When I stopped to ask for directions to Dr. Rodney McKay’s house in the local mercado, the man behind the counter had frowned in confusion. For a second I was afraid he didn’t understand the broken Texicano that I was pulling from the portion of my brain that stored all things related to my teen years. Or maybe Zelenka hadn’t given me the right address and I was in the wrong town altogether, or worse yet maybe Rodney had just flat-out lied about where he was. But when he asked in amazement if I meant the científico de asqueroso… the asshole scientist… I couldn’t help the smile that crossed my face. Rodney knew how to make an impression wherever he went, no doubt about it.
Mexico wouldn’t have been my first thought about where McKay would go into his self-imposed semi-retirement: too many uneducated people, too many kids, too many microbes, too many UV rays, and, as he always said, a freakish obsession with citrus in their beer. But then again, the small beach village in the state of Jalisco did have its advantages. It was reclusive enough that the SGC would have to send the Daedalus to beam your ass out whenever they needed you, it was the kind of place you could live like a king on your savings for the next forty years, and it was by the ocean.
I don’t think anyone that has done a stint on Atlantis could live anywhere that wasn’t by the water, not unless they had hated their time there. And Rodney had loved Atlantis, loved her so much he had given her up so that she could have what he thought she needed most… me.
But after four months I had come to the conclusion that I really didn’t give a shit about what Atlantis might need. That we had spent the past four years sacrificing everything for her, living in fear for her, and that fear had little to do with Wraith or alien viruses or hostile natives or the thousand and one other things we faced on a daily basis. That keeping things in check had brought us to the same end, so why the fuck had we bothered in the first place? That as much as the city meant to me, something else… someone else meant more. A whole hell of a lot more. So much more that I now found myself squinting at the hand-drawn map the man at the market had given me to find the house of the most arrogant bastard that had ever drawn breath. And for good reason: I, for one, couldn’t imagine life without him.
I navigated the car off the main thoroughfare and onto the lesser-used cobblestone streets of the small beach community, moving slowly to avoid the children playing on the curb and trying to look for the landmarks on the map. Catching site of the tiny chapel that the shopkeeper said would indicate I had gone too far, I stopped and asked one of the kids where to find the residential section of the town. “Americano,” he observed with a knowing nod of his head that was much too mature for his years, and pointed me toward an elaborate gate behind me.
Throwing the car into reverse, I backed up until I could turn down the alley and bumped along the narrow street. The houses along the path were larger than those in the rest of the town and I realized this development was probably almost exclusively expatriates from some of the wealthier countries of the world. They were white adobe with vibrant trim in colors that probably set McKay’s teeth on edge; they sure as hell did mine. But they faced onto a series of canals that led to the ocean and had ornate wrought-iron gates backing to the road I was driving. Eventually the cobblestones gave way to sand, and I decided to trudge the rest of the way on foot rather than risk getting stuck in the soft substrate. According to the map, it wasn’t far anyway.
Sure enough, three houses down I found the one I was looking for, swung the gate open and entered the courtyard that led to the back of the house. Not surprisingly, it was sparse, but nicely shaded by a large tree with purple flowers that hung in heavy clusters from the branches. The area that had at one time been a small garden was overgrown with weeds, although I could see the red hint of a few tomatoes that had apparently fought their way through the bramble and were probably rotting on the vine. Off to one corner was the skeleton of a motorcycle that looked like it hadn’t run since the Kennedy administration, its innards scattered around it in a chaotic order that had McKay written all over it, and behind that a washing machine in much the same condition. Evidently the habit of scavenging he had developed out of necessity on Atlantis was one he hadn’t given up yet; the table that sat under the tree, covered with a mismatched assemblage of spare parts, was testimony to that.
But I could picture myself sitting at that table, a warm evening breeze heady with the smell of flowers and saltwater rustling the leaves, eating a plate of tomatoes still warm from the afternoon sun. I could see myself pushing the plate toward McKay as he fiddled with the gears and circuitry across from me in the fading glow of a tropical twilight. I could see the flicker of a smile as he put down the parts and took the offered fork. I could see potential. And that was something I hadn’t allowed myself to see for way too long now.
