Alone In Your Mind

~ Muchos gracias to Mice for the beta! I give you all my commas.

One very important thing Elizabeth Weir had done when preparing her team for the mission to Atlantis was consider the social aspects of taking 200 people to another galaxy from which they might not ever return home. She'd discussed it with some of the SGC psychologists and anthropologists, as well as General Hammond and in the end she'd drafted a revised code of conduct based in extremely small part on the US Air Force's code of conduct as applied to the SGC.

Things like rules against fraternization had had to be re-written to deal with the fact that 200 people alone together, far from home, were eventually going to start having sex with one another. If it turned out to be years before they returned to Earth the issue of families and succeeding generations had to be taken into account as well. No one talked about it yet, but it might be that their children or grandchildren would be the ones to return to Earth someday.

That meant there had to be children and grandchildren.

Individual members of her team had been selected based on expertise and adaptability, as well as psychological profile and personality. It was impossible to ensure that everyone would get along, but she'd taken every step she could to ensure that most of the team would at least tolerate everyone else and be professional and mature enough to deal with the fact they were stuck with each other indefinitely.

She'd taken pride in seeing how well her selections had turned out as the months went on and, for the most part, everyone seemed to get on. Of course there were personality conflicts and disputes, but nothing that disrupted the overall mission or social stability of the city.

It was rapidly becoming their home in feel, as well as reality -- they'd been in Atlantis for little under a year based on the earth calendars their laptops kept track of for them. The holidays committee had a huge anniversary celebration planned, coinciding with the planet's autumnal equinox. People were celebrating birthdays and organizing social events -- and forming relationships, both casual and not-so.

Dr. Weir had her suspicions that sometime in the next few months they were going to be holding a wedding for Dr. Carol Bennett and Corporal Lance Mason. Or maybe Robert DeBauer and Frederick Danson would be the first, if they could ever agree on which part of the newly-opened section of the city they wanted to make their new living quarters in. Living together was not a necessary step to being married, but Dr. Weir felt that it was still an open question if Robert and Frederick would end up strangling one another while arguing over whether or not they wanted living quarters with windows, or an extra room.

All in all, Dr. Weir felt like everything was going extremely well.

She'd even -- almost -- got used to finding John and Rodney making out in the hallways.

There were many things she was glad for and trying to keep levels of closed-minded bigotry out of the Atlantis team was high on the list. She prided herself on a reasonably high personal level of acceptance of the rights to individuals to do whatever they damn well pleased in their private lives. But it still didn't ever prevent her brain from stuttering to a stop and asking itself -- *John* and *Rodney*? -- whenever she caught them.

And lord, it seemed like she caught them a lot. Sometimes she thought about instituting rules about public displays of affection, and forbidding anyone from making out where she was likely to stumble upon them. That wasn't entirely fair, she knew, so she was perfectly willing to make it a very specific rule applicable only to the major and Dr. McKay.

She thought very seriously about it whenever John pissed her off. Which, once he'd started sleeping with Rodney, had become less often. She knew it was more because he had less time to get into trouble than the fact that Rodney might actually be being a good influence on him.

In the end, however, she just told herself she should be happy that so many of her team were settling in to Atlantis, finding friends and more among the available pool, and that Dr. Piotr Vordrosky had finally taken her hints that she was not interested in having dinner with him in the privacy of his quarters.

"Dr. Gallagher, would you please--" Carson Beckett stopped as he realized the woman was ignoring him. He stepped closer to the table, well aware of the danger in getting too close to a scientist at work. He carefully didn't touch anything, nor did he try to get in her line of sight as she scribbled notes. "Dr. Gallagher," he tried again.

She glanced up. "Yes, Dr. Beckett? Oh! Dr. Beckett, could you please--" She rummaged through the equipment on the table before her, and Carson's hopes that she would have any idea why he was here were dashed.

"Dr. Gallagher," he started again. "I know it may not seem all that urgent that you get your regular physical," he paused as she thrust a small metal band at him. It was a piece of Ancient technology which made him realise exactly what she was going to say next. He shook his head. "No, no--"

"Could you try to make this work? I haven't had a chance to get any of the other ATA folks down here. I'm not really sure what it does," she added, frowning at it.

As though that would encourage him? Carson shook his head, still wary of anything to do with technology he didn't understand. He'd got used to certain, simple things -- like doors. But a small, curved piece of metal might look innocent yet could end up destroying half the galaxy.

"You missed your appointment last week, and this morning. I really need you to--"

"Just try it on! We're pretty sure it fits on the wrist." She'd stood up and come over to him, grabbing his arm and moving the band towards him -- obviously intending to slip it on without so much as a by-your-leave. He pulled free and tried to get her attention.

"Dr. Gallagher, your *physical.* I'll get Dr. McKay to order you, if I have to." Between alien diseases, injuries, and god knew what else, it was important to keep up-to-date records on everyone's health. Most of the others understood and showed up for their scheduled appointments. It was only the occasional absent-minded professor who seemed to forget.

She blinked at him, looking thoroughly confused behind her thin-rimmed glasses. "Dr. McKay? What's he got to do with it?"

"He's your superior, isn't he? He can order you to get yourself down to the infirmary."

"Why am I going -- oh! My physical!" She nodded, and Carson sighed. "Right, that's next week! I think this will fit just like this--"

Carson was about to try to explain to her that next week was *this* week, or even last week, when she grabbed his arm again. He pulled back, but this time he wasn't fast enough. She got the band onto his wrist before he got free.

The metal, or whatever the substance was, felt cold. As he reached for it to snatch it off, he noted that it fit loosely. When his fingers touched it, the top of the band glowed blue and the ends of the band tightened around his wrist.

"Oh, bloody hell," Carson whispered. He stared at it. The band changed, expanding a long, thin strip up and down the back of his wrist. It was that part which glowed blue, as though a stone had been set into a bracelet.

"Oh, excellent!" Dr. Gallagher clapped her hands. "So what is it? Can you make it do anything?"

Carson wanted nothing more than to take it off and never see it again. He looked up at Gallagher, swallowing nervously. "It's... a
maintenance interface."

"A what? How do you know?" She'd grabbed a notebook and started writing things down.

Carson was having difficulty seeing her through the schematics and lists that were scrolling before his eyes. Atlantis had gone a long time without an active maintenance crew and there was a long, long list of things that needed to be done. The first few lines had been in the Atlantean script, but as soon as he'd realised he couldn't read it, he'd been given an option to select a translation.

Merely thinking it had been enough and now he was looking at a list written in Scots Gaelic, describing mechanical and engineering problems that needed somebody with two hands and a tool-belt to deal with.

"Dr. Beckett? How do you know what it is? It isn't doing anything." Gallagher's voice intruded through the visuals, and he tried to answer her question.

"I can... see it."

She looked around, doubtfully. "Where?"

Grimly, Carson tapped his forehead. "Right here."

Gallagher gaped at him for a long moment, before her face changed into an expression of scientific glee.

Carson just wanted the bloody thing to switch off so he could go home and hide under his bed. The schematic responded with an illustration of the furniture in his quarters and how it could be adjusted to accommodate a person his size, underneath its frame.

Closing his eyes, Carson groaned. Which didn't help, because with his eyes shut it was impossible *not* to see the information scrolling in his mind. He tried getting the list to stop by thinking about the fact he was a medical doctor, not a maintenance man. That had prompted a new scroll -- orientation for new personnel. He couldn't help but read it, caught by the information he found in the first 'page' of instructions. He read through it twice, noting absently how responsive it was to the merest thought. He could scroll back and forth and call up new pages as questions occurred.

The summary was, of course, that he was screwed.

"Let me get this straight," Dr. Weir sat back in her chair in the conference room, looking from Dr. Gallagher to Dr. Beckett. Carson had a vaguely distracted look on his face which she assumed was understandable under the circumstances.

"It's intended for a member of the city's maintenance crew," Dr. Gallagher repeated. "It apparently plugs them in directly to aspects of the Atlantis computer system, so they can... maintain it."

"This is extraordinary." Rodney leaned forward, glancing from Carson to Dr. Gallagher. "A neural interface to the Ancients' computer systems would expedite our entire mission here. We could--"

"There aren't any others on inventory," Carson said, sounding distracted. Weir looked at him, worried, and saw that his eyes were flickering slightly back and forth. As though reading something, she realised. He suddenly focused on them. "That's not to say there aren't any, just that they aren't listed in the inventory."

Everyone in the room stared at him with varying degrees of concern. Rodney, for his part, looked not at all concerned. He looked like he was about to leap across the table and snatch the interface from Carson's wrist. Major Sheppard, on the other hand, looked like he was wondering how badly things were going to go and how long before the shit hit the fan completely.

"You... have an inventory?" Weir asked. "Of the equipment in the city?" She found herself growing excited. That, if nothing else, would be an incredible boon.

"Sort of. It's only for official equipment, not for everything anyone might have brought in." He paused, getting the same distracted look in his eyes for a moment. "And it's out-of-date, as far as I can tell. Once the Wraith began their final siege, the people didn't exactly take time for paperwork."

"This is unbelievable." Weir shook her head in amazement. "This is *incredible*."

Rodney interrupted her. "Even a partial inventory of the city would be incredibly useful. If we can--"

Weir had to interrupt him, because Dr. Beckett had looked at him with an expression she couldn't ignore. Rodney seemed to miss it, but she saw the concern -- the fear -- on Carson's face. "Why don't we set up a controlled experiment and let selected personnel access this interface. We can get whatever information we can from it, but safely." She looked at Carson's hands, folded together tightly on top of the conference table. The blue glow was almost unnoticeable under the edge of his sleeve. "Why don't you take it off for now and we'll get volunteers from the ATA pool--"

"I'll do it," Rodney said instantly. Not surprisingly. "We don't need volunteers. I'm right here." He even raised his hand slightly as though anyone might overlook the fact that he was volunteering.

Weir smiled, but tried to interject a note of caution. "We need to make sure--"

"You can't."

They all turned to look at Carson. He looked pale and no less worried than he had since he and Dr. Gallagher had walked into the room.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I can't take it off. It's designed to be transfered to another maintenance person in the event the original owner is unable to perform his duties." Carson's voice was wavering slightly, his accent deepening. "Which is in the event of death, catastrophic brain failure, or the destruction of the city itself. At which point no maintenance engineer is required."

Carson read the words again near the beginning of the orientation he'd first called up in Dr. Gallagher's lab. It was stated clearly: the employment contract that he'd effectively signed upon putting on the interface. The Atlanteans had guarded the interfaces well, ensuring that no one who didn't know what he was getting into wore the band.

Those instructions had, along with so much else, been lost. Luckily the actual duties of the job he'd got himself signed up for seemed fairly simple. Keep the city of Atlantis in good repair.

Carson wanted to go back in time and shoot himself in the foot before he'd had a chance to discover the ATA gene sequence. As he thought it, the schematic for time travel flickered helpfully in front of his mind's eye. It wasn't actually useful, as he couldn't use it to go shoot himself, because then he wouldn't have got here to go back in time in the first place. But he filed it away as yet one more thing to look into when he had a chance.

