31 October 2006 @ 10:23 am
Where the Fruit Is (1/2) (Lorne/Zelenka)  
Title: Where The Fruit Is
Author: pierson
Beta(e): rosewildeirish, imagechild
Pairing: Zelenka/Lorne
Rating: R
Spoilers: Season Two, Grace Under Pressure (02x14)
Written For: iocane, who wanted 'Zelenka and Lorne talk about their bosses (gen or slash)'
Summary: Don't be afraid to go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is.

Don't be afraid to go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is.
~H. Jackson Browne

The heavy thump of boots on the grating of the jumper ramp makes Radek glance up from the schematics for the improvements they'd made for Jumper Five scrolling down the screen of his notebook. He blinks, then looks more closely as the man, dressed out in black BDUs, tac vest, and sidearm strapped to his thigh, unslings a duffle from his shoulder and stores it neatly in one of the equipment bins. Radek feels his mouth curve down into a frown. ”Major Lorne?”

Lorne runs a hand over all the bins to ensure they're closed tightly and checks cargo webbing in preparation for flight as he makes his way to the cockpit of the jumper. In contrast to his professional manner, his smile is wide and friendly. ”Morning, Dr. Zelenka. Looks like a perfect day for a test flight to the mainland.”

Radek dips his head to look over the tops of his glasses, but unfortunately, it doesn't change the fact that it is Major Lorne and not Lieutenant Warner sliding with easy familiarity into the pilot's seat. He'd been careful to check the duty roster for available pilots before scheduling this run just to avoid this very thing, and yet here sits Lorne. Zpropadeně. ”Yes, the weather is optimal,” he replies, distracted.

Lorne shifts and makes minute adjustments to the seat; apparently the pilot before him had been taller. Radek had been surprised when he'd first seen the major, because all the other military men he's known at the SGC have been significantly larger than Lorne, who is scarcely taller than Radek. However, his smaller size doesn't seem to matter, as Lorne carries himself with an easy self-confidence and sense of command that Radek envies.

”Did you even look out the window this morning, or are you relying on sensor reports?” The blue-grey sidewise glance Lorne sends him is gently amused, and Radek cannot take offense, though a part of him thinks he probably should.

”I did look, yes,” Radek says, and turns his attention back to his notebook. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Lorne's deft hands moving with surety over console controls, panels lighting up under his touch. He's aware of diagnostics screens flashing with the speed of thought on and off the main viewscreen as Lorne works his way methodically through pre-flight. It isn't necessary, as Radek's gone through diagnostics twice since his arrival and Lorne undoubtedly realizes it, but still it's comforting to know that his pilot is conscientious and professional enough to check everything himself. It makes the terror of actually flying a little easier to bear. Radek clears his throat. ”I am somewhat surprised to see you, Major. I had expected Lieutenant Warner as pilot.”

”Well, yeah, slight change of plan,” Lorne says, his attention still mostly on the HUD. ”Warner came down with a case of that Athosian stomach flu that's been making the rounds lately. That, plus flight? I don't think you really want to go there.” The corner of his mouth crooks into a little flash of a wry smile. It is patently unfair that such a small thing should be so attractive and appealing.

”No, I suppose not,” Radek replies faintly. He's already suffered through a case of that, brought in and spread by Rodney, and can't imagine even walking, much less flying. He'd spent much of last week lying on the floor of his bathroom and wishing for a quick and merciful death.

”I tried to juggle schedules, but couldn't shake anyone else free,” Lorne replies with a casual lift of one shoulder. ”We need all the jumpers flight-ready, so I figured that I'd take it so you could get her signed back into rotation. Not like it's a hardship, anyway.”

He accompanies the last statement with a little stroke of fingers along the edge of the console, and Radek's fairly certain Lorne isn't even aware of doing it; all the pilots have an easy affection for the jumpers, and treat them like they would a trusted comrade. Even Carson, as much as he hates flying, considers them as more than simply tools, as mechanical bits and pieces, and it's understandable; the jumpers key into the neurological pathways for a quick-as-thought response time. They are like extensions of the pilot's wills, a part of them, and Radek hasn't yet seen a pilot who didn't consider them at least partially sentient. Although he hasn't discovered an AI embedded into their programming, Radek wouldn't be surprised if they did have something like that. But as much as he knows of them—and even McKay grudgingly admits his superior expertise with them—he hardly knows everything of how they actually work.

Although he wouldn't admit it to Rodney who would openly mock him for an unscientific emotional anthropomorphism, the jumpers seem to have distinct quirks he'd almost say were those of personality. Jumper One, Colonel Sheppard's favorite, has a quicker response time than any other, seems to almost champ at the bit to fly faster, full of spirit and heart, like a fine-bred racehorse. Jumper Six, steady and unruffled like an old cart-horse, flies smoothly, offers no surprises, and is Carson's personal choice for flight. Jumper Five's behavior seems to fall somewhere between the two, sedate for the pilot who wants that, but utterly willing to take risks for those who are more reckless. It was, in fact, the uncharacteristic hesitancy during high-speed maneuvers as well as a tiny wobble that had prompted them to examine her more closely, for Radek to spend two days deep in her systems to find the problem that hadn't shown up in routine diagnostics.

Radek feels the low, almost subliminal hum as the main engines kick on in response to Lorne's mental command. He spends a fruitless moment in envy that Carson's ATA gene therapy didn't work for him—how much easier his work would be to actually connect with Atlantis as does Rodney--then lets it slide away. He considers himself a supremely practical and pragmatic man, and mourning over what he doesn't have, will never have, is a waste of his valuable time and energy.

”Are you ready, Dr. Zelenka?”

His heart pounds heavily beneath his breastbone, and his stomach does a slow roll, but Radek nods. ”At your discretion, Major.”

”Command, this is Jumper Five. We're good for departure.”

”Jumper Five, this is Command.” It's Sergeant Campbell, voice distinctive with the crisp vowels and consonants of his Canadian accent. ”Looks like a beautiful day for a flight. Enjoy yourself.”

”We'll give it our best shot,” Lorne replies. ”Jumper Five out.”

Radek's fingers tighten on the edges of the notebook in his lap as he feels primary thrusters engage and the tiny shudder as the mooring clamps fall away. The jumper slides easily into the main bay and begins to rise toward the roof. As they do, the iris swirls opens, and bright sunlight floods in from above.

