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Existence As Interesting As Possible

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Prologue

"Get on the radio," Sheppard gritted out. "Tell Teyla and Ford--"

He couldn't see McKay but he heard him tap his headset and yell, "Ford, Ford, listen, you gotta go through the gate NOW!"

Around a turn a stalagmite rose in the middle of the tunnel, glittering with crystals in the oncoming light.

"Because a dragon is chasing us and we won't be able to pick you up--no, the Major is busy not crashing into--JESUS!"

The jumper, now truly feeling like a part of him, dodged the stalagmite smoothly and took the next curve with room to spare. A display helpfully told him that just behind them the dragon was crashing right through the pillar.

McKay's face flickered in his peripheral vision. "We are going to die. Watch where you're going! Ford, stop asking stupid questions and GO!"

"It's an order, Lieutenant," Sheppard said, his voice very soft and calm. At this speed, here, letting himself get excited would be bad.

"Yes, sir," Ford's voice said in his ear, and the connection shut off.

"He never listens to me," McKay said, up and moving around again. "Oh, god, oh, god, it's gaining on us."

Sheppard ignored him. The map of the labyrinth scrolled and twisted on the screen with each turn. They were not far from the gate now, they would make it, no question.

"Didn't you hear me? It's gaining!"

"If I go any faster, we'll wipe out on the next curve," Sheppard said, his calm starting to fracture. The tunnel dipped, rose, turned, and he followed it. This was some great flying, he thought. If not for the fire-breathing monster, it would be fun.

A new readout popped up on the screen. The temperature was rising. Sheppard almost, almost missed the next turn, almost took the jumper and the both of them right into the bedrock.

"Oh, GOD--"

"Shut off the gate," Sheppard said. "We can't go back to Atlantis with this thing on our tail."

McKay didn't argue, didn't say anything--maybe he'd finally arrived at the mute horror stage of panic--but his fist slammed onto the DHD and the lit buttons went dark.

"Somewhere else!" Sheppard didn't add that they had about thirty seconds before they had to have somewhere to go. He thought, drive right into the wall or turn and die fighting? The jumper scraped against a jutting rock and he stopped thinking about their imminent fiery death. McKay made a weak, whimpering sound and started dialling. And behind them (the display showed him in live video) a red-gold glowing, growing cloud.

The gate loomed ahead, its event horizon just settling. The dragon loomed behind.

McKay's hand clutched at his shoulder when they went through.

*

1.

The puddlejumper hovered at a safe distance.

"It's not stopping," McKay said, leaning forward in his seat. Another immense tongue of flame burst from the gate. It was almost white, almost didn't look like fire anymore. "Wow, I wouldn't mind knowing how it does that."

"It's very very hot," Sheppard said, watching another portion of the mountain turn to liquid and trickle downhill. "Say, can that harm the gate?"

McKay sat back with a thump and threw him a scathing look. "Of course it can harm the gate. It can blow up the whole planet!"

"--hang on, the whole planet?"

"The only reason I'm not flat passed out right now is the fact that it'll break its own planet before it breaks ours. We should be safe. I hope."

"That is one peeved dragon. Maybe he's pissed off cause he's too big to go through the gate."

The event horizon disappeared, leaving a last great burp of white-orange fire to spend itself on the mountain.

"Oh, thank God. Put us down, I need to--" McKay gestured vaguely with his scanner.

"A dragon," Sheppard said, half to himself, as he found a nice flat spot of rock still in a solid state. The dragon had blasted an area the size of a football field in front of the gate. The dragon. "I didn't expect that."

"That's nice, you sit there and have personal revelations, I'm going to see about getting us off this rock."

They were on top of a mountain. Around them were more mountains, taller ones, mist-wrapped, white-tipped. They marched on in silent, hulking rows until they vanished into white. "What rock is this, anyway?"

McKay was poking the scanner, bent over it like a prayer book. "Uh, MR9-7H1."

"The place Bates's team checked out last month, with the seismological instability?"

"Right." The scanner beeped and McKay reached out and started dialling the gate. "We needed somewhere less vital to us than Atlantis. This is less vital."

"It's kinda pretty, though." Up here, the vegetation was nothing but some rough, yellow grass clinging to what little soil had deposited in cracks and crevasses, but Sheppard could see the dark green mass of a pine forest further down the slope.

"Right until it all falls into the ocean. The geologists said it was on the brink of an extinction level event. Shit." McKay slapped the keys with sudden ferocity. "Shit. Shit."

The DHD remained unimpressed. Up ahead, the gate stood silent and still on its bed of sluggishly moving lava. It was still glowing bright red.

"Think the gate is damaged?"

"It shouldn't be or we'd be dead. But it's too damned hot to get a good reading on potential electronic damage. It's going to keep being too hot for far too long."

"How long?"

"Uh, heat capacity of naquadah and basalt... mass, ambient temperature... three days. Two days minimum. And then I'll still be burning my fingers."

"Maybe there's some way of speeding up the whole cooling bit..." Sheppard mused.

"Yes, sure, any number of ways. Maybe you could whip up some liquid nitrogen, resourceful guy that you are. That is, if you want the last crumb of viable technology in that mess to crack like a rotten egg."

"I guess we wait, then."

They sat there for a while, silently. The gate glowed. It seemed to be late afternoon here; the sun was hanging just over the tallest peaks.

"I hate waiting," McKay said.

Sheppard stretched his arms over his head. His back creaked. He'd been tense today, very tense. Dragons, Jesus fucking Christ. "Let's go look around, shall we?" he said. He'd never tell McKay, but he hated waiting, too. McKay stared at him as if he'd suggested they try walking barefoot on the lava. "Not at that. Out there. Down there."

"Oh. Sure, fine, let's go sightseeing. All the time in the world now."

"At least there are no more dragons to wake up. The report said just some deer and mountain goats."

"With our luck, they'll be fire-breathing mountain goats," McKay said with glum conviction.

*

Two days later, Sheppard was standing on the sunny south side of the mountain, looking down at the valley below.

They'd spent two days flying around the planet, which did, in fact, mostly consist of a single ocean, much like Atlantis's planet. The mountain range stuck out of the sea like the half-submerged skeleton of a beached ship. "This is the last stable landmass," McKay had said after briefly looking at the view. "It's only a matter of time before it breaks apart."

Right now, though, the rock beneath his feet felt reassuringly firm. The air was thin but breathable, the sun not too hot. "One perk of your average uninhabited planet," McKay had said when Sheppard had announced his intention of taking a walk, "an intact ozone layer. Now's the time to get a healthy tan."

Now was also the time to explore the surface. Sheppard started to walk down the mountain.

