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Displacement (The Longest Three-Week Day)

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"That does it. I am never going to another science conference ever again. Ever."

Donna glanced over at the man standing next to her. The conference had started hours ago, leaving her bored at the registration desk, so she had slipped into the nearest lecture hall. She couldn't say why, exactly, any more than she could say why she had needed to sign up for this position in particular. All the words were a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, and the pay for a three-day posting wasn't all that much.

But she couldn't seem to settle to anything. She was a temp, so a bit of moving-about came with the job, but she always used to try to find the most stable postings she could get. Now she couldn't seem to help taking short listings, or ones that had her driving halfway around the country, or ones to do with universities or high-level science conferences, and she really didn't know exactly why.

This conference had been a little more interesting than most of them were. Most of them, some boffin stood at the front and droned until everyone was asleep. This one, several boffins had stood at the front and excitedly promised a whole new world while the room around them was falling asleep, until a man suddenly stood and called them all insane.

He had called them a lot of other things, too, most of them quite insulting, and the room turned on him. He eventually kicked his way to the aisle and stormed to the back of the room to stand against the back wall, about a meter from where Donna was … well, lurking. Crossing his arms, he scowled at the room.

Now he was muttering irritably. In a mocking whine, he continued, "'Oh, just go, just sit in and listen, you can network with all your colleagues, you can make it into a little vacation,' as if these idiots could possibly be colleagues. They're like kindergarteners with guns. No, actually, they're not, because they'd probably have some idea what they're doing. This is a bunch of monkeys with nuclear weapons. Some 'vacation.' It's always 'ooh, let's siphon off all the excess heat from the entire world to another dimension and blow up the planet,' or 'let's show off our flaky new energy pulse weapon and blow up the planet,' or —" he gestured at the front of the room "— let's revolutionize domestic power production and, that's right, blow up the planet."

"What d'you mean, blow up the planet?" Donna asked, even though he was clearly a nutter.

He looked over at her as if he was surprised she had been listening, or possibly that she existed. But his brown hair was thinning, his eyes were a brilliant blue, and his accent was American. She felt strangely disoriented for a moment. "Well, okay, not the entire planet," he admitted. "And not right away. That secondary control panel will go first. Pretty soon now, actually … in three, two, one …."

Nothing happened.

His knowing smirk turned uncertain. "But they —"

That's when it blew up.

Donna ducked and covered her head the way they always said to on the telly in case of terrorist attack. The room erupted in screams, but the angry man had just shielded his eyes for a moment and now was glaring up at the stage again.

"You knew that was going to happen?" Donna fumed. "Why didn't you tell anyone?"

"Oh, yes, because I stand up in the middle of the world's — well, slightly above average minds and humiliate myself because it's fun. I tried. They wouldn't listen to me. No one ever does. They all think I'm some hyper-cautious shut-in crank. Because it's not like I've ever done this before or anything. No, Bill freaking Nye saved the world."

Everyone had been alarmed by the explosion, but one of the presenters was trying to calm them and most of the audience hadn't left. "And you said it's going to blow up again?" His expression — which was smug and annoyed but not scared, oddly — answered her first, so she didn't wait for him to speak. "Right." She climbed up on the nearest seat, one foot on the front of the seat and one on the arm for balance. "Oi!" she bellowed. "You lot! It blew up once, it'll probably blow up again, so get the hell out of here!" She pointed to the nearest door and, after a moment, people started moving out.

The man was watching her as she climbed back down. "Not bad," he said, looking slightly impressed. "Not that it'll do much good. Once it reaches critical and blows, this won't be a good hemisphere to be standing in."

"Hemisphere?!" Then she paused, despite the urgency. "D'you mean the Northern one or the east-west bit?"

The man rolled his eyes. "Okay, fine, it'll probably actually be only about a quarter of the planet, but once that happens the rest of the planet really isn't going to be a whole lot better. It's funny, I always figured I'd die from some stupid experiment, but I thought it would at least be thanks to my own staff. This is embarrassing."

"Well … but someone will come. They'll shut it down. The … I don't know, the fire department, or the army."

The man snorted. "If they even get here in time, they wouldn't know what to do. I know some people, but —" he waved his mobile "— your countrymen up there just shorted out the nearest several miles of the power grid, including the cell towers, which by the way can I just mention how stupid a design that is?" Donna checked her own mobile, but she didn't have a signal either. She hadn't even noticed that the lights had gone out, but the only light in the room now was from windows high up the walls. "And silly me, I neglected to buy a satellite phone, which, never again. If I'd realized what they were toying with sooner I could have gotten a call through, or tried anyway. It takes forever to convince them you're not making it all up in some moronic kind of joke because that's the sort of thing I like to do with secure numbers. That's not even counting the part where I would have had to spend forever trying to find anywhere that gets an actual signal even when there is power, and did I mention the whole stupid design thing?"

"Yeah, thanks. So what do we do?"

"Well, I was hoping the idiots would get scared and run away, but they stuck around, and they're not going to let me anywhere near their little project. So I need a way to get them out of the way. An explosion is the time-honored distraction, but, well —" He gestured up at the stage in disgust.

"Wait. Are you saying you can fix it?"

"Yes. Well, probably. Almost definitely."

"Right then." She grabbed his hand and hauled him all the way across the room to the stage, ignoring his attempts to pull free of her. Once they were up on the stage she let go as she demanded, "Which one of you bozos built this thing?"

The three men and one woman looked up from their quietly frantic fiddling with the machinery and shuffled a bit before one straightened and said, "It's primarily my design. We've got it under control, so if you'll please —"

"Yeah, no. Did you know it was going to blow up? No, you didn't. So get out of the way and let him fix it."

A second man sneered. "Him? He hasn't published in years."

He might have a sneer, but Donna knew that the one thing she really had — besides typing — was her attitude. "Oh, really? Let's see. Who was right about it blowing up? He was. Who was right about it still being out of control? He was." She let her voice get louder. "So far, he's been a hell of a lot more right than any of you, so let him at it!"

They got out of the way and the man gave her a look that was both surprised and pleased before diving at the machinery. He pulled a small torch from one of the pockets of his suit jacket and worked his way up under one of the consoles, and she shook off a wave of dizziness. "Can I help?"

"You know much about zero-point energy? Or … mutant bastardizations of zero-point energy … what the hell were you people doing in here? Honestly, even the Genii wouldn't try something this stupid …." He trailed off into muttering.

"No, but I can get you things if you need. I'm Donna, Donna Noble. Best temp in Chiswick, hundred words-per-minute."

"Well, unless you're a temp with a wrench tucked down your —" He cleared his throat suddenly. "Pocket. A wrench in your pocket. I mean —"

"Wrench, that's a sort of spanner, isn't it? You! Tools!" The woman pointed at a pile of boxes, so Donna went over, grabbed something that looked like a toolbox, and brought it back. "Okay, I've got tools here. What do you need?"

"A screwdriver and a … three-eighths wrench. No, the other kind of screwdriver … no, the other-other kind and smaller, yes, and bigger on this —" He kept handing out spanners back out and telling her larger or smaller until she gave him the right one. "Thanks. Zelenka, he's not stupid, he'd be handy right about now. And coffee, god, I'd kill for decent coffee …."

"I make fantastic coffee," Donna assured him. "Hang on, is there time, though?"

"Not really, no, not before either I fix this or we're all dead." He snorted again. "Just another day at the office."

He didn't say anything else except for muttering at the machinery, so after about a minute she prompted, "What's your name then?" Because if he didn't manage to fix it, she at least wanted to die knowing the name of the man who had tried.

"Oh. Right. McKay. Dr. Rodney McKay." Donna heard a snicker behind her, but when she glared in that direction, no one would meet her eye. "Astrophysicist, mechanical engineer, about ten other specialties that I can't discuss here. Normally, that would include zed-pee-em technology, no thanks to the Four Stooges over there." His hand emerged briefly to gesture at the group.

"Zed-pee-em? Oh, that zero-point thing you were talking about earlier? Hang on, I thought the Americans said zee, not zed."

A painful-sounding thump came from under the console. "What? I'm not American. I'm Canadian."

"Well, sorry, but it's not like there's a whole lot of difference in the accent."

"No, of course not," he said sarcastically. "Just like there's not a lot of difference between Cockney and, I don't know, Scottish." His voice sharpened. "Stand back!"

The console suddenly fountained sparks and Donna ducked behind her arm until they stopped.

"There, now I can actually do something," the man — McKay — said, wriggling out from under the console with a groan and standing. "Because I know a Scottish doctor and trust me, even I can tell you sound nothing like him." He started to type on a keyboard but quickly stopped, scowling. He snapped his fingers over at the huddled group. "You. Get me in."

The woman glared at him. "That's a secure and proprietary system —"

"How nice for you, I'm sure. I could crack it in two minutes but that's two minutes we don't have so get me in."

Donna smirked as the woman hurried over and typed in a few passwords. She could get to like this McKay fellow.

McKay soon shoved the woman out of the way and started typing madly. One of the men drifted over from the group to look over McKay's shoulder. Donna looked, too, but it all looked like gibberish —

except for just one second it didn't

— but then it did again. McKay seemed to understand it, though, and the other man, who was starting to frown. "But you're …. You don't have to …. We've got …." He fell silent and watched for about a minute. Then a look of horror crossed his face. "Oh my god. You're right, it's going to — oh, bloody hell." The curse was heartfelt and his voice shook. "We — we have to get out of here —" He backed away for about three steps and then turned and ran at top speed out of the room.

"What was his name?" McKay demanded, not turning or even slowing.

"Who, Hollander?" one of the other men asked.

"If that's who just left, then yes, Hollander. Remember his name, people, because he's the one who was smarter than all of you, because he just worked out the problem."

"But you already knew, right?" Donna said.

McKay smirked, his eyes never leaving the screen. "Yeah, but I had an unfair advantage. Smartest man on the planet here." The group scoffed, so they missed that he dropped his voice and added in a low mutter, "In two galaxies, actually."

And for just a moment Donna knew that was wrong. Of course it was wrong, it had to be wrong, because how would he know anything about other galaxies? But she wasn't sure that was what she had been thinking. She pressed at her temples until the sudden headache faded. "You can fix it, right?"

"It's practically impossible, so yes, I can, if I can just get this piece of crap to work with me in time."

"So what are you doing, then?" She wasn't sure why she asked. He was busy, and she wouldn't understand anyway.

But he answered without even pausing in his work. "I rerouted the feeds. It's destabilizing because they're trying to kick-start a reaction to get enough power to force a tap of zero-point energy, but the reaction's cascading because they didn't account for the particle creation, much less the interactions." He raised his voice for the benefit of the remaining presenters. "Which is why we do not toy with forces we don't understand!" He lowered his voice again to add, "If the reaction keeps going, they'll force enough of a breach that the whole thing will overload, but luckily, it's —" he raised his voice again "— small enough that we probably won't lose the entire solar system, but that's not going to be much comfort to anyone within about a planet of here!" He lowered his voice once again. "So far they've just managed to tap a trickle, and I can stop that from getting out of control if I can stop the reaction. Now that I've rerouted the feeds I can dump enough fuel into the system to swamp it out. Like flooding an engine, or smothering a fire with a blanket, as long as you do it before the fire gets big enough to just burn the blanket."

She didn't understand a lot of that, but she got his point, and she liked that he put it in a way that she could get even that much. "That actually sounds a bit clever." He paused to glance over at her with surprise, so after several seconds she asked, "What?"

"Oh. Nothing." He went back to typing. "Of course it's clever, I mean actually, no, it's not just clever, it's brilliant." Then, very quietly, he muttered, "Not that anyone ever actually notices."

Donna bet that was because he always beat them to saying it. She would have said so, except suddenly she understood.

She understood how you just had to go ahead and say it yourself, so you didn't have to notice just how long it took before someone else did … or that sometimes no one said it at all.

So instead she just said softly, "All right, then, it's brilliant."

His fingers hesitated for just a moment, and then he gave her a brief glance with an actual smile. "I'll get it. Don't worry, I actually do do this sort of thing all the time."

His eyes went back to the screen immediately, so he didn't see that she had to grab onto the nearest piece of machinery as her head spun and … and she —

"You said you type, right?" McKay demanded suddenly.

Donna shook her head desperately to clear it. "Yeah. Yeah, hundred words."

"To dictation? Even if it doesn't make sense?"

"Of course." She could type anything. She had typed requests-for-proposals and Christmas letters dictated by sotted old codgers and government requisition forms.

"Good, because I need another pair of hands, and I certainly don't trust any of those morons. Take that keyboard. You, get her in." The woman was looking daggers at McKay's back, but she quailed at Donna's glare and obeyed.

Barely slowing at his own typing, McKay started telling her what to type at the same time. She couldn't really go full speed because she had to keep reading things back, but then he sent one of the Stooges over to do the reading-back for her because she wasn't sure what half the things on the screen meant. Some of them weren't even proper letters.

