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Fistfight at the Golden Corral

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He'd been angry. That was the start of things, in all honesty. He'd been angry for weeks, for months, and it had settled into a low-level distrust that coated everything they did together, every choice that he made.

John Sheppard wasn't accustomed to that feeling. He didn't like it, he didn't like feeling as if he had a reason not to trust a guy who'd been his friend, and so he tried hard to make sure that nothing he did or said was a direct result of that doubt.

He just... felt it, doubt and mistrust, and it was stupid. It was stupid, and John knew it, and he wasn't sure how he was going to get his head back in the right space. He'd commanded guys who'd had DUIs, and knew one particularly sorrowful RP who'd killed a friend when he was six, playing with his dad's gun. He'd been okay with them.

For some reason, he was having a hard time being okay with McKay.

He'd read the entire file from start to finish, and he knew that the dead Marine had been the work of the Trust. He knew that Rodney wasn't the kind of guy who could stab a Marine to death and then fall asleep next to him until the cops showed up eight hours later thanks to the smell.

What he did know was that he was an arrogant son of a bitch, and that he hadn't flinched when John had given the order to nuke that planet full of Wraith.

It made him think about guys who'd done time, mostly. It made him think about twenty somethings with too much money in their pockets and time on their hands, and what prison, maximum security prison did to a person. Turned whatever McKay had been before into someone who could nuke a planet because he was told to. Made him into the perfect scientist to put in high pressure situations, because he'd say yes to anything.

It made him wonder if the SGC didn't know more about what went on then what they'd put in the goddamn file, and that made him angry, too. John didn't feel like he could trust Rodney, and he didn't feel like he could trust the SGC, and it left him edgy, and wary, and generally pissed off.

Frankly, it sucked.

It sucked, and he had too much time to think about it on this particular trading mission. Lorne's people had found them, and John was generally glad to follow up, scientifically, on a good, sociable, pre-revolutionary society. Especially after Lorne's team had been on-planet. They seemed to engender goodwill. John wondered sometimes if their team scientist wasn't handing out marijuana to ease the process along, but that was probably just a bizarre bias against botanists.

"So. Which direction is the signal coming from?"

"It's coming from over there." Rodney gestured with his handheld sensor towards one of the larger buildings in the town, on the far side of what John was considering renaming 'the quad'.

"C'mon kids. Let's go see what we've got." The building looked just like most of the others; dingy outside, windows with something loosely related to glass. Columns on the portico. Nothing to get excited about, John thought. There were no guards immediately visible, and that was kind of strange if there was a power source in there with the kind of strength Rodney seemed to think.

Unless it was the usual situation where the people were keeping an ancient item in a museum, or a shrine. It had glowed for twenty generations with no explanation, then people generally thought of the thing as sacred.

Or a museum piece. Still, no guards was a good sign.

"Perhaps we should request assistance. I believe that Elder Leoneth mentioned that there were guides available to show us the local sights." Teyla was on edge, and that was never a good sign. There was something about the place that was obviously making her nervous. Hell, it was making John a little uptight, too. He wasn't sure why.

"Oh, are you kidding?" Rodney shifted, still looking towards the building. "Is this some special building you can only get into if you have three legs?"

Teyla looked at him, that steady expression that made John feel like his nanny was about to reach out and smack his hand for something. "If that is a reference to my gender, I believe that you will very shortly find cause to regret it."

"What? Oh, god, no, no, no! What even made you jump to that conclusion? I was thinking birth defects..." Rodney started to wander away from her, and towards the building.

He was like that when he got into things; distracted, insulting. Well, he was insulting most of the time, anyway. John figured he was lucky Teyla knew that, even though her dander was up. It made his fingers grip more tightly on his P90 and glance back at Ronon.

Ronon shrugged, which John figured was also par for the course. "We can get Elder Leoneth. They've been pretty nice."

While Rodney fidgeted, looking towards the doors like they were singing a siren song just for him and his damn poor impulse control. "Fine, I'll wait."

John jerked his chin, and Teyla and Ronon both turned smoothly to make their way back to the Councillors' Chamber, leaving John to keep an eye on Rodney. The way things had been going, that was liable to be a disaster, but he had better control over his urges than McKay did.


"What was that about?" Rodney asked, as soon as Teyla and Ronon had started off far enough that he thought he couldn't be heard. "I in no way implied that."

"Don't get your panties in a twist. I'm pretty sure you're not actually behind that comment." He didn't know what was, but he was pretty sure that his team was unravelling. It had been slow and dirty, but nothing was the way it used to be. Doranda had been a start, and whatever had happened with Teyla and Ronon while he and Rodney had been busy elsewhere had made things a little weird and tense. That strange unease had seemed to get better, after a while, but since everything that had gone wrong with Keller and Biro dying operating on scientists with exploding tumors, since the utter fuckup of what happened to Elizabeth... Well.

They were tired and worn out. Maybe it was time to take some shore leave. Get Teyla out doing something that would perk her up, get... well, anything. Get McKay out of his hair for a while. "Congratulations, captain five year old. Colonel five year old." Rodney was still looking at him oddly, maybe a little eagerly. "So we're actually waiting. I can't just stick my head in there and see if it's interesting?"

"No, McKay. If you stick your head in there and they decide to take it off, then where the hell would you be?" If anybody was a five year old here, it was damn sure Rodney.

"Hopefully getting rescued?" But the threat seemed to work. Rodney wasn't doing more than standing on the flattish wooden steps that seemed to keep people from tracking mud into the place.

John kept an eye on him. Sometimes, he thought if Rodney had a tail, he'd swing from the lights when he got like this, cat-like curiosity and monkeyish excitement. It used to make him feel indulgent. Now it just made him cranky, and worried, and like he had to try and compensate for both of those things. "I dunno. We might just leave you one of these days."

He had to know better than that. John never left anybody behind.

"Oh, yes. Hah. Yes, well." Rodney cleared his throat. He was clutching at his handheld, waiting, peeking past John to see if Teyla and Ronon were coming back their way yet. "Somehow I doubt that, Colonel."

"Yeah, well. Just keep your pants on. No reason to go rushing into places angels might fear to tread if we've got somebody to guide the way is all I'm saying."

"Is that something they teach you to say in military school? One thousand and one hackneyed sayings to get through to the below average IQ troops?" Rodney was still waiting and watching.

His back teeth clenched down hard. "Nah. It's something I've learned to say to you, McKay, so just wait."

He watched Rodney open his mouth, and then close it, and a hurt look slid over his face so strongly that he probably couldn't have hid it. "So that's how it is."

Christ. That made him feel god-awful fucking guilty, somewhere in the pit of him. It ached and hurt and made his jaw tighten even more. "Look, I'm just saying. This place seems like a nice enough planet, but we've been to others that seemed pretty all right, too."

"Like I haven't noticed that nine out of ten of our missions go wrong, Colonel." He folded his arms over his chest, but the stance broke a little. John turned and glanced over his own shoulder, seeing Teyla and Ronon coming back with the Elder between them.

Thank God. Being left alone with McKay made John tired, and guilty, and pissed, and his head ached. "Good." Good, and he had a fucking headache. Not that it was a surprise. By now, that happened more often than not.

"Colonel." Elder Leoneth gave a nod, pausing before him. "Your companions came with a request for guidance."

"There's an energy reading in this building here that I'd like to look at. As a scientist, to study," Rodney told the guy, probably quicker than he was interested in hearing.

Leoneth blinked. "You are more than welcome to enter the building, Dr. McKay, after...."

"Fantastic, great. Thank you." He turned then, and started up the shallow stairs, still clutching his hand held device.


John headed after him, because the look on the elder's face said he'd better, but before he could set foot on the first step, there were guards out of nowhere, hands on Rodney's forearms, and fuck.


"What? What? He said I could go in!" Rodney had to struggle, and it was never in what John was willing to call a dignified way. He always looked horrified, mouth tight, arms pulling up like that would get them to let go. It provided him with a slue of images that came up to nothing good. Not ever.

"After!" John yelled before he could stop himself, and then tried to get a grip. He turned back towards the elder, and could see Teyla already working to mitigate the problem. Ronon had his hand on his gun, and he'd probably have shot the guards already if they looked like they were actually hurting McKay.

They didn't, though. They were just frog-marching him down the stairs. They were probably going to get kicked out of town, and that was... fine. He was sure that Woolsey was going to love to hear that one.

"Elder Leoneth, I would like to assure you that Dr. McKay meant no harm. He would not have attempted to enter your building if he did not believe you had granted permission," Teyla was saying, and Elder Leoneth seemed honestly sorrowful.

"I hear and believe. However, according to our laws, the steps cannot be ascended without the proper purification rituals."

Oh, well, it made John glad that he hadn't gotten much further than one foot on the bottom step himself. "So, purify me. I'm pretty pure," Rodney promised, still squirming while the guards held him still between them. "Drug free, etc etc."

"Dr. McKay, I am very sorry. You have been observed, and by law must be punished. There is nothing I can do for you."

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. "Then we'll gladly withdraw our offer of allegiance and return to our own world."

Teyla laid a light hand on the man's arm, but John was thinking of running. He was thinking of stunning the guys, and grabbing McKay and then letting Woolsey dress his ass down for ruining another mission. "We mean no harm, and we would prefer to leave, rather than allow one of our people to be punished, Elder."

"I'd rather be let go. What's the point of punishing me? I didn't know I couldn't go up the stairs -- I didn't even go inside! I didn't even see it." Rodney pulled a little against the guards.

"I am afraid that is no longer an option."

There were people coming out of the woodwork, and John felt his hands tighten on his P90. He didn't want to kill anybody, but he was starting to think about it pretty damn hard. "Then what other options have we got?" Other than killing people. He didn't want to have to do that.

John heard the whine of Ronon's gun charging, and it shuddered up his spine. He glanced over, and yeah. They were getting close to a standoff. Fucking dammit.

"Allow him to be punished," The elder said simply, not looking at Rodney, but towards John. "It is simple. I've had to do it myself, when I was a boy."

Obviously it hadn't killed him. He didn't look scarred or damaged in any way. "And he'll be returned to us, exactly like he is now."

"Exactly as he is now." The assurance was calmer than most, less sneering and solicitous. John glanced slowly over towards Teyla, who was probably checking the elder over for scars, marks, anything out of the ordinary.

Ronon's gun was still charged. "I say we just go."

"McKay." John didn't say anything else; he just turned his head to look at Rodney, see what he thought about it. He had to be terrified; John knew that, knew Rodney panicked if he stubbed his toe or got a cramp.

He was right. Rodney was shaking his head, still pulling uselessly against the guards. "No, no, no, you can't be serious -- every time we play along, it ends horribly. No, we need to get back to the gate, Colonel..."

Yeah, that determined it.

"I'm afraid we'll have to turn you down there, Elder." He brought up his gun, gave a sharp nod to Ronon. They didn't have to like it; they just had to do it, except there were women and children in the plaza now, more than John was comfortable with killing to get out of there.

One of the guards was smarter than they were used to running across, and twisted Rodney's arm behind his back, putting Rodney out in front of him like a shield.

"It's a simple process to punish him." The Elder seemed a little unsure of what to do in the face of John's gun, and that was nice to see for once. Usually, he brought his gun up, they pulled out the dart guns or knives. "We would tie him to the round in the middle of the square, and everyone in town would lay a hand on him once."

Once. "Nothing more than a touch." That was bearable. Hell, John had gotten worse over the last four years.

"It's a bad idea, Sheppard," Ronon rumbled.

"I believe so, as well; however, an alliance with the Kinmeni people would be beneficial to us all." So Teyla was either or. Ronon was against, and John didn't like having to kill kids just so Rodney didn't have to have people smacking him.

"As I said, many of us have received this punishment."

He lowered his gun. "All right. But I promise you, if he's harmed in any way...."

Leoneth bowed his head. "Of course, Colonel. I assure you, I understand."

"Oh, no, no, no, Colonel!" But Leoneth was already nodding to his guards, and they started to march Rodney towards the square, right away. At least it was going to pass quickly.


"Be ready," he murmured grimly to Ronon. "If we can get out without killing kids and widows...."

Ronon dropped his arm to his side, scowling at John. "This is a bad idea, Sheppard," he said again.

Sometimes, he had to choose between two bads. One was Rodney being hauled to the middle of the village, howling outrage with every step, and the other was having to turn the whole mess into a firefight. He didn't want to have to do that. They'd been good, if a little strict, and that should've been Rodney's hint not to move.

The whole thing was going to be a fucking mess. "Buck up, McKay. They're just gonna touch you," he called, and he hoped to god that was going to be true. That things would work out, and it wouldn't get worse.

He hoped he'd be able to stop feeling guilty about all of this later.

"Then let them touch you!"

He was going to feel guilty for putting Rodney's blood pressure up, and Rodney was probably going to yell and cuss and shout himself hoarse. Getting touched by the village was humiliating, sure, but not deadly. Sometimes, a guy had to pick his fights.

The elder was still by his side. "If you wish, you may remain with the elders near the platform where Dr. McKay will be bound."

Like he wanted that. Like any of them did. "I'd like to remain close to Dr. McKay, if that's all right."

Leoneth nodded. "Of course. However, you must offer up your weapon, if that is the case."

He barely kept himself from doing more than clenching his teeth, while he lifted the P90 up over his head. Ronon was reaching for it, still giving John that look that said he thought it was a stupid idea. It probably was. Hell, it definitely was, but he wasn't going to leave the place with a bunch of dead people over just a touch.

Rodney was babbling with fear, and the two guards took him up the steps to a highly public platform. "Oh god. Oh, god, John, Colonel, I..."

He didn't want to hear it. He didn't, but he didn't have a choice. Not really.

"You can't, you can't, oh, god, I didn't do anything!" John watched Rodney twist, trying to fight the guards off, and okay, they hadn't said anything about stripping Rodney off for the village touch-a-thon.

"Hey, hey, hey! What the hell are you doing!?"

The guard looked at him blankly. "All penitents are required to be bare for the ritual, Colonel Sheppard. It is law."

"I don't care what kind of law it is, you can at least leave his goddamned underwear on!"

"Under..." The elder actually seemed curious, and he leaned his head over to look at Rodney. "Oh, your people wear multiple garments. How interesting.

"And our people don't do public nudity." John clenched his jaw. "I demand that he be allowed to keep the underwear."

"Yes, yes." The elder gestured to his guards, and then walked over towards them. Rodney was yelling, and John just focused on not listening to it They were definitely leaving him his hideous boxers.

He was going to be lucky if McKay ever spoke to him again. Hell, he was going to be lucky if Woolsey didn't slam him into a cell and leave him there until they could ship him back to Earth.

He left Leoneth and moved to walk up onto the platform, getting closer to McKay. "Rodney. McKay. Just... they're just gonna touch you. Okay? That's all. They've promised nobody'll be allowed to damage you in any way."

They were tying him down, face down, and John just hated shit like this. He didn't want to be there, and Rodney was twisting against the ropes, completely freaking out. "Colonel, this is, this isn't okay, I want to get out of here... Colonel, I know this is, this has to be your idea of a joke, or, I don't know, but I..." One of the guards was coming up to Rodney, and offering him a drink.

"It's not my idea of a good time, either, Rodney." He tried to turn his head away, but one of the guards reached down and held his nose. John felt both of his hands ball into fists, but then they seemed satisfied and they stepped away. He knelt down near Rodney. "It's this or killing a bunch of women and kids, so you tell me what's a better idea."

"That's not a choice that ever involves me," Rodney snapped. "It's always someone else. It's always for the better good, always. It's, oh, god, what was in that drink?"

John could see his pupils starting to dilate, watched as his fingers began to twitch uncontrollably. "Rodney?"

Rodney closed his eyes, and then ducked his head in, but otherwise he was holding still finally, so very still. "Huhn." Oh, crap.

"Rodney. Rodney, talk to me! What the hell did you just give him!?" John demanded, standing straight and whirling.

He didn't actually expect for the guards to seize him then, for him to see Teyla and Ronon being seized, and hell, at least Ronon was putting up a fight. They'd gotten John too quick, and some guy had an arm around John's neck. That didn't stop him from fighting like hell, kicking back and down hard with the heel of his boot. He heard it when the guy's toes snapped, but there was another guard, and then the whole world was black and spinning because a fist like steel had hit him in the head.

All he could hear was a high pitched whine, a horrible squealing noise that sounded like someone had stuck a cat in a dryer. At least, that was what John imagined a cat stuck in a dryer sounded like, and he really wanted to sleep. His head was pounding, and the sound of it was making everything worse.

"Turn'toff." Just saying it hurt, made John want to puke. "F'rchrissake."

"Colonel. It's good that you're back with us."

Yeah. Yeah. No. What?

Woolsey? John didn't move, just twitched a little and sat up, trying to get himself together. "I'm going to want a written, in depth explanation for what led you to decide to allow the natives on P37-986 to take your team hostage."

Yeah. John wanted one of those too. He managed to get his eyes to answer him, even if the light that was filtering in felt like he was being stabbed in the eyes. "'m not sure. Ask me again when my brains aren't spilling out of my ears."

"I'm not actively inclined to grant you that courtesy, Colonel Sheppard, as Doctor McKay is currently being prepared for an emergency sensory deprivation tank. I have to say that this is new territory for me as a commander."

"McKay?" John shot up, and the pain in his head intensified, making him drop back in an attempt to keep from puking. "What happened?" He had no idea, but he'd bet good money that Ronon was responsible for getting them out.

"After Ronon had wreaked... sufficient havoc on the guards attempting to hold him hostage, the Elders deemed that McKay had been 'punished' enough, and released the four of you back through the gate. This is what Teyla informed me. I'd like to hear your side." And while John couldn't see for the bright light and his throbbing head, he could imagine Woolsey standing in his suit right beside the bed, hands folded in front of him.

And that hysterical noise was still going on in the background.

"We were..." John licked his lips. "We were in the quad. This open area between buildings. McKay tried to enter a building, there was a ritual, he didn't perform it. They wanted to punish him." He took in a deep, shaky breath. "The elder said that everybody in town would touch him. Just touch him, and there were... women and children. Coming out of the woodwork. Given a choice between everybody in town touching McKay, and killing a bunch of innocent bystanders, didn't seem like much of a choice. It didn't... turn out so well. What's that sound?" Like a cat in heat or something. Fighting. He wasn't sure he wanted the answer.

"Doctor McKay." Sharp, crisp, all four syllables, and it felt like a punch in the gut. Doctor McKay was that noise. "It appears, according to Doctor Beckett, who is too busy to attend to you right now, that Doctor McKay metabolized the treatment differently due to his previous interaction with the Wraith enzyme."

"They gave him something." John remembered that. "I was trying to stop it when they grabbed me. Hit me in the head."

"You'll be able to defend your choices when you write your report, Colonel. Doctor McKay's outlook is currently... grimmer than your own."

Christ. He was such a complete asshole. "Tell me about Rodney. What's going on? How'd we get back?"

"Doctor Zelenka managed to put together a sensory deprivation tank..." The screeching noise was starting to fade down. "Which I believe he's being placed in now."

Oh, Jesus. Jesus. This was all his fault, and the guilt that was swelling up in the pit of him was overwhelming. "I thought... it was just a touch. What the... what was in the drink they were giving him?"

"We're still having it analyzed. But it appeared to have put his nerve endings in... an exceedingly sensitive state."

No shit, Sherlock. John raised a hand and rubbed at his face. "What's Beckett have to say? And where do we stand on our exit from P37-986?" Maybe they could send Lorne back in, get whatever they might need. If they had a drink that kickstarted this kind of thing, maybe they'd have something to start the reversal process.

"Released of your own recognizance, albeit not on your own two feet. Teyla dragged you to the gate, and Ronon carried McKay. We're preparing a gate team for retrieval of any assistance that can be passed on."

That was about the only thing that could be done. "I, uh. Honestly. I was just... I didn't want to have to kill a bunch of people. And I thought, a touch. They said he wouldn't be damaged." That was obviously a lie from hell.

"As I said, unforeseen complication, likely stemming from enzyme use. Now, if you're done, Colonel, I'll go alert a nurse as to your consciousness..."

Yeah. John would appreciate that. The fact that they'd sent him to take Elizabeth's job was still a little mind-boggling. "I'll appreciate it. And I'll get that report written." Then he'd have a little more time to desperately regret his bad damn decision.

Consciousness. "You do that." Woolsey turned, moving away promptly, sharply, and he was off to do god knows what. Tell the nurses to stab him in the back, give him dirty water, something. John was glad to see the back of him, but he didn't take the problem with him.

He was such an asshole. Even if he wasn't, he sure as hell felt like it, and that made it true even if it wasn't.

Rodney hadn't done anything to make him feel this way. Okay, yes, he'd tried to blow both of them up and he'd been an egotistical ass, but since then... Well. He'd just been eager to do what John wanted him to do, and the sick feeling in the pit of his belly welled up into his throat. God. That was all he'd wanted to do, and John had been letting the shit in his file, what had happened with the Arcturus Project, affect things that it never should have been allowed to influence.

What the hell made him think there was a deeper meaning to Rodney pushing the button when he told him to? He'd told McKay that he had to earn back John's trust in the first place. He'd put the stick and the carrot out there, and then he was trying to come up with reasons for why Rodney reached for it?
Beckett was going to make him regret it for every moment more he was in the infirmary. Maybe he could sweet talk a nurse into letting him out.

Then again, Carson would probably send around Nurse Henson, and there was no way she'd let him go. No, she'd come and fluff his pillows and pull up his blankets and then do bloodwork and try to convince him that he should be more careful with his health, especially with all of the abdominal injuries.

Yeah. This was gonna suck.

He laid his head back on the pillow, concentrating on the sound of screeching, howling that was fading slowly into nothing. Either they'd moved Rodney out of the infirmary, or he was doing okay. Ish. Something, and John decided that even if his head fell off, he had to go see what was going on.