McKay's voice came on the radio, between huffs of breath: "I have some mediocre news and some bad news." Without waiting for a reply he went on, "The mediocre news is that the gate is fine. The fire mostly singed the inside, everything vital is still there. But..."

There was a pause. Sheppard had heard the tense note in McKay's voice and thought he wouldn't like the bad news. He stopped walking. He wasn't very far down yet; he could make it back in half an hour.

The sun was, he thought, a shade more orange than the Earth's sun. Maybe he was imagining that. The sky was blinding blue, cloudless. There was a lot of it up here, serious big sky. The mountains were reminding him of the Rockies, deceptively familiar and deceptively welcoming.

"That sounds pretty good," he said, putting some encouraging cheer into his voice. On the brink of an extinction level event, he thought. One day soon all this will tumble into the ocean.

McKay did not sound particularly encouraged. "Yeah, it does, doesn't it? But I don't know why I even mentioned it because it means absolutely nothing. The DHD is FUBAR." Sheppard thought if he took off his headset, he'd still be able to hear McKay yelling from the north face, his frustration echoing from one mountain to the next. Maybe time to worry about rock slides? At the very least McKay was giving some goat out there an early heart attack.

"FUBAR, is that the technical term?"

"It's the technical term for oh god, we're going to die here." McKay's voice now had the edge of nascent hysteria. Then again, he was always quick to work himself into a state over minor things. "It's covered in lava. It's melted clean through."

"If the gate's fine, why can't we dial from the jumper?"

"Because the jumper doesn't communicate with the gate, it communicates with the gate's DHD and the gate's DHD is--"

"--FUBAR, gotcha. Anything salvageable?"

"Well, lemme think, it's all turned to glass, so no." Scathing now, but at least that took most of the panic out of him. And after a beat, the quality of his voice had changed again, now to distracted. Sheppard heard the sound of the scanner bip-bip-bipping at something. "Hm, but the gate relay crystal might be... It's actually sealed in a virtually indestructible core block and... hang on... Ah-ha, I did say 'virtually'... Cracked, but not beyond..."

Grunting and muttering; some hard banging sounds; then a gunshot.

Sheppard started to run back toward the top.

"McKay!" he yelled. "McKay? What--"

"That did it," McKay said. "What are you hollering about, I just had to remove the glass. Ah, see, here it is."

Sheppard skidded to a halt, sending a flurry of pebbles rolling down the slope behind him. "Here is what?"

Nothing but a distant, infuriating, "Hmm..."

Sheppard pulled in two deep breaths of thin air. "What did you just do?"

"Why are you still talking?" McKay asked in the voice he usually reserved for assistants and intruding military personnel (in which group Sheppard did not usually have to count himself). "I have to concentrate. Go find something to shoot at. In fact, go kill something. Looks like we'll be here for a while and I'm already getting hungry."

Sheppard turned off the radio and looked around. There were mountain goats in small family herds, stumpy-legged hairy things that ran up and down the cliffs like gravity was optional. He could kill one of them without too much fancy footwork, he figured, but then he'd have to perform some pretty acrobatic stunts to actually get his hands on the carcass. For a moment it felt like kind of a cool idea, actually.

But if he had to ask McKay to come rescue him from the bottom of a crevasse, he'd never live it down.

*

McKay was sitting in the shotgun seat, bent over something broken. A floating display of running numbers and schematics ticked above his head. McKay's hair was flat on top and standing out on the sides, giving him the look of a very haphazard clown. Every now and then he looked up at the numbers, muttered something and looked back down.

"Can you fix it?" Sheppard asked, hanging his P-90 on the rack and sitting down. The pilot seat welcomed him with its potential. It always felt like the jumper was asking him something. Where to? How high? How fast? Anything you want.

After a moment (Sheppard could see him pulling himself out of the zone), McKay said, "I can fix it."

Sheppard waited.

"I can fix it," McKay repeated, "but it's going to take a while. This is the core crystal of the DHD. If I can repair the burnt circuits, I can--probably--use the jumper's dials to connect to the gate itself."

"That sounds promising."

"Promising? It's a nightmare, it's a week's worth of nightmares, I had a nightmare last night just from anticipating this catastrophe!" He had, Sheppard recalled, been restless even in sleep, twisting and turning, muttering and sighing. Sheppard had slept very little. "Look at it!"

He looked. It seemed much like a crystal from any Ancient device, perhaps a little bigger and more complex. It had taken some abuse, though, the lattice broken in places, the silver-shiny circuits interrupted.

"On Atlantis, I could get this up and running over a coffee break. If I actually took breaks for coffee. Usually I just make someone... Anyway, the problem is that here, I have to solder each of these filaments by hand."

"Those ones?"

"No, this is a fascia of hundreds. The filaments, look..." He pointed at the display.

There were a lot of them. "Okay. There are a lot of them."

"Exactly."

"So..."

"Conservative estimate, six months."

Sheppard, who had been thinking about "a while" in terms of days, adjusted his level of dismay accordingly. Six months, that was... The Wraith could make it to Atlantis by then. Atlantis could fall and he'd know nothing.

McKay was staring at the schematic of branching, looping, intertwining strands with his mouth twisted in disgust. "Six months if I don't sleep or eat or go to the bathroom," he said with a tinge of despair. "Not that we have a bathroom."

Someone had to keep a positive outlook. It sure wouldn't be McKay. Sheppard smiled, making it a little indulgent, a little annoying. "That's what the great outdoors is for, Rodney. We have a whole planet." He made an expansive gesture.

"One that's rapidly falling apart. No thanks."

"Six months, huh?"

"I'm being optimistic. I haven't really tested my speed. This isn't my usual..." He made an aborted, frustrated gesture. "I'm not a mechanic."

"But you can fix it?"

"In theory, yes. In theory I have a great big machine of untold Ancient wonders that will knit the strands together in a heartbeat, and then it's all over but the rejoicing. In practice, I have this." He held up a delicate silver tool that looked like a strand of hair held in tweezers. "At least the jumper's display will give me the microscopic view so I won't have to actually go blind doing this." He bent down to peer disconsolately at the cracked crystal with its sad, frayed fasciae.

"Maybe you can show me how to do it and we can take turns," Sheppard said. Six months. McKay would go mad in that time. They'd run out of coffee in three days and then what?

"Please. This is highly advanced technology."

"Hey, trying to be helpful." The jumper, sadly, had no coffee-replicator function. Maybe this planet would have coffee bushes. While McKay worked to get them back to Atlantis, Sheppard could work to make their stay more pleasant. By mastering the French roast, perhaps. That'd earn him McKay's eternal gratitude, at the very least. "Do you need to stay up here to do this?"

McKay looked up, blinking. "What?"

Sheppard waved his hand to indicate their barren, dragon-blasted (if magnificently panoramic) location.

