blue flamingos

Never Going Home

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Slash, NC–17

Year/Length: 2008/ words

Pairing: McKay/Sheppard

Disclaimer: No, I don't own them, for which I should think they're profoundly grateful.

Summary: John believes in miracles, in last minute saves, in the impossible. He's lived all of them. He also believes in small, random things that kill people; in the end you don't see coming, in the impossible–in–a–bad–way.

Author's Notes: McShep Match Team Away Prompt: Zero tolerance

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.


Subject: Women's Personal Defense Training
Attached: Course Guide.pdf
Give this a look, get it back to me by the end of next week.
– Still looking for trainers, if you're interested.

The attachment was fifty–two pages. Even counting the diagrams, that was about twenty more pages of course guide than John was really interested in reading.

On the other hand, it was ten o'clock in the morning, and he had nothing else to do with his day. At least if he got it back quickly, Jake might drop the suggestions that he come run some of the sessions.

He hit print and went to make a pot of coffee, the whir of the printer barely audible when he stepped into the kitchen. Lorne had always said that Atlantis was a paperless city mostly because the two printers they did have were so slow that it would have been quicker to copy the information by hand.

The sun was hitting John's porch when he walked outside, reflecting off the white, slatted walls of the house, finally warm. Winter seemed to have lasted forever, wet and cold and gray. Not that he'd minded, much – the bad weather kept people from trying to be neighborly, kept people from deciding to take the hour–long drive out of the city to visit him.

The porch chairs, left by the house's previous owners, coughed up a cloud of rust particles when John dragged one over to the iron table. He poured a cup of coffee and dug his pills out of his pocket. The cap stuck for a moment, until John took a deep breath, forced himself to loosen his grip. He still managed to drop a couple, grimacing as they bounced off the edge of the high porch, getting lost in the tall grass below. That'd be another stern look from Dr Lam. Even when John pointed out that the drugs wouldn't give him a high if he swallowed them all, she still seemed convinced that he'd developed a habit.

The coffee was too hot, burning his tongue when he swallowed the pill, but he was already an hour past due for his morning dose, starting to see the effects. A burnt tongue was really the least of his problems.

He'd been at it two hours, wondering, again, what had ever possessed him to open the first email from Brown Acre Training Center, let alone reply to it with recommendations, when the phone rang.

It turned out to be Cameron Mitchell.

"Aren't you supposed to be out saving the world?" John asked, tucking the cordless between cheek and shoulder and looking out the window at his backyard. The grass really needed cutting; maybe he could have another go at getting the mower up and running, after lunch.

"Taking a break," Mitchell said easily. "Landry's declared a week off from alien attacks."

"I'll start building the nuclear bunker now," John said. "You need something?"

"You, down at the Saddle Bar tonight."

"Mitchell, I didn't know you felt that way," John dead–panned. He swore he could feel Mitchell rolling his eyes, even over the phone. Apparently, four and a half years with Rodney had given him some useful skills after all.

"What can I say, Sheppard, the reckless, intergalactic hero thing gets me every time."

There was a long, awkward pause, which John spent trying to think of reasons not to hang up. Mainly because hanging up on the guy made Mitchell more persistent, not less.

"So?" Mitchell said finally, apparently deciding that moving on was the better part of an apology. "Or are you too busy up there communing with the wildlife?"

"Glass houses," John said. Seriously, Kansas was more fields than houses; at least John could see his neighbors. If he stood in the third floor window, and leaned right out. On a clear day.

"Uh–huh," Mitchell said dismissively.

"Fine," John said, already regretting it. "7.30?"

"Sounds great. Any chance I could crash at your place?" Mitchell almost pulled off casual; if John hadn't been hearing the question every couple of weeks for the last four months, he might have bought it.

"Sorry, don't have a spare bed." There was nothing wrong with his couch, and he suspected Mitchell knew this, but –. But.

Mitchell was silent, just the crackle of his breathing on the other end of the line, then a sigh. "7.30?"


John replaced the phone, next to his computer, and nudged the mouse to clear the screensaver. He had three new emails – two offering him drugs to keep the lady in his life satisfied, and another one from The data–burst must have come through early – he hadn't expected anything until the next day.

He deleted all three, unopened.


"Tell me again why you chose to live *here*," Mitchell said that evening. He threw a polite smile over his shoulder at a man in jeans so new they still had the store–creases, then frowned once the man turned away. "I've seen fewer tourists in Vegas."

John couldn't really argue with that; Cripple Creek was a historic mining town, which brought in the history buffs, and had fourteen casinos, which brought in what felt like everyone else. He didn't recognize a single face when he came into town. "I like the irony," he said.

Mitchell turned the frown on him for a second before his expression blanked. "I don't think that's what irony means," he said, sitting down and handing over John's beer. Gamblers aside, the Saddle Bar served the best micro–brews around. "And you're not a cripple," he added quietly.

John didn't point out that that was what he'd meant by irony. "I like it here," he said. He figured it was close enough to the truth. The only part of living there that he truly liked was the tiny attic room under the sloped roof of his house; the largest wall was all window, and he could close his eyes and feel the sun through the glass, like nothing had changed.

"That's because you're a crazy person who doesn't appreciate the value of living in a city," Mitchell said.

"Right, and you take advantage of the Springs' nightlife all the time," John shot back, a little more bitter than he'd intended. It wasn't like he didn't appreciate Mitchell, the way he kept calling John up and making him be sociable, even knowing that Mitchell would never, ever get it, not really. It just galled him, some days, that Mitchell had come back from what he had, and John – hadn't.


John had started running the hiking trail near his house two days after moving in there, needing to be out under the sky after a week trapped in the academy hospital. He hadn't expected it to become habit – no need to stay in shape any more – but some habits were harder to break than others.

Either that, or he just needed the quiet, the chance to get out of his own head for an hour every morning.

It was too early, and the trail was too far out of town for there to be many people, but it wasn't quiet, not really. He could hear the stream, somewhere off to the right, between his footfalls, and birds in the trees on either side of the path; with the sky still faintly gray from the dawn, he could have been the only person left alive.

Mitchell had still been frowning when he'd driven off, like John's refusal to become his friend was something John was doing just to annoy him. Like John hadn't had perfectly good reasons for moving out of Colorado Springs – but not too far. Not so far that people couldn't come to him, and maybe that was what wound Mitchell up the most, that John was there, but not quite.