Just above the city, Atlantis releases the jumper from autopilot, and Lorne swings into a slow, easy banking maneuver around the city. Her spires stretch proudly toward the brilliantly blue sky, the sun glints golden over her graceful lines, and Radek's heart lurches with love and pride for Atlantis. Never could he have imagined a place of such wonder and beauty and danger, and never could he have imagined working and living in a place of dreams.

”I never get tired of the view. She's so beautiful,” Lorne says softly, and Radek glances over to see the expression of gentle wonder slip across his face. Lorne isn't one of the original contingent, but he clearly loves her, perhaps almost as much as any of the older inhabitants do. Unbidden, Radek's mouth curves upward in approval and understanding. He thinks that perhaps Lorne will be one of those who, as will Radek, spend the remainder of his life in Atlantis. He cannot fathom ever willingly giving her up. After a moment, he realizes that he has looked too long at Lorne's sharp profile, and turns his attention back to the city.

Another self-indulgent slow pass around the city, and Lorne turns them toward the mainland. They begin to pick up speed out over the ocean which stretches like wrinkled dark blue silk beneath the clear pale blue arch of sky. Radek swallows hard and looks away from the deep, returns his attention to the information scrolling down the screen of his notebook. Everything appears to be performing in an optimal manner, and he's pleased.

”How does she feel to you, Major?”

”Mm. I'm not feeling that tiny little wobble to portside anymore. Acceleration is...” the HUD pops up a screen, and Radek sees the numbers climb quickly toward mach one even though inertial dampeners make it feel as if they're sitting still, ”smooth. Very smooth. No hesitation at all.”

Radek's eyes slide toward Lorne at the pleased tone of his voice, and only the quick flash of wickedness crossing the major's face gives him any warning at all before Lorne sends them into a series of loops and barrel rolls that has Radek squeaking in terror and then seizing up in airless panic when they fly upside down, the dark ocean filling the viewscreen until he can see nothing else.

When they roll out of that and begin climbing toward space, Radek whoops for air and finally catches it. He feels the blood drain from his face, his heart thunders in his ears, and although he didn't really feel all the acrobatics, his stomach tumbles as if he had, and he's half afraid he'll vomit. Cold sweat gathers above his upper lip, at the nape of his neck and his chest. His fingers, bleached white from pressure, grip the edges of his notebook so tightly he's almost convinced the casing will crack.

”Handling is better than ever. I...Dr. Zelenka, are you all right?”

”No,” he manages to say, his voice high and tight. His eyes are painfully wide. ”I most assuredly am not. Really, I.” He swallows against the bitter taste of bile on the back of his tongue. ”I must insist that you refrain from doing anything like that ever again.”

”Hey, I'm really sorry,” Lorne says, and he sounds utterly contrite, though Radek can't bring himself to look at him at the moment. ”I had no idea...”

”Stop speaking now,” Radek says, scrabbling for any shred of the calmness he might've had before. ”Please.” His accent has deepened, thickened, a sure sign of his distress.

He closes his eyes and breathes slowly and deeply until the sharp edge of panic fades, until he can unclench his fingers from the notebook, until his heart slows to more normal levels. When he finally opens his eyes, a bottle of water appears before him. Gratefully he takes it from Lorne and sips, the water soothing to his dry mouth and throat, washing away the sour taste of fear.

Lorne's attenion is almost palpable, but Radek doesn't look at him, can't look. Intellectually, he knows he has nothing of which to be ashamed; fear of flying is fairly common. But Lorne is an Air Force pilot, and cannot begin to understand how deeply Radek fears it, and how much more than even that he fears deep water. Although the military respects the scientists for their knowledge and have pledged their lives to protect them, Radek knows from his time in Antarctica that they also feel a certain amount of disdain; he is not deaf, and understands English perfectly well. He's watched and admired Lorne long enough that he doesn't wish to see that derision reflected on his face.

”Do you need to return to Atlantis?” Lorne's voice sounds gentle, the voice one would use to speak to a frightened child, and Radek feels anger heat the cold roil of his belly. How utterly mortifying to be spoken to in such a manner, and he feels the blood climb back up his neck, into his cheeks, feels his ears burn hotly.

”No,” he says sharply. ”Continue the flight.”

He takes another sip of water, caps the bottle, and slides from the co-pilot's chair, never once looking at Lorne. Gratefully he sinks his attention into the main computer banks, checking and rechecking his repairs, schematics, power consumption curves. Lorne answers questions pertaining to the jumper as Radek asks them, but otherwise remains silent as Radek works. Radek's grateful for that small mercy.

”Dr. Zelenka, ETA to the mainland in one minute,” Lorne says, and Radek makes an affirmative sound and returns to his seat. He's regained his equilibrium once more, and watches as the mainland fills the viewscreen.

The mainland is a beautiful place, with sweeping white sand beaches giving way to rocks and cliffs and forested areas. He's sure the Athosians have a name for it, but he doesn't know what it is, and he's never heard it referred to as anything other than 'the mainland.' Once the jumper banks over land, Radek relaxes minutely, one stressor eliminated. Beneath them stretches white sand, and gentle waves curl to their left.

Lorne brings the jumper to a halt, hovering over the beach, and slowly lowers them to the ground. Radek feels only the slightest bump, far different than Carson's heavier landings. It isn't a matter of touch—Carson has the steadiest hands Radek's ever seen, vitally important in a surgeon—but more a matter of natural talent. Major Lorne is most likely as good a pilot as Colonel Sheppard, and his love of flying is quite evident. He also has a thread of recklessness, though not to the degree of Sheppard; Lorne is a far steadier personality, regardless of his stunt a few moments previously.

Radek knows it wasn't Lorne's intention to terrify him by the aerial acrobatics; he most likely had no idea of Radek's fears, because Radek had certainly never mentioned them to him. Indeed, he expected Lorne to do something of that sort, just to test the jumper, but he also expected a word or two of warning so he could brace himself for it. Colonel Sheppard, in spite of his propensity for brashness, has always been careful with Radek as a passenger, as have Lieutenant Warner and Sergeant Doyle. Factor in that Lorne is the last person he wishes to see his cowardice—well. There's nothing to be done for it now.

