“Hey, McKay.” John had spent most of the morning trying to distract Rodney from the work he was doing, each time earning little more than an annoyed glare from the man before he turned back to the weapon he was assembling at a dishearteningly fast pace. But this time he thought he had something the man could really get behind. “It’s lunchtime. What say we take a break? Maybe go sit outside, get some fresh air?”
“No.” McKay was biting his lower lip as he ran the last of the wiring into the chamber.
“No? Come on, Rodney, when was the last time you even saw the sun?” Sheppard tried to hide his frown when McKay pulled out an expedition radio and started disassembling it.
“I burn easily. Why would I want to go out and increase my risk of skin cancer? Especially when I have more important things to do.”
“Well, then, let’s at least go eat.”
With a distracted flick of the small screwdriver Rodney was using, John was told, “You go ahead.”
“You know, you really should eat.”
The tool slammed on the workbench and McKay gave an aggrieved sigh. “And you really should leave me the hell alone so I can finish this damn bomb.”
John’s eyes narrowed in contemplation of his friend. “Why?”
“Why? Why?” The dangerous glimmer was back in Rodney’s eyes, and John was afraid those injections the night before may have finally pushed McKay over the deep end. “Sheppard, do you even know why I’m here?”
“I thought I’d figured it out last night,” he mumbled in response.
Rodney, obviously taken aback by the statement, blinked rapidly before shaking his head and turning back to his task at hand. “Well, obviously, you didn’t. The Seragons wanted a bomb and, by God, I am building them a bomb.”
Daring to press a little harder, John leaned in and whispered pleadingly, “Rodney, you don’t have to—”
“Yes, I do!” Even though he whispered back in return, his voice was raw along the edges, almost as raw as the wounds on his wrists.
“This is why you came back? To build a bomb to destroy Atlantis?”
“Sheppard, you need to shut up,” Rodney warned, keeping his voice low.
But John didn’t want to shut up. He wanted McKay to start acting like McKay and do everything in his power to protect Atlantis instead of helping annihilate her. “You love that city, Rodney. It means the world to you. I just can’t believe you would do this, that you would come back here after Teyla and Ronon managed to get you back there safe and sound. That you would throw that away to come back here to do this instead.”
“You want to know why I came back? Because you don’t leave a man behind. I learned that little sentiment from you.” Now it was John’s turn to stammer in surprise. When he couldn’t think of an appropriate response, Rodney retrieved his tools and went back to work. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“You should have stayed on Atlantis,” he finally managed to say, eyes firmly fixed on his boots.
“Would you have left me here all alone, Sheppard?”
John lifted his eyes to see McKay staring at him, waiting for an answer, even though it was a purely rhetorical question and he knew it. “We could go home, you know that, right?”
“We will,” the scientist promised, his smile more malicious than comforting. “Just as soon as I finish this bomb.”
Sinking Atlantis to the bottom of the ocean wasn’t exactly the homecoming John was hoping for, but he didn’t get a chance to say that as the Administrator who had paid him a visit in the infirmary walked into the lab. John received little more than a slight inclination of her head in greeting, and he had to clench his fists to keep from rechecking that the pills Rodney had returned to him that morning were still in his pocket. It didn’t really matter because all her attention was on McKay.
“Rodney, how is your progress today?”
The physicist’s arms crossed across his chest, and John couldn’t tell if he was consciously aware of the fact he was hiding his injured wrists. “Ahead of schedule, just as I promised.”
Rodney had that little twitch thing going, that slight fidget where he didn’t seem to know whether to smile or maintain a professional decorum, that stance that was at once defensive yet mollifying, that inflection in his voice that made him sound like a kid going through puberty, and John realized the man was scared shitless of this woman. He also realized they probably did more than just inject McKay with serum the day before, and that caused his stomach to turn more than the pills ever could. Especially when he considered that the only reason Rodney was even here on this miserable planet was because of him.
“That is good news.” The serene smile did little to alleviate McKay’s discomfort; if anything it only seemed to increase it.
“Well, you know me, man of my word.”
Ignoring his nervousness, the woman studied the bomb closely. “Is the material in there?”
“No, not yet. That’ll be one of the last stages of assembly.”
“And this? What is it for?” John had been wondering the same thing as she ran a delicate finger across the radio.
“I’ll rig the bomb so that it will detonate on the Atlantean radio frequency. This will act as a receiver. See, here’s the truly ingenious part; it can be detonated remotely…very remotely. We won’t even have to accompany it through the gate.”
Rodney flicked his eyebrows at John in that way that said, “I’m brilliant, just try to deny it.” And he was. The son of a bitch truly was brilliant. Because if what he said was true, they wouldn’t even have to detonate it remotely, Atlantis would do it to themselves the first time anyone transmitted across the radios.