McKay frowned, shrugged, turned back to his filaments. "Whatever, whatever, I'm busy. I'll continue to be busy for the next six months. Six months stuck in this glorified trailer with nothing to eat but goats that are, I might add, still hopping around up there. We'll get scurvy and our teeth will fall out. And rickets!"

"No cable on this planet, either," Sheppard said. "There are at least three boxes of those supplement capsules in the back, though. At least we'll be safe from scurvy."

He asked the jumper to power up, to rise, to accelerate. He kept a light grip on the controls, but he could feel his commands going through before his hands had completed the moves. "Actually," he told McKay's grim profile, "I think the deer down in the valley will be a better bet. Those goats are awfully agile."

"Mmph!" McKay said, snapping his fingers shut up shut up, and Sheppard shut up and kept his eyes on the majesty of the mountains, the inviting lush green of the valley. Down, he thought and the jumper dipped and swooped. He found a clear stream skipping between crags and followed it down past the yellow grasses, the green grasses dotted with flowers, the low bushes, the first straggling trees and the dense pine forest.

A small herd of deer startled and fled when he set down in sight of the river. He had time to see that the deer were impossibly spindly and graceful, and each of them crowned with a single horn sticking up like an exclamation point between floppy ears.

He would still think of them as deer, though, he decided. Dragons, okay. He drew the line at unicorns.

*

2.

Sheppard crouched and brought up the P-90. A fly buzzed around his head. The sweet mountain breeze shuffled the leaves around him.

It was all very Great White Hunter.

Goodbye, Bambi's mother, he thought.

He'd never enjoyed hunting. He liked a nice steak as much as the next guy, but he just didn't need to know where that steak came from. There was a sad kind of horror in this, turning a graceful, lively thing into a broken piece of meat.

On the other hand, McKay would get hungry and then McKay would get cranky. Crankier.

The sound of the shot scattered the rest of the herd and they disappeared into the forest. The clearing was perfectly still and deserted, apart from the wind whispering reproachfully in the treetops. Bambi's mother lay crumpled in the tall grass, still twitching. Sheppard thought of Native American rites and wondered if there was some deity he should be releasing her spirit to.

If there were any gods here, they were probably huddled in a cave by now, awaiting the end. He shrugged to himself and got out his knife to cut her throat.

*

McKay emerged from the jumper, red-eyed and stubbled, blinking in the sunlight. Sheppard was pretty sure this was the first time he'd been outside since they'd set up camp.

"Is that... have you...?" He stumbled on a tuft of grass and almost fell over.

"It is. I have," Sheppard said.

They were a week into exile. This morning, breakfast had been the very dregs of their stores. Sheppard had considered implementing some stricter rationing but it had seemed kind of futile, really. They were in this for the long haul; if they couldn't find what they needed here, they were going to die.

Things weren't looking to bad, though. They had meat, and his exhaustive inventory of the jumper's compartments had turned up a couple more boxes of dietary supplements. They wouldn't get scurvy.

Judging from McKay's twitching, the last of the instant coffee had gone the way of their rations, too.

"I could eat a horse," McKay said, drawing deep breaths as if he could inhale the meat that way.

"It's just deer, hope that works for you." He'd rigged a nice little rack over his nice little fire using saplings from the edge of the forest and an air vent grille from the jumper. He had a stick to poke the meat with. He had a sturdy log to sit on. All he needed was some barbecue sauce and a couple beers.

McKay peered suspiciously at the makeshift grill. "You mean one of those unicorn things? I hope it's actually edible."

"It was this or one of the goat things, or maybe a gopher thing or a mink thing."

McKay sat down on the log next to him and slumped, elbows on knees, face buried in his hands. The line of his back was tense and miserable.

"I didn't actually see you lie down at all last night," Sheppard said, almost reaching out to pat McKay on the back, for comfort. But it seemed risky. A guy could lose a limb that way.

"Didn't have time."

"Not to criticise your impeccable work ethic, but I don't think you'll be able to keep this up for the whole six months."

Now McKay's head came up. The scowl was impressive, especially with the dark rings under his eyes. "Thanks so much for bringing that to my attention, thanks so fucking much for rubbing that in, I'm going to start a new religion just to give thanks. Give me some of that meat and shut the hell up. Please. Thank you."

It took McKay about half an hour and a sizeable chunk of unicorn thing meat to calm down. By then Sheppard himself was feeling no pain, either, and they sat in companionable silence by the fire. The log was covered in soft moss, perfectly shaped and sized for sitting. The sun was high in the sky but down here by the river the breeze kept things nice and cool. Alien birds sounded much like Earth birds, cooing and chirping in the bushes around them.

"If I didn't know for a fact that we're stuck here, likely to die in some horrible way, I'd almost think this was nice," McKay said. He was sitting on the grass with his arms draped across his knees. He might have been almost smiling. His eyes had lost some of the crazed gleam.

"Apart from that, yeah," Sheppard said, nodding slowly, almost-smiling back. "Nice."

"All I need is a shower and a fresh pair of underwear, really."

An alien mosquito landed on a wisp of McKay's hair and Sheppard brushed it away. "Bug," he said when McKay looked up with eyebrows raised. "You know, I don't think the river's too cold for a dip."

They both turned and looked at the stream. Right here it flattened out a little, broad enough to flow sluggishly. Looked like an even, sandy bottom. Sheppard could see small fish darting to and fro.

McKay was craning his neck to see, a reluctantly interested look on his face. "You go in first," he said. "I want to know if there are piranhas before I put a single toe in there."

"Your concern for my safety is touching."

"Come on, you can probably kung fu them all to death anyway."

"I don't actually know kung fu. I have watched a lot of kung fu movies, granted, but--"

"Do you think there are piranhas? Bates and his team never explored this part, did they?"

Sheppard stood up and pulled his shirt over his head. "No piranhas," he said. He could smell the river under the smoke from the dying fire, the wind was coming along with it from the top. Grass, mud, rotting leaves; all achingly nostalgic. "I've seen the unic--I mean, the deer cross without anything jumping out to bite them."

"What does that have to do with us? Are we unicorns? I'm just going to sit here. Scream if you need me to pull you out of the feeding frenzy."

"Will do," Sheppard said. He wouldn't mind some clean clothes, himself. One thing the jumpers didn't stock was detergent. Maybe he could try scrubbing with sand...

"You know," McKay said behind him, voice slow and pensive. "Your back is incredibly pale."

Sheppard looked over his shoulder; McKay was staring at him with the glassy, fixed look of someone about to fall asleep. "Not much time for sun, surf and sand this year. Amazing, really, what with Atlantis being one big pier."

