Author's Notes: Takes place during season three's The Return. I haven't played with these characters in a while, so jumping back in with them was a lot of fun, and hopefully I hit a few of the points in your request. I may have twisted the canon timeline a tiny bit to suit my purposes. Also, huge thanks go to Busaikko for the last-minute beta and fabulous suggestions. Any remaining mistakes are my own.
Summary: John knew even before leaving Atlantis for the final time that the reprieve he'd been handed in Antarctica was over.
John knew even before leaving Atlantis that the reprieve he'd been handed in Antarctica was over.
At least he'd been content doing milk runs at McMurdo, once he'd adjusted to the terms of his exile. But where did he find himself after a miraculously salvaged career and promotion? On the same slow slide, only grounded. The SGC wasn't about to let him fly for the same reason they weren't about to let him go: his field experience and his gene were too valuable. At best, he might coast out the rest of his twenty chafing under the loss of... call it autonomy. At worst he might be fast-tracked to Washington kicking and screaming, the same way O'Neill had been.
"General Sheppard" had a frankly horrifying ring to it.
The SGC moved fast, ramming the personnel evicted from Atlantis through debrief. Those still under contract were reassigned -- in a thoroughly not-random geographic scatter pattern, John noticed. Might have had something to do with the way any three or more of them, huddled together, created a sort of dispirited vacuum that could suck the life out of a room. Psychologists might have been involved in the process, but it was more likely that Landry had thrown darts at a map while blindfolded.
John was -- surprise of surprises! -- transferred to the SGC proper. He was given new uniforms, temporary quarters on sub-level twelve, and a gate team of his very own (thoughtfully pre-assembled for Landry's convenience).
Of the three, it was the team he resented most. The uniforms would improve with wear and washing, the addition of a radio and white noise ocean soundtrack helped him sleep at night, but babysitting Carter's Future Physicists of America? Compared to the Atlantis Marines -- god, he'd been so spoiled -- it was the difference between driving a Pave Hawk and being stuck in coach with a screaming baby and one of your fellow passengers asleep and drooling on your shoulder.
In addition to being green as hell, they had the added delightful effect of making him feel old. It took him a couple weeks to realize that the pop-culture divide wasn't just the result of coming off an isolated post. (Case in point: McMurdo.)
Following the Keystone Cops debacle that was his mission to P3X-921, John marched into Landry's office and said, "Did I wrong you in a past life or something?" He added a, "Sir?" after a moment in the hopes of mitigating what he recognized (too late) as near-suicidal candor.
Sure enough, Landry puffed out his chest like he'd just been paid a compliment. "Not that I'm aware, colonel. However, you did manage to keep McKay intact for three years in the field, so I figure you must be doing something right."
Never mind all those times Rodney had kept him-- them alive. But he wasn't career military like Carter, didn't operate with Jackson's special brand of gung ho. The SGC was unable to properly appreciate McKay while insisting on taking him at face value.
"Keep up the good work." Dismissed.
He caught on when Bill Lee asked him for help with the jumper research for the third time in a week. It was a pretense, a gesture meant to... alleviate John's sense of displacement, he supposed. Thoughtful on Bill's part, but misguided. Seeing the little ship bound on all sides by rock and concrete just served to highlight everything that was wrong in John's world.
He missed Teyla the same way he missed the ocean. He missed Ronon like he missed flying the jumpers. But Atlantis itself was like Ford, a duty he'd abandoned unfinished.
That was always going to fester.
John and Mitchell were in the locker room, passing each other coming and going as they so frequently did. If SG-1 was the main shift, it was too easy for John to think of his team -- so transitional it didn't have an official number designation, for chrissakes -- as the third-shift shelf-stockers.
Thankfully SG-1 didn't buy their own hype.
John waited until Cam was yanking things out of a locker to lean over the nearby bench, ostensibly tying his boot. "You're a good man, Cameron Mitchell," he said under his breath, with just a hint of singsong.
"Lies. Lies and slander." Cam didn't have to turn around for John to hear the grin in his voice.
"Carter's prepping a shipment of artifacts bound for Area 51 and my name just happens to appear on the crew list?"
Cam shut his locker and turned around to lean his back against it, crossing his arms. "Nope, don't know what you're talking about."
"How'd you wiggle it past Landry?"
"Carter deployed big words and science. The rest of us played dumb."
"So, the usual."
"Pretty much, yeah."
Huh. It was possible that Landry wasn't entirely unsympathetic to John's plight.
"He drew the line at using the jumper, though."
John shrugged. "Thanks for trying."
"Oh, if he'd said yes, I would have found a way to boot you and take the flight myself."
Uh-huh. Him and what gene, exactly? "Thanks, asshole," John tried again.
The second time it stuck.
The flight plan John filed technically ran from Peterson to Nellis. He deviated near Cedar City, taking a course due west, and began negotiations for approach and landing with Dreamland tower shortly after clearing the Utah-Nevada border. He was expected, yet still got the old fighter escort welcome five miles out.
