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Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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Rodney remembered it was a Tuesday, because that was the day they always submitted their weekly report to Earth. He remembered being on his fourth cup of coffee for the day and thinking about the work he still had to do in his lab. He remembered knowing the Daedalus was due to arrive within a week, bringing more coffee and chocolate, toilet paper and personnel. He remembered talking to Sergeant Campbell and Elizabeth and Sheppard as he waited for the report to compress.

And he remembered seeing Campbell dialing Earth, only to have it fail.

The universe paused. "What just happened here?" Sheppard had asked quietly.

"Dial again," Elizabeth had said, sharing a glance between the four of them.

Campbell had dialed again, and again, it hadn't gone through.

Rodney remembered blinking, remembered the creeping sense of panic making his throat tight.

Elizabeth had looked between them. "My office," she had murmured to Rodney and Sheppard. "Sergeant, not a word." Campbell was pasty-faced and wild-eyed, but he nodded without speaking.

He remembered they didn't sit down, but rather stood in Elizabeth's office with the door closed, looking at each other. "The last word I had from Earth reported the war with the Ori was heating up," Elizabeth had said, wrapping her arms around herself and biting her lip.

"You think..." Rodney remembered beginning, but remembered he couldn't finish the thought. He remembered wondering why none of them had the automatic reaction of it's a problem with us, it's on our end, the DHD isn't functioning properly, that's all it is because none of them were thinking that. He remembered realizing they were all going to the worst case scenario automatically, even Sergeant Campbell.

Sheppard had given Rodney a glance that was all about worry, fear and nausea. "What would cause a gate to fail to activate?"

"Theoretically, only if it were destroyed," Rodney remembered replying. "It... it could be on our end." But he remembered none of them had believed that. He remembered feeling like he wanted to hide under a bed.

"Theoretically, if it were destroyed." Elizabeth had looked ready to grasp at straws.

"There could be other reasons, but..."

"Destruction is the most obvious one."

Rodney remembered nodding, his head bobbing jerkily, as if caught on a string. He remembered wishing he had a paper bag to breathe into.

"Well, it's not as if we haven't talked about this," Elizabeth had said. Her arms tightened around herself as she hunched her shoulders.

"But we never wanted to do more than talk about it," Sheppard had replied. Rodney remembered his voice had been flat and completely devoid of emotion.

Rodney remembered feeling bereft of words, a highly unusual and frightening state for him.

He remembered Elizabeth going quiet and administrative. "Okay. I want complete status reports on your sections. I want to know who is here, how long they've been here, if they have the gene, all of it. Rodney, get me a status on the greenhouses and the mainland crops. Can we self-sustain without the Daedalus? I need to know."

"Self-sufficiency... you're thinking about the colony project, aren't you?" Rodney remembered Sheppard saying, an incredulous note in his voice.

He remembered Elizabeth meeting Sheppard's gaze evenly. "The Ori may have forced our hand, don't you think?" Elizabeth and Sheppard stared at each other, and Rodney remembered feeling more and more uneasy. Finally, she had said, "One hour, in the conference room. Bring your 2ICs and I'll notify Carson and Teyla."

"I'll get Zelenka to run a full diagnostic on the DHD," Rodney remembered saying, his gaze nervously darting between Sheppard and Elizabeth.

"Good. Gentlemen, we need to keep this as quiet as possible," she had said, after a deep breath, "until we know more. I'll talk to Campbell privately."

Rodney remembered feeling panic, feeling his palms sweat and itch, feeling his stomach clench. And he remembered feeling that way for a long, long time.

John hated feeling helpless. As he jogged back to his office, sat and began pulling up information on manpower, on ATA genes, on their current threat level, he tried to push the gibbering, terrorized kid in the back of his head out of his head, completely. Yes, the Wraith seemed to be more interested in fighting amongst themselves than finding Atlantis, but he knew that wouldn't last forever. Nothing that good ever did. And the Replicators were still out there, biding their time. He'd been hoping the Replicators and the Wraith would find each other and solve Atlantis' problems by the Kilkenny Cats method, but so far, there hadn't been a lot of evidence of it.

And now, possibly, the Ori would be coming after them, too, just what they needed. Maybe he could find the WWF and order a smackdown -- Wraith vs. Ori! Ori vs. Replicators! -- but that would mean Atlantis would have to fight the winner and that probably wasn't such a good idea, in the long run.

The Daedalus was due within the week, and John knew Rodney had planned to put in for some leave so he could visit his sister and her family. They'd been arguing about it, off and on, for the last few weeks. John wanted to go too and Rodney didn't want him along, afraid to let John see the rest of his family or worried about leaving Atlantis unprotected or some other damn reason. Since the 'gate bridge had been destroyed, everything took longer but it still wasn't a good reason.

It didn't help that neither of them had any idea how to live inside a relationship -- if that was actually what they had. It wasn't like John had intended falling into bed with the man who was his (most unlikely) best friend, but now that they had, he felt he had a vested interest in Rodney's family. It wasn't as if John could take Rodney home with him, after all. It wasn't as if there was anything or anybody to visit in John's biological family anyway.

Even if they were still there.

John rested his head on his hands and let self-pity win for a little while. If the Ori had taken Earth, that might mean Earth was gone, maybe even destroyed. While John might not have cared about his biological family, he knew of and cared for those on Atlantis who had family there -- like Rodney's sister. Dammit, he liked Jeannie. And regardless of where he wanted to live out his life, he'd be damned if he let Earth go without a fight.

His momentary surrender was recalled, pushed back down, shoved behind big, metal doors that clanged shut, echoing in his head. He didn't have any time for sadness, for worry, for fear. As usual, he had a job to do.

There was nothing wrong with their DHD. Elizabeth had known that would be the case, but the hard fact caught her like an uppercut to the chin.

She sat with Teyla, John and Rodney, Carson and Kate, Lorne and Radek in the sealed conference room to discuss their options. "How long before the Daedalus will show up on our long-range sensors, Rodney?"

"Assuming it is actually on the way here and is on schedule, we should be able to pick it up in two days, three at the outside."

"Have there been any sub-space transmissions from her?"

"No, but even with subspace communications we can't reach more than about a third of the way." He rubbed his eyes. "I sent out a message but haven't had any response but that doesn't mean anything."

"We need to test the 'gate, to see if we can dial any other 'gate in the Milky Way," John said.

"But we don't want to do this openly, to cause a panic," Kate said. "There are rumors out already. We're pretty tight and there's not much you can do to keep stories from spreading."

"I can set something up, a test of the DHD." Rodney was fidgeting, his hands trembling as they flew about, as usual delineating his words. "I know a good dozen or so addresses."

"Good. You do that. John, what's military look like?"

John sighed. "The Daedalus was bringing half a platoon of marines with her, because we're short-handed and a lot of them were due to be rotated back to Ear-- back home. Assuming their relief doesn't come, I've got two short rifle platoons -- seventy-nine corpsmen. Of those, twenty-two have the gene, either naturally or artificially. I've also got an SGC Air Force squad of fifteen, all of whom have the gene and can fly a jumper." John looked up from his notes. "We've got about three thousand drones and a full complement of twenty jumpers, all in working condition."

It was the best news Elizabeth had had in weeks, unfortunately. "Thank you. Carson?"

"We were counting on the Daedalus to replenish our stock of medicine," Carson said. He looked terrible, puffy with dark circles under his eyes. "Although we've been doing quite well with native medicines. Assuming the -- assuming we don't get replenished, we have sufficient here for ourselves to last several years, but I wouldn't want to trade wholesale, if we can avoid it. I was also due to get personnel rotated via the Daedalus, though I'm not short on manpower."

"Speaking of local medicines," Rodney said, his voice shaking but not as hard as his hands, "we are self-sustainable in the way of plants, especially the ones you've needed, Carson."

Carson heaved a big sigh. "That's good news, Rodney."

"The Athosians have done very well in adapting many Earth plants and those they can't grow on the mainland are growing here, in the greenhouses."

"Yes," Teyla said. "We have even had good luck in growing coffee beans," she added and Elizabeth smiled.

"We have two alpha sites with arable land and I've been informed by Parrish that crops are doing well there, on both of them." Rodney looked down at his laptop but didn't make a move to type. Elizabeth wasn't sure he would have been able to. "We've also opened part of the northeast pier, you know, the one with the manufacturing equipment, and we've had good luck figuring out what a lot of it does. So we may have things like new furniture and clothing as well as medical equipment, and Carson, I need to hijack you for a day to help us figure out what some of it--"

Elizabeth watched in surprise as John reached over and took one of Rodney's trembling hands. "Rodney. Breathe." Rodney swallowed noisily and took a deep breath, but did not take his eyes off John's face, or try to break John's grasp.

"I'll try to set aside tomorrow afternoon, Rodney," Carson said softly. "I'll let you know if I can." He didn't look the least bit startled at the sight of the chief scientist and the military head of Atlantis basically holding hands. Elizabeth glanced around the table and found no one as stunned as she was.

And here she prided herself on reading body language. How she'd missed that elephant in the living room she had no idea.

Setting it aside for a moment -- was she the only one who didn't get the memo? -- she said, "This is all good news, people. We're in a good position to be..." To be what? Abandoned? Cut loose? "To be on our own, at least for a little while. We've gotten complacent over the last few years, but we know we can do this. Our first year wasn't exactly a cakewalk. We can do this."

"At least this time, we've got two ZPMs," John said softly. He had finally let go of Rodney's hand and Rodney was sitting with his head bowed.

Elizabeth nodded. "Exactly. That might be all that stands between us and our enemies, though, so we still need to find more, if possible."

"What are we going to tell people?" Kate asked, after a long pause.

Leave it to Kate to ask the hard questions. Elizabeth took a deep breath before answering. "I don't know. What do you -- any of you -- recommend?"

"Perhaps not the truth, at least not right away." It was Radek who spoke, surprisingly. He pushed his glasses up on his nose. "Elizabeth, you must know that to many of us -- myself included -- Atlantis is home. Many of us have stayed, have requested extra tours or refused rotation because we have come to love this place."

"And if we truly are cut off, now," Kate said, hard on the heels of Radek's words, "there could be resentment between those who will be happy to stay and those who had wanted to return, regardless of how much we want Earth back."

Oh, great. Just what Elizabeth needed to hear. She massaged her temples, trying to relieve the tension there.

"I agree with Radek," Kate continued. "The truth is we don't know what's happened and admitting that  openly could make matters worse." She gave Elizabeth a sympathetic smile. "On the other hand, our bunch is used to seeing us pull off the impossible. We might not be looking at a significant reduction in morale even if we do have to admit to our uncertainty."

"Unless the news... is really bad." Elizabeth thought she'd never heard Rodney sound so lost, so afraid. They all had relatives on Earth -- regardless how they felt about Atlantis, Earth was where they had been born and raised. Earth might not be home now, but Earth had been home to them all, once.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Elizabeth said, wishing her voice sounded surer. "If we come to it." She sighed and studied the table in front of her for a moment before continuing. "Okay, then. For now, this is kept between us. We are not to speak of it categorically, however, if someone should come out and ask, we tell the truth -- we don't know exactly what's happened. Once the Daedalus gets here, hopefully we'll know more. And then, I want to know who asked and who replied."

She looked around the table and saw consensus. "Good. Rodney, keep me posted about your test."

He nodded, but wouldn't look at her. "I'll do it tonight, during the dead watch. Fewer witnesses."

The meeting broke up and from the depressed faces she saw, she expected most of them would be talking to Carson soon about antacids. Lord knew she would. "John?" He was trailing everyone out but paused and turned back to her. "A word?"

She didn't miss (this time) the look that passed between Rodney and John, but ignored it. They left the doors to the conference room open but moved to the back of the room and spoke in soft words. "Is Rodney going to be okay? He doesn't seem to be taking this well."

"He was going to put in for leave once the Daedalus got here," he said, leaning against the table near where she sat. "He wanted to see Jeannie, Kaleb and Madison and the new baby."

"Oh, God." If Earth wasn't there anymore... "If Earth has fallen to the Ori, what are our chances should they move into Pegasus?"

John scratched at the top of his head. "Elizabeth, if the Ori have taken Earth that probably means the entire galaxy has fallen. And if they turn and come over here? We have absolutely no defense worth a damn against them. It'd be like hunting a bear with a BB gun."

She bit her lip and looked down; it wasn't a surprise, but it still ratcheted up her tension.

"But you know that," John said, his voice even softer. "Don't you."

It wasn't really a question and wasn't really a statement and Elizabeth knew exactly what John was referring to. She couldn't meet his eyes. "Well... yes, I mean..." She sighed. "It would have been nice to know."

John snorted softly. "There hasn't been much to know until recently. Elizabeth, I've never lied to you. I might have avoided the question, evaded your approach or even faked injury to get out of it, but I've never lied to you and I never will." His voice sounded almost back to normal, back to just the 'regular guy' drawl, so her gaze came up to meet his.

The look he was giving her was anything but good-ol'-boy; it was serious and stern and absolutely honest. He said he'd never lied to her, and she knew that was true. He said he never would lie to her, and she found she believed him. She nodded. It would be enough.

When Rodney returned from his 'test' of the stargate, it was about four in the morning. He was surprised -- pleased, but still surprised -- to find a familiar warm body in his bed. They -- as a couple, as lovers -- were so new, still tiptoeing around each other that Rodney wouldn't have known how to ask for John to be there, but he was extremely, pathetically glad John somehow knew.

John lifted the covers and Rodney didn't have to be told twice. He stripped faster than he would have thought possible and crawled into John's embrace with a sigh of relief and comfort. "Thank you," he whispered, hoping but unable to admit, to John or to himself, that he wanted cuddling far more than sex at the moment.

John pulled him back and wrapped his arms and legs around Rodney, then kissed his shoulder. "You're welcome. Should I ask?"

Rodney sighed. "No. Several addresses went through but it was a good thing we'd left the shield up."

"Booby traps?"

"Lots of them."


Rodney closed his eyes and nestled back, deeper into John's embrace. "Radek and I have tossed around some possible scenarios why the Earth 'gate wouldn't open. It could be a ruse."

John's puff of breath on the back of Rodney's neck made Rodney shiver. "We'll know, soon," he murmured. "Get some sleep."

To his surprise, Rodney actually did. But when he woke, much later in the morning than he'd intended (John had been screwing with his alarm clock again, the rat), he was alone. The pang of hurt over that actually surprised him.

The Daedalus appeared at the very edge of their long-range scanners at three fourteen in the morning, more than six days -- and what felt like a month of worrying -- later than she should have. While the fact that she had managed to get to Pegasus was good, the fact that she was virtually stationary was not. John had been awakened by Rodney, who'd been radioed by the command staff. John went around and gathered Radek and Elizabeth. It was there. It wasn't moving.

"What are we looking at?" John asked.

"It's the Daedalus," Rodney said, distracted. "The sensors know her and have tagged her."

"But there is no movement," Radek said, from his seat opposite Rodney's. They were both typing furiously into their laptops. "No thrust, at least, perhaps some leftover speed from before she entered hyperspace."

"Can we tell anything from here? " Elizabeth asked. She was wearing a robe and fuzzy slippers. John thought she looked like she was sixteen, except for the gray creeping into her hair and the tight lines around her mouth and eyes that never seemed to go away any more.

"No, she's too far away." Rodney again, his words carrying that familiar, clipped, abrupt tone that said, back off, busy! In the intervening wait for the Daedalus, he'd actually calmed down rather than gotten more nervous, which, John reflected, was actually pretty par for the course. Rodney never had followed the rules well. He ran with scissors, too.

"No transmissions? Nothing?" John wanted to leap into a ship and retrieve the Daedalus, find out what happened, what was happening. They still had not been able to dial Earth. Damn the Wraith for destroying the Orion, anyway.

"No," Radek replied. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face. "We are close enough for subspace transmissions, but there is nothing."

Elizabeth made a frustrated noise. "What do we know, what can we do, then?"

Rodney was still typing furiously and muttering to himself, so Radek answered, again. "We can confirm she was in hyperspace, by inference if nothing else, but is not, now. We can confirm she's moving, though slowly. I do not think the sublight engines are working, or if they are, it's very poorly. So she obviously has some power, just not enough for continuing travel in hyperspace."

"Maybe not enough for a subspace transmission, then," John said, frowning.

Rodney began snapping his fingers and John whirled to look at him. When Rodney did that it was generally because he'd figured something out.

"No power, no power... we need a relay..."

Radek sat up straight. "A subspace relay..."


"--892! Yes!"

Both Radek and Rodney leapt from their chairs and ran for the transporter. It took John a fraction of a second longer to realize what they were doing, then he headed for the stairs which would take him to the jumper bay.

"John!" Elizabeth's voice stopped him. "What...?"

"A subspace relay," John said, realizing how excited the idea made him. "We can get closer to them in a jumper--"

The penny dropped for Elizabeth, John could see it on her face. "Oh!"

"We'll leave within an hour," John said, then he took the steps two at a time.

It was actually closer to two hours before Jumper One was ready to go, and Elizabeth was glad she'd managed to dress after a hurried wash. M5S-892 was the closest stargate to the Deadalus' position, even though it was still several hundred lightyears away. John, Rodney, Radek and the 'new guy,' Ed Patterson, jury-rigged a subspace communications array inside the jumper, one that could be deployed (if necessary) with relative ease and turned to any position. If the stargate were left open, they would be able to relay any messages directly to Atlantis.

John and Rodney went. Elizabeth had force herself to dismiss her misgivings about sending two most valuable personnel together on a mission. But Elizabeth had spent many years wringing the truth from people just like herself; it wasn't much of a stretch for her to figure out why she was reluctant. It was a subject she thought she'd be bringing up to Kate Heightmeyer soon, she thought with a sigh.

M5S-892's 'gate was in orbit. John cloaked the jumper as soon as they were clear of it and scanned the area at length for any threat. Elizabeth spent that twenty minutes holding her breath, pacing back and forth behind Radek.

The 'gate dialed. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard."

"We read you, John." Something tight inside her eased.

"We're going to deploy the array, Rodney thinks that might help. Keep the shield up. Scans are clean."

"Long range scanners show nothing in your vicinity, Colonel," Radek said. "Nothing near the Daedalus, either."

Thank God for small favors, Elizabeth thought. It was unusually tense and quiet in the entire 'gateroom; everyone in the vicinity was working slowly, darting little glances to each other.

