Stepping out of the shower, I toweled off briskly and turned my mind back to my previous diversionary tactics. Let’s see, where was I… 1997, the Detroit Red Wings, 1998, the Red Wings again; 1999, the Dallas Stars…Dallas. How the hell does Texas produce a hockey team that can properly lace up their skates, much less one that can win the Stanley Cup? It doesn’t even snow in Texas. The only ice they have is in their coolers of watery beer. Canada, the place where snow is made and shipped out to the rest of the world, couldn’t turn out a decent hockey team since the early 1990s, and a state known for nothing but sagebrush, sunstroke, and scorpions wins the Stanley Cup. What the hell was up with that? That 1999 team was the only decent thing that ever came out of Texas. Well, aside from John Sheppard, who was pretty much amazing, especially the way he could use those hands of his... No, no, not going there again. Keep thinking like that and there would be a third towel on the floor to join the other two. I hadn’t been lying when I said I was made of harder stuff than he thought. Problem was, he had a lot to do with the hardening. God, McKay, focus… 2000, the New Jersey Devils; 2001, the Colorado Avalanche; 2002, the goddamn Red Wings again.
Digging out a pair of boxers from my drawer, I slipped them on quickly, glancing over my shoulder when I remembered the window was still open. He should have been on the opposite side of the house by now, but he was sneaky, conniving, and a hell of a lot more determined than I gave him credit for. Not that I could blame him. If the tables were turned… hell, who was I kidding, the tables had been turned in the past and I’d let him talk me out of anything physical easily enough that time. What we wanted didn’t matter, he’d said. The risks were too great. Better to go on like we had been and still be together than chance having to be apart, because if anyone ever found out he would be shipped back to Earth in a heartbeat. Besides, Atlantis needed us just as much as we needed each other. And that had been the clincher for me.
I’d fallen in love with Atlantis the moment I walked through the gate. Problem was, I fell in love with John all too soon after that. I’d watched him go from just doing his duty to having responsibility thrust upon him to taking it and making it his own. I would never risk him losing that. So instead of holding each other we held on to the concept of someday. Someday things would calm down, someday the program would be declassified and they wouldn’t be so dependent on us, someday the rules would change or we would be able to walk away or we would just get to the point that we no longer gave a damn. We always looked forward to someday; it’s what made the lonely nights and cold showers, and hot ones when you just couldn’t go without anymore, bearable. But when someday was thrust on us and it meant John would have to give up everything he had worked for and earned, and Atlantis, at a critical juncture with the new systems we had found, would have to do without both of us… well, I made a unilateral decision to give up both the things I loved so that John could at least have the one and protect her for the both of us.
Pretty damn altruistic of me, huh? Hear that bell ringing? That’s me getting my wings. But it’s never that easy, is it? I’d spent months convincing myself that I had done the right thing, that I could get along just fine without seeing Sheppard every day, that I could slide right back into the annoying, egomaniacal persona I had developed in my youth and spend the rest of my life pretending that I didn’t care about anyone or anything. And then he showed up on my doorstep, with the hair and the smirk and the glimmer in his eyes and the lips and tongue (Jesus, his tongue!) and arms and hands and lips again. Everything that I had waited years... years to have. Well, I could guarantee those weren’t Zuzu’s petals causing the bulge in my pants.
Looking down, I shook my head in frustration and considered heading back into the shower, then decided that after that last little stunt he had pulled bathing in the Bering Strait wouldn’t help much. I finished dressing then went downstairs, retrieved my laptop, snatched an apple before Alita could chop off a stray finger with the cleaver and went to hide in my bedroom office. If I could just avoid him, then maybe I could survive the next few days until Walburton called back.
Walburton: now, there was a piece of work. Take an Air Force uniform, fill it with a big bucket of horseshit, give it the mental capacity of the poor creature that had defecated him, stick a military protocol manual in his hand with the parts that met his personal agenda highlighted and you’d have Walburton. I’m still trying to figure out who he had blown or had pictures of being blown in order to get the command of the SGC.
When they finally let me provide a statement, I knew we were screwed. Three military brass sitting across from me, Walburton in the middle, and the very first question set the stage for things to come.
“Dr. McKay, do you think your life is more valuable than the lives of four Marines?”
“That’s not exactly a fair or subtle question, now is it?”
“I’m not into subtleties, Doctor. Not when four young men died needlessly.”
“Needlessly? I thought that’s what this whole trial was supposed to decide.”
The man to the right spoke up then. “This isn’t a trial, Dr. McKay. Just an inquiry to see if we have sufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges.”
