Title
The Fall of the House of Sheppard
Prompt
Big Bang 2008.   Forks in the Road: Outcast - Rodney goes back to Earth with John instead of/in addition to Ronon.
Summary
John Sheppard's strange inheritance has drawn Dr. Rodney McKay across two galaxies and back again. Now Dr. McKay must survive the dark forces at work in the Sheppard house to save the man he loves!

Serious warnings for such a frivolous story: Noncon, sexual battery, and violence.
Pairing
McKay/Sheppard, McKay/OC
Rating
NC-17
Word Count
40150 words
Companion Artwork
  • The Fall of the House of Sheppard Cover 1 by Sal
  • The Fall of the House of Sheppard Cover 2 by Sal

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, Colonel John Sheppard had been driving Dr. Rodney McKay in a midsize gray rental car through a singularly dreary tract of country. It hadn't looked like such an awful trip when Rodney googled their route from the airport, but traffic had been stop and go the entire way, and Sheppard barely said a word.

Rodney talked nonstop.

Sheppard hardly responded at all, which was daunting, but not unbearable until they finally turned off the freeway to follow a road that rambled unhappily through stubbled cornfields and small patches of woods squared by the razed fields on either side. The leaves on the trees were all brown. For a while the road curved along the seashore, but the view did little to ease Rodney's incipient claustrophobia, not with the storm clouds hanging so low they seemed ready to touch the thin froth of white edging the dark green waves. Eventually the road turned inland again, this time through a salt marsh even more depressing than the denuded farmland.

Rodney rolled up the windows that Sheppard had rolled down while they had been driving along the shore. The smell of salt air had reminded them both of Atlantis, although neither of them said so -- Sheppard because he wasn't saying anything, and Rodney because even though most things worth saying once were worth saying several more times as well -- the truth was they had only left Atlantis a day before. It was too soon to be missing it.

But the smell of salt water was one thing; the reek of the brackish marsh was another altogether, which Rodney told Sheppard at some length when he imagined he saw Sheppard raise an eyebrow.

"I guess I don't notice it so much," Sheppard muttered quietly. "I grew up with it."

Rodney turned his head and looked at him. Sheppard continued to stare straight ahead as the road turned back towards the sea and began to curve upwards. He was wearing a black coat and a white dress shirt open at the collar, and his throat looked so naked Rodney longed to cover it with his own hands. That's what spending too much time in the Pegasus galaxy would do for you, Rodney thought sourly. He curled his traitorous hands into fists and turned his head to look out the windshield. The car rounded a final steep uphill turn, and suddenly the house filled the horizon.

The place was a box against the sky, two or three hundred years older than the frivolity of Victorian gingerbreads; older even than the modest ornament of columns or pilasters. A single brick chimney in the center teetered skyward. The placement of the windows was utterly symmetrical, the panes themselves large and square, reflecting back the bleak skyline, and there was no porch, just a single white step up from the crushed stone drive. Rodney hated the place on sight, and could not really say why. It couldn't be just the age of the gloomy structure, because what was a mere 400 years or so after living in the city of the Ancients? But Atlantis never seemed to sag under the weight of its aging materials like this place, as though it was nothing but long habit that still kept it upright.

"Good Lord," Rodney blurted out. "Don't tell me you grew up here."

This time Sheppard unquestionably raised an eyebrow. "OK. I won't tell you."

Both sides of the circular drive were parked with big, sober sedans. Without hesitating, Sheppard turned aside on a road so narrow it was hardly more than a footpath through the trimmed, browning grass. Behind the house was a ramshackle collection of low stone buildings. There were more cars parked here, and Rodney began to get a sense of the number of gathered mourners.

"Your father had a lot of friends. Jeannie and I were the only people at my dad's funeral. Well, us and the minister that Jeannie insisted on. Overpaid bastard. I called Mom and told her about Dad's heart attack, but she –" Rodney realized that Sheppard had parked the car and was just looking at him, an indecipherable expression on his face. "What?"

Sheppard shook his head. "Yeah. Dad knew a lot of influential people. Comes from an old family." He got out of the car. Rodney scrambled to follow.

Someone was walking down from the main house. He was a youngish guy, nearly a head taller than Sheppard with shoulders that Rodney associated with the Marines. "The graveside service has already started," he said to Sheppard without any other preamble.

Sheppard bowed his head slightly. "All right. Thanks." The big man turned his back on them and returned to the house.

"Should I bring my bag?" Rodney asked.

"You can get it after the service." He started walking, and Rodney had to scramble again to catch up, legs stiff after hours in the car.

"Wait. You mean your family has a private graveyard?"

Sheppard didn't wait. The path was made of hewn square blocks, long since worn smooth by passing feet. Or for all Rodney knew, by the wagon wheels of traveling hearses. The wind smelled like rain. Probably going to get drenched, he thought pessimistically. Sheppard led the way around the tumble of buildings. Their walls were built of small round stones, stacked without mortar and still solid, but most of the low-pitched roofs had long since fallen into disrepair.

Behind one of the last buildings were the remnants of a railing marked only by the post stumps, and a circle of dirt pounded so flat weeds still didn't grow. Rodney looked at it as they passed. "Did your family keep horses?"

"Mother rode," Sheppard said in the same distant voice he had been using since the plane landed at Dulles.

"So, is it far?" Rodney's dress shoes were not made for tromping through the wilderness. The few trees were twisted and stunted by the wind blowing off the ocean. The path wound uphill ever closer to the edge of the cliff, but Rodney couldn't see the water because his view was blocked by boulders, craggy and shattered. He was morbidly reminded of Easter Island statues as he hurried to catch up with Sheppard. Another curve around a basilisk of stone, and Rodney found Sheppard looking down at the sea that crawled dark and gray under the storm clouds above.

Rodney grabbed an elbow and yanked him back. "What, are you nuts? Who knows how stable the edge is!"

Sheppard turned his head. For a moment, he seemed on the verge of smiling. "It's not much further."

"You could have warned me it was a marathon," Rodney grumbled, but quietly.

The path turned away from the cliff and headed steeply downhill. Rodney wrapped his arms around himself, and wished he was wearing something warmer than a dress coat. After walking along for a time in silence, he realized he was hearing voices. The graveyard soon came into view.

It was larger than Rodney had expected, gray crosses and dolorous statuary stretching deep into the shelter of twisted cedar trees. Right, he thought then. Four hundred years of Sheppards were buried here. The bodies start to pile up after a while.

He stayed close to Sheppard as they passed through the tall iron gates. White faces turned towards them briefly as they approached the graveside. Bare dirt was heaped beside the open grave, with no tactful covering of Astroturf. The minister was reading his text from note cards cupped in the palms of his hands.

"Inasmuch as we find in scripture, as well as in ecclesiastical history, that the ministers of God have been improved in the recording and declaring the works of the Lord..." he droned without inflection, barely raising his eyes.

Everyone was standing, women teetering in impractical heels, men looking just as uncomfortable as Rodney was. There was no shelter. The minister's gibberish swept over Rodney like the wind from the ocean.

"... it is proposed that each one in that capacity may diligently enquire into and record such illustrious providences as have happened in the places whereunto they do belong, and that the witnesses of such notable occurrences be likewise set down in writing."

Rodney forced himself to pay attention for a little while, on the off chance that this charlatan might actually say something about John Sheppard's father, but it was all just weird nonsense. His mind skittered away from listening too closely.

Eventually there must have been an indication to pray because Rodney noticed the heads around him bowed. Rodney gazed off towards the older gravestones in the woods. As thin as the trees were, the shadows underneath were dark. He saw a woman standing apart from the other mourners, back amongst the deeply shaded older tombstones. She was probably worried about the rain, too. She was sadly mistaken, though, if she really believed those twisted cedar trees would save her from getting soaked once the heavens opened up.

He looked back and saw that Sheppard didn't have his head down for the prayer either. Rodney knocked his arm gently, just to get his attention. The Colonel glanced at him, one eyebrow rising, and for a moment, Rodney felt better than he had all day.

Then it was over, the mourners turning away from the open grave and making their way through the gate and back up the ocean path. Sheppard stepped aside, and it seemed to Rodney that he was deliberately turning his face away. But if he were really trying to hide, it didn't do him any good. A whippet-thin woman in a black dress that showed off knees like ball peen hammers suddenly grasped Sheppard's arm. "Johnny!" she exclaimed, her voice soft and shocked. "Johnny," she said again. "You came home."

"Too late to do any good." Sheppard sounded so bitter Rodney stepped forward and put his hand in the center of Sheppard's back. He half-expected the Colonel to flinch away from his touch. What Sheppard did was worse. Without even looking at Rodney he said, "Nancy and I used to be married."

Rodney dropped his hand. Sheppard's ex-wife glanced at him briefly, but it was clear that all her attention was on Sheppard. "Dave didn't think you would make it. Honestly, I didn't think you would either. But your father was always so kind to me that I couldn't stay away."

"Dad always thought marrying you was the best thing I ever did," Sheppard said. Nancy's head came up sharply at that, her eyes wide and hurt. Rodney knew how she felt.

"I'll see you up at the house," he muttered. "I take it there's going to be food? It's been a long time since breakfast." Rodney stomped away, following the crowd. For the first time, he thought maybe he shouldn't have come. He could repair the generator more quickly than Radek, and besides, now he owed Radek one, and it wasn't like the man was going to let him forget it. What possible good did Rodney think he could do here? Sheppard had been married. Sheppard had been married and had never seen fit to bring the matter up.

The people around Rodney looked at him with frank curiosity on the path back up to the house. Rodney ignored them all. When the path reached the ocean overlook again, he turned off and let the others pass him. A fog had begun to roll landward, obscuring the waves below, and it was getting dark with the early dusk of autumn.

And by the way, just how much did Rodney despise hypocrites? A whole hell of a lot, actually. Especially when he was the hypocrite himself. He hadn't come to Earth because he could actually do Sheppard any good. The man's father was dead. There was no way anyone could make it better. For that matter, this past year Rodney thought he had pretty much gotten over the notion he could make anything better for his friends.

God. Carson, Elizabeth.

John had been so strong through everything, bearing Rodney up, forgiving his every bad decision. The truth was, Rodney had strong-armed his way along with John now because seeing him so diminished at the news of his father's death had been more than Rodney could stand. Not when he depended on John for so much.

When the other people looked at him, he pretended to be admiring the view. The minister came by, arm in arm with a younger man. When they passed Rodney, the younger man said something to the minister and sent him on alone. He then walked deliberately up to Rodney, who stiffened and looked out at the mist-obscured ocean with more determination.

Unfortunately, the other man didn't take the hint. "I guess it's a suitably depressing day for a funeral," he said.

"Would sunshine have made it any better?" Rodney snapped.

The other man shook his head. "Come on. It'll be raining soon."

Rodney glanced back down the path one more time, but there was still no sign of Sheppard. All right. Obviously he didn't need to stand around and get drenched for him. His temper growing fouler with every step, Rodney allowed the other man to chivvy him up the path. At least the pushy stranger restrained himself from inane conversation as they walked.

Electric lanterns shone before some of the outlying buildings, spreading pale, balked fans of light through the deepening fog. The other man stumbled slightly on the dark path, and Rodney instinctively put his hand out to catch him. "Careful," he snapped. "You'd think they would slap down some pavement and put in decent lights if they were going to make a habit of this."

The other man chuckled a little, holding onto Rodney's elbow until he regained his balance. "You mean, make a habit of funerals? I think it's the human condition."

"Then there should be smooth pavement and bright lights," Rodney snapped back, and stalked towards the main house and the promise of food. The back door was standing open, two stone steps up into the back foyer.

The rooms inside smelled of wood smoke, funeral flowers and, Rodney was glad to notice, bacon. He followed the murmur of conversation into a room where a fire blazed in the fireplace and small groups of people clustered around tables promisingly laden with hors d'œuvre. Rodney looked down at his hands, suddenly aware of the grime of travel. He found his guide still at his side. "Is there a bathroom?" he asked. "I need to wash my hands."

"The one upstairs is probably free. It's just to the left at the top of the stairs."

Rodney grunted in acknowledgment. Before going upstairs, he went to the back door again and looked out into the gloomy evening. There was still no sign of Sheppard. Not that he cared. At least it hadn't started raining yet, although he didn't care about that either.

The staircase was as generously proportioned as the rest of the house, a gentle rise winding around what Rodney suspected was the central chimney. The steps were polished wood, worn down near the inside from centuries of footsteps taking the shortest path. It pleased Rodney to walk on the outermost side of the steps instead.

The upstairs hall was a mirror image of the foyer down below, short and broad with rooms radiating from it symmetrically. The promised bathroom, obviously added centuries after the original construction of the house, was a windowless square blocked out of one of the bedrooms. The door didn't lock, and there was no shower, just a claw-footed tub. It occurred to Rodney for the first time that he and Sheppard had not discussed where they were going to be spending the night. Surely, in a hotel back in town. Rodney tried to think where the nearest town was, and was annoyed that he didn't know.

He relieved himself and washed his hands. The guest towels were useless little wads of lace. Rodney dabbed his fingers dry with a snort of disgust. When he opened the bathroom door, the man who had escorted him to the house was standing on the threshold.

"It's all yours." Rodney tried to step past. Instead of moving, the other man crowded him backwards and shut the bathroom door on them both. "Hey!" Rodney protested, but the other man said calmly, "It's the only way to get through a funeral," and smoothly went to his knees in front of Rodney.

"Um, wait. No," Rodney stuttered. "I think there's been a misunderstanding."

"Back against the door." The other man put his hands on Rodney's hips and pushed him around. "We don't need interruptions."

He unzipped Rodney's pants and had his dick pulled through the fly in his boxers even as Rodney was still trying to explain that there was nothing to interrupt here. One sweet stroke, smooth and certain, and Rodney groaned. A second stroke, a third, and Rodney's dick was plumping happily.

"Beautiful," the other man murmured. He licked his lips and leaned forward to suck Rodney into his moistly open mouth.

Rodney felt his knees buckle, and he collapsed back against the door. Jesus, it had been a long time. "Thank you," he moaned. "Really, that's just -- Oh, god." He put his hand on the other man's head, trying to be gentle even as the pleasure grew thick, mindlessly greedy. His thighs were trembling as he ran his hand through the other man's hair. He hunched his body forward a bit to cup his face and traced the man's lips where they were stretched wide around his dick. Pressing his palm lightly against the man's cheek, he could feel the head of his cock poking blindly within that warm, wet space.

The good feelings curled deliciously up his spine. "That's it," Rodney groaned, and tried to push the other man away. His new friend wouldn't be moved, though, surging forward, locking his arms around Rodney's hips. Rodney bucked into his mouth, grunting as he came. The jolts of pleasure made his chest ache and his toes curl in his uncomfortable shoes. He could feel the flush on his cheeks and the prickle of tears in his eyes. "Oh. Oh god."

The other man pulled away with a wet smack and rocked to his feet. He gave Rodney a crooked smile before turning around and spitting in the sink. When he turned back, Rodney was ready for him, unzipping his trousers to find him hard and ready, leaking against tidy white briefs. "You don't --" the other man started.

"Shut up," Rodney said cheerfully, rolling down the man's briefs and spitting into his palm. "You said it was the only way to get through a funeral. That means both of us."

The other man's protests faded as Rodney began to pump him. Obviously they didn't have all night here, so Rodney kept his grip tight and his pace efficient. When the other man groaned, closing his eyes, Rodney put his free hand on the back of his neck, urging him forward. He pulled back briefly, but Rodney was having none of it. "Oh please," he snapped, laying the man's head on his shoulder as he shuddered. "You expect me to believe you're getting off with a stranger because you already have enough affection in your life?"

He made the last strokes slow and long, holding the stranger as tenderly as he could manage through his orgasm. This time when he pulled back and raised his head, Rodney let him go. The other man washed his hands and splashed water on his face, pulled out a tube of chapstick and offered it to Rodney, who shook his head, before applying it to his own lips. Then he checked his fly and was gone.

Rodney propped himself against the side of the tub. So, apparently he still had it, and hey, unsolicited blowjobs were a good thing, right? But when he raised his sticky hand, he found his fingers were trembling. Shaking all over now, he forced himself to his feet and washed his hands thoroughly, wishing he could change his underwear. Eventually, mostly because he couldn't hide in the Sheppard family's upstairs bathroom all night, he left the little square room and ventured back downstairs.

The house seemed larger and gloomier than ever. Vast, dark canvases hung above eye level on every wall, and the forbiddingly high ceilings were shrouded in shadows. Rodney found his way back to the parlor with people and food. He felt jittery and hypersensitive, and the other mourners all looked terribly frail and artificial to him. With their white faces and dark formal attire, they could have been paper dolls pinned against the emerald green woodwork.

Rodney was not patient with his own flights of fancy. He stalked up to a table of food and began piling a plate high, keeping one eye out for his new friend. He didn't see him in the parlor. When his plate was full, he went looking for the kitchen. The first room he stuck his head into was a library. Shelves of books were ranked all the way up to the ceiling in rounded alcoves like open tombs. This entire place was a goddamned tomb, Rodney thought viciously.

The next room was a formal dining room, which made him think the kitchen must be close. At least, he assumed they had remodeled one of these rooms into a kitchen some time in the last hundred years. He didn't really believe those miniature quiche and bacon-wrapped scallops had been prepared out in the stable.

A sudden, muffled spattering against the windows made him jump. The rains had finally come. He hoped Sheppard had made it back by now. As he turned away, his eye was caught by the family portrait above the mantle. It was very old and very ugly, primitive figures with oversized doll heads and frozen limbs posed stiffly against a flat blue ocean. Mother and father and two smaller creatures that were probably children, although their proportions made them look more like unhappy, lumpen fairies. A dog gamboled at their feet. Or maybe it was supposed to be a monkey. At any rate, it was clear no artists had yet emigrated to the New World when this masterpiece had been commissioned. Rodney snorted and turned away. Then he looked back a second time.

He recognized the scene. The family had been painted on the overlook on the way to the graveyard. The craggy rocks like crumbling Easter Island statues were clearly recognizable even in the hands of this unhappy painter. The whole thing struck Rodney as more than a little creepy. Of course, by this point, that was no surprise

The last room proved to be the kitchen. It was as oversized as the rest of the house, with floor-to-ceiling windows streaked by rain. To Rodney's relief, however, the caterer was clearly no part of Sheppard kith and kin. She was reassuringly short and round, apple-cheeked with curly red hair pulled back into a long braid. When Rodney cornered her and demanded an ingredient list for everything being served, she obliged with the air of a professional used to much more demanding requests.

Satisfied with her answers, Rodney sat down at the kitchen table and methodically ate his way through his whole plate. He saw no reason to hurry back to the main parlor. He told himself that he wasn't trying to avoid anyone. It was just that by staying in the kitchen, he had first dibs on the scallops. He served himself a glass of the tolerable red wine and drank it slowly, trying very hard to think about the paper he was finally going to write while he was stuck here on Earth.

He knew from his own observations while onboard the Odyssey that the current thinking about accretion disk thickness at large radii was embarrassingly wrong, and it had been bugging him for years now how Earth-based astronomers labored in darkness while the Stargate Program remained classified. This finally was a nudge he could make in the right direction. Obviously he couldn't share his observational data of black holes, but he could present the same data in a theoretical construct. He just had to ensure his presentation was unassailable. Elegantly bulletproof. It shouldn't be a problem, considering the fluid dynamics calculations alone would make a grown man weep.

He wasn't entirely sure when he had stopped fantasizing about dropping a hard copy in the middle of Sam Carter's desk, and started fantasizing about wandering over to Sheppard's quarters with a laptop and a bag of cheese curls and walking him through some of the more impressive calculations. It didn't bear too much thinking about, frankly.

And speaking of Sheppard. Rodney's head came up. That was his voice in the next room. He stood, torn between wanting to see him and a perfectly understandable and not at all shameful impulse to hide. The choice was taken out of his hands when Sheppard walked into the kitchen with Rodney's new friend right behind him.

Rodney sat back down and drained his glass of wine.

"No more than a week, John," the other man was saying. "Best case scenario, we can even take care of everything in two or three days. But there's no way to move up the reading of the will. It would be one thing if there was a reliable way for me to get in touch with you --"

"I can manage three days," John said. To Rodney, he just sounded sad and tired. "Maybe four on the outside. I don't mean to make things difficult for you, Dave. It's just that I have obligations."

"Right," the other man said quietly. "Obligations. Honestly, I wasn't sure you would even be here today. Usually when I send messages to Peterson, I don't hear a word back from you. If you came this time hoping I would buy you out, you might as well know there's just enough money to maintain the house. And even that's getting tight."

"I'm here for Dad's funeral." Sheppard didn't sound angry, just more sad than Rodney could bear. Even though there weren't many places in two galaxies he would less rather be right now, Rodney forced himself to walk up to the two of them.

"Colonel," he said. "Had anything to eat yet? The miniature Quiche Lorraine is pretty good. The caterer says it's going fast."

The other man quirked an eyebrow at Rodney, and oh, dammit, how could he possibly have missed the family resemblance?

"Dave, this is Dr. Rodney McKay," Sheppard said. "We work together."

"David Sheppard," the other man said.

John's brother, Rodney thought numbly as he reached out to take his hand. "Good hors d'œuvre," he blurted. "No lemon. I'm uh, sorry for your loss."

"Are you Air Force too?" His gaze dropped down Rodney's body deliberately. It was less than a second, but Rodney could feel himself flushing scarlet. He hoped the kitchen was too dark for John to tell.

"Dr. McKay is a civilian contractor," John started, and Rodney interrupted, "Are we going soon? Because I was hoping to get some work done tonight."

"Leaving already?" David asked. "Somehow I'm not surprised."

John looked from Rodney to David. "No, I wasn't planning on going anywhere, unless you don't want me here."

David shook his head. "I'm sorry. It's been a rough couple of weeks. This is your home, too."

"Rodney," John said, "You can take the car and find a hotel in Bedford. I'll give you a call later."

Leaving John stranded here in Manderley? Oh, hell, no.

"That won't work," Rodney announced. "I've had too much to drink. I would go off that cliff if I tried to drive myself tonight."

John looked a little skeptical, but David said with an unconvincing smile, "Well, this is Dad's wake. He wouldn't want guests staying unnecessarily sober. Most of the bedrooms aren't made up, but if you don't mind sharing the Red Room with John, I'd be more than glad to put you up for the night, Dr. McKay."

Rodney wondered if it was only his own guilt that made him think David Sheppard was smirking at him.

"Help me with my bags, Colonel?" Rodney steered John out of the kitchen, John looking over his shoulder to say to his brother, "I'll talk to you in a bit," but Rodney didn't let him slow down. At the back door John finally protested, "Wait a second. We used to keep extra umbrellas in the cloakroom."

He rummaged around while Rodney looked out the back door at the rain and thought about how much he didn't want to be in this house anymore.

"Here you go." John pushed an ancient black umbrella into Rodney's hands. "Now we'll only get mildly soaked." He had scrounged an umbrella for himself as well, and the two of them splashed out through the puddles in the yard. John popped the trunk of the rental car, and, as he and Rodney were draping luggage over their shoulders, he finally said, "You don't want to be here. Why the hell don't you go stay in town?"

