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Fanfiction: Crossroads - Part II

For author's note and disclaimer see Part I.

Jennifer stares morosely at her computer monitor. Her research into a cure for the new strain of the Hoffan virus is woefully behind and she's hit a roadblock. She knows she should take it to Carson for a consult. He had helped devise the strain after all, she thinks.

Crap.

That was bitchy, Jennifer acknowledges inwardly.

The last couple of weeks hadn't been Carson's fault; not really; not at all. It wasn't his fault that his three weeks back in charge covering for Jennifer's absence had left the medical staff half-confused about who they reported to. At the first daily staff meeting when Gerry Abrahms had looked to Carson for a decision and not to her, Jennifer had been amused, all the more so because both Abrahms and Carson had been patently embarrassed. The next day when Brenda Cole had addressed Carson and not Jennifer with a question, it had been less funny but still mildly humorous. The third day, Winston Kho, a surgeon who had always believed he should have been running medical, had done it deliberately just to piss Jennifer off and succeeded. Carson had remained behind after and suggested that perhaps he should forgo the staff meetings to focus on the treatment project. She had agreed.

It hasn't stopped Kho from subtly trying to undermine her at every turn; snidely pointing out that Beckett's system of allocating resources is more efficient, the occasional "I've never had to explain this to Doctor Beckett" about his research. He's pushing and Jennifer knows she's going to have to push back or Kho will be impossible. It doesn't help that the rest of the staff while flashing sympathetic smiles at her about Kho being an ass, are sneaking around consulting Carson at every turn.

OK, so that might be an exaggeration. Kind of. It's just that every time she goes down to Carson's lab to get a progress report on the treatment, she's seen or bumped into a member of her staff there. Maybe they're only stopping by to say hello, to ask him something in his area of expertise and not hers…she hasn't asked.

She had thought she was doing a good job; that her staff liked and respected her. Suddenly, in the space of two weeks she's back to feeling as insecure as she had the first few months of her time in Atlantis.

Added to that she has a seriously bad case of professional jealousy.

She's never thought of herself as being that type of person. Carson had been a hard act to follow when he'd been a dead hero to her staff but she'd never been envious of his reputation, more terrified about how she was going to live up to it. And how could she be jealous of his clone? A Carson who'd lost everything but Atlantis and his friends. Yet she is. She's jealous of his expertise with genetics; she's jealous at how much he's admired and respected by the medical team (more than her it seems); she's jealous that he has the unconditional support of the rest of the Atlantis command staff without trying.

It's unsettling, upsetting and giving her sleepless nights. She hates feeling this way.

Jennifer leans back in the office chair and stretches her arms up above her head. She lowers them again with a wince and brushes her bangs out of her eyes. It's late and she's tired. She's not even on infirmary duty. She should find Rodney and go to bed.

Except Jennifer knows where Rodney is: he's with John working on the control chair. She doesn't want to interrupt them. Since the movie night she had walked in on, it's like she can't stop watching Rodney and John, noticing the verbal sparring, the shared looks of understanding, the way they wind each other up with equal amounts of affection and irritation.

She rolls her eyes at herself. What is wrong with her?

She's always known Rodney's team is close and that they love each other in a way that only people who've faced down death together can. She's read the books and knows the psychological effects from serving in a frontline team; can list them off by heart. It isn't news to her that Rodney and John love each other although she doubts either of them would admit it except under threat of torture, and in John's case, maybe not even then. It's not that she even believes there is anything between John and Rodney but their friendship – their weird, unusual and frankly bizarre friendship now she's taken to observing it over the last two weeks.

But she's still envious at the ease between the two men because it's clear that John accepts Rodney including his less than admirable characteristics. And it's not just John, Jennifer admits silently in the quiet of her office. Teyla and Ronon seem the same way; accepting of Rodney for who he is, even if he occasionally drives them nuts as though that's the price they're willing to pay to have him in their lives.

It's got her questioning her own relationship with Rodney in a way that has Jennifer feeling…uncertain. She likes Rodney. She'd once told him she loved him. And she does. She thinks. She's never been in love before so she's not really sure but she wants to be and that has to count for something, right? But she knows there are times when Rodney's surprisingly sweet centre isn't enough to offset the prickly hard outer shell for her, when she has to bring to mind another Rodney who had offered her a fruit cup to remind herself of who Rodney can be stripped of that outer layer of arrogance and nerves.

It makes her feel like a bad person. It makes her question whether she should even be with Rodney. She knows deep down Carson's right; Rodney isn't going to change. She knows Rodney wants a future with her. She wants a future with Rodney. Or thought she did despite the vague and undefined nature of that future in her head to date. But she's begun questioning whether she wants a future with Rodney or the man she wants him to be.

Jennifer sighs heavily, represses the urge to groan, and turns off the computer monitor. She's going to bed, she decides. She can freak out about her life in the privacy of her quarters. For a brief moment, she's grateful that Rodney is the most unperceptive boyfriend in history because she's not sure what she'd say to him if he notices she's…she's what?

Out of sorts, Jennifer decides. That's what she is: she's out of sorts. Off balance. Off kilter.

Jennifer wishes Rodney would notice if only because then she could complain about Kho to him. She already knows what Rodney will tell her to do but it'd be worth the lecture of "why the hell are you letting him get away with that crap?" for his 'I'm-not-really-sure-what-I'm-doing' hug and make-it-better-sex that would follow.

She takes a transporter to the living quarters. She ambles through Atlantis's corridors and notices how empty they seem with most of the city's personnel on leave. She enters her quarters and locks the door; it's keyed for Rodney if he wants to get in. She makes for the shower. She spends enough time under the warm spray for her skin to prune. She dresses in old sweats and makes herself a large cup of hot chocolate. She curls up in the centre of her bed with a medical journal, a packet of cookies and her drink.

Jennifer looks around her room and remembers nights in med school with her room-mate, Karen. They'd become friends despite the age difference between them. Karen had sneaked Jennifer into bars and parties but she'd always watched out for her like an older sister. Jennifer had lost touch with her after school. She wonders why.

She's beginning to realise how isolated she is in Atlantis if she wants someone to talk to about her problems. She likes to think she has friends but she's suddenly unsure. She's not friends with Woolsey and can never see them getting close; she's too aware, in a way that she really wasn't with Sam or Elizabeth that Woolsey is Her Boss.