"Daedalus, this is Atlantis base, do you read?" It was John's voice and it startled Elizabeth. She hadn't known they would relay both ends of the conversation, though she was glad they were doing so.

Through the open channel, she could hear John and Rodney speaking off-mike, though she couldn't make out the words. After a long moment, John repeated himself. "Daedalus, this is Sheppard. Please respond."

There was a burst of static then a familiar female voice said, "Colonel? Thank ... tain Cadman on... ...dalus, sir."

Elizabeth dropped her head and rubbed her eyes, trying to keep the tears away. They were alive. All around her she heard sniffing, sighs and murmurs of relief.

"Cadman? What the hell? Where's Caldwell? What's your status?" John again, sounding much clearer.

"We ... dead in the water, sir," Cadman said. The transmission was bad, static-filled and weak. "--well in the infirmary, signi--"

"Daedalus, please repeat, you're breaking up."

"...power, nearly gone. Damage to sub ... ing air, situation going crit ... dead and blind..."

"Cadman, this is McKay. You have no power at all? Secondary systems?"

"No... burnt out... Last shot took out ... engines not resp... ...ning out of air..."

"Jesus." That was someone behind Elizabeth but she didn't turn, didn't look to see who it was.

"Best case, Lieu-- Captain, sorry, how long?" John again.

"...sure, may... ...en hours, ten hour.... Overcrowded, injur..." The transmission broke up again into static and Elizabeth realized she was holding her breath, willing the static to clear.

"Daedalus, this is Sheppard, come back, you've broken up. Daedalus? Please respond."

There was a burst of static but no words.

"Daedalus, hang tight. We'll figure something out, get you home." John's voice carried a note of worry and Elizabeth could almost see his face, see the frown and the resolve. They would figure something out, but what? "Atlantis, we're heading home, we've done all we can here."

"Understood. Tell us when to drop the shield." Elizabeth took a deep breath and turned to Radek. "We won't leave them behind," she said, knowing it was what John would do with the last breath in his body. "But what can we do? How can we get them home?"

Radek was pale and his jaw worked. Finally, he met her gaze and his eyes were sad and resolved. "I do not know," he said. "But we will think of something. We have ten whole hours."

Yes, they had ten whole hours. Hopefully.

"The puddle-jumpers aren't structurally sound enough to take the stress, Rodney!" Radek yelled and Rodney glared back.

"We've been over this!" he shouted, even though that made his head feel worse. "You've got a better idea, I'm listening!"

Radek threw himself back in his chair, muttering in Czech. Rodney rubbed his forehead but it didn't help the headache, unfortunately. He glanced at his watch: they had less than nine hours. "Look," he began, but Sheppard interrupted him.

"Jumper Four is still beefed up from when you were trapped on the bottom of the ocean," he said, and Rodney had to hide his flinch. "Is that enough?"

"No, no, no," Radek said.

"Theoretically, no!" He glared at Radek. "But it is the only chance we have!"

"Flying in hyperspace is not the same as swimming in ocean, Rodney!"

"Don't you think I know that?"

"Could we use the cloak as a shield, again?" Sheppard said, bellowing over the top of them with rather impressive lung capacity.

"It takes too much power," Rodney began, then he was paralyzed with a thought. "Wait!" He snapped his fingers and Radek's jaw dropped.

"You mean to take--"

"One of the ZedPMs, yes," Rodney said, ignoring the clench in his stomach. "We don't have nearly enough naquadah and no naquahdriah at all for the hyperspace window. And we'd need it for the Daedalus anyway, yes?"

"To restore functionality if their naquahdriah reactor is blown," Radek was nodding hard. "But the cloak-shield will still not make up for the structural weakness in--"

"No, I know, but it gives us -- gives me -- a better chance to make it," Rodney said over Radek's words. "It's a brief jump, from M5S-892..."

"Is still too far away," Radek muttered, shaking his head.

"It's the only chance they have and we're not going to let it pass by debating it!"

"Rodney!" Elizabeth looked like Rodney felt. She looked between Rodney and Radek, her face showing her desperation for answers. "Are there no other options?"

Radek looked at Rodney and frowned. Rodney could see the hesitation, the resolve, the fear and the desperation clearly on his friend's face, and he knew all of it was probably mirrored in his own. Finally, Radek shook his head and sighed. "No. There is no other option. Not in the time we have."

Elizabeth nodded and swallowed. "How long?"

Numbers flew through Rodney's head, numbers in minutes and hours, how long to get an interface to the ZedPM, how long to configure the jumper so it could interface with the ZedPM and a modified hyperspace generating engine... "I don't know."

"We've got eight hours, giving them a margin of error," Sheppard said, nodding slowly. "Let's go."

Rodney nodded. "Right." Turning back to Radek, he said, "You work on the ZedPM interface, I'll work on the hyperspace field generator. Sheppard will work with Patterson on the mods to the jumper. Somebody get Carson to hand out the painkillers and uppers, it's going to be a long day."

Rodney had always been wary of phrases like 'hours flew by like seconds' but he could honestly say that's what happened. MacGuyvering a hyperspace generator out of what felt like spit, baling wire and a couple of shoelaces should have made him feel like he could do anything, but it didn't. It simply made him exhausted, even with the caffeine and the amphetamines Carson provided.

Exhausted and terrified, because he knew who was going to have to take the jumper to the Daedalus.

They were uncomfortably close to the deadline that Cadman had given them by the time they were through. There had been so many screaming matches between Rodney and Radek that their voices were nearly gone. They'd argued about which ZedPM to use (the one least charged, in case it didn't work and he blew up, at least he'd leave Atlantis with a good bit of power), the way the module would interface with the hyperspace generator, and where to put the overload/self-destruct switch, in case something else bad happened.

He'd also had a screaming match with Sheppard over that last one -- he'd known Sheppard wouldn't like it.

"What the fuck do you need some kind of deadman switch for, McKay? What are you, suicidal?"

"No, that's your privilege, damn you!" Rodney ignored the flinch on Sheppard's face as his words hit their intended target. "Do you think I want it? What if the Wraith get me? What if the Replicators do? You want them to capture me and... and... probe my brain..." He had begun hyperventilating by the time he was done speaking. "I can't risk that and neither can Atlantis!"

Sheppard had pulled him into a rough embrace, squeezing him tightly. "Goddammit, Rodney," he'd murmured.

"I know, I know," Rodney had muttered into Sheppard's sweaty t-shirt even as he'd squeezed back. He couldn't tell which of them was shaking harder. "I'm more afraid than you are, can't you tell? But if I get... If the Wraith..."

"I'm coming with you," Sheppard had begun but Rodney had cut him off -- that had been another on-going argument.

"You can't. You know you can't. Atlantis can't afford to lose both of us and I will not risk your life along with mine."

He'd thought that was the end of the argument until he was finished, until it was all done, and all he had to do was launch. After the last of the connections glowed green, after the testing and simulations were done, after all the modifications were correct and as perfect as he could make them, it was like the world dropped out from under him.  He rested his forehead on the console of the generator, closing his eyes for a moment, trying to get himself under control again. "I guess there's no getting out of this," he muttered, remembering how excited, how thrilled he was the first time he'd said those words, before coming through the stargate to Atlantis.

Before coming home.

Warm hands landed on his shoulders. "Radek is on his way with the ZPM," Sheppard said. His voice was as raspy as Rodney's. "Please let me come with you. Jesus, McKay, you can't even fly in a straight line."

Rodney stood, shaking his head as he turned to look at the man who had somehow become the most important thing in Rodney's world. "You can't." The fact that John Sheppard had asked, had said please, told Rodney he knew what the answer would be before he asked. "If this doesn't work, they're going to need you here, Colonel."

"If this doesn't work, I'm coming after you," Sheppard replied.

"No, you're not. Not unless you think there's a solid possibility you could get to them."

They looked at each other for a long minute, each aware of the clock ticking but each unable to acknowledge it. Finally, Sheppard hauled him in for another embrace. "Rodney... I..."

"I know." Rodney swallowed. "Don't."

"But you need to know, I -- I need to tell you, I need..."

"No, you don't. Because I know it already." They hadn't said the words, they didn't need to. Damaged goods, both of them, but stronger together than they'd ever be apart. It had almost taken them too long to acknowledge that and Rodney knew it. Their relationship -- such as it was -- was precarious and meant too much to both of them to risk the balance.

"If you blow this, McKay, I swear I'll follow you to the afterlife to kick your pasty white ass."

"My fine, tight ass, you mean," Rodney said, trying for light and only getting strangled. "The ass you can never stop ogling."

"Yeah. That ass."

There were voices outside but Rodney didn't care. He grabbed Sheppard's head and dragged it to his for a kiss, as sloppy, as hot, as deep as he could make it; a desperate kiss, a last kiss. A just in case kiss. "John," he whispered into Sheppard's mouth, feeling Sheppard's arms around him tighten.

"Yeah," John replied. "Yeah. Me too."

In the end, John had managed to get Rodney to agree that he would go through the 'gate to M5S-892 in another jumper and observe as Rodney tried the jump to hyperspace. The idea that he would make several small jumps, much the same way as they'd done on the Orion to get it off the planet, had been scrapped. They didn't know how much stress the jumper could take, but they knew that going in and out of hyperspace more than once was probably not a good idea. John took the jumper with the subspace array and just sat there, waiting to see if Rodney made it or not.

In truth, he wasn't needed. He just wanted to be as close to Rodney as he could for as long as possible. Once again, he was completely, totally helpless, watching someone possibly fly to his doom and knowing John Sheppard couldn't do shit about it. He wanted to punch things, or punch himself.

How the hell had a noisy, rude, obnoxious genius managed to worm his way so deeply into John Sheppard's ragged heart?

John dialed the Atlantis 'gate back and opened the radio link before trying, and failing, to hail the Daedalus again. He could hear the sounds of people in the 'gateroom, hear Radek talking with Rodney, giving last minute instructions, and even almost hear Elizabeth pacing back and forth. Then Rodney finally said, "Here goes nothing, then. Well, no, something, I hope. Wish me... wish me luck."

"Good luck, Rodney," John heard Radek say. John didn't have enough air in the jumper -- there wasn't enough air in the universe -- to say the words aloud, though his mouth moved to shape them.

He heard the whine of the overloaded jumper engines as Rodney began the sequence that would -- hopefully -- open a hyperspace window in front of him. There was a flash of blue and the jumper elongated, stretched like a rubber band and then vanished, leaving the collapsing window behind it. If it worked, Rodney would reappear less than a half-hour's worth of flying time from the Daedalus's position. If it worked, the long-range sensors would pick him up even before he left hyperspace -- about five to ten minutes for the sensors to note the signature. If it didn't work, Rodney would simply remain gone, would not reappear. John only realized he was holding his breath when spots began to dance in front of his eyes.

No one spoke, on either end of the radio link. John wouldn't have been able to move even had he wanted to.

If Rodney reappeared, John would return to Atlantis. There was no subspace communications array on the jumper Rodney was flying, it would have taxed the ZPM too much and really wouldn't have been worth it -- if it worked, Rodney would be able to talk to them from the Daedalus. If it didn't, it wouldn't matter anyway.

John had never been a religious man. His mother had tried to get him to go to Sunday school when he was a boy, but he usually managed to get out of it. There had been plenty of times when he'd prayed to a nameless, faceless something out there, though, and he found himself doing it again. Pleading for Rodney's life, for the lives left on the Daedalus, for the lives in the Milky Way, those threatened or defeated by the Ori.

An eon and ten minutes later, he was startled to hear a whoop in his radio. "There he is!" Radek yelled. "The field is stable and jumper is whole!" The party sounds poured out of his earpiece but all John felt was reaction nausea. It took him a few minutes to get himself back under control, then he radioed for Atlantis to drop the shield and he returned through the 'gate, as if everything were normal, even though nothing was.

Elizabeth tore herself away from the 'gateroom to get up to the jumper bay once John returned to Atlantis. He put the jumper away but didn't appear out the back and Elizabeth finally went onboard to check on him. "John?"

He was sitting in the pilot's chair, his head bowed, his shoulders hunched. "John?"

"Yeah, I'll be there in a minute," he finally said, his voice thick.

She walked slowly towards him and, with a shock, Elizabeth realized John was shaking, his whole body curled in on itself. "John? Are you okay?" How many times had John asked that of Elizabeth?

"No." Elizabeth nodded and looked down. "But I will be. Give me a couple of minutes, I'll be down there in a bit."

"Okay." Elizabeth wanted to touch his shoulder, but didn't know how John would react.

She was finally coming to understand how close her two friends had become over the years in Atlantis. They had always been an unlikely pair, squabbling and baiting and teasing each other like an old married couple... Ah. There it was. How could she have missed it?

How she could have missed it was clear: she hadn't wanted to see it.

John was as good as his word and ten minutes later, he was in the command room, leaning over Radek's shoulder, discussing the possibility of the Daedalus being beyond repair. They all watched the sensors, watched as the tiny dot representing Rodney moved slowly closer to the Daedalus with every passing second. "It will be another three hours, at least, at this pace," Radek said, removing his glasses and scrubbing his face with both hands. "We should get some sleep."

"Yeah," John said, all but collapsing into a chair.

Elizabeth didn't dare sit down, because she was afraid she wouldn't be able to get back up. "That's probably a very good idea," she said with a sigh. "I have no idea how long we'll be up once Rodney gets to the Daedalus. He's probably going to need us."

John looked like he wanted to argue with her, but instead, he hung his head and rested his elbows on his knees. "Okay," he finally said. She reached her hand out to him and he studied it for a while before taking it -- as if it were a strange creature that suddenly appeared. "Thanks," he murmured as he let her help him up.

They walked to the transporter together, along with Radek. Once out of it, John turned left instead of right and waved vaguely as he walked down the corridor. Elizabeth was confused for a while until she realized; Rodney's room was to the left. Elizabeth sighed and went to find her own bed.

Rodney McKay had been terrified in his life, more times than he'd like to admit, actually. But one of the worst ones was when he turned on the hyperspace generator in the puddle-jumper. The puddle-jumpers were not designed to be used in hyperspace; they didn't have the structure, the added stability  needed for doing so. They were fragile little puddle-jumpers, and even though Rodney still thought that was an incredibly stupid name for them, Sheppard had been right in naming them such. It wasn't being in the hyperspace field that worried him -- it was the getting into it and dropping out of it part. Hyperspace was not a friendly place and demanded a high toll of any ship wanting to use it.

When he realized he'd made it into the field, Rodney sighed, limp with relief. He didn't want to think about getting out of it again, but at least half of it was done. He ran as many diagnostics as he could on the jumper's stability and structural integrity and while the results weren't great, they were well above worst-case scenario.

He had something over three hours to go before dropping back out of hyperspace -- the good part about using a ZedPM to create and fly in a hyperspace field was how fast you could go while in there. He'd be better off eating something and trying to get a nap in, because he figured he'd be up for hours, if not days, once he reached the Daedalus.

He resolutely did not think about what might be happening on Earth, about Jeannie, about the SGC. He had a feeling he'd know soon enough and there was no point buying further ulcers.

As he stood, he noticed a box sitting on the co-pilot's chair. It wasn't large or sealed, but he didn't remember seeing it before. He lifted the flaps to open it and found four pouches containing his very favorite MREs, six cartons of blue Jell-O sitting on top of a chemical cold-pack, and nestled at the bottom was a pair of large, fuzzy blue dice on a blue string. He lifted them out and realized they were the ones Sheppard had often threatened to hang in Jumper One.

As he held the dice, he had to sit back down in order to get himself under control. Then he found a protruding dial over the DHD and hung the dice on it before eating and taking his nap.

John didn't want to think about the reasons why he wanted to nap in McKay's room instead of his own; all he knew was he felt better there. They very rarely slept the night through with each other for many reasons, not the least of which was the U.S. Armed Forces' opinion on such things. But it was an open secret; most of the scientists and many of the military on Atlantis knew or suspected something was going on between them. But so many of the military on Atlantis had asked for the tour, had requested permanent stationing and those were the ones who were far more open-minded, far more accepting than any others. Atlantis had that kind of effect on people -- you either adjusted or you died, in a lot of cases.

It was probably more surprising that so many of them survived, that so many of them thrived.

Rodney's room was painfully neat, just like it always was. The chaos was all stuffed away in the closet, in the large box under the desk, in drawers and if he could have had things under the bed he would have. John had found the room to be much like the occupant, a shell to show people with the good stuff buried underneath. Buried deeply, too, you really had to dig to get to the real Rodney McKay. At first, it had been a chore John hadn't felt worthwhile; now that he knew Rodney better, he knew how important, how valuable it was to do so.

Rodney McKay was like Shrek (one of their favorite movies) -- he had layers.

John toed off his shoes and fell on Rodney's rock-hard bed, rolling to pull the blanket on top around him. Rodney had taken every piece of equipment he might need on the Daedalus, including his tablet laptop and his two work laptops. But he had forgotten entirely to bring other things, like a change of clothes, like food and water and his lifeblood -- coffee. The jumpers were too small to have toilets, but they had a 'honey-bucket' they used when they had to -- John made sure it was in the jumper with Rodney. He also put food and other things in the jumper; Rodney had probably found them by now. It was the only way John had of letting Rodney know how much he cared. John couldn't actually tell him, might never be able to actually say the words, even if he wanted to. But he could show Rodney how he felt, and in the end, that might be better than words.

Wrapped up in Rodney's blanket on Rodney's bed in Rodney's room, John allowed himself one wrenching minute of terror over what might have happened in the Milky Way. If the Ori had won, they might never be able to go back. While it was true that Atlantis was home, now, the Milky Way was where they were born, and the thought of never being able to return...

John fell asleep, finally. He didn't remember his dreams, only that they were bad.

Radek and John were already in the command room by the time Elizabeth made it up there. Radek confirmed that Rodney came out of hyperspace on schedule and had merged with the Daedalus, but they hadn't had any news.

"Has there been any change in what we're picking up? Any hostiles?" Elizabeth asked.

"No, nothing," Radek said, reassuring her. "The Daedalus is moving at the same speed as it has been, which is to say virtually stationary."

As the hours ticked by, people tried to go about their business but they all found a way to get to the 'gateroom, to make a softly-voiced query. It was always 'no news' and it was beginning to drive Elizabeth insane.

Finally, six hours after Rodney had left and two and a half since he'd reached the Daedalus, Sergeant Campbell nearly shouted, "Incoming transmission!"