“McKay, you can’t…” The words were out before John realized he was speaking them and stopped just as abruptly by the warning glower Rodney was giving him. For the first time, the Administrator seemed to take notice of Sheppard, small, studious creases forming around her eyes. John forced himself to continue the sentence, if a little modified from his original plan. “…can’t skip lunch. This is delicate work, and you can’t concentrate if you’re hungry. Wouldn’t want to blow up the lab now, would you?”
“No, of course not.” Rodney was glaring at him now, his eyes the icy blue of the glaciers John had flown over in Antarctica. The woman’s expression mutated from curiosity to concern, and John realized he was probably totally screwed, especially given the drugs in his pocket. “Would you like to see the material?”
Rodney’s offer had the Administrator weighing her options before finally relenting. “Yes, that would be most interesting.”
Rodney shuffled her off to the far corner of the lab where he had the naquadah stored, and John took the opportunity to quickly dry swallow the pills. He wasn’t really sure what the effects would be of taking them so soon after his last dose, but figured it couldn’t be worse than what would happen if they found them… to him and McKay. Across the lab, Rodney seemed quite pleased with himself as he explained the milling process, grinning gleefully when he discussed the size of the explosion they could expect. And he seemed even more pleased with the fact that she seemed pleased with his answers, which led John to the conclusion that there was no probably about it; he was definitely, totally screwed and so was Atlantis.
Having received her Nuclear Annihilation 101 lecture from the foremost expert on the subject, the Administrator turned her attention back to Sheppard. “John,” she inquired pleasantly, “would you please come with me.” There was really no question in her tone, and given the two guards that entered the room, it wasn’t like he could refuse.
But it didn’t mean he wouldn’t try one last time before they took him away. “Rodney, you don’t have to do this.”
Hands grabbed one of his arms, and he pivoted and punched with his free one, successfully catching one guard in the face. In return, he was rewarded with a jolt from the Seragon equivalent of a cattle prod that turned his legs to Jell-o and dropped him to the floor. “McKay…” he started, but the guard had a knee in his back and his face smashed into the floor as they secured his hands behind him.
“Rodney, you can return to work now,” the woman directed, and with a wrench of his neck, he could see McKay blanching as he watched the scene play out.
“No, you can’t,” John insisted from the floor. “This is Atlantis we’re talking about.” Another zap had him fighting to choke back a scream.
They yanked John up by the shirt collar just as McKay squatted in front of him. “You don’t leave a man behind, Sheppard,” he snapped bitterly. “And you sure the hell don’t leave two of them. You just think about that the next time you have any qualms about me building this bomb.” Then he stood again and turned his back as his supposed best friend was dragged from the room.
Speech was beyond John at that point, as all his concentration was focused on keeping his feet and avoiding another discharge from the device. And Rodney was evidently beyond reasoning with. Before the door closed behind them, John heard the scientist say, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t damage him too much. I really could use his help finishing up tomorrow.”
Rodney McKay, mad scientist, intergalactic genius, destroyer of solar systems, and soon to be home-wrecker in the most horrifically destructive way imaginable. And while he was happily constructing the tool of his ultimate devastation, John was being reprogrammed by the Seragon Administrators. He wasn’t sure what exactly was involved with a Level Three indoctrination, but he was pretty damn sure he wasn’t going to like it.
He was right.
Maybe he had already gone through this once before, and maybe the injection of the serum previously had been enough to cloud the memory, but with the pills he had just taken, he was well aware of the process this time around, despite the large dose of Seragon drugs he had received. There was the droning voice feeding the propaganda of the Leadership, images of Wraith feedings and the resultant carnage flashing before him, and the zap of the prods leaving his muscles quivering whenever he started to look away. All of it always followed by the reminder from the Administrator by his side, “The Struggle is all.”
After a while, he stopped fighting the restraints, he stopped feeling the shocks, he stopped hearing the words, and the images were evaporating before him. But the sharp slap to his face had his vision clearing. “The Struggle is all, John.”
He almost wanted to laugh. He had enough of a struggle of his own to worry about without adding the Seragons’ into the fray. Atlantis was under attack. Atlantis, the first place that had ever felt like home, inhabited by the first people who had ever felt like family, and the only way to stop the threat was to stop the closest thing to a brother he had ever had in his life. John had intentionally entered Hive ships on multiple occasions. He had taken a jumper on what he had known, deep down in his gut known, was a one-way trip to deliver a nuclear bomb. He had killed an entire squadron of Genii soldiers without a second thought. He had a thousand things he should regret, but none of them compared to what he was struggling to deny he might have to do to stop McKay.