Lorne pops the back hatch, and it settles with a muted thump onto the soft white sand. Radek can hear the shushshush of the waves, and a cool breeze curls into the jumper, bringing with it the smell of sun-warmed sand and the crisp, briny scent of the ocean. The sun slants in through the front viewscreen, and the sky arcs above, clear and blue, with only a few high, wispy clouds.

”Thought we could stretch our legs a little,” Lorne says, and his voice sounds neutral. Radek finally looks over at him. There's no mockery or condescension, nor is there pity, just a friendly, if somewhat wary expression. Radek can understand the last; he did tell the major to shut up. He's actually surprised it worked and a little guilty that it did because Lorne had been apologizing, and in Radek's experience that is a rare thing, coming from a military man.

Before he can say anything, Lorne stands and walks toward the back ramp. By the time he steps off the ramp, Radek has pushed out of the co-pilot's chair and followed. His feet sink into soft sand, and he knows he'll have it in his trainers and socks shortly. The sun pours over him, hot, but the cool breeze pouring in from the ocean tugging at his clothes and hair makes it bearable. He tips his face upward. How long has it been since he's stood like this, his face turned toward the sun? Far too long; he's pale as a pearl. Always too busy for even the simplest of pleasures such as this, always rushing from one crisis to another, work the only constant in his world.

This reminds him of times long ago when, even working like a madman for the first of his doctorates, he would sit in whatever little bits of park greenery he could find, his books and papers spread out all around him on a blanket, soaking in the sun, tucking away the memory of its warmth for the long, cold days of a Prague winter. He remembers frequently sharing that blanket and those books with Petr, sharp-tongued and brilliant, with the bluest eyes he's ever seen, and sharing much more in the dubious safety of darkness. He feels his mouth curve into a smile. His memories are not always happy, but this one, yes.

He opens his eyes and sees the major watching him, and Radek can't quite read the expression on Lorne's handsome face. Amusement? Bemusement? Idle curiosity? He's not certain, and it doesn't really matter, as Lorne turns away and looks toward the rock cliffs, shading his eyes with his hand. ”The Athosian main settlement is two hundred kilometers inland,” he says, ”but they've got a hunting camp fifty kilometers from here. Halling says they don't come down here much.”

”I think they do not have much time for...frivolities, such as a day at the beach,” Radek says. His hand waves, encompassing the perfect beach, the perfect sky.

”And that's a damn shame,” Lorne replies as he turns back toward Radek. ”Everyone should have time for a little frivolity now and again. Take a few minutes to relax, Dr. Zelenka. No hostiles here, no large prey animals. It's as close to a vacation spot as we get in Pegasus.”

There are so many things that call for his attention back on Atlantis; he has a running list of them in his head, prioritized according to importance and severity, and he's been working on those with part of his attention while another part analyzes the jumper performance numbers and yet another part clicks through the equations Rodney had given him to work on last night. He never, ever stops working, and while he truly loves the work, the challenge, a part of him feels tired and worn from the intensity, the never-ending stress of being on-call twenty-seven hours a day. He looks around at the simple, uncomplicated beauty of their surroundings, feels the warmth of the sun on his shoulders, and says, ”Perhaps a few moments of relaxation would not be amiss.”

The corner of Lorne's mouth lifts, and Radek sits down on the jumper ramp to pull off his shoes and socks, then buries his feet in the pale sand. It's warm and soft, like fine sugar, and he wiggles his toes, delighted. In for a heller, in for a koruna, he thinks, and doesn't care if he's mixing idioms as he rolls up his khakis to the knee. His legs look white and hairy, but for however many minutes he has it's vacation, and he'd like to feel the breeze on bare skin. He unzips and pulls off his jacket, folds it neatly, and places it on the ramp beside his shoes and socks, then pushes up the sleeves to his uniform shirt, baring pale hairy forearms. It's been a very long time since he's been out in the sun; Magdaléna would've scolded him roundly for that, as well as for too much coffee, for too little sleep, for too much worry, for eating so poorly. He would give much to hear her voice again, to listen to the many, many ways he taxed her patience. The fingers of his left hand slide in a caress over the little braided bracelet of fading colors tied on his right wrist.

So in her memory he'll enjoy the beach and the sun. He gets to his feet and walks toward the ocean. The breeze is a little fiercer away from the shelter of the jumper, tugging at his shirt and hair, but he doesn't mind. Just before the sand turns wet and dark, he stops; it's as close as he can comfortably manage. Before him stretches the sea, slate blue, roiling, and seemingly endless. Waves break whitely on the shore, the sound of it filling his ears. It should make him tense, but he has both feet planted solidly, grounded and stable, so he has no need to fear it as much now. The sound of the waves is never-ending, meditative, almost. He watches the sun glint off the water, watches pale grey birds whirl above him with hoarse, croaking cries, observes the gentle curve of the coastline to either side of him, and it is so utterly peaceful that he feels the knots in his neck and shoulders begin to loosen a bit.

He's not certain how long he stands there, his mind unwinding, slowing from its usual frantic pace, but when he sees Major Lorne approaching, he feels the dreamlike fugue slip slowly away, replaced by something far more physical and visceral. Lorne has shed his tac vest and jacket, leaving himself in black BDUs and tee shirt, boots and sidearm. It is an arresting sight; Lorne is a pleasure to the eye, built solidly, almost stocky, with broad shoulders and a deep chest and muscular arms that seem designed for touch. He moves with a sure, economical grace, a man fully comfortable and confident in himself and his place in the scheme of things.

Lorne stands close to him, hands in the pockets of his BDUs. He gazes out over the ocean for a moment, and Radek allows himself to look at the clean lines of his profile, the line of his jaw, before he turns away.

”The water's warm enough right now, so we have time for you to take a swim if you'd like,” Lorne offers, nodding toward the deep, deep water.

”No,” Radek replies sharply, and his flesh prickles, as if a thousand ants crawl over his skin. He crosses his arms tightly over his chest, hands rubbing at his arms.

The look Lorne gives him is mildly surprised, speculative. Radek sighs, and with one hand, reaches up beneath his glasses to rub at his eyes. His sense of peace has proved fleeting, and the muscles in his neck and back have wound themselves tight once more. ”I'm. I. It seems as if I have done nothing but offer you unpleasantness all morning, Major, and I am not generally so difficult. I apologize.”

