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Divergence (The One Less Traveled By)

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

Rodney is in the lab — the pathetic, under-furnished, underfunded, ugly lab — staring morosely at the Ancient device on the lab table. (In truth, the lab is neither under-furnished nor underfunded, but it is still pathetic and ugly and built into an underground mountain, and Rodney loathes every inch of it.) Merlin's device sits on the table, lifeless and silent. Merlin’s device. Apparently Merlin was an Ancient. Ten years ago that would have been shocking, especially as he hadn't known what an Ancient was back then, but now it's just another little blip in the farce he likes to call his life.

The device is placid, utterly inert and therefore utterly useless, except perhaps as a particularly large, ugly paperweight. Despite promises of salvation, it is entirely failing to offer a concrete method for defeating the Ori. Fortunately Rodney has been able to successfully reproduce Colonel Carter's work to put the entire planet out of phase, but even that produces no satisfaction, because Carter had left him her notes, which, Carter being Carter, were more or less a step-by-step instruction manual. Any idiot could have done that, even Kavanaugh.

Rodney flips through Carter’s notes again, but inspiration stubbornly refuses to strike despite the flawless array of equations marching neatly across the page. This Colonel Carter is just as brilliant as his own is — as his own was . And ouch, that stings, a little burst of hurt and loss and grief for a woman he'd thought he never wanted to see again. Of course that was when she was alive and well and insufferable, and the fact that he feels differently now that she’s dead irritates him even more.

Meanwhile, the device is still mocking him in its own inorganic way, while Colonel Carter's moralistic blathering about their responsibility to the rest of the universe continues to echo in his ears. Rodney can't sleep now, has not slept in days, because now, thanks to Carter, he keeps thinking of all the millions of people out there in the galaxy who can't escape the Ori simply by phasing out of existence. This makes him feel guilty for being relatively safe and secure, which is ludicrous beyond all common sense, but the feeling sits there in his gut nonetheless, heavy and unfamiliar and unpleasant.

So he's been staring at the device in this dismal lab, wondering if it can't be used as a offensive weapon instead of a strictly defensive mechanism. It's a remarkably effective way to put the planet out of phase, but it only solves their problem. If he could put the Ori out of phase, it'd solve everyone's problem.

Which might mean he'd get his life back. He wants his life back. He likes his life. Or had liked it, up until about two weeks ago. Now his life is full of bad coffee and annoying rules and pointless interviews and an Ancient device that is as stubborn as any non-sentient machine could possibly be.

"Hey," a voice says, nasal and lazy, "Evan, are you ready yet — oh. You're not Evan."

"No," Rodney says irritably. "I am not. Who's Evan?"

"Evan Lorne?" the guy says, coming into the room and peering at Merlin's device interestedly.His gaze on Rodney is decidedly less interested. "Head of SG1? Walter said he was down here."

"Well," Rodney says with a grin that isn't much of one, "he's not. So," he waves his hand in a little shooing motion towards the door, "thanks for stopping by. Close the door on your way out."

The guy ignores him and points to the device. "What's that?"

"That," Rodney says witheringly, "is supremely classified. You could probably be shot for even being in here."

The guy does not wither. He raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms across his chest, leaning one hip against the table, looking for all the world like he is settling in. "I kind of doubt it. My clearance is pretty high."

Rodney is frustrated. He has spent a good deal of day being frustrated. He has spent a good deal of his month being frustrated, come to think of it. It does not make him warm towards his fellow man, come-hither slouch or no. He just wants to be left alone with the recalcitrant device so he can break it to his will, satanic origins be damned. "Look, soldier whoever you are, I'm sure you were hot stuff in high school, but-"

"First of all," the guy says pleasantly, "it's airman, not soldier. Except it’s Major, not airman. Second of all, I was a geek in high school and I hung out with the science club, so not so much with the hot stuff. And third of all, I—"

"Third of all, I don't care," Rodney says. "Just go. Away." He waves his hand in dismissal.