Knocking on the door, a bright aquamarine like the trim on the house, I waited to see if that potential still existed. Waited with the same adrenaline-filled anticipation that I had had the first time I sat behind the controls of a helicopter… excitement, fear, self-consciousness and pride all rolled together into what was to become the ride of my life. And the same exhilarated nausea that accompanied the tilt of the ascending craft before I righted it filled me when I finally heard his voice moving through the house and toward the door.
“Alita, I swear to God, if you cannot keep up with the house key I’m going to have to find someone else to…” Blue eyes widened in surprise when he opened the door to see me standing there instead of what I suspected—and hoped—was the housekeeper. And I did my damnedest to maintain my cool and flash him what appeared as a cocky and not utterly desperate and relieved smile. Looking quickly out into the courtyard behind me to see if anyone else was there, he demanded, “What are you doing here?”
“Good to see you again, too, Rodney.” I went for indignant. But four months. Four goddamn months, and in reality I was fighting to hold it together like a giddy teenager picking up his date for the senior prom.
“Sheppard, why are you here?”
I was hoping like hell the desperation I was hearing in his voice was for the same reasons as my own.
“They didn’t reopen, the case, did they? I was just at the SGC a few weeks ago and no one said anything about it. John? Are you even listening to me? For God’s sake, what’s wrong?” His nose was pink from the sun, his feet bare, his hair a little longer and disarrayed than usual. But his voice… God, his voice. At that moment, I could have just sat and listened to him ramble on all day. “Did something happen back on Atlantis? Did the Wraith come back? Radek didn’t completely screw up the defense systems, did he? It was a simple code; a baboon could have handled it. Of course, where are the baboons when you’re trying to decide who to leave in charge? Back on Earth with me, the only person that could keep that damn city afloat. Sheppard?”
Shaking myself out of my stupor, I assured him, “Everything’s fine, Rodney.”
“Oh.” He seemed almost disappointed that the waves hadn’t consumed every last one of us without his constant oversight. And what did it say about me that it made my chest ache with how much I had missed the hell out of that conceited son of a bitch? “Then, I repeat, why are you here?”
“Slither,” I told him simply.
By the way he blinked rapidly I could tell he knew exactly what I meant. “That’s not funny, John.”
“Slither,” I repeated, my lips twitching at how off-guard I had caught him.
“Don’t you dare come down here saying something like that unless you mean it.” His voice was as thick as the humid air that had me sweating where I stood… yeah, right, that was the reason… and there was only one thing I could think to do to prove that, I really did mean it.
The last time I had tipped Rodney’s head back and placed my mouth on his he had puked seawater all over me, and I had nearly cried tears of joy to have him do it, to have him breathing and gagging while I wrapped an arm around his shoulders and held him tight as he coughed up a lungful of ocean. This time when I did it, stepped into that blinding blue-green doorframe, tilted his face up to meet mine and kissed him with four months of missing him, four years of wanting him, four years of needing him, four years of denying that fact, I had hoped for a better result.
He let out a sort of whimper in the back of his throat that I could feel reverberate against my lips and I just moved in closer, his hand trapped between our bodies clenching into my shirt as my arm wrapped around him, and I thought, it was worth it. All of it. The marines, the Jumper, the trial, the resignation— every last bit of it was worth it for this.
But then the hand flattened against my chest and shoved hard, sending me staggering back a few steps into the stone-paved walkway. I wasn’t surprised. I’d have been fooling myself if I’d thought he would just melt in my arms and give in without a fight. I waited for the outburst, the patented McKay browbeating and righteous fury, the flush of color on his face gave me every indication that it was coming. I was prepared for it, expecting it, actually looking forward to it. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reaction I got.
“Go home, Colonel,” he told me quietly, and shut the door in my face.
I stood there staring at that god-awful door, wondering absently how many coats of paint it was going to take to cover it. Two, I decided, and a good basecoat of primer else it would just bleed through. There had to be a hardware store within driving distance because I probably needed to pick up a ladder, as well, if I was going to reach those eaves. No use painting the door if the trim didn’t match.
