It was early evening by the time the plane landed at the county airfield in Colorado. Rodney climbed out of the plane with help from John and groaned as he stretched his back. Four hours in a cramped cockpit had not done his arm any favors, either.
He saw the worried glance John and Carson shared, and for once wholeheartedly agreed. Getting shot, even if it wasn't life-threatening, still hurt. Even with the prescription strength pain medication, his arm still ached, and all he wanted to do was find a bed and lie down.
He felt the light hold Carson kept on his right arm as he followed John to the parking lot, climbed into the back seat without complaint, and closed his eyes. He felt someone sit next to him a few seconds later, opened his eyes, and saw John and Carson exchange another look before Sheppard started the car and they headed back to Cheyenne Mountain.
"Major Sheppard, sir, I was asked to give you this once you returned to base," the corporal at the sign-in desk said as he handed over a folded note.
John read the note. "General Landry wants a report on what happened," he said to Rodney and Carson as he led the way to the elevators.
"Does he want to see me, too?" Rodney asked as the elevator dropped them down into the mountain facility.
"Not that he said," John replied with a glance at Carson.
"Come with me, Rodney," Beckett said as the elevator stopped at level twenty-one. "I want to check your arm. And then I want you to get some rest."
Rodney sat on the infirmary bed hissing and flinching as Carson probed the edges of the wound in his bicep. The stitches made a dark line across his skin under the blueish/purple bruising, and he looked away. He still couldn't believe Mason had actually shot him. Had wanted to kill him.
"Are you trying to make it worse?" he groused as Beckett found a particularly tender spot. "That hurts, you know."
Carson sighed, and Rodney recognised the look on his face as the one Carson wore when he was trying very hard to remain calm.
"The wound is starting to heal," Carson told him, ignoring Rodney's complaints as he wrapped a fresh dressing around the wound. "I'll take the stitches out in another week or so."
"Tell me I can get rid of the sling, at least."
Carson shook his head. "You need to let that arm rest if you want it to heal. Come see me the day after tomorrow, we'll see how things look then."
Rodney grumbled under his breath as Carson helped him put his shirt back on and settled his arm in the sling. He pulled at the strap around his neck and watched as Beckett packed up his supplies.
"Thanks, Carson," Rodney said as he slid off the bed. "For this, and for going with Sheppard to Nevada."
"It's nothing you wouldn't have done for me."
Rodney shrugged then winced as the motion pulled at his arm.
"I can give you something stronger for the pain," Carson offered.
Rodney shook his head. "Morphine slows my brain down. Don't like it."
Carson smiled. "Then find yourself something to eat and take your pills. Don't forget the antibiotic."
Rodney nodded and shuffled toward the infirmary door. "'Night, Carson."
"Good night, lad."
Rodney went back to the suite intending to drop off his travel case before heading to the mess hall, and was met by a corporal standing outside the door to the suite.
"Doctor McKay, sir?" the Corporal said.
Rodney rubbed his forehead. The last time a corporal had come looking for him he'd ended up shot. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what this one had to say.
"General Landry wanted me to give you this, sir," the Corporal said, and held out a plastic case with a disk inside.
"What is it?" he asked as he gingerly took the case, half expecting it to explode.
The Corporal looked down at his shoes for a moment. "It's, umm, it's the message you wanted to be sent to your sister, sir. I-I tried to deliver it, but … well, no one answered when I went to her home."
Rodney stared at the disk, ignoring the Corporal.
"I'm, umm, sorry, sir," the Corporal said, and after another moment, walked away.
Rodney entered the door code, walked inside, and tossed the disk on the nearest table. He sank into one of the chairs and stared at the wall lost in thought.
He'd discovered what a wonderful thing it was to have a family over the last year and he had tried to tell Jeannie that in his message to her. He had wanted her to know how sorry he was for what had happened four years ago and how much he regretted the lost time.
Once they'd survived the Wraith attack and could contact Earth, Rodney had had the wild idea of looking Jeannie up, mending their relationship, and introducing her to John.