"Yeah," the guys says, still infuriatingly mellow and continuing to infringe on Rodney’s space. "But, no. I don't think so. Who are you, anyway? This whole corridor is restricted." His smile remains pleasant, but there's a glint of steel in his eyes, and his hand is hovering dangerously close to his thigh holster.

Rodney rolls his eyes, because really, obvious displays of aggression are so much testosterone posing, and after several weeks in the SGC, he’s had more than enough of that. It is why he has never wanted to work directly with the military, but has always had his underlings deal with the defense contracts. "Are you going to shoot me in the lab? Near this highly volatile Ancient device? Because it's quite possible that it will blow up the planet."

"Uh huh," the guy says. "Because Ancient devices do that a lot. Blow up, I mean. You know, spontaneously."

"If you shoot at it-"

"Ancient devices," the guys says firmly, "are self-shielded. If I shot it, the only real danger is that the bullet might ricochet and hit someone else.” He grins, wide and full of perfect teeth. “Like you."

"Consider me appropriately intimidated," Rodney snaps. He pulls his ID badge from his pocket and slams it down on the table. "There. I have clearance. Satisfied? Now please, seriously, just get out of my lab and find your friend Lonny."

"Lorne," the guy corrects absently. He's actually examining Rodney's badge, which he’s had the nerve to pick up and examine, like Rodney might be lying. Rodney is mildly insulted — or would be, if he could be bothered to care what the guy thinks. Airman Guy squints at the ID badge a little, then looks up at Rodney's face, mouth twisted, staring intently in a way that makes Rodney feel self-conscious and uncomfortable.

"Yes, yes, terrible picture, I know. It's chronic. I can never figure out how to smile so it doesn’t look horrible You should see my wedding photos. Well, no, you shouldn't, and anyway I threw them out after the divorce, so you couldn't, regardless."

The guy gives him a weird look, then tosses the badge back on the table. "You're Rodney McKay?"

"I presume," Rodney says, "that's a hypothetical question, since you just spent 30 seconds scrutinizing my ID."

"The dot com guy?"

"Ex-dot com guy." No, he is not bitter at all . "Now I'm the president's personal advisor."

"Huh," the guy says. "I heard a rumor they’d brought in some hot shot astrophysics geek to work on Merlin’s device and other Ancient tech. That’d be you, I guess.”

Rodney bristles slightly. “Hot shot astrophysics geek? I’m flattered and insulted all at the same time.”

The guy grins, and it's genuine this time, startling and warm, and holds out a hand across the table. "John Sheppard."

Rodney takes his hand out of instinct. Sheppard's grip is firm and strong, but not aggressive.

"Sheppard," Rodney muses. "Sheppard. Hey, you're the guy with the gene I’ve heard about."

Sheppard winces. "Yeah, I suppose."

"I thought you'd be in Area 51."

"With the chair?" Sheppard shrugs. "No ZPM to power it up, so there’s nothing for me to do there. They've got me out hunting for Ancient tech."

"Off-world?" Rodney's intrigued. He knows Sam has been — had been — off-world several times, but they had never talked about it before she ... before she died ... and he hasn't had time since getting here to talk to anyone else about it either.

"Yeah," Sheppard says. He rubs at the back of his neck. "It's not as exciting as you might think. There's a lot of mud, and I swear to god, I get poison ivy or the alien equivalent every other day. Plus there are all these godawful ceremonies."

"Ceremonies? For what, awards?"

Sheppard snorts. "No. Jesus, I wish. No, it's like, 'oh, honored visitor from the other side of the ring, we welcome you to our humble village, please share our moldy bread and disgusting tea so that we may pledge our lifelong friendship.' But then five minutes later they start shooting at us. Or, you know, trying to have our babies."

Rodney blinks. He can't help it. "Really?"

"Totally not as sexy as it sounds, trust me."

"Oh," Rodney sighs. "Because on Star Trek, the aliens were always hot."

