a Stargate: Atlantis story
by dirty diana
for Azar in the OT3 ficathon. Who asked for genuine feelings, their roles as the leaders of Atlantis as metaphor, and the phrase "new galaxy, new rules". I'm fairly certain that this is in no way the story that she was thinking of. Beta love to sf fan.
When it finally happened, John wasn't surprised by the closing of the Atlantis program. What surprised him was not being sent back to Antarctica. Or being quietly discharged, sent back to California with a firm handshake and nothing to look forward to.
Just as well. John didn't actually think he was good at anything else.
When General O'Neill gave him the talk, the serious and only half-apologetic frown when he said it wasn't his fault, John just shrugged. Because he wasn't surprised.
"It's been a pleasure serving with you, sir." Ford saw him go.
John cocked an eyebrow. "Pleasure?" he repeated. "Perhaps you're forgetting some things."
"Well," Ford grinned patiently, "it was interesting, at least."
John matched his smile. "If you say so, Lieutenant."
On the black asphalt outside Cheyenne, Ford waved goodbye. Quarantine time was up. John took his things and hitched a ride from Cheyenne Mountain into Colorado Springs, and found a motel. A pleasingly cheap and gaudy motel, the Red Eagle something. John thought the animal on the sign looked more like a bullfrog.
Then he showered, more than happy to get out of his class twos and into jeans and a sweater. It was the slow end of autumn in Colorado, the weather damp and cool.
Dinner was drive-through McDonald's, a Big Mac with cheese. God, he would miss McDonald's. He always did, when he went away. He missed the little plastic toys that he had collected faithfully when he was younger, still did sometimes, an army of colourful figures kept in his dashboard for luck. He missed trying to coax a smile out of the girl at the drive through window, until she blushed and fumbled his change.
He would miss a lot of things. But he never actually had time to miss McKay. There was a knock at the door.
"Do you have any idea how annoying a person you are to find? No one on base knew where you had gone, and..." McKay stopped, peering over John's shoulder into the small room. "You left the base for this place? Were all the hovels already rented?"
"McKay." John tried, futilely, to cut through the barrage of words. "Rodney." He might miss this too, trying to figure out what the hell McKay was talking about.
Rodney stopped suddenly, and looked at him. "What?"
"What are you doing here?"
"Oh," McKay said, waving his hand as if it was obvious, "I came to say goodbye."
Both men were quiet for a moment. John crumpled the napkin in his hand and tossed it into the wastebasket, a perfect three-point throw.
"Goodbye," McKay repeated quietly. "I mean, I assume that you're leaving?"
"I've been reassigned."
"The south pole again?"
"Classified," John said, without blinking.
McKay nodded seriously, as if it was what he had expected.
"What about you? Where are you reassigned to?"
"I'm a civilian, in case you've forgotten," McKay said. "They can't just reassign me. My contract's up. I've chosen not to renew."
"Right," John said. "Off to make the big bucks working for a private company? Space satellites? Space missiles?"
McKay made a face of displeasure. "Please. Been there. Done that. I'm taking a break."
"You are." John couldn't keep the scepticism out of his voice.
McKay glared. "Yes, I am. It's not like I can't afford it. Your government has been extremely generous. Well, not overly generous, I was certainly worth every penny, but..."
"Fine. You're taking a break. Where to?"
"Haven't decided." And since that seemed to be the only answer that he was planning to give, they went for a drink.
McKay drove a '94 Nissan that John suspected hadn't been cleaned since it had left the dealer's lot, but still roared when he started it up.
"Huh," John said.
McKay glared at him. "No."
"No, John. You cannot look underneath my hood."
"I wasn't thinking that," John protested weakly.
"Yeah, you were."
"I wasn't," John insisted, and reached out to turn on the radio.
"You're terrible company," McKay observed later, tilting his gin and tonic until the ice clinked, frowning at it suspiciously. "I said no lemon, right?"
"Yeah." John shrugged. "I was just thinking."
"There's no point brooding." McKay slapped his hands together, as if he had given this speech more than once over the past few days. "If your government prefers to turn a blind eye to the threats in the Pegasus galaxy, then..."
"We're not turning a blind eye." John cut him off. The bitterness in his own voice surprised him. It was deeper than he could remember since McMurdo. Since Somalia. "We're running. The Wraith kicked our asses, and we're running away."
McKay eyed him carefully, as if waiting for the explosion. John forced himself to take a breath.
"You could take a break," McKay said.
John frowned. "With you?"
"No, not with me. God. Just in principle. A break from the Air Force."
John only shook his head.
They ran into Elizabeth by accident, at a rodeo bar two nights later. Rodney had never actually been in a rodeo bar, and had found one, in his borrowed Colorado guidebook. John couldn't talk him out of it.
He didn't recognise her at first, with her back turned as she whispered something to the bartender, then sipped her bottle of beer. He'd been admiring her actually, the smooth lines of her in blue jeans, when she turned to face him and then smiled.
McKay said, "Hey, isn't that..."
"Yeah," John answered. "I think it is."