Right now he had to convince the stupid maintenance schedule that he couldn't tear himself away from the meeting and attend to the most urgent items on the repair list. He tried to focus on Dr. Weir and discover if she'd made any decisions on a course of action.

They were all still discussing it, how and whether to try removing the interface. Whenever they brought it up, he rattled off the relevant data describing the metal band and its link to his mind and how it was designed specifically to prevent exactly what they wanted to do.

It was for the safety of the city, he understood that part. The maintenance crew -- it should have been five or six Atlanteans, not just one Earthling -- had access to every part of the city including life support and defense. Things which could be used to cripple the city if in the hands of the wrong person. The screening procedure for selecting and hiring maintenance crew was -- had been -- extremely stringent.

Dr. Gallagher had apologised for putting it on him. Neither she nor Rodney had actually looked sorry that *someone* had turned the thing on and even Dr. Weir was starting to talk about how it could be useful. Looking on the bright side and all that nonsense.

"You're not in any actual danger?" she asked again and Carson looked away from the diagrams of the water treatment plant that was in need of refit.

"Not from the device, nor the interface itself," he confirmed. "But if it expects me to do all this work... I'll keel over from exhaustion."

Dr. Weir sat forward, looking suddenly more interested. "What you're saying, is that you know what's wrong with the city, and how to fix it?"

Carson watched the others exchange looks. Excited. They were about to leap out of their seats and haul him around, making him fix everything.

It was, he had to admit, safer than having them stumble about flipping switches and hoping nothing blew up. The information being presented to him was, as far as he could tell, accurate and intended to guide the engineer through the necessary repairs and upkeep of the city.

"I'm not an engineer," he said, faintly.

Rodney, Dr. Weir, and Dr. Gallagher all began talking at once about how they could effect repairs despite that tiny detail.

The scrolling data in his mind began demonstrating the clear, detailed, and graphically augmented step-by-step guide to any system in the city.

Then it flashed on the top of the repair list, highlighting the first three in a helpful shade of red.

Carson groaned, and dropped his forehead onto his arm.

The first three times, he'd been accompanied by a full contingent of scientists, military personnel, and Earth-trained engineers. They'd watched, taken notes, and asked a thousand irritating questions as Carson tried to follow the Atlantean instructions popping into his head.

He'd managed to repair the solar collector, the filtering system on the water treatment plant, and the internal sensors in the still-uninhabited sections of the city. There were people now assigned to each, studying the equipment and marveling with each other over what he'd done. Other scientists were coming at him with the things they'd been working on, asking him to identify knobs and gizmos, or tell them how to make something work.

Most of the time he didn't know, because what they were working on wasn't a part of the city itself. Atlantean daily business, scientific experiments and the like, weren't under the maintenance crew's domain. He'd tried to tell them that, but nobody seemed to want to listen as they kept on bringing him things to fiddle with.

As he hid in the unused storage facility near the medical lab, he supposed he couldn't really blame them. Here they were in an ancient alien city, trying to do their best to learn everything they could and suddenly one of their team got handed a user's manual. It wasn't their fault, nor his, that the user's manual covered only a fraction of what they needed to learn.

For instance, he'd already exhausted the interface's database on the Wraith. It had informed him that if the Wraith were spotted, the maintenance crew's job was to take cover until the safety alarms sounded.

Carson found that oddly comforting.

But so far, no amount of insistence could convince everyone else that he couldn't help them, and if he stumbled upon something useful he would let them know. He'd had to take to hiding out, even to the extent of neglecting his work on the genetic research into the Wraith.

Which was just as well, he confessed to himself. The maintenance schedule in his brain had only slowed down slightly, mollified by his repairs thus far. But the list wasn't shrinking on its own, and he could see -- when he gave it the slightest thought and the list popped into view -- that the top items on the list were growing more urgent.

Perhaps he'd be able to effect some repairs without a crowd following him. Anyone interested was still flocked around the other things he'd worked on, talking about uses for the solar energy now being gathered and stored -- as a backup for the ZPMs, Carson had started to explain. But Rodney had taken over his informed explanation with theorizing of his own; Carson had left him to it, since he'd been more or less correct.

The next few items on the list weren't interesting, anyway, and not even that relevant to what the team from Earth was trying to accomplish. Just little things, here and there, which, if left unattended to, would require major effort to repair sometime down the line.

Carson sighed. He wasn't getting anything done sitting here, alone in the dark. He could use the transporter just down the hall, in fact, and head down to the farmer's level and take a look at the saline vats. If he could get them fixed, they could start harvesting the ocean again for fresh food. Not right away, of course, but in three months or so when the tanks had had a chance to recharge themselves and cull enough of the ocean-life without damaging any population levels of edible species.

Pushing himself to his feet, he gave a dark thought to the data scroll which was giving him a brief overview of the saline vats. He wasn't happy to be doing this, not by a long shot. But at least he could admit it would be useful.

"Not that what I was doing before wasn't useful," he said out loud, sternly. "I'm a trained medical doctor, and a damn good one. My uncle may have been a plumber, but that does not mean it runs in the family!"

The maintenance schemata for the city's sewer system blinked briefly, and he tamped it down. First things, first. Unless the toilets really did need fixing, in which case they came before the fish.

The plumbing diagrams stayed gone, however, so he took that as a sign that they were good to go. Literally.

He went to the storage room door and checked for signs of life in the hallway. No one was there, so he opened the door and hurried down to the transporter. The coast was clear as he stepped inside and requested the farmer's level. The directory on the wall flashed, though he hadn't needed to touch it. Not anymore, he knew. The entire city was wired into his brain.

And he'd been nervous about thinking doors open. Carson shivered, and tried not to think about the doors he could probably open, now. Could he, for example, open every doorway at once? Could he open the jumper-bay door? Could he even access the--

"Weir to Dr. Beckett."

Carson jumped, and hurriedly thought about doors *closing*. "Beckett here. I'm sor--"

"Can you join us in Dr. McKay's lab? We found what seems to be some kind of... well, opinions differ. If you--"

"It's a ray gun," Rodney's voice interrupted.

"It is *not* a ray gun," came Sheppard's voice, sounding irritated. Carson didn't blame him. Rodney was a remarkable scientist but the way he jumped to conclusions... Irritatingly enough, he was usually right. But the fact he jumped at all, rather than studying a thing before making careful pronouncements, was... irritating.

"It's a ray gun," Rodney repeated. Carson shook his head. He could hear the smugness in Rodney's voice.

He could hear the rest of it, too. The part he didn't want to hear, had had been hearing ever since the first time his friend had confessed to having a *reciprocated* crush on John Sheppard. It was a whole different sort of smugness, one that said he would be continuing the conversation elsewhere, with a lack of clothing, and that no amount of really mind-boggling sex would make him admit to being wrong. Especially when he wasn't the slightest bit wrong.

Carson liked being Rodney's friend, but he didn't like the fact Rodney felt no compunction against sharing *details*.

"If you could come down here and tell us if this gizmo is in that inventory you have," Weir continued, acting like she couldn't hear the smugness, either. Carson knew she could, and once or twice they'd even commiserated over it.

Carson, meanwhile, was sighing a sigh of relief. "I'll be right there," he said, so grateful he hadn't apparently opened any doors that he didn't think about the fact he was agreeing to do just what he'd been hiding from. The maintenance systems were so responsive to his every thought that it was a relief to find out there were *some* limits.

Of course there were. Carson hadn't intended to actually open the doors.

Carson froze in mid-step as he realised that those words hadn't come from *him*, at all.

"Now, calm down," Dr. Weir tried to remain calm herself, so she could encourage Dr. Beckett to do the same.

"IT'S IN MY HEAD!" Carson screamed, jumping up from the stool they'd sat him on. He'd burst through the door, panicking and screaming, startling them all. She still wasn't sure what was going on, but they'd narrowed it down to the maintenance interface. It was difficult to figure out exactly what was wrong, as Carson would shout something in Gaelic, then English, and never in direct response to their questions.

It had taken John and Rodney grabbing him by the arms and hauling him over to the stool to get him to sit down at all, while they'd tried to get coherency from him.

"Don't you understand?" he shouted again, eyes wide, darting from her, to Rodney, and around the room -- hoping, no doubt, that someone would step forward with a solution.

"We're trying to," she said, soothingly. "Now, what's in your head?"

They'd already had it explained, several times since the device had attached itself to Dr. Beckett, that the maintenance displays were inside his brain. He could see them as though displayed on a screen right in front of his eyes, but no one else could see anything at all. Scans performed by Dr. Hathaway had confirmed that the data was contained inside Carson's brain and -- as far as anyone could tell -- were harmless.

"IT'S TALKING TO ME!" Dr. Beckett started to stand up again and was held back by Rodney and John; Dr. Weir seized on this new piece of the puzzle.

"The maintenance interface, you mean?"

Dr. Beckett nodded quickly. "IN MY HEAD!" he shouted again. He pointed at his temple, as though they might not understand what he meant.

"It's talking to you?" She wanted to be perfectly clear on what was going on, which was proving difficult. Dr. Beckett wasn't calming down -- and she wasn't sure she could blame him.

"It's talking," Carson repeated, and he seemed to finally be focusing on her, and the conversation.

The conversation *she* was having with him, at any rate. A thought occurred, and she asked, "Is it talking to you right now?"

He swallowed, then shook his head. "Not right this second. But--" He stopped and his eyes went even wider. He opened his mouth and she braced herself for another scream, but all he did was whimper.

She put her hand on his arm, trying to get his attention back on her. "What is it?"

His gaze flickered about, then snapped onto her. He looked like he was about to cry. "It just apologised."

"For--?" she asked, leadingly. He wasn't any less upset, but he was finally talking to them, now. She ignored Rodney muttering about how fantastic this was.

Dr. Beckett heard him, however, and he fixed the other man with a fierce glare. "It is *NOT* fascinating! It's in my bloody head and it's TALKING to me! And I know how to make sure the ambient temperature in your room stays not a bit over negative 5 degrees!"

Rodney shrugged. "I usually sleep in John's room anyhow."

"HIS ROOM, TOO!" Carson was on his feet again, and Weir had to push him back down. Sheppard was sputtering about how none of this was *his* fault.

"Carson, look at me," she tried to get things back on track. Not that they'd ever been on track, but she had to try. "Are you saying that the maintenance interface is sentient?"

Again it took a moment before Carson seemed to hear her, and think about his answer. Perhaps he was talking to it, she realised. That gave her a chill. How did they know what intentions this entity had? Had Carson been compromised by an alien life form?

Finally he shook his head, and his expression was beginning to lose some of its fear, and be replaced by wonder. "It isn't alive. I've... I've got the system specifications right here. It isn't alive, not even for a computer." He paused, obviously reading something over. "It's just... well-programmed to respond to user requests."

He turned a look on her, one that made her think of a puppy begging to be taken home from the pound.

"Can you confirm that? I mean... it isn't lying to you?" She hated to ask, but the question had to be answered.

But Dr. Beckett shook his head. "I don't *think* so, but obviously I can't be sure. But... it isn't talking to me. It was just... responding." He looked confused. "Like an ATM that's programmed to wish you a good day. Only a bit more sophisticated." He was definitely beginning to sound calmer, and that, if nothing else, was progress.

