PG-13 for coitus interruptus

Sheppard/McKay, Dixon/Little Squirrel, Dixon/Manilow, Zelenka/Sheppard, Weir/Zelenka, Beckett/2 Squirrels, Big and Little.

And for my excuse, I'll point you to the immortal wisdom of William Shakespeare:

And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.


ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT



"You'll never guess what Atlantis has," Rodney asserted as he burst into the conference room, laptop under his arm.

"Roller coaster?" Sheppard offered hopefully.

Angling his head in that, "Why are you interrupting me? Oh, and you're an idiot but thanks for playing," kind of way, Rodney said, "No." Then he blinked rapidly like he was scanning the city schematics on his internal screen. "Well, maybe, somewhere on the south pier." Then he blotted Sheppard out of his mental landscape and turned to Weir, just as Zelenka caught up to him, stumbling through the door, out of breath.

"Rodney, the power--" he began, but Rodney batted his free hand in the air between them like Zelenka was a mosquito.

"What does Atlantis have?" Weir asked.

She had that wry sort of down-turned smile that meant she was feeling indulgent and amused and all of that completely against her will. Sheppard stole a glance at the two scientists, both of whom were pulling themselves up straighter in an attempt to claim more of that grin. Zelenka's hair was sticking straight out on one side like he'd had his fist tangled in it. Of course, he'd been holed up with Rodney since yesterday, so go figure, but the mad-scientist look was no match for Rodney's gleeful geek face, which, with the tight little grin and sparky eyes, made him look practically impish. The word "imp" led Sheppard's brain directly to "naked" somehow and he looked at his hands folded on the table top and counted to thirty in multiples of 1.8.

"An AI," Rodney answered with a finger stabbing the air and a puffed up chest like he'd invented it himself.

"Two AIs," Zelenka corrected.

"Yes, yes, two AIs, I'm getting to that."

"You are getting too slowly, and the power--"

"This is huge," Rodney went on, blotting Zelenka out too. Sheppard mentally made room in the cone of silence for him.

"By AI you mean artificial intelligence, right?" Weir leaned forward, interested, but her eyes were a little wary. "So what does that mean for us, exactly?"

"Well, first they take over Skynet and then they start to exterminate humankind," Sheppard answered, avoiding Rodney's corrosive glare.

"What is it with you and terrible science fiction?"

Sheppard did a face shrug, leaned back in his chair and threw his arm over the back of it in that way that showed off his pecs. At least he was out of the cone of silence for a second.

"It means," Rodney went on--and Sheppard had to grin a tiny little bit when Rodney's gaze dragged a little, leaving the pecs-display reluctantly as he turned back to Weir--"That there's an interface with Atlantis's systems that we can access. That means no more stumbling around in the Ancients' Byzantine archival system. Now, you can just ask and the AI will deal with the query." Rodney turned back to Sheppard and Sheppard closed the hand of his dangling arm into a fist so that his bicep hardened.

"The power draw is enormous," Zelenk interjected.

"Which is why we weren't able to access the AIs until we got the ZPM."

"Also, they are firewalled from the rest of the system."

"Firewalled? Why?" The wariness in Weir's eyes stepped up front and centre, displacing indulgence and amusement.

"Skynet," Sheppard sing-songed not quite under his breath, earning him another scorching glare from Rodney, who in turn earned another flexed bicep.

"Like Zelenka said, the power drain is significant. If the Ancients wanted to keep the city shield online for ten thousand years, they would have put the AI on standby. That feeling you get, Major, when you access certain systems--"

"The whispering."

"Yes. That's apparently a very attenuated version of the AI. So attenuated that it doesn't actually register as an avatar, and only someone as sensitive as you is likely to be able to detect it."

"Okay, that makes sense," Weir nodded thoughtfully. "But you said there were two of them?"

"Redundancy," Rodney explained promptly. "The Ancients were big on redundancy."

Zelenka looked less certain. "Maybe it is redundancy. I am not so sure yet. And the isolation of the programs from the general systems is troubling, I think." He ignored Rodney's eyerolling. "I'm wondering if there is another reason for the programs being offline, something other than power allocation." His voice went dark with unvoiced implications. Sheppard added a mental music sting.

"Which you are going to investigate thoroughly before bringing the AI, either of them, fully online," Weir stated in that way she had of making orders into prefab consensus.

"Of course," Rodney said, stopping short of "duh." "For that we'll need Sheppard, since he has the greatest sensitivity." A flicker of a gaze across the pecs again. Sheppard kept his face blank as could be. "And Beckett would be helpful, too."

"Alright." Weir sat up straight and gathered them up in her accessible yet fully in command leader-for-the-new-world-order smile. "Keep me informed."

Zelenka stood up even straighter when Weir's smile landed near him, but then Weir was leaving and Zelenka was slouching out, and Rodney was standing over Sheppard hooking a thumb toward the door.

"After you, Major," he said, the words gracious and the voice and posture impatient. "Time to go meet Atlantis."

As he rose and passed by Rodney, Sheppard was careful to let his shoulder brush across Rodney's chest, and when Rodney's eyes closed for just a second, Sheppard grinned.

"I hope Atlantis knows I don't put out on the first date," he said as Rodney followed him out of the conference room.

"Is that a fact," Rodney said, clearly unconvinced.

^^^

A part to tear a cat in.

Teyla let out a slow breath and breathed in again, closed her eyes and listened. Far, far away, where her self became tenuous and thin as a gauze veil, she could sense the faint agitation of the Wraithmind, but closer, in the familiar spaces that she could conjure as a wavering picture in her mind's eye, there was only the constant hiss of the ocean and the hiatus of a trapped breath. Dr. McKay had assured them all that the shield could breathe, that the wind would still make its way to Atlantis, but there was a difference in the texture of silence now. Teyla was going to miss the birds.

She turned at the sound of boots in the hallway outside her quarters, an unfamiliar gait, long in the stride, heels that struck the tile like they were making a point. A moment later, the owner of the boots filled up most of the doorway.

"Greetings, Colonel...." Teyla narrowed her eyes as she tried to remember the name.

"Dixon," he answered with a tap of two fingers to the brim of his cap.

She nodded. "Ah, yes of course. From the Daedalus."

"Yep."

He stood with his feet spread, weight on his heels, thumbs hooked in his pockets. Teyla looked up at him--he was at least a foot taller than her--and watched his eyes and the angle of his shoulders. She'd definitely feint to the right and attack left. But then again, he'd be tricky; the handedness he was showing was probably a feint itself. Mostly unconsciously, she aligned herself for defense, centred over her feet, ready to go in any direction. She could get under the reach, probably, since he most likely relied on that, a dependency that could be exploited, although he was probably faster than he looked. Not all giants were lumbering. Tilting his head back a little so that his strong jaw was out-thrust, throat exposed more than she'd recommend, he looked down at her, chewing on a tiny stick of wood at the corner of his mouth. His centre of gravity shifted subtly in response to the change in hers.

Teyla waited for him to elaborate. He kept chewing.

"You've come to replace Colonel Everett?" she asked at last.

Taking the stick out of his mouth, he shook his head. "Naw. Shore leave." He put the stick back and chewed.

Out in the hallway there was a rapid drumming of footsteps and Lt. Ford arrived, pulling up short of colliding with the colonel, who was still taking up most of the doorway.

"Colonel," Ford said, a little breathlessly. "You were looking for me?"

"That I was, Lieutenant, about two centuries ago."

"Sorry, sir, I was--"

"I'm a big man," Dixon said to Teyla.

She raised an eyebrow. "Yes, that is true."

Coming into the room a little ways, he stretched his arms wide like a king measuring his dominion. "I need space. I need scope." He dropped his arms. "You been inside the Daedalus?"

"No, I've not had the pleasure."

He snorted. "Pleasure my granny's ass. Living in that bucket is like camping out in grandma's crawlspace, only you have to keep your clothes ironed and your boots polished."

"There is no scope," Teyla offered, trying to figure out why this strange, large man was in her quarters talking about his granny.

He pointed a long finger at her forehead. "Bingo. Meanwhile, you guys are down here getting all the action." He mimed a machine gun following what she assumed was a Wraith dart across the sky, adding a "ratta-tat-tat" for extra effect and finishing with a finger-splayed imitation of a spectacular explosion. "And I'm up on the jalopy watching little dots on a screen. That ain't no occupation for a soldier, right soldier?"

"Right, sir!" Ford almost shouted, and shrugged at her from behind the colonel.

"Right, sir," Dixon repeated.

"Do you not fight a great enemy in your own galaxy, Colonel?" Teyla asked.

She knew he did. She'd heard about the Goa'uld and their slave armies and vast spaceships. In a rebellious part of her mind, she imagined the Wraith meeting a fleet of--what were they called?--ha'taks, the two enemies disappearing in a flash of mutual destruction. Ford had told her many stories of intrigue, guerrilla warfare, and narrowly averted doom. These stories were his precedents, the basis of his optimism in their own battles, and these acts of heroism were those against which he measured himself.

Dixon waved all of that away with a dismissive hand. "Yeah, been there, done that, had 'em stuffed and mounted over the mantle." Striding over to the open balcony door, he tossed the little stick over the edge and leaned on the railing, looking out at the sea and the faint iridescence of the shield shimmering where the wind stroked it. "The doctors are doctoring and the scientists are sciencing and the engineers are engineering and my ass is getting flat sitting in a chair watching little lights flashing on a screen." His big hands gripped the railing hard and his shoulders were hunched like he was prowling inside his stillness. "Right now, I need to do something. I need to see something. I need to find some cool Ancient doodad to bring home to the kids."

"You have children, Colonel?" Teyla pictured a row of shorter versions of Dixon, all in matching BDUs and chewing tiny pieces of wood.

"No. But I have superiors who are gonna lock me up in that goddamn bucket for the rest of my career unless I find some way to get myself re-assed."

Teyla tilted her head and considered his ass. She concluded that it was clearly above average. She frowned her question at Ford, who just shook his head and mouthed, "Later."

"Besides," Dixon concluded, coming back to loom over her. "Ford here is bored. Right, soldier?"

"I am, sir?"

"If I'm still the colonel, you are," Dixon answered and smiled down at Teyla. He had one of those "winning smiles," broad, with lots of teeth showing. Teyla was fairly certain that there were furred and taloned creatures on the mainland with similar grins.

"I'm bored silly, sir!" Ford shouted.

"Good!" Dixon clapped his hands and headed for the door, tapping his headset as he went. "Control, Dixon. Teyla and Lieutenant Ford and me are going to have a little stroll on the south pier."

In her headset, Teyla heard Gibbons respond, "That section was under water until about a month ago, Colonel. The engineers haven't surveyed it fully yet."

"Understood. Tell gramma we'll bring our waterwings."

^^^

O hell! To choose love by another's eyes.

As soon as the transporter doors closed, Rodney was in Sheppard's space, not that there was much in the way of space left, with Rodney pressed up against him like he was trying to disprove certain key physical laws about how two objects couldn't occupy--Sheppard managed to detach his lips from Rodney's and push him back, just as the transporter doors opened.

"Hey, watch it, McKay. Geez." Sheppard craned his neck to peer into the hallway outside. "Are you out of your mind?"

"Yes, thanks to you and the most obvious act of self-display outside of seedy bars called 'Badda-boom.'" He looked angry and hungry and there was a heat behind his eyes that made Sheppard go sparky in the brain. "All you need is a soundtrack. Bow chicka wow."

He started to lean in again, but Sheppard deked out of the way, ducked under his arm and stepped out of the transporter, back-pedaling with his hands held out, warding off. But Rodney wasn't following. He was staring stonily at the space Sheppard wasn't in any more.

"Are you trying to murder me, is that it?" he said to the wall in front of him. "Are you a Russian agent sent here to get revenge for that little incident with the reactor and the general's mahogany desk?"

"McKay--"

Rodney turned a baleful gaze on him. "Do you have any idea what this kind of unresolved sexual tension can do to the heart muscle of a man my age?"

"Your age? You're half a year younger than me. Don't be so dramatic."

"Teyla showed me how to throw a punch," Rodney said direly. "I know all about how to keep my thumb on the outside so that I don't break it when my fist connects with your face."

Sheppard laughed and realized even before he got to the last "ha" part that that was a bad idea. "Look, I was just playing around. Relax." He started to grin again and had to concentrate hard to get it under control. "Besides, you'd never land a punch. Teyla showed me how to duck."

Rodney closed his eyes for a second and then looked up at the ceiling. The transporter pinged; somebody was trying to transport in. Rodney didn't move. "Witness," he said formally to an invisible audience, "the mating call of the floppy-haired Sheppard." He put a hand up to the side of his mouth and crowed in a thin voice, "C'mere go'way, C'mere go'way!"

With a panicked look both ways down the corridor, Sheppard leaped back into the transporter and yanked Rodney's hand down. He leaned close to Rodney's face and growled, "Have you forgotten that I'm a major in the Air Force and that a guy shouting about my mating anything can earn me a courtmartial?" He let Rodney go and resisted wincing when Rodney rubbed his wrist with his other hand. "Now, I'm sorry for the teasing. I'm not perfect, and my heart muscle isn't doing so great these days either, but if you have a problem with the state of affairs--"

"The problem is the lack of affairs, actually--"

"--then take it up with The Man."

Now Rodney pulled himself up and thrust his face into Sheppard's like a coach going chin-to-chin with the ump. "Maybe I would take it up with The Man, Major, but The Man is inconveniently located very, very far away in the Milky Way Galaxy, which, incidentally, would seem to be an advantage in our situation."

"Yeah, well since the Daedalus arrived, the Milky Way got a lot closer."

That one landed with force. Rodney stepped back and leaned against the wall, his eyes focused on some other dimension.

Sheppard sighed and let the air take the fight out with it. "Look," he said quietly. "It's not the courtmartial. I don't give a shit about a courtmartial except that it would take me away from here. But there are a lot of jarheads on this station who would stop short of going for me because I'm ranking officer. Where do you think they'd go instead?"

Rodney kept staring. The transporter pinged again.

