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The Roads Never Lead Where They're Supposed to Go

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When Radek Zelenka was thirty-four, he won some sort of European award for some kind of incredible, astounding mathematical feat. Rodney McKay knew this, but it didn't make him resent Zelenka any less. When Rodney was thirty-four, he blew up a star and nearly killed Major Carter, which was why, he was told by a smug General Hammond, Zelenka was asked to lead the Atlantis Expedition instead of him.

"Oh, that's just great," Rodney said, "absolutely perfect. And what exactly am I supposed to do while someone stupider than me gets to do all the fun stuff and win all the Nobel prizes?"

He should've thanked his lucky stars he'd been allowed to go at all, the SGC said. They just wanted him as far away from Earth as possible. In fact, they hoped he died tragically, from hostile aliens, equipment malfunctions, or even accidental lemon ingestion.

But he couldn't be too outraged because Atlantis was-- well. Atlantis. Lost city of the motherfucking Ancients. There were databases and computers and unbelievably advanced technology and spaceships. Sure, they'd fucked up and assumed there'd be an extra ZPM just lying around, and Colonel Sumner was a son-of-a-bitch without a sense of humour who'd probably snap and kill them all, and everyone was terrified out of their minds -- but this was the most amazing thing Rodney'd ever been part of.

Rodney was in the majority; most of the scientists spent the first few weeks downright giddy. Some of them, like Vogel, even cried with joy when they found the laboratories intact. It was the Marines who were frightened. Sumner was quick to remind everyone Atlantis was a military base (and Rodney was just as quick to remind him that no, it really wasn't), and they were far from home without any allies. But Zelenka's reaction was more along the lines of the soldiers; he was so excited at first -- he practically jumped up and down and shrieked like a girl when Rodney and Groden showed him the gatejumpers -- but some time between the city rising and Sumner stepping through the wormhole to announce they'd been unwelcomed by the natives of whatever that planet was, Rodney took one look at Zelenka's ashen face and thought, "This isn't going to work." Of course, Rodney was fighting his own hysteria at the time, but Zelenka hastily retreated and left Rodney to do all the work. Just as it should be.

*

Within a week, Rodney was confined to the main laboratories. That's what they called it: "confined."

"And by 'confined to the labs,'" he said, "you mean, 'having complete access to Atlantis,' right? Because only an idiot would restrict an astrophysicist with a specialty in alien technology to the only area of the city without anything left to discover."

Two of the three soldiers looked uncomfortable. The other one, Sergeant Bates, simply narrowed his eyes. The look on his face said, "I hate civilians."

"Colonel Sumner's orders," he said flatly.

The other two men were Lieutenant Ford and Sergeant Markham. It took almost six months for Rodney to find out Ford was the one who named the gatejumpers. He was a nice kid -- as nice as anyone who loved blowing the shit out of things and killing people could be -- from somewhere in the midwestern United States; he was probably the soldier Rodney spoke to the most, considering Ford's choice of friends (and the female civilians he was constantly hitting on). When they walked through the stargate for the first time, the city dark until someone with the gene activated the lights, Ford started humming the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ford once asked Rodney if they had any black people in Canada. On his tour, he'd been every where from Japan to Germany, but he'd never been to his neighbour to the north. He never would, either; Ford lived to be an old man with a red-headed wife, six kids, and a farm on one of the Genii planets. His kids called Rodney "Uncle Rod." Markham, on the other hand, died in a freak accident in the south side of the city within the first five years of their arrival. The only thing Rodney knew about him was that his one personal item was a beat-up basketball.

So Rodney was stuck in the labs. He was sure Zelenka didn't bother to fight Sumner's orders; after all, he was the competition, right? He'd been to grad school, he knew how these things worked. Rodney was able to convince a few of the Marines to secretly bring him anything they found that was portable, and, being the eager lemmings they were, they brought him crate after crate of strange, misshapen Ancient artifacts, most of which didn't even work.

Most of the crates were filled entirely with objects that would only turn on with the gene. Unfortunately, Sumner liked to pair up people with the gene with people with guns, which didn't leave many ATA-inclined individuals left in the labs. Besides, not many of the physicists had the gene to begin with, although an unusually high proportion of the soldiers did.

Rodney pulled a sleek, silver box out of one of the crates a young Marine had dropped off earlier. It fit in the palm of his hand. Dumais stared at him in her intense, quiet way, until he snapped, "What?"

"I don't think it's a good idea to go around touching things," she said.

"Really?" he asked, rolling his eyes. "And just how many Marines died to bring us this? Oh wait, that's right, none. I know what I'm doing, Doctor."

He inspected the box, turning it over in his hands. The surface was completely smooth. It could've been anything -- a toy, a decoration, a tiny but deadly Ancient weapon.

Dumais nodded at it. "You need the gene if you want it to do something."

He said, "Gee, why didn't I think of that," and Dumais shrugged, turning back to her own bench. He clicked on his radio. "Dr Beckett, could you come down here and--"

"Not now, Rodney," Carson snapped, voice tight, "I'm in the middle of something." Which was obviously a lie, because what could be more important than assisting the physicists?

That was another problem with not being in charge. Not only did he get exiled -- yes, that was a better word for it, exiled -- to the same set of labs all day, he also had to deal with people disrespecting him. Rodney's new goal in life was to one day have minions who were terrified of him.

"You should get Sheppard to turn it on," Dumais said.

Rodney frowned. "Please don't tell me 'sheppard' is a euphemism for some Ancient device."

"No, Sheppard's a person. Tall guy." She gestured a good foot above her own head. "Dark hair. Looks like a surfer."

Rodney glanced around the lab to see if anyone fit that description. As far as he could tell, he was the tallest person in the room. "You're not developing some sort of-- of space madness, are you? Because I'm not in the mood to deal with other people's imaginary friends today."

"Nevermind," she sighed, going back to her own work.

Eventually, after he met Sheppard, he asked him to turn on the box. It opened like a flower and a little bell started chiming, and Rodney asked, "It's a music box?" and Sheppard said, "Wait, I think it's a metaphor for losing your virginity. Or something." But on that day, Rodney completely forgot about this Sheppard person who had apparently been bright enough to catch Dumais's attention. Dumais didn't fall for things like charm or good looks. It was why Rodney liked her; she was a scientist through and through.

The first two weeks flew by. Rodney, trapped in the labs, heard stories of what was going on around him: The soldiers were having problems off-world, thanks to Sumner's inability to treat people as anything other than a threat; someone found kitchens and open rooms with tables, so they had a place to eat, which was, in Rodney's opinion, probably one of the greatest discoveries they'd made thus far; some people found a landmass not too far from the city, which they named Atlantica; three gene-less Marines were killed after accidentally opening a door that triggered a self-defence system.

Carson told him, "I've made a gene therapy for the ATA gene. It doesn't work with everybody, of course, and it's not quite as strong as it is in people who've been born with the gene. I can bring the equipment up here, if you want me to do it to you."

"How many people have it so far?" Rodney asked. He liked the idea of being able to manipulate Ancient technology without asking anyone for help, but knowing his luck, he'd die horribly. "Any side-effects? You know I'm highly allergic to--"

Carson waved a hand. "Yes, Rodney, I know, you're allergic to everything. It's perfectly safe, I promise you. I've already given it to several military personnel, and no one's hand any negative reactions. Although--" He paused. "It doesn't work for everybody. Colonel Sumner's none too happy about that, let me tell you. He wants me to find a way for everyone to be able to interact with the city."

"That sounds more like something I should be working on," Rodney said, taking a big bite of a powerbar. "Obviously in a different capacity, since I'm a real scientist, and it's not like I don't have a million other things to do, but you'd think--"

"For God's sake, man, swallow before you talk," Carson said.

*

If Rodney was the kind of guy who looked backed critically, he might've said the step through the stargate was the moment his life changed forever. Without Atlantis, he might've spent his whole life as that arrogant, selfish loner who thought he was so smart, he nearly killed one of the few people he'd ever respected. He would never've known what it was like to love a city, or fly through space (which was something he never grew fond of; in space, no one can hear you scream), or take that first step onto an alien world. Worse, he might never've met the man he discovered standing in the centre of his lab, thumbing through Rodney's notepad. Every now and then, Rodney had strange dreams where he was an old man grading papers, or walking through a Moscow park on a bleak autumn day. They were painfully depressing.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" Rodney demanded.

The guy didn't look guilty, like Rodney expected. Instead, he casually set the notepad back down on the bench, raising an eyebrow at Rodney's agitated state. Even when standing straight, he still slouched a little. "You shouldn't leave your stuff out if you don't want someone to look."

"That's why there are Marines with AK-47s guarding the door," Rodney fumed, gesturing behind him.

The man had gravity-defying hair, a hoop earring in each pointed ear, and a smirk on his face. His uniform looked like something he put together himself, a blatant disregard for regulations: tight blue t-shirt, baggy khakis, black wristband. He was disgustingly hot. Rodney felt something inside him stir, and he sneered, "Let me guess, you're one of the nurses."

"Botanist, actually," the guy said, raising both eyebrows this time. "Dr John Sheppard."

Rodney stared. "Ah, so the fabled Sheppard does exist." His gaze travelled from the tips of Sheppard's Nikes to the top of his spiky head. "You seriously have a doctorate?"

Sheppard looked amused. "My thesis was on tumbleweeds."

The lab doors swooshed open, and Zelenka entered, pushing up his glasses with the hand that wasn't clutching his datapad. "Ah, Rodney, Dr Sheppard, I see you've met. Good."

"Zelenka," Rodney demanded, "why are there botanists in my lab?"

"Dr Sheppard was the one to discover the transporters, completely by accident," Zelenka said, like that was supposed to mean something. He clasped Sheppard's shoulder, and Sheppard smirked at Rodney again.

Rodney waited for more of an explanation. When it didn't come, he asked, "So? Is that supposed to impress me? What the hell are transporters?" Both Zelenka and Sheppard looked at him in surprise. "What? I'm not allowed to leave this floor, except to eat and occasionally sleep. Personally, I think Sumner feels threatened by me. You blow up one star, and suddenly everyone thinks you're a loose cannon."

Sheppard seemed a little concerned. "Uh, transporters are those things in the halls that we thought were closets. Turns out they're a quicker way to get from floor to floor."

"So I've been walking up and down five flights of stairs every day for nothing?" Rodney asked, scowling at Zelenka.

"You have been looking more fit lately," Zelenka said pleasantly.

"God, I hate you," Rodney said.

"I'm sure I will cry myself to sleep tonight. For now, Rodney, what I need you to do is take Dr Sheppard to the lower fifth level. There are a series of doors no one can get open. John is..." Zelenka made a vague gesture. "I do not know how to say it."

Rodney looked at Sheppard, who grinned. "Strongest gene in Atlantis," he boasted, doing jazz hands.

"Yes, I'm sure it impresses all the ladies." But even as he said it, Rodney remembered he'd seen Sheppard before, in the command chair in Antarctica. Oh, life was so unfair. Rodney had seen what his own personal hell was like, and its name was McMurdo. He pestered and lectured and casually informed everyone there that he was the foremost expert in Ancient technology (and not to mention the smartest man on Earth), but they stuck him doing catalogue work with an also-wasted Peter Grodin. It was impossible to enjoy poking and prodding Ancient gizmos when the chair was clear on the other side of the base.

"I should be the one working on the command chair," he told Grodin, "not that scatter-brained Ukranian."

"Zelenka's Czech, actually," Grodin said. He pulled the latex glove off his right hand and stabbed the elongated Ancient device with his bare pointer finger.

Rodney sighed, irritated. "Who cares what he is? I'm just saying that if I was in charge, we'd be in Atlantis by now. And stop poking that! You don't even know what it is!"

"Doesn't it look like a sperm to you?" Grodin asked.

"Well, it does now," Rodney said, squinting.

He was far, far away when Zelenka finally discovered the person who made the command chair work the way it was supposed to. Rodney always thought it was Carson -- he figured the man's bitching and moaning about not being able to work anything was just tragic self-esteem issues -- or some nameless, stupid military buffoon Sumner was holding as a secret weapon. But no, it was a fellow scientist, which stung.

"This will be the only time you ever hear this from me, but... why me? Wouldn't he be better off with some Marines, or at least someone less important?" Rodney asked suspiciously.

"Yeah," Sheppard agreed, "why him?"

Zelenka smiled smugly. "Because Rodney annoys me with his meddling, and Dr Sheppard annoys me with his jokes and his skateboard, so I think, it is best you annoy each other."

Rodney glowered at Sheppard. "Skateboard? Aren't you, like, thirty-five?"

"I asked if I could bring a ferris wheel, but they said it'd be too big to fit through the gate," Sheppard drawled.

*

"I don't have time for this," Rodney grumbled. He was right in the middle of figuring out how to stretch the single ZPM to power the entire city. He had to fix some of the consoles in the control room Grodin hadn't been able to get working. He had to send some people to check out if they could get the shields back up, because God knew Zelenka wasn't going to, and Kavanagh and Simpson wanted to take apart one of the gatejumpers. He was a busy, busy man, too busy to babysit some immature botanist who apparently hadn't gotten the memo he was in his thirties.

Sheppard frowned. "Yeah, I have work of my own, you know. We're trying to see if we can get one of the Ancient greenhouses working again--"

"Oh, greenhouses," Rodney said, "we're not wasting our ZPM on that."

"--So we won't starve to death," Sheppard finished, scowling.

"Well, I guess it couldn't hurt to expend some energy," Rodney said grumpily.

The doors no one -- supposedly -- could get open were keeping them from entering an entire block of the city. Rodney was extremely annoyed Zelenka had decided he, of all people, was best suited for this, especially since Sheppard's gene was apparently super enough to power the whole damn city, or something.

He was still clenching his teeth when Sheppard gave him a sneaky sideways glance. "Some of the soldiers have these things that look like tri-corders. They call them life signs detectors."

Rodney choked. "Life si--? What's the point of bringing along scientists if the military's keeping everything for themselves? Christ." He glared at Sheppard -- and even though logically he knew none of this was Sheppard's fault, he hated him anyway -- who just shrugged, looking completely at ease walking through the empty corridors. "What's with you, anyway? Shouldn't you be talking my ear off about potatoes, or beans, or whatever?"

"The first rule of botany is you don't talk about botany," Sheppard said easily.

They walked across a skywalk, which showed a vast expanse of blue sky and green ocean. It took Rodney a few moments to realize Sheppard had paused in front of the window. "I always wanted to be a pilot," Sheppard said.

