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Picking Up The Pieces

Chapter Text

They had won. The Wraith had left thinking Atlantis destroyed, but what had been the cost? John stored the Wraith stunner back in the weapons rack and sat on one of the benches in the armoury with his head down and his arms braced on his knees. Countless Marines, both from Atlantis and the contingent brought by Colonel Everett, were dead. The Colonel himself had been fed upon and was near death. And Ford was strung out on Wraith enzyme and missing.

John tried reminding himself of the positives, Atlantis was safe. Rodney and Teyla were alive. He was still alive, despite his best efforts with a suicide run at a Wraith hive ship in a puddle jumper loaded with a nuclear weapon. His brain, however, chose to spiral back to Everett, the makeshift morgue down in one of the empty rooms under the control room. Ford glaring at him through the windscreen as he left in another jumper.

He knew better than to play the what-if game, but he couldn't help feeling like he should have done something, anything else to get Ford the help he needed. John scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. He needed to get back to work, he told himself. There were condolence letters to write to families, after-action reports to write and read. An abandoned jumper and a friend to find.

He was still sitting on the bench several minutes later, exhausted and lost in thought when he heard his name over the radio.

"Weir to Sheppard."

John sighed. He considered for a few seconds just ignoring the call, then reminded himself Elizabeth wouldn't try to contact him unless it was important. He sat up slowly and tapped his earpiece. "Sheppard here."

"Chuck scrubbed the 'gate activity logs. He thinks he's found the planet Lieutenant Ford 'gated to."

John frowned. Why wasn't Rodney the one searching for the jumper, he wondered. McKay had been in the control room when Ford made his escape. Where had he gone? He shook his head and stood. Maybe he was finally getting some sleep. John hoped that was the case. Besides, it didn't matter who found the jumper, he told himself, as long as they had the right planet.

"I'll be right there," he replied and tapped off the radio.

He climbed the stairs up to the control room a few minutes later and found Elizabeth standing next to Chuck. No Rodney or Zelenka in sight which seemed odd to John.

"Where did he go?" he asked without preamble.

Chuck glanced at Elizabeth, then over at John. "Umm, P9X-565, sir."

The designation sounded familiar, but John couldn't place why he knew it.

"What do we know about that planet?" Elizabeth asked with a glance over at John.

Chuck turned back to the computer in front of him. "Doctor Volkov and a geology team attempted to explore the planet several months ago. They brought back some mineral samples, but reported the planet had a low oxygen atmosphere." Chuck looked up from the computer and glanced first at Elizabeth, then at John. "They weren't able to stay very long or do much exploring."

"That's why it sounds familiar," John mumbled.

"John?" Elizabeth asked.

He ignored her and asked Chuck, "Are you sure that's the planet?"

Chuck nodded. "Yes, sir. The logs record all 'gate addresses dialled, but there's no time stamp, so to speak. We had to match up destinations with missions. This is the only one we couldn't account for."

John turned to Elizabeth. "That's the planet Rodney sent Rasha's men to when they wanted the 'gate address for Atlantis." John looked down at the stargate below. "Ford isn't taking any chances we might be able to follow him after ditching the jumper. He chose a planet he knew would be difficult for us to track him and figure out where he went next." John suspected there was another reason Ford chose P9X-565, but he didn't say anything to Elizabeth.

John glanced over at Elizabeth and found her watching him. "I'll go through and bring the jumper back," he said, and turned toward the stairs leading down to the gateroom.

"John, you're exhausted," Elizabeth protested. "Maybe you should wait until after you've had a chance to rest. You said yourself, Ford probably left as soon as the jumper was through the 'gate."

John worked to keep his temper in check as he turned around. He knew Elizabeth was right. The odds Ford was still on P9X-565 were slim at best. Still, he had to try. He didn't abandon members of his team.

"We need to get the jumper and Ford back here," John told her. "He doesn't have the gene, there's no way he could fly the ship once it was through the 'gate. The only reason he got as far with it as he did was because of the docking system in the jumper bay."

"And what if he set a trap and used the jumper as bait?" Elizabeth asked. "He knows we'll follow him."

"He wouldn't do that," John replied stiffly.

Elizabeth frowned. "He tried to throttle Carson, and he attacked Doctor Zelenka in the jumper bay. I don't think either of us can really say one way or the other what Ford will do at this point."

John ducked his head. He hadn't known about Zelenka. That would explain why Rodney suddenly disappeared from the control room after Ford had run off, he realised. Someone must have told him what had happened to Radek.

"Someone needs to go, and I'm about the only person left who can fly the jumper back," John said.

"You shouldn't go alone. Call Sergeant Stackhouse or Sergeant Thompson to go with you," Elizabeth suggested.

John shook his head. "Stackhouse is helping Teyla shuttle the Athosians back to the mainland. And Thompson has his hands full dealing with the clean-up. If Ford is still on the planet, sending a team after him will only spook him."

And might get someone hurt, he didn't add.

"I'll have better luck talking to him if I'm alone. If Ford isn't there, there's no reason to take more people. Rodney told me the planet was deserted. The atmosphere is too thin to support any sort of life. The jumper won't be far from the 'gate. I'll be fine."

Elizabeth took a deep breath and finally nodded. "Just be careful," she admonished as John ran down the steps. "Dial the planet," she added to Chuck.

"Yes, ma'am."

John checked his Beretta as the 'gate started to dial. He'd thought about running back to the armoury for the Wraith stunner or a P-90 but changed his mind. If Ford was there, waiting for someone to come through the 'gate, John hoped showing up minimally armed might convince Ford to trust him and come back to Atlantis. If Ford wasn't there - something John wasn't ready to accept until he saw for himself - there was no reason to carry the extra weapons.

The wormhole formed with a whoosh and John stepped forward.

"I know you want to help him, John, but don't take any chances," Elizabeth called down from the balcony.

John looked up, gave her a nod, and stepped through the event horizon.

He felt his breathing hitch, and his chest tighten as soon as he stepped through the other side. Memories of nearly dying from suffocation, of finding Rodney half-dead and not breathing, assaulted him as the 'gate shut down.

This was the other reason he thought Ford had chosen this planet to ditch the jumper. While the thin atmosphere wouldn't affect him, thanks to the Wraith enzyme, Ford knew John would be the most likely one to follow him and would remember the all too recent trip to the Ancient outpost. John had to give Ford credit, he was thinking strategically, something he would have to remember if he wanted to find his lost teammate.

He looked around as he tried to take a deep breath.

P9X-565 was as desolate as John expected. No plants were growing in the fine, black dirt. He didn't see any signs of animal life either. The area around the 'gate was completely flat, but he spotted what looked like low hills through the hazy air in the near distance.

John shivered slightly, the thin atmosphere didn't hold much heat, as he stood bent over with his hands braced on his knees trying to catch his breath. He gave the area around the 'gate a sideways look and slowly stood up. Ford hadn't tried to attack him on sight, and John did a slow turn surveying the immediate area near the 'gate.

The DHD stood a few feet away from the 'gate. John could tell the ground around the device was disturbed. The jumper sat a few feet away, the hatch closed, and already covered in a layer of fine black dust. To John, it almost looked like the ship was covered in ash or soot.

There was no sign of Ford.

So he's left, John thought to himself as he shuffled over to the jumper, kicking up more of the ashy dust. He started coughing, from the dust or the thin air, he wasn't sure which. All he knew was he couldn't breathe, and he could feel his heart hammering against his ribcage.

He pulled out his remote, triggered the rear hatch of the jumper, and stumbled up the ramp. Once inside, he pushed the control to close the hatch and collapsed on one of the rear bench seats. He sat for a few minutes gasping and coughing before he slowly made his way to the front of the ship. Once he was in the cockpit, he reached across the co-pilot's seat and pressed the tiles to reset the environmental systems then turned to the pilot's seat as he started coughing again.

You need to sit down before you fall down, he told himself and froze when he saw a small knife and two uniform patches on the chair.

John picked up the items and sank into the chair. He was breathing easier as the oxygen level in the jumper returned to Atlantis standard and he sat back in the chair studying the objects in his hands. He recognised the knife as the one Teyla had given Ford as a Secret Santa gift a month ago.

Why leave them? John wondered as he ran a thumb over the stitched Atlantis patch. Was it an apology? Some last remnant of the Aiden Ford he knew trying to protect the city by leaving his insignia behind? Or was this a sign he was cutting ties to Atlantis and everyone in it? That he didn't want anyone to look for him.

"Damn it, Ford, why won't you let us help you?" John muttered to himself as he pocketed the patches and the knife, ran through the preflight checks for the jumper, and dialled the 'gate.

"Atlantis, this is Sheppard," John said once the wormhole formed.

"Go ahead, John," Elizabeth replied.

"Ford isn't here," John reported. "I've got the jumper. Coming back now."

"Understood," she replied, and John heard the sadness and regret in her tone.

John lifted off and did a quick pass over the area just to be sure Ford really was gone. He didn't see anywhere Ford could hide and no signs he'd gone anywhere except back through the 'gate to who knew where. John pursed his lips and turned the jumper for the 'gate.

A few moments later he was back in Atlantis and rising up through the gateroom to the jumper bay. He took his time powering down the ship and opening the hatch. While he wasn't really surprised Ford was long gone from 565, he was still disappointed, and more than a little hurt, Ford refused to trust them, trust him. He sat in the pilot's seat a few more minutes, forcing the memory of Ford standing in front of the transporter, pointing a P-90 at him, into a box that he carefully locked and stuffed into a corner of his mind.

John had tried talking to him, tried to convince Ford they just wanted to help. In the end, he'd been forced to shoot Ford in the back with the Wraith stunner to keep him from escaping. He was surprised when the stunner had had no effect. John had been hit with a blast from the stun weapon in the past, he knew it felt like a kick to the chest. But Ford had only glared at him as he stabbed a finger at the touch panel and the transporter doors closed.

John scrubbed a hand over his face, grimacing at the gritty feeling of the ashy dust on his skin and wondered if the stunner had been the nail in the coffin of Ford's faith in him. Had he lost whatever chance he had to win back Ford's trust by trying to stop him?

He shook his head and made his way out of the jumper. He wasn't going to solve Ford's problem in the next few minutes, or even in the next few days if he were honest with himself. Elizabeth had given him tacit permission to continue the search assuming he found a lead. He'd have to talk things over with Teyla and Rodney and see if they had any ideas on what to do next.

John walked back through the jumper bay, thinking only of a hot shower, a hot meal, and his bed, when he spotted Doctor Tsao and a team of engineers working on the jumper Rodney and Zelenka had cannibalised to make the cloak for Atlantis. The fact neither Rodney nor Radek was leading the repair effort reminded him of Elizabeth's comment Ford had attacked Zelenka when he'd stolen the jumper.

John watched the engineers work for a moment and felt guilt stab at him. If he'd been able to convince Ford to accept his help, Zelenka wouldn't have been hurt. Ford was a trained tactical fighter, John reminded himself, Radek could be very seriously injured thanks to John's inability to reach Ford and help him.

Was that why he still couldn't find McKay? Was Rodney down in the infirmary, alone, wondering if he was about to lose another friend?

They hadn't had any time to talk about Grodin and what had happened at the weapons station before the Wraith arrived. Now Zelenka had been hurt as well. Not to mention your own stunt with the jumper, John grimly reminded himself. He'd hoped his inability to find Rodney meant he was getting some well-deserved rest. He suspected the opposite was true.

There wasn't anything he could do about Ford at the moment, but another friend probably needed his help just as badly, he told himself.

He brushed at the dust on his uniform and instead of heading to his quarters for a shower, he turned toward the infirmary. He'd make sure Zelenka was going to be all right, and hopefully, find McKay still in the infirmary. Maybe he'd have better luck convincing Rodney to get something to eat with him and go to bed than he had convincing Ford to stay.

John walked into the infirmary a few minutes later to find organised chaos. Several med techs scurried about the space, organising supplies, fetching items for one of the few patients that hadn't been transferred to the Daedalus, or folding up the empty cots still lining the back wall near the medical lab where the overflow of patients had been housed during the worst of the siege.

John stared at one of the empty beds against the wall, the memory of Colonel Everett apologising to him, telling him he'd wished John had been able to do for him what Sheppard had done for Sumner played through his head again. He knew Everett had been moved to the Daedalus before the last wave of Wraith ships had arrived. Was Everett even still alive for the trip back to Earth? John shook himself out of the memory and looked around the rest of the room.

Sharon stood near a bed across the room checking the monitors for one of the Marines from the Daedalus who smiled up at her even though John could see his left arm was missing below the elbow. Two other nurses were with other patients. John saw Sergeant Stephens in another bed, his chest swathed in bandages. Corporal Ortega lay a few beds down from him, one arm strapped to his chest and his leg held immobilised by a metal brace. Both were either asleep or unconscious, John wasn't sure.

He found Zelenka asleep in a bed on the other side of the room, Beckett standing next to him looking at the monitor next to the bed.

Unfortunately, he didn't see Rodney anywhere.

"Carson," John said in a low voice as he stopped next to Beckett. "How's he doing?"

Carson glanced over at him and gave him a tight smile. "He has a moderate concussion and several bruised ribs from falling on a case of equipment," Carson told him, and John wondered if he imagined the accusatory tone of Beckett's voice.

"I realise the Wraith enzyme is what's really to blame here," Carson continued, "but Aiden could have done him a severe injury. As it is, Radek will be my guest for the rest of the night. If the concussion resolves without any complications, I'll release him back to his quarters tomorrow afternoon."

John glanced over at Beckett. "That soon?"

Carson's smile widened. "Unlike you or Rodney, I know he," Carson nodded at Zelenka's sleeping body, "will follow doctor's orders and rest."

John chose not to try and defend himself and said instead, "Speaking of McKay, have you seen him lately?"

Carson gave him a measured looked and walked back toward his office. "He was here earlier. Someone told him what had happened with Zelenka, and Rodney came to check on him." He stopped outside his office and studied John for a moment. "He didn't stay very long, though, not after he found out Radek would be fine in a few days. He left muttering something about checking the ZPM."

John sighed. So much for getting McKay's ideas on how to track Ford, he thought to himself. He started to leave the office but stopped when Carson called his name.

"John? If you find Rodney, you need to get him to rest," Carson told him, worry plain in his expression. "He looked completely done in when he was here earlier." Carson stepped forward and tapped John's arm. "You need to get some sleep as well. I know you're worried about Ford and want to help him, but you won't do him any good if you don't take care of yourself."

John nodded and turned back toward the door. "Food, shower, bed, not necessarily in that order, is my plan."

He entered the mess hall, showered and in a clean uniform, an hour later surprised, not only at the number of people scattered around the room for how late it was, but the smell of hot food waiting in the mess line. After everything that had happened over the last few days, his highest hopes were for a not-stale sandwich and coffee.

"Compliments of the Daedalus, sir," one of the cooks told him as he handed John a warm plate of meat and vegetables.

John nodded his thanks, grabbed a cup of much-needed coffee and wandered over to where Teyla sat at their usual table, her back to the night darkened windows.

"Hey," John said as he sat down across from her. "How're you doing?" he asked when he saw her lip was still swollen from her fight during the Wraith invasion of the city.

"I am tired," she replied with a tiny smile. "As, I think, is most everyone in the city."

"Were you and Stackhouse able to start moving your people back to the mainland?"

"Yes, though many plan to stay until after the memorial tomorrow," she replied and looked down at her hands. "There were many losses among my people. The mourning will be a long one."

"I'm sorry," he said and touched her hand.

Teyla nodded. "Thank you, John. They died protecting their homes and their families. It was an honorable death." She glanced around the room. "Your people suffered great losses as well."

John nodded and glanced at the various teams seated around the room and the empty chairs around their tables. It was a sobering reminder of how many people they'd lost over the last three days.

Sergeant Thompson and Corporal Daley sat at one table not saying anything as the food on their plates sat ignored. John knew Corporal Tate had been killed in the fighting.

He found Sergeant Stackhouse seated at another table. Corrigan sat beside him, his arm in a sling, speaking softly. He remembered Stephens and Ortega were down in the infirmary, and Carson had yet to decide if they would be staying in Atlantis to recover, or if they would be shipped back to Earth on the Daedalus.

Davis, Sanchez, and Jeffries had all been with Ford when the Wraith invaded the city. All three were down in the makeshift morgue waiting for transport back to Earth.

John toyed with the food on his plate, suddenly much less hungry. He hadn't thought about the memorial until Teyla mentioned it. He wondered how Elizabeth would deal with Ford. Would he be listed among the dead? Would she be forced to tactfully not mention him at all, as technically he was AWOL?

Teyla put down her teacup a few minutes later and said, "I understand you did not find Aiden on the planet where he left the jumper."

John shook his head and started eating. "He was already gone by the time I got there," he replied after a few bites. He pulled the small knife out of his shirt pocket and laid it on the table between them. "He left that, and his uniform patches, in the jumper."

Teyla picked up the knife and smiled sadly. "He knew you would be the one to come after him. He wanted you to find this," she said holding up the knife. "Something of our Aiden is still there."

John pushed away his half-empty plate with a frustrated grunt and picked up the coffee cup. "Then why didn't he wait? Why won't he let us help him?"

"Doctor Beckett said the enzyme was affecting him mentally. In his mind, there is nothing wrong with him. He believes we would be … diminishing him somehow if he allowed us to treat him."

"Well, that's just nuts," John retorted.

"I agree, Major. But it is something we must keep in mind when we find him again. We will need to tread carefully, or he will only continue to run away from us."

John finished his coffee in silence. He was grateful Teyla had said 'when they found him' instead of 'if'.

"I assume the memorial will be tomorrow morning?" Teyla asked as she stood.

John looked up at her and nodded. "Probably. I haven't had a chance to talk to Elizabeth about it yet."

"I will see you then, John." She squeezed his hand and left.

John sat drinking coffee as the mess hall slowly emptied over the next hour. He knew he should head back to his quarters and get some sleep. Instead, he filled his coffee cup for the third time and sat with his chair angled to look out the windows. Someone had turned down the lights in the mess hall, and John stared out at the light from the two moons reflecting off the ocean, promising himself, and Ford, he would find him and help him any way he could.

Chapter Text

His crazy idea of cloaking the city had worked; the Wraith had bought his bluff and thought Atlantis was destroyed. Days of going without sleep and with little to eat had paid off, Atlantis was safe. More importantly, most of his friends, his family, were still alive. Granted, Ford wasn't entirely okay, he'd attacked Carson and Zelenka before hijacking a jumper, but Rodney would take what he could get. John would find Ford. Carson would fix him. Everything would be all right again.

Rodney blinked owlishly at the computer screen in front of him in the semi-darkened Zed-PM room and rubbed his eyes. His brain felt fuzzy and slightly disconnected as he watched the hypnotic scroll of data that crossed the computer screen, and he realised he had no idea what the diagnostic was telling him. He scrolled back through the data, trying to figure out where he'd lost his place, and started to review the information again, but his mind refused to focus as his thoughts drifted back to earlier in the evening.

He had been standing in the control room after Ford had stolen the jumper, staring first at the now quiet 'gate and then at John. He could tell Sheppard wanted to go after the Lieutenant, but since the jumper had been in control of the dialling sequence, they would need to search the 'gate logs to figure out where Ford had gone. Rodney had been about to start the search when Tsao had radioed him to tell him he'd found Zelenka unconscious in the jumper bay.

It didn't take being a genius to figure out it had been Ford who'd attacked Zelenka before stealing the jumper. Rodney had told Chuck what to do then headed down to the infirmary. Tsao hadn't told him anything about how seriously Radek had been hurt, but considering what he knew of Ford's training, Rodney assumed it had to be bad.

As he hurried down to the infirmary, he couldn't believe Ford had attacked Radek. There had been no reason for it. He hadn't even stolen the jumper Zelenka had been working on. Ford could have left, and Radek would have been none the wiser. The attack made no sense, and that had bothered Rodney almost as much as the attack itself. Was it just the effects of the enzyme? he wondered, or something more?