"Just tell me you're not tempted to buy a flannel shirt," he'd said when they left the bar, watching John pull on his black fleece. It was still cold, once the sun went down.

"Because you're worried I'm turning Canadian?" John had guessed, lost.

"Because it's a short step from buying a house in the middle of nowhere and starting to wear flannel to getting a shotgun and a dog," Mitchell had corrected. "And I'm not sure I want to be seen with the crazy old man of the mountain."

John had laughed, unable not to, and it had felt weird. "I'm too young to be the old man of anywhere."

"Not for long," Mitchell had said. "You're going gray, right here." He'd reached out, just touching the few gray hairs at John's temple, and John had started backwards, away from the contact. Away from the rush of skin contact, the hectic memories of the last time he'd been touched there. The last time he'd been touched like that, by someone who cared about him.

"Sorry," Mitchell had said, dropping his hand, then shoving both into his jacket pockets.

"It's fine," John had said, forcing a smile.

The memories slid back in, under the rhythm of his feet and the rasp of his breathing in the cool morning air. Rodney's hands, firm and steady on his body, pushing him out of the way in the lab, clinging to John on long treks back to the gate, one of them bleeding a trail behind them. Occasional shoulder pats and, once, a really awkward hug.

John came to a stop, one hand on a tree as he caught his breath. He wasn't even close to his usual rest point, and it was all Mitchell's fault, for bringing this stuff up. John had gotten good at filing all the little memories away, out of sight.


John knew airplane engines. He knew helicopter engines, and car engines, and he even had a passing understanding of puddle jumper engines, to the extent that the jumpers actually *had* engines.

So, really, the engine of his lawn mower shouldn't have been a challenge. Of course, taking it apart hadn't been. He'd laid out the parts across a grease–stained towel – a victim of the time he'd decided to change the oil in his car – cleaned them, checked for signs of wear and tear, replaced a few worn–out screws.

He shifted, straightening out his right leg as pins and needles threatened, and reached for a square piece of metal. It didn't, as far as John could see, serve any purpose, but it had come out, so it had to go back in.

It was an awkward angle for screwing anything, trying to reach up from underneath, without a lot of space between his hand and the concrete garage floor. The screw–driver slipped, then dropped, rolling away under John's bicycle.

He went after it, wiping his hand on the corner of the towel as he stood up. He picked up the screwdriver, turning it the right way again.

He watched his hand, wrapped around the black handle, shaking, feeling the queasy, shivery sensation that always accompanied it. Deep breaths, Keller had said. Deep breaths, try to relax your muscles. The tension only makes it worse. Don't panic. Give it some time.

The first three, John could do, no sweat. He was too used to it to panic, anyway. It was the last one that was hard.

He went back into the house, washed his hands. Thought about putting away the dishes from breakfast, but the tremors were getting worse, and he'd broken enough dishes already.

He hadn't missed TV while he was in Atlantis, except for occasionally when he realized he was missing a game he would have tuned in for religiously. So far out of town, he had to rely on a satellite rather than cable, and he wasn't sure he'd have bothered, if he'd known what he was missing. He had to put the remote on the couch next to his leg, which had started twitching, just enough to be really annoying. It was hardly worth the effort – cooking shows, reality TV, soaps he couldn't follow. Something in Spanish. War film, black and white. Talk show. Weather report.

He checked his watch. Twenty minutes, and it was getting worse. He'd only taken the pills a few hours ago.

"Some days are going to be worse," Lam had said, visiting him in the academy hospital. "Some days it'll seem like you're perfectly fine, and others it won't. It's not going to go away, Colonel."

"I know," John had said, instead of saying that he wasn't a colonel any more. Couldn't fly without steady hands, and John had never been cut out for a desk job. He'd taken the medical discharge when they offered it, and beaten a strategic retreat, intending to hole up in the middle of nowhere and live off his back–pay, then his inheritance.

He'd lasted a week before he'd gotten twitchy with the need to *do* something. The first email from Brown Acre Training Center had come a couple of days later, with General O'Neill says hi, at the bottom.

Sighing, John stood up, leaning on the couch back for a moment, and went to find his injector.


"What does it do?" John asks, just to annoy Rodney. It works, Rodney glaring at him over his laptop; the glare only intensifies when John offers up his most innocent smile.

"If I knew that, Colonel, would I have gotten you to come down here?"

"If it was something cool, sure." It doesn't look like something cool; it looks like a large gray, featureless box, set into the floor of one of the newly explored lab spaces at the bottom of the city.

"Cool, of course," Rodney grumbles, messing around with his tablet and some wires. Over in the corner, three other scientists are poking at what looks like a control panel. "Because I have nothing better to do than track down 'cool' technology to appease your five year–old mind."

John would be offended, except he knows Rodney really does keep an eye out for cool technology to show to him, and that, when it comes to Ancient tech, Rodney can be just as five–years–old as John.

"So why am I here?" he asks. "Your fake gene not good enough to activate it?"

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with my gene," Rodney says, but his tablet beeps before he can start on the rant John was angling for. "It needs two people to activate it, and I appear to be the only one on this exploration team in possession of the necessary gene."

He sounds annoyed, but he preens a bit at the same time. John ducks his head, hiding his grin. "Tell me where to touch," he says.

Rodney shrugs, resting his tablet on his forearm. "Anywhere. If it's not the right place, you'll know."

John moves up by Rodney, places his own hand next to Rodney's. For a moment, nothing happens. He can't even feel the usual buzz of technology waiting to activate.

Then it's there, except it's not the usual gentle pressure against his skin; this time, it's a furious rush, pounding through his veins. He pulls his hand back with a gasp. He's shaking, like a cartoon zapped with electricity, and he can't make it stop.

"Colonel?" There's a hand – Rodney's hand – on his arm. He leans into it, then a little more when Rodney steps closer, bracing him against the tremors. "John, what is it?"

"You didn't –" John has to stop, the tremor so hard it makes his teeth clatter together. The next one is easier, though. "You didn't feel that?"

"Feel what?" Rodney asks, frowning at John, then at his tablet. "It's barely drawing any power, even now that it's on."

John shudders again, his knees perilously close to giving out. He's not going to collapse in front of the scientists.

"Maybe we should get you to the infirmary," Rodney suggests, handing his tablet off to the nearest scientist. "Don't touch that, don't touch the device. Leave them both for when I get back, understand?" He doesn't wait for an answer, just turns John with the hand still on his elbow, and starts towards the infirmary.