Sitting up made his brains feel like they were leaking out of his ears, but once he was sure he wasn't going to puke, he stood up on bare feet and tugged his scrub top down and into place. He could hear people deeper in the infirmary, so he took a deep breath and walked in the direction of the sound.

He was sore and tired and felt like he'd been rolled in gravel in the back of a cement mixer.

John was expecting people standing around a gurney, nurses, bustle. When he poked his head around the corner, there was just Carson and Zelenka standing in front of a box that looked like a couple of coffins stacked on top of each other.

"How do we know he's all right in there?" Zelenka rocked back onto his heels, waving one hand wildly at the box.

"Well. His vital signs are registering, the respirator is functioning properly. So long as we've got someone monitoring things, I think we're safe to say he's living. His blood pressure's going down, respiration and pulse are lowering. It's a miracle he didn't have a stroke or a heart attack with that kind of strain." John could see Carson's hands clenching and loosening, his obvious worry written in every line of his body.

"Miracle that no one on the team is a carpenter, and yet we managed to get this built so quickly." Zelenka folded his arms, then unfolded them, and then looked over his shoulder.


"Hey," John murmured awkwardly. "I, uh. I was... worried." He was still worried, because what the hell. Respirator? Coffin box... thing? Yeah. Those said nothing good. At all.

"Oh, Colonel was worried. World is at an end." Zelenka turned towards Carson. "If you will excuse me, I'm going to see if the biologists have finished running processes on sample. Comm me if the tank leaks."

Carson nodded distractedly. "Of course. I'll call you immediately."

So it was a tank of some kind, and he was guessing McKay was in there. Christ. McKay didn't belong in there. Enclosed spaces freaked him out, and it made John uncomfortable just looking at it. "So. Uh. How's Rodney?"

"Alive." Carson flicked a look sideways at him. "And you should be in bed, Colonel. Now. I'm not going to have two patents that need intensive care at once, if I have any say in the matter."

"I'm okay." He felt like shit, but obviously Rodney felt worse. "What the hell did they give him?"

"A plant that's native to their area. It's being analyzed." Carson was giving him a dirty look again, and then he stepped forward. "Someone keep an eye on McKay's readings. Colonel, you're going back to bed now, whether you like this or not."

John shifted, looked at the tank. Chamber. Whatever. "Can he hear us?" Not that he was going to say anything. Not yet, anyway. Apologies should be face-to-face, not face-to-whatever the hell this thing actually did.

"No. That would sort of cancel out the whole point of making it an isolation chamber. Sound proof, light, the water is the same temperature as his skin, and hopefully we can keep him isolated that way while we work on a solution." Carson was reaching for him, putting arms on his shoulders, to steer him back towards his cot.

"So what's... what's the deal? Carson, you know I would never have let them take him if I'd known. Woolsey said..." That god-awful cat screeching. "....that was Rodney. The noise." The one that was trying to drill a hole in his skull for him.

The noise that had stopped since they'd put him in the box, but that John could still hear in his head. "Aye, it was. His nerves were conveying every sensation to him in an intensified level."

Christ. Oh. God. This, all of it, it was John's fault. Because he was a complete asshole. "I don't need to go back to bed, I need to go back to that planet and talk to the Elders, I need to..." Shoot the motherfuckers.

"We've already taken care of that, Colonel. Or were you not listening when I said that we had a sample of the plant they make their drink from? Samples don't materialize out of thin air, or my life would be a bloody lot easier." He was moving him, wether John liked it or not. Sure, he could've pushed Carson away, but that was a quick way to get into trouble.

Or to get sponge baths from Nurse Henson. Same thing.

"I just..." He just needed to get out of the way and let Carson do his job. He didn't want to. "You'll let me know as soon as you know something."

"Or Doctor McKay's organs fail from the stress, aye. Now stay in your bed, Colonel, so I can take care of my other patient." Sharp, snappish instruction from Carson, and he was already starting to pull away. "A nurse will see to you shortly."

Staying out of the way would probably help Rodney, and keep Carson from feeding him laxatives. "Yeah. Okay."

He felt dazed, and strained and maybe there was something wrong with him after all, too good of a knock to the head. He didn't remember, and Carson was hailing a nurse over towards him. Maybe, John figured while he laid back down, he could just sleep for a while and try again later.

When his brains didn't feel like somebody had shoved a stick up his nose and stirred them around so that they'd all come slurping out of his nostrils. He imagined they'd fill a bucket. Maybe even two, so he settled back into his bed and closed his eyes.

There was nothing he could do to help. Not right now.

Nothing had ever hurt like that. Nothing at all, and he had a long list of things that hurt, a long list, but the hurt had faded, mellowed away until a drifting nothingness that tingled. He wasn't sure if nothing was supposed to tingle, but it did. It tingled, and it felt like he was sliding sideways up, up somewhere. It was something that maybe he should have fought, but he was tired, exhausted, and not moving when he was moving when nothing hurt but tingled, it was okay.

It was better.

Better than fingertips, and the brush of feathers, better than the light wisp of breath over his skin, better than the feel of Ronon manhandling him, and running for the gate.

Nothing was his new favorite tingling sensation.

Better than the slide of knives, of pricks, of paper-cuts, and he seriously hoped that everyone who'd touched him suffered for it, that they all felt that, because they'd ignored everything. His throat still hurt, and when he swallowed he felt like choking, like flailing, tasted blood, except he could still breathe and there was that tingling. Oh, and he was going up the side again and that was okay.

Everything was okay, and he wasn't going to open his eyes. He didn't want to see, just in case it wasn't over, and he'd finally gone mad from the pain of it.

He was just going to lie there, and not look, and enjoy the tingling.

It was so much better than the alternative.

He had a headache.

There was something about Atlantis that made headaches a daily occurrence. Ordinarily, Richard would suspect allergies. In the case of Atlantis, he suspected it was, in fact, an allergy to Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay.

There was no reason for him not to wonder why he had a headache. There was always something, and this time, 'something' was another spectacular screw up that seemed close to killing McKay. He didn't, well, almost didn't mind when they were conspiring together, but he didn't think Atlantis would last long when his CSO and his head of military were at odds.

The problem, really, was going to be making sure McKay didn't die.

Sheppard had been released from the infirmary, and he was on his way to Richard's office. Whatever his report said, it would obviously need to be worded and re-worded before there was a finalized submission. Just thinking about it made him reach for the large bottle of Advil Liquid-Gels he hoarded in his desk.

He didn't have to guess what Sheppard's problem was. He'd seen all of the files. He'd read Dr. Weir's notes. It was his job to read people, and while the colonel wasn't the easiest person to try and understand, Richard was an expert for a reason.

He didn't get involved with his people's issues, though. That way led madness, and while the knowing was important, he never said anything. He never interfered, except this, this was going to require interfering. He needed them not to be at odds.

Of course, if McKay died that solved every problem. Sheppard would quit, or get himself killed on his next mission. It might take two, or three, but he'd accomplish it, and then he'd move Lorne into the position with the IOA's approval, and Radek was the most qualified scientist.

In all honesty, they were both rock solid people, well-qualified and capable.

Atlantis would probably fall like a rock, so Richard was going to do everything in his power to solve the problem before it became too serious to correct. He'd have to trust to God and Dr. Beckett that McKay would live to benefit from his machinations.

"Mr. Woolsey."

"Good to see you've been released from the infirmary, Colonel. Please, sit down." He gestured to the chair across from his desk. "You can leave your report with me, but I'd like to hear the, ah. details of what led to your decision."

Sheppard had a knot the size of a golf ball at his hairline, discoloration spreading downward to give him the beginning of a fairly spectacular black eye. He settled into the seat, slumping in a way that had to be uncomfortable. "It's in the report. Elder Leoneth insisted that all that would happen would be a single touch from every person gathered. He said McKay wouldn't be hurt. He didn't mention a drug, and I didn't figure shooting a bunch of women and kids would ever be a good idea in comparison."

"Nothing else led to that decision?" It would've been easier if he didn't have to prod and pry, and drag the information out of Sheppard.

He didn't think Sheppard would admit to it. Not really. The shaky way he let out his breath implied otherwise. "Things have been... tense between me and McKay for a while. A touch shouldn't have hurt him. I just thought it was better if he sucked it up and we didn't have to kill anybody. I would have made the same decision a year ago. Just...."

"Just...?" He was going to drag it out. He was going to drag it out if he had to, because he'd always thought the SGC was good at making militant decisions. Proving McKay's innocence had been militant of the SGC -- useful for them, manipulative, ultimately worth the effort. He'd take Sheppard apart if he'd still be useful afterwards, because he was better taken apart and effective for the mission,for the city, than dead.

"Just I didn't think it would be any worse than McKay freaking out about germs. They let me up on the platform, and when I saw the cup, I tried to knock it out of the way. I was figuring Ronon might be able to get us loose if I could stop them from giving it to McKay but...." Sheppard shrugged. "One of those guys had to be holding solid metal ore in his fist. That's all I remember."

"Mmm." Not going to go simply and quietly, was he? That would have been too easy for the Colonel, Richard supposed. "I need to be able to depend on the chief science officer and my head of military, Sheppard. If the two of you are unable to work together..."

"We're able. We'll be able." He wanted to believe that. He wasn't altogether sure he should, considering. "I fucked up. Royally. I won't do it again."

"I know that Doctor McKay had an interesting past, but most people who've worked with him have managed to weigh the information and move on quickly." He sat up a fraction straighter, watching Sheppard for a reaction. "Elizabeth was particularly fond of his, ah, unique brand of bravado and bravery. Of both of you."

Sheppard's shoulder hitched. "It's not that. It's... it's a combination of things. Arcturus. The Wraith planet." He paused, licked his lips. "Elizabeth. I've had problems with deciding whether I can trust him or not. Now I'm wondering if he should be trusting me."

"Arcturus was of particular military interest, if I recall the reports correctly," he told Sheppard slowly. "And while I don't personally approve of using nanites in a medical setting, I do understand that he was attempting to save a life, albeit against orders. Something I recall you are also familiar with, Colonel. In fact, I can name a litany of mistakes and poor decisions that anyone would have made in your places."

That John Sheppard had made.

That Richard was sure he would make again, given a choice.

"I know." Sheppard licked his lips and shifted, straightened, eyes forward. "That's something I've thought about a lot, the last couple of hours."

"I'm pleased to hear that. The two of you need to make your peace, and while I appreciate the unique skills that both of you bring to the mission, it does require a functioning leadership cohort." He hoped that the implication that he'd replace him was firm enough for Sheppard not to deny that it was there.

The colonel didn't move. He was sitting there, but he wasn't entirely present. Richard wondered if disciplinary hearings got the same lack of presence from him. "If we manage to get McKay out of that coffin, trust me. It won't be a problem."

"It's Doctor Beckett's top priority," Richard assured him. "Well, if you feel you don't need to be dressed down further, Colonel..."

Sheppard rose, nodding. "I'll leave you to your work, Mr. Woolsey."

Watching him leave, there was nothing to do but sigh. None of this was working out. At all. And he was going to have to figure out why, and how to fix it.

And he was going to fix it with or without their help.

The cafeteria was sparsely populated, many of the expedition's scientists and military members busy at this time of day. Teyla rested her elbows on the table and cupped her hands around her cup, letting it warm her fingers.

She would head to the infirmary again, soon. Not immediately, though. She knew the doctors worked best without crowding, and while there were the crucial moments that decided between life and death... She had a feeling that Doctor McKay did not require a deathwatch.

Across the table, Ronon stretched further, kicking a foot against the chair upon which his other leg rested. "This drives me nuts."

Likely it did. Despite the fact that he had led such a hard life, Ronon was still very young in many ways, perhaps because of the things through which he had survived. He had not been with them long enough to see the changes between John and Rodney, to understand the full depth of the problem.

She was uncertain how to address it herself -- she did not have that kind of relationship with Doctor McKay, and her relationship with John was both professional and deeply trusting, after a few initial false starts. He did not question her. "It is very nerve wracking," she agreed, taking a sip from her cup.

"I kinda wondered, at first, why McKay was even on a team." Ronon took a big bite out of an apple, and chewed on it for a long moment. "He's pretty smart, though. Told Sheppard it was a bad idea."

"His physical stamina has improved," Teyla smiled, taking another sip. "You may laugh. But it has."

Ronon gave a sound that passed for skepticism. "Yeah, well. So long as he can pull our asses out of the fire, 'm good."

Yes. Teyla supposed he would be. She and Ronon had not begun their friendship easily, but they had come to understand one another. They worked well together, and in some ways, she knew that they had become the base of the team since other difficulties had come to life.

"I'm curious as to what..." She paused for a moment, and set the cup down slowly. "Things have not been well between the Colonel and Doctor McKay."

It was obvious. "Yeah. Tell me something I haven't noticed. Don't think Sheppard would put McKay in obvious danger, though. I mean, it was a bad idea, but...."


"I think he may have been making a... less conscious choice than we would think of." Perhaps he had not even known what he was doing when he'd made that poor choice. They were both good men, and she did not believe that either of them, despite the difficulties currently present between them, would do such a thing consciously.

She watched Ronon spear one of the potato wedges on his plate. "McKay's gonna be pretty messed up. Can't imagine that kind of overload."

"Nor can I." She reached for a little of the bread she had taken with her for her tea, and took her time chewing. "I hope he will be well when Doctor Beckett has found a way to reverse it."

"Think he'll go back out with us again?"

The question was in no way unreasonable. John had agreed. Ronon had backed down upon his say-so. Teyla had not objected to the decision.

"I do not know." It depended on Rodney's mental state when he was brought back to himself, if that was even possible. It depended on how long it took for him to recover, and how much he actually remembered of what had happened.

It depended on their actions, or lack thereof, in the meantime.

"Think we should talk to Sheppard about it. Maybe do something. What do these guys bring when they go visiting sick people, anyway?" Seriously ill, he meant, and that was different than their own random visits to the infirmary.

"Food is always an appreciated offering." Even for the seriously ill, and Teyla was not willing to categorize John as ill. Injured, yes, but not ill. Not precisely, although perhaps the problems with Dr. McKay could be seen as a sort of illness, a spiritual sickness.

Ronon stroked his beard. "Heard they were coming back with some of those berries from Thearianas. He likes those." He shoved his chair back. "I'll see if I can talk Sergeant Willoughby out of 'em."

"Thank you." As long as Ronon was able to try and do something, then he would always feel better about a situation.

Even if it meant heavily suggesting to a sergeant that the mess forego a treat. The residents of Atlantis might miss the cakes that were so often created with the berries, but they would mean a great deal more to Rodney.

Taking another sip of tea, Teyla decided to visit her people. Perhaps she, too, could bring something that would help.

He felt phenomenally guilty.

Of course, Rodney would likely say that was his default emotional status, but Rodney also thought botanists were completely useless, and they'd been responsible for the serum Carson was administering. It just went to show that Rodney wasn't always right.

It would take effect relatively quickly, or at least, he hoped it would. There was little question that it would echo through McKay's nerves or much longer, but Carson was reluctant to leave McKay in there for more than the ten hours at a time that had documented study done on it.

The fact that it wouldn't have affected him like this at all if it hadn't been for the gene therapy, well. That made him sick to his core. He should have studied it more, should have done a thousand different, better things before he'd implemented widespread use. The trouble with it was that the need had been so great, and Rodney had been terribly excited about it, and...

"The tank will be opening... now," Radek said behind him, and the faint hiss of the doors depressurizing sounded before the door rose slowly.

"Thank you, Radek." He moved to step in, more willing to get himself wet up to the knees than he was to take Rodney out of the tank prematurely. It was still silent in the tank, so Rodney wasn't screaming.

If he never heard Rodney scream again, it would be too soon.

He slid the needle into the port and pushed the plunger. They would know in short order whether it worked or not, because the screaming would start again once the air cooled against Rodney's skin.

Once he was out of the tank, and he hated it when they had to take him out of the tank. So much.

"All signs appear to be registering normal." Radek was behind him, and by now, Carson was accustomed to his assistance. The nurses and other physicians had been unable to bear the sounds, after the first day.

He wasn't sure he'd be able to bear the sounds. He needed to see what kind of damage it was doing to Rodney's throat, to his whole body, to have his stress level that high, for that long. He wasn't even sure where to begin to truly catalogue the damage.

"Good, thank you. Now to hope that this works." He was up to his knees in wet, now, but that was all right. Anything was all right, so long as it worked. So long as it did what it was supposed to do.

Radek made a sound of agreement. "Yes. Dr. Parrish continues working with the plant, to see if he can increase the possibility of success through better application of the distillation process."

Too many times in and out of the tank, and they'd only be saving a gibbering mess of a man. The human body was only built to take so much, there wasn't an infinite give and take and take and take. "We'll know shortly how this is going," Carson murmured, looking over his shoulder at Radek. Rodney's hair was sopping, and his skin was wrinkled. He'd probably kill for a good meal.

"We should likely remove him from the tank. At the very least, he will need a bath. Which is frankly a little odd, after all this time spent in water." Radek took a deep breath. "Vital signs remain steady. Blood pressure is lowering."

"If you're willing to help me," Carson offered, wading towards the head of the tank to shift Rodney's torso towards exiting. It only took a minute or so for Radek to come in behind him, reaching for Rodney's legs. The feel of his skin made Carson's fingers crawl, and he expected Rodney wasn't enjoying it either, not from the vaguely distressed sound of his breathing.

Radek grunted, stepping over the edge of the tank. "Perhaps we should have called for further assistance. At the very least, towels."

"That would have taken forethought, Radek, but thank you for the suggestion." Warm and clammy at the same time. They'd see if they could run him under hot, clean water, and what kind of reaction they'd get. He wasn't howling, though, and previously just the touch of their hands getting him out was enough.

A soundless release of breath shook loose from Rodney, raw from the tearing of his throat. Still, it was a good sign. Once they managed to struggle him out of the tank, and get him laid on the floor, Carson stepped over and checked his vitals. They were much better, and so he called for towels, then, hoping the lack of screams would induce someone to come along willingly.

It seemed like a good, healthy reaction was possible. That maybe they'd gotten it right this time, that McKay wasn't going to start seizing in screams of pain again. Carson guessed that he and Radek might as well carry Rodney to the shower, too, as they were already wet. And if he woke up, they could start considering regular hydration and food again.

Within half an hour, they'd managed to get him clean and dressed in scrubs, and Carson had gotten the opportunity to peer down his throat. He'd set up IV antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and pain medication, and they'd tucked him into a bed, as well as setting up the labs he'd need to run to be sure that everything was in proper order.

No screaming, no howling, no pain reaction. No allergic reaction to the cure, either. While he still wasn't conscious, Carson was grateful for the non-reaction, and he'd start to worry if Rodney wasn't awake in another hour or two. While they were waiting, he'd check his bloods and try to be sure nothing had affected him any worse than what was to be expected.

Radek and the others were waiting before disassembling the unit. Carson had half a mind to keep it available, just in case, but perhaps that was only his paranoia. He assigned a nurse to watch over his friend, and hurried off to the lab to check the progress of the tests.

Now that Rodney was out of the tank, they'd need to start taking x-rays and he'd have to start testing for muscle strains and tears. They weren't out of the woods as yet, but at least they'd be getting a wee bit closer now.

He figured he wasn't welcome in the infirmary, but it was still worth trying. After what Woolsey had said, he had to try, and he had to be sorry, but he didn't feel that because Woolsey was holding a knife over his head. He felt it because he was a dick.

No. John wasn't just a dick, he was a complete son of a bitch. He was the kind of asshole who deserved to be in Rodney's place instead of sneaking into the infirmary to try and find out what was going on with him. He was the kind of bastard Carson would probably put back in the infirmary and poke with large bore needles if he got caught.

Suck out his bone marrow, John figured, and use it for something useful. John leaned into the infirmary, and made sure that the nurse on duty was reading at the desk. Good. If he just strolled in casually, she'd never really look twice.


He was in luck, because it was Jenkins, not Henson. "Hi, colonel. I'm betting you're here to visit Doctor McKay. Ronon and Teyla came by a little earlier and left him a few gifts."

It still made him startle, but he smiled at her. "Yeah? He's been awake at all?" Awake could be good. He still wasn't sure what to say, but he'd at least have the opportunity to see him.

"Not yet. Dr. Beckett's been in and out a lot, with Dr. Sahid." She gave him a sympathetic sort of smile. "He's broken a couple of bones, I'm afraid."

John grimaced at that statement. He didn't even want to ask where the broken bones had come from, but he did want to know what they were. "What, uh. How did anything get broken?"

"The drug they gave him produced something like a histamine response. There are drugs that make the skin excruciating to the touch and often sends the body into unbearable cramps. Sometimes with that kind of reaction, the muscles tie up into knots, hard enough to actually break bone." No wonder she looked so damn sympathetic. "Dr. Sahid's got the arm casted, though, and he and Dr. Beckett think that's the worse of the damage."

Oh, hah. Just a broken arm. "I'm uh." John gestured towards the curtained off area where he guessed Rodney was sleeping. "Going to check in on him for a minute, if that's all right." He hadn't thought that the drug would do anything, anything like that at all, from the screaming and now to this.

John wasn't sure he'd ever felt more guilty about anything in his life.

"No problem. Just try to be quiet. He's pretty...." She didn't end the sentence, possibly because there was no way it could end well. Pretty fucked up was John's bet.

"No problem." He smiled at her, and then turned away, moving to get out of sight, to just... see for himself how bad 'bad' was. How bad it really was. The tank, and the fact that Rodney had been in it when he'd last seen him had made things feel weird and disconnected. Not personal at all, and if this was anything, it was personal.

It was personal because he'd told Rodney he could work to get his trust back. It was personal because Rodney had done everything he'd asked, right up to nuking a planet.

It was personal because he'd lied, and he hadn't even known it at the time. Not really.

It was personal because he knew about the fucked up things the Trust had done to Rodney, and he'd said okay anyway.

