"You vant to be aLONE?" John Sheppard asked as he joined Rodney McKay on one of Atlantis' many balconies. There might have been a lot of things the Ancients didn't do perfectly, or completely, but the design and structure of Atlantis wasn't one of them. The function and the aesthetics worked beautifully together. Frank Lloyd Wright must have been descended from the Ancients. It was only times like this when the major found the layout a little bit frustrating as he tried to track down physicists who didn't really want to be found.

The barely there snort told Sheppard that McKay's mood wasn't quite as bad as he'd surmised. Though everyone had been pleasantly surprised and very grateful that Rodney ventured, shockingly bravely, into the back cloud, not really knowing with certainty that the personal shield would hold, Sheppard could tell that his and Elizabeth's earlier reactions were still weighing heavily on their top scientist's mind. Sheppard had decided that this most precious of minds should not have been put in the position to dwell on what were ultimately proven to be hasty and wrong assumptions on their parts. They were all still getting to know one another, and he and Weir had definitely jumped to the wrong conclusion about this man; this man who was slowly but surely worming his way into Sheppard's life in a way that he hadn't experienced in a long time. He wasn't sure he was prepared to have this kind of relationship in his life again.

Major John Sheppard's easy going façade easily masked a troubled past. His experiences in conflict and war had formed the foundation of an invisible wall between him and all comers who might have been, in other circumstances, in another life, friends. But what his upbringing and the military had so carefully constructed, one Dr. Rodney McKay was somehow managing to break down. That he was doing it with no outward effort or intent for said outcome was perplexing, frustrating and surprisingly welcome to the Air Force man.

"No. Not really," Rodney answered. "Just thinking."

John stepped closer to the edge. "Well, I better grab on to the railing, then," he chided with a lopsided grin. The fun that they had shared in testing the power of the personal shield assured Sheppard that the man before him could take the playful ribbing.

"Very funny," McKay said from his seated position on the deck. "Here," he instructed, reaching his hand up to Sheppard. "Help me up." John grasped the offered hand and pulled McKay to his feet. Rodney grabbed at his back, winced, and then slowly stretched, the pain throughout the movements evident on his face.

"Ooh, that hurts," he admitted as he headed for the entrance.

John frowned as he watched Rodney walk. "You okay?"

McKay walked more like a seventy-year-old than a man…John realized that he really didn't know how old McKay was. One thing he knew for sure was that his keen observational skills were right on about the physicist not being seventy…on any other day but this one.

"Carson says I bruised my back when I passed out in the cloud." John placed his hand where Rodney was reaching. McKay flinched and stepped out of reach. "Don't. It really, really hurts."

"Feels swollen," John said worriedly.

"Yeah, that, too."

"Are you supposed to be walking around?" the major asked as he walked along in the direction McKay was leading them.

"Didn't want to go all the way back to my room and then back for dinner, and then, well, you get the picture."

"Rodney, you're today's hero. I think we could have found someone to bring you something to eat."

"Yes, well, sometimes it's hard to tell where I stand. Even for a genius it's hard to decipher the mixed signals," McKay retorted with barely controlled anger. Rodney was now stopped, facing Sheppard, his lower back now being massaged by both hands.

John reached for Rodney's elbow and forced them to continue on to their obvious destination: the commissary.

"Yeah, sorry about that. That was total FUBAR on my part; I should have known better. I can't really speak for what happened with Weir."

"No. But she has a lot of people who report to her, trust her, follow her lead. It really hasn't been such a good day for me," Rodney admitted, the ramifications of the disappointed reactions clear in McKay's mind, even if those consequences really were only in his head. Even Sheppard thought that Elizabeth's 'I had a feeling' comment had been mean-spirited, even in light of Rodney's knowledge that the device probably wouldn't have worked for anyone but McKay.

"I think it's safe to say that everyone here knows what you did today, and they'll be filing it under the 'brave' column, maybe even cross-filed under 'grateful'. Tomorrow they'll all start putting your actions back in the 'obnoxious' or 'irritating' or 'full of himself' categories." Sheppard received a 'Gee, thanks' look from McKay. He ignored it and continued, "I think today was a better day than you think." John smiled a smile of genuine friendship, the first one that he could remember offering someone in a long, long time.

"If it was such a good day, why am I starving, aching and walking like an eighty-year-old?"