“Do you like blue, McKay?” I called loudly. “Maybe with a little grey in it like slate?”
From inside the house I could hear Rodney’s exasperated voice through the open window. “Why are you still here? I said, go home!”
Funny, I snorted to myself as I mentally calculated how many gallons it would take, that’s exactly what I thought I was doing.
* * * *
The metallic clunk against the outside wall of my house had my eyes flying open in an all-too-familiar panic. You didn’t live for four years waiting for the city to sink at the drop of a hat and not develop that twist deep in your gut every time you heard a sound out of place. By the warm slant of sunlight cutting through the window I could tell it was just past sunrise, and while Alita tended to come early on Saturdays… something to do with cousins and dogs or pigs or I have no clue… it was early even for her.
I pushed myself up from my pillow when metal scraped against the stucco. There was the sound of what could only be feet climbing up, followed by Sheppard’s head in my window. “Morning,” he greeted with a chipper smile.
Sitting up further, I demanded, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I told you to leave.” Granted, that had been one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life, and I had surprised even myself that I had had the willpower to do it. But the fact remained that I had done it and he had abided by it—or at least I had thought so until he appeared shirtless in my window.
“I did. But once I had the paint, I had to come back.”
“Paint?” Scrambling out of my bed, I stomped over to the window to look out and see the bucket he was lifting over the top rung of the ladder and onto the roof before starting back down to retrieve more. “Why in the fuck would you be painting my house?” I called down to him as he started up with another bucket.
“Not the whole house, just the trim. Although I’m going to check out the roof while I’m up here to make sure there aren’t any obvious leaks. Knowing you, you probably bought the damn thing sight unseen.”
Folding my arms defensively I informed him, “I saw pictures on the internet.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” The rolled eyes and shake of his head told me he didn’t think much of my real estate skills.
“Sheppard, this is none of your concern. What I do and how I do it are… hey, that’s a nice color.”
He smiled proudly as he popped open the can for me to see. “You like it? I thought you might. Wedgwood Blue. Much better than this Tourist Trap Teal you have going here. Of course, it’ll be a few days before I get the color on. Have to let the primer dry first.”
“A few days? Colonel, you aren’t staying here a few days to paint my house.”
“Not Colonel, Rodney; I’m out.”
I blinked back my shock. “What? What do you mean you’re out?”
“Just what I said, I’m out. I’m a free man. A free and available man.” I frowned at the waggle of eyebrows.
“We’ll just see about that. I’m calling the SGC.” I had worked a deal, sold my soul to the devil in the form of one General Walburton who had replaced Landry less than a year before, and I had no intention of watching the best interests of Atlantis that I had sacrificed my career for fall to the wayside four months after the fact.
“Walburton’s not in,” he called calmly after me as I grumped out of the room in search of my phone. “He took a long weekend to go to his son’s wedding. Won’t be back until Monday.”
“Then I’ll call him at the reception,” I grumbled loudly, storming down the stairs. He should know me better than that. Know that nothing can stop me once I set my mind to something. They hadn’t been able to stop me from going back with him to Earth when word of his trial came in.
I’d found him already packing his bags in his quarters, not even turning when I entered the room. “So, it’s true? Elizabeth said they were going to conduct an inquiry but I had no idea that meant you had to go back for it.”
He didn’t stop stuffing clothes in his bag. “Four Marines dead and a Jumper destroyed? The United States military doesn’t take kindly to destruction of government property. Believe me, I know.”
I followed him into his bathroom, where he was gathering toiletries off the shelf above the sink. “Yes, but I’m alive and the information we downloaded about the defensive capabilities of the city could prove invaluable in the event of another Wraith attack. Radek already found a second hidden system last night similar to the one I found last week. There’s no telling what’s still out there.”
“Rules are rules, McKay. You more than anyone should know that by now.” He crammed his toothbrush in the small bag and zipped it before heading back into the bedroom, and I realized that he hadn’t met my eyes once since I had walked into the room.