He glanced at the disk on the table in front of him. Jeannie's refusal to even accept the disk told him everything he needed to know. She'd made it clear she wasn't ready to forgive, much less forget, the past.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and stood up. He needed to think, sort out his emotions, but he couldn't do that in a room where he had nothing to tinker with or build.
If he were back in Atlantis, he'd go to his lab, or sit out on a balcony with John, or maybe go to the rec room and play something on the keyboard. Unfortunately, the SGC was not Atlantis. Here he had nowhere to go if he wanted to think. No lab, no balconies. Instead, he wandered the halls, unable to settle.
Eventually, he found himself in the deserted mess hall, the dinner rush long over, toying with the food on his plate.
"Mind if I join you?" a voice asked, and Rodney looked up to see Doctor Jackson standing on the other side of the table, a cup of coffee in one hand.
Rodney didn't really want company at the moment, but Jackson didn't look like he was going to leave, so he waved the hand holding his fork at the chair across from him. He ate a few bites of his dinner and waited to see what Jackson wanted.
"How's the arm?" Jackson eventually asked.
"It hurts," Rodney said shortly, and looked down at his arm and the sling with a scowl.
Jackson nodded and drank some coffee. "Been there. Know the feeling well."
Rodney glanced up. He'd expected to see some form of condescension in Jackson's expression but instead saw only commiseration.
"You've been shot before?"
Jackson smiled. "More than once, unfortunately. Being hit by a blast from a zat is almost worse though. It takes forever for the pins and needles feeling to go away."
Rodney found himself smiling slightly as he poked at his food. "Sounds as bad as a Wraith stunner. I think my feet and legs were numb for days."
Jackson toyed with the coffee cup for a moment, and Rodney realised he was working himself up to saying something. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what Jackson had to say, he wasn't sure he could handle any more bad news at the moment.
"Spit it out already," he growled as he stabbed at the vegetables on his plate.
Jackson frowned then said, "Since you haven't said anything, I'm assuming neither Doctor Weir nor General Landry has talked to you about new personnel for the Atlantis expedition."
Rodney wasn't sure if that was a question or a statement. John had told him about the proposed increase of both scientists and military personnel, but Elizabeth hadn't given him any specifics yet.
"Doctor Weir mentioned needing some help translating the Ancient database in Atlantis, and I was fascinated by the artefacts you mentioned in the briefing," Jackson continued, "I put in for a transfer to Atlantis. Doctor Weir signed off on it while you were in Nevada."
Rodney froze with his fork halfway to his mouth and stared over at Jackson. Elizabeth had signed off on the transfer? He dropped his fork and leant back in his chair.
"No," he said shortly. He heard the defensiveness in his tone and didn't care. "No one bothered to tell me."
"Ahh," Jackson mouthed and looked down at his cup. "It's just as the foremost expert on the Ancients …" he started to explain.
Rodney snorted, and Jackson looked over at him in surprise.
"As the foremost expert on the Ancients," Jackson said again, "Doctor Weir agreed I'd be a good person to have in the city."
"What about SG-1?" Rodney asked, his tone stiff. "Aren't you needed here?"
Jackson shrugged. "The System Lords are defeated. Jack took a job in DC. Teal'c left to help the Jaffa settle on a new planet and start a new government. You know about Sam." He gave Rodney a hesitant smile and continued. "There's not much left for me here at the moment. After almost ten years, I'm ready, more than ready, to go somewhere new. It will be kind of nice to sit in a lab and get back to pure research."
Rodney went back to his meal. If he were honest, having Jackson along did have its benefits. They needed someone who knew the language and could refine the translation program for the Ancient database. It was something Grodin had been working on in his spare time. He swallowed and tried not to think about Peter. Or Ford.
Jackson stood from the table. "This isn't going to be a problem for you, is it?"
Rodney shrugged, then winced as the movement pulled at his arm. "I'm the head of the science department. I can always have you sent back here if I decide you aren't useful."
Jackson nodded and held up a finger. "Good point," he said with a wry smile. "In that case, Doctor McKay, I'll be seeing you around."
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
John sat at one end of the conference room table the next morning, pushing his coffee cup back-and-forth between his hands. He wasn't sure what was left to actually discuss about the Atlantis mission at this point, but Landry had sent an airman to find him in the mess hall and tell him he was needed in the conference room ASAP to discuss an important aspect of the expedition.