"Yeah?" Rodney asked absently, not particularly interesting in hearing Sheppard's personal life story.

"Yeah," Sheppard replied. "But I got caught smoking weed too many times in high school. Luckily, that doesn't affect this job much."

"Er," Rodney said. "Should you be telling me this?"

"Why, you gonna tell Zelenka?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney said, "Ha, yeah right. You know, I always wanted to be a pianist, but I was told I have no heart for it." Rodney glanced over his shoulder. Sheppard was still staring out the window with a strangely serious expression on his face. "How'd you go from tumbleweeds to xenobotany, anyway?"

"My old man's in the army," Sheppard said lightly. "I was working in the non-profit sector, but this seemed a lot cooler."

Rodney knew that for a botanist, "non-profit sector" meant "environmental terrorism." But Sheppard would never tell Rodney that before the military, he worked for the Rainforest Action Network, for whom he taught a "direct action training camp." His specialty was teaching anyone, no matter what shape or age, how to climb a tree and throw things at bulldozers. He was known in certain circles for his love of the earth, his ability to make government officials nervous just by smirking, and his quality weed. In the late 90's, his father the general surprised him by bailing him out after being arrested in a WTO protest.

"Listen, Johnny," General Sheppard said, "you're wasting your life doing this environmental shit. I know some people--"

"I'm not working for the enemy," John said, but his heart wasn't in it. They'd had this conversation almost as many times as they'd had the "why don't you just try dating girls?" one.

"You'll get to go to alien planets."

"I-- what?" Sheppard twisted in his seat to look at his father, who didn't take his eyes off the road. "Now you're just making things up."

General Sheppard gave John a sideways glance. "Son, I shouldn't be telling you this, because you don't have clearance, but I have it on good authority this project -- the one with the aliens -- is looking for outdoorsy people who have degrees in science. And these folks just happen to owe me a lot of favours. I know it's not as interesting as saving the rainforest, but..."

"Uh," Sheppard said. He bit his lip. He crossed his arms over his chest, then uncrossed them. "Can I have a few days to think it over?"

A flip of a coin later, he was working for the SGC. Another flip, he was in Atlantis.

In the city, Rodney was mentally calculating the best way to divide power so as to get the lights in the entire city working, because the second they stepped off the skywalk, the tower was dark and drafty. Rodney turned on his flashlight. A layer of dust had settled over everything in the room they were in, which looked somewhat like a lesser control room; in the middle of it was a pedestal, and by the door sat a console with a series of knobs and buttons.

"What's this do?" Sheppard asked, and immediately touched the console.

"Are you retarded?" Rodney snapped. "Don't touch anything!"

Sheppard looked annoyed. "I'm here to--"

The little light there was faded to nothing, and for an instant, everything went pitch-black. Rodney froze, heart pounding. Slowly, soft pinks and yellows started shining from a pedestal in the centre of the room. Rodney glanced at Sheppard's face; he also looked shocked and scared.

"Sheppard," Rodney said, "if we die, I'm going to spend the rest of eternity kicking your ass."

A hologram of a middle-aged man in robes appeared in from the top of the pedestal. Rodney felt himself relax slightly -- but then the hologram looked directly into his eyes, and he swallowed a wave of panic. The open doors behind them slammed shut, locking them in the room.

"Welcome to the Chamber of Secrets," the hologram said.

"You've got to be kidding me," Rodney said. "JK Rowling is no Ancient."

"Why do the Ancients speak English?" Sheppard asked after a moment.

"I asked somebody at the SGC once," Rodney said. "I never got a straight answer."

The hologram flickered a few times. Its Ancient form had no facial expression. "You have two minutes to answer three riddles. If they are answered correctly, all the doors in the tower will be unlocked."

"Cool," Sheppard said.

"If they are answered incorrectly, you will die."

"Suck," Sheppard said, biting his lip.

Rodney glared at Sheppard. "I don't even know you, but already I can tell, this could only happen to us."

"First riddle. You have two thermoses. The first contains a litre of milk, the second contains a litre of pure chocolate syrup. You pour one cup of milk out from the first thermos to the second one. Then, after mixing that, you take one cup of the mixture from the second thermos, and pour it back into the first thermos. After completing these two operations, which thermos is more pure?"

Rodney stared, slack jawed. "What? Chocolate milk? What?"

"Answer the riddle, McKay," Sheppard warned.

"I can't believe-- hey, do you think they have chocolate in Pegasus?" he asked hopefully. "Because my supply's running low already, and I can't imagine spending the rest of my life without it -- not that I think we'll be here indefinitely, but it's a good idea to plan ahead. God, what I wouldn't do for a glass of chocolate milk right now."

Sheppard growled, "Hurry up, we only have ninety seconds and two more questions left!"

"Whatever," Rodney said with a wave of his hand. "Clearly both are equally pure. But now I want chocolate milk. Thanks a lot, Atlantis."

"We're going to die," Sheppard said gravely.

"Next riddle," the hologram cut in. It looked directly at Rodney again. Of course. "A traveller, on his way to a certain village, reaches a road junction, where he can turn left or right. He knows that only one of the two roads leads to the village, but unfortunately, he does not know which one. Fortunately, he sees two twin brothers standing at the road junction, and he decides to ask them for directions. The traveller knows that one of the two brothers always tells the truth and the other one always lies. Unfortunately, he does not know which one always tells the truth and which one always lies. How can the traveller find out the way to the village by asking just one question to one of the two brothers?"

"I'm learning way more about the Ancients than I never wanted to know," Rodney said. "You'd just ask both of them if they know where the road leads to. The truthful one would say he knows, and the liar would have to make something up."

The screen flickered. This time the hologram looked at Sheppard. "I can run but not walk. Wherever I go, thought follows close behind. What am I?"

"Easy," Sheppard said smugly. "A nose."

"What the hell?" Rodney asked.

The hologram flickered once more and went out.

"We," Sheppard said as the doors slid open, "are totally awesome."

*

That was the start of their partnership. Zelenka was delighted they were able to get the doors opened, which led to new and exciting places: more apartments, communal living spaces with something Simpson swore were broken Ancient flat-screen televisions, scientific laboratories with half-finished projects Carson shrieked at everyone not to touch. Rodney, Sheppard, and a few others cleared out some of the labs so people could start moving in. The zoologists were starting to get on Zelenka's case about physicists and engineers having preference, so Zelenka wanted to give them a handful of the new rooms to work in. Then Rodney told them if they wanted to be treated like equals, they should've picked a better science, and, well, some people were overly sensitive.

There were other discoveries, too: Rodney found he and Sheppard worked surprisingly well together. They didn't seem to have a lot in common (not that he could really tell; Sheppard liked to talk about places he'd been or things he'd seen, but nothing about his personal life either before or on Atlantis, which was perfectly fine with Rodney, because if there was one thing Rodney hated (other than citrus, Lucky beer, and people who couldn't apply Kepler's Laws), it was talking about feelings), but Sheppard was easy to talk to, and unlike most of the people in the city, he seemed to actually listen to what Rodney had to say. Most of the time, at least. The rest of the time he was purposely trying to be as annoying as possible.

Best of all, Sheppard never tried to talk to him about plants (unless he was intentionally trying to piss Rodney off, in which case there was no telling what boring fact he'd share with Rodney that day). Early in their friendship, Rodney told him, "I did well in Biology, but I hated it. If I so much as hear the word 'photosynthesis,' I become filled with an uncontrollable rage."

"You and Dr Sheppard do good work together," Zelenka said to Rodney one day. "I will admit I was worried the combined powers of your abrasiveness would create a black hole and swallow us whole. You are getting along, yes?"

"Mind your own business," Rodney said.

With Sheppard's wonder gene and Rodney's superior intellect, they managed to check out a few more floors without incidence. Rodney hated running. He hated stalking through dark hallways, breathing in air that'd been recycled over and over for a thousand years. He hated the idea that today could be the day he fucked up and got both of them killed. But whenever they opened a door, whenever he had to figure out some new way to make things work better, faster, something in him grew until he wanted to burst. He knew Sheppard loved it too. It was the two of them against the world, and they were winning.

Then Sumner caught on to what was happening.

"Dr Zelenka," Sumner said, "what's this I hear about you sending civilians to explore the city without a guard? I made myself very clear when I said the military needs to make sure all areas are clear before you will be allowed to move your people in."

Zelenka faltered, but he didn't back down. "Colonel, Dr McKay is one of the few experts on Ancient technology."

Sumner's head snapped up. He narrowed his eyes at Rodney, and Rodney was really glad he was on the other side of the briefing room. "Dr McKay, huh? The SGC told me about you. Said you're a troublemaker. And you--" He frowned at Sheppard. "I don't even know who you are."

"Dr John Sheppard," Sheppard said, slouching low in his seat. "Botanist."

"We've discovered more in the past few weeks than you have in months," Rodney said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"You didn't seem to be in any hurry to check out the rest of the city," Sheppard added.

"They do have a point, Colonel," Dr Weir said, arching her brows. "Perhaps it's a sign we should be less strict with the regulations. Dr Sheppard has shown a remarkable ability to manipulate Ancient technology."

"We're cut off from Earth," Sumner said tightly, "regulations are all we have left."

Rodney expected to be sent back to the labs -- he had a whole speech prepared on how two hundred fifty people living on just a handful of floors in a tiny fraction of the city would probably drive someone (namely him) to mass murder -- but Dr Weir and Sumner broke out into a fight that ended with Sumner grudgingly allowing Rodney and Sheppard to continue with their work as long as they took at least one soldier with them. Weir and Zelenka looked victorious, Sumner looked pissed, and Sheppard looked like he was thinking about what to have for lunch.

*

"They say you're the smartest man in Atlantis."

"They're right," Rodney replied automatically.

He glanced up from his laptop to see Sumner standing in the doorway. This was, to Rodney's knowledge, the first time Sumner had ever visited. Normally he didn't drift far from the command room and the second floor armoury; he usually sent Bates to do his dirty work when it involved the scientists, probably because they shared the same disdain for civilians. Sumner didn't have patience for people who didn't know how to kill a man five different ways using only his bare hands. Zelenka once said he didn't think Sumner had patience for anybody, not even those who served under him.

"Can you make a ZPM?" Sumner asked.

It took Rodney a second to realize the man was serious. "Yes, but I'd been trying to keep it a secret. Looks like you've figured me out. Now if you'll just get me a spoon and a rubberband, I'll have one for you in no time. No, of course I don't know how to build a ZPM. Christ."

"Then what use are you?" Sumner asked, a muscle in his jaw twitching. "We have over a hundred scientists here, and all of you are useless."

"Fuck you," Rodney said.

Sumner's nostrils flared. He took a few threatening steps forward. "I'm sick and tired of you civilians not realizing the situation we're in."

"You mean the situation where we're stuck in another galaxy, isolated from Earth?" Rodney asked. "Because that's been completely lost on me."

The lab was completely silent. Rodney wasn't going to let some macho thug come in here like he owned the city and insult Rodney's people. He wasn't the one who reported to Sumner; as far as he was concerned, Sumner was just another guy who happened to live in Atlantis. Zelenka appeared behind Sumner in the door, holding his datapad. He looked up, did a double take, and turned right back around and kept walking.

Sumner didn't notice. "You think this is some sort of joke? First Dr Beckett claims he can't find a way to make the gene therapy a hundred percent successful, and now Dr Sheppard--" Rodney choked, but he bit his tongue so hard it hurt. "--says he can't get the weapons to work using the command chair."

Sumner said it like he didn't believe it. Rodney didn't either; he'd been witness to what Sheppard's gene could do.

"If they say they can't do, they can't do it," Rodney lied.

Sumner took a little more time to gripe about how no one ever listened to him. Rodney ignored him and pretended to go back to work, but the entire time he was wondering why Sheppard wouldn't use the chair; if it were him, he'd've been working on it from the first week. But even with Carson's gene therapy, the chair didn't respond to him very well (he'd already tried more than once). Carson, he knew, made sure to not even take a step near the command chair room -- apparently Zelenka had harassed him to sit in it in McMurdo, and it'd scared the shit out of him -- but Rodney couldn't understand why anyone with the ability to manipulate Ancient technology wouldn't want to use it. Sky was blue, grass was green, force equalled mass times acceleration, the universe was meant to be taken apart and understood.

The second Sumner took a step outside the door, Rodney turned to Dumais, who'd been sitting there quietly the whole time. "Do you remember Sheppard?" he asked. She blinked at him. "Tall guy, dark hair, looks like a-- actually, I tend to think of surfers as blond, so I guess it's more accurate to say he's a skateboarder, although--"

"Yeah," she interrupted. "I remember him."

"Do you know where I can find him?"

"I think the botany lab is right below ours," she said. "Dr Zelenka wanted everyone close together."

"Thanks." He started heading towards the door, then stopped. "If Zelenka asks for me, I'm double-checking the transporter repairs on the east tower." The east side was the farthest from the lab; if Zelenka came looking for Rodney, he'd have a few extra minutes.

Her eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch. "Right."

He found Sheppard where she said he would, burying a thin plastic tube under dirt that stood in what Rodney guessed were long, glass planting pots. Parallel to where he was planting, several other rows were sprouting tiny buds. Rodney hoped none of these would set off his allergies.

"There's a greenhouse in here," Rodney said instead of, "Hello."

"Really?" Sheppard deadpanned, looking around like he'd just realized where he was.

"I thought you were kidding earlier when you said you guys were trying to get the greenhouses working."

"Why would I lie about something like that?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney said, "I don't know! I thought it was botany humour."

Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "We have funnier jokes than that. What do you get if you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter?"

"No idea," Rodney said flatly.

"Pumpkin pi."

"You're hilarious. You should really think about giving up the plants and going on tour." He watched Sheppard pat the dirt flat with his long, thin hands, and he said, "The craziest thing happened just now. Sumner asked me if I could build a ZPM. I told him that if I could, did he really think we'd still be here?"

"We might," Sheppard said, smiling.

"Well, okay," Rodney said, "but like I'd keep people here who wanted to go home. I'm not some mad scientist trying to trap everyone in another galaxy. He also said--" Rodney waved his hand vaguely, hoping to convey casualness. "--you won't work the command chair."

"I'm not a soldier," Sheppard said, narrowing his eyes. "I came here to do research. I'll do it if we get in trouble, but..." He shrugged, and Rodney put the pieces together: Sheppard was an environmentalist. He was a tree hugger, a rainforest saver; he sighed every time they passed a dead, withered tree in the hall. Rodney'd never seen him throw anything away. He wasn't going to practice shooting up aliens for the hell of it.