He'd wandered into the infirmary and found Zelenka in a bed against the far wall. He stood at the end of the bed staring down at Radek asleep or unconscious, he couldn't tell. He hadn't been there very long when he was startled by a hand on his arm, had glared over at Carson, and ignored the frown Beckett had given him.

"When was the last time you had any sleep?" Carson had asked, keeping one hand on Rodney's arm as Rodney swayed slightly.

Rodney had shrugged. "It's been a while," he'd admitted, not looking at Beckett, and pulled his arm out of Carson's light hold. "He's going to be all right, isn't he?" He nodded at Zelenka.

Carson had nodded. "Aye. He has a concussion and some bruised ribs. Considering what Aiden could have done to him, Radek was lucky. Rodney --"

Rodney had nodded, patted Radek awkwardly on the arm, and then left before Carson could say anything about his own questionable state of health.

Rodney rubbed his eyes and focused on the computer screen again. He knew Carson would have a fit when Beckett found out he had spent the night studying the Zed-PM and bringing more and more of his city back to life, but he didn't care. With Zelenka in the infirmary and Peter …

He scrubbed a hand over his face. He didn't want to think about Peter. He saw the Wraith blowing up the weapons platform enough in his nightmares when he did try to sleep. With both Zelenka and Grodin unavailable, he told himself, he was the only one left who could finish the delicate work of integrating the Zed-PM with the rest of the city's systems.

Rodney picked up his coffee cup and started to take a drink before he realised the cup was empty. He'd been living on coffee and power bars for most of the last three days. Between finishing the nuclear bombs Elizabeth had convinced the Genii to give them, and cobbling together the cloak for the city, he'd had a grand total of four hours of sleep over the past three days, and not much more than that in the days leading up to the attack.

He knew he should be in bed, but he also knew rest was the farthest thing from his mind at the moment. Part of him was eager to see what Atlantis could be now that they had the Ancient power source. Another part, the larger part, simply didn't want to sleep. He didn't have the energy to fight the nightmares.

He didn't want to see the weapons platform explode over and over again with Peter still onboard. He didn't want to see John dying over and over in the jumper.

He knew he should have done something to save Peter. He should have insisted to Miller they go back before the Wraith arrived. Once the Wraith surrounded the platform, for a fleeting moment, Rodney had thought they'd won. The first ship had been easily destroyed. But then something had gone wrong. The platform had stopped firing, and before Rodney could blink, the remaining two hive ships blew up the platform. Peter had died alone.

After reporting what had happened to Elizabeth, Rodney had spent the entire trip back to Atlantis staring out the windscreen of their jumper, silently replaying everything that had happened since they'd arrived at the platform. Miller had thankfully left him alone, flying the entire way back to Atlantis himself, leaving Rodney to wrestle with his guilty conscience.

The jumper was halfway back to Atlantis when Rodney concluded Grodin's death had been entirely his fault. He was the one in charge, he should have done something to get Peter off the platform before the Wraith arrived. Better yet, he should have told Peter to stay in Atlantis, that he didn't need any help fixing the platform. Grodin was a scientist. He wasn't military, he wasn't even part of a 'gate team. He shouldn't have been placed in a situation where he could get killed.

How did John manage to lock his worst memories away in boxes? Rodney wondered as he tried to read the data on the screen in front of him. How long would he keep reliving Peter's death in his dreams?

Of course, if his fertile imagination gave him a break from watching Peter die, over and over, it was only because he was seeing Sheppard's puddle jumper winking out on a monitor as he sacrificed himself by blowing himself, and a Wraith hive ship, to kingdom come.

In that moment, Rodney been utterly lost. Sheppard was gone. His brother was dead. John had done what Rodney had feared the most, he'd sacrificed himself to save the rest of them.

He had been aware of Carson standing in front of him; Beckett's grief plain for anyone to see. But Rodney was stuck in that frozen moment, his brain unable to comprehend what had just happened. John was gone, and all Rodney's over-tired mind could think about was that he hadn't even had a chance to tell Sheppard goodbye.

Then he'd heard John's voice over the radio, and felt his knees give out. He sank down to the floor near the console and was sure he would have curled into a ball if the Zed-PM hadn't been beamed down a few meters away from where he knelt next to Carson.

Every time that particular nightmare happened, Rodney woke up in a cold sweat, and it took him several long seconds to remember Sheppard was alive that the Daedalus had beamed him out of the jumper before it exploded.

So, no, he wasn't interested in sleep, no matter how much he knew he needed to get some rest. He set the cup back down with a sigh, rubbed his dry, scratchy eyes, turned back to the computer, and tried to decipher what the data from the diagnostic was telling him.

The Wraith bombardment had taken its toll on the Zed-PM, he knew. One of the things he needed to figure out was how much the power source had been depleted. The naquadah generator he'd been working on for the past month was nearly finished. If need be, he could figure out a way to run the city off the generators and save the Zed-PM for emergencies.

Unfortunately, the laptop was having a problem interfacing with the console for the Zed-PM; it refused to give him the information he needed for some reason. He'd checked the connections to the console twice, but the computer screen still threw up gibberish every few minutes, and he'd have to start his analysis over again.

"Figures, after ten thousand years, the console decides to freeze up the moment we have a Zed-PM," he grumbled as he started the diagnostic for the fourth time. It never occurred to him the computer wasn't the problem.

Rodney stared at the computer screen for several minutes trying to read the wavering text once the computer signalled the diagnostic was finally finished. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, blinked a few times, and looked at the screen again. This time the text stayed put, but he still couldn't believe what it was telling him. Twenty percent of the Zed-PM's power had been lost in a matter of a few hours.

Eighty percent. There's still eighty percent, he told himself. Plenty of power to last years, decades, maybe, if they were careful.

With the Wraith gone, they wouldn't need to power the shield or the cloak all the time, he decided. The only other big draw on the power crystal would be dialling the 'gate back to Earth.


He stopped trying to read the screen and leant back in the chair, lost in thought. With everything else he'd been dealing with over the past three days, the fact that they were no longer isolated, alone in a new galaxy, had completely slipped his mind.

On the one hand, regular contact with Earth would solve their supply issues. And he'd finally be able to get rid of Kavanagh, he thought with a smile. He had overheard some of the scientists and Marines talking about going home, seeing friends and family. Rodney wasn't as sure he wanted to go back to Earth.

There had been no hesitation on his part when Elizabeth had offered him the position as head of the science team for the Atlantis expedition. All of the discoveries he would make in a new galaxy aside, there was nothing tying him to the Milky Way or Earth. His parents were dead, his sister had cut off all communication with him, there was no reason for him to stay. A part of him wondered if anyone had noticed he was even gone.

He thought of the video message he'd sent to Jeannie. Had she believed him when he told her he wanted to try and rebuild their relationship? Was it worth trying to contact her one more time and see what happened next? He had a brother in John, now he wanted his sister back in his life as well. His chosen family and his blood kin … He spent a few moments daydreaming about what it would be like if the pair of them met and startled out of a half-doze a few minutes later when his arm banged against the console.

He scrubbed a hand over his face and looked over the power usage data again. Earth was a problem for another day, right now he needed to concentrate on Atlantis. He rechecked the data and decided the Zed-PM should last without any problems for the foreseeable future. No reason to keep the naquadah generators connected to the grid as well, he concluded.

"May as well get them disconnected now," he said to the room at large. It would be easier to do in the middle of the night when no one was around to notice any short power drops as he worked, he decided. He made one last check of the console, then grabbed his computer and headed out to the generator rooms.

He nodded absently to the Marine guarding the first generator room as he sidled past her. After a year isolated in the Pegasus galaxy, it was a bit disconcerting to not recognise someone. Rodney still didn't know most of the Marines' names, but he knew all of them on sight. She gave him an odd look as he stumbled against the wall, but let him pass into the room. He may not have known her, but she obviously knew who he was.

The generator sat on a table against the far wall, glowing faintly. He set the control mechanism from active to off, waited for the glow to die, then disconnected the wires on each end of the generator. He gave the Marine another nod as he left but didn't see her tap her earpiece as he meandered back up the hallway.

He was on his way to the next generator room when a call came over the radio for him. "Control room to Doctor McKay."

Rodney leant against the nearest wall and rubbed his head. "What now?" he snapped over the radio.

"Umm, sorry to wake you, sir," he heard Chuck say. "We just recorded a power drop. It looks like one of the naquadah generators just went offline."

"That's because I shut it down," Rodney told him bluntly. "We don't need the generators now that we have the Zed-PM."

There was a long pause over the radio. "Oh. Sorry, sir. No one knew you were still awake."

"Yes, well, someone has to keep things running around here," Rodney replied shortly, refusing to let himself think about Zelenka or Grodin.

"Umm, yes, sir," Chuck replied, and Rodney heard the wariness in his tone. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Rodney shook his head, then remembered Chuck couldn't see him. "No. Once I have the other generators shut down, I'll check the system myself and make sure it's stable."

"Sir, shouldn't you get some sleep --"

Rodney tapped off the radio. First Carson, now Chuck. Why was everyone suddenly so interested in his sleep schedule? he thought angrily as he headed down to the next generator room.

A corner of his mind realised Chuck would probably radio John, Elizabeth, or Carson and let one or all of them know what he was doing. He took out his earpiece and stuffed it in his trouser pocket. He had things to do, he didn't have time to answer inane questions about why he wasn't sleeping.

He had the second generator shut down and was on his way to the third when his route took him past the darkened mess hall. He smelt the coffee from the hallway, and his stomach reminded him sleep wasn't the only thing he'd been neglecting.

"Explains the headache," he said to himself as he double checked there wasn't anyone else in the room who could tattle to Sheppard about how he was doing his job.

He saw his reflection in the dark windows as he entered the room and walked over to the dimly lit food line where there was always coffee and sandwiches available for anyone working overnight. He sat in a corner, out of sight from the door, and wolfed down the sandwich in a few bites. He hadn't realised how hungry he was and went back for a second sandwich and more coffee.

With his stomach satisfied and the caffeine buzzing through his system, he finished shutting down the generators and headed back to the Zed-PM room an hour later to rerun the diagnostics.

He was still staring at the data when his computer pinged. He startled out of his daze, and it took him a moment to figure out what was making the pinging noise and why. He read the note he'd left for himself about the memorial and checked his watch. Somehow several hours had gone by without him noticing, and it was morning. The memorial was in a little over an hour. He needed to head back to his quarters and change, he told himself. He owed it to Peter, and Ford, to be there.

Rodney stood up and reached out to catch his balance on the wall beside him when the room started to sway. "Whoa," he muttered, and braced himself against the wall until the room proved it would stay still. "Need coffee."

He walked back to his quarters, ignoring the strange looks a few of the people he passed in the hallways gave him. He was nearly back to his quarters when he stumbled as someone bumped against him.

"Sorry, Doctor McKay," a voice said, and Rodney felt a hand on his arm.

He jerked his arm loose and glared at the man standing in front of him wearing a Marine dress uniform.

"Are you all right, sir?" the Marine asked. "You don't look so good. I can call Major Sheppard or --"

Rodney waved off the concern. "I'm fine," he growled and kept walking. He didn't see the unhappy look on the man's face or hear him quietly page Sheppard.

He made it to his quarters, showered, changed into what he was starting to call his funeral outfit of button-down shirt and sport coat, then headed for the door to find breakfast and the much-needed coffee.

He pressed the door control and nearly walked into a blue wall standing in front of him. He poked a finger at the wall, frowning as he tried to figure out how to get around it. He needed coffee, damn it.

"I think what you need is sleep," a voice replied, and Rodney looked up to see the blue wall was John standing in the doorway wearing his dress blues.

Rodney took a stumbling step back and frowned. "Where did you come from?"

John came into the room and let the door slide closed behind him. "My room," John pointed in the direction of his quarters, "where I actually got some sleep last night. Corporal Saunders called me after your run-in in the hallway." John gave Rodney a hard look. "Did you get any sleep at all? Chuck and Corporal Donovan woke me up around three am to tell me you were shutting down the generators for some reason."

Rodney felt his temper rising. "I was doing my job, Major," he huffed. "Now that we have the Zed-PM we didn't need to generators running too. May as well save them for an emergency."

John ignored his biting tone. "Maybe you should skip the memorial and get some rest," he suggested, and Rodney could see the concern in John's expression.

Rodney shook his head as he got his temper under control. "No. I need to be there. For Peter." He looked down at his hands fiddling with one of his jacket buttons. "And Ford."

John watched him for a moment longer, then nodded. "All right. But afterward, you need to get some sleep." He held up a finger when Rodney started to protest. "The Wraith are gone. Anything else can wait."

Rodney scrubbed a hand over his face. "Fine. Can we go now? I really need that coffee."

The memorial took place in the gateroom. Rodney glanced around the room as he and John entered and joined Teyla where she stood off to one side of the room.

He was surprised to see Zelenka on the opposite side of the room seated in a chair with Tsao standing behind him. The bruise on Radek's face from where Ford had hit him had darkened to a blueish purple and the way he sat, slightly hunched with one arm wrapped around his chest, told Rodney Zelenka's ribs were still aching.

For a moment Rodney was perfectly willing to leave Ford wherever he'd run off to. Zelenka hadn't deserved what Ford had done to him. He shifted from one foot to the other and watched as Elizabeth made her way through the solemn crowd.

The podium had been set up again in front of the stargate itself, and Rodney tried to focus on Elizabeth's speech about honor and how the men and women, both from Earth and Athos, would be remembered for their sacrifice in saving Atlantis. Then she started reading the names of the men and women who'd died or were lost in the siege and the days leading up to it.

"Corporal Eric Adams, killed in action. Sergeant Samantha Baxter, killed in action. Kandor Dall, Athosian, missing in action."

Missing in action, a slightly more pleasant way of saying culled, Rodney thought with a glance at Teyla.

Elizabeth reached the F's, and Rodney felt a twinge of guilt for his earlier thoughts regarding Ford when he heard Elizabeth say, "Lieutenant Aiden Ford, missing in action."

He flinched and took a deep breath when he heard, "Doctor Peter Grodin, killed in action" a few moments later and felt John's hand on his left arm and Teyla squeezing his right hand.

Two weeks ago, in this same room, at another memorial, Rodney had stood beside Sheppard wondering if he would have to live in a world where Atlantis had survived, but John had not. Now he found himself feeling a bit guilty because he was selfishly grateful John was still there, standing beside him in those damned dress blues when so many others weren't. When Peter was gone. And, for all intents and purposes, Ford.

Several minutes later, after a last moment of silence, the memorial broke up as the Marines and scientists gathered into smaller huddles to remember those they'd lost.

"Come on," John said quietly with a tap on Rodney's arm and a glance at Teyla. "I think we could do with some fresh air."

Rodney nodded and started to follow John and Teyla out of the gateroom when he heard Elizabeth calling Sheppard's name from behind them.

"John?" she said, and Rodney turned around to see Elizabeth, with Colonel Caldwell in tow, coming over to them.

"Elizabeth," John replied his expression blank.

"A word." She nodded her head toward the stairs, and led the way up to her office.

Rodney followed John and Teyla into the office and slumped down in one of the chairs facing Weir's desk. Teyla took the other chair, and Rodney felt John standing behind him as Elizabeth sat behind her desk. Colonel Caldwell stood on Elizabeth's right, looking as disagreeable as ever.

"I know this isn't the best time," Elizabeth said once the others were settled, "but I spoke to a General Landry at the SGC last night." She took a deep breath and looked at each of them in turn. "We've been ordered to return to Earth."

Rodney swallowed. "Umm, why?" he asked, and hoped he didn't sound as defensive as he felt.

"Stargate Command and the President want an update on Atlantis and what's been happening in the Pegasus galaxy," she told him with a slight frown.

"Not to mention the recent encounter with the Wraith," Caldwell added, and Rodney thought he looked angry about something.

"They obviously received our data burst," Rodney pointed out with a glance at Caldwell. "Why do we need to go back?"

"Do you not wish to see your home planet again?" Teyla asked, clearly surprised by his reaction.

"Not especially, no," Rodney retorted. He saw Elizabeth's frown and felt John's hand on his shoulder but ignored them. He was too tired to worry about their concerns.

Elizabeth studied him for a moment longer then said, "In addition to meeting with the new head of Stargate Command, I hope to get authorisation to increase the population of the city now that we have the ZPM. I want you both to have the chance to review the new applications and give your recommendations before any final selections are made. That's why I've asked Carson to return with us as well."

Rodney saw John watching Caldwell. "Is there something wrong, sir?"

Caldwell grimaced. "It seems the international committee isn't willing to wait the three weeks it will take for the Daedalus to return to Earth. I've been ordered back with all of you. My XO will finish the repairs and set a course for Earth in a few days."

"Go pack a bag, gentlemen," Elizabeth said. "Don't worry about changing clothes, either. I understand General Landry can be a bit on the spit and polish side. We leave in fifteen minutes."

Rodney pulled himself out of the chair and started to follow John to the door.

"Teyla?" Elizabeth said, and both Rodney and John stopped in the doorway.

"Yes, Doctor Weir?"

"I realise this is a time of mourning for your people, but I have a favor to ask." She waited until Teyla nodded to continue. "I need someone to take charge of the city until we get back. We could be gone for several weeks, possibly a month or more so I would understand if your answer is 'no'."

Rodney caught the moment of surprise in Teyla's eyes before she bowed her head to Elizabeth. "I would be honored to protect the Ancestor's city in your stead, Doctor Weir."

"Thank you, Teyla. I know I leave everyone here in good hands."

Rodney followed John out of the office and back to the crew section with their quarters. He quickly packed a few essentials in a small bag and stood in front of his desk holding the carved wooden truck John had given him. He heard a tap at his door and glanced up as Sheppard walked into the room.

"All set?" John asked with a glance at the truck in Rodney's hands.

Rodney put the truck back on the shelf below his diplomas and nodded. "Maybe we can go while we're back there," he suggested with a nod at the truck.

John smiled. "Maybe. Depends on what time of year it is on Earth. I don't think I want to visit Niagara Falls in the dead of winter."

Rodney could see his point and fell into step beside John as he led the way back to the gateroom. They entered the room and stopped next to Carson.

Elizabeth glanced at each of them for a moment before she nodded and looked up at Teyla standing on the balcony overlooking the 'gate. "Chuck," she paused for a moment and smiled, "dial Earth."

"Yes, ma'am," Chuck replied, and Rodney could hear the happiness in his voice.

"Teyla, daily check-ins, please."

"Certainly, Doctor Weir," she replied. "Safe travels."

The wormhole formed and steadied in front of them.

"We have clearance from the SGC," Chuck reported a few seconds later.

Elizabeth nodded. "All right," she said, and stepped forward. "Gentlemen, let's go home."

Rodney watched as she stepped through the event horizon with Caldwell beside her. Carson followed a few steps behind. Rodney thought Beckett looked excited for once to be going through the 'gate. John took a step then turned when Rodney didn't move.

"You coming?" he asked.

"Yeah, yeah," Rodney replied and took one last look around the gateroom. He took a deep breath and stepped up next to John. "Let's get this over with, I guess."

"Don't worry," John said as they walked toward the 'gate. "We'll be back before you know it."

Chapter Text

The embarkation room at Stargate Command looked the same as John remembered, all concrete and steel. He hadn't realised how much he was used to seeing the sun and the light dancing on the ocean from the windows in Atlantis until he was inside the sterile confines of Cheyenne Mountain again.

Elizabeth was already at the end of the metal ramp shaking hands with someone he couldn't quite see as Weir blocked his view. When she stepped out of the way, John had his first look at General Hank Landry, new head of Stargate Command.

John had heard of Landry during his time overseas, though he'd never served under the General. He knew Landry had a reputation for being hard-nosed and a stickler for regulations. John had heard more than one story of how Landry had reduced a man to near-tears after a dressing down for one failure or another.

John also knew Landry was one of many high ranking officers who'd wanted him dismissed from the service after his actions in Afghanistan rescuing his team from behind enemy lines. The fact he'd been cleared by the court-martial hadn't done anything to change Landry's opinion at the time, and John wondered what that meant for his future moving forward.