"You could really amaze the population and walk around shirtless a lot."

Sheppard had a mercifully brief image of Weir's face in that scenario. He waved at McKay. "Come on, get wet. It'll wake you up."

The water was cool but not cold, impossibly clear. His toes sank into the fine silt of the bottom and pulled up swirling clouds. In the middle of the stream, the water came up to his navel. He let himself fall backward gracelessly and looked up as the water closed around him, his back bumping against the soft sand.

When he came up, throwing his head back to get his hair out of his eyes, McKay was standing on the bank, one boot on, one boot off.

"You're still alive," he said with only nominal grumpiness, and Sheppard had to grin.

"Hop in, it feels great. It'll put hair on your chest!"

"There is already hair on my chest," McKay said. He was smiling a little wistfully, untying his remaining boot. "You know, I wish I could enjoy this. I'm just put off by the thought of sitting here six months from now, probably wearing mutant deerskins for clothes, with a beard down to my knees--"

"In six months? And I thought I had a problem with the five o'clock shadow."

McKay shucked his BDUs and threw them over a branch. His boxers weren't anything funny like Sheppard had hoped. He would have bet money on McKay being the novelty underwear type. "Mutant deerskins, beard like a biker, living on mutant deer jerky and roots, back permanently bent from sitting hunched over that crystal... Is it cold? Piranhas? Embarrassing shrinkage?"

Sheppard stopped watching him undress and instead floated in the shallow water, staring straight up. Birds flew from treetop to treetop. Would there be alien squirrels in the trees?

Loud splashing and some undignified whooping announced McKay's arrival. "It's freezing, are you insane? I'm Canadian, I know freezing."

"You're a sad, pale, indoor Canadian, though," Sheppard said, turning his head to see McKay not far away, looking less disgruntled than he sounded. His arms were covered with goosebumps.

"It's not good to swim so soon after eating," McKay muttered.

"The water is three feet deep!"

"Sure, sure, we can risk our lives, I mean, what's the use of trying to be careful when the universe hates us? They all think we're dead, back on Atlantis. We're dead to them, we're lost in space. 'Oh, the Major and Doctor McKay, did you hear, so sad, eaten by a dragon. Now we must make do with Bates and Zelenka.' Good luck with that, by the way. They won't come looking for us. And if they did, what are the chances they'd look here? And if they did by some miracle look here, the rescue party would be stuck too. This planet is a galactic pitcher plant. Ergo, the universe hates us and wants us to die. I might as well swim now."

He did. They did. McKay in the water was playful despite the dire predictions and occasional bouts of whining. He waded downstream and found deeper water and dove like a seal, briefly mooning the unfazed summer sky. Sheppard hung back and watched him, feeling relaxed and comfortable, staying still enough that a few fish dared emerge from their holes and gather around him.

After, they lay on a softly sloping, grassy bank a few turns of the river from the campsite and let the sun dry them.

"It could be worse," Sheppard said.

McKay cracked a doleful eye in his direction. "How could it be worse? How?"

"Hostile natives, no fresh water... dragons. It could be a lot worse."

"Sure, sure, but what we have here is a place we don't want to be and the place we do want to be completely unreachable for the next six months. Excuse me for not looking on the bright side."

"At least the sun's warm," Sheppard said, not letting it bring him down.

McKay was silent for a while. "Well, at least you're here," he said finally. "That's something. You're, you know, useful. You can kill unicorn things. And you're not bad company."

Sheppard was touched. "You're pretty useful yourself," he said. "Hey, you know, I happen to know some very nice campfire songs..."

"That's funny. Don't let me fall asleep here," McKay said, drowsy and limp in the warm grass, his head pillowed on his arms, his eyes closing. Sheppard saw water clinging to his eyelashes. "I have to get back to..."

His face smoothed out into the slack innocence of sleep; Sheppard looked around and considered waking him and telling him to go take a nap somewhere less exposed, but the sun was mild and the only life around them were the birds and the fish in the river. McKay would be okay for five minutes.

He walked quickly back to the jumper, still naked and feeling a bit silly, half like Adam in the Garden, half like some crazed hippie. He thought about Atlantis. Ford and Teyla would have gone back through, told their crazy story ("They were being chased by a dragon. Or so they said, last we heard.") and Weir would have dialled the gate and... nothing.

They would not be rescued. McKay was right about that.

He dressed and picked up McKay's clothes and went back downriver. Now that he was in uniform and McKay was still spread out on the grass like he was modelling for Study of Damp Genius by River, Sheppard felt a little silly again, and slightly sinister and perverted. McKay wasn't a small guy but he looked very fragile asleep and undressed. His face looked younger and sadder, his mouth soft.

There was a damp spot just above the curve of his ass.

Sheppard closed his eyes and scrubbed a hand through his hair. He said, "Hey, you're asleep." McKay didn't wake up. He did roll over onto his side with a muffled grunt.

"You'll burn your lily-white ass in the sun," Sheppard said, a little louder. McKay didn't even stir this time. Sheppard draped a rumpled, kind of smelly shirt over McKay's delicately pink shoulder, and his own coat over McKay's delicately pink backside.

He sat and looked at the reflections of the sun in the river. The breeze brought a smell of forest and summer. He felt dozy and oddly content. Next to him, McKay snored softly.

*

Sheppard awoke, instantly alert.

He didn't move, just waited and listened. He was surprised and dismayed that he'd fallen asleep; that wasn't okay, not off-world, not in an unpredictable, unexplored environment. The sun had moved across the sky and encountered a cloud bank. A chill had crept into the air. A chill and a silence.

He opened his eyes. A few feet to his side, McKay was dead to the world and highlighted with sunburn. He'd turned and shaken off the shirt and coat.

Sheppard rolled onto his back and looked up. The wind had died completely. Above him, leaves hung limp and listless off still branches. There was no movement.

No birds. No bees.

"McKay," Sheppard said sharply, getting up.

"--mwhuh?" McKay scrunched up his face and blinked up at him. "Why am I lying naked on the ground?"

"We need to move."

McKay had been around enough situations to scramble to his feet immediately, although he'd not quite mastered the no questions asked part. "Why? What happened? Why are you dressed, you bastard? Did you leave me to sleep in the sun? Oh god, I'm a boiled lobster, this is your fault. What's going on?"

"Earthquake coming," Sheppard said.

*

3.

The puddlejumper hovered at a safe distance.

"How long is this supposed to go on?"

McKay looked up from the crystal. "Do I look like someone who hangs out around earthquakes? All I know is that we're screwed, but I think that was abundantly clear even before this. Now we're double screwed. And my sunburn is itching."

The tops of his ears would be flaking tomorrow. "You can always put on more moisturizer," Sheppard said. "There's still some left."

