It's a testament to just how many times they've crashed Jumpers that when Sheppard yells, "We're going down!" the team simply braces themselves with an air of resignation. Rodney resists the urge to bend forward and stick his head between his knees. That particular response had resulted in a nasty cut on his chin and a jaw that had ached for weeks last time he tried it. He grabs the seat and holds his breath, watching the ground come up to meet them.
Somehow, this isn't how Rodney had imagined this day ending. Truth be told, he never really expects it when they crash, but this time seems to have done a particularly good job of sneaking up on them. He's blaming his distraction on meeting his double and having the chance to work, for once, with someone who understood everything he was saying.
That all seems so very far away right now.
They're coming down way too fast, and John curses, voice tight and thin. The instant before they slam into the ground, like a bug against a windshield, someone screams. Rodney fears that it was probably himself. Worrying about it seems unimportant as the conflicting forces of Jumper meeting planet toss everyone around like rag dolls.
Rodney wakes up to the taste of blood in his mouth and knife sharp pain all down his left side. He's on the floor of the Jumper, feeling the grating digging into his back, blinking dumbly up at the ceiling. For a half second he can't hear anything, and then his ears pop and sound floods in.
Sheppard is asking, slurring the words just a little bit, "Everyone alright?"
Rodney snorts and ends up coughing, his entire chest burning as his lungs seize. There's more blood in his mouth, and he gags on it, trying to turn himself over. There's a big, familiar hand on his shoulder almost immediately, rolling him onto his side, and he sucks in desperate gulps of air, smaller coughs still catching in his throat.
From somewhere above Rodney, Ronon says, "He's fine," and Sheppard makes a relieved sound. That's all the warning Rodney gets before Ronon is winding an arm around his chest and hauling him up to his feet. Rodney's left knee is nothing but a spot of white hot agony, and he starts to buckle back down to the floor almost immediately.
Ronon tightens his arm, a band of strength around Rodney's ribs, and says, "Come on, McKay. Unless you want to be in here when the Replicators show up?" Rodney isn't sure what the Replicators would do to them, if they'd be reprogrammed or simply killed. He has absolutely no desire to stick around to find out.
Rodney swallows, with an odd clicking sound in the back of his throat, and then nods jerkily. Ronon grunts and steps away from Rodney, and while Rodney does have to brace himself against the back of one of the seats, he doesn't fall. Rodney blinks, staring at the others in the Jumper through eyes that won't quite focus.
Teyla is out cold, bleeding from an ugly wound on her temple, and Elizabeth is sitting mutely on the ground, cradling her right arm to her chest. Rodney looks away when he realizes that the limb is bent at least three ways it shouldn't be. Ronon is standing still enough that he's got to be in pain, and when Sheppard finally steps out of the forward section he stumbles to the side and almost goes down.
When Ronon and Rodney both reach for him, Sheppard forces a bloody grin, waves them off and grits out, "Gotta get out of here. Ronon," Sheppard jerks his head at Teyla and Ronon nods. Teyla's head falls back when Ronon lifts her, her right ear is dangling down beside her neck. Rodney finds himself staring at it, torn between disgust and fascination, until John steps into his line of sight and says, "Get Elizabeth moving. We have to go."
Sheppard is grabbing supplies from the Jumper, the first aid kit and their spare ammunition, and Ronon is already out the rear hatch, limping his way forward. Rodney shakes himself, hobbles the two steps over to Elizabeth and leans heavily against the seat beside her because he's afraid that if he sits down he won't be able to get up again.
Elizabeth's eyes are blank, she's staring somewhere into the middle distance and absently rubbing her thumb over her right wrist. There are so many things he wants to say to her, words that he'd neglected while she was alive and then carried around in a ball once they found her again. There hasn't been a good time to say any of them since then. And now isn't that time either.
At the brush of Rodney's fingers against her shoulder, Elizabeth startles. Rodney watches her blink, a half dozen times in a second, and then she's rolling her eyes up to look at him. She's too pale, and there are lines of pain all around her eyes and mouth. She asks, "Did we make it?"
Rodney winces, motioning for her to stand, "Not yet."
Sheppard interrupts from the hatch, "Let's go." He's loaded with their supplies, already listing to the side under the weight, his mouth thin and white, jaw tight. Rodney nods his head, and has to squeeze his eyes shut against the dizziness and nausea that hit him, like twin punches, at the movement.
"That means us. Come on, up and at 'em." Rodney tries for cheery and manages exhausted. Elizabeth looks at him like he's crazy, but then she's moving, winding the fingers of her good hand into his waistband and hauling herself up. She sways into him heavily, and hiccups out a scream that ends almost as soon as it starts when her right arm is pressed against his chest.
Words get tangled in Rodney's throat. He doesn't want to apologize because all the gesture would be is trite and useless. He doesn't want to promise that it'll be alright, because there's not even a tiny piece of him that thinks it will be. Rodney settles on, "Can you walk?"
Elizabeth shakes her head and nods at the same time, and Rodney would laugh except he knows that would probably hurt even worse. Instead he just shifts, pulling her left arm over his shoulders and turning them towards the hatch. Sheppard is waiting for them, expression tight and impatient.
Rodney wants to say something sharp, but even the thought of speaking hurts, so he just nods. Sheppard nods back, then jerks his chin towards the forest, towards Ronon's retreating back. Putting some distance between themselves and the Jumper is a necessity, but that doesn't mean it's going to be anything but torture.
Taking a bracing breath doesn't work as well as Rodney hoped it would, and he ends up coughing so hard that he and Elizabeth almost end up back on the floor. Elizabeth's fingers dig into his shoulder, and he makes himself stay upright through sheer force of will. Rodney tells himself, out loud so he can't ignore the words, "Okay. Okay. Let's get out of here."
Elizabeth is mostly steady, but Rodney is careful not to lean his weight onto her anyways. His left leg still feels like it's going to give every time he puts pressure on it, so he grits his teeth and tells himself that his foot is not squishing in blood with every step. Sheppard falls into step behind them. Rodney focuses on Ronon's back and tells himself he has to catch up.
Rodney's mind drifts, disconnected by pain and shock. The constant twisting pain from his leg becomes almost easy to ignore, part of a waking dream that he's watching from somewhere outside of himself. It's all pattern and repetition, limping across the endless meadow to the forest, and Rodney takes what comfort he can in the numbness.
Sheppard curses, low and bitter, and it snaps Rodney back to the present with a flare of pain and panic. Sheppard hisses, "Run," and Rodney wants to protest that he can't, that it's physically impossible, and his knee pops so loudly that the noise almost covers Rodney's low moan of agony.
Above them, Rodney can hear the whine of engines. He can smell the burnt ozone that is the waste of an Ancient thermal energy converter. Rodney twists his head over his shoulder, has to look even though he doesn't want to see, and feels the bottom drop out of his stomach at the half dozen ships approaching the downed Jumper.
Sheppard drops everything but their weapons and food, and snaps, "I said run."
Rodney nods, jerkily, and looks sideways at Elizabeth. She's still white faced, unfocused and not really tracking. Rodney's leg is feeling better by the minute, and, with a grinding sound that he more feels than hears, his hip shifts and settles with a flare of relief that's almost more intense than the pain had been. Elizabeth doesn't protest when Rodney grunts and pulls her over his shoulder, and that's sign enough that she's badly off.
Rodney takes off for the forest, for the trees that Ronon disappeared behind. His lungs are screaming protest and he was never the fastest runner in the world to begin with, but he makes himself keep going. Elizabeth is bouncing on his shoulder, her head knocking against his back with each step and, for some reason, that's the thing that bothers him the most.
The trees are all huge and old, gnarled trunks covered in moss, and Rodney throws himself between two of the giants and keeps going. Bushes and bracken catch at his feet and he stumbles hard into the side of one of the trees, the air knocked out of his lungs, head reeling.
Rodney starts to push away, to keep going, and then the world explodes.
The light is bright enough to burn, and the clap of sound echoes oddly in his ears. Rodney coughs on the smoke, and then hands are pulling at his arm. Sheppard is yelling in his ear, "I don't know how long that'll slow 'em down! Keep moving!"
The thought of moving is distressing enough that for a long instant all Rodney can do is stare at the dips and grooves in the bark in front of him. John's expression softens, just for an instant, all surprisingly gentle eyes in his bloody, dirty face. "You want to get Elizabeth out of here, don't you?"
Knowing that he's being manipulated doesn't make it easier to resist. Rodney grunts, makes himself start moving again, a stumbling movement that might be confused with running by someone not paying attention. He gasps out, "What did you do?"
The grin is almost audible in Sheppard's voice when he says, "The other us' had a lot of C-4."
Rodney loses track of how long they stumble along, of how many times he feels his ribs shift, trying to heal themselves but not quite managing it with Elizabeth's extra weight over his shoulder keeping them compressed.
Ronon pops out of the bushes after an indeterminate amount of time, startling Rodney so badly that he almost falls. Ronon looks, if possible, worse out in the sunlight. His normally dark skin is shades too pale, his hair is matted with blood, and there's white bone poking through the skin of his upper chest. Rodney is briefly overcome with the twisted desire to reach out and push the bone back into Ronon's skin. He restrains himself.
Ronon and Sheppard have one of their conversations carried out entirely with eyebrows and frowns, and then Ronon lifts one corner of his mouth, "Nice explosion." Which is where Sheppard would normally shrug, but this time he just smirks back. After a second, Ronon continues, "I found a place."
And even though Rodney knows that there's no way in hell that 'a place' is a fully stocked hospital or even a top secret Ancient facility, he still hopes. It turns out to be a cave, and if Rodney weren't in so much pain he'd wonder how it is that Ronon can locate caves on whatever world they visit.
Ronon already has Teyla laid out along one wall. She's lying on his coat, hands folded over her stomach. Ronon either put her ear back in its proper position or it reattached itself, and Rodney stares for a long moment, nausea and curiosity warring in his gut before Sheppard nudges him in the arm and says, "Put Elizabeth over there."
"Right. Right, yes." Rodney has to go to his knees to get Elizabeth down. He lets her slide off of his shoulder, not sure if he should be more worried that she's unconscious now or not. She lands on her right arm and Rodney curses, turning her onto her back and then rocking backwards.
He's dizzy and achy, his torso still a mess of burning pain even though his leg feels mostly normal now. Beside him, Sheppard sets the bag of weapons down heavily, then folds up like a cheap suit. Ronon catches Sheppard before he manages to crack his skull open on the ground. By the time Ronon gets Sheppard flat on his back, Sheppard's eyes are closed, jerking beneath his eyelids.
Rodney tries to feel smug that apparently he and Ronon are the only ones that don't just pass out when their adapted bodies heal themselves, but the thought of passing out is actually preferable to having to be conscious to deal with the grinding sounds and the smothering pain. Still, there's a tiny piece of him that's curious as to why they're not in unconscious heaps as well. He wonders if the nanites just work better in people with more body mass.
Ronon smirks across at Rodney, and Rodney smiles weakly back. Rodney lasts all of a minute before breaking and reaching across, bracing one fingertip against the flat edge of the rib sticking out of Ronon's skin and pushing.
Ronon curses him, reaching up lightning quick and grabbing Rodney's wrist. But the rib is already back under Ronon's skin, and Rodney watches with disjointed amazement as the skin stitches itself closed over the broken bone. Ronon lets out a shuddery breath, and when Rodney meets his eyes the other man looks more disturbed than Rodney has ever seen him.
Rodney says, because someone has to say it and Ronon isn't exactly the most talkative person around, "This is so weird." Ronon snorts, shifting to the side and letting go of Rodney before reaching up and pushing another of his ribs back beneath his skin where it belongs.
The sound is the worst part if it, all soft sucking and grinding. It puts Rodney's teeth on edge and he looks away, trying to ignore it. Unfortunately, it seems that half the sounds are coming from his own body, so Rodney can't escape them.
There is a series of pops and cracks all down Rodney's left side. Rodney can only figure that some of his ribs were probably cracked, because they couldn't have been broken, not if he was still walking around. The pain from the healing is worse than the injuries themselves, and the gurgling from his abdomen promises nothing pleasant.
Rodney can actually see his organs moving beneath his skin, even through his shirt, and he pulls up the blood-sticky fabric so that he can watch. His stomach ripples, something long and thick moving beneath the skin, and Rodney feels lightheaded. Something knocks against his diaphragm, and he gasps, feeling needles and pressure up his spine.
Ronon's voice is a low rumble, "This is so fucked."
Rodney would like to agree, but before he can his stomach heaves and he twists to the side with barely enough time to throw up a mess of blood and chunky little pieces of what he prays are not his organs. He wipes his mouth, almost gagging again at the sour, salty taste, and scoots away from the mess he made.
The weirdest thing is that Rodney feels better now. Fine. Perfect. In every bit as good health as he was when he woke up this morning. His stomach has stopped doing contortions and he's not feeling dizzy, or having any more trouble breathing. Rodney blinks across at Ronon and says, "The throwing up helps."
As if he were waiting for confirmation, Ronon leans over to the side and gags.
Teyla wakes up almost immediately after that, staring down at her own hands with shock and horror written all over her face. Elizabeth and John wake up shortly after her, blinking and dazed, and for a long moment they all just avoid looking at each other.
The gagging starts all over again, moving through Teyla, Elizabeth, and John. Rodney plugs his ears and tries very hard not to get sick himself just from listening to it. Afterwards, they're all speechless. It's Rodney who finally breaks the silence, "How long until they track us here?"
Ronon exchanges a look with John, "Not long."
Rodney winces at just the thought of more running. Elizabeth sounds startled, "Aren't we considering that they might think we're dead? I mean, the Jumper did blow up."
"Actually, it probably didn't." The words are out before Rodney realizes that they're not really important right now. Elizabeth turns to look at him and he shrugs, fidgeting with the bloody tatters of his shirt, "They're very sturdy. Almost indestructible. Think about it, they're built to withstand the pressure of deep space, and I'm this close to rigging one up for hyper-space travel. Some C-4 might destroy the interior, but the ship itself is probably still intact."
John grunts, leveraging himself up off the floor, "Plus, the Replicators have that whole 'machine thorough' thing going on for them. Believe me, they're not just going to assume we're dead and be on their way." John starts pacing, and in the small space of the cave it's immediately annoying. "If we get back to the Jumper, we could—"
Rodney interrupts before John has time to get too attached to his plan, "You did hear the part where I said that the C-4 probably destroyed the inside of the Jumper, right? No controls means no flying escape."
Ronon snorts, "Not that it worked out so well last time, anyway."
Sheppard rolls his eyes and makes a weak protest in defense of his flying skills. Rodney rubs a hand up over his face, "Besides, we're facing a seriously advanced enemy here. We can't risk underestimating them. Again." Sheppard keeps pacing and the rest of them alternate between watching him and staring at the walls. They're not talking about what they're all thinking, and for once not even Rodney is tempted to break that balance.
Finally Elizabeth sighs, dragging her fingers back through her hair, "Okay. Okay. So. What would machines do to find us, Rodney?"
Rodney starts to protest that it's not fair to just assume that he knows what the crazy machines would do. But John hits him in the shoulder and besides, it's probably true. He scowls, bows his head in thought and says , after a second, "Well, let's assume they're going to be searching the planet. They'll use a grid, scan it area by area until they've covered everything. So, all we'd have to do is find out where they've already cleared and hide there until they leave."
"That is what they will expect us to do." Teyla has been silent since she woke up, her expression bleak and dismal, and even now she looks like she might be sick again. Rodney wonders if her nanites aren't working properly, and there's a hot flare of worry down his spine.
Sheppard smirks, dropping abruptly to a crouch beside Rodney, "Exactly. Which is why we're going to storm the 'gate."
Rodney hisses out of the corner of his mouth, "You're crazy." Sheppard just grins, his teeth very white in the midst of the blood and dirt smeared across his skin. Rodney looks away, concentrating on checking his weapon and trying to convince himself that he's not about to die. Again.
On Rodney's other side, Ronon elbows him in the ribs, "Relax, McKay."
"Oh, yes, says you." Rodney glares at the two of them, and then at Elizabeth and Teyla, looking less smug but no more willing to run down there with him. Rodney opens his mouth to protest this plan again, and John pats him on the knee, jerks his thumb towards the 'gate.
Rodney rubs his palms down his thighs, holsters his side arm and glares at all of them one last time before taking a deep breath. The only upside he can see to this entire plan is that at least the Replicators use energy weapons. He's pretty sure that he'll be unconscious before any real pain hits, and he's completely fine with that. Rodney starts to step around the broken stone wall they're using as cover and Sheppard catches his wrist, says with nothing but seriousness in his eyes and tone, "We've got you covered, okay?"
"Yes, well, you better. One near death experience per day is more than enough." Sheppard just makes a face at him, complete with impatient chin tilting, and Rodney makes his peace with not getting out of this. Sometimes being the smartest one in the group is more trouble than it's worth. He mumbles under his breath, "Okay," and Sheppard shoves him between the shoulder blades hard enough to push him forward.
His cover is gone, and there's nothing but the empty expanse of the hill between him and the 'gate. Rodney curses and runs. He's crossed maybe half the distance when the first blaster bolt goes screaming by his ear, and useless instinct makes him throw his arms over his head. Behind him there's P-90 fire, which is both comforting and distressing at the same time. Bullets don't exactly slow Replicators down.
Still, a measure of luck, and tripping at opportune moments, gets him to the dialer. It seems intact, and Rodney crouches beside it as best he can, pushing the symbols in and holding his breath. The seventh symbol has the 'gate spinning and Rodney pauses, taking a split second to decide whether he should wait for the others or run through the 'gate by himself, when a blaster bolt catches him in the middle of his back.
Rodney wakes up, with a headache and a dry mouth, to John's loud unhappy voice, "We can't go back."
Elizabeth answers almost immediately, her voice sharp and tense, "Listen to what you're saying, John. We can't just abandon the city. They need—"
"Us? They already have us, remember?" John sounds more irritated than angry, and Rodney cracks an eye open, trying to figure out what he's missed. There's a cool rag over his face, and he gropes at it with one hand, pulls it to the side to find Teyla smiling down at him.
Even the faint light in the room they're in hurts Rodney's eyes, so he squints, hoping that this doesn't all culminate in a migraine. They're in a small room, metal walls, weak electric lights set in each corner of the ceiling. He thinks that the design might be Genii, but it's hard to tell in the near dark, with a possible concussion. He pushes himself upright, assisted by Teyla's strong hands, and demands, "What happened?"
There's a pause, that tense silence that means an argument has been shelved and put aside but not ended. It's Ronon who answers, sounding far tenser than Rodney would have figured the situation called for, "You got shot."
"No, really? Obviously I meant after that. Where are we? Are we being followed? What's going on?"
John sighs. He's leaning against the wall beside the door, not touching his P-90 but still distressingly alert. When he speaks he sounds tired, "It's an abandoned base Teyla knew about. And we shouldn't have been followed." Rodney opens his mouth to point out that John isn't exactly relaxing the way he should be if they're as safe as he says they are, but Elizabeth interrupts him.
"And I was just saying that we need to get back to Atlantis. Colonel Sheppard disagrees." Rodney looks between the two of them, John leaning against the wall, Elizabeth sitting across the room, and rolls his eyes. These two had never really gotten over their power struggles, but this isn't anywhere near close to the time or the place to start them up again.
Rodney pushes to his feet, fighting off the dizziness that assaults him, and says, "Well, do the rest of us get a choice?" That earns him identical blank looks from both of them and he flashes John a disapproving glare before snapping at Teyla, "What do you want to do?"
Teyla hesitates for a moment before answering, "I must admit to being uncomfortable with the idea of return—"
"I think we should go back." Ronon had been scowling in the corner, but he speaks up now, arms crossed belligerently over his chest. "We have as much right to be there as those copies. I'm not going to just sit here and let him steal my life."
"It is his life," Teyla's voice is calm, but there's a flatness to her tone that sends a chill down Rodney's spine. "We are the copies, not them, Ronon." Ronon winces, and Rodney puzzles over the reaction. He can't say that being a copy particularly bothers him. As far as they've been able to tell, they're all prefect replications, and he doesn't feel different or lesser. "Our place is not to steal theirs."
Ronon surges to his feet, towering over Teyla and waving an angry hand, "No one would know. I could—"
"What would you do? Kill your double as he slept? Just to step into the hole that he left behind? That is not your way. That is not any of our ways. We have no right to take what is theirs for our own simply because we desire it." Teyla's voice is low and intense, and Ronon fades back a step, sinking into himself as she speaks.
"And what about those of us who don't have a double, Teyla?" Elizabeth matches the other woman for calm logic, they argue with swords shaped of soft words and polite smiles, and Rodney steps away from them uncomfortably. Rodney makes his way over to John, giving Ronon the space he needs to sulk in the corner for now.
John pulls a Powerbar out of his vest when Rodney slumps against the wall beside him and hands it over. It's not a real Powerbar, but it's a perfect duplication, just like everything else in their possession, and it tastes familiar and comforting when Rodney takes a huge bite. He mumbles around his mouthful, "You don't want to go back?"
John shrugs, twists his shoulders away from the wall so that he can look out into the hallway again, "No, I don't." Rodney waits expectantly for an explanation, but John is silent. After a moment, Rodney begins humming tunelessly to himself.
There's a part of Rodney that wants to demand some explanation for not going back. Atlantis could use him, without a doubt. One Rodney McKay is all fine and good, but with two of him he'd be able to get so much more done. There are so many systems that he's had to neglect simply because he doesn't have enough time, and he already has lists and plans of everything he can start working on now that there are two of him.
Rodney has always felt a certain loyalty to Elizabeth, as expedition leader, as the other civilian component of a mission that they all knew was going to be military sooner or later, and on a purely personal level as well. She'd won his respect years ago, and he thinks maybe he should throw in with her on principle alone. Against anyone else, he would have.
But he's been conditioned over the last four years to trust Sheppard in the field, to listen to his team leader, and even if he ignores that when it suits him, in the important matters Rodney pays attention. He swallows his first bite and takes another, saying, "So why are we arguing? Three to two says we stay away."
Elizabeth looks up sharply from across the room, her expression jumping from confused to hurt. Rodney can almost feel John smiling smugly above him, and he forces himself to ignore them both. "So. There is real food here somewhere, right?"
There isn't real food. Anywhere, in fact. But Ronon and Teyla are both more than capable hunters, and they've barely disappeared into the surrounding woods for an hour before they're trekking out, some kind of pink deer slung over Ronon's shoulder.
Rodney manages to get out of cleaning or cooking it through a mixture of complaining and disappearing to explore the complex they're hiding out in whenever he's needed. The meat, when it's finally ready, is tough and gamey. Weir and Sheppard make faces about eating it. Rodney joins Teyla and Ronon in having seconds. Food is food, and as long as there's not mold on it then Rodney typically has no problem eating as much of it as is available. One never knows when it's going to disappear.
Dinner had calmed everyone down, but there's still tension in the air, and even Rodney isn't so blind as to not be aware that there's a certain significance to he, Teyla, and John sitting on one side of the fire, with Elizabeth and Ronon sitting on the other. They could always split up, but the idea sits heavy and sour in his stomach, and he has the feeling that none of the others are willing to consider it either. They're a team. They come as a packaged deal.
Rodney sighs, rubs a hand up over his face, "What are we going to do? I mean, if we're not going back to Atlantis? What now? Stay here and live like cavemen? Go join the Genii—we've got about a half dozen splinter cells to consider if we go that route, you know. We could try to make it back to Earth, I suppose."
John groans, reaches out to hit Rodney on the shoulder. "Do we have to talk about this now?"