Letting out another sigh, Sheppard slumped against the wall, on the other angle of the corner so he could still see Rodney's face. "Why can't you just pick somebody who won't get your head bashed in? Why can't you just go for Weir like everybody else?"

"She's my boss," Rodney said without much feeling.

"She's everybody's boss, so, yeah, so you get rumours and raised eyebrows. Big deal."

"She's got a thing with Zelenka."

"No. Zelenka thinks she's got a thing with Zelenka. Elizabeth, I'm not so sure."

"Somehow I think she'd realize my heart's not in it. I don't think she'd take too kindly to being my beard."

Sheppard put his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor where the toes of his boots made a half-square with Rodney's. "Maybe if you asked nicely?" He didn't have to look up to know Rodney was glaring. "At least you'd have somebody," he concluded.

"I don't want 'somebody.' I want you." Rodney's voice was miserable, like he was confessing that he had a terrible disease and two weeks to live.

Reaching up without looking, Sheppard gripped him by the back of his neck and pulled him in until Rodney's forehead was resting against his collarbone, Rodney's breath hot against his neck.

"Seriously," Rodney muttered, his voice muffled by Sheppard's shirt, "I think I'm getting an arrhythmia."

Sheppard massaged his neck a little and let his attention be split between listening to Rodney breathe next to his ear, and checking for sounds of movement in the hallway. It was tiring; he felt like a rodent trying to find food while keeping one eye on the sky. Talk about strain on the heart muscle.

After a moment, Rodney started to straighten up, but Sheppard tightened his grip. Over Rodney's shoulder he looked at the schematic of the city on the control panel, the mostly dark section of the south pier. "I have an idea," he said.

^^^

How happy some o'er other some can be!

"Don't." Rodney said.

So Sheppard did.

"Didn't I just say 'don't?'"

Zelenka looked over the top of his glasses at them and kept typing.

The panel next to Sheppard went dark again as he took his hand off it. When Rodney shook his head with an under-the-breath, "Such a child," and turned back to his laptop, Sheppard looked at Zelenka with an elaborately casual expression and stretched out his index finger very slowly until it was a millimeter away from the panel again. Zelenka kept typing.

"I have excellent peripheral vision, Major," Rodney said.

Sheppard dropped his hand and slouched in his chair. "C'mon, McKay," he whined. "Either give me something to do or let me go do something useful. I'm an explorer, remember?"

Zelenka would have to have been blind to miss the way Sheppard's eyes darkened with significance there. He sighed and went back to trying to coax AI#2 out of its little box into a slightly bigger box. Come out, come out, come out to play, he thought to the wily program. Wrapped up and concealed in layers of deflecting code, it was either extremely shy or had an overly protective father. Zelenka wondered if there were a way to throw a pebble at her window. He switched screens.

"Fine," Rodney relented, but his gruff exasperation was fuzzy around the edges. His hand fluttered in the corner of Zelenka's eye. "Go. Go do some majory thing and get out of our hair before you get us killed for kicks."

"Killed for Kicks," Sheppard repeated dramatically as he headed for the door, "The Rodney McKay Story. Rated G." After a second, he came back and poked his head around the edge of the door. "I'll be reconnoitering the south pier if you need me," he announced and pointed at his headset. "Just whisper in my ear."

Again, that flutter of a hand as Rodney dismissed him, but when Zelenka cast Rodney a sideways glance, he found that the expected grimace of irritation was absent and a strange, small smile was in its place.

Zelenka sighed again gloomily and kept typing.

AI#2 flashed him a little thigh and then the encryption shut him out again. "Typical," he muttered.

They worked in silence for awhile, fingers playing the laptop keys like the two men were dueling pianists. Finally, Rodney sat back and glared at the screen.

"This should not be this hard. If the AI's were simply put on stand-by to conserve power, they should come on-line again when the power allocation is sufficient."

"Unless they were not simply put on stand-by," Zelenka suggested.

Rodney transferred the glare to Zelenka. "Please, don't start with the Skynet thing again." Spreading his arms, he took in the whole of the tiny lab, tastefully lit through amber windows overlooking the sea, control panels mostly dark but their crystals gleaming in the slant of sunset. "These are the Ancients. Isn't it more likely that the problem is with our primitive interface?" He jabbed an accusing finger at the laptop screen.

With a one-shouldered shrug of agreement, Zelenka tapped a few more characters and let his hands drop to his lap. He wasn't even getting a glimpse of ankle now. "If only...." he began, and let the wishful thinking hang in the air like the alluring iridescence of impossible things.

As one they swiveled around in their chairs and looked at the far wall. In the centre of it was what looked like a tiny volcano surrounded by a circular escutcheon of stylized lava. From their low angle they could just make out the occasional flash of light from its interior. The two men stared wistfully at it for a long moment before shaking themselves physically back to their better judgment. They swiveled back to their primitive interfaces and stared at them glumly for a little while.

"Even if that," Rodney hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the escutcheon, "isn't networked to the main archives--"

"--and only incorporates this small database--"

"--it would be crazy to attempt--"

"Crazy and dangerous."

Slowly they turned and looked over their shoulders again.

"Not going to happen," Rodney asserted forcefully.

"No. It is not an option," Zelenka agreed.

They went back to typing, Zelenka cooing encouragingly in code to his AI, Rodney no doubt browbeating and badgering his.

"Still," Rodney mused, "it would be cool. If it didn't melt your brain."

"Yes. And sometimes dreams come true." Zelenka chased the shadow of the lady down a winding corridor, screen to screen to screen. "For some people."

The clatter of Rodney's keys continued for a few seconds and then slowed to silence. "I'm sorry, did that conversation just come off the rails?"

"Don't be coy," Zelenka said, aiming that at Rodney, but also at the AI, who--which--was peering out teasingly from between the balcony curtains. He could almost hear Rodney blinking at him.

"What?"

Zelenka tilted his head toward the doorway. "Him," he said. "Major Pecs and Biceps." Rodney was still blinking, only now with a little more alarm than confusion. His hand came up and tapped at his headset, making sure it was off. As a show of good faith, Zelenka did the same. He turned to face Rodney and folded his arms. "Don't worry. It is only glaringly obvious to someone paying attention."

Rodney's mouth was hanging open. "Oh," he managed after several seconds. "That's good." As his eyes darted around the room, he started nodding and kept nodding for awhile, until his eyes snapped back to Zelenka's face. "Why are you paying attention?"

After sucking in a weary, woebegone breath, Zelenka indulged in a weary, woebegone sigh. "Because I am stoically tabulating the unfairness of this life so that I may calculate my karmic payback in the next one."

The blinking started again. "Was that supposed to make sense outside your head?"

"Only if irony can be counted as a kind of sense." Zelenka held up a hand. "Stop blinking, please. I will explain for the challenged among us. Here you are basking every day in the sunshine of Dr. Weir's attention, and all along you are--" He wobbled a hand back and forth. "And still you have all and we have none. The cosmos has a perverse sense of humour."

Rodney looked dumbfounded. His eyes started searching the inside of his brain again, although they seemed to be following a moth around the room. When he regrouped, he held up three fingers. "Okay, first of all, never, ever in my life have I been accused of stealing all the action. The whole idea is so far beyond my experience I don't even have a conceptual frame to process it. Which brings me to point number two: I'm not even getting any action, a situation that I'm fairly certain has serious medical consequences. I mean look at me. I'm pasty."

"You are always pasty."

"This is the pasty of soul-rending despair." The small, strange smile made a brief appearance. "Although, if the Major's recon goes well, tonight I might be getting some--"

"--action."

"--timely therapeutic intervention." He went misty-eyed for a moment before pulling himself back to his taxonomy. "Finally, Elizabeth and I have a strictly professional relationship. Friendly, sure, but there's no action there, believe me."

Zelenka frowned sourly. "You are disingenuous."

"I am so not disingenuous."

"You are! I was in conference room. I saw the pecs-and-biceps show and I saw how when Dr. Weir's smile comes your way you puff up like displaying partridge!"

"Oh please! Are you being deliberately obtuse?" Rodney looked at him like he was being deliberately obtuse. "Did it ever occur to you that the reaction to the latter is a cover for the former?"

Zelenka thought about it, and then, conceding, made his shrug again. "Alright. Alright. Perhaps my knowledge of closet strategy is less developed than my gaydar."

"Perhaps," Rodney agreed cooly, but there was a hint of a crooked smile at the end of it.

"But perhaps your strategy is too convincing, yes? Perhaps Dr. Weir is taken in."

"I doubt it."

"How can she not? You save her from Genii gunmen."

Rodney held up a finger. "One. One Genii gunman. One time. You would have done the same thing."

"But this is precisely the point. There is never opportunity to do the same thing. You are alpha and omega. She goes to you first and last. Her alarm clock malfunctions and she calls for Rodney McKay, all stormy blue eyes and tallness, and now with field experience and muscles." Zelenka pinched Rodney's arm, making him mouth a silent "ow." "The shadow of your enormous head is so great it blots out everyone else."

Rodney went back to dumbfounded blinking. Zelenka went back to sighing.

"Okay. Okay, look," Rodney began hesitantly, his brain obviously just one syllable ahead of his mouth. "You're not in my shadow. You do plenty. Like when you found the control pathways when the jumper was stuck in the gate. Okay, granted, I was the one that finally narrowed it down to the correct pathway, but you helped. And the computer virus. If Atlantis had fallen to the Wraith, that virus would've been essential. Thank goodness it wasn't needed, of course, but still. And the Ancient database and how you modified my compression--that was partly because my data compression protocol is really, really elegant, sure, and I would've done it differently, but--" He waved a hand. "Never mind. The point is--"

Zelenka stared at him, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"What?"

A knowing grin curled up the side of Zelenka's mouth and he raised his eureka finger. "This is not sex."

Rodney was taken aback. "This?" He waggled a finger between them. "God, I hope not, or all those dirty magazines I've been reading are setting me up for an unprecedented letdown."

"Rodney McKay is not so generous with credit because of the prospect of mere sex." When Rodney opened his mouth to protest, Zelenka aimed the eureka finger at him, right between the eyes. "Ah! Ha!"

Rodney's gaze started to chase moths again, but suddenly fixed over Zelenka's shoulder instead. "Ah, Carson's here, thank god."

"Well, it's nice to be appreciated," Beckett said from the doorway.

"Yes, yes," Rodney agreed as he turned back to his laptop. "Stand over there and don't touch anything until you're asked.

"It would be nice, that is," Beckett amended and wandered into the room.

Smiling a greeting at Beckett, Zelenka also turned back to his screen and tried to remember where he'd last caught a glimpse of the elusive AI#2. Beside him, Rodney typed furiously in between pauses to look at his watch. Leaning over to look at Rodney's screen, Zelenka pointed. "That should be backslash," he suggested.

"I know it should be a backslash, thank you, Dr. Buttinsky." Rodney erased a line of code and retyped it.

Zelenka pointed. "That should still be a--" Rodney's glare made him snap his mouth shut. He considered a moment, then closed his hand over Rodney's. "Why don't you take a break?" he suggested, following it up with wink.

Rodney looked longingly at the door, then equally longingly at the laptop, then back at Zelenka. "But--"

"Maybe you should take a walk on the pier. Get some exercise."

"Always good advice," Beckett chimed in from across the room.

"But--"

"I promise we will discover nothing of importance here until tomorrow."

Rodney started to say "but" again. Instead, he got up and bolted from the room.

"And good-bye to you, too," Beckett grumbled.

"He has been inside too long," Zelenka explained. "Cooped up. He is pasty."

Beckett didn't bother belabouring the obvious and Zelenka let himself be absorbed by the streaming numbers on his screen. He was close now. Ju-ust around the corner. He could almost smell her perfume.

"What's this then?"

As he was turning to see what Beckett meant, Zelenka's eye was caught by Rodney's screen, where the yellow code on black background was gone, replaced by the dancing architecture of unprocessed Ancient dataflow. A quick check of his own screen showed the same. It lasted only for a second, and then the regular displays hopped, jittered and settled back into place. Paging backward and forward, Zelenka could find no record of the anomaly on either computer. "Stra-ange," he drawled.

"Huh," Beckett added.

When Zelenka turned around, he found Beckett standing directly in front of the escutcheon. "Doctor! Please, back away."

Beckett looked at him with alarm and leaped backward like he'd been zapped with high voltage. "What? What is it?"

Getting up, Zelenka took Beckett's arm and pulled him across the room. "Do you know what this is?"

"Should I?"

"This is an Ancient archive neural interface."

Beckett looked confused. Then his eyes widened in panic and he jabbed the air in the direction of the escutcheon. "That! You mean one of those head-suckers that almost killed General O'Neill?" He swirled a finger next to his ear. "Rewrote his brain." He let Zelenka lower him into Rodney's seat. "Oh good god."

Zelenka sat down in his own chair and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. "Did it do anything?"

"Do anything?"

"Yes."

"You mean did it suck my head?"

"Yes."

Beckett stared at the interface. "No," he answered at last. "No, it didn't."

"You are sure."

Beckett gave him an annoyed look. "Son, I think I'd remember getting my head sucked."

^^^

You may do it extempore, for it is nothing but roaring.

"What a good leader's gotta be is a whatchacallit." Dixon snapped his fingers at Ford like he expected the lieutenant to pull the word out of his vest and hand it to him, on the double. "Like Henry the Eighth."

"The guy with all the wives?" Ford asked, only slightly less mystified than Teyla.

Dixon detoured around a wide puddle and paused to aim his flashlight over the balcony railing into the gloom below where they could hear water dripping steadily. Beneath them, an atrium was still filled almost to the tops of the access doors with water. The flash reflected back at them and sent gleams and rippled shadows up the walls.

"Renaissance Man," Dixon concluded finally and led them on down the gangway into the next building. Ford followed and Teyla brought up the rear. "You know, someone who can do everything. Languages, strategy, diplomacy, set a real sweet tripwire." He turned and tossed a grin at Ford. "Blow stuff up, artistic like."

Ford's grin was as bright as his flashlight. "Yeah," he agreed enthusiastically.