"This is Doctor Carson Beckett, Chief Medical Officer for Atlantis," Elizabeth said to Landry as she nodded her head at Carson.

"Doctor Beckett," Landry greeted. "I've heard good things."

"Thank you, General," Carson replied with a nod.

"Doctor Rodney McKay, head of the Science Division," Elizabeth continued.

"Doctor McKay." Landry started to say then stopped. "You all right, Doctor?"

John turned and frowned slightly when he noticed the white-knuckle grip Rodney had on the railing before he let go with one hand long enough to wave in the General's direction.

"And Major John Sheppard, Commander of Atlantis' military force."

"Major," Landry said formally.

"General," John replied, matching Landry's tone and not giving anything away as he saluted.

Landry eyed him for a moment before he returned the salute.

Elizabeth glanced from him to the General, and John knew there would be questions later. For now, he stayed next to McKay who stumbled slightly as he walked down the ramp, and let Weir do the talking.

Landry gave him one last hard stare, then turned back to Elizabeth. "I understand you've had a tough few days, Doctor Weir, but there are a number of people here eager to hear what you've been up to for the past year. Not to mention questions about the threat the Wraith may pose, not only to Atlantis, but to Earth." Landry turned to a balding sergeant standing next to him. "Walter here will show you to the suite we've set aside for your use while you're here. Once you're settled, we'll get started with the debriefings."

"Thank you, General," Elizabeth said with a smile.

"Oh, don't thank me yet, Doctor Weir," Landry said with a glance back at John. "We have a lot of decisions to make in the next three weeks before the Daedalus gets back here."

"Nothing ominous in that," John heard Rodney mutter.

"Yeah," John agreed.

"If you will all follow me," the Sergeant said, and motioned toward the door.

"Sergeant Harriman, it's good to see you again," Elizabeth said as they left the embarkation room.

"And you, Doctor Weir," Harriman said with a nod. "There's been a few changes around here since you were last on Earth."

"I see that," she replied with a glance back at the embarkation room.

John ignored the rest of the small talk as they followed Harriman through the various hallways to an elevator and up five floors. Harriman led them down another hall until he stopped outside a door at the end.

"The suite is usually reserved for the President when he comes," Harriman said as he tapped a code into the keypad next to the door, "so there should be plenty of room." He glanced back at Elizabeth and then at the rest of them. "I wasn't sure how General Landry defined 'senior staff' when he told me you were coming."

"I'm sure it will be fine, Sergeant," Elizabeth said as the lock for the door clicked, and Harriman stood aside. "The code for the door is 85864. The first set of debriefs is scheduled for two hours from now. I'll send an airman to direct you to the different conference rooms."

Elizabeth held up a hand as Harriman started to leave. "I don't understand. Separate meetings?"

Harriman stopped and drew himself up. "Yes, ma'am. General Landry wanted to have separate meetings so each of the department heads could debrief their specific groups first to allow for technical discussions. The more general meetings are scheduled for tomorrow."

"I see," Elizabeth replied, and John could tell she wasn't pleased with this idea from her tone.

"I'll, umm, let you get settled," Harriman said, and left the room.

The suite was large and well appointed. The main room had two sofas facing each other across a long, low table. Several chairs were scattered around the room, some singly, others in groups of two or three with more tables. The room had obviously been designed with several people in mind. The wall opposite the door included a wet bar as well as a large television hanging on the wall. A long, oval conference table with eight chairs filled another corner. Four doors, two on each side of the room, led to what John assumed were bedrooms.

"Well, if I have to explain everything we've learned about the Ancient gene and Wraith DNA in the last year, I'd better review everything," Carson said tiredly, and John watched as he headed for one of the rooms to the left of the main seating area.

"We've done good work this last year," Elizabeth reminded them. "I'm proud of what we've accomplished, and I'm proud of all of you. General Landry and his people will see that, too."

"We hope," Rodney said under his breath as he headed for one of the bedrooms on the right side of the main seating area and closed the door behind him.

John took the room next to Rodney's and dropped his bag on the bed near the door. While he wouldn't admit it out loud, he was about as eager for this debrief as McKay. He knew there were things they had done, he had done, that men and women who weren't there could look at and take issue. Anyone with an axe to grind would be able to find fault with any number of his command decisions over the past year.

He scrubbed a hand over his face and went into the bathroom. Landry was a stickler for proper appearance as much as proper procedure, best not to give the General any additional ammunition to torpedo his career.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

"Once it was clear the Wraith were gone, we dropped the cloak," John finished. He sat at one end of the table in the conference room overlooking the embarkation room. General Landry sat at the other end, while several officers lined the table in between.

John tried to ignore the slight itch he felt at the base of his skull as he glanced around the table and added, "The men and women who fought during the invasion all acted with courage and bravery. I will be nominating several of them for commendations."

Landry looked up from the closed folder in front of him. "Someone once said nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power. Do you know who said that, Major?"

John thought for a moment. "I believe it was Abraham Lincoln, sir."

Landry shook his head with a frown. "It was a judge named Ingersoll. He was talking about Lincoln."

John forced himself not to twitch in his chair. "Yes, sir," he replied noncommittally.

Landry tapped the folder in front of him. "There are some questions regarding certain of your actions since you took over the command role of the expedition after the death of Colonel Sumner."

John noted a few faces along the table, including Colonel Caldwell's, tighten at the mention of Sumner. Colonel Everett hadn't been Sumner's only friend, it seemed.

Landry must have seen the expressions as well. "We don't need to go into the details of Sumner's death. Your report gave us enough information as to what happened."

John heard someone at the table grumble under his breath.

Landry glared around the table, then continued, "What we do want to know is --" Landry was interrupted by the phone on the table behind him ringing.

"Sorry, sir," Sergeant Harriman said, and stood from his chair in the corner where he'd been taking notes.

"I thought I was clear there were to be no interruptions, Walter."

"Yes, sir," Harriman replied as the phone continued to jangle.

"Well, answer it, man. Whoever it is better have a damn good reason for disobeying orders."

John felt the tickle at the back of his skull again and his stomach clenched. He suspected he knew exactly why someone was risking Landry's temper to interrupt the meeting.

Harriman picked up the phone. "Yes?" He listened for a few moments, and his eyes widened as he glanced first at Landry, then at John. "Understood. I will let him know." He hung up the phone.

"Well? Who's getting busted in rank, Sergeant?" Landry asked.

"Umm, that was Doctor Lam, sir. There's a problem in the infirmary, and she is requesting Major Sheppard report there immediately."

John started to his feet. There could be only one reason for the SGC doctor to disrupt a high-level meeting asking for his presence. The itch at the back of his skull flared and John suddenly had a very bad feeling.

"Apparently, something happened to Doctor McKay, sir," Harriman said to Landry. "He's threatening several people in the infirmary with a scalpel," Harriman finished with another glance at John.

John was already out the door when he heard Landry behind him say, "Did I give him permission to leave?"

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Rodney stood at the front of the small conference room, his computer on the table in front of him, rubbing absently at his arms. Why did the SGC keep their conference rooms so cold? he wondered as he stared at the computer screen. How was anyone supposed to get any work done with their hands so cold, they couldn't type? He'd left his sport jacket in the suite and now regretted the choice. If he'd known Stargate Command would be running the air conditioning full blast all of the time, he would have brought his orange fleece coat with him from Atlantis.

He glanced up as several men and women filed into the room and found seats around the oblong table. He recognised a few of the faces, experts in various fields obviously, but he'd never bothered to learn names. Two of the men he did know, both their names and their reputations.

It was no surprise to see Doctor Daniel Jackson, he was probably the foremost expert in Ancient technology, after himself, of course. He was also in charge of the science teams exploring the Milky Way galaxy. Doctor Jackson smiled slightly at Rodney as he took the seat next to Rodney's at the head of the table.

Rodney was surprised to see Doctor Bill Lee. He considered Lee a half-rate talent at best and still couldn't figure out how he'd finagled a job with the SGC.

Rodney waited until the men and women were all seated before he started his scientific debrief. Most of the next three hours were spent with Rodney answering questions about the reports he'd sent back to Earth in the data burst or listening to various theories and ideas on how to improve things in Atlantis.

If pushed, Rodney would have admitted there were a few good ideas offered during the meeting. Things he made a mental note to pass along to Zelenka once he got back, such as ways to improve certain systems or recode software to make it more efficient.

Other ideas had been ridiculous including the ten-minute debate between Lee and one of the female engineers about the possibilities of replacing the iris protecting the Earth 'gate with something similar to the energy shield used in Atlantis.

Rodney looked up from the computer screen as several voices swirled around him. He blinked a few times and tried to remember what he'd been talking about before he'd been distracted by a new question about the Ancient technologies he'd been studying. There was an image of the Ancient box he'd discovered soon after their arrival in Atlantis on the screen, and he sat staring at it for several moments before he remembered someone had asked for more information on where he'd found the devices.

"One was found in an abandoned lab in Atlantis, the other on …" He rubbed his head and tried to remember the designation for the planet where Stackhouse and Corrigan had found the second box.

Rodney felt everyone staring at him. A man and a woman at the far end of the table watched him intently and whispered behind their hands. Rodney thought he heard the man snicker as they both looked back at him, obviously gleeful of his inability to think straight.

He clenched his hands and fought to keep his temper under control. He'd spent a year isolated from this sort of petty nonsense, and hadn't missed it in the least. He knew he was arrogant and condescending toward anyone less intelligent than himself. Which was usually everyone else in the room, he thought bitterly. It wasn't his fault if their minds were too small to see the possibilities of one of his theories.

What was different in Atlantis was that people listened to him in spite of his lack of social graces. John, Teyla, Elizabeth, even Zelenka and Carson, respected him. Respected his intelligence. Yes, part of that was because he'd saved all of their lives more than once, but it was also because they genuinely liked him. It was something he'd come to rely on, knowing that they would still listen even if he didn't always have the best method of explaining his ideas.

Now, back on Earth, he was once again among scientists who were jealous of his intellect and eager to see him fail, merely so they could feel better about their own lack of genius.

He pulled himself back to the present and glanced at the picture of the Ancient box projected on the screen behind him. He had been saying something about finding the second box, hadn't he?

"That was P2J-883 wasn't it?" Doctor Jackson asked with a glance over at Rodney, and McKay tried to figure out what the strange look Jackson gave him, slightly puzzled, slightly concerned, really meant. "There were also some journals and a small remote control device among other things found at the site."

"Yes," Rodney replied shortly, kicking himself for needing Jackson, of all people, to remind him. "We're still working on translating the journals."

Jackson paged through a file folder in front of him. "Adam Corrigan found the site, didn't he? He's a good archaeologist, not much of a linguist, though." Jackson looked up at Rodney. "Do you have any scans of the journals?" he asked. "I'd be happy to take a look. There might be something in the writings about what the box was used for."

Rodney frowned and shook his head as he tried to remember what they were talking about. "Corrigan will figure it out," he finally said.

Jackson started to say something else when Doctor Lee jumped in with another tangent. "According to the information in the data burst we received, you reported you were attempting to construct a new naquadah generator to power some of the city's defences."

"Is there a question in there somewhere?" Rodney growled as he rubbed his head again. He picked up his coffee cup, and finding it empty, stood to fill it from the carafe in the corner. The room spun slightly as he moved, but he managed to fill the cup and sit back down without embarrassing himself.

"Your report said you'd managed to increase the power output by more than one hundred percent," Lee said, seemingly unimpressed with Rodney's tone. "All of our testing showed the Mark I generators were functioning at the engineering limit of the design. How were you able to compensate for the design limitations?"

Rodney clenched his hands around the warm cup and tried to keep his impatience under control. Why was he forced to deal with idiots? he wondered.

"Did you not read the part where this was a new generator design?" he snapped. "I'm well aware of the flaws in the original Mark Is. I fixed them. The math proved the new design would be able to power the shield around the city, for a short time anyway." He swallowed some of the coffee and tried to rub the headache away.

Lee started to say something else when he was interrupted by one of the other scientists.

"What more can you tell us about the nanite lab discovered in the city?" a young woman asked. "Were you able to determine what the Ancients had designed them to do?"

Rodney shook his head. "There wasn't any documentation left in the lab to explain the nanites," he said and didn't bother to hide his impatience this time. "All I can tell you is they killed five of our people and upwards of thirty others, including me, had been exposed to them.

"If we hadn't blown up one of the naquadah generators to create a strong enough EM pulse, who knows how many people would have died." Rodney glared back at Doctor Lee. "Which is one of the many reasons I was building a better generator."

"But you were somehow immune to these nanites?" the woman asked.

Rodney sighed. Did none of these people actually read any of the reports he'd sent? "Yes, due to the presence of the ATA gene, I was apparently immune."

"Could this have been some sort of defence against the Wraith? It might be possible to continue their research," someone said, and Rodney looked up in confusion as several people started talking at once.

He felt his headache notch up a level thanks to the sudden increase in noise and squeezed his eyes shut as he rubbed his forehead. Maybe he needed to lay off the coffee, he thought to himself, and looked around for the water carafe.

He stood up, intending to get a glass of water, maybe see if any pain pills were available, but the room tilted around him and he grabbed for the edge of the table.

"Doctor McKay?" he heard a voice say and looked up to see someone with short, dark hair, and wearing glasses studying him intently.

Rodney thought he should know who the person was, but couldn't place the name. Not unusual, he told himself, he rarely bothered to remember someone's name.

"Doctor McKay, are you all right?" the man asked him again, and Rodney thought he looked like Doctor Jackson, but he was confused as to how Jackson had ended up in the Pegasus galaxy.

Rodney started to say something to the Jackson-looking man but stopped when he saw Kolya standing against the wall, a knife held casually in one hand. Rodney swallowed hard as he took a step back, never taking his eyes off the Genii Commander. Kolya straightened and stared back at him with a cruel smile.

Rodney looked around the room and found several strangers looking back at him. He saw his computer was open on the table and froze when he saw the image of the Ancient box on the screen. Had he been captured? Was all of this an elaborate trick to get him to talk? He told Kolya he wouldn't help the Genii. Had he been drugged? Poisoned? Where was John?

The man standing next to him touched his arm and Rodney pulled out of the light hold. "No! Stay away from me!" he yelled, and staggered back from the table.

"Call the infirmary," he heard someone order from down a long, echoey tunnel. He felt a hand on his arm again and jerked away until he felt his back hit the wall behind him. "Doctor McKay, you should probably sit down. Doctor Lam will be here soon," the man in front of him said.

Rodney stared at the man standing in front of him with his open hands raised at chest level as he stayed where he was. Rodney glanced behind the man and saw Kolya shake his head.

"You will tell me the plan, Doctor McKay," Kolya told him.

Rodney shook his head and pressed his lips shut. He started to sag against the wall as darkness began to encroach at the edge of his vision.

"Grab him!" a voice shouted, and Rodney felt several sets of hands holding him down as he looked blearily up from the floor. He didn't know any of the faces staring down at him and started struggling against their hold on him, even as the darkness overwhelmed him.

Rodney wasn't sure how much time had passed when he opened his eyes again. He felt himself almost floating as a concrete ceiling drifted past over his head, and he remembered Kolya standing against a wall. The ceiling and walls certainly looked like something the Genii would build, he thought to himself, and realised he should probably be trying to find a way to escape. He had no idea where John was. Had he been captured, too?

"Someone find their doctor, what was his name? Beckett?" a female voice ordered. "We need to rule out any sort of pathogen brought from Pegasus."

Rodney felt himself drifting, and forced himself to pay attention. If the team had been captured, he needed to find a way to escape and rescue them.

"Rodney, lad, can you hear me?" a voice asked from beside him, and Rodney flinched. He realised he must have drifted off at some point as he was no longer moving. Instead, he was lying on a bed in a concrete room.

"Rodney? Look at me, son," the voice said again as a light was flashed in his eyes.

The voice sounded like Beckett, but he knew better. Carson didn't go on missions. The drug the Genii had given him must act as some sort of hallucinogen, he told himself, though he had no idea why he'd hallucinate seeing Doctor Jackson or Carson.

He groaned and turned his head away from the light. He needed to figure out what was going on. He needed to find John.

"Won't talk," he said, and started to struggle up from the bed. He frowned when he found he couldn't move, someone was holding onto his arms.

"Rodney?" the Carson-voice said again. "Hold still, lad. I just want to make sure you didn't hurt yourself."

Rodney stopped struggling. He'd need to save his strength, he decided. Wait for a chance to escape.

"That's better," the Carson-voice said, and the hold on his arms disappeared. "Did you get any rest after the Wraith left Atlantis?"

Rodney ignored the question and turned his head away from the face looking down at him.

"That's what I thought," the voice said, and Rodney thought he heard concern as well as exasperation in the tone, which didn't make any sense.

He turned back to the voice in time to see the man standing over him look away and say, "I'll need to check his blood sugar as well. Along with not getting enough sleep, he probably hasn't been eating enough."

Rodney felt something prick his finger and he glared up at the man standing over him.

"It's a little on the low side," the Carson-voice said a few moments later, "but not too bad, all things considered."

Rodney closed his eyes as voices spoke around him, all of the talking was giving him another headache. He started to drift and was almost asleep when he felt something stab his right arm.

Kolya! his brain shrieked at him as he jerked away from the hand trying to hold his arm down. He stared at the thin trail of blood as it tracked from his elbow to his wrist.

"I told you I would learn everything you knew," Kolya said as he stood over the bed.

Rodney saw the gleam of the knife as Kolya traced a thin red line down the inside of Rodney's arm before digging the blade deeper into his flesh. "You'll tell me everything I want to know, starting with your plan to save the city," Kolya told him as he slowly removed the knife and held it up for Rodney to see the blood dripping down the blade.

"No," Rodney moaned and grabbed his arm, trying to stop the bleeding. "Don't talk, don't talk," he told himself over and over.

"Doctor McKay," an unfamiliar voice said impatiently. "You need to calm down. We're trying to help."

Rodney shook his head as he kept one hand on his bloody arm. He had no idea where he was, or where John was, but he was determined he wasn't going to go down without a fight.

He wrenched himself out of the fresh hold someone had on him, slid off the bed, and glared at the faces surrounding him. The man who looked and sounded like Carson replaced the impatient man and tried to talk to him, but Rodney refused to listen. He knew it was a trick, just another way for the Genii to get him to talk.

Someone tried to grab one of his arms, and Rodney shook off his grip. When the man tried again, all of the training sessions he'd had with Teyla over the last year came into play as Rodney squirmed out of the man's hold a second time and lashed out. He heard a groan as his fist connected with something soft and the unknown man stepped back, his arm wrapped around his middle.

Rodney backed away from the people crowding closer to him, frantically looking for anything he could use to defend himself. He spied a tray of medical instruments on the table near him and grabbed what looked like a scalpel.

"Get back," he snarled at the people near him as he swept the blade back and forth in front of him with his left hand while he kept his bloody right arm tucked against his chest.

"We need Major Sheppard in here, now," the Carson-voice ordered, and Rodney glanced at him for a moment. So the Genii had captured John, he realised. Where were Teyla and Ford? he wondered. Had they managed to escape the trap and get back to Atlantis?

"He's in a meeting with General Landry," a female voice replied. "The General left orders they were not to be disturbed."

"Orders be damned," the Carson-voice said, and Rodney thought he sounded angry for some reason. "Look at him. He's not listening to me. The Major is the only one with a chance of getting through to him."

Rodney shook his head. Nothing these Genii were saying made any sense. He needed to get out of here and find John.

"Fine," the female voice said.

"The rest of you, back away from him," the Carson-voice ordered. "Give the lad some space."

Rodney watched as the bodies around him retreated. He backed himself into the space between two beds, keeping the scalpel in front of him, and blinked as the room started to spin. He saw the scalpel waver as his hand shook, and rubbed his other hand over his face.

"Rodney, lad, can you understand me?" the Carson-voice asked. "We've called for Major Sheppard, he should be here soon. All right? Why don't you put the scalpel down."

Rodney shook his head and looked around the room. He wasn't sure how much longer he could hold them off alone. He needed to find a way out of the room. He needed to find John.