They're sitting in the middle of an abandoned alien base. They had to start a fire to cook their food because, though there's plenty of technology around the ruins, none of it works, no matter what Rodney does to it. The only possessions they have with them are their guns and some spare supplies. Rodney levels a withering glare on John, "Why not, you got a hot date you need to get to?"
Ronon snorts, and John might flush, Rodney can't really tell in the firelight. And then John jerks up, spine snapping straight, and Rodney feels the burn of realizing that he knows exactly what John is going to say before he says it. John says, mouth twisting up in one corner, "Can't go on a date without some wheels."
Considering what he has to work with, it's a small miracle that Rodney has a plan by morning. Well, most of the plan is from John, but Rodney brings all the half-thought through ideas together and provides the key elements. John looks doubtfully down at the scanner Rodney presents him over their breakfast fire, reaching out to poke at the exposed wires before Rodney slaps his hand away.
John hands it back and cuts Rodney off in mid explanation of what it does, "You're sure that they'll come check this out?"
Rodney turns the device over in his hands, absently making an adjustment to one of the grounding wires. He shrugs, "An Ancient battleship suddenly coming online? We did with the Aurora. I know I'd want to check it out if we found another one. And since the other me is the one who's going to notice the signal, you can be sure that he'll want to come see what's causing it. So you tell me, will the other you come looking on my word?"
John meets his eyes, and there's something dark, deep, there, disguised by the flickering of the flames. "I would."
Rodney looks away first, unsure where this sudden tension came from. He turns to the side and fiddles with the device, trying to adjust it so that it will produce the highest signal possible when they finally turn it on. He clears his throat, "Then yes, yes, they'll come check this out."
John shifts to his feet, patting Rodney on the shoulder as he heads towards Ronon and Teyla, who are sitting quietly against the back wall, discussing who knows what.
They choose T34-XX9 to put the plan into motion because it's one of the 'gates farthest out, and because the planet had been so completely boring that two years ago they'd spent a grand total of five minutes exploring it before heading home. They all go, even though Ronon protests Elizabeth's inclusion on the basis that it's a military operation. Rodney is not sure if they bring her along for her own safety, or if John is worried that if left alone she'll head to Atlantis and ruin their plan. Either way, she tags along.
Rodney is willing to bet that it'll be a few days before anyone picks up the signal, and at least a day or two on top of that for Atlantis to get a mission together. He starts setting up the scanner as soon as they step through the 'gate, tying it into the dialer to give the signal the power it needs and making a few last minute adjustments to the transmission frequency.
For the first two days everyone hovers around the 'gate, even though Rodney explains multiple times that it'll be a while. By the third day, Teyla and Ronon are disappearing off into the surrounding forest for hours at a time, and even John is taking short trips away from the 'gate.
Rodney stays close, both because he keeps thinking of ways to boost the signal and because walking through the forest isn't exactly his idea of a good time. Elizabeth lingers as well, trailing her fingers over the surface of the 'gate and staring at the dialer with sad, lost eyes.
Rodney has never been any good at making small talk, and left on his own with her he flounders after barely five minutes. He looks up from an adjustment to the signal's wavelength to find her watching him, and blurts, "I never thought you were dead, you know."
He's not sure how many of his memories from after her death are real and how many are just figments that the Replicators manufactured. He knows that they diverge from the original Rodney McKay then, but for all he knows, he and his team had been going on missions as well, out of the fake Atlantis that the Replicators created. Real or not, he knows that he never stopped believing they would find her and bring her home. Giving up is not something that Rodney, or the rest of the team, knows how to do very well.
Elizabeth smiles, leaning over the dialer and tracing the home symbol for Atlantis with a soft look on her face, "I never thought I would die."
Rodney tells himself to keep his mouth shut, but that's like trying to stop a river from flowing, "You might not be. You know, dead. The Replicators lie. I mean, they put themselves out as Ancients, they're hardly trustworthy. You could be a copy with an original still wandering around just as easily as the rest of us."
"Are you trying to make me feel better?" Rodney, feeling himself flush, looks awkwardly away, wishing for one of the others to come back and rescue him from himself. Elizabeth's laughter is a surprise, soft and sweet, and Rodney feels like he hasn't heard it for years, "Thank you, Rodney."
Rodney shifts, drops to his knees to fiddle around with the dialer to give his hands something to do, and jumps in surprise when the 'gate starts spinning. Rodney yells into his radio, grabbing Elizabeth by the wrist and then shoving her towards the tree line. He stays beside the dialer, crouched almost under it, holding his breath and thinking invisible thoughts.
The Jumper comes through the 'gate with a painfully familiar whine of engines, and for just a second Rodney sees the ship before the cloak comes up. The tops of the trees across from him wave, and then there's a pop as the Jumper breaks the sound barrier, heading for atmosphere. So far, so good, and it's such a surprise to have a plan going right for a change that Rodney almost expects the 'gate to blow up or something equally ridiculous. It doesn't.
Rodney makes himself wait another ten seconds, counting in his head, his pulse racing like a freight train. And then he twists, pulling the front panel off of the dialer and reaching for the crystals he's memorized over the past few days. It takes him seconds to remove what he needs to remove, and then he slides it closed again, makes one last adjustment to the scanner, and heads for the tree line.
Elizabeth is crouching behind a tree, her mouth pressed thin and tight, and after a second Ronon comes bounding up. The big man is barely even breathing hard, and Rodney spares an instant to be bitter about that before John pops up at his elbow, scaring the shit out of him.
By the time Rodney gets his breathing back under control, Teyla has joined them and John is looking sickeningly pleased with himself. John leans against a tree, twirling a piece of grass between his teeth and asks, "Everything going according to plan?"
Rodney rolls his eyes, lets his voice drip with scorn, "Of course."
They fall into silence, tense and waiting, and Rodney wonders, plagued now with worry, if maybe he doesn't know himself as well as he thinks he does. He's almost managed to convince himself that they should run through the 'gate now, while they still have time, when Ronon goes still beside them, his eyes tracking in the air above the 'gate.
Ronon growls out, "There they are." Rodney doesn't ask how he can possibly see the invisible ship in the middle of the air. Trying to figure out how Ronon does half the various superhuman things he can do only ever ends in pain. Pain and tears.
There's not time for a discussion about it, anyway. The Jumper's engines whine as it sets down in front of the 'gate, and Rodney holds back a grin when he hears his own voice, "—minute, Sheppard. Some of the crystals probably just shifted. That happens in the seldom used 'gates, you know."
Rodney watches himself step out of thin air and for a split second he thinks his double—his original, whatever—looks right at them. Rodney fights the absurd urge to wave, and the other him raises a hand to shield his eyes, three fingers curled up against his palm.
Rodney lets out a relieved breath, watching the other him walk over to the dialer, pull it open, and kneel in front of it. The other Rodney rocks back onto his heels after a moment, calling, "Sheppard, I need you to hold something."
Sheppard shifts beside him, and Rodney tears his attention away from his double. Ronon and Teyla are exchanging glances and they both slide around the rest of the group as the other Sheppard steps out of the Jumper. That Sheppard is wearing his sunglasses, squinting up at the sky while swaggering over to the dialer, saying, "I thought this happened in all the seldom used 'gates."
"Needing you to hold something and this being a common problem are not mutually exclusive events."
Rodney watches his double and the other Sheppard bending over the dialer and then Ronon and Teyla are taking off across the field. Rodney winces when Ronon tackles the other Sheppard, who goes down hard and stays down after Ronon elbows him viciously in the side of the head. Rodney winces again when Teyla takes the other him down with an embarrassingly fast series of punches and kicks. He's at least thankful that she didn't aim any of the damage at his back. He has enough problems with that particular area of his anatomy as it is.
Ronon has the other Sheppard slung over his shoulder in an instant, grabbing the other Rodney by his collar and hauling them both towards the tree line. Rodney takes a deep, steadying breath, and follows his Sheppard down to the dialer. Now that this is actually happening, Rodney can't believe it is working. Not even when his Sheppard clears his throat and calls, "Ronon, Teyla, come look at this."
There's a pause, and Rodney is positive that they have to be busted. But Ronon and Teyla come out of the Jumper without looking like they're suspicious at all. This Ronon is wearing his heavy leather coat and this Teyla is bundled up much heavier than theirs is. Rodney is fairly certain that she doesn't usually wear two bullet proof vests.
They all stare at each other for a moment and then this Ronon rumbles, "What're we looking at?"
Their Ronon takes him down from the tree line, two shots in a row with his blaster that have the original Ronon going to the ground with a thud. The other Teyla starts to spin towards the tree line and goes down with a soft sound, the red of Ronon's blaster dancing across her skin. Rodney winces at the way she falls against the ground, but it's an unfortunate side effect of the plan.
Rodney pushes Sheppard to the side, pulling the crystal he had removed out of his pocket and fitting it back into the dialer. He leaves the dialer open, looks up at John to say, "We're set," and freezes.
John is frowning, hand up by his neck, fiddling with the chain lying against his skin. Rodney finds himself holding his breath, but doesn't know why. When John finally moves, yanking the chain up and over his head, the movement is jerky, too fast. John bounces the chain in his hand for just an instant, before dropping it beside the dialer.
Rodney opens his mouth to say something—anything—but John has already turned on his heel and started groping around for the cloaked Jumper. John's dog-tags catch the sunlight and reflect it. They look small, tiny, abandoned in the grass, and Rodney reaches out. He almost touches them, only pulls back at the last moment when the unconscious Ronon beside him groans and shifts.
Rodney looks up in time to watch John disappear into thin air, and a moment later the Jumper shimmers into sight. The rest of their party joins them, Ronon pausing only long enough to stun the other him again before bounding into the back of the Jumper. Rodney rolls his eyes and disconnects his scanner from the 'gate before joining the others in the Jumper.
The shotgun seat has been saved for him, and Rodney sinks down into it gratefully. John looks over at him, and Rodney forces his eyes not to drop to the other man's collar. It's not a big deal, and even if it was, it's certainly not any of Rodney's business.
Ronon clears his throat, kicking the back of Rodney's chair, "I'm not going to stay unconscious forever."
John rolls his eyes before flipping open the other Sheppard's sunglasses and sliding them on.
Rodney spends the better part of the rest of that day and the following night going over the Jumper with a fine tooth comb. It's not that he doesn't trust himself, but he knows himself well enough to know that there has to be a contingency plan here somewhere. A tracking device, a scanner, something to let Atlantis keep an eye on them. He'd been anticipating that from the time he started changing the signal to whisper secrets to his other self.
Rodney finds the bug in a routine air scrubbing process, a few lines of code out of place, and for a half second he considers not deleting them. He doesn't particularly see the harm in Atlantis knowing where they are. But John would, and Rodney has found his priorities abruptly realigned. Everything but the Team has lost all importance.
Rodney deletes the codes, then goes over everything again because he knows how sneaky he is when he wants to be. There's a part of him that wants to exalt in pulling one over on himself, but he isn't sure that's really possible, and so he makes himself keep looking.
The odd thing is that Rodney's eyes don't start burning after hours of staring at blue script. His back doesn't start cramping on him, and his mind doesn't start getting a little fuzzy around the edges. Rodney works until the twin suns of their present world rise, and only realizes how much time has passed when John sinks down into the seat beside him.
John is holding a cup of some kind of steaming brew and Rodney reaches out to take it without thinking. It doesn't smell like coffee, but it's hot and bitter on his tongue. Rodney drains half of the cup in one swallow. It's only after he hands it back that the aftertaste hits and Rodney makes a face, dragging his tongue against his teeth to try to get rid of it.
Rodney can sense John smirking, so doesn't give him the satisfaction of looking at him. After a moment, John asks, "Pull an all nighter?"
Rodney shrugs while debating whether or not the heat from the drink is worth suffering through the aftertaste again. John decides for him, offering the cup, and Rodney drains the rest of it. He figures it's best to get it over with as quickly as possible.
John takes the cup and leans back in his chair, "What are you looking for?"
"Malformed aggressively viral strands of quickly adapting tracking code." Rodney starts scanning through the star charts again, checking to make sure nothing is out of place. John makes an agreeable sound, like he perhaps has some idea of what Rodney is talking about. Rodney is surprised when John doesn't just leave.
Silence settles around them, more familiar and comforting than any trite conversation with anyone else could ever be. Rodney listens to himself type, the soft beeps and whirls of the system responding to him, and the sound of John's breathing.
John finally says, "Weir and Teyla are arguing again."
Rodney purses his lips, "I think they call it debating." Rodney can understand why Elizabeth wants to go back. She's lost her life twice now, and Rodney isn't sure he'd be strong enough to go through what she has and come out the other side kicking. That doesn't mean he thinks she's right.
John snorts, leans over and pokes a finger down in the middle of the screen Rodney is working on, "What's that?"
Rodney flashes him a dirty look, "The ejector seat button." John rolls his eyes and leans back, lapsing into silence once more. It takes Rodney another few hours to content himself that the Jumper is clean. John spends the entire time sitting beside him, alternately asking pointless questions and watching silently.
Elizabeth and Teyla might be arguing, but it's Ronon who makes the biggest fuss. Rodney figures that's only to be expected. It's impossible to be in a room with Ronon for more than a few minutes before he starts trying to pick a fight. Seeing as Ronon is not exactly the master of verbal sparring, more often than not picking a fight comes down to the other man getting physical.
The third time Rodney finds himself backed up to a wall, Ronon growling down at him, Rodney decides he's had enough. He finds John sitting in the Jumper—that's usually where John is, these days—and stomps up to him. John is reading a magazine that Rodney knows he has to have memorized by now, and his expression is so openly hopeful when Rodney pulls it out of his hands that for a moment Rodney pauses. He's standing there with his mouth open when John prompts, "Yeah?"
Rodney shakes himself, crosses his arms, and marshals his thoughts, "You need to find something for Ronon to do. For all of us to do, actually. You might be fine sitting around here reading comic books, but when I agreed not to go back to Atlantis to rob myself, I wasn't signing up for a crappy vacation."
John blinks up at him and then sighs, leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees. "What were you signing up for?"
John looks honestly curious, and Rodney ignores that, since it must be a façade, "Hello? What have we spent the last three years doing? Fighting Wraith? Defending humanity? Wearing snazzy clothes and killing the bad guys? I'm assuming you are aware of that whole thing about not fixing things that aren't broken."
"You want to voluntarily keep fighting the Wraith." John sounds doubtful, maybe amused. Rodney can feel his shoulders tensing up in response, irritation building at the base of his spine and dragging the corner of his mouth down.
"Someone has to. Besides, it'll keep Ronon occupied." And really, at this point in his life, it's all Rodney really remembers. The past three years seem like an eternity. Rodney can't close his eyes without thinking about all the people they've lost, all the dead shipped back in empty coffins to Earth, all the ways he can imagine killing the space vampires.
John reaches out and takes his magazine back, "And what are we supposed to be fighting them with, Rodney?"
This is more how Rodney pictured the conversation going from the beginning. He rocks back on his heels, shoving his hands into his pockets and smirking. "I've been thinking about that, actually."
Teyla looks up after John has finished explaining the plan. She blinks across at them and asks, "This is your plan, Rodney?" She sounds faintly doubtful and Rodney wants to remind her that she's on their side, and it would be nice if she started acting like it before Ronon and Elizabeth decided she was joining them.
Rodney nods, in any case, "Yes, yes, I know. But we're working with limited resources here and that had to be taken into account. You'll notice that once we make it to the weapons bunker things get, hm, more stream lined."
Teyla still looks doubtful, but she doesn't raise further objections. Ronon leans closer to the fire, cleaning his blaster and not looking at the rest of them when he growls, "Sounds good to me. When do we leave?"
Rodney makes it to the 'gate before realizing that this is a ridiculous plan and that he'd obviously been suffering from some kind of temporary break from sanity when he concocted it. He reaches out, grabs John's arm and says, "Wait, we have to go back."
John gives him a short, sharp look before turning his attention back to piloting the Jumper. John's voice is all strained patience, "Why do we have to go back, Rodney?"
"Because this is a bad plan! This is a very, very bad plan. Why didn't you tell me this was a bad plan?" Oh, God. They're all going to die. There's no two ways about it. They're going to be killed by people who don't even realize that working in close proximity with radiation is dangerous. They're going to die and no one is even going to know because he took all the tracking devices out of the Jumper.
Ronon leans over the back of Rodney's seat to rumble, "I think it's a good plan."
If Rodney had needed more proof that they were making a huge mistake, Ronon had just handed it to him. "See! Horrible plan! Turn this ship around right now!"
John doesn't have an ounce of sincerity in his voice when he says, "Sorry, buddy. Too late for that," and pilots the Jumper through the 'gate. Rodney slaps his hands up over his face, groaning in abject misery. John doesn't make things better by humming merrily to himself as he cloaks the Jumper and circles the Genii village, looking for a likely place to set the Jumper down and asking, "Where was that hatch, again?"
Things go downhill from there. Rodney had pretty much figured that would be the case. Everything happens in a rush of adrenaline and speed. John sets them down outside the barn with the hatch inside and Rodney, looking back at Elizabeth clutching a 9mm like a lifeline, has all of a split second to realize how crappy a plan this really is, before Ronon is heading out the rear hatch, blaster up, a feral look on his face.
Teyla follows him out with her P-90 tucked in against her shoulder, her expression serious as the grave. John pats Rodney on the shoulder before pausing for a second to readjust Elizabeth's grip on her gun and asking, "Ready to go?"
Rodney glares at him and grinds out, "No. No I am not." But when John and Elizabeth head down the ramp, Rodney has no choice but to follow them. The idea of leaving the Jumper unattended is just one aspect of this plan that he's very doubtful over now, but he has to admit that he doesn't know who they would have left to guard it.
Everyone on the team is going to be needed in the very real possibility of a firefight, and leaving Elizabeth behind would be equivalent to abandoning her to her fate if the Genii came upon her. Still. Leaving it behind feels like a mistake, and Rodney spares one last look in the direction of the cloaked ship before following the others into the barn.
The hatch is where John and Rodney found it all those years ago. Ronon already has it open, Teyla lowering herself down the shaft. Her head has barely disappeared below the edge of the hatch when Ronon flashes a sharp grin to the room at large and starts climbing down after her.
Elizabeth pauses when her turn comes up, glances between Rodney and John with a tight look. She opens her mouth, then seems to reconsider whatever it was she was going to say, expression freezing over as she starts climbing down. Rodney watches her fumble with her gun, feeling the weight in his gut grow even heavier.
John pats him on the shoulder, "You're up."
Rodney glares at him, his best withering look, and lets that speak for him. That's when the first gunshots start echoing up the shaft. Rodney can see John's eyes go wide, an expression he knows he has to be mirroring, before there's no time for anything like thought.
Rodney has seen people slide gracefully down ladders before. He has no idea how they do it, and no time to figure it out. He just falls, counting on the ground to catch him and the nanites to fix any damage he might do to himself. Rodney catches himself on his left elbow and hip and pain lances up sharp through him, echoed by the sickening crack in his upper arm.
It's dark down in the tunnels and the flash of gunfire burns bright in the gloom. People are screaming, a voice Rodney doesn't recognize calling for his mother. The bright flash of Ronon's blaster is ahead of him and to the right.
Rodney grits his teeth, pushing himself up, and John lands on top of him hard enough to make pain swim up blindingly white behind Rodney's eyes. John grunts while rolling off of him, patting him on the shoulder and hissing out, "Thanks," before sliding to his feet.
John takes two steps before pausing. The weak lighting makes his eyes seem overly bright, his skin pallid, when he asks, "You okay?"
"Oh, peachy," Rodney pushes to his feet, panting as pain tightens up his stomach, burns up and down his limbs. John looks like he wants to say something else, but another burst of gunfire has his expression shutting down. Rodney manages to gasp out, "Go, I'm right behind you."
John takes him at his word, springing off down the hallway, swinging his P-90 up as he goes. Rodney grits his teeth, gives himself a moment to just lean against the wall and whimper as the bone in his arm knits itself back together. And then he reminds himself that this fucking plan was his idea and takes off after the rest of his team.
They're easy enough to track. Screams and gunfire are hard to ignore and it's not like they had gone very far while waiting for John and Rodney to join them. Rodney finds Teyla by tripping over her foot and ending up face down on the ground in front of her as she shoots over his head at their still unseen enemy. A few shell casings land on his hands and Rodney curses while rolling to the side.
A hand catches the back of his vest, dragging him up and back. Ronon's bulk is warm and reassuring, a brief press against Rodney's side as the larger man pulls Rodney off the floor and pushes him against the wall. Elizabeth is huddled beside him, her grip on her gun white knuckled. Against the other wall of the hallway, John and Teyla's faces are masks of concentration as they fire at the Genii.
No one appears to be bleeding and Rodney lets out a shaky, relieved breath. He doesn't have time to be bitter right now about breaking his arm for no good reason, so he shoves the indignation to the side to indulge later. When they're not being shot at.
Now he adjusts his position against the wall, leaning out away from Ronon's legs to fire off a few rounds and cursing when more hot pieces of lead than he likes to think about go flying by him in the opposite direction. Apparently the Genii have cover, and Rodney scowls because they could be here a long time doing this. He wonders when being outflanked and overrun became something he worried about on a regular basis.
Ronon growls, low and irritated, loud enough to be audible even over the pound of the gunfire. Rodney spares him a quick look and has just long enough to be worried about the expression on the other man's face before Ronon is shifting, bouncing on the balls of his feet and then moving.
Watching Ronon duck and weave, moving towards their enemies like the grim specter of death itself, makes Rodney think bizarrely of his childhood. He can remember Jeannie telling him, so very earnestly, that if she just tried hard enough she could dance between the rain drops as they fell, because mom had told her so. Rodney can remember having to try to comfort her when she failed over and over and over again.
Ronon is not dancing between anything as innocuous as raindrops, and yet he still manages it. Ronon throws himself over the battered table the Genii had been using for cover. There's a burst of weapons fire and gurgling screams before there's silence.
For a moment everyone is still, waiting for Ronon's all clear. Elizabeth leans away from the wall first, voice steely for all that Rodney can see the slight quiver in her hands, "What's—"
Rodney has been living in John and Teyla's pockets for long enough that he knows their expressions better than his own. John's face goes tight with horror and Teyla's eyes go so wide that Rodney can see the white all around them. They're both staring at Elizabeth, and Rodney doesn't even think before throwing himself sideways, tackling her around the hips and tumbling them both to the ground.
The sound of automatic fire mixes with the sound of Ronon's blaster and a muted, cut off scream. Rodney is aware of feeling very warm all over and after a moment realizes that he should probably roll off Elizabeth before he squishes her. The pain catches him by surprise, drags a high sound out of his throat, and then John is there, slapping his hand over Rodney's mouth.
Rodney bats at his hand, but John ignores him, reaching down with his free hand and doing something to Rodney's stomach that sets off all of Rodney's pain receptors like there's no tomorrow. Rodney tries to bow up off the floor, but there are other hands on his shoulders, holding him down, thin fingers that he knows belong to Teyla.
John's voice is muffled but still order sharp, "Ronon!"
Ronon speaks close to Rodney's ear, "I got him." Rodney wonders absently if Ronon ever gets tired of carrying them around when they injure themselves, but when he tries to ask there's a tickle in his throat and he has to tip his head to the side to let the blood slide out. Rodney is really, really, getting tired of this. Someone wipes at his mouth, a brush of touch there and gone before Ronon is hefting him, arms under Rodney's shoulders and knees.