He hadn't thought that he was doing it because he still didn't trust Rodney. He hadn't thought about why he was doing it at all, and he should have. He didn't know everything in Rodney's past, but he'd still said that Rodney could just take one more thing on, no problem. Why not?

He pulled that curtain back slowly, and wasn't surprised how Rodney looked. Not after what Jenkins had said, and somehow, that made everything worse. He'd done that. He was responsible for that, the pallor, the casted arm, the bruised eye sockets that made him look like someone had hit him. Thank god for the small favors of scrubs, sheets and blankets. If he actually had to see anything more, John figured he might turn around and walk out in disgust with himself.

Instead, he moved closer to the bed. There was a chair there, and off to the side he saw a basket of berries and those plum things that the Athosians had. He hadn't thought to bring anything by way of a gift, and he should have.

It didn't seem to have been touched, so Rodney probably wasn't awake, but he did like good food. Maybe he needed to bring a gift or a peace offering the next time. He was definitely out cold, that sleep of the dead breathing that John always thought was about three seconds from a snore. Funny, for all Rodney bitched and moaned about allergies, he didn't snore much. Or if he did, it was that funny whistling snore that always kind of made John want to laugh.

He pulled a chair over quietly and sat down to wait, to watch Rodney for just a little while. Being able to see him made John feel worse and better at the same time, but he wanted to see him. Wanted to be sure of him, in a way he hadn't wanted before.

He'd fucked up, but McKay was alive. Alive and except for the broken arm, probably physically okay in the short term. His voice was probably a wreck, too. John couldn't imagine what he'd do or think if their positions were reversed.

Probably nothing good. Forgiveness wasn't going to come cheap or easy, if at all, and trust was something that he couldn't count on getting back ever. That thought nauseated him just a little, or maybe a lot, because he'd been holding that over Rodney's head, and he'd been an asshole, and he'd done this, there was no way of backing away from that.

He'd probably been sitting there a good ten, fifteen minutes, deep in self flagellation, when Rodney moved his un-casted arm in a jerky motion, and shoved at his pillow.

"Hey," he greeted, and stood halfway. "Hey, buddy. Welcome back." Because what else was he going to say?

I'm sorry I fucked up wasn't going to make much sense yet. He probably needed to get the nurse, so she could do nurse-ish things. Rodney made a noise that sounded like he was gargling rocks.

"Yeah, don't try to talk. I'll get a nurse to come and check you out, okay? Just... just be calm, okay?" John reached for the call button. "Teyla and Ronon came by earlier. Left you some of those berries you like, and the plum things."

He wasn't even sure why he was mentioning it, because Rodney shifted, twitchily, and cracked an eye open. Jesus, they were past bloodshot, flooded with red. Probably a burst something in there, but it still made John react like he was faced by a zombie.

"Someone call-- Oh, Colonel."

Great. Henson. "Yeah. Hi." Even that sounded guilty. "I was just visiting. Rodney here's awake. More or less." And he looked like a zombie. God that was creepy.

It was hard to not stare at his eyes, the fact that they were sunken in, and red all around, and bruised, and that his mouth was chapped. Maybe, possibly, he looked worse awake than asleep. There was another rasping noise, and the nurse tsked gently. "Hello, Doctor McKay. Don't try to talk."

"Yeah, buddy, you were... uh. You weren't doing so good. Let me get you some ice chips, or..." Or something. Anything. "Carson won't mind that, right?"

Henson eyed him for a moment. "No. I don't think he'd object to that. You can ask Jenkins to bring them on your way out."

Ouch. He wanted to stay, he wanted to, but Rodney looked like a fucking wreck, and he probably wasn't even coherent. He wanted to ask if the eye thing was okay, or not, but he figured the broken arm was more of a problem.

"I'll come back," he promised, or maybe threatened, and he wished Rodney could say one way or another whether he wanted that. He'd come back with something. He should have brought a present or maybe some of that vanilla sherbet kind of stuff from the mess hall.

He'd come back with it next time, because he bet that sore throat wasn't going away any time soon. Henson nodded, and seemed to be taking Rodney's pulse. He was closing his eyes, at least, half-closed, sleepy and incoherent, maybe. "Remember the ice chips."

Like he'd fucking forget. He wondered if it was possible to arrange for Henson to go back to Earth. They probably liked those steel-balled types under the Mountain. "I will. I'll bring you some sherbet later, McKay."

"Huh." John wasn't sure if that was a positive reaction or a negative reaction, but all he could think of was that scene from Seven. Rodney wasn't that bad, but it was that same discomfort that lodged in his chest, because helplessness was hell to John.

Yeah. He'd be back. Whether Henson liked it or not.

There was a distinct feeling present in him that he had not yet plumbed the depths of utter, utter suck to which this was going to descend.

He was sure he wasn't out of the woods yet, because where was the fun in that? No one ever had a nice, easy, picture book recovery. He'd had two lovely, wracking aftershocks of muscle seizing, with accompanied discomfort to touch, but he was starting to feel more together, less psychedelic. Apparently he'd been in a jerry rigged immersion tank, and as he'd been the only person in it so far he didn't have to worry about water borne disease.


Carson assured him that he didn't have to worry about it at all, but then, Carson was making the I'm-trying-to-pretend-I'm-not-worried-although-I-am-in-fact-very-worried face. It wasn't exactly the most reassuring thing in the world.

It sort of pinched in towards his forehead, like there was a minute, atom-sized black hole nesting in between his eyebrows that drew all facial expression towards it. He hurt all over, and he was still tied to the bed because muscles apparently didn't enjoy contracting for hours and hours at a time, for almost a full day worth of time without rest. He'd been stomach sick a few times, both directions, and that was humiliating, too, but it seemed to be easing. He'd had Ensure-something, all by himself, through a straw earlier.


The berries and plums had been refreshed somewhere along the way, and he vaguely wondered who actually liked him enough to do that. He couldn't bring himself to care much, one way or another.

It wasn't like he was going to be going off-world again, not after this.

Every time he got out there and just did his damn job, he got bit for it. There was no gratitude, no payoff. No ZPM, no chance to see what the mysterious energy source was, just kowtowing to the local insane asylum, and letting them do whatever they wanted to him because he was Rodney McKay, Doctor of Whatever, Too Much Effort to get to safety.

Story of his life.

He knew what this was all about, anyway. He'd always known, because it wasn't like anything had changed since then, since John saying he could win back his trust, not meaning a word of it. Rodney hadn't figured on John blatantly causing Rodney to lose all faith and trust in him, but apparently he'd figured wrong.

He'd wanted to be right. He'd wanted to make up for Doranda, but this... reared its head again. Not that it went away, but his record was really a thing of beauty, a thick stack of papers that explained transfers and pay rates and his first job and then his current job, and a light skimming of everything in between, from the SGC's side of the story. Not his. Not his record from the prison system. Just the summary, the easy research when someone had finally cared to look at his case.

When John had looked at it, he didn't doubt, and gone completely weird and fucked up, which was just what Rodney got for doing what he was told. He'd gotten into that habit, too happy to have clear orders, something to do that wasn't any of the god-awful things he'd done to keep himself out of trouble and out of the line of sight of anybody too damn mean for him to deal with.

Orders were easy, and the military, hell, John, was pretty fond of them. It didn't help that his first assignment after release was Antarctica, land of snow and being cut off from the world. It didn't help that his attempts to contact his sister had been poorly received. She still thought he killed that marine, maybe. Or she was distressed that he was calling at all. He never was sure.

He'd thought that going to Pegasus, getting out of the Milky Way, it might change things. Change him, or the way people looked at him. Carson had been the first, and well. He was Carson. Maybe that hadn't been the smartest thing, building that hope on the back of Carson liking him. Carson liked everybody, and Rodney knew he was difficult to deal with, difficult to like even at the best of times.

But Carson did, and so had Peter Grodin. Who was dead.

Rodney shifted, trying to sit up. He liked the berries, and he was assuming that Carson had left all of that fruit there in the open in the hopes that he'd, oh, eat it when he was hungry. John had seemed to like him, too, until he'd bothered with his file in depth.

It just fucking figured. He should have known better. Shouldn't have let himself fall halfway in love, shouldn't have let himself enjoy having John, even if it was at a distance.

He shouldn't have been stupid enough to think that it would actually be possible to have something like that. Something that might be good, even if it was just the faintest inkling of fantasy.

"Hey, buddy."

Oh, he was hallucinating. That was never good, never. He'd hallucinated Sam Carter in that Jumper, and he'd hallucinated his father when he'd been in prison, and now he was hallucinating Sheppard in the infirmary. Three hallucinations that talked and seemed real had to be some magical break-point number. "Uh..."

"Hey, don't talk too much. Rumor has it your throat's kind of a mess." John stepped closer, glancing nervously over his shoulder, hands cupped around a bowl. "Nurse Henson's been running a blockade like you wouldn't believe. I think she might actually toss me in the brig herself if she catches me here."

He shifted, finally getting enough of his ass underneath of himself to sit up instead of lean on the small of his back awkwardly because the bed had no support and was built for midgets. "Hi." Fifty fifty chance that was a hallucination, then.

John looked gorgeous, and messy, and a little sick at the edges. Too skinny, or skinnier than usual, anyway. "They were having that vanilla-y sherbet stuff in the mess. I smuggled some in to you. Figured you could probably use it."

John always looked gorgeous. He'd had nightmares about John being sucked dry by a Wraith, and John's hair always seemed to survive the attack. He reached for the bowl, considering how best to use his few words and grating throat. "Peace offering?"

"It's not much. Not enough." There was enough in there for three people, though. That was good. "I was an ass. I didn't ask the right questions. I can't be sorry enough."

Huh. If it weren't for the fact that he was holding a bowl in his hands, he would have put that statement there as proof that John wasn't real. "Ever been pinned down, had people touch you? With, with no say on what's going on, and no way to stop it." He swallowed, and dug the spoon out of the bowl. It was more like ice-milk than sherbet, because it was citrus free, and soft, quick-melting in his mouth.

John's eyes jerked to the side and down, and huh. Interesting. "I'd let you shoot me if I thought it'd help any. If you decide you want to press charges, I won't fight back."

Like that counted on missions. Like anything at all counted on missions. What happened on the other side of the gate, stayed on the other side of the gate. What happened to cross over from the other side of the gate tended to get the same pass, too. Rodney swallowed, and then scoffed at John. "Press stupidity charges?"

There was a slight relaxation along the line of Sheppard's shoulders, and he stepped next to the bed, settled into the chair there. "Well. Yeah. I should have thought. Or done something else. Hell, anything else."

Rodney shifted, leaning so he could look at John a little better, still clutching firmly to the bowl. He should have thought, or done something else, or... "Or listened to me."

He nodded slowly. "Or listened to you. There were women and kids everywhere, I just... I was trying to balance it out. And I fucked up."

Yeah. Yeah he had. The worst part was that Rodney hadn't even guessed he'd done something wrong. There were times that, yes, okay, he knew he'd been insulting, or done something that was open for misinterpretation, but this wasn't one of those times. Who had sacred stairs?

"If it had been Teyla, and not me..."

He knew the answer. Asking it was just torturing himself, and why the hell he did it to himself, he didn't know. "It wasn't." It wasn't, of course it wasn't, but what the fuck. "It wasn't, but I'd like to think I still wouldn't have wanted to kill anybody over what sounded like a pretty easy ritual until they brought out that crap they made you drink."

Rodney looked down at his bowl, sliding the spoon through some of the stuff that was slowly melting. He missed having full control of his wrist on his left hand. It was one of those things a person didn't miss until it was gone. Well, casted over. "Easy? Maybe the military and prison have more in common than I thought."

"Jesus." Yeah, exactly, and John had gone white as a sheet at that, but he deserved it. He'd earned it, and if the chickens were coming home to roost, well. He should have expected that they would. Rodney always dished back what he was given. "I didn't. It never really. I should have thought about it, but I. And I'm sorry. I'll do whatever you want, just."

He'd walked up stairs, and for that he felt like hell, his muscles were still that edgy cusp of spasm feeling, and his arm was broken. And that didn't even touch on those long, agonizing minutes of hands on his skin, fingers, fingernails, little fucking pig-sticker knives that probably hadn't even broken skin, and the memories it all tangled up with. "Just?"

Sheppard straightened, shoulders back. "Just tell me if there's anything I can do to start making up for it."

"I don't know if there is. I, after Doranda..." His throat was starting to kill him. Of all the times for there to be no obnoxious nurses poking their heads in.

Maybe the not-really-sherbet sherbet was making him nauseated, or maybe it was the way all expression wiped itself from Sheppard's face. "I understand."

"You never gave me a chance, did you?" No, apparently not, and that was why he understood that sentence so well.

"I meant to."

Yes. Well. The best-laid plans of mice and men and all that.

Rodney slipped the spoon into his mouth, and contemplated John. No one ever forgave him. Jeannie hadn't, most of the DoD still looked at him like they expected him to whip out a butterfly knife and go crazy, when he didn't even like having to go to the firing range for his required qualifications, and now John. "Well."

"Yeah." The way John said it seemed brittle underneath the sound of it. "I'll, uh. I'll get going, then."

"No." Rodney sat up a little straighter. "No, you're going to sit down. Tell me what I missed."

He was by god going to let Rodney have his moment, let him decide what he wanted, let him have the decision because it was his to make. Something of that must have been in his voice, because Sheppard seemed to recognize it, and he did as he was told, even if he was still a little too stiff.

He wasn't sure what to say to get Sheppard to give him words, to give him anything at all. "This, I have to be able to stay here." So John needed to get over Doranda or get out of his way, or some combination of the two.

"Of course." That seemed to do it, to bring John out of his weird Sheppardness and more into the present, or into the John Rodney wanted him to be. He wasn't sure. "That's... you wouldn't think about leaving, would you?" That idea seemed to rock the boat a little.

He swallowed a little more of the vanilla-berry ice-mix, and hunched his shoulders in. "If I can't trust you to protect me."

The way color seemed to blanch out of Sheppard's face answered that question. "If I have to shoot an entire army of women and kids, I will never let something like this happen again."

He wasn't sure he'd believe it. Didn't think things would happen quite like that, but Rodney wasn't sure how to 'test' it. If he really even could or should. "Huh."

"I can't make you believe it. All I can do is the best I can. And I swear to you, right now, nothing like this is going to happen again. Not while I'm still standing." Yeah. He'd seen that look on John's face before. That kind of determination, and it was a little terrifying, every time.

And Rodney had always thought it would be that way for the team. They were a team -- they got in together, they got out together. They got out okay. "Okay."

Okay, even if he wasn't. Wasn't even close, and he wasn't sure when he would be. If he would be, because it had taken a long time to get himself to the point where he'd been before that mission. The point he'd been before that planet full of Wraith.

Before Arcturus.

Everything since then had been a backslide, downhill, and he really should have seen this all coming. "I'm awake, and you're visiting. You're obliged to amuse me." With long stories or something that didn't mean he needed to talk.

John licked his lips, ducked his head. "Tell you what. If I can slip out without Hensen catching me, I'll bring back your laptop. Daedelus hit orbit yesterday. There are new files up on the server."

He could imagine them muttering about him needing to sleep instead of playing around, but he was more likely to sleep if he had something to do, something that wasn't directly linked to thinking. "I'll take that."

"I'll be back." It was a promise. He hoped it was a better promise than any of the promises john had made before. Hoped that promise would be easy to keep.

But he wasn't going to count on it.

Going to Earth sucked.

Going to Earth because Woolsey thought that it would magically fix things sucked even more.

John had his stuff packed, the irreplaceable things, anyway. The stuff he didn't want to do without, including plenty of Teyla's tea. Coffee was all well and god, but nothing could really beat the bite of that stuff for early morning wake-up calls.

He wasn't sure when he was going to be getting up early earth-side, but it might happen. He had leave time to make use of -- and Woolsey had pointed out that his vacation time was about to start rolling over into thin air -- and no real plan for it.

At all.

Still. He probably had more by way of a plan than McKay had, and that was saying something. Rodney was pissed about the whole Earth thing, and John didn't blame him. He wasn't, hadn't been, himself. Going earth-side probably made him paranoid about actually getting to come back to Atlantis.

Getting to come home.

He needed to... maybe see Rodney, plan somehow to make sure he was okay. John had hobbies, he had old war buddies he could look up if he wanted to drive himself up a wall. He had... stuff he could do.

What was McKay gunna do with his free time?

He headed towards the labs, because Rodney was probably still there if John knew anything about him at all. There and being a pissy bitch, same as he had been since he'd gotten out of the infirmary. Even Carson couldn't seem to get him to calm down.

John wasn't sure why, or how to handle him. But even Teyla seemed to have decided that it was his problem to handle, even if she had been talking to Rodney. He'd started it.

He'd have to figure out some way to end it.

The sound of Rodney's voice bitching from down the hall was loud and faintly edged with something that implied a whole lot of nothing good. "Oh my God, can none of you even do simple math!?"

Yeah. Obviously now was a good time to try and get Rodney out of there before departure in the next hour.

"Yes, I think some of us can. I can count to 'time for you to pack for your leave', Rodney." At least Radek didn't seem to take his attitude change any differently. Louder, sure.

There wasn't anything new about that. Radek was a pretty good guy, and he balanced out Rodney most of the time. Most of the time wasn't now, though, not with things such a mess.

Clearing his throat, John stepped into the lab. "Figured I'd check in with you since we're both heading out this morning."

"Colonel, would you remind Doctor McKay that he is supposed to be preparing for vacation, and I have already been briefed on his numerous projects labeled 'do not touch'." Radek even did the air quotes, but he was smiling at John with that look of oh god, I'm saved relief.

"Just, I expect my work table to be just like I left it. And don't change the desalination tank work crew -- I want them to suffer," Rodney muttered, still looking at Radek. It was sort of funny to watch for the moment when John's words hit him. "You're going earth-side."

Shit. Rodney didn't know. Woolsey, that bastard. "Yeah. Forced vacation." He grimaced. "Use it or lose it, and you'd better use it kind of thing. Sometimes I think they're afraid we're gonna go native."

"And that would be how much different from how people normally act?" Rodney looked intent on walking right past John, cutting his tirade at Radek short.

Shrugging, John turned to let him go past, falling into step with him. "It isn't. It's a pain in the butt, but not different." Uneasy silence stretched between them for a long moment, and he gritted his teeth. Silent McKay was possibly the single weirdest most uncomfortable thing he'd encountered lately, and that said something. "So. Got any plans?"

"I made a short list of possibilities that reminded me why Antarctica seemed like such a good assignment." Rodney shifted his hands on what had to be his favorite of five different networked tablet laptops. "So, no."

Yeah. John didn't, either. "If, uh. If you might be interested, we could go someplace. West coast is nice this time of year." Hawaii was better, and it wasn't like they didn't have enough pay to go and stay for the rest of their lives.

Cheaply, but. Stay. John liked to fantasize about flying tourists around and living out there. It sounded like a nice retirement, soaring over the islands, maybe helping people get too damn close to volcanoes...

"If this because I'm still in a cast?" Rodney craned his head to look hard at John.

"What? No!" No, because McKay was still McKay, no matter what was going on. "It's because... you know." God. He didn't want to say it. Not out loud in the middle of the corridor. "Stuff's not okay between us. And I thought maybe we could, you know. Try and work that out."

"Now that we're being sent earth-side," Rodney pointed out. "Not before. Not, look, I'm trying. You have no idea what problems this has caused me, personally. Not my trust in you, not my lack of faith in this whole system, but me."

He knew. Well, he didn't know, but he could guess, and he could imagine, and John thought it was probably a lot worse than any of those things. "I know. I mean, I know that I don't know. I just wish you'd let me help." Or if not him, then anybody. Ronon, Teyla, Radek. Carson. Anybody.

"Help what?" Rodney was heading to his quarter, and John decided he might as well follow after him. Help him 'pack', whatever. Talk to him. It was as close to a real conversation as they'd had since the infirmary.

He shrugged. "Help you get your stuff together. Help you keep your mind off of things if you want." Help him fix what was wrong. John would be glad to do anything if it meant he could fix the fact that he'd fucked up.

"Oh, yes, because going earth-side with me is a great way to keep my mind off of things. Hey, why don't we visit your family? My sister hasn't spoken to me in years, and I don't even have an artifact of 'home' that isn't here with me, now." His wall of self love and the pictures of the cats, and him holding a cat, was pretty unforgettable. But it was Rodney's personal items, and that was what he'd brought with him.

Now was the time for confession, except confession sucked. A lot. "Yeah, that would be why I suggested the west coast, and not Virginia. My family doesn't exactly speak to me, either."

Rodney gave him another hard to decipher look, and he asked as they reached his door, "What happened?"

What hadn't happened was probably the more appropriate question. He didn't want to talk about it, but he'd opened the box. He'd have to answer it to shut the lid and hold in hope. "The military thing didn't go down so well when it was career military instead of four year stint that would look good in politics. Among other things." Like the fact that he'd divorced Nancy. Like the yelling match between him and his dad, and the things they'd both said.

Some words, you really never could take back.

Rodney looked less than impressed, though. He bent down slowly, and pulled his duffle out from under the bed. "What did he want you to do?"

That was a hell of an awkward question. "Like I said. Politics. That or take over his company when he retired. Big ambitions. His idea of rebellion was going to Stanford instead of Harvard."

"You do realize that those schools are a fancy waste of money, when you can get a better, more intense education elsewhere. Like the Air Force Academy. MIT. Northwestern. UC Berkley." Rodney gave the duffle bag a shake.

Yeah. He realized. "That's why I went to the Academy, McKay," he drawled. "Here. Let me give you a hand with that.

"You're probably completely packed already." He muttered that, and let John take the bag. "Your father's an ass."

There was no way he could keep from laughing, a short hard bark of sound. "Yeah. Well. You can pick your friends, right?" He hoped Rodney took that the way it was meant.