"I'll never work for you, Kolya," he growled as his back hit the wall between the beds.

"Oh, bloody hell," he heard the Carson-voice say just before a door banged open and someone wearing a blue uniform stormed into the room.

Chapter Text

John entered the infirmary at a run and found Carson and a female doctor standing near one of the infirmary beds near the back of the room. Several med techs stood behind Carson, holding various supplies or standing with their hands raised. Two MP's stood on the other side of the bed with their sidearms drawn, though John noticed the weapons were pointed at the floor.

John took a step closer to Carson and had his first look at Rodney, crouched in a corner between two beds, a scalpel in one hand, his right arm clutched to his chest, and his eyes slightly wild as he gazed around the room.

"Carson? What the hell happened?" John asked as he stopped next to Beckett. He frowned when he saw the trickle of blood running down Rodney's arm.

Rodney jerked his head in John's direction as soon as he spoke. He eyed John warily and waved the scalpel in his direction, mumbling something to himself that John couldn't quite catch. The two MPs raised their weapons slightly, but John waved them off.

Beckett let out a breath and moved a few steps away, motioning John to follow. John made sure he kept Rodney in his line-of-sight as Carson took a few steps away from the infirmary beds.

"I'm not one hundred percent certain, I wasn't here when the call came in. From what Doctor Lam told me, it seems Doctor Jackson called the infirmary to report Rodney having some sort of problem during their meeting. Jackson said one minute Rodney was talking about naquadah generators and the next he was staring at the wall muttering about not giving up the plan."

Carson scrubbed a hand over his face, then nodded to the woman who came and stood next to him. "Doctor Lam called me once Rodney was here. I tried talking to him, but I don't think he recognised me. After that, things all fell apart at once."

"I don't understand," John replied and glanced over at Rodney as he started to mutter louder. "How did he end up in a corner with a scalpel in his hand, bleeding?"

"With everything that's happened over the last few days, Rodney is most likely dehydrated, and his sugar numbers are off," Carson explained. "I suspect he is also seriously sleep deprived. I ordered an IV to get his fluids up and …"

Carson sighed. "Sharon and my team back in Atlantis know not to insert an IV in Rodney's right arm. The first time Jason tried, Rodney reacted by giving the lad a black eye, even though he was only half conscious at the time. Since then, my team knows not to touch his right arm with anything sharp without telling him first."

"Kolya," John whispered and closed his eyes. How long was the Genii Commander going to continue to haunt McKay? he wondered.

"Exactly." Carson nodded at one of the med techs standing near the bed. "The lad didn't know that, and when he tried to insert the IV, Rodney reacted. Badly."

"I can see that." John noticed the man stood with an arm wrapped around his stomach and assumed Rodney had managed to land at least one blow.

"That's not the worst of it, Major," Carson said, and John could hear the concern in his tone. "I think I mentioned I didn't think Rodney recognised me."

John nodded.

"From a few of the things he's said, I think he's a bit delirious." Carson glanced over at Rodney.

John saw McKay was watching them with a puzzled, but wary, look on his face.

"I believe he thinks Commander Kolya has kidnapped him and he's being held captive by the Genii."

John felt his expression harden. "All right, the first thing we need to do is get all of these people out of here." John turned to the MPs. "Out. Now," he ordered, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the door.

"But, sir," one of the MPs said. "The situation --"

"Isn't going to get any better with you pointing a gun at him. I'll handle it. Get out."

McKay flinched at John's harsh tone, and Sheppard winced. He needed to deal with the situation calmly for Rodney's sake.

The MP hesitated a moment longer, then stepped back. "Yes, sir," he replied and signalled his partner toward the door. "We'll be outside if you need us, sir."

John waited until the MPs were gone and the rest of the infirmary staff had backed away before turning his attention to Rodney. "Rodney? Buddy? It's John."

Rodney's head jerked in John's direction as he spoke, and John could see Rodney's eyes were open, but he wasn't really seeing anything.

Rodney shook his head and turned away. "Trick. It's a trick," he muttered. "They captured you. Gotta find you. Kolya wants information. Won't give it to him."

John heard Carson hiss out a breath behind him, but ignored him.

John inched a step closer to McKay's corner. "Rodney? I'm right here. We beat Kolya, remember? You beat him. He left Atlantis."

Rodney shook his head. "This isn't 'Lantis," he replied and waved the scalpel at John.

John looked around the room and could easily see how Rodney's sleep-deprived mind had jumped to the Genii. The concrete walls of the infirmary bore more than a slight resemblance to the bunker they'd been in on the Genii homeworld.

"You're right, this isn't Atlantis," John told him carefully. "We came back to Earth, remember? The Daedalus brought you a ZPM, and we used it to dial Earth."

He took another step toward Rodney and knelt down so he was at eye-level with McKay.

"Earth?" Rodney looked around the room again. "This is Earth?"

"Yeah, buddy," John replied. "You used the ZPM to protect the city and the Wraith left. Remember? Then we came back to Earth." He leant forward and gently took the scalpel out of Rodney's hand.

Rodney glanced over at the scalpel now back on the tray then at John. For an instant, Rodney focused on him, and John thought he saw a glimmer of recognition.

"John?" he whispered just as his eyes rolled back and he started to topple.

John caught him and sat down to the floor with Rodney held against his chest. "Carson," he called.

"Right here, Major," Beckett replied as he crouched down next to him and checked Rodney's pulse.

"Is he going to be all right?" John asked as a couple of technicians lifted Rodney back onto the bed.

"Let me get him settled, then I'll try to answer your questions."

John nodded, and stepped back as a nurse pulled a privacy curtain around Rodney's bed.

John paced near the front of the infirmary, watching the curtained-off corner of the room. He heard the infirmary door open and glanced behind him when Elizabeth entered fifteen minutes later.

"What happened?" she asked with a glance at the closed-off area behind John.

"Everything finally caught up with him," John replied with a tired sigh.

"The message I received said Rodney was threatening someone with a knife."

John nodded. "Scalpel actually. He didn't know where he was. He thought he'd been kidnapped by the Genii."

Before John could say anything else, the privacy screen was moved, and Carson motioned them over to Rodney's bed.

John noticed someone had changed Rodney into a set of white scrubs and in addition to the IV -- which John noted absently was in Rodney's left hand -- he was also hooked up to a set of monitors.

"Carson?" Elizabeth said from the foot of Rodney's bed.

"He's exhausted and needs rest," Carson replied shortly.

"What about his thinking he'd been kidnapped by the Genii?" John asked with a worried glance at the bed.

"I don't think it's anything to worry about, assuming, of course, he gets the sleep he needs," Beckett told him. "The brain starts playing tricks on us when it doesn't get enough rest." Carson glanced down at Rodney as he shifted in the bed.

John laid a hand on McKay's arm and whispered, "You're safe, everything is fine," in Rodney's ear.

Rodney opened his eyes for a moment, and John could see he wasn't really awake at all. "Go back to sleep," he said softly and waited for Rodney's eyes to close again.

John glanced over at Carson, then looked around the room. He saw a chair shoved in an out-of-the-way corner and walked over to it.

"If what I suspect is true," Carson continued as John picked up the chair and carried over to Rodney's bed, "he hasn't slept at all the last four days, and he probably wasn't getting much more than cat naps in the two weeks before the Wraith attacked the city. That kind of sleep debt isn't going to be wiped out in one night. It's going to take several days of bed rest for him to recover."

John nodded as he settled in the chair.

"Don't think I don't know how little rest you've had, either, Major," Carson said with a frown. "You need to get some sleep as well."

John nodded. "I just want to make sure he's going to stay asleep. He needs to know he's safe. No one needs another repeat of what just happened here."

Carson sighed and stepped back. "Fine. But I'll not be having you stay here all night. You can stay a little while, then you need to go back to the room and your own bed." He waited until John nodded in agreement, then turned to Elizabeth.

"I'm not sure what this General Landry had planned for us until the Daedalus arrives, but as Rodney's doctor, I don't want him dealing with any more of these debriefings for at least a week. He needs sleep and as little stress as possible."

"I have a meeting with General Landry in the morning. I'll let him know," Elizabeth said as she stepped back from the end of the bed.

Carson started to follow her, but stopped and tapped John's arm. "I meant what I said, Major. You need to rest. You won't do him any good if you end up in the bed next to him."

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Three hours later, John shifted in the chair next to Rodney's bed trying to find a new position that wouldn't make his back ache. For the moment, Rodney seemed to be sleeping peacefully. There hadn't been any twitching or muttering coming from the bed in the last hour, and John took it as a good sign he was finally getting the rest Carson said he needed.

He heard footsteps approaching their corner of the room, and looked up to see a nurse, this time a man he didn't recognise, stop on the other side of the bed and check the monitors. John glanced at his watch, surprised to find it was evening and decided there must have been a shift change for the infirmary staff. The nurse checked the readings, made his notes, and left again after giving John a curious look.

John glanced at the monitor himself, noting none of the numbers seemed different from the last time someone stopped by to check. After a year of dealing with the aftermath of off-world missions, John found he could read most of the data on the monitor now and watched the green line of Rodney's heart rate for a few moments, mesmerised by the steady up-and-down motion.

He was still watching when the pattern changed, and Rodney started to twitch slightly. John sat forward in his chair and waited to see if McKay would settle on his own. A few seconds later, Rodney sighed, and the pattern returned to normal.

John stood from the chair and leant against the wall to give his back a break from the chair. He stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets and pulled out the bronze coin he'd been carrying with him ever since Ford had disappeared.

"When my grandfather gave it to me he said he was proud of me and that he was giving the coin to a man who would serve with honor. I think he would agree I'm giving it to a man who serves with honor," Ford had told him when he gave the coin to John.

John flipped the coin over in his hand a few times and shook his head; he didn't feel very honorable at the moment. Teyla had been left in Atlantis to deal with the clean up from the Wraith attack. Rodney had landed himself in the infirmary because John hadn't been watching him closely enough to realise how much he needed a break. And Ford was lost somewhere in the Pegasus galaxy in need of their help whether he knew it or not.

"Yep, you did a great job being there for your team, Sheppard," he berated himself.

He put the coin back in his pocket and scrubbed a hand over his face. He knew part of his current mood was due to his own lack of sleep. Maybe Carson was right, he needed to get some rest before he found himself in the bed next to Rodney's.

McKay seemed fine, now, he told himself as he pushed himself away from the wall. He'd get a few hours sleep and come back in the morning before his next meeting. He had bent over to tell Rodney he would be back later when he heard soft muttering coming from the bed.

John frowned, and sat back down in the chair. The green heart rate line jumped, and John realised this time Rodney probably wasn't going to be able to pull himself out of the nightmare.

"Gone. John's gone," Rodney rasped louder and his head twisted on the pillow. "The hive ship blew up."

John heard enough to realise Rodney was dreaming about his suicide run at the hive ship and laid a hand on Rodney's arm as he continued to twist in the bed. "Rodney, I'm right here," he said in a low, calm voice. "I'm fine. You're fine. And Atlantis is safe."

"Saw the hive ship. John's gone."

John ducked his head as Rodney continued to mutter. "Rodney, I'm all right. I got out of the ship before it blew up."

He heard footsteps behind him and assumed it was the nurse for the hourly check and ignored the man as he continued to talk to McKay.

"Hey, I'm right here," he whispered as he rubbed McKay's arm. "Daedalus beamed me out in time, remember?"

Rodney twisted his head in John's direction and opened his eyes. "John? Not dead?"

John knew Rodney wasn't really awake, but he replied anyway, "I'm right here. Just relax, everything's under control."

Rodney's eyes closed again, and John rubbed his arm until he settled, then glanced over his shoulder to see what the nurse was doing.

He jumped to his feet when he saw, not the night nurse, but General O'Neill standing at the foot of Rodney's bed, hands in his trouser pockets, calmly watching him.

"General O'Neill," John exclaimed.

"At ease, Major," O'Neill said, and waved John back into his chair.

"I thought … General Landry said you'd taken reassignment in Washington, sir."

O'Neill cocked his head and smiled slightly. "That's the nice thing about Homeworld Security, Major. I get to read all of the interesting memos. There was an especially good one the other day saying members of a presumed lost mission to Atlantis had returned to Earth." O'Neill looked over at John. "I thought I'd drop by and see how they were doing."

John sat back down and glanced over at Rodney as he started to shift on the bed again.

He put his hand back on Rodney's arm, and whispered, "Everything is okay. Go back to sleep."

After a few moments, John heard Rodney sigh and watched as he settled into a deeper sleep.

"That's Doctor McKay, isn't it?" O'Neill said softly with a nod toward the bed.

John felt his expression harden.

"If we ever make contact with Earth again, I'm sure Colonel Carter or General O'Neill would be more than happy to tell you what kind of person I was when they knew me," he remembered Rodney telling him once.

"Yes, it is," John drawled. He managed to keep anything else he wanted to say to himself.

O'Neill gave him a measured look then glanced at the nurse's desk. John followed his gaze and saw Rodney's nurse and another woman talking and looking over at their corner. He idly wondered how long it would take for Carson to show up and throw him out for the night.

"Come on," O'Neill said, and jerked his head toward the door. "I know from experience how uncomfortable that chair can get. Let's get out of here before you're thrown out."

John looked up, not bothering to hide his surprise at O'Neill reading his mind.

O'Neill bent forward slightly and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "If you leave on your own, they can't tell you you can't come back later." O'Neill jerked his chin toward the door. "Come on."

John considered that logic for a moment then leant forward and whispered in Rodney's ear, "I'll be back in a little while. Stay out of trouble." He gave Rodney's arm one last squeeze and followed O'Neill past the nurse's desk and out of the infirmary.

O'Neill led him back through the maze of corridors to the empty mess hall. John grabbed a sandwich, filled a cup with coffee, and followed O'Neill to a table in the corner.

"I hear you've had quite the year in the Pegasus galaxy, Major," O'Neill said as they sat down.

"You could say that, sir." John unwrapped the sandwich and started to eat. He'd almost forgotten what actual roast beef tasted like, and told himself he needed to take one of the sandwiches back to the infirmary for Rodney.

"I gotta say, I was surprised to read McKay was on a first contact team," O'Neill said a few minutes later as John finished the sandwich. "He struck me more like a stay in the lab, stay away from danger type."

"I guess people can fool you, sir," John replied and drank some coffee.

O'Neill watched him for several moments. "So, what was it?"


"I watched you with McKay in the infirmary, Major. That was more than just a team leader checking on one of his men. Something happened that you feel personally responsible for him. Kinda like family, maybe?"

John twisted the empty coffee cup between his hands and said nothing. He wasn't sure what it was O'Neill was after with this conversation and took his time thinking of what to say next.

O'Neill watched him for few moments longer then when John still didn't offer anything, O'Neill said, "The very first time I went through the 'gate, I was saddled with this scientist. He seemed to be allergic to everything and had no sense of self-preservation whatsoever." O'Neill shook his head, but John saw the smile on his face as he relived the memory.

"Doctor Jackson," John said when O'Neill paused.

O'Neill nodded. "One and the same." He leant back in his chair. "I didn't see him as much more than an annoyance. He was there to get my men back through the 'gate, that was it. Except when it came time to leave, Daniel tells me he has no idea how to make the 'gate work." O'Neill shook his head. "He had one job to do, and suddenly he was telling me he couldn't do it. Didn't have enough information."

O'Neill looked down at the table. "Kawalsky wanted to ditch him, find another way back through the 'gate. But then Daniel went missing and Ra showed up, landed his ship right on top of the pyramid Kawalsky and my team were standing in. Daniel surprised me, he refused to back down to this guy who was basically a god. He stood up to Ra and saved my life. After that, he became one of my closest friends."

O'Neill pointed behind him. "Based on what I just saw, I'm guessing something similar happened with you and McKay, so what was it?"

John studied the General's face for a few moments. He'd known O'Neill by reputation before he'd ever heard about things like stargates or Ancient genes. That reputation was one of loyalty to his people, to the extent he'd put his life and career on the line several times when he felt he was right and the higher-ups were wrong.

He remembered the file Elizabeth had shown him about that first mission through the 'gate and the one a year later when General Hammond had wanted to send a bomb to Abydos right up until he'd found out O'Neill had lied about Jackson being dead.

At the time, John had been hard-pressed to think of anyone he knew who would do such a thing for him or anyone he'd be willing to go to such lengths to protect. That all changed when he sat in a strange chair that lit up, and he was sent to another galaxy with the most arrogant man he'd ever had the pleasure to know.

"The first time I went through the 'gate," John finally said, "I ended up in a city that was underwater with this guy who thought he was god's gift to the universe. Rodney was more than happy to tell everyone he was the smartest person in the room, and then he went on to prove he actually was.

"Within a few days, I learned he was hypoglycaemic, allergic to citrus, arrogant as all hell, and had a well-developed sense of self-preservation. In spite of all of that, he also used an Ancient shield device he barely understood and walked into the midst of a creature feeding off the city's energy supply to save all of us." John thought back on those early days and smiled. "He also let me shoot him."

O'Neill choked on his coffee. "Excuse me?"

"And I pushed him off a balcony." John grinned at the memory. "It was to test the shield," he explained when he saw the shocked look on O'Neill's face.

"McKay isn't the same person he was a few years ago," John said a moment later.

"No, I don't think he is," O'Neill replied. "The man I knew would never have let anyone get close enough to him to do what I watched back there." O'Neill gave him a shrewd look. "My guess is, you've had some practice."

John snorted. "You have no idea."

O'Neill leant forward in his chair his expression serious. "I spent eight years going through the 'gate with not one scientist, but two. I think I have a pretty good idea, actually."

John gave him a sideways look. "McKay was infected with these nanites that would have killed him if he didn't have the ATA gene."

O'Neill nodded and sat back in his chair. "Daniel was infected with these tiny anti-Goa'uld devices. Made him nuts."

John winced. "That had to be hard to watch."

"Yeah, until I got infected too and could see things from the other side."

John went back to the mess line for more coffee. "Doctor Jackson ever get trapped in a house that could shift and change at will?"

"No, though he did get himself phased into another dimension after he touched this crystal skull thing. If Daniel gets into trouble, it's usually because he's touched something."

"Don't have that problem, at least," John said as he neared the table. "Rodney is usually the one yelling at everyone not to touch something."

John sat back across from O'Neill. "We managed to get a jumper stuck in an active wormhole once. Had less than a minute left before the wormhole shut down, killing us all, when Rodney figured out the problem," he said, and swallowed some coffee.

"Teal'c was trapped in the 'gate buffer," O'Neill replied with a glance at John. "But I'll bet you knew about that one."

John nodded and ducked his head. "Yeah. I heard about that one. I also know he regrets a few things about that whole incident."

"Calling Carter a dumb blonde was not one of his better moments," O'Neill said. His tone taking on a slight edge. "McKay is lucky she's already left to take over the research division at Area 51."

John drank more coffee and nodded. "That and … the rest. He understands a few things a little bit better now."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, and John was starting to think about finding a bed again when O'Neill spoke.

"I guess now you know I was right," O'Neill said.

"About what, sir."

"I told you I thought anyone who didn't want to go through the 'gate was whacked. You're back on Earth for the first time in a year, and I can tell the only thing you want to do right now is get back to Atlantis and get back to exploring that galaxy."

John smiled. He couldn't deny O'Neill was right. Instead, he finished his coffee. "Do you miss it?" he asked with a glance at O'Neill.

O'Neill pursed his lips and looked around the room. "Sometimes," he admitted.

John watched as several different emotions, happiness, anger, sorrow, joy, played across O'Neill's face.

"Sometimes," he said again.

John waited a few moments then stood. "I want to check on Rodney one last time," he said in response to O'Neill's raised eyebrow. He took a step then turned around. "Thanks for the talk, General." John bent forward and added in a low voice, "Did you find out what you wanted to know?"

O'Neill looked up with an innocent smile. "I think I got what I needed."

"Good." He gave O'Neill a nod and a half smile and left the mess hall for the infirmary.