Rodney was concentrating very hard on settling his laptop case against his hip. "That's a stupid question." He didn't look at John. "Do you really think I came all this way just to see the sights in this godforsaken corner of this godforsaken country?"

He slammed the trunk closed before he dared to look at John again. It didn't much matter because he couldn't see John's expression in the rain. John only said, "I know. Thank you."

Rodney walked quickly back to the house with John on his heels. They shook themselves off like a couple of wet dogs in the back foyer, and Rodney let John lead the way upstairs and into one of the bedrooms. John fumbled for the light switch. The pale yellow light of the old-fashioned chandelier proved wholly inadequate to brighten the shadows of the vast room. McKay felt his jaw drop just the same.

"Oh, my god. Please tell me this wasn't your bedroom. Lie if you have to."

The bed was a canopied four-poster about the size of a puddlejumper, with velvet curtains the color of claret or spilled blood. All the woodwork in the room was painted the same color. The rest of the furniture was similarly oversized, trunks and dressers that could hide bodies, wardrobes larger than his quarters in Antarctica had been.

"It wasn't my room." John sounded almost amused. "When Dave and I were growing up, my folks used this as a guest room for relatives."

"Obvious ploy to make sure you didn't have too many relatives dropping by." Rodney went to the frankly frightening bed and whisked back the curtains. Somewhat to his surprise, there was no smell of mildew. The linens really were fresh. He pressed his fist into the mattress. It was too soft, however. He would be crippled for life after a few nights here.

"Will you be all right?" John asked. "The bathroom is just across the hall."

"I know," Rodney blurted without thinking. He clamped his mouth shut but John only said, "I'll probably be late. Dave and I have some things to talk about."

"What kind of things? From what I heard, he didn't seem very happy to see you."

"Thanks, McKay. That's why I brought you along. Your sensitive insight into family dynamics."

"Really? I mean, I can't be an expert in everything, but over the past year Jeannie and I have started to get along better than we -- oh. You're joking."

John gave him a sad near-smile. "Yeah. Pretty much."

"Fine. I just don't understand why you're so set on staying here. Can't you take care of family business from town?"

John looked away towards the window. Rain was still streaking the panes of glass. "David and I have never really been friends," he said reluctantly.

Rodney clamped down ruthlessly on his impulse to make a comment about just how obvious that was.

"The point is, I don't want things to be bad between us any more. Dad's gone, but with Dave, maybe I still have a chance. This is something I want to do."

"What happened? What was your big falling out?"

John shook his head. "It was a long time ago. Look, I'll set some towels out for you in the bathroom. There's no cellphone coverage, I'm afraid, but this is a south facing room, so your satellite modem ought to work OK in the window. Is there anything else you need?"

Just to get both of us out of this house and back to Atlantis, Rodney thought. What he said was, "I need to get some work done," and turned away. He listened to John's footsteps leaving the room and realized even from upstairs, he could still smell food and the funeral lilies.

He tipped forward slowly, slowly, the corner of the bed cutting him off mid-thigh, and he just kept going until he toppled face down on the middle of the bed. And there he stayed. He was trying not to think at all, but of course, his mind didn't have an on-off switch.

Rodney McKay: specialist in family relations. Right. That's why he'd given John's own brother a hand-job in the bathroom.

Eventually, it got hard to breathe with his face smashed into the mattress. Groaning, he rolled over onto his back. The red canopy overhead was as bloody as his thoughts.

He sat up at last, went to his luggage, and unpacked his computer. There was a strange little writing desk of some sort in front of one of the windows. John was right: it would do for his laptop and the satellite modem. Or it would if this room actually faced south as John had so confidently asserted. Rodney had lost track of directions on the winding route here.

As much as he was trying not to think about it, he couldn't stop entertaining a very dark suspicion about David Sheppard. Rodney hadn't recognized him even though the family resemblance was strong, (and he could beat himself up for that as much as he liked, oh, for the rest of his life or so.) But he and John had come late to the graveside service. If David had so much as raised his head, he would have seen them arriving together. And that meant Rodney hadn't necessarily been chosen because he was irresistible to members of both sexes.

In fact, there was the highly unpleasant possibility that David had picked him up precisely because he had arrived with John.

And Rodney thought the McKay family had issues.

The spindly-legged chair was uncomfortable, and the writing desk was too tall for a computer. All in all, not much worse than conditions in Atlantis, or your average American hotel room. As he soon found, however, the room wasn't south-facing -- he couldn't establish a connection. Trust Sheppard to be as directionally challenged on Earth as he was in another galaxy. Rodney found that comforting in a way not much else had been today.

He moved the sat modem from window to window on the off chance that the problem was just an inconvenient tree or jutting cornice, but it didn't help. Damn the SGC for not allowing him access to the military's microwave satellites. Not that he couldn't find one if he wanted to, but it had just never seemed worth the trouble. This evening, it would certainly have been useful.

Eventually he opened his files anyway, but he really wanted to download the latest research from those bozos at the CfA before he went much further on his own paper. There was nothing like proudly confronting ignorance to stimulate his own creative juices. Since he wasn't ready to go wandering through the house on his own this evening to find a window from which he could establish line of sight to the com sat, he decided he would just take a shower and go to bed.

He pulled out his kit and padded across the hall to the bath. His traitorous cock twitched in memory of the last time he had been here, but Rodney wrote "occupied" on a strip of toilet paper and draped it over the outside door handle before he took his clothes off. This was like being in the wilds of the Pegasus Galaxy. And he had forgotten he couldn't even take a shower. There was only this ridiculous claw-footed tub, which frankly didn't look nearly as clean as Rodney would have liked. Grumbling, he filled the tub about six inches before he stripped and climbed in.

Still, it was a relief to wash off the smell of sex and the stale sweat from crowded airplane cabins. He crouched forward to wash his hair under the tap, thinking rather pointedly that Sheppard so owed him for this.

Even if Rodney hadn't had sex with his brother. Which rather took the edge off Rodney's sense of peeved self-righteousness.

He scrambled out of the tub and dried as best he could in the steam-clouded, unventilated little room. He stuck his head out the door, not being eager to run into any of the mourners while he was barefoot in boxers and a T-shirt. No sooner had he started across the hall, though, than he saw a woman on the staircase. She was dark-haired, severe in her black dress.

Feeling naked, Rodney clutched his bundled clothes to himself. "Sorry. I'm a friend of John's. I'm staying the night, so I was just taking a shower. Well, actually a bath; there's no shower. Anyway, the bathroom's free if you need it."

She seemed to be looking at a point somewhere over Rodney's left shoulder. Rodney turned his head to see, and when he looked back, she was slowly descending the staircase one step at a time.

Backwards.

Rodney gaped at her. She never took her eyes off that spot over Rodney's shoulder as she backed down the stairs. From where he stood Rodney couldn't see the lower half of her body, and with every backwards step she took, he saw less of her until only her face was visible over the top stair. At that, Rodney looked away so he wouldn't see her disappearing completely down the staircase, and he retreated quickly to his bedroom, cursing this entire house full of nutcases, and not excepting John Sheppard for one minute.

The Red Room was no more cheerful after his bath. Rodney crawled into bed with his tablet, intending to work for a while, but he couldn't concentrate. He scooted down under the covers. He didn't think he would have an easy time getting to sleep, but he must have dozed off for a time, because he startled awake when the lights switched off.

"It's OK," John said. "It's just me." He crawled onto the other side of the vast bed (honestly, the two of them had shared smaller tents) and shifted around under the covers, adjusting his pillow. Rodney lay looking up at the red canopy that he couldn't actually see in the dark.

"So," he said to John. "You were married."

"Yeah."

"She's pretty. No Samantha Carter, but pretty."

"Thanks, Rodney," Sheppard drawled. "That's exactly as sexist and shallow as I would expect from you."

"So what went wrong?"

At first Rodney didn't think John was going to answer the question. But then he said, "Nothing went wrong. Nancy was -- Nancy is a nice person. She deserved better than me."

Rodney felt a pang in his chest. "No one deserves better than you," he blurted before he could think. "There's no such thing." Then he froze. Though the space between them on the bed was still as vast as the distance between galaxies, it suddenly seemed stiflingly close.

John just gave a snort of weary-sounding laughter. "Rodney. I didn't know you cared."

"Asshole," Rodney said in relief.

When he fell asleep, he dreamed about the strange woman on the staircase. Rodney was trying to get down to the first floor in his dream, but she was blocking his way. She walked up a few steps and then back down, moving from side to side so that Rodney couldn't slip past her. There was an odd quality to her movements, almost as though she was floating. Clearly she wasn't though, because Rodney could see and hear her sharp-heeled pumps clacking on the wooden staircase.

Then he realized what was wrong. Her head was floating a few millimeters above her neck, like a helium balloon tethered by a ribbon.

Rodney awoke with a violent start.

"Easy," Sheppard mumbled sleepily. "S'only a dream." He heard Sheppard fumbling around the bed, and Rodney automatically put out his hand. As though Sheppard was quieting Rodney on a mission offworld, Sheppard found his hand and grasped it tightly. Unlike offworld missions, though, they were not constrained by their respective sleeping bags. Without really waking up, Sheppard rolled towards him, ending up cuddled hard against Rodney's side. His head was on Rodney's pillow, his chin touching Rodney's shoulder.

Rodney lay very still, overwhelmed with tenderness. Eventually, he gave in to his impulse to reach over with his free hand and gingerly pet John's shoulder. He expected John to flinch, but he only sighed a warm puff of air against Rodney's cheek.

That was the moment Rodney decided he would do everything within his power to help John set things right with his brother. Sure, the Sheppard family seemed a little fucked up from the outside, but it wasn't as though the McKays had anything to brag about. Look at Jeannie, abandoning her career to marry an English teacher. And still John had helped Rodney put his family back together. Maybe this trip didn't have to be a cruel exercise in watching John suffer and not being able to do anything to help.

He would talk to David Sheppard in the morning. See if he could get the two of them back on the right track.

Rodney drifted off to sleep, lulled by John's warmth at his side and his rosy thoughts about reconciling the Sheppard brothers. If he had any more dreams, he didn't remember them.

He was alone in the Red Room when he woke up the next morning. The gray light that seeped through the windows was so thin and weak he thought it was before dawn. When he sat up and fumbled for his watch, however, he saw to his dismay that it was well past ten. He rolled out of bed looking for his clothes and feeling vaguely horrified with himself. He couldn't remember the last time he had slept so unforgivably late. Telling himself that he had no responsibilities and was just here as John's friend didn't make him feel any better. Also, he had a headache from the lack of coffee.

The room was cold. He pulled on a long sleeved shirt and yanked a T-shirt on over that, putting on blue jeans that felt a little more baggy around the waist and butt than they had the last time he had been earth-side. Then he went to the window to check out the gloomy midmorning weather. Last night's deluge had given way to a steady downpour that was methodically stripping the last of the brown leaves from the trees. The clouds were so low there seemed to be no sky at all, and the stone buildings in back were lost in the fog. If he hadn't needed coffee, he would have been severely tempted to get back in bed.

Also, it had been more than twenty hours since he had checked his e-mail. One hand on his forehead against the dull thrum between his temples, he tried the modem again. This time, he established a link with the sat com immediately.

OK. That was unexpected, but he wasn't going to object. It must have been something about the weather conditions last night that blocked his radio signal. He skimmed the important mail. Of course, this wasn't secure, so there was nothing actually important. Another continual source of petty frustration. Every CIA agent and his dog had a black box for secure communications, and the man primarily responsible for the success of the Pegasus Project didn't even get to borrow one for a day or two while he was on Earth? How was that an intelligent allocation of resources?

E-mail disposed of, he downloaded the research he had wanted to look at last night, but before he got any deeper, he decided he had to have coffee now.

It wasn't until he was out in the hall that he remembered the strange woman on the stairs last night and his subsequent nightmare. It annoyed him that in the light of day, the memory still made him nervous.

Of course, it wasn't as though the light of this day was anything to write home about. With the rain still coming down, the shadows in the upstairs hall were unforgivingly bleak. But he made his way to the kitchen and immediately felt better. A red and yellow McDonald's bag, cheerfully grease-stained and fat with promise, sat in the middle of the kitchen table, and more than half of a pot of coffee was in the coffee maker. The pot was cold to the touch, but that was easily solved.

Rodney scrounged around for a cup. The first ones he found were bone china with gold paint around the edges. He grumbled and kept looking. Eventually, he discovered a clutter of informal dishes in the cabinet above the sink, including a miscellany of heavy ceramic mugs adorned with advertising slogans and the like. He grabbed one, filled it with cold coffee, and popped it in the little white microwave. Then he sat down at the table, happily pulling the McDonald's bag to him. It was filled with half a dozen Egg McMuffins.

The reheated coffee was stale, the McMuffins soggy, with rubbery eggs and Canadian bacon that was not remotely worthy of the name. Rodney happily wolfed it all down, and felt worlds better. He drank the last of the coffee cold. His headache finally gone, he went to look for John.

He found David first, working alone in that mausoleum of a library. Rodney almost kept going but he remembered his optimistic resolve of last night and made himself walk in. David looked up.

"I don't know where John is," he announced while Rodney was still trying to decide what to say. "He said he was going running."

"Running? It's pouring down rain out there."

"I didn't tell him to go."

"No," Rodney said. "I meant, that sounds like Sheppard. Like John Sheppard. Obviously, you have enough sense to come in out of the rain."

David looked at him. "I don't know when he'll be back. And even if I did, the library isn't a tea room."

It took Rodney a moment to figure out what David meant and when he did, he flinched. That was more than a little unfair. David had come on to him, not the other way around, but Rodney thought he did an admirable job of letting it go, considering that swallowing little injustices for the greater good was not behavior that came naturally.

"About that. You know. Our tête-à-tête after the service yesterday."

"Is that what the Air Force is calling it these days?" David said without a trace of a smile.

Rodney was starting to get a very bad feeling, but he soldiered on. "I made a mistake, which anyone will tell you is not an easy thing for me to admit." He tried for a smile. It wasn't returned. "I mean, it was all very nice and whatnot, and really, thank you. No complaints. But I didn't know you were John's brother and the thing is, John really does want to make things right between the two of you. And obviously, our continuing this relationship would be complicated. You can see that, right?"

"John doesn't like little brother poaching on his preserves, is that it?"

Oh, hell, surely none of John's talks with Jeannie had gone like this, had they? "I think there's been a misunderstanding here. John and I haven't -- we don't -- we're not a couple. I don't even know if John is gay."

David got up and walked around the desk. He wasn't moving particularly fast, and his face was a blank mask. So Rodney was completely unprepared for David's right hook. It caught him under the eye and spun him around like a top. He crashed into the nearest bookshelves as his knees buckled, and from there he slid ungracefully to the floor, books raining down on either side.

"What was that for?" Rodney groaned, cradling his face with both hands. He knew he ought to get up and punch back, but he was so stunned all he could seem to do was huddle against the shelves, rocking himself in pain.

David relaxed his boxer's stance. "I'm not a fag," he said in a flat voice. "Neither is John." He walked out of the room without looking back.

Rodney stayed where he was, playing the conversation over in his mind. He still wasn't sure where he had gone so wrong. His one certainty was that David Sheppard was a lunatic, so there was no point in hanging around any longer. For that matter, Rodney was officially through messing with other people's families. There were way too many dark things lurking around here to keep overturning rocks.

Eventually, mostly because he wasn't entirely certain that David wouldn't return and kick him or something for good measure, Rodney flung one arm back and winched himself painfully to his feet. His vision blurred, and for a moment he was afraid he was going to be sick, but he made it to the kitchen on his own. The crumpled McDonald's bag on the kitchen table seemed to mock him as he rummaged in the freezer for ice cubes. He wrapped a handful in a dish cloth and sat down at the kitchen table, holding the makeshift coldpack against his aching face.

He would confront John as soon as he got back. Rodney sitting here with his left eye blacked was surely argument enough that John was here on a fool's errand. Even worse: it was a downright dangerous one. Especially to Rodney.

But the longer he sat, feeling the throb of tender, bruised skin against the coarse dish cloth, the more miserable he became. He had wanted to make things better for John, and all he had actually accomplished was provoking David Sheppard into a homophobic rage. Not that he accepted any responsibility for David's rather obvious issues -- like goddamned icebergs-in-a-duck-pond obvious -- but he had really, really wanted to help.

And just last night he had been congratulating himself for finally getting over that brand of Messianic thinking. Being the smartest man in two galaxies didn't mean he could actually help his friends. If he could, Carson and Elizabeth would still be here.

His heart ached, and the ice cubes were melting, water soaking his sleeve. When the ice was gone, Rodney wrung out the dish cloth and walked to the back door, keeping a wary eye out for David. The rain had mostly stopped, just drops falling from the ends of the bare branches. All at once, he couldn't wait any longer to confront Sheppard with the story of his own incompetence. Better to get it out now, take all his lumps at once.

Hunching his shoulders, Rodney went out into the back yard. He hoped John had run towards the graveyard instead of the salt marsh, and he turned in that direction

The walk seemed longer than it had yesterday. By the time Rodney got to the hillside of monoliths, he was beginning to wonder why the hell he hadn't at least grabbed an umbrella first. It wasn't raining yet, but the fog was as cold and close as a drizzle that wouldn't let up.

As it had last night, the bend in the road that brought him to the point took him by surprise. He didn't stop to admire the view, but he did think briefly of the primitive portrait in the dining room. John Sheppard's family from eight or nine generations ago, perched on this same dreary point, shivering in the same damn breeze off the same gray ocean.

It was no wonder the whole family was batty after so much time in the same place. If John hadn't gotten away to another galaxy, odds were he would be as bad off as his brother. Rodney felt guilty for that thought as soon as it crossed his mind, but it didn't mean he wasn't right. He loved John, even if he was a little nuts.

Rodney turned and hurried down the path. His face ached anew every time his foot came down on the worn paving stones. He tried walking off the path instead, but the ground was rough and scattered with rocks. He had to pay constant attention, or risk tumbling headfirst. And of all the things demanding his attention today? The ground at his feet, honestly, should not be one of them. He kept to the path.

The cemetery looked no more cheerful today. Water dripped from the cedar trees. There was no sign of John, and the slick granite of the tombstones and monuments seemed to melt away into the fog.

"Colonel!"

There was no answer. Rodney made his way carefully into the graveyard. The mound of dirt over the grave of John's father was muddy and black. The air was so humid Rodney could feel his hair curling. Also, it was darker now than when he had set out. The rain was probably going to start again at any minute.

As Rodney walked through the cemetery, he was very carefully not asking himself what he thought he was doing. John was nowhere to be seen. The sickening possibility was that Rodney was wandering around in a graveyard just to avoid being alone in the house with David Sheppard, and that was arrant cowardice. Not that he wasn't all in favor of strategic retreats when logic dictated, but come on. David Sheppard? Ronon would flatten that guy like a bug.

Ronon wasn't here. Neither was Teyla, and she had shown Rodney a way to block an enemy with his forearms that would have worked like a charm this morning. He entertained a brief fantasy in which he had, in fact, neatly defended himself, and it was David who wound up on the library floor. Rodney would magnanimously help him to his feet, of course, but not until he had warned David against the consequences of prejudice and a hot temper. And maybe suggested anger management counseling while he was at it.

As he got further back in the graveyard, the slick, machine-finished granite gave way to plain stone. The inscriptions were carved deeply, with tails on the letters and punctuation marks which all must have taken hours of work. Rodney supposed it had been worth it, depending on how you measured such things. The inscriptions were still legible. Or they would have been, in better light.

The mist moved through the cedar trees with each breath of wind. Backed by the lowering gray horizon, the fog gave the illusion of a crowd dressed in white swaying between the splintering and twisted trunks. "John!" Rodney tried again. His only answer was the distant grumble of thunder.

Enough was enough. Rodney turned and was stomping back up the road out of the cemetery, when he saw a flash of movement which was not mist. He whirled around in a fury. "What? For the last time, I would like to know what the hell is going on around here!"

He saw her among the stunted trees beyond the graveyard that made up this sad excuse for a forest. She was standing exactly where she had been yesterday during the service, the same woman Rodney had seen on the staircase last night, although he hadn't made the connection until just now. She was still wearing black and still looked distracted and unhappy about being here. Rodney could hardly blame her.

"Ah, hello," he called. He waved his hand at her. "I didn't see you there at first. Look, I'm a friend of John's. Have you seen him? I can't imagine what that man's mania is for running around in the rain."

Her expression didn't change. If anything, she looked more vague than ever. Both arms were crossed over her chest, and she didn't even seem cognizant of the heavy fog and the imminent threat of a downpour. Thinking about her behavior last night on the staircase, Rodney began to wonder if she were somehow disabled. "OK," he tried again. "So, I'm going to go back to the house before it starts raining. If you see John, would you please tell him I'm looking for him? It's important.

From her reaction, Rodney couldn't tell if she understood a single word he was saying. Even though the idea of trudging all the way back to the house with a woman who appeared to be mentally deficient was rather horrifying to him, he found he couldn't leave her out here without at least asking, "Um, would you like to come with me?" He extended his hand but she only withdrew into herself a little more tightly.

Fine, let the Sheppard family deal with the local lunatics. Rodney didn't doubt they'd had plenty of practice.

He turned around and found John standing practically on his heels. He was so happy to see the man he didn't trust himself not to kiss him, so instead he screamed, "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

"You can see her too," John said.

That complete non sequitur after the kind of morning he'd had made Rodney a little dizzy with rage. "Where the hell have you been?" he continued to shout. "Do you know how long I've been looking for you?"

"You do see her. You're talking to her," John insisted.

For his part, Rodney rather thought he would like to give John a black eye to match his own because, seriously, the last thing he needed right now was more craziness from this family. Finding hitherto unimagined stores of self-restraint, Rodney only lowered his voice and said, "Yes, because that's what I generally do when addressing people standing right in front of me. It does seem to be the exception rather than the rule in your family." He dropped his voice. "She's not really all there, is she?"

"It's Ava. My father's sister. She died before I was born."

"Oh, of course she did," Rodney agreed. He was hanging on by his fingernails here. Or maybe, not hanging on at all because he whirled around and addressed the woman herself. "I was wondering why you didn't seem worried about the rain," he snapped at her. "I guess being forty years or so dead makes the weather less of a concern."

She continued to stand there, her arms wrapped around herself and her gaze somewhere over Rodney's left shoulder. Rodney felt a chill at the marrow of his spine and was furious at himself for being frightened by a woman who was obviously more than a little deficient. "I don't know what you're trying to accomplish here, Colonel," he snarled back at John. "But I have had more than enough of your entire family."

He was still looking at her when she shuddered slightly and then seemed to diminish, not only becoming shorter, but thinner, much smaller. The fog drifted in layers, hiding a monument, a cedar tree, and then revealing them again. Rodney made his way to one of the newer stones, a nice, solid-looking block of granite, and sat down hard. The left side of his face was throbbing like a mother.

Sheppard's Aunt Ava hadn't gotten smaller. She had simply drifted a hundred feet back through the cedar trees without moving a muscle.

Of course, it all made perfect sense. There was no reason for Rodney to be wheezing like a set of bellows, for his heart to feel like it was trying to pound its way out of his chest. That was the advantage of being a scientist. Unexpected phenomena were nothing frightening; they were just valuable data points.