"John, how is Rodney?" Elizabeth asked as they waited for General Landry to join them. "I haven't had a chance to see him since you got back yesterday."
"He's doing okay. Carson wants to keep him in the sling for at least a week just to be safe."
Elizabeth smiled. "Something tells me that's going to be a challenge."
John grinned. "Beckett has already caught him twice not wearing it. He says he's going to find another sling Rodney can't get out of on his own if he finds McKay wandering around without it again."
"How are you doing?" she asked with a look at the door.
"I'm fine. The itch is there, but as long as McKay takes his meds, it's bearable."
John glanced at the conference room door as it opened, and quickly stood as General Landry came in the room carrying a stack of file folders and a large envelope.
Landry looked over at Elizabeth and said, "Apologies for being late, Doctor Weir. Walter had to make sure everything was done to spec."
"Everything is in order?" she asked.
"It took a fair amount of arm-twisting, but we got there in the end," Landry replied.
John frowned at the doublespeak and felt his temper rising.
Landry turned to him and said, "Well, Major, it seems you've had an interesting few days. How is Doctor McKay?" Landry sat down and waved John back into his seat.
John eyed Landry for a moment, then took his chair and replied, "He's doing better, sir."
"Good, good." Landry glanced at something in one of the files, and John looked from the file to Weir.
Had Carter told Landry anything about her suspicions? he wondered. Was he about to be put in a position where he needed to explain about Ancient gauntlets, wayposts, and mental links?
Landry shut the file and looked up at John with a smile. "I have to say, Major, I've had some interesting conversations with a couple of ranking officers you may know over the last few days."
John swallowed and made sure his expression remained bland.
"The Daedalus made radio contact while you were in Nevada. They should be back here in a few days. She'll need to go through a thorough inspection, and it seems Hermiod isn't too happy with some of the repair work that was done on the fly, but if everything goes to plan, we should have you and your people on your way back to Atlantis in less than a month."
"That's good to hear, sir," John replied.
"Something else the Daedalus passed along," Landry continued. "Colonel Everett made a video statement of the events that transpired during the Wraith attack. He was rather emphatic about the role you played in saving Atlantis."
"Colonel Everett …" John started to ask.
Landry shook his head. "Died. Just as the Daedalus reached the Milky Way galaxy."
John looked down at the table. Everett had rubbed more than a few people the wrong way when he'd arrived in Atlantis, but John had respected him. Being fed on by a Wraith was not a fate he would wish on his worst enemy.
Landry watched him for a few more seconds, then picked up the envelope and tapped it against the table a few times, and glanced at Elizabeth.
"Had another interesting conversation with General O'Neill last night after you and Doctors McKay and Beckett returned. I don't suppose you were aware Jack O'Neill and I go way back?"
"No, sir," John said after a slight pause. "I didn't know that."
Landry nodded and tapped the envelope again. "General O'Neill seems to like you, Major. Told me the Air Force was wasting an important resource by not using you to your full potential."
John looked at Landry with a puzzled frown. "He said that, sir?"
Landry smiled. "What he actually said was 'Hank, just do it. I promise you, you won't regret it.'"
Now John was thoroughly confused "Umm, do what, sir?"
Landry glanced at Elizabeth and held out the envelope to her.
Elizabeth smiled. "John, as I'm sure you're aware, Atlantis is in need of a military commander." She held out the envelope to him. "I'm offering you that position."
John took the envelope, and with slightly shaking fingers, opened it, and read the letter within.
"By order of the President of the United States … John P Sheppard … promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel."
John looked up from the letter and stared at Elizabeth.
"Can I assume your answer is 'yes'?" she asked with a smile.
John swallowed his surprise and stood. "Absolutely."
"Congratulations, Major," Landry said as he held out his hand.
"Thank you, sir," John replied as he shook Landry's hand.