“Sheppard, I push the rules of physics to the breaking point on a daily basis. You think I give a damn about the rules of the United States Air Force?” He looked at me then, a look that said there was one rule we both refused to break because the implications if we did would mean Atlantis would be one powerful ATA gene short, and I would be… Shaking my head to clear it of that thought, I rocked back on my heels. “Besides, when did the Jumpers become U. S. property? Maybe I claimed them in the name of Mother Canada.”
“Paint them red and emblazon the majestic maple leaf on the side, Rodney; I seriously doubt it would make much difference.” He slung the duffle over his shoulder and headed for the door.
“Then I’m coming with you.”
“You can’t be away from Atlantis that long. The inquiry alone could take a couple of weeks, and then the trip back…”
“Well, neither can you, but you’re going.”
“I don’t have a choice. And this new guy, Walburton, I just don’t know what to make of him. He seems to be much more by the book than Landry or O’Neill.”
“If it means the difference between you being court-martialed or coming back here, then I can’t see that I have a choice either.” His shoulders slumped, and I pushed my advantage. “John, there are only two people that know what happened out there; it doesn’t seem right that they are only talking to one, especially when I would be dead otherwise. They need to hear that. Besides, who’s going to operate these amazing security systems if you don’t come back? The marines with the gene don’t have the finesse, and Carson scurried away and hid under the nearest hospital bed when I mentioned manipulating an armed defense position.”
Hazel eyes slid in my direction. “Elizabeth won’t let you go.”
I grinned, knowing he was on his last argument. “She wouldn’t have told me about it if she didn’t think I should.”
His sigh let me know I had won this argument. “I’m stepping through the gate in fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll be there.” And I’d darted off to pack, throwing my clothes in a bag as haphazardly as I was currently throwing papers around on my desk searching for my cell phone.
The front door opened and Alita walked in carrying a bag of produce from the local farmer’s market. “Who es el gringo en the ladder?”
“John Sheppard, and don’t get too excited; he won’t be here long.”
“Es su amigo?” She checked the coffee pot to make sure the autotimer had started and retrieved a cup from the cupboard in anticipation.
“My friend? No, I mean yes, I mean it’s very complicated. We used to work together.” I got down on hands and knees and looked under the desk for the missing phone. “Have you seen my cell phone?”
“Too bad. Es el guapo.” With a furrowed brow I looked up to watch as she turned from the front door where she could see John perched on the ladder and began unloading the veggies into the storage bins she had designated in the kitchen.
I didn’t care how handsome she found him; she wasn’t going to act on it if I had any say in the matter. “Oh, no, don’t you get any ideas.”
“Que? Es el casado?” Alita tilted her head and bit her lower lip curiously, long brown hair tumbling over her shoulder to drape across a plump breast. Okay, I admit it, my housekeeper was hot; dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin and unfortunately a soul two shades darker still. I had thought about making a move more than once since she had started working for me almost two months prior, but two things held me back. One, she was the fourth housekeeper I had found since moving in and her work was halfway decent and her English halfway intelligible, so I didn’t want to scare her off. And two, I was afraid that she might try to devour me whole after mating with me if it ever came to that.
“Casado? Alita, we’ve talked about my grasp of the Spanish language before. You’re only supposed to use it when you don’t want me to understand you.”
She took my advice and mumbled something in irritation under her breath about living in Mexico before translating impatiently. “Married. Is he married?”
“No. He’s just… off the market.”
“Realmente?” She paused with one hand on her hip and the other holding an onion. “Deci quien?”
I gritted my teeth at the way she blatantly disregarded my request. Fortunately, I did understand her this time. “Says me, that’s who. Now, where’s my cell phone? In English,” I warned.
“Top drawer, right side. You would know if you listen to what I say.”
“I would listen if I could understand anything you said,” I countered as I lifted the phone in victory. “Now, the laundry is in the hamper and I’d appreciate it if you could keep it down while I make a very important phone call.”
She snorted. “La ropa sucia está por toda su bedroom floor and I will get to it when I get to it.” She poured a cup of coffee and headed toward the door.