Before she'd started dating Rodney, she'd believed she, Rodney and John were friendly with each other if not friends. Now, well, one of them is her boyfriend, and one of them is her boyfriend's best friend, so not her first choice as objective confidantes about relationship issues. Plus both of them are friends with Carson too so confiding her professional angst beyond Kho isn't an option either.

She thinks she's actual friends friends with Carson but she figures that his first allegiance is to Rodney. The same kind of goes for her friendship with Teyla. Jennifer knows if she was going out with anyone else, she'd probably be at Teyla's drinking tea and getting her advice. And as for Ronon…they haven't really spent one-to-one time together beyond her sparring lessons since she's started dating Rodney. Jennifer doesn't know if that's because Ronon's avoiding her or whether they are both too aware that Rodney might not appreciate it. Talking to Ronon is just a giant NO. Radek also falls into the friends-but-friends-with-Rodney first category.

She sighs.

She'd been friends with a number of the doctors and nurses before her appointment to Head of Medical but since then there's a subtle distance that has evolved between her and her staff. She's Their Boss after all.

There are a couple of scientists that she's friends with; David Parrish in botany and Caroline Svetla in anthropology. At least they both attend the same meditation session with Teyla that Jennifer attends and if they're around they'll sit with her at lunch some days. But she doesn't think she'd be exactly comfortable talking to them about either problem; Rodney's Their Boss for all there are layers between him and them, and she's part of the Atlantis leadership; complaining about Carson is petty and not quite the professional image she's trying to portray.

The same goes for the couple of friends she has in the military; she's sure Evan Lorne or Anne Teldy would let her talk if she needed to talk to someone but again, she's left feeling like confiding in them would be the equivalent of airing dirty leadership laundry in public.

She massages her brow and wonders who she's supposed to talk to. Maybe a professional? Doctor Ughi, Kate Heightmeyer's replacement, is a cuddly sixty year old with a paternal manner and…

Her Dad.

She's on Earth. She could call her Dad or one of the friends she has on Earth. She's reaching for the cell phone before she has a chance to think it through. Her Dad picks up on the first ring.

"Hey, Dad." Jennifer greets him, aiming for a carefree tone.

"Jennifer." He sounds so happy to hear from her. "How are you?"

The simple question catches her off-guard. Tears spring up; they clog up her throat and streak down her cheeks so rapidly she's swiping at her face and trying to get herself under control before her Dad realises something's wrong. It's futile hope.

"Jennifer?"

His concern has her taking a shaky breath in a supreme effort to reassure him.

"I'm fine." Jennifer says. "It's nothing, really. Just a bad day." She gives a hiccupping laugh and brushes away the moisture from under her eyes. "Bad week." She rolls her eyes at that.

"Did you break-up with Rodney?"

The question doesn't surprise her as much as she thinks it should and she sighs realising that she's not prepared to discuss her doubts about Rodney with her Dad; she doesn't want to influence her Dad's opinion of him. "It's not Rodney. Just, you know, work stuff." She spills the whole situation with Carson omitting the sensitive information around the Wraith and exactly what they're working on.

She feels better when she's finished. Slightly silly.

"I need to deal with Kho." She finishes with a groan, pinpointing the real problem because the rest isn't real; Carson doesn't have designs on her job and her staff might like him better but that doesn't matter. She's the one in charge.

"I think that would be the thing to do." Her Dad agrees. "Are you feeling better now?"

"Much." Jennifer admits. She bites her lip and stares down at the cookies. "I miss you."

"I miss you too." And she knows he does.

She feels another wave of guilt because her job has taken her so far from him but she knows if he knew the truth of it, he'd want her to take her opportunity to see incredible things; to do incredible things.

They say goodbye and Jennifer shifts off the bed to dump the remnants of the hot chocolate in the equivalent of what the Ancients used as sinks. She washes away the evidence of her crying too. When she returns to the bedroom, Rodney's standing just inside the main door.

"Hey." He hurries over and kisses her hello.

It's a relatively chaste kiss; a quick press of lips and nothing more. His eyes catch on the cookies and he points at them hopefully.

"Yes, you can have one." Jennifer says indulgently.

Rodney snatches one as though she's going to change her mind and takes a bite. She lifts her empty mug.

"Hot chocolate?"

Rodney stares at her, cookie half in and out of his mouth, eyes wide in surprise. "You're offering me hot chocolate? What about all the lectures about monitoring my sugar intake more to control my hypoglycaemia Wait, you're having sugar now?" His eyes track back over the cookies and the rumpled bed; glances back at her mug.

"I let you have a cookie." Jennifer evades.

He hovers uncertainly before he sits on the bed. He's clutching half a cookie in one of his large, capable hands. "Did I…is there…I mean, are we OK? It's just I can't help but see that you have cookies and hot chocolate and that's kind of comfort food, right? The type of comfort food that you have when you've broken up with your boyfriend or," he looks at her apprehensively, a red flush sweeping across his cheekbones, "are just about to, um, break-up with him, maybe?"

She's kind of touched that he's caught a clue that she's unhappy about something but annoyed that he's instantly made it all about him. Her inner voice smartly points out that some of it is about him.

"I'm not breaking up with you, Rodney." Jennifer tries to ignore the 'yet' that echoes in her head. She waits a beat and tries to lighten the strained atmosphere. "That's more of an ice-cream and wine occasion."

Rodney smiles at that. "So, if it's not about, uh, us, then…" he looks at her expectantly.

"Kho's been undermining my authority." Jennifer states firmly.

His expression shifts from relief that it's really not them, and then hard on its heels, anger at Kho. "Seriously?"

"Don't worry," Jennifer holds up a hand, "I'm going to kick his ass."

Rodney smiles and gets up. He half-gestures, a hesitant invitation to hug. She goes because she needs this. Comfort. The presence of someone else holding her and being there with her. And for a moment, all her worries about her relationship and her feelings about Rodney fade away.

"You sure you don't want me to screw with his environmental controls." Rodney murmurs into her hair.

Jennifer chuckles and leans back in his arms.

"Because I can so do it." Rodney tells her smugly, confidence gleaming in his blue eyes along with an evil glint. Sometimes she thinks Rodney could take over the universe if he put his mind to it.