He stepped through the infirmary doors and stopped when he saw Carson standing next to Rodney's bed. Beckett glanced over at John as Sheppard walked over to the bed, said something to the nurse standing next to him, and came over to John.

"There's nothing to fret about. Rodney is fine," he said before John could open his mouth. "I just checked on him. He's going to sleep the rest of the night, John, so there's no need for you to stay here."

"You're sure?" John said with a frown remembering the nightmare from earlier.

"I'm sure. If anything does change, the nurses know to call me, and I will let you know. But I don't expect there to be any problems. His body is finally getting what it needs most. Go. You're going to need all the sleep you can get. Once he's awake, I'm going to need your help keeping him from over-doing things too much."

John stepped over to the bed and whispered, "Carson is throwing me out for the night. You're safe now. I'll see you in the morning."

He stepped back, and Beckett nodded. "Good night, Major."

"Night, Carson." John gave Rodney's arm a pat and left to find his own bed.

Chapter Text

Three days in the infirmary was not how Rodney had expected to spend his first trip back to Earth, even if he was asleep more often that he was awake for most of them. Rodney had vague memories of Sheppard talking to him, keeping the nightmares at bay. But any time he was awake, he felt groggy, and more often than not was asleep again within minutes. This was the first time in days he was awake and actually felt awake and not like he was about to fall asleep again.

He sat up in the infirmary bed glaring at the bowl of oatmeal and glass of apple juice on the table in front of him. As a rule, he usually enjoyed hospital food but even he drew the line at plain oatmeal, and more importantly, the lack of coffee.

"Rodney, how are you feeling this morning?" Carson asked as he stopped next to the bed.

"I'd feel better if this breakfast came with coffee," Rodney replied with a scowl as he poked at the bowl of gluey oatmeal.

Carson matched Rodney's glare with one of his own. "You do remember you were so sleep deprived you were hallucinating, don't you? You're lucky the only thing I did was take away your coffee for a few days."

Rodney ducked his head; the underlying worry was obvious in Carson's tone. He didn't really remember much of what happened during the debriefing, but he knew he'd made a first-class fool of himself in front of several scientists, not to mention apparently holding off the medical team with a scalpel.

"Please tell me I can get out of here soon," Rodney replied. "I need to salvage what respect I still have with the science division."

Carson pursed his lips. "Major Sheppard will be here soon with some clothes," he finally said. "However, you are still on medical leave for the next four days."

"You have to be kidding! What am I supposed to do for the next four days?"

Carson smiled. "Major Sheppard has an idea about that as well."

"What sort of idea?" Rodney asked suspiciously. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what John had planned for him.

"I'll let him tell you when he gets here," Carson replied. "Once you've changed, you're free to leave." He held up a finger. "No coffee for the next four days. Your body still needs regular sleep. And I've already told Major Sheppard the same thing, so don't go thinking you can sneak a cup when I'm not looking."

The door to the infirmary opened, and John entered wearing jeans and a collared shirt, definitely not his regular uniform. Rodney thought the clothes looked new.

"He ready to go, Doc?" John asked as he dropped a small bag on the bed near Rodney's feet.

"Would someone care to tell me what's going on?" Rodney asked impatiently with his arms crossed over his chest.

"You didn't tell him?" John looked at Carson.

"It was your idea, Major," Carson replied and started to walk away.

"Get dressed," John said once Beckett was gone. "We have a flight to catch."

"Flight to where? I thought you had meetings."

John leant against the wall next to Rodney's bed. "Elizabeth cleared the time off with General Landry. We don't have to be back here until Friday."

"You still haven't said where we're going."

John smiled. "I made you a promise. If we ever made contact with Earth, we'd go to Niagara Falls. Remember?"

Rodney looked up, not bothering to keep the surprised look off his face. "We're going now?"

"You mentioned wanting to go before we left Atlantis. I say, no time like the present," John said with a grin. "How many chances are we going to get?"

Rodney pushed himself out of bed and grabbed the clothes. "I'll be right back."

He found a bathroom and discovered the clothes John had brought him, a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt, were new as well. "A uniform would probably stick out in a tourist trap," he said to himself as he dressed.

"Come on, I'm hungry," John said once Rodney had his boots tied. John glanced at the mostly full bowl of now cold oatmeal still on the rollaway bed table. "Bet you are, too."

Rodney followed as John led them back through the hallways to the mess hall. Most of the breakfast rush was over, but several scientists and a few military personnel were still scattered around the room. Several heads swivelled around to watch as he and John entered the room and headed for the mess line. Rodney noticed several whispered conversations amongst the men and women watching them. He ducked his head and tried to ignore it as he picked up a tray and followed John.

He paused a few steps behind Sheppard and stared at all the options available, eggs, pancakes, waffles, and fresh fruit! He'd almost forgotten what an apple tasted like. He picked up one of the apples and set it on the tray.

They'd managed fairly well substituting Pegasus galaxy foods when the Earth-based foodstuffs ran out, but there was something to be said for familiar favorites. He loaded his plate with pancakes and eggs and grabbed a cup out of habit. Before he could fill it, John stopped him.

"No coffee," he warned. "Beckett will have my head if he finds out I let you have caffeine."

Rodney glared over at John but put the cup down. His only other choices were orange juice, apple juice, or water. The SGC apparently didn't believe in decaf coffee. Rodney couldn't really blame them. With a sigh, he picked up a glass of apple juice.

John picked up a glass of juice for himself and led the way to a table off to one side of the room. Rodney couldn't help noticing several people followed their progress as they crossed the room.

"Don't they have anything better to do?" he grumbled as he sat across from Sheppard and started to eat.


"Everyone staring at us." Rodney glanced around the room and hunched his shoulders as several heads ducked back down when he looked in their direction.

The SGC wasn't that big a base. Rodney suspected most of the staring was the result of his antics the other day. Nothing like a good delusion about a sadistic madman to cement his own reputation as just another genius gone around the bend. He felt John watching him and shrugged as he went back to eating.

"We did just come back from an expedition they thought was lost," John offered, and Rodney snorted.

"Right," Rodney replied, and didn't try to hide his disbelief. "That must be it. Nothing to do with one of us seeing things and passing out in a debriefing."

"I'm sure some of them also expect to go back with us," John continued. "They're probably trying to figure out how to get on the short list for consideration."

"What?" Rodney looked up in surprise. "When did that happen?"

John smiled. "Elizabeth convinced the President and the international committee to let us expand the mission in Atlantis now that we have the ZPM. I understand there are any number of scientists eager to make the trip."

"Does that mean more military, too?" Rodney asked as he finished his eggs.

"Probably," John replied, and refused to look up.

Rodney paused with a bit of pancake on his fork. John's flat response was not what he'd expected. "What's wrong?"

"Hmm, nothing." John glanced over at him and tried to smile.

Rodney wasn't buying the act. "Something's wrong. I can tell."

John ate a few more bites of his waffle before he answered. "Atlantis just became the most interesting posting in the Air Force. Every colonel from here to Europe is going to be putting in for a transfer in hopes of getting the command."

It took Rodney a moment to realise what John was saying. "You won't be in command any more?" he asked with a frown.

"No, probably not." John sighed. "A command that important? They aren't going to leave it in the hands of a major."

"Maybe they'll promote you," Rodney suggested as he finished his pancakes.

John snorted. "That's about as likely as you learning to fly in a straight line."

"It seems the international committee isn't willing to wait the three weeks it will take for the Daedalus to return to Earth," Rodney remembered Caldwell saying before they left Atlantis.

"You don't think that's why Caldwell is here, do you?"

John pursed his lips. "The thought had crossed my mind."

Rodney made a face across the table. He'd always be grateful for the Colonel's timely arrival in saving Sheppard, but in general, Caldwell thought only in terms of if something was a potential threat. Either it was, and needed to be blown up, or it wasn't, and could be ignored.

"You'll still be our team leader, won't you?"

John shrugged. "Depends on who the new CO is. Maybe."

Rodney scowled. "Elizabeth won't let anyone take that away from you."

"Elizabeth may not have much choice," John replied, his expression blank.

Soon after their trip through the Ancient gauntlet, John had told him a few things about his time in Afghanistan, including the courts-martial where he was acquitted. John had never come out and said his superiors thought the court had made the wrong call, but Rodney could read well enough between the lines.

This is how they get even, Rodney realised. They'll take his command and his team away from him. He looked down at his plate and growled under his breath. Was there a way he could stop that from happening?

"What if I told them I wouldn't go through the 'gate with anyone else?" Rodney offered.

John smiled, and for a moment, Rodney saw something else in Sheppard's expression. "Let's not get carried away. Nothing's happened yet."

Rodney ducked his head. "Nothing wrong with being prepared," he said.

John pushed away his empty plate, pulled something out of his trouser pocket, and fiddled with it. Rodney saw a flash of bronze and realised it was the coin Ford had given Sheppard a month ago.

"Elizabeth talked to Teyla yesterday," John said a few minutes later.

Rodney drank the rest of his juice. "Is everything okay? Tell me Zelenka didn't decide to improve something while I was gone."

"Atlantis is fine. I'm sure Zelenka won't do anything to blow it up while we're gone."

Rodney grudgingly admitted to himself that was probably true.

John flipped the coin in his hand a few times. "She thinks she might have a lead on Ford. She's going to have some of her off-world contacts check it out and let us know."

"Do you think we'll really ever find him?" Rodney asked carefully.

He knew John was upset about what had happened to Ford. He was also aware Ford had an entire galaxy to hide in. Rodney couldn't help wondering if this new commander would let them continue to look for Ford, but he didn't say anything else to John.

John flipped the coin in his hand a few more times. "We'll find him," he said, and Rodney wondered who John was trying to convince.

No one left behind. Rodney knew it was part of the private code John lived by. What he didn't know was how Sheppard expected to find a man who had proven he didn't want to be found.

John pocketed the coin, finished his juice, and asked, "You ready to go? We have a plane to catch."

Rodney nodded as he stood up and cleared his dishes. "How did you arrange a flight so fast? It couldn't have been cheap."

John shook his head as they left the mess hall. "We aren't flying commercial, Rodney." When Rodney stared at him, he continued. "I was flying planes long before jumpers, you know."

"Where did you get a plane?"

"Buddy of mine has a plane he's letting us borrow." John punched in the security code for the suite. "Go pack," he said as he went into his room. "We need to be at the county airport in forty-five minutes."

They were signed out of the base and almost to the end of the tunnel when Rodney heard someone running up behind them.

"Major Sheppard, sir!" a voice called, and John turned back.

"Sergeant?" John replied, his tone more formal than Rodney was used to.

The Sergeant stopped a few paces away and drew himself upright. "Sorry to shout, sir," he said. "They need you back downstairs right away."

"What's the problem?" John asked with a glance at Rodney.

The Sergeant stepped aside as John started back toward the sign-in desk. "I wasn't told any details, sir. Just that you and Doctor McKay were needed by General Landry ASAP."

John nodded. "Let's hope it's something quick and simple," he said as Rodney followed him back in the elevator.

Sergeant Harriman met them when elevator doors opened. "This way, sir," he said, and led the way to the conference room overlooking the embarkation room where Elizabeth and General Landry were waiting.

"John, Rodney," Elizabeth greeted when they entered the conference room. "I know you had plans, but something has come up at the research division at Area 51."

"What does that have to do with us?" John asked as they sat down.

Elizabeth turned to Rodney. "It seems they were trying to incorporate some of your theories about naquadah generators into the new designs and ran into trouble."

Rodney frowned. "What were they trying to do? The Mark II generators were already better than what I had designed in Atlantis."

"The scientists out in Nevada wanted to use your ideas to improve the next generation of generator, making them smaller but more powerful," General Landry said. "They ran into a problem recently and Doctor Philip Mason, the head of the research division, sent this message this morning." Landry nodded to Harriman.

Harriman pressed a button on the computer next to him.

Rodney saw the image of a man in his early 50s, gone a bit to seed, with thinning brown hair, and wearing a bow tie of all things. He snorted in disdain as he crossed his arms over his chest. No wonder they were having problems, he thought to himself as the video started, Mason couldn't engineer his way out of paper bag.

"General Landry, this is to inform you we've run into an issue with the generator redesign. Doctors White and Griffin were attempting to integrate the design changes we received in the data burst from Atlantis into the new generators, and something went wrong. Luckily, Doctor White noticed the issue in the computer modelling before anything catastrophic occurred with the prototype. However, this could potentially set the next generator design back months, if not years."

Mason hesitated and looked down at his hands. "I've been informed Doctor McKay is back on Earth."

Rodney wondered if he'd imagined the flicker of distaste in Mason's expression at the mention of his name.

"And I understand Doctor McKay was recently ill …"

Rodney flinched and glanced at John. How the hell did Mason find out about what happened so quickly? he wondered.

"... However, if it is at all possible, it would be a great help if he could come out to the Research Division and review the designs with the generator team. He may be able to pinpoint what went wrong so we can move forward with the design changes without further loss of time."

"Mason," Rodney grumbled once the playback ended. "The man is an idiot."

Elizabeth clasped her hands on the table in front of her. "I remember his file when I was selecting members for the Atlantis expedition. His research was unremarkable and yet he wanted to head the Science Division. He has a few friends in high places, though, a couple of the committee members pushed hard for his inclusion on the Atlantis expedition. I had to politely tell him he was not a good fit for the team."

Rodney snorted. "Not surprising he ran into problems with the generator. Calling him an engineer gives him too much credit. He's a glorified supervisor at best."

"I thought Colonel Carter was the head of the Area 51 division," John said, with a puzzled look at Landry.

Rodney glanced over at him. "Where did you hear that?"

"I had coffee with General O'Neill a few days ago. He said something about Colonel Carter being reassigned to Nevada."

Rodney flinched at O'Neill's name but said nothing.

"You are correct, Major," General Landry said. "Colonel Carter is taking over the R&D division from Doctor Mason. She left a few days ago to take a look around the facility and get situated. She takes official command of the division in a couple of weeks.

"As for you, Doctor McKay, your Doctor Beckett wasn't happy with the idea, but he has signed off on sending you out the talk to Doctor Mason and his people," General Landry added. "A driver is waiting to take you to the airport. Your plane leaves in an hour."

"Wait. I'm leaving now?" Rodney glanced at John.

"You heard the message. According to Doctor Mason, the generator research is at a critical stage," Landry said. "They can't move forward with the new design until this is fixed. The President and the committee need this project back on track. So yes, Doctor, you're going now."

John glanced over at him. "Don't worry about it. We'll get there, get their problem sorted out for them, and then --"

"You aren't going, Major," Landry said. "They don't need both of you. This will give us time to finish our conversation from the other day."

Rodney looked from John to Landry. What had happened the other day? He didn't remember John mentioning anything during his visits to the infirmary. Any time Rodney had asked what John was doing during the day, he had replied with "meetings" and left it at that. He thought about John's comments at breakfast about promotions and command of the Atlantis expedition and scowled in Landry's direction.

General Landry frowned back at him. "Is there a problem, Doctor McKay?"

Don't make things worse, he reminded himself as he wiped the scowl off his face. "No. No problem," he answered.

Landry gave him a hard look. "Glad to hear it. I believe I said your driver was waiting." Rodney heard the clear dismissal in Landry's tone and ignored it as he turned to Elizabeth.

She pursed her lips, but only said, "Call us when you know what's going on."

He nodded at Elizabeth, exchanged a frustrated look with John, and left the conference room.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Nothing like the Nevada desert in July, Rodney grumbled to himself as he left the Las Vegas airport three hours later and walked into the blistering heat and low humidity that was the high desert in summer. He squinted in the bright afternoon sunlight, he hadn't had time to find a pair of sunglasses, and shifted the small travel case from one sweaty hand to the other as he looked around for the promised car. At least you were already packed, he thought ruefully. He doubted Landry would have given him any time otherwise.

He remembered how Sergeant Harriman had led him out of the conference room and back to the elevator. "Your car is waiting at the main gate," Harriman had told him as he shoved an envelope into Rodney's hand and pushed the call button for the elevator. "This has your credentials to get into the research division and your flight information. I've arranged with Nellis to have a car meet you at the airport and take you out to the facility."

The elevator doors opened, and Harriman stepped back. "Doctor Weir is calling Doctor Mason to let him know when to expect you. He will meet you at the research building."

Before Rodney had been able to say anything in reply, the elevator door closed and ten minutes later he was signing out of the base again, this time without John.

He looked up and down the rows of cars and finally spotted a four-door sedan painted a dull blue with 'U.S. Air Force' stencilled on the front doors parked against the curb. A young airman stood next to it a holding a sign with Rodney's name neatly printed on it. He greeted Rodney with a nod, then politely took his bag, held the back passenger door open for him, and nodded to the bottle of water waiting in the cup holder.

"It will take about three hours to reach the base, sir," the Airman said as he slid behind the wheel and started the car.

Rodney nodded absently and regretted the fact his combo-computer was sitting on his desk in Atlantis.

It didn't take long for them to leave the area around the city behind, and Rodney looked out the heavily tinted windows at the barren landscape as he wiped a line of sweat off his forehead.

Even with the darkened windows and the air conditioning running full blast, the inside of the car still felt stuffy and hot. He finished the bottle of water in short order and leant forward enough to pluck at his sweaty shirt sticking to his back.

"Still better than freezing to death," he said to himself as he sat back in his seat.

"Did you say something, sir?" the Airman asked, looking back at him in the rearview mirror.

"Nothing important."

The Airman glanced at him again then focused on the road while Rodney watched the desert pass by his window.

It was mid-afternoon when Rodney saw the concrete buildings of the Area 51 Research Division looming up out of the desert. The car passed the main gate and coasted to a stop in front of the largest of them.

"My orders were to deliver you directly to Doctor Mason's office, sir," the Airman said as he opened Rodney's door. "I'll deliver your bag to the visitor's quarters. Anyone here will be able to direct you. You've been assigned to room 45-Delta."

Rodney climbed out of the car, and as he turned to thank the Airman, he saw the young man already back in what comfort the vehicle provided and easing the car into motion. He shrugged, opened the door to the Research building, and stepped inside.

"Can I help you, sir?" a Sergeant asked as Rodney stopped at the desk.

Rodney noted the sidearm the man carried, as well as the P-90 carried by his partner, and dug through his pockets until he found the envelope Harriman had given to him.

"Doctor Mason is expecting me," he said, and handed over the papers inside the envelope.

The Sergeant read through the papers quickly and gave his companion a swift nod. The corporal with the P-90 stepped back.

"If you could just sign in here, sir," the Sergeant said and picked up the desk phone. "I'll call Doctor Mason's office to have someone escort you down to the lab."

A few minutes later, a woman about his age with brown hair, cropped short, stepped out of an elevator and walked over to him. "Doctor McKay?" the woman asked as she stopped in front of Rodney. "I'm Doctor Susan Griffin. Sorry to keep you waiting, things are a little crazy today. Doctor Mason was called into an unexpected meeting."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "He called the SGC this morning saying he needed me out here immediately. Now he can't even be bothered to show up when I get here?"

Griffin frowned at his tone and Rodney glared right back. He should have been halfway to New York with John, not broiling in the Nevada desert. The only reason he was here was because of Mason, and now Mason couldn't be bothered to see him. He had half a mind to turn around and leave until he remembered the airman and the car were already gone.

Griffin led him back to an elevator and pushed the button for one of the lower floors. "As I said, things are a little hectic today," she replied, her posture and tone stiff. "Doctor Mason won't be available until tomorrow. He asked me to show you the schematics and computer models when you arrived."

"I was under the impression you had some sort of working model," Rodney said, and tried to get his temper under control.

Griffin nodded. "There is a prototype. Luckily we hadn't charged the naquadah reactor yet when Doctor White found the flaw in the integration of your power converter with the new design. Doctor Mason is the only one with access to the bunker. We didn't want anyone doing anything foolish until we solved the conversion problems."

The elevator door opened into a work area where several men and women huddled around long work tables, either talking back and forth or studying data on computer screens.

"You can use Doctor Mason's office," Griffin said as she led him around a corner to a small office. "The schematics are on the work table," she told him, pointing to a table against the wall opposite the government-issue metal desk.