Elizabeth came running out of her office in time to see Radek at the communications console. "It's a databurst via subspace," he said. He turned shining eyes to Elizabeth and John. "It's compressed and encrypted and from Rodney."

"Thank you, God," Elizabeth murmured. "Can you--"

"Uncompressing now," Radek interrupted her.

In just a few seconds, they heard Rodney's voice as Radek broadcast it to the 'gateroom. "Atlantis, this is McKay. These people are idiots!"

Everyone in hearing range laughed, even if it was a bit on the hysterical side. If Rodney McKay was being rude, then everything must be okay with the universe.

"I'm lucky I arrived when I did, because what they were planning would have blown up the ship. I've got them working now, we've already integrated the ZedPM sufficiently to send you this transmission. Radek, I've also wrapped up all the diagnostics I could before sending it to you, this tub is going to need some heavy-duty work if it'll ever be of use again."

Elizabeth glanced at Radek, who nodded while his fingers glided over the keys of his laptop, watching schematics and diagnostic results display in front of him.

Rodney's voice continued. "We're overcrowded with refugees and SGC personnel. I won't go into what happened in the Milky Way until I'm there, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Tell Carson to gear up; there are some significant injuries here, but hopefully I'll have her home before we lose anyone else. Novak, Carter and I should have the hyperdrive fixed within another hour or so... it'll get us there but I don't know what it'll look like after. If we have any further significant problems, I'll squirt you another burst. Otherwise, look for us soon. McKay out."

"The damage to the Daedalus is extensive," Radek said before anyone else could speak. "It looks as though it were in a rather large battle. There are entire sections which appear to be unsalvageable."

"But he can get the hyperdrive working, right?" John asked, his voice anxious.

"Yes, yes, it looks as though that area only suffered minor damage. I do not know how they intend to actually steer the ship, however, since navigation is completely down."

Elizabeth fell into a chair next to Radek; she exchanged a worried glance with John. "Completely down?"

"How far is completely?" John asked, almost simultaneously with Elizabeth's question.

"It may be salvageable, I do not know without seeing it. But yes, it is gone." He leaned back in his chair and frowned into space. "In a similar situation, I would tie in the jumper's navigation console to the Daedalus', as the blind use a dog to see."

"Would that work?" John asked, frowning. He was clearly running the simulation in his mind. "The Daedalus doesn't have the same kind of--"

"No, it is Asgard technology, but there are not so many differences."

Elizabeth let John and Radek talk, let them become one with the background hum of Atlantis. She noted everyone in the command room was throwing little looks at her, at John and Radek, at the screen showing the Daedalus. But Rodney's transmission was the best news they'd had all week, so she wasn't about to try to suppress the information.

Rodney managed to catch a bit more than two hours of fitful sleep. Between that, the MREs, blue Jell-O and the coffee he found in the large thermos -- making a memo to himself to kiss Sheppard senseless and give him the best blowjob of his life as soon as he returned -- he felt awake enough to panic about coming out of hyperspace. Everything seemed to be nominal, he appeared to be right on target, so he held his breath, closed his eyes and shut down the field.

The jumper shuddered and groaned but the forcefield held, no struts popped and suddenly he was in real space again. He was facing the Daedalus and his jaw dropped as he saw her.

She looked worse off than after their fight with the Wraith. Several sections were venting air and he could see a few mummified remains hanging out of gaping holes. Dead in the water was a good analogy, as she appeared to be only moving due to whatever momentum she had before she left -- there were no lights anywhere and the only power signals he picked up were faint to the point of nonexistent.

He aimed for the fighter bay. "Daedalus, this is McKay, please respond." Some secondary systems had to have at least partial power because the magnetic field on the bay was intact.

After a moment's silence, he spoke again, more worried. "Daedalus, this is McKay. Is anyone--"


It was a voice he knew very well and hearing it loosened a knot in his chest. "Colonel Carter. I can't tell you how good it is to hear your voice."

"Rodney? How... Where..."

"I'll go into details later over a leisurely cup of coffee, but right now, you're venting atmosphere and it looks like you've been run through a salad shooter. Do you have room for me in the fighter bay? I'm in a jumper off your port bow."

"Room?" Carter sounded almost hysterical. "You'll have it all to yourself. How did you--"

Ah, God. "Later, Colonel. Meet me in the bay, along with anyone able to carry stuff. Is Novak... is Novak okay?"

"Yes, she's here with me," Carter's voice sounded weak and breathy and he frowned.

"Your CO2 scrubbers, are they working?"

"No... not enough power..."

"You've got it now. I've brought one ZedPM." Rodney maneuvered into the bay as he spoke. "Novak will know how to interface it. I've nearly landed."

By the time Rodney had landed, powered down and removed the ZedPM from its cradle, a group of people were staggering into the bay, led by Samantha Carter. There wasn't one of them uninjured and Carter had some kind of brace on her left leg. Teal'c was there, along with Novak and some technicians he vaguely remembered from SGC.

"Christ, it smells like a hive ship in here," Rodney said, walking off the jumper. He carefully passed the ZedPM to Novak, who looked a little wild-eyed. "Will you be able to get this in properly?" He demanded. Just a few seconds and he was already breathless.

The look on her face as she looked between Rodney and the ZedPM was reverent. "Oh, yes..." She sniffed as tears began to fall down her face and she cradled the ZedPM like it was the most precious thing in the universe. "I can't believe you're here, Dr. McKay..."

"Believe it," Rodney said, trying to keep from snapping. "Go. You need to get power to essential systems now." He turned to Carter as Novak left with the techs. "You and I have a date on the bridge, Colonel."

"How did you..." Carter asked, and Rodney was alarmed to see her chin quivering.

"Colonel. Carter. It's okay," he said, taking her upper arm and squeezing gently. "Let's get to the bridge and get you home."

By the time they hit the bridge, power came back and with it, air circulation. The bridge crew had been on the floor, conserving energy and air and they stirred sluggishly as Rodney, Carter and Teal'c came onto the bridge. Rodney looked around the damaged room in dismay. There were destroyed workstations, bloody consoles, the remains of fire suppression equipment. It smelled like burnt copper.

"What the hell happened?" he murmured. "Where's Caldwell?"

"In the infirmary with only one and a half legs." Carter half-collapsed in one of the chairs. "We were guarding Earth, they knew we didn't have the means to keep them away anymore. It was us, the Odyssey, a couple of Jaffa ships barely limping and three Asgard fighters. They hit us with every Ori mothership in the Milky Way." She closed her eyes and let her head loll back on her shoulders. "At least we got pretty much everyone out of the mountain before they slagged it. Then they moved to Antarctica and did the same."

Rodney felt simultaneously like screaming and crying in frustration. "Why? Why would those fuckers want to...?"

She kept her eyes closed as she replied. "Who knows? Maybe they just wanted to punish us. Maybe they thought... how the hell should I know? Maybe they just did it out of spite. Because they could."

Christ. "But Earth is still there," he said softly.

"For now."

Rodney sighed. "We... we don't have time to dwell on this. This ship has more holes than a Star Trek episode; we need to get you back to Atlantis."

"And then what, Rodney?" Her eyes opened to stare at him. They were bloodshot and surrounded with bruises. "I don't even think we can open a hyperspace window."

"We will get you home, somehow," Rodney said, as firmly as he could. "I'm here, now. If I have to get out and push, the Daedalus will get to Atlantis."

Carter looked at him for a long moment then nodded, wearily. "Then you'd better start with navigation, because it's fried."

"Great. Let's start with the hard stuff." He touched his earpiece. "Novak? McKay here."

"I'm here."

"Do you have my compression algorithms?"

"Yes, sir, they're standard--"

"Good. Pull every diagnostic you can and bundle it up. I'm going to squirt a subspace message to Atlantis. Let me know when you're ready." He clicked off the radio and turned to the nav console. "Okay, let's start. What were you last doing? And no, don't get up. I don't know what you did to your leg but stay down."

Rodney started running diagnostics on the consoles that were lit and as the air improved, he was joined by the other techs from the bridge. He kept one ear on Carter's exhausted voice and so wasn't really paying attention until he parsed what she was saying.

"...and thought we could charge the capacitors with it so we could--"

"Wait, wait, wait. You did not just say what I thought you said. Bypass the reactor core with naquadah generators?"

She glared at him. The effect was ruined by her obvious exhaustion. "It might have worked!"

"It wouldn't have worked in a million years! Not in this universe or any other! What the hell were you thinking?"

"The two mark-two generators were our only source of power and if I could have gotten them to--"

"You would have blown yourself up! The capacitors were not and have never been able to take that type of charge, especially not from the power fluctuations inherent in a naquadah generator! Have you had a recent lobotomy or something? Christ, Carter--"

Suddenly Cadman came skidding into the bridge. "Oh, my God, it's you!" she gasped, then abruptly burst into tears and draped herself over Rodney, sobbing.

Rodney sighed and awkwardly patted Cadman's back, almost sorry they had buried the hatchet between them months ago, after her promotion. He really would have felt more comfortable with her if she were snarky instead of hysterical.

He turned to Carter and saw her staring at him, her mouth open. "When was the last time you ate?" he demanded, gently urging Cadman to a seat. "For that matter, when was the last time you slept? You can't do real work while exhausted and starving, Carter, you make mistakes. Mistakes like getting the entire fucking ship blown up." He turned to Teal'c, who had yet to say a word. The big Jaffa looked just as exhausted as the rest of them but less injured. "Please take Colonel Carter to get something to eat and drink and then tie her to a bed somewhere for a couple of hours."


"Forget it. Get out of here. I'll work with Novak, we'll get it done, and in a couple of hours you can join us." He turned back to Teal'c. "There're some MREs in my jumper, if you need them. Use whatever's there."

Teal'c inclined his head. "It was a fortunate hour that brought you back to us, Dr. McKay."

Nonplussed, Rodney fluttered his hands around, looking anywhere but at Teal'c. "Yeah, well, whatever; I was in the neighborhood anyway. And we don't leave people behind where I come from." He shot one more glare at Carter who was staring at him with a stunned bunny expression on her face -- she really needed sleep, obviously. "Which you should have known before you went messing with interfacing things that were never meant to be interfaced." Teal'c helped Carter hobble off the bridge and Rodney went back to work, sighing. "Right. Navigation."

John put off eating until his hands began to shake. He wanted to stay, wanted to wait to see if Rodney was going to be okay, if the Daedalus would start moving, wanted to make that dot come closer by sheer will alone. But when he started to get dizzy just by standing up, he knew he needed to eat.

He nearly ran into Ronon, who was exiting the transporter. "Word?" Ronon asked.

"Nothing new, yet." John rubbed the top of his head. "What are you doing here?"

"Coming to get you," Ronon said, with a sloping grin on his face. "Teyla's orders."

"Oh. Well, then. Must be important. Can it wait until I've eaten?"

Ronon looked amused -- hell, when did Ronon not look amused when interacting with pathetic Earthlings? -- and said, "That's what I'm supposed to get you to do."

"Teyla's orders." John stepped into the transporter and Ronon followed him.


John was too tired to reply so he settled for a sigh. They came out of the transporter and walked into an empty mess hall. John glanced at his watch and realized it had been a truly godawful time since he'd last eaten. He shook his head. "I'm turning into Rodney," he muttered.

"Not good." Ronon pointed his chin at Teyla, who was waiting at a table with three trays. "Though we might have more things fixed right."

John rolled his eyes. "Teyla," he said, greeting her with a frown.

"Colonel, please sit and eat. I have chosen some of your favorites."

Christ, if he had Teyla mothering him, he must be in bad shape. "You know, you two didn't have to--"

"We are well aware of that, Colonel. Sit." Her tone and the eyebrow she raised left no room for nonsense and, in fact, she sounded just like his Grandma Sheppard. John sat.

Several minutes later he looked up from an empty plate and into Teyla's amused eyes. "Um..."

"You were hungry," Ronon said. He passed John the last of his biscuits.

John sighed but ate the biscuit. "Yeah. Been a long day."

"There has been no new word?" Teyla asked.

"Not yet, no." John rubbed the back of his neck, slumped back in his chair and sighed again. "The Daedalus is still there, though, even though she's not moving. The diagnostics Rodney sent makes me wonder how the hell they even managed to get to Pegasus."


"That bad?" Ronon asked.

"Pretty much. Even Rodney has trouble pulling miracles out of his hat."

"I am certain Rodney will manage to fix it," Teyla said, completely serene in her belief. "He has always informed us of his genius, often loudly. If there is anyone who can do it, it will be him."

John picked at a flaw in the table. "Carter's there, too." He looked up in time to see Teyla and Ronon share a look. "Yeah, yeah, I know." John's non-jealousy of Carter was pretty legendary, at least among his team. He really wasn't jealous of her. Really.

"I was able to speak at length with Colonel Carter on her last visit," Teyla said and John frowned. That was... eight months ago? Six months? She'd come out with Dr. Jackson, he thought, trying to get that ascended ancient to come back. "She is... very competent."

Okay, that was Teyla, the one who firmly believed if you couldn't say something nice about someone, say nothing at all. So apparently she hadn't much liked Carter but at least found her tolerable.

"She was surprised at my defense of Rodney," Teyla went on. "I believe she does not know Dr. McKay as well as she thinks she does."

John shrugged. "McKay has changed a lot since we moved out here," he said, slouching further down. He was getting really tired. "When I first met him it was all I could do not to strangle him. You remember that."

"Good thing you didn't," Ronon said. "He's pretty useful most of the time."

"Hey, wait a minute," John said, sitting back up and staring at Teyla. "You and Carter... does that have anything to do with why Carter had a sprained wrist when she went home?"

Teyla never, ever blushed, but if she did, it would be with the expression John saw on her face. "She... was interested in learning the sticks. I offered some of my time to... educate her."

John closed his eyes, trying hard not to laugh because he wasn't sure he wouldn't end up crying. He had the absolute best team in two galaxies. In ten. In the universe.

"She's stronger than she looks," Ronon said approvingly. "She's got nice tits, too."

John lost it.

It took Rodney nearly one whole day, but he finally succeeded. Elizabeth had been in her office -- playing solitaire, she was too wiped, too frazzled for anything serious -- when she heard Bentson's shout of "Incoming transmission!" John beat her to the command room and she wondered again if he was sleeping at all. She knew he'd eaten because Teyla would make sure of it, just as Teyla had badgered Elizabeth into it.

It only took a moment to uncompress the message, then they heard Rodney's tired voice over the speakers. "Atlantis base, this is McKay. We're just about to go to hyperspace--"

There was a gasp from one of the techs monitoring long-range scanners and Elizabeth whirled. "The Daedalus, it's moving!" Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment and was surprised to find herself thanking any supreme power listening before she could turn back to Rodney's transmission.

"...Not sure how long they'll last, but we've done all we could. We've got hyperspace, we've got shields -- sort of, anyway -- we've got transporters, and that's good because we don't have sublight engines and I have no idea how we're going to land her, because land her we'll need to do. Any ideas on that front would be deeply appreciated and tell Colonel Sheppard that no, he can't tow her in with a jumper." John was standing next to her and he snorted, but the grin on his face was relieved.

"Anyway, we'll see you in about two and a half days. I might have made it shorter but to be honest, I don't know if this bucket would be able to handle it. She's pretty pathetic. Attached to this transmission are all the new telemetry and diagnostics run since we got more systems back on-line. Radek, if I can't sleep, you can't. Give me what you can as soon as you can." Rodney stopped speaking and they could hear background noises before he continued. "I can't wait to come home and sleep... for about a week, I think," he said, and his voice sounded weary beyond belief. "Take care of my city. See you in a couple of days. McKay out."

Rodney was coming home. Elizabeth felt like passing out -- from the tension, from the worry, from the constant, niggling reminders that her chief science officer was missing. Then she looked at John, who was leaning against one of the consoles. His arms were crossed over his chest and his face was sagging, gray and exhausted. With a start, she realized her worry and tension was negligible compared to his.

"I am going to sleep," she announced to the room at large. Several of her people turned and smiled, actually smiled, more relaxed than they'd been in a couple of days. "If there are any changes, I want to be notified." She turned to John. "And I think you should get some sleep too." Radek came into the room, having just been dragged out of bed by the command staff. "Dr. Zelenka, there's a message for you," she told him and smiled when he looked around, his eyes growing wider as he took in the Daedalus' position.

"Yes, I see! Rodney has given me enough work for six weeks, I am sure."

"Probably," she replied, patting him on the shoulder. "I think you can afford another few hours of rest before you tackle it, though. Call me if there's anything happening."

"I guess I'll try to get some shut-eye too," John said slowly. "Same rules for me as Dr. Weir, though."

They were about to leave the room when one of the techs stopped John. "Uh, sir... your room or...?"

"Oh. Sorry." John shook his head briefly and rubbed his eyes. "McKay's, I think. And thanks." The tech nodded and smiled and went back to work.

Elizabeth found herself staring at John and he pulled a wry face. "I don't know why I sleep better there; Rodney's mattress is like sleeping on a two-by-four."

She didn't say anything but walked with him to the transporter. Everyone, it seemed, knew about the two of them but her. Being honest with herself, she suspected that her reliance upon John, her caring for him, things that had been growing since their first days on Atlantis, had something to do with her blindness. They came out of the transporter and John went left again.

"John..." He stopped and turned to her, looking almost as bad as she felt. Now that she had his attention, she didn't know what to say. She settled for, "Sleep well." Then, after a moment, added, "He'll be home soon."

"Not soon enough," John said with a nod and a small smile.

Elizabeth turned right and headed for her bed.

Jumper Four sat like a wart on the nose of the Daedalus; Rodney could see it off the forward port. It wasn't a very elegant solution, but it worked. They needed navigation and the poor Daedalus was in such bad shape that only a direct connection to the nav computer on the jumper was possible. So, in the end, they had to do an EVA, had to manually connect all the cabling necessary to get it all up and running. Rodney had, of course, done the EVA because he was just about the only person on the whole damn ship who was uninjured.

But they were up and running. They were in hyperspace and were heading home. Finally. As Sheppard had said to him on numerous occasions -- if it works, it's right.

"Yo, Rodney." He turned to see Cadman coming onto the bridge. She'd been getting some sleep and having her injuries looked to and had told Rodney she'd relieve him.

"You all rested up now, Cadman?" Rodney asked in his best snide voice. "Not going to go all fainty on me again, are you?"

She gave him a cold look but Rodney knew her too well -- it was all for show. "McKay, if you ever, and I do mean ever tell anyone... They will never find your body, McKay. I swear it."