Sheppard stood, brushing off his hands. Dirt stained the knees of his loose khakis. "You wanna get something to eat? I think it's taco night."

"Yeah, okay," Rodney said.

And so life went on. Sumner ordered Lieutenant Ford to act as Rodney's and Sheppard's bodyguard, and he followed them through the darkened corridors, P-90 held high against their invisible enemies. Together they found a gymnasium, another series of apartments, and even a place that resembled a café. Sheppard sprained his ankle trying to skateboard down a stairwell. Miko single-handedly figured out how to turn all the lights in the city on while using barely any power, much to Ford's relief (and Rodney's). Zelenka remained obtuse.

"Did you know we have deep space scanners?" Zelenka asked.

Rodney slowly looked up from his laptop. "Yes."

The first time Sheppard came by the main lab when everyone was there, Rodney was in the middle of yet another screaming match with Gall. He was telling Gall how he was going to convince the Marines to dial a random location and just leave Gall there to die, when he heard Kavanagh ask:

"Aren't you one of the botanists?" Rodney turned in time to see Kavanagh wrinkle his nose at Sheppard (who had definitely not been there a minute ago) like he'd just seen something distasteful. "I don't think you're allowed to be in here. Why don't you go back to your plants and leave the real scientists to their work?"

Rodney snapped, "Kavanagh, shouldn't you be working on getting the archiving programme uplinked? Oh, that's right, you couldn't figure it out. Why don't you go get one of the jarheads to teach you basic math?"

"Rodney," Sheppard said, but he didn't sound angry. "I thought you might want to get something in your system besides caffeine. You've been here for, like, twelve hours. Ford said it's meatloaf today, and I know how you love processed breaded meat."

Rodney didn't eat in the mess often; he was too busy to take half an hour off, so he typically brought MREs back to the labs. Powerbars were a staple amongst the physics staff. When he did manage to sit down and enjoy himself, he preferred to eat alone or just with Sheppard, unless it was one of those days everything Sheppard said and did annoyed the hell out of him. "Why do potatoes make good detectives?" was one of Sheppard's jokes. "Because they keep their eyes peeled!" Sometimes in the lab he sat down with Zelenka, but the way Zelenka ate reminded him too much of Russia. Once, not long after they arrived in Atlantis, he made the mistake of sitting with other physicists. By the time the meal was done, he was forcibly trying not to kill them all with his cutlery. In the end, it was best just to stick with what he knew: himself, and occasionally Sheppard.

"Yeah, just--" Rodney looked back at Gall, who was watching him with narrowed eyes. "You're still here? Go away."

"I'm going to tell Dr Zelenka you're skipping work to hang out with your buddy," Kavanagh sneered, gaze flickering between Rodney and Sheppard.

"What are you, twelve? Whatever." Rodney waved a hand in dismissal. "As if Zelenka would care."

Both Gall and Kavanagh stomped off, each muttering something that was probably obscene under their breaths, and God, how Rodney longed to be in charge of these Neanderthals, just so he could punish them. He said to Sheppard, "What an idiot. He doesn't even know you." One corner of Sheppard's mouth curled up, and Rodney looked away, embarrassed. "And Gall's just... ugh. Don't get me started on that imbecile. Do you know he had the audacity to suggest he might be smarter than me?"

"What a bastard," Sheppard agreed easily.

On an intellectual level, Rodney knew every scientist in Atlantis was hand-picked by Zelenka, even Kavanagh. Even Sheppard. They were Earth's best and brightest. But the emotional part of Rodney was compiling a list of People I'm Trying to Give Cancer to With My Mind, and Kavanagh and Gall had been at the top of that list ever since McMurdo.

Rodney would almost feel bad about that when Gall would get killed during a botched diplomatic incident between Atlantis and the primitive people of Mauron (Rodney would always think it was ironic Gall died on a planet that sounded so close to "moron"). Sergeant Bates's team stumbled across his body less than a kilometre away from the gate.

"That's a shame," said one of Bates's teammates as they pulled Gall out of the bushes. Nobody liked Gall.

The official cause of his death was "allergic reaction to the mead he ingested at the welcoming ceremony," Dr Biro informed Rodney and Zelenka, snapping off her gloves.

"It's a wonder I'm still alive," Rodney said. He was forty-nine.

Kavanagh's last words to Rodney would be, "I told you that was lethal."

One time after a long day of fixing other people's mistakes, Rodney came into the lab to pick up his laptop, and he found a note taped to it. It was written on formal stationary.

Dr McKay,

In your latest report regarding damaged dampeners on Gatejumper 4, you had several spelling and punctuation errors. Please see that you use spellcheck in your future reports. We do not want the entirety of the physics team to be embarrassed when the SGC rescues us. Also, please stop stealing my pens. I paid for them myself.

Sincerely,
Dr Kavanagh

In Rodney's next report, he made sure to misspell as many words as possible while still being coherent. Then he stole half of Kavanagh's pens and passed them out to the senior staff. Zelenka looked at him funny for a few days after that, but all Rodney would do was smirk at him. Kavanagh never said anything; if anything, Kavanagh just grew colder towards him, which suited him just fine. He didn't need friends -- he had Atlantis.

Kavanagh would remain on Atlantis for the rest of his days, eventually giving up on being "rescued" by the SGC. He and Rodney tried to avoid working together as much as humanly possible; the longest conversation they ever had after the third year was saying hello when they passed each other in the hallways.

A few years after they arrived on Atlantis, Kavanagh, Simpson, and Brown were caught trying to repair the bubbling tanks on the walls. They started with one tower everyone considered too far to bother with; Brown had the great idea of turning the tubes into fish tanks, and she smuggled in fish and plants while Simpson worked on the mechanics. No one remembered how Kavanagh got involved, but he was the one who brought in the purple frog-like creature from Atlantica -- which turned out to be highly toxic, and was probably the way rebellious Ancient teenagers used to get high. He was found wandering the halls tripped out his mind, mumbling about, "I understand everything now; the universe is inside me." Simpson said that it was totally worth it, even after Zelenka, Biro, and Weir all yelled at them for sneaking in strange wildlife without clearing it first. Sheppard said the tanks were just a front for the frog-licking, and then he whined for two weeks that he would've been invited if Rodney hadn't ruined his reputation.

When Kavanagh announced Sheppard's presence in the lab, Rodney didn't notice he wasn't the only one observing Sheppard. It took him a few minutes to realize a few -- okay, pretty much all -- of the women were looking at Sheppard like he was made of every food they ever missed from Earth. Even Dumais was staring, still leaning over her bench, a screwdriver in one hand. He'd never seen that expression on her face before. Simpson and Miko were whispering behind their hands in the corner.

Rodney bristled and put a hand on Sheppard's back, steering him towards the door. "Come on, let's go before they start fighting over who gets to bear your love child."

Sheppard craned his neck. "What? Who? What?"

"I knew I should've taken botany," he heard Simpson say. Miko "mm-hmm"-ed enthusiastically.

"The asshole with the ponytail was playing Bejeweled on his laptop," Sheppard said.

"Some days it's just not worth chewing through the restraints," Rodney murmured.

*

Their fifth month in Pegasus, Sumner and Weir began making deals with other civilizations. Privately, Zelenka told Rodney it was something Weir'd wanted to do from the start, once they'd realized they couldn't go back to Earth, but Sumner had refused to send his troops on "suicide missions" to trade with "heathens," even though the six or seven planets they'd been to had various levels of sophistication.

"What an enlightened man," Rodney said sarcastically. "Next you'll be telling me he thinks a woman's place should be in the kitchen."

It wasn't so much they were running out of supplies as it was people were starting to worry about running out of supplies. Carson was telling anyone who'd listen he was almost out of this and that antibiotic, and something about clean syringes, and if Sumner wanted him to find a way to make everyone on Atlantis able to carry the gene, they best start seeing which planets carried what he needed. More importantly, people started to talk about how maybe, just maybe, some other worlds just might have ZPMs. Ones they'd be willing to part with.

Zelenka said this time, Weir told Sumner she'd go alone if he didn't give her a squadron of Marines. "She's a very brave woman," he said, with stars in his eyes. Rodney tried to point out Weir usually caved to whatever Sumner wanted, but Zelenka acted as if the comment personally offended him.

Sheppard hopped up on Rodney's lab bench, looking pleased with himself, which was never a good thing. He sat on top of several print-outs Rodney was reading. "Guess what."

"Judging by your good mood, I'd guess someone found a surplus supply of hair gel."

"They're going to start sending scientists with the offworld teams," Sheppard answered, ignoring Rodney's comment. He was practically humming with excitement. "Lieutenant Ford asked me to be on his."

It took a minute for that to sink in. Rodney demanded, "Are you nuts? Haven't you ever seen an episode of Star Trek? Scientists always die on away missions."

"So I won't wear my red shirt," Sheppard drawled. "Seriously, McKay, it'll be cool. It's some peaceful farming planet."

"They're always peaceful farming planets!" Rodney exclaimed, waving his arms. "Do you even know how to shoot a gun?"

Sheppard gave him a look. "My dad was in the army."

"What does that mean? Yes? No?"

"It means..." Sheppard picked at a string on the hem of his blue t-shirt. "I can shoot cans with a rifle."

Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "Oh, okay, Rambo, that changes everything."

Sheppard glared. "Can't you be happy for me? I get to go exploring alien worlds. Imagine all the species of plants that are probably completely different from anything on Earth. We might be able to find something that can feed us for months."

"They could bring samples back for you," Rodney said. "Parrish or what's-her-face, the redhead-- don't look at me like that, I barely know the names of people I work with. One of them could go instead. Why you?"

"Parrish gets lost going from the greenhouse to the bathroom, and Katie-- you'd seriously prefer they sent Katie Brown to a possibly hostile alien world over me?"

"Ha," Rodney said smugly, "you just admitted it was hostile."

"Ford said it was perfectly safe," Sheppard said, stepping off the bench and back onto the floor.

What Ford actually said was, "Hey, man, how do you feel about kicking some alien ass?" and, "Sumner told me to take a scientist, and I thought you'd might like to go. But just to warn you, it'll probably be dangerous." Sheppard was all cool and collected when he told Rodney about it, but he was pretty much scared out of his mind. The most danger he'd ever been in were protests that turned violent (and that one time in Greenpeace when he'd chased a whaling boat for six hours off the coast of China) and even then, injuries were something to use against The Man, to demonstrate the barbaric behaviour of the cops or coast guard or whoever was keeping them down this week. The closest he'd ever come to war was listening to his father's stories, and they weren't even very good. When Sheppard was a kid, he thought his dad was so brave, but then he grew up and realized his dad was sort of an asshole. An asshole who didn't recycle.

Of course, Rodney didn't know any of this. He just thought Sheppard must've been missing the part of his brain that handled self-preservation.

For the next two days, Sheppard didn't show up to bug him. At first Rodney thought maybe Sheppard was actually doing work for once; but after day two rolled around and there was still no sign of the man, he told himself he was just glad Sheppard wasn't there to annoy him, because Sheppard would've just distracted Rodney from fixing the yet-again broken sewage system. But still, he looked over his shoulder every time someone walked past the lab.

There was only so much self-denial he could stand. Around six in the evening, he snapped his laptop closed and said to Zelenka, "I'm going on a break."

Zelenka's hair was sticking up straight, and with his wide eyes, he looked kind of insane. His jaw dropped, and he asked suspiciously, "Break? You never take break."

"I need a cigarette like you wouldn't believe," Rodney called over his shoulder.

"You don't smoke!" Zelenka shouted after him.

That whole conversation would later come back to haunt Rodney, as someone from the labs began spreading rumours he was running an underground black market. In one instance, Vogel would try to con Rodney into trading his bed sheets for cigarettes (Rodney really, really didn't want to know). Miko would want extra toothpaste for Hershey's kisses. Ford would try to trade him coffee for spare condoms, and on four separate occasions, chocolate syrup.

"There are no words to describe how TMI that is," Rodney would say.

Rodney bumped into Sheppard coming off the transporter. He was wearing the black jacket and BDUs of the soldiers. "Hey," Sheppard said, surprised.

"Hey," Rodney replied.

"Were you looking for me?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney said, "Oh, were you gone?"

Sheppard grinned like Rodney had made a joke. But he just said, "Ford's had me doing target practice all day. I think I've got the hang of it."

"You're going to fucking die," Rodney said.

"We might find coffee beans," Sheppard said, rolling his eyes. "Then you'll tell me this was the best idea Ford ever had."

Rodney thought he'd probably prefer having Sheppard alive over having an endless supply of alien coffee (even though he'd probably be able to jerk off to the image of a freshly-brewed pot of Columbian by this point), but he wasn't stupid enough to tell Sheppard that. Especially when Sheppard was wearing all black and looking a little sweaty.

On the morning of Sheppard's first mission, Rodney woke up early and headed to Ford's rooms. The day before, he'd bribed Lieutenant Crown, whom he'd seen flirting with Ford, to tell him where Ford lived. It cost him a bag of Twizzlers. Ford was in a section of the city Sheppard and Rodney had cleared out themselves, before Sumner'd found out about their exploits; as he walked down the corridor, Rodney remembered these same light panels on the walls coming to life as Sheppard crossed their paths. He remembered Sheppard gazing out the huge window in the centre of the hall, telling Rodney, "I don't think we'll ever be able to learn everything about Atlantis, do you?"

Ford opened his door in pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt. He rubbed his eyes sleepily. "McKay? What're you doing here?"

"I need to give you some important information about your mission today," he said.

"Yeah?" Ford asked apprehensively.

"Dr Sheppard's always cold, so you should take an extra sweater," Rodney said. He ticked the list off on his fingers. "Uh, he gets lost really easily, so don't let him wander away. I don't need to remind you he doesn't have any combat training, so I'll assume you won't let him get shot in the face. He doesn't follow orders, so you might have to threaten him. He--"

Ford was staring at him like he was in the process of trying to explain quantum mechanics. It was a nervous, flighty look, but he didn't know if Ford was thinking taking Sheppard along was a mistake, or if Rodney himself made Ford anxious, or what. "McKay, chill, it's okay. I know what I'm doing. Johnny--" And oh, how that nickname cracked Rodney up every time. "--will be fine. I'll bring him back to you in one piece."

"See to it that you do," Rodney sniffed.

"I have an hour before I have to get up," Ford said, stepping back.

"Don't forget--" The door slid shut. "--The sweater!"

When he went back to his rooms to get his laptop, he found Sheppard there, knocking on the door. He was already dressed in black BDUs, looking calm and cool. "Almost time for me to head out," he said casually.