"Rodney?" John's hand fell on his shoulder from behind. "McKay? I didn't mean to spring it on you like that. I thought you would understand what --"

"No, I understand." Really, it made perfect sense. The ATA gene had a long and noble history in this mausoleum by the sea. "Have you been able to see her all your life?"

"Dave and I both," Sheppard agreed, sounding so pleased and relieved that Rodney wanted to get up and leave. Fast. As in right now. He had no defenses against this. "Ever since we were kids, but it wasn't until General O'Neill and sitting in the command chair in Antarctica that I started to figure out what she must be."

"Has she ever talked to you?"

"No. Never. And as far as I know, no one outside the family has ever seen her."

"She ascended and it was all too much, is that it? She had no idea what was happening to her, so she never left. Or maybe she's only partially ascended and is still trapped in a halfway state, like Daniel Jackson's pancake house in Purgatory."

"Something like that," John agreed, sounding ridiculously happy at Rodney's willingness to spin ghost stories with him. "The Ancients don't go out of their way to help unless you happen to catch their eye in life, do they?"

"The gene alone isn't supposed to make ascension possible. But that may just be chest-thumping on the part of the Ancients."

"She had a very quiet life here, according to my father. Maybe that was enough to trigger at least a partial ascension."

Rodney rested his head in his hands. "You want to help her."

"I think it might be possible to contact her. Concentration, meditation. And Rodney, you've been there."

"Very, very briefly. And I don't remember anything about it. You should have brought Dr. Jackson with you."

"He doesn't remember much of anything either, does he?"

"Of course I'll help," Rodney grumbled and turned around, getting to his feet. "But I don't appreciate being taken for granted. Just keep that in mind."

"Always, Dr. McKay," John said extending a hand. Then his eyes widened. "Jesus, Rodney, you look like you've been in a fight. Did you walk into a door or something?"

"Right," Rodney said, certain now that he had completely lost his mind. "I walked into the bathroom door. Tell me: did someone chop off Ava's head?"

"What? Where did you get an idea like that?" He put his hand on Rodney's chin and gently turned his face to the side. "You need to get some ice on your face. Come on. We're going back to the house."

"So how did she die?" Rodney persisted, nothing loathe to get out of the weather, but he really wanted to know.

"She died in the house. I think I heard she fell down the stairs."

"And broke her neck," Rodney finished. Great, just great -- John's aunt had already been invading his dreams.

Then the heavens opened, and the rain came drenching down.

But in spite of that, the rest of this completely surreal day was really not so bad. Sheppard was more like himself than he had been since he had first gotten word of his father's death. Rodney despised himself a little for being so utterly susceptible, but there you go. It wasn't like this was anything new after all.

They changed into dry clothes back at the house, and the way John laughed at Rodney as he complained about how much he hated peeling himself out of wet jeans made Rodney's defenseless heart sing, damp underwear and all. Then John dragged him back downstairs to put ice on his face. David didn't seem to be around. After John sat Rodney down at the kitchen table, Rodney gathered his courage and asked about him.

John had found some re-sealable plastic bags, and presented Rodney with a coldpack that wasn't as inclined to drip. "He's probably gone home. He just dropped by this morning to bring me some paperwork. Or, no, I think he said he had to go into the office for a few hours this afternoon."

"What do you mean, 'home'? Doesn't he live here?"

John frowned as though Rodney was making no sense at all. "No . . . he has a condominium in Baltimore. Near his office."

"So who takes care of the house?"

"My cousin comes over a couple of days a week. You saw him yesterday. Big guy, built a little like Ronon. He told us the service had already begun. McKay, you have to hold it against your face, or it's not going to do you any good." He cupped the back of Rodney's hand in his palm and pushed the icepack to his bruised cheek.

"Ow," Rodney complained happily. That explained the appliances like the little 500-watt microwave and the no-name coffee-maker, which all seemed more suited to an office break-room than someone's home. No one actually lived here at all anymore. Just the dead.

The Ascended, Rodney reminded himself furiously. Not dead, Ascended. Anyway, he was nothing but relieved that David wasn't here. The rain continued to beat against the kitchen window panes, ranked in squares all the way to the high ceiling. "Where's the nearest Wal-mart?" he demanded. "We're going to need supplies for our séance. And I didn't come all the way back to Earth just to miss stocking up on cheese curls."

The nearest town was just as quaint as Rodney had feared, with narrow streets and historical markers nailed near the front doors. John suggested an early dinner at Miss Suzie's Homestyle Crabcakes, but Rodney resisted so furiously they kept driving until they found a reassuringly ugly little strip mall in the suburbs, complete with a Kmart and a selection of chain restaurants. Rodney triumphantly chose one that served breakfast all day and ordered a pecan waffle, a cheese omelet, bacon and hashbrowns. John ate about half of his own turkey sandwich, watching Rodney with a bemused expression the whole time.

Afterwards, Rodney bought all the artificially flavored, heavily-salted foodstuffs he needed to survive a couple more days marooned in the wilderness. The rain was still coming down by the time John turned the car for home. John's home, Rodney reminded himself glumly. He was in no hurry to get back to that place. Hey, and apparently it hadn't even been John's home since he'd joined the Air Force. His brother didn't live there. Since the death of John's father, it was no one's home.

"So tell me again why we're not staying in a hotel? Room service? For pity's sake, Colonel, showers?"

Inside the dark car, Rodney couldn't see the expression on John's face. Just the momentary change in his profile as he briefly looked away from the road. "You don't think we can help Ava," he said at last. His voice was very carefully neutral.

"What? I didn't say that. I'm not thinking that!" Even if he was, more or less. Because the two of them chivvying a stalled Ascendant out into the universe? Um, yeah. Right. "I was just thinking we both might get a better night's sleep on neutral ground. Get a fresh start in the morning."

"I told Dave I would stay in the house while I was here, McKay. If you don't -- If you don't want to be here, you can drop me off at the house and drive back to town."

"Shut up. Of course I'm going to stay."

"Because I don't need -- "

"It's Casa Sheppard-by-the-Sea," Rodney snapped. "Who would pass up an opportunity like that?"

The windshield wipers slashed through the sheeting rain, squeaking on the return arc. Rodney wished they had stopped at an auto parts store to get a set of decent blades while they were out. Gravel grumbled under the wheels as the little rental climbed. They must be nearly there. Rodney thought it had to be his imagination that he could feel the proximity of the family house like a stone in his gut.

Another sharp turn and yes, the front door of the house itself was illuminated by the headlights. John turned off the engine. Neither of them had thought to leave any lights on when they left this afternoon, and the entire house was as dark as a tomb. Rain drummed on the roof of the car, and Rodney wondered yet again what in the world he was doing here. Beside him, John took a deep breath. "McKay," he began. "Rodney. I, um. I'm glad you're here."

Then he jumped out of the car and all but ran to the front door while Rodney was still sitting in the passenger seat, speechless with surprise. After another moment a light came on over the door. Rodney pushed open his car door and splashed through the puddles on the stone drive, clutching his Kmart bags to his chest as rain fell in his eyes. Seriously, he was starting to run out of dry clothes here.

The front foyer was cold and bleak, and the high chandelier didn't shed nearly enough light. John hadn't bothered to turn on any other lights downstairs. The house bore down around Rodney with all its ancient, rotting bulk. He dashed up the staircase to the Red Room without even thinking about Ava until he was upstairs. John had already pulled off his wet coat, toed off his shoes, and was digging in his own Kmart bag for candles. He looked over his shoulder at Rodney and raised an eyebrow. "You can leave the food in the kitchen," he suggested mildly.

"Ha. And break my neck like Ava going down the stairs in the middle of the night to get the Pringles? I don't think so."

"Suit yourself," John said, but he looked a little startled. Rodney pretended not to notice and started pulling cushions off the bed. He dragged a footstool over to the middle of the rug, piling a couple of cushions on top before settling down on it in a kneeling position, his feet tucked under the stool and his knees resting on two more of the cushions. He laid his hands on his thighs and closed his eyes to test it out. Pretty comfortable, he thought with satisfaction.

When he opened his eyes again, John had stopped sticking candles into the sadly tarnished candelabra he had scavenged from somewhere and was just watching him. "What? Kusanagi showed this to me. It's easier for Westerners than the lotus position."

"Right," John said. He finished lighting candles. "You want me to turn off the overhead?"

It wasn't as though the dim little chandelier was likely to distract them. "Leave it on." Rodney decided.

John stuffed the lighter back in the pocket of his jeans and pulled up a creaking leather ottoman across from Rodney's foot stool. He sat down in front of it cross-legged, using the ottoman to support his back.

"Don't tell me that's how you meditated when you were trapped in that time sink with the Ancient wannabes."

"Not exactly," John said. "There wasn't anything to lean against. Tough on the lower spine. So, what do we do now?"

"You're asking me? She's your aunt. What do you actually hope to accomplish?"

John shifted uncomfortably and Rodney was almost sorry that he had asked the question, because there was no way the answer wasn't going to sound goofy. He let John say it anyway. "Well, you know," John was practically mumbling. "Just try to get in touch with her. Let her know what's going on, and that it's OK if she wants to move on now."

Go into the light, Rodney thought, and had to clamp his jaws tight against a completely inappropriate giggle. "Maybe it would help if I knew something about her," he suggested once he was sure he wasn't going to laugh.

"Like what?" John asked.

"Well, all I know is that she broke her neck falling down the stairs." Immediately, Rodney was visited with an unpleasant memory of his dream last night, Ava's head moving just a little out of sync with the rest of her body.

John didn't looked happy either. "I told you, she was dead before I was born. I don't know anything."

"Come on, anything. How old was she when she died?"

"I don't know. Probably pretty young. She was engaged."

"See!" Rodney stabbed his hand triumphantly in John's direction. "You tell me you don't know anything, and then you drop a bombshell like that. What else are you holding back on? Is there some dark family secret? Someone pushed her down the stairs to prevent the marriage?"

"Jesus, Rodney, where do you get this stuff?" John had stopped looking uncomfortable. Now he just looked sort of pissed off. "No, no one pushed her down the stairs. And no, while we're on the topic, I don't come from a family of sociopaths either."

You couldn't prove it by me, Rodney thought and realized he was lightly cradling the bruised side of his face in his hand. He dropped both hands back to his thighs.

Too late. John had noticed. His tone softened. "We don't have to do this tonight. How does your eye feel?"

His gentle voice shook something free that Rodney should have realized as soon as John told him about Ava. "Wait a minute, it's not about your aunt. Or it's not all about her. You're worried about your father."

John got very still. Rodney kept talking. "Have you seen him? Is that why you want to contact Ava first, to see if it works? God, John, I thought it was bad when my dad died, but at least I knew he was really gone. How are you being so calm about this? Most people would be going out of their minds. I think maybe I'm going out of my mind."

"No, stop," John finally said. He sounded a little freaked out, too. "Seriously, McKay, knock it off. It's not like that. I haven't seen him. I just want to be sure." John rolled forward and covered his face with his hands for a moment. "I've known for three years that I needed to come home and find a way to talk to my father and David about this. But it was hard. We haven't talked about anything since I joined the Air Force. How was I supposed to show up out of the blue and talk to my father about Ascension?"

Rodney gave a snort of nervous laughter. It wasn't very funny. Or actually maybe it was. "I don't know what to tell you, Colonel." And that was the truth all right. "But if you think this will help, I'm here. Anything I can do, you know that, as long as it doesn't involve too much walking in the rain or too many missed meals."

John gave him a fond, funny smile before closing his eyes. "I know. Let's try to concentrate on Ava."

The dead woman Rodney saw drifting in graveyards or down staircases. Right. Just what he wanted to think about. Nevertheless, he had said he would do this for John. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the house. The rain was still beating against the window panes, a dreary kind of noise, but at least it drowned out the groans of the old house itself settling. And John had picked up those damned vanilla-scented candles at Kmart. Rodney had never thought he would actually miss the stink of Athosian tallow, but it turned out the flat harshness of cheap, ersatz vanilla was no better.

Time to calm down and concentrate. For a while he counted his breaths the way John had taught him to do once upon a time -- as if he needed any more reminders of how much John had done for him. You'd think in return Rodney might have kept their friends safe, but it hadn't worked out that way, had it?

OK, his mind was wandering already. He focused on his breaths again and tried not to waste too much time berating himself. Honestly, brain the size of a planet and he couldn't keep his mind on one thing for five minutes?

On the other hand maybe it wasn't so surprising that a genius found it hard to stop thinking. Nobody asked a peacock to turn off its spots.

And that was his mind wandering again. Back to focusing on nothing. Breathing in, breathing out and not sparing a millisecond to think about the reaction of Dr. Cunningham up at the CfA when he read Rodney's article upending most of the fundamental assumptions about active black holes.

Cunningham had been one of the astrophysicists who sneered loud and long when Rodney had taken a job with the U.S. Air Force. He had gleefully predicted Rodney's brains would be running out his ears inside of five years, and that was the best possible outcome. The worst one was that working for the military industrial complex might not destroy Rodney's brains in time to keep him from blowing up the world.

Which led in turn to Doranda. None of the other planets in the solar system had been inhabited -- they were almost completely certain of that. Rodney was almost completely certain of that. He had spent more than a year afterwards checking the pre-disaster astronomical records from that system, and there had been no trace of even prebiotic chemistry on any of the other worlds.

Okay. Mind wandering again. He opened his eyes and looked for a moment at John sitting against the ottoman. His eyes were closed, his breathing slow and regular. In fact, he looked suspiciously like he was asleep. Rodney scowled. If his legs had not been tucked so completely underneath himself, he would have been tempted to kick him.

Except, he had said he would do this for John. And of all the things John had every right to ask him for, surely this was the least of them. All he had to do was close his eyes, breathe in, breathe out.

Ava stood right in front of him and for the first time, she actually seemed to be looking directly at him, not just gazing emptily over his shoulder. "Well it's about time!" Rodney huffed. "Seriously, do you know what's going on around here? Have you been listening to what John and I have been saying? It's all classified of course but given that you've been dead about forty years I can't imagine this constitutes a security breach."

Her only answer was to extend her arm towards Rodney. Her hand looked like John's. Rodney glanced around himself and realized they were both standing in the upstairs hallway at the head of the stairs. "And this is where you show me how you died so that you can finally rest in peace? No, no, no. Listen to me. That's the wrong story. The universe is a lot bigger than that, and surprisingly enough, more screwed up too. There is no resting in peace. You can either go out and join the great, wide multiverse, or you can just end. Well, sometimes there's a third choice, but that involves nakedness and amnesia, and you know what? Never mind. I'm just explaining why we really don't have to replay the grisly death scenes."

She stood there, hand still extended. There were calluses on her hand, and that reminded Rodney of the Colonel as well. John's came from golf and fighting sticks. "Are you a golfer too? Is that why John is so crazy about the sport of the idle rich? Well, besides the fact that he is a member of the idle rich. You too, right. No offense."

The woman seemed ready to stand there the rest of the night. "And speaking of not taking offense," Rodney continued unhappily. "Don't get me wrong about this: I like your nephew a lot. He's saved my life and I've saved his, and he's one of the few people in two galaxies who actually seems to enjoy my company. I don't know why that is. My own family treats me like -- OK, not the point. What the point is, is that I really, really, don't want to hold hands."

She seemed to smile a little at that. But she didn't drop her arm. So unless Rodney really wanted to stand here all night, there didn't seem any way around this. He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and cautiously stretched out his hand. He expected her fingers to be as cold as ice, but when her fingertips slid across the back of his hand and then clasped his palm to hers, they were warm and strong. Rodney sighed in relief and opened his eyes. There, that wasn't so bad. "OK. What now?"

Without speaking, she led him across the wide hall (away from the stairs, Rodney was glad to note) and stopped in front of one of the closed bedroom doors. "In here?"

She looked at Rodney, then back at the door, with the same serene expression on her face.

"Because I've got to tell you, I'm not so crazy about charging into other people's bedrooms."

He received the same non-response that he was starting to expect by now.

"Right, I know. Nobody actually lives here any more. Fine." He put his hand on the doorknob, more than half-hoping it would be locked. Of course, unsurprisingly given the way his luck was running, the knob turned easily. He pushed open the heavy door and stepped inside.

So this must be the Blue Room. Blue wallpaper, blue woodwork, blue plaster designs on the high ceiling. The room was lit by candles burning in wall sconces, and the sole piece of furniture was a slender marble column in the center of the big room. On top of it was some kind of vase or chalice. Rodney thought of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and half-expected the animated hand of God to come down out of the ceiling.

"What is it?" he finally asked, as if his silent companion might suddenly change her modus operandi and speak. She didn't. Rodney moved closer. The cup was dull yellow, articulated by whorls and scrolls and glowing as if it had a spotlight on it. The grail indeed.

He glanced around at the lighting in the room, such as it was. Flickering candles, no spotlights of any description. He bent over the object, trying to decide if its glow were self generated somehow.

Then he straightened up and looked at the ceiling again. Spaced at irregular intervals were tiny eye-hooks, almost invisible against the fancy plaster-work. It took no stretch of imagination to figure out where those had come from. "This was the Colonel's room," he told Ava. "You see? He had his model airplanes hanging from the ceiling there. I'm right, aren't I?"

She came forward and took his hand again. Rodney didn't hesitate this time, although he couldn't help complaining, "You could just tell me what you want me to know. I don't think there's any sort of rule about that."

She led him away from the chalice. There was a door on the other side of the room which Rodney hadn't noticed when they first came in. "Where does this go?" he asked, apparently just to hear the sound of his own voice. He reached his hand out and turned the knob, pulling the paneled door open. Behind it a steep, narrow staircase climbed upwards, ending in another door.

Aw, crap. "The attic?" Rodney looked at Ava unhappily. "You actually expect me to go up in the attic of a spooky old house, at night, during a rainstorm? Did I suddenly fall into a teen slasher movie or what?"

The slightest hint of a smile seemed to touch Ava's lips as she brushed by him to lead the way upstairs. "If you think you can shame me by going first, I'll have you know that is not going to work," Rodney asserted stoutly. "I have a long and illustrious history of letting women lead the way into dangerous places."

Ava reached the top of the stairs and pushed open the door to the attic. From where he stood, all Rodney could see was warm white light spilling from the open door. That was better than the flickering candles down here. Grumbling, Rodney finally followed her up the stairs. Then he stopped on the threshold to look around himself in amazement. Of all the things he had expected to find up here, it had certainly not been this. Although come to think of it, all the clues had been here. He had to stifle a another snort of hideously inappropriate laughter.

It was a padded room, small and square, walls, ceiling and floor all covered in white like something out of a bad movie. Did asylums even use padded rooms any more?

"What is this place?" Rodney asked. "Who built it?" A horrible thought struck him. "Oh my god, did they keep you up here?"

He turned around, thinking Ava could surely be coaxed to speak now. Instead, she had gone as blank and distant as she had been when Rodney had first seen her. "Oh, come on," he begged. "Don't do this to me now!"

Gazing over Rodney's shoulder with no expression on her face at all, she began to back down the stairs. Her head seemed only casually connected to her neck. Rodney felt a scream crawling up his throat, but before it could escape, two strong hands fell on his shoulders, and he opened his eyes to look into John's face. "Jesus, take it easy," John was saying. "You were talking in your sleep."

"I wasn't sleeping!" Rodney protested. "Ava was just here. You must have seen her."

John sat back, shaking his head. "You were snoring, McKay. And there was no one else here."

Rodney's legs felt like they were falling asleep. And his knees hurt. He dragged his feet out from under the little footstool and stood up with an effort, staggering around the room until the feeling came back to his joints. He was going to have to tell Kusanagi that the kneeling thing didn't work out so great after all. "She was just here. Ava. She didn't say anything, but she was showing me around your old bedroom."

"You didn't move from the stool right there."

"You hung model airplanes from the ceiling, didn't you?" Rodney said triumphantly. "I saw the eye-hooks in the plaster."

But John shook his head. "I'm not trying to be a skeptic here --"

"Yes, you are," Rodney interrupted him, annoyed.

"OK, maybe I am. Come on, McKay. It doesn't take a psychic, much less contact with an ascended relative to guess that I made model airplanes when I was a kid."

Rodney stopped pacing and leaned against the bed. As much as he hated to admit it, John did have a point. "And the holy grail?"

"Excuse me?"

"It was sitting in the middle of your room on a marble column. Like something straight out of Monty Python."

"Or straight out of the SG-1 mission reports. What have I told you about spending too much time on those things?" With another shake of his head, John got up and started to blow out the candles.

"I'm sorry," Rodney mumbled, suddenly very wrong and very small. It wasn't a feeling he was used to. "Just for a moment there it seemed so real. Didn't you see anything?"

"Just you dozing. You know, maybe this is all completely crazy."

"It's too early to say that," Rodney protested, although he had to wonder why he was disagreeing because, yes, crazy by definition. "We just started. Ava's been here for a long time. It may take her a little while to decide we're trustworthy, or something. Who knows how the ascended or the nearly ascended think?"

"The trustee and the lawyers will be here tomorrow at ten to read the will. I don't know how long that will take, but if you want to give it another go tomorrow evening we could try again. Maybe after you've caught up on your sleep."

"Are you kidding?" Rodney grumbled. "It's been years since I was so caught up on my sleep."

"Uh-huh. I'm going to take a bath. You want the bathroom first?"

"Go ahead. Did you ever think that maybe it's the lack of showers making it impossible to meditate?"

"The master bath off Dad's bedroom downstairs has a shower. You're welcome to use that." A pause, then a quick, bitter smile. "Not like he's going to be needing it."

Rodney flinched and John looked momentarily contrite. Then he left quickly. Rodney sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. He tried to cheer himself up by thinking they might be out of here in twenty-four hours -- maybe less! -- since it seemed staggeringly unlikely that they were going to make any sort of actual contact with Ava. "You know, you could make this easier," he grumbled out loud to her.

He sat down at his computer. For a wonder, the connection was good this evening, despite the storm. He downloaded all his unimportant mail and wondered what was stacking up for him that he wouldn't see until he got back to the SGC.

There had been at least one -- Rodney looked at his wristwatch -- actually two data-bursts from Atlantis by now. Radek would have finished fixing the generator, and was probably back mediating between paleo- and xenobiology over laboratory resources. That feud had been going on for far too long, and really, Rodney should have put his foot down before now. He'd make a point of it when he got back.

Abruptly he closed the laptop. Without allowing himself to think about what he was doing, he got up and walked out into the hall. He could hear John's bath running. He put his hand on the doorknob he had opened during his dream and turned it. The door swung open just as easily as it had when Ava had been at his side.

On the other side was darkness, though. No burning candles. Rodney wondered if he had really expected them while he fumbled for a light. He found one, but the switch gave only an empty click. Rodney swung the door open wide to let the thin light from the hall chandelier bleed into the room. It was hard to say for sure, but the room seemed a lot more purple than blue. Also, it was filled with furniture. Great hulking dinosaurs of chests and wardrobes and dressers, most of them covered with dropcloths. No glowing grail.