His voice got urgent a couple of times, but whatever it was worked out and they kept going. Finally, after another couple of minutes, he had her wait and then press a button at his signal, while he did something at just the same time.

The machinery suddenly gave off a fierce hissing. Donna flinched and braced herself, but the hissing just continued for about a minute and then faded away.

They didn't seem to be blowing up.

She tried opening her eyes. McKay was looking upward warily but then let out a long-held breath. Meeting her eyes, he smirked. "See? Told you I'd get it."

"So … that's it, then? We're not going to blow up?"

"Not anymore." He glared over at the remaining Stooges. "If you even think of touching any of this you won't see daylight for ten years. One of your security services will be over soon to pick it up, as soon as I can get a call out. And as for — oof." He seemed to have a little trouble talking as Donna hugged him fiercely. "Oh, um, well, okay, hi, I guess. Um?"

Donna pulled back slightly. "You did it! You were brilliant!"

"I … well, yes, I …." He looked lost.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, doesn't anyone ever thank you?" By the sudden weary look in his eyes, she could just bet they didn't. "You just saved the world with a screwdriver and a spanner! I could —" Her head swam and she staggered.

A hand caught her arm, surprisingly strong. "Are you all right?" His voice was distant.

"You didn't have to reroute the feeds at all, you know," she told him thickly. "Oh, my head … you just needed to start a back-excitation of the tertiary particle generation so the subspace envelope would fold the radiation back into a stabilization matrix, except you'd need a proper screwdriver for that, and what you've got there's barely a screwdriver at all, is it even sonic?" She pressed both her hands to her head to try to keep it from bursting.

"Are you just making up sentences out of things I told you to type?" His voice was peevish now. He was trying to lead her somewhere. "Come on, sit down, you really don't look too good."

"My head is killing me," she told him. "Hurry, you have to shut it down before it … before it …."

But it was too late, and everything surged back up, and she remembered, and she gasped, "Doctor!"

And then she was gone.

Rodney paced frantically. Stupid country. Stupid, stupid country.

They converted college lecture halls into lethal reactor systems and acted like he was the loony one. Then out of all of them exactly one woman had been surprisingly useful, and nice to him, and then she started talking crazy and collapsed. He tried to explain that she needed to be taken to an ER, foolishly thinking one of the Stooges might help him get her to a car or something, but the Stooges were confused until they decided he meant A&E. They also thought he was overreacting, which just went to show they never learned. He spotted a landline phone off in the wings and realized that system might still have power, so he tried to call 911, but that didn't work, and one of the Stooges snottily informed him that he wanted 999. Then they wanted him to know her name on the phone, and he hadn't really caught it because he sucked at remembering names. Another of the idiots snidely volunteered the Donna part, but he had to check her pockets until he found some kind of ID that gave her full name.

He wanted a quick ride out of the power-down zone so he could use his own phone, because calls like the ones he needed to make took about ten times longer from unknown numbers, even without the whole international credit card nightmare. He also kind of wanted to know if she'd be okay — it might just be stress from being almost blown up, but still. So when the ambulance people showed up, he waited to be out of earshot of the Stooges and claimed to be her husband — so of course they'd take him along, right? He was prepared to go into a self-righteous rant about archaic assumptions about women taking their husband's name or patriarchal symbols of possession as dictated by the jewelry industry (and it was thanks to Jeannie that he knew exactly how to put all that), but they didn't really seem to care. They mostly wanted him to give them her medical history, which right there showed the problem with his brilliant plan. He just told them he'd never been any good at that stuff, she always kept track of all that, he didn't think she'd had any of those things, but he didn't remember for absolute sure so don't count on it.

She was burning up.

They let him follow her into the ER — A&E, whatever — and started giving her things to try to bring her temperature down. He had a brief moment of panic that they might try to change her into hospital-type garments, but they were in too much of a rush to even take off her shoes. He had been in the infirmary enough to know by their tones that they had no idea what was wrong with her and were alarmed. And again, stupid country, because with the Americans he could at least have started throwing money at them so that they would start trying various tests and treatments and specialists until they found something that worked. These people just shrugged when he tried to push and assured him they were doing what they could, even though they ended up just backing off and hardly doing anything.

She had believed in him, right away.

And he couldn't fix this or even pay for someone else to fix this, so what good was he now? And he had yet to find a single cup of drinkable coffee in the entire stupid, benighted, stupid country. So he paced, and he worried, and he waited for his phone to get a signal.

Luckily he had one within a few minutes of when the useless people left him alone with her, as they headed off to think or search the web for answers or have their tea. If getting a signal had taken much longer, he really would have had to go fight for access to a hospital landline, but he hadn't wanted to leave her alone. Someone somewhere had managed to boost a tower, though, so he started making calls. He had to report the Stooges first, because they were dangerous and if they tried to blow up the planet again he wouldn't be there to stop them. It wouldn't matter what happened to Donna, because they'd all be dust. The second he had someone on that, though, he called the SGC and tried to track down someone medical who knew Beckett or even Keller, because those were the only names he could drop that might get one of them to cooperate with him.

A few minutes into that fruitless quest a man suddenly swept into the little curtained-off corner. He looked like he had stepped out of a 1940s film, all dark-haired good looks and chiseled chin and charisma. Rodney hated him on sight.

The guy barely glanced at Rodney and then went over to Donna. He leaned in close. "Oh, Donna, I'm so sorry. Donna? Donna, come on, wake up a minute for me, okay?" American accent, too, or sort-of-American. Something about it was a little off.

She hadn't even twitched before, but of course she woke for Mr. Handsome. She blinked at him for a bit, looking confused, but then she reached up to grab at his coat. "Jack?"

"That's right." He smiled gently at her. "How are you doing?"

"Where's … where's the Doctor?" she asked faintly, closing her eyes with a pained whimper.

"I'll … go get somebody," Rodney muttered.

Mr. Handsome gave him a sharp look. "She doesn't mean them. Donna, he's not here. I'm sorry, this wasn't supposed to happen. You weren't supposed to remember."

"He … he sent me back, I didn't … it hurts …."

"I know, I know, shhh. I'm sorry, I didn't want to do this, but it buys us time. You're going to sleep now, Donna, okay? It's just until we can fix this." He stepped back, pulled a small egg-shaped device from a pocket of his coat, and held it over her torso. With a flash, a bubble formed around her.

The man then turned to Rodney. "Okay, now who the hell are you, because you certainly aren't her husband."

"No, I just … I was worried about her. What's wrong with her?"

Mr. Handsome's smile was flat. "Nothing you'd have the clearance to know about. You can leave now. We'll take care of her."

"Right, because that's not suspicious at all, you just suave-ing in here with no name and talking about clearance and 'taking care of' people and using stasis technology. Where did you even get a stasis field generator that small? Because seriously, it's bad enough you people are fiddling with zero-point energy, and there's only one of me to keep a lid on this stuff."

Mr. Handsome was looking at him very sharply now. "Name."

Rodney considered ignoring him again, but he did have just about any clearance the planet had to offer and they would kind of need his name to confirm that. So he folded his arms and drew himself to his full height — which was sadly still shorter than the other man — and lifted his chin. "Dr. Rodney McKay," he announced.

The man touched his earpiece. "Ianto. Tell me about a Dr. Rodney McKay. I'm thinking Canadian, knows stasis tech on sight. And knows zero-point energy." At least someone around here knew a Canadian accent. The man listened intently for a while, but suddenly he said, "Hang on a second, Ianto. McKay. You shut down the power generation demo over at Oxford?"

"Yes, I did, just in time, saving the planet, and you're welcome." He realized where they were and amended, "Well, we did," gesturing to include Donna, or at least the pod-thing encasing her.

"Saving the planet? Happens all the time. Wait, what was — Ianto, he says Donna was there. What was she doing there? Why is she even in Oxford? More to the point, why the hell didn't we know where she was?" He listened for a while longer and eventually said, "Okay, I'm going to drop out for a bit here. Thanks, Ianto."

He then pulled another gadget from his pocket and gave a twist to a part of it. It flashed and then pulsed gently as he set it on the bedside table. "What's that thing?" Rodney demanded.

"Blocks eavesdroppers." He smiled easily, and more than a little cheesily, his attitude now completely different than before his call. "Sorry for the delay, and nice work over at Oxford. Back at Adelaide, too, and … what was that other place? Kramer something … Innovations, that's right. Don't they have enough for you to do out in Pegasus?" He put his hand out. "I'm Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood."

Rodney didn't care for shaking hands, but he figured he should be polite to the person who had at least put Donna's distress on pause. Not to mention the way the guy could bring up that whole Kramer thing and somehow pass up the chance to even mention Nye or that weasel Tunney. At the last second, though, he recognized the name from the fog of the world's national and international agencies and snatched his hand back. "Torchwood — you work with the Trust."

Harkness raised an eyebrow. "Not anymore. That was the old organization. They were pretty much destroyed a few invasions back now. I'm rebuilding it. You can check with your IOA — we're much closer to your goals now."

Of course. Rodney couldn't possibly meet a beautiful, forceful, kind, beautiful, not-stupid, beautiful woman and have her not turn out to be a spy. A possibly Trust-sympathetic spy. "She works for you."

"Actually, she doesn't. And before today she wouldn't have recognized me. She's just a temp, but …." He sighed. "We have an … offworld ally called the Doctor. She traveled with him for a while, and she was amazing. But we were facing a massive threat, and they had to do this … sort of biological merger thing. It worked, but his biology — it's too complex for her. It was destroying her. He had to wipe her mind of everything and send her back here. If she ever remembers, it'll burn her up." He made a face. "I was supposed to keep an eye on her, keep her away from anything that might trigger any memories. But she's been slippery lately, taking on jobs in fields she shouldn't be interested in. I think the wipe was already failing. And whatever happened today — actually, what did happen today?"

Rodney hadn't actually heard of much linking Torchwood to the Trust recently, so maybe the guy could be trusted. Torchwood would have about the same general clearance level he did, too, so at least he wouldn't have to explain every little thing. "A bunch of idiots messed with zero point energy and nearly lost control of it. Probably would have taken out about a quarter of the planet if it really got going, but I shut it down. And she — Donna helped. I mean, she actually believed me, and she, you know … made them listen to me."

Harkness winced. "Yeah, Atlantis really wrecked your career, didn't it? Shame about that. But she believed you? Even though she doesn't know anything about your field?"

"Yeah, I mean, she noticed that I was right about more than the idiots were, so she shouted them down. She has quite a pair of lungs," he noted with a smile.

"Among other attributes," Harkness winked.

Rodney flushed, because yes, the woman had truly amazing breasts, but even he knew better than to refer to them while standing right next to her. He cleared his throat. "And she got the civilians to leave, but she stuck around and handed me tools while I rerouted the feeds, and then she helped me enter commands."

"I think I'm starting to see the problem," Harkness muttered. "Then what?"

"Well, um, then she hugged me, and then she started babbling and collapsed."

"Do you remember exactly what she said?"

He would probably remember a few things she had said until the day he died, but he wasn't about to repeat them. "Something about my saving the world with a screwdriver and a spanner, and then that I didn't have to reroute the feeds because I could have started a back-excitation —"

"No, I think the part about saving the world with a screwdriver would have done it. For a brainy guy who does the run-on talking thing and heads towards the thing that's going to blow up? Yeah, that probably would have been close enough to trigger her."

"So, wait, what, you're saying it's my fault?"

"No," Harkness sighed. "If you actually knew the Doctor, you'd take it for a compliment."

"Well, I don't, so — wait. Wait." He snapped his fingers absently as it all came together. "You said she was modified biologically. And that her body can't handle the changes — they're too advanced, they're overwhelming her, yes?" When Harkness nodded, he grinned. "I can fix this. I think. I think I can fix this, her, I just need to —" He pulled out his cell phone, but it just squealed into his ear, so he gestured irritably at the gadget. Harkness shut it off. As soon as his phone recovered, Rodney called the SGC and told them to patch him to the Daedalus for an emergency.

Harkness just glanced briefly upwards, raised an eyebrow at Rodney, and waited.

Once he was patched through, Rodney told Caldwell, "Locate me. There's an … energy field about one meter away from me. Make sure you get that and not an MRI or something, and … transfer that straight to the sick bay." Stupid curtain walls. "And tell them not to mess with it, don't even touch it. Don't pick me up yet, I have to get something else. Stay on the line." He looked up at Harkness. "I need her family. Probably not her actual husband — that'll work if we have to, or if we really have to maybe we can reconstruct it from a kid or something. But a parent would be best, probably, someone who would have things of hers from before whenever this happened to her. Not just personal stuff but scrapbooks, stuff like that. Is there anyone?"