Rodney flipped through the pile of designs while Griffin left for a few minutes and returned with a laptop. "Here are the computer models of our initial tests," she said, and called up several files of spreadsheets and graphs.

Rodney spent the rest of the afternoon and evening reading through the data on the new generator and pointing out the various mistakes in the design to Mason's group of scientists. He saw more than one pair of eyes start to roll when he began to speak, and his tone became more arrogant and condescending as he pointed out the deficiencies in their work.

"Are any of you people capable of doing simple math?" he asked after one heated debate. "The conversion rate is a known constant. You've got your output levels completely wrong, it's no wonder the generator nearly blew up."

The older man standing in front of him, Doctor White, glared at him. "You cannot know that's the reason --"

"Of course I can know that. Anyone who can add knows that," Rodney snapped and rubbed his forehead. "If you want this generator design to work, you need to go back and redo all of your calculations on the converter systems. This," he pointed at the pile of drawings on the desk, "this is barely an effective bomb. You're nowhere near having a device capable of sustained power generation."

Rodney glanced at his watch, and was surprised to see it was almost eight pm. No wonder he had a headache and felt ready to drop. Carson had warned him to take things easy, and now he understood why. Besides the headache, his eyes felt dry and scratchy, and he was slightly dizzy. He could see White gearing up for another argument and turned away. He didn't want a repeat of what had happened in the debriefing to happen again, once was more than enough.

The problem was, he had no idea where the visitors quarters were. When he'd been assigned to Area 51 years ago, he'd been assigned housing on the other side of the base. He'd never had the need nor the desire to find out where any visiting scientists were housed.

White opened his mouth, and Rodney simply talked over him. "I'm done for the night. Someone show me where the visitor quarters are and where I can get something to eat. I'll continue the basic physics lesson in the morning."

White sputtered for a few more seconds, but Rodney ignored him and walked out the door.

He was almost to the elevator before Griffin caught up with him.

"Mason warned us about you," she told him as she pushed the call button.

It had been a long day, and except for a brief break when he found a sandwich and a can of cola in a break room, Rodney hadn't had anything to eat since his breakfast with Sheppard that morning. He ached, he was tired, and he didn't have the patience to deal with a group of scientists who didn't have enough intelligence to fill a teaspoon.

When he didn't say anything in reply, she continued, "He said you were arrogant and condescending with an overinflated sense of your own ego."

The elevator door opened and Rodney followed her inside. "And yet he called me out here to solve your problem," he told her with all of the sarcasm he could muster.

Griffin said nothing as she waited for him to sign out at the desk and follow her outside. The last rays of the sun gave them just enough light to see their way across the street and past three nondescript buildings to a low building on a corner with a sign in front stating it was the visitor's quarters.

An attempt had been made sometime in the past to make the building more welcoming. However, the yellow paint covering the dull concrete had faded, and the small patch of a flower garden by the door had wilted in the desert sun.

"The mess hall is two doors down on the left," Griffin told him brusquely. She left him at the main entrance to the building, turned on her heel, and headed off in a different direction without so much as a 'good evening'.

An airman directed Rodney to his room and offered him the keycard after opening the door. He found his travel case on a rack at the end of the bed, a computer on the desk in the corner, and a phone on the table next to the bed.

After spending ten minutes convincing the operator at the SGC, yes, he had the proper clearance and had orders to check in with his team leader, Rodney finally had John on the phone.

"I am surrounded by idiots," Rodney said without preamble as soon as John said hello. "They make Kavanagh look like a genius."

"So you've had a good day, then," John said wryly, and Rodney could almost see the smile on his face.

Rodney flopped back on the bed and rested an arm over his eyes while his other hand held the phone against his ear.

"Sorry," he said. "I've spent most of the day teaching these so-called experts basic engineering. And to top it off, Mason never showed up. He gets me hauled all the way out here, and then can't be bothered to listen to what I have to say. One of his scientists told me he was in meetings all day. I'm hoping Mason will grace us with his presence tomorrow, since apparently, he's the only one who can show me the prototype."

"Mason never met you?" John asked, and Rodney heard the suspicion in his tone.

Rodney grunted an affirmative. "My guess is he's trying to show me who's the boss. He gets me ordered out here and then leaves me with his group of incompetents in a waste of the entire afternoon. I did not miss this petty nonsense for the past year."

"So, did you figure out the problem with the generator?" John asked after a few moments of silence.

"I corrected their math and pointed out where their computer modelling was wrong."

"Think you'll have this wrapped up by tomorrow? The plane is ours any time before the weekend. We could still make a quick trip back east."

"I don't know. Maybe. It'll depend on how much Mason wants to drag things along just to show me he can." Rodney sighed and sat up. "Sorry. Didn't mean to dump all of this on you. I just wanted to have an intelligent conversation with someone."

"Ahh, so you finally admit I'm as smart as you," John teased.

"That's not what I said!" Rodney exclaimed, but he couldn't help the smile on his face.

"Maybe not, but that's what I intend to tell Teyla when we get back."

Rodney huffed out a breath and flopped back on the bed. He was past ready to return to Atlantis, and the Daedalus wasn't due for another two weeks.

"Get some sleep," John said seriously a moment later. "You sound exhausted."

Rodney grunted his agreement.

"Point this Doctor Mason in the right direction, then get back here. I'll talk to Elizabeth about those four days we were promised, and we'll head for Niagara Falls."

Rodney nodded even though John couldn't see him. "Thanks for …"

"You're welcome." John paused for a moment. "Good night, Rodney. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

Rodney hung up the phone, and after a short debate with himself about whether it was worth it to brave the only slightly cooler outdoor temperatures, he decided he really did need to eat something, and left to find the mess hall.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

John hung up the phone and sat staring at it for a few moments.

"Major?" Carson said from where he sat at the long table in the corner surrounded by file folders. "Is everything all right with Rodney?"

John shook himself out of his reverie and nodded. "Things didn't go exactly the way he planned. For all his insistence this morning that they needed him right away, this Doctor Mason left McKay hanging all day. Needless to say, he was not happy about it."

Carson frowned. "I thought there was some urgency to this project? I only signed off on Rodney making the trip because Sergeant Harriman said it was important."

John walked over to the table and picked up one of the folders. "Yeah, that's what we were told too."

Carson closed the personnel file he was reading and glanced up at John. "Everything is all right, isn't it? Rodney's not in any danger, is he?"

John hesitated for a moment. He had to admit, he'd had the same suspicion when Rodney told him about Mason ditching their meeting. Some of the things Mason had said in his video message had seemed a bit too pat, a bit too calculated. But if Carson had the same bad feeling …

He shook his head. Rodney was in Nevada, not some Wraith stronghold, John told himself. McKay was probably right, Mason was just trying to assert some sort of dominance.

"You've been in the Pegasus galaxy too long, Doc," John said with a weak smile. "We're on Earth. Rodney's fine. He thinks Mason is doing this on purpose to show him who's in charge, that's all. He thinks Mason will show him the prototype of this new generator tomorrow. He'll tell Mason exactly what he's doing wrong and will hopefully be back here tomorrow night."

Carson nodded. "Aye, I suppose you're right. It's easy to forget about these sorts of power squabbles in Atlantis."

There was a knock at the door, and John went to answer it.

A young female Corporal came to attention and said, "Major Sheppard, sir, General Landry would like to see you and Doctor Beckett in the conference room right away."

John had a flash of déjà vu, glanced over at Carson now standing behind the stacks of folders, then back at the Corporal. "I don't suppose you know what this is about?"

The Corporal shook her head. "No, sir. I was just told to find you, sir."

"Of course you were," John muttered, and for a moment wondered if he'd been too hasty in dismissing Beckett's concerns.


"Nothing, Corporal," John said to her, and turned to Carson, "Come on, Doc."

"Major?" Carson asked as they followed the Corporal back to the conference room.

"I'm sure this has nothing to do with McKay," John replied before Beckett could even ask.

Carson shook his head as the Corporal led them into the conference room.

"John. Carson," Elizabeth said, and John froze at her solemn expression. He's fine, John reminded himself. You hung up with him less than half an hour ago.

"Elizabeth? What's wrong?" Carson said with a glance at Sheppard, and John could tell Carson was thinking the same thing he was.

General Landry motioned for them to sit down. "I just got off the phone with the Nevada State Patrol. One of their officers found Doctor Mason's car early this afternoon burned along the side of a dirt road ten miles from the research facility. It took them most of the day to figure out who the car belonged to and to inform us. They are still working to identify the body found inside the car, but there's no reason to think it's not Philip Mason."

John grimaced. That explained why he didn't meet McKay, he said to himself.

"That's not all, John," Elizabeth said.

"No, it's not," Landry replied his tone subdued.

John was surprised to see Landry look down at the table and close his eyes. "Earlier this evening, Walter received a call from Colonel Carter. Someone rear-ended the rental car that was parked outside the housing unit assigned to her."

"I'm not seeing the connection," John said.

"Instead of a simple matter of a minor car accident, Carter's car exploded on impact," Landry explained.

John leant forward in his chair, his body suddenly tense. "Is she --"

"Carter is fine, she was inside her apartment at the time," Landry replied. "The driver of the other car sustained serious injuries and isn't expected to survive, however. I was still dealing with that incident when the State Patrol called. I don't think I have to spell it out for you, do I, Major?"

"Someone is targeting high-level scientists at Area 51," John replied, his tone flat. So much for Rodney being safe on Earth, he thought grimly.

"Have you talked to Rodney since he left this morning?" Elizabeth asked, and John could see the worry in her expression.

John nodded. "He called me," he glanced at his watch, "about half an hour ago."

Elizabeth blew out the breath she'd been holding. "He sounded all right?"

John nodded. "He was tired and frustrated but seemed fine. He'd been dealing with Mason's generator team all day since Mason himself never showed up." John looked over at Landry. "I guess now we know why."

"Do you suppose Rodney is in danger then?" Carson asked.

"We're not sure, Doctor Beckett," Landry started to say.

"Yes, we are," John said firmly, and he felt his shoulders tighten as he put the pieces together. "McKay said one of the scientists told him Mason was in meetings all day, that's why Mason wasn't available to talk to Rodney as planned." He turned to General Landry. "Did the State Patrol say if Mason was heading toward or away from Area 51?"

"He was heading south but he wasn't on the main highway," Landry replied. He caught John's eye, pursed his lips, and nodded. "I think I see where you're going with this, Major."

"You're saying Doctor Mason knew someone was trying to kill him and he was trying to get away?" Carson asked.

"Why else would he leave the base when he knew McKay was coming?" John asked, and looked around the room. "Mason was heading away from the base. One of the scientists knew Mason wouldn't be meeting Rodney and gave an excuse. He or she had to know the real reason Mason wasn't going to make that meeting." John hit the table with his fist. "Damn it, I should have asked McKay who told him about Mason."

"You didn't have any reason to, John," Elizabeth told him. "The good news is, we know Rodney was still alive as of an hour ago."

"Can't we call just Rodney and warn him?" Carson asked. "Tell him what happened to Doctor Mason and Colonel Carter?"

John shook his head. "We don't know who is involved. It could be one person, it could be several. If I wanted to call Rodney, I'd have to go through a switchboard, too many people could find out we're on to them. If Rodney is a target, they could kill him and run before I could get there."

"So you're just going to leave him in the dark about everything?" Carson exclaimed, not bothering to hide his anger.

"Believe it or not, Carson, this is safer," Elizabeth said.

"Not from where I'm sitting, it's not," Carson argued as he crossed his arms stiffly over his chest.

"If someone is after him, we don't want to tip them off and force them to act when he doesn't have any backup," John said. "If he's not in any danger, and there's a chance he's not, remember Mason and Carter are both assigned to Area 51, Rodney isn't, there's no point in scaring him."

Carson sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "All right, I can maybe see your point."

John looked from Landry to Elizabeth. "I need to get out there."

"There aren't any flights into Las Vegas until morning, Major," Landry said. "I already had Walter check."

"I'm a pilot, General. And I have access to a plane." John glanced at his watch. "It's after ten now. Flight time to Vegas is roughly three hours. Then another three to drive out to Groom Lake. I can have Rodney out of there before a commercial flight even left Colorado."

General Landry studied him for a few moments the nodded. "All right, Major. I'll have Walter arrange your clearance. It should be ready in an hour."

John frowned at the delay even as he realised Harriman would have to pull every string he had to get the clearance approved so quickly.

"What do you plan to do once you get there?" Elizabeth asked as Landry left the room.

"Rodney was probably housed in some sort of visitors quarters. He called me on a hard line, he'd have to in order to get through the security here, and it's not like there's a hotel nearby. I'll find him and bring him back here. After that, we can worry about what's going on over there."

"You can't go alone. You should take a security detail with you."

John shook his head. "That will send up all sorts of red flags as soon as the paperwork hits the system. Alone, I'm just a guy sent to pick up an important SGC asset and deliver him back to this base." John gave her a tight smile. "Trust me, I've done this before."

Elizabeth watched him for a moment, then nodded. "Just be careful."


Chapter Text

John glanced up from his cold cup of coffee when someone slid into the seat across from him, moved the cold cup out of reach, and pushed a fresh one into his hands. He looked up to see Beckett sipping at his own cup.

"Carson," John greeted, and nodded his thanks for the coffee before blowing on the hot liquid and taking a drink.

"Major," Carson replied.

"I thought you'd gone to bed."

Carson set his cup down. "How am I supposed to sleep knowing this is going on?" He paused for a moment, then added, "I think I should go with you."

John shook his head. "That's not a good idea. We know someone out at that facility is killing members of the science division. I can't guarantee you'd be safe."

Carson frowned. "I just spent a year living in a floating city in another galaxy that was just attacked by the Wraith. I think I can take care of myself."

John smiled into his coffee.

"What's so funny, then?" Carson scowled, which made John smile more.

John wiped the smile off his face and looked over at Beckett. "Nothing. Sorry. You sound just like Rodney."

Carson crossed his arms over his chest. "Yes, well, tell me I'm wrong."

"I know you can handle yourself, Doc. My point is you don't have to. I'll go get him and have him back here before dinner tomorrow."

Carson watched him for a moment his expression closed.

John swallowed more coffee, and tried to ignore the scrutiny.

"You aren't the only one worried about him, you know," Carson finally said. "I know Rodney is family to you, but he's also my friend and I can't just sit by, doing nothing, when I know he's in trouble."

"I understand that, Carson. I do," John replied. "But we can't all go charging out there, either. It's the same idea as not calling him. He's safer if the bad guys don't know we know what's going on."

Carson leant forward and rested his arms on the table. "You said it yourself, Major. We don't know who we can trust," he said in a near whisper. "What are you going to do if Rodney is injured? If this is some sort of mass conspiracy, do you trust their medical staff to help him?"

John ducked his head. He'd been trying not to think about Rodney being hurt, or worse, before he could get out to the facility. Beckett was right, though. If something had already happened, Rodney was going to need help. John scrubbed a hand through his hair. He could concede Carson may be right, but trying to get him clearance as well was going to cause more delays. And make more noise.

"I've already discussed this with Elizabeth," Carson said firmly as if reading John's mind. "She's agreed with me that you and Rodney may need my help. That Sergeant Harriman said he would have everything arranged in less than an hour."

John scowled into his coffee cup. He already had one civilian, one friend, trapped in a potentially deadly situation. He didn't want to lead another into the same danger. Why couldn't Carson and Elizabeth understand that?

They do understand, he realised, and Carson was willing to take the risk anyway. Part of it could be chalked up to Beckett's sense of responsibility when he felt someone needed his help, but the reality was they had all changed in the year they'd been in Atlantis. The line between civilian and military had been blurred in their fight to survive in a new galaxy.

Beckett had risked danger before, to find them during a blizzard, not to mention flying a jumper to engage a Wraith scout ship. And now he knew Rodney was in trouble and wanted, needed, to help.

McKay may be John's chaguo ndugu, his brother by choice, but as Carson pointed out, Rodney was Beckett's friend, too. Did John have the right to tell Beckett 'no, let the military deal with this' after everything else he'd done in the last year? John shook his head and sighed.

"Knew you'd get there eventually, Major," Carson said, and set his cup down. "Glad you see things my way."

John finished his coffee. "When did you get so sneaky, Doc?" he asked with a smile then looked up as a corporal stopped at their table.

"Excuse me, sir. I was asked to give you this." She handed John a large brown envelope, and with a polite nod at Carson, left.

John opened the envelope and pulled out several pieces of paper. He read the hand-written note, shook his head, and glanced at the clearance credentials, before stuffing it all back in the envelope and standing up.

"Major?" Carson asked as he stood as well.

"Seems you aren't the only one who can be devious," John said as they left the mess hall. "According to Harriman's note, General Landry is sending an important medical researcher out to the facility to look at some device or other that was brought back through the 'gate by SG-4. I'm your escort." John smiled slightly. "As long as no one looks too closely, this might just work."

An hour later John felt a thrill when he was pushed back in his seat as they took off. Flying jumpers had its advantages, but as far as he was concerned, nothing beat flying a small plane.

"It's going to be close to four hours before we land," he said to Carson once they reached altitude. "Why don't you grab one of the seats in the back and try to get some sleep."

"You need rest as well, Major."

John shrugged. "No auto-pilot in this. I figured I'd sleep in the car."

"You're sure you don't want company?"

John shook his head. "It's fine. Go on."

John spent the rest of the night concentrating on flying and forcing himself not to think about what could be happening at Area 51.

It's the middle of the night, he told himself more than once. Chances are McKay is perfectly safe and soundly asleep. So why was he pushing the plane almost to its limit? Why did he have the nagging feeling he needed to hurry?

The sun was just coming up when he contacted the tower at McCarren and requested permission to land.

John secured the plane, woke Carson, and grabbed the garment bag with his uniform and Carson's dress shirt and sport coat. "We need to find a place to change and rent a car," John said as they made their way from the hanger to the small aircraft terminal.

"I don't think we'll need that rental car, Major," Carson said, and pointed to a woman with short, blonde hair, and wearing an Air Force uniform waiting inside the terminal watching them approach.

John looked over at the window and saw her wave at them then point to the nearest door.

"Major Sheppard, nice to finally meet you," she said with a smile, and shook hands first with John, then Carson.

"Colonel Carter?" John said, confusion clear in his tone even as he pulled himself to attention. "How did --"

"General Landry called me last night. He told me what happened to Doctor Mason. Since I had to come back to Las Vegas to sort out a new rental car anyway, I figured I'd give you guys a lift back to base."

"You know why we're here?" John asked as he followed her out to the parking lot.

Carter nodded. "Doctor Weir thought you might need some assistance."

He should have known, John thought to himself, wryly. Carson might be sneaky, but Elizabeth had dealt with enough diplomats to raise devious to an art form.

Elizabeth hadn't liked the idea of him going after Rodney alone. While she'd listened to his reasons, she'd taken her own measures to ensure he had backup. John had to admit, the idea of including Colonel Carter was sound. Carter was someone he could trust, she would blend in since she was supposed to be there anyway, and he knew she could handle herself.

Carter stopped next to a nondescript sedan and gave John a shrewd look. "You look beat, Major. My guess is, you haven't slept in almost a day."

John shrugged. "Everything sort of happened all at once."

"Tell me about it." She waved John toward the backseat. "It's a three-hour drive back to the facility, Major. Why don't you get some sleep."

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Carson glanced at Sheppard asleep in the back seat and marvelled at John's ability to sleep anywhere. While he'd dozed on the plane, he'd hadn't slept well; his eyes felt gritty, and he had a headache. Of course, part of that might be due to the sunlight pounding in through the windscreen. They'd left Colorado in the middle of the night, he hadn't even thought about the need for sunglasses even if he'd had any to bring along. He stared out the window at the last of the Las Vegas glitz and tried not to worry about what might have happened already to Rodney.

"So, how is McKay?" Colonel Carter asked once they were out of the city.

Carson glanced over at her. "When Major Sheppard talked to him last night, he seemed fine."