“Where are you going with that?” Because there was no way in hell she was going to flirt on my dime, especially with Sheppard.
“Para compensar your bad manners and offer Señor Sheppard de café. Do you know si le gustablack o light?”
“You most certainly are not. I didn’t ask him to come down here and paint my house and I’m not paying you to play hoochie-mama with a bare-chested flyboy. And why the hell does he get a cup of coffee when you haven’t even offered me one?”
The finger of death was waving in my face before I could take a step back, and a string of Mexican curses flew from those full lips before she settled into English so I could understand her threats. “You know where is the coffee. I am not your… servant.”
“Well, technically…” I would have sworn her pupils took on a red glow. Swallowing, I amended what I was going to say. “He takes it with a one sugar and enough cream that it’s almost tan.” Her eyebrows rose in a condescending, it’s-about-damn-time-you-recognized-your-better manner before she turned to open the refrigerator. Trying to recover at least a modicum of self-esteem, I straightened and started back upstairs. “Now, I’m going to make my phone call. See if you can keep the whore-like moaning to a minimum.”
Another bubble of swearing followed me up the stairs before I could hear the same gutter-bred mouth singing sweetly, “Buenos días, Señor Sheppard. Me llamo Alita.”
“Buenos dias, Alita. And, please, call me John.”
Grinding my teeth at the sultry response, I punched in the phone number to the SGC and kicked my clothes across the floor… purely out of anger, and if they ended up closer to the hamper as a result, then so be it.
Slither, my ass. If he thought he could just come down here, ruin everything that I had done, paint my fucking house and seduce my housekeeper and then expect me to take him in and run my tongue over every inch of his body like I had been tempted to do in the middle of that damn kiss the day before, well, he had another thing coming.
“General Walburton’s office.”
Regaining a bit of composure at the sound of the voice on the other end of the line, I snapped, “This is Dr. McKay. I need to speak with the General immediately.”
“Sorry, Dr. McKay, the General is out of the office on personal business.”
“Yes, I know. But I need you to give me his cell phone number; this is an emergency.”
“The General left me with a very specific list of emergencies I was supposed to contact him about. So unless you are currently fighting off a legion of Ori or have been taken over by a Goa’uld, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait until Monday.”
Holding the phone away from my ear, I squeezed it hard, as if I could choke the life out of the receptionist on the other end, “Fuck!”
Through the open window I could hear, “This is probably the best cup of coffee I have ever had.”
Throwing the phone against the mattress on my bed, I quickly joined it in a flop and covered my head with my pillow. This was not promising to be the best weekend of my life.
* * * *
Rodney was pissed. Yeah, okay, that was Rodney’s general state of existence, but today he was extra pissed. He didn’t like people messing with his perceived general order to the universe, which involved him sitting comfortably in the commander’s seat and all the rest of us peons shuffling off to do as he saw fit. And he accused me of having a Kirk personality. But McKay had obviously spent four months convincing himself that what he had done was for the good of mankind and the fate of two galaxies. And me being here after all that time had sent him reeling to the point that I was expecting him to come out and tell me it was time for Wapner and K-Mart sucks.
It sure as hell wasn’t helping matters that his little sex kitten of a housekeeper had taken a keen interest in me. And seeing as I wasn’t sure exactly where he was directing the jealousy he was exuding in waves I figured it was best to keep her away from him the same way I had kept myself away from him for so long: with mindless flirting with anyone except him. As the man said, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with, and believe you me, there had been plenty who were willing to buy into that philosophy.
By midday I had finished up applying primer to the east side of the house and all hint of shade had disappeared. Wiping sweat from my face with my wadded up t-shirt, I grinned down at the teasing, “Hola, John,” that wafted up from the courtyard.
“Hola, Alita.” The accompanying sound of something hard meeting a wall inside the house transformed my grin into a genuine smile and I started down the ladder. “What’ve you got there?”
“I think I will cook you la cena.”
“Dinner? That’s awfully neighborly of you. What’s on the menu?”