There was hardly any way of telling what way Rodney was going to take things, now. Rodney snorted, and pulled a drawer open. "Sometimes. Grab that pair of boots for me?"

Sometimes, and sometimes they just kind of hung around and didn't give you a choice. John could be that guy, so he grabbed the boots, checked the bottoms, and then slid them into the bottom of the duffel, shifting to hold it. "Here. I've got it."

"Thanks. Just... stand there and hold that." Rodney dropped a pair of pants on top, and seemed to be contemplating what else to pack. "When you read my file, what did you think? I've always been sort of morbidly curious about how that thought process goes, but never curious enough to say, tell Radek."

So Radek knew everything, too. That was good, John thought. It meant he got Rodney, because he was just as quick on the uptake as McKay, or almost. "It made me think there was a lot more than I read in the file." It made him feel like he had to be careful who he trusted, and the bitch of a thing about that was what it had made him doubt whether or not to trust Rodney.

"There is." Another pair of pants, then socks added into the duffle as an afterthought. "What did you think there was in the file?"

He might as well be honest about it. "Mostly, I figure it's a cover job. They know more than they're telling. It made me... a little uneasy." Distrustful, a son of a bitch. Something.

"Go on. I want to see where this thought train went off the rails," Rodney prodded. He was still moving, still talking, so he couldn't have hit peak rage. Nothing had been thrown at John's head.

He licked his lips. This wasn't the way to fix anything, but McKay was painting him into a corner, and he had to do something, even if it was just be honest. "I kept wondering what wasn't in there. If somebody in the SGC didn't have a part of it because you weren't malleable enough for them. And then you didn't flinch when I told you to nuke that planet, and I...."

"You assumed what? That I was some super soldier or, no, I don't even know what you could have been thinking because I've been here, with you. Training and going on missions, and trying to win back your trust since Doranda, and then I do what you tell me to and that's still not good enough. At least I know I have trust problems!"

With sharp jerks, John closed the bag, even knowing he'd have to reopen it again. "Yeah. I was an asshole. You ought to slug me, except I'd appreciate it if you didn't hit me with the cast." That might be what he deserved, but that would be bad for both of them.

"What do you think prison is like?" Rodney had stopped his packing, but he still had one hand in an open drawer.

"Hell." It was a one-word answer, and it sucked.

"That's the easy way out. It's not like there are horned creatures peeling your skin off. There's just other people -- inmates and guards. Guards who think you need that extra little punishment because they feel like god when they look the other way, guards who think they can 'turn you straight' and into a good person, because the assumption is that you're not. In the blocks I was put in... I wasn't really a person. And I was so damn grateful to get out that I didn't think too hard on the fact that I was in there because of the work I was doing for the government, and then I was found and pardoned because the government decided they needed me, and oh, hey, look at that frame job the Trust did to that guy, whoops, we should have worked that out sooner."

Rodney was white, and shaking, spots of frantic color high on his face, and John had never felt more like a worthless excuse for a human being than he did in that moment. Fuck. He hadn't just made a mess of things between him and Rodney, he'd fucked Rodney up beyond any of his expectations, and he didn't know if there was any way he could cross a gap that wide. He didn't know what to do to start trying. "There's nothing I can do to make up for it."

"Why did reading that I'd been in prison change things? Why did reading *that* make you think that what those, those people were planning to do was going to be great and fine with me?" He moved in closer to John, hands moving in aborted motions, gestures that didn't finish out because they were shaking. "Because point A associated to point B somehow. Were you trying to put me in my place?"

"No. Christ, no, I swear to god. I've been... short and pissed off, pissed off because somebody created the guy who pushed the button on my say so. It threw me off, and I won't deny I've made bad, damn horrific, decisions. But that one wasn't about this. It was about a village worth of kids, and women, and next time I'll mow them down if that's what it takes!"

"I pushed that stupid button because you told me to! It was a planet of Wraith, wether we dressed them up in tutus and held tea parties with them or not!" He hadn't expected Rodney to awkwardly tackle him when he got up in his face, but getting smacked in the gut with a cast stung like fuck.

For a couple of minutes, they wrestled standing up, and Rodney was flailing, fucked up, but John held on. He held on, the duffle bag tangling up their legs, nearly knocking them over, held on until Rodney stopped fighting.

It was kind of a good thing that it was Rodney and not Ronon or Evan or someone who could've done some damage. He was going to have some bruises, but not fighting back had probably kept him from worse. Rodney leaned into him, breathing hard, one knee hitting sharply against John's left knee like a final retaliation. "Dammit."

Carefully, he laid his hand on the back of Rodney's neck and just held him there, like that. "Yeah. Yeah."

He heard a couple of unsteady breaths, and it was completely possible that Rodney was crying, or fighting with it, but John wasn't going to look, wasn't going to say anything, wasn't going to draw attention to it. He was just going to stand there and take it, because jumping to conclusions and making assumptions so far had only left Rodney fucked up.

It would take a complete motherfucker to do anything else, and he'd like to at least pretend he hadn't sunk that far. "Yeah," he said again, and rubbed his hand gently, soothingly, as if that might help.

He felt the cast press against his gut, but it wasn't a hit or anything hard, and he felt Rodney's back heave, sharply, once, twice. And then Rodney was pulling back, wiping at his eyes with his good hand.

John took the need to say anything away from him. "Let's finish packing, buddy."

Rodney wiped hard at his eyes with the back of his hand, and gave a jerky, red eyed nod. He was all blotches, and there was a red patch crawling from one cheek down his neck and underneath his t-shirt collar. It looked miserable, but Rodney started to reach for shirts and pants again.

Clearing his throat, he leaned down and opened the bag again so that Rodney could pack it up, and he said, "So. Uh. How's the west coast sound?"

"Sure." Rodney cleared his throat, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand while he turned his back to John. "Why not?"

It was a better answer than nothing. Hell. It was a good answer, even. "Cool. I'll make reservations. Someplace." He had no idea where. "Got a preference?"

"No. Just pick some place." Rodney took a hard inhalation, and he looked more together when he turned back around with some of his possibly, hopefully not classified electronics.

"Cool." Cool because they'd go someplace with an ocean, maybe some sailing. The kind of thing they didn't get to do much on Atlantis, and hopefully it would relax Rodney some. Maybe he'd get to fix some of the things he'd fucked up.

John could only hope.

Sometimes he wondered what the gate workers in Colorado thought of them all.

When they came through the gate under the circumstances they did, it was always short -- to hire new people to replace the dead, for a particularly large funeral, to be reprimanded, for the odd vacation, two and three came through at a time. No one had gone through the gate to Colorado and not come back to Atlantis unless they were dead.

It was still nice when the marines lowered the guns while he and Sheppard clanked down the gangway or ramp or whatever they were calling it this week.

Like he cared.

Carter met them at the bulkhead doors, smiling that particularly irritating, vacuous blonde smile of hers. "We'll debrief at fourteen hundred for you, Colonel, and at thirteen hundred for you, McKay. It shouldn't take more than an hour each."

Debriefing, fantastic. "What time is it now?" Hopefully they wouldn't have to stand around, or sit around on benches for long and try to look casual and possibly useful at the same time. He still hurt too much to really bother.

"Eleven thirty. Plenty of time for you guys to have lunch, although I understand it's probably just after breakfast Atlantis time...?"

John gave her his making friendly with the natives smile. "McKay was in the labs early, and I didn't take time for breakfast. Too much packing to do, so that sounds good."

Hysterical meltdowns took time and energy, and Rodney still felt winded from the day before. John wasn't talking about it, and that was fine, because Rodney hadn't said much, except questioned him in circles. He was never going to really get a satisfying answer, and he was going to have to be... satisfied with that. "Do we need to check in with the local voodoo doctor before we can eat? I'm famished."

"Dr. Lam will be doing your physicals post-debriefing, since Dr. Beckett sent some fairly detailed medical records through when you came." Carter was still smiling, like John, and it was the same sort of plastic expression. Great. That was probably her idea of making friendly with the natives, too. "She'd like to review them first."

If he hadn't had the damn cast on, he would have slapped his hands together, declared it great, and then marched to the cafeteria. But Carter and Sheppard were giving each other plastic smiles, and Rodney stood a little way away from them. "Then I'll be in the cafeteria."

"What's for lunch?" As if Sheppard really wanted to know. Still, he was turning Rodney's way, and so was Carter, so they might as well go and check it out.

"I hear it's salisbury steak and lasagna today. Should be pretty good. I have a couple of experiments running, so I'm pretty sure McKay can show you the way to the cafeteria."

He wasn't going to ask her what the experiments were. He was just going to keep walking towards the part of the hallways where the elevators were, so they could head up to the mess hall. "You're sending someone up to fetch us for the debrief?"

"Of course." Yes, of course, so Rodney headed down the hall and far, far away from Samantha Carter. He'd never been partial to blonds with tits, or blonds at all, if he was honest about it. She made him cranky. Her code was sloppy, and she wasn't anywhere near as smart as people seemed to think she was.

It was why he'd kept trying to date mousey women with brown or red hair. Blonde with tits was what a guy was supposed to want, but it... Rodney mostly wanted to snap at her and fix everything stupid she was doing with her project. "Right. Sheppard, this way."

Rodney didn't bother checking whether John was behind him or not; he'd come or he wouldn't, and Rodney wasn't going to worry about it.

"So." John cleared his throat and caught up with him, falling into step. "We'll, uh. We'll head out after debriefing, get a place to stay. I'll check the flights out to California."

"Good. I have no urge to stay in the land of the mega church," Rodney murmured, turning around once he was in the elevator, and punching the button hard.

"Yeah, well. I'm not all that fond of 'em, either." John cleared his throat, and the elevator doors closed. "I, uh. Grew up in Virginia. Two steps removed from Pat Roberts."

"I'm sure that was delightful." He shifted his fingers on the straps to his duffle bag, and tried not to brace himself when the elevator took off.

He jumped a little when John reached out to touch the bag. "I'll get this, if it's good for you."

Part of him wanted to say no. No, and that John could take his chivalry and shove it up his ass.

The other part of him relaxed his death grip on the bag. "Just be careful with it."

"I know what's in it." Yes, but still. For a few long seconds, silence stretched between them. "Yeah, though. It was just great. Lots of crazy religious nuts. Although mostly I didn't have to deal with that."

"They probably took one look at you and wrote you off as a good boy, so they could better spend their time harrassing heathens." With his hands free, he crossed them over his chest, seconds before the elevator screeched to a stop. "The lasagna is good."

John shifted uncomfortably, as if saying anything about his past at all had been physically painful. "That's good to know."

Good for Sheppard that he could keep his past to himself when he wanted to, when Rodney's skeletons were written probably in double-spaced size twelve in his files. "Are you going to be this painfully awkward the entire time?"

He seemed to think about it for a minute, the doors opening to let them out on the cafeteria floor. "Maybe. I don't... it's not stuff I usually talk about. Ever." For a second, Rodney thought that was all he would say. "Uh. The last person I told anything about my family was my ex-wife."

"See, that's new information right there. You have an ex-wife. I don't really have to ask why she's your ex, with the missions and Antarctica and Afghanistan, so I can connect those dots." Loneliness, a lack of common interests, the things that usually killed a relationship in Rodney's short forays into normal.

They took a left, heading closer to the mess. "Funny. I couldn't connect 'em. Not until it was all over."

It sounded like it still hurt. "Yes, well. You never see the native priestesses coming, either. Or their daughters. Or the Ancients flirting with you."

"There's a lot of things I don't see coming. I didn't see the divorce coming." He pushed the door open and held it for Rodney to come through after him. "I should have."

It was strange, but Rodney was going to go through and head for the lines while John dumped their bags off at a table. No one was going to run off with them. "I can't pretend to understand the dynamics there."

"Yeah, well. Neither could I. I figure that's the problem. Then, and now." And John left him, heading for a table in the corner while Rodney paused there, glancing after him for just a few seconds. Not long, and then he managed to turn himself around, and get in line. Sheppard caught up with him before anybody else got in behind him, so at least he didn't have to be any more paranoid than usual.

"I'm almost afraid to wonder what they'll be debriefing us on." He gestured to the lasagna at the cafeteria worker. There'd be the good garlic bread, too, and he might as well enjoy at least the food that being earth-side offered.

"Probably just standard stuff." Even if it wasn't, it wasn't as if John was going to try to make him any more paranoid than he already was. Not after, well. Everything.

His paranoia was ratcheted up pretty high, and he wasn't sure he was up to a mild, standard debriefing, let along a hard grilling. The... scuffle in his rooms when he'd been packing had been enough. He couldn't do that out in the open, in the base, on the base, where anyone from the base could see him. "I never see 'standard' coming in our direction. Can I have a second piece of the bread?" It was extra, but Rodney didn't care.

The guy on the other side of the line looked at him, but he handed it over, all the same. Thank God. He wasn't up for a scuffle over a stupid piece of bread.

"Yeah. It's only an hour long debrief, McKay. They can't have anything too vicious planned."

"That's what you think. I think they managed to do fifty minutes straight, once, of questioning if I was going to sell state secrets to the Russians." That had been funny in the same way that walking into a wall was funny. He'd just gotten out, and they were already planning to send him to Antarctica, and someone had gotten it in their mind that, hey, McKay might feel betrayed by his country and want revenge.

Hell. It wasn't even his country.

John didn't say anything to that; just asked for lasagna, for garlic bread, grabbed a slice of the chocolate cake that they had on the shelf. "Yeah. They're like that, sometimes."

It would have been better if John had put out his own story of That One Time, I was debriefed for two hours about whether I used pen or pencil on a standard requisition form. But, he didn't, and Rodney leaned back and grabbed himself a piece of cake, too, clutching his tray in his good hand. "No horror stories to share?"

He glanced back at him as they headed towards their table in the corner. "Nothing that didn't amount in me being a bleeding mess."

Well. Rodney set his tray down, and sat down carefully. Every once in a while, he felt a muscle twitch, and while it hurt, what hurt more was the rush of thoughts that it, all of it, was going to start over again. He reached down to rub at his calf with his good hand, hoping to soothe the muscle down before it decided it needed to freak out on him. "Those aren't the fun ones."

"Pretty much, yeah. I didn't figure I'd traumatize you with 'em at lunch, all things considered." Sheppard picked up his fork and stabbed it into his lasagna firmly, eyeballing Rodney across the table.

And, okay, he was bent over weird, but he could return the look with a raised eyebrow. "Cramp. Do you think anything horrible will happen while we're out here?"

"I think I'll make sure to be prepared."

That wasn't a straight answer, and it didn't make Rodney feel any better. The cramp eased, though, and he'd take that even if he couldn't get anything more. The weird thing of it, of all of it, was that he still trusted Sheppard to do that. To be prepared.

He just wasn't sure he could trust him to make sure he'd come out of things okay anymore.

If Sheppard was going to work on it, he could work on it. As long as Sheppard was... trying. Rodney picked up his fork, and cut into the lasagna. At least he had the food.

He'd never understood the utter fanaticism of sports fans.

Scratch that. He'd never understood how anyone could be a fanatic about anything that was so phenomenally boring as sports, more like. The fact that they'd been driving for three hours since leaving Colorado Springs without finding a hotel room because of some big basketball thing made him want to scream.

Sheppard seemed okay, for the most part. He just kept driving, eyes on the road, bad country music playing quietly.

Rodney had decided not to fuss about the radio and John's dubious musical choices, because John was driving while Rodney was sitting in the passenger seat with a cast resting against his thigh. He was tired of having a broken arm, of having a cast, of knowing that the only thing holding his bones in place was plaster. He was, mostly, tired, exhausted, and he wanted to sleep in a bed, even if it was a shitty hotel bed where the room had an unfindable vomit tinge lingering to it.

So long as there wasn't a dead body hidden in the box springs, he'd take it and try to pretend not to care. It wasn't like he had the energy to freak out and go looking for a black light after the day from hell.

They had pulled into a town ten minutes ago, and they were heading out again now. John had pulled over at each hotel, asked if there was a room free. They hadn't had any luck so far.

Maybe he'd just lean the seat back and try to sleep in a little while.

"I wonder what airport we're close to, now," Rodney finally asked, said, stated, he wasn't sure, shifting to lean his elbow against the inside of the window.

'There's one last hotel up on the left." It wasn't an answer. "I'll pull in. Give it one last shot before we head up to the airport in Vegas."

"Ah, ah, no. No, you can go to the airport in Vegas. I'm not setting foot in that dump again, even if it's just to get to an airport." He'd had his fill of Vegas and Area 51 and local network news being his only window to the outside world, and the 5:30 and 6pm local news was just bustling with horror stories. No. He wasn't doing it.

Sheppard let out a heavy sigh, one that said as much as anything else that he was probably as tired as Rodney. "Yeah. Okay. We'll just keep driving then. I mean, it's not like we can't drive to L.A. from here, anyway. At this point."

"Three hours is not the point of no return on any trip I've previously been on." Still, sleep looked so good. They both needed to sleep or else their tentative truce was going to collapse. Rodney hated not getting enough sleep.

He got pissy and cranky when he didn't feel good and he didn't get to sleep. Well. Pissier and crankier. Radek sometimes said that he turned into some sort of demon somewhere around the fortieth hour awake, and Rodney knew it was true.

John just turned the wheel, pulled into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express. "Yeah. But we might as well. I'll be right back."

"Sure." He shifted the seat back, determined that this time he was going to give up and get comfortable.

The car wasn't that bad; he'd expected a half-ass beat up Taurus, but they'd gotten a roomier Grand Marquis. If he felt desperate, he'd crawl into the back seat to sleep and let Sheppard suffer. This whole trip was his idea, anyway.

Of course, if he slept, he might end up in Vegas, and the idea of that made him shudder. He didn't want to go back there. He liked the idea of the vacation Sheppard had planned -- rent a timeshare on the water, sleep, read, rest. He wanted to rest, he wanted to sleep, he wanted to catch up on reading and not do a hell of a lot. Take a day or two of that, and then he'd humour John and do whatever he wanted.

He wasn't going back to Vegas, though. Not even to the airport.

Not ever.

The door of the car opened and John slid behind the wheel. "We got lucky. they had some guy cancel. It's a single, but at least it's a bed."

"Oh, fantastic." He hadn't wanted to sleep in the car, and he needed to pee. Rodney levered himself up right. "Great. I'm so tired right now that neither one of us should be driving."

It wasn't as if John hadn't been up at least as long as he had.

Starting the car, Sheppard drove it into the small parking lot and managed to squeeze it in between a Yukon and a tiny compact car that probably crushed like a tin can if anyone looked at it twice. "Yeah, well. It's not like we don't sleep together off-world, anyway."

"All we need is a tent, a dead animal nearby, and a disconcerting rustling in the bushes." They hadn't slept together since things had gone to hell, but that was another story. And Rodney could... try. He could try.

It was the best he could do, and the most John could expect, because things were unbelievably hard right now. He didn't think that anyone appreciated that, not as much as they should.

John pushed open the driver's side door and squirmed out, the Yukon incredibly close to his side of the car. "I'll grab the bags out of the trunk."

The open door on Rodney's side almost smacked into the compact. The gentle tap it left didn't mark anything, so Rodney figured that was all right while he stood up. No, no one really seemed to understand how hard it was for him, and how his trying was more effort than most people would put into anything at all.

At least John was getting the bags. "We should do IHOP in the morning."

"Cool." He really sounded like he thought it was, too. That was the thing about Sheppard; he looked like movie star material, and then he opened his mouth and nerd fell out. It was one of the reasons Rodney had liked him so much, had thought....


"We're in 408. He says it's kinda noisy up there. I think they've got a bunch of Tarheel fans up there."

"So we have a hotel room, but it's going to be too loud to sleep?" What. Just what the hell. Rodney closed his door, and moved to at least try to look useful while John hefted their bags out.

Sheppard grinned at him, and even that looked exhausted. "Don't worry. I've got a plan."

"I worry for the base when you say those words, Sheppard," Rodney said, falling in to step with John once he'd closed the trunk. The best, most he could do was open the door for John, since he was carrying two bags.

He seemed to think about that for a minute. "C'mon, Rodney. I haven't blown up the city yet. Much."

"Recently," Rodney agreed, holding the door to the hotel for him. Super 8, Motel 6, Holiday Inn Express, it was all code for the number of flea bites that were guaranteed at a minimum.

"See? I'm getting better." It wasn't even much of an exaggeration. Anytime Sheppard went a while between trying to kill himself in explosions, it seemed like he was getting better.

He always did seem to find a way to try and kill himself for the greater good. The fact that Rodney wasn't considered the greater good anymore hurt. Immensely.

"That depends on your viewpoint." Still, he followed John in, while John headed to the front desk, probably to get the key, exchange money, whatever he needed to do to secure that room.

He paused for a second, glanced at Rodney, and there was something that crumpled a little there, for the barest nanosecond. He wasn't even sure that was what he'd seen.

"Yeah," John said, dropping the bags by the desk and digging in his pocket for his wallet. "I guess you're right."

"I didn't, dammit." Rodney glanced over to the desk clerk, and then to John. "Mean it quite like that."

Except maybe he had, a little. Hell. Half the time, he couldn't tell what he meant even after he said it.

"It's okay." Except it wasn't, and why was he trying to make things easier for Sheppard, anyway?

The clerk was asking questions, half-assed and sleepy, and watching both of them even while John filled out the paperwork.

Because if things were easier with Sheppard, then... then things were, should be easier for him. Should, possibly, and Rodney reached up to rub at his face. "Wake me when you're done."

He meant it, too, because he was exhausted, and vaguely wired, and he could hear the sound of voices from over in a corner somewhere. It made him feel weird, and a little paranoid. Hell. People in general made him feel weird and a little paranoid. It was a side effect of living in a city with no more than a couple hundred other people.

There were tiny community colleges bigger than that.