Carter looked at him for a moment and smiled. "No, I meant more in general. I was surprised to see in Doctor Weir's reports that he was part of a 'gate team." She glanced over at Carson. "He didn't really strike me as the type."

Carson pursed his lips and said nothing. Unlike Sheppard, he had known Rodney for several months before the trip through the 'gate to Atlantis. He remembered meeting a man who was arrogant, snappish, and full of himself. He understood Carter's skepticism. But she hadn't been around Rodney for the last year.

He watched the empty desert roll by and thought back to those first few months in Antarctica.

As he'd worked on his own research, trying to perfect a synthesised ATA gene, Carson had often gone in search of coffee late at night only to find Rodney in a corner of the Antarctic facility, a cold cup of coffee at his elbow, poring over every bit of information on the control chair, the ATA gene, and anything else Stargate Command had on the Ancients.

At first, Carson had chalked Rodney's late nights up to McKay wanting to be able to one-up anyone else in conversations. He soon realised while the thirst for more knowledge was part of the reason, another was that McKay was lonely. Whether by design or not, few of the other scientists bothered to say anything to him outside of direct questions regarding their own projects.

It hadn't taken long for a passing nod or brief comment on the way to the coffee pot to turn into conversations about their current projects and their successes, or more often than not, setbacks. It was when Rodney sought him out in the med lab, perched on one of the stools next to his desk, talking about anything that came to mind, that Carson realised just how lonely McKay was.

He'd watched over the past year as Rodney had changed. The arrogance had been tempered with a bit more patience. The snappishness with humor, sarcastic humor granted, but still humor. He was still full of himself, Carson had to admit with a smile.

"He's not the same person he used to be," Carson finally said, unsure how to explain how Rodney was a different person from the man she knew three years ago. "He's still just as arrogant and fractious, but he's grown while we've been in Atlantis."

Carter glanced in the rear-view mirror at John, then over at Carson. "I'm starting to believe that," she said with a smile.

Carson glanced behind him and saw John shift slightly before he sighed and drifted back to sleep.

"They must be pretty close," she added as she made the turn for Highway 95 and headed into the empty desert.

"He's family," John said softly from the back seat. Carson glanced over the seat at John as he opened his eyes long enough to glance at Carter through the rearview mirror. John waited until she looked away, then seemed to drift back to sleep.

Beckett saw her surreptitious glances in his direction, clearly hoping he would explain the relationship. Carson stared out the passenger side window for a moment, debating how much he should say.

He glanced back at John and saw him nod slightly. "It was Teyla who spelt it out for them," Carson finally said. "Neither Rodney nor Major Sheppard has much in the way of blood kin. On Teyla's world, there is a concept of chaguo ndugu, brothers by choice. Their bond is as strong, if not stronger, than that of blood family. It is something they both take very seriously."

Carter glanced over at him, then in the mirror again before she nodded. "I can understand that."

Carson smiled. "I'm sure you can, Colonel."

"Sam," she said.

"Sam," Carson repeated, and caught himself yawning.

"Go ahead and catch some shut-eye, Doctor Beckett. We have a couple of hours before we get back to base."

"Are you sure? You must be just as tired as we are."

Sam smiled. "I got back to Vegas a little after one am. Got most of a night's sleep before talking to the rental company and getting a new car." She tapped the steering wheel. "Go ahead."

Carson nodded. He didn't see the point in arguing. He'd try to sleep for a little while then convince Carter to let him help with the driving.

"Carson?" he heard, and felt something tap his arm. "Come on, Doc, time to wake up."

Carson opened his eyes to see the passenger side door open and John bending over him. He sat up with a start and looked around. He didn't see anything that looked like a military base, secret or otherwise, and turned back to John in confusion.

"You need to get changed," John explained, and held up the dress shirt and sport jacket.

Beckett's brain caught up with his eyes as he realised John was wearing an Air Force uniform instead of the jeans and collared shirt he'd worn for the flight. "There's no one around, and Colonel Carter promises she won't peek. You need to look like a medical researcher, remember?"

"I am a medical researcher, Major," Carson informed him as he got out of the car.

John grinned and held out the shirt and jacket. "Yep, now we just have make you look like one, too."

Carson scowled and moved around to the other side of the car where he quickly changed.

"How do we explain why Colonel Carter is with us?" he asked as he came back around the car tugging at his shirt sleeves under the jacket. He could already feel a line of sweat running down his back.

"Simple," John said as he held the rear passenger door open. "We met her at the rental agency, and you being the gracious gentleman, offered to bring her back to base with us."

"Thank you, Doctor Beckett," Carter said with a grin as she slid into the back seat of the car. Carson shrugged and climbed in the back and sat next to her. John closed the door, took the driver's seat, and pulled the car back onto the highway.

They had no problem getting past the guard at the gate. Between the paperwork John had and Carter's ID, they were waved through without any trouble.

"The visitors quarters are just ahead on the left," Carter directed as John turned down one street and then another.

"It won't matter," John replied with a frown, and Carson saw him checking his watch. "It's almost nine thirty, Rodney's probably already back at the research building."

"So what do we do?" Carson asked.

John glanced at him through the rear-view mirror. "We go to the research building. The credentials Landry gave us should be enough to get us inside."

"And then what do we do? Someone is going to get suspicious when I can't tell them which top-secret device I'm supposed to be examining."

"That shouldn't matter, Doctor Beckett," Carter replied. "Since I am taking over command in a few days, I've already been granted full access. You can come through with me. I know which floor Doctor Mason's team is on. Major Sheppard can find McKay while I'm showing you some of the items brought back through the 'gate."

Carson glanced from Sam to John. "You expect that to work?"

John chuckled as he parked the car outside the research building. "One thing about military bases, Carson. As long as you look like you know where you're going, most people will leave you alone."

Carson let John and Colonel Carter do the talking when the desk Sergeant checked their papers and asked them to sign in. John took the pen from the Sergeant, and Carson watched him scrawl his name on the next empty line. John started to hand the pen to Carson when he froze, and Beckett saw his shoulders flex.

"Major?" Carson asked in a whisper with a glance at the Sergeant watching them suspiciously.

John looked over at him then back at Carter. "We have a problem. Rodney signed in a little over an hour ago."

"No real surprise there," Carson replied. He and John were both well aware of Rodney's habit of getting to his lab early in the day.

John waved off the comment as he turned to Carter, his expression cold. "I know who put the bomb in your car, Colonel."

Sam looked at him in surprise. "You figured that out just by looking at the sign-in log?" she asked and bent over the book herself.

John pointed to the name three above his.

"But," Carter said, "there must be some sort of mistake."

"Would someone care to tell me what's going on, then?" Carson said, his temper rising.

John pushed the log-in book over so Carson could see it.

Three lines up from John's name, Carson saw Philip Mason in clear, precise script and a login time of nearly thirty minutes ago.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Rodney walked into the Research building the next morning feeling tired and frustrated. He'd tossed and turned for most of the night, unable to really settle as his mind turned over everything from the design flaws in the new generator, to the things he planned to say to Mason once he finally deigned to make an appearance, to ideas on what he could do in Atlantis now that they had a Zed-PM. It didn't occur to him until the wee hours of the morning that part of the reason he couldn't sleep was that the room was too quiet. There was a sort of energy in Atlantis, a background hum that he'd never really noticed until he was back on Earth and it wasn't there.

He had laid on his back, staring up at the ceiling thinking about a new way to configure the shield and the cloak for the city so they could use both at the same time when he was hit with the realisation that the other reason he couldn't sleep was that he was alone. When he was on missions through the 'gate, John, Teyla, and Ford had slept nearby. Sometimes they were next to each other, sometimes they were separated in different rooms, but they were always nearby. He was shocked to discover he'd grown used to that sense of protection, that he had the others to watch his back. He was on Earth, supposedly back home, for the first time in a year, and instead of feeling at ease, he felt exposed.

"This is ridiculous," he'd growled to himself, rolled onto his side, and stared at the wall.

He'd given up on sleep all together just as the sun was coming up, showered, dressed, and headed for the mess hall.

He ignored everyone standing in the mess line, discussing some rumor about an explosion that had happened last evening. They were in Area 51, for pete's sake, what did they expect? Instead, he dished himself some eggs and bacon and grabbed a cup of coffee. After a night of little sleep, he needed the caffeine and what Carson didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

He ate his breakfast alone, something else he wasn't used to doing anymore, and headed to the research building prepared to face off with Mason once and for all so he could get back to the SGC.

"I don't suppose Doctor Mason is here yet?" he asked the Sergeant staffing the desk. He noticed in passing it was a different person from yesterday.

"No, sir," the Sergeant told him as he signed in. "Doctor Mason doesn't usually get here for another hour."

"Figures," Rodney grumbled as he signed the logbook.

"Doctor Griffin is here, sir. I can call her to escort you to the lab area."

"Fine," Rodney replied and paced away from the desk as the Sergeant picked up the phone. "Nothing like wasting yet more time."

"Doctor McKay," Griffin said as she held the elevator for him.

"Doctor Griffin." He didn't try to hide his impatience and ignored the frown on her face as the elevator door closed.

No one was in the main work area when Rodney stepped out of the elevator. "Does anyone around here actually work?" he asked sarcastically.

He caught the scowl on Griffin's face as she led the way to Mason's office. "Doctor Mason doesn't arrive until nine. As he is so involved in the generator design …"

Rodney couldn't help the snort of disdain that escaped.

Griffin glared at him as she opened the door. "I have my own work. Doctor Mason should be here soon." She turned on her heel and walked away.

Rodney pulled out several of the schematics he'd been reviewing yesterday and settled behind the desk to wait for Mason to arrive. He was busy making notes on a pad of paper he'd found in one of the desk drawers when he heard the door open, looked up, and saw Doctor Philip Mason standing in the doorway wearing the same ridiculous bowtie he remembered from the video message yesterday and carrying a hard-sided briefcase.

"It's about time," Rodney snapped as he finished writing yet another correction for the design. "You're the one who called me, remember? Looking at these drawings, I can see why you needed the help."

"It's good to see you haven't changed in the year you've been gone," Mason replied in kind. "You still think you're the smartest person in the room."

"That's because I usually am."

"We'll see about that," Mason said so quietly Rodney almost didn't hear him. "Follow me if you want to see the prototype."

"If I want …" Rodney glared at Mason, then shook his head. "You know what? Never mind, let's just get this over with." He got up and followed Mason as they left the work area and headed down a different hallway to another elevator.

He saw Mason's hands twitching as the elevator dropped them several floors, then noticed the strange look on Mason's face, a sort of anticipation mixed with elation. The combination had Rodney suddenly feeling on edge.

Don't be ridiculous, he told himself as the elevator slowed to a stop. This is Earth. Mason is just another in a long line of jealous colleagues. You've dealt with a hundred just like him in the past.

Still, he couldn't shake the feeling it would have been better if John were with him.

"Where are we going?" Rodney asked as the elevator door opened and Mason led the way down a deserted hallway with only one other door at the end opposite the elevator.

"The prototype is dangerous," Mason said, and Rodney heard a quiver in Mason's tone that sent a shiver down his spine. "We had to make sure no one could get hurt if something were to go wrong." He glanced back at Rodney. "You understand that I'm sure."

Mason slid a card through a reader and opened the door at the end of the hall with a slight flourish. Rodney walked into the room and found a table in the middle of the room with the prototype generator sitting on top and a few tools scattered around it.

It didn't look much different from the new Mark II generators Colonel Everett had brought with him to Atlantis. It was smaller than the Mark IIs, and Rodney could see some of the recent changes made to incorporate his designs for boosting the power output. What concerned him was the distinct hum he heard coming from the device.

"I thought Griffin said the reactor hadn't been charged," Rodney said, and looked up in time to see Mason pull a gun from his briefcase. "You can't be serious," he said and glared at Mason.

"Oh I'm very serious, Doctor McKay," Mason spat the name as he dropped the briefcase. "I know all about the plan to push me out. Force me to retire. Doctor Weir refused to put me on the expedition team, and now Command wants to remove me from here as well? I don't think so."

"What are you talking about?" Rodney asked, and tried to ignore the gun pointed in his general direction. "You wanted me here, remember? I didn't ask to get sent to the Nevada desert in the middle of summer."

Mason ignored him as he moved around the small room, muttering to himself, and waving the gun around in one hand.

Rodney made sure to keep the table with the generator between them and glanced at the door as he calculated his chances of making a run for it. Mason was clearly mad, and Rodney didn't want to be around when he finally worked up the nerve to start shooting. He took a sideways step, and then another when Mason turned away from him.

"Atlantis was supposed to be mine," Mason hissed, and suddenly closed the distance between them. "I had assurances from members of the international committee I would head the science division for the expedition. Then Weir went and chose you over me." He pointed the gun in Rodney's direction, and Rodney froze.

Rodney held his hands up and tried to ease himself out of the line of fire. He doubted Mason was much of a marksman, but if his own ability was anything to go by, even a mediocre shot got lucky on occasion.

He glanced at the door again and tried to remember if he'd heard the elevator ascend after they got out. If it was still waiting on their floor, there was a chance he could get inside before Mason managed to shoot him. He stared at the weapon in Mason's hand, trying to remember how many bullets the magazine would hold.

"As a consolation prize," Mason continued and turned away from Rodney, "they put me in charge of the research division division here. It wasn't the same level of prestige as going through the stargate to a new galaxy, but we were doing important work. I was able to make my own mark with the discoveries we made and the new technologies we designed. Or so I thought. Now, Stargate Command thinks they can replace me here as well?" he shouted.

Rodney remembered what John said about Carter slated to take over the research division. He wondered if someone in the SGC had already figured out Mason wasn't the most stable personality or if it was just his bad luck to get caught in the middle as the man finally had a breakdown.

Mason giggled. "Won't happen now," he said to Rodney in a conspiratorial whisper. "Carter had a little accident last night. Apparently, someone placed a bomb in her car." Mason covered his mouth and giggled again.

Rodney felt the blood drain from his face. Carter was dead? Was that what everyone was talking about in the mess hall this morning? He found the idea hard to accept. He had hoped to see her while he was back on Earth and had been disappointed to learn she'd been reassigned to Area 51. She had survived countless dangers as part of SG-1, and some nutjob of a scientist managed to kill her with a car bomb? He didn't want to believe it, but Mason had no reason to lie.

His attention was forced back to Mason as he steadied the gun in Rodney's direction and stopped giggling. "You won't have long to mourn the dear Colonel, however," Mason told him. "I'm afraid you are about to have a tragic accident with the prototype generator." He glanced at the humming generator. "I was down here most of yesterday and all of last night working on it. Had to get everything just right."

Rodney stared, first at Mason, and then took a step toward the table and reached toward the generator. "What did you do?"

Mason aimed the gun at Rodney's chest, and he froze again.

"Now, now, Doctor McKay," Mason said, and there was no mistaking the venom in his tone. "No touching."

Rodney dropped his hands and scowled at Mason. "Just how insane are you?" he asked sarcastically. "If this generator explodes, the bunker isn't going to be enough to contain it. It will take out this entire building!"

Mason shook his head. "It will be a tragedy," he replied. "And it will be all your fault." He giggled again. "Yes, the legacy of Doctor Rodney McKay will be the destruction of a research facility and the deaths of countless fellow scientists."

Rodney tried to get a glimpse of the inside of the generator, but Mason pushed him away from the table with the gun.

"Ah, ah, no sneak peeks." Mason tsked. "I have reports already filed stating you were displeased with our efforts and insisted on making changes to the design. The logs will show you insisted on working on the device alone. Sadly, you were too clever by half and blew yourself up."

Rodney snorted. "No one is going to believe that."

Mason shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. " Mason gave him a knowing look.

"That was quite the performance during your debriefing last week. After that, I doubt it will be difficult for me to convince Stargate Command you weren't completely compos mentis while you were here. 'He was acting very strange, General Landry.'" Mason parroted. "'Seeing things that weren't there. I knew I shouldn't have left him alone with the generator, but Doctor McKay insisted.'" Mason's tone dripped with false sincerity.

Rodney swallowed hard. He knew there were some who would quite easily accept the idea of him going nuts. John wouldn't, he reminded himself. John would know something was off. John would find out what really happened. Of course, he'd still be dead …

Mason clicked his tongue and shook his head. "Two losses to the SGC in as many days. With both of you gone, Command couldn't possibly do without my expertise here." He gave Rodney a sly look. "Or maybe I'll finally get to Atlantis after all. Weir will have no choice but to accept me this time."

Rodney heard the whine coming from the generator change in pitch but forced himself not to glance at the device.

One problem at a time, he remembered John telling him once. Solve the big problem first, then worry about everything else. Okay, the big problem was clearly the insane scientist about to shoot him.

One part of his brain questioned how he thought he had a chance in hell of disarming someone, even if that someone was an out of shape scientist. The larger part reminded him he had little choice. Unlike missions through the 'gate, he didn't have anyone to turn to for help. If he wanted to live, he needed to deal with Mason, then deal with the generator about to overload and explode.

Teyla hadn't shown him any techniques for disarming someone, but he'd watched John do it a few times when he was training the Marines. How hard could it be? he told himself and winced at how unsure he sounded. Rodney glanced over at Mason and pulled his shoulders back. No one else was going to do it, he told himself.

He needed a distraction, he decided and glanced around the room. Unfortunately, other than himself and Mason, the only other thing in the room was the table with the generator. The generator was going to be a big enough problem once he was done with Mason, so it was out. That left himself and Mason. He watched Mason pacing back and forth, waving the gun around and had an idea.

If a bluff could fool the Wraith, he thought grimly, and took a deep breath.

"You're holding it wrong, you know," Rodney said snidely, and crossed his arms over his chest.

"What?" Mason asked, apparently confused by Rodney's statement.

"The gun," Rodney said offhandedly, as he pointed to the gun, and took a careful step closer to Mason. "You're holding it wrong. You're supposed to use two hands."

Mason looked down at the gun in his hand. Rodney took another step. He just needed to get a little closer …

"I spent most of my first month in Atlantis learning how to shoot a Beretta," Rodney told him. "According to Sheppard, you're supposed to use two hands."

He took another step and froze as Mason stopped looking at the gun in his hand. Mason took a step back and pointed the weapon at Rodney's chest.

"What are you doing?" Mason demanded, his hand and the gun both shaking. "Get back."

Rodney saw Mason start to pull the trigger and tried to duck out of the line of fire. He heard the shot echo in the small room at almost the same time he felt a searing pain in his arm and knew he'd been just a little too slow.

Chapter Text

As soon as he saw Mason's name, John knew exactly who they were after. He a good idea he knew why Mason had targeted Carter and probably Rodney as well. Elizabeth had said Mason had been passed over for the Atlantis expedition in favor of McKay. Now with Colonel Carter transferring to Area 51 from SG-1, Mason was losing another prestigious assignment.

"We need to find them," John said. "Now. Mason has been here almost thirty minutes."

Carter turned to the bewildered desk Sergeant. "Did Doctor Mason say anything when he came in today?" she asked him.

The Sergeant drew himself to attention. "No, ma'am. He nodded to each of us, signed in and headed for the elevator. Nothing out of the ordinary." The Sergeant paused. "He did get a strange look on his face when he saw something in the log."

"Probably McKay's name," John muttered and looked around. "We're going to need weapons," he said to Carter.

"And a med kit," Carson added. He gave John a sideways look as the Corporal standing against the wall opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a field medical bag.

John knew Beckett was asking if he'd felt anything through the mental link, and carefully shook his head.

Carson nodded, and started to check the supplies in the bag as the desk Sergeant led John and Carter over to a locked gun case in the corner.

John took one of the Berettas and stuffed an extra magazine in his back trouser pocket. He checked the weapon was loaded as Carter took another of the handguns.

Carter glanced over at him and said, "Come on, the generator team is eight floors down."

"Should I alert a security team?" the Sergeant asked as they hurried past the desk.

"No!" John said, and heard Carter echo him.

"Get every floor above eight cleared, Sergeant," Carter ordered. "The building needs to be evacuated quickly, but quietly. Then alert base security to set up a perimeter around the research building and wait for my orders." Carter took a radio from the rack behind the desk and gave it to John. She took another one for herself and started running for the elevator.