"Is it?" Rodney asked.

"I'll be okay," Sheppard said. "It's no big deal. Ford's been off-world a bunch of times already, and nothing really bad's happened."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "You realize you're jinxing yourself, right?"

Sheppard stepped forward until they could almost brush arms, and Rodney swallowed thickly. "I wanted to tell you..." Sheppard licked his lips. "What vegetable can tie your stomach in knots?"

"Oh my God," Rodney said.

"String beans." With that, Sheppard spun on one heel and walked away, throwing Rodney a grin over his shoulder.

"I hope you get stabbed by a native," Rodney shouted at his back.

Rodney stayed in the labs the rest of the day, but he managed to time being in the gateroom when he knew Ford's team was supposed to return, claiming he was helping Grodin configure the scanners.

"I don't think they're broken, McKay," Grodin said.

"Of course that's what you'd think, wouldn't you," Rodney said, pretending to be looking at something. Thankfully, he typed faster than Grodin could read.

When Sheppard walked through the gate, Rodney let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. Sheppard had a smudge on one cheek and a stupid grin on his face. In his arms was a basket of something that looked like corn. Ford slapped him on the back, saying something Rodney couldn't hear from the balcony, and they laughed together. Something uncurled in Rodney's chest.

Sheppard looked up, met Rodney's eyes, and waved. "I shot somebody," he shouted, sounding excited. "It was pretty awesome!"

"You're insane," Rodney yelled back, leaning over the rail. The soldier beside him recoiled a little.

On Sheppard's third mission, he went from being the shooter to the shootee. Ford, Parker, Stankovich, and Sheppard were negotiating with the farmers of P1X-436 for their grain when the local lord whipped out a gun and fired. Rodney was in the lab telling Gall exactly why he was the stupidest man in the Pegasus Galaxy when his radio sparked to life.

"McKay," Ford's voice said, "you might want to head over to the infirmary."

Rodney went cold all over. "I told you not to let him get shot in the face!"

Gall stood between Rodney and the door. He sneered, "Isn't it convenient you have an excuse to leave just as I was winning the argument."

"Get the fuck out of my way," Rodney snapped.

When he got to the infirmary in record time, only a little out of breath, he found Sheppard lying on one of the beds, Carson "tsk"-ing him. Sheppard's BDU pants were dripping with blood.

"I got shot, Rodney," Sheppard told him. "In the leg."

"Good for you," Rodney said.

Carson started to cut off John's pants with a pair of tiny scissors. "Okay, Dr Sheppard, I'm just going to give you a local anaesthetic, and we're going to get that nasty bullet out."

Sheppard patted Rodney's hand. He was either drunk or he'd lost a lot of blood. "Guns are bad. I feel bad now for shooting that guy on P2X-381. It hurts like a bitch."

"Should you be doing that out here in the open?" Rodney asked Carson. "He's going to get an infection and his leg's going to fall off. We can't have a one-legged botanist. That's just a whole new level of weird I don't think anyone's prepared to deal with."

Carson let out an exasperated breath. "And where do you purpose I do it then? It's not like we've found an Ancient operating room. I've been making due with what's available." He said this with surprising vehemence. His face a little more lined than it'd been when they walked through the gate a few months ago.

"Rodney and I will find you a real infirmary," Sheppard said to Carson.

"You just worry about getting better," Carson soothed.

It was so like Carson to fall for Sheppard's charms like that. If Rodney had promised to find him a lab, Carson would've "accidentally" stabbed him with those scissors. Rodney glared at Sheppard, taking in his pale face, his open, bleeding wound, and Rodney suddenly felt light-headed.

"I should go," he said, jerking a thumb to the door behind him. "Important things to do, idiots all around me, and so forth and so on."

Carson didn't even look up from the syringe he was filling. "That's probably a good idea. Wouldn't want you to get sick on us."

Rodney spent the rest of the day (silently) fretting over Sheppard being one step away from death, even after he radioed Carson and had to listen to Carson say, "No, Rodney, his leg is still here. Yes, Rodney, the bullet's removed, and he's recovering nicely. No, Rodney, I will not stop being a smart ass. Go back to work, you bloody woman." It was only natural for him to be concerned about his friend. He took out his stress the best way he knew how: by terrorizing everyone around him. It worked up until the point when he found out exactly what happened on the mission.

"The Lieutenant said Dr Sheppard was accused of flirting with the leader's daughter," Zelenka said, rolling his eyes. "Then Lieutenant Ford tried to explain Sheppard is like that with everyone, and it seems the people of P1X-436 find such behaviour, um--"

"Slutty?" Rodney asked.

"I was going to say 'distasteful,' but that works," Zelenka replied. "But that is why they shot him. Apparently, that is the standard punishment on their world. I find it interesting these people do not have indoor plumbing, yet they possess the ability to blow off people's legs."

Rodney said, "Sheppard, that stupid fuck. I hope he gets space syphilis and his dick rots."

Zelenka raised an eyebrow at him, but he didn't say anything. Rodney turned back to his laptop, fuming.

*

If Sheppard noticed Rodney didn't visit him while he was recovering from the gunshot wound, he didn't comment on it. He bounced back with resilience; a little more than a week after he was shot, he popped into Rodney's room, limping, asking if Rodney wanted to watch a dvd of extreme skateboarding he brought from Earth. He was wearing a tight black t-shirt with his tan slacks. Rodney was still pissed Sheppard'd almost died because he was a tease, but Sheppard grinning through his obvious pain made Rodney's stomach flip-flop.

"I don't like sports," Rodney said, but he made room on his couch anyway. "Not that skateboarding's a sport."

"Skateboarding's about style, McKay," Sheppard insisted, joining him. He propped his injured leg up on the Atlantian version of a coffee table. "It's about taking risks."

"It's about breaking open your skull on the sidewalk," Rodney said.

"When I was in high school, we used to do that." Sheppard gestured to the screen, where a lanky man was sliding down a rail -- and amazingly, not dying horribly. "And we played a lot of hacky sack."

"Jesus, Shaggy, you were such a pothead," Rodney said.

When Rodney was in high school, he was too busy being paid by the other kids to do their homework to do sports. Not that he was particularly athletic; as a kid, his father'd forced him to play hockey and curl, but he was never very good at either of them. One fateful Boxing Day, he broke his leg during a curling game after falling while trying to sweep, and as a result, the other team won. His father never let him forget it.

Rodney was thinking about team sports when he stumbled upon a miserable-looking Zelenka still in the labs at three in the morning. Rodney had an excuse -- he was this close to finishing re-wiring the environmental controls so they could turn that café they'd discovered a few weeks ago into a place ideal for hanging out -- but Zelenka was just sitting there, staring into space, glasses askew.

"Not that I care or anything," Rodney said, "but why don't you go to bed?"

"I'm just thinking about--" Zelenka shrugged, pushing his glasses back up. He pushed a button on his datapad. "What do you think of the team dynamics, Rodney?"

Rodney said, "I think living here is a little like being in high school. You know, if your high school was a floating city in the middle of another galaxy and everyone was either a science nerd or a jock trying to overcompensate for something."

"Everyone hates each other," Zelenka said, almost sadly. "I keep having to break up fights. People keep requesting not to work with certain others. And because of this, our work is suffering. We could have so much done if they just stopped behaving like children."

"That's because they're idiots," Rodney said.

The next day, while Zelenka was at his daily meeting with Dr Weir, Rodney rounded up everyone on the physics team first. He separated the troublemakers -- Kavanagh, Gall, Simpson -- and switched up the projects. He'd been living long enough with these people to know how they worked; not many people put up much fuss regarding their teammates, but some didn't want to give up their current project.

"Are you allowed to do this?" Gall asked. He'd made a sour face when Rodney instructed him to work with Abrams.

"Of course I am," Rodney lied coolly.

Once he hacked the personnel files of everyone else, he rearranged the anthropologists (who tried to engage him in a discussion on the treatment of Natives in Canada), the zoologists (who were playing catch with what looked like a cross between a zebra and a cow, only in miniature), and the chemists (who told him that if he touched something, they'd kill him slowly and painfully by slipping something into his food. He believed them.). His authority was completely undermined in the botany lab: every time he met Sheppard's eyes, he burst out laughing, which then got Sheppard going. Thanks to Sheppard, the botanists now thought he was approachable, which filled Rodney with an unspeakable horror.

"I don't see what your problem is," Sheppard said. "They like you. Katie was asking me about you the other day."

"If you told the botanists I'm available, I'll kill you in your sleep," Rodney said.

Sheppard said, "Trust me, I let them know you're unavailable," and he gave Rodney a really intense look.

Rodney frowned, trying to remember that day in the lab. "What, you got a thing for Katie? Which one is she, anyway? The one with the mole, or the one who thinks my name is McBay?"

"I don't have a thing for Katie Brown," Sheppard snapped. "And she's the short one with the red hair."

If Sheppard was going to date someone, he could do better than a botanist, Rodney figured. He needed someone smart and witty and willing to put up with his skateboarding and his vanity and his stupid jokes. Someone tall and leggy. Brunette, maybe. Not someone who worked with plants. Rodney tried to picture what kind of women Sheppard must've dated on Earth, but his mind drew a blank. Then he tried to imagine what Sheppard must've been like when he was out saving the rainforest (he assumed there was a lot of tie-dye involved), and not here, in the city of the Ancients, going back and forth across the galaxy to take samples of plants for the benefit of their two-hundred-something population.

"You should wear black all the time," Rodney said, gesturing to Sheppard's BDUs.

Sheppard cocked his head. "You like the way I look in black?"

"I didn't say that," Rodney said.

"It shows the dirt too much," Sheppard said regrettably.

After that, Sheppard starting wearing a lot more black t-shirts. Rodney figured he must've scavenged them from the packs he obviously bought at Wal-Mart before they left, because even after days of wearing black, the shirts were definitely clean. Every time Sheppard leaned, sat, or walked too close, he smelled nice in a way Rodney hadn't noticed before. Some of the other scientists -- mostly the female ones, and Parrish -- and even Ford started giving Rodney funny looks whenever they saw him and Sheppard together, which was pretty often, because it wasn't like Rodney could stand anyone else.

"What the hell happened to the science team uniform?" Rodney asked after a week of black shirts.

Sheppard stiffened. "Nothing. I felt like a change. I wasn't wearing reg shirts before, anyway. They itch."

His wardrobe changed again. Along with the black shirts, he started wearing green, dark blue, and the regulation civilian light blue. On the days he wore white, Rodney found himself seeking out Sheppard even more often. (Although he tried not to do it too much; that was sort of gay.)

One day, while he was still in off-duty thanks to his wound ("And psychological trauma," Sheppard said, gazing at Zelenka with wide, sincere eyes), Sheppard surprised Rodney by showing up at his apartment with a covered plate and a smirk. The last time Sheppard'd looked at him like that, the two of them ended up spending the afternoon in the brig after re-wiring Sumner's room's environmental controls from "yes, I am a robot and need to be in a constant state of chill" to "Sahara Desert on a bad day."

"Tada," Sheppard said, doing his best Vanna White impression.

"What's this?" Rodney asked, immediately suspicious.

Sheppard beamed at him. "Cookies made from the very first batch of our very own flour. We made it from that corn-like stuff I brought back from P2X-381."

Rodney snatched a few before Sheppard could change his mind. "God, I needed these. I've had such a shit day. I can't believe these were the best people Zelenka could find. If I was in charge..."

Twenty minutes and four cookies later, he told Sheppard, "You can tell Sergeant Wallace his flour's a success. These seem to be safe."

"Huh?" Sheppard asked, swallowing the last of his single cookie.

"If I can eat these, anyone can, because I'm allergic to everything."

"I wouldn't give you cookies that could kill you, asshole," Sheppard said.

Rodney frowned. "Then why'd you bring them to me?"

"I don't know why I even bother," Sheppard grumbled.

Rodney didn't know what to make of Sheppard's behaviour. On the one hand, it was strange, with the clothes and the cookies and the constant leaning on everything, but on the other, it was Sheppard, and "normal" for him was "eccentric" (at best) for everyone else -- not that Rodney was a good judge of what was considered "normal" behaviour. Either way, they spent too much time together for Rodney to really put his finger on what was bothering him. When they weren't eating their meals together, they were constantly in each other's labs, helping each other out (Simpson told Sheppard he was an honourary physicist); when they weren't exploring the city, they were watching movies or playing cards, and there was that one humiliating time when Sheppard tried to get Rodney to try his skateboard. So Rodney, despite not being a very forgiving guy, easily overlooked a few eccentricities.

Sheppard ate tabasco sauce on literally everything, a little bottle of which he smuggled from Earth in his backpack. He rode his skateboard through the halls, and refused to stop even after both Sumner and Zelenka bitched at him. Zelenka said Sheppard actually did very little work, but what he accomplished was amazing. Sheppard taught some of the Marines how to play hacky sack. He redecorated some of the lounges with the help of Dr Weir. He read novels by dead Russians and drew stick figures with little speech bubbles on Rodney's notes and let Miko give him highlights (and let Simpson dye it back to black the next day) and kept bringing people potted plants.

"I brought you this," Sheppard said, presenting Rodney with a strange blue fern. "It was really hard to find."

"Are you serious?" Rodney asked. "Do I need to give you the five page print-out of my allergies again?"

And then Rodney overheard a conversation while trying to enter the botany lab one afternoon, and everything went to hell.

"--You, me, a starlit picnic," Sheppard was saying.

"Sheppard, seriously, fucking you isn't worth my life," Parrish said slowly. Parrish always sounded like he was high. "McKay would have me murdered, and no one would ever find the body. He's worked with the military for years, he knows these things."

Well, that was mostly true. Rodney really couldn't fault the man for cowering before him.

"McKay and I aren't like that," Sheppard said. "He's socially retarded or something."

"Uh-huh," Parrish said. "You're hot and all, but I like my head still connected to my neck. Why don't you try someone a little more suicidal, like a Marine?"

"Yeah, I'll go do that," Sheppard said sarcastically. "Maybe I'll go ask Ford."

Ew, Ford, Rodney thought, followed by: Where would one hide a body in Atlantis, anyway? as he listened to Parrish and Sheppard change the subject to the life cycle of a type of tree found only on Manaria.

*

Naturally, because everything in Atlantis was trying to kill them, the next disaster struck in the form of Mother Nature. "See," Rodney told Sheppard, watching the hurricane gain momentum on the scanners, "this is why we should pollute as much as possible. To show Nature who's boss."