Weir nodded. She wasn't convinced she believed this -- but one step at a time. They couldn't get any answers with Carson bouncing off the ceiling.

"This is wonderful!" Rodney said, and she could tell he'd been about to burst for the last several minutes. "Carson, can we--"


"But I haven't even--"

"No." Dr. Beckett looked determined, and Weir didn't blame him.

Rodney looked hurt, and said, "I was only going to ask if we could--"

"The answer is 'no.' Whatever it is, it involves my brain, and you aren't doing it."

"--cut open your skull and take a look," Rodney finished, dead-pan. Carson gaped at him, and John reached over and thumped him on the arm.

"That's not nice."

"I'm *kidding*! Jeez, people. I was going to ask if there was anyway we could communicate with it. Hook up a laptop to the interface or something."

Carson was shaking his head. "I don't want anything in my brain." He looked at her once more, and she wished that she had an answer. Unfortunately, he was the very one who knew most about the device that was doing this to him.

"There's no way to remove it?"

"Believe me, I've looked. I've researched retirement, being fired, being transferred... The only way to get rid of it is if there's no more me, or no more city."

His eyes had gone wide with fear, again, but he wasn't panicking. Weir patted him on the shoulder and felt, not for the first time, utterly out of her depth.

"We'll keep looking into it," she promised. Carson nodded, though she could tell he didn't have much faith in finding an answer.

No one said anything for a moment, and Weir knew they were waiting for someone to suddenly get a brilliant idea. No one offered anything, though, and finally Dr. Beckett said, in a shaky voice, "So where's this gizmo you wanted me to take a look at?"

"Ray gun," Rodney said instantly, though Weir could tell his heart wasn't quite in it. But he moved towards the table they'd laid it out on, and Carson got to his feet and walked over. He stared at it for a moment, then looked at her.

Dr. Beckett cleared his throat, then said, "It's a ray gun."

"Dammit," John said, and she didn't blame him.

"You owe me a forfeit," Rodney said to John. Smugly.

Carson lay on an examining table, staring at the ceiling. He was also staring at a map of the city, watching areas being highlighted one after another. The interface was giving him a briefing about the sections of the city and their functions -- at least what they'd been used for once upon a time, ten million years ago.

He'd been talking to it for hours, now, while the medical team had observed him. They'd detected no sign of brain waves other than his, nor any hint of personality overlay. He and the interface had talked about a variety of topics, ranging from engine repair to gene therapy to the proper feeding and care of pet fish.

As they'd talked, Carson had gradually noticed a certain stilted quality to the responses he was getting. The interface had no personality, he'd realised. Its comments had the feel of stock programming, where a basic algorithm determined the proper response to what he said. There was no feeling of *person* behind the conversation.

When Dr. Hathaway finally gave her diagnosis that there was no one in his brain except him, he'd already come to the same conclusion. He'd relaxed, and gone back to asking questions about the uses the Ancients had put the city to. Some of them were utterly alien -- why devote an entire room to the growing of a single tree, which was neither rare, biologically useful, nor spiritually significant? Others made more sense, and he'd flagged those to get back into working order so they could be used again. The gymnasium in particular would be well-received.

"I suppose we can let you go," Dr. Hathaway said, interrupting him. Carson looked at her, and sat up.

"Is there anyway to be sure Carson isn't in any danger?" Dr. Weir asked. He appreciated her concern, but he was -- finally -- convinced that there was no immediate need to panic. He reserved the right to change his mind, but for now he thought it might actually be all right.

Dr. Hathaway shook her head. "No more so than the rest of us, just by being here."

"Great," Carson muttered.

Dr. Weir smiled at him, and gave him a half-shrug. "Sorry," she said.

"Oh, I don't mind being dragged to another galaxy and put into constant mortal danger. My life back home was getting stagnant and boring." He got off the table, making sure no one was about to say 'just one more test'. He could empathize with certain subjects of his own experiments, now. There was nothing quite like having someone want to stick things into your body to make you wish you'd never heard the word 'science.'

"See? You just have to put it into perspective." Weir grinned, and then she grew serious again. "I do want someone to keep an eye on you, and I want these tests repeated regularly, until we are sure nothing's going to happen."

Dr. Hathaway nodded, and Carson sighed. "All right," he agreed, if only because he knew it was the proper, and sane, thing to do. "I can get back to work, though, right? I'm not on medical leave?"

"As long as you feel up to it," Weir said. "But don't overdo it for a few days, OK? Take it easy for awhile."

He nodded. Not that any of the work he had to do was very taxing; it would be easy to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. Dr. Weir accepted his agreement and walked off with Dr. Hathaway, telling her to keep her informed in case anything should change.

Carson grabbed his jacket from the next bed, and shrugged into it. There were things to do, and he wanted to grab some lunch before he dove into it. The saline tanks were still first on the list, but the subsonic frequency modulators were rapidly moving up the list. It might have something to do with the experiments being done in the audio lab. He'd keep an eye on it and have a talk with them about what they were doing. In the meanwhile, it would be good to get back to work.

He walked out of the infirmary, not looking back.

A month later, Carson had found a what seemed to be a workable balance. Mornings he spent in the medical labs or infirmary, doing his research. After lunch he would head down to the maintenance workshop and tackle the list in his head. The number of red-lit urgencies had got down to almost zero and stayed that way for the last week, which Carson vastly appreciated. When he'd become a doctor, he'd grown used to being called at any hour of the day or night to deal with medical emergencies. Being called to deal with leaking pipes was a new and still-bewildering experience.

Even if Rodney told him that he was doing an amazing job. Carson wasn't entirely sure he liked the amount of disbelief he could hear in his friend's voice when he said it, but he knew Rodney meant it sincerely, in his own way. Besides, he could tell he was doing a good enough job, since everything he tried to fix ended up more or less working better than it had before he touched it.

It was the maintenance interface that did it all, he'd try to tell them. He couldn't tell if anyone believed him, or even really cared who was responsible as long as they got new, working toys to play with.

At least Rodney never failed to show up to inspect his handiwork whenever he found out Carson was working on something. He'd stare with eyes gone wide, shaking his head over the fact that Carson was making repairs to some Ancient Rube Goldberg device that only made sense if you had the schematics burning in a not-so-comforting blue in one's mind. He'd ask a question or two, then start rambling about the thing's uses and origins and whatever else popped into his head.

Even when it was a bit disconcerting, Carson had to admit he enjoyed that part of his new job. Since Rodney had started dating John, he hadn't seen nearly as much of his friend as he'd grown used to. True, it made other things more difficult -- jealousy and regret were high on his list. But it was nice to have Rodney's attention, even for things that made Carson feel lost and out of his depth.

The mass of 'repair groupies', as Sheppard had dubbed them, had more or less stopped trying to follow him around during the afternoons. They still asked for reports and asked no end of questions whenever they could -- usually in the mess hall during meals. As soon as he'd sat down to eat, someone or three would show up and go at him. He tried to answer their questions as best he could, but he wished there was a way for anyone but him to talk to Murdoc.

Murdoc was the name he'd given the maintenance interface, knowing full well calling it by a name would encourage him to treat the thing as though it had a personality. But he felt foolish thinking of it as "maintenance interface" all the time, and "MI" just sounded worse. Murdoc responded to its name easily enough, and Carson thought that having it to talk to was no more odd than having a pet cat that one pretended cared at all about one's day and not the box of food one was holding.

All in all, Carson thought he was getting used to it. He had twice the amount of work to do, of course, and never had any privacy at all. But given that things could have been a whole lot worse, he supposed things were not all that bad.

Then he found the ZPMs on the maintenance list.

Dr. Weir was sitting in her office with Rodney, John, and Peter, discussing the new and not-so improved duty schedules. They were all trying to juggle personnel with an even more limited availability. This time, at least, it wasn't due to deaths. Two of the scientists had requested permission to move to the Athosian village, permanently. One was due to Nancy wanting to devote more time studying their culture and one was due to Geoff wanting to court and hopefully marry a certain Athosian woman. Weir had given her permission, and now they were trying to shuffle people around again.

She hadn't quite figured out why John was sitting in on the meeting, as neither of the sections affected were military. But here he was, and he wasn't being that annoying, so Weir had let him stay. She suspected there was some footsie going on under the table but she wasn't about to look.

They had all looked over when Carson came into the room, carrying two ZPMs. Rodney was on his feet instantly, and Weir had caught an unfortunate glimpse of his stockinged foot.

"What's wrong?" Rodney asked, taking one of the ZPMs from Carson. "What are you--" He stopped, as though the obvious answer had just occurred to him.

They all turned to Carson, who shrugged. "It came up on the list. Actually, I jumped ahead about twelve items but I didn't really think anyone would mind if I didn't fix the heaters in section Baggan, as no one's living there at the moment."

Weir and the others stared at him for a moment, then all turned again to stare at the working ZPM in Rodney's hands. Peter slowly reached down and took the other ZPM from Carson's hands.

Rodney looked up. "We'll go install these now, if that's all right with everyone?"

Weir nodded, looking at Carson as Rodney, Peter, and John practically ran out of the room. Carson half-turned to say something after them,
but stopped as the door closed behind John. He turned to face her again, and Weir shook her head.

"What... how--?"

"I've been working on them all week. I didn't want to... say anything because I didn't think it would actually work. But it did." He looked uncertain, shuffling a bit, before saying, "I actually came here to tell you that those two are extras."

Weir sat back in her chair and tried to think about that.

She tried again.

She tried a third time, then had to look at Carson. She needed to *hear* it, in order to let her mind think those words.

Carson nodded. "The first one I just finished installing. We have power for the city, and those two, I figured... we can power up the stargate and dial Earth. Take the other one through and use it to dial back."

She blinked. Those were the exact words she hadn't wanted to risk thinking. Even now, they rolled in her brain like something she couldn't quite trust. But she knew Carson, and knew he wouldn't have come in here with them unless it was real. She glanced towards the door. "Should we tell Rodney...?"

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about it. He'll figure it out soon enough, then they'll be back up here." Carson took a seat, across from the table, looking rather calm and collected -- except around the eyes, and the way he couldn't hold his hands still.

Weir nodded, because acting like everything was fine was an old diplomacy trick she'd absorbed decades ago. She folded her hands across her desk, and regarded Carson. He looked like he was about to leap out of the chair again.

"So," she began, and he flinched slightly before turning wide eyes on her. She had to do something other than scream.


"I hear that Marjorie Stevens wants to set up some nursing classes."

They talked about it. Everyone on Atlantis, for days. Whenever Carson walked down the hallway, anyone he passed would give him a thumbs-up, or a hearty clap on the shoulder. All the conversations were about Earth -- what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go. Supplies they wanted to bring back because they'd been stupid enough not to pack any, or enough, the first time.

Beer and lube were the two items mentioned most often. Carson tried to just smile and nod, and get out of the way.

Finally, decisions had been made and Weir had made the announcement. They had enough power to send a message back to Earth in addition to powering the gate twice, for travel. They'd warn the SGC they were coming, then they'd dial Earth and go home. Four weeks' leave for everyone, then back again to Atlantis with new supplies and -- most importantly and hence the warning message -- additional personnel.