"Gentlemen." She had crossed the room in an instant, and John smiled back at her. "Taking a tour of Colorado Springs?"
"Sure." McKay nodded seriously. "The museums. The really big ball of rubber bands..."
"It wasn't that big," John interrupted.
"It was a pretty big ball."
"Size isn't everything, McKay."
Rodney turned and squinted at him, his eyes hiding a smile. "John, no one actually believes that."
"There's no one line dancing."
John looked at him, shifting in the wooden bar chair. He balanced his glass of beer on the wide, flat arm. "Why would there be line dancing?"
"Because there always is on TV. Line dancing. And mechanical bulls. And women in leather."
"What movies do you watch?" John demanded, but McKay waved the question away with one hand.
When Elizabeth interrupted the conversation, she was smiling. He had never seen her smile, on Atlantis. Almost never. It made him want to smile too. "I used to line dance quite a lot in Orton."
John frowned. "Where?"
"Tennessee. Lived there for two years once. Pre-UN. Tiny town. Only had one bar. And nothing else to do."
"Oh," John said. The list of things he knew about Elizabeth was small, even after three years.
"Tennessee?" McKay repeated. "Were you under mind-control?"
Elizabeth smiled again. God, that was distracting. "Close. In love."
"Dance with me." Elizabeth stood, managing to make the word sound like a command. The effect was twisted, though, by the sway of her hips just over the height of the table. "Either of you."
"I don't dance."
Elizabeth tilted her head at him in slight amusement, and without looking John knew that McKay was doing the same. "Everyone dances."
John shrugged, but didn't move. The record stopped and another one started, something that sounded vaguely like Elvis, remixed out of recognition. Elizabeth pulled McKay up with both hands, only McKay giving him a second glance.
The record had changed again, a young woman singing a slow song of heartbreak. Elizabeth had pulled McKay into her arms, and held him there, swaying slightly. Her face turned away, buried in his shoulder, but just exposed enough that John could catch the look there, something peaceful.
He paid for his drink, and then left. The night had turned cold, an ice wind blowing down the empty street. John pulled his jacket close around him, and hailed a cab back to the motel.
He woke up with a headache, one he'd had almost constantly since he'd gotten back. The days were shorter here than on Atlantis, the nights much longer. Adjusting to the difference seemed that much harder now, in a body that was three years older. John stumbled to the bathroom, pouring a glass of water from the tap and drinking it down.
The phone rang. It was McKay.
They met Elizabeth at the rodeo bar, the Silver Something, two nights in a row. It didn't seem to occur to McKay to ask why she didn't have anywhere else to be, so John didn't either. Whatever had happened to the house, to the dog and to the boyfriend that she had mentioned once or twice, she didn't seem to want to talk about it.
On the third day, McKay said, "I have an apartment, you know."
"I rented one the last time I was working here. I needed a place for my stuff."
"You know. My furniture. Dishes. Star Trek collectibles. Well?" McKay prodded him.
"Well, I just invited you to stay over. Are you coming, or do you actually like living at the Red Bullfrog?"
"Eagle," John corrected him.
"Whatever," McKay said. "Are you coming?"
McKay's apartment was cramped and messy, a reflection of his quarters on Atlantis. John kicked a discarded pizza box out of the way, as he placed his bag on the floor.
"God. Don't you ever clean up?"
McKay rolled his eyes. "I've been busy. Saving other galaxies. Want me to drive you back to the Red Bullfrog?"
"Eagle." John looked around. "Don't you have a cat?"
"I gave her away. I figured it was best, since I was never here." McKay frowned. "How did you know I had a cat?"
John shrugged. "You must have mentioned it once."
"Huh," McKay said.
McKay's spare room was neat and clean, never used. John threw his bag into a corner, wincing at the unexpected thud as it hit the ground. "I never finished it," he said.
McKay stopped abruptly in the doorway. "What?"
"War and Peace. I never finished it."
"So you'll finish it now. Do you want dinner?"
"Only if you're not cooking," John said, and grinned.
"Please." McKay seemed surprised for a moment, and then smiled back. "One good thing about leaving Atlantis is that I'll never be on campfire duty again."
Without even discussing it, they ended up back in the Silver Spur that night. After a dinner of takeout Chinese, over the nightly news and part of a Mel Gibson movie. McKay talked through the whole thing, the way that he'd always done on movie nights on Atlantis. Absently, fingers folding the pages of the menu into paper airplanes, John listened.
It was tequila night at the Silver Spur. Elizabeth was already there.
"So." McKay had disappeared already, across the room and over to the bar, in search of beer. John searched for something to say. "Are you sticking with the...Program?"
Elizabeth shrugged. She pushed her hair from her face, displaying tight lines at the edges of her eyes that made her look a little older. "For a while. I still have some reports to write. Files to close. It'll take a couple of months."
"Don't know." She whispered the words as if it was the last thing on her mind. "What about you?" She smiled suddenly. "Is this your vacation? You and Rodney?"
John shook his head. "No."