There was a door on the opposite side of the room. Rodney's breath caught in his throat, even though he told himself it didn't mean anything. (How had he known it was there?) He slid a cautious step into the room, just as John's bath shut off. Immediately Rodney backed out, shut the door, and scooted back to the Red Room, breathing like he had just escaped the Wraith. He sat down at his computer, so rattled that several minutes passed before he realized he had lost the connection with the sat com. Goddamnit. At this point he'd be better off with dial-up. More secure, too.

"What's up?" John drawled. He'd come back to the room smelling damp and clean, a towel around his waist.

"I keep losing my connection. It's about to drive me out of my mind. How the SGC thinks a genius can be expected to work under these conditions is beyond me."

"Still no luck getting the microwave satellite?" John asked sympathetically.

"No," Rodney grumbled. "Hidebound pencil-pushers."

"Right. Because what's the occasional flock of migrating trumpeter swans or a civilian airliner compared to Dr. Rodney McKay being able to post crushing emails to the latest issue of the ApJ?"

Rodney scowled. "There must be a Radio Shack in Bedford. I could be connected in under an hour."

"General Landry said he would throw you in Leavenworth if you tried to hack one of the military satellites."

"He was bluffing."

"You know what, Rodney? Do me a favor. Don't test him." John had unwrapped the towel from around his waist and was using it to dry his hair. Rodney looked away.

"Another thing," John continued. "I'm, uh. Sorry about snapping at you."

"What?" Rodney looked back in surprise, in time to see John stepping into a pair of sweatpants. Rodney took in the long, pale length of calf, thigh and hip before he dropped his eyes to the floor.

"It was pretty crappy of me. Getting angry because you maybe dozed off a little while we were trying to contact Ava. I know -- I do know you were trying to help." He perched on the corner of the bed. "I'm glad you came home with me, McKay. I don't know how to -- But it means something."

Rodney couldn't keep looking at the floor. He raised his eyes cautiously. John was still shirtless, and Rodney could see a few stray droplets glistening at the end of his chest hairs. John's eyes were open wide, and he was heartbreakingly earnest. Rodney had followed that expression through the Stargate countless times, into fortified Genii encampments and into the belly of hive ships. Something was happening here, he thought, wondering and a little panicky.

"One thing Ava showed me," Rodney blurted out. "That I thought she showed me when I was talking to her. She took me up to the attic, but it was a padded room, like you would find in a lunatic asylum. Now I know you don't really have a padded room in your attic. You don't, do you? But I was wondering if it was supposed to be, I don't know metaphorical or something. This is way more up Daniel Jackson's alley than mine, but did you ever hear anyone say that your Aunt Ava might have had some bats in her belfry?"

John's expression slammed shut like a bulkhead. He got to his feet stiffly, pulled a T-shirt out of his bag, yanked it over his head and stalked to the door.

"Colonel, wait," Rodney pleaded. He couldn't decide whether he was more heartsick or infuriated. "Where are you going?"

"Making sure the house is locked up," he said without looking back.

By the time John returned, Rodney had been working on his calculations for so long that his back twinged when he tried to straighten up. He caught a whiff of alcohol from John. "Not going to share your whiskey, Colonel? That's not very hospitable of you."

"Liquor cabinet's in the dining room," John flopped back on the bed. "I left it unlocked. Help yourself."

"So much for locking up the place," Rodney grumbled, and turned back to his calculations. After a while John got off the bed. Rodney didn't look over, but he heard the rhythmic grunts that meant John was exercising. Sit ups, push ups, whatever. It was a long evening. By the time Rodney went to bed, he and John had not said more than a dozen words to each other.

Unsurprisingly, Rodney lay awake for a long time, listening to John also not sleeping across the vast landscape of their shared bed. Rodney would have gotten up and gone back to work, except he still hadn't managed to reconnect to the sat com, and he really was at the point where he needed to check some information. This was completely ridiculous. He was more isolated in John's family house than he was in Atlantis.

Admittedly, there had been some problems with the radio transmissions in Atlantis in the early days, because it turned out the building materials had freakishly high attenuation coefficients. Fortunately, it became apparent early on that initialized Ancient devices transmitted the waves beautifully. If only all his problems were so easy to solve.

Here, the spotty reception didn't make sense. It wasn't close enough to the equinox for sun outages to be the problem. Since cell phones didn't work, probably the issue was the landscape itself. Perhaps the cliff behind the house? Then why was he sometimes able to connect to the satellite? He entertained the happy and entirely unrealistic fantasy of aiming a microwave satellite at those boulders on the cliff and smashing them to oblivion, and at some point he must have fallen asleep, because he woke up with John shaking his shoulder saying, "Rodney, come on. Are you awake?"

"Well, I am now," he grumbled sleepily. John was already moving away.

"Get up," he ordered. "Put your shoes on. There's somebody in the house."

"What?" Rodney squawked, suddenly wide awake.

"Quiet," John snapped in a harsh whisper. "I heard them last night too, but I thought I was just imagining it. Dammit, I wish I had a gun."

Rodney fumbled for his shoes in the dark. "Wouldn't it make more sense to stay here and call the police?"

"It would take twenty minutes for the police from Bedford to get here." John dismissed the suggestion. "Stay close to me."

Rodney still thought it would make more sense for the two of them to stay put, or maybe even hide under the bed, but he wrapped his fist in the back of John's T-shirt to stay close to him in the total darkness, and the two them crept out into the hall. Rodney was straining his ears for any sound of John's intruders. All he could hear was the sound of the rain and the creak of their own footsteps on the floorboards. Frankly, it seemed obvious that any kind of intruder already knew they were coming and was hightailing it out of there, or, worse, was setting up an ambush for them.

"Careful," John whispered. "We're at the head of the staircase."

"None of this seems very careful to me," Rodney squeaked back, but he followed John down all the same, stretching the toes of his athletic shoes to find the worn steps of the staircase. All he could see in the darkness was the faint white blob of the back of John's shirt.

"Ground floor now," John murmured. Rodney kept so close he was stepping on John's heels. The thunder of his own heart was louder than the drum of the rain. It was not going to be all that funny if he and John survived reawakening the Wraith only to be brained by a couple of garden variety cat burglars back on Earth.

As they crept from room to room however, checking windows and doors, Rodney slowly realized he was more uncomfortable about the house than the possibility of encountering John's hypothetical intruders. He remembered his first impression of this place, when he had thought it was only long force of habit keeping this wretched pile aloft. Really, would it be such a bad thing if one of those boulders on the cliff came rolling down the hill and smashed Chez Sheppard to smithereens? Well, once he and John were safely out of it, of course.

He didn't share his thoughts with John. Rodney thought they were in the dining room now. He could just make out the muted reflection of the furniture in the windows as John stood very still. Rodney shifted from foot to foot, tried to keep still, and then went back to shifting. All at once John sighed, said "Wait here," and unclenched Rodney's fingers from the back of his shirt. Rodney was not terribly keen to allow John to release himself, but when John forced the issue, he let his hand drop.

"There's no one here," John said, sounding disgusted. "I don't know what I heard, but there's nothing now."

He must have made his way to the door to find the light switch. It was inadequate, as all the lights in this place were, but it was better than complete darkness. They were in the dining room, as Rodney had suspected. That primitive painting hung over the cold fireplace, and was no more appealing in the dim light. "What did you think you heard?" Rodney asked.

"The same as last night. People walking up and down the stairs. You didn't hear anything?"

From the tone of Sheppard's voice, Rodney almost wished that he had heard the phantom interlopers. He shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "But I was pretty soundly asleep."

John snorted, recognizing Rodney's response as the sop that it was. "No, there was nothing here. I'm just losing it being back in the old place. Not all that surprising, really. Hey, you want that drink now?"

He didn't particularly, but he said "Sure, thanks," anyway. There was a glass already on the table, from earlier, Rodney supposed. John pulled a bottle and another glass out from one of the hugely oversized dark cabinets.

"Do you want ice? We could go to the kitchen."

"Neat is fine." Only after John had poured a couple of fingers for Rodney and slid the glass across the table, did Rodney figure out he really should have asked for ice. This doomed them to sit and drink under the baleful gaze of Sheppards long gone. Rodney pulled a chair out for himself and carefully arranged it with his back to the mantel. He was concentrating on not talking about how much he hated everything about John's family, so naturally the first words out of his mouth were, "Is that a picture of your ancestors? It must have given you nightmares as a boy."

"Yeah," John took long sip of his drink, looking up at the picture behind Rodney's head. "I guess you could say that."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's not just me," he insisted. "It's horrible. Is that supposed to be a monkey or a dog? And the children look like horrible gnomes. All that's missing are their pointed red caps."

That made John snort again. "I didn't exactly pine for it while I was away." Then they drank in silence for a little while. It was good whiskey, but it wasn't what Rodney would have chosen to drink in the middle of the night. Finally John put down his glass.

Here it comes, Rodney thought bleakly. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, but he knew it couldn't be anything good. Probably John was about to send him back to the SGC. Rodney couldn't blame him if John had had more than enough of Rodney's so-called support.

What John said was, "I think you were in contact with Ava this evening."

"What? Are you serious? Oh my god, you mean you really do have a padded room in the attic?"

John knocked back the rest of his drink. He even laughed, but there wasn't much amusement in it. "Not exactly. Anyway, not unless Dad installed one after I left for the Air Force. McKay, I had no business getting so angry. I just wasn't ready to hear what you were saying to me, because it was exactly what I was scared of."

"Spare me," Rodney pushed his own glass away. He needed to be thinking straight right now. "John Sheppard isn't afraid of anything. It's one of the things that makes him so annoying."

John seemed to wince. It was hard to tell for sure in the gloomy light. "The thing is, when I was fourteen I told my dad I wanted to take flying lessons. He uh -- wasn't really very open to the idea. You might find this hard to believe, but I was kind of a headstrong kid."

"You?" Rodney murmured, to get John to smile. He was more nervous now than when they had been creeping through the house looking for intruders.

"Yeah. Weird, I know. So anyway, it escalated. I might have said something stupid like I was going to run away and join the Air Force."

Rodney felt his pulse beating in his throat so hard he was having trouble drawing even breaths. His hands were clenched into fists on the table. "Somehow I don't think the Air Force was going to be all that eager to sign on a fourteen-year-old kid, even if he was John Sheppard."

John looked as though he honestly hadn't thought of that before. "Probably not, I guess. It must have been the threat to run away that upset Dad so much, because the next day he took me to see a psychiatrist in Baltimore. He was an old family friend, and apparently Dad had told him I was violent."

"Oh, god."

"So I'm sitting in his office, and we're talking about the fight yesterday, because I knew that's what this was about, and out of the blue he asks me how long I've been thinking about hurting my father." John's arms were stretched straight out across the table, his hands knotted together, knuckles white. "I denied it because, well, I hadn't. Not ever. I loved my dad." He sounded uncertain about being believed, even now.

"I know," Rodney said, longing to reach across the table and take John's hands in his own.

"And the next thing I know, these two big guys come in. Psychiatric nurses, I guess, and they've got a straitjacket. I'm trying to reason with them the whole time. I didn't fight back. I didn't do anything. But they bundle me up, and the next thing I know I'm in a locked ward. It was the real deal. Padded room, antipsychotic meds. It didn't help that I finally lost my temper and threw a punch at one of the orderlies. That just proved their point."

Rodney was so angry his head was swimming. "How long?" he managed to ask before his voice cracked.

"Only about six weeks. So really, it could have been a lot worse."

"Tell me something. Why exactly did you come home for that bastard's funeral? OK, maybe you wanted to be sure he was dead. I can see that. Or if you want to dig him up to put a stake through his shriveled excuse for a heart I would be all right with that, too." Rodney dashed his tears away furiously. "But otherwise, I don't see any reason for either one of us to be here."

John shook his head. "No, it's not like that. I'm not explaining it right."

"Oh? There's another way to look at institutionalizing your son because he doesn't want to be a broker?"

"Actually he wanted me to be a lawyer. But that's what I'm trying to explain to you. A couple of years later, my dad talked to me about it. He didn't apologize, exactly. He wasn't like that. But he told me there was a history of insanity in the family, and that maybe he had overreacted when we fought about me wanting to fly."

"Ava," Rodney said slowly. "You think your dad was talking about his own sister."

"It would explain why he was so quick to have me committed."

"No, as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't explain anything. Jesus, John, I can't believe he did that to his own son."

"Come on," John said. "It wasn't like it scarred me for life."

Thinking about Sheppard's propensity for self sacrifice, his difficulty showing physical affection, Rodney decided he wasn't so sure about that.

"It didn't even stop me from arguing with my dad," Sheppard continued. "We didn't part on friendly terms, and I'll always be sorry for that, but he never tried to clap me in a straitjacket again."

"Probably because he knew there was no way in hell you would fall for that going-to-see-the-nice-psychiatrist story again," Rodney grumbled.

"This isn't about me," John interrupted, sounding a little impatient. "The point is, Ava contacted you in your dream. She wants us to help her."

That seemed like a stretch to Rodney, but he nodded cautiously so John would keep talking. He had learned more about John Sheppard in the past five minutes than he had in the past four years.

"I don't know much of anything about Ava or what happened to her, but the trustees and attorneys coming in the morning will know more. The firm has represented my family for generations, literally. There must be records. Someone might even remember her. I'll find out what I can, and afterwards we'll try again to reach her. You're still with me on this, right, McKay?"

He was so earnest. John didn't often ask for favors, not like this. Of course, right now Rodney couldn't have refused him anything. "Of course," he said gruffly. "Not like I have anything else to do."

John pushed himself to his feet. "We can still get a few hours of sleep."

"Only if you stop hallucinating intruders." Only after the words were out of his mouth did Rodney think they might be in bad taste, given John's adolescence, but John only shook his head and clapped Rodney on the shoulder as they went up the stairs together.

They crawled onto opposite sides of the bed. Rodney rolled over and lifted himself on his elbow to turn off the bedside light. He felt the mattress yielding behind him, and when he lay down again, John was right behind him.

"What?" Rodney snapped.

Instead of answering, John cupped the back of Rodney's neck with the palm of his hand and carefully drew him forward into a soft, sweet kiss. When he released him, Rodney touched his own lips with his fingertips, completely astonished, and then reached out in the darkness to run his hand over John's mouth as well. It didn't help him believe what had just happened.

"What was that for?" he finally demanded. He was trying to be angry, but to his own ears he mostly sounded small and confused.

John found his hand in the darkness. "You've been watching me for years." Rodney could practically hear the shrug he couldn't see. "And now you know the very worst thing I can tell you about myself. So, I don't know." He squeezed Rodney's hand gently and then released it. Rodney felt the bed shifting as John turned over. "I was just thinking. Maybe when we get away from this place."

Rodney waited, barely breathing. When John didn't say anything more, he rolled forward enough to pat John's shoulder with his hand. "Yeah," he whispered and thought he could feel John's back flinch with the same anticipation that Rodney was feeling now. "Um, yeah. I'd like that, too."

He didn't believe he could possibly sleep then. He was shockingly aware of John's body next to his, and he felt filled to the brim with a complicated sort of happiness. He was still savoring the kiss, thinking he ought to be enraged at John for waiting such a freaking long time, and overwhelmed with tender protectiveness now that he understood why.

Also, he wanted to exhume that old bastard's corpse and toss it into the sea for the crabs. He must have fallen asleep after all, because he dreamed that he and John were walking along the beach, trailed by dozens of oysters on little stick feet. It was all very pleasant until Rodney looked up the shoreline, expecting Atlantis, and saw instead the looming façade of the Sheppard house. Gamboling along the edge of the cliff were two malformed creatures Rodney immediately recognized as the unhappy children in the family portrait.

He awoke feeling shaky and slightly sick. It didn't make him feel any better to find he was once again alone in bed this morning, and that the rain was still pouring down.

Sitting up, he rested his head in his hands. No surprise that he had a raging headache. As he was wondering whether even a kiss from John Sheppard could possibly be worth another day in this house, John himself came in the bedroom door. He was wearing his funeral attire, and he looked so slim and beautiful that Rodney's breath caught in his throat.

Also, he was carrying a thermos.

"Tell me that's full of coffee."

A quick grin from John. "Do you think I would show my face if it wasn't?" He unscrewed the lid and poured a shallow cupful for Rodney. "And your face looks terrible this morning."

"Great. Thanks."

"Your shiner," John clarified. "You sure you didn't crack your cheekbone?" He reached out, and Rodney thought that he was going to touch him, but at the last minute, John touched his own temple instead.

Rodney buried his face in the plastic mug of coffee. "It feels better this morning," he mumbled. At the very least, it didn't feel any worse, and he really, really didn't want to talk about it.

"Anyway," John said, "Dave is here early so we can go over the paperwork before the lawyers. I hope we'll be done by mid-afternoon, but apparently there's all sorts of traditional rigmarole, so who knows. Take the car if you have to get out of here for a fast food break. I don't want to deprive you any more than this trip already has of processed sugar and deep fried food products."

Rodney had no intentions of leaving John behind in this house. "All I ask is that Atlantis' kitchen staff learn how to make a decent chimichanga. I don't think that's unreasonable. Do you know what the terms of the Will are likely to be?"

"It would only make sense to leave the house to Dave. He'll need the rest of the estate for the upkeep."

Good riddance, Rodney thought, and was proud of himself for managing not to say it out loud. Apparently, he was learning all sorts of self restraint on this trip.

After John was gone, Rodney tore into the box of snack cakes he had bought in town last night and washed down three with coffee while his computer was booting. The rush of sugar and caffeine made him feel better about another day spent in this house. Glancing out the window, he saw half a dozen cars parked out back. Great. Apparently, the reading of the Will was as big a deal as the funeral had been.

At least the satellite connection was good this morning. Humming to himself, he worked contentedly until the snack cakes and coffee ran out. Then he got up and stuck his head out the door. There was no sound of voices, so he scooted across the hall for a shave and a quick sponge bath. When he looked in the mirror, he saw John was right about his face. He looked like he'd smeared blue ink under his left eye. He wondered, briefly, just how badly it would upset John's attempt to reconcile with his family if he pressed assault charges against David Sheppard.

Oh well. If worse came to worst, he might be able to get John out of here by insisting he needed X-rays at the SGC.

Crossing the hall, Rodney found his attention drawn once more by the closed door of John's old bedroom. He glanced towards the head of the stairs and then let himself in. It didn't look much different by the gloomy light of day. The ceiling was too high and dark for him to actually see the eye-hooks John had confirmed really were there.

Rodney peeked under a couple of the dropcloths, finding nothing but massive pieces of furniture. Once he had made his way across the room to the other door, he told himself that Sheppard wouldn't mind his checking here either. It turned out there really was a staircase on the other side, and it was close and dark. The light bulbs were all burnt out in the unlikely-looking fixture (a tangle of cast iron apparently intended to represent flowering vines). Nevertheless, he began climbing. The planks creaked underfoot, and he wondered if they could hear him downstairs.

More than that, he wondered why on earth he was climbing up to the attic, and as he kept going even though there was no conceivable reason for him to be here, he hoped that his evident brain damage wasn't irreversible.

The door into the attic had a large plate with an ornate lock. Rodney spared a moment to hope the door would be barred against him, but his bad luck held. The door swung open easily.

He stuck his head in. So, it was an attic, all right. Tremendous rooms which roughly mirrored the floor plan of the levels below. The roof was pitched and there were dormer windows on the opposite eves. He expected the attic to smell musty, but it just smelled like the rest of the house, fragile as an old paperback novel. But mostly, it was full of stuff. Crates and chests and wardrobes, stacked from wall to wall with only narrow passageways in between.

Rodney walked through the rooms, poking in chests and opening drawers, thinking vaguely that it was not so different from the way the Ancients had left Atlantis. Well, there was one difference. Atlantis was filled to the brim with treasures Rodney could spend his whole life trying to decipher. The Sheppard attic was filled with furniture and old clothes. From one of the windows, Rodney could see the steep climb to the cliff over the tops of the trees. Looking down, he counted more than a dozen cars parked around the old stables now.

It occurred to Rodney to wonder if maybe they had engaged the same caterer to feed everyone. If he started to smell food, he should definitely wander downstairs and check it out. In the meantime, the rain was still coming down like it had for two days now. By this point, Rodney thought he would welcome some thunder and lightning just for the change.

Satisfied (and relieved) that there were no secrets worth exploring in the attic, he padded back downstairs, pulled out a bag of Doritos, and sat at his computer again. His calculations were going well, especially when he started a little imaginary conversation with Radek as he worked. And if, in the course of his mental conversation, Radek was somewhat more awed by Rodney's leaps of genius than he had ever indicated he was in real life, that was nobody's business but Rodney's own.

Also, he did a brilliant job of not letting the memory of John's kiss interrupt his work.

Nevertheless, when he looked up and saw a shadow of movement reflected in the rain-streaked windowpane, his first thought was that John was back. He turned around, intending to complain that this entire Will-reading party was taking much longer than John had promised, only to find that no one was there. He turned back, feeling his mouth set in a disappointed frown. In his mind, the two of them had practically already been packed and on the way to the airport.

It disturbed his concentration more than it ought to have. God knows, Atlantis had taught him to keep working even while the city was sinking into the ocean. Nevertheless, after another minute, he got up and walked to the bedroom door. There, standing at the head of the stairs, was Ava.

She stood with her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Her forearms were very long and white against the dark material of her fitted bodice. Her eyes were heartbreakingly sad. Rodney felt an instinctive flinch, even though he knew there was nothing to be frightened of.

"You know," he snapped, "I really think John's the man you want to be haunting now."

Ava slowly extended her hand towards him. Rodney swallowed at the sight of fingers that still reminded him of John's, right down to her calluses. "I'm not following you backwards down the stairs," he declared. "So you can just put that out of your head right now."

She beckoned more insistently, and even though Rodney knew it was foolish, the scowl on her face frightened him a little. "I've been to the attic. I've talked to John. If you're one with the universe right now, you already know all this. So really, wouldn't it be easier to just tell me what's on your mind?"

Ava continued to stand there, her hand extended and her expression forbidding. Rodney suddenly had a very dark suspicion. "Wait a minute. So John wasn't really psychotic or violent. He just didn't want to do what his family wanted. Is that what happened to you, too? You didn't conform to family expectations so they clapped you in a mental ward?"

There was no more response from Ava than she had ever given Rodney. He sighed and looked down the stairs. "I am not holding your hand and I'm not going backwards." He took one step down. "Also, I am not explaining who you are to anybody downstairs. That's between you and the rest of the Sheppards." He took another step.

It seemed to him that Ava was preceding him down the staircase -- fortunately, not going backwards this time -- but when he was halfway down he looked back and found her trailing several steps behind him. It gave him a nasty moment of vertigo. He clutched the railing and thought for a moment he would have to sit down.

"Just so you know, I can't help if I break my neck," he muttered irritably. Then he remembered that was how she had probably met her end, and didn't feel any better. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs safely, she was ahead of him again, standing near the back door. Rodney could hear voices coming from the library.

"I would rather not have to explain to John's extended family and legal counsel that I'm following a ghost around the house," he complained quietly. He walked to the back door and once again, she was gone before he got there. Rodney looked out at the rain. "Not the graveyard again," he moaned.

Still, he didn't doubt that was where she intended to lead him, so he started in surprise when he opened the door to the cloakroom looking for an umbrella and found Ava standing at the back of the long, narrow little space.

