortable. "It's good. I live in Minnesota - Jen and I do - and I'm getting enough of my work declassified that I stand a good chance at a professorship someplace. Jen's working at Mayo; most of her impressive feats are pretty straightforward to declassify, with the appropriate obfuscation of some details." Rodney grinned at Sheppard, waiting for the answering smile.
It never came. "Minnesota. Huh," Sheppard said instead. "And you're still with Jen? That's–" he paused, "good."
"It is. It's very good. And–" Rodney hesitated. When Sheppard finally made a 'go on' gesture with his hands, Rodney decided to brazen it out. "And we're getting married."
Sheppard kept sitting there, unsmiling. "Wow. Uh, congratulations," he managed.
"So, ah, when I told Sam about it she reminded me that you and I have a little paperwork to get out of the way before Jen and I can get married. In fact," Rodney dug in his bag and pulled out the relevant folder, "here it is."
Sheppard looked outright suspicious now. "What is this?"
Rodney paged through the folder and pulled out the signature page, its "Sign here" tabs waving with inappropriate merriness. "It's for that thing we did on MLA-P03. You know, the one we thought was a friendship exercise that turned out to be a marriage ceremony." He looked down at the papers. "I'm– I'm sorry about this but, uh, apparently the SGC started taking these things seriously and now I have to file this before I can get a marriage license for real. What are you– Are you okay?"
"It's– Rodney, these are divorce papers." Sheppard had gone pale, and his hands shook. "The last time I got divorced it almost killed me." His voice was flat.
"Hey, it's not like that. It's, uh." Rodney flailed his hands, looking for words.
Sheppard scowled at him. "What is it like, McKay?"
"It's just, well, it's not like we were really married," Rodney concluded.
The silence between them stretched uncomfortably.
"Well if we weren't really married, I guess we don't have to get really divorced, now do we?" Sheppard asked nastily, standing up.
Rodney gaped at him. "Oh, come on now!" He stood up too and watched, mouth still hanging open, as Sheppard picked up his coat and pushed his way past Rodney and out of the tent.
"Sheppard! You can't just walk out on me!" Rodney waited for a response, but he only heard the receding sounds of Sheppard walking down the hill. "This is your tent!"
It was no use. Sheppard was gone, leaving Rodney miserable with a pile of unsigned papers.
Rodney had gone back down the hill and through the paths of the Athosian tent city to Teyla's home, where he'd sunk down on a pallet in despair. Teyla was alone, Torren and Kanaan nowhere to be seen. She rose as Rodney collapsed, left her maps spread across the table and silently made tea. Rodney told her about his meeting with Sheppard in low, unhappy tones until the spice tea was gone, Teyla a reassuring presence in his peripheral vision the whole time.
"I just don't understand why he won't sign the paperwork." Rodney sighed, brow furrowed. "I mean, it's not like we were ever married-married. So this isn't a real divorce. I know he's had to do this before, which sucks, but I didn't think it would be this rough." He buried his face in his hands. "Teyla, why is everything so hard?"
Teyla's hand was warm on his shoulder; she rubbed it in small circles, comforting. "I don't think that everything is as hard as you think it is, but surely you can see that this is more than paperwork. The ending of a bond between two people is difficult, as it should be."
Rodney shook his head. "A bond? I don't think that anyone would describe Sheppard as someone who had a 'bond' with me. Maybe he used to, back when we were closer. A few years ago. But not anymore." He lifted his head to look at her. "It is just paperwork. It doesn't mean we can't be friends at all. Not that we see each other anymore anyway."
"Rodney, I think perhaps you underestimate your importance in John's life," Teyla said softly.
"I don't think so," Rodney snorted. "He didn't seem too broken up about it when I stayed on Earth with Jennifer."
"He went back, you know," Ronon broke in, appearing in the doorway of the tent.