Rodney screams, can't help it. The sound itself is disturbing, a gurgle in his throat that leaves behind the taste of blood, salty and bitter in the back of his throat. His breathing hitches, pain making all his limbs twitch and tearing at the corners of his vision with white hot claws.
Ronon bounces him, like he's a baby who needs to be soothed back to silence. Rodney squeezes his eyes shut, not wanting to see the corrugated metal ceiling or the way the weak lighting creates patterns across it. John says, from somewhere far away, "He'll be fine. Let's move."
Moving is agony. Each step Ronon takes jars Rodney, increases the slick feeling of his organs moving and shifting around inside him. Rodney thinks that the healing process would be much improved if you didn't have to feel your intestines stitching themselves back up, or hear the cracks as various pieces of your spine got rearranged.
A lung refills all in a rush, and Rodney coughs up a mouthful of blood, feeling it run sloppy and slick down his chin. His breathing still rattles, but it no longer feels like he's trying to breathe water. Rodney manages to get one hand up, flattens it curiously over his stomach and gasps in surprise.
His skin is still gaping open, and he runs his fingers over things that he was never meant to touch before Ronon growls, "Stop it."
Rodney blinks up at him, trying to focus on Ronon's face. He's distantly aware of more gunfire, a scream from Teyla and loud cursing from John. Rodney swallows, his stomach making a sad gurgling sound, "You know, I went forty years without being mortally wounded. It seems odd that it should suddenly become a weekly experience."
Ronon grunts, Rodney doubts he's listening. But talking makes it easier to ignore what he can feel going on in his body and so Rodney holds onto the words. He flails a hand up, winds his fingers into Ronon's shirt, and continues, "I have a theory about it."
Ronon stumbles hard into a wall, grunting deep in his chest. Ronon growls out, "Yeah?" and then, "Your arms still work, don't they? Grab my blaster." Rodney drops his arm down beside Ronon's waist, groping for the other man's holster.
The blood on Rodney's hand makes it hard to grip the blaster, but he manages. He can't really see where the Genii are, but he can hear the direction that the gunfire is coming from, so he sticks his arm out, pulling the trigger and wincing as each shot's recoil jerks his body.
"Yeah. It's all about balance, see? You have people running around who can't die and so it's only fair that the universe keeps testing the theory." Rodney wishes it would test it less on him. He can feel one of the wounds low in his gut closing, hearing the soft wet sucking sound that accompanies it.
"Balance." Ronon does not sound impressed with the theory. Rodney is willing to admit that it needs a little bit of work. But seeing as no one else is putting forth any better theories, or, in fact, any other theories at all, he figures that he deserves some slack.
Another wound closes, complete with horror movie soundtrack, and the feel of it jerks Rodney's aim to the side. A blaster shot ricochets off the wall and somewhere in front of them John curses and yells, "Watch it, Rodney! Friendly fire is the last thing we need right now."
"Actually, the last thing we need right now is for a biological weapon to go off. Or for the sun in this system to suddenly go supernova. Or—"
"Shut up, McKay." Ronon's voice is a growl and when he starts walking again he's limping heavily. Rodney grits his teeth, gets his free arm around Ronon's neck and pulls himself up far enough that he can shoot at the Genii behind them over the bigger man's shoulder.
Ahead of them, Teyla makes a victorious sound, calls, "I have located their weapons room." Ronon grunts and starts limping faster. Rodney bites his lip to keep the whimpers in, and concentrates on firing the blaster, forcing himself to trust his body to finish healing itself.
They stumble into a room even more poorly lit than the hallways. Ronon gasps, "Putting you down now," and his grip around Rodney goes lax. The floor is hard and cold and Rodney hisses, body curling up on itself. He stomach is painfully tender now, mostly intact again, and that's a painful relief. Behind them the door bangs closed with a solid thump.
Someone bends down beside him, hands shaking his shoulder, John saying, "C'mon Rodney, you have an explosion to set up here."
Rodney makes himself unfold. John is bloody, the entire right side of his face is slick with it. Past him, Ronon is tearing the leg of his pants open, hissing and poking at the shredded flesh of his thigh. Teyla is cradling one of her arms and Elizabeth is sitting with her head between her knees, either trying to catch her breath or hyperventilating.
Rodney winces, pushes to his feet and says, "Okay, okay yes, I've got it."
John nods, pats his shoulder and then jerks his chin at Teyla and Ronon. The three of them start moving back through the room, gathering weapons up and stuffing them into bags and on their persons. Rodney recognizes some of what they gather as weapons that had been stolen from Atlantis. Doubtless most of the other supplies were stolen from other cultures.
Rodney ignores the guns and the bullets, the blasters and their battery packs. They'll take as much C-4 as they can manage, but the Genii have quite a stockpile by this point. Rodney grins lopsidedly down at all the blocks. They must have figured out how to make it on their own, because they have far more than the Atlantis expedition had even brought from the Milky Way.
They won't need very much to take out the weapons they leave behind. Rodney figures that even if every other portion of this mission was a complete abortion, then at least taking out the Genii's firepower will be something they can be proud of. Even if they are the only ones who ever know about their hand in crippling the Genii's war effort.
Rodney sets the detonators, then starts shoving the excess explosives and spare detonators into his bag. His hands are sticky, tacky with blood. For some reason, he still has Ronon's blaster as well. He sets it to the side and Ronon is there immediately to snatch it up, like he has some kind of sixth sense about it being abandoned.
They work in silence save for the occasional organic, squishy sounds of their bodies healing. By the time they're done, loaded up with enough weapons to supply a large army, they're all in perfect health once more.
John looks at all of them, his expression grim when he asks, "Ready?"
"No." Rodney doesn't believe in lying, it serves no purpose and just clutters up already complicated social interactions. John rolls his eyes and Rodney feels compelled to go on, "We don't know how much damage we can take. I'd just like to point out that—"
Ronon cuts him off by kicking the door open, grabbing Elizabeth, and moving out. The gunfire starts immediately and Rodney watches John take a deep breath before following Ronon. Teyla stands by Rodney for a long moment and then says, "We must run quickly."
Rodney snorts, sickly amused in spite of himself.
It turns out that running through a bunch of weapons fire without pausing really isn't a very good plan at all. But it is effective. They come through the other side punched full of more holes than Swiss cheese, still living and breathing for all that they are broken.
Ronon leads the way to the Jumper, and how he can remember where it is with the cloak on is one of the few mysteries of the universe that Rodney hasn't solved yet. Ronon is dragging Elizabeth along now. She's leaving behind a trail of thick red blood, but she's blinking slowly up at Rodney as well, and while it makes him sick to see it, he's also relieved.
Ronon's broad back is littered with holes, some already closed, some still running with blood. Rodney commiserates, each step of his own bringing fresh agony from the bullet he took right above his left hip. John pushes past Rodney once they're in the Jumper, his shirt sticking to his skin while blood drips off his fingers. Teyla stumbles in, one hand pressed over her chest, blood pulsing dark and wet around her fingers.
Ronon and Elizabeth go down in a tangle in the middle of the floor and Teyla makes a gurgling sound while lurching towards them. Rodney does what he can to steady her fall into more of a controlled descent. He leaves them curled around each other, bleeding and healing and alive despite the best efforts of an entire army.
John is staring out the view screen of the Jumper when Rodney drags himself into the cockpit. John's hands are steady around the Jumper controls, still splattered with blood, and Rodney reaches out, grabs John's shoulder more for balance than anything else.
John startles at Rodney's touch, turns his head to the side, cheek brushing against Rodney's arm when he asks, "Everyone make it in?"
Rodney nods though John can't see him, letting his hand fall away from the warmth of John's shoulder and flopping gracelessly down into the co-pilot's chair. "All present and accounted for." John grunts and around them the Jumper jerks to life, rising off the ground, shakily at first, but then steadying. Rodney makes a face, picking at his soaking shirt, "What are we supposed to get these stains out with?"
John lets out a loud bark of laughter, turns to look at Rodney with a crooked smile, "I'm not sure Heloise has an answer for that one, Rodney."
Rodney manages a smile back, even while dealing with the feeling of his shoulder re-knitting itself, "She never did have any practical suggestions."
"What we need is Heloise for the Pegasus explorer," John looks far too amused with himself. Rodney figures that maybe the blood loss has something to do with that. In fact, he's almost sure of it, because he finds it sort of funny himself and he knows it really isn't.
"Proper behavior for the immortal clone of a military commander of a secret alien city in a galaxy far, far away?" Rodney means it in a similarly light hearted spirit, but John sobers, turning to look at him with a contemplative expression.
Rodney has to look away after a moment, because there's something about the intensity of John's searching expression that he can't deal with. John's voice, when he finally replies, is almost a surprise, "Yeah. That's a book I could use right now."
Rodney clears his throat, keeps looking out across the fields and trees below them, "Right now I'm thinking your only decent course of behavior would be to take us home." John hums and something in the atmosphere between them shifts, settles back closer to their status quo. It's such a relief that Rodney opens his mouth, "So I have this theory about the whole immortal thing."
They're all covered in blood and there are pieces of their insides on their outsides. By the time they finally make it back to their base world, Rodney is itching, his skin crawling where it's smeared with blood and other things he doesn't even want to think about.
Technically they have a bathroom in the base they're using, but to bathe in it requires a dozen trips to and from the lake a quarter mile away and none of them are up for that after the day they've had. John flies them directly to the lake, sets down beside it with a tired sigh.
By the time the rear hatch opens, Ronon already has his shirt off and is working on his pants, the women not far behind him. Rodney takes a moment to appreciate the smooth pale skin of Elizabeth's back, the muscular stretch of Ronon's shoulders, the sweet curve of Teyla's spine, before John clears his throat.
Rodney looks up at him and John raises an eyebrow before gesturing towards the lake. Rodney huffs, "I was going." He twists in his chair, pulling his blood soaked shirt up and over his head, wincing at the brief press of it against his face. Everyone else has left their clothes in a pile in the middle of the Jumper, so Rodney tosses his shirt on the pile, leveraging himself out of his chair and turning to look at John who is focused intently on the Jumper controls. "Coming?"
John nods jerkily, pushing himself up and pulling his shirt off all in one surprisingly violent movement. One of the wounds on John's shoulder still hasn't closed all the way, there's new pink skin creeping across it as, below the surface, blood vessels repair themselves right before Rodney's eyes.
Rodney only realizes that John has stepped out of his boots and pants when the man starts for the rear hatch. Rodney shakes himself, fingers fumbling over his own shoe laces, hung up on the image of John's body putting itself back together.
By the time he makes it out to the lake, the others are already scrubbing intently at their skin. Rodney thinks about worrying about the parasites that are no doubt thriving and multiplying happily in the lake, but doubts that any tiny animals would have any ill effect on them at this point. And he really, really, wants to get clean.
The water is cold. Not bracingly, or refreshingly. Just freezing cold and Rodney hunches his shoulders in, scrubbing viciously at his skin. The new skin is ticklish, or at least surprisingly sensitive. It has Rodney sucking in a surprised breath, the hair on the back of his neck rising as he does his best to get all the blood off.
He thinks it should be more tempting to sneak peeks at his teammates, but right now getting clean is more important. His skin is turning red from the cold and his fingers are tingling. Rodney wonders how long the nanites could potentially fight off hypothermia, if he could eat citrus now without worrying about ending up in a morgue somewhere, how they'll handle the rest of his many and varied allergies.
The idea of being able to go for a walk without ending up wheezing halfway through and spitting up mucus is appealing in a way that being able to walk away from a firing squad really isn't. Rodney is thinking of various ways he could test the theory out when someone splashes him in the face with a wall of water.
Rodney sputters, wiping water out of his eyes, and finds himself glaring into Ronon's grinning face. The big man has water dripping off the ends of his hair, and there's a cut above his eyebrow growing closed as Rodney watches. He's alive, they're all alive and none of them should be, and Rodney feels his scowl threaten to turn into a grin, splashing Ronon back.
Ronon blinks, his expression gloriously puzzled, like he hadn't expected the retribution. Then the grin is back, feral and huge. Rodney has time to yelp helplessly before Ronon lunges for him, big hands catching at his shoulders and arms.
Rodney hears himself squawk, an undignified, loud sound, when Ronon lifts and twists. Rodney has just enough time to suck in a breath to yell for help before Ronon tosses him out deeper into the lake. He lands with a splash, floundering around under the water for a half second before coming up with flailing arms and kicking legs.
Rodney doesn't mean for his first word to be, "John!" but that's what pops out of his mouth. John had been watching them with a suspiciously blank look, but he smiles now and Rodney is vindicated by the size of the splash John manages to nail Ronon with. It's slightly unfortunate that John also gets Teyla.
Somehow it devolves from there. Five minutes later Rodney is dunking John under the water, laughing helplessly as John kicks at his legs and Teyla wraps her arms around his neck from behind, pulling him over backwards. From the sound of things, Ronon just tossed Elizabeth off somewhere and is splashing his way over and Rodney goes under still giggling.
When they drag themselves out of the lake they're all shivering, but they're clean and Rodney can't quite manage to stop grinning. Neither can anyone else and so he doesn't worry about it too much. They pile back into the Jumper, naked and shivering, and Rodney turns to look at John when he sinks down into the pilot's seat and says, "We're going to need more pants."
John shrugs, "First we need to sleep."
Rodney isn't actually tired. He can't remember being tired, but everyone else is suffering from drooping eyelids and Teyla gives him a stern look when he tries to excuse himself from nap time. It's best not to argue with Teyla's stern looks so Rodney relents, follows the rest to the room that they've officially designated as their sleeping quarters.
It just makes sense for them to share a room. They don't have enough man power to secure the entire base and Rodney hates the idea of dying alone in his sleep. Besides, over the years it's become habit and tradition for them to sleep together off-world, and while Elizabeth still seems a little uncomfortable with the lack of personal space, she's catching on quickly.
They have the bedrolls from the Jumper, but Rodney knows they're going to have to get something better soon. His back will probably be killing him in the morning after what amounts to sleeping on the floor, but he's hoping that the nanites will handle that as well. Still. Sleeping on the floor is just not behavior he feels like indulging in for the long term.
Ronon doesn't seem to mind. The Satedan makes for his roll immediately, dropping down on top of his thin blanket and sprawling out on his face. He's snoring within seconds. Rodney shakes his head, rolls his eyes and settles down onto his own roll, curling up onto his side and waiting for the sleep that he doesn't think will come.
Around the room he can hear the others settling, a soft, whispered conversation between Elizabeth and Teyla, someone re-arranging their bedroll. Rodney closes his eyes and finds himself practicing the breathing exercises that Teyla has tried to teach them all occasionally over the years. He's pretty sure you're not supposed to have to concentrate this hard on breathing in and breathing out, but then, he was never very good at this.
Someone huffs out a breath near his ear and Rodney startles, because they hadn't really been sleeping that close before. He rolls onto his back to look and finds himself staring across at John. John is staring up at the ceiling, jaw tense, arms crossed belligerently over his chest. He doesn't look sleepy. Or even comfortable. Rodney considers worrying about it, but there are some things he will never understand about the mind of John Sheppard. He starts to roll back onto his side.
John jerks one hand out and Rodney goes completely still when John reaches over to place it on his stomach. John's hand is warm and heavy and Rodney stares down at it, dark against his fair skin, fingers sprawled out wide. John sighs. Rodney can feel the other man's fingers relax and managess, "Um?" while turning his head to look at John.
John, who is apparently challenging Ronon for quickest drop off into sleep. The man's face is slack, lips slightly parted, eyelashes lying against his cheek. Rodney thinks about squirming away from John's hand, but it's been one hell of a day and it isn't like it's hurting anything. Rodney closes his eyes and tries to sleep.
Rodney wakes up gagging. He's twisted onto his stomach at some point in the night and he manages to drag himself off the bed roll before retching. Something hard and body-heat warm clicks against the back of his teeth before falling noisily to the floor.
Rodney coughs, wiping at his mouth and pushing himself into a sitting position. He blinks down at the half dozen bullets lying there, smashed almost beyond recognition now. Beside him, John makes a soft sound, face scrunching up before he raises a hand to his mouth and spits a bullet out into his waiting fingers.
Across the room Ronon pronounces, "Fucked up." The big man already has a collection of bullets set out in front of his legs. Rodney's stomach seizes and he covers his mouth, this time managing to catch the twisted metal instead of just heaving.
By the time their bodies are done spitting out the lead that had been forcibly injected into them, Ronon has the largest collection, but Teyla isn't far behind him. Rodney stares in horror at the piles they all have in front of them before shaking himself. "So, is anyone else hungry?"
They're all starving. Rodney figures that makes sense, because all the cellular growth that their bodies went through yesterday should have burned copious amounts of fuel. They gorge themselves on all the food they have left from the Replicators, as well as the small stockpile of native flora and fauna that Ronon and Teyla have been gathering.
Eating is far too important to interrupt with talking. They spend the entire meal, which drags on and on, chewing and swallowing as quickly as possible. By the time they're done, stomachs finally content, almost all of the food is gone and they're all looking at each other sheepishly.
John, sitting beside Rodney, leans into Rodney's side and motions at the corner of his mouth while saying, "You've got something—right there." Rodney rubs at the corner of his mouth and John gives him all of two seconds before huffing impatiently and reaching out to rub whatever has offended him away with his thumb.
John's touch lingers, his thumb sliding along the bottom of Rodney's lip. Rodney goes still, trying to read the detached look on John's face before the other man blinks, catches himself, removes his hand and clears his throat. Elizabeth is watching them, a curious look on her face, and Rodney has the insane urge to blush.
Rodney feels that now that sleeping and eating have been taken care of they can return to his important concerns from the previous day, "We need pants."
Teyla and Ronon go for supplies; they still know the various customs of the Pegasus worlds best. They always will. Besides, between the two of them they make a highly adept negotiating team. Ronon has one of those faces you just can't say 'no' to.
Rodney spends the time they're gone trying to get some of the systems in their new home working. Most of the circuitry is completely degraded, wires so rotted away that they crumble at his touch, but Rodney is nothing if not stubborn. It's hardly the first time he's asked himself to pull off a miracle. He has no idea what John and Elizabeth get up to, but he catches a few jags of yelling throughout the day.
Finally John finds him, announcing his presence by settling himself beside Rodney's knees and poking his shin. Rodney ignores him, tucked up inside one of the huge computers as he is, trying to connect two wires that want absolutely nothing to do with each other. John, not very good at being ignored, clears his throat, "So you're handling this whole nudity thing pretty well."
What clothing they had that wasn't completely trashed had walked off with Ronon and Teyla. Seeing as Rodney had been the only one carrying around spare clothes, they both had looked fairly ridiculous, but wandering around naked through market worlds tended to give off the wrong kind of image. Though Rodney was pretty sure it would have gotten them better deals.
Rodney shrugs, though there really isn't space for it. One of his shoulders drags across something sharp, skin tearing and blood snaking warm and wet down his arm. Rodney bites back on his frustrated curse and says, "We've all seen each other naked before."
It hadn't taken them long to find out that nudity was a job hazard when going off world. There was always some ritual that required them to take off all their clothes and hold hands, or take off all their clothes and let themselves be covered in honey, or take off all their clothes and do jumping jacks for hours on end. Coupled with all the times they'd been forced to take off their clothes and run for their lives, Rodney figures they've all developed looser personal boundaries.
"Elizabeth saw you naked?" John sounds strange, voice tight, strangled.
Rodney scowls at the wires that are still resisting him. All he wants to do is see if the circuits will connect and he's swiftly losing patience with their refusal to bend to his wishes. He grits out, worming one hand deeper into the circuitry and wrapping the other around the power feed, "Hello? P32-MX1? Gate re-entry naked and covered in bubbles? I have my doubts that she's been able to scrub the memory from her mind." John grunts, apparently in concession that Rodney is correct. "You might have to pull me out of here."
"What?" John drops something. Rodney wonders what he had been playing with that he shouldn't have, but doesn't have the time to think about it. He finds the output feed, shoves his thumb into the receptacle, and holds his breath. His entire body jerks a half second later, a burn of pain up his arm, across his shoulder, down his other arm, pausing along the way to shoot like molten lead down his spine and to stir his brain around inside his skull.
Something is burning. Rodney can smell it and he'd complain but his jaws are locked together. And then it stops. He's aware that he's on his back, flat out on the floor, blinking up at the ceiling, John's hand flat on his chest over Rodney's heart.
Rodney opens his mouth to say that apparently something in here still works, but all that comes out of his throat is a puff of smoke. John is yelling, "Jesus Christ! Are you okay? What did you do? Talk to me here, Rodney." Rodney tries again, but gets only more smoke.
The tingle starts in the tips of his fingers, passing through his hands and up his arms, easing the burning pain and leaving behind the numb feeling that Rodney associates with Wraith stunning weapons. He curls his fingers up against his palms, hiccups as the tingle passes his elbows, and this time his breath isn't smoking. Rodney takes that as a good sign.
When the healing reaches his lungs, they seize and he ends up coughing, huge, wracking coughs that leave tears in his eyes. It distracts him from the end of the healing. When he swallows down a last cough he feels normal, if a little on the numb side.
John grips his shoulder, hard, voice tight and angry, "Are you insane?"
"It's been said before." John looks legitimately worried when Rodney turns to face him, and Rodney takes a moment to wonder if he should feel guilty. He tries to explain, "I don't have all the tools I need to work here. This was the most effective way to test whether there was even any point in me continuing to waste time under there."
John deadpans, "By electrocuting yourself." He's still holding onto Rodney's shoulder, which is kind of weird, but John has been kind of weird since they found out they weren't exactly human anymore. Rodney figures they're all entitled to their freak outs. It's likely that the others will take longer to get used to the change than he did. It's one of the many and varied ways that he feels certain his greater intelligence is helping him.
Still, Rodney does feel bad about scaring him. He shrugs, "What does not kill you…"
John does not look reassured. He opens his mouth, tight little lines of frustration around his eyes, but is interrupted before he can start lecturing. Ronon's voice booms in from one of the other rooms, an order for their immediate presence.
Teyla and Ronon have brought back clothes and dropped them in the middle of their common room floor. Rodney bites back on the insane urge to scold them for not folding anything, mostly because they're clothes and all he really wants is to put some on.
They're mostly homespun cloth, rougher than Rodney would wear by choice. He doesn't exactly have any other options, so he pulls on a pair of trousers that look about his size while Elizabeth and John pick through the pile beside him. The shirts are all big, Rodney is willing to bet that he'll be the only one besides Ronon who even comes close to not being swallowed by them, and he smirks a little at the thought before pulling one on. It feels like it starts itching immediately, but he's willing to admit that might just be his imagination.
Teyla and Ronon are standing off to the side, tense and uncomfortable. John notices after a moment, pausing in the midst of pulling a shirt on to ask, "What's going on?"
Teyla exchanges a glance with Ronon, who nods sharply. She sighs, "Major Lorne's team was on one of the worlds we visited. I believe Doctor Parrish may have recognized us." John goes tense and Rodney spots Elizabeth smiling softly out of the corner of his eye. He really wishes they'd stop being so fucking disagreeable over this.
John stands, apparently just so that he can pace, his expression dark and stormy. Teyla continues, "One such sighting will probably be ignored. But if we wish to stay hidden from them we cannot risk being spotted with any frequency." Rodney opens his mouth to point out that maybe she should stop stating the obvious, but she talks over him, "We have an idea to prevent such recognition."
She drops a heavy cloth bag on top of the clothes.
Rodney is eating some of the jerky that Ronon and Teyla also returned with when the others start slumping their way back into the common room. Rodney is so startled by Ronon that he completely ignores the others, staring at the short, tight curls clinging close to the sides of Ronon's head. His hair is lighter than Rodney had realized. Without his dreads or his beard, he is hardly recognizable.