"Oh, what now?" The whole thing was on the verge of becoming funny in a really macabre sort of way. "What can possibly be back here?" Nevertheless, he felt his way to the back of the closet. As he got closer, Ava flickered like a dying monitor, suddenly going bright and then winking out altogether.

"Wonderful," Rodney muttered. He was not looking forward to explaining what he was doing groping around in a coat closet. He pushed aside the assorted rain gear and underneath oilcloth and plastic and rubber, his hand closed on a doorknob.

Rodney let his head rest against the wall. It wasn't too late to trot back upstairs, decide whether he wanted to discuss perturbations in the disk in a footnote or in another paper altogether, and wait for John to get finished. There was no reason at all for him to open this door. He looked down at his feet and saw a thin line of light seeping from beneath the concealed doorway. At that, Rodney threw up his hands -- psychologically at least -- and pushed open the door.

A steep flight of brick stairs led down into the cellar. Rodney argued optimistically to himself that there was nothing sinister about a big old house having a big old basement underneath. No matter what Ava seemed to think. The way was lit by bare light bulbs, and there was nothing strange about that, either. It just meant someone had been replacing the bulbs down here. Most of the lights that Rodney had tried upstairs had long since burnt out.

Of course, there was the curious fact that the working lights had been left on down here. Even that was probably nothing, though. For all Rodney knew, the caretaker had been working in the basement. Winterizing this decrepit pile or something.

Then he remembered John, thinking he heard people going up and down the stairs in the dead of the night. The chill started at the nape of Rodney's neck and went straight to his coccyx.

"This is completely ridiculous," he complained out loud, mostly to hear the sound of a human voice. He started down, keeping his eyes peeled for Ava. At this point, even her taciturn presence would be welcome.

The most striking thing about the cellar was how clean it was. The brick floors were swept, and there were no spiderwebs hanging from the stone foundations. Huge shelves were built into the walls. The ones nearest the stairs were bright with orange extension cords and well-maintained tools. Plumbing, woodworking, electric, plaster. Nothing strange here. It was no surprise this place required full-time maintenance. But something was still bothering Rodney.

As he walked deeper into the basement, the tools got older, brown with rust, wooden handles replacing plastic. It was like an archeological dig. Only, an extraordinarily clean one. He couldn't shake his niggling sense of wrongness. He thought it might have been the contrast to the attic. There, he hadn't questioned that he was walking through a storage space. Four centuries of flotsam and jetsam tucked away upstairs to keep it from getting underfoot.

The basement was different, and he couldn't say why. It was just an instinctive feeling that working tools didn't wind up arranged this way. Not in the general course of use.

Something else was going on in this space. The conclusion was as inescapable as it was unsubstantiated. At least, not until he rounded the corner into the next room. The lighting here was just as bright, and in the middle of the floor was a trapdoor big enough for a grand piano.

"So what? It's a root cellar," Rodney said out loud. "Carrots. Potatoes and beets." He looked at the wide wooden planks, dark as iron and just as solid, the square nails and cast-iron hinges, all signs that the sub-cellar was as old as this house itself.

Except, the trapdoor was secured by a brand new, commercial grade mortise lock.

Rodney's voice sank to a mutter. "And they really, really don't want anyone poaching their endive." He looked around himself. The walls in this part of the cellar were white-washed and bare, the floor swept clean. The electric lights left no shadows.

Abruptly, Rodney turned around and walked away. He climbed out of the basement and closed the cloak room door behind himself. He was intending to march into the library and drag John out for an explanation, but he hesitated when he heard the murmur of raised voices. He couldn't make out any words, but he guessed not everyone was happy with the terms of the Will. Frankly, Rodney didn't mind thinking that David was angry, except that that would likely cause more problems for John.

And that would mean it would take them longer to get out of here. Reluctantly, Rodney finally decided that bursting in to demand what the caretaker was keeping in the basement was unlikely to smooth things along right now. Volunteering the information that a woman forty years dead had sent him down there was even less likely to finesse the situation.

"Look," he said to Ava, wherever she was. "I'll talk to John after he gets out. There's nothing else I can do right this minute. Of course, you could feel free to stop being so cryptic just any time now." He looked around even though he didn't really expect her to appear.

She didn't. Huffing to himself, Rodney stormed up the stairs to the bedroom and found David Sheppard sitting at the writing desk and brazenly looking at Rodney's laptop. Everything was locked, of course, but that wasn't the point.

"Excuse me," Rodney said. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

David turned around with every evidence of unconcern and slowly got to his feet.

"Anyway, aren't you supposed to be downstairs finding out how your dad divvied up the loot?"

"We're taking a little break," David said calmly.

As Rodney stepped into the room, he saw movement from the corner of his eye. He started to turn, but quick as a flash, a pair of strong arms wrapped under his shoulders from behind, trapping his own arms in a full nelson. The meaty, hot palms clamped to the back of his neck forced his head forward. Another man approached from the other side. Rodney glimpsed white hair and a dark suit jacket but most of his attention was riveted by the syringe he held in one hand. Oh, fuck, no.

Rodney struggled furiously, trying to stamp on the instep of the man holding him. He was a big guy, though, and as he straightened up, he all but pulled Rodney off his feet. His toes kicked out uselessly. Meanwhile, the pressure on the back of his neck grew, ruthlessly cranking his head forward. If it all hadn't been so damned ridiculous, Rodney would have been seriously afraid that he was about to die from a snapped spine.

If nothing else, this would teach him never to accept blow jobs from strangers.

"Help! John!"

He finally landed one solid kick behind himself. He heard a grunt, and the pressure on his head lessened. The figure with the syringe backed up nervously. "Hold him still. I need to get to the gluteus maximus."

"I'm trying," the big guy grunted. Rodney redoubled his efforts, screaming for John, kicking and flailing with all his might. Dimly remembering lessons from Teyla and Ronon, he tried to hook one ankle behind the calf of his assailant to throw him off balance.

"Get him down," David shouted. "I told you he was Air Force. Take him down!" Rodney had a very brief moment to realize these people were actually scared of him, when David came around the bed. He pushed the white-haired guy out of the way and threw one quick punch. His knuckles sank under Rodney's sternum, and the world vanished in a spiky red explosion.

Rodney's knees buckled. "On the bed," someone was saying. "I need him on the bed."

Hanging in his assailant's arms, Rodney felt his toes dragging along the floor, and he couldn't do anything to resist. Right now, he couldn't even breathe. The unmade bed rushed up to meet him. Just the bounce of the mattress against his abdomen made him retch with pain. Hands groped around his waist to fumble with his belt. He tried to push them away but could only bat at them, weakly ineffective. Then even that frail resistance was taken from him as his wrists were pinned.

"I've got him," David said. "Before he gets his wind back. Go, go!"

His jeans were wrenched down over his hips, and a hand patted his butt. "You'll feel a pinch," someone said, absurdly. He'd had enough shots in the ass to know it wasn't going to be any fucking pinch. He roared and bucked despite the agony in his gut.

"Haloperidol plus Phenergan," said the same voice. It must be the fucker with the needle. "Better results than Haldol or Zyprexa alone."

"Great," David snapped as the needle rammed home. "Just hurry it up." Rodney screamed in anger, and thrashed despairingly as a sudden hot pain rushed down his leg. It was followed by a sinister numbness, and he shouted for John until he realized he could no longer tell whether he was even talking out loud or not.

He was rolled over onto his back. The red curtains were suffocatingly close. "Where's John?" he tried to ask David. "I need John." Some words must have gotten out, because David's pretty, wicked face suddenly swam up in front of Rodney, displacing the red curtains.

"Colonel Sheppard is attending to the family business right now," David told him. "He sent us to take care of you." He patted the side of Rodney's face. Rodney tried to push David's hand away but his arms flopped uselessly at his sides. "Easy now," David continued. "We brought you a party coat so you wouldn't hurt yourself."

Rodney smelled the canvas before he saw it. "Oh, please, no," he whimpered.

David brushed one of Rodney's tears away. "You were right about your cocktail," he said to one of the other faces hovering around Rodney. "Now give me your arm, Dr. McKay." It must have been a rhetorical request, because Rodney didn't know how to move any of his limbs anymore. He sprawled on his back as first one arm and then the other were fed into sleeves that stretched to infinity. His hands never came out the other ends.

"No," someone said. "I want his arms crossed behind him. Safer." His arms were wrenched behind his back, and he was bundled over onto his face again. The sheets on the bed still smelled of John's aftershave. The canvas dragged across his chest. The snap of heavy buckles rang against his spine. A thick strap was pulled between his legs.

He saw the conversations still going on around him like bright ribbons. Dangling shiny and meaningless. At some point he stopped crying. He knew that he'd been drugged and tied up in a straitjacket, but right now none of that mattered because he was more concerned with the crimson of the bed curtains. He burrowed his head in the sheets, looking for John's scent.

The room was quiet then except for the relentless thunder of those red, red curtains. He slept for a while, so traumatized and confused he couldn't think about anything at all, and when he awoke, his head was a bit more clear. Clear enough, at any rate, for him to feel sick with rage. What was going on? None of this made any sense, not by any stretch of the imagination, and Rodney prided himself on having a pretty damned vivid imagination.

He had to find John, and that meant getting out of this damnable straitjacket. He tried not to think too much about the fact that they were using a straitjacket of all things to restrain him. The way things were going, he and Daniel Jackson would be hanging out together soon. He knew he should have gotten John out of here as soon as the ascended relatives put in an appearance.

He flopped around weakly, trying to get his knees under himself. Even that slight exertion so wearied him that afterwards he had to lie utterly still, his breath rasping in his ears. For the life of him, he couldn't think what he had been doing. He dragged his face across the pillow to look in the other direction, wondering if the curtains were any less red over there, and found someone sitting on the bed beside him.

"John?" he whispered hopefully.

"How are you feeling, Dr. McKay?" It was David Sheppard.

"Let me out of this thing and I'll kill you," Rodney managed in a thick voice. Even the effort of speaking left him stretched thin with exhaustion. When he could pay attention once more to what he was hearing, he realized David was laughing at him.

"You should be thanking me. Doc King thought we should dose you every four hours. I told him I thought you were pretty secure, even without continuing the chemical restraints." He patted one of Rodney's shoulders, pulled backwards by the sleeves of the canvas jacket. Rodney felt waves of numbness spreading down his back and ribs like ripples in a pond, and he stopped listening to David. He knew what was coming next.

It did. The shocking deep pain of blood flow returning to long-numbed muscles and tendons. He flinched weakly, trying not to. Every breath was another explosion of thorns in his chest.

"And I said --"

It amazed Rodney that David was still talking.

"--frankly, that it would be a lot less trouble if you could walk downstairs under your own power." His hand came down again, this time touching the side of Rodney's face. The backs of his fingers stroked Rodney's forehead, then his cheek. Even the lack of pain was exhausting. Rodney's eyelids fluttered shut and he drifted off to sleep again almost at once. He dreamed he saw Ava with one of the bed curtains wrapped around her neck.

"Take that off," Rodney complained. "You look like somebody cut your throat."

As usual, Ava paid no attention to him. The curtains poured from her slit throat, billowing around Rodney in salty red waves. He opened his eyes angrily and saw that David was back. Maybe he had never left. He was walking around the bed, pulling the curtains closed.

"What are you doing?" Rodney demanded weakly. "Don't do that."

"Just giving you some privacy, Dr. McKay," David said. "We've got a few hours yet." He pulled the last of the curtains to, leaving Rodney imprisoned in a claret-red box. Rodney started to breathe fast and hard, because if David left him like this, he really would lose his mind. But then David stuck his head through. "Doing all right?"

There were so many things Rodney wanted to say to that, like what the hell do you think you're doing, and where is John, and once the SGC catches up with you, you'll be lucky if they only send you through a space gate without a suit, but all that came out of his mouth was a cracked and wavering, "Are you insane?"

David laughed. Short and controlled. No humor in it. "It does seem to run in the family." He came the rest of the way through the curtains on his hands and knees. Rodney wondered for a moment if he was dreaming again, watching the bloody folds slide across David's body. He shut his eyes. Then he felt the give of the mattress and raised his eyes unwillingly to see that David was crawling across the bed towards him. Slow and deliberate, wearing a nervous sort of smile that frightened Rodney more than anything that had happened yet.

"Get away from me," he said, frustrated that it came out as such a frightened plea.

"That's not what you said after the funeral."

Time and distance stretched out forever. Rodney couldn't remember a time when he hadn't been lying helplessly on his belly, straining to see as David crawled over an endless landscape of crumpled linens, never getting any closer. Then there was a rush of movement like a cresting wave and Rodney could feel the heat of David's body crouched over his own. David fumbled with the strap between his legs, and Rodney allowed himself an instant of the wildly unlikely hope that David was going to free him.

It didn't happen. Instead, David's hands wormed around under Rodney's belly and found his fly, still open since the injection. His fingers worked their way inside.

"You don't seem very happy to see me," David breathed in his ear. He was probably trying to sound lecherous, but his voice shook, and mostly he sounded even more scared than Rodney was.

"John will kill you for this."

"John's the one who sent me up here." David yanked Rodney's jeans off his hips. The sudden movement set up agonizing reverberations in his pinioned shoulders. "He said such a great ass shouldn't go to waste."

"Oh, shut up," Rodney groaned, sick and hurting, but too disgusted at David's nonsense to be very frightened anymore.

David was groping him clumsily, palms touching Rodney tenderly for a moment, then his fingers digging in hard. The red curtains bled past Rodney's closed eyelids, and as much as he tried to concentrate on fluid dynamics, those damned curtains kept dragging him back to the reality of David's hands on his body. Although in point of fact, reality itself seemed pretty damned tenuous, and he kept losing track of whether he was dreaming or not.

It was the uneven stutter of his heart that convinced him this was real. David's breaths were hot on his ass; his teeth were hotter as they sank deep. Rodney heard himself moaning and couldn't seem to stop, even though it was a terrible sound, so despairing and helpless.

David had one dry finger wedged up him and was still biting him, pawing at him with his other hand. As he tried to force a second finger in, Rodney started to wail. To stop that awful sound, he made himself talk. "God, what a pathetic rapist." It came out as a long moan, but that was better than screaming. "Can't you even get it up?"

David wrenched his fingers free and clouted Rodney on the back of his head so hard the red curtains disappeared in a cascade of sparks. Then he was bundling Rodney over onto his back, cursing and flailing at him. The weight of Rodney's own body arched over his arms was devastating. He felt like his shoulders were being pried from their sockets. He couldn't stop the wails now. They gushed from his throat in waves.

Rodney's jeans were hauled down past his knees. His back seized, muscles convulsing in agony. As the first white hot flare began to fade, he realized to his horror that he had lost track of David. Not knowing where that pathetic bastard was and what he was doing was worse than having him on top of him.

Then the red curtains parted and David dropped something beside Rodney on the bed. He smelled cheap vanilla candle wax as David grabbed one of his ankles and forced his leg back against his chest. His face swam in front of Rodney's, his red eyes filled with tears.

For the first time, Rodney thought David might actually kill him.

Everything fell apart. The red curtains became cinderblock walls, and he heard David cursing at him in Russian, and that was a strange thing, because he was really pretty certain David hadn't been there in Sibirsky. The weight of David's body on his other thigh wrenched him wide open. The smell of potato vodka floated in clouds around him, shot through with artificial vanilla. Sharp and unforgiving as the violently inelastic penetration. One of Rodney's calves bounced weakly at David's hip. A head fell on Rodney's shoulder, but he couldn't turn his own head to see whether David was wearing a white button-down shirt or the uniform of a Russian Yefreytor.

"God damn you." That was David, and he was speaking in English, Rodney was almost positive. "Damn you to hell." He said it over and over again, punctuating each curse with a thrust. The side of his fist smashed Rodney's testicles against his pelvic bone over and over again. Bent double on his back, hips splayed obscenely, Rodney felt David's genitals flopping against his own inner thigh.

By the time the red curtains came bleeding back, they were almost a relief.

Then David pulled away. Rodney followed him with his eyes. David was sobbing, his face red and puffy. When he saw Rodney watching him he spat a curse and leaned forward to slap him. Rodney's head rocked to the side, and David grabbed his shoulder and shoved him over onto his face.

Then there was silence. The pain in his shoulders ebbed and flowed, alternating with the pain between his legs. It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. David had left him with his head partially buried in a pillow, and Rodney lacked the strength to roll over. He had to keep his head turned hard to continue breathing at all. He wondered if it were an invitation to commit suicide, but he thought it was more likely that sick bastard had simply stumbled away without noticing.

The red curtains were still hanging thickly across Rodney's thoughts, but Rodney could tell the drugs were continuing to lose effect. He was aware enough to be worried by the random bouts of tachycardia, his heart suddenly galloping and stumbling in his chest. Probably a side effect of the Haldol and whatever else they had pumped into him. Like the uncontrollable jitter in his left leg. Maybe the drugs were supposed to kill him if the pillow didn't.

He wondered if the old man who had injected him was the same psychiatrist who had institutionalized John all those years ago.

God, John. What had they done to him now?

The heat of rage swept over him. He turned his head furiously and fought with everything he had to pull his knees up under himself. He had to get to John. He had to get to him right now.

It didn't do any good. All his burst of angry energy accomplished was to exhaust him so severely that for long minutes he couldn't remember what he had been so upset about. It wasn't until the red curtains began to close in again, bringing with them the harsh tactile memory of David's dry, prying fingers that Rodney pulled himself together. He gasped for breath, determined that David wouldn't get rid of him so easily. It was just that his neck was cramping, and he was so tired. If only he could sleep for a few minutes.

John needed him. But dammit, he needed John first. His shoulders felt like they were slowly unwinding from the inside, both scapula bowed so tightly they were crushing his spine between them, and breathing was really becoming just too much work.

And then John was there. He put his hand on the pillow that was suffocating Rodney and drew it away. Oh thank god. "It was David," Rodney gasped out. "I'm sorry, but he's crazy. They all are. I should have told you before, but I knew you were trying to fix things --" Too much talking. Rodney had to stop, panting for breath. Eventually he realized John still hadn't said a word.

He raised his eyes, and found Ava sitting on the bed beside him, not John at all. Her knees were pulled up to her chest like a little girl's, and her eyes were sadder than Rodney had ever seen

"Um, OK," Rodney said cautiously. She looked like a sudden breeze might startle her away. "Hi. Thanks for moving the pillow, because that would have been a stupid way to die. Now please get me out of this thing." That was all the talking Rodney could manage, and he had to close his eyes to rest, hoping it was enough.

Long moments passed. Nothing happened. Rodney felt like he was levering his eyelids open with a crowbar to look at her again.

She was still just watching him, her big hazel eyes wider than ever. Rodney groaned. "Look," he whispered painfully. "You moved the pillow and that was great. Thank you. Just one more little thing here so I don't end up more dead than you are! What do you say?"

Nothing. She tilted her head a little, as though Rodney wasn't speaking a language she understood.

"Something easier, then," Rodney tried. "Just tell me what's happening with John. What's going on downstairs? Is he all right?"

When Ava still showed no inclination to speak, Rodney's frustration, never far below the surface at the best of times -- and this was anything but -- finally spilled over. "Do you mind telling me why you bothered to show up at all if you're not going to help? Jesus!"

And that was when she finally moved. Not much, admittedly. She just leaned forward and laid her fingertips against his brow. But her touch was too much like David's hands, which were still fumbling their way through Rodney's mind. Rodney flinched away so hard he was left panting violently for breath. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to ride out the reflexive waves of panic. He had no reserves left, and he was afraid if he didn't gain control of himself, Ava really was going to leave him. Even the energy required to concentrate stole his breath. Furious tears whelmed up behind his eyelids.

"Just -- just give me a minute here --" he begged, infuriated to hear his voice breaking.

There was no answer. Rodney finally looked up. Ava was crying too, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. He stared, flabbergasted.

"Are those for me?" he asked, his voice still tremulous. He was just so weak. Then he decided he was a little bit mad, too. "You're crying for me?" He had to close his eyes again. "Get me out of this straitjacket before John's brother kills me, or you really will have something to cry about!"

He looked at her once more. Instead of doing anything remotely useful, Ava shuddered. It was a slight, disquieting movement, like a film jumping the reel, and by the time the bedroom door slammed open, she was already gone. "Ava," Rodney shouted despairingly. "Dammit, Ava!"

"I don't believe it," David's voice made Rodney feel cold to the core. "John has you believing in his ghost stories, too?"

"You know she's real," Rodney whispered. Somehow, he couldn't let David deny that part of his childhood. "John told me you saw her too."

People were approaching the bed, three or four at least. The curtain nearest was ripped open without ceremony. "He was my big brother. Of course I agreed with everything he said."

A voice Rodney didn't recognize interrupted. "Who took down his pants?"

"Dr. King might have needed to dose him again if he got belligerent."

"He's bleeding," someone else worried. Whoever he was, Rodney thought he sounded bizarrely concerned for someone who was complicit in drugging and kidnapping Rodney.

"That's just a drop from the injection site," David said. "Come on, Dr. McKay. I understand you went down to see the basement this morning. You're going to get the full tour now."

Rodney wondered if they had been watching him all along. Since he had to ration his words, all he said was, "What have you done with John?"

"Good news," David sneered. Two people grabbed Rodney's upper arms through the canvas sleeves and were pulling him backwards off the bed. His shoulders were completely numb, and all he felt was a bone deep ache that frightened him more than pain. "John's waiting for you downstairs. We need you to stand up now."

"I don't think so," Rodney muttered sullenly.

"Let me put it this way." David leaned forward over him and spoke directly into his ear. His proximity made Rodney start to shake. He hated being so frightened of David, but he couldn't seem to help himself. "Either you get up and walk, or we bring Doc King back up here to drug the hell out of you. Then we'll kick your unconscious carcass down three flights of stairs. It's really your choice."

In the end, Rodney walked. His knees buckled as soon as he tried to stand, but people in dark suits supported him while he shuffled between them, barefoot in his bloodstained boxer shorts. Everything was slow and unreal. It was terribly hard to pay attention. His only anchor was his concern for John. The stairs themselves were so hideously difficult he almost wondered if it would have been less trouble to go down unconscious, regardless of the fact that he had no idea in what state he would awaken. Far less if he would ever wake up at all.

It was some meager consolation that the men supporting him were not having an easier time of it. They swore at him on every step as one foot swung out and they were forced to take his weight while he lowered himself to the next. The faces and the voices were swirling around him in a maelstrom, but Rodney was almost certain that David was walking down in front of them, not actually helping at all. It fit what Rodney had learned about the man in the past thirty-six hours.

The coat room was open, all the rain gear swept aside. Rodney had no idea how much time had passed since this morning. It felt like a lifetime ago. Lights were still blazing in the basement. The door to the root cellar had been flung open wide. The ladder beneath it smelled of raw wood.

There is no way I can get down there, Rodney thought. It was really kind of freeing, since he assumed they would either toss him down to break his neck at the bottom, or hey, maybe just let him go.