Rodney jumped. "Geez, give a guy some warning! I know that you're Mr. Stealth, but maybe you could clear your throat or something. You can't go giving me a heart attack when my own personal doctor is in a different galaxy." Rodney paused, reviewing what Ronon had said. "Wait, he went back? Sheppard - he went back to, to Earth?"
"Yeah. Not long after we got the city back to Pegasus." Ronon lifted an eyebrow. "He went to find you."
"He did not. The SGC would have sent him straight to Minnesota, possibly even beamed him there, if he was trying to re-recruit me. I would have seen him!" Rodney's hands flew in arcs of disbelief. "I would have known. Wouldn't I?"
Teyla shook her head. "No, you wouldn't. He didn't go to recruit you." Her voice grew even gentler, something Rodney would have sworn was impossible. "He went to see if you were happy there."
Rodney looked from Teyla to Ronon, back and forth. "He. He went to see if I was happy?"
"I think he wanted you to come back. Just, you know, not for official reasons," Ronon offered. "But you were happy there. He said you had the makings of a good life, and he didn't want to get in the way."
"He said he couldn't compete with what you had." Teyla waited for Rodney to close his mouth. "You see, Rodney, he wants what is best for you."
Ronon sat down next to Rodney, squeezing one shoulder as Teyla's hand rested on the other. "That, and he was afraid to try."
Rodney felt his eyes widen. "Afraid to try?"
"Sure. He'd rather not ask and be rejected. It's easier not to ask for what you want than to be turned down." Ronon twisted his free hand through his dreads. "For a brave guy, sometimes Sheppard's awfully scared."
Teyla scolded Ronon with a look. "Ronon, I don't think that is yours to share."
Ronon returned Teyla's gaze, levelly. "No one else is sharing it."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "You know, as interesting as this discussion of etiquette is, maybe we could focus back on to unsettling revelations about Sheppard and also, you know, what a disaster this is." What on Earth - or in Pegasus, or wherever - was Sheppard doing worrying about Rodney's happiness? None of Rodney's other friends seemed too concerned about whether he was self-actualized and content, not even Teyla with her maternal streak. In fact, the only person Rodney knew who actively worried about whether he was happy was Jennifer. Jennifer, who was waiting for him to get things taken care of and come back to her. "Ugh, what am I going to tell Jennifer?" Rodney wailed.
Teyla turned her scolding gaze on Rodney. "She does not know?"
"It never seemed relevant. Everyone has something like this, don't they? Some ritual undertaken somewhere that turned out, inconveniently, to be about something more legally binding than friendship." Rodney stood up to pace. "It's just my luck that I would have to be bound to the most obstinate person in two galaxies. I swear, he's refusing to sign just to be difficult. And what is he doing living in a tent at the top of a hill, anyway?"
Teyla stood as well, placing herself in Rodney's path and gripping both his shoulders. "Rodney. Becoming angry with John won't improve this situation. Why don't you get some sleep? I'm sure it will look better in the morning."
Grumbling, Rodney let Teyla lead him back to the tent where he'd spent the previous night. He lay there, frustrated and unable to make out the words in Teyla and Ronon's murmured conversation outside, for a long time before he fell asleep.
Rodney knew that he was making a tremendous amount of noise, but he didn't particularly care. This was no team mission, just him with a task to accomplish. He burst in to Sheppard's tent without pause, talking before his head had even cleared the flap.
"You went to Earth. To check up on me. You went to Earth to check up on me and you didn't do me the courtesy of even saying 'Hi' and what is that about?" Rodney could feel his face reddening.
Sheppard barely looked up from his book. "Hi, McKay, come on in."
Rodney sputtered. "Don't you have anything to say for yourself?"
"Not really," Sheppard shrugged. How someone could shrug while lying down on a pallet was beyond Rodney, but Sheppard managed it.
"Oh, come on!" Rodney exploded. "What are you up to? Are you some kind of mysterious hermit now, living alone on a hill with your, your–" he waved his hands at Sheppard's papers. "What is all this?"
Sheppard glared at him. "It's none of your business. You left, okay? You don't work here anymore, and my paperwork's not your problem."