Officially relinquishing custody of the cargo took longer than the flight itself. There was a physical inspection, crate by crate in front of witnesses, and too many forms requiring John's signature. (He would have offered to do it in blood, but they might have agreed.)
Despite the fuss and the turnout of what seemed to be half the base, McKay didn't make an appearance. The return flight, though, conveniently wasn't scheduled until the next afternoon. He wondered what Rodney had been blabbing to Carter, that she'd guaranteed John couldn't escape without at least meeting for dinner.
John discovered that his SGC credentials granted him a ridiculous degree of clearance around the base. Learning the whereabouts of Rodney's lab was easy, getting there was trickier. Rodney probably enjoyed the remoteness -- his own little underground fiefdom, stocked with lackeys who recognized John on sight, from description, even though he'd never been told even one of their names.
He was ushered into a cavernous space, the unimpressive equipment at the center emitting a constant, throbbing hum. Long-term exposure would make for fantastic headaches. Rodney had never complained of any, but maybe he was too absorbed in his research to notice.
Or... not. Rodney was hunched over a console, his back to the walkway, but it was still obvious when he reached up to rub his temple.
John hadn't been detected. He motioned for silence, shooing away his escort, and considered how best to employ his element of surprise. Sneaking up on anyone with Pegasus-honed reflexes was risky, so he tiptoed up to just outside of swinging range and said, "McKay."
"Sheppard?" Rodney whirled around, his smile automatic and blinding even if the rest of his expression remained a little stunned.
"What are you doing here?" They didn't do hugs, but Rodney swayed a half step closer, his hands a twisting, nervous mess.
"Errand. I'm stuck on base overnight, if you want to get together later... catch up. You know."
Rodney nodded, not processing. "You look..."
"So do you." He was used to seeing Rodney look like shit, dashing from one disaster to the next without rest. This was different but just as bad, the same worn-down air without the mania. No spark. Whatever he was working on barely had his attention, but John gave him the out anyway. "If you're busy, I understand. Should have mentioned I'd be dropping by."
"No! No, no, I'm-" Rodney scanned the workspace with something like guilt. Finding it clear, he admitted, "I haven't left base since I got here. I wouldn't mind an excuse to get out, see some actual civilization, eat some shitty bar food, do the tourist thing."
John tried not to let his relief show. "Okay."
A half-hearted wave indicated the lab in general. "I could give you the tour before we go, if you want."
"Why not now?"
Because, dammit, it wasn't like Rodney to just drop everything on the spot, even for the promise of cheeseburgers. "Minions, McKay. You have minions. That's a big responsibility."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, and because they are worthless, there's every chance they'll manufacture a crisis or two if I leave them unsupervised for a few hours." He sounded positively hopeful.
John understood. Hell, during his last mission he'd fantasized about running into some Ori, just for a change of pace.
John had to beg a change of clothes from Rodney, though he couldn't do anything about his boots. Didn't matter, though. The vehicle they took from the motor pool was a big black four-by-four with extra antennas and government plates, the works. Might as well slap a bumper sticker on it that said Ask me about the little grey men!
There wasn't much in the way of civilization outside the Area 51 compound -- most of the personnel who lived off-base made use of daily commuter flights to Vegas -- but there were plenty of kitschy combination gas station-souvenir shops. Rodney insisted on stopping at every single one, convinced that he was going to find the perfect atrocious gifts to mail to Beckett and Zelenka.
"Sheppard, what do you think?" Rodney came around the end of an aisle brandishing a t-shirt. On it was printed Area 51 Proctology Department, along with a generic alien (which looked not unlike Hermiod), holding what looked not unlike a turkey baster. "For Carson?"
"That's... fucking disturbing."
"So that's a yes." It went in Rodney's shopping basket. He had a shopping basket.
"You need to sneak a camera in the box to record his reaction for posterity."
John wanted to find something for Elizabeth, but all of the I was abducted by aliens and all I got was this lousy implanted tracking chip/mysterious rectal soreness/complimentary memory wipe paraphernalia hit a little too close to home. He settled for a plain hat that said I want to believe, because she did. She always had.
"Ooh, look! They have an alien abductees wall of fame. We are so putting our pictures up on that."
They did, cramming into the photo booth, both wearing neon green Asgard masks and Area 51 shirts (I work at- and Test Pilot, respectively). "Anyone who sees this is gonna know it's us," John said, pinning the winning frame in the most unobtrusive spot he could find.
"Hope so." Rodney slipped his half of the remaining photos in his wallet, taking a little too much care to make sure the edges wouldn't be bent.
The store proprietor, who'd been giving them funny looks for the duration, did a spit-take when John slapped a container of vasoline onto the tail end of Rodney's hundred-plus dollar checkout transaction. "This too, and do you sell rubber gloves?"
Rodney, god love him, kept a perfectly straight face while he said, "Gloves are covered. We've got like four boxes in the, uh, you-know-what kit in the truck."