"I was thinking seventy, but that might be because you remind me of my Uncle Bob." John looked Rodney over a bit and added, "How old are you, McKay?"

"None of your business," Rodney said firmly as they reached their destination.

"And didn't I see you eating like a mountain of food earlier?" McKay just stared back at him. "I can find out, you know?"

"Find out what?"

"How old you are. You might as well tell me," John warned as he reached for a tray for each of them. He also selected utensils, a napkin and a glass a piece, knowing that stretching to reach for the items would be painful to his dinner companion.

"No, I don't think so. I think it would be better to not just hand you every little thing you want on a silver platter."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sheppard asked as they each made their selections for the night's meal. "It's just a simple question."

"It means that discipline has to start somewhere." Rodney reached his hand up for a brownie but stopped short, setting his tray down hard and reaching for his back. John set his tray down as well and placed his hand carefully on McKay's hunched shoulder.

"Are you all right? Do you need help?"

Rodney gritted his teeth, nodding 'no' and said, "Spasm. I'm…gonna go sit."

"I'll bring your tray," John offered quietly as he watched the injured man go. McKay hobbled past Sheppard and found a seat at an empty table.

John watched surreptitiously toward the scientist as he finished gathering their food. It really had been a tough day for McKay. His joking during the course of the day about his predicament really was no joke. The 'Dead man walking' comment was just the beginning of Rodney's realization that he might really and truly not make it through to tomorrow. His stress level had built all through the day, and had not improved all that much once he had been released from the device's protection. Indeed, that, it turned out, only made his day go from worry about how his body might fail him to worry about how his behavior and actions reflected in the eyes of the people whose trust and respect he clearly desired. How the physical and the mental pressures of the day had lead to that life-saving, or rather Atlantis-saving, Hail Mary…that result was an action that John Sheppard had no doubt was the first in a long list of surprises that Rodney McKay would pull out of his mind and his heart during this adventure in another galaxy.

A couple of minutes later John was through the line and delivering their food. Rodney was sitting up and carefully stretching his back muscles.

"Better?" John asked. The major sat and heartily started in on his food.

"Yes, thanks. Hungry?"

"Fam'sh'd," Sheppard replied, speaking with his mouth full.

"See what I mean? You definitely need some training."

"'m not a dog, R'dney," Sheppard defended. "'Sides, have you watched yourself eat?"

"That's not the point," McKay replied defensively. In a light tone he continued, "That's funny, because a dog is exactly what you remind me of, in a good way, of course."

"Of course," John agreed with a smile before taking a swig of his beverage.

Rodney chewed his food but soon began to feel uncomfortable. He looked up from his meal and his conversation with Sheppard to find several people looking at him. They quickly turned away, which only served to irritate McKay more than the staring already had.

"What…" Rodney started, but John finished.

"Some people have never seen a bona fide hero before, present company excepted," Sheppard noted. Rodney gave him the already patented 'Give me a break' look. "You saved everyone's life here today. They're just curious."

"And a little rude," McKay added as he finished his entrée and started in on the brownie.

"Cut them a break. Even I'm a little in awe of The Great Dr. Rodney McKay."

"Oh, shut up," Rodney answered snidely, a satisfied grin plastered to his face.

"Honest to god, Dr. McKay," John joked, clasping his hands in a fist and placing the fist to his heart. "You are my hero," John added with a laugh.

"You are such an ass. And you're lucky I'm in such pain or I'd be coming after you," the sated and more relaxed scientist smiled back.

John Sheppard sat back in his seat, enjoying his meal and this time with McKay. This was definitely an outcome that nobody could have predicted: the head of science on the Atlantis expedition and the reluctant new leader of the military contingent – friends. It was a strange thing, for sure. But it was no stranger than life-sucking aliens or killer black cloud-like energy-sucking entities. In fact, those were two real good reasons to nurture this friendship. Their brief stay in the Pegasus galaxy had already proven that life could be too short and that times would be hard. Sheppard knew that this new relationship would be as unpredictable as the dangers they would face. How great to face those unknowns with a friend.

Jello splashed in his face. His own jello.

"Atlantis to Major Sheppard," Rodney commented, waving his hand in front of John's face. He winced and pulled back with a softly uttered, "Ow."

Make that, how challenging to face it with a friend. Somehow Rodney's self-induced 'ow' just made Sheppard want to smile more.

The End.