Ronon rubs a self conscious hand up over his head when he spots Rodney staring, drops down beside him and snags one of the hunks of jerky. Rodney clears his throat, "So." Ronon only grunts back and Rodney drops the subject. He turns his attention forcibly towards Teyla and Elizabeth. They're hesitantly touching their own hair, but Rodney doesn't see what their concern is.
Their changes are not quite as glaring as Ronon's. Teyla's hair, darkened to a black deeper than Sheppard's, still hangs around her shoulders, and while Elizabeth's hair is so blond it's almost glowing. Rodney is mostly distracted by her still dark eyebrows. John is standing in the back, looking belligerent and not actually different at all.
Rodney motions to him with his jerky, "Where is this promised buzz cut of yours?"
John flashes him a sour look, arms crossed tightly over his chest, "We decided that I'd go your route." Rodney's route is wearing a hood every time they go off world, since they had all realized pretty damn quickly that there really wasn't anything suitably dramatic they could do with his hair.
Rodney nods, not truly surprised that John couldn't bring himself to part with his hair. He points out, "This isn't actually going to fool anyone up close, you realize that? It didn't work for the Black Cat either and she even had a mask." That gets him three confused looks and a crooked smile from John.
John shrugs, "It's the best that we can do right now." And that settles it.
And just like that they're back to having nothing to do again. Rodney thinks that it might be a side effect of always having down time after their missions on Atlantis for so many years. They're giving themselves time to heal even though they aren't hurt, and it isn't working out so well.
The others are crawling up the walls by the end of the second day. Rodney takes to avoiding them and their constant arguing. Now that he knows for sure that the facility has power, it's just a matter of figuring out how to get juice going to the systems that need it. Rodney throws himself into the work.
It's not until John comes to find him, bearing another cup of the not-coffee, that Rodney realizes just how much time is passing around him while he works. John hands the not-coffee over, then shoves his hands into his pockets and asks, "So where are you sleeping?"
Rodney blinks at him, turning the words over and trying to make them make some kind of sense. When they don't, he shrugs, "In the common room?"
John frowns, "What about the last two nights?" Rodney tries to decide whether or not it's creepy that John is worrying about where he sleeps. Seeing as John always gets a little overprotective when they're off world, Rodney goes with 'not'.
"I don't—" he pauses, stopping himself and leaning away from the console that he'd been working on, "It's been two days since Ronon and Teyla came back?" John gives him an odd look before nodding. Rodney scowls, searching his mind for any sign of exhaustion and coming up lacking. It's possibly the best news he's ever heard. He flashes John a grin, "I'm not tired."
For a long moment John just looks at him, before apparently deciding that he doesn't feel like decoding Rodney's gibberish. John reaches out, rubbing the bloodstained sleeve of Rodney's shirt between his fingers with a sharp look.
Rodney shrugs, "A finger. It grew back on." He lifts up his hand to demonstrate. His index finger works as well as it ever did. There's not even a seam around the knuckle where a fire shield had slammed closed with surprising force and chopped the digit off.
John makes a face, "That's disgusting."
"I'd call it useful, myself." It's so much easier to work when he doesn't have to worry about causing irrevocable harm to himself. Without the safety protocols that he's always followed, he can work much faster. Though he is willing to admit that having to hold his finger in place as the tendons and skin grew back had been kind of disturbing. It was the sounds that got to him.
John shakes his head, sharp, like he's trying to dislodge the image, saying, "Well, you know, just pop down every now and then to let us know you're alive, okay?" Rodney bobs his head agreeably and John takes the empty not-coffee cup with him when he leaves.
At first, Rodney doesn't really intend to follow through, but someone knows his weakness because they start cooking something that smells delicious. Rodney finds himself drawn across the complex to the common room, hungrier than he thinks he should be.
Ronon is sitting over a fire when Rodney steps into the room. Rodney isn't sure whether to be relieved that they're not letting Teyla cook or upset about the fact that, left to their own devices, his teammates have knocked a hole in the ceiling. He settles for upset, stomps over to John and points at the sunshine beating down through the hole, "What is that?"
John flashes him a tight smile, "The sun?"
Before Rodney can rail against the utter stupidity of punching a hole in the roof of the room some of them are apparently still sleeping in, Ronon interrupts to tell them to get their asses in line to eat.
Rodney exerts a bit more effort to keep track of what the others are doing, if only to stop them from knocking more holes in the building. Usually, being around them for longer than a few minutes is too disturbing to deal with, though, so he limits his exposure.
John and Ronon can't be in the same room with each other without picking fights. John will start pacing and Ronon will reach out to shove him and the next second they're wrestling, snapping and rolling around like overgrown puppies. Rodney watches Ronon break John's arm, the pair staring at each other with unreadable looks as the bone heals, and has to leave the room.
Elizabeth keeps to herself almost as much as Rodney does, but he happens upon her sometimes in his slow circuit through the abandoned base, salvaging what he can. He finds her with a knife once, her hands wrapped around the base, the blade buried in her gut. She pulls it out slowly, while Rodney is still frozen in the doorway of the room he found her in. He watches her draw patterns through her blood on the blade as the gash in her stomach stitches itself up. Rodney decides that he can check that room out much later.
Teyla is the only other one of them who doesn't seem sickly fascinated with the new things her body can do. Rodney finds that she keeps him company more and more often, always checking the room for any of the others before she joins him. When John shows up, which is as inevitable as the tide changing, she always disappears.
Rodney thinks about asking her why the others are the way they are, but then she makes a face when he accidentally lays his hand on an overheating power couplet and burns the skin off his palm. He wonders if she thinks he's as crazy as they are, intentionally doing damage to their bodies just to see if they'll heal. Maybe he is.
In any case, they go through their clothes frighteningly quickly, leaving them caked in blood and gore, torn beyond use. Rodney wanders down to the common room to strip off his last shirt. The front is drenched in blood from when one of the machines he had been working on had come apart. It had been spinning at several thousand RPMs when it malfunctioned, and had driven a six inch spike of metal through his shoulder. Rodney had been forced to pull it out himself, watching his skin trying to grow around it.
John is sitting beside the fire when Rodney enters the room. Rodney has a feeling they keep it burning all the time, though he doesn't understand their motivation. As he watches, John feeds another log into the flame and Rodney tosses his ruined shirt on top, watching the fire curl up around the fabric. John speaks without looking at him, "Ronon is getting antsy."
Rodney snorts, because that's quite possibly the understatement of the century. John continues as though Rodney hadn't made a sound, "I think we'll look for some work when we go out for more supplies."
Rodney says, "Okay," because he isn't sure what else is expected of him.
Rodney is doubtful at first that even going off world to find something to do will be able to calm Ronon down. He's been a bundle of anger since they found out what they were, and Rodney doesn't see how doing farm work or whatever they're doing to bring back food, clothing and supplies is going to help. But he's wrong.
Ronon's moods settle down after every trip he, Teyla, and John make through the 'gate. Rodney even catches the big man smiling a time or two. John and Teyla seem to enjoy the trips less. None of the three speak much about what they do. Rodney can't say that he spends very much time fishing for details.
Elizabeth slides in to take Ronon's place as the discontent one. She's quiet and surly at the meals they share, her expression always distracted, eyes staring somewhere far away. Rodney doesn't blame her. There's nothing for her here, not like there is for him, not like John, Teyla, and Ronon are making for themselves.
The only time Rodney sees her focus on the here and now, on the decrepit base that he is slowly starting to repair, is when Ronon brings her things from off-world. Rodney isn't sure what the big deal is with the fruits or the little beads, but they make Elizabeth smile sadly. It's almost worse than the blank expression she usually wears.
Rodney shoves everyone else's bizarre behavior to the side and concentrates on working. Circuits and electricity still have the same rules, mathematics still follows the same principles he learned in his youth, they still make sense, and he throws himself completely into that.
It's slow work and he leaves behind more blood than sweat for each successfully completed project. Just getting electric lighting to work in the majority of the base is paid for with three electrocutions and the abrupt amputation of his left hand. Trying to get running water working again actually results in drowning. Rodney isn't sure if he would have survived that one or not if John hadn't found him and broken the holding tank. As it was, the damage had set Rodney back days.
Rodney really doesn't have half the tools he needs, so he starts sending requests with John, for raw supplies and the tools he needs to install them. John always brings what he needs back within a few days, and that's how time passes. Days falling into weeks falling into a month falling into two while they try to find their new place in the galaxy.
Rodney is pulling himself off the pipe he had impaled himself on when Elizabeth starts yelling. He can hear John raising his voice back, irritation and frustration audible even if the exact words aren't, and he pushes to his feet. Blood is running down his stomach, soaking his pants, and he flattens his hand over the wound, stumbling out into the hall. John, Ronon, and Teyla hadn't been due back for another day, so worry makes Rodney keep moving, even as dizziness beats at him.
He finds the others in the common room, the hole in the ceiling now covered by a retractable dome that Rodney had fallen and broken his left leg installing. John and Elizabeth are glaring at each other, one of Elizabeth's hands right up in John's face, both of their expressions tight and upset. John is dripping blood. Rodney feels the bottom drop out of his stomach.
Rodney starts to cross towards them and Teyla catches his arm. Her hand is bloody, her palm squishes against his skin and Rodney turns to look at her. Her hair is hanging in bloody strands around her face, and, as he watches, one of her bloodied eyes clears. Rodney opens his mouth to demand an explanation for what's going on and Elizabeth shouts, "This is not who we are, Sheppard!"
John sneers back at her, "Really? Because I still feel like me. Ronon, you feel like someone else? Teyla?"
Teyla is still looking at Rodney when she speaks, "I feel that we should not be fighting amongst ourselves." Her tone is sharp and chiding and John jerks his eyes away from Elizabeth to look at her, shoulders dropping. For a long moment, John just stares at Teyla, then he shakes his head, taking a deliberate step away from Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, who doesn't seem as inclined to let the argument die, says, "This is what you've been doing? Killing people? For money? There's a name for that kind of behavior you know." Each word is laced with scorn, her expression twisting up into something sharp and angry.
John shrugs, seeming to have regained a measure of his calm, "Relax, they all deserved it."
Disbelief drenches Elizabeth's expression, "You can't just decide that. John, we can't do this." The anger has drained out of her voice, leaving behind upset and confusion in its wake. Rodney is temporarily distracted from the argument when Teyla shudders beside him, raising a hand to her mouth to spit up some bullets.
When Rodney looks back up, John is saying, "Why not?" Elizabeth boggles at him, opening and closing her mouth. John continues into the silence, "You going to tell me the Genii don't deserve what we did to them? You going to tell me that it would be better if we didn't take out the Wraith worshippers on H10-09M? We're doing the galaxy a service and if they want to pay us to do it then I'm not seeing the problem."
Elizabeth is shaking her head before he finishes speaking, a hand up over her mouth and a horrified look on her face. She says, her voice softer, almost a whisper, "I won't be any part of this insanity," before she turns on her heel and marches out of the room. She brushes past Rodney on her way out the door and he tries to catch her arm but she twists away from him.
Teyla sighs, heavy and tired, says, "I will speak with her."
Ronon waves her off, finally moving from where he had been leaning against the wall. "I got it." He's every bit as bloody as John and Teyla, the white shirt he'd left the base wearing hanging in crimson strips over his chest. He follows Elizabeth out and Rodney turns his attention back to gaping at John and Teyla.
Rodney finally manages, "What the hell is going on?"
John shrugs, peeling off his bloody shirt and tossing it onto the fire. There's a wound on his chest that isn't quite healed, a long jagged cut from his belly button up to his collar bone. When John speaks he sounds distracted and he's staring into the flames, "Things are different now."
Rodney isn't sure what to do with this situation. He flounders for a moment before settling on the one thing that he knows is important, "Did you get the tempered steel I needed? And the copper wire?" They did. Rodney figures that, if nothing else, that quantifies the mission as a success.
Rodney doesn't figure out what Ronon said to Elizabeth, but she sticks around, though she avoids John like he's carrying the plague. Rodney knows that this is technically a bad thing, but he's so grateful to be not hearing them argue all the time that he doesn't really care.
John, Teyla, and Ronon keep going on their little missions, coming back bloody more often than not. Rodney has the feeling that they're leaving him behind more as a baby sitter than for the repairs. He tries to be upset about that, but, really, even if he can heal from it, getting bullet holes punched in his body is something he'd rather avoid. Besides, he's finally getting somewhere with the base's systems.
John finds Rodney working on the heating system one night, startling Rodney into sticking his hand down into the fan blades. Rodney pulls away from the machine, jerking his mangled hand up to his chest and turning to glare at John, sure he'd be cursing if he could find the breath for it around the pain.
John looks remorseful, which ruins some of Rodney's anger. John reaches for him and Rodney tries to hunch his shoulders over his injured hand but John catches at his arms, holding him in place. Rodney rolls his eyes, consents to letting John take his hand, John's fingers poking at the cracked white of Rodney's bones, the vein in the middle of Rodney's palm that is beating and jerking in the open air. John hisses, "Shit, I'm sorry," even as Rodney's thumb straightens itself with a series of snaps and pops.
Rodney bites his lip, hard enough to bleed, as his knuckles rebuild, tendons sliding over bones and soft wet flesh. His voice comes out squeaky, "Something you wanted? Or are you just crippling me for shits and giggles now?"
John looks up to his face, wincing as the skin grows back over Rodney's middle finger with a slurping sound. John says, "Maybe I should come back later."
Rodney rolls his eyes, "So that you can get my other hand? Spit it out." John still looks worried and Rodney looks down so he doesn't have to look at the other man anymore. His palm is knitting back up, skin sealing together along the seams, leaving behind pink, new flesh.
The new skin is always highly sensitive and this time is no exception. Rodney can feel each whorl of John's fingertips against his skin, he can feel the pound of John's pulse, he can feel each callus. He really wishes John would let go of his hand, but instead John gives it a squeeze and holds on.
John says, "We've got a job. For you, I mean. You'll never guess what we found."
What they found turns out to be an entire civilization that lives in warships out among the stars. At least that's what the pilot of the refitted Ancient warship who John met in a bar off-world claims. Ronon says that the man was telling the truth. No one argues when Ronon tells them things like that.
Unfortunately, for a race that lives among all that technology, they're apparently not very good at fixing it. According to John's pilot friend, his ship is falling apart. He had been scouting planets to drop his crew off on, worried that the life support or engines would fail before he managed to get the people who made their life on his ship somewhere safe.
John had been more than ready to intimate that he knew a guy who might be able to help with the ship repair problems and had been offered a more than fair payment for Rodney's time. All of which has resulted in Rodney going through the 'gate for the first time in nearly three weeks, wondering what horrible thing would mutilate him first.
He hadn't even thought about refusing, not even when the pilot had pointed out that they couldn't support more extra crew than the genius mechanic. John would be flying by the Ancient ship—dead in the water in the time it had taken John to go and get Rodney—every other day to make sure nothing had gone wrong. And Rodney is more than confident in the fact that he is now pretty much impossible to kill. Besides, there was no way he was turning down the chance to get his hands on Ancient tech after being stuck in the Bronze Age for the last small eternity.
John drops Rodney off by the shuttle of the pilot of the Ancient ship with a smile and a wave. Rodney absently waves back, barely hearing the pilot babble as he flies up to his ship. By the time they step onto the ship, Rodney is almost vibrating with excitement.
Unfortunately, that rapidly changes to disgust as he tries to decide exactly what the people living on the ship had managed to do to the beautiful technology in their care. Rodney rubs his hands together in anticipation, feeling a smile splitting his face.
Rodney spends the first three days yelling at anyone who dares come within a dozen feet of him. This is pretty much everyone, because the crew is crammed into the ship like sardines. The more time that goes by, the more Rodney feels that this is a suitable comparison, because in addition to smelling like rotten fish, the crew also has the intelligence of a particularly stupid salmon.
The ship is in horrible shape. Half the walls are torn open, Wraith technology haphazardly melded to the Ancient, along with some truly disgusting additions of the human's tech. Bundles of thick black wires run everywhere, never marked with what they connect to or what their purpose is. It's a complete clusterfuck.
Rodney loves it.
Puzzles have always fascinated him, and this is like the largest jigsaw puzzle imaginable. He's gathering up pieces, looking for the edges and becoming aware that not only are all the pieces the same color and shaped exactly the same, half of them have been replaced with construction paper cut outs that don't fit.
The life support system is in danger of failing, so gummed up Rodney isn't sure how it's still working at all. He throws himself at that first, for the obvious reasons. He can't exactly turn it off to repair it, and all the moving parts pretty much guarantee that he's going to be losing blood and possibly fingers. Oddly, that doesn't bother him anymore. But he's pretty sure that his hosts wouldn't take well to it.
It doesn't really matter what they are, oddities in the Pegasus galaxy get blamed on the Wraith. Rodney has absolutely no desire to be tossed out of an airlock because they think he's a Wraith worshipper, and so for the first time in three months he has to concentrate on not hurting himself.
He's forgotten how. Rodney finds himself reaching into a burning hot power port to tweak a control, catching himself right as a crew member walks by. He wedges himself under three hundred pounds of spinning metal and grease and only remembers that if it falls on him he's going to have a hard time explaining why his chest isn't staying caved in when someone trips over his legs.
It's frustrating as hell. The work seems to go so much slower when he can't just nudge the razor sharp fan blades into position or grab the wire to see whether or not it's live. Still, he manages. He cuts himself a few times, but he's pretty sure the wounds heal before anyone has a chance to notice that they're there.
Rodney finally steps away from the main life support system, now humming pleasantly instead of imitating the dying wheeze of a bull moose. He's sweating, and he drags his sleeve across his forehead, grimacing at the smell of grease that's stuck to the fabric and his skin. He's planning to tackle the artificial gravity next, because it's no fun working when your tools keep floating away.
Rodney takes another step back and is interrupted by a soft voice, "Don't you ever sleep?"
Rodney jerks, not sure what he expects, and is surprised when what he finds is a child. The girl—or maybe it's a boy, he isn't one hundred percent sure—is leaning against the wall beside him, tuffs of dirty blond hair sticking out from beneath the knit hat pulled low over her ears. She's smeared with every bit as much grease as Rodney is, gray eyes big and curious. Rodney asks, "What?"
"You've been working three days. I've been watching. You eat and you use the head and then you come back. Don't you got to sleep?"
"Sleep." Rodney tries to remember when the last time he slept even was. He has a vague memory of being curled up on his sleeping roll with John's hand on his stomach. "Of course I sleep. Everyone sleeps. What are you doing here?"
The girl shrugs, "Watching you. You're smart." Rodney stares at her and she holds his gaze, "You want me to show you where you can sleep? You've gotta be tired. Three days is a long time to be awake." She doesn't wait for him to answer before kneeling and gathering up one of the tool belts that Rodney had been provided with, slinging it over her shoulder and turning to pick her way across the wires littering the floor.
Rodney stares at her before grabbing the other tool belt and hurrying after her. He doesn't think losing his tools would go over very well. He catches her within steps, "Didn't your parents ever tell you not to talk to strangers?"
She looks up at him, "My parents are dead." She doesn't sound particularly upset about it, just like she's stating a fact. She takes a turn, heading down one of the corridors that hadn't been included in Rodney's tour, and he follows, squeezing past another crew member heading in the opposite direction.
He says, because he's picked up the vague idea somewhere along the way that there are some pains you're supposed to share, "Mine, too." He doesn't add that his father died of a heart attack and his mother of cancer while this girl's were probably eaten by Wraith. They're still every bit as dead.
She nods her head, seemingly content with that, leading him down a ladder that's hanging from a hole someone carved in the floor. He follows her to what he assumes must be one of the guest quarters, which she waves open. She motions him in and then lingers in the doorway, "What're you gonna work on tomorrow?"
Rodney pauses, really looks at her. Despite the crowded conditions, she's the first person on the ship that's talked to him. Mostly he figures that's because he spent so much time yelling. That tends to warn people off. Still, "Your artificial gravity system is probably in as poor repair as the rest of this junker."
She bobs her head, doesn't look offended the way Rodney had been expecting. She says, "I'm Alize." Rodney blinks at her, wondering if he's supposed to congratulate her for remembering her own name, and she prompts, "Who're you?"
Alize shows up almost immediately after Rodney makes his way to the gravity well. She looks every bit as dirty as she had the previous night, all grubby hands and tangled hair. She sets herself up beside Rodney and proceeds to frustrate the shit out of him by trying to hand him tools he's already reaching for himself.
Rodney orders her away and she blinks up at him and stays put. Rodney glares at her, she stares back and then slaps the wrench he had been looking for down onto his palm with a defiant tilt to her chin. She offers, "I learn fast," by way of explanation. Rodney tells himself it has nothing to do with how much of himself he sees in her when he heaves a sigh and stops protesting.
She does learn fast. Or, well, at least she doesn't appear to be completely useless. And it's easier to remember not to do the things that will end up chopping his arms off or burning fifty percent of his skin to a crisp when he knows that there's someone standing right by his elbow. Besides, she reminds him when he's supposed to be sleeping, which is just as well.
Alize becomes Rodney's shadow. She follows him around the ship, starts tagging along to his meals and showing up at his door in the morning before he decides that he's spent enough time working on equations in the notebook he brought with him while pretending to sleep.
Rodney figured he'd probably be annoyed by her presence, but she seems far more interested in learning than anything else. It makes her easier to deal with, because the one thing that Rodney has always been good at is teaching people. Especially people who actually want to learn and are willing to pay attention to what he's telling them.
She's been following him for two weeks the first time she says anything that doesn't correlate directly to either the repairs Rodney's working on or their next meal. Rodney is trying to repair the air scrubbers in the ship's lower levels because the strain they're putting on the other life support systems is ruining the work he's already done. Alize shifts her hold on the flashlight and asks, "What ship do you come from?"
Rodney has solder in one hand and a blow torch in the other, squinting to see what he's doing in the poor light. He's holding the system he's working on up to the wall with his body, the weight of it digging into his hips and the tops of his thighs. In the back of his head he's keeping track of how long they can stay down here in the thinner oxygen before it becomes dangerous. His mouth answers on auto-pilot, "I don't. Hold that steady, damnit."
The beam steadies, shining down on the seam that Rodney is trying to repair. They lapse into silence and Rodney doesn't think any more about the question. He has roughly a billion more important things to worry about, and it slips his mind completely until she pokes him in the shoulder while they're eating a few hours later.
She says, "So you're from space? I didn't think people could live in space."
Rodney boggles across at her. She looks more comfortable sitting at the short, narrow table than he feels. She also seems to be actually enjoying the thin gruel that they'd been served with a side order of purple fungus. Rodney is just glad that he doesn't have to worry about having some kind of allergic reaction to the disgusting food anymore. He says, "You live in space."
That gets him an eye roll. He can't remember if she used to roll her eyes or if that's something she's picked up from spending all of her time dogging his steps, "No. I live on a ship. You said you didn't." She cuts a look to the side, at the family that has settled down onto the bench beside them. "Maybe we should talk later."
Rodney snorts, talking a big bite of his possibly poisonous meal, "You brought it up."
She just glares at him, and Rodney wonders how exactly he got saddled with such an irritating side kick.
Alize doesn't bring it up again until they're back in the lower levels, making sure the air scrubbers are still working and that the power couplings Rodney rigged together are holding up. She steps around a puddle of what's either coolant or a tiny splotch of primordial soup and says, "Where do you live, then? If it's not on a ship or in space."
Rodney casts her an incredulous look, "I live on a planet. You know, big, round, lots of trees and lakes and sky." And for some reason that's what it takes to shut her up. Finally.