No, this wasn’t a trial, this was a witch-hunt. Leaning back in my seat and studying the men across from me, I tried to figure out exactly what they were trying to hang John out to dry on. “Colonel Sheppard was acting in the best interests of the expedition when he told those men to hold their position. I was trying to give the people still in the city time to escape.”
“But by then they were all gone, where they not?”
“I honestly don’t know. I was a little busy at the time.”
Walburton cut in again, picking up a piece of paper and perusing it. “Yes, you were currently trapped in a room with rapidly rising water when the city opened fire on the Jumper.”
“That’s right. I was trying to shut down the system so it wouldn’t do that any more.”
“But it became obvious that you weren’t going to be able to shut it down, didn’t it?”
The water had been rushing in so fast I couldn’t reach the controls after a few minutes. John was above me, trying desperately to open the grate as I dove down below the surface of the water and pulled another crystal. It was almost impossible to see the etchings on them, and the cold had me shaking so hard I could barely hold the damn thing. And I knew that there was no way that our someday was ever going to come.
But John was incredibly stubborn when someone told him something couldn’t be done, especially me. He had complete and utter faith that I could do anything. And ninety-nine point nine percent of the time he was right. The other point one percent, solar systems ceased to exist and I died in icy seawater.
“Yes, it became obvious,” I admitted reluctantly.
“So there was no reason to have those Marines stick around as long as they did.” It wasn’t asked as a question.
“I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it out, but Colonel Sheppard still had a shot at it. I asked him to keep the men there hoping that he could get out.”
“Colonel Sheppard did it to save himself?”
“No, he thought I still had a chance of getting out of the flooding access way. He never would have risked those men’s lives if it was just him.”
“Therefore, I ask again, Dr. McKay; do you think your life is more valuable than the lives of four Marines?”
What I thought didn’t matter, because obviously John thought it was and it suddenly dawned on me what the witch-hunt was looking for. So I did the only thing that I thought might help: I told the truth.
“Yes, it is.” When they blinked at my bluntness I leaned forward again. “Could any of those Marines reroute the power supply in that Jumper they were flying? Could they diagnose a problem with the water purification system on Atlantis? Could they write a compression code that could transmit millions of gigabytes of data back to Earth in less than two seconds? Could they get an Ancient weapons satellite operational? Could they integrate Ancient technology with Asgard- and Earth-based equipment? No, they couldn’t. In fact, there are only a handful of people that I know of that can do all those things, myself being the foremost expert in all those arenas. And I’m sorry, but in the long run, that makes me more valuable than all the Marines you can throw through the gate.”
“Then maybe I should ask another question. Is Colonel Sheppard’s life more valuable than those Marines?”
I answered without hesitation. “In my opinion, Colonel Sheppard is more valuable than anyone else on Atlantis. I don’t think the Atlantis expedition would have succeeded over the past four years without John Sheppard’s ATA gene. Without him, Dr. Beckett wouldn’t have been able to develop the gene therapy that has enabled those of us that have received the artificial gene to do so.”
“No one is denying that Colonel Sheppard’s ATA gene has been very useful to the expedition…” I cut off the man on the right with a shake of my head.
“You don’t get it. I can make the Ancient equipment respond to the gene I received via transfer, but Sheppard… it’s like they want to respond to him. He can accomplish in a matter of minutes what it takes the rest of us hours to do. The expedition’s work would be set back significantly if he wasn’t there.”
“Is that a personal or professional assessment, Dr. McKay?”
Turning an annoyed glare back on Walburton, I responded to his comment. “Both.”
And four months later I still stood by that assessment. And three hours of calculations on wormhole dynamics had me feeling a little less off-balanced by Sheppard’s presence; it had also been enough of a break for Alita, since she had left the butcher knife in the kitchen when she came in my room looking for gathering clothes for the laundry.
Squatting to pick up a pair of socks in the corner, she mumbled in Spanish before saying aloud, “I am amazed that anyone would want to be with un cerdo like you.”
“Cerdo?” I inquired distractedly. She answered me with a guttural oink. Not looking up from my computer, I countered, “Well, love is blind, they say.”
“Y obviamentedeaf, too.” She hefted the laundry basket and started toward the door before stopping and looking back. “He is getting…una quemadura de sol…sun burn out there.”
“Sunscreen’s in the bathroom. You can take it out to him if you like.”
“He will no want me to bring it to him.”
Sighing, I dug through the papers beside the laptop. “Well, if he wants to avoid scorching his skin, he won’t complain.”
“He isenamorado… in love with you, you know?”
Looking up, I calmly met her disgruntled gaze. “Yes, I know. And your point would be?”
“He is already deaf, blind, and sunburned. Por qué you want for him to be disappointed, as well?”
“That’s just the kind of winning guy I am.”
“You know, if you consiguiera relaciones sexuales, you might not be so grumpy.”