"Yeah," Sheppard says. "But in real life, they're mostly just unwashed and malnourished. I dunno. I think SG1 gets all the missions with the hot babes." He shifts against the table. "So are they going to put you on a gate team? SG1 needs a scientist, now that Carter's dead."

Some kind of expression crosses Rodney's face; he can't help it, it's involuntary, but he'd have to be inhuman not to react to that, and despite the rumors, he’s not actually an android. Sheppard curses when he realizes. "Shit. You knew her. I’m sorry.”

"It’s okay," Rodney manages. "It’s just, we were, uh, married. Once, I mean. Not now. I mean, we got divorced a few years back."

"Oh," Sheppard says. He looks a little thrown. "I had no idea. I, uh, I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thanks,” Rodney says. “But you don’t need to ... I mean, it’s not my loss, really. I mean, I’m sorry she’s dead and all, but ... it’s ... it’s just weird, mostly. Honestly, I hadn't thought about her in a long time. But then I saw her on the news and I sort of remembered what it was like, in the beginning. But actually, we didn't really get along all that well. She was kind of arrogant and condescending."

Sheppard stares at him for a minute, then says slowly, "Oh. You're serious."

"Of course I'm serious!"

"Just because," Sheppard says, "it seems like you might have, uh, been a good match."

"We were," Rodney says. "For about a year. After that, not really very much. Turns out she wasn't my type."

"Not your type?" Sheppard looks at him like he's a little crazy, which, Rodney admits, he might be. "She was tall, blonde, gorgeous and brilliant. What part of that is not your type?"

"The part where she's a woman," Rodney says. "Big life-changing moment for me, anger and obscenities from her. Much angst ensued, ritual smashing of our china, etc, etc. It was very much the dramatic scene."

“I can imagine,” Sheppard says. But then his radio goes off and Rodney turns back to the device — still stubborn and inert — and Sheppard throws a “Catch you later, McKay,” over his shoulder as he leaves.

 The thing is, Sheppard’s not just that guy with the gene, he’s That Guy With The Gene, and he hates being at the SGC almost as much as Rodney does. Besides the gaggle of dazzled Ancient-tech groupies who follow him around asking him to “touch this, please,” there’s a bunch of bureaucrats with OCD who follow him around with clipboards and hand pick all his missions so he doesn’t get himself accidentally killed.

SG-1 goes on all the first contact missions; SG-10, Sheppard’s team, only goes after the planet has been vetted and cleared and certified as not-too-hazardous. This doesn’t mean that Sheppard doesn’t get occasionally shot at or involved in some bizarre fertility ritual, but mostly his missions are pretty milk-run. “Boring,” Sheppard clarifies, lying in the infirmary bed covered in pink hydrocortisone paste — he had not been exaggerating about the frequency with which he contracts alien poison ivy — “our missions are boring. Seriously, McKay, I think the only reason they let me off-world at all is because they’re afraid I’ll blow up the SGC if they try to keep me here."

“Hmmm,” Rodney says, because blowing up the SGC is a possibility he hasn’t considered, and it’s definitely something to think about, if it would get him back to his real life. Sheppard is the only thing about the SGC that makes working here tolerable; the days he is off-world are insufferably long and tedious. Rodney has never played well with others, but he still likes having people around, if only to bring him coffee and muffins. Long days spent locked alone in a dreary lab hold no appeal, even if he’s working on Ancient technology and theoretical physics so advanced that even he’s finding it a challenge to keep up.

When Sheppard’s there, hiding out in Rodney’s lab — “I am not hiding!” Sheppard insists. “It’s called  making a strategic retreat” — Rodney gets ten times more work done. Rodney does not quite understand the mechanics of this, because it’s not like Sheppard helps out; he just sits there on a stool, filling out interminable paperwork and AARs (“How I Didn’t Cause an Intergalactic Incident Today” reports, Sheppard says), making really bad jokes, and demonstrating his freakish savant ability to calculate numbers in his head.