Keller frowns, and runs scans, and takes John's blood. Then, when Rodney points out that he touched the device as well, he might be affected, frowns at him and scans him and takes his blood.

She's just about done when John's trembling finally subsides into nothing. Sitting next to him on the infirmary bed, Rodney looks over with a faint smile. "Better?"

"Yeah," John says. He doesn't exactly feel right, like something inside him got shaken up as well, but he feels better. Less like he's about to collapse.

Keller makes him stay overnight in the infirmary anyway, while she analyses her scans and blood tests, and Rodney analyzes the data on the gray box.

Neither of them finds anything.

They don't find anything when John goes back the next evening, after grabbing a life–signs' detector to figure out where three visiting Athosians might have gone, and nearly collapsing. They don't find anything the next morning, when he's doing a routine check of Jumper Three and gets hit with a wave of shudders and shakes. They don't find anything when Rodney flings a piece of Ancient tech at him and he does end up on the floor, shaking too hard to stand up.

By then, it doesn't matter. Even John's got a good enough grasp of cause and effect to realize it's the Ancient tech bringing on the shaking.

"Which makes sense, when you think about it," Keller says, watching John twitch, the shaking eased enough that he can sit up. He'd be grateful, but his team, plus Keller and Carter, have just watched him shudder like he's in the grip of a fit, talking over his head about possible causes. Apparently, he doesn't have any dignity left.

"Except for how it doesn't make any sense, when you think about it," Rodney says from his customary perch next to John. "We both touched the device, and I didn't feel a thing. We've both got the gene, it should have affected both of us, and it didn't."

He glares at John, like John's doing this on purpose just to mess with his head. John lets his left hand, which always goes on twitching for longest, jerk against Rodney's thigh, just to get the eye–roll.

"Rodney's question is a reasonable one," Teyla says. She's sitting on the opposite gurney John and Rodney, baby Tagan in her lap, sucking on her finger. John's not sure he'll ever get used to that picture – it's been a couple of months already, since they got Teyla back just in time to give birth in Atlantis, but Tagan mostly lives on the mainland with Kanaan's sister, only coming into the city for a couple of days a week to be with Teyla.

"Must be your inferior gene," John says.

"My gene is not inferior. Your DNA was used to help create the retrovirus I was given, so actually, my gene is just as strong as yours. There's no reason for the device not to do – whatever it did – to both of us."

"You don't know what it did?" Carter asks, frowning.

"No, sadly it didn't come with a convenient little warning label," Rodney snarks back.

"You've had half the science team and two days. As well as Major Lorne to help activate the device."

"Yes, and we don't know what it does. I can put it in a power point display if that will help." Rodney's glare this time is equal parts irritation and disappointment. John kind of wants to pat his hand and tell him he'll figure it out.

"Maybe it's not the device," Keller says, looking down at her tablet. She blinks when she looks up and finds they've all turned to look at her. "Well, Dr McKay's right, why didn't it affect him? So maybe it was something else, a biological contaminant even."

"Or a local shaman, perhaps," Rodney says, but he turns to John. "What's the last Ancient thing you activated, before the box?"

John thinks back – apart from the jumpers, he doesn't have a lot of day–to–day interaction with Ancient tech that requires the gene. "Jumper training, the day before we went to Gestalt."

"Colonel Sheppard!" Eliana knocked the bowl of fruit from John's hand before he could reach for another piece. "Did you eat any of that? Tell me, quickly."

John couldn't remember ever seeing Eliana, the leader of the Gestaltian council, look so agitated, not in the three years they'd been trading with her planet. "Just one of the little orange fruits."

Eliana waved over his shoulder, shoving up his sleeve. "You should not have – I am so sorry, we have a new cook, she must have forgotten..."

"Forgotten what?" Rodney asked as one of Eliana's attendants arrived, handing over a small black box. "What's going on?"

"There were kardavan seeds mixed with the fruit, when it was prepared," Eliana said. She fumbled the catch on the box open, pulling out a long, thin needle. "The cook should have known better, with off–worlders here. Colonel, please keep still, this will not hurt."

"Wait a minute," Rodney said, one hand on John's arm. "You're just going to stick him with that needle? What's even in it?"

"Dr McKay," Teyla said, one hand over his. "The kardavan plant is deadly to those not from Gestalt, even in very small doses. Colonel Sheppard must be given the antidote."

John wasn't any more keen on having some alien concoction injected into his blood than Rodney was. That said, he was keen on continuing to breathe, and he could feel his throat starting to close up. "Do it," he told Eliana, and felt the needle slide under his skin.

John's fingers go to the tiny scratch mark from the needle, in the crook of his elbow.

Ronon catches the movement. "The antidote," he says darkly.

"The –" Keller starts, confused, then nods. "I still have the sample you brought back from Gestalt. I'll run some tests."


It takes Keller an afternoon with Dr Gluck, their new geneticist, to figure out that his DNA's been altered. "Think of it like an allergy," she says. "As well as activating the technology, there's something in your DNA now that reacts against it."

She puts up two diagrams on the conference room screen, but John can hardly see a difference between them.

"What does that mean?" he asks. Some days, he thinks that, given one wish, he'd ask to put a stop to all the random crap being inserted into his blood. At least it's not reacting with the leftover iratus bug stuff. "Because I don't think just steering clear of Ancient technology is going to work as a long–term solution."

"Inject him with the retrovirus," Rodney suggests. "Reset his gene."

Keller shakes her head. "He's already got the gene, the therapy won't take. But Dr Gluck's confident he can create an antidote, something that will cancel out the negatives and leave your ATA gene as good as it was before. Major Lorne and his team are accompanying him back to Gestalt this afternoon, to look at how they create the antidote." She smiles nervously at them, and John reminds himself that she looks that way because they make her nervous, not because she doesn't think they can do this. Eliana, by all accounts, is mortified that they nearly killed John, then made him ill. She's already promised to do everything she can to fix this.

It takes a week, a week of feeling almost normal, as long as he doesn't get near anything that needs the gene. When Keller finally comes back to him, she's got a bottle of small blue pills. "One a day every day," she says.

The team celebrates by taking a jumper over to the new Athosian settlement on the mainland, and John doesn't even feel a twitch. He's not thrilled about a daily dose of experimental drugs, but he's still happy that it's been fixed so easily.