Lorne pulls a hand from his pocket and rubs at the back of his neck before offering Radek a wry grin. ”Well. I accept your apology if you'll accept the one I tried to give you earlier.”

Radek blinks at him, and feels heat flow up his throat and into his cheeks. ”Perhaps I was a bit too...precipitous when I told you to stop speaking.”

”Perhaps I was a bit too...rash in not giving you advance warning for high-speed maneuvers. And I'm sorry if I sounded condescending—it wasn't my intention. I didn't realize how I sounded until I'd already insulted you. I figured that anything else I tried to say would just compound the problem.” He gives a one-shouldered shrug.

”As if that is not something I deal with on a daily...no, an hourly basis,” Radek replies, and Lorne chuckles. ”You cannot possibly hope to reach the levels of condescension and insult that Rodney achieves within the first two hours of appearing in the lab.”

”I worked with Dr. McKay on P3M 736, so I kinda do have some idea.” Lorne's expression twists into something sour.

”Mm,” Radek says thoughtfully. ”That was the planet with the excessively high UV levels, yes? Where you found Ronon Dex?”

”That's the one,” Lorne replies. ”That mission wasn't a particularly pleasant experience for any of us.”

”So I gathered,” Radek says. Lorne seems to have a gift for understatement. Rodney had complained for days of the events there, of how he'd been kidnaped by the renegade Lieutenant Ford, of how he'd suffered from radiation poisoning, of how Major Lorne and Colonel Sheppard had deserted him and left him to die hanging upside down in a trap of Ronon Dex's devising. Radek had finally read the mission reports for a more balanced picture of the situation, and yes, while Rodney had been severely dehydrated, highly stressed, and had sprained his ankle, neither Lorne nor Sheppard had actually deserted him. The military do not leave their charges willingly, and it had taken a Wraith stunner and a completely mad Lieutenant Ford to separate McKay from Lorne. ”Rodney can be rather...highly strung.”

”Yeah,” Lorne says, and draws out one short syllable into something very long. ”That's a good way to put it.” His expression shifts to something more thoughtful. ”Can I ask you a question?”

Curious, Radek replies, ”Of course. I will answer if I'm able.”

Lorne pauses, clearly framing his words. ”I've been here long enough to observe how Dr. McKay runs his department. His style of leadership doesn't seem to be an...optimal method of managing staff. When you were in charge while McKay went back to Earth to debrief, I couldn't help but notice that there was a little less yelling going on.”

So very polite, Radek thinks. ”Rodney is an arrogant, petty, self-involved ass without the social skills granted a flea,” Radek says mildly, and wants to laugh as Lorne's eyebrows climb upward.

”Well. I wasn't going to say that,” Lorne replies, then the corner of his mouth lifts in a little grin. ”Or maybe not in exactly those words.”

”I say those things because I have earned the right to say them, more than anyone else. I have worked closely with Rodney for many years now, and I like to think I know him better than perhaps anyone. And while they are utterly true, they are not the entirety of him.” Radek pauses, thoughtful. ”Do you know how many of the science contingent actually went back when the Daedalus first made her return trip to Earth?”

If Lorne finds the apparent change of subject surprising, he doesn't say anything, but rolls with the flow. ”No—though probably not many, by what you're saying.”

”By the end of the siege, we'd lost thirty-two scientists to the Wraith, or to injuries sustained in the battle. That was nearly a third of us then, and I do not count all those we lost previously to missions or accidents.” Radek shoves his hands in his pockets, and looks out over the curve of the beach for a moment. So much brilliance, so much potential, lost forever. He'd known every single one of them—they'd been a tightly-knit group, dependent upon one another. He blinks, then turns back to Lorne. ”Four. Only four requested to go back.”

”Only four? I find that...somewhat difficult to believe, and not only because I've seen how McKay interacts with everyone. Simply from a mortal peril angle.”

”The primary reason we stayed was because of the work, because of the wonders we discovered every day. It is simply astounding, what we have learned, and continue to learn, here. But another reason that we stayed was because of Rodney. You are aware, yes, of how he talks incessantly of his own genius?”

”Isn't everyone?” Lorne asks, but there's no heat in it.

”What he says, it isn't true,” Radek says, and when Lorne begins to look vindicated, Radek ruthlessly pushes on. ”In truth, he is much more brilliant than even he says. He is the most intelligent man I have ever met, and given the circles I have always moved in professionally, that is saying much.” Radek pulls his hands from his pockets, unable to stop them from moving, shaping his ideas. ”Imagine yourself as a jumper, Major, surrounded by and forced to work with nothing but bicycles. The difference between most people and Rodney is that great.” Radek brushes his wind-tossed hair out of his face. ”Better than anyone in the Pegasus galaxy, he understands the dangers all around us, knows how small and fragile and defenseless we truly are. And yet he stays, continues to work in the face of overwhelming odds, and consistently delivers us to safety, while making strides in science that impress even us. He is utterly dedicated and loyal to us, and in one alternate reality did die for us.” Radek still shivers at the thought of Rodney working until he drowned, trying to save them before Dr. Weir changed their timeline. ”For that faithfulness to us, we can forgive his monumentally bad temper and a handful of neuroses.”

Lorne tips his head slightly to the side. ”Apparently, McKay isn't the only loyal one,” he says.

Radek waves a hand dismissively. ”It is nothing but the truth. Rodney is far more than he appears on the surface. Most of us would say the same thing.” Radek grins, then adds, ”Well. Perhaps not Kavanagh, but then he and Rodney are far too much alike, and Kavanagh wishes fervently to be head of science. Never, if I have anything to say about it, and I have much to say.”

Lorne laughs. It's a nice laugh, low and warm. ”I've met Dr. Kavanagh, yeah. Know what you mean, there. I worked once with a CO not much different from him, and it wasn't the best time I've ever had, so.”

”Working with Colonel Sheppard is of a magnitude different, I should imagine,” Radek says. He is a little curious as to what the major thinks of Sheppard, because when he and Lorne first worked together, Lorne had just arrived on the Daedalus and hadn't yet worked with the colonel on more than the most superficial level. He doesn't really expect the major to have much to say, because the military is a very closed society. Though they work together closely, the lines between them and the scientists have always been very clearly drawn.