“Carne Adobado, es una especialidad regional. The recipe de mi abuela.”
“Your grandmother, huh?” Glancing inside the bag my smile disappeared when I saw the fruit on top. “It’s made with limes?”
“Sì, y chilés molido y…”
“Rodney can’t eat limes. You know that, right?”
She rolled eyes as if she had been told at least a hundred times that was the case. “I am to cook it for you, not him.”
Pulling the limes out of the bag, I held them up and shook my head. “No citrus in the house.”
“I serve them como trabajo extra. On the side. Wedges. He will no have to eat them.”
She still wasn’t getting it, and her pout wasn’t helping matters in my book. Flinging them as far as I could over the courtyard wall, I spoke very slowly and clearly. “No citrus in this house, ever. Do I make myself clear?”
With a glower she yanked the bag away from me. “Muy.” Then she stalked into the house mumbling something in Spanish that had to do with trying to decide if she would cut off my manhood instead of doing other, more enjoyable things to it.
I watched her go, and it dawned on me what I had just done. I’d just officially given up citrus for Rodney. No more orange juice or margaritas or lemon bars or limes in my Coronas. And if that selfish bastard couldn’t see how self-sacrificing that was, then maybe I really was deluding myself. Because lemonade was the least of the things I had given up for McKay, and pissing off a hot-tempered maid was pretty mild in comparison to what I had done for him.
They had called it an inquiry, but it had the feel of a trial, everyone in their spit-polished parade-ground dress blues. Them sitting on one side of the table, me on the other. Rodney hadn’t been allowed in yet. Walburton wasn’t pleased to see him walk through the gate with me; they wanted me alone, off balance, on the defensive, and as much as I tried not to fall into their trap, I did.
“Explain again why you had the Marines in the Jumper hold their position even though they were under heavy fire.”
“Dr. McKay thought he could deactivate the automated defense systems, and he would have if the water hadn’t been rising so fast.”
I should have known better. After the Doranda incident I should have known there were some things Ancient even Rodney couldn’t handle. But when we had found mention of a sister city to Atlantis in the database and gated into another city sunk beneath the waves of another ocean on another planet, the excitement had been contagious. McKay had named it Pylos, after the Greek city that legend claimed Poseidon had made his home after Atlantis was destroyed. Eh, he had let me have Orion, I gave in on Pylos. Fortunately, the ZPM in this city was almost fully charged and the city rose with no problems. Unfortunately, that meant that a few systems we had never encountered on Atlantis also activated, including an automatic defense system. By that time the second city was crawling with scientists, military, and anyone else that could come up with an excuse to check it out. And evidently we hit some sort of failsafe level where the number of people without the ATA gene outnumbered those of us that did have the gene, and that’s when everything went to shit.
Who knew the Ancients had a slash-and-burn mentality? That they would rather re-sink the city, this time without the shield, than have it fall into non-Ancient hands. I mean, we had planned to do that with Atlantis, but that was to keep the Wraith from finding Earth. But whatever the reason, the city had started attacking those of us still there. Rodney thought he could shut it down, and the two of us had headed down into the bowels of the city to do just that while everyone else headed through the gate and back to Atlantis… everyone except a Jumper with four marines. Rodney’s last resort was to shut down the ZPM, and if he did that the gate would be absolutely useless to us. That meant we needed the Jumper to carry us to safety to await the arrival of the Daedalus and our ride back to Atlantis. And that’s why I told them to hold their position even when the city opened fire on them. And that’s why four men and a Jumper exploded midair when a drone took them down. But telling that to the three men sitting across from me, I got the distinct impression that they didn’t find my assessment of the situation as critical as I had.
“But it turned out you didn’t need that Jumper after all. Isn’t that right, Colonel Sheppard?”
“No, Sir. Once I freed Dr. McKay from the room he was trapped in and resuscitated him he was able to reset the city, and the automated systems stopped. Dr. McKay believes this happened because we were the only two people in the city, and since we both have the ATA gene it didn’t see us as a threat.”
“And exactly how did Dr. McKay reset the city?”