"She lives with her mother and grandfather, down in London. But you'll have to take me with you. They'll never listen to you. I can explain it. And frankly, I'm not letting you just take Donna alone."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Fine, whatever. Caldwell — me and the one person next to me, send us straight to the closest secure point you can find to …." He looked at Harkness meaningfully, and the man finally gave the address.

The stasis pod glowed first, and then he and Harkness shifted, ending up in an alley.

"Asgard always did have smooth beaming tech," Harkness noted easily, unimpressed. Because clearly he beamed point-to-point on a regular basis. Harkness looked around, either missing or ignoring Rodney's disgusted look, and said, "This way."

He led them about a block to a row house. He knocked and when an older man came to the door he immediately said, "Captain Jack Harkness. I'm a friend of the Doctor. It's about Donna."

The man ushered them inside swiftly. "Yeah, yeah, I remember you from the computer. What about Donna? She shouldn't see you here — he said if she remembers —"

"I know. Wilf, I'm sorry, but she did remember." The old man put a hand to his mouth, devastated. Harkness hurried on, "She's okay for right now. I had something to keep her stable, but I don't know if we'll be able to fix this. But Dr. McKay here might have something."

"Oh. I, um, we — we have this machine that, well, repairs DNA, if it has a reference sample. So we'd need that, and I was thinking maybe you'd have something — not just a hairbrush or something because it has to be from before the changes started, that's very important, so I was thinking maybe one of those scrapbook kind of things people do for their kids. Like that card from the hospital with the drop of blood or the curl of hair from the first haircut or, you know, something."

The old man looked at him. "And you can fix my Donna with that?"

"I — I mean, I think so. We can try, anyway."

"And … will she remember? From before?"

"I honestly have no idea. I mean, I did, mostly, but I think it's probably different —"

"Wait a second," Harkness said. "You've been through this thing?"

"Well, yeah, it …." He glanced over at the old man but Harkness just nodded at him to continue, so he shrugged. "It's an Ascension machine, and I got caught up in it. Only without a reference, it just changes the body on a whole Ascend-or-die plan, and then at the last second I worked it out. They used an old blood sample as a reference and it, well, reset me I guess, and —" he waved "— here I am."

Harkness turned to the old man. "I think it's our best chance, Wilf. We need that sample."

Wilf nodded. "You take anything you need and you fix my Donna."

The old man had given them a couple of boxes of stuff, in the end, anything they could think of that might possibly work. Harkness said it was fine for them to beam straight out, even in front of the guy, so they gathered everything in the living room. The old guy and Harkness shared a salute, which, whatever, but Rodney had to look away from the intent way the old man was watching him as he and Harkness beamed with the boxes to the ship. You fix my Donna, he'd said, and he actually got that.

They dumped the boxes out on a table and one of the medical types poked around until she found something they could definitely use as a DNA source. She packed that away carefully, and Rodney made her take at least two other backup options just in case.

Harkness assured her that he and Rodney could pack the rest back up, which left the two of them alone. Rodney wasn't exactly interested in the chore, and he didn't want to poke around in her history like that, so he just shoveled things blindly into boxes to get it over with. Harkness tried to chat with him about the Ascension machine, but Rodney really didn't want to talk about it, so he just agreed that yes, it was in Atlantis, and no, there really wasn't a way to bring it to Earth.

When the boxes were closed Harkness looked over at him. "You head back tomorrow, right?"

Rodney nodded. Caldwell had stubbornly refused to leave any earlier than they were already scheduled. He just made smug comments to the effect that one extra day wouldn't make any difference to someone in stasis and suggested Rodney was the one being unreasonable.

"I'd go with you, but I can't be away that long. You're sure this will work?"

"Of course not. I told you that."

"Yeah, you did. I get it. If you think there's a good chance, do it, but if you're not sure, just wait. The stasis field will last for about a month, and I know you've got proper stasis chambers in Atlantis to hold her for a lot longer. She's too good to lose."

"Yeah, I get that," Rodney snapped.

"Yeah, I think you do," Harkness said, smiling at him. Rodney tried to figure out exactly when the guy got so close. He was really looking at Rodney now, very intently, and he kept moving in, and Rodney tried to back up but there was a wall in the way, and then Harkness was right on top of him, specifically with his mouth, which what the hell, and his fingers did not have permission to cup Rodney's face, and excuse me hello tongue! and what the hell?

Harkness drew back slightly just as Rodney worked out where his arms were and was trying to remember how to use them to shove. He patted Rodney's cheek, winked, and said, "Take care of our girl. But don't let her find out your net worth." Then he stepped back three paces, said something into his earpiece, and beamed away with the boxes, and when the hell had he arranged that? And also, what the hell?

One of the worst things about visiting Earth was how long it took to get back to Atlantis after.

Rodney always hated those weeks, stuck between, unable to do much of anything except try to find a corner to hide with a laptop, surrounded by people who really didn't like him too much. He wondered if it would have been easier to ride it out the way Donna was, just in suspension, blink out on one side and back in on the other. But at least he could work things out on his laptop, and he wouldn't have wanted to lose three weeks completely.

And he was never entirely convinced that being in stasis was completely blank the way everyone said it was. The Weir who had gone back in time had suggested she didn't know of anything outside the chamber when she was suspended, and the same for the new Beckett, and Sheppard from his time in the Far Future, but … still. That was just what they remembered, and how could they be absolutely completely sure?

So he spent part of this trip in the sick bay, talking to Donna. Just for little snatches of time, because it got to him after a while, the way she didn't respond at all, and he felt a little weird about looking at her like that. He could see into the field, mostly, enough to make her out. It felt wrong to just sit there looking at her for very long.

So he told her little things, random things, stuff he didn't really remember after, until he started to squirm, and then he went to eat something or to hole up in a corner somewhere to rip apart the work he'd brought to review.

Once they got close enough for communication with Atlantis, it was a little better, because he could arrange the repair of the Ascension machine. He had to yell at Zelenka, because he knew for a fact the man hadn't really chucked the crucial pieces into the sun the way Rodney had told him to, because they were all scientists and knew better than that, but Zelenka was very stubborn about maintaining the fiction for far longer than was really necessary. Then he rolled his eyes when Rodney told him to be careful around the thing and bring a Marine guard and a medical support team, just in case, because that thing was dangerous and he sure as hell didn't want to have to run the science division without Zelenka around to dump some of the paperwork on. But Zelenka — Mr. Bad News himself — thought he was being a mother hen for suggesting perfectly rational safeguards.

Zelenka thought his idea was possible. He agreed that the effects sounded similar enough that it probably wouldn't hurt to try. Rodney swallowed and told him to get started.

Over the last hour of the trip, Rodney was in steady contact with Zelenka, arranging the last details, checking the diagnostic files, and making sure a medical team was there for afterwards. Finally, there was nothing to do but wait, so he packed up and made sure the reference sample was in a handy pocket.

Novak beamed him straight to the device room, as requested, about an inch higher than the actual floor, leaving him a jarring drop. But right after that she placed the pod precisely on the platform between the beacons Zelenka had set up, not even a tiny bump, so he mostly forgave her.

Several people tried to talk to him, but he was busy, so he just waved them off irritably. He hadn't been on this side of it last time, so he had to give the sample over to Zelenka and ask what to do, which was galling, but he didn't want to waste time.

Finally it was ready. He leaned in, deactivated the field the way Harkness had shown him, backed way the hell across the room in case the device had a wide field or remembered him or anything like that as Donna gasped, and urged Zelenka to do it, now.

The green glow coiled down and swirled around Donna, but then it just sort of hovered around her, which he didn't remember happening before. Zelenka shook his head, frowning and working different parts of the console, and Rodney couldn't work out what he wanted to do most — run from the room, or shake Zelenka, or use Harkness's device to put the field back around Donna again even though they had no idea how it might interact.

But she was hurting. "Dammit —" he started, strangled.

Zelenka gave him an odd look, muttered something in Czech, and did something different with the console. The green coil suddenly spiraled around Donna and retreated. Zelenka kept working the console, and the machine spat out another coil.

Rodney realized, too late, that Zelenka was trying a full cycle — hit her with the ascension effect and then the reset. It might work, but it might not, and he hadn't meant to use the thing on her that way at all. His original plan had been risky enough, because they couldn't be certain whether the different effects would interact. He was about to get furious when a golden mist suddenly clouded around Donna.

The gold slowly dissipated, and the green glow traced an insolent final spiral around Donna before fading.

Zelenka raised his eyebrows. "It did not do that before," he noted with interest. Seeing Rodney's expression, he hastily added, "The readouts suggest that it has worked, as it did for you. If the machine is correct, she has not been harmed. And she seems well."

Rodney looked over to see Donna starting to sit up, looking around at the room in confusion. He hurried over to help her. "Donna? Did it — are you okay? I mean, how do you feel?"

"I'm fine," she said slowly, frowning, as if even that confused her. "But what is this place? It's a bit … dank, isn't it?"

He looked around, surprised. "Oh. I didn't really notice before, what with the whole not-dying thing, but it really kind of is, isn't it? Ucch. Sorry."

"I've been worse places," she assured him.

She moved to stand and then suddenly Sheppard was there, at her other side, also helping her. "Hi there," he said, smiling at her. "John Sheppard. And I hear you're Donna."

Oh, for heaven's sake. He really couldn't help himself, could he? It was supposed to be a game, Rodney knew that, but he really didn't need this right now.

What he really didn't need was the way Donna was looking at Sheppard. "Yeah, that's me, Donna Noble," she agreed distantly, staring at Sheppard.

Rodney just closed his eyes for a moment. Apparently he had let himself forget for a while just how very much his life sucked right now.

"Well, Donna, let's get you out of this room first, and then our doctor wants to take a quick look at you, okay?" Sheppard guided her away, shooting Rodney a look that started as a smirk but then shifted to something almost apologetic. Rodney stayed behind briefly, making sure that Zelenka was planning to take the machine back apart right away. Zelenka finished pulling the last of the data he wanted from the system and agreed, so Rodney headed out to the hall.

He was lucky — the medic was someone he didn't know very well. She was giving Donna a basic once-over. Donna cooperated, giving Rodney a quick questioning look at one point but not yet demanding an explanation.

The medic finally shrugged. "You seem fine, but I'm supposed to take you to the infirmary to be sure."

Right. Not lucky at all. Of course.

Donna had no idea what was going on.

She remembered being in hospital, her head splitting. Now she was somewhere completely unfamiliar, surrounded by people she'd never seen before … and she felt fine. The man from before, McKay, was there, but after making sure she was all right he hadn't spoken to her again. He just stood around, arms folded, scowling.

She had seen flag patches on the shoulders of the various people around, for several different countries. A few of the people looked like American military, including the other man who had spoken to her. Sheppard. He was good-looking and skinny, with familiar hair, and she found herself thinking of the Doctor. But she wasn't supposed to remember him at all.

The medical woman wanted her to go to their infirmary. Donna insisted she could walk, and after a glance at McKay the skinny guy indicated which way they should go. McKay followed silently, still scowling, with the medic.

New memories she had thought she would never forget were flooding her mind, all her time in the TARDIS, and it was making her dizzy. She looked around instead, trying to find any kind of clue where she was. The hallways were beautiful and strange. The light in the hallways moved with them subtly, and a doorway opened for them as they neared it. A short while later Sheppard waved his hand over a sensor and another door opened. It looked like a sort of lift, but when they were all inside Sheppard touched a panel. The panel glowed, and when the door opened again, they were at a different hallway.

That really suggested they weren't in London in her own time, unless they were in a facility she didn't know about. But the people and clothing didn't look all that different from her own time, though where the American military had suddenly come from was a mystery. Sheppard had some kind of gun in a low holster, and she wasn't an expert in guns but it didn't look alien or futuristic. The few people she had seen in the strange room or the hallways who weren't military were in different sorts of uniforms or in more casual clothing, but again, it wasn't especially strange clothing. There were flag patches for a lot of different countries, though.

Matter of fact, McKay wasn't in his conference suit any more, either. He had one of those non-military uniform-style jackets, with a maple-leaf flag on the shoulder. She remembered his insistence that he wasn't American, and she would have smiled at him but he was frowning down at the floor as they walked.

They came to another door that opened for them. The medic moved around from behind them and approached a very young blonde woman. They talked briefly, and then the younger woman came over. For just a moment she looked at the three of them uncertainly, but then she gave Donna a very firm smile. "I'm Dr. Keller, and you're Donna, right?" she said kindly. "Come on over with me and let's get you checked over, okay?" She didn't look old enough to have passed her exams, but she guided Donna confidently over to a sort of examining table and asked what had happened.

How exactly was she supposed to explain a human/Time Lord biological metacrisis to a doctor who might think her mad? She hesitated, and after a few seconds McKay finally spoke. "That guy Harkness said she had to do a 'sort of biological merger thing' with an offworlder." His voice was level and empty, and by all appearances he was addressing the table. Donna faintly remembered something about Jack being there, apologetic. McKay continued, "Apparently his biology was too … advanced or different or something. The effects sounded like that forced Ascension thing, so we tried that machine. Zelenka thinks it worked."