Departure was now only a week away, and everyone was running about like it was tomorrow. Folks were winding down experiments, or setting them up to go unattended for a month. There was packing, and unpacking, and plans made and changed and unmade and made again. Everyone was excited, thrilled beyond belief.

Except Carson. He watched them all, listened to them talk about their plans for leave. He thought about Scotland and Earth and his mum's home cooking. And he smiled and nodded and said things like 'that sounds like a good idea' whenever anyone told him what they wanted to

It hadn't taken long for him to figure out no one remembered. He couldn't decide how to tell Dr. Weir, or anybody; sometimes he even thought about not telling them at all. Stand back and toss through a note, so they'd not think he'd been trapped in the wormhole or dropped on the ramp of heart attack. He felt that was cowardly -- but he knew if he tried to remind Dr. Weir beforehand, that she would ask for volunteers to stay. She'd even volunteer, herself, and Carson knew she had too much to do back on Earth.

Everyone was so excited about going home. Weir herself had to go if only because she had to vet all the new personnel and get them briefed. Even Teyla was going, to be shown Earth and to help with selecting personnel. John had been the one to convince her of that, pointing out with surprising sincerity that she was good with people, and had good instincts when it came to judging them.

Carson didn't want to be the one to make anyone stay in Atlantis just to keep him company. It wasn't as though there wasn't a whole town of Athosians nearby, anyhow. But the more he saw everyone getting ready, the more he felt like he needed to say something. He had no idea what. Even just pulling someone aside and asking -- "Do you know I can't go with you?"

The maintenance interface didn't get turned off. He'd explained, when it had first connected with him. He couldn't turn it off, couldn't remove it. He couldn't even leave the planet without his head blowing up -- he'd assigned Dr. Hathaway as the main emergency physician for just that reason. But no one had remembered that, it was clear to him. They asked him what his plans were, and he deflected their inquires by asking the same, and listening to vacation plans and stories of families and movies and sleeping on real, Earth mattresses.

He watched them prepare, and smiled back when they thanked him, and sat in his quarters at night in the dark, and stared at Gaelic script and diagrams that only he could see.

He thought about Earth, and home, and let the scroll of technical blueprints distract him into thinking about what he might do, tomorrow.

The day after, he was in his quarters again. Same wall, new diagrams and schematics. He'd spent the entire day in the upper reaches of the mormot tower, tinkering on the air quality detection sensors. Nothing from the top of his list, but he'd found that as long as nothing was glowing urgent-red, he was pretty much free to pick anything he liked, without Murdoc blinking an item from the list for him to select.

He'd managed to avoid everybody by packing his lunch along and getting back very late for dinner. He'd grabbed something -- still not sure what it was -- and headed back to his room to eat.

And sulk, if he were being thoroughly honest with himself. It was hard not to, surrounded by people all caught up in the good news. He tried to focus on the fact he'd be able to get quite a lot of work done. With no one around there would be no medical emergencies to keep him in the infirmary. He'd be able to spend all his time with his mechanic's tool-belt -- and do it *without* his 'repair-groupies.'

Murdoc seemed to approve of those plans, offering a variety of work schedules for him to consider. There were several things to be done in the lower sections of the city, where he hadn't ventured to yet. Dr. Weir hadn't wanted him going alone into areas of the city they hadn't secured yet, and she hadn't the time or personnel to devote to doing so just so he could work on something they weren't actively in need of.

But he could stick to areas that weren't remotely dangerous, like the public arts halls, and the museums. Or, if he wanted to avoid getting a lecture at all from Dr. Weir when she returned, he could easily fill his time staying right in the center of the city. Without anyone around he could even get to some of the items in the control center -- trivial enough though they were, he hadn't wanted to tackle them with everyone standing around staring at him.

It would be better to do it when everyone was gone, and he was here alone. Carson rolled over on his bed, the staring at a new wall, but the same display. He wished he could turn it off, but all he could do was dim it a little. Only when there was nothing to be repaired did the duty scroll vanish completely, and from the records he'd seen that happened only once in a great while. There was always something breaking down, or needing a tune-up.

He told himself it was good that at least he would never get bored. He rubbed at his eyes and tried not to think about sitting in his parent's living room as a boy, spread out on the floor while the snows kept them all trapped safely inside. Whinging about being bored until his father suggested a list of chores he could do. His mum would take turns whose side she would be on, sometimes offering to take him into the kitchen to let him help with some baking, or sending him sternly off to tidy his room.

Carson took a slow, shuddering breath and tried to think about maintenance work. Or Wraith -- he could work on his research and not have to worry about sharing the equipment. He could do *anything*, even run down the halls in his socks and not a stitch else.

There was a knock on his door, and Carson thought it open without rolling over to see who it was.

"Oh, good, you're awake."

He listened as Rodney walked over and found something to sit on, near the bed. He felt the slight dip as Rodney propped a foot on the mattress, but he still didn't look over. He waited until he could surreptitiously wipe his face dry before facing his friend.

"We wondered if there were any other spare ZPMs around and if you'd have time to get 'em fixed up and don't think I've forgotten that you haven't shared that interesting little tidbit with me on how you did that or why you didn't mention that you could do it so I could watch. The SGC might need a spare, but really we were thinking that if we had two more -- really if we could get them repaired regularly and believe me when I say I will be watching the next time -- we could schedule regular trips back to Earth and rotate personnel. Well, that part was Elizabeth's idea but I think it's a good one especially if I can get Kavanagh replaced -- maybe with a gerbil. Or a ferret would be all right, because at least those can be trained to fetch, and they chew on things and smell bad, but I think that'd be a vast improvement, don't you?"

Carson didn't answer, recognising the high-velocity spiel and knowing there was no need to interrupt, or even look like he was listening.

"When she had all the head of staff put in their requests for new personnel I specifically asked that he be replaced, though I didn't actually ask for a gerbil -- but it probably isn't too late. I wonder if Sam Carter would want to come, if she knew she'd be able to get back to Earth? That would be fantastic, can you imagine the amount of research we could get accomplished? And I know Dr. Jackson will be here as long as Jack knows he'll get him back. God, I hope O'Neill doesn't decide to come with him, no offense to the Colonel but I think I'd rather have Kavanagh... OK, no, I really wouldn't."

Carson didn't say anything as Rodney kept talking. Instead his thoughts seized on the thing Rodney had said, buried in the middle of all that babble. Return trips -- trips, plural. The people on Atlantis could go back, regularly. Some would eventually stay behind, be replaced with new faces. It would be as routine as any other military base in some far reach -- no further than Antarctica, and Carson had been able to fly home twice during his assignment there.

He wanted to shout at Rodney to shut up and go away, but his held his tongue. Rodney was talking about some theory of his that he wanted Dr. Carter to work on with him -- something about the stargates.

He mentally brushed aside the flash of diagram that appeared, and rolled over and sat up to glare at Rodney. "Was there something you wanted?" he demanded, remembering only as he spoke what Rodney's original question was. "Yes, there is another spare ZPM and yes, I imagine I can fix it. No, you can't watch unless you stop talking at me!"

Rodney was staring at him, his mouth hanging open. Carson realised that he'd raised his voice and tried to calm himself down.

"I'm sorry. It's been a really long day and I'm tired. But you can tell Dr. Weir that having ZPMs for regular gate-travel back to Earth is... well, I'll have to look into it and see how often they can actually be recharged. There were spares listed on the inventory but they're not in the storage facility so I don't know what's happened to them."

"O...OK," Rodney said, quietly. He nodded once, and tensed as though about to stand up to leave.

Sighing, Carson said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you."

"It's all right. I do tend to go on. And on, and on. I would say it's a fault but really I find it a strength -- the ability to talk until I drop from exhaustion. I-- right, you're tired. I... should go, then."

He ought to tell Rodney he could stay -- apologise for his rudeness by letting Rodney go on with whatever he was talking about. But Carson didn't think he could stand any more company -- especially not that of someone who was, when he left Carson's room, going down the hallway into another man's quarters.

When Carson said nothing, Rodney got awkwardly to his feet. He took a step towards the door, then stopped and asked, "So... you're going to Glasgow, then? See your mum?"

Carson looked up at him, confused by the change of topic. "I'm sorry?"

Rodney shrugged. "I don't remember you telling me your plans, but usually you go back to Glasgow when you get leave. Maybe I can swing by and you can show me that Lion's Den pub you always talked about."

"Lion's Head," Carson corrected him, automatically.

"Right. So...That's where you'll be? John and I are going to spend a week in California, but I'm going to take some time to go visit my sister. By myself, I mean -- I don't know how she'd feel with me showing up on her doorstep with a boyfriend in tow. No need to make an awkward family reunion any worse." Rodney smiled, hesitantly.

Carson nodded. "That sounds like a good idea." The words felt tired, and he just wanted Rodney to go.

"Depending on how that goes I may or may not be spending a lot of time with her. But I've left the whole third week open for spontaneous plans -- so, maybe we can hook up then?" Rodney asked.

"No," Carson said, shaking his head.

Rodney stared at him again, jaw once more hanging open. From the look in his eyes it was clear Carson had hurt his feelings. "No?"

Closing his eyes -- then opening them again when that really didn't help him not see anything -- Carson said again, "No." His voice broke, and he wiped at his eyes. His whole body was starting to shake and he tried to pull himself together.

"You're not going to Glasgow?" Rodney's voice had an edge of hope to it.

"I'm not going to Glasgow. I'm not going anywhere," he added, and it was something of a relief to actually say those words out loud.

"You're not going?" Rodney looked at him, and the hurt was gone from his voice, replaced by confusion.

Carson held up his arm. Rodney looked at it -- at the maintenance band glowing on Carson's wrist.

"Because... you have work to do?"

"Because if I leave the planet my head explodes, remember? Safety feature to prevent the information from falling into the wrong hands?" He was almost shouting again, only avoiding it because he was crying. "I can't go home, I can't go to Glasgow or the pubs or my mum's or anywhere on Earth!"

He spun away, not wanting Rodney to see his face. Too late for that, he knew, but he had to do something to regain whatever control he

He felt the bed dip, and Rodney's hand was on his shoulder.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is, listening to everyone's plans for what they're going to do while they're on Earth? Talking about holidays and seeing their families and eating bread that hasn't been freeze-dried and carried halfway across the universe? And now you come and tell me you'll all be doing it often -- as often as I can arrange it, repairing the ZPMs for you so you can go home--"

He couldn't speak anymore, had barely got the last few words out. Rodney's arm slid around him, pulling him slightly backwards into an

"God, Carson. I... forgot. We all forgot, I guess."

He nodded. "I know. People keep asking me what I'm going to do." Which had only made it so much worse, since he couldn't help but think about what he wished he could do, more than anything.

"Why didn't you say something?"

"I didn't want... Everybody was so excited about going home. And there's nothing anyone *can* do. It's not like you can wrap my head in a baggie to keep my brains from going everywhere when I leave."

"But there's go to be something we can do." Rodney fell silent, going over all the possibilities.

Ones that Carson had already gone over, to no avail. "There's nothing to do," he repeated, taking a deep breath and finally feeling like he was no longer going to fall apart.

"But-- you can't stay here alone."

