Thanks to Mel for mention of the song lyrics!

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It looked so innocuous. Rodney was actually tossing it carelessly from hand to hand. "Apparently it's some kind of Ancient holding device," he said, looking not at the people listening to him, but at the orb itself. "The best way to find out what a person is made of is to subject them to all sorts of tortures and depravation. I believe this was a method developed by the ancients of having people judge themselves."

"Judge themselves for what?"

"My guess is to see if they were worthy enough to participate in the ascension experiments. We do know that the ancients developed the means to ascend through experimentation, and we know through experience that sending the wrong people through them proves disastrous, to say the least." Rodney rolled the orb around in his hand. "It's fascinating. Once the person reaches the conclusion for the reason behind his doings, he is released, hopefully with a broader understanding of what happened to him and his relationship to everything. Rather Bonaventure in a way."

Sheppard frowned. "Rather what?"

Rodney continued to study the orb. "St. Bonaventure. Thirteenth century or so. Guess you could say he was one of the first metaphysical physicists." Rodney smiled absently.

"And?"

"And, he had all these odd theories, but one actually makes sense, and now I'm wondering where he got the idea." He tapped the orb. "He was very much a 'faith versus reason' guy, except he was joining them together, showing that science was nothing more than a branch of faith. I could debate that, but I'm not going to right now." He winced as he thought back, his hand waving about conversationally. "Actually I don't remember that much about him, but I do recall something about a supposed Third Power of the Soul, which involved the power of choice, or one's will. Has something to do with ego and desire, and judgement. That's about as clear as I can get at the moment."

Sheppard remembered the notebook with the hastily scribbled notes. He also remembered there was a lot more on that sheet than McKay was saying. "What, no lecture?"

"Hey, I was also taking a strenuous course in subparticle absorption at the time, so cut me some slack!"

"Meaning what, Dr. McKay?" Weir asked.

"Meaning . . . Carson was in a situation where he was testing himself. He was testing his will, his power of choice, and letting his intellect be his own judgement."

"And the two of you were inside that thing?" Sheppard frowned at the orb.

"In a manner of speaking. There's an energy converter, just here," Rodney pointed to the faint light, "and it reforms matter into a visual. I mean, ultimately we're just energy, right? This thing just . . . reformats it." He smiled, though his face was haggard. It was obvious that, despite what they had been through, he remained fascinated by the object.

"And you've been studying this thing for how long?"

"Yeah, well, sometimes it's better to analyze thing from the inside out." Rodney sent Carson a pointed look, which the physician turned away from.

"So you were in a series of rooms," Weir pressed.

"All conjured up by our good doctor here." Rodney handed the orb to Carson. "Quite insightful, really." If his eyes showed the slightest bit of pain, it was hidden well.

"Can it, Rodney," Carson muttered. His expression showed that he wished no further discussion on the subject. Dammit, he was tired, and he wanted to rest. Really rest.

Weir nodded. "I'd like for you to continue to study this device, but only if it's safe. No more disappearing acts. Now, can you promise me that, or do we ship this thing to the nearest vacant planet?"

"No, no, I understand how this thing works now. Just keep Carson far from it, and we'll be fine."

Weir gave a satisfied nod. "Fine. Will I see you both for dinner, then?"

Carson managed a thin smile. "We'll be there."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The screen before him kept blurring. Rodney punched at the keyboard, then sighed and leaned back, rubbing his hands over his face and feeling stubble. A knock at the door pulled him from his seat automatically, and he was at the door before being conscious of it.

"Rodney? Can I come in?"

Rodney stared. It was eleven pm. Carson never came to his room, much less late at night. "Is something wrong?"

"No, I just. . .needed to talk."

"Oh. Well. . .come in." He scrubbed at his face. "Coffee?"

"You have some prepared?"

"You serious?" The comment was cast over his shoulder as he walked across the large room to his desk. On a small table behind it sat a small coffee pot.

Carson eyed the location as he scuffed to a stop. "You like to keep it a bit near, don't you? Aren't you afraid of spilling?"

"That's why it's behind me, not on the desk." He poured a mugful and handed it to Carson. "Might as well sit. . . uh. . ." he glanced around and pushed a small pile of shirts from a chair. For the most part the room was immaculate, but there were bits that definitely screamed Rodney McKay. "There you go."

"Thank you." Carson sat back and contemplated the metal mug he'd been given. It looked like the walls of the safe room. "I wasn't interrupting anything, was I?" He couldn't decide if Rodney was in the throes of work, or getting ready for bed. His t-shirt was rumpled, his pants hung loose over bare feet.