He snorted. "You forget, Captain Cadman, who your commanding officer is. Your threats are as empty as your head." She glared at him but he was just too damn tired for play. "I'm going to try and get some sleep, if I can find an empty bunk. Where's Carter?"

"She's in sickbay." Cadman grudgingly added, "I'm in forty-four C. And if you take a shower you'd damn well better clean up after yourself."

"The depth of your solicitation amazes me, as usual," Rodney said, though he was truly appreciative of the offer and, as he passed her, squeezed her shoulder. "You going to be fine here for a while?"

"Nothing to do but babysit, right? And call you if anything goes ka-boom." She dropped heavily on the command chair.

"If I were less exhausted I might make further fun of you, but I'll pass. Yell if you need me."

He walked off the bridge to her acerbic, "Don't worry about that!" and headed aft, towards sickbay. He needed to make sure Carter was all right. She had the same unfortunate tendency he had to work herself half to death before acknowledging she was tired. Sheppard had gone a long way towards curing Rodney of that affliction, but apparently Carter never had the lesson. He hadn't seen her since he had chased her from the bridge after getting the nav console interfaced with the puddle-jumper but somehow he doubted she'd rested.

Sickbay was a horror. Every bed and chair was occupied and Rodney knew many of the 'walking wounded' had merely been released to their bunks, keeping only the most seriously injured in the bay. That included Caldwell, who'd lost part of his left leg to a field amputation, and a dozen maintenance techs who had gotten sprayed with some burning liquid of unknown origin. Cadman had told Rodney that the morgue was filled to overflowing.

Rodney stood frozen in place in the entrance to sickbay, feeling sick to his stomach. How many died while he was trying to get the Daedalus back online or while he and Radek fussed with each other over what to do? How many deaths were on his head?

"Dr. McKay?" Novak was suddenly at his side. "Are you okay? What are you doing here?"

He turned to look at her and realized for the first time that her right arm was in a cast and she had burns on her face. How had he managed to not notice that in the past day? "I'm sorry... I..." He had to struggle to get himself under control, but he finally made it. "I was looking for Carter, wanted to make sure she's... she's okay."

"Oh." Novak smiled slightly, only using the unburned part of her face. "She's over there, around the corner," she said, pointing. "She's visiting, I mean, looking at... with Dr. Jackson. I'm going to bed for a little while, is everything...?"

"It's fine, you do that, Novak. I'm going to crash for a couple of hours myself."

As she turned to walk away, Rodney said, "Wait, Novak." She hesitated and turned, looking so incredibly exhausted. "I just wanted to say. Good work." He nodded shortly; this was something else Sheppard had been drumming into his head but it was still difficult to say it. She'd just been doing her job, for pity's sake, but... "Thanks."

"It was mostly you, sir," she replied, but her shoulders straightened and a little of her load seemed to ease. Be damned, Rodney thought, it did work to say thanks. Huh. "Thank you. Sleep well."

Not that he would, Rodney thought, especially not after seeing the sickbay of the Daedalus.

Carter was leaning on the wall and staring through the small window set in the door of a private room. He frowned; her face had the pinched look of pain and exhaustion. He'd found out about her leg, how she basically blew the entire kneecap out during the explosion of the reactor core. She should be in bed.

"Why aren't you in bed?" Rodney asked as he came to stand with her.

She sighed. "I'm going, McKay. I just wanted to... to see Daniel. See if there's any change."

Rodney peered through the small window. The room was tiny, not more than a broom closet in size, and padding had been hastily duct-taped to the walls and floors. Jackson was crouched on the floor, leaning against the wall. He was naked, his body was covered in small sores, and he was banging his head rhythmically against the padded wall. "Christ. What happened?" As he watched, he discovered the source of the little wounds -- they were self-inflicted. Jackson was digging at himself with his fingernails.

Carter sighed. "You remember that weapon? The one we were all looking for, the one Merlin created?" She didn't wait for his nod before continuing. "It wasn't a thing. It wasn't a... a... thing you could pick up and point. It was a person. We got there, we saw it, but when Daniel tried to pick it up, there was nothing there. Not until later. After the goddamned dragon."

The look on Carter's face was one Rodney had never seen before. It was furious, blazingly angry; it was frustrated beyond belief; it was sadder and more broken-hearted than he'd ever imagined she could be. "It was... Jackson? How?"

"I don't know how," she said, shaking her head. "I don't know why, none of us did. Something changed in him, when he tried to pick it up. We didn't even know what until... until... we got back from..." Carter broke off and closed her eyes, resting her forehead on the door. "Jack. They had them both, Jack and Daniel, we're not sure how. They killed... tortured Jack, to death, in front of Daniel, they fucking taped it so we could see it too! God! We had to watch while he... while he..."

Rodney couldn't tell if the one tear dripping down Carter's cheek was from anger or from sadness or maybe from both; he only knew it came close to breaking his heart. "Jesus. Carter... I'm..." What could he say?

"They were going to kill Daniel, too, but Vala..." She looked at him, suddenly. "Do you remember Vala?"

He took a deep breath, wracking his brains, which were too tired to work properly. "That dark-haired woman. The strange one."

Carter snorted. "Strange, yeah, though I really came to like her, we all did. Daniel especially had a bond with her. Her child, that vicious bitch who called herself the Orici; did you read the mission reports?"

"Some of them. I remember a little about her."

"Vala called her Adria. Tried to get her away from the Ori. But all she managed to do was get in the way when that bitch tried to kill Daniel." Carter slumped against the door, her eyes closing again. "So Daniel saw two people -- people he loved, people who trusted him -- die because of him, in front of him, saving him, and now he's like this and I know that bitch is to blame for it." She swallowed and when she continued, it was in a whisper. "And now I've lost pretty much everyone close to me. Cam's missing, we don't know if his 302 was hit or picked up by the Asgard before they left. Teal'c's here and Daniel will never be here again and the mountain is gone. All gone."

Samantha Carter was one of the strongest women Rodney had ever known -- only Elizabeth Weir and Teyla Emmagan were in the same league. To see her wrecked, broken and depressed made him feel like shit, like a pathetic whiner for being so tired and wanting a break. After a few moments, he tentatively put one hand on her shoulder. "Carter. Sam." His mouth worked as he struggled to speak; he tried to channel Sheppard, who always seemed to know the right thing to say. "It's not all gone. We're here. Atlantis is here, and we're going home. And we'll go back to Earth some day too, soon. I swear." There was so much he wanted to say but couldn't find the words. "Please, just go lie down. I... I know you probably won't sleep, but you need to get off your leg and rest, at least. Please," he said, because it always worked with him when Sheppard said please, and Sheppard was always asking him to use it with others.

Slowly she rolled her head to look at him. "How can I rest?"

"By laying down and closing your eyes. By taking a couple Ibuprofen and getting off your leg. We still have to figure out how we're going to land this boat, and I need you fresh so you can shoot holes in all my ideas." He gently squeezed the shoulder under his hand. "Let me help you go to your quarters. Please."

She looked at him a long time, frowning, blinking her blood-shot eyes. Finally, she said, "Who are you and what have you done with Rodney McKay?"

Rodney sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. "Would you feel better if I mocked you? If I tried to make a pass at you?"

She seemed to be considering the suggestion seriously, though she was still frowning. "I don't know. Maybe."

"Well, then, let me mock because not only have I always been horrible at making passes, I'm taken now and not supposed to be doing it anyway," he said. "So, here's the mock: you look like shit warmed over, Carter, and you'd better try to get to a beauty parlor soon because your roots are showing. Go to bed before you fall over so you can make more stupid mistakes in the morning -- it feels like cheating to call you a moron when there's an actual reason for your stupidity aside from your natural idiocy."

"That's not a very good mock," she said, though she turned as she said it and let herself actually lean on Rodney to move.

"So sue me, I'm tired. C'mon, Carter." He directed her towards the entrance of sickbay, moving slowly.

"Wait." She frowned at him but didn't stop moving. "You're taken?"

Rodney sighed. "Yes, Carter, I'm taken. It surprised me too." In the hallway he paused, looking to her for direction.

"Oh. Left. I just... I'm surprised." They turned and made their way down corridors still littered with broken panels, dangling wires, burned-out modules and other detritus of the last month. At least the bodies were gone, though not all evidence of them -- there were still stains of dried blood here and there. They moved slowly and carefully through the minefields of wreckage and Rodney was grateful Carter didn't say anything else.

Before they'd made it to her room, Teal'c appeared. "I have been looking for you, Samantha Carter," he said, and Rodney wondered if odd speech patterns were indicative of alienness or something like that. Teal'c sounded exactly like Teyla; he'd never noticed that before.

"She needs rest," Rodney snapped.

"That is why I was looking for her," Teal'c replied mildly.

"Oh. Sorry." He shook his head. "Then I can hand her off to you. Cadman has ungraciously offered her bunk to me and I'd like to get in it before she rescinds the offer." He looked at Carter. "You going to be okay?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine." She blinked at him for a moment and added, "Thanks, Rodney."

"Yeah, whatever. I'm going to bed. Cadman's got the watch, she could probably use some moral support... and then there's the bit where she wouldn't recognize an emergency if it bit her."

"I am certain she will have no problems, but I shall join her as soon as I can. I have rested and can take this watch with her." Teal'c inclined his head and took over helping Carter down the corridor.

Rodney, after a moment's thought about where Cadman's quarters would be, went back the way he'd come. Before he'd moved out of earshot, he heard Carter say, "Is Rodney seeing Cadman?"

He snorted and shook his head. Then he was at forty-four C, managed to get inside and collapsed on the bed in a heap.

John's intention was to sleep for only four hours, six at the outside. But the next time he opened his eyes he saw the early afternoon sun slanting in through Rodney's windows. A glance at the clock confirmed he'd slept more than the clock around, so apparently his body had a different idea.

Groaning, he sat up and reached for his radio. It was sitting under a piece of paper which he picked up, even as he noticed a covered tray on Rodney's desk. The note was from Elizabeth.

John -- There've been no changes. Just check in when you wake up.

He smiled and put the paper down after putting his radio in his ear. "Command, this is Sheppard."

"Sir?" It was Campbell again, back on duty.

"Can you give me a quick status, Sergeant?"

"About forty hours until the Daedalus is due to drop out of hyperspace, sir. There's been no further word and no transmissions."

"Good. I'll be there within an hour. Sheppard out." Well, he did feel better rested, even though sleeping on Rodney's mattress gave him a lower back ache.

An hour later he was clean, changed, fed and on his way to the 'gateroom. The tray was from Teyla -- and how she got into the room without his knowing was a mystery -- who apparently was bound and determined to mother everyone on the command staff. After an initial burst of irritation over it, he let it go. She might even be feeling a bit extraneous with all their concentration on Earth and the Daedalus.

After all, Pegasus was home for her and her people and for Ronon and his. John promised himself to  keep that better in mind in the future.

The day -- what was left of it -- went slowly. He ran with Ronon, sparred with Teyla, met with Elizabeth and Radek to discuss options on how to get the Daedalus safely landed on the east pier, he even got caught up with his paperwork. He slept that evening in his own room. And the next day, he did substantially the same thing, though at least Teyla wasn't forced to break into his room to leave him trays of food.

By the evening before the Daedalus' arrival, everyone was on edge, tense, prickly. John tried to go to bed early, but he couldn't sleep. After thinking about hitting Carson up for some sleeping pills, he decided to just go to his office and do... something. Anything.

As he passed through the 'gateroom and into the command room, which was still bustling even at that hour, he paused over the long-range sensor display. The Daedalus was inching ever closer and was due to arrive in Atlantis in less than six hours.

"There's been no more word," Radek said from behind him, surprising him.

"But at least they're moving," John murmured in reply.

"Yes. Though getting them into orbit will be touchy since they have no sublight engines, only thrusters." Radek looked better but still exhausted. John wondered if he'd slept at all.

"But they can do it, yes?"

Radek frowned. "I have run some simulations and think their best action is to come out of hyperspace in such a position at such an angle to skim the upper atmosphere, tangentially. Being that close to the gravity well should give them some speed, and they can use the thrusters to better position themselves."

The idea sounded bad to John. "How...? I mean, they're already moving..."

"No," Radek said, shaking his head. "Movement in hyperspace is illusory. Quantum mechanics states that--"

"Doc..." John interrupted, "I can see you're moving into areas where you're going to leave me far behind..."

Radek snorted and shook his head. "You could follow if you wished, we both know you could. But this is truth: you are not moving when your ship is in hyperspace, space is moving around you." He saw how John had twisted up his face and chuckled. "Do you know the tesseract?"

John blinked. "Yeah, actually, I read A Wrinkle In Time in junior high school."

"Good! Hyperspace is a fold in space. You tell it where you wish to go, generate the fold -- the field -- and you fall in. The more power you have, the tighter the fold can be, and the shorter your trip." Radek looked very pleased with himself, though the concept was still way over John's head, despite what Radek thought. "When you are in the fold, it feels as if you are moving, but in reality, space is moving around you, around the fold you are in."

John knew when to surrender. "Okay, then, why is it a bad idea to come out of hyperspace in an atmosphere? Because I know I've heard that."

"Yes, that is true." Radek rubbed his eyes for a moment, seeming to gather his words. "Gravity distorts the field, it is one of the things a hyperspace generator compensates for. But it is more significant than that. It's like floating, weightless, then suddenly you are on Jupiter."

Well, that didn't sound too good. "But Rodney, he can do it, right? He can make it work."

"Yes yes, Rodney can do it. That is not questioned. But I am worried that the Daedalus might not be able to do it. That is where the trouble lies."

The Daedalus was due to arrive around oh-six-hundred, plus or minus ten minutes, Atlantis time. When Elizabeth made it to the command room at a bit after four, everyone was already there, watching the Daedalus approach. Radek was having a quiet argument with two others from the science division, something about insertion speed and drag ratios. She tuned it out.

There was nothing she could do. She couldn't work on anything -- she was caught up on all paperwork, there'd been no off-world missions since the entire crisis started, nothing would happen until the Daedalus arrived. She was, however, pathetically grateful that their other enemies had so far stayed away. She wasn't sure she could face more than this one critical problem at a time.

So, Elizabeth paced. She sat at her desk and tried to play games, but gave that up and paced. She went to the mess and got coffee and pastries for everyone, and paced some more after eating and drinking. She paced and wondered if it was even possible to wear a groove in the floor of the command room.

Bentson was on duty and her voice was high-pitched when she announced, "Incoming transmission!"

"Open a channel," Elizabeth said, for the thousandth time thinking of Uhura.

"Atlantis, this is the Daedalus." It was Colonel Carter's voice and she sounded exhausted and raw.

"Colonel! It's good to hear your voice," Elizabeth said.

"It's good to hear yours too, Dr. Weir. We are very close to emerging from hyperspace. Hopefully, we'll manage to do it close enough to your gravity well that it will put us in orbit as soon as we fall out -- theoretically, at least. You'll know as soon as we do whether or not we're successful."

Elizabeth raised both eyebrows -- Carter sounded horrible, and where was Colonel Caldwell? "Colonel, are you injured?"

Carter made a sound that might have been a chuckle, under different circumstances. "Dr. Weir, we all are. We'll be beaming down the worst of our injured as soon as we're within range -- directly to your infirmary, if that's all right."

"That's fine, Dr. Beckett is standing by. Hope to see you soon, Colonel."

"Same here. Daedalus out."

Elizabeth immediately touched her earpiece. "Dr. Beckett, this is Weir."

"Go ahead, Elizabeth."

"Not sure if that got piped to you, but the Daedalus reports they will begin transporting wounded to you as soon as they're within range. I'm lead to believe there are many, many wounded," she added, trying to keep her voice from sounding strained.

"Aye, that's fine. We're ready for them."

"Good. Weir out." She turned to John and Radek. "Any ideas on how to get her down? She can't come down on thrusters, can she?"

"No, no, they do not have enough power," Radek said. "We are working on several ideas. As soon as Rodney comes down, we'll know better."

Elizabeth nodded. "Good. John, have you put together that team to beam up to the Daedalus?"

He nodded. "I've got thirty marines and a dozen technicians standing by."

"Good, good. Yes." Elizabeth turned away, staring at the sensors, keeping from wringing her hands with effort. The Daedalus had moved into short-range  and the scanners showed it closing on Atlantis fast, at least in space terms.

Radek had his gaze fixed on his laptop, which showed a far more detailed picture than the scanners. "They should be dropping out of hyperspace in forty-five seconds," he said. "Forty. Thirty. Twenty." Elizabeth's hands clenched and she felt her nails bite into the skin of her palm. "Ten. Five, four, three, two..."

The scanners abruptly flipped, showing the Daedalus skimming the top of the planet's atmosphere. There were gasps and Radek began typing like a fiend. "What?" John asked, his gaze nervously skittering from face to face. "What?!"

Radek held up one hand but didn't look up. Suddenly, he relaxed completely, taking a huge breath. "Zdar. He has done it. They are in stable orbit."

Elizabeth suddenly found herself engulfed in a hug from an ecstatic John Sheppard, even as cheers erupted all around her. She felt giddy herself, almost on the brink of tears. She looked around and saw what had to be half of the entire city -- everyone but Carson -- in the 'gateroom; when John let her go, he immediately grabbed Teyla, who was beaming and teary-eyed herself. Ronon's expression was one of such relief it was almost impossible.

"Atlantis, this is McKay," she heard over the still-open channel. "Hi, honey, I'm home."

Their orbit was high and elliptical, but it was stable and could be maintained with the thrusters. Rodney and Novak began beaming down wounded as fast as they could, as soon as they could -- their orbit would keep them out of range for a long period of time. Rodney would have preferred a geosynchronous orbit, but that would tax the thrusters far too much; he knew they were going to need those thrusters later. There was a five hour window in every orbit in which to beam, which was long but not long enough; there were too many wounded who had to have special handling. Caldwell was among the first to go, and Carter, under protest, was the last to beam down before the ship moved out of range.

Then Sheppard had the brilliant idea of sending puddle-jumpers up to begin ferrying more personnel, wounded or not. The first two jumpers up were filled with marines and techs who began to work immediately, helping move the wounded, cleaning up, running diagnostics. More jumpers landed and more wounded were loaded inside and taken down to Atlantis. Sheppard came up on the first jumper, and by the time he found Rodney, his face was set in stone. "I thought you'd be here," he said, finding Rodney in engineering. "Rodney... this ship..."