"Don't thank me, Major. This was all Doctor Weir's idea. It was lucky for you the Daedalus radioed when she did, and that the Promotions Board was willing to accept Colonel Everett's verbal statement. Walter needed three senior officers to sign off on the recommendation letters. The Board can be harassed into pushing through the paperwork quickly, but they still want all the I's dotted and T's crossed."
John looked over at Elizabeth. "I don't …"
Elizabeth shook her head. "After the last year, you've more than earned it, John."
Landry handed him a small box. "I suggest you find your dress blues, Major. The promotion ceremony is scheduled for two hours from now." He picked up the file folders and turned toward the door. "Do you have someone in mind to do the pinning honors, Major?"
John picked up the box and smiled. He knew exactly who he wanted for that honor. "Yes, sir. Doctor McKay."
John caught the small smile on Elizabeth's face as Landry gave him a knowing look.
"Somehow, I'm not surprised," Landry said.
For a moment John wondered what else O'Neill had said to Landry.
"Go on, John," Elizabeth said a moment later. "I'm sure Rodney will want to hear the good news from you."
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
Rodney spent the morning reading résumés trying to whittle down the list of several hundred applicants for the science positions down to a few dozen.
So far, he had three new botanists, several chemists, both organic and inorganic, and geologists, and a couple of archaeologists already selected. Where he was stuck was within his own fields. In his mind, Atlantis needed at least two more physicists and at least six more engineers. The problem was he couldn't find anyone he felt had the intelligence or the imagination to do the kind of work he needed them to do.
He rubbed his aching arm and looked up when he heard the door to the suite open.
"Good you're here," John said with a distracted look at the files on the table as he entered the room.
Rodney looked at Sheppard with a frown. John wasn't one to state the obvious. As he watched John move around the room, Rodney realised something was off with Sheppard, and wondered if he'd been given the news on who the new base commander for Atlantis was going to be. He couldn't think of any other reason for John to be so out of sorts.
"Where else would I be?" he asked, and closed the folder he'd been reading.
John waved off the question. "You need to get changed. We need to be in the embarkation room in an hour."
"What? Why?" Rodney glanced from his watch to the various piles of folders on the table.
"Landry made his decision on the new commander for Atlantis," John told him.
Rodney sat back in his chair with a scowl. So he was right, he thought to himself. The shoe had finally dropped. He wondered if it would be someone they could learn to live with.
"Who'd he pick?" Rodney asked then held up a hand. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Caldwell." He tried not to sneer as he said the name.
John shook his head, and Rodney could see something strange in John's expression. "Hold out your hand," John said.
Rodney gave John a suspicious look as he held out his right hand. "Okay."
John handed him a small blue box. Rodney looked up with a puzzled expression then set the box on the table and carefully opened it. Inside he found two silver rank insignia in the shape of an oak leaf.
He looked back up at John as a wide grin spread across Sheppard's face. "You are now looking at Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard and the official military head of the Atlantis expedition," John told him. "Or at least I will be in an hour."
"You're kidding. They promoted you?" Rodney asked and didn't bother to hide his shock. He picked up one of the oak leaves and studied it closer.
"You don't have to sound so surprised," John said, his tone cool.
Rodney looked up and thought he glimpsed hurt in John's eyes. "No, no, you deserve it. It's just you said it would never happen. Something about me learning to fly straight first if I recall. I'm happy for you, John. I really am."
John smiled. "Thanks."
Rodney held out the box with the rank pins, but John shook his head. "I need you to hold on to those," he said as he used the outstretched arm to pull Rodney to his feet.
Rodney frowned. "Why?"
"There's a bit of a tradition in the military when you go up in rank," John explained. "You don't change your insignia yourself. It's bad luck. Some guys ask their CO or someone who helped them through the ranks. It's a sign of respect." John nodded to the pins in Rodney's hand. "Others ask family, usually their spouse or parents. I told Landry you would do mine."
John rested his hands on Rodney's shoulders. "Absolutely. Chaguo ndugu, remember? I can't think of anyone I'd rather have."
"What about this?" Rodney asked and lifted the sling and his left arm slightly.
John smiled. "It'll be fine. Go get changed. It doesn't look good for the honoree to be late."