You don’t leave a man behind, Rodney had told him. But sometimes going after that downed man didn’t go exactly as planned. Sometimes you ruined your career. Sometimes you woke the Wraith. Sometimes you ended up a pawn for the enemy. Sometimes…sometimes you failed.
“The Struggle is all, John,” the Administrator repeated soothingly, the soft feminine voice in sharp contrast to the coarse pain coursing through his body.
You have no fucking clue, he thought bitterly. You don’t leave a man behind. You don’t let the barbarians through the gate. You don’t let your best friend turn into what he’s always had the potential to become. You don’t give up the good fight. Because, in the end, what does it matter what becomes of your soul? You always find a way to struggle on. You struggle on, because the struggle is all you have.
“The Struggle is all,” John agreed in a slur and was rewarded by the abrupt silencing of the voices.
You don’t leave a man behind, but sometimes you did.
The images vanished, whether turned off or because his eyes slid closed, he couldn’t be sure, nor did he care. Because that was one struggle he wasn’t able to maintain any longer.
“The Struggle is all.” The mantra was thick on his tongue, rolling clumsily across tingling lips. But if it managed to stop the pain, he’d find a way to say it again.
You don’t leave a man behind, but sometimes you didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“Excellent, John.” Pleased words floated velvet-soft over an all-encompassing blackness before even they dissolved into the murk.
You don’t leave a man behind, but sometimes…
Sometimes, maybe you should.
“Colonel, can you hear me?”
Sheppard peeled his eyes open to try to find the face that went with the voice. “McKay?” The bars to the cell where Kolya was holding him came into view when he squinted, and he wondered if it was the dim lighting or cataracts forming that made it so hard to see. “McKay, is that really you?” He had said they would come, had told the Wraith in the next cell who had been sucking his life from him bit by bit that they would come for him, but actually being faced with that fact had a new and different pain forming in his chest.
“Well if it’s not, then I wish you would wake up, because this is a really crappy dream you’re having, Sheppard.”
John sat up a little further, moving his head to better catch the light, and there… black field vest, light brown hair, a mouth screwed crookedly as he worked. “Teyla, shine some light here, I can’t see the lock mechanism.”
A feminine face, her long hair pulled back and her P-90 pointed over Rodney’s shoulder, had Sheppard moving even closer to the door. “Teyla?” They had come for him. They had really come for him.
“We will have you out momentarily, John.” The reassuring smile was tinged with pain when she met his eyes. Oh, Christ, he must look as bad as he felt…as old as he felt. And the way Rodney was pointedly not looking at him just confirmed his fears.
“McKay, hurry up. Those guards will have reported back by now.” The deep rumble of Ronon’s voice just out of sight of his cell had John gripping the bars and fighting to ignore the arthritic ache that burned into his bones from that simple act.
“So, you were right,” a voice rasped in the cell adjacent to John’s. “They did come for you, after all.”
Rodney’s head popped up at the sound. “There’s someone else down here with you?”
“Don’t worry about him, just open the door.”
At John’s direction, his two teammates outside the door exchanged confused glances. “Ronon,” Teyla called quietly, “check the other cell.”
“No! Forget him, just open the door.” Because if the Satedan saw who was in that cell… too late.
“Is this the one, Sheppard?” Ronon’s voice couldn’t hide the repulsion he felt at seeing the creature.
“The one?” Rodney’s eyes darted from John to the warrior and back again. “Oh, please tell me it’s not that one.”
“Just open the damn door, Rodney.” But John’s orders were overridden by the sound of Ronon killing the Wraith with a blast from his gun, and somehow he knew that was bad. Really, really bad.
“Ronon!” Teyla chastised in a hiss. “The guards will hear.”
“Let them,” the large man growled. “They’ll meet the same fate.”
“Yeah, well, I just hope we don’t meet the same fate before they do.” McKay’s grumble was accentuated by the creak of the door as it swung open. “Sheppard? Colonel?” John managed to finally tear his eyes away from the wall that divided his cell from that of the Wraith… the dead Wraith. Somehow he knew that was going to be his fate, as well. No turning back from the destiny he had been dealt. No miracle cure, even though deep down he knew there should be. Evidently Rodney could see what he was thinking because he licked his lips nervously. “Come on, Sheppard, time to go home.”
“Rodney, I can’t.” Because they would just ship him back through the gate, maybe slap a medal on his chest before they stuck him in a nice room in the VA Hospital and promptly forgot about him.
“Oh, don’t give me that crap, Sheppard. You’ve been through worse and you’ve never given up before.”