Unfortunately, he was wrong. That didn't surprise him. By now, he had more or less been wrong about absolutely everything since the plane had landed at Dulles. With two people above him and more below, they managed to slowly coax him down the steeply-slanted ladder practically on his back, the people below setting his heels on the stairs, the people above guiding his shoulders. He could hear David giving directions. In his increasingly claustrophobic world, Rodney tried to be amused that David once more was getting out of work, and not just pathetically relieved that David wasn't one of the men touching him.

The lights were more dim in the sub-basement, the temperature at least ten degrees cooler. There were more people down here. Waiting for him, Rodney supposed. Too bad there was no sign of the caterer.

At long last, Rodney was pushed down into a seated position. No longer forced to bear his own weight, he drifted for a minute or ten. He had lost feeling in his pinioned arms hours ago, and he imagined his hands were floating up to shoulder height, light as the wings of a bird. When he began to imagine that his hands might fly off without him through a sky of red velvet, he forced his eyes open.

It looked like the reception after the funeral all over again. All the same people were there, dressed in somber clothing, speaking in hushed voices. Candles guttered in the primitive wall sconces, little more than narrow ledges carved out of the rock. The walls down here were not white washed, and the stone looked like the rocks on the edge of the cliff.

He saw John's ex-wife standing across the low-ceilinged chamber. She glanced at Rodney without expression, and then looked away again. The doctor who had helped ambush Rodney walked up to him and peered thoughtfully into his eyes before taking his neck pulse. "How are you feeling?" he asked, as though he had met Rodney in his waiting room.

"Where's John?"

The doctor pointed his long finger over Rodney's shoulder. Rodney had to consider seriously whether it was worth trying to turn his head to see. His shoulders had subsided into a dull thicket of pain, barbed wire and dry bones, and he seriously did not want to stir up that blaze again.

On the other hand: John. Rodney cautiously turned his head.

The first thing he saw was that the family portrait from the dining room had been brought down and propped against the wall. The sight of it gave Rodney a nasty turn, even through the dulling haze of drugs, trauma, and exhaustion. He looked away and closed his eyes. The muscles in his neck felt like gears ratcheted up beyond all endurance.

He ground out, "What have you lunatics done with John?"

This time when he opened his eyes, John was right in front of him. God, John. He hadn't let himself think about it up to now, not consciously, but in his deepest heart of hearts, he had been afraid they had already killed him. He couldn't imagine that David would have dared what he had if there had been any chance John would find out.

"John," he whispered, light-headed with relief.

"Rodney." A huge grin broke out across John's face. He looked as delighted as a child. His hands were loosely tied in front of himself with gauze tape, but he was making no attempt to escape. He simply leaned heavily on David. Still in his funeral attire, John smiled goofily down at Rodney. "Aw, Rodney," he said again, as though simply saying his name made him happy. "Dave said you were going to be here, but I kept looking, and I didn't see you."

Obviously the good doctor had been extremely free with his drugs this afternoon. "Have they hurt you?" Rodney asked, although he doubted John would be able to tell, the state he was in.

John ignored the question. He moved closer to Rodney, stretching out his tied hands to brush the side of Rodney's face. "You look like somebody took a swing at you," he said mournfully, his smile fading. "Are you all right?"

"No, not really," Rodney muttered, but David talked over him. "He's fine. Come with me, John. It's almost time." He steered John away.

"Wait!" Rodney protested. "Where are you taking him? John!" John didn't resist, but he glanced back sadly as David guided him through the crowd. The people looked no more real than they had the night of the funeral. Spiky thin, wearing impeccable mourning, posed against the candlelit stone walls like butterflies pinned in a box. Rodney closed his eyes.

Nope. Despite suspecting that his shoulders would never work again, his throbbing ass, his balls like a pair of hot, fragile goose eggs between his thighs, his heart staggering and starting in his chest, he still didn't believe this was real. And who could blame him?

The funeral for Rodney's dad had been a ridiculous travesty of a service performed by a drive-by minister who hadn't even known the man. Afterwards, he and Jeannie had gone back to her grad school apartment and drunk all the light beer in her refrigerator. Then they got into a fight when Jeannie tried to tell him that their father had never really loved them. She even had the nerve to say it had been especially hard on Rodney.

She was right, of course. The old man had been a complete bastard. All the more reason for Rodney to defend his memory so desperately.

See, that's what family tragedies were supposed to look like. Grief and too much bad beer. Then if you were lucky, a few years down the road you got to try again. Or so John had taught him. So how could his family and friends possibly be gathering in a candlelit sub-basement for the reading of the Will? This wasn't real life. This was a Vincent Price movie circa 1965, directed and produced by Roger Corman.

"I don't like the fact that one of the brothers isn't competent right now," someone said in a quiet voice. Rodney opened his eyes, but he couldn't tell who had spoken.

"There was no choice." This time Rodney saw who it was. The big cousin John had pointed out two days before who worked as a caretaker. "John's been away too long. He wouldn't agree to anything."

"It's time." The speaker was a man Rodney had not seen before. Elderly and white-haired, glasses perched on his nose. "The sacrifice is not of the family. Does he consent?"

Rodney didn't like the sound of that one bit. Especially not when a voice that was clearly David's asserted, "He does."

Finding unsuspected reserves of strength, Rodney raised his voice to shout, "No, no, no! No, he most certainly does not."

"You do not have standing to speak here," the white-haired man reprimanded him sternly.

"Then why did you ask?" Rodney sputtered. "I'm telling you, no one consents."

The white-haired man took a pristine handkerchief out of his pocket at that and handed it to the cousin with a nod.

"Oh, no," Rodney protested as the big cousin whipped the kerchief around into a rope. "Don't do that. I'll be quiet. Not another word out of -- "

He gagged Rodney unceremoniously, knotting the handkerchief hard at the back of his neck. Then he and someone else pushed Rodney down. He kicked his legs weakly as a turtle flipped on its back, but otherwise could do nothing to resist. They laid him down over his crossed arms, forcing his spine into a deep bow. His head was resting in a shallow depression. With his face tilted so far back, for the first time he could see what was behind him.

It was one of the foundations of the house, a craggy pillar of rock similar to the stones on the point overlooking the ocean. There were smears like rust on its face, and several feet up, positioned on a small indention, was a very familiar fragment of componentry.

Rodney's first, confused thought was that John really knew better than to bring even inconsequential Ancient devices back to Earth with him -- much less to the family home with all the resident nutcases. It took Rodney a moment more to notice the variations in the design. Hey -- he was drugged to the gills, traumatized, afraid for his life! Even Sam Carter might not have noticed immediately that the component hadn't come from Atlantis at all.

This was a later generation of Ancient engineering -- a somewhat more sophisticated pairing of the ATA gene with mechanical applications. Once upon a time, that bauble had probably powered doors on an Ancient outpost here on Earth. He turned his head, trying to find John, but all he could see were expressionless white faces standing over him. One of them was the preacher who had officiated at the funeral for John's father. He still had his index cards, shuffling them in his hands and then reading from them.

"The lot is cast; one of the company is taken; but where is the executioner that shall do the terrible office upon the poor innocent? It is a death now to think who shall act the bloody part in this tragedy!"

More nonsense. Rodney stopped trying to listen. There was no way of telling how long that power source had been in the Sheppard family, obediently lighting up whenever a strong gene carrier laid hands on it. Probably the goa'uld had looted it from a crashed Ancient craft. He presumed pieces had been left behind somewhere in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley after the human revolt. Eventually it must have been picked up by an ancestor of John's who was out crusading. Maybe even a member of the Knights-fucking-Templar, and what was basically a glowing rock to these folks got woven into a ridiculous semi-mystical rite of succession.

Then it had endured for eight hundred years or so because it really did ensure the estate was passed on to the strongest gene carrier.

Which didn't explain what Rodney was doing here. Did they know he had the gene too? How? John wouldn't have talked about it, Rodney was certain. No matter what they drugged him with.

The minister was droning on, still shuffling through his stupid yellowing index cards. Rodney couldn't expend the energy to actually follow the religious claptrap, but he seemed to be going on and on about blood, and maybe that was just a metaphor for an inherited line, but on the other hand, these people really were lunatics.

Oh, shit. Rodney rolled his eyes back again, this time looking at the rusty stains on the rock around the Ancient power source. Just as it occurred to him to wonder whether Ava had really fallen down the stairs forty years ago, he heard John's voice, confused and very unhappy.

"No, you can't do that. You'll hurt Rodney!"

And we really, really don't want to hurt Rodney. Rodney agreed whole-heartedly with that sentiment. He turned his head from side to side, trying to see John, and only saw that the depression under his head was actually a trench carved into the rock, and that it was also stained rust red. People were barking orders around him. He heard someone say, "Stop it, John!" and, "Somebody hold him."

Rodney looked up again, and saw the psychiatrist standing over him. Instead of a syringe, this time he had a scalpel. And that settled it. They didn't have Rodney trussed up for his artificial ATA gene, and Ava hadn't died of a broken neck. For a moment, all Rodney could see were those claret-red bed curtains, knotted tightly under Ava's chin, and he cursed himself. Smartest man in two galaxies, and it didn't stop him from being a complete idiot.

"No!" John screamed. "You can't! Rodney!"

Turn on the device, Rodney thought desperately. Your family's been selectively breeding for the gene for centuries. Now use it to light up this whole goddamned countryside. Since he couldn't say any of it out loud to John, he focused on the device itself. If he could just coax a flicker out of it, maybe John would get with the program. A bright enough flash might save Rodney from consecrating the latest Sheppard succession with his own blood.

He didn't make it. He was still staring at the truculent little component embedded in the foundation stone above his head when they cut his throat from ear to ear.

Well, hell, Rodney thought.

There wasn't much pain, but the pressure was ferocious. He heard the whistle of air in his slit windpipe, and then he heard John's scream, and that was even worse. His eyes rolled upwards. He imagined he saw a sparkle of light -- too little, god, and way too late -- before his vision tunneled down to nothing like the end credits of a Warner Bros. cartoon.

The rain falling in his face was Rodney's first clue that some of his assumptions seemed to have been wrong again. He blinked his eyes open and looked at the heavy gray skies spitting cold drops. Grumbling through the gag in his mouth, he rolled his head to the side and looked at wet paving stones. His neck ached, but it was a far cry from his last memory. He turned his head more cautiously the other way. Sheppard was sprawled on the brown, dead grass just a short distance away. His eyes were open, and he was staring at Rodney as though he had seen a ghost.

Scratch that. It turned out John Sheppard had been seeing ghosts his entire life, and it had never bothered him much. Really, he was looking at Rodney as though he were a Wraith, or maybe a replicator. "McKay?" He whispered.

Rodney groaned and bit at the handkerchief that still gagged him.

Sheppard just kept staring at him.

So not helpful. Rodney tried to get up to go to him, but his arms were still pinioned behind his back in the straitjacket. All he could do was roll a little from side to side, and it hurt.

"Rodney!" All at once Sheppard was scrambling to his knees and crawling across the wet grass and pavement to Rodney's side. Rodney did not mean to flinch. There were many things he would proudly admit he was afraid of, but John Sheppard was not and had never been one of them. Still, he turned his face away and whimpered when Sheppard reached for him.

"I know, I know," Sheppard said. "Easy." He held Rodney's head carefully until Rodney stopped trying to pull away, then he slid his hands back to fumble with the knot at the back of Rodney's neck. It took too long, and when Rodney finally tried to pull away again, grunting in protest, Sheppard muttered, "Sorry," and simply rolled the gag out of his mouth and over his chin to rest loosely around his neck.

"Gah," Rodney complained, and tilted his head up to catch a few drops of rain in his parched mouth.

Sheppard was just staring at him. When Rodney looked back, still working his jaw, wishing he had some bottled water and a tube of chapstick, Sheppard finally said, "Jesus, McKay. I thought -- you've got blood everywhere."

Rodney looked down at himself. The canvas of the straitjacket was so saturated that the rain drops rolling off his body were red. So it had really happened. He finally managed to ask, "How did we get here?"

But he already knew. Nothing like waiting to the last minute or anything, but Ava had finally come through for them. He tried a different question. "Where's everybody else?"

Sheppard held out his hands, palms open. Ragged strips of gauze still hung from his wrists. "I'm just going to get you out of this thing." Typical Sheppard, ignoring questions he didn't want to answer. He put his hands very carefully and slowly on Rodney's shoulders "Tell me if something hurts and I'll stop."

Rodney knew he was going to have to roll him over to get to the buckles, and he wasn't sure he could stand that just yet. Sheppard's hands drifted up and lightly touched Rodney's throat. "There's just a scar," he said wonderingly. Then his eyes darted up. "Oh god."

Obviously the drugs were still in Sheppard's system. Even John Sheppard wasn't usually this annoying. "What?" Rodney demanded. "What is it?"

Once again, instead of answering, Sheppard put his arms around Rodney and hauled him into a sitting position, covering the back of his head with his hands. "Don't look," he said. "Keep your head down."

Rodney immediately raised his head and craned his neck to see. They were on the dead and sodden front lawn of the Sheppard house. The windows of the place were glowing from the inside with an ugly orange-white light. As Rodney watched, resisting Sheppard's attempts to turn his head away, the same light began to appear in a whisper-thin zigzag down the front of the building. The crack widened, slowly at first, and then with a leap, as though the house was being torn in half.

The light shone violently through the heavily falling rain, and half the structure simply seemed to collapse into itself. The orange light vanished as completely as a candle being snuffed out. The ground shook with the force of the collapse, and John stumbled to his feet, shouting something Rodney could not hear as he wrapped his fists in the shoulders of the straitjacket and dragged him away across the grass.

Rodney had a brief glimpse of the remains of the Sheppard house against the gray sky. Half still stood, broken windows dark, walls ragged as though rent by a giant's hands. Then the remains crumpled with a roar. Stones and timbers spilled across the drive. Sheppard stumbled to his knees and didn't try to get up again. He just held on, his head buried hard against Rodney's shoulder. The rain was still pouring down. After a time, Rodney realized what Sheppard was saying. "I meant to do it. I meant that."

"Don't be an idiot," Rodney murmured gently. All of Sheppard's remaining family and family friends were buried in that heap of rubble. "That pile has been waiting to fall down for four hundred years now. You --"

You only activated the Ancient power source with such ferocity it ripped the entire place apart like an atom bomb. On second thought, it seemed just as well not to finish that sentence.

"They killed you," Sheppard said, his voice low, broken and fierce. "Dave held me down, and I couldn't do anything to stop them."

Except bring the whole structure down on your head, thought Rodney. He realized how severely shock had numbed his reactions when he began to tremble. You know what? They really needed to get out of the rain. Sheppard seemed to have come to the same conclusion.

"I'm getting you to shelter," he announced bluntly, his voice controlled and cold now. "Can you walk?"

Rodney looked down at his white knees and bare feet. Pink droplets were still running from the edges of the heavy canvas, staining his soaked boxers. He rather wanted to cry. "No," he tried to snap instead. "Do I look like I can walk anywhere?"

"I'm getting this thing off of you right now," Sheppard said. He was retreating so far and so fast. All his earlier gentleness was ruthlessly suppressed. It was heartbreaking, but Rodney didn't have the energy to follow. He didn't complain when Sheppard turned him and began to fumble with the canvas securing his arms. It did mean Rodney was the first to see the blue lights flashing up the hillside and shining up into the clouds.

"The police are on the way."

"I doubt it," Sheppard muttered. "The Chief of the Bedford Police Department is buried under the rubble of my basement right now. I'm sure the entire department is under orders to ignore anything that happens up on the hill today."

Rodney's arms finally dropped to his sides. The length of the canvas sleeves slapped against his thighs. For long moments that was all he felt as the blue lights continued to fill the horizon.

Then the first twinges of sensation began to return to his shoulders. Rodney forgot about the blue lights. He opened his mouth and he howled. Sheppard turned him, swift and efficient, and laid him face down in the grass.

"I know it hurts like hell," Sheppard said. "God, I know. You just have to ride it out." He pressed his hands down on Rodney's back and shoulders, massaging hard.

"You fucking ride it out," Rodney groaned.

"I have," Sheppard said. Rodney would have done anything in the world for him at that moment. Unfortunately, the agony in his shoulders was making him a little deranged.

"Don't touch me," he sobbed out. "For the love of Mersenne Primes, please don't touch me any more. "

"It'll help, believe me. As soon as you can stand it, I'm gonna get this damned coat off you and we're both gonna get out of the rain."

At that moment the approaching vehicles finally crested the top of the hill. Rodney heard doors slamming and running feet. Still crouched over him, Sheppard had gone very still. A voice Rodney knew barked, "Get on the horn and get me an ETA for that medical unit. They were supposed to be right on our tail." Then there was a pause while someone approached more slowly. Rodney was acutely aware of the rain running down the backs of his legs.

"Colonel Sheppard," General O'Neill said calmly. "Would you permit me to render assistance?"

Sheppard didn't speak. The only things moving were Sheppard's hands, still fumbling ineffectually with the heavy clasps fastening the straitjacket over Rodney's spine. Frankly, Rodney thought he was relieved that Sheppard wasn't armed just then.

"I bet you're wondering what I'm doing here," O'Neill continued, easy and casual. He could have been discussing the weather. "Frankly, I'm wondering the same thing. It seems that after I hit my snooze alarm this morning, I had a very bad dream." O'Neill paused. "Tell me, Colonel, do you have any ascended relatives hanging around?"

There was no response from Sheppard.

"A skinny kid with sad eyes, seems to have a thing about red curtains and a tendency to let her head go floating off her shoulders? And a lot less irritating than Daniel, let me tell you. Not ringing any bells?" O'Neill continued, still patient. "Well, while you think about that, remember Dr. McKay is a civilian under your care, and right now, I believe he really needs to get out of the rain."

Sheppard's hands finally went still. "I've been compromised," he said in his flat, even voice. "I was forcibly drugged, and I can't rule out the possibility that it's still affecting my judgment. It's affecting my coordination. I can't even get Dr. McKay out of this fucking strait--" His voice broke, and he abruptly stopped talking.

"Colonel Sheppard," said another voice. "Allow me, sir."

"Sergeant Bates?" Sheppard asked.

"Mr. Bates," he said. "Civilian security with the IOA, now, and I believe we can help."

"Yes, right, of course. Good to see you. Be careful. Dr. McKay may be hurt."

"Yes, sir. I regret the circumstances. Dr. McKay, you know who I am. We're just going to move you out of the rain while we wait for the ambulance."

Rodney tensed miserably and didn't look up. The hands on him were quick and light, bearing him up as though he weighed nothing. He heard Sheppard snap all the same, "Goddammit, I told you to be careful!"

"At ease, Colonel." O'Neill sounded as relaxed as though he was at an officer's dance. "They are being careful."

Rodney was settled into the wide back seat of a dark sedan. Bates got in the other side, and John immediately climbed in the front and looked back at him. "McKay. You're doing all right?"

Actually, he was feeling more than mildly claustrophobic, but he supposed it was an improvement not to have raindrops bouncing off his head anymore. He gave Sheppard a look that meant, "What kind of an idiot are you?" and the Colonel seemed to calm down a little.

"I'm just going to finish getting this thing off you, doc," Bates said from behind him. Rodney nodded, quick and jerky, his desire to be free warring with a very earnest wish that maybe nobody would ever have to touch him again, please. Bates started by quickly unknotting the gag still hanging loosely around his neck and letting it drop. Rodney gazed bleakly down at the little wad of cloth where it lay in his lap.

"Colonel." O'Neill stuck his head into the car. "A word with you."

"Can't this wait?" Sheppard demanded, surly and unhelpful. He didn't look away from Rodney and Bates, and Rodney hoped the General would remember the drugs in Sheppard's system.

"I'm afraid not," O'Neill answered, still calm and pleasant. "I want to talk to you about the possibility of survivors."

"I'm OK," Rodney volunteered in a complete lie, and Bates said, "I'll take care of him, sir."

With a suspicious glance at both of them, Sheppard finally nodded and ducked out of the car after O'Neill.

For a few moments more, Bates worked in silence, unhooking the heavy buckles down Rodney's back. Then he ventured, "This is an awful lot of blood, Dr. McKay. I have to ask. Is it yours?"

Rodney snorted, weakly. "It was. I got better."

"Sir?"

"Monty Python before your time? I guess it explains a lot, remembering your service in Atlantis."

"They've really got you tied in here," Bates remarked, politely ignoring Rodney. "Just one more strap." He reached over Rodney's hip from behind to unfasten the heavy strap that passed between his thighs.

Rodney turned on the car seat and punched Bates in the face.

It wasn't much of a blow. Rodney had no strength in his shoulders after being restrained all day, and besides, his arms were still encased in sleeves that extended three feet past his knuckles. Bates didn't even shake off the punch. He simply caught Rodney's wrists through the thick canvas and said, "Just take it easy, doc."

Then Sheppard was back like the whirlwind, reaching in the car and dragging Bates out by the arm. Rodney heard scuffling, then Sheppard's voice, choked with rage. "You son of a bitch! They cut his throat right in front of me."

General O'Neill roared, "Stand down Colonel," and there was an abrupt silence, except for the rain on the roof of the car. Rodney was panting for breath. He slid to the end of the car seat, swung his legs out ungracefully and immediately fell to his knees.

"Bates didn't do anything. John, I'm all right." The canvas coat was half falling off at this point, hobbling Rodney worse than ever. He couldn't raise his arms past his elbows. A lot of people seemed to be standing around, but he couldn't figure out where Sheppard was. Everything hurt, and he was so tired of the rain and the way his wet boxers were bunched around his tender and aching balls.

Mercifully, Sheppard finally got down on his knees beside Rodney. He looked a little wild-eyed, but his voice was gentle.

"Come on, McKay. I know you're ready to get out of this thing. Just stand up now if you can."

Rodney nodded shakily and allowed John to help him to his feet. The faces of everyone else around them were rain soaked and indistinct, but John was close and warm and real. "I'm tired," Rodney complained. "I thought this was going to be a quiet, depressing little affair, but I hardly got any work done on my theoretical model, and all my fluid dynamics calculations are lost with my laptop, and I'm really, really tired."

"I know," John whispered."I'm sorry I couldn't deliver on the little and quiet part. You have to admit it was pretty damned depressing, though." He shifted the sodden canvas straitjacket off Rodney's shoulders. It dropped with a soft whump, the open buckles scratching the backs of Rodney's thighs as it fell to his feet.

Rodney felt light enough to float away. He looked down at his swollen white hands. Some ridiculous, superstitious part of him had almost begun to believe they would never emerge from those endless sleeves again. He cautiously tried to flex his fingers. Not working so great right now. He worried about permanent damage and tried to make fists. Better.

When he looked up, he saw Bates standing nearby. "I'm sorry, Sergeant," Rodney said, forgetting that he wasn't one anymore. "I didn't mean to do that."

"Don't worry about it, Dr. McKay," Bates said gently. He seemed to be regarding Rodney with an enormous amount of sympathy. Normally, Rodney was all in favor of sympathy because it meant, for a change, that someone was taking his careful litany of aches and pains with the proper degree of respect. Now, however, Bates' expression just made him uncomfortably aware of his soaked T-shirt and bare legs. He looked away.

John had to help him step over the crumpled remains of the straitjacket, because the bunched canvas was a mountain around Rodney's ankles. He clutched at John's arms with his newly freed hands. John was still wearing his coat from the funeral. Drenched and wrinkled, he was beautiful, and once again, Rodney hadn't been able to help him. Really, Rodney had achieved hitherto unsuspected heights of unhelpfulness here. Doranda-esque levels of not-helpful.