"Maybe Nature's thinking the same thing about us," Sheppard said dryly.

By the time the rain starting pouring down, it was too late to evacuate. Besides, there weren't many places to evacuate to; Sumner and Weir had made trading partnerships with many other peoples, but they didn't have anyone they could really call an ally. Rodney figured it was because Sumner was an ass. Everyone in the physics lab ran around trying to come up with an idea to save the city -- "Maybe it can fly," Abrams said. "Get the hell out of my lab," Rodney replied. -- until Rodney and Zelenka came up with the brilliant plan of using lightening to power up the shields. It was unfortunate that this idea came to them while Rodney was telling Zelenka how he was once almost killed during a freak thunderstorm.

The entire population of Atlantis squeezed into the control room. Even with the military's stiff upper lip, it was complete chaos.

"Okay," Zelenka said, "I will go to station one, because I need to be close by to work on the subroutines. Peter, you go to station two, Rodney, to stations three and--"

"I can go," Sheppard interrupted.

Zelenka frowned. "But--"

"You don't need someone with a physics degree to turn on a machine," Sheppard insisted.

"He's right," Rodney said.

Zelenka sighed. "Alright. Dr Sheppard, you go to station three, Rodney will go to station four."

Rodney said, "But four's the one farthest from--"

"We do not have time for this," Zelenka said sharply.

"Fine, whatever. Station four it is. But if I have a heart attack before I can turn on the generator, it'll be on your head."

"Be careful," Dr Weir called as they filed out.

As fast as he could move, Rodney made his way to the fourth station. He could hear the wind even from inside the halls. Rain pounded against the windows, and the sky was almost black. Rodney hadn't lived anywhere near an ocean in a really long time, and he'd forgotten how dangerous it could be.

"We never had these problems in Ontario," he muttered to himself.

"Rodney, how close are you to finishing?" Zelenka asked over the radio.

"What? I'm still getting there!" He panted. "Goddamn motherfucking stairs. Who designed this place?"

His radio clicked on again. "Maybe you should give up smoking," Dr Weir said.

"Oh, very funny," Rodney said.

When he finally made it to station four, a huge, black, angry cloud was barrelling towards them. He staggered against the wind, and staring up at the sky, he felt himself pause a little too long. "Oh God, oh God," he muttered, desperately clutching the console. He needed to act now or everyone in the city was dead.

Sheppard's voice broke in over the wind. "Rodney, you need to hurry up!"

Hands trembling, Rodney punched in the code, and the rod separated, coming to life.

"Done," he shouted, letting out a shaky breath. Over the radio, he could hear everyone cheering and screaming and even a few relieved sobs.

"Now get the hell down here!" Sheppard said.

That night, they broke out the emergency rations of wine. Sheppard didn't stay long, because he said he and Parrish had to fix the greenhouses, which were shorted out during the storm. Rodney watched them leave together, a funny feeling gripping him. Then he got piss drunk and ended up fucking Dumais on a couch in the lounge on the third floor. She wasn't a blonde, but she was pretty and she almost liked him. Afterwards, she shoved him off her and told him he'd been "efficient."

"We shouldn't do that again," she said, slipping on her boots. "It'll make us less productive. Forty-five percent of workplace relationships are short-lived."

"Did I just sleep with a Cylon?" Rodney asked.

He went back to his rooms -- alone -- feeling relieved, but strangely dirty, and not at all satisfied.

*

As soon as Sheppard's thigh healed completely, they were cleared to go back to exploring. Rodney found he'd actually missed this: the excitement of walking through halls no one had been through in a millennia, the thrill of finding abandoned labs with half-finished projects that had been worked on by the Ancients. Sheppard, back to his blue tee and khakis, patted the wall and said, "Hey, girl, long time no see."

"You're the kind of guy who names his car, aren't you," Rodney said.

Sheppard looked scandalized. "You're kidding. Do you know how much cars pollute?"

"My Toyota gets pretty good gas to the mile," Ford said.

Rodney drowned out Sheppard lecturing Ford on the horrors of fossil fuels, choosing instead to concentrate on their surroundings, because somebody had to. It was why they were there, after all. This floor was below sea level, which made Rodney's chest tight with barely-controlled panic, but even he could tell the view outside the windows was beautiful. He swore he saw fish beyond the shield. Maybe he should suggest Zelenka give this floor to the zoologists.

As some sort of weird proof to the universe Sumner was a colonel for a reason, Ford ended up being a great addition to their twosome. He got along much better with Sheppard than Rodney, but everyone except those Sheppard worked for got along with Sheppard. But he wasn't someone Rodney disliked being around; on the contrary, their one common ground was women (although much later Rodney would realize Ford never took him seriously on this subject), and it was something they talked about in great, great detail. Whenever Ford joined Sheppard and Rodney at meals, they'd rate every woman in the mess, while Sheppard rolled his eyes. Rodney once tried to fix up Ford with Miko.

"Miko?" Ford said, glancing over at her at a table with some other women scientists and soldiers. Miko, not noticing, giggled over something a Marine said. She really was cute. "Cool, I've never been with an asian woman."

"Well, you know what they say," Rodney said, smirking.

Ford narrowed his eyes. "What do they say?"

Rodney cleared his throat. "Uh. Once you go black you... never... not go black again."

Ford stared at him for a second, then tossed his head back and laughed. "You're such a dork, man."

Unfortunately, Ford became distracted and started dating one of the zoologists instead, a tall, voluptuous woman from Argentina. Ford was a good man and a good soldier, but he was every bit his twenty-five years. "Dating" was a considerably loose term on Atlantis. They adapted it by using it to refer to eating meals together, or going on long walks along the piers, or sometimes, common among the military portion of the population, beating the crap out of each other in the gym. Although by those standards, most of the people in the city were dating. It was more common for people to just sleep together. How no one got pregnant until after two years of being in the city -- and then people started popping out babies like it was going out of style -- was a loss to Rodney.

Back in the underwater level, Sheppard snapped at Ford and huffily stomped ahead of them.

"Hey, McKay," Ford said quietly, "whatever you did, you need to apologize."

"What?" Rodney asked.

"John's been such a bitch to everyone lately. Just say you're sorry."

Rodney glanced at the taut line of Sheppard's shoulders. "I didn't-- hang on, did you just call him a bitch?"

Ford shrugged. "My cousin Liam's gay. I'm hip. I know how to talk to white people."

"Aren't you from, like, Iowa or something?" Rodney asked.

Glaring menacingly and hefting his gun on one shoulder -- which might've been frightening if Rodney didn't know Ford slept with his bathroom light on every night and still had nightmares about the Gozer the Gozerian -- Ford retorted, "Hey, I'm ghetto, motherfucker. I'll pop a cap in your ass."

"There's Wilco and Bright Eyes on your iPod," Rodney pointed out. "How are you in the army again?"

"Johnny has show tunes on his," Ford said, loud enough for Sheppard to turn around and scowl. "Show tunes and songs by old dead guys. I don't think he listens to anything made after 1985."

"That reminds me," Sheppard said, waiting for them to catch up, "Bates still has my Music Man cd. And I wouldn't laugh if I were you, McKay. Just how many mp3s of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest do you need?"

"Rob Halford's gay," Rodney said.

Sheppard snorted. "No way."

The doors to the labs were all open down here, but they looked empty and, strangely enough, clean. Rodney and Sheppard poked their heads inside long enough to determine nothing was salvageable, while Ford stood in the hallway, looking grim. Sheppard didn't say a word while they did this, and he barely looked at Rodney as Rodney talked about how creepy this floor was and how they were all probably going to die. Something about the way the empty labs looked like they were waiting for someone to come back freaked Rodney out.

"You've been tense lately," Rodney said finally to Sheppard.

"Nice of you to notice," Sheppard sneered.

Rodney demanded, "What's the matter with you? Can't get laid?" Not wanting Sheppard to know he'd been eavesdropping on him and Parrish, he added quickly: "No time to jerk off?"

"What?" Sheppard asked, eyes widening.

"Uh," Ford said, "I'm gonna let you two talk this out. I'll be over... there... somewhere."

Rodney said, "I don't know about you, but I have to jerk off every day, or else I can't concentrate at all."

Sheppard's face reddened.

"Don't get me wrong, I prefer actual sex over my hand, but it happens-- well, not as often as you'd expect, what with my intelligence and charm. Besides, sometimes it's more satisfactory to just do it quick in the bathroom before a meeting."

Sheppard's face turned even redder, and he kept darting glances at Rodney. "You jerk off in the bathroom before meetings?"

Rodney nodded, relieved Sheppard had apparently decided to stop being angry with him. "Yeah, sometimes. The bathroom over by the west staircase is great."

"The one-- the one with the big bay windows?" Sheppard's steps slowed down considerably. Then he stiffened and asked, "Why the fuck are you telling me this?"

"What?" Rodney asked. "Isn't this what guys talk about? We're bonding like men here."

"We're not fifteen anymore, God," Sheppard said.

"Anyway," Rodney said, mouth moving before he could stop it, "I know you're, you know, not opposed to hearing about jerking off methods or anything."

"Excuse me?" Sheppard asked.

"I'm just saying--"

"Ford," Sheppard shouted, "get back here."

"What's wrong?" Ford asked, jogging up to them. He put his P-90 up onto one shoulder, looking around anxiously.

"I need you to shoot me."

Ford looked at Rodney curiously.

"What?" Rodney asked the both of them.

They walked in silence for a little longer, and abruptly Sheppard snidely said to Rodney, "So how's Dr Dumais?"

"And that's my cue to leave," Ford said, disappearing down the hall in the direction they came from.

"How the hell should I know how she is?" Rodney asked.

"You shouldn't get involved with people you work with every day," Sheppard said. "What if you broke up and things got weird?"

"Like you're one to talk," Rodney sneered as they turned the corner. "I heard you with--"

He broke off. In the middle of the hall stood a scaly creature around two feet tall, with a long, straight tail and many, many rows of sharp teeth.

"Just to make sure," Rodney said to Sheppard, "you see the giant lizard too, right?"

"I think it's a dinosaur," Sheppard said slowly.

"Oh, well, in that case--"

Sheppard grabbed his shoulder. "Run now, talk later."

They took off for the transporter, Sheppard muttering, "Run away, run away, run away," under his breath the entire time. Behind them, the dinosaur shrieked. Blank, white panic filled Rodney's mind, drowning out any other conscious thought.

"What's going on?" Ford called as they reached him.

"Dinosaur-- type-- thing," Rodney gasped, pressing a hand against the stitch in his side. "Shoot it!"

"Holy shit!" Ford yelled, raising his gun. He let out what had to be an entire clip into the thing, while Sheppard and Rodney threw themselves around the corner. Rodney peeked out to watch the creature stumble, take a few more steps towards them, and collapse to the floor in a bloody mess.

The three of them stood over its still body.

"Huh," Sheppard said. "I can tell you, I never expected to move to a different galaxy and see dinosaurs."

"Bates told me his team once had to fight a T-rex," Ford said. He poked the creature's head with the tip of his P-90. "I guess I should apologize for not believing him."

"Why is everything in this galaxy trying to kill us?" Rodney asked.

Ford poked it again. "You ever get the feeling the Ancients were kinda fucked up?"

Much like when Bates had stepped through the gate yelling they'd had to use their C-4 on "an honest-to-God T-rex," no one believed Rodney, Sheppard, and Ford about their prehistoric foe until Sumner himself went down to check it out. "What the hell's going on here?" he asked, looking at Sheppard and Rodney like he expected them to have an answer -- or to be the ones to blame. The delighted zoologists loaded the bloody carcass onto a spare infirmary stretcher and carted it off to their labs.

"It's nice to see somebody getting something out of this," Rodney grumbled, watching them practically skip off.

Sheppard stood staring in the direction the dinosaur had come from, hands on his hips. "We should investigate."

"No," Sumner said from behind them. Both of them turned towards him. "As of now, this area's quarantined. Military personnel only. Lieutenant Ford," he called, without looking away from Rodney and Sheppard, "assemble a team to go through this corridor and destroy anything that looks even remotely like it could be used in an experiment."

"Sir, yes, sir," Ford said.

"You can't do this!" Rodney protested. "You could be destroying extremely valuable scientific data."

"Ask me if I care," Sumner said.

And that was the end of that. Later, when Rodney asked, Ford told him they'd taken everything and buried it in the earth of an uninhabited planet. (Sheppard was aghast.) A few days after that, Sheppard dragged Rodney off to one of the huge balconies.

"Remember that dinosaur?" Sheppard asked.

"No," Rodney said flatly.

"Word on the street is it was wearing dogtags," Sheppard said.

"But its arms were so tiny," Rodney said. "How did it put the tags on?"

Sheppard just looked at him.

Rodney cleared his throat. "So the dinosaur had been a human before. Right. Who was it?"

"Someone named Kate Heightmeyer. Parrish said she was the company shrink. You know her?"

"I knew of her," Rodney admitted, remembering seeing her in the mess, "but I didn't know her personally."

Rodney had never spoken to Heightmeyer -- he didn't see any reason to go to a shrink at this point, although he was sorely tempted after nearly being killed in the hurricane -- but he had concocted several scenarios in his head where he'd asked her out and she responded with, "Why yes, Dr McKay, I've been waiting for you to ask me." In his mind, they'd skipped straight from there to the sex. Kate Heightmeyer was one of those doctors who went into psychology to find out what was wrong with herself. Her mother abandoned her family when Kate was just a kid, and her older brother killed himself after the Vietnam War. On Earth, she'd been a perfect candidate for the Atlantis project for one reason: no one really knew what to do with her. She was tough in a crisis, she wasn't surprised by anything, but too many of her patients had a habit committing suicide. When she told her department head at USUHS she wanted him to recommend her for a secret project that would take her very far away, he wrote her a glowing review. The SGC never even saw it coming.

"Sumner and Weir are saying the person must've found some Ancient technology that turned her into a velociraptor," Sheppard said.

Rodney asked, "Velociraptor? Like from 'Jurassic Park'? That's ridiculous. Even if the Ancients turned people into animals -- which we have no evidence of -- why would they turn them into dinosaurs from Earth?"

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking," Sheppard said. He licked his lips, looking thoughtful. "Do you think we have any palaeontologists in the city?"

"God, I hope not," Rodney said. "I can barely stand the archaeologists."

They actually had one palaeontologist in the city. Well, Corrigan wasn't exactly a palaeontologist, just a cultural anthropologist with a minor in geophysics and a dinosaur obsession, but he was as close as they got. "Looks like a velociraptor to me," Corrigan said after convincing one of the zoologists to let him check out the carcass. "This is amazing. Who figured it out?"