"Do you speak many languages, Colonel?" Telya asked as Dixon stopped at an intersection and considered which way to go. She pointed left and he set off that way with a nod.

"Nope," he answered, turning on his heel and aiming a finger gun at her. "Don't usually have to." His face went suddenly grim, full of new shadows. "At least, not in the shit-storms my teams get dropped in."

He turned on his heel and strode ahead of them in silence for a little while, aiming his light down the intersecting hallways. After a few minutes, he stopped and slapped his hands together. "Clap on!" he said loudly. Nothing happened. "I thought this city was supposed to light up when somebody with the gene was around."

"This pier was pretty badly damaged in the storm, sir," Ford said.

^^^

How now, spirit, wither wander you?

Beckett was heading for the infirmary. He really was heading for the infirmary. He had things to do in the infirmary. Important, doctory things. And dinner, which was a sandwich of undefined mainland meat that had been mercilessly boiled to a perfect, uniform grey, just like he liked it, and topped with something resembling Dijon mustard, only it was green instead of yellow. He'd been thinking about the sandwich--actually, he'd been having a sort of soft-porn fantasy about the sandwich--while on the way to the tiny lab to help Rodney and Zelenka with the AI, but he'd stopped thinking about it when he'd heard the two scientists talking about Major Pecs and Biceps. Then, he'd come up short outside the door, hovering uncertainly between being a barger-in and an eavesdropper. Dithering for too long, he'd defaulted, entirely by accident, to eavesdropping. And after that, he decided he really had to get out of the infirmary more often and start paying attention to the intricate mating dance that was apparently going on all around him without his knowledge.

Sure, after the end of the Wraith attack, when they'd brought the major to the infirmary, he'd found Rodney hyperventilating in a corner, his jacket sleeve wet with tears where he'd used it to smother the sounds he made, but Beckett had somehow missed what was really going on there; after all, the man had spent nigh two weeks higher than a gull and the crash was never going to be pleasant, so the doctor couldn't be faulted for missing the subtext. It hadn't occurred to Beckett that what he saw in Rodney's eyes wasn't just the panicky freefall that comes from the sudden release of soul-crushing pressure and fear, but also the mind-derailing relief of finding a loved-one alive when he'd fully convinced himself to accept his death. Becket had sedated Rodney and left him to sleep it off in the bed next to Sheppard's, and if he came back hours later to find Rodney snoring loudly in a chair with his head at a painful angle against its back and his fingers wrapped around Sheppard's wrist, well, who would've seen that as anything other than a need to hold on? It had been quite the ride. Time would help with their post-traumatic symptoms, and a return to the stability of routine would take care of that lingering sense of unreality and contingency that had eroded their world of late.

But there ain't no cure for love. Or so he'd heard.

Smiling a little ruefully, Beckett hopped into the transporter and raised a hand to tap the infirmary. Tingling a little, his fingers slipped across the city graphic and poked at the central tower transporter instead.

And Zelenka and Weir? Well, with Rodney out in the field and, later, gone to the satellite, Weir had had to depend on Zelenka the way she'd used to depend on Rodney. And Zelenka seemed capable of shouldering that weight, facing one hopeless situation after another with that staunch, slope-spined-in-the-interminable-headwind determination of a people used to standing in line for toilet paper and finding it gone when they got there. Dr. Weir had seemed to pick up a couple of Zelenka's mannerisms over the long days leading up to the Wraith attack, a way of sighing that somehow meant resignation without capitulation, the worn-away bits showing the steel inside. If she'd worn glasses, she'd have learned to slip them off and rub her eyes while holding the glasses by one arm between her knuckles. Instead, she pinched the bridge of her nose, leaned into the headwind, and trudged on.

Now, their babies would be smart and more sociable than Weir-McKay offspring, and this was for certain. Beckett allowed himself a little shudder at the thought of Weir's canny diplomacy and deal-brokering diploids concatenating with McKay's impatience and arrogance and crackling lateral thinking to produce something too dangerous to be borne.

As the doors of the transporter closed, Becket chuckled and shook his head. Only, only on Atlantis could the romantic energy of jealousy and desire coalesce around a McKay and a Zelenka. Atlantis was like math club writ large, where the geeks became kings. Another little shudder ran through him when he thought of what the two men could get up to if they were really the type to use their prodigious powers for evil instead of good. Weir would have her hands full, and that was a fact. Hell hath no fury like a physicist-who-builds-bombs-for-fun spurned. Not that--

The lights went out.

The transporter doors did not open.

His eyes going wide, Beckett said, "Now, then, that's not supposed to happen."

Something inside him reminded him not to panic, and he nodded. Good advice. He tapped his headset. "This is Beckett, in the transporter, which is apparently broken with me in it." No reply. He blew out a breath and thought about not panicking. It was very, very dark and quiet and still. And then he thought about being trapped in an elevator and how being trapped in a transporter wasn't precisely the same thing because in an elevator, your body doesn't get atomized, turned into ones and zeros, and reconstructed elsewhere; in fact, he realized suddenly in that way you realize things that you've been trying hard never to realize, it was only a happy illusion that you stayed whole and in one place while Atlantis spun and restructured itself around you so that your destination appeared magically outside the transporter doors. In those few seconds that your brain conveniently smoothed over with a patch of forgetting, you were nothing but code jumbled up in all the code that ran Atlantis--automatic door openers, lights, defense shield, communications--Beckett wasn't doing so well in the not-panicking department, if his heart-rate was any indication.

On the upside, he told himself firmly, he had a heart-rate, and code didn't. So he wasn't code, and the darkness was just a product of the lights being out and not due to his eyes being dematerialized and lost in non-space. Good. "Don't panic," he sang to himself aloud, just to double check that his vocal chords were still there, too. He wondered what Rodney would do. Tap the screen again. If you click with the mouse and the computer ignores you, click again, assertively and with feeling. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard Rodney scoff.

But an imaginary Rodney scoffing was, he would think in retrospect, the least of his problems, because, when he reached out to grope for the city schematic on the wall, he felt something groping for him.

Letting out a little squeal of horror, he leaped back into the corner.

"Who's there?" he asked more tremulously than he would admit in company. He wanted to go to the infirmary. The nice, brightly lit infirmary.

Something groped for him again, and then something else groped for him and he batted the air in front of him and connected with... nothing but the air in front of him. And then the groping got a little more insistent, like blind tentacles, like somebody trying to type while wearing oven mitts. Grope grope gibberish gibberish grope. And then, suddenly, in Beckett's own voice, only blurrier and gropier and clumsier, like a vocal equivalent of typing wearing oven mitts:

Me

and then:

No, me

and then:

Mine

and then:

No, mine

and then:

Mine!

and then, something like squirrels wrestling in a box of bubblewrap, followed by what could only be described as a sort of flouncing exit.

Leaning heavily against the wall, Becket pressed his fists to his temples. "Er... ow?" he wondered. Then there was more groping and a firm, fingerless grip on the shoulder of his psyche.

He let out another little squeal. He was supposed to be in the infirmary eating his boiled-meat-with-Dijon-ish sandwich. Instead, he was trapped in a transporter with an oven-mitted groping thing, or things, and in the dark, the perfect, unrelieved darkness, he felt suddenly bodiless, afloat, adrift--he might go so far as to say aswirl--and then, when he was trying to figure out how to inflate the lungs he knew by past experience if not current empirical evidence that he had, intending to to emit a scream, the lights came on and the door opened and he was just outside Control and he felt suddenly very, very calm, and warm and even happy and that scared the crap out of him.

^^^

Then by your side no bed-room me deny

"Left." Sheppard rested the life-signs detector on his raised knee. "No, Rodney, your other left." There was a crackle in his headset, Rodney's distinctively irritated static.

"This would have been easier if you'd just e-mailed me the schematic with your location marked with a nice, big X."

"Maybe," Sheppard agreed as he watched Rodney's blinking circle get closer. Was it possible for a circle to blink impatiently? "But this is more fun. Okay, ten paces. Five. Okay, riiiiiiiiiiiight..." He cocked an eye at the door. "... here!" The door snapped open, revealing Rodney in the wide, circular foyer, framed in the two-story windows against the frothing pink and orange and deep-blue carnival of sunset. "Niiiice. Good entrance."

"Yes, yes," Rodney said dismissively as he came into the room. "How come you still have clothes on?"

Sheppard wrinkled his brow and pouted out a lip. "C'mon, Rodney, aren't you even going to notice the nice place I found? Where's the romance?"

He waved a hand at the room. It was pretty basic, but tidier, now that he'd hauled out the ancient dead tree, which had mostly turned to dust when he'd touched it so that he'd had to spend half an hour wiping all the surfaces down again. The bedding had to go, too, and was piled out on the balcony where it was slowly disintegrating in the wind and blowing out to sea. Of all the similar rooms that opened off of the foyer, he'd picked this one because the balcony faced the nebula rising in the deepening sky and had an unobstructed sightline. No other windows or balconies looking their way, no place for anybody to stand and see the gleam of the flashlight propped up on the little table beside the bed and wonder who was camped out on the mostly-dead pier and what they might be doing there. Once he'd lifted the mattress and kicked and pounded it on the balcony, it was clean enough, and with his own sheets and blanket on it, it was serviceable, even comfortable.

He knew this because he was stretched out on it, one knee raised, his arm extended and resting on it with the life-signs detector dangling from his hand in that manly but languid sort of way that said, "interested but not totally desperate." It was the "hanging out, but not waiting" posture. Even though his elbow was getting a bit of a cramp, he sat very still while Rodney's eyes did a cursory flick around the room and came back to take a more leisurely stroll along his body from head to foot to head.

"Very nice," Rodney said a little hoarsely and, with a brief waggle of fingers at the room, added, "Dusty." Then, "Clothes?" Sheppard half expected him to snap his fingers and hold out his hand like he did when he was waiting for somebody to hand him calculations he'd already crunched in his head. But instead, he just stood in the middle of the room, backlit by garish plumes of cloud like an incongruous Vegas showgirl in full regalia, his whole posture saying he expected to get laughed off the stage.

Tossing the detector onto the table, Sheppard winked the door closed and stood up. "I dusted," he said a bit petulantly as he crossed the narrow space between them so that he was close enough to see the nebula reflectd in Rodney's eyes.

The reflection was lost as Rodney's gaze slipped from Sheppard's eyes to his mouth. "Not with much commitment," Rodney observed.

"I was committed," Sheppard's whisper sharpened a little with indignation.

"I have no doubt about that."

They were eye to eye, and when Sheppard smiled, he could feel Rodney's lips so close, as close as you could get without touching, and Rodney's body sort of humming, potential energy ready to go kinetic. It was the apex of the climb, right in the second before the stall, the weightlessness, the turn, the streaming, screaming, plunging to earth, when the whole weight of the world turned to speed.

Sheppard leaned back a little and laughed before he could catch himself. But it was okay; his mouth slanting into a bemused smile, Rodney's eyes came up to meet his again, two nebulae floating in blue as wide as the sky.

^^^

Henceforth be never numb'red among men!

"Ill met. Ill ill ill ill met," Beckett muttered to himself, one word huffed out as each foot hit the riser of the stairs down to the control room. Over the sound of this litany, he could hear Grodin pointing out something to Gibbons whose objection was cut off by Grodin's objection to his objection. The argument seemed to be escalating.

"You must have triggered the protocol when you--" Grodin was saying impatiently, although that smooth accent made everything he said sound urbane and measured.

Gibbons wasn't so lucky and sounded downright affronted. "I didn't trigger anything. If I had triggered something, it would have shown up here. Or here. So you're going to have to look--"

"I've looked."

"Look again."

"I've looked again."

Then the lights went out.

"I told you."

Gibbons' voice was low and tightly emphatic. "I. Did. Not. Trigger. That."

As Beckett got to the bottom of the stairs, Dr. Weir's voice drifted out from her office. "Can somebody tell me why the lights are out? Again?" She came closer and materialized almost right in front of him, letting out a little yelp when she brushed his shoulder as she passed.

"I'm sorry Dr. Weir," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you." Ill met ill ill ill met by moonlight he thought, or someone did. He resisted batting the air around his head and instead put his hands in his pockets. "Is everything all right?"

"Is it ever?" she asked wearily as she went to loom between Grodin and Gibbons, lit with cool, crystal light as she leaned over the still-glowing console. "So, gentlemen, which is it? Little, inconvenient glitch problem or great, big, life-threatening evacuate-the-base problem?"

"Glitch," Gibbons said, at the same time Grodin said, "User error." Gibbons scowled and surreptitiously gave Grodin the finger.

"That's not very Canadian of you,"Grodin admonished.

"I'm only half Canadian," Gibbons replied and went back to peering at the crystals on the control panel.

The lights came on.

"Ah, good--" Dr. Weir began.

"Uh-oh," Grodin interrupted.

"Uh-oh?" There it was, that sigh of not-resignation, followed by the squaring shoulders. "That's not what I want to hear."

"Shield's down," Gibbons announced, making a show of holding his hands off of the crystals and glaring an "I didn't do anything" glare in Grodin's direction.

Dr. Weir didn't have a chance to finish her expression of alarm before the lights went off again.

"Shield's up," Grodin said. "No, wait. It's not."

"Is," Gibbons corrected. "Now it is."

Inside Beckett's head there was a scuffle and a sort of tugging, this way, that way, yank, yank. Somewhere, deep down on the lower floors of the central tower, an alarm started it's rhythmic, wheezing wail and abruptly stopped again. He had a distinct picture in his mind of Atlantis wobbling, stretching between pairs of clutching hands.

"Ill met by moonlight," he blurted, just as the lights came on again to show him Dr. Weir looking quizzically in his direction.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Beckett, what was that?"

"No, no. I'm sorry." He swiped his fingers across his brow while the squirrels chased each other round and round and round inside his head. "Dr. Weir, I think maybe I--"

"Shield's down," Grodin said.

Elizabeth leaned forward so that she could see the screen and its fluctuating readings for herself. After a second, she straightened and tapped her headset. "Dr. McKay report to control."

"It's up."

"It's down."

"Up."

"Down."