"Okay." Dr. Keller nodded, accepting, but she wasn't really quite looking at McKay. "Dr. Zelenka told me a little about that part, so I pulled … those old records." She smiled at Donna. "There's a few things I need to check for, some scans, okay? If you'll just lie down on this …."

All the medical equipment Donna was used to, at least for her own home and time, apparently required special rooms and embarrassing clothing, but they didn't suggest anything like that. The two men just shifted out of the way as the doctor did something with a computer nearby and a light passed over her.

There was a weird tension between the three. The doctor kept looking uncertain and uneasy when she wasn't talking to Donna. Sheppard smiled blandly, but he kept looking silent questions at Donna and at McKay. McKay just glared down at the floor as if it had offended him.

Suddenly he rolled his eyes violently, though. He put his hand to his ear and snarled, "What? Surely you can …. No, of course not, it's …. Tell me you're joking, because seriously, two grade-sixers with an abacus could do better, and don't think I won't …." He wandered away, drifting across the room as he bickered with someone over his headset. Sheppard's bland smile warmed to something more genuine as he watched McKay with amusement.

The doctor moved closer. "So is he …?" she asked Sheppard very softly.

His smile dimmed. "You know about what I do," he said just as quietly, shrugging.

The doctor told Donna she could sit up and asked to take a blood sample. As she was doing that, McKay came back. "Do you have. Um. Extra tablet. I don't —" He spoke in the general direction of the doctor's shoulder, halting and awkward.

"Sure," the doctor said carefully. "In the same place." McKay nodded and hastily went over to a desk, back to arguing on his headset. The doctor sighed. "Right." She and Sheppard shared another look, and then the doctor started asking Donna some very strange questions. Did she think she was hearing things from further away than usual? Did she think she could hear anyone's thoughts? Did she think she could move things without touching them?

Donna denied all of them. "Why, should I?"

The doctor smiled and said no. Sheppard smiled and said, "Be really cool, though, huh? Come on, Doc, she's fine, right? So you can tell Woolsey that I can take a turn."

"No, Colonel," the doctor replied, stern but fond. She turned back to Donna. "I don't see any problems or anything to worry about. I want you to check in with me once a day for the next week, though, all right? And if you start noticing any of those things I mentioned, tell me right away. Are you hungry?"

"Starving," Donna realized suddenly.

"Thought so," the doctor said with yet another smile. She looked over at Sheppard, who looked over at McKay and then shrugged.

"I'll show you to the mess hall," he said. He called over to McKay, who didn't answer, so after a moment Sheppard went over and took McKay's arm. McKay didn't look up from the touch-computer he was poking at, and he didn't pause in his headset conversation, but once Sheppard had started him moving he walked with them. Sheppard gave Donna an amused look.

"So what's this place, then?" she asked him finally.

He gave her a long look. "It's called Atlantis," he said carefully. "What brings you here?"

"No idea," she told him, quite honestly. Behind them, McKay snapped something about a particularly dim ocelot knowing better than to apply those transforms.

"Well, what brings you here with McKay, then? Are you physics, astrophysics? Mechanical engineering? … Aeronautics?"

"I'm a temp."

He glanced back at McKay. He looked at her, opened his mouth, closed it again, and didn't speak the rest of the way to the mess hall.

He had been polite to her, and he was cute enough — all right, he was gorgeous — but something about him put her off. Possibly the way he looked a tiny bit like the Doctor, or maybe it was the way his smiles were a little too careful. He was probably thinking plenty of things she would never know about, and she didn't like the sensation she was being left out of a conversation she was part of. She had already been through that once with Lance, thank you very much.

When they reached the mess hall, Sheppard reached over and took away McKay's computer. McKay briefly tried to snatch it back. "Hey, that's — ooh, food. No, not you. … Just figure it out. … Look, you're a little old for training wheels. Do something for your paycheck for a change." He tapped at his earpiece decisively, grabbed a tray, and headed for the food line. Sheppard gave her an apologetic smile and gestured for her to go ahead of him.

McKay made specific selections with a routine air, nattering on about something to do with power couplings and a sensor array as Sheppard made vague sounds of agreement from her other side. Donna took bits of anything that looked remotely edible, because she'd eaten plenty of surprising things on countless planets and you never knew.

They headed over as a group to one of the tables, but then McKay hesitated, seeming to notice her again for the first time. He remained standing and lifted his tray slightly, as if to gesture backwards. "Actually, you know, I should probably get back to my lab. The state it's in now — they'll probably have —"

Sheppard was starting to look annoyed. Donna knew one thing that would likely work, though, so she set her tray down and then took McKay's. She put that on the table, too, and then hugged him. This time he took it a little better, patting her shoulders awkwardly before she released him.

"Thank you," she told him. "Again. That's twice in one day."

"Well, twice in three weeks, actually," he said, sitting when she did. "You were in stasis, so — three weeks. Didn't anybody explain that to you?"

"Who was going to explain, McKay?" Sheppard asked him as Donna started testing foods. She knew enough to taste small bits before committing herself to anything, and a few things were the sort she'd eat only if she had to, so she pushed them aside. "All we knew was you wanted the — that machine put back together and you were bringing someone here to stick in it. Nobody said anything about stasis. Or much of anything about anything else. Care to explain?"

"You'll be at the staff meeting tomorrow, right? I'll explain then." He glanced over to the exit. But when Sheppard growled his name, he sighed dramatically. "Fine. Remember the Oxford conference? The one Carter volunteered me —"

"Oi!" Donna interrupted, swatting his hand. "Get your own, grabby!"

He ate his pilfered chip and rubbed at his fingers, looking faintly surprised, as if he hadn't really noticed he was nicking it. "I didn't see those," he muttered. After a second he added a grudging, "Sorry." She wasn't giving up her chips, but she went ahead and moved the things she hadn't cared for so far to his tray, in case he liked them any better.

Sheppard immediately reached over and grabbed one of the little dishes she had shifted over. She glared at him. "What did I just —"

"He's allergic," Sheppard told her.

McKay gave him a startled look. "I am? Since when?"

"Well, they had a sign on this stuff calling it turkelope à l'orange, so I'm thinking there just might be citrus in it."

"Oh, right. Nice of them to welcome me back with zoologically improbable death." McKay ate as he spoke, without much attention to what he was actually eating, which probably explained why Sheppard had made sure to take the dish away. "Anyway, Oxford conference, Carter's a Judas, power demo, cascade reaction. We shut it down —" he gestured to indicate both Donna and himself "— and then she collapsed. Security service guy showed up with a portable stasis field, said she'd been hit by alien tech, sounded close enough, I figured we'd try this, it worked."

That was the least impressive way Donna could imagine the story being told. Did that mean he really did do this all the time? Because he didn't strike her as the humble type.

"Any reason you couldn't tell us what was going on first? Woolsey's kind of furious."

McKay waved a hand. "Fostering international goodwill. He should love that kind of thing. I'm sure England is glad to still exist, and their security services wanted her alive and cured, so here we are."

Sheppard raised an eyebrow and skeptically asked, "Still exist?" as Donna said, "What do you mean, just England, I thought you said a quarter of the planet."

"Specifically, 26.1%, actually. I had time to run the numbers on the trip here. That's assuming Oxford as the center of a sphere, which might not be precisely accurate — we don't know a whole lot about the directionality of that kind of reaction — but it should be close enough. But I said England because you're from there, and that Torchwood group, and Oxford, and their government is busy apologizing for that. Besides, Greenland isn't exactly a huge political player if they even know about it, and I don't know what parts of Europe know about it yet. Russia probably knows, though, they're pretty connected, but they don't like me so they probably won't be much help." Sheppard was still looking at him doubtfully, so he added, "Think a miniature homegrown Arcturus," in a weird tight tone.

Sheppard sat up sharply, and whatever was in the look he gave McKay, disbelief wasn't part of it any longer. "But you shut it down?"

"Yeah, and called it in. Their alphabet soup is handling the — rest of it. MI-whatever." McKay sounded casual, but he was looking firmly down at his food.

Donna didn't need a couple of men doing some not-talking thing. "Right, that's all fascinating, I'm sure, but let's get back to me, yeah?" McKay didn't look up right away, but his mouth quirked in amusement. "Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you fixed me, but why did you have to drag me to some place called Atlantis, and why's it been three weeks?"

"'Some place called Atlantis'?" McKay glared at Sheppard. "Are you actually the worst tour guide ever?"

"Considering your contribution, I'd say no."

McKay gave him a disgusted look and turned back to Donna. "This isn't just some place called Atlantis. This is the real thing. It's over ten thousand years old. Actually, millions of years old, empty for the last ten thousand or so, until us. Still in great shape, considering that. Though of course most of that is me keeping it running." At Sheppard's look he amended, "Well, me and my staff. Mostly me. Because god forbid anyone do a single productive thing when I'm not here to —"

"Wait a second. Are you telling me this is the actual Atlantis?" She was getting that old excitement from her time in the TARDIS.

McKay smiled at her, that real smile he had given her once before, apparently feeling the same thrill. "The inspiration for all the legends, yeah."

"So we're on an island, then?"

"The city is an island, effectively. Of course, it's also a spaceship, but — wait a second. You haven't even seen outside. Good grief. Come on." He stood, taking a bowl and a fork with him, and jerked his head for her to follow. He led her through an archway to some open-air seating, and —

She stared for a moment and then raced to the railing. The water went on forever, and the city was huge around her, spires and piers. "Oh. My. God!" she exclaimed. "This is amazing. It's — it's huge! And — how's it a spaceship, then?"

She looked back at McKay and saw he was watching her rather than the view, the way the Doctor often had, enjoying her reaction. He came forward and gestured with the fork. "There's a shield that surrounds the city, and a star drive." He took a forkful of food and continued, "This actually isn't the —" He blinked, looking suddenly guilty, and swallowed before starting over. "This actually isn't the planet where we first found the city. We had to move it, because of the … hmmm. I'm not sure how much you already know, so I don't know how much to tell you. I don't want to, you know, scare you or anything. We can send you back to Earth whenever you're ready."

"Are you kidding? I only just got here! All I know is I was temping, and all of a sudden we saved the planet from blowing up. My head nearly exploded, and Captain Jack was saying he was sorry, but you did something so I'm fine even though I can remember. Now you're talking about other planets and the real, live Atlantis. Do you have any idea how much I've missed this? You are not sending me back to Earth yet, mister! I didn't even know we left!"

"Oh. Well, no, I wasn't — I didn't mean — Hold on." He looked at her with a considering frown. "You're not exactly shocked about the whole not-on-Earth thing. That Captain Harkness said you traveled with an ally he called the Doctor. He didn't say exactly what that meant, but are you saying you've traveled to other planets?"

"Planets, times, yeah. It was a time-and-space machine." He choked. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, yeah, fine, just insanely jealous." He gave her a lopsided smile. "Okay, you're going to need to know about the Ancients and then the Wraith. And, well, the Replicators and the Genii, I guess, but first — the Ancients and the Stargate system."

He explained. He explained for hours. He really got into it, hands waving for emphasis, not even noticing when, about ten minutes in, Sheppard gently steered him to sit at one of the tables with a fond shake of his head, leaving them with the food trays he had also brought out. McKay told her all sorts of things the Doctor had never bothered to mention, and it helped that he wasn't an alien because he didn't keep making references to civilizations she'd never heard of.

He didn't mind when she asked questions, either. He thought some of the questions were stupid, but after the second time he gave her that particular eye-roll and obviously tone she called him on it. Just because she hadn't been to university and didn't have however many degrees didn't mean he got to talk down to her, any more than she had ever let the Doctor do so.

"Sorry," he said quietly, actually looking it. "It's just, I'm used to working with people who are supposed to know about this stuff already. I don't, I don't mean to …."

"It's all right," she told him. "Just watch it. But alien landing pads, really? I've been to Egypt, you know."

He started back up, a little more slowly, giving her worried little looks, but after a couple of minutes he got back into it. After that, though, when she asked anything, he paused and answered properly, and he made sure to keep going back and filling things in until he was sure she understood.

So he explained the Ancients and what they had to do with Atlantis, and a little about the Stargates in their own galaxy and some things that had gone on there. Then he went back and explained the international relationships and the Atlantis expedition.

And then he explained the Wraith.

She didn't really like what he told her. She was used to traveling with the Doctor, trying to find ways for everyone to get along, carrying no weapons. But she had also seen how he was with the Daleks, and the Sontarans at the end, and she knew it really was different for the ones who couldn't just leave any time they wanted.