He's been taking the pills for a week when they step into an Ancient temple off–world, and he feels something like an electrical current run down his nerves, making his fingers tingle. He doesn't even realize he's shaking his hands out until Rodney frowns at him. "Stop that."

He's still doing it when they sit down for dinner with the elder and his council, four hours later, and Rodney puts his hand over John's, stilling it. The warmth of his palm actually makes John feel better.

It's not great, but it's not awful either. He mentions it to Keller, the third time it happens, which gets him a frown and an increase in the dosage, then another one a couple of weeks later. A week after that, she prescribes him pain–killers as well, for the headaches that have started accompanying the shaking, and promises to look into another solution; it's happening even when he's not activating something now, just when he's near something he could.

"It's not doing him any damage, right?" Rodney asks, hovering while John waits for Keller to find the pain–killers. He insisted on walking John to the infirmary – made him go, actually. John thinks it's mostly so he could pester Keller with his theory of how the Ancient technology interacts with a user's DNA at a constant, low level rate.

"None that we're aware of," Keller says, which isn't quite as reassuring as she seems to think it is. John's fine when he's not around Ancient tech, and even then, he's fine for the first couple of days after the new dose. It's like every new allergy, it just takes some time to level out, find the right dosage. When Dave developed bad hay–fever, the summer John turned nine, it took two months for the doctor to get the right medicine to stop him sneezing all the time.

"Tremors are usually a result of disturbances in the brain," Rodney goes on, looking at John like his head might explode at any moment. John gives him a mad grin, which gets him an eye–roll, but a lessening of Rodney's troubled expression.

"And Colonel Sheppard's are a result of mild disturbances in his nervous system, counter–acted by the drug we're giving him." Keller smiles at John, handing over the pain–killers. "One every four hours if you get another headache. Come back if you find you need something stronger."

They take the jumper to P7G 106 the next day, a six hour flight from the next planet over with a gate. It turns out to be a complete waste of time, because P7G 106 has, rather than the crashed Replicator ship they were expecting, on the basis of the core drive data, nothing but endless desert.

They're an hour out of the planet's atmosphere when John feels the tremors start, so faint he can't even see their effect. Next to him, Rodney's grumbling about the lack of anything useful on the planet, the time that he could have spent in his lab, actually working on something important, Sheppard, instead of wasting my time on this... Ronon grunts in what might be agreement, and Teyla says, "We could not know this without making the journey."

And John's hands, on the jumper controls, shake harder, making the ship dip, left–side then right–side.

"Oh, great, and now Colonel Flyboy's decided to show off his tricks, wonderful," Rodney complains, glaring at John.

"Didn't want you getting bored on the long flight," John says. "Since we don't have an in–flight movie." He clenches his hands harder on the controls, trying to still the tremors. This is ridiculous; he's flown in combat, with people shooting at him. He's flown with a bullet wound, though only once and not very far. A few tremors shouldn't be knocking him about like this.

The jumper dips again, then drops before he can pull it up. Behind him, Teyla gasps.

"What's wrong?" Rodney asks, diagnostic screens appearing in response to his curiosity. "I'm not seeing any –"

A shudder racks John's whole body, and the jumper lurches. "McKay." He shoves himself up, stumbling back into Teyla, who puts a hand out to steady him. "McKay, take over."

"Right. Of course." McKay scrambles into the pilot's chair and John would swear he can feel the jumper's relief.

"John, are you well?" Teyla asks. "Did you take your pills this morning?"

"Yeah." John takes a handful of wavering steps into the back of the jumper and sits very carefully on the bench. A moment later, he reconsiders and sits on the floor.

"What's going on?" Rodney asks.

"Concentrate on flying the jumper," John tells him, grinding the words out between gritted teeth and cursing the Gestaltians, again. The headache's already starting.

He's still shaking when they finally make it back to Atlantis, medical team waiting for him.


Carter comes down to the infirmary for the rest of the team to debrief, as much as is possible with John curled up in a shuddering, shaking ball in the corner. He contributes as much as he can, feeling the tremors slowly ease, Keller's pain–killers beating the headache down, but it's a somber affair.

Made even more so when Keller comes out of her office with her tablet and a grim expression.

"Putting the dose up again?" John asks. He's just about managed to sit up against the wall, but the random twitching portion of the attack has started. It's the worst part, as far as he's concerned.

"I wish it was that easy," Keller says. "But you're already on three times what you started on, and nearly twice the recommended dose. Any more, and we'll start putting you at risk of complications."

"Like what?" Ronon asks.

"Kidney problems. Liver problems, jaundice, hallucinations, dizziness, and increased risk of heart attack. Amongst other things."

That really doesn't sound good. "So what's the next step, Doc?"

"Honestly, Colonel? Right now, there isn't one."


John's been on Atlantis for four years; he believes in miracles, in last minute saves, in the impossible. He's lived all of them.

He also believes in small, random things that kill people; in the end you don't see coming, in the impossible–in–a–bad–way.

He believes the evidence of his own eyes, which tell him, two days after the jumper incident, that the shaking is permanent, and worse when he's near something that performs a function. That even the pills won't make it go away now. That he's best at the edges of the city, on the balconies, and worst in the control room. That he's living in a city he's becoming allergic to, and that, even if he could live without being able to fly, to use the control chair, or maybe even go through the gate, it wouldn't be enough.

Nobody says it, but they don't have to. He's already heard it, inside his own head.


It's been two and a half weeks, gotten to the point where John doesn't carry a gun because he can't aim any longer, dictates his reports because he misses more keys than he hits, when Carter calls him into her office.

"I'm so sorry, John."

He wants to tell her to stop.

"I've consulted at length with Drs Keller and Gluck, and Dr Lam at the SGC, and spoken to General Landry. I'm sorry, John, but there's no other option. You're being sent home."


Part Three:


The worst part of the bad attacks actually wasn't the convulsive shaking, the hours it took to stop, or even the headache. It was the aftermath, the leaden feeling in his limbs, the mess it left his coordination in, the sheer exhaustion. It totally sucked, and what made it worse was that he only had one injector, which meant a trip to the academy hospital for a new one, since the local pharmacy didn't carry experimental alien drugs.

Dr Chen at the academy hospital always managed to make John miss Dr Lam, which shouldn't have been possible. It was her brusque manner, he was pretty sure, or the way she never laughed at any of his jokes. Or maybe it was just the SGC that he missed, even though he'd pretty much hated it when he'd had to work there.