"Okay!" Dr. Weir held her breath for a five-count and let it out slowly. "Alright, gentlemen. We get the picture." She tapped her headset again. "Major Sheppard and Dr. McKay, report to control." She waited. No answer. Looking over her shoulder, she pinned Beckett as he was edging toward a little console over in the corner, almost behind the big viewscreen. "You were with them in the lab, Doctor. Where are they?"

Beckett froze. Turning slowly, he tried to make his mind work, but there were these squirrels, see, and.... It wouldn't do, would it, to tell Dr. Weir, the base commander, that her chief scientist and her ranking military officer were off somewhere likely doing things that would get them in some serious trouble. No. It wouldn't do at all. The squirrels stopped running and sat up, listening. He thought of Zelenka, never getting to save anyone from Genii gunmen, and Zelenka was totally beside the point, now, wasn't he, but he was a good man and surely he would save someone, sure, because people get up to remarkable things when they have the chance.

Beckett wanted to flap his hands around his head again. There was a sort of ear-pricked attention in there now that made him a little nervous and his thoughts kept churning up these things that had nothing to do with the shield being down and Wraith ships just waiting somewhere out there for their chance, but the thoughts kept churning, anyway, like his brain was fruit-bottom yogurt and someone was stirring, stirring.

"Dr. Beckett?"

"Dr. Zelenka is in the lab," Beckett answered finally and the words seemed to come from over there somewhere. Ah, he thought, this his how the dummy hears its voice when he's sitting on the ventriloquist's knee. That made a strange, hysterical giggle bubble up in his throat, but he swallowed it down.

"I don't want Dr. Zelenka," Dr. Weir said a little testily. "I want Dr. McKay."

Inside Beckett's head, something went, "Oh" in a "eureka" kind of way. He winced and tried to stuff the "Oh" back in its box, but it was growing and wouldn't fit in the box anymore.

"They... they were doing some... er, exploring," Beckett answered. He mentally pushed the growing "Oh," into a suitcase and sat on it, but it oozed out the sides. "On the south pier."

"Then why aren't they answering their comms?" Her eyes narrowed with new concern.

"Comms seem to be down now, too," Gibbons offered helpfully, just as, to prove him wrong, Zelenka's voice erupted in their ears.

"This is Dr. Zelenka to Control."

"Go ahead, Doctor," Weir said with a trace of relief in her voice that elicited another "oh" in Beckett's head along with something like a "hmmm" and the thoughtful stroking of a virtual beard.

"Er... perhaps you should come to the lab."

Beckett felt something squirrelish start heading lab-ward, but it didn't get very far before the other squirrelish thing caught it by the tail. There was some more wrestling while he groped for a chair and sat down in front of the little console. When he touched it, a small screen rose out of a slot at the back, winked and wavered with smears of Ancient data.

"I'm not sure I can do that right now, Dr. Zelenka. We're having a bit of a crisis here."

Beckett's fingers moved across the crystals while, in his head, one groping squirrelish something read over his "shoulder" and the other jumped up and down in the background trying to see.

"I think we may have just a very small problem. Perhaps. With the AI's."

Dr. Weir closed her eyes. "Skynet?"

Down on the south pier, a light came on. Little groping squirrelish stopped jumping and turned to look. Big one said something like, "Fetch!" and little one took off running.

^^^

What do you see? You see an ass head of your own, do you?

"Right." Dixon started to continue on down the main corridor, but stopped mid-pace, his head cocked like he was listening to something faint and far away. "What we got here?" he drawled and turned down a narrow passage. After a second he came back and pointed over his shoulder. "Lights are on, nobody's home." Then he was gone again, whistling. Teyla and Ford followed, the dim glow at the very far end of the hallway leading them on.

At the end of the long corridor, they came to a set of double doors that opened smoothly at their approach, indicating that there was some power in this section.

"Huh. Now we're getting somewhere," Dixon said and continued on down the hallway beyond the doors. The lights winked out behind them, but a new one gleamed tantalizingly ahead. "Not like SG-1," he continued, picking up the narrative where he left off.

"Sir?" Ford was staring back behind them, the flash on his P90 picking out nothing but empty distance. After sweeping the light across the floor and even up to the ceiling, he turned and jogged to keep up with the colonel and Teyla.

"Meet and greet stuff. Hello, how ya doing. Peaceful explorers. Take me to your leader stuff." He waved Teyla ahead of him toward the next set of doors. Along the hallway on either side of them, all the smaller doors remained closed, even after Dixon slapped the panels beside each of them as they passed. "O'Neill--god love him, 'cause I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for him--he's tough as leather but he has a soft gooey centre."

"Sir?" Ford repeated, turning on his heel again to check their six.

"Why d'ya think the Goa'uld keep sending kid-bombs through the gate?"

Teyla exchanged an alarmed glance with Ford. "Kid-bombs?"

"Yeah, snakes put a bomb in a kid's heart or maybe teeth." The double doors at the end of the hallway whispered open. It was dark on the other side, but there was that glimmer of light again, at the far end of the next hallway. He stepped through, slid sideways, back against the wall and did a 180 with his light before nodding Teyla and Ford in after him and continuing on. "Then there's the Frankenstein kids with invisible bug mothers, you name it. Course, that last one wasn't Goa'uld, but still. O'Neill will never go down to a Goa'uld, but he's a soft touch for people three feet tall and orphaned. He likes puppies, too."

"Compassion is a necessary quality in a good leader," Teyla observed.

"I suppose," Dixon replied. "But it goes nice with a side order of good old fashioned realism." His grin was wide and toothy. "Kids are diabolical. Life sucking tyrants. Trust me on this. I got personal experience on that one."

"Did you not say you had no children, Colonel?" Teyla responded.

"Yeah, well." The grin came again. "Wishful thinking."

^^^

The will of man is by his reason swayed


Sheppard felt something expanding in his blood when Rodney's little crooked smile wavered, faded, and his eyes widened and went pale and unguarded like they sometimes did when he found an elegant equation or looked at something he was scared of. Sheppard had never noticed before that those expressions were almost the same, wonder and fear playing on Rodney's face, one a little brighter than the other, but both expressions wide open as Rodney encountered something bigger than himself and was undone and remade by it. Only now he was looking at Sheppard, waiting, and the realization kind of undid Sheppard, too, and he was frozen mid-gesture, his hand hovering above Rodney's bicep so close he could feel the slippery tingle of the static charge between his palm and Rodney's skin. Everything seemed to telescope to this intense pinprick of a moment, the enormity of this--whatever this was he was looking at in Rodney's eyes, whatever Rodney was looking at in him--compressed to impossible density, a neutron star flashing light on all wavelengths.

Then Rodney said, "Please," and catastrophic, astronomical things happened in Sheppard's head, things that were only supposed to happen to heavenly bodies under extreme circumstances, things that reshaped space around them. Rodney would know the names for them, but Sheppard forgot to ask.

Somehow, in the midst of the cosmic shakedown, he managed to get Rodney's shirt off, and his own. He didn't remember doing that, except there had been a couple of seconds when his mouth wasn't on Rodney's so that was probably when. Now, he leaned his hips into Rodney's and Rodney pushed back, so Sheppard leaned harder and Rodney was way more solid than he looked and had his feet braced so Sheppard had to mouth "bed" against his ear to break his inertia and then they were sort of tango stepping across the room, Rodney backward and still kissing and not even turning to look, one hand knotted in the waistband of Sheppard's pants for balance, the other on the back of Sheppard's neck, and then he came up short against the edge of the bed and let out a little grunt into Sheppard's mouth and Sheppard swallowed it, felt a few more stars flash in his brain, and he thrust his thigh between Rodney's legs, got his shin against the edge of the mattress so he could lever them down and then, in the foyer, a door opened.

Sheppard tried to stop, but they were past the point of no return and he fell forward on top of Rodney onto the bed. He wasted a couple of seconds wrestling to get his arms out from under them and then, using Rodney's chest for leverage, he pushed himself to his feet and stared wildly at the door.

"What--?"

Sheppard stabbed a finger behind him at Rodney and, thankfully for once, Rodney shut up.

"Someone's out there."

Voices. Coming closer. Lunging toward the little bedside table, he snatched up the life signs detector. Three dots moving their way, almost right outside the door. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Rodney was looking up at him with an expression that was an unsettling combination of pissed-off and dismayed. After a second, he dropped his head into his hands.

"Now this looks promising," a voice said, so close and clear through the door that it made Sheppard jump. For his part, Rodney just slumped a little more and made a little, sad whimper of despair.

"It's Dixon," Sheppard hissed with disbelief after the dots had moved off a little ways. "Son of a bitch." Spinning on his heel, he scanned the room, looking for his shirt, and found it hanging from a light fixture. Move on, move on, he thought at the dots desperately and then switched his attention to the door and thought, Stay locked, stay locked, stay locked.

While he was shrugging his shirt on, another door opened, further off, and closed again. When he popped his head out of his collar and picked up the detector again, the dots were still in range, but divided from them by the space of the foyer and two sets of closed doors. Dixon and his team were in a room on the other side of the section.

Not indulging in a sigh of relief, Sheppard picked Rodney's shirt off the floor and held it out to him. "Get dressed," he ordered. "We can make a break for it."

"No." Rodney was doing that thing with his chin, the defiant thing.

Sheppard's neck muscles twinged as the panic alarms started going off, and, crazily, more suns looked ready to explode in his brain. The defiant thing, it turned out, was a bit of a kink. "No? No 'no,' Rodney. Just do it, will you?" He flapped the shirt at him and started strategizing. Odds were, it was harder to get a shirt on an unwilling man than it was to get a shirt off a willing one.

Getting up slowly, Rodney stepped past Sheppard's outstretched arm and up close to his chest. "Why?" he asked in that way that was more belligerent than questioning.

Sheppard decided that the cultivation of that latent bravery in Rodney had been one of the dumber and more risky side-effects if the expedition.

"Because," he answered steadily. "It's too dangerous."

Rodney angled his head and rolled his eyes. "Oh please. You rode a nuclear bomb into a Wraith hive ship. And even though you were unconscious when you got back, you were grinning."

"That was different. Then, there were lives at stake."

Grabbing Sheppard's hand, Rodney lifted it and flattened it against his chest. Sheppard could feel his heart ricocheting around behind Rodney's ribs like a raquetball. "There's a life at stake, right now."

Rodney's eyes were as intense and inescapable as a Wraith tractor beam and ten times scarier, because they made Sheppard crave his doom. Forget nukes. If they could put Rodney's need in a containment field and aim it at a hive ship, the fuckers would fling themselves on their own destruction.

"Be all that you can be," Rodney said in the filthiest voice Sheppard had ever heard.

"That's Army," he objected weakly, and threw himself on the grenade.

^^^

I believe we must leave the killing out, when all is done.


"Where is Dr. McKay?" Elizabeth asked impatiently.

"Communications are still sketchy," Grodin answered from under the console. "Gibbons, when was the last time you changed your socks?"

"Ha ha. We have bigger problems. Ma'am?" Gibbons pointed at the readout wavering on his laptop screen. "I've managed to get limited access to long-range sensors and the news is bad."

"Wraith."

He nodded and jumped when Grodin's head connected with the underside of the console. "Two ships."

In the corner by the little console, Beckett got an instant case of the creeping willies. "See?" he muttered to the thing in his head. "See? Now we're going to die. I hope you're happy."

There was the virtual equivalent of "whatever" and big squirrelish went back to playing with the lights on the south pier, using Beckett's hands to do it. The little squirrelish thing was caroming its way down there, humming "Pretty, pretty" and vibrating with excitement. Big squirrelish felt smug. Beckett felt rather nauseated.

Breaking in on the radio, Zelenka mused, "We've had our eyes on them since the retreat. They must have sensors that can detect the shield."

"Or the lack of a shield," Elizabeth corrected. "Grodin, get me the Daedalus."

"Can't do it, Dr. Weir. Off-base communications are down."

She closed her eyes a moment and then squared her shoulders again. Beckett wondered if she were actually developing new muscle groups seen only in humans modified by leadership stressors. "How long?"

"At current speed, a day."

"This just keeps getting better."

"Dr. Weir," Zelenka interjected. "I think that the problem is with the AIs. They've--" His radio cut off.

"Damnit. Skynet. Stupid bad science fiction." Weir headed for the stairs. "It looks like I'm going to have to do this the old fashioned way. Peter, it would be a wonderful thing if you two could get the shield up." As she disappeared down the stairs, she shouted, "And find me Major Sheppard and Dr. McKay!"

^^^

And are you grown so high in his esteem, / Because I am so dwarfish and so low?


Zelenka put his hands in his pockets and stared into the flashing lights. Nothing happened, of course. Atlantis was very much like most of the women in his life. In grammar school, it had been the glasses. In university, it wasn't the glasses so much as his tendency to zone out of conversations and end up hunched over tables scratching equations onto dinner napkins. Also, he'd been told by one of those sympathetic women who want to be your friend but wouldn't be caught dead on a date with you, that he might do something about his hair. He could remember looking at her in utter confusion, largely because she was interrupting his calculations and he'd only caught this part of the advice because he'd run out of napkin. He'd intended to go home and look at himself in the mirror, but then the woman had gone off with her friends and left her nice, clean napkin behind and he'd never gotten around to the mirror project.

Now, Atlantis was ignoring him, as usual. He even leaned his face right up against the archive interface and whispered a little sing-song, "Here I a-am. Grab my he-ead." He didn't really want his head grabbed--of course not; that was lunacy--but just the fact that Atlantis wouldn't bother even trying was a little irksome. Gene therapy. Tall, blue-eyed gate-team smug geniuses with their genes oozing smugly all over the place and Atlantis so attentive and ready to light up at a touch. Feh.

"Is that wise, doctor?"

Zelenka yelped. Not in a girly way at all. A sort of manly-- "Dr. Weir. Comms are down still, yes?"

"Yes." She came in and looked at the two laptops on the table. "And the Wraith are on the way. You caught that part of it." Turning to him and folding her hands in front of her, she gave him a too-bright, hopeful smile. "But you have good news, yes?"