Lorne looks out over the ocean for a long time, thoughtful. ”I think,” he says slowly, ”that McKay and the colonel are not so different.”

Radek feels his eyebrows climb. Personality-wise, they are as different as any two men could be, Rodney so open and readable, his every emotion on display, and Sheppard with his easy-going affability an excellent screen for his utterly closed and controlled inner self.

Lorne looks back at him. ”No, what I mean is that like McKay, Sheppard can't be judged by his usual outward behavior or appearances. What's visible isn't indicative of what's inside, you know? When I first met the colonel, I wasn't exactly sure just what to think.” He stops and rubs at his cheek. ”I probably shouldn't be saying anything, actually.”

”It is entirely your choice, of course,” Radek says, ”but we are not so different, Major. You are the executive officer for the military, and I am the second of the science department. We are men in very similar positions, with similar responsibilities that we both take very seriously. And I have been with Colonel Sheppard since we first walked through the event horizon. I have worked personally with the Colonel on many occasions, and have firm opinions of my own, based on experience. Anything you say will remain between us, and will be unlikely to change what I have observed over the years.”

After a moment of consideration, Lorne says, ”I was surprised when I first met him. He wasn't anything that I expected, from reading the mission reports.”

”If he had been what was expected, then neither of us would be standing here now,” Radek says. ”If Colonel Sheppard had not remained in charge, I am certain Atlantis would have fallen, I would have died most horrifically, the Wraith would have culled Earth to the last human, and then scorched it bare as an object lesson. We have Sateda as a prime example of their behavior.”

The wind ruffles Lorne's short dark hair. ”Believe me, that was no criticism of the colonel. I agree with you completely. Pegasus requires non-linear thinking, and Sheppard excels in that, in thinking quickly on his feet. He thinks outside the box—hell, he's never been in the box. He has good instincts and he's a damn fine commander, even if he's giving his XO grey hair by some of the stunts he pulls.”

He slants an amused glance in Radek's direction, clearly thinking that Radek could say the very same thing of Rodney. ”Before I came here, I read every mission report, trying to get a handle on the military commander I'd be serving under, and what he did here, with no backup, with no resources, no allies other than the Athosians—it's one of the most ballsy and impressive things I've ever seen. He pulled off something really amazing holding off an enemy with vastly superior technology and numbers, by keeping as many people in one piece as he did. I talked with most of the Marines who survived the siege. They would've followed him into hell—did follow him there--and you have no idea just how rare it is for a Marine to think so highly of anyone Air Force. Most of the ones who survived wanted to come back. They know that Sheppard would walk through fire to come after them, and you can't say that about every commander.”

Radek feels the corner of his mouth curve upward. ”Not so different from us, after all,” he says.

Lorne has little lines at the corners of his blue eyes, and they deepen as he smiles. ”Guess not, then, huh?”

”While Rodney might not appear brave, he is, albeit reluctantly. He is so very noisy, but regardless of his complaints, he always comes through. He was not, as were you and the Colonel, trained for such things, and so his bravery is therefore all the more remarkable. To underestimate him is to do him a grave disservice.”

”I'm fully aware of that, and unfortunately, I have frequently dismissed him. I'll have to watch that in the future.”

Lorne turns his full attention on him, and Radek feels a warm flush crawl over his body. It is only through strength of will that he doesn't shift from foot to foot, and he presses his palms to the outsides of his thighs to keep his hands from fluttering, as they do when he's nervous. He's sure that he's never had Lorne's complete focus before; if so, he would have remembered the intensity. Unbidden, one hand moves up to smooth his wind-blown hair from his face, to adjust his glasses. He has addressed auditoriums full of blood-thirsty academics before, and not felt this self-conscious.

”McKay isn't the only brave one, Dr. Zelenka.”

Surprise freezes the self-consciousness, and Radek blinks before replying, ”I am not a brave man, Major. I fear many, many things. Water. Drowning. Flying. Crashing. The Wraith. Failure.” His voice falters on the last; it is his greatest fear, that he will not be good enough, quick enough, smart enough, and others will die because of him. On Earth, it was possible, but here, it is unfortunately probable. He doesn't mention his other fears; the ones he mentioned are things that Lorne has undoubtedly discerned on his own, as he is not an unobservant nor a foolish man.

”Maybe so. Being afraid is okay. Normal. The man who isn't afraid is the one who'll make the big mistakes, who'll end up dead, most likely taking others with him. Bravery is acknowledging the fear, and then doing it anyway. You're obviously afraid of flying, but you get into the jumper and do what needs to be done. That says brave to me,” Lorne says seriously.

This is surprising, and unlike most surprises in Pegasus, it is actually a pleasant one. A sweet warmth spreads in his chest, slips down to curl in his belly. He'd never wanted to be the subject of Lorne's scorn; he likes him, admires him for his steady nature, his quick intelligence, his wry humor. That all those things reside in a strong, compact, surprisingly graceful body with a handsome face is merely an additional gift.

Not that he even remotely expects his admiration, his desire, to be returned; he prides himself on possessing a healthy sense of realism to balance Rodney's idealism. Perhaps, years ago, when he'd been slim and flexible, when he'd had a full head of hair, when he hadn't been weighed down by the stress and endless work of years, he might've caught Lorne's eye, if indeed Lorne's inclinations ran in that direction. But not now. He will be content with the major's good opinion. He smiles, more openly, more sincerely than he has for a very long time.

”Thank you, Major. It is very kind of you to say such a thing.”

Lorne shifts closer. Radek can almost feel the heat radiating from him before it's snatched away by the breeze. Unsurprisingly, he wears no scent, but Radek can catch a whiff of gun oil and graphite and man, elusive beneath the salt ocean smell. ”I don't say things unless I mean them,” Lorne says softly.

Radek's close enough that he can see the flush of sun across Lorne's cheeks, can see a few scattered flecks of silver in his dark hair, and he can't help but look at the curl of his mouth. Quickly he jerks his attention from that, because while Lorne has never seemed the type who would be upset over Radek's small, harmless attraction to him, he will still not burden him with it.