"That'll make everything better, sure."

Down in the valley, the trees shook and heaved. Deep yawning cracks had opened in the ground. The river churned.

McKay still had grass in his hair, Sheppard noted.

*

"There'll be more aftershocks," McKay said. "I can just picture myself getting hit by a falling branch."

"Stay away from the trees, then."

Sheppard had found them a nice landing site untouched by the quake. Not as nice as the little riverside property they'd had, but they were beggars, not choosers. The river had turned into rapids and a landslide had cut off the pass down from the peak.

The forest looked kind of like a group of petrified zombies, Sheppard thought. The trees leaned drunkenly against each other, the soil had torn to reveal the clutter of pale roots beneath.

McKay looked around like a suburban housewife assessing a neighbour's garden. "I guess this is acceptable. We'll stay here and wait for the big one to kill us."

"Even L.A. still hasn't fallen into the Pacific."

"How do you know? It could have happened this year. In fact, we don't even know Earth is still there, never mind California."

"You do know how to make a guy see the silver lining, McKay," Sheppard said, looking deep for the silver lining. Well, McKay was here. He could be stuck here with Bates.

He looked fondly after McKay, who was stomping huffily back to the jumper. There was always a new huff around the corner with McKay.

*

The problem with their situation, Sheppard thought, was that it required every available unit of McKay's concentration and none of his. The forest was quiet, the weather was nice, the fish were jumping. No mortal enemies skulked in the bushes. The catastrophes looming on the horizon were nothing he could do anything about. He shot one unicorn thing per week and they were fed. He carried water from the river. He chopped firewood. He washed their clothes. He tried to make sure McKay wasn't burning out. He tried not to hover.

He supposed he could start trying out the local fruits and roots for thrills, but somehow dying of poisoning seemed less appealing than most other ways of dying the galaxy had to offer, perhaps barring being sucked dry by Wraith.

Fun to be had on the planet included hiking, exploring the foothills, watching the goats frolic on the cliffs, swimming and sunbathing. It was like an expensive resort, one so expensive you never met any of the other patrons.

McKay was starting to look like the ghost of a homeless person, pallid and hollow-eyed.

"I'm doing this without the help of caffeine," he said when Sheppard pointed it out. He didn't even look up from his work. "And no natural light, either."

"You'll turn into a zombie if you don't take a break once in a while. Go take a walk. Are you sure I can't help with the--"

"No!" McKay snarled, suddenly ferocious. "No, you can't, stop asking. Go frolic in the sun, leave me alone!"

"Oooh-kay," Sheppard said, backing off. It wasn't personal. He didn't take it personally. "Try to take care of yourself," he said a bit lamely, suppressing a wince. He was starting to sound like his own grandmother.

McKay didn't reply, tantrum over. He was back to work. Sheppard went for a walk.

*

There were hot springs in the mountains. Sheppard found them following the goats around; a faint smell of sulphur and a wispy, persistent mist lead him up a narrow canyon and onto barren, rocky flats where the geysers bubbled and spat, spraying the sheer cliffs and the broken rock formations.

He crouched by the nearest hole and held his hand in the steam. It would be pretty neat if one of them was cool enough to sit in. A few goat glands, a good soak in the spring. It'd be like a Swiss spa. It might be just what McKay needed to relax. Maybe he could be talked into coming up here if Sheppard used cunning and trickery.

He was about to start preliminary tests (one boot off, big toe squarely aimed at the water) when he heard McKay's voice on the radio, hardly louder than a whisper. "Help me," it said.

"Report," Sheppard said, automatically. He found he'd frozen with his left foot in the air. Good thing it was an unpopulated planet. He pulled on his boot, foregoing the sock.

"I can't talk," McKay whispered. He was breathing too fast. "There's a... mountain lion... thing in the jumper. It's about to eat me. Please come shoot it. McKay out." Not entirely out; he was still panting harshly in Sheppard's ear.

"Why don't you shoot it?"

"It's between me and the gun!" Louder now, 50% less panic and the same amount of peevishness added. McKay could always be trusted to turn fear into anger. "And what part of I can't talk didn't you understand? It's staring at me, it's pondering 'barbecued, chopped into mince, en flambé?'"

The way out of the canyon of hot springs was rocky and slow. A goat could run, Sheppard had to clamber and scramble. "Available weapons?" he said, more sharply than he intended.

"My teeth," McKay snarled. "I'm going to be lunch. I'm going to be torn apart and eaten while I'm still screaming. It's been a pleasure, Major. Good--Oh, hey, I have a screwdriver."

"Wrap something around your left arm, block the attack and go for the eyes."

"You sound out of breath, are you running to my rescue? Cause I think it's too late, oh shi--"

There was a sound like something large with its balls stuck in the door, a high-pitched snarling yowl, and McKay screamed shrilly, briefly. The radio let out a small, electronic squeak and went dead.

"McKay?" Sheppard yelled. He was running flat out now, back on even ground.

He saw the animal before he saw McKay; it was crawling across the floor of the cockpit, its powerful claws scrabbling and skidding. It wasn't as big as a mountain lion, but far larger than a lynx, flat-headed, white-fanged, slit-eyed. The handle of a screwdriver stuck out of the side of its neck, blood matted the bronze ruff. There was a lot of blood.

McKay was curled up under the pilot's chair, his back against the consoles, delivering kick after kick at the cat creature's head.

Sheppard shot it twice and it twitched and slumped. McKay kicked a few times more for good measure.

He said, "I could have taken him." There was blood on his face, dark against his starkly pale skin. "But thanks. I liked your entrance. Very intimidating."

Sheppard shoved the limp carcass aside and knelt in front of McKay. "Are you all right? Are you wounded?"

"Hmm," McKay said, looking down. He'd wrapped what looked like Sheppard's jacket around his left arm. "Not fatally."

He sounded almost disappointed.

"I don't know," Sheppard said. "You look a little pale. Maybe you're exsanguinating."

"Oh?" He tugged ineffectually at the tightly wrapped jacket. "I can't feel a thing. I must be in shock."

The jacket was a dead loss, ripped and soaked black with blood. McKay's forehead was clammy and his hands were cold.

"I think you might have a few scratches," Sheppard said. McKay looked.

"Oh," he said weakly, listing forward until his forehead bumped against Sheppard's shoulder. "I'm going to put my head between my knees now."

Sheppard pushed him back a little and peered into his face. His eyes had rolled back in their sockets. "Hey, Rodney. Rodney."

"Mwh."

"You're not really exsanguinating." He rubbed some of the gunk off McKay's face. McKay blinked and shook his head slowly.