Rodney gaped, inexplicably hurt. "You can't say that, like our lives here were Office Space! Yes, I left the SGC. But it's not like I just quit some job! This is still important to me. And I want to know what's going on."
"It's not really important at all. Anyway, you've got a fianceé to think about, and all the stuff that comes after that. House, kids, tenure." Sheppard shrugged again. "Don't worry about my hobby." He had closed down, laconic in the way that substituted for passive aggressive.
Rodney deflated. "I–"
"Let's just take care of this, so you can get back to your life," Sheppard said. "Give me the papers."
Rodney passed them over wordlessly and watched as Sheppard signed. He hadn't thought it was fall yet on New Athos, but the air had a sudden chill. He let the cold quicken his pace back to the gate, and it wasn't until he stood at the DHD that he remembered that Sheppard hadn't answered any of his questions.
The time difference meant that it was late when Rodney got to Atlantis. The mess was empty but there were, as always, sandwiches and coffee for after-dinner meals. Rodney grabbed one of each and went to his old lab, where he found Radek working.
"Rodney! I heard you were visiting. Come, sit," Radek said, gesturing him to a stool.
Rodney nodded. "Yes, just taking care of some business. Did you hear that Jennifer and I are getting married?"
Radek smiled at him. "Yes, yes, congratulations! You are living on Earth, yes?"
"Minnesota. It's where Jen's work is, and it's close to her dad." Rodney waved his hand, clearing away that topic. "So, we were told that you got the Wraith back into hibernation, but no one gave us any details. What did you do?"
"Ah, the hibernation. Ingenious, really. Colonel Sheppard was the one who figured it out. It seems that the Wraith automated their hibernation to a greater degree than we realized." Radek pulled up a schematic on a tablet. "You see, they planted sensors on the worlds they knew to be populated, and these sensors monitor population levels. When the population levels of all the monitored worlds drop below a specified threshold, the queens are signaled to put their hives into hibernation."
"How did Sheppard figure that out?" Rodney peered at the schematic. "And how did you manipulate their sensors?"
"Todd," Radek told him. "The Colonel got it from him. He was afraid of losing control of his factions. Putting them all into hibernation buys him time."
"That sneaky bastard," Rodney said admiringly.
Radek hmmed. "But we are sneakier. What we figured out is that we can fool the sensors to keep the Wraith in hibernation indefinitely. You see, Todd told us how to input values that indicate a population crash, as would occur after overfeeding. This worked and sent most of the Wraith into hibernation. Todd intended it to be temporary only."
"Well, yes, he would," Rodney agreed.
"What we then discovered is that the sensors could be fed false data that, if done carefully, would deceive the automatic hibernation control. It is complicated - the system will not accept any duplications of data or suspicious patterns. We must calculate, based on each world's population and historical data from the Wraith records, what pattern of rise and fall is believable." Radek tapped the side of his nose. "Thank goodness for the Atlantis computers, eh?"
"And the sensors have to be individually programmed with the false information?" Rodney looked at the ceiling, calculating. "That's years of work!"
Radek shrugged. "Years without Wraith attacks. We are thinking also of getting some educational specialists in to determine if there is any merit to offering classes of a sort. Obviously we do not want to replace the development of societies with pre-packaged Earth theories. But for those who wish to learn faster than their worlds can discover - these people we can teach, perhaps. Then they can assist in the programming."
"Incredible. Why didn't the Ancients think of this?" Rodney drank a mouthful of coffee and grimaced, discovering it had gone cold while they talked.
Radek pulled up a different graph. "These are Wraith population levels as tracked by their own equipment. You see this? This section here is during their war with the Ancients. Battle kept their population in check. Then, at the end of that war, a boom followed by a bust as they exceeded the carrying capacity of this galaxy. Standard biology, no?"
Rodney made a face. "Ugh, biology. Anyway, go on."