“23.643. And still useless,” Sheppard says, leaning back in his chair and polishing his gun. Again. His love affair with his firearm is frankly a little disturbing. “What good does it do me to be able to calculate square roots in my head? I want to fly planes.” This is said in a slow, whiny drawl, petulant in a manner Rodney secretly thinks is only acceptable coming from people named McKay. However, Sheppard gets a free pass because Rodney completely understands Sheppard’s need to bitch and stamp his foot and say, “How did this get to be my life?”

Rodney thinks going off-world would be cool enough to make up for not flying planes, but to Sheppard going off-world lost any glamour the first time he came home covered in red welts. Or maybe it was the time he’d burst through the gate wearing the alien equivalent of a lei, which apparently, Sheppard had recounted, laughing about it now, though reportedly not at the time, meant that he’d married the chief’s daughter without knowing it. (Realistically, it was probably the red welts that did it.)

“So,” Sheppard says one day, poking lethargically at the wires Rodney has hooked up to Merlin’s device, “the big gay epiphany. How’d that go down?”

Rodney straightens up, the bones in his neck creaking ominously. “I already told you. Sam smashed the china, called me several very nasty names, and stormed out. About what you’d expect.”

Sheppard shrugs. “I don’t know what I’d expect.” He fiddles with the wire until Rodney slaps his hand away. “Did you know you were gay when you married her?”

“Of course not!” Rodney says indignantly. “I loved her! I thought I was straight!”

“Yeah, see,” Sheppard says, “that’s a little weird. I mean, most people figure out their sexuality in their teens. I mean, I can understand it if you were confused, but—“

“I wasn’t confused. There was no confusion. I was perfectly straight. Until I wasn’t.”

“Huh,” says Sheppard, and seems content to let the conversation drop.

 Sheppard often looks at Rodney like he can’t quite figure him out. Rodney doesn’t understand this. He is, has always been, an open book. Smarter than everyone else, maybe, but still easy to read, easy to figure. But Rodney often catches Sheppard staring at him oddly, brow creased, like he’s trying to pin something down, some facet of Rodney’s personality that he can’t quite grasp.

“What?” Rodney finally snaps one day, after catching Sheppard staring at him for the billionth time. “What is it? Do I have something stuck in my teeth?”

Sheppard cocks his head to one side; he appears to actually be looking. “No, not that I can tell.”

“Then what is with all the staring?”

Sheppard does not blush, or look remotely embarrassed, or even disconcerted. He just shrugs. “Sorry.”

“Sorry? Sorry? Don’t just say ‘sorry.’ If there is something about me that is worthy of such intense scrutiny, I think I deserve to know about it.”

“It’s nothing,” Sheppard says. “It’s just—”  and now he does look a little embarrassed — Rodney can tell, because Sheppard is rubbing the back of his neck — “everyone says you’re kind of a jerk.”

“How is this cause for staring?”

Sheppard laughs. “I don’t think you’re a jerk, McKay. I’m just trying to figure out why everyone else does.”

“Probably because I am,” Rodney says. “Seriously. I’m arrogant, condescending and self-centered.”

“Well, yeah,” Sheppard says. “But you’re not a jerk. You’re honest but not intentionally cruel. You’re at least as hard on yourself as you are on everyone else. And you let me hang out here. You even brought me chocolate in the infirmary.”

“Oh,” Rodney says uncomfortably. “Well, that’s different.”

“Yeah? How’s it different?”

“Well,” Rodney says, “I like you. In a totally platonic, non-threatening way, so don’t have a big homophobic freakout and stop coming by. You’re the only reason I have not done something drastic to this place.”

Sheppard grins and spins happily on his stool. “I’m flattered.”

“Just don’t spread it around,” Rodney says. “I don’t want people thinking I’m going soft.”

Sheppard raises his hand. “Scout’s honor.”

 Sheppard comes in to the lab one day looking harried. “Quick, hide me. Hammond’s coming.”