The proprietor's eyes slid out to the parking lot, then snapped back to John and Rodney. "Will that be, uh--"
"Cash." Rodney handed over a wad of bills. "Keep the change. Don't need it where we're going."
Fucking with the locals, just like old times.
Greasy bar food was duly accomplished. Rodney stuffed down his burger like it was the last one on Earth. That preoccupation was probably for the best, considering the small dimensions of the venue and the overt curiosity of the staff. After thirty seconds of stilted, one-sided conversation, John realized there was little fresh news he could share that wasn't classified, extremely classified, or classified like woah, holy shitballs goddamn.
Throughout the meal, Rodney kept a close eye on the clock, but John recognized it for reluctance rather than eagerness to return. They'd both snagged their "outside" cell phones before leaving base, which put them a call and a half hour drive away from averting any crisis that might materialize. But neither he nor Rodney were in charge anymore, just cogs in the machine, which meant the luxury of pretending that call wouldn't arrive.
There was something to be said for not needing to stay sharp and alert twenty-four seven. They both had a beer with dinner. Then, dragging his feet while simultaneously taunting the universe to screw with him, John procured a couple 40s of Schlitz from yet another alien-themed convenience store. He pointed the truck for destination random and drove until instinct told him he'd arrived.
Rodney was silent for the ride. Even more telling, his phone remained in his pocket. He didn't even betray curiosity when John put the truck in park and cut the headlights, blacking out their view of the chain link fence that marked the edge of the Nevada test range. All he said was, "That government property, no trespassing sign would look great on my office door."
John cracked open a bottle. The malt was foamy and disgustingly warm -- perfect. "Already been done."
"Among others? Mitchell."
"Figures." It seemed the bottle was communal. Rodney snatched it and took a swig, failing to complain about the taste or the swapping of germs. He rubbed his mouth on his sleeve. "I still want it."
"Find me some wire cutters and it's yours."
Smirking, Rodney hopped out of the vehicle, walked around to rummage in the back, and returned to toss a pair in John's lap.
"The roadside emergency kit is no joke. I think you could use it to build a mobile operating theater and conduct highly unsanitary alien autopsies in the field."
Good for his word, John liberated the sign. He found it was simplest to cut around it, leaving the aluminum sheet still bolted to a two foot square section of fence. Rodney cried tetanus at the first suggestion that he help, but he did eventually assist in wrestling the spoils into the back of the truck.
John rested against the tailgate for a moment. Rodney grabbed the bottles and joined him, huddled just far enough away that their shoulders didn't touch.
The desert air was too warm and too dry, carrying the sound of insects instead of a familiar salt tang. Overhead, the stars littering the sky were strange, and John's eyes kept trying to trick them into forming different constellations. He refocused on the malt label and took a swig.
Rodney shivered once and seemed to pull into himself even more. "What was your field contingency plan? In case Atlantis was ever compromised and you couldn't gate back."
So they were doing this after all, breaking the exiles' code of silence. Despite the drink, John's throat was dusty, not releasing the words until his second try. "You know the plan. Everyone knew the plan. You helped write it, remember?"
"Not the official one. I mean your personal, paranoid whispers in the back of your head, everything is too fucked up to fix plan."
Oh, that one. "M3Y-565." John ticked off the bullet points, "Planetary gate, decent climate and atmosphere, wouldn't be hard to live off the land -- plus there were those energy readings consistent with an abandoned outpost."
Rodney hummed. "Not bad. Mine was M4D-058."
"The Ancient social experiment? Really?"
"Why not? I mean, I-- we accidentally helped shape their entire civilization. It's pretty much the only planet in Pegasus guaranteed to be enlightened, with things like indoor plumbing and a lack of Wraith-worshipping fruitbaskets."
Yeah, there was a reason John had gone for uninhabited.
"What's your Earth contingency plan?"
"Don't have one."
"No grandiose fuck-you parting gesture for the SGC? No simultaneously breaking nine punitive articles of the UCMJ? No beachside hut on Maui? You could do like that guy from Magnum PI and give helicopter rides to all the tourists."
John shook his head. He'd never considered it. Being forced out of Atlantis and having to survive in Pegasus at large, sure. Having to do it on Earth? Unthinkable -- right up until it had actually happened.
"Oh. Well, uh, I have this abandoned missile silo picked out, in the middle of Wyoming. By the time I'm done with renovations, my non-disclosure agreements will have expired. Then I can publish everything, turn the physics world upside down, win a few Nobels... There'd be plenty of space, if you wanted to crash with me for a while?"
"Thanks, Rodney. I... might take you up on that."
"The guest bed is spoken for," Rodney warned. "So is the couch, the second couch, and I think Zelenka called dibs on the daybed."
"Okay, the air mattress is yours."
John felt the knot in his chest shift and loosen for the first time since he'd left Atlantis. "Okay," he agreed.