”You don't have to call me by my rank,” Lorne says. ”Like you said earlier, we're not so different, and in similar positions. If you'd like, you can call me Evan.”

And that is something Radek had never expected. He's accustomed to addressing the military by their rank, and while he may not agree with many of their decisions and policies, he does respect the work and dedication they put into attaining their positions. He opens his mouth, but then closes it again when he has nothing to say in response.

Lorne's mouth tips upward just a little. ”Or maybe not,” he says wryly.

”Evan,” Radek says, tasting the syllables on his tongue. It's a good name, solid like the man himself, and he likes them both. Lorne--Evan--stands there somewhat expectantly, and Radek flushes as he realizes he hasn't extended the same courtesy. ”Oh. Of course, yes. I'm sorry. Please, feel free to call me Radek.” Very few people do, except for the colonel, Elizabeth, Carson, and of course, Rodney, who generally gives it an irritated twist that's now familiar.

”Radek,” Lorne says, and while his American pronunciation flattens both the r and the a, Radek likes the way it sounds anyway. It is the only familiarity, the only intimacy that he may expect, so he will enjoy what he has.

Radek likes to think himself both quick and observant, a far cry from the stereotypical forgetful, oblivious scientist, and he is, because the slow and unobservant die quickly in Atlantis. But still it takes him a moment to realize that the way Evan now looks at him, bright and engaging, is interest. Interest of a specific, personal nature, and he's totally unprepared for it. He feels his eyes widen, because never would he have expected something like this. His heart flutters behind his breastbone, and it is not wholly in fear.

But he cannot credit this; looks are subjective, and may often be misinterpreted. Lorne is American military, on the fast track for advancement unless Radek misses his guess, and so he has much to lose by indulging such an interest. Radek needs more substantial evidence, because he is by nature always cautious.

”Every month,” he says quickly before he loses his nerve, ”a few of us from both the science contingent and the military get together. We play cards and drink liquor from one of the many non-existent stills on Atlantis—and if asked, I know nothing of them—and we relax. Sometimes bad things are said about superiors, but it is nothing of consequence, no more than releasing pressure from a valve.” Radek straightens and meets Evan's eyes squarely, though his hands move restlessly before he shoves them in his pockets again. ”You are more than welcome to attend with me, Evan.”

Evan grins, and it invites Radek into a circle of complicity. ”The stills are run by Simpson from engineering, Hämäläinen in botany, Lennox in medical, and unless I'm mistaken, Fournier from chemistry is setting up one. But officially? I don't know a thing.”

Radek smiles; really, he should have expected Evan to know of them, to track the output and where it goes, and to leave them be unless something untoward happens. Evan tips his head to the side a little and studies him. ”Though I'd enjoy going, it's not a good idea, really. It might work differently among civilians, because you're not rank-conscious, but the non-coms need a place to blow off steam, and if I'm there, well, that sorta defeats the whole purpose.”

”I suppose it does indeed,” Radek agrees. Perhaps he misread Evan's expression, after all. His refusal of Radek's invitation gives Evan an easy way out if Radek did misread him, though Radek still cannot imagine why Evan let him see the interest, if he's not willing to reciprocate it. On reflection, Radek knows he didn't see it by accident--it was intentional, because Evan has an excellent command of expression and body language; like Colonel Sheppard, he gives away nothing for free.

”Besides,” Evan continues easily, ”I would really rather see you in a place that isn't swarming with bitchy half-drunk geeks and goons. Maybe somewhere with a little more privacy.”

Radek blinks. He'd wanted to be certain, and surely, Evan's interest, his intentions could not be stated more clearly. ”There is that to consider, yes,” Radek says steadily.

Evan moves a half-step closer. ”It sounds like there's a 'but' in there, somewhere.”

”No, there isn't,” Radek says. ”I'm merely...surprised.”

”Surprised because I'm military, or surprised about something else?” Evan's fingers skim lightly over Radek's wristbone, and surely one barely-there touch should not send a shiver coursing down his spine.

”More astounded that you approached me, I think,” Radek replies candidly. ”I am a man confident in my intellect and abilities, but frankly, I am not one who finds himself approached by people of your particular physical attractiveness.”

”Now, I know you just didn't call me shallow,” Evan says easily.

”No. I did not. You are a man of startling depths. And obvious discernment.” The last he delivers with a smile. He remembers that in his youth he was much more accomplished at this sort of thing, that sometimes he would smile a certain way, would look up at people from beneath his lashes, but he is far too mature to try that little flirtation. Instead he offers the honesty of his own attraction to Evan in return.

”I like to think that, yeah.” Evan runs a hand through his thick dark hair, ruffling it. ”There's a lot of things about you that I find attractive. You're stubborn, and dedicated, and honest. And while you might say McKay is the smartest person here, I've been watching you long enough to know that you're as smart as he is, just less flashy about it.”

”You've been watching me?”

”Oh, yeah. A long time. I liked you from the first time we worked together because you're easy to work with and practical, but it really hit me when I walked by Lab Four on patrol and heard you and McKay arguing. Loudly. He was yelling in equations and you were yelling in Czech. I never understood a word you guys said, but it was...something.” The corners of Evan's mouth quirk upward, and he looks as if he finds the memory most pleasant. ”I thought to myself right then that anyone who can go toe to toe with McKay and win is someone I'd like to know. So I started watching, and I liked what I saw.” His dark blue eyes skim over Radek's face, over his eyes and mouth, lingering there a moment. ”I learned a long time ago that funny and smart and creative are way sexier than a perfect body with rock-hard abs.”

Evan's words warm him; it's been a very long time since anyone has bothered to say flattering things to him. Radek expects Evan to lean in and kiss him, but Evan doesn't, though he runs his fingers over Radek's bare forearm, fingertips smoothing over the tender skin at the bend of elbow. Radek's lips part in a silent sigh; even that slight touch sends sensation shivering along nerve pathways.

Everything, he realizes, is up to him, because Evan won't push him. Evan has stated his interest, and will wait for Radek to answer. It seems so obvious—Radek has wanted him for a long time, and now, he's been offered what he wants, and it all seems too...easy. Radek's never trusted what came too easily.

”How did you know that I would be open to this?”