"I won't be alone -- not completely. The Athosians aren't that far away, and I can get there easily enough." He turned, not meaning to dislodge Rodney's arm, and feeling a chill when Rodney moved away. "But I don't want anyone to think they have to stay here, with me. I'm a grown man -- I can spend a few weeks by myself without burning down the house."

The corner of Rodney's mouth quirked. "Unlike when you were five."

Carson glared, though he didn't really feel annoyed. He'd said it deliberately to distract Rodney from what couldn't be fixed. "It was their own fault for leaving me alone--"

"For, what was it? Ten minutes?"

"I was five years old," he repeated. "What did they think would happen?"

"That you'd behave, and not try to turn on the stove?"

"Aye, well, they were wrong, weren't they?"

Rodney grinned. "They were. Which doesn't say much for us leaving you in Atlantis by yourself. God knows the trouble you can get into." He'd said it lightly, but from the set of his face Carson knew his friend was thinking about all the real emergencies that could happen.

"We've already decided to submerge the city again, to protect it from anything that might happen by," Carson reminded him. "I'll be fine."

"And when you fall down the stairs and break your neck?"

He rolled his eyes, glad he'd thought this through as well. He could, he knew, spend the month with the Athosians. But he didn't want to -- which surprised him a little. He was rather looking forward -- a bit -- to spending some time fiddling with the Ancients' machinery. "I'll stay in daily radio contact with the Athosians. They can come rescue me if I fall down the stairs."

"And how will they get here?"

Carson opened his mouth, then closed it. All right, so he hadn't completely figured that one out. He'd been assuming he wouldn't actually get into any trouble.

He didn't like the thoughtful look on Rodney's face, though. He glared, this time meaning it. "I'm not going to make anyone stay with me. What if I can't get any more ZPMs working? This will be the only chance you get to go home. I'm not going to make someone miss that."

Rodney turned his head, meeting his gaze. Carson felt himself caught in it, realising that he was only inches away. When Rodney stared at you, really looked *at* you rather than merely looking around while he talked, there was an intensity that caught you up and didn't let you go.

Swallowing nervously, Carson leant back and tried to not think things he had no right to be thinking. "It will be all right, Rodney," he said again, and he tried to sound as calm and accepting of that as he could.

"Hmm," was all Rodney said, and Carson took that as a bad sign. He was thinking, and there would be no way Carson would be able to dissuade him from whatever decision he made.

"No one needs to stay," he tried anyway.

"Oh, I know," Rodney said, surprising him a little. "But we'll see what Elizabeth says--"

"No!" Carson grabbed his arm. "You know she'll ask someone to stay behind. Rodney, if we don't find any more ZPMs, then this will be the only chance people get. I'll not be responsible for someone missing out on going home."

Rodney closed his hand over Carson's, patting it once rather than moving it away as Carson expected. "OK."

He blinked. "OK?"

"OK," Rodney repeated, nodding his head and looking for all the world like he meant it.

Carson didn't trust him, but -- Rodney didn't have a tendency to outright lie. Exaggerate, maybe, but not actually lie.

"I should go," Rodney said, standing up but not really moving away. "You'll be all right?"

"Of course," he said, knowing that they both meant for now, and for the month ahead. Rodney seemed oddly subdued as he nodded, accepting Carson's reassurance.

But he turned and headed for the door, and Carson watched him go without calling him back.

Asking him if he wouldn't like to stay behind and learn how to repair all those gizmos and doodads that he could never remember the proper names for, no matter how often Carson pronounced them for him. But he kept silent, and watched Rodney leave.

Then he laid back down on his bed, looked up at the ceiling, and watched the list of repair jobs scroll slowly by.

No one said a word to him about it. Days went by, people continued rushing about like they were leaving for summer camp. No one asked him if he'd be all right, no one stopped asking what he planned to do back home.

Obviously Rodney had said nothing. It hurt, no matter how grateful Carson was that he wouldn't have to argue anyone out of staying behind. He was a grown man, he didn't need hand-holding. But he'd thought that Rodney would have done *something* other than drop the matter completely.

Carson was in the medical lab, trying to focus on closing down some of Dr. Weinstein's experiments, the morning of the departure. If he'd thought it chaos before, that was nothing compared to now. People were remembering things they'd forgot, or forgot that they'd already remembered. Dr. Weir had made a comment about delaying their departure for an extra week to give everyone time to get ready but she'd been shouted down.

Carson was helping out where he could, deflecting questions about his own work being safely stowed away. He felt subdued as he sat at the counter, putting slides away. Behind him, Josephine and Kada were talking about going surfing. He heard the door slide open, then Kada said, "Hello, Major."

Curious, Carson glanced over his shoulder. He grew more curious when Sheppard came directly towards him. John glanced towards the two women before sitting down on a stool and scooting it close. Carson frowned, leaning back a bit.

"Rodney sent me down to get your list," John said, keeping his voice low.


"You know. Shopping list. You do want stuff brought back, don't you?" John seemed only slightly concerned about the fact Carson was staying behind.

"I... hadn't thought about it," Carson said, keeping his own voice low. He looked back down at the slides, and continued setting them in the case. The things he wanted weren't the sort anyone could carry back.

"Everyone gets to fill a personal bag, like we did the first time. Bring some more stuff from home -- Rodney wanted me to find out what you want."

It wasn't what he'd expected of Rodney, but it was nice to realise he hadn't completely left it alone. A few more things from Earth would be... not the same as going home. But nice.

"I'll think about it and let him know," he said quietly.

There was a pause, before John nodded. "OK, then." He leaned back but didn't make any move to leave. Carson waited a moment, wondering if he were supposed to clue him in that he had nothing else to say.

But John looked like he was trying to decide something, and Carson had a feeling he knew what it was. Some polite gesture over his being stuck here while everyone else left.

"It's all right," he said, preemptively.

John nodded. "I'm sorry there isn't a way--" He stopped and glanced over at the two women. They were deep in their own conversation and organising of Josephine's notebooks. Carson doubted they would overhear anything.

"It's fine," he said again, trying to sound as though it really were. "Potato scones," he said, thinking of something easy, and portable. "If Ian McEwan's got a new book out, a copy of that."

"Who? Nevermind, I'll just write it down." Sheppard pulled a piece of paper off the shelf above the counter, and stole a pen from Carson's lab coat pocket. "Anything else?"

"I'll think about it," Carson said again. It wasn't as though he really cared -- but it occurred to him that he might start thinking seriously about what he did want from home.

When he'd packed the first time, it had been with the knowledge that they might not return. But there had been the hope otherwise, and, he had to admit, he'd always believed they would return one day. He'd packed as though going on a trip from which he would one day return.

He wasn't, now.

"Rodney said to get as long a list as possible, you know, in case we can't find one thing we can get something else."

There was a decidedly casual tone in Sheppard's voice that caught Carson's attention. He looked at him, but John's expression seemed perfectly guileless.

"What are you two -- he's got you giving up room in your bag as well, has he?"

Sheppard started to deny it, but then he simply shrugged. "I can shove something in there. Not a lot I need that takes up much room."

"You don't have to--"

"I want to," Sheppard said, quickly. And he seemed to mean it. Carson wondered how Rodney had talked him into *that*.

No. He didn't want to think about Rodney offering John favours. Well, the easiest thing to do was simply not give Rodney a list. No more than what he'd already said. Then he wouldn't have to think about it when John brought anything for him, back in his own luggage.

"I'll let him know before..... I'll let him know." He had no intention of it, but at least he could let John think he'd done his duty. He turned his attention back to the slides, re-filing the last three he'd misfiled.

He was surprised when Sheppard put a hand over his own. "Carson. Give us more of a list, OK? It isn't much, but it's something we can do to make up for the fact--" He glanced over, again, but Josephine and Kada weren't listening. "Let us do this, OK?"

"I... why do you want to?" The question slipped out before he remembered that he didn't want to know. He shook his head. "I know why Rodney's made you agree to help. It isn't necessary." He didn't want to add that he didn't expect John to care. They'd never been the sort of friends he and Rodney were.

He really didn't want to think about Rodney talking John into agreeing to help.

"Because I don't like the idea that you can't go with us. It isn't fair, and this is the only way I can help. So I'm going to. If I have to stuff my bag with weird food and trashy novels, I will."

"Ian McEwan is *not* trashy!" Carson retorted. He stopped when he realised John was smirking at him.

"I tried to read... what was it? Amsterdam. Couldn't get into it."

"It wasn't one of his best," Carson said, still staring at Sheppard like... like he'd sat down and was having a conversation.

When was the last time that had ever happened? The longest conversation they'd ever had consisted of the major trying to teach Carson how to fly a jumper. Carson hadn't thought it a coincidence that for his second lesson, Markham had become his instructor.

"Well, that type of fiction really isn't my speed. I like Dean Koontz and Straub better. Of the contemporary stuff."

"You read horror."

Sheppard shrugged. "Oddly, not so much anymore."

Carson smiled, briefly. "That's not hard to imagine."

"Yeah, somehow I don't think I'll be wanting to get any Stephen King books. I don't care how long it's been since the Dark Tower first came out."

Carson had never in his life picked up a Stephen King book, so he only nodded as though Sheppard's comment made any sense. It left him at a loss as to what to say, though.

"Maybe I'll try fantasy," John said, thoughtfully. "Elves and dwarves and dragons might be safe."

Carson frowned. "You know we'll find them, now. On some planet we gate to -- the ancients will have read Tolkien and decided to make their own version."

John laughed. "As long as we don't have to fight the bad guy, what's his name."

"Actually, the Black Riders aren't that much different from the Wraith." He started thinking about the similarities, and decided he really didn't want to know.

"There you go. Now we just need elves and hobbits."

"We *don't*," Carson reminded him. "Because then we'd also have a Balrog, and Sauron, and magical rings that corrupt people."

"Like the Stargate?" John said with an innocent tone.

"The stargates are not evil," he said reflexively. But thinking about the stargate reminded him of the fact he'd never get to step through one again. Which wasn't all that bad a thing, as far as having his molecules scrambled. But it meant he couldn't go home.

He turned back to the slides he was supposed to be putting away so Dr. Weinstein wouldn't have to worry about them. Not like he couldn't finish it up tomorrow, though no one but Rodney and John knew that.

He waited for Sheppard to say something more, but he didn't. They sat for a moment, then John stood up. "Be sure and get us that list," he said, and patted Carson on the shoulder before turning away and walking out.

Carson didn't answer. The slides weren't going to put themselves away. He tried not to think about... anything, really, as he sorted through the next batch.

The maintenance scroll flickered as an item moved up the list of priority. Carson didn't bother reading it. He'd get to it tomorrow.

He ended up giving Rodney a list of ten items. He'd found Rodney in his lab, barking orders at people as though they didn't know what they were doing. He'd glanced at Carson when he'd walked in, and Carson had said nothing as he'd handed over a folded piece of paper with his list written on it.

He'd meant to only write down one or two things, but once he'd started thinking about it, he'd thought of several items to add. He'd erased a few and left the list at ten -- enough for Rodney to feel he was bringing something back, but not so much it would take up too much room. He'd restricted himself to small items as well, for the same reason.

When Carson had handed him the list, Rodney had started to say something. But Carson had left before he could. Now he was wandering hallways not used much by the others -- he didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to risk having a conversation that would lead him to having to tell anyone else he wasn't going.