"That's sweet," Jennifer says smiling, "but I'd rather have the satisfaction of kicking his ass myself." She reaches up and kisses him. Rodney makes a happy sound against her lips.

He manoeuvres them somewhat clumsily towards the bed and Jennifer lets him. She's had the hug and isn't averse to the sex that she always knew would follow it. She tries not to think about how predictable it all is.

"Wait, wait," Rodney says urgently as she tries to pull him down onto the mattress, "we have to save the cookies!"

And suddenly, it's not predictable at all and she's laughing.

o-O-o

The next morning, Kho is suitably cowed by Jennifer's offer to transfer him back to the SGC if he has so little confidence in her leadership; he agrees to drop the snide comments and she agrees to give him one more chance. She consults with Carson on the Hoffan virus. If she's still a little irritated that she found him deep in discussion with Brenda Cole, it's alleviated by the realisation that the subject was a reality TV show about dancing that they both love and which Jennifer has never watched.

She has lunch with Teyla, Kanaan and Torren. By the end of it she has a renewed appreciation for parents everywhere and their ability to eat one-handed; for the way Teyla and Kanaan pass Torren between them in a synchronised game of pass-the-baby so both of them can eat and talk to Jennifer without Torren becoming the centre of attention. She's happy for Teyla; she can see how happy Kanaan makes her; how much they both love their son. Teyla teases her as she and Kanaan gather their things, hinting that perhaps it won't be long before Jennifer is in the same position.

Jennifer has to work hard to keep smiling. She remembers a similar lunch some months before and dreaming of having what they have; someone who loved her, a cute baby. She thinks she still wants that but she's not so sure she's ready for the stability she sees in Teyla's situation. It suddenly seems so comfortable. So boring. Not that she would ever say so to Teyla.

Not to mention there's the ongoing and nagging question of whether she wants that with Rodney.

Her newfound realisation that she's not restricted to Atlantis personnel to discuss her personal problems has Jennifer walking to the far end of the South pier, sitting cross-legged on the hard ground and calling Shelley.

Shelley answers with delight. "Jennifer! I didn't realise you were still around."

"Still stateside." Jennifer confirms. "Are you busy?"

"Not a bit." Shelley says. "So, what's up?"

Jennifer has rehearsed what she wants to say; how she's having doubts about Rodney, how does she know if he's the one. What comes out of her mouth is as much a surprise to Jennifer as it is to Shelley. "I don't want to be Charlotte."

There's a moment of silence. Jennifer knows Shelley will get the Sex and the City reference at least.

"Why not?" Shelley says gently. "Charlotte got the guy; the money; the baby and the dog. She got the happy ending."

Jennifer sighs and closes her eyes. "Charlotte was boring. She was the princess. I'm not a princess."

"Oh, you so are a princess." Shelley retorts with kindness but with absolute certainty in the way only an old friend can.

"OK, so maybe I am a princess," Jennifer allows, "but why can't I be the kooky princess rather than the boring one?"

"You want to be Carrie?" Shelley says, going along with the conversation as though any of it makes any sense and is completely normal.

Jennifer nods, realises Shelley can't see and says yes. "She wasn't boring."

"You're not boring, Jennifer." Shelley laughs. "You're Head of Medical, which is a great achievement for someone our age even with your super-brain, on a secret base somewhere and surrounded by hot guys. Believe me, you're not boring."

Jennifer feels better. "I guess that's true."

"And you're definitely nowhere near Miranda territory." Shelley consoles her.

"But that's the thing," Jennifer says slowly, "I think I might be headed for Miranda territory." Because let's face it; nobody wanted to be Miranda, as kick-ass as she was, because she had ended up in the suburbs with a boatload of responsibilities.

Shelley considers that for a moment. "This is about Rodney, isn't it?"

"I'm not sure it's about him so much as it's about me." Jennifer admits, staring out at the ocean; the gentle rolling waves. "I'm not sure what I want. I thought I knew but…" she sighs.

"You are Carrie." Shelley says dryly.

Jennifer laughs. She plucks nervously at her shoelaces. "I love him but I don't know if I love him. But I do know Rodney wants to get married and have kids, and I want that too just, you know, not now. I mean, I'm not even thirty, Shelley."

"So Rodney's your carpenter guy.'

'My carpenter guy?" Jennifer frowns not getting the allusion.

"Remember? When Big went off, Carrie got together with the carpenter guy, whose name I can't remember but who had a great ass, and he wanted her to be with her but she was all 'oh I don't know' because she was still hung up on Big."

"Well, Rodney does have a great ass." Jennifer comments before she can stop herself.

Shelley laughs uproariously and Jennifer feels more tension eek out of her tight shoulders. "So he is your carpenter guy?"

"I don't know. I mean, I want him to be Big, you know…"

They both crack up at the same time and Jennifer finds herself bent double, giggling until her stomach hurts and her face feels split wide open.

"Come to San Francisco this weekend, Shelley. I'll pay for your trip." Jennifer says impulsively. "We can have a girly day out doing retail therapy."

"Your Rodney won't mind?" Shelley asks.

"He spends plenty of time with his friends to complain about me spending time with mine." Jennifer says easily. "Come on. It'll be fun."

"I have plans to see my parents this weekend," Shelley says, "but how about the weekend after?"

"That's great." Jennifer says sincerely, already looking forward to it.

"Jennifer," Shelley says turning serious, "has it occurred to you that you're over-thinking this thing with Rodney?"

"It's possible." Jennifer admits primly. After all, she may not be at Rodney's level but her brain does sometimes have the same inability to switch off.

"Enjoy it and stop worrying it to death." Shelley advises.

It's good advice. They say goodbye and Jennifer sets her cell phone down. She leans back and raises her face to the sun, lets the salty ocean air into her lungs. Maybe she is over-thinking everything. Maybe she should relax and enjoy what she has with Rodney. Marriage and kids are a long way off. She doesn't need to decide anything right that minute.

o-O-o

"So when are you two going to make it official?"

Jeannie Miller smiles gleefully when Rodney chokes on his soup. Jennifer is grateful that she hasn't done the same and tries not to tense up.

She likes Jeannie, she reminds herself. Once she and Rodney's sister had moved past their disagreement over Rodney's treatment when he'd been ill, they'd gotten along great. Jeannie has all of Rodney's blinding intelligence but has also somehow managed to pick up the social graces that have eluded him. She does, however, take a sibling's delight in teasing the heck out of her brother.