Rodney returned with the beers, and something with an umbrella in it for Elizabeth. He was muttering underneath his breath about price gouging. "John's been reassigned," he explained, picking up the thread of conversation in an instant.
She turned back to look at him. "Oh? Where to?"
"It's classified," McKay explained.
John didn't say anything.
Elizabeth sipped her drink, and then stood up. "Dance with me," she said.
Rodney stammered an answer, and then reached for Elizabeth's hand.
"Have I seen you here before?"
The hand on his arm surprised him. John looked up, and an undemanding smile creased his mouth. "Maybe," he said. "I'm new in town."
"Oh." The slender brunette pulled out a chair and sat beside him, not relaxing the grip she had on his arm, the other hand clutching a red sequined purse. She had a melodic, sing-song rhythm to her voice, a Mid-West accent that John couldn't quite place. "Air Force?"
"Not really." She grinned brightly back at him. "This is the town for it. And you look like the type."
John looked around for Elizabeth and Rodney, but there was no sign of them. "What type?" he asked finally.
"You know. Like a boy scout."
John couldn't help laughing.
Her mouth quirked ruefully. "I say something funny?"
"No," John said quickly. "But the Boy Scouts kicked me out."
Her eyes widened. "They didn't."
She laughed again, sweet and musical. "You must have been a trouble maker."
"Something like that," John agreed.
"Well, Mr. Trouble," she held out her hand finally, "I'm Caroline. Welcome to Colorado Springs."
John introduced himself. Caroline was pretty, he noticed suddenly, with hair curling around the tips of her ears. She smiled a lot. John liked that. In the last days on Atlantis, no one had remembered how to smile.
"Elizabeth is coming over tonight." McKay mentioned this a little past six, stirring up a pot of macaroni and cheese. "She's bringing beer."
"Tired of the cowgirls?" John asked him.
Rodney glared at him.
John walked away.
"You're not talking to me."
John hadn't been listening. He had been watching the sky, from the vantage point of McKay's balcony, watching where the city sky melted into darkness and stars. He had been wondering what direction the Pegasus galaxy lay in from here, and if Teyla too, watched the stars from where she stood. "What?"
John frowned. "I am not."
"You are. You've been sulking for two days."
"Yeah? Is that why you invited me over? To apologise?"
McKay started, his voice rising in pitch and volume. "Apologise? For what?"
"Never mind," John snapped. "Why don't you just go wait..."
"You and Elizabeth," McKay's mouth hung open in wonder. "I always thought it was just a rumour."
"Thought what was just a rumour?" John turned on him, suddenly, unable to control the spikes of anger that blazed beneath his low-grade headache.
Rodney raised his hands hastily, shaking his head. "Don't yell at me, John. I didn't start it. I didn't even believe it, till you just....You should tell her, you know. She's not...I don't think that she really...she's just lonely."
John's head hurt. He turned his head away, trying to watch the stars.
With only a brief hesitation, McKay reached out and kissed him. John accepted it, clung to the warm, wet greeting, before he even knew what he was doing, before he knew that it was McKay's hand resting for support in the small of his back. McKay's finger brushed the edges of the scar that broke the smooth skin there, where John couldn't feel it. An almost-new scar, something else that John didn't quite remember.
"Lonely," he murmured, without thinking it.
"Yeah," Rodney said. A gentle agreement, that meant more things than John could count.
John kissed him again, and shivered.
"It was just once." John doesn't know why he's so scared to talk about it, now, as his hands slide over the knots of Rodney's spine, underneath his shirt. Touching Rodney, but breathing Elizabeth now, in a distant memory, the bittersweet weight of her lying across his chest. "Just once."
"Yeah." McKay nodded, as if he understood, and maybe he did. "But things are different now."
"I always liked you," John said suddenly. "Even when you were being a pain in the ass. Trying to get us all killed."
McKay looked at him strangely, the moon twisted and reflected in his eyes. "I always knew you liked me."
"Yes. You didn't spend any time trying to get me to like you, like you do with everyone else. I read between the lines."
"I don't..." John began, and then stopped.
The sliding door creaked as someone pulled it open. Elizabeth stood, watching them. "The front door was open," she said.
"We were talking," McKay explained quickly.
Underneath the moonlight, Elizabeth's skin looked cool to touch, with only her eyes speaking warmth. She leaned against the doorframe, crossing her arms against her chest the way that she did when she was listening. "I see," she said.
John stepped back suddenly, out of McKay's reach. He had the sudden feeling that she did see, that both she and McKay saw everything, and he was the only one still catching up. "I'm going to Iraq," he said. "In thirteen days."
McKay nodded curtly. "I figured as much."
"I could be there a while. You and Elizabeth..."
"Will miss you." He knew that voice. That was Elizabeth's true voice, her take-no-prisoners voice when she'd decided something, a sound that John knew he'd crave when he was gone. Like McDonald's. "A lot."
"New galaxy," Rodney added quietly. "New rules."
"We're in the old galaxy," John pointed out.
"But it's new to us."
John couldn't argue that. Instead he watched Rodney and Elizabeth, looking at each other, their eyes bright as if everything was different now.