"Dr Weir," Sheppard replied.

"Huh," Rodney said, "that's-- huh. Seriously?"

"I think she has some weird hobbies," Sheppard said. "Uh, no offense, Corrigan."

Word spread like wildfire. The official explanation was Heightmeyer must've accidentally gotten into something in a lab that turned her into that creature. The whole thing left Rodney flabbergasted. Nothing about this made any sense at all.

"Why make something that could turn people into dinosaurs?" he asked Carson, pacing the infirmary. "How'd the virus still work after a thousand years? What was Heightmeyer doing down there?"

"Ah," Carson said, "everyone who knows the answer to those questions is long dead."

*

Whatever problem Sheppard had with Rodney and Dumais, they never got a chance to deal with it. Rodney wanted to think he wasn't acting any different since he'd overheard Sheppard and Parrish, but now it was Sheppard who was behaving strangely. Not the same weird as a few weeks before; this was quieter and more subtle, almost like Sheppard didn't want Rodney to think anything was going on. But Rodney wasn't an idiot, and he could read Sheppard's funny expressions -- or lack thereof -- like the back of his hand. Maybe, he figured, Sheppard just didn't like Dumais. Maybe he thought she was too cold and robotic, or she was too young, or she wasn't good-looking enough, or something. Now, when Sheppard stopped by the labs and Dumais was there, she became uncharacteristically flustered and wouldn't look Sheppard in the eye, when before they seemed to get along fine.

The dinosaur situation was a good distraction, though. Nothing said teamwork better than ancient (or was it Ancient?) creatures possibly stalking the lower levels of the city. Their team expanded with the addition of two more soldiers -- Sergeants Stackhouse and Smith -- thanks to Sumner and his gift for turning any situation into a military one. Not that Rodney wasn't horribly, embarrassingly grateful for the firepower.

About two weeks after the dinosaur attack, Rodney headed downstairs to see if Sheppard would help him activate a device found earlier that day, because his gene didn't seem to do anything to it. But Sheppard was nowhere to be found. He had to make small talk with Parrish (who he hated just on principle, and who was totally stoned out of his mind), and predictably, Brown kept glancing at him and giggling behind her hands. Rodney didn't like the botany labs very much; they made him nervous, what with their alien plants and glass walls and extremely humid temperatures. It was an allergy attack waiting to happen.

He eventually made an excuse and left, but he came back about half an hour later. When he was about to enter, he heard Parrish say: "Your scary boyfriend came down here earlier."

"I told you, he's not my boyfriend," Sheppard snapped.

"That's not what the rest of the city is saying," Parrish said. "Everyone thinks he slept with Dumais because you guys were fighting."

"He slept with Dumais 'cause he's an asshole," Sheppard said. "It had nothing to do with me."

Of course it had nothing to do with Sheppard, Rodney thought. Then he remembered how strange he'd felt when he found Sheppard coming onto Parrish, and how equally strange he felt sleeping with Dumais, and he connected point A to point B, and he thought, Oh hell.

Sheppard's voice came closer. "I've got to give Zelenka the--" He stopped suddenly, eyes widening when he saw Rodney. "Oh. Hey."

"Hey," Rodney managed.

Sheppard glanced back over his shoulder at the lab, then he asked Rodney, "I'm heading upstairs, want to walk with me?"

They fell into step together. "I heard a new joke," Sheppard said. "What do you call a mushroom who's the life of the party? A fungi."

"That's retarded," Rodney said. "You're so-- Are you gay?"

That wasn't what he meant to say. For one thing, he already knew Sheppard was gay. What he meant to say was, "It's not a big deal if you're, you know," and, "How does being with Dumais make me an asshole?" and even, "You could do better than Parrish," but his brain worked at lightening speed, and his mouth couldn't catch up.

"Of course, it is obvious," Rodney stated, before Sheppard could say anything. "The hair, the wristband, the Rent album on your iPod."

"My hair's completely natural," Sheppard said, reaching up to touch it protectively.

"Lies," Rodney said. "Vicious lies."

Sheppard shifted uncomfortably. "I thought you knew. About the gay thing, I mean, not the-- if you don't stop looking at my hair I'll kick your ass. Stop it."

"Does Ford know his best friend is a homo?"

The second he said it, he wished he could take it back. Sheppard flinched. "Oh, real nice, McKay. Let's be grown up about this. And I didn't have to tell Ford anything; he figured it out on his own."

Rodney sneered, "Well, how very modern and open-minded of him. Are you two going to walk off into the sunset together?"

Sheppard gave him a narrow-eyed look. "What... exactly are we fighting about here?"

"I don't know," Rodney said, and it was true; he didn't know anything when it came to Sheppard. "I'm straight," he added quickly, heart hammering in his chest.

"You-- okay," Sheppard said. "Do you want me to tell everyone there's nothing going on between us?"

"No," Rodney answered, because that didn't really bother him, although it probably should've, "just try not to be so--"

"Homosexual?" Sheppard asked, smiling thinly.

Rodney looked away. "That's not what I was going to say."

"Can I ask you a personal question?" he asked Zelenka later that night, when they were the only two left in the lab. Everyone else had already gone to bed, because they were quitters. Only Rodney and Zelenka had the stamina to stay up for days at a time, never leaving the labs.

Zelenka's face twitched. "Yes, I suppose. What is it?"

He let out a deep breath through his nose. "Hypothetically speaking, how do you know if a gay guy hits on you?"

"Who else here is gay besides you and Dr Sheppard?" Zelenka asked.

Rodney scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm not gay."

Zelenka's forehead wrinkled. "I do not understand."

"You know what, forget I said anything," Rodney said.

*

When Rodney, Sheppard, and Ford presented Carson with his new, shiny Ancient infirmary, he hugged all three of them, teary-eyed.

"You okay?" Sheppard asked slowly.

"Yeah, I'm good," Carson said, blinking rapidly. He touched the beds, the strange machines, the cupboards, all unused for a thousand years. "It's just that... sometimes I really hate this place. Don't get me wrong, I know I signed up for this, but I didn't expect to be so... alone. Sometimes I feel like I'm the alien here."

"You are, technically," Rodney said. Sheppard elbowed him in the gut.

Sheppard behaved normally on the outside, but Rodney felt like he was suffocating whenever they were in the same room together. Carson seemed to have a better grasp of what was going on with Rodney and Sheppard than Rodney did; he'd asked bluntly, "Are you two having problems?" after Rodney spent a few evenings in a row in the makeshift infirmary office, and when Rodney said he and Sheppard never have been and never would be a couple, Carson made him tea (Manarian purple tea leaves) and said they'd come to a solution soon enough. The dilemma with that was: Rodney didn't know what sort of a solution there could be, because he couldn't figure out the problem. It was the problem that was eluding him. Sheppard was his closest friend; Sheppard understood him like no one else; Sheppard was a constant presence in the back of Rodney's mind, always, like a bad song he couldn't stop thinking about. When he found something new, he thought, Sheppard would like this. When he walked through the halls, he thought, Sheppard made these floors light up. But he didn't know what that said about him, and he definitely didn't know what it said of their relationship.

It was starting to get to him. One slow evening he was sitting on the balcony off the control room, watching the sun disappear into the horizon, and Grodin plunked down beside him.

Grodin bumped his shoulder. "Hey. Fag?"

Rodney jumped. "You motherfucker!" he hissed.

"Whoa, I just want a smoke," Grodin said, putting his hands up. Rodney's anger deflated, but his face felt hot. "I heard you have some."

"Go to hell," Rodney said, getting up and storming away.

If Rodney was the kind of guy who could distance himself from a situation, he would've realized something important was happening here. But he wasn't, and the moment passed him by unnoticed.

Ever since their horribly awkward conversation about Sheppard's homosexuality, Rodney'd been spending more time either alone or with Carson. In the last few weeks, he'd learned: Carson missed his mum "terribly," as he'd put it, Sumner was still harassing Carson to find a way to make the ATA gene work in the entire population, and Carson couldn't stand watching people die due to alien drugs, Ancient experiments gone wrong, and equipment malfunctions. In other words, while Rodney'd been learning to love Atlantis, Carson had been learning to simply tolerate it.

They all should've seen Carson's breakdown coming -- Rodney especially; there weren't many people he called his friends in those days, but Carson was one of them. Of course, Rodney didn't understand people very well. Years later, he'd ask Sheppard, "Am I still as oblivious as I was when we first met?" and Sheppard would reply, "No, but Simpson switched everyone's coffee to decaf last week, and you forgot my birthday again." Carson's emotional state was just one of those things that failed to register on Rodney's radar, like the names of ninety-nine point nine percent of the Marines, or Miko's stupid, ultimately embarrassing crush that ended in tears and weeks of avoidance. It took three years before Rodney stopped reminding the kitchen staff weekly of his allergies.

"What do you remember about our first year here?" Rodney asked John once. Sheppard went really still and quiet beside him, pretending to be asleep, but the next day a torn piece of paper found its way to Rodney's lab bench:

1) The floors and walls lighting up when I walked.
2) Being shot!!!!
3) Getting caught selling the you-know-what to you-know-who.
4) Carson freaking out.
5) You saving everyone.

"Number five," Rodney said, waving the paper in his face, "which time?"

Sheppard grinned toothily. "Every time. I remember more -- I mean, I could've written about breeding Lens culinaris with--"

"But you know I don't care, I see," Rodney said.

So maybe Rodney shouldn't've watched Carson more closely, but that didn't stop him from feeling guilty later. Even if he had his own problems at the time. That was another thing, number three -- "Getting caught selling the you-know-what to you-know-who." Zelenka called Rodney into his office one morning when he was getting ready for another day of exploration; they were on their sixth level in the main area around the control room, downwards; the control room was established as ground zero from the start. Go up, and you found offices and meeting rooms and wide, open spaces. Everything else was below. They just didn't know how much else, yet.

"What's going on?" Rodney asked, the doors whispering shut behind him.

Zelenka raised his head from his desk. His hair was sticking up more than usual. "Sheppard's been taken into custody by the soldiers. They are questioning him."

A cold knot fisted itself in Rodney's stomach. "What? About what?"

"I do not know. They say I don't have clearance."

"Clearance?" Rodney repeated. "We're on a floating city millions of kilometres away from Earth, and they say you don't have clearance for one of your own men?"

He didn't feel too surprised by that, actually. That was the typical, pea-brained ape Sumner was: he didn't care what the circumstances happened to be, if he couldn't solve it by being a big man and pushing people around, then it wasn't a real problem. And it was just like Zelenka not to fight it.

Rodney found Ford slinking around the only authorized pier, tossing bread into the water and watching as the possibly man-eating fish gobbled it up.

"I need to see Sheppard," Rodney insisted, deciding to save the "stop wasting our food, you ignoramus," speech for day when he didn't need a favour.

Ford looked guilty. "No can do, man. I've got my orders. Besides, I don't think you want to be mixed up with the doctor -- you just don't seem the type for this, okay?"

Rodney felt his face grow hot. There was only one thing Sheppard could've done to get the military this upset with him. God, Sheppard was his own worst enemy. "You don't know," he started, stumbling over his own words. "I don't-- I might, Lieutenant, for all you know."

Ford's eyebrows shot up. "Yeah, well, I guess you did go to college, huh? But I still can't take you to him."

But in the end, he did, because Ford was a good kid who liked Sheppard a little more than he probably should. Sheppard had that effect on people. It didn't hurt that Rodney promised Ford he owed him one. "I can bend time and space," he said, "I'm the guy you want on your side."

When the brig doors slid open, Sheppard jumped to his feet. "McKay!" He didn't look too worse for wear, but he sounded relieved. "They letting me out of here?"

Rodney touched Sheppard's arm. "Jesus fuck, Sheppard," he said, unbelievably angry. "Fucking Christ. You're -- and I really hate to use this expression, so it goes to show how angry I am -- up shit creek without a paddle."

"Yeah," Sheppard replied grimly. "Yeah, I know."

"I can't believe you did something this moronic," Rodney hissed.

"What can I say, old habits die hard," Sheppard snapped.

"You do this a lot?" Rodney asked.

Sheppard had the grace to look embarrassed. "I guess. It's a good way to supplement your income."

"Oh my God," Rodney shouted, "you wanted money for it? I just thought you came onto him!"

Sheppard's mouth fell open. "What?" he gasped. "Who?"

"The Marine you hit on!" Rodney replied, waving his arms.

"Rodney," Sheppard said, eyes wide, "I'm in here for selling the Marines drugs. Alien drugs I cooked up in my lab and traded for chocolate and trips to Atlantica."

"Oh," Rodney said, strangely relieved. Then: "Wait, you've been using millennia-old Ancient technology to make drugs? Are you high? No, you know what, don't answer that. Are you insane?"

Sheppard crossed his arms over his chest. "Yeah, it's the after-effects of the alien acid I'm tripping on."

Rodney took a step backwards. "Really?"

"No! I've been-- it just relaxes you, okay? That's all."

"Okay, okay," Rodney said. "I'll take care of everything, okay? I won't let them abandon you on some planet or make you a slave or whatever it is they're going to do."

Sheppard blanched, but he nodded silently.

It hit Rodney that this was a lot worse than Sheppard being a slut. He didn't know what Sumner's policy on recreational drug use was, but considering he hadn't seen the colonel in bellbottoms recently, and not to mention, oh, everything about the way the man behaved, he doubted Sumner was cool with it. Sumner ran Atlantis with an iron fist; Elizabeth and Zelenka constantly complained about him when they didn't think anyone was listening in, but short of death, there wasn't a lot they could do about him. Although by the next summer, Sumner would be killed by a group of farmers after trying to forcibly take their ZPM. Elizabeth would assign Bates to take command, and he'd run things surprisingly well -- and that included turning a blind eye to some of what his soldiers and civilians did in their spare time.

At the age of forty-two, Bates was injured on a routine mission on the planet Athos, which held a painfully primitive people that wore a lot of animal skins. The Atlantians were there to mediate a trade agreement between the Athosians and the Genii, which was, in Rodney's opinion, like telling a cat and a dog to play nicely.

Halfway through the meeting, the leader of the Athosians said, "You are just wasting our time. You ask for more than we are willing to part with."

"Perhaps we can persuade you another way," said the Genii representative, a short, twitchy man named Ladon Radim.

When the guns came out, Bates struggled to keep control of the situation. The Genii escaped, and no one was killed -- but Bates was shot in the shoulder, taking a bullet intended for the Athosian leader.