Rodney bowed his head against the rain. "I'm sorry. This all turned out really badly. I'm so sorry."

John just pulled him forward one step at a time. Rodney wondered vaguely where they were going. When he finally looked up, the square box of an ambulance was filling the horizon over John's shoulder. "That's good," Rodney decided. "The ambulance is here."

"I know," John said.

The EMT who took Rodney's arm from John had blond hair cut short. It curled around her ears in the heavy humidity. Rodney appreciated the distraction, because it made him nervous having to let go of John, and he wasn't thrilled about lying down on a stretcher in the rain anyway. The straps over his chest and legs were far too much like restraints. In fact, they were restraints, Rodney realized unhappily, short blond hair or not, and he thrashed a little until Sheppard appeared again in his line of sight. "Easy, buddy. It's just till you get to the hospital."

He laid the backs of his fingers on Rodney's forehead, and that was better. Conversations retreated in the distance as he was lifted into the ambulance.

"You, too, Colonel."

"Sir, I --"

"Or we can see you court-martialed for taking a swing at an IOA security officer."

"Sir." Rain pattered on the roof of the ambulance. "Yes, sir."

Other voices were drifting closer. "He's had an unknown drug or drugs introduced into his system, probably sometime within the past six hours. And there's reason to believe he may have been the victim of sexual battery."

Poor bastard, Rodney thought drowsily. He sounds like a real basket case. The blood pressure cuff was horribly uncomfortable, but they also arranged first one, and then a second blanket over him. "This is wonderful," he told the EMT with the short blond hair as blessed warmth began to seep through his aching limbs. "Better than my prescription mattress. Do you think I can buy one?"

"I shouldn't be surprised if you could. Do you want to tell me your name?"

"Dr. Rodney McKay. Astrophysics and engineering. Not medicine." For some reason that seemed funny, and he sniggered a little. "Heaven forbid."

"Right," the EMT agreed seriously. Rodney didn't understand her gravity. After all it really was funny. She took his arm and stretched it towards her, wedging it gently between her own upper arm and her ribs. Her breasts were small and seemed to be tightly brassiered. He kept watching her chest because it was a pleasant place to rest his eyes, but when she inserted a needle into the bend of his elbow, it occurred to him that he'd been staring.

"I'm sorry," he hastened to say, because it was always better not to piss off the people with the needles. Then he had a sudden, horribly tactile memory of a hypodermic sinking into the flesh of his ass, the hot pressure and heavy numbness. "No more drugs. I won't look anymore."

"It's all right, Dr. McKay. I'm just starting some fluids. Nothing else until the doctors have a better idea what's already in your system."

"Haloperidol and Phenergan. That's what he said. And I don't mean to stare at your breasts," he added, because he hadn't yet managed to raise his eyes to her face. "It's just that they're nice, and they don't want anything from me."

She stifled a small sound and spoke into her headset before adjusting his arm on the stretcher. "If that's what you've got in your system, you can stare at anything you like, Dr. McKay. Guilt free. I'd like you just to concentrate on staying awake for me."

"Oh, good. All right." His eyes immediately drifted shut.

"Dr. McKay? You want to stay with me here?"

They were moving, Rodney suddenly realized, wheels turning underneath him. He struggled awake. "Where's Colonel Sheppard?"

"I believe he'll be following us to the hospital."

"Wait a minute. You mean you left him back there? We have to go back." He tried to sit up but was constrained by the straps and the EMT's firm hands on his shoulders.

"It's very important that you remain calm, Dr. McKay. Other people will take care of Colonel Sheppard now."

"Do you even hear what you're saying, or do you wake up every morning proud to be a blithering idiot? John's entire family is buried in the remains of Dracula's Castle up there. Who do you think can possibly take care of him now? I couldn't do it, and that's the whole reason I came home with him."

"Then you need to take care of yourself now," she reasoned, calm and ruthless. Rodney hated her, short hair and all. The weight of emotion tightened his chest like he was dragging a deadweight behind himself, and he fell asleep on the spot.

When he woke up, someone was asking him about a rape kit. He stared at the woman in the white coat and blinked a couple of times. "Hello," he said carefully, because the doctor was talking to him as though he had been awake and answering back for some time now, and it was a possibility he couldn't dismiss, given the drugs still sloshing around in his system. He wanted to ensure there were no mistakes now.

"Listen to me. There won't be any DNA evidence because the pathetic bastard used a fake vanilla-scented candle instead of his dick, and thank you, it's humiliating enough having to be treated for that without memorializing the event in pictures. Besides, the guy who did it is buried under the tons of rubble that used to be the old Sheppard house. So, no, I can't see any reason to allow you ghouls to collect useless evidence when you should be taking care of me."

"General O'Neill has specifically requested --"

"He can specifically request that NGC 4038/4039 begin orbiting his epaulets for all I care. No. And where's Colonel Sheppard?"

Mumbling and murmuring that seemed to boil down to the fact that she didn't know.

"I want to talk to him."

"I'll see to it as soon as we finish here, Dr. McKay."

Rodney pulled his paper gown tightly over his knees. "I'm sorry. Did I forget to say that in English? I want to see Sheppard first."

The doctor actually had the gall to step closer even though she obviously wasn't doing anything to get the Colonel.

"Don't touch me!" Rodney was a little disturbed by how easy it was for him to shriek like an AIP scream queen right now, but whatever worked. The doctor spread her hands in a pacifying gesture and signaled for an orderly. Rodney scooted back on the exam table, concerned that they might be planning to overpower him rather than acceding to his perfectly reasonable requests, but no, the doctor simply asked the orderly to see if Colonel Sheppard were available. Rodney was watching closely, but he didn't see any secret signals passed between them likely to mean, "Slap the crazy astrophysicist back in a straitjacket."

Still, he didn't relax until Sheppard himself finally came slouching in.

John. Rodney was so glad to see him that for a moment he forgot to be angry at him. "John." Then he remembered. "Hey. How come you get real clothes?" Sheppard was wearing green scrubs and even had slippers. Rodney smoothed his paper gown over his knees again, not that it did any good.

"Maybe because I'm cooperating with the nice doctors."

"Are you all right?"

Sheppard smiled one of the saddest smiles Rodney had ever seen. "Right as rain. How about you? They said you were refusing treatment. Somehow, that doesn't sound like the Rodney McKay I know."

"I'm not refusing treatment," Rodney huffed. "I'm refusing to be part of a freak show."

"This isn't a freak show. They just need to collect evidence."

"For what?" Rodney demanded. "Did anyone but you and me come out of that house alive?"

"No." Sheppard's voice had gone soft and he wasn't looking at Rodney any more.

Rodney felt a twinge, but he pressed on. Dammit, this was his butt on the line, literally. Hadn't he already suffered a lifetime of humiliation today? "Then there aren't going to be any legal or even extralegal prosecutions. That being the case, I really see no reason to send postcards."

"I'm sorry," Sheppard said quietly. "It's your decision." He turned away.

"Wait." Rodney was mostly trying to keep him in the room for another minute or two when he had an appalling thought. "The IOA isn't blaming you, are they? I mean, they understand what happened, right?"

John shrugged. "Nobody knows what happened yet. I sure as hell don't. I just blew up an Ancient power source and killed everyone in my family and most of the important citizens in Bedford, too."

"You didn't know," Rodney interrupted. "You were drugged and everything had gone to hell. The thing is -- do you really think documenting the fact that you had, um, possibly a lot of provocation can really make it any better once they start picking this apart?"

"It doesn't matter, McKay!" Sheppard was in his face, and furious. "Let the doctors take care of you!"

"I plan to!" Rodney yelled back. "What are we arguing about?"

"Apparently, just the fact that you're being a stubborn jackass." Sheppard wasn't shouting anymore. "Will you cooperate with the doctors now?"

"I never stopped cooperating," Rodney grumbled. "And you're the jackass, not me."

"Yes, probably," Sheppard said, which was not as satisfying as Rodney had thought it would be. He turned away, but when he got to the door his shoulders stiffened, and he turned back. The expression on his face was frightening.

"What?" Rodney asked warily. "What is it?"

"McKay. Rodney." John was fumbling for words as though every syllable he spoke cut his tongue. "There's no way I can ever -- I can't even say I'm sorry because this is so far beyond -- I know you don't want to talk about this with me, but it's important. I wouldn't ask otherwise. Was it Dave?"

Rodney looked away. "What are you babbling about?"

Sheppard moved closer, though he was still giving Rodney his space. "I know you were assaulted."

"No, actually, I walked into that straitjacket of my own accord. Of course I was assaulted." Rodney heard his voice getting higher and higher.

"No. I mean the stuff the hospital wants to document. The bruising. The bites and the -- the other stuff."

Rodney cringed. "I fail to see how that's any of your business," he said, trying to be lofty and aloof.

"You're on my team. This isn't anything new. You know your medical condition is my business."

"Not when we're on Earth for a funeral, it isn't! This is a blatant invasion of my privacy."

"Jesus, McKay! You were violently sodomized in my house, probably by a member of my family. Of course it's my business."

Oh, good going, Rodney thought, shrinking into himself in horrified shame. You just goaded Sheppard into saying it out loud. He realized he had started to tremble, and he sat on his fingers in an attempt to hide his shaking hands.

"Rodney," John was definitely too close now. "Dave said some things to me when I was drugged out of my mind. Then when the doctors started asking us questions, I realized -- He's my brother and I have to know. He was my brother," John corrected himself with an unhappy shake of his head. "Did he do it?"

"Did he do what? Try to rape me? No. No. It was someone else entirely. One of the older guys. He was pretty pathetic, really. Couldn't even get it up. Sorry I didn't catch his name. I had other things on my mind at the time."

"McKay," Sheppard said, soft and astonished. "Are you lying to me?"

"Oh, excellent, thank you. Is this what the Air Force considers sensitive treatment of sexual assault victims? You folks have really made all sorts of progress since Tailhook."

He thought for sure that would drive Sheppard away, but when he finally looked up, Sheppard hadn't gone anywhere. Instead, he was lifting his hands carefully, palms out. There were smudges on his wrists from the adhesive tape they'd used to tie his hands. "Is this OK?"

Rodney didn't know what he was asking, but he nodded so that they wouldn't have to argue about it.

What Sheppard did, incredibly, was to lay his hands very carefully on Rodney's shoulders. Then he gently tilted his head forward until his brow was touching Rodney's in the Athosian embrace.

After a long moment or two, Rodney got over his first instinct, which was to pull away. He thought it was probably Sheppard's instinct, too, because it took about that long for Sheppard's hands to begin to feel heavier on his shoulders, just resting there instead of trying to contain him like Rodney was a butterfly cupped between his palms. It was even strangely comfortable, close without forcing an intimacy. Or maybe it was an intimacy he had never realized he already had. Rodney took a deep breath. It felt like the first time his lungs had been filled in forever.

Sheppard took a deep breath, too. Without lifting his head, he murmured, "If you're ready, I'm gonna send the doc back in."

Rodney sighed unhappily.

Sheppard raised his head, and Rodney immediately missed the warmth against his forehead. "I won't be far," Sheppard said. "Just have someone come get me if you need anything."

Rodney nodded, not happy, but calm. When the doctor came back, he submitted to the swabs and the photographs without much more fuss, and after a delay that probably would have seemed interminable if he hadn't been drifting in and out of consciousness, they wheeled him to a room. Sheppard was sitting propped on the other bed watching golf on television.

"Oh, no," Rodney protested drowsily, waving his hand at the screen. "This is not going to work."

Sheppard muted the sound. "I know. The picture's terrible. On the up side, though, they're promising dinner soon. Beef stroganoff."

"Oh, OK. That's better."

He supposed he must have fallen asleep again, because when he awoke the next time, the room smelled like stroganoff, and Sheppard had moved to the chair beside Rodney's bed. The bed tray over Rodney's lap, however, contained no stroganoff, only a carton of Ensure and a small plastic bowl of Jell-o.

"Sorry, McKay," Sheppard said, opening the carton and putting in a straw. "Apparently you're on a restricted diet for a little while yet." He gave Rodney a rueful smile and a what-can-you-do shrug. His tone was lazy, but his eyes were dark. Rodney looked away and sucked on his straw. Bland and sweet, but with the first sip he felt a staggering rush of sensation. The jaggedy-raw slush of emotion was replaced by actual thought, piece by piece, like a wall of Legos slotting into place. God, how long had it been since he'd eaten anyway? This was not what trips to Earth were supposed to be like.

He took another happy sip of the drink, long enough to feel it all the way down to his stomach. Sweet, sweet calories. He fell asleep before he got to the Jell-o, and dreamed of red curtains around his hospital bed. He woke with an unhappy start and lay awake staring at the ceiling and trying to decide where he was. The door was open, and light was shining in from the hallway. Also, there was an IV needle stuck in his elbow. Sheppard was lying in the bed on the other side of the room. Through the parted blinds over the window, he could see the wall of another building, glowing vaguely orange in the night lights. He thought of the Sheppard house crumbling apart in the rain.

"Rodney," John said softly. "You all right? You need anything?"

Rodney considered. "I need to take a leak," he decided. He could only be happy there was no catheter, but on the other hand, it did mean he would have to get out of bed. He rolled onto his side, beginning the laborious process.

"Wait," John said. "I'll get a nurse."

"I can handle this myself, thank you very much," Rodney grumbled to cover how glad he was that Sheppard was awake. The room really wasn't dark but he still imagined he could see red curtains in the corners. It proved unexpectedly difficult to sit up, however. His shoulders felt sore and fragile, as though the joints had been disassembled and put back together rather carelessly. His back muscles were fraying rubber bands, the kind you found at the bottom of a pencil cup. Knotted together and broken.

He got as far as shifting ninety degrees, so his legs were hanging off the bed, but then he couldn't seem to manage to sit up. "Gah," he moaned. The pressure on his back was ferocious in this position, and his right leg had started twitching.

"Stubborn idiot," Sheppard said with a lot less sympathy than Rodney clearly deserved. When he opened his eyes, he realized Sheppard had gotten out of bed and was standing right over him.

To hide the instinctive flinch, Rodney snapped, "If you pull on my arms you'll yank them right out of the socket."

"I know what it feels like," Sheppard reminded him gently. Then while Rodney had nothing to say he continued, "I'm just going to ease you up. Let me know if anything hurts."

"Everything hurts," Rodney was quick to inform him before Sheppard touched him. Sheppard made a little sound suspiciously like a chuckle, and before Rodney could protest, he was bending over him and gently encircling his ribs.

"Easy," Sheppard said, and he carefully pulled him upright. "Can you get your feet under yourself?" he asked, and supported him until Rodney found his balance. They stood chest to chest for a moment until Sheppard said, "Watch the IV. You'll have to wheel the whole stand in there with you."

"Basic engineering principles, yes, I've got it," Rodney snapped, even though he had in fact forgotten. He already missed Sheppard's support.

"You all right?" Sheppard pestered as Rodney made his slow progress across the floor.

"No, I'm lying on my face in a crumpled heap," Rodney grumbled. The pain under his ribs surprised him. That had been one of Dave's punches when they first ambushed him, hadn't it? He'd forgotten.

It was an exercise in logistics maneuvering himself and the IV stand into the tiny bathroom together. There was no way to shut the door behind him. "And I don't need an audience," he said stoutly without looking over his shoulder to see where Sheppard was.

He heard a sound suspiciously like a snort. "I'm not peeking, McKay."

Still, Rodney examined himself with a sense of furtiveness. Urinating hurt a little, and he was half-afraid to even touch his testicles. They were horribly tender, but from what he could tell, supporting himself heavily on the sink so he didn't fall over and crack his head, they were hardly swollen at all and not visibly discolored. Still, when he straightened up and saw his face in the mirror, he felt like crying.

"You all right in there?" John asked. Nosy bastard.

"Fine," he grumped. "Can't a man have some privacy?" Then his eyes fell on the tiny bathtub and shower. Heaven. A real shower at last. He didn't even think about it. He hurriedly examined his hospital gown. Snaps up the side and over the sleeve so he could take it off without disturbing the IV. Obviously, an invitation to jump in the bath whenever he wanted. He ripped open the snaps and left the gown lying in a heap on the floor.

"McKay?"

Rodney ignored him. He felt a tug in his groin and a more severe pain in his lower back stepping over the rim of the tub, but he was seriously focussed on the shower now. He turned on the water as hot as he could stand it and stepped under the showerhead. It wasn't ideal: the water pressure was a joke, and it was a bother having to stand there tethered to the IV stand on the other side of the bathtub. But it was still glorious. He felt as if he could follow the path of every single drop as the water poured across his scalp, dripped down his shoulders and ran down his belly. He looked contentedly down at his toes. Water swirled around them and down the drain.

"For God's sake, Rodney, what the hell are you doing in there?"

"What does it look like?" Rodney sniped back. "But while you're here, do you mind handing me a washrag? And some soap?"

"You can't just take a shower at three in the morning," Sheppard protested unreasonably, but he handed over both. Rodney draped the washcloth over the faucet and lathered up the soap as best he could in his free hand before setting the bar aside. He didn't really want to touch himself. He just wanted to let the running water carry everything away.

And he could, he thought. This was a big building with big hot water heaters. He could stand under the shower all night. He propped his arm against the shower wall and rested his forehead against it. Water poured down his back. He felt the sting from the just-cleaned wounds on the swell of his ass, shuddered a little and turned up the heat. There was really no reason for him to ever get out of the shower.

"Come on, McKay," Sheppard interrupted. "It's a hospital. Someone else might need some hot water tonight."

Rodney didn't straighten up or open his eyes. "I already thought about that. I'm pretty sure they can spare my two and a half gallons per minute or so."

Sheppard harrumphed, but he left Rodney in peace. Rodney drifted then, the heat working slowly on the knots in his back and shoulders. It felt fantastic. Maybe he really would stand here all night. You know, his first clue how wrong things were in the Sheppard house should have been that upstairs bathroom. Civilized humans didn't live without showers.

And then it wasn't hot water pouring out of the shower head any longer, but those damned red curtains flooding from the spigot, wrapping around his ribs and thighs, scalding him. He squeaked in dismay and came tumbling out of the shower so fast he would have landed on his face, except David was there to catch him.

He would rather have landed on his face. "Get your hands off me, you son of a bitch!" It came out more of a gasp than a scream, but he flailed his arms energetically enough to be sure the message got through.

"Jesus, Rodney! Calm the fuck down!"

Rodney opened his eyes. John had him, one arm around his back, balancing the IV stand with the other.

"Are you with me here?" he demanded.

Rodney nodded uncertainly.

"Then come on. Let's get you put back together here. If the night nurse finds you like this you're liable to get slapped into ICU if they don't send you to the psych ward first."

"I had my throat cut this afternoon," Rodney complained in a shaky voice. This didn't seem remotely fair. "I should get at least a little time to process."

"You're preaching to the choir, buddy. Here, sit on the bed while I find your hospital gown."

"No. I'll get the sheets wet. I need a towel first." It was slowly dawning on Rodney that he was standing buck naked in the middle of the room, still ridiculously tethered to an IV stand. He covered his groin with his hands and waited for the smart remark from Sheppard, but he only came back with a towel and proceeded to carefully pat Rodney dry. By the time he straightened up and reached for the hospital gown, Rodney's emotions were so close to the surface he felt like a pin dropping would send him over the edge.

It wasn't a pin, as it happened; it was just Sheppard doing the last snap on the hospital gown. "There we go," Sheppard said, so polite Rodney could have been a complete stranger. "Bed now."

He's seen everything, Rodney thought, with a kind of stupefied horror. Every humiliating mark David left on my body. It was unendurable, shame coiling around him like a living thing, and he blurted out in horror, "I've never told anyone about this before. Something that happened to me in Novosibirsk."

Sheppard shook his head and backed away. "Not now, McKay. We can talk in the morning. Right now you need to sleep."

"Right now I need you to listen to me. You owe me, Colonel!"

Sheppard didn't say anything. Then he sat down on Rodney's hospital bed. Rodney sat down beside him and talked fast. "One of the Russian soldiers assigned to the naqahdah generator program was this kid -- I don't think I ever got his rank straight. He was a Yefreytor -- that's like just a private or something, right?" He didn't wait for John's answer. "Anyway, he hung around a lot to practice his English, and it turned out he wasn't a complete moron so I didn't kick him out like I should've. He wanted to go to school, train to be an engineer when he finished his tour of duty, so Novosibirsk was a good posting for him. Anyway. There was one thing and another --"

And suddenly it was a lot harder to talk about this than Rodney had expected. To his dismay, he imagined he could smell vodka, all mixed up with fake vanilla and David's (Vsevolod's) red, angry eyes. He covered his face with his hands, but it didn't help, and when he looked up again, Sheppard was watching him with a darkly shadowed expression.

"We can talk about it later," he told Rodney, his voice so gentle Rodney wanted to weep. Or maybe sock him.

Instead, Rodney snatched Sheppard's hand and held on very hard. "We're talking about it now, dammit!"

And then he really was crying, to his utter mortification. He bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut, thinking that might keep the tears in. He didn't let go of Sheppard. Sheppard didn't try to pull away, and he didn't make any more stupid suggestions. Eventually Rodney cleared his throat and started again. He kept his head down.

"So like I was saying. One thing led to another, and so forth and so on."

"You were having a relationship?" Sheppard asked carefully.

"No. That's not what we were having. He would bring a bottle of vodka to my apartment sometimes and I would help him study because he wanted to be ready for college, and he was someone to talk to because he wasn't quite as stupid as everybody else on that godforsaken stretch of tundra. And if you think I'm not including the scientists in that assessment, I'm not even going to go into how wrong you would be."

"So you weren't having a relationship."

Rodney nodded quickly. "No. Maybe we traded hand-jobs sometimes. It was nothing serious. Not a relationship."

"OK. No relationship."

"Because if it had been a relationship, Vsevolod wouldn't have come by my apartment at two in the morning, already drunk, with a couple of his friends in tow. I told him to get lost -- for crying out loud, I had to report to the lab by seven -- but they all came in, him and his friends, and they trashed my place looking for booze and when they couldn't find any, they took turns. So really, it was probably a good thing they were all so drunk. No staying power."

Rodney paused, waiting for Sheppard to say something. He didn't, and as the silence stretched out, Rodney finally raised his head to look. Sheppard's eyes were fixed on Rodney's hand, still clutching Sheppard's own to keep him from escaping. And you know, given Sheppard's silence, he probably did want to escape around now. Rodney let him go.

Sheppard didn't go anywhere. "You never told anyone."

"No, I don't usually tell that story to break the ice at parties, if that's what you mean."

"What I mean is, you didn't report it," Sheppard explained, being far too patient. "There's nothing in your records."

Rodney snorted weakly. "Right. I'd be about as likely to show up at the emergency room with a story like that in, I don't know, Riyadh as I would in Sibirsky. I take that back. I'd be more likely to report it in Riyadh, because after they gave me a hundred lashes for being a rape victim, at least King Fayd Hospital would probably have actual antibiotics in their pharmacy."

"Aw, Jesus, Rodney."