"I feel light-headed. It's that medical shock." He let his head fall to the side, trapping Sheppard's hand between his cheek and his shoulder, closed his eyes. "Maybe I'm hungry. Did you get a good look at that thing? It's like a mutant mountain lion, right?"

"It's smaller than a mountain lion," Sheppard said and pushed him gently back against the wall. "Good thing, too, or you'd be toast. Maybe we can see this as an object lesson."

Some colour was returning to McKay's face. The scowl was, too. "An object lesson in what? The great outdoors will come up with endless new ways for you to die, even if you haven't been outside your charming puddlejumper home for weeks? This is why I want to stay a pale indoor Canadian!"

"Just close the door when you're alone."

"You make me sound like the little goodwife," McKay muttered, slitting his eyes. Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "Okay, I'm the little goodwife. Please protect me from the ferocious beasts of the woods, oh my hairy mountain man."

"Now that's just low," Sheppard said, getting up to go find the Medikit. "I'm really very hip and well-groomed."

McKay snorted, and winced, and was obviously trying hard not to stare at the lacerations on his arm. "Will I need a rabies shot? You know rabies is lethal in 99.99% of cases. It's not a pretty way to go. Wait, did we get inoculated against rabies before we came here? There were so many shots, I wasn't even paying attention. What if they missed the one disease I end up dying of?"

The big cat had really thrashed around; the cockpit was a gory mess. It was amazing, Sheppard thought, that McKay wasn't more sliced up. He may have underestimated the goodwife's hand-to-claw combat skills.

"I leave you alone for one hour..." he said.

McKay smiled up at him, only a little wanly. "I'm wounded, I don't have to clean up."

*

Sheppard woke up to the sound of McKay crying out. In the grip of some nightmare (perhaps featuring wildlife with carnivorous intent) McKay had thrown his thin blanket off the bench, he had knotted his hands in front of himself like he was going bare-knuckle fighting in his sleep. The bandage Sheppard had carefully wrapped around his left arm was dotted with blood.

"Uh!" McKay mumbled. His voice was sleep-thick and choking. "Uh. Uh. Nnh."

Sheppard slid off his own bench and crossed the gap between them silently. He meant to give McKay a shake, pull him out of the nightmare, but instead his hand came down gently on the side of McKay's head, cradling it. McKay sighed a deep sleep sigh and turned into the touch, his dirty, too-long hair sliding between Sheppard's fingers.

Sheppard crouched there for a while, thinking about luck and bad luck and how those opposing forces had distributed themselves evenly through his life to make existence as interesting as possible.

*

For days after, McKay was sullen and quiet. He only managed a few listless complaints while Sheppard changed his bandage, he kept his eyes on the food while they ate their uninviting meals of inexpertly dried mutant deer jerky, somewhat more expertly barbecued mutant deer ribs and dietary supplement tablets (strictly rationed) for dessert. Sullen and quiet when he sat slumped in his seat and stared at the crystal, his array of tools laid out in front of him.

Finally, Sheppard asked.

McKay's eyes didn't move from the crystal. "I've developed a twitch," he said, waving the fingers of his left hand. "Maybe it'll pass. It's just the left hand. It could be worse. But it's going to make the work even slower going."

"How much slower?" Sheppard asked.

"I don't know, I'm not a fortune teller," McKay snapped with some of his usual heat. "It doesn't directly influence what I do, but my balance suffers. I anticipate the tics. I'll make more mistakes. I'm already making too many mistakes."

After a while he added, "When I say 'mistakes' I obviously don't mean actual mistakes, just slips. I don't have the hands for this kind of nonsense." He was massaging the sides of his head, twisting his hair into spikes and whorls. "I could really use Zelenka right now," he said with the air of someone confiding a well-guarded secret.

Sheppard couldn't help cracking a smile. "I thought you said he was a, what was it, a dilettante with two passable theories and five ridiculous ones." There was probably no one on Atlantis who could match McKay as well as Dr Zelenka, but obviously that would not stop McKay from repeatedly insulting the man's intelligence, to his face and otherwise.

McKay rolled his eyes. "And that's true, his theories are muddy, his calculations are sloppy, but he has the hands of a brain surgeon. You know what his hobby is? He told me once, probably to impress me. He makes micro art. You know, La Guernica etched on the head of a pin, Mona Lisa on a microchip, that sort of thing. He'd be all over this."

"But then you'd be the one who had to rescue him from wild animals," Sheppard said.

"Are you crazy? I'm still more valuable in the big picture. And I had that lion thing, he was down."

*

The next day, there was another earthquake. Sheppard took the jumper up as the zombie trees around their clearing started losing their grip on the soil and turning over, one after the other.

They rose out of the shade of the mountain.

"Shit," McKay said and pointed. He'd been a bit more chipper this morning, and now he was almost vibrating in his seat as if he'd found a secret stash of coffee somewhere. "Shit. When they said 'on the brink' I assumed they meant it in geological terms! Not inside two months! It's like we're trapped in some insane celestial slapstick comedy!"

Sheppard ignored his rants and looked. Above the southern part of the range, a mushroom cloud grew, grey-white and seemingly glowing.

"That's not good," Sheppard said.

"'That's not good'? What is wrong with you? Are you on downers?"

"No, Rodney, I have you to take care of the business of freaking out. I can just sit back and relax."

"Oh. Well, I can't be freaking out now, I have to do this." And he looked back at the crystal, and he shut his mouth and the freak-out was over. Sheppard, bemused, was distracted from the light show outside and stared at McKay's face and McKay's hands. The sunburn had faded; he'd taken on sallow cast, like a cave bound hermit, maybe. His expression was closed, focused.

Sheppard felt a chill somewhere in the pit of his stomach.

On the horizon, the pyroclastic cloud billowed and spread.

*

4.

It was, Sheppard had realised quite some time ago, possible for a human being to get used to almost anything. Adjusting to life in a galaxy far, far away, no problem. Constant mortal peril, easy. Stuck for weeks in a small, sparsely decorated flying mobile home with McKay, piece of cake.

There were new eruptions with tedious regularity. Maybe it was the season. Maybe it was the end of this world. The smell of ashes and smoke hung over the mountains.

He could still find things to hunt in the valleys; they weren't starving. But he didn't want to leave the jumper on the surface for too long. So they stayed in a low orbit, drifting between heaven and earth, and Sheppard watched the heaving ocean and the shifting clouds, he watched McKay's face pinched in concentration over the crystal, he watched McKay's hands move slowly and carefully. He played with the jumper controls, explored the features. He cleaned his gear endlessly, did push-ups and sit-ups and slept more than he'd slept in years.

He was good at waiting. He just didn't like it much.

McKay hardly slept at all. He also hardly spoke, which was enough to make anyone nervous.