"No."

"No. Of course not."

Inviting her to sit, he took the chair next to her. "Well, not all bad. Or perhaps good or bad, depending."

"Depending."

"Yes."

She waited. "Did I mention that the Wraith are on the way?"

"Yes." Swiveling to Rodney's laptop, he opened up two windows. "The bad news is that the AIs are out." He waved his fingers vaguely in the direction of Atlantis. "I can't tell from the records if they were designed to be complementary or if one was to replace the other, but I can say that they are incompatible. The worse news is that they are also invasive. They seem to have access to virtually every system on Atlantis. The ambivalent news is that the AI's are stupid."

"Stupid." She raised her eyebrows. "The Ancients made stupid AI's."

He shrugged. "Any AI is going to be stupid. Computers are fast, but they are not intuitive. They can calculate and analyse, but they cannot interpret. The Ancients were attempting to create intuition. Instead, they made...." His voice trailed off.

"What?"

"Busybodies."

"Busybodies." Leaning back in her chair, Dr. Weir rubbed her temples. "I want to follow you, doctor, I really do."

Of their own accord, Zelenka's hands reached out and gently pulled hers away from her head. Then he realized what he was doing and dropped them, and pretended to type important things on the laptop. Nothing came up on the readout, but what he was typing was, "Idle hands do devil's work," and "Keep your hands inside the car at all times," and variations on that theme. While he was doing this, a useful analogy presented itself. He faced her again. "Paperclips!" he announced with great satisfaction.

"Am I going to have to repeat everything you say as though it's not a question?"

Grinning a little, he mimed typing between them. "When you are making word processing document, there is annoying paperclip. Always tapping on the screen and making bullets when you don't want bullets and correcting your European spelling and your capitalization until, unless you have patience of Job, you smash keyboard to tiny pieces with ball peen hammer."

Getting it, Weir nodded. "Right. Mine's a kitten."

"Yes, sometimes the paperclip can be disguised as a kitten, but it is always annoying paperclip. A pseudo-intuitive help program."

"So, you're saying that these AIs are monster help programs gone wild."

Waggling a finger at her, he amended her analysis. "Not so much gone wild as being nosy and intuitive. They are engaged in some kind of protocol. I don't know what, but I do know they are incompatible and the incompatibilities, or maybe some innate flaw in their programming, is creating system-wide disruptions. This is why they were quarantined."

"Great." Her smile was the kind of smile found on the faces of characters in Absurdist theatre or Kafka novellas, those characters who get a glimpse of what the universe is really like. "Atlantis is being run by a pair of very powerful and stupid paperclips." Now the smile took on an ironic twist. "Well, entire nations have been successfully run on that principle."

"Successfully, maybe, but not well."

As if to prove it, the lights went out, the alarm started its honking, wheezing rhythm, and all over Atlantis doors slammed shut.

^^^

This sport, well carried, shall be chronicled.

Grodin had given up banging on the door of Dr. Weir's office, but Gibbons was still at it, and from the way his mouth was opening and closing, Beckett assumed that he wasn't singing lullabies. Beckett just shrugged at him through the glass and did his best to look innocent and helpless, which wasn't exactly difficult, since it was the truth. Or part of the truth. It hadn't really been him who'd shut down all the laptop interfaces in the control room except the one in Weir's office, which had glowed and beckoned the two technicians. It wasn't his fault that they'd followed the glow into the office. It certainly wasn't his fault that the quarantine protocol had suddenly activated and Grodin and Gibbons ended up trapped in Weir's office and Beckett had been left all alone in the control room, even if it had been his hands moving around on the little console.

It certainly wasn't Beckett's fault that just before the doors closed everywhere the little squirrelish had arrived on the South Pier and had found her "pretty, pretty" and reached out to touch it. And it wasn't Beckett who snapped the trap shut on her and crowed, "Gotcha!"

^^^

Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?

Sheppard had done some stupid things in his time--swallowing two dollars in quarters on a two-bit bet, going to a windy outdoor graduation ceremony with nothing on under his gown, flying an a-bomb into an alien spaceship--but this had to be the stupidest. Barely fifty meters away an Air Force colonel was doing recon, with half of Sheppard's own team, and Sheppard was locked in a room with a horny scientist and currently contemplating doing things that were still illegal in some states, and maybe should be illegal in the rest of them, and on the inhabited planets of Pegasus, because, damn, the mere thought of them was enough to impair his judgment worse than a forty-pounder of scotch with two-days' prescription of USAF happy hoppers for a chaser. But Rodney's lips were pliant and hungry and he was making small, desperate sounds into Sheppard's mouth and then against his throat and, oh man, there had to be something seriously wrong with Sheppard's instinct for self-preservation--if the quarters and the gown and the a-bomb hadn't been some pretty good clues, there--because he almost let Rodney pull his shirt off over his head.

All of the hairs were standing up on the back of Sheppard's neck and his back was prickling with the unshakable feeling that Dixon was standing on the other side of the door, watching them with x-ray eyes. It was almost enough to make him stop, to push Rodney away. Almost. God, the windsheer was punishing,"should do" and "want to" making howling turbulence in his head. And the craziest of the crazy was that the louder the howl, the more turned-on he got.

But somehow, he managed to get enough of a grip on the flapping tatters of his reason to stage a diversion, finding Rodney's fumbling hands and lacing them with his fingers and, embracing Rodney, pinning his hands behind his back, all without breaking lip contact. At first Rodney made a sound of protest, but then, his lips pausing for the barest moment, seemed to assess the possibilities. His fingers tightened around Sheppard's and he breathed "Okay... okay," between Sheppard's lips and that was it. Sheppard was gone. Reason. What's that?

Then he had Rodney pinned against the bed, arms spread wide, one wrist in each tight fist. He couldn't figure out how to keep him like that, opened up like that, and manage at the same time to deal with the pants. Breaking the kiss, he stared down at him. And, damn, he was already opened up, everything right there on his face--need and a little fear and amusement and that wide-open wonder again--and Sheppard wanted to look away because it was too much, but he didn't. He was supposed to be a brave one, right? A-bombs. Alien spaceships. "Don't move," he said huskily, his eyes unwavering on Rodney's. And Rodney did what he was told, staying perfectly still while Sheppard lifted himself off of him and stood between his knees where his legs dangled off of the edge of the bed. His only violation of the order was to turn his hands over and bunch the blanket up in his fists.

The pants thing went well, until they caught on Rodney's shoes and then the pantlegs wouldn't fit over the shoes and the shoes were inside the pantlegs, wedged pretty tightly and Sheppard had to sit down on the floor and pull, and tug, and yank until he thought he was maybe going to have a frustration-induced embolism. Then there was a miracle: Rodney started to laugh. At first it was just a small, almost-sobbing, fatalistic giggle but then it got away from him and he had to let go of the blanket and cover his mouth with both of his hands, shuddering all over while Sheppard fell sideways onto the carpet in muffled hysterics with Rodney's feet tangled up in his legs.

Rodney gave him a not-too-gentle kick, wheezed, "Shut up, you useless idiot," and sat up to wrestle with the shoe problem. "Mensa," he sneered, which set Sheppard off again. Finally, Rodney's brain the size of a planet did its genius thing and the pants just slipped off. Pulling Sheppard up onto his knees, Rodney said, "Shoes first, next time." The shoes went away, and the socks and Rodney was naked and flopped back on the bed still shivering a little with left-over laughter.

Coming to the edge of the bed, Sheppard knelt between Rodney's legs again, leaned over and brushed his lips against Rodney's hip, following the curve of bone into the hollow beside it. He couldn't help the sound that escaped him when he felt Rodney's hands in his hair, barely there at first, and then fingers tangling, letting go, stroking his temples as Sheppard kissed Rodney's skin and Rodney shivered and this time it had nothing to do with laughing. Sheppard kissed a trail across the edge of curling hair to the navel, breathing the smell of Rodney, musky, warm, and before his brain could start to wonder what the hell he thought he was doing, he ran his hands along the inside of Rodney's thighs, up to his hips, his thumbs in those slight hollows now, and he laid the corner of his mouth against the smooth, hot skin of Rodney's cock. When Rodney sighed, "Oh" and then, "God," Sheppard stopped thinking about Dixon and his x-ray vision. He breathed in and blew the breath out through pursed lips onto Rodney's cock, following it with a flick of the tongue just there on the sweet-spot, the lightest hint of a touch and then, out in the foyer, a door opened.

Shouting, indistinct, and then the buzzing of a voice in the radio on the bedside table.

Sheppard raised his head and listened.

Rodney started to moan, "no no nononononononono." It was a bad sound. It started off disbelieving and worked its way through tight-throated anger and finally settled flatly into a monotone of despair.

Covering his ear with one hand--as though he could stifle the same litany running through his own head--Sheppard fumbled for the radio and slipped it on. "Shh," he ordered as he stood up and turned his back on Rodney. "This could be serious."

It was Teyla. "--to Dr. Beckett, please respond. We have a medical emergency." Pause. Nothing. "Teyla to Control." Nothing. "If anyone can read me, please respond. We have a medical emergency."

Sheppard was raising his hand to key his radio when Weir's voice crackled in his ear. "Teyla, we're having trouble with the comms and the city is in lockdown. I don't think that Dr. Beckett can hear you. What's your status?"

"Oh that's just great," Rodney said desolately. He had his own radio on and had pulled the blanket off of the mattress and across his lap. "It does sound serious." He looked up at the ceiling like he expected to see a god with a hilarious sense of humour pointing and laughing. The last time Sheppard had seen a face that crestfallen and miserable was, well, that morning in the transporter. Rodney clutched his chest with one hand. Sheppard's stomach sank.

"Colonel Dixon has been..." Teyla began and paused as if at a loss for words.

Ford's voice broke in. "One of those head-suckers got him," he finished for her. "Came right out of the wall and grabbed him."

"What?" Sheppard mouthed at Rodney, but Rodney was on his hands and knees with his naked, white ass in the air, looking under the bed for his pants.

"Alright, Lieutenant, just stay calm. Is he conscious yet?" Weir asked. "In the past, Colonel O'Neill was only unconscious for a few minutes."

"I don't think he's conscious. I mean... maybe he is but--"

"He is conscious," Teyla affirmed.

Now Rodney had one pantleg on and was sitting on the edge of the bed with his face screwed up in a confused frown. He tapped his headset before Sheppard could protest. "Well is he or isn't he?" He'd looped through despair and was back to anger. "It shouldn't be that hard to tell. Either his eyes open or they don't."

"Rodney?" In those two syllables, Weir managed to sound first relieved and then annoyed.

"Yes."

"I've been calling you for an hour."

"Well," he looked at Sheppard for help and Sheppard did a "don't look at me" shrug. "The comms have been down, you said."

"Yes."

"Well."

"Where are you and is Major Sheppard with you?"

Sheppard stood in the howl of windsheer and pressed his fists into his eyes. "We're on the South Pier, doing reconnaissance," he reported.

"Then you must come help us if you can," Teyla said, reasonably. "We cannot make the device let him go and he's...."

Again, her voice trailed off and Ford had to take up the story. "He's singing."

^^^

What hempen homespuns have we swagg'ring here...?

"Singing," Weir repeated, flatly. "I'm sorry, did you say that Colonel Dixon is singing?"

"Yes, ma'am," Ford confirmed. "And he's sort of... well, you wouldn't call it dancing, I guess, but.... It's kinda freaky."

"Kinda?" Sheppard mouthed at Rodney who made his "This is Atlantis, Major. Freaky is what we have for breakfast when we're out of Froot-Loops, which is, by the way, all the time" face. "We're close, lieutenant. Just... stay with the colonel and... well, just stay with him," Sheppard ordered into his headset.

"Sir."

Sheppard turned to Rodney, who was on his hands and knees again, crawling around looking under things. "What the hell are you doing, McKay? We have a situation here."

"I have a situation here, Major. I can't find my shoe." He pulled himself up on the the mattress and glared around the room. "What did you do with my shoe?" he demanded accusingly.

After pointing him toward the balcony, Sheppard went to stand with his hand over the room's door control. He clenched his fingers and then opened them again. Then he made a fist and pounded himself in the forehead for awhile until Rodney's strangled yell of outrage made him stop and look.

"You threw my shoe off the balcony!"

"I did not!"

Out on the balcony, Rodney turned, red-faced, and pointed behind him. "Then what's it doing three stories down wedged in..." He looked over his shoulder. "... what looks like a... actually, is that a microwave antenna?"

For just one hopeful second, Sheppard thought that Rodney was going to get distracted by the question of what the shoe was caught in and forget that now he had to go confront Teyla and Ford and, oh god, a colonel, and a crisis with only one shoe on, but Rodney was apparently still capable of multitasking and was glaring the evil "How come you are dedicated to my humiliation and death by sexual frustration? Oh, and just stop pouting like that because it won't work even though it's really really really sexy" glare of death at him.

Sheppard put the pout on stand-down and opted for manly man in charge. "Forget the damn shoe, McKay. We've got bigger problems."

"Bigger problems than me having to come up with some explanation as to why I'm doing recon on the South Pier wearing one shoe?"

"Major Sheppard, what's your status?" Weir demanded.

"We're on our way," he answered.

"You have to retrieve the colonel and get to the AI lab. The shield is down and the Wraith are on the way."

Rodney's eyes went wide and his mouth fell into that "certain reaction to certain doom" slant. "Okay, that's a little bigger than the shoe problem."

Sheppard sucked in a fortifying breath and slapped the door control.

Nothing happened.

He slapped it again.

Nothing happened again.

Then, he waved Rodney over and Rodney slapped it and nothing happened and then Sheppard slapped Rodney on the shoulder and Rodney slapped him on the chest with the back of his hand and Sheppard slapped the door control and nothing happened and then they stared at it.

Sheppard sighed. "Dr. Weir, we're locked in. McKay's working on it."

Rodney pulled the panel off the wall and started working on it.

Sheppard noticed that there was a hole in the toe of Rodney's sock.

"This is the AI, again," Zelenka said, and his voice was a little vague on the radio. Sheppard could picture him peering at his laptop screen. "Not the quarantine protocol."