"We think they did not implement their sensor system until after several of these boom and bust cycles. Very long ago, from our perspective, but still not until after the Ancients were gone. The Ancients did not exploit their system because it didn't exist yet." He pushed his glasses back up his nose. "And now it is their weak point. They are terrified of starvation, of, of finding that they have overtaxed their food supply. It is like the Chinese expression 'paper tiger.' They could manage their levels voluntarily, responding manually to population reports, but according to these logs they are too afraid of the consequences. And for little reason." Radek scoffed.
"'Paper tiger?'" Rodney asked.
"Yes, as Mao Zedong described the United States. 'In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain.' Something that is not as frightening as it appears, ano?" Radek peered at Rodney. "You are thinking something. I remember this look."
Rodney waved him off. "I'm always thinking something." And then he ate his sandwich, slowly and silently, until it was gone. Then he grabbed a tablet and began working with the population equations. He and Radek didn't stop work until late into the night.
Rodney woke up early the next morning, counter to all expectations. He grabbed breakfast and went up to the control room, checking over the equipment and giving Chuck the digitized scans of his paperwork for transmission. "Flag these for Sam Carter, okay?"
"Sure thing, Dr. McKay," Chuck said. "I'll put them through during our afternoon databurst."
"Excellent. I'll be back to see how you're doing it now," Rodney told him. "I don't believe Radek when he says his compression algorithms are more efficient than mine."
The bulk of the day went by pleasantly, a haze of investigation of Ancient artifacts and good-natured bickering with Radek. Nothing threatened to blow up all day, and no mysterious armadas appeared to attack the city. Rodney started to wish for a crisis to distract him; peace in Pegasus gave him far too much time to second-guess himself.
He was standing in the control room with Radek, pointing out the flaws and inefficiencies in his transmission methods, when Chuck said, "Uh, Dr. McKay? There's, uh, someone coming through for you."
"Sure, sure, pull it up," Rodney said absentmindedly.
"No, I mean coming through the wormhole. The SGC's confirming receipt of packet and asking to send through–"
Jennifer Keller stepped over the event horizon. Rodney blinked at her. "Jennifer! What a, er, a surprise," he finished lamely. "I thought this was a databurst connection only," he muttered to Chuck.
Chuck looked sheepishly back at him. "New policy. With enough ZPMs to go around, Earth can use the wormhole at will, so if we're already dialed and someone wants to come through, we just let them."
"Huh." Rodney hadn't thought through the implications of all those ZPMs. "Interesting. Anyway, did you send my paperwork out successfully?"
"Yep." Chuck tapped a few keys and squinted at his screen. "They sent their confirmation of receipt through right before Dr. Keller."
Rodney rubbed his palms together. "Excellent. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go greet my fianceé." He ran lightly down the steps to Jennifer and kissed her hello.
"Just checking up on you," she explained. "You said it would be quick, but you've been gone for a couple days."
"It's all taken care of now, but things took a little longer than I thought. And then–" Rodney paused. "I was going to spend another day or two here. I missed this place."
Jennifer frowned. "Rodney. You promised not to get involved with this again. We're getting married, remember? We're going to have a nice, safe, normal life on Earth. Tell me you're not getting involved again."
"No, no, believe me, I'm not signing up for danger and more danger. It's– it's just–" Rodney stopped. He snapped his fingers. "How would you feel about getting married here? Now, tomorrow? Woolsey can do it, and we can still have a big wedding in Minnesota with your family."
Jennifer gaped at him. "Here? We don't have any nice clothes, or anything for a proper wedding, and I don't think the mess hall is really the same as a catered dinner." She fell silent for a moment. "I guess - I guess if it's important to you, though, we should do it. I know you've got more friends here than in Minnesota, and maybe it makes more sense to bring the wedding to them rather than expecting them to all get passes back through the gate to Earth."
Rodney felt a rush of affection for her. Jennifer loved him, and he loved her and here was the proof. Her willingness to have an impromptu wedding in Atlantis, despite the dreams he knew she'd had since she was a little girl - dreams of one perfect wedding day - was just the sort of compromise that made him sure their marriage would work. It was a step toward the easy and intuitive communication he hoped for. And she'd still get her perfect wedding day, no matter what. He'd make sure of it.