Something about wanting what he couldn't have, maybe. Since he wouldn't need the drugs if it wasn't for the SGC, they couldn't cut him loose completely, any more than John could remove himself from their orbit. They'd left it too late, sending him back to Earth; between the original injection, the exposure to Ancient technology, and the too–high levels of Keller's little blue pills, his system had gotten messed up enough that he'd be swallowing pills forever, just to stay functional.

He stopped off in Cripple Creek on his way home, figuring he might as well get it all over and done with. Mitchell's jokes about him turning into a hermit aside, he just wasn't up for dealing with tourists. The less time he had to spend in the city, the better.

Early afternoon on a Friday, and the main street was quiet enough that John didn't have to get too close to anyone. John wasn't sure he'd ever get used to crowds again. It was still weird to be able to go all day and not see a single familiar face. A single face.

He needed to get up on a ladder and repaint the walls, now the weather was warmer. He'd been lucky that the winter hadn't been too wet, really. Not that he had any paint. Or a ladder, and Chen would have a fit if she found out he'd been climbing one.

Maybe Mitchell would loan John his, if he had one. John was fairly sure he lived in a fifth floor apartment near the Mountain. Probably not a lot of use for a ladder there. Not that John couldn't afford to *buy* a ladder of his own. He just hadn't.

It could wait till his next trip into town, one he could make after checking the weather. Just because the sky looked clear, that didn't mean it wasn't going to start raining.

He nudged the door to the grocery store open with one hip, both hands occupied with brown paper bags. Mostly stuff he could throw together quickly, or microwave; an adult life spent in the military hadn't given him a lot of time to develop his culinary skills, and the constant risk of slicing his finger along with the carrots wasn't much of an incentive to try.

The coffee shop on the corner had apparently decided the nicer weather was sticking around, and put half a dozen tables out of the sidewalk. John stopped at the crosswalk, waiting for the light. They made good coffee there, and he could probably make it back to his car without either dropping his groceries or spilling coffee over himself.

He couldn't have said, later, what made him look back at the tables, but whatever it was, he found himself looking right at a young woman, bottle in one hand, her other arm round the baby on her knee.

She didn't look anything like Teyla – too young, too tall, skin and hair too dark – but John couldn't pull his eyes away.

Teyla brought Tagan to the mess sometimes, sat just like that with him at their table. Rodney always complained, but John wasn't the only one who angled for his turn at feeding mashed carrots to Tagan while Teyla ate her own food. Tagan still loved Ronon best of the three of them, utterly entranced with his dreadlocks, even if he did mostly show it by trying to chew on them.

Keller always came to sit with them when Tagan was there, batting his little hands away from Ronon's hair and smiling at Ronon. Sometimes Lorne joined them as well; he and Teyla had formed some kind of bond while she and John had been fighting about her coming on missions, and Teyla always smiled at him. John and Rodney had bet their allocation of coffee on the Daedalus over when the two of them would finally sleep together, allowing for Teyla's grieving for Kanaan.

"Young man," a female voice said to John's side. "You can walk, now."

John shook himself out of the memory, the edges of it still lingering, and forced a smile for the elderly lady frowning up at him. "Right. Thanks."

Maybe he'd just make coffee at home.


The weekend was basically a wash; John slept in till nearly noon both days, just because he could, and never got past sweatpants and the 'Geek Hierarchy' t–shirt Rodney had given him on his third birthday in the city. He had nothing to do, nowhere to go and no–one to see. He'd earned the occasional day slumped on the couch with the first season of ER on his DVD player, his one absolutely secret obsession, courtesy of an army lieutenant he'd gotten friendly with during a year in Frankfurt. Her partner had video–taped every episode and posted them out to her, and John had gotten hooked along with her.

Monday morning arrived with a return to the cooler temperatures of the last couple of months that drove John back into a hoodie for the first part of his run. It also, when he got around to turning on his computer, delivered him a half dozen new emails: one offering him a diploma from the university of his choice, one from Jake complaining about all the changes he'd made to the training guide, one from Dave with photos from the skiing holiday he'd taken his family on a couple of months ago, two different security and training companies asking him to give them his input, and one from Jeannie Miller, sent the day before.

John actually hovered over the last one, rather than consigning it immediately to the deleted file like he did every other email from a member of the McKay family. The subject line read simply 'News', which could be anything. Except that he'd been on Earth for four months and Jeannie hadn't emailed him once. John hadn't even known she had his email address.

She wouldn't put bad news in an email. Not unless she'd tried to phone him and not gotten through. Feeling like an idiot, not that there was anyone to see, John crawled under the table and checked that the phone was plugged in, then listened for the dial tone.

So, probably not bad news.

He still didn't know why Jeannie would be emailing him with good news. They'd only met once, when she'd come to Atlantis, and, okay, he'd helped rescue her from Wallace, but he was pretty sure that didn't make them friends. It certainly didn't explain why she'd start emailing him out of the blue a year later.

He hit delete.


The cold was still lingering the next day, along with intermittent bursts of rain rattling against John's windows. He'd turned the lights on when he got up and hadn't gotten around to turning them off again when he'd opened the curtains. He wasn't sure if the light was an improvement or not; it made the house seem warmer, but it also showed up all the empty space between his few belongings, the generic furniture he'd picked up when he'd moved in. The house had too many rooms, that was the problem; it was built for a family, with three big bedrooms and a room under the roof that could be converted for a young child. Even the garden was fenced in, keeping little people from wandering into the road. John didn't know why he'd bought it, not really. There had just been something about it, tall and thin, with a roof that only sloped in one direction, like the rest of the house had been cut away some time in the past.

Elk Gate Training had sent him stuff from the new outdoor survival training program they were developing, promising that it would draw on his experience in an engaging way. John thought the first thing they needed to do was buy a new dictionary; he hadn't thought it was possible to make survival training this boring, but apparently he'd been wrong. He'd been staring at the print–out for most of the morning, and he was still only on page twelve. If he hadn't known it would get back to O'Neill, and then to Mitchell, who'd start calling him up even more, worrying and fretting, John would have sent it back with a thanks–but–no–thanks message.

The knock to his door made him jump. He couldn't remember the last time someone had knocked his door, wasn't actually sure anyone ever had. The SGC knew his address, of course, but Mitchell was the only one who really spent any time with him, and he respected John's repeated failure to give it out.