"The AI?" Rodney stopped playing with the door controls and looked up at the Zelenka in his head. "I told you not to discover anything until I got back!"

Zelenka's shrug was audible. "Not discovered so much as escaped."

Sheppard slapped Rodney lightly on the back again and angled his head toward the controls. Rodney went back to pulling out crystals and scowling.

"Straaaaange," Zelenka went on. "There are open access doors between this lab and the South Pier. We can get to you."

Teyla's voice chimed in. "Please, Dr. Zelenka, if you can come here and extricate the colonel."

"Dr. Zelenka has to work on the AI problem, Teyla. The Wraith are coming," Weir objected.

"The AI activity seems to be focused on their location," Zelenka observed. "This has something to do with whatever protocol they are running. I may have some luck there."

There was a moment of static. Weir thinking.

"Seriously, ma'am," Ford pleaded. "He's doing Barry Manilow."

^^^

And I will purge thy mortal grossness so, / That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.


Beckett did not need the visual. "I don't need the visual," he said to whomever or whatever was in his head giving him the visual. He closed his eyes. He could still see it. He opened them again and whimpered a little. It wasn't right. It wasn't decent.

Averting his mental gaze, he found himself staring at Grodin and Gibbons, who were still locked inside Dr. Weir's office. Gibbons was on his knees working at a panel near the door. Grodin was exaggeratedly mouthing something in Beckett's direction. Beckett wasn't really all that good at lipreading, but he could swear Grodin was saying, "You're dead after school." Of course, that was ridiculous. Grodin was above that kind of thing, and besides, Beckett was innocent. The visual fluttered again behind his eyes and he felt himself turning red. He considered trying the helpless shrug again, but Grodin was now attempting to burn through the not-glass of the door with his fiery gaze. Fortunately for Beckett, Gibbons chose that moment to hyperhooze the whatzi-thingy and there was a flash and a shower of sparks. Grodin started hopping around flapping his hands while Gibbons chased him, trying to beat out the fire on Grodin's pantleg.

Watching until it was clear that Grodin wasn't seriously hurt, and both men were back at the door promising to kill Beckett after school, Beckett winced and went back to trying not to see what was going down on the South Pier. Oh, he thought, Bad choice of words.

"Yellow feathers in her hair and her dress cut down to there!" he sang suddenly and clapped his hands over his mouth. "Manilow?" he wailed behind his fingers.

Down there on the South Pier, little squirrelish was purring, "Pretty, pretty" and doing the disembodied equivalent of running her--its--her fingers through Colonel Dixon's hair, and Dixon was all floaty and wafty and swaying in a virtual cloud of feeling-way-too-good, and he was singing--or you could call it that, maybe, if you were feeling generous--and big squirrelish was snickering. And maybe it would've been manageable from Beckett's perspective if it weren't for the visual.

Beckett knew all about the concept of the homunculus, that nice model of psychic self-concept, the idea that in our heads there's this little version of ourselves that represents how we experience ourselves in the world. So, for instance, because we process most stimuli visually, our self-concept, the homunculus, has disproportionately big eyes. And because our tactile sensations are more important in our hands for the most part, we have great big hands, and since, relatively speaking, the rest of the body sort of disappears when we're using our eyes and our hands, the rest of the little homunculus is atrophied, skinny and disproportionately small. Oh, and for some reason Beckett had never quite understood, we're upside down.

That was a lovely theory, a nice model that illustrated how we see ourselves. In the abstract. The visual, though. "Good lord," he mewed miserably. "That is just not right." Especially if the visual was of somebody else's homonculus and that somebody was engaged in acts that Beckett's mother had never told him about and Beckett had only accidentally discovered when he found his grand-da's magazines under the bed and had confirmed by cornering Geoffrey Snale's big brother outside the snooker hall that time and demanding to know if it was true, because surely it couldn't be. Surely the human body wasn't meant to bend that way, except that it was, since there was the evidence on a glossy three-page fold out. That was probably the day a young and curious Carson Beckett decided to become a doctor, because, honestly, what was God thinking?

So now the abstract concept of the homunculus was .. well, you couldn't call it dancing, really, but whatever that was it was doing, it was doing it in technicolour with a Barry Manilow soundtrack inside Beckett's head. And little squirrelish was doing things to Dixon's pleasure centres that were seriously reconfiguring Dixon's self-image and the distribution of affective representation. It wasn't just his hands that were disproportionately large anymore. Beckett had seen something like that on a BBC special on fertility rites when he was a tot and it had scared him then when it was in a nice box with an off button.

"Music and passion were always in fashion at the--" He clapped his hands over his mouth again.

But, big squirrelish, who was still snickering, had plans, wheels within wheels, miles to go before he slept and so on, and Beckett's hands went back to the little console. For a brief, glorious moment, the visual faded and instead he watched Zelenka and Dr. Weir on the screen as they made their way down the long hallway toward the nice foyer--"Amatorium," squirrelish said in his head--where Rodney was shifting crystals--wearing only one shoe for some reason--and Major Sheppard was slowly pounding his fist into his forehead, and Dixon was still singing, and Ford and Teyla were just inside the room with him, wearing identical expressions of pained disbelief.

"At the Co-opaaaaaaaaaa!" Beckett tweaked a door control. "They fell in looooooooove."

^^^

Fare thee well, nymph: ere he do leave this grove, / Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love.


Zelenka and Dr. Weir were just inside the foyer when a door to their left snapped open to reveal Major Sheppard and Rodney McKay.

"Major!" Weir all-but shouted with relief, and started toward him.

Stepping out into the foyer with a quick look over his shoulder, Sheppard appeared a little like he'd been wrestling. His shirt was half-untucked and one of his pantlegs was stuck in his sock and his hair was even more energetic than usual. Zelenka just had a second to assess Rodney's relative condition before the door to the room snapped shut again, with Rodney on the other side.

"What the?" Sheppard went back and slapped the door control.

Nothing happened.

"McKay!" he growled. "Quit screwing around!"

Rodney's voice was abrasive enough to saw wood, but not, unfortunately, Ancient not-glass. "Oh, I've not even started screwing around, Major." Zelenka could almost swear he heard him add, "No thanks to you."

Weir looked wide-eyed at Zelenka. "You have to get him out of there. We need him."

Of course you do, because of the tall, blue-eyed, muscley, field-tested, fancy Atlantis-loves-me-gene, he muttered in Czech and stomped over to the door's control panel and pulled it off, grumbling, The Wraith are on their way. We need Rodney. The AIs are on the lose. Get Rodney. My alarm clock is one minute fast. Where's Rodney? The crystals looked fine. "The crystals look fine," he reported. "It should open."

"Thanks for the incisive analysis, Radek," Rodney said. "Look, just go help Dixon and I'll get the door open in time to fix whatever you break."

"But we need him," Weir protested, her eyes perfectly round. She turned toward the door. "Rodney, the Wraith--"

"I am as capable as Rodney of dealing with this," Zelenka assured her. "Better, maybe, since I am not locked in room with my jacket on inside out." He waggled his eyebrows meaningfully in Sheppard's direction.

Sheppard shot him a look designed to melt a hole in his head. "Fine, you fix Dixon and deal with this AI thing and Rodney will--"

"Find his shoe?"

"You're dead after school," Rodney shouted through the door.

Weir was following this exchange like it was a ping-pong match and was opening her mouth to say something, probably Wraith-related, when a door on the other side of the foyer opened and Teyla stepped out.

"Over here!" she called, waving them toward her. "Hurry!"

Through the open door came a very disturbing sound, a sort of baritone warble, like if an internal combustion engine had decided to do show tunes. "His name was Rico--"

Ford ran out and joined Teyla. "I'm pretty sure my ears are bleeding," he announced. As they filed past him into the room, he put a hand on Zelenka's shoulder. "Seriously. Are my ears bleeding?"

"You should be so lucky," Zelenka said.

The room was empty except for the Ancient archive interface on the wall. The long, tall windows opened out onto a panorama of the city, its spires mostly dark except for a few forlorn lights in the central tower. Behind them, Pegasus was a swath of stars bright enough to light the room and cast shadows. When Sheppard crossed the threshold, though, recessed lights in the walls began to glow gently to illuminate Dixon and the 'head-sucker' as Beckett so eloquently called it. It was fully extended like a pair of scaly, grasping hands and, hanging from its grip, his knees slightly bent and wobbly, the colonel swayed from side-to-side, snapping his fingers in a sort of Dean Martinish way. Sadly, the apparatus did nothing to muffle his singing.

At a pause between verses, Dixon snapped a finger gun at no-one in particular and said in a perfectly oily Elvis voice, "Thenk yew, thenk yew very much," and then, "Oh yeah, like that."

Zelenka wished fervently that he'd been born hard of hearing in addition to severely myopic.

"Oh, that is so wrong," Sheppard said, his face wincing up like he was witnessing... well, exactly what he was witnessing. Then, after a second of consideration, he cocked an eyebrow and lifted the corner of his mouth in a bemused smile. "Although he doesn't seem to be feeling any pain."

"This interface may be overwriting his cognitive functions, Major," Zelenka told him as he crawled along the floor looking for some kind of control panel, pushing his laptop ahead of him as he shuffled forward. "That singing could be a sign of progressive brain damage or at the very least acute distress."

"I'll say," Ford agreed.

"Well, if ya gotta be in distress..." Sheppard began and clamped his mouth shut at a withering look from Weir.

"Oh baybee, yeah," Dixon purred.

Having made a circuit of the room and found nothing to plug his laptop into, Zelenka sat back on his heels. "This could be more difficult than I projected," he admitted.

"Doctor, the Wraith are less than a day away. We have to get the shield up." Weir's eyes were still pretty round, but her lips were making that firm, grim line again.

Zelenka had the sudden urge to touch her mouth with the pad of his thumb, just to smooth the tension away a little. But there was only one way to get rid of that frown and that was to give her back her city. "We have to figure out what the AIs are doing and then get them to complete their task and stand down."

"How do we do that?" Teyla asked.

"Well, we--" Zelenka stopped.

Sheppard was staring up at the corner of the room where the shadows were murkiest. He frowned. "What the hell is that?"

There was a low whirring sound, gears spinning a little raspily after long disuse. Zelenka caught a glimpse of reflected light, a suggestion of movement, and suddenly what looked like a camera with a wide, round lens zoomed out of the wall. Extending down toward the group on an articulated arm, it wove back and forth, its shutter irised to a tiny hole. When it passed over Weir, though, the shutter snapped open with a snick and everyone jumped, Ford snapping his P90 up to his chest. Weir leaned way back as the camera came lower and hovered a foot over her head, peering at her with a kind of mechanical curiosity. Then, a tiny ray gun popped out of its belly and the whirring got louder.

Lunging toward Weir, Sheppard yelled, "Look out!"

He was almost fast enough, but not quite. The ray gun made a sizzling noise and a bright pink beam of light shot out of it, catching both Weir and Sheppard in its crackling glow. Taking most of the hit, Sheppard seemed to do a rather inelegant River Dance before tumbling into a heap next to Zelenka. Weir staggered backward into Teyla, who caught her and lowered her down to the floor where she slumped over her knees, mumbling something that sounded a little like the second verse of "Achy Breaky Heart." Zelenka was very ashamed that he recognized it, frankly, but he was too busy checking Sheppard's pulse to dwell on it.

Hunching his shoulders against the next shot, he held his breath. Nothing happened. After a few long seconds, Ford said, "It's retreated," and Zelenka opened his eyes. He was curled over Sheppard's body, his face close to his. Groaning, Sheppard blinked up at him, focusing on him at first blearily and then with what could only--rather disturbingly--be described as rapt attention. The notch of pain smoothed between his eyebrows and Sheppard's mouth slowly curved up into that smile Zelenka had seen on many occasions, usually when Sheppard had his arm thrown over the back of his chair and was looking at Rodney and didn't know Zelenka was watching.

"Zelenka!" the major exclaimed in a rough, breathy whisper. "Have your eyes always been that colour?"

Sitting back abruptly, Zelenka blinked. "Uh, unless there has been some change I am not aware of." In an attempt to escape Sheppard's attention, he glanced over his shoulder at Weir.

Apparently recovered a little, she was looking at him with an expression that mirrored Sheppard's. "Oh, Radek," she sighed a little dreamily.

Zelenka's finely-tuned, remarkable, well-educated brain said, buh? And it didn't have much of a chance to go beyond that because Sheppard was levering himself up with the front of Zelenka's jacket, his weight overbalancing them and pulling Zelenka down over him again. The kiss was enthusiastic and entirely gobsmacking. If Zelenka closed his eyes, it wasn't so much the bliss of human contact as the reflex reaction you get when someone jumps out of the closet right in front of you. Zelenka started to flap his hands at his sides, groping for a stick, or maybe a police officer, or a grip on his sanity, and finding instead something soft and round and yielding.

When he opened his eyes and managed to break the lip-lock Sheppard had on him, he discovered that he was gripping Dr. Weir's left breast. Her eyes were now round like those of characters in cartoons from Japan, not with the expected and perfectly reasonable outrage, given that Zelenka's hand was still for some reason invading her personal space, but with aghast betrayal.

"Radek," she whispered as those enormous eyes filled up with gleaming tears. "How could you?"

And just when his brain was valiantly working past buh? to uh..., Zelenka noticed Rodney's hunch-shouldered, visibly vibrating shape in the doorway.

"OH, THAT'S JUST GREAT!"

^^^

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

In the control room, Beckett groped for the stool behind him and slumped bonelessly onto it.

Error running style, big squirrelish announced in his head and continued to flash the message helpfully along with an irritatingly pleasant chime that went oops... oops... oops... oops....

"Oh Maaaaaaandy!" Dixon sang.

"Ah, crrrap," Beckett said.

^^^

Then will two at once woo one; / That must needs be sport alone.