“This is different, McKay.” The tremors alone were enough to make him just want to sit back down in that cell and wait for Kolya to come finish him off. Sure his team had come to his rescue when he was being held by the Genii, but would they bother to come to his rescue from the sterile hospital room waiting for him back on Earth?
“No, it’s not. You took the pills, I saw you. Now open your eyes so we can go home and show these bastards where to stick their damn Struggle.” The cool darkness of the cell vanished but Rodney remained, now dressed in the gray of the Seragon and bathed in a bright whiteness that caused John to blink against the throbbing in his head. “Can you stand? It’s not absolutely necessary, but it will make the transport easier on you, I think.” The scientist was unfastening the second restraint from around John’s wrist before slapping a hand on his shoulder and affixing what Sheppard recognized as a transponder for the Asgard transporter beam, then he scurried off to the table on the far side of the indoctrination room where his bomb sat.
“Transport?” John asked stupidly, still trying to reconcile his dream with the reality of what was happening. He couldn’t help but hold up his hands and look at them to ensure they weren’t gnarled from the Wraith feeding. Aside from the welts forming an identical pattern to the ones on Rodney’s wrists, they were completely normal. “McKay, what the hell is going on?”
“I told you, we’re going home.” Rodney’s face held the same expression it had when he was working to unlock his cell—a rescue attempt John now realized had never happened—as he worked to adjust something on the weapon.
Pushing himself up to a sit, John braced himself against the wave of dizziness. “And you’re taking the bomb?” He was almost afraid to hear the answer.
“No, I’m leaving that as a gift for our hosts.” The mad scientist glimmer was back as Rodney smiled viciously over at Sheppard. “To thank them for their wonderful hospitality.”
“You’re planning to blow the facility.” And now it was clear what Rodney’s plan had been all along.
“Oh, this baby will take out more than just this facility, Sheppard.”
“Rodney, you can’t do that.” Because as much as he wanted to see the Administrators suffer for what they had done to the both of them, eventually McKay would realize what he had done, whom he had killed, and John had a feeling the weapon would do more damage to the man’s psyche than it ever could to this building.
“Sure I can. See? I just set this timer, and when I radio Hermiod to beam us up, it activates and ten seconds after we leave this planet, so does everyone else within a good mile radius.”
Standing on wobbling legs, John managed to stagger over to where Rodney was working on the device. “Do you even hear what you’re saying? Everyone, McKay. Not just the Administrators, everyone.”
“Yes, everyone, that’s the plan.” And he said it so calmly, so matter-of-factly, that it sent a chill down John’s spine.
“There are civilians here,” Sheppard reasoned. “The blast isn’t going to distinguish between them and the bad guys.”
“Are you so naive as to think that the cafeteria workers didn’t know what we were supposed to do to Atlantis? Or the custodians? Or the people working in the laundry? Or the groundskeepers?” McKay’s face was red with anger when he turned and poked John so hard in the chest that he nearly toppled backward. “They announced it in the streets, for God’s sake.”
“They’ve been lied to, Rodney, probably for their entire lives. They don’t know any better.”
“People cheered when they heard the news the bomb was almost ready. Children sang patriotic songs. Of course, you didn’t hear it because you were in here being… reprogrammed.” He spit the word repulsively, painfully, hoarsely. “Christ, they hauled you away like they did all the others, and I couldn’t do anything except hope that they would at least bring you back to help me finish this fucking bomb. But they didn’t even do that. I had to come and find you strapped down, babbling nonsense about leaving you behind.” The hand that had been pointing vehemently at the bed where John had been confined, scrubbed exhaustedly at red-rimmed eyes as Rodney snorted bitterly. “Like I could do that after I had risked everything just to make sure you were okay until the Daedalus could arrive from Earth, until I could make sure you made it home.”
“McKay…” John started gently but was cut off with a shake of a frazzled brown-haired head
“You don’t leave a man behind, Sheppard. You just don’t,” Rodney justified as he turned back to the bomb. “And you don’t let people who torture you walk away free and clear.”
“You’re right, Rodney, they did torture us. But they didn’t break us.” At least he hoped not, but the way Rodney was gulping down harsh breathes wasn’t exactly reassuring. Reaching out cautiously, John rested a hand on a tense shoulder and squeezed. “You don’t leave a man behind; that goes for both of us. I’m not leaving here if it means leaving a chunk of you behind in the process. And that’s exactly what will happen if you detonate this bomb. I know you, McKay, and you are not a cold-blooded killer.”
“Tell that to Barrett, and all the others security took away.”
“You don’t know that they were killed.”
“Yes, they were just taken out to a nice farm where they can run and play and chase chickens.” The rolled eyes were accompanied by a shake of the head and a shrug out of the hand on his shoulder. “I fell for that one when I was eight, Colonel. I would hope you would give me more credit than my father did.”