Ignoring the lewd hand signal she added to her editorial on my sex life—or lack thereof— I turned back to my calculations before responding dryly, “Yes, because the endless stream of meaningless sex you have has done wonders for your disposition.”
“You are lucky you pay twice as much dinero as others or I would be so out of here.” She stormed out of my room as I looked up in shock.
Within seconds she was back, slamming the bottle of sunscreen down on my desk. “And I may ask por mas… a raise?… after this weekend.”
Brown hair whipped after her as she left the room and I tossed the bottle into the garbage can. But then a few minutes later I found myself staring at it, and with a growl of irritation I retrieved it and went down stairs. Passing the laundry room, I raised a warning finger to Alita, who I could see grinning smugly with her hand on a curvaceous hip. “Not a word.”
Walking around the house, I found him leaning over the edge of the roof applying primer to one of the corners, his shoulders already a bright pink. With a shake of my head, I started up the ladder. “Christ, Sheppard, if you’ve learned nothing else from me in all the time you’ve known me, I would think the importance of sunscreen would have sunk into that disheveled head of yours.”
Glancing at his torso, he seemed to notice the red tint his skin was taking on for the first time. “Huh. Must have been caught up in my work.”
I climbed over onto the flat rooftop and frowned. “And meanwhile you’re about to become a giant melanoma with legs. Here.” I shoved the bottle of sunscreen at him, then pulled my hand back before he could touch it.
His lips curved at my action and he bounced the plastic bottle in his hand. “Gee, McKay, you better be careful. Someone might get the impression that you actually cared about my wellbeing.”
“I should have known you would be a smart-ass about this.” Turning on my heels, I started toward the ladder again. “No good deed goes unpunished; I’m living proof of that. Try not to turn so red that you signal ships at sea to run aground. The last thing I need is a bunch of cruise-ship tourists loitering on the front lawn. As if one uninvited guest isn’t enough.”
“Rodney, wait.” I stopped with one leg swung over the rooftop. “Thanks for the sunscreen.”
Raising my chin a little higher, I gave him a reluctant, “You’re welcome.”
“I could use some help putting it on my back. I know you have that newly implemented three-foot rule, but do you think you could let it slip long enough to keep my back from peeling?”
Looking at him, the smirk had been replaced by a hopeful expression. With a sigh, I stepped back onto the roof and took the bottle from him. “Sit.”
He squatted on a paint bucket, leaning forward to present his back to me. Swallowing down the urge to run wet kisses down his spine, I instead squirted sunscreen straight from the bottle and onto his shoulders. He hissed as cold lotion met hot skin. “Goddamn, McKay, you could at least warm it a little.”
“Oh, I’m sorry; did you think you were supposed to enjoy this?” Running my hands through the lotion, I started smearing it down his back, causing him to hiss again in pain. Grimacing in sympathy, I gave him a genuine apology before lightening my touch. “Better?”
“Much.” And he hung his head, revealing the nape of his neck. There was a lone tendril of sweat running down from his hairline, and, unable to control my actions, I thumbed it away before covering the act by distributing more lotion in the area. The way he arched his neck up into my touch gave me the distinct impression of a cat, and I resisted the desire to run my hands further up into damp, dark hair. Blinking to regain some composure, I blurted the first small talk item that came into my mind. “I’ve actually never been up here before. I had no idea you can see the ocean.”
“Yeah, it’s a pretty spectacular view…aside from the naked grandma that was sunbathing at the house next door.”
Moving my hands further down his back, I was almost relieved that he had mentioned a nude seventy-year-old German woman, because it definitely chased away the thoughts I was having working my palms over lean muscles. “Ah, I see you’ve had your introduction to the Heilbronners. Lena does love her sun. Evidently they don’t get much of that back in Frankfurt. They’re snowbirds, here for about five months out of the year, and the rest of the time the house sits empty.”
“So you’ve actually met them?” He seemed surprised that I would do anything so neighborly, and with good reason.
“No, Alita fills me in on the community gossip, whether I want to hear it or not.”
He snorted then squirmed when my fingers reached a sensitive spot along his ribcage. “Maybe we should have them over for dinner sometime. You know, just to be friendly.”
I paused in my work on his back. “We?”
“Well, I know you could live like a hermit for the next few decades but I do prefer to have the occasional social interaction. Besides, if I just happen to mention that we can see into their yard from our roof, maybe she’ll be more prone to stay clothed.”
Shaking my head at his assumptions of joint property, I laughed. “Sheppard, you are some piece of work.”