I tried to control the flinch of my jaw as I recalled Rodney telling me to go disconnect the ZPM. The combination of desperation and frustration and goodbye in his voice. The way I told him I wasn’t going anywhere as I futilely tried to open the grate that had closed over him as soon as he dropped down into the sunken access panel.
“It’s the only way you’ll get out of here.” Not we’ll get out of here. He had said you’ll get out of here. Like he had written himself off already.
“Will it shut down the locks?”
“Maybe.” When I didn’t seem entirely convinced or ready to leave him he changed it to, “Yes, it should, it will. Just shut her down and call in the Jumper.”
“I’ll be back,” I promised, reaching down through the grates as far as I could into the icy water and just brushing my fingertips on his shoulder.
And in true McKay fashion he slapped at my hand and snapped, “I know, now go.”
So I shut it down. But when I called to the Jumper there was no response, and by the time I got back to Rodney he was floating facedown in the water.
“Colonel Sheppard, how did Dr. McKay reset the city?”
Recovering my composure as best I could, I cleared my throat and told them. “He reinstalled the ZPM and in effect rebooted the city.”
“And why didn’t he just do that in the first place?”
“We had to give the others time to go back through the gate. Plus, we didn’t know that it would actually stop the defense systems once the ZPM was reinstalled. We were just hoping to survive long enough to get back to the gate. It was either that or drown where we stood, and seeing as McKay had already done that once that day, we decided to take our chances with the systems.”
I could have told them pink bunny rabbits armed with Wraith stunners had stopped us from doing it in the first place; it didn’t matter. They had made up their minds already. And really, the entire inquiry was just an excuse in the first place.
“Water?” I blinked at Rodney’s voice and saw him standing holding a glass. “It’s safe; the house has a reverse osmosis system. One of the features spelled out on the internet listing.”
“Thanks.” I took the glass and downed it in about three gulps. “Decide you’d rather keep me hydrated than answer questions about the dead body on your roof with the local Federales?”
“Decided it’s safer out here than in the house. You didn’t have to do that with the limes, you know? I’m not your responsibility anymore.”
“You’re a hard habit to break, McKay.” I smirked around the piece of ice I had sucked out of the glass, and he shifted uncomfortably.
“Still, you should know that Alita pissed and using a butcher knife is not a good combination. She could probably give Ronon a run for his money throwing those things.” I laughed, and he asked anxiously, “How is he, anyway? And Teyla and… well, everybody?”
“Good, they’re all good. They all miss you, though.” At his disbelieving snort, I assured him, “No, seriously, they do. Heightmeyer thinks it might be some sort of variation of the Stockholm Syndrome. I think she’s even writing a paper on it.”
“Well, psychological dysfunctions aside, I miss them, too. All of you. Be sure to tell them that when you get back.”
“Rodney, I’m not going back. I’m not going anywhere.” And for a second, I could see that same distressed look he had given me when I told him that same thing as the water rose higher and higher. That combination of relief that I was staying and fear that I actually would.
“I’ll have this all straightened out on Monday. Don’t worry, you’ll be going back soon, I promise.”
“You don’t get it, McKay. I don’t want to go back. I didn’t get kicked out: I resigned on my own.”
“You what?” For a minute I thought I was going to have to perform CPR on him again, this time for the coronary he was about to have before my eyes. Plaster a maple leaf on his forehead and he would have been a dead ringer for the Canadian national flag. Arms flailed several times before he regained his voice. “You resigned? You fucking resigned? After everything I did to get them to let you keep your position? After everything I gave up? You thankless son of a bitch.”
“I’m the thankless son of a bitch? After I walked away from Atlantis for you?”
“No, I walked away for you first and then you just threw it all away like you did those limes.”
“Limas you owe me for, McKay,” an irate feminine voice interjected.
“Ha! In your dreams,” Rodney yelled back, “which is the only place you are going to get your hands on John, by the way.” I smiled at that addendum but it vanished as soon as he turned back to me. “And don’t think that means you’re getting anything from me, either. You will be back on the Daedalus and on your way back to Atlantis by Monday afternoon. I sacrificed for you, Sheppard, and by God I will not let you ruin the one purely selfless deed I’ve done in my life.”