“All right, McKay, I do give you more credit. You had a mission: to get me out. And you did what you had to do to complete that mission. Right?”
The hands finally stilled their work on the bomb and Rodney sighed. “I had to get you alone. I couldn’t exactly justify giving you anti-radiation sickness medication and not the others and still maintain my cover. I didn’t have enough pills… I mean, I barely had enough for the two of us for the last couple of days and the Daedalus had just left Earth when I came back and then they confiscated the ones I took from your room before they… If there had been any other way, Sheppard… but I couldn’t think of one. At least I was able to hide mine before they found them. God, maybe Elizabeth was right. Maybe this was too much for one person to handle. Maybe it was too much for me to handle.”
“We’re going home, aren’t we? You did it, McKay. Mission accomplished. There’s no need to detonate the bomb, too.” McKay gave John a look that probably rivaled the one he had given his dad all those years before when young Meredith McKay had asked about his missing dog. It was full of hope and desperation and the willingness to believe someone he trusted if he could just have a good enough excuse to rationalize it to himself. “You’re not a killer, Rodney. You’re rude, overbearing, obnoxious, too smart to ignore, too stubborn for your own damn good, and my first choice for who I would want to watch my back. You’d make one hell of a mad scientist, except for the fact that you’re too good a person inside.”
Rodney let out a rather wet snort. “And here I was planning on moving into my volcanic lair as soon as I had it decorated.”
“Last I checked, there weren’t any volcanoes in the neighborhood of Atlantis, and that’s exactly where we’re going… as soon as you disarm that bomb.”
The shoulders slumped in defeat, but Rodney still had one argument left in him. “They’re still a threat to Atlantis. They have the work I did while I was here, the schematics you drew of the city, and I honestly have no idea what I told them when I was in here.” A hand flicked over to the bed without ever looking at it.
“Then we make sure they can never leave this planet again.” Sheppard risked a sly grin at Rodney’s narrow-eyed confusion. “No use wasting a perfectly good bomb when there’s a perfectly functioning gate we can destroy.”
“We can blow the gate.” Fingers snapped in dawning realization and John’s smile grew.
“We can blow the gate,” he confirmed in relief at the way McKay seemed to deflate back down into his normal self now that he finally saw a way out of the corner he had backed himself into.
“Give me a second here so I can deactivate the timer.”
John checked the door as Rodney pulled wires free of the bomb. “We’ve got company, McKay.” Multiple footsteps were approaching down the hallway.
“Done, I’m done,” Rodney told him briskly as he gave an impatient wave for Sheppard to stand beside him, then keyed the radio. “Daedalus, this is McKay. Two to beam up.”
Hermiod’s voice answered back across the airwave. “Standby, Dr. McKay.”
“Am I really too brilliant to ignore?” Rodney cradled the bomb securely in his arms as they awaited the transport.
“I think I said you were too smart to ignore,” Sheppard rectified.
“Are you sure? Because I distinctly remember hearing ‘brilliant’.”
“I’m pretty sure.”
John was thankful that the room wavered in a golden shimmer at that moment, not just because the Administrator and three guards walked in, but because he couldn’t hide the smirk that came from Rodney’s reaction. And he quickly covered it when the bridge of the Daedalus came into view and Colonel Caldwell along with it.
Caldwell stood from his seat and walked the short distance to where the two men stood. “Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, welcome aboard.” However, his frown at the weapon McKay held dampened the spirit of his greeting.
“Thank you, sir. It’s good to be aboard.”
Ignoring John’s response and skipping the pleasantries all together, he confronted the physicist. “Dr. McKay, I thought you understood that you were allowed to return to Serage only if you could ensure that the threat to Atlantis would be eliminated entirely.”
“All in good time, Colonel,” Rodney dismissed him as he addressed the Asgard manning the controls at the engineering station. “Hermiod, you need to beam me back down to the stargate.”
“Beam us back down,” John corrected, “and I could use a gun.”
“Colonel Sheppard, would you like to explain exactly what is going on here?”
“Well, sir, I doubt you really want a homemade bomb on your ship. Although I’m sure McKay’s work warrants the Manhattan Project seal of approval.”
“Ha!” Rodney scoffed as he held the bomb up to be admired by all. “Oppenheimer wishes he could build a bomb this brilliant. That is, he would if he were still alive.”
“I’m sure it’s the envy of all the other scientists that can claim to be nuclear powers unto themselves, Doctor.” The scowl on Caldwell’s face was irritated and resigned all in one. “Hermiod, prepare to beam Colonel Sheppard’s team back to the planet.”