McKay sounded a little annoyed when she asked if they had at least tried to make peace with the Wraith, but he said they had. "We even tried to find ways to change them so they wouldn't have to eat people," he told her, and that really sounded like the sort of thing the Doctor would try, but it hadn't worked. And even though they had a lot of military around, the way he told it they didn't go looking for the Wraith — they defended themselves and any other humans who asked for help, but they weren't trying to wipe all the Wraith out completely. "At least not all of us, though I for one wouldn't weep for them, honestly, because, oh yeah, the only way they can survive is to eat people."

She could pick her battles. She stood. "Want to see if you're a better tour guide?"

He was a fantastic tour guide.

He knew where the interesting places were, and what everything did, and he really wanted to tell her about it. He lit up, completely, when he talked about the city and how it worked. He explained about the genes and the gene therapy, and he had her try making something light up but it didn't work for her. He assured her that the gene therapy still might work for her, if she wanted it, and took her to see the gate room. He pointed out the Stargate, and showed her the various consoles, and said, "There's Mr. Woolsey in his office, civilian head of the expedition, wave and smile and let's go look at the labs right now."

He didn't say it, but he loved the city, almost as much as the Doctor had loved the TARDIS and, she thought, for some of the same reasons.

He took her to the labs and the scruffy guy in specs from that first room accosted him immediately. "Rodney, where have you —" He saw her, shoved his specs up his nose, and after a pause said, "— hidden the good markers, you know they are mine."

"They are no such thing and you know it," McKay groused.

The scruffy man waited all of two seconds before smiling at her and putting his hand out. "Radek Zelenka."

Donna took his hand and gave her name, and McKay muttered, "Right, yes, that," looking a little embarrassed.

But Zelenka's smile was kind. "There is much to see," he said to her. "Has he shown you the chair room yet? Or the jumpers?"

McKay snapped his fingers. "Chair room, yes, you should see that." He swept her out of the labs and on to show her The Chair. He explained what it could be used to do, but she couldn't get quite as excited about it as he was because he couldn't do much with it right then. He didn't exactly want to move the city or blow something up, and otherwise all he could really show her was a sort of hologram thing that he didn't think would be worth the power it would take. So it was just a room with an odd-looking chair, and it was deep enough in the city that it wasn't at all like the bridge of what she thought of as proper spaceships.

So she asked about the jumpers Zelenka had mentioned, and he deflated a bit, but he took her to see them.

"You don't seem too excited about them," she noted after he had given her the least interested explanation of the entire tour.

He shrugged. "You've been in a space-and-time ship. These must be nothing." He didn't look at her.

"No, but that thing just looked like a rickety old wooden box. Go in, rattle about, get out someplace else. It was a bit like that chair room — I mean, I don't know what it's like if you're actually using that chair, but just standing around watching somebody else do it, that can't be too interesting. But these actually fly, yeah?"

"Yeah." His tone was completely flat. He rubbed a nonexistent speck off the side of one of the jumpers.

She didn't know what was wrong. She wanted him to be excited again. "Can we take one of them out, see what it's like? Is that allowed?"

"I guess. You should have Sheppard take you out."

"Oh." He had spoken of them as if anyone with the gene could operate them. "Can't you do it?"

"I can make them go. He's an actual pilot. Much more exciting that way. Hey, if you hurry, you could get a nice sunset flight." His tone had turned poisonous.

He was … jealous?

Except he had nothing to be jealous of, and how was it fair for him to feel rejected already when they'd barely met? That was men for you — always jumping to conclusions.

She went over to him and took his hand. When he looked at her in surprise, she looked right into his eyes and told him, "Look, if you really don't want to go, it's all right. And I guess I could ask your friend. I just thought it would be fun to go with you, because you make it interesting, and you explain, and I thought that would be nice. But you don't have to."

His brain was apparently still stuck back at the point when she had taken his hand. He made a few aimless sounds for a bit before gathering himself. "No, it's okay, I mean, he really is good, you'd like it. And I get it, I do, women like him. I get that. It's fine."

Of all the things for him to be dense about. "It's not like that."

He looked shocked. "What? Why wouldn't it be? I mean, he's Sheppard. He's Kirk. Every female in two galaxies wants him, and yes, I'm including allegedly Ascended beings who are supposed to have their minds on higher things in that."

She sighed. "Are you going to take me or not?"

He looked at her, still frowning, for a long moment. Then he pulled back from her, freeing his hand and putting it to his earpiece. "Zelenka. These jumpers are your babies — is there one I can trust not to blow up or try to drown us? … Got it. Thanks." He saw her questioning look and waved a dismissal. "Don't worry, that was one time, and it was a test of some repairs. He actually keeps them in pretty good shape. Don't tell him I said that, he'll get a swelled head."

He opened one of the jumpers and waved her in, chatting to someone else on his radio, apparently getting some kind of clearance. Then he explained the basics of the jumper, starting to look like he was enjoying it again, until they took the front-most seats. He made a sort of hologram appear, and he showed where they were and where he would take them, and then apologized and said he would actually need to concentrate a bit. She took that to mean she shouldn't ask him questions, and she bit her lip to keep from smiling, because she was pretty sure she wasn't the one who would have trouble not talking.

He took them up out of the bay and across the water, nothing fancy, just a basic straight line. It felt closer to floating than flying, just a feeling of normal gravity even though they were moving at a good clip, which was probably the inertial dampeners he had mentioned. He glanced over at her a couple of times as she looked out at the sunset sky, and her enjoyment seemed to please him again because each time he went back to concentrating on the steering with a happy little smile.

That smile turned into a frown of concentration as he brought the jumper in over land. He made it go still over a flat area that had obviously been used for this sort of thing many times, and he lowered it very slowly until he finally had it set completely down with only a little bump. He sighed hugely, as if he had been very tense. Then he pressed something and the rear door opened. "We can walk around for a little bit. We shouldn't go far, not at night. I mean, it's supposed to be pretty safe, but still. But right around here is fine, and maybe we could take a couple of minutes before we head back?"

"I'd like that," she assured him, and he flushed and led the way out.

They were in a little clearing in the woods, near the water's edge. There wasn't a proper beach, but there were some rocks in ledges like a staircase overlooking the water, and they sat at the top while he pointed out the moons and the way to Earth (which he had to point down towards the water at an angle for, because it was in the wrong direction to be in the sky right then), and a few stars that apparently had interesting stories tied to them. After a little while, though, he fell silent as the colors gradually dimmed from the sky.

She took his hand as they just looked out at the view, because it was simply amazing.

After a second, though, he used his other hand to pry his own hand free of hers. "You really should stop doing that," he said quietly.

"Sorry, does it bother you?"

"No. But I'm awful at reading women. For all I know, in England, holding hands just means hello, but I might think you actually like me, and if you're not careful you'll do something that's just friendly and I'm liable to propose."

"And … that's a bad thing?" She bumped his shoulder lightly with hers, teasing.

"Apparently." He crossed his arms and scowled out at the water.

"Why's that bad, though?"

He groaned. "Don't, okay? Just don't, because seriously, I suck at this, I don't know how to deal with women, I really don't, I never did —" He lay back suddenly on their ledge and covered his eyes with one arm. "I'm really, really, really bad at this."

He was quiet for a long while. Finally Donna sighed. "Look, just talk to me, all right? I know it's been a long day, with saving the world and all —"

"Three weeks," he corrected automatically. "But, yeah, I guess for you it has only been one day." His mouth twitched. "Which kind of makes this the longest day of my life. The longest three-week day, and I think that is actually a record for me, even counting time loops. I don't think I care if that's cheating, because seriously, this is a much better way to do it."

"There you go then. So talk to me."

"About what? My rotten record with women? Even forgetting about all the disasters before this place — and trust me, I'd dearly love to forget those — in all the years I've been here, I've had exactly two relationships. Two. And I completely screwed them both up."

"What, that was all you?"

He waved his free hand in the general direction of Atlantis. "Obviously, yeah, because it took me forever to even ask Katie out. And after a couple of years I figured I should propose, but then the city malfunctioned, and we got stuck in a room where I couldn't do anything about it. I panicked, and the way I acted … she found the ring but I told her I thought I wasn't ready, I didn't think she'd be happy with me, the way I was right then, and … well."

She waited, but he didn't say anything further. "Is that it?" she asked finally.

He moved the arm away from over his eyes slightly to give her a curious look. "I'm pretty sure that's not how it goes. You're supposed to be telling me how I'm a completely thoughtless and inconsiderate jerk."

"Right. Let's see. Did you poison her for six months?"

"What? No, of course not!"

"Did you try to feed her to a giant spider? On her wedding day?"

"No, no, I'm pretty sure I never did that." He was staring at her.

"Well, that makes you a sight better than my old fiancé, then."

She could see he wasn't entirely certain whether to believe her, but he was interested now, and a little amused, and she liked that a lot better than that awful shut-down look.

He was actually pretty good-looking. She shouldn't have been surprised by that, but he walked around like he didn't expect anyone to see anything in him but his big brain, and it was hard to see past that and all the scowling. But when he wasn't running around stopping things exploding or being all tense around other people, when he relaxed and just talked to her or talked about the city, he was a bit of all right.

She really hadn't expected that. She had never fancied the Doctor, no matter how often everyone in the entire universe assumed the two of them were a couple, and McKay reminded her of the Doctor in a few different ways. Well, if the Doctor had spent a lot more time scowling. But McKay wasn't a tall, skinny spaceman, and … well, she might be interested.

His expression was clouding back up, though. "Well, I didn't try to feed her to anything. I actually thought I was doing the right thing for her, but she packed up and headed back to Earth and everyone said I screwed up. And the only other person around here who looked at me twice was Keller, and that …." He glared up at the sky, but Donna thought that might be to cover something else.

"Keller? Like that doctor when I first got here? Any relation?"

"No, that's her, that's Jennifer."

That explained the odd tension earlier, but she hadn't guessed he was that sort. "Bit young for you, yeah?"

He scowled. "She's legal, god. It's not —" He cut himself off, and when he started back up several seconds later his tone was gentler. "She is young. Too young, I mean. Because I tried with her, I really did. God did I try. But when I started talking about kids …. I mean, she has to think about her career. I get that, really, I do. But by the time she's ready to … yeah."

"So you want kids, then?"

"Well, yeah, I do. I mean, I think I do. I don't know, I'm actually pretty awful with kids, at least feral ones, and the whole thing with my niece is kind of weird, but, I mean, I could learn, right? It's got to be something you can learn, at least enough to manage, and at least I know a lot of what not to do. And I'm not getting any younger, so if I'm ever going to — I mean, I don't want to be in a walker when my own kids are learning to walk. But, Keller … she's not ready, she won't be for years at least, and even then she might not … so. That's … yeah. Over. Which, I don't know why I'm surprised." He was all shut down again. "It's not like I can ever make it work, so I don't know why I was even bothering."

"Come on, don't be like that. You'll find someone. I bet you're quite a catch."

He snorted. "Tell Carter that."

He hadn't explained who this Carter was yet, but she thought he might be trying to distract her. "No, but look at you. You're smart, interesting, a bit handsome — trust me, my neighborhood, you wouldn't last long. Don't imagine you're rich, not doing science research — all the academics I ever met had to scratch. And saving the world certainly doesn't pay, not going by the Doctor at any rate. But you'd do your part, yeah? Don't see you sitting 'round watching telly all day when it's beans-on-toast and cut-price milk."

He shuddered. "Not unless I died and went to hell, no." He gave her an odd look and added, "Actually, I'm — well, I'm not rich, not some billionaire or anything, not in this universe. But I'm … comfortable, I guess. Between what the SGC had to pay to get me, and to keep me, and it's not like there's a whole lot to spend money on out here, and I've got a couple of patents — well, money isn't a problem, I guess. I'll be able to send any kids of mine to real schools."

She pushed at his arm playfully. "See? That's even better. A bit of security, that's always nice."

He didn't seem to be listening to her as he frowned up at the sky. "Have to remember to take Oxford off that list now, because, seriously. Of course, at this rate, by the time any kid of mine is old enough, we'll have to start the University of New Athos or something because every single Earth school will have done something stupid." He sighed again, every hint of smile draining away, as he added, "Of course, at this rate, I won't —" He broke off to sit up sharply. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"


At first, Donna didn't hear anything, but then the nearby bushes rustled.

He clambered to his feet, so she stood too. "Those stupid biologists. They swore to me there were no large predators here. Just perfect, I'm going to get eaten by some alien wolf, or you are, or we both are —"

"Well, don't just stand there waiting for it. Come on!" She grabbed his hand and they ran for the jumper. Before long, she was leading, almost pulling him along, and she nearly laughed at how familiar it all was.

When they got to the jumper they ran straight in. McKay slapped at a control as he doubled over and the back door closed. "How can you … run like that … in those shoes?" he panted.

She grinned at him, barely winded. "Practice. Lots and lots of practice. Now what?"

He straightened. "Leaving. Leaving would be good." He made his way to the front, sat down, and made the display show. "Let's see which direction …."

He was silent for several seconds, and then the display flickered out as he let his head thump down on the control panel. "Are you all right?" she asked, worried, but he waved weakly at her.