He imagined Weir would be angry when she found out. But with the moment finally here -- it was too hard. He couldn't think about it, didn't want to talk about it. He definitely did not want to argue with anyone about why they shouldn't stay.

No matter how much he wished someone would.

He looked at the clock -- the time and planetary position were marked in the bottom right-hand corner of the maintenance 'screen' in his head. He hadn't figured out why he needed to know the relative position of the planet in the solar system, but assumed it would either become relevant, or it wouldn't. It didn't take up any more space than everything else in his field of vision, so he hadn't tried to get rid of it.

The Atlantis team was leaving in just a few more minutes. He wasn't very far from the gateroom -- close enough he could imagine that he could hear them talking. All of them gathered, excited, waiting for Grodin to open the gate to Earth. Weir would be giving them a speech, perhaps. Letting them know that if anyone decided to stay on Earth and not come back, that was perfectly fine. Carson didn't know if anyone was seriously considering it, but he knew that after being home for four weeks, some of them might opt out of coming back.

According to the clock, they should be just about ready to dial the gate. Carson found himself turning down another hallway, heading for the gateroom. Possibly a mistake, but -- well, he didn't have to go all the way. He could stop, just out of sight. Out of hearing -- he could turn around right now and not go down, at all.

But he didn't stop. He hurried, in fact, as he realised that now he was going to see them off, he didn't want to miss them. Not completely -- he still didn't want anyone to catch sight of him. Rodney and John would explain it to Weir, on the other side. When it was too late to open the gate again and return, without using up all the power.

He could hear the gate, now. It was on -- no doubt folks were on their way through. He walked faster, hurrying more until he reached the doorway where he stopped. Looking through, down into the gateroom, he could see the blue swirl of the stargate's open portal. Two figures were just disappearing through.

Another second, and the gate went off.

Carson felt as though he'd been hit in the belly with a hammer. He was alone. Everyone had gone -- home.

He felt his knees shake, and suddenly they were no longer holding him up. He held onto the doorway, but slid down to the floor. He wasn't... couldn't ever...

He dropped his head and wished -- anything. Something, other than this.

"Let's go find him."

Carson's head jerked up as he heard Rodney's voice.

Rodney -- talking to someone else. Carson staggered to his feet and moved forward, not quite letting go of the doorway. Looked down into the main area of the gateroom and saw Rodney standing in the middle of the gateroom with John.

Carson moved to the edge of the balcony, and found the railing with one hand to prevent himself from -- as he felt he must certainly do -- falling over the edge.

"I'm here," he said mildly, staring down as Rodney and John both looked up at him. Rodney's face broke into a huge smile; John looked half pleased, half guilty.

"We'll come up," Rodney called out, and Carson shook his head.

"No, I'll be right down." Not that it mattered, he realised, even as he headed for the stairs. The stargate was off. They were all stuck here for the next month -- unless someone at SGC decided to dial back early.

He found himself hoping that would happen -- though he knew they wouldn't. Not right away, not anytime soon. At best they might cut their visit short by a few hours or days, but... why would they? They had power to dial back to Atlantis, once. Rodney and John were here, and no doubt Elizabeth had cleared it. Agreed to let them stay.

When he reached the main floor of the gateroom, Carson stopped, facing Rodney and John. They stood in a loose semi-circle, all staring at each other.

"Surprise," Rodney said, casually.

"What are you doing?" Carson demanded. "How can you..."

"Stay here with you? Keep you company?" John shrugged. "Seemed easy enough. See that big round thing?" He gestured over his shoulder at the gate, with his thumb. "We didn't walk through it and here we are."

Carson glared at him, then turned his glare on Rodney. He ought to tell them he was grateful. But he couldn't. "You had plans. You were going to visit your sister."

"Yeah, well... I haven't seen her in years. There's no rush. And besides, it's not like we can't have our vacation here," he began, giving John a glance. "We hadn't planned to do all that much--"

Whatever gratitude Carson had felt, shattered at that. "Lovely. So you two are going to keep me company, in-between locking yourselves in your room?"

"We're not going to lock ourselves in," John began. He stopped himself, and said in a sharper tone, "I expected at least a thank you, you know."

"Well, excuse me for not being grateful," Carson said sharply, stepping away from them. It was true -- they could have as much fun as they liked, holed up here in Atlantis with no work to do, as they could back on Earth. "I suppose the only difference between staying here and staying in a hotel on Earth is the quality of the room service."

He turned to go, intending to get as far away from there as possible. A good thing he had a map of the city in his brain -- he could go where they'd not find him. They could indulge themselves as much as they liked and he wouldn't have to bother with either of them.

A hand grabbed his arm and hauled him back before he got more than two steps away. He was spun around, and Rodney was standing there, glaring at him.

"We did *not* decide to stay here so we could have sex." He paused. From the look on his face, Carson *knew* what he was going to say next. Of course they were, even if it wasn't the main reason for staying.

Carson yanked his arm free. "Stop it! Would you just... you're here, we're all stuck here now, but that doesn't mean I have to put up with--"

He swallowed the words. Dear god, this was neither the time, nor place, to say it.

Rodney was looking at him, and his confused expression gave way to hurt. "Carson... I-- I had no idea. This... really bothers you. John and I?"

Carson scowled, trying to cover the fact that it did -- though he had no right to say so.

"I... I'm sorry, Carson." He could see how Rodney was pulling away from him. Shutting himself off. Carson wanted to scream at him, but he didn't. Couldn't.

"You never said anything about... not liking guys being together," John said, hesitantly. "I had the impression it didn't bother you."

That caught Carson's attention. It took a moment for him to figure out what John meant. What Rodney thought *he* meant. Carson shook his head. "It doesn't. That never bothered me." He clamped his jaw shut as he realised he was walking himself right into admitting how he felt.

"Then... what...?" Rodney was back to looking confused. The hurt seemed to be gone, as well as the horrible, closed-off expression Carson hated having seen. But he didn't have any intention of trying to explain, and he hoped they could just drop it.

Fair chance of that, with them stuck here with only each other for company for a month. Surely he could avoid having any real conversations with them, for that time?

But they were both staring at him, and Carson tried to look away. Focused on the scrolling words in his head, as though they'd notice his attention was elsewhere and leave him to it.

"Carson, what-- oh." Rodney's voice had a frighteningly calm tone to it. The revelation that Carson could hear made him know he'd said too much. It was far too late to bolt, and hide somewhere far on the other side of the city.

"What 'oh'?" John asked. Carson tried to focus on reading about the possible reasons why the humidifiers could have failed in the elidae decks. Or possibly find a way to teleport himself far away.

"'Oh.' He..." There was a pause, and Carson caught a glimpse of Rodney's hand moving. He missed the gesture, but looked up again to find Rodney staring at him with compassion.

That was almost worse. "I don't--" he began, but he could hardly deny what no one had even said aloud. Maybe... maybe they were talking about something else. He could blame this all on misunderstanding and save something of their friendship. Rodney's trust.

"Then what's the problem?" Rodney asked, still in that calm tone that usually delivered lectures of physics and technology -- when no one was about to die as a result of not figuring things out soon enough.

Carson tried taking a deep breath, and found it really didn't help. Instead he simply looked away again, down at the floor and noticed how the solid color made a nice background for the maintenance scroll.

There was silence, then, and Carson had time to hope they wouldn't discuss it any further. They could all pretend this conversation never happened, and Rodney and John could sequester themselves in one part of the city, and Carson could stay alone in another.

"I thought you said he turned you down?" John asked.

"He did," Rodney said, and Carson looked up again.

"Excuse me?"

Rodney shrugged. "You turned me down, both times. Back in Antarctica. I figured... oh. Um, unless it's..." He glanced at John.

Carson followed the glance, still not a clue what Rodney was talking about. John smiled back, and the penny dropped. Rodney thought it was John, that he was interested in.

Which was entirely beside the point. "When did you... give me anything to turn down?" he asked Rodney.

"About a month or two after I arrived. You remember -- we were talking at dinner and I asked you if you wanted to go back to my place."

Carson frowned, thinking back. Not as though they hadn't eaten dinner together most nights -- eaten breakfast, lunch, and game night popcorn and beer together, as well. He couldn't remember all their conversations. But he'd have noticed if Rodney had invited him back to his place for anything of the sort he'd thought Rodney too straight to agree to doing.

He did recall Rodney asking him...something, which he'd turned down. "You were inviting me to go see a hockey game."

Rodney cleared his throat. "We *were* talking about hockey. At first. Then we segued. Into... not hockey."

Again, he tried to remember the conversation. Impossible to remember exact words. But he knew he hadn't been asked *that*. If he had, he would have said yes. But Rodney seemed to think he *had* asked. "You... were making a pass at me?"

Rodney nodded.

Carson felt like slugging him. "You couldn't just say 'hey, fancy a shag?'"

"I didn't know if you'd be offended! It's hard just asking a person who might think your proclivities are unnatural and should get you banned from the project you're devoting your life to."

"So, it's him you're interested in?" John said, startling Carson a bit. He'd almost forgotten that John was standing there.

"I'm not going to get between you," he said, quickly. He tried not to notice the look that appeared on John's -- and then Rodney's -- face.
"I'm don't have to worry about me. I just... Having the two of you here to keep me company isn't exactly..." He sighed. "I do appreciate it. Honestly."

Maybe he should just leave it at that. It would be nice to have someone to spend time with. He could pretend he didn't know that sometimes Rodney and John would be off together, doing things he could only wish he could be part of. Truth was, he'd willingly have a shag with either of them -- if he weren't already in love.

That bit, he was definitely going to keep to himself. He didn't need to cause any more trouble than he already had.

"Just so we're clear," John said, "You would have said yes? If he'd spoken English and not in double entendres?"

"Excuse me," Rodney said, sounding offended. "But I was as perfectly clear as I thought it prudent to be. A US military base isn't the most encouraging place to begin a homosexual relationship."

"Lucky for me I don't feel the same," John said, smirking.

"Technically this isn't a *US* military base," Rodney countered.

"Yes," Carson said, quietly. Half-hoping they wouldn't hear.

But Rodney's head whipped around, and he stared. "Yes?"

"Cool," was all John said.

Which didn't exactly make sense. "I'm sorry?" Carson asked. Well -- it was nice to know John didn't feel threatened.

"You'd have said yes? Really?" Rodney was still staring at him, and the hopeful, tentatively happy look on his face made Carson wonder if Rodney remembered he was already seeing someone.

"Yes, really," he said, because it was the only question he knew the answer to.

Rodney stared at him for a moment more, then turned to John. "Cool," he repeated.

"Well, I'm glad to have amused everyone," Carson began. He felt tired, stretched too thin to make sense of anything -- not a new feeling for him, as it described pretty much every waking moment since he'd stepped foot in Atlantis. Too little butter scraped thinly over bread, he thought to himself. The floor really was the perfect background for the text and diagrams in his eyes. Easy to read everything, and no impression that he had to focus on anything beyond the scrolling words, as well.

He started when he felt a hand touch his face, and, reluctantly, he lifted his head in response to the nudge. Rodney was standing there, looking for all the world like he was going to kiss him. Carson opened his mouth to ask him what he wanted -- when Rodney leant forward and did exactly that.