There were probably high schools bigger than that, and Rodney wasn't sure what to do about calming himself down. He had the option of just, well, ignoring people. That was always his best option, and if he zoned out a little while John filled out the paperwork, well, it was all for the better.

He felt the nudge when he was done; at least faking sleep had accomplished something. Nobody had spoken to him or touched him until John did, and that made things... Bearable.

"Hey. I've got a couple of cards. Let's head up."

"Great." He took the card John was offering, and moved ahead of him to find the elevators. "I think sleep will help. At this point, we probably could drive the res of that way." Particularly if Vegas was the nearest airport.

"Sure. I don't mind the drive. might as well hit all of the historic sites between, right?"

He'd probably take nothing but back roads, too. Weirdly, Rodney didn't think that was actually a fresh version of hell. Anything was better than flying at this point. They probably should have caught a transport out of Peterson, but Sheppard had been intent on getting a car. Dinner had kind of been worth it -- steaks and baked potatoes and crisp salads that looked like they'd been picked off of somebody's lawn.

"It'll be something for us to do." And it wouldn't take more than a couple of days if they were leisurely about it and really did take in all of the historic sites. Why not? Rodney smacked the elevator button. "I can't remember the last time I wanted to sleep this badly."

"You and me both, buddy. I'll take care of the guys making noise if there are any. Don't worry."

Except, wow. The more he said that, the more Rodney did.John kept saying 'Don't worry' and 'it's okay' when it wasn't okay, and his natural reaction was to worry, never-mind that when he was wound up his natural reaction amplified itself ten times over. "The more you say that, the more I worry."

"Yeah, well. When's the last time you saw a bunch of guys about to go to the Final Four? It'd probably take a couple of tazers to get them to quiet down permanently." The elevator dinged, and opened into a hall full of crazy morons dressed in white and eye-searing light blue.

"Oh, god." Rodney grimaced, stepping out of the elevator. He was just going to leave the talking and the bitching to someone not him, because that was about as many people as he saw in the mess hall on a good day, and none of them had taken to ceremonially dressing up in nothing but blue paint.

"YOU IN SEA!" A group of morons in the corner was yelling loudly.

"Yeah. Okay." John tossed him a smirk. "You wanna see if I can channel a drill sergeant or you wanna try the earplugs I picked up from the clerk downstairs?"

"I want to get to our room, and then you do whatever you need to." He'd do either. Or. He needed to sleep, and why were they in the hall?

The sound John made didn't exactly startle him so much as it scared the holy hell out of him.


It should have busted his ear drums. It got attention, though, at least half of the faces turning their way.

Sheppard shifted forward. "We just got back from Iraq. We're tired. McKay here is trigger happy. So if you could move out of the way between us and 408 and try to keep it down to a dull roar, it'd be appreciated. Thanks."

He expected them to go like hostile natives, but it stayed quiet for a second, and then at least one guy said -- and possibly he was more goofy than drunk, though Rodney wasn't going to bet money on it, because who did blue body paint sober? -- "Oh, sorry, dude. No problem."

Easy as that.

God, it must be fantastic to be John Sheppard.

"C'mon," he murmured, and headed into the group of weird blue people, bags dragging behind him. "Before we pass out here."

He trailed after him quietly, and maybe the blue cast on his arm would buy them some sympathy silence. Rodney got in there to swipe the key, and John went in first, dragging the bags into the dark hotel room.

It was hot, and dark, and it made it difficult to breathe, at least until Sheppard switched on a light. "Hey. It could be worse." He headed for the window, and the air conditioning controls.

Yes, yes. There could be a great many things worse about it, but Rodney hated hotel rooms.

They smelled funny, to start with, the temperature was all wrong, they were too small, too cramped... And transient, not his.

Thinking about it, he hadn't shared a hotel room bed with anyone since his arrest, and he was pretty sure that was the only way it could be worse. "If you say that, it will get worse," Rodney told him, while he slid as many of the extra locks in place as existed.

"Nah. I told Carson we'd be spending some time in hotels." That waggle of brow was just weird and wrong and dirty. "He sent a couple of care packages. I just have to get into my bag."

"Carson sent us care packages? Isn't that supposed to go the other way? I thought we were morally obligated to stop and buy things before we gate back." Dvds, games, anything distracting, entertaining, or both. Beeping was a plus.

That earnest nod was bizarre. They were obviously both punch drunk from exhaustion. There was no other explanation. "Yep. Here. Let me dig around. I'll show you. Trust me. It'll make you feel a hell of a lot better."

John had a care package from Carson that was going to make him feel a hell of a lot better. Rodney watched as John dug around, waiting for a revelation of what it was to dawn on him.

Drugs were always a possibility.

Maybe it would be something with a sedative effect, something that would knock him out despite the noise, but John came up with a sealed package, flat and obviously pristinely sealed. "Sheets. I told him we might end up in a hotel. He said he didn't want you exposed to hotel sheets, so...."

"He sent you with sheets." And John had been okay with it. John brought sheets, because Carson wanted Rodney to have them. "For me."

Sheppard looked at him. "I told him we were gonna head for the west coast. I think he might have hurt me if he thought I was gonna let you head out on your own, you know?"

"Is that why they send you on leave, too?" To babysit, then, and Rodney wasn't sure wether he should be offended or if it was just tiredness getting to him.

That deer in the headlights look made him want to slap something, but he was just too damned tired. "What? No! Hell. Woolsey practically thre..." It seemed to click. "That complete bastard."

"If you'd like to share that thought with me..." Rodney stepped forwards, at least to strip the sheets off of the bed enough to use the sealed up ones that would be going with them to the next hotel, too. He'd seen CSI re-runs. He knew exactly what was on the mattress and sheets of most hotel rooms. God. It was on the walls, he didn't doubt; things he didn't want to think about.

Not ever.

"I was about to start losing leave. It was just convenient to send us both at the same time. It crossed my mind but...." The rattle of the sheets being unwrapped sounded. "I didn't figure they were just devious enough to do things like this as a plan as opposed to an assumption."

He couldn't really credit John with being in on the plan, because... because he didn't want to. Because he wanted John to have been out of the loop. "Yes, well, god forbid I do anything self destructive that might endanger my status as scientist on hand."

"You're not just on hand, McKay." The sheets were clenched in John's hands. "You're... we wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for you. None of us. We're.... You're more than that."

"No one at the SGC had an interest in my case until they needed a scientist who'd be willing to get into the more dangerous territories they were starting to get involved with. It's hard not to take that fact with me, Sheppard. I'm useful." He dumped the duvet on the floor, and the top sheet. Possibly the thing covering the mattress could be covered over. The mattress was probably fouler than that sheet was.

Mostly, he didn't want to think about it. At all

The sheet bellowed out from where John stood, falling onto the bed. "You're useful. Yeah. But you're brilliant, and you belong to Atlantis. That changes everything."

"It doesn't change enough." He kicked the bedding off to the side, so it wasn't in the path between the bed and the bathroom. "I.. I don't know. I'm too tired for this right now."

"I'll let you have the bathroom first." It was a pretty good offer. Rodney wasn't about to turn it down.

"Thanks." He needed to pee like mad after that drive, and brushing his teeth was next on the list. He could leave John to the bed making.

He scrounged around, found a pair of pajama bottoms, a t-shirt, and his bathroom kit. The noise outside was increasing, and he figured sometime during the night, he'd get up and threaten to kill all of them in their sleep. Possibly bombs would be mentioned.

Maybe Sheppard would threaten to shoot them first, and then he wouldn't have to get out of bed at all.

If he was lucky, though, he'd sleep through all of it and come out on the other side in the morning, when the numbskulls would possibly actually be sleeping.

Rodney made short work of the bathroom routine, changing and brushing his teeth, moving quickly because Sheppard would want in next and then they were going to sleep like it was an off-world mission, and in so many ways, it was. It wasn't their world, wasn't their place. It hadn't been Rodney's world in years, and he hadn't regretted being away from it. Not once.

He had to pull his shit together, so that he could go back. Go home. So that he wouldn't be left to rot here in this fresh hell.

"Bed's made." The sound of Sheppard's voice was pretty well muffled by the door.

Rodney popped the bathroom door open while he dried his hands. "Thanks." He wasn't going to need TV or anything to lull him to sleep, because his eyelids felt thick, heavy. His arm ached, and parts of him that he didn't even remember owning until times like this.

"IHOP." It was a promise as he opened the door. "As soon as we roll out."

"Good." The urge to get a wide variety of things that were horrible for him, things that would make Carson scowl, was immense. Carson was still half muttering that he was waiting for the Hep B to come back to life, but Rodney would take that as it came. If it came.

He didn't really thing it was going to.

The bathroom door shut behind him, and Rodney stumbled towards the bed as the water turned on. He could probably be completely passed out by the time John got out, so he headed for the bed. The covers were turned down, and there were bright pink foam earplugs on the pillow.

Pink. Rodney picked them up, twisting them in his fingers to warm them up before he pressed them into his ears, twisting again. If he was asleep when John got back out, it was better. It was better, because he wouldn't be lying there, thinking of how things used to be okay between them. He wouldn't be wondering what might have happened if only.

Wouldn't be wishing he'd told them he was going fishing with Carson again, and to screw off-world trips.

Of course, when he wanted to sleep, he couldn't. It wouldn't hit, because he'd somehow reached past exhausted and into a second or third wind, and he laid there, waiting, sheets pulled up around him, earplugs in place. He didn't hear it when John left the bathroom, but the light spilled into the room enough that he knew when it happened. Knew John was coming, even before the dip on the other side of the bed, before he settled in beside him.

Rodney shifted a little, trying to get comfortable. He couldn't lie there like a tense rock, but he couldn't feign sleep. It had never actually worked for him, currently or in the past.

He could feel John, still awake beside him. Even with the ear plugs, he knew the difference between Sheppard sleeping and Sheppard wired awake. Heaving a sigh, he reached up and twisted the left one from his ear. "What."

"I didn't say anything," John protested, and yeah. The guys in the hall were still making racket.

"You should sleep." And so should he. The ear plugs weren't that bad, actually. Pretty effective, for pure silence.

"Said the blind man to his deaf dog."

Rodney groaned, and moved to roll onto his back. "I'll sleep eventually."

"Me, too." Conversations in the dark were always moderately bizarre like that. "I've got some other stuff. From Carson."

Other stuff. Rodney closed his eyes to the dark for a moment, still holding tightly to the ear plug. "If he sent you with condoms, I'm never going fishing with him again."

That got him laughter, the stupid kind that meant John really did think it was funny. "Does Beckett ever send us off-world without 'em?"

John's laugh sounded like someone had just gut-punched a donkey. "I pulled a power-bar out of my tac vest back on, that desert community, with the six legged camel-things, one of the foil wrappers had melded to the power bar's wrapper. So, no."

"Exactly." As if that proved some kind of point. It kind of did, considering. "But there's other stuff, too. Some stuff he said you put under your tongue and it dissolved. Some stuff for insomnia. He said you might need that more than the other."

"I'll take anything if it means I can sleep." He didn't feel panic attacky, and anything that dissolved under his tongue was probably best saved for the next time he thought he could take on the great slinking hulk that was Colonel Sheppard in a hysterical fist fight that wasn't.

The bed dipped again, John getting up, and he heard a muffled curse when he ran into something in the dark. The bathroom light flipped on, and then he heard rummaging in John's bag, and some of the foil packets rattled when John pulled out blister packs. "Here we go."

"Are you taking one, or...?" Rodney sat up slowly, leaning on his stupid casted arm.

"Yeah." The cellophane wrapper on the bathroom cups sounded, and then water was running. "I'm too old for this kind of travel. My left knee's going to keep me up, and if it finally lets me pass out? I'm pretty sure the right hip will kick in."

"I knew cheating death would catch up with you." Rodney stayed where he was, listening to John prepare to drug them both.

Sheppard came back towards the bed, plastic cup and pills in hand. "Here. I dunno if it's cheating death or trying to keep up with Ronon every morning."

"Ronon's fitter than you are," Rodney pointed out tiredly, "and younger. You're not twenty something any more."

"No kidding. Plus, the guy's got legs taller than me. Here."

"If he had taller legs than you he wouldn't be able to get in the door. Unless you mean that his legs are longer than yours, which. Yeah." He reached for the cup and the tablet, and then took it.

Sheppard snorted. "Yeah. What was it about tired that didn't register, Rodney?" He took the cup from him and then tossed back his own pill, left the cup on the dresser across from the bed. "God."

"Here's to drugs without FDA supervision?" Rodney shifted, laid back slowly. It wasn't going to hit him like a hammer and mallet over the head.


"Best kind." It was said mid-yawn, though, and and Sheppard was crawling into bed next to him. It felt stupidly good.

He stretched out on his back, and only half focused on stuffing the other plug in his ear. "Night."

"Sleep tight, McKay." The muffled sound through his earplugs was the last thing he paid any attention to before he closed his eyes.

"You should call your sister."

They'd passed Cedar City and they were headed for Vegas. McKay'd been tensing up more and more with every mile, despite the fact that they'd spent nearly two hours goofing off at IHOP.

The goofing off at IHOP had been a good thing. Rodney had picked through food, enjoyed himself, ate almost every syrup, and had two cups of the shitty coffee. It had been fun, just sitting in a restaurant with McKay. Now, though...

Not so much. "Why?"

"Well, when did you talk to her last? I mean. It's been a long time, and she's your sister. You know?"

"After jail, and not since the conviction." Rodney shifted, stretching a leg out in front of him.

"Yeah. So." John shrugged. "She doesn't know the conviction was overturned. Doesn't know that you're out, so she might wanna. I know some families aren't exactly close..." Dave wouldn't care if he got out, or the conviction was overturned. His dad would never live down the humiliation. "...but you'll always regret it if you don't."

"She's always been a government conspiracist," Rodney mumbled, watching the road. "She stopped answering my calls after I was convicted."

"We could always turn around. Head to Canada instead. Knock on her door." It was an honest offer. John thought Rodney might prefer that to heading any closer to Vegas.

"Are you some kind of road-trip freak? Do you know how far it is to drive to her house from where we are now?" At least it got Rodney sitting up, glancing over at John.

He knew. Oh god did he know, but if they actually went through Vegas to get to California, McKay might stroke out in the passenger seat. "Yeah."

"She's in Vancouver. At least, that was where she was living last." Oh, at least it wasn't Ontario. That shaved, oh, a day off of the driving hell possibilities. If they weren't carrying less not really well documented drugs and stuff, John would have completely been for flying. "I don't know. We can't spent our leave driving in circles."

"Why not?" John eyeballed the next exit sign. There was a Starbucks, so at least Rodney could get refueled and they could pee before they started mapping out directions to Vancouver. Rodney would probably be able to find her online before John made it out of the bathroom.

"Because when anyone asks 'what did you do', when we tell them they'll all stare." And that was different from nothing else that they did, on missions or in general. Rodney seemed to catch that, and sighed. "Well, you know. Fine. At least it's not Vegas."

The way he relaxed said more than anything else. "Who cares? We'll stop by places other than IHOP. Or coffee shops. There'll be stories!" He pulled into the right-hand lane and headed up the exit ramp.

"Historical sites," Rodney reminded him, and okay, yeah, if they were heading northwest, there'd at least be more things to see than the desert. And if they got there and she wouldn't talk to Rodney, well, the drive back down to California wouldn't require them to hit Vegas, and they could hang out for a week, pain free.

"Sounds like a plan, then."

"Oh. Coffee!"

As if Rodney wasn't jittering already.

"Yeah. Let's stop. I think I see a grocery store or something a little further down. We ought to get some junk food." No road trip was actually a road trip until there was junk food.

"And some real food. Just in case." Rodney shifted restlessly in the passenger seat. If it wasn't for his cast and the random odd muscle spasm, John would've suggested they swap spots, if only because it might help distract him.

The parking lot was tight. Somehow, it always was with these places, and the car was a monstrosity. He managed to get it in, though, and then switched off the ignition. "Sounds like a plan. C'mon."

"This might be the only plan we've had in years that won't end up with someone being shot at." Rodney started to pop the door open, and then hesitated, "Unless someone's going to stick up the Starbucks."

John looked at the place, looked at Rodney, looked back at the coffee shop. "Nah. C'mon. They've got those pumpkin spice things this time of year. Plenty of sugar and caffeine, perk you right up."

"Specialty drinks are sometimes the only thing I miss." Rodney closed the door, once he was up and standing, and seemed to be fishing in his pocket for his wallet.

The sad thing was, it was probably true. There wasn't much to miss on Earth, not for Rodney. Hell, he didn't miss anything either. He wondered what that said about both of them. "I dunno. I miss going home and watching plain boring television sometimes."

"That's so far back from..." Rodney waved his hand, shadowing after John towards the door. "We get plain boring television brought to us."

Which was damn cool, but sometimes all a man wanted was a nice night in front of the tube with a couple of beers where he fell asleep on the couch with no chance of being called for this week's insane emergency. "Yeah, we ought to catch up on that thing with the brothers."

"We can do that while we drive around. I have a laptop." And with a laptop, Rodney could do pretty much anything. "We have to stop in hotels sometime and rest."

And then they could do the zoning out with beers thing.

So far nothing had been all that fantastic, but the tension between them was easing. Exposure usually either made a situation worse or better, and John was relieved that it seemed like everything between them would be okay. Better, at least. He'd take better.

The scent of coffee wafted into his face as he opened the door, held it for Rodney to step in before him. It made him breathe in deeply, appreciatively, and he heard McKay hum next to him.

"We should get two. One to drink here and one for the road," Rodney declared, staring at the menu. "I want to package this smell."

The guy behind the register was smiling vapidly, waiting for them to make some kind of decision. John shuffled forward, eyeing the case full of cakes and scones and other interesting tidbits. "Yeah, I'll have a grande pumpkin spice latte and a couple of the almond toffee... things."

"Oh, uh. The chocolate muffin thing. There's no citrus in it, is there?I'm deathly allergic," Rodney warned, eyeing the case.

"Oh, uh. No. We have some cranberry ones but nothing citrus today."

That seemed to be enough to satisfy Rodney, because he nodded. "Okay then. Two more of the grande pumpkin spice then."

"Your name?"


One highly caffeinated McKay, then. They'd have time to set up and figure out the best way to get north and... change the tempo of their damn leave time to something maybe a little less hellish. Rodney pulled his card out, and offered it to the guy.

"So, we'll head on over to the grocery store after this. Cheetos, Rodney." That should make him happy.

"You keep saying the things that I want to hear, Sheppard." Rodney signed a little slip of paper, and then wandered towards the table in the corner with the big comfy seats. "It's almost creepy. Don't you want to do anything?"

In all honesty, he hadn't thought about it much. Hell. He couldn't remember the last time he'd taken time to do vacationy sorts of things, and he avoided his family like the plague. "Maybe some surfing. Or sailing." They lived on Atlantis, for god's sake, and he never got time to do that sort of thing.

"Well, we'll be on the coast. I'm sure there's surfing, and I might be convinced to join you sailing." So that was a yes. Rodney could probably work himself up into a good paranoid froth if he was left alone for long.

Maybe things would work out with his sister, though. Maybe they'd talk. It'd be good for him, maybe help him out in ways John couldn't. "You ever been sailing before, McKay?"

"I've been on fishing boats with Beckett." That had to count, though generally it was little dinghys with paddles. Rowboats and the like.

He'd try to make sure Rodney didn't get drowned.

"See? We'll do stuff for you and for me. It'll be a good time. I swear."

"McKay," the barista called.

Rodney stood up from the chair, and started towards the red light, faster than John got up to join him. "It's already better than I thought it would be."

There was something warm welling up in him at that thought. They hadn't even done anything. They'd driven a lot, and slept with a bunch of crazy basketball fans painted blue partying in the hall. They'd eaten at IHOP and gotten off an exit for coffee to turn around and head for Canada.

It was going to be okay.

Once they realized that there were websites devoted to aimless road trips, deciding where not to stop on their trip became the hard part. It was sort of relaxing, actually. Sure, John had taken him to the small monument plaque in honor of Evil Kenivel's unbelievable stupidity, but he'd dragged John to a few off the beaten track places.

They'd taken pictures outside of Bates Motel, gone to the Fantastic Museum in Redmond, and the Oregon Vortex had been a riot of arguments and general bitchery. John had told him to park his brain outside, finally, and forced him to enjoy himself.

It was still preposterous, but. Goofy. Rodney had been focusing on the goofy on their trip and there was a lot of it. Between the goofy and stopping to have at least one meal in a good, interesting restaurant on the way when it was possible, he'd been having a good time.

Then John had pulled up next to the pier, and just grinned at him, bright and hopeful, and Rodney hadn't been able to say no.

They'd checked in despite his reservations (because oh god, oh god, that pier was not built by Ancients. Not even remotely, and it made him twitch). Sheppard had been humming Led Zeppelin under his breath the entire time.

He wasn't sure why John was humming Led Zeppelin, but they were going to be staying in a hotel that was built on a huge pier, and in no way did he trust that pier not to collapse like a rotting toothpick -- well, a series of bolted together rotting toothpicks -- but John had said he'd missed home and Rodney... missed it too. A lot. Sleeping on the ocean like that was as close as they could get.

"We'll call out for pizza," John offered. "Or something. Maybe fish." And then he smirked, as if that made any sense at all. Sometimes, he sincerely wondered about the man.

"We could be really cheap and start waving a net around," Rodney groused. "I'd rather have pizza. Good stuff, with a really good crust and more cheese than is actually necessary..." He'd been on a tiny bit of a cheese binge. Well. Large cheese binge.

Their suite was ridiculously nice despite his earlier reservations, and Rodney was possibly a little in love with the bathroom. Possibly even a lot, and he wondered if John would mind if he locked himself in and spent an hour in the tub.

"It's a plan," as if they'd had one, as if they'd even come close to anything resembling a plan thus far.