Pure white clothing was hard to come by in Pegasus, but Teyla came through with a dress that was so pale a yellow it could have been a designer wedding gown. Woolsey offered Rodney the choice of his suits, the Marines turned out in dress uniforms and the civilians wore their finest. It was almost impossible to tell that yesterday no one had been expecting a formal event.
Rodney stood next to Woolsey, Teyla and Ronon and Radek fanned out to his side. Jennifer had rounded up three attendants of her own, Cadman and Biro and Carson a trailing line marking the place where she would stand. Woolsey had provided something stately from his classical music collection, and as it came on over the PA system the crowd parted gracefully to allow Jennifer through.
She'd always moved more smoothly than Rodney. Now with her long skirts hiding her feet she could have been floating toward him. They joined hands when she reached him and looked toward Woolsey.
"It's a privilege reserved for captains and those commanding far-away outposts to marry members of their teams, one brought about and maintained to this day because for all that we eventually return to civilization, with its churches and clergy and more regular venues for marriage, there are times when the heart cannot wait." He smiled at them. "Rodney McKay, Jennifer Keller, although this is no rushed wedding under fire - although the current peace gives you ample time to return to Earth and carry out your arrangements - I must admit that I'm delighted you've chosen to have your wedding here. Your first wedding, that is: I understand that you are going to be returning to Earth and having another, more traditional wedding. But, as I said, sometimes the heart can't wait. And we are pleased that your impatience is to our benefit."
Woolsey paused for the laugh that ran through the assembled crowd. "I've prepared a little speech, about the significance of marriage–" he began, only to be interrupted again.
Amelia had suggested they hold the wedding in Atlantis's gateroom, Rodney and Jennifer and their wedding party on the steps and everyone else watching from the gateroom floor. This meant, unfortunately, that when the klaxons sounded for an unscheduled activation all the wedding proceedings ground to a halt.
"Clear the floor," Woolsey ordered. "Security, stand by."
Chuck, reaching his station in record time, called out, "Colonel Carter's IDC, sir."
Woolsey relaxed. "Ah. Lower the shield, please."
Sam strode through the gate. "Richard. I'm sorry to interrupt, but I just saw your paperwork." She paused. "Is this the first wedding you've officiated?"
"Yes, actually. I'm rather surprised that no one else has asked yet, but I suppose the regular shore leave rotations make it easier to go back to Earth for ceremonies." He blinked at her. "Did you come over to attend, or to serve as a witness, or–"
"To take care of some urgent business, actually. I need to talk to the groom for a second, and then you'll be able to continue." Sam beckoned Rodney over to her and said in a low voice, "Rodney, you can't get married just yet."
Rodney scowled at her. "What do you mean? I found Sheppard and got him to sign the papers. Chuck said they went through to you!" He turned to glare accusingly at Chuck, who only irritated him further by refusing to look up.
"I got the papers," Sam told him. "John signed them, but you didn't."
Rodney scoffed, disbelieving. "I what?" He searched his memory, thinking through all the times he'd looked at the divorce papers. He mostly remembered putting it off, but surely he hadn't been careless enough to forget about signing them altogether. Rodney looked over at Jennifer, reminding himself what he stood to gain. He couldn't have forgotten a step toward his future with her.
Sam pulled a printout from her bag and held it out to him. "Here, I brought hard copy. Once you've signed, I'll put a rush on it and make sure you're divorced before you're married."
"Oh for pity's sake." Rodney reached for the papers; his hand shook, so he covered by dropping it to his leg and patting his pockets. Lifting his voice, he asked, "Does– Does anyone, ah, have a pen?" While the crowd turned their attention to the task of searching, he steeled himself and took the papers from Sam. She was right. He hadn't signed them. Why hadn't he signed them? This was all that stood between him and the life he'd always wanted, wasn't it?