Evan laughs, low and easy. ”I'm observant. And I'm a pilot. We have excellent peripheral vision. The looks I've seen you give me when you thought I wasn't watching pretty much convinced me that you would be.”

Radek feels heat crawl up his throat. So much for his thoughts of discretion. His secret had never been a secret, after all. It comes down to a simple decision: he can pull away and chance nothing, or he can move forward and take the risk—Evan is like a shiny, ripe apple hanging from a high branch. He can stay on the ground where it's safe, or he can go out on that limb and risk a fall for a taste of something sweet.

He cannot be afraid of everything his whole life.

Evan's shoulder is broad and warm, and muscles bunch under his hand; Evan is strongly-built, and Radek bites the tip of his tongue at the thought of having all that strength above him, below him. He takes a step forward, his feet sinking into the wet sand. Radek's thumb smoothes over the arch of collarbone beneath Evan's tee shirt. Up close, he smells of clean sweat, of metal and of earth, of warm, healthy male animal, and Radek cannot help but put his nose to the side of Evan's neck and inhale deeply. Evan makes a low sound deep in his throat when Radek slides his mouth over his neck, when he licks and feels the thud of a hammering heartbeat beneath his tongue.

Radek puts his other hand on Evan's waist. He can feel the heat of his body through the thin material and rubs his thumb in a slow circle just below the last rib that makes Evan shiver. It's only when Radek presses even closer and tips up his face for a kiss that Evan breaks and puts his hands on him. Evan raises a hand, fingertips sliding along Radek's jaw, and then over his mouth. Radek's lips feel hot and tingle, and they part at the gentle touch, but Evan's fingers leave his mouth, push the glasses to the top of his head. Everything flows into soft-focus, and the only thing real and solid and sharp-edged is Evan himself, so very close.

”Pretty eyes,” Evan says huskily, and his breath is warm against Radek's mouth. ”So clear. So blue.”

”Yes. No,” Radek says, and his thoughts have scattered like dandelion fluff on a breeze. He probably would agree to anything at the moment, because he wants to kiss Evan. He tilts his head and then Evan's mouth slicks across his, warm and so soft. Radek has always loved first kisses, the sweet anticipation of it, the newness of another, the touch of mouth to mouth, the taste of lips and tongue. Kissing is such a sweet, intimate thing to do with another, and there can only ever be one skin-tingling first kiss with someone.

Evan's fingers wrap around his chin, his jaw, holding him in place, calloused fingers rasping over Radek's stubble, and the sound, the feel of that, makes Radek shiver. Though Evan's very strong, his touch is light, gentle. In contrast, his other hand folds over Radek's hip, hot and heavy, fingers kneading. It's a soft kiss, easy, and while Radek appreciates the tentativeness of it, as if Evan's still not quite sure, he himself is very sure. Radek's fingers tangle in Evan's tee shirt and he pulls himself closer, wanting more. He bites lightly at Evan's lower lip, sucks at it, and when Evan opens his mouth, Radek slips inside, taking and offering.

And, yes, it's the spark to tinder that Evan evidently needed. Evan slides his hand from Radek's hip, thumb rubbing along the groove in his spine as his fingers spread over Radek's lower back and pull him closer. The kiss shifts from easy to demanding in the space of a few heartbeats, and it's exactly what Radek wants, has wanted for a very long time. His blood plummets downward; he feels himself grow hard, and he can no more stop the roll of his hips against Evan's than he can stop the rotation of the planet.

Evan's mouth is hot and wet, his tongue slick and clever and insistent. He tastes better than anything—the best wine, or the best dessert, and Radek thinks fuzzily, oh, I have missed this, so much. His blood rushes and sings in his veins, and desire coils tighter and tighter low in his belly. Evan suckles at Radek's mouth with slow, deep sweeps of his tongue, then pulls back for a sharply erotic tug at Radek's lower lip that sends sparkles of sensation spiralling downward, that makes him moan low in his throat. Radek swears his bones melt when Evan presses impossibly closer, his body hard and strong against his, and when he feels the push of a thick, heavy erection against his belly, all traces of thinking stops, sensation and want taking over.

It isn't until Radek has jerked the tight tee shirt out of the BDUs and pushed his hands under the soft cotton, hands splaying over the soft, warm skin of Evan's back that Evan pulls away slightly, their mouths parting with a lush, wet sound.

”Jesus,” Evan says breathlessly.

The heavy, heady throb of desire makes Radek reckless, greedy. It's been so long since he's touched and been touched that he wants more, more, and he wants it now. His hands, stroking over Evan's broad back, slide lower. He can't work his hands beneath the utility belt and the BDUs, so he skims over thick tough fabric, fingers spreading to touch as much tightly-muscled ass as he can.

Evan's laugh sounds surprised. ”You're like naquadah beneath that surface calm,” he says, and jumps a little as Radek squeezes. His hands have worked beneath Radek's loose uniform shirt, and Radek shivers as Evan's palms, rough with calluses, sweep up his flanks, fingers bumping over the architecture of ribs, thumbs rubbing over his tight nipples, and Radek can't stop the moan that wells up from deep within his chest.

Radek slides his hands forward, and he tugs at the buckle of Evan's belt, but his hands, steady enough to craft a nuclear bomb, shake with the strength of his desire and he fumbles the simple catch. And when Evan pulls a hand from beneath his shirt and runs the heel of his palm firmly down Radek's erection trapped beneath his khakis, his fingers stop working entirely, catching in Evan's waistband just to remain upright.

He buries his face against Evan's chest, and the bump of dogtags beneath the tee shirt shirt press against his cheek but he doesn't care as his hips roll against Evan's palm. ”Yes, yes, please,” he manages, his voice thick with need.

”Radek, what the hell are you doing?” Rodney's voice is sharp with annoyance.

Radek's eyes fly open and reflexes jerk him away from the solid warmth of Evan's body, his clever, deft hands. He peers around Evan's shoulder, but everything is a blue and white smudgy blur. He remembers his glasses perched atop his head and pulls them down onto his nose even as Evan asks, ”What?”

”Radek, I swear to god you'd better be lying unconscious somewhere for making me come all the way out here...”