General Hammond does not seem to like Sheppard. Admittedly, this is difficult to be certain of, as Hammond is far too well-mannered to show obvious dislike or favor, but Sheppard seems convinced of it, and Rodney, upon close observation, has in fact noticed a particular tightness around Hammond's mouth when Sheppard is in the room. This is very perplexing, because as far as Rodney can tell, there is really nothing not to like about Sheppard. Rodney is not alone in this opinion: everyone seems to like him. Well, almost everyone. President Landry is apparently not a big fan of Sheppard's either, but that is only in theory, as the two have never actually met.

"Why would we have?" Sheppard had said, when Rodney had asked. "He's the President. I'm just a pilot. Ex-pilot."

"Not ex," Rodney had said, "just temporarily retired."

"Whatever you want to call it," Sheppard had said bitterly. "Still not flying any planes."

"What you need," Rodney had mused, "is your own spaceship." 

Sheppard had perked up at that, until he decided that even if the SGC found personal spaceships, the bureaucracy would never let him touch one. "Not until they find more people with the gene," Sheppard had sighed, morose again. "I wonder if Beckett will ever figure out how to make that therapy work."

Since Beckett has been pulled aside to work on a possible genetic defense against the Ori, successful completion of the ATA gene therapy project seems unlikely to occur soon.

Sheppard is scouring the lab. "Christ," he says bitterly, "there aren't even any filing cabinets in here."

"You wouldn't fit in a filing cabinet anyway," Rodney says patiently. When Sheppard is in a mood like this, which happens infrequently but is not unheard of, it falls to Rodney to be the voice of reason. This is a change for him, as most of the time he is the voice of panic and hysteria. "You’re skinny enough but way too tall. It's pointless to hide out in here anyway. This is the first place Hammond will look. It's the first place anyone will look."

This is true. Rodney is reasonably certain Sheppard has an office, but you would never know it, because he is always here instead. "My office is small and grey and boring," Sheppard had said one day. "It freaks me out."

Rodney suspects it is not the small and grey part that bothers Sheppard so much as the boring, or the very fact that it’s an office . Rodney's own lab may not be the most aesthetic locale, but it is rarely boring and it cannot be mistaken on even the worst day for an office.

"Shit," Sheppard says dejectedly, and collapses onto a stool. This is quite a feat, as the stools are tall and uncomfortable, give Rodney a literal pain in the ass, and at best can be sat gingerly upon. "You're right."

Rodney doesn't bother answering that, because it's sort of a general, indisputable fact of life that Rodney is right about everything. Still, Sheppard's head is now cradled in his arms, face down on the lab table, and he looks so sad and pathetic that Rodney asks, "What's wrong now?" (It’s a common misperception that Rodney has no social skills. The truth is he is can be as socially competent as the next guy; it’s just that he rarely cares enough to go to the trouble.)

"Hammond wants me to go back to PX3-578," Sheppard complains, voice muffled.

"Isn't that the one where you got poison ivy?"

Sheppard lifts his head long enough to glare at Rodney. "Ha very ha," he says. "You're a laugh a minute, McKay."

Rodney is not at all sorry. "What's wrong with PX3-578?" Yet another thing that annoys Rodney about the SGC is its stubborn insistence on using alphanumeric designations instead of names.

Sheppard groans. "Last mission, it rained the entire time we were there. For three days straight. I have never been so wet and muddy in my life. Their main source of food is insects, and they have mandatory morning meditation which requires an hour of sitting cross-legged. In the mud. After a hearty bowl of insect mush."

Rodney grimaces. "It doesn't sound appealing."

"No," Sheppard says. "It really, really doesn't. And yeah, I got poison ivy, except I think it was from the mud."

"Poison mud?"

"Not even remotely funny. It was everywhere, down my pants, in my socks, in my underwear ."

Rodney flinches, contemplating it. "Ow."

"Tell me about it. And he wants me to go back ." Sheppard looks up, and his eyes are wild. "I can't do it. I can't. Jesus. Even thinking about it is making me itch. I don't care if there are Ancient ruins there. The stuff's all crap anyway; the Ancients must have taken all the good stuff with them. We haven't found a single useful thing in months."