Jennifer walked over to him and peered over his shoulder. "Rodney, what's this?"
Rodney grimaced. "It's, ah, that errand that I came to Pegasus to do." Errand had seemed like such a clever euphemism before, but now it was clearly a horrible understatement. "It seems I didn't get everything taken care of yet."
"A bill of divorcement? That's what you're signing?" Jennifer's eyes widened. "You were married to Colonel Sheppard?" She gave him a considering look, a doctor's look, the one that felt like she was taking him apart with her eyes.
"It was part of a trade negotiation," Rodney explained. "They wanted a gesture of trust and sharing and things like that." He closed his eyes and swallowed hard before opening them again. "I thought it was going to be another one of those ridiculous rituals. You know, the ones with special tea and chanting." He looked down, not seeing the papers in his hand but instead remembering. "They asked for two of us who, who stood for each other. 'Stood for each other,' that was the exact phrase. I didn't know what that meant, but when I looked at Teyla for confirmation, she– She smiled and nodded."
Teyla had slipped up next to them while Rodney was talking; she shook her head at that and said, "I did not know precisely what they wanted - sometimes such ceremonies call for two people who can demonstrate their friendship with each other by answering questions, or undertaking difficult tasks together." She sighed. "I must admit, I suspected that they might ask for something more intimate. But at the time I hoped that it would be what was needed for you and Colonel Sheppard to advance your relationship. You must understand," she added apologetically to Jennifer, "that this was before you and Rodney were together."
Jennifer nodded her understanding. "Sure, this kind of thing happens. I can't quite believe I'm saying that, but it does." She looked back at Rodney, gaze suddenly knowing. "So let's get a pen and Rodney can finish making it un-happen."
Rodney looked out at the gathered crowd. He knew that they were searching through dress pants and purses, hoping for a pen, and that Woolsey had gone back to his office to fetch one. Rodney didn't see them anymore: he saw the crowd that day on MLA-P03, the wreaths of flowers they'd crowned him and John with. Rodney had sneezed, of course, and John had laughed and smiled his real smile, the one that made the corners of his eyes crinkle.
It hadn't been anything he'd planned, or anything he'd asked for. They hadn't even put down their P-90s. They'd just stood there where the village leaders put them, Ronon at his elbow and Teyla at John's, and passed the big wooden bowl of wine between them. John drank first and gave him the tiniest of winks before Rodney took his turn.
After the wine, Shellah had joined their hands, left hand to left hand and right to right so they formed the symbol for infinity. Rodney had missed the first part of what she'd said, contemplating it.
He came back to himself when Woolsey tapped his shoulder. "Pen," he said superfluously.
Rodney took the pen, helplessly, and looked around him. Jennifer looked expectant, and maybe a bit impatient. Behind her he saw Teyla and Ronon, supportive as always, as they had been the last time he got married. He was in the place he loved best, surrounded by people who were practically family. This was what weddings were about. Sure, not everyone was there, but Jeannie could come to the other ceremony in Minnesota and–. With an effort, Rodney wrenched his gaze down to the pages he held. Slowly he walked over to the wall and flattened them. The words blurred briefly as he lifted the pen to sign the papers, hand shaking.
It was wrong. This place, these people, everything was incomplete without John. He swallowed, tasting the memory of ashes again, and handed the pen and papers back to Sam. Turning to Jennifer, almost choking on the words, he said, "Jen. I can't sign this. I– I'm so sorry. But I can't marry you."
A murmur went through the crowd behind them.
Jennifer blinked at him, surprise and dismay coloring her expression. "What do you mean, you can't marry me?" Her eyes were wide again and Rodney hated what he was about to do to her.
"I'm already married," Rodney said, helpless. "And it's– It's just–"
Her face cleared, compassion taking over. "It wasn't just a mistake, was it?" she asked softly. "Maybe it started out as a misunderstanding, but it didn't stay that way." Rodney marveled at the way she had for figuring out what he was trying to say. She was a good friend, at the bottom of all of it.