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
Most of the beginning of the promotion ceremony passed in a blur for John. He and Rodney had entered the embarkation room to find a sea of formal blue uniforms waiting for the ceremony to start. A podium sat at the top of the embarkation ramp, several chairs lined the back of the ramp between the podium and the stargate. Another line of chairs waited at the bottom of the ramp, facing the podium.
John hadn't had time for more than a quick glance around the room before Sergeant Harriman came over and led him away from Rodney to one of the chairs at the top of the ramp.
He'd sat down and looked out at the sea of faces in the room. General O'Neill stood to one side of the ramp talking to Doctor Jackson. Colonel Caldwell stood near the end of the ramp with a stoic expression on his face. John knew he'd been expecting to get the Atlantis assignment and was a bit surprised to see him.
John had watched as Harriman led Rodney to one of the chairs at the bottom of the ramp and smiled slightly when Carson sat next to him and pulled McKay's hand away from the strap for the sling. He saw Rodney say something to Beckett but couldn't make out the words.
Before John knew it, General Landry had called everyone to attention, had said a few words about sacrifice, and introduced General O'Neill.
O'Neill stood at the mic and with a glance over at John, said, "I met Major Sheppard a little over a year ago and was instantly impressed by his ability to fly a chopper when a rogue drone came after us …"
John glanced down at the line of chairs and saw Carson hiding his face in his hands.
"... I've spent the last few weeks reading the mission reports from Atlantis and realised not only was Major Sheppard a fine pilot, he was also a damned fine officer. The men and women of the Atlantis expedition have been lucky to have him."
John saw O'Neill glance over at him. "There are few things more gratifying than the opportunity to award honors to the men and women who serve to protect not only this country but also the world."
O'Neill's tone took on a formal quality as he said, "By order of the President of the United States and the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, in recognition of service well beyond the call of duty, I hereby authorise the immediate promotion of Major John P Sheppard to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel." O'Neill turned to John. "Major, please stand."
John stood to attention as Rodney came up the ramp with Sergeant Harriman beside him. Somehow Rodney had convinced Carson to take off the sling, and McKay grimaced slightly as he stretched his arm and unpinned the gold oak leaf on each of John's shoulders then replaced them with the silver ones from the box Harriman held for him.
Rodney gave him a crooked smile once he was done and stepped back as O'Neill stepped forward.
"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," O'Neill said, and stood in front of John.
"General O'Neill, sir," John replied, and saluted.
O'Neill returned the salute, and the room erupted into applause.
O'Neill gave John a smile and a nod before he stepped back, giving Elizabeth room to stand in front of John.
"Congratulations, Colonel," she said and hugged him.
"Thank you, Doctor Weir," he replied, then added in a near whisper, "Really, thank you. I know this was mostly your doing."
"I did what I had to do to get the best man for the job, Colonel," she told him, her tone serious.
"Congratulations, John!" Carson exclaimed as he came up the ramp and pounded John on the back as he shook John's hand.
Rodney smiled and offered John his hand. John grasped his hand only long enough to pull him into a brief hug instead. "Thank you," he whispered in Rodney's ear.
"I think that's your five minutes up," Carson added and held up the sling.
Rodney looked like he wanted to argue, but John took the sling, helped Rodney get his arm settled in it again, then kept one arm around Rodney's shoulders as they walked down the ramp and into the throng of well-wishers.
"We should go somewhere and celebrate," Carson said once the crowd had thinned.
"Agreed," Elizabeth replied. "And I know just the place. It's a little Italian restaurant I found when I was here last year. The food is amazing."
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
Rodney left the restaurant while the others were still eating dessert and wandered over to a nearby park. He found a bench, sat down, and stared up at the stars, picking out familiar constellations. The waning moon was rising, and Rodney caught himself looking for a second, smaller moon before he remembered where he was. He sighed and rubbed his aching arm.
It really wasn't the sleep deprivation talking when he'd told Teyla he wasn't that interested in coming back to Earth. There hadn't been much for him here before he'd left for Atlantis, and over the last year, he'd found so much more in the Pegasus galaxy than he ever had in the Milky Way.