Rodney shifts on his stool. His left ass cheek is falling asleep. "We found Merlin's device."

"On Earth! And we didn’t even know what it was! It was in a storage closet, wasn’t it? And you don't even need the gene to use it." Sheppard scowls, which is oddly endearing. "I can't fly planes, I'm useless here, and I can't quit. Jesus fuck, my life completely sucks."

"Join the club," Rodney says, now as equally depressed as Sheppard. Neither of them can quit. Rodney's assets are all frozen, and he figures the only chance he has at ever getting any part of his life back under his control is figuring out a way to defeat the Ori, which, considering they are actually ascended Ancients and Rodney is not, seems unlikely. Sheppard's tour of duty has been extended indefinitely, the same as everyone else in the military, but Rodney thinks Sheppard's never getting out of the service anyway, not unless they find a hundred other people with an expression of the gene as strong as his, and that seems very unlikely since they have yet to find even one. Even O’Neill’s was not as strong.

The door slides open while they're both sitting there moping, and Major Lorne walks in, looking very unsurprised to find Sheppard there. "John," he says, and for a minute, Rodney wonders who he's talking to, because Sheppard is always Sheppard in his head, "General Hammond is looking for you."

"Yeah," Sheppard says, "I know." He doesn't make a move to get off his stool. "I don't suppose I could convince you to get SG1 to take the mission?"

Lorne laughs, teeth white and straight and shiny, the very image of the all-American soldier. "To the mud planet? Pass."

"Some friend you are," Sheppard mutters.

"Never claimed to have a heart of gold," Lorne shoots back cheerily. "You want I should head him off for you?"

"No," Sheppard sighs. "He'll find me eventually. If you see him first, tell him I'll head over to his office as soon as I'm done here."

Lorne looks unduly amused by this. "You're never done here. Jeez, if I didn't know you were straight, I'd be getting suspicious. No offense, Doc."

"Hmm?" Rodney looks up like he hasn't been listening. "Oh. None taken."

Lorne nods and spins on his heel. "I'm going to be getting back, then. See you later, John. Dr. McKay."

"Bye, Evan," Sheppard says morosely. After the door shuts, Sheppard drops his head down to the table with a thud. "Crud."

Literally, Rodney thinks, but he doesn't say it, because there is teasing, and there is being cruel. Instead he tries out "John," just to see how it sounds.

"John," he says, feeling it roll hesitantly off his tongue. "John."

Sheppard's head inches up off the table. He eyes Rodney dubiously from under the fringe of his hair. "Yes?"

"Nothing," Rodney says. Then he tries again, with more conviction, like he really means it. "John."

"Okay," Sheppard says, "now you're scaring me."

"Just trying it out," Rodney says. "Because I always call you Sheppard."

"You never call me anything."

"What? Of course I do."

"No you don't. We're always in here alone, and you just talk straight to me."

"Oh," Rodney says. "Huh. Really?"

Sheppard nods — with difficulty, since his head is still only an inch off the table.

"Well, you've always been Sheppard in my head," Rodney says. "But Lorne, he called you John."

"Yeah," Sheppard concedes. "We've known each other since flight school."

"Oh," Rodney says, which effectively ends the conversation from his point of view, because he has only known Sheppard a couple of months, and at any rate, Sheppard just doesn't seem to be a first-name kind of guy. They could know each other for decades — which doesn't seem so unlikely now, since they seem to have fallen into orbit around each other — and still be calling each other Sheppard and McKay. Rodney's okay with that. It's not like Rodney is his real first name anyway.

"You could call me John, though," Sheppard says off-handedly. "It doesn't actually bother me."