*

It was, by Sheppard's calculations, six weeks and one day since they'd come through the gate with a dragon on their tail. Now they hung at 30,000 feet and watched a mountain crumble into the sea. Just a small one, on the far north edge of the range. But a mountain, nevertheless. From this distance it was like watching a sand castle caught in a rising tide.

"If the gate sinks before I'm done with this I'm going to kill myself," McKay said miserably. "I will not starve to death. I will not. Life hates me, but I hate life more." His hands were clamped on the armrests of his chair. Sheppard wanted to reach out and pry them loose.

"Maybe we can still get fish," he said instead.

"Fish? FISH? The sea is actually boiling. This is the end, do you get that? The end. And I will die with this thing clutched in my hands and a billion years from now when a new population of sentient beings has evolved on this planet they'll find my fossilised bones and I'll still be holding it."

"Maybe not even so much as a billion years," Sheppard said. He had to admit that things weren't exactly looking bright, but there was some impossibly stubborn optimistic streak in him, a confused part that would not admit defeat. Maybe he just couldn't believe he would really die. This would probably be part of the god complex McKay sometimes ragged him about. He peered over at the crystal. "Still sure I can't help you with that?"

The last time he'd tried to ask, which had probably been the tenth time altogether, McKay had jerked away and hissed at him. "No, no, no. Keep your hairy paws off my circuits! If you break something I will beat you senseless, I don't care what special ninja force training you have. I don't care if this is the end of the world."

Maybe the end was sufficiently nigh now, because McKay just handed him the crystal and turned away. "Knock yourself out. You could try chewing on it for all the good it'll do us."

Sheppard looked at the crystal. It wasn't very big for such a pain in the ass. For all McKay's weeks of hard work, it didn't look much different from the day he'd pulled it out of the ruined DHD.

He turned it over in his hands. On the display, numbers and schematics scrolled. They didn't really tell him anything. The looping strands seemed almost arbitrarily arranged, patternless to his untrained eyes. He tried to follow one into the knot of fasciae but lost it almost immediately. If he could get a better...

The seductive whisper of the Ancient interface grew, suddenly and explosively, in his mind and the cockpit dimmed. Great iridescent cables and pipes in immensely complex patterns turned and zoomed around him; it was the crystal lattice blown up to the size of an iceberg, every microscopic filament now appearing thicker than his leg; it was an abandoned city of colour and shape and quivering light--

He pushed back reflexively and the world returned. He said, "Huh," although if there ever was a time to break out the 'whoah, dude, awesome' it was right now.

"What?" McKay said. He was leaning over Sheppard and peering into his face, too close, wide eyes and babbling mouth. "What was that? Did you have a seizure? This is a bad time to have seizures, Major, this is the worst time. I don't want the end to be us crashing into the sea because you swallowed your tongue."

Sheppard felt dizzy still and only half connected to the world. He lifted a hand and was surprised to see it wasn't trembling--that had been the strangest thing, the trembling quality of the... vision, the whatever it was; it'd looked solid and not solid simultaneously. He put his hand on McKay's shoulder and was surprised to find him fully there.

"What?" McKay said again. "Seizure? Did you fall asleep? Talk to me."

"I..." Sheppard started. He was still holding the damaged crystal in his other hand. McKay was invading his space, insistent, pulling at his attention. "Look at the screen."

He collected himself and closed his eyes. He thought about the filaments in the crystal. The city--the lattice--opened to him.

He found he could move around easily. The colours trembled. Somewhere far away, some secondary system told him that McKay had grabbed his hand and was clutching it like a vise. Sheppard squeezed back.

He came to a place where the lattice was a broken jumble and he was lost among the jagged edges and disrupted lines.

He breathed and opened his eyes. "So," he said with numb lips.

McKay was staring at him with helpless, pathetic hope. "Can you--?" On the display, the image of the city hung, standing by.

"It doesn't come with labels," Sheppard said. McKay's hand was still clamped around his. "I can't--"

McKay let go of his hand abruptly and twisted around to trace a line on the display, his finger bridging the gap between two torn ends. Sheppard closed his eyes and saw the line drawn like smoke in the landscape, like the condensation behind a plane hanging in the sky for long after the plane had passed.

"That, the thing--" he mumbled and held out his hand blindly. McKay put the little silver tool in it.

"Can you use it? It's very delicate."

"Just point my hand in the right direction, will you? It'll work out..." The hair-thin tip of the tool appeared like an immense black mass. McKay's fingertips nudged his briefly and disappeared.

He wasn't doing this on his own; there was a guiding... force... something. He found the switch on the side of the tool and a spark flew like a bomb had been dropped. His hand made a movement so minute he couldn't tell what muscles he'd used. He bridged the gap drawn in smoke and was rewarded with a pulse of shimmering white light.

"I can see it," McKay whispered, a note of stunned reverence creeping into his voice. "I can see it. There's no need to run a check, it's clear that you got it right." A light tap on Sheppard's shoulder. "Do it again, do it again."

New directions appeared. Sheppard followed. It felt like telepathy, more like telepathy than his usual connection with Ancient devices: he could feel McKay's presence next to him, the smoky trace of his intentions in his head. They didn't speak.

The work became a blur, each filament broken in a different way but just the same when it connected, the only firm point the next direction popping up further along. McKay was following a logical pattern, but Sheppard wasn't trying to anticipate him. McKay's hand on his shoulder started to feel like a part of him.

"Maybe we should stop for a while," McKay's voice said somewhere in the distance, a broadcast on a channel coming in from over the state line, crackling and sputtering. "You look a little..."

Sheppard snapped into reality and a wave of nausea washed through him. It was only steel will that kept him from vomiting bile all over McKay. It felt like time he hadn't experienced rushing to catch up. He felt like he'd been submerged in jell-o, he felt painted over, he felt like he'd been mummified and left under a pyramid.

"I think I'm hungry," he said. It came out a croak. McKay touched his shoulder before scurrying away to find something.

"There's really not much left," McKay said.

Just stale dry meat, by now starting to get a little suspect, and seawater purified in the jumper's tanks. Sheppard chewed and swallowed and felt the world settling around him.

"This was really great," McKay said. He opened his mouth again as if he wanted to say something more, but changed his mind and closed it again.

"I'm glad I could help," Sheppard said. Now it seemed they were both trying to say something more... profound. This was a moment worthy of some poetry, he thought. "How long did we work?" he asked instead.

McKay looked at his watch. Frowned. "No idea. When did we start? Hours, anyway. My back feels like it's been replaced by red hot lava. You're still kinda pale."

McKay was kinda pale, too, but his eyes glittered.

"Rodney," Sheppard said. "How much did this help?" It had felt fast. He couldn't recount how many tiny giant filaments he'd connected, but it felt like a lot. How many were there? He couldn't imagine how McKay had been working without this connection all these weeks.