Rodney felt unbelievably glad to see Sheppard and would have kissed him then and there if there hadn't been so many witnesses. "She's held together with Elmer's glue and prayers," he said, consoling himself with a hand on Sheppard's arm.

"I don't know how she made it as far as she did. Do you think she's ever going to fly whole again?" Sheppard was staying back, out of the way, eyeing blown panels and burned-out consoles suspiciously.

Shaking his head and sighing, Rodney said, "I have no idea. I'm not even sure we'll be able to land her."

"Well, it's time to leave her now to get some rest." Sheppard didn't wait further before dragging a reluctant Rodney out of engineering and to the hangar bay.

"No," Rodney protested, "I've got work to do, still have to..."

"No, you don't." Sheppard at his most stubborn was worse than a mule. "Radek will be coming up shortly and we're still ferrying the science staff. They can do everything you can do up here, which looks like mostly monitoring and running diagnostics anyway. You are coming back with me for a shower, a meal and sleep."

Rodney knew when to surrender, though he didn't do it graciously. He tried to hold the bitching and whining down, though, as he helped load more wounded into Jumper One and strapped himself in the co-pilot's chair. Novak was right behind him, also protesting, but Sheppard threatened them with sedation if they didn't shut up, so Rodney gave up.

Stepping off the jumper into Atlantis again nearly made him crumple with relief. "I'd forgotten what clean air smelled like," he said, looking around at the controlled chaos of the jumper bay.

Novak was sent off with the other wounded to the infirmary. "I've got Morrisey stationed in the infirmary handing out quarter assignments," Sheppard told her, his voice beginning to show his strain. "Once you're cleared by Beckett, she'll get you fixed up."

In a daze, Rodney wandered down the hallway with Sheppard. The corridors were jammed with people, hurrying every which way but Rodney was so tired he couldn't even comment. They reached his quarters and Sheppard pushed him through the door, closed it behind them, then pressed Rodney against it, kissing him frantically, ravenously. Rodney let himself be kissed, opened his mouth to Sheppard's onslaught, wrapping his arms around Sheppard's waist and squeezing. He recognized the burning need in Sheppard -- it was almost the same as his own.

Breaking the kiss, Sheppard leaned his forehead on Rodney's, cradling Rodney's head in his hands. "Too much," he gasped. "Too much tension, too much..."

"I know, I know," Rodney muttered. "I'm here. You're here."

"Finally. Finally." Then Sheppard put his mouth back over Rodney's and kissed him until they both were breathless, both of them hard and aching.

"Rodney... I need..." Rodney was so tired it took him a while to figure out what Sheppard was trying to say. "Need to be... I... I..."

God, they were both such idiots at times. "What?" Rodney pulled his head back to look at Sheppard. He saw on Sheppard's face the same craving, the same need that was probably on his own.

"I need to... to be inside you... have to be inside... please..."

"Oh." Sheppard kissed him again, plastering his long, rangy body against Rodney's. "Yes," Rodney whispered into Sheppard's mouth. "Yes." Yes, he wanted that too, needed that reconnection, just like the first time they'd done this, and all the other times when one or the other had been thought dead, hurt, missing. There had been so many of those times in their lives and it just wasn't fair, not that life was fair, anyway.

They'd gotten quite adept at getting rid of clothing quickly; they were so often in a hurry, in a panic, literally stealing time for the absolutely essential touching, feeling, testing to ensure they were both still alive. Rodney fell on his messy bed and pulled Sheppard on top of him, he wanted to feel pinned down and owned by Sheppard. Sometimes, it was the other way, sometimes (most of the time, a little voice in the back of his head whispered) it was John Sheppard who had been taken, hurt, tortured, and it was Rodney McKay who needed to be inside, claiming.

But this time, it was Rodney who'd put himself on the line for his world, his city, his family. He welcomed Sheppard's weight, letting his legs fall apart so Sheppard could settle between them. Rodney was already hard, just as Sheppard was, his body familiar with the motions between them.

The lube and condoms were in the same drawer as always, and Rodney pressed the tube into Sheppard's hand, not breaking the kiss that was almost as necessary as breathing. They had this part down too, slick movement against each other, firm pressing inside, all the movements choreographed like a ballet for two. Sheppard inside Rodney felt huge and hot and perfect, and he gasped into Sheppard's mouth.

"Rodney," Sheppard said, his voice broken.

"I know," Rodney replied, letting his hands roam over Sheppard's back, feeling all the scars from years of fighting, delicately tracing straining muscles as Sheppard's tongue tasted Rodney's neck. He had to keep speaking, though, had to say, "I know, I know, it's like I feel... don't you get it? It's like I feel, when... when you..."

They froze. Sheppard's head came up and his pain-filled eyes focused on Rodney. "No..."

"Yes," Rodney gasped. "It is, I know, don't you get it, you moron? I know. Every time you do it to me... every time, I wonder..." The last words were choked out, almost sobbed and Rodney had to close his eyes. "Every damn time."

"Oh... oh God..." Sheppard pressed his forehead to Rodney's again and Rodney knew, he got it. Sheppard suddenly got it. It was one of the reasons why Rodney had fought their attraction for so long, why he didn't want to risk his heart. "Rodney..." Sheppard's whisper was coarse and strained, but his body began to move again, more slowly. With a deep breath, Sheppard slowed them way down -- for the first time, turning their frantic near-death-averted-again rutting into making love. Rodney closed his eyes, trying to breathe into each gentle thrust, holding himself open for Sheppard. They were broken, each in his own way, but together, they were whole. Even with the whole sacrificial thing -- which apparently wasn't just Sheppard but Rodney too -- they were better, together.

It had just taken them so fucking long to realize it.

In and out, a slow pavane of passion. Rodney arched as Sheppard raked across his prostate, moaning deep in his throat. "Yeah... just like..."


Yes, always good. Always perfect. "More," Rodney gasped, the pleasure coming in tight spirals curling up from his belly.

Sheppard sped up slightly, lifting one of Rodney's legs to his shoulder. He knelt up, looking down at Rodney with a hunger which could almost be called obscene, except that Rodney knew he wore the same look. "I couldn't do anything, I couldn't do anything and if you had... you had..."

"I didn't," Rodney murmured, panting hard. "I didn't." They didn't just have sex, didn't just fuck, they all but crawled into each other's skin. It was all they had... to reassure each other, to confirm each was alive.

Rodney couldn't stand it any longer, the exhaustion, the panic was catching up with him. He kept his eyes open and his gaze on Sheppard's face as he began to jack himself in time to Sheppard's thrusts, seeing his climax just about there, right around the corner.

"God! Rodney!" Sheppard had to move harder. Rodney knew that feeling, that look, knew Sheppard didn't have a choice but to go, to hammer into Rodney's body, his own completion waiting to jump him.

Rodney followed him right along, and all it took was one more nudge against his prostate. "John," he said, his voice choked in a throat that was too tight to breathe. Then he was coming, falling, arching and groaning and clenching and he knew John was coming too. John would always follow, just as Rodney realized he would; they would always follow each other, tethered by the heart.

John managed to get Rodney in the shower for at least a hose-down, then immediately tucked him into his bed. Rodney was so different after sex, so pliant and soft and accommodating. It was hard as hell for John to leave him; most of him wanted to just lie down and hold Rodney for the rest of the day... the rest of the month. Longer, anyway, than was possible.

But he had work to do, so John made sure to put a couple of MREs and PowerBars on Rodney's desk before he kissed his very own, personal scientist goodbye for now. Rodney frowned and muttered indistinctly but didn't wake. John slipped out of his room and headed for the infirmary. He was pretty sure after seeing the Daedalus that they'd need blood donors and he was O negative -- generic blood, Rodney liked to call it, laughing whenever he did.

He was sidetracked by a call from Elizabeth. "I need you in my office," she said.

"On my way."

Carson and Carter were in Elizabeth's office as well. Carter had her leg in a complicated and painful-looking brace. "Colonel," he acknowledged. "You sure you should be out of bed?"

"Not much choice," she said with a grimace. "Though your doctor has me slated for surgery soon, apparently."

"Colonel Carter needs reconstructive surgery on her knee," Carson explained to John. "Dr. Biro just finished Colonel Caldwell's surgery, I did three internal injury surgeries this morning and we've got twenty-six severe burn patients to deal with, as well."

"Carson and I have been discussing the situation," Elizabeth said. John sat on an edge of her desk where he could see everyone. "According to Carson, there are eighty-three individuals in the infirmary -- seventeen critically wounded -- and one hundred thirty-five injured but stable and released to quarters."

John felt his jaw drop. "That's... what? Most of the Daedalus's complement?"

"We took on a lot of refugees from SGC," Carter said in a monotone. Her gaze was focused on the floor.

"Aye, and there are over a hundred bodies in the morgue aboard the Daedalus, as well as others who were caught in sections which decompressed after being fired upon," Carson added. He looked both sick and determined. "We'll get to them when we can but right now, I need to focus on the living. Speaking of which, we need blood donors, please--"

"I was on my way there when I got the call from Elizabeth," John interrupted him. "All the marines will be lined up shortly if they aren't already, and anyone from the science staff who's not immediately needed on the Daedalus will be too." Carson nodded and sighed. "Do we have everyone off the Daedalus, now?" John asked, trying to keep from freaking out with the knowledge he had so many wounded in his city.

"Yes," Carter replied. "Thanks to you and McKay. The question now is whether we can put her down somewhere to make repairs."

"We can't leave her in orbit," John said, nodding. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and frowned into the distance. "I've got teams up there giving her a good scrubbing. We've left the ZPM on her too, so we can keep her in orbit. You've got no sublight engines at all, right?"

She nodded. Every time she moved, her head drooped a little more. "Even the thrusters have taken damage. I need to talk to Novak and McKay--"

"Rodney's sleeping," John interjected, keeping his voice mild. "As is Novak, I hope. I think we can afford a few hours for them before we get started again. They're only going to make mistakes if they work exhausted."

Carter sighed. "I know."

"Come, love, you've made your report, we need to get that leg seen to." Carson rose and helped Carter up; John jumped up as Carter wobbled, helped to keep her steady. "The problems will still be there tomorrow," Carson said gently. He smiled at John and Elizabeth as he led his patient out.

John watched them go, then slumped in the chair Carter had vacated. "What happened to her?"

"Carson said she blew out her kneecap in an explosion, the same one that crippled Steven," Elizabeth replied somberly.

It took John a moment to understand that sentence. "Steven... Caldwell?" With a start, he remembered what Carson had said. "What happened to him?"

"He lost part of his left leg." Elizabeth rested her head in her hands, letting it droop, focusing on her desk. Her voice was a low monotone. "Apparently, they were babying the reactor, hoping to make it all the way to Pegasus before it died. They made it, but at a cost -- the burn victims Carson talked about. And Steven and Samantha." After a moment she continued, in a soft voice. "The mountain is gone, which I believe infers that most of Colorado is as well. Antarctica, too. They crippled Earth and we really couldn't do a damn thing about it."

John had no idea what to say. "Jesus," he breathed.

They sat in silence for a while before Elizabeth finally took a big breath and looked up. "John. It's time to go to Project Jamestown."

He gaped at her, only able to make a lame joke. "Or Project Halifax, if you listen to Rodney."

She chuckled briefly, without real mirth. "Whatever we call it."

"Now?" he asked, feeling backed into a corner. "Are you sure this is the right time?"

"It's the best possible time, John," Elizabeth replied. "I don't think I'm reaching very far when I say that the SGC is, in effect, gone. Colonel Carter confirmed for me that General Landry was not with them -- he had apparently dialed the Asgard and was trying to get those personnel still at the mountain away before the Ori... destroyed it. Jack -- General O'Neill -- he's gone too. If Landry made it to the Asgard before the mountain went up, we won't know for some time. Colonel Mitchell is MIA, he was in a 302 defending the mountain. Teal'c is here, almost unhurt. He's on the Daedalus, I believe, helping in the cleanup. Then there's Colonel Carter and Colonel Caldwell, who may be the last living ranking officers  in the SGC."

She licked her lips and held her head high and he could see her strength and resolve, see what it was in her that made her the best damn commanding officer John had ever known. "We're the last free outpost of Earth, now, and to all intents and purposes, Stargate Command in absentia. Until we can make it back to the Milky Way, until we can figure out a way to drive the Ori out of the galaxy, we're it. And I don't want either Steven or Sam believing they can run Atlantis as the SGC, because we are not the SGC. We're more than willing to host them, more than willing to fight for them, but we need to let them know that Atlantis as a whole, the city herself, is not the SGC. Atlantis is an independent, autonomous body answering to herself and led by me, not by Colonel Carter or Colonel Caldwell."

"Okay," John said, his mind whirling as he thought through the consequences, realizing at once that he did not want either colonel trying to take over Atlantis. "Yeah, I guess I see your reasoning." They'd been over it and over it; John, Rodney and Elizabeth arguing the pros and cons for months. It had always been an academic exercise, though, never real, never before possible. He didn't mind putting his career on the line -- again -- but it wasn't just his career, not this time.

John marveled -- it hadn't even been three weeks since they tried to dial Earth and failed. In just over a week, so much had happened; the entire known universe twisted abruptly into a pretzel shape and he found himself holding on to it by his fingernails. "What about that weapon, the one Jackson was looking for?"

Elizabeth took a shaky breath. "Dr. Jackson's in..." She stopped and cleared her throat. "Kate calls it traumatic psychotic break with atypical aphasia. She's not even sure if Daniel is actually in there, anymore. He's under sedation and Carson has some hope -- but he always does."

It just got worse and worse. A part of him wanted to run and do sensor sweeps, because surely the Wraith were coming, or the Genii, or the fucking Replicators. But he wasn't going to tempt fate by saying so. When the shit hit the fan, the best thing to do was package it up and sell it for fertilizer -- so said Robert Heinlein and John always believed what Heinlein said, ever since he read Have Spacesuit, Will Travel in sixth grade. Sell it for fertilizer and begin Project Jamestown. "Okay. I'm hoping to keep Rodney asleep for a good six hours before he has to get back to work. In the meantime, I'm going to get the marines ready and start the donor line, then I'll go up topside to check on the work there, see if there's anything I can do to help."

Elizabeth nodded, her mouth in a tight line. "I'd like to schedule a briefing for tomorrow late afternoon, say sixteen hundred. Hopefully by then, we'll have a better idea about what we can and can't do with the Daedalus. I think you agree that the one option we don't have is to destroy her. We need her too much."

"Yes. We do need her, which is why we need to get her down here ASAP. I'll keep in touch, let you know the status as I go." She nodded at John's words and as he stood to go, he just had to add something, had to say something to maybe help the headache he could almost see behind her eyes. "We're alive, Elizabeth. We're free," he said, trying to keep his voice firm. "We'll make it."

She nodded again. "We have to," she whispered, but sat straighter in her chair. "We don't have a choice."

Elizabeth wasn't a scientist, wasn't a fighter. She was an administrator. She was a negotiator, a facilitator, someone who saw the need for something and filled it. So when she went to the infirmary to give blood and saw the chaos there, she shook her head, returned to her office for her laptop, put a note on her door and moved, wholesale, to the infirmary. The orderlies and nurses were overworked and couldn't keep anything straight so Elizabeth basically released them to do their 'real' work and took over the rest of it. She sorted donors by blood type and made appointments and sent half the line off to work, giving them appointments for later in the day.

Teyla, who had a rare blood type, came to donate and stayed to help. Between the two of them, they kept the infirmary supplied with blood, food, drink and care. It was a hellaciously long day but by 2200, things began to wind down. Everyone on Atlantis who could donate blood had done so, all the critically wounded from the Daedalus had been seen to and the next level of care begun. At one point in the early evening, Elizabeth had been amused to see Rodney and John walking together down the crowded corridor, Rodney's mouth going a mile a minute and his hands waving all over the place as he described something to John. John had winked and given Elizabeth and Teyla a jaunty wave before steering Rodney to the jumper bay.

As Elizabeth was packing up her impromptu office, Carson came by. He looked exhausted and she glared at him. "You had better be telling me you're going to bed," she said sternly.

A laugh from behind her made her turn to see Laura Cadman. Laura had suffered only superficial injuries from the fight, but had carried the weight of command when both colonels were out of commission. She looked much better than when Elizabeth had seen her last. "He's definitely going to bed, if I have anything to say about it," Laura said and Elizabeth chuckled; it was good to see them together again and she was pleased they'd decided to give it another go.

Then she laughed louder when she turned and saw Carson blushing. "To sleep, Carson," Elizabeth said, her voice teasing.

"Aye, and I'm hen-pecked," Carson said. He was evidently trying for light-hearted but only made it to less tired. "I am heading that way, Elizabeth, but wanted to tell you Colonel Caldwell is awake and asking for you."

Elizabeth blinked in surprise. "Is he okay?"

"Aye, he is, he came through surgery fine. We were able to save the knee, which is good news." Carson visibly deflated. "Well, good news for us, then. Not so much for him."

Laura took Carson's arm. "Give him time," she said, just loudly enough for the three of them to hear. "It's going to be a bad time for him."

"I'll go talk to him," Elizabeth said. She waved to Teyla, who was returning from the mess. "Go to bed, Carson!" She left Carson to Laura's tender mercies as Teyla approached. "Colonel Caldwell is awake, I'm going to go speak with him before retiring," she said.

Teyla nodded soberly. "The removal of his leg will be difficult for him to deal with," she said, echoing Laura's words. Elizabeth thought that probably made sense, since both Laura and Teyla were warriors, like Steven, and would know how Steven thought. "Tell him when he is ready to get back on his feet that I will be pleased to work with him," Teyla continued. "I will not go easy on him, and suspect he will know that."

Elizabeth put her hands on Teyla's shoulder and leaned in to touch foreheads. "You are a treasure, Teyla," she murmured. "It was a lucky day for us when we met you."

Teyla smiled and left, probably for her own bed. Elizabeth's was calling to her too, but she owed it to Steven to talk to him.

He was in the back of the infirmary, where temporary walls set up semi-private rooms in the attempt to grant privacy. He was propped up in bed with IV lines going in to his left arm and the blanket covering the lower part of his left leg was raised by some sort of box, probably to keep any weight off the stump. He looked horrible, sallow and sunken, nothing like the stern, self-assured Colonel she knew.

"Steven?" she asked, keeping her voice low in case he was sleeping.

He wasn't. At her voice, his eyes opened and he turned his head. "Elizabeth?"