Radek realizes that the voice is only in his ear and fumbles at his earpiece, clicking it on. ”I am here and intact, McKay,” he says breathlessly, and he feels as thunderstruck as Evan looks, even as Evan taps his own earpiece a couple of times to get to the proper channel. The earpieces have a limited range, and for his to work means Rodney must be very close.

”It's about damn time you answered,” Rodney says peevishly. ”You didn't answer the jumper's radio, and I imagined all kinds of horrible fates for you.”

Radek doesn't miss either the oblique reference to Rodney's ocean crash or the slight quaver that probably no one other than himself would notice. They still have not entirely worked through the trauma from that—Radek's guilt and Rodney's anger—though Radek knows they will, eventually. But now, it's like stepping into a cold shower, and rationality surges over the molten desire coursing through his veins. ”I'm fine, Rodney,” he replies, less sharply than he normally would.

”I'm in Jumper Eight, and my ETA to your position is eleven minutes. I'm probably going to kick your ass all the way back to the Czech Republic when I get there.”

”You can try,” Radek replies. ”Zelenka out.” He clicks off his earpiece before Rodney can say anything else.

In the moments he's been talking with Rodney, Evan's straightened himself up, tucked in his tee shirt, rebuckled his belt. He's still hard, but heavy black BDUs hide a multitude of sins, and he's flushed, but it could be from either the wind or sun.

Radek's tan khakis are not so forgiving; his erection curves against the front of them, heavy, obvious. He'll need his jacket to drape over himself until it subsides. Glancing up at Evan, he grins wryly and says, ”So close...”

”And yet so far,” Evan replies, and returns the grin. ”He couldn't have called half an hour from now.”

”Of course not,” Radek says, exasperated. ”He is Rodney, after all.”

He looks up at Evan, and the exasperation shifts to frustration. Raising a hand, he rubs his thumb over the razor-sharp line of Evan's jaw. ”I noticed you from the moment you stepped off the Daedalus. I discovered I liked you when you and I and Teyla were left in charge while the senior staff went to Earth to debrief. However, in all honesty, never did I expect this.”

”Well, get used to it. Actually, get used to more than this, because really, I'm thinking that perpetual blue balls isn't the way I want to spend my time.” When Radek lets his hand drop, Evan catches it and gives it a little squeeze.

”Indeed not,” Radek says, and makes his way back to the jumper, Evan at his side, hand large and warm on the lower dip of his spine. When he steps up onto the ramp he's taller than Evan, who catches his wrist and pulls him down for a kiss that is far too brief, that makes him sway helplessly.

”Later, okay?” Evan says. He sucks his own lower lip between his teeth and then lets it roll out, red and wet and shiny, and Radek has to draw in a quick, shivery breath and force himself turn and walk into the jumper.

In the jumper, he draws a couple of deep, calming breaths, and runs his hands through his wild hair to smooth it but then gives up—it always looks as if he's been electrified, anyway. He plugs his notebook into the main computer and sets it to a diagnostic scan, which he should have done before, though he's certain that everything is well within normal, if not optimal, parameters. When Evan comes in with his shoes, socks, and jacket, Radek scarcely glances up at him, though Radek's body hums with awareness of him.

It takes him six minutes to tear down half the jumper's communication web, and he mutters vague apologies to her all the while. Evan settles into the co-pilot's chair and watches with clearly-evident amusement. ”Add in 'good with his hands' to the list of things I like about you.”

”You have no idea just how true that is,” Radek murmurs, and slants a grin in Evan's direction when he laughs.

”Believe me, I really look forward to finding out,” Evan says, and before Radek can reply, Jumper Eight lands next to them with a muted thump.

Radek hears the grumbling as Rodney makes his way to the jumper—he only catches one word in ten, but it's a familiar, almost comforting litany: why would anyone deliberately expose himself to dangerously high levels of UV radiation, why the hell did he forget his sunblock, is what he's feeling the first symptoms of possible hypoglycemic shock from missing lunch, and speculation on possible airborne or vector-borne allergens. It's very difficult to stomp in sand, but he gives it his best effort, anyway.

”Radek, can't I even entrust you to one simple task without you mucking it up in some way or another? Should I have given this job to Kavanagh? I mean really, I...” He stutters to a stop. ”Oh. No wonder I couldn't raise you on the radio.”

Radek has begun putting things back together. He's still half-hard, so he keeps his back to Rodney. ”Yes, yes. 'I'm sorry for yelling at you Radek, please forgive my unpleasantness. Yes, I'd be glad to give you that unopened bottle of Wyborowa vodka I have hidden in my quarters in recompense, and furthermore, Radek, I wish to inform the entire population of Atlantis that you are by far the superior engineer, and I am a petty, miserable little man for not saying so before.'”

Rodney snorts, loudly and inelegantly, and Radek hears the little cough Evan uses to cover his chuckle. ”Only in your dreams, you untalented hack,” Rodney replies with cutting asperity. Radek glances over his shoulder as Rodney unslings his backpack of tools and tries to move closer, but between the jumper components and Lorne's sprawl, he's unable to do so. ”Will you just move now?” Rodney asks Evan, his voice sharp with annoyance. ”Why don't you oh, I don't know, go and do something suitably jarhead-ish.”

”Dr. McKay,” Evan says, and his drawl would make Colonel Sheppard proud. It's proof that Evan has been paying attention to dynamics, and Radek can almost see Rodney bristling. Radek's mouth quirks upwards. Baiting Rodney is always entertaining—at least to a point, beyond which it becomes hazardous. ”How nice to see you again too.” Evan gathers himself and stands up. ”And it's zoomie, not jarhead. I'm not a Marine.”

Radek half turns and sees Rodney's dismissive hand flap. ”As if I care. Get the hell out of my way and let me work, thanks so much and bye.”

”Yes, sir,” Evan says, and steps out of the way, grinning.

Rodney settles down beside him, complaining and intrusive and insulting, but it doesn't bother Radek; it's just Rodney, and the more he insults, the more Radek knows he cares. The amount of complaining that Rodney does is approximately equal to the depth of his affection with an exception for the Kavanagh factor; Radek had idly plotted it once while waiting for a simulation to run. He learned long ago to interpret Rodney-ese, and while others think their dynamic odd, it works well for them, a series of checks and balances and moments of dizzying synergy.

Concluded in Part 2

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