He leaned back and tilted his head up so that it actually rested back on my chest. “I am, aren’t I?” The grin he gave me was mischievous and teasing and affectionate and… just for me. For a second, all I wanted to do was have that grin greeting me every morning when I woke up and every night before I fell asleep and every damn minute in between. But that couldn’t happen if John was back on Atlantis, and I couldn’t go on like this for the next two days if I intended to send him back. Which I did intend to do. So I came up with another plan.
“Let’s have sex.”
The grin vanished and was replaced by a frown of shocked confusion. “What, here? Now?”
Nodding my head, I offered, “Or the bedroom. Wherever you want.”
Hazel eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but won’t that violate the three-foot rule?”
“Yes, it will, but it will also hopefully get me out of your system and you’ll be able to move on and concentrate on what’s really important.”
“So, you’re talking about a one-night stand? Could you really do that?”
“Oh, absolutely not. Once I get my hands on you I can guarantee there will be no stopping me until you are little more than a quivering mass. They’ll probably have to beam you nude and moaning onto the Daedalus when it arrives.”
“Fuck, Rodney, don’t say things like that.” He dropped his head into his hands. “I can’t just sleep with you and leave.”
I patted his shoulder reassuringly. “Sure you can. You’ve done it with the space bimbos plenty of times.”
“They weren’t you.”
Wrapping my arms around his neck I murmured, “Think about it, Sheppard: all the sex you can cram into the next day and half with no obligations involved.”
Standing abruptly, he wheeled around and fixed me with a wild-eyed look, skin flushed with more than just the sun and obviously torn between wanting to take me up on my offer and the implications of the aftermath if he did. “You look me in the eye and tell me you could do that and then just send me back off to Atlantis with an ‘Oh, hey, thanks for the spectacular fuck. See you around, Sheppard’.”
“Having you leave after seeing you again, even without the sex, is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But I’ll do it and you know it.”
We stared at each other for a long moment, sizing up each other’s resolve. Finally, he shook his head. “All or nothing, McKay. I’ve waited too damn long to have you just to lose you. I want the obligations. All or nothing.” With a final torn look back at me he started toward the ladder.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going? You still need more sunscreen.”
“I don’t think so. Now I need a shower.”
I peered over the roof edge and asked hopefully, “So, you’re heading back to your hotel for the night?”
“I don’t have a hotel, Rodney. I’m using yours.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a hotel? Where did you sleep last night?”
“My rental car.” Stepping off the bottom of the ladder he shaded his eyes as he looked back up at me. “Watch your step; that first rung is lower than you think.”
Only John would take time out of an argument to make sure I didn’t hurt myself climbing down. With a roll of my eyes, I demanded, “Your car? Why the hell did you sleep in your car?”
“Because I spent all my money on the paint and all the credit cards in my wallet expired two years ago.” His voice trailed off as he walked around the house, evidently convinced that I wasn’t going to fall to my death any time soon.
Reaching the ground, I trailed after him. “Why didn’t you say anything? I can put you up at one of the resorts down the coast.”
“Forget it. I’m staying here.”
“Oh, no, you’re not,” I insisted as I followed him into the house.
“Why? Afraid I’ll take you up on your offer?”
Stammering because he had hit the nail directly on the head, I recovered as quickly as possible and amended, “Oh, well, in that case…”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Forget it. I’m painting your goddamn house, McKay. The least you could do is give me a bed to sleep in.”
“Not the whole house,” I parroted back to him as he took the stairs two at a time, “just the trim.”
“Well, that’s at least worth a shower and the couch. Now, where are the towels?”
Before I could contradict him, Alita chimed in from the laundry room, “Hall closet, segundo estante.”
“Second shelf, got it. Gracias, Alita.” My eyes darted between the laundry and the stairs as I debated who to berate first, but before I could make up my mind a set of car keys landed at my feet. “Go bring in the duffle bag sitting in the back seat.”
“I am not your personal valet,” I yelled back in response.
“Unless you want me to parade around in the buff after I’m done, Rodney, I suggest you get the bag.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” I snarled, making no move to retrieve the keys at my feet.
“Try me,” he growled back.
Cursing under my breath, I bent to pick up the keys only to have a sandal with pink toenails peeking out the end drop on top of them. “You heard him,” Alita contended, “let’s see si es un hombreof his word.”
I yanked hard enough that she stumbled back when the key ring came free of her foot. There was no way in hell she was seeing Sheppard naked. There was only one way that I wanted to see Sheppard naked, and that wasn’t about to happen either. He had been right; I would have locked him in a closet wrapped in aluminum foil in an attempt to block the Asgard transporter beam if I ever gave in and slept with him. I knew that just as surely as I knew I wanted to go up that staircase and climb in that shower with him and do things that would make both of us hoarse for days. With a final glare at my housekeeper and all the will power I could muster, I turned away from the stairs and went to get his goddamn bag.