"Hi." Elizabeth walked to the side of his bed and perched on the edge of it. There were no chairs available; all were in use for the emergency. "I have to warn you, I've been told I have crappy bedside manner."

Steven snorted. "Can't be any worse than mine. Elizabeth... they won't tell me. What's happening to my ship?"

She patted his arm. "The Daedalus is in a stable orbit and we've got everyone who needs to be down here down. I can't give you that much information about your crew because there hasn't been time to do a full accounting, but hopefully by tomorrow afternoon we'll know better. John, Rodney and Dr. Novak are all working on ways to get her down here, so we can make repairs."

"Carter, what happened to Carter?" Steven sounded so very weak and it wrenched at Elizabeth's heart.

"She's fine. I saw her before she had knee reconstruction surgery, earlier today. Carson said she came through it very well."

Steven sighed. "Good. At least she got to keep her leg." His voice was filled with understandable bitterness.

Laura and Teyla were right, he was going to have a difficult time with the amputation. "At least you both got to keep your lives," she said, mildly but firmly. "Teyla wants me to tell you she would like an appointment to kick your ass once you're back on your feet."

That got a reaction, at least. "She did?"

"Uh-huh, though 'kick your ass' translates to 'physical therapy,' at least in Teyla-speak. I know Teyla pretty well, and she won't go easy on you. Just a friendly warning." She took his hand and squeezed it. "Steven, we can't go back to Earth yet, not until we have a way of beating the Ori."

He looked away from her and clenched his jaw. "Don't you think I know that?"

"Yes, I know you do. Which is why I need to be formal: the Daedalus and her crew are welcome to stay in Atlantis for however long that takes, however long it is until we can take the Milky Way back. And believe me, we've got some pretty determined people here, that might not be as long as you think."

He was studying the ceiling and she knew he was probably pretty high on pain-killers. "The Odyssey is gone. We managed to beam a few over before those bastards lit it up. We had to disengage, our shields were failing and our armament was virtually gone." Elizabeth just squeezed his hand and let him talk. "I hated to turn and run. But I had civilians on board, people from Cheyenne Mountain before they slagged it. The Asgard disengaged too, the Jaffa ships were already gone." She could tell his mind was back on the fight. "They hit us just as we made the jump to hyperspace. Took out part of the reactor couplings, some key systems. We were able to baby it, keep it going until we thought we were within your long-range sensors, but in the end, it didn't matter. It blew anyway."

"You did make it," she said softly. "We saw you on long-range sensors and came and got you. Well, Rodney did."

Steven snorted again. "We should have just sent McKay after the Ori -- they'd have been so horrified they would have left of their own free will."

Elizabeth smiled. "You're probably right. I'll propose that once we get things going again."

He closed his eyes and Elizabeth was able to really study him, carefully. He had a large burn on the left side of his face, going down past his neck, but it wasn't as bad as some of the others had. She had always thought of him as a handsome man, but now she realized a lot of that was from how active he always had been. He had an economy of movement that spoke to his power and ability -- to see him inert and defeated was almost an affront.

After a moment, his eyes opened again, and his gaze met hers. "I've..." He cleared his throat, and she squeezed his hand again. "I've never felt so helpless in my life," he whispered.

"I know," she murmured back. "I know."

"So, here's the plan," Rodney said and immediately glared at Sheppard, who was sitting in the front row and rolling his eyes like they were cue balls. "We can get the sublight engines online but we don't know for how long, exactly, and don't want to overtax them if we don't have to. We're going to bring the Daedalus down through the atmosphere in a dead-stick glide -- in the words of one cocky flyboy--"

"Hey!" Sheppard said. "That's what it's called!"

"Whatever. Now, that only really works well with something that's aerodynamic, and the Daedalus is about as aerodynamic as a brick so we're going to have to take extra precautions. Like beefing up her heat-shields."

"Yes, yes," Radek, his co-presenter to the senior staff, interrupted him. "Which is where the manufacturing units on the northeast pier come in. We can extrude many sheets of lightweight metal which absorb heat and dissipate it most effectively. We can then transport it via beaming or via the jumpers."

"Which is why we'll need EVA suits and people who can use them," Rodney said, smoothly on the tail of Radek's words. "The sooner we get this stuff on the Daedalus, the sooner we can get her down." He looked around at all the faces -- Atlantis staff, including Teyla, of course, and the Daedalus staff, with Teal'c included -- and wondered who would object first.

"A dead-stick glide won't work to get her landed on the east pier," Caldwell said and Rodney won the bet he'd placed with himself. Caldwell had gotten special dispensation from Carson to attend the meeting, two days after his surgery. Rodney thought he was nuts for not staying put and being pampered, but apparently you didn't need brains to fly. Witness Lieutenant Colonel TightPants.

Though Carter was at the meeting too, her face pinched from pain. There must be something that happened to  people when they got into the airborne military. Maybe there was a lobotomy clause.

"No," he replied to Caldwell, as patiently as he could -- granted, it wasn't very patiently -- "and no, we don't have a ten mile runway available to let her glide onto. But that's where the sublight engines come in. We bring her down, slow her with thrusters, and then get one burn to land her on the east pier." Yeah, that was the plan. And it would work. "Hopefully."

"Hopefully?" Carter said, her voice incredulous. "McKay, that idea sucks! What if we don't get a burn?"

"Well, then, we see how well she floats!" Rodney snapped. "We don't have much of a choice here, Carter. And we need to bring her down soon, before the Wraith or the Replicators or the fucking Genii get wind of her here."

"We have run simulations--" Radek started but Carter interrupted him.

"We need to just leave her in orbit until we can get the sublight engines back online full-time," she said, crossing her arms in front of her.

"Read my lips, Carter. We. Can't. Do. That. We bring her down now, while it's still safe, or risk losing her altogether the next time the Wraith wander by."

"Yes, we need to bring her down eventually," Caldwell said, "I'll grant you that. But while there's nobody around now, we should--"

"We can't do that!" Rodney bellowed.

"Rodney!" Elizabeth glared at him.

"Is there anyone here besides me who has any brains?" Rodney demanded. They were all being such boneheaded idiots and how stupid was it that he'd be left taking care of all of it, as usual?

"Dammit, McKay--" Caldwell.

"If you could listen to yourself, McKay--" Carter.

"If I could insert a word--" Radek.

"This is not a group decision, the Daedalus is--" Novak, hiccoughing again.

"That is enough!" Elizabeth actually out-bellowed everyone, no mean feat.


Into the silence, Sheppard spoke up and Rodney tossed his hands up, they were never going to get it. "Look, McKay has had some pretty hare-brained ideas but--"

"Hare-brained? Hare-brained?! What is wrong with you that--"

"But I've been up to the Daedalus with him on this--"

"This is THE ONLY WAY, you imbecile!"

"WHICH IS WHAT I'M TRYING TO SAY," Sheppard yelled over Rodney's voice.

Rodney blinked. "Oh." Dammit, why did Sheppard do that to him? Put him on the defensive and just yank the rug right out from under him, every damn time! See if he got any blowjobs for the next month.

"I've talked with Lindsey and gone over the specs with Radek and Rodney, and Rodney's right--" Sheppard glared at him, "--not that I enjoy confirming that at times and this is one of them -- this can be done. We can bring her down on a dead-stick glide with beefed up thrusters and the sublights should fire long enough for a landing. We're not going to get a hover-and-squat, but we will get her down in one piece."

Rodney crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared back at Sheppard, who continued, blithely ignoring the glare.

"We need the Daedalus, which is the long and short of it. Now that we've run through her and eyeballed everything, she's not so badly damaged as to be unsalvageable. With the manufacturing plants open on the northeast pier, we can get the needed supplies to get her repaired. It might take time, but we can do it." Sheppard grimaced. "Not that I wouldn't appreciate another ZPM dropping into our laps, but still."

Caldwell turned his glare on Sheppard. "You're sure about this?" he demanded.

Sheppard nodded. "Yeah. I am. It's not without risk, but everything's risky right now, for us, anyway."

Still frowning, Caldwell nodded shortly. Thank God for small favors that he trusted Sheppard, at least.

"I still don't like it," Carter said and Rodney gave her a withering look. "I want to see the simulations you've run."

"Yes, fine, we can do that," Radek said, absolutely scurrying over to her with his laptop.

Rodney felt like warning Radek about the back-stabbing bitch but realized he was being given twin scowls from Sheppard and Elizabeth. "What?" he asked, but they didn't answer.

Elizabeth just shook her head. "All right, if we've gotten that out of the way -- and I assume we have, pending Colonel Carter's review -- I'd like to bring up something else."

Sheppard reached out and grabbed Rodney by the back of his jacket and yanked him, making Rodney almost fall into the seat next to Sheppard. "Hey!"

"Siddown, Rodney," Sheppard hissed, "and shut up for a minute."

Rodney crossed his arms and subsided, but not without a look that could have melted concrete, he was sure. He was so underappreciated around Atlantis.

"This information is not to be released outside this conference room," Elizabeth said, leaning on her forearms, which were braced on the table in front of her. "For some time now, my senior staff and I have debated about the future of Atlantis. While we were a secret, while we were controlled by the SGC, there wasn't much to our speculations, but the Ori have forced the issue to the forefront."

Rodney glanced at Sheppard, who nodded infinitesimally. What lousy timing, Rodney thought, they were never going to go for it.

"Many of us here on Atlantis now call it home. Yes, we all have family back on Earth and would not want to give it up completely -- and never to the Ori -- but Atlantis is home. And, since we're also, apparently, all that's left of Stargate Command, I think it's time to make our stand clear. Which is why we believe it might be better to announce that Atlantis is and will be a colony, a free colony, of Earth."

Rodney heard someone gasp -- he thought it was Novak, but wasn't sure. Caldwell was scowling but Carter just looked thoughtful. And hurting. She really shouldn't be out of the infirmary.

"When we return to Earth -- and make no mistake, that's a when and not an if -- and when we throw the Ori out on their non-corporeal asses, we will do it as a colony of Earth, and after that, we will declare our independence. We will never abandon Earth, but we will expect to be treated as the free city-state we will be." She sighed and looked very sad for a moment before adding, "This wouldn't have happened if Atlantis were still a secret on Earth, at least I don't think it would. However, I doubt the SGC or the Ori or any of what we've been doing is much of a secret any longer. Unfortunately."

"This is a hell of a time to declare independence, Dr. Weir," Caldwell said. His voice carried a distinctly chilly tone.

"Actually, I think I disagree," Carter said. Rodney turned to her in surprise. "You're right, Dr. Weir, it's better to clear things up right from the start, not to mention you're going to need all the morale you can get and this idea... are you sure about your people? More than half of them would want to stay here?"

"Yes, I'm quite sure," Elizabeth said with a smile. "And Steven, we're not exactly declaring independence, not fully. We have bigger fish to fry, unfortunately. But, because of the Ori, Project Jamestown--"

"Halifax," Rodney interrupted her and she rolled her eyes.

"Project Jamestown has moved to the front burner. You have to know this is an ideal time to get people used to the idea that Atlantis is a separate entity from Earth. And as soon as the Daedalus is cleared for travel, we're going to start on the Ori." She nodded firmly, but Rodney thought the look she gave Caldwell was too hopeful, too conciliatory.

"So you're willing to ask the military on this base to commit treason against their governments? Just like that?"

"No, not 'just like that.'" Elizabeth met Caldwell's gaze straight on. "If we never get back to Earth, the point would be moot anyway. But when we re-take the Milky Way, we'll be asking for Earth's governments to grant our status as a free colony. That's not the same as asking military people to commit treason."

He just shook his head. Being fair, Rodney had to agree that Caldwell looked like shit too, and probably shouldn't have been out of the infirmary. "This is all idle speculation anyway, unless we can get the Daedalus to fly again. And then I probably won't be commanding her anyway so what the hell difference does it make."

Before Rodney could even make sense of that sentence, Sheppard, Elizabeth, Novak and Carson all chimed in with negations, comforting and babying him. "What?" Rodney demanded. Caldwell was a grown man, he could take tough talk. "You think you're less of a commander because you lost a couple of feet of bone and skin? Please. If you think that, you might as well just roll over and die."

"Rodney!" Elizabeth looked horrified and pissed off. Caldwell just kept frowning, as if he hadn't heard Rodney at all.

"What? It's the truth! You lost part of your leg, not your brain. Christ. Suck it up."

Sheppard leaned over and clapped one of his hands over Rodney's mouth. "And on that cheery note, I think we can end this." Leaning in closer, he hissed in Rodney's ear, "I am going to build you a muzzle, McKay, I swear to God."

"Mmumfph!" What was wrong with people that they thought the truth was toxic or something?

John kept his hand over Rodney's mouth until everyone else left the room. Elizabeth shot John a look that was all about keeping McKay under control. He shrugged and shook his head.

Once the doors were closed, he pulled his hand away. "What the fuck was that for?" Rodney demanded. He looked angry enough to chew nails, his arms crossed and his mouth in a tight, white line.

John just stared at him, counting to ten in Pashto to calm himself down before speaking. Finally he felt more in control. "What the fuck is your problem, McKay?" he said, internally wincing. Maybe not calm enough. "That was a damned insensitive thing to say, even coming from you."

"It was not. It was the truth and he's a grown-up, he can take it."

There was a sneaking suspicion growing in the back of John's brain. "It's Carter, isn't it? You started with her, today. You always seem to lose it whenever you're around her."

"Oh, please."

"That is it, isn't it?" John continued. "It's been like that ever since she showed up over a year ago with that black hole project. You know, I don't think I like you very much when you're around her."

Yeah, that was it. Rodney was becoming almost purple with rage, just confirming John's hunch. Abruptly, Rodney stood and stalked over to the other end of the room, though he didn't leave. John counted that as a victory; before, Rodney would have frozen him out completely, left and avoided John for at least a week. John had been working on Rodney, though, trying to improve his microscopic interpersonal skills and it seemed to be working... unless Colonel Samantha Carter was around.

John just kept quiet, waiting for Rodney to speak. Rodney began pacing, nearly stomping, his motions jerky and clipped but he remained silent, so John waited. It had taken him a while to realize that Rodney needed to deal with such things by himself, needed to work them through his brain by himself and no matter how much John wanted to help, he couldn't. He could be there for Rodney, he could touch and sometimes, his touch was soothing. But this was not one of those times, he realized, and how scary was it that he had become so fluent in Rodney's body language? So he waited, listening to Rodney's harsh breathing and watching Rodney's fists clench and relax, clench and relax. He waited, hoping that this time wouldn't be the last time Rodney would allow him in.

Finally, Rodney hung his head. "Dammit, I hate it when you're right."

"Seems to me like you should be used to it by now," John drawled, relief making him almost boneless. They were going to be all right. There were times when he wondered whether Rodney would snap, and with the current crisis, he realized it could happen sooner rather than later. It was lousy timing for them.

"Oh shut up. You're not always right."

"Neither are you," John said, as gently as he could.

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Rodney took a deep breath, held it, then blew it out slowly. "I think I don't like who I am around her, either," he finally muttered.

"You're going to have to deal with that, you know. She's going to be here a long time."

"I know. I know. But you know... I don't think it's just her. When we were together on the Daedalus, it was... well, not fine, but okay. Better."

"That was a different, more difficult situation."

"Yeah. You weren't there." Rodney finally looked at him, and his expression made John get up, walk to him and engulf him in a hug.

"I am not threatened by Samantha Carter," John said and Rodney snorted.

"Yes, you are. And you have no reason to be."

"If I have no reason to be jealous, then you have no reason to turn into Wolverine whenever she's around."

"Hey, Wolverine is--" John cut Rodney off most effectively, kissing him breathless.

"Later, Wolfy," John said, a little breathless himself. "We've got work to do."

"And we'll need to figure out some sort of... memorial. Carson's too overworked to think about it at the moment, but we can't leave them... there." Elizabeth resolutely looked into Steven's eyes as she finished.

"A hundred and forty-six dead," Steven muttered, his eyes glazing over.

"Two hundred and thirty-one alive," Elizabeth replied gently.

"I have spoken with Dr. Beckett in the past," Teyla interjected, her voice soft. "We have given thought to building a... I do not know what you call it, but a place where the dead can rest in peace, until ready to be returned to their home."

"A morgue, really," Elizabeth murmured, nodding. "With the air of a mausoleum. We have more than sufficient power to keep the... their bodies cold and whole until we return them to Earth for burial."

Steven wouldn't meet their eyes. "Yes, that sounds best. Frozen forever, if needed."

"Not forever," Teyla said before Elizabeth could. "Your people are strong and resolute, Colonel Caldwell. I do not doubt for an instant that your homeworld will be returned to you soon."

"Not your people," Elizabeth said with a smile, the first genuine smile she remembered feeling for far too long. "Our people." Teyla smiled back and they both turned to Steven.

He looked better -- not well, not by any stretch of the imagination -- but better. After the briefing had concluded, Elizabeth had followed him back to the infirmary, hoping to soothe nerves that Rodney had made raw. To her surprise, she found Steven less angry and depressed than she had feared, so when Teyla joined them, they began talking about the Daedalus and what to do with her and what she carried. Before the briefing had begun, Carson had emailed her with a list of the dead -- a headcount and partial identification.

Steven sighed. "Thank you, Ms Emmagan."

"Teyla, please, Colonel. And it is my honor to help you and your crew, not only while here in Atlantis, but in your effort to re-take Earth. Dr. Weir is correct, we consider all of you as much Athosian as you consider us part of your home. You, personally, have always treated us with honor; it is our honor to treat you in the same way."

As Teyla spoke, Elizabeth could actually see Steven's backbone firming, his eyes clearing. When he spoke again, it was far more clearly. "Thank you. Again."

"Don't thank her yet," Elizabeth said, her voice gently teasing. "She hasn't started beating up on you in the name of physical therapy!"

Teyla gave her a mock-glare. "I would never hurt any one of my friends," she said, her haughty voice at odds with her mischievous grin. "Well, not unless it was for a good purpose."

Steven laughed with Elizabeth and something inside her eased. They were going to be okay.

Rodney really hated EVAs. He shouldn't have felt claustrophobic while floating in the vast space above Atlantis, but he did. The suits were as comfortable as such things could be -- which is to say, not comfortable at all -- and moving things in zero-g was always so cumbersome and difficult. It was just a rotten situation all the way around and it was worse for Rodney, who knew he was one of maybe two people who could do what needed to be done, properly. Though Teal'c was pretty good at it too.