"It's not a wolf."

"All right, what was it, then?"

He sat up and started jabbing at the controls, his jaw tight. "Not a wolf."

"Well, that narrows it down." She grinned, but he wouldn't look at her. "Oh, go on. Was it a bear? Adipose? Pyrovile? Fox? Your Mr. Woolsey?" That almost got him. "The Four Oxford Stooges?"

"Rabbit. It was a rabbit, okay? I mean, not a real rabbit, of course, the local version. But still."

"Oh. Okay."

"Just go ahead and get it over with, would you? I get it. I didn't grow up skinning deer with my teeth or some similar lovely pastime. I ran away, very funny."

"What do you mean? We didn't know what it was. I'm not laughing at you." There he went again, jumping to conclusions. "Why would I? I was running too, remember?" He kept poking at the controls, though he couldn't possibly be doing something especially important when they weren't moving. "Look, if there's one thing I learned with the Doctor, it's that sometimes you have to run first and realize you didn't get eaten later." That might be a bit of an exaggeration, because the Doctor always liked to poke around to know exactly what they were dealing with and sometimes left the running a bit late, but McKay didn't need to know that.

"That's … a remarkably sensible policy," he said, starting to look a little better.

"And if you like, we can keep it a secret. Just between us. And the rabbit, I suppose. Do the local rabbits talk?"

One side of his mouth quirked upward. "Not as far as I know."

She smiled and very deliberately took his hand. "So, our secret then."

He blinked down at their joined hands. "Like I said, you should —"

She tightened her grip. "Maybe I want you to think I like you," she told him.

He looked very confused — and alarmed. "But … but …." He swallowed. "Really?"

She sighed. "Why are the smart guys always so thick? Look. You aren't scared by talk of marriage and kids. You're good-looking. You're not a layabout. And I already like you. I'm not saying you should propose right this second," she added, smiling, and he managed a tiny smile back, "but we could like each other and see how it goes, yeah?"

"I … yes?" His eyes searched hers anxiously. After a few seconds his smile got a little bigger — still tentative, but starting to believe her. A few seconds after that, though, he cleared his throat softly. "But I kind of need both hands to steer, so …."

She rolled her eyes at him and let go, noticing that this time he wasn't nearly so fast to pull away.

"Unless you really want to stay," he added doubtfully. "Because I've slept in these jumpers and, trust me, it is not comfortable."

"And give the rabbits a chance to build up into a swarm? Enough of them pile on, this thing might not even be able to fly." He actually chuckled at that, so once he had them moving and level she continued, "It is just amazing what little things can do if you get enough of them together. This one time …."

After a week, Donna had decided. Dr. Keller cleared her, apparently sure that she wasn't going to turn into some super-powered mutant, so she went to tell Rodney about that over lunch in his lab. Then she asked him, "So, how do you get a job around here?"

"I … hmm. I don't actually know. I mean, the people I hire generally come from a list, pre-screened and all that. That's for the scientists, and Sheppard deals with the military … thing. And the local fighting types, like Teyla and Ronon."

Donna had met them as well. Rodney had been very worried that she would be bored out of her skull when he had to work and couldn't show her around, so he invited her to every meal with his team, as well as loading her down with piles of books and movies and arcane science journals. They didn't want her exploring the city alone, and she was disappointed about that, but she saw their point — and she did prefer to have someone handy to explain things.

Rodney's friends had been nice to her, politely curious, if still a bit careful about telling her anything interesting. Donna just asked what she liked, accepted the answers they gave, and talked freely about herself, relieved to be somewhere she could.

Teyla had even gone around to several of the women and helped Donna borrow a few things for however long her stay lasted. Rodney had been embarrassed not to have thought of that — or possibly mortified at the thought of girly things. She wasn't positive which.

"I guess Woolsey would know about anyone else. I could see about hiring you for my division, but you might get nasty comments." He looked down, adding in a mutter, "And that'd make it even more awkward when this …." He made an aimless sort of gesture. "Falls apart."

"Bit of a Gloomy Gus today, yeah?" she teased.

"Actually, yeah, I am," he sighed, poking his food with his fork. "Pretty much always. You should know that. I'm not good at optimism. I see the bad side of things, the worst possible outcomes. I know it's not very, you know. Romantic."

He didn't half like to borrow trouble, but she already knew that. "So I shouldn't take it personally. Good to know." She took a bite of the seaweedy stuff that was better than it looked and considered. "I think I can work with that."

He gave her a surprised look and speared a cube of fruit. "I can talk to Woolsey, if you want."

"So can I," she told him. "I know a few people."

Now that she had been cleared medically, Mr. Woolsey wanted to talk with her anyway, so she took a few hours to draw up her plan and then went to see him. It was impulsive. She felt reckless. But she had been swept out of her life once before, and she had turned the Doctor down, that first time. She had promptly regretted it and spent more than a year trying to get that chance back. She wasn't going to make the same mistake again.

This sort of thing was a lot trickier without a bit of psychic paper to help her persuade people, or her own transportation to take her where she wanted to go if persuasion failed, but she did have determination. She made her proposal just after they had greeted one another: He needed an assistant.

He gave her a long, considering look. "I already have assistants," he told her. "Several of them, in fact."

"Yeah, but they're actually technicians, aren't they? Run the gate room, fiddle with the machinery — you need them doing that." Psychic paper helped, but really, all it usually took was confidence and a bit of brass. "And honestly? They're not experts at running an office. I am." She had borrowed Rodney's computer and printer. She started passing across papers. "There's my CV. As for security, these are my references for that. I can't get full contact information for those from here, of course, but I've given enough for you to locate them. I haven't been able to ask them properly from here, either, so you'll have to account for that."

He glanced at the papers. "Of course, you could have submitted these once you were back home."

"I could." She knew that if she let them send her to Earth, her chances of getting back were very slim. "That would be a waste of resources, though, wouldn't it? Sending me back there, bringing me back here again — lot of lost time in that. Or … you could hire me provisionally, let me stay, and let me start on some of those things that always pile up 'cause there's never enough time."

"You also could have asked to work directly for Dr. McKay."

She knew he had to ask. "I'm a professional, Mr. Woolsey," she said calmly. "Besides, I'm sure if he needs clerical help, he can ask you for that. So could anyone else here. If I'm wrong and you don't have enough work yourself to justify my position, I'm sure you could find enough to keep me busy, as many people as you have here."

He nodded once, accepting the point but not giving her any more than that yet.

She wasn't nearly as sure she should say the next bit, but she didn't want to miss her chance by not being bold enough. She was very, very careful to speak casually. "I've noticed an awful lot of American flags." She touched the bare patch space on the shoulder of her borrowed jacket.

Mr. Woolsey leaned back in his chair. She had worried he would take offense, but he looked slightly impressed. "And the Russians couldn't exactly object to one of the 'heroes of Oxford,'" he noted approvingly. He put his hand down on her papers. "Let me make some calls. If you can come back in the morning, I should have some unclassified work you can start on."

She turned out to have more pull than she had realized. Captain Jack's Torchwood vouched for her, but "MI-whatever" had also put in a good word. UNIT recommended her strongly, and part of that was probably Martha, but part was some massively influential retired guy — not that she had ever heard of him — who said her previous should be reference enough for anyone. Jack winked at her from a video message and said it was a "friend of the Doctor" thing.

Within very short order she was offered the position of administrative assistant to Mr. Woolsey. Rodney was delighted. "And he says mission leaders can send some work your way if he runs out of things for you to work on. Watch yourself, though — Sheppard's been coveting your typing fingers. I've had to beat him away with sticks. He'll tell you it was a training session and he was doing the beating, but don't believe him, he's a filthy liar."

It was a much more stable position than she'd even hoped for in a long while, and the pay was really quite good, enough to help Mum with the mortgage and give Granddad a bit of comfort. The only problem was that she was so far from them. She'd gone much further places with the Doctor, but she had really always been just a phone call or quick jaunt away, and now she had to save her time if she wanted to see them for even a week in the year.

But she wasn't likely to see an offer this good again, and Atlantis was amazing. She and Rodney were getting on quite well. And it wasn't as though she couldn't still talk to her family by email or video message. She accepted the offer right away.

They made a deal.

He would never lie to her, or keep secrets, or try to feed her to giant spiders — or any other kind of alien, thank you very much. And no talking down to her, either.

She would understand that he was trying, and tell him when he did something wrong or thoughtless instead of immediately getting all hurt about it, because for all his brains he could be a bit thick when it came to dealing with people and he was actually quite proud of his ability to be rude but only when he was doing it on purpose. And no calling him Meredith.

They shook on it.

They had words with her, after that, one at a time.

Sheppard was first. He made awkward small talk for a second and then said, "Look. The thing about Rodney … really, he's been a little … off since that whole thing with Katie Brown. And since that other thing with Keller, he's been … you know."

Honestly, men. "If you're so worried about him, why were you so quick to introduce yourself when I got here? Because don't think I didn't notice." He honestly hadn't tried anything with her, but she was curious what he would say.

He gave her one of those careful smiles. "Come on. I mess with Rodney because — well, because it's fun. Besides … if you could get distracted that easy? He'd never know if he could trust it, you know?"

"Well, I suppose," she said with mock severity.

He smiled again. "Good. So, that's settled. Great. So, welcome aboard, I guess," he added. Then he fled.

Zelenka was next. As they passed in a corridor, he pulled her aside and said softly, "He is impossible to work with when these things do not go well. So you will be careful with him, yes?"

Teyla asked her to stay for Athosian tea when she went to return a few garments she'd borrowed. After a long while of polite chat and strange-tasting tea, Teyla sighed. "Rodney can be very … difficult. But he has a gentle heart, and yet he offers himself easily. Those of us who care for him would not like to see him hurt."

Donna wasn't planning any such thing, and she made that perfectly clear. But Teyla was a woman, even from another planet, and they got to talking about other things, and her friendship with Teyla really started that day.

By the day Ronon cornered her in the mess hall and said, "You like him?" she got how it worked. So she just rolled her eyes and told him, "Ye-es." Ronon took a bite of the apple-like thing he held and said, "Good, 'cause he likes you. Don't screw it up," and wandered off.

"Rodney. You have visited my people many times. We are safe."

Rodney glared right back at her. "I know that."

Teyla eyed his hand still gripping the handgun, but at least he hadn't drawn the thing. Granted, that was mostly because he was pretty sure she would kick his ass if he actually removed it from the holster, but still. He hadn't actually drawn the gun, and he hadn't brought a P90, so maybe they could both give him a little slack.

Because he was panicking, and he didn't entirely know why.

They were just visiting the Athosians. Donna had started to feel cooped up after a few weeks, so Teyla suggested a trip to see her people. That should have been perfectly fine. It was as safe as anywhere else in Pegasus, and Donna had apparently done all sorts of dangerous things before they'd met, and Teyla could easily take care of all three of them if necessary.

But Donna didn't even like the tac vests, and she would not carry a gun. She refused to learn to shoot any of them and refused even to take one just in case. He tried to explain the whole space vampires and eating people thing, but she wouldn't budge.

He knew that really shouldn't have mattered. He hadn't gotten this way about Keller. He didn't even know if Katie knew how to point a gun. His own basic facility with guns was unusual for the science department anyway — that's what Marine escorts were for — and even that much was only because Sheppard insisted. And it wasn't as if a gun could stop a dart's scoop, or more than a few other dangers they might easily face.

But panic never listened to logic, even when both women gave him That Look.

"You have not even commented on these annoying insects," Teyla said, slapping one into oblivion. He didn't know whether she meant that as teasing, or to offer a distraction, or as some other stealth psychology thing. He just grunted. She already knew his position on the native carriers of the native version of malaria, and he would rather save his attention for making sure he didn't take some random Athosian kid leaving a tent for the most stealthy — and unlikely — Wraith ever.

Donna chatted with Teyla, her voice taking on that "I'm going to enjoy myself anyway" edge, and she was a little distant with him when they got back to Atlantis.

She talked to Woolsey and arranged to go along on occasional cultural and medical missions. They were never ones his team was on, and she never talked about the trips with him. He knew she had wanted to travel with him, at least sometimes, but they didn't talk about it. He tried to make up for it by telling her everything he knew about Pegasus, at least the … well, less grim stuff, all the different kinds of cities or the planet of the kids or the way the Hoffans had passed down their knowledge over the centuries.

In exchange, she told him about her travels with the Doctor.

They didn't keep that whole thing a secret, not exactly, not on purpose. But he had a head-start on who the guy even was, and he knew that at least some forms of time travel were possible and more might be discovered someday so he didn't automatically discount anything she said, and … he loved hearing it, all of it, absolutely loved it. He loved every little detail, he loved the way she would just casually mention walking around the actual Pompeii or visiting a planet-sized library or meeting Agatha Christie, and he wanted to know every tiny detail of the gadgets and food and people and creatures because who wouldn't? The few times she talked about it around anyone else, they looked doubtful or got bored while he was still marveling with her over the incredible persistence of sporks — sporks! — in mankind's spacefaring future, so most of the time she just told him the stories when they were alone.