"Look, shock value isn't the point here. I'm trying to explain something important if you'd stop interrupting me for half a minute." He tried to glare sternly, but he had to wipe his eyes first. Sheppard produced a box of tissues from the severe little stainless steel table in the corner. Rodney grabbed a handful and blew his nose.

"Are you sure you don't want to finish this in the morning?"

"And they say I'm bad with people. You know what? It's true. I'm impatient and rude, petty and arrogant. And do you know why that is? Because people aren't worth anything else. When I forget that and do something stupid like open the dead-bolt for a supposed friend at two in the morning, it turns out I've got a really good chance of getting it face down over my own kitchen table, because that's just how useless people are."

Sheppard flinched. Rodney worried the little strip of tape holding the IV needle in place on his arm, and kept talking. "So it turns out your family has some nutso rite of succession that dates back to the dark ages. And it seems to involve murdering anyone who was handy -- your father's sister, a passing astrophysicist, whoever. You know, I've got a theory about that: I think the blood sacrifice business must have gotten started because murdering someone emotionally close to the heir presumptive evoked a response that would make an appreciable difference in lighting up that little power source. I mean, look at you."

Sheppard shook his head slowly. "This isn't --"

Rodney bulldozed over him "So right now you're betrayed and horrified and guilt-stricken or whatever, and that's what it is, but the last thing you should be feeling is surprised, because it turns out, that's just the way people are. Look at my father. Jeannie was right. He never loved either one of us and he betrayed and abandoned Mom! As far as I can see, that's really not so different from taking part in a seven or eight hundred year old cult of ritual murder. Yeah, OK, one's a little less common than the other, but it's just a difference in -- in intensity, not kind. You can't forget the bottom line. People are no damned good, and family's the worst of all."

And with that, Rodney ran out of steam. He curled up slowly on the bed as Sheppard untangled the IV line and pulled the sheet up over his bare legs.

"OK now?" Rodney asked muzzily. He could feel his edges slurring away into sleep.

"After that pep talk?" Sheppard snorted softly, patting McKay's shoulder before he got up. "Definitely, McKay. I feel great."

They were both discharged the next morning, but only as far as D.C., where they were put up in an apartment the IOA maintained. Coordinating the excavations at the Sheppard house with the civilian authorities, not to mention all the inquests, looked to be a process that would stretch out for the foreseeable future. Rodney watched Sheppard closely. He was dark and very quiet most of the time, though painfully solicitous of Rodney. Under other circumstances, Rodney thought he would have appreciated Sheppard pestering him about following his medical instructions to the letter. (Instead of being teased like he was some kind of hypochondriac, which was more usually the case.)

The only thing that made Sheppard smile these days was the fact that the IOA's apartments were in the Watergate. He kept making Nixon jokes, which Rodney dutifully pretended not to get. "I could take the last of the coffee, but it would be wrong." Sheppard declaimed, all but sniggering. Rodney just rolled his eyes. Besides, he wasn't supposed to have coffee yet. Frankly, he considered it a ridiculous precaution at this point, but on the other hand, the health of his bowels was no laughing matter. He let Sheppard have the coffee.

The first night, Rodney carried his little bag of emergency toiletries, thoughtfully provided by the IOA and completely inadequate, into the bedroom where Sheppard was already propped up in bed reading the paperback novel he had picked up from the hospital gift shop.

"My new laptop is being delivered tomorrow before ten. As if I'm going to wait for them to pull the old one out of the rubble. Can you imagine the benefits to humanity that have already been lost?"

Sheppard just raised his eyebrows.

Rodney crawled into bed on the opposite side. "You're not going to sit up too much later, are you? I'm still recovering, and I need my sleep."

Again with the eyebrows. Then Sheppard shrugged and said, "No, I guess I'm going to go to bed now," and turned off the bedside light. Only then did it occur to Rodney that Sheppard had probably expected him to sleep in the other bedroom. Well, that was why Rodney had explained about the laptop: obviously the second bedroom was more suited to serve as Rodney's office for the duration of the time they were the guests of the IOA.

Crawling into bed with Sheppard had nothing to do with the red curtains that fell whenever Rodney closed his eyes. Or at least, not everything to do with it.

During the night Rodney woke up to hear Sheppard snuffling quietly beside him. Rodney lay still for a moment or two more, trying to remember where they were and what was happening. When he decided they were safe, he poked Sheppard in the shoulder. "Colonel. Wake up. You're dreaming. Also you're snoring. John!"

Sheppard flailed awake. Rodney dodged one out-flung arm. "Jesus! Watch it!"

"Rodney," Sheppard said thickly. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. No worse than when I went to bed anyway. You're the one who --" A terrible realization struck Rodney. "John. Are you crying?"

"Christ, McKay," Sheppard snapped. His voice was choked and besides, he wasn't answering the question.

"Because you know none of this was your fault."

Sheppard snarled, "I'm pretty sure the bed in the other room is just as comfortable as this one."

"Not really the point here is it?"

"Oh, no, I think it's exactly the point." With that, Sheppard pushed himself up like he was going to get out of bed. Rodney grabbed the back of his T-shirt and yanked him back, pretty sure that Sheppard wouldn't actually hit him. He didn't, although he squirmed around in patent irritation, grumbling, "What is your deal, McKay?"

"You, obviously." He wrapped his arms around Sheppard from behind and laid his head in the middle of his back. For long moments Sheppard lay rigid, not moving, hardly seeming to breathe. Then a sound escaped him. Not a sob, just a gasp, quickly choked off.

It was more than Rodney could stand. He squeezed tight, his heart breaking. Everything poured out of him. "God, John, I'm so sorry. I wanted to help and everything I touched just fell to pieces. It wouldn't have happened this way if I had let Ronon come home with you. I'm so used to getting everything right because, hello, I almost always am right, but it seems like I save being wrong for the most spectacular circumstances possible. Carson, Elizabeth, now your whole family. The more important it is, the more likely I'll blow it and John, I'm so very sorry. I wanted to be so brilliant for you."

At some point, John began struggling in his arms. At first Rodney just hung on tighter. Once he let John go he was afraid he would never touch him again. John was right after all. Rodney had no place in this bed.

"Rodney," Sheppard finally said, sounding exasperated. "Let loose." It was his no-more-arguments voice. Rodney let go.

Instead of leaving, Sheppard turned over in bed to face him. He found one of Rodney's forearms in the darkness, wrapped both of his hands around it gently, and drew it towards him until Rodney's hand was resting over his heart. "I thought you said people were no damned good," Sheppard said.

"They're not. They always disappoint you."

"Not you."

"Excuse me, yes, I do. All the time. Well, not all the time." Truthfulness impelled him to categorize this. "Sometimes I do a lot better than anyone has any right to expect, but --"

"Shut up," Sheppard said tenderly and bent his head to brush his lips over Rodney's knuckles. "You've always been brilliant for me."

Epilogue

Five days later the telephone call came from Colorado Springs.

By the time Sheppard put down the phone, Rodney was practically jumping up and down with impatience. "What? What is it?"

"We're not meeting with the IOA today. They're flying us back to the mountain. Get your stuff together. The plane leaves at nine."

"The cryptic act is all very good and well when you're talking to the IOA, but I'm telling you right now, Colonel, I'm not going to put up with it. What's going on?"

John finally turned to look at him. "I think they found my aunt."

He pried the rest of the story out of John while they were waiting for their ride to the airport. It seemed the Unas working the naqadah mines on P3X-403 had brought a human woman to the outpost. Clothed only in the skins the Unas themselves wore, she couldn't explain who she was or how she had arrived there. She just kept asking if Dr. Rodney McKay was all right.

Rodney couldn't help but be touched by that. Also, as the military transport swung westward and away from the rising sun, he felt as though she had saved his life a second time. Anything that got them out of Washington and closer to the Stargate was another step closer to home. He was looking forward to thanking her.

Of course it wasn't that simple. Nothing ever was. They had already moved the woman they were calling Ava Sheppard into off-base family housing with a roommate in the form of an SGC psychologist. Sheppard was grumbling as they walked across the front porch to knock that this wasn't a real life at all, cosseted and watched by the SGC, no identity beyond what the bureaucrats decided they could permit her to have.

Considering how her first shot at life as a member of the Sheppard family had turned out, Rodney personally thought it didn't seem so bad, but he kept that opinion to himself.

The door was opened by a smiling woman whose long dark hair was streaked with gray and tied up in a careless bun. She had soft sciences written all over her. Rodney barely managed to restrain his snort. Or maybe he didn't restrain it at all because she quirked an eyebrow at him and said, "Dr. McKay, I presume. I've heard a lot about you."

"From Ava?" Rodney was startled and a little concerned. He could not imagine Ava telling anyone anything about him that Rodney really wanted strangers to hear.

The psychologist shook her head. "No. Not from her. And you must be Colonel Sheppard. I'm Donna Carriger. Please, come in."

The apartment dated from the sixties and looked it, with wide picture windows onto the back patio and Formica countertops that were obviously original with the building. At least the large windows meant it was bright and airy. You would have to install serious light-blocking shades to do any computing work in the front room. A vase of fresh flowers was sitting on the coffee table. The lilies made Rodney sneeze.

"Ava!" Dr. Carriger called towards the back of the apartment. "You have some visitors."

Rodney's first response was stunned disappointment. When Stargate Command screwed up, they didn't go by half measures, did they? This skinny kid in jeans and a T-shirt wasn't Ava. There was a superficial similarity, maybe, in the shape of her face and the color of her hair, but obviously --

Then she extended her hand. "Ava Sheppard," she said. "At least that's what they tell me. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Rodney sat down hard, recognition hitting him like he'd run into a brick wall. It really was her, in the flesh. With the memory of what her family had done to her wiped clean, she looked like a child, nothing like the sober specter who had wandered the Sheppard house and grounds for forty years. Rodney couldn't stop gaping.

John was the one who shook her hand. "John Sheppard. And this rude man here is Rodney McKay."

"You're my nephew," she said to John with a smile. "Somehow I thought you would be, I don't know. Maybe younger than me?"

"The universe is a wacky place," Rodney said. It came out more harshly than he had intended, and Dr. Carriger shot him a warning glance. Ava just sat down next to Rodney on the sofa.

"They told me I was worrying about you when they found me. I don't remember why, though. Are you all right now?"

"Thanks to you, he is," John said. "You saved his life."

"I wouldn't say 'all right','" Rodney clarified. "But getting better. And you saved both of us so, um, thank you. I'm happy about not being dead."

Ava shook her head. "You'd think I would remember something like that, wouldn't you? I don't, not any of it, but I'm glad you're not dead, too. Can I get anyone a glass of iced tea? Donna made it. It has hibiscus flowers and honey."

Rodney winced. They might as well be back in the Pegasus Galaxy, voluntarily drinking something like that. "Any citrus in it?" he asked hopefully. "I'm deathly allergic to citrus."

"Oh, I don't know," Ava worried. "Donna?"

"I'm sorry, Dr. McKay," Dr. Carriger said. "I do think there may be some lemon peel in the blend."

"OK, none for me." Rodney said, thinking that Dr. Carriger had probably brewed it deliberately. He had never been inclined to trust psychs, and this trip to Earth hadn't done much to improve his opinion.

"I could bring you a glass of water instead," Ava suggested. She grinned. "I won't even put a slice of lemon in it."

Definitely a Sheppard, Rodney thought irritably. Back in human form less than a week, and she was already making lemon jokes.

"Ava, would you like to go on a walk with us?" John asked abruptly. "It's a beautiful fall day out there, and it won't be much longer until the snow starts."

Ava jumped up. "Yes, that sounds lovely." She looked at Dr. Carriger. "Would you like to come with us?"

"No, I think Dr. Carriger would rather stay here," Sheppard said with a threatening smile. "If that's all right."

"Of course, Colonel Sheppard," Dr. Carriger agreed calmly.

"You coming, McKay?"

"Well, actually I thought I would just sit here and --" Rodney took a second look at the expression on the Colonel's face. "And OK. Nothing like a walk around the neighborhood."

John was right about the weather. It was a gorgeous day, if you went for that sort of thing. High blue skies, the mountains breathlessly clear and sharp-edged in the near distance. A world away from the reek of the salt marsh, cold waves crawling across a gray ocean and the never-ending rain. Rodney shivered to himself and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets.

He startled when John came up behind him and laid his hand briefly on Rodney's shoulder. "All right?"

Ava looked back at them, then went on scuffling the leaves on the sidewalk.

"I think we've already established that, no, I'm not 'all right,' without this endless pestering."

"I know," John said. "Just your usual lovable self." He chucked Rodney on the back of the head and dodged when Rodney tried to bat him off.

They walked on for another block or so. Red maple leaves came swirling down in the breeze. Rodney stopped to watch them, feeling a chill at the base of his spine. He hurried to catch up with John and Ava. They seemed content to walk in silence. Rodney wasn't so much. "What are all these kids doing outside?" he grumbled as a pack rode by on their bicycles.

"It's Saturday, McKay," John drawled. "That means they don't have to be in school."

"That's what I'm saying. They should be inside on their computers."

John shook his head, but Ava said eagerly, "Donna gave me a computer with games on it. My favorite is one where you can pretend to be an airplane pilot and fly a jet."

"Cool," Sheppard agreed. "How are your reflexes?"

"Pretty good," Ava grinned. "I'm getting better."

Rodney was less impressed. "Did they tell you the Colonel was a pilot?"

"Well, right. That's why I wanted to try it. I mean, I figure I've gotta start somewhere."

Sheppard cocked a finger at her. "You know what you need to try? Golf! Fresh air, sunshine." He mimed swinging a club. "Do you know what your schedule is like tomorrow? Maybe we could go in the morning."

"Oh, cool!" she said, already sounding so much like Sheppard that Rodney had to roll his eyes.

"You can say no if you don't want to," he told her.

"No, of course I want to," she said, looking at Rodney as though he was nuts.

"What was I thinking?" Rodney asked the universe at large.

The next block bordered a small public park. John and Ava set off across the grass directly towards the playground, where the gang of noisy brats who had passed them earlier on their bikes were evidently congregating. Their shrieks and yells carried endlessly on the still autumn air. Rodney kept to the sidewalk, thinking they would surely change their minds and come back, but when the two of them settled down at the picnic table by the jungle gym, he finally stomped across the grass after them.

As he sat down next to John, one of the kids shrieked with particularly impressive force. Rodney winced. "With a little work you might have been able to find a spot that was even more noisy," he complained.

"No," Sheppard said mildly. "I think this is about noisy enough."

"Oh," Rodney said. He usually wasn't so slow. "You want to frustrate any listening devices. You really think they're watching her that closely?" He waved his hand vaguely in Ava's direction.

"They might be," Ava agreed. "I showed up on another planet. Donna explained the military will probably take an interest in me for the rest of my life."

"You seem awfully calm about all this," Rodney said.

"I don't know if I am or not. Look at it from my point of view. If I don't have any past, that means I can choose any future I want."

John scrubbed his hand through his hair. "Well, actually, that's what we're talking about. You didn't ask for any of this. The time may come when you want or need to escape. Ava, if that ever happens you can call on me."

"From another galaxy?" Rodney blurted skeptically. Ava turned her quick smile on him, but John just looked more serious than ever.

"You saved Rodney's life. I watched him die right in front of me, and you brought him back. Anything you ever need, tell me, and I'll make it happen."

"Wait," Rodney protested. "What are you saying?"

"See," Ava talked right over him. "People are telling me I did this crazy heroic stuff, and I just can't believe it. Are you sure it was really me?"

"Seriously, John, what are you saying?" Rodney insisted. But he couldn't let Ava's question go unanswered either. "That gets into the whole question of what existence really means, doesn't it? Is an ascended being the same as the human being she becomes? How much have they told you about this stuff anyway?"

"Donna says I don't need to worry about it now. But when Daniel visits, we talk about it a lot. Daniel Jackson, do you know him? The same thing happened to him."

"I know him." Rodney supposed it was inevitable, but he wasn't sure whether it was a good thing or not that Daniel had already taken her in hand.

"Daniel says he eventually remembered almost everything that happened to him before he ascended, but he had people who filled in the blanks for him. Actually, Rodney, Daniel sort of reminds me of you."

"Oh good grief. He does not."

The first hint of a smile touched John's lips. "I think she means you both talk a lot."

Ava wasn't smiling. "Daniel said he found out some terrible things when he came back. A promise he had broken. He and Donna both told me there was bad stuff they can tell me about when I decide I'm ready."

"You don't ever have to be ready," John said. "You have the whole world in front of you. The whole universe. If the past hurts you, you can leave it behind. There's no reason not to."

Ava reached across the picnic table and took John's hands in her own. "Thank you. I feel very safe knowing I can call on you any time. Would you mind letting me talk to Rodney for a minute?"

John looked startled. He recovered fast. "Sure. I'll just be -- uh --"

"Maybe we should start back, so Donna doesn't worry. Rodney and I will catch up."

"Right, fine," John said. He didn't look very happy about it, but he walked away across the grass all the same.

"What did you want to say to me?" Rodney asked, suspicious.

Ava twisted her fingers together in her lap. She didn't have the calluses Rodney remembered from before. "It's no big secret," she said, but her eyes were serious. In fact, for the first time she reminded Rodney of the phantom she had once been at the head of the stairs.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather wait and talk to Dr. Carriger about this?"

Her smile was sad. "The thing is, I don't think Daniel is telling me the whole truth about ascension."

Rodney boggled. "Dr. Jackson is lying to you?" His impression of the man was more someone who wouldn't shut up already about the truth.

"No, not like that. I think he's trying. It's just hard. I think he remembers more about ascension than he wants to admit, especially the bad things."

"And your evidence for this would be what? Post-ascension female intuition?"

She didn't take offense and go storming off, which was too bad. Instead she kept looking at Rodney very seriously. "I think I remember some things, too."

It was really too cold to be sitting around out here without a jacket. Rodney rubbed his hands briskly up and down his arms, trying to warm up. "Don't you think we should catch up with John now?"

"I remember you, Rodney. You were helpless and you were crying --"

"Well, there you go, nothing to worry about after all. This is obviously an example of false memory syndrome after ascension, a common problem. Get Daniel Jackson to tell you about it."

She continued as though Rodney hadn't spoken. "And I could have stopped it then, but I was afraid. I didn't want to lose what I had. I'm sorry I waited until it was almost too late." She stopped talking and shrugged a couple of times as if she was working out a kink in her shoulders. Then she raised her hand and waved.

Rodney looked over his shoulder. John was standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the park, trying to look casual about waiting for them and pretty much failing miserably. He returned Ava's wave and made a show of turning to look the other way.

Ava said to Rodney, "John doesn't get it. Or at least, he can't hear me say this, or whatever. He's still too twisted up inside about the mess with our family." She broke off and drummed her fingers on the table.

"Everyone says they want to be honest with me," she started again. "But Rodney, I get the idea that there's still some stuff no one is telling me, and it's probably pretty bad. I think it must be hard on John. Or maybe it's almost losing you that he can't deal with. Whatever. But you understand me. I hope you can forgive me. And I know I'm pushing, and you don't want to talk about this now, but see, I'm forgetting, a little bit more every day."

"That's probably a good thing," Rodney blustered, thinking he'd rather be just about anywhere else in the universe about now.

"I don't know," Ava disagreed seriously. "Daniel told me he didn't want to remember who he was at first because he was afraid he would find out he had been a terrible person. But with me, I'm afraid of forgetting before I can make amends for what I know I did wrong."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Rodney said, although he totally did. He would never forget weeping in exhaustion and shame, begging for Ava to help him. "But if it's that important to you then, yes. I forgive you already. I think saving me and John pretty much cancels out all debts."

"Thank you." For a moment Rodney was afraid she was going to kiss him. At the last moment, she squeezed his hand instead. Then she got up and ran across the grass to John. Rodney planned to get up and follow her but frankly, he wasn't sure his legs would support him. He had been doing an excellent job of dealing with this by determinedly not thinking about any of it. Now he felt stripped bare again. He spread his hands across the picnic table. Fingertips. Knuckles. Wrist. Forearm.

Across the playground he heard Ava's shout. "Eight o'clock golf! Bring Rodney!"

He thought he should look up, but it was easier to keep watching his own hands. Safer.

A weight settled next to him on the bench. "Are you planning to sit here the rest of the day?" John asked mildly.

"Maybe. I've earned it, haven't I?"

"McKay, you can sit here for the next five years if you feel like it."

"Where's Ava?"

"Heading back to her place."

"What, by herself? Is that safe? She's only been human a week."

"It was her suggestion. I think she's earned the right, too." A pause. "So how you doing, Rodney?"

"Great. Just fine. Never better."

"Uh-huh. What did she say to you?"

"Nothing important. Besides, I think that's between her and me."

"OK."

Rodney looked up. Sheppard was gazing across the table at the swing set where a couple of boys with legs too long for the swings were twisting and making lazy circles, kicking their feet in the dust and bumping into each other.

"But you haven't lost your family," Rodney told him, greatly daring. "I think maybe you got it back after all."

Sheppard didn't turn his head, but a hint of a smile quirked the corner of his mouth. "Is that a good thing? I remember your cheerful assessment of family."

Rodney lifted his legs over the bench and turned around so he could look in the opposite direction. Ava was almost out of sight down the block. She was walking briskly, her arms swaying. Every now and again she gave a little skip. Rodney was not so far gone that watching a fallen ascendant acting like she didn't have a care in the world was enough to make him reassess his opinions about much of anything, but still. It wasn't altogether bad that he could regard the surviving member of John's family without horrified loathing.

Son cœur est un luth suspendu;

Sitôt qu´on le touche il résonne.

The thought came out of nowhere, an almost-lost memory from the days when he had been too young to opt out of idiocy like mandatory literature classes.

The heart is a floating lute; touch it, and it rings.

"I may be going out on a limb here," Rodney decided. "But we've probably got time to grab a late breakfast before we have to report back to the mountain."

"And what was that meal we had just two hours ago?" John asked as he got to his feet. "Early breakfast?" He gave Rodney his arm, supporting him carefully until Rodney was standing beside him.

"Well, yes. In fact, we might want to think about a scheduling change like that when we get back to Atlantis," Rodney agreed seriously. "At least for the civilians. A scientist thinks on his stomach, you know."

"Sure, Rodney. Why not institute elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper while we're at it?"

"Excellent idea! There may be hope for you yet, Colonel."

"Sure," John muttered, not under his breath at all. "If Atlantis was being run by hobbits."

He didn't even duck out of the way when Rodney reached up in fond annoyance and bopped him on the back of his head.

The End
Notes
Dasha read this story in the raw and is pretty much the reason I keep writing at all; Kitty listened to me talk endlessly about this unwieldy behemoth, and was then willing to read it anyway. Her comments brought me back down to earth and reminded me to notice whether hillsides slope up or down; Marcelle was more sensitive to diction than I am (thank you!) and lastly, I'm very grateful to Quasar's cooly matter-of-fact edits and giddy over the astrophysical help. In the instances where I ignored their invaluable advice and went running down my own rabbit trail... well, obviously, that's my problem. Believe me, they are better editors than the finished product would probably lead you to believe.

I've quoted a handful of lines from "Outcast," Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, and of course, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (E.A. Poe).