His lips were warm, dry, and softer than Carson would have expected them to be. Pressed against his own, he couldn't quite think of anything through the surprise. The fear hit only a second later, that John was standing right *there*. Surely he would be angry, or hurt, or...he wasn't saying anything, though, and Rodney kept kissing him.

Carson felt his body beginning to respond; he had to back away before Rodney felt it, too. Before he made this situation any worse than it was rapidly becoming. He tried to move back, and Rodney let him go only a half step. He still had a grip on Carson's arms, and he didn't seem about to let him leave.

Guiltily, Carson looked at John, apologies on the tip of his tongue.

John was smiling at them. Carson looked at Rodney, who was looking at him like he was waiting for something. He looked back at John.

"Er... you do realise your boyfriend just kissed me?"

"Now maybe I won't have to listen to him gripe about it." John grinned at Rodney.

"Excuse me, I don't *gripe* about it. I mention it, *occasionally*. Besides, you agreed with me."

"Well, yeah. But it's one thing to agree a guy's fuckable, and another to go on and on about it, day after day..." John paused, and gave Carson a wink.

Carson was starting to think he knew how Alice felt, falling down the rabbit hole. Maybe the connection to Murdoc had affected his brain?
He was dreaming all this, and they'd return from Earth to find him collapsed on the deck above the gateroom.

"I do *not* go on day after day," Rodney insisted. He was still gripping Carson's arm -- like he knew Carson was ready to bolt.

"Excuse me, I think..." He didn't really know what to think. He was sorry he'd got their attention, however, when they stopped and both looked at him.

It was obvious they were waiting for him to keep going, but he couldn't think of anything he trusted himself to say. Finally, John was the one to speak up. He shrugged, and said, "I don't mind sharing." His tone was light, but there was an undercurrent that said things had turned very serious, indeed.

"I don't mind sharing," Rodney echoed. He sounded just as casual, but the look in his eyes was intense. It was too difficult to look away, and Carson could barely think of saying no, and seeing the disappointment there.

"You have any idea what you're saying?" Carson asked, because this conversation was not one he'd ever dreamed of having. It made his unconscious hypothesis seem more likely.

He'd never dreamed of going to another galaxy, either, so perhaps he should stop trying to put expectations on anything.

"We're saying we can do this one of two ways. All of us, or you and me and him and me. And you and him, if you want. Although I really would like to *see* it if that happens." Rodney's voice didn't reveal the tension that Carson could feel; his body was tight and unmoving, just like Carson's own.

But Carson was still trying to process what Rodney had said. John didn't help with that at all, when he said, "I'm up for that. Any of them."

"I think... I may need a drink." Carson couldn't answer. He didn't dare -- because when he woke up and they asked him what he'd been dreaming about while unconscious, he'd need to be able to say 'nothing too odd.'

"I think we can arrange that," John said. He moved towards the stairs, but Rodney didn't follow. Carson looked at him, and found that his expression hadn't changed.

Rodney opened his mouth, but didn't say anything. Carson waited a moment, then realised that Rodney was as much at a loss for words as he was. He wished he knew what to say. Perhaps he should just say yes, and worry about it later. Or go ahead and say no, now, and let them stop wondering.

He couldn't decide. He heard John walking back over, and he turned his head, still guilty over the fact he wanted to kiss Rodney again.

He was totally unprepared for John to reach his hand around the back of Carson's head, and pull him in for a kiss. Long, and hard, totally unlike the gentle passion in Rodney's kiss. But nothing he could dare pull himself away from, either.

He gasped when John let him go.

"Oh, yeah. Definitely going to have to see it," Rodney said.

Carson just swallowed, hard.

One month. No matter what his answer was, he was fairly sure he might not survive.

"Come on," John said, starting again to walk away. He waggled a finger at them to encourage them to follow.

"Where are we going?" Carson asked, not moving.

"You said you wanted a drink, right? I have a bottle of fine Athosian booze in my room."

No. Oh, no. Carson shook his head. He *knew* he wasn't ready for that.

John stopped and rolled his eyes. "We are *not* going to get you drunk and seduce you."

"Oh, good," Carson breathed. That was good, right? Although having an excuse -- no. He wasn't going to go there. Well, he was, but -- No.


John was right. He needed a drink. He needed to *panic*. But a drink might serve the same purpose.

"Are you coming?" John asked, and Carson managed to follow him this time. Rodney walked along right beside him. As they headed out of the gateroom Carson found himself wondering if this gave him the right to stare at John's arse.

Not that he would. Or was. But it would clarify things a bit if he knew whether or not he could.

Wouldn't it? He glanced over at Rodney and found his friend already staring -- but he certainly was allowed, since he and John were already lovers. Not that Rodney couldn't have started before then, because who would date a person they didn't enjoy staring at bits of? Carson had no idea how to make himself stop babbling in his head. He called up the urgent repair section of the list and started reading, intently.

"Nice, isn't it?" Rodney asked, startling him. Carson blinked and realised that the section of the list he'd been staring at was superimposed right where he'd not intended to be staring.

"I wasn't -- I was looking at..." He gestured towards his temple. Rodney looked disappointed. Carson swallowed nervously, and tried to remember a time when he felt at all in control of his life. University?

Primary school?

"You don't think it's a nice ass?" Rodney asked.

"Oh, it is," he agreed, then bit his tongue. John grinned at them over his shoulder and Carson thought again about finding a hidden Ancient technology for vanishing through the floor.

"See? Progress, already," Rodney wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

"I'm not -- it isn't," Carson began. He had a sinking feeling he wasn't going to talk himself out of this -- not sure he wanted to, but he couldn't help but feel this was a horrible mistake. He stopped walking, and Rodney stuttered to a stop ahead of him, not quite letting go of Carson's shoulder.

"I'm sorry," Carson said.

Rodney frowned. "You -- we're just going to *talk*," he said.

But Carson shook his head. He knew what they were going to do. If not now, then certainly later. Unless he said 'no' right now. John came up beside them, and Carson noticed he had a rather intense look of his own.

"You know that's not what we're going to do," he said calmly. Calmly as he could pretend to be. His heart was pounding fast enough he was sure they could probably tell.

"You don't think it's a good idea?" John asked. He didn't sound... well, like anything. Carson couldn't read what he might be thinking.

"We're not going to make you do anything you don't want to do," Rodney said. "If you don't want to have sex -- it isn't like I'm going to carry you over my shoulder."

Carson started to nod, grateful that Rodney wasn't going to push this. He hoped they would go, and leave him be until he could face them with some semblance of composure.

"I am," John said. Before Carson could do anything more than gape at him, John was kissing him for a second time.

Carson couldn't even get a hand up to push him away -- possibly because his fingers had clawed their way around John's jacket and were holding on. This was very wrong, he tried to tell himself.

He couldn't remember why, exactly. But he knew he ought to be furious.

John broke the kiss but didn't move -- his face barely an inch away and his breath hot on Carson's face. Panting, and sounding not a little bit angry, as he said, "I don't care if you decide you don't *want* this. But if you say no because you do and think you shouldn't, I'm going to be very annoyed."

It would have been easier to say 'no' anyway if he weren't already hard. If John weren't pressed up against him, able to feel just how much he needed to say 'yes.' But he turned his head just enough to look at Rodney.

Who pushed his way in past John, and grabbed him. Gave him a second kiss of his own, and Carson thought he'd lost his mind when John had kissed him. He'd imagined Rodney gentle, full of care. Not this, shoving his tongue into Carson's mouth, demanding he make way for a kiss that seemed to sear the brain cells out of Carson's skull.

He could feel John's hand on his arm, still feel him pressed up against the left side of his body. Rodney was on the right, both of them pushing him back until he hit the wall. They held him there until Rodney let him go.

They both stepped back half a step. He had plenty of room to run.

All he wanted to do was drop his trousers and tell them to please get on with it. His hand twitched, but he stilled it because he *had* to keep hold of some sense. He tried to remember why, what his objection was. Something about... sex with them.

He groaned, and felt his hips jut forward. Rodney was there again, and this time his hand pressed down on Carson's cock. Carson shoved his hips forward, rubbing against Rodney's hand.

"Is that a yes?" John asked, his voice quiet despite the way he was staring at them -- as though as soon as Carson nodded, he'd tear off their clothes.

So he swallowed and nodded, and Rodney's hand had found its way into his trousers and was pulling them open. Carson let his head fall back, whimpering. John was there, one hand on Carson's face and kissing him -- rough, intense passion that would have made him come anyway, even without the way that Rodney's hand was pulling on him.

His arse was slamming into the wall as he shoved his hips forward and back, trying to fuck Rodney's hand and get more of John's mouth. His hands were tangled up in clothing - whose, had had no idea. Fingers were playing with the head of his cock, then sliding the foreskin down and jerking him off. John's teeth pulled at his lip and his tongue thrust into his mouth, and all Carson could find it in himself to do was hang on.

He tried to shout, or breathe, and his head hit the wall again. There was cool air on his lips as John let him go, and Rodney's mouth was there and a second hand was on his cock. Carson closed his eyes and shouted, hips jerking of their own accord as they brought him off.

They held him as he came, and afterwards he wanted to slide down the wall and collapse, but his arse was plastered flat against the cool metal of the bulkhead -- Rodney and John were there leaning against him, pressing him back. "I..." He tried to swallow, his throat too dry, suddenly, to make any more sound.

Rodney kissed him lightly and John nuzzled his neck. Carson shivered.

It occurred to him, quite clearly, that he ought return the favor. He could feel both men's erections against him, though neither of them was giving him any indication that they expected anything. From him -- he knew that if he left them to it, they'd turn to each other. Alone in the city and they were well used to making out in the hallways already.

Or he could do something he'd wanted to do for a very long time. Carson let himself sink to his knees, and he put his hand on Rodney's hip.

He heard a gasping noise, and thought there might have been words not-quite spoken. He opened Rodney's trousers, and thought that he had never, in all his time knowing the man -- living in close quarters in a variety of places -- seen him in less than pants and a T-shirt.

A hand landed on his shoulder; whose, he didn't know. He pulled Rodney's trousers and pants out of the way. Rodney was muttering something in a thin, desperate voice. Carson smiled, and opened his mouth.

He thought about teasing him. Kissing him lightly, licking ever so gently. Taking his time and making Rodney fair lose his mind over needing to come.

But Rodney had a way of getting even with pranksters. Besides, Carson didn't really want to draw this out. He sucked Rodney into his mouth and heard Rodney gasping. Carson pulled him in, not nearly as far as he could, but enough to get Rodney's cock well moistened. Rodney's voice was abruptly cut off and Carson pulled away, looking up to see John kissing Rodney quite thoroughly. Rodney's hand was working its way inside John's trousers and John was using one hand to assist him.

Carson bent his head back down. Took Rodney's cock once more and licked -- imagining what John's tongue was doing in Rodney's mouth, and mimicking it with his own. Rodney made a choked, panting noise and Carson kept going.

He sucked Rodney's cock in, and pulled his mouth away, hands holding onto Rodney's thighs. He could feel the muscles under his hands trembling. There was Rodney's voice again; he was whispering 'oh god' over and over, and Carson tried to get him louder. He sucked hard and Rodney cried out, echoed by a moan from John.