"Jeannie!" Rodney throws Jennifer an apologetic 'can-you-believe-my-sister' look but Jennifer knows him well enough to see that he isn't embarrassed because he hasn't thought about it or because he doesn't want what she's raised; he's just embarrassed that Jeannie's doing it so obviously in front of Jennifer when they haven't actually talked about it as a couple.

"Well," Jeannie grins unrepentant, "you're cute together." She licks her spoon and waves it around Rodney's quarters where they're having dinner. "You could think about sharing quarters at least. These remind me a little too much of your room at college."

"Thank you very much for the critique on my decor and my relationship." Rodney snipes back. "But I, I mean, Jennifer and I, we, uh," he gestures with his spoon and avoids her eyes, "we'll move forward at a, uh, pace that suits us."

His chin juts out belligerently.

Rodney's sister has been on Atlantis for four days. Rodney had called her in to help with something and she was staying until after the weekend. There was part of Jennifer that couldn't wait for her to be gone.

She likes Jeannie, Jennifer reminds herself again. At least, as Rodney had pointed out when he'd invited Jennifer to a private dinner with him and his sister, they didn't have to visit her in Canada now and suffer vegan food. Not that the latter would have bothered Jennifer but she was grateful that she didn't have to do this visit in Canada where she wouldn't have had an escape from Jeannie's sharp gaze.

"All I'm saying…" Jeannie begins again, a teasing glint in her eyes.

"Oh, would you please stop?" Rodney says sharply. "I let you pressure me into doing something too quickly with Katie and look at how that turned out."

Jennifer's taken aback. She's suddenly curious about what role Jeannie played in the failure of Rodney's previous relationship with Katie Brown. Jennifer had thought it had ended because of Rodney's general cluelessness over women but maybe not if the looks the siblings are exchanging are anything to go by. She swallows down a gulp of wine as Rodney's hands carve through the air again.

"Just stop with the whole pushing, OK?" Rodney sounds plaintive.

Jennifer can't stop herself from reaching over and nudging his foot with her own in support. She's as keen as he is to get Jeannie off the whole 'when's the wedding' track. She's managed since her call with Shelley to do as her friend had suggested; enjoy having someone in her life and to ignore the wider question of whether Rodney is who she wants to be with forever.

"Sorry." Jeannie aims the apology in Jennifer's direction though.

"It's OK," Jennifer says politely and smiles, "how about some more soup?"

They fall into a discussion about technology over the main course; Rodney and Jeannie arguing over some random physics thing that Jennifer isn't even aware existed. She's half-relieved when Rodney stops abruptly mid flow and taps his ear-piece.

"What?" Rodney asks impatiently. He sucks in a breath as he listens to the answer. "Well, can't you deal with it? I'm in the middle of…" his face goes red and his eyes flash angrily, "OK, no, I'm on my way." He taps his ear-piece again. "Sorry. A couple of the staff have identified a problem and can't decide between them how to handle it." He's already walking towards the door. "It shouldn't take long to, you know, yell at them…"

"Mer!" Jeannie protests before Jennifer can and the two women share a look of dismay at Rodney's words.

"You could find out what the problem is before you yell at them." Jennifer points out reasonably.

Rodney brushes the suggestion away. "They're supposed to be professionals." He gestures at the table. "Save me some dessert. I'll be back soon."

He's gone before either of them can say anything else.

"There goes my brother." Jeannie sighs, sweeping her curly hair back over her shoulder. "Boss of the Year."

Jennifer sighs. "He does care really." Deep, deep down.

Jeannie looks at Jennifer blankly for a long moment before she moves, clearing the table of the remains of the Salisbury steak. "Dessert?"

"Sure." Jennifer says, pinning on a wide smile. She lifts the wine bottle. "More alcohol?"

"Oh yes, please." Jeannie offers her empty glass and Jennifer pours in a generous amount before filling up her own glass.

They share out the chocolate cream pie that Rodney had somehow managed to procure from the mess.

Jeannie nods and gives a hum of satisfaction at the taste. "Umm. This is good. Trust my brother to choose an incredible dessert."

"He does have a sweet-tooth our Rodney." Jennifer agrees. She evades the assessing look Jeannie throws in her direction and asks her quickly about her daughter.

The change of subject is a good one; Jeannie has dozens of stories to share and they're finished their slices of pie and sipping at the last of the wine before Jennifer knows it. She breathes out a tiny sigh of relief and begins to help Jeannie clear away which consists of loading up the tray that they both decide Rodney can take back to the mess. They're done and Jennifer is casting about for a way to make her excuses. She wonders if she can fake an emergency.

Jeannie glances at her watch. "So much for his yelling not taking long. He could have called."

Jennifer doesn't disagree and sits down on the bed.

"You know I was surprised when Mer told me you two were dating." Jeannie says casually enough that Jennifer is almost fooled.

"Oh?" Jennifer tries hard not to squirm under Jeannie's gaze.

"I mean, I know you said you'd been distracted with how sweet he was to you offering you his fruit cup as a date but that was when he had a parasite repressing his usual self. I guess I was worried you might have been swayed into dating him out of some kind of lingering guilt over what happened." Jeannie says.

The bluntness shocks Jennifer for a moment. "OK." She doesn't know what to say. "I can see why you might have thought that but that's not why I'm with Rodney."

Of this at least she's sure. She wasn't with Rodney because she felt guilty. But she can't deny that it was Fruit Cup Rodney that made her first think seriously about Rodney as a potential partner.

"No, I see that." Jeannie says, leaning back against the desk and folding her arms over her sweater. "And I'm sorry about before. I was so focused on teasing Mer," she tilts her head and smiles sheepishly, "I kind of forgot that you were in the room. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

"You didn't."

Jeannie's eyebrows rise at the blatant lie.

Jennifer blushes. She smiles ruefully. "Well, maybe a little." She fidgets with her bracelet. "It's just, Rodney and I, well, we haven't discussed anything like that yet. You know," she makes a slow roll of her head, "that whole future thing and what we want. I mean, I'm sure we will. When we're ready." She knows she's babbling. "Which isn't now although probably one day. In the future. Way, way into the future." She forces herself to stop and smiles tightly at Jeannie.