Not that the silence lasts. She still asks never ending questions about what he's doing, but now breaks up the monotony of that by demanding constant explanations for what life is like on a planet. Weather fascinates her and she listens with rapt attention while Rodney tries to explain how high and low pressure systems work. Rain is something she can't even imagine, the sponge baths that her people have been taking since most of their plumbing system went on the fritz a century ago not even giving her the parallel that a shower might have.
The idea that a star can actually provide warmth is likewise foreign to her. Plants that grow bigger than the tiny, shriveled shrubs in their greenhouse are completely unheard of, and Rodney thinks she wants to call him a liar, though she holds her tongue. Animals of any kind are nothing she understands, except for rats which apparently make it even onto ships that never touch earth. Rodney isn't sure how that one works.
She starts making lists of the things she wants to see or wants explanations for, reading them to Rodney as he works. Half the questions make no coherent sense to him. She wants to know why cats don't have long hair like people, why grass is green, why some flowers come in dozens of different shades. Rodney starts to wonder why she's so very fascinated with it all.
That's about when she starts drawing pictures. Rodney isn't sure what to do with them, the images she draws, trying to give shapes to the words Rodney gives her. The trees don't look very much like actual trees, all long trunks and twisting branches with leaves sticking out in random places. The grass looks more like carpet, soft and curly. The cats—which she seems particularly hung up on—look like nothing so much as Gremlins. The creatures, not the car.
Rodney expects her to get upset when he points out the flaws, but she just nods, grim faced, and pulls out more empty pages and a charcoal pencil. She still holds the flashlight for him when he asks, but she spends hours trying to create things she's never seen. Rodney doesn't understand the fascination, but seeing as she's actually quieter now, he isn't complaining.
Of course, she seems to expect him to want the pictures and leaves them with him. Rodney isn't sure what to do with them. Mostly they get shoved under the hard, flat pillow in his tiny bunk. She manages to get the trees right after a few tries and it only takes a few repeated explanations before she grasps that grass typically doesn't curl. Cats remain elusive.
John seems amused when Rodney explains the situation to him in the ten minute window they have every two days to exchange news. Rodney babbles about Alize and her oddities because it's easier than making himself ask if Elizabeth is still around, if the others are okay, if they're still getting shot at for a living. He figures John's interest in what Rodney is fixing is the same thing.
Three weeks into Rodney's stay, John lingers, their ten minutes passing and dragging out to fifteen, twenty. John isn't meeting Rodney's eyes over the view screen and they've both trailed off, the information that they usually cram into each visit already hanging in the space between them.
John finally sighs, slumping back into his chair and looking somewhere over Rodney's shoulder when he whines, "Are you going to be done soon?"
Rodney blinks at him, running a quick inventory of completed projects and those left to be done through his mind and settling on, "Another month, on the outside. Maybe three weeks. Is something wrong?" Because John looks uneasy, not hurt or upset but not…happy.
John shrugs, "No. No, everything's fine. Teyla was just asking when you were coming back. She thinks the rest of us are crazy." Rodney opens his mouth to point out that the rest of them are crazy, but John talks over him, "See you in two days," before breaking the connection and leaving Rodney staring at a blank screen.
Rodney shakes his head, stepping out into the hallway to find Alize waiting for him. She's sitting, hunched over her lap, scribbling something onto the gray paper she has. Rodney rolls his eyes and pushes at the side of her head to get her attention. She springs to her feet, following him down the hall and asking after a moment, "Are you going away soon?"
Rodney wonders how many more people are going to ask him about his travel plans, "Soon is a very relative term." He expects her to prod for more information, but instead she just drops her gaze to the floor, her mouth tightening up and twisting down in the corners. Rodney doesn't ask.
The picture she leaves with him that night is a house, of a style that Rodney has always associated with children much younger than she is. It has two lines for the walls, a ninety degree angle for the roof, a rectangular door and square windows. It's a rough approximation of what Rodney had described to her, and he stares at it for a long time, telling himself that the two rough figures she has sketched in off to the side by some more of her rapidly improving trees are not representations of himself and her. He puts the picture on the bottom of his stack and doesn't sleep.
Rodney is pretty sure that he's not going to be allowed to keep any kid that he brings home. Besides, smack in the middle of a bunch of violent mutants is no place for a child to grow up. Trying to convince Alize that he's a horrible person who she should want nothing to do with is harder than he had anticipated.
Alize has already become acclimated to his yelling, his short temper, and his scorn for everything her people do, from their hygiene to their mechanical skills. She seems unaffected when he starts trying to make her go away. And then she has to go and ruin his resolve completely by managing to draw something that looks almost perfectly like Garfield.
Rodney starts planning his arguments for when John and Elizabeth demand to know why he's dragging an extra passenger along.
It's one more thing he really doesn't have time to think about, not with all the systems that are still teetering on the edge of failing and killing them all. Not with his constant worry that he'll go back and find Elizabeth gone, or find that the others managed to get into something they couldn't get out of even with the nanites. It's just as well that he doesn't sleep, because he has no time for it.
Rodney keeps telling himself to bring the situation up to John, but every time he tries the words get lost. Rodney doesn't even like the kid. She's frustrating and she talks too much and her art sucks. But she doesn't want to be here and Rodney can't bring himself to consider just leaving her here alone when he's done his work.
He spends a week turning the problem over and over in his head, trying to find the solution and growing more and more frustrated with himself when it keeps evading him. He feels like the gears inside his skull are grinding together, moving too fast under too much strain for too long, and for the first time in months Rodney considers that maybe what he needs is a good night's sleep.
Rodney falls asleep face down in his bunk, one arm hanging off the side, the pictures that Alize has drawn crinkling each time he shifts. He dreams about the rain.
Rodney wakes up to the smell of grease and smoke. This isn't exactly new, the heating units in the ship run rough and there are parts of the elements that burn where Rodney hasn't been able to repair yet. The grease has become such a familiar odor that it would actually be more bizarre to wake up and not smell it. It's nothing that should flip all the bad-wrong-panic switches in Rodney's brain. It does anyway.
Rodney rolls off the bunk, falls to the hard floor and pushes himself to his feet. The ship is too quiet, the hum from all the constantly running systems is missing something and there's a faint whine right on the edge of Rodney's hearing. The air is thick. Thick and stale and Rodney feels all the hair on his arms stand up. He throws himself out the door, eyes scanning the corridor for the source of the problem.
The crew members standing around the hall give him odd looks, but Rodney ignores them. Something is burning. The air is a few degrees hotter than it should be in the carefully environmentally controlled ship. The air is thick, almost muggy, and the ozone burn of it in the back of Rodney's throat is bitter.
The nearest control screen is two levels up, so Rodney throws himself towards the nearest ladder. A man is climbing down when Rodney reaches it and Rodney grabs the man's ankle and knee and yanks him off. Cursing follows Rodney when he pulls himself up and he ignores it, barely hearing it anyway over the thunder of his heart.
Rodney is just pulling his feet out of the hole, twisting his head as he tries to remember where the ladder up to the next level is, when the wave of heat hits with enough force to knock him forward. Rodney catches himself on his hands, the whump of sound from the flames hitting his ears as, below him, orange fire rushes through the hallway he had just been in.
Flames lick up out of the opening and Rodney curses, grabbing for the make-shift hatch and slamming it closed, ignoring the screams from below. There's nothing he can do for them, those people still alive when the fire consumed them. Rodney wastes the time between one breath and the next to hope that Alize wasn't down there. That's all he can spare.
The floors are hot against his bare feet as he runs towards where he thinks the closest ladder is. Other people have realized that there's something wrong now, they're flooding out into the hallway, getting in his way. Rodney pushes and shoves and elbows when the situation calls for it, biting out curses and shouting, trying to get them to move.
The panic is thick in the air, mingling with smoke and burnt flesh and electricity. Rodney shoves a man into the wall, hard, reaching past him and catching the ladder, hauling himself out of the press of bodies and the stench of their fear. Unfortunately, the next level up is every bit as crowded.
People are grabbing at him, fingers catching in his shirt and against his skin. Rodney doesn't think it has anything to do with him personally. They're just reaching out to whoever is closest, trying to steady themselves against the nightmare they're facing. Rodney just doesn't have time to comfort them. And he'd be bad at it anyway.
Rodney forces his way through them, puts his shoulder down and just pushes. Bull headed determination always works when Rodney really needs it and he needs it now. He makes progress through the crowd, dragging himself towards the control station.
There's a group of people gathered around it when Rodney finally reaches it, men and women shouting at each other and gesturing wildly at the screen. Rodney doesn't have time to go into the myriad things they're doing wrong. He pushes and shoves them out of the way, fending off one man who doesn't take kindly to the shoving with one arm.
The console tells him a lot, not everything he needs to know but enough that Rodney can start putting together what's going on. Rodney curses, wondering what genius decided to try to test their hyper-drive engines and how quickly it's going to take them all to die. The engines have almost overheated, blown their coolant lines and managed to destroy copious amounts of the ship surrounding them. And they haven't shut off. There's no reason for the fail safes to not be working and Rodney's gut twists because he isn't sure he can turn the engines off from here.
Around him, people are starting to scream, cry, pray. Rodney wants to wrap his hands around his ears, but he needs them, and so instead he bellows, "Shut up!" For a half second they actually do, the hall around him going still, but then they're sobbing again. Rodney grits his teeth.
The schematics for this ship aren't complete. Some of the files have degraded over the years and others have just been modified beyond recognition. There's no mention of manual controls anywhere that Rodney can find, and he curls his fingers up, wracking his brain for the solution, because there is always a solution. He just has to find it.
When he gets it, it's not nearly as foolproof as he would have liked, but it's something. Rodney curses, shoving away from the console. The Orion was built a lot like this ship. They might have come off the same production line, once upon a time. Rodney is ninety-eight percent sure that he's remembering that ship's layout properly.
He pushes and shoves his way back through the crowd, back to the hatch that leads to the lower levels. Someone grabs at him when he reaches for it, screams in his face, "No, the fire!"
Rodney shoves the woman away, snarling, "No oxygen means no fire, it died within seconds of igniting." Rodney yanks the hatch open, imagines that he can feel the rush of oxygen from this level into the one below. He doesn't feel the need to mention that he has maybe five minutes before the engine core flares again and ignites this all once more. He orders, "No one else comes down here!" And drops through the hole.
The fire burned hot but didn't last very long. Rodney wonders, looking at the charred bodies all around him, how many of them burned to death and how many asphyxiated after the fire ate all the air. He makes himself not look, makes himself focus on the problem at hand. Which is that he really doesn't want to end up like them.
The one good thing that these people have done is cut holes through everything. Rodney runs through halls, cutting across rooms that he shouldn't be able to reach, ignoring the dead strewn all around him. The temperature, already high, rises the closer he gets to the engine room, until his feet sizzle with every step.
The doors to the engine room are warped out, blackened and twisted. There are no bodies this close. The heat here must have been intense enough to destroy them. At least it makes it easier for Rodney to sprint the last few steps to the controls.
Rodney can feel the hairs on his arms curling up. His skin tingles and he wonders if the top layer is burning off only to grow back, over and over again. It's another one of those deliriously unimportant considerations that sneak up at the worst times. Rodney pushes it to the side.
Half the control pad has melted, is still bubbling on the floor, control crystals floating in the soup. Rodney grits his teeth, wonders how the entire system hasn't died yet, and freezes. Killing the engines completely is hardly the ideal solution. But it will drop them out of hyper space. And it will prevent them from blowing up.
Rodney considers, running through pros and cons, hands hovering over the controls. They've lost a lot of oxygen, but most of it should have been replaced by now, the oxygen systems that Rodney fixed had been boosted to premium efficiency. Even if they're still running short on air, the crew's size has been drastically reduced. Rodney is willing to bet that they'll have enough air for at least a week, maybe two, once he stops the engines.
The cold would be the thing to worry about, but Rodney is fairly certain that in a ship this size it would take at least four days for the temperature drop to become dangerous. He should be able to cobble something together to keep them alive by then. No problem.
Still, the thing that clenches the decision for him is that he really doesn't have another choice.
Rodney ignores the console, stepping past it to the wall, trying to remember the lay out of the power system from the Orion. The wall is burning hot now, and Rodney curses, pain threatening to cripple him as he makes himself grab the edges of the panel and pull it off. Hunks of skin stay attached to the panel when he pulls away, but Rodney ignores them. They'll grow back.
Behind the panel, the main power line is glowing, pulsing, ignoring the fact that they're all about to die. Rodney stares at it, white and pure. He takes a brief moment to be grateful that for as smart as the Ancients were, they were never very good at making their creations particularly hard to destroy.
Even knowing that in all probability he'll grow back from this, it's hard to make himself reach forward. Rodney has to close his eyes to do it, has to turn his face aside and bite his lip to keep the sounds he wants to make in his chest.
The line pulses against his hands when he grabs it, yanks it, and somewhere something cracks like thunder. It doesn't matter. Rodney's body jerks like a rag doll. It feels like his blood has been turned into pure electricity, sticking him in a moment of never ending pain before there's another crack and everything goes dark.
Rodney wonders, before his brain kicks offline, where the rain is.
Rodney wakes up on a slab. His entire body hurts, just the brush of air against his skin is agony, and Rodney feels a scream get caught in his throat. Someone, standing by his head, does scream, and Rodney can hear things crinkling when he moves.
The pain is passing quickly. Rodney pulls himself up into a sitting position, staring down at his arms, at his hands, as new skin forms under his blackened flesh. A long strip of burnt skin curls down his arm, revealing pale pink skin beyond as it peels off, falls down to the floor. Someone is still screaming, yelling words that buzz without meaning through Rodney's ears.
Rodney reaches up absently, rubbing his hand down his face. His skin just slides off, flaking down onto his lap, black and ruined. Beneath it, his cheeks are warm and smooth. Rodney is slightly surprised to find that he still has eyebrows, that his hair either wasn't burnt off or has grown back already.
Rodney's mouth tastes like ash. He grimaces, leaning over the side of the gurney that he's on. He spits down onto the floor, feeling dead cells peel off his tongue, scrapping it along his teeth to try to make sure all of the ruined flesh is gone. It's a taste that he doesn't know if he'll ever be able to get rid of.
His hearing comes back with twin pops, to a man's panicked voice, "He's not dead!"
Rodney turns to look at the man. The stranger has pressed himself into a corner, his eyes wide and terrified, his hands wrapped unsteadily around a gun. Rodney brushes the flakes of dead skin off his lap, littering the floor with his ruined cells. He decides that the man isn't going to calm down on his own, and intervenes, "Look, it's okay. It was, uh, not as bad as it looked."
The man makes a strangled sound, squeezes his eyes shut and pulls the trigger. The bullet hits Rodney in the chest and he looks dumbly down at the ugly red wound. Luckily, his clothes are already gone, so at least he isn't ruining another shirt.
Rodney can hear the gurgling in his lungs. He's dizzy, his heart pumping too fast, blood coating his stomach in seconds. Rodney scowls at the man who shot him, grits out, "Thanks a lot." And that's about when he thankfully passes out again.
Rodney wakes up tied to a chair. His neck hurts, his chin resting awkwardly against his chest, but within seconds of Rodney lifting and stretching it, the pain fades. He flexes his fingers, staring dumbly down at the thick bonds around his wrists, some kind of variant of the wires that run through every hall in the ship.
There's still blood all over the front of his body, starting to dry and flake off. It itches. Rodney scowls, shifting around in the seat though it doesn't help anything. He tries to move his legs, wondering distractedly where the pants came from, frustrated to find that his ankles are likewise restrained against the legs of the chair.
The room he's sitting in is dark, and it smells like grease and smoke, though Rodney is willing to admit that particular smell might just be stuck in his nose. It's chilly too, and a shiver runs up Rodney's spine. He wonders how long they've been drifting without power, how long he has left to get the ship working again.
Rodney clears his throat, his tongue feeling thick, "Hello?"
There's not a sound, not even a whisper in reply. Rodney scowls, pulling fruitlessly at his bonds and feeling frustration starting to bubble up in his chest. He's really, really, starting to get tired of these people. It's just not hospitable at all to shoot someone after they come back from the dead after saving you and your family from fiery death.
When the door finally opens, the light that floods in burns Rodney's eyes and he turns his face to the side, wincing. The air that follows the light is warmer, so apparently it's just the room that they're keeping him in that's freezing, not the whole ship. Rodney isn't sure whether that's good news or not.
Someone shouts from the doorway, "Any funny business and we'll shoot you."
Rodney rolls his eyes, "Shoot me and you'll get your 'funny business'." He squints at the figures standing in the doorway. His eyes are watering in the corners, but he thinks there are three of them, either men or large women. He clears his throat, "I can explain, but really, first you should let me fix the ship before we all die."
There's some muffled whispering amongst the people in his doorway. Rodney shifts, impatient and uncomfortable and so hungry that it hurts. His body has been burnt, inside and out, and shot in the last day. He needs some serious calories and his stomach is intent upon letting him know it. He scowls, continuing, "Look, I'm sure this is very scary for you, but right now I think the cold hard void of space waiting to crush you all is more threatening than me."
One of the figures in the doorway steps into the room. Rodney wiggles his fingers hopefully, bouncing in the seat. The man turns, says scornfully back to his partners, "He doesn't look like anything special to me."
Irritation floods Rodney's gut, colors his voice, "Excuse me? And who are you? Oh, wait, you're the man who's condemning every person on this ship to a slow, painful death while you keep me locked in this tiny room. That is special. Too bad no one will be alive to remember."
The man standing over him says, "He talks a lot." Being ignored has always pissed Rodney off. He snarls at the man whose face is still hidden in shadows and then jerks back when the light flooding into the corridor catches on the metal barrel of a gun.
Rodney says, "Wait, look, you really don't have to—"
The man shoots Rodney in the shoulder. The pain hits like a sledgehammer, burns like fire. Rodney screams, he dares anyone not to when they're shot, manages to choke it off to a series of wet hiccups after a few moments. His fingers are twisting and jerking in their bonds, blood running hot down his arm and chest.
Rodney tips his head back, trying to breathe through the pain. He can taste blood in the back of his throat, but can't tell if it's from biting his tongue or if he's managed to puncture a lung again. The tingle, spreading up from the inside of his chest, makes him feel weak with relief. Rodney sobs out a shaky breath, biting at his lips to keep the pained whimpers inside as his skin seals off.
The man standing over him says, "Huh. Looks like you were right for once, boys." Rodney can feel the man leaning over him, the press of unfamiliar fingers against his skin, pushing against the healing wound in his shoulder. "Why don't you tell us how this works, stranger?"
Rodney smiles, helplessly, "Well, you see, I was built as an exact copy of another man by a race of hyper intelligent computer chips who had daddy issues with the Ancestors, who thought that by studying me they'd find their way to grace."
Rodney hardly has time to register the press of the barrel of the gun against his knee and then there's nothing but pain. Rodney's shoulders jerk forward, his body curling up as best it can, his leg nothing but a mess of agony. The man hisses in his ear, "I don't play games."
Talking is impossible for a long moment, thought is impossible. When Rodney can, he looks up, glares into the eyes of the man standing over him and spits, "Also? I'm going to need some food. A lot of food, actually. The computer chips don't work so well without fuel. I'd like something that didn't taste like refuse, but I understand that you're working under certain limitations here."
The man shoots his other knee.
The thing about the truth is that some people just won't believe it no matter how many times you give it to them. Rodney would lie, but he's never been any good at that. Everything shows on his face, and Rodney lacks the type of creativity for it, anyway. So he just keeps telling them the truth. They keep shooting him.
On the plus side, which is admittedly kind of thin, Rodney learns how long it takes bullets to work through from certain parts of his body to his gut to his mouth. Stomach wounds take the least, sometimes as little as two hours. Knees take much, much, longer.
They do bring him food, finally, though mostly because his wounds start healing sluggishly and then not at all. There's only so much the nanites can do, and without any raw materials they flounder. Rodney pictures them as tiny specks swimming through his blood, panicking because they can't perform their purpose in life because someone forgot to order them the parts they needed.
After his captors realize that the bullet holes they keep punching in him aren't healing anymore, they bring him trays of food. It becomes a regular thing. Rodney appreciates it, even if he's pretty sure they're not doing it as a favor to him. Sometimes the silver lining is more than a little tarnished.
His captors—formerly employers, and Rodney hates it when people make that shift—come and go. Rodney assumes that they must have to sleep, or maybe they just get bored. In a way, it's worse when they leave him alone, in the cold dark room where he has nothing to think about but the fact that he's slowly running out of oxygen and heat.
He tries to sleep sometimes, but never manages it. He's not exactly comfortable, and the idea of waking up to find a gun pressed up against the side of his head is horrible enough to keep him awake. Besides, he doesn't want to know what horrors his dreams would decide to show him.
Rodney comforts himself with knowing that sooner or later John and the others will have to find him. He doesn't think that the Ancient ship was in hyperspace for more than a few minutes, a half an hour at most. They'll find him. All he has to do is sit here and let the nanites keep him alive. As long as the cold of space doesn't creep in and kill him first. Rodney is pretty sure that even the nanites wouldn't be able to fix him from that.
Rodney shifts in his chair, wincing at the bite of the cords into his wrists. There's still a lazy trail of blood running down from his collarbone, from the parting shot they left him with. It itches and the cold clings to it, making his skin feel frozen as it snakes down his chest.
When the door opens, Rodney makes himself raise his head. It seems a little early for them to be coming back, but they might just be bringing him food. He never thought he'd look forward to the gruel that they serve, but then, there're a lot of things in Rodney's life that he had never thought would happen that keep on happening regardless.
He squints at the light, and then there's a rush of soft footsteps across to him. Rodney blinks, "Alize?"
She slaps her hand over his mouth, hisses out a demand for silence and takes her hand away. Rodney tries to keep his voice low, "What took you so long?" She shushes him again. He can feel her small fingers working at his bonds, pulling and tugging. Rodney grits out, "Faster is better," and she pinches him, hard in the shoulder.
She says, pulling one of his arms free, "This is where you're supposed to say thank you."
Rodney scowls, using his freed hand to scramble at the bonds around his other arm, "I'll say thank you when we're not in imminent danger of dying in about a dozen different ways. Actually, I probably won't. Because by that point I will have saved your life about a half dozen times over. You're welcome."
Rodney can't see Alize rolling her eyes, but that doesn't stop him from knowing she's doing it.
There's no guard on Rodney's door, which he finds both insulting and lucky. Rodney scrubs at his arms and chest, trying to rub the dried blood off. He says, "Okay, okay. Engine. We need to get to the engine. The secondary systems. I should be able to feed enough power into them to keep us alive without overloading the circuits."
He's mumbling to himself but Alize bobs her head along with his words, trailing after him as he stomps down the hall. There's something depressing about how empty the halls are, and that's all it takes to make it obvious how many died in the fire. The air still smells like ash and burnt hair.
Rodney twists his head over his shoulder to look at Alize, "Are any of the levels still closed? What have they been doing?"
Alize makes a face at him, "I want to go with you." Rodney blinks at her, tracking back over his last words to make sure that he didn't accidentally ask for her travel plans while meaning to inquire about the state of their life threatening situation. "I don't care if you are some kind of monster. I want to see a sunset." She juts her chin out.
Rodney rolls his eyes, "I was already planning on taking you along. Keep up. These people are insane and you show the potential to be at least marginally helpful. Now. Levels. Closed. Progress of the idiots left to run amok in the ship during my incarceration. Chop chop."