"Carson, you should stay here," John said when Beckett tried to get into the elevator.

"Not bloody likely," Carson replied as he slung the med kit over his shoulder. "We've already been over this, Major. He's my friend, too."

John glared at Beckett for a moment, then nodded. They didn't have time to argue. "Stay behind me," he ordered. "No matter what happens, you wait until I give you the all clear."

Carson nodded and followed John into the elevator.

John caught the look Carter gave Carson and ignored it. He knew Beckett was better off staying with the Sergeant. He also knew if something had happened to Rodney, they might not have time to wait for Carson to get down to wherever McKay and Mason were.

The elevator opened a few seconds later on a deserted work area. John saw several work tables littered with drawings and computers, but no one was waiting for them.

"That's strange," Carter said as they quickly cleared the room. "Twelve people are working on this project. Where is everyone?"

John followed the hallway around a corner and found a small office. Once he'd checked the room, he nodded to Carson, and they quickly searched it.

"Rodney was here," Carson said, and held up a pad of paper. John easily recognised Rodney's handwriting as he read the various design notes. Carson dropped the pad and followed as John left the office.

"McKay, where the hell are you," John muttered and headed back toward the larger work area.

"He's not here," Carter said, coming out of another room. "Neither is Mason."

"They aren't in the office, either," John reported. "Where else would Mason take him?"

Before Carter could answer, a woman with short brown hair walked in the room. She glanced up from the file she was reading and yelped when John and Carter pointed their weapons at her.

"Who are you people? How did you get in here?" the woman yelled.

Before John could do anything to stop him, Carson stepped forward, his hands spread away from his body. "My name is Carson Beckett. These others are Major John Sheppard and Colonel Samantha Carter," he said in the same reassuring tone John had heard him use countless times in the infirmary. "You would be …"

The woman glanced from the guns pointed at her to Beckett. "Doctor Susan Griffin," she replied after a moment. She looked from Beckett to John and Carter, fear giving way to puzzlement. "Wait. Did you say her name was Carter?" She glanced at Carter. "Wasn't there a bomb that went off outside your house last night?"

Carter nodded. "That's kind of why we're here, Doctor Griffin," she said and lower her weapon. John frowned slightly but lowered his as well. "We're looking for the person who planted it."

"I don't understand," Griffin said. "You don't think I --"

"No," Carson said with a smile. "We know you had nothing to do with the attempt on Colonel Carter's life. We're looking for Doctor McKay. Have you seen him this morning?"

John watched as Griffin relaxed slightly and her expression changed to one of disdain. "If you think he planted a bomb in your car, Colonel, I can believe it," Griffin said. "I've never met anyone so rude and condescending. He nearly took my head off yesterday when I told him Doctor Mason was in meetings all day and wouldn't be able to see him."

"You told him what?" John growled and pulled Carson back behind him as he raised his weapon again.

Griffin cringed away from John with her eyes closed.

"Major?" Carter hissed even as she backed his move and pointed her gun at Griffin.

John glanced at her. "She could be helping him," John explained. "The whole thing with Mason's car was a set-up to get us to believe he was dead, right? How did she know he wasn't going to be here?"

"He left a message," Griffin said in a small voice.

"What?" John asked.

"There was a message. On my phone yesterday when I came back from a meeting. It was from Doctor Mason. He said something had come up and he wouldn't be able to meet with Doctor McKay when he arrived. I just assumed it was a meeting of some sort."

"So he was acting alone, after all?" Carter murmured.

"Probably," John replied and lowered his gun. "We know he's been here for at least half an hour. We need to find them. Before it's too late." John looked over at Griffin, still standing with the file folder clutched to her chest. "Do you have any idea where they might be?"

Griffin swallowed hard. "The bunker, maybe? Doctor McKay has been demanding to see the prototype, but Doctor Mason had moved it to the bunker after he called the SGC yesterday. He said he didn't want anyone doing anything with it until we'd sorted out the design issues. Doctor Mason is the only one with a keycard to get inside the room."

John felt his anger rising. An isolated bunker, and a generator with known flaws. He didn't like the direction his mind was running and what made it even worse was Rodney would have gone with Mason without a second thought. The idea he'd be in danger while on Earth and dealing with a fellow scientist would never have crossed his mind. "How do we get to this bunker?"

Griffin pointed a shaking finger down the hall behind her. "That elevator goes directly to the bunker. But like I said, Doctor Mason has the only key to get in the room."

John heard Carter telling Griffin to get out of the building as he ran down the hall and punched the button for the elevator.

"How do you want to play this, Major?" Carter asked.

John looked over at her, not bothering to hide his surprise.

"McKay is your man. Thought you'd want to take point," she explained.

John gave her a tight smile as the elevator doors opened. "Thanks."

Carter pushed the button for the lowest floor.

"Do you know what the area down there looks like?" John asked as he watched the elevator numbers count down floors.

Carter shook her head. "For this facility? No. I haven't been down there yet. Usually, it's a long hall with a reinforced room at the end."

John nodded and started to say something else when he felt a spike of pain at the back of his skull and grabbed Beckett's arm to keep from falling.

Carson took hold of him, keeping him more or less on his feet and gave him a questioning look laced with worry.

John took a deep breath and tried not to groan as he pulled himself upright. The wave of pain passed, but the itch was still there. Something had happened, he just hoped Rodney wasn't too severely injured. He met Carson's look with a worried one of his own.

"Major?" Carter asked, and glanced from John to Beckett. "You all right?"

"Yeah," John said, and hoped he sounded more or less normal. "Just tripped."

Carter's look said she didn't believe him for a moment, but she let the matter drop as the elevator doors opened and they could hear yelling coming from the room at the other end of the hall.

"Stay here," John ordered Carson. "We need to secure the room."

Carson frowned but must have realised how serious John was. He nodded and stayed near the elevator.

"I'll go high, you go low," John said to Carter.

Carter nodded, and John followed her down the hall to the door at the end.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Rodney instinctively grabbed his left arm where the bullet had sliced through his bicep. The blood quickly welled up between his fingers, and he tried to bunch his shirt sleeve up enough to act as a compress.

"You shot me!" he yelled at Mason who was still pointing the gun at him.

Mason glanced down at the gun then back up at Rodney. Mason's look of shock quickly gave way to more giggling as he stared at Rodney's bloody arm.

Rodney backed away but knew there was little he could do. Mason had him pinned in a corner to the right of the door. His back hit the wall, and he groaned as his arm left a bloody streak on the wall. He heard Mason giggle again and tried to edge out of Mason's line-of-fire.

"Does it hurt?" Mason asked mockingly.

Rodney scowled at him. "Of course it hurts! Why don't you give me that gun and I'll show you just how much."

Mason giggled again. "I must give you credit, Rodney, may I call you Rodney? It won't matter for much longer either way." Mason took a step to his left, blocking any chance Rodney had of making a run for the door, and pointed the gun at Rodney's chest. "I expected you to cower at the thought of facing imminent death. Maybe you learned something in the Pegasus galaxy after all."

Rodney thought back to Kolya, the Eidolon, nearly freezing to death in a jumper, not to mention the recent Wraith attack on Atlantis. Was he that cavalier now about dying? he wondered. He was about to tell Mason precisely what he thought of his death threats when the last thing he ever expected to see happened as John came through the door, weapon raised.

"Drop it, Mason," John ordered, his voice low and hard.

For a split second, Rodney wondered if he was hallucinating Sheppard standing there. When he saw Carter standing beside John, he was convinced Carson would be sending him to a padded room in the near future.

"John?" he whispered and stepped back until his back hit the wall again. He groaned when his arm banged against the wall, and he shook his head, still not ready to believe Sheppard had appeared just when Rodney needed him most.

John gave him a quick, worried glance then focused on Mason again.

Rodney's reaction to John and Carter appearing was nothing compared to Mason's. McKay decided he must be sane after all when Mason's face paled, and his eyes bulged slightly when he saw Sheppard and Carter standing behind him.

Mason's gun clattered against the concrete floor as he dropped it. Rodney wasn't sure if he'd followed John's order or dropped the gun in surprise when he saw he was no longer alone with Rodney.

"You-You're dead!" Mason yelled at Carter. "The bomb went off in your car last night!"

"Do I look dead to you, Major?" Carter asked, and Rodney noted that while her tone sounded light, her gaze and gun never left Mason's center of mass.

"Nope, I'd say you're very much alive, Colonel," John replied, his tone lacking any sense of humor.

"No!" Mason screamed. "You're supposed to be dead!" He lunged at Carter and Rodney ducked behind the table as another gunshot echo around the room.

Rodney hit the floor hard on his left side and couldn't stop the yelp of pain as he landed on his wounded arm. He squeezed his eyes shut and lay curled on his other side as his arm throbbed. His shirt and arm felt sticky where the blood had soaked the material and tracked down to drip from his elbow.

He concentrated on getting his breathing back under control and heard Carter saying something from the other side of the table.

"He's still alive. I'll get a team down here," Carter said, then her tone of voice changed, and Rodney assumed she was speaking into a radio. "This is Colonel Carter. I need a medical team and a security detail to the bunker, immediately."

Rodney tried to pull himself back up so he could see what was going on and felt an arm wrapped around his back. He felt himself leant against John's chest and tried not to curl into the sudden warmth he felt. When did it get so cold? he wondered.

"Rodney?" he heard John say. "How're you doing?"

Rodney opened his eyes. "When did you get here?" he asked, and tried to pull away when he noticed he was getting blood all over John's blue uniform.

John sat him up a bit straighter but didn't let go.

"Major?" Rodney heard another voice say.

John poked his head above the table. "Over here, Carson," he replied. "Rodney could use your help."

"Carson's here, too?" Rodney asked, still slightly dazed by everything that had just happened. He watched as Carson entered the room, knelt on Rodney's left side and opened a satchel with a red cross emblazoned on the front.

"Let me see it, lad," Carson said as he pulled on a pair of gloves and gently pried Rodney's hand away from his arm.

Rodney winced as Carson poked at his arm. "Ow! Don't do that!" he exclaimed.

Carson sat back on his heels and looked over at John as he dug through the satchel and found a pressure bandage. "We need to get that bleeding stopped," he told Rodney as he wrapped the bandage around Rodney's arm and pulled the straps tight.

Rodney groaned and shut his eyes.

"Hang on, Rodney, I've got something here to help with the pain, then we'll get you to the infirmary and get that arm taken care of," Carson said as he pulled out a syringe.

"No!" Rodney replied. He tried to pull out of John's hold and push himself to his feet.

The generator. How could he have forgotten about the generator? he berated himself.

"Rodney?" John asked, tightening his hold around Rodney's shoulders. "Hey, calm down. Mason can't hurt you now."

"Major?" he heard Carter ask from the other side of the table. "McKay all right?"

Rodney shook off John's hand, and tried to stand again. "The generator," he explained impatiently. "Mason set it to overload. I need to get it shut down or we're all dead." He winced as he used his left hand to try and push off the floor.

John pulled him up, and Rodney had his first look at Mason lying on his back, Carter kneeling on the floor next to him, trying to get the bleeding from the wound in his chest to stop.

Rodney didn't spare Mason more than a glance as he shuffled over to the table. He wiped his bloody right hand on his trousers as he looked away from the body on the floor and focused on the generator that could still kill all of them. The whine had increased in pitch and volume while he'd been busy getting shot and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to get it shut down in time.

He felt John hovering at his side but ignored Sheppard as he removed the cover plate for the generator one-handed and had his first good look at what Mason had done.

"See what you can do for Mason," John said, and Rodney saw Carson from the corner of his eye as Beckett moved around the table and knelt at Mason's side.

Rodney kept his left arm curled against his chest as he examined the generator for a few seconds, trying his best to ignore both the pain in his arm and the sound of imminent death as the generator's whine notched up another octave. The schematics he'd been studying for the last day bloomed to life in his mind as he traced various wires and components. It didn't take long for him to see how Mason had wired the modified sections of the generator to cause the overload.

"Figures," he muttered to himself. "Even his sabotage lacks imagination."

"McKay?" Carter asked, and Rodney looked up to find her standing on the other side of the table.

He glanced back at the floor and saw Beckett kneeling next to Mason, wrapping a large pressure bandage around Mason's chest.

"Mason created the overload by having part of the energy from the reactor core cycle back through the new modifications and feed back into the reaction chamber."

"The modifications are based on your research in Atlantis, right?" Carter asked.

Rodney nodded. "That was probably his plan. If anything was left after the explosion, it would look like my design idea was the cause."

"So how do we get it to shut down?" Carter looked at her side of the generator. "I could try inputting the shutdown sequence."

Rodney shook his head. "That won't work." He traced several wires and connections with his fingers. "I have to stop the feedback loop. That's what overloading the reactor chamber. Once I stop that, we have to let the excess energy flow back into the reactor chamber. Assuming that's not the last straw for the reactor, we should be able to shut the generator down normally."

He picked up a pair of wire cutters and carefully cut one wire then a second. The whine from the generator dropped several octaves in response. He traced another set of wires, and with another few snips, he disconnected the modified power regulator. He blew out a breath as the whine stopped. All he could hear was the generator's usual hum.

He nodded to Carter who keyed in the shutdown code, and a few moments later, the generator was silent.

"Good job, McKay," Carter congratulated him as he heard the thump of several feet running in their direction, and a few moments later a security team entered the room. Carter turned and started giving orders to the security detail while Carson directed the medical team to Mason.

Rodney dropped the wire cutters and slowly backed away from the table until he ran into John still standing behind him.

Rodney watched as the medical team swarmed over Mason, then quickly loaded him on a stretcher and ran out of the room. Carter followed a few steps behind with the security team in tow.

Now that he didn't have the distraction of the generator, Rodney was increasingly aware of how tired he was, and how much his arm hurt. He was about to slide down the wall and sit on the floor again when he felt John's arm around his back as Sheppard took some of his weight.

"Hang on a sec, Carson is bringing a wheelchair," John said softly.

Rodney considered arguing, saying he just needed a minute and was capable of walking to the elevator. Then he realised how much he was leaning on Sheppard and nodded.

Carson appeared with the promised ride and Rodney sank down on the chair. Carson knelt in front of him and held up a syringe. "Rodney, this will help with the pain, but I'll need to inject it in your right arm."

Rodney nodded, held out his arm, and Beckett quickly found a vein and injected the medicine. He tried not the flinch as the needle penetrated his skin near his elbow.

It didn't take long for the morphine to hit his system and before they were back at the elevator, Rodney felt his eyes drooping as the pain in his arm lessened.

"Don't worry, John," he heard Carson say from a long way away. "We'll get him patched up, and he'll be right as rain in no time."

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

John watched as two nurses carefully settled Rodney in the infirmary bed and hooked him up to a set of monitors. Rodney's arm was neatly bandaged and supported by a sling. He'd been cleaned up, and his bloody clothes had been replaced with a set of scrubs.

"He's going to be fine, Major," Carson told him. "The wound was deeper than I expected, but the surgery went well. The bullet tore through the bicep muscle, but with some time and physical therapy, he'll be back to his old self soon enough." He held out a paper cup with ibuprofen and a bottle of water.

John stared at the offered pills as Carson rattled the cup.

"Don't try to tell me your head isn't aching after everything that happened." Carson nodded at Rodney. "I know better."

John glanced around the small infirmary but didn't see anyone watching them. He took the pills and swallowed them without comment.

John scrubbed a hand over his face. "Thanks, Carson," he replied, and looked around for a chair. He found one pushed into a corner and dragged it back to Rodney's bedside. "When can we get out of here?"

Carson studied him for a few moments. "I want him to stay here at least through tomorrow. We don't want any infection setting in. If everything looks good, I think we can leave the day after that."

John nodded absently, and glanced down at his bloody uniform then over at Rodney. "This should have never happened," he chastised himself.


John crossed his arms over his chest. "This is Earth, Carson," John hissed in a near whisper so as not to wake up Rodney. "He should have been safe here. It's not like he was going through the 'gate or even to another country. He came here to talk to a bunch of scientists who are all supposed to be on the same side."

Carson gave him a shrewd look. "This wasn't your fault, you know. Or his, for that matter. No one could have known what Mason was planning."

"I should have insisted on coming with him," John argued as he slumped back in the chair and glared at the wall for a few minutes. "How is Mason?"

Carson shook his head. "Died in surgery."

John grimaced but said nothing. He assumed Mason had been a good man once, even if Rodney hadn't thought much of him as a scientist. No one should have to die the way he had. On the other hand, it meant Mason no longer posed a threat to Rodney, Carter, or anyone else.

"I'll come back by in a little while to check on him," Carson said. "Colonel Carter called the SGC once we were all back here and I promised Elizabeth I would let her know as soon as I had an update on how Rodney was doing."

Carson paused and waited for John to look up at him. "I'll have one of the nurses bring you a set of scrubs so you can get cleaned up and changed. That uniform can be written off as a lost cause along with my jacket and shirt, I think."

Once he was cleaned up and changed, John sat in the chair next to Rodney's bed and played with the bronze challenge coin he'd had in his trouser pocket.

He twirled the coin in his fingers, remembering the look on Ford's face when he'd given John the coin, how proud he'd been to serve with Sheppard. Then he remembered the closed off, distrusting man who'd glared out at him from the jumper as Ford left through the stargate.

Rodney murmured and shifted on the bed drawing John out of his dark thoughts.

"You have to stop scaring me like this," John said softly as he adjusted the blanket covering Rodney. "One of these days I may not get to you in time."

He remembered the scene as he and Carter came through the door to the bunker. Rodney standing against the wall, his arm bloody and his face pale but determined as he faced off against Mason pointing a gun at his chest.

The only reason John hadn't fired his weapon as soon as he entered the room was that he was afraid the shock of being hit would cause Mason to pull the trigger while the gun was still pointed at Rodney.

Rodney shifted on the bed again, and John reached out to rub a hand up and down Rodney's arm. McKay sighed, rolled his head so he was facing John, and settled back to sleep.

"How's he doing?" a voice asked in a whisper, and John looked up to see Colonel Carter standing at the foot of Rodney's bed.

He started to stand, but Carter waved him back into the chair.

"Beckett says he'll be fine," he said, and watched as Carter came around the bed and sat on the bed next to Rodney's.

Carter nodded. "I hear Mason didn't make it."

John shook his head and glanced at Rodney as he shifted and frowned in his sleep. John put a hand back on McKay's arm and waited for him to settle. He looked up and found Carter watching him.

"I get it, you know," she said softly, and looked from him to Rodney, and back again. "I'd do anything for Daniel or Teal'c or General O'Neill. I understand the kind of bonds that form going through the stargate."

John flipped the coin in his hand a few times and tried not to think about Ford.

"What I don't get is what's really going on between you and him."

John looked up at her with a frown.

"I know Doctor Beckett said you two were family, but you didn't just trip in the elevator, Major," she told him as she slid off the bed. "There's something else going on. You didn't seem that surprised McKay had been shot when we found him and Mason in that bunker, either. It was almost as if you already knew."

John tried to maintain eye contact, but in the end, he glanced away.

"Something happened to the two of you," she said matter-of-factly. "Something that didn't make it into the official reports."

John twirled the coin in his hand and tried to decide how to answer her. Before he could come up with something that was plausible and not an outright lie, Carter stepped forward and touched his arm.

"That's what I thought." She took a step back. "Don't worry about it, Major," she said with a smile. "I understand that part, too."

John watched as she left the infirmary.

"Told you she was smart," Rodney whispered from the bed. "Almost as smart as me."

John turned back to the bed. "You're supposed to be asleep."

Rodney winced and shifted in the bed. "How'm I supposed to sleep with all the racket going on?"

John shook his head. "Go back to sleep, I promise to be quiet. Beckett says if you're good, we can go home in a couple of days."

Rodney shook his head. "Not home," he mumbled and drifted back to sleep.

John sighed and leant back in the chair. "No, I don't suppose it is."

Chapter Text

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."

"You're sure?"

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.

"Thanks, Carson."

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.