"No, no. . .so, what did you want to talk about?" Rodney's tone was too casual. He raised the mug to his lips.

"Well, attacking you. And what I said earlier about my not trusting you."

"Remember that, do you?"

"Of course."

"Well. That's too bad cause I, uh. . .I was just going to tell you to forget it. No harm, no foul, that sort of thing." He set his mug down and walked back over to his laptop, not sitting at his desk, but bending over the back of his chair to punch at the keyboard.

"Rodney. . ."

"I guess if you need to, go ahead and talk. I have to keep monitoring this mathematical experiment I've got going on here, but talk away."

"Rodney, I need you over here to listen. I'm not going to compete with a program that runs just as well on autopilot."

Caught. Rodney sighed and shut the lid. "Okay. Maybe this isn't something I care to discuss."

"But I need to. Can you accept that, at least?"

"Fine." He resumed his seat, his arms folded.

"Don't go getting all defensive."

"I'm not! I always sit this way."

"Liar." Carson caught his word as soon as it left his mouth. "I'm sorry. That doesn't help matters much."

Rodney circled his finger in the air impatiently. "Just talk."

"Okay." Carson took a deep breath. "Back there, in the orb, I said that I didn't trust you. I guess I should explain that."

"If you must."

"God, Rodney, I knew you weren't going to make this easy, but Christ!"

"That's twice in one sentence. Think he'll listen?"

"I'm leaving." Carson stood, setting his coffee on the table beside him, and headed towards the door. A sudden hand on his shoulder stopped him.

"Wait! I'm sorry, really. I'm just. . .okay, you talk. I'll just shut up. Right now." Rodney backed away and held his hand toward the seat that was vacated.

Carson returned to his seat. Rodney once again handed him his mug, and returned to his own, sipping at the dark brew. He waited patiently.

"God," Carson muttered, after several moments of silence, and set his mug back to the side. He leaned forward, clasping his fingers together. "Listen. You're a good friend, Rodney. I like you despite the fact that you drive me bloody insane. Okay? I like you."

"But you don't trust me."

There was a hesitation. "No."

"Why? What have I done?" The poor man seemed genuinely confused, and torn apart.

Such hurt was rare on Rodney's face, and Carson couldn't stand it. He braced himself. "Because I know you of old. I know the scientist that couldn't care less for the injured or sick, who only wanted what was necessary for the experiment to continue. Sacrifice whom and whatever to get the job done." He stood, and Rodney followed him with his eyes. "I see who you've become, and I treasure that. But I can't reconcile that with who you were, and who you were, I didn't trust. I'm not sure where to draw the line."

"This is about my destroying that solar system, isn't it?"

"That was merely a relapse."

"So you're saying if you were in the field with me, you think I would run and leave you to danger."

"The old Rodney would have. But no, not this one. I mean, you didn't did you? You never have, not since you stepped foot on Atlantis."

"And yet you still don't trust me."

"I have to know this will last." Carson knelt down before Rodney, the way a sinner asks for forgiveness. "We've talked since coming here. We've been able to open up to each other. Jesus knows how many times I've treated you for something, or thought you were going to die underneath my hands. And each time you come back slightly different. I understand these experiences can change a person, but you are a regular chameleon. You blend in with the circumstance, and there are times when I wonder where the real Rodney McKay is."

Rodney nodded. "Okay. Fine. And in return, I have to know who the real Carson Beckett is."

He deserved that. He could still feel Rodney's throat in his grasp, see the incomprehensible fear in his friend's eyes. There were levels within him best kept to himself, but he was beginning to think that, with life on Atlantis, that wouldn't be possible for very much longer. "Agreed."

They both stood, Rodney jerking his shoulders back to pop the joints. His back was to Carson, and he talked to the wall. "I'll tell you what the difference is now. Back there I didn't have to worry about my own life. I was Mr. Invincible." He glanced over his shoulder slightly, and smiled.

"Captain Untouchable."

"Touche. Out here, you have to trust. You have to open up, and that's been. . ." he closed his eyes, "that has been the hardest thing for me to do. So no, I guess I'm not who I was then. I still love my work, god, I love science, and I'm happiest when I'm locked in my lab. But I can't stay in there, no more than we could stay in that safe room."

"Funny that I created that place, and not you."