John couldn’t help the grin. It was his team, or at least half of it. And soon enough they would be back on Atlantis with the rest of it. Although the thought of having to face Teyla after what he had done to her was enough to turn the smile into a concerned frown. One that only grew as John was left holding the bomb while Rodney clipped his own vest over the gray lab clothes he still wore and strapped on his thigh holster.
“Colonel Caldwell, would it not be more prudent to simply deploy a warhead from orbit and destroy the stargate?”
The Asgard’s logic had Rodney looking to Sheppard in wide-eyed anxiety. This was something the physicist needed to do, something he had to do. They had found themselves in the middle of one hell of a can of worms when they had walked through the gate and onto Serage almost a month ago. And maybe they weren’t technically the ones that had originally opened it, but they definitely needed to be the ones to close it, Rodney most of all if he was ever going to put this all behind him. John, fortunately, wasn’t the only one that saw that. Caldwell obviously had, as well.
“I think it would be best if Dr. McKay deployed his own weapon. That way we won’t have to deal with disposing of it. You have a go, Colonel,” Caldwell informed them, adding dryly as he reclaimed his seat, “Try not to come back with anything that can blow a hole in my ship this time around.”
“I’ll do my best, sir, but I really think McKay should be allowed to return with me.”
“I’ll take that under advisement.” Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but the commander of the Daedalus cut him off with a dismissive, “Hermiod, keep a lock on their signals.”
Then they were back on the planet and Rodney was planting the bomb and John was standing guard and, miracle of miracles, it went off without a hitch. Even when McKay squinted his eyes closed and said, “This is going to be close,” as they beamed back aboard the Daedalus the same instant the bomb flashed and took out the Seragon stargate and most of the surrounding uninhabited real estate for a couple of miles, it hardly fazed John.
It wasn’t until they were sitting in the infirmary on the spacecraft, Rodney bitching about the bandages being applied to his wrist, that it dawned on him: they were going home. In less than three hours, they would be back on Atlantis and there was no bomb to destroy the city, no threat to counteract, no psychotic best friend to have to take down, nothing. Just… home.
With a glance over at the whining physicist, John started to chuckle and couldn’t stop even when it reached full-blown laughter. Rodney turned his attention away from the medic and furrowed his brow in concern. “Oh, please don’t tell me I went to all the trouble of saving your sorry ass only to have you blow a gasket once I managed to get you to safety.”
“Nope, I’m perfectly sane, McKay.”
“Are you sure? Because that’s all we’d need, a psychotic flyboy and a mad scientist on a reign of terror across the galaxy. We’d make quite a pair.”
“Yeah,” John grinned happily as they made their way across that very same galaxy, “we sure the hell do.”
John Sheppard had come to the conclusion that Dr. Rodney McKay liked being a mad scientist. Not mad in the sense of a maniacal bomb-building gleam in his eyes, although he had seen that on more than one occasion. No, this was more along the lines of yelling and screaming at anyone that crossed his path without doing exactly what he wanted them to do… what he demanded they do, exactly when he demanded they do it.
Even if McKay hadn’t been there to demand it in the first place.
“I swear to God, I leave this city for three weeks, three, and it’s going to take me three months to fix the debacles you left for me.”
The ranting that was coming from beneath the DHD in the Control Room had the two scientists standing above the protruding legs, one man and one woman, shifting uncomfortably. “We were going to run the diagnostic today,” the man protested. “We just got the power relays up and running in Section G of the city, and that took a week longer than we thought it would…”
“Section G? Section G? Section G isn’t even inhabited. Who cares if Section G has power? The gate is, oh, I don’t know, our lifeline, and you just blow off maintenance on it to power a sector of the city that no one even wants to visit. Yes, those are the priorities I look for in a scientist assigned to a dangerous expedition in another galaxy.” Hands holding a soldering iron and a flashlight tilted one way, then the other. “Hmmm, should I preserve the integrity of the system that connects us to the outside world or go for a jaunt in the suburbs? Decisions, decisions. Christ, I’ve seen ground squirrels darting sporadically into heavy traffic with better decision-making skill than the two of you. And don’t even get me started on the level of your moral fortitude compared to foraging rodents.”
“Actually, there are some very nice residential quarters in that section,” the woman justified with crossed arms.
“Really?” McKay’s head popped out to look up at his two staff members in a very foraging-rodent manner. “Any of them have a balcony?”
John leaned casually against the console and looked down on the man already mentally measuring the floor space in his new apartment. “Before you call the movers, Rodney, do you mind telling me why Radek said it was imperative that I come see you?”
“Oh, good, you’re here.” With little more of an acknowledgment of the other scientists than to shove the tools into their hands, Rodney stood and dusted off his pants.