Jeannie regards Jennifer with a concerned forceful look that reminds Jennifer far too much of how Jeannie regarded her when she'd found out the story behind Rodney's illness.

"Uh, is this the part where you threaten to hurt me if I hurt Rodney?" Jennifer jokes.

Jeannie doesn't laugh.

'O-K." Jennifer says into the awkward silence.

"Look," Jeannie says, "Mer's the happiest I've ever seen him in a relationship which isn't a surprise because, let's face it, you're his dream woman; bright, funny and beautiful…"

"Blonde." Jennifer blurts out before she looks away from Jeannie's intent gaze.

"And as much as I might have teased him before," Jeannie continues as though Jennifer hasn't spoken, "I know Meredith is thinking this is it for him and I think you know that."

Jennifer raises her eyes and nods quickly. "I know."

Jeannie wets her lips and shifts her weight. Her chin comes up in an all too familiar gesture that Jennifer has seen Rodney do more times than she can recount. "I like you, Jennifer, but if you don't feel the same way about him, please don't string him along and let him think he has a chance."

"Jeannie…" Jennifer struggles with what to say. She settles on something that is the truth finally. "I do care about him and I'm not stringing him along; I'm not." She hopes she's not.

"Then what?" Jeannie asks with the same McKay flair for treading where others would fear to do so.

"It's just…" she wonders how to explain it to Jeannie when she can barely understand it herself, "I've never been in love before, not really. This is new for me and I'm…" she takes a deep breath, "I want to take it slow."

And she's not sure she is in love now for all she'd said she was to Rodney. She's also not sure Rodney's really in love with her either after Jeannie's comment; maybe Rodney's in love with his dream woman not with Jennifer as she truly is.

"OK. I guess I have to accept that." Jeannie pushes away from the desk.

Jennifer clamps down hard on the urge to tell Jeannie it's none of her business.

Rodney's sister pointedly looks at her watch again. "I'm going to bed. Tell Mer I'll see him tomorrow."

Jennifer paces the room once she's alone. Shelley's advice seems so shallow after Jeannie's comments. If Jennifer does just enjoy what she has, is she leading Rodney along? Letting him think there's a future for them when she really has no idea if that's what she wants? Jennifer sighs and rubs her head, the beginnings of a headache throbbing behind one eye. Maybe the truth is she needs to work out if she wants this relationship with Rodney or not. Make a decision one way or another.

Crap.

Rodney's still not back and she's not motivated to find out where he is. She leaves a note making her excuses, props it up against the rest of the pie and escapes to her own room.

o-O-o

A performance review is the last thing Jennifer needs, Jennifer thinks as she makes her way through the SGC to meet Carolyn Lam. In the mess of matrix management, Jennifer officially reports to Woolsey as Atlantis Expedition Leader but also to Carolyn as the Head of Stargate Medical, and the summons to the SGC had arrived in Jennifer's email the day before.

It's been two days since Jeannie left and evidently Jeannie hadn't let anything slip to Rodney about their conversation because Rodney hasn't said anything to Jennifer.

Jennifer's spent the past five days going over her relationship with Rodney in her head in a tired circle, making no progress towards finding an answer. She has come to one conclusion: Jeannie was right that it's not fair to Rodney to allow him to think they have a future if she's having doubts.

If they were both on the 'this is fun and let's enjoy it without thinking about the future' page, it wouldn't matter. But as Jeannie has rightly pointed out, Rodney's already at the end of the book and the 'and they lived happily ever after.' Jennifer has to be certain that even if she's not there yet, she'll get there one day as she's always assumed she was until recently. Unfortunately, she's just as unsure about what she wants as she was when she called Shelley the day on the pier despite numerous pros/cons lists which always go nowhere.

Pro: She thinks she loves Rodney as more than a friend.

Con: She thinks maybe, possibly, she loves Rodney as a friend and loves the idea of being in love more.

Pro: She knows Rodney loves her.

Con: She thinks Rodney might love the idea of her more than who she actually is.

Pro: She likes Rodney.

Con: Rodney's behaviour occasionally annoys and/or embarrasses her.

Pro: She and Rodney have similar values and backgrounds.

Con: They have very little common interests outside of Atlantis.

Pro: Rodney can be incredibly sweet and thoughtful, loyal and loving.

Con: Rodney can be self-centred jerk.

Pro: She wants to have children and a husband at some point – a couple of years from now.

Con: She's not sure if the husband she wants is Rodney.

The only thing she knows for certain is that she doesn't want to hurt him but she knows that's not a good enough reason for staying with him.

At least Shelley will be in San Francisco at the weekend and Jennifer can hopefully unload the whole thing on her friend and find a way forward. She just has to make it through this impromptu performance review.

She finds herself in front of Carolyn's office door and takes a moment to smooth her blue pants suit, wincing at the wrinkles that have multiplied on the jumper ride over. She knocks sharply and enters at Carolyn's call.

Carolyn greets her with a professional smile and handshake. Jennifer considers that her boss looks as competent as ever in smart black pants, a white button down shirt and her white medical coat. Carolyn waves Jennifer into the visitor's seat and gets them both a mug of coffee from the percolator set up on a side table. Jennifer relaxes a touch, reminded of her first day.

It had been after the Priors' plague; Jennifer had worked at a hospital in Denver in the emergency room at the time. She had been one of the first doctors to deal with the plague. She wasn't sure how she had survived it but afterwards Carolyn had complimented her on her handling of the virus, the contributions she had made in the attempt to find a cure and offered her a job. Jennifer had leaped to work with one of the former leading lights of the CDC.

The Stargate programme had been a shock but Jennifer had enjoyed her work at the SGC. She had been excited to transfer to Atlantis for a rotation when the city had been saved from the Replicators. A couple of months later, Carson had been dead and Elizabeth had asked Jennifer to act as temporary Head of Medical, a position confirmed by the IOA after Atlantis had landed on its new planet.

Carolyn invites Jennifer to report the latest from Atlantis. Jennifer takes a sip of her coffee and launches into her usual status report; the research projects are all running on schedule, Carson's gets a special mention but so does her own on the Hoffan virus – she'd like Carolyn to consult on the anti-viral Jennifer is creating. The reports on the current patients are non-existent; they've had a few minor accidents and sparring injuries but nothing to warrant an overnight stay in the infirmary. Jennifer winds to a close, feeling satisfied. There's nothing in her report that she thinks will warrant undue attention or a reprimand.