Rodney shook his head. "No, and I didn't even know it. It turns out I already gave my heart away. And I don't know how to get it back."
"Don't. Don't get it back, Rodney. I want you to be happy." She stopped and closed her eyes, composing herself. "I wanted you to be happy with me, but if this is what you really want, you should have it." Jennifer stepped forward and kissed his cheek goodbye. "I need to be alone," she said, and she turned toward the crowd.
The crowd parted for her again and Jennifer made her way through it, heading for the guest quarters wing. Rodney stood there, silently, and watched her walk away from him in that beautiful yellow dress. When he couldn't see her anymore, he turned to Teyla and Ronon. "So, I'm not married, except I'm still married. I–" He shook his head, confused. "What do I do now?"
Ronon clapped him on the shoulder, shaking Rodney ever so slightly. "I'd say you go get your man," he advised.
"Right, right." Dazed, Rodney turned up toward Chuck. "Chuck, can you get me to New Athos?"
Chuck sketched a salute. "Right away, Dr. McKay. Clear the splash zone!"
Rodney found John's tent empty of all but his furniture. "Oh, for the love of– Sheppard!" He looked down the slopes of the hill until he found a trail that led out and away from the village; he hadn't seen John on his way up, so that left only this second path down the hill. Rodney took off down it at almost a run, still calling, "Sheppard! John!"
They almost collided at the bottom of the hill, Rodney's momentum carrying him forward into the clearing where John was piling blankets, bags and clothes into a puddlejumper.
"John, what–" Rodney started.
John cut him off. "Thought you'd be back at Atlantis, celebrating. Aren't you supposed to be married about now?"
"I am married," Rodney told him with a small smile. "Now, what are you doing?" He followed John into the 'jumper, picking up a roll of paper from one of the benches. "What is this? Where are you going?"
"It's none of your business, Rodney. Go back and be a newlywed, okay?" John sighed.
Rodney dropped the paper and shook his head. "I can't do that. Turns out I'm not a newlywed."
John looked up.
"I'm an oldlywed, you dope. And so are you. Although, I guess we never did any of the things you're supposed to do. No honeymoon, no moving in together, no stupid fights and fantastic sex." Rodney stopped ticking off items on his fingers and smiled at John's expression: his mouth had dropped open.
"What are you saying, McKay?" John asked.
"That's McKay-Sheppard to you," Rodney told him, teasing, before backpedaling. "That is, if it's okay with you. If it's too weird, we don't have to– I don't have to– Oh, to hell with it." He stepped forward and grabbed John's hands. "I'm still your husband, if you'll have me."
John's face cleared. "You didn't sign the papers."
Rodney grinned at him. "I've never been very good at paperwork. This is the first time it's worked out in my favor." He shrugged. "So, ah. Will you? Still have me, I mean?"
"Rodney." John's face lit up. "Of course I will." As he leaned in to kiss Rodney, he added, "As long as the sex really is fantastic."
Rodney scoffed. "Like I could ever do anything less than incredibly." He closed the last inch between them and pressed his lips to John's. It nothing like the kiss they'd shared on MLA -P03. That had been dry and chaste and uncertain. This was anything but. John licked his way into Rodney's mouth, the smooth slide of his tongue on Rodney's lips making Rodney's body tingle. Rodney wanted to know everything about kissing John, everything about being kissed by John. He wanted everything he'd missed in the last three years of being married and never knowing it.
When they came up for air, John pressed his forehead against Rodney's. "What made you come back?"
Rodney closed his eyes. "You remember what the woman who, ah, married us said? 'Now although you are two persons there is only one life laid before you. You shall know no loneliness, no cold, no want for–'"
"'–no want for companionship on the journey.' Yeah, I remember," John finished.
"I was standing there, waiting for someone to produce a pen so I could sign those stupid papers, and all I could see was you on MLA-P03. It was like a wave form collapsing." Rodney smiled ruefully. "I don't suppose we could just pretend that Jennifer was a particularly odd manifestation of a possibility that never solidified?"