“I’m not carrying any boxes of books or the pictures of your cat, if that’s what you want.”
McKay’s mouth closed abruptly with a frown. “What’s wrong with the pictures of my cat?”
“It looks freakishly like you when you’re pissed. See? That’s the look right there. It creeps me out.”
“We’ll discuss any alleged catlike traits I might have later. Right now, I want you to go to lunch with me.”
“That’s it? That’s the critical ‘drop everything you’re doing and report to the control room’ emergency? To go to lunch with you?”
With a rock back on his heels, Rodney responded with a simple, “Yes.”
There really wasn’t much else could John do except shrug. “Sure. Why not?”
Walking side by side, McKay nodded in approval. “Good, we’re meeting Teyla and Ronon there.”
And that’s when John hit the brakes. “Actually, now isn’t such a good time.” Backtracking away from Rodney and the conversation, he hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “I just remembered I promised to do that thing for Elizabeth.”
“Thing?” McKay demanded, arms crossed incredulously. “For Elizabeth?”
“Yeah, you know, she needed it by noon and, well, seeing as that’s in fifteen minutes, I should probably get started on it.” Rodney stood staring at him. “It’s a really important… thing.”
“Elizabeth’s on the Mainland all day today schmoozing with the Athosians. Something you would know, Colonel, if you had bothered to show up for the staff meeting this morning.”
“Well, you know, I had other stuff…”
“Military stuff. Very important military stuff.” Blue eyes blinked in weary skepticism. “I wouldn’t want to bore you with the details.”
“It’s just… you know… it’s classified.” Sheppard’s smile of triumph was met with rolled eyes.
“I have a higher clearance than you and evidently a higher intelligence than you give me credit for if you think I don’t know this is about Teyla.”
John slumped with a grimace. He had managed to avoid her since they had returned to Atlantis two days before. Sure, she had been there when they came back, but so had most of the expedition, and it was easy to steer clear of her in the crowd of people welcoming them back. But as events had settled back into the normal routine, it was getting harder and harder, and as much as he knew he would eventually have to face her and face up to the facts of what he had done to her, he wasn’t ready to do it just yet.
“I can’t, McKay. Not now.”
“Then when? Tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Because eventually Carson’s going to grant her medical clearance and we’re going to be going back out into the field, and I personally think it would be a good idea if you two were at least speaking when that happens.”
“I can’t imagine she would even want to speak with me.”
“Yes, the way she keeps asking about you and if you’re okay really gives me that impression, too.”
“Look, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I spent three weeks plotting the destruction of Atlantis. It’s just going to take a while to accept that I… did what I did to her.”
“You mean, you shot her.”
“Yes, Christ, I shot her.” John threw up his arms but lowered his voice when the gate tech looked over in his direction. “I shot her and tried to kill her. There, are you happy now?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I was happy. But I am a little relieved.”
“Relieved?” Sometimes, John was convinced, it would be easier to understand Zelenka when he was ranting angrily in Czech than to understand McKay when he was speaking plain English.
“Yes, relieved. I mean, it’s about time you shot her. Ronon and I were starting to get worried that you liked her best since you’ve shot both of us and Teyla had apparently gotten off scot-free.”
Those memories had him pinching the bridge of his nose and wishing he had a handful of ibuprofen and possibly a six-pack of beer to wash it down. “Rodney, if you’re trying to make me feel less guilty, you’re failing miserably.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to alleviate all the guilt you have pent up, Sheppard. You could probably take up permanent residence on Kate’s couch and still not rid yourself of that psychological nightmare. I’m just trying to get you to sit down and eat lunch with your team.”
With an irritated growl, John challenged, “Why, McKay? Why are you so concerned about me talking to Teyla?”
“Why did you show Jeannie the tape I made for her before the Wraith siege?”
John stopped himself from demanding what the hell that had to do with anything because he knew it had everything to do everything. Rodney had been so convinced there was no way to get beyond past mistakes with his sister that he had self-sabotaged any chance at reconciliation. It was easier to do that sometimes than face up to your mistakes. John could attest to that all too well from his own experiences. And he hadn’t wanted Rodney to be left with those same regrets John had when the day came that it was too late to rectify the situation. So, he had given Rodney a little push in the right direction without him even knowing it. And now McKay was doing the same for him… in his totally unsubtle, bulldozer-you-into-submission way. There was no real art to McKay’s science of manipulation and, as far as John could tell, very little method to his madness. But the mad science approach always seemed to work for McKay in the end, and this time, just like all the others, was no exception.