"Guess the Amish have learned to fight back," Lieutenant Yamato muttered. Bates bit his lip as Yamato tightly pressed his hand against the wound, trying to stop the blood flow.

The Athosian leader -- a beautiful woman named Teyla Emmagan -- nudged Yamato out of the way. She ripped the hem of her long coat into shreds in an efficient way Bates had only seen on the field and began wrapping his shoulder. "You were very brave," she told him quietly.

"Just doing my job, ma'am," he said.

Five months later, they were married. Normally, when people married aliens, they did one of two things: the couple moved to a different world, which actually helped Atlantis, because it established a network; or the alien spouse moved to Atlantis and took up a job similar to whatever they'd been doing before, except, of course, things like farming. (That was slightly problematic in some cases, because from time to time, people married alien prostitutes and concubines, who often didn't understand why there weren't any ladies of the night lurking through Atlantis's halls.) Possibly due to Bates's job as military commander, Teyla chose to take up residence on Atlantis, although everyone knew not to enter the gym when the boss and his wife were both in there.

It was Bates who Rodney appealed to when Sheppard wound up in the brig.

"You have to let Sheppard go," Rodney said, walking straight into Bates's office without bothering to ask permission.

Bates didn't get up from his desk. He looked at Rodney like Rodney was a piece of dog shit stuck on the bottom of his shoe. "I don't have to do anything, Doctor. And you know just as well as I do that Dr Sheppard's being held for a valid reason. We can't give the impression it's okay to deal drugs out of labs."

"Okay, good point," Rodney said, "but you still have to let him go. He's very important. To the science team, I mean."

"Maybe we can make a deal." Bates leaned forward in his chair. "I heard you have cigarettes."

Half an hour later, Sergeant Markham and Lieutenant Miller were dismissed, and Rodney was left alone with a terrified and suspicious Sheppard.

"You're free to go," Rodney said, waving in the general direction of the door.

Sheppard's face tightened. "Just like that? What're they going to do with me?"

"You're off Ford's team," Rodney said frankly. Sheppard winced, but nodded. "For the next three months, you have to be with either me or Zelenka at all times, except when you sleep, when you shower, that kind of thing. I have to report back to Bates exactly what you've been doing."

"Great," Sheppard sighed. "Like I didn't have enough privacy already."

"So I think you should thank me now, for keeping you from becoming Atlantis's first indentured servant. They were probably going to give you to Carson to experiment on. And I think--" He took a deep breath. Sheppard's face had gone horribly blank. "I think we should be done being weird. Because these last few weeks have completely sucked."

"So I have to say friends with you because you helped me?" Sheppard asked, voice pitched low.

"No," Rodney said, "because I've spent the last hour running around for a botanist drug dealer who's too lazy to take precautions not to get caught."

It was the best way Rodney could think of to tell Sheppard he cared, but for a long moment, he thought it flew right over Sheppard's head. But then Sheppard's expression softened. "You really know the right things to say to a guy, McKay."

*

Much to Sheppard's chagrin, Rodney turned him into his lab assistant. He cleared off a bench in the back of the lab and dumped on it a few crates with Ancient devices no one could decipher. "So what am I doing, exactly?" Sheppard asked. He picked up one -- a weird metal tube with a pointed end -- and the control panel on the side lit up.

"Keep doing that," Rodney said. "Just don't get anyone killed."

"I'll try not to set off any nuclear bombs," Sheppard said.

Rodney watched Sheppard out of the corner of his eye all day. For all his sighing and pouting, Sheppard seemed to be having a good time with the equipment. He was diligently typing his observations into his laptop, a little bit of tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration.

Zelenka appeared at Rodney's elbow. "I need to talk to you," he said quietly.

"In case you can't tell, I'm a little busy right now," Rodney grunted, looking back at his work. "Can't it wait?"

Zelenka gave him a dark look. "No, it cannot. I spent this morning being reminded by Colonel Sumner of the promise I made to 'take care of' the 'Dr Sheppard problem.' Imagine how stupid I must've felt when I had no idea what he was talking about."

Rodney sighed. "If it helps, you can tell Sumner it was all me. Bates must've told him--"

"I do not care what was told to whom," Zelenka snapped. "Of course I will make sure Sheppard does not get punished by Sumner's people for something so ridiculous. What I care about is you going over my head. And it is not just once or twice; it's constant."

Zelenka's anger wasn't entirely without cause. Earlier that week, Rodney had been approached by Vogel and Simpson after hours.

"We need your help," Simpson said. She handed him her data pad, which had contained a page of notes and equations. Rodney read over them quickly, then asked:

"Shouldn't you be showing this to Zelenka? It's his job, after all."

Simpson and Vogel exchanged glances. "We'd rather you looked at it," Simpson said.

"Zelenka's smart," Vogel added, "but you're smarter."

"Well, yes," Rodney said, inexplicably touched. He could hardly turn them down after that.

*

For two months, Sheppard and Rodney worked side-by-side in the main physics lab. Sheppard picked up on things surprisingly quickly for someone who worked exclusively with plants; he was amazingly good at math, which Rodney didn't expect at all, and pretty soon nearly everyone was asking him to double-check their formulas. Even Kavanagh, who had at first acted like Sheppard being Rodney's assistant was a great crime against humanity. "Why does McKay's boyfriend get his own bench while I have to share with Simpson?" he whined. Zelenka just seemed pleased Sheppard was actually working. Rodney was pretty certain no one knew the true reason Sheppard was there, rather than in his greenhouse, and he could only imagine what they thought, but he shook off their questions with a, "He's more use to us here, sniffing out what still works and what doesn't, than sitting in the botany lab knitting a hemp sweater, or whatever it is they do there."

"Hey, Rodney?" Sheppard would ask seriously, leaning over Rodney's work station. "What did the thermometer say to the graduated cylinder? 'You may have graduated, but I've got many degrees.'"

"I should've left you in the brig," Rodney would mutter.

For two months, they avoided any serious injuries or life-threatening situations. There were no more run-ins with dinosaurs, no one went mysteriously missing, and Atlantis didn't try to kill them even once. Things were quiet, but nice. Rodney waited for the other shoe to drop.

There were two German doctors who Rodney never once heard speak English; one was tall and blonde and had a constant pinched look about her, and the other was short and squat with big, round glasses. Sheppard named them Fräulein Creme and Fräulein Kaffee, respectively, because of their colouring, and because that was pretty much the only German Sheppard remembered outside of "Sprechen sie Englisch" and "Dan shwince ist soo cline" -- the latter of which Rodney later found out meant, "Your dick is very small," and there was probably a story behind that he didn't want to know. Rodney forgot the two scientists' names almost as soon as he learned them, so when he needed them, he'd just say, "Someone get me Coffee and Cream." They were almost always together; Sheppard called their corner of the lab the "Kaffeehaus." (Sheppard mistakenly thought he was pretty funny.) Despite her name, Kaffee was anything but robust; even through the German, Rodney could recognize stuttering, and she tended to turn pink when ever she saw Sheppard. Once, thinking she couldn't understand, Kavanagh called her a Nazi, and she burst into tears. Fräulein Creme, on the other hand, was someone who Rodney wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. She and Zelenka had big, screaming matches in German (or Czech, or both; Rodney was pretty shitty at languages), while the rest of the physicists watched them wave arms and pace and get each other's faces.

"Neser me!" Zelenka would yell.

"Du scheißt' mich an!" Creme would shout back.

"Krava," Zelenka would growl, storming out of his office, and Creme would hiss behind him, "Oberarsch."

"I bet this is what the UN is like," said Sheppard the first time he witnessed it.

"It's like almost like watching Animal Planet, isn't it?" Rodney said. "Although somebody should warn Zelenka she probably kills the male after mating."

So it wasn't Rodney's fault that when he walked in on Zelenka kissing Dr Weir, his first words were, "Jesus Christ, I think I'm blind." They'd all been misled. It looked like what was between Zelenka and Creme was, indeed, seething hatred, and not sexual tension.

"Dr McKay--" Weir started.

"In the labs, Zelenka?" Rodney demanded. "That's like begging to be caught. Is this a cry for help? Is that what this is?"

"Dr McKay," Weir repeated, this time in a completely different tone.

"Elizabeth," Zelenka said quietly, "I will handle this. I will see you later for dinner."

Dr Weir nodded at Zelenka, smoothed down the front of her red shirt, and with one final narrowed look in Rodney's direction, left.

"Oh," Rodney said, "now that's just wrong. She's at least a foot taller than you."

Zelenka's face reddened, but he raised his chin. "I would not be so quick to judge, if I were you. Everyone knows--"

"I didn't take you for a man who listened to gossip," Rodney sneered. "Although it's not surprising, considering--"

"--Everyone knows," Zelenka shouted, "about you and a certain botanist." He calmed down, and added in a steady voice, "I cannot date people who work for me. Neither can Elizabeth. Together we have found-- you know what it's like, surely, to have limited options but still find someone to love. It is extraordinary."

"For God's sake," Rodney said, "I'm not gay. I can't believe I have to keep reminding people that."

"Of course you are not," Zelenka said, face softening with understanding, "you just like to have the sex with the men, is all."

"You know, this never happened to me in the Milky Way."

Zelenka patted his shoulder. "You should be more discreet, perhaps, if it bothers you."

It seemed everyone in the city was hooking up. Zelenka and Weir. Ford and his many, many lady friends. Rodney was pretty sure Grodin was seeing Parrish -- he kept finding Grodin parading around the botany lab in progressively tighter t-shirts -- and one day he went down to the greenhouse and saw Kavanagh giving Katie Brown a bouquet of pink flowers he'd picked on Atlantica. Dumais started dating one of the engineers from the control room -- a quiet, thoughtful man not unlike herself. On what would've been Valentine's Day, Biro, Simpson, Miko, and a few of the female soldiers formed a support group for bitter single ladies (and Rodney only knew what day it was because Simpson attempted to remind Rodney to do something special for Sheppard, and like everyone else in this god forsaken city, she didn't believe him when he said they weren't dating). If Rodney was the kind of person interested in psychology, he might've said everyone's sudden pairing up was the result of people settling down and turning Atlantis into their home, rather than waiting for the day they'd go back to Earth.

The day Rodney would kiss Sheppard for the first time started out almost like any other. They were set to explore one of the floors in a nearby tower, but Sergeant Smith fell ill with what was probably the alien space flu ("Or, you know, a cold," Sheppard said, rolling his eyes at Rodney), and no one could find Carson anywhere. This wasn't unusual; Carson had a tendency to disappear for hours at a time, but no one ever considered it a big deal because it was never during an emergency. Rodney always figured he was off somewhere crying over his mum or his sheep or something.

Since he and Sheppard made up, Rodney had gone back to spending little time with Carson. They were friends, sure, but something about the thought of Carson, Sheppard, and him all sitting around shooting the breeze made Rodney uneasy. They never hung out much with Ford, either. Sheppard was his friend, and he didn't really want to expand their tiny circle from two to three (and especially not four). Ford seemed to pick this up instinctively -- probably in the same manner in which he knew about Sheppard's sexuality before Rodney did -- and Mr Popular had his own army buddies anyway, some of whom weren't entirely comfortable around Sheppard. That's not to say they ever messed with him, but clearly the gay thing wasn't cool with them, no matter how often Ford said Sheppard was a good guy. As for Rodney... well, he didn't make a habit of hanging out with soldiers barely out of high school anyway.

"It must be rough to be gay and around the US military all the time," Rodney said once.

Sheppard cocked a brow. "Trust me, there are plenty of gay guys in the army. Plenty in the SGC, even."

"For real?" Rodney's mind flashed to everyone he'd ever met at the SGC.

"Oh yeah, It was like cruising without leaving the house," Sheppard drawled, leaning back in his chair smugly. He glanced around the mess, then lowered his voice. "This guy before we left for Atlantis, Cameron--"

"You seriously dated a guy named Cameron?"

"It wasn't so much dated as it was a sex-on-the-base thing," Sheppard said. "He was-- He kept calling me Jack in bed, and sometimes Daniel. It was pretty weird. Oh, and one time he called me something that sounded like 'talc'? I don't know."

"Teal'c?" Rodney asked, horrified.

Sheppard brightened. "Yeah, that sounds right."

Rodney stared. "How have you never been the recipient of a hate crime?"

Minus the missing member of their team, Rodney, Sheppard, Ford, and Stackhouse marched through their designated sector. Weeks without running for their lives made them less cautious than they should've been; Sheppard and Rodney argued over whether or not the lights in this area were dimmer than usual, while Ford and Stackhouse lingered far behind, discussing baseball.

"Hey," Sheppard said, slowing down, "some of these labs look used. Like, recently used."

Rodney snorted. "Don't be stupid, why would someone be--?"

That was when they stumbled into a lab -- and into Carson. He was leaning over an overstocked bench, peering into a microscope. The lab was filled with used equipment, diagrams on the walls, and shelf after shelf of chemicals and medical supplies.

"Carson?" Rodney asked incredulously. "What's going on here?"

"Oh my," Carson said, sounding sheepish. "I was really hoping to get through this without using physical violence."

Suddenly Carson had a gun in his hand, and he was slamming a button that was lowering the doors. Outside, Rodney heard Ford call, "McKay? John?"

"This is bad," Sheppard said slowly, raising his hands.

"No, this is fantastic," Rodney hissed, raising his as well. "Of course it's bad!"

"Where'd you get that gun?" Sheppard asked Carson, who shrugged and said, "Oh, you know, Colonel Sumner thought everyone should have a means of defending themselves."

"I didn't get a gun. Did you get a gun?" Rodney asked Sheppard. Sheppard shook his head. "That bastard."

"What exactly's going on here?" Sheppard asked, sounding awfully demanding for someone completely defenseless.

Either Carson was going to kill them brutally, or he had the common sense of a brick, because he explained his plan like a character in a bad movie. "I've been working on a retrovirus to turn humans into dinosaurs," Carson replied, gesturing behind him to a series of silver cylinders Rodney'd seen before -- in one of the labs on the floor where they'd found Heightmeyer. "I'm going to release the retrovirus as a gas through the ventilation system. Within a matter of hours, everyone in Atlantis will be ripping each other to shreds, while I'll be safely on Atlantica with a gatejumper."

"Have you lost your mind?" Rodney asked. Before Atlantis, he'd've argued it wasn't possible to create such a retrovirus, but. Besides, if anyone knew how to screw up the human genome, it was Carson. "Do you hear yourself when you speak? Why would you do that?"