And some of the science staff turned out to be good at null-g, null-atmosphere welding and riveting, and he tried to put those on the heaviest rotation. They had a limited number of suits and an even smaller amount of time in which to work, so they were all living on the Daedalus and catching naps when they could.

John, the flyboy who didn't mind pulling gees in anything that was supposed to fly (and some things that weren't), turned out to be lousy at EVAs and even worse at welding, so -- to Rodney's amusement -- he made himself the unofficial quartermaster on the Daedalus. He found bunks for those crewmen who were still aboard her, working either inside or out, and coordinated the arrival of the sheets of lightweight heat shielding which were beamed to the Daedalus as soon as they were extruded.

He also made sure everyone on board was fed and rested, which at times meant physically restraining people or threatening them with various dire consequences if they didn't take a break. Rodney didn't care; his people were long inured to that kind of management and the others would just have to learn it.

As it turned out, he didn't care as long as the threats didn't apply to him, though apparently Sheppard didn't realize that. "Colonel, I told you I am not finished yet, don't tell me what--"

"McKay, you are out of time." Even through the suit radio, Sheppard's voice sounded pissed-off. "Get your ass in here now or I swear I'll start piping Michael Bolton and Celine Dion into your radio."

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Don't push me! Get back in here now!"

With a grumbling snarl, Rodney turned off his equipment, made sure all of it was tethered properly to the ship and began hauling himself back to the 302 bay. The Daedalus looked ridiculous with her extra layers of heat shielding but Rodney didn't care -- as long as it did what it was supposed to do, what difference did it make how it looked?

Finally, he made it to the bay and carefully pulled himself down to the floor until his mag boots clicked. Walking into the bay, feeling the sudden pull of gravity again, made him sigh in exhaustion. Maybe Sheppard was right and he did need to rest. Not that he'd ever admit it.

The EVA crew was waiting for him and immediately began stripping his suit off, ignoring his complaints that they were being too rough. Sheppard came in as he was stepping out of the lower part of the suit and glared at him, crossing his arms. "What?" Rodney demanded.

"You and I both agreed that there would be no more than three hours to any EVA shift," Sheppard said, his voice sharp. "You even said it would be dangerous to stay longer. But you were out there more than three and a half hours and refused to come in until I threatened you."

Rodney sighed and rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. Point made and taken. I won't do it again."

Sheppard just stood there in front of him, his jaw working before turning and walking away. Rodney joined him. "We got the ovens working," Sheppard said, not turning around. "There's a hot meal waiting for you." He still sounded pissed.

"Something good?" Rodney said, hopeful despite Sheppard's glower.

"Lemon chicken," Sheppard snapped.

Rodney stopped and let his chin fall to his chest. "I'm sorry, already!"

Sheppard grabbed his arm and tugged, getting them both moving again. "Yeah, yeah. Until the next time."

They made it to the mess without saying anything else and Rodney was thrilled to find (fake) turkey covered with (possibly real) mashed potatoes and smothered in (fake but still delicious) gravy. He all but inhaled it, hungrier than he'd thought, and when he leaned back, he realized how tired he was too.

Sheppard was sitting opposite, finishing up his own meal. The glower was still there and though it was better than a glare, Rodney still knew he was in the doghouse. "Um..."

Sheppard looked up. "Yes, there's a bunk ready for you as well. McKay..."

"I know, I know," Rodney interrupted him. "Consider me suitably chastised. But I really do need some sleep."

"Yeah, c'mon." They stood, bussed their trays, and Sheppard led Rodney to the right, down a companionway that was much cleaner than it had been. To Rodney's surprise, they stopped at the captain's quarters which seemed to have been keyed for Sheppard, since he had no problem opening the door.


"Yeah. He's still in Atlantis and everything's clean."

Once inside, Rodney started stripping then blinked when Sheppard started as well. "Um..."

Sheppard snorted as he draped his BDUs over the desk chair. "Zelenka and Novak have the duty now that they're all rested up, and it's time for me to sleep anyway. Toothbrushes are in the head, you get dibs."

Rodney sighed. "You're going to make sure I sleep, aren't you?"

Sheppard just grinned and Rodney gave up. It was better than sleeping alone anyway and maybe he could get a little when they woke up.

After going through the usual nighttime routine, they settled on Caldwell's big bed and Sheppard immediately spooned up behind Rodney. "McKay," he began, but Rodney cut him off.

"I know. You were right and I was wrong." He huffed out a rueful breath. "I should know better. Especially since..." Since he knew what it was like on the other end.

"Yeah. You should."

At least it was said gently and no longer angrily, so Rodney counted himself forgiven. "It's just..." he said, very softly, knowing it wasn't a reason, "'s just that it's... it's never been..." He trailed off, the words coming hard. By the time he finished, in a whisper, he thought John might have fallen asleep. "It's just that it's never been more than just... me... before."

John's arms tightened around Rodney, but he didn't say anything. Before his next breath, Rodney was asleep.

John woke to the feeling of moist heat and suction and moaned. Somehow, Rodney had managed to get both of them naked without waking John, and was very sincerely blowing John's brains right out his dick. Lifting his head high enough, John looked down his body to see Rodney's head bobbing slowly up and down. As John watched, Rodney hollowed out his cheeks and sucked strongly. John gasped and arched and came and came... pouring down Rodney's throat, watching Rodney swallow and eagerly go back for more.

By the time Rodney lifted up, John was gasping and trembling in reaction to one hell of a good orgasm. One of the top twenty, easy. That generous, crooked mouth of Rodney's gave the best blowjobs in Pegasus, and as soon as his mouth came back online, he'd tell Rodney that.

It appeared Rodney knew it already, though, if the smug look he gave John was any indication. John gave Rodney a shaky smile and looked down his body to the erection staring John in the face. "Need some help with that?" John managed to gasp. Rodney's smug grin widened. "I can't believe you..."

"Hey, you think I'm going to pass up the opportunity to have sex in Caldwell's bed?" Rodney asked in one of his best goofy voices.

"You are insane," John said, chuckling.

"Yeah, but you love me for it," Rodney shot back, then froze. His eyes grew wide. "Um... I mean..."

It was John's turn to grin. "Yeah," he said softly. "I do." They gave each other sappy smiles before John continued. "You going to fuck me or what?"

Rodney looked frantic. "Oh, I didn't... I mean... I wasn't..."

John rolled his eyes. "Left front pocket of my BDUs."

After a stunned pause, Rodney scrambled off the bed to grab John's pants. "Now who's the lunatic?" he crowed, triumphantly finding the small tube of lube.

"You love me for it," John managed to murmur, and was rewarded with a wide, happy smile. "Now get over here." He stretched out on the bed, his arms above his head and spread his legs.

Rodney loudly and visibly gulped and stopped in the middle of climbing back on the bed. Closing his eyes, he grabbed his dick tightly at the base, obviously fighting off his climax. "God, do you have any idea how hot you look when you do that...?"

John grinned. "Come on, Rodney."

"I should..."

"Naw, just... just go, it's okay, really..."

After one brief, wide-eyed stare, Rodney hurriedly slicked himself up and lifted John's legs over his arms. "You... tell me..."

John nodded and rolled his head back as Rodney slowly breached his incredibly relaxed body. The burn was fabulous and John gasped, closing his eyes to better feel it. Every time Rodney entered him was like the first time -- trite, but true -- and his body just melted down in pleasure. Rodney just fit him, in every damn way possible.

"Oh..." Rodney was in all the way and staying still was obviously difficult from the sweat John saw rolling down his face.

"C'mon, Rodney," John whispered, clenching himself around Rodney's cock.

"Oh, oh God... don't do that..." Rodney gasped, beginning to pull out. "I'm not gonna... not gonna last..."

"Go for it." John's hands gripped the top edge of the mattress and he flexed his body up, welcoming Rodney's thrust back in.

"God you're fucking perfect... so fucking gorgeous and perfect and tight and... and..." Rodney's eyelids kept drooping and snapping back open even as his hips began to thrust, long and slow and deep, just the way they both loved it.

Rodney was right, he wasn't going last, because it wasn't long before he was ramming himself as deep as he could and stilling, his muscles tight and quivering as he emptied his load inside John, who rumbled in appreciation. "Yeah..." he said, a long, drawn-out sigh. Rodney slowly collapsed on top of John, breathing like he'd just run a marathon, limp as a cooked noodle.

John wrapped his arms around Rodney and held on. A glance at his watch told him he still had some time before they were due to be officially up and around -- time enough for the afterglow, for a shower. Rodney was a warm, dead weight over him, pliant and drunk with pleasure and John savored it. They just didn't get enough time to be together any more.

Rodney's skin was soft and John loved to touch it. He ran his hands up and down Rodney's back, getting a sleepy noise almost like a purr back. They had stuff to do, but it could wait just a bit longer. Then John remembered something he had intended to bring up with Rodney -- something Rodney wasn't going to like much -- and thought it might be a good time.



John grinned. Rodney was an entirely different person after sex. "I want to throw out an idea, get you thinking about something."


"It's about Jackson. You know, what's wrong with him. I was talking about it with Carson and I had an idea."

Rodney snuggled his face into John's neck. His dick slipped out of John's body and they both sighed. "What about him?" Rodney asked, his voice languid. He kissed John's neck and John tilted his head to give Rodney better access.

"He... Carson said he'd done that thing, what the Ancients had done."

"Ascended." Some of the tension returned to Rodney's body as he spoke, but not too much.

"Yeah. And then they kicked him out or something."

"Something like that. Morons."

"No argument." The two of them had long since decided that the Ancients weren't all that and a bag of chips and 'ascending' was a crock of shit. "But I got to thinking about that and the ascended woman who'd been haunting the starmap room."

"Morgan le Fay."

"Whoever. I know one person who might be able to help us, get us an in or something with those Ancients who don't have their heads completely up their asses. Maybe get them to realize their whole 'non-interference' thing is stupid." This was the touchy part.

After a moment, Rodney lifted his head and looked at John. "What? I mean, who?"

"Uh... Chaya. You remember."

Rodney's eyes narrowed as he stared at John and John tried to keep his gaze on Rodney, tried to show... something, he wasn't even sure what he was doing, only sure that he didn't want to piss Rodney off. Unfortunately, bringing Chaya up was one of the best ways to do it.

When Rodney finally spoke, his voice was even and neutral. "You think she might help?"

"I don't know, but I think it might be worth a try." John sighed. "I didn't know Jackson well, but--"

Rodney was nodding as he interrupted. "It's worth a try," he said, surprising the hell out of John. "But I'm not sure it'll work."

John shrugged, feeling ten times relieved. "Maybe." He looked up at Rodney, searching for signs of anger or jealousy and not finding them. "Thanks."

"For what?" Rodney looked honestly puzzled.

Before John could speak, the alarm on Caldwell's clock went off. "C'mon, let's get a shower then go relieve Radek."

Rodney sighed and reluctantly rolled off John. "Time to make the donuts," he muttered. John just laughed and followed him into the head.

It should have taken a minimum of two weeks to get the badly-damaged Daedalus safely landed, but Elizabeth's people managed it in four days. She was suitably stunned and proud and even Caldwell was nearly speechless. At this rate, she'd have to up the bar for miracles.

Not that there hadn't been tricky parts. They only had eight useable EVA suits so people took it in shifts to get the modified heat shielding in place. The shielding itself was too big for a jumper to carry, so they had to beam it from the northeast pier directly to the hangar bay on the Daedalus, making the process longer, as they only had five out of every twenty hours -- the length of time of one orbit -- in which to beam. Carson kept Samantha Carter in the infirmary the whole time to keep an eye on her, though he acquiesced to her having a laptop and a link to the ship so she could follow along with repairs and make suggestions.

Steven began to take more of an interest in the proceedings, in large part thanks to Rodney, who absolutely refused to treat him with kid gloves or any gloves, for that matter. Sometimes, Rodney amazed Elizabeth with his tactlessness, but she had to admit, he was right about Caldwell. He was in the 'gateroom, in a wheelchair, when John and Rodney brought his ship home. There wasn't a lot of space in the command room, but they made room for him.

It wasn't the best landing in the world, but, in John's words, any landing you walk away from is a good landing. The only parts of the Daedalus that were 'broken' during that landing were the heat shielding, which had been designed to slough away as they went through the atmosphere, and the area directly under one landing strut, which had given way as they'd put her down on the east pier as gently as they could. The sublight engines did, indeed, burn and were not destroyed.

John, Rodney, Radek and Lindsey Novak acted as if it were just a routine day, but Elizabeth saw through that; they were bubbling with excitement and accomplishment underneath.

"Would you care to go out to see your ship, Colonel?" Elizabeth said, smiling down at Caldwell.

He smiled back, ducking his head in a very uncharacteristic manner. "Yes, Dr. Weir, I think I would."

She helped him to the transporter and took him to one of the balconies on the east pier, overlooking the landing site. Elizabeth had to hold back a gasp when she saw the Daedalus -- she'd been prepared for bad, but the actuality of it was far more horrible. There were gaping holes in her sides, burn and scorch marks everywhere, pieces of equipment missing, leaving nothing but protruding wires.

"How did you even make it to Pegasus?" She murmured.

Caldwell shook his head. "I don't know," he replied, equally softly. "I really don't know."

For Elizabeth, it was the last piece of information she needed to understand the level of miracle her staff had pulled off. "We'll get her back together," she said, confident they would. "We've gotten her this far, the rest should be a snap."

Turning, Caldwell gave her an incredulous look. "I beg your pardon?"

She grinned, secure in her knowledge that they could do this. "Miracles we do daily," she said, quoting a sign she'd read once. Maybe she could have someone make it so she could hang it in her office. "The impossible takes just a bit longer."

He sighed and turned back to the Daedalus. "What's wrong with me that I actually believe you?"

Elizabeth chuckled and rested one hand on Caldwell's shoulder. "Because you know it's true. We've got some of the best minds in two galaxies here, Steven. The Ori don't stand a chance."

She felt him nod and squeezed his shoulder. Suddenly, he frowned. "What the hell is that sitting on the nose of my ship?"

Rodney closed his eyes and thought about wide, open spaces. Thought about waterfalls. Thought about Sheppard's very fine ass. Thought about anything, in fact, other than Colonel Samantha Carter who was apparently trying to drive him batshit insane.

He had a feeling most of her snappishness came from pain and felt guilty about his irritation with her accordingly. Carson had told him a knee reconstruction -- without replacement, which was better, apparently -- was just about the most painful thing in the world, and Carter appeared to be living proof of that. It was just less than a week since her surgery, though, and her attitude didn't appear to be improving any. And here Rodney thought they were getting along better. Maybe it was PMS.

"It won't work." Carter's voice was flat and her face was scowling.

"Of course it will," Rodney said, sighing. "Once we get the reactor back online and--"

"And how are you going to do that? Conjure up naquahdriah out of thin air?"

"We've got plenty of naquadah and I can retrofit--"

"You were the one who said using naquadah to send power to the capacitors was stupid! Have you changed your mind or just convinced yourself it was your own idea?"

"It wouldn't have worked to charge the capacitors with a naquadah generator, you know that," Rodney snapped, his patience thinning. "That's not what I'm doing here and you know that too. We need to retrofit the reactor to take the power from a mark two--"

"You can't create something from nothing, McKay! We're not at an Asgard shipyard, for God's sake!"

"Don't you think I know that?!" Rodney snarled.

"I don't think you do!" Carter yelled back. "I think you're just out for more glory, wanting to try the impossible and as always, willing to let us clean up afterwards when it doesn't work! How many more of us have to die to feed your ego, McKay?"

Rodney felt the blood drain from his face, felt the trembling in his body. He wanted to haul off and slug her, push her damn wheelchair off the highest balcony. Unbidden, Sheppard's soothing voice echoed in Rodney's head, left over from many hours of patient tutoring. Walk away. Just walk away.

So he did. Clenching his jaw tightly closed, he turned on his heel and walked away, out of the lab, away from her, not saying a word. He knew if he opened his mouth, words he'd regret later would come out. He also suspected if he didn't walk away, it wouldn't have ended up just words.

How had he ever thought that woman to be beautiful, smart and desirable?

Rodney paced up and down the hallway outside the lab for a while, working off the energy, practicing all the tricks Teyla had ever taught him on controlling his anger and his impatience. There were times when he would rather listen to Ronon -- who would probably advise him to just cut her throat -- but he knew he was better off controlling himself. He could do this. Sheppard had said he could, so he could.

Finally calmer, he reluctantly moved back to the door of the lab, which was when he heard other voices.

"...don't care. He didn't deserve that." Sheppard? What was he doing with Carter?

"He's an egomaniac, a dangerous piece of work always ready to go off, half-cocked. You know this, you've seen the fallout from some of his crazy schemes. And you obviously don't know his history at the SGC if you're defending him." My God, Rodney thought, the woman could be shrill. Thing was, he couldn't ever remembering her being that way, so his first guess must have been correct -- it was the pain talking. Which made him feel like more of a heel for responding to it with anger.

"I don't give a rat's ass what he's done in the past," Sheppard said, keeping his voice low and dangerous. "All I care about is what he's done here, in Atlantis, for the past three plus years. If there's any reason why we're still alive, he's it. And, what's more, he's in charge of the science division here, not you, and I think you  need to remember that. If you can't see how much he's changed, that's your problem, but if you can't be civil to him, that's when it becomes his and mine."

"Can't be civil? Around McKay?"

"Yes, I believe that's what I said."

"Look, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, I don't see where--"

"You were in the same room as I was when Dr. Weir announced Atlantis's independence, Colonel Carter, and in fact, you supported it." John's voice was flat and almost threatening. "If I were you, I'd pay more than lip service to that fact. If you need to be set up in another lab--"

"Why the hell are you defending him?" Carter demanded.

Rodney squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and went back into the room. "Thank you, Colonel, but I don't need defending. I'm sure I can deal with this on my own." He was proud of the fact that his voice was level and calm, and hoped he didn't insult Sheppard, which was the farthest thing from his mind.

Sheppard turned to him, his eyes narrowed. "Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard was not defending you, Dr. McKay," he said. "Because you're right, that's not necessary, you are more than capable of holding your own. It is your sandbox, after all. John Sheppard, however, was defending his friend and lover, Rodney McKay, because no one--" he turned a glare on Carter, whose jaw dropped-- "should be treated the way I heard you treated." Rodney had been on the receiving end of those glares a time or two. They didn't come out much, thank goodness, but when they did, they were devastating.