As though she's read Jennifer's mind, Carolyn nods decisively, a move that doesn't dislodge a single dark hair from Carolyn's neat chignon. "You're doing a good job, Jennifer."

"Thank you." Jennifer practically beams with the praise.

"I know you got thrown into the deep end with the Atlantis position but you've grown in confidence; your problem solving skills have really developed, and you've got a firm grasp on your staff's capabilities and weaknesses."

Jennifer feels the blush and wishes she had more self-confidence to believe the compliments. She's good at her job, she knows it, but there are a lot of times she feels like she's faking it.

Carolyn taps her mug thoughtfully. "Which brings me onto the reason why I asked you here today. I need to inform you of some organisational changes that are being made."

Some of Jennifer's happy glow fades. "Organisational changes?" In a hospital environment, Jennifer knows that the phrase would be a euphemism for downsizing.

"You know there are changes in play because of the imminent closure of Cheyenne Mountain?" Carolyn asks.

Jennifer nods. "I know there's a project to move the Stargate to another location."

"The new base will be set-up on similar lines to Atlantis; civilian led with a military commander of an international force made up of the member groups of the IOA." Carolyn states briskly. "The military side will report into the new Homeworld Command, which is the result of the restructure of the old Homeworld Security. It will report into the Pentagon. The civilian leadership will report into the IOA Council. The long term strategy will see all off-world bases realigned along similar lines unless there is a specific strategic threat that requires military command. In fact, the only exception is the 302 and 304 programmes which will continue to report into General Vidrine from an administrative point of view although they'll take their operational orders from the SGC and Homeworld as required."

"OK." Jennifer's not sure why Carolyn is telling her any of this.

"In line with the new organisational approach, the IOA and the Air Force have agreed that all bases will have a medical division led by civilian doctors, supplemented by Air Force personnel as required unless otherwise determined by the security threat."

"Wow." Jennifer knows that while there are a number of civilian doctors in the IOA's employ, only she and Carolyn are in charge of their respective facilities.

"I've been asked to accept a position as Head of IOA Medical and oversee the implementation of the new regime." Carolyn informs her.

Jennifer lifts a hand from her lap. "That's great; congratulations!"

"Thank you," Carolyn says dryly, "although I think the administrative headache that I'm about to get is probably going to make my celebrations short-lived." She pauses. "Doctor Brightman will remain the Air Force Medical liaison for Homeworld Command stationed at Bethesda, and I have some ideas for the off-world posts but I'd like to appoint you as the new Head of Medical for the new SGC and ostensibly my number two."

"Me?" Jennifer lowers her mug and stares at Carolyn.

"Don't look too surprised," Carolyn says amused, "you've been doing a great job."

"I just…I don't know what to say." Jennifer stutters.

"Let me tell you about the position," Carolyn begins.

"Carolyn, wait," Jennifer holds up her hand, panic bubbling up and out before she can restrain it, "I'm sorry but I just don't think I can do this. I mean, I have a job on Atlantis and there's my research. I can't abandon that when it can save so many people and, honestly, I don't know if I'm ready for this kind of position."

Carolyn looks at her and Jennifer can't read her smooth expression. "Jennifer, are those your only concerns?"

"Yes?" Jennifer bites her lip as she realises she's answered with a question.

Carolyn continues to look at her.

"No?" Jennifer tries instead. She sighs. "I don't know."

"Let me ask you this, Jennifer." Carolyn says. "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Jennifer hates these types of questions. She went into medicine to heal people not to climb some metaphorical career ladder. "I want to heal people. That's all I've ever wanted. I didn't even want the Atlantis position originally. I was only meant to be there for a six month rotation."

"I know," Carolyn says wryly, "I approved the assignment." She gets up and pours herself more coffee. She offers Jennifer some more and Jennifer nods because it beats having to talk about a new job that she doesn't want.

"Are you planning to stay in Atlantis forever?" Carolyn asks as she retakes her seat.

"No, of course not." Jennifer answers immediately. Which is true. She's always believed she'll come back to Earth one day.

"Then it's not leaving there that's the problem?" Carolyn questions her carefully.

Jennifer stiffens suddenly realising the implication. "You think this is about Rodney, about Doctor McKay." She and Rodney had informed Woolsey of their relationship as soon as they had returned to Atlantis. She had also informed Carolyn out of courtesy.

"Is it?" Carolyn asks, dropping any pretence about her line of thinking.

"No!" Jennifer says. "This isn't about me and Rodney." And it isn't but shouldn't it be? Shouldn't he be a factor in her thinking? "I've already stated my concerns." Another thought occurs to her and her eyes widen. "Does the reason why I'm being offered the position have something to do with me and Rodney?"

Carolyn's lips twitch into a smile. "No, I've already stated my reasons for offering you the position."

Jennifer breathes out.

"However, I'm not going to lie to you." Carolyn says. "There are some people in the IOA who would prefer it if you and Doctor McKay were separated professionally speaking."

"How do they even know?" Jennifer blurts out, horrified at the idea of the IOA talking about her relationship.

Carolyn's elegant eyebrows arch upwards. "You correctly informed myself and Mister Woolsey of the change in circumstances. Both he and I included it in our usual status reports."

"Really?" Jennifer says icily. "Was that complete necessary?"

"Jennifer, the IOA doesn't have the same kind of fraternisation regulations as the Air Force but it does try to avoid conflicts of interest where possible. Both Richard and I had a duty to inform the IOA of the potential risk." Carolyn says sternly.

Jennifer doesn't feel any less humiliated. "As soon as Rodney and I began a relationship, he changed physician." She begins defensively.

Carolyn holds up her hand. "Nobody is suggesting either of you acted unprofessionally, Jennifer. But the Head of Science and Research, and the Head of Medical of one of our most important off-world outposts being romantically involved is potentially problematic. Apart from the obvious dilemma that you're often on duty when Doctor McKay is in need of urgent medical treatment, there's also the flip side that he may be placed in the position of having to choose between the saving of many or your life." She waves a hand toward Jennifer. "I'm sure you and Doctor McKay have discussed the potential issues. And believe me, I understand the problem; I have a similar issue with my Dad."