The smile that Alize flashes him, huge and beaming, is so unexpected that Rodney has to look away. He's not sure what prompted it and he doesn't have time to figure it out. Thankfully, she doesn't feel the need to discuss it anymore, saying instead, "Everything is open again, but only the second level is still populated and—"
Someone yells, sounding angry and panicked at the same time. Rodney's starting to think that these people are all wound entirely too tight. Even compared to him. Especially when their first response to any problem appears to be shooting at it. Rodney can think of a dozen reasons why that's a bad idea, not the least being that firing bullets in a space ship is like asking for flash frozen death. No one is asking for his opinion, though.
The first shot hits Rodney in the arm and he curses, grabbing Alize and curling over her. He yells over his shoulder, "There's a kid! A kid! Stop!" and isn't really surprised when he's completely ignored. Rodney curses again, grabs Alize by the arms and lifts her enough to run with her.
Most of the shots go wide, pinging distressingly off the bulkheads, but enough hit him that Rodney is dragging himself along by the time he finds a likely hallway to throw himself down. He's panicking and Alize is much heavier than he expected and Rodney drags himself into the first open doorway he finds, slapping the door closed.
He starts, "Okay, we're going to need an alternate route to the—oh. Oh."
Alize slumps when Rodney lets go of her, going to the floor in a tangle of gangly limbs, messy blond hair, and a spreading pool of crimson blood. Rodney feels lightheaded, reaches out to roll her onto her back, ignoring the blood running down his own arm. Her eyes are open and blank, her mouth bloody and slack. Rodney has to look away, tip his face up to the ceiling and swallow deep breaths, "Oh. No." His brain doesn't seem to be tracking properly. "No. No. No."
There's a tiny part of Rodney that's waiting for her to cough up the bullet and come back. There's a tiny part of him that had forgotten that people died, that doesn't want to remember that this is how death is supposed to work, that most people don't have helpful little robots living in them and patching them up.
Rodney wants to sit here and just absorb the realization that death, death is final. That she's gone. This girl who followed him around and reminded him to sleep and thought slimy protein was the most delicious thing she'd ever tasted; who had never even heard of chocolate; who wanted to see a sunset and drew pictures of deformed cats because they were the only animal that Rodney could describe beyond the bare basics.
"Oh. Oh. No." Rodney feels like he's running in a loop. And he can't. Because death is still coming for him. There are men with guns who want to pump him full of lead. And beyond them, coming to claim him if they fail, the frozen expanse of space is closing in, implacable and cruel. Their humanity is already gone and they're rapidly running out of air and warmth to match, and Rodney thinks that maybe freezing where they stand would be a fitting death for them. Poetic, even.
Rodney finds himself on his feet, turning towards the door. He can hear people outside, yelling at him to open the door and firing on it. They're really not very bright. It's almost unfair, pitting himself against their vastly outmatched intellect.
Rodney opens the door and takes a shot to the gut and the shoulder before he manages to grab the barrel of the gun and push it aside. More bullets ricochet off the bulkhead, a click-click-click of death being bated and teased. Rodney slams into the man holding the gun, rips it out of his hand, and isn't really sure how a few seconds later the man's face ends up a pulpy mess of blood and bone.
There are three men standing over Rodney, staring down at him with stricken expressions. Rodney swings the gun up, feels the recoil up his arm with each shot. All those years of endless practice in the shooting range with John have made some things automatic. The men go down, like puppets with their strings cut, jerking and gurgling on their own blood.
Rodney pushes to his feet, swaying a little from pain and blood loss. The gun in his hand is clicking blanks, so he tosses it to the side, bending over to take the weapons from the other men, popping the magazines out to count bullets and then tucking the two extra weapons into the waist band of his pants.
Rodney heads for the bridge.
There's a man slumped over the console beside Rodney, dripping blood onto the floor. It's an unsteady, annoying pattern. Drip, dripdrip, drip, dripdripdrip. Rodney reaches out, shoves the man's shoulder until he rolls off the console and falls to the floor. The dripping stops.
The doors to the bridge slide closed, sealing the room off from the rest of the ship with a happy beep acknowledging Rodney's commands. Rodney frowns, stepping over to the console the dead man had been sprawled across and pulling up pages of code, skimming through, looking for the lines he needs to manipulate. It's a mix of Ancient and Wraith and some language Rodney doesn't know, a bastardization of Persian, and under it all the universal and perfect language of math.
Rodney hums the opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth, whistling a little through the healing damage to his lungs. A few numbers changed and he doesn't even have to enter a password to get to the systems he wants. A few more and the computer doesn't care that he doesn't have the command codes from the captain or the first officer. The system beeps again, acknowledgement of fires spreading through all areas of the ship save for the bridge, and takes the appropriate action.
There's silence as the airlocks around the ship open, sucking out atmosphere and bodies and anything else not nailed down. Rodney can't see them tumbling through the blackness of space, but he knows they are, and he can't stop the desperate crazy laughter bubbling up in his throat.
He makes his fingers work, makes himself type in the codes to start broadcasting a signal that John would be able to pick up if he was blind, deaf, stupid, and dead. Which, knowing their present conditions, could all happen within a half an hour time period.
By the time the proximity sensors that Rodney rigged up start going off, Rodney has resigned himself to spending what's left of his life frozen solid. He's hunched between two of the active consoles, trying to steal what minuscule warmth they're putting off. His lips hurt and his lungs go through cycles of burning and feeling fine, over and over again.
When Rodney makes himself open his eyes, his eyelashes cling together. There's nothing to see, just the flashing red light on top of the console that means someone has stumbled upon him. He hopes, distantly, that it's John and the others.
Standing is hard, his joints feel stiff, but he manages. At least he isn't shivering anymore. Rodney isn't sure if that's the nanites or hypothermia. His breath comes out as huge puffs of steam that Rodney holds his numb fingers in, trying to warm them back up as he hunches his way over to the console.
He can't actually feel the commands he types into the system, but information starts scrolling across the screen so he doesn't think about it. It takes him three tries to open a channel with the other ship that has come upon him. His voice is a rough rasp, "John?"
There's a buzz of static and then Rodney is staring at the worried faces of his friends, all of them crammed into the front of the Jumper. They're all talking at the same time and their words wash over him. Rodney fumbles to turn the picture off so they can't see the relief on his face, grumbling, "What, did you have to stop for coffee on the way?"
John laughs, "Missed you too, Rodney. Now, how do we get in there?"
John says, "I don't like this."
Rodney rolls his eyes, works his frozen arms tighter around one of the poles set along the bridge wall. He's started shivering again and has, at this point, given up trying to figure out his body's contradictory responses to everything. It takes more effort than it should to infuse his voice with venom, "I don't care. I assure you, everything will be fine. Open the damn door."
There's a pause. Rodney squeezes his eyes closed and holds his breath, focusing all his attention on not thinking about the hundred and one things that could go wrong with this plan. John clears his throat, voice fuzzy over the radio, "You're sure you won't explode?"
Rodney drops his forehead wearily against the pole, grits his teeth, "Seriously, did you get your entire education from crappy sci-fi movies? No, I will not explode. But if you don't open the door soon then I am going to freeze to death. I'd really prefer to avoid that."
There's a huffing sound over the radio and then, "Fine. I swear to God if you explode—"
Rodney interrupts, "Yes, yes, you can kill me. Can we just get on with it?" And for a half second Rodney thinks they're going to have to talk about it some more, but then there's a tortured groan of metal and the main door to the bridge slides open.
Atmosphere rushes out, the void rushes in, and Rodney clings for dear life, eyes squeezed shut. He swears that for a few seconds he can feel the moisture in his body trying to evaporate out of him, the suffocating pressure squeezing him like a vice. And then it's over.
Rodney sinks to his knees and then flops backwards. The atmosphere in the room is mostly gone, the air thin and dry. Rodney blinks dumbly up at the ceiling, sipping at air that sticks in his throat. When the Stay-Puft marshmallow man leans over him, Rodney can't help but giggle.
Rodney doesn't pass out, but neither is he completely in his right mind until sometime after John drags him back to the Jumper. In that time he has vague recollections of John manhandling him into the extra space suit that John had dragged through the ship. He also seems to remember singing about bus wheels going round and round while John hauled him through the depressurized corridors of the ship.
It's not until the others get him back out of the suit, covered in mountains of blankets, and holding a cup of instant coffee that Rodney startles and realizes that somehow he lived through it. Rodney blinks up at his friends, all hovering over him with identical expressions of worry. It's Elizabeth who speaks, sliding one of her thin arms around Rodney's shoulders and squeezing him when she asks, "What happened?"
Rodney opens his mouth and then realizes that he has no idea how to explain. He shakes his head, hunching further over the coffee and staring blankly down into its dark depths. There's a shuffle of footsteps, Elizabeth gives him another squeeze before releasing him. Strong, warm hands fold around Rodney's, dark hair scattered over the knuckles, long fingers pressing against the back of Rodney's wrists. John says, "Gave us a scare there, buddy."
Rodney shrugs. There are too many things he doesn't want to remember bouncing around inside his skull, tied with all the things he doesn't dare forget. He doesn't want to talk about any of it. Ever. If it can be helped. He focuses on the one thing that might possibly distract everyone else from the subject for the foreseeable future, "I got you a ship."
John makes a sound. It might be laughter. "A ship?"
"It's a fixer-upper, I admit. But a little TLC and she'll be good as new. Come on, I know you always wanted another Ancient warship to play with. Don't even try to deny it." Rodney makes himself look up, trying to gauge John's expression for receptiveness to the idea.
John is just staring at him, eyes blank, mouth twisted up on one side. Rodney decides to go for broke, "We can rebuild it, make it better, stronger, faster."
John's expression cracks, eyes crinkling up in the corners as he grins. He releases Rodney's hands, pats at Rodney's knees before pushing to his feet. He says, "How about you get some sleep first?" The yawn that sneaks up on Rodney surprises him. He is exhausted, cold and tingly, and, for the first time in forever, sleep sounds good.
They have two EVA suits and a limited supply of air—maybe ten hours each. Rodney claims one, sticks John in the other, and drags him over to the dead ship to try to get the engine working again. John is mostly useful for stating the obvious and asking unhelpful questions, but Rodney doesn't want to be alone in the other ship, so he deals with it.
The engine is easier to work with now that it's stopped and cooled down. It takes them seven and a half hours to get the thing rotating. The moving parts make unhappy grinding sounds, so far from perfect it's painful, but it's running and Rodney can't stop himself from crowing in victory.
And then he realizes how much work is waiting for him and feels the elation die in his throat. Crossing your arms doesn't work very well in space suits. Rodney settles for scowling discontentedly at the engine and sighing, "We have so much work to do."
Just getting the ship habitable is a nightmare, though having the rest of his team there makes it easier in a small way. Ronon can, at the very least, always be counted on to be there for the lifting of heavy things. There's a depressingly large amount of those, beds and consoles, tables and huge pieces of machinery that shifted when Rodney vented the ship.
No one comments on the dehydrated, stiff bodies that they find every now and then, lodged in behind
couches or overturned beds.
Rodney ignores nine-tenths of it, dragging Teyla and Elizabeth along as he stabilizes the systems that he managed to get roughly working with John. Only half of the Wraith systems rebooted after the engine shut down, and while Rodney can manipulate them, it's much easier if Teyla does it. Plus, both Teyla and Elizabeth have little hands that are ridiculously useful in the tight spaces they're working in.
It takes four days and nine hours of nonstop work to ensure that nothing is going to suddenly fail and kill them all. Rodney crimps the last wire in the air scrubbers, shifts back onto his haunches, and wipes the back of his hand across his greasy brow.
There's no one to celebrate with—the others still insist on sleeping at least a few hours a night—and so Rodney just grins dopily at the smooth wall beside him. The ship is humming around him, still more broken than fixed, but alive and running.
Two days later John grabs Rodney's blow torch by way of greeting, moving the flame away from anywhere near Rodney's skin before asking, "How's it going?" And then, "Shouldn't you be wearing goggles?"
Rodney scowls up at John, turns the torch off and sets it aside before squirming out from under the system he had been working on. He gestures absently to his eyes, "Why bother? Instant damage repair, remember?" Besides, Rodney had never liked how the face shields dug into his forehead. This way is much easier. "What do you want?"
John shrugs. He's greasy himself, smeared with dirt all across one side of his face and down his neck, both hands black with grime. Last time Rodney spoke to him, it had been to order him to clean out the main coolant lines and from the look of his fingernails he's been doing just that. "It's really coming along."
Rodney wonders if this is an attempt at small talk. Neither of them is any good at it and Rodney isn't in the mood to even attempt it. He scowls up at John, "It's a wreck. We've managed to find the Ancient's version of a lemon."
John snorts, fiddling with the torch, and is silent for a long moment. And then he blurts out, "I'm naming it the Odysseus."
"You do realize that every ship that man ever had sank, right? Usually along with a massive loss of life?" Sometimes Rodney wonders why he's the one that's forbidden from naming things. None of the others really seem to think things through very well.
John pushes the torch back into Rodney's hands, jerking to his feet and rubbing his dirty hands down his thighs. He says, "Right. Well. Work to do, right?" Still, John hesitates instead of making for the door, "We're all sleeping in the common room. You know. If you decide you want to take a break."
Rodney stares up at him, trying to figure out what exactly he's missing in this conversation, but coming up blank. Finally he shrugs, "I'm going to get back to work now." John nods, starts to run a hand back through his hair and catches himself, finally leaving with one last nod. Rodney shakes his head, turns his torch back on and inadvertently burns the skin off the back of his hand.
Two days later Rodney has to admit that it's all for the best that John told him where they were sleeping, because he knows right where to go when he gets the first piece of good news they've had in what feels like forever. Rodney is breathless by the time he reaches the common room, unable to wipe the grin off his face when he brings all the lights up to full strength and shouts for them to wake up.
Ronon and Teyla stir first, going from sleeping to sixty in about two seconds, John not far behind them, Elizabeth following at a more human pace. Rodney blurts, "Guess what!" drumming his hands on the nearest wall because he can't quite keep all his excitement in.
Teyla is smiling at him, looking perfectly put together after just rolling out of a bedroll, which Rodney would have once thought impossible. She asks, "What is it?"
Rodney can't keep the glee out of his voice, "Drones! Tons of them!" He beats his hands on the wall again, anything to stop himself from jumping up and down the way he wants to. He crows, "Apparently the previous occupants thought they were some kind of ball. They played sports with them. We have a fully stocked weapons bay!"
The others all look pleased, but John looks positively ecstatic. He's still got a smudge of grease under his ear, like he missed it, which is entirely possible with the sponge baths they're being forced to take while Rodney tries to iron out the last kinks with the plumbing system.
John says, "Show me."
The Odysseus starts sharing more of its secrets after that, mostly with Elizabeth. Most of the logs for the ship are in Ancient, and while Rodney can read the language and John has a rough grasp of it, it's much easier to just let her translate it.
Rodney starts joining the others for meals, because that's the only way for them to catch up, working in different ends of the ship as they are. Besides, after they limped their way to a habited world and managed to trade for some supplies, Ronon had reclaimed his cooking duties from the planet. After weeks of eating what roughly equaled stewed grass, Rodney is more than thrilled to eat real food.
Meals are spent discussing the ship, repairs and discoveries. Teyla's frustrations with trying to interact with the Wraith systems, Elizabeth's stories about the missions the Odysseus ran during the war it was commissioned for. And, of course, copious praise for the food that Ronon makes. Sometimes Rodney wonders what they'd do without the Satedan.
It's after one of Elizabeth's war stories, a few weeks after they move into the ship, that John clears his throat and leans back. The tension in the room noticeably ratchets up and Rodney cuts his eyes between John and Elizabeth. He's starting to think that the only way for them to get over their stupid power struggle is to lock them in a closet and let them duke it out.
John says, "This is a warship." There's a pause, and Rodney opens his mouth to point out that stating the obvious really isn't cause for this much drama. John continues before he can, "And we have a war."
Dead silence. Rodney looks down into his bowl so he doesn't have to look at any of the others. His own feelings on the subject are complicated enough without having to factor theirs into it as well. There's a part of him that just wants to focus on fixing the Odysseus, that doesn't want to think about what comes after. There's a part of him that resents John for not giving him that luxury. He clears his throat, "We can be battle ready in a little over two months. Give or take."
More silence. Rodney grits his teeth and continues staring pointedly at the bottom of his bowl. Finally, John says, "Thank you," and reaches out to ladle more soup into Rodney's bowl. Most of Rodney's appetite has suspiciously disappeared, but he eats anyway.
After all, he'd accidentally gouged a huge chunk of flesh out of his leg earlier, and he needs the fuel.
Rodney is actually in the ceiling when he hears people enter the room below him. The ductwork through most of the ship is either rusting away or coming loose from its moorings, and Rodney is shoved into a space that's both too tight and too hot for comfort when Elizabeth steps in saying, "—understand it."
She sounds sad, depressed, and Rodney holds his breath to hear better. A second set of footsteps follow her into the room, too soft to be John. It's Teyla who answers Elizabeth, "I am not sure that I see the source of your confusion." Teyla just sounds tired.
Elizabeth sighs, Rodney can almost see her rubbing a hand over her face, gathering up her scattered thoughts. He can't remember how many times he's seen her do it, and there's a sudden burst of remembered pain from the time when he had thought he would never see the gesture, any of her gestures, again. She says, "Doesn't it bother you? The way we just jump to shedding blood, now? How little thought we spare for human life?"
There's a pause, then Teyla's voice, "Some things must be done."
There's a trickle of sweat running down Rodney's temple. It itches, and he tilts his head to the side, trying to smear it off. He is something less than successful, and below him Elizabeth says, "Some things. But we have to draw a line somewhere. And…so far I haven't seen it done. Everything John has suggested since we found out what we were has been—" she pauses, Rodney can imagine the sour twist of her mouth, "—bloody. And Rodney just goes along with him."
Rodney blinks, surprised. He isn't sure what Elizabeth expected him to do, but going along with John is what he does in the field, and if he's honest with himself, more often than not it's what he does in his day to day life as well. John is John, and until he comes up with a completely ridiculous plan Rodney will support him. Maybe even then.
Elizabeth continues, "I just worry about what we're becoming. Some days I feel like a monster."
Rodney shifts, uncomfortable with the implications of her words. They've killed since they realized what they were, but he's certain that it wasn't anyone they wouldn't have killed anyway. Or at least, no one he wouldn't have killed anyway. He can't help but wondering if that makes him a monster in Elizabeth's eyes all on its own. The thought sours his stomach.
Below, Elizabeth sighs, "It isn't important right now, I need to get this passage translated," and the two women lapse into silence. Rodney stays still, staring into the darkness above him and turning her words over and over in his head. He's not sure what to make of the fact that, even knowing how much it bothers her, he wouldn't change his mind.
By the time the women finally leave and Rodney can move without giving himself away, his stomach is still tense. The tightness doesn't go away when he climbs out of the vent. Or when he follows the smell of Ronon's cooking to the mess.
He's still trying to make his peace with it when John slides into the chair beside him and elbows him in the ribs. John is dirty and smiling, a healing cut across his nose, and Rodney rolls his eyes, pushes back on John's shoulder. John snorts on laughter, finally settling down and peering hopefully at the huge bowl set in the middle of the table when he asks, "So how was your day, Rodney?"
Rodney is in the middle of his second bowl of soup, wondering how Ronon has managed to keep the vegetables fresh this long, when the radio crackles to life. Everyone around the table freezes at the same moment, and Rodney finds himself staring across into Teyla's wide eyes, knowing that he's mirroring her expression. The five of them are all huddled over the pot of soup.
The radio crackles again, nothing but static for a long moment before it solidifies into a voice, "—eron, please come in, I repeat, Oberon this is the Tatiana, please respond."
There's a pause, quiet before the storm, and then they're all moving and talking at once. John is shouting, "Why didn't we pick them up on the proximity sensors?" while shoving to his feet, his bowl clattering on the table from the force of his movement.
Rodney is already moving towards the door, yelling over his shoulder, "Oh yes, because obviously the proximity sensors were the systems that I've been working on, not, oh, the life support or engines?" His heart is jack hammering, memories that burn and twist, screams and gun shots, Alize's dead blank face.
The others follow him. He can hear their pounding footsteps, rising voices. And over the radio, implacable, "—respond, is there anyone alive over there?"
The ship rocks, jars in space, and Rodney stumbles hard into the wall. Ronon is there to steady him immediately, and Rodney curses, loudly, "They're trying to dock." Rodney knows how much these people valued ships, how much they needed them. It's not a stretch to assume that they'd immediately come to investigate an empty vessel.
John draws to a stop, grabbing Ronon and Teyla and barking out orders that Rodney barely catches. Instructions to get to the airlocks, to prevent entry if it comes to that, before he's spinning on his heel. Rodney hesitates at the ladder below the bridge, demands, "Where are you going?"
John throws a hand up, sprinting down the corridor, "Control chair!" And then he's gone around the bend and Elizabeth is pushing at Rodney's shoulders. Rodney swallows hard, and pulls himself up the ladder, Elizabeth on his heels.
They're still being hailed, and Rodney throws himself towards the communications console. Elizabeth follows and Rodney crouches beside the console, hands moving over the controls to activate their outgoing line. He snaps his fingers in Elizabeth's general direction, hisses, "Go!"
Elizabeth flashes him a dirty look that Rodney ignores. She shifts uncomfortably, then draws herself up, squaring her shoulders and smoothing down the front of her woolen shirt even though the view screen isn't active. She waits for a pause in the constant message being sent, and then says, "Yes, Tatiana, this is the Oberon. What can we do for you?"
Rodney flashes her a quick thumbs up, busy hurrying to one of the other consoles, trying to pull up their outside sensors. Elizabeth is still glaring at him, but Rodney ignores it. He listens with half an ear as the Tatiana replies, "You fell off the grid, Oberon." The man's tone is chiding, "Everything alright over there?"
The sensors come up with a beep, and Rodney curses, not thinking to muffle his voice with his hand. The other ship is a technology he doesn't recognize, all oddly shaped metal and weapons turrets. That's bad enough. Worse is the fact that if they're not docked with the Odysseus already then they will be in about five seconds.
Elizabeth waves her hand at him, keeps her voice perfectly calm and even, "Yes, yes, everything is fine. We just had some engine trouble, but it's all repaired now." There's a long stretch of silence that Rodney is sure can portend nothing good.
When the Tatiana replies the man's voice is tense, "We'll be happy to come over and give you a hand." It's not an offer, so much as it is a statement of intent. Elizabeth opens her mouth, no doubt to try to talk their way out of this, but Rodney is seeing fire and death and remembering every bullet they put in him and he can't let them come in here.
Rodney takes a bracing breath, chokes out, "John."
For a beat there's silence, and then, "I got it, buddy." Elizabeth makes a disbelieving face, taking a step towards Rodney that gets aborted when John continues, "Brace yourselves, boys and girls. Might be a bumpy ride here for a minute."
Elizabeth shouts, "You can't!"
At the same time the Tatiana says, "What's going on over there, Oberon? We'll be right over." There's no kindness left in the man's voice, nothing but suspicion and hard, flat anger. "Everything better be in order or we'll be—"
The man doesn't get any further. A shock wave knocks Rodney and Elizabeth sideways, distorts the Tatiana's profile on the scanner before it steadies again. Rodney feels a weight lift off his shoulders, the pressure in his chest easing with a shaky rush of breath.
Elizabeth says into the silence that follows, her voice cool and flat, "What the hell was that, Sheppard?"