Rodney set his bag down on the floor -- because the floor didn't make his skin crawl -- and eyed the bed, the room as a whole. It was kind of rustic, in a way that made Rodney automatically think of the Northwest, and that was right where it belonged. "As much as we've had one," Rodney agreed. "You want to find a place to order, or should I?"

He saw the look that passed from him to the bathroom to the phone and the various delivery menus beside it. "Nah. I'll call it in. Cheese, cheese, and more cheese, right? And pepperoni."

"Sausage might mix it up a little." But basically the same over and over. Rodney peered over at the bathroom. "I'll just be in there for a while. Five or six hours, maybe. Until they run out of hot water."

That made John grin for some reason. "Yeah. I'll call for the pizza whenever you yell that you might be ready to climb out. Maybe I should go ask for a rubber ducky?"

"Hah hah. There's a huge tub, and I can finally get feeling in my back after the driving without risking getting the cast wet." And he had good soap, that he could use once he wrapped the cast in plastic bags. His skin was going to claw itself off underneath the cast someday soon.

He wondered if getting it wet would mean he could slide his arm out of it or not.

Sheppard didn't have anything to say, so Rodney dumped his bag onto his bed and began rummaging through it -- dirty clothes, clean underwear, dirty socks. Plastic bag with plastic bags and rubber bands, check. Soap, check. Deodorant... check.

He bundled it all into the bathroom with a wave to John, and closed the door behind him. Stripping off, getting the plastic bag and rubber bands on over the cast. The soap smelled rich, spicy, and he could relax to it.

The water heated up as soon as he turned it on, and Rodney pulled the stop, starting the tub filling. He was already in love with the thing, but the immediate hot water didn't hurt any.

He dropped his clothes on the toilet, shirt, pants, underwear. Didn't bother looking at himself in the mirror. He'd been having a hard time with that lately, since what had happened. There wasn't any point in making himself weird and twitchy and uncomfortable when he was there and pleased and about to take a bath.

He probably, possibly didn't take more than an hour. From washing his hair to soaking in the water and half-assedly cleaning himself between bouts of just leaning back and soaking, it couldn't have taken that long. "Hey, Sheppard?"

"Yeah?" John's voice was muffled through the door, but it didn't sound as if he'd passed out in the meantime.

"I'll be out soon. Pizza?" He started to consider lifting his head from the edge of the tub. Consider.

"Found a place." It sounded like John had come to stand outside of the door. "They've got deep dish. Figured that'd be good. Want Coke?"

"Coke also sounds good." Rodney lifted his head, and started to scoot his ass backwards so he could sit up. John was pampering him in the odd ways that one guy could pamper another without sounding weird. Weirder than they usually were.

Okay, they were usually outright freaky, and things had gotten better between them, but the fact that they were back to normal still put them back in outright freaky territory.

He preferred normal to the way things had been, tense and miserable. Sure, it was forced on them, but he was glad John was there because there was a good chance that, left alone, he'd have gotten into stupider things than getting out of the tub while the water went cold.

The cast set him off-balance, and for a moment, he worried that he'd slip and fall, but he made it out and got dry, struggled his way into underwear, pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. By the time he got out, another five minutes had passed. Sheppard probably needed to pee by now.

"It's all yours," Rodney told him, stepping out. It was humid in the bathroom, and cold out in the room.

"Thanks. There's money and information about the place that's delivering on the desk in case they come in before I get back." John's stuff had already been shuffled out into the places he tended to put things in hotel rooms. The fact that Rodney knew where those places were went into the outright freaky column.

"Right." He could lounge on the queen bed that was staked out as his, closest to the window, and spent time looking for the remote so he could do just that. There had to be something light and trashy on tv, to leave on as background noise. After all, every time they went back to Earth, it seemed like tv had gotten even lighter and trashier than before.

The knock at the door came at the same time John left the bathroom, so he didn't even have to get up. That was pretty nice, and he waited on the bed for John to come back with two boxes.

"One cheese, one sausage and pepperoni, plus." He held out a hand, and Rodney took the two liter. "Coke."

"You're a godsend." Rodney smirked a little, sitting up just enough to grab onto the coke. They could use the little plastic bathroom cups, and it wasn't like either of them needed ice.

That 'aw shucks' duck of John's head made Rodney's pulse pick up uncomfortably. "It wasn't hard, McKay. Tomorrow, let's hit the tourist stuff here in town. Then we can pick back up and head north again the next day."

Cross the border to see his sister. It wasn't that far of a drive, and as close as they were, Rodney was going to take the time to dick around for a day or so more before they went to see her. "There's a giant troll under a bridge around here. We need a picture of you sitting on it."

Pizza box half-open, he paused, hazel green eyes darting his way. "A giant troll. Under a bridge." It took a second before the grin snuck up. "Cool. I saw a thing for the world's biggest frying pan, too. It's a little ways off, though."

"So? We'll go." He was being amiable with John and he was being amiable because John was, and John was because, well, logically they both wanted to fix things. Finally. The question was, now what to do? He leaned up, reaching to swipe for the pizza box. "The real question is, what possesses someone to sit down and decide that they want to build a giant frying pan."

"Think it's something about clams," John mumbled, already biting into a slice. "'s's pretty good, McKay."

He cradled his stolen piece -- well, snatched -- and considered rolling onto his back and calling it a night. "I bet that somewhere out there, there's a version of Pizza back home. And it's probably hideous, and has legs."

That gained him mumbled agreement, mostly because Sheppard had his mouth full. John was sitting on the side of his bed closest to Rodney and looking across the way with a weird expression. It was almost like he was wanting something, but he had his own pizza. Maybe it was just a convenient zoning out.

He cleared his throat, and watched John startle out of that self-same expression of wanting... something. Not pizza and not soda. A good night's sleep on a bed that hadn't been slept on by a hundred other people. He'd already put the travel sheets on Rodney's bed while he'd been in the shower which was... something Rodney was taking for granted, as he hadn't stopped to actually check. "Yes?"

"Huh?" Except Rodney knew he didn't mean it. Not really. There was something off about it, like John was stepping back from something somehow. "Sorry. What?"

"You were staring at me. Well, or my pizza, and you have a perfectly good slice of your own." Rodney took a bite just for good measure.

If he hadn't been watching, he probably wouldn't have caught that flush of heat, the way it chased across John's ears, the little twitch. "Sorry. I was just thinking."

"About frying pans, or are you having some kind of esoteric thought process?" He sat back a little, crossing his legs at the ankle.

John's mouth curved sheepishly. "Probably. Anyway." Of course he wasn't going to tell him anything. "Wanna see what's on the tube?"

Rodney tossed him the remote, and shifted stiffly to prop pillows up behind himself. All the better to eat, laze, and contemplate that look. "It's all yours."

The beds in this place were better than the ones they'd gotten a couple of nights back. They'd been so soft Rodney hadn't been able to get comfortable, and even Sheppard had shifted and squirmed for most of the night like a five year old needing to go pee.

The tv flickered to life, and John started flipping channels. He paused momentarily on CBS, eyeballing the scores of some basketball game, and then moved on.

"Did Carson tell you I have Hep B? That was why they ran around like squirrels and went back there and vaccinated them in exchange for the samples they took." It was random, Rodney supposed, but it was something he'd almost told John five or forty other times. Why not over pizza?

He saw the way John tensed. "Jesus, Rodney. I..."

"You're all up to date on your..." He waved the crust of the pizza around for a moment, before going back to slowly chewing that away to nothing, as well. "Series, sequence, whatever they like to call it, right?"

That stunned expression was somehow sickeningly enjoyable. "Yeah, but... I thought that was one of the ones that weren't... I mean..."

"Carrier." He put his casted hand up to gesture himself. "Prison was not a good time."

"Jesus." He said it again, like that would help. "Rodney, I didn't... There's a lot of stuff I didn't, don't. Know. I..."

"Yes, and I'm trying to tell you." He wasn't sure why. He... maybe to help things. If it would help. Would it help? "It is and it isn't what you see in the movies. There's a lot of boredom. A lot of time to stare at the ceiling and work out theories in your head and on paper. I actually enjoyed solitary." No one talking to him, no one touching him.

He wasn't surprised when Sheppard swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "What were you doing in solitary, McKay?" Because the obvious reasons weren't obvious, not when it was him.

"I ended up there after, ah..." Not actually willing to talk about it, from the way his stomach hit his throat. "An incident. For my own safety. After that, every once in a while I'd pick a fight just to get some time to myself."

John rubbed a hand over his face. The fact that it was distressing him should have given him a grim satisfaction, but mostly it made him feel bad. For himself, for both of them, maybe. "Somebody should have been keeping an eye on you. Somebody from the SGC or....

"Why?" His job had put him in the line for getting in trouble, and his job had saved him. After a while. Eventually. When it mattered to them again.

"Because, Rodney! Because you're brilliant, and you're difficult, and you're... You're the kind of brain they should have been protecting instead of letting you get shuffled off by the fucking Trust!"

"That's why the Trust did it to me. And no one cared again about my case until I was useful." Which was what everything went back to, and he hated getting into that circle fuck of a thought.

"I was an asshole."

Yeah. Yeah, he had been, but that was kind of off topic, wasn't it?

"I was an asshole and I should have just... I should have made sure I got you back to Atlantis. It shouldn't have mattered."

"Yeah, well." Rodney swallowed, and leaned over to grab himself another piece of pizza. "I, uh. I'm glad we've been on this trip. I know I'm not the easiest man to get along with."

John was working on his own box again, despite the uncomfortable conversation. "Yeah, but... we're friends, right? I mean. You and me."

"Yeah. We're... if we're not playing the 'I might trust you, if' game anymore. I, you're probably the best friend I've had in years. Well, you and Beckett, but I've never actually wondered what Carson looks like naked." He took a bite of the thick, thick cheesey stuff, and contemplated that. Actually, he had, but in more of a 'I never thought I'd meet someone pasterier than me' way.

He hoped John didn't come across the room and try to clock him. It was the best he could hope for, and maybe it was stupid, beyond stupid, even to think about saying it, never mind actually doing it.

Looking across the way and realizing Sheppard looked a little shattered kind of hurt.


Yes, him. What was he supposed to say to that? He slid the pizza box back beside John. "Right. Me."

And then John was up, coming across the couple of feet between the beds, and Rodney flinched back. He was expecting a fist to his nose, not the way a hand cupped his face, or the way John was kissing him, sudden and desperate and firm.

That, that was nice. That was a little much, a little pizza on pizza taste, and he dropped his piece somewhere on the duvet, which meant it wasn't going near his mouth again, but what the hell, because John Sheppard was leaning in with a hand on his face and his lips on his mouth.

It went on forever, or maybe not forever, he couldn't tell. He was dazed, lips swollen, breathless when John pulled back.


"That was actually surprising." He stared hard at John, studying the way his mouth looked, wet and inviting, so hell. Rodney leaned up to kiss him.

Things were fucked up between them, had been fucked up between them, but maybe this was why. Maybe this unspoken thing had been what was creating problems, and getting it out into the open would fix them.

Well. Or break them into pieces, but it was done now.

When John pulled back, he was panting just a little, eyes closed, mouth slightly swollen from being so thoroughly kissed. "Hi."

"Hi." He felt a little breathless, a little stunned, one hand resting on John's side still. "Uh, that, I actually didn't see coming."

He watched as John flicked out his tongue, then rubbed his lips together. "That, uh. That makes two of us."

"What didn't you see coming? Your side, or mine?" Rodney actually wouldn't have been surprised if the answer was both, knowing John. He contemplated picking his pizza piece back up again.

"Uh...." He leaned back, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly, and yeah. That was John, all right. "I didn't figure you'd... well. Yeah."

"I go both ways, sometimes." He said it a little defensively, because most of the way he went was towards men with long bodies, and John was real, not porno. Not overly buff.

Just right.

He watched him, watched his gaze flick towards the television, the pizza box. "I mostly just go the one way." John's shoulders rolled uncomfortably.

Oh. "And uh, that's what way? Because I always thought you and the women..." He made a gesture that might have been in and out with one hand.

Rodney had seen that deer-in-the-headlights look before, more than once. "Yeah. Not so much with that."

"Really? How, are you, uh..." Rodney waved his hand. "You like men? Really?"

John seemed awkward, sitting down on the other side of the pizza box, not really looking at him that closely. "It's not exactly something I do a lot. I mean. Considering. I was married once." It seemed like something of a nonsequitor. "But I, we, it didn't work out."

"No, I suppose it wouldn't have. Not that I'm any more of a relationship master than you are, I mean, the things I did for coffee and protection were just..." He reached for his clear plastic cup of soda, one hand shaking a littl

"Jesus, Rodney." There was that stricken look again, funny. "You shouldn't have ever had to..."

"Shouldn't and reality don't get along." He took a sip, trying to hide the shaking between picking it up and his mouth. "But uh, getting past that took me years, and..." What happened back there... he could still feel the hands on him, the crazy painful sensation and the fact that his muscles broke his arm with their own torque.

"And I've fucked everything up." John seemed to know it, too, and that was good. That was good, because Rodney honestly hadn't thought that he got it at all.

He set the cup back down, and it was hard not to wiggle the fingers of the hand on his broken arm. "I'm trying just to consider it a... set back."

The laugh John gave was hard, bitter. Funny, because that should be Rodney's avenue, not his. "I can't make up for this."

Well. No, no because it wasn't as if John was going to hop in a time machine, but giving up seemed like letting him off too easily, too. "Maybe not, but I'm going to make you try."

That, that right there, got him a look, got John staring at him in a way that was too sweet and vaguely hopeful and still utterly pissed off in a weird internal way. That kind of conflict didn't belong on a human face. "I'll be glad to."

"Okay. So." He scrunched the pizza piece off of the top of the duvet, looking at it for hair or anything else unseemly.

That got him a cleared throat. "So. Uh. Are we... are we doing this?"

There was either a hair or a fuzzy stuck to his pizza, and he wasn't going to take the risk. "This?"

John waved his hand vaguely between the two of them. "This. Us. This thing we're...."

"Yeah, we, let's do this. I mean, we can try. I don't actually see how our lives can get any stranger, regardless of if we did or didn't." He leaned forwards, reaching for the pizza box.

"So." That uncomfortable squirm was weirdly familiar. "I guess let's, uh... Should we maybe go out for dinner?" It was a stupid question, but John really was crap about this kind of thing.

"As a date...?" Rodney leaned back once he let his slightly fuzzy piece rest on the top of the box. "John, why? We've already got pizza here."

"Well, yeah, but seems a little soon to be moving any further and usually dinner comes first." Usually, but in John's world, he was pretty sure that it didn't always.

"How many girlfriends in high-school slapped you, Sheppard?" Rodney squinted at him. "Be honest. All of them? Did the one who didn't not have *hands*? I was thinking we can finish pizza, enjoy the view and watch crap on TV."

John reached up and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I went to boarding school, McKay. We didn't have girlfriend much. I did kind of get slapped a lot, now that you mention it."

"I know I'm fairly emotionally stunted, but I'm pretty sure there are steps in a relationship between dinner out and banging. Maybe I'm wrong." And if it hadn't been John, he would have been horrified and outraged, but it was John.

It was John, and maybe he didn't know any better. Maybe he was used to dinner and a hand job or something like that, something that would at least explain it. Then again, he'd managed to get married without fucking things up too badly.

On second thought, he was divorced.

"I never really had to follow them much. I mean, I only ever dated Nancy much. My brother introduced us." He looked like he wished that hadn't happened.

"Okay. Is there an interesting story to go with that?" It sounded like there was.

John started nibbling at his own slice. "Nah. Just... Dave was in college, so was she, I was home for a couple of weeks, and things just kind of... happened."

"Oh. Wow, so that's actually normal for you." Rodney squinted, and leaned in again to get a piece that didn't have unidentifiable fuzz.

Sheppard seemed to consider it for a moment, but who knew with John? He could be thinking about helicopters he'd known and loved. "I don't do so well with people," he admitted like it was something Rodney didn't know for gospel. "Strangers, yeah. But..."

"But?" If he had to keep prompting John, he was going to. He'd already had all of his dirty secrets flayed open, and John could read between the rather thick lines of Rodney's history about what hepatitis in prison meant, about his aversion to having people touch him.

Frankly, he looked like he might be having a panic attack just because he was forcing him to talk about it. "But I suck with people I love, okay?" He stood up, and Rodney thought he might leave. "It's easier with some guy you don't know giving you a blowjob in his car someplace, and then you...."

Don't have to worry about whether he screwed up or not. Which John did with frightening frequency, if Rodney thought about it, but his own sister hadn't talked to him in years, so he didn't have much room for whipping stones at people's heads. "Hey. Let's go out. Get coffee or something, catch a movie."

It was an out, and he probably shouldn't have offered it, but what the hell. If they were going to do this, then they'd have to make tit for tat offers, because that was the way things should work. Even if they didn't. John looked so grateful it was almost pathetic.


"Right. I'll get my sneakers on." He bent over, scrabbling for them. He could actually use some french fries or something. Anything, so long as it meant getting out of the room, and both of them getting back to something resembling normal as opposed to the last tortured ten minutes.

So much for his relaxing bath.

Sheppard was scrambling for jeans and his own shoes. "I'm buying."

"Good. Let's find some god-awful movie to go see." He pulled them on, and started to stand up. Yeah, a walk could help. Just to shake the tension off. John was fucked up, and so was he. They'd figure out how to make it work.

His nerves were a jangling wreck.

It had been a nice morning so far, easy. They'd hit Tim Hortons for breakfast, coffee, bagel b.e.l.t for Rodney, bagel and cream cheese for John. It had been mostly nice, except for the part where he felt like puking by halfway through, and munched down the rest out of desperation for something, anything, to quell his jitters.

He wasn't sure what was going to happen. He wasn't sure if she even still lived there, if she'd be home or not, if she'd open the door for him, or why he was even trying. She'd dropped him first. She, he'd had nothing for so long. And now he had things, little pieces of things, pieces of home, a home to go back to, but it was still all sort of half strung together.

"Hey. You know, we don't have to stop if you don't want to," John offered, bringing the car to a slow stop before turning right.

"I need to see, need to know." One way or the other. If she wasn't there or didn't want to see him, fine. Fine, that ended that, he'd never try again.

"Okay." Okay, except oh god, oh god. John was parallel parking, and that was Jeannie's address, right there. Bright blue door, neat shrubbery, stupid white picket fence. "But we can turn around anytime you want."

"The upside of a car instead of a flight." They'd seen a lot of interesting things, and on the way back they could go down to California if there was time. John pulled to a stop, and Rodney hesitated before he popped the door open. Now or never.

He climbed out, heard John's door opening behind him. One deep breath, and he was walking up the pave-stones to the front door, screwing up every ounce of courage he had to lift his hand and knock.

He wanted to smack his cast against it, but he figured that might be inviting trouble for his arm. Rodney wasn't even sure he'd knocked hard enough, at first. There wasn't any answer, nothing to see, nothing to hear. He was freaking out a little, or maybe a lot, but it was okay. It would be okay, because Jeannie wasn't home, nobody was going to open the door, and...

And it opened, sending his heart into his throat. "Meredith?"

"Hi. Hi, I uh, was in the neighborhood, I thought I'd uh..." She was still Jeannie. She still looked like Jeannie, only older, taller, maybe. Her hair still looked wild around her face.

"I thought you were dead." The strange look on her face was conflicted; worried and pleased and uncertain. At least he wasn't the only one who felt that way. "There was a letter and everything!"

"I thought you just hated me!" A letter? Who'd send his sister a letter saying he was dead? What possible purpose could that have served anyone?

"Meredith!" That chiding tone sounded ridiculously like their mother, and it made him draw in a breath, stiffen. "No! Of course I don't hate you. Don't be ridiculous, I..." Oh. Tears. He had no idea what to do with those, not really. "I thought.... They said you had Hepatitis C, that there was... an incident, and...."

"I have Hep B, but it didn't *kill* me! Oh, that's..." He twisted, not sure what to do about Jeannie's crying, and looked back over his shoulder for John.

John was gesturing at him, and they both gave one another looks for a moment until he figured it out and tentatively put his arms around Jeannie. That seemed to signal something, because she started crying even harder then, face buried in his chest.

"Hey, it's okay, I'm in one piece, Jeannie..." And they were standing in the doorway to her house with the white picket fence. It was a wonder a dog didn't come running out of the house.

Then again, they'd always been cat people, to be honest about things.

"I cannot believe you, Meredith!" She smacked his arm, pulling back and wiping at her face with a hand. "You... You haven't written or, or called, or..."

"I called once and you hung up on me! What was I supposed to do, keep calling? I only got so many phone calls a month. If." And writing, well, what was that going to do? "I was in prison!"

"I have never hung up on you, Meredith!"

Great. They were going to fight, right there on the front steps of her perfect, ideal little house, and it was going to be just horrible. Beyond horrible, really, and...

"Honey? Are you all right?"

Oh, that figured, too. Rodney didn't step backwards, but he wanted to, because there was a weedy guy coming up behind his sister. "Hi. And yes, you hung up on me. Well, someone hung up on me."

"Kaleb, have you ever hung up on Meredith?"

Weedy guy blinked slowly and frowned. "Not that I can recall. I knew you said your brother was in prison, that he died. I can't remember anything like that happening...."

John cleared his throat from the step. "Uh. Maybe we could come inside, talk about this over a cup of coffee?"

Leave it to John to invite himself into a house for a cup of coffee. The weedy guy stepped back. "Oh, yes, uh, please, come in. Jeannie, this is, uh, who?"

"Rodney McKay, and my, uh, John Sheppard." Rodney made a brief pointing gesture with his good hand.

John stepped forward, hand out held, his disturbingly friendly meeting-the-crazy-aliens smile plastered carefully on his face. "Hi. It's nice to meet you."

He watched the gears click automatically on his sister's face, saw the way her eyes swiveled to him consideringly and then away again. "It's so nice to meet you, as well. I. I'm just. Please, come in. Come in, both of you."