Pulling back, he teased Rodney with his tongue, knowing by the sound of it that John had taken Rodney's mouth again. He played with Rodney's cock, tasting him and focusing only on the feel of Rodney's cock in his mouth. Rodney's voice came and went, as John kissed him and broke away.

Carson heard Rodney say John's name -- then heard him say his own. Carson opened his mouth and pulled Rodney's cock in as far as he could. He heard Rodney gasp, a strangled sound that made Carson grow hard again. John's voice was there, distant as he pressed his mouth against Rodney's skin, saying words that only Rodney -- if anyone -- could hear.

One more moment, then Carson pulled completely away and wrapped his hand around Rodney's cock. Jerked him off two, three times while John had gone back to kissing him, his own cock fucking Rodney's hand in nearly an identical rhythm. John's hand was underneath Rodney's shirt, and his face close against Rodney's neck, then Rodney was coming, hanging onto John and his throat locked tight against any further sound.

It took him a moment to rise to his feet, but he did, and was pulled into an embrace with John. John kissed him, and he returned it -- the hands on his back were both Rodney's and John's. Rodney was still jerking John off, and Carson reached down as well. He felt, rather than heard, John's groan as he came. They held him, and Carson caught a glimpse of Rodney's face, watching his lover. Carson tried to look away but there was nothing to see but the repair scroll in his head.

Then Rodney glanced at him and smiled, and John dropped his head forward, coming to rest with a light thump against both their foreheads. They were all leaning against each other, spent and quite disheveled.

"My room, and a drink?" John asked, and there was a softness in his voice Carson was shocked to hear.

"I may not need a drink any longer," Carson admitted. He reached down and pulled his trousers together and refastened them. He knew if he closed his eyes, he'd fall asleep propped up against the wall.

"My room, and a fuck?" John said, grinning.

Carson tried to catch his breath. He looked at Rodney, who simply smiled.

"Hey, Carson. Fancy a shag?"

He blinked. Then he laughed.

Rodney smiled, smugly, at John. "I think that's a yes."

"It's about time." John was still grinning, and Carson felt like he'd got himself caught. In what, he didn't know. His head was spinning and all he could think was that he didn't really remember why he'd intended to say no--

Oh. He did. He sobered quickly, and Rodney and John both frowned at him. He took a deep breath and tried to figure out how to say it.

"Was... We didn't--" Rodney cut himself off, and Carson could see guilt in his friend's eyes. Carson wanted to brush it away, but he thought maybe he was only going to make it worse.

At least they'd be able to walk away from this still friends, if he said it now.

"There's something I have to tell you."

"If you want to tell me you're gay, it's too late," Rodney joked. There was no humour in his voice, and he sent a worried glance at John, who simply shook his head.

"I... well, it's useless saying I don't want desperately to have sex with you. Both; either of you. We just had a rather vivid demonstration of that, I think."

"But?" John asked, when Carson didn't go on.

Carson couldn't look at him. Didn't want to look at Rodney, but he had to meet his eyes. "But this isn't about sex. Rodney--" He stopped, cursed once, very silently, then said, "I'm in love with you."

Rodney's eyes went wide, and his mouth dropped open.

And he didn't say a word.

Carson didn't hear anything from John, either, and was too afraid to look. "I meant it, when I said I wouldn't come between you, too. But... I can't have a casual affair with you. I shouldn't have done this, but... I suppose I wanted to pretend it would be all right if I did." He felt his throat closing up, and stopped trying to explain.

He took advantage of their lack of reaction, and stepped away. His arm brushed against Rodney's and he hurried another step past, knowing that he had to get as far, and as quickly, as he could.

He heard John say Rodney's name, but Rodney didn't respond. Carson walked faster. He reached the intersection without hearing anything more, then he was around the corner and down the hall.

John and Rodney just let him go.

He stopped by his quarters to change clothes and clean himself off as best he could without a shower. He didn't want to stay here that long, afraid they'd come after him. He grabbed his tool-belt and left again, picking a hallway that led as far away from the gateroom and John's quarters and the hallway in-between them as possible.

He made a random, mental stab at the list of repairs and let it highlight itself. Wrong choice -- this was one in the jumper bay, right above the gateroom. He tried to order the repairs according to location in the city and found it rather hard to concentrate.

One item glowed red, and Carson looked at it. Not urgent, but far away and a sort of repair he'd done several times already.

"Thanks, Murdoc," he said softly, knowing he didn't have to speak aloud at all. But it seemed less frightening to talk to himself out loud than silently.

He found the nearest transporter and sent himself away to the triband section of the city. The team from Earth hadn't been here at all, but Carson had done so a few times. There was no danger here, but it was without power. Carson hadn't needed any more power than could be generated by the handheld generator he had in his toolkit -- an item he'd left two of with the scientists to play with and exclaim over. He didn't know if they'd decided on a use for them yet. The generators were too small to do much more than power small systems for a very short time -- just long enough to test repairs and see if they'd been done correctly.

But it kept them busy, and kept Dr. Weir from yelling at him for not sharing with them everything he learnt.

Carson didn't bother with a handlight as he made his way down the corridors. The map in his mind glowed, showing him the path as clearly as if he could see it with his own eyes. He thought it was no different than navigating with a starlight scope, and it was somehow more comforting to leave the lights off in a place that had seen no life at all for ten thousand years.

When he reached the control panel he'd come to fix -- environmental controls for the next section over -- he dropped his tool-belt and hooked up the generator. The panel powered up slightly, the only working circuits glowing with a soft yellow light. Enough to see his work, and determine just which parts were broken so Murdoc could tell him how to repair it.

For the next several hours he worked. Slowly and carefully, moving down the corridor from one panel to the next. He never noticed when lunchtime came and went, and only looked at the time an hour after dinner when his back told him he had to stand up and stretch or he'd never walk again.

Carson saw that he'd repaired five panels -- in an area of the city they wouldn't be using, so it really didn't matter if the environmental controls were sensitive enough to make it comfortable. He couldn't even turn them on beyond verifying they worked, because all the available power was routed to the areas of the city they lived in -- and to the shield, for now, to keep the tonnes of ocean at bay. They'd lowered Atlantis that morning before anyone had gone back to Earth, to ensure that everything was in working order and they'd have a city to come back to.

Carson suddenly realised that Dr. Weir had known he was staying. She'd not said a word as they'd lowered the city and double-checked all the systems. But she'd known, all the same.

That reminded him of his two guests. He couldn't hope to avoid them for long. For tonight, at least, and maybe well into the week if he left his quarters early and didn't get back 'til late. Eventually they'd run into each other, but Carson hoped that they would have agreed to pretend none of this had happened.

He gathered up his tools and switched off the handheld generator, standing still for a moment to let his eyes readjust to the darkness. Then he headed back home, already sorting through what tasks he could busy himself with tomorrow.

When he stepped into his quarters, he froze. Rodney was sitting on his bed.

Rodney tapped his earpiece and said into his radio, "John. He's here."

Carson dropped his belt on the floor and took a step forward. He got no farther before Rodney was on his feet.

"We didn't know where you'd gone, and we figured you'd have to come back here eventually -- or hide out in your office, which is where John's been as well as prowling around. We couldn't find you on the internal sensors which meant you went someplace where they don't work and what the HELL were you thinking by doing that? If you'd broken your leg or had a heart attack or released an alien bug how are we supposed to help you which, I might remind you, is part of the reason we're here!"

When Rodney paused, Carson wasn't sure it was safe to speak. But Rodney kept quiet, glaring at him as if to say he'd better have an apology and explanation ready.

"I'm sorry," he offered. "I wasn't in any trouble."

"Yes, well, thank you *so* much for letting us know. Or does that thing in your head also provide you with radio contact?"

Carson raised his hand to his ear, only then remembering he'd taken his earpiece off that morning. No one had been wearing them to return to Earth and he had seen no point in keeping his radio with him.

"I'm sorry," he said again, this time meaning it.

Rodney didn't look very much appeased. He tossed Carson's radio at him, and Carson caught it, juggling it for a second before hanging on. Carson didn't look up as he slipped it on -- not sure if there was any need to be in radio contact now, but afraid to try arguing about it.

"And don't you dare go into unexplored sections of the city -- not without backup, not without telling us, not without permission from someone who can assure you that it's safe!"

"I've not gone--"

"I don't care what that interface thing tells you! Unless it's been cleared by *us*, by a full contingent of trained military and scientific personnel who apparently can think more clearly than a medical doctor who doesn't know enough to not disappear in an alien city where *god* knows what could happen--"

He broke off as the door slid open, and John stepped inside. He stopped just inside the door, and folded his arms. Nodding, he said, "Go ahead. Sounds like you have it under control."

"I didn't--" Carson began, not really wanting to get chewed out with an audience. Not that he couldn't see why they thought it necessary.

It had been a stupid thing to do. Would have been, except he was pretty sure Murdoc would have notified them if he'd run into any trouble. He knew enough not to say so at the moment.

"You clear everything with us from now on, understand?" Rodney was almost shouting, and he'd drawn himself up -- Carson couldn't recall when he'd learnt to be in command, but he'd done so rather thoroughly.

He didn't like the idea of being under Rodney's orders -- but technically John was the one in command, here, and he knew John would only repeat exactly what Rodney was saying.

Sighing to himself, Carson nodded.

Rodney glared for another moment before nodding back, sharply. "All right, then. As long as we're clear."

"We're clear," Carson said, irritated at the heavy-handed way Rodney was ordering him about. "I didn't intend to worry you and I'll stay in the center of the city from now on. You don't have to shout at me like I were an idiot."

"I do have to shout and you ARE an idiot and you don't *get* it do you?" Rodney grabbed his arms -- and instead of shouting, or shaking him like Carson half-expected -- Rodney kissed him again, fast. He was breathing hard when he said, "You are *not* disappearing on me. Some ancient alien thing could come out of the walls and kill you without warning. You could fall down a stairwell and break your neck, or electrocute yourself because you don't know what you're doing, or a hundred other things I can't even begin to catalogue."

Rodney stopped, and swallowed. He didn't let go of Carson's arms.

Carson looked over at John, who rolled his eyes in what was, oddly enough, an affectionate gesture. John twirled his finger at his head, and grinned. Carson looked back at Rodney, who was only just seeming to pull himself together. He tried giving Rodney a kiss in return.

It wasn't at all about passion. Rodney opened his mouth and hung onto Carson's arms, and all he could feel was desperation. Carson brought his hands up, resting them on Rodney's arms, awkwardly since Rodney wasn't letting him go. His eyes were wide with fear when Carson leant back and looked at him.

He kissed Rodney once more, lightly on the lips. Then he nodded. "I won't go wandering off anymore," he promised.

"Good." Rodney's voice was shaking. "And now I want dinner, because I haven't eaten anything since noon because I didn't think we could catch you in the mess hall."

"I haven't eaten either," he admitted, and was amused when Rodney regained his composure -- taking Carson by the elbow and steering him back towards the door.

"Then that's where we're going."

Carson thought about pointing out he had some rations in his quarters -- but he didn't. He let Rodney lead him out, John falling in behind them. In his head, the maintenance list dimmed slightly.

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