For a fleeting moment, Teyla wished she had her combat batons on hand to protect herself from the flurry of arms and legs as Dr.s Weir and Zelenka and Major Sheppard scrambled awkwardly to their feet around her. Then, when Dr. McKay stalked into the room with his head lowered and his brows beetling and his breath gusting from flared nostrils like a charging onx (minus the second vestigial head), and Dr. Weir stepped in front of Dr. Zelenka and Major Sheppard jostled her to get more in front of Dr. Zelenka and Dr. Weir jostled back, Teyla wished for the batons again. She had a feeling she should be protecting someone from someone else, but she wasn't certain whom.

"I knew it!" Dr. McKay was shouting, aiming an accusing finger at Dr. Zelenka's head over the major's shoulder. "I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! All that stuff about being puppy-dog in love with Weir was just a cover!" His irate expression changed suddenly into an elaborately innocent one and he spoke in a reasonably accurate, if rather broad, parody of Zelenka's voice. "'My gaydar is more developed, maybe, than my closet strategy.'" His voice returning to normal, his face went back to the more familiar lines of anger. "Undeveloped closet strategy, my shiny Canadian ass!"

As McKay attempted to go around Zelenka's phalanx of protectors, the major stepped up closer and ordered in a distinctly menacing tone, "Back off, McKay."

McKay's anger was replaced for just a fleeing moment by something that made a hollow place in Teyla's chest before he covered the woundedness with a sneer. "Oh, 'back off,' of course. The Sheppard default."

"I think you should do as he says, Rodney. Just calm down," Weir interjected, her hand on McKay's heaving chest. "Besides," Weir added with an acid look at Sheppard, "If anyone has the right to be aggrieved here, it's me."

"What?" Sheppard rejoined, putting on his own innocent face. "You're always 'Where's Rodney?' Well, there's Rodney. I'll take Zelenka off your hands." He winked at Zelenka. "For the good of the base. You know, morale-wise."

"Always the hero," McKay said in a tone so drily sarcastic Teyla could feel it sucking the moisture out of her skin.

Exchanging a quick glance with Ford, who, if it were possible, looked even more confounded than he had when the colonel had started singing the Barry Manilow, Teyla tried to decide whose path to get into. McKay looked the most likely to throw the first punch, but Dr. Weir appeared remarkably willing to step up against him, given her status as a diplomat.

For his part, Dr. Zelenka wasn't precisely cowering behind Weir and the major, but he obviously understood that Earth saying about discretion and valour. At Sheppard's proposal, though, he stood up straight and started to wave his hands in front of him until they were a blur. Teyla thought some baton training might be in order for him.

"No! No no no!" he protested. "Rodney, I wasn't and I didn't and I'm not! And, Dr. Weir, I don't... I mean, I do, but I'm not." Grinding to a halt, he took a deep breath and continued, "I don't want Major Sheppard," he told Weir.

"Hey! What's wrong with Major Sheppard?" McKay demanded with an air of affronted proprietariness.

"Nothing! Nothing except... except I'm not gay!"

At that, Sheppard nodded, at first slowly and then faster as though he were coming to a new understanding. "Right!" he said, pointing at Weir. "That's right! We're not gay!" He turned a knowing smile on Zelenka. "We are not gay, right, Zelenka?"

"Well... I--" Zelenka stammered, clearly confused by this turn. "Well, I'm not." His eyes were beseeching as he turned to Weir. "I'm really not. I like women." Turning placatingly to McKay, who was still glaring and breathing like a onx. "Not that there's anything wrong with liking men." He gestured generously toward the major, who was nodding encouragingly, "And not that there's anything wrong with Major Sheppard. He's very attractive and if he were a wo--"

"OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T SAY IT!" Beckett's shriek erupted from the corner of the room as the camera zoomed out of the wall and snaked down to Zelenka's eye-level. Then, as Zelenka jumped back, the camera followed and snuggled up close to him in an almost conspiratorial way. "They're listening" Beckett whispered. "And I dinna know what else this little pop gun does, but I dinna wanta find out, do you?"

At that, everyone stopped.

"You came and you gave without ta-a-aking!" Dixon crooned with the passion of the lovelorn.

His voice seemed to break the spell and Zelenka's brow furrowed as he leaned away from the nuzzling camera. "Who is listening?" he asked.

"Who cares?" McKay's voice was tight with exasperation. "How can you say you aren't gay when I just caught you red-handed kissing my boyfriend?"

"He did not!" Weir objected. "Major Sheppard started it." Facing Sheppard, she drew herself up and said in her steeliest voice, "Major, I hereby order you to stop being gay around Radek."

In the corner over by the colonel, Ford was clutching his hat on top of his head with both of his hands.

The major drew himself up so that he was towering over Weir and glowered down at her. "First, you are not the boss of me. Second, I'm not gay."

"First, John," Weir replied sweetly, like honey on a knife, "I am the boss of you."

"Second," McKay added, "Paging Major Denial!" He put his hand up to the side of his mouth and crowed, "C'mere go away! C'mere go away!"

Sheppard wheeled on McKay and shoved a finger into his chest, "Listen! Just because I'm deeply committed to the love of a man, doesn't mean I'm gay!" Reaching behind him, he put an arm around Zelenka and squeezed him until the little scientist's glasses went awry on his face.

"You know," McKay observed with unnerving mildness, "I thought you were going to kill me with a heart attack, but clearly the absurdity-induced aneurysm is going to get me first."

"Oh Maaaaandy! You kissed me and stopped me from sha-a-akin'! And I need you toda-ay!"

"Gentlemen, if we could just calm down so I could tell you--" Beckett began.

"Besides," Sheppard went on, batting the camera out from between them with his free hand, "It's not like Zelenka's really... mannish."

"I beg your pardon?" Zelenka squawked.

"I mean, he has kind of girly hair."

Shrugging out from under Sheppard's arm, Zelenka bounced up again, a compact bundle of fury. "I am plenty mannish. I was forward on university hockey team. I could have gone professional except that I was too s--"

"Short?" McKay finished snidely.

"Smart. I got scholarship to graduate school," Zelenka corrected him loftily.

"There's no need to be insulting," Weir added with a glare in McKay's direction. "And size isn't everything."

"I am not short," Zelenka protested.

"No, no you're... cute." Sheppard patted him on the head.

"I am not cute!" He stamped his little foot.

"Really, I need to tell you something important--" The camera dodged Sheppard's swatting hand again and Teyla had to duck to keep from being sideswiped by it.

Having decided that this wasn't going to resolve itself by any natural means, Teyla waded into the middle of the fray. "Please, everyone," she said in her most reasonable voice. "Shouldn't we be dealing with Colonel Dixon and the threat of the Wraith?"

McKay made a "yak yak yak" motion with his hand and Weir said, "Wraith, Wraith, Wraith! That's all it is with you, Teyla! We have important things going on here!"

"She's a little obsessive about this Wraith thing, don't you think?" McKay said conversationally to Weir, who nodded. "It's not healthy."

"I was tallest in my family. And I'm man enough to have girly hair if I want to."

"O-oh, Maaaaandyyy!"

"For the love of Pete, just listen to me!" Beckett howled so loudly and forlornly that the speaker on the camera buzzed in sympathy. "Rodney, I think I got my head sucked!"

"Well that makes one of us," McKay snarled.

"Two actually," Ford said quietly. He was pointing at Dixon.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. I like to keep track of who's getting luckier than me." McKay looked like he was about to say more in that vein, but he started blinking rapidly instead. He turned on Zelenka, "Waitaminute. You let that thing suck Beckett's head?"

Zelenka backpedaled a little as he held up his hands. "I didn't let it. The AIs, Rodney. They are tricky. They make distracting data on the laptop and suck head while my back is turned."

"Oh, really," McKay drawled. "A lot of that going around, isn't there." The look he shot Sheppard should have flayed him except the major was studiously inspecting his boots.

"Rodney?" the camera said, angling in to look him in the eye. "There's a red triangle on this long range scanner screen. What does that mean?"

^^^

Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill.


The major's head snapped up. "It's red? You said the triangle is red?"

"That's not good," Rodney said.

"That's not good?" Beckett repeated.

"No, it's not good. It's bad. It's very, very bad. As in inside our solar system bad."

Elizabeth's eyes were getting round again, but then they went narrow and determined. "Radek will handle it," she said with complete confidence as she turned to him, apparently expecting him to display some heretofore undemonstrated super power.

For a second, he contemplated that, but all he could come up with was elegant cross-checking and and a really nice wrist-shot. He didn't think that hockey skills were what she had in mind. He wondered what life would have been like for him in that world where he was a hockey player instead of a physicist. He'd have had fewer teeth and more dates, to begin with. Which was, of course, beside the point. He dragged his brain back to this universe, where Elizabeth was still watching him, where, actually, everyone was watching him. Watch Rodney, he thought. Watch Rodney fix it with his muscles and tallness and fancy genes. They kept looking at him.

"The shield," Major Sheppard said. "Fix the shield and then we can get to the reward." He waggled his eyebrows in a conspiratorial way as though he actually thought he was speaking code. Zelenka decided that the ray gun made people stupid as well as amorous. Or maybe amorous was just stupid in an essential way and maybe that was why he never got the girl.

Rodney made a small strangling noise. Over in the corner, Ford was aiming his P90 at the ceiling, in the direction of the Wraith. Colonel Dixon was crooning softly, interrupting himself with the occasional "oh, yeah, baby," and other things Zelenka didn't want to hear.

Somewhere an alarm started to sound.

"Ah, the red triangle is flashing now," Beckett announced.

"We have to get control," Rodney said, and Sheppard snorted, so Rodney glared at him and then at Zelenka, which made Weir glare at Rodney, who glared back at her.

Teyla stepped between them.

"Of the city," Rodney clarified with acidic patience.

Zelenka watched the glaring as he tugged thoughtfully at his lip. He could feel that feeling he got when an idea was forming. It was a little bit like vodka burning its way down his throat and igniting in his stomach. The glow-and-prickle of it was spreading to his fingertips. He always liked that feeling, when a solution bloomed along his nerves like that. It made his mouth quirk up in a smile.

"What?" Rodney said.

Zelenka silenced him with a finger and turned to the camera. "Dr. Beckett, you said you activated the interface."

"Yes! It sucked my head and something crawled inside and I would like to have my brain back now, thank you very much."

"Alright. You need to go back to the lab. You can talk while you walk, yes?" He waited until Beckett replied that he was walking. "What were you thinking of at that moment?"

Silence.

"Dr. Beckett, this is important."

Beckett's voice no longer came to them through the camera's speaker, but through their headsets. "Well, totally against my will, I'll say, I overheard you and Rodney talking and I was thinking about how you want Elizabeth, but that she's pining for Rodney. And I was thinking of how Weir-McKay babies would be, well, terrifying and--"

Rodney groaned and put his hands over his face. "Great."

"I am not pining for Rodney!" Elizabeth's cheeks were flushed with indignation.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to eavesdrop--"

Zelenka waved Beckett's apology and Rodney's chagrin and Elizabeth's protests away. "And then the interface, yes?"

"Yes."

"Meddlesome paper clip," Zelenka said to himself. Then he smiled at Elizabeth. "The help program. It is working on a problem. It brings us down here to this place--"

"Amatorium," Beckett said.

"Amatorium. And it zaps you with ray gun to make you..." Zelenka's mouth moved but no sound came out. The nice, familiar glow of inspiration was being seared away by embarrassment.

"Fall in love with him," Beckett added helpfully.

"I don't need a ray gun for that," Elizabeth said and the words made the flare leap up in Zelenka's stomach again, until he reminded himself that it was the ray-gun talking. Then the sadness settled down on him like a heavy, cold, wet blanket.

"Ooooh, Maaaaaaaaaaaandy," Dixon wailed.

"Does he know only two songs?" Teyla asked.

Zelenka switched off his radio mic and signaled for the rest of them to do the same. Then he pulled them into a huddle. There was some shuffling and a bit of rib-jabbing as Elizabeth and the major jostled to be closest to him and Rodney jostled to insinuate himself and finally Teyla assumed her frightening warrior face and put herself on one side of Zelenka and Ford on the other.

"We must convince the AIs that they have completed their task so that they will shut down."

"Great idea," Rodney said. "How do you propose we do that?"

"We kiss and make up." Zelenka was careful not to meet Elizabeth's eye. "The programs believe that Rodney has come between Elizabeth and me. We prove that this is no longer so, the AIs release their control of the system, we activate shield, Wraith are repelled and we go get enough drunk that we cannot remember anything tomorrow."

"I like this plan," Elizabeth said cheerfully.

"This plan sucks," Sheppard said at the exact same time.

"I'm in the lab," Beckett announced.

Zelenka keyed his mic. "Good. Await my signal. But I want you to think of Wraith ship. Concentrate."

"Well, that's not goin' to be very difficult given that they're on the bloody doorstep lookin' for dinner."

"Good." He signaled them all to turn on their mics and broke up the huddle, then took Elizabeth by her arm and positioned her in front of the camera. He pointed at a spot on the floor next to her and Sheppard came and stood on it, looking grumpy. "Dr. Beckett, I want you to connect with the interface, but you have to remember two things: one, to activate the beam that will return the major and Dr. Weir to their normal states, and two, to think about the Wraith as a problem, a very nasty, important problem."

"If you think I'm goin' t' stick my head in there again--"

"Carson, just do what he says," Rodney growled between clenched teeth.

"Fine. But I'm not responsible if you all get turned into tulips or something."

"Carson, please," Elizabeth urged him calmly. "Not tulips."

They waited. A moment later, a sparkly blue beam shot out of the ray gun on the belly of the camera and enveloped Elizabeth and the major. This time, they didn't pass out at all, but only tensed and shivered until it was over.

"Oh," was all Elizabeth said. The smile she turned on Zelenka was rueful. He actually felt it slice his heart in two.

Sheppard cast a sideways glance at Rodney and went back to looking at his boots.

"Alright," Zelenka said. Checking to make sure the camera was still active and watching, he stepped in front of Elizabeth and, before he could think too much about it, he clasped her face between his hands, pulled it close and kissed her gently. At first, she was tense, her lips thin and resisting, but after a second she relaxed. He was so surprised when her tongue nuzzled his lips that he almost gasped and let go, but her hand on the small of his back stopped him. The kiss went on longer than he had anticipated. He told himself that she was just making sure. After all, the survival of Atlantis depended on her convincing performance.