He didn't really believe it would be that easy, that she would just shrug off how very much he hated the thought of her traveling Pegasus unarmed, but he did start to let himself think it might not be that big a deal between them.

"Hey, McKay."

"Busy," Rodney answered. Sheppard really needed to find a better hobby than dropping by the lab and pestering him. Some of this equipment was very … delicate ….

"Yeah, I know. Find a stopping place."

That … wasn't how this went. Rodney looked up at him, confused. "Seriously. Busy."

Sheppard wasn't giving him the usual smart grin. "You … do know Donna's offworld today, right?"

"No, no, no, do not tell me details." If he didn't know, he couldn't worry. Well, he could, but not effectively. It made a difference.

Except … except that didn't explain why Sheppard was suddenly bringing it up.

Oh, he could worry, all right. He could worry just fine. "What? What is it?"

Sheppard was starting to get that wary expression that meant he was eyeing a possibly explosive device or scientist. "They've missed two check-ins, and … we can't establish a wormhole."

Which meant Wraith. Or, well, sudden volcano, but those were pretty rare, so: Wraith.

Rodney stared at him hopelessly. He was supposed to do something. He really should be doing something, right away. Yes, definitely something.

Kusanagi edged in beside him. "I will finish this," she offered. Sheppard nodded and pulled at Rodney's arm.

"Be careful with that," Rodney said, forcing himself to find his voice. "If you let it get past the line, I'll — well, I won't have to kill you, it'll —" It was very hard to instill the necessary fear in his minions when Sheppard was hauling him from the room. He pulled his arm free, because he could damn well steer himself.

Sheppard took him right to the equipment room. Within a few minutes, Ronon and then Teyla came in as well. Sheppard could just have sent him with any team, they didn't all have to go, he didn't have to get their team all together particularly for this — he bent to retie his boots. The laces wouldn't quite cooperate, so he worked up an epic rant about their quality and design and general existence. Normally he had higher rant standards than that, but he was a bit desperate.

And they all just let him, so he moved on to the boots themselves. Their weight. Their height, calibrated precisely to be too low to keep out muck and high enough to chafe exactly the most annoying part of the leg. Their … their color, and their stiffness, which honestly they weren't by now, but he bitched about it anyway, and —

"You're just weak, McKay," Ronon interrupted. "They're fine."

If Rodney wasn't promptly too busy mocking the critical faculties of the last seven generations of Ronon's family, he might seriously have considered hugging him. Arguing with someone whose comebacks were almost monosyllables wasn't exactly satisfying, but at least Ronon got that he needed something.

Sheppard brought a jumper into the gateroom but then left it open, just in front of the gate, so that they could wait outside it but still leave quickly. Unfortunately, that meant Rodney had to put up with a chatty Woolsey, who tried to reassure him that the group knew their emergency plans and would be fine. Rodney got into it with him, a little, but Woolsey just kept being understanding at him. He'd rather just go back to arguing with Ronon.

They finally got through, sooner than he had really expected. Which meant a raid, a quick raid, not a full culling, not a wiping-out. Probably. He was too tense to argue and just kept his mouth firmly shut as they hurried into the jumper, even when Sheppard muttered an "Oh, thank god" for the relative quiet.

They cloaked swiftly as they went through and scanned for Wraith. The jumper's scanners showed no signs of them, so Sheppard called out over the radio. "Atlantis units, this is Sheppard. All units report."

Silence. Rodney stared forward at the silent woods, the empty paths, the first few solitary huts.

"Atlantis teams, repeat, this is Sheppard. All units report."

Silence again — "Captain Velazquez reporting. No Marine casualties. We tried to draw them away, sir. Got a few drones. No darts though."

"Copy that. Good work, Captain. Civilian units report." The plan was pretty simple: the Marines would try to draw the Wraith away from the settlement, and the civilians would break up and escort locals to various hiding places. The ones who were armed would serve as extra protection, and the radios would make finding everyone afterwards easier.

If they would just answer. "… Civilian units, report —"

"Oh, right, sorry. I mean, unit one, Biro, here, we're fine. About ten people, plus me I mean. Just one casualty, looks like a broken arm, no fatalities —"

"Copy that, unit one." Sheppard went on through the list.

"Unit two, Fitzhugh, six locals, minor injuries, no major casualties."

"—mit, unit three, Lille, two locals taken by a dart, eleven safe, no other casualties."

"Unit four, Noble, nine locals safe, no casualties —"

Rodney had no idea how many other civilians answered or even existed. Ronon's hand clapped him on the shoulder, and Teyla touched his other arm with a smile, but he was too busy melting into his seat. He eventually did hear Sheppard calling all units to assemble at their meeting point.

All of the Atlantis personnel were fine, aside from a few bumps and bruises. The locals had suffered losses, but they were grateful for what help the Atlantis group had provided. They made noises about offering a few extra loads of the tuber that was their claim to fame. Sheppard wasn't interested in the negotiation — the civilians could work out whether the offer should be politely refused or humbly accepted — so he just started rounding up whoever had to go back by jumper. There were a few casualties Biro thought would do better with a quick visit to the infirmary, so they were loaded on.

The rest of the civilian team wanted to stick around, to finish their medical thing and help the locals fix any damage from the raid, so Rodney just made sure Donna really was okay and then went and waited in the jumper.

Once he was back in Atlantis, he put away his equipment and then holed up for a few days.

It was easy enough to get time alone if he really needed to, when there wasn't some emergency. There were remote labs throughout the city, and he had stashed enough water bottles and MREs to last a few weeks if he had to. With radios and the computer networks, he could work on most things without having to see another person for several days at a time. The people who would bother to track him down generally understood when not to.

On the third day he went back to his usual lab. He got a few curious looks, but once he chewed out Simpson with only his usual degree of sarcasm they just went about their business. He ate in the lab and worked late.

The next day was a repeat, but he was pretty sure what would happen when Zelenka took particular note that he was the last except for Rodney as he left. Rodney took the good markers from their hiding place and brought one of the messier whiteboards close to the computer he was using.

As he expected, about fifteen minutes later Donna came in, because Zelenka was a predictable sneaky meddler. "Still hiding from me?" she demanded.

"I'm not hiding," he answered, careful to keep his tone mild. If he had wanted to hide, he would still be off in one of the remote labs. If a few more days had passed, he would have gone to her. He had just needed time to think. He took the markers and an eraser and went over to make the whiteboard readable.

"What's this, then? Sulking?" But he heard her pull out a nearby chair and take a seat.

"You remind me of Carson sometimes," he said thoughtfully, still working on the board, pausing frequently to consider the best way of rewriting the equations.

"That's Dr. Beckett, yeah?"

"Mmm. Back when we were first studying the outpost in Antarctica, he was the strongest gene user we had. So I kept pushing him to use the chair so we could study it, but he always hated it. He was scared of it, that he would accidentally break it or set off a weapon." He frowned at a sigma that didn't come out quite right, erased it, and wrote it out again. "Of course, the problem with worrying about something and a mind-controlled device …. Actually, that's how we ended up with Sheppard." He briefly flew the eraser through the air like — well, probably nothing like a helicopter being chased by a drone, but she probably got the idea. "And he was even better at it, so that worked out."

"I'm not scared of guns," she said, something odd in her voice.

He flapped his marker hand briefly. "No, I know. But he was worried about hurting anyone. And he wasn't really with us for the science research — he was doing his own research just fine back on Earth — and he definitely wasn't military." He erased a longer piece of the equation and started rewriting it. "I was actually surprised he agreed to come with us. And no, I know, you actually want to be here. I'm just saying, he was worried about hurting anyone, and he wasn't really here for research, and he certainly wasn't a fighter."

There was also the part where he had talked to her while she was in stasis, the way he had the new Beckett, but if she hadn't somehow heard about that through the rumor mill, he wasn't about to bring it up. There was a tiny chance she would find it romantic or something squishy like that, and a far greater chance she would find it creepy or think it meant he was a little crazy.

"He almost never went offworld." He could keep his hands perfectly steady even when he was buzzed on stimulants after days without sleep. His handwriting didn't show the slightest quiver as he carefully rewrote another line. "And this place killed him anyway."

"Pretty lively for a corpse," she said after a moment, puzzled.

He was really, really glad he wasn't facing her, because she didn't know, and he didn't want her to feel bad, but he couldn't help his expression. He waited until he had finished that particular part of the equation and could make his voice reasonably casual again. "No, the one you've met, he's a clone. Or a photocopy, whatever, I seriously think the life sciences people just make this stuff up as they go. He remembers the same things, mostly. But the one who was really with us in Antarctica, the one I was …. He died, a couple of years ago. Here, in the city, because of yet another psychotic Ancient experimental device."

Her voice was soft. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"No, I know. It's okay. And, you know, clone, which was unexpected. To say the least. We found him about a year later. It's not the same, but … it's close." He started cleaning up a new line of the equation. "You told me once about something you did early on when you were traveling — you had to sneak onto a spaceship, alone, and fix a teleport system. The Sontarans," he added, leaning really hard on the middle syllable to amuse her, because her friend had given her a hard time about the pronunciation. He relaxed a little at her quiet laugh. "You were scared, and it made me think about the first time I was on a Wraith ship." Actually, his first thought was that he totally could have done that, but the Wraith ship thing was a close second. "And you had to knock out one of the guards, and when it worked … I know what that was like, you know?"

He paused for a bit, in case she wanted to say something and so he could make sure he knew exactly what Zelenka's chicken-scratch contribution was before he erased it, but she just waited.

"You stopped being scared pretty soon after that, I think. Mostly, anyway." He knew her stories weren't about fear. They weren't even about finding common ground, though that was part of it. They were about exploring, and having fun, and saving people or entire worlds, and running, and living. He had gotten glimpses of that in his own life, but that wasn't what it had been about for him. "And it's not like this place isn't just as dangerous. I was thinking … if you're willing, maybe we could try New Athos again. I'm not saying I'd go unarmed, because that's just not happening, but I think I could keep my hands off my gun. Maybe even enjoy being there. I mean, I'd try, I really would."

He waited, fiddling with a radical. She took a lot longer to answer than he had thought she would, and there was definitely something wrong with her voice when she said, "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like that."

He turned to look and, dammit, he hadn't meant to make her cry. He put the marker and eraser down hastily. "I'm sorry, I didn't — what did I —?"

She shook her head briefly, so he bit back the words and gave her a minute. She wasn't actually crying, but she was really close. Whatever it was, it wasn't tears of joy.

After a minute or two she said, "The Wraith. I saw one of them —" She reached her hand towards his chest, though he wasn't quite close enough for her to touch and she didn't try.

"You saw one of them feed."

She nodded, dropping her hand. "One of the villagers. He didn't even do anything, he was just trying to get away, and … and I couldn't do anything. Even if I'd had a gun," she added, a little of her spirit returning, "it wouldn't have mattered. There were so many, it just would have drawn them to us, and then our whole group would have been taken. I'm not used to that, to just having to stay back and watch it happen. But … it's different, like this."

He edged closer. "I'm sorry." He thought maybe he should hold her, but she wasn't shy about making it clear when she wanted space.

She made a face at him. "Get over here, you." She pulled him closer and nestled against him. "Maybe they can't help how they are. But that doesn't mean they're … right. Natural." She sighed. "I think … I'm not going to carry a gun. That wouldn't have helped, and they … change things. But I think I should learn how to handle one. Just in case. I don't know." She pushed away to give him a firm look. "But I am not carrying one."

Maybe this would have felt like victory once. "Okay. We can talk to Sheppard."

She gave him a look. "What, is he an actual pilot of guns, too?"

"What? No, he's military. The head of the military. They specialize in guns, and if you're going to learn something you should go to an expert. He would have to know anyway — he'd have to assign someone, unless he decides to do it himself. I can go with you, if you want, I should probably practice more —" He finally realized she had been thinking of his jealous little tantrum in the jumper bay their first day — or three-week day, whatever. He rolled his eyes. "How did you not just slap me?"

"It was a near thing," she grinned. She went back to hugging him. "But you're not so bad."

Rodney's team was pretty close. Some of the gate teams only worked together, but Rodney's team were friends besides. They ate together and tended to sit together at the city's movie nights. They also had "team nights" every now and then, and sometimes those were "just team" but sometimes they invited others to join them.

Teyla generally brought Kanaan if they had someone to watch the baby. Ronon sometimes invited Amelia, and sometimes Keller, though whenever Keller was there Rodney always sat at the opposite end of the group from her and any conversations were a little more strained, even though — or maybe because — they were both so carefully polite. Rodney always invited Donna. Sometimes people like Lorne or Zelenka dropped in for a bit.