Whoever it was knocked again as John put his laptop down and pulled himself up off the couch. Probably a driver with a flat, wanting help to change it, or to use John's phone, given how spotty cell–service could be out there.

"Coming," John muttered, fumbling with the deadbolt, and opened the door.

"Finally," Rodney said.


The Daedalus is still on Earth, needing repairs, and the Apollo is providing back–up to a run on Ba'al's latest strong–hold. John's leaving through the gate, even though getting close to it, even shut down, makes him shudder and shake like he's on the verge of collapse.

There'll be a med–team standing by on the other side, when he goes through. In the morning.

He starts off walking the city in an attempt to find everyone and say goodbye. Lorne's going to be in charge until they send John's replacement, accepting the job awkwardly when John told him. He thinks everyone else seems sadder about him leaving than he is, or maybe they just show it more easily. He concentrates on keeping his hands from trembling when he shakes other people's, but he can't stop himself running his fingertips along the walls, drinking in the sensation of the city in the back of his head, even when it starts to make things worse.

He avoids Teyla's quarters, and Ronon's. They'll be at the gate in the morning, and he's not sure he's ever going to be ready to say goodbye. He's pretty sure he can't do it twice in twenty–four hours.

The door to Rodney's quarters opens when John touches the crystal. Unlocked, like Rodney was expecting someone. Expecting John, from the expression on his face when he looks up from his laptop. He closes it quickly, but not before John can see a half–played game of solitaire.

Rodney was waiting for him, even before John knew he was going to drop by, and that's enough to tell John that this is the right thing.

"What have you been doing?" Rodney demands, closing his warm hands over John's, like that will stop them shaking.

John pushes his hands free from Rodney's, wrapping them round his biceps instead. Rodney's face, when John meets his eyes, is confused, and John doesn't know how to explain. "Please," he says. "Please, Rodney, I want –"

The SGC don't want me, the Air Force don't want me, he wants to say. I said no because I wasn't willing to trade Atlantis, and now I have to.

"Okay," Rodney says, getting it, and leans in, and kisses John. It's sweet and soft and full of something they spent years ignoring, and it makes John shake harder. "Lie down," Rodney says against his mouth, maneuvering him over to the bed.

John ends up on the bottom, Rodney's bulk pressing him down, and it's good, it's perfect. Rodney's enough to hold him together, to keep him from flying apart like he wants to. He can't stop kissing, touching, trying to memorize everything and knowing he won't be able to. This has to last him an entire life–time, but he knows he'll forget. He always does. In a couple of years, it'll be more fantasy than memory, until he'll wonder if they ever did anything, or if he imagined the whole thing.

Rodney fumbles the buttons of John's black uniform shirt open, pushing the t–shirt underneath up, the whole lot bunching under John's arms. He doesn't want to stop kissing even to take it off, but Rodney pulls back. "Here. I want to see you."

"You too," John says, trying to close his trembling fingers round the hem of Rodney's t–shirt, then just shoving his hand underneath, bare skin against his.

It hurts, even more so when Rodney helps him off with the rest of his clothes, achingly tender, as Rodney crawls back up the bed, covering John's body with his own and nipping at John's neck. "How long?" he asks between kisses. John strokes his hands up Rodney's spine, over and over, compulsive. "Would you ever have...?" Rodney lifts his head again, kissing John hard, shoving his tongue into John's mouth and scraping his teeth over John's lower lip. John groans into it, pressing his hands into Rodney's back, trying to hold on. "I wish – oh, John."

John's got a mouth full of words, like love and sorry and please. He's got more regrets than he knows what to do with, just when he thought he'd left all of those behind on Earth, and the only thing he can do is rock his hip against Rodney's erection, trying to say it all without any words.

"Okay," Rodney says again, soft. "What do you want to do?"

John wants everything, and most of it twice, but he's run out of time. He rocks against Rodney again, catching his eye and asking. Just this, bodies pressed together, kissing and touching and not having to let go, not yet, not yet.

His orgasm crashes over him like a wave, like every nerve ending short–circuiting, and for a crazy moment, he wonders if this will fix him. Reset his nervous system so the thing that gave him Atlantis will stop trying to take it away. It was a mistake, an accident, from sitting in the chair to the injection on Gestalt; it was nothing, and he's had his whole life changed by random chance twice now.

This time hurts much more than he thought was possible.

Rodney rolls off him, reaching over the side of the bed for a discarded shirt – John hopes it's not his, then remembers that it really doesn't matter any more – and wipes them both off before settling onto his back. John rolls into him immediately, feeling Rodney's arms go round him. He never wants to move.

"I could come with you," Rodney offers quietly, stroking one hand up John's arm. "For a few days, while you get settled. So you're not –"

Alone, John thinks, so he's not alone, like he's going to be every day now, because his family, his closest, best friends, will be in another galaxy, and he'll never see any of them ever again. He's one of Tagan's honorary fathers, something between a godfather and a guardian, and Tagan will never know who he is. If – when – something happens, the first he'll know will be –. Except he won't know. He won't belong to the SGC any longer; he won't even have clearance to hear it.

"John?" Rodney says, sounding guilty and scared, "John," and John realizes his face is wet, and his throat is closing up, and he has no idea how he's going to survive this.


"I –" John said stupidly, then, "What are you doing here?" He remembered Jeannie's email. "Did something happen?"

"Everyone's fine," Rodney said. "Well, the Wraith are still out there, and of course there's always the risk of death at the hands of some of the least competent scientists that the SGC has ever seen, but no–one's any worse off than they usually are."

John sagged against the door slightly, knees wobbly with relief. Once he wasn't braced for bad news, he noticed that Rodney was wearing jeans, under his usual t–shirt and shirt combination. He couldn't remember ever seeing Rodney in jeans. "The data–burst isn't due till tomorrow."

"No, except that it's just been moved forward a day. Some ridiculous drive for bureaucratic efficiency by Landry, I assume." Rodney pulled his jacket closed with an exaggerated shiver. "Not that I'm not enjoying the chance to examine your front door, but it's not exactly temperate out here, and I've just traveled several light years, not to mention a road that could honestly use some maintenance. So perhaps you could, I don't know, let me in?"