Jennifer hides her face in her mug of coffee. She's ashamed to realise that she's never considered it before; never discussed it with Rodney beyond the need to move him from her patient register.

"To be honest, you would have been removed already but both Richard and Colonel Sheppard officially supported keeping you in post." Carolyn continues. "They've insisted that any potential risk of either you or Doctor McKay being put in an untenable position is minimal, and that you've both been very professional to date."

"They…they supported us?" Jennifer says faintly. She wonders if Rodney knew about all this.

Carolyn's eyes sharpened on hers. "You didn't know?"

Jennifer shakes her head. "I wasn't even aware that it was a subject of discussion." She says dryly.

"You have a high profile job, Jennifer." Carolyn says, chiding her presumably for her naivety at not understanding the political nature of her position. "I'm afraid these things come with the territory."

Jennifer considers everything for a long moment and is grateful when Carolyn is silent. It makes her very uncomfortable knowing that her relationship is subject to political discussions; that some nameless IOA guy speculates on her love life and the implications for the Atlantis command.

"Look, Jennifer," Carolyn says quietly, "if I had realised any of this would be news to you, I would have informed you of the discussions as they happened."

"Thank you for that."

"And as far as I'm concerned," Carolyn continues, setting aside her mug again, "I want you to have this position because I think you'll be good at it not for any other reason. You'd be able to continue your current research and liaise with Atlantis regarding execution of any treatment you develop." She pauses. "I don't need to tell you there are people in this galaxy who are just as in need of medical care as in Pegasus. After the Goa'uld and the Ori, there are plenty of worlds in need of humanitarian aid here."

Jennifer nods. She can't deny that Carolyn's right or that the idea of returning home to Earth kind of appeals. The past couple of weeks have reminded her how much she enjoys being able to pick up a phone and talk to someone or hop on a plane and see her Dad. But she's still not sure she's ready to take on such a role and has no idea what this means for her pros and cons list about Rodney.

"Can I have some time to think about it?" Jennifer asks.

Carolyn nods and gives her until the following Monday. It's not a lot of time but Jennifer will take it.

o-O-o

It's Saturday; her feet hurt and her bank balance has taken serious damage but Jennifer feels immensely content as she sinks into the plush leather of the wine bar Shelley has dragged them into. She eases her feet out of her heels and casts a look of the vast array of shopping bags, fairly oblivious to Shelley ordering them cocktails.

Shelley has her own pile of shopping bags and she grins at Jennifer. "I think I just spent my rent but hey, who cares? It's only money, right?"

"Right." Jennifer says, inwardly hoping Shelley is kidding.

The drinks arrive with some snacks and they order food.

Shelley sucks up the pink confection, smacks her lips and gives a pleased hum. "That's, wow."

"Wow is the word." Jennifer can't believe how strong the drink is. She fiddles with the swizzler stick hoping stirring it will help dilute more of the alcohol.

"So, are we going to discuss what's bugging you?" Shelley asks bluntly. "Or do you need another cocktail?"

Jennifer sighs and takes another gulp of her drink. She'd told Shelley some of it over lunch, specifically about Jeannie's visit and the new job offer – a job offer she still hasn't told Rodney about. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

Shelley eyes her speculatively. She points at Jennifer with the swizzler stick. "OK, give me the whole story this time and not the abbreviated thing you gave me the other night at dinner."

Their food arrives before Jennifer can answer and the next few minutes are taken up with sorting out the dishes and eating. Jennifer sighs and rubs her fingers on the paper napkin. She can see from Shelley's impatient expression that as soon as she's done with her potato skins she's going to raise the question again.

"There's some stuff I can't tell you," Jennifer says firmly, "because it's classified."

Shelley nods, unsurprised and waves her potato skin at Jennifer in a universal gesture of get-on-with-it.

Jennifer drains her cocktail and Shelley signals the waiter for a refill. Jennifer collects her thoughts and wonders where to begin.

"I wasn't meant to be the Head of Medical. I was on a rotation when the original…" Jennifer catches herself in time, "doctor," she substitutes, "died in an explosion. I was appointed to stand in temporarily while they found a permanent replacement."

"Only they gave you the job." Shelley says with a hint of pride.

"Right." Jennifer says without the disbelief that once would have coloured her voice. Maybe she has grown in confidence, she muses before shaking herself and continuing. "So, for the first few months all I'm doing is the job and freaking out majorly that I'm screwing up but everyone in the command team is great."

"Including Rodney." Shelley teases.

"Including Rodney." Jennifer says. "But really, he was more this crotchety science guy who had a bad case of hypochondria. I mean, intellectually brilliant but more annoying on a personal level plus he had a girlfriend."

The waiter puts down two more cocktails.

Jennifer reaches for hers automatically. "Anyway, there was a lockdown situation on…on the base, and I was trapped in the infirmary alone with Ronon…"

"Ronon?"

"You remember the picture I showed you?" Jennifer asks as she picks up one of the chicken wings. "Ronon's the one with the dreadlocks…"

"And the muscles." Shelley grins wickedly, licking her thumb.

"And the muscles." Jennifer agrees with a smile. "But he's also a nice guy. I mean, culturally we're very different. He's from a completely different background. He has this whole warrior ethos. He's protective and impulsive and…"

"Totally hot." Shelley chimes in around a mouthful of chicken.

Jennifer chews on her own chicken in lieu of replying. "We almost kissed."

"Almost?" Shelley says, her voice rising.

"There was a moment," Jennifer remembers fondly, "only the lockdown was suddenly over and everything went back to normal. But soon after that Ronon offered to give me some self-defence training and I thought, OK, so that's a sign, right? So I say yes and I wait for him to make another move and…" her throat closes up unexpectedly and she has to take another swallow of her cocktail, "and he never does."

"OK," Shelley takes a sip of her drink, "so what does this have to do with Rodney?"

"Because Rodney broke up with his girlfriend." Jennifer explains logically. Her brow creases. "He's beating himself up about it but he's a nice guy and he saves my life, literally, and Ronon's not interested, so I ask Rodney out for a drink."

"Ah."

Jennifer stiffens at the tone Shelley uses. "What?"