Rodney stood staring at him, waiting patiently for an answer with his head tilted in a disapproving manner, which looked remarkably like another picture of his damn cat. And if John had any chance of getting a moment’s peace in the near future, not to mention avoiding a hairball coughed up on his boots, there was only one response McKay was going to accept. “Fair enough,” he sighed, “let’s go eat lunch.” Walking reluctantly past the physicist beaming in a satisfied gloat, he made his way out into the hallway.
“What an excellent idea, Colonel.”
“Yeah, we’ll see if you still think so during the awkward silence and uncomfortably stilted conversation that is sure to be the highlight of this genius plan of yours.”
“Stop it. You’re making me homesick for the family meals of my youth.”
“Remind me never to accept an invitation to the McKay annual reunion.”
“You and me both. As my mother always said, it’s not a real family function until someone is reduced to tears.”
“I’ll keep that in mind when Teyla stabs her fork into my thigh,” John grumped as they entered the cafeteria and he found that his feet didn’t want to move any closer to the table where Ronon and Teyla sat chatting.
It was then he felt a hand land between his shoulder blades. “Don’t worry, Sheppard. I’ll have your back.” The hand gave a less-than-gentle shove into the same back it was watching over to get him moving again.
Stumbling forward a few steps, John cleared his throat to gain the attention of his two teammates while the third stood just behind him, whether in moral support or to block the exit, he wasn’t sure. When he didn’t say anything, the hand shoved again. After a quick glare over his shoulder—watching his back, his ass; more like stabbing him in the back instead—he forced a casual tone. “Ronon, Teyla, mind if we join you?” And then he awaited his fate.
Turning a bright smile in Sheppard’s direction, Teyla pulled out the seat beside her and reached up to take his hand and tug him into it. “John, I am so relieved to see you back. We were so worried, about both of you.”
For a split second, he was afraid this was just another dream. That he was actually back on Serage and any second now he would wake to find himself in that tiny box of a room void of light and texture and warmth. But he wasn’t. Teyla’s hand in his was real and she was real and alive and watching him with an expression of concern and joy and welcome that made him realize he’d been a complete idiot to think she wouldn’t understand.
“Are you… okay?”
“I am fine,” she reassured him. “Dr. Beckett says I will be released for full duty next week.”
“Of course that’ll mean she won’t be able to take advantage of her Marine waiting on her hand and foot.”
At Ronon’s comment, Teyla kicked at him good-naturedly under the table, which only made the Satedan smirk more. “I am not taking advantage, Ronon Dex.”
“Sure you’re not. Everyone has a Marine assigned to carry their food tray for them.”
Leaning back in his chair and sliding back into the comfortable familiarity of his friends, Sheppard gave a teasing smile to rival Ronon’s. “So, evidently things have progressed since we’ve been gone. Should I have a talk with him regarding his intentions?”
Brown eyes rolled at the suggestion. “I do not think that will be necessary.”
“Well, as team leader, it’s my responsibility to watch out for everyone’s best interests. I don’t want to shirk my obligations.” John had meant it as a joke, but he realized a little too late how, given the situation, it was far from funny.
“As if you could ever do that, Sheppard,” Rodney taunted easily as he moved around the table. “You were probably reciting the Boy Scout pledge before your ABCs. Although it is a rather large assumption that you actually ever did learn your alphabet.”
Covering his thankfulness at the out McKay had given him, John took full advantage of it the best way he could think…by insulting the man who had given it him. “Let’s see, A is for astrophysicist, ass, argumentative, arrogant, anal…”
Rodney settled into the seat opposite him, quickly picking up on the idea, “B is for brainless, brazen, boorish, bad hair…”
“And C ,” Teyla interrupted taking in each of her teammates, “is for coworkers, companions, courageous, compassionate, caring, confidence.” The last was accompanied by a squeeze of the hand she still held. “Which I have always had in you, John.”
Sheppard dropped his eyes self-consciously. He wasn’t good with this sort of emotional, bare-your-soul sort of stuff. In fact, he almost wished Teyla had stabbed him with a fork because at least he would know how to react to that.
Fortunately, Ronon evidently felt the same way. “Although, McKay does have a point about the hair.”
“Thank you, Ronon,” the scientist sniffed haughtily.
“Oh, like the two of you have room to comment about my hair,” John huffed as he sat back in an outrage that couldn’t seem to cut through the joy of being back in Atlantis, with his team, hell, his family.
And as he sat there arguing, joking, laughing, he just happened to look over and catch McKay’s expression across the table, grinning that smug grin at him that said you didn’t have to tell him how brilliant he was because he had known it all along. And the worst part was the son of a bitch had every right to think that way.
Because it ends up, John realized, McKay really had been watching his back every step of the way.
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