One of those nights was supposed to be for a movie, but they were being more social than attentive. The movie played on, half-ignored in the background, until Rodney suddenly stiffened beside her. She looked over at him, but he was staring at the screen … where the Monty Python guys were fleeing the killer rabbit.

She looked at Rodney again. He was fighting to keep his mouth straight. But when he saw her expression, he suddenly snorted, and then the two of them were laughing hysterically. The others just watched them, bewildered, and Sheppard said, "It's not that funny, guys," and they laughed until they were almost crying. They never explained.

She told him, late one night, what she'd lost.

She remembered her time in the TARDIS, and she remembered the basics of what had happened with the Daleks. But she had been a Time Lord, and she had understood so much, and now she knew that she had understood it but the actual understanding was all gone for her now.

He held her for a long time. Then he dug deep into a box and pulled out some papers covered in complete gibberish, and he told her about the Ascension machine properly for the first time. He explained how his mind had just grown, so much, and he had understood everything, and he had created all of this … and now he didn't understand any of it. It was all gone, all that knowledge and understanding, sacrificed for the chance to live, and it was worse because he remembered what it was like to know so much.

They didn't talk about it again, after that night. They didn't need to.

Donna stretched as she entered her quarters, trying to loosen her back after hours of typing. It still amazed her how much demand there was for her services here.

Rodney had just shrugged when she mentioned it over lunch a few weeks earlier. "Lot of bureaucracy, lot of paperwork, even if it's mostly electronic." He took a bite of his sandwich and added, "And a lot of people think you make me nicer, so they want you to stick around." His tone was offhand, but his eyes gave away his hidden smile.

She knew he was personally responsible for a huge pile of "if you run out of other stuff" work on her desk. "Oh, really?" she teased. She waited for him to swallow before kissing him.

The Colonel made a gagging noise as he joined them. Rodney threw a pea at him, his cheeks pink, but he kept smiling. He smiled a lot, now.

As her doors slid shut behind her, she wondered if she should see if he was around. He had gone offworld earlier in the day, and she knew he had gotten back safely, but they didn't always manage to find each other free.

He had been by, though, because there was a box on her desk, with a note. She took the note and smiled. He wrote the way he talked, at least when he wrote to her.

Okay, so, it's probably sappy. But I thought I saw you, just your hair, but it was actually this, and I thought you might like it.

She opened the box to find a beautiful pendant. It was a twist of something she would have called rosewood, highly polished, about four inches long. She held it up at the mirror, and it looked just right with her hair.

She headed down to the labs, because it was pretty much always a safe bet he would be there. He held up a finger for her to wait as he finished something on his computer, but then he gave her his full attention.

"That mission you had today," she said. "It was a proper mission, yeah? Not a stealth shopping trip or something like that?"

"What? No, there was supposed to be an old Ancient installation of some kind outside —" He noticed the pendant in her hand and turned a bit pink. "We had to pass through this sort of trading outpost thing on the way, and we were just going to kind of keep our heads down because they didn't actually like us much for some reason. Probably not wearing enough animal parts or something. But then I, you know, and when I asked, Teyla did some secret handshake thing or something so the guy would talk to me, and …." He gestured aimlessly. "It's okay if you don't like it, I mean, I just —"

She put her hand over his mouth briefly. "Hush, I like it. I was just wondering, should we get engaged?"

The lab fell completely silent, the nosy Parkers. He looked up at her in confusion. "Do you want to be?"

"Yeah, I think I do. If you do."

"Oh. Okay. Then, yes?"

She held the pendant out to him. He took it, still looking confused, but when she turned and lifted her hair he worked it out and fastened the cord behind her neck. She turned back to him, beaming, but he was looking at her very seriously. "Are you sure?" he asked quietly.

"I'm sure," she told him. His entire face lit with a delighted smile and he kissed her.

The others in the lab applauded and whistled, and he pulled away to snap, "Oh, get back to work," but his heart was barely in it at all, and then he kissed her again.

Rodney actually suggested a castle. He was almost entirely serious.

He still wasn't certain exactly what had possessed him, no matter how briefly. He had actually been in castles. He knew they were wretched places — drafty, dank, prone to falling on your head if you sneezed, and that wasn't even mentioning the plumbing, which they usually entirely lacked. They were just bad ideas all around.

But he had seen a brochure in with her planning paperwork — which said something right there about their viability, if they had to be rented out to generate any income — and he wanted to do something impressive for her. For her people, really, because he had an idea what they were like and it was only money.

Luckily she didn't think it was very practical and he soon came to his senses. "Hard to find a taxi or a cashpoint out in the middle of a heath," she pointed out. She might have meant that in consideration of their guests or as a reference to her previous wedding day. "And a bit far for everyone to travel."

They ended up deciding on a hotel just outside London. He left all that up to her, because he didn't know anything about the area and there were certain places she flatly refused to consider, while he was happy with pretty much any of them since they weren't Oxford. Being near London was much more convenient for just about everyone on her side, but that started her thinking. "What about your side? Won't that be far for them?"

He scoffed that he could manage to afford to fly three people from Canada. Sheppard was coming with them from Atlantis, to do the best-man thing, along with Teyla and Ronon, and pretty much anyone else he cared about was back in Atlantis, where they would have a second reception-thing for his people. Their people. And, well, some offworld dignitaries Woolsey pressed them into inviting, and Rodney had gritted his teeth and agreed to that part. Eventually.

Donna looked at him sadly and never said another word about his side. Somehow he ended up with a few more people than he had expected, though, because Carter ended up attending, and O'Neill, and the rest of SG-1, even though he had been pretty sure they hated him.

Carter was nice to him, kissing him on the cheek and looking honestly happy for him. Vala just winked at him and whispered something to Donna that made them both chuckle. The four men attending them looked from Donna to him, and he tried to work out which one looked the most disbelieving — Teal'c's whole "impassive" thing was an insurmountable handicap, so it was probably a toss-up between Jackson and Mitchell, though O'Neill kept making valiant little stabs at the lead. He smirked as they stared.

The hotel they ended up with was nice enough — at least going by the comments he kept overhearing. It was draftier than he expected for something built within the past three centuries, and it was profoundly generic, but Donna was happy, and architectural character didn't count for much against indoor plumbing.

Jeannie still looked a little stunned, as did Kaleb. Madison stuck her lip out and wouldn't look at him, because she had overheard about the rabbit stew and cried about the poor bunnies, even though he had gone out of his way to make sure the three of them got something vegetarian to avoid exactly that kind of scene. He thought Jeannie still didn't entirely approve of Donna, but she had been pushing him to get married for years, and Donna snapped at her every time she called him Meredith, so he was content.

Sheppard was off to one side, apparently trying to explain something and failing miserably, judging by Ronon's confused look and Teyla's laughter.

Wilf had given Donna away. He approved of Rodney, and Rodney liked him a lot. They talked about stars and space travel up on the hill during their visits as Rodney avoided Donna's mother, who reminded him uncomfortably of his own mother in a lot of ways. On top of that, she couldn't complain about Rodney's lack of station or wealth, so she made little digs about his hairline and whispered "but what about the children?" as if Canadian was some kind of disability or exotic disease rather than a perfectly good nationality. Donna usually ended up joining them on the hill before long, and those were nice times.

In the line now, Donna's mother was crying, "But sweetheart, it's so far away!" — as if Atlantis had somehow magically been just down the block until an hour ago — and Donna was tearily assuring her it wasn't so bad. It wasn't, now, ever since he'd gotten Carter to help push through a modified version of the gate bridge. It was a couple of days either way now, across Fortification Station — not the official name for the transit point, of course, but no one could stop him from calling it that since it was his idea — so it wasn't like they just stepped over for a gallon of milk all the time, but that was a lot better than losing a minimum of three weeks getting back from Earth. Donna had hugged him fiercely the first time they were able to use the new connection to visit her family. Their families.

Donna had a lot more people than he did, and that was fine. Most of them seemed to be extended family or friends from her life before Atlantis, but a few of them were a little different, though Rodney still wasn't any good at remembering names. There was an older woman, still gorgeous, with a teenage boy, and a young woman with Teyla's "don't mess with me" look in her eyes and a bemused guy in tow, and a slightly awkward young man who made Rodney think of an even dorkier Ford if such a thing were even possible. With their congratulations they leaned in to Donna and quietly asked things like is he …? or did he …? and every time Donna shook her head and looked sad.

Captain Harkness did the same thing, and Rodney really wished they'd stop depressing her at her damn wedding. Then he came over to congratulate Rodney and added quietly, "Told you not to let her find out your net worth," smirking.

Rodney glared at him and then leaned over to Donna. "Can I hit him for insulting you, or would that make you mad?"

Harkness realized his mistake too late, because Donna demanded to know how he had insulted her and then ripped him a new one when Rodney told her. Rodney grinned, because this was much more satisfying than just punching the guy.

Harkness got out of it somehow, the slippery bastard, laughing as her swats turned into playful shoves and she laughed too. Then he swept Donna into an entirely inappropriate kiss, and she obviously got into it, and hello, married woman now, and when she pulled away she looked a bit dazed. Rodney stared at her.

Then Jack turned to him, with the same look in his eyes as back on the Daedalus, and Rodney backed away hastily. "You keep that tongue to yourself!" he demanded as he half-tripped over some kind of potted plant that some idiot had left in the way.

"Yes, I think that's a very good idea," a quiet young man murmured, drawing Jack away. Jack just winked at Rodney and laughed.

"Something I should know?" Donna asked as she helped him out of the plant.

"Absolutely not."

Donna laughed softly. "Don't worry, Jack likes to kiss all the boys and girls." She helped him dust off his jacket, which didn't really need it, and kissed him lightly. Then she turned back to the room — and gasped, grabbing his hand hard enough to hurt and maybe break something.

Rodney manfully suppressed a yelp, but his "What's wrong?" came out a bit unsteady. He looked the same direction and saw a man leaning against a doorframe at the other side of the room. The guy was tall and skinny, with Sheppard hair and a long coat. When they had both seen him, he wheeled to vanish into the room beyond.

Her expression turned that particular version of thunderous that sent his lackeys running to him for protection. "I am going to kill him," she declared, letting go to ball her hands into fists and marching away.

He hurried after her, suddenly grateful that she had insisted they both wear shoes suitable for running, even though that meant she made better time than he did.

By the time he caught up, Donna was standing on one side of a table, furious, and the stranger was eyeing her warily from the other side. "No, ta, I've been slapped by you before," he was telling her.

"You left me," Donna exploded. "You sent me back."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, honestly, I am, but there wasn't time, and you were destabilizing, and I couldn't let that happen, and it worked, and it was all I could do, and did I mention I'm sorry? I can't know of every experimental device tucked away in some basement somewhere. Besides, I checked in to see how you were doing and you were good, you were fine, you were great." He gestured to Rodney and gave her a tentative smile. "Congratulations, both of you, really."

"You're the Doctor," Rodney realized. Of course, Jack had described him as someone who headed for the thing that was going to blow up, and he was keeping well clear of Donna, but Rodney couldn't exactly blame him for that, because he wouldn't have tried to approach her either. He liked all his body parts.

The man nodded slightly, acknowledging him, but he kept his eyes on Donna anxiously.

She glared at him a bit longer but then slumped. "I was going to stay with you forever, you git," she said, her voice breaking.

"Yeah. Yeah, I know." He started edging around the table carefully until he was on the same side they were, though he made sure to keep out of arm's reach.

Donna straightened. "So what are you doing here now, then?" she demanded. "Come to kidnap me on my wedding day again?"

"Us," Rodney corrected, because a, no one was taking her anywhere without him, and b, hello, time machine. She flashed him a watery smile.

"Yeah, no. Two of you got into my TARDIS, I don't think I'd ever prise you back out again. And look at you, you've got lives to lead — science to do, worlds to save, family to raise. Things you've waited for long enough, you don't want to put them off even further, rattling around with me. Oh, that reminds, me, Dr. McKay — congratulations."

"You already said that," Rodney muttered, even though he knew he was supposed to just take excess compliments as a tribute to Donna.

"No, that one's for later. Can't say how much later, that's no fun, but you'll like it." He winked, and seriously, what was with all the winking? "Anyway, I'd better be off. Just popped in to wish you two well and say a proper goodbye. Trying to be better about that sort of thing." He hugged Donna tenderly, giving Rodney A Look over her shoulder, and then swept out of the room.

Donna stood there looking after him, so Rodney went over and took her hand. "Are you sorry?"

She sighed. "A bit, yeah. You?"

He blinked. "It's a time machine. Of course. But …." He looked down at their hands. "This is good, too. I mean … isn't it?"

"Yeah." She put her other hand under his chin and lifted his head to smile at him. "Yeah, this is good." Her smile brightened. "It's brilliant. So what are we waiting for?" She pulled him back towards the reception hall, their hands joined, and he followed her willingly, holding tight