"Thanks. I know this is a shock, I just didn't remember your phone number. Oddly." Rodney started into the house. There wasn't any immediate signs of pets, but there were toys on the floor?

"I can't believe this. I can't believe any of it," Jeannie was saying, and Kaleb was going upstairs instead of into the kitchen. Oh, God. He was probably calling the police. "I never believed you'd do something like that, Meredith. Not ever. But you insisted on staying in the United States, and on trying to work on government projects."

"The work was interesting and the pay was phenomenal." Rodney shrugged his shoulders, watching her. It had been so damn long, and she was so much older. He remembered that she'd just moved out here, and she was paying the rent by working two jobs on top of school, but she'd loved that house... "I've been vindicated. After, oh. Five years, they reinvestigated my case."

"And you didn't think to come and... Meredith, it's been years." And she was on the verge of tears, angry or not, he couldn't tell. "It's been years, and I thought you were dead all this time, I just..."

"I thought you hated me." Rodney wished he didn't have a cast on, because he wanted to stick his hands in his pockets, wanted to do anything other than fidget and stand there with his hands on his hips. "I thought you didn't want to talk to me, after, well, I don't know."

After he killed a guy and got sent to prison.

John cleared his throat. "It was a bad situation, but I promise you. It won't happen again."

"Oh, and who are you, the guy in charge of American government conspiracies?"

"Colonel Sheppard. He's, we're on the same team. I still work for them, though I occasionally wonder why. We're on leave." There, that was quick and simple and easy, without the messy bits about punishments and the town square and the maddening, maddening pain.

"You're still working for them?" Oh. Oh, he remembered that painfully high register. Mother had always sounded remarkably like that. "You... I...."

"Mommy Mommy Mommy!"

"Oh, wow." Rodney turned and craned his head. "I, uh, hi, you spawned, Jeannie! Oh, jesus, you're married to the guy who opened the door, aren't you? Tell me he's not a disc jockey."

He watched Jeannie pick up the little girl, who was babbling happily away about something in Montana. "Yes, I spawned. And Kaleb isn't a disc Jockey, he's a professor."

Professor, well, that was good. That was what he'd actually expected from Jeannie, eventually. "Huh. I've lost so much time. Hi there. What's your name?"

She was peeking up at him shyly, squirming in Jeannie's arms. "Say hello to your uncle Meredith, Madison."

That seemed to draw her out of her shell. "Hi. Did you bring me a present?"

John laughed at that, and the fact that he hadn't laughed at Rodney's name pretty much made him love him even more. That was probably a bad thing. "Nah, but we've got some really cool souvenirs. Your uncle and me, we've been stopping all kinds of places."

"We have a miniature of the world's largest frying pan," Rodney offered. "Which is sort of an oxymoron, but we've been road-tripping on the way up here..." And it changed the topic from why he was still working with the government.

Anything was better than that.

"Can I see it?" The little girl was all bright eyes and interest, as if a frying pan was something to get excited about.

"Sure thing. Why don't you and I go see what your Uncle Meredith and me brought with us?" John reached out a hand and Jeannie put her down, and no, no, he didn't want to talk. Not... well. Not really.

Once they were headed for the door -- oh, good, and Jeannie's professor was going out the front door with them -- Rodney sighed, "He's good with kids. They like him when we go into villages, and uh..."

"Villages?" Jeannie perked up at that. "Rodney, are you working with the military somewhere in the mid-East?"

"I'm not actually at liberty to say, but I'm with a unit. It's pretty good work. I've been with them since I got out." Five years, and five years, and sometimes he didn't think about how long it had been, but days like this it was hard not to think about it.

"Oh, Rodney. I just... I'm so glad you're alive. I'm..." She was snuffling again, and then she reached out, flung her arms around him, and oh. God. He could feel his own sinuses stinging, and he didn't want to do that. Not at all.

He hugged her back more easily, but still awkward, trying to not press too hard with his cast. "I know. I know. I'm sorry I didn't try to talk to you sooner."

Jeannie smacked his chest firmly. "Meredith, I was so... You were dead, and it was horrible. I never thought you'd do something like that, and you were doing classified work, so I always thought it must have been, had to be a, a mistake, someone framing you. You were so adamant about it, and then you were dead. You were gone...."

"I was framed. Twice, apparently." He pulled back, let her smack him, hug him, anything she wanted to do because she was Jeannie, and it had been almost ten years. But she was still Jeannie. "Because at no point have I been dead."

Almost dead, sure. Incredibly close to dead, in fact, but not actually literally dead.

"Oh, Mer." More hugs, but then she was letting go, wiping her cheeks, and turning towards the coffee pot. "I'll make us something to drink, and then you can tell me all about your... well, I think you're both a little old for me to declare him your boyfriend...."

"He's not. He's, it's complicated. Best friend is probably a more definite term." Even if he was an asshole, the fact that he was trying hard to fix it meant something. No one else went out of their way to fix it, it being anything at all that involved Rodney.

The look on her face made him squirm a little. "You introduced him as my John Sheppard, Mer."

"It's complicated." He could feel heat crawling up over his face, but he wasn't going to concentrate on it. "He's Air Force."

"Ohhh." She shook her head slowly. "So he isn't your boyfriend. He's just your 'friend'. I understand."

"Right." That was only one piece of the complication. "And we're, we've been working things out on the trip. He screwed up on a mission, and I had an allergic reaction and we're sort of putting things back together. And now we're here." He should have tried her sooner, but fresh out of prison he'd been in Antarctica, and trying to be competent and trying to catch up on missed research and then he'd been in another galaxy.

"A reaction?" The coffee pot was amazingly fast, because she was already pouring him a cup, hot and black, two sugars, just the way he liked it best. "He let you near citrus? What kind of boyfriend is he?"

"It wasn't citrus. It was this... advanced histimine reaction, actually, and it's sort of fascinating now that I'm stepped away from it, but I was in an isolation tank afterwards and my muscles cramped up so much that they broke my arm themselves." He waved his good hand while he told her that, the short and dirty version of it. "So, it's all been more absurdly complicated than usual."

"Oh my God. I." he took the cup from her because her hands were shaking. "Meredith. I just got you back. Please don't terrify me with things like this so soon."

"Sorry." He held onto the cup, and took a sip. "I'm not used to being dead to anyone."

Jeannie turned away from him and poured another cup. There was a pregnant hint to the pause between them, and then she said, "Madison. She's allergic to bees. And citrus. And... peanuts."

"Oh. Oh, that just figures. It skipped you for the next generation." And there was no bright side to find, because there'd be at least one incident of willful disobedience and forty where someone thought it was no big deal.

She slid onto one of the stools near him. "I was so careful. Just in case. We were going to have allergy testing done, but there was an incident one afternoon at the park and... well."

"She looked healthy." Except that was anyone's worst nightmare, and Jeannie had a daughter. He'd seen how mothers were. "Now, I mean. No harm done in the long term."

Wow, that was weird to say. Possibly even insane, because he'd never been able to look at things that way, especially since it was harmful. It was horrible, and it made him paranoid for weeks when it happened, about every little thing.

"She's... she's so smart, Mer. Bright and funny and sweet. I've been so lucky."

"You're duct-taping epi-pens to her, right?" He offered her a smile, even if he was reaching for it. "Sheppard carries one." He wished he could say she'd grow out of it.

"Obviously he should be carrying more than one if you're having reactions like that." She was smiling back at him, though, idly lifting her cup. "So. I want you to tell me everything."

"From how far back?" He leaned back a little, looking towards the door. "Also, I know we have a lot of junk in the rental, but not enough junk to keep them distracted that long."

Jeannie glanced through the door as well. "From the point at which you didn't die. You're right, though. Your boyfriend wouldn't be inclined to run away with my child, would he?" She still sounded a little uncertain, but then, she'd always been a little suspicious of the American military. Sometimes he thought he should have paid more attention to her paranoia.


"No. He's probably out there stalling." He probably thought Rodney had already had a breakdown, which honestly. He'd only freaked out on John the once. Maybe there was half of another freakout in there on the road trip, but he'd hung in really well, kept it together.

They'd both kept it together, despite everything. Managed to keep from confessing or yelling or falling completely apart. It was a miracle.

"For you. The way you talk about him, he seems like a good man." Yes. Yes, he was. John was a good man, despite all of the bad things between them.

"Ultimately, yeah. He is. I trust him." Even when he shouldn't have. Even when he'd been burned over and over, so maybe reconciling with John was actually the best he could actually do. Rodney leaned back in the chair, and looked down into his coffee. "It doesn't stop being complicated. How have you been?"

"Good. I've been good. I finished my masters but...." She glanced at him worriedly. "I was working on my thesis when I realized that I was pregnant. With Madison. And with you in prison, I wanted... I guess I just wanted to have a family."

"You didn't finish your doctorate?" But she had a daughter. And a husband. If his voice squeaked a little, it was understandable, because he'd always thought she'd be doing what he was doing now.

"No." She looked as if she expected him to yell, to do worse than yell. Maybe he would have, if things had been different. If they'd been close, if he hadn't been in prison, if, if, if. They weren't different, though. Things were what they were, and if nothing else, he'd learned to take what he could get. To take what was real over what he wanted.

He tilted his head, and peered at her. "Are you happy? And maybe considering going back to finish that doctorate...?" She didn't have to go full time, and Rodney hoped for her.

He hoped for good things, for the things that would make her happy. Funny, that it was all he wanted for her, when before he'd have been full of righteous anger.

"Yes, Mer. I'm very happy. And I think when Madison is ready to go back to school, I'll probably go back to work on everything. She's been a handful, and a blessing."

"She's a McKay." Rodney took a sip of the coffee. "I'm glad you're happy. That you're okay. I kept imagining that you were... not okay, or that you'd hate me, I didn't actually work out what I'd do if you were happy and okay."

Reaching out, Jeannie took his hand. "Just... be my brother, Mer. That's enough. That's all I could want. I'm so happy that you're here. You can't imagine how... It was awful. Thinking that you were gone. I wanted to apologize for some of the things that passed between us, wanted to make them right. I just didn't know how."

"I still don't know how." And the list of things he needed to work out, work through, was growing. He wanted to go back and just live, go back to taking apart the scientists who worked under him. "So. John and I can get a hotel room around here and do you mind if we spend a few days up here just... visiting?"

"I would love that. I'm so glad that you're alive. You have no idea how much I've missed you, wanted to say that I love you, Mer. That I'm sorry. For everything." She stood up and walked from the kitchen and into her living room. It was scattered with different toys, paints, and a piano in a corner.

"I've managed to not talk about it, any of it, for the last four years and change. But I'm sorry, too. I should have tried sooner." He heard the front door open, and turned his head to look towards it. John was coming in, Madison holding his hand and leading the way, a couple of tacky souvenirs in her hand.

"Can I keep Uncle John? Pleaaaaase?" she begged.

John ducked his head sheepishly. "Hey, I think your Uncle Rodney might have something to say about that, kiddo."

He was good with kids, no question. The next time a couple of rugrats tried to attach themselves to Rodney, Rodney was going to pawn them off at Sheppard. "I'll give him to you for a nickel," he drawled. "Of course, there's no refunds with that, and the warranty that came with him won't transfer. I'm sure your mother's taught you about how important warranties are."

Madison was frowning at him, and then she frowned at John. "I think I have to send you home with Uncle Mer now. If you 'spire, I can't get a new one."

"Madison! Your uncle John won't expire, no matter what your uncle Meredith says." Jeannie was grinning at him anyway, as if she couldn't help herself.

"I guess I'll have to keep him, warranty and all." Rodney shrugged, and twisted in the chair, still clutching his coffee cup.

"Gee, thanks, McKay. I appreciate the thought." And underneath the sarcasm, he could tell that John did. He knew it from the look on his face and the twitch of his brow, and it made Rodney smile despite himself.

Kaleb was still looming in the doorway, watching them all, and Rodney stared back for a moment, before he took another sip of his coffee. "You say that now, but you wait until your batteries need to be replaced." Madison giggled. She was fussing with stuffed wind up kangaroo that they'd found at the Christmas tree and kangaroo farm somewhere in Washington.

The way John sauntered into the room, all hips, made Rodney's chest hitch a little. "I'm rechargeable. There's a cable and everything," he drawled, reaching out for Rodney's coffee cup.

"Coffee thief. How do you know I don't backwash or something?"

Madison laughed again. "That's gross."

"That's adults," Kaleb agreed. "Maddie, do you want me to put a movie on?"

"Sleeping Beauty!" she yelled happily, and scrambled for the stairs, kangaroo clutched in her hands.

"Tell me you aren't reinforcing gender stereotypes, Jeannie!" He didn't mean it, except it came out of his mouth, anyway. His sister just laughed at him, shook her head.

"Pfft, I haven't worn the pants in this house since ever. And I'm completely outnumbered." Kaleb turned to follow after Madison, and Rodney watched him go before he turned back towards Jeannie. No taking sips of his coffee, seeing as John was sniffing it thoughtfully.

"Well, that's comforting. Somehow."

"This smells fantastic," he offered finally, taking a swallow. "Mmmm. Oh. Hey. It tastes even better. No wonder Rodney complains about the coffee at home all the time."

"Half the time we're drinking not-coffee. The not-coffee actually smells vaguely of cat piss when it's being brewed, and you say 'no wonder' I complain about it when there is coffee in the world that doesn't smell like urine when you're making it?"

John shrugged. "Hey. When you can't have coffee, not-coffee is better than nothing. You don't like Teyla's tea, anyway."

His sister was watching them, the tiniest smile teasing at her mouth. "Sounds like you're pretty happy, Mer. Arguments about coffee and tea aside."

Yeah. Yeah, he was happy with home. Even when it was miserable and fucked up, he wanted to fix it, he wanted things to turn around because it was his home. It was worth fighting for, worth trying to fix things with Sheppard for.

Rodney leaned up, and tried to swipe the coffee back, though. "The last few years were a definite improvement over prison. I have a home. And work I love."

She looked at him, and smiled, sweet and slow. "I'm so happy for you, Mer."

"Seriously, when were you replaced by a pod person? I'm glad you're happy for me, but uh..." He pushed John's fingers off of the coffee cup, and pulled it down to his level. "Well."

"I am not a pod person! You're my brother. Why can't I be happy for you?" Jeannie was frowning at him, and that was more like it. "Really, Meredith."

John snickered. Well. It was inevitable. "Yeah, so. I was trying not to laugh in front of the kid... Meredith."

"Hah hah. Mock my parent's poor taste in names. Come on, Jeannie, tell John your first name. Go on." Rodney nudged her foot under the table, and she gave him a sharp look.

"Sidney is nowhere near as bad as Meredith, Mer. Our parents were sadists," she explained to John, who nodded sagely as if he knew all about things like that. "Most of the time they were too busy yelling at one another to bother yelling at us."

"I think it worked to our benefit. Somehow." Rodney sat back in his chair, taking a sip of the coffee again. It had started to go sort of murky cold. "That they had a passion for shouting at each other."

John reached for his coffee cup, and he pulled it back despite the fact that it was cold. "C'mon, Rodney. Share."

"There's a pot right there, Sheppard. Leave the man with the broken arm his coffee." He gestured towards it. "This one is mine."

'I'll pour you a cup," Jeannie offered, but John was already getting up.

"It's okay. Just point me at the cabinet."

"Top one, on the left." Jeannie twisted around a little, and jiggled her eyebrows at Rodney, and Rodney glared back a little. He'd missed that, though. He'd missed it a lot.

He thought -- no, he knew -- that he was going to be glad to have that back. The fact that it seemed too easy probably meant that it was, but for now, he'd take it. He'd take it, and they'd work on it, and this time, he wouldn't just stop calling or writing. He'd make things work.


By the time they made it back to the hotel, John was pretty sure Rodney was done with people for the day. Not just done, but finished, totally not interested in interacting with anybody anymore, possibly himself included.

He'd been okay, though -- with Jeannie, and Kaleb, and Madison, active and interactive, but John hadn't thought much about how very few people Rodney had been around since, well, 'the incident'.

Hell. Even before that, because Atlantis wasn't exactly populated with a great number of people. The levels of exposure they got to people was pretty minimal. It was a miracle there hadn't been more by way of massive freakout than either of them had gotten to yet.

Rodney arrowed in for the bed, and laid down on it, still fully dressed. "I'm completely drained. What the hell. Did we just spend an hour and a half watching a My Little Pony movie?"

He dragged in their duffles, dropped both of them at the foot of his own bed. "Yeah. Actually. We did. But I'm thinking that was better than the Sponge Bob thing. Whatever that is."

"Kids tv is hellishly bad." Rodney was staring at the ceiling, folding his hands behind his head. John was trying not to watch with too much interest, but it looked like his left leg was twitching.

He'd been thinking about that -- the twitching, the little signs that things were wrong, maybe things he could do something about. John went fumbling through his bag and palmed a tube before shifting to sit on the foot of Rodney's bed. "Hey. C'mere."

"Hmm?" Rodney started to sit up, leaning onto his elbows. "What're you doing?"

"Shuck up your pants leg." Or take them down. John didn't particularly care which.

"Why...?" It was a slower question, but he was still sitting up, studying John, trying to see what the tube was.

He cleared his throat. "Because I noticed you were favoring it a little. I got some stuff." Some kind of stuff with capsaicin, which would definitely warm things up and help out a little, he figured. Especially if he rubbed it in good.

"Oh." He shifted then, and then reached to unfasten his belt buckle. "No laughing at my boxers. I mean it."

"Would I laugh at you, McKay?" Okay, so he totally would. His first name being Meredith had nearly made John snort, if he was honest about things. Still. He'd managed to keep a straight face, mostly. It had been hard.

It was easier to not laugh at Rodney when there were other people watching. Rodney looked at him for another few moments, and then he started to shimmy his pants off. "Yes and no."

Smiley faces were no reason to laugh, John figured. Now maybe if there had been lemons or limes, he'd have thought about it, but Rodney dropped his pants and settled back on the bed.

Carefully, he squeezed some of the cream out into his palms, and his first thought was that maybe he should have gotten some gloves to go with it. The heat was pretty intense, and McKay was probably going to yelp.

He laid his hands on Rodney's leg, just above the knee, to either side, and then started to just rub it in. He could definitely feel the muscles trembling. "What's in that?"

"Said capsaicin on the tube." Which meant chilis or something like, and hot as hell now that he was rubbing it in a little more seriously. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea, but he wasn't sure exactly. "Tell me if it gets too rough, okay?"

Rodney flexed his leg, stretching, and then relaxed again, still looking down at John. "It actually feels okay. Right now."

That was good. Good to know, anyway, and the heat wasn't too bad, so John kept rubbing it in, slow and steady. The room was quiet aside from the sound of his hands on Rodney's skin, the vague hum he would give now and then.

It was nice to just sit there and feel like he was winding down. It was sometimes too much contact, too many people for him, too, and there was no threat coming at them here. No Wraith. Things were probably going to hell in a hand-basket back home, but there was no way of checking or getting involved, so he could enjoy the moment.

Rodney flexed his leg, and just kept watching John. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." He felt like maybe he should be thanking Rodney, too, just for the peace and quiet of things. Maybe for getting to touch him. Maybe for a lot of things. "Let me know when it feels better."

"It's still twitching." Rodney sounded mellow, though. Like he was asking for another piece of cake, and John wasn't going to say anything about that. "Thanks for doing this. Driving me up here. I wouldn't, if you hadn't suggested it, I never would have tried talking to her."

John shrugged awkwardly, hands busy. "Well. You didn't seem to have a family like mine. I mean, I don't mind not talking to Dave much. You seemed like maybe you minded."

"We were close." Rodney leaned forwards a little, leaning over John, watching his hands move. "How tired are you?"

Not too tired. Mostly. "All right. I mean, it's vacation. Gotta be easier than running from the natives."

"And everything else the natives do." Rodney was quiet for a moment more, and then he put a hand on John's shoulder.

He looked up, eyes widening in question, and maybe he was a little surprised when Rodney leaned down, and kissed him.

He hadn't actually been planning on making any moves in relations to the leg massage. Rodney's muscles were a mess, still, and he was trying not to take advantage, or seem like he was, but Rodney was starting it. His lips were a little chapped, but he was leaning into John, leaning down to where he was. It wasn't like he was going to say no to an invitation like that.

When he pulled back, John licked his lips slowly. "I, uh. I should wash my hands." His voice sounded thick, but something about Rodney's kiss had done it to him. They usually did.

"You probably should." Rodney sat back, and then stood up slowly, like he was testing his leg. "I bet that spreads like a contagion."

He wouldn't want to try peeing with it on his hands, that much was certain. "And burns like hell on contact. How's that feeling?"

"Much better. It's like when you have a muscle flutter in your eye. Only it's full body. Well, full leg. Annoying, but not painful anymore. I imagine it's going to be a while until I get back to the field." Rodney was shifting minutely, almost swaying, like he wanted to get in close and person with John again. "I, uh. I'm completely tired, but do you maybe want to uh, I have no idea how to say this."

To be honest, he didn't either, mostly because he didn't want to suggest anything that might send Rodney screaming. "I'll, uh. Yeah. I mean. Whatever you want. Just let me...." He held up his hands, then started pushing himself up off the floor. His left knee cracked loudly.

"We're a pair." Rodney idled awkwardly at the end of his bed, and then moved to pull the cover down. It was time for Carson's sheets, and the miracle that was Rodney not freaking out over where the bedding at the hotel had been.

After watching a truly ungodly amount of CBS television, he'd started thinking about picking up a rubber sheet to add to the arsenal. Never mind how the thing would probably crinky and annoy the hell out of both of them. "Yeah, we kind of are."

He headed for the bathroom, turning the warm water on and reaching to unwrap a bar of soap. It'd probably take a good few minutes of washing before he really got it off. Maybe he should get some gloves or something if this was going to be a habit.