When he let her go, she said "Oh" again. The smile wasn't rueful at all. That made his well-educated, remarkable mind go buh again. It took him awhile to realize that the alarm was still sounding, and that Colonel Dixon was still singing and the Wraith were still coming.

Still standing close enough to him that her chest brushed against his when she breathed, Elizabeth looked up at the ceiling and then around the room. "Why didn't it work?"

"Me,"Rodney said miserably. "If the AIs think that I'm the problem, then maybe they aren't convinced I won't come between you again. And that means the protocol is still running." His shoulders slumped with resignation. "Somebody has to kiss me to prove I'm not a threat." When Teyla stepped forward, ready to throw herself on her sword for the cause, Rodney held up a hand. "Not good enough," he said, then corrected, flustering a little, "Which doesn't mean you aren't good enough for someone. I'm sure you're, I mean, you're, you know, wow, a knock-out if a guy was into that sort of thing but I think it's pretty clear that I'm not, so--"

Teyla's smile was sly and understanding all at once. She withdrew with utmost dignity.

"Major," Elizabeth said.

Major Sheppard looked up from his boots and then over his shoulder at Colonel Dixon. When he turned back to them, his face was haunted with worry, but he squared his shoulders and took a step closer to Rodney. He started to put his hands on Rodney's stiff shoulders, but stopped to aim a pointed look at Elizabeth. "This is not me telling," he said.

She nodded her understanding. "This is not me asking." She then turned away from them. Everyone else followed her lead.

A few seconds later, the siren stopped howling. A few seconds after that, Grodin's voice burst over the radio, "The Wraith ship is withdrawing. The other one, too! The shield is online! All systems online!"

Once he was done reporting, Beckett's shaky voice replaced his. "Oh, don't make me do that again."

"Carson? Are you okay?" Elizabeth asked.

"I think so. They're gone. You were right, Dr. Zelenka. They couldn't wait to go fix another problem. I feel very sorry for the Wraith."

"Not," Ford said. He was grinning, and there wasn't too much hysteria in it, even though all of his teeth were showing.

Elizabeth turned to the major. "Thank you, John."

He nodded tersely and strode out of the room, leaving Rodney to shuffle-clump one-shoed after him.

From where he was sprawled on the floor, Colonel Dixon groaned, "Anybody got a cigarette?"


^^^

And each several chamber bless, / Through this palace, with sweet peace


Colonel Dixon went down like a bag full of hammers. At least, that's what Teyla thought Major Sheppard would say, having gone down like a bag full of hammers himself more than once.

"Ow," Dixon said into the mat.

Teyla released his arm and it flopped down onto the mat next to him. "You telegraph," she told him again.

"I do not telegraph," he objected as he got his hands under himself and rolled onto his back. "I was giving you a break."

Teyla held her hand out to him and smiled her most gracious smile so that there would be no misunderstanding the nature of her concession. "I thank you for your solicitousness."

"I wasn't soliciting, either." He grasped her forearm and made her work to lever him onto his feet. "Although, in another universe--one of them parallel ones where black is white and white is black and gophers rule the world and I'm not married--I would totally solicit you, believe me."

Teyla frowned quizzically and filed the term away. She'd ask Dr. Weir about it later. She squared her feet and lowered her chin, ready for another match, but Dixon rolled his head on his shoulders, shook out his arms and looked over her head at the window.

She thought about this universe, where gophers--whatever they were--most likely did not rule the world, although she supposed that it was possible that there was a gopher-dominated world out there somewhere. "Do you miss your wife and your children?" she asked.

"Nope," he answered, too quickly. "Yep," he said after a pause. "You know." He kept looking at the window, even though it was opaqued and only a pale, yellow light leaked in to mark the floor and the mat in squares.

She dropped her hands. "Colonel," she began tentatively and waited until his gaze fell to her. "What is the significance of 'Mandy'?"

He frowned at her like she'd just done something crazy and a little daft, like, perhaps, asking him about the Barry Manilow. "What?"

"You came and you gave without taking?"

"Oh." He shrugged and looked at the window again.

Teyla was so focused on his face that she almost missed the telegraphed move, the slight shifting of shadows on his muscled arms as his intention rippled through his body and became motion. She sidestepped his sweeping arm, ducked under his other one, slipped her foot behind his ankle and rode his momentum so that they spiraled down to the mat together, the colonel ending up on his face and her with her knee in the middle of his back.

"Ow," he said into the mat before shrugging her off and sitting up. "Okay, maybe I telegraph a little."

"Mandy?" she repeated, feinted at him just enough to make him twitch, threat received.

"Me and my wife," he answered reluctantly. "We met at a Manilow concert."

"Ah," Teyla said and couldn't quite contain her smile.

"And you tell anybody, well, there's a lot of ocean out there and you won't see it coming."

At that she had to laugh. "Oh yes, Colonel, I will."


^^^

Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound his dream.


Zelenka did an about-face, walked five assertive paces in the direction of his own quarters and stopped. These were not, precisely, assertive paces, he chided himself. They were craven retreat. He did another about-face, took five assertive paces in the direction of Elizabeth's--Dr. Weir's--quarters and stopped again.

It was only an apology he had to give. That was all. He had apologized before. Certainly it would not kill him.

He was already dead, anyway.

Except that he wasn't. Standing in the dim hallway of the living quarters, he weighed Elizabeth's two "Oh"s, one in each hand, two smiles--rueful and not-rueful--balanced there, too. One hand was infinitely heavier than the other. He let it drop. He raised the other to look accusingly at it. Dreams. Dreams and impossibilities and fantasy. He turned back toward his quarters.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," a voice said.

He turned to find Beckett leaning at the intersection, a beaker of something clear dangling from his hand.

"What?"

"Walk away? You want to walk away now? Pshaw."

Beckett, it seemed, was taking the plan to its conclusion and was getting very drunk.

"Those little bastard squirrels." He waggled his fingers next to his temple to indicate the little bastard squirrels who were once inside his head. "They hand you this on a platter and you're goin' t'let that slip away? I had my head sucked for this."

Zelenka stood in the middle of the hallway and didn't retreat. He didn't advance either.

"They weren't just annoying paperclips." Beckett said. "These Ancients aren't entirely stupid, you know." With that, he pushed himself off of the wall and wove his way around the corner.

Zelenka heard him say, "G'night, 'Lis'beth," but was still rooted to the floor when she came into his hallway. No escape.

She was wearing jeans and that nice, white t-shirt. The amulet at her throat winked in the bubbling light from a nearby thermal conduit. Her eyes were large and dark. She was smiling, but in the shadows, he couldn't tell whether it was rueful or not.

"I--" he began and paused to look longingly back in the direction of his quarters before looking longingly back at her and then longingly down at his feet which weren't going anywhere at all. "I was coming to tell you that I've done some work on the room. The, um, the Amatorium. According to preliminary translations of the database, it was a, er, recreation." He pushed his glasses up and passed a hand over his hair. He realized that he'd forgotten to look in the mirror before he'd left his quarters. "The beam, it was a way of experiencing--like a vacation, perhaps, or to learn about how others... feel." When he looked back at her, she was a lot closer than she'd been before.

He was trying to remember how to breathe so that he could say something else useful and intelligent, but when he opened his mouth, she leaned forward and kissed him, her tongue just teasing his lips before she pulled back and smiled at him, a wholly happy and mischievous smile.

"Oh," Zelenka said.


^^^

Now to scape the serpent's tongue, / We will make amends ere long.


The door chimed twice before Sheppard heard Rodney's "Go away!"

"That's my line, remember?" Sheppard sort of shout-whispered with his mouth close to the not-glass after checking the hallway for eavesdroppers. Apparently unimpressed by Sheppard's generously self-deprecating humour, the door stayed closed. "C'mon, McKay," Sheppard said, louder, "you know I can open this door with my mind."

Nothing happened. He opened the door with his mind.

Rodney was sitting at his desk but facing the door with his arms folded over his chest and his chin jutting out. He didn't say anything. Sheppard hovered in the doorway, resisting the urge to scan the hallway again.

"What do you want?" Rodney asked.

"I wanted to--" Sheppard waved a hand vaguely, maybe at Rodney's quarters or maybe at Rodney's soul, or... something. "--check. You know." He took a step and the door closed behind him.

Rodney didn't move. He didn't say anything. He looked like he'd been put on "pause," in that he was very still but vibrating a little. Sheppard could see the tirade building up inside there, behind the thin line of his mouth. He had a very clear mental image of himself being washed down the corridors of Atlantis on tsunami of words.

Rodney said, very carefully letting one word out at a time, "Check. What?"

"You. Us, I guess."

"There is no us. Go away."

Sheppard let his head fall back and knock against the door panels. He may have growled a little. "What are you talking about? You can't seriously be jealous of Zelenka. I was under alien influence."

"Mensa," Rodney sneered and went back to his laptop. He tapped away for a few moments, swore softly under his breath, and hit the delete button, holding it down for a long time. "It's not Zelenka," he said at last. "And if you had more I.Q. points than a house plant you'd know that." He clamped his teeth shut again. Sheppard had to give him credit because the tirade was probably strangling him.

Sheppard considered leaving it at that. It was a guy thing. Lack of communication was expected, and terse Rodney, frankly, was kind of scary. But against his will, Sheppard's mouth opened and said, "Then what?"

He watched Rodney throw up his hands and slump back in the chair like he did when someone was being spectacularly, wearyingly stupid. And Sheppard had to admit, that hurt a bit. Of course, Sheppard did have a few more I.Q. points than a house plant, so the answer was buzzing around at the back of his head like a fly fumbling against a closed window. He swatted at it, but it darted away and kept buzzing.

"Denial," Rodney said, letting the fly out to buzz around in front of Sheppard's eyes.

"Alien influence."

"Not after."

"I kissed you in front of not one but two commanding officers!"

"I'm not talking about them, Major. I don't actually give a shit about them," Rodney said wearily with an edge of broken glass to it. "I'm talking about you."

The buzzing fly turned into a dragon.

Sheppard thought the door open, but oddly, it stayed closed. He knocked his head against it again and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Rodney was standing very close. His face wasn't even angry. It was... sad. Sheppard had seen Rodney enraged and irritated and terrified and guilty and grieving and in despair, but he'd never seen sad, not this kind of sad, weary, resigned sad. It was an expression that filled Sheppard up from feet to neck with cold, silty water. The tsunami would have been better. The dragon would have been better. Rodney. Damnit. Sheppard considered punching him or something.

"I'm too old," Rodney said softly, sadly, "and life's too short--and believe me, since I came to Atlantis I have learned that cliches come from somewhere--life is too short and I'm not going to be your moment of bad judgment, or that thing you did once under extreme conditions, or the experimenting you did in your youth, okay? I'm not going to tell you how to deal with yourself, but I'm not going to be that, either."

He stepped back and palmed the door control. Oddly, the door stayed closed. He slapped it again. Nothing happened. He slapped Sheppard on the shoulder with the back of his hand and then slapped the door control. Nothing happened. Then he glared at Sheppard. "Mind-controlled doors are a terrible invention and you're ruining my speech."

"I'm gay," Sheppard said.

Rodney blinked.

The roaring, fire-breathing dragon in Sheppard's head hiccoughed and went, "huh?"

Ever the scientist with a need to confirm his data, Rodney said, "What?"

"I said: I'm gay."

The dragon morphed suddenly back into a fly with a very surprised expression on its face before it flipped over on its back and kicked its tiny legs in the air.

Sheppard swallowed hard and looked around for some kind of escape, but the door was closed and Rodney was still really close and Sheppard didn't really want to escape, which explained the closed door, incidentally. He flattened his hands on it. They were sweaty. He felt strange. He felt like he'd been watching everything on television and now suddenly it was all 3-D and real and solid and terrifying and pretty cool, somewhere there under the terrifying.

"Oh," Rodney said. The word had a lot of stuff going on inside of it for just one syllable. "Gay as in happy?"

"Gay as in terrified."

Rodney nodded, his mouth slanting up just a little on one side. "That sounds about right." He came a little bit closer.

For some strange reason, strange, that is, considering the terror, Sheppard started to smile. Well, it was smirk, actually, at first, which seemed to amuse Rodney, whose own little hint of a smile grew to an actual smile, and then Sheppard's smirk got away from him and became a grin and then escalated to something probably pretty goofy and then became a full-fledged "Ha!"

And all of that was pretty terrifying so he grabbed Rodney by the biceps and hung on tight and said, "Ha!" again. And Rodney's smile was crooked and a little smug and mostly delighted so Sheppard had to kiss it and it was sort of like a first kiss in a way so he tried to remember it, but Rodney's hands worked their way up the back of his shirt against his skin and Sheppard forgot to remember or to think forward. He just kissed Rodney and didn't listen for footsteps in the hall.


-The End-


Beckett finished the Athosian brew and then upended the bottle, watching the last of it dribble out into his beaker. Atlantis was quiet, no sound but the ocean and the hum of computers. He closed his laptop and straightened up the work table. He sipped his drink. What a cock-up it all had been. But then again.... Somewhere way up there, two Wraith ships were drifting, and Big Squirrelish and Little Squirrelish were probably arguing over who should steer. Somewhere in Atlantis, people were kissing each other, and, maybe by now--unless they had lots of stamina--they were curling around each other and drifting, too, into sleep. He yawned mightily. One more sip and then, tomorrow, when he looked at it all through a hungover haze, and when they looked at it through the afterglow, it would all be strange and distant and blurred around the edges.

As he wandered out of the infirmary and down the hall, the lights brightened in front of him and dimmed behind him. At one of the balconies, he paused and stepped out for a moment to look at the sky before going on toward his quarters, wondering muzzily why there was no moon.


If we shadows have offended...

My apologies to Mr. Shakespeare. Salieri 2005


Notes:  This was posted serially a million years ago in my Livejournal and now has been buffed up for posting all in one big gooey piece. Thanks to all the folks who commented as I went along.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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