John and Elizabeth meet in the hallway, Rodney, Ronon and Teyla hovering on the edges, outside the group cabin. It's like two storm heads meeting, two titans clashing. It's nothing but trouble and Rodney twists his hands together, words about monsters and humanity chasing themselves around his head.
Elizabeth is all barely bridled anger, her arms crossed and her shoulders back. She snaps, "What were you thinking, Sheppard?"
John has his hands on his hips, chin tilted downward, eyes shadowed beneath his hair. His voice is all drawn out vowels and strained politeness, "I don't know, Elizabeth, maybe that they were going to board us? And must have outnumbered us a hundred to one? And wouldn't have taken very kindly to finding out that we'd done away with the Odysseus' original occupants?"
Elizabeth takes a step closer, "You can't just—"
Rodney interrupts, because he's tired of their constant arguing, this power struggle that shows no signs of stopping, "Look, it's fine. Everything is fine. All he hit were the Tatiana's engines, and I should have ours up and running in a few hours. We'll leave, they'll stay, no problem."
Shooting the engines had been a solution Rodney hadn't even considered, and he's grateful that John, for once, had a cooler head than he did. Still, his relief is fading as Elizabeth spins on him, her mouth tight and unhappy, dark eyes flashing. She says, "And you, Rodney? I have to admit that I'm surprised. Immediately jumping to the military solution didn't used to be your first instinct."
Rodney shifts, uncomfortable, "No one died." Elizabeth just keeps staring at him, and Rodney holds her gaze, not sure what she's looking for or trying to prove. Finally she shakes her head, scoffing in the back of her throat and shifting back.
She says, soft and flat, "So this is what we are now, then? Willing to just do whatever we want, and damn the consequences? And why? Because that's what John wants to do?" There's a pause, everyone doing their best to avoid looking at each other.
Rodney shakes his head, finally. He's never been any good at this, and, frankly, he's tired of trying to make the two of them see sense. He snaps, "Yes. Is that what you want to hear? If it comes down to that, if that's what you're making this about? Then yes. Because it's what John wants to do. You better get used to it."
Rodney thinks John might be trying to catch his eye, but before he can look up Ronon is in his space. The bigger man looms over him, size intimidating and eyes blazing. Ronon growls, "And what's that supposed to mean, McKay?"
Rodney glares up at him, jutting his chin out and refusing to take the step back that he desperately wants to. His voice is louder, sharper, than he intends it to be, "Do I need to spell it out for you? Use little words? Maybe draw a picture?"
Ronon snarls, hands coming up against Rodney's shoulders, but then Teyla is there. Rodney isn't sure how she manages to squeeze between them, but she does. She gets one tiny hand pressed against Rodney's chest, the other against Ronon's, pushing them apart with the implacable strength in her small body.
Teyla is scowling, her normally calm expression strained, "Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and a step back, yes? Some time to think about our actions and words before we continue this discussion?" She might phrase her words as questions but there's no option for disagreement.
Rodney steps back, shrugging his shoulders to resettle his shirt, says, "I'm going to go work on the engines," and leaves the others to their disagreements.
John wanders into the room just as Rodney is leaning away from the engine, all the parts moving sweetly and perfectly. Rodney nods a greeting, just resting back on his haunches for a moment, taking what joy he can from doing a job and doing it well. John leans against the wall beside the spinning engine, hands tucked into his pockets, expression contemplative.
Rodney drags his hand across his forehead, smearing grease and sweat, "I've got everything working, I think. At least sub-light. I'd say someone else should go over the hyper-drive but there really isn't anyone else, is there? So we'll just have to trust that I am, as usual, right."
John hums, nods, but doesn't say anything in response. Silence isn't something Rodney is any good at, and besides, he figures if he can keep the air between them filled up maybe they won't have to talk about Elizabeth or the Tatiana. "The rear coupling distributor is coming apart, though. It's worn down and I've shifted as much pressure as I can onto the third cylinder piston housing but it won't hold forever."
John nods again, sighs, "So you're saying we can fly, then?"
"We're flying already. Technically. I mean, we're hardly on solid ground. But yes, we are now capable of safely propelling ourselves through space. At least until the rear coupling distributor falls apart. After that, not so much."
They lapse into silence again, despite Rodney's better judgment. All the words he means to say fade away, smothered by the tension that's saturated the atmosphere of the ship. Rodney lets his eyes drift out of focus, watching the engine work, gears and pistons moving beautifully, his handiwork carrying them safely through the stars.
When John clears his throat, says, "Thanks," Rodney startles. He'd almost forgotten that the other man was there and he blinks up at John, trying to clear his head of the equations in his skull. His confusion must show on his face because John shifts, continues, "For earlier. With Elizabeth."
Rodney shrugs, shifts his attention back to the engines. He doesn't want to talk about it. It's hard enough to try to figure it out in his head. It's hard not to resent them for making him choose between them when they both mean so much to him. There's no right decision, and Rodney absolutely hates being wrong. He says, "Yes, well, don't mention it."
John sighs, shifting uncomfortably some more. Rodney wonders why the hell he's pushing this, rising to his feet because he's more than ready to abandon this conversation. John speaks before he can, "It means a lot, knowing you've got my back."
Rodney boggles at John, because sometimes he really is ridiculously stupid, "I always 'have your back'." John grins at the air quotes that Rodney makes, but Rodney ignores him, "That's what we do. We take care of each other." He has to look away, because this has now entered into territories far too awkward for Rodney to face head on.
He can hear John moving again, just shifting his weight from one foot to the other against the wall. And then John is reaching out to him, fingers sliding across Rodney's elbow before he lets his arm fall back to his side. John's voice comes out choked, like he doesn't want to speak the words but can't stop himself, "Yeah. Yeah. I just thought, after everything…" John waves a hand, falls silent.
Rodney rolls his eyes, "You're an idiot."
He doesn't mean to meet John's gaze, but it happens anyway, and they're left staring at each other. John is slouching against the wall, expression tellingly open, and Rodney wants to look away. John says, "Lucky thing I've got you, then, huh?"
Rodney squints at him, and John looks to the side before taking a deep breath and looking back, expression tight and determined. John starts to come off the wall, reaching out for Rodney's shoulders, and Rodney jerks forward.
Rodney's fingers leave behind smears of grease on John's skin, and John makes a surprised sound when Rodney pushes him back against the wall. Rodney is pretty sure that it would be polite to give John time here to say no or push him away, but Rodney never had much use for manners. He curls his thumbs around the back of John's head and closes the distance left between their lips.
John kisses back immediately, hands everywhere on Rodney's body. There's a part of Rodney that wants to wonder if this is just all the tension they've been living with finally coming to a boiling point, but he can't bring himself to ask. Not when there are so many more important things for him to do.
Rodney slides his mouth sideways, kissing along the sharp line of John's jaw, the taste of engine grease sharp and bitter on his tongue. John grunts out, "Christ, finally," and drags his hands down Rodney's back, finding Rodney's ass and squeezing, tugging Rodney's hips forward.
Consequences and repercussions have all started meaning less since they discovered what they were, and this is apparently no different. There were always a thousand reasons not to do this, enough that Rodney hadn't even let himself think about what it might be like.
Every reason has drained away to so much dust now. Maybe their hang-ups had been pushed aside months ago, when John left his dog tags behind on T34-XX9. Maybe everything since then had just been giving them time to get used to the idea.
John groans, as Rodney bites and kisses his way down John's neck, "Stop thinking so loud."
Rodney laughs, half breathless, has to rest his forehead against the sweat slick skin on John's neck for just a second. He can feel John's heartbeat against his skin, and John isn't suffering from the same pause. He's already managed to work one hand down the back of Rodney's pants, trying to get the other between them, grunting a little in time to his struggles.
Rodney takes a deep breath, and stops thinking.
John's shirt is some hand woven fabric that Rodney suddenly can't get off fast enough. He needs skin and the shirt is just not coming off over John's head while John still has his hands busy down Rodney's pants. Rodney frowns against the curve of John's throat, tugging and pulling until the fabric finally gives with a rip.
John makes a deep sound, head thumping back against the wall, and Rodney can't help but grin. John's warm, hair curled tight against his skin, the various scars that once decorated his chest gone now. Rodney leans down, sucks a bruise onto John's collarbone just to watch it heal.
A sudden thought strikes Rodney, and he blurts against John's skin, "Does this mean that every time Elizabeth and Teyla have sex they're going to heal? I mean, that would kind of suck for them, wouldn't it?" He makes a face, because pain in association with sex has never been one of Rodney's favorite things.
John's laugh is hoarse, and his hands are suddenly catching at Rodney's shoulders, tugging him up into a kiss. John's still laughing, and their teeth bump, tongues sliding against each other, and Rodney can't help laughing back. They separate after a moment, foreheads leaning together, breath mingling in the space between them.
John is still grinning, shaking his head back and forth, "Only you, Rodney."
Rodney tries to scowl at him but doesn't manage it, defends himself, "Hey! It's a legitimate question." John snorts and rolls his eyes, shifting to grind his erection against Rodney's thigh, like he's trying to make sure it hasn't been forgotten about.
Rodney rolls his eyes, grinding back, enjoying the way it makes John's breath stutter against his mouth. John's hands scramble over Rodney's body, down his sides, trying to work between their bodies again, his voice tightening into a whine of frustration when he can't quite manage it.
Rodney bats at his hands, leans close enough to growl into John's ear, "Like this, John. Just like this."
John groans, hips jerking hard. Rodney touches everywhere he can reach, biting, kissing, sucking. He can't seem to get enough of John's skin under his hands, sliding his thigh further up to give John something steadier to thrust against.
John's voice is so thick it's barely recognizable, "Fuck, Rodney, I haven't—" he breaks off with a desperate sound, apparently deciding that groping Rodney is a better use of his concentration. John's hands slide up under his shirt, across his ribs and down his spine, down to his ass, and there they settle. He finds his voice again, "—haven't come in my pants since I was a kid."
Rodney grins again, or maybe he never stopped, he can't remember. Smiling seems like the most natural thing in the world, smiling and thrusting against John, pressing kisses against all the skin that he can find. John comes apart against him, voice tight and shaky. He comes with Rodney's name on his lips, holding him so tightly that it borders on pain.
Rodney follows him over the edge, not sure if it's the broken sound of his name or the way John sags or the pressure of John's kiss that finally breaks him down.
Afterwards they lean against each other, panting hard and still pressed together. Rodney can feel John's heart thundering, each ragged breath the man draws shifting both of them. They're both smeared with grease, hot and sticky, and it should be uncomfortable. Instead, it's the first time Rodney's felt relaxed in what feels like an eternity.
Rodney presses absent kisses along John's jaw, feeling John running a hand up and down his back. It's comforting and he thinks that maybe he could sleep now. Sleep deep and sound and without nightmares. John shifts, finding Rodney's mouth with his own and kissing him.
There's no time for that, though, as much as Rodney wants it. The Tatiana is still floating beside them, probably transmitting distress calls for all and sundry to pick up. Staying here is asking for more warships coming down on their heads, it would be stupid and dangerous.
Rodney leans away from John, who grunts and follows, keeping himself pressed up against Rodney's warmth. This John, warm and pliant, is something that Rodney doesn't think he's ever seen before. There's a big part of him that just wants to stand here and soak in it.
Instead, Rodney takes a deep breath and appeals to the one thing that he knows John won't ever say no to, "Don't you want to pilot our ship?" It works like a charm, has John's head snapping up, a wide smile on his face. Rodney is still reeling from John's expression when John drags him along to the bridge.
Apparently they're all still avoiding each other, because what's left of the day passes without he and John seeing any of the others. Rodney busies himself fixing the still damaged systems on the bridge; the one console that won't connect into the main computer and the frustratingly broken life signs detector. John just flies, head back, eyes on the stars that spin above him, expression young and giddy. Sometimes he laughs.
Rodney has no idea how the others are keeping to an internal schedule, but apparently they're still managing it even without a sun to gage the passage of time by. John slides out of the pilot's chair with a yawn hours later, walking over to the console that Rodney is working on and leaning against it. Rodney spares him a look after a moment, asks, "Yes?"
John looks unsure for just a moment, picking imaginary lint off his sleeves before his expression firms up. He declares, "I'm ready for bed," like that's an explanation that makes coherent sense. Rodney stares doubtfully up at him, because he's pretty sure that it's not actually physically possible for the others to be tired even though they insist on sleeping.
After a long moment, John finally scowls and pushes himself away from the console. His voice sounds oddly stiff when he says, "Well, good night then," and Rodney restrains himself from pointing out that technically there is no day or night where they are because they're not orbiting a star, or, in fact, orbiting anything at all.
The door to the bridge opens and closes with a whisper and Rodney shakes his head, takes a steadying breath. Now that John is out of the room it's easier to think, to try to remember if what happened earlier was a dream or not. The uncomfortably stiff dried spot in the front of Rodney's pants pretty much says that it really happened. As does the fact that Rodney can still remember what John's mouth felt like against his own.
Rodney glares up at the console he's working on, twisting harder than he needs to on the wrench and bashing his knuckles against a sharp edge. Compared to everything else he's been through lately, the stinging pain across the back of his hand barely even registers. Rodney shakes his hand out anyway, cursing as the door to the bridge slides open again.
Rodney sits up to see who it is, and then John is there, grabbing handfuls of his shirt and hauling him to his feet. John's expression is all stubborn bullheadedness and he doesn't say a word before pulling Rodney towards the door.
Rodney braces his feet and pulls back against John's hold, glaring at him and demanding, "What do you think you're doing?"
John stares at the far wall for a long moment. There's a muscle jumping in his jaw and he looks deeply disconcerted. When he speaks, his voice is tight and sharp, "You should sleep, too." Rodney boggles at him. He knows that John is aware he doesn't sleep. He hasn't exactly been stealthy about concealing his nocturnal habits.
Then again, maybe they could have sex again. He's pretty sure that would help him with the not-sleeping problem. He opens his mouth to point this out, but John beats him to the punch, turning quickly, grabbing Rodney and pulling him in for a kiss.
They end up actually getting their pants off this time, which Rodney figures is definitely an improvement. Rodney comes with John's weight settled over him, John breathing hard in his ear and thrusting against the curve of Rodney's stomach.
Afterwards, Rodney still isn't tired, but he is relaxed, comfortable despite himself. Hard floors don't mean the days of agony for his back that they used to, and the nanites also ensure that the throbbing in the back of his head where he came down too hard against the floor was gone almost as soon as it started. He clears his throat, wondering how long John is planning to lie sprawled across him, "So, sleeping?"
John snorts, "Should probably clean up first."
Cleaning up is much easier than it would have been three days ago, and Rodney scrubs happily away beneath the actually hot water before John is dragging him off again. Somehow, even after everything else that's happened, the strangest part of the entire day is that John heads back to the common room to sleep.
Rodney is sure that there are all kinds of psychological reasons for the others to all want to sleep in the same room. He understands it, because he's felt the same compulsion for three years, almost four now. Off world he hadn't been comfortable sleeping unless he knew that Ronon, Teyla, and John were right there.
But this is their ship. There's no one else on it, and there's not going to be any monsters sneaking up in the middle of the night, no threat of irate natives with bad tempers. And with the tensions stretching the air between them tight and uncomfortable, Rodney had assumed they would all seek alternate arrangements. Sometimes, Rodney wonders why he tries to understand other people at all.
They've dragged mattresses from the crew quarters down to the room, have little nests set up for themselves, and Rodney takes a moment to roll his eyes in incredulity that they don't just use the bedrooms before John is pulling on him again.
It's not exactly a surprise that John has his mattress beside the door. The messy blankets aren't a surprise either, and John toes his boots off before plopping down onto the mattress and looking expectantly up at Rodney. Around them Rodney is aware that the others are watching, Ronon and Elizabeth from their corner, Teyla from hers.
Somehow he hadn't really thought about how they were going to handle this. Maybe there had been a part of him that assumed it would still be a secret, something they couldn't tell anyone else, which was uncharacteristically stupid because they weren't those people anymore. John had left his dog tags. They had all walked away. If they had ever been that Rodney and that John, they weren't anymore.
John is still staring up at him, scooting across the mattress to make a space for Rodney. And Rodney figures what the hell. He kicks off his shoes and settles himself down, determinedly not looking at anyone else in the room.
Rodney finds himself staring up at the ceiling, his heart thundering for no good reason at all. He's not sure why this should feel like such a big deal, but that isn't stopping it.
And then John is shifting, shoving a bony elbow into Rodney's side and bouncing the bed. There's a knee bashing into Rodney's thigh and the pillow he'd been resting his head on gets tugged and yanked on, the blankets half pulled off his legs until John finally settles with a contented sigh. Rodney can't help but grinning, not even sure why the hell he's suddenly so happy.
No one says anything about the fact that Rodney is suddenly in John's bed whenever they go to sleep. No one mentions the bruises that they press into each other's skin the rare times they last long enough to be seen by anyone else. No one seems surprised, and no one really seems to give a shit.
Rodney figures that, really, compared to everything else they've been through, this is so far down the weirdness scale it doesn't even register. He figures that since no one else is freaking out about it then he shouldn't either. Besides, the sex is a nice way to take a break when the stress of all the repairs gets to be too frustrating.
The repairs are coming along. They've finally reached the point where Rodney is spending most of his time fixing the little mistakes the others make more than keeping them from constant painful death. The day he finally—without a doubt—gets the hyper drive engines working they even have a celebration.
Ronon has weird ideas about what Earth parties actually consist of, and they end up with a roast with a bunch of candles stuck in it, but the fact that it's delicious makes up for the oddity. Rodney tries to draw a line by refusing to wear the hats that Ronon apparently crafted out of some kind of paper, but John pushes it down on his head with a smile and quick kiss, so Rodney leaves it.
For once, the atmosphere between them feels tension free. Teyla ends up laughing so hard she cries, tears streaking out of the corners of her eyes, at something Elizabeth says. Ronon beams at all of them, happily carving up his roast. Rodney even catches John and Elizabeth talking to each other with something approaching civility for once.
Rodney watches the others, and tries very hard to feel some of the giddy joy they're all indulging in. But Rodney knows his own strengths and weaknesses, and being content and worry-free has never been a skill he excelled at.
The hyper drive was the last major system that needed work, and between the rest of the team most of the other minor systems are in working order as well. They still need Rodney to go back over them, just to make sure that everything is operating to maximum efficiency, but, for the most part, the ship is in as good shape as it's going to get. And he knows exactly what that means.
There's a part of Rodney that's gotten used to not fighting. He's been involuntarily reminded over the last few months of what it was like to just fix things, to build and create, instead of destroy. He'd been able to forget about the Wraith, at least for a few hours at a time, to forget the Replicators were out there, to forget that they had a war just waiting for them to step up and throw down.
He isn't sure he wants to remember.
Rodney pushes his latest slice of meat around his plate, contemplating if he needs to eat it or not. His broken elbow had been slightly sluggish to heal earlier and so Rodney stabs the roast, shoves a huge bite into his mouth just as John shifts his attention away from Elizabeth, pressing closer against Rodney's side. John leans over, says, "So, the old boy's all fixed up, isn't he?"
Rodney wants to say no. Wants, just for a second, to make up a reason that they have to stay out of the world passing around them just for a little while longer. But John looks hopeful and determined and besides, fighting is what they do. Rodney swallows, ignoring the tightness in his throat, "Yes. Yes, the ship is ready."
John watches him for a long moment, like maybe he can read all the thoughts going on behind Rodney's eyes, the words Rodney won't say, the opinions that he's ashamed of himself for having. John sighs, sliding a hand down Rodney's back, and says, "I know. But we have to anyway." And maybe it's then that Rodney realizes that this affection he feels for John might be motivated by more than sex.
It takes Rodney all of two days to get the sensors to pick up Wraith hives. It's work that he's already done for Atlantis, easy as hell to replicate on the Odysseus. He brings up the screens with John standing behind his right shoulder and Elizabeth standing behind his left. There's one hive showing on the scanners, in orbit around a planet.
Rodney holds his breath, still holding onto that failing hope that they can just walk away from this, though he knows they both shouldn't and can't. John's hand is warm against the back of his neck, the calluses on his thumb rough on the smooth skin behind Rodney's ear. John says, "Looks like we got a gig, boys and girls."
Rodney braces his hands on the console, lets his shoulders curl in and his chin tilt down to his chest so no one can see his face. When John steps away, walking to the pilot's chair and sliding them into hyper-space, Rodney keeps his head down.
Elizabeth's hand on his arm is warm and small. Rodney tries to look at her, makes it to her shoulders before he loses his nerve. There's a bruise fading on her neck as he watches, an impression of teeth being absorbed back into her creamy skin. He says, "I'm sorry," and hopes that she can somehow understand that he had no choice in the matter, really, that it was John and Rodney had never had any option at all.
Rodney imagines she might smile at him, but he's too chicken shit to look up and find out.
One hive versus one Ancient warship is no fight at all. Piloting duties get shoved off to Rodney when they get close enough, John heading for the control chair at a run. Not that there's very much flying Rodney needs to do when the drones scream to life.
They're nothing but golden blurs against the black of space, the drones winding around each other and tearing across the distance to the hive. They're beautiful destruction, death gilded in gold. Bodies and debris spin away from the hive. There's not even time for the Wraith to launch Darts before the ship is collapsing into a mess of flames and death.
Rodney is still sitting in the pilot's seat when John makes his way back up to the bridge. Rodney is staring at the floating bodies and wondering if this is what the rest of their lives will be. John leans against the back of the seat, his hands on Rodney's shoulders, says, "They're not just going to keep falling into our laps."
Rodney smiles, grim, "Yeah, I have a solution for that."
They know the paths most of the Wraith follow because of programs that he and Zelenka spent hours working on in Atlantis that Rodney mostly remembers. Even if he's a little bit off, their scanners should pick up the Wraith as long as they're in the right general area, so Rodney shows John the charts. All predators have territory. This is just a matter of finding the game trail and waiting for the chance to make the hunter the hunted.
They have no reason to wait, no reason to hesitate, and so they test the model immediately. It takes them three days to get to the nearest spot, but there's a hive waiting for them when they arrive. And at the next one, and the next one, and the next one.
They cut a swath across the galaxy, Rodney spending the days between their attacks running calculations to compensate for the way the Wraith will inevitably change their travel habits as they figure out what's happening. They move and they kill and they go, and at the end of the day Rodney sleeps curled around John.
Teyla has become something of a ghost since they moved into the Odysseus. Maybe even before that. She's stayed out of their disagreements, expressed appreciation for the fact that they were killing Wraith, and then faded back to her own thoughts. Rodney assumes that whatever is bothering her must be fairly extreme, if even he's noticed that something is wrong.
Therefore, he's slightly surprised when she decides to break her self imposed exile to sit down beside him as he calculates trajectories and tries to think like a Wraith. The Wraith have already started diverging their paths, and Rodney's stomach is a hard knot of worry that he won't be able to keep up with them, that he'll fall behind and all of this will waste away to nothing, and so he doesn't look up at Teyla's presence, just grunts a hello and keeps working.
He startles when she speaks, "Do you try so hard because you are attempting to prove yourself worthy?"
Rodney blinks across at her. She looks calm, but there's a tension in her voice that belies the smoothness of her expression. It's hard to get used to her with the darker hair, it makes her look sad. Then again, maybe she's just upset. Rodney clears his throat, "What?"
"Do you struggle so hard in an effort to prove that you are as good as the other Rodney McKay?" There's honest curiosity in her gaze, beside that bone deep sadness that she wears like a second skin.