Gloves were actually a pretty good idea, and Rodney wouldn't be too weirded out by it, seeing as he was the man who tried to shield himself from sunlight -- just picking from the top of the list and not bothering to work his way down. By the time he got back, Rodney would have the bed made. Well, his bed.

Nobody would believe that they slept in separate beds. Maybe people on Atlantis, but John figured some of them had their doubts about whether he and Rodney slept separately even when they were back home, never mind on vacation. Still, it was true, and the thought of spending time together in just the one bed made his pulse pick up, made it race.

That officially made him fifteen years old, John figured.

Rodney was in bed when he stuck his head in the room, sort of casual and rumpled looking, like he was sleeping, but clearly awake, too. Waiting, and he licked his lips, thought maybe he should have stopped to brush his teeth. Then again, this was Rodney, and he hadn't either.


"You, uh, want to join me?" It would have been funnier if Rodney hadn't sounded nervous. On the other hand, he would have been more weirded out if Rodney hadn't sounded nervous.

Mostly, he was just glad Rodney hadn't rolled over and pretended to be asleep, in the long run. "Yeah. Yeah, I'd really like that."

It was obvious that Rodney was bare-chested, so John reached down, caught the bottom hem of his t-shirt, and pulled it over his head, dropping it on the floor as he moved closer.

Rodney shifted, sat up a little more, clutching one of the sheets in one hand. "Did you ever try to shave that weeds nest? You must have been compelled to try it at some point in your younger days."

He raised his hand self-consciously, then grinned. "Time for true confessions?" Probably. "Nair. I used to swim."

Rodney smirked, just a tiny bit, and seemed to relax. Maybe it was John hallucinating. "Swimming? I can't imagine you speed-swiming laps. Or, how much Nair that would need. Whole bottle or two?" His eyes were staying on John's chest while he started to squirm his pants off.

"And it always smelled kinda like chemical cucumbers," he offered, stepping hesitantly towards the bed. Rodney's fingers twitched on the covers, and so John reached out, pulled them up, and slid in.

He did expect for Rodney to be on him in seconds, the way he was, moving to close the space between them in the bed, twisting and leaning over John. If he wanted to be on top, and controlling things, John was good for that. He could understand it, so he laid back, and let Rodney come closer.

"Hi." Hi, and Rodney leaned down, so John leaned up, and caught his mouth, sweet and slow.

Rodney's mouth tasted like the slightly over-cooked brownies they'd eaten, and garlic, but John figured his was the same, and he tilted his mouth. Rodney's good hand clutched at his shoulder, and he shifted, still kneeling over John. It was funny to do that actually under the covers, too.

He brought his hand up, cupped it at the back of Rodney's neck, and didn't get in any hurry. There wasn't any point, because he wasn't going to rush this. Wasn't going to rush Rodney, not when it was a miracle he was doing this. Touching him, kissing him, forgiving him, Christ.

Forgiving him for all of the fucked up shit between them. Rodney leaned back after another two kisses, grinning lopsidedly at John. "Fancy meeting you here."

The funny thing was, last time he'd felt this stupidly giddy about anybody, he'd been on his honeymoon, and he'd managed to convince himself that he was in love with Nancy. "Yeah," he murmured, licking his lips and peering up at him. "Imagine that."

"I have." Rodney leaned back down, lips brushing over John's mouth lightly before he started to kiss his jaw. A couple of nights before, Rodney had found the spot right below John's ear that made his leg twitch like an old hound dog. By now, he could pretty much narrow right in on it, making John's shoulders hunch forward and up, his head drop back.

"Fuck." Fuck, because that felt amazing, made his skin shiver into gooseflesh, always had. "That's.. yeah."

"Heh. You have the best look on your face when you do that. I mean it, it's, awe inducing." And after the commentary, Rodney went right back to kissing there, letting his hands roam a little over John's chest like there might be titties hiding under the hair rug. Well, one hand, and fingertips, with the odd scrape of cast-plaster.

"You're killing me," he moaned, but it wasn't a complaint. How the hell could he complain, despite the weirdness of the boob thing. Of course, the fact that Rodney did that thing with his nipples when he found them was good enough that it mitigated the other.

He wasn't all that accustomed to being the one who laid back and left himself open. That was how things had to be, though, how they were, and he was glad to take that.

Rodney was weird and hesitant, and so far they hadn't done much more than kiss and pet, and John couldn't even call it weird because he knew enough of what happened that if Rodney wanted to kiss and tweak his nipples, that was great. It was even better when the tingling pangs of sensation that went right to his dick pressed against Rodney's leg.

"'s good," he managed to get out, shifting, moving so that Rodney's leg was between his own a little tighter. He propped his heel firmly against the mattress and tried to keep it there, to give better traction for what they were doing. "Unh. That's...."

"Oh, huh..." Rodney pushed back, and he seemed to get the gist of what they were doing, of where it seemed to be headed naturally. John could feel skin pressing against his leg, not the fabric of Rodney's boxers.

Damn. He should have taken his off, too, but he hadn't wanted... and that thought meandered off into nothing because Rodney was doing that thing to his neck again, and John had never realized exactly how good that felt. Hadn't thought it had been something that would turn him on that badly.

Kissing, sucking, licking, it meant Rodney could lean on his arms and move his hips against John's thigh with better traction. He kept his fingers at the back of Rodney's neck, just contact, touching, stroking, because it was hard to concentrate on what he could do in return.

He couldn't think, couldn't pull together anything more than the barest of ideas. The best he could do was to keep his foot pressed to the mattress, keep giving Rodney something to rock against, and gasp for breath. "Fuck. Fuck!"

"Sometime." Rodney leaned back for a moment, shifting, and it was awkward, but John just needed a little more friction, just a little, and then Rodney was kissing his jaw again, his neck. His thumbs were still on John's nipples, and as weird as it was, god it was good.

It was good, and he let go, fumbled to reach between them, to get his hand on Rodney's cock. On his own, anything, because despite their obvious attempts to prove otherwise, they weren't sixteen.

He needed extra, extra time, extra friction, which was kind of better, and he got fingers on Rodney's cock the right way from the moan that vibrated against his neck, from the way Rodney's hips twisted into his hand and he leaned, fingers pawing at the waistband of John's underwear.

"Sorry. Sorry," he gasped, and he meant it, because that wasn't easy. It felt kind of dirty, though, which was even better. Best.

It was even better when Rodney got his fingers in beneath the band, and stretched out fabric to pull at his dick. That was better, that was what he needed, better than humping Rodney's leg. Better than anything, except Rodney kissing him, and teasing at him, and making him shake with how ridiculously good it was.

"'s..." Good. So amazingly good, and it wasn't going to take much. Not much more.

Rodney rubbed his thumb over the head of John's dick, just a few swipes, over and over, and he pressed his face against John's shoulder, rocking his hips harder against John's hand. So close, and then he shifted, bit down on his throat, just enough, just hard enough, and John felt it when it hit him, left him gasping and desperate..

He hadn't done that as a non-solo thing in a damn long time. He barely remembered to keep his own hand moving, and Rodney seemed determined to finish up soon, like it might go unnoticed. He bit again, and again, lighter, and then John felt semen on his fingers.

They were shaking, both of them, and John removed his hand, wiped his fingers on the sheets. He'd catch hell for that later, but just at the moment, what he wanted was to reach up, touch Rodney's face, kiss his mouth.

They'd find a laundromat to use later.

Rodney slouched down onto him, and he hadn't done that until then, relaxing, messy fingers resting against John's hip. He kissed John back slowly, open-mouthed, even if he was still breathing raggedly.

"Was good," John mumbled between one kiss and the next. "Really good." Amazing, and he wanted more. As much as he could get, and maybe that was the problem he'd had all along. Not that he'd been angry or pissed or suspicious of Rodney. More like himself.

"Yeah. Yeah, it was. Really..." Rodney kissed him again, and shifted back a little. Just to get more comfortable. "Good."

He cleared his throat, and settled back, dropping his head onto the pillow. "I'm a jackass." It was reiteration, sure, but it was also true. He'd known it before, but sometimes it kind of hit him in the face.

"Yeah." It was an almost sleepy agreement, and Rodney's fingers twitched at his hip. "You are. And I'm an asshole."

He turned his face, felt the scratch of Rodney's beard against his own. "Yeah. But you're my asshole. Atlantis's asshole. I know that." Now, even if he'd tried to deny it to himself before.

John felt Rodney laugh against him, shifting again, squirming like he was trying to settle in. He did that on missions, too, fidgety until he just cold passed out. "We can clean up tomorrow."

"Lemme get off my shorts." Wipe off his hand, mop them both up so that they could sleep without worrying about matted cum first thing in the morning. Rodney slid off of him entirely, just to the side, and John tiredly squirmed himself out of his boxers.

"Tight boxers. Are they actually comfortable?" Rodney laid his head on the pillow, half-watching John.

A jaw-cracking yawn kept him from answering for a moment. "Yeah. Pretty much." Sloppily, he wiped at Rodney's belly for a minute with one of the legs, then tried wiping up himself. "I'd suggest 'em."

One boxer leg got grabbed, and Rodney wiped his fingers off. "Huh. Might get some to take back, just because these are getting worn out."

He could imagine exactly how hot they'd look on McKay's ass, too. "Good idea." They were both slurring words from pure exhaustion, and he dropped the boxers off the side of the bed, turning towards him.

"We should probably get some sleep." Rodney squirmed, working his body down a little further from the head of the bed.

"And tomorrow?" They didn't have any particular plans, and they weren't due back for another couple of weeks.

"Spend time with my sister. Buy some things that we won't mind declaring in customs. Laundry." Caught out, yeah. John smiled a little as he settled back in.

"Buy some more sheets," he murmured, and closed his eyes. Yeah. Maybe get a room with a bigger bed.

Maybe spend some more time with it.


Somewhere in those maybes, John drifted off to sleep.

Five people traveling in a small bio-fuel van that smelled like french fries to a museum that was probably going to have too many people, and he was still enjoying himself.

Rodney hadn't thought this would be even remotely enjoyable, much less something that actually felt like a good time. John and Madison were playing with LEGOs and Kaleb was somewhere to their left, fiddling with the big ones meant for toddlers. If his castle got much bigger, it would encase John and Maddie.

"I'm glad you're here."

"Only place in the world where I can be mistaken for the most mature person in the room," Rodney smirked. There was an awesome pirate ship on display, and it was actually interesting. He wondered if there was some way he might manage to cobble together one himself if he joined them.

Jeannie laughed. "You're dying to get in there and play, aren't you?"

"I might be." Except there were a lot of people there and he had a little more room out there. He might just get legos to take with him. They'd have to be tiny legos, so he could get more home with him. He needed to check if they made tinier legos.

"Come on. It's not like it's going to hurt anything if we go play a little." Jeannie held out her hand to him, like she had when she'd wanted him to take her to swing.

"If I freak out, smack me and drag me out to the car," Rodney mumbled, staring towards John. Wheels, wings and waves.

"Come on." They were stumbling forward, stepping into around kids and legos and bricks, and John was grinning at him, waving his hand in Rodney's direction. Madison squealed loud enough that it made his adult ears ache.

"Hey, you. C'mon in."

"Are you building anything in particular?" He crouched down with them, while Jeannie went to inspect the structural viability of that tower, he was sure.

"Uncle John says we're building 'lantis," Maddie informed him, chin jerking up sharply to show off the strange not-quite-a-spire that she was working on. "Wanna help?"

John grinned at him. "I think she's doing pretty good. What do you think?"

"The shape's a little lopsided, but not bad. Possibly more structurally sound." Rodney sat down, and crossed his legs awkwardly. "So, are those 'wings', or are you like that kid in the corner building a box who's said to heck with the theme?"

That made the grin widen even further, and he liked that. He'd been getting a lot of that, lately. "Hey. Nothing wrong with a box, or wings. i mean, who wouldn't want to see a flying city, right, sweetheart?"

"Right!" Madison wasn't paying attention, though. Not really. She had her tongue caught between her teeth, concentrating desperately on the next lopsided spire.

Rodney gathered up a handful of the miss-matched blocks for himself, and started to consider what he might want to make. "Well, this is interesting. So, what've you been up to?"

"Makin' 'lantis." There was a hint of duh in her voice. When a five year old could make him sound stupid, maybe he was being obvious.

"And wings," John added. "C'mon. Why don't you make a whale or something?"

Rodney cleared his throat. "Maybe I will. It's going to be an ugly whale, though." He needed to make a base for it, and John was reaching over, settling a handful of blue bricks near enough for him to use. A glance over at Kaleb's castle revealed Jeannie settling down beside him doing something with green bricks.

She was probably making a kiwi, Rodney decided, trying to layer the blue bricks for water in the best way he could manage.

Half an hour later, they were still working at it, like kids who were all amazingly happy just to be playing together. They hadn't even fought -- much, aside from John poking fun at his whale while he mocked John's winged thing, which was turning into a Pegasus.

Sort of. If it only had three legs, and sort of two tails, unless it was an odd posing sort of forth leg and not a tail at all. Rodney worked on adding the fins to his not-whale, but was mostly content to sit and watch everyone else. It was nice.

"Uncle Mer, I'm hungry," Maddie announced. Atlantis appeared to have turned into something pink on one side, and she was frowning at it, looking a little wobbly. Low blood sugar, no doubt.

"Okay." He abandoned the whale, left for someone else to take it apart or point and laugh, standing up unsteadily. "Do you want to go with your mom and dad and get some bad snack food?"

She looked like she would get whiny in short order. "No. I wanna go with Uncle John. Pleaaaaase, Uncle Mer, please, I want Uncle John! Please please please!"

"Hey, c'mon, sweetheart. It's fine. We'll get some chicken strips or... uh...." John blinked at him, as if he needed rescuing.

"Yes, no citrus, no peanuts -- that's the one, no peanuts," Rodney said sternly, moving over to get Jeannie and Kaleb's attention. The kiwi turned out to be a weird blocky dress for a princess as big as Kaleb's castle, and that was just disturbing.

Still, once he got their attention, everyone else was pretty interested in food, too, so they headed for the snack bar as a group, hoping for something good to turn up. Maddie was cranky, and Jeannie was working to rope her in, hopefully to keep her from making a scene in front of everyone present. John didn't seem to mind, strolling along between him and Kaleb as if he belonged there.

Maybe John did. He seemed to, seemed comfortable tropping along with them. Rodney mostly knew that low blood sugar turned him into a raging asshole -- when Madison got older, she, too, could face and use that knowledge.
 "See, there's chicken things."

"Meredith, you know we...."

"I heard snails taste like chicken," Madison offered, eyeballing him thoughtfully. "Joshua said so. Joshua's family eats weird stuff."

"Oh, damn.  Right." Rodney put a hand over his mouth, eyeing the menu speculatively. Snack bars, even in science museums, weren't that up on the hippy crap. "There's salad and smoothies?"

"I want chicken things!"

He'd corrupted his sister's child. Oh God. John snuck up behind her and picked her up. "C'mon, kiddo. How about we get some french fries, instead? With lots of ketchup."

"Oh, french fries! Hey, they have the curly ones," Rodney encouraged. "They're good."

That seemed to pacify her, because she wrapped her arms around John's neck and stuck her fingers in her mouth. "Uncle John?" It was a mutter, barely discernible around the tips of her fingers.

"Yeah, kiddo?"

"Can I marry you when I grow up?"


"Warranty. His entire undercarriage will be rust by then, too," Rodney reminded, stepping up towards the snack bar, gesturing his wallet at Jeannie. John never did see it coming, even in five year olds. His brother-in-law was coughing behind them, possibly trying not to laugh, or choke. Could be either one.

Maddie seemed to think about it. "Uncle Mer doesn't mind the bad warranty."

"Uncle Mer is a  *trained* engineer," Rodney countered. "I have tools and the knowledge that if a heavy application of evapo-rust leaves holes, Bondo can fill them in." He rounded on the guy behind the counter, who was staring at them. "Hi, uh, three orders of your curly frenchfries, and Jeannie, what do you want?"

His sister stepped forwards, looking up at the tiny menu. It was more by way of a cute sandwich shop than anything else, so the fact that it had anything even remotely vegetarian friendly was a little weird. "We'll have two of the small salads. We can stop and get real food on the way home."

Yes. Right. If real food constituted pizza.

"Right." The man behind the counter took Rodney's card for swiping, and Rodney rocked back on his heels, watching and waiting. "This has been fun."

"Yeah. It has." Jeannie reached out and took his hand.

He lifted his eyebrows at Jeannie, and squeezed her hand back. "At least you're not bothering the one with the cast. So, uh. I'm going to make a better effort at being in contact. Writing and stuff."

"Since you're not dead," she agreed, and they'd talked about all of that. Yelled about it, some, and John had taken Kaleb and Maddie out to Tim Hortons for doughnuts while they raised a special sort of flailing hell. "I'd appreciate it."

"I'm pretty happy about not being dead." Rodney leaned forward to take his card back, and John looked like he was looking for someone to pass Maddie onto, and Kaleb stepped up.

"C'mon, let's get a table, Maddie."

"Only if you promise I can get a better warranty on Uncle John later. An' Uncle Mer, because he might fall apart if Uncle John's is so bad. Daddy?"


"Do you have a warranty?"

"Oh, yeah, sweetie. I've got a great one. Low deductible and everything..."
"You're going to be sick of that," Rodney grinned at Jeannie, fumbling his credit card back into his wallet. "I wonder what else we can put into her head before we go."

Jeannie frowned at him, but Rodney knew she didn't mean it. Not badly. "Don't you dare teach her that Monty Python thing, Rodney. Don't you dare."

"Dead parrot sketch, or ministry of silly walks? Oh! The holy hand grenade was good." He stepped away, in preparation for the arm smacking that followed. "Hey, injured man here!"

"Hey, baby sister here." Right. Exactly. That said it all, he was pretty sure. "Now come on. Let's go eat. I should have gotten you a salad, too, because I've got a feeling you're plotting pizza."

"We've been eating so insanely healthy back at work," Rodney griped. "Curly fries, Jeannie. We don't get curly fries and pizza back there. Food is amazing."

Kaleb was talking Maddie into eating some of his salad, although she still wouldn't share her fries. "Get your own, Daddy!"

"Hey. C'mon, McKay. Before Maddie decides to eat your fries, too."

The chairs were metal and weirdly wirey, but Rodney slouched into his comfortably enough. Yeah,  this was... Good. Life, life was okay and good just then, and he was willing to bet that they'd get through the rest of the trip all right.

He had a family. And he had John, and that was something he'd never thought he would have. Something he still didn't understand having gotten.

It might all still have time to go horribly wrong, but he wanted more. He wanted to keep having John and a family and a home, even if they weren't all in the same place, but he wasn't going to worry about that. Not now.

For now, he was just going to enjoy himself, and them.

There had been a psych exam. John had figured there would be, for Rodney at least. He just hadn't figured on getting one of his own.

He hadn't wanted one, hadn't even psyched himself up for the damn thing. There was a certain headspace a guy needed to be in to fake his way through a psych exam, particularly when it was face to face with a doctor.

That had sucked in ways he hadn't wanted to think about, but he'd made it through, and after a couple of hours of mainlining coffee, Rodney had made it out, too.

Then they'd gone out and gotten seriously drunk. Rodney didn't like to talk about things. He didn't like to do more than give inferences and the odd little shocking comment when he wanted to snap at John. Someone sitting him down and making him talk it out like that... Well, it was no wonder Rodney drank that much.

Thank God they didn't get much hard liquor on Atlantis. It meant that neither of them had to worry about their livers much. Of course, the hangovers had been a stone cold bitch.

Rodney whined more than he actually threw up. He whined about throwing up. He whined about how sick and headachy he felt, but. They'd be home soon. And the drinking had kept them from really having to talk.

Anything was better than having to talk, especially after the whole psych eval issue. Still. They'd gotten their shit together, managed to pack up everything they'd bought, thrown away their sheets, and then headed for the Mountain.

They had more things for creature comforts, and John had a better feeling that things were going to be okay. That once Rodney's cast came off, he'd be okay rejoining the team.

God, he wanted him to rejoin the team. He wanted things to go back to normal, and he was going to do whatever he had to do to make that happen.

He stepped up next to Rodney, bumping his shoulder. "So. You ready to head up the ramp, get back to work?"

"I think so. We can write this off as not a total waste of time that I could have been spent on my research." He had that asshole dial turned up to a nine out of ten because Stargate command was watching them. Specifically, Samantha Carter was watching them, and Rodney had been making eyes at her since they arrived.

John hadn't gotten too worked up about it. There wasn't any point; McKay was heading back to Atlantis with him, and he'd spent the last week having unbelievably hot sex with him, too. Two guys could get up to a lot with blowjobs, hand jobs, petting, kissing, and sucking. He had a feeling it was going to take a long time to reach what John considered more standard sex fare, and that was fine.

Par for the course, seeing as he was the one who'd driven a bulldozer through it in the first place.

"That's good to know, McKay. After all, it's not every day you get to see the world's biggest frying pan. Or play with LEGOs at a science museum." He paused. "Or make up with your sister."

"There's that." Rodney shifted his good hand on one of his bags, and leaned minutely closer in to John. "It was a good trip. And now we're going home." Home. Back to Atlantis. Back to Atlantis, back to the place where he'd almost gotten Rodney killed, and Rodney couldn't wait to go back.

John would probably get him nearly killed again. That was inevitable, in Pegasus. Sometimes, it seemed like a weekly cycle -- almost die, survive against all odds, practically die again. Still, it was their cycle, it was their lives, and he'd be glad to get back to it.

He was glad they'd gotten back to one another, too, even if things were different now. Especially because things were different now. "Yeah. We're going home."

Maybe Carson would take that cast off of Rodney's arm. Maybe he wouldn't. Maybe the team was just going to have to face being grounded for another week or two. But it was going to be better than the tension from before they'd started their road trip.

"Chevron One, locked."