"It is your name, after all," Rodney says, but he's ridiculously flattered. As easy as Rodney thinks he himself is to read, Sheppard is difficult, chatty and genial but never about anything important. Rodney thinks Sheppard — John , and that will take some getting used to in his head — probably could write Rodney's biography at this point, with footnotes, but all Rodney's managed to figure out about Sheppard is that he's a pilot, he resents having the ATA gene, he likes dogs and Ferris wheels, and that, no matter how much he downplays his freakish ability to calculate numbers in his head, he's actually quite bright.

Sheppard is staring at him, eyebrows raised and expectant. Rodney gets it a second before it becomes embarrassing. "Oh, of course. Call me Rodney."

"Rodney," Sheppard says, voice lazy and sprawling. "Wow. Next thing you know, we'll be exchanging friendship bracelets."

"I hope not," Rodney says, settling back down to his work. "Because natural fibers on your skin would definitely give you a rash."

 Sometimes, Rodney is overwhelmed with wonder when he looks around his lab at the SGC. Not because it's so incredible and amazing, but because he can't believe how much he's coming to detest the place. He's doing physics beyond anything he'd ever imagined, but truthfully he doesn't care about the physics anymore. He thinks he ought to, but he's only here because he has to be, and the sense of obligation takes away any pleasure he might otherwise have found in it.

Rodney stabs viciously at his keyboard, hard enough to make Sheppard look up from his report on the mission to P2Y-M3Z. "Problems?"

"Yes," Rodney snaps. "Invent-son went public today."

"Oh." Sheppard scratches absently at the fading blotches on his left arm, shedding flecks of dried hydrocortisone paste on the table. "And that's a problem because ..."

"Because I should own them," Rodney seethes. "Because in my real life, that is what I do. I buy startups before they go public, improve them, and then make a lot of money selling them. I don't," he says angrily, waving at the pieces of Ancient technology scattered all over the lab table, "do this."

Sheppard quirks an eyebrow. "So, if you'd owned that company ..."

"I'd have made several hundred million dollars today, yes."

The money is absolutely not the point. Rodney has — or had, before the government froze all his accounts — more money than he could possibly use in his lifetime. For the last several years, in fact, he's been giving away most of what he's earned, setting up educational foundations and academic scholarships all over the world. The point is the thrill, the challenge, the rush when the deal comes together. Intellectually, Rodney knows that the work he's doing here is much more important, that he might well be instrumental in saving the world, that wishing he were buying and selling companies is petty and venal. But the fact is, he doesn't enjoy what he's doing now, hasn't particularly enjoyed theoretical physics, or applied physics for that matter, since his marriage had ended.

The only one at the SGC who seems to get this is Sheppard. (Rodney has given up trying to call him John, because it feels fake and forced and totally, totally wrong; Sheppard is just one of those people whose first name doesn't fit: John is a bland, boring, predictable name, and Sheppard is none of these things.) Sheppard never rolls his eyes when Rodney complains about being forced to save the world, because like Rodney, Sheppard's surrounded by people telling him that he should be grateful he's in such a unique position to do that very thing. It's not that Sheppard doesn't want to save the world, exactly, it's just that all things being equal — which they aren't, and they both get that — he'd rather be flying planes.

Sheppard taps his pencil eraser restlessly against the smudged, sloppy paper he's been scratching at. "Huh," he says, finally. "Well, that sucks."

"Yes," Rodney says irritably, "it does. Almost as much as it does being trapped in a small room with an Air Force Major who has unaccountably developed a very irritating pencil-tapping habit. Will you stop that?"

Sheppard glances down at his pencil. "Sorry."

"What is with the handwritten report anyway? You know how to use a laptop. I've seen you. And by the way, in case I've never mentioned it, watching you hunt and peck at the keyboard gives me hives. I'll bet anything you could find a course in touch typing somewhere in Colorado Springs."

"Did you know I have a secretary?" Sheppard says by way of an answer. "An actual person who is assigned to do things like type my reports for me?"

"Not that I care, but no."

"Yeah," Sheppard says. "Me neither." And then he sighs, as if the burden of having an administrative assistant is the absolute last straw, and they don't talk for the rest of the afternoon.