"You and..." She looked between them, obviously confused.

Rodney barely spared her a glance, though, turning his incredulous gaze to Sheppard. "You..." Dozens of words popped into his head, words like 'witnesses' and 'career' and 'U.S. Military' and 'why' but none of them came out.

Smiling gently, Sheppard stroked Rodney's cheek with the knuckles of one hand. "Yeah. Me." Then, in full view of Carter and any other personnel still in the room, he leaned in and kissed Rodney, so sweetly and gently that it took Rodney's breath away.

When Sheppard pulled back, Rodney opened eyes he hadn't remembered closing and just stared. He was pretty sure his whole heart was in his face because he couldn't have possibly hidden it. "I... I mean... I..." Rodney swallowed. "John."

Sheppard smiled, the big, goofy smile that Rodney loved the best out of all Sheppard's expressions. "Wanna have dinner with me tonight?" he asked.

Rodney had to grin in response to Sheppard's smile, had to say, "Yes, of course, always..."

"I'll come get you, I know how you forget the time." He turned to Carter. "Colonel," he said, his voice cool. He nodded to her and walked out.

Rodney was certain he still had a totally besotted look on his face and didn't even care that anyone could see it. It was almost as an afterthought that he remembered Carter was still there, only really remembered when Radek came up with a tablet and a sly grin of his own. "I've got that simulation for you, Rodney," Radek said, and Rodney was positive he saw a gleam in the guy's eyes that would lead to no good.

"Ah. Excellent." Best thing to do with a gleam like that was to ignore it. "Colonel, I think you might be interested in this," Rodney said, after a quick look. "Might allay your... concerns."

Carter was looking down and her face was pinched and white. "That's... never mind. That's okay. I think I need to go lie down for a bit."

Rodney sighed. "I think you should too," he said, as gently as he could. "Carson gave me an idea of how much pain you must be in, Colonel. This is all going to be here tomorrow. Don't forget, pain meds are our friends."

She wouldn't meet his eyes, but nodded shortly and turned the wheelchair towards the exit. "Let me assist you, Colonel," Radek said, with a glance at Rodney, who nodded in turn.

After they'd left, Rodney went back to work. Every couple of minutes he found himself wearing a disgustingly sappy smile and had to stop until it went away.

"It looks like a stupid hood ornament," Caldwell said.

"Well, you can't keep it," John replied facetiously. "I need that jumper."

"And what makes you think I want it, Colonel? It may be useful but it's dirt ugly."

"Hey, that's one of my jumpers you're insulting!" John grinned down at Caldwell, who just shook his head. "I've got the latest specs ready for you, Rodney shot them to me earlier, so we can look at them whenever you'd like." They stood -- well, John stood, Caldwell was still in a wheelchair -- on the balcony overlooking the Daedalus as she sat on the east pier. "Though, actually, I've been meaning to talk to you about something, and this would be a good time." Someone had brought a couple of chairs out to the balcony and John sat in one of them. Caldwell looked at him curiously. "It has to do with Project Jamestown."


Well, that could mean anything, especially with Caldwell, so John just continued. "When Elizabeth first proposed this, we knew--"

"Wait," Caldwell turned to face him. "This was Dr. Weir's idea?"

Confused, John frowned. "Yeah, I thought you realized that? When she brought it up with Rodney and me, we figured it was going to be a long time coming... and to be honest, we were kinda wondering what she'd been smoking." Caldwell still looked taken aback and John said, "Who did you think came up with it?"

Caldwell blinked. "Well... I guess I don't know. I just didn't expect her to be behind the whole thing."

"Well, that would make sense, I guess," John said slowly. "Atlantis is the first place I've been where I actually felt at home, but I don't think I would have come up with this on my own. And you know Pegasus doesn't have a Nobel Committee, so McKay wouldn't have..."

"Point," Caldwell said with a snort.

"Anyway, things have changed, especially since there's virtually no SGC left." John had to look away for a moment -- dammit, he'd liked the people at the SGC; well, most of them, anyway. "In fact, you and Colonel Carter may be the most senior SGC personnel left al... left."

Caldwell heard he word he'd barely avoided, but just nodded, soberly.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I want to be here, I want to stay here. But there are a lot of others who don't, who didn't sign up to stay here in Atlantis the rest of their lives, and I don't feel right being their commander. I want to be the military head of Atlantis, not of the SGC in absentia. So I'd like to propose you and/or Carter take over as the head of the SGC here, while I continue on as I've been doing, for Atlantis only."

Caldwell regarded him through narrowed eyes. "I'm not sure I'm following you, Colonel."

John sighed. "It's not difficult -- you even brought it up at the briefing the other day. You or Carter -- or maybe both of you, that's for you to work out -- would be the head of those military and SGC personnel who still consider themselves citizens of Earth, and I would do the same for the rest. We'd all still report to Elizabeth, since she was placed in charge of Atlantis and until we agree on a constitution and begin elections, I think it's best to keep it that way until we're ready." He pulled on his best sincere face as he continued. "I will not ask anyone in any military to commit treason, Colonel. But we will welcome anyone who would like to join Atlantis once she's a free colony and while our status is still up in the air."

"Why are you proposing this?" Caldwell asked, and John could tell he was looking for pity, looking for insincerity, looking for this to be a sop to the poor man with only one leg.

"I just told you." John sighed again and rubbed the back of his neck and thought, go for broke. "And because I'm in a homosexual relationship and would like to continue being in it, would like to make it less clandestine, and I think there are some marines and others who might take exception to being commanded by a..." John grimaced. "By a fucking faggot." Which wasn't even the worst he'd heard in the past.

"And you think those who want to stay here in Atlantis are more open-minded?"

"I know they are." John looked Caldwell in the eye. "The kind of people we get here on permanent rotation are the kind of people who look beneath the surface. You've got to be open-minded when you're fighting outer space vampires or intelligent, murderous machines or else you don't last long. You know?"

Caldwell was nodding thoughtfully and John counted that as a win. "So if there were scientists who didn't want to be considered... what, Atlantian?"

John nodded. "You'd be stuck with them too. Maybe that's how you could divvy it up, you in charge of military and Carter in charge of science. I don't care -- that's for you to decide in this venue."

"Hmm." Caldwell turned his chair so he was once again looking out over his ship. After a while, he said, "So is this your idea or Dr. Weir's?"

"Mine, actually," John said. "I haven't really cleared it with Elizabeth yet, but I think she'll be on-board with it."

"SGC in absentia," Caldwell murmured. "Landry had dialed the Asgard as the Ori broke through our line and started bombarding the mountain. We heard people trying to get through, and knowing him, he waited until he was the last one. And O'Neill..."

John grimaced. "Yeah, I've heard about what happened to him. And Jackson, too, apparently."

"It wasn't pretty. And I'll be honest with you, Colonel, I want the Ori badly. And not just because they cost me half a leg."

"You aren't the only one," John said, his voice quiet and hard. "The Asgard aren't answering their phone right now, which could mean anything. But we'll get through eventually, and we'll find out the rest of it."

Caldwell nodded. "There are questions of logistics to be considered, and I think we'd need an official accounting of who is in charge of what, but..." He blinked in thought and John realized he'd almost made up his mind. "Let me sleep on it. I think what you're proposing makes a lot of sense, but I'd like to think about it a bit before I commit."

"I understand that," John said, and he did; no one should be pressured into such a decision. "Let's go back to my office and go over the repairs, see what the revised estimate of repair time is."


They were silent on the way back, but John felt he'd made his point and thought Caldwell was more than halfway there with him. Now he just had to sell it to Elizabeth.

The repairs on the Daedalus were continuing steadily, there had been no Wraith, no Replicators, and while part of Elizabeth felt like she was waiting for the other shoe to drop, most of her just felt good. Damn good. Good like they could do anything. So she decided it was time for a party.

They tried to have a big, city-wide party every four to six months, to welcome new people, to say good-bye to people returning to Earth, to blow off steam. She set it for a bit over a month after the Daedalus landed, the day that the most severely wounded were finally released from the infirmary.

Well, everyone but Daniel Jackson, who was still under mild sedation and uncommunicative. John had had some good ideas on his treatment, though, including perhaps taking Jackson to Proculus, since they all knew he'd ascended (and descended) in the past. The thought was perhaps Chaya could intervene, or at least try to get Morgan le Fay's attention. They were still debating it off and on -- at great volume, at times.

They always held such parties on the big patio, the spot as big as a basketball court (which had been used as a basketball and as a soccer court at times) off the lowest part of the central spire. There were still a few people on crutches or in wheelchairs, but everyone who could be there -- including the Athosians -- was there. It made for quite a crowd, but they had enough food and drink for everyone and as people relaxed, the sound level went up. Radek had found a way to broadcast music from an iPod and they had a very eclectic play list going.

As the sun went down and the lights came up, Elizabeth pulled a chair out, stood on it, and asked the skeleton command staff to broadcast her voice. "Can I have everyone's attention?"

Radek pulled the plug on the music and gradually the crowd fell silent. "Thanks. You all should know me by now, I'm Elizabeth Weir, and I'm supposed to be the boss around here." There were laughs and giggles, especially from the staff who'd been in Atlantis for a while. "In case I missed speaking to anyone directly, I'd like to say welcome to all our newcomers. I hope you've found Atlantis hospitable. You should know that there's a moratorium on practical jokes played on any newcomer for three months. After that, you're on your own." That got a good laugh out of them and she smiled.

"While we love to have you, I realize that for a lot of you, the reason you're here isn't a good one. As you all should know by now, the Ori have taken Earth and probably the rest of the Milky Way. As far as we know, however, Earth is still intact. They don't want to destroy planets, they want more worshippers. We have to hold on to that and believe our loved ones are still okay."

Well, that brought them back down again, though it was at least an honest sadness, not hysteria. "As the temporary location of Stargate Command, we will be spearheading the effort to drive the Ori back out of the Milky Way. And make no mistake, we're going to do it. It may take us a while, but eventually we're going to push them out and post big 'no trespassing' signs along the edges of the galaxy. They've gone too far, now, and it's time to show them what we humans can and will do to defend ourselves."

She looked over the sea of faces and saw mostly resolve, stubbornness and anger. Yes, she had no doubt that these people would succeed in doing anything they wanted. "The Daedalus repairs are coming along well. We've got new strategies for dealing with the Wraith and the Replicators. Once we finish with them, we'll move on to the Milky Way. However, all of you need to know that once we're done, many of us will be returning to Atlantis, not to Earth. Because--" she had to interrupt herself and take a big breath before continuing-- "because Atlantis will be the first colony from Earth, and will be an autonomous body by then."

Stunned faces, stunned and confused and many of them pleased beyond measure. John was sitting on the table in front of her and she caught him looking across the area thoughtfully. To his right was Rodney, leaning on the wall. At the other end of the table was Steven Caldwell, in a regular chair with his crutches next to him. Samantha Carter was next to him, still in a wheelchair, Teal'c and Ronon behind her.

Elizabeth let that thought ricochet across the patio before speaking again. "A lot of you are here by choice. A lot of you opted to come to Atlantis on permanent station, or returned to Atlantis because you loved it." Across the patio, at a different table, she saw Carson and Laura Cadman, holding hands. "A lot of you already are citizens of Atlantis in every sense of the word. And anyone else who wishes to be considered so, may be, though we won't ask you to go against your oaths to your home country, nor ask you to commit treason against that country. Our status is fluid and won't be firm until we go back to Earth.

"And, for those of you who do not wish to be citizens of Atlantis, for those of you who didn't have much of a choice due to the Ori, you are still citizens of Earth, still members of the SGC, which has not died along with its mountain. Stargate Command in absentia is here, on Atlantis, and is led by Colonel Steven Caldwell and Colonel Samantha Carter."

Steven looked up at her and smiled. His face looked more relaxed than Elizabeth ever remembered seeing. In large part, that was due to John (for the idea) and Teyla, who had already begun Steven's physical therapy. Sam looked more thoughtful, and Elizabeth was extremely glad she didn't have to deal with who was on top in that professional relationship.

There was a smattering of applause and the murmur her words started slowly died back down. "For those of you who wish to be considered citizens of Atlantis, well -- there's no paper to sign and no loyalty oath to recite. You need only mention it to me, to John Sheppard or to Rodney McKay. They will still be considered heads of their sections, only they will do so not under the blanket of either the SGC or their Earth countries. Dr. McKay is the Chief Scientist and Commander Sheppard is the military head of Atlantis, not of the SGC."

John's reaction made it all worth it -- he practically fell off the table in shock. She smiled sweetly at him and he narrowed his eyes at her. Then Rodney came over and punched his arm, grinning like a fool. "For the time being," she continued, "until we can take back Earth, I will continue to be the head of Atlantis, working closely with Colonels Carter and Caldwell. One day, we'll have open elections for governor and I hope to get you all thinking about that, because I intend to be on a beach on the mainland with something alcoholic in my hand once that happens." More laughter and nods of understanding met those words.

"But until then, Colonel Caldwell, Colonel Carter and I will continue as we have done so far. All of this is in the future, our future. I don't know about you, but I'm getting more than a little tired of being pushed around. I think it's time we started pushing back. What do you think?"

The reaction she got was everything she'd wanted. It started out low, but then grew to the point where everyone on the patio was shouting, some raising a fist in the air, all of them with the same resolve she'd been seeing. They were getting more than a little tired of it, and it showed.

These people could do anything, Elizabeth realized. She stood on her chair, tall and proud and shouted along with them. She'd been right. Project Jamestown had been the correct path, and her people were showing her how right it was.

Radek turned the music back on, some weird thing that sounded like a blend of a Sousa march and a bizarre techno sound, and people started dancing. John reached up and helped her down from her chair.

"Commander?" he asked, still giving her the fisheye.

"I think it fits," Steven said, joining them. "Congratulations, Commander Sheppard."

"I think we're going to have to start calling Elizabeth Morpheus," John shot back and Steven laughed outright.

Ronon, Teyla and Rodney were close enough to hear John's words and they all joined in the laughter -- The Matrix had long been a favorite of John's team. Ronon clapped John on the back hard enough to make him stagger. "I will get you for this," John said to Elizabeth, but she could tell he wasn't serious.

"Hey, I voted for Warlord," Rodney said and John gave him a horrified look.

"You did not." When Rodney only grinned, John grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled him into a headlock. "Meredith, how many times..."

"Get off me, you ape! Help! Scientist abuse!" Rodney yelled, but he was laughing so hard it was hard to hear his words. That was about the time Radek threw the first water balloon and things went downhill fast after that.

It was a day just like any other day, Rodney thought. A Thursday, in fact.

Rodney had been working on the schematics for the retrofitted naquadah reactor on the Daedalus when Sheppard suddenly barged into the lab. "Rodney. Come on, I need to show you something."

"I'm a bit busy at the moment," Rodney replied, distracted by the simulation.

"Tough. C'mon."

When Sheppard was in that sort of mood, he didn't give anyone much choice. Rodney let himself be dragged away from the lab, complaining as Sheppard propelled him down the hall to a transporter that took them to one of the smaller towers off the central spire.

They'd cleared the area for use, but things had been too busy for much more than that. Sheppard opened a door and dragged Rodney inside. It was a small apartment -- a tiny kitchen, a good-sized sitting area, two doors that probably led to sleeping and bathing rooms. And there were floor-to-ceiling windows leading to a balcony with a spectacular view.

"Yes, yes, and the point of this?" Rodney demanded, half his brain still back in the lab.

Sheppard opened one of the doors to -- yes, a bedroom, with a very large bed in the center of it. "What do you think?" he demanded.

Rodney looked around, irritated and confused. "It's very nice, now can I get back to--"

"Rodney," Sheppard said in that irritating way he had, where Rodney's name suddenly had eight syllables. It was worse when he used Meredith, though; he could drag that out to more than a dozen. "What do you think?"

Sheppard stood there like a puppy with its first rawhide bone. He was practically bouncing on his toes. "For what?" Rodney finally asked, looking around again. Was he missing something?

"For us, Rodney." Rodney blinked and Sheppard laughed. "For us. What do you think?"

When the realization hit, it floored Rodney. "For... us? You mean, for you and me..."

"That's generally the meaning of 'us', yes," Sheppard said, rolling his eyes.

"You mean you want me... and you... and this..."

"Rodney! Focus!"

"You want us... I mean, us... to live... here? Us?"

Sheppard's expression morphed into something less tickled and more serious, but still happy. "Yes, Rodney. That's exactly what I mean."

Rodney looked around again, looking through a filter that was somehow less himself and more... us. More together. He looked around and realized it was a lovely place, close to a transporter yet still private. He looked around and realized he could see all of his stuff and all of Sheppard's stuff, melded together, cluttering up the place. He looked around and realized, it could be made... made into a home.

"You're not keeping your golf clubs in our closet," he finally said, and Sheppard's face lit up like a carnival.

"There's an extra storage closet off the kitchen," he replied, his smile so wide it should have been enough to power the city for a year. "Room enough for my golf clubs and your big box of questionable Ancient tech."

Home. Wow. He felt a tight band across his chest. "Okay," he said and thought, what else could he say?

"Cool," Sheppard replied, then abruptly pulled him in for a kiss that quickly grew hot. Before Rodney realized it, Sheppard had him pinned against the wall of their bedroom (their bedroom! They had a bedroom!) and was groping him quite seriously.

"John?!" Rodney yelped as Sheppard pushed his thigh between Rodney's legs.

Sheppard whispered, "Want to christen our new place?"

"Are you insane?" Rodney demanded, though he couldn't deny it was tempting. "I don't have time, and anyway..." he trailed off and smiled into the pout on Sheppard's face. "I don't think I want a quickie.  We'll christen it... you know, the right way... later."

"Tonight?" Sheppard murmured, still plastered against Rodney.

What else could Rodney say? "Yeah." He figured he had a pretty sappy grin on his face, but then again, so did Sheppard.

Sheppard leaned in again and kissed him, stealing all his breath. "Okay," he whispered into Rodney's mouth. "We can get Ronon and Teal'c to help us move our stuff."

When they finally broke for air, Rodney took a deep breath and sighed. "Okay, okay." Sheppard looked at him curiously. "You can come with me to Jeannie's for Christmas."

John must have thought that was the most hilarious thing he'd ever heard, because he laughed himself hoarse as they walked back to Rodney's lab, John's arm around Rodney's shoulders the whole way there.