"Schrödinger's fianceé? I don't think so. I'm pretty sure I observed that one." The corners of John's mouth twitched up. "But I think I can predict your future movement accurately."
Rodney looked around the 'jumper again. "I'm not sure I can predict that without more data. Come on, tell me what you're doing."
"Did anyone tell you how we took care of the Wraith?" John asked.
Rodney nodded. "Radek did. He said you got the information from Todd to start with. And now–" he broke off. "Oh my God. You're doing the math, aren't you?" He pushed past John to the mysterious rolls of paper and unfurled one. "Maps and population data. Where are the equations? You go back to Atlantis and feed all this into the computer, of course, but you must be doing some of it longhand, for maintenance on the sensors."
John rubbed the back of his neck. "Over there." He jerked his chin toward the smaller bag Rodney had overlooked, tucked up on the copilot's seat. "Tablet computer. More portable, less wasteful. But I don't like going into the villages with it, so I take paper to survey people."
"John. You know that you don't have to– You can't singlehandedly keep the Wraith at bay forever. It's not your responsibility," Rodney said.
"But it is," John sighed. "It's my fault they woke early. If we'd figured this out while they were still asleep, we would have–"
"We wouldn't have believed how bad it was. I mean, a few Wraith are bad. But they're nothing compared to the scale of things we've seen." Rodney started to reach for the tablet, then turned back toward John.
John looked helpless. "This is my legacy, Rodney. It's my fault. And unless I fix it, that'll be what I left behind."
"You idiot," Rodney said affectionately. "If you think that's your only legacy, you are in dire need of enlightenment. And if you want 'fixing it,'" - he made air quotes, unable to resist, "to be part of your legacy too, you'll need help. Fortunately, I happen to be just the man for both jobs."
John laughed. "Okay, but I'm not putting a prescription mattress in the 'jumper. We're roughing it. Sure you want to come along?"
And Rodney looked him square in the eyes and said "Yes" with all his heart.
"Do you remember when we were young?" Rodney asked, making his careful way down the path next to John.
John quirked an eyebrow. "When we were young? We didn't know each other when we were young. I remember when we were middle-aged," he laughed.
Rodney waved his hands, eliding time periods. "Yes, yes, when we were middle-aged. When we were newlyweds and didn't know it, and all that time we wasted. At least I was wasting my time with Jennifer - I heard from her, by the way, she and what's-his-face and the kids are doing well - while you were sleeping outdoors and going native."
They stopped at the marker and John carefully dug down to the interface. Rodney kept insisting that he could make the connection work wirelessly, but he hadn't done it yet and so John persisted with the cables that had always worked before. When the window came up on the tablet he grabbed "paper_tiger_MLA-P03.exe" and dragged it over.
"Seriously," Rodney said, "doesn't the irony of it all strike you especially hard now? Back here, where it all started? With that file name? Which, just so you know, is a joke that stopped being funny years ago."
"Hey Rodney," John said, looking away at the horizon. "I hear there's a nice little town over there. Not where it was twenty years ago, but still nice." He turned back to Rodney and smiled. "Wanna go get hitched?"
Rodney snorted affectionately. "All these years you've just been waiting to say that, haven't you? Percolating it in that head of yours." He ruffled John's hair, greyed but still wild.
John shrugged. "It's a crazy galaxy, Rodney. Full of things to be scared of, and things that never should have scared you. I just like taking back the parts that I can."
"All those tigers, made out of paper all along." Rodney shook his head. He looked at John, his eyes framed by laugh lines and his lips twitching upward, and was suddenly overcome with love. There was nothing Rodney could do but kiss him, slow and sweet and with all the time in the world. "Yeah, let's go do it again."
Equipment packed up, they started the walk up to the village, hand in hand, reveling in the warm sunshine of a beautiful day. The path in front of them was smooth and clear and, as it crested the hill, seemed to stretch on forever.