"Sure," John said automatically, still trying to wrap his head round the abrupt change his morning had taken. It was pretty much the only excuse he had for not noticing until Rodney picked it up that Rodney had a large duffel bag with him, as well as the laptop case he never went anywhere on Earth without. "Taking a vacation?"

"Hmm?" Rodney looked down at the bag in his hand. "Something like that. You'd better have coffee, Sheppard."

John hesitated, looking out the open door. There was an unfamiliar car at the end of his driveway. It had to be a rental, though it didn't look new enough; it definitely wasn't from the SGC car pool, not in that shade of bright blue.

"Hello?" Rodney called, from John's kitchen, given the echo. "Guest here? I know you probably grew up with half a dozen servants to do this for you, but it's traditional to make coffee for your guest, not leave him to fend for himself."

"Forgot it was the maid's day off," John said, closing the door and following Rodney into the kitchen.

The bag had been abandoned in the corner of the door between the living room and the kitchen, the laptop case left on one of John's empty, spotless counters. Rodney himself was opening and closing each of John's cupboards. "Do you know you have almost nothing to eat in this kitchen?" he asked when John walked in. "Actually, you have almost nothing in this kitchen, period. Have you been recently burgled?"

"Not that I can remember," John said, leaning in the open doorway and watching Rodney. He hadn't changed at all from the last time John saw him. Or, rather, the sad, anxious cast of his mouth had eased, but that wasn't really a change. It was just a feature of Rodney being in John's kitchen on Earth, rather than Rodney watching him step through the gate and out of Atlantis.

"Well, good. Then you'll still have coffee. Come on, Sheppard, I didn't drive all this way to watch you lean on things."

John opened his mouth to ask why Rodney *had* driven all this way, but there was something in Rodney's expression that stopped him. Rodney was too tense for this to be a casual visit, there had to be more behind it. Which John wasn't going to get until Rodney decided to tell him. "Fine, coffee. Jeez, McKay, no–one ever tell you patience is a virtue?"

"Not in Pegasus it isn't," Rodney retorted, stepping back so John could get to the coffee machine. It let John turn his back to Rodney, long enough to hide the stupid smile he knew was on his face. He hadn't realized how much he missed being able to mention Pegasus, Atlantis. He'd expected it to hurt, and it did, but there was relief in there as well.

"Coffee's in the fridge."

Rodney sighed as though John had just asked him to cut off a limb, but John heard him open the fridge door, then close it. A moment later, Rodney's hand landed on his waist. John moved to the side, thinking Rodney was trying to step round him, and bumped into Rodney instead.

When he looked up, Rodney was looking straight at him, and the hand on his waist was more like an arm round him. He turned into it, unsure. Rodney smiled, slightly, and leant in and kissed him, slow and sweet.

He pulled away just as John got a hand up to his neck to hold him in place.

"Hi," Rodney said quietly, still smiling.

"Hi," John said back, not sure what expression was on his face, but fairly sure it wasn't a smile. The last time he'd been this lost and confused, he'd been sitting in a giant chair, under several hundred feet of ice, being told to think about where they were in the solar system.

Rodney blinked, the smile sliding away. "Sorry. Was that – should I not have done that?"

They were still standing in each other's arms, so close that John could feel Rodney's breath against his skin. "No," he said slowly. "You shouldn't not have done that. Just – what are you doing here?"

"Apparently, dying of thirst while I wait for you to make a cup of coffee," Rodney said, stepping back, the moment broken. "It's a good thing you were quicker than this when my life depended on it."

John bit back the urge to point out that Rodney hadn't been kissing him when his life depended on it, and turned the coffee machine on.


Rodney was as unimpressed with John's living room – couch, small table, desk chair, TV unit – as he was with John's kitchen, and equally as unimpressed with John's, okay, slightly over–run, back–yard. He still insisted on the full tour.

"This is the staircase," John said, just to be obnoxious, and gestured for Rodney to go first. The jeans actually fitted him, pulling tight as he stepped up.

"Your room?" Rodney asked, pushing open the right–hand door while John tried to remember if he'd made the bed that morning. "Ah, minimalist. What a refreshing change from the rest of your house."

"Hey," John said, mildly affronted. His bedroom had his bookcase, his stereo, a beanbag he'd picked up one a whim on his second trip into Cripple Creek.

Rodney ignored him, opening the other door. "You have an actual bath tub. I can't remember the last time I took a bath."

The five year old part of John's brain wanted to laugh, and the thirty–nine year old part wanted to make a joke about bubble bath and being a woman. He didn't get a chance to say either, Rodney already heading up the stairs.

"What's up – oh."

John followed him up, half–expecting to find bats had gotten in or something. What he found was Rodney, staring at the two empty rooms. As John watched, he turned to look up the final flight of stairs, the attic room just visible, then to look at John. "You have..." He pointed up the stairs. "That room is yellow."

John started to nod before he got it. Yellow, like a nursery. "Christ," he said, the word thick and choking.

He'd bought a house with room for his team. Rooms for Ronon and Teyla, and for Teyla's son, and no room for Rodney, because Rodney wouldn't need a room.

"John?" Rodney said, one hand on John's arm. "Maybe you should sit down. You've gone kind of pale."

"I'm fine," John said. He blinked, twice, and looked up at Rodney, trying out a smile. "I'm fine, everything's okay."

"Well, good," Rodney said uncertainly, hand still on John's arm. "Because I think you should take me out for lunch."


John waited for things to start making sense. Through the drive into town (in his car, because he'd been in a jumper with Rodney flying often enough to know he didn't want to be in a car with him driving). Through lunch at the Saddle Bar, where Rodney reminded the waitress three times about lemon in his drink. Through a walk to the grocery store, because Rodney had forgotten his shampoo and John's apparently wasn't up to his exacting standards. Through the drive back to his house, through several hours of television shows that he couldn't pay attention to, distracted by Rodney's closeness and low comments on the plot, the science, the characters, and, once, the hair–style choices. Through a dinner of microwave pizza.

He thought maybe Rodney would say something – would explain – when it got dark, and John started making noises about turning in for the night, but he just looked at John's couch and said, "I guess I can sleep here. Not that my back will thank me in the morning, but I wasn't planning on you not having any guest beds after four months."

"I'll take the couch," John said. "You can have my bed."

"Or we could just share," Rodney offered, looking intently at the coffee mug in his hand, instead of at John on the other end of the couch.