Rodney blinks, looking down at the work spread in front of him and then back up to Teyla. There's a part of him that wants to reply immediately in the negative, but Rodney's never been very good at lying. And he doesn't like lying to Teyla. He shrugs, "That's part of it." Life is a contest, and Rodney has never seen any point in trying to be anything but first. Even if he is competing against himself.
Teyla frowns, sighs, "What if we are not?" And suddenly this conversation has veered into territories that Rodney knows damn well he isn't qualified to deal with.
Rodney does his best anyway, "Then we just try harder." Teyla's expression doesn't brighten, if anything her frown deepens. Rodney can almost see her gearing up for the next question, and wonders again why the hell she's coming to him with this and how the hell he can get out of it.
It's Elizabeth who spares him, her voice high and panicked over the intercom, requesting that they all come up to the bridge immediately.
Elizabeth is already in mid-explanation for John and Ronon when Rodney and Teyla arrive. Elizabeth is speaking with tight gestures and dark eyes, reading excerpts off the screen in front of her and then explaining them. Rodney pushes closer to the screen, scanning the text and not making any sense of it. It's the tangled language that the ship's last occupants had used, and Rodney hasn't had time to learn it yet.
Apparently Elizabeth has.
She's saying, "—found it by accident. It was in some kind of military code, I think, but apparently this ship was against the idea and refused to participate, so I was able to translate at least the gist of it."
Rodney waves a hand, demands, "Someone tell me what's going on."
John turns to look at him with a tight expression, looking like he's aged ten years in the half an hour since Rodney last saw him. "Doctor Weir found the ship's logs. They—apparently some of them met Atlantis. A giant flying city had some appeal for them."
They all stare at each other, the words still scrolling across the screen, letters bent into shapes that Rodney can't read. That he doesn't want to read. He takes a step towards John, his voice getting higher and tighter despite his best efforts, "What are you saying?"
John winces, reaching out to grab Rodney's arm, his fingers digging in hard enough to hurt, "We don't know anything for sure."
Rodney feels sick, shakes his head and then finds it impossible to stop himself. He pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath, sorting past the chill of fear to the logic he knows has to be beyond it. Two quick breaths later and he has it. He meets John's eyes again, and John nods before moving over to the pilot's chair and bringing up the star charts.
They're three days out from Atlantis, or, at least, from the planet that the ship's logs say Atlantis is sitting on. It's not the planet that they remember, and Rodney clings to that, another layer of denial to hold against the unexpected pain of Atlantis being lost. He thinks that it shouldn't hurt this much, it wasn't even their home anymore. Technically, it never had been.
Nevertheless, if it's been taken, if these people have stolen it, Rodney intends to get it back.
John finds Rodney once the course has been plotted, once he's set them on their way. Rodney had gone looking for work, something to keep his hands busy and his mind away from the images his brain keeps providing him with of all the people he remembers working with burning. When John finds him, Rodney is holding his hands to his neck, waiting for the blood pulsing between his fingers to lessen.
John curses, dropping to his knees in front of Rodney, pulling Rodney's hands away and cursing again. The air is chilly where blood slides across Rodney's skin, and the amount of blood lost makes him shiver. John smears his fingers through the sticky mess, leaving behind trails of fire as the skin stitches itself back together.
They're left sitting in a bloody puddle, John kneeling over him, his eyes wild and his hands on Rodney's chest. John is breathing hard, and Rodney explains, "The converter came loose. I tried to duck." He'd been being lazy and it had probably nicked something vital, but here he is, alive and well. Alive and well and fine, while as far as they know everyone on Atlantis is in danger.
John curses, sliding his bloody hands up into Rodney's hair and leaning in to crush their mouths together. John kisses him like they're dying, and there's the taste of blood in the back of Rodney's throat where he tore his artery wide open. Rodney pulls John closer, and kisses him until the salty taste finally disappears.
John pulls back far enough to lean his forehead against Rodney's. He's still breathing hard, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth twisted up with grief or anger, maybe both. John's voice is rough, "We don't know anything for sure."
Rodney closes his eyes, it's easier to lie when he doesn't have to look John in the face, "Right. Right. We beat them. I'm sure the other us' did, too." John nods, shifting to kiss Rodney again, needy, a soft sound catching in the air behind them.
A day later Rodney is sitting in front of an open wall panel, trying to remember what he's supposed to be doing. There's an electro-spanner in his hand, but for the life of him he can't think what he was doing with it. There's a hollow ache up under his ribs, a sharp, stabbing pain that he doesn't understand. He'd think he was having a heart attack, but there's really no reason to assume his heart is anything but perfect at this point.
Ronon is coming down the hall, and Rodney looks up when the big man stumbles, catching himself on the wall with a grunt. One of Ronon's hands is balled up in his shirt, over his heart, and his jaw is tense. Over the intercom, Elizabeth asks, "Does anyone else feel that?"
Rodney jerks to his feet, throwing the electro-spanner at the far wall. He finds John sitting alone in the control chair room, pushes him down on the hard floor and tries to crawl inside John's skin. John holds onto him, and Rodney kisses him hard when he starts, "We don't—"
On the third day, Ronon finds Rodney, sits down beside him while Rodney counts drones for the fourth time. Rodney doesn't stop counting, eyes going up and down the rows of golden machines, but does incline his head in the other man's direction.
Ronon is silent for a long time, sitting still as a statue for long enough that Rodney forgets he's there at all. Rodney's up to several thousand drones when Ronon clears his throat and stretches his legs out. Rodney pauses to glare at Ronon, and for his trouble gets a conversation, "Can you track these people like you did the Wraith?"
There's something sharp as a knife about Ronon's gaze, a feral quality that holds the threat of blood and broken bones and screams. Rodney holds his eyes, the thousands of drones circling through his head, forgotten and unimportant. Rodney says, "Of course I can." He already has the parameters for setting up the program. It's just a matter of punching in the right variables to get the results they want.
Ronon nods, tilting his head back against the wall. Ronon's voice is gruff, "How well do Ancient shields work against Ancient weapons?"
Rodney shrugs, turning to look at the far wall. He wonders why Ronon decided to go ahead and stop pretending that they thought things still might be okay. But really, he appreciates the other man's ability to process and move on too much to complain about it. Rodney says, "We won't need weapons to retake Atlantis. I have—there are codes. Backdoors I, well, the other me, set up in case someone tried to steal the city. And, according to Elizabeth, most of the other ships are man-made."
"And how do Ancient weapons work against them?" Ronon meets Rodney's eyes, all sharp edges and viciousness. Rodney can only manage a smile, one that feels ugly and cold, that matches the tight ball of anger in his chest. After a long moment Ronon echoes the expression, baring his teeth and laughing sharply. Ronon says, "Good. Good."
Rodney looks at the drones, beautiful and deadly. "Yeah." John calls over the radio that they're almost to the planet.
They all end up at the bridge when they come out of hyperspace. There's silence as John pilots them into an orbit above the planet. Silence as Rodney steps over to the scanners and makes his fingers work, running scan after scan and ignoring the debris scattered in space around them.
The planet below them is almost all ocean, blue seas surrounding tiny brown continents. The atmosphere would support human life, but there's no sign of it. Rodney finds himself holding his breath and makes himself exhale, makes himself keep staring at the readouts.
It's Elizabeth who finally breaks the silence, "Rodney?"
He shakes his head, feeling like there's a thousand pounds of weight dragging down on his shoulders. His mouth works without him, voice flat, "There were multiple nuclear explosions on the surface yesterday. Naquadah as well. And…" he makes himself look again, just to be sure, swallows heavily, "An extinction level event consistent with a ZedPM exploding."
Silence. None of them cry and none of them scream. They're not the types. After a long moment Ronon does jerk to the side, grabbing a chair and hurling it across the bridge. Rodney winces when it crashes against the far wall, staring down at the dead world below them. He says, "If anyone is wondering, there's the wreckage of at least four ships around us."
At least they didn't get the city. Somehow, that isn't the relief that Rodney had hoped it would be.
The silence stretches and folds in on itself, sucking the air out of the room, leaving behind nothing but crushing pressure in its wake. Rodney is fairly certain he's going to be sick, which isn't even possible. It's not like he can catch a stomach flu. His hands have balled up into fists at some point and he makes himself relax.
John finally clears his throat, says, "Rodney, can you—"
Whatever it is, he can do it. Rodney is surprised by how painfully normal his own voice sounds, "Yes." They lapse into silence again, motionless, frozen. Rodney isn't sure how long they stand there, but eventually John steps up behind him, hooking his chin over Rodney's shoulder and wrapping his arms around Rodney's waist.
Rodney hiccups, pulling his hands away from the controls that they've frozen over, covering John's hands and holding on. Rodney says, his throat oddly tight, "It was good. Knowing that Atlantis was still here. Even if we weren't. It was good."
John nods, stubble rough against Rodney's neck, "I know," and holds him tighter. Somewhere behind them Teyla is singing, high and wordless, voice so drenched in grief it hurts. Somewhere behind them Ronon is murmuring words too soft to hear. Somewhere below them their city is in microscopic pieces on the floor of an unfamiliar ocean.
But here, right here, there is just John, holding Rodney together while he threatens to shake apart. He closes his eyes, still seeing the world below them on the insides of his eyelids, starts, "John—" and then runs out of words. Not sure what he's asking for or how to articulate what he needs. The world feels like it might have ended while Rodney wasn't paying attention.
John squeezes him, arms solid and reassuring around him, and says, "Yes."
It takes Rodney two hours to pick up the hyper-drive signatures left behind, two hours where John shadows him. The others stay in the room as well, watching Rodney work. The few times Rodney looks up, Ronon has both Elizabeth and Teyla curled up against him, all three with their heads bowed and their expressions hidden.
It's technically impossible to follow a hyperspace trail, but Rodney has been doing technically impossible things for the better part of his life. Everything leaves a trail. There's no such thing as a clean get away. And Rodney knows where to look, how to find the barest hint of a path. The fact that a dozen ships left the area makes them easier to find.
The screen lights up when Rodney finds the trail, a line of light and fire leading away from this empty world. John leans over his shoulder, eyes tracing the curve of the path the murderers took. John asks, "That's them?"
Rodney nods, reaching out, following the line they left with the tips of his fingers. "That's them." Behind them he hears the others shift, and a few seconds later they're all there, crowded around him, staring at the course laid out before them. It's beautiful, for such a horrible thing. Rodney can't take his eyes off of it, and stops trying after a moment.
Elizabeth breaks the spell, "So what are we waiting for?"
Rodney takes Ronon, Elizabeth, and Teyla and drags them along to the engine room. They're looking at a head start bordering on two days. Rodney knows he can get them moving faster, knows it bone deep, because he and technology have a way of working with each other that other people don't. He has exact calculations on how much he needs to speed them up to stand a chance in hell of catching the enemy fleet, and he needs all the extra sets of hands he can get. John stays behind to fly them, adjusting course as he goes, shaving off seconds that add up to minutes that add up to hours.
They're all working too fast, bleeding within minutes and ignoring the wounds. Ronon's hands are too big to really do the work. Rodney can't keep track of how many fingers the man loses, and Teyla gets her entire hand crushed once. Rodney wipes his face and his hands come away bloody, but he doesn't even remember the wound that caused it.
Hours, days, fall away, strung together with shouting and blood. They send Ronon to get them food when they need it, which is more and more often as they end up wounding themselves more frequently. None of them sleep, and after the first day or two the others adapt to that as well. Finally.
John has to report, eventually, that the trails are diverging, the ships branching off into different directions. They call a meeting, all of them clustering together, bloody and wrung out, wound tight with emotion. There's no way to follow all of the ships, no way that there'll be enough of a trail left to come back to once they move past this point. If they stay, there's a chance that they'll be able to track them all, but it's small. More likely that they'd lose them all.
They decide to go for what they can get, to keep on the largest trail and work on tracking down the rest later. They have, after all, plenty of time.
Rodney gets lost in the work, but doesn't regret it for an instant. There's no need to think about the hollow place in his chest, the loss of the city and his double, or the anger moving under his skin. There's no time for it, and so he pushes it aside.
And then John's voice is coming over the speakers, calm and cool, "Got 'em. Rodney, need you in the pilot seat, buddy."
It takes a half second for Rodney's brain to switch gears from fixing to fighting, but his body is already moving. The halls of the ship pass in a blur. He passes John heading the other direction, going towards the command chair. There's no time for anything more than a smile that's nothing but grim, vindictive, hard.
There are three ships waiting for them when Rodney brings them out of hyperspace.
The other ships start hailing almost immediately, and Rodney ignores them. There'll be no prisoners here, not with these people. All three ships are human models, slow and clunky as shit compared to the Odysseus. It's not a complicated plan, perfect in its simplicity.
Rodney punches them right into the middle of the cluster of ships, breath held tight in his chest. There's a pause, so infinitesimal as to be unnoticeable, and then drones are arching out away from them, winding across the blackness of space.
Screams come over the radio, loud and terrible, before they shift to crackling static and then echoing silence. The mess of lights and explosions are bright enough to hurt Rodney's eyes, but he stares up into them anyway, ignoring the burn. For a long, terrible moment after that he can't see anything at all, his eyes nothing but agony.
And then he blinks and his sight is back. There's wreckage floating across the view screen in front of him, huge pieces of metal bulkhead and smaller bodies. The fuel from the ships has frozen, crystals that catch and reflect the light from the stars, hundreds of tiny rainbows twisting and turning through the abyss. Rodney's breath comes out in a rush.
They end up grinding to a halt. The anger, the need to avenge what might as well have been themselves, had driven them this far. Rodney has no doubt it would have driven them further, but there's no trail left, no immediate place that they have to be, nothing but the wreckage of ships floating around them.
Rodney stays in the pilot's chair, tracking pieces of refuse that tumble end over end in front of the view screen, until he can't take it anymore. It's been maybe thirty seconds. He feels like he's got too much energy all of a sudden, electricity under his skin.
He and John run into each other at the same place in the corridor that they had passed each other earlier. Rodney can hear himself talking, words tumbling out, because words are all he has, "I have to undo some of the changes, it's dangerous to let the engine run that high for long periods of time. I need to—"
John catches him, hands closing around his shoulders and mouth coming down on his. Rodney keeps talking for a long moment against his lips before John slides his hands up Rodney's neck, thumbs pressing against his jaw. And then there's nothing to do but kiss him back.
John already has a hand up under his shirt, flattened across Rodney's side. There's a spot below Rodney's ribs with new skin on it, where he'd leaned against a hot pipe, and he hisses when John drags his fingertips across it. He can't actually help but curve into John.
John grins against his mouth, his hands sliding up, taking Rodney's shirt with them, and pulling back long enough to yank it off and toss it to the side. Rodney gets distracted by it for a moment, the tan fabric is covered in blood and it makes Rodney look down at himself, wondering where it all came from.
Any wound is long gone by now, but there's dried blood covering most of the left side of his chest. He wonders what he did to himself, and John bumps his chin with a finger, smiling when Rodney looks up at him. John says, "Hey," and then leans back in.
When John shows no sign of wanting to relocate or of keeping his tongue in his own mouth and his hands to himself, Rodney pulls back far enough to point out, "We're in the hallway." He knows that their standards for personal space have drastically changed, but Rodney is pretty sure that there are some things still best done behind closed doors.
"So?" John leans forward to chase his mouth, hands hooking in Rodney's waistband and keeping him from stepping away. "Ronon and Elizabeth are busy. Teyla is getting cleaned up. And I want you." John's hands make a compelling argument, and Rodney gives in.
Oddly enough, it helps.
It takes Rodney a day of work to get the engine back in safe working order. The time spent running it so far above recommended limits has already had an effect. There are signs of wear where there should be none, and a few of the circuits are so close to overloading that they're unsalvageable. Teyla comes by to help, which is just as well, because her tiny hands can reach the places Rodney's can't.
They don't work in silence, because Rodney doesn't do silence unless he absolutely has to. Mostly he spends his time explaining what they're doing. After all, it's best to not waste a captive audience, and Teyla is bright enough to understand at least a small percentage of the things that he says.
He's in the middle of explaining exactly what would happen if they didn't get the engine shifted back down to normal levels when Teyla clears her throat. She has her hand up inside the engine and for a moment Rodney assumes that it's a 'my hand is caught and being chopped to pieces' throat clearing, but she doesn't sound in pain when she asks, "Do you feel different?"
Rodney frowns, keeps his eyes on the pressure gage when he answers, "From?" He wonders if this is a conversation about monsters, and how they're all becoming them. He hopes not, because while he has a defense ready, he's not sure that even he buys it.
Teyla pulls her hand out of the machine, frowning at the thick grease spread across her skin and grabbing a bloody rag to wipe it clean. She's silent for a long moment, gathering her thoughts or just trying to get the dirt out from under her nails, Rodney isn't sure, "There are no longer two of us. We are…unique again. Do you feel different?"
Soul searching has never been something Rodney wasted very much time with, but this is Teyla asking, and so he considers the question. He stares down at his hands, the pink skin growing over his busted knuckles, and takes a deep breath. "Your premise if flawed."
Teyla's head cocks to the side, her dark eyes curious. Rodney slots words into place in his head, rubs his thumb over his wrist and thinks about John leaving behind his dog tags, about Elizabeth coming with them on the raid of the Genii facility, about Alize. He says, "We were always unique."
They might have been created off the genetic templates of John Sheppard, Teyla Emmagan, Elizabeth Weir, Ronon Dex and Rodney McKay, but they'd been different from the start. Oddly enough, that makes the loss hurt more.
No one seems to want to discuss what they're going to do next. Meals are silent, with all of them eating as quickly as they can and then scattering in different directions. They curl up to sleep at night in the same room, but a million miles apart, lost in the spaces left by the loss of their anchor point.
John is the only thing that still feels real, and Rodney holds onto him. Even silent and tense, John is warm, easy to lie beside, easy to sit beside, easy to smile at when John brings him lunch while he's working. As the days pass, the smiles even stop feeling sickeningly wrong.
They're all healing, waiting for the life threatening part of the pain to pass so that they can start the long slow walk towards whole again. They're raw, torn open and with pieces cut out, but in the same way their bodies heal, the deep places inside are, as well. It's just a slower process. And infinitely more painful.
It's been a week, maybe, from the day that they blew up the three enemy ships, when no one immediately gets up to run after a meal. Elizabeth and Teyla are wearing their calm expressions, Ronon is sitting with his shoulders back and his arms crossed, and John is practicing aggressive leaning techniques. Rodney just fidgets, fighting the urge in the back of his head to run, just run, down to the engine room where he doesn't have to face this.
John shifts, his foot bumping into Rodney's under the table, and Rodney makes himself sit.
It's Elizabeth who breaks the bubble of silence, her hands folded in front of her, the tension in them just barely noticeable, "We have some options we need to consider." She's staring at the far wall, but then, none of them are really looking at each other, so Rodney can't fault her. She clears her throat, "Decisions we need to make."
No one else says a word, and then John is sighing, tilting his head back and speaking up to the ceiling, "How long are we guessing it took before Atlantis…" John trails off, color draining out of his face, his whole body tensing up just from the thought of it, the word stuck in his throat.
Rodney has no such qualms, he completes, "Fell? It's impossible to say. It could have been hours, days, depending on the state of the ZedPM, maybe weeks, though the scanners didn't identify the Daedalus' signature anywhere in the area, so we're probably looking at days. Probably a constant bombardment—"
Rodney cuts himself off when he notices the sick looks everyone else is wearing. Even Ronon looks disturbed, his expression cut down but his eyes so sad it hurts to look at them. Rodney forgets sometimes that other people don't view the world the same way he does, that they don't feel the need to dissect everything and figure it out no matter how badly it hurts to think about.
John's voice is flat, "So we have to consider the possibility that they 'gated off-world. They could have gone back to Earth."
Ronon snorts, "Some of them, maybe." And Rodney knows he's right. He wonders how many people chose to stay in the dying city. Obviously, his other self did. ZedPMs don't just blow up, but the one in the city had been over loaded, had been used to make sure that no one else got the city. Rodney is willing to bet that everyone at the table would have stayed, even Elizabeth, if her double were still alive.
There's silence, and then Elizabeth is speaking, "We should consider that there's a fairly good chance we're the…only versions of ourselves left. We could go back."
Rodney blurts, "You mean Earth?" because he's not sure that he believes it. Elizabeth nods, tight and controlled, and Rodney is surprised by the way his stomach lurches. There's something almost physically distressing about the idea of stepping into a life that was never his, lying every day of his life about what he really is. He says, "No."
Elizabeth meets his eyes, all sadness and determination. Her voice is tight, "I'm not saying we should, just that it's an option that's on the table. What else is there for us? Chasing the people who did this through space? Fighting the Wraith with our one ship? Is that what you want for the rest of your life?"
It's Ronon who answers, reaching out to rest a hand on Elizabeth's shoulder, "Sometimes, it isn't about what we want."
They all stare at each other, and Rodney thinks that he would have gladly gone along with the avoidance some more if it meant they didn't have to have this conversation. Though he has to admit that it's going better than he'd been anticipating. Elizabeth and John have been remarkably civil with each other, for once.
Elizabeth looks down again. She says, "We don't have to decide now. It's not a decision we can make without thinking all the angles over."
It's enough of a dismissal for Rodney to grab and run with. He pushes himself to his feet, feeling clumsy and boxed in. He spits, "Do what you want. I'm not going," and goes to find something that makes sense, something he can take apart and put back together.
John finds Rodney later, drops down beside him and rubs the blood off of Rodney's face before pushing his eye back into the socket. Rodney says, "Hey," and leans sideways to rest against John, staring at the spinning blades across from them and trying to figure out how he managed to take his own eye out.
John hums in response, tearing a strip off the bottom of his own shirt and spitting on it before reaching over and rubbing at the tacky blood on Rodney's cheek. Rodney thinks that it should probably be worrisome how very used to this they've gotten. And that John has apparently been taking lessons in mothering from somebody. Still, it feels good to get the blood off, so Rodney doesn't complain.
After a moment John leans back, apparently satisfied. Rodney asks, "Am I presentable now?"
John snorts, balling his makeshift rag up and tossing it off to the side where Rodney will have to pick it up later. And then John nudges Rodney again, says, "You know, I thought about trying to find a coin." Rodney gives him a look, "To flip. About going back to Earth."
Rodney stares at him, "That better be a joke." John winces and Rodney pushes away from the other man, surprised by the sting of hurt and anger, "You can't base your future on the flip of a coin, John. Why would you want to hand over your—"
John interrupts him by leaning over and kissing him. It's far more chaste than most of their kisses are, just John's lips pressed against his until Rodney falls silent and sighs. When John pulls back he says, "I said I thought about it, not that I did it. It was a bad habit I used to have."
"Basing life changing decisions on the flip of a coin?"
John at least looks suitably ashamed of himself, one corner of his mouth twisting up. He says, "It worked out pretty well in the past, actually." Rodney decides not to ask, because more than likely it'll just end up upsetting him. More.
Instead he rolls his eyes, leaning back against John since he's apparently not being a complete idiot at the moment, "Well, there aren't any coins around anyway. You'll just have to find some other way to decide what you want."
John sighs, impatient, and the emotion has crept into his voice as well, "I know what I want." Rodney waves a hand, mirroring and amplifying John's impatience. John reaches out and grabs his hand in mid-gesture, squeezing Rodney's fingers, "You said no, Rodney."
"Yes, and?" There are times that Rodney wonders if John is being deliberately obtuse.
John just grins at him, leaning over and kissing him again. When Rodney tries to pull back far enough to demand the completion of John's explanation, he's ignored. It's only when he finally manages to ask if John is staying or going that he gets a response. John pauses, voice rough and deep, impatient and affectionate, "You said no, Rodney."