"It..." McKay leaned towards him again, looking at him intently and almost suspiciously as if he wasn't sure Sheppard was quite real. "I can't even... We can, we can... We can get this done. We can get it done in a week. Do you get it? Do you realise what this means? I don't have to test each strand separately. I don't have to fumble around in there like a butter-fingered halfwit."

"Maybe not completely butter-fingered," Sheppard said. "I was just thinking that you had to have some pretty impressive hand-eye coordination to do this without help."

McKay took only a brief moment to preen. "But you're a machine," he said. "I can just point and click." He poked Sheppard's sternum with his forefinger to illustrate.

Sheppard let an eyebrow twitch an inch upward. "You know, that sounds less than sexy, really."

"What?" McKay blurted, seeming honestly baffled. "It's stupendously sexy. I love you! I love you, I could kiss you like a Russian!" He leaned in, his hands on both sides of Sheppard's face. His expression was one of dazed, relieved joy. It almost wiped out the dark smudges of exhaustion around his eyes.

Sheppard relaxed in his grip and felt a smile growing slowly . "In this scenario, am I the Russian or are you?" McKay kissed his cheeks, not quickly, and his mouth. "Oh--"

After a while, more than a little while, he untangled his hand from McKay's hair and said, not really sure he wanted to speak, "Unless I've misunderstood something fundamental about Russian culture..."

McKay was a little out of breath. "No. Um. No misunderstanding. I mean... At least the ones I met didn't, um. Use tongue. But you want this too, right. Right? You want this." His fingers dug into Sheppard's neck and shoulders, nervously.

"Um," Sheppard said. He scrolled back through the last few minutes. McKay was sort of slumped over him, too tall and heavy to really fit comfortably in his lap, not willing to give up on trying. Sheppard's left hand had, unbeknownst to himself, slid under McKay's shirt to clutch at his side. The other one was cradling the back of his head.

Really, the question seemed almost disingenuous at this point.

"What are you doing, preparing a speech?" McKay said, leaning back a little. "Spare me."

"No speech," Sheppard said, tightening his grip, pulling McKay forward again. "Your question was rhetorical, wasn't it?"

"Well, I wasn't the only one using tongue," McKay said smugly. All tension had faded from his face. He looked down at Sheppard with a calculating expression. "Short protocol, okay? I want to come, and then I want to sleep. In that order, and soon. Take your clothes off."

Always a romantic, Sheppard thought.

He felt weak and shaky when he got up and had to pretend he was clinging to McKay out of mad unquenchable desire and not because he was about to fall over, but then McKay tugged at his shoulder and kissed him again, propped him up with his hands and body and it was only about 50% sheer exhaustion, with the other 50% truly mad unquenchable desire.

McKay was pale and stubbled and glassy-eyed and smelled like he'd been stuck in a puddlejumper for weeks, and he was vibrant and gorgeous. Sheppard felt swept up and dropped into confused bliss. His mind was still half-filled with glowing, twisting shapes, his body not completely his own. McKay's hands were moving over him and he was surprised to feel them on his skin, as if he'd forgotten those places, hey, I have arms, hey, I have shoulders, hey, I have a chest, hey.

They stumbled through the jumper, fell onto a bench, the thin excuse for a mattress slid away under them. "Hm, these benches aren't really made for this," McKay muttered, his hand now discovering Sheppard's belly, hipbone, fumbling at his belt.

They didn't really take their clothes off, just dealt with enough buttons and buckles to get hands on skin, panted into each other's mouths, too tired to be fanciful, too needy to give up and wait until they were less tired. Sheppard saw the colours when he came, the crystal city flashing in his mind with startling stereoscopic clarity. He wondered if that was going to be standard from now on, if he'd always think about Ancient technology in conjunction with sex.

But then McKay made a low, choking sound and shook against him, pushed against him. "Oh, brilliant," he mumbled against Sheppard's mouth, slumping down on top of Sheppard, warm and heavy. "I'm... We should really..."

Sheppard let him sleep like that for a little while, enduring the awkward position, half on, half off the bench and the sharp edge digging into his side. When he pulled away, McKay just muttered and curled onto his side. He must have slept less than five hours in the last four days. Sheppard sat on his own bench and watched him, feeling somehow full to the brim, feeling more justified in his optimism. There were some nice ways life could be interesting.

*

Sheppard woke up to McKay's hand on his shoulder.

"Good," McKay said briskly. "We have a lot to do."

"Hey," Sheppard said, catching his hand before he could take it back.

McKay looked down at him, expression stuck somewhere between tempted and determined. "'A lot to do,' I said."

Sheppard sat up and rubbed his head.

"Well," McKay said. "On the other hand, we've already established that we can, you know, we're very fast."

"If you're talking about sex, I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing."

"You have no idea how torn I am here. On the one hand, my personal urge to maximise pleasure when it's possible, that is, I want to have more orgasms. On the other hand..." His free hand gestured in the direction of the cockpit. "Yeah. We need to get off this rock and back to Atlantis. Where, I might remind you, there are beds."

They were both silent for a moment.

Sheppard said, "That's a good point."

McKay said, "Of course, we can spare five minutes..." He sat down next to Sheppard. "We don't know what's on the other side. Everyone could have gone back to Earth."

"I don't think you need to justify this, Rodney," Sheppard said, touching McKay's stubbly cheek. McKay turned into the touch immediately, reaching for him.

Against Sheppard's mouth, he mumbled, "Tell me that again when we're surrounded by marines."

*

The puddlejumper hovered before the stargate. This mountain hadn't yet fallen anywhere; it looked much the same as it had when they'd come through, the glass-blank surface left by the dragon's blast just duller now under a cover of volcanic ash. The gate looked like it was prepared to stand there for a while longer.

"Ready?" Sheppard asked. McKay slid his fingers over a tangle of wire, touched the crystal as if for luck. Nodded. "Go on."

"Wait." He leaned in and kissed Sheppard, hard. Then he started dialling.

"That wasn't some kind of Thelma & Louise type kiss, was it?" Sheppard said, watching McKay's hands on the keys. "This is going to work, right?"

"What are you talking about?" The buttons were lighting up. After a drawn-out, endless abyss of a breath, the gate spun and locked chevron after chevron. "I never saw that movie."

"Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Grand Canyon?"

The wormhole burst out its frothing watery tentacle. McKay looked like he was about to swoon. "Oh, beautiful, wonderful, lovely. I'm going to tell everyone that the rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated. You can't stop me. I've always wanted to do that. --Thelma and Louise kissed?"

Sheppard thought, home. The puddlejumper shot forward. McKay's hand touched his when they went through.