"I've been under a lot of pressure," Carson snapped.

They were completely, utterly fucked, but Rodney couldn't help himself: "I can't believe you turned Dr Heightmeyer into a dinosaur," he said, appalled.

"I hated talking about my feelings with that-- that scarlet woman," Carson said passionately. "She made me talk about my mum! She didn't understand it just made me miss my mum more. I had to put an end to it."

"Why didn't you just stop seeing her?" Sheppard asked.

Carson stared at him blankly for a long moment. "Oh," he said finally, "I suppose I could've done that... Frankly, turning her into a dinosaur was the first thing that popped into my head."

"Yeah, that's weird," Rodney said. "You know that's weird, right?"

Carson waved the gun. "Rodney, it's not a good idea to make fun of the man aiming a weapon at your face. Now pipe down and go sit in the corner.

"Did you know," Carson said, carefully filling a syringe with something from a small vial with one hand, still holding the pistol with the other, "that velociraptors have a five inch hooked claw on each foot? Normally, it's upright when the creature's walking or running, but when it attacks, the claw snaps down and slices apart whatever it's hunting. It's quite fascinating."

"I don't care," Rodney said. He met Sheppard's eyes and whispered, "I think he's gone crazy."

"What gave you that idea?" Sheppard hissed. "The part where he turned Heightmeyer into a dinosaur, or the part where he wants to kill everyone in the city?"

"It's really too bad. You were such a lovely couple," Carson was saying, and Sheppard whispered, barely audible, "We can't let him do this." Sheppard's eyes flickered around the room quickly, his expression determined, and he was so completely out of his league, and yet so insanely courageous, that Rodney thought, Screw it. Enough with the self-denial; if they got out of there still human, Rodney was totally going to have the big gay sex with Sheppard. He was still pondering this when Sheppard leapt to his feet and launched himself at Carson. Carson raised the gun and fired -- and for a heart-stopping moment, Rodney thought Sheppard had been hit, but Sheppard dove behind another bench, unharmed.

Before he knew what he was doing, Rodney found himself on his feet, tackling Carson from the other side. Rodney punched him in the face, and Carson stumbled back, one hand covering his now bloody nose. "Ow!" they both cried at the same time. "Dammit," Rodney added, shaking his throbbing hand.

Carson punched Rodney in the stomach, and Rodney doubled over, unable to breath, pain lighting up his abdomen. Who knew Carson was strong under that shaggy beard and lab coat? "I've been working on this for months," Carson growled.

Rodney hit back blindly. Sometime in the chaos, Carson dropped his gun, and it went clattering across the floor. Rodney started to stagger after it, but Carson grabbed his shoulder tightly -- and then he jabbed a needle in Rodney's arm.

Everything happened in a matter of seconds, but to Rodney, those seconds felt like hours. Thoughts flashed through his head faster then he could process: He hadn't won a Nobel prize yet. Hadn't gotten them back to Earth. Hadn't solved all the mysteries to life, the universe, and everything. Hadn't kissed Samantha Carter. Hadn't climbed a mountain. Hadn't told Sheppard-- told Sheppard--

Carson's thumb started to press down, and--

A shot went off. Gingerly, Carson reached up touched the bloody wound on his shoulder, eyes huge. "Oh dear," he said, and then he crumpled to the floor. Sheppard stood behind him, taking in deep, open-mouthed breaths, Carson's gun in his hands.

"Great aim," Rodney managed, cringing as he pulled the syringe out of his bicep. "One more second and I would've been a Rodneysaurus."

"You're welcome," Sheppard said weakly.

And that was when Ford and Stackhouse managed to open the door.

*

It didn't take long for Rodney to disable the canisters while Sheppard ripped up Carson's labcoat and bound his shoulder. By the time Sumner, Zelenka, and Weir made it to the tower, Carson was awake again, propped up against the wall. Both Ford and Stackhouse had their P-90s trained on him. Zelenka walked around the room slowly and looked at Carson's stolen equipment, adjusting his glasses. He looked vaguely horrified.

Sumner took one look at his bloody head doctor, his bruised civilians, and his city's obviously secret laboratory, and he bellowed, "Someone needs to tell me what's going on here. Now."

Ford started, "Sir, Dr Beckett pulled a gun--" as Sheppard began, "Godzilla--" and Rodney said, "Somehow Carson had the great idea of turning everyone into prehistoric lizard killing machines," and Stackhouse finished off with, "Sir, have you ever seen Jurassic Park?"

Dr Weir held up a hand. "One at a time, please."

"Beckett created a retrovirus to turn everyone in the city into dinosaurs," Sheppard said. He sounded apologetic. "His plan was to set it off today and flee in a jumper."

Weir looked like this explanation physically hurt her. "I see."

"Dinosaurs?" Sumner asked flatly. He glowered at Carson. "You were going to turn the entire human race into dinosaurs, but you can't figure out how to give everyone the ATA gene?"

"I'm not a miracle worker, Colonel," Carson said.

Ford and Stackhouse escorted Carson to the brig, with Weir at their heels. Sheppard gave Sumner the details on how they stopped Carson -- noticeably leaving out the part where Rodney hurt his hand -- while Rodney tried to figure out if he was having a panic attack or not. He felt okay; he felt more than okay, actually, which was strange in itself. He knew he was staring at Sheppard, but he was unable to stop it, especially once Sheppard started throwing him glances too. His stomach hurt like a motherfucker, and it was just his luck the doctor was evil, because he probably had broken ribs and broken fingers, but he was alive. Both of them were alive.

"I can't decide if what you did was really idiotic or really brave," Rodney said finally, leaving Sumner and Zelenka alone in the lab.

Sheppard smiled at him gently. "I thought you were pretty brave in there. I didn't even think you knew how to fight."

"Oh, you know," Rodney said airily, waggling the fingers on his good hand. "We almost died," he added.

Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "I guess."

He couldn't stand it anymore. Rodney fisted a hand in Sheppard's t-shirt and yanked Sheppard towards him, pressing their lips together in a fumbling, opened-mouthed kiss. When he let go, Sheppard stumbled backwards, looking shocked.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said, "that was uncalled for."

"You're-- I thought you were straight," Sheppard said. He slowly licked his lips, studying Rodney with an unreadable expression on his face.

Rodney clenched his hands into fists. "Yeah, uh, not so much."

"Well, just so we're clear," Sheppard said, and they were kissing again, one of Rodney's palms on Sheppard's back, the other on his waist, and Sheppard's hands cradling Rodney's face. They kissed slowly, with just a touch of tongue, and it was the hottest kiss of Rodney's life.

"Oh," he heard Zelenka's disgusted voice behind them say, "not gay, McKay? You lie like a dog."

Sheppard laughed against Rodney's mouth.

They were just pulling away when Sumner walked past, giving them a disapproving look. Rodney said, "Whatever, he's just jealous of me." Sheppard made a face.

"My place isn't too far," Sheppard said between kisses.

"We're the only ones down here," Rodney pointed out, running a finger along the waistline of Sheppard's slacks.

Sheppard smacked Rodney's roaming hand. "I'm not having sex with you in the hallway."

"You're such a woman," Rodney scoffed.

It should've been scary -- it was scary, and at the same time, it wasn't, because this was Sheppard. Skinny, dorky, gorgeous Sheppard with his crazy hair and his weird habits and his stupid plants, who genuinely liked Rodney; maybe even loved him, too. He stripped off Sheppard's t-shirt, pants, boxers, and Nike runners almost before the apartment door even slid closed behind them, running his hands over Sheppard's surprisingly tan skin, feeling Sheppard shivering beneath them. "Have you been sunbathing?" Rodney accused. When Sheppard opened his mouth to answer, Rodney kissed him, pushing his tongue inside. Sucking on Rodney's tongue, Sheppard started frantically tugging on Rodney's belt until Rodney pushed him away long enough to get all his clothes off, and then they fell onto the bed in a big, naked heap.

"God, Rodney," Sheppard groaned, "I've wanted-- you don't even know--"

They rolled until Rodney was on top, and Rodney rocked back on his heels and just looked. He knew Sheppard was thin with long, lean muscles (hello, vanity), but looking at him now, spread out on white sheets like his own personal, dirty fantasy, Rodney couldn't believe it took him this long to realize he wanted this. Wanted Sheppard. They could've been doing this for months. Rodney blamed society for his heterosexual preconceptions.

"What's wrong?" Sheppard asked, cupping the back of Rodney's neck with one hand.

Rodney shook his head. "It's just... You are so hot I can't even put it into words."

"I bet you say that to all the botanists," Sheppard said.

Rodney grimaced. "Are you trying to make me lose my boner?" Sheppard chuckled and pulled Rodney back down, rolling his hips. "Jesus," Rodney gasped. This was going to end really fast.

He took Sheppard's cock in his hand. He'd never held another guy's cock before, and it felt weird, but familiar. Rodney didn't like being out of his element, and if it was anyone but Sheppard he didn't think he could do this without freaking out, but he knew how to do this, sort of. He told himself, Just do to him what you like having done to you, and he pulled long, firm strokes while Sheppard writhed underneath him. That definitely made him more confident.

"Rodney." Sheppard moaned and came, Rodney's hand still moving, and it was just so hot.

Sheppard was still panting when Rodney climbed on top of him and just started rubbing off against Sheppard's hip. Sheppard flattened his big, hot palms on Rodney's back and hooked one ankle behind Rodney's knee, and Rodney pressed his forehead against Sheppard's hard shoulder and babbled nonsense and came and came and came.

"You called me John," Sheppard said lazily.

Rodney rolled off of him. "I didn't even know your first name. I thought it was Jack."

"Now you sound like my ex," Sheppard said.

"I thought you said you didn't date him," Rodney said, narrowing his eyes.

They manoeuvred until they were on their sides, face to face, legs tangled. He knew in the morning, his abdomen and hand would hurt so bad he'd want to die, but right now he didn't feel a thing. Sheppard was all glowy and rumpled, and nothing about this was bad. That was barely gay all, Rodney thought. There were still dozens of really gay things they could do later, and he was looking forward to doing them all. And later they could have sex in his apartment, too.

"Your hair looks like a rooster," Rodney murmured, running a hand through it.

"Mmm," Sheppard said, eyes drifting shut. "You gonna freak out in the morning?"

"Probably," Rodney said. "But just give me a few hours. I'll be fine after the panic attack. You have any paper bags handy?"

Sheppard opened his eyes and nodded gravely. "I'd probably freak out too if I was changing my sexual preference at this age."

Rodney frowned. "What? I was talking about the dinosaurs. That was some messed up shit back there. Besides," he added, patting Sheppard's arm, "you're gay enough for the both of us."

Sheppard scowled.

The next day, he and Sheppard were utter professionals in public. They ate together, argued, threw things at each other across the lab -- completely normal behaviour. But then Gall -- clearly influenced by Sheppard -- called across the room: "Hey, McKay, what do you call Tyrannosaurus rex when it wears a cowboy hat and boots? A Tyrannosaurus tex!"

"That's awesome," Sheppard said, laughing so hard he had to lean against the wall. He was the only one.

"I cannot believe I have sex with you," Rodney said, and then he realized what he said and snapped his mouth shut. But it was too late, the damage was done. He caught several of the physicists smiling at him. Miko sighed dejectedly. Dumais patted his shoulder when she walked past. When Sheppard told Parrish (and Grodin), a few days later over a pot of tea spiked with mushrooms, Parrish said, "The whole city knows by now. The general consensus seems to be McKay's decided to stop hiding your love from the public."

"I can't believe McKay went gay for you," Grodin said.

"I should be getting my free toaster in the mail any day now," Sheppard said.

A week later, Rodney pulled the blankets over a still-sleeping Sheppard's bare shoulders and went down to the control room. Zelenka and Dr Weir were already there. Zelenka waggled his eyebrows at Rodney knowingly -- which, under any other circumstance, would have been either hilarious or infuriating -- but Rodney refused to feel embarrassed for balling the hottest guy in Atlantis.

Weir looked grim. "I'm still having a hard time accepting Dr Beckett wanting to kill us."

"He said something about being really stressed," Rodney said. "Which reminds me, you might want to have a word with Colonel Sumner on how his anal retentiveness is driving other people to madness."

He stared down at Carson standing before the gate, which was dialing out. Carson looked sad, circles under his eyes, shoulders slumped, and a wave of melancholy washed over Rodney. Carson was sensitive, friendly, and genuinely a nice guy -- the idea of an Atlantis without him was hard to imagine. It was almost enough for Rodney to forget Carson trying to inject him with the retrovirus. After all, they'd been friends since the frozen wasteland of McMurdo, which seemed like a lifetime ago. Good friends.

"I'll get you for this, Rodney McKay," Carson shouted up at him, raising his fist.

"What, are you a cartoon villain now?" Rodney called back. "Go through the goddamn stargate already, Doctor Claw."

The Marines started pushing Carson with the backs of their P-90s. He held up his hands. "No need to get pushy, lads. I'm going, I'm going."

Carson and the Marines stepped through the gate, and that was the last Rodney would ever see of him.

"So where're they sending him?" Rodney asked as the gate shut down.

"We traded him to the Genii for twenty tons of beans," Weir said.

"Huh," Rodney said.

He stood on the balcony for a few more minutes, thinking about that. While he was standing there, tiny things all over the city were breaking. Power was being depleted. Marines were touching things they weren't supposed to. One of the scientists somewhere was fucking with something that could possibly kill them all. Carson was gone forever, but Atlantis was still going strong. When Rodney turned to leave, Zelenka stopped him.

"Hey, Rodney," Zelenka started.

"No, I don't have any cigarettes," Rodney said.

"You lie about everything," Zelenka said resentfully, and Weir lowered her head and smiled.

Sheppard's apartment was on the lower fourth floor of the central tower, with a wide balcony that overlooked an even wider ocean. Rodney hummed Dvorak's New World Symphony while he passed through the halls. Elsewhere, Zelenka and Dr Weir bumped knees under the briefing table as Sumner told them which world he wanted to visit next. Bates finished reading the last of Bridget Jones's Diary; Ford fell asleep to Atmosphere and Talib Kweli. Down in the labs, Miko and Dumais helped Fräulein Kaffee search the Ancient databases for information on telescopes, and Kavanagh quietly snatched one of his pens from Simpson's cluttered bench. (Simpson would steal it back in the morning.) Waiting for Rodney to arrive, Sheppard planted flower bulbs Brown brought him back from M2X-91 and left the pot on the moon-lit balcony. And on the Genii homeworld, Carson reconsidered the direction of his life.