"Maybe you have more hidden issues to work out." Rodney headed back to his desk. He opened the laptop, waited for the screen, and tapped a few keys. Then he closed it again. "I don't know, maybe I went through my own transformation in there. Or maybe I'm going through one out here, and this whole station is my orb." He chuckled.

He didn't doubt it. A smile crossed Carson's lips. "You suddenly seem to be feeling pretty good about things."

Rodney continued to smile, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. "Yeah, I guess I am." He nodded toward his laptop. "My formula finally worked."

Carson's face fell. "You ass! See? That's exactly what I'm talking about!"

"Oh relax, Carson. To tell the truth, I'm. . .glad you said what you did." He grew serious. "It means maybe I'm doing some sort of good after all."

"Rodney?"

Rodney shrugged. "You've got your hangups, I've got mine." His expression drifted. "We should set up another offworld mission together. So I can save your ass and you'll feel better about things."

"What makes you think it's my ass'll need the saving? You're the one constantly getting yourself into scrapes."

"That's not true!"

"Rodney, honestly, remember who treats you! Besides, you talk of saving, what the hell do you think happened back there?" Carson sighed. "We just need to talk more. That's all. Get reacquainted."

And it hit. Rodney's mouth dropped open in astonishment. "Wait. Waitwaitwaitwaitwait." He leaned forward spun around in hilarity. Carson was suddenly rather afraid, especially when the finger was jabbed towards him in triumph. "This has nothing to do with trust!"

"What are you on about?"

His smile was smug. He bounced on the balls of his feet. "You miss me."

"Excuse me?"

"You just said it! We don't talk much anymore, unless you're asking me what hurts. That whole thing with Cadman was the first time in ages we've had any contact. You miss me! This isn't a merely matter of trust!"

"You've gone off the deep end."

Rodney crowed. "Oh no, you can't take it back! You miss our friendship! That's why I was there with you! That's why Colonel Sheppard wasn't, why you didn't conjure him up like you did the others! Oh." His face fell. "Guess he uh. . .he kinda took your place as my confidant, huh?"

"For god sake's Rodney, this isn't a bloody schoolyard! We don't play 'my best friend, my second best, third best' here!"

"Uh-huh." He stood right in front of Carson, his hands tucked into his pockets, his face boyishly pleased. "You miss me."

Vivid blue eyes rolled in exasperation. "All right. I miss you. Happy?"

"Why didn't you just say something?" He was foolishly amused.

"I've been busy! We've all been busy! I didn't even realize it until all this." He realized he was making nervous circles with his hand as he talked, and stopped.

"Carson, listen." Rodney walked over to face him again. "You've had a lot going on. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you. I should've been."

The suddenly sincerity caught Carson off guard, and he eyed Rodney suspiciously. "You think I'm crackers, don't you?"

"For feeling lonely? For feeling like you're carrying the burden of an entire galaxy on your shoulders?" He snorted. "Welcome to the club. What can I say, we're good at what we do."

"What we've done so far is nearly demolish a race, and destroy a solar system."

"Three quarters. Five eights, really, but who's counting. Like I said, we're good at what we do."

"This isn't what we do."

"I know." Rodney lowered his head, and returned to his laptop. A quick check, and he was back.

There really was a level of depth to Rodney McKay that would never be mined. But Carson was willing to try. "I should let you get back to work," he said, rather reluctantly.

"But I'm nearly done!"

"I'm really very tired." Carson shook out his arms and rounded his shoulders, feeling the fatigue. His body ached like it had been beaten, and in a way, it had been. He swallowed back the memories of what he had seen, and felt, and suddenly knew why Rodney kept returning to his computer. "Of course, a midnight snack would be nice."

"Really?" Rodney perked right up. "I'd like a good Ruben sandwich, you know?" He was already shutting down his system.

"Think we still have what we need for that?" Carson smiled.

"Should have. I've been hoarding."

He laughed. He had to. "It's Antarctica all over again."

Rodney smiled as he led the way out. "Well, it's good to know some things never change, huh?"

"You gonna put on shoes?"

Rodney looked down. "See? What would I do without you?" He walked over to the bed and sat down, hastily lacing his boots without socks.

Carson wondered for a moment. And he remembered back in that room, that one horrible moment, and said softly, "Wild are the winds to meet you, staunch are the friends that greet you. Kind as the love that shines from fair maiden's eyes."

The lights dimmed to a soft glow in the room as Rodney straightened. "That's it. That's the song I was trying to remember."

Carson smiled. "Aye, lad," he said quietly. "That's the song."