He turned and walked purposefully toward the front door, and I trailed after him. “You’ve done plenty of selfless deeds, McKay.”
“Oh, really? Name one?” He stalked past Alita, who was aggressively dicing an onion, and on into the living room.
“You drowned trying to save me in Pylos.” An act that still had me waking in cold sweats almost six months later.
He turned on me then, finger jammed into my chest. “Believe me, if I had had any choice in the matter, I would have skipped the drowning.”
“Well, there are lots of other examples where you did have a choice.”
Arms crossed and that stubborn chin rose in challenge to my statement. “Okay, then. Let’s hear them.”
I wracked my brain. Nothing. My mind came up an absolute blank and I temporized, “You can’t just put me on the spot like this.”
“That’s what I thought.” The condescending grin was accompanied by him continuing through the house and out onto the patio that faced the canal.
He cut me off without looking back at me. “You want to paint my house so badly, Sheppard, then I suggest you get back to work. You’ve got two days left before I call in the Daedalus to give you a ride back to where you’re supposed to be.”
“A lot can happen in two days.”
With his back still turned to me he snorted disdainfully. “After four years, two days is a walk in the park.”
“Maybe that’s what we need, a nice walk in the park, just the two of us.” Stepping in close behind him, I ran my hands along his shoulders. This wasn’t the first time I had touched Rodney, but it was the first time I had done it with open affection…well, aside from the kiss the day before… and I took my time mapping the contour of flesh under the fabric of his shirt.
He rolled his eyes but didn’t move away. “How terribly romantic of you. A picnic basket and wine maybe? Do I look like an Ancient slut masquerading as an alien priestess to you?”
Grinning, I took a gamble and massaged into tight muscles. “You were one jealous bastard with Chaya.”
“And you were a horny piece of shit.” He tilted his head to the left and I obliged by running my thumb along the knot in his neck, watching as the skin flushed with my caress and trying not to tremble at the thrill of finally touching him with more than just a bump of shoulder or brotherly backhand.
“What can I say? A man can only take so many cold showers without hypothermia setting in. Don’t have that problem now, though.” Emboldened, I kissed softly where my fingers had been working and tasted salty skin.
“Not happening, Sheppard. I’m made of stronger stuff than that. You’re not going to break me with a neck rub and romantic stroll hand in hand through the plaza.”
Mouth next to his ear, I murmured huskily, “I was thinking more along the lines of rubbing something else while I used my body to pin you to a palm tree.”
He shrugged out of my hands with a shiver, and I had to grit my teeth to keep from growling in frustration that I wasn’t in physical contact with him anymore. “Okay, that’s more than enough touching for today… or ever again, actually. The three-foot rule is now in effect.”
“You don’t really want that, Rodney.” Because I sure as hell didn’t want that. All those years of wanting to touch him, and now that there were no restrictions he was making them up to preserve some ethical high ground he felt he had finally conquered. That was total bullshit and I planned to prove it to him. I took another step toward him and he took an equidistant step away.
“What I want…” Holding up a halting hand, he cursed indecipherably under his breath before sucking in deeply and continuing. “What I want is for you to go back to Atlantis and take care of her because I can’t.”
“Atlantis can take care of herself. I’m not sure the same can be said for you.”
“I’ve been perfectly fine for four months, John. I don’t need you or anybody else to take care of me.” He walked briskly back into the house and darted up the stairs before I could reach out and stop him.
“Oh, yeah?” I called after him. “Then why the hell am I the one painting your house?”
Receiving no response, I walked back through the kitchen, shaking my head in aggravation when Alita glared at me as I made my way out to the courtyard and up the ladder in a funk. The sound of Rodney’s shower running drifted out the window; I could only hope it was a spray of cold water he was soaking in. He deserved it, the stubborn son of a bitch. He may not have needed me to take care of him, but that sure as hell didn’t stop me from wanting to do it.