"I don't think that's such a good idea," John said. He felt like an idiot saying it, and even more so given the kiss in his kitchen, but he couldn't stop the words. He didn't understand what Rodney was doing in his house; he didn't even understand what *he* was doing in this house, not any more, and he wasn't ready to start something that would have to finish in a few days. Saying goodbye was going to be hard enough already.

"No, I suppose you're right," Rodney agreed, sounding disappointed but not surprised. He stood up. "So, um, goodnight, then."

John stood up as well, except Rodney had already taken a step to walk round the couch, and it brought them too close together. He could smell Rodney's soap, the faint musk of too many hours traveling, feel Rodney's warmth. Something inside him ached to get closer; he felt himself leaning in and forced himself to stop.

"John?" Rodney said, low.

"Why are you here?" John asked; it came out broken and confused, and he couldn't look at Rodney.

It didn't matter. Rodney's hands were on his arms, pulling him close, until John had to put his arms round him. "I'm here for you," Rodney said quietly into his hair. "Don't you get it yet?"

"No," John said, helpless and lost.

Rodney's sigh of disgust was utterly familiar. "I don't know why I bother," he said, pushing John to sit down on the couch again. "Stay there, don't move."

John wasn't sure what he expected Rodney to come back from the kitchen with; alcohol, maybe. The conversation seemed to need it.

He definitely wasn't expecting the stack of printed pages that Rodney thrust into his hand.

"What are all these?" he asked, turning them the right way up.

Rodney sat down on the other end of the couch again, staring determinedly at the blank television screen. "I assume you haven't forgotten how to read while you've been living out here in the middle of nowhere."

"I've been practicing," John said, deadpan. It sounded strange, out of place in his empty house.

"So read them." Rodney still wasn't looking at him, the side of his face oddly expressionless. For possibly the first time since meeting him, John had no idea what Rodney was thinking, no idea where he was going with this.

The first few papers were a contract – Rodney's contract of employment to the SGC – with a memo on the front asking him to sign the amended version. It was dated a week ago, but the memo was printed on the SGC's preferred blue paper. It must have been held on Earth for Rodney; they must have known he was coming back.

John put it aside, frowning his way through the next of the papers; a confirmation of resumed residence in an apartment in Colorado Springs; an email from Rodney's neighbor about returning his cat; an email from the SGC, agreeing to Rodney's relocation, and proposing that he gate to Atlantis once a month, rather than the suggested every two.

"I don't understand," John said. There were more papers, mostly emails, but the whole thing was starting to make some kind of sense, almost, and he didn't want to keep going. Not until he knew if he was right.

Rodney shifted round to face him, taking back the papers. "Honestly, you weren't this dim–witted in Atlantis," he said, frowning. "Here." He shoved a piece of paper at John; it was an email to Rodney, from Mitchell, of all people. John only caught a handful of phrases – didn't stick around...feel if it was you? – before the paper was snatched away, replaced with another one. From Cadman, this time: Stop bugging me, McKay, I'm not going to just turn up on his

Carter: send really interesting items on the Daedalus

Landry: sure we can come to a mutually... always happy to have an expert in Ancient technology

Jeannie: knows where we are, Meredith... sure he has his reasons for not replying

Mitchell, again: not trying to be his friend for you, McKay. Tell him your damn self.

Caldwell's XO: confirm that you will be sending twelve boxes unaccompanied on the Daedalus from Atlantis to Earth. Please ensure

"Do you get it now?" Rodney asked, papers going in all directions as he threw his hands up, apparently in despair at John.

Who did get it, sudden and clear; all the people who'd been in on this, all the people Rodney had contacted in an attempt to keep track of John. "Maybe I should have read some of your emails," he said, his voice coming out scratchy, like he hadn't used it in months. He hadn't, really.

"That would have been a good start," Rodney agreed. He swept all the papers together again, shuffling them with more attention that it really needed.

"I thought –" John said. "You're always telling us that Atlantis will collapse without you, that you're going to get a Nobel Prize out of what you're doing there." Once it's declassified, Rodney's voice added in his head.

"As it turns out, Zelenka might be almost as good as me. Especially with Colonel Carter there." Rodney's chin went up. "I can do just as good work on Earth, without the daily threat of sudden and unpleasant death." John thought that last part was a little optimistic, based on his six weeks working in the Mountain, but it didn't seem the moment to say so.

Rodney finally finished shuffling the papers and put them on the floor. When he sat up again, he was much closer to John than he had been, watching him intently. John really wanted to look away.

"It's not the same without you," Rodney confessed quietly. "We don't – Colonel Elkerton doesn't go through the gate, and there's no–one who fits into the team right. We haven't been on a mission in weeks, not as a team. I mean, Ronon's like the hired muscle of Atlantis, he's always being dragged out with one team or another, and Teyla's started doing some diplomatic runs, but there's no scavenging for ZPMs and running away from crazy people with spears."

"You always complained about that," John pointed out. Usually loudly and at great length.

"Yes, well, apparently you turned me into the kind of person who likes running for his life. And it's not – we lost Elizabeth, and Carson, and now you. Being there wasn't any fun any more."

"Fun," John repeated. Rodney McKay had given up the lost city of the Ancients to work in the Mountain, on a planet that hadn't been home to either of them in four years, because his old job wasn't any fun.

"And I missed you, all right?" Rodney snapped. "You're one of my best friends, and I finally got to sleep with you after wanting to for years, right before you left, and –"

"I get it," John said quietly. All the times he'd turned to say something to someone who wasn't there; the first month on Earth, when he'd bought apple juice instead of orange; the emails he hadn't been able to delete completely, waiting for the day when he'd be able to read them... He wasn't sure he could have given up Atlantis for all that, but maybe he would have, if he'd had the choice.

"I missed you," Rodney said again. "More than I ever missed Atlantis when we had to leave. And Teyla and Ronon both have standing permission for a trip to Earth twice a year, more if the midway station stays working this time, it's part of my new contract with the SGC."

John knew what he should say, the words in the back of his throat, waiting to be spoken. Except he'd always been better at doing than explaining. He caught Rodney's face between his hands, watched Rodney's eyes go wide with surprise, and leant in and kissed him, as softly and as carefully as he knew how.

The shudder when Rodney put his arms round John, pulling him close, was totally because he hadn't taken his evening pills on time. That was John's story and he was sticking to it.

At least his bed was big enough, this time.

Next: Saturday Afternoon

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