He picked out Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Once he had Polaris, it didn't take him long to find the constellation Pegasus. He was still staring at where he knew the galaxy itself had to be when he heard familiar footsteps crunching on the path behind him and smiled slightly. He'd been wondering how long John was going to wait before he came looking for him.
"Here," he heard John say and turned to see Sheppard holding something cupped in his hand.
Rodney gave him a puzzled look and held out his hand.
"Someone may have told Carson you needed them," John added as he dropped the pills into Rodney's palm and handed him a bottle of water.
Rodney swallowed the pills. "Thanks," he said, and went back to stargazing.
John sat on the bench next to him with his arms stretched along the back of the bench. "What were you looking at?"
"Home," Rodney replied without thinking.
He expected John to laugh, and was surprised when all Sheppard did was lean forward and ask, "Where?"
"Find Polaris, look east," Rodney directed as he pointed out the star in question. "Pegasus is just rising."
John looked up at the constellation for several minutes then leant back on the bench with his arms spread along the back again. "Feeling a bit homesick?"
Rodney shrugged and winced. "Yeah. Maybe."
John nodded. "After the year we've had, I thought it would be a relief to get back to Earth. Smell the air, eat food that didn't come out of an MRE package." John looked up at the sky again. "Have to say, though, I miss the city."
"I miss my lab," Rodney said. He leant back on the bench, and felt the warmth of John's arm against his shoulders. "All those Ancient devices still waiting for me to rediscover their secrets."
"When we get back, I'm taking out a jumper," John said, and Rodney saw the wistful smile on his face. "Do a flyover of the mainland, maybe head for space and make a few orbits of the planet."
"Maybe have another flying lesson?" Rodney hinted, with a glance at Sheppard.
John grinned. "Maybe." He tapped Rodney's right arm. "Also, now that we have the ZPM, we can finally get back to the Ancient computer game. I think your village was on the verge of a crushing defeat when we had to stop."
"In your dreams. My villagers have made any number of major scientific breakthroughs that will bring your village to its knees."
John shook his head and stared up at the sky again.
"I'm going to go see Ford's cousin, Lara, in a few days," he said a few minutes later, and Rodney saw him fiddling with the coin Ford had given him. "I want to talk to her in person. Let her know we haven't given up and that we will find him."
"I can go with you," Rodney offered.
John shook his head. "Thanks, but I should really go alone."
"What is this some sort of penance?" He felt John flinch and turned to face Sheppard. "You've got to be kidding," he said and frowned when John refused to look at him. "What happened to Ford wasn't your fault, you know. You weren't even in the city when the Wraith attacked him."
Rodney swallowed and tried very hard not to think about where John actually was when Ford and the Wraith drone had fallen into the ocean.
"I could have done more to help him once we knew what was wrong with him," John said and pulled his arms back until he sat hunched forward with his elbows braced on his knees.
Rodney snorted and leant back on the bench. "And people think I have a god complex."
John glared over at him, and Rodney matched him look for look. "Carson was trying to help him, and Ford attacked him. Twice! He made it pretty clear he didn't want our help, Major. Sorry. Colonel."
"We don't leave people, Rodney."
Rodney sighed. "We didn't leave him. He ran away."
John didn't reply, and Rodney watched as he twirled the coin in his fingers.
Rodney bent forward, supporting his sore arm with his right hand. "Look, we'll find him. We'll find him, and Carson will fix him. But until then, you can't keep blaming yourself."
John flipped the coin one last time, then stuffed it back in his trouser pocket. "Maybe you're right."
"Of course, I'm right. I'm always right." Rodney grinned at John's derisive snort.
John stood. "Come on. Elizabeth and Carson are probably wondering where we went."
"It is your party," Rodney agreed as he fell into step next to Sheppard. "Kind of strange for the guest of honor to disappear."
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
Four days later John left the small house in the quiet cul-de-sac and climbed back into the rental car. He sat for a few minutes flipping the bronze coin over and over in his hand. Lara had refused to take the coin, saying she hoped it would be a reminder of the promise John had made to find Ford.
John twirled the coin in his fingers again, then stuffed it back in his pocket, and started the car. He had a city to return to and a lost friend to find. He was ready to go home.