"Pity drink." Shelley says promptly. "And, usually, for me anyway that turns into a pity…"

"Shelley!" Jennifer protests. "It wasn't…that! We didn't. It was one beer." She rolls her eyes. "And it wasn't pity, it was a thank you." But it also could have been pity, Jennifer admits silently to herself.

"So if I'm remembering the story right from the other night, Rodney gets sick next, right?" Shelley has even gentled her voice.

"Well, there's the bit in between where we're friends and occasionally he'll do something nice that surprises me but usually he's just Rodney." Jennifer says but she's nodding. "Then he came back from…somewhere, and he was unconscious. He'd picked up a brain parasite which started to affect his personality and his memory. I didn't realise until it was almost too late."

She swallows more of the cocktail and is grateful for the burn of alcohol against her throat grounding her to the here and now. "I was too busy being enamoured of how sweet and charming he was to recognise it as a symptom. I mean, he offered me his fruit cup as a second date and I didn't even think something was up with that. Then he told me he loved me a week after we realised he was sick that he'd loved me for a while."

Shelley winces. "He told you he loved you then?"

"Yeah, I don't know if it was the illness, or whether he meant it as a friend, or something more. I mean, a few days later he didn't even remember who I was." Jennifer sighs and sinks back against the cushions again. "But it felt good to hear someone say the words, you know?"

"I know." Shelley says wistfully.

"And after he got better and went back to being himself, it was like I was seeing him differently." Jennifer admits. She finishes off the cocktail and dives back into the food.

"So, let me summarise." Shelley cleans her hands on a napkin and leans over the table.

Jennifer gets a sudden image of how Shelley must look in a courtroom; all spitfire energy and sharp intelligence.

"You almost kiss this Ronon guy. He asks if you want self-defence classes which is clearly code for 'do you want to spend time with me,' but nothing else happens and you don't ask him out. Why not?"

"Why are we talking about Ronon?" Jennifer asks out loud, frowning. "We're supposed to be talking about Rodney."

"Because you started by talking about Ronon." Shelley points out ruthlessly.

Jennifer changes position at that and looks forlornly at her empty glass. Shelley gestures at the waiter and says nothing. She's waiting for Jennifer's to say something; Jennifer doesn't know what she wants to say.

"I don't know." Jennifer says eventually. "I don't know why I didn't ask Ronon out. Maybe it's the cultural thing…" she shrugs. "I'm not exactly comfortable asking guys out."

"You asked Rodney." Shelley retorts.

Another couple of drinks are placed in front of them and Jennifer reaches for hers eagerly. It occurs to her that maybe she's drinking too much but then it occurs to her that she's always really sensible and if she wants to get drunk one time while she's sorting through the mess of her life, she should be allowed.

"I asked Rodney because it didn't mean anything." Jennifer says, stirring because stirring lowers the alcohol content really. "It was a thank you beer between friends."

"He didn't see it that way." Shelley says finishing her second cocktail with a flourish and setting the glass down carefully. "Guys take things the wrong way all the time. You smile at one and they think you're interested. You ask one out for a drink and he's definitely going to think that you're interested."

"Why didn't someone tell me?" Jennifer complains.

"Remind me again, how many boyfriends have you actually had?" Shelley asks. "I mean proper boyfriends and not just guys you went out on a date with?"

Jennifer raises three fingers.

"So Rodney makes four?"

"Rodney makes three." Jennifer says blushing bright red and hoping that the dim lighting will hide it. "There was Jason in med school but he only wanted to be with me because he thought I'd do his homework." She'd lost her virginity to Jason. "I had a semi-serious thing when I was an intern with another doctor." Mike Grayson who'd been sweet and funny, but in hindsight, they'd been mostly friends who had sex sometimes.

"Well, that explains that." Shelley waves her hands and comes dangerously close to knocking over the third cocktail sat in front of her. "So obviously Rodney thinks you're interested and since you're, what did his sister call you?" She snaps her fingers. "His dream girl? It's no wonder he falls for you and hence the whole…"

"I love you." Jennifer realises. She's never put the pieces together before in such a logical way.

"Which that coupled with you seeing this whole other sweet and charming Rodney, gets your attention." Shelley beams smugly. "So, Ronon's out of the picture and Rodney's in the picture, right?"

"Not exactly." Jennifer admits.

Shelley sits back with a huff. "Oh this is getting interesting."

"For a while, I think they're both kind of interested." Jennifer admits. "Ronon starts basically following me around everywhere and Rodney's suddenly interested in medicine, which given he's called it voodoo ever since I've known him is a bit of a give away, and they're both trying to…to woo me, I guess."

Shelley grins. "Two men fighting over you? Wow. Some women dream of that!" Her lips twist and her eyes shine with wry honesty. "I dream of that."

"Well, it's not so much fun when you have to choose and let one of them down." Jennifer admits.

"So why Rodney?" Shelley asks.

Jennifer stills. Because this is what it all comes down to, isn't it? Why she chose Rodney in the first place?

"I could give you any number of logical reasons," she begins, "our backgrounds, our values, our shared neuroses."

Shelley smiles encouragingly.

"But I guess I knew for certain it was Rodney when I was alone with Ronon on a…a ship." Jennifer sighs. "There was a situation; Ronon saved everyone but he was…" her hands flail uncertainly, "just charging through everything without thinking, not listening to me and…I was scared. Not of him exactly but…the whole time I kept wishing Rodney was there instead."

"Because he would have listened to you?" Shelley guesses.

"Um, no." Jennifer's honest enough to know that. "Rodney doesn't listen to anybody except his team when he's in crisis mode. I don't know why I wanted him there really, only that I couldn't control Ronon and…" she stops abruptly. "Wow. That sounds so horrible."

"Please." Shelley leans over and pats her hand. "You were in a scary situation."

Jennifer takes a breath and nods.

"So, Rodney, by comparison, seemed a safer option after that experience." Shelley says.

"You know weirdly I was thinking that when we all got home to…to the States." Jennifer muses, remembering her thoughts on the balcony. "Ronon's with someone else now and I was thinking about him and me, and what happened, and…" she frowns, "and I was telling myself I was happy with Rodney. I thought I was."

Shelley looks at her speculatively again. "But that's when you started having doubts?"

"Maybe." Jennifer sighs.

"OK. This clearly needs ice-cream. Finish your drink," Shelley orders, "we